Song sat at Teal’s bedside, her hands clasped and her head bowed. It was an old room, the remnant of the first prayer-house ever built on Helm. The teak wood window frames, baseboards, rafters, and furniture had ripened to a rich sheen, giving the space a comforting, ever-lasting feel.
Steepling her pale fingers under her chin, her gaze traveled over Teal. After cleansing the body and proper infusions with hypo-static thoughts, words, and actions in order to restore balance to the spirit, her attendants had left her to guard him in quiet prayer.
He lay still, quite naked to her eyes.
You won’t like that when you wake up.
After sucking in a bracing breath, she climbed to her feet and padded to the far wall. Though the temperature huddled close to the Bauchi comfort zone during the day, it often dropped below freezing at night. She selected a forest-green blanket from a colorful selection and carried it to the bed where she lay it gently over Teal.
With a groan, Teal opened his eyes to mere slits. “Song?”
She patted his hand, forcing a smile. “Yes. I’m here.”
Teal grimaced and licked his lips. “What—happened?”
“You collapsed.” Song perched on the edge of the padded chair and leaned forward. “Don’t worry. Cerulean is safe. He is with Sterling and the others on Earth, continuing their mission.”
Teal’s eyes widened, alarm filling them. “Where am I?”
“On Helm. Zuri helped me get you to my ship and we—”
“I must go back!” His voice wavering, he struggled to rise. “Now.”
Song laid her hand on his chest. She didn’t need to press. He had no strength to resist. “You may go back. In time. But not today. For now, you must rest.”
His jaw clenching Teal’s eyes narrowed in challenge. “And if I refuse?”
Unbidden tears filled Song’s eyes. “You will die.”
Teal stared at her, comprehension overwhelming his face. “But Cerulean…”
“He will learn. Just as you did. As your father did before you. We are allotted one lifetime. You can only live yours. Never your son’s.”
Teal’s gaze traveled to the ceiling and stopped, frozen.
Song glanced up. A spider dangled by a web from the beam above. Was it anyone she knew? Probably not. Likely just an honest spider looking for the day’s meal.
A tear trickled down Teal’s cheek. His face as still as carven stone.
Song stood, her long red dress sweeping over the flagstone floor. “Sterling must lead, and Cerulean will follow. They have much to teach each other.”
With almost imperceptible shake of his head, Teal continued to focus on the ceiling.
“Though I have never given birth in flesh and blood, I have mothered many. The hardest part of love is not holding a dear one close, it is letting them go.”
Song reached the doorway when she heard his raspy response.
Nova stood in her bedroom before a full-length mirror dressed only in leggings and a short slip and stared at her perfect body. Unlike her Bhuaci mother, she didn’t have the power to shape shift. But she had been born with the preferred elfin face and figure of most Bhuaci girls.
She glanced aside at her round, white bed piled with Ingoti armor. Her father, Zuri, had renounced most of the technological advancements his race had adopted. But that would hardly stop her.
She tried on the chest guard first. Lightweight, it didn’t hinder her movements, though it added bulk to her lithe figure. She smiled. Black was definitely her color. She slipped the arm bands up over her elbows, first the right and then the left. Snug, but with the thick red bands, they definitely added a touch of class to her cuteness. She hated cuteness.
Next, she tugged on the boots. Heavier than her normal slippers, they forced her to plan her steps more carefully. With the added height and bulk, she nearly appeared intimidating.
A tap on the door knocked the smile off her face.
Mom or dad? Probably mom.
She sighed. There was no way she could take it all off in time.
And why should I?
“Open!” She placed her hands on her hips and faced her future.
In the open doorway, Kelesta stared at her daughter, her eyes rounded with horror. “What are you doing?”
Nova groaned. Her mom wasn’t stupid, but she could sure ask the dumbest questions. “I’m discovering my heritage.”
Like a sleepwalker, Kelesta glided into the room, her hands lifted. “Your father renounced the technology that invaded his body.”
Swinging her arms high, Nova exulted in testing her limits. “I haven’t attached anything. Yet. It’s just armor after all. Though I wouldn’t mind a few synaptic connections. That way I’d have at least a few advantages.”
Kelesta caressed Nova’s face, her eyes grieving. “Haven’t we always taken good care of you? There’s no need for Ingoti protection.”
Nova pulled away and stomped to the door. “I’m not like you, Mother. I can’t shapeshift whenever I feel like it, turning into a clawed beast or hiding in a hole.”
Kelesta stood in the middle of the room, her gaze falling to the floor. “You have no idea. Really. How unprotected we are.”
As if she smelled an intoxicating scent, Nova turned on the threshold and faced her mother. “How do you mean?”
“You’re so young. I wanted to wait to tell you…but…” Her gaze rolled over the mechanical hardware attached to her daughter. She stepped forward and held out her hand. “Let’s take a walk. By the oceanside, I can face old memories.
Still wearing her body armor, though without the boots Nova paced over the white sand keeping step with her mother.
The green-orange sun crested the waves, sending a sparkling glow over the water. Seabirds sailed overhead, calling to each other.
Her arm bands pinched, but she ignored that. She’d get a helmet next. One that came with implants so she could have direct access. Her heart pounded with the thought—There’s no stopping me. She stepped into the water and splashed the waves with her feet.
Kelesta sighed and faced the ocean as foaming crests ran over her toes and receded again. “Everything has a price. The Bhuaci learned this truth eons ago. No one knows exactly how we became shape-shifters, but everyone realizes that our abilities came at a cost.”
Perplexed, Nova wrinkled her nose. Something tickled her feet. She looked down at a school of fish darting about. Funny. They aren’t scared of me.
Kelesta’s voice took on a schooled tone, controlled and disciplined. “In the beginning, we were aimless, mere beasts, not unlike these fish. We lived as flightless birds for a long time and then, through some kind of gift or curse, we learned to use our wings. And not just our wings but our whole bodies in relationship to our minds. We discovered the connection between physical matter and thought. All too soon, we learned to manipulate our bodies’ matter and imitate any shape we wanted.”
Annoyed, Nova splashed her mother. “I know all this. But why you think it could ever be a curse is beyond me. If I could alter my shape, I’d become a bird right now and fly into the sky. Or become one of these fish and swim deep into ocean.” She jumped up and down, splashing everything within reach.
Allowing the drops to fall where they may, Kelesta peered up. “You’d fly into the sky and then what? You’d still be yourself. Your mood and attitude, your hurt and hate, would follow you just as much as your friendships and love.”
With a snort, Nova rushed deeper into the water, running against the oncoming waves. “I could protect myself from every danger, enjoy every sensation, experience life from a thousand perspectives.” She dove into the murky green depths ignoring her mother’s call.
Swimming against the current, Nova stared at the swirling bubbles and dancing seaweed. A huge blue-green fish with gold sparkles running down its back caught her eye. Thrilled, she paddled with her arms and legs to give chase.
The fish darted down, deeper into the gloom.
Nova knew that she must stay close to the surface and that her armor weighed her down, but desire flushed all reason aside. I’ve got time. Besides, mom’s still close. She arched her shoulders and dove deeper.
Suddenly, the flashy fish turned and peered at her through glowing eyes. It grew larger, until it was twice her size. Opening its mouth, rows of razor-sharp teeth snapped the water.
Panic clutched Nova. She raised herself vertically and tried to paddle upward, but tiny darting fish nipped at her feet and legs. Pain shot through her as terror took over. “Noooo!” Using every bit of her strength, she shot upward.
When her head broke the surface, she looked around. “Mom?”
No one. She was alone.
Wet and disheveled, Nova stumbled across the shore toward her home in the woods. Once in her room, she peeled off her wet armor and soaking underclothes. She wrapped herself in a warm robe and climbed into bed. Tossing and turning through the night, she brooded over her mother’s betrayal.
Three days later, Nova sat beside the window in the kitchen decorated with herb plants and primitive art and ate her grain cereal with cream and berries absorbed in plans for escape from her traitorous family.
Zuri paced in, a frown dominating his face. “Where’s your mother?”
“I have no idea.”
His scowl deepening, Zuri dragged a chair from beside the hearth and placed it next to his daughter. He clasped his hands and leaned forward. “I know something is going on between you and your mother. Though she won’t say anything, I know you both well enough to guess.”
Her appetite disappearing, Nova shoved her bowl onto the windowsill and crossed her arms. “Know everything about me, do you?”
“I know that armor excites you. Adventure beckons. And you’re tired of being treated like a child.”
Her interest snared, Nova tilted her head. A silent acquiescence.
“I was just like you.”
Nova rolled her eyes.
“And I have the perfect answer.”
A huff of air to hint that she only had so much patience.
“You’ll come with me to Earth. We’re being sent back—Teal and his son Cerulean are coming. No reason you shouldn’t attend.”
Excitement raced through Nova. “I can come and work? I’m not just a student observer?”
A grin broke over Zuri’s face. “You’ll take notes and help to present our finding to the council when it’s time.”
Rubbing her hands together, happiness flooded Nova.” Finally! I can do something worthwhile.” She glanced at her father. “Does mom know?”
The light dimmed in Zuri’s eyes. “Yes. She’s not happy about it, but she accepts my reasoning.”
Perplexed, Nova jumped to a new thought. “Can I wear my armor?”
“As much as you like.”
Her appetite renewed, Nova grabbed her half-eaten breakfast and stood. “I’m going to get a list of things I’ll need.”
Zuri nodded, his gaze distant.
Nova started for the door and then stopped. “What reasoning?”
Zuri glanced up. “We can do our best to protect you from the world. But only you can protect you from yourself.”
After laying her bowl in the sink, Nova stepped outside. She moved toward the rising sun as she crossed the courtyard to her room, a new thought plaguing her steps. Who betrayed who?
Recently, I celebrated another year marked on the calendar of my life. I am also considering how best to focus my energy and enlighten my soul, so I look back on my previous accomplishments and peer ahead into exciting new projects.
In our vastly changing world, we still follow an ancient path, searching for God, our proper place in family and society, and the meaning of our lives. Today, we live in a global reality little imagined in the land of Ur, though—made in the image of God—our souls have always held limitless possibilities.
In my OldEarth Encounter series, our world is viewed from a close-up Earth-bound, historical perspective but also from a distant, alien viewpoint. In the truest meaning of “Catholic,” the stories revolve around universal themes.
OldEarth ARAM Encounter—Humanity’s search for the one true God.
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Conflict between humanity’s need for God and our desire to be god.
OldEarth Neb Encounter—The price of chosen evil.
OldEarth Georgios Encounter—God as Father and Son and our personal reflection of those roles.
OldEarth Melchior Encounter—Marriage, parenthood, and the meaning of our Christian identity.
The first three books are currently available on Amazon, and the last two are near completion and will be available soon.
For the rest of April, I will take a break from creating new stories, My Road Goes Ever On reflections, and poems. I’ll start up again sometime in May. In the mean time, I am completing the work on the last two OldEarth books, reading my posts aloud for those who’d like to listen, (Just hit the Listen on Spotify button) and organizing my newest work:
My Road Goes Ever On II
Encounter—Science Fiction Short Stories II
It Might Have Been Short Stories II
I am also hoping to publish a collection of my poems at some point. Still have to come up with a name…
May our lives be blessed with God’s grace each day.
Zuri, wearing a course tunic over the simplest remnant of his armor paced along a worn path, the sun setting behind a distant, emerald-green hill.
With a flash, Teal appeared before him in a peasant’s outfit.
“There you are. I was afraid you’d have to wait till morning to see.”
Smirking, Teal bowed low. “Hello, Zuri. So glad we meet again.”
“None of that, now. We haven’t time. I want you to see this family! They’re magnificent and, to top it off, there’s been a murder. Some folks are running about insisting that Melchior’s son did it, but I hardly think so. Not the warrior type, if you know what I mean. I’m thinking it was the husband—though I have no—”
Teal faltered, his shape growing hazy. “By the Divide, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Zuri grabbed Teal’s arm and tugged him down the path. When they rounded a bend, a cottage stood before them, resplendent in evening hues.
“That’s Melchior’s place. He has a bunch of children, servants, and even a slave or two, yet he manages to keep his property intact and his head attached. In these parts, that’s something to be proud of.” He squinted in the failing light. “You all right? You look a bit…fuzzy.”
Teal lifted his hand and nodded. “Just been busy.”
Zuri glanced around. “Where’s Cerulean?”
“He’s taking care of Sterling. With strict orders to hurry him along, with or without Mauve.”
Teal rolled his shoulders. “His newest obsession.”
“You can say—”
A Bhuaci chime sounded.
Zuri tapped his chest and a holographic image of a Cresta with stringy yellow cilia drizzling from his head and dressed in a dark green bio-suit with matching boots appeared before them.
“Tarragon reporting for duty.”
Leaning toward Teal, Zuri dropped his voice low. “Ark’s son. Remember the pod…”
Teal nodded. He focused his gaze on the Cresta. “Thank you for being so prompt. But I thought we were going to meet here at—” He glanced at Zuri.
Tarragon waved a tentacle. “I wanted assure myself that someone would be there to greet me. I am still on board my ship, but I’ll shuttle down shortly.” He eyed Zuri. “If you’ll confirm the coordinates?”
Suppressing annoyance, Zuri pulled a datapad from his sleeve and tapped in the information. “Just be sure to stay out of sight. Your aircraft had better be native sensitive.”
“Of course. The Cresta are experts of disguise.”
Zuri chuckled. “Ark was anything but!” Realizing his mistake, a flush warmed his cheeks. “Sorry. No disrespect. I greatly valued Ark.”
Tarragon shrugged. “I hardly knew him.” With a smart salute, he signed off. The hologram evaporated.
Zuri slapped his face. “Oh, that went well, don’t you think?”
Looking haggard, Teal sighed. “He’s a hard one to figure. I’ve asked about him through the years, but he never responded, and Ark had little to offer. I thought he’d be at Ark’s passing-on ceremony, but he never showed. His mother did, though. Gave me an earful. More than I really wanted to know about Cresta—”
The pounding of horses’ hooves sent Zuri scurrying to a hedge row.
Teal blinked away and then reappeared at his side. “We’d better move further off. We don’t want Tarragon showing up in the middle of a family dispute.”
“Going to be a blinking challenge to train someone new. And now we have Sterling and Mauve to deal with.”
Teal shrugged. “It could be worse. We could have the Mystery Race on our heels. At least we’re safe there.”
Zuri glanced at the starry sky, a sinking sensation enveloped him.
Song, in her petite elven form, wearing a dark green tunic over grey leggings, strolled along the wooded glen, soft brown soil cushioning each step while pink blossoms waved in a gentle breeze. She stopped and breathed in the deliciously sweet scent of spring.
Butterflies sailed by as birds twittered from the branches: bluebirds, redhearts, and goldenhues. Even a pair of orangefires insisted on wishing her a good morning.
She smiled and bowed in the accustomed greeting between Bhuac and natures’ citizens.
A fierce greenhawk swooped in and, with its large bulky body, bristled, sending the gentler folk into a frightened frenzy. The joy-filled chirping turned to cawing and sharp screams of distress.
Her heart twisting, Song watched, helpless to alter the scene for though she ruled the planet, her influence in the wild only reached so far.
Pounding steps along the wooded path, turned her attention. A figure jogged forward, long black hair flowing over thin shoulders, clear eyes narrowed in concentration. A strong woman suffering from unaccustomed weakness.
Slapping her hand against her chest, the woman came to a skidding halt before Song, heaving deep to catch her breath. “They’re going back!”
Her heart clenched; Song froze. As if understanding the gravity of the moment, the feathered feud ceased, and silence descended. Only the sun continued to shine unabated. With a start, Song realized that she could not sense a thing. Even the ground under her feet had fallen away.
“Did you hear me?” The woman drew closer, her hand reaching, whether to awaken her mentor or grasp at needed strength, neither could guess.
Song nodded. “I heard.” She forced a calm smile. “It is good to see you again, Kelesta. Where is your husband and daughter?”
A darted glance at the sky and a facial spasm spoke louder than words. “They’ve gone too.” Her gaze fell. “Ark passed on and his son, Tarragon is taking his place.” She straightened her shoulders. “Teal is sick, and Sterling is…preoccupied. A Luxonian named Mauve has stolen his heart.” She sucked in a deep breath, readying herself for painful truth-telling. “Zuri wants to teach Nova about humanity’s true nature. Perhaps make room in her soul for—” Kelesta flapped her arms like a bird perched on the edge of flight. “Something.” She shrugged. “She certainly isn’t interested in me.”
Caught in a snare that had held her for much too long, Song wrapped her arm around the young Bauchi woman. “She loves you—she just doesn’t know it yet.”
With a muffled sob against the older woman’s shoulder, Kelesta gave way to tears. “She can’t love someone she doesn’t know. She refuses to even consider what Zuri and I offer.”
The sun, still on its ascent, shone bright from the clear golden sky. “Let’s return and have a morning cup with biscuits and honey-jam. You’ve come home just in time to help me face the coming storm. Humanity measures time in such small increments; they do not see the landscape of their days. They are about to undergo a momentous change, and they have no idea of the long-range repercussions.”
“But what about Zuri and Nova—and all the rest?”
Song took Kelesta’s hand and started down the path, her feet padding on the soft, springing soil. “They must learn too. It is what all the living must do or else die in stagnation.”
Kelesta brushed a low hanging branch out of her way, pink blossoms falling on the path, as she kept in step with Song. “But what if she learns the wrong lesson and refuses her father and me? What if we lose our daughter?”
Tears aching behind her eyes, Song looked to the trees and silently beckoned to the birds. Give me strength. “It is the highest praise of our creator to give us freedom.” She squeezed her friend’s hand as the birds burst into fresh song. “It is our trial to endure whatever they choose.”
Tarragon blinked in the blinding laboratory light, lifted a scalpel, and faced his father who lay still as a petrified tree on the table. “This won’t hurt much. I just need to get a proper sample to see what we’re dealing with.” He grinned. “You don’t mind?”
Ark huffed. “I’m not going anywhere on these blasted feet.” He flapped one tentacle. “Can’t even swim with all the pain.” He lifted his head and scowled at his son. “Just samples, mind you, I don’t want to have to regrow anything in a hurry.”
Bobbing his large bulbous head, his body tingling with heady responsibility, Tarragon started at the head and cut minuscule skin samples from all over his father’s mottled body. Circulation was clearly off, though his internal organs appeared to be functioning normally. His favorite Bhuaci hymn started low his chest and broke out in a vibrating hum across his vocal cords.
“What—are you doing?” Ark might have just run into a naked human frolicking on the artic tundra.
Startled into silence, Tarragon cut deeper than intended and sliced a significant portion of his father’s heel. “Whoops. Well, that’s a healthy sample!” He laid the scalpel on the standing tray and stepped aside. “I’ll just take a quick look—”
“You’ll help me get up first.”
“Oh, yes, of course.”
Groaning, Ark strained as his son pulled him to a sitting position. “I wish Zuri were here. He knew how to get me places without pulling my tentacles to pieces.”
Tarragon trotted around the bed, and, using all his tentacles, braced his father, then aided him across the room to soft couch.
Ark plopped down with a loud squelch.
Tarragon clapped his tentacles together, ready to get back to work. He collected the labeled slides. “If you’ll excuse me—”
Ark sighed. “You hardly ever talk to me anymore.”
Squinting, Tarragon peered at his father. “We never talk.” He trotted to the molecular scan embedded in the back wall and pulled down a survey tray. He placed the slides in a neat row. “We exchange information.”
Rubbing the sliced bit on his forehead, Ark grimaced. “What I wouldn’t give to see Teal and Zuri again.”
“Teal hasn’t been able to visit since his injury. Why he thought he could subdue an earthquake is quite beyond my understanding. Even with my limited knowledge of planetary geophysics, I would’ve advised him to stay clear—”
“He thought he could save lives—lots of human lives.”
“Even Luxonians aren’t that powerful. It was a rash and foolish act that cost him the last useful years of his life.” Tarragon shrugged. No use revisiting the past. He shoved the slid into place and peered at the enlarge screen on the wall.
With a harumph, Ark rocked back and forth until he got enough momentum to shoot to his feet. Pain shot through him like a thousand darts. “Oh, God!” He collapsed back onto the couch.
Passionless, Tarragon stared at him. “There is no need for histrionics. I will have the results ready for you in just—” He rapidly slid one slide in after another until he had exhausted the selection. He blinked at the screen, hummed quietly, and then turned and faced his father. “I know what’s wrong.”
Ark slapped one tentacle along the side of his face, a veritable picture of impatience. “Well, tell me.”
Being naturally pale, Ark didn’t have much color to lose, but what he did have soon disappeared entirely. “What?”
“I’ve seen it a few times before—it’s called Travelers Travails. We don’t know exactly where it comes from, but it usually starts in the skin, threads its way throughout the body, and eventually attacks the major organs. I’d say you have about half a cycle left.”
Ark closed his eyes, a tear trailed down his cheek. “I’m not ready. I still have so much to do.” His eyes popped open. “Teal needs me! Zuri needs me. Humanity needs us—together!”
A childhood memory floated through Tarragon’s mind, himself as a pod swimming in a large tank, watching his father plod off with Zuri. He had begged his father to stay with every ounce of his being but to no avail. Ark hadn’t even looked back. He had been so intent on his mission to Earth. Always Earth.
“Someone will take your place. We’re never as indispensable as we think.”
Ark groaned, his shoulders heaving. “I need them.”
For a moment, Tarragon felt an uncomfortable flicker. Pity? He waited a moment certain it would pass.
Ark sucked in a deep breath and glared at his son. “You have to promise me one thing.”
Tarragon tilted his head, his ear hole opened wide. “What?”
“You’ll find a suitable replacement. Someone who will really care.” His eyes narrowed. “Not you, of course.”
Exhilaration swept over Tarragon. He turned his back on his father and slapped the scanner off. “Let’s go. You need your rest, and I have to attend to other duties.”
With his son’s support, Ark heaved to his feet and hobbled to the door. “I’ll lie down in my room. You can meet me for dinner—if you like.”
Tarragon nodded. “Certainly. And you can tell me all about your travels.”
“You want to hear—”
Tarragon dropped the scalpel under a sterilizing ray. “As you said, we hardly ever talk. And we don’t have much time.”
Once he reached his home, Ark leaned against the door and sighed. “This is my end.”
Without much difficulty, Tarragon maintained his sober disposition and nodded. But my beginning.
Chasm stood on the baked, pounded ground and stared at his shoes, profoundly aware that they were several sizes larger than the others lined up beside his. A cool breeze cascaded over his hot body. He could hear his mother’s words loud and clear, “Don’t get overheated, boyo, cause I can’t find any glaciers to cool you off this time of year.”
He forced his smile in check.
The kid next to him squirmed.
Chasm nudged him. “Don’t move, Oleg, or he’ll kill us.”
The boy heaved a strained, exasperated sigh.
Coach screamed, “Hey, you two! Give me five more!”
Oleg’s eyes widened with horror.
Chasm choked. “Wasn’t my fault!”
The twenty-eight boys held the line, observing in constrained silence as Chasm awkwardly led the smaller boy around the track, taking tiny steps to keep pace with his companion’s short strides.
Giggles broke the tense silence.
Coach, his arms crossed high over his barrel chest, stood on the sidelines grinning, his jaws masticating contraband chewing gum.
The blazing Luxonian sun seethed in a white sky, heat piercing through protective covering. Even the best eye protection was poor defense against the damaging rays.
A wonder more of us don’t go blind. Chasm wiped sweat off his brow as he jogged forward, his arms limp at his side. Three more…
Chasm reached out.
The boy fell limply in his arms.
“Drop him and finish your laps!” Clearly, coach enjoyed his work.
The watching boys froze, stiff as petrified rocks.
So many times, he’d come home burning with humiliation, a sorry excuse for a son, but his mother’s nudge combined with a healthy snort, always revived his drooping spirits. “Think you got it rough? Try being a giant woman! Then you’d know what rough looked like up close and personal. Giant guys are fine. But giant gals scare the hell out of most everybody, even Luxonian shape shifter-types. Lordy, they can morph into Ingoti Lava Lizards, but a seven-foot human woman sets ‘em giggling in weird ways.” Her black eyes flashed, and her ebony skin glistened as she jutted her chin, contempt oozing through every pour. Until a glint of humor discharged the poison. “Should thank their lucky suns I’m so good natured, or they might not be so powerful now.”
Chasm knew the story, oft repeated, how she managed to chase off a strange ship that landed in one of the busiest intersections of the capitol. No one knew who the aliens were or why they’d come. But the Luxonian crowd that gathered round had been profoundly grateful for Adah’s help. Unexpected as it was.
Being the only refugee over seven feet tall, many boys looked to him for help. Chasm didn’t mind, but he wasn’t sure what to do most of the time. He looked around for help.
Coach sauntered forward. Unlike most Luxonians, his attitude sparked with resentment at the outsiders. Even though the human refugees had originally come to Lux by invitation, coach narrowed his eyes at every specimen he met, especially the boys he forced out under the sun “to keep them fit and healthy” as his job description decreed.
Killing us with kindness.
Chasm gripped Oleg’s limp body tighter.
Rex, a lanky kid, not nearly Chasm’s size but with an outsized spirit that towered above the average stepped from the disciplined line. “We’re done here.”
Coach turned his full glare on Rex’s impassive, staring eyes. “You think so?”
“How about I make you all do ten more?”
Rex peered along the line of watching boys.
Everyone knew that they lived at the mercy of their hosts—Luxonians who had accepted the burden of caring for a dying race of beings—but resentment had elbowed its way in over the years, making humans not so welcome.
Chasm’s heart clenched as his gaze darted from Rex to Oleg’s reviving form.
Oleg shook himself free and stood on shaky legs. He blinked as he stared at the coach. “Think you can kill me?”
Coach’s amused glance spoke volumes.
Rex waved at the line of boys ahead with a formal bow. “He can try. But we don’t have to let him.” He sauntered off the track.
The line wavered, eyes following but feet still.
Oleg gripped Chasm’s arm. “Let’s go.” He strode after Rex, panting but determined.
As the sound of footsteps padded after them, Chasm’s heart swelled. No matter his size, he finally filled his shoes. No glaciers needed.
Teal watched Arc’s holographic message twice and sighed. He passed his hand over the holopad; the wavering image disappeared.
Her touch soft, Sienna placed her hand on his arm, slipping around from behind. “What’s wrong?”
The thrill of her unexpected touch dissipated too quickly for Teal’s comfort. He glanced from the low couch to the shelf packed with OldEarth crafts—a decorated pot from Aram’s clan, a woven blanket from Ishtar’s clan, even one of Neb’s forgotten obsidian knives. He shrugged and turned away. “Arc’s worried. So, he’s got Zuri worried. And before you know it, I’ll be worried.”
Sliding around her husband’s waist, Sienna snuggled under his arm. A smile played on her lips. “Cerulean has been begging to go. Maybe…”
“I should have followed up before this. It’s just—”
Sienna nodded. “It was a big event. Everyone talked about it, but then, things died down. We’ll probably never know.”
Teal padded to the window and peered across the Luxonian skyline, the suns setting and moons rising. “Things are happening, changing. I don’t think humanity will ever be the same.”
“Can they handle the responsibility?”
A snort sounding rude to his own ears, Teal shrugged. “Of course, they can’t. No one can. It’s impossible. The very notion. God-man? We don’t even dare define—”
“Children can imagine what adults don’t dare dream of—the limitlessness of youth, perhaps?”
Teal rubbed his forehead. “I can’t even begin to go there. It has to be a misunderstanding. Wishful thinking.”
“And if it’s not? If it is real…” She joined him at the window, sharing the view.
Heat working through his body, Teal swallowed. “Define real.” A soft sound caught his ear. He glanced over his shoulder.
Cerulean, youthful, eager, and ready for anything stood in the open doorway. “Ark sent a message. He has something for me.”
Teal closed his eyes. Oh, God. He opened his eyes and met his son’s innocent gaze. “I’m sure he has.” He peered at his wife. They both knew. No one would be the same.
Ark zipped up his bio-suit, dragged on his boots, and glared at the pod swimming energetically in the murky pool against the back wall.
The door swished open, and Zuri tromped in, his head and hands bare, but wearing a modified version of Ingoti armor. “You ready?”
Ark huffed through his breathing helm; bubbles rose. “Now or never.”
The pool swished spasmodically, a riot of bubbles rising. The pod stopped and hung weightless, its large eyes staring, imploringly at Ark.
Zuri halted and glanced back. “What’s—I mean—who’s that?”
Ark cleared his throat and tugged at the collar of his bio-suit. “Uh, my son, Tarragon.”
Zuri’s eyes couldn’t have opened any wider if he’d had implants. “What? You never told me you had a son!” He slapped Ark on the back. Hard. “Congratulations!”
Stomping to the doorway, his boots smacking the ground with emphasis, Ark aimed for his escape. “It just sort of happened.”
Zuri swiveled his head as if testing the limits of his joints. “What does that mean? You have a son and you’re—what—irritated?”
Stopping on the threshold, Ark waved all six tentacles and forced a smile at the pod. “Just out of sorts, really. It wasn’t expecting it.” He scowled at Zuri. “I have important work to do. We both do.” He turned his back on the pod. “There’s a new player on Earth, a mystery being, who has a bet to win…a challenge. He’s trouble, make no mistake.”
“In proper diplomatic response, we’re going to…?”
“Meet Song and discuss possibilities. Then we return to Earth.”
“I thought we couldn’t.”
“Couldn’t is strong word. Shouldn’t perhaps…” Ark clumped out the door.
Noman smoothed down his tunic as he paced before the wooden table laid with the evening meal of wine, boiled fish, nuts, olives, bread, honey, cheese, dates, and pomegranates.
Abbas was coming to see him.
He played the words over in his head. Abbas was coming… to see him… To see him…
The laughter of boys crashed against his ears. He stopped before the window of the Hospitia and peered at the bucolic scene.
Three boys chased each other across hard packed earth. Their clothes tattered, their feet bare, and their eyes bright.
A shout split the air, and the children scattered.
A gesturing heavyset man, flushed and furious, jerked forward. “Didn’t ya hear me! Get back to work, you fools, or I’ll cut your useless legs from under your bodies.”
An old man, dressed in a long white tunic with a fine robe draped over, stepped close upon the angry man’s heels. He raised his hand as he passed.
All bombastic bravado fled. The heavy man bowed low, scraping the ground in a servile fashion.
Unimpressed, the old man stopped and peered at the window.
Noman caught his breath.
Abbas had come. To see him.
Noman poured wine into an ornate cup and passed it across the table. The food sat untouched. Neither needed to eat but that had never stopped them before. He spread his hands wide, a genial host. “Please, enjoy.”
Abbas, ever the master of kindness, broke off a piece of fish, slipped it between his lips and chewed with a hum of pleasure. “Very nice.”
Pride fought gratitude in the playground of Noman’s mind. He smirked. “I picked it out myself. Best fish this side of the Divide, they say.”
Abbas choked and grabbed the goblet for a quick swallow. He wiped his lips with his sleeve, and leaned against the hard-baked wall, his penetrating gaze searching. “You know about The Evidence?”
Noman wasn’t going to play. “Evidence?” He smirked. “An attempt to make humans appear worthier than they are. A trick, really, to see how we’ll react.”
Abbas stroked his chin. “Is that all, you think?”
“I know so!” Frustration needled Noman like a thousand biting insects. “I told you. They are a mere plaything. A toy. He just wants to see how we’ll respond. If we throw ourselves at his mercy and beg for forgiveness—”
“We need forgiveness?”
“Of course not. But if we were fools, we might think so. Lesser beings are always ready to beg. It’s what they do. Humiliate themselves before greatness.”
Abbas sighed. “You’d certainly never do that.” He rose from the bench and strode to the window.
A little boy sat on the ground, playing with round stones. A sparrow landed and hopped nearby. The boy watched, then raised his hand, a stone poised. The bird pecked at the ground, unconcerned.
Noman stepped over and propped his arm against the wall, his gaze fixed on the opposite side of the room. “We know our true place in the universe.”
The boys’ gaze softened as he watched the bird, his brows knit together. Slowly, he lowered his arm and dropped the stone. With his other hand, he dug into a pocket.
Abbas sighed. “Do we?” He glanced aside. “Really?”
“Our power informs us.” Noman threw his arms wide. “I could remake this entire village into a treasure of pleasure—if I wanted.”
Abbas’ gaze returned to the scene.
The boy held out his hand, palm up. Breadcrumbs offered.
The wary sparrow hopped close and stopped. With a cock of the head, it eyed him.
Smiling, the boy tipped his hand and scattered the crumbs within easy reach. Eagerly, the bird snapped up the morsels.
Noman cocked his head and stared Abbas. “Excuse me?”
“I keep hearing the word in my mind—like a verse, a song.”
“Ah! Song—the Bauchi witch. She’s always playing mind games.”
Brooding irritation flooded Abbas’ eyes. “No, not that Song. A song. Music. Harmony and melody. Beauty in sound.”
Noman shrugged. “I’ve never understood the concept.” He peered out the window.
The boy grinned as the bird pecked the crumbs.
Annoyed, Noman shouted, “Go on, boy! You’ve no business here.”
Abbas sighed. He started for the door.
Jolted, Noman gripped his arm. “Where are going?”
“You may be right. Song may be exactly who I’m thinking of.”
“But what about me—about my mission?”
Abbas peered at Noman’s fingers gripping his tunic. “I say that you’ve underestimated The Event. There’s more to humanity than meets the eye.” He jerked free. “I take my leave of you now. But I suggest that you don’t do anything—you’ll regret.”
Cold seeped through Noman. Regret? Not possible. Chilling that Abbas could even suggest the word. He bowed and peered at the door.
Sven massaged the woman’s flesh with renewed vigor. His last day! Visions of vacation paradise floated before his eyes.
A groan froze his fingers. Opps! He peered down at the figure sprawled on the table under his skilled hands. Perhaps the warm up massage was a bit much for her first time.
Sliding off the edge of middle age, Ms. Tolliver had stumbled into his office last week, complaining about shoulder and neck pain. He had done a quick check, diagnosed the problem—frozen shoulder undoubtedly—lots of ladies her age suffered from the common ailment, and set up a schedule for Physical Therapy three times a week for three weeks. He only had to manage the first visit, and then, while he was gone—having the time of his life—his aides would take over. By the time he returned, she’d be ready to beat her university peers at a high stakes game of Zinzinera.
Sven frowned as he peered down at her. She didn’t look very good at the moment. Her color seemed off somehow. Granted lots of ladies liked to dye their skin all sorts of weird colors these days. The multi-colored zebra look rather turned his stomach, but hey, who was he to make fashion comments. It was the year 4798 after all, and humanity knew how to have fun…
Speaking of fun…his mind trailed away to the playground he was going to enjoy for twenty whole days.
After the designated warming pad to relax the stretched tendons, Sven handed Ms. Tolliver a list of twelve routine exercises she could practice at home.
She wrinkled her nose, peering at the datapad as if she wasn’t sure what it all meant.
Annoyance crept over Sven. Good golly, was she an idiot? “They’re the same exercises I just did with you. Just repeat them at home each day and come in on your scheduled visits. You’ll be good as new in no time.”
Doubt clouded her eyes.
Fury boiled up in Sven. She doubts me? Me? Why, I’m the best physical therapist on the entire island. He had won the Australian “Healthy Lives” award six years running. Six! Bloody idiot. She didn’t deserve his attention. Just as well that he’d leave her to his aides. They weren’t as good as he was…well, that hardly mattered. They were good enough. He had trained them, after all. NewContinetalEurpose wanted him to speak at their next Inter-Alien symposium on how physical therapy could assist communication in mixed marriages. A bit of a stretch in his mind—after all, physical therapy wasn’t a cure-all. But heck, who was he to refuse the honor?
Ms. Tolliver tapped his arm. “Sorry, but I’m not sure I understand. I mean I don’t think I can—”
A bell chimed.
Sven’s heart pounded in anticipation while his voice rose above the tumult of various therapists, aides, and clients preparing to leave for the day. “You’ll be just fine! Go home, put your feet up, and relax.” He didn’t exactly mean to nudge her toward the door, but the silly idiot didn’t seem to realize that it was time to go.
In a matter of minutes, he had loaded his packed bags on the transport and was heading off planet to his dream vacation. He deserved some fun. After all, he worked hard and no one knew how to thank Sven better than he did.
Three weeks later…
Chenier grabbed a bottle of polish and tried once again to wipe the blood spot off her uniform. It wasn’t a big spot, but part of it smeared her embroidered nametag—Chenier Dobson, Physical Therapist Aide. Marcus had one just like it, except of course, his stated his name, Marcus Arius, and there was no blood spot on his. He had kept his distance when the poor woman started to bleed out.
Chenier sighed. She didn’t regret her actions. There was little she could have done to change the outcome. But she did think her boss had been a little remise. In fact, he had bungled the whole affair. Complete records were due on her datapad by the end of the day. Perhaps they would give her a better idea of what had really happened.
The chime signaled the start of a new day. She glanced at the roster streamed to the wallboard. A full week of patients waiting for relief from pain.
Marcus trotted near and leaned in, whispering, “He’s back.”
Fear shivered down Chenier’s spine “Does he know, you think?”
“Not by the look on his face.” Marcus sneered. “He’s been having the time of his life. His mother could’ve died, and he’d probably shrug it off.”
Chenier frowned. “His mother died seven years ago and, from the records, he doesn’t have much to do with his DNA relations.”
Marcus heaved a sigh and pressed his colleague’s shoulder. “Don’t expect too much.” He glanced at the line of men and women shuffling into the room. “It’s our job to relieve pain and loosen up tight joints. No one could’ve known Ms. Tolliver’s condition. She never said anything. So, let it go. Don’t even bother telling him. He won’t care.”
Chenier bit her lip as she watched her friend stride away.
Sven sauntered near, raising one hand in languid salute. “So, how are things? I’ve had the best vacation of my life!”
Chenier nodded. She squinted. Something seemed off about his color. A tinge green, perhaps? She shrugged the thought away. “You had a good time, I take it.”
“Of all the playgrounds off-planet, Corpus is the absolute best. I’ve already made reservations to go back next season.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Can’t get too much of a good thing, I always say.” He looked around. “Everything as I left it?”
Chenier braced herself. “Well, there was one case, Ms. Tolliver…”
Sven yawned and stretched. “I need a little PT myself. Been having a bit of pain in my shoulder.” He rubbed his neck. “It got a little vigorous at one point…” He grinned. “If you know what I mean.”
Chenier stuck to her point like plaster to the wall. “Ms. Tolliver died on her third visit. Apparently, she suffered from—”
“That old bitty? She couldn’t follow directions if there were written onto her synapsis. Don’t worry about it.” Alarm spread across his face. “Unless someone here—”
“No it wasn’t our fault. It’s just that she had a pre-existing condition. She had—”
“Oh, well, then. Forget it. As long as it wasn’t out fault. I mean, old women die. Happens all the time. We’re Physical Therapists. We’re not God. Can’t fix everyone, you know.” He smiled down at his well-trained aide. “Just get on with your work.” He rolled his shoulders. “I’ll get Marcus to give me a bit of a work out. Gosh but I’m feeling a stiff today.”
Chenier watched him stumble across the padded floor, his arms stiffly at his side. “Serves him right if he does have a pulled joint or two.” She shrugged, checked the roster, and called on her first patient.
A week later, Chenier stood before the open vault, tapping her fingers against her thigh. She hated this place. Sweat dripped down her back, and she remembered with chagrin that she’d forgotten her deodorant this morning. Of all days too. Fear stank, and she was always afraid at these things.
When Marcus strolled up, relief surged through her. “Thank, God. I was thinking you might not show.”
Marcus held up his datapad. “I’m designated secretary. The Inter-Alien Alliance wants a record. Apparently this is now considered a dangerous trend.” He smirked. “Guess there is such a thing as having too much fun.”
Chenier pouted. “Ms. Tolliver didn’t do anything wrong. She just didn’t think to mention that she had just come back from vacation. Who would?”
Marcus lifted his hand authoritatively. “Sven should’ve seen the signs…”
With a sigh, Chenier shook her head. “If he had cared to see the danger for her, he might’ve see it for himself. Funny that.”
Marcus snorted. “Yeah, well, once I get his remains sent off, I’m taking a vacation myself.”
Chenier’s eyes widened. “Where to?”
Marcus laughed. “Me? Oh, I’m just going home to spend time with my DNA relations. As for Sven’s remains? Well, I’m sending them to Vacation Paradise. It’s where he always wanted to be.”