Daud leaned upon his shepherd’s staff and tipped back his head. A brilliant star lit the night sky in a thousand points of light. Heart pounding exuberance flushed his face as he stared at this new, unfathomable mystery. His brother, Hikmat, teased him unmercifully whenever he stuttered his thoughts aloud. So, he rarely spoke at all. Fortunately, his young son admired the night sky as much as he did, and they could sit in companionable silence for hours, watching the stars come out one by one, listening to the soft tinkles of bells and the bleating of sheep grazing upon the hillside.
When his brother and son trudged up the hill, his smile died and reformed into a frown. Their expressions and rapid footsteps bespoke the need for haste and—
Daud jogged forward and intercepted them. “What’s wrong?”
His son flew into his arms and hugged him around the waist, squeezing him in a fit of joy—or terror—Daud could not say. He grasped the child’s arm and stared through the star-filled light into his son’s eyes. “What’s happened?”
“Oh, Father, the most wonderful thing—angles appeared—from the sky. They gave us news.” His son swung an outstretched hand from the star to a cave in a distant hillside and began to tug his father’s arm. “Come—see!”
“See?” Daud glanced up at Hikmat who had stopped before him, staring at the same cave. “See what?”
With slow reluctance, Hikmat pulled his gaze away and appeared to see his brother for the first time. “Daud, you won’t believe me—but the sky was filled with beings, singing and joyous. They announced—the Savior—the Christ is born.”
Daud jerked back, his skin prickling. This was not his brother—there was no hint of Hikmat’s teasing tone or his haughty expression.
“Come, Father. Let us see the babe!” The child ran ahead like a colt that can’t be tethered.
Daud started after him and then glanced back; his voice rose high and strained. “Babe? What babe?”
In the bright night, the undulating movements of many forms froze his voice. A strangled gasp issued from a deep well of terror. Shepherds and folk from leagues around followed the nimble trails leading to that same simple cave, moving as one—at the command of a force Daud could not name.
Like a man rousing from a trance, Hikmat started trotting forward and waved his brother along with a shout. “Come—see!”
Bergen stepped away from a compact space shuttle, blinked in the bright glare of the Ingoti sun, and winced at the geometrically perfect city. He rubbed his exposed neck, leaving an irritated red mark. Even when his girlfriend, Yangon, embraced him, his expression refused to soften.
Yangon wrapped her flexible, armored arm around his and tugged him along the broad city walkway. “Long trip?”
Bergen nodded as he tromped along at her side.
Waving to a tall Ingoti beauty crossing the intersection congested with pedestrians, air scooters, and low-level fliers, Yangon sneered and hugged Bergen’s arm tighter. “Lee’s been asking about you—bragging wretch. Just because she’s traveled to distant galaxies. Like that’s so special.” Yangon glanced at Bergen.
Bergen’s fixed gaze had not wavered a millimeter, though he tugged at his chest armor as if a new appliance irritated him.
“You must be worn down. I’ve got a nutritious meal planned and then—” Rubbing her hand on his arm, she purred. “Well, trust me, the second course will be even better than the first.”
A stack of metal plates, cups, and cutlery rotated through a wash cycle, as Yangon pulled Bergen to a wide, luxurious couch.
He flopped down with a groan.
She pounced. First, she climbed onto his lap and nibbled his exposed neck. Then she reached—
Bergen stood up and dropped her unceremoniously to the ground. A perplexed frown etched across his forehead. “You ever wonder why we bother? We don’t need to eat meals like that. And as for—” He rubbed his neck where she had kissed him and shrugged. “We don’t need that either.”
Yangon’s flushed face tightened. “You never complained about my cooking before—or my—”
“I’m not complaining—just wondering. Why are we—trapped?” He clawed at his chest armor.
Yangon stifled a gasp and stumbled to the kitchenette, leaning heavily against the counter. “You’ve found someone else.” With a shudder, she dropped her gaze.
“What? No! I mean, not exactly.”
Yangon’s head jerked up. She glared at Bergen. “Not exactly? Who—?”
Pulling off his mechanical gloves and unplugging the wrist connectors, Bergen retreated to the couch and perched on the edge. He tapped his emaciated, pale fingers together and peered at the Ingot before him.
Disgust played on Yangon’s lips as she stared at his raw hands.
“May I tell you a story?”
Yangon grimaced and slid onto a stool, flexing her mechanical hands over the smooth metal surface. “Whatever.”
Bergen stood and paced the white-walled, rectangular room. “Humans are very primitive. I went there to take notes and write an assessment—the usual.”
Yangon tapped the datapad embedded in her right arm, scowling.
“But something happened.” Halting in mid-step, Bergen’s gaze retreated into a memory. “I saw a baby born.”
Yangon’s lip curled as she rubbed a spot off her breastplate. “Disgusting creatures—giving birth to live young. It’s one reason we’re so much—”
Bergen blinked. “The baby spoke to me—somehow. His nakedness—his frailty—his sheer honesty—” He staggered.
Her eyes grew into rounded, horrified orbs. “You exposed yourself?”
With a wave, Bergen thrust the accusation away. “No. I stayed on the ship. I sent a bot and hid it on one of the animals. But I saw everything. The mother, the father, the birth. The baby’s eyes opened, and—for an instant—he looked at me.” Bergen swallowed. “He spoke.”
“By the Divide, what could an alien infant possibly say?”
“Live.” Bergen flopped down on the couch. “I want to live—feel hunger, thirst—desire—love.” He leaned back and clasped his hand over his eyes.
Yangon rose and glared at the Ingot in front of her. “You’ve caught some off-world disease, and now you’re out of sync.” Her lips pursed in disdain. “You’d better see a specialist.” Sudden alarm spread over her face. She ran to an alcove and slapped a wall panel. “You better not have given me anything—” She rubbed herself all over as an intense light radiated across her body and a disinfectant spray enveloped her.
Bergen shook his head as he climbed to his feet. “I’m not sick. Or out of sync. I’ve just realized—I’m hardly alive.” He started for the door.
Keeping her distance, Yangon stared after him. “Where’re you going?”
Passing the window, he pointed to the black, star-filled sky. “I’m going back.”
Yangon snorted. “You can’t live like a primitive, Ingot. Technology is wired into your very being.”
Bergen shrugged. “The Crestas are experimenting on our nursery rejects—maybe they can help me.”
Yangon’s lip rose in a snarl. “They’ll more likely kill you.”
“Long as I care—I’ll live.”
Novels by A. K. Frailey
Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg
Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN
Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r
Coming in 2018…
OldEarth ARAM Encounter (In production)
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter (In production)
OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)
OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)
The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5
The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00