Authors: Alan Black
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Published by arrangement with the author
Copyright @ 2014 by Alan Black
Cover Design: Amy Black, John Coleman, and Sophia Clark
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, distributed in any printed or digital form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.
Library of Congress Number: 1-1633916151
To my brothers, Steve and Gordon for their support. Their belief in me is a wonder.
-- Alan Black
This book wouldn’t be as complete without the assistance and suggestions of my alpha readers:
Steven Black, (www.blackwood-systems.com)
Bennett Beaudry (
and Anna Questerly (author of
The Minstrel’s Tale
Also, my chief editor Duann Black has made her usual insightful comments and changes.
Many thanks to John Vedder (author of
A Darkness from Beyond Universe – The Legend of Medes and the Birth of Hell)
for providing the most competent and thorough beta read and proofreading it has ever been my privilege to review.
Paul Bussard (author of
) provided a clear and valuable beta read.
As usual, any errors and mistakes are wholly my fault as this cadre of advisors struggled to make me heed their advice, sometimes unsuccessfully.
The cover was done under the competent oversight of Amy Black. John Coleman and the special help of Sophia Clark provided additional artwork. Their team is a rare amalgamation of unusual talents coming together to make a cover to a book without ever having read the words.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
TASSO MENZIES’S heart skipped a beat when he heard the ear-piercing screech of the jack-o’-lantern. The raging beast was close enough to hear its talons raking across the flat rocks near the tree line. Dropping the shovel, grabbing Grandpa’s old shotgun, and swiveling towards the noise, he switched the ammo selector to lead slug instead of the usual twelve-gauge chain shot. Neither chains nor slugs would stop a charging jack with a single round, so he flipped the lever to rapid fire automatic.
A small trickle of sweat dripped into his eyes. The sweat was more from throwing the last shovelful of sand, gravel, and rocks onto Grandpa’s grave than from worry about jack-o’-lanterns. Whatever the reason, he didn’t need blurry vision to interfere with his sight if a jack was on the hunt. He brushed the sweat away from his blue eyes and slicked his dark sweaty hair away from his face.
Tasso’s face was set with as much grim determination as possible for a boy just a few months short of his seventeenth birthday. He had a strong jaw, straight nose, and wide-set eyes. Clamping his jaw tight, gritting his teeth, his nostrils flared, trying to catch the jack’s foul scent, squinting in the gathering darkness, he hoped to catch a glimpse of the killer beast.
Jack-o’-lanterns had heads like their namesake: round, orange, with a gaping mouth and ragged cutting teeth. The rest of the animal was thick hide, knobby bones and steel-like tendons. The tough hide made better gaskets and belts for machinery than could be bought on the internet. Its tendons made wonderful springs, spacers, and washers. All six legs ended in paws that were more talon and claws than pads. They could scale a tree, shatter rock, and gut a human with equal abandon. There wasn’t enough meat or muscle to make a stew for one person, even if someone could stand the stench.
Tasso squatted down behind the small mound of scrap rocks he’d piled atop his grandfather’s body, slim protection if the jack decided to attack. The grave was on a slender rocky ledge a dozen feet above the valley floor with high canyon walls behind it. Neither a large pile of rocks nor a high rock ledge would give the slightest pause to a hunting jack.
He knew this was where his grandfather, Ralph Menzies, wanted to be when he died, right between Grandma and Tasso’s mother. The ledge overlooked their little valley. Their fields, all plowed and recently planted, were just beginning to sprout row after row of chiamra seedlings. A small stream cut the valley in half, giving the area a right and a left side. Thick swaths of neo-ironwood trees ringed the open field.
Tasso had spent most of the day using a rock hammer to make a deep enough cut in the canyon ledge to lay his grandfather down. Breaking rock and carrying the old man’s slight frame to the hole was a hard chore when working alone, but he’d kept at it until the job was done, not stopping, even for lunch. Each rock he tossed out of the hole was a tribute to Grandpa’s life of hard work. After laying the body in the grave, he found it harder to fill in the rocks than to take them out, the emotional anguish more of a challenge than breaking rocks ever would be.
Sun-One was just setting, glowing orange and pink in the sky, fading rays lit up the rocky canyon walls in a rainbow of colors. A ground fog settled in the valley’s low spots and reflected the sunset’s glow. The glory of swirling hues against the starkly tinted geo-stratus was a view Grandpa would’ve loved. Not that he would’ve stopped to look. He might have taken a quick vid or pix with his dataport for viewing later, but if there was still light, then there was still work to be done.
Sun-Two wouldn’t rise for months, not until its slow orbit around Sun-One brought it around from behind Sun-One and its light reached Saronno. This night would be a dark one, Saranno’s only moon, an oversized rocky satellite, wouldn’t be in the sky for another few weeks.
The jack’s screech cut through the dusk again, jangling Tasso’s nerves like the sound of fingernails dragging across slate. Night wasn’t the time to be outside of their stone-built house. The beast could see equally well night and day, but in the dark, a human couldn’t see to get out of the way of a hunting jack. Night was coming fast and their home, three small rooms hollowed out of the canyon wall and faced with heavy fieldstones, was out of reach across the valley.
Jack-o-lanterns, as a species, didn’t eat humans. They’d long since learned that humans were indigestible, but knowing that didn’t mean they wouldn’t kill a human if they had the opportunity. No one knew why jacks continued to hunt and kill humans. Experts said the animals were just following a killing instinct or engaging in territorial warfare. Many old-timers said jacks killed for the sport of killing, much like some humans.
When jacks hunted for food, their favorite prey was stobor, a gentle looking squirrel-type omnivore that would turn rabid and attack in packs without warning. Stobors got their name after a creature from Earth’s classic literature having the same brainless mass killing instinct. Tasso had never read
Tunnel in the Sky
because his grandfather didn’t approve of reading frivolous material. Tasso read the book reference in a guide on Saronno’s flora and fauna. They were the reason he carried the shotgun. A few blasts of chain shot, while not discouraging a pack of ravaging stobor, would kill them long before they ever became discouraged. The shotgun was the wrong tool for killing jacks. He could hear Grandpa’s voice echoing in his head, he said anyone who went hunting jack-o’-lanterns after dark, just didn’t know jack. Tasso didn’t get the joke, but it always made the old man laugh.
Whether the beast was stalking supper or just passing through, Tasso wanted to track down the jack and kill it, especially if this particular beast was the one they called Ol’ Ben. He’d wanted to kill Ol’ Ben for years, though Grandpa said no. Even after Ol’ Ben killed Tasso’s mother all those years ago, Grandpa resisted hunting and killing it. He said many things he expected Tasso to remember and one thing he repeated often was that it didn’t make sense to kill a jack-o’-lantern when the beast was doing nothing more than acting like a jack. That life-view of nature was a hard thing for a five-year-old boy to hear after his mother deliberately walked into the path of a jack-o’-lantern and stood, waiting to die.
All of these years later, Tasso still didn’t understand why his mother committed suicide. Grandpa tried explaining her despondency every time the question came up, insisting Tasso wasn’t at fault. No matter what Grandpa said, Tasso knew she let a jack kill her because of him. He knew the facts, but he didn’t understand the why. His mother had gotten pregnant out of wedlock. The man she thought loved her had run off. Rather than allow their daughter to bear the shame alone, his grandparents gave up their nomadic prospecting and mining lifestyle, brought their young daughter to their valley to help raise her son and grow chiamra, an export cash crop. Grandpa said his mother loved him and was never sorry he’d been born, but Tasso knew what a bastard was and knew he was one. He knew if he’d never been born, his mother would still be alive. He knew if he never came to be, she wouldn’t have walked out at dawn in her nightclothes and stood waiting for Ol’ Ben with a sad smile on her face.
The old man didn’t mind hunting and killing jack-o’-lanterns when he needed more gaskets, belts, hoses, and a myriad of other products they could make from the beast. He didn’t hunt jack for sport and couldn’t abide those who did. Jacks filled a necessary niche in Saronno’s ecology. They kept the stobor population under control. Stobors kept the sithe, trackles, and yapikino numbers down. The sithe, trackles, and yapikino kept a long list of small rodents and insects from procreating to pestilence levels. Humans wouldn’t survive even one planting season without jacks killing and eating stobors, and stobors were deadly, but necessary. Without stobors to fertilize and seed them, neo-ironwood trees wouldn’t grow. Without neo-ironwood trees nearby, the chiamra wouldn’t grow. Without the chiamra plants, there wasn’t any reason for humans to settle in the Saronno upcountry. Chiamra produced spice for export to the more settled and civilized inner planets.
Grandpa said killing jack-o’-lanterns was a perfect example of cutting your nose off to spite your face. His grandfather often talked in clichés, proverbs, and old quotes, nevertheless he refused to kill the beasts unless he had to, declining to kill Ol’ Ben even when he had him in his sights. Tasso was ready now for the beast to die. However, dusk was quickly sliding into full dark and he carried the wrong gun. The jack held the advantage. Tonight he would stay hunkered down behind the grave, sweeping the shotgun muzzle across the rocky cliffs and around the tree line, trying to watch every direction at once.
Tasso eased quietly backward against the canyon wall. He sat leaning against a tall rock and cradled the shotgun across his lap. He wanted to get to their fortress-like house with its steel hatch-like door and thick metal shutters, where he could be safe from all Saronno’s night beasts. He wanted to talk to Grandpa and hear his strong voice telling him of Grandma and their early life together. He couldn’t talk to his grandfather who died two days ago in his sleep from what the med-scanner said was a massive stroke. He wanted to talk to his mother and ask her why she left him. He couldn’t talk to his mother. She was long dead and buried on this ledge above the valley floor. In addition, he couldn’t get to his house.
In the early morning light, he’d brought Grandpa up to the gravesite to lie next to his wife and daughter. He hadn’t expected the burial to take all day and he hadn’t brought a bright enough light to get home. Even if the jack didn’t kill him, the night was too dark to navigate through the narrow gaps in the hedge of neo-ironwood trees surrounding their valley. The trees were so toxic that the slightest brush against one caused boils and blisters, the sap burned like acid, and the smoke from a burning neo-ironwood tree caused a person’s lungs to collapse. However, the tree’s extreme nitrogen exchange in the valley soil fed the chiamra plants and without them, the chiamra would wither and die, never reaching maturity to flower and bring the spice flower into blossom. If he could navigate safely through the trees, Tasso might have enough light from his dataport reader to find the door to the house, although it would still be dangerous to try. His grandparents built their home on a canyon ledge. It’d be an even chance whether Tasso found the house first or fell off the six-foot high ledge and broke something.
The weak glow from the stars and his reader wouldn’t be enough for Tasso to see Ol’ Ben before the beast bit his face off. Tasso heard the jack’s screech from far off down the valley. The beast must’ve wandered on. With nowhere to go, Tasso just sat. He pulled his dataport off the sticky patch on his shirt and turned it on. Grandpa said some ‘citified’ people kept their dataport constantly recording everything they did and broadcasting it to every person they knew. Grandpa said if anyone wanted to watch them work their fields, they could just come out and watch.
Tasso wasn’t worried about the light from the dataport attracting attention. Jack-o’-lanterns hunted at night and during the day with equal ease. Even if the jack doubled back, it would clearly see Tasso whether the dataport was on or not. Calling up his reading list on the dataport, he selected the next book on the list, a manual on the maintenance and repair of a Mifflin-Roberts Model 16A12 Matador Flitter. A technical manual wasn’t exciting reading, but Grandpa required it because they owned a Matador. The manual’s display popped into existence and hovered a comfortable two feet away. Its pale light added shadows in the darkness. Tasso tapped the display, moving it slightly up and freezing it in place so it didn’t block his vision should anything try to get close enough to make a midnight snack of him.
He thought about their little red vehicle, remembering clearly his last long trip seven years ago. They’d gone to the Lamont farm for the mid-summer Landing Day Festival. That was the day Tasso found out what a bastard was. A girl he liked, Trudy McDonald, had refused to sit next to a bastard. Also, that was the day he fought all three of the Lamont boys at the same time. He would’ve won the fight if the adults hadn’t broken them apart.
He and Grandpa never attended another Landing Day celebration. They’d never attended another neighbor’s gathering, wedding, funeral, birthday, baptism, birthing, or barn raising. Grandpa had even stopped hunting with his friend and next-door neighbor, old man Kemyss. Avoiding the neighbors was easy when the closest one lived almost a hundred kilometers away.
Tasso didn’t call any of the neighbors to let them know his grandfather had died. His only call had been to his uncle, Bruce Menzies, in Landing City. He didn’t expect much from his uncle. The man hadn’t been to the valley in longer than Tasso could remember. He couldn’t picture his uncle’s face without looking at the hologram on Grandpa’s dataport. He shrugged, the picture was now on his dataport as he’d downloaded all of his grandparent’s bits. Those files also contained everything from his mother and his grandmother. He’d seen the file headings for Grandpa’s father, his father’s father and even his father’s father’s father when he transferred the data. He was anxious to read as much of his family’s history as was saved. He wasn’t anxious to read his mother’s files even though he wanted to know why she killed herself.
Grandpa admitted to having an argument with Uncle Bruce years ago. The heated exchange hadn’t turned to violence, but Grandpa told his son to leave and not come back until he calmed down. Uncle Bruce never came back. Tasso didn’t expect his uncle to come and help bury Grandpa. He didn’t come when they put Grandma to rest and he didn’t come for Mother’s burial. True to Tasso’s expectation, the man claimed to be too busy. He had business meetings he couldn’t miss. He told Tasso to bury the old man himself or leave him to rot in the field. The man hung up on Tasso in mid-sentence.