It’s Christmas Eve, here in the United States… and other localities that celebrate Christmas. Although, given the wonders (or maybe wondrous frustrations) of time zones, it is already Christmas Day in places.
I am largely indifferent when it comes to holidays. They haven’t affected me personally for quite some time, and even then, they were merely days off work. The college where I worked several years ago tended to stack holiday observances at the end of the year so that the faculty and staff had something like three weeks off, culminating at New Year’s Day.
As much as I enjoyed the time off, that was also brutal for me, because it would take me a few days to get back onto some semblance of a “normal” day/night schedule when I went back.
I am extremely grateful to all my readers for saving me from “the 9-to-5.” I don’t miss it at all… I promise. 🙂
In addition to my writing update, I’m going to try something new. After the screenshot of today’s Writing Log, you will find an excerpt from The Shepherd. It will either be the first chapter or half of the first chapter; I honestly haven’t decided yet.
In terms of my writing today, I did not set myself up for success. No, not at all…
I allowed myself to get sucked into a book I was reading before bed and ended up going to sleep somewhen around 6am to 6:30 this morning. I did not sleep well and finally woke up around 12:30-ish.
It took me forever to get started writing, and I didn’t come close to achieving what I wanted to achieve. I’m sufficiently tired that I just don’t care.
Now… I will say that this dark cloud does have a very nice silver lining.
As of today, I have cracked 300,000 words for a second year since I started closely tracking my word counts. That… feels kinda awesome. I will announce my goal for 2024 either on the last day of 2023 or the first day of 2024. Again… not sure yet.
Here are my totals thus far:
Daily Word Count (with this post): 6,311 Sprint to the New Year with Kris Challenge Word Count: 24,645 The Great Dean Challenge 2023 Word Count: 269,566 Overall Word Count for 2023: 305,266
And now, for the promised excerpt of The Shepherd…
The Shepherd – Chapter 1
Alex sat on the Giant’s Throne. Night had just settled over the ranch, and the large rock that looked like a weathered hand-carved throne still carried warmth from the late spring sun. It wasn’t a lot of warmth, but it sure was welcome. A cool wind whipped across the pasture, guided and shaped and reinforced by the nearby draws. Another muggy summer was on the way for southern Wyoming, and Alex relished the relatively low humidity that still clung to the region like an old comfy jacket you love dearly and don’t want to part with.
He remembered all the times he and his sisters had played on or around this big rock while their parents worked the flock. They were pleasant memories for the most part. Even those that weren’t so pleasant became special treasures now that his sisters had left for college.
He grinned in the night, thinking of how many times they played their twin games on people. Sometimes, not even their parents could tell them apart… but he always could. It was a sixth sense neither he nor they had ever managed to explain. No matter how much they practiced, nor how often they tried, he always knew beyond any doubt which sister he faced.
Home felt lonely with them gone. He didn’t like that. Home shouldn’t feel lonely… should it?
He didn’t know.
He’d told his parents when he started his senior year of high school that he didn’t want to go to college. What he hadn’t told them was that he hoped they’d put his college fund toward the twins. He liked working the ranch with his parents well enough, and his sisters had always struck him as scary smart. The way he looked at it, they’d make better use of college and beyond than he would.
Besides, the busy campuses he’d toured back in high school had been very unsettling for him. He felt much more comfortable at the easy, laid-back pace of the ranch. And it wasn’t like his parents couldn’t use the help, especially since he basically traded his work for room and board.
His work for the ranch was the ultimate reason he perched atop the Giant’s Throne that had been so popular when he and his sisters were kids.
For the past six months or so, something hit ranches all over the tri-state area every new moon. Everyone—the authorities, the ranchers, everyone—was baffled. No tracks. No carcasses. Nothing. But every morning after the night of the new moon, another ranch found it no longer had any livestock.
Sheep. Goats. Cattle. Horses. It didn’t seem to matter.
Since no one had ever identified what was taking the livestock, he carried the revolver and lever-action rifle his grandparents had given him when he graduated high school a few years before. They were both chambered in .45 Colt, and the revolver was a replica of the Colt Single Action Army… what so many people knew or called the Colt Peacemaker.
He toyed with the idea of getting into Cowboy Action Shooting, but he wasn’t sure. He never enjoyed being the center of attention, and competitions thrived on making the competitors the center of all kinds of attention.
He laid the rifle across his lap and pressed the button on the side of his watch-face, illuminating it with a backlight that was safe for a person’s night vision.
Damn. Only twenty minutes? How could it only have been twenty minutes since he came out here?
It was going to be a long four hours.
It was just after midnight. He only had an hour to go, and he was so, so grateful for that. Whatever was raiding ranches must’ve hit somewhere else, because absolutely nothing had happened for him. It would be nice if one of his parents arrived a bit early, but he doubted that would happen.
Not after his impassioned speech about how he could do more to help around the ranch.
But then, a sheep on the fringe of the flock made some noise just as Alex noticed some kind of strange subsonic that seemed to resonate against his bones. The rest of the flock took up the restlessness of the first.
Whatever it was made him incredibly uneasy… and it felt close. Too close. He happened to glance up and froze, trying not to gape.
He couldn’t see the stars. Something blocked his view, and the night was pitch black. Alex couldn’t even see his hand in front of his face. He wanted to turn on his flashlight. Knew he should. But he was afraid. As if seeing what had come for the flock would make it all too real.
Every hair on the back of his neck—not to mention everywhere else—stood on end. Not even a heartbeat later, every nerve in his body lit off. Stars of every color in the rainbow and then some exploded in his vision. He felt a spike of horrendous pain… then… nothing.
Nothing at all.
* * *
Flax hated his life. A veteran of over seven victorious campaigns, and he was reduced to little more than a grunt on some tramp freighter in the ass-end of explored space. All because he didn’t know when to walk away from a good run of Zaska at Dogruz’s casino.
For his part of their job, he waited in the cargo bay. Ha! Calling it a cargo bay grossly overstated the situation. To most star-faring races, the words ‘cargo bay’ implied a rather large—possibly cavernous—space suitable for carrying all kinds of cargo. This cargo bay was little more than ten meters square, with the main cargo area just large enough to receive whatever came up the ramp.
And the name!
The moron who called himself ‘captain’ named the ship the Dread Scar. Flax snorted. There was nothing ‘dread’ about this heap. He would’ve expressed his displeasure in a more physical manner, but he was afraid he’d kick a hole in the bulkhead.
Static crackled out of the speaker overhead. “Flax, get ready. We’re approaching the target now.”
Speak of the idiot, and he shall… well… call.
Flax stomped over to the control console he’d cobbled together using parts from over six different wrecks. When a section of the deck creaked in a worrisome way that wasn’t normal, he moderated his steps a bit.
He punched the comm stud with his fist and winced when he drove it into the console. There was a spark, and he caught a whiff of burning circuitry. But the indicator for the open comm channel came on.
He knew his voice carried no interest or excitement, but he didn’t care. They were raiding some backwater planet deep in the unexplored regions for meat, because the Moron-in-Chief was too much of a skinflint to use the funds provided in their contract to actually buy the provisions they were supposed to deliver.
He really didn’t want to still be aboard when the authorities—any authorities, honestly—caught up with this ship. The list of onboard safety violations alone would guarantee a life sentence for the captain and engineer.
A burst of static and feedback squealed from the speaker overhead just as the captain almost shouted, “Now, Flax… now!”
He slapped the activator for the starship-grade stunner normally found in system patrol craft, and a shock ran up his arm just as he caught another whiff of burning circuitry. Every light in the bay flickered and buzzed, and the whole ship fell a short distance when it felt like half the engineering plant cut out.
Oh, shit. They were going to crash on this backwater hole-in-the-universe. He’d always known he wouldn’t die a ‘good’ death… at least not according to the customs of his people… but he didn’t want to die being dissected by a group of howling savages. There were just some ways no one should die.
The speaker overhead actually spat sparks as static crackled, moments before he heard the captain say, “All right, Flax! Get those drones to work! This region’s night cycle will end sometime!”
Flax trudged across the bay to the other control console. That one was a work of art. He’d made it using scrounged scrap from only three different wrecks. He didn’t even consider checking the area below the ship as he loaded the retrieval program into the drone controller and activated it, then slapped the control that would open the cargo bay doors and lower the ramp.
As the drones filed out of the ship, Flax grabbed the tablet that gave him remote access to the drone and cargo bay controller and headed to the ship’s mess. He was hungry, and if the captain didn’t like him taking a break while the drones collected the animals, that waste of genetic material could suck his fourth dorsal horn.
Flax was half-way through a hearty but very unsatisfying meal when the tablet pinged. He checked the notification and, seeing the line of text saying the retrieval program had finished, keyed the command that would retract the ramp and seal the cargo bay. He managed two more mouthfuls before the tablet pinged again. He gulped down the rest of his food before calling the bridge.
“We’re good to go, Captain.”
The subsonic hum that set his teeth on edge flooded the ship when the stealth field activated. It would hide the ship from this primitive planet’s so-called scanning technology… mostly… but like almost every other part of this heap, it was cobbled together with parts from who knew how many ships. A proper ship doing proper jobs could afford at least a modern full-spectrum cloaking device. But then again, this heap’s power plant would probably go into critical shutdown if a technician merely unboxed such an energy-intensive device.
Flax felt the ship transition from planetary atmosphere to actual space and shook his head in disgust as he recycled his dishes and utensils and trudged his way back to the cargo hold. He should not be able to feel the difference between atmospheric and space flight in his ankles and knees.
It was his job to ‘process’ the provisions, too. By the time his shift ended and he could visit the meager hygiene suite aboard, he’d be covered in alien blood, guts, and other organic matter.
As he approached the hatch to the cargo bay, he wondered—and not for the first time—what god or gods he’d offended to fall so low. He slapped the door control and clenched his jaw at the ear-splitting wail the mechanism shrieked as it opened the hatch. He stepped through the partially open hatch and slapped the interior control, tightly closing his eyes and wincing against the shriek that changed pitch a couple times as the hatch reversed direction and began to close. It took far too long for the torturous sound to cease, and he heaved a sigh of relief at the blessed silence.
He opened his eyes to survey his next batch of victims, and his breath caught in his throat at the sight before him.
Mixed in with the unconscious animals was what could only be a member of the sapient—though primitive—species that dominated the planet they’d just left. An odd metal and wooden club lay across its torso, and a rather large stone sat at the top of the ramp, all this not including the rather impressive number of white, gray, and black quadrupeds scattered unconscious around the bay. He cursed himself for not checking the scan of their target area before dispatching the drones.
The controller was nowhere near advanced enough to give the drones the ability to distinguish between animals and sapient life forms, so the retrieval program was little more than the simple instruction to retrieve everything within the target area. And apparently their target area tonight included a sapient creature and an impressively large stone.
He couldn’t help but wonder how many drones had been necessary to move that stone up the ramp.
Then, the reality of his situation dribbled ice down his spine. This was it. This was the moment where he passed the point of no return. His life was as good as over now. He was complicit in the abduction of a sapient primitive. He had no idea how the authorities would find out, but his luck thus far told him in no uncertain terms that they would.
He couldn’t tell the captain about the primitive. He simply could not. The captain would space the creature without a second thought, and then, he’d be complicit in the killing of a sapient.
Flax was a lot of a lot of things, yes, but he wasn’t a murderer.
He glanced at the wall-mounted chrono and fought a wince. The captain would be here soon to have a look at ‘the haul,’ and for once, Flax was overjoyed that the ship was a heap of junk nowhere close to being legally space-worthy. After all, a ship that was legally space-worthy had remote monitoring systems, and the captain wouldn’t have to walk the sixty-odd meters from the bridge to see how many animals they’d stolen.
He had time. Not much. But hopefully enough.
His focus flicked from point to point around the relatively tiny cargo bay, getting ever closer to a full-on panic with every second that passed. Finally, he focused on the hatch to the loadmaster’s office.
This flying coffin hadn’t had a proper loadmaster in who knew how long. He was pretty sure everyone used it as storage. Without waiting another moment, Flax grabbed the unconscious primitive and its strange metal and wooden club… or maybe it was a staff… and hustled across the bay. He kicked open the hatch to the loadmaster’s office—which he absolutely should not have been able to do—and hid the primitive and its belongings behind a stack of crates. He glanced at the markings on the crates and sighed as he left the office, closing the hatch behind him.
It didn’t surprise him at all that the captain had somehow acquired several crates of military-grade chemical weapons. Most civilized regions of the galaxy banned such filth, but this oh-so-illustrious captain had a knack for avoiding civilization at almost all costs.
Now, all he had to do was keep everyone from discovering his ‘stash’ until he could find a way to get the primitive back to its planet. The sad thing was… he had no idea how he was going to manage that.