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!
Science Fiction Serial Part One
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.”
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.
“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.”
“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?”
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.