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?
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.
Elmer knew better than to believe in ghosts. But when he awoke with sweat beading on his forehead and the sensation that he had just returned from a long journey through wild-lands with only his body and wits intact, he knew that something otherworldly was at work.
His wife stirred at his side. She slapped the blankets, her face half-smashed against the pillow, her eyes squeezed shut. “Don’t get up…too early.”
Too early or too late? He pressed his chest trying to steady his galloping heart. “Hon-honey?”
One eye opened. Not a flicker of interest.
“Do you remember going to a desert town with broken-down buildings and getting kidnapped?”
Lana sat up, groggily rubbing her fingers through her short tufts of hair.
Elmer swallowed the lump in his throat. What happened to her luscious brown locks?
She steered her gaze over her husband, taking the long tour. Dubious. Pity?
His hands shaking, Elmer threw off the wrinkled sheets and stalked to the bathroom. He swiped on the cold water, splashed his face, straightened, and snatched a towel. He wiped the drips running down his baggy t-shirt. Have Ilost weight? He sucked in a shuddering breath. “What day is it?”
Lana padded across the bedroom. “Sunday, goof. New Year’s Day, remember?”
An electric bolt sizzled through his body. “N-new year?”
With a snarky laugh, Lana strolled into the bathroom wearing a calf-length night dress that should look sexy as hell, but didn’t.
Elmer stared. Why?
She leaned her head on his shoulder, a buddy-nudge, nothing wifely about it. “You remember the year, right?”
Terror gripped Elmer, nearly closing his throat. “Twenty-twenty—”
“Ha-ha! Got ja!” She smacked him, grinning like a lottery winner. “You had a whole year to get used to the thirties, and now you’ve slipped-up. Used to make fun of me!”
His gaze shifted from his wife to the mirror. Where did these grey streaks come from? His eyes—haggard and…vacant? Lord, have mercy.
Frowning, Lana shoved off and crossed her arms, the tilt of her body accenting the sharpness of her bony frame. “Twenty-thirty-one! We toasted and the VR bots cheered. Remember?”
Elmer slapped his face. “Ten years?” He retreated to the bedroom, marched to the window, and lifted the curtain. A barren square of dead grass met his eyes. Only a rotting stump stood in testimony of past life. “What the—” He turned and glared at Lana. “Where’s our backyard?”
“Backyard?” She tiptoed forward and pressed her cold hand against his forehead. “You feeling all right?” She leaned in and stared deep into his eyes. “Time for your new-gen?”
A chill ran down his spine as he stared at the strange woman.
An elegant roll of the eyes. She flounced to the bedside, yanked open a drawer, and gripped a tube. She shook it, grinning. “You skipped your last dose—see what happens? Bad dreams, memory troubles… You need a pop and time inside.” Swinging the tube, she strode out of the bedroom.
His stomach dropped. Dragging it along behind, Elmer followed like a wary dog.
He faced what should have been his living room—a modern setup with overstuffed chairs, a broad couch, a large screen television centered on the back wall, matching end tables with iron lamps—opening to a large island-dominated kitchenet.
Two worn chairs faced a bank of curved screens.
His gaze scraped the bare walls and grey floor. Cold. Dingy. Crumps, dust, stains, clutter. Broken family portraits lay scattered. One oil painting, ripped on the left side, stood propped on the floor, a forgotten project.
Elmer licked his lips. “Wh-where’s the Christmas tree?”
A snort and hollow laughter. “Christmas tree! What the hell is wrong with you?” She lumbered to the kitchen and dragged a chipped cup from the sink. She slapped the faucet, let water fill the container, plopped in a white pill, and watched it sizzle. She held out her offering. “Drink up!”
His whole body trembling, Elmer backed up, his hands raised. “What’s going on?”
Confusion raced irritation over Lana’s face. “I’ve heard of memory lapses, but this is a bit much. What’s the last thing you remember?”
Elmer edged his way to the nearest chair and plopped down, his body conforming to the seat, oddly comforting. “Christmas. We stopped at church for our ten-minute visit, came home, did our family video, then opened gifts. Jason gave us that new Virtual Reality Game…”
Lana sneered. “Ancient history, Elm. Christmas…church—mythology. Video chats for work, yeah, but who cares about family—it’s only DNA.” She wrinkled her nose and held out the cup.
He accepted it and sniffed. Nothing.
She tapped her wrist, bringing the screens to life. Rotating images flashed—a rainforest, a medieval castle, and a desert with broken down buildings. “Time to get back to the real world.”
Sucking in a heaving breath, Elmer shot up in bed, his heart racing. He glanced wildly around.
Lana, her long brown hair running riot over the blankets, lay on her side, her face in peaceful repose.
He heaved a long sigh and softly inched out of bed. Padding to the bathroom, he stared in the mirror. No grey streaks. A little bloodshot and brooding, but definitely his eyes. Thank God.
“I’m so tired. Get me that New-gen Marge gave me last night, okay?”
Blinking, Elmer trotted to the living room and snatched the curtain away from the bank of windows. A soft blanket of snow covered their miniature backyard. The maple tree still standing in the center. Furniture, Christmas tree, paintings on the wall. Familiar. Home. He released a long breath.
“Honey?” Her voice had risen to a whine.
Like a wolf approaching a strange den, he sidled toward the kitchenet. The flash of a curved screen glinted from under the tree as he went by.
A red box with huge letters “A New Generation” screamed on the central island.
His fingers trembling, Elmer opened the box.
Elmer closed the door, padded to his bedroom, and flopped onto the bed.
Sitting propped against a bank of colorful pillows with a book in her hands, Lana peered at him through narrowed eyes. “I still don’t get why you had to have the whole family over.”
“And what happened to the new VR set Jason gave us?”
Elmer kicked off his shoes and slid back onto the pillows. He wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “We don’t need it.”
She shook her head. “Like Marge’s gift?” She laid the book on her lap. “You know, you’ve been a different guy since New Year’s Day.”
Elmer exhaled and pulled his wife close, his passion real and desire rising. “I hope so, sweetie. I hope so.”
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.”
Abbas inhaled the bittersweet scent of the dying season, fully conscious of the vitality of his young companion.
Noman paced at his side through the spent garden, his gaze searching, though his lips remained stiffly in place.
They both knew why he had come.
Noman shook his head and waved toward the silent mounds where flowers, bushes, and fruit trees had once bloomed. “I’ve never understood your obsession with seasons. You know perfectly well that it’s just a repetitive cycle.”
Stopping under a gnarled tree radiant with autumn foliage, Abbas smiled through his discomfort. “Stages, even repetitive ones, have much to teach us.” He pointed to three milk-white moons rising in the light-green evening sky. “Everything is a part of a larger whole. We cannot live in isolation.”
Noman tilted his head and stared at the golden sun sinking onto the horizon. “If we are going to survive — much less thrive — we must choose soon.”
Abbas plucked a scarlet leaf off the tree. “Home is where the heart is.”
His tone bitter, Noman snorted a laugh. “You love riddles and poetical expressions, Abbas, but reality faces us with stark choices.”
A soprano note rose over the sleeping landscape, arresting the two. They stopped and listened as the voice danced, rising and falling, whirling with words until the singer burst through the gate at the end of the pathway.
She stood luminous, her long black hair fell past her shoulders, golden eyes sparkled in mischievous fun, and her lips twitched with unspent laughter. A long blue dress caressed her upper body and fell into gentle folds at her feet. A garland of late-season herbs crowned her head.
Abbas’s gaze darted to her rounded tummy, seeing in his mind the life curled on contentment within her body. “Angela?”
Noman’s perfect composure stiffened, a cord stretched to its limit.
Abashed, the laughter on Angela’s lips died. She swayed forward, her gaze slipping from Abbas to Noman. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean — ”
Abbas lifted his hand. “You are always welcome, my love. Any news?”
A fluttered sweep over her tummy, she smiled and nodded a polite salutation. “All is well.” She glanced into the sky. “I pray the same can be said for those under our watchful eye.”
Straightening, Noman scowled, a pedagogue forced to impart a hard lesson. “A time to choose is upon us. They have no intrinsic value other than in service to the greater good.” Noman glanced at Abbas. “I wish you could teach your husband to see with your vision.”
A flash of irritation sped over Angela’s face, quickly replaced by her usual serene unconcern. “My vision only extends to my own sphere. I make no pretense of managing the larger universe.”
Abbas gestured to the arched gateway leading to a magnificent castle, resting on a mountaintop surrounded by a pine forest. The stone structure with myriad exalted towers, round and rectangular windows on every level, and a domed central roof dominated the landscape. “Let’s return and enjoy our evening together.” He nodded at Noman. “We can discuss your concerns in more depth after a good meal — ”
Tapping his thigh, Noman’s agitation spread to the air around him. “There is little to discuss. I simply wanted to know if I had your support.”
Pained, Abbas dropped his gaze. “You have my support but your plan does not.”
His face tightened into a frozen mask, Noman nodded. “What I expected. Though I am disappointed. My mission is now clear.”
Angela sucked in a breath, her hands clasping her middle. “What do you plan to do?”
Noman waved her question away with a formal salute. “Nothing you need concern yourself with.” He turned to Abbas. “I will take my leave. Humans must face the greatest conundrum of their existence. Either they are slaves or masters.” He shook his head. “The council will see, I’m right. It’s a pity, really. You could have saved us all a great deal.” He shrugged. “But it’s no matter. The truth will come out.” He bowed low. “I must be on my way. The sooner I get this over with, the better.”
Angela nodded, her eyes clouded, her forehead furrowed in knots of concern.
In a blink of the eye, Noman disappeared. Only his footprints in the soft soil testified to his presence a moment before.
Angela sighed. “Why is he so angry? And why take it out on a primitive race that has never done him any harm?”
Dread filled Abbas, a gut-wrenching certainty that boded ill for many. “Noman was not created like us. Despite his intelligence and abilities, he lacks fruition.”
Angela swallowed, fear filling her eyes. “But why — ”
“For all of their limitations and failings, humanity can reproduce. A privilege denied him.”
“But he has his own glory. Can’t he see that?”
Abbas sighed and took his wife’s arm. “When we refuse the good in others, we often destroy it in ourselves.”
Angela jerked to a halt, her hand clasping her stomach. “He kicked!” She laughed. “It’s almost as if he could hear you and wanted to respond.”
Abbas lifted his eyes from his wife to the dim horizon, onto the first twinkling stars. “We best get home. Night is falling fast, and we don’t have much time.”
Angela patted his arm. “Don’t worry, my love. We’re protected here, and Noman will do as he pleases, in any case. He always does. What happens out there isn’t our responsibility.” She stepped away and beckoned with laughter. “Let’s enjoy our night together.”
Abbas let her go ahead and stood alone in the dark, his grief rising at the thought of his son inheriting such a universe. He shook his head. Slave, master, or honest service to all. Tears filled his eyes.
Herman perched his glasses on his nose, stared at the bottle of bathroom cleaner with the foamy suds on the label, and swerved his gaze to his beloved dog—the one giving him the mopey What-did-I-Do-To-Deserve-This? look—and realized his mistake.
It wasn’t the first time.
The week before, he had brushed his teeth with Icy-Hot, and the week before that he had poured half a bottle of liquid detergent down the drain thinking he was unclogging the sink. The fact that the dishes had smelled “springtime fresh” hadn’t helped in the least. The sink remained clogged until the plumber sent his snake coil five miles through underground terrain.
Each morning, when the news informed him that a new plague or disasters unlimited loomed, he figured that this was as good a time as any to make out a will. Dying was all too easy. It was living that made each day a challenge.
And so, when he met Chuck, he tried not to act surprised. Chuck looked perfect. He acted perfect. Up until the moment he froze in place. That wasn’t so perfect. Not the way he did it. Stock still. His hand caught in mid-air, holding the test tube just so. His eyes staring, blank, but as wide and as blue as ever.
After the last major world alteration—pandemic, economic crisis, collective emotional meltdown—whatever you want to call it, The University had decided that “State of the Art Androids” would assist human teachers in their laboratory work. No matter if the world was going to hell-in-a-hand-basket, students still needed the opportunity to practice medical procedures, carry out chemical experiments, and do a thousand things that simply could not be managed from home.
Reasonable? Of course.
Considering his record of late, Herman wasn’t surprised when his Department Head informed him that a new assistant, Chuck, would aide him as he maneuvered the entire scientific student body through the semester. To stiffen his spine, Herman reminded himself that his dog had recovered nicely and water ran through his sink lickity-split these days, with a refreshing scent to boot.
He spent the entire weekend before Chuck’s arrival assuring himself that an assistant meant more free time to do his own research. A positive step in the right direction. An honor! And NO risk.
When autumn rolled around and the school doors finally creaked open, Chuck calculated formulas, measured chemicals, laid out lab materials, and never broke anything. Never got mixed up. Never forgot which student he was dealing with or which experiment they were doing. Though his pronunciation did need a little work. Good thing scientists rarely giggle.
But last Wednesday, Chuck had a few internal issues, not gastric of course, just something a little off. He bumped Herman twice as they crossed paths in the lab, and he actually scowled at Lacy, the brightest student in the whole school, who had the unfortunate luck to break her arm. Chuck didn’t slow down for bumbling humans and didn’t smile at imperfections.
Lacy’s attempt at humor as she held up her sling-shod arm collided with Chuck’s long cold stare.
Herman glanced at Lacy; tears filled her eyes.
He had suspected for months that her heart had been beating a little faster whenever Chuck was in the room…but this kind of workplace awkwardness he had never imagined. Made soaping the dog with the wrong kind of suds seem almost funny.
What to do? It wasn’t like he could call Herman out for his icy demeanor, his lack of empathy, his calculated perfection.
But on Friday, Chuck stalled. Positively and undeniably froze in place.
Herman called the proper authorities. Nodded sympathetically when the Head of the Department broke down sobbing. Chuck had been a prototype. “A first, damn it! But not the last!” The Head Man had lifted his chin and thrown a determined glare directly at Lacy. As if her human indelicacy had pushed Chuck’s tightly wound synaptic system over the proverbial bridge.
After two men with a squeaky dolly wheeled Chuck away, Herman shrugged and considered the lab. Test tubes, beakers, Bunsen burners, metal trays, and laptops—various tools of the trade—and one lonely shrub decorated the sterile white room.
A crash and Herman knew in his heart-of-hearts that there was one less test tube.
He blinked at Lacy. A tear slid down her face.
He padded softly to her side and wrapped his arm around her shoulder.
She leaned in and sighed. “I can’t help it. I make mistakes.”
For the first time in months, Herman felt hope for the human race.
Living in a fantasyland is fine. So long as I remember it’s not real. As a writer, I get to legitimize my role-playing, living the adventure of hero or villain as the case may be. But I’m not quite so dense as to believe that much of what I spend my cranium capacity on is little more than imagined reality.
Today, I’m sitting outside the local high school while my two middle daughters finish up their Drivers Ed classes. A gentle breeze blows and softens the intense heat of this summery day.
The last time I sat in this spot, I had plans well laid—practically none of which actually happened. I went from knowing my life trajectory to not being certain of anything. Even longstanding traditions—like going to Mass on Sunday—jumped the tracks and entered a new reality. One I never imagined.
Some people have told me that they just want things to go back to normal. While others have suggested the possibility of accepting a new normal. My guesstimate would be that we’ve always lived in a world of possibilities. The surprise is not that we live in fantasylands. The surprise is when we are shaken out of them.
Yesterday, the girls and I went to pick cherries from a neighbor’s tree. My friend had invited us several times, but I wanted to wait until she got all she wanted first and the luscious fruits were fully ripe. So, with a beautiful breeze blowing, the kids and I arranged to stop by with buckets in hand and harvest what we could. I knew what to expect—green leafy boughs bountifully speckled with ripe cherries.
But that’s not what we found. The tree was smaller, older, and there were few cherries among the sparse leaves. Where had the image in my mind come from? Experience, I told myself. History. Years of picking cherries off that same tree.
Only it wasn’t that same tree. It was older and worn and not so fruitful.
Long years ago, when my dad and mom divorced, I decided in a fit of self-preservation that I had no dad. I would expel his existence from my mind and cleanse my heart from the hurt of longing for a “real” father figure. But adulthood, a chance meeting (Actually after several grace-filled meetings), we developed a relationship. Though it wasn’t an ideal father-daughter-thing, it became a source of mutual kindness—love without counting or defining. As he nears his end—and at 91, I know he can’t go on forever—I look back on a friendship that could not have existed outside the grace of God.
Even my kids challenge my preconceptions. My older daughters tend to push the limits—managing things ahead of their age groups, amazing friends with their proficiency and abilities. So when my youngest came along, I naturally charged ahead, figuring that’s what she wanted. Guess not.
So as I think about it on this bright, blue-sky day, my ability to judge people and situations knows no bounds. I decide I know stuff not because I have amazing powers of forecasting, inside information, or unlimited spiritual insight, but because I simply want to get a handle on my life and decide between making a hot stew or cold egg salad sandwiches for dinner. Between calling a friend who hasn’t responded back in weeks and accepting the inevitable valley in our friendship. Between letting the poison of media-gossip roll off my shoulders or hugging it like a snake that strangles all hope of sincerity.
Accepting the mysteries of life and their involved vague possibilities mean that sometimes I get things wrong. I do have a dad, and I love the man more than words can say—partly because I have had to fight every demon in hell to hang onto our fragile relationship. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, what will happen with my friends, if the apples will ripen or rot, but I do believe that possibilities exist. That hope is not fantasy. That telling people what I “know” puffs my ignorance rather than fuels the informed.
Turns out that I won’t make a cherry pie, but we’ll have ice cream with a few cherries on top as a treat this week. A possible new friend asked if I wanted to meet for a cup of coffee. Recent media-gossip died a couldn’t-be-soon-enough death.
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.”
“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—”
“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.”