OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Two

—OldEarth—

We Still Have Free Will

Zuri hated emotional chaos. He clumped to the base of the cave and plunked down on a rock. Propping his head on one hand, he stared at the creek rippling by.

A squirrel hippity-hopped along the water’s edge, then scrambled in the dirt, discovered a half-buried nut, and leaped forward. It dug furiously. A darker squirrel scampered from behind, chuckled, and sent the first squirrel, humpbacked, straight into the air.

Zuri laughed. “So, little quadrupeds, who’s stealing from whom?”

Ark meandered forward, rubbed his bulbous eyes in the bright light, and harrumphed. “Not me. Certainly.”

Zuri peered over his shoulder, one eyebrow rising. “You’d think we were all planning to kill each other the way Sienna acts.” He rubbed his neck. “I wish Sterling would send her back to Lux.”

“He would, if Teal would let him. Ungle would love to end her searing glares.”

“She’s only mad because he shot at her.”

“Yeah, but she never actually got shot—whereas Ungle—” Zuri dropped his gaze and sighed.

“You didn’t know.” Ark wrapped his tentacles across his lap. “Ungle justified his actions under the Crestonian rule of law—extreme measures are acceptable in the pursuit of knowledge.” He shrugged. “Hardly Sienna’s chosen creed.”

Zuri shifted and clasped his hands. “Are females on Crestar as…you know—?”

“Emotional?”

“I was going to say unpredictable. On Ingle, our girls are raised so much like the boys, that we’re almost interchangeable. They’re as strong as we are and have all the same technological advantages. There was a time when our race almost did away with sex types altogether.”

Ark’s eyes rounded. “You don’t say? I never read that.”

“It’s not one of our happier chapters. We almost killed each other.”

“Ah.”

He prodded Ark. “Like when Crestar did all that cloning—”

“Miserable affair.” Ark lifted a tentacle as if reciting a pledge. “Mutations are our salvation.” He chuckled. “How could we have been so naive?”

Zuri wiped his face and slipped off his helmet.

Ark nearly fell backward. “Oh, seamuck! I didn’t know you could do that. I thought you were losing your head.”

Zuri ran his fingers over the blond fuzz crowing his cranium. “I’m trying to grow hair.” He looked around. “Don’t tell anyone.”

“Why? For darkness’ sake, your race advanced beyond body hair ages ago.”

His gaze darting to the cave entrance, Zuri practically tiptoed to Ark’s side. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “There’s this Ingot woman—”

Ark frowned. “I thought you said there’s little discernible difference?”

“I said interchangeable—in respect to our professional life.” He sucked in a deep breath. “When it comes to our personal life…there’s a big difference. Trust me.”

Ark nudged him playfully, his smooth eyebrows waggling. “You like her?”

Zuri sunk onto the boulder next to Ark. “Passionately. She’s intelligent and funny…and very unpredictable.”

Ark leaned in, his gaze watery. “And beautiful?”

Zuri shrugged. “I don’t think about that. We’re all assembled parts…natural and otherwise.” Heat rose to his face. “The only thing that really matters is what’s inside— you know what I mean?”

Ark nodded. “I do. Unfortunately, I only experienced an attachment once…and it nearly killed me.”

“She left you?”

“Poisoned me.” Ark shook his head. “I gave up such associations after that.”

A shuffling near the cave entrance sent Zuri scuttling back to the other side of the cave, frantically tugging on his helmet.

Ark turned, his tentacles crossed just so.

Sterling staggered forward, bumbled to the creek fully clothed, and waded in.

Zuri straightened, his mouth dropping open. He started forward.

Ark reached out and held him back. “Let him be. Water is very soothing to a troubled soul.” He glanced at his terrestrial boots. “I should know.”

Sterling flopped down in the water, let it rush over his whole body for the space of twenty heartbeats, and then rose and straggled back to Ark and Zuri…dripping with each step. “I needed that.”

Ark waddled to the water’s edge. “I might join you, if only—” He peered back at Zuri. “You’ll help me get them back on?”

Feeling very much like an over-indulgent father, Zuri waved the Cresta to the water. “Go on. Get wet. I know you’ve been dying to.”

Ark beamed as he tugged off his boots and tossed them aside. He waddled forward and plunged in.

Sterling stood, still dripping, next to Zuri, and watched Ark splash around like a dolphin. “He’s really a child under all that blubber.”

Zuri glanced aside. “And you?” He leaned against the cave wall. “What’re you?”

Sterling raised a finger. “Just a moment. I can’t stand another drip. He shimmered and disappeared. Then he reappeared in exactly the same clothes, now perfectly dry. “Much better.”

Zuri flung his hand into the air. “So why the dramatic dunk—?”

“You need to look beyond the surface, Ingot.” Sterling started for the woods, glanced backward, and beckoned Zuri with a curt wave.

Zuri followed, uneasiness bubbling like a lava flow in his middle.

“I want to speak to you alone.” Sterling jutted his jaw toward Ark. “I knew the sight of dripping water would break his resolve.”

Tempted to take off his helmet again, if for no other reason than to unbalance Sterling’s perfect demeanor, Zuri scratched his exposed neck. “What do you want?”

Sterling frowned like a misunderstood child. “It’s not always a matter of want. Sometimes it’s a need. I need you to make Sienna leave—today.”

Crossing his arms, Zuri straightened. “I want her to leave as much as anyone, but she won’t listen to me. She thinks she’s protecting Teal—”

“She’s more likely to get Teal killed.”

Zuri tilted his head and waited. His scalp itched like crazy.

“Ungle is not one to be beaten at his own game. He’s deadly serious about studying the interaction between Ishtar and that bloody Chai. He’s practically leaking fluids to see them meet the first time.”

Zuri rolled his eyes. “I can’t stand it!” He swiped his helmet off.

Sterling’s gaze snapped to Zuri’s head, and he staggered. “By the Div—?”

Zuri gripped him by the arm. “I’m growing hair to impress an Ingot female who thinks that we should return to a more natural state.”

Sterling squared his shoulders and tugged his arm free. “Thank you for sharing that with me.” He ran his fingers through his own luxurious white locks. “Back to reality, shall we?”

Zuri tucked his helmet under his arm and twirled his hand in the air. “Go on.”

“The point is—I want Teal to see Chai and Ishtar up close and personal when the meeting takes place. And I don’t want him distracted. That’s why I went along with Ungle’s suggestion in the first place. But now—”

Walking backward, Ungle plodded into view slightly off-balance with his one shortened tentacle. His gaze fixed on Ark plunging in the creek like a salmon trying to swim upstream. He turned, ran into Sterling, and frowned. “Oh, there you are.”

Sterling gestured to Zuri. “Here we are.”

Ungle heaved a disgusted breath. “Yes, of course.” He peered at Sterling. “I’ve told them both—there’s no other option. Either she goes or I’ll—”

Zuri snorted. “I thought you were worried about that mystery race, the ones who wiped out a third of your planet.”

Ungle’s face tightened. “Who wouldn’t be?”

“Since Sienna supposedly worked for someone who worked for them…maybe you should send her—”

“She says that she was used by the Bhuaci, and she won’t make that mistake again.”

“Tell her that she’s going to get her revenge. She’ll use them this time.”

Ungle’s gaze slipped from Zuri to Sterling and back to Zuri. “Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected such duplicity from you. I thought all Ingots were bred to obey.”

“We may have been bred…so to speak. But we still have free will.”

“Do you? News to me.”

Zuri stomped forward, fury flushing to the roots of his fuzzy, blond hair.

Sterling swept between them, his arms outspread. “Oh, no, you don’t! I’ve got enough on my mind with Teal besotted by that—”

Teal sauntered around the corner, his gaze fixed on Sterling. “Besotted is a strong word…don’t you think?” He glanced at Zuri and frowned. “What happened to your—?”

Ungle waved a tentacle. “We’re wasting valuable time. Ishtar could be anywhere by now.”

Zuri scowled and pulled a datapad from his sleeve. “He’s still at the same location.” He held the pad up, facing the others. “I’ve been monitoring him.”

Sterling glared at Teal. “That’s your job.”

Teal folded his arms. “I know exactly where Ishtar is. And I know where Barak, Obed, and Eoban are too.”

Ungle swept a tentacle in the air dismissively. “Who cares about them?”

Teal stepped forward. “I think you would—if you really want to understand Chai.” He glanced around. “They’re heading directly for the stone city—Chai’s hometown.”

Sterling pursed his lips, his gaze flickering to the cave. “And Sienna?”

Teal turned and started back toward the creek. He called to the water-happy Cresta. “Ark! Time to go!” Glancing back he met Ungle’s intense stare. “I sent her back to Lux. She’s going to do research.”

Sterling closed his eyes and sighed in obvious relief.

Ungle nodded, a glint of pleasure sparkling in his bulbous eyes.

Zuri frowned. “Research—what?”

Teal jogged forward and helped Ark stagger out of the water. He called back. “The origin of our mystery race.”

Zuri dropped his head to his chest and squeezed his eyes shut.

“What people have the capacity to choose, they have the ability to change.”
~Madeleine Albright

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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Eighteen

—Wilderness—

A Sinking Feeling

Eoban laughed as he slapped Barak on the back. “Just like old times! I remember hearing stories about the great cat hunt—” He yanked a tree branch out of his face. “And I’ve always wondered how you managed to survive. You must carry some special charm to keep you free from harm.”

Barak frowned and hoisted his pack over his shoulder as he climbed over a fallen log. “You hardly know the whole story, or you’d never say that I stayed free from harm. On that particular occasion, I was mauled by a ferocious cat and abandoned by my friends. Hardly a charming experience, I assure you.”

Eoban winked at Obed. “I’m sure that if Aram were here, he’d have a few details to add.”

“If Aram were here, he’d probably knock you on the head.”

Eoban burst out laughing. “Oh, how I wish he were here. He’d add a dash of excitement to our dreary wanderings.” Eoban turned just in time to have a branch slap him in the face. He swore, bringing a smile to Barak’s face.

Obed hustled past Eoban and gripped Barak’s shoulder in a brotherly fashion. “Don’t let him bother you. I remember the time I took Onias to the wilderness for a cure. It wasn’t easy, but we both returned better for it. There’s a great deal in the natural world that can benefit us.”

Amin jogged along behind, a frown building between his eyes. “You told Jonas that you didn’t believe—”

Obed turned around and walked backward, his eyes narrowing. “What?”

Amin quickened his step and brushed past Obed. “Oh, nothing. Just, Jonas told Namah that you couldn’t see anything beyond your reach.”

Obed swiveled around, his gaze following the boy. “You shouldn’t listen to women’s gossip. It’ll lead to something unpleasant.”

Silence ensued as the three tromped through the tree-filled hillside.

Amin bent his head and pursed his lips tight.

Eoban broke the heavy silence with a chuckle. “You remember Gimesh, Barak?” He gave Obed a friendly shove. “There’s a story worth retelling.”

Barak picked up speed.

They broke free of the trees and turned straight toward the summit of the hill. Eoban panted as he climbed. The air grew heavy and moist, sending perspiration slipping down his face.

Barak pointed ahead and nodded. “Eoban’s right. I’d never seen a man like Gimesh before.” He glanced aside. “You may not believe in unseen powers and miracles, Obed, but I don’t know how anyone could explain Gimesh’s sudden appearance. It was more than mere luck.”

Obed rolled his eyes. “I beg you, please don’t start. So a man appeared at an opportune moment and decided to help you. What’s so strange about that? It doesn’t take an act of God to have good luck, surely.”

Barak grinned. “If only you saw Gimesh!”

Once they reached the top, Eoban threw down his walking stick, bent over, his hands on his knees, and took long, slow breaths. “There’ll be time enough to chat about mysteries and miracles, but right now, let’s eat.” He glanced aside. “Obed hurried us on so this morning that I barely got a morsel in my poor, parched mouth.” He flopped onto the ground.

Amin laughed and then dropped to the ground in a fair imitation of Eoban.

Obed glanced at Barak and shook his head.

Sitting up and leaning against a tree, Eoban sighed in contentment. So far…so good.

Barak stood with his hands on his hips, much like a mother hen ready to scold her unruly brood. “I suppose it won’t do any good to mention that the sun will set soon, and there is no decent shelter around.” He swept his hand from side to side as if to emphasize his point. “No rocks or caves or—” Barak’s scowl deepened. “What’s that?”

Obed placed his packs in a neat, orderly pile. “What’s what?”

Barak pointed into the distance; a plain lay before them with the mountains as a backdrop. “Look over there. Is that a migrating tribe?” He glanced aside. “You know the people in these parts, Eoban?”

Amin’s eyes widened as he peered at Eoban.

Eoban slapped his forehead and ran his fingers down his face. “I knew people in these parts a long time ago, but things change. By the blazing sun, even the hills seem to move around. It could take weeks to locate a friendly clan.” He sniffed and rubbed his nose. “If they’re migrating, they have bigger worries than we do.”

Obed studied the distant tribe. “It might be wise to know who is traveling so close, especially as we have no real defensible—”

Eoban rummaged through his bag. “Defensible? What’re you worried about? You think someone’s going to attack us? Here?”

Obed shrugged. “It’s been known to happen.” He glanced at Barak. “And I doubt any miracle would save us.”

Amin turned on his side and perched his head on his hand, a scowl darkening his face.

Eoban rose with a groan, munching on a piece of stale bread. Sweaty and feeling rather put out by their attitude, he strode to Obed’s side overlooking the plain. “If Barak thinks a bird from the sky will rescue us from danger, I say good for him as long as he lets me sharpen my spear. After all, he might be right. But unless you see—” Scanning the horizon, every muscle in Eoban’s body froze. “You idiots! That isn’t a migrating clan—that is a war party!”

All eyes turned toward Eoban.

Obed lifted his hands. “We tried to tell you.”

Barak nodded. “We did.”

Amin scampered to his feet.

“Stop blathering and get your stuff. This is no place to stop and rest. What were you thinking? Didn’t you hear Amin sigh in consternation when you fools started complaining about your bellies? Act like men, would you?”

The war party below turned and started up the hill.

Eoban thrust his bags over his shoulder, helped Amin load up, and gripped the boy’s arm.

They all scrambled around to the far side of the hill and then slid their way down to the dusty plain.

Stark mountains rose up in the distance.

As they hurried across the barren land, long shadows loomed on their left. Dust rose in the wake of their footsteps. All afternoon, they trudged—marching, walking, stumbling, and limping. As the sun dropped near the horizon, they began to climb the slow, winding way up the mountainside.

At a steep juncture, Amin slipped backward, rose too quickly, offset his balance, and fell on his back. He cursed under his breath.

Hustling forward, Eoban extended his hand. “Hold on, Amin. You’re moving too fast for your elders. We don’t want anyone to think we’re running away.” He hefted Amin to his feet, but the boy jerked his arm free.

“I’m not running away. I am running to something.”

Obed pivoted on his heel and scowled. “Don’t take that tone—”

Barak lifted his hand in concession as he laid his bundles on the ground. “We all need a rest. Besides, we should discuss where we’re heading. Last I heard we were just going to look around these hills and perhaps up in the mountains a little way.” He glanced at Eoban. “You’re not thinking about going all the way to the mountains, are you?”

Obed stowed his things in a pile next to Barak’s and sat down. “We’re liable to kill ourselves, running around out here in the dark. We need a fire and some food. I’ll get a blaze going if we call it a night.”

Eoban nodded. “A fire out here won’t alert anyone. Make it a modest blaze, Obed.” He dug a stone out of his sandal and glanced at the boy.

Amin stood stoop-shouldered, still frowning, his bags high on his back.

“What’s bothering you, Amin?”

“We can’t go back until we find my father.”

Barak shook his head. “We don’t know when or if we’ll find him.” He waved Amin closer. “You know as well as anyone, Ishtar may be dead—”

Amin grimaced. “I know. But Caleb needs to know the truth.”

Obed snorted. “Oh, Caleb needs to know.”

Eoban flicked the stone at Obed. He turned and beckoned Amin closer. “A good meal will make us all feel better.” He glanced up. “Obed, start a fire, and I’ll take a look around. Maybe some delicious dinner is traipsing around these woods just waiting for us.” He squeezed Amin’s shoulder playfully. “You gather wood while Barak and I see what we can find.”

With a shrug, Amin nodded.

Barak ran his fingers through his hair as he surveyed the dim twilight. “It’s pretty dark out there. What do you think we’ll see besides glowing eyes surmising whether we’d make a decent meal?”

Eoban snorted. “Barak! You are embarrassing yourself.” He glanced at the boy. “Amin, don’t listen. Any animal that wants to come my way is welcome. I love meat of all kinds.”

Barak chuckled and rubbed his tired legs. “All right! But please don’t attack anything bigger than the two of us combined.”

Eoban snatched Obed’s spear and handed it to Amin. “I’ll leave you in charge.” He nodded, one warrior to another. “Protect those that need protecting.”

Amin took the spear with the hint of a grin.

Obed waved Eoban away and proceeded to clear a space for the fire.

Barak nudged Eoban with his spear. “Come on, Brave Hunter! It’s nearly dark, and every animal with decent hearing knows we’re here.”

The two moved into the twilight.

~~~

Amin watched Eoban and Barak traipse away with a sinking feeling in his chest. He shook himself and turned his attention to Obed.

After gathering a handful of tinder, Obed pulled out his flint and forced a spark. After a moment of smoldering, a flame broke to the surface.

Amin scampered to the edge of the small circle of light and gathered twigs. He bundled them into his arms and started back to the small blaze when a large, bronzed hand gripped his arm. Thrashing, he tried to escape but the hand gripped tighter. Suddenly, he found himself facing the torso of a giant. With a quick thrust, he was forced to turn around. He called out, but it was too late.

Not all those who wander are lost… ~J.R.R. Tolkien

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seventeen

—Desert—

Shadows of the Past

Ishtar stood, using his advantage in height, and bore down on Matalah’s second son, Wasim, staring fixedly into the hard face and squinted eyes. “I understand your position, but I accept it only on my terms. I’ll not oppose you, on the condition that you leave your father in peace. Keep your conquests to yourself and don’t lure your sisters and younger brother with stories of power and wealth. Stay away and keep your glorified visions far from here.”

Puffing out his chest, Wasim crossed his arms. “The power and wealth you speak of will be mine—and no illusion.” His eyes wrinkled in amusement. “All my brothers and I ask is that you keep father from opposing us. Will you do this little thing?” All amusement died. “Consider your answer carefully.”

Anger coursed through Ishtar’s blood as he bit off his words. “I will stay at your father’s side and do nothing to stop your treachery.”

Wasim nodded and turned away.

Ishtar called after him. “Others may oppose you, though.”

With a disdainful wave, Wasim paced away. His figure shimmered into the scorching heat.

~~~

Ishtar, calm and free from terrifying memories and having put all thought of Wasim from his mind, climbed the hills to greener pastures. As the days slowly passed, he watched the lambs frolic in innocent abandon. One persistent yearling butted against him repeatedly.

“All right, you win!” Ishtar bent down and rubbed her thick fleece.

Contented, she ambled off in search of new pleasure.

Ishtar threw up his hands. “So like a child! You plague me for attention, and when I’m finally willing—” His gaze fell on a group of men climbing the hillside. He braced himself.

Matalah’s third son, Assam, strode at the head of the assembly and stepped up to Ishtar with a hand extended.

Glancing away, Ishtar rebuffed the gesture.

Unruffled, Assam grinned. “My eldest brother, Abdul, requests a meeting before we begin our conquest.” The lines of his face tightened into dread seriousness. “You must come. We’re not far.”

Ishtar nodded, and using his staff, he descended the hillside. As he glanced back, his eye caught the lamb that had nestled in his arms and was only now beginning to make forays into the wider world. He felt a pang in his chest as he considered her response when she came seeking him, and he was no longer there. Caleb’s face floated before his eyes. Ishtar stumbled.

Assam turned and frowned.

Irritation washed over Ishtar, and he waved the man on. The group wound down the hillside onto the barren plain.

Ripples of sand and dots of desert weeds covered the landscape. No insect or animal movement caught his eye, except a large bird soaring above. What could it possibly hope to find here? Ishtar shook his head and dropped his gaze as they marched along.

As the sun began its descent, Assam’s voice rose in a business-like tone. “We’re making our final plans, and we’ll leave as soon as everyone is ready.”

Ishtar squinted in the afternoon sunshine, using his hand to block the blinding rays. Like a splash of cold water, the sight before his eyes sent a rippled shock over his body.

A large assembly of men busied themselves in battle preparations. The sight of so many weapons and hardened men stole Ishtar’s breath away. This was hardly the idle fantasy of mere boys. Matalah had been right—his sons were the tools of a much greater force.

Assam flashed a grin and gleefully shouted a battle cry as he lunged forward to greet his comrades.

Ishtar followed more slowly, his heart pounding.

In the center, dressed for battle with a long sword hanging at his side and knives tucked in his belt, stood Abdul.

Ishtar halted on the periphery, watching the excited men boast and gesture, building themselves into a fever pitch. Pounding blood coursed through his own veins. Faces floated before his eyes—Neb, Hagia, Aram, Obed, Tobia, his wife, and sons—as if there were no past but only a great muddle of present moments involving all the people who had been important to him. How could a man build a future when the past would not leave him be?

Abdul peered at Ishtar, and for a moment, they were alone in the world, staring at each other, taking one another’s measure. A gleam entered Abdul’s eyes. “So, my father’s friend has joined us at last. Good of you to come.”

Ishtar inclined his head. “Your invitation could not be ignored.”

Abdul gestured curtly. “Come then; we’ll get started. I have a few men I want you to meet. They’re assembled in my tent.”

Ishtar followed as the sun touched the horizon.

Abdul plunked down on a pile of pillows, leaving Ishtar to stand. He waved to the assembled men, hardened warriors every one of them. “Our plans are complete, except for one small thing. We’d like your cooperation in a simple matter.”

Ishtar clasped his hands, his patience wearing thin.

“Your part is most important, for it will help us in all our future plans.” Abdul waited.

Ishtar pursed his lips. “Speak plainly. What is it you want from me?”

“Lead my father into battle against us.” Abdul grinned, apparently amused by Ishtar’s frozen reaction.

His throat tightening, Ishtar swallowed against a choking sensation. His words dropped to a whisper. “You want your father out of the way.”

“Just so.”

Ishtar’s hands trembled. “In this, I am your equal at least.” He clenched his jaw. “But I never wanted my father to die—only his evil to end.”

A scowl rode across Abdul’s forehead, one eyebrow rising. “There is no other way. If you lead him into battle, he’ll have the honor of a valiant death. If you abandon him, it’ll be a mindless slaughter. Which would you have? Honor or disgrace?”

Ishtar’s voice rose to a fevered pitch. “Is it your father’s disgrace to be murdered by his son?”

Abdul poked the air before Ishtar. “Unless my father confronts us honestly, our mission cannot succeed. I wouldn’t be a worthy son if I didn’t give him the opportunity to defend himself.”

Ishtar unclenched his teeth and sucked in a deep breath. “He is no threat to you! Why must you make such an evil choice?”

“The future is unforeseeable. I cannot always watch my back, uncertain of his loyalty.”

“You can speak of loyalty? You, who have none?”
“My father must see—he has no choice. He can’t remain hidden in the folds of his tent, embraced in self- righteousness. We are the heirs of this land. We must decide the future. I am not content to die as I was born.”

“You want me to convince your father to go into the open battle and be killed by your men?”

“Yes.”

“And this seems honorable to you?”

“How does an old man wish to die? No valiant tales are told of quiet lives endured in peaceful times. Better to die in a struggle for home and position than to die mourned only by the plaintive wailing of a few old women.”

“Even when that struggle is against his own son?”

“We are all brothers…or sons under the same sky.” Ishtar shook his head. “I could reason better with the sheep.”

“The sheep are mine.”

All emotion burning into ashy cinders, Ishtar squared his shoulders. “I will tell your father what you’ve said. Whether he comes to offer battle or self-sacrifice is more than I can say.” Ishtar turned to leave.

Abdul called after him. “Ishtar! You’ll ride out with him.”

The flap fell back into place as Ishtar stepped into the dim light.

~~~

Ishtar rose from his bed of softened earth in the crook between two sheltering boulders, blinked at the rising sun, and dusted off his tunic. He tromped over the hillside while the sheep gamboled along behind. Once on the plain, he blocked the hot sun with his arm and directed his steps to Matalah’s tent.

Outside, a low fire smoldered under an empty pot. Camp activity had stilled to a deserted silence. Only one attendant came and led the sheep to their enclosure.

Ishtar passed around the fire and entered the tent. Matalah, in his usual place, sat still and quiet. His shrunken frame bowed as if to reflect the breaking of his heart.

After embracing the old man, Ishtar stood aside and told his dreadful news.

Matalah’s head dropped lower on his chest. His eyes were open, but his gaze remained unfocused.

Pacing closer, Ishtar crouched and peered into the old man’s face. “So, what now, my friend? Will we go out together and meet the enemy?”

Matalah lifted his head and raised his hands in as if in supplication. “Against my own sons? My flesh is taken from my frame and attacks me! Those I held as babes and loved as boys now hate me as men.”

Swiveling on his heel, Ishtar turned and pounded to the other side of the tent. “But they’ll destroy you if you do nothing.”

Matalah rocked back and forth, his arms wrapped around his middle. “My heart beats by some command that is not my own. If I could fight a heartless enemy, I would be satisfied, but how can I wish to murder a part of myself?” Peering up, Matalah locked his gaze on Ishtar, and tears filled his eyes. “I love them—even yet. They are my second self. They look like me; they sound like me. Though they have forsaken me, they cannot forget me altogether. They, too, will grow old and have sons, and my countenance will accuse them through innocent eyes.”

Ishtar bowed his head, pain searing through his middle. “Your words ring truer than you know. My sons will inherit my guilt without knowing the reason or the price paid for my pride and ambition.”

Matalah sighed. “Ever is it so.”

Returning to Matalah’s side, Ishtar gripped his friend’s arm. “But I have outlived my horrors, and the shadows of the past no longer claim me.”

“God is gracious to those who repent—”

“It was your goodness that set me free. If I can offer my life to you in gratitude for your generosity, I only help myself to decency and peace.”

Matalah groaned. “It is my hour to wish for a quick death.”

Ishtar strolled to the doorway, lifted the tent flap, and peered out. “Death will come soon enough.” He glanced back. “Let’s go out and discover what awaits us.”

Matalah’s hands spread wide. “I have nothing to offer that will gain us time or strength…or imbue them with forgotten decency.”

A strange, unexpected peace settled over Ishtar. “There are things your sons do not know. Even things that you do not know. The goodness you bestowed on your neighbors—even on your herds—will return to you in the end.”

“What you say may be true, but my sons won’t care for such philosophy. They want a quick gain, no matter what the cost.” He rose and tottered to the opening, standing next to Ishtar. “All my life is to be thrown to the wind.”

“You were brought into the world for a purpose and shall be held accountable for your part only.”

Matalah’s arms reached into the air beseechingly. “But they are my sons. Surely, I share the guilt in what I have helped to create? Has my life not been made worthless?”

Ishtar clenched his hands and stared at his friend. “You are not worthless.”

Matalah closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest. He murmured under his breath and then opened his eyes. Straightening, he started forward. “I still have a few attendants and camels; they will lead us to my sons.”

Ishtar laid his hand on Matalah’s shoulder. “You have less to regret than most mortals.”

Matalah sighed as he stepped outside. “But my heart is broken, nonetheless.”

Ishtar understood the feeling.“

“It takes a strong heart to love, but it takes an even stronger heart to continue to love after it’s been hurt.” ~Anonymous 

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Ten

 

—Planet Lux—

Legitimate Concerns

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it beyond Teal to an ornamental box hanging outside his open apartment window. “By the Divide. You don’t honestly believe that I’d want to go to that barren wasteland you describe in your reports?”

Shoving loose soil aside, Sterling nestled the plant roots in a wide hole. “Why, I’d rather be eaten alive by Crestonian dissection maggots.”

He patted the dirt around the plant stem and laid the vine runners across the box so they dangled artistically. “At least they do their work quickly and leave you in peace when they’re done.” Holding his hands out like a surgeon ready to perform surgery, Sterling marched across his living room and slapped a wall panel with his elbow.

A glossy white sink and accompanying faucet emerged from the wall. He waved his dirty hands under the faucet.

Nothing happened.

Sterling glanced at Teal.

Teal tapped his fingers together and pursed his lips. Sterling swung his gaze from Teal to his hands and whined. “You could help, you know.”

Marching across the room, Teal slapped the wall console. Hard.

High-pressure water rushed from the faucet and nearly cut Sterling’s hands from his wrists.

“Aw! Damn it, Teal. You want me to go to that hideous planet, but you nearly maim me first.” Sterling eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched a blue-green oval fruit from a bowl on an end table and chomped. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressuring everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around Zuri too much. I’m beginning to notice a resemblance.” He waved his hand in a circular fashion before his face. “Especially around the eyes. You’re glaring like he does.”

Teal finished chewing and swallowed. “I’m not glaring. I just made a simple request.”

Sterling returned to the window box and peered at the transplant.

The vine lay limp, wilting before his eyes. How very depressing.

Teal stepped up and eyed the pathetic foliage. “I think you need to water it.”

Sterling glanced at the high-pressure sink and bit his lip. A chime sounded.

Teal and Sterling turned to the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged.

“Come in.” He glanced at the vine. “I’m not doing anything…worthwhile.”

With an eye roll, Teal swept a tall, square glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

The door slid open and Ark ambled in. He waved a tentacle. “You called?”

Teal watered the vine, waited, and then faced Ark.

Ark eyed the glass, his brows rising, a smile quivering on his thick lips. “Having liquids, are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched to the liquor cabinet and pulled down three glasses. “Let me guess. The Ingot is on his way.”

Ark eyed Sterling’s actions with obvious interest and sidled closer. “Actually, he’s still on Earth.” Twining two tentacles over his middle like an abashed student before his learned master, Ark glanced at Teal. “He’s keeping an eye on Ishtar. And taking copious notes, I hope.”

Teal chuckled. “And taking a few ore samples, if I know him.”

Sterling lifted two full glasses and strolled across the porcelain tile flooring to Ark. “Here, you can have these since the Ingot isn’t coming.”

Teal stepped closer and extended his hand. “You aren’t having one, sir?”

Sterling swiped the last glass off the counter and poured himself a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out. You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there” —he nodded toward a vessel on the counter— “that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “They do have feet—don’t they?”

Ark poured both drinks into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal who placed the water glass in the sink, pointedly ignoring the swill.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed back his drink in one swallow. He closed his eyes. Picture the sea. Calm waves rolling on the shore. He held the moment and then, opening his eyes, he peered ahead. “So, Teal, why did you come today and invite your nice friend?”

Teal strode to the window and peered at the now bright and swaying purple vine. He grinned. When he faced Sterling, his smile vanished. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

Sterling shook his head and marched directly to the cabinet. “I can think of many reasons why…but not who.” He turned around swinging his empty glass in the air. “I hope you don’t suspect me?”

Ark’s golden eyes rounded on Teal. “Or me.”

Teal rubbed the back of his neck. “Neither of you.” He glanced out the window and sighed. “I might be mistaken. Someone might be trying to kill Zuri. But someone is definitely—”

Ark choked. “I left him alone on the planet!” He huffed sending bubbles through his breather helm. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“He’s not alone. Sienna is watching him. From a discreet distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter, his composure cracking. His imaginary rolling waves rose to pounding surf. “Do you mean to tell me that you have Sienna watching Zuri who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and dropped his voice to a whisper. “I want the three of us to return to Earth, undetected, and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

Ark tapped Teal on the shoulder and imitated his whisper. “Don’t bother. I already know.”

Sterling froze. His body actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot’s afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his empty pot, yanked it off the shelf, hefted it to the wall disposal unit, and dumped it down a shoot. He clapped his hands free of every blasted particle of dirt. “Personally, I think Teal needs a vacation. He’s getting paranoid.”

Ark glanced from Teal to Sterling and wrapped all four tentacles around his thick waist. “How did you know we’re focusing on Ishtar?”

Freezing, Sterling felt his chest tighten. I can’t actually have a heart attack. It’s impossible. This body is a facsimile— He glanced at Teal.

Teal stared him into the ground.

If that were possible.

“Oh, bloody Bothmal!” After pacing across the room to an arrangement of plush chairs and a couch, Sterling plunked down on the sofa and stretched out. “Mind if I collapse? It’s been a long cycle.”

Teal sauntered over and perched on the arm of a chair opposite his superior.

Ark plodded to a slightly wider chair and squished into place. He stared at Sterling. “Ungle?”

Teal frowned. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark waved the question away. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Rubbing his brow, Sterling realized that he felt completely drained. Maybe I’m not suited to this line of work. “Can’t I just say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark snorted.

With a grim expression, Teal slipped onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

As if ready for his analyst session, Sterling lay back, crossed his feet, and placed his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb in this position. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth.”

Bright sunlight filtered through the window and the purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. A spicy scent wafted through the air.

Teal’s voice seemed to echo across a vast distance. “From Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers together and relaxed, seeping like a puddle into the ground. “Yes. This mystery race has surprising abilities. They engineer new life forms, terraform entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While we Luxonians and our sometime-allies have our own unique abilities, these beings can do everything we can— but better—with more flare.”

Ark harrumphed.

“Truth is…they’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbowroom. We’ve only discovered a few pockets of their kind. The ones your people irritated” —he swiveled a glance at Ark— “must’ve been rather high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep Earth in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark speared Teal with a frown and nodded to Sterling. “Go on.”

“Ungle believes that their race is obsessed with the nature of good and evil. So, he wants to learn everything they do…and more. Apparently, your studies caught his attention. He wants to know more about Ishtar and someone called Chai.”

Teal jerked to his feet and paced across the room. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

Ark’s head swiveled from Sterling to Teal. “Evil like Ishtar?”

Freezing, Teal glared at Ark. “Ishtar isn’t evil. He’s just—”

Sterling lifted his head. “How about his father, Neb? You called him evil.”

“I can’t debate that now. I want to know why Ungle wants to kill me. Or Zuri. We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed, swung his legs off the couch, and sat up. “He isn’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they really are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants your work to continue—” His pink cheeks blanched as he sat bolt upright. “Uh-oh.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark’s shoulder.

“What?”

“Ungle doesn’t want you to become distracted by anything…or anyone.”

“Zuri is annoying, but he’s not a distraction. He’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. His throat felt very dry. “Not Zuri. Sienna. He wants her to leave the planet—quietly.” He swallowed. “I tried every argument I could think of.”

Teal’s gaze fixed on Sterling. “Then?”

“I tried to arrange a little accident. So, she’d go home.”

“A little accident? I was nearly crushed by a boulder, my food was poisoned, and that wasn’t a natural lightning strike.”

“She’s Luxonian. She would’ve survived.” He scowled at Teal. “It wasn’t your dinner by the way—it was hers.”

Teal leapt at Sterling, grabbing him by the neck.

Ark sprang forward. Slapping Teal’s hands off Sterling’s neck with three tentacles, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Glaring, Teal jerked away and spat his words. “How could you? Sienna is completely innocent. I thought we trusted each other.” He squared his shoulders. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark shoved them further away from each other and glanced from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand. Ungle has a very persuasive nature. He can make a person’s life remarkably challenging. He’s quite capable of creating an interstellar incident and making it appear that a certain judge” —his eyebrows wigged in Sterling’s direction— “is long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that Ungle wouldn’t be far behind.”

Ark laughed. “Perhaps. But our Crestonian leadership has legitimate concerns. This mystery race will dictate the Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened as his voice rose. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put your planet in the dark?”

Sterling collapsed on the couch. “Oh, God. I really will have a heart attack.”

Teal shook his head and ran his fingers through his hair. “Not possible. Though, I rather wish…”

Sterling peered at Teal. “All right! I should’ve told you. Ungle’s talk of good and evil…a life of heaven or hell. I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna seemed like child’s play. An easy way to keep an ally happy.”

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

Sterling groaned. “I’ll have to go to Earth now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in various directions, clearly facing an impossible reality. “How will I ever keep you all in line?”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment.”

Teal glanced at Ark. “At least Zuri and Sienna are safe.”

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

“Ungle warned me that if I failed, he’d take care of the matter himself.”

Teal groaned.

With a long huff, bubbles swarmed through Ark’s breather helm.

Sterling stood and pressed Teal’s shoulder, meeting his gaze. “Sienna is safe. Really.” His eyes wandered to the purple vine; it appeared to be waving goodbye.

Oh hell.“

~~~

Trust starts with truth and ends with truth.” – Santosh Kalwar

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seven

—Lake Land—

Make Yourself at Home

Eoban’s booming laugh reverberated through the trees. He stood in front of a new dwelling and watched Gilbreth try to free himself from his two younger siblings who clung to him like creeping vines in midsummer. Eoban stepped closer.

The children’s eyes widened in stark terror.

Loping forward, Eoban scooped Ham into his arms and swung him high into the air.

Screaming bloody murder, Ham struggled for a handhold, using Eoban’s nose for support.

Eoban laughed louder. He flipped the child around to face his mother and father.

Lud smiled and waved.

Dinah held out her hands, ready to receive her baby boy. She grinned as she took him her arms. “Does Eoban the Giant scare my baby?” Standing next to Eoban, she tapped his arm. “He’s a good man.” She kissed the little boy on the nose.

With a new light in his eyes and mad glee in his heart, Eoban strode toward Deli.

The little girl scampered into her brother’s arms in a desperate attempt to flee from the approaching menace.

Lud laughed so hard, he bent double and lifted one hand in surrender. “Deli, don’t be afraid. He’s a friend. He wants to make friends with you.”

The little girl peeked around Gilbreth’s neck and pointed an accusing finger. “He’ll throw me up in the air and drop me!” She nuzzled her head against Gilbreth and murmured into his neck. “You won’t let him get me, will you?”

Gilbreth managed to gasp. “Don’t worry. But please, I can’t breathe!”

Eoban shuffled to a halt and chuckled.

Lud strode over and rescued his eldest son.

Gilbreth offered wide-eyed gratitude as his father pried his sister from his body.

Eoban pointed at Gilbreth. “You have a remarkable son, Lud. Few boys could take such treatment without complaint. I bet he’s as fearless as he is good-natured.” Leaping forward, Eoban grabbed Gilbreth by the waste and then swung him over his shoulder. He peered from Ham to Deli. “See, little ones. I swing children into the air.” He swung Gilbreth around and then placed him gently on his feet. “But I do not drop.”

Red in the face, Gilbreth readjusted his tunic.

Eoban patted Gilbreth on the back, best of buddies.

Lud grinned. “You’re a man of many talents! As I remember, you used to tell entertaining stories, too. Maybe, if my children are very good, you’ll tell a few tales today?”

“To be sure!” Eoban smiled broadly. “Even if they are not so very good.” He stepped forward and waved to the dwelling before them. “So, how do you like the house?”

A rosy sun settling on the horizon, a cool breeze, and evening bird song set a peaceful scene.

“It’s beautiful.” Lud glanced at his wife. “We’d like to build one very much like it.”

Eoban rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Build? This one is vacant, and I know the owners. I’m sure they’d offer a fair deal.”

Dinah’s face lit up. “We’d be neighbors then?” She glanced at her children. “But we might get a bit noisy.”

Eoban ran his fingers through his wild, unkempt hair. “I’m easily bored. I enjoy hearing laughter—or screams—as the case may be.”

Dinah giggled, nestling her baby against her shoulder.

Stepping forward, Lud peered at the framework and slapped a post with a firm hand. “Could you introduce us to the owners tomorrow? We’ll make camp for the night and meet them in the morning.”

“Make camp? Perish the thought. I’ll introduce you to the owners tonight, though” —Eoban jogged a few paces away and waved at distant figures shuffling in the center of the village— “it might take me a few moments to gather them up.” He flung a grin at Lud. “Make yourselves at home. I’ll be right back.”

~~~

Dinah sighed, strode to her husband’s side, and clasped his hand.

Carrying the little ones and with Gilbreth in tow, Lud and Dinah circled the dwelling.

Lud stroked his chin. “It’s new. A few rough spots but generally well-done.” He nudged his wife. “Eoban’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t he?”

Dinah’s gaze roamed over two matching front benches. “I trust him. A man without guile.”

Lud nodded. “Honest to a fault. You’ll never wonder what he thinks.” He glanced at the sinking sun. “It’s getting late. Let’s get supper.”

Gilbreth jumped forward. “I’ll start the fire. Man’s work. Finally.”

Lud unrolled mats, and Dinah pulled provisions from their bags.

A rumble of murmuring voices rose in the distance. Dinah glanced up as Lud turned to face the approaching throng. She edged closer to Lud and gripped his arm.

A crowd of young men ambled forward chattering in high-spirited exuberance.

Eoban led the group, his voice rising above the rest. “Remember your manners. They’re new here, and their children are a bit skittish. Don’t talk too loud or make foolish jokes. Just smile a lot. Understand?”

The assembled heads nodded. One voice lifted above the rest. “Just don’t tell them who made the roof, whatever you do!” Laughter soared like a flock of excited birds.

Eoban tapped the speaker on the head. “You know who’ll be doing all the repair work if there are any problems, right?”

The boys chorused as one voice. “Eoban!” A roar of approval met this comment.

Lud glanced at his wife and grinned.

Eoban and his troop halted in front of the stupefied family. Silence ensued as the two groups stared at one another.

Lud laid a comforting hand on his Gilbreth’s shoulder.

Eoban nudged one young man forward. “Go on, Tannit.”

A handsome, dark-haired lad of fifteen stepped forward, his gaze skittering from husband to wife. “You and Dinah were expected, Lud, and your children too, of course. We wanted to make you feel welcome. It was Eoban’s idea, but he made us feel like it was ours, since we did all the work.” He blushed. “Though he worked, too. He had to tell all those stories!” Tannit grinned. “So, we built you this house. We figured it was something you’d need right away, and it wouldn’t spoil if you were late in coming.” He glanced at the house. “Hope you like it.” Biting his lip, he stepped aside.

Giving Tannit a firm pat on the shoulder, Eoban spoke up. “The boys worked very hard.” He flashed a grand smile.

Lud stood frozen and wondered if his heart had stopped beating.

Dinah smiled, her eyes round with shock.

Attempting to make his mouth work, Lud swallowed and sucked in a deep breath. “You mean…this house is ours? It’s too much. How could we ever repay such generosity?”

A younger, slighter-built youth stepped forward and stared boldly at Lud. “My name is Onia, son of Jonas and Obed.” He brushed a stray lock of hair from his eyes. “Truth is, we’re only paying you back for all you’ve done for us. Didn’t you lead the slave revolt? Wasn’t it you who befriended Pele so she could warn us about the Giants? You helped a whole passel of children during the great fire and brought the vision that stopped Ishtar.” He shuffled his feet, his gaze dropping to the ground. “It seems to me that we’d have to build many houses—and better ones than this—to repay all you’ve done for us. We’re just being grateful…as all worthy people are grateful.” With a little shrug, he stepped back among his peers.

Mouths fell open across the assembled group.

Tears ached behind Lud’s eyes. Straining, he swallowed and clasped his hands together. “I accept your gift then, and my family and I will treasure this house as a warrior treasures his finest weapon.” He glanced from one face to another, finally landing on Eoban. “We thank you from the depths of our hearts.”

His eyes gleaming, Eoban squeezed Onia’s shoulder. “Breeding is in the blood.” He glanced around. “Boys, show Gilbreth around while I help Lud and his family get settled. We ought to celebrate!”

Dinah’s face blanched. “I don’t have enough provisions to feed the whole clan.”

Onia turned on his heel and called back. “Don’t worry. Mother and the other women have been preparing a feast for days. It’s their surprise.”

The troop of boys galloped away, laughing and shouting. Looking like a proud father, Eoban stared after the boys.

Lud took his wife’s hand, and they laced their fingers together. His heart swelled, joy flooding his whole body.

“I want to see!” Ham scampered to the doorway and peered inside with Gilbreth holding Deli on the other side. Lud and Dinah stepped closer and leaned over them, glimpsing the dim interior.

Lud felt a hand on his shoulder.

Eoban nudged him forward, nearly tumbling the whole family. “Go on! It’s your house now. Make yourselves comfortable!”

Before stepping over the threshold, Lud glanced back at the glowing horizon. The same horizon he knew as a boy in captivity. The same horizon he shared with his family in the hills. The same horizon he shared with his wife and children while traveling. Tears slipped down his cheek. Forever, now, this horizon would glow in splendor…just outside his home.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Four

Teal peered into Sienna’s eyes as they lay on a grassy plain before a mighty cliff. A hot sun beat down on them from a clear sky. Propped on his arms and knees, he hovered over the length of her body.

Sienna waited, grinning.

Teal lowered himself.

A flash of fear rippled over Sienna’s face.

With a groan, Teal tipped his head back and plopped onto the grass beside her, sprawling out like a broken toy.

Sienna jerked up, pouting. “What’s wrong?”

Teal rubbed his eyes. “You still don’t trust me.”

Yanking herself to her feet, Sienna brushed grass and dirt from her tan leggings. Her long-sleeved tunic rippled to the ground. “You don’t trust me—rather.”

Rolling to his side, Teal peered at her. “I’d like to. By all that is good and holy, I want to.” Rising, he slapped dry stems from his gray tunic.

Sienna’s lips quivered.

Exhaling a long breath, Teal stepped closer and caressed her arms. He tilted his head to meet her downturned gaze. “I’ve never wanted a woman as much as I want you.”

Swallowing and batting back tears, Sienna shook her head. “I’ve never been this—”

Teal quirked a smile. “Vulnerable?” Impulsively, he pulled her into a tight embrace and tucked her head under his chin. “Me too.” He ran his fingers over her hair, across her shoulder, down her arm to her waist…and forced his trembling hand to stop. He lifted his eyes to the setting sun. “We’re in the midst of an interplanetary struggle. No one knows who to trust or what to believe.”

Sienna sniffed and pulled away. “You seem ready enough to trust that Crestonian and Ingot.”

“They’re Crestonians and Ingots. I know their true nature and their peoples’ hopes for this world.”

Snorting, Sienna turned her back on Teal. “Then you can’t trust them at all.”

With a chuckle, Teal glanced aside and froze.

A ragged figure, bent forward, scrabbled down a steep incline, grasping at rocks and tough weeds to keep from sliding.

Teal exhaled a low breath. “Ishtar?”

Racing to his side, Sienna followed his gaze. She clutched his arm. “How’d he get here? It’s well beyond—”

Suppressing even the hint of panic, Teal swiveled around and surveyed the area. With a grunt, he grabbed Sienna’s hand and gestured with his chin. “Over there, under that rocky ledge.”

They scampered forward and hid in the deep shadows.

Ishtar scrambled to the bottom of the incline and turned aside. He padded on bleeding feet toward the desert.

Sienna frowned. “Where’s he going? There’s nothing on the other side but barren lands. He’ll die there.”

Teal stepped out from under the stony ledge and peered at the emaciated figure striding purposefully away. “He’s pursued.”

Sienna’s eyes widened as she glanced around. “By whom?” Snatching up a rock, she crouched for battle. “Can they see us?”

“No. And we can’t see them. But they are here nonetheless.”

With a snort, Sienna tossed the rock to the side. “You’re a regular Bhuaci with all your riddles.”

Teal watched Ishtar stumble. I should’ve seen this coming. A stabbing pain tore through his chest. “We need to return.” He glanced at the sky. “Officially, I shouldn’t even be here without Zuri and Ark. Luxonian Guardians should respect our own treaties.”

Sienna huffed and crossed her arms. “It was your idea. Don’t blame me if—”

“Don’t start.” Teal pulled her closer.

Relenting, Sienna placed her hands on his chest and started rubbing in slow circles.

Teal peered down, clasped one of her hands, and examined it. “Never any jewelry. Why?”

With a teasing grin, Sienna slipped away. “I don’t need any. My mother taught me that a woman is enough in herself. My father agreed.” Her gaze softened. “He used to bring me autumn flowers. Said that beauty is fleeting.”

Teal glanced back to where Ishtar had rounded the rocky crevice, his voice dry and distant even to his own ears. “You believe that?”

“Of course. If something lasts—we don’t appreciate it.”

Teal locked his eyes with hers. “I disagree. Beauty is eternal. It’s our gaze that is fleeting.”

~~~

Ark sat on a log next to a rippling stream and slapped his fleshy, three-toed feet into the flowing water. He shivered in delight.

Zuri crouched on a boulder, his black bio-armor including headgear, bodysuit, and hard-toed boots, glinted in the bright sun. As he hunched over a handheld screen, his gaze scrolled over a data-stream.

Ark scratched his neck. “By all rights, we shouldn’t even be here without Teal. Cresta Accords are nothing to splash at, especially when they’re backed up by a Luxonian treaty and your Ingoti Magisterium’s seal of approval.”

With a grunt, Zuri scrunched his face and peered closer to the screen. “You gonna tell him?”

“Ahhh!” Ark swung his dripping toes from the water and dropped them on the end of the log, tipping backward precariously. Using two tentacles for support, he leaned further back and stretched out, pillowing his head on two other tentacles. “Perhaps I shall. I really feel I must. After all, he’s our friend. We don’t want to break trust with him.”

Zuri peered at Ark, grimacing. “Friend? What makes you think he’s our friend? He never believes anything we tell him. He always checks our data after the fact. And he reports every bloody word we say.”

“As do I. As do you.” Ark lifted his head and glanced at Zuri’s bent figure. “There’s more to friendship than trust, you know.”

The datapad slipped from Zuri’s grasp and dropped to the ground. “Blast!” He scowled at Ark. “You want to explain what your idea of friendship entails, exactly?”

“Endurance.” Ark groaned and rolled to a sitting position. “No Cresta worth his cranium capacity would ever bother with trust. We’re not like that.” He waved a tentacle in the dim light. “You’ve been reading too many memes on the Inter-Alien bulletin board.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I’m suspicious of everyone.”

“Even yourself—I hope.”

Zuri smirked. “I just told Teal where we are.” He strode to Ark and stared down at his limp figure. “I contacted him as soon as we arrived and told him that you wanted to follow up on Ishtar.” His eyebrows rose. “How do you like that—friend?”

Ark shifted aside, pulled one of his boots forward, and wagged it at Zuri. “Fine with me.” He grinned, quite pleased with himself. “I told him where we were going even before we left Crestar.” He wagged the boot again. “You know how these things pinch. Do be careful this time.”

A new chapter of OldEarth Ishtar Encounter coming every Tuesday and Thursday.

Have a blessed day,

Ann

Seek to become someone’s true friend.

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter Chapter One

—Planet Lux—
Test a Theory

Ark, his fleshy white potbellied body encased in a somber gray bio-suit and brown boots, stood aside from the main crowd in the domed Luxonian chamber. He blew bubbles through his breather helm, wrapped his four tentacles behind his back, and tried to ignore the bright light streaming in from above. Planet Lux has altogether too bright a sun. They ought to shield us from the blasted thing. He squinted and averted his eyes.

The Luxonian meeting hall, punctuated with purple-veined marble columns and glorious fountains shaped like creatures from every planet in the district, was filled to capacity with representatives from four races: Crestonian, Bhuaci, Luxonian, and Ingoti.

He studied a Luxonian Lightbird sculpture, as it appeared to fly into the air, spraying clear water from its beak. With a shrug, he shifted to the more fascinating Crestonian Sandfish, spouting green liquid from its razor-toothed jaws. A shiver rolled down his spine.

Dragging his gaze away, Ark nonchalantly shifted his stance and waited for his superior to approach. It would never do to appear hasty.

Ungle, a Crestonian with bright red cilia swaying on top of his plump head and dressed in a spring-green bio-suit and matching boots, meandered the circuit of the room with two tentacles wrapped behind his back in a contemplative manner. A third tentacle held a long-stemmed glass filled to the brim with blue gelatinous goo. With his last tentacle, he shook appendages—or mechanical armatures—as the occasion required, with various Luxonian and alien representatives. His perpetual smile never wavered.

Ark slumped and caught the eye of a young Luxonian who stared directly at him. Ark patted his breathing helm as if stifling a yawn.

The Luxonian’s gaze delved deeper, his obvious curiosity breaking to the surface.

Annoyance broke Ark’s placid mood. He discharged a narrow-eyed glare at the Luxonian, who soon turned away. Idiot.

“So you finally made it.”

Ark’s head jerked so hard as he twisted around to face his superior that he felt a crackling in the bone holding his spine erect. Blast. I’ll have a muscle spasm from that. He clasped Ungle’s tentacle from which dangled a gaudy bracelet. Ark blinked and swallowed. Better not expect me to kiss that thing—like some weird Bhuaci sign of obeisance.

“Not for kissing, just admiring.”

Ark swallowed convulsively. Uh-oh.

Ungle laughed, nearly spraying liquid over the top of his breathing helm. “I can’t read your mind—but really—Ark, you’ve become practically translucent. Been among humans too long in my opinion.”

A Luxonian waiter in humanoid form, as befits the theme of the meeting, and dressed in an embroidered gold tunic and lavender leggings, glided in close. With a bow, he offered a tray of pink, blue, and green drinks.

Ark glanced at Ungle.

Ungle poured blue goo into his breathing helm, slurped, and shivered. “Not bad. But I’d recommend the green. Not authentic green, you understand, but less of a kick than the blue.”

Ark swiped a blue drink off the tray and poured it daintily into his breathing helm. Like a connoisseur savoring an ancient wine, Ark sipped his liquid while his gaze wandered the room.

Ungle waved the servant away.

Ark turned to his superior. “You were the first to recommend Earth observation. Have you changed your mind?”

“Not at all. I think humanity will have a great deal to offer—in time. But I also realize there are many complications that must be considered—”

A bell tinkled.

“Bothmal those bells!” Ungle tapped Ark on the shoulder. “Meet me in my chambers after the meeting.”

“You aren’t staying for the Balatin Reenactment Festival?”

Ungle gurgled. “I’m a Crestonian. Science, not pleasure, dictates my schedule.”

Ark took the hint.

~~~

Ark settled in a plump chair and hated the hiss of his bio-suit as it wedged between the stiff arms. Dark waters, I’ll never get up without help.

The Crestonian chambers included a mini-pool built into the back wall, cushy, white furniture, and a simple cleansing and dressing closet.

Ark glanced over as Ungle tapped a console, lighting up a holopad.

“Pay attention now. I’ve done careful research, and I think I have just the solution we need.”

Ark grunted as he tried to wiggle out of the chair. “What…is…the…problem?” Popping like a cork, he sprang to his feet.

Ungle straightened, and a hologram of the Luxonian guardian stationed on Earth—Teal—appeared before them. His slim, well-balanced figure, straight light brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and firm jaw emphasized his determined personality.

Ark shrugged and clumped forward, his embarrassment forgotten. “Teal?” His gaze swiveled to Ungle.

“As I mentioned earlier, science dictates the direction of my life. I believe that humanity has a great deal to offer Crestonian studies. Not the least of which is their obsession with good and evil.”

Ark wrapped his tentacles behind his back, arched his neck forward, and meandered in close. “Surely, we understand the concept as well as anyone. Why—?”

“We don’t experience the polar opposites as humans do. It makes quite a difference. Consider—” Ungle tapped the console. Teal dissolved, and Chai appeared beautifully dressed in crimson robes embroidered in gold. “A dangerous—by all human standards—evil force controls this man. It’s a force I’ve rarely encountered before. Yet, this human believes he’ll benefit from the experience.”

Ark’s tentacles wiggled nervously behind his back. “What does he have to do with Teal?”

“This being—calls himself Chai—will cross paths with the one you call Ishtar. It doesn’t take serious extrapolation of data to figure this out. Their paths must intersect.”

“So—”

“Teal will be watching. He’ll care what happens. He might even attempt to interfere.”

“That goes against all his training.”

Ungle shrugged. “Given proper motivation, we all go against our training. Don’t be obtuse, Ark.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to see the natural exchange between Chai and Ishtar. I want to witness a soul damned to—”

“Hell?”

“Yes, I believe that is the term.”

“You want me to keep an eye on Teal—is that it?” Chuckling, Ungle tapped the console. “Not primarily. I want you to keep your eye on her.”

The holographic image of Chai dissolved, and Sienna, a Luxonian beauty with reddish hair, golden eyes, and a slim figure appeared in all her radiant glory on the holopad.

“Sienna? She cares for Teal, but—”

“She’s a Luxonian with a healer’s soul. She wants to help so badly; she could do a great deal of harm in the process.” Ungle tapped the screen and Chai, Teal, and Sienna appeared together on the holopad facing away from one another. “They’re each convinced that they know what’s best for humanity. I’m convinced that they have no idea what’s in store for them.”

“And you want me to observe and collect data?”

“I want to test a theory—about good and evil.”

Ark waited.

Ungle smirked. “You’ll see.”

A new OldEarth Ishtar Encounter chapter coming each Tuesday and Thursday. 

Enjoy,

Ann

“He shook my dozing soul and threw the cold water of reality in my face, so that life and God and heaven and hell broke into my world with glory and horror.” (on CS Lewis) ~John Piper

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

OldEarth ARAM Encounter https://amzn.to/2KLhlsN

OldEarth Ishtar Encounter https://amzn.to/2OAkDQF

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)