OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Three

—Mountains and Stone City—

Beyond Mere Barbarism

Eoban plodded behind Luge. Two of Luge’s men flanked him on either side, while Obed and Barak trailed behind. Dark pine trees shaded their path, though bright sunlight filtered through in splotches and slashes. Shadows and light chased each other among the overarching branches. Suddenly, the line of trees stopped abruptly as if a decree had forbidden them beyond an invisible point.

The men crossed the line in silence, leaving the cool green ceiling and the soft mats of brown needles behind.

Obed hissed a deep breath between his lips. “Here comes the hard part.”

Luge tromped ahead over gravelly soil, his gaze cast down, his brows wrinkled.

Barak, too, strode forward but looking ahead, not down. A scowl rose across his forehead, warning of unnamed trouble.

As they wedged themselves between great shoulders of the mountains, Eoban noticed every detail of his surroundings. The sun grew bright and hot, and he wiped away the sweat beading on his face. All bird song faded into the background, leaving an oppressive silence, except for the scuffling of their feet over loose sand. Vultures circled overhead, sending a shiver over his arms. He swallowed. We should go back. But he knew he wouldn’t. He couldn’t.

Barak stumbled.

Eoban turned. “You all right?”

“Thinking of home.”

Frowning, Eoban waved a dismissive hand. “Not a good idea.”

Obed jogged forward, a flush rising over his face. “Not a good idea?” He jabbed Eoban’s shoulder. “You’d advise a married man not to think about his wife and children?”

Eoban picked up the pace, nearly running into Luge. He shrugged Obed away. “No use tormenting himself. He’ll get home when he gets home.” Eoban stopped short. “Besides, I thought you wanted to see fresh lands…experience new things.”

A sparkle glinted in Obed’s eyes. “I do. But that doesn’t mean I’m rude to others.”

Eoban glanced and held Barak’s gaze. “You’re really all right?”

Barak shrugged. “I was tormenting myself.” He wiped his brow and glanced ahead. “How much further?”

Luge, flanked by his men, stopped in the distance. He pointed ahead.

Eoban, Obed, and Barak hustled closer.

They stood, enchanted, and peered over a valley shimmering white and gold in the brilliant summer light. A vast blue expanse stretched over rippling waves of sand.

Set on a distant hill, a walled stone city rose into the sky like a child’s toy ready to be plucked from the earth.

Luge set his jaw, his gaze never straying from the city. “Let’s eat before we seal our fate.”

~~~

Eoban patted his contented stomach as he padded over the sand to the main gate.

Crowds bustled through the narrow entrance with guards asking questions and checking wares. Thick, rectangular open windows in the upper stories built directly into the wall allowed Eoban to perceive new depth to the city. Flashes of colored clothing swept beyond the gate. Glimpses of tables piled high with trade goods set his heart pounding.

Like an exuberant child, Eoban led the way, with Luge and his men falling behind Obed and Barak.

Armed soldiers dressed in long tunics and carrying spears strutted down narrow alleyways crisscrossing the main artery through town.

A cacophony of voices—men calling their wares, women hustling noisy children, goats bleating, birds squawking—tingled Eoban’s ears.

Luge’s labored breathing warned of his anxious state of mind, so Eoban stopped and waited for him to catch up.

Obed hurried next to his clansman and clutched his sleeve like an over-excited child.

Eoban pulled free. “Would you let me be? I feel like my mother is trying to keep me tied to her skirt.”

Obed released Eoban’s sleeve, his wide eyes roaming the scene. “Sorry, I didn’t—It’s just . . .”

“You’ve hardly ever traveled, remember? I’m the one who talked you into this.” A chuckle bubbled inside. “Think of what you’d have missed if you stayed at home.” Eoban surveyed the bustling crowds. “It’ll take every bit of our skills to describe this.”

Obed shook his head. “No one’ll believe us.” He turned in a circle, his arms flapping at his sides. “We’d have to invent new words.”

Barak swung his bag high over his shoulder and leaned toward Eoban. “Question is—how are we going to search this city and not attract attention to ourselves?”

With a splutter, exasperation killed Eoban’s joy. “Do I have to show you everything? Come on. Do what I say and don’t talk too much!”

Obed exchanged an uneasy glance with Barak.

Luge dropped his gaze, groaning.

A burly guard started forward, his eyes narrowing into hard glints. “Where’re you from, and where’re you bound?”

Huffing like an overwrought trader ready for hearth and home, Eoban threw back his shoulders and puffed out his chest. “I’ve been in the mountains and am returning home with my goods.” He waved at Luge, his men, Obed, and Barak.

The glint in the soldier’s eyes testified to his suspicious nature. “Why aren’t they tied?”

Eoban leaned in and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “They’re terrified of me. Already whipped one for rudeness.” He tilted his head in Obed’s direction.

The guard chewed on this, glanced at Eoban’s empty hands, and considered the assembly. “They hardly look fit to trade—much less escape.” After scratching the side of his jaw, he spat on the ground not far from Eoban’s feet.

Eoban clenched his jaw.

Another guard ambled near and called out. “Better hurry or Gerard’ll give your rations to the dogs.”

With a quick wave, the guard sent Eoban on his way and marched along the wall.

Eoban marched forward, grinning. He glanced at Obed. “See that wasn’t so—”

Suddenly, a piping voice called out from among the raucous din. “You’re too late if you want to sell your wares today!” A chubby, red-cheeked youth weaved through the crowd, a grin plastered on his round face.

Turning to his new advisory, Eoban thrust his palm over his heart. “Me? Sell? Oh no, I’ve just bought these prizes. I’m looking for a place to rest for the night. You wouldn’t know of any decent accommodations?”

The boy’s eyes widened. “They aren’t even bound. How are you going to keep slaves all night?” He glanced around. “Where’re your men?”

Eoban attempted to pat the boy’s head, but the youth kept his distance. “I know how to manage my own property. I’ll tie them up good and tight.”

“With what?”

A storm brewing in his chest, Eoban boomed a hearty laugh. “Stop worrying! I’ll manage.” He glared at the boy. “Now, what about a place to rest?”

“You’ll pay?” The boy’s gaze measured Eoban appreciatively.

“Everything you deserve. I assure you.” Eoban glanced from Obed to Barak. “Just point me in the right direction.” The boy led them through crooked passages to a wide street and a wine seller’s door. “My father lives here. He’ll put you up for the night if you have something worthy to offer.” His gaze roved over the assembly. He pointed at Barak. “How about that one there? My father needs a new man, someone who’ll survive his beatings.”

Barak glared in mute fury.

Eoban rubbed his hands together and offered his most ingratiating smile. “Well…that might be a possibility. If he gives me any trouble tonight, we’ll work something out.”

Barak lifted his hand. “I’m not going to—”

Luge suddenly lunged forward. “My son! I see my son!”

Eoban twisted around, scanning the bustling throng.

Barak unceremoniously shoved the boy to the side and nudged Luge forward. “Go! Follow him.” He glanced at Eoban. “Find you later.”

Eoban spluttered.

The youth’s face blazed.

Luge and Barak darted into the crowd.

The boy cupped his hands around his mouth and screamed. “Runaway! Runaway!”

Plastering his hand over the boy’s mouth, Eoban waited until Luge and Barak were out of sight. He pulled his hand away and wiped it on his tunic, peering at the boy. “Sorry, but I’d rather you not tell anyone about my…embarrassing situation. I know those men. They’ll be back.”

The boy glared, a flush working up his face and his hands perched on his hips.

Eoban leaned in and met the boy’s glare head-on. “They want to see their families again.” He shrugged like an old hand in the slave business. “The big man often thinks he sees his son, but the other one knows to bring him back.” Pursing his lips, he glanced at sign decorated with purple grapes hanging over the wine seller’s door.

The boy’s eyes narrowed, but he bowed in exaggerated friendship. “Certainly. Let me introduce you to my father. He’ll enjoy hearing all about your adventures—and slaves who run away and come back of their own accord.”

~~~

Eoban awoke from a deep slumber, scratching his tousled hair and rubbing sleep from his eyes. By the stars, I thought I’d died and— A cooing sound turned his attention. He rose from his pallet and peered at the nearby figures. Snoring affirmed what he already suspected. The father and son were sleeping. Tiptoeing, he slipped out of the wine seller’s house.

After rounding the corner, he called. “Barak?”

Barak hissed. “Here.”

Like a blind man, Eoban reached out and slapped Barak’s arm. “Where’ve you been? I had to make up a thousand tales to tell that fool of a boy and his father. I thought they’d get tired and fall asleep like normal people, but no. They wanted nothing more than to stay up half the night and hear me tell one lie after another.”

Barak snorted. “Should’ve felt right at home.”

“On the contrary. I wanted to bolt out their hospitable door and save my sanity. I’ve never been asked so many stupid questions in all my life.” Eoban’s voice simpered as he clasped his hands. “‘How many wives do you have? Where do your ancestors sleep? Have you built your tomb yet? What artisans do you employ?’ I would’ve liked to build their tombs—”

“Shhh!” Barak waved like a bat ready for takeoff. “Thank you for sharing. I’m fine. Your concern for my welfare is heartwarming. So glad you enjoyed yourself while I risked my life reuniting a father and son.”

Mild surprised caught Eoban off guard. “Luge found his son?”

“Not at first. He did see a boy about the right size and age, but when we caught up, he realized it wasn’t the right boy. The boy did, however, know of a training ground. He’d also been taken from his family and was inclined to help us. At the training ground, we found a group of slaves, and Luge’s son was among them. We managed to get near enough to speak to him. It took an ingenious plot on my part and a great deal of luck, but we got his son separated from the others, and Luge stole him back. They’re heading to the mountain pass.” Barak gestured to the inn. “Tell his men to go after them.”

Muttering under his breath, Eoban returned inside, tiptoed to the back of the dwelling, shook Luge’s men awake, untied their ropes, and hustled them outside to Barak, who gave them instructions.

Returning to Barak’s side, Eoban propped his hands on his hips.

Barak stroked his chin. “You’ll have to come up with a few more lies to explain the loss of your slaves.”

Eoban clapped Barak on the shoulder. “Not if we leave now. I’m in no mood—”

“You’re forgetting someone.”

With more muttering, Eoban traipsed inside, untied Obed, and shoved him awake.

Once outside, the three jogged away.

Obed huffed as he trotted. “There’s a certain ironic freedom in being a slave, but would you mind telling me what’s going on? I’ve been tied up for hours.”

As the three men hurried along an empty thoroughfare, a streak of pink light appeared on the horizon. They turned right on a side street, jogged between myriad closed shops, and then at a wide intersection, turned left, searching for the main gate. Eoban clenched his jaw at the sight of people stirring at their doors.

Lanky dogs slunk to the shadows, as pigs, a loose goat, and a variety of scrawny hens scuttled out of their way.

As they entered a rougher, older part of the city, they slowed to a gentle amble.

Half-naked children appeared and stared through wide eyes. The stone streets turned to hard-baked clay, and the homes diminished to nothing more than waddle huts thrown up against the walls of the city.

Peasants in simple wool and leather garments shuffled by with downcast eyes.

Barak sighed. “I can breathe again.”

Eoban nodded through a huff. “I’ve been living in a nightmare. That father and son—”

Obed turned, his mouth dropping open. “You think you can judge them? I heard a great deal as I sat there tied up like a sack. These people have rituals for everything— traditions that go back through generations. Men support more than one wife, they make wonderful trade goods, and their building skills surpass—”

Eoban halted and stared at Obed.

Obed stared back.

Averting his gaze, Eoban pointed to a grove of trees hovering on the edge of a meandering stream, which flowed down a gentle slope. He started away. “There’s a good place. I’m going to get a drink and a rest before I deal with you.”

Obed laughed. “Everyone who doesn’t see the world through your eyes needs to be dealt with, is that it?”

Barak groaned under his breath.

Each man took a long drink and soon found a soft spot under a large spreading tree.

Obed propped his head on his arm and stretched his legs. “I heard what you told Eoban about Luge, but tell me, Barak, how did you manage to get the boy away?”

With a grin, Barak shrugged. “I hate to say. It was nothing really. I just asked him where we should meet, and he pointed out a place. As the moon rose, we went to the spot and waited. When he reappeared, we walked away.”

Obed frowned. “No one was watching?”

“No one dares to cross the desert. After a time of mourning, most people simply accept their fate. The chains weren’t so strong—just never tested.”

“You mean other slaves could have walked away, but they never tried?”

Barak nodded. “The strongest chains are in the mind.”

Shoving himself upright, Eoban clapped his hands free of dirt. “Well, that’s a good deed done. Now, Obed, I’ve a few words—”

Obed waved his hand in protest. “Spare us your judgments. So, you’re blind to the magnificence all around you, who cares?”

Feeling like he’d been slapped, Eoban rubbed his jaw. “You have a way of saying things that make the most peaceable man want to knock you down. I wonder how Jonas stands it.”

Obed grinned, darting a glance from Barak to Eoban. “She loves me.”

Eoban snorted. “That’s about what it would take!” He rose and stretched. “Still, I think it’s you who are blind.

These people are not great—”

Shooting to his feet, Obed jerked his hand in the direction of the city. “Have you no eyes?”

Eoban crossed his arms over his chest and glared. “The people who live there now are the recipients of other men’s intelligence and hard work. Slaves’ sweat and broken backs make their lives possible.” He stepped closer and peered narrowly at Obed. “They spend time comparing the softness of their clothes, how the colors strike their eyes, and how they feel when reclining on one pillow rather than another.” He lifted his hands as if imploring the sky to bear testimony. “Weak with madness, they are.”

“The city is well managed. There are guards and warriors in numbers beyond count defend them. They have a well- developed system of trade, buildings for communal storage, magnificent homes for the rulers, and—if you didn’t notice—an ornate temple for their god.” Obed shook his head. “I doubt our clans could do as much over generations.”

Eoban dismissed Obed with a wave. “Why would I want to be like them? Did you learn nothing from Neb and Ishtar? No society can live long when it’s built on cruel force.”

“Cruel force? You know how many clans live in idle waste and make useless war on each other. Here, at least every man builds to some purpose.”

Eoban shook his head as if to clear water from his ears. He turned, peering at Barak while pointing at Obed. “Who am I talking to?”

Barak frowned at his clasped hands. “I’m not sure.”

Obed laughed and stomped away. “Stop! So, I’m impressed with these people! I’m amazed that you two are too blind to appreciate the grandness of their design and execution. This city values its artists. They can ponder such novelties such as clothing design and pillow comfort because they have time to do so. They’re not sweating for every mouthful or worrying about how to keep their children alive. They’ve moved beyond the barbarism of mere survival.”

Barak straightened and stared at Obed’s back. “There is much to be said for the ‘barbarism of mere survival.’ I work hard to feed my children, but I still have time to think. Is it acceptable to you that this city’s grandness is paid for by the forced separation of a father and son? Would you let Onia be taken so that others might enjoy their art?”

Obed leaned on the tree and chewed his lip. “You’re right in this point, of course. But you can’t deny—they’ve built some marvelous works.”

Eoban snorted. “Anything built on blood is bloody, and I don’t admire bloody things!”

Barak lifted his hands. “We have yet to look earnestly for Ishtar in the city. One more day, and we’ll head home.”

Obed glanced at the towering temple that rose above the city walls. He sighed. “Agreed.”

Eoban felt his stomach fall into a black pit. “Agreed.”

“They have a Right to censure, that have a Heart to help: The rest is Cruelty, not Justice.”  ~William Penn

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty

To Be The One

Amin squeezed his eyes shut. Crack! The sound of wood smashing against a skull was as distinct as it was nauseating. He turned to see a towering figure swaying like a tree in a mighty breeze clutching his wrist.

Obed, sprawled on the ground, lay stunned.

Eoban, rearing back for a swing, soon became pinioned by three of the largest men Amin had ever seen.

“Stop!” Amin tried to wrench free.

A new figure lumbered forward. “Enough!” The stranger stood a head taller than Eoban, but he made no attempt to physically interject. Slewing his gaze from Obed’s still form to Barak standing behind Amin and then to Eoban, he merely shook his fist like an angry parent. “You’re trespassers here! By all rights, I should put you to death!” He dropped his hand to his side. “But that is not my way.”

Grumbling erupted from the other warriors.

“I am Luge. I decide!”

Obed roused and shook his head. Eoban marched to his side and pulled him to his feet.

The stranger propped his hands on his hips. “Leave these mountains. If you disobey, my men will have their way.”

Obed staggered, rubbing his head with one hand and lifting the other in apparent surrender. “We’ve no wish to offend. We’ll leave.”

Enraged, Amin’s body trembled, his voice dropping to a growl. “I won’t go.”

Luge grabbed Amin’s tunic and shook him. “No?”

A wall holding back fear and fury burst, flooding Amin’s system. “I can’t leave! I’ve come so far to find my father— I won’t turn back now.”

The giant warrior’s eyes narrowed as he studied the boy in his grip. “You’re looking for your father?” Another shake, gentler this time, followed the question.

Amin nodded and sniffed, wiping his face with the back of his hand.

Freeing Amin, Luge glanced at Eoban. “Who is this man you seek?”

Eoban rubbed his jaw. “Neither friend nor enemy. He’s this boy’s father—the leader of a neighboring clan.”

Luge scowled at Amin. “Why did he leave? Why do you seek him here—in the mountains?”

Amin shrugged. “He was lost—out of his mind…”

Barak stepped forward. “Why waylay us? We’ve done you no harm.”

His gaze still fixed on Amin, Luge tilted his head as if appraising the boy. “I had a son about your age.” His voice grew thick. “We were attacked by raiders from over the mountain. Now my boy is gone—forever.”

Eoban leapt forward. “Have you seen a man with long black hair, slender body, and dark haughty eyes?”

Luge shrugged. “That describes many men.” His gaze slipped from Amin to Eoban. “If I found such a man, I’d send him home. This is no place for strangers. Treachery is afoot.”

With a snort, Obed glanced from Barak to the giant. “Is that what you fear? Why you attacked us?”

Luge stepped over to the smoldering fire, grunted, and gestured to one of his men.

The warrior squatted before the fire and blew the feeble flames to life. Another warrior gathered kindling and twigs and arranged them, building the flames into a small blaze.

As the fire grew, Luge crouched before it and studied the flickering light. “Few of us are left. Once we were a mighty clan, fierce hunters and warriors. Our leader was a brave man, much revered by all, near and far. But he fell at the hands of the enemy.”

Eoban stepped closer and squatted on the other side of the fire. Barak followed, sitting on his left while Amin crouched on Barak’s right. Obed remained standing, a shadow among the other men.

Luge rubbed his forehead. “They attacked at night, killed four men, and took two women and three children as slaves. We tried to follow, but they went into the desert and disappeared in the distance.” He closed his eyes. “A kingdom lies beyond the desert—I traveled there and saw it for myself.” He dropped his head to his chest. “They are like gods—living in a world beyond description.”

Obed shuffled near, his face unnaturally bright in the firelight. “I wouldn’t mind seeing that for myself.”

Luge shook his head. “Not if your son was there— forever beyond your reach.” He glanced around. “Now, we wander, aimless and hopeless. We treat all strangers as enemies because we have no friends. Our days draw to a close. We’ll pass away with no sons to mourn our loss.”

Eoban sighed. “I knew a mountain man once—a great man among great men. Gimesh led a large and vigorous clan. I cannot imagine he would let things come to such a pass. You know him?”

“These mountains are vast, but I have heard the name. As far as I know, he too bowed to this superior race. The days of the mountain men have come to an end.”

An owl hooted in the distance.

Amin twisted his hands together and peered at Luge. “My father would’ve fought. He fought against slavery and freed innocent people. He’d help you, too, if he knew your troubles.”

Obed snorted. “Your father was deranged. He couldn’t even help himself.”

Eoban glared at Obed as he stood up. “You talk too much, Obed.” He turned and rubbed his stomach. “I’m starving. What if we get some food, Luge? We could help each other survive the night at least.”

Rising, Luge meandered to Amin and tapped him on the shoulder. “I’d like to meet your father.” With a sigh, he glanced at the uneasy assembly. “As for food, yes, there is plenty—if you have the skill.”

Chuckling, Eoban slapped Luge on the shoulder. “Skill? Barak and I are two of the greatest hunters in the grasslands.”

Barak choked.

Eoban’s eyes widened, staring hard at Barak. “Barak even fought two man-eating cats and has their skins hanging in his dwelling to prove his worth.” He flexed his arms. “And I certainly never come home empty-handed.”

Barak and Obed stared at Eoban. Amin’s mouth dropped open.

Eoban grabbed his spear. “Let’s go. I’ll wither to a mere shadow of myself.”

After Eoban, Barak, and a few of Luge’s men started away,

Amin stretched out before the fire, his head heavy with exhaustion. He closed his eyes and let sleep steal every worry from his mind.

~~~

Amin felt rested as he sat up and rubbed his eyes.

After a night of indiscriminate gorging on undercooked venison, the two groups assessed each other groggily in the early morning.

Obed staggered up to Luge. “Where are you going from here?”

Luge shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. We’ll live as best we can until our end comes.”

Eoban slapped his hand over his bag. “Wouldn’t it be better to attack your enemies and release the prisoners? Perhaps you could get your son back.”

Luge crossed in front of Eoban, waving his hand. “You’ve never seen this enemy. The vastness of their fighting force is beyond—”

Barak propped his hands on his hips. “Perhaps that’s your problem. If you would stop thinking about your doom and death and think about your life and what it means, then you could do something useful.”

Luge closed his eyes. “Our people were defeated. You have yet to experience that.”

Obed rubbed his chin. “Could you bring us to that land—the one you described last night?” He glanced at Eoban. “We’ve come this far—there’s no reason why we shouldn’t see this through. Show us your enemy—then we can talk of death…or glory.”

As Luge’s men broke into a discussion, Luge lifted his hand. “You have no idea what you are saying!”

One of Luge’s men strode over to him and argued in a husky undertone.

Luge glanced from the speaker to his other men, who waited expectantly, eagerly. Then his gaze rolled over Obed, Eoban, and Barak. Finally, it rested on Amin.

Anxiety twisted his innards, and Amin’s heart pounded so hard he grew dizzy.

Luge lifted his voice. “You want to see the enemy? We’ll take you, but we won’t engage in battle. We’d be slaughtered.”

With a grin spreading wide across his face, Eoban sauntered forward. “Who said anything about an attack?” He shrugged. “It’ll be enough to see this amazing city as you described at our hasty—though delicious—dinner. Besides, Ishtar may be among the slaves.” He glanced at Amin. “No turning back now.”

Luge swiveled around and glared at the boy. “No, he must not go! They would see a healthy boy and steal him away.”

Amin gripped his spear, squashed the tumult in his stomach, and pointed at Luge. “I won’t abandon my father. If you tie me up and drag me away, I’ll escape and follow you.”

One eyebrow rising, Eoban glanced at Barak.

Barak lifted his hands in appeasement and stepped over to Amin. “Luge is right, Amin. We’d get sidetracked trying to keep you safe.” He glanced at Luge. “I’m sure you could stay with his clan until we return.”

Panic flooded Amin, making it hard to breathe. A cold sweat broke over his skin. “But you could be killed, and I’d be left alone! Besides, I know my father better than anyone, and he’d do for me what he’d never do for you.”

Obed nodded. “If Ishtar is alive, he may not want to come with us. But if he sees Amin…” He shrugged. “It’s the boy’s life.”

Spluttering, Eoban jabbed Obed in the shoulder. “His life? Obed, take a closer look! He is a child! Children don’t think things through. That’s what adults are for. If Ishtar is alive and we find him, having Amin away will be the greatest inducement for drawing Ishtar out—assuming that’s what we want. We don’t know what he’s like now.”

Amin pounded his spear on the ground. “No! I won’t—”

Luge twisted the spear out of Amin’s grasp.

Amin clawed at Luge, wrestling for his weapon.

Barak grabbed Amin from behind and pulled his arms behind his back in a tight grip. “Stop it, Amin! You’re behaving like a spoiled child.”

Amin spat his words, his whole body trembling. “You’ll regret this, Barak.”

Reaching around, Barak grabbed Amin and turned him so that they stood face-to-face. “Only a child would put his pride above the safety of one he professed to love. You came all this way to find your father and for once we have a real lead, but now you stand here threatening us and making demands.”

Tears started in Amin’s eyes, his heart contorting as if it was being torn to pieces.

Barak loosened his grip. “A lot of good men are going far out of their way to help a man who doesn’t deserve such kindness. For love of you and your little brother, we’re risking our lives to find your father.” His jaw clenched as he gave Amin a slight shove. “A little cooperation would be helpful.”

Heaving sobbing breaths, Amin hung his head and tears coursed down his cheeks.

Luge strode over and laid his massive hand on Amin’s head. “A son’s love for his father goes beyond reason. And so should a father’s love for his boy. I’m ashamed. I’ll go with your friends. You wait for your father, and I’ll look for my son.” He called two of his men. “You two take him home. My wife will watch over him and await our return.”

The men packed the leftover venison into skin bags and filled their water pouches.

Amin sat against a tree and watched through a glassy stare. The familiar feeling of abandonment swept over him. First, his father…now this.

Before leaving, Barak crouched at Amin’s side and squeezed his arm. “Don’t be angry. We’ll return soon.” He stared at the boy’s unwavering expression. “You’re still mine by adoption. Whatever happens, you and Caleb are dear to me.”

Swallowing back the ache in his throat, Amin nodded. “I wanted to be the one to find him.”

Barak sighed. “It is every son’s wish—to do something wonderful for his father. That may yet come to pass. But for now, use this time well. Learn from these people. New experiences are worthy teachers.” Rising, Barak shouldered his pack.

Amin stood and watched the men assemble with Luge in the lead.

Obed sauntered close and ruffled Amin’s hair as he went by.

Eoban stopped and knelt before him. He held out a bone spear tip. “I was working on this, but now I don’t have the time to finish it. Perhaps you could do the job for me?”

Taking the piece, Amin studied the carved point. He nodded.

Grinning, Eoban patted Amin’s shoulder. Then he started away, whistling a happy tune.

Luge turned and frowned.

Eoban stopped abruptly. “Oh, you don’t like whistling? Well, if that’s no good, I can always sing.”

A glint of joy sparked in Amin’s middle as he watched his only hope traipse into the wilderness.

“The strength of a family, like the strength of an army, is in its loyalty to each other.” ~Anonymous

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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

 

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

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.

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

Vision

From OldEarth Georgios Encounter

Coming 2018…

Isle of Patmos Circa 100 AD

Georgios stood by Lysander, staring glassy-eyed and mute at the grizzly scene. How could this have happened?

Bleeding and exhausted, Rueben lay on the hard ground and peered at the man lying prostrate beside him, a man he knew he should hate. “You had a son, Armond, but death is not the end.”

Armand’s eyes fluttered as the blazing sun beat on him. “Fathers don’t kill their sons…there is no name for me.” He glanced around wildly, blindly. “Georgios…I would’ve made you mine.” Armand’s head slumped to the side, his eyes unseeing.

Georgios fell to his knees and clutched Rueben’s arm.

Rueben shuddered each labored breath, his gaze flowed over Georgios like an evening tide over the shore.

His vision blurring, Georgio pressed a ragged cloth against Rueben’s seeping wound. “No, Rueben, you shall not die! Armand deserves death but you must live. That God you believe in—He’ll help us or He’s worth nothing at all!”

Rueben sucked air into his lungs and forced his eyes open. “I’m not dead yet…but I won’t live much longer. Our days are not like pieces of gold, Georgios. We can’t horde them.”

Tears trickled down Georgios’ face. “You’re supposed to help me. I need you.”

Rueben choked on an abrupt laugh. “There is not a man on earth that I wouldn’t help…if I could.” His gaze wandered to the lifeless body. “May he rest in peace.”

Lysander stepped to Georgios’ side and peered at Rueben. He snorted. “Rest in peace? He killed that woman over there, he tried to kill you, and he tried to kill me! Who knows how many others he murdered or would have murdered if given the chance? He even killed his own son! You cannot pray for him. May his soul burn in Hades!”

Rueben’s gaze lifted to the bright sky. “But he did not make me hate him.”

Georgios turned, his eyes searched the immediate vicinity. “There’s a house around here somewhere. We’ll get help and save you, Rueben.”

“I’ll go.” Lysander turned and sprinted away.

Georgios clutched Rueben in his arms, pressing a cloth against the open wound. He closed his mind to the bodies off to the side. Like a mother rocking her child, Georgios hummed a tune his mother used to sing at bedtime.

Rueben closed his eyes.

A lump swelled in Georgios’ throat and choked off all sound, but a thought rose clear and strong.  I’ll never leave you again.

~~~

Song grieved. Her inner being shuddered at the sight before her, yet she dared to exhale the consummate loss and inhale a prayer of hope. If a young human could peer into the mystery of Providence, could not she, a being of vastly greater years and experience, trust in that which is unseen?

In her form as a native spider, she crawled around a boulder and made her way down the winding path. In a sheltered spot, she shape-shifted into a peasant girl. Plucking a wayside flower, she strolled down the hillside to the shore and waited. Her ship would not arrive until darkness enveloped the land.

Rueben’s words, “He did not make me hate him.” rang in her ears. Her entire planet had suffered from the loss of a sister planet, and now she and most of her people were exiled to the outer universe, searching for new hope among ancient worlds. Was she defeated?

Rocking on her haunches, Song twirled the fading flower in her fingers.

~~~

The eastern hemisphere lay in blackness as thick clouds covered the sliver of a moon. Before Song’s eyes, the sea bubbled and foamed in sudden action as a rounded, black form emerged from the surface just offshore. Her ship lifted dripping and glimmering in her sight. She smiled and rose.

A long mechanical arm arched from the ship and lay flat before her feet like a slave, offering obeisance before its mistress.

Song stepped forward, her bare feet tingling at the sensation of warm water and cold metal. When the door opened, a shaft of light nearly blinded her, but she continued her ascent into the interior of the ship.

Within seconds, the door closed, the arm folded, and the ship sank into the depths of the sea, only to emerge leagues away in the center of an ocean no human had yet explored.

Song slipped onto a lounge chair and folded her legs under her. A tall elven-looking male with green eyes and black, curly hair sauntered forward with a crystal glass in his hand. With a stiff bow, he passed it to Song, his grim gaze appearing to penetrate her human form.

“Everything went well?”

After sipping the honey-colored liquid, Song motioned to the seat before her. “Please, no formalities, Romtov. I’m too exhausted to play Queen today.”

Perching on the edge of a lush divan, Romtov clasped his hands in his lap. “I’d help you…if I could.”

Swinging her legs over the edge of the chair, Song righted herself and hunched forward. She laid the glass aside. “I no longer despair.”

Romtov peered intently into her eyes and waited.

She rose and stepped over to the oblong observation window. Earth’s western hemisphere glowed in the light of the sun’s rays. “There is beauty in simplicity, yet it has taken the complexity of space travel, invasion, and encountering new worlds to remind me that hope lies—not in the conquering of evil—but in the admittance of grace.”

“You’ve had a vision. I see it in your eyes.”

Song turned and a smile warmed her face. “Yes, but it will be a long time to fruition.” She tapped the window. “One day, this planet will become home to our people…home to many peoples. Humanity has no idea that we exist, but like a couple that knew nothing of each other while in the cradle but yet grew to intertwine so close as to become one—so the human race will embrace the larger universe. We shall become one. Beyond hate and despair lies hope for us all.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00

Intercept Course

From Chapter One

OldEarth ARAM Encounter

Mud seeped between Aram’s toes. He shivered despite the sweat trickling down his spine. A shower of drops splattered across his face as he beat back the forest’s dangling vines and springy saplings. Exhaustion sapped his last bits of energy. With the back of his mud-smeared hand, he wiped his face.

Visions of a warm fire and venison haunches sizzling on spits caused his heart to momentarily fail. His weary limbs demanded rest, but he only shook his head. Not yet—but soon.

His people staggered in stupefaction. Their flight seemed never ending, their search futile. Danger lurked in every dark motion of the forest.

As his muscular body plodded through the root-gnarled muck of the late rainy season, a new light grew in his mind. He could still see the tawny-colored fur and glittering eyes of the beast as it snatched its first struggling, screaming victim. When he had heard the throaty growls and the moon’s glow had cast uneven shadows on the beast, he had frozen with horror in the face of the cat’s great size.

It had struck in twilight when light danced with utter blackness. His wife, Namah, hunch-backed and morose, had been directing the meal preparations. Her orders rang out shrill and abundant—as usual. The other women had obeyed with their typical, sullen compliance.

He had glanced at Namah as the mighty feline landed on its victim, and though her wide-eyed terror had matched his, she had thrown a rock at the retreating creature. Despite her crooked spine, she showed a strength of mind—not unlike that of the cat.

Even when he had thrown his spear and others joined in action with cries of fear and anguish, he knew it was too late. The night was too dark and the cat too mammoth to hunt in the gloomy forest.

Aram had known the youth well and agony had gripped his heart, but his mind would not respond to his grief—only to fear. If he gave his clan time to rest, their anguish might turn to madness. If he kept moving, they might outrun both beast and terror.

But they were past exhaustion now. The lands of their forefathers lay far behind them. They had entered lands unknown to his memory. They had always gained life from familiar trees, made suitable shelters, and found peace beneath their branches. The ancient woods gnarled together in a forest of immeasurable depth. But their frantic travels had led them into a foreign land.

~~~

—Ingoti are large beings originating from the planet Ingilium and range from six to seven feet tall. They are heavy due to their extensive weight and girth but are very fast and extremely powerful. They are never seen outside of their bulky techno-organic armor and breather helms.

—On Board an Ingoti Trading Vessel

Zuri, an Ingoti trader renowned for his clever deals, braced for impact, but there was little he could do to protect his co-pilot. Gem crouched, covering his head with his arms and hoped that the restraints would hold. The small trading vessel carved a deep furrow into the lush dirt and plowed into an Earthen hillside.

Blinking awake, Zuri considered his biomechanical techno-armor, and seeing it intact, he sighed in relief. Hobbling to the main console, he reviewed the status of the ship. Various systems blinked offline status, but life support held firm. Glancing back at the cargo hold, he ticked off the needed parts in his mind and stepped forward.

Gem lay sprawled across the floor, unconscious.

Crouching by his side, Zuri made a quick diagnostic review of Gem’s bio-suit and life signs. With a chuckle, he lightly slapped Gem’s ruddy cheek. “Get up, lazy fool. We’re already behind schedule, and Cresta’s are not known for their patience.”

Rising on his elbow with a groan, Gem shook his head like a confused Ingoti bullock. “I thought I was done for. What happened?”

Zuri stood and rubbed his back. “That replacement Orbital Maintenance you bought blew and sent us spiraling right into the atmosphere. Should’ve guessed. It was too cheap to be an honest deal.”

“Blast! I’ll pay them back for this; don’t worry.” Gem rose and started toward the console. “How long before we’re ready to set off again?”

His gaze rising to the ceiling, Zuri crossed his arms. “It’ll only take a few hours with both of us working on it. But, I’ve heard about this planet—how about we take a little tour?”

Gem scowled. “I’ve heard about humans, too. Primitive and—”

“I didn’t say anything about humans. By the Divide, if I wanted to go to the zoo, I’d visit the one on Helm.” He stroked his chin. “No, how about scouting around a little? There might be resources we could use. The Ingilum would pay dearly….”

A crooked smile crawled across Gem’s face.

~~~

While struggling through dense woodland, Gem wiped his sweaty brow. “How does anyone survive here? It’s not fit for habitation!”

Zuri shrugged. “Not where I would have chosen to land—”

A low growl stopped them both in their tracks.

Slowly, they turned. Zuri raised his Dustbuster and aimed as a tawny, four-legged beast drew near.

Gem swallowed. “That thing’s enormous!” Turning at the sound of human voices. He grinned. “Ah, it’s tracking them.” He pointed to a clearing where a large group of humans had settled down for rest.

Crouching low, Zuri peered between the branches until he could see the throng.

Men, women, and children crowded around a central figure, a tall muscled man with long, black hair.

Peering back at Gem, Zuri shook his head. “They’re practically naked—without any techno-armor at all. Amazing they’ve survived! They must be brighter than they look.” After stepping back, he sent low-power beam searing through the foliage near the huge, stalking cat, frightening the beast into the thick woods.

Gem scowled. “What’d you do that for? Let the whole planet know we’re here, why don’t you.”

Zuri pointed the Dustbuster at Gem. “Is there anything left of you—on the inside—I mean? We were once naked and helpless too. If the Cresta’s hadn’t taught us—”

“They used us in their studies. They weren’t being generous.”

“But we learned from them! That’s what counts.”

Gem stared at the Dustbuster in Zuri’s hand. “So, what’s your point?”

Shoving the weapon into his armor holster, Zuri shrugged. “I’m just giving them a chance to live and learn.” He stalked back toward the ship. “It’s time we left. I’ve got enough data to make up for the time we’ve lost.” He grinned as he swiped a branch out of his way. “The Cresta can pay us for both the cargo and the information.”

Gem marched behind. “And the Ingilum Supreme Command? What’ll they say?”

Zuri turned and, clasping Gem’s shoulder, he lifted his eyes to the sky. “Contrary to my expectations, I foresee a day when humans and their primitive world will be quite useful. We’re on an intercept course. In any case—information always pays.”

Novels by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

Last of Her Kind  http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg

Newearth: Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN

Historical Fiction

Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r

Historical Fiction & Science Fiction Blend

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

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

OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5

Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00