Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Three

The Mingling Throng

Cerulean stared up at the lofty two-storied cabin with large gabled windows and wide surrounding porch and grinned. It was everything he had dreamed of and more. Turning his head, his gaze swept over the lofty panorama, skimming across the waters of the great lake. Huge, white geese flew high above the bubbling crests that rolled up on the shore on this fine, summer evening.

He was exhausted, but he was getting used to that sensation. Ever since he won his last great tussle with the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, he had promised himself a retreat and a rest to build up his depleted reserves. He had been fighting Luxonians, humans—and pretty much everyone else—for far too long.

Even as his shoulders relaxed, shuffled footsteps forced him to turn his gaze from the blue-green water, across the pine-strewn forests, and back to the front of his cabin. There, on the dirt trail, a small assembly of men and women came to a huddled stop. His whole body stiffened and he frowned. Who the—?

The eldest figure spoke first. “Excuse us, sir. We hate to bother you, but are you Cerulean, the Luxonian leader of the Inter-Alien—?”

Cerulean sighed, his shoulders drooping. Oh, God. He peered into their tanned faces, appraised their homespun clothing and work-roughened hands, and repented his impatience. Give me strength. “I’m not the leader of anything anymore. I’ve retired.”

A tall, extremely thin representative of the group stepped forward. He strangled a straw hat in his hands and shuffled his feet. “But you are that Luxonian?”

Cerulean shrugged. “I helped patch together the Inter-Alien Alliance on Newearth, yes.” His gaze roved over the group as a baby, hidden from sight, squalled. “Is there something I can do for you?”

The tall man took another hesitant step forward, his brown-eyed gaze looking up the slope and into Cerulean’s piercing eyes. “My name is Able, and you see, we’re settlers here, neighbors, kind of. We call ourselves the Amens. Separatists. We want to return to the ways of our ancestors and live in union with God’s created world.”

A wavering grin played on Cerulean’s lips. “The Bhuac would love you.”

Able’s face brightened as a smile broke the straight line of his mouth. “Yes, sir, we know of them, and they do support our dream, but they have their own struggles. They’ve been persecuted too.”

“Someone’s persecuting you?” Cerulean pursed his lips. “Listen, this is no way to get acquainted. Please, step up here. The porch is large enough, and I have a few chairs. I’ve even got some food inside if you like.”

The two women offered sidelong glances and grinned as the elder one shifted her baby from under a blanket onto her hip. The other men started forward. Able put up his hand. “We wouldn’t think of disturbing you, but it would be a kindness to speak in the shade. The sun is hot, though the breeze you have up here is a real blessing.”

Cerulean opened his hands in a welcoming gesture, and the group filed past and climbed the four wooden steps. In quick jerking motions, he dragged chairs forward. “I just moved in, and I haven’t gotten everything set up yet.”

Able waved his hand anxiously. “Please, we only want a few moments of your time to explain our mission and why we need your help—if you don’t mind.”

Cerulean leaned against a post, suppressed a sigh, and nodded.

The three men moved into the background, while the two women settled into the available chairs. The mother rocked her baby with a relieved smile.

Able continued to wring his hat as he focused his attention on Cerulean. “You see, we were granted immigration status four years back, but it took time to organize our people and buy the right plot of land. We don’t want to trouble anybody, and we have no prejudice against any race, but we do have rules we must abide by. We choose to live simply and in union with nature. That’s why we moved into this wilderness over a year ago. At first, everything went along as planned. We built homes for our members and worked the land so that we could plant, and we even made a few contacts with businesses in Waukee.”

Cerulean saluted Able with an appreciative nod. “Sounds like you’re a marvel of planning and industry.”

Able accepted the compliment with a shy smile before his face sobered. “Well, we aren’t afraid of hard work, but we are afraid of death threats.”

“Death threats?”

“About six months ago, a mob of Uanyi showed up and told us to move on, that we’re not welcome in this district. I told them that we had the authorization of the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee to buy land here and that we have full human rights to form our own society as we see fit. I even showed them our data chip authorizing—”

“They ignored it, didn’t they? Uanyi don’t much care for humans. They’ll continue trying to intimidate you if they think they can get away with it.”

“They did a whole lot more than intimidate. They beat three of our men senseless and threatened to come back and kill our women and children if we didn’t leave.”

Cerulean’s frown deepened as he pushed off from the post. “Did you inform the Human Rights Bureau? Get any Interventionists out here?”

Able sighed. “A couple of Interventionists flew in and took down our complaint. But they told us that since we didn’t have any hard evidence, it’s going to be difficult to follow up. I went all the way to Vandi and issued a formal complaint, but the Human Rights detective I met said that threats against humans were too numerous to deal with. Humans are the minority and what with the Cresta, Uanyi, Ingot, and Luxonians—pardon me, sir, but not all Luxonians are like you—we find that we have very few rights and even fewer friends. At least not anyone who can help to defend us against a band of unruly Uanyi.”

Cerulean sat on the top step and rubbed his hands over his face. He let his gaze absorb the vast beauty before him and took a deep breath. Craning his neck, he looked back at the assembly.

Able blinked and glanced away. “You can’t help us?”

Cerulean rose and strode to the woman and the now sleeping infant. He smiled at the bright pink face nestled against his mother’s enfolding body. With a gentle finger, he caressed the tousled, straw-colored hair and peered into the mother’s eyes. “I’ll do everything I can. I have friends. Just give me a few days to track down these Uanyi idiots, and I might be able to convince them that it’ll be in their best interests to leave you alone.”

Relieved smiles broke across every face. The mother’s eyes filled with tears as she reached out and gripped Cerulean’s hand, her voice a shy whisper. “Thank you.”

Cerulean nodded. “Well, I don’t know about you, but solving problems makes me hungry. How about you come in and I’ll scratch up…something?”

A burst of laughter followed this as the two women shuffled to their feet. Able gripped Cerulean’s shoulder. “On the contrary, you’ll be our guest tonight, if you’ll do us the honor. My wife is one of the best cooks on the planet, and her sister can brew the finest tea this side of the moon.”

Cerulean grinned at Able’s soft, delighted eyes. “I can hardly wait to meet them.”

Perching his rumpled hat jauntily on his head, Able grinned back. “You already have.” The small troop shuffled down the steps with Able guiding the woman and baby. He looked back at Cerulean as he stopped on the trail, the rest of the group traipsing down the incline. “I’ll come back at sunset and lead you over. We’ll gather everyone to celebrate.”

Cerulean sighed. “I hope you aren’t counting on me too much. I’ll do the best I can, but you know, trouble is part of life here on Newearth.”

Able bobbed his head in agreement and turned away with a wave. “True, true, but we’ve got the best reason in the universe to be glad. It isn’t every day that you meet a new friend.”

Cerulean’s gaze followed the small group as they traipsed away.

An odd sensation made him look down. His legs were shaking. In fact, his whole body shook. Collapsing on the bottom step, he held his head in his hands and groaned.

~~~

Stopping just outside the Vandi Transport Center, Justine stared. Her eyes dilated for maximum reception. Humans wearing every assortment of casual and formal attire, insect-like Uanyi with their soft, rubbery exoskeletons, Ingots in their bulky techno-organic armor and breather helms, Crestas with their tentacles and mechanical exoskeletons, and Bhuacs, appearing like fairies from an Oldearth storybook, all bustled about, intermingling on an ordinary city street.

So this is Newearth? Justine smiled to herself. At least I am free of Taug for a few hours. Pity the universe hasn’t improved its business class accommodations. Still, I won’t complain. I am alive, after all.

Moving forward, Justine fell into step with the scurrying mix of life forms. Her heightened sense of hearing and sight allowed her to absorb vast and complex information with relative ease. After crisscrossing the main sections of the developing city, she recorded a perfect map of each of the important structures: hospitals, schools, shops, assorted businesses, and government buildings. Each alien race had an embassy suited to its specific needs.

The Crestar structure enclosed a two-hundred-meter pool filled with imported Crestonian water and loaded with the best livestock that Crestar officials could afford.

The Uanyi embassy was built half-underground with a smooth, rounded surface, which appeared much like an enormous anthill, meeting the needs of the insect-like race perfectly but sending their human neighbors into fits of disgust.

The Ingots, being fond of straight lines and geometric shapes, devised their structure so that it looked very much like a computer chip, which created a startling contrast to the rest of the Vandi environment.

The Bhuacs’ obsessive devotion to nature compelled them to build their embassy on the outskirts of the city, imitating the trees and hills so perfectly that many citizens simply passed by, never realizing that the structure was anything more than the natural environment.

At Vandi Central Park, Justine stopped at the sound of laughter. A small group of children swung on a swing set that allowed them to fly high into the air, jump, and fall into a safety net. An older boy encouraged a younger child to let go and free fall.

“It’s safe. You saw me do it, Joe. Go on. Let go! You’ll love it.”

Two younger girls watched in mesmerized fascination as Joe flew higher and higher, his grip tightening on the swing.

Justine’s gaze swept the assembly. A mirrored smile crept across her features at the children’s enthusiasm. It did look like fun.

Suddenly, Justine’s eye caught the glint of a ragged piece of metal. She focused her gaze on the top bolt that held the structure together, attaching the swing structure to the welcoming net. Snap!

Pounding across the short grass, Justine reached out for the child just as he finally gained the courage to let go. As he flew up, Justine dived. With her arms outstretched, she slid across the gravel towards the small falling body. A snapping crack rent the air as the structure broke completely. Shrieks filled the park, and Justine felt the heavy thud as the child landed in her arms. She leaned into the fall and allowed its momentum to skid her further along the gravel. She’d have to make repairs before she met with Taug this evening.

When the last pebble skidded to a halt, Justine gazed into the small crumpled face, the eyes squeezed shut, lips wobbling. She folded her arms protectively around the child. His piercing blue eyes opened wide, startled, amazed. His expression of gratitude touched the depth of her being.

A pudgy, tanned hand pressed on her shoulder.

Justine, forced to unlock her gaze, glanced back, following the trail of the arm, the shoulder, and then another face, wide-eyed and blanched with fear. She sucked in a breath and offered a small grin. Straightening, she shifted the boy from her arms onto his own shaky feet.

His hand gripped hers tightly, squeezing her thumb.

With a comforting pat, she rose to her knees and looked him in the eyes again. “You’re okay. That was a close call. Lucky I saw the hinge break.”

The older boy pressed closer, putting his arm around little Joe. He peered deep into Justine’s eyes, shaking his head. “You moved so fast. It was—I don’t know. I never saw anything like it. He could’ve broken his neck if you hadn’t caught him.”

Justine quickly brushed her pant legs, covering the tears and the lack of blood. She straightened to her full height and tilted her head as she appraised the elder boy. “You would have done the same, if you had seen it in time.”

The elder boy shook his head again. The girls shuffled closer, their gazes shifting between Joe and Justine. The smaller girl touched Joe’s arm, stroking him like a cat, while the other pointed to Justine’s legs.

“That must hurt. You want to go to a doctor and get it looked at? My mom’ll pay. You saved Joe.”

Justine’s face twitched in the glimmering, late afternoon sunlight. The sounds of the bustling city carried on as usual. “I’m fine. A little scrape doesn’t bother me.” She stepped away from the small group and glanced back. “Glad to help.”

She turned and, sweeping her long legs across the street, entered the mingling throng.

~~~

“There’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple…” ~Scott Adams

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Two

For One Purpose

Slowly, deliberately, a light scalpel moved over cold flesh. “Tell me, do you fear death?” Mitholie, a brilliant Cresta renowned throughout the interplanetary scientific community, fixed his companion with a hard gaze as they stood in the bright-lit Crestar laboratory.

Taug, an up-and-coming apprentice, let a tentacle drift through the warm salt water of his bio-suit. His large, golden, watery eyes gazed coolly at the specimen lying suspended in the examination tube. “No. Why should I fear a void?” His eyes slowly rose to meet the elder’s scrutiny.

“Well—” Sensitive tentacles curled about the delicate equipment as Mitholie’s green eyes returned to the subject of their examination. “—your sociological profile says you…dislike death.” The light scalpel cut deeper, revealing bone. Mitholie’s mouth orifice lit up in a pleased smile.

Taug moved his bio-suit slightly nearer, bending over the examination tube. His eyes, lit by the dim, icy-blue lighting, flickered over the specimen. “I don’t fear death. I see it as a waste.”

“A waste?”

“Yes. I calculate waste on how hard it is to retrieve lost data.” Taug sucked in water letting it drift slowly over his gills. “A brain sack once destroyed is gone, forever beyond our reach.”

Mitholie scanned each of the specimen’s organs carefully, individually. “But what if I no longer need that mind?”

“It’s hard to tell when and how something might be useful, or even worse, necessary.”

“You have an…intriguing mind.” Mitholie turned a lump of flesh in his tentacles.

Taug watched intently. “Beyond that, there is a practical reality. I’m neither a trained soldier nor an assassin.” He gestured with waving tentacles, “Like you, science is my passion.”

“Your father’s pet project has been identified—alive.” Mitholie’s eyes remained fixed on his work, ignoring Taug.

Taug slowly exhaled water. “I would say that was impossible, but I know the High Tribunal must be certain or else you wouldn’t have told me.” His mouth orifice remained in a fixed smile. “Is this a favor? Am I being offered a chance to commit suicide before the messy business of torture, trial, and execution?”

Mitholie spasmed, his long body wiggling with glee, “No such dramatics, no.” His tentacles released the delicate equipment; he looked Taug in the eye. “The High Tribunal simply wishes you to…purge your father’s unfortunate experiment. That done, I’m sure this messy business can be consigned to the dark waters.”

Taug’s tentacles curled thoughtfully. “Forgotten?”

“And forgiven.”

“I’ll need its location.”

With a flick of a tentacle to his bio-suit, Mitholie effected a transaction. “I’m transferring the data now. By the way, hiring another Cresta to kill it is…unadvised. The High Tribunal wishes the waves of the ‘humons’ to be kept tranquil, at least for now. Besides, you have contacts? Yes?”

Taug’s eyes moved swiftly, scanning the long streams of data crossing before his eyes. “Yes….”

Mitholie laid down his knife and stepped back. “Very good. I’ll go with you to the harbor dock.”

Taug stepped aside. “Thank you.”

Together they moved down the sterile, rounded, white hallway, deep in secretive conversation. Plugging their bio-suits into the wall jacks, they shed them, and came out on the other side of the wall free, gliding through the dark water.

The human specimen floated in the examination tube, alone.

~~~

Floating in deep space, Bothmal Penal Internment was left deliberately unmarked on any space charts. Its layout was confusing and disorienting; carved from an asteroid, it stood as a grim reminder of what could happen to one if you angered enough powerful beings. Many sentient races held a similar vision of hell, and those imprisoned at Bothmal all agreed that if it wasn’t hell—it was right next door.

Zenith stood beside the docking bay port, scanning a list of names being streamed to him. Long ago, he had been fully human, but the allure of immortality had led him to enhance most of his body with synthetic replacements, including his eyes. He would celebrate his four-hundredth birthday this year, if he continued the practice. A heavy trans-platinum chest guard protected his vital organs. Over this, he wore a synth-weave robe with a hefty handgun resting on his hip.

As the Chief Warden of Bothmal, Zenith knew the tangled structure like the back of his bio-metal hand and had several backup maps downloaded to his brain, just in case.

An interstellar ship, several times larger than the skyscrapers of Oldearth, docked nearby with its boarding tube neatly extended. Only one passenger exited the ship.

Taug moved slowly down the platform, flexing his tentacles in his new bio-suit. Biomechanical three-toed feet moved him smoothly over the floor, keeping his center of gravity low.

“Ah…Taug.” Zenith deftly pronounced the name that popped up in his holo-vision. “Pleased to meet you.” He inclined his head, motioning with his arm. “This way, if you please.”

Taug mimicked the bow and moved silently after his host.

“I hope you’ll forgive us for giving you this guided tour rather than allowing you to down-stream your own maps.” Zenith turned slightly. “Security, you know.”

Taug spoke, his voice synthesized. “I do.”

“You’re here on business?”

Taug’s brow furrowed.

Zenith’s grin turned malicious, “You’re not here to visit a relative…?” 

“Certainly not! As you say, it’s business. I simply need to see if someone is still…available.”

The burly, six-foot human guard was not happy to see the large, soft-bodied Cresta in a gleaming black mechanical exoskeleton lumber toward him. His squint-eyed frown kept pleasantries to a minimum.

Taug strode forward. His tentacles arched stiffly at his side as he assumed the air of a harassed official, which was not off the mark. The journey to Bothmal had been long and exhausting. He hated the tough, unrelenting metallic form that allowed him to move and breathe on land, but he had little choice. Terrestrials dominated the universe. He felt out of sorts and hungry, but this part of his plan could not be delayed.

“I have an appointment.” Taug pinched a computer chip with his tentacle and dropped it on to the guard’s palm.

The guard inserted it into his datapad. Scowling, he jerked his head toward the back room. “Oh, it’s you. I was wondering who in darkness would want it. After all these years, it’s probably not any good. I’d start fresh if I were you.”

Taug shook his head, the water in his breathing helm swishing with each motion. Water dripped down the side of his face. “Good thing you’re not me.”

The guard sneered his reply.

The two shuffled through the doorway into a back room where Justine lay immobile on a steel table, the same table where she had been turned off. Taug stared at the figure and appraised its strength, noting its perfect symmetry and conjecturing on its intelligence. He turned to the guard.

The guard hesitated. “Like I said, it’s probably no good, but if you want to waste your time—”

The guard punched some numbers into his datapad and swiped it with two fingers.

The guard jumped back but threw out his hand protectively in front of Taug. “You never can tell how these things’ll react. She could go bloody ballistic, if you know what I mean.”

“Now, please.” Taug cleared his throat.

Justine jerked.

Taug stood motionless. His eyes narrowed as he studied Justine’s response.

She opened her eyes, turned her head, and stared first at Taug and then at the guard.

Taug nodded. “She is awake. Everything looks fine. You may leave us.”

The guard shook his head. “You sure? She could sit up and throttle you as soon as I walk out the door.”

“Will you throttle me, Justine?”

Justine sat up, her gaze fixed on Taug. “Should I?”

The guard stifled a laugh.

Taug ignored the guard and returned Justine’s intense stare.

“No.”

“Then I won’t.”

Taug’s gaze shifted back to the guard. “Thank you. You may leave.”

With a shrug, the guard shuffled to toward the doorway. “Okay, it’s your neck. If I hear a scream…or something…I’ll—”

Justine flicked her gaze to the guard. “You wouldn’t have time.”

The guard stalked out the door.

Taug stepped back, allowing Justine room to shift herself off the bed.

She stood and appeared to be appraising her internal workings.

“Are you all right?”

“It appears so.”

Taug meandered toward a conference table and a pair of comfortable chairs. “Please, let’s sit. You can hardly imagine what I’ve been through to get here. Interminable bureaucrats…but, never mind.” Taug lowered his stiff body onto a chair and sighed. He sniffed into the breathing helm and allowed the briny liquid to play over his face.

Justine strode over and stood by him. “I’d rather pace if you don’t mind. I’ve been lying around for…how long?”

“Approximately seventy years, give or take, depending on whose calendar you use these days. Since we’ll be settling on Newearth, you might as well get used to their systems of measurement.”

“Why? I mean, why have you…?”

“Turned you back on?”

“I would have said awakened.”

“Yes, I suspected as much. You seem to consider yourself…human. I hope that won’t be a problem.”

Justine did not break her stride. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“I awakened you because I need you.”

Justine paced across the cylindrical room.

Taug’s eyes followed her. “What do you know about Crestar?”

Justine stopped and peered inward. She refocused her gaze on Taug. “Apparently, my databank remains intact. No memory wipe of any kind?”

Taug shrugged. “A very persuasive advocate advised against it. A Luxonian, I believe.”

With a stiff nod, Justine clasped her hands behind her back and resumed a professional mode. “Crestar, home of over twenty-seven billion life forms. A water planet ruled by a coalition of seven leading scientists called the Ingal. Notorious for unprecedented experimentation on other beings—”

Two tentacles admonished Justine into silence. “Stop. You’ve been brainwashed by those on the Inter-Alien Alliance—”

Justine leaned forward, her eyes flashing. “No!” She glared down at Taug. “I am incapable of being brainwashed. Especially not by the very beings that nearly destroyed me.”

Taug nodded. “Good to know. Please….” He nodded toward the chair. “Sit.”

Justine perched on the edge of the available chair, her back straight and uncompromising.

Taug sighed. “You must understand my position. I am a Cresta caught between worlds. I believe in my culture, but at the same time, I fear we are heading to our doom.”

Justine pursed her lips. She folded her hands in her lap, her gaze fixed on Taug.

“I have a plan to assist my race, but I need your help to see it through. During your long sleep, a new force has arisen in the universe. It is called by the remarkably unimaginative name ‘Newearth.’ Do you happen to know anything about Oldearth?”

Justine’s gaze hardened. “I am partly composed of human DNA.”

“That was not my question.”

“I know everything about their history and downfall up until I was shut down.”

Taug nodded and struggled out of his chair. “That would be year twenty-three of what the human remnant calls their ‘Hidden Years.’” He padded to a wall screen and pushed a button. A light flared and the screen illuminated the starry universe.

“They stayed on Lux for forty years, resettled Newearth, and lived in relative obscurity until our leadership recognized an opportunity.” Taug tapped a keypad and the image zoomed through space until it focused on Newearth spinning in all its blue-green glory. “We invaded successfully until the Luxonians took the humans’ part and negotiated a peace treaty called the Inter-Alien Alliance.” He tapped again and the image refocused on a human city. Low lying buildings dotted the landscape, and humans bustled about in self-made importance.

Justine stared at the screen in unblinking fascination.

Taug looked from Justine to the image. “I’ve been ordered to serve in a city called Vandi and accomplish a, shall we say, delicate task. It is hoped that I will learn ways to secure a stronger position for my government in the alliance.”

Justine’s gaze slid to Taug’s face. Her lips stiffened. “I am not for hire.”

Taug shrugged. He flicked off the image, breaking the trance. “I didn’t say you were. I simply have plans for myself…and Newearth.”

“What plans?”

“They can’t be shared at this early stage. I just need someone with your abilities at my disposal.”

“Why?”

“I may be forced to kill someone, a mixed-breed accident, but I’m not particularly suited to committing acts of murder. Especially since no one can discover an association between me and the—”

“Object?”

“Yes, I guess you could say that. Though he does have a name.” Taug folded his tentacles together in a meditative motion. “You see, he does not appear to be a threat at the moment, but he could become one. I need to consider the situation carefully. In the meantime, I must be ready to act—if necessary.”

“What’s its name?”

“He is not an it, though I suppose… Still, I object. His name is Derik Erland, and you are to treat him with respect. He is part human, part Cresta.”

“So, I’m an assassin—again?”

“If need be.”

Justine tapped her thigh as she circled the room. “Why not make it easy on yourself? Give me a description and its location, and I’ll take care of it. After all, you just gave me back my life. I ought to do a little…something.”

Taug chuckled. “You’ll have me convinced that you are sentient before long. No, I can’t simply kill Derik. After all, he may be worth more alive. My father, Taurgon, created him. He believed, quite naively, that once races begin interbreeding, then divisions melt away. I’m not such a fool.”

“So? What’s the mixed-breed worth to you?”

“He might be the answer to every Cresta’s deepest aspiration—immortality and nearly infinite power. Once we are able to successfully graft our intellect onto other beings, we can simply regenerate ourselves as often as need be.”

“There are creatures that do something similar. I believe they are called parasites.”

“Ah, but there would be a difference. We would not simply live off our host; we would become more…a greater being in our own right. We might even rival the creator in time.”

“Who?”

Taug raised a tentacle. “I’ve already said too much.” He rose stiffly to his feet. “I have awakened you for one purpose: to be of service to me. At some point, the High Council might have decided that they needed your bed, and then where would you be? Recycled perhaps? That would be a shame. You have a lot of history tucked into that synthetic brain of yours. You might become much more than an assassin. Again, I’ll have to wait and see. In the meantime, come with me.”

Taug led the way toward the door where the guard snorted with irritation.

Justine took one final glance at the abandoned, steel bed and marched after Taug. “Where are we going?”

“Newearth. It’s my home for now. You may call it what you wish.”

~~~

“Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power.” ~Lao Tzu

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Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter One

All My Sins Remembered

“We have definite…” The Luxonian Supreme Judge in a trim human form and dressed in a dark blue robe, stirred in her seat, “…proof that you assassinated well over a hundred and fifty beings on the troop transport called…” She glanced down at a datapad, “…the Generous Sharon.” She fixed her black-eyed gaze on the lone figure standing on the floating dock with narrowed eyes.

Well over fifty delegates had gathered at Bothmal Criminal Court and sat on comfortable chairs, each tailored for a particular species. Every sentient race on the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, including Ingots, Uanyi, Crestas, Luxonians, Bhuacs, and humans had at least one representative in attendance. No race wanted to be absent from this trial. Hundreds more sat in the court’s upper wings, savoring the spectacle while millions watched the unfolding drama on holoscreens.

The figure standing silently at the center of this hurricane of watchful emotion was a biomechanical hybrid, an android built in female form, in this case, human. Long black hair fell like a cascading waterfall down her back; her blue eyes stared straight ahead, peering into shadows. Massive cuffs, secured with powerful magnets and chains, were locked tightly about her wrists and ankles.

The android moved slightly, shifting her weight from one leg to the other. An expectant hush settled over the assembly. The silvery rattle and clanking of chains broke the quiet.

“Well?” The Supreme Judge leaned forward in her chair, fixing the prisoner with narrowed eyes and lowered brows.

“Yes.” The word was a sigh, not of regret, but of weariness or boredom. “Yes, I killed them.” She glanced up at the massive holoscreen hovering over the assembly. On its curved surface the security recordings from the Generous Sharon played on a constant loop. “My guilt is…pretty obvious. There’s no point denying it.” A small smile curved at the corners of her lips.

Cerulean shifted to the edge of his seat and coughed lightly into his hand. “If I may ask, why?”

Pondering a moment, the android straightened. “They were in my way.” Her musical, almost bell-like voice would have been lost in the echoing chamber if not for the amplifiers.

“Justine, correct?” Cerulean folded his hands into his long robes, leaning forward.

“That is my name.”

“It was necessary, you say. Did you feel no…revulsion? Pity? Empathy? How could it be necessary to end the lives of over a hundred beings?”

Justine placed her shackled hands on the dock’s rails. “You work in this hall. Did you ask the building permission to occupy it? What its feelings were?”

Two delegates, a Cresta and a human, spoke at once.

“So, you compare yourself to an inanimate object?”

“Are you suggesting that you, as an android, cannot be sentient?” The human representative’s fingers nervously played with a datapad.

Cerulean raised his hand. “Justine, I’ve read the reports, your psychological profile.” He cocked his head. “You’ve made jokes, noted ironies—shown a full range of emotions. Are you suggesting that, like an inanimate object, you can’t feel or rather, that you had no choice?”

Justine looked at the human, turning slightly. “The Inter-Alien Commission declared that it is impossible for a robot to be sentient. That is your belief. I say nothing about my own.” She fastened her cold, blue eyes on the Cresta. “I am the product of fetal tissue and a computer. How much choice do I have?” Her lips curved mockingly.

“Well, we know she appreciates sarcasm.” The Cresta’s dry wit drew a chuckle from the crowd.

The Supreme Judge rapped her gavel on the metallic podium. “Order! Order!”

Silence fell as the Cresta representative raised his voice to speak once more. “What are we doing here?” The silence continued as the Cresta chair detached from its mooring and floated before the assembly. “Does no one here appreciate the irony that we are, in fact, holding a trial for a gun?” The chair slowly revolved as the Cresta looked at each of the delegates in turn. “Thousands of machines, robots, and androids were used on both sides of the late Oskilth Civil War. This particular gun,” The Cresta gestured with a free tentacle, “just happened to kill its targets more effectively than most.”

The android remained still, her mouth drawn in a hard line.

“No, the real reason we’re here is because the ringleaders of the war escaped, and now, like hatchlings, you stage an elaborate show, desperate to vent your frustrations on something.” The Cresta floated back, locking his chair in place, his tentacles wiggling smugly.

The courtroom erupted into roars; many in the assembly leaped to their feet.

“Bold words, coming from you who never suffered an invasion!” The Bhuac representative shimmered as he struggled to maintain his human form.

The Cresta snorted water through his breathing helm dismissively. “To be frank, I don’t care what you do with it. Let’s wipe its memories and be done with it.”

“Memories make us who we are! Wiping her memories is a death sentence.” Cerulean’s voice reflected stern determination in contrast to the discord all around.

“Order! Order!” The hard smack of the gavel echoed over the uproar. “Any further disturbance and this courtroom will be cleared!” The noise subsided as the judge’s sharp gaze scoured the room. “The fate of the accused will be decided by the jury at the proper time.”

“If I may speak before they adjourn?” Cerulean rose to his feet.

The Supreme Judge nodded.

“Thank you.” Cerulean’s chair floated before the assembly. He paused a moment. “Fellow beings, I have studied many different sentient races, my own included.” He looked down at the android, who continued to stare off into space.

“I believe that this being calling herself Justine Santana is both sentient and aware, although,” he raised his hand as the human delegate jumped to her feet, “I’m also aware that this is only my opinion. I believe that she was not fully responsible for her actions. My argument against the death sentence, or memory wipe, is not based on opinion, however.” His back straight, he gazed into the throng, his hands gripping the guard- rail. “Once destroyed, her memories are gone—forever beyond our reach.”

The Cresta representative’s tentacles gently caressed his bio-suit, his eyes fixed intently on the Luxonian, his tendrils wiggling thoughtfully.

“Who knows when, or how, the data stored in her brain could benefit one of us.” Bowing, Cerulean returned his chair to its original location.

No one in the massive courtroom noticed the subtle flicker in Justine’s eyes as she appraised the Luxonian before he sat down, storing his features in her data files.

Many of the delegates muttered and whispered, while expressions of indecision crossed their faces.

“If no one else has anything to say….” The Supreme Judge’s head swiveled, appraising the vast crowd. “No one? Very well—” she pointed to the assembly of six beings representing each race sitting at her left, “the jury may now adjourn.”

~~~

Justine sat alone in a Bothmal holding cell, lit only by a dim, red light. Her chains had not been removed, but they did not hinder her as she dabbed paint, faster than the eye could follow, on a bare, whiteboard.

With a hissing squeak a small, thickly barred window opened in the fat cell door.

“You.” Her hand continued to flicker over the whiteboard. She remained focused on her work.

“Yes, me.” The Luxonian tilted his head, peering down through the bars. “You draw?” He nodded at the rapidly filling canvas.

“Paint.” She tilted her head, lips pursed. “It helps pass the time. A cheap means to keep the prisoner quiet. You have the advantage. You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“Cerulean.”

“Thank you, Cerulean.”

“You’re thanking me for…?”

“I may be an unrepentant murderer, but I still appreciate those who aid me.” Her brush paused mid-stroke. “Your speech out there is the only reason they’re having any discussion about my fate at all.” Her brush continued to dance across the board.

“I read the full reports.”

“Really?”

“I was probably the only one to do so.”

Justine’s sigh was barely audible. “This trial was pure politics.”

Cerulean wrapped his fingers around the bars, tilting his head to view as much of Justine’s face as possible. “Your objective was to disable the troop carrier?”

She shrugged. “Yes.”

Cerulean’s voice rose slightly. “I’ve seen the carrier’s blueprints. Deck forty-two A and rooms thirty-two C and B were nowhere near the command room. I saw where you breached the ship. You doubled back and deliberately searched those rooms. Why?”

Justine smiled coldly, her hand moving a bit faster, the tip of the brush a blur. “Maybe I just like to kill.”

Cerulean pursed his lips. “Then why were troopers Alex and Jerrod left alive?”

Her mouth drew into a tight line. “Maybe I missed them. Maybe I thought they were already dead.”

“I read your specs. Enhanced senses, hearing, sight… You can hear a heartbeat from a hundred meters away.”

The brush moved faster.

“Trooper Jerrod thought it was a miracle that the escape pod managed to fire on autopilot.”

Justine’s mouth twisted into a mocking smile. “So, what’s your explanation?”

“You resent humans, hate them, and by extension their allies. You saw it as payback, didn’t you, as justice? But when you saw trooper Jerrod trying to stanch his comrade’s wound, even as he was bleeding out himself, you couldn’t bring yourself to press the trigger. Even though it went against orders, you lowered your gun.”

“A charming story. But why wasn’t that…story used to play to the court’s sympathy?” The brush tip filled in tiny details.

“Unlike the Cresta, I don’t see a gun. I don’t see a cold, calculating machine.” His voice softened. “I see a very scared woman who desperately wants to seem strong in her final moments.”

The brush froze. Justine’s head lowered, and for a second, the proud shoulders sagged. The moment passed as her head lifted again, a confident smile playing on her face. “Really?” She raised an eyebrow. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” She carefully laid the brush aside. “It’s finished. What do you think?” She displayed the panting in the crook of her arm.

His eyes widening, Cerulean stared into a portrait of himself, true to life on even the tiniest of hair ends. “It’s…beautifully done.”

“Thank you. Keep it.” She set the painting aside before making eye contact with Cerulean for the first time.

Cerulean swallowed a lump in his throat. “I don’t know what to say. I’m honored.”

“You can hang it on your wall or throw it in the trash. Whichever you prefer.” Justine rose. “Anything else?”

Cerulean stood thoughtfully before he shook his head. “No.”

“Then goodbye.”

Cerulean turned to go. He closed his eyes as a sudden wave of dizziness swept over him. Squaring his shoulders, he forced open his eyes and marched down the long, dim hall.

Justine called after him. “You know, if I had killed them and blown up the ship, there wouldn’t have been anything to identify me. I wouldn’t be here right now.” Justine’s voice echoed down the tunnel, her face and hands pressed against the bars. “No good deed goes unpunished, right?”

Cerulean stopped in midstride and looked back. “Everything we do has consequences. Alex and Jerrod are still alive.”

Silence.

“I hope you find happiness.” Justine’s fingers rubbed against the bars as the window slowly moved.

“You too.”

“Not likely.”

The window shut with a clang. Cerulean stood in the dim, red light, his hands clasped, his head bowed.

~~~

“This jury has found you guilty.” The Supreme Judge craned her neck.

Justine stood alone on the floating dock, her wrists and ankles bound with chains.

“Do you have anything to say?”

A mocking grin formed at the corners of Justine’s lips. “I regret nothing.”

“Very well.” The Supreme Judge frowned. “I will read your sentence. You are to be turned off, and your body will be locked in Bothmal Penal Internment forever or until such time as the information encrypted into your brain is deemed useful. Do you understand?”

“I do.”

Two security drones placed heavy hands on Justine’s shoulders and led her from the room.

One by one, the delegates filed out and the vast wings emptied. The courtroom grew dark as millions of holoscreens switched to yet another stream. Within a few days, the delegates and judge would relegate these memories to deep storage or utter forgetfulness.

~~~

Cerulean stood at the head of a large, metal table. He was the only one in the small, red-lit room that wasn’t a prisoner, guard, or a technician.

“You came.” Justine lay flat on the table. Large metal bands secured her legs, arms, and neck. She twisted her head slightly, smiling crookedly at Cerulean. “To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub…all my sins remembered.”

“Oldearth poetry?”

“A point well made. ‘To be or not to be….’”

Cerulean patted the helpless hand. “It’ll be…all right.”

A frown puckered Justine’s brow. “Being turned off isn’t like going to sleep, you know.” She turned away. “When a human sleeps, their mind is turning, working, dreaming. When a robot is turned off, its mind is completely inert. Dead.” She gazed fixedly ahead, her mouth set in a grim line.

Cerulean sucked in a breath. “But this way, there’s at least a chance…for you to…come back.”

“Thanks.”

A technician cleared his throat. “It’s time. Sorry.”

Justine’s fingers gripped the air, her hand opening and closing, her jaws clenched. Her voice became a whisper. “I’m… scared….”

Cerulean placed his hands on hers.

The technician swiped a bar on his datapad.

Cerulean watched Justine’s eyes widen and freeze, her mechanical body jerking against the restraints like a living thing. Her hand fell limp and no longer gripped his. His jaw clenched as he swallowed hard. “Goodbye, Justine.”

“Sir?” The technician looked up from his datapad, a puzzled frown on his face.

The table slid into a receiving hole in the wall.

“Nothing.” Cerulean turned away.

“It wasn’t human. Sir…?”

The door clanged behind Cerulean.

“Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” ~Lao Tzu

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Nine

No Doubt At All

—Lux—

Teal stared at a cluster of luminescent red blossoms in a field of yellow stalks and shook his head. Why? Who planted them didn’t bother him so much as why they planted them. He lifted his gaze and considered the expanse before him. A whole field of Calif, enough to feed the entire Luxonian capital, stretched out before him. Then, in one corner of the field, a bunch of unrelated red flowers—as unexpected as a fully armored Ingot in a Crestonian pool.

He bit his lip and started down the path that led back to the bustling city and Sterling’s high-rise. Loneliness enveloped him. In such a busy world, no one would even notice such an oddity. And if they did…no one would care to wonder why.

With his head bowed, he trudged along and hoped the suffocating ache in his heart would lighten and allow him a little breathing room.

~~~

Teal’s gaze flickered to the purple vine on the windowsill as he entered Sterling’s office. He froze. The effervescent fronds had grown to a mammoth size and fluttered in a gentle breeze. When he bypassed Sterling standing at his white oval desk and strode to the window, the plant seemed to wiggle its stalks in welcome. A tiny spark of joy kindled deep within him.

Sterling stopped at his side, nearly touching his elbow. “Oh look. She’s happy to see you. Waving like an old friend.”

Teal glanced aside at Sterling. Irritated or pleased? Irritated. Teal patted the fronds, shouldered his duty, and faced his superior. “You asked to see me, sir.”

“I had to. It’s been over three cycles, and you’ve hardly spoken to me.”

“There didn’t seem to be anything to discuss, sir.”

“Stop with the sir. I’m rising but not so high that you can’t talk to me without using a formal address to punctuate every sentence.”

“Yes, s—” Teal swallowed and peered at the frond. He could swear that it humped in indignation. “So, is there anything to discuss?”

“You need to go back to work.”

A lightning bolt of hope shot through Teal. “I can return to Earth?”

Sterling waved his hands as if terrified by hasty assumptions. “Now, don’t zip off just yet. I told you that this whole Crestonian cold war was a mere bluff, but even bluffs can have disastrous consequences if not treated respectfully. In order to settle matters to our satisfaction, we need a few friends on our side first.”

“Friends?”

“As in a certain Uanyi representative who just happens to enjoy OldEarth delicacies—delicious broiled vegetables with cracked wheat bread and virgin olive oil.” Sterling licked his lips, emphasizing his point.

An involuntary cringe curled inside Teal. “Uanyi are insectine, correct?”

Sterling waved a hand over his desk console and a holographic image of a large-chested, small-waisted Uanyi male dressed in a white one-piece bodysuit rotated on the surface before them. “They have rubbery exoskeletons and internal bones.” He leaned in, enlarged the face, and glanced at Teal. “How do you like those eye bulbs? Bigger than Cresta orbs aren’t they?”

“I can see why certain races use them in precautionary tales to scare their young into good behavior.” Teal envisioned a particularly gruesome large-eyed arachnid that tormented his dreams as a child. He shivered.

Sterling chuckled. “Those mandibles aren’t for eating people, my friend. They’re nearly all vegetarians, though some have adapted to a more varied diet. I’ve heard they’ve taken a liking to boiled sea urchins.”

Teal winced. “And the breathing mask?”

“After so many civil wars, they’ve nearly decimated their homeworld, certainly the air. So breathing masks are a part of everyday wear at home or off-planet.”

Teal flicked a glance at his superior. “So why are you show—?”

“Because I need you to go to Sectine and make friends with the Ultra High Command.”

“Why would they listen to me? I’m hardly an expert on their culture, and I have no associations with any of their kind.” Teal shrugged. “I don’t even know one word of their language.”

“Ah! Don’t worry about that. Despite their appearances, Uanyi are exceptionally bright and have a gift for communication. They’re highly proficient in every known language this side of the Divide.”

“Speaking of the—”

“We weren’t—so drop it. Focus, would you?”

Teal worked his way around the desk and returned to the window. He stared at the glorious Luxonian sunset. “I still don’t see how I’m going to convince them to work with us.”

“You probably won’t, but I’m sending Ark with you. He can be very persuasive.”

Rounding on Sterling, Teal stomped back to the desk, his mood rumbling like an active volcano. “He’s still on Lux?”

“You think he wants to return to Crestar for execution?” Sterling held Teal in a steely gaze.

Teal broke away first. “Fine. Ark and I’ll go to Sectine and try to negotiate an agreement. You have any idea of the conditions for this supposed treaty?”

Sterling tapped the console and drew up a holographic document image written in five languages. “Certainly. Zuri has it all written down and translated perfectly.”

“Zuri?”

“Only fitting, since you three were best buddies on Earth. Besides, he can represent Ingilum interests, and Ark can work in possible arrangements for Crestar that might allow him—one day—to live among his own kind again.”

“And Kelesta?

“The Bhuaci spy?”

“She wasn’t a spy…for long.”

Sterling chuckled and ambled away. “We’ll see about her…but in the meantime, let me tell you a little story.”

Teal squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his hands.

Sterling stepped to a desk drawer, opened it, and made a snipping sound.

Teal opened his eyes.

Waving a scissors, Sterling chuckled. “A few days ago, I went to the open-air Bhuaci music festival. I thought a little amusement after all that brouhaha with Crestar would do my circulatory system good.” He ambled to a large wall cabinet, flung open a large door, and started shuffling about, pulling red and green objects aside and shoving something decidedly pink to the back.

“I missed the first song, but the second…do you know what the gloriously handsome Bhuaci lead sang?”

Teal sighed and continued to watch Sterling’s haphazard trail through the cabinet.

“Well, it started…‘I woke up and my head was a mess, so I combed my hair. Then I felt my insides rumble, so I drank some Shang Slew.’” Sterling frowned like a seriously disturbed beverage authority. “Do you have any idea what Shag Slew will do to a person early in the morning?”

Teal swallowed back bile.

“I doubt he’d live to see the afternoon. Not sober and alert anyway. That stuff will muddle the mind no matter how carefully you try—” Sterling waved the thought away. “And then another singer started in. I couldn’t understand a word he said.”

Teal rubbed his forehead. “I can only pray that there’s a point—somewhere.”

“Ah-ha!” Sterling lifted a white pot from the cabinet and cradled it in his arms like a newborn. He grinned. “There’s always a point to my stories.” He strolled to the window. “Despite the absurdities, I couldn’t stop myself. I tapped my toes and swayed to the rhythm. I was taken in. Completely. I adored those singers.”

“But you hated the lyrics?”

“Every nonsensical word.”

Halting before the window, Sterling drew a small table close and placed the pot in the center. With precise movements, he cut a slender rectangle of dirt from the windowsill pot.

The purple plant practically stood up as its more- developed tendrils swung like enraged trees in a hurricane.

Alarm ripped through Teal’s body.

Sterling dug out tiny clusters of roots and gently nestled them in the bowl. He smiled like a loving father. “Sweet thing. But you’ve got to let your little ones go, so they can grow big like you.”

With a choking gasp, Teal peered at Sterling’s handiwork. “What are you doing?”

Sterling pressed the white pot into Teal’s hands. “It’s a parting gift.” He led Teal to the door. “Humanity will be fine while you go to Sectine and find a way to protect Earth from a universe they’re not ready for.”

“And the Bhuaci singers?”

“Oh, that. Yes.” Sterling swayed his hips and hummed. “Just remember, your words won’t convince an audience as much as your passion.”

~~~

Teal strode along the Sectine walkway with Ark on his left and Zuri on his right.

A brilliant orange sun hung in the pale green sky, without a cloud in sight. Huge reddish anthill-like buildings rose from the sand-colored environment.

Uanyi bustled from one establishment to another over well-trod roads, scampering on their long legs or using scooters that hovered just over the hard-packed surface.

Zuri wiped beaded sweat from his reddened face. “It’s dry, but the heat’s enough to kill me.”

Teal considered Zuri’s beautiful shoulder-length locks of blond hair, his ocean-blue eyes, and the mechanical outerwear ending in sandaled feet. “You’re still going forward with the return-to-nature scheme?”

Ark gurgled. “Kelesta convinced him to hold on to what technological advantages he has.” Ark peered around Zuri as he padded forward, his eyebrows wiggling, and his words laden with heavy emphasis. “Her entire family has a thing for mechanical exoskeletons.”

Teal snorted. “That’s so counterintuitive, I don’t even know where to start.”

Zuri shrugged. “She’s a good woman, working from home to convince the Regent of Song that Lux has a more sensible plan than Crestar. After all, quarantine only lasts as long as everyone obeys the rules. But without the mystery race in the game…there’s no telling.”

Teal sidestepped a mother Uanyi pushing an infant in a stroller. He glanced at the baby, frowned, and blinked back to Zuri. “So you and Kelesta are still together?”

Ark rolled his eyes. “Like stanzas of Bhuaci poetry.”

Zuri shoved Ark off the path and glanced at Teal. “You and Sienna?”

Teal picked up his pace. “Don’t ask.”

Zuri pulled a tottering Ark back onto the path and held his gaze.

Ark nodded.

Teal glanced from one to the other. “What?”

Zuri ducked his head and nudged Ark.

Wrapping his tentacles behind his back like a well- behaved pod, Ark shrugged. “Nothing. Especially. We’re just glad to be with you on this mission.”

Teal stopped and glared from the Cresta to the Ingot. “What?”

“Well, we happened to get a little, tiny—” Zuri pinched two slender fingers within millimeters of each other— “preview of the Uanyi representative we’re meeting today.”

“How’d you manage that? Sterling wouldn’t give me anything but her name. Jasmine. Of all the ridiculous—”

Ark slipped his tentacle around Teal’s arm. “You never know what’ll happen when you open negotiations. Things can get interesting. Very interesting, indeed.”

Exhaling a long, drawn-out sigh, Teal fell in step with his two friends. “With you two along, I’ve no doubt. No doubt at all.”

—The End—

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” ~Anais Nin

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Eight

If You Dare Enough

—Grassland—

Namah watched a spider weave its web in the corner of her home while the sun set in crimson and gold. A conviction that she would never see such a sight again spread through her.

After an uneventful night’s sleep, she stood in the doorway and watched the morning’s sunrise, feeling mildly surprised that she had lived to see a new day. She glanced in the corner. The spider was nowhere in sight, but the web sparkled in a shaft of a sunbeam.

She stepped outside and began her morning routine. Pouring water from a large basin, she washed her hands and face and then stirred the outdoor fire and added kindling to the pink-centered coals, drawing life from the gray heap.

After a simple breakfast of mixed grains and goat’s milk, she called next door for her daughter, Gizah, to attend her. Living with her sister, Bethal, and her brother, Bararam, Gizah fit herself to the role of servant to all. She hurried to her mother with a beaming smile and clasped her hand. “Morning!”

Namah’s heart clenched and then expanded as she smiled back. Squeezing her child’s hand, she peered into the young woman’s laughing eyes. “You are the treasure of the family, child.”

Gizah giggled. “Treasure that some lucky man is just waiting to possess, no doubt!”

“No doubt, indeed. Your line will prosper like no other. I’ve seen it in my mind’s eye.” A return of foreboding clutched at Namah’s chest. “Tell your sister and brother I want to see them. I have things to give them before I go.”

All hint of laughter fled from Gizah’s face. “Why? Where are you going?”

“Not for me to say or you to know just yet. Do as I say, girl. Tell them to come before sunset, or it’ll be too late.”

A frown flittering over her face, Gizah turned and entered her sister’s home.

Namah returned to her own home and poked among the shelves. She found a clay pot with an intricate design fashioned along the sides. She laid it aside and then tugged at her finest cloak until it fell free from a high hook and landed softly in her hands. Caressing the fine fibers, she eyed the bright colors and detailed edging that made it one of the finest wraps in the whole village. She had made it for Aram. He had told her to keep it for her burial.

Shaking her head, she mumbled under her breath, “And you were buried in nothing but your tunic and that old wrap with the torn edging.” She sniffed and chuckled. “I wanted to disobey you, but I didn’t. I loved you that much.”

Rubbing her back, she rifled through her possessions again, fingering toys for the children—and grandchildren—she hoped. She set certain objects to the left and others to the right and only two lay on the ground before her feet.

When the sun had risen to its peak, Bethal and Bararam appeared in her doorway.

Namah beckoned them forward, her gaze darting to Gizah, who shuffled in behind them. Stepping back, she opened her arms to the objects laid before them. “Today you must take what I give you so there will be no confusion after I’m gone.”

Tall and muscled with a head of rich black hair, Bararam towered above the women, but his surprised grin hinted at his mischievous side. “Where are you going, mother, that you offer us such gifts?”

“I go where you cannot follow…at least not yet.” She pointed to the pile on the left. “These are for you two and your families when you have them.”

Bethal gasped and knelt before a decorated pot, a pile of colored beads, and a sharp knife. Picking up the child’s toy, she caressed it in her fingers. “I remember this. It was my favorite.” She glanced up. “Why give us these now? Why not wait until I’m married and settled?”

“I may not be here then. And I want you to know…I offer these with all my love.” She nodded to the right. “And you, Gizah, will take this house and these other things: the pillow, the blanket, and my best rope for your own.”

Opening her mouth but unable to speak, Gizah stepped toward her mother and stopped suddenly at the middle pile. Her eyes widened as she stared at the fine cloak and the carved figure of a man.

Namah lifted the cloak and the wooden figure and pressed them into Gizah’s hands. “Wrap me in this, as was your father’s wish, and lay Tobia’s gift in my hands when you bury my body.” A smile quivered on her lips. “I know well enough that it is not my husband but only a likeness of his figure. But Tobia comforted me during my loss, and I want to comfort him. We will always be together like good friends.”

Voices rose across the village, and mothers called little ones to supper.

Bethal glanced at her brother.

Bararam gathered the objects in his arms and shook his head. “There’s no hurry. You’ll live many long years yet. But we’ll keep them safe in our house—until you wish them back again.”

Namah raised her eyebrows in command to her youngest daughter.

In shy obedience, Gizah bundled her gifts in her arms and followed her sister to the doorway.

Stopping on the threshold, Namah called after them. “Remember, the greatest treasure I have given you—is each other.”

Namah watched them pace to their home next-door and returned to her own abode. Fixing a light supper, she sat outside and enjoyed a cool breeze that rose with the night. A distant bird warbled and two owls hooted back and forth as in their usual evening conversation.

Memories of her first journey to the lake made her gaze shift over the water. Twinkling lights flickered in the last sunbeams as they slanted across the rippling surface.

When her chest tightened, as it usually did at night, Namah pulled herself to her feet and dragged herself to her bed. Laying her weary head on her pillow, she remembered Aram’s face, Barak’s stern countenance, Irad’s last words, her fall from the cliff, meeting Jonas for the first time, her daughters’ births, her son’s laughter, Aram’s hand clasping her own, and her trust in the unseen God. She closed her eyes and sighed in contentment.

~~~

Gizah tiptoed into her mother’s house with a bundle in her arms. She laid it aside and knelt at the bedside. She clasped the old woman’s cold hands and pressed them to her cheek. Then she kissed the gnarled fingers and held them against her breast. “Best of mothers, I will miss you forever.”

Namah did not stir.

Bowing her head, Gizah reached back and tugged the cloak free. She unfolded the cloth and laid it gently over her mother’s body. Then she reached deep into a pocket of her tunic and drew forth the wooden figure. She kissed it and laid it on her mother’s breast.

~~~

Barak exhaled a long breath and wrapped his arm around his wife as they lay in bed.

Milkan rolled onto her side and peered into Barak’s eyes. “You miss her so very much?”

“I miss many people.”

Milkan snuggled closer, drawing the blanket over her shoulders. “I wonder…is she with Aram now?”

His eyes widening, Barak stared at the thatched ceiling. “I don’t know.”

Milkan laid her head on his chest. “I wonder which of us will die first.”

Spluttering, Barak coughed. “I can’t say.”

“Well, anyway, I’m glad I knew Aram and Namah, and I’ll always miss them, but I can never be too sad when you’re with me.”

As if grief had been shoved to the side, Barak’s heart stirred with overwhelming love. Warmth spread through his body. He wrapped his wife in his arms. “I am blessed among men.” He leaned down to kiss her.

A baby cried out and an older child whined, “Mama!”

With a low groan, Milkan threw the blanket aside, heaved a deep breath, and rose to her feet.

Barak watched her, his heart swelling.

Milkan turned back and laughed. “You’re much too comfortable!”

“I will be—as soon as you return to bed.”

The cry rose a decibel to a high-pitched shriek.

Milkan stumbled away.

The crying stopped abruptly.

Milkan plodded back to bed and plunked the baby on Barak’s chest.

A whimper broke the still air.

Milkan paced away and returned with a whimpering little boy. She tucked the child under Barak’s arm, swung the baby to her chest, and lay down in bed, nudging Barak over a bit. She glanced at him. “Comfortable?”

“Not in the least.”

Milkan stared and opened her mouth.

Barak leaned over and kissed her. “But happy nonetheless.”

~~~

Jonas watched Onia saunter out of the village with a heavy bag slung over his shoulder, and her heart soared. No anxiety tugged at her heart as he wandered away to trade among their neighboring clans. He was so well-liked and trusted that Obed said he could trade a sunbeam for a loaf of bread. Jonas didn’t doubt it.

Laughter turned her attention. Mari helped one of Ishtar’s men string the day’s catch of fish on the line. The girl was always laughing—too spirited for her own good. Jonas shrugged. She had her father’s nature.

Her gaze wandered to the edge of the village, to where her first husband’s grave had melted into the earth and could only be seen by the mound of stones on top. “You are not there, love.” She placed her hand on her heart. “You’re right here.”

An arm slid around Jonas’ middle, and she shivered. She peered into Obed’s alert, sober eyes.

Obed glanced from the grave to Onia. “He’s off again?”

Jonas nodded. “He’s taking some of Tobia’s carvings this time. Said there’s a growing market for such things.”

With his shepherd’s staff clutched one hand, Obed led Jonas toward the shady side of their house. “Sit and rest a moment. You rose before the sun.”

Jonas perched on the edge of a bench. “Only to catch up with you.”

His gaze traveled around their neat and prosperous village, Obed sighed as Tobia strode toward him with Kamila walking at his side. “I’m glad that Tobia’s settled into married life and started carving again. He seems too old for one so young.”

Tobia stopped before his mother and nodded respectfully. Kamila did the same but with a smile spreading across her face.

Obed scrunched his brows together. “Where’s that figure of Caleb you made? I want Jonas to see it.”

Tobia shrugged. “I gave it to Ishtar.”

“Oh.” Disappointment washed over Obed’s face as he leaned on his staff.

Her heart bursting with joy, Jonas clasped Obed’s hand. “But I did see it. Ishtar carries it everywhere, and he showed it to Eoban. Eoban told me about it, and when I saw Ishtar, I asked about it.” Pride swelled in Jonas as she nodded at her son. “It’s your finest work yet.”

Obed glanced from his wife to Tobia. “I never saw a man change as much as Ishtar. I thought that once evil had hold, there was no turning back.”

A hot flush worked up Jonas’s cheeks.

Obed pressed her hand playfully. “But I’ve learned.”

Jonas peered into her husband’s eyes. “What have you learned?”

Obed gripped his shepherd’s staff and looked to the hills. “If you dare enough—there’s always hope.”

~~~

Lud paced silently through the wheat field, slicing weeds at their roots. As sweat poured down his face, he straightened, wiped his brow, and glanced at Dinah and the children working in their garden patch. He smiled.

The sun blazed with mid-day strength. Thirst stung his throat. Time to go home and rest. Swinging his hoe over his shoulder, he started down the incline.

A flock of birds sailed before him, twisting and turning, and then fluttering high into the sky.

Lud shook his head. The vision of Pele’s face as she peered at the wide blue expanse flashed before his eyes. He never could see what she saw. He stopped and wiped his brow again. He didn’t have to. He had seen her, and that was enough.

Gilbreth called, Dinah grinned, and Lud’s heart soared like the birds.

~~~

Eoban perched on the edge of a log as a full moon floated overhead, shrouded in wispy clouds. A fresh breeze rustled the high branches of distant trees. Lud and Gilbreth sat cross-legged on each side, while Deli dangled on his left knee, and Ham nestled contentedly in the crook of his arm.

Dinah bustled before the fire, preparing a dinner of spiced rice and rabbit with vegetables and fresh bread.

Eoban’s mouth watered.

Gilbreth glanced over. “Any stories to tell, Eoban?”

Shifting to keep his blood in circulation, Eoban met the challenge. “Well, once on a night very much like this one, there was a boy about as big as Gilbreth there, named Kilbreth.”

Deli gasped and turned wide-eyes on her brother.

Eoban patted her arm reassuringly. “Yes, similar names. Hadn’t realized. Anyway, this boy was brave and strong, but no one knew it because he never left his parents’ sides. He pined to see the world, so he left home and traveled far and wide. Time passed quickly—as it does in stories—and after many years, Kilbreth returned home much bigger and swaggering with a bounty of knowledge. The whole village welcomed him with a grand feast.”

Deli wiggled. “Like we’re going to have?”

Eoban nodded and pressed on. “But tragically, he’d forgotten everyone. His mother and father tried to pretend it wasn’t so, but he called everyone by the wrong name and, worst of all, he spent the whole night telling his family about all the fine people he met, and he never once asked about his own clan.”

Ham yawned, and Deli kicked her legs.

Lud shook his head in definite admonishment. “Foolish boy.”

Gilbreth peered through the darkness. “What happened to him?

Eoban straightened up. “Well…one dark night, he fell into a hole. He called and screamed, but no one came—remember—he had forgotten all their names.”

Deli smacked her hand against her cheek. “Uh-oh.”

Eoban shifted. “Right. Eventually, his father heard him, got the neighbors, and they hauled him out.”

Gilbreth’s eyes twinkled in the firelight. “Did Kilbreth learn his lesson?”

Eoban laid Deli in her brother’s arm and scooted Ham to the ground. “From then on, Kilbreth traveled the world, telling everyone about his own marvelous clan—and he called them each by name.”

Dinah raised her head and smiled. “Supper is ready.”

Shuffling to his feet and rubbing his back, Eoban glanced at Gilbreth. “Thank the stars above. I’m about worn out. Now let’s do justice to your mother’s cooking. There’s no one who can make a feast as well as she.”

Dinah waved Eoban along. “Come eat then.”

As they crossed the threshold, Lud chuckled. “And no one tells a tale like Eoban!”

As he stepped inside, Eoban grinned. “And later, we’ll all sing!”

~~~

Ishtar stripped to the waist and wrapped a cloth tightly around his head, holding his hair away from his face.

In the pre-dawn light, a fire blazed before him with a tripod fixed over the flames. Nearby, perched on a flat rock, sat bowls filled with different colored substances. A cauldron hung from the center of the tripod.

Working methodically, Ishtar sifted the ingredients and poured a little of each into the pot. After it melted, he tugged a mold into place and poured the mixture into it. Then he added another substance, waited for it to melt, and poured the thick liquid into a second mold. After he had several molds lined up beside the fire pit, he sat back and wiped his forehead.

The sounds of the waking village drew his gaze. Two of his men passed and nodded. He nodded back.

When the first mold cooled, he took a hammer and knocked the frame away. Then he peered at the metal piece narrowly, looking for tiny bubbles and weak spots. Satisfied, he laid it on the flat rock and hammered it until it fell apart. He gathered up the pieces and threw them back into the cauldron. As he reached for one of the bowls, Amin shuffled by.

Ishtar sucked in his breath. “Amin, come and help me a moment.”

With his head down and his shoulders drooping, Amin took the necessary steps and halted before Ishtar. “Yes?”

“Help me sift the ore. I’m trying different kinds and amounts…your sharp eyes would—”

“I’m not a metal worker, Father.”

“You could be.”

“I don’t care to be.”

“What do you care to be?”

Amin shifted from one foot to another and glanced aside.

Concerned, Ishtar stood and motioned his son to the fire pit. “Sit with me and watch awhile. You might find it interesting.”

“I won’t find metal work interesting any more than I found trading and traveling interesting.”

Ishtar’s jaw clenched. “Why are you still angry at me?” He swallowed hard and blinked as he stared at the glowing horizon. “He was my son as well as your brother.”

“You’ve found other things to interest you. I’m not so easily amused.”

With a swift motion, Ishtar swept up a handful of the dirty ore. “Do you see this?”

Stiff and unyielding, Amin merely raised an eyebrow.

“It’s what the Creator gives us to work with. Dirt. And with this dirt” —Ishtar snatched up a metal tray behind him and held it out— “we can make beautiful things.” He tossed the dirt and tray aside. “But it’ll never happen without a willing mind and a dedicated heart to shape it.” He peered into Amin’s eyes. “The tray is worth nothing if no one cares for beauty.”

Amin spat his words. “Caleb was worth more than a tray!”

Ishtar leaned in. “But Caleb would’ve seen the beauty and cared.” Ishtar waved a broken piece of metal before Amin’s face. “Impurities must be driven out by fire and hammer.” He turned and peered at the mountains “Like ore, we are shaped by things that burn and beat us, and we think we’ll never recover. But in the end, we’re transformed.”

Amin closed his eyes, his lips trembling. After a moment, he met Ishtar’s gaze. “Without Caleb, I feel so…dead.”

Ishtar gripped Amin’s shoulder. “Hold on—even in the depths of despair. Only then can true faith be born.” Wrapping his arm around his son, Ishtar turned the boy from the mountains and the fire. Together, they faced the rising sun.

“Time heals some wounds, but love heals them all.” ~Matshona Dhliwayo

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-Two

Ishtar By God

Ishtar crawled to the edge of a clearing surrounded by distant trees and stared at the flickering flames of a huge central bonfire. Images of the many fires he had watched flashed before his mind: Neb’s elaborate feasts to celebrate victory, the humble cooking fires he sat around with friends and family, the fire that had reflected his wife’s blood, the fire pit burned to embers outside Matalah’s tent…

Eoban grabbed Ishtar’s shoulder and hissed in his ear. “I said you could come with me, not run ahead and throw yourself at the enemy.”

Ishtar glared at Eoban.

Eoban glared back.

A large ornate tent was pitched before the huge fire and slump-shouldered warriors sat like thick, sallow-faced mounds. They chomped on their rations and murmured a few words back and forth, their gazes glancing nervously at the tent. The surviving prisoners huddled in a ragged line to the west as guards strode along the perimeter, grunting and swearing.

As a figure exited the tent, all conversation stopped. All motion halted. A lone man strode to the fire, holding an ornate bowl above his head. He chanted in a hoarse voice. “Chai calls, spirit. Be our guide. Lead us to victory. Burning flames engulf us; take us! Make us yours. Forever yours.”

Ishtar stood up, a surprising calm embracing his body.

Clawing at Ishtar, Eoban tugged on his tunic. “Get down, idiot!”

Shoulders back and head high, Ishtar stepped into the flickering firelight.

Eoban’s smothered groan followed him.

Ishtar stopped before the fire and peered through the flames at his enemy. “I am here, Chai.”

Roused out of their stupor, every warrior focused on Ishtar, their hands clenching their weapons.

After lowering the bowl, Chai took a slow sip and peered over the rim. He tossed the bowl aside and grinned. “You know me?”

Eoban scuttled forward and nudged between the prisoners as if he were one of them. He slipped his knife from his belt and cut the bonds of the nearest prisoner.

Once freed, the prisoner motioned for Eoban’s knife. Quickly, Eoban slipped an extra knife into the man’s hands.

Glimpsing Eoban’s actions out of the corner of his eye, Ishtar refused to be deterred and focused his attention on Chai. “Lud told me about you.”

“The boy?” Chai laughed. “Did he die with my name on his lips?”

“Lud lives, but the dead cry out.”

A myriad of eyes shifted away from Ishtar and landed on Chai.

Striding around the fire, Chai chuckled. “The dead do not cry out. Their voices are stilled. They are consumed by the spirit who offers us victory and life.”

Ishtar matched Chai’s stride and kept the fire between himself and his enemy. He peered through the flames. “Your spirit offers only lies, not life.”

As if annoyed that Ishtar had matched his pace, Chai stopped and thrust his hands on his hips. “I know the god I worship. He has led me here. He will consume you before the break of dawn.”

“Does your god serve you…or do you serve your god? Pass through the fire, and we will see.”

The watching crowd of warriors stiffened.

Freed prisoners shuffled forward. A child cried out.

Still cutting bonds, Eoban sucked in a deep breath.

His eyes fixed on his opponent; Chai stepped closer to the fire. “Who are you to direct me?”

Ishtar paced away, turned, and crouched low. “I am Ishtar, by God!” He sprang forward and leapt through the flames.

Startled, Chai stumbled and fell on his back.

Landing solidly on his feet, Ishtar stood over Chai, his heart exultant. “I have passed through fire and am not consumed.”

Scrambling to his feet, Chai eyed his men.

In a lightning-fast move, Ishtar gripped his enemy by the arms and whipped him around to the very edge of the flames.

Chai fought and writhed.

Eoban leapt forward and stood at Ishtar’s back with his arms wide, blocking any interference. “Take one step, and he’ll feed your master to the flames.”

A shadow loomed.

The crowd shrunk back from the sight.

Chai called out as he struggled. “My men will follow me to death and beyond!”

Ishtar glanced at the hesitating throng. “Will they?”

Like a dam freed from all restraints, an enraged thickset man barreled in from outside the circle and thrust every person aside, Obed’s knife in his hand. Screaming, he leapt on Chai and stabbed him repeatedly. “My wife! My children dead—to hell with you!”

As if waking from a stupor, a warrior started toward the attacker but two freed prisoners stepping from the shadows held him at bay.

More warriors advanced, shock blanching their faces, but the ragged, inflamed prisoners advanced too. Shrieking, shouting, and darting erratically, the prisoners attacked.

Ishtar caught Chai’s body as he slumped to the ground.

Bursting from the darkness, Barak with Luge and their men pounded into the fray and fought the bewildered, furious warriors who were now backed against the flames.

Nearly collapsing, Ishtar pulled Chai away from the flames. He stared into the unfocused eyes of his enemy…a stark reminder of his father as he lay dying.

Chai’s head dropped onto Ishtar’s arm, like a child cradled in his mother’s embrace. Swallowing convulsively, he stared at the star-strewn sky before riveting his gaze upon Ishtar. “I came to conquer.” He choked and blood trickled from his mouth. “You defeated me.”

Tears filled Ishtar’s eyes. “You gave me little choice. Evil devours itself…in the end.”

Chai shuddered and cried out, clutching Ishtar’s arm. “Don’t let the demon take me!”

With his emotions breaking like shattered pottery, Ishtar gasped. “I have no say over such things.”

“Please!”

Screams and grunts of fighting men and women swirled all around them. A young warrior fell into the fire and the flames flared.

The shadow grew, blocking the moon and twinkling stars.

Chai whimpered and clutched Ishtar tighter. “Not me!”

Ishtar slipped free of Chai’s grip and whipped off his cloak. He flung it on the fire and smothered the flames enough to grab the fallen warrior and pull him free. He bit off his words, glancing at the shadow, “No more—victims—today.”

Eoban ran forward and tossed a bowlful of water on the young man, sending an angry hiss into the air. He shook his head as he stared at the unconscious warrior who was little more than a boy. “What a waste.”

After a last mighty shudder, Chai lay still, his arms flung out, and his eyes glassy, staring sightlessly at the brilliant night sky.

Ishtar watched the defeated enemy shuffle to one side of the smoldering fire and drop their weapons.

Luge strode before them and ordered his men to tie them together.

Kneeling beside the body of Chai, Ishtar wept.

“What is important is not to fight, but to fight the right enemy.” ~Bangambiki Habyarimana

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Forty-One

Ancient Enemy

Obed peered across the horizon in the morning light and pictured his daughter’s face at their parting. Mari had stood tall, her long black hair blowing in the wind and tears streaming down her face.

His son, Onia, had begged to fight at his side, but the expression on Jonas’s face convinced him otherwise. He sent his son to the caves to protect the women and children.

Obed swallowed back fear and hate and looked to his men as they lined up ready for battle.

He had limped alongside Ishtar into the village, and a shout rang out that warmed Obed’s heart. When he realized that as many men were shouting for Ishtar’s safe return as for his own, he had to stifle his irritation. But watching Ishtar work with the men, making plans, calling for weapons, encouraging the fearful and directing the overzealous, soothed Obed’s raw emotions. Ishtar was not the same man who had fallen so far from grace.

Eoban gripped Obed’s shoulder as he stood next to him. “Did I tell you that I’m glad you’re still alive?”

Choking on something between a snort and a scream, Obed peered aside at Eoban. “You said, ‘Told you so,’ and plodded by as if I had simply missed dinner.”

“You acted like an idiot, and I won’t let you forget it.” Eoban’s gaze roamed to the distant hills. “I wish I knew where Barak ended up.”

His stomach tightening, Obed bit his lip. “You should never have left him.”

“Don’t blame me if the man can’t find his head in the dark.” Eoban pointed to the hills. “He probably got confused, circled around a few times, and met Luge. He might’ve decided to rest a few days.”

“Sounds like Barak. A man of leisure.”

“Given time, I’ll forgive him for being an even bigger idiot than you, but this—” Eoban waved his hand at the sight of a massive assembly drawing near. “I’ll never forgive.” He spat on the ground.

A shout rang out.

In the distance, a wall of ragged prisoners appeared on the hillside. Most of them were children, and they scuttled forward, prodded from behind.

Obed’s stomach turned sour, bile rising.

The enemy was using human beings as shields—to be slaughtered in the first approach.

Ishtar trotted forward. “Everyone’s in place.”

Eoban glanced at Ishtar. “Your men will circle around?”

With his gaze locked on the approaching enemy, Ishtar nodded and waved to the assembly behind them. “The central throng will meet these children with tenderness. But Lud will approach from the east with his men, and I’ll lead mine from the west. Between us, we’ll destroy the enemy.” He darted away.

As cold hate penetrated Obed’s body, he leaned forward, ready to leap ahead. To no one in particular, he said, “Once they’re exposed, we rush in and kill them all.”

~~~

Eoban wiped sweat from his eyes, huffed deep breaths, and clashed spears with one of the enemy, a short, stocky man who, like the others, wore a knot of black hair on a shaved head.

Wielding swords and shields with harsh motions and hostile calls, the enemy gained ground. Something aided them that went beyond the realm of mere luck. Most of the children had been spared, but as Ishtar and Lud circled around, the enemy seemed to expect the maneuver and turned with great skill to meet the challenge.

Lud’s men were speared and stabbed like sheep led to slaughter.

Ishtar met with little more success. His warriors were more experienced, but time had blunted their abilities.

Screams and shouts filled the air. Carrion circled overhead, and some even landed on the dead and those not yet dead but wishing to be so.

Swallowing back bile, Eoban stared at the descending sun and pleaded like a needy child. “Please, God! Aram, hear my cry…the cries of your people…your friends.”

A stout figure with moves quick as lightning came from out of nowhere, pounding toward Lud.

Lud no sooner turned than the man’s knife pierced his side.

With a choked breath, Eoban screamed, “No!” and rushed forward, his bloody knife clenched in his hand. Before he made four steps, a new enemy jumped in his path and barred his way.

~~~

Chai chuckled as he stepped back and let the youth fall to his knees before him. This day had been too easy! Tales had been told about this clan, this gathering of clans, and all they had achieved through long years together.

He licked his lips and tasted blood. He peered at Lud, hesitating. “You a man or a boy?”

Grimacing, Lud lurched to his feet and aimed his knife. His hand trembled, and his voice rose to a reedy whisper. “I am Lud, the leader of this clan.”

Chai grinned, tapping his chest. “I’m Chai. Your leader now.” He stepped forward. “Bow before me.”

Lud stumbled backward.

The sound of a ram’s horn tore through the village, stilling the cries and screams in a hundred throats.

Chai frowned, gazing around, puzzled.

A man bounded to a halt on his right. Swinging around, Chai faced the blood-splattered warrior.

Lud screamed. “Eoban! Watch out.”

The ram’s horn sounded again and a dark-haired warrior charged into the confused melee, leading a fresh host of men. A giant man loped alongside at his right hand.

Shock drenched Chai like cold water. Stiffening, he glanced around. His men looked to him for direction, their eyes asking if they should retreat. He shook his head. He never retreated.

Suddenly, a tall, sinewy man with long black hair trailing down his back and blazing eyes turned and stared directly at Chai. Their gazes locked.

Chai blinked. He knew those eyes. He knew that expression. A familiar terror seeped into his bones, and he trembled. He lifted his bloody knife and held it high. “Retreat!”

~~~

Ishtar confronted the mighty invaders, fighting hand-to-hand, stabbing, hitting, and twisting his own body out of harm’s way while other horrors rose in his mind. The sightless eyes of countless victims, his father’s blood on his hands, and the ghostly apparition of his grandfather crowded him like cavorting devils.

When he saw the enemy leader, he knew with uncanny certainty that this man was not merely a battle-hardened warrior or even an intelligent slave trader. An ancient force ruled the mortal before him. Ishtar watched the stalwart leader swoop forward like a bird of prey, his arms outstretched practically enveloping his men in his mighty will—win at all costs.

They retreated now. But they would be back.

~~~

Eoban plunked down on the hard ground before a hut and propped his head on his splayed hands.

An old man fed kindling to a central fire, murmuring a chant under his breath.

A hand pressed Eoban’s shoulder. “Resting?”

Eoban stared at Barak in blank amazement. “I always rest after battle—especially after I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about my friends.”

The old man stepped back from the flickering flames, light chasing shadows across his wizened face.

Barak leaned casually on his spear and shrugged. “I met travelers in the north gathering men to assist us. When Luge heard of our need, he decided to join in. As we approached the village, I saw the danger of a direct attack and decided it was best to come in late and confront the enemy when they were exhausted.”

Eoban tilted his head at the irony of Barak’s thinking.

Barak nudged him in the shoulder with the butt of his spear. “It worked to good effect, don’t you think?”

Pursing his lips Eoban nodded. “Just about killed us, but yes.”

His arm bleeding and his clothes ragged, Obed limped forward. Without a word, he dropped to the ground, leaned against the shed, and shut his eyes.

Ishtar strode up, pointing north. “They’ll hide in the hills for a few days…but they’ll return.”

A man called. “Ishtar! Come!”

Without hesitation, Ishtar sprinted away.

Eoban glanced from Obed to Barak. He waved his fingers airily. “Some of us are much too clean.”

His eyes widening, Barak sat next to Obed. “You think I should’ve rushed in to look heroic and been overwhelmed with everyone else?”

Eoban raised his hands in protest. “I’m too tired to argue. Wait till later.”

Obed groaned. “It’s like being back in the wilderness with you two all over again.”

Ishtar hustled back and stood before them, his eyes grave and serious.

Sitting up, nauseous and weary, Eoban lifted his gaze. “What?”

“The healers can’t stop Lud’s bleeding. We need Jonas and the other women.”

Barak slapped Eoban’s leg. “Let’s go.”

Struggling to his feet, Eoban glanced around. “Where’s Tobia?”

Turning in a circle, Ishtar’s eyes widened in alarm. “Last time I saw him, he was running—” He glanced north.

Obed moaned. “Could he have run into the enemy line?”

Barak shook his head, frowning. “He’s too smart for that.”

Bouncing a glance off Obed, Eoban looked away.

Ishtar stepped aside, gazing at the hills. “He must have had a reason.”

Trying to rise, Obed faltered. “I’ll go after him.”

“Sit still.” Eoban pressed Obed back to the ground. “You need to recover your strength.” Grimacing, he rubbed his back and faced the hills. Night slowly turned light into blackness. “I’ll be back before morning.”

“Barak’s eyebrows rose. “You don’t look too good yourself.”

“I never look good.” Eoban sucked in a deep breath and patted Barak on the back. “You’re a decent man, Barak. Remember I said that. It may come in useful. Besides, you and Obed need to get the women.” He waved his finger at them admonishingly. “No one is to follow me.” Hunch- shouldered and sick at heart, Eoban plodded away.

Ishtar stepped beside Eoban and matched his pace. “Except me.”

Eoban nodded in exhaustion. “Except you.

”We are fighting barbarians, but we must remain human.” ~David Benioff

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