Science Fiction Anthologies: “Visions VII Universe” – edited by Carroll Fix

You can find a science fiction story of mine in the new Visions Anthology (and last in the series, by editor Carroll Fix and Rogue Star Press). VISIONS VII: UNIVERSE. Available in a nice thick trade paperback for $19.95, or as an ebook on Kindle or venues like Smashwords for about $4.99. A plethora of great stories by familiar science fiction short story names, all compiled into one 260 page book. This anthology focuses on the theme of “faraway universes” and the “human race.” Our roles within it. I’ll put more details below, along with the author lineup, and any necessary book cover photos and where-to-buy links (which you can click on and be redirected). So just scroll down.

Visions VII

VISIONS VII: UNIVERSE

SCIENCE FICTION ANTHOLOGY

Edited by Carroll Fix

AMAZON (Kindle or Paperback): https://www.amazon.com/Visions-VII-Universe-Carrol-Fix/dp/1945646284/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1505934894&sr=1-1&keywords=visions+vii

ROGUE STAR PRESS

SMASHWORDS: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/741648

VISIONS VII AUTHOR LINE-UP:

Doug Souza

William Huggins

Jason Lairamore

W. A. Fix

Gustavo Bondoni

John A. Frochio

Leigh Kimmel

Margaret Karmazin

Lorraine Schein

Jonathan Shipley

Lisa Timpf

Mike Adamson

Mary Madigan

Darrel Duckworth

Neil Davies

Elana Gomel

Lawrence Dagstine

John M. Floyd

S.M. Kraftchak

Robert J. Mendenhall

Nick Manzolillo

Tom Olbert

Visions VII selfie

The following below is excerpted from the Visions website for promotional purposes.

The Visions Series tells the story of how humanity must ultimately venture outward from our tiny home and explore the Universe.

Visions VII: Universe, the final volume, opens the doors to incredible possibilities for the race called Human. We venture into realms where the impossible becomes fact.

Visions VII: Universe

Final anthology in the Visions Series.
The Visions series tells the story of how humanity must ultimately venture outward from our tiny home and explore the Universe. Visions: Leaving Earth, the first volume, describes our first faltering steps to rise from Earth’s surface and build homes in space. Visions II: Moons of Saturn confirms humankind’s success in leaving Earth and building homes in the other planetary systems circling our sun-father Sol. Visions III: Inside the Kuiper Belt proclaims domination of all that dwells within the solar system—from our Sun to the outermost reaches of the Kuiper Belt and into the Oort Cloud. Visions IV: Space Between Stars astounds us with the infinite possibilities of adventure and danger far from any suns or planets— in the cold, dark regions of deepest space, where dark matter and nebulas of celestial gases abide. Visions V: Milky Way leads us to explore our own galaxy. Although vast and unreachable with current technology, the Milky Way is but a tiny point in the Universe. We must first learn about our own home galaxy before we can explore further outward to other galaxies. Visions VI: Galaxies follows human progress into other galaxies. Humankind survives to spread across the Universe, making distant galaxies and planets into a home for a race destined to seek horizons ever more far away.

Visions VII: Universe
Series: Visions
Paperback: 260 pages
Publisher: Rogue Star Press (August 2017)
Language: English
POD ISBN-10: 1-945646-28-4  ISBN-13: 978-1-945646-28-7
EPUB ISBN-10: 1-945646-29-2 ISBN -13: 978-1-945646-29-4
MOBI ISBN-10: 1-945646-30-6 ISBN-13: 978-1-945646-30-0

Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
Spine Width: 0.71640  in
Weight: 1.019  lbs

 

New Entries: “Appearances, Books & Anthos”

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 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…