Thursday, November 26, 2020

Driving the Storm (Inktober, Saturday, October 17, 2020)

For Inktober, Saturday, October 17, 2020. Prompt word: "storm." Tuckerization: Sandy Dice Jones
A reminder that volunteering for tuckerization only means a character in the story shares the participant's name. Other than that, there are no other similar characteristics implied. 
Driving the Storm 
by Alan Loewen 

Volcanic ash threatened to coat the windshield, and Sandy thanked her lucky stars for the thousandth time she was driving the Storm. A regular vehicle's engine would have choked on the thick clouds of ash. The abrasive grit blowing on the windshield at hurricane force would have scarred normal glass to the point of destroying all visibility. 

Gusts of wind tracking 150 miles per hour rocked the vehicle while lightning created by ash particles turned the view outside into a hellish nightmare straight from the mind of Hieronymus Bosch. 

Since the Yellowstone supervolcano eruption ten months ago, ashfall, nuclear winter, and hurricane-level winds had brought civilization to a quick end. Now, North Americans could do nothing but hunker down, pray the volcano was not going to usher in an XK class end-of-the-world scenario and find new ways of surviving. 

Blowing ash and lightning had reduced Sandy’s radio transmissions to worthless squeals of static. It was impossible to let Alpha Base know she had to leave her partner behind at the last outpost with a broken leg when Anne took a bad fall. Trying to walk to the back of the vehicle, the Storm had taken a bad lurch spilling Anne into a bunk. Sandy could still remember hearing the crack as Anne’s femur snapped. 

Now Sandy sat in the driver’s seat of a massive vehicle, the Storm, thirty tons of strengthened steel and titanium created for an event just like this. Normally it required two people to operate, but now Sandy learned how lonely it could be as the elements tried their best to destroy the Storm taking her with it as well. 

Once again, Sandy took a quick glance behind her seat. The cargo, a hundred cases of medicine for Outpost Four, sat safely strapped from the jostling the Storm received from the wind and ash outside. The SOS from the Outpost had said the need was great, and Sandy was determined to get the medicine to the outpost as soon as possible. 

Plowing through drifts of ash, the reinforced front of the Storm also had the ability to knock aside abandoned cars, and stretches of I-81 could be a maze of vehicles abandoned when people tried to flee the choking clouds of heated ash. 

Coming up on the bridge that crossed the Susquehanna River, Sandy brought the Storm to a sudden halt. In the light of the halogen headlights punctuated by flashes of lightning, Sandy could see the road simply disappeared just twenty yards ahead of her. 

The bridge could not stand against the sludge of the Susquehanna; the river's waters turned into a thick porridge of ash and water. 

Sandy’s hands tightened on the steering wheel as she put the Storm into reverse. Seven bridges crossed the river in this area, and Sandy hoped one still stood. 

Half an hour later, Sandy found only one way of access still standing, a railroad bridge. 

Sandy peered through the wind-driven ash, unable to see the far side of the river. It was possible that the bridge may have fallen at the far end or the way was blocked by a locomotive, but there was no other choice. 

Carefully, Sandy eased the Storm onto the tracks and slowly began to cross. 

After fifteen minutes, Sandy could still not tell how far she was across the river. The tracks simply disappeared into the ash-driven wind. She hoped she would not meet an obstacle that would force her to back up, but Sandy had no choice. 

Trying to stop the ache in her chest by slowing her breathing, Sandy’s hands ached from their white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. Suddenly, the world outside turned white, and an immediate roar of thunder followed the lightning strike outside.  

Sandy heard the bridge groan, and the Storm began to tilt as the bridge began to crumble. In her rearview monitor, Sandy saw the bridge behind her twist and crumble as it began to fall into the river. With a scream, Sandy stomped on the gas, hoping there were no obstacles in front of her. 

Sandy put the Storm into a higher gear, desperately trying to stay ahead of the bridge collapse. It was then she saw the stalled locomotive on the tracks some fifty yards ahead of her. 

Knowing it was certain death if she fell into the river below, Sandy pushed the Storm to its maximum speed and thanked God when she saw the train had stopped twenty yards ahead of the bridge. 

With a jerk of the wheel, Sandy could steer the Storm off the bridge and away from the train. A shower of sparks as the front of her vehicle scraped the train was a bright finale to the danger Sandy had faced. 

Two hours later, Sandy drove the Storm into the long driveway of Outpost Four. Toggling the signal that would open the massive entrance to the outpost, Sandy watched the door open to the well-lit garage that could easily fit four vehicles the size of Storm.

The ashfall still prevented her radio from working, but Sandy was surprised that nobody stood ready to greet her and take charge of her lifesaving cargo. There was no waiting medical team, nor any engineers and mechanics waiting to go over the Storm and prepare her for her trip home. 

Turning the Storm’s ignition switch off, Sandy felt the great vehicle give a final shudder.

Ten minutes later, Sandy opened the door of the Storm and stepped down into the huge silent garage. 

With her jaw set firm, Sandy swept the area with her Mossberg 500 tactical shotgun. Something was very wrong at Outpost Four, and it was her job to find out what was going on. 

No rest for the weary, Sandy thought, but she knew if her partner was here, Anne would say something different. 

A woman’s work is never done. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Pocket Monsters (Inktober, Friday, October 16, 2020)

For Inktober, Friday, October 16, 2020. Prompt word: "rocket." Tuckerization: Jasmine Smith 
A reminder that volunteering for tuckerization only means a character in the story shares the participant's name. Other than that, there are no other similar characteristics implied. 
Pocket Monsters 
by Alan Loewen 

Legal: Pokémon. © 1995–2020 Nintendo/Creatures, Inc. and GAME FREAK, Inc. 

Jasmine hid under the bushes hoping the dark forest would conceal her from the people who sought her and Hinoarashi. She could feel the tiny cyborg trembling under her arm where it snuggled close to her. In the shape of a fire mouse from a popular anime and card game, the creature looked like a cross between a tiny anteater and rodent with a bristly, bright red and yellow crest of stiff hair springing from its back. 

It had cost her almost two months of salary. But despite the expense, it was not unusual to now see hundreds of them in hundreds of different shapes dutifully following their owners down the streets. 

And now she and Hinoarashi were being stalked by a rogue group of pocket monster owners who had illegally adapted their cyborgs to fight. Calling themselves Team Rocket as a sick reference to the anime, they had kidnapped Jasmine and Hinoarashi. They brought them into the woods so their own pocket monsters could learn fighting techniques by attacking non-hacked cyborgs. 

Jasmine tightly gripped the jagged rock she had found. Slightly larger than a softball, she hoped she didn't have to use it as that meant she and Hinoarashi had been found. 

The bushes in front of her rustled, and Jasmine looked up to see the vegetation had been parted. She looked up into eyes that glowed yellow and green. Standing six feet tall, the cyborg stood on two feet. Long white hair descended behind it to its waist and covered most of its chest. Its fur was a combination of red and yellow. 

It opened its mouth and gave out an ear-splitting screech. Some distance away, Jasmine heard somebody call out. "Bursyamo! Did you find them?" 

The pocket monster opened its mouth, and Jasmine could smell the flammable liquid the creature used for saliva. In a moment, it would spray and ignite, and Jasmine and Hinoarashi would be burned alive. 

Quickly, Jasmine reached out, grabbed Bursyamo's feet, and pulled them swiftly toward herself. Knocked off balance, the pocket monster fell backward, and in seconds, Jasmine sat on top of it, making short work of its head with the rock she held. What felt like an eternity, the cyborg's thrashing stopped. 

Grabbing Hinoarashi, Jasmine tried her best to run away from the direction of the voice. Bursyamo's owner didn't sound that far away, and it would not be long before he discovered his pocket monster's fate. The two Team Rocket members would now have another reason to make sure Jasmine and her pocket monster didn't leave the woods alive. 

The forest was dark, but enough moonlight filtered through the trees to help Jasmine in her flight. Running with Hinoarashi tucked under her arm, Jasmine could avoid most of the trees even though the roots and low-lying vegetation threatened to trip her. 

Hoping to come out on a road, Jasmine heard the sound of running water and directed her flight toward it. 

When she came out to the bank of the stream, she paused. The stream was wide and deep, and the water swift and high. 

"Well, well, well," Jasmine heard to her left. Spinning around, Jasmine saw the female member of Team Rocket grinning at her in the moonlight. Next to her crouched her pocket monster, a creature that looked like a squat miniature rhinoceros but covered in armor that Jasmine knew would be rock-hard. Though only three-feet high, Jasmine knew that the pocket monster was one to be feared. She had already seen it in action, and it was only by luck she and Hinoarashi were able to avoid its charge earlier that evening. 

Jasmine scooped up Hinoarashi in her arms. "Pocket monsters were never meant to actually fight," she said. "What you're doing goes against their programming." 

The young woman shrugged with a smirk on her face. "Anything can be hacked," she said. "And pocket monsters were always fighters. It's what they were meant to do. It's what they were created for." 

A voice suddenly called out from the dark forest. "Jessie! Where are you?" 

"I'm over here. I got them trapped by the stream." The woman called back. "Follow my voice." 

Moments later, a young man burst out of the underbrush, his face a mask of fury. He pointed at Jasmine. "She killed Bursyamo," he shouted. "Kill them, Jessie! Kill them both!" 

"Done," the woman said. "Attack, Sihorn!" 

With a roar, the pocket monster charged. 

Desperate, with no exit available except one, Jasmine jumped into the stream. 

The stream was only waist deep, but the swiftly flowing water knocked her feet out from under her. Trying her best to hold Hinoarashi above her head, Jasmine quickly floated downstream. 

Behind her, Jasmine heard the woman shriek, "Sihorn, stop!" but a sudden splash behind her let Jasmine know the command had come too late. 

Pocket monsters were water-resistant but not waterproof. And much to Jasmine's shock, she suddenly heard the report of a loud explosion and the screaming of the man and woman Jasmine left far behind. 

Doing her best to hold Hinoarashi out of the water, the stream carried both of them down to where the water became quieter, and Jasmine could stand without difficulty. Gasping, she made her way to the bank and flopped to the ground. 

Hinoarashi nuzzled her. Checking him for damage, Jasmine was relieved to find no injury from the water or her flight through the forest. 

The explosion puzzled her. Indeed, pocket monsters were not supposed to have that strong a reaction to being immersed in water. The cyborg must have been hacked in more ways than one. 

Nonetheless, Jasmine thought to herself, Team Rocket certainly blasted off again.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Outpost on Ceres (Inktober, Thursday, October 15, 2020)

For Inktober, Thursday, October 15, 2020. Prompt word: "outpost." Tuckerization: Jared Loewen
A reminder that volunteering for tuckerization only means a character in the story shares the participant's name. Other than that, there are no other similar characteristics implied.

This story is adapted from a current work in progress. 

Outpost on Ceres 
by Alan Loewen 

“Welcome to Thule Air Force Base, sir!”

Lieutenant Colonel Jared Loewen stepped down from the helicopter and returned the salute, barely able to hear the man over the shrill whine of the rotor blades. The turbulence blasted the snow-covered ground sending sharp ice crystals into his eyes.

“Major General Ashcroft wants to see you right away, sir.”

Jared nodded and followed the man to a squat bunker. Inside, warmth and feeling slowly returned to his cheeks.

“This way, sir, unless you need to use the facilities first?”

“No, thank you,” Jared responded. His promotion to Lieutenant Colonel a day earlier resulted in a slight pay raise and new orders to report to Thule Air Force Base, a relic of the Cold War located 950 miles south of the North Pole, a post so desolate that supply ships only dared the ice pack once a year.

Jared's escort led him to a prominent oak door with Major General Anthony Ashcroft inscribed on a brass nameplate. His escort held the door open and Jared stepped inside to see the General’s aide, a man the same rank as Jared, rising from the desk where he sat.

“Welcome to Thule,” the aide said. “General Ashcroft will see you now.” He turned and held open the inner office door for Jared.

Inside, Ashcroft sat behind his desk, his office a quiet testimony to austerity and focus. Jared stood at attention until the man deigned to acknowledge him.

After a few minutes, Ashcroft put the papers he was studying to the side. “At ease, Colonel. Please be seated.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Coffee?” Ashcroft asked.

“No thank you, sir.”

The General shrugged. “It can easily hit 20 degrees below zero here. If you’re not a coffee drinker now, you soon would be, but you won’t be here long enough.” Ashcroft stood and walked around his desk to sit on the edge. “Congratulations, by the bye, on your promotion.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I pushed it through myself.”

Jared paused in surprise. “You, sir?”

“Yes. You have a Q-sensitive security clearance because of your work at Cheyenne Mountain. You’ve dealt with nuclear material, you saw action in Afghanistan and Iraq so you have combat training, and other factors as well as personal interests that make you suitable for a special assignment.”

Jared's mind raced for something to say. “Thank you, sir. I won’t disappoint you, sir.”

Ashcroft frowned. “You had better not. Too much rides on this decision.”

“Sir…” Jared paused for a moment. “May I ask what personal interests of mine you are referring to?”

Ashcroft ignored the question. He walked back around his desk and tapped the intercom. “Is Moody here yet?”

“Yes, sir,” came the response. “Shall I bring him in?”

“No. Colonel Loewen will meet him out in the office and Moody can escort him to the staging area.”

“Yes, sir,”

Ashcroft turned his attention back to Jared. “Chief Master Sergeant Moody will escort you to your new command. Good luck.”

Jared stood and saluted.

Moody was a short man with a no-nonsense air about him. “Chief Master Sergeant Bryan Moody, sir. If you’ll follow me, sir.” Jared returned the sharp salute.

Jared matched the man’s stride as they walked down the corridor. “What can you tell me about the new assignment, Sergeant?”

“My apologies, sir. General Ashcroft directly ordered me not to answer any questions until we reach the staging area.”

The first stop was at a guarded elevator that read both palm prints and retinas under the silent gaze of two armed men. The Sergeant punched the button for the fourth floor down.

The two men stood staring at the flashing numbers on the elevator screen for a few moments. The Sergeant cleared his throat. “I understand, sir,” he asked, “that you have some interest in fantasy and dark fantasy entertainment?

Jared bristled. “You’re out of place, Sergeant. My personal interests are none of your concern.”

“My apologies, sir.” The elevator door opened. Across the hallway, a large window looked down over a large well-lit room. The Sergeant stepped forward and pointed to the room below.

It was a mess hall and Jared stared down at the hustle and bustle of activity for three full minutes before he spoke.

“I don’t understand. What is this?”

“Welcome, sir, to Operation Leviathan,” the Sergeant said. “These are your troops. If you would please follow me?”

Jared ignored him, staring down at the mess hall below. “They’re real aren’t they?” he said, his voice a shocked whisper. “Are they aliens?”

The Sergeant rejoined him back at the window. “No, sir,” he said. “Back in the 1980’s the military started uplifting rabbits. They’re the species best suited for the job they have to do.”

Jared stared down at the creatures below. Standing on two legs, a little less than five feet in height, they wore identical loose-fitting regulation khaki clothes, lop ears tossed back over their shoulders. Finely furred hands worked spoons and forks as they ate.

“I need to sit down,” Jared said.

“We have a chair for you right here, sir. Your reaction is quite normal, if I may say so, sir.”

Sergeant Moody took a folding chair leaning against the wall and arranged it so Jared could sit and still observe the activity below.

“This is why you asked me about my interest in my types of entertainment,” Jared said.

“Yes, sir. You once attended a large literary conference. Do you remember the group that showed up? The one that did the surveys?”

“Yes. We were told they were psychology students from the local university. Those weren’t confidential surveys after all, were they?” Jared said.

“No, sir. The military used them specifically to sort out thousands of people to find the ones most suitable for operations of this sort. You passed muster. Only one in four thousand can.”

“So you’ve recruited civilians to this as well?”

“Within reason, sir.”

Jared shook his head in bewilderment. “I’m going to be working with anthropomorphic rabbits. I have acquaintances who would sell their souls for an opportunity like this.”

“Let me show you to your quarters, sir, and then I’ll introduce you to your team. They’ll brief you on our situation.”


They stood at attention when Sergeant Moody opened the door to the small conference room. Out of the five present, one was human, and the rest were the rabbit-human hybrids Jared had seen earlier.

Up close, they looked delicate, their faces a unique blend of human and lapine. All of them were covered in gray fur with white fur covering the lower jaws and the front of their necks, and though they all had long hair on the tops of their heads, only one of them had hair tumbling down around her ears.

They all wore the same loose-fitting regulation clothing, more for modesty as their fur would have served to keep them warm.

The human member of the team wore a double bar on his shoulder showing him to be a Captain.

“Please be seated,” Jared said, almost choking on his words from his conflicting emotions. Moody pulled out a chair at the head of the table for Jared and then took the empty chair to Jared's right.

“I have received no intel about this operation,” Jared said. “How do we start?”

The human spoke up first. “Captain Jay Griffin, sir. If you’ll permit me, I may as well start.”

Jared nodded.

“First, please allow me to introduce the others.” Griffin pointed to the creature on his right. “This is Lapine First Class Enoh.” His hand moved to the next one. “Lapine First Class Thane and then Lapine First Class Oath and,” he pointed at the one with the long hair, “this is Illatha. Illatha is your aide and secretary and she is very capable.”

Jared simply nodded in response.

“If I may?” the Captain asked. Without waiting for a response, he picked up a small remote and pushed a button. At the end of the room, part of the wall slid open to reveal a monitor. A star system appeared with four planets orbiting around it.

“What you’re seeing, sir,” the captain continued, “is Gliese 667, a triple-star system in the constellation of Scorpius lying at a distance of about 22 light-years from Earth. On November 1st, 1964, we detected a strong radio signal from the third planet in the system from the main star.

“The radio signal contained video instructions on how to construct a device that would allow a radio signal to cross several light-years in less than a week, what we have come to call a ‘subspace squirt.’

“That introduced us to the Chental, a friendly race of aliens who just wanted to talk to their neighbors. Lacking the technology for interstellar travel they assumed that distance protected them from any race that had warlike tendencies. They reasoned if they themselves hadn’t discovered a way to go from star to star, nobody else could either.”

“And it is from them we also learned to …” Jared paused. With what words could he even use to refer to the rabbit-like creatures that sat around the table?

The captain smiled, seemingly aware of Jared's discomfort. “The list of technologies the Chental gave us is impressive. The U.S. military made great strides in genetic engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, nuclear fusion, exobiology, quantum physics, and others. The Chental are pacifists by nature. We never let them know that we utilized their technology for our military.”

Jared thought for a moment. “And this information is known only to us?”

The captain shook his head. “No, sir. There is a federation between our allies because there is a greater problem.” He clicked the button in his hand and the picture on the screen changed.

Staring back at Jared was a hairless, warty humanoid face with yellowish skin. Its small mouth above a receding chin would have given the creature the look of an idiot if not for the large red eyes that shouted of malice and cruelty.

The captain continued. “The Chental also made contact with another race some five years after we responded to their signal. What you’re looking at is what calls itself the Kiga and they’re just as nasty as they look. Their xenophobia is matched only by their arrogance. We estimate they have eradicated at least thirteen other sentient races before they met the Chental.”

Jared gasped. “Which means they have the tech for interstellar travel.”

The captain nodded. “Yes, sir. The Chental never stood a chance. We believe the entire race was exterminated.”

Jared sat back in his chair and let the information wash over him. “Have we made contact with the Kiga?”

The Captain shook his head. “Not knowingly, but if they don’t know of us now, they should soon. We live in a bubble of radio activity that spreads out from our planet for a distance of 110 light-years. The Kiga will discover us sooner or later and when they do, they’ll pay us a visit and it won’t be neighborly.”

“So where do I and ... ,” Jared motioned to the four lapines sitting around the table, “these others come in?”

The captain looked at the long-haired lapine. “Illatha, would you like to answer that?”

The lapine stared at Jared for a moment before answering. “My people have several gifts that make us very suitable for the task ahead of us. We are not claustrophobic, we have a strong sense of community, and you, sir, have the personality to put up with us and our environment and be our military leader. You are, after all, an orphan, single, with no real ties to anybody on Earth and nobody to question your disappearance for two or more years.”

Illatha’s voice was certainly female. Jared noticed she spoke with a slight lisp and she replaced labial consonants with their corresponding dentals, an old ventriloquist’s trick substituting d for b, n for m, and others.

“And where is this environment?” Jared asked.

Illatha looked at him, her alien face showing no emotion. “Deep inside the asteroid Ceres.”

One of the other lapines spoke up. “First Class Thane, sir. If I may? As Captain Griffin has stated, it is only a matter of time before the Kiga discover us. We are, as the Captain has said, a very noisy planet and we will be discovered soon if they have not discovered us already. Fifteen asteroids have been militarized along with our own moon, the Martian moon, Phobos, and several moons of Jupiter and Saturn. We are in the process of putting outposts on moons around Neptune and Uranus and ultimately, we will be on Pluto. We are Earth’s first defense.”

The Captain nodded in agreement. “We are making strides in developing an interstellar craft that will carry the fight directly to the Kiga, but we are at least two years away before we can even test the first prototype. Your job along with the other bases is to hold the Kiga off if they come before we are ready.”

Jared stood and the rest followed suit. “When do I leave?” he asked.

“Tomorrow, sir,” Sergeant Moody replied.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Last of the Big Game Hunters (Inktober, Wednesday, October 14, 2020)

For Inktober, Tuesday, October13, 2020. Prompt word: "armor." Tuckerization: Toby Stahl
A reminder that volunteering for tuckerization only means a character in the story shares the participant's name. Other than that, there are no other similar characteristics implied. 

Last of the Big Game Hunters 
by Alan Loewen 

Toby Stahl settled back into the hunting blind, glad for the large thermos of coffee that helped to keep his insides warm. Early November mornings on the shores of Castle Rock Lake were brutal, but if you weren’t in your blind before sun-up, there was no point in showing up at all. Toby took another sip of his coffee. Staying warm was a challenge this time of year. The two layers of wool he wore under his armor were barely enough. The titanium would still slowly drain his body of heat. 

From outside the blind, Toby could hear the crunching of footsteps. The flap of the blind opened, and Toby scooted over to let Tanner share a seat. 

“Was wondering if you were coming,” Toby said. “Sun’s up in less than half an hour.” 

“Had to hammer out some dents in the breastplate,” Tanner muttered. 

Toby snorted and shook his head. “You had a whole year to bang that out, and you waited until today?” 

Tanner shrugged. “After last year, I didn’t know if I was ever going hunting again.” 

Toby smiled despite himself. “Yeah. I was wondering if you were going to really show up. How long did it take for you to grow your hair back after tussling with that Green? Two months?” 

“Two months after the acid burns healed. Hey, you gonna share that coffee?”

Toby shifted his seat and took out another thermos. “Moocher. How did I know you weren’t going to bring your own coffee?” 

“Why should I bring coffee when I know you’ll bring along an extra thermos?” 

Handing him the thermos, Toby stood in the cramped blind. “I’m going to recheck the gun.” Climbing a short set of steps, Toby looked over the gun that sat on the reinforced wooden roof of the blind. He checked the M240 machine gun to make sure the belt that held the 400 rounds of 7.62-millimeter bullets was ready to go when the game started flying in. 

“Toby!” Tanner yelled from below. “Three o’clock. We got an early bird!” 

Toby scanned the horizon to the north and finally saw the expanding black dot. Quickly, he grabbed his mini-binoculars until he could see the approaching prey. 

Toby growled in exasperation. “It’s a Gold, Tanner. Protected by law. Let’s hope it flies over us.”

He watched as the gold dragon continued to fly toward them and groaned when it was apparent it was coming in for a landing. With a spray of water, it hit the surface of the lake and sank in up to its hips. 

Burying its muzzle under the water, it started looking for weed grass. In moments, it raised its head, green weed dangling from its jaws as it slowly chewed. Gold dragons were beautiful but were as bright as cows. They were also protected by the DNR as they were harmless to humans, strict vegetarians, and rare. 

Toby shifted in his seat and yelled down into the blind. “Tanner, go chase the stupid thing off.” 

“Why me?” 

“Because I’m operating the gun.” 

Grumbling, Tanner left the blind and started to walk to the lake’s shoreline. “Be off with ya!” Tanner yelled. “Go on! Get out of here.” He started waving his arms to catch the dragon’s attention, but after a glance in his direction, it returned to stripping the lake bottom of weed. 

Toby watched with amusement as Tanner waved his arms, shouting, and jumping up and down without effect. Disgusted, Tanner turned around, looked up at Toby, and immediately screamed, pointing past the blind. 

Spinning about, Toby's jaw dropped open in horror. A crimson dragon had swooped in behind him unseen and was on the verge of landing. Fire breathers, Crimsons were rare and known for their silent flight and their voracious appetites. That they had no problem with eating meat that had been burned to a crisp made them even more deadly. 

Spreading its wings, the Crimson hit the ground and took in a deep breath to spray Toby with fire. Toby could do nothing but drop down into the blind and cover his head, praying the fire retardant that he painted the blind with would protect him. 

He heard the whoosh of fire, saw flame fly past the opening in the roof, and heard the pops of four hundred rounds of superheated ammo start to explode. 

Without the M240, Toby knew that he and Tanner were in grave danger. He hoped that Tanner had found shelter and waited for the moment when the Crimson would use its claws to shred Toby's blind and end his life. 

Suddenly, the air was split with a deafening sound of a roar, forcing Toby to cover his ears. 

Outside came the sounds of pandemonium. 

Toby crawled toward the entrance flap and carefully peeped through the gap near the ground. Outside, not more than twenty yards away, the Gold and the Crimson fought together with their jaws seeking the other’s throat. 

Toby had just enough time to see the two dragons grapple and then roll toward him. Covering his head, he screamed as he heard the blind crumble around him. 

Tanner had run into the water. Though it was icy cold, better to die from exposure to the freezing water than being cooked alive. At least the Gold would neither burn him alive nor eat him. 

Tanner had just waded into the water with it reaching his chest when a sudden colossal wave knocked him under the water. 

Sputtering and coughing, Tanner regained the surface to find, to his surprise, the Gold had jumped from the water, flown over him, and had engaged the Crimson in a fight. Moments later, he gasped as he watched the two dragons roll over the blind with Toby certainly inside. 

Tanner could see the Gold had the better of the fight, but it was a good five minutes before the Crimson went limp, the Gold’s jaws almost severing its opponent's neck. 

After worrying the Crimson's limp body, the Gold eventually opened its jaws, letting it drop limply to the ground. Black blood flowed freely from the Crimson’s neck and jaws. 

The Gold shook itself, looked once more at its defeated opponent, spread its wings, and flew off. 

Shivering, Tanner tried to quickly get out of the water, all the while screaming for Toby. 

The wreckage of the blind was complete, but a moment later, Tanner saw boards and the remains of a tarp pushed upward, then tossed aside as Toby stood unsteadily to his feet. 

Tanner ran to his friend as quickly as he could. “Toby! Are you okay?” 

Toby looked down at himself, surprise evident on his face. “I … I think I’ll be writing a rather nice letter to the manufacturer of this armor.” 

Tanner laughed with relief. “Well,” he said, clapping Toby on the shoulder. “Looks like we got ourselves a Crimson. I’ll go and call the retrieval company.” He pulled out his cell phone and watched as water poured from it. “But I’m gonna use your cell phone. Mine’s out of commission. Anyway, same time, same place next year?” 

Toby turned around to survey the ruins of the blind and his machine gun. “Nah,” he said. “I think I’ve had enough of dragon hunting for a while.” 

Under the Dunes of Mars (Inktober, Tuesday, October 13, 2020)

For Inktober, Tuesday, October13, 2020. Prompt word: "dune." Tuckerization: Fred Jones
A reminder that volunteering for tuckerization only means a character in the story shares the participant's name. Other than that, there are no other similar characteristics implied. 

Under the Dunes of Mars
by Alan Loewen

Fred Jones carefully steered his exploration vehicle over and around the dunes of Mars. Sinking sands that could swallow him and his transport and not leave a trace of where he had been were rare but always a possibility. His communicator chimed, the display flashing the name of the director of the Asimov colony.
“Jones, here.”
"ETA to the mining station?"
“Still the same. 0900 UT. No problems here. The wind is good. Dust manageable. Ground firm. Any new communications?”
“No,” the director said. Fred could hear the worry in her voice. “The station is still silent. Let’s hope it’s just a communication problem, and it’s only a waste of your time.”
“Whatever it is, I’ll take care of it.” It’s why you pay me the big bucks anyway, Fred thought sarcastically.
“But that’s why we pay you the big bucks,” the director said. “Stay in touch.”
Four hours later, Fred rounded the last dune and gasped in horror. Where the station was supposed to be, there was only a massive hole about fifty yards wide, double the size needed to swallow the small complex and its crew of ten. Another fifty yards west of the collapse stood another small building, fortunately intact, that contained mining equipment and the elevator that allowed access to the mine. Next to it stood the smelter, a much larger facility where valuable minerals were separated from the raw ore.
Donning his helmet and making sure it was airtight, Fred went to the small airlock of his transport and cycled outside.
Carefully walking to the edge of the hole, he looked down into a seemingly bottomless abyss. Though assumptions were fatal in the Red Planet's hostile environment, Fred assumed the mining colony must have hit a cavern compromising the stability of the ground.

He had no idea how far down the station's wreckage lay. It was also a safe assumption the ten workers assigned to the project could not have survived such a catastrophe. He radioed the director of the Asimov Colony and gave his report.
Fifteen minutes later, Fred cycled through the airlock to the building that housed the mine elevator. The size of a small warehouse, the building contained mining equipment, and everything needed to mine titanium and chromium, two critical minerals for the future of colonization.
The warehouse's interior was pressurized and its independent power supply stood solidly in the green. However, the mine was not pressurized, so the elevator had its own airlock. The diagnostic computer reported the integrity of the elevator shaft remained intact.
Pulling up a map on the computer, Fred downloaded it into his suit. Ten minutes later, he stood in the elevator as it took him down into the planet.
The ride lasted a good twenty minutes to reach the bottom of the shaft a half-mile below. Fred had been ordered to see how much damage had been caused to the mine itself. As the mine played an essential part in the future of Mars colonization, a little risk on his part was a small price to pay.
The elevator door opened to show a large room melted into the very rock of the planet, the result of plasma cutters. Carts of ore ready to be taken up to the smelter filled the room.
The computer inside Fred’s helmet beeped. He stared fascinated at the display that flashed across his face helmet. Puzzled, he ordered the computer to rerun its scans, and the results came back the same.
There was an atmosphere in the mine with high humidity, two impossibilities this far underground. The atmosphere was still not breathable, but as far as atmospheric pressure was concerned, in density, it rivaled Everest's summit back on Earth. Much better than the almost vacuum present on the Martian surface. And the air itself was an odd, raw mixture of mostly nitrogen with trace amounts of hydrogen and oxygen.
Fascinated, Fred went to a control panel and turned on the passage lights that led to the veins of ore the miners were digging.
Grabbing an electric cart, Fred drove deeper into the mine.
The plasma cutters had created a solid crust that formed the floor, walls, and ceiling of the tunnel. The tunnel itself led directly under where the main building had stood, so Fred drove slowly, scanning the walls for damage and the possibility of further collapse.
It didn’t take long for Fred to discover the solution to the building's disappearance. The passageway ended at a massive sinkhole, the passage almost choked off by the station's wreckage that had fallen a half-mile into the surface of the planet. Fred could not fathom the cavern's size that could have swallowed half a mile of planetary rock, let alone the station.
And though the atmosphere was thin, it was enough to carry a faint sound; a slightly irregular rumble that penetrated his helmet.
Turning on the exterior lights of his suit, Fred made his way around the wreckage of the station. He did not waste time looking for survivors. A half-mile fall into the Martian planetary crust, as well as the total destruction of the station, made it clear the fate of the miners.
As Fred made his way around the wreckage and shattered rock, the sound became louder. At the edge of a cliff on the other side of the station's debris, Fred stared into the stygian darkness of a cavernous room so massive the powerful lights of his suit showed neither walls nor ceiling.
However, very carefully making his way to the edge of the cliff, Fred was astounded to see droplets of moisture appear on his faceplate. Kneeling, he looked over the edge. There, just barely visible in his lights, massive waves battered the side of the cliff, waves Fred estimated at least thirty feet tall.
Excited, Fred stood and made his way back to the elevator. This discovery had cost ten lives and an unknown amount of resources. Still, the miners had inadvertently found something far more valuable than the ores they dug from the ground.
Fred had no idea how massive an underground lake had to be to have waves thirty feet high. It might even be an ocean! But it was water; life-giving water that, if carefully stewarded, would assure the future of colonization for decades if not centuries to come.
As Fred quickly made his way back to the elevator, he could not have seen the insanely long tentacle that made its way up over the cliffside. Ten feet in diameter at its thickest with flesh as black as the abyss, the tentacle glistened from the reddish phosphorescent light of its multiple eyes.
After a few moments, it once again sank into the underground ocean of Mars.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

The Lake of the Beast (Inktober, Monday, October 12, 2020)

Yes, I am incredibly behind in my commitment for 31 flash stories for October. Unfortunately, physical challenges have the best ways of interfering with the plans of both mice and men. However, I am committed to this project. If you have volunteered to be tuckerized into one of these stories, your patience is much appreciated. 

For Inktober, Monday 12, 2020. Prompt word: "slippery." Tuckerization: Curtis Palmer 
A reminder that volunteering for tuckerization only means a character in the story shares the participant's name. Other than that, there are no other similar characteristics implied. 

by Alan Loewen 

As Curtis Palmer slowly gained awareness, he first became of the sharp pain in his head, the immobility of his limbs, and the feeling of being rocked in a giant cradle. Carefully opening his eyes, he stared up at the stars. Shifting his gaze, he caught a glimpse of the man working the small open wooden boat's outboard motor. 

"Calum Arnot," Curtis managed to say above the noise of the motor. His voice sounded distant and harsh. "I've chased you from Stafford to Edinburgh to Kyleakin. I confess that my biggest failure was missing you with my rifle in Cannock Chase." 

Arnot grinned through his bushy red beard. "Even if you had killed me, the Friends of Hecate have existed for centuries and would have continued. However, your journey ends here." He stopped the motor, and only gentle waves slapping against the boat broke the silence. 

"How appropriate that Loch-na-Bèiste will be your final resting place. Do you know what that means?" 

Curtis tried to move his body for a more comfortable position. "Lake of the Beast," he said. "I know more than you give me credit for." 

Arnot leaned closer, his hands clasped together in anger. "Oh, yes. I will give you some credit. The Taigheirm, the Children of the Scarlet King, the Church of Starry Wisdom, and who knows how many secret societies you've ended or damaged beyond their ability to reorganize, but the Friends of Hecate are a little more resilient. Here at the bottom of the loch you will stay, and we will continue. Let that be your final despair." 

Arnot grabbed Curtis's legs and swung them over the gunwale. Bound as he was, Curtis's struggles were weak, and already he could feel the waters of the loch soaking into his shoes. 

A sudden eruption of water startled the two men in the boat. Curtis watched with horror as a massive tentacle grasped the occultist around the waist and squeezed. Arnot tried to scream, but the constriction cut off his breathing ability, much less make a noise. 

With a splash, the leader of the Friends of Hecate disappeared over the side of the boat. 

Curtis lay still, paralyzed with a mixture of surprise and horror. With a grunt, he was able to swing his legs back into the boat. 

Once again, the night was silent except for the sound of small waves against the boat. 

Suddenly, to Curtis' horror, the tentacle reappeared. Silently, it moved over the gunwale and fell against his chest. 

Holding his breath and trying not to scream, the slippery tentacle moved over Curtis' face, down his chest, and over his legs. Curtis waited for the tentacle to rapidly curl itself around his body and pull him into the Loch-na-Bèiste to join the occultist. 

After what felt like an eternity, the tentacle slithered back over the side of the boat, leaving Curtis to drift. 

"And a boat of fishermen found me the next morning. I just told them I had been kidnapped, and my kidnapper fell over the side before he could throw me into the water." 

Sir Reginald Davies refreshed Curtis' brandy glass and sat back in his overstuffed chair. "You're welcome to stay at Davies Hall until you make a full recovery from that sunburn. I'm glad the fishermen found you when they did. It must have been awful." The Englishman sighed. "Then I expect you'll continue your hunt for the Friends of Hecate." 

Curtis raised his glass in a toast. "It's my mission," he said. But I have a question. What was that thing that grabbed Arnot and dragged him under?" 

Davies shook his head. "Nobody can say with any authority, but you do know that Loch-na-Bèiste is Scottish Gaelic for Lake of the Beast." 

Curtis nodded his head. "Yes, but I don't know how it got its name."

"That," Davies said, "is because the loch is the home of lake monster named the Muc-sheilche. It's not as famous as its cousin, Nessie, but sightings have been reported for centuries. What fascinates me is it killed Arnot, but ignored you? Why do you think that was?" 

Curtis shrugged. "It could have been it sated its appetite on Arnot, or it didn't recognize me as food as I remained still and didn't make a sound. Maybe, just maybe, it recognized me as something different?"


"Yes. Evil calls to evil. It's something I have learned over many years. Where you find one evil, you will find many, many more. At the risk of sounding arrogant, it may have ignored me simply because it didn't recognize me. It just never knew I was there." 

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Alice (Inktober, Sunday, October 11, 2020)

For Inktober, Sunday, October 11, 2020. Prompt word: "disgusting." Tuckerization: Cindy Ross 
A reminder that volunteering for tuckerization only means a character in the story shares the participant's name. Other than that, there are no other similar characteristics implied. 

by Alan Loewen 

“But I don't want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked. “Oh, you can't help that,” said the Cat: “we're all mad here.” 
“I swear that man has lost his mind,” Alice said. She sipped her coffee, looking to see signs of commiseration on her friend’s face. Around her, the other customers of Starbucks tried in vain not to overhear her tirade. “I mean, you know, giving him permission to use my name in a story was a courtesy. I thought he would write something delightful and amusing instead of putting me into a disgusting horror story.” 

Across the table, Cindy Ross sighed to herself. Alice was given to occasional histrionics. Cindy knew the author Alice referred to well, a writer who fancied himself a teller of dark fantasy tales that, in reality, either devolved into either sophomoric humor or melodrama. 

“Alice," Cindy said, "he made it clear in his announcement that if you volunteered to be in one of his stories, a character only shared your name, nothing else. Everybody who read the story with your name in it knew that.” 

Alice attacked a muffin and chewed angrily. Swallowing it down with a bit of coffee, she pointed the muffin at Cindy like an accusing finger. “How can you defend him?” 

Cindy swirled her latte within its cup and paused in thought. “Let’s take a look at the reality of this. First, nobody reads the guy anyway. He’s a hack. All his sales are either when he gives his stuff away for free or blackmails some friends to buy his latest badly-written book.” 

“But,” Alice interrupted, “he announced on my own Facebook account when he had written my story and published it.” 

“Then ask him to take it down.” 

Alice shook her head. “It’s too late. My friends have already read it. They’re already calling me Alice in Wonderland. Anyway, how could he have taken such a sweet story and made it so evil? What’s a Jabberwock anyway? I’m telling you the guy just isn’t right in the head.” 

Alice took the last swig from her cup and stood to leave. “Well, break’s over and time for me to get back to the office.” She looked at Cindy with apparent jealousy. “Must be so nice to be retired.” 

Cindy stood and slipped on her jacket. “I’ll walk you to the office,” she said. 

Outside at the crosswalk, they stopped waiting for the light to change. “Looks like nice weather for the next …” Cindy began, but she was suddenly interrupted by a stifled scream from Alice. 

Cindy spun about to see Alice in the clutches of a large white rabbit, its eyes crazed with madness. As other pedestrians began shrieking in fear and surprise, a black hole appeared under Alice’s feet, and she and the creature dropped through the sidewalk. A moment later, the sidewalk shimmered to show no hole and no trace of Alice or her kidnapper. 

Cindy grabbed her cell phone and then stopped. Who was she going to call? The police? Even with witnesses, what would she say? 

The cell phone chimed in her hand. 

Cindy, the text read, Alan here. Thank you so much for allowing me to use your name. Your story is now up on my website. Hope you enjoy it.