Monday, December 9, 2013


NOTE: This serial takes place out of order chronologically with the Challenger Storm novels, which are being written with a definite timeline in mind.  "The Valley of Fear" happens after at least book 5 or 6, but this shouldn't hinder the reading experience.  I'm flying by the seat of my pants here, so I make no guarantees in regards to quality or coherence.)


Episode 10: "Ramming Speed"

The drone of the cicadas was deafening.  The jungle was alive with the sound, and it pressed into Storm and Fay's ears like an irritating liquid.

"I wish those heat-bugs would shut up," Fay murmured.  It was the first words she had spoken since they had escaped the Pisces Pool.  She and Storm had been walking through the jungle for almost an hour, following the trail along the bottom of the valley.  Their clothes had rapidly dried in the heat, but the temperature and humidity soon brought sweat to their skin, soaking their clothes yet again.

Storm looked at her and smiled a little.  He had been worried about her since they had nearly been killed for the second time that day.  Fay was a headstrong woman, maybe even stubborn in her toughness, but she wasn't used to having her life threatened like this.  The return of her ornery attitude gave him some hope that she was holding her own.

"Look at this one," Storm said to Fay as he held up a silver bicycle horn with a black rubber bulb.  He squeezed it lightly and it gave a soft honk.  Storm grinned.

Fay giggled a little bit.  "What're you, Harpo Marx?"  She smiled back.

They had been going through the contents of Storm's utility harness as they walked.  Ever since Storm had discovered a rock in its pouches instead of one of his concussion grenades he'd been discovering that it didn't just end there: all of his gadgets and weaponry had been removed from the harness and replaced with random items.  He had found several more rocks, along with a salt shaker, a small statue of a deer, golf balls, an ash tray, a heavy spoon, the bicycle horn, and various other odds and ends.  Beside his missing gadgetry, Storm's trusty Mauser was gone as well as the ammunition and his pair of knives.  Everything that Storm could use as a weapon had been taken and replaced with other items of approximate size and weight.

The pair was silent for a while longer as they trudged along the valley floor.  The jungle was thickening, and there was no choice for them other than following the trail.  Storm wished he had a machete to hack away at the growth around them.  Following the path made him nervous: there was no way they could avoid whatever traps Count Zodiac had waiting for them, and they had to make it to the other end of the valley as part of the villain's sick "game".

The path rose up from the jungle, following the left side of the valley.  They had no canopy of leaves over their heads now, and the sunlight blazed down upon them.  The jungle dropped away to their right and they were able to look out over the tops of the trees below.  The drop was at least a hundred feet down to the bottom of the valley.

Fay spoke up finally and broke the silence between them.  "So I guess we're in for more horoscope-themed traps, huh?  It's like something from a bad serial."

"Ha, yeah, I'm afraid so."  Storm thought a moment.  "He started us with Aquarius and that led us to Pisces.  I don't know if that was an isolated case or not, but he might be doing them in order.  If that's the case, Aries is next."

"What's that, a ram?"

Storm nodded.  "That's right.  I'm an Aries, myself, and Zodiac knows it.  I'm hoping he's not planning something extra-special for that one."  Storm lowered his voice in the possible presence of Zodiac's microphones listening in.  "What he doesn't know is that I was born right on the cusp, during the vernal equinox."  He chuckled.  "He's so hung up on astrology that it'd drive him nuts if he knew."

Fay laughed.  "I'm a Virgo," she told him.  "That's 'the virgin', of course... can't wait to see how he works that into a deathtrap."

The two of them laughed again.  Their laughter died at the sound of approaching growl.  The sound grew into the roar of an engine; it was ahead and off to the left, through a gap in the valley wall that was overgrown with vines and branches.  There was a tunnel there, camouflaged by the foliage.

Suddenly a weird vehicle burst out of the tunnel, a heavy truck of some kind with armored sides, thick wheels adorned with spiked hubcaps, and a shuttered pilot's cabin.  Mounted on the front of this monstrous truck was a huge metallic ram's-head.

As soon as the Aries truck hit the trail ahead of them, it charged straight for Storm and Fay.  It was tremendously fast as it bore down on them.

Storm grabbed Fay and flung the two of them to the ground, just as the ram's-head shot forward on a hydraulic piston.  If he had hesitated a microsecond, the ram would have brutally collided with one or both of them.

Springing to his feet as the Aries truck sped by them, Storm yanked Fay Durning to her feet.  The truck was already turning again toward them: on the narrow path along the valley, the vehicle had a remarkably tight turning radius.  The battering-ram was retracting, coiling for another strike.

A noise from the tunnel caught Storm's ear.  Glancing to the side he saw heavy steel doors sliding into position behind what was left of the camouflaging vegetation.  They were down by an exit option, still on Zodiac's playing field.

The menacing vehicle was speeding toward them now.  "When I give the word," Storm told Fay, "you jump right, toward those rocks.  Climb as high as you can up on top of them."

The Aries truck bore down on them, almost within the battering-ram's reach.


Storm leaped to the left, ensuring that the driver would be able to see his jump through the slit opening in the truck's windshield armor.  Fay jumped to the right and scrambled up the rocks against the hillside.  She climbed up the stones as best as she could.

The Aries truck turned right to follow Storm when he jumped, as he knew it would: when given a choice, the driver would have chosen Storm as the prime target.

Inside the vehicle, the driver spun the vehicle and glared out the thin viewport before him.  Storm had disappeared.  He drove the Aries in angry circles, frantically searching for Storm or the actress.  His eyes caught the green of Fay's dress against the rocks of the hillside.  The driver grinned and spun the Aries toward the spot she was perched upon.  The ram wouldn't be able to hit her, but it would make short work of the rocks she was crouching on.  The driver stamped on the accelerator, and the actresses eyes widened in fear.

Suddenly the driver's vision was blotted out.

Storm had climbed onto the Aries truck after leaping out of the way and had scrambled up onto the roof of the vehicle.  As it had begun its charge toward Fay Durning, the vehicle had passed under some low-hanging branches.  Storm had broken two of these branches free and wedged them into the slit-opening the driver used to see out of.  The leaves were thick and full, and they obscured the driver's vision completely.  The driver was blinded, but he didn't turn his vehicle.

"Jump!"  Storm yelled to Fay, and she threw herself off the pile of rocks just before the battering-ram pistoned out and struck them.  The rocks shattered into bits of debris and dust as Storm dropped flat onto the truck's roof and held on with his hands and legs.  The armored truck itself struck the hillside wall right after, and Storm was nearly thrown forward off the roof.  The collision jolted the truck to a stop.

Fay had managed to land in some scrub bushes that had broken her fall a little, and she stood up as the Aries truck's driver threw the vehicle into reverse.  The blonde woman hid herself behind the bushes as the it began to spin wildly, trying to throw Storm off the roof.  Storm clung to the truck as it spun crazily in circles.  The driver's efforts were throwing it in random directions, widening rings.  Dust clouds were rising into the air.

Suddenly Storm saw the vehicle's trajectory was heading right for the lip of the valley.  From there, a drop of at least 200 feet was waiting.  Releasing his hold, Storm rolled off the roof of the truck as it headed in the opposite direction, toward certain doom.

Storm hit the ground and sprang to his feet as the Aries hit the edge of the drop-off.  At the last second, the driver spun the wheel to the right and the left side tires slid out, over the edge.

The truck stopped.  It teetered on the edge of the valley, rocking gently, more and more toward the empty space below it.  Storm and Fay watched and held their breath.

Then, just as the truck began to slowly tip into the fall that would take it down into the valley, the armored passenger door flew open.  The helmeted form of Zodiac's lieutenant, Taurus, jumped from the Aries truck as it fell from the edge of the valley.

Taurus' feet hit the ground, and he brought up his war mace.  Electricity raced along the mace's striking surfaces.  From inside the helmet, Taurus' eyes flashed hatefully at Storm through the narrow slit.  There was a few seconds of silence as the two faced off.

Then, as if it was a signal, the sound of a tremendous crash as the dead Aries truck hit the valley floor and rolled to a stop.

With a battle cry, Taurus brandished his weapon and charged toward Storm...