OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Eleven

—Mountains—

Providence of God

Tobia tried to sound curious. “So, where do we go next?” Peering blankly ahead, Vitus frowned. “I’m thinking, you stupid oaf! If you’d be quiet, I might be able to come up with a solution to this problem!”

Tobia bit his lip. I knew it. We’re lost.

Vitus tapped his foot and scratched his head. “I’ve been through here before, but someone’s changed things.”

Choking on a snort, Tobia clenched his hands. Changed what? The trees? He exhaled a long breath and stared at the woods before, beside, and behind him. No path. No village. No sign that a human being had ever trekked through this wilderness before. “Maybe we should go back to the last village and—”

Vitus swung around and glared at Tobia. “Those idiots don’t know anything. Scoundrels. Worse than slinking wolves. They would’ve robbed us if given a chance.”

Tobia closed his eyes to the memory of Vitus shuffling up to the village leader, his gaze darting every direction, and stumbling through a request to speak to the clan. A shiver ran down his spine. A rough shake made him blink back into the world.

“Don’t think you can take a nap. We’ve got a long way to go today.”

Always a long way. But we never get anywhere.

Vitus swung his loaded bag over his shoulder and started tromping to the right. He stopped short and turned to the left.

Tobia lopped along beside, peering out of the corner of his eye at Vitus. He’s more than lost. He’s terrified. He ducked under a hanging branch.

“Ouch!”

Tobia stumbled to a halt and looked up.

Vitus stood frozen in the middle of a briar patch. A vine of sharp nettles clung to his hairy arm.

Tobia swallowed. A veritable wall of needles blocked their path in nearly every direction. “I guess we’d better —”

With a grunt, Vitus slipped his knife from his belt and began hacking.

Tobia’s throat went dry. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Vitus grunted and swore as he hacked right and left, sweat dripping down his arms and legs.

Tobia stood his ground. “You’ll only get—”

“Oh, by the gods! It’s got me.”

After inching forward, Tobia stopped behind Vitus and peered over his shoulder. “Oh, Creation of God.”

Blood seeped from uncountable scratches and cuts as thorns and vines gripped Vitus’ arms and legs. “Demon woods!” Vitus tried to shake loose but screamed with the effort.

“Stop! You’re only making it worse.” Tobia carefully and painstakingly pinched each vine and tugged it to the side.

Vitus fumed and whimpered.

Finally free, Tobia gripped Vitus by the arm and helped steer him backward, clearing the way as they went.

Once out of the brambles, Vitus threw himself on the ground and covered his face with his hands, groaning.

Tobia’s gaze lifted from the pathetic figure to the glimmers of the sun through the branches. The sun had lowered considerably since they halted for their mid-day meal. He sighed. “I think I left something back at the last village. Would you mind if we retraced our steps, so I could enquire about it?”

Vitus lifted his arm and peered at him in a grieved manner as if Tobia were the stupidest boy on the earth, but he rolled to his side and staggered to his feet.

“It is getting late, and I don’t want to get caught out in the middle of nowhere with you crying your head off over some little thing.”

Tobia grimaced and turned around.

After some time, they ended up back in the village they had left that morning. Tobia strode to a woman he recognized. “Hello, my name is Tobia. We were here this morning, offering trade goods.” He flashed an embarrassed smile. “I accidentally left something behind. May I look for it?”

The woman nodded. “Certainly, Tobia. My name is Kamila. I’ll help you look. What was it?”

“Oh, uh…something my father made for me before he died. My mother will be so—”

Kamila smiled and lifted a hand. “Say no more. I understand.”

As they searched across the village and in the various dwellings they had visited that morning, Kamila asked Tobia about his family, and he described the members of his clan like warriors from songs of old.

When they came to the end of their search, Kamila perched her hands on her hips and frowned. She stood before Tobia in the village center and shook her head. “I hate to say you’ve lost it for good, but it’s certainly not here.”

Tobia shrugged. “It may turn up yet.” He glanced at Vitus sitting under a tree in the distance, chewing moodily on a crust of bread. “Perhaps Vitus packed it up with the trade goods and forgot.”

Kamila squinted at Vitus. Her mouth pursed in distaste.

Tobia stepped between Vitus and Kamila, blocking her view. He peered into her lovely eyes. “You know, Vitus has had a very hard life. He lost his wife and entire family to sickness some years ago, but he’s carried on the trade despite his loss and suffering.” He glanced at the sky. God forgive me.

Kamila tipped her head and leaned so as to peer around Tobia at Vitus. She smiled.

Tobia glanced over his shoulder.

Vitus met Kamila’s gaze. He sat up straighter.

Kamila swung around Tobia and sauntered over to Vitus.

Vitus scrambled to his feet.

Kamila extended her hands. “I’m sorry we were not more welcoming to you this morning.” She glanced aside and frowned. “There’s been trouble in the area, and it’s hard to know who to trust.”

Vitus, appearing very much like a rat caught in a trap, stared wide-eyed.

Tobia stepped to his side and locked on Kamila’s face. “It’s getting late. Is there any hope you could direct us to a safe place for the night?”

Kamila shifted her gaze to Tobia and smiled. “You’ll stay here, certainly. My family and neighbors would enjoy hearing about your people and adventures.”

Vitus’ mouth dropped open. His eyes shifted from Kamila to Tobia.

Tobia clamped his hand on Vitus’ shoulder as he spoke for both of them. “We’d be very happy to accept your invitation.”

~~~

Tobia sat next to Vitus as dusk settled into night. He rubbed his hands against the evening chill.

A short, stocky man with a thick beard and gray eyes, wearing a sleeveless tunic and a wide belt, sauntered near. He crossed his arms over his chest and peered first at Vitus and then at Tobia.

Tobia held his gaze.

“I’m Kamila’s brother, Remy.” He gestured to three other men assembled a short distance away. “We were hunting earlier. She told us about you.” His gaze swept over Vitus again, and he scratched his chin. “She’ll bring dinner out soon, but in the meantime, you can tell us about yourselves and your people.”

Vitus lifted his head and opened his mouth, but Tobia gripped his hand, squeezing hard. “I’d be happy to.”

Describing the best parts of their clan’s nature and leaving out everything to their disadvantage, Tobia retold the story of Neb’s invasion, the great drought, the terrible fire, and Ishtar’s madness and exile.

The entire village assembled in a ring around the flickering fire as Tobia regaled them with the tales. Kamila brought venison, fruit, and stewed roots.

Vitus ate with alacrity, only glancing up now and again to grunt in agreement with something Tobia said.

His belly full and his story told, Tobia wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, sighing in gratitude and relief.

Remy chuckled. “You’ve told a wonderful tale, young man. Any ancient would be proud of such a recital.” He glanced at the throng, his gaze lingering on his sister, Kamila, longer than the rest. “But I should warn you, there’s been trouble around here of late.” He wiped his hands on his tunic. “There’re men who say they’ve come to trade, but instead they observe and later return to steal what they could not obtain through honest means.”

Tobia looked at the assembly. Weariness and sadness enveloped him. “I’m sorry. I can see why you didn’t trust us at first.” His gaze wandered to Vitus who was now leaning on a larger man, snoring in a deep slumber.

He rose and edged Vitus to the side so the villager could slip out from under Vitus’ weight.

Remy shook his head and wandered over. Together Tobia and Remy led the sleepy Vitus to a grassy spot under a tree.

Vitus grunted and curled up, laying his head on his arm.

After plucking Tobia’s sleeve, Remy gestured back to the circle of firelight.

Many clansmen and most of the women shuffled off to their evening duties and their own beds.

Remy perched on a log next to Tobia. “That sleeping fool can’t help you through your travels.” He glanced at Vitus slumbering form, little more than an outline of a shadow in the darkness. “Much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it behooves me to tell you that you have aligned yourself with either a wicked deceiver or an incompetent idiot.” He clasped his hands over his knees. “That man knows nothing about trading.”

Tobia sighed. “I realize that—now.”

Remy shook his head. “How could your father let you go with such a fool?”

“He believed his wonderful stories. Somehow, Vitus managed to succeed when he followed in the footsteps of other clansmen. But this time, he thought he’d find his own way and start his own trade routes.”

“That man” —Remy pointed to the snoring figure— “is no more capable of good business than a fish of walking about on land.” Remy shook his head. “Take a word of advice. Go home and leave him to find his own way.” He shrugged. “He might live.” Remy met Tobia’s eyes. “But at least, you’ll survive.”

Warm gratitude flooded Tobia. Someone actually cared about him. After Vitus’ abuse, it felt like a gentle rain after a severe drought. He stood, stretched, and peered at Remy.

“I trust in the providence of God. We’ll make it home again. I agreed to this journey, now I must see it through.”

Remy glanced into the night sky. “Perhaps your coming was ordained from on high.” He stood and pressed Tobia’s hand in his own. “I hope we meet again.”

Tobia nodded and glanced at Kamila’s dwelling in the distance. “Me too.”

~~~

“What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.”
– Confucius

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Ten

 

—Planet Lux—

Legitimate Concerns

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

Sterling glanced at Teal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teal and Sterling turned to the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teal stared him into the ground.

If that were possible.

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

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

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

Teal frowned. “Who’s Ungle?”

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

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

Ark snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

Ark harrumphed.

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

“What does this have to do with—?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sterling jumped to his feet.

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teal leapt at Sterling, grabbing him by the neck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

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

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

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

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

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

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

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

Teal groaned.

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

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

Oh hell.“

~~~

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Nine

—Amin’s Village—

You Meant Well

Amin stood in the center of the village with his hands on his hips and his mind reeling in fury. He squinted in the mid-day sun. If someone had told him that his father was living among nomads of the desert, he would have shrugged the information away. He had troubles of his own, and no one, especially not his father, could help him now.

Namah stopped in front of him. Her gaze surveyed his face, and she frowned. “Amin, may I speak with you?”

Clenching his hands at his sides, Amin turned abruptly and strode away.

With an intake of breath, Namah pattered after him, her feet slapping the dusty ground. “Amin! You know who I am and why I’m here. I’ve found a family—”

Amin halted and spun around, his whole body stiffening against the desire to strike. “Caleb is my family. I want no other.”

Namah panted, her face flushing and strands of loose hair falling into her face. “Jared and his wife, Lia, have agreed to adopt you. They’ll take—”

Amin’s rage burst from all constraints. “Take? Yes, they’ll take! Do you know how they treat us? Like dogs. They don’t care for us. They hate us.”

Namah shook her head, her eyes wide with wonder. “I just spoke with them this morning. Their parents are old, and they need help. Would it be so hard to assist—?”

“Who are you to give me away like a goat?” Amin growled deep in his throat. “You’re not even a member of this clan. You have no authority here. Leave me and my brother alone!” Jerking around, Amin sped toward the tree-lined stream. Clamping his arms over his chest, he stared at the foaming water as it crashed against rocks and gurgled through narrow channels.

Flapping footsteps stopped at his side.

Amin clenched his jaw tight against a scream.

Namah’s voice rose. “Like it or not, Amin, I do have a part to play in your life. Your father nearly murdered my daughter, but I have never blamed you or your brother. You’re victims of his madness as well.”

Amin turned slowly. “I’m not a victim! I take good care of Caleb, and we’re fine. We don’t need you. And we certainly won’t be enslaved by Jared and his wife.”

“But you’re living like animals!” Namah sucked in a deep breath and pressed her hands against her chest as if to alleviate a sudden pain. She breathed slowly, in and out, and straightened her shoulders. “What has Jared done so terribly wrong—?”

Smacking one hand against another, Amin stomped forward and glared into Namah’s eyes. “Jared hardly feeds his own father. He had him working out in the sun the other day until the old man collapsed. And Lia’s mother isn’t allowed to do anything without asking for permission first.” He swung his gaze to the village. “No one dares speak of it because Jared is a cruel man.” He swung around and faced the water again. “Even Caleb feels sorry for the old people. He wants me to free them from their misery.”

Namah padded around and faced Amin. “How could this be true and yet no one has warned me?”

“What happens to Caleb and me is of little consequence. Most of the clan wishes we were dead. They hate being reminded of my father’s disgrace.”

“But many of your people supported Ishtar.”

“They supported him when he made the clan rich. No one supports a man in exile.”

Clasping her hands over her mouth, tears swam in Namah’s eyes. “I only want to help.”

“By sending us to Jared, you’d send my little brother and me to misery and early death. For which of these expectations do you wish me to give you thanks?”

Namah backed up and plopped down on a log jutting into the water. “Am I so blind?” She shook her head and met Amin’s gaze. “I never thought to ask…you.”

Amin crossed his arms and glared.

A tear slipped down Namah’s face.

Scurrying up a tree, a squirrel waved its tail and clicked in warning. Two crows cawed and burst from the branches overhead.

Amin heaved a deep breath, his chest tight and painful.

Namah jerked to her feet, her eyes wide and anxiety wrinkling around them. “I should’ve asked Barak’s advice. He’ll be furious with me.”

Amin’s arms fell limply at his sides, his anger seeping away like the heat from a gray campfire. “Why do you care anyway? We’re nothing to you. Only a painful reminder.”

Namah turned to the bank and stared ahead. “A long time ago, almost a lifetime, I made a terrible choice. I regretted it—” She choked. “Aram forgave me.” She glanced back and peered at Amin. A bitter chuckle broke from her wobbling lips. “Everyone forgave me.” She wiped her face and stepped nearer. “I pity Ishtar. He fell, and no one cared to pick him up again.”

Amin dropped his gaze. A sharp pain lodged in his chest.

Namah laid her hand on his shoulder. “Though he’s gone into exile, I believe your father still cares for you.” Her voice dropped to a husky whisper. “I do.”

Amin lifted his eyes. “Perhaps, if I speak with Barak, he’ll understand. Perhaps, he’ll think of a solution.”

One of Namah’s eyebrows rose. “You admit there is a problem?”

“I admit that Caleb needs more than just an angry older brother.”

A smile quivered on Namah’s lips. “First I must see Jared and his wife and rescind my agreement.”

“They’ll be furious.”

“Not as furious as Barak will be.”

A splutter of relief surged through Amin’s middle.

“Maybe you need my help?”

Namah patted his shoulder and grinned. “Caleb has a very astute brother.”

Amin shrugged and squinted through an upturned gaze. “I know you meant well.” He looked toward the mountains. “If my father still lives and learns of your kindness, he’ll be grateful.”

With a nod, Namah stepped away. “I’ll leave you for now, but we’ll meet again. In the meantime, keep your brother safe.”

Amin watched until Namah rounded a corner and was lost from sight. He scratched his jaw and glanced around, a dart of concern jabbing him. “Where is Caleb?”

*A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.

“I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
– Ernest Hemingway

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Seven

—Lake Land—

Make Yourself at Home

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

The children’s eyes widened in stark terror.

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

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

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

Lud smiled and waved.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eoban shuffled to a halt and chuckled.

Lud strode over and rescued his eldest son.

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

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

Red in the face, Gilbreth readjusted his tunic.

Eoban patted Gilbreth on the back, best of buddies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinah giggled, nestling her baby against her shoulder.

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lud glanced at his wife and grinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dinah smiled, her eyes round with shock.

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

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

Mouths fell open across the assembled group.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lud felt a hand on his shoulder.

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

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Six

—Grassland—

That God of Yours

Jonas stood outside her dwelling and hugged Tobia in a tight embrace, an ache building behind her eyes.

Vitus, dressed in a short gray tunic, matching leggings, and with a dark red cloak flung over his shoulders, stood aside, tapping his foot and drumming his fingers on his walking staff. As he looked to the sky, he exhaled a long-suffering sigh.

Tobia, wearing a new long-sleeved white robe over tan leggings pulled back and chewed his lip. His gaze flickered to Obed out of the corner of his eyes.

Jonas glanced from her son to her husband and back to her son. Her stomach clenched into painful knots. She caressed the side of Tobia’s face, letting strands of his fine brown hair stream through her fingers. Staring into his eyes, she tried to memorize every feature.

Obed turned away.

Like children at play, birds swooped and circled in the sky above.

Vitus drummed his staff faster, louder. His sighs turned to huffs and were not encouraging.

Pulling away, Jonas released her boy. “I’ve lost one son—and your father. I cannot bear—”

Vitus lifted his hand. “We’re not going to the earth’s edge, woman. Just the trading circuit.” He slung a limp bag over his shoulder and peered at Tobia’s bulging bag. “We have a long road before nightfall, so if you don’t mind?”

Jonas forced a smile despite impending tears. “I’m sure you’ll do well.” She smashed down rising nausea. “Vitus is a good man of business, and he’ll teach you a great deal. And” —she dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned in— “you’ll teach him a thing or two, no doubt.”

With a grunt, Vitas whapped Tobia on the back and looked up. “The sun is far higher than I intended for our leave-taking. Come now, you’ve said enough farewells for six sons.” His scowl swung from Tobia to Jonas. “Let’s go!”

Tobia nodded and shifted his bag over his shoulder. “I’ll do what I can.”

Vitus stomped off in haste.

Tobia trotted after him.

Wiping her face with the back of her hand, Jonas glanced around. Villagers scurried in their daily duties, no one noticing a mother’s tears. Her shoulders sagged under a hidden weight as she turned to her dwelling and stepped into the cool interior. Slicing roots and vegetables for the mid-day meal, she muttered under her breath. “If that man—”

“Talking to someone?” Obed stood in the doorway, his face draped in shadow.

A stream of light broke through the window and fell across Jonas, making her blink.

With a headshake, Obed grinned and strode to her side. He sniffed the pot. “I hope you’re making something good. I’m starving.”

Her irritation frothing into righteous indignation, Jonas scowled. “Everything I make is good.” She swept the sliced pieces into a pot. “And yes, I am talking to someone. And no, I’m not overprotective.” She sloshed water from a pitcher into the pot and plunked it on the table.

Obed lifted his hands. “I didn’t say anything.” He snatched a date from a bowl and chewed.

Pulling a tray close, Jonas flipped a cloth off a rounded ball of dough. She flattened the dough with her fist and began kneading it with her palms. “You don’t need to say anything. The look in your eye is enough.”

Obed’s eyes widened. “What look?”

“The look you gave me when I hugged Tobia goodbye. The look you make every time Tobia and I pray to God.” She laid the dough aside.

Shaking his head, Obed retreated to the other side of the room, folded his arms, and leaned against the wall. “I won’t deny that your private conversations do seem rather childish, and you did act like Tobia was being sent to his death this morning.”

With deliberate jerks, Jonas wiped the dough off her fingers and rinsed them under a stream of water from the pitcher. “First things first. Our prayers are childish?” Jonas dropped the washcloth on the board. “How about Eymard? Was he a foolish old man? Or Pele? Was she being childish when she appeared out of nowhere and stopped the sacrifice?”

Pushing off the wall, Obed sauntered to a corner and plopped down. He plumped the pillow beside him and peered at Jonas. He waved her over. “Let’s talk without all the dramatic fury—if that’s possible.”

Her shoulders drooping, Jonas stepped over and plunked down stiffly at his side.

“I’m willing to consider what you have to say, but it’d help if you weren’t bristling like a pine tree in high wind every time I talk to you.”

Tears threatening, Jonas closed her eyes and clasped her hands. After a deep breath, she opened her eyes and met Obed’s gaze.

Obed wrapped his arm around her and drew her to his chest.

“I’m sorry I insulted your faith. I shouldn’t say anything”—he grinned— “even with my eyes.” He peered at her. “But you know perfectly well that Tobia’s journey will be good for him. You were suffocating him, treating him like a child.” He squeezed her shoulder playfully. “I bet that God of yours would agree.”

Her stomach unclenching, Jonas relaxed and sighed. “You might be right, but I wish you’d talk to Tobia about his beliefs—and his work. It means so much to him.”

With a chuckle, Obed pulled his arm free and laced his fingers together. “What’s there to talk about? How to hoe a field or watch over a flock?”

Her chin hardening, Jonas nudged away. “I mean his carvings. Tobia’s art speaks to the human spirit.”

With a grunt, Obed shook his head and rose. “Men don’t need to trouble themselves with spirits. I have no wish to become like Ishtar—or any of his kind.” He took Jonas’s hand and pulled her to her feet.

Jonas slapped dust off her dress. “I’m not asking you to become like Ishtar—God forbid. But don’t you ever wonder where the soul goes at death? What other world we might enter? What happened to Onias and Aram?”

Clenching his jaw, Obed slapped a post. “Onias is dead. Aram is dead. Ishtar might as well be dead. It’s time you moved on.” He swung around. “I can’t live in two worlds. One is quite enough for me.” He glared at Jonas, his nostrils flaring as his breathing quickened. “There is no other world.” He bent over and pinched a smidgen of dirt, sifting it through his fingers. “After death, there’s nothing more than this.”

Jonas stomped across the room and stared Obed in the eye. “How can you be so blind? Don’t you see that we have a Creator—a great being beyond us?”

A grin played on Obed’s lips as his gaze roamed over Jonas. “I see greatness before me. I don’t need to look beyond.”

Blushing, Jonas dropped her gaze. “You’re just being stubborn.”

“No, I’m being honest. I’ve more useful things to do than worry about other worlds and gods beyond my sight.”

“Aram believed in God. He told Tobia so.”

Obed grabbed another date and studied it as if it contained a secret. “When a man is dying, it’s comforting to think such things—great banquets in the sky, meeting old friends. I’ll probably want the same comfort when I’m on my death bed.”

“Why wait till then? Talk to God now. Just once—pray.”

With a groan, Obed popped the date in his mouth, chewed, and swallowed. “I’d feel like a fool.”

Defeat bowing her shoulders, Jonas dropped her head.

Obed rolled his shoulders. “All right. If it’ll make you happy, I’ll try.” He blew air between his lips and peered at his wife. “But you’ve got to stop babying Tobia. He’s a man, and he must grow up. Carving is fine—but he needs to support his family and this clan.”

Jonas nodded.

Stepping forward, Obed ran his fingers over her hair, caressing her neck.

A pleasant shiver ran down Jonas’ back.

Obed whispered in her ear. “I’m still hungry. You won’t let me starve?”

Jonas rolled her eyes. “If you catch a couple fish, I’ll do my best to keep you alive another day.”

“Now I can thank your God.”

Jonas returned to the lump of dough, her stomach still in knots, but her shoulders relaxing. “Poor man, I should’ve sent you on a journey.”

With a chuckle, Obed started for the doorway. “Not a bad idea. You think Vitus would wait up while I got ready?”

Jonas watched her husband, with his broad shoulders and straight back, saunter into the sunlight. She glanced up at the rafters. “You may have created him—but I have to live with him.”

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

Enjoy,

Ann

“Trust starts with truth and ends with truth.” ~Anonymous

 

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Five

—Amin’s Village—

My Enemy’s Sons

Amin, with his sharp, chiseled chin and pointed nose, stood in front of a grave mound with his hands clasped behind his back. Tears clouded his vision.

Villagers strode by—unaware or uncaring—never once looking in his direction.

Shuffling footsteps neared.

Amin scowled.

A small brown hand clasped his. Amin peered down and met the sad-eyed gaze of his little brother, a red-cheeked child losing his bloom too early. He swallowed back a lump and cleared his throat. “Caleb. What’re you doing here?”

A slight shrug hinted at a deeper ignorance.

“Did you eat yet?”

Caleb drew one hand from behind his back. A half-eaten piece of bread crumbled beneath his grasp. “It’s all she could spare—at the moment.”

Amin nodded. “Finish it.”

Caleb frowned. “Half’s for you.”

“I already ate. Got some broiled fish off one of the men. Threw it at me like I was a dog.”

Caleb’s eyes widened, his tone a pitch higher. “Fish?”

“I would’ve saved it for you, but it fell in the dirt—wasn’t more than—” He shrugged, clasped his brother’s shoulder, and turned away from the grave.

Caleb turned back, staring at the mound. “Hagia would want flowers.”

An ache throbbed in Amin’s middle. “If she were alive. No need of flowers where she’s gone.” He pulled his brother along.

Caleb followed with a sigh. They wandered to the center of the village.

A young couple bustled in serious industry outside a large, sturdy dwelling. The woman shifted a bench from the right to the left, while the man strung a rope taut from one pole to another. They stopped and peered with sour expressions as the two boys shuffled closer.

The woman waved toward a boulder surrounded by rank grass. “Go over there. That woman left you a tray. Eat the leavings and move on.” She glanced at the hills as if indicating the way.

On the boulder, a tray of gruel lay broiling in the hot sun.

Amin’s frown deepened as he stared back. “What woman?”

The man marched forward, his face flushed, and his brows arched. “Namah. But why she should care for you— after what your father did—is beyond me.” He spat on the ground. “I’d have slaughtered my enemy’s sons. Not fed ’em.”

Caleb trotted over to the food and sniffed. The gruel had jelled into a thick gelatinous mass.

Amin peered over his brother’s shoulder. “Disgusting.”

The woman’s hand fluttered like a garment in a strong breeze. “Not so loud. She’s over there. Discussing you two, no doubt.”

After settling on the ground cross-legged, Caleb pulled the tray onto his lap and shoveled the messy mixture into his mouth with his dirty fingers. He glanced at Amin while dribbles leaked down his chin. “Want some?”

Amin’s gaze fixed on Namah’s back as she stood across the village chatting in a company of other women.

“Wonder what she’s saying.”

The woman straightened a blanket on the line. “She wants someone to adopt you.” She thwacked the heavy cloth with a stick.

Amin whirled around. “Adopt me?”

The woman pounded in a steady rhythm, sending billows of dust into the air. “You and him.” She gestured with her chin. “You’ve got to live somewhere.”

Amin glanced at the dwelling, fury rising like hot liquid in his stomach. “This used to be our home.”

Dropping an ax on the bench, the man turned around, glaring. “Not anymore. Ishtar’s disgraced himself—exiled to his doom, far as I care.” He slapped the doorpost. “But it’s a solid house. I’ve as much right to it as anyone.”

Caleb peered up, licking his sticky lips. “Why?”

With two strides, the man leaned forward and cuffed Caleb on the head. “No more questions. Be on your way now. You’re lucky I didn’t let the dogs have that mess.”

Whimpering, Caleb dropped the tray in the dirt and covered his head.

Growling like a chained animal, Amin gripped his brother’s hand and lurched him to his feet. Tugging him along the path between the buildings, he glanced around. No Namah. “Curse that man! He’s no right to hit you. Or order us away.”

Caleb sniffed as he rubbed his ear. Tears welled in his eyes. “Everyone hates us.”

Amin lead Caleb to a grove of trees beside a rushing stream. “Not everyone.” He frowned and glanced at Caleb as he settled him under the shade of a large tree. “Rest. We’ll sleep here tonight.”

Caleb’s eyes rounded. “But animals come at night.”

Amin tugged a piece of flint from a small wallet tied around his waist. “I can make a fire.” He glanced around. “There’s plenty of tinder, and we can gather bigger pieces before dark.”

Caleb’s sniff turned into a shudder. “I wish Hagia were here. She loved us.”

“She did. But” —Amin shrugged away his helplessness— “at least Namah and Jonas leave us food.”

“Why? I mean, why do they?” Caleb peered up, squinting into the light filtering through the branches.

“Barak probably tells them to. He’s a good man. Or so I’ve heard.”

“Hagia said Namah would follow Aram to the grave. How can she?”

“It’s just a saying.” Tousling his brother’s thick, curly hair, Amin worked up a crooked grin. “No more questions, all right?”

Caleb ran a filthy hand over his sweaty face, smearing streaks of dirt over his head and neck.

Amin’s stomach churned. “Go wash in the stream. I’ll get some wood.” He sucked in a deep breath. “Maybe I’ll even catch a fish for tonight, and we can roast it.”

A new light entered Caleb’s eyes. Turning on his heel, he scampered away.

Amin watched the boy leap like a frisky puppy into the bubbling stream. He sighed and turned to the woods. As he stepped into the cool shade, he glanced back at his old dwelling. Setting his jaw, his eyes narrowed.

 

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Ann

“A home is made of hopes and dreams.” ~Anonymous

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Four

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

Sienna waited, grinning.

Teal lowered himself.

A flash of fear rippled over Sienna’s face.

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

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

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

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

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

Sienna’s lips quivered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a chuckle, Teal glanced aside and froze.

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

Teal exhaled a low breath. “Ishtar?”

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

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

They scampered forward and hid in the deep shadows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Even yourself—I hope.”

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

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

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

Have a blessed day,

Ann

Seek to become someone’s true friend.

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