This piece is the Prologue from Jennings' Folly, a spin-off sci-fi novel from the Harry Irons series by Thomas C. Stone. Jennings' Folly is available in paperback or ebook from Amazon, B&N, Apple, Smashwords, Kobo, and most online retailers.
After the engine quit and the snowmobile slid to a halt, Daryl Doggett took a moment to think about what he was going to do.
Any other night would have been perfect to be out under the stars and on the snow; whether hunting or riding with your favorite girl, which was what Daryl had in mind earlier in the evening. But it had turned into a fiasco after his girl left with another guy and now his machine was broken down.
He opened the thin metal door and slid from his seat to the ground. The snow gave way and Daryl sank halfway to his knees with a compacting crunch. The machine was off the track and that was good because he didn’t want to block anyone’s way. He looked in the direction from which he’d come. The track disappeared behind trees and a hill but he could still see the glow from the lights at the pavilion. He held his breath and listened for the sound of another snowmobile headed his direction. Unfortunately, none were headed up Daryl’s particular track.
There were friends at the party, thought Daryl; they would use the same track to return to the county, unless they were ahead of him. Daryl looked the other direction, eyeing the track as it disappeared into the dark.
How many kilometers home? Daryl didn’t have to ask himself. He already knew. Ten. A ten kilometer hike in freezing conditions? No way. There was no other choice: he’d have to hike back to the pavilion and hope someone would be there. If they were all gone, at least there was shelter and heat.
Daryl took a quick look at the engine but he wasn’t a mechanic. Didn’t know the first thing about it. After donning snow shoes and gathering his pack and his rifle, he set out walking between the tracks back toward the isolated pavilion where less than an hour earlier a crowd of young adults from two counties had gathered to listen to music, dance, and participate in courtship rituals. A young man from his own county swept Kristina away and now Daryl was on his own again. What rotten luck.
Daryl contemplated the snow before him as he walked. He was breaking the number one rule, he knew, but his father would be upset enough about the snowmobile breaking down. If Daryl’s frozen body were found inside, well that would irritate his mother as well. The number one rule? Do not put yourself in circumstances where you are alone in the wilderness. Especially at night. Daryl glanced at the stars as if to verify it was still night. How did he manage to get himself into fixes like this?
The good news was that the pavilion wasn’t far, no more than half a kilometer. The track followed a meandering, northeast route past woods and around the base of a hill. The pavilion was on the other side of the hill.
It was cold, but tolerable as long as the wind kept away. Daryl was prepared. Like all men on Dreidel, his father had excellent outdoors skills and had passed them on to his son. Daryl was only sixteen, but he knew how to take care of himself in bad weather. When he’d asked his father if he could take the snowmobile to the pavilion for the county meet-up, the old man had frowned but said all right.
Daryl trudged along, mumbling to himself about his bad luck when a crunch came from the darkness under the trees he was passing. The young man stopped and peered into the shadows. “Yo?” he asked. There was no reply and Daryl responded by unslinging his rifle from his shoulder and brandishing it before the darkened woods. He glanced back at the snowmobile only a hundred meters away.
Goose bumps crept up his spine and he assured himself it was only his fertile imagination that was scaring him. “Only the wind,” he whispered, “and nothing more.”
Since the wind wasn’t blowing and it was in the dead of night in the middle of winter with thick snow coating every surface, it was profoundly quiet. A quiet so complete, even the occasional natural sounds of accumulated snow falling to the ground from overly burdened tree branches were alien and alarming. Thud! Another clump hit the ground nearby and Daryl jumped.
He started up again and made it some twenty meters before hearing the unmistakable sound of something stepping through the snow in the shadows under the trees. He stopped again and squinted to see what it might be. Whatever it was, it too had stopped and Daryl could imagine that it presently eyed him as he stood exposed in the open.
Without another thought, Daryl turned and clumsily ran in his snowshoes back towards the snowmobile. A hundred meters, thought Daryl, and I can lock myself in the snowmobile. Thinking of the thin metal, he thought, it’s not much but it’s something and that’s better than nothing. He was nearly halfway to the machine when he glanced back. To Daryl’s relief, nothing was there. A little winded from the effort, he slowed and walked backwards while checking his rifle. It was his father’s old Chesterson Mark II: a real straight shooter but it re-charged slowly due to inefficient solar collectors and even so, you could only get one shot off at a time.
The closer Daryl got to the snowmobile, the easier he breathed. By the time he reached the vehicle, he was certain he had got himself worked up over nothing. Standing at the door he looked back up the track and considered his original idea of hiking to the pavilion.
Beside him, a droplet hit the snow and disappeared. Daryl looked at the sky. There were no clouds. However, lying over the top of the snowmobile was the creature about which all those rules were made concerning caution outdoors anywhere on Dreidel. The drooling jowls conveyed its intention. It was the monster with no name and Daryl, heart in his throat, stumbled backwards to once again stand in the center of the track.
He raised the rifle and pictured a bull’s eye in the center of the creature’s wide cranium before squeezing the trigger and hanging onto the Chesterson as it jumped in his hands bellowing thunder, fire and smoke.
Daryl peered through the haze to see what damage his one shot had made. He couldn’t have missed at that range. The rifle buzzed as the charge built back up.
“They’re slippery,” Daryl’s father had told him, adding that “if you encounter one on accident, you’ll be all right if you’re well armed. More than one, just turn around and get away – if they’ll let you.”
The smoke dissipated and the giant lizard was no longer draped over the roof of the snowmobile. More troubling, it was nowhere to be seen. The retort from the gun had faded and all was quiet again.
Behind was a snow covered field with bowed and frozen trees on the other side. Nowhere to run. The animal had to be on the other side of the snowmobile. Had he hit it? Was it dead?
The rifle clicked, indicating the charge was complete. Daryl had another shot if he needed it. Taking a breath, he stepped around the rear of the vehicle, prepared to fire at any given moment. He had a clear line of sight and the animal wasn’t on the other side of the vehicle. Daryl quickly looked around and finally spotted the tracks leading away from the snowmobile, out into the snow-covered terrain.
The young man breathed a sigh of relief and walked back around the snowmobile, stopping at the flimsy metal door and pulling it open only to be greeted by the open jaws of the creature as it sprung from the front seat. Daryl caught a glimpse of the open door on the opposite side as he instinctively held out his right hand to keep the monster away from him. The creature clamped onto Daryl’s hand and bit through the bone at the wrist. An instant later, Daryl’s hand was free. As he staggered backwards, he lifted his forearm and watched in disbelief as blood, his blood, spurted rhythmically from the open wound at his wrist where his hand used to be.
Holding the rifle with only his left hand, he clumsily pointed it at the creature. The action was countered by a slap from the animal’s taloned, left front hand/foot/paw -- Daryl didn’t have time to decide which – that sent the weapon flying from the teenager’s hand. The other front hand/foot/paw came around like a boxer’s left hook but Daryl, frozen in the moment, could not move. The talons passed along the front of Daryl’s throat and he managed to move backwards a couple of more steps. Instead of following, the man-sized lizard with behavior characteristics of a feline, rested on its haunches and watched Daryl. The animal cocked its large snakehead at an angle.
Daryl meanwhile suddenly found himself short of breath. He was holding his injured right forearm with his left hand, but released it to feel the mortal cut to his neck. By the time he drew his hand away and saw the blood, he was blacking out. That reaction was fortunate for the teen. Otherwise, he would have been conscious as the creature eviscerated the boy and spread his bloody remains over a rough circle three meters in diameter.
Courtney and Chris were late, but neither was too worried about it. “As long as I’m home before mom and dad get up, they don’t complain,” said Chris as he peered through the windshield of his snowmobile.
“Well, my mom and dad will complain and threaten to ground me, but they won’t do anything.” Courtney leaned closer to Chris. “Besides,” she said, “it was worth it.”
Chris smiled but kept his eyes on the track. “What’s that?” he said.
“What’s what?” replied Courtney as she followed Chris’s gaze.
The track curved around a woods and then past an open field on the right. On the left at the curve was a snowdrift that prevented seeing across another open field. Parked next to the drift was a blue, beat-up, old snowmobile Chris recognized immediately.
“That’s Daryl’s rig,” said Chris.
“Where’s Daryl?” Courtney anxiously asked.
Chris shook his head. “He’s gotta be close. Maybe he’s asleep inside…”
“And frozen to death.”
“It’s not that cold, besides…” Chris abruptly stopped the vehicle and bent his head and eyes closer still to the windshield. “What is that? On the ground there between the tracks.”
“I see it.”
“Well, what is it?”
“I don’t know, Chris, but I’m getting a little freaked out here.” Courtney hugged herself tightly, running her hands over her arms.
“Not to worry,” quipped Chris. “I’ve got my rig in the back.” Courtney glanced behind: in the rear compartment, within reach, was a firearm.
“Let’s just get out of here,” she suggested.
Chris is still looking through the windshield at whatever is lying on the track as he allows the snowmobile to roll slowly forward. “Hang on,” he says to his girlfriend. “Let me check it out.”
“I don’t have a good feeling about this,” Courtney said.
“Oh my God!” said Chris as he braked the vehicle and grabbed his gun before opening the door and stepping out, all the while with Courtney repeating, “What is it? What is it?”
Chris told her to stay in the vehicle and shut the door. She watched as he slowly walked up to the perimeter of what looked like a big, dark spot on the ground. Chris gazed at it for a long moment, then turned toward the vehicle parked beside the road.
Courtney opened the door and shouted for him to return to the snowmobile. “Let’s just go,” she insisted.
Chris looked at her but didn’t answer. Instead, he continued to step warily toward Daryl’s vehicle. Courtney remained where she was, one foot inside the snowmobile, the other on the ground outside.
The door to Daryl’s snowmobile was ajar. Chris stood before it holding his firearm to his eye, prepared to shoot at a moment’s notice. Rather than take his hands from the weapon to open the door, Chris stood on one foot and stretched out the other. Inserting the toe of his boot inside the cracked door, he pulled and the door swung open.
The driver’s compartment was empty. In confirmation, Chris looked at the spot on the ground before he began to slush through the snow, making his way back to the snowmobile and Courtney.
“What is it?” Courtney asked again. “What is that on the ground?” The young woman was fully afraid and had started to cry. As she wiped her eyes, she saw a blur come from behind the stalled snowmobile at the side of the road and called out to Chris.
Chris stopped. “What?” he asked.
“Behind you!” Courtney shouted.
Chris began to turn but was too slow to see his attacker. The first slash raked the teen across the meaty part of his thighs just above the knees. At that, his legs would not support him and he toppled to the ground, using his rifle like a cane to deconstruct the fall. He tried to rise again to aim his gun at the creature, but it slapped the weapon from his hands and, in a blur of motion, clamped down on Chris’s neck and shoulder. Chris screamed when the monster bit down. A moment later, it drew back exposing a gaping hole where Chris’s neck joined his shoulder. Arterial blood squirted from the wound as Chris fell to his backside unable to either flee or protect himself.
Courtney climbed back inside the snowmobile, shut the door, and wedged herself into the tiny rear storage compartment among Chris’ hunting gear, oily rags, an old blanket, and a well-thumbed copy of the New Galactic Bible. She held the bible to her chest as she ducked down out of sight and silently prayed for salvation.