Category Archives: Fiction

‘The Sunjammer’ by Arthur C. Clarke


Since its launch in 1911, Boys’ Life magazine has featured some of the most talented authors of all time, including Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke.

blWhile recently combing through the Boy’s Life archives, I came across an incredible space story written by Arthur C. Clarke. It’s called The Sunjammer, published in the March 1964 issue of Boys’ Life. (This issue also gets my vote for coolest BL cover ever.)

At the time, Clarke was among the most famous authors on Earth, recently establishing his career with instant classics like Childhood’s End, Fall of Moondust and The City And The Stars.

What we have is a terrific example of early space fiction, written in an era when space travel was still mostly fiction. The Sunjammer is the tale of futuristic spaceship pilot John Merton, his trusty ship Diana, and one epic space race. I’ve copied it in below, as it was originally published. Hope you enjoy this blast from the past.

The Sunjammer

By Arthur C. Clarke | Illustrations by Robert McCall

“T minus two minutes,” said the cabin radio. “Please confirm your readiness.”

One by one, the other skippers answered. Merton recognized all the voices—some tense, some calm—for they were the voices of his friends and rivals. On the four inhabited worlds, there were scarcely twenty men who could sail a sun yacht; and they were all here, on the starting line or aboard the escort vessels, orbiting twenty-two thousand miles above the equator.

“Number One, Gossamer—ready to go.”

“Number Two, Santa Maria—all O.K.”

“Number Three, Sunbeam—O.K.”

“Number Four, Woomera—all systems go.”

Merton smiled at that last echo from the early, primitive days of astronautics. But it had become part of the tradition of space; and there were times when a man needed to evoke the shades of those who had gone before him to the stars.

“Number Five, Lebedev—we’re ready.”

“Number Six, Arachne—O.K.”

Now it was his turn, at the end of the line; strange to think that the words he was speaking in this tiny cabin were being heard by at least five billion people.

“Number Seven, Diana—ready to start.”

“One through Seven acknowledged.” The voice from the judge’s launch was impersonal. “Now T minus one minute.”


Merton scarcely heard it; for the last time, he was checking the tension in the rigging. The needles of all the dynamometers were steady; the immense sail was taut, its mirror surface sparkling and glittering gloriously in the sun.

To Merton, floating weightless at the periscope, it seemed to fill the sky. As it well might—for out there were fifty million square feet of sail, linked to his capsule by almost a hundred miles of rigging. All the canvas of all the tea-clippers that had once raced like clouds across the China seas, sewn into one gigantic sheet, could not match the single sail that Diana had spread beneath the sun. Yet it was little more substantial than a soap bubble; that two square miles of aluminized plastic was only a few millionths of an inch thick.

“T minus ten seconds. All recording cameras on.”

Something so huge, yet so frail, was hard for the mind to grasp. And it was harder still to realize that this fragile mirror could tow them free of Earth, merely by the power of the sunlight it would trap.

“. . . five, four, three, two, one, cut!”

Seven knife blades sliced through the seven thin lines tethering the yachts to the mother ships that had assembled and serviced them.

Until this moment, all had been circling Earth together in a rigidly held formation, but now the yachts would begin to disperse, like dandelion seeds drifting before the breeze. And the winner would be the one that first drifted past the moon.


Aboard Diana, nothing seemed to be happening. But Merton knew better; though his body would feel no thrust, the instrument board told him he was now accelerating at almost one-thousandth of a gravity. For a rocket, that figure would have been ludicrous—but this was the first time any solar yacht had attained it. Diana’s design was sound; the vast sail was living up to his calculations. At this rate, two circuits of Earth would build up his speed to escape velocity—then he would head out for the moon, with the full force of the sun behind him.

The full force of the sun. He smiled wryly, remembering all his attempts to explain solar sailing to those lecture audiences back on Earth. That had been the only way he could raise money, in those early days. He might be Chief Designer of Cosmodyne Corporation, with a whole string of successful spaceships to his credit, but his firm had not been exactly enthusiastic about his hobby.

“Hold your hands out to the sun,” he’d said. “What do you feel? Heat, of course. But there’s pressure as well—though you’ve never noticed it, because it’s so tiny. Over the area of your hands, it only comes to about a millionth of an ounce.

“But out in space, even a pressure as small as that can be important—for it’s acting all the time, hour after hour, day after day. Unlike rocket fuel, it’s free and unlimited. If we want to, we can use it; we can build sails to catch the radiation blowing from the sun.”


At that point, he would pull out a few square yards of sail material and toss it toward the audience. The silvery film would coil and twist like smoke, then drift slowly to the ceiling in the hot-air currents.

“You can see how light it is,” he’d continue. “A square mile weighs only a ton, and can collect five pounds of radiation pressure. So it will start moving—and we can let it tow us along, if we attach rigging to it.

“Of course, its acceleration will be tiny—about a thousandth of a G. That doesn’t seem much, but let’s see what it means.

“It means that in the first second, we’ll move about a fifth of an inch. I suppose a healthy snail could do better than that. But after a minute, we’ve covered sixty feet, and will be doing just over a mile an hour. That’s not bad, for something driven by pure sunlight! After an hour, we’re forty miles from our starting point, and will be moving at eighty miles an hour. Please remember that in space there’s no friction, so once you start anything moving, it will keep going forever. You’ll be surprised when I tell you what our thousandth-of-a-G sailing boat will be doing at the end of a day’s run. Almost two thousand miles an hour! If it starts from orbit—as it has to, of course—it can reach escape velocity in a couple of days. And all without burning a single drop of fuel!”

Well, he’d convinced them, and in the end he’d even convinced Cosmodyne. Over the last twenty years, a new sport had come into being. It had been called the sport of billionaires, and that was true—but it was beginning to pay for itself in terms of publicity and television coverage. The prestige of four continents and two worlds was riding on this race, and it had the biggest audience in history.


Diana had made a good start; time to take a look at the opposition. Moving very gently. Though there were shock absorbers between the control capsule and the delicate rigging, he was determined to run no risks. Merton stationed himself at the periscope.

There they were, looking like strange silver flowers planted in the dark fields of space. The nearest, South America’s Santa Maria, was only fifty miles away; it bore a resemblance to a boy’s kite—but a kite more than a mile on its side. Farther away, the University of Astrograd’s Lebedev looked like a Maltese cross; the sails that formed the four arms could apparently be tilted for steering purposes. In contrast, the Federation of Australasia’s Woomera was a simple parachute, four miles in circumference. General Spacecraft’s Arachne, as its name suggested, looked like a spiderweb—and had been built on the same principles, by robot shuttles spiraling out from a central point. Eurospace Corporation’s Gossamer was an identical design, on a slightly smaller scale. And the Republic of Mar’s Sunbeam was a flat ring, with a half-mile-wide hole in the center, spinning slowly so that centrifugal force gave it stiffness. That was an old idea, but no one had ever made it work. Merton was fairly sure that the colonials would be in trouble when they started to turn.

That would not be for another six hours, when the yachts had moved along the first quarter of their slow and stately twenty-four-hour orbit. Here at the beginning of the race, they were all heading directly away from the sun—running, as it were, before the solar wind. One had to make the most of this lap, before the boats swung round to the other side of Earth and then started to head back into the sun.

Time for the first check, Merton told himself, while he had no navigational worries. With the periscope, he made a careful examination of the sail, concentrating on the points where the rigging was attached to it. The shroud lines—narrow bands of unsilvered plastic film—would have been completely invisible had they not been coated with fluorescent paint. Now they were taut lines of colored light, dwindling away for hundreds of yards toward that gigantic sail. Each had its own electric windlass, not much bigger than a game fisherman’s reel. The little windlasses were continually turning, playing lines in or out, as the autopilot kept the sail trimmed at the correct angle to the sun.

The play of sunlight on the great flexible mirror was beautiful to watch. It was undulating in slow, stately oscillations, sending multiple images of the sun marching across the heavens, until they faded away at the edges of the sail. Such leisurely vibrations were to be expected in this vast and flimsy structure; they were usually quite harmless, but Merton watched them carefully. Sometimes they could build up to the catastrophic undulations known as the wriggles, which could tear a sail to pieces.

When he was satisfied that everything was shipshape, he swept the periscope around the sky, rechecking the positions of his rivals. It was as he had hoped; the weeding-out process had begun, as the less efficient boats fell astern. But the real test would come when they passed into the shadow of Earth; then maneuverability would count as much as speed.


It seemed a strange thing to do, now that the race had just started, but it might be a good idea to get some sleep. The two-man crews on the other boats could take it in turns, but Merton had no one to relieve him. He must rely on his physical resources—like that other solitary seaman Joshua Slocum, in his tiny Spray. The American skipper had sailed Spray single-handed round the world; he could never have dreamed that, two centuries later, a man would be sailing single-handed from Earth to moon—inspired, at least partly, by his example.

Merton snapped the elastic bands of the cabin seat around his waist and legs, then placed the electrodes of the sleep-inducer on his forehead. He set the timer for three hours, and relaxed.

Very gently, hypnotically, the electronic pulses throbbed in the frontal lobes of his brain. Colored spirals of light expanded beneath his closed eyelids, widening outward to infinity. Then—nothing . . .

The brazen clamor of the alarm dragged him back from his dreamless sleep. He was instantly awake, his eyes scanning the instrument panel. Only two hours had passed—but above the accelerometer, a red light was flashing. Thrust was falling; Diana was losing power.


Merton’s first thought was that something had happened to the sail; perhaps the anti-spin devices had failed and the rigging had become twisted. Swiftly, he checked the meters that showed the tension in the shroud lines. Strange, on one side of the sail they were reading normally—but on the other, the pull was dropping slowly even as he watched.

In sudden understanding, Merton grabbed the periscope, switched to wide-angle vision, and started to scan the edge of the sail. Yes—there was the trouble, and it could have only one cause.

A huge, sharp-edged shadow had begun to slide across the gleaming silver of the sail. Darkness was falling upon Diana, as if a cloud had passed between her and the sun. And in the dark, robbed of the rays that drove her, she would lose all thrust and drift helplessly through space.

But, of course, there were no clouds here, more than twenty thousand miles above Earth. If there was a shadow, it must be made by man.

Merton grinned as he swung the periscope toward the sun, switching in the filters that would allow him to look full into its blazing face without being blinded.

“Maneuver 4a,” he muttered to himself. “We’ll see who can play best at that game.”

It looked as if a giant planet was crossing the face of the sun. A great black disk had bitten deep into its edge. Twenty miles astern, Gossamer was trying to arrange an artificial eclipse—specially for Diana’s benefit.

The maneuver was a perfectly legitimate one; back in the days of ocean racing, skippers had often tried to rob each other of the wind. With any luck, you could leave your rival becalmed, with his sails collapsing around him—and be well ahead before he could undo the damage.

Merton had no intention of being caught so easily. There was plenty of time to take evasive action; things happened very slowly when you were running a solar sailing boat. It would be at least twenty minutes before Gossamer could slide completely across the face of the sun, and leave him in darkness.


Diana’s tiny computer—the size of a matchbox, but the equivalent of a thousand human mathematicians—considered the problem for a full second and then flashed the answer. He’d have to open control panels three and four, until the sail had developed an extra twenty degrees of tilt; then the radiation pressure would blow him out of Gossamer’s dangerous shadow, back into the full blast of the sun. It was a pity to interfere with the autopilot, which had been carefully programmed to give the fastest possible run—but that, after all, was why he was here. This was what made solar yachting a sport, rather than a battle between computers.

Out went control lines one to six, slowly undulating like sleepy snakes as they momentarily lost their tension. Two miles away, the triangular panels began to open lazily, spilling sunlight through the sail. Yet, for a long time, nothing seemed to happen. It was hard to grow accustomed to this slow-motion world, where it took minutes for the effects of any action to become visible to the eye. Then Merton saw that the sail was indeed tipping toward the sun—and that Gossamer’s shadow was sliding harmlessly away, its cone of darkness lost in the deeper night of space.

Long before the shadow had vanished and the disk of the sun had cleared again, he reversed the tilt and brought Diana back on course. Her new momentum would carry her clear of the danger; no need to overdo it, and upset his calculations by side-stepping too far. That was another rule that was hard to learn. The very moment you had started something happening in space, it was already time to think about stopping it.

He reset the alarm, ready for the next natural or man-made emergency; perhaps Gossamer, or one of the other contestants, would try the same trick again. Meanwhile, it was time to eat, though he did not feel particularly hungry. One used little physical energy in space, and it was easy to forget about food. Easy—and dangerous; for when an emergency arose, you might not have the reserves needed to deal with it.

He broke open the first of the meal packets, and inspected it without enthusiasm. The name on the label—spacetasties—was enough to put him off. And he had grave doubts about the promise printed underneath. Guaranteed Crumbless. It had been said that crumbs were a greater danger to space vehicles than meteorites. They could drift into the most unlikely places, causing short circuits, blocking vital jets that were supposed to be hermetically sealed.

Still, the liverwurst went down pleasantly enough; so did the chocolate and the pineapple puree. The plastic coffee bulb was warming on the electric heater when the outside world broke in on his solitude. The radio operator on the Commodore’s launch routed a call to him.

“Dr. Merton? If you can spare the time, Jeremy Blair would like a few words with you.” Blair was one of the more responsible news commentators, and Merton had been on his program many times. He could refuse to be interviewed, of course, but he liked Blair, and at the moment he could certainly not claim to be too busy. “I’ll take it,” he answered.

“Hello, Dr. Merton,” said the commentator immediately. “Glad you can spare a few minutes. And congratulations—you seem to be ahead of the field.”

“Too early in the game to be sure of that,” Merton answered cautiously.

“Tell me, doctor—why did you decide to sail Diana yourself? Just because it’s never been done before?”


“Well, isn’t that a very good reason? But it wasn’t the only one, of course.” He paused, choosing his words carefully. “You know how critically the performance of a sun yacht depends on its mass. A second man, with all his supplies, would mean another five hundred pounds. That could easily be the difference between winning and losing.”

“And you’re quite certain that you can handle Diana alone?”

“Reasonably sure, thanks to the automatic controls I’ve designed. My main job is to supervise and make decisions.”

“But—two square miles of sail! It just doesn’t seem possible for one man to cope with all that!”

Merton laughed. “Why not? Those two square miles produce a maximum pull of just ten pounds. I can exert more force with my little finger.”

“Well, thank you, doctor. And good luck.”

As the commentator signed off, Merton felt a little ashamed of himself. For his answer had been only part of the truth; and he was sure that Blair was shrewd enough to know it.

There was just one reason why he was here, alone in space. For almost forty years he had worked with teams of hundreds or even thousands of men, helping to design the most complex vehicles that the world had ever seen. For the last twenty years he had led one of those teams, and watched his creations go soaring to the stars. (But there were failures that he could never forget, even though the fault had not been his.) He was famous, with a successful career behind him. Yet he had never done anything by himself; always he had been one of an army.

This was his very last chance of individual achievement, and he would share it with no one. There would be no more solar yachting for at least five years, as the period of the quiet sun ended and the cycle of bad weather began, with radiation storms bursting through the solar system. When it was safe again for these frail, unshielded craft to venture aloft, he would be too old. If, indeed, he was not too old already . . .

He dropped the empty food containers into the waste disposal, and turned once more to the periscope. At first, he could find only five of the other yachts; there was no sign of Woomera. It took him several minutes to locate her—a dim, star-eclipsing phantom, neatly caught in the shadow of Lebedev. He could imagine the frantic efforts the Australasians were making to extricate themselves, and wondered how they had fallen into the trap. It suggested that Lebedev was unusually maneuverable; she would bear watching, though she was too far away to menace Diana at the moment.

* * *

Now Earth had almost vanished. It had waned to a narrow, brilliant bow of light that was moving steadily toward the sun. Dimly outlined within that burning bow was the night side of the planet, with the phosphorescent gleams of great cities showing here and there through gaps in the clouds. The disk of darkness had already blanked out a huge section of the Milky Way; in a few minutes, it would start to encroach upon the sun.

The light was fading. A purple, twilight hue—the glow of many sunsets, thousands of miles below—was falling across the sail, as Diana slipped silently into the shadow of Earth. The sun plummeted below that invisible horizon. Within minutes, it was night.


Merton looked back along the orbit he had traced now a quarter of the way around the world. One by one he saw the brilliant stars of the other yachts wink out, as they joined him in the brief night. It would be an hour before the sun emerged from that enormous black shield, and through all that time they would be completely helpless, coasting without power.

He switched on the external spotlight and started to search the now darkened sail with its beam. Already, the thousands of acres of film were beginning to wrinkle and become flaccid; the shroud lines were slackening, and must be wound in lest they become entangled. But all this was expected; everything was going as planned.

Forty miles astern, Arachne and Santa Maria were not so lucky. Merton learned of their troubles when the radio burst into life on the emergency circuit.

“Number Two, Number Six—this is Control. You are on a collision course. Your orbits will intersect in sixty-five minutes! Do you require assistance?”

There was a long pause while the two skippers digested this bad news. Merton wondered who was to blame; perhaps one yacht had been trying to shadow the other, and had not completed the maneuver before they were both caught in darkness. Now there was nothing that either could do; they were slowly but inexorably converging, unable to change course by a fraction of a degree.

Yet, sixty-five minutes! That would just bring them out into sunlight again, as they emerged from the shadow of Earth. They still had a slim chance, if their sails could snatch enough power to avoid a crash. There must be some frantic calculations going on, aboard Arachne and Santa Maria.

Arachne answered first; her reply was just what Merton had expected.

“Number Six calling Control. We don’t need assistance, thank you. We’ll work this out for ourselves.”

I wonder, thought Merton. But at least it will be interesting to watch. The first real drama of the race was approaching—exactly above the line of midnight on sleeping Earth.

For the next hour, Merton’s own sail kept him too busy to worry about Arachne and Santa Maria. It was hard to keep a good watch on that fifty million square feet of dim plastic out there in the darkness, illuminated only by his narrow spotlight and the rays of the still distant moon. From now on, for almost half his orbit around Earth, he must keep the whole of this immense area edge-on to the sun. During the next twelve or fourteen hours, the sail would be a useless encumbrance; for he would be heading into the sun, and its rays could only drive him backward along his orbit. It was a pity that he could not furl the sail completely, until he was ready to use it again. But no one had yet found a practical way of doing this.

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Far below, there was the first hint of dawn along the edge of Earth. In ten minutes, the sun would emerge from its eclipse; the coasting yachts would come to life again as the blast of radiation struck their sails. That would be the moment of crisis for Arachne and Santa Maria—and, indeed, for all of them.

Merton swung the periscope until he found the two dark shadows drifting against the stars. They were very close together—perhaps less than three miles apart. They might, he decided, just be able to make it . . .

Dawn flashed like an explosion along the rim of Earth, as the sun rose out of the Pacific. The sail and shroud lines glowed a brief crimson, then gold, then blazed with the pure white light of day. The needles of the dynamometers began to lift from their zeros—but only just. Diana was still almost completely weightless, for with the sail pointing toward the sun, her acceleration was now only a few millionths of a gravity.

But Arachne and Santa Maria were crowding on all the sail they could manage, in their desperate attempt to keep apart. Now, while there was less than two miles between them, their glittering plastic clouds were unfurling and expanding with agonizing slowness, as they felt the first delicate push of the sun’s rays. Almost every TV screen on Earth would be mirroring this protracted drama; and even now, at this very last minute, it was impossible to tell what the outcome would be.

The two skippers were stubborn men. Either could have cut his sail, and fallen back to give the other a chance; but neither would do so. Too much prestige, too many millions, too many reputations were at stake. And so, silently and softly as snowflakes falling on a winter night, Arachne and Santa Maria collided.

The square kite crawled almost imperceptibly into the circular spider’s web; the long ribbons of the shroud lines twisted and tangled together with dreamlike slowness. Even aboard Diana, busy with his own rigging, Merton could scarcely tear his eyes away from this silent, long-drawn-out disaster.

For more than ten minutes the billowing, shining clouds continued to merge into one inextricable mass. Then the crew capsules tore loose and went their separate ways, missing each other by hundreds of yards. With a flare of rockets, the safety launches hurried to pick them up.

That leaves five of us, thought Merton. He felt sorry for the skippers who had so thoroughly eliminated each other, only a few hours after the start of the race; but they were young men, and would have another chance.

Within minutes, the five had dropped to four. From the very beginning, Merton had had doubts about the slowly rotating Sunbeam. Now he saw them justified.


The Martian ship had failed to tack properly; her spin had given her too much stability. Her great ring of a sail was turning to face the sun, instead of being edge-on to it. She was being blown back along her course at almost her maximum acceleration.

That was about the most maddening thing that could happen to a skipper—worse even than a collision, for he could blame only himself. But no one would feel much sympathy for the frustrated colonials, as they dwindled slowly astern. They had made too many brash boasts before the race, and what had happened to them was poetic justice.

Yet it would not do to write off Sunbeam completely. With almost half a million miles still to go, she might still pull ahead. Indeed, if there were a few more casualties, she might be the only one to complete the race. It had happened before.

However, the next twelve hours were uneventful, as Earth waxed in the sky from new to full. There was little to do while the fleet drifted around the unpowered half of its orbit, but Merton did not find the time hanging heavily on his hands. He caught a few hours’ sleep, ate two meals, wrote up his log, and became involved in several more radio interviews. Sometimes, though rarely, he talked to the other skippers, exchanging greetings and friendly taunts. But most of the time he was content to float in weightless relaxation, beyond all the cares of Earth, happier than he had been for many years. He was—as far as any man could be in space—master of his own fate, sailing the ship upon which he had lavished so much skill, so much love, that she had become part of his very being.

The next casualty came when they were passing the line between Earth and sun, and were just beginning the powered half of the orbit. Aboard Diana, Merton saw the great sail stiffen as it tilted to catch the rays that drove it. The acceleration began to climb up from the microgravities, though it would be hours yet before it would reach its maximum value.

It would never reach it for Gossamer. The moment when power came on again was always critical, and she failed to survive it.

Blair’s radio commentary, which Merton had left running at low volume, alerted him with the news: “Hello, Gossamer has the wriggles!” He hurried to the periscope, but at first could see nothing wrong with the great circular disk of Gossamer’s sail. It was difficult to study it, as it was almost edge-on to him and so appeared as a thin ellipse; but presently he saw that it was twisting back and forth in slow, irresistible oscillations. Unless the crew could damp out these waves, by properly timed but gentle tugs on the shroud lines, the sail would tear itself to pieces.


They did their best, and after twenty minutes it seemed that they had succeeded. Then, somewhere near the center of the sail, the plastic film began to rip. It was slowly driven outward by the radiation pressure like smoke coiling upward from a fire. Within a quarter of an hour, nothing was left but the delicate tracery of the radial spars that had supported the great web. Once again there was a flare of rockets, as a launch moved in to retrieve the Gossamer’s capsule and her dejected crew.

“Getting rather lonely up here, isn’t it?” said a conversational voice over the ship-to-ship radio.

“Not for you, Dimitri,” retorted Merton. “You’ve still got company back there at the end of the field. I’m the one who’s lonely, up here in front.” It was not an idle boast. By this time Diana was three hundred miles ahead of the next competitor, and his lead should increase still more rapidly in the hours to come.


Aboard Lebedev, Dimitri Markoff gave a good-natured chuckle. He did not sound, Merton thought, at all like a man who had resigned himself to defeat.

“Remember the legend of the tortoise and the hare,” answered the Russian. “A lot can happen in the next quarter-million miles.”

It happened much sooner than that, when they had completed their first orbit of Earth and were passing the starting line again—though thousands of miles higher, thanks to the extra energy the sun’s rays had given them. Merton had taken careful sights on the other yachts, and had fed the figures into the computer. The answer it gave for Woomera was so absurd that he immediately did a recheck.

There was no doubt of it—the Australasians were catching up at a fantastic rate. No solar yacht could possibly have such an acceleration, unless—

A swift look through the periscope gave the answer. Woomera’s rigging, pared back to the very minimum of mass, had given way. It was her sail alone, still maintaining its shape, that was racing up behind him like a handkerchief blown before the wind. Two hours later it fluttered past, less than twenty miles away. But long before that, the Australasians had joined the growing crowd aboard the Commodore’s launch.

So now it was a straight fight between Diana and Lebedev—for though the Martians had not given up, they were a thousand miles astern and no longer counted as a serious threat. For that matter, it was hard to see what Lebedev could do to overtake Diana’s lead. But all the way around the second lap—through eclipse again, and the long, slow drift against the sun—Merton felt a growing unease.

He knew the Russian pilots and designers. They had been trying to win this race for twenty years, and after all, it was only fair that they should, for had not Pyotr Nikolayevich Lebedev been the first man to detect the pressure of sunlight, back at the very beginning of the twentieth century? But they had never succeeded.

And they would never stop trying. Dimitri was up to something—and it would be spectacular.

Aboard the official launch, a thousand miles behind the racing yachts, Commodore van Stratten looked at the radiogram with angry dismay. It had traveled more than a hundred million miles, from the chain of solar observatories swinging high above the blazing surface of the sun, and it brought the worst possible news.

The Commodore—his title, of course, was purely honorary; back on Earth he was Professor of Astrophysics at Harvard—had been half-expecting it. Never before had the race been arranged so late in the season; there had been many delays, they had gambled, and now it seemed they might all lose.

Deep beneath the surface of the sun, enormous forces were gathering. At any moment, the energies of a million hydrogen bombs might burst forth in the awesome explosion known as a solar flare. Climbing at millions of miles an hour, an invisible fireball many times the size of Earth would leap from the sun and head out across space.

The cloud of electrified gas would probably miss Earth completely. But if it did not, it would arrive in just over a day. Spaceships could protect themselves, with their shielding and their powerful magnetic screen. But the lightly built solar yachts, with their paper-thin walls, were defenseless against such a menace. The crews would have to be taken off, and the race abandoned.


John Merton still knew nothing of this as he brought Diana around Earth for the second time. If all went well, this would be the last circuit, both for him and for the Russians. They had spiraled upward by thousands of miles, gaining energy from the sun’s rays. On this lap, they should escape from Earth completely—and head outward on the long run to the moon. It was a straight race now. Sunbeam’s crew had finally withdrawn, exhausted, after battling valiantly with their spinning sail for more than a hundred thousand miles.

Merton did not feel tired; he had eaten and slept well, and Diana was behaving herself admirably. The autopilot, tensioning the rigging like a busy little spider, kept the great sail trimmed to the sun more accurately than any human skipper. Though by this time the two square miles of plastic sheet must have been riddled by hundreds of micrometeorites, the pin-head-sized punctures had produced no falling off to thrust.

He had only two worries. The first was shroud line number eight, which could no longer be adjusted properly. Without any warning, the reel had jammed; even after all these years of astronautical engineering, bearings sometimes seized up in vacuum. He could neither lengthen nor shorten the line, and would have to navigate as best he could with the others. Luckily, the most difficult maneuvers were over. From now on, Diana would have the sun behind her as she sailed straight down the solar wind. And as the old-time sailors often said, it was easy to handle a boat when the wind was blowing over your shoulder.

His other worry was Lebedev, still dogging his heels three hundred miles astern. The Russian yacht had shown remarkable maneuverability thanks to the four great panels that could be tilted around the central sail. All her flip-overs as she rounded Earth had been carried out with superb precision; but to gain maneuverability she must have sacrificed speed. You could not have it both ways. In the long, straight haul ahead, Merton should be able to hold his own. Yet he could not be certain of victory until, three or four days from now, Diana went flashing past the far side of the moon.

And then, in the fiftieth hour of the race, near the end of the second orbit around Earth, Markoff sprang his little surprise.

“Hello, John,” he said casually, over the ship-to-ship circuit. “I’d like you to watch this. It should be interesting.”

Merton drew himself across to the periscope and turned up the magnification to the limit. There in the field of view, a most improbable sight against the background of the stars, was the glittering Maltese cross of Lebedev, very small but very clear. And then, as he watched, the four arms of the cross slowly detached themselves from the central square and went drifting away, with all their spars and rigging, into space.

Markoff had jettisoned all unnecessary mass, now that he was coming up to escape velocity and need no longer plod patiently around Earth, gaining momentum on each circuit. From now on, Lebedev would be almost unsteerable—but that did not matter. All the tricky navigation lay behind her. It was as if an old-time yachtsman had deliberately thrown away his rudder and heavy keel—knowing that the rest of the race would be straight downwind over a calm sea.

“Congratulations, Dimitri,” Merton radioed. “It’s a neat trick. But it’s not good enough—you can’t catch up now.”


“I’ve not finished yet,” the Russian answered. “There’s an old winter’s tale in my country, about a sleigh being chased by wolves. To save himself, the driver has to throw off the passengers one by one. Do you see the analogy?”

Merton did, all too well. On this final lap, Dimitri no longer needed his co-pilot. Lebedev could really be stripped down for action.

“Alexis won’t be very happy about this,” Merton replied. “Besides, it’s against the rules.”

“Alexis isn’t happy, but I’m the captain. He’ll just have to wait around for ten minutes until the Commodore picks him up. And the regulations say nothing about the size of the crew—you should know that.”

Merton did not answer. He was too busy doing some hurried calculations, based on what he knew of Lebedev’s design. By the time he had finished, he knew that the race was still in doubt. Lebedev would be catching up with him at just about the time he hoped to pass the moon.

But the outcome of the race was already being decided, ninety-two million miles away.


On Solar Observatory Three, far inside the orbit of Mercury, the automatic instruments recorded the whole history of the flare. A hundred million square miles of the sun’s surface suddenly exploded in such blue-white fury that, by comparison, the rest of the disk paled to a dull glow. Out of that seething inferno, twisting and turning like a living creature, in the magnetic fields of its own creation, soared the electrified plasma of the great flare. Ahead of it, moving at the speed of light, went the warning flash of ultraviolet and x-rays. That would reach Earth in eight minutes, and was relatively harmless. Not so the charged atoms that were following behind at their leisurely four million miles an hour—and which, in just over a day, would engulf Diana, Lebedev, and their accompanying little fleet in a cloud of lethal radiation.

The Commodore left his decision to the last possible minute. Even when the jet of plasma had been tracked past the orbit of Venus, there was a chance that it might miss Earth. But when it was less than four hours away, and had already been picked up by the moon-based radar network, he knew that there was no hope. All solar sailing was over for the next five or six years until the sun was quiet again.

A great sigh of disappointment swept across the solar system. Diana and Lebedev were halfway between Earth and moon, running neck and neck—and now no one would ever know which was the better boat. The enthusiasts would argue the result for years; history would merely record: race cancelled owing to solar storm.


When John Merton received the order, he felt a bitterness he had not known since childhood. Across the years, sharp and clear, came the memory of his tenth birthday. He had been promised an exact scale model of the famous spaceship Morning Star, and for weeks had been planning how he would assemble it, where he would hang it up in his bedroom. And then, at the last moment, his father had broken the news. “I’m sorry, John—it costs too much money. Maybe next year . . .”

Half a century and a successful lifetime later, he was a heartbroken boy again.

For a moment, he thought of disobeying the Commodore. Suppose he sailed on, ignoring the warning? Even if the race were abandoned, he could make a crossing to the moon that would stand in the record books for generations.

But that would be worse than stupidity. It would be suicide—and a very unpleasant form of suicide. He had seen men die of radiation poisoning, when the magnetic shielding of their ships had failed in deep space. No—nothing was worth that . . .

He felt as sorry for Dimitri Markoff as for himself; they both deserved to win, and now victory would go to neither. No man could argue with the sun in one of its rages, even though he might ride upon its beams to the edge of space.

Only fifty miles astern now, the Commodore’s launch was drawing alongside Lebedev, preparing to take off her skipper. There went the silver sail, as Dimitri—with feeling that he would share—cut the rigging. The tiny capsule would be taken back to Earth, perhaps to be used again—but a sail was spread for one voyage only.

He could press the jettison button now, and save his rescuers a few minutes of time. But he could not do so. He wanted to stay aboard to the very end, on the little boat that had been for so long a part of his dreams and his life. The great sail was spread now at right angles to the sun, exerting its utmost thrust. Long ago it had torn him clear of Earth—and Diana was still gaining speed.

Then, out of nowhere, beyond all doubt or hesitation, he knew what must be done. For the last time, he sat down before the computer that had navigated him halfway to the moon.

When he had finished, he packed the log and his few personal belongings. Clumsily—for he was out of practice, and it was not an easy job to do by oneself—he climbed into the emergency survival suit.

He was just sealing the helmet when the Commodore’s voice called over the radio. “We’ll be alongside in five minutes, Captain. Please cut your sail so we won’t foul it.”

John Merton, first and last skipper of the sun yacht Diana, hesitated for a moment. He looked for the last time around the tiny cabin, with its shining instruments and its neatly arranged controls, now all locked in their final positions. Then he said to the microphone: “I’m abandoning ship. Take your time to pick me up. Diana can look after herself.”

There was no reply from the Commodore, and for that he was grateful. Professor van Stratten would have guessed what was happening—and would know that, in these final moments, he wished to be left alone.

He did not bother to exhaust the airlock, and the rush of escaping gas blew him gently out into space; the thrust he gave her then was his last gift to Diana. She dwindled away from him, sail glittering splendidly in the sunlight that would be hers for centuries to come. Two days from now she would flash past the moon; but the moon, like Earth, could never catch her. Without his mass to slow her down, she would gain two thousand miles an hour in every day of sailing. In a month, she would be traveling faster than any ship that man had ever built.


As the sun’s rays weakened with distance, so her acceleration would fall. But even at the orbit of Mars, she would be gaining a thousand miles an hour in every day. Long before then, she would be moving too swiftly for the sun itself to hold her. Faster than any comet that had ever streaked in from the stars, she would be heading out into the abyss.

The glare of rockets, only a few miles away, caught Merton’s eye. The launch was approaching to pick him up at thousands of times the acceleration that Diana could ever attain. But engines could burn for a few minutes only, before they exhausted their fuel—while Diana would still be gaining speed, driven outward by the sun’s eternal fires, for ages yet to come.

“Goodbye, little ship,” said John Merton. “I wonder what eyes will see you next, how many thousand years from now.”

At last he felt at peace, as the blunt torpedo of the launch nosed up beside him. He would never win the race to the moon; but his would be the first of all man’s ships to set sail on the long journey to the stars.



Read An Excerpt of Michael P. Spradlin’s ‘Into the Killing Seas’

New York Times best-selling author Michael P. Spradlin is back with epic new adventure novel. Into the Killing Seas is based on the true events of the 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis, tells a harrowing story of World War II.

Here’s the official synopsis:

seas_450x2-300x450In 1945, in the waning days of World War II, two boys stow away aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis as it sails from Guam to the Philippines. Separated from their parents at the start of the war, the boys hope to reunite with their family. But their hopes are dashed when a Japanese submarine sinks the ship in the middle of ocean.

Patrick and Teddy, with the help of their friend—an injured Marine named Benny—are not too worried at first. They expect to be rescued soon. They can handle the thirst and the dehydration. Even the occasional madness that seems to possess some of the ship’s surviving crew.

But as they float along in the water, they discover that the real danger lies beneath. And it has teeth.



Enjoy an Excerpt from Into the Killing Seas

[dropcap]I[dropcap]’m not sure how long I lay asleep half in and half out of the water. It could have been hours or minutes. When I came to, I was still clinging to the pallet and Teddy was whimpering softly, something he often did in his fitful sleep. The night sky was as dark as it had been when we abandoned ship, but it was growing lighter far off on the horizon. The moon cracked its way through the clouds and I could see Benny floating along, his burned hands twisted in between the wooden slats of our makeshift life raft. He groaned and muttered soft curses under his breath.

The sea had calmed some and the waves were not quite as high as they’d been before. Still, even the smaller ones tossed us about. I wished I could find a way to get some height and have a look around, but I was still so exhausted, my head and shoulders remained planted on the wood.

As I wiped the sleep from my eyes, I realized that we weren’t as alone at sea as I’d thought. Around me, I voices all yelling at once. From the sound of it, a whole bunch of the crew had managed to abandon ship. But from their cries for help it was also clear a great many of them were injured.

“Where’s the doc! I got a wounded man here!” I heard a husky voice call.

The doctor.

Every ship had at least one doctor plus several medical corpsman. If I could find one of them, maybe they could help Benny. As if he knew I was thinking about him, he moaned, lifted his head, and looked around.

“Patrick? You still there, pipsqueak?”

“I’m right here Benny,” I said.

“Good. We being rescued yet?”

“Nah, not yet. The sun will be up soon and I hear a lot of guys yelling for help, but I don’t see them. Or any help for us,” I said.

“Yeah. With these waves, I’ll bet our guys are scattered everywhere. Hard to keep track in the dark—” Benny stopped talking and gave out a groan. It sounded like he was in agony.

“What’s wrong Benny?” I asked.

“Nothing sport. Just a rough start to the mornin’ is all. I don’t suspect this salt water is doing these burns I got any good.”

I didn’t know what to say. If we were in the jungle, I could have found lots of things to help Benny. Fresh water, plants that would help his burns heal, even mud packed on the wounds would stop infection and ease the pain. The Chamorro taught me a lot about survival and living off the land.

In the jungle. Not the middle of the ocean.

But maybe one of Benny’s shipmates could help him. Their voices sounded like they were coming from all directions.

“Where’s the doctor?” the husky voice shouted again.

“I think that’s Colosi from Chicago,” Benny whispered. “He’s a Marine.”
“No one’s seen him,” another sailor, who Benny identified as Herman Wahlquist from Minnesota, answered back. “But I know he made it off the ship! Doc! Doc! You out there?”

I heard another voice answer but it was too far away to understand.

“That’s him! That’s Doc!” Colosi said. “We gotta swim toward him, I gotta wounded man here!”

“Help! Over here!” I shouted.

“Who’s goes there?” A voice came back.

“We’re hurt, there’s an injured Marine here!” I said.

There was no response for a moment.

“Listen up, pipsqueak,” Benny rasped. “I know Colosi. I don’t like him. He’s trouble. I think you oughta stay away from him until sunup. Find somebody else out there, capiche?”

Benny groaned and though it was dark and nearly impossible to see, I had the sense he had passed out again. At any rate, he was silent. I thought about what he said. That he didn’t like Sergeant Stenkevitz back on the ship. And he seemed like a jerk. Now he was telling me to stay away from this guy named Colosi. Maybe I should listen to him. What if they tried to take the pallet away from us? What would we do then?

More men shouted out to each other from somewhere. The noise and size of the waves made it difficult to determine where their voices were coming from. It still wasn’t light enough yet to see much. But I had an idea.


He groaned incoherently.

“Benny!” I shouted.

“What!” he said, I could tell I startled him awake.

“Can you swim? Paddle, I mean? Help me push the pallet through the water?”

“I don’t know, Buddy,” he said. “I’m plumb wore out. If I could rest a while, I might be able to help. Why?”

“Because I just heard more of the crew shouting over there about the doctor. He got off the ship with the rest of the survivors. If we can find him, maybe he can treat your burns.”

“That’s a real good idea, pipsqueak. You’re thinkin’ like a Marine. Makin’ an assessment of your tactical situation. Choosin’ your course of action. But here’s the thing. Your troops is done in, Patty boy. Teddy is too wrung out to help. And as much as it pains Benjamin Franklin Poindexter, Private First Class, United States Marine Corps, to say it, I ain’t fit for duty right now. Besides I’ll bet that doc’s waitin’ room is full up right now. Lotta wounded he’s gotta tend too. Assumin’ it was even him them swabby’s heard. We should just wait here. Someone will be along to rescue us soon,” he said.

Something was different in Benny. Never once could I remember him saying not to do a thing, or that we weren’t going to find a way to accomplish what we set out to do. Benny, he was always upbeat and positive. Except for swabbies and that Sergeant Stenkevitz we’d run into when he was hiding us on the ship. he never had anything bad to say about anything except maybe Hank Greenberg and swabby’s. Now he was making up a reason, an excuse not to try something. I figured it was my turn to get him going.
“You always told me Marines never give up,” I said.

“Hey now! Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.” Benny was almost whispering, his voice was so weak. “Don’t you go spoutin’ off about quittin’. I ain’t sayin’ that. We ain’t given up. Not one bit. But even a squared away Marine has gotta rest and regroup before the next fight. Best thing we can do is hunker down and wait till daylight. By then the rescue ships and planes will be here and we’ll get plucked right out of this giant bathtub like a rubber duck. I think we just need to rest until then, all right Patty boy?”

“I guess,” I said. But I wasn’t convinced Benny was right. I was thinking about the chaos on board the ship when the torpedoes hit. How fast the Indianapolis went down. I remembered some of the crew saying nobody knew for sure if the distress call went out. How the communication system got all blown up with the first hit. Nobody even knew when to abandon ship because the speakers didn’t work. I wasn’t sure Benny was thinking clearly. Maybe nobody was coming for us. At least not for a while.

I rested for a few minutes. The pallet was doing an admirable job of keeping me afloat. I had no idea which direction was which, but there was light starting to break off the horizon to my left, so I knew that must be east. I heard some guys shouting again, not Colosi or Wahlquist, some voices I didn’t recognize coming from behind me, and it reminded me again about the doctor.

If Benny and Teddy couldn’t help, it didn’t matter. I could. I worked around to Teddy’s side of the pallet and started kicking with my legs, pushing it slowly toward the sound of the voices. I wasn’t making much progress. But it was something.

I was getting closer. The voices were getting louder, clearer. And suddenly I could make out what the men were shouting. Dozens of them. They weren’t calling for the doctor anymore. They were screaming for their lives.

“No! Dear God! No!” I heard a single voice cry out. “Help! Someone please help me!” More voices joined in. There was a high-pitched, almost squeaky voice from somebody who sounded young and terrified. A gruff, hoarse cry—probably somebody from New York because he sounded like Benny—oniy with a deeper tone. Then a southern accent shouted out in horror, joining an overwhelming chorus of screams. They sounded as if they were being tortured. Then the youngest sounding voice spelled out the reason for their alarm and I instantly grew terrified myself.

“Sharks!” he yelled. “Everywhere! Look out—” His words died in his throat and he made the most horrifying, anguished sound I’d ever heard. On Guam, when someone was shot, death usually came quickly. A bullet ripped into someone’s chest, and that was it for them. Or sometimes in the jungle we had to leave our wounded behind because when you’re being hunted by the Japs, silence is life and noise is death. And the wounded tend to make noise. I tried not to think about the ones we’d abandoned. The Japs always caught up with them quickly. Usually you’d hear a single gunshot. And then their cries would stop.

Now it was sharks. There were sharks in the water. And from the sound of it, they were all around those men. I stopped paddling and floated there, waiting for someone, anyone to tell me what to do. Benny was too far gone at the moment to realize what was happening.

And then, below the surface of the water, something hard and scaly brushed against my leg.

The sharks had found us.

Boys’ Life Fiction: ‘The Ballad of Runny Nose’


Written by Mark Henry | Illustrations by AG Ford

Not counting the normal, Oklahoma stuff from his dad’s side of the family, 15-year-old Jimmy Dugan had 11 names. Most of them were pretty weird, but the name his Eskimo grandfather gave him looked as if it might even get him killed.

A gray cloud of ice-fog surrounded his face with every panting breath. Deep, bone-numbing cold seeped through the thick fur of Jimmy’s parka. His feet, layered in heavy wool socks and sealskin mukluks, felt like frozen blocks of meat.

His body was one big ice-cream headache.

Under low clouds and a weak arctic sun, seven huskies shivered in harness, bushy tails curled around their feet. Eyes, rimmed in tiny ice crystals, squinted against the bitter air. The thermometer hanging on the handle of Jimmy’s dogsled read 37 below.

Spit snapped before it hit the ground in such conditions. Trees exploded as sap turned to ice. The dogs’ feet cracked and bled. Jimmy had heard stories of men who’d cut off their own frostbitten fingers just to survive.

He stopped the team on a frozen pond in the middle of an endless white plain. There was no wind, and the moisture from his breath and the panting dogs pooled into a foggy soup at his feet.

Jimmy kicked at the swirling cloud with his mukluk, then slumped against the sled, clenching his teeth in a shiver that shook his entire body. A dozen other figures, some on snow machines, some with dogs, moved like gray dots up and down the river — all searching, just like him.


It was March, the season Yup’ik Eskimo call “When-Seals-Are-Born.” Back in Tulsa, Jimmy’s friends would be mowing their lawns. But in Alaska, on the ice-covered tundra of the Yukon Delta, winter wouldn’t release her frozen grip until May. He wished his dad’s deployment in Iraq would end so his mother would take them back home — back to civilization.

He was only a kid from Oklahoma, no matter what his grandfather said.

In Yup’ik tradition, almost every-one gave him a different name. To his grandmother he was Kakeggluk, translated as “Runny Nose,” because he was allergic to just about every-thing on the planet. Auntie Vera called him “Dear Little Husband,” because when Jimmy was a baby, he’d supposedly looked like his big-eared great uncle, who’d died shortly before he was born.

All the names were dorky, but the one his grandfather gave him caused the most trouble: Nukalpiaq. It sounded like he was clearing his throat when he said it. Nukalpiaq — “Great Hunter.”

What a joke. Jimmy had never hunted anything but a few ducks —and he wasn’t very successful at that.

Then two boys went missing while they were out checking blackfish traps set below the river ice. With most of the men from the village off hunting seals, the boys’ mother had come to beg Nukalpiaq for help.

“Surely,” she’d explained through her tears, “the Great Hunter’s grand-father had seen something special in him. …” Her boys were only 6 and 8 years old. Surely someone with such a name could help her find her little ones before they froze to death.

Jimmy had been up and down the river six times already without finding a single track. He buried his face in his mittens, wracking his brain for what his grandfather would do.

“Tie my teachings in your boot-laces so you don’t lose ’em,” the old man always said when he finished a lesson. He’d passed away in the darkest time of winter — the season Yup’ik call “Worst-of-the-Moon.”

“Grandpa,” Jimmy muttered, standing up with a groan. “I should’ve tied your words on better. Those boys are out here somewhere —maybe dead already. … I’m freezing and I don’t know what to do. What were you thinking? People expect too much from a boy named Great Hunter.”

“If you don’t know which way to go,” Jimmy’s grandfather had taught him, “say a little prayer, then trust your dogs. If they turn, don’t stop ’em. They’ll take you where you need to go. Tie these words in your bootlaces. …”

The huskies tugged at their harnesses, eager to get moving in the cold. Chinook, the lead dog, threw back his great, gray head and gave a mournful howl.

Jimmy’s grandfather once said that long ago, animals and man had lived together and spoken the same language. Then a great divide opened up, separating man from the others. As the canyon grew wider, dog
jumped across at the last possible instant, choosing to stay with his friend, man. Even now, dog’s sorrow-ful howl was his way of talking to his wild brothers across that great divide.

“If you don’t know which way to go,” Jimmy’s grandfather had taught him, “say a little prayer, then trust your dogs. If they turn, don’t stop ’em. They’ll take you where you need to go. Tie these words in your bootlaces. …”

“OK, Chinook,” Jimmy hollered. “You asked for it, boy. Trust, it is. Hike! Hike!” (People called “mush” to their dogs only in the movies.)
The huskies nearly tugged the sled out of Jimmy’s hands. Subzero air seared his lungs as he trotted to jump aboard the runners. There was no sound but the jingle of the dogs’ traces and the hiss of the sled over ice.

“The great Runny Nose,” Jimmy snorted under the huge wolverine ruff of his parka hood. “Off to save the day.”

The dogs suddenly veered right, toward the middle of a smaller river that fed into the mighty Yukon. Chinook stopped in his tracks, looking back over broad shoulders. He sniffed the air. Frosty steam from his panting drifted in the still air.

The sun, lower now, peeked between gray clouds and the frozen expanse of the Bering Sea. In the long shadows ahead of the dogs, Jimmy saw two impressions in the snow. Faint tracks followed the trail of a snowshoe hare, barely visible in the rock-hard ridges of white. Ten yards farther, they vanished at the edge of a gaping hole he’d missed on his earlier searches.

His blood turned to ice. The river was deep here and never froze all the way to the bottom. If the boys had fallen through —

“Chinook! Haw! Haw!” Jimmy cried.

The powerful lead dog obeyed, dragging his teammates and the sled to the left. He stopped dead-even with the treacherous break.

Chinook whined at the jagged hole. Slowly, the dog tugged the sled toward it. The ice hummed and popped like gnashing teeth beneath their combined weight.

“Chinook, no!” Jimmy stomped on the brake. “Stupid dog, you’ll kill us all —”

“Helloooo!” A muffled cry rose from the ice.

Jimmy threw back his heavy fur hood despite the bitter cold. “Hello?”

“M-m-ma-mamaaaa!” a second voice sobbed.

Quickly, Jimmy unsnapped the gang line and anchored the dogs to the ice with the claw brake. Then, flat on his belly in the basket of the empty sled, he inched forward. The long runners distributed his weight, and he moved to the edge of the hole.

Two boys gazed up from the blue-gray shadows three feet below. An early freeze had flash-frozen the river. The water level beneath the ice had dropped before it had frozen solid again, leaving a cave-like tunnel between two sheets of ice. The boys had found a weak spot and fallen through the top layer.

Frozen tears streaked dirty faces, framed by fur parka hoods. Pudgy cheeks almost closed their eyes as they grinned up at Jimmy.

“Runny Nose!” The 6-year-old’s mouth gaped in surprise. “You have come to save us?”

“Your mother’s worried about you.” Jimmy peered down between the wooden slats of his sled. He was suddenly much warmer than before. “You were smart to stay where you broke through.”

“Grandfather says to stay put if we are lost,” the older boy said. “We tied his words in our bootlaces so we wouldn’t forget them.”

Jimmy shot a quick glance at his lead dog, which gave him a wide-mouthed yawn. “We all have some things tied to our bootlaces today. …”

The boys shivered badly as Jimmy hauled them up from beneath the ice. He gave them hot chocolate from his thermos and some oatmeal cookies he had kept under his parka so they wouldn’t freeze solid.

As Jimmy stepped on the sled runners, the younger boy turned from his nest of blankets, his lip covered in a frothy, hot-chocolate mustache. “Can we go home, Runny Nose?”

His older brother gave him a stiff elbow to the ribs. “You call him Nukalpiaq. Runny Nose isn’t polite.”

“Either one.” Jimmy smiled, urging the dogs toward the village. “Either one suits me fine.”

Read An Exclusive Excerpt From ‘Scorpion Mountain’


Are you a Brotherband Chronicles fanatic? You’re in luck. We’ve got an exclusive excerpt from Scorpion Mountain, the fifth book in John Flanagan’s Brotherband Chronicles series.

9780399163562_large_Scorpion_MountainScorpion Mountain follows Hal, his Brotherband crew, and the Ranger Gilan after freeing the twelve Araluens sold into slavery. Returning to Araluen, Gilan is given a new mission by King Duncan: protect his daughter’s life. Princess Cassandra has survived one attempt on her life already, and now whispers of a second attempt have reached the kingdom. A deadly sect known as the Scorpion Cult is thought to be behind the assassination threat.

Not waiting to see if the knife will strike true, the Brotherband again team up with Gilan to track down the would-be killers. In the fifth book in the Brotherband Chronicles series, old friends reemerge to take on new enemies as the worlds of Ranger’s Apprentice and Brotherband join forces in battle!

Scroll down to read the first two chapters of Scorpion Mountain.

Chapter One


[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hoa there, Tom! Steady on, fellow!”

Tom was a plow horse, well past middle age and resigned, like most of his placid breed, to the constant task of plodding up and down, hauling a plow that carved consecutive furrows in the rich earth of Halder farm. He wasn’t accustomed to being stopped in mid-furrow and he turned his shaggy head to look at his owner, Devon Halder.

Devon, like his horse, was well past middle age. And the smock that he was wearing was liberally daubed with patches of drying mud. Later that night, when he was asked in the local tavern what led him to stop and and turn around, he couldn’t really recall. Perhaps he had heard the slight sounds of creaking leather and rope, or the rustle of a sail in the brisk wind.

The days when Skandians used to raid the coastal and river villages of Araluen were well in the past now. And besides, on sec­ond glance, this was no wolfship.

Whatever it was, it was enough for Devon to halt Tom and turn to face the river behind him. When he did, the sight that met his eyes sent a sudden jolt of panic through him.

Barely forty meters away, gliding smoothly up the river, was a ship.

His first thought was that she was a wolfship, and Devon was old enough to remember when the sight of a Skandian wolfship on the river was a prelude to a sudden, savage attack. He tensed his muscles to run and spread the alarm in the nearby village. But he paused at the last second.

The days when Skandians used to raid the coastal and river villages of Araluen were well in the past now. And besides, on sec­ond glance, this was no wolfship.

She was similar in style and shape, sure enough. She was slim waisted and had a look of speed about her. She didn’t have the broad, capacious lines of a cargo hull. But there was no large square sail such as a wolfship would use. Instead, this ship was rigged with a triangular sail that was mounted fore and aft along the line of the ship, supported by a long, gracefully curving spar that swept up high above the hull.

She was smaller than a wolfship. Also, at her bow post, there was no carved wolf ’s head, with raised hackles and snarling teeth. Instead, there was a carving in the shape of a bird’s head. And there was a motif of a seabird in flight on the sail—a graceful bird with wings spread wide. A heron, Devon realized.

But the four circular wood-and-metal-reinforced shields ar­rayed down the starboard bulwark were unmistakably Skandian in design, although he noticed that a fifth shield, set level with the helmsman’s position, was shaped like a triangle.

The crew, those he could see, were dressed in Skandian fash­ion—with leather and sheepskin vests and leggings held secure by crisscross bindings. Yet he saw none of the horned helmets for which the Skandian sea wolves were well known, the sight of which would strike fear into any honest farmer’s heart. Instead, several of them wore dark woolen watch caps, rolled down to cover their ears against the cold.

Devon returned the wave cautiously— his suspicions were still raised.

As he watched, the figure at the helm raised a hand in greeting. Devon shaded his eyes to look more closely at the helmsman. He appeared to be quite young, and relatively slim for a Skandian. The person beside him was more like a typical sea wolf, Devon thought. He was bulky, with wild gray hair blowing in the wind. As Devon watched, he realized that the second man had a wooden hook in place of his right hand.

Definitely a sea wolf type, he thought. But then the man made a similar gesture of greeting. Devon returned the wave cautiously— his suspicions were still raised. Small as she might be, this was definitely a cruiser, a raiding ship. She was fast, lean hulled and potentially dangerous. And, as the shields arrayed down her bul­wark attested, her crew were fighting men. He watched her closely as she sailed past, gradually pulling out into the center of the river to round the approaching bend. The helmsman and his companion lowered their hands and seemed to lose interest in the elderly farmer and his plow horse.

“That’ll give him something to talk about in the tavern tonight,” Thorn said with a grin. “Probably the most exciting thing that’s happened to him since his plow got stuck on a tree root five days ago.”

Hal raised an eyebrow. “Us? Exciting?”

Thorn nodded, scratching his rump with the blunt end of his wooden hook.

“He was a graybeard. He’d remember the times when the sight of a Skandian ship meant a raid. I’m surprised he didn’t go pelting off to raise the alarm when he saw us.” Thorn had no idea how close the farmer had come to doing just that.

As they rounded the bend and the farmer and his horse disap­peared from sight, Kloof planted her forepaws onto the starboard bulwark and gave out a single bark. Then, content that she had asserted her superiority over all things Araluen, she dropped back to the deck, slid her front feet and flumped down onto the planks. For a few seconds, she watched Hal out of one eye, then she sighed and settled back to sleep.

Hal cast his gaze over the tilled fields and green forests that lined the banks of the river. It was attractive country, he thought.

“Did you ever raid in Araluen, Thorn?” he asked.

The old sea wolf shook his head. “Erak preferred to raid the Iberian coast, and sometimes Gallica or Sonderland. And now that I’ve seen Gilan in action with that bow of his, I’m glad he did. Maybe Erak knew something. Imagine facing half a dozen archers with Gilan’s skill and speed.”

“Facing one would be bad enough,” Hal agreed.

Stig was sitting on a coil of rope several meters away, idly put­ting an edge on his already razor-sharp saxe knife as he listened to their conversation.

“D’you think Gilan will be at Castle Araluen yet?” he asked.

Originally, they had planned to leave Cresthaven Bay at the same time as the Ranger, who was riding overland back to the capital. But they’d had a long, hard voyage south to Socorro and Hal wanted the Heron in tip-top shape for her first appearance at Castle Araluen. There were some sections of running rigging that had frayed and needed splicing and repairing, and there was a large, splintered gash in one of the planks on the waterline, where they had nearly run aground pursuing Tursgud’s renegade ship Nightwolf through the shoals. It took half a day to plane that smooth and repaint the timber so there was no sign of the damage.

In addition, Edvin wanted to replenish their stores and fresh food and suggested that they should do it at Cresthaven, where the village was contracted to supply their needs as part of the duty ship agreement.

“No point spending our money elsewhere when they’ll provide it for nothing here,” Edvin had said, and Hal agreed.

As a result, they sailed out of Cresthaven and headed north to the river mouth some two days after Gilan had ridden off, waving farewell as he topped the rise above the bay where they were moored.

“Do you consider yourself a roughneck?” Thorn asked.

“He should be,” Hal replied to Stig’s question. “It’s a little over a day’s ride and I’m told those Ranger horses cover ground at a prodigious rate.”

“He can have the welcome committee ready for us then,” Thorn added. “Maybe this king of theirs will come down to the jetty to greet us.”

Hal smiled sidelong at his old friend. “From what I’ve heard of kings, they don’t stand around on windy jetties waiting for rough­neck sailors to arrive.”

“Do you consider yourself a roughneck?” Thorn asked. “I’ve always thought of you as quite sophisticated.”

“I may be. But you’re roughneck enough for all of us,” Hal told him and Thorn grinned contentedly.

“Yes. I’m glad to say I am.”

Farther forward, in the waist of the ship and with no responsi­bilities to attend to during this current long reach of the river, the twins were bickering, as they were wont to do. They had been silent for some time, much to the crew’s relief, but that was a situation too good to last.

“You know that brown-eyed girl who was sitting on your lap at the welcome-home feast?” Ulf began.

Wulf eyed him suspiciously, before replying. “Yes. What about her?”

Ulf paused, smiling quietly to himself, preparing to throw out his verbal challenge. “Well, she fancied me,” he said.

Wulf looked at him, eyebrows raised. “She fancied you?”

Ulf nodded emphatically. “So you noticed too?”

Wulf snorted in annoyance. “I wasn’t agreeing,” he said. “I was querying you. That was why I raised my voice at the end of the sentence. It signified that I was saying, What do you mean, she fancied you?

“I mean she found me attractive—actually, very attractive. It was obvious, after all.”

Wulf paused for several seconds. “If it was so obvious that she fancied you—that she found you attractive—why was she sitting on my lap?”

Of course, what made this discussion puzzling for the rest of the crew was that Ulf and Wulf were identical in every respect.

Ulf waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. “That’s what makes it so obvious. She wanted to make me jealous, so she played up to you. She was playing hard to get.”

“Well, she played it very well. You certainly didn’t get her,” his brother told him, with some heat in his voice. He had noticed Ulf admiring the girl early in the evening and had swooped, success­fully, before his brother could act.

Lydia, who was leaning on the bulwark several meters away, groaned audibly as the exchange continued.

Ulf laughed. “I could have if I wanted to. She was overwhelmed by my devilish good looks.”

“Devilish good looks? You’re as ugly as a mange-ridden mon­key,” Wulf told him. But his brother was already shaking his head.

“It’s odd that someone as unattractive as yourself would say that,” he replied. “That was why she chose to sit with you when she planned to make me jealous. She chose the most unattractive per­son she could see.”

“Then obviously,” Wulf retorted, “she couldn’t see you.”

Of course, what made this discussion puzzling for the rest of the crew was that Ulf and Wulf were identical in every respect. For one of them to call the other ugly was for him to call himself ugly as well. But they never seemed to grasp that fact.

As they continued speaking, their voices, at first lowered, rose in volume so that the entire crew could listen to their meaningless drivel. Hal decided that enough was enough.

“Ingvar?” he called.

The massively built boy was sitting forward of the mast, lean­ing back against it, his long legs splayed out on the deck before him. He turned and peered back toward the steering position.

“Yes, Hal?”

“Would you say that sailing down a river counts the same as being at sea?”

The rules of the ship were that if the twins carried on one of their idiotic arguments at sea, Ingvar was within his rights to throw one of them overboard. In fact, some of the crew felt, he was obliged to throw one overboard. Usually, a reference to this fact was enough to stop the mindless discussions they enjoyed so much.

Ingvar shrugged. “Eh? Oh, I don’t know. I suppose so.”

His voice was distracted and flat. Lydia, a few meters away, noticed this and turned to look at him, frowning. Hal mirrored the expression. Usually Ingvar was good tempered and cheerful. Now he sounded listless and bored. Hal wondered if something was on the big boy’s mind.

Ulf and Wulf fell instantly silent. These days, they were never quite sure how much rope Hal would give them before he ordered the huge Ingvar to toss one or the other, or even both, overboard. Discretion was the better part of valor in such a case.

Hal noted that they had stopped arguing, and he nodded in Ingvar’s direction. But the young giant wasn’t looking his way any­more. He had resumed his seat against the mast, and Hal heard him give vent to a loud sigh. Hal looked at Stig, who was also watching Ingvar curiously.

“Have you noticed Ingvar’s been acting strangely for the past few days?” Hal asked his first mate.

Stig nodded, a slightly worried look on his features. “Some­thing definitely seems to be on his mind. I’ve been wondering . . .”

Whatever it was that he had been wondering was forgotten as the ship swept past a high bluff. In the near distance, set among tailored and carefully tended parkland, stood the majestic, beauti­ful Castle Araluen, a mass of graceful spires, soaring turrets, flying buttresses and fluttering pennants.

“Gorlog’s earwax!” Jesper said. “Will you take a look at that!”


Chapter Two

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he castle stood on rising ground half a kilometer from the river. It was surrounded by an area of open ground. In the intervening space was a narrow belt of forest—naturally occurring trees of a darker, wilder green, rather than the carefully planted and positioned ones that surrounded the castle.

The castle itself glittered golden in the sunlight. It was huge, but its size did nothing to diminish the grace and beauty of the building. Quite simply, it was like nothing the crew of the Heron had ever seen. They stood transfixed, staring at the castle with something approaching awe.

“It’s amazing,” Stefan said quietly, and the others murmured agreement—all except Ingvar.

“What is it? What are you all talking about?” he asked, the irritation obvious in his tone. Lydia turned to him and placed her hand on his arm in a gesture of apology.

“It’s Castle Araluen,” she explained. “It’s absolutely beautiful. It’s huge, but so graceful, and it gleams in the sun and there are all these colorful flags and pennants and—”

This was so unlike Ingvar—gentle, good-natured, helpful Ingvar.

She stepped back in surprise as Ingvar shook her hand from his arm and scowled out in the direction of the castle. To him, it was nothing but a blur. In fact, he couldn’t even be sure that the blur he was he was looking at was the castle.

“All right. You’ve made your point,” he said brusquely. “It’s beautiful. I suppose I should be mightily impressed.”

For a moment, Lydia was too shocked to reply. This was so unlike Ingvar—gentle, good-natured, helpful Ingvar. She looked around uncertainly, to see if the others in the crew agreed with her. She caught Hal’s eye and the skirl shook his head in a warning gesture. He thought he was beginning to understand the reason for Ingvar’s recent depression.

Lydia looked back at Ingvar, standing scowling out at the coun­tryside. With an effort, she made her voice light and friendly.

“Of course. Forget I spoke,” she said.

Ingvar snorted disdainfully. “If we must,” he said, and moved forward to stand alone by the covered shape of the Mangler.

An awkward silence settled over the small craft, eventually bro­ken by Thorn.

“Personally,” he said, “I don’t find it so impressive. It’s not a patch on Erak’s Great Hall.”

Stig let out a snort of laughter. “Erak’s Great Hall?” he re­peated. “That’s nothing more than a log shanty compared to this!”

And he was right. Erak’s Hall was an impressive building by Hallasholm standards, but compared to this vision of wonder, it was little more than a log cabin.

Thorn refused to give ground. “Look at it!” he said scornfully. “All towers and flags and fancy folderol! Imagine what it takes to heat it in winter! At least the Great Hall only needs one big fire­place.”

“And it’s drafty and smoky with it,” Edvin said.

“But think of the cost of heating that . . . pile of masonry,” Thorn persisted.

Hal smiled quietly to himself. Thorn’s interjection had taken the crew’s minds off the awkward scene between Ingvar and Lydia. It wasn’t the first time the old one-armed warrior had done some­thing like this. The young captain realized that he could learn a lot in man management from his shabby friend.

“I imagine Duncan can afford the heating bills,” Hal said mildly. “He is a king, after all. Kings usually have a pile of money stored away.”

“Hummph!” Thorn sniffed. “Provided by their long-suffering subjects, no doubt.”

“Well, you pay taxes to Erak,” Stig pointed out.

Thorn gave him a withering look. “Not if I can avoid it,” he said in an undertone.

The discussion could have continued indefinitely, but Stefan, standing on the bulwark for’ard of the mast, pointed to the bank.

“There’s a landing stage there, Hal—and a crowd ready to welcome us.”

“Down sail. Stow the boom. Man the oars.”

Hal assessed the position of the substantial wooden jetty, then glanced quickly at the wind telltale on top of the boom. They’d be heading directly into the wind as they steered toward the jetty.

“We’ll go in under oars,” he decided. Then, raising his voice slightly, he called, “Down sail. Stow the boom. Man the oars.”

The crew hurried to obey his orders. Jesper and Edvin cast loose the sheets while the twins brought the mast and sail sliding down to the deck. The four of them quickly bundled the sail up and stowed mast and sail along the line of the ship. Then they hur­ried to their rowing positions, sliding their white oak oars out through the rowlocks.

Stig and the others were already in position, Stefan having slipped down from the rail and dropped onto his rowing bench. Thorn and Lydia stood close by Hal at the steering platform. In­gvar, Hal noticed, remained in the bow, staring moodily across the river. The young captain shrugged. Ingvar usually didn’t take an oar for ordinary maneuvers. His massive strength tended to unbal­ance the thrust on the ship.

“Ready?” called Stig, and the six oars rose slightly in preparation.

“Stroke!” he called and the oars went back, then dipped into the placid surface of the river. As the rowers heaved on their oars, Hal felt the ship drive forward, and the tiller came alive in his hand. He swung the ship toward the jetty on the southern bank of the river.

As Stefan had noted, there was a considerable crowd—perhaps fifty people—on the jetty and the riverbank beside it. A small group of three, presumably the official party, stood apart from the others. Two of them were clad in the now-familiar gray-and-green cloaks of the Ranger Corps. The third was far more lavishly dressed. Jewelry and decorations glittered on his doublet, catching the sunlight in a series of little flashes.

“There’s Gilan,” Lydia said quietly, as one of the cloaked fig­ures stepped forward and raised a hand in greeting. Hal returned the gesture.

“Common sail­ors?” he repeated. “I rather see myself as a sophisticated world traveler.”

“There’s another Ranger with him,” Hal noted. He studied the third figure in the small group. “And someone who’s very fancily dressed.”

As they glided closer to the jetty, Hal could make out the rich accoutrements on the third man’s doublet, and the fur trim on his red velvet-lined cloak.

“Maybe it’s the King,” Thorn joked.

Hal grinned at him and shook his head. “Kings don’t stand out on windy jetties to greet common sailors.”

Thorn raised an eyebrow at the description. “Common sail­ors?” he repeated. “I rather see myself as a sophisticated world traveler.”

Kloof, sensing the interest that they were showing, advanced to the bulwark and reared up on her hind legs, her massive forepaws on the railing.

Kloof! she said. There were several dogs among the group on­shore and they quickly replied, in a chorus that ranged from high-pitched yips to deep-chested baying.

“Looks like she’s found some friends.” Lydia smiled. The big dog remained in her position, her ears pricked. Lydia then indi­cated the wider group on the shore. “Who do you suppose all the others are?”

Hal shrugged. “Rubberneckers,” he replied. “Come to see the savage men from the north.” He allowed himself a sidelong glance at Thorn. “Along with the sophisticated world traveler.”

“Can’t blame them,” Thorn replied expansively. “I’m a fascinat­ing sight for stay-at-homes like these.”

As they had been talking, Hal had automatically been gauging the distance and angle to the jetty. He called now to the oarsmen.

“Easy all! In oars!”

Stig and the others instantly stopped rowing and raised their oars to the vertical. Then, in one movement, they lowered them, dripping with river water, into the ship, stowing them along the line of the hull beneath the rowing benches.

With the last of the way on her, Hal swung the little ship so that she came alongside. Jesper and Stefan took bow and stern lines and scrambled up onto the jetty, making the ship fast and hauling her in against the timber pilings so that the fenders on her side creaked.

There was a momentary silence, then Gilan stepped forward.

“Welcome to Castle Araluen,” he called cheerfully. “Come ashore.”

“Welcome to Araluen, on behalf of King Duncan,” the Cham­berlain said, in a raised voice. “If you need anything to improve your comfort, please let me know.”

Hal and Thorn stepped up onto the jetty, followed by Stig and Lydia, then the other crew members.

Gilan shook hands with Hal. “Good to see you again,” he said. He indicated the richly dressed man standing a few paces back. “This is Lord Anthony, the King’s Chamberlain. Lord Anthony, meet Hal Mikkelson, skipper of this year’s duty ship.”

The Chamberlain was short and stout. As Hal had noted on the approach to the jetty, he was dressed rather flamboyantly, his red velvet doublet decorated with precious stones and chains. Anx­iously, Hal cast a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure Jesper was out of pickpocket reach. Then he shook hands. Lord Anthony’s grip was firm, but the hand was soft, not calloused and hardened like a warrior’s. Hal guessed he was the King’s administrator. He noted, however, that the man’s eyes were intelligent and observant, casting a quick, appraising glance over the assembled crewmen.

“Welcome to Araluen, on behalf of King Duncan,” the Cham­berlain said, in a raised voice. “If you need anything to improve your comfort, please let me know.”

“Thank you . . . Lord Anthony.” Hal stumbled over the title. He wasn’t sure how one addressed someone called “Lord.” But he seemed to have got it right.

Anthony nodded and smiled, then stepped back. “I’ll return to the castle and make sure your rooms are ready for you,” he said.

Hal gave a half nod, half bow, then the Chamberlain turned away, swirling his cloak around him as he did, and strode off the landing jetty to where his horse was tethered.

“Anthony’s a bit stuffy, but he’s a good man,” Gilan told Hal. “Now come and meet Crowley, the Commandant of the Ranger Corps—and my boss,” he added, with a grin.

The other Ranger was a little shorter than Gilan, and as he pushed back the hood of his cloak, Hal could see that his sandy hair and beard were liberally sprinkled with gray. His eyes were blue and had a mischievous light to them. Hal found that he in­stinctively liked the older man.

“You must be Hal,” Crowley said, stepping forward to shake hands. Then those cheerful eyes turned on Thorn. “And you could be nobody else but the redoubtable Thorn.”

Gracefully, he switched hands to shake hands with Thorn in his turn, doing it left-handed.

“Don’t know about redoubtable,” Thorn said. “But I am a so­phisticated world traveler.”

“You certainly have the look of one,” Crowley replied smoothly, then, as Hal introduced Stig, he looked up to meet the young man’s gaze, taking in the broad shoulders and well-muscled physique. “I imagine you’d be a handful in a fight.”

Stig grinned. “I try to be.”

Crowley, however, had already moved on to the slim, beautiful girl beside Stig. “And you, no doubt, are Lydia, the deadly dart thrower. Our Princess Cassandra is keen to meet you.”

Lydia flushed. She’d spent most of her early life alone in the forests hunting and she wasn’t good at social occasions. She shook hands with Crowley and mumbled something inarticulate along the lines of pleased to meet you. Crowley sensed her awkwardness and favored her with a friendly grin.

“Don’t know what you’re doing with this rough crowd,” he said and she smiled in return. Crowley had a natural charm to him and he was expert at putting people at their ease.

“Why do I think you’re not telling the complete truth?”

“I try to keep them in line,” she said and he released her hand, patting it with his free hand first.

Crowley moved on as Hal introduced him to the rest of the crew. Hal was glad to see that Ingvar had joined them and seemed to be over his disconsolate mood. Crowley raised his eyebrows slightly at the size of the young giant but, perhaps wisely, didn’t comment. He raised his eyebrows even farther as they came to the twins.

“And this is Ulf and Wulf,” Hal said.

Crowley looked from one to the other. “Which is which?”

“I’m Ulf,” said Wulf.

“I’m Wulf,” said Ulf.

The Ranger Commandant frowned thoughtfully at them. “Why do I think you’re not telling the complete truth?”

The twins looked crestfallen that he had seen through their ploy so easily. Hal grinned. It wasn’t often that someone got the better of the twins. Perhaps Gilan had warned his Commandant of the twins’ propensity to play practical jokes.

“Doesn’t matter which is which,” he said cheerfully. “They’re both idiots.”

Crowley nodded, then gestured to the stunning castle that stood on the hill behind them, visible above the belt of trees in the near distance. “Let’s get you settled into the castle then. We have horses here if you’d like to ride.”

He didn’t quite succeed in hiding his smile as he said it. Hal glanced quickly at Thorn before replying.

“I think we’ll walk.”



Scorpion Mountain (Brotherband Chronicles Book 5) Scorpion Mountain hits shelves Dec. 2.

FlanaganJohnJohn Flanagan grew up in Sydney, Australia, hoping to be a writer, and after a successful career in advertising and television, he began writing a series of short stories for his son, Michael, to encourage him to read. Those stories would eventually become The Ruins of Gorlan, Book 1 of Ranger’s Apprentice, the international phenomenon that has sold millions of copies and made readers of kids the world over. Mr. Flanagan lives in the suburb of Manly, Australia, with his wife. In addition to their son, they have two grown daughters and four grandsons.

Want to meet the author? He will be touring the country throughout December. Click here to see when John Flanagan will visiting a bookstore near you!




Boys’ Life Fiction: ‘700 Feet of Terror’ by Eric DelaBarre


Illustrations by Rich Kelly


[dropcap]H[/dropcap]ere I am, miles from home, alone and buried alive. My name is Tracer Finn, and I’m almost 14. Other than common sense, I don’t think anything can prepare a snowboarder for the sheer violence of an avalanche. It was 700 feet of terror and louder than a derailing freight train. If it weren’t for my helmet, I would probably be dead.

Then again, maybe I was dead and didn’t know it.

It was just before five in the morning when my mom pulled into the school parking lot to drop me off to catch the team bus. I would love to say that I was a member of our school’s state-champion snowboarding team, but I was not.

Because the team had only 20 active members, 10 boys and 10 girls, Coach Parker came up with an idea to help offset the team’s travel costs. If you were a student in good standing and had a permission slip from your parents, you could catch a ride to the ski resort for 20 bucks.

As we pulled into the parking lot, my mom thought I might have had the pickup time wrong because the parking lot was empty. This move, however, was by design. My design. If I’ve learned one thing about being an incoming freshman, it was to never draw attention to yourself. A surefire way to set off a geek alarm is to have your mom drop you off in, of all things, a minivan.

“I knew the backcountry was off-limits and way beyond my skill set, but I was feeling confident … until I saw the ‘AVALANCHE TERRITORY’ sign.

No, I knew what I was doing with the early drop-off, so I quickly said goodbye, grabbed my snowboard and jumped out.

If I’d had a clue that it might have been the last time I’d ever see my mom again, I probably would have ignored my pursuit of “cool” and sat with her until the team bus arrived. Now I’ll never know what we might have talked about. I’ll never know what kind of laughter we might have shared together, because if there was one thing we knew how to do, it was laugh.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s hard to imagine anything like this would ever happen, but now that I’m buried alive and freezing, I can’t help but wonder why we push away the people who love us the most so we can appear cool to others. Fitting in with the crowd and the pursuit of cool meant nothing to me right now.

Right now, I was freezing to death.

GET UP, TRACER,” my mind interrupted. “You have to move or you are going to die!

Here I was, crouched in a fetal position, surrounded by tons of snow, and my mind is ordering me to do something that I’d already tried a dozen times before? I can hardly breathe, let alone move.

To think all of this could have been avoided was maddening to me. In a single moment, my life changed. And for what? I thought. To fit in with the crowd and have the other kids say, “There goes Tracer Finn, a no-fear freshman”?

[dropcap]M[/dropcap]y moment of stupidity presented itself at the top of the double black-diamond run Wicked. Earlier that morning, I decided to follow some of the guys on the snowboarding team. I knew they were more experienced than I was, but since I was able to keep up with them and most of their moves, I was proud of my decision.

That is, until Rusty Larson, our 17-year-old reigning state champion, decided to show off for some of the girls.

One by one, the older guys followed Rusty and ducked under the hazard fencing, which blocked access to the mountain’s treacherous backcountry. I knew the backcountry was off-limits and way beyond my skill set, but I was feeling confident … until I saw the “AVALANCHE TERRITORY” sign.

Exploring the backcountry was one thing, but exploring avalanche territory was something I wanted nothing to do with. When I was about to turn around in retreat, I locked eyes with Julie Nagle, the prettiest girl on the snowboarding team.

Up to this point, I wasn’t sure if she even knew I existed, but when she smiled at me, I could feel my heart skip a beat. How can you turn back now? I thought. I knew if I did, I would soon be known as “Tracer Finn, that chicken freshman.”

Taking a deep breath, I smiled back at Julie, slapped the “Avalanche Territory” sign and dropped into the deep powder of the backcountry. The slope was steep and despite all the powder, I was already moving fast — too fast.

Suddenly, the trees closed in around me as the run got tighter, which forced me to keep the nose of my board pointed straight downhill. Then, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — where were the board tracks from Rusty and the other guys?

Thinking fast, I leaned toward the backside and made a cut to the white-powder clearing of the backcountry. Like a cannonball, I shot out of the trees and began to glide across the snow of a steep gorge.

My board finally stopped chattering the way a board chatters when you are pushing the limits, so my idea was working. That is, until everything turned terribly wrong when a giant shelf of snow gave way and closed on me like the jaws of an angry lion.


Looking up for a possible escape route, I saw 700 feet of terror barreling down on me. A wall of snow hit me like an NFL linebacker, lifted me high into the air and slammed me down so hard I could hear the sickening sound of the air rapidly exiting my lungs.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f I had only ignored my ego in that critical moment when I saw the avalanche sign, I might be sitting on the chairlift with Julie instead of being buried alive. Who knows, I might have found the courage to ask her for her phone number and send her a text … wait … DUDE! Your phone is in your jacket pocket! Maybe you can call for help?

My fingers were so cold, they barely answered the urgent commands from my brain, but slowly they began to wiggle and tunnel into the small pocket of air in the middle of my crouched position.

Before long, I felt the leather dongle of my zipper pocket. Grasping the now-frozen dongle between my gloved index finger and thumb, I began to pull open the pocket. Each opening tooth of the zipper echoed like a clap of thunder throughout my coffin of snow.

Reaching in, I could feel the top of my phone. I would need to drop my left shoulder to grab it, but that was easier said than done. Summoning every bit of strength left in my tired muscles, I shot my shoulder down and toward the air pocket. The move suddenly caused the snow to collapse in around me. Before I knew what was happening, I was tumbling down the mountain again.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hen, as fast as the chaos began, it was over. I was, once again, surrounded by the deafening silence of the backcountry, but something was different. My arm moved. Reaching up, I cleared the snow from my goggles and felt the warm afternoon sun hit my face. My nightmare was finally over. I was alive.

Lying there for a long moment, I began to wonder … how long had I been buried? Was I even buried at all, or was this simply the end of the initial avalanche? During the chaos of tumbling, maybe I hit my head and my mental chatter was simply a dreamlike state of unconsciousness?

The only thing I knew for certain was that my life would never be the same. From this moment on, I would always obey the rules whenever I set out on an adventure. I would always listen to my instincts and never, ever, ever try to impress someone in the pursuit of cool.

Eric DelaBarre is the author of Saltwater Taffy. The award-winning adventure novel follows the lives of five friends as they uncover a treasure map that once belonged to the ruthless New Orleans pirate, Jean Lafitte. The discovery thrusts them from one treasure hunting adventure to the next as they try to out-wit, out-think and out-maneuver everyone from the one-legged junk-yard man and an overbearing town bully, to the creepy old man living at the top of the hill.

Saltwater Taffy is a race to-the-finish adventure that grabs the reader and never lets go.

Boys’ Life Fiction: ‘The Secret of Grady House’


By Maureen Crane Wartski  |  Illustrations by Greg Newbold

[dropcap]Y[/dropcap]ou know the Grady house is haunted, right, Evan?”

Icy prickles ran along Evan’s spine as JB Whortley pulled a key out of the cracked flowerpot by the front door.

Old Mr. Grady fell down the stairs and hurt himself yesterday, and the ambulance took him to County Hospital. My dad’s supposed to pick up his mail and stuff, so I’m doing it for him. We’ll have a real close look at the ghost — unless you’re too scared.”

“I’m not s-s-scared.”

Evan hated that he stammered when he was nervous. He hadn’t had time to make friends in his new school, and JB and his sidekick, Milo, were always trying to make his life miserable. For the millionth time, Evan wished his dad’s work hadn’t moved the Forresters to this small town in Texas. He wanted to be back with his pals in his school’s naturalist club in Greensboro, N.C.

The door of the Grady House creaked open.

“He’s scared,” Milo mocked.

If he refused to go in, they’d just torment him more. Evan winced as a floorboard groaned underfoot, but he followed JB into the pitch-dark hall.

Suddenly a ghoulish scream filled the air. Evan’s heart almost stopped. There couldn’t be such things as ghosts … Could there? Again the fiendish laughter pealed. Evan wanted to run, but his legs had turned to mush.

JB started to laugh as Milo came into the hall chortling, and Evan could have kicked himself for falling for their trick. But just then an eerie, cooing sound echoed through the house. JB and Evan looked at each other.

“What’s that?” Milo gasped. “That doesn’t sound human …”


“Let’s get out of here!” JB yelled.

The two boys flew out of the house. Evan started to follow, but then slowed on the rickety porch steps as the strange cooing noise began again. It didn’t sound evil or even scary — it sounded sad.

[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he thought stayed with Evan all the way home, and it was his last thought before he fell asleep. Next morning at breakfast, Mr. Forrester mentioned that he was going to stop by County Hospital to see how their neighbor was.

“That’s a good idea. It’s too bad about Mr. Grady,” his mother said. “I hear that he used to be a famous scientist before he retired due to worsening eyesight. He’s written many books about natural history.”

Maybe he’d read one of them! Impulsively, Evan asked, “Can I come with you, Dad?”

Somehow, he managed to stay out of JB’s way during the school day, and later he and his father drove to County Hospital. He’d hoped to ask Mr. Grady about the eerie cooing noises, but when he saw the old man, he realized that Mr. Grady would have a hard time talking. The old man’s jaw was bruised and discolored, and his right arm was in a cast.

Mr. Grady was asleep when they looked in. Saying that they should come another time, Mr. Forrester left the room. Before Evan could follow, the old man opened his eyes and, seeing Evan, beckoned him closer. When he approached, Mr. Grady whispered something that sounded like, “Save Barney!”

Those strange cooing noises, Evan thought.

“Is Barney inside your house, sir?” he asked. Mr. Grady nodded, then winced in pain. “Do you want me to go inside your house and … and save Barney?” Evan persisted. Another nod. Then the old man’s eyes closed again.

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen his father dropped him off at home, Evan wasn’t sure what to do. He didn’t want to go into that dark, silent house. He could wait and discuss this with his parents, but his mother was running an errand, Mr. Forrester was back at work and Mr. Grady was counting on him.

Voices behind him made him whip around. JB and Milo were walking down the street, pointing at him and grinning. He couldn’t back out now, not in front of them! Evan found the key in the big flowerpot by the door and let himself in.

The light switch in the hall wouldn’t work. Into the dark wafted that eerie, cooing sound. Evan’s stomach lurched, but he followed the sounds to a big, dusty room. There in a corner stood a large cage. Two round, glowing eyes were staring at him from the cage.

Evan began to laugh with relief. The eyes belonged to a small capuchin monkey.

“Hi, Barney,” he said. “Want to come home with me?”

Holding Barney’s cage, Evan left the Grady house. He saw that Milo and JB were still there, staring at him with their mouths half open. Ignoring them, Evan took the monkey home.

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hen they learned what had happened, Evan’s parents were happy to help.

“One thing’s for sure,” Mr. Forrester said as they all watched Barney happily chewing on a corn cob, “we need to get some of the neighbors together and fix up those front steps. They’re not safe.”

Evan visited Mr. Grady in the hospital the next day and told him that Barney was fine.

“My dad says that we’ll keep him until you’re well enough to take him home with you. My school isn’t far, so I’m going to walk down here each day and give you a progress report. My dad will pick me up.”

Mr. Grady was alert and able to talk today.

“I appreciate it,” he said. “I’ve been thinking. I’m going to make a call to the Wildlife Refuge Center in Kendalia. They’ll take Barney. I’m no longer able to care for him properly.” He looked sad, and Evan understood. It was hard to say goodbye to old friends.

“I understand you’ve made a move yourself recently,” Mr. Grady went on. “Your father told me when he stopped in this morning. He said that you’re something of a natural history buff yourself, aren’t you?”

When Evan nodded, Mr. Grady went on. “I was your age when the ‘bug’ caught me.”

He began to talk about how he had sat by a pond for hours observing salamanders, and Evan burst out that he’d done that, too! When Mr. Forrester came to pick Evan up, they were deep in talk.

“You’ll come tomorrow?” Mr. Grady asked as the Forresters were leaving, and Evan nodded a glad “Yes.”

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]van and Mr. Grady’s visits continued. Evan wasn’t exactly sure why, but JB and Milo now left him alone. They hardly mattered, though, because he was busy. He was bursting with ideas he needed to discuss with his new friend, one of them being the naturalist club he was planning to start at school.

One afternoon, Mr. Grady announced that he was being discharged from the hospital.

“I’ve been thinking,” he said. “I have several projects that I started before I retired. I never got around to finishing them because my eyesight was getting worse, and I didn’t have an assistant to help me.” He paused. “But if you’re interested, perhaps you could come over to the house after you finish your homework. Your dad thinks it’s a good idea, and the housekeeper I’ve just hired will give us snacks and the energy to work hard.” He paused. “What do you think? Partners?”


Evan’s whole face lit up with a smile. He couldn’t find the right words to say, but that didn’t matter. Mr. Grady was holding out a hand, and Evan shook it joyfully.


Read the Exciting Ending to BL’s You-Finish-the-Story Contest!

Unexpectedly, Rick’s field trip turns into quite an adventure. Read the exciting ending to our you-finish-the-story contest!

Boys’ Life asked readers to give this story, which originally ran in our October 2013 issue, the best ending, and we got a flood of entries. Judging was tough, but here are our winners:

FIRST PLACE: Thomas Mildon, 16, of Santa Clarita, Calif. He won a Kindle Fire HDX and $100 Amazon gift card. Click here to read his ending.

SECOND PLACE: Joseph Vozzo, 16, of Gray, Maine, who won a $75 Amazon gift card. Click here to read his ending.

THIRD PLACE: Jonathan Corbin, 16, of Palmyra, Va., who won a $50 Amazon gift card. Click here to read his ending.

Congratulations to our finish-the-story contest winners! You can read all their endings below.


By Maureen Crane Wartski and introducing BL contest winner Thomas Mildon, Joseph Vozzo and Jonathan Corbin

Illustrations by Greg Newbold

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ick didn’t even have time to cry out. One moment he was walking along the narrow path; the next, he was stumbling and rolling down the mountainside.

He tried to grab for a bush, for grass, for anything that could break his fall. There was nothing. Then suddenly he came to a hard, jolting stop, and the world went dark.

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ick could guess what had happened. He’d slid into some kind of cave, a hole in the rocky side of Dragon Mountain. He looked around him but couldn’t see much.

There was a small square of daylight not too far above his head, so maybe he wouldn’t have too hard a time climbing out. Rick started to get to his feet then gasped in pain.

“My ankle …”

Had he sprained it during that mad tumble? The ankle throbbed, and what he could feel of it told him it was already swelling. He hoped it wasn’t broken, but there was no way to tell here in the dark.

He tried yelling for Seth, but he knew it was no use. Seth was too far down the mountain slope to hear him. …

[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ick and his older cousin, Seth, had driven out to this part of the Wasatch Mountains early that morning. Rick hadn’t been impressed by the craggy peak of light-gray limestone ahead of them, but Seth had been excited and started bounding up the narrow mountain path.

“I know it doesn’t look like much,” he called over his shoulder, “but this is a fantastic place. These mountains were once covered by shallow oceans, and there are coral reefs here that have been preserved for millions of years.”

[quote float=”right”]There’s an old legend that says dragons used to live here and lay their eggs in the limestone caves.[/quote]

Rick grinned. A major in geology at the University of Utah, Seth thought rocks were the coolest things on the planet and was writing a paper on Paleozoic era fossils. His enthusiasm had rubbed off on Rick, who’d asked to join his cousin on a field trip into the mountains.

“Dragon Mountain’s supposed to be one of the best places to study fossilized stromatolites,” Seth was saying. “They’re prehistoric algae —”

“Dragon Mountain?” Rick interrupted. He looked up at the peak in front of them. It didn’t look like any dragon he’d read about or seen pictured.

Seth chuckled. “That’s not its real name. There’s an old legend that says dragons used to live here and lay their eggs in the limestone caves. It’s just a folk tale, Rick. Come on — let me show you how to find those stromatolites.”

For the next two hours, Rick followed his cousin up the steep slope looking for even layers of the light-gray stone.

“Bumps on flat rock surfaces are usually fossilized algae,” Seth explained. He worked his high-def camcorder, talking about his findings, while Rick took still shots.

[quote float=”right”]Legends usually were based on some fact.[/quote]

The noonday sun was blazing hot when they stopped for lunch. Afterward, Seth checked his handheld GPS to map out where they would work next, but Rick felt restless. Saying that he wanted to take a few more photos, he began to walk up the steep trail.

Dragon Mountain — how had the place gotten that name? Legends usually were based on some fact. Had great beasts once roamed Dragon Mountain? Not dragons, of course. There were no such things as dragons. Rick liked reading about those fantastic creatures with fiery red eyes — great, scaled beasts that could fly and puff out smoke and fire — but he didn’t believe they’d ever existed.

Rick was jerked out of his thoughts when a loose rock crumbled under his foot. He didn’t even have time to cry out. …

[dropcap]N[/dropcap]ow he was trapped in this cave.

“I’ve got to get out of here,” Rick muttered.

His voice was making eerie echoes in the dark, strange noises in the enclosed space. Rick tried to get up on his knees, but then stopped as blistering pain shot through his entire leg.

“OK,” he told himself, “I’ll crawl.”


As he began to move, there came that noise again. It was just an echo. Or … was it something else? No — yes! Something was moving behind him!

Rick glanced over his shoulder and froze.

Two flaming red eyes were staring at him out of the darkness.


[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ick could feel the breath of some ancient, gargantuan creature before him, hot and sticky against his face. He cried out in horror and, without thinking, scrambled away from the monster that he could not see but knew was there. His ankle felt like it was on fire, but he crawled away, following the cave. The hot glow of the fierce eyes burned in Rick’s mind as he crawled as fast as he could. Vaguely aware that he had dropped his camera, but not daring to go back and get it, he continued on, praying that there was some means of escape.…

There! A light! Rick scrambled toward the crevice. He managed to squeeze out of the crack, wrenching his ankle again. As he yelled out in pain and panic, Seth came racing from behind a rock formation and helped him out.

“What happened? Are you OK?” Seth asked Rick in a flurry. As he bound Rick’s ankle to prevent further injury, Rick tried to explain what happened to him.

“After I fell into the cave, I saw two red eyes staring at me. I could feel its breath, Seth. It was a dragon!”

“Hang on, hang on, I’m sure there’s another explanation. I’ll go back there and check it out,” offered Seth.

“No! Don’t go in there!” urged Rick, but Seth was already in the cave.

After what seemed like an eternity, Seth finally emerged from the cave holding Rick’s camera.

“I don’t know what you saw, but there sure wasn’t anything out of the ordinary in that cave,” he said. “What you saw could have been Arachnocampa luminosa, the glow worm. They live in caves like these and glow in different colors. That might explain the ‘eyes’ you saw.”

“Then what explains the breathing I felt?” Rick interjected.

“Well, oftentimes in caves, changes in temperature and air pressure cause wind currents that feel and sound a lot like breathing,” Seth offered. Seth helped Rick back to the car. “Let’s get you to a hospital and get that ankle checked out.”

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t had been a week since the day at Dragon Mountain, and Rick still couldn’t get what he had seen out of his head. The doctor had told him that his ankle was sprained, and to keep off of it for four weeks. Curious about Seth’s explanations of natural phenomena, Rick was researching caves and cave life on his computer.


Arachnocampa luminosa,” the online article title read, “These cave-dwelling creatures are not actually worms, but bioluminescent insects. Found only in New Zealand…”

Wait a minute, Rick thought to himself. If these glow worms are only in New Zealand, what did I see?

Later that day, Rick received a package containing the developed photos he took. They were all ordinary, except for the last one.

Must have been taken when I dropped my camera, Rick thought.

It was blurred, and the quality was bad, but Rick thought he could make out a mouth with rows of sharp white teeth.…


[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ick started to crawl faster, terrified. The memory of those hypnotic and flaming eyes occupied his mind completely. He’d felt like a deer looking into headlights — helpless.

Rick scrambled toward a beam of light ahead, coming from the surface. He reached it.

The light shone down, illuminating a face out of legend.

The thing stepped forward cautiously, and Rick could see the head that possessed the eyes he’d been so terrified by earlier.

The head was scaly, green and angular, like the geckoes Rick and Seth had chased when they were younger, but with the same types of vicious teeth that had been used by the carnivorous dinosaurs Seth had been interested in. Rick could feel heat radiating off it.

Even though the thing was 10 feet away, Rick felt that it was entirely too close.

The thing stepped forward, and Rick could see its majestic body, strong, lean, perfectly proportioned to hunt. Its feet had wickedly sharp claws on them, sheathed like a cats, and its back had spikes running down it.

The spikes and claws were red, matching the eyes, as were random scales throughout the body. Rick could hear the creature’s tail swishing back and forth. The body itself was undulating. The entire effect was extremely hypnotic, and it was all Rick could do to shout “D-D-D-DRAGON!”

The creature stepped forward, making an odd thumping noise every fourth step. Then he saw it; the dragons left wing and rear leg were savaged, scabby and oozing blood.

The dragon stepped forward until its face was barely six inches from Rick’s, and made eye contact, desperation in those eyes. At that moment, Rick realized that if the dragon wanted him for dinner, he would be helpless.

The dragon laid down, head on Ricks knees. It almost appeared to be crying. He felt something slip into his hurt ankle. It stung, like the antiseptics people always used on small scrapes. He looked down at it, and was amazed to find that his injury was rapidly healing, the wet blood scabbing and then fading away.

In a matter of moments, there was just a scar on his ankle and lower leg.

The dragon turned, trying but failing to reach its own injuries with the healing tears, barely coming close.

Rick reached into his pack and retrieved an empty bottle. Rick put it to the dragon’s eyes, letting the tears fall into it. He stood up and walked around to the dragon’s injured side.

Rick began pouring the tears onto the dragon’s wounds and they began to heal just like his own had. The dragon turned and began walking away.

”Wait!” Rick cried, “Don’t go!” But the dragon was already out of sight. He looked down at the still quarter-full bottle.

Above, at the opening in the cave roof, he heard footsteps. “Hello?” someone shouted, “Rick? Are you alright?”

Rick made a decision.

“Seth? I’m fine. Throw down a rope,” he said, and emptied the rest of the tears.


[dropcap]R[/dropcap]ick screamed and flicked on the flashlight at his waist as he crawled back, but stopped short when the light fell upon the glowing eyes. They weren’t eyes at all.

Rick crept forward, breathless, as he peered at the small red jewels that lined the cave wall. There were dozens, even hundreds of the gems all along the limestone.

He thought back to what Seth had told him during the car ride there.

“These mountains are known to contain all sorts of fossils and gemstones, Rick,” Seth had said, “Red horn coral, amethyst, beryl …”

Rick remembered the descriptions Seth had given of the gems and nearly fell over as he realized what he was looking at. The hexagonal crystals, slightly transparent color … there was no doubt. It was red beryl, a gemstone rarer than diamond that had only ever been found in the state of Utah. And here he was staring at an entire wall of it. He slowly dragged himself along the wall, gazing at the sparkling crystals.

“No way….”

Mesmerized by the abundance of gems, Rick nearly passed by two rocks that sat in an alcove in the wall. They were intricately patterned, flecked with orange and strangely shaped. They were almost like … eggs. Rick’s eyes widened.

The world went dark once again as the floor gave out beneath him.

Rick could feel himself tumbling, wincing every time his leg struck a rock. He was sliding through some sort of tunnel, but it was too dark to see anything. His flashlight had tumbled away somewhere in his fall and he was moving so fast, Rick doubted it would help him much anyway.

Light poured through a hole up ahead, and Rick soared through the opening and out into blinding sunlight on a road. The same road he had taken up the mountain! Rick clutched at his leg as he pulled himself to his feet. A sound from behind him made him start.

“Rick!” It was Seth. “Rick, what’s wrong with your leg?”

“I … uh, I fell. Kind of.” Rick blinked at Seth. Was this a dream?

“You fell while taking pictures?” Seth grinned. “Never mind. You’ll never believe what I just found. Look!” Seth pulled out a bag of small rock fragments. “It’s petrified cedar wood! Cool, huh?”

Rick just stared as Seth rambled on about the fossilization process and walked ahead down the road. “… and then sediment fills in the pores and … Rick! Are you coming?”

Rick turned back and looked at the mountain. He about what he had seen and wished he still had his camera so he could’ve shown Seth everything, but then changed his mind.

Whatever secrets Dragon Mountain held, they should remain in Dragon Mountain.

“I’m coming, Seth!” Rick smiled and limped after his cousin, who hadn’t stopped talking about the petrified wood. From behind the peak of the mountain, a puff of smoke rose up toward the sky.

Boys’ Life Fiction: ‘Facing the Panthers’

Fiction by Nikki Loftin

Illustrations by Michael Slack

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Every one of my best friends was on my soccer team, the Darth Invaders, and we were all in terrible danger.

We had five days to live. Six if you counted Monday, but since it was already Monday night and we were all at soccer practice anyway, Monday didn’t count.

Coach Hopkins blew his whistle at the end of practice. “Guys? There’s been a change for Saturday. We’re up against the Panthers.”

“The Panthers?” I yelled. “They’re the biggest, baddest team in the history of soccer! They’ll kill us!”

I don’t know what our parents thought when they picked us up. I was pretty sure the sight of their sons running around on the field yelling, “We’re all going to die!” was a shock.

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On Tuesday, the team met up on the school playground at recess. Henry had news.

“Guys, listen. I did some research.” He pulled some folded-up papers out of his back pocket. Henry was the brainy one.

“Research?” I asked. “On what?”

“Fear,” he said. “Our biggest problem is fear.”

“Our biggest problem is mortality,” Jamal muttered.

Henry shushed him. “It’s fear. So I went online and got some ideas on how to solve this.”

I had an idea, too. “We could all pretend to be sick on Saturday.”

Jamal spoke up. “We could all move away.”

Lee fell down on the ground, pretending he was in pain. “We could all get broken legs. Oh, wait!” He jumped up. “The Panthers will do that for us.”

Henry frowned. “Are you going to listen or not?” We all got quiet so he could read.

“Here’s the first one, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ ”

“That’s dumb,” Jamal said. “The only thing we have to fear is death by Panthers.”

The Panthers were legendary. We all ignored Henry’s fear research and shared what we knew.

I heard they were actually two years older than any of the other teams, they drank raw egg-protein powder milkshakes to bulk up, and they had to order uniforms from an adult uniform company to fit them.

Mateo heard they all had rips in their jerseys, and each rip stood for an opponent they had sent to the hospital.

Jamal heard that their parents wore face paint, and if you ran too close, they would try to trip you. He said once some of the Panthers stole all the juice boxes from the other team’s snack.

“They might steal our snack?” I couldn’t believe it.

“It’s O.K.,” Jamal said. “My mom signed up this week. She only brings string cheese.”

Normally, I would have thought that was lame. This time, I guessed it was lucky. Nobody would steal string cheese.

Why did this have to happen to us? We were too young to die this way. Mauled by Panthers.

Screen Shot 2013-08-02 at 2.18.11 PM










Every day that week we got more and more scared. Henry tried to keep us from freaking out.

On Wednesday, he shared a Japanese proverb: “Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.”

We all decided that the Japanese proverb writers had never seen the Panthers mow down a group of innocent, normal-sized fifth graders.

On Thursday, Henry brought his iPod to school and played “We Are the Champions” over and over again, making us all sing along like we believed it. The teacher finally asked what was going on.

“We’re studying fear,” Henry explained. “Henry David Thoreau said, ‘When I hear music, I fear no danger.’ ”

On Friday, Henry tried another tactic. “Let’s stop thinking about fear. Let’s work on courage instead. Lieutenant John B. Putnam Jr. said it best: ‘Courage is not the lack of fear but the ability to face it.’ ”

When nobody said anything, Henry handed me the list.

“Um, Henry?” I asked. “It says John Putnam died when he was 23. Courage didn’t save him.”

“Fine!” Henry yelled and marched off to the jungle gym. “I tried. You win. Let’s just all be afraid. Nothing can help us now. We’re doomed! THE END IS NEAR!!!”

I looked down at the paper again. “Hey, guys,” I said. “Look at this last quote. It’s really weird, but … read it.”

The other guys all gathered around.

“Cool,” Jamal said.

“A litany?” Mateo asked. “What’s that?”

“It’s like a meditation thing,” Lee said. “You say it over and over, and it tricks your brain into believing it.”

We all looked at each other. “It’s worth a shot.”


On Saturday morning, the Panthers ran late. “Probably had to shave before the game,” Lee muttered.

“ ‘Fear is the mind-killer,’ ” I reminded him.

Lee stopped dribbling the ball. “ ‘Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.’ ”

Henry ran over. “What are you guys talking about?”

Jamal ran past and shouted, “ ‘I will face my fear!’ ”

Henry laughed. “You guys memorized the ‘Litany Against Fear’ from Dune?”

“Yeah,” I said, dribbling the ball around him for a practice goal. “ ‘I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me. When it has gone past, I will turn to see its path.’ ”

“Awesome!” Lee yelled. “ ‘Where the fear has gone, there will be nothing!’ ”

We all yelled the last line together. “ ‘Only I will remain!’ ”

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When the Panthers showed up, we weren’t afraid anymore. Well, not very. We watched them run onto the field.

“Hey,” Mateo said. “Their jerseys don’t have any rips at all.”

“Their parents aren’t wearing face paint, either,” Jamal noticed.

One of the Panthers ran right past me. When he saw me, he stopped and looked … a little bit afraid.

“Did you see that, guys?” I whispered. “That Panther was shorter than me.”

The game was great. The Panthers were good, but every time we began to get worried about losing, we started in with our “Fear is the mind-killer” chant.

“Is anyone still afraid?” Henry yelled at halftime.

“No way!” The rest of us answered. Then we finished our string cheese and ran back on the field, ready to face the Panthers.

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