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. 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…

The Martian Wave, Collector’s Issue… (Now Available!)

Welcome to 2010.  For a decade it started off as a small webzine within the confines of cyberspace, publishing many of today’s familiar SF poets and short story authors… Well, it’s finally here.  The premiere print issue of the highly anticipated Sam’s Dot Pub: THE MARTIAN WAVE.  I am honored to have a story in the premiere issue among such names.  Get it now.  This first issue has a superb cover by Laura Givens and is bound to sell out either online or at Sam’s Dot Publishing attended conventions.  Now a semi-annual magazine! Rejoice!

PREMIERE ISSUE! PREMIERE ISSUE!

THE MARTIAN WAVE Issue #1 – Collector’s Edition!

The Martian Wave - Premiere PRINT issue

ORDER YOUR COLLECTOR’S ISSUE HERE:

http://www.genremall.com/zinesr.htm#tmw

THE MARTIAN WAVE INFORMATION PAGE:

http://www.samsdotpublishing.com/tmw/main.htm

SAM’S DOT PUBLISHING HOMEPAGE:

www.samsdotpublishing.com

FEATURING: Steve De Beer, Tyree Campbell, Dan Thompson, Keith P. Graham, Patty Jansen, Bret Tallman, Rick Novy, Shelly Bryant, Justin Bohardt, s.c. Virtes, Marge Simon, and Lawrence Dagstine.  Edited by J. Alan Erwine.

Other New Entries: “Magazines”

The Martian Wave, Premiere Issue… (Coming Spring 2010)

A little reminder that The Martian Wave, edited by J. Alan Erwine and put out by Sam’s Dot Publishing, will be coming out spring 2010.  There’s the old banner below, back when, for about ten years, The Martian Wave was a quarterly webzine of interplanetary stories, space opera, astronaut tales, and fiction about intergalactic exploration.  That was always the central theme.  I appeared in the old Martian Wave about five, maybe six times, and it’ll be real nice to see it now in its much fuller form, and as a semi-annual print magazine.  Intended line-up below!

The Martian Wave – Summer 2010

After ten years – Now an upcoming print magazine

To be published semi-annually by Sam’s Dot Publishing:

www.samsdotpublishing.com

PREMIERE ISSUE LINE-UP… THUS FAR:

Adaptor by Steve de Beer
Bypassed by Shelly Bryant
Prize Crew by Dan Thompson
The Barren Wastes by Justin Bohardt
The Reefs of Jove by Keith P. Graham
another pit for sale by s.c. virtes
Luminescence by Patty Jansen
A Hollander’s Secret Weapon: 1609 by Marge Simon
Into the Silence Flies a Moth by Bret Tallman
Hindsight by Marge Simon
The Pillars of Europa by Rick Novy
The Great Martian Depression by Lawrence R. Dagstine

First Issue Cover Art by Laura Givens

 

Other New Entries: “Magazines” 

FRESH BLOOD by Lawrence Dagstine… (PDF and E-Format!)

My 2009 debut short story collection, FRESH BLOOD, filled with 160 pages of dark science fiction stories and twisted horror tales is now coming to PDF/e-Format.  You can get it from one of the largest RPG retailers on the Web. DriveThruRPG.com! Or, for just a few dollars more, you can splurge for the print copy and see what all of last summer’s buzz was about. Just do a search for “Sam’s Dot Publishing”.  It might take a while for the publisher’s page to go up.

Vampires * Zombies * Ghosts * Giant Lizards * Alternate Universes

FRESH BLOOD: TALES FROM THE SPECULATIVE GRAVEYARD

Published by Sam’s Dot Publishing

Author: Lawrence R. Dagstine

FRESH BLOOD in PDF/E-Format - ISBN: 978-0-9819696-2-6

Order the PDF or e-Version for upload to your readers at… DriveThruRPG.com:

www.drivethrustuff.com

For a little more, the softcover version at The Genre Mall:

http://www.genremall.com/anthologiesr.htm#freshblood

Fresh Blood by Lawrence Dagstine - PRINT VERSION

Other New Entries: “Books & Anthos”