Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Chapter 7


I kicked my legs and struck something that gave. Freed from the grip pulling me across the ground, I rolled, reaching for the shock wand I dropped when I’d been grabbed and yanked away from the wall. A heavy weight pounced on my back, shoving me into the soil. I inadvertently took in a mouthful, spitting and coughing. “Ugh. Ggg, groff!”

The stuff was like fine, powdered dust when dry and a sucking mud that clung when wet. I was in a mix of both from the heat of the fire and the damp of the morning dew. The weight of my suit was a fraction of what it could be, since it was made one of the latest models made from the lightest metals, but it was enough to hamper me when the thing attacking me bounced, pushing me even farther down.  

My heart pounded as I struggled to get my hands and knees under me and push. If I wasn’t mauled and killed, my vulnerable head crushed like a melon, then the next risk was suffocating. My hands slid, and I fell flat after only gaining the barest of gaps and room to suck in a tiny breath.

“Oof!” My heart pounded in my head, throbbing like a drum as my chest began to ache. New strategy. I braced with my left arm and leg and pushed.

The weight on my back suddenly disappeared, but I was already committed. I rolled and kept rolling over the warm remains of the fire until I hit the wall. Freed for at least the moment, I slapped the button and triggered my helmet. Sure, I was still covered in dirt, but I it was better than being covered with the slavering jaws of—


I blinked. Chirp. Chirp? I shook my head, blinking rapidly to dislodge the dirt tearing up my eyes. “Saint’s balls, you have to be kidding me.” I dropped my head back against the rock wall.

The adolescent red sprinter had followed me. It was sitting, ears forward, tail wrapped around its legs, spikes laying flat on its neck as it stared at me.


Standoff. Except he kept chirping. What was up with that bird noise? Bird. Young animal. My brain, which had been running slowly due to the massive adrenaline spike triggering or flight impulses, came back online.

“You can’t think I’m your mother. I fed you once!” Of course that reminded me my parents. My father wanted to know why they had to stop working to feed me—a habit I’d gotten used to since an infant— because if I could ask for food, why couldn’t I get it myself?

Staff had been hired to teach me after that. Or, as my father crowed to my mother. “Give a boy food, you have to keep feeding him. Hire someone to teach him how to feed himself, and you’re off the hook.”

I’d given the beast food, and now he wanted more. Or he’d pounce. 

“Chirp?” This was paired with an ear swivel and slow blink of those white eyelids over that intent black stare.

Definitely a demand. “I don’t see any grubs here, buddy.”

Nothing moved around us, to be honest. He was a predator; the teeth and claws paired with the powerful build made that obvious. But his thick skin, plates, and spines? Those were defensive characteristics, meaning one of two things. Either there were bigger predators or his kind hunted big animals that could do some serious damage.

Or both.

Either could be dangerous for me. I regretted not bringing along more weaponry. The shock wand had already proved useless. Still, I stretched out a hand slowly, watching him watch me, and curled my fingers around the shaft. Lifting it out of the dirt, I pulled it closer, trying not to startle him with any sudden movements. “I’m going to sit up now,” I said.

Using my free hand, I leveraged my body back against the wall, tucking my feet in so he couldn’t grab an ankle again. My suit was undamaged, thankfully, at least where I could see. No display readouts showed integrity or structural problems.

The adolescent sprinter was still spindly, his chest deep enough with long legs showing he’d probably reached full height unless males were larger than the females in his species, but he wasn’t filled out. Skinny due to lack of food or age?

Immediately latching on to me could indicate one or both. I sighed. What was a guy to do?

My parents had been self-involved. The staff had been paid to care. I’d taken an interest in biology because I’d been fascinated with animals and learning about their habitats evolved from that. Everywhere we went, I ended up adopting something. I usually couldn’t keep them; animals didn’t belong in the house, my parents insisted.

Still, I befriended animals everywhere wildlife of any sort thrived. I hadn’t done it on purpose this time, it was more just trying to stay alive and do a good job to prove myself worthy of my last name.

But I’d done it nonetheless.

I sighed and reached for my pack. I’d have to spend some time searching out food for him later as well as analyzing what might be edible and palatable to humans—they were not always one and the same—as we continued on.

Clearly he was hungry, and I was too. I wasn’t going to eat and not feed him, if he’d even let me without pouncing again. Odds were, if I did what I planned to do, he was just going to stick with me. Well, I’d be the only Ardra expert anyway, so I’d make it part of my research.

How to raise up a red-striped…. “What should I call you?” I mused as I rifled through my rations. 

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J Alan Veerkamp

Julie Lynn Hayes

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Ch. 6


My scans indicated there was a rocky outcropping nearby, and based on what I’d seen of the wildlife so far, I wanted nothing more than to put some solid stone at my back. Climbing would do me no good, and while the ground level was rarely safe either, I’d have to take my chances there. Setting up a shelter would take too much time, though I’d brought collapsible poles and and flex fabric.

I would fear what I couldn’t see. Being inside a shelter wouldn’t make the predators go away, and I’d rather see them coming. I’d make a fire; while extremely humid, this planet still had the proper conditions for thunderstorms. Lightning meant fire. Wild animals would fear it.

I’d make a fire. Between that and a rock wall at my back, hopefully I’d be able to get some sleep. Sleeping in a suit was never comfortable, but I wasn’t reckless enough to take it off either.


I found a rock wall that had a slight vee to the wall that would block some of the wind. I could tuck my body into the angle and be protected. With a fire in front of me, it was the best I could think of. I kicked some larger debris out of the way, getting an area of bare dirt. Pouring a tiny pool of fuel, I used an igniter and set it ablaze. It would burn for hours but I could help it along if I could find some dry tinder.

The last of the dying light gave me just a little time to forage. I came back with a scant armful, but three of the branches were as thick as my forearm. They’d take some time to burn.

Finally done, I settled down on the ground and leaned against the rock. The fire burned orange in front of me. My stomach rumbled.

Rations were adequate, high in nutrition and filling. I’d grabbed a few of my favorites. I pulled out a sweet carb-protein pack and unfolded it. Popping the ignition tab, I set it near the fire. It’d take a bit to warm and reconstitute. I poked another stick on top of the tripod I’d arranged over the pool of fire fuel.

The cliff had trees above it, vines stringing from one to the other. None hung down the rocks to be camouflage for those nasty limbless creatures. Dark shadows bunched across the sky, but I could catch small glimpses of stars between the thick foliage and the approaching clouds.

My dinner packet was puffed and steaming. I snatched it up before it could explode while I was stargazing. The last thing I needed to do was waste food. Pressing a button, I released the helmet shield and waited for it to retracted below my neck and chin.

Scents hit me first. Warm mud, green growing things, a hint of decay, sun-warmed rock, and the syrup-sweetened hint of steam from my dinner. Fire, smoke, and alien scents I couldn’t name from the plants and flowers and probably animals were all around me.

Then the heat. It was like sucking in lungfuls of wet air, like almost perceptible droplets drenched my nasal passages and lined my throat and lungs. Overwhelming at first, it was a stark contrast to the dry, purified air on ships and stations.

I leaned against the rock, staring up at the sky and just breathing. So many things had gone wrong today but here I was. I was the first to catalog this planet, the first to explore its wonders. I grinned and sucked up a mouthful of my ration. The gummy paste tasted almost good enough to overcome its texture, but my sudden elation was too overpowering to focus on trifling complaints.

Settling down to work, interspersing taking notes with sucking up bites from my dinner packet, I took at least an hour to record my observations from the day. I used the firelight to detail the insect I’d recovered, tilting the jar and examining it from every angle.

My dinner packet empty, I folded it and put it in the vacuum pouch to reduce the chance of drawing in any more wildlife. If grubs were a delicacy, the smell of my food would probably be irresistible. Nope, no thank you. I’d made enough stupid mistakes.

Sighing, exhaustion began to steal over me. Closing up my pack, I put the last of the sticks I’d gathered over the fuel. It’d probably last for the thickest of the dark hours. Better safe than sorry, I detached my shock wand from my suit and settled it across my thighs. Finding the flattest rock on the wall I could, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes.


Dawn was not long in coming. With the dual suns, my fuel hadn’t completely burned out before the first rays of the larger star was already breaking the horizon. I blearily opened my eyes, grumbling at the break in the foliage that let the brightness hit me dead on.

My wrist unit showed how little time had passed, so I closed my eyes and tried to go back to sleep. What I didn’t realize at the time was just how shiny my suit was and how the sun, which had cast a glare bright enough to wake me, also reflected on the metal of my suit.

My mistake was taken advantage of as soon as the fire burned down low enough that the limbs no longer burned, casting off the scent of deadly smoke. Hunger overcome even the remnants of that warning, and teeth clamped down on a limb and my metal suit chimed as it scraped against the rock as I was dragged sideways and away from the wall.

“Wha—” I face planted into the dirt, flailing, as I tried to roll away from the hold on my leg. 

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J Alan Veerkamp

Julie Lynn Hayes

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Wednesday Briefers: Ancalagon Chapter 5


It reached in again and scraped the log but pulled back an empty paw. Whining again, it jumped on top of the log, then reached again from the new angle, this time getting another small grub.

Sheer terror had me on the defensive, and I’d only thought I was observing the beast. I kept thinking I knew what it was, but no… I was wrong. This was not the same one I’d seen earlier. It wasn’t one of the young ones either.

It was between the two sizes. Not as a big, not as dark red. The stripes were just barely developing on its body. Its head and claws appeared to be large for its size still. A solo adolescent.

And it was thin. It lacked the musculature of the mature one I’d seen before and the rounded bellies of the young. Its belly arched high from a barrel chest. A sprinter with that build and thick hind legs, so it was a powerful jumper. I was pretty sure with those claws so it could climb.

It was starving, and I wasn’t safe going to be safe in the trees. The last thing I wanted to do was kill it. It was eating, maybe… I glanced over my shoulder. My pack was open a few feet away. If I had to, I’d leave it and come back.

Moving slowly, I pushed up into a crouch. Eyeing the beast as it clawed at the hole I’d dug into the log, I slowly straightened my knees. The soft ground aided me, muffling my steps as I began to inch away. I was nearly out of sight when the back end of the shock wand brushed against some leaves.

It was the faintest of sounds, but the creature’s large ears swiveled my way. It froze, tail lashing the only movement, until it leapt off the log and after me in two bounds.

“Agh,” I shouted, swinging the shock wand. It glanced off the hardened protrusions on its back, the end crackling as it made contact. It should have hurt it, stunned it, maybe even killed it since the creature wasn’t full-grown, though I never wanted to kill an unknown species if I could help it.

Instead, the electricity ran down the ridge on the beast’s back, then along its tail to zap into the air harmlessly. “Holy shit,” I whispered. It hopped, yipping as its tail shook. Did that hurt? I couldn’t tell. I tried to take a step back, and it stopped me, its body behind mine. I froze, looking over my shoulder.

It warbled at me, those dark eyes staring intently. Then it butted its head against my legs. Not to knock me down but to nudge me. Forward. It nudged harder, though my suit absorbed the impact. This time its tone took on a plaintive note as it warbled again.

Was it… crying? It nudged me, then brushed past me, stopping and looking back at me after a few steps. I took a halting step forward. It chirruped. I took another step, and it wiggled and then jumped like it was on springs, chirruping the whole time.

A smile cracked the tension locking my muscles tight, and I laughed. Definitely a juvenile. And it wanted me to follow it. The lack of hostility confused me, but I also wasn’t going to let my guard down completely. Going slow with small, careful movements, I followed the ruby bouncer back to the fallen log.

Warbling, it clawed the trunk, then plunked down on its haunches and stared. Those ears were straight up, the tail curled around the feet, and the eyes watched me intently… just like the young had with the older beast who’d hunted grubs for them.

Wait a second… was this thing treating me like its mother? I hesitated. It was hungry, it couldn’t eat me in my suit—I was pretty sure—and I could help it. Collapsing the shock wand, I inserted it back in my suit; it hadn’t done any good anyway.

Picking a fresh spot, I dug into the log. The beast’s ears quivered at the sound of the wood being pulverized and the metal chiming against the edges of the hole as I drew my fist back out. I peered inside for the telltale shiny shell.

“Well?” I waved at the hole. That head followed my hand, but all I dropped was splintered wood. “Get your own grubs, buddy.”

We began a stalemate. The light was starting to fade, and I didn’t have that much more time. I sighed, looking around for the forceps. There they were. I reached in, finding a grub. Remembering how the older one had tossed them to the young, I lobbed it into the air.

He caught it, mouth crunching the grub in half in one bite. The head with those ugly pincers fell to the ground. It chewed rapidly, then sat back down.

Okay, somehow I’d been duped into providing a meal for him. I plucked out the next grub I saw, tossing it to my waiting four-legged friend. Then I found another one toward the bottom of the hole, this one much bigger. It fought me, digging into the wood with its pincers, but I finally got it out… missing its head already. I threw it into the clearing, then dug my free hand into the wood, widening the hole. Yes! Several more grubs were visible. I plucked them out and crushed the heads as quickly as I could, tossing them at the adolescent who was gobbling them up to the heads almost as fast I dug them out.

Almost. It took me two more holes, but I had tossed out several more than he could eat. Forceps in hand, I backed to my pack and scooped it up. Yup, as I expected, food kept him completely focused, and I was able to hustle out of the clearing.

I rushed away as fast as I could. Fear had created a gloss of sweat over my skin my suit couldn’t counter, but I didn’t care. I’d survived.

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J Alan Veerkamp

Julie Lynn Hayes

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Ch. 4

They were gone. Straightening, I groaned as my back protested. Should I move on, try to find a camping spot?

“Wonder if they left any grubs?” Maybe I could preserve one. A small one. The big ones looked like they had pincers that could break a specimen jar if I didn’t get them sedated fast enough.

I stepped around the tree, eyeing the deep hole the big one left behind. A progenitor, most likely. Older siblings rarely had the patience to spend that amount of time feeding the young of a pack. That role typically fell to parents while adolescents had mock battles to hone hunting skills or supervised during downtimes.

That was, if the creatures were a pack animal that congregated in larger groups than a solitary parent who reared a litter and then pushed them out when they grew old enough to fend for themselves. Based on the size difference between the ones I’d just seen, that wasn’t happening soon. I spread my fingers over a slashed claw mark on the edge of the hole in the tree; they barely covered the wide tracks.

Well, claws I didn’t have, but the metal gloves of my suit were indestructible—at least by anything on this planet. Certainly some rotted wood was no challenge.

Grabbing my pack, I gathered my supplies and prepped the jar. I could camp here in the clearing.

I dug my fingers in. The top layer crumbled, but then my fingers were stopped. Grunting, I leaned into it, arcing my fingers and pressing my full weight into the wood. It snapped and cracked under the force. I grabbed a fistful of pulp and yanked it out.

The wood crumbled as I drew it out. I tossed it aside. Peering into the hole, I looked for a grub. “Aha!” One was squirming in a furrow by the hole I’d dug. Grabbing a specimen jar and forceps I’d packed, I plucked the wiggling insect out of the wood.

The purple grub had pincers, or maybe mandibles might be a better description. Something had to be making those furrows, and it didn’t have legs or claws. It ate its way, and with how strong that wood was?

I wasn’t going to touch that mouth. It writhed around the forceps, whipping its body back and forth. “Sorry, buggy. It’s all about the science.” Into the jar.

The chemicals paralyzed it instantly, and it went still. Capping the jar, I lifted it. No eyes, but pits near the mouth could be sensory organs. The hard shell certainly wasn’t porous. So it breathed and ate from the same hole—the mouth. And yes, a tiny excretory hole.

I ran my scanner over it, but rattling in the bushes distracted me from the readout. A branch broke. Then another.

Dropping the jar into my pack, I reached down to my thigh and pulled out the shock wand built in. Twisting the edges, I extended it, activating the power cell. Both ends popped open and spread apart. I panted, cursing my stupidity. Yes, camp next to a known food source. Seriously.

One day in the field, and I’d forgotten the basics in staying alive. I was an idiot. I wouldn’t have to worry about Captain Sonez, my own stupidity would keep me from getting to explore planets. My first one was going to be my last one.

I’d be the dumbass biologist who was found next to the newly-discovered bug. They’d name the grub after me so I’d live on in infamy… Essell Idiotus Grubus. Or some other such horrifically humiliating thing. A red snout poked through the bushes, and I stepped back. Screw the pack, I’d come for it later. The head was next, held super low.

Was that a hunting posture? Head down, flanks up? About to leap? Could it leap? “Oh fires of Hell….” That was the creature that was here before. There were the multiple eyes, the large ears. This time they were swiveled forward, aimed at me.

At my heartbeat? It was racing fast enough. Like prey. Panicked, jumpy. My breath sped. It couldn’t smell me, not through the suit, so it must be the sound with those ears.

Spikes ran down its neck as it stepped forward. I stepped back instinctively. It wasn’t quite as dark red as before. Maybe that was the light fading. Or a hunting mechanism. Fade into the background? Mute its colors as camouflage?

Both front legs were out now, and it stared at me with those dark eyes. Black on black, solid centers. A white membrane nicked over the outer pair and then away. My brain wouldn’t stop categorizing the damn thing’s features, but I should be thinking of a way of using my shock wand against it. The skin looked armored, pebbled along the head, legs, and shoulders, with a thicker plating along the upper neck and spine as far as I could see.

Maybe the underside of the neck? It was paler there. Those eyes. I’d have to avoid those claws; they looked sharper than tenstanim alloy. The creature crept in, now more than halfway into the clearing, and I took two rapid steps backward.

It hissed, baring short, sharp teeth and fangs at me, and I gasped. I stumbled, falling backward over a spongy root. I clutched the shock wand as I fell, trying to face one end up.

I was down, vulnerable, as far as the beast knew at least. This would be it. I held my breath, but the pounce didn’t come.

I wasn’t the target. The creature went to the log, to the hole I’d dug, and stuck its snout inside. It snuffled, then whined. Then it reached in and scraped the edges of the hole, pulling back a grub slightly smaller than the one I’d taken for a specimen.

Chirping, it tossed the grub into its mouth. Those sharp teeth cracked through the shell, a line of pink ooze dribbling over its chin.

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J Alan Veerkamp

J Ray Lamb

Julie Lynn Hayes

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Chapter 3


Ardra was humid. The ground was moist, grasping at my feet as I walked. There were places I had to avoid because my suit made me too heavy. At least it was enviro-controlled. Without that, I might have roasted inside the shiny silver metal.

Dual suns. I’d never been in a system lit by twin stars, but of course I’d studied them. The plants here grew large. There was an excess of moisture, both on the ground and in the air. The leaves were large, broad, soaking up the sun. Vines ran everywhere. In more open spaces, thick stalks with multi-hued feathery fronds swayed in the breeze.

It took some time before animal sounds began to infiltrate the quiet. I moved slowly, quietly, tracking my path and using a tiny drone above me to record my journey. I was an intruder into the ecosystem, but even an unknown couldn’t hold back life forever.

Animals began to move.

“Whoa.” That thing was… huge. At first I’d thought it was a vine. There were some with divots in them, little wells that looked like they collected fluid that reflected a deeper color. This… squamata species mimicked the colors, but appeared to be scaled. I could only see the top and side from the drone’s view, so I wasn’t sure if it has legs or was limbless. If it did have them, they were very well camouflaged as it wrapped around a branch nearly as thick as my leg at the base near the tree before it narrowed to wispy finger-like fronds nearly three arm-lengths later. The head, a bulbous protrusion, swayed gently on the narrow end, tiny flares of its nostrils the only clue to its living status.

I hurried away from that tree, hoping there weren’t more nearby. Maybe they were solitary creatures and territorial.

Worst case would be if it was a species that liked to swarm. Or hunted prey in a pack.

At least half a klick later, I finally slowed. My rush had scared the wildlife again, and I cursed myself. At this rate, I was going to be a laughingstock. I carefully scanned the trees around the small clearing I’d found.

Nothing showed up on the drone’s sensors.

Sighing, I dropped onto a thick root bubbling out of the soft ground. It was spongy, just like everything else here, so it was actually somewhat comfortable. “Give yourself a break,” I said. “It’s not your fault the first thing you spotted just happened to be the one thing that gives you the biggest creep out.” I shuddered, imagining the tree writhing with limbs covered in those long, scaled bodies. How they might move, slithering around, up and down.

Ugh. My stomach churned. “Gross.” There was just something terribly disturbing about legless creatures’ locomotion patterns.

I shifted and leaned back against the tree, trying to get comfortable with my pack still attached. The gravity was doing me in. I’d only gone about half the distance I’d wanted to, but the struggle to lift my feet was getting the better of me. Excitement and fright could only move my body so far so fast.

Cocking my head, I listened closely. Scratching.

Inside the tree?

I dampened my external oxygen valves, holding my breath so my suit’s mechanics were muted.

Yes, there it was. But… it was barely audible. Was it in the tree? I shifted and touched the bark with one hand. Heat and motion sensors probed under the surface.

No. That wasn’t where I sensed it.

Farther away. Still from the tree… but not this tree. Huh. I glanced around. Were they all connected? The roots did sort of writhe over each other, which made walking hard and tripping too damn easy.

Scooting forward, I pushed back to my feet, holding in a groan by sheer will. I had to find that sound. Couldn’t rest there on the ground in the open anyway.

I shuffled forward, following the knots of roots that poked above the ground before plunging back under, splitting and diverging and coming together in different paths. Stooping, I touched the wood. I felt my way along, sensing the scratching getting louder, more distinct.

Scritch. Scritch. Pause several seconds. Scritch, scritch, scritch, scritch. Pause again. Repeat. Exactly that same pattern, over and over. What if it was some sort of message? What if it was a being the survey had missed?

My stomach dropped out at the idea, and I nearly stopped. But I was so close, and, as always, my curiosity got the better of me. I was so close I could hear the scrape on the wood, not just feel the vibrations and sense some strange echo.

Swallowing hard, I disengaged the shock stick sheathed along my thigh, then silently extended it. The tip would emit a deadly glow when active. That wasn’t my plan, but it could also cause memory loss on a lower voltage.

Creeping close to the widest tree I’d seen yet, I peered around it.

Sitting in a perfect half-circle were four small quadrupeds. They had multiple eyes, a narrow snout, and dark, glittering eyes. Eyes focused on the much larger, much darker, red-striped adult using wickedly curved and pointed claws to tear out the center of the rotting tree.

Even when it dug out a grub—clearly its goal—the younger ones were silent as they fought over the wriggling grubs. Two got on either side of one and pulled it apart in a ooze of pink slime as its shiny shell cracked and the flesh was exposed.

Oh yeah, these things were not something I wanted to tangle with. Still, retreating would be too noisy. I crouched there, regretting my need to follow anything that piqued my interest, for what seemed like forever.

When I dared peek again, long moments after the scratching stopped, they were gone.

Melted away. No sign of them in the bushes or through the big fronds between the smaller trees, and the drone would have picked up if they’d passed me.

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J Alan Veerkamp

Julie Lynn Hayes