It’s finally here!! Dusk Mountain Blues has been released! As a treat, I’m releasing the first chapter here on the site! If you want to buy it, please click this link!
Dusk Mountain Blues
“In my dreams, the world is mine. Awake, only half of it is.” – Luke “Drifter” Caldwell
Luke Caldwell – Drifter by his folks – thought himself a smart man for one without much schooling. He had to be. Not many fellas made it here to his ripe old age of seventy-four outta being stupid. His brothers had doubted him in the past, but they should’ve known by now not to doubt what old Drifter could do. Their little sting operations here and there had made them quite the successful “entrepreneurs”.
Was it terribly legal? Nah, not in the slightest; but it got food on the table and, later, respect in their names. Who could ask for more?
Drifter always asked for more.
Drifter investigated the rearview mirror of his old, beat-up, white-and-blue truck, checking on the cargo of his recent pickup. Salvage for the most part for today; parts of old crashed ships, ancient technology from the Old Planets, and a few canisters of ship fuel that Drifter permanently borrowed from a few of those fancy Bluecoats – all stuff that was more Thunder’s or Doc’s type of thing. His brothers were good with their hands and head both – like the tech-savvy young’uns these days, always tinkering with one new thing or another. Drifter weren’t that type of fella. Give him a good old-fashioned gun and brew him a nice strong drink, and he was set. But, eh, everyone had their hobbies.
Drifter tugged his mesh red cap over his long white hair, checking the cargo and staring deeper into the smudged mirror. Blue and red lights swirled in the distance. He snorted and grabbed his flask from the cupholder, turning up his radio to better hear bluegrass over the rushing wind. He downed a long draught and pressed the pedal.
The Bluecoats knew better than to meet him on the road. Or on foot. Or anywhere, really. They might’ve assumed that he was Big Thunder this time around, not that that was any better – nobody touched his kin. There was something particularly silly about trying to catch him on these dirt roads cutting through his mountains. Drifter sped through the winding path, cutting through the trees, little truck sailing through the air. The sirens went on behind him, whistling against the howling wind. Drifter yanked the steering wheel and turned through a thick thatch of tall, black- barked trees and thick muddy soil. He grinned as he sped faster through the banks of the valley, the world becoming a green blur around him.
He howled and slapped his knee as the thrill of the chase coursed through him. They wouldn’t chase him over some ship fuel alone, would they? Drifter shrugged. It didn’t matter. Whatever he had; it was his now.
Shouldn’t leave yer stuff lying around, then. The young fancy coats couldn’t seem to grasp the idea: if you left it, Drifter and his boys were gonna take it. That was the law of the world. The Caldwells were the driving force on this planet, even if the Bluecoats thought otherwise.
Gonna have to teach these young ones some lessons. By the heavens, they were trying their hardest too. The very thought of it gave him a buzz better than the contents of his flask could.
They chased him through Rippling Creek down another dirt road, bumpier than the last. Tall trees surrounded them on all sides, reaching out with their dark green leaves into blue above, and patches of red grass with giant brown bulbs grew tall around them. A long freshwater creek snaked through the land, cutting through the field of red, brown, and green with clean rushing water. Rusted machines left over from the Old World – like Drifter’s truck was before he restored it – lay abandoned on the side of the road along with newer technological beasts from the Bluecoats, fresher than the abandoned hunks of metal, but all the more stripped to the bones.
Drifter looked out the window this time. Still following, are ya? Drifter put down his flask momentarily, rummaging through the glove compartment with his free hand. He found his pistol, a simple revolver. It was always loaded. Always.
Tossing his hat to the passenger’s seat to leave his white hair fluttering in the wind, Drifter leaned out of the window, one arm on the steering wheel, A good day. Smelled of fresh water, fragrant flora, and exhaust. He leveled his revolver, watching the small black and blue shuttle come down a hill.
He shot three shots.
The bullets shattered through the windshield, each shot landing precisely where he wanted. The little shuttle spun, the driver splashing into the creek. Whether the driver was dead or not, Drifter found that he didn’t care that much.
Another one came rolling around the corner; the first shuttle was never the only one when they tried to catch the Caldwells. They often brought out the big things for them – today was no different. The beast came out next, stomping over the horizon. The laughter in Drifter’s chest died. Had to bring out the 7-A’s.
He drove in silence, turning down the radio, a man’s voice lowering to a whisper against a faint banjo. The 7-A’s were standard-issue mechanical behemoths controlled by a single pilot. This one wasn’t the biggest he had seen. They came in different sizes – from full battle models equipped with missiles and lasers, to standard capture models meant for detainment of enemies of the Viscount Corporations. This one was equipped with two machine cannons and a large dreamwater tank strapped to its back for the eventual subduing of the prisoner.
Drifter eyed the small reactors on the sides of the 7-A. Can’t shoot through that. Don’t want to blow ’em up. Not because he cared about the person inside, but his boy and his granddaughter fished in that creek sometimes. I don’t want their space crap in my water.
The biggest fear Drifter had when he saw the massive beast stomping through the red grass was for his truck, not his life. The Bluecoats had already ruined one truck he’d intended to give to one of his sons, daughter, or granddaughter. Drifter slipped back into the truck, placing the revolver beside him. Though he was having a good time, he wasn’t going to risk the idea of losing all his cargo for this nonsense. The smile fell off of his face as he pulled over to the side of the road near the shoulder of the creek’s bank, the smell of a freshly-pulled trigger and whiskey in the air. Going from small amusement to anger within a second, he yanked the keys from the ignition and tossed them into the passenger’s seat. Drifter stepped out of the car, boots crushing the dust and red grass underfoot.
Drifter rolled his shoulders and watched the 7-A with harsh grey-blue eyes. The beardless pilot looked in horror through the glass of the cockpit as he and his monster froze in place. Drifter licked his yellow teeth, a savage hunger rushing through him. They hadn’t expected it to be him, or they would’ve brought a bigger mech. He smiled as he kicked off his boots and took off his shirt. They were his nicer clothes; the wife wouldn’t like it much if he ruined them.
He roared. Pain and power ripped through him as his body bent and twisted. His muscles grew, a black chitin tearing through his pale skin. His sight, a little faded from age, became clear, clearer than even when he was young. He hunched over; the rain of bullets came a bit too late. They ricocheted off his skull, off his chest, off his legs and arms; all the while he grew to the size, dwarfing even the mechanical beast. Detainment model 7-A’s didn’t have a strong enough stopping power to breach his skeleton. The world trembled with every step beneath his feet, green liquid dripping from his massive maw. That taste was something he could never get used to; like warm drink mixed with battery acid. Four-legged, he approached the Bluecoat, long tongue dragging against the grass.
Drifter walked up, bullets still ricocheting from his insect-like armor. With a big meaty claw, Drifter tapped against the glass of the cockpit. The young man inside gulped and pulled a lever. The cockpit opened, slowly sliding back to reveal the stench of a man who’d just relieved himself on his own leg like a dog. Don’t mess up that fancy uniform on my account.
“’Noon, officer,” Drifter began, grinning with thousands of teeth, his voice deep and guttural. “Whachya pulled me over for?”
The Bluecoat gulped. He didn’t have a detainment field big enough for this, Drifter reckoned.
“C’mon, speak up, boy. Don’t have all day.”
“T-that…that’s not yours,” the beardless boy said weakly. He reminded Drifter of a few of his nephews, down to the trembling jowl and lost wide-eyed looks that only young men can pull off.
“Oh?” Drifter eyed the cargo safe at his truck. “That? Consider it tax.”
“You’re on my land, buddy. Caldwell land.”
“You weren’t when you–”
Drifter blinked an eye the size of the boy’s entire body. “Don’t matter. It’s on it now.”
The Bluecoat shook in his plush leather seat, throat closing with every second. Drifter plucked the long grey seat belt with a claw, snapping it within a second. He picked the young boy up by his waist with his long tongue; it took some carefulness not to melt the boy into a puddle of meat or break his spine. He placed him on the ground.
“Come to think of it, this is mine too. Got something to say about that, little Blue? Speak up now, boy; or do I need to crunch some bones to make my point?”
The boy found his cowardice once again, judging by the smell.
“I’m gonna need you to leave your weapons, leave this here beauty, and drive off in your partner’s shuttle. I hope he ain’t dead. Gonna have a hard time explaining that to your people.”
Drifter looked at the boy for a while, still thinking about biting him in half. Not tasty, though. He had tried it before when he was young man; he didn’t quite have the taste for it like his son did. He would if he had to, though. A man would do anything if he gotta.
Luckily, this time he didn’t. The little Bluecoat scrambled away, crawling on his hands and knees, trying to get away from the giant mutant. Never once did he look back.
Good man. Drifter laughed at the desperation, huffing and puffing with amusement. The Bluecoat got to the car, tore his partner from the driver seat, and drove off without a second thought.
Mutants frightened kids. There were a-plenty in the Dusk Orbits, both humans and animals, after years and years of evolution and genetic tinkering from people higher than them. They came in all shapes and sizes, as unassuming as a young woman on the streets, or a bearded old man in the the mountains. He hadn’t known the power he had for a very long time, the immense strength he possessed. It took time. He was a slow learner, but he learned.
The young were often short-sighted, and with age came ambition. His grandkids wouldn’t have to know hunger or pain or struggle. That was his dream here; a dream that he was gonna give to every member of his kin. This was his planet now. His and his’s. No one else’s.
Drifter let himself relax, his body returning to the thin, old man with much-too-long white hair. He grabbed his boots, shirt, and cap from the outside of the truck and entered the car in his birthday suit, reclining in his seat. After a moment of rest, Drifter leaned over the seat and found his spare pair of jeans and undergarments.
“Ruining my darn clothes. Bluecoats and their dang kids. Greener than a dang bell pepper.” He wanted to curse, but the wife had gotten on him for that; not a good example for the grandkids, so he had to curb the habit.
He couldn’t quite take himself seriously naked as a baby bird. He dressed and grabbed his keys and tossed them back into his pocket.
Exiting the truck again, he went to check the rest of his cargo. Everything was there. He frowned, turning towards the now-empty mech. My, she’s a beauty. Not a combat type, but the pieces…well, Doc was working on something nice for the kids. Nobody was gonna come this far into his lands to retrieve it. Drifter stuffed his hands into the pockets of his spare jeans, finding a small figurine once belonging to his granddaughter with a smile.
“Now, how am I gonna get you home, big boy?” Last time, he had torn the arms off, and Doc and the kids lost their dang minds. “Guess that’s gonna be his problem figuring out.”
He shrugged. The least he could do was to take some of the batteries with him. Drifter walked around the 7-A and found some small climbing studs on its back. Machines weren’t too difficult to figure out after a while; though not as technologically savvy as some of kin, he knew the workings well enough. With a heave, a turn, and hiss of steam, Drifter pulled out the small blue glowing battery on the back, shouldered it hot against his neck, and climbed back down. Once firmly on the ground, he grabbed the battery by the handle and walked to the bed of his truck, frowning. He didn’t have enough space for everything to fit and be safe too. Ain’t a young man anymore, can’t be doing like I used to. He shook off the thought.
“Guess you’re riding shotgun today.” He tapped the battery core for good measure, feeling the residual heat against his skin.
Drifter entered his truck again, put the battery in the passenger seat, and locked the battery and himself in with the seatbelts. It didn’t matter if you could become a fourteen-foot monster that could crunch a man’s bones and spew highly acidic liquid – a man gotta put his seatbelt on. He hadn’t before, forgotten in his brief span of youthful thrill. Drifter touched the figurine in his pocket once again, a silly little soldier in Old World camouflage they had found, cleaned, and repainted. Kindle was fond of it, gave it to him as a lucky charm when she realized she didn’t play with it anymore. A feeling of pride filled his chest. Excitement was well and good; he hungered for it from time to time. But there was nothing like home. Nothing. He started the car and went on his way, the familiar sounds of his favorite songs blaring through open windows.
Drifter returned to the Dusk Mountains with all his spoils intact—most of it, anyway. One piece of salvage, part of a wing, was determined to free itself from its bungie and sail back into the sky. Ain’t much Drifter could do about that. He considered it good sign more than anything. If part of a wing wanted to head to the sky once again, who was he stop it? So he drove on without it, up the winding stony roads of the snow-topped mountain ranges where the Caldwells settled.
At first it was just him, this mountain, and his brothers when they escaped the mines of another world. Now their kin reached from the mountains, to the valleys, to the creeks, to the grasslands, and the plains besides. They were a force of nature on the planet C’dar. The Bluecoats forgot that before they got here, the Caldwells thrived. Only a few others predated his kin on this planet and they had reached an agreement to leave each other’s lawns alone. No way no galaxy corporation was gonna step up to him, not after all the time it took for them to get away from those money men. Drifter lowered his shoulders, trying not to get tense thinking about it. They had picked a beautiful place to have their family. It wasn’t paradise all the time, but he supposed nowhere was – this was the closest that he was gonna get.
As he drove up and up, he began seeing more and more of their own influences on the land. He came upon Doc’s Scrapyard first. Mounds and mounds of metal from ships, cars, shuttles, and mechs lined the small cave. Donald “Doc” Caldwell was out in his yard, short, barrel-chested, with a strong, muscled gut. He pulled off his red goggles, revealing thin white lines on his dark skin where they once settled on his meaty face. He grinned like an absolute idiot when Drifter rolled up with a truck full of things for him.
Drifter cranked down the window. “‘Ey! Got some things for you!”
“Oh thank heaven,” he heard his shorter brother shout. “Thought you brought something for Pit, Thunder, or Moses. Like you’ve done for the last umpteenth times.”
“‘Thank’ya, Luke, for the ship fuel you found me. I appreciate you. You’re a good older brother,’” Drifter said, mocking his brother’s husky voice, sounding of smoke and metal.
“I don’t, though.” Doc grinned. “Pull around, can’t have you hitting my fence like that one time.”
“That was years ago.”
“It was my fence; I get to forget it on my time.”
Doc shuffled outta the way, waddling to the side. Drifter turned the truck around and backed in (perfectly, might he add) through the cave’s entrance. That was when Doc saw it – the glowing battery sitting in front seat, all strapped in and safe – and almost tripped over the laces of his black combat boots, mouth salivating with the very thought of having a battery for his new project. “How’d you get that? It’s barely used! They didn’t have that lying around, did they?”
“Am I the good brother now?”
“Urgh.” Doc all but tore off the passenger’s side door. His fiery red eyes, the color of his forges, sparkled with delight. He picked up the battery with care remarkably close to when he held his children as newborns. “I guess I can forgive you for the fence.”
Drifter rolled his eyes.
“Vermin!! Get this stuff outcha Uncle’s truck before I snatch a knot in you.”
Beau “Vermin” Caldwell, Doc’s son, shuffled from the junkyard. Young, oil-covered, and blonde, thin as a whip and as small as his father, he wandered over with a piece of straw in yellow rotten teeth. He wiped a black rag over his brow and then against his loose-fitting blue coveralls. He boasted a beard longer than even his uncle’s, with wisp of brownish-black hair on the top his head. Drifter wished he would’ve cut the top off already; the boy had been balding since he was fourteen. Vermin gave an ugly grin at the spoils too, very much his father’s son. Not an appealing fella, but very few Caldwells could boast on their looks alone.
“’Ey, Uncle Luke,” he said, his voice small but deep. “How’s it going?”
“Seen my boy and girl?”
“Appetite and Kindle just got back from fishing. Brought back enough for everybody.”
“Good, they’re home now?”
“Boy, if you don’t get to work,” Doc shouted from the cave, “I’m gonna come over there and stick my boot up your–”
“Language, pa!” Vermin shouted back. “I gotcha Uncle Luke, let me unpack you.”
Vermin got his family nickname (a family tradition of sorts) from his mutation, which gave him four arms and an adhesive goop that leaked from his palms. Came as quite the surprise for Doc and his wife. Drifter barely even noticed; it was a part of who he was. Each arm was functional, though the lower set was a bit less muscular than the upper one.
Drifter watched Vermin from the back as he took bit by bit from the truck bed with a strength impressive for a man so slender. He finished unloading the truck within fifteen minutes. The stickiness of his sweat made lifting jobs easy, allowing him to pluck heavy objects and kept them in his grasp with little to no resistance. After the young fella was done, he closed the bed of the truck, walked around to Drifter’s side and slapped the side of his truck, earning Drifter a thick green slime handprint on his door.
“You rotten–” It was gonna take forever to get that off.
The young man cackled. “Thanks for the stuff, Unc. Don’t be shy now! Drifter’s leaving, pa! Say something!”
“Don’t get killed by nothing!”
Vermin sighed. “We’re trying to work on his manners.”
“’ight, I’m gone. If I can’t get this gunk off, I’m coming right back, so get the hose ready.”
Drifter started his truck, turning the truck around (again, perfectly, might he add), and continued his way. He blared his horn at the scrap yard, feeling the lightness of an unloaded truck. Vermin waved for the sake of his now distracted father, the sparks of whatever he was working on lighting up the entrance of his cave.
Drifter couldn’t fight off a grin. Doc was a tough nut to crack. He didn’t like many people outside of his kin; it took a special something to get a smile out of the cranky old geezer. Old geezer. I guess we all are now. Drifter shook his head as he drove back up the mountain.
Doc was the only brother sharing his mountain. Moses, Pit, and Big Thunder each had a bigger family with enough children and grandchildren to fill an ark. Though the head of the Caldwells, Drifter’s was smaller, with two sons, a daughter, and a grandchild.
He came upon the land of his middle son first, Evan “Loner” Caldwell. He had a small shack on a cliff carved out from rusted out old models they had salvaged. Loner was a quiet man, with great ideas like his uncle Doc, the foresight of his mother, and a temperament Drifter liked to think that he got from him. Passing by and honking his horn earned him a wave from his pepper-haired son leaning over the edge of his “porch” made of rusted metal. Loner sipped his rum over the edge, the ominous red glass of a dead machine’s eye glowing behind him from the shadow of his home.
Driving a little further, he came upon his daughter’s land. She was tucked into a sloped part of the mountain in a small wooden cabin, overlooking a plain of yellow flowers and a small ranch. Jo was a willowy woman with none of her father’s features aside from those harsh green eyes. Her hair wasn’t the clay red-brown of Drifter’s youth, but gold like her mother’s, in a sharp ponytail high on the back of her head. She waved at him as she glided through the field, looking every part lady and every part survivor. Drifter couldn’t help but notice the sawed-off shotgun dangling from her leather holster. That’s my girl, Drifter thought, giving a small salute with two fingers. To think that he worried about her for so long. She was her papa’s daughter through and through. Bluecoats, raiders, animals, mutants – they all knew better than to mess with her.
Up and up he went until he reached the top. Up here was the Homestead, once the land for the Caldwell seniors. Fond memories of decades ago passed through this land, and through the ol’ mind.
Long ago, when they were young men chasing dreams and women, the land was good; it was surprising at the time, before the atmosphere stabilized and became livable for anyone other than mutants. He remembered stepping out of that mangled mess of a ship they stole, bleeding and smiling all the same. The ship remained on their stake of the land of Dusk Mountain. Around the small ship (stripped of everything important) were two sizable houses made of wood and metal, a fenced-off area where the animals stayed, and a barn.
The last of his sons, the oldest, Woodrow Caldwell–or Appetite, as everyone called him – lived on the Homestead itself with his ma and pa and his daughter, Kindle. Drifter saw them pull up to the cabin, each shouldering racks and racks of fish. Appetite lived up to his name. He was much bigger than a normal man, made of pounds and pounds of pure hairy weight, and towered over almost everyone he came across.
Always has been big, Drifter remembered. Appetite’s birth almost made his wife swear off pregnancy forever. He lumbered from place to place with a slow, deliberate movement, big arms placing things down with an obscene amount of care. Flecks of fish scales and blood (Drifter assumed it was only fish blood) stained his white tank top and Old World green-and-brown camo pants. At his side was his daughter, Kindle, with warm dark skin, kinky black hair, her father’s and grandfather’s eyes – and her pa’s fashion sense.
Kindle hardly waited for the truck to stop to come running. “Grandpa!”
Drifter stepped out of the truck and into the arms of the teenage girl. She’s fifteen now, not a child no more. Still, he picked her up all the same and swung her around like she was five. But she wasn’t anymore. She wasn’t the young girl who begged him to take her fishing and hunting any chance they got. She was a young woman as stubborn as her grandmother, as quick tempered as her grandfather, and as a sly as her father. Have mercy on our souls.
“Where have you been?” she asked once her feet were on the ground.
“Yeah, where’ve ya been, Pa?” Appetite grinned. He knew exactly where his pa had been.
“Out and about,” Drifter said, shrugging.
“You went to steal some stuff, didn’t ya? You can just say that, y’know. I ain’t a little girl. I know what we do.”
Drifter gave an honest and awkward laugh. “Yeah, I know you know by now. Ain’t much a secret ’round these parts.”
“That’s what the Bluecoats said too.”
Appetite frowned. “They’ve been gettin’ kinda close, Pa. Bold even. They shoulda known better by now.”
“Bill and Jose says that they got a new commander on planet.” Kindle’s eyes brightened with the reckless excitement for trouble found in all Caldwells. “Gettin’ kind of handsy with other planets. Ours is next, they said.”
Drifter sighed. Another one. “No need to worry ‘bout that, Kindle.” Not right now. “Get those fish inside before they jump back into the river you found ’em in.”
Kindle nodded and took the fish racks from her pa. Appetite smiled as he watched his daughter run into their cabin.
“She’s right, you know,” the big man said after a while. His speech was slow; he planned his words like he planned his meals. His chunky build and sluggish speech made him an underestimated member of the family, but he was strong. Drifter had seen his son crunch a man in half. Crunched into the fellow soon after. His strength was matched only by his smarts. He knew his stuff. Not technical things like his uncles or trigger skills like himself; Appetite was more of a planner, a strategist. “They’re gettin’ mighty close, Pa. Ain’t long before they cross our borders.”
“We don’t got no borders. This is our planet.”
“Okay, Pa, I get that, but they aren’t aware. New guy on the scene. Captain Xan. S’posed to come down to finally clean up the mess that is us.”
“Captain Xan.” The name sounded familiar. Drifter assumed it was the fella’s last name, but he couldn’t be sure; Bluecoats didn’t work with no sense after all. The name tugged at an old thread in his head but he couldn’t quite remember where. “Ain’t the first to come here and expected the land to be theirs, son.”
“Didn’t say it was, Pa. But you were the one that told me, don’t underestimate no one. Don’t care if it’s a fish, a dog, a raider, a man or a woman, family or Bluecoat. You gotta be careful, always.”
He’s right, Drifter thought. I taught ’im that.