“Exodus”: A Trip to Mars

The publication of my story “The Face of the Deep” here on this website was just the beginning of a string of new stories from me. While the next one, “Almost Home,” will be publishing soon in Into the Ruins—stay tuned for more on that—there is another tale a bit farther out, but that you can look in your copy of right now: “Exodus.”

This is one I particularly like, and hope you will, as well. It clocks in at 17,000 words, just shy of being classified as a novella, and it’s in the forthcoming old solar system anthology, Vintage Worlds 2 [Update 11/29/20: The Kickstarter is closed but the anthology is now available for sale on Amazon and should be available for order from your local bookstore]. What’s the old solar system, you say? Well, I suspect many of you aren’t saying that because you already know, but the old solar system is that shared world from the golden age of science fiction, where our friendly neighborhood planets—Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, and so on—sported, as often as not, breathable atmospheres and fun and fascinating flora and fauna. It was a world in which the non-Earth planets of our solar system where not lifeless rocks but instead vibrant, unique worlds chock full of aliens and adventures, and home to some of the better stories our SF authors of old could tell.

The Vintage Worlds anthology series from Founders House Publishing seeks to bring that old solar system back to life, and it succeeds admirably based on the first volume. The good news is that there are two more volumes in the works, and there is a Kickstarter campaign going right now to get them into print in the near future. My story “Exodus” is in the second volume, along with a host of excellent authors. Interested? I suggest you hit up that Kickstarter link and lock in your copies of the next two anthologies—you won’t regret it.

Want a little bit more? Well, the publisher has given me permission to share the opening scene of “Exodus” to give you all a taste of the tale. It’s below. Like I said, it’s a taste—the tale becomes much more involved as it proceeds, featuring additional alien beasts, the mysterious disappearance of a city, and the main character’s struggle to survive. Give it a read, and then go reserve your copy of Vintage Worlds 2 (and Vintage Worlds 3, while you’re at it!). [Update 11/29/20: The Kickstarter is closed but the anthology is now available for sale on Amazon and should be available for order from your local bookstore.]

Exodus (An Excerpt)

by Joel Caris

Suffering from thirst and eager to return home to Laithos, clutching absently at her canteen, Alinda scrambled her way down the graveled bank, dirt and stone cascading down around her feet while her eyes remained locked on the middle of the sprawling, near-dry canal. A thin trickle of clear-flowing water could be glimpsed there in the occasional gap found in the mat of twisted vines and deep purple leaves that had come to mark so many of the wastrel canals veining the northern lowlands of Mars. The dry air and parching heat; the scratch of her throat; the incessant burning sun; the need for provision before her turn home; all of it drove her forward, shimmering between her and the water buried beneath those vines. It severed the thread of caution she normally bound her movements in. It blinded her to the tell-tale sign of bone-white spines peeking out from the red earth of the canal.

The creature to which those spines were attached suffered no such blindness. Buried shallow in the sand, it moved ever-so-slightly—and if only Alinda had stopped and held her breath and listened, and if the wind did not howl or mutter, and if the trickle of the water was soft enough, she would have heard it: the shifting sands, the vague way it stirred its tentacles through the martian soil. The raalech waited for anything living to cross its path, to set a foot wrong and in that instant turn into prey. She set her foot wrong and it struck.

Alinda could not say how many tentacles this raalech had; probably not more than three or four, but in that moment of attack she would have sworn to a dozen. They erupted from the ground, spraying her with dirt and grit, blinding her, and in an instant twisted around her right leg. Squeezing and flexing, they pulled on her, and in so doing the rows of bony spines—teeth—that lined the cool, fleshy underside of the tentacles plunged ragged into her bare legs, catching and tearing at her flesh and knocking her to the ground as she struggled against the creature’s grip. It happened within the briefest of moments and she had failed even to register the initial pain before the burning of its digestive fluids ejected hot into her wounds, acting as a powerful anticoagulant to speed the flow of her blood.

The raalech’s spines not only were sharp and rigid, perfect for tearing into flesh, but also hollow, holding a reserve of saliva that ejected into its prey upon attack to stimulate bleeding before transforming into a straw, the raalech slurping its victim’s blood as fast as the wounds would release it. As Alinda had learned long ago, though, she was a good bleeder—anticoagulant or no—and despite the raalech’s known thirst for blood, it could not keep up with her hemorrhaging. Its tentacles quickly grew slick with her free-flowing blood and, as she struggled against the creature, she could feel its grip on her slipping. Spiked with adrenaline and well aware that she had only moments before the blood loss would begin to fatigue her and allow the raalech to further wrap her in its vampiric grip, Alinda rolled into a crouch, leveraging her still-untangled left leg against the sandy slope of the canal and heaving herself forward with every bit of force she could muster. Feeling the pull of her attempted escape, the raalech tightened its grip on her leg but slipped against her blood-slicked flesh, its shallow spines raking through her skin as her leg tore free from its entanglement and she tumbled face first into the sandy side of the canal, rolling forward and away from the monstrous creature even as she spat out dirt and gravel, her eyes stung and watering, her vision blurred.

She scrambled, frantic, as the sounds of the raalech clawing its way free from its self-burial tore at the air behind her. Its thrashing tentacles showered her with dirt and raked across her upper thigh as she plunged forward along the run of the canal, her right leg faltering but her left leg strong. Instinct screamed at her to mount the canal’s wall and push farther into the relative safety of the surrounding desert, but a small-but-focused part of her mind zeroed in instead on the clusters of broad, purple leaves twisted in and around the canal’s piteous flow of water; if she wanted to live, she first had to gather a handful of those vines and leaves, a plant known as arethus.

Daring a glance behind her even as she continued to push through the pain in her right leg, she saw the struggling raalech using its tentacles to ratchet itself forward, but already falling behind. While its fury of limbs looked impressive and worked well to entangle its prey, the raalech’s strength lay in the element of surprise—not, given its physiology, in the quick movements of a hunter. Its numerous tentacles extended out of a small and spherical, rough and knobby base from which a mass of extremely long, thin white roots dangled. The roots dragged limp and flaccid through the sand as the creature heaved itself toward Alinda.

Seizing her advantage, she angled toward the middle of the canal, limp-running her way toward the tangled vines while assuring herself in a steady mantra that the worst of the pain would be over soon, that she had only to endure for a few more minutes to ensure her survival. Coming to the middle of the canal and within reach of the arethus, she bent and ripped up a mass of tangled vines and leaves, then pivoted and risked another glance at the raalech—still coming, but several yards away and flagging. Belonging to a kingdom of creatures that could best be described in Earth terms as a cross between plant and animal, raalechs depended on their roots to provide them a needed draw of water during their long wait between meals buried in the Martian soil. Most often found in or along the planet’s canals, the creatures pushed their roots deep into the soil to find small reserves of moisture and nutrients to keep them alive until they could feed on the blood that truly sustained them. The raalech spent most of its life buried and in wait, its only movement the interminable flexing of its tentacles to maintain their musculature, which created a steady and rhythmic—but very subtle—movement through the sand. Otherwise, it often went years without moving, except in the occasional, often futile burst of surfacing to pursue prey that had just slipped from its grasp.

Alinda angled herself back toward the edge of the canal, relieved at her adversary’s distance but not yet feeling safe. The pain gnawed at her and she knew she needed to stem the bleeding, but she also wanted out of the canal and into a greater separation from the raalech, not to mention from any others that might be buried in the sand and awaiting another wrong step. She pushed off with her good leg and hobbled as best she could on her blood-slicked, burning right leg.

Soon back at the edge of the canal but farther down the way from her near-fatal encounter, Alinda managed to boost herself up and out of the channel and onto the fine, dry sand of the surrounding desert, still clutching tight the mangled bouquet she hoped would be her redemption. Thirty yards down the canal from her, the raalech had given up its pursuit and was now methodically digging itself back into the sand to await its next opportunity to eat. She watched its oddly compelling, rhythmic movements for a moment: something of a steady back-and-forth rocking of its knobby base, assisted by tentacles on either side, the body working its way into the ground while the creature’s roots penetrated deep into the soil, searching out moisture. With a few hearty twists of her hands she crushed the mass of vines and leaves she held, releasing a sticky purple juice that she smeared over her wounds. The plant contained powerful procoagulant proteins that served to neutralize and reverse the anticoagulant effect of the raalech’s saliva—not to mention containing antibacterial and pain-relieving properties as well. Dressing her wounds and then chewing cautiously on the bitter plant, Alinda hoped it would be enough to keep away any infection—several strains of Martian bacteria were particularly fatal to humans—and allow for enough clotting to keep her from bleeding to death while providing enough relief from the pain so that she could make her way back to the village. Failure on any one of those fronts would leave her dead before the day was out.

As she cursed the red planet, her heart began to slow as a tentative sense of safety settled over her. An intense loneliness swept over her as she continued to chew on the arethus, trying to ignore the plant’s bitterness. In that moment she wanted nothing more than another human—anyone—to lean against, to weep out her stress and terror with. Breathing deep instead and waiting to see how her wounds would react, she watched the distant raalech rock back and forth, back and forth, slowly sinking its way into the sand, its tentacles occasionally slashing at the air as if it were a dancer at a rave.

There’s plenty more. Want to read it? Click here to get your copy of Vintage Worlds 2!
[Update 11/29/20: The Kickstarter is closed but the anthology is now available for sale on Amazon and should be available for order from your local bookstore.]

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