Short story: Mirage-Reborn

Worldbuilding….

Like an artery, Main Street pumped life into the small town and the surrounding farms. A red, brick building sat at a jaunty angle on the southwest corner of the four-way stop. Raised letters spelled out its inception: Mirage-Reborn Savings and Loan—Year One. The double, front doors swung inward on well-oiled hinges into an interior meant to inspire confidence. A steel, reinforced vault behind the main counter gleamed in assurance, practically winking at you from the glinting rays of light spilling through tall, rectangular windows.

Directly across the street on the south side, a forest-green, wooden, two-story structure boasted fancy lettering: Nelson’s Grocery—Your One-Stop-Shop. Nelson’s stocked everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to floral prints for your next dressmaking project. Though old man Nelson insisted that his daughter, Grace, stock more variety, it was already almost more than she could manage. Two other Main Street stores filled in the culinary gaps—Bud’s Butcher and a Fresh-from-the-Farm Dairy & Bakery outlet.

A filling station and a post office occupied the other two street corners, while the Sheriff’s Office halfway down the block, ensured the current population that not only was your money safe—you were too. Or you would be soon, once Abbas introduced their new sheriff at the Town Hall meeting.

Abbas, in his ancient wisdom, had cultivated changes in Mirage slowly. It had only been in the last year that he began referring to their world as Mirage-Reborn. Clearly, the population realized that something was afoot when he replaced their medieval styled hovels with sturdier, comfier, ranch-style houses. Like a proud papa, he took each citizen—and their assembled relatives—to their new abode and showed them a thousand Oldearth years worth of improvements in an hour. It was an accomplishment worthy of a god. The changes were accepted as divine ordinances—and darn nice ones too.

The Town Hall crowd jostled each other in friendly intimacy; after all, these people had lived together through enormous life changes. They gathered in expectation, chatting about the weather, crops, and the usual challenges of life, studiously avoiding any emphasis on the fact that their world had morphed from an Oldearth medieval village into a mid-twentieth century, American town. Would wonders never cease?

Omega had transported each of them—or their parents—to Mirage decades ago in response to a particular need. After the demise of Oldearth, Luxonians had been humanity’s only hope, but occasionally, humans did not conform well to life on planet Lux. The adventurous ones struck out on their own and settled on outposts. Sometimes successfully. Sometimes disastrously. When Omega learned of a human in extreme need, he would swoop in, and, like a hero of old, save the innocent—and not so innocent—from certain destruction. Each new arrival’s adjustment to medieval Oldearth society put everyone on equal footing.

After Omega’s mother died, he, too, disappeared, so Abbas took up the mantle and played the combined roles of demi-god and sheriff-in-residence. Most inhabitants accepted these changes with a shrug of laconic indifference. There was nothing written in stone saying you couldn’t jump a millennium or two every now and again.

Since his wife had died and Omega had left, Abbas busied himself with the town. He liked to appear suddenly, surprising the marketing crowd or lend a hand at a barn raising. He never appeared out of humor or out of breath, and he was welcomed everywhere he went.

As the crowd gathered in happy chatter, Abbas suddenly appeared in the front of the hall with two men, one on either side. On his left, a blond, slim man with striking blue eyes squared his shoulders and crossed his arms as he appeared to appraise the crowd in a critical, sweeping glance. A thicker and heavier, dark headed man on the right merely stood with his muscled arms at his side, gazing ahead like a crime suspect in a lineup.

Abbas raised his arms, and the room fell silent. “My friends, I bring you two new citizens of Mirage-Reborn. I know you will welcome them as I have welcomed you in times past.” He waved to his left. “Mr. Jeremy Quinn has served many, faithful years as a Bothmal guard, but now he has agreed to serve as our Sheriff and Director of Criminal Justice.”

Murmurs from the crowd stirred the air at the word Bothmal.

“Did he say Bothmal? As in the Inter-alien-prison?”

“Hellhole, I was told. No good can ever come of that place.”

Quinn’s eyes scoured the assembly, stopping at dissatisfied frowns and hovering over fear-filled eyes.

Abbas waved the murmurs away, nodded to his right, and his tight smile softened. “And here, I have brought you a treasure in Lucius Pollex, a man of renowned physical strength and the best blacksmith this side of the Divide. In him, you will discover both a hard worker and a faithful friend.”

Relief warred with anxiety in the crowd’s eyes as they shifted from Quinn to Pollex and back to Quinn.

“I have arranged a simple repast, so join me with our new friends at the cafe, and let’s get to know each other better.”

Abbas opened his arms as if in benediction, and the crowd parted with respectful nods and clasped hands. Like a wave washing over the shore, the entire population turned and followed their leader through the door.

Only Vera Webb, a petite, black-haired woman with high cheekbones, piercing black eyes, and ridges along her neck stood to the side and saw the exchange between the newcomers.

Lucius Pollex merely nodded with a hint of a warning in his eyes, but Quinn poured the malice of eons into his gaze as he glared at the blacksmith.

Vera shivered.

Short Story: Mirage

How many years had they been married? Abbas sighed. He couldn’t remember. His wife had always taken care of the details—anniversaries, birthdays, and celebrations of all kinds. He had always been too busy. Mirage rather than marriage demanded his unfailing obsession.

The town folk bowed their heads and shuffled their feet in shy obeisance as the funeral procession marched passed. His son, Omega, strode at the front helping to bear the slight weight of the petite coffin. The shoemaker, furrier, carpenter and other inhabitants marched in a stately manner to the Resting Field.

Flowers bloomed in glorious array; Abbas had made sure of that. Color splashed against the horizon from simple white daisies to blood-red roses. Though there had been a murmuring among the children at the sight of spring blooms in the middle of winter, their parents had sense enough to hush the little ones and remind them that Abbas could do what other mortals could not. He was their father, after all. And today they must bury their mother.

~~~

After the intoned words of blessing upon her spirit, which everyone trusted to the outer limits of their imaginations, a wailing chant set them into mournful retreat. Abbas stood alone by the stone slab engraved with her name: Mother. It was her vocation and her title. Even Abbas called her Mother in the intimacy of their chamber. She was, above all things, a giver of life and love.

Omega stepped to his father’s side, and the two stared in silence at the grave. A red bird burst from the woods and soared into the noon sunshine. Omega lifted his tear-stained eyes and gazed in wonder. “I imagine she flew to her rest—as happy to go as to stay. She was always a cheerful being.”

Abbas glanced at his son. “We grieve, nonetheless.”

Omega nodded. “Yes, but perhaps we should do more. We ought to bear testimony to her spirit somehow.”

Abbas shrugged and turned, his body hunched and his gaze blank. “I bore little testimony to her while she lived. I hardly—”

Omega grasped his father’s long, flowing sleeve and halted him in his tracks. “But that’s not true. You adored her. You fulfilled her every wish.” Omega threw back his head and closed his eyes to the burning sun. “It was I who tore her heart, always racing about the universe, chasing every passing fantasy, leaving her to hug vaporous memories of my childhood and those who passed beyond.”

Abbas placed a warm hand on his son’s shoulder. “You were her passion. I loved her, but Mirage and world-making were my chosen professions. It seems we three, despite our mighty powers, have been little more than star-crossed lovers.”

A large, muscled man with thick, brown hair dressed in a jerkin worn over a black, cotton tunic strode forward and bowed with a hand clasped over his heart. “My lord, the townsfolk have set the repast in the main hall and await your arrival.”

Abbas nodded in dignified acceptance, and the man turned to his next duty.

Omega stroked his chin with the glimmer of a smile. “Father, I have a magnificent idea! Mother enjoyed my stories of Newearth and—”

“One village is enough, son.” Abbas marched at a quicker pace toward the lofty castle on the hill. His boots left no print on the rocky road.

Omega squared his shoulders as a light flared in his eyes. He hustled alongside. “She thought that the universe would be much improved if there were more places like Newearth—”

Abbas stopped suddenly. “You want to introduce other species—here? Do you realize what that would entail? The shifting of populations and the destruction of their native culture!”

Omega laughed. “But it would be a challenge. Medieval Oldearth has its limitations—as well you know. We could remake it, completely fresh, in a new century with a variety of life forms. Mother enjoyed a scene I once brought of a small farming town with a vibrant population—”

Abbas waved his hand toward the little village nestled against the hill. “And what would you do with this population? Mirage is the only world most of them have ever known.”

Omega strode to the gate where an elderly woman in a long, homespun dress curtseyed in formal recognition of her Master. He clasped her wrinkled hand and gazed into her eyes. “Martha, dear, what would you say if I wanted to bring new life into this old, barren village? Would you support me?”

The old woman gazed back with devotion. “We would do anything you ask, for you are our Lord. You can do no wrong.”

Omega hugged her frail shoulders and led Martha toward the open door and the lighted hall filled with tables loaded with food. “You do me great honor, my friend. And I’m sure it would please Mother. We must honor her memory with a new direction, a new life.” Omega charged ahead, leaving his father on the threshold.

Abbas lifted his eyes to the sparkling, blue sky and shrugged. “He is your son as well as mine. What would you have me do?”

A.K. Frailey’s Short Story Schedule 2017

A. K. Frailey 2017 Summer and Autumn Literary & Science Fiction

Short Story Schedule

ENJOY!

June 23 ~ The Visit

June 30th ~ Mirage

July 7th ~ Fiery Furnace

July 12th ~Summer Poem: Truth of Loveliness

July 14th ~ Mirage-Reborn

July 21st ~ Crucible

July 28th ~ Mirage-Reborn: We Are LuKan

August 4th ~ Decorum

August 11th ~ Mirage-Reborn: A New Life for Lucius Pollex

August 18th ~ Drama Trauma

August 25th ~ Mirage-Reborn: Grace Nelson’s Murder

September 1st ~ Visions of Grandeur

September 8th ~ Mirage-Reborn: Vera’s Wings

September 15th ~ Guardian

September 22nd ~ Jeremy Quinn

September 29th ~ Same Spirit

October 5th ~ Autumn Poem: Soul’s Birth in Morning Soil 

October 6th ~ The Dwarven Pillar

October 13th ~ Critical Power

October 20th ~ Xavier Pax’s illusion

October 27th ~Skeletons

November 3rd ~ The Life and Times of Yelsa Prator

November 10th ~ Addicted to Me

November 17th ~ Jazzmarie

November 24th ~ Good Deed

December 1 ~ Riko’s Uncle Clem

December 8th ~ Survival of the Fittest

December 15th ~ Common Destiny

December 22nd ~ High

Never Forget

earthtree

Planet: Sectine II

Aliens: Uanyi are slim creatures with rubbery exoskeletons as well as internal bones and enormous eyes.

Setting: Riko’s home, late evening after a surprise attack by Uanyi Extremists.

~~~

Riko held his mother’s body in his arms, rocking silently as tears streamed down his face. Burning rocks flew to pieces, and raging flames cast his spartan living room into eerie, violent shadows.

With his legs tucked under him, he sobbed silently. He had scrambled across the room to her when the first blast broke the west wall sending shrapnel in all directions. A section of the window frame protruded from her side.

Bending close, he pressed his ear to her chest, but no sound, no movement other than his own rocking motion signaled life. “Aw, Ma!”

~~~

A Lunar Cycle Later

Riko stood next to a grave mound while his sister, Rhianna, hunched next to him. A tall stone with a picture of a falling star etched in the middle perched at the head of the mound. Riko bowed his head.

Rhianna placed her arm around his shoulders. “Ma would want us to move on. It was a mistake coming here. We thought we could keep the race wars from following us, but it was a dream. We’re not meant to live in Old-world Uanyi. To be honest, Old-world Uanyi wasn’t so so great, even back in its glory days.”

Riko lifted his head and stared at the two suns in the sky, one only a third of the size of the other. “Let’s go. We don’t want to be late for the transport.” He peered around. “Where’s Zero?”

The woman bellowed a trumpet-like call across the brown, moss-covered expanse.

A miniature Uanyi came trotting from around the side of an octagonal structure with dirt smeared across his white shirtfront, a tear in his brown leggings, and his bulbous, black, insect-like eyes wide and blinking.

The woman shook a slender finger at him. “Zero! You’ve been fighting again?”

Zero shook his head, his gaze as frozen as his little body.

Riko glanced at his sister. “You gotta train that kid. He’ll never survive on Newearth.”

The woman shrugged. “He’s survived so far. Better than some.” She stretched out her long, rubbery arm. “Come on, little one. You’ll have to carry things for me. You’ll do that won’t you?”

Riko watched his sister and nephew pad away to the round-shaped house with vivid colors painted on it in a pattern unique to their family line. He shook his head.

A larger, hulking Uanyi trotted forward, waving one hand. “Hey, Riko, glad I caught you before you left.” He stopped suddenly, peered sharply at the stone and the grave mound, bowed low, and then turned his attention to Riko, taking him by the arm. “You ma left you something. I had to wrestle your mother’s brother for it, but I got it. Stupid fool thought that no one knew.” He struggled to get something out of a deep pocket. “Your ma was a better businesswoman than most gave her credit for. Pity. She should’ve lived to see us transform this place—”

Riko held up his hand. “She died trying to transform this place.” He heaved a sigh. “Never mind. What ya got?”

“Units. Over twenty thousand, and they’re in your name.” He lifted a data-chip into the air and handed it onto Riko’s open palm. “Look, I know it was terrible, what happened to your ma and all, but sporadic fighting isn’t the end of the world. Not this world anyway. Don’t give up on us. We’re trying to dig down to our roots, grow a new culture from the ancient soil of our—”

Riko stared at the chip in his palm and lifted his other hand to stall his friend. “Stop, Uncle Clem! Your brother is gone, and ma is dead. I’ve heard all the propaganda I ever want to. I’m done changing the world, saving our race, or whatever it is you think you’re doing. I’m heading to Newearth to find work and mind my own business.”

Clem glanced away. “And what about Rhianna? And Zero?”

“I’ll look after them. Best as I can. Rhianna’s like Ma—headstrong with good business sense. They’ll be fine.” He looked up and stared at the structure. “I think.” He shrugged and started toward the house. “Anyway, you can always check in on us. I’ll send my contact info as soon as I get to Newearth.” He shoved the chip deep into his own pocket. “I appreciate everything you’ve done—and this.” He tapped his pocket. “Few would’ve cared what happened to us—at least to me.”

Clem threw his arm around Riko and jiggled him, friendly-like. “You saved my life once, remember? I’ll never forget that.”

“Yeah, well, it was luck on both our parts. Sometimes you get lucky, you know.” He stopped and glanced back at the grave mound. “Sometimes—not so much.”

Clem shoved Riko forward. “Better hurry. I bet you’ll have zillions of units by the time I visit.” He chuckled. “You better.”

Riko sighed. “We’ll see.” He looked up at the suns. “God knows, it’ll take more than units to make Newearth feel like home. Never really had a home.”

Clem shrugged. “We’re all trying to find our place. Your Ma wanted you to set down roots. But never forget—” He wagged a finger in Riko’s face, “—you’re a Uanyi!”

Riko nodded and padded away, leaving his uncle and his mother’s silent grave behind.

Short Story: Trust Me

cobra

Eric peered through hooded, yellow eyes. His lithe, perfectly toned body stood at attention with his hands clasped serenely behind his back. He studied his boss, Simms, with absolute composure. Nothing could surprise him—he was a master of self-control trusted no one.

Simms, a human with more replacement parts than he liked to admit, could not hide his boxy shape, though he tried. His hair, though not his own, appeared thick and black, while his olive skin tone complimented the wine-colored shirt and trousers he wore. A gold pendant hung at his neck while his bejeweled fingers flashed with color.

He sat leaning back on a well-padded chair, his feet propped up on a wide window ledge. He licked a large, chocolate-chip ice cream cone wrapped in a freeze-sleeve, which kept it nice and cold, preventing drips. Simms did not like drips. He slurped a large swipe of ice cream and then darted a glance at Eric, gesturing with his free hand. “Just say yes and make us both happy.”

Eric licked his lips. “You haven’t told me your plans.”

Simms slammed down his feet, swerving his ice cream cone dangerously close to his desk. “What? I have to tell you everything? Who do you think I am—a beggar-boy? A Bhuac maybe?” He drew in a long breath and regained his accustomed position, swinging his feet back up on the sill. “No. You just say yes. Then I tell you my plans.” He chomped down on the top of the cone and slurped his words. “Don’t you trust me?”

“I already killed once for you; I think that merits some—”

“Aw, hell. You killed nobody. A nothing. What I’m talking about now is real business. My business. I have plans. Big plans.” He shrugged his shoulders. “You want in or not?”

Eric straightened his already straight shoulders. “Yes.”

A wide smile broke over Simms’ face. He swung his feet back onto the floor and tossed his ice cream cone into the trash. “Good! Okay, let’s get down to business. I’m gonna build the biggest interstellar docking bay this side of the Divide. I’m gonna—”

Eric shook his head. “Newearth already has one of the largest docking bays this side of Bothmal. You really think that—”

“Shut up, imbecile. I have already thought this through. I’ve Ingots, Uanyi, and even a couple dozen Crestas ready to follow my lead. I just need someone I can trust.” He peered up at Eric’s impassive face. “You know, killing that crossbreed was my idea. Right wasn’t going to do it, but I showed her the logic of the situation, and besides, I wanted to see you in action.”

“I take it, I performed to your satisfaction.”

“Aw, don’t talk like that, like some cheap robot off a passing trader.” He clasped his hands, lacing his fingers together. “You’ve got to be perfectly straight with me. I need someone who’ll be my eyes and ears, listen, but never talk, except to me. You get the idea? I’m gonna make Newearth the greatest trading center in the universe. And that’ll make some high-profile personalities jealous. They’ll try to stop me or cut in and try to replace me. And I won’t stand for it!”

He waved to his wall of medals, attesting to his award-winning skill at Zinzinera, a tough, body-wrenching, head-cracking Ingoti game that many players never live to see through to the end.

“I’ve got the skills to make this happen. It’ll be good for Newearth, good for every trader who wants to increase business, good for you, and good for me.” He frowned. There’s only one person who might give me serious trouble.”

Eric’s eyebrows rose. “Who might that be?”

Simms heaved himself out of his chair and strode over to his wall of trophies, studying them. “A Luxonian by the name of Cerulean. He’s been around a long time, since before the beginning—of Newearth, I mean. He’s got a reputation as a nice guy. But he isn’t. Trust me. He’s as dangerous as they come.” He swung around and faced Eric. “I want him outta my way.”

Eric folded his arms high across his chest. “Luxonians are hard to kill.”

“I didn’t say kill. I said I want him out of my way, traveling to foreign parts, or back on Lux—whatever. But wherever he is, I want you to keep your eyes on him. I want his reputation tarnished. I want everyone to see him for what he really is.”

“And what—exactly—is he?”

Simms shrugged. “He thinks he’s a guardian, a protector, like some Knight of Oldearth. But it’s all a lie. There are no heroes these days—they don’t exist.” Simms padded up to Eric and peered into his eyes. “Look into Cerulean’s soul and see what you find. Then report to me. We’ll find a way of destroying him—from the inside out.”

Eric unfolded his arms and nodded. “Simple enough.”

Simms shook his head. “Not simple. Necessary. How else will I get everyone to trust me?”

Romantic Reality

romanticreality

Bala lay in bed, his arm around his wife, and stared up at the ceiling. The room glowed in soft, semi-darkness as faint starlight flowed in from the window. An abrupt snore from across the hall broke the silence. Bala chuckled. “After six of ’em, you’d think I’d get used to the idea that kids snore, but it always seems so ridiculous.”

Kendra shrugged. “I don’t see why they’d be any different than the rest of us. Blocked nasal passages are a part of life.”

Bala squeezed Kendra’s shoulder. “That’s what I love about you, so romantic!”

“Just telling it as it is.” She grinned. “Do you remember when we met?”

Bala stiffened. “You mean the very first time I saw you, or the first time we spoke, or the first time I kissed—”

Kendra jabbed him in the ribs. “The very first time, man-o-mine.”

Bala licked his lips. “Go ahead, refresh my memory.” He tickled her arm. “I know you’re dying to.”

Kendra rose up on one elbow and stared into Bala’s eyes. “Just for that, I’ll tell you what you never knew! So there!”

“Uh, oh. Can I rephrase—”

“Too late, boy-o. You’re going to get what you deserve.” Shoving her pillows up against the headrest, she sat up and pulled the blankets straight. Her long-sleeved, purple pajamas appeared black in the dim light.

Bala heaved a sigh and curled up on his side, propping his head on his hand. “Don’t mind my relaxed pose. I have to fight six children onto a transport in the morning, and I need to conserve my strength, what’s left of it anyway.”

Kendra kicked his foot and then positioned herself like a storyteller of old, tapping her fingers together meditatively. “I was seven—going on eight. You were nine—going on fifty.” She peered down at him, through the shadows. “You remember the playground at Saint Robert’s? Nothing but hard cement and a few rickety swings?”

Bala nodded.

“And you trudged up the driveway with your little sack slung over your shoulder. Full of provisions, I was sure. You looked like some kind of off-world trader, come to sell his wares. I was agog with curiosity.”

Bala’s eyes glowed as he watched her hands gesturing. “Agog? Oh, my, you’re not supposed to do that in polite society.”

Kendra maintained her composure. “I didn’t tell anyone, but I watched the exchange as you explained yourself to Mother Superior. You looked like a miniature soldier reporting for duty. Your family sent you with no escort, no explanation, just your provision bag, and a datapad saying that you were there for the duration.”

Bala sighed. “I remember.” He frowned. “How did you know?”

Kendra’s grin gleamed in the half-light, which slanted across the bed. “I was very good friends with the Head Mistress. She thought the world of me. Dare say, after a few pointed questions, she told me what I wanted to know—fact wise. But I was still curious. So, I used to follow you around.”

Bala slapped his forehead. “That was you? I thought that bully, MacKery, was teasing me.”

“He was. I beat him up. Then I took his place.”

Bala snorted, clasping his hand over his mouth to stifle any further outbursts.

“Anyway, I liked what I saw. I decided that one day you’d marry me, we’d have a family, and live on Newearth. It was my grand scheme.”

Bala huffed. “Silly me. I thought I came up with the idea.”

Kendra stroked the side of his face. “You would’ve, in fact, you did. Once I told you.”

“You planned the six kids too, I suppose?”

“Hardly. They’re gifts. I just hoped.”

Bala nodded, raised himself to a sitting position, and folded his hands. “So, what plans do you have now?”

Kendra sighed. “That’s just it. My plans only went so far. They sort of—well—life took over. I stopped planning and just tried to keep up.”

Bala chuckled. “I know what you mean.” He pulled Kendra into his arms. “You know, wife-o-mine. It was no accident that my bedraggled, little body showed up at that school.”

Kendra tilted her head to the side, a gleam in her eye. “Oh? Really?”

Bala nodded as he shifted closer and wrapped both his arms around her, nuzzling her cheek against his. “Yep. You weren’t the only one making plans. And—” Bala gazed up as though he could see through the ceiling into the impenetrable, night sky. “I don’t think He’s done.”

Off-World Faith

church

Bala knelt on the hard, stone floor and folded his hands across the latticed-carved railing, his head bowed. As the priest approached, he stared straight ahead; his eyes fixed on the ornate altar under the stained glass window of Jesus embracing His Mother Mary. With precise steps, the robed figure bent and offered him a gift. The greatest gift Bala could imagine.

He accepted it, crossed himself, and stood.

When he returned to his pew, he knelt beside Kendra; her head bowed onto her hands clasped over the pew in front of her.

Final prayers and chants completed the liturgy, and Kendra sank back with a deep sigh. Her gaze floated up to the gorgeously painted ceiling.

Bala slid back on the pew and echoed her sigh. It had been so long. So much had happened. Six kids had happened. A new job, an attack on his family, and now a new threat. Bala sighed again.

Kendra reached over and clasped his hand. With a quick squeeze, she nudged him.

The procession had left, and only a few others remained behind, praying, crying, thanking God, adoring—Bala didn’t know; he didn’t need to know. He scooted out of the pew and Kendra followed.

Still clasping hands, they strolled through the enormous, carved doorway and stood on the top row of twenty, stone steps leading into the heart of a bustling city. Saint Francis, it was called. Bala chuckled at the incongruity of the sign across the street proclaiming itself the city’s finest Savings and Loan on the planet: “Saint Frances would keep his units here—if had any.” Bala pointed out the sign to Kendra.

She laughed. “Well, at least they have a sense of humor, even if they have no common sense to speak of.”

“Speaking of sense, I’m starving. Want to get something before we pick up the kids?”

“You mean to eat in peace and quiet?” Kendra’s eyes widened as if she were scandalized. “What would the kids say?”

“Let’s not tell them.” Bala dragged her along as he led her down the street toward a fancy establishment. “Besides, I’m sure that Sister Mary Rose will have stuffed them with enough breakfast to keep them happy for at least an hour or two.”

Kendra sniffed with a shrug. “If not her, then one of her fourteen sisters will see to it.” Kendra halted in mid-stride. “Lord, you don’t think our little darlings will end up with fifteen breakfasts, do you?”

Bala stared wide-eyed. “If they do, we’ll be able to stay out for the whole morning.” He nudged Kendra through the delicately carved glass doorway.

They followed a portly, smartly dressed waiter to a table laid with a white, linen cloth and real silverware. Bala’s eyes bugged. “It’s been so long!”

Kendra patted his hand. “Don’t go getting attached. We have to return tomorrow. This is our last fling with Oldworld comforts.”

Exhaling, Bala perused the menu, and they ordered two healthy breakfasts. The waiter retreated, and Kendra folded her hands in her lap. “So? What did he tell you?”

Bala tapped his water glass and frowned. “Confession is supposed to be private. You know what priests have gone through to keep—”

“Awe, come on. We always share. And besides, this was more like spiritual direction. You don’t have much to confess, I imagine.”

Bala shrugged. “Your imagination is lacking. Trust me, I had plenty to confess.” Bala shook his head. “Funny, but when I was a kid, I used to face the priest like a soldier going into battle. I was always scared to death, shook like a leaf. This time, I felt rather sorry for the poor man. The things he must have to listen to! Felt rather sorry for myself, too.”

Kendra nodded as the waiter placed two steaming cups in front of them and retreated. She returned her gaze to Bala’s face. “Any conclusions?”

Bala sipped the hot coffee and blinked. “Yeah. But you won’t like it. It seems that our sins make us who we are. And we forgive others and ourselves and move on, knowing all the while, we’ll have to forgive again later.”

Kendra sipped her coffee and then leaned across the table, clasping Bala’s hand. “And?”

Bala swallowed, his gaze fixed on the tablecloth. “And I have to go. Clare will chase after Omega, but someone has to locate Cosmos. It’s my duty. I can’t shrink from it, not even for you and the—” Bala swallowed back his last word.

The waiter returned with loaded trays of steaming food. He placed them silently on the table, and with a bow, retreated again.

Bala shuddered. “I have to go. If—”

Kendra squeezed his hand and nodded. “I know. Why do you think I insisted on this family trip? We needed to return to our home—to our roots. We needed to remember why we settled on Newearth in the first place.”

Bala lifted his gaze and stared into Kendra’s eyes. “I married you for two very good reasons.”

Kendra smiled. “My charm and money?”

Bala scratched his head with a grin. “Okay, four very good reasons. But it was your wisdom and love that won me over.”

Kendra picked up her fork, eyeing her food like a tiger about to pounce. “Yeah, same with me. I figured that no matter how many kids we had, you’d provide what we need. And probably not go insane in the process.”

Bala chuckled and speared his ham and eggs with gusto. “Cool-headed-logic, that’s my middle name!”