FREE EBOOKS: “A Child Weeps In Moscow” by Lawrence Dagstine – (Reading during Isolation)

As the writer of the occasional post-apocalyptic yarn and other dystopian fiction, I can say we are living in some very scary times. Coronavirus (COVID-19) is very scary stuff. I never thought I would live to see the day where the stuff of motion pictures (Contagion, Outbreak, and 28 Days Later) would become a daily reality! California is in shutdown mode, New York City is about to be shutdown! Europe has sealed the borders of twenty-six countries; Canada has also closed their borders and taken the necessary measures to contain this horrible virus which seems to prey mostly on the elderly (age 60+ crowd, mainly) and those with underlying health problems and compromised immune systems. I fall into this category myself because my immune system is compromised, so I must be cautious. Then, as an American, you have to worry about the economical impacts, the sociological impacts, and the political ramifications such a scenario has on a nation. This is only the beginning. This is not your average flu. In the coming months there will be food shortages, prescription shortages, medical supply shortages, people may have to stay indoors over a year. Please, self-isolate. Protect your loved ones. You’re going to have a LOT of free time on your hands. What better time to read? That’s why I am giving away one of my Ebooks for free during this health crisis, straight up until the end of this year. A CHILD WEEPS IN MOSCOWa dystopian yet rather alternative history telling of alien influence in Russia during the Post-Revolution years is FREE until December 31st 2020 on Smashwords. It’s available in ePub AND Mobi formats (Kindle). Read it on your Kindle, your Nook, a phone or iPad or other android device. Whatever works for you. Links, pictures, coupon code below. Remember, free. Most of all, stay safe. Be kind to your neighbor. Self-isolate.

Coupon Code: FG76H

A Child Weeps In Moscow: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/276157

FREE ALL YEAR: EXPIRES DEC. 31 2020.

FREE EBOOK ON SMASHWORDS

ChildWeepsMoscowKindle

Artwork by Bob Veon

Smashwords Link: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/276157

COUPON CODE: FG76H

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InvadersPrint

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Other New Entries: “Free Fiction”

Tell-Tale Press: “five short stories, five acceptances…”

I have recently sold five short stories to the new publishing press/editing service, TELL-TALE PRESS. That’s right, five acceptances! Very few reprints, mostly all new stories to read from the Genre Library section of their website. I’ll leave individual links below. Be sure to check out my work and the many others Tell-Tale’s authors have to offer. Andrea Dawn is a professional editor who runs Tell-Tale, and the site is also publisher to horror anthologies with a “seasonal” theme or vibe to them (in print and digital). These anthos usually sell out too at cons real quick, such as Phoenix Fan Fusion. I’ve appeared in one such antho of theirs so far. As for the short stories on their website? FREE READING TO THE PUBLIC. Be sure to check out my latest tales, “Small Favors” and “The Acrylic Man” where horror fiction is concerned. Remember, clickable links below.

TELL-TALE PRESS

Publisher/Editing Service: Andrea Dawn

“5 Dagstine Stories Available”

Tell-Tale-Press

TELL-TALE PRESS LINKS:

Main Website Page:

http://www.telltalepress.net

Genre Library (Pick Author):

http://www.telltalepress.net/the-library

“Small Favors” by Lawrence Dagstine:

https://telltalepresshorrorlibrary.blogspot.com/2019/09/novelette-small-favors-by-lawrence.html

“The Acrylic Man” by Lawrence Dagstine:

https://telltalepresshorrorlibrary.blogspot.com/2019/09/the-acrylic-man-by-lawrence-dagstine.html

More Lawrence Dagstine Stories:

https://telltalepresshorrorlibrary.blogspot.com/search/label/Lawrence%20Dagstine

 

Other New Entries: “Acceptances”

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”

 

 

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

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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.

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

Free Ebooks: “The Paraplegic” by Lawrence Dagstine – May/June 2013

Memorial Day weekend through June 30th 2013 is FREE vampire month.  As promised earlier this year on Facebook and Twitter, I am celebrating summer and vampires by making my novelette, THE PARAPLEGIC free to download.  Just go to Smashwords and enter coupon code: GW38Q

At checkout you will obtain it at NO CHARGE.  But ONLY for late May up until June 30th at midnight, 2013.  July 1st it goes back to 99 cents.  Simply click the picture or button at the bottom and be redirected.  Also, check out my other titles in the ebooks & Kindle section of my website or while you’re perusing Smashwords.

FREE EBOOKS

FREE VAMPIRE FICTION

MAY/JUNE 2013 ONLY

TheParaplegic-Amazon

ONLY ON SMASHWORDS

COUPON CODE: GW38Q

“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.

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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…

OG’s Speculative Fiction, Mid-Late 2010… (3rd Acceptance!)

A couple of weeks ago I grabbed my third acceptance to the long running speculative fiction/science fiction magazine on the Web — available as a free PDF Download to read and eventually purchase on LULU as a magazine for cons — The Opinion Guy (aka OG’s Speculative Fiction).  This would be my second acceptance in one year to them, and they’ve featured some very talented and familiar names in the science fiction arena.  Both short stories and poetry.  Matter of fact, this third credit comes right after my 2nd, and bolstered me up to the 400 credit mark.  Editor is Seth Crossman, and he also provides an Internet site full of informative articles.

 

Lawrence Dagstine RETURNS to OG’s Speculative Fiction

Third Acceptance – Click on the link(s) for some free reading in PDF format

MAIN HOMEPAGE:

www.theopinionguy.com

Previous Dagstine Stories:

https://lawrencedagstine.com/2010/03/25/ogs-speculative-fiction-march-2010-2nd-acceptances/

Other New Entries: “Magazines”

Free SF Serials: “Orphan’s Prey pt. 2” by Lawrence Dagstine

Lawrence Dagstine’s Bimonthly Serial – Don’t Miss Out! Part One link below:

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

“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…”

“Precipitation?”

“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.”

“The Vendragon?”

“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…”

“Phenomenon?”

“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

Free SF Serial: “Orphan’s Prey pt. 1” – by Lawrence Dagstine

Science fiction meets interplanetary horror, in this 30th century survivalist’s fable about two orphans stranded on the most fantastic yet dangerous world, the benefits and perils of alien cultures meeting and clashing, being reunited with the past, and a most unique and dark breed of alien vampire. Lord of the Flies meets the movie Pitch Black meets Living Amongst the Lizards.  Welcome to Ragnarok, the largest planet in the Cat’s Eye Nebula, the largest world in the known universe.  Meet Chelsea and Blake (our protagonists), as we embark on a new bimonthly series of free serialized science fiction.  What are life servers? Who are the Vendragon? What are the Docengard? An adventure awaits you, in the first installment of Orphan’s Prey, here on… Ragnarok! First draft, first run.  A novella in entirety.  Enjoy!

ORPHAN’S PREY

Science Fiction Serial Part One

 by

Lawrence R. Dagstine

The planet was a phenomenon.  A livable, breathable phenomenon.  The jagged-edged terrain lay sedated to immobility by the heat of twin stars by day, and cold methane hails and monstrous storms by night.  From the vehicle looking glass, the land consisted of desert islands in a yellow sand-like mist that stretched to infinity.  The sky was radiant, directly overhead tangerine with purple, and although the air was chill, the primary sun was already beginning to warm the pre-dawn.

“Sometimes on mornings like this,” the driver said, “I pretend that I’m the only artificial intelligence on Ragnarok.  But”—he smiled with sudden brilliance—“I like it better like this, with a few other inhabitants, preferably young and small.  Oh, by the way, I’m Chandler.”

Suddenly, without warning, the overhead transceiver came to life.  A voice was speaking what sounded to Chelsea and Blake like gibberish, and Chandler smiled. “That’s Koral.  He’s a Vendragon.  You know, the people you were told about before coming here? Always erratic, that one.  He takes a little getting used to.” The children listened for a few moments. “The high pressure system—real high—moving hundreds of degrees faster than what you Earthlings are used to, that’s our direction from him and the colony.  We’ve got a fog cloud ahead of us, which is Koral’s way of saying we’ll be surrounded by irregular precipitation and possible danger.  Good old weather lizard that he is.  But we should be safe in here.  This baby stores double-solar oomph, and the alloy is wind-resistant.”

“Oomph? What’s that?” Blake asked.

Chandler nodded up. “The collector panels on the roof.”

“When do we stop?”

Chandler pointed to an overhead visual system. “Here.” He pressed a red circle on the touchpad.  Surrounding it, the lowest of the two suns lighted the mountaintops, glazed them, turning any visible snow to clear pink, accentuating the shadows of the canyons and valleys and whatever else reside beneath. “We want to be here.  You must understand, this planet is very big.  We go through four seasons every run; it takes more than eighteen seasons to get across the entire northern hemisphere.”

Blake dropped his bottom lip in surprise, then looked across at his sister, who had begun nodding off.

“The weather here is fierce and uncanny,” he continued, “but in the center of that brutality is a place filled with great sunshine, grassy knolls, colorful landscapes, and the most awesome valleys you can run and play in.”

“Did you hear that, Chelsea? Maybe things won’t be that bad after all.” The little boy crowed from his metal chair.

Chelsea was tired.  Her gaze was wandering vaguely, and after a few minutes she closed her eyes again as her lips curved in the faintest of smiles.  She found it hard to follow the A.I.’s rambling words about such a magnificent sphere, but there was still something in them which evoked a sense of unease.

Chandler rambled on.  Chelsea sat trying to think coherently, to feel any kind of enthusiasm, but nothing moved in her.  Eventually Blake stopped crooning and fell asleep himself.  Chelsea’s numbed brain began to come to life again, and she realized that what she had learned made no difference to the situation.  They were never returning to Earth.  They were never returning to the orphan ship, Juniper.  Perhaps it was stupid not to realize that it made a frightening difference.  After all, if it had, she might have been better prepared for the web of mystery, terror, and danger that was to entrap them.

By the time they exited the fog cloud it was almost midday.  The only moving thing was the large zyranium-shelled rover, churning in a cocoon of dust along the now weather-beaten track between the desert islands and the terminus from which they were picked up.  Mud and bacteria-bottomed channels filled the marshlike gaps in-between.  In the driver’s seat the A.I. was alert, optimistic, crossing territories and watching for signs of life.  In the back, seated amongst the luggage and other provisions, the children lay dozing, oblivious to their current surroundings.  The eight-year-old—bright, resourceful, full of energy—slept soundly.  Wisps of red hair covered one of his eyes.  As he breathed, a silky strand would fly up in the air and come back down upon his forehead lightly.  Like his sister, his nose turned up slightly at the end, a spray of freckles across it, his mouth thin, the cheeks half-plump and rosy.  His eyes were wide, a deep blue; his sister’s were hazel. 

Fourteen-year-old Chelsea Prittengayle’s facial gestures were more refined, however, more serious.  More brooding.  Other times they were exaggerated: surprise or puzzlement, pleasure or anxiety, the typical moody or unsatisfied-with-anything teenager.  Whatever emotion she felt, her face would either show it much too emphatically or much too hesitantly.  Compared to Blake’s ruddiness, her chin was smaller, the eyes and ears narrower, her body bonier, her tresses and bangs splayed purple and pink at the tips.  She was also more restless, dreaming.

Chelsea dreamed that she was standing again, as she had stood only three days ago, aboard the Juniper, holding her brother tightly by the hand and listening to her Sanctuary Keeper. “It’s a wonderful chance,” the nun figure said, “for you both, and you’ll be able to stay together.  No more foster planets, just a brave new world.  An exciting one.  Ragnarok is one of the biggest out-colony territories in the Cat’s Eye Nebula, and the Vendragon are a fine species.  Matter of fact, it might be the biggest planet in the known universe.  So much room to move around.  I’m sure you’ll be happy there.”

Chelsea faced the floor. “Yes, ma’am,” she said.

“But what if we don’t like it?” Blake stomped his feet and whined. “What if it’s just like the others? I don’t wanna go.  I don’t wanna leave my friends again!”

“Blake, calm down.” His sister knelt beside him. “Really, it’s all right.  You know the drill.”

The Keeper waved a soothing hand. “No, no.  He’s right.  Here”—she picked up two hexagonal-shaped chips from a servicing tray beside her, walked across the grated floor to a processing machine, then inserted them into place—“in the event you grow bored of your new home.” She brought up the two children’s molecular profiles on screen. “Now give me your hands.” She confirmed their print data.

“What are you doing?” Chelsea asked.

“You’ll see.” Seconds later she was finished.  She removed the two chips from the grooves in the console and attached titanium-alloyed ropes to them. “Wear these key drives as necklaces, but whatever you do don’t lose them.  They hold within them an embodiment of your memories, your metaphysical structure, who you are, and what you may eventually become capable of.  They hold your souls, your very essences.  If you are ever in danger, if you are ever bored, you need only crush them into fine grain, and you will cease to exist in this form and be free from a life unwanted.”

Chelsea held hers up in front of her eye; Blake quickly put his around his neck. “So this is us,” she muttered. “Everything about us is in this small chip.”

“The information on it can be accessed from any life server.  But, at the same time, I would be cautious.  It can be tampered with.”

“I still wish we didn’t have to go,” Blake said.

The Keeper nodded in agreement. “It’s a rush, I know.  The funding for your kind isn’t there either.  But the Vendragon want you right away, before the seasons on their side of the planet change again, and a special transport’s coming for you.”

Chelsea picked up her knapsack. “Why do they want us, and yet our own kind doesn’t?”

“Now, now.  That’s a silly way to think.” The Keeper was programmed to be sympathetic, but she realized she could not hold the truth from them. “Foster humans have become an expenditure for a very stressed and careworn Earth.  There are less than twenty-three thousand of you left, all within sanctuary care or already placed in homes many light years away.  Some siblings don’t have the luxury of being housed together.  Hopefully, both of your journeys will finally end here.  You are an asset to these other races because of your youth, your empathic ways.  The knowledge and traits you possess can grow with you.  Creatures like the Vendragon see human children as role models.”

Blake cried. “Oh, Keeper,” he said, running to hug her. “I’m gonna miss you.  An awful lot!”

“And I will miss you, child.” She embraced them as if they were her own.  Then she led both of them down to the craft’s transmat. “Now before you leave, is there anything either of you would like to ask? Anything at all?”

Teary-eyed, Blake stepped back and shifted from foot to foot.  Chelsea, in a voice she hardly recognized as her own, said: “Our parents.  Our real ones.  Suppose they come back from Earth.  How will they find us?”

“My child”—the nun’s voice was gentle—“if your parents are indeed alive, and if they do ever come back, we’ll send a salvage team for you.”

“Promise?”

The Keeper parted a half-smile. “Promise.”

The dream blurred.  The one thing that stood out from the whirlwind of goodbyes with the other children was the nun’s last minute reminder—“Oh, and Chelsea! See that you look after your brother!” Then they were waving from behind the protective glass of the particle disseminator, just one section of missionary freighter which had been their home on and off for five years, since she was nine and Blake three.  The transmat beamed them down to the terminus.  From this steel transfer point the rover waited, then headed out on the extremely long drive to the Vendragon Township via the listless wastes.

 

“Yes, sir.  Ragnarok! No ball in the universe quite like it,” the A.I. boasted. “Lots and lots of room to run and play.” 

At first the children had been in awe of Chandler, the synthetic man who was driving.  He was the planet’s tour guide and taxi driver.  He was built tall and rangy, pleasurable and amusing, and he understood the many wonders of human behavior.  Juvenile behavior.  The only weird thing about him was that his body smelled of coolant. 

After getting to know him, the children were taking turns riding up front, and he was feeding them processed nuts and jerky.  He told them of the great herds of reptilian creatures that once drifted over the plains and the thousand-year-old walking cacti, which kept the Vendragon on the move in a never-ending battle for food and water.  He educated them on the Docengard—the gangling, clumsy predecessors to Ragnarok, and how, for centuries, they lived in the rocks alone, yet the earlier species regarded them as something of mystics.  By the end of the first day’s ride they were best friends, and the children loved the voyage through the tired yellow landscape old as time itself.  They saw spiky clumps of Yurga, a sweet white medicinal herb, smooth sculptured garnet trees, bloated potato patches and vegetated mist swamps, and smoke rings rising gray and black over the lime crystal bluffs.  It was a fantastic environment, one that was full of desolation yet color, different yet utterly surreal; surely gods must have shaped it.  It was all exciting and new, but in the bluffs an incident happened that Chelsea wanted to forget.

On the morning of the second day’s ride, when a breeze was blowing over the blazing desert sands, Chelsea had seen shadowy columns of air circling the vehicle.  The silhouetted tornadoes had no real substance to them, neither any real shape nor form.  At first, the dozen or so that were out there did not scare her.  Matter of fact, she didn’t think much of them.  For a brief moment she took her necklace out of her shirt.  Curiously, she held the key drive up.  Then, after a minute or two, she tucked it back in.  With some extra speed and a waving of hands from Chandler and Blake, they were now setting out on what seemed like the final stages of their journey.  For a while the girl sat very still, her eyes on the Yurga-plastered trail, her lips pressed tightly together.  The rover made a weird humming sound, and it vibrated to the point of nausea. 

At midday, when the children were asleep in the back of the vehicle, Chandler was tempted to pull over for a much-needed recharge, but he knew that if the fog clouds or other storm-ravaging elements returned, it would hold them up and transform the ground into a sea of impassable mud.  So he drove on through the heat, watching for rifts in the trail.  The temperature in the bluffs was well over a hundred degrees.  They were three-quarters of the way through the landscape, one of the deepest desert regions on the planet, made up of miles and miles of sand and crystalline escarpment.  The road, still rugged in some areas, was following a gully down through a crack in the plateau, twisting and turning between grotesque blocks of melted green granite—monolithic play-bricks scattered along a dried up riverbed or marsh.

It happened without warning.  One second they were skirting a boulder half the size of a building, the next, the shadowy tornado came swirling around a bend, a ten-foot column of viciously dark spinning air.  It hit the rover head on, knocked the vehicle into a skid, and smashed it against an outcrop of crystal. “What was that?” Chelsea’s heart rose out of her chest and into her throat. “What’s going on?” Her seatbelt snapped and, as the vehicle upended, she fell back into the luggage, causing two rows of holding canisters to collapse on her head. 

The tornado, seemingly alive, came back for seconds.

“Damn!” Chandler fiddled with the clutch, but it was bent and stuck.  He quickly glanced through the looking glass in front of him. “Such power! Don’t worry, I’ll get you kids out of here.”

Blake was frightened. “It’s one of those big reptile monsters,” he shouted, as one of the large jagged-edged crystals pierced the vehicle’s interior.

“Can’t be, son.  They’re extinct.”

Chelsea managed to pull herself out from under the baggage. “It was the wind,” she muttered, her forehead bleeding slightly. “The black things swirling in the wind caught us.”

Blake huddled up in a corner with his sister. “I wanna go home, Chelsea,” he cried, as the tornado came back for more. “I want the Keeper.  I want my Mommy!”

“Okay, both of you need to calm down.  Just stay in back of the vehicle.  I’ll get you out of here, now—”

The A.I. was shouting some miscellaneous warnings when a large spear-tipped crystal burst through the front looking glass and caught him on the base of the neck and cut off his vocal functions.  Silver paint and white oil splattered everywhere.  The children screamed hysterically, as manufacturing fluid sprayed across their faces and drenched their clothes.  Chandler’s eyes rolled in back of his head.  He lifted a weary hand and grabbed the area where his larynx used to be.  Outside, the tornado stopped moving.  The tall phantom-like creature stood atop the shadier part of the monolith closest to the rover, sniffing the air.  Seconds later it flew off, spun its way back to the paralyzed vehicle, tore through what was left of the front looking glass, and ripped the A.I.’s convulsing head off.  Fleshy upper body connector tubes and other plastics fluttered everywhere, leaking more white oil and fluids.  The tornado extended a claw-shaped appendage and tore out Chandler’s mechanical heart, then attempted to absorb the spraying juices.  Frustrated that the A.I. was not digestible, it gave off an ear-piercing howl, swirled in a backward motion, and disappeared from the rover with Chandler’s head.

Shaking uncontrollably, Chelsea hugged Blake.  She dare not let go, as a few more metal boxes fell.  There followed a significant period of silence; she did not even blink.  After what seemed like many hours, she finally whispered, “Stay still.”

“No, Chelsea.  Don’t!” Blake cried frantically but quietly.

“I’m not going anywhere.  I just want to look.” They continued to talk in short whispers. 

“But, but—”

“Shhh.” Chelsea lifted her head slowly and peeked out from the rover’s backend.  At first, everything looked quiet.  The same barren wastes, the same gargantuan stones, the same lime crystal formations, the same patches of Yurga root sprouting here and there.  But then her eyes moved to the far left.  There it was—the ravenous tornado creature.  It whirled playfully up the gully with Chandler’s head in tow, leaving the crushed rover on its side, its enormous tires spinning slowly to a halt.  Her eyes then focused on the other dozen or so monoliths in back of them.  Her heart leaped again.  Silhouettes with razor-sharp claws—not spinning, not moving—stood atop the shadowy parts of the high ledges.  Hauntingly, each one seemed to stare back at her, right through the vehicle’s shell, right through her very soul; she grabbed her necklace out of force of habit.  They reminded her of vultures, hungry and in wait for their next meal.  After a few more minutes, the dust settled and the suns beat down harder.  The tornado creatures vanished.  Everything was very quiet again. 

“Blake!” The girl’s voice was frightened. “You okay?”

The boy was matter-of-fact. “Uh-huh.  But my left arm is stuck under this darned metal crate.  And I can’t feel my fingers.”

“Anything broken?”

“I…I don’t think so,” Blake said. “What was it, sis?”

Chelsea shrugged her shoulders. “A whirling devil or something, I suppose.” She used her feet to push the heavy box of provisions aside.  Then she eased the other toppled luggage away from his fingers as gently as she could, and he pulled his bruised hand away from the piled up chaos. “Probably native to the region,” she went on, “and we just happened to shortcut through its habitat.”

“Do you think that was the Vendragon?”

“No.  It was something else, something far creepier.  More dangerous.”

“How do you know?” 

“The Keeper showed me learning disks.  The Vendragon have lizardy features, sort of like iguanas.  They’re a scaly, dry-skinned race.  Their bodies don’t give off perspiration like we do because of their arid surroundings and Ragnarok’s two suns.  She also said they’re humanoid in more ways than one, more than we think.  Can we continue this biology lesson elsewhere?”

Blake nodded, then pushed himself against the escape hatch. “It won’t budge,” he said, then looked back at his sister. “I’m scared, Chelsea.”

“Yeah, I know.  Me, too, brother.” She felt the impacted metal. “Let me have a go at it.”

She managed the door open and helped Blake down from the half-crushed vehicle, and they stood gazing at the wreckage.  The headless A.I. was sprawled halfway out of the driver’s seat, his flittering tubes and empty chest open to the hot-winded air. “Man, only a giant could have done this,” Blake said after inspecting the damage. “Poor Chandler.  He was cool.  Maybe we can use the spare power cells stored in the rover to reenergize him or somethin’, help guide us the rest of the way.”

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Chelsea explained.  She kept looking over her shoulder. “And I don’t think we should stay out here any longer than we have to.  It’s going to get dark soon.”

“Surely the Township isn’t too far now, huh, sis?”

“Yeah, surely…” Chelsea retrieved her knapsack and Blake’s in a hurry.  She looked for any lightweight supplies—digital nightspecs, perma-flares, laser cutters or first aid blocks—and pre-processed rations she could find.  Anything that might come in handy, anything that might aid in their survival. “Here, catch!”

Blake walked back to the front of the vehicle.  He didn’t understand much about artificial intelligences.  Even headless, he thought for a moment that Chandler was only injured or out of battery power; then he saw the remnants of fluid seeping from his shoulders, and the peculiar angle of his synthetic shape. “Chandler’s not growing another face, is he?” His eyes opened wide and, like his sister, his fingers moved to the key drive hanging low around his neck. “Does he at least have a soul?”

“Blake,” Chelsea whispered. “Chandler’s gone.”

Some time later they sat on a rocky cliff while the environment turned from yellow and green to a dusk brown and deep tangerine.  Chelsea had decided to get as far away from the wreck as possible, but she never left the trail.  Chandler had been in constant communication with Koral.  A scouting rover, she told herself, was bound to come sooner or later, and for the moment they had plenty of sunshine and plenty of food and water.  Blake was falling asleep; the boy was worn out, and his hand swelled something awful.  Every so often Chelsea got some irrational fear inside of her and steeled herself to kneel beside her brother, listening for a flutter of a heartbeat, making sure that he still had his soul on him.  Only when his body began to rest comfortably did she kiss his forehead and lay down beside him. 

“Mother and Father aren’t here,” she said, running her hand through his flimsy hair. “Neither is the Keeper.  It’s my job to look after you, little brother.”

Without realizing just how many hours of daylight Ragnarok was subject to, Chelsea too closed her eyes the moment her muscles stopped tensing and the tornado creature left her thoughts.  The first sun slid behind the rim of the gully, then eventually dissolved over the bluffs; the sky turned orange, with the occasional streak of red marking their spot in the universe.  Then the second, slightly larger sun disappeared over the tip of the escarpment.  The desert wastes, the misty, bubbly swamps that separated them like islands, and the crystalline plateau vanished under a blanket of purple and black, touched up with a satellite-tinged glow.  A breeze swirled the planet’s dusts and, in the face of the twilight, the girl shivered. 

Chelsea was awakened by the wind’s intensity; the monster from earlier played with her mind once more.  Afraid, she shook her brother out of slumber. “Blake.  Blake, get up.” She glanced around her. “It looks like we’re here for the night… However long that is.”

Blake barely opened one eye. “So?”

“So I think those whirling demons can’t take too much daylight.  When I saw them, they always seemed to stand in very little sun or take to the shadows.”

“Then we’ll build a fire.” Blake was very self-possessed. “You took perma-flares from the rover, didn’t you?” Seconds later, he sat up.

“Yeah, but when was the last time you and I went camping?”

“Titan.” Blake smiled.

“How could you possibly remember that? You were only two.  You mean you actually have a vivid memory of Me, Mom and Dad on our trip to Saturn?”

“Yes.”

Chelsea pinched his cheek.  Then she went into her knapsack and handed him a flare. “Remember how to program a spark, too?”

A short while later the children sat close to the blazing fire, listening to the flip-flap-flip of the two-headed air marmot, the long sad wail of the desert dolphin, and the surreal pitter-patter of marsh insects.  They weren’t exactly frightened of these animals; but the front row seat was a far cry from the virtual zoos and jungles back on Earth.

“You think that wind creature was a pterodactyl?” Blake asked out of the blue. 

Huddled closely around the flames, Chelsea answered, “No, silly.  It definitely wasn’t a pterodactyl.  Pterodactyls are long extinct.  From all worlds.” A moment of silence followed. 

Then the boy began to fidget. “Chelsea, what’s this Ragnarok place really like?” He almost wanted to cry again. “Chandler had told me so much.  What do we do now? How are we gonna survive?”

“I don’t know, Blake.  But I reckon we’ll be OK.  So long as you stay with me at all times.  We must never split up, never lose sight of each other.  Not even for a second.”

The boy fiddled with the key drive around his neck. “If something bad happens to one of us, should we give each other permission now to—um, well, you know—”

“Crush the chips and let our souls go free?” Chelsea grasped her own necklace tightly. “Let’s hope we don’t have to.  And if Mom and Dad are still alive, if they’re still out there somewhere, they wouldn’t want us giving up without a fight.”

The boy picked up a garnet tree branch and stirred the fire. “Maybe if the Vendragon find us, they’ll let us use their life server.”

Chelsea grimaced. “Yeah, sure.  Maybe.”

The boy said, “Remember those smoke rings we saw on the way? You reckon they came from the Township?”

She shook her head. “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.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

Lawrence Dagstine: “Historical Works in Progress…”

On Alternate History, Historical Weird Tales, and SF Serials…

In the next couple of weeks I will be continuing my bimonthly series of Free Fiction.  This time I will be serializing a science fiction-themed novella about two orphans that get stranded during an interplanetary adoption. It takes place on the largest planet in the universe — The planet Ragnarok (aptly named after the warring Gods of Norse Mythology, which later supposedly caused a lot of catastrophes concerning Mother Nature and the like for Mankind).  You’ll understand why as you get into it over the course of the year.  There are even a few flashback sequences similar to the series LOST.  On Ragnarok, Quadrant 4, located on the outer rim of the Cat’s Eye Nebula, like most of my worlds, there are eighteen seasons.  Unlike Earth, which has only four.  The good guys are a bunch of giant lizards with chest communicators.  Think the Silurians from Doctor Who, only bigger, stronger.  Bad guys are a bunch of elemental wind creatures who harvest meat by “shadowy” & “vampiric” means.  These guys are the horror element to the story.  Main orphan characters are Chelsea and Blake, and you are sure to fall in love with these two kids.  Mind you, this serial is FIRST DRAFT, so if you see the occasional typo or a bit of redundancy, I don’t plan on publishing this anywhere but my homepage.  Entertainment purposes only.  I could best describe the early portions as a cross between Lord of the Flies, the movie Pitch-Black, and Living Amongst the Lizards (short story).  Serials shall run between 2,500 and 5,000 words in length.  Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.  Once again, all first draft.

Name of planned Bimonthly Serial: “Orphan’s Prey” – Stay Tuned!

On The Great Depression and post-Civil War era…

I already have a batch of finished short stories and novelettes set in these two eras.  Some accepted, too.

Story One: “A Town of Crows” – Killer Scarecrows after the Civil War now appearing in Steampunk Tales #6.  See eBooks & Kindle.

Story Two: “A Time and Place for Monsters” – a very long novelette with vampires and werewolves during the Great Depression coming to Cover of Darkness.  Also, a bit of back history concerning President Hoover and The Monsters.  Never before done.

Story Three: “The Two-Sided Market” – Dedicated to H.G. Wells/Parallel Piece.

Story Four: “The Great Martian Depression” – Scifi currently appearing in The Martian Wave Issue#1.

Story Five: “FDR and the Locusts” – Franklin D. Roosevelt and BIG Insects, with a plot twist.

Cleopatra VII - Brooklyn Museum of New York 2008 - 2009

On Cleopatra and Alternate History…

There are two finished stories, finally edited, featuring Cleo as a fourteen-year-old.  They take place between Ancient Egypt and Rome. Alternate History meets Historical Fantasy, and there will also be mages, sorcerers, the undead, gods, and demigods! Also, the stories begin with Mark Antony as narrator for the first page and ends with him conceptually.  Here, I decided to experiment.

Story One: “Young Cleopatra and The Whispering Ancients”

Story Two: “Young Cleopatra and The Eye of Horus.”

Story Three: UNTITLED (coming 2011, and concerning the suicide of Mark and Cleo).

On Pompeii and Rome…

Next, later in the year off to Pompeii and some more fiction in Rome.  Introducing the Children of Ash short stories/novelettes.  All stand-alone tales, which I often prefer.

Story One: “The Children of Ash” – After Volcano Day.

Story Two: “The Nightmare Lair” – Inside the Volcano.

Story Three: “The Vampires of Pompeii” – The Romans have some neighbors. 😉

I’m also thinking up a totally “messed-up” Caligula-style crossover piece as well.  Of course, this is still not a guarantee that a market will accept all of them.  Never is.

I also noticed that a lot of Fresh Blood PDFs were sold.  Like 40 or 50 in the first two, three weeks.  At $3.50, yeah, it’s a great price. If you own a reader, click on eBooks & Kindle and treat yourself to a copy.  You can also now read PDFs on the Amazon Kindle, or download the free iPhone/iPad application off of Amazon.com as well.  I’d like to thank all of you.  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed writing it.  The same with my scarecrow story in Steampunk Tales #6 (www.steampunktales.com).

Other than that, there are ten brand new short stories and novelettes completed, my first novella is in the editorial screening stages, and ten brand new acceptances for 2010-2011.  I wish I had the time to blog ten times per day, but life does not permit me such luxury.  I’ll try and fit what I can.  Historical stories take two, three weeks alone.  However, some acceptances are to print anthologies.  So stay tuned! SF serial starts Late April/May 2010.  It’s gonna be fun!

Cheers,

Lawrence Dagstine

Print Magazines * Amazon Kindle * The iPhone/iPad * Sony & PDF Download

Other New Entries: “General News”

P.S.: Speaking of crazy historical tales, enjoy the new season of Doctor Who.   Series Five with Matt Smith!

FREE FICTION: “The Overrated Pro” by Lawrence Dagstine

Welcome to my first installment of what will be a continuous monthly to bimonthly project.  Free Fiction Stories.  Approaching all genres, and sometimes even serialized (the serials will most likely be novelette or novella lengthed works).  For February and March we have a brand new Extreme Horror piece — put the kiddies to bed — about a writer.  A good chilling tale about a writer quickly brings to mind the work of Mr. King and Mr. Ketchum.  One such tale that comes to mind right away is Secret Window (the movie version starred Johnny Depp).  Sometimes a good story is too good to pass up, such as is the case with Secret Window.  The picture below, which I got off the Web and am a die-hard fan of (I’m a die-hard fan of all pictures on my site, from Doctor Who to Action Figures to Whatever), I think compliments this piece well.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  But it does beg to ask the question: How far would you go to become a writer?

How far would you go to become a writer?

Free Fiction Series Take 1

 

THE OVERRATED PRO

by

Lawrence Dagstine

The package fluttered as if it might fall, but it didn’t.  Carnesto preferred to take a cigarette out of the pack himself.  Despite the tremors, his fingers had facility, and he reached into the pack for a smoke.  The paper fluttered and sounded, but out came the cigarette, and it orbited to his lips.  He lit up by himself, too.  He even had this way of making cool artsy smoke rings.  The single and simple act assumed the proportion of a wannabe performance, which all watched as he sat in the back of the truck stop diner working heavily on his laptop. “Thanks, Colbert,” he said. “I promise I’ll leave you a tip next time.” He got a refill on his coffee.

“When are you writing this next bestseller?”

“As soon as one of these organizations actually recognize me,” he said.

Colbert nodded. “I guess that means never.”

“How’s your cat?”

“Dead.”

Another one.”

“It’s okay.  I’ll just go down to the Humane Society and pick me up a healthier critter.  Anyway, good luck with your manuscript.”

There was something about people on computers in diners or Starbucks or sidewalk cafes.  All were the next big thing, the next blockbuster screenwriter, the next professional anthologist, and, for the deluded, sometimes even Pulitzer Prize winner.  They always looked cool sitting there with their Compaqs and Toshibas and Hewlett-Packards.  At the end of their days they went home and popped an extra Zoloft or two, stared at themselves in their medicine cabinets, and often died of something like pancreatic cancer and very much penniless.  As a balding, middle-aged man living between Middletown USA and the UK, however, he still didn’t get it yet.  It was sort of like the meaning of life, only staring you cold right in the face.  Being a writing celebrity was the most transient fame in the world, but it was magnificent while it lasted.  Who could resist wanting to know what it was like to become as inflated as a zeppelin, even if rather hollow? Still, ego or no ego, magnificent while it lasted.

A man on the keyboard, if he had inspiration, could have more immediate impact in a couple of hours than a genre historian with a lifetime of books and no national or international exposure.  For, at the end of the day, genre is what he wrote and absolutely creamed on himself just at the thought of it.

Clicking sounds from the keys, then long emailed queries.

A curious kind of aberrant, macroscopic reputation attainable because of the nature of the exposure, and the redundancy of the work routine combined.  Much of his life revolved around two credits, and much to his pub mate editors’ likings.  An amateur might write down a few interesting metaphors or pen just as decent a story—a beginning, a middle, and an end—publish a few in some low circulation or obscure quarterlies; it might a few years later change a portion of the face of the globe, and such a figure might or might not get to be known even inside the publishing community.  Impact and creativity was fantastic.  But the genre writer was straight on your eyes, because it was a form of fantasy, page by page, as while he repeated the lines written by another; if you watched television or went to the movies, plots came free and life was a contrived and clichéd vessel.  He and the non-reading public became well acquainted, because, quite frankly, Carnesto never really wrote anything of worth.  He was beat as a child if he got less than a B, sometimes his father would hit the bottle and then creep into his room in the middle of the night and display his inebriation.  Carnesto even had a lax imagination at times to show for it.  A character like himself writing fiction was like a dead fourth brain inside the human skull.  Internet crazies with drug addictions thought he was super-important, and he might think so too.  That spelled out Web Idol.  But there was a difference between the web idol and the literary idol.  For real writers the grandeur of self-satisfaction spelled New Heroes, New Days, New Minds, New Attitudes, New Influences.  For Carnesto it often meant just another day glaring at that screen in the back of that smoky truck stop diner, full of resentment and false pride.

He’d even met an amateur one day, typing crazily and happily a few booths away.  He went over to him and said, “Are you a writer by any chance?” and he saw next to the computer a stack of black and white magazines. “You know if you are, you really shouldn’t prostitute yourself to such small publications like this.”

They talked a bit and it just so happened that this other typist was also into genre.  When he’d heard that, Carnesto felt embarrassed asking the amateur for advice; he even glanced over his shoulder to make sure Colbert and the diner regulars weren’t watching. “But these periodicals you’re in are mere fanzines,” he said. “Why do it for so little money?”

“Oh, you must be from the Old School,” the amateur writer said. “Because you only live once, and there are many other rewards and remunerations from this kind of writing.”

“No! I—I don’t understand it!” He actually clenched his hands into fists and grinded his teeth. “I—I don’t compute!”

“Well, of course you don’t.  I noticed you over there, just spacing out at your screen.  I didn’t want to say anything but it was just an observation.”

“What observation? What are you talking about?” Carnesto looked slightly heated.

“You know, progress.”

“Dear sir, I’ll have you know that I AM A PRO.” It almost sounded like he was doing a Colin Baker schtick. “I’ve appeared in these two publications and I was paid such and such a sum!”

“But look at the dungeon you’ve put yourself in.  There’s no key to the door, no crawlspace, no way to get out.  You get no satisfaction from it.  It’s sad.”

“How can I get no satisfaction when the credits exist?”

“But you obsess over something you’ll still never be.”

“Are you trying to say I’m pathetic?”

“When I look from afar, yeah, I guess.” Then the amateur went on to say how many professional writers hate their lifestyles, their jobs, their families and their miserable existences.  How it’s not as easy as it looks. “You see, I exist outside the bubble.  You are trapped inside the bubble, where there are all sorts of stigmas and silly rules.  Outside the bubble, there’s relaxation, lack of worry, so much space and area to explore.  I live life to the fullest, you obviously don’t.  Inside the bubble, you’re confined and injected with this malcontent.  Even now, instead of focusing, you probably watch other writers making it one step ahead of you and feel like a prisoner in your own skin.”

“But I have two pro credits! I have two pro credits! Two pro credits!”

“That still does not make you a professional.”

“Yes it does! Two pro credits make me a somebody!”

The amateur looked back at Carnesto’s laptop and said, “Then if you’re a somebody, why are you dilly-dallying with me at my table when you should be over there writing your third professional credit?”

Then he explained to Carnesto that: Nothing x Nothing = Nothing.

But Carnesto wouldn’t have it, no matter how much the amateur tried to break things down to him.  He stormed off insisting that he was right and the amateur was wrong.  He stormed off insisting that he was this famous thing, trained by long forgotten grandmasters and alcoholic slush pile editors.  The more Carnesto saw the cobwebs under his arms and suspected his own imposture, the exaggeration of his value, that his sublime vogue was just a façade for the crazies, the more he began to drink, cheat on the missus, and dissipated.  He almost felt like lashing out his own failures in life on somebody who wouldn’t suspect, somebody he wished to be. 

A few weeks later, in decline, reading from time to time of his own professional wane or passing, experiencing the oh-he’s-washed-up coldness of the public and the literary critics, and now, having lost his mind, having lost prestige or real value, he decided to choose his victim carefully and make that individual feel the same way.  He wanted to make somebody feel just as inwardly collapsed.  Emotionally, physically, professionally, deflated beyond recovery.

This would be his release.  He would call himself “The Winner” at times.

But there was nothing to be won.

During these days, when he went on the Internet actively seeking people he hated or wished to be, or just couldn’t stand being happy because his own life lacked joy, his wife walked about with a deep inner upset.  Carnesto, still not recuperated from his own lack of success, didn’t have the energy or desire to make love to her.  They were often quiet at the dinner table, too.

“When are you going to get off that fucking Internet! I didn’t marry a robot.  You’ve become this—this computer junkie.  I needed you yesterday!”

There Carnesto sat at his computer, in a slumped position, head straight forward and practically paying her no mind.

“Did you hear what I said? I needed you!”

“Why? Because your friend Janet’s brother is in the hospital on a respirator?”

“That poor devil was in a terrible accident.  He might not make it through another night.”

“So let them pull the plug.  It’s not as if she cared about him anyway.  They had their differences.  If I’m a computer junkie, so’s she.  Tell me, how many hours does she spend on the Web? If you ask me, she’ll probably be relieved once her parents fly back and they take the fellow off life support.  Oh, and don’t ask me to come to the funeral.”

“Carnesto, what’s wrong with you?” his wife pleaded. “You were never like this!”

“I’m busy! Working!”

“On a fucking messageboard? Who are you talking to anyway?”

“This is strictly business.  Now please get the fuck out of here.”

His wife came over and threw down some drug paraphernalia.  His eyes glanced it briefly as he typed away. “And where did you get this?”

“I don’t know where you got that, but it’s definitely not mine.”

“Smoking drugs with that crack whore.  I spotted you with her the other day, chatting about.  She’s the big druggie and floozy of the neighborhood.”

“You know her?” Carnesto asked.

“Who doesn’t! What are you doing with that meth head?”

“We… We get along together.  We understand each other.” There was a brief silence. “Oh, you wouldn’t understand.  You’re not a writer, you’re not a professional.  How could you understand?”

“Carnesto, I know full well what you do.  You’re slacking off.  You’re not the man I once knew.  You talk of writing yet you haven’t written or edited a single draft in three months.”

He quickly changed the subject, talking about her inconsistencies: her manners, her mind, her language. 

“Shit,” she screamed at him, “you’re always trying to make an idiot out of me!”

“I fear it’s a lost cause,” he said to her, then swiveled around in his chair back to his computer. “Just like this poor chap…”

“I’m not a lost cause! I’m your wife!”

“Says you.  I’m giving you a difficult assignment.  Change yourself a little,”—but this had only been an excuse to get rid of her and focus on his new computer mate—“make yourself into something fine.  Learn how to cook or something.”

“I like the time I’m having with you now! If I didn’t care about you, if I didn’t care about our marriage, I wouldn’t be here begging with you, would I?”

The logic made him laugh.

Christ, she said to herself, he hasn’t fucked me in a month.  I ought to go down to the pub or get a piece somewhere else.

He sensed her thought, but he was still heavily focused on something else.

“Look, darling, I’ll be with you in a few days.  Now don’t get impatient.  This Web business will all be over soon.”

“If that crackhead came along here, you’d be able to put out,” she complained.  As she headed for the office door, she added, “And make sure you don’t do anything with her here!”

A little celibacy will be good for her, he thought to himself, grinning wickedly.  It’ll drive her wild, and besides, I’ll get what I started online finished.  They said I wasn’t a pro, I gave them helpful advice, but they just tossed me away.  Well no more!

As time went on, his dilapidation showed.  He didn’t shave, didn’t shower.  He didn’t even brush his teeth.  Lack of hygiene.  But he couldn’t and wouldn’t let it be a singular ruin, as he was bent on taking someone else down with him.  This was his therapy, because they all said and felt he wasn’t good enough.  He was bent on destroying this other person who was almost a perfect identical image to him…

…only happy with life.

He went to messageboards, review sites, emailed friends of his—if one didn’t know any better, they’d think he was a full-time stalker—wherever this individual had been last, he would be there to spy and bait.  Sometimes he even forced sleep deprivation upon himself and Googled the individual’s name as much as one hundred times in a single day.  All the while muttering to himself, “I’m a professional! I’m a professional! I’m a professional!” At other times, he would say, “Fucking amateur! Fucking amateur! Fucking amateur!” He had become so obsessed with this other person’s writing career, that not only had he almost permanently forgotten his own, but he started checking his victim’s work for logistical and grammatical errors that either did not exist or just wasn’t to his liking.

Sometimes he thought of his ex-wife—by now, she had dumped him and not only was his computer on constantly, but he always carried a whiskey bottle and a loaded revolver by his side—and his marriage to her had been his foundation to begin with, and she was the only woman he had ever loved. “I will not pose any longer as a married woman nor tell myself any longer that this is a marriage,” she had said.

The words stayed on with him, fatally, robbing him of much.  So along with the victim on his computer console, his life had spiraled downward and proceeded from one self-robbery to another, depriving him of the people and dreams he once had, though without doubt, by the nature of his current self, he had earned his defeats.  And his only friends? Well, they were crazies. 

The court awarded his ex custody of their little girl, and he must pay alimony until she remarried.  But she hadn’t done that, and the cost of maintaining her lifestyle, and the costs of his daughter, had been a drain. 

About three, four times a year he saw them.  He was entitled visitation rights with his child, but his computer life always cut in, and there were times where he didn’t pursue the privileges.  Besides, it was always unpleasant to see his wife for a few minutes or hours, only to realize he could never have her around permanently.

There came a point where his daughter had reached the age of twelve, and here he was, still latched on to his computer and his writer victim, who had started moving on to other things.  The girl had lost her childhood charm and matured into a shapely, thinned-down girl.  She had her father’s haunting features and the same bone structure as he.  Carnesto was pleased with her beauty, and he complimented his wife. “You’ve done a fine job with the girl.” He held his daughter’s hands and stared at her.

His daughter said, “I think you’re so wonderful, Daddy.  Everybody does.”

“It’s your mom who’s wonderful.  Surely you must know what everybody else knows, that I’m a big international bum.”

“It’s not true, Daddy; you’re simply fabulous.  I see all your literary works in a pile over there.”

He laughed. “I may let you head up the Carnesto Johanna Fan Society.”

“You’re so outrageous, Daddy, so simply outrageous.”

His now-ex came along. “Honey, be careful.  You might fall afoul of someone like your father and get your life garbled before it begins.”

“Is your life so garbled?” Carnesto asked.

“I’m trying to spare her some of the things we’ve been through ourselves.  Like computer privileges?”

“Don’t spare her any of that, and don’t do me any favors.”

When his ex left the room he looked over his daughter.  She had leaping, anxious eyes, and she was crowding her father, wanting his attentions, even his arms around her. “Glad to see your mother letting you sleep over finally.” He looked around at the small flat. “It’s not much.  At least, not like on my old teacher pay.  Not like we used to have.” He grabbed hold of her and gave her an earthy kiss.  He held her tightly and his hands, from a lifetime of typing and not touching, found its way over her developing breasts.  His face flushed.  What the hell was going on?

He felt rocked.  He pulled himself away from her.  He had a frenetic look on his face, which his daughter studied but couldn’t understand.  With my own daughter, he told himself, staring at her loving face, her body full of trust and affection. What am I thinking? He wondered whether other fathers had incestuous surges toward their beautiful daughters.  He paced up and down cursing his passions. 

After his ex left and said she’d return on Sunday, he couldn’t get his daughter out of his mind, or quite out of his blood.  He started looking for the revolver.  You bastard, he said to himself, wanting to jazz his own child.  He looked at the messageboard on the computer and thought he saw a familiar name sign in. “It’s your fault, you fucking amateur!”

“Daddy, are you okay?”

The gun was nowhere to be found.  It had to be there.  Maybe in a drawer, maybe underneath the bathroom sink.  The incident preyed on him; it was a new experience, unlike writing fiction, and the thought shocked him.  He had a second moment’s agony.  How many crazies had such thoughts about their daughters, he wondered.  He knew a lot of crazies, but why did the notion persist with him? There she was, in his imagining, all fresh and full of young blood, a handsome smile on her face all the while, a touch of cherry blossom softness in her cheeks, eyes wide and curious.  He looked down and saw a bulge in his pants; he was rock-hard.  Maybe, he said to himself, it’s a case of me wanting to screw myself.  She looks like me.  Goddamit, I better stay far away.

Then, as his daughter was changing in the bathroom, getting ready to go to sleep, he found the gun sticking out from one of the higher shelves of his bookcase.  That one particular shelf had been lined with all the anthologies ever created, all the books ever produced, all the periodicals of the writer he had been victimizing all these years, and he realized, “Holy shit! I’m your number one fan.”

Glancing quickly over his shoulder, he saw flashing.  When he turned around to face the computer he saw action on the screen.  The numbers on the board lit up, and the writer, who he had lashed out his own misgivings and failings on for all those years had scored a book deal. “Oh no.  Oh no, you don’t! You fucking amateur! I’ll prove you don’t deserve this!” He started tearing his hair out and walking in circles.  Then he grabbed the computer and tried to log in and type right away, but he’d forgotten the password amongst the confusion with his daughter. “No you don’t! Stay at the bottom of the ladder, you fucking slime ball!” The gun was looped around a finger as he wrote.

“Daddy?”

“Not now.”

“Daddy, what’s wrong?”

“I said not now!”

“Daddy, please!”

“What don’t you under—”

He swiveled around in his chair and let go of the trigger.  A bullet entered the center of his daughter’s chest, ricocheted off her shoulder and lung, and exited through her back.  Carnesto fell to his knees.  The twelve-year-old girl’s mouth dropped in awe.  She was wearing one of those long pink and white Hello Kitty sleep shirts.  It began to soak red.  The floor soon matched in color. 

A few seconds later she collapsed at the side of the bed.

Carnesto rushed to her side, but she wasn’t breathing.  Sitting at the edge of the bed, he cradled her in her arms, weeping like a baby. “I’m sorry, child… I didn’t mean to, I swear…” Teary-eyed, he faced the computer and it said that the new book being released by the same author he had victimized from all those years, was a story that, deep down, most hardworking authors working the trenches for many years would be able to associate with.  But that was if Carnesto had the desire to live and add it to his collection.   

The title, according to the online publicist, was “The Winner”.

Carnesto Johanna had three simple words for that publicist and the author as he put the revolver up to his own head. “I’m a pro…”

The End

Lawrence Dagstine: “Classroom of the Dead…”

Welcome to DAGSTINE’S HALLOWEEN! Did you ever wonder what it would be like to teach undead children? Did you ever wonder what the scientific, psychological, and moral implications of something so eerie would be like? I mean, dead kids with some thought processes still intact being taught and experimented on.  

Ever since 28 Days Later, every few years zombies have this funny way of making a comeback (perhaps too much).  From the Dawn of the Dead remake to Diary of the Dead and Land of the Dead.  From foreign masterpieces like [.REC] to hilarious films like Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.  It’s as if we truly are a “zombiefied” culture.  For this year’s fiction sample and Halloween story, I’ve decided to present to you one of my more widely accepted tales — mags ranging from Necrotic Tissue to Atomjack  — entitled, Classroom of the Dead.  Have a wonderful holiday and enjoy!

HAPPY HALLOWEEN 2009 – FREE FICTION

CLASSROOM OF THE DEAD

by

Lawrence R. Dagstine

The room was huge.  A cavernous, old turn-of-the-century affair, with twelve-foot-high ceilings and magnificent, large windows that looked out on absolutely nothing worth seeing: a brick wall and the smokestack of the chemical plant next door, a well-sized piece of land fenced off and secluded from outsiders—most called it a playground for the stiffs—and it was just how the government wanted it.  A hefty chunk of the room had been partitioned off with gray steel industrial shelving units, used to store the supplies of safety such a learning environment would require.  The T-shaped area that was left belonged to substitute teacher, Howard Tressy. 

Windows ran the length of the wide, long arm of the T, where the chairs and work desks were; the narrow, shorter arm of the T contained the blackboard on one wall and the titanium emergency hatch at the opposite end.  It was an adequate amount of space—he had taught in more cramped, dangerous conditions—but it was a quirky arrangement.  The blackboard was useless because it couldn’t be seen from the work area, and the children didn’t have the skills required to pay full attention to it anyway.  And short of standing like a guard at the junction of the two arms of the T, he saw that he could not monitor the hatch.  Most eccentric, and morbid, however, was the government’s decision to combine a classroom for undead children with regards to furthering their education even after their pulses stopped.

They called it HOS (short for hostile, or Homicidal Outburst Syndrome).  You know, one of those biological “Oh, shit, it’s the End of Days” diseases which turned a whole nation of little boys and girls into half brain-dead monsters, flooding them with super strength and unbelievable rage.  It was to be one of the first official self-contained classrooms in the state of Colorado for zombies, ages twelve and under, who could be instructed and mentally reared since the No Kill Act had been passed in 2018.  For Howard, walking back into a schoolroom with musty children that early September morning, having been gone from teaching almost three years, had provoked a sense of intense déjà vu.  Looking at the twenty or so decomposed faces, it seemed as if he had been away forever and yet had never left at all. 

He put down his briefcase and studied the features of each of them.  Their pale white eyes caused a shiver to run up his spine to his shoulders.  As a precautionary measure, those who were extra vicious were handcuffed to their chairs, and if they were caught escaping or attacking the teacher, an armed guard, usually a Marine, would hear an alarm go off and hurry inside, then blow the ravenous child’s head off. 

The six through eight year olds came with the kind of profile that was almost a cliché: borderline death IQ, short to almost non-existent attention span, no verbal skills beyond a grunt or a moan, overaggressive and violent behavior when in large numbers.  In his entire short career as a substitute, Howard achieved virtually nothing.  Yes, some could talk.  But most could neither read nor write, or understand even the most basic of math.

The nine through twelve year olds had succumbed to the HOS sickness quite some time ago; it was obvious in their pale, sunken cheeks.  They had spent virtually all of their dead time in confinement facilities or walking the red earth.  Their early days were horrible—a litany of bloodshed and brutality.  And while it would take more than the joy of love and learning to conquer their fateful disease, they were diagnosed as being too unstable to ever make a return to society, and had a very poor prognosis for improvement.

Nervous, Howard said, “Children, uhh, inside your desks you will find textbooks.  Open up to the chapter marked PLAGUES.” The school was required to have a certain amount of copies of the same particular book on hand, and he saw that only a select few had the capacity to pick them up. “Start reading amongst yourselves under THIS DAY IN HISTORY: 2012.  I’ll be with you all in a few moments.  Before the day is out, I’ll be testing you on this.” 

Putting his pencils out and searching himself now, he realized he hadn’t meant to be teaching again.  He’d been abroad, living between Baltimore and Bangkok, working part-time as a book translator, and he intended to return to his life in the East, to his little straw shack, his laid-back life and no worries if a zombie was going to turn a corner and jump out at him.  However, a phone call and an insurmountable pay hike from the government—and a less than enthusiastic divorce settlement—had brought him back to the States for good, and before he knew it, he was looking for an apartment outside of Denver. 

A friend of a friend in a top-secret division of the DOD had rang him one afternoon.  He’d never met the military scientist, but he’d heard of him and his breakthroughs in “awakening the mummified cerebrum” in undead adolescents, or, “we mobilize them, you instruct them”.  They had a problem of their own with a new school, it seemed, and since they had both held positions in the Pentagon, maybe they could help one another out.  One of their special education teachers had been taken ill—actually, she’d been eaten at recess—and there was only two weeks left before the beginning of the second trial school year, and they had no replacement.  They asked Howard if he would be interested in substituting. 

No thanks, he said immediately.  He wanted to be able to lead a zombie-free life the instant his wife cleared out.  But the woman wasn’t easily moved, and finding himself almost penniless and without a roof over his head after the lawyers caught up to him, Howard finally said, Okay, I’ll do it.

Reminiscing, he sat down at his desk, the students in the back row frowning and groaning at him.  He was staring out the gated window at the smokestack, dull and purple-gray in the late summer sunshine, when a ceiling light in back of the room went on and the hatch slid open.

“Mr. Tressy?” a female voice called.  He couldn’t see who it was from where he was sitting, so he rose.  An undead girl, deceased at maybe six or seven, was holding a torn Dora the Explorer doll.  Her head and neck was twisted and decayed, practically snapping what was left of her upper spinal alignment and sliding off her shoulder, yet she still managed to poke her head through the hatch and around the left side of the room. “Another one of your students has arrived,” the woman that followed her said. “The parents are by the side of the road.”

“What?” Howard was confused. “Are you the principal?”

“No, of course not,” she said. “There are no principals here.  I’m just a facilitator.” She walked the edge of the room carefully, so as not to rile up the students.  Almost two-dozen pairs of eyes were on her.  Finally, she reached the desk and extended a hand. “Dorothy Wilkins,” she added.  An army brat with an M-16 waited at the foot of the room for her.  He chewed on a saturated toothpick with a smug face.

“Pleasure,” Howard said. “Don’t mind me, it’s been a while.”

“Oh, really? I gather they didn’t give you the refresher course then.”

“No, they did,” he assured her. “Back in Baltimore.  It’s just that… Well, I’ve never seen an arrangement like this so far out.  It’s in the middle of nowhere.” He glanced down at the shy but mindless little girl who, like the others, had fine hair that was now brittle and streaked with gray.  Her right eye was hanging halfway out of its socket, a few tethered veins and a single optical nerve holding it in place. “And what’s your name, darling?” he knelt down and asked her, trying to break the aura of creepiness surrounding him, and blend in as best he could.

This would be Nancy,” Dorothy said, as the girl smiled wickedly through torn cheek flesh and hid behind her legs. “And if she puts what’s left of her thinking cap on, she’s good at numbers.”

“Is she now?” Howard was impressed.  Mildly.

Then Dorothy smiled herself. “Why don’t you come with me? I’ll show you around and make you feel at home in our special school.”

“But the children,” he said, pointing, “they’ll—”

“Oh, they’re going nowhere.  Think of them as well-behaved dogs when you’re out of the room.”

Howard nodded. “All right, then.”

Dorothy brought him to a much older building than the first one, part of an underground complex which looked abandoned since the late half of the 20th century.  Only it wasn’t abandoned.  Much of its interior was no longer used principally as a school.  Instead, it housed a few administrative offices and a training facility for young cadets.  The empty classrooms on the first floor were turned into an indoor shooting range—targeting practice and termination for the misbehaved or hopeless case (roughly one in every three), and to help coach newer soldiers in the art of zombie killing. 

The scientists had the second floor, to work, sleep, and eat—they even had a recreation room with pinball machines, a pool table, and a dartboard—and as Dorothy gave him a quick tour of the upstairs, he noticed a few doors marked, EXPERIMENTAL TRIALS, GROWTH CHAMBER, and BIOFEEDBACK.  The rest of the rooms were used for storage.  In fact, there were only a half-dozen real classrooms there: the one he was going to be teaching in and a few turned laboratory two floors below, in the basement.  Save for the occasional gun-toting soldier passing through, the building’s halls were hauntingly quiet on this first day of school.

Sublevel, however, he realized that the elevator system and intertwining tunnels connected with the old smoke-piping plant next door, and this interested him very much.  Every corridor they turned down there were blue steel walls, reinforced metal or concrete, low rocky ceilings, and unusual looking cameras mounted above them.  So unusual that he decided to question his tour guide on it. “Just wondering, Ms. Wilkins, but what is this place for?”

“The cameras got you?” she asked.

“Well, yes, I do find it unusual that you have this place so…so monitored…”

“One can never be too safe when it comes to a HOS casualty, Mr. Tressy.  After all, these are not ordinary children we’re dealing with.”

“But I’ve taught HOS victims in the past,” he explained, “and though the tutoring sessions and trials were costly and much to the government’s disadvantage in containing the disease, security and surroundings were still never like this.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Dorothy recalled. “They had you handing out leaflets and crayons from a fold-up table in a giant hangar, a bunch of men in gasmasks and white suits patrolling the corners and exits.” They passed an opening in the tunnel’s rock face, a small exterior shell of a room with no door to bar the outside but plenty of digital monitors and equipment on the inside. “We do things much differently here.  Have a look for yourself.”

Howard stepped inside briefly.  Two men in gray jumpsuits and donning headsets swiveled around a vast circle of television screens, wired through the rocks and pipelines above.  One man took notes in front of a microphone and recording panel, while the other wheeled back and forth mumbling things like “progress” and “stages”. 

Howard moved closer.  He turned to Dorothy and said, “Is all this for real?”

“Why, of course,” Dorothy answered.

Howard turned back and observed the two men at work.

The first man backslapped his coworker on the arm and said, “Hey, look at this.  Monitor no. 34.  We have us a live one, a thinking one.”

“Get out of here,” the second man said. “He’s scratchin’ for maggots again, I tell ya.”

“No, look!”

On-screen, at one of many different angles, a moldy looking child slowly went into his desk and pulled out a crayon and a composition notebook, studying the two objects carefully.  Searching for some kind of meaning, it was as if he wanted to know what they were for.

“That’s my class,” Howard whispered. “That’s one of my students.”

Dorothy smiled. “Yes.”

“I remember gray shelving and a closet there. You mean that’s a hidden camera?”

“One of many, Mr. Tressy.  Also, you have the key to that closet at all times.   There’s a shotgun and a first aid kit in case of an emergency.”

Howard was astonished.

Finally, the first man in front of him said, “That’s the Tarhouse brat.  He’s picking up the crayon, Harry.  Look, he’s opening the book and starting to scrawl.  He’s making circles!”

The second man couldn’t believe his eyes.  Hurrying for the panel, he said, “Holy shit, you’re right! We do have a thinker.” He brought up a school record on the screen in front of him, turned on the microphone, and started taking notes: “Student identification no. 42501236… Name: Billy Tarhouse.  Deceased: St. Louis, Missouri, 2017.  Noted age and race at time of death and reanimation, approximately eight years old and Caucasian.  Child has picked up a writing instrument without teacher present, and appears to be drawing.  At this stage, I’d say motor skills are barely level three.  But it’s a positive sign.  I repeat, there is progress.”

After he’d heard all that, Howard stepped away in disgust. “I don’t want to be here anymore,” he told Dorothy.

“Well, we could—”

“No, Ms. Wilkins.  This is too disturbing.  Take me elsewhere.”

They walked the remainder of the underground halls in silence, until they reached a secure metal door with a window in it.  With a dull expression on his face, Howard quickly peeked at what was going on inside the room.  Much to his surprise an officer, in standard military uniform, was sitting down behind a large table.  His eyes were glued to a teenage girl, tall, thirteen, maybe fourteen, standing with only half her skull visible against the far wall.  To the military official’s credit, a scientist arrived on the scene from a buzz-in door on the opposite side.  They both studied the unfortunate subject, and, while she hadn’t quite managed to shed the undead image, she’d obviously tried.  Her rank face was covered in makeup.  With the help of others, prosthetics and lengthy but seedy looking clothes had replaced the skeletal parts of her body.

“What else can she do?” the uniformed man asked.

The scientist said, “Why don’t you ask her yourself?”

“Will she cooperate this time?”

“Much of the exterior fractures and impact holes are small,” the scientist pointed out. “You’ll also notice her left temporal lobe and hypothalamus are still intact.  So, yes, I don’t see why not.”

The uniformed man took the scientist’s clipboard, then faced the girl again.  Her features, for a HOS victim, were decent; her oozing brain matter, however, was another story.  She’d clipped the cracked pieces of her skull back with large barrettes so that it would stay in place on her head.  Shocked, Howard wondered if it would be enough to convince the officer for whatever purpose his visit required.

Finally, the man nodded. “You look good,” he said. “But can you braid what’s left of your hair back or something?”

Sitting down across from him, she pulled strands of her hair around over her shoulder and began to braid it.  She never spoke.

“Are you quite well now, Tracy?” the scientist inquired when he reintroduced the military official to her. “We don’t want another incident.”

The uniformed man glanced in the scientist’s direction, a questioning expression on his face; it occurred to him that she might have little or no memory of that previous occasion.  Then he gave her a knowing look. “He means when I was last here.  You know, last semester.”

She grinned. “Yes, I remember,” she replied.

Howard was taken aback.  He wondered where this girl’s intelligence and ability to speak and think came from; even more perplexing, how had these scientists succeeded where he had failed?

Through the window, Tracy smiled in a friendly way. “I know where I saw you last,” she said. “You were laying on the ground, protecting that teacher.”

A flush of color filled the uniformed man’s face. 

And of course, there was the scientist and Howard.

“Your men all came outside at once.  You shot me.  Over and over.”

“Are you sure about that, Tracy?” The man looked up and said, “This isn’t working.  She’s still too corpselike.”

The scientist disagreed. “I beg to differ.  Here, feel her arm.  Touch it.”

“I’m not going to touch no dead girl!”

Touch it.  Feel her arm.  See? See how warm her arm is.  Dead people are cold, aren’t they? Feel how warm she is.  A part of her brain is still sending signals to other parts of her body.”

“Get her away from me!”

Suddenly, she shrieked, “It’s the dead teacher! That dead teacher is here…” She pointed toward the door with Howard staring through it. “She wants her old job back!”

“Tracy, she’s not exactly dead.  Now calm down,” the scientist ordered.

“Who’s that?” the uniformed man asked.

“He’s our new substitute,” the scientist replied. “Ms. Wilkins is giving him a go of the place.”

“No, she’s dead!” The zombie girl shouted. “I killed her.  I made the teacher go away.  Now she’ll be back!”

To say that the two men inside were looking horrified by this point was a vast understatement, Howard thought.  From the other side of the door, even his expression was more horrified than before.  The girl was frozen, unable to pull herself away from staring at him, a maniacal little smile repeatedly coming to her lips.  And though the trancelike connection was eventually broken, she seemed to confuse him for this other teacher.

Dorothy put her hand on his shoulder. “She’s a special case,” she said. “We should go.”

Howard moved away from the window.

“How do you keep them so calm?” he asked. “A girl as challenged as that one should have attacked the door the moment she spotted me.”

“Every morning we prep them with mega-dosages of tranquilizers,” Dorothy said. “Their parents must sign confidentiality agreements and permission forms before the administering begins.  And even then, we have a special selection process as to who gets into one of our classes.  Naturally, those we feel are most gifted are bumped up to the top of the list.”

They took the elevator back to the first floor, and it was here, on their way back to the other building, that Howard stopped to gather his thoughts. “Ms. Wilkins, I never signed up for this,” he said. “I realize not all HOS victims are unique, and all cases can’t be alike, but—”

Dorothy shushed him. “Mr. Tressy, did you know that a child’s brain grows until age twenty? After that, adult brains become atrophic and shrink.  A young person’s brain, however, produces a certain amount of cells and neurotransmitters, and often well through college.  Even in death, these kids sometimes maintain serotonin levels equal to living people.” 

“Listen, I’ve taught zombies before, but never within a factory or military science installation.  What could a child, dead or alive, possibly learn in an environment where purple smog and constant monitoring is the everyday norm?”

“Ah, I knew you’d question that,” she said, “and it turned three other teachers off by the position.  The reason we keep this school next to a chemical mill is not by accident.  The discolored remnants you see coming out of that smokestack, the smog as you call it, isn’t just some industrial pollution.  The science team is releasing a mile-wide toxin that gives parents their wishes and children a second chance at life.  We’re giving mothers and fathers peace of mind, and kids the opportunity of learning and adapting to society.  The toxin tries to tap into a dormant cell in young people.  This cell has the potential of multiplying into millions more just like it, only at a slower pace than the living.  A thinking cell.  It doesn’t work for all of them, naturally.  It’s all behavioral when you observe these youngsters together in one room, and you get to look beyond their musty features.  Speech, logic, reason—in the right-fueled environment, undead children can be host once again to these traits, and many more they picked up whilst among the living.  So yes, in a way, they are like guinea pigs.  But we’re trying to help these guinea pigs, because we feel they deserve an education.”

She reached forward and gave his hand a quick, clammy shake for good luck.  Howard was glancing around nervously, but he still regarded the facilitator’s words.  While his take on the school by now was not precisely negative, neither was it positive.  Once more he studied the environment with the kind of unabashed scrutiny not usually tolerated among substitutes.  Every muscle in his body was taut, and when the woman opened the hatch for him, a strange silence followed.  It was almost as if he didn’t know what to do once he stepped back inside the room.

“You’ll be fine,” she said, urging him forward. “You won’t know unless you try.”

The door sealed behind him and, like an hour earlier, he found himself alone with his new class.

The girl with the twisted head and neck, Nancy, walked over to him.  She seemed the most sedate of the bunch. “What should we do, Mr. Teacher?” she asked, looking up and tugging at his pant leg.

He smiled down at her. “Ah, a genuine talker.  Let’s just leave things and get acquainted for today,” he told her, his mind still gazing off. “Perhaps we’ll feel more like learning tomorrow.” After that, he told the students—the ones that could understand, and the ones that couldn’t—that they could put their textbooks away.

He had an idea.

As had long been his custom in special classes, he opened the day with “story time”.  Story time required a book, which he searched the wall in back for; stories traditionally explored areas that persistently got the children thinking, or took them on brave new adventures—an escape from their horrible disfigurements, their cause and effect behaviors, lack of feelings and moral understanding.  The period was not used for problem solving or problem making, but relaxation and fun. 

He was creating a comfort zone and, once at ease, finally realized that he could make a difference in these young people’s lives, no matter what their ailments.  So much that their grunts and moans were replaced by laughs and smiles.

The End

Other New Entries: “Fiction Sample”

Lawrence Dagstine: “The Runaway Hack…”

DING-DING-DING! Hello and welcome, good fans.  How are you today? I’m fine, thank you.  Welcome to FREE SHORT STORY DAY!  Today I figured would be a good time to share a nice ditty.  It’s been a while since I’ve put up a work, which I often do around Halloween.  However, I decided to go this time with something a little bit absurd.  A bit of satire, if you will.  With that said, I hope you enjoy.

Alfocus-NationalLibraryWeekIntroduction539

The Runaway Hack

by

Lawrence R. Dagstine

He was moving into it all again.  It might be a few hours or a full day developing, but the mood rose in him, like compressed air in a tank.  It was a pressure that must move toward an exit.  He looked about.  He looked at the big picture: friends and peers mostly, a few fans and admirers, well-wishers who were wannabes themselves, perhaps a few enemies, and for the rest all wordsmiths.

Wordsmiths were kind of like fucksmiths.  Each had their own prominent place in this highly developed society.  Both fucked things up when the need arise.  The only difference was that the fucksmith was twofold: to have fun and to produce the works that will eventually not earn out.  They will, in turn, each have one other function: to leave the field in a little worse shape than it was or at least aspire to.  That is the history or function of each new generation: fuck it up a little bit more for the next.  Actually, wordsmiths could bleed on paper and still be criticized about the amount they donated.  In the end, they often begged for a rejection letter or a quick, painless death.

I’ve got that bit settled, Jermaine thought.

Much of his life he was looking for a kind of salvation called obscurity, which probably explained why he was always on the run from his profession.  He tended toward a gruesome and descending philosophy when he was moving into despondence.  Actually, when he wasn’t writing short stories, despondency was a chronic part of his nature.  One of the main objects of his days was to keep the subject matter of his stories concealed, for it was the very opposite of the way the world viewed him.  Off the page, audiences figured that he hadn’t a care in the world, and never did and never would have, that he lived for sensationalism alone.  He even told himself the same thing, that he had a great gift for words.  He wanted to live out of a fairy tale where, as someone had put it, there was indescribable bullshit eternally prolonged.  He said it, he tried for it.  He even sold it.  But underneath there were the ideas.  Often this showed on the page; it came out on his face, however, in a sudden set of despair.  Or, he’d fall silent a while and have nothing to say.  And the ideas drifted away from him then, fearing to cross him in all its syntactic glory.

Perhaps that was why he was looking for escape.  Perhaps that was why he was groping his way toward Something Else (and yes, with a capital S and a capital E).  Or maybe it was the repetitions of it that made it unbearable.  To be at a convention or on a panel or at a writing function, with its outer sign of sheer bragging, ostensibly even to the life of the party, and yet inside to be saying to himself that he wished he weren’t there—at all.  Not even alive.

He was alone.  For a washed-up hack, the worst kind of aloneness in the world.  It was a feeling he experienced more and more often, of late, at these special events.  People all about were close-joined, seemingly delighted, and all was well with them.  Then he would find himself on either side, but none opposite.  Renowned as he was in smaller circles, he’d be sitting there by himself, the world moving about him, and he presumably along for the ride.  The voyeuristic kind.

Here was a legion of the destined and doomed.  He spent most of his time at the bar, watching them.  Taking a sip of his brew, he stared up at a sign.  STARCON 34 in moon-streaming colors.  They should have called it NOBODY-CON.  Some would go on to become editors or work for literary agencies.  Some would start indie presses or become poster children for RPG handbooks.  Others would die horrible deaths: being unknown.  But was that such a terrible thing? He saw one poor sap at the door of the dealer’s room wearing Vulcan ears and selling some silly never-before-done novel about space stations that could create suns with smiley faces.  The ridiculous blurbs on the back went as far as to say that the book would put a smile on your face, too.

Each convention it had been like this, sellers pacing back and forth, hours of windmilling about the dealer’s area of some hall or hotel before they could get to work or the customers would arrive to spend their hard-earned dough and pick up their usual merch.  A Star Wars book here, a Limited Edition novella there.  How the devil, Jermaine wondered, could a man in a Predator outfit have such a fat wallet and so many needs and appetites? What kind of an outfit was it that drew things into it like some absorbing tentacled underwear plant? Whatever reason, that was why the writers and dealers were here, to sell books and get insights into this strange being, in whom the rest of the public was so interested.

The man was trying to lure Jermaine further inside, to the point that he’d even give away his whole collection of Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew if he purchased just one book.  It was depressing.  Jermaine wanted to smack some sense into him.  The hotel lobby was filled with about four hundred people: fanboys with lightsabers and battleaxes and sonic screwdrivers, English fangirls in Japanese schoolgirl clothing, age-old scream queens in cheap corsets with terrible boob jobs and God knows how many facelifts, and another poor sap who had starred in one of the Saw pictures.  There had been so many, Jermaine not only forgot the actor’s name but forgot which one.

Then, of course, there were the writers…  Some retired, some semi-retired (which still meant retired).  There were the Grandmasters, and in-between panels, they had to take their Geritol.  There were the editors from the Age of the Flood, and they recounted tales of American Letters that had most people scratching their heads and thinking this all intoxicated drivel.  One man in a King Arthur’s outfit drank from a chalice and read from “The Death of the Old Guard.”  Industry heads disappeared upstairs to hotel rooms for hours.  When they finally returned to the lobby, they said, “That felt great! I’ll see you next convention!”

There were also the newbies.  Some weren’t published, some had a polished hand.  They had set out once with their aspirations and their energies, like young untried actors in Hollywood, and they had a story to tell, and now here they were pitching it.  Out of the two hundred or so of these fools who attended semi-regularly, only a dozen or so would go on to be anything.  Now they were spending airfare and hotel fare to tell the ‘Holier Than Thou’ communities that they’ve constructed worlds, that they’ve created unforgettable characters, that they’ve got the ultimate trilogy! And now they were flaunting it, at agents, at publishers, who smiled and nodded respectfully: “Sounds terribly interesting.  Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

And then, Jermaine knew their secret, he knew what the whole attendance of the convention was doing that day.  It was like a giant black hole swallowing everything up into a pile of computer-generated debris.  At some point he stood stock-still and asked himself, “What the hell am I doing here?” He was doing what a few others were doing: standing or sitting apart thinking.  Perhaps he was not alone after all. “I’m thinking while these other boobs are imagining that they’ve got a future or they’re having a good time.  The only difference is I’m trying to make some sense of it.”

A significant silence followed.

Jermaine no longer asked himself what he was doing there.  He frankly didn’t know, and he didn’t care anymore either.  He swallowed his drink in one gulp.  As a poor writer traveling from place to place, from editor to editor, from small publication to small publication, he discovered the world was seen from billions of varying vantage points.  Or disadvantage points, depending upon each person and what they believed.  His moment of failure just happened to come when he halted to ask himself what he was doing walking the floors of a particular convention.

He understood that writers were a sea at sea.  This convention was a wave on the surface, and only the best of the best—thinkers, wordsmiths, folks with MFAs and top degrees—or those with the right connections managed to get down under a few feet.  He tried to go under from time to time, but he didn’t see or feel much.  More often than not he found himself drowning.  He watched them at their work, for they were working at being productive and making money.  Most were actually having a good time, and that might be sufficient, for they were toiling for the maws of a great beast called legacy.

He sought the opposite now.

Jermaine was suddenly alone at the bar, lost in his reflections.  Those who had gathered about, talking with him, all at once received no answers. “I am just a mere hack,” he said, looking away shamefully, “you don’t want to know me.” After that, they sensed that the poor fellow was in deep thought, and they moved away.

Then a writer-editor he’d talked to on occasion approached. “So which is it this time?” he asked. “Science fiction, fantasy, horror, or that paranormal romance junk?”

Still looking down, Jermaine said, “I dabble.”

The writer-editor felt sorry for him. “What’s really bothering you, Jermaine?”

“Do I look distressed?”

“I’d say so.”

“I am.  I have the feeling the gift is leaving me, the inspiration and gusto just dwindling away.” He smiled, knowing that such a verbal crime would provoke other writer-editors into a fury. “The thing is I kind of like the idea.”

“I don’t get it.  Why, because of deadlines or you’re under strain?”

“Heh! What deadlines?” Jermaine laughed. “When I was a kid genre magazines used to do a lot for me.  I’d buy handfuls of them.  The moment a new issue hit the stands, I was there.  I bought them so often that the act of reading short stories had some kind of impact on me.  It comes back to me from time to time, of its own volition, when I’ve got writer’s block or I’m diddling my own asshole for a forty-dollar check.  Sometimes, late at night I tell myself I don’t want to be famous and I put the computer away.  Sometimes there’s no reason for this at all.  That I can understand.  Go figure.”

“Interesting.”

“That’s not the only thing,” he continued. “I thought it easy and satisfying work, for one thing.  Lately I’ve got a feeling of monotony out of it.  When my fingers grow tired of typing, I am seized with a great discomfort.  I want to hurry outside and do other much livelier things.  When the job is finished and the words THE END stamped, it often seems to me that my hands are still held out though.  I could still feel the puppeteer looking down at me, face contorted and strings being pulled.”

“All writers get those urges from time to time, Jermaine.  We call it the Need, or the Fix.  There are many names, but no faces.  We finish one story, we tackle the next.”

“Well, I’ve refused to go through it again! I’ve had a bitter argument with my conscience, and I’ve seen the light.  Years and years of putting myself through this.  At critical moments, the re-reflection of this pseudo-literary image of myself, typing out a manuscript, watching yet another zombie or vampire story unfold before my eyes.  Sooner or later, the depression comes back.  I saw myself staring at the genre as its prostrate enlarged.  I saw my fingers curving, away from the keyboard over and around to the back door.  And as I prepared to open it, I always felt the heaviness.”

“What’s the point?”

“The point is that the same heaviness is over me now, a fatigue with the critical process.  As if the last yarn is spun.  The artform comes back to me every now and then, but it is blurred, hasty, and it’s a jarring impression.” Jermaine hesitated, then: “With time I have begun to understand what each piece of the story, from page to page, means in my own life.  It has become a twist from fear to stress, fear to stress, round and round.  After each story I write, sometimes before the story, the prostrate gets bigger and the puppeteer laughs harder.  Now I have the same feeling of monotony and pointlessness that pressed on me before the writing is done.”

“It’s an unpleasant image,” the writer-editor remarked with a consoling nod.

“It’s the key to me, my good man, it’s the key!”

“Perhaps.”

“The genre is getting very big now.”

Bloated would be a better word, but when you’ve worked in this business for as long as I have, what can you do?” The writer-editor reflected for a moment. “You know, now that I think about it, I don’t really know anything else either.”

They drank for a time.  They were silent as they knocked down rounds.  They were thoughtful.  Then the writer-editor asked, “What I can’t understand is why you keep working and seem so anxious to get to work.  I should think you’d be a little weary of the grind.  Puppeteers and prostrates aside, do you know why you’re still writing?”

Jermaine gave him a look that concealed what he really thought.  He thought, Real writers are not smart.  Real writers are so goddamned blind and ignorant, it’s a fucking blessing.  But he said, “It’s weird.  I have to write.  If I didn’t write it would all end at once.  Writing is the root of a tree, and if you take away the root the thing on top will fall over.  I’d fall over.  So I write because I write.  Whether I need the money or not.  There is a thing we hacks call Keeping Afloat (and yes, with a capital K and a capital A).  And you do it.  You keep afloat.  I keep afloat with the short stories; the short form is a bladder that holds me up.  Maybe the only time I feel alive and dead is when I write.”

Some of it was true.  The writing ruddered Jermaine, kept him afloat in the sea which shook more and more heavily these days.  Writing was the stabilizer.  He knew it, and like a twenty dollar a day drug addiction, he even escaped from himself when he wrote.  But how long could he keep on at it.  It was not salvation.  And that was what he sought.

“So where do you go from here?” the writer-editor asked. “What now?”

“Peace of mind,” Jermaine answered.

“Ahh, now that’s impossible in this game.  You and I both know that.”

“I don’t think so.  I’ve been yearning for obscurity for quite some time now.”

“But what for?” The writer-editor was confused. “After your death you have the chance to be anthologized.”

“No, I don’t.”

“But your fiction will be archived.”

“No, it won’t.”

“But your work exists, and therefore it is.”

“No, it isn’t.”

The writer-editor was astonished. “Don’t let the Literary Police find out.”

“I could give a damn about Grammar Nazis!” Jermaine shouted.

The whole bar turned around; one Grandmaster spit up his drink.

“Sorry.” Jermaine began again. “I need to walk away from these writing organizations a new man.  I need to turn my back on the politics and step down from these panels once and for all.”

“But how?”

“Through fiction, how else?” He snapped his fingers as if it were that easy. “Fiction got me into this mess, and it’ll get me out.”

“You must be some storyteller then.  You know what’ll happen afterwards, don’t you?”

“Yes, I am fully aware of the consequences.”

The writer-editor shook his head worriedly. “Is this so-called salvation— Let me rephrase that, is this permanent anonymity really worth that much to you?”

“Where sanity is concerned, yes.  It could also mean new growth!”

“But you yourself even said that if you didn’t write the thing on top of the tree would come plunging down!”

“And the moment I leave this convention, my good friend, I snap my fingers and reverse the polarity of my thoughts.  Hopefully, it changes for the better.  If it doesn’t, at least I tried.”

The writer-editor felt overly sentimental.  He shook Jermaine’s hand and patted him on the back. “I wish you good luck in your new life.  I only wish I had the balls to join you.  But I’ve been in this field for over two decades.  I don’t have anything else.  I just have my words.  Flinging myself into obscurity for some kind of deliverance would be too much of a risk on my well being.” He smiled. “I guess I lack the courage of a hack.  At least let me buy you one for the road.”

Jermaine accepted.

When he finished the drink, the author said his goodbyes and headed for the hotel’s automatic sliding doors.  He closed his eyes and inhaled a deep breath.  He looked behind him very briefly… at the boys and girls wielding lightsabers and sonic screwdrivers… at the jolly attendees dressed in Vulcan ears and Viking’s armor… at the Grandmasters and Industry heads immersed in their readings.

Outside he whistled for a cab.  A taxi pulled up directly in front of the building.  He hopped inside.  The cabbie grinned at Jermaine’s reflection in the mirror. “You look like a Jedi Knight in that blanket.  A regular Obi Wan Kenobi.”

“I’ll give you an extra five bucks not to make any comments.”

The cabbie reset the meter. “So where to, old man?”

“Someplace far away.”

The taxi didn’t move. “Where exactly? You’re the author of this tale.”

Jermaine stared out the passenger side window and into the hotel lobby.  All the big writers danced outside the convention hall: wonder and uncertainty, progress and decline.  The bewitcheries of status, ambition, success and poverty rose from their voices.  The goods and evils of the human competition, the demonology of lives spent, misspent, the mystique of literature’s disorder and hope.  Fear of the new, dread of the old.  They were like witches celebrating a Sabbath of chopped-up modern catechisms.

Finally the hack turned around.  He was beaming, his big handsome smile, the one that had won the hearts of amateurs everywhere. “A place called obscurity.  Now step on it.”

The End

Lawrence Dagstine: Hardcore Halloween Story Bash…

HARDCORE HALLOWEEN Story Bash…

HORROR STORY: “Victimizer”

by Lawrence R. Dagstine

Suggested Rating: 18 and Older, for sexual & extreme content.

[“We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones” ]

                                                                       -Stephen King

“VICTIMIZER” by Lawrence R. Dagstine

 

If someone were to ask me if my life has changed dramatically, I’d have to say that it has in only one way, and it came years after my victims requested it.  If they were to ask me what I do for a living, I’d tell them that my job entailed a certain obsession of mine, and I treat my work with great enthusiasm, immersing myself in it.

Who am I? Well, I could be any one of millions of people with occupations just like you, living in any small town or city around the country.  I could be the janitor in your child’s elementary school, the guy who drives the ice cream truck at your neighborhood playground, the man behind the counter at your local video store, or the 7-11 clerk who works the Slurpee machine.  I could even be a police officer retiring soon with a nice pension.  I might have a family that I come home to and love just as much as you—we’re all animals or creatures with carnal desires when you look at the big picture—which kind of makes us no different.  And, walking down any ordinary street, I could be brushing up against your sleeve at this very moment. 

I’m the kind of guy who talks your daughter into taking off her clothes for me before her sweet sixteen and spreads her wide open, just so she’ll be ripe and experienced for her real boyfriend.  I’m the kind of stain on humanity that tells little boys to bend over for me, or push women into dark alleys or doorways late at night.  If society only knew how much I enjoy what I do, they’d throw the book at me.

I’m a swarthy male with a strong, tall, virile frame that causes adult heads to turn and children’s faces to smile whenever I walk by, which makes my work all the easier.  A healthy, muscular body that is the envy of all the male eyes that stare at it just as much as the female ones, and a pinpoint of forbidden desire and mystery to those who welcome it.  During the night, however, I prowl the streets and nightclubs, looking for someone to break up the monotony of wanting something I cannot have.  And if I don’t look for it in the club scene by night, then I hunt for it in the schoolyards by day.

I remember that cool spring evening a few months ago, thinking I might just yet find it.  But all I found were lonely people searching for the same thing, and me, I’m rather picky.  There had been plenty of overtures for sex from both males and females, but I had concluded that I was more or less impotent for the evening.  I was positive that any sexual contact after Rebecca would be anti-climactic, so I almost ignored all attempts to catch a new victim’s attention.

Ah yes, thirteen-year-old Rebecca Wenderschmidt.  The little after-school Lolita with the perfect puberescent tits and ass.  She rocked my world, and always for a piece of candy; talk about innocence lost.  The only time I had really lived was when I was fucking her.  And that had been more than once and only for hours.  Hours out of years of not living, and yet those minutes far outweighed the years before her.  They were far heavier, far greater.  More seductive.  And I still had trouble shaking her from my head. 

Rebecca had never been in complete command of my brain until I killed her and chopped her up into little pieces.  I drove out to the wilderness and dumped her body parts in the swamp.  I had to.  She said she was going to tell her mother in detail about all the things we had done together.  Soon afterwards, I started thinking about her all the time, and whenever I saw other girls her age, suddenly her ghost was there.  That perfect image, grinning back at me.

Rebecca had been a study of passion every time I got a hotel room with her: wide-eyed and openmouthed, her young lips searching for mine, her tongue acting as if it had a mind of its own.  She tickled and licked me in all the spots I knew were arousal zones, and a few others a girl her age should not have known about until she finally touched and found them out.

She always insisted on undressing me, tugging at my clothes with a fury until she managed the T-shirt off my back.  But no apologies ever came and instead, she wrapped her skinny arms around my chest and explored my muscles with her lips and tongue, biting me around the nipples and neck as we toppled backwards on the bed. 

Always holding on to me with one arm, she slipped the other between our bodies and undid my belt and pants so she could push her small hand all the way in; sometimes I thought she was more of a predator than me.  Her fingers tickled my throbbing penis and gently caressed it with the touch of talented experience—that was the part that got me.  Gently, tenderly, yet sensually, they ran up and down my shaft, causing it to bulge against my clothes.  Bulge and throb until it was about to burst through them.  Then she’d let go and ease off me, and I’d tear at her Catholic school outfit while I slipped out of my pants and boxers. 

I really thought things would never be the same after Rebecca, until I spotted the woman in the trendy restaurant.  She wasn’t thirteen, or eighteen, or even twenty-one.  Perhaps thirty-five, but she looked like the kind of female I could connect with.  Small, tanned, and almost frail looking.  With finely-honed muscle power hidden in her long legs and slender but shapely body, she stimulated urges in me.  Urges that I assumed had died in that swamp with Rebecca.  Desires that had been ripped apart and burned in a turpentine-filled garage.  It wasn’t that she resembled Rebecca, though she did, but what turned me on was the vengeful “fuck me hard” look that glittered out of her dark eyes.  Rebecca had had that same appealing radiance.  That “I’m ready for what you are” type of attitude.  So I moved in.

Later, back at the hotel I had used for the hundreds just like her, she told me her name was Sally, and that she was a nymphomaniac. “Sally,” I said, playing with the name softly between my lips. “I like that.  I like that you’re a sex addict, too.” Smiling back at me, her long legs curled seductively as she wiggled to get comfortable on the bed.  She had been an enjoyable partner during dinner, a perfect drinking buddy afterwards and now, staring at her, I admitted I liked the way she coiled on the bed, making her slim but supple body fit the contours of the mattress and pillows. 

I liked the way her medium breasts hung and wriggled when she laughed, and I loved the way she undressed me with her eyes as if I was her victim.  The same, dark eyes that were now glued on me as I dropped ice cubes into a glass and washed them down with scotch.  Swirling the cubes in the glass, I felt her eyes slowly creep up and down my body, exploring the muscles and bulges just as Rebecca had.  Her eyes had a way of caressing a man’s frame, lighting the fire that burned until it was extinguished by an orgasm. 

Without looking back, I switched off the light.  Streaks of soft moonlight played in her hair and around the curves of her body so that even the shadows seemed to beckon me, call me to the bed.  Begging for satisfaction as well as demanding the right to give satisfaction. 

Unbuckling my belt with one hand, I watched as she placed her empty glass on the nightstand and settled back against the pillows.  I wondered when I had last seen such perfect tits.  There were so many victims, it was hard to tell between pairs.  But Sally, no.  Hers were soft and alluring, not too spongy for her age.  They hung like half-inflated balloons.  Large but not so big that they swayed back and forth like pendulous parodies.  Full, lush breasts that were white, matching her white buttocks, and presenting a stark contrast to the rest of her tanned body.  Then I remembered.  Rebecca had had breasts like that.  Proportioned for her body and age.  The image of Rebecca settled in my stomach like cold fire again, and I tried to shake the memory with several quick swallows of alcohol that burned my throat and watered my eyes, as I finally stepped out of my pants and shorts.

By the time I wriggled next to Sally, Rebecca was in possession of my every thought.  The woman wrapped her arms around me, pressing her wet, warm lips against mine; it was Rebecca who I was embracing and kissing.  It was Rebecca’s tits I fondled.  And it was Rebecca whom I was soon going to melt into as I shared a few moments of my existence.  Shared them with a ghost.

When it came to my prey, I was never much of a kisser.  I always tried to avoid a victim’s lips, so it was awkward trying to kiss her back.  However, I surrendered to the images of Rebecca flitting in and out of my mind.  She wouldn’t stay dead and the vibrant, moaning woman became that little girl to me all over again.  She offered me everything I had eliminated a few months before.

My tongue found hers and my fingertips glided over her body, pinching and tickling at the right spots until she groaned deeply in her throat and frantically searched for my cock.  Finding it, she wriggled out of my grasp and slid down so her lips could explore my bulging shaft.  Flicking the head back and forth, she murmured something incoherent.  She stopped licking to suck all of it into her throat; even the way she blew me was reminiscent of Rebecca. 

As my penis slid between those lush lips, I couldn’t hold back a single moan of pleasure.  Squirming and twisting the woman, I moved her around so I could match her sucking and begin playing with her clitoris between my tongue.  She quivered several times and raked her nails over my backside.  She sucked me in deeper and deeper until I thought there was no end to the depth of her mouth.  Several more eternities of oral stimulation continued with each groaning in the moonlight.

Then, as if on cue, I stopped.  I swung her around to kiss her face and lips, squeezing her so hard that her breath rasped out in tiny but happy jerks.  As I squeezed, she worked her hand in between them.  When her fingertips touched my penis again, she grabbed it and slowly jerked it back and forth, signaling me to back away slightly.  Enough so she could guide me in.

Grabbing her shoulders, I buried my face in the soft hollow of her neck and began pumping furiously.  She kept in tune and timed her movements to mine.  When she caught onto the rhythm, we moved in perfect unison and became one entity.  One being intent on experiencing the too-short shimmer of the orgasm.  The shimmer that began suddenly at the base of our spines. 

Moving her on her back, I felt her legs tighten around my waist; the strength of the woman was amazing.  Her scissors grip actually hurt, but again, it was an exquisite pain that just made me want more.  And I got more as I pumped harder.  Harder.  And harder.  Until I was ramming into Sally as viciously as I could. 

Her nails and teeth dug into me in a number of places too numerous to count and too pleasurable to care; she kept struggling for more sites to leave her mark as the ultimate pain hit us both at the same time.  The ultimate pain of being on the edge of cumming.  On the rim but not yet there.  Though it was only a few seconds until we exploded through both of our bodies, it seemed like hours as we pulled and pumped, tugged and kissed, moaned and squirmed. 

Finally, we were swallowed by the pleasure of our mutual climax.  We both drifted off in a dreamy, blissful release—floating, until we settled back to our slice of earth and time, relaxing and tasting the sweet sweat of our ecstasies speckling both our bodies.  Me and Rebecca’s old proxy.

We remained locked together, listening to each other’s hearts pounding away.  I became scared that my heavy bulk might be too much for her slightly built frame.  I reluctantly broke free.  She sighed when I pulled out.  Still half-hard, I whispered, “That was fantastic.  Again.”

Chuckling, I tried to penetrate her a second time; my half-erect penis slid in without any trouble.  As soon as our pubic areas intermingled, she began gyrating in a slow circle, working her hips in perfect timing.  She nipped at my neck and stimulated me all over again.  My once-quelled emotions were soon back to full erection, pumping back with violent rammings of my own.  This time the climax took longer but it was as sweet and soothing as the first one.  Still, it was exciting enough where I’d lost control of my biting, stopping only when she yelped in pain.

I began to act more sadistic towards her, giving her a slap here and a smack there, and she seemed to enjoy it.  Just like Rebecca used to.  However, the only difference was Sally seemed uncomfortable with me inside her while doing it.  When I pulled out she didn’t object.

Standing, I was pleased to see her legs quivering.  I went to the room’s wobbly-legged servicing table.  She skipped into the bathroom while I made more drinks.  When she came out, she looked as refreshed as when I had first spotted her in the restaurant.  Cool, placid, pleased with herself and aflame with the desire to try anything.

She took the drink I offered and put it down, then curled up next to me on the bed, like Rebecca used to, making me decide that I’d never be able to get enough of her supple body moving effortlessly into any position she wanted.  Never.  She took two cigarettes out of her purse on the nightstand and, lighting both, placed one between my lips.  I took a deep drag and, removing it, let the smoke dribble out of my mouth while I stroked her shoulder with my lips.  Her long, auburn hair tickled the back of my neck.

“She must have been one hell of a girl,” she finally said in a hushed voice.

“Huh?” I almost choked on my saliva.

“The girl you just made love to.”

“You mean fucked.”

“No, I mean loved.”

I frowned as if I didn’t know what she was talking about, but she just laughed at my efforts, the moonlight making her features even more fragile, but also questionable.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. “I’m with you.”

“Don’t play stupid,” she laughed. “I’ve been around long enough to know when a man is screwing me or some other girl.  I can feel that connection, and I know when things are off.  Either a younger lady from his past or one he hasn’t found yet.  There’s a subtle difference but most experienced women can tell.”

Her pert features grew more serious as she added, “I figure you don’t just dream about that certain someone and so you went out and found that love, like some predator.  And then you fucked up.  You let your obsessions get in the way, and you lost her.”

I sipped my scotch nervously and said, “Look, I had a wonderful time.  But I’m sorry, I have no idea—”

“Shh.  Don’t apologize,” she interrupted, hushing me with a delicate finger placed against my lips. “Don’t ever be sorry you found what most people frantically search for all their lives, and don’t ever make excuses.  No matter what kind of girl she was, or how old she was, be grateful you had some playtime with her.  Even if it was only one time, that’s one time more than the majority of the human race has to offer.”

Stunned by her empathy, and the way she read me and knew me so well, I stared at her and she smiled back.  For a quick moment it crossed my mind that she might have been a cop, or she might have known what I did in my off time.  My sickness, my fetish; call it what you will.  She might have very well known I had spent the last twenty years raping, sodomizing, molesting, and victimizing my own fears away on countless others.  Then again, she could have been just like me.  Only more striking, more ambiguous. 

Looking away from her, I said, “Yeah, well, when I picked you up, I wasn’t looking for a lifetime partner.  Just an evening of fun and pleasure.  Just something to control these urges.”

“When you picked me up?” she asked. “I thought I had picked you up.” She shook her head and laughed. “Good old male chauvinistic bullshit at work again.  No man picks up a woman unless she wants him to.  And I wanted you to.”

“That’s hilarious!” Then I chuckled and asked, “Even if it was to be a substitute for a shadow from my past?”

For some reason that seemed to hurt her and, at the time, I wanted to reach out and snatch back my feeble attempt to be amusing—like I said, at the time—but her words had already registered in her mind and I was helpless to do anything about them, as a pained expression flitted across her face.  The hurt look soon faded and was replaced with the glint of enjoying each other’s company.  Not minding having to take it as it came.  She kissed my shoulder in the moonlight and began massaging my testicles while we both agreed silently to forget everything. 

“Tell me about her,” she finally said.

“Why?”

“Just curious,” she remarked casually, that hurt skidding in and out of her eyes in a blink again.  However, the tone was slightly more inquisitive. 

At first, I did not want to tell her about Rebecca.  I had wanted to keep my statutory love and what it had meant to me inside my head, and selfishly hoard it from the world.  Even from one other person.  Even if she was dead and I couldn’t get over the fact that I was the one who killed her. 

I found myself babbling; I also found myself unusually drowsy. “Her name was Rebecca Wenderschmidt,” I began and she giggled.

“Really?” She began to tighten her hold around my nuts.

“Really,” I insisted, not really irked at her laughing at Rebecca’s name. “She was a…” I stopped and stared at Sally for a brief moment before I continued, “I could explain her to you, I guess, but unless you’re the kind of person I am and really felt it for yourself, you wouldn’t understand why it hurts so much.”

That sad look blinked alive again, and I realized what I was seeing in her expression.  She wasn’t angry or jealous.  She was empathic because she, too, had been envisioning an image of someone close to her.  Someone she had loved.  Someone she had lost. 

“She’s dead, isn’t she?” she asked suddenly.

“What?”

“What I mean is—” She began again. “Well, it’s just that you don’t impress me as the type of man who would let a girl you loved so much walk away from you.  And you’re too habitual to waste that kind of love.  So, she has to be dead.”

But her last remark didn’t ring true to me, and I began seeing through her little act with great suspicion. “You’re in a questionable mood,” I said.

“Is she dead?” she asked again, squeezing my balls harder.

“Why is that so important?” I knew the answer but refused to tell her.

“I want to know.  Is my daughter dead?”

Staring at her half-visible form in the soft moonlight, my mouth dropped in complete awe. “You mean, you’re…you’re…”

“Rebecca’s mother? Yeah, I’m Sally Wenderschmidt.  And I’ve been looking for my little girl for an awfully long time.  My baby still hasn’t come home.”

My eyes suddenly closed and I fell backwards off the bed.  I hit the hotel room floor with a great thud, as the strange drowsiness from moments earlier took full control of my body. “Wh… What did you do to me?” I muttered incoherently. 

I couldn’t get up for the life of me.  My vision was blurry, and I could only see a shapely female silhouette, slowly rising from the bed to put on her bra and panties. 

“I drugged your glass when we first checked in,” Sally said.

“What the fuck! You drugged me?” I heard her going into her purse.

“Yeah, I drugged you.  I picked you up, I screwed you, and now I’m going to find out the truth.  Only the truth will set you free.”

“But how? How did you know all those moves in bed? How did you relate to me so well?”

“Because my daughter told me about you.  She told me what you did to her.  She told me what you liked having done to you.  And she told me what kind of a sick monster you really are.” Sally laughed as she came around the bed and knelt over me with a sharp glimmering object. “Just another sexual deviant who can’t get enough.  So easy to victimize others, but oh so scared when they find themselves on the receiving end.”

“Please, don’t kill me,” I pleaded.

“I’m not going to kill you.  I just want to know… Is my daughter dead?”

Before I could answer her, the swirling blackness from whatever she had drugged me with had taken over.  But then she probably already knew the answer.

After that, the next time I awoke the sun was shining down upon me through rectangular slits in the room’s windows, and I was wearily tossing on the floor.  I sucked in a double lungful of air and found myself alone, staring up at the ceiling.  The blank, empty, white ceiling that resembled my life and that symbolized my existence pre-Rebecca and now post-Sally.

Like I said, the only time I had really lived was when I was fucking the woman’s daughter.  And that had been more than once and only for hours.  Hours out of years of not living, and yet those minutes far outweighed the years before her.  They were far heavier, far greater.  More seductive.  And to this very day, I still have trouble shaking both of them from my head. 

I got up and walked over to the mirror and blinked tears out of my eyes and wondered why I was so emotional.  That night, with Sally, I didn’t want to think of Rebecca or any of my past victims.  Not once.  I was hoping the scar tissue would heal the wound her death had left upon me, and the wound her mother had left.

So if somebody were to ask me if my life has changed dramatically, I would have to say it has in only one way.  Then I’d pull down my pants and tell them to look at where my privates used to be, and I’d say that they disappeared because one of my victim’s parents requested it…

 

The End 

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