The Crocodile's Jaws: An Alice in Deadland Adventure (Alice, No.7)

 

 

 

 

 

The
Crocodile’s Jaws

An Alice in
Deadland Adventure

 

By Mainak Dhar

 

Copyright © 2014
Mainak Dhar

All Rights Reserved.

 

www.mainakdhar.com

 

This is a work of
fiction, and all characters and incidents depicted in it are purely the result
of the author’s imagination, or have been used fictitiously. Any resemblance to
real people or incidents is purely co-incidental.

 

 

 

 

 

As always,

for Puja &
Aaditya

 

GREETINGS FROM THE DEADLAND

 

In late November of 2011, I uploaded my novel Alice in
Deadland to the Kindle store using Amazon’s KDP self-publishing program. I had
first discovered the tremendous opportunity in reaching readers worldwide
through the Kindle store in March, and after a modest beginning (I sold 118
ebooks in my first month), I was beginning to see some success, having sold
some 20,000 ebooks by November. However, nothing had prepared me for the
reception my story about a girl called Alice in a dystopian world called the
Deadland got from readers. Alice in Deadland quickly became an Amazon.com
bestseller and encouragement from readers like yourself led me to write the
sequel, Through The Killing Glass, which was published in March 2012.

As of November 2012, the two Alice in Deadland novels had
been downloaded by well over 100,000 readers on the Kindle store. This was the
kind of reception most writers dream of, and certainly more than I had ever
expected. I received more than two hundred reader emails and also started a
Facebook group for Alice in Deadland fans (at
https://www.facebook.com/groups/aliceindeadland/
).
The feedback I got was pretty unanimous—readers wanted to know more about the
world that Alice found herself in. How had our civilization been reduced to the
Deadland? What was the story behind some of the characters readers encountered
such as the Queen and Bunny Ears?

That feedback motivated me to keep the story alive, and I
wrote the prequel to the series, Off With Their Heads. As I interacted with
readers, I was inspired to take the story further. Many of my readers asked me
what would happen if Alice came back to the land her parents came from, the
land where the architects of The Rising were still entrenched—the United
States? That led to Hunting The Snark. A few readers asked me what had life
been like for Alice when she was growing up in her settlement? What had she
seen and endured that made her the girl we meet in the first Alice in Deadland
novel? This collection of shorts takes us all back to those dark years, and
together we will explore the experiences in her formative years that made Alice
who she became later as she dove into the adventures depicted in the other
books in the series. That led to the fifth book in the series- Deadland: Untold
Stories of Alice in Deadland and then I moved back to the ‘present’ with
Phantoms of the North. Through the telling of these stories, Alice and her
friends grew and developed as characters, as I did as a writer. The biggest
catalyst in driving these changes were readers like you.

This novel takes Alice’s tale forward, as she encounters
terrible new enemies and embarks on new adventures. You, dear reader, have been
a partner in this journey, and this series is as much yours as it is mine. I do
hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed writing it.

 

Mainak Dhar

 

How
Doth the Little Crocodile by Lewis Carroll

 

How cheerfully he
seems to grin,

How neatly spreads
his claws,

And welcomes little
fishes in

With gently smiling
jaws!

 

ONE

 

Sometimes it's your destination that finds you.

Alice and Bunny Ears had been walking for seven days, seeing
little but the charred remains of cities and villages, roads and hillsides
littered with the remains of people and the machines of war they had once
manned. Alice had just walked by, taking it all in, seeing firsthand just what
devastation had overtaken the human race in the few days of madness called the
Rising.

She had grown up in a settlement, kept safe by her parents,
spared the ugly details of what had happened to the world close to twenty years
ago. Now, it was all laid bare for her—nobody had cleaned up here, there were
no settlements that people had taken refuge in. There were no Biters, either.
If there had been, they were now fused together with humans and the remains of
their civilization by the brute, unforgiving force of the nuclear missiles that
had impacted this area during the Rising. Not even the trees had been spared,
and as far as she could see, nothing stirred, there was no sign of life
anywhere.

Bunny Ears kept silent, following her as she walked. She
felt no fatigue, felt no hunger or thirst, and neither did he. He was a Biter,
having been turned in the early days of the Rising, and she had begun life as a
blonde girl in a settlement outside what had been Delhi. She had been Alice
Gladwell, daughter to her doting parents Robert and Joanne, sister to Jane.
Over the years she had become many things—a revolutionary, a leader, a half-Biter.
But now as she walked, far from where she had grown up, through the radioactive
wastelands surrounding the city of Srinagar in Kashmir, she began to feel that
she had been right to leave the safety of Wonderland, the city they had
established over the ruins of what had once been Delhi.

The people of Wonderland were now safer than they had ever
been. The Central Committee in China was gone, its masters in what had been the
United States were also gone, replaced by General Konrath, and the threat that the
Khan and his cannibal marauders had posed to Wonderland had been snuffed out by
Alice. But all those events had told her that there was a much bigger world out
there than the little slice she and her friends inhabited. A world where danger
still lurked, a world where people still did not know freedom and security. A
world where she could be of some use, because she knew in her own heart that as
a half-Biter with few skills other than to fight and survive, she would be of
increasingly little use in the revived human civilization that was flowering in
Wonderland.

She did not know how much longer they would have to keep
walking before they saw a single human or Biter, but she was in no hurry. She
had all the time in the world.

There was a gentle beep and she took out the tablet in her
backpack. Once these tablets had been the way Zeus troopers had stayed in touch
with each other and their commanders. Now, Alice and her friends used these to
communicate with each other, through a network patched through their
communication center at the Looking Glass back in Wonderland. It was an update
from Arjun, her old friend at Wonderland, and its de facto leader now that
Alice was gone. They had bade their final goodbyes to the comrades killed in
the final battle with the Khan, they were starting production at the canned
goods factory soon, and the crops were going to be ready for harvesting. Arjun
ended with a note that everyone was excited that they were on the fast track
back to normalcy.

It told Alice all she knew to be true about people. No
matter how tough things looked, people would hold out, would seek comfort even
in shadows of what they considered normal. That was what gave people hope, and
that was what had made so many of them follow Alice and sacrifice so much in
their struggle for freedom. That was what made Alice keep on going despite the
desolation she saw around here. Somewhere, sooner or later, there would be
people, and there would be Biters.

She was curious as to what they would have experienced over
the years, how they had coped, and if at all possible, she wanted to help them.
At times, she had worried that she felt truly alive only when she was facing
danger or fighting enemies, but she had come to realize over the last few days
of solitude that it wasn't just fighting that made her feel alive: it was
standing up for others, fighting on behalf of those who were unable or
unwilling to do so. Perhaps it was what her father had once tried to teach her—that
the only fight worth fighting was one that was waged to help others. Or perhaps
it was her way of reconciling to herself that all she had lost—her family, her
friends, her own humanity—had somehow been worth it because they had all been
sacrificed for a larger cause.

She was snapped back to reality by a growl from Bunny Ears.

'What is it? Did you smell someone?'

Bunny Ears growled again, in a tone that Alice had come to
recognize meant bewilderment. She followed his gaze and saw what he had
spotted. Several fresh footprints were visible in the sand up ahead. Fresh
enough to not have been obscured by the wind gently blowing across the valley.

The footprints showed one set of small prints, perhaps those
of a child, being followed by at least three adults. Adults who wore heavy
boots, and judging by the groove imprinted in the sand, at least one carried a
rifle.

 

***

 

Alice heard him before she saw him. He might have been small,
but he had a very loud voice, and he sure knew how to curse.

Growing up in the settlement, she had heard all kinds of
swear words, but she had known never to say them around her parents. Her father
had been an otherwise gentle man, but she had learned early enough not to test
his tolerance. This kid apparently had no such hesitation, and as he was
roughly handled by the three big men around him, he let loose with a long
string of profanities, several of which Alice had never even heard before.

The footprints had led her and Bunny Ears to an area covered
with overgrown grass and a few decrepit old buildings. A broken sign proclaimed
it to be the 'Gulmarg Wildlife Sanctuary', but those words meant little to
Alice. Now, flattened behind one of the buildings, she saw the three men push
the boy down to the ground. It seemed he had enough fight in him to rival his
vocal cords and his vocabulary of abuses, for he bit one of the men on the leg
and tried to get away before he was clubbed down by the man carrying the rifle.

Alice ducked back behind the building in front of her. The
boy could not have been more than ten or twelve years old. All three men were
carrying long swords tucked into their belts, but only two of them were
carrying guns. One had a pistol tucked into his belt, and another was carrying
an assault rifle with a curved magazine.

There was no question whether she would intervene. That
question had been answered almost three years ago when she had followed Bunny
Ears down a hole in the ground. That had been the moment she had been forced to
stop thinking only about herself.

'Bunny Ears, here's what I need you to do.'

For all that people had come to realize that Biters could be
co-existed with, there was still no consensus on how much Biters could
understand and think. Having been around Bunny Ears for so long, Alice knew
however that she could count on him, and once again he didn't let her down. He
peered around the opposite side of the building and let out an ear-splitting
roar.

All three men snapped up and the one with the rifle brought
it up to his shoulder. Bunny Ears roared again, partially exposing the faded
rabbit ears he wore on his head.

The man with the rifle took a shot but by the time the
bullets slammed into the wall, Bunny Ears was behind it, growling again. One man
kept the kid pinned down while the others, the men with the firearms, fanned out.
One headed straight for Bunny Ears and the other came around the other side,
planning to take Bunny Ears from behind. That meant he was headed straight for
Alice.

He was ten feet away when Alice stepped out from behind
cover.

'Drop your weapons and leave the kid alone and I won't hurt
you.'

The man in front of her gaped at her, lowering his rifle in
shock at seeing someone who looked like a Biter but could talk and handle the
rifle that she had pointed at him. The man approaching Bunny Ears was too far
away to make out her features and he raised his pistol and took a shot.

At fifty feet, he would have to be a very good shot to score
a hit with a pistol, and he wasn't good enough. The bullet hit the wall a few
feet from Alice's shoulder and Alice pivoted, aiming through the sight on her
rifle and putting a three-round burst into the man's stomach. He fell,
screaming in agony, and fell silent. Alice turned to face the man in front of
her, who was still in shock at seeing the sudden reversal of fortunes.

'I don't want to kill you as well unless you leave me no
choice.'

The man just gaped at her as she raised her rifle, aiming at
his head.

'Run.'

The men needed no more encouragement. They dumped their
weapons and ran, leaving their dead comrade behind. Bunny Ears had now emerged
from behind cover and approached the boy. He looked up at the Biter bearing
down on him and stumbled back, screaming at Alice.

'Help me! There's a Biter here. Shoot him!'

Alice began walking towards him.

'Now why would I do something as impolite as shooting my
friend?'

The puzzled look on his face gave way to uncomprehending
horror as he saw who his savior was. He did the only thing that his mind could
think of doing to help him cope.

He fainted.

 

***

 

'Eat something.'

The boy was sitting against a tree and Alice had laid out
the hard bread and nuts she had found in the bag of the man she had shot.

'You look like you need food. Eat. If I or my friend wanted
to harm you, we would have done so already.'

The boy looked around. They were far from the scene of the
firefight, in some forest. Alice had carried him there, not knowing if the
bandits would come back with reinforcements. He tentatively grabbed a piece of
bread and bit into it, and then his hunger got the better of his fright and he
ate it all up. When he had finished, Alice asked him his name and what he was
doing here.

'I'm Zohar. My family lives near Mianwali near the river.'

Alice glanced at the map on her tablet, as the boy looked on
in awe at the lit screen.

'That's a long way from here, isn't it?'

The boy looked sheepish.

'I was so bored there. Nothing to do but scavenge for food
and hide from bandits and Biters. I wanted to see the world outside, to see
what else was out there. My parents would never let me leave, but one day these
traders came and I heard their stories of seeing new places and adventures and
I went off with them.'

'So what made you run away?'

The boy lowered his head.

'They turned out to be bandits, not just traders. I saw them
rob and kill a family so I decided to run and find my way back.'

Alice shook her head. There was no way the boy was going to
find his way back over a trek that could last several days with Biters and
bandits about and no weapons or food on him. But a part of her warmed to him as
she remembered how she had so longed to escape her own settlement to seek out
adventure in the Deadland. Adventure that she had found when she had followed
Bunny Ears down a hole in the ground.

As if on cue, Bunny Ears came by, growling to indicate that
they had not been followed. The boy was still staring at her.

'What are you looking at, kid?'

Zohar replied without thinking it through and then shrank
back as the words left his lips.

'So the stories of the witch are real.'

To his surprise, Alice wasn't offended, but laughed. She had
heard it all over the years. However, she was surprised that he had heard of
her so far away from the Deadland.

'My name is Alice, and if you want to think of me as a
witch, then that is what I am. What do you know of me?'

The boy sat up, suddenly excited, and the words came out in
a jumble. They had no radio or other communication equipment in the small
settlement they lived in. However, they did have an important window into the
outside world—groups of traders who would pass by, sometimes once a month,
sometimes once in a few months. They traded weapons, clothes, tools, and also
information. The traders needed clear passage through the area, and the local
settlements would tell them the paths and times when there was least danger
from bandits or Biters. In return, the traders would tell them of what was
going on outside. The boy told Alice that he had heard of a terrible war being
waged far away, of machines that flew through the air, of a young girl who was
leading humans and Biters alike. He had heard rumors of the girl being not
quite human, but some sort of a supernatural witch. However, he knew nothing of
Zeus, the Central Committee, or of Wonderland or indeed of what had happened
there over the last year or so. When Alice filled him in, the boy's eyes
widened in wonder.

'A city? My parents talk of such things, but I can't even
imagine it. We live in caves and hide in the forests.'

Alice thought back to her father and others like him who had
given her such a safe and privileged childhood in comparison.

Bunny Ears was now kneeling next to the boy and he shrank
back in fear.

'He won't hurt you.'

'But Biters are supposed to be…'

'Monsters, the undead, right?'

Zohar nodded.

'Things aren't always as they seem. I thought just as you do
not too long ago but now I know better.'

Alice stopped in mid-sentence. She had heard something, or
to be more accurate, felt something. A change in the pattern, a sound or
movement that was out of place. The disruptions in rhythm that years of
surviving and fighting had taught her to look out for. She looked up at Bunny
Ears and he emitted a low-pitched growl.

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