Science Fiction Serial Part 3
First Draft – Follow it from the beginning…
Orphan’s Prey 1: https://lawrencedagstine.com/2010/04/20/free-sf-serial-orphans-prey-pt-1-by-lawrence-dagstine/
Orphan’s Prey 2: https://lawrencedagstine.com/2010/06/10/free-sf-serials-orphans-prey-pt-2-by-lawrence-dagstine/
Who are the Vendragon?
So self-assured, she was, only hours earlier. So brave and self-confident. So virtuous and independent at the right moments, yet obviously weak during others.
She suddenly found herself pressing her hands to the sides of her head—she’d never done something like this in front of her brother—almost sick with discomfort. She saw the expression on the boy’s face, then her own, only in her mind’s eye, weak, scared, unprotected, and she realized once more that they were just small children, incapable of much, and just how alone they really were.
A rather large, muscular, adobe-colored lizard was awakened that same night by what sounded like distant explosions. From behind the controls of his land scout, the startled iguana with the reddish-brown leather armor and twaddle-speaking tongue realized it was thunder reverberating among the low cumulus that was some hundreds of miles wide. There was the pitter-patter of rain pellets on the vehicle’s front looking glass and hood. A break in the drought? No, couldn’t be; Ragnarok should only be so lucky this time of year. All the water in the universe couldn’t fix that recurrent problem, only toss it a band-aid. Hence the greenhouses, pipelines, and special sprinkler system back at the city. Fog clouds approaching? Maybe. It was a more logical bet. In sandy, mountainous regions like this, a heavy thunderstorm or methane-mixed hail shower could be an isolated occurrence or a signal that a new front was moving in—or yet another unwanted season. Whichever it was, the lizard was glad he was snug inside his tracker rather than camped out in a dry marsh or deep desert valley where the storm was picking up speed and strength. As for how bad conditions would get, he’d just have to wait and see.
“Fog billows?” asked a similar life form from a standard operating panel in the rear. Unlike the front of the vehicle, there were no visual systems or radar maps or even a looking glass to peer out of. Compared to his much taller partner, this reptile’s armor was grayish steel, the portions of scaly flesh that was visible a mustard tone.
The tongue-tied lizard at the wheel of the land scout looked at his weather gauge. “With precipitation like this”—when he talked his mouth didn’t always move but, rather, an electronic chest unit with a flashing orb flickered—“what else could it be?”
“The way you study natural features,” his friend remarked, “I would have thought something more exciting. Whatever your definition of exciting is. You know, Koral, I’m quite surprised you never applied for an Earth visa. You show a certain kind of enthusiasm for your work.”
Their vernacular wasn’t perfect, the interpretive English and back and forth chitchat a bit skidded; but the chest units helped immensely with vocabulary and pronunciation.
“You mean neurotic?” Koral’s tongue lashed out in slight irritation.
“Mmm, that’s the word. A human term, too. I’d bet my green farm that Earth scientists would have adored you.”
“Funny, Bakkra,” he laughed. “I don’t know whether to pat you on the gills for your clever perceptions of me—because I am mostly used to your cynicism—or just go ahead and collect my winnings now. Heh! And here I thought only the man-droid was able to understand me.” There was a brief pause. “Speaking of which, the synthetic one has not returned or communicated back with our lovely package.”
“He’s a robot. Robots are late, too, you know.”
“Not this robot. I was the one the manufacturers hunted down and finally sold to. I was the one guiding him through the wastes.”
“You seem concerned, and tired. Should we call off the search?”
“No. Not yet.”
“They’re that important to you, huh?”
“Yes. That important.” Koral leaned back in his metal chair and let the ravaging elements unfold before him, while keeping a close eye on the overhead gauges and monitor for something else.
Lightning flashed some more. The alignment of the bolts, shooting outward from the cumulus in all directions, reminded the lizard of the storm chasing he undertook in his youth; after three hundred and sixty years, one begins to feel old but still take pleasure in the eccentricities of the past.
Thunderstorms in the wastelands of Ragnarok were forever awesome displays of limitless power, he thought, sometimes releasing energy many times greater than the atomic explosion range. Hailstorms derived of methane were a whole other story. Still, he knew if you were close to either one, or became trapped in the very center of a fog cloud, there was about them a personal quality. It was dramatic and inescapable. It was terrifying but vivid, as if every sudden flash, every strong gust of wind, and every simultaneous explosion that crackled and boomed were seeking you out; after all, it really sought no one else. The lightning came in multitudes and blinded you. The thunder wreaked havoc on your ears and deafened you. The ice-cold rains came down heavily and drowned you. And on the open plains, the sand-filled wastes, and in hanging valleys of crystal and rock, there was no place to take refuge.
The snow, which frequently becomes spot blizzards with reckless currents of air beyond gale force, could also be merciless and astonishing in its ferocity. Large, lazy flakes drifting down at first, touching the ground and melting instantly. But in minutes the fall becomes thicker, more rigid, and the wind-whipped mess pummels the landscape. The temperature drops rapidly. Marshes and gullies turn in the twinkling of an eye to great streams of half-frozen mud, which then later break apart from those very same winds and become torrents, rushing steeply downhill unintended, catching up loose rocks, Yurga bush, even boulders. Other times, the mud is uplifted and snatched from their channels, as if by some godly hand. Then it is flung into the air with impending force, thus turning it into hail during its whirl around the cloud formations and falling with a shrapnel effect down upon lower elevations of land. In the midst of the mud particles, an unscented methane composite, laid bare to Ragnarok’s wrath and planetary nature to do whatever mixing and mashing it likes. Once it falls back down again, hardened and in hail form, it wreaks of the most terrible odor, which can be inhaled up to hundreds of miles away.
Koral always remembered the cloud masses beginning somewhere in the high mountains, never the desert regions or marshlands, and in an almost tentative fashion. Always the highest escarpments, always the greatest plateaus. Perhaps that was what made the seasonal irregularities so peculiar, so unrelenting in their expansive devastation. And you never expected a season to change so fast or, unintentionally, drive through one. Not unless it was closely monitored or regarded from a distance.
From within the land scout, and up along a high altitude, the now-dozing lizard found such an effect magical. A swirling, shifting pattern of light, eventually graying, then dulling and, finally, obscuring. Precipitation from some disturbance in the planet’s magnetic field eventually conjured up the surrounding fog—yes, that had to be it—but he couldn’t be certain. Neither could his people. It was just another mystery of the planet, passed down from generation to generation, and his hypothesis was open to much conjecture. Sometimes there was a break; usually there wasn’t. Sometimes it revealed uncharted peaks, gorges and canyons, and the Vendragon Township far below, often untouched by the gathering clouds and coming storm.
At times he found such atmospheric wonder indescribable. He often used worlds populated by humans as a comparison: where Earth’s seasons changed over the course of months, the cycles on Ragnarok could change within minutes if not mere seconds. He used these comparisons in his teachings. The Vendragon, whose society already flourished in ways early human colonies had, achieved much knowledge and experience from it. They took it with them wherever they went; though formally a tribal race, that and available technology became a handed down tradition.
Finally the lizard’s thoughts were interrupted by a voice on the overhead speaker. “Hey, storm chaser! Come in, chaser! What are you chasing after now? Over.”
“Apparently little boys and girls,” Bakkra hollered from the back. “Ain’t that right, Koral?”
The man-sized iguana turned and shot his mustard-colored friend a filthy glance. “Do you mind?” His chest unit flared bright red.
The speaker chimed again: “Check. Fog clouds reach you yet? Over.”
“Affirmative,” he answered. “Unpredictable weather surrounding just about everything. All within close proximity of the vehicle, at least, otherwise cloud-to-ground. Too soon to tell. Just beginning. Over.”
“I’m sure the young ones are all right,” the speaker crooned; the voice on the other side tried to be reassuring.
“What makes you think I was worried about that? Over.”
“Have any of our friends made an appearance?” An intense silence followed.
Bakkra was about to say something smart when Koral turned and shushed him. “The man-droid has still not reported back, and no,” he said. “No activity or other signs of life in the region. Over.”
“Oh, well, still armor yourself. This storm system reading is immense from our side. We’re going to catch it for good and for sure, and there’s an airstream behind it. First snow and ice, then rain and wind, heavy at times. Even at your elevation.”
“Trust me. We’ve already felt the thunder.”
“Thunder is nothing.” The communicator cut off for what seemed like two, maybe three seconds, followed by unusual static. “We may lose… you if… you go any… higher,” the voice continued brokenly. “You been feeling tremors? Over.”
“Negative.” Koral flipped a few switches on the overhead panel and fixed the glitch. “Unless there’s something I don’t already know or you’re not telling me. Over.”
“Hmm, well, we’re still sending two extra rovers your way. Over.”
“Helpful, Ooglad, but Bakkra and I are all right. Over.”
“Listen, Koral, I know it’s just a random search, and this cloud build-up is like all the other occasions, but let’s be honest here, you can use all the help you can get.” A brief pause, and then: “Small stuff, under four on the quake register, with sand-shocks set well outside your perimeter. But why turn down a free assist? Over.”
“Thanks, Ooglad, but no thanks. Out.” Koral switched off the communicator.
Bakkra was the one with the smug look now. “What did you do that for? You’d have to be mad to turn down a rescue and assist in conditions like this.”
“We don’t need it. We’ll just stay the night. The storm will pass, like those before it.”
“For all you know those children might already be dead! Your droid’s bleeper would have picked them up kilometers ago. This, my friend, is just suicide!”
“Really, Bakkra? How so?” Koral leaned back in his seat once more. “Does this also mean I’m forcing you to commit suicide with me? Because I do occasionally entertain the thought.”
“I guarantee you these children are already worm food or some other kind of beast droppings!”
“I say you’re wrong.” The lizard was terribly amused. “For once in your pathetic existence, don’t be such a coward. Part of our race’s survival depends on these two kids. We’ve weathered fog clouds before, and knowing how Ooglad thinks, he’ll most likely still send out that extra patrol regardless of what I say. He’s crazy and neurotic, too.”
“You’re right,” Bakkra said. “For once you are very right. That young reptile is paranoid and foolish like you. But I am not.” Gathering his things, he went on, “I don’t plan on staying here with you. So, if you will not wait for the assist and accept it, then I will. They’ll give me a ride back to the city, while you stay out in the hail to wither and die.”
He was prepared to slide open the door and exit the vehicle when Koral jumped up and stopped him. “Oh no, my friend. You are not leaving this tracker.” The lizard made his presence felt; the air suddenly became hostile and serious. “Not while I am in charge. I say we weather the storm, investigate these hills and cliffs, and that is final!”
“Let go of the door, Koral. Things could get messy in a very confined space.”
Lightning flashed just outside; the crackling sound was ear-piercing. Koral shook it off. Then he released his massive-sized hand from the door’s grip. “Go ahead,” he said. “I’d ask you to be reasonable but I think you and I both know we are beyond that now.”
The mustard-toned reptile reconsidered. “The only reason you are being this way is because of what happened to Arim. You’re scared you’ll have to live through a repeat.” There was a brief silence, significant, and followed by what seemed like an even more emotional reawakening. “Your puny brain might not realize it, because it’s crammed deep inside your subconscious—yes, one of your human terms—waiting for the chance to be exposed, waiting for the opportunity to be expressed, and aired in permanent relief.” Then Bakkra put his things down and took two steps back. “There is a cause to your neuroses, Koral. I see this. Ooglad sees this. The whole tribe sees this! They worry about you. They can see right through your armor, the pain you are suffering, the empty feelings you sometimes emit. You leave the camps and city grounds to study the conditions out here, bury yourself in your research. This is your means of escape. But because Arim perished and you suffer does not mean others need suffer as well.”
Koral did not reply. Instead, he returned to the front of the vehicle, strapped himself back into his metal chair, and peered silently out of the looking glass.
Bakkra went on, “I will not go. I will return to my station. This is a very strong storm formation we are dealing with here. Hopefully, your instincts are right this time. I also pray you will not be blinded by pride again. This stubbornness needs to subside.”
Koral blocked the rest of what he had to say out and stared up at the overhead panels in dismay. Eventually he closed his eyes and, with the ease of long practice in strange places, went immediately off to dozing again. In a few hours he would see what effects of the storm he could find, and if the children or the man-droid had left a trail for him. This time he was prepared. He had a carry-along machine, lightweight with a strap, which detected alien life forms.
He continued to ignore Bakkra’s petty banter through the night. He continued to be aware of feeling kinship with the environment and, oddly enough, with the fog clouds. It was a feeling he found impossible to shake. Pensively he looked back at the fateful actions that led up to the Arim tragedy. It was so long ago, uneventful to say the least. How could the thoughts still persist? Were they really bottled up inside of him? It was his first interspecies “coop”, as most out-colony settlers called it in those days. The boy was too young. Sixteen in Earth years. For every hour the lizard was out there searching for the two orphans he probably thought of Arim and the accident that befell him twice as much, only unconsciously.
For a reptile such emotions were not like him; then again, perhaps he did not try hard enough to show emotion. Along with his predictions in the weather, and for as long as he could remember, he had experienced premonitions instead. If the premonition seemed genuine, his chest unit would emit a strange glow, and he would utter a warning of disaster to the rest of the tribe. Very rarely did the Vendragon take him seriously, and very rarely did they act on it. His forebodings were never specific, the calamity either absurd or nameless, so it was unusual that he did not speak of any premonition in the days or hours before Arim—a most treasured farmhand assisting their nascent culture in advancing agriculturally—was attacked and fell from that high cliff. And never in his wildest dreams, he thought, could he predict that, even now, the two orphans he searched endlessly for might bring with them a terrible but ancient disaster.
TO BE CONTINUED…