DT Krippene

A native of Wisconsin and Connecticut, D.T. Krippene deserted aspirations of being a biologist to live the corporate dream and raise a family. After six homes, a ten-year stint in Singapore and Taiwan, and an imagination that never slept, his muse refused to be hobbled as a mere dream. D.T. writes science fiction and dystopia. His current project is about a futuristic matriarchal society, and a gene-altered young woman who discovers the real reason otherworldly beings saved humanity from extinction. You can find D.T. on his website and his social media links, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

In Simple Terms

DT Krippene

(Featured Author, Summer 2018)


"What's this all about," Trevor Stanhope asked his Associate Administrator. 
    The click of Helen Martinez's low-heeled shoes kept cadence to Stanhope's brisk stride as they hurried along on the polished floors of NASA's subterranean levels. "The note mentioned recent information that needs your immediate attention," she said. 
    Six months since Stanhope's appointment as NASA's Administrator, President Barbara Preston specifically asked him to shake things up by reining-in expensive projects and the Brainiacs who were too busy looking for ET. "Bring in some solid space science we can use while getting the Mars mission off the ground, like updated satellite reconnaissance and better asteroid killers," she'd told him. 
    "Did they send a synopsis, so I can understand what they're saying when they start throwing those pseudo-scientific terms and acronyms around?" he asked. 
    "All I got was something to do with all the increased meteorite activity, asteroid close calls, and TNO's . . . Trans Neptunian Objects." 
    "Trans-nep-toonia objects . . ." Stanhope chuckled. "Sounds like that Christmas rock orchestra that pops up every holiday." A lawyer by education, and six-term, conservative US Congressman before President Preston handed him this job, Stanhope's grasp of science was limited to high school chemistry. Where did they come up with these names? 
    "Might not want to say that in front of them," Martinez said. "They're a little sensitive after all the resignations and unfilled positions." 
    Stanhope knew Martinez harbored resentment for not getting the vacant Deputy Administrator position. He almost eliminated her job as well, but he needed one senior director able to coach him on the byzantine terminology used by the space agency. Like TNOs. 
    "They should be,” he said. “The President is all over my ass about missing her promise of ‘Mars in 2032’ launch. There'll be hell to pay if the Chinese get there first." 
    "China spends more money on their program than we do, sir." 
    "They spend their money on projects that make sense, not bullshit like snapping pictures of Planet X." 
    "You mean Planet Nine." 
    "Whatever." 
    Two men and a woman rose when Stanhope and Martinez entered the underground conference room. First thing to hit Stanhope's nose was the smell of burnt coffee, stale pizza, and body odor. Do these nerds ever shower? 
    NASA’s Director of Astrophysics, Dr. Palani Chatwal, whose wisps of white hair sprouted from the sides of a bald head, offered his hand. "Thanks for coming on such short notice, sir." He motioned to the other two standing at the table. "You know our Chief Scientist, Madeline Brightwood of course, and this is Lyle Johansson of the PCOS Science Mission Directive." 
    Stanhope leaned toward Martinez. "Physics of the Cosmos," she whispered. 
    An Asian-looking guy with unkempt chin-length hair studied a laptop and didn't bother to rise or introduce himself. Stanhope took a seat, glancing at a plastic tub of ping-pong balls on a corner table. Is that what they do here, play games on government property? 
    Madeline Brightwood, a freckled-faced, frizzy red-haired woman and seemingly young for someone with numerous post doctorates, took over. "I'll get straight to the point, sir. There's been a development regarding an anomaly we've been monitoring for some years, and we expect it to have a major impact on Earth." 
    Wearing a proper tie, and the only respectably dressed presenter in Stanhope's opinion, the tall, lanky Dr. Johansson operated a colorized 3D hologram of the solar system hovering above the conference table. 
    Stanhope sputtered when the projection highlighted an artist’s conception of an anomaly commonly called Planet Nine. "You’re kidding me. You dragged me down here for this?" 
    Chatwal and Martinez exchanged glances when Stanhope pushed his chair back to leave. 
    "Please, hear Dr. Brightwood out, sir. It's important," Martinez urged. 
    The four of them exhaled with relief when Stanhope settled back. The guy on his laptop kept reading as if uninterested. 
    Johansson magnified the projection of a black, featureless sphere while Brightwood narrated. "We've had difficulty in past years observing what we thought was a low-end gas giant class planet, 17 times the mass of Earth, on the outer fringes of the Kuiper Belt. We calculate it to be near its aphelion position, about 1200 AUs from Earth." 
    "Can you give me that in simpler language?" Stanhope asked. 
    Martinez leaned over to whisper. "Aphelion – furthest point on its estimated 10,000-to-20,000 year orbital cycle – over a hundred-billion miles away. In simple terms, it behaves like a comet, and is suspected to be a contributory factor in Earth's abnormal tilt in planar orbit to the sun." 
    “It's too dark and far away to reflect light, and until recently, it registered no infrared signature,” Brightwood added. 
    Stanhope thought it was more theoretical nonsense. “I read something about it in Popular Mechanics like – decades ago. Why are we still spending money on this?” 
    “We . . . haven’t, actually . . . spent much,” Martinez said. “Most of what we’ve learned is from older data, supplemented with new information from other agencies.” 
    Stanhope wanted to inquire what other agencies, but he decided against it. “What about the satellite that took pictures of Pluto—what’s the name . . . ?” Stanhope snapped his fingers in thought. “Cassini.” And here they think I don’t know jack-squat about space. 
    “Sir, I think you mean New Horizons,” Martinez said. “Cassini went down in Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017.” 
    “We lost New Horizons' signal when it neared a KBO back in 2019," Dr. Chatwal clarified. "Extraterrestrial satellites still functioning today are concentrated on the moon, Mars of course, Jupiter, and the asteroid belt to search for mineable resources.” 
    "What is a KBO?" Stanhope asked impatiently. 
    "Kuiper Belt Object," Martinez answered. 
    “You still haven’t told me why we’re still studying this. If it’s . . .” He turned to Martinez. “What did you say, a hundred-billion miles away? Why do we care?” 
    Johansson began a holographic animation. "We've recently picked up a surge of x-rays from the position of the anomaly. Based on data from the last two years, we've observed small planetoids and ice bodies beyond Pluto moving away from established orbits." 
    Martinez sighed. "Dr. Chatwal, I think you need to just tell him." 
    Chatwal took a seat. “The evidence is indicative of a developing dark matter black hole.” 
    Stanhope nearly choked in disbelief. "You mean like star-eating black holes?" His teenage son played a holographic game called "Galaxy Death" with a black hole as the nemesis. “You're asking me to believe a kid's game scenario, and by no longer calling it Planet Nine, you expect me to tell the President to take seriously something you can't see, because it’s . . . black.” 
    Chatwall threw his head back in disbelief. Brightwood rubbed her eyes with thumb and forefinger. Johansson stared at Stanhope, grim-faced. The Asian laptop reader was still in a world of his own. 
    Brightwood gave it one more shot. “X-ray emissions, which have never been detected before, and KBOs moving toward the anomaly are verifiable observations of a considerable gravitational force.” 
    "Because it’s a magnet to a bunch floating rocks nearby?" Stanhope shook his head. “I’m supposed to tell the President about this, like it’s big deal?” 
    The scruffy Asian dude slammed his laptop shut. He scratched his scalp, raining dandruff on his navy-blue shirt, and finally joined the discussion. "We have corroborated the same phenomena as your agency, as well as the European, Japanese, Indian, and Australian agencies," he said with a thick Chinese accent. "The evidence is irrefutable." 
    Stanhope squinted at him. "Excuse me. Who are you?" 
    "Dr. Deng Wei is from the China National Space Agency,” Dr. Chatwal replied. “He arrived yesterday to share their findings with us." 
    Stanhope's first thought was how the hell did a Chinese national get in the building? "You didn’t think to tell me about this Dr. Dings presence?” he growled at Martinez. 
    “It’s Deng,” the Chinese scientist corrected. 
    Martinez jutted her chin. “He has the proper clearances and authorizations.” 
    She stiffened when Stanhope leaned over to mutter an inch from her ear. “What's he here for? To spy on our progress with the Mars mission?” 
    “You may be interested to know, Administrator Stanhope," Deng responded, "in view of the collective data, the CNSA has cancelled its Mars expedition.” 
    Stanhope sniffed. So he says. Probably coached by China’s Ministry of State Security to keep us off balance. He assumed a posture of command. “So, Mr. Deng, would you be willing to share with us the reason why?” 
    "It's Dr. Deng" he replied, before gesturing at the mysterious dark orb. “My colleagues in China, and the capable people of your NASA and other agencies, strongly suspect this to be the development of a cosmic event we have never observed before.” 
    He adjusted the projector settings. The animation restarted, and as the x-ray readout increased, the black sphere shrank in size. “Our collective theory believes the anomaly has been a dormant, dark matter object since before our sun coalesced from interstellar dust and gas to become a protostar. Analysis of unique CMB radiation – excuse me, cosmic microwave background radiation emanating from the anomaly strongly indicates it may be as old as the universe itself." 
    Convincing these NASA's eggheads had to be an elaborate ruse to hide what the Chinese really intended, and now he expects me to buy this bullshit too? Stanhope sat back and crossed his legs. “Okay, I’ll bite . . . Dr. Deng. Let’s say this thing is what you theorize it is. Why is the Chinese government so interested in something that far away, based on an ability to suck a few rocks toward it?” 
    “It will be of interest to everyone before long, Mr. Administrator. Our survival as a species depends on what we do in the very near future. The data confirms the mass of the anomaly will increase steadily as it shrinks, until it overcomes our sun's effectiveness to sustain planetary stability." Deng unplugged a crystal flash drive from his laptop. “Allow me to show you.” 
    Stanhope gave Martinez a we’ll-have-words-about-this-later glower when the room lights were lowered. 
    Deng’s 3D holograph display expanded to the Oort Cloud at the edges of the solar system. Stanhope inwardly admitted the projection had strikingly detailed resolution, each planet realistically rendered from satellite photos taken over the years. Deng zoomed in on the dark matter sphere and accelerated the timeline into the future. As the anomaly shrank smaller and smaller, the x-ray, infrared, and gamma radiation readouts spiked. 
    “You're theorizing this anomaly is a credible threat to Earth?” Stanhope asked, finally understanding what this meeting was about. 
    “We are not speaking theoretically anymore,” Deng said. 
    As the year counter ticked off, rock, ice, and asteroids of all sizes in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud were pulled toward it. Changed gravitational forces altered the orbital plane of Neptune and Uranus. 
    "This event appears to not follow the current known processes of black hole formation, and we believe we are witnessing a unique cosmic disturbance which will result in the eventual destruction of Earth." Deng halted the animation to make his point. “If the event remains linear, we calculate the orbital stability of the solar system will become slowly undone, and Earth will begin to experience what we call ‘lethal rain’ from the millions of asteroids and ice bodies nearest us.” 
    For a long moment, Stanhope wavered with the revelation of a potential apocalypse, but the well-honed, skeptical lawyer in him refused to believe a mathematical fairytale without further proof. 
    The sphere continued to shrink, until the diameter index reached the size of a tiny moon, and the view of background stars distorted. "We expect gravitational lensing as the anomaly reaches critical mass, but by then, it will be too late for us,” Deng said. 
    Stanhope turned to Dr. Martinez for translation. "Extreme gravitational forces capable of bending space-time itself and light along with it," she explained. 
    “Bending . . . space . . . time and light,” he parroted. She’s talking sci-fi movie shit. On a hunch, Stanhope pulled out his palm tablet and typed 'black holes' in the search option. He skipped over anything with big science words and mathematical formulas. He finished scanning and looked up with a scowl to find Deng lounging in a chair with his feet propped up. 
    Deng smiled at him. “What did you find out on Wikipedia, Mr. Administrator?” 
    Stanhope's anger flared. “Enough to learn it takes a tremendous amount of mass and energy to form a black hole. What you're proposing is impossible.” He waved at the paused animation. “A nice video presentation, but forgive me if I choose not to believe it until someone comes up with some hard facts, not some mumbo-jumbo theoretical algorithm.” Martinez straightened her posture in undisguised resentment. “I continue to be amazed . . . sir, of how flippant you are of vetted research corroborated by several trustworthy sources. This anomaly is not mumbo-jumbo and is not going away, just because you refuse to believe it.” 
    Stanhope inhaled sharply through his nose. “Is that so, Dr. Martinez.” And soon to be an ex-employee of NASA. “So where does a thing like this get its energy if you can’t see it?” 
    “We see only 4% of the physical universe. The rest is composed of dark matter and energy." Martinez' chair slid back a few inches when she abruptly rose. "Even high-schoolers know that,” she shouted. 
    Neither Stanhope nor Martinez made a move to break from the showdown of glares. 
    Deng brought his feet off the table with a clump. “Mr. Administrator, this planet will lose its protective atmosphere and become like the cratered surface of the moon from a tempest of meteors, comets, and planetary debris long before the anomaly even achieves critical mass. Now is the time for us to refocus our efforts to save as many humans as we can before the inevitable happens." 
    Stanhope clasped hands and straightened to a trial judge's posture. "If the Chinese government wants to spend resources for life boats in space, that is your prerogative." 
    "Perhaps you have a suggestion how to prevent the obliteration of all organic life on Earth . . . ” Deng glanced at the year tally. “. . . in less than eighty-years.” 
    “We have orbiting, outward-facing weapons arrays for such a thing. Had to use it twice in the past year, not that I’m divulging anything you don’t already know. You can thank us anytime.” Stanhope adjusted the knot of his Italian silk necktie. “If what you’re claiming is true, we’ll choose to devote the resources of this agency to produce more asteroid busters. I suggest China do as well.” 
    After several moments of stunned silence in the room, Deng nodded with a grunt. "My superiors in the government responded in a like manner when we reported our findings. Allow me then, to present you the same demonstration I gave to them when they too, thought our proposal–Yúchun
    Stanhope glanced at his watch. Late again for another meeting because of this crap. “You've got two minutes, Dr. Deng. Keep it brief and keep it simple.” 
    Deng set the plastic tub of white balls on the table. “Do you play ping-pong, Administrator?” 
    “I play tennis.” 
    “The principal is similar.” 
    Stanhope balked when Deng handed him a paddle. “Humor me, please,” Deng implored. “It won’t take but a minute.” 
    Stanhope snatched the paddle from Deng’s hand, grinding his teeth. Deng went to the opposite end of the table and gently tossed a ball. Stanhope batted it away. Deng flung three in rapid sequence. Stanhope easily deflected them, smirking when one of the balls popped off Deng’s chest. 
    “Like your asteroid killing satellites, I see your tennis skills are good,” Deng smiled. "Dr. Martinez, would you assist me please." 
    A sly smile arose on Martinez' face as she joined Deng and gripped one end of the tub. On the count of three, Martinez and Deng emptied balls at Stanhope with a mighty heave. Stanhope dropped the paddle and shielded his face from the onslaught. 
    Chatwal and Johansson struggled not to guffaw. Balls still bouncing on the floor, Stanhope shot to his feet. "Ms. Martinez, report to my office before you leave this evening." 
    "You don't get it, do you?" Martinez crossed her arms. "What we're trying to demonstrate in simple terms, is the futility of stopping a hailstorm with a pistol." 
    Deng leaned forward with palms flattened on the table. “If we choose to ignore this, Mr. Administrator, it will guarantee the end of our species. Is that brief and simple enough for you?” 
    Stanhope tugged on the hem of his suit coat. "Mr. Deng, my regards to the CNSA." 
    His face mottled with anger, Stanhope spun about and stormed out the door. 

*** 
    Helen Martinez gazed at jeweled sparkles of the capital city at night from her office window. Carefully folding the resignation letter, the emotions of a long career torpedoed by politics, and the eventual end of life on Earth, saddened her. 
    She paused outside Stanhope's cracked-open office door to gather courage. The tinny voice of a newscaster stilled her hand from knocking. She gently pushed the door open. Stanhope had his back to her, listening to a cell phone held to his ear. She edged toward the news monitor, and scenes focused on what appeared to be the aftermath of a massive explosion. 
    Ice crept up her spine when she read the scrolling banner. "Fragment from latest asteroid buster falls near Shenzhen. Quarter of the sprawling Chinese city destroyed—thousands feared dead." 
    "Oh my God," she said aloud. 
    Stanhope clicked off his cell and turned to her. His face had gone pale. Facial cosmetic surgery failed to hide age lines deepened by anxiety. 
    "Happened less than an hour ago," Stanhope said. "That could have been any city in the world." 
    Martinez placed the letter on his desk. "I want to apologize for . . . well, Dr. Deng is known for colorful theatrics . . . I got caught up in it." She fought the rising gorge in her belly from flash-carding devastation on the newscast. 
    Stanhope switched off the monitor and set his cell phone down. "That was the President. She's called an emergency meeting with the Joint Chiefs, Secretaries of State, Defense and National Security . . . asked me to attend as well." 
    "What can I do to help?" Martinez asked without a hint of reservation. 
    He ran a hand threw his hair, mussing its coiffed styling. "You really believe this Planet Nine anomaly, is responsible for this?" 
    "The observational evidence is conclusive of a growing disruptive gravitational force that will destroy our solar system. So yes, I do." 
    Stanhope went to the window to gaze. "We've come so far, only to have it all erased in a generation or so." He rubbed his eyes. "I'm about to be a grandfather." 
    He finally gets it, but it took a disaster to convince him. "I often have to remind myself that if we reduce our nearly fourteen-billion-year-old universe to the span of an hour, human civilization is only fourteen-seconds old." Martinez paused to let it sink in. "Dr. Deng believes this dark matter anomaly was written in the stars before the existence of our solar system and for all we know, it will be here long after Earth returns to cosmic dust." 
    Stanhope picked up her letter of resignation and without reading it, tore it in three pieces before dropping it in a wastebasket. "Effective immediately, I'd like you to assume the Deputy Administrator position, as well as all mission directorates and research." 
    Martinez's jaw dropped. He'd just handed her the keys to all of NASA's scientific efforts outside of general administration. "Uh . . . thank you." 
    "Now, Deputy Administrator Martinez," Stanhope said. "We have meeting to go to at the White House. I need your help convincing the President to divert all satellite missions to monitoring the anomaly." 
    He held the door open for her. "But do us all a favor. Try to keep it in simple terms."

----

The Top Ten . . . 

Foods I Hope To Never Eat Again

DT Krippene

I've been fortunate to experience the diversity of global culture and cuisine first hand. It also came with a few "local" dishes that didn't resonate well with a western palate. My encounters
number well over ten, but these head the list. For the record, I didn't make this up.

1. Dinuguan
Defined as a Filipino stew of pork offal simmered in rich, spicy dark gravy of pig blood, garlic, chili, and vinegar, I refer to it as "Blood and Guts Stew" As a Peace Corps volunteer and one of very few American "Joes" on the island, I was invited to all the barrio fiestas, of which dinuguan was the specialty. I drank a lot of beer to wash it down.

2. Balut
Another Philippine delicacy, Balut is a fertilized duck egg in which the embryo develops for about 20 days, then boiled and eaten from the shell. A common street food I called "Filipino McDonalds," you have to get past a naked embryo staring back at you after the first bite. I've heard overdeveloped eggs with feathers are a good source of fiber.

3. Sea Cucumber
Considered in China to have medicinal value, this relative of the starfish looks and feels like a rotting cucumber. {Kind of tastes like one too). It closely resembles my irreverent description, a "sea turd." Only medicinal equivalent I can think of is Ipecac syrup.

4. Whelks
Typically used in the Chinese version of conch soup, I was treated to a "Heaven from the Seas" dinner in Dalian, where an entire eight-inch snail was served plain, steamed . . . no sauce or flavoring. I had to dig its slimy ammoniacal, multicolored organ body from the shell with a chopstick. My senior executive colleague turned green and said, "They don't pay us enough for this shit."

5. Drunken Shrimp
Live shrimp in a bowl at a Singaporean seafood place, the server dumps rice wine on them at the table so they flop about like Mexican  jumping beans. It proves their fresh. It's also great entertainment for the kids.

6. Lutefisk
Salted cod that's been hung outside to dry until it smells like the dumpster at Subway, then soaked in lye for several days, was the main event for years on my Norwegian mother-in-law's holiday table. It has the consistency of a gelatinous blob when boiled, of which drowning it in butter doesn't help. We drank lots of Aquavit, because there's no way it was going to swim to the stomach all by itself.

7. Dog
I'm not sure where to start with this one and not get a summons from PETA. It's fairly common in Korea, but my story hails once again from my Philippines Peace Corps duty.
Traveling with a USAID representative, he was nipped by a mangy dog while visiting a barrio family. Told we needed the dog for a rabies check, we went back a few hours later to discover the dog was the main entrée for dinner, and would we join them. I got a rabies shot and I wasn't even bitten.

8. Durian
Durian may look like a smaller cousin of the jackfruit, but these pebbly-shelled fruits aren't even related. Prized by folks in Southeast Asia, food writer Richard Sterling described its odor as turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock. It's supposed to be good for you. Thanks . . . I'll take a pill.

9. Haggis
First ingredient on the list is "offal," mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices. Scotland's version of black pudding, it's traditionally stuffed in a sheep's stomach and boiled. Bottom line . . . it's awful.

10. Turtle Fluids
I save the best for last. At that very same VIP dinner in Dalian years ago, we were served a glass of rice liquor mixed with turtle blood. Rose-tinted cocktails raised in a toast, our host claimed it would bring success in future business endeavors. Two courses later, a green-colored drink appeared before me – liquored up turtle bile. I didn't hear the Chinese parable during the toast, I was too busy concentrating on not upchucking.


Snow Belt Sanctuary

D.T. Krippene
(Featured Story, Winter, 2017)
Topped with several inches of lichen roof sod, the ramshackle cabin of splintered, bug-eaten logs belonged in one of Lloyd’s antique picture books.

I dropped my pack on a snow-salted boulder. “You got to be kidding me. Millions of deserted homes and you come up with a haven for rats and who knows what else?”

“You want to take your chances with roving gangs who’ll turn you in for a few cans of expired cat food – that’s if they don’t eat you instead,” Lloyd replied with a chuckle. “Aren’t many of these structures left in the world.”

“Gee, I wonder why. What’s holding this thing together, termite carcasses?”

Lloyd un-padlocked the door and scanned a smudged, pregnant sky. “Looks like you’re going to get some practice snowshoeing.”

Decades of dust and molder assaulted the nostrils when I opened the door.

“I’ll leave you the shotgun, Winchester, and plenty of ammo,” Lloyd said. “Let me walk you through the power cells and hydro unit.”

"I’ll stick out like a bonfire on Directorate sat-scans out here.”

Lloyd jerked his thumb skyward. “Won’t get through this shit. Even if it did, you’ll blink red like all the other wildlife in the area. Probably tag you as a hibernating bear.”

“Wildlife? What wildlife?”

"Thought you were seventeen, not a six-year-old sniveler afraid of the dark.” He laughed and patted the stubble of my face. “You need to man up, Ryan."

A spider web sealed cupboard groaned when I opened it. It took a little finger scrubbing to read the expiration date on a can of SPAM. “This shit is over twenty-years old.”

“Nobody’s been up here since the plague ended. Long as the can isn’t blown; expiration dates aren’t what they used to be.”

It took concentration to focus on Lloyd’s instructions. The clench of anxiety was hard to ignore, a silent voice ached to beg Lloyd to stay. “What if I get hurt? Can I call you if I need too?”

“Don't get hurt." Lloyd extracted the battery from my com tablet. “Directorate satellites can track these things, bonehead.” He tried not to laugh when I gaped at him. "If you absolutely need to contact me, use the encrypted R-Sat function I loaded. Keep it under thirty-seconds, and make sure to remove the battery.”

He clapped me on the shoulder. "I’ll swing around in a couple weeks.”

Lloyd’s snow-cat disappeared down the trail until distance and snow-fall consumed its chugging rumble. The silence of a winter forest pressed against me with its suffocating mantle.

Loneliness was not a new concept to me, but it was always in a sea of survivors, distraction and noise. Dark took on a new meaning. Wind moaned the melancholy of a first class haunting. Its womanish howl practicing scales ranging from a bone-strumming bass to banshee soprano. I swear at times it called my name.

Hoooo - Ryaaaaaan.

It snowed for five days; the fifth a whiteout blizzard that flayed the skin. I muttered curses to the idiots who screwed up the earth's environment and reestablished the Arctic Circle in what used to be the Adirondacks. Welcome to the new Snow Belt, Lloyd laughed in my head. Belt my goose-pimpled ass. It was a belt, suspenders, flannel shirt, and a hat.

You’ll be safe, Lloyd had said. No one will find you. Life in the wilderness is a freeing experience.

Bastard.

***

Roused from deep hibernation to full panic alert one night, I sprang-up so fast, the zipper of my sleeping bag ripped. Retinas burned from sudden flashlight glare, my watch read 2:36 AM. I sucked in a breath and held it, despite a rocketing heart that wanted every molecule of oxygen I could send it.

A scream, muted by walls of the cabin.

A design obligation of all zippers was to jam at the most inappropriate time. It budged a few inches, enough for me to worm myself from its trap. Cold air blasted me full awake when I burst outside in long johns and unlaced boots. My neck throbbed with the millisecond delay of my heartbeat.

Growling drifted from somewhere deep in the woods. Sounded like feral dogs. Their populations exploded in years, but I never thought the animals ventured far from the former populated areas that gave birth to them. Many animals sounded human-like when attacked. Rabbits make the most heart-wrenching squeal when hawk talons sweep them from the ground. My heartbeat descended with the presumption of a natural thing.

About to go back inside, my eyes adapted to the dark picked up a ghostly red glow deep in the woods. A campfire? Couldn’t be.

Then I heard it. A distant shout muffled by snow-laden branches.

“Ah … bugger off.” Definitely human.

My heart returned to the panic treadmill. Adrenalin broke safety seals and sent me back to fetch the shotgun. I chambered a round, and shoved spare cartridges in a jacket pocket. Snowshoes fastened, I sucked in a huge breath. You sure about this? Could be bounty hunters looking to bag the only human born after the plague ended. Nah. I’d hear gun fire by now.

Weaving between trees in the purple glow of starlit snow, I plodded toward a fiery-red glimmer and sounds of snarling. When I cleared a hillock, down in a protected hollow, someone in a hooded white snowsuit fended off a pack of large black-furred dogs with an emergency flare.

Damn, those are big dogs. Wait. Holy shit. Wolves. Five of them.

After the plague removed their only predator, wolf packs swelled with the unexpected bounty of livestock left to fend for themselves. I wasn't aware wolves had migrated east, or were unafraid of humans.

Two wolves snapped at the torchbearer, never getting close enough to get swiped by the flare. The other three circled. The flare sputtered. Soon, light-blinded retinas would fail for both of us. Wolves didn’t need to see. The nose would guide them like a programmed missile in a flesh-ripping frenzy. I gripped the halogen flashlight along the barrel, and switched it on.

“Hoooooo,” I yelled to distract them.

Five sets of animal eyes and the hooded man turned toward my light at the same time. The wolves formed an offensive line. My hands shaking, I inched forward, swaying the gun from one to another. My adrenaline pump injected its magic as if to say be scared later.

Two wolves spread out in a flanking maneuver. Yellow eyes glared into the flashlight, driven by a stronger sense that could taste the warm blood in my veins. I took a knee to steady my aim. Can’t believe I’m actually doing this.

The wolf closest to me, turned to look at the torch person behind it when the flare spit and fizzled. Seconds from blindness, I had to force a move.

“Hey dog, you going to stand there all night?”

I absolutely excel at spouting lame lines under stress, but it worked. The wolf turned its attention to me with bared fangs. Rumbled growls thrummed the air. I inhaled and held my breath. Got you. Didn’t like being called a dog, did you. The alpha wolf charged me at a full run atop packed snow. Another two followed a second later. I exhaled and squeezed the trigger when the lead wolf got within twenty-feet.

The shot slammed the beast full in the snout and flipped it backward in a high-pitched screaming yelp. The other two stopped in their tracks to register what happened. I had precious seconds to load another cartridge, or I’d be a meat Popsicle.

I needed a game closer to ensure one of the beta wolves didn’t become the new alpha and chose the one with the most deadly I-want-to-kill-you stare. My aim went wide of the wolf's torso and blasted its tail clean off. The injured wolf limp-sprinted toward the woods, followed by fellow betas with tails tucked between their legs.

I quickly chambered another round, and did a lighthouse sweep with the flashlight. Satisfied, I flicked the safety on and stared at the dead wolf a few moments to calm the shakes. A cough behind me broke through the storm drain of dwindling adrenaline.

Head concealed inside a fur-collared arctic hood, the guy looked like a coal-mining snowman, minus the carrot nose and button eyes. He dropped the flare stub and sat on a rock with hooded head in hands.

“Our friends probably won’t be back tonight, but I don’t want to take any chances.” I swept the light in a circle. Snow skis leaned against a pine tree near a mountain tent and wilderness pack. “How’d you get out here?”

The white polyester blob rocked back and forth, and didn’t answer.

“Um, look, I have a cabin nearby. Isn’t real big, but it has a stove, a roof and a door that locks.”

The rocking motion stopped.

“Unless you have a better idea, you shouldn’t stay out here.”

Snowman hesitated a moment, then grabbed his pack to follow me.

My new camping friend stood in the doorframe, probably still sorting out if I was a werewolf in disguise. I removed my jacket, and worked on the potbelly stove.

“Are you hungry?” I rifled through cupboards for dried noodles. “When was the last time you ate?”

It was like trying to friend a stray cat. He eventually shuffled toward the stove and sat on a stool. I took apart the shotgun to clean it while the water heated. It had saved my butt this day and it deserved a little loving care.

I retried to initiate conversation. “Wow, that was scary. Good thing I heard you.”

When I turned around, hood, scarf and the top part of the snowsuit had been removed. I had to blink a few times to be sure I wasn’t experiencing a post traumatic hallucination.

Bedraggled chestnut hair matted to the oval, pale face of a young woman. She couldn’t be much older than me, which would have made her a child when over ninety-eight percent of the global population perished. According to Lloyd, as if the plague preferentially selected the young and elderly for extinction, people over fifty died off completely, number of survivors under the age of ten was infinitesimal. I imagined her worth to rover gangs must be priceless.

“If you’re – on the run, that’s fine,” I said. “Oh, I’m Ryan, by the way. Kind of a refugee myself.”

Water boiled over and hissed on the stove. I dumped a package of chicken-flavored noodles in the pot and stirred.

“Jenny,” the girl said. “Name’s Jenny.”

Strange accent. I handed her the soup. “Go slow, it’s hot.”

She took the pot and sniffed it.

“Noodles are a little dated, but then isn’t everything these days,” I laughed. “The accent, heard a recording once – sounds British. Is that where you’re from – before the plague?”

“Why is it you Yanks think it’s always British?” Jenny slurped her soup. “Australia.”

“Australia?” I didn’t mean to bark it. “You mean, like recently?”

The intensity of her green eyes sparkled like candle-lit emeralds. “Hitched a ride with a bunch of drongos on a sailboat. Hit the west coast few months ago. Been on your outback since.”

A girl sails from the other side of the planet without drowning, actually makes it across the unprotected expanse without getting caught, and nearly ends up as wolf scat a stone’s throw from my front door.

A gazillion other places she could have headed, how the hell did she end up in the middle of Five Ponds Wilderness in the dead of winter? More importantly, where is she going?

The Top Ten ...

Favorite
Authors


D.T. Krippene




Choosing ten favorite authors is no easy chore when you read as much as I do. I picked ten authors who affected me most growing up, which influenced my writing.

In alphabetical order.

1. James Clavell – I read Shogun while living in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Living in Asia during the seventies gave it special meaning, and I became hooked on everything Clavell wrote. I credit the desire to embrace foreign cultures to his books. The chance came in 1997, where I embarked on a ten-year stint in Singapore and Taiwan.

2. Michael Crichton – Especially intrigued by life sciences in high school, Andromeda Strain introduced me to a bold new world of futuristic thrillers involving engineered pathogens. Crichton's books were always richly researched and fast-paced. My favorite of Crichton's is Timeline, where time travelers go back to 14th Century France to rescue a professor.

3. Ken Follet – Where Clavell may have set the bar for historical thrillers, Ken Follet took it to a new level with a 12th Century monk's drive to build a cathedral in a two book series, Pillars of the Earth, and World Without End. Follet spares no ugliness in the oft-violent world of the European Middle Ages, but he balances it with the hidden beauty of a simpler time. Follet is must reading for anyone world-building in this timeframe.

4. Robert Heinlein – I was ten when I first read Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky, about a futuristic final exam for advanced survival that goes wrong and students become castaways in an unknown universe. Must have read it a dozen times as a kid, and I credit Heinlein for starting me on the sci-fi highway, absorbing every novel the man wrote. Podkayne of Mars remains a favorite.

5. Robert Jordan – Author of the Wheel of Time series, no one (except maybe George R.R. Martin), paints a complex fantasy world like Jordan. Admittedly, Jordan wandered inside his plot line as the series grew, and had a tendency for diarrhea of the word processor when drafting a scene. Jordan died before he could finish the series. Jordan's wife tapped fellow fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson, to bring it all to a close with Jordan's notes. I loved the damned series, and the awesome cover designs by Darrell K. Sweet.

6. Stephen King – Believe it or not, King is another key author in my life discovered while serving in the Peace Corps. Try reading Carrie beneath a mosquito net, to the sounds of a sweltering Philippine barrio night, and not get the shivers. I've read most of his works, but The Stand remains my all time favorite, an apocalyptic tale that started my love affair with all things dystopian.

7. Barbara Kingsolver – When asked who my favorite literary fiction authors are, Kingsolver is first on the list. Poisonwood Bible stands out as her most notable, and Animal Dreams a personal favorite, but it was the more recent Flight Behavior that resonated with me. A story of a potential ecological disaster involving Monarch butterflies , a small town, Appalachian mother's life is irrevocably changed inside an arena of political, climatologically, and religious interests.

8. Dean Koontz – My first Dean Koontz novel was Lightning, a story of a young girl's rescue from a man who appeared on the heels of a lightning bolt. Like Stephen King, Koontz has the ability to write stories that appeal to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror aficionados. Koontz can breathe life into characters like no one else.

9. Kim Stanley Robinson – A late entrant to my top ten list of favs, Robinson was recommended when I lamented the glut of space operas, and I'd had enough of Einstein-bending captains traveling over light speed and evil lizard-like aliens. I started with a recent novel, 2312, in a future of colonized planets within our own solar system, enhanced humans, and the dark element of Artificial Intelligence. Not an easy read, Robinson keeps it real by adhering to the established tenets of Einstein and Hawkings, yet offers new ideas of what the future may hold for mankind.10. J.R.R. Tolkien – What can I add that hasn't already been said. Another pivotal series in my adolescent years that began with The Hobbit, you can't really get a feel for the richness of Tolkien's epic fantasies in the movies. You can't call yourself a Tolkien reader unless you've read his other works, like The Silmarillion.
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