Terraforming Venus

So…I’ve been working on Venus stories, and was thinking of what terraforming it would look like. I saw this in the news and the gears went into overdrive….

 


It was too dangerous for direct observation to the uninitiated, so Mr. Smith narrated for the tour group as he walked the edge of the burning sulfur lake. “As you can see here, the terraforming process has introduced enough oxygenated atmosphere in this area that we sometimes get these situations at random. Heat and pressure changes, or the occasional lightening strike will set these fires off in areas with high concentrations of sulfur. It’s really mesmerizing to watch, but the byproducts are still the opposite of what we want for our environment here on Venus. A crew will be out shortly to deal with it so that it doesn’t spread.”

“How much longer will it be before we get to the Polar Dome, Mr. Smith? Little Suzie here really needs to potty, and she’s afraid to go in her suit.

Smith sighed and turned to walk back to the surface rover. “Just about ten more minutes Mrs. Jones.” He hated tour groups so much. Why Horizons Unlimited thought they need the pittance of money made from this part of the project, he would never understand.

 

Heart of the Glade

Heart of the Glade

Tales of Kids Machina – A Critical Role FanFic Shortstory

by J.D. Beckwith

 

“I’m telling you, Max, she went this way!” Mercy said from above him as she pointed her ring bedazzled finger in the direction of the nearby wood. The carpet she lay on wobbled a bit as a gust of wind caught it, threatening to overturn its tiny ten year old passenger.

“You were just as sure the other day too, but you and Raven spent two hours wandering around wondering how I was throwing twigs at you,” Max retorted with a snide chuckle.

“Just because you cheated with that invisibility potion you ‘borrowed’ from Uncle Gilmore’s store doesn’t mean Raven will. She’s tricky, but she plays fair.”

Max sticks his tongue out at his sister. “As father always says: ‘The prodigious implementation of ingenuity is not cheating’.”

Mercy rolls her eyes and replies, “Well, as mother always says: ‘Let the ranger do the tracking, and the barbarian do the hacking’. There’s a patch of folded over touch-me-nots with a patch of flowers missing right over there. She went that way.”

“I am NOT a barbarian,” Max groused as he takes out his spy glass and trains it on the patch of flowers. After studying it for a moment he put it away and said with a very matter-of-fact tone, “You’re right. She went this way.” He then began walking in the direction indicated as if it was his intention all along.

This particular round of their daily game of Stealth and Perception had been going on for almost an hour already. Aunt Kiki had let them go early from their daily druid crafting session, and since Aunt Cassandra was busy entertaining some Tal’Dorei high muckety-mucks, today’s civics lesson had also been postponed. The girls had decided to forego a time limit on the round, which was testing Max’s patience. He really wanted to get back to his tinkering shop try out the newest set of tools his Uncle Tarry had sent to him. Instead, here he was stomping through the meadows around Whitestone looking for cousin Raven’s hiding place. He knew he’d never be left alone unless he ‘trained’ (as she called it) with this twin for a while.

As they made their way to the edge of the small patch of woods just south of town, they carefully tested what they saw against their memory of the area, looking for anything ‘out of place’. “I’m going to go higher,” Mercy said.

“Not too high. You know the wind gets tricky above treetop level this time of day. I don’t’ want to have to drag you back to Momma Pike’s Temple again.” Max reminded her.

“Yes, I know, worry-wort”, she said as she gained altitude. Mercy hung tightly to the edge of the carpet as she made a circuit of the small glade. She sighed as she noticed Trinket watching from a nearby hilltop. She had been about to go higher, but she knew he would report her to her mom later if she did. He took his responsibilities as High Guardian of the de Rolo Clan very seriously. Even though he was a tattletale bear, she did love him very much. She waved at him, and he raised one paw and waved back to her. She smiled as she continued her search.

She saw her brother flipping through his sketchbook, no doubt comparing some drawing or other he had of this glade to its current state. As she skirted the treetops, they became denser toward the center of the glade, making it hard to see into the interior. Seeing nothing immediately eye-catching, she continued on until she was over the south road – the agreed to boundary for their game – and lowered herself to just above head height in order to see over the brush and hedges along the woods edge into its heart. As she glided her way slowly back towards town, she caught a glimpse of movement.

“I’ve found something,” she whispered after touching a small stone on her earring.

“Well, what is it?” Max replied through the earpiece.

“I’m about to go check. It’s not far from you. West side of the glade, near the old rock overhang you fell off that time.”

“On my way.” he replied.

As she approached the spot where the motion was, she saw several small mice scamper across a turtle’s shell as they make their way around a fifteen or so foot tall rock jutting up sideways from the ground. Behind it, she can see the wide trunk of a small tree. It looked like a miniature version of the Sun Tree, but scaled down to a tenth or less of the size. This was odd, because the lowest branches seemed too large to be barely five feet off the ground. She smiled, knowing this must be Raven trying out her polymorph skills again. As she stealthily edged around the up-thrust of stone on her carpet, she saw her brother approach out of the corner of her eye. He nodded to her as he smiled and began a crouching walk up the rock.

Turning her focus back to the spot where Raven’s tree-form was, she prepared to yell out a shout of ‘Found you!’, but stopped herself quickly when she took in what is possibly the oddest sight she has ever witnessed in her young life. Before her, the tree-form of her druidic cousin, Raven, had revealed her face and shoulders from the side of her bark covered self. One finger of her right hand, complete with twig and leaf sticking up from the tip, hovered over her mouth in the gesture for silence as she stared at Mercy.

Her left hand casually stroked the silky strands of shoulder-length silvery-white hair of a young male goliath that was asleep with his back resting on her trunk. His ears were quite odd for a goliath, as they stuck out and wrapped around toward the back of his head, almost touching, with small whisker-thin wisps at the ends. Starting at the tips of those ears, and flowing down across his grayish-blue skinned face, neck, and bare muscular chest – even down through the leather waistcloth kilt he wears – all the way to his bare feet, ran a pattern of markings. Mercy had seen goliath fate marks before, but never had she seen so many curved ones. These seem to flow around his eyes, nose and ears more like water instead of the normal jagged lightning bolt style she knew.

She found it difficult to focus on anything but him for a long moment until a large brown lump, which she had taken to be a mound of dirt, suddenly shifted. It raised its head up and opened its jaws into a huge fang encrusted yawn which snaps shut with startling force. Then the snout turned and fell onto the stomach of the young goliath, who let out a small grunt and flopped a hand over the muzzle. Both the boy and the beast still slept as Raven continued to stroke the boy’s hair.

“Isn’t he beautiful?” Raven whispered to Mercy.

Mercy gave Raven one of her patented ‘You’re so weird’ looks, then started to ask “Who is…” However, before she can utter the third syllable, her brother suddenly stood atop the rock and shouted.

“Aha! Aren’t you a little short for a Sun Tree, Raven!”

The sudden shout caused the pair of sleepers to startle awake. The creature immediately jumped between Max and his goliath companion, who scrambled away on all fours while fumbling to pick up a small quarterstaff that had been lying by his side. As he regained his footing, he turned to face them trying to snarl like his companion, but the fear on his face made it into more of a comical grimace.

“Wait! They’re friends!” Raven shouted. She quickly transformed back into her true form, with small black wings peaking from her shoulders and tiny two pointed antlers atop her head. She held her hands palm out toward the boy and his guardian, but then clumsily swept one in front of her as an errant gust blew a tangle of her red hair across her heavily freckled face. “This is Max and Mercy. They were looking for me, remember?”

The boy’s stance started to relax a bit, but then he noticed Mercy for the first time, hovering about four feet up on the flying carpet. He jumped again, turning to get a view that encompassed them all. The beast in front of him made another menacing snarl, this time in Mercy’s direction.

“Please, Corm, they won’t hurt you. I promise.” Raven said. “Guys,” she continued, “this is Corm. He sort of found me before you did, and we were talking. He fell asleep while we were waiting for you to find me too. Oh, and this is Taz,” she said, pointing to very disgruntled animal. “He’s kinda grumpy.”

Mercy had backed off (and up) a few feet, while Max had his hand now resting on his sword hilt. He eyed the animal and the boy cautiously. “Be careful Raven, he seems more than a bit grumpy right now. In fact, I would say he’s very displeased.”

Relaxing again, the boy said, “Taz, settle, it’s ok for now. Come.” The goliath boy stabbed his quarterstaff on the ground beside him. Instantly, the animal turned and rounded his companion, sitting on the ground beside him. Its head is almost at the boy’s waist, which for a goliath of his age, twelve or there-about, is still shoulder height to the other three children.

“What is he?” Max asks, pointing to Taz.

“He’s a dire wolverine, he’s my companion,” the boy replied.

“Where did you come from?” Mercy asked, gliding closer to her brother’s perch. He stepped onto the carpet with her, using her shoulder to maintain his balance. Mercy then glided the carpet toward Raven, and they both stepped down to the forest floor beside her.

“Well, I’ve come a long way since I started, but I was born in the feywild. Have you ever heard of it?”

“Yes, of course, our parents have told us a lot about it.” Mercy answers. “But that’s a whole other plane. Where did you come to this plane?”

“I first began my Seeking near a place called Vasselheim. Since, I’ve traveled a long way finding bits and pieces of the Story as I went. I was able to convince an old woman I met to teleport me to Tal’Dorei. I ended up on a very nasty and stinky place called Stillben. From there I wandered north and west until I found a town that knew many tales that are part of the Story that I Seek. That was the last place I was in, called Westruun, and it has led me here.”

The twins looked at one another skeptically. Max said, “You traveled all that way alone? No parents with you?”

He looked at them a bit confused. “Of course. But I wasn’t really alone. Taz was with me.” He patted the head of the wolverine who rumbled and turned his head to have his ear scratched.

“What’s this ‘Story’ you keep talking about?” Max asked.

“Oh, that. It’s from my mother actually. The Story of the Skywatcher she calls it. I think she made up the name, but I like it, so I use it. My mother loves stories you see.” He propped his staff against a tree and walked off a few feet. From behind a large boulder he pulled a small two wheeled cart with harness. In the front of it rested a pack that he quickly set aside. In the rear was a hide covering a larger burden. He carefully unfastened some of the tie-downs and flipped the hide back. The others made their way closer, keeping a wary eye on Taz, to see what was there. Now uncovered, there was a stack of more than two dozen books of various sizes and colors. “I’ve managed to collect a few for her, for when I return.”

“So, your story is about collecting books?” Mercy asked.

“Oh, no,” Corm replied, “The books are just other stories I find along the way. The real Story of the Skywatcher is about me. It’s just that I don’t know the beginning yet. At least not the whole beginning. I know my mother’s part, but I’m working on knowing my father’s part. Until I find that out, I can’t really make it mine, you know?” He stared at them as if expecting them to understand exactly what he meant, but they stared back with blank or confused expressions.

“I don’t get it.” Raven said. “Your story can’t start until you know your parent’s story? But isn’t your story already started? I mean, here you are.”

“Well, it’s complicated,” he said. He frowned, thinking intently. He started to try to explain more, but was interrupted by a rising sound coming from outside the woods. A thud-thuddathudthud mixed with a hmmrf-snort echoed through the trees. The group turned suddenly as the lowering sun was blocked by the heavy breathing dark form of Trinket who skidded to a halt. He saw the form of Taz instantly and reared up on his hind legs, bawling a hideous roar in challenge. It seems he had heard the growls from before, and having lost sight of the children, must have reasoned they were in trouble.

Taz instinctively bared his own fangs and jumped in front of Corm once more in a protective stance. Corm also lunged for his own weapon.

The children all began to yell at once, telling Trinket, Taz, and Corm that everyone was friendly. It was such a cacophony, however, that no one could understand anything. Finally, Corm slammed his staff on the ground again and a bluish-white beam jumped from the top of it in two directions, one connected with his own forehead, the other toward Trinket’s. Taz instantly became quiet, although alert, and the others children stopped babbling as well. What ensued next was the weirdest exchange that any of them had ever witnessed. Corm began to grumble, growl, snort, and make all sorts of strange sounds. Trinket sat on his haunches on the stone and grumble-growled back in turn. This continued back and forth for several exchanges until finally, Trinket got up and began walking back toward Whitestone as if nothing ever happened. The bluish-white beam that connected Corm and his staff to Trinket blinked out.

All three of the Whitestone children stood with slack-jawed amazement as Corm turned and lifted the front of his small wagon and made a motion to Taz. The wolverine obediently walked over and into small harness set on the wagon’s front, which Corm loosely looped and clasped around his neck. The both began walking toward the road before he looked at the other three and said, “Well, are you coming?” He then turned and followed Taz out of the wood without waiting for an answer.

“Wha…what just happened?” Max asked the two girls beside him.

“I have no idea.” Raven said. Then with a smile she took off running after the pair and said, “But it was so friggin’ cool!”

“Hey, wait for us!” Mercy yelled. She jumped back onto the carpet and started after them as well.

“Mercy! No fair! The round is over! It’s supposed to be my turn to fly the carpet now!” Max complained as he scrambled to catch up to the group. He tapped his earring and said. “I know you can hear me! Come back here!”

Over the earpiece he hears a reply, but not the one he was expecting. It’s his mother’s voice instead. “Well, I know YOU can hear ME, Maximillian de Rolo. Where are you and your sister? I just got a very weird message from Trinket saying you were coming home with a guest. What have you been up to? Is Raven with you?”

Max began a reply with “Umm, yes, mother. Raven is with us, we…” when Raven starts talking over the top of him at about a thousand words per second.

“Oh, Aunty Vex, we met a boy in the woods, and he has a wolverine, and he can talk to Trinket, and he says he’s from the feywild and…” The excited and confused explanation of the events of the past few minutes continued in pretty much a random order until finally, Vex interrupted.

“Raven… Raven, dear… Raven… RAVEN!” She finally stopped talking, panting a bit, so Vex continued. “Catch your breath, Darling. You can tell me the rest when you get to the castle, all right? Max, Mercy, see you in a bit. And this better not be something else I’m going to have to pay for!”

“It’s not, mother, I promise!” Mercy said. She slowed and dipped to just above the ground to let both Max and Raven jump on the carpet with her. Together, they flew beside their new friend and his cart pulling companion in a small entourage behind Trinket as they made their way into the courtyard of Whitestone Castle.

As they passed through the front portcullis, they could see all their parents standing off to the side. Mercy and Max’s father, Percy, and his sister, their Aunt Cassandra, were in deep conversation with the diplomatic envoy from Emon. Uncle Gilmore and Aunty Alura were also with them, and would probably be leaving with them from the transportation circle in the courtyard soon. Various guards stood around, but had very little reaction to the group as they moved toward the group. Vex’alhia excused herself and pulled Keyleth and Vax along with her to another part of the courtyard while beckoning them to come to her.

At the sight of her father, Raven jumped off the carpet and sprinted toward him. As she arrived, he knelt down and said, “Hey there, Feathers! What have you gotten into this time?” She got within two steps of him then made a tremendous leap into the air in his direction. He caught her in mid-air, lifting her above his head, and proceeded to swing her in a huge circle while she cackled loudly. He did one final toss straight up into the air. Keyleth cringed and held one hand up as if to cast a spell to catch her. Raven laughed even louder as he caught her and began to bear-hug her till she squealed.

Keyleth let out a pent up breath and smacked him on the shoulder. “You know I hate it when you do that!”

“Oh, fiddle-faddle, woman, you know I’m not going to drop her!” He leaned down and placed her on the ground again. “Your mother is such a worry-wart. You know that?” to which she nodded vigorously.

By this point, the troupe has reached them. Trinket moves to Vex’s side and sits looking at them. He mumbles something, and Corm nods his head.

“So, who’s your friend here, Feathers?” Vax steps up and holds his hand out toward Corm, who takes it and gives a firm shake. “Nice grip! I’m Vax. What’s your name?”

“I’m Corm.” He notices a patch on the side of Vax’s cloak, and twists his head to get a better look. “Are you part of a member of Vox Machina?”

Vax gives a bemused glance at Vex and Keyleth. “Well… that depends. You aren’t a rakshasa in disguise are you?” he said, only half-jokingly. Keyleth tenses for a moment before realizing he’s kidding, and swats him on the shoulder again with a frown. Corm just stared at him, very confused.

“Yes, darling,” Vex stepped into the conversation, “we all are members of Vox Machina.” She points out the three of them, as well as Percy. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, does that mean you know Grog? Grog Strongjaw?” Corm asked.

As soon as he asks the question, Grog himself walks up from the direction of the kitchens, gnawing on what appears to be the last few bites of a ham hock. “Yeah, we know him. He’s me. Who’s asking?” He tossed the bone into a nearby brazier and stepped around the group. As he did, Grog finally saw Corm for the first time and stopped, a bemused look spreading across his face. “Hey, it’s a goliath kid. Sort of. Where’d you come from li’l man?”

As soon as he saw Grog, Corm immediately walked up to him, toe-to-toe, staring almost straight up at him. Grog returned the stare, almost looking straight down. There was silence for a minute.

Finally, Corm said, “My name is Corm Strongjaw, Skywatcher of the Glade of Nahla, Seeker of the Story. Now that I’ve found you, my story can begin. My heart is your heart.” And with that pronouncement, he grabs Grog around the waist in as big an embrace as he can manage. “It’s great to finally meet you, father.”

 

 

— And that’s where we’ll end our story today… —

Short Short Story Challenge – SMOD 2016

I wrote a short short story as a Sunday Vignette on the According to Hoyt blog, and thought I’d share it here.  The story prompt was ‘unlikely’ and the goal was no more than 50 words.

My first draft was 120 words. I managed to chop it down to 69. Writing short is hard!

Comment and let me know which you like better!

[P.S. – In case you don’t know… SMOD = Sweet Meteor Of Death]

[P.P.S. – I’m not really this pessimistic. It’s all in good hyperbolic fun!]

SMOD 2016

smod_2016

——————————-120 word version———————–

IMPACT: UNLIKELY [42%]

“It keeps going up! I’m telling you something’s affecting its orbit!” Earl argued.

“Now THAT is unlikely, believe me!” said Don, waving his hand. “That would take a micro-singularity. That rock is HUGE. Reset the sim to rerun while we’re gone. The polls close in an hour.”

“We can’t just leave!” Earl protested. “What if it changes to a likely impact? We need to warn people!”

“It’s already too close. What difference, at this point, does it make?”

Earl deflated. “OK, Fine! The end of the world could be tonight, but YOU still think your vote counts.”

****

Don and Earl walked out of the polls just in time to see the eastern sky begin to boil.

 

——————————-69 word version———————–

IMPACT: UNLIKELY [32%]

“It changed! Something’s moved it!”

“Now THAT is unlikely, believe me!” said Don. That rock is HUGE. Reset the sim. Rerun it while we’re gone. Polls close in an hour.”

“Leave!?” Earl protested. “We might need to warn people!”

“It’s too close! What difference, at this point, does it make?”

“Fine. TEOTWAKI’s here, but YOU still think your vote counts!”

Poképlague

Poképlague

A short story by

J.D. Beckwith

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Poképlague. It sounds ridiculous. Six months ago it was the most absurd random thought I had on a particular Tuesday, so I jokingly posted it on Facebook.  When the first cases started turning up in the hospitals, I quickly removed it, but the MiBs apparently have copies of the internet on their hard-drives that they don’t tell anyone about. That’s how I spent the last week of July staring at either bright white walls or really unfriendly faces, repeatedly begging people to believe me when I told them I was a complete ignoramus.

Fortunately, or rather unfortunately, the problem became worse and circumstances devolved to a point where my ignorance was proven beyond a shadow of doubt. The plan was too complex and too well executed to have any real connection to me. So, I got sent home to wait out the apocalypse with all the other huddling masses. This was actually lucky for me as I was never exposed until the vaccine was developed.

I remember watching the news (from the internet, of course… where else can you find unbiased truth! #sarcasm) as the ‘officials’ scrambled to create the most convincing ‘don’t panic’ lie while having them disproved almost immediately online. The conspiracy theorists got it right this time though. The Pokémon GO craze that erupted right at the end of summer had all the kiddos out walking the streets looking to boost their Gymkhana scores.  All the while, the PokéStops were being used as high exposure points for some custom virus. They tracked those back after the CDC finally realized they could use social media as a free think-tank. The idea was finally investigated (too late, of course) and they found a few that hadn’t fully expended their payloads, shutting them down.  Most were already dry, having already entered the population in a massive way.

The incubation period was just long enough that the first symptoms didn’t start showing until the new school year (in the U.S.) was well under way. For kids, if you weren’t into Pokémon GO, you would be, or be socially shunned.  This ensured all the infected kids with the most captured e-critters were the ‘it crowd’, especially when the ‘trade feature’ in-app purchase was released.  Now to trade, all you had to do was be buddies and swap air-space with that cool infected kid who had the moka-frappa-latte-izard! And so, teens and pre-teens became the delivery vehicle for the worst plague in recent human history.

And then, the digital back-stab happened. By the time the ‘officials’ realized what was happening and forced the app to be shut down, the DigiMon Virus had infected over ninety-three percent of all digital devices in the world. The only thing that was ever noticed was some e-mail breach thing they said they fixed.  Whoever hacked this code was much better than the code-monkeys at Nintendo, for sure! The Poképlague was roaring through the first world by this point. The death toll was growing increasingly large, which served as a huge distraction from the largest data-hack in the history of electrons. Who pays attention to the fact that their bank accounts are slowly being drained when little Timmy is bleeding from his eyes, and mommy’s not feeling so good herself, right?

So, all these people are dying – so many that the CDC says stay at home, shelter in place – and we end up with Marshall Law. Food stops getting delivered, power plant workers stop showing up to fix the lights, the cops stay home to keep looters out of their own living rooms, everything quickly goes to hell. No one notices the bad guys are now pillaging the digital credits of the dead, dying and distracted and funneling it into zillions of fake accounts under those same dead people’s names.

The terrorists are now super-rich. (and have enough voters on the roles to elect whomever they want, BTW, but that’s another conspiracy altogether). The Feds in the U.S. or internationally can’t find them because they don’t even know who’s alive or dead anymore.  Assuming said Feds are even at work themselves.  Pokémon don’t discriminate.  They choose you.

And here we are, our population ravaged, our fiscal infrastructure destroyed. The third world is starving because the farms we used to have don’t have living farmers anymore and can’t provide the hand-outs that were keeping them alive. How’s that working out for you Mr. Terrorist guy?

Anyway, that’s the way my tale goes, and how I remember it. There are millions out there who can’t tell theirs. We may never find out who was responsible, but at least we still have the internet and our freedom. We will recover. We will rebuild.

That’s all for today’s blog folks. I’m off to the doctor myself. I have got to get this stupid implant chip re-positioned… AGAIN! I know it keeps my identity safe, but why do these damn things have to make your forehead itch like fire! I think I’m going to move it to my arm.  Hey! There’s an idea for a poll… Where do you have your chip and what are the pros/cons to it! Let me know in the comments! Later peeps!

The Craze – Chapter One – A Visit to Scenic Mentone

Here is Chapter One of The Craze for your reading enjoyment (about 3100 words).

Again, this is not fully edited, so keep that in mind.

I need some comments/feedback if you want more!

Oh yeah, Mentone, Alabama is really a great little town with terrific scenery.

Click here first if you haven’t read the Prologue.


 

CH1-Mentone

The Craze

Chapter One

A Visit to Scenic Mentone

The cruiser pulled to an angled stop behind a large van that made a wedge, along with a late model pickup, blocking both lanes of the highway. A lookout with a set of binoculars stood on a platform atop a twenty foot tall square tower on the far right edge of the mountain roadway. It was a literal wide spot in the road with a bordered sign made from a natural rock that read: Mentone. The tower was built as far out toward the edge of the slope as possible to allow a good view farther down. The man could see a wide view of both the road where it curved back to the left, hugging the mountainside, and the whole panorama that made up the area down below the mountain; which included what was left of the community that had been known as Valley Head.  He looked down as the Sheriff climbed out of the car.

“What have we got, Dan?” the Sheriff asked.

“Looks like four of ‘em,” the man in the tower replied, “One man with a woman and two teen girls. They’re about half-way through the gauntlet.” He turned back to his observation of the group. “They’re carrying some decent sized packs, and pulling a wagon with some gear.  Looks like can goods and water in it.”

The Sheriff put his hat on to block the afternoon sun and made his way to the small gap between the vehicles. He gave the two men standing just on the other side a quick nod. “Randy, Wade.”

Up ahead, the road was lined on both sides with vehicles that curved away like two parallel mechanical snakes. The space between was so narrow and twisted that it was impossible to drive even a bicycle through it.  It could be walked though. They called it the gauntlet.

As they stood waiting for the group to come around the bend, the Sheriff took stock of the men manning the outpost. Dan kept his binoculars in play from the top of the tower, his rifle close to hand.  Another small platform, reinforced with heavy sheet-steel, was set up in the pickup where two more men with scoped rifles stood at the ready. Senior Deputy Randy Miles and Deputy Wade Smith both stood in front sporting shotguns as well as holstered revolvers.

Everyone was sweating as the summer made its last gasping presence known. The first day of fall was just around the corner, and most people were glad to see it come, especially those who had to pull roadblock duty on a regular basis. Even so, the mountain was probably fifteen or twenty degrees cooler than the valley below with the humidity as high as it was.

Another man emerged from the blue porta-john that had been set up in the shade near the edge of the scenic overlook pull-off on the outer edge of the road. He too carried a rifle. He made his way forward with the rest. The Sheriff stepped to the side to get away from the smell he had brought with him.

“Jesus, Herb! Stand down wind ‘till the stink blows off ya!” Wade chastised the newcomer as he too sidestepped. The man, Herb, just smirked at him and gave a chuckle.

After a few minutes, they could see the heads of the oncoming party as they weaved their way through the maze of vehicles.  Once the man, who was in the lead, stepped fully into view, the Sheriff spoke loudly to them.  “That’s far enough, folks! Hold where you are! No sudden moves now, and don’t be reaching for any weapons!”

The man halted and lifted his hands out to the side. “We don’t want no trouble! We do have one gun, but it’s in my pack. We only use it for defending or hunting. We could use a safe haven.”

“You got family in these parts?” the Sheriff asks.

“No sir. We’re from Georgia. We’re making our way home. We got stuck at a friend’s cabin over on Sand Mountain when the shelter-in-place order came down. We stayed there as long as our supplies held out. We got resources back home to survive with once we get there. We still have a long way to go.”

“Sorry to hear that, friend,” the Sheriff replied. “I truly am. The problem is we have a whole town that’s survived here. Zero infections and zero casualties. No Crazies and no Carriers. We intend to keep it that way. And we have one very simple way of doing that. We don’t let anybody in unless they’re family of someone here. And we don’t let Crazies or Carriers in for ‘any’ reason. But, I’m sure you saw the signs on the road at the foot of the mountain telling you all that already. I hate you wasted time and energy climbing up this far, but that was your choice to make. So, I’m going to have to ask you turn around, and find another way.”

“Look, Sheriff, I understand your caution.  Hell, I applaud it! But I swear to you, none of us is sick, or even has been! We haven’t had contact with anyone. We’ve been moving at night to make it easier to avoid the Crazies. We’ve only seen a couple since we started out, and they were way off. We’ll stick to the center of the road, all the way through. Put on masks… whatever precautions you want us to take. Hell, if you have a vehicle, we’ll ride it through with the windows sealed up. Just don’t make me take my girls back down that mountain.  There’s a gang of bikers with some Crazies on leashes down there. There’s too many for me to fight, and they’re doing some awful things to folks.”

The Sheriff looked at Randy and said, “Shit, those damned Brotherhood bastards are back again.” He thought for a moment, and then spoke with the man again.

“Look, I can’t let you come through, but I can give you directions for another way. It’s a tougher hike, and you’ll have to cross the river by finding a boat or climbing up the mountain near the falls, but after that it’s clear of Crazies ‘till it comes back onto Hwy 117. Couple of creeks to cross, but they’re not too deep right now.  I’ll draw it up on a map for you. Wait there.”

The Sheriff went back to his cruiser and dug in the glove box for an old roadmap. It was faded yellow, and looked like it had some coffee stains. It was an antique that had been stuffed away since the advent of cell towers and GPS. An antique that was now relevant again. He sketched out a thick line showing the route to take that would cross the mountain while skirting the town’s perimeter. He made sure to route them near his own checkpoints just to keep tabs on them. Once done, he took a two liter re-purposed soda bottle filled with water from his trunk. He walked them both to a point about half-way between the group and the roadblock. He sat it on the ground and spoke to the man again.

“Wait ‘till I’m all the way back, then you can come get it. Oh, and don’t try to go up that steep road on the left about half a mile down. It’s barricaded so good a billygoat would have trouble getting up it.” He returned to his men by the vehicles and then motioned for the man to come ahead.

The man retrieved the items and returned to his group, handing them the water bottle. They immediately began to share it around while he studied the map. A dark frown came across his face, and he looked up at the Sheriff. “Sheriff, this ain’t going to work. I told you we can’t go down again, even to circle around! Those men are set up right at the bottom of the mountain. They’re using an old building as a base, some kind of old grocery store or something. We had a hell of time sneaking by them on the north side and up a steep slope just to come here. We can’t get across the road to go around this way!” He waved the map in the air.

The Sheriff thought for a moment, and then give a sidelong look at his Deputies. “OK, there is one other way, but it’s harder, and there’s risk. About a tenth of a mile or so before you get to the bottom of the mountain there’s a drive off to the left. You got a compass on you?”

“Yes, we have one,” the man answered.

“Good. You’ll see a white tank tower thing. Put it between you and the road, and then sight due west. There’s a game trail that runs up the ridge. Follow it. It’s steep and dangerous in places, but it will lead you to another blacktop road. You can see that on your map. Turn right. Do NOT go left. You do and you will not live to regret it.”

“Hmmph,” grunted Herb. “Got that shit right,” he growled in a low tone.

The Sheriff eyed him, but kept explaining “After that, follow the blacktop to the Gap and turn left. That will take you back on the route I marked. Got it?”

“Yeah, OK, that should work. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet. There’s one more thing. That house down the road… the old man that lives there survived and turned Crazy. He’s real territorial, so you best be damned careful once you turn in there. He won’t come out to the road, but he’s not afraid of the dark like most of them, so don’t count on that helping you out.”

The man turned and began talking with the four women with him. One of them could be heard sobbing even from this distance. He put his arm around her as she sank to the pavement in distress.

The Sheriff spoke to the men near him, saying “Give ‘em a few minutes, but I want them on the other side of the gauntlet before anyone leaves their posts. And make tonight’s shift a three man. I don’t like it that we have those asshole bikers at our doorstep again.” He went back to his car and radioed the town to give them the all-clear. He was about to start the engine and return to town himself when he heard Deputy Smith shout.

“Hold it! Step back from that bag, right now!”

Smith had drawn his gun and aimed at the man down the road, who was leaning over his rucksack. The others at the roadblock drew also as soon as they heard the shout.

The man lifted his hands, and backed up. “I’m just getting out my pop-up tent. My wife is too hot. We need a bit of shade for her to cool down in.”

“You’ll have to do that on the other side of the cars,” the Deputy demanded. “Now close the flap… one hand only, then pick it up and be on your way.”

“Look, it’s safer here on this side,” the man pleaded. “We’ll just stay until the sun’s behind the other ridge, then we’ll go.”

“No deal, asshole! You been told to git! Now git!” said the ever-diplomatic Herb. He’d aimed his rifle at the man and was looking quite trigger-happy. His aim, however, was none too steady. It seemed that the smells from the porta-john had also contained a bit of smoke, which was now affecting his balance somewhat.

The man stopped for a moment, and carefully replied, “I’m sorry folks, but I just can’t do that. I’ve got my family’s safety to think about, and for me that trumps your fears or your inconvenience. So, I’m just going to set up this tent for a few hours,” he said as he carefully reached into the bag and began lifting out a small bundle. “…then we’ll be out of your hair and…”

BANG! The sound of Herb’s rifle echoed loudly off the side of the mountain. He had been aiming for a head shot, but, fortunately for the newcomer, was too unsteady. Instead, the bullet tore through the man’s left bicep and into the window of the car behind him, creating a crimson spattered spider web. The force of the impact spun him around and flung the bundle from his hand. As it released from its package, the small, flex-rod pop-up tent expanded in mid-air, landed sideways, and then rolled onto its top across the pavement. The man fell against the car, and yelled for the women to get back. Then he crawled after them, his now hysterical wife pulling him forward. Her ‘help’ elicited an agonized scream from him as she pulled the very shoulder that had been shot.

The Sheriff ran to the front where the other men stood. “Goddamn it Herb! You stupid son-of-a-bitch! That’s not how we agreed to handle things!”

“Sumbitch was going for his gun!” he shouted.

“That’s a bunch of horseshit, and you know it. That’s a damned tent in the road you moron! What was he going to do, pitch you death with it!? Now we have to put somebody else at risk to help them!”

“Screw helping ‘em! They probably damn Carriers anyway,” he snarled.

“You don’t get to decide that shit either!” He took his hat off and wiped his brow with his shirt sleeve, then placed it back. “Jesus, I can’t believe I let folks talk me into bringing you out here. You may be immune to the Craze, but you got a crazy mean streak in you, boy. Now take your ass back to town.”

Herb got a mean look on his face and glared at the Sheriff, who ignored it. He spoke to one of the other men in the back of the truck. “Get the damn environment suit on and take the med kit to that guy. Tell the others to back off while you do. After that, check ‘em all and if they pass, we’ll put ‘em in the Hostel on the far side of town ‘till this guy can move on again.” He nodded to Deputy Smith and said “You suit up too, you’re going with him as his guard dog.”

“Sumbitch…” the deputy grumbled, “…damn thing is hotter-n’ hell.” He glared at Herb. “Oughta make him do it… ah Hell naw, he’d probably just shoot more of ‘em. Dumbass!”

Noticing Herb again, the Sheriff said, “Why the hell are you still here, Herb. Get going. I don’t want you out here no more.”

“I’ll go when and where I damned well please ‘Sheriff’. Somebody with some friggin’ guts has to stay around and make sure you lame-brains don’t let the Crazies get to the rest of us. What’s the big idea trying to send these Carriers toward my house anyway, huh?”

The Sheriff walked up to Herb, getting right in his face. “You may think you’re a bad-ass when you beat up on your family, but you ain’t scaring me one bit, boy. I said leave. And you will. Know why? Because I’m in charge here, and you…” he emphasized with a sharp poke to Herb’s solar plexus. “Are…” He delivered a second poke, but slightly harder. “Not!” And with that he shoved against his chest with his whole hand, making him stumble back despite the one hundred pound weight and four inch height difference between them.

Herb, his face reddening with anger and embarrassment, coiled up his fist and said, “Yeah, well maybe I oughta be!” He pulled his hand back to throw a punch, but the clicking sound of the cocked revolver hammer on the gun pointing at his belly button caused him to freeze in place. He looked down at it, then at the Sheriff and ground his teeth together in frustration. The Sheriff took the rifle out of his left hand, and then the automatic pistol from his right hip holster, handing them both to his Deputy.

“You’ve been told to git. Now git!” said the Sheriff, throwing his own words back at him while waving his gun up the road.

Herb growls and backs off, talking while he walks backward.  “You know, I been thinkin’ it’s past time for some new elections, ‘Sheriff’. Some folks are getting’ a bit too uppity ‘round here. Think they got more power than they do. Come to think of it…” he said with a questioning tone and sneering smile, “I don’t think you actually got elected in the first place, now did you?” He turned and looked half-over his shoulder as he kept walking. “Oh, that’s right, I remember now!  You inherited your badge when you got the ‘real’ Sheriff killed!” He completely turned his back, and continued up the steep paved grade. “Guess we’ll have to remind folks about that at election time. See you at the polls, ‘Deputy Dawg’!”

The Sheriff waited a few seconds after Herb rounded the corner, and then holstered his weapon. He turned to his senior Deputy and said, “Randy, take the cruiser and go fetch the Doc back here. Give that asshole a ride to his turn-off and send him home.” He picked up Herb’s guns, cleared them of ammo, and set them in the back floorboard of the car. “Give him these when you let him out. If he asks for the ammo, tell him that his donation to the community fund will be recorded.”

“You know him, and his whole inbred family, are eventually going to be trouble, right?” the Deputy asked. “Maybe we ought to keep these?” he nodded at the guns.

The Sheriff nodded. “Eventually, but ‘till then we need them to keep the Crazies off that road up the mountain they live on. As for the guns, if we keep ‘em, they’ll start screaming to the Community Council that we’re illegally confiscating property. I’ve had enough of that particular fight for a while.  Now, get going, and hurry back with the Doc. Don’t know how bad that guys down there is.”

The Deputy nodded, climbed into the car and tore off back up the mountain toward town.

Sheriff John Barnes sighed with a weariness that came from deep inside. He sure hoped that those five people tested negative for the Craze. If they didn’t, then what he had to do next made him nauseous to even consider.

The Craze – Proloque

I’m still stuck on my novel’s ending, but I needed to write something, so here’s something.

This is work in progress. I’ve decided to share it out in parts (up to a point) just to solicit feedback. I already have Chapter One waiting, so let me know if you want more. I’ve edited it some, but there are probably typos, etc. But, hey, it’s a freebie!

Let me know what you think in the comments (preferably on the blog page).

Length is 1234 words.


 

The Craze

 Prologue

 

Day 107

Dear Deadery,

See what I did there? This is my deadery, because everyone is dead. Or Crazed. And I may be slowly but surely joining them. The crazy ones I mean, not the dead ones. Although, that too, I suppose… but whatever.

I used to worry about surviving an apocalypse. My biggest survival problems were my health and security. Well, the apocalypse is here, and my health is good. I really don’t sweat security anymore either, except at night when I try to sleep. That’s mostly because of wild animals… and the occasional Crazy, of course. It’s amazing to me how people who are completely insane can manage to survive in a world with no infrastructure left. I guess it won’t last forever though. God, I hope not.

I haven’t seen or spoken to a sane soul in over six months now. The closest thing I have to a friend is Smurfy Smith. His blue paint is almost gone now, but he still rides naked on his big wheel down the road almost every day. I used to keep out of sight when he came near my place, but if I see him now, I wave. He just laughs like that’s the funniest damn thing that he has ever seen, and then he peddles like hell back to wherever he’s hiding from the dark. It’s a wonder the coyotes haven’t attacked him, with all the noise that thing makes on the asphalt. They’ve been getting bolder. I managed to trap one last night, but it chewed its way out of the trap before I could get to it. I wonder if a three legged coyote can survive in the wild?

Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah, going crazy. There was a big storm yesterday. It got bad enough that I went to the shelter and camped out. As I sat there in the dark, listening to the rain pouring outside, I felt like I was going to drown in the solitude. It really sucks. I’ve been a loner most of my life, so it was fine at first. Hell, worrying about starving to death or dying of dysentery after I finally got over the Craze kept me from thinking of people. But, I’ve come to the point now where I just have to wonder… why am I still here? What’s the point of it? My family is gone. I buried them myself, the ones who were nearby. My brother might be out there, somewhere, but then again, it’s been six months. So, if I’m the only sane being left on the planet, then what am I living for? There’s no point, right? Just survival isn’t enough.

So, anyway, I was in the storm shelter, drowning in loneliness. I had always been afraid of dying. But then, I wasn’t afraid anymore. In fact, I asked God that age-old question… Why Am I Here? The preacher used to say that as long as you were still breathing, it meant God still had something for you to do. So what is it? What am I supposed to do at this point? I can’t very well witness to anyone of his loving mercy if they are stark raving, slobbering, snot blowing idiots, now can I? So what then? Anyway, I’m writing all this down so I can remember it. I did something really dumb after that. I challenged God to a game of Russian Roulette. I know, Crazy, right? That’s what I meant before.

Anyway, I was thinking about how Gideon (that’s a guy from the Bible for all you heathens out there) did all the stuff with the fleece and the dew, to make really, really, sure God wanted him to do something before he did it. So, I figured that if God still had a purpose for me, then I would ask him to really show me that he did by letting me win five rounds of Russian Roulette. Did I mention that I think I’m going crazy? OK, good. Anyway, so I played all five rounds… without spinning the cylinder. I won, obviously. Then I fired the sixth shot out the door, but nothing happened. I opened the gun and the bullet had been in the first chamber. It had a dent in the primer, but was a misfire.

So, I may be crazy, but I chose to believe that there is still a purpose for me here, so I’m just taking it day by day. I put the bullet on chain to wear around my neck as a reminder. Who knows, maybe I’m supposed to wait long enough for my brother to show up. The last time we talked, he was still secluded on the top of a mountain in Alabama after the third week of his one week vacation to a cabin in the woods. He said he would try to make it home, eventually. That was six months ago, just before the power and cell towers went out. Anyway, I guess I’ll keep gardening and hope there’s five of us to feed by winter.

Well, the sun is going down, and I don’t want to waste any more candles, so… L8R

Sincerely,

D.M.K.

(not really my initials, but if you get the reference, you’re my bestest friend forever!)

P.S. – Just in case future historians (or alien archaeologists) are reading this, and don’t know what the Craze is… The Craze was an influenza plague, a pandemic, that was almost universally contagious and ninety-six percent lethal (so, as I write this, most of the world as I once knew it is dead and gone). They labeled it The Craze because it caused people to go crazy before they died from it. After they got sick, it took about two day, and then they get totally hysterical. They would have crazy-wild strength – which they tend to use to rampage and tear stuff up – for a few hours. Then they would just collapse and die as the fever fried their brain. Most of them did anyway. Only about one in twenty-five survived it, but their brains still got fried. They are what are known as Crazies. They are completely bug-nuts, bat-shit, ding-dong, zonkos. They all act different, like a grab bag from the local funny farm. Lots of them are just really confused – I feel sorry for those ones – but the majority of them are still on the violent side, so I keep my distance. I’m only one guy, after all. The only common trait they seem to share is that most of them are terrified of the dark. Don’t ask me why.

And then there are a very rare few like me. Only about one percent of those who do survive The Craze do so without permanent dementia. They are called Carriers, and I’m one of them. I’m a walking Typhoid Mary, along with all the surviving Crazies out there. There is some good news though. A very small percentage (about four in every one hundred thousand, I think was the number I heard on the news before the lights went out) are immune. That means that, if they can survive the fall of civilization, the human race could, theoretically, recover. I personally have my doubts.

 

P.P.S. – If you are an alien archaeologist, you should know that there was more information on the internet than just cat videos and pornography. Just FYI.


Edit: Click here to read more in Chapter One.

The Search – A Short Story

Moonlight Overwatch

The Search

A Short Story
by J.D. Beckwith

The dusk, always stealthy in its approach, crept upon him as he listened to the silence ringing in his ears. His calls were fewer now as his hope faded. The only sounds he heard were of the last scampering of the diurnal wildlife as it made its way to evening burrows and hideaways before the light faded and the nocturnal denizens of the wood began to stir. The dusk began to play tricks on his eyesight. Long shadows and piled leaves created a fake contrast that made the lighter colored portions of the underbrush stand out in a way that mimicked what his mind was looking for, but hoping not to find.

“Luuuuuucyyyy! Here kitty kitty kitty kitty!” His call rang out, echoes carried around the hills and valley nearby. His hope of finding the wayward cat had faded much earlier. She never wandered this far from the house on her own, so calling was probably a vain hope. He knew this, but his feeling of responsibility would not allow him to stop until he had done his due diligence in looking at least this far. His guilt would take him even farther tomorrow in search of closure. He knew she had to be dead, but until he saw some evidence – evidence he knew would hit him like a punch to the gut if he found it – he would suffer the gnawing pain that comes with an overactive imagination. He would worry about all the bad things that could have happened to her, and feel the guilt for the situation – unavoidable as it may have been – that may have been the cause of her suffering.

He could take an animal’s life when needed. He hunted for food, and on rare occasions for sport. He could exterminate nuisance animals without a qualm, but it was always quick and painless. To see an animal suffer in pain, however, was gut wrenching for him, especially if his own actions were involved.

He once shot a deer while hunting, but failed to bring it down. He tracked it for six hours afterward, following the blood trail for miles. It led him across two creeks, through briar and cane thickets, up and down steep hillsides and onto posted land. He had known the animal was suffering because of him, so he could not allow himself to stop until he found it and put it out of the misery he had caused. He had almost been arrested for trespassing by the property’s owner because of it. Even if he had not been able to talk his way out of it, he would have accepted it as part of his penance. Mistakes have consequences and must be corrected, even unintentional ones.

The light continued to fade as he waited to hear a response. He made his way around to the back side of his property line, finishing up the circuit. He had been out here searching for about five hours now, ever since he had realized that she had not done her usual ‘let me back in’ begging at the door. Her bad litter box habits had been the reason for her expulsion from the house recently. He let her back in at night, but had to put her in a room to herself to keep the other cats that shared his home from sharing ‘her’ litter. She refused to use a dirty box, and the alternate choices she made were random and increasingly unbearable. The transition from indoor to outdoor cat had been iffy at best, and today something had happened. He was afraid he knew what it was, but he was not certain.

As he began making his way clear of the woods, he walked into a large spider web that stuck to his face and hair. He swatted it away and spit, channeling his inner not-so-stealthy warrior as he became a ninja for a moment. After that, he picked up a nearby fallen limb and waved it in a figure eight motion in front of himself as he walked the faintly defined trail back toward home.

Light was fading quickly now as the sun dropped below the nearby hills, sending all but the tallest treetops into full shadow. He was startled by a sudden rush of a squirrel across his path as it made a mad dash up the hill to his left. It climbed a tree where it seemed to have a nest built and jeered at him until he passed out of sight.

He made his way several hundred yards through the woods, leaves crunching underfoot loudly; their wet mildew smell wafted up by the slight chill breeze to his nostrils each time he stopped to listen. He paused mid-stride as a sound caught his ear. He listened carefully, his pulse quickening with hope, straining his ears and eyes to try to locate the source. After a moment, he started to call out again, when the sound returned. It was no longer drowned out by his noisy footfalls, so he heard it clearly. His heart dropped and tears welled up in his eyes as a shiver ran down his spine. It was the sound of a pack of coyotes howling. They were not far away, but far enough that he didn’t have to worry for his own safety. His fear about what had happened to Lucy was now replaced with an almost dread certainty. If they were out this early, then they must be hungry. It had still been dark when he had put her outside that morning, so this pack would probably have still been roaming. He clamped his mind down on the dark thoughts that imagination started to show him, and forced himself to focus on the trail. The light was fading quickly now, and it was time that he got himself home.

He continued to wave his stick in front of himself as he made his way along the path. The mosquitoes that had been harrying him had finally been driven away by a drearily cold breeze that pushed through the valley where he walked. He had been sweating in the warmth of the day as he exerted himself climbing hills and sliding down inclines, but now his sleeveless shirt was proving to be less than what was needed. It was the last day of October, so the weather was unpredictable and the temperature could be hot or cold, sometimes both, in very short time spans. The growing dark was proving to be a swing toward the colder side, and would be colder still as night set in fully with no cloud cover to retain the mild daytime heat.

He stopped to catch his breath as he crested a steep hill up which the rough track, a deer trail, had taken him. Home was probably less than a quarter of a mile away now, but the terrain was hard to navigate. The wind gusted through the swaying sage grass and leafless blackberry vines that choked the small clearing on the hilltop. Shivering as it chilled his still sweat soaked clothes; he pushed on with more urgency. The sun had now completely set, and the trees seemed to loom inward around the clearing. He made his way along the pathway the deer had left in the brush, snags on his arms made him slow his pace as briars tattooed their presence into small bloody points on his bare skin, and occasionally even his face. He stopped to move one particularly large specimen out of his path, pushing it away at its base with the toe of his shoe while separating it from its neighbors with a pinch of fingers carefully placed to keep from grasping the thorns.

As he paused to complete this intricate operation, he froze stock still as he heard swishing in the grass not far from him. It was hard to see, but a slight movement on his right caught his eye. He squinted and edged his head forward to try to make out what it might be. It was then that he heard an unfamiliar sound. At least, it was unfamiliar in that he had never heard it directly himself, only through recordings and television. It was the low, base, guttural, chuff-chuff-chuff growl that can only come from the throat of a very large feline. The sound sent an uncontrolled shiver radiating through his body. He became rooted in place, astonishment and fear gripped him as adrenaline surged without volition through his body. He mentally berated himself for having been so ignorant as to go into the woods without a weapon. Hell, he’d even dropped the spider stick he’d been carrying to deal with the briars. Despite the fact that no known large predators, other than perhaps a bear, inhabited the area, some instinct in him told his logic to go to hell. He was about to make a dash for cover in the nearest point of the tree line when he saw a shadow leap into the woods to his right and away from him. He couldn’t see it, but it was big. Bigger than anything he’d ever encountered in the woods. Bobcats were known to be in the area, but this was five or six times that size. He’d never heard of a cougar or mountain lion in this area, but there were old stories of panthers, even though they were many decades old, maybe even a century.

He backed away slowly, being as quiet as possible. The wind was in his face, so he made sure to keep it that way. His mind plotted an alternative path back to his house. It would be through a soggy area near a creek, and a cane thicket would have to be navigated, but it would keep him downwind of the animal. There was a very steep hill, almost sheer, that he would have to climb as well, but it was better than the alternative. The light was almost gone, and it would be pitch dark by the time he reached the creek.

As soon as he could find a large stick that was not rotted through, he picked it up so that he would at least have some form of defense. It probably wouldn’t do much good, but it made him feel better to have something in his hands besides wishes.

He retraced his steps back down the deer trail to the valley and headed east, going slowly to keep from making too much noise. He kept a wary eye to his right and up the rise in the general direction of where the object of his fear had been. He began to follow a small wash that wound northeast and would eventually take him to the creek where he could turn east toward home once again. He made his way slowly and carefully, mindful of twigs that might snap underfoot. He paused to listen often, trading the remaining minutes of flickering twilight for caution and stealth, though his pounding heart made it hard to hear anything.

He came to the cane thicket. Using his makeshift quarterstaff held vertically in front of him, he pushed slowly forward, trying to maintain as straight a line as possible. He kept his head tilted down between his shoulders to keep from getting slapped in the face by the sharp edged leaves of the cane. That did nothing for his bare arms, of course, which would be an itchy mass of small stinging cuts later. He frog-stepped forward to keep from getting his feet tangled in the tight-packed foliage which had become nearly impossible to see in the gathering shadows as he made his grinding way ahead.

Eventually, he found the creek, but the finding left him with a one waterlogged shoe and a left pant leg soaked to the knee in cold water. From there, he turned right and skirted the edge of the water carefully until the cane transitioned back into trees.

The light was completely gone now, and the darkness in the ravine where the water ran was so total that he had to feel his way to keep from running into trees. He held his makeshift club in front of himself horizontally, and slowly rotated away from anything it made contact with. His only guiding was in the form of the soft glow of distant skyline glow from cities and towns across the mountains. Stars showed through the open canopy; bright but useless points of light that merely taunted him in his lack of night vision. He began to get nervous that he might become lost and wander too far past the point he needed to turn back southward. He had never been in this part of the woods after dark, even when coon hunting. He was wandering in the dark like a blind man in a strange place. Low limbs slapped him in the face as the stick he held aloft bent them forward, and then released them like miniature catapults.

After what felt like an hour, he came to a point that was relatively clear of obstruction. He could make out the trunk of a very large tree against the distant glow of the skyline. He decided this must be the grandfather oak that he remembered. Even though it rested at the edge of the creek near the base of the steep hillside that dropped off at the edge of the open field above, its top still matched the trees on top of the hill for height. This meant that there was a steep but climbable path just past it on the right. He was almost home. Once he got to the top, his house should be a visible light source not too far away.

He made his way around the base of the tree slowly, and gazed upward to the right to try to pick out the gap in the skyline that might show him the path upward. Just as he identified where he believed it to be and began probing forward still using his stick to avoid obstructions, he heard splashing in the creek behind him at a distance.

Fear speared his already pounding heart once again, and he lunged for the hill. He scrabbled upward, grabbing small trees to help his climb, and using the stick as a pole where nothing else was available. His breath began to feel hot in his lungs as he panted from exertion and fear. He almost tumbled back as some loose dirt beneath his left foot gave way and sent him reeling. He saved himself from falling in a most painful way by grabbing a nearby vine which happened to be a saw briar. It tore at the flesh of his right hand as it slipped through before he finally gripped it tightly enough to hold. He grunted with the pain of it, feeling blood flow from his palm and along his wrist as he hung flopping with his right foot caught on a root. He swung himself back around, chest down on the steep slope and clawed with his left hand for purchase in the dirt an leaves on the hillside.

He could hear snuffling sounds below him. Suddenly, a startling cacophony as the howls of an entire pack of coyotes let out an eerie, mournful, howling that chilled his blood. They were not more than twenty feet below him. Fear and desperation pushed every thought and discomfort from his mind as he madly scrambled back to his knees and found purchase once again. Through blind flailing and luck he grabbed a small scrub tree in his left hand and pulled himself to a leaning stand and began to climb the hill again.

The sound of the pack beginning to make its way up behind him drove him on with a speed he never knew he was capable of achieving, even though in his current state of mind it seemed way too slow. It felt like he was living out one of the dreams where you need to run but your body only moves sluggishly or not at all.

He could now see the lighter skyline atop the hill about eight or so feet above him. Unfortunately, in his haste, he had deviated from the climbable path onto a narrowly edged portion of the hillside that fronted an even steeper incline, almost vertical. He felt along the edge, looking for a way to climb up; encountering the exposed roots of a large tree anchored at the top of the hill that also made a barricade of the ledge. The wash of water over time had exposed them, and made a cave-like indentation into the bank itself beneath the tree, but there was no way around it. Using one of the gnarled roots, he tried to pull himself upward. He managed to gain purchase on a small scrub tree on top of the ledge, but ended up with a face full of dirt as it uprooted and he fell backward. He grabbed at the large root, just barely keeping himself from toppling back down the hillside off the narrow foot ledge.

He pulled himself back up, scrabbling on all fours onto the narrow slanted bank ledge, using the roots for handholds. He was about to try to climb up again when his right foot was caught in vise-grip and his leg was pulled sideways. One of the coyotes had caught up with him and bitten into the toe of his hiking boots. It had not pierced the leather, but the grip was tight to the point of pain. It shook its head fiercely, its doglike growling intense from the darkness, trying to dislodge him from his now desperate grip on the tree root. It pulled him backward until he was stretched face down on the ledge. He kicked out with his other foot at his attacker wildly, and connected with its muzzle in the dark, eliciting a sharp yelp as it released him. He thought he could hear it sliding down the hillside in the leaves, but he couldn’t be certain.

He started to get up and try to climb again, but a deep threatening growl from only a few feet away caused him to go into a defensive crouch instead. He had dropped his climbing stick in the almost-fall earlier, so he had nothing to defend himself with but his bare hands and his booted feet. He decided he needed more cover so he scrambled backward trying to get as much of his upper body into the crevasse of the washed out root ball. The stray thought of snakes crossed his mind, but he had no other choice. He wedged his head, back and shoulders under the tree root, almost on his back, pulling his legs up as tight as possible with the right leg cocked back, ready for another good kick.

A second growling throat joined the first in the darkness. He grabbed the root above his face and braced himself for the attack that he knew was coming, but could not see. His heart raced with adrenaline and fear and his breath came in ragged gasps, hot in his throat. The snarling intensified and one of the coyotes let out a barking growl as it lunged at him from the dark. He screamed a guttural cry of inarticulate fear and rage as he kicked out repeatedly at the dark shape that had sunk teeth into his pant cuff and was viciously twisting and pulling. He connected with it several times, but could not dislodge it before a second coyote gripped him on the shin of his left leg. He could feel the hot pain of teeth sink into his skin even through the tough denim of his jeans. He screamed in pain, snatching the leg back despite the razoring pain it caused as he jerked it loose from the animals grip. He began spastically cycling his legs at the beasts, finally tearing his right leg loose from the grip of the first attacker. He kept it up, and eventually the dogs backed off, growling their displeasure at being thwarted in their aims.

He kicked out several more times at empty air, thinking each new growl and snarl was the precursor to another attack. His mind became numb as the pain in his leg began to overcome the adrenaline overdose that his body had been supplying. He was exhausted, scared and in pain, with no idea what to do.

He lost track of time as he huddled in place. He flinched at every growl and snarl as he cowered into the makeshift cave. He lived alone and knew that no one would be looking for him, at least not for a while. His only hope was that the animals would grow tired of this fight and leave for other, easier prey.

It wasn’t long before the outlines of the trees began to stand out more clearly. The light of a full harvest moon began to filter through the mostly leafless treetops. The air was cold now, and he began to see the faint wisps of vapor from his breath in front of him. He could also now see the outline of two black shapes that stood a scant yard away from his curled and prone form. Occasionally, the light of the brightening moon would glint from their eyes, giving an evil aura to their presence. He began to feel around him, picking out small clumps of slate rocks from around the tree roots. Once he had several gathered, he started tossing them at the coyotes, yelling as he did so. His precarious wedged-in position threw off his aim and most of the impromptu missiles fell well short of their targets.

He was trying to pry out more rocks to throw when the animals suddenly charged him again. The bright moonlight aided his sight now so that he was able to aim a kick, connecting with a snout and sending it yelping backward. It slipped on the narrow ledge and went scrambling downward, leaving only the one behind. It snapped at his legs, but he once again held it at bay with a rapid cycling of his feet. It backed off, and he was beginning to hope it might leave, when yet another pair of eyes shown from behind it, and then a third set. The odds were rapidly turning against him.

He prayed silently for help. He knew that that should have been his first step, instead of the last one made out of desperation. It always seemed to work that way with him; he asked for forgiveness and a chance to do better next time. Plans he prayed for in advance, but sudden problems he forgot about praying for until he’d done all he could do himself. This particular problem was a very distracting one, so his mind failed to ring that bell until it went into desperation mode.

He could see the three shadows with the slightly glowing green-yellow eyes stepping closer. They began to dance in and out, trying his reactions and looking for an opportune way to get to a better bite of his prone form. He kicked repeatedly, yelled, threw dirt – all to no avail as they kept feinting and trying for purchase on him. One snapped at his toe again, sinking its teeth into the rubber sole and started pulling back with frenzied head shakes. He began to feel the shoe loosen as he tried to kick it off. If he lost the shoe, it wouldn’t be long before he lost a foot too. He decided to chance an attack of his own using a fist sized chunk of dirt he had managed to rip from the root ball. He sat up and brought the clod around with a side arm swing that connected with the coyote’s face with a dull thud, the clod disintegrating on impact. The animal squalled in pain and surprise, releasing his foot.

The sudden lack of resistance let him wrench is leg back, but also upset his balance, rotating him half-way around. The second coyote had been waiting for just such an opportunity and lunged forward, snapping at his right shoulder. He screamed at the pain of sharp canine teeth sinking into his flesh.

Instinct kicked in and he swung both hands to grab the dogs head as it began to try to pull him away toward his waiting pack. He could feel the dogs ears and under his palms, so he did the only thing he could think of – he grabbed tightly and tried to use his thumbs to gouge out its eyes. He half-succeeded, sticking his left thumb into the dogs left eye, and with as much force as he could, squeezed.

With a yelp of pain and a jerk, the coyote broke off, bouncing back into the path of another that was moving in for the attack. The man took that opportunity to get to his feet and placed his back to the tree behind him so that he was no longer prone. He held his left hand over his damaged right shoulder and could feel the blood soaking into the torn rags of his shirt. He knew now that they were not going to leave him alone. He was cornered, wounded prey, and they would not leave a sure meal in hopes of finding another. His only chance was to try to climb again, get to the top of the hill and maybe climb a tree.

He scramble-jumped upward, throwing his left arm painfully between the small crack he could now see between the tree trunk and the sheer wall about six feet upward. It wedged in and he pulled with his elbow and clawed the dirt with his right hand, trying to scramble for purchase with his feet on the mostly vertical roots below. He managed to gain about a foot before a weight attached itself to his dangling right pantleg.

He grunt-schreeched in fear as he flung dirt and debris down on the animal now latched onto his leg. His fingers found the buried edge of a small root and grasped at it, desperate. He dug his fingers into the dirt surrounding it. He could feel one of his fingernails being torn off from the pressure, but he had to pull himself up. The added weight of the attacking coyote hanging from his pants suddenly released as the animal lost its grip. He used the momentum to pull himself higher.

Now he hung precariously at a slant on the side of the hill. He yelled in pain as he pulled himself forward up the hill; his damaged shoulder muscles screamed in protest. He slowly brought his left leg upward out of reach of the still snapping coyotes below him. He took a quick breath, and put all his weight on the root in his right hand while swinging the other over to join it.

He now had to find some way to climb up three more feet of almost vertical flaking rockface. The yips and howls of the coyotes below became frantic as their quarry seemed to be getting away. He chinned himself up on the root he had dug his fingers around. If anyone could see him, he would look like a caricature of spider-man, both legs bend at the knees trying to stick to the wall by sheer force of willpower. He shifted his grip slightly for better purchase with his uninjured left hand. Then, another quick breath, and he made a lunge upward with his right. He was rewarded with a face full of loose dirt and almost lost his precarious hold.

Three more times he tried this without success. His arms were beginning to quiver with fatigue. He knew if he didn’t do something quick, he would end up back down among the pack. He decided to try the grab with his left hand, hoping there was something to grasp on the other side, and that his shoulder would hold. He lunged upward and to his vast relief found another root to grab about two feet above. He clutched it, and pulled himself slowly upward. When he was as high as he could manage, he began to kick out a small area of the wall with his right foot. He managed to create a small area to put his foot into, then slowly tested it by releasing the weight he was holding up with his agonized right shoulder.

Once more lunge and he would be able to reach over the top of the ridge and hopefully grab onto something on the top strong enough to pull himself up by. He said another quick prayer for strength and was about to throw his right hand up when a shadow appeared above him, blocking out the skyline light. One of the coyotes had found the way up and came to the top of the ridge where he climbed, looking down at him with snarling fangs bared in the light. There was nowhere to go and no way from him to hang on much longer. His quivering arms and legs were about to let go.

He was a dead man. He stared at the shadowed face of the animal that was his doom. The pale full-moon light glinted from its eyes, and its snarling fangs also could be seen as it twisted its head at him as if in an evil gloat.

The man knew the majority of the pack waited below, and he had no chance against them in his weak and injured state. He couldn’t fight the many below, but maybe he could fight the one above. Besides, if this was to be the last thing he ever did, it would not be an act of surrender. With the last of his energy, the man swung his right hand upward, intent on grabbing the snarling dog himself to use as leverage for his climb. As his hand came down on the top ledge, it missed the animal who had whirled back suddenly. He grabbed at small sapling that smacked his wrist and, not knowing how much time he had to act, immediately lunged upward again with his left hand, finding more shrubs to grab.

Amazed that he was not yet being attacked, he hurried to pull himself up onto the ledge. He pulled himself up just high enough that he could swing a leg over the top and rolled enough to allow him to turn his left handed pull into a push. He rolled painfully onto his right shoulder, and then his back, was now firmly on the top of the hill. He quickly rolled another half turn and scrambled to his feet, preparing to defend himself from an attack that never came.

Instead, about ten feet to his right, he heard a cacophony of snarls and yowls unlike anything he had ever heard. He crouched low and moved forward, circling away from the noise. As he cleared the brush of the tree line into the open field he could see two shadowed forms circling each other. They were soon followed by a third form that came up the path that he himself had failed to follow up the ridge. Seeing that the odds were becoming uneven, the large of the shadows sprang forward with blinding speed. It let out an ear piercing scream that was a mix of half cat yowl and half terrified woman. It landed atop the first smaller shadow before it could even move, and a single sickening crunch of bone could be heard as it bit into the coyote’s neck, killing it in a single bite. It immediately rounded on the other coyote and ran toward it. The coyote, seeing its pack-mate dispatched so quickly, turned and began to tear back the path it had just come up.

The large shadow, obviously the big cat the man had originally been trying to avoid, followed after it. His stunned amazement at his sudden reversal of fortune left him standing in the field, labored breath coming in puffs of mist floating on the cool moonlit air. He could hear the horrible sounds of animal warfare echoing from the trees down below the ridge as the big cat took on the entire pack of coyotes.

It only took a moment for him to realize what an idiot he was being just standing there, and he took off in a quick lope across the field toward his house. He could see the light of the jack-o-lantern on his back porch grinning at him through the darkness, laughing at his efforts to finally reach a safe haven. He ran full tilt for a few hundred yards before the exhaustion caught up with him again, and he slowed to a slow, loping walk-run, clutching the stitch in his side.

He was less than one hundred yards from his house when he was slammed in his side, spinning him around, stumbling and falling sideways on the ground. He immediately tried to jump up, but found himself face to face with a vision out of his nightmares.

A face loomed down on him, framed by the moon behind it, and emitted a low rumbling growl that was more felt than heard. He had expected to see the visage of a cougar, or panther, but not this. Although it had the form of the lithe body of a black panther, what he saw in its face was something… other. She opened her jaws, revealing a sharp-fanged set of teeth dripping blood and saliva from the fight it had just been engaged in with the coyotes, and it hissed a hot breath into his face.

He instinctively lurched backward and put up his right arm for protection, but never once did he break eye contact with it – with her. He knew that now, but he didn’t know how he knew. The eyes were the most mesmerizing thing he had ever seen. They showed deep blue even in the darkness, as if imbued with an eerie inner light. The pupils were slit like that of a cat, but the eyes were not the typical almond shape of a cat, but more rounded, closer to that of a person. There was an intelligence here. They stared into his own eyes – and through them – into his very soul. The fear he felt melted. It was replaced with a peace that he would have been hard pressed to explain in words. The beauty of this creature was like nothing he had ever seen – no, seen was the wrong word – it was like nothing he had ever felt. If beauty were an emotion, this creature would be the embodiment of it. How could he have ever been afraid of her? He felt nothing but joy at the sight of her now. He reached out and gently touched her muzzle, feeling the hot breath on his wrist, the whiskers, stiff as wire, and the smooth softness of the fur along the side of her jaw.

“Lucy?” he asked hesitantly.

She backed away from him, continuing to stare into his eyes for a moment. He felt the answer. It was her, but not as she had been. Before, she had been just a pudgy gray, tan and white calico, but now she was something radiantly other.

She shifted her gaze to his right shoulder where the coyote had bitten him and leaned down to sniff the blood. She nuzzled the tattered shirtsleeve aside and, with a gentle swipe of her tongue, licked the wound. The pain in his shoulder lessened immediately, and as he looked, the wounds themselves began to glow with the same ethereal light of the cat’s eyes as they rapidly healed themselves. The light faded and no evidence that they had ever existed remained.

The cat that had once been Lucy looked at him again, closed her eyes, leaned her head into his and nuzzled him affectionately. Then, as quickly as she had appeared, she turned and ran into the darkness, her black form hiding her from sight almost in an instant.

He sat on the ground dumbfounded for quite some time. He found himself staring at the full moon and imagining it reflected from the eyes of a panther that had once been a calico, and that had saved his life. How was it possible? Maybe it was the full moon, or Halloween, or the nine lives of cats. He had no explanation for the things he had witnessed this night, but, as awful as some of them had been, he would never think to wish that it had never happened.

His heart and mind finally had to give in to the demands of his body as he began to shiver from the cold dampness. He climbed to his feet and made his way into his home. Two excited and somewhat irritated meows greeted him – with ulterior motives, of course – as they demanded he rectify their lack of supper. Cats, after all, will be cats.