Stranded on a strange planet with a race of alien vampires! Red O'Reilly, the hero, is among three prisoners being transported by car with a guard and a social worker on a rainy night in contemporary California. Suddenly, in a flash, the car is off the road and into the middle of a jungle - which disappears as the rain ceases, leaving them stranded in a trackless desert! After a trek across the desert, evidently on an alien planet far from earth, they discover a strange, ruined city inhabited by a race of vampire aliens - whom they must battle for survival.
Release date: December 17, 2015
Print pages: 320
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Richard A. Lupoff
Open them, O’Reilly!
Open—and see death!
He tried, he strained his muscles trying to push his elbows away from his sides to seize enough room for a breath, he tried to squeeze his eyes open and view the face of his killer … But the blackness was too strong, the ringing in his ears too loud, and all he could see was the blackness, the waves of red, and the blackness again.
He felt his head jarred sideways as something struck him on the temple, and for a moment vision returned, vision or an aftersight of the thing that was face-to-face with him—a wicked, flat reptilian head, a massive triangular skull covered with an emerald-green plating of scales.
Huge and powerful, it was by far the greatest reptile he had ever seen. And he, O’Reilly, was held helpless in its coils along with two other men, the trio manacled together at ankle and wrist, and now caught in the crushing coils of the mighty snake, writhing like an ancient Laocoön, and now to die….
Suddenly there was a blast, a flash of white-yellow-red that overwhelmed the blackness for a moment and turned the world into a flat lightning flash, followed by a roar that filled O’Reilly’s head, overwhelmed the ringing in his ears, drove it out, and replaced it with a booming mass of sound. He found himself knocked laterally, the snake’s coils still around his torso and legs, the manacles still holding him to the two others—the little brown man and the big black one.
In the single instant of illumination from the blast he thought he could see the head of the snake, its snout close to his own face, its eyes glittering and green, slit irises like those of a cat, its expression one of absolute coldness and unconcern:
I bear you no emnity, it seemed to say, I wish you no ill. But nourishment must be found … You crossed my path. As well another as you, man—but you and your fellows crossed my path, and as well you as another!
And then the roar that filled his head, and now an odor—the unmistakable odor of exploded gunpowder, acrid and strong and strangely pleasant, and O’Reilly’s head filled with sound and his vision overwhelmed with brightness and then the snake’s head was gone, replaced by—
By a bloody ruin. The head was not merely damaged, not merely shredded, but removed, messily and bloodily ripped away, splattered—though beyond O’Reilly’s vision—onto the greenery beyond the struggling group, leaving before O’Reilly’s slowly clearing eyes the stump of the massive neck, the snake’s highest vertrabrae, and the shattered base of its massive skull poking from the shredded flesh and scaly skin.
Everything was green, every shade of green: the bones, the flesh, the very ichor itself running with the viscosity of freshly spilled blood but with the color of a rich crème de menthe.
O’Reilly chuckled gruesomely at the simile and his head pitched forward as he fell unconscious onto the slowly loosening coil of the snake.
He did not remain unconscious. Even as his forehead landed on the cool scales he retained some sensation, some small portion of self-awareness. He knew part of what had happened, could surmise the rest.
He felt himself topple over, still enmeshed in the great, muscular coils of the snake, the other prisoners still shackled to him. Somewhere through the near-deafness brought about by the blast that had ruined the snake he could hear two voices, that of a man shouting, that of a woman screaming. Somehow he knew that both voices were making words, saying something to someone, maybe even to him, but he could not make out any meaning, only the sounds of the two.
He opened his eyes again and saw green vegetation a few inches from his face. He felt the snake’s dying coils relaxing their hold on him, felt himself being manhandled as he and the others were pulled out of the prison of reptilian flesh. He was shoved over onto his back, saw green vegetation overhead, was momentarily blinded by a brilliant flash of sunlight gleaming through the branches and leaves that wove above.
“Come on now, you men will have to help yourselves,” someone said in a loud, authoritarian voice.
Mauriello, of course.
O’Reilly tried to move, found that he could turn his head. His neck ached terribly from the punishment he had received in the embrace of the dead constrictor, but he seemed, at the instant, to be merely bruised and sore, not significantly injured. He blinked again, saw the broad, still-smoking muzzle of the state-issue shotgun in Mauriello’s hands, followed the line of the weapon with his own rapidly clearing eyes.
He saw the khaki-shirted arms, the coarse, ruddy face, the round, fleshy body of Mauriello, and recognized the big nose, the small eyes, the sandy hair fading to gray at the temples. Mauriello scowled down at O’Reilly.
“Get up now, you’ve got to help yourselves,” the khaki-clad Mauriello repeated. “Get with it!”
O’Reilly looked to left and right, to the two men who shared wrist and ankle chains with him, and who had come within a hair’s breadth of dying with him in the crushing embrace of the giant constrictor.
The little brown man on one side lay almost motionless. Only his eyes showed any sign of life: a frantic and biting rage directed for the moment against the murderous snake. The man’s lips were moving and slowly O’Reilly became aware that a steady stream of violent curses were pouring from the man.
O’Reilly turned his head and looked at the man on his other side, a gigantic black figure working now with his hands, as well as he could chained to O’Reilly, struggling to disengage himself—and in the process, his fellows—from the body of the snake. His face bore an expression of calm concentration on his task. He was not speaking.
O’Reilly heard himself gasp. “Uh!”
He pushed away from the snake with his hands, feeling some give now in its coils.
Slowly, struggling and falling back repeatedly before they completed the task, the three men managed to get themselves separated from the gigantic corpse. At last they stood, swaying with shock and panting with exertion. They struggled around, forced by their manacles to make a complicated maneuver out of the simple about-face.
They faced toward Mauriello and, behind him, Alice Michaelson, pale-faced and shaken by the events of the past few minutes.
“Thanks,” O’Reilly heard himself saying to the khaki-clad Mauriello. “We were practically goners. You saved our lives.”
Mauriello stood unspeaking for a moment. The shotgun was now resting over his arm.
Pointedly he broke the gun open at the receiver, examined it to assure himself that it was undamaged in the encounter. He snapped the gun closed again, pumped another round up into the chamber, set the safety, and broke the gun open once more.
“I’m responsible for your welfare,” he said finally. His face bore an expression of mixed pride and command. “I have to take proper care of you boys. The bleeding hearts don’t even trust the department to care for you any more. We get little monitors riding along to make sure nobody picks on you.”
He turned toward the lone woman in the group.
“Right, Miss Michaelson?” he asked.
The woman looked at the three men in chains, then back at Mauriello, his rumpled, sweat-stained, khaki uniform and short-barreled state-issue shotgun.
“It was good of you to save the men, Mr. Mauriello.”
He pulled his shoulders back and threw his chest out so it extended almost as far as his soft belly.
“Thank you very much,” he replied. His voice was angry and filled with irony. He turned back to the three men, standing mute while they waited for his statement.
“You all right?” Mauriello asked. “Any injuries?”
O’Reilly answered the question first.
“I’m okay. I’ll be sore for a month, I think. What a hug! But I’m okay.”
He shuddered, felt a sudden spasm pass through his body. It was something out of an old Victorian drama: peril, crisis, triumph—and reaction. He sagged forward, nearly dragging the other two men down onto the ground. His belly heaved and he was violently sick, spewing the half-digested contents of his stomach onto the ground.
When he was finished he wiped his mouth with a handkerchief and said “I’m sorry.”
The incident seemed to affect the others for the best. It was something understandable, familiar: a man being sick, throwing up his food. Without speaking the other two men chained to O’Reilly shuffled half a dozen steps sideways, moving him along with them.
“We’re all okay,” the smaller of the men said. He seemed to spew each word out in a separate, miniature burst of anger.
The giant on O’Reilly’s other side nodded in agreement, making a vaguely affirmative grunt in lieu of speaking.
Mauriello backed away from the manacled men for a few steps, then turned to look over his shoulder at the car that stood nearby. It was a large station wagon, painted the black-and-white of Highway Patrol and Corrections Department cars. The roof, windshield, and hood glistened in the bright morning light; a few drops of water beaded up here and there on the car’s well waxed exterior.
He edged, crabwise, toward the car, keeping the three chained men and the woman within the scope of his vision.
“What are you going to do, Mr. Mauriello?” It was the woman who asked.
Mauriello reached behind him with one hand and opened the door of the station wagon.
“I’m going to get help,” he said.
He slid down into the driver’s seat of the car, laid the shotgun on the seat beside him. He unbuttoned a small holster that hung suspended from his leather belt and drew a state-issue .38-caliber revolver. He laid the revolver on the dashboard of the wagon where he could reach it in a split second.
The three men and the woman outside the car could see the revolver from where they stood.
“I’m going to get help,” Mauriello called again to the others. “I’m going to put in a call to the Highway Patrol. They’ll have a car here fast. I trust those guys. They’ll send a copter if they have to. They won’t leave us stranded. They have a sense of duty.”
The woman said “I have my doubts.”
“I don’t,” was the reply.
There was silence outside the car.
They were in a small clearing, surrounded wholly by greenery. Low grasses grew underfoot, taller ones a few paces away, then bushes and small trees, then taller trees, their trunks a pale brownish green, rising nakedly into the sky. Their leaves sprouted from branches far above the ground, spread to make a lush foliage roof.
Hardly any sunlight penetrated the cover. There was plenty of light, brilliant morning light refracted from shifting leaves and fronds, but only rarely did a ray penetrate directly from the sun to the people on the ground—or to the low green shrubbery that covered the ground.
The jungle seemed deathly still after the shotgun roar that had blown away the head of the giant constrictor and saved the lives of the three men. Partly it was the contrast of the silence following the explosion, partly it was the silence of creatures frozen into shocked stillness by the unexpected violence.
Now, slowly, the jungle surroundings began to return to what must have been their normal state. The first sound was the buzzing of insects: at first a few small ones, buzzing quietly. Then more, and larger. Beetles, dragonflies, something not too different from grasshoppers, even tall, graceful mantises.
From somewhere there came a birdcall, a long, wavering cry that might have been a mating call, or a parent warning chicks of danger or summoning fledglings to breakfast.
A throaty scream, a sound like a Siamese cat’s voice, only dropped from its usual near-soprano down several octaves to a strong, deep baritone—and amplified a thousandfold.
And rustling, and beating, and padding.
“I don’t think you’re going to reach the Highway Patrol,” said Alice Michaelson.
From the car, Mauriello could be heard speaking into the two-way radio that should summon assistance. The radio crackled and hummed, one more insect voice added to the myriad voices of the jungle—but not in speech.
Mauriello tried again, again without response.
He snapped the radio off, reholstered his revolver, and again hefted the shotgun across one arm as he climbed from the car.
The three prisoners stood where he had left them. So did the woman.
O’Reilly, chained in center position among the three prisoners, acted by tacit agreement as their spokesman.
“What are we going to do now, Mr. Mauriello? We can’t very well just hang around here.”
Mauriello stood looking at the three prisoners shackled together in their yellow standard-issue rain slickers, their knitted woolen caps, blue denim work shirts, and blue jean trousers.
“I’ll decide that, fellow,” Mauriello said.
“Okay.” He paused. When Mauriello didn’t take the gambit he continued, “What have you decided?”
“We’ll just wait here,” said Mauriello. “They’ll come for us.”
Alice Michaelson, her hair hanging loose, strands whipping onto her face, said, “They don’t know where we are.” She shook her head helplessly. “We can wait here indefinitely. If they don’t know where to look, they might not find us for days. For weeks! How can we just …”
She trailed away.
“The least we can do,” O’Reilly continued for her, “is try and figure out what happened, where we are. Not just sit here passively.”
Mauriello now shook his head.
“You’ve got no confidence in established authority, O’Reilly. That’s your problem. That’s why you’re where you are. Relax, help will come.”
He paced restlessly back and forth, then spoke again.
“But I guess you can do something useful. Take a look at that snake, see if you can figure out what it was, where it came from.”
Again the three prisoners executed their clumsy turnabout. Together they knelt on the grass and examined the body of the snake—or what was left of it.
Where the head had been blasted away, exposing the raw insides of the giant reptile, there was no longer any exposed flesh or blood—not even the green stuff that seemed to serve as blood in this monster.
Somehow fast-growing grasses had sprung from the ground where the decapitated body had fallen. The massive body had been taken over, invaded by thirsty, sucking tubes. The snake—it must have weighed as much as ten men only minutes before—had been reduced to a thin, dry husk, little more than a hollow, collapsed skin.
And the skin, as it lay on the ground, was being cut apart and carried away by an army of variously shaped insects!
O’Reilly put his face into his hands and rocked back and forth.
I really wrecked my life, he thought, I really blew it! I thought I was bad off before, in prison—but how the hell did I get into this!
His thoughts flashed back less than twenty-four hours, to his last moments in the all-too-familiar milieu of the California Department of Corrections….
The station wagon pulled to a halt before the closed wire fence. The gate guard, bored and anonymous in his Department of Corrections tans and army-style rainwear, walked around the car to the driver’s window and rapped on the glass, waiting for Mauriello to roll down the glass and exchange signatures on documents.
O’Reilly, manacled center-seat behind the dividing wire mesh between Willie B. Hutkin and Bennie Nebayan, watched the unconcerned routine, the heavy, chill January raindrops spatter off the gate guard’s military cap, dripping from the cap’s visor onto the mimeographed forms that bulked on his clipboard.
“Another lousy shakedown?” he heard Nebayan hiss angrily, half under his breath. . . .
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