We continue our draft preview of Dash: Into Space! If you’re just tuning in, catch up with Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5 at the links. Last episode, Dash was about to have a very bad experience. This week: Dash has a very bad experience!
Chapter 6: To the Stars Through Difficulties
Max jumped down from the truck and started toward them. Billy and Johnny emerged from the passenger side of the cab. Their boots crunched ominously in the loose gravel beside the highway.
“I am so glad you came along!” said Astrid, starting forward. “I don’t know what is wrong with my Jeep, but it just—”
Max ignored Astrid and jabbed an accusing finger at Dash as he strode toward him. “What did I tell you, Garnet?” he shouted. “What did I tell you? You’re dead!”
“Yeah, dead!” said Johnny.
“Get him, Max!” shouted Billy.
Max charged. Every instinct told Dash to run. But he only backed up a few steps and raised his hands placatingly, heeding an insistent inner voice that told him not to leave Astrid. Whether it was concern for her safety or simply not wanting to look like a coward in front of her that froze his feet, Dash didn’t have time to sort out. Max batted his upraised hands aside, grabbed him by the shirt and shoved him hard against the back of the Jeep. Dash bounced off the rear glass, lost his footing and sat down hard on the wide bumper. Max’s fist connected with his stomach. Dash doubled over and fell roughly to his knees. Chunks of gravel gouged his legs through his jeans.
“Told you to stay away from her!” Max kicked Dash in the face, knocking him onto his back. “Told you what would happen!”
Astrid screamed. Another kick connected with Dash’s side, bruising ribs. Dash curled into a ball. Another kick. Dash tried to drag himself under the Jeep to escape Max’s hard-toed boots hitting him with the force of hammers, but feet seemed to be everywhere, pinning him in, striking him from every side.
“Max! What are you doing? Stop it! Stop it! You’re hurting him!” shouted Astrid. “Stop it, Max!”
Johnny and Billy came closer, laughing and egging Max on.
“Make him bleed!” shouted Billy. “Stomp his face!”
“P-please…” bleated Dash. A kick to the gut dug deep up under his ribs. He felt his bladder lose control, felt the hot wetness staining his jeans.
“Pissed his pants!” yowled Billy.
“Yeah, his pants!” said Johnny.
Tears welled from Dash’s eyes. He squeezed them shut, as if that might shut out the pain and humiliation. “Please stop,” he gasped. His voice sounded small and pathetic in his own ears. He felt a surge of nausea.
“Followed you from her house, geekstain!” raged Max. He circled Dash like a wolf, aiming kick after kick with painful accuracy. “Saw you pull over here to make out. Did you think I wouldn’t find out, loser? You’re dead!”
“Max, that’s crazy!” shouted Astrid. “I’m driving him home! My engine died! Max, stop it!”
Astrid grabbed Max’s arm to pull him away. It was a hopeless effort. He was a mountain of muscle and she was less than half his size. Without even turning around, Max shoved Astrid away and aimed another kick at Dash.
Astrid yelped in surprise as she fell. She sprawled on her back, half lying in the highway.
Dash opened his eyes at the sound of Astrid’s cry. He saw her fall to the ground. Their eyes met for a moment. He saw the look of shock and fear on her face.
What happened next, he couldn’t explain.
Max, belatedly realizing what he had done, cut short launching his next kick and half-turned toward Astrid.
Dash’s fist closed around a extra large piece of gravel, about the size, and roughly the shape, of a pear. Moving with a speed and purpose he did not know he had, Dash launched himself to his feet. He swung his arm in a wide, flailing arc that intersected with Max’s face. The rock in his fist connected hard with Max’s cheekbone and scored a ragged red gash across his face.
It was a legendary blow, worthy of Tauric Strongbull himself. The sheer force of it, aided by Max’s own turning motion, spun the big jock around so that he lost his balance and face-planted hard to the edge of the highway, with his dazed head landing between Astrid’s knees.
Dash looked from the bloody rock in his hand, to the prostrate form of his fallen foe, to Astrid gazing up at him with some mix of astonishment, horror, and what he thought might be admiration. He felt a surge of exhilaration, an atavistic joy at having struck back at his tormentor.
Billy and Johnny stared slack-jawed, looking back and forth between their downed leader and the scrawny loser who had just decked him. Their brains seemingly could not comprehend what their eyes were telling them.
Then, as suddenly as it came, Dash’s moment of triumph ended.
Max groaned, rose to all fours, and shouted, “Kill him!”
Billy and Johnny’s faces contorted with murderous hate as they started toward him.
Astrid screamed, “Run, Dash! Run!”
She didn’t have to tell him twice. But first, Dash pivoted and hurled the rock straight at Johnny’s face. He might not be good at much. He certainly wasn’t going to survive a fight with all three of these goons. But he could hit a fence post with a rock at sixty yards. The pear-shaped stone struck Billy in the right eye and sent him reeling. That was enough to befuddle Johnny and give Dash a twenty-yard head start. He leapt the ditch and ran into the corn field.
Dash had run less than a hundred yards through the moonlit rows of corn and he was already gasping for breath. Dash blamed cigarettes, but it wasn’t all Nick Tyger’s fault. Getting worked over by Max’s steel-toed boots may have had something to do with it too.
The broad, surprisingly sharp-edged corn leaves stung his face as he ran, but that was nothing compared to what Max and the morons would do if they caught him. Max was still back at the roadside, screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs and shouting for his buddies to haul Dash back there so he, Max, could beat Dash to death with his baseball bat. Or do anatomically incorrect things to him with a tire iron. It was hard to make out the details of what Max was saying with the blood pounding in Dash’s ears and the corn stalks whistling by. He also heard Astrid alternate between screaming for Dash to run—which meant she cared, right?—and screaming at Max.
Dash ran as hard as he had ever run in his life. His big head start didn’t mean much. Johnny, the big dumb offensive lineman, he might outrun. But Billy? No way. Billy ran track, played basketball, was shortstop on the varsity baseball squad. He also wasn’t quite right in the head. Oh, and Dash had just tagged him in the face with a rock. The only points in Dash’s favor were the darkness and the fact he was wearing sneakers. Cowboy boots were great for kicking the crap out of somebody. They weren’t so good for running.
As his initial panic subsided, the thinking parts of Dash’s brain came back online. He realized running in a straight line, perpendicular to the highway, was making things way too easy for his pursuers. Billy and Johnny would run him down, beat him to a pulp, and drag what was left of him back for Max to finish off.
Dash veered to the right, cutting through the corn rows at an angle. It meant putting less straight line distance between him and the morons, but it might help him evade them in the dark.
“You can’t run forever!” bellowed Max.
“Watch me,” muttered Dash. He heard his pursuers thrashing through the corn, but his change of direction seemed to have fooled them. They were still going straight in from the highway.
This will work. This will work. They’ll give up and leave. They’ll—
“Smoke him out!” shouted Max. “Split up and find him!”
A bright light cut across the field from the direction of the highway. It swept back and forth across the tops of the corn plants. Max had a portable searchlight in his truck. Of course he did.
“There he is!” shouted Max. “Go right!”
How could Max see him? The light never touched Dash. He glanced up, realized Max saw the tops of the plants moving as Dash thrashed through them. Damn!
“Yeah, right!” shouted Johnny.
Billy gave a loud Indian war whoop. They were coming his way.
Dash sprinted straight down the aisle between two rows so Max could no longer track him. Billy and Johnny were coming his way fast, running down parallel rows. Max’s light swept the field twice more, then winked out.
Dash immediately cut across three more rows. He stopped to catch his breath, doubled over, huffing and chuffing hard. His insides hurt. His lungs burned. His heart felt like it was about to explode from his chest. He couldn’t keep this up. Maybe he should just lay down here, be very still and quiet, and hope they wouldn’t find him in this huge field.
No, they’d bring a light, find his footprints, track him down. He had to keep moving. Billy and Johnny were getting close. Dash ran deeper into the field, crossing the rows. If he led them far enough away from the road, they might give up and turn back.
Max’s truck roared to life. Dash glanced over his shoulder.
Max was driving into the field!
God, he’s going to run me down!
Fresh terror lent Dash new speed. He wasn’t thinking about angles now, or anything but moving as fast as his exhausted legs could move him.
The big truck’s high beams threw weird looming shadows as the massive metal monster blasted through row after row of corn with a whup-whup-whup of destroyed plants.
If he spots me I’m dead! thought Dash.
He saw a flash of metal in the moonlight as the truck roared past, about fifty yards to the right. Dash turned left as the red tail lights receded across the field. Max was ahead of him now. But Billy and Johnny were still somewhere behind, so he dared not turn back toward the road.
Now Max veered left. He was about a hundred yards deeper in the field and evidently realized he had overshot, that there was no way Dash had run that far. Leaning on the horn—that had to be purely for intimidation—Max swung the truck around. Whether he knew it or not, now Max was headed straight for Dash.
Dash turned and froze, watching the onrushing headlights get closer and closer. Every breath was agony. Something important was bruised or punctured inside him. He really needed to puke. His leg was cramping up. He felt oddly detached from what was happening, almost like an out of body experience.
That’s what this is about to be if you don’t move!
Dash ran at a right angle to path of the truck, still away from the highway. Somewhere in the distance he thought he heard Astrid call his name, but the roar of the truck was a hundred times louder. He had to get outside the cone of those headlights, but it wouldn’t be easy. Max was swerving back and forth, whipping the wheel wildly, pounding on the horn. Dash couldn’t predict his path, couldn’t tell if he was running into danger or out of it. Max could drive back and forth across this field all night hunting him. Dash would run out of breath long before that maniac ran out of gas. But Dash would keep running until his legs gave out. It was all he could do now.
The truck passed behind him again, forty, fifty yards back, then came around in another wide circle.
Run. Run. Run.
Wide corn leaves slapped and slashed at Dash’s face. The truck was behind him again, coming his way.
Run. Run. Run.
Dash tripped, stumbled, and face-planted. Too weak to regain his feet, he heaved himself up to hands and knees and scrambled ahead on all fours like a manic toddler.
He was in an open space. Not out of the field. There was corn on every side, tall stalks looming around him like silent witnesses to an execution. With a start, he realized he was crawling over flattened corn plants. A whole circular section of the field was leveled, as if a tremendous round weight the size of a couple of grain silos had been set right down on top of it.
A real mystery, but Dash didn’t care. He was unexpectedly in the open, exposed, visible and he had to get away, hide, run.
Logic might have said duck back into the nearest line of corn, but panic was in charge now, so Dash staggered to his feet and started straight across the circle. He had to reach the other side, had to get away, had to—
A flying form tackled Dash roughly to the ground. Strong hands rolled him over and then Billy was straddling his chest, pinning him to the earth, raining punch after punch down on Dash’s face.
“Damn near put my eye out!” raged Billy. “Gonna break your skull open!”
Blood erupted from Dash’s nose. Something crunched and broke. A starburst of pain filled his skull. His eyes went out of focus as Billy’s fists pounded his face again and again.
Max’s truck burst into the circle, opposite Dash and Billy, racing toward them. Max either didn’t see them or didn’t care, because he wasn’t slowing down.
Billy, with his arm cocked back for another punch, shouted something incoherent. Dash, unable to do anything else, closed his eyes, turned his head away and cringed, waiting for the big tires to grind him into paste.
Then the truck stopped. Completely.
All forward motion ended. The engine died and the lights went dark. It was as if the truck became stuck between moments of time, like a frame in a film that broke without warning.
A brilliant white light from above bathed the scene. It was brighter than the sun on the brightest day of summer. But it didn’t burn. Even with his eyes closed, Dash still saw that infinitely white light.
“No!” screamed Billy. “No!” And then he was gone, his weight no longer pressing down on Dash.
And Dash was floating.
Up into the light.
At last! We’re back to where this strange journey began. Now things start to get weird. Be here next episode, when Dash says: “Yow! Turn it off!”
Thanks for reading!