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Excerpt for Flashback Twilight by , available in its entirety at Smashwords














FLASHBACK TWILIGHT

by

Wayne Kyle Spitzer































Copyright © 2018 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. All Rights Reserved. Published by Hobb’s End Books, a division of ACME Sprockets & Visions. Previously published in serial form as A Dinosaur is a Man’s Best Friend. Cover design Copyright © 2018 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. Please direct all inquiries to: HobbsEndBooks@yahoo.com



Based upon “Flashback,” first published by Books in Motion/Classic Ventures, 1993. Reprinted by Hobb’s End Books, 2017.



All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this book is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

















































I

<The abandoned drive-in, we’ll hide there. Move your ass, Will. They’re right behind us.>

Williams gazed down the long, overgrown slope at what had once been the East Mirabeau Drive-in Theater. “That’s a pretty steep decline, Ank. You sure you can handle it?”

He was doing it again. Responding to the imaginary voice.

The armored dinosaur examined the slope, flies buzzing about his eyes. <The gear on my back might slow me, but I can do it. Just don’t walk in front of me, in case I lose my footing. Hurry … we’re sitting ducks out here in the open.>

Williams gripped his rifle and looked behind them: Sure enough, the marauders were coming, the wheels of their trucks and ATVs and motorcycles kicking up great plumes of dust as they motored across the plain. He quickly joined Ank who was already descending, his great hooves sinking into the earth like anvils, the water containers and camping gear and boxes of ammo strapped to his shell sloshing and clanking.

“Those prints are going to be a problem,” said Williams, falling back to rub them out.

Your sanity is going to be a problem, he thought to himself, if you keep this lunacy up.

<Never mind them. It won’t take them long to figure out where we went. We’ll lose them in the tall grass when we reach the bottom—I’ll hide behind the snack bar while you ascend my back to the roof. With luck, you’ll be able to pick them off from there.

“Good plan … even if I do say so myself.”

<You didn’t say so yourself. Now is not the time for this!>

“It’s been the time for this since I started hearing your voice in my head. My voice, I mean. I mean—”

<Later, Will. We’re almost there. You should climb onto my back now and start gathering up your ammo.>

“Yes, sir, Mr. talking dinosaur!” He ascended Ank’s tail using its spikes for hand grips until he’d gained the crest of his shell, then tore open a box of ammo.

<I tell you, a telepathic connection has formed between us—don’t ask me how because I don’t know myself. And I am no longer merely a dinosaur, in case you haven’t noticed. If you listen to nothing else I say, listen to that. These continued attempts at self-deception serve no one and will only hinder our search for—”

“What? What are we searching for, Ank?” His frustration with himself and the situation had begun to boil over at last.

<You know as well as I do what we’re searching for.>

Williams sighed, giving into the hallucination and its comforts as he had done so many times before. “Yes, I know. We’re searching for Tanelorn, where my great lost love awaits and they’ll be fields of green, supple plants for you to eat and all this, this Flashback, will be explained. I know, Ank. I haven’t forgotten. It’s just easier to believe sometimes than others.”

A shot rang out suddenly and Williams jolted as the bullet ricocheted off Ank’s armor. He peered at the top of the hill. The marauders had arrived and dismounted their vehicles, and were even now sighting them with an array of rifles and pistols. There was a pronounced crack! ka-crack! as more rounds bounced off Ank’s shell.

<Climb forward onto my head, you’ll be protected beneath the lip of my armor. Hurry!>

He did so, rolling onto the beast’s great, horned skull and coming up firing, his elbows resting on the edge of the shell. Crack! (Ka-chink). Crack! (Ka-chink).

The marauders began to fall as he pumped and fired again and again.

And then they were down and into the towering overgrowth, and Williams thought he saw a were- raptor flit past before a hail of gunfire forced him to crouch lower beneath the shell.

“We’re not alone here, Ank. Were-raptors, two o’clock.” He could tell by their unmistakable pale coloring. He pumped and fired as one of the marauders clutched his chest and tumbled down the slope. “How close are we?”

<We’re almost there now. Don’t shoot the raptors, whatever you do. If they were after us, we’d already know it.>

Williams jerked his head left and right as the predators began pouring past them on both sides, snarling and gnashing their teeth. And then they were there, they were behind the snack bar, which was dilapidated and covered in creeper-vines, and he scrambled over Ank’s shell and dove onto its roof.

<The marauders only! The raptors will do most the work.>

Williams shimmied forward on his elbows and braced his rifle against the building’s cornice. The brigands were working their way down the slope, completely ignorant of what was coming—until the raptors began leaping from the overgrowth and knocking them down, tearing out their throats, gutting them with their sickle-claws.

“They’ll come for us when they’ve finished,” shouted Williams, scrambling to his feet. “What’s the plan?”

He skittered to a stop at the edge of the building and saw Ank preparing to strike the rear wall with his club tail.

“Is that a good—”

But it was too late, and the cinderblock wall collapsed at the impact as though it had been struck by a wrecking ball, after which Ank lifted his tail so that Williams could climb on and lowered him to the ground.

Williams peered into the gaping hole. The ‘50s-themed interior was mostly intact, it would make a good campsite if they could find a way to stop up the ingress. He moved forward, stepping over the rubble, his rifle at the ready. Ank lumbered in after him, the spikes of his shell scraping the edges of the hole and making it still wider.

“The pizza oven,” he said, scanning the kitchen. “And that refrigerator. What do you think?”

Ank looked at the big, commercial appliances, a bass grumble rattling his throat. <I’ll take care of it. Check out the rest of the building. Make sure there’s no compies or prehistoric centipedes or … God knows.>

There was a crash upstairs followed by a scratchy shuffling and Williams froze, staring at the ceiling.

“God knows there’s someone or something up there.”

<Go check it—>

“Don’t say it,” snapped Williams, and pointed at him. “I’m not going to be bossed around by a figment of my imagination. And so long as I’ve got even a little sanity left, that’s exactly what you’ll remain.”

Ank only stared at him, his big, dark eyes impossible to read.

“Now move this … this shit, and I’ll be right back.”

And then he was shuffling up the stairs—and the only sounds were those of the marauders screaming as the raptors tore them limb from limb; and the rumble of storm clouds as they collided high above.





Good Lord, what a mess, he thought, easing open the door to the projection room as the smell of decomposing flesh assailed his nostrils. What on earth happened—

But he knew what had happened, just as he now knew what had happened to the rest of the world (despite having no memory of who he was or where he was from). The projectionist had been going about his life when a storm-front full of strange lights had rolled in and changed the rules of reality forever—scrambling time so that three quarters of the population had simply vanished, and causing prehistoric animals and plants to begin materializing out of nowhere. And now all that was left of him was a rotting husk with only half its arms and legs, wedged into the corner of the blood-splashed and overgrown room (although the blood had long since dried), and seeming almost to twitch—which was impossible, of course. For if there was one thing Williams was sure of, it was that the projectionist was, in fact, dead, and so would not be returning as a were-raptor or anything else.

Were-raptors, he thought, and chuckled bitterly to himself. Time storms. A fucking talking ankylosaur …

He had turned to go back downstairs, realizing, for the thousandth time, that his eyes, like his ears—indeed, his very thoughts—could no longer be trusted, when there was a sudden squelching sound followed by a snippet of music—AC/DC, to be exact, although he didn’t know how he could know that—which stabbed at the air briefly before reducing in volume quickly and vanishing altogether.

He whipped back around, rifle at the ready, as the corpse twitched again—this time noticing something he had utterly missed the first time: a child’s shoe, filthy white with pink laces, protruding from beneath the stiff, dead form. A shoe which moved as he watched, attempting to conceal itself.

Someone was hiding beneath the body. A child—or a midget, he thought insanely, and lowered his rifle. The wind gusted and the blinds of a nearby window rattled. At last he said, “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.” Flies buzzed about the dead man in the near total silence. “But hiding beneath a corpse is no place for a child, do you understand? You could get very, very sick. I’m sure your parents wouldn’t want that.”

What the hell are you even saying? he reprimanded himself, not knowing if he’d been a parent in his previous life but fairly certain he had not. And this voice was joined by another, a merciless, pragmatic voice, which whispered: There’s still time. It’s not too late. Time to pretend you haven’t seen this. Time to leave this place and its potential burdens as far behind as you can.

“You’ll take my radio,” came a little girl’s voice, stunning him somewhat, for it was the first human voice he had heard since Devil’s Gorge and the western theme park turned survival compound. “The last grownups I saw wanted it too, but I got away from them. And my parents are dead; I seen them killed myself.”

A radio, he thought. Holy mother of God, a radio! He thought of the snippet of AC/DC he’d heard. And a signal! Someone, somewhere, was broadcasting. And that meant power, electricity, lights. It might even mean an entire city had survived.

“I would like to listen to your radio, I confess,” he said, trying not to sound too eager or overly interested, “but I would never take it from you, do you understand? I presume you found it amidst the rubble … that makes it yours, and yours only.”

He lowered his rifle. “My name is Williams. I have a friend downstairs I’d like you to meet—his name is Ank.” He watched the corpse, listening, but there was no movement and no response. “Do you have a name?”

The wind moaned forlornly and the blinds rattled again. At last she said, “Luna. Because my hair is white.”

“Luna …” He smiled in spite of himself—in spite of the situation. “Because your hair is white.” He took a tentative step forward and paused. “May I see it? I’ve never seen a little girl with white hair.”

There was a brief silence. “You promise you won’t take my radio?”

“Promise and hope to die,” he said, and gently moved the rest of the way to her.

The corpse shifted slightly and the filthy white tennis shoe reappeared. Then she began pushing outward and upward and he quickly laid down his rifle and began assisting—until the body had been rolled over completely and he could see her in her entirety.

The first thing he noticed were her extraordinarily light violet (almost pink) eyes, which stared out from their dark recesses with an eerily penetrative gaze. The second was that, beyond them, she had no pigment whatsoever: her skin, her eyelashes, her brows—all were white. And the third was that she appeared dreadfully malnourished and was filthy from head to toe, like a porcelain teacup left out in the elements too long.

But it was the eyes that held him, haunted him, for they were the eyes of an old woman trapped in the face of a child.

“I’m an albean, albin—albino,” she stammered, as though apologizing in advance. “Do you still want to introduce me to your friend?”

“Why yes, I do, very much,” he said, even as his eyes dropped to her radio, which was red and had a large hand-crank.

She pressed it to her chest possessively, crossing her arms.

“Yours,” he repeated. “And yours only. Promise.”

She seemed to think about this, eyeing him uncertainly. At last she said, “Can your friend come up here? There’s blood roosters down there.”

He plucked the hair away from her eyes gently. “They’re called raptors. And no, he can’t, he’s too big.” He picked up his rifle and stood, swinging it by its loop lever and cocking it. “But don’t worry. Raptors—blood roosters—are our specialty.”





The first thing she did upon seeing Ank at the bottom of the stairs was to scream, nor was it just any scream, but the kind which could only come from a particularly agitated little boy or girl—the kind that bore through one’s skull like a long, thin drill bit. Then she promptly scurried back up the steps and cowered behind the wall, shaking her head and saying, “No dinosaur, no dinosaur.”

“Luna, it’s okay,” stressed Williams. “He isn’t going to hurt you. His name is Ank. He—he doesn’t eat people. Especially little girls. Isn’t that right, Ank?”

Ank merely looked at him from beneath his horny brows. <Yet. I haven’t eaten anyone yet, Will. What is this?>

Williams straightened somewhat awkwardly and gestured at Luna to come down. “Well, I … This is Luna.” He looked back and forth between the two. “Luna, because her hair is white. Luna … meet Ank.”

“Who are you talking to?” she asked. “I can’t hear anything.”

Ank snorted. <Because I’m a figment of his imagination.>

Williams was temporarily at a loss. “No, I guess you wouldn’t … would you?” Of course she wouldn’t, he thought. Because in spite of what she’s been through, she hasn’t gone stark, raving mad, like you.

“Let’s just say that Ank can communicate with me without actually speaking, and that he can understand what you say to him.” He gestured for her to come again. “Luna, come here! He’s not going to hurt you. I promise. Show him your radio.”

She descended the steps tentatively and held out the device, and Williams couldn’t help but to notice that her entire body was trembling. “That’s it, that’s a good girl,” he cajoled, then pointed at one of her hands and raised his brows as if to ask, May I?—before taking it in his own and guiding it to Ank’s snout, which she began to stroke slowly, cautiously.

<Is this really necessary? Just tell me about the radio. Does it work?>

“I’m getting to that.” And to Luna Williams said, “Your radio. Can you play it for us? We—we’ve been travelling for a long time, and we miss the sound of other voices. Would you mind?”

She didn’t respond right away but only continued to stroke Ank, who’s stony texture seemed to fascinate her endlessly. At length she said, “Okay,” and turned one of its dials, and the room was immediately filled with the slightly raspy voice of a woman, who continued, “… if you’re heading our way through Shadow Canyon, following that beautiful river, perhaps, be advised there’s a pair of allosaurs operating in that area we call Lenny and Squiggy, and stay alert. And while we’d prefer you didn’t kill them if in fact you are armed, we wouldn’t recommend you get too friendly with them either. Once again this is Radio Free Montana, nestled just south of Paradise at Barley’s Hot Springs Resort, where we’ve got power, lights, food, and about three-hundred survivors who’d love nothing more than to meet you. But be advised as always: if you’re a marauder or a carpetbagger, you won’t like what we’ve prepared for you. So take a little advice from Bella Ray and don’t even try it. And on that it’s another round of AC/DC … for those struggling to get here even now, we salute you!”

It would have been difficult to overestimate the swelling in Williams’ chest as he looked to Ank and the armored dinosaur looked right back, for both of them sensed that this could be the destination they’d searched for—Tanelorn, as they called it. The place where both of them might find comfort and possibly even some answers to the riddles they each embodied.

“My God, Ank,” Williams stammered. “Do you think—”

<I think it’s the best lead we’ve had since coming north … and that a bath in a hot spring would be divine beyond, well, my ability to imagine. Regardless, there’s the girl to think about ...>

“Yes, we could drop her off there if nothing—”

“You’re crazy, aren’t you?”

Williams came out of his thoughts as if from a dream and just looked at her. At Luna. Because her hair was white. “Maybe,” he offered, and then winked. “And you’re an albino. So what’s your point? If you ask me, I’d say a crazy man, an albino, and an ankylosaur make a pretty good team.”

She looked at him a little quizzically, as though unsure whether he was having her on or not. And then she just grinned infectiously, and Williams knew she’d accepted it—as he had finally accepted it: Ank as a possible talking reality, the Flashback, all of it. And then the spell was broken by a voice both familiar and alien, a voice which was human and at the same time serpentine, a voice which called out amidst the brewing storm: “Come out, Williams!”—and was instantly joined by another, which chimed in, parrot-like, “Yes, come out!” And another: “Eggsucker! Pig-fucker!”

And they knew the were-raptors had zeroed in on them at last.

“Those I can hear,” said Luna—and began retreating up the stairs again. “They only talk when they’re about to attack.”

Williams, meanwhile, had focused on Ank. “Jesus … it called me by name.”

Ank stared at him from beneath his brow. <A survivor of Devil’s Gorge, maybe?>

Williams nodded slowly. “But how in God’s name? The only one who knew our names was … Unless—”

<Unless the town was attacked by another pack of were-raptors after we left. Which would mean those outside could be anyone—Sheriff Decker, Katrina …>

Williams misted up as he thought of the saloon girl who had shown him such affection. “I won’t shoot them, then.”

<Now listen, Will. Don’t let your personal feelings—>

“I said I won’t shoot them,” he snapped, and turned toward Luna, who was cowering at the top of the stairs. “We’ll have to find another way.” To Luna he said: “It’s all right, sweetie. Everything’s going to be all right.”

<Dammit, Will, I can’t handle an entire pack on my own, and you know it. Now are we serious about making it to Tanelorn, or at least Barley’s, or not? Or have all our plans changed because a saloon girl threw a leg up on you in a town we will never see again?>

“Meh,” Williams sighed angrily and moved toward the building’s front windows, which Ank had blocked with pinball machines and video games, with only partial success.

<Don’t walk away from me when I’m talking to you, dammit!> He lumbered after him, the tiled floor cracking beneath his elephantine feet. <We made a pact. And what about the girl? Would you see her torn to pieces by those things while you simply watched?>

“Go away!” Williams hissed. He peeked around one of the machines and saw the raptors lined up in the gathering dark, waiting to make their move, waiting to rush the snack bar and overwhelm them, waiting to kill them or, worse, to turn them into creatures like themselves.

“Are you talking to me?” whined the girl, her voice seeming to bleed as if cut by invisible knives. “Why would you want me to go away all of a sudden?”

“No—that’s not what I meant—I …”

<I can’t do it, Will. They’ll swarm in beneath my armor and … they’ll tear me to pieces.>

Williams held up his rifle—pressed his forehead against it.

<We need your magic with that gun, Will. I need it. And if you don’t step up I’m going to have to … and, I won’t make it. Not this time.>

“Come out, Williams!”

“Yes, my love, come out!” A new voice. Her voice. Katrina.

Williams squeezed his eyes shut.

And then they were coming, he could hear their growls and the tapping of their awful sickle-claws against the cracked and broken pavement, and Ank was charging past him, breaking through the windows and walls, roaring defiantly, and when Williams looked up he saw the dinosaurs collide like thunderheads, heard Luna scream her piercing, drill bit scream, and knew they’d never make it to Barley, to say nothing of Tanelorn.



































II

“Dammit, just dammit,” Williams cursed as he gripped his rifle and scrambled over the rubble toward the battling dinosaurs, then shouted over his shoulder, “Luna, take cover!”

And then he was sighting were-raptors with non-lethal precision (even as the thunderheads collided and the sky boomed and the rain came down in merciless torrents), targeting them in their legs, their thighs, their tails: fearing with each squeeze of the trigger that he might inadvertently strike a killing blow; that he might destroy the very people who had shown him such kindness, that he might murder the woman with whom he’d formed such a powerful and inexplicable bond—worse, that he might wound or even kill Ank.

He zeroed in on the thigh of one of the animals that had gotten too close to Ank’s unprotected underbelly, a thigh that looked like so much uncooked chicken, and fired, blasting a hole the size of a teacup in it … and causing the creature to drop instantly and to scramble away. Was that you, Katrina? he thought as he cocked and sighted another—this time the head of a raptor trying to close its jaws about Ank’s neck. He fired and its skull blew apart. Was that you?

Ank, for his part, was putting up one hell of a fight: clubbing one of the beasts with his tail and sending it flying, ramming another with his horns so that it was crushed against a rusted and overgrown automobile. But Williams’ presence had not gone unremarked, and he shuffled backward as several raptors, four, to be exact, broke from the pack, and began stalking toward him—for they were pure raptors only in form, and the parts of them that were human understood guns and bullets full well. He cocked and fired almost instinctively as the animals approached, hitting one in its shank so that it fell like a sack of potatoes and began crawling away through the rain, then, just as the rest were preparing to leap forward all at once, he shouted, “The next shots will be kill-shots—one for each of you—if you don’t break off your attack. You know I can do it.”

The animals paused … tapping their sickle-claws, cocking their heads. At last one of them said, in a perversion of Katrina’s voice: “But you won’t do it—how can you? We are your friends, remember?”

And another, also in Katrina’s voice: “Why don’t you join us?”

And still another: “Yes, join us!”

Williams hesitated. One of them was Katrina, but which one?

And then they were leaping, all three of them, and he cocked and fired twice, debilitating two of them instantly with non-lethal blows while delivering a shattering kill-shot to the third—even as it knocked him to the ground and pinned him there beneath its hemorrhaging dead weight. And such was the force of the impact that he dropped his rifle and found himself gripping the creature’s snout—a snout he knew could morph back into a human face at any instant—Decker’s face, her face. And he shoved it off with a violence that shocked him—even as Ank cried out in pain and he looked to see a final raptor attaching itself to his friend’s exposed neck, just beneath the armored plating, and fired from where he lay.

And then the thing dropped and it was over, and neither Ank nor Williams could do anything but to try and catch their breath as the surviving raptors fled and the storm slowly subsided.

<Thanks, Will. I—I really appreciate that. I … understand how conflicted you must have been.> He exhaled heavily. <But, the ones you spared, they’ll be back. You know how fast they heal.>

Williams only nodded, staring at the corpse at his feet, which had finished reverting to its human form.

“Decker,” he said.

Ank looked down at the body nearest him. <I don’t know who this is. It doesn’t matter anyway. Where’s the girl?>

Williams stirred as if from a trance and hurried back to the snack bar, Ank loping after him, where they found Luna standing straight as a board amidst what was now essentially a ruin—her violet eyes empty and eerily glazed over, and still staring at where the battle had taken place.

“You smell that?” Williams asked Ank. He waved a hand in front of her face.

<Affirmative. Smells like smoke. Or something on fire.>

They looked around; nothing was on fire. Williams kneeled before her and gently rubbed her shoulder. When at last she began to come out of it he asked, “What were you seeing just now? Can you tell us?”

“I was … thinking about something I killed once. An ant. His name was Fred. He was my friend … but I burned him all up.”

Williams moved to speak but hesitated—it wasn’t just because he was both charmed and disturbed by her words. No, an image had come into his mind with a vividness that was startling: an image of a black ant crawling beneath the thick lens of a magnifying glass—a lens in which he discerned the reflection of a boy—and which had been positioned so that it caught the sun and focused its rays upon the insect, which caught fire and curled upon itself and was immolated as the boy watched. Then it was gone and he was left, despite the cruelness of the act, with a distinct feeling of euphoria. For the boy, he knew, was himself.

“Ank …” He turned to face the ankylosaur incredulously. “I—just had a memory. I’m sure of it.”

Ank regarded him from beneath his bony brow. <Maybe you should tell me about it. Quickly, before you forget.>

He told him about it. At last the dinosaur communicated, <It isn’t much, is it? But it is something. By God, it’s something. Hold onto it, Will. Hold onto it as though your life depended upon it. It just may.>

“I will, I promise,” he said, and ruffled Luna’s hair. “As for you: you burned an insect with a magnifying glass, I think.” He stood and patted her shoulder. “We all did. It’s like, a rite of passage. Doesn’t make you Hitler.”

He paused, looking at Ank. “How do I know that? Old books, historical figures …”

<I told you. We can both remember the world, just not who we were, not before the Flashback. Please don’t overthink things.>

“You talk to yourself a lot, don’t you?” said Luna.

Williams looked at her and finally smiled in spite of himself. “Or it just may be that he’s really talking to me, and you just can’t hear it.” He tweaked her nose. “Yet. Either way, you need to eat something and get some sleep. We all do. We’ve got a big day ahead of us tomorrow.”

“Why a big day?”

“Ank, camping gear,” he said, and the dinosaur folded his front legs with a groan. “Because we’re going to head out for Barley’s in the morning.” He loosed his bedroll from the supplies strapped to Ank’s back and tossed it to her. “The place where the sounds on your radio come from. We’ve—we’re searching for something. A place we call Tanelorn. And we think that might be it.”

“Tanelorn,” she repeated. “What’s that?”

Williams rested his arms on the bundles of supplies, thinking about it. “I don’t know, exactly. I reckon it’s just a place someone feels drawn to … even if they don’t know why. A place where the homeless can find a home, maybe.” He looked at the lights in the sky, the Alien Borealis, as Ank called it, and wondered. “But it may be that it’s something else—a kind of Omega Point. A place where all the colors of the spectrum meet, like a prism. And become focused into a single, burning light. Maybe that’s what people mean when they talk about the power and the glory.” He tugged on a rope, releasing a waterfall of pots and pans. “Meh. It’s just something to keep us going.”

“Like a magnifying glass,” she said, ignoring his last statement.

He paused, thinking about it. “Like a magnifying glass,” he agreed. Then he added, “Now, what’ll it be? Beans or beans?”





Williams spread the map out in the sun as Ank and Luna looked over his shoulder. “Here’s where we’re at.” He tapped the map as the shadow of a pterodactyl passed over it, then another. “Montana Highway 200, at Mirabeau Park. We were taking it to Spokane instead of the more obvious Interstate 90 for one simple reason, even though we’d have to double back ...” He indicated a winding blue line. “The Clark Fork, which runs its entire length—clean water being job one, always. Now, if we diverge here, and take 382, we can cut across the Camas Prairie—badlands, essentially—and hook up with 28. Here.” He tapped the map again. “Then it’s clear sailing all the way to Niarada—there’s even a reservoir, here, at Dry Lake, in case we don’t find any running water in Benton or Lonepine.” He took off his hat and wiped his brow. “After that it would be back into what amounts to badlands, but with no road to guide us, all the way to Barley’s—for a total distance of, I’m going to say 80 miles.”

“What’s this?” asked Luna, and pointed.

“It says Shadow Canyon. And look here, see? A river runs through it, the Santiago. So, more water. The only problem I can see is that we’ll have to ford it.”

<I’m not an amphibious vehicle, Will. I’d direct you to the last time we tried that.>

“The last time we tried that was with a bigger river. This looks like little more than a creek. Besides, we’ll need the water after crossing the badlands. And look here, see, Barley’s is right on the other side.”

“I can’t swim,” said Luna.

“You can ride on Ank’s back,” said Williams, and stood. He redonned his hat. “As for travel time, well, that’s anyone’s guess. There’s three of us now,” He ruffled Luna’s hair. “One with short legs.”

She beamed up at him.

<We usually do about 20 miles a day,> communicated Ank, <With the girl, we’ll be lucky to get ten. Could take a week. And we’ll be going through more food and water. You sure this is a good idea?>

“No,” said Williams. “But it’s the only one I got.

<And there’s another thing. The radio broadcast said there’s a pair of allosaurs working the area—or did you forget that? There’s limits to what I can do, Will. And there’s a limit to what you can achieve with that rifle, especially with ammunition running low. Allosaurs are nothing to trifle with.>

Williams patted the air as if to say, When we get there, Ank. When we get there. “For now, let’s get some food in her. And in us too.” He turned to Luna. “So what’ll it be? Potatoes or potatoes?”

“Potatoes!”

“Potatoes it is,” he said.

And then a cry rang out that made them all freeze, for it was the cry of a were-raptor, just as clear as day, nor was it particularly far away. And it was followed by a shriek—a human shriek, a woman’s shriek.

Katrina.





“This is Radio Free Montana, coming at you from the soothing, steaming pools of Barley’s Hot Springs Resort just south of Paradise, and I’ve got another string of hits just raring to go—plus some travel tips and advisories for all you nomads still working your way through the Big Not-So-Easy …”

Williams looked around for Luna and her radio and quickly realized she had fallen behind yet again; nor was it her fault, he was walking too fast, as always. “Sorry,” he said, and cooled his pace. He added: “Can you turn that up, please?”

She did so, hustling to catch up. The announcer continued: “But first we’re going to check in with Felix the Fixed-wing Wonder, who’s airborne and on the air and milking those extra fuel tanks for all they’re worth, as he tracks a herd of brachiosaurs near beautiful Billings, Montana. What say you, Felix? Are they playing nice like normal herbivores, or are they showing signs of having been touched by the lights?”

“Jesus, Ank, are you listening? An airplane!”

<I’m not particularly surprised. You’ll remember the helicopter we saw over Pocatello.>

“Yeah. The bastard that swung back around as I waved—then high-tailed it out of there just as fast as he could. I remember.” He listened to the radio:

“Seem pretty harmless to me, Bella. Just your normal herd of migrating sauropods, probably heading for the ponds around Eastlake. Still, all the usual warnings apply. I’m going to swing around Billings and check for survivors …”

“Roger that, Felix. As always, fly careful. You’re not alone up there. And while we’re on the subject, a word of advice for those in vehicles using sauropod herds for cover: It’s not a good idea. At 62 tons, it only takes a single step for you to have a really bad day—whether they’ve got the blood fever or not. And on that, it’s back to the music, and another ditty for all you weary travelers trying to get here even now. It’s Roger Miller, and “King of the Road,” on KKRP Radio Free Montana …”

Trailers for sale or rent, rooms to let, fifty cents …

Williams looked at the sky, a sky completely devoid of contrails, fancying what a would-be pilot might think if he were to look down and see them now: an ankylosaur whose great armored back was laden with supplies, a man in a poncho and wide-brimmed hat, and a little girl as white as the sun, all of them traipsing along secondary highway 382 as though they hadn’t a care in the world. And he wondered what they would find when they finally arrived at Barley’s—a welcoming family of friends at last, or a hardened clic of distrustful survivors, as had initially been the case at Devil’s Gorge—and he wondered, too, at his own sense of contentedness, for it was days like today, when he had someone to talk to and a clear destination in mind, that he felt he could handle anything. That, in the end, the universe would simply unfold as it should. And for just now, just this one, small moment, that was good enough.

I’m a man of means, by no means, king of the road …


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