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 Seventeen

—Desert—

Shadows of the Past

Ishtar stood, using his advantage in height, and bore down on Matalah’s second son, Wasim, staring fixedly into the hard face and squinted eyes. “I understand your position, but I accept it only on my terms. I’ll not oppose you, on the condition that you leave your father in peace. Keep your conquests to yourself and don’t lure your sisters and younger brother with stories of power and wealth. Stay away and keep your glorified visions far from here.”

Puffing out his chest, Wasim crossed his arms. “The power and wealth you speak of will be mine—and no illusion.” His eyes wrinkled in amusement. “All my brothers and I ask is that you keep father from opposing us. Will you do this little thing?” All amusement died. “Consider your answer carefully.”

Anger coursed through Ishtar’s blood as he bit off his words. “I will stay at your father’s side and do nothing to stop your treachery.”

Wasim nodded and turned away.

Ishtar called after him. “Others may oppose you, though.”

With a disdainful wave, Wasim paced away. His figure shimmered into the scorching heat.

~~~

Ishtar, calm and free from terrifying memories and having put all thought of Wasim from his mind, climbed the hills to greener pastures. As the days slowly passed, he watched the lambs frolic in innocent abandon. One persistent yearling butted against him repeatedly.

“All right, you win!” Ishtar bent down and rubbed her thick fleece.

Contented, she ambled off in search of new pleasure.

Ishtar threw up his hands. “So like a child! You plague me for attention, and when I’m finally willing—” His gaze fell on a group of men climbing the hillside. He braced himself.

Matalah’s third son, Assam, strode at the head of the assembly and stepped up to Ishtar with a hand extended.

Glancing away, Ishtar rebuffed the gesture.

Unruffled, Assam grinned. “My eldest brother, Abdul, requests a meeting before we begin our conquest.” The lines of his face tightened into dread seriousness. “You must come. We’re not far.”

Ishtar nodded, and using his staff, he descended the hillside. As he glanced back, his eye caught the lamb that had nestled in his arms and was only now beginning to make forays into the wider world. He felt a pang in his chest as he considered her response when she came seeking him, and he was no longer there. Caleb’s face floated before his eyes. Ishtar stumbled.

Assam turned and frowned.

Irritation washed over Ishtar, and he waved the man on. The group wound down the hillside onto the barren plain.

Ripples of sand and dots of desert weeds covered the landscape. No insect or animal movement caught his eye, except a large bird soaring above. What could it possibly hope to find here? Ishtar shook his head and dropped his gaze as they marched along.

As the sun began its descent, Assam’s voice rose in a business-like tone. “We’re making our final plans, and we’ll leave as soon as everyone is ready.”

Ishtar squinted in the afternoon sunshine, using his hand to block the blinding rays. Like a splash of cold water, the sight before his eyes sent a rippled shock over his body.

A large assembly of men busied themselves in battle preparations. The sight of so many weapons and hardened men stole Ishtar’s breath away. This was hardly the idle fantasy of mere boys. Matalah had been right—his sons were the tools of a much greater force.

Assam flashed a grin and gleefully shouted a battle cry as he lunged forward to greet his comrades.

Ishtar followed more slowly, his heart pounding.

In the center, dressed for battle with a long sword hanging at his side and knives tucked in his belt, stood Abdul.

Ishtar halted on the periphery, watching the excited men boast and gesture, building themselves into a fever pitch. Pounding blood coursed through his own veins. Faces floated before his eyes—Neb, Hagia, Aram, Obed, Tobia, his wife, and sons—as if there were no past but only a great muddle of present moments involving all the people who had been important to him. How could a man build a future when the past would not leave him be?

Abdul peered at Ishtar, and for a moment, they were alone in the world, staring at each other, taking one another’s measure. A gleam entered Abdul’s eyes. “So, my father’s friend has joined us at last. Good of you to come.”

Ishtar inclined his head. “Your invitation could not be ignored.”

Abdul gestured curtly. “Come then; we’ll get started. I have a few men I want you to meet. They’re assembled in my tent.”

Ishtar followed as the sun touched the horizon.

Abdul plunked down on a pile of pillows, leaving Ishtar to stand. He waved to the assembled men, hardened warriors every one of them. “Our plans are complete, except for one small thing. We’d like your cooperation in a simple matter.”

Ishtar clasped his hands, his patience wearing thin.

“Your part is most important, for it will help us in all our future plans.” Abdul waited.

Ishtar pursed his lips. “Speak plainly. What is it you want from me?”

“Lead my father into battle against us.” Abdul grinned, apparently amused by Ishtar’s frozen reaction.

His throat tightening, Ishtar swallowed against a choking sensation. His words dropped to a whisper. “You want your father out of the way.”

“Just so.”

Ishtar’s hands trembled. “In this, I am your equal at least.” He clenched his jaw. “But I never wanted my father to die—only his evil to end.”

A scowl rode across Abdul’s forehead, one eyebrow rising. “There is no other way. If you lead him into battle, he’ll have the honor of a valiant death. If you abandon him, it’ll be a mindless slaughter. Which would you have? Honor or disgrace?”

Ishtar’s voice rose to a fevered pitch. “Is it your father’s disgrace to be murdered by his son?”

Abdul poked the air before Ishtar. “Unless my father confronts us honestly, our mission cannot succeed. I wouldn’t be a worthy son if I didn’t give him the opportunity to defend himself.”

Ishtar unclenched his teeth and sucked in a deep breath. “He is no threat to you! Why must you make such an evil choice?”

“The future is unforeseeable. I cannot always watch my back, uncertain of his loyalty.”

“You can speak of loyalty? You, who have none?”
“My father must see—he has no choice. He can’t remain hidden in the folds of his tent, embraced in self- righteousness. We are the heirs of this land. We must decide the future. I am not content to die as I was born.”

“You want me to convince your father to go into the open battle and be killed by your men?”

“Yes.”

“And this seems honorable to you?”

“How does an old man wish to die? No valiant tales are told of quiet lives endured in peaceful times. Better to die in a struggle for home and position than to die mourned only by the plaintive wailing of a few old women.”

“Even when that struggle is against his own son?”

“We are all brothers…or sons under the same sky.” Ishtar shook his head. “I could reason better with the sheep.”

“The sheep are mine.”

All emotion burning into ashy cinders, Ishtar squared his shoulders. “I will tell your father what you’ve said. Whether he comes to offer battle or self-sacrifice is more than I can say.” Ishtar turned to leave.

Abdul called after him. “Ishtar! You’ll ride out with him.”

The flap fell back into place as Ishtar stepped into the dim light.

~~~

Ishtar rose from his bed of softened earth in the crook between two sheltering boulders, blinked at the rising sun, and dusted off his tunic. He tromped over the hillside while the sheep gamboled along behind. Once on the plain, he blocked the hot sun with his arm and directed his steps to Matalah’s tent.

Outside, a low fire smoldered under an empty pot. Camp activity had stilled to a deserted silence. Only one attendant came and led the sheep to their enclosure.

Ishtar passed around the fire and entered the tent. Matalah, in his usual place, sat still and quiet. His shrunken frame bowed as if to reflect the breaking of his heart.

After embracing the old man, Ishtar stood aside and told his dreadful news.

Matalah’s head dropped lower on his chest. His eyes were open, but his gaze remained unfocused.

Pacing closer, Ishtar crouched and peered into the old man’s face. “So, what now, my friend? Will we go out together and meet the enemy?”

Matalah lifted his head and raised his hands in as if in supplication. “Against my own sons? My flesh is taken from my frame and attacks me! Those I held as babes and loved as boys now hate me as men.”

Swiveling on his heel, Ishtar turned and pounded to the other side of the tent. “But they’ll destroy you if you do nothing.”

Matalah rocked back and forth, his arms wrapped around his middle. “My heart beats by some command that is not my own. If I could fight a heartless enemy, I would be satisfied, but how can I wish to murder a part of myself?” Peering up, Matalah locked his gaze on Ishtar, and tears filled his eyes. “I love them—even yet. They are my second self. They look like me; they sound like me. Though they have forsaken me, they cannot forget me altogether. They, too, will grow old and have sons, and my countenance will accuse them through innocent eyes.”

Ishtar bowed his head, pain searing through his middle. “Your words ring truer than you know. My sons will inherit my guilt without knowing the reason or the price paid for my pride and ambition.”

Matalah sighed. “Ever is it so.”

Returning to Matalah’s side, Ishtar gripped his friend’s arm. “But I have outlived my horrors, and the shadows of the past no longer claim me.”

“God is gracious to those who repent—”

“It was your goodness that set me free. If I can offer my life to you in gratitude for your generosity, I only help myself to decency and peace.”

Matalah groaned. “It is my hour to wish for a quick death.”

Ishtar strolled to the doorway, lifted the tent flap, and peered out. “Death will come soon enough.” He glanced back. “Let’s go out and discover what awaits us.”

Matalah’s hands spread wide. “I have nothing to offer that will gain us time or strength…or imbue them with forgotten decency.”

A strange, unexpected peace settled over Ishtar. “There are things your sons do not know. Even things that you do not know. The goodness you bestowed on your neighbors—even on your herds—will return to you in the end.”

“What you say may be true, but my sons won’t care for such philosophy. They want a quick gain, no matter what the cost.” He rose and tottered to the opening, standing next to Ishtar. “All my life is to be thrown to the wind.”

“You were brought into the world for a purpose and shall be held accountable for your part only.”

Matalah’s arms reached into the air beseechingly. “But they are my sons. Surely, I share the guilt in what I have helped to create? Has my life not been made worthless?”

Ishtar clenched his hands and stared at his friend. “You are not worthless.”

Matalah closed his eyes and dropped his head to his chest. He murmured under his breath and then opened his eyes. Straightening, he started forward. “I still have a few attendants and camels; they will lead us to my sons.”

Ishtar laid his hand on Matalah’s shoulder. “You have less to regret than most mortals.”

Matalah sighed as he stepped outside. “But my heart is broken, nonetheless.”

Ishtar understood the feeling.“

“It takes a strong heart to love, but it takes an even stronger heart to continue to love after it’s been hurt.” ~Anonymous 

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What Do You Know?

If Catherine had known what the day would bring, she would never have gotten out of bed.

“Well, that’s not entirely true,” she murmured as she flopped down on her bed that evening. The old-fashioned ceiling fan was covered in dust, and she wondered why she’d ever thought it was a creative choice. “Probably doesn’t even work. Like the freezer…the mixer…the stupid thingamajig on the dashboard.” She sighed, sat up, and rubbed her eyes. Lord have mercy; she was tired.

Boot steps clumped up onto the kitchen porch. One of her mongrel dogs started barking. Heaving herself free of the embrace of the bed, Catherine swore under her breath, her eyes darting to the purple sunset out the window. “Who on earth—?”

The dog she referred to as Sally, though she hated the name, upped her barking to frenzy mode. A shiver ran over Catherine’s arms as she hustled into the room. What if it was a crazy man? Or worse yet, someone selling something? Or—nightmare image—a religious cult member wanting to share the good news with her?

A man’s voice murmured in the darkness. Soothing words. He chuckled.

Sally’s barking stopped. Instantly.

Alarmed, Catherine swung wide the kitchen screen door. Oh. Great. There lay Sally on her back, her legs splayed, with an idiotic grin on her face, getting a tummy rub from a total stranger.

Man’s best friend, maybe but certainly not mine. Catherine gritted her teeth and peered through the dim light to the stranger who had straightened up and stood to face her.

He was tall, his dark hair swept low over his brow, a little long, but not unkempt. He wore jeans and a black jacket over a rolled up long sleeved shirt exposing a serious tattoo, and his heavy boots had traces of mud on them. A working man.

Catherine frowned. He was bigger than her and perhaps two or three years older, but she didn’t feel threatened. Not exactly. She met his gaze.

“Sorry to bother you, but my car died at the end of your lane, and I’d like to call someone for help if you don’t mind.”

Suspicion flooded Catherine like a tsunami. “Why can’t you use your cell phone? Don’t tell me you don’t have one.”

He ran a hand along his jawline; a long red scratch marred a fading tan. “I tried, but either my cell’s out of juice, or there’s no reception around here.”

Catherine winced. She knew perfectly well that reception was spotty. She glanced at the mountainous clouds gathering overhead and made an impulsive gesture. “Well, alright. I still use a landline since my cell phone reception is as unreliable as a man on a first date—” Opps! I didn’t just say… She closed her eyes and stepped aside.

He swept past her and stopped in the middle of the room, looking around.

Thunder rumbled.

Catherine blinked and pointed to the far wall where an old-fashioned telephone, 1950’s style, sat ensconced in a wood frame.

He strode forward, picked up the phone awkwardly, and dialed a number.

Catherine lugged her school bag to the wooden kitchen table and dumped an array of papers, books, pencils, colored pens, and various school paraphernalia over the surface. She sighed and murmured, “It’ll take me all weekend…”

Throat clearing turned her around. She looked at the man in the bright glare of the kitchen. He was good looking. Not classically handsome but familiar somehow. His deep-set eyes looked weary, and something around the corners made her think he’d had troubles of his own. Good grief. He looked like a man who had known deep sadness.

Catherine bit her lip. Still, he was a stranger. A man. Like her ex-husband. Like her brother. Like her father.

This morning when she caught a junior high student cheating and brought the fact to the principal’s attention, she had been told she was too sensitive and needed to be more caring. Later, she discovered that the principal had a very friendly arrangement with the mother of said cheater. In the lounge, all the teachers had laughed when she protested the injustice of it all. Leanne even told her to “get a life and stop acting like a self-righteous old nun.”

Lightning flickered in the windows.

Heat burned Catherine’s cheeks.

The man looked around at the country style kitchen that Catherine had labored so long to decorate. “Nice place.” He held out his hand. “My name is Clem. Sorry about intruding like this.” He flipped out his phone and grimaced. “Not a bar on here.”

“It’s the trees…and the fact that we’re in such a low spot…and out in the middle of nowhere.” Catherine wanted to slap herself. Shut up, you idiot!

Clem smiled.

My lord, how the smile changed his face.

“I’m out behind the McCarthy place. I just moved in…and no one mentioned that reception was so bad. I guess I should’ve done some research.”

“Well, with the storm—”

A thundering crash of rain pelted the metal roof.

Glancing at the sprawled mess of spelling tests and math quizzes, Clem grinned. “I used to be a teaching assistant in Utah…corrected papers faster than a speeding bullet.”

Catherine snorted. “Anytime you feel a hankering to mark off atrociously misspelled words in red ink, you just let me know.”

Flashing lights vied with the pounding rain outside the doorframe.

Clem hustled forward. “It’s my friend, he lives next door. Only other person I really know around here. He’ll take me home.” He shuffled his feet. “If you don’t mind, I’ll come back in the morning and get the car.” He peered down at her as if asking permission…as if it were her lane.

Her throat, suddenly as dry as the Sahara, made her voice sound huskier than she ever intended. “That’s fine. It’s a dead end. No one goes down this way…except to check on the cows…in the pasture.” With a shake, she peered at him. “What were you doing…if you don’t mind my asking?”

He shrugged. “Just getting my bearings. I got work down at the power plant. As I was heading home, I realized that this lane is just behind my house. I had nothing better to do, so I thought I’d investigate. Didn’t expect my car to die.” He snorted. “Or my phone to quit…though…”

She didn’t need him to finish the thought. “Yeah. Me too. One of those days.” She met his gaze again. “Don’t worry about the car. It’ll be safe enough.” She stepped toward the flashing lights.

Clem followed and opened the screen door. He hesitated. “Thanks. I appreciate your trust. I was afraid you’d set your dogs on me.” He grinned as Sally whined and tried to smuggle her fat body between his legs.

Catherine rolled her eyes. “Lord save a woman from marauders with that specimen of canine protectiveness.”

Chuckling, Clem scratched Sally behind the ears. “I don’t know. I think she did all right. Glad she didn’t eat me.” He stepped out onto the porch, waved to the bright lights from the car parked in the driveway. He turned back to Catherine. “I’ll be back in the morning. Mind if I stop in and say hi? I’ll bring my red pen…”

Her heart jumped to her throat. Catherine swallowed. This does not happen in real life. Not to me. She sucked in a deep breath. “Sure. No, I mean, that’s fine. I have a pot of strong coffee about 7:30—sleep in on Saturdays…” She wanted to slap herself again.

“Great. See you then.” He stepped off the porch into the rain and disappeared into the waiting car. The bright lights swiveled as the car turned and drove away.

Catherine limped back to her room on shaky legs, her whole body radiating a heat she could hardly explain. She flipped the fan switch and plopped down on her bed. The blades turned smooth as silk and sent a delightful breeze over her skin. It suddenly struck her as enchanting. Even the dust looked rather quaint. “Well, what do you know? It works.”

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

Leopold

“If ever you go to the North Country

Where the oak and the ash and the rowan be,

And the ivy bosses the castle wall

You must go to Edenhall…

Miranda wrapped her arms around her middle and traipsed through the winter woods, tugging her coat tight, her gaze meandering. Not that there was much to see. Snow dusted the trees and covered the leaf-strewn ground. Barren. Empty. Aloneness personified in foliage.

A bird called. What was it saying? She could almost make out the tune, but it was too distant. A raucous crow rose, cawing, and flapped away.

She trudged back to the bright-lit home she shared with her cousin, Edna, and her husband and their kids. Turning at the door, she stared at the scene. The glorious woods silhouetted black against the white evening sky stabbed her heart.

The after-dinner routine, raucous as usual, soon settled into an evening of books and board games. Miranda knitted, sitting on her chair by the lamp and watched Edna settle with the baby in her lap and the toddler tucked under her arm. She balanced an illustrated bedtime story between them. Joe played Memory with the older two boys and groaned grandly every time they made a match.

By the time everyone marched up to bed, Joe stretched and yawned, saying that he’d hit the hay early since he had to get up before dawn the next morning. Edna switched off the lights, shut down the computer on her work desk, and started after him.

Miranda continued to knit.

Edna stopped and glanced back. She frowned.

Miranda heard her cousin’s footsteps draw near, but she didn’t look up. She didn’t have the heart to.

Edna’s shadow slanted over the knitting.

Miranda sighed and let the half-finished blanket fall flat on her lap.

“Something wrong, Miranda?”

Willing herself to face her cousin, Miranda shoved all pain aside and peered up. “Nothing’s wrong. How could it be? I have a perfect life.”

Edna tugged a footstool over and plunked down. “Normally, I’d agree. But something feels…wrong.” She perched her head on her hand. “You know, I always envied you.”

Miranda snorted. “Good Lord, what for?”

“You traveled…saw the world. You were a useful human being. Nursing the sick all over…helping surgeons. Teaching. Advising.” Edna sat up and spread her hands wide. “Why, you were a regular modern hero. None the like I ever met before in real life.”

Miranda picked up her knitting and squinted in the dim light. “The operative word there is ‘were.’ I was all those things.” She shrugged. “Now I’m just an old lady knitting in a corner and walking through the woods to while away my empty days.”

Edna slapped her hand on the edge of the footstool. “Not so! You help with the kids and keep me from madness. I consider that a worthy endeavor.”

A momentary squabble on the second floor filtered down but was soon checked by Joe’s command to ‘settle down—or else.’

Edna narrowed her eyes. “Besides, you’re not exactly old. Not by today’s standards. Still in your fifties. You’ve got years ahead of you.”

“Sixties looms ever nearer, and the years ahead look pretty desolate to me.” She adjusted her glasses. “Listen, you and I know perfectly well that the nursing profession slipped away while I took care of Jack, and my boy lives in Singapore. Not exactly around the corner. Today the world is connected in ways I can hardly fathom. I don’t recognize half the things your kids say. I’m what they call ‘out of the loop.’” She shook her head. “My glory days are quite gone.”

Edna clasped her hands and rose from the footstool. She paced across the room and then turned and faced her cousin. “Those days—yes—I agree. They’re quite gone. But—”

“I’m too tired to go back to school and start over, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Not school necessarily. But change…a trade…a skill…a new environment.” Edna marched forward, her hands on her hips. “Don’t you see? It’s all in how you look at your life—forever ending or forever beginning. You decide.”

~~~

The next day dawned bright and clear. Cold swept in from the north, but Miranda wasn’t one to be detained by the threat of frostbite. She knew how to dress warmly.

After the older kids were off to school, Edna settled the little ones down with activities and started in on her daily online routine.

Miranda bustled out the door with a quick nod to the perfect order of the little corner of her world and braced herself for the cold. But she didn’t feel it. She hurried into the woods, her gloved hands sunk deep into her heavy coat pockets.

A bird landed on a branch before her and started in its usual song. Leopold…Leopold…tweet, tweet, tweet…

Miranda frowned and knocked a bit of snow off a tree trunk. “Stupid bird. Always calling to your Leopold, but he never answers, does he?” She stumbled forward, fury building little an interior steam kettle.

The bird hopped along, calling the same plaintive song. “Leopold…Leopold…”

Her nerves strained to the breaking point, Miranda turned and screamed. “Stupid idiot. Stop waiting for Leopold!” She shook her fist at the snow-speckled trees. “Go make a nest and do your own thing…live your own life. Don’t ask for no—”

A choking sob welled up from Miranda’s middle and tears burned her eyes. She wiped them away, brushing snow across her glasses. “Dang it!” Nearly blinded, she plucked her glasses off her face and carefully paced her way to a fallen log. She plunked down, not caring that she’d wet her clothes through to the skin.

Taking off her gloves, she pulled a tissue out of a pocket and wiped her glasses dry.

The bird drew near one again. “Leopold…Leopold…tweet…tweet…tweet…”

Miranda blinked as she watched the little bird hop before her. “Oh, God.” She held out her hand. The bird hopped close, then proceeded to peck at the tree bark, intent, and perhaps content, with something besides Leopold.

A thrill rushed through Miranda. “Could it be?” She laid her hand open.

The bird lifted its beady eyes and stared at her. It hopped nearer, almost touching her hand.

“Good Lord. Am I—Leopold?”

~~~

Later that evening when Edna returned from taking all the kids to their dentist’s appointments, she stopped dead in her tracks.

The boys finished divesting themselves from their winter coats and then set to work on helping the little ones.

Edna swallowed and entered the warm, yeasty smelling kitchen following the sound a happy tune. She stared at her cousin.

Slicing into a hot loaf of homemade wheat bread, Miranda called to the kids. “Snacks are ready and on the table in five minutes, boys. Be sure to wash your hands.” She glanced at Edna. “I’ve made enough to go with supper; don’t worry. I also made a nice hot stew for everyone.”

Edna shook her head. “You’re feeling better, then?”

Miranda stopped and met her cousin’s gaze. “Yes…and no. I just have to find myself again. Not easy. But the first task is always the hardest.”

Edna crept into the room. “What’s that?”

“You got to figure out where you are.” She drew a dish of butter near and laid a knife beside it. “And go from there.”

Tears welled in Edna’s eyes. “I’m glad.” She surveyed the brown bread and sucked in a deep breath. “My, but that looks good!” She perched on a stool and slathered a piece with a healthy dollop of butter. “What was that tune I heard you humming when I came in?”

Miranda blushed. “Oh, it wasn’t anything…just a birdsong you sometimes hear in the woods. “Leopold…Leopold…I’m here, I’m here.”

…But do our best and our most each day,

With a heart resolved and a temper gay,

         Which pleasure spoils not, not frights appall—

Though we never see Edenhall—

~Edenhall~

by

Susan Coolidge

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

Legitimate Concerns

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter

Sterling lifted a trailing purple vine from a deep pot and carried it past 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 described in your reports?”

He shoved loose soil aside and 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 sterile 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.

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.

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.” He eyed the wall console. “Your Ingot friend said he fixed it.”

Teal snatched and an oval blue-green piece of fruit from a bowl on the coffee table and chomped a big bite. He talked around a chew. “Ingots like high-pressure water.”

Sterling ripped a towel from the sink rack. “Ingots like high-pressure everything.” He jutted his jaw at Teal and patted his hands dry. “You’ve been around him 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 glare like he does.”

Teal chewed 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 behind 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 face 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 glass off the liquor cabinet, adjusted the water pressure, and filled the container.

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

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

Ark eyed the glass. “Having liquids are we?”

Sterling’s gaze swiveled from Ark to Teal. “You invited him here?” He marched over 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. Taking copious notes.”

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

Sterling lifted the full glasses and strolled across to Ark. “Here. You can have two 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 a full measure of golden liquid. “Don’t be ridiculous. I’m having three before the day is out.” He nodded to the counter. “You need to stay alert. There’s a pot of swill over there that’s got enough stimulants to keep a dying rhinoceros on his feet.” He glanced at Ark. “Or do they have claws?”

Ark poured the drink into his breathing helm and slurped noisily. “Not my area of expertise.” He glanced at Teal.

Sterling harrumphed and tossed his entire drink down his throat in one swallow. Stay calm. Right. “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 and turned abruptly. “Someone is trying to kill me.”

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

Ark’s golden eyes rounded. “Or me.”

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

Ark choked. “And 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 discrete distance.”

Sterling slapped his glass on the counter. “Of all the—” He felt his composure cracking. “Do you mean to tell me that you have someone watching Zuri, who is watching Ishtar?” He laughed. “Getting rather redundant, aren’t we?”

Teal stepped forward and waved Sterling and Ark closer. “I want to return to Earth undetected and find out who’s trying to kill me—or him.”

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

Sterling froze. In surprise, he realized that his fingers actually felt numb. “Know what? That someone is trying to kill Teal? Or that a plot is afoot?” Distractions always help. He returned to his pot, pulled 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 perched all four tentacles onto his thick waist. “How’d you know we’re focusing our attention on Ishtar?”

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

Teal stared him into the ground. If that were possible.

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

Teal sauntered over and perched on the edge of a chair.

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

Teal tented his fingers before his face. “Who’s Ungle?”

Ark wiggled a tentacle in the air. “Shhh! Wait your turn.”

Sterling rubbed his brow, he felt drained. “Can’t I just lie and say that Teal put it in his reports?”

Ark and Teal glanced at each other and shook their heads.

Teal slipped back onto the chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “Start talking.”

Sterling lay stretched out as if ready for his analyst session, crossed his feet, and placing his hands on his stomach. I could be buried in a tomb like this. “Yes, Ungle came to see me. He thinks he knows who has turned out the lights on Earth—you know what I mean.”

Teal glanced at the bright sunlight filtering through the window. The purple vine swayed in a soft breeze. “That from Earth’s vantage point, our world has vanished into darkness.”

Sterling tapped his fingers steeple style. “Yes. They’re a super race. They can create new life forms, terra-form entire planets, and much more.” He shrugged. “While Luxonians, Crestas, Uanyi, Bhuaci, and Ingots each have our own unique abilities, this race can do all we do, but better…with more flare. They’re extraordinary. But they aren’t particularly social. They need a lot of elbow room, so to speak. We’ve only discovered a few of their kind. The ones the Crestas irritated must have been a bit high strung. Very private. Hence their desire to keep entire worlds in the dark.”

“What does this have to do with—?”

Ark frowned at Teal. He tapped Sterling on the shoulder. “Go on.”

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

Teal jerked to his feet. “Chai is dangerous. He’s mad.”

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

Teal stomped across the room. “Ishtar isn’t evil…he’s just—”

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

Teal stopped. “But why kill me? Or Zuri? We’re the ones investigating—”

Sterling sighed and swung his feet off the couch. “They aren’t trying to kill you! Why do you keep insisting on making things more dramatic than they are?”

Ark shrugged. “Ungle specifically stated that he wants you to continue your work so that—” Ark’s pink cheeks blanched. “Oh, no.”

Sterling jumped to his feet.

Teal pelted across the room and gripped Ark by a tentacle. “What?”

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

Teal shrugged. “Zuri is annoying, but not really a distraction. Usually, he’s—”

Sterling closed his eyes. “Not Zuri. Sienna. That gorgeous Luxonian. He wanted me to make her 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 I don’t believe that was a natural lightning strike.”

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

Teal sprang at Sterling and wrapped his fingers around his neck.

Ark’s tentacles peeled Teal’s fingers away. Slapping Teal’s hands away with one tentacle, Ark wiped sweat from his face with another. “I’ll need a swim after this.”

Teal glared at Sterling. “How could you? Sienna is innocent. I’m a Luxonian guardian, and I thought we—” He spat his words. “I’ll know better from now on.”

Ark waddled between them, shoving them further away from each other. He turned from Sterling to Teal. “You don’t understand Ungle’s persuasive nature. He can make life on Lux much more challenging—if he wants. He can create an interstellar incident and make it look like Sterling’s long overdue for a spell at Bothmal.”

Teal wiped his hand across his mouth. “Seems to me that he knows quite enough about evil already.”

Ark laughed. “Very observant. But Ungle has legitimate concerns. The mystery race will dictate the entire Universe’s parameters…if we let them.” His eyes widened. “It’s one thing for Earth to face a hidden universe. What would happen to Lux if someone put the entire planet in the dark?”

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

Teal shook his head. “Not possible. In your case, I wish it was, though.”

Sterling peered at Teal. “You’re right. I should’ve told you. I was wrong. But Ungle…all his talk of good and evil…I didn’t know what to do. Frightening Sienna into leaving 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 that stupid planet now—won’t I?”

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

Ark swung his tentacles in all directions. “I don’t know if I have enough to keep everyone in line.”

Sterling sank into the chair. “Give me a moment. I’m not feeling well.”

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.

Ark slapped Sterling on the side of the head.

Sterling stood and placed his hand on Teal’s shoulder. “I know you have feelings for her. I’d spontaneously combust if it’d make you feel better.” His gaze wandered to his vine.

It appeared to wave its purple fronds at him.

Oh hell.

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

Sister-O-Mine

Giles slid onto the driver’s side of his compact car, buckled the strap over his lap, focused on the tight maneuver needed to get into the flow traffic, and felt his stomach clench.

Once he roared the motor to life, gripped the wheel and flipped the music on high, he made an expert swing into the proper lane. His fingers began tapping a lively dance, and his head started bopping to the rhythm. Blood pumped and his stomach unclenched. He grinned.

He sped onto the highway and pictured Esmeralda’s face. Lovely woman. Beautiful eyes. He suspected…beautiful everything. Well, from what he knew of her. Online chats can only take a man so far. One phone call. Lovely voice. Husky…just the way he liked it.

Once at the Millard exit, he turned off and scaled the hill to his sister’s house. Sadie had said she wanted to “talk.” His stomach tightened again.

After he rang the bell, Sadie swung the door wide and beckoned her brother inside with a languid half-wave. “Dan took the kids to a movie, so we have at least two hours of uninterrupted chat time.”

Giles pursed his lips as he slid one leg over the kitchen stool by the counter. “Why do we need”—he made quote marks in the air—”‘uninterrupted chat time’ together?”

Sadie rounded on the refrigerator, pulled out an ice-cold soda, swung to a high cabinet, flipped open the door, shuffled with her fingers, and pulled down a red bottle. After filling two tall glasses with crushed ice, lemon-lime soda, and Chardonnay, she handed one to her brother. She lifted her hand in salute. “Cheers, brother. Do I need a reason to chat with you?”

Giles leaned back, perching his foot on the stool rung. “Usually, you have a reason.” His eyes widened. “Is something wrong with Dan…or the kids?”

Sadie leaned on the counter, savoring her drink. “No. They’re fine.” She looked straight into Giles’ eyes. “As the older, wiser sibling, I just want to catch up with my little brother. Anything wrong with that?”

Giles snorted. “Seventeen months! You’re only seventeen months older, girl.”

Sadie straightened and clutched a platter of brownies. She slid them onto the counter. “Hard as rocks. Wilda made ‘em. First attempt. Not bad if you don’t break a tooth.” She tilted her head. “So, tell me all about Izzie.” Her eyebrows wiggled.

Giles bit into the brownie and froze. They were indeed hard as rocks. He tapped his tooth, laid the brownie aside, and glanced up. “Izzie? Who—?”

Opening the refrigerator, Sadie grabbed a bag of baby carrots. She pulled one out and crunched. She talked around munches. “You know…your online friend.”

Giles’ eyelids dropped to half-mast. “Her name is Esmeralda. And we’re just getting to know each other.” He shrugged. “What’s so wrong? You met Dan through a Catholic dating service.”

Sadie took a sip of her drink. “That’s my point. I knew something about Dan before we met. I knew he was Catholic, and that says volumes.”

Giles grimaced. “Screams loud and clear.” He wrinkled his nose and stared at the carrot held like a cigarette between Sadie’s fingers. “How can you eat a carrot and drink a wine-cooler at the same time?”

Sadie shrugged. “Easy. But don’t roam off topic. Listen brother-o-mine. I love you dearly, but I think you’re making a humongous mistake. You don’t know anything about this woman…and worse yet…she doesn’t know a thing about you.”

“I know she’s gorgeous.” Giles smiled. “I’m not bad looking…What else matters?”

“Is she funny? Does she handle money well? What religion is she? Any ax-murders to her credit?”

Rolling his eyes, Giles labored to his feet and sauntered into the strangely clean living room. He glanced back at Sadie who followed him. “What happened to all the toys…and the mess?”

Sadie punched Giles in the arm. “Listen, buddy, one time you show up unexpected and the house looks unfit for human habitation, and you act like that’s my usual routine.” She eyed him as he plopped down on the sofa. “You still got dust bunnies ruling the roost at your house?”

Giles set his drink on the end table and covered his ears. “Dang it, Sadie. I told you never to mix metaphors in my hearing. You know how that makes my skin crawl.”

“Sorry, Editor. Didn’t realize you wore your English Grammarian badge during off hours.”

Giles lifted his hands. “It’s a curse I’m learning to live with.” He smirked as Sadie sat on an overstuffed chair opposite him and threw her legs over the arm, just like one of the kids. “I know you think you’re helping me out…but I’m having a good time with Esmeralda. It’s a fling. Fun time. Nothing more.”

“You told her that?”

“Pretty obvious, I should think.”

“Obvious to who?” Sadie tapped the rim of her glass. “I know you, brother. You’re still dealing with all the baggage from Janet.” She took a long slurp, finishing off the contents. “You need to get an annulment before you start anything new.”

His eyes nearly popping out his head, Giles leaned forward. “Annulment? Lord, Sadie. A Justice of the Peace married us. I’m not Catholic anymore. Janet doesn’t even believe in God. I don’t think we really need to bother some overworked Cannon Lawyer with the hideous details of our failed marriage.”

Sadie set her glass down with a click and leaned forward. “I think you do. I think you’d be a fool to start anything new without figuring out what went wrong last time.”

Giles shot to his feet. “Well, don’t worry your pretty little head about it, sis. I know exactly what went wrong.”

Sadie held her position. Only her eyes followed him as he paced across the room, turned at the television, and faced her.

“We were kids…stupid kids overloaded with hormones.” Giles shook his head and chuckled, his gaze dropping to the brown carpet. “Your Catholic God is the funny one.” He lifted his finger and mimicked a voice from on high. ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!’” His voice returned to normal. “And then He gives us bodies and sensual joyrides.” Giles retrieved his glass and swallowed the last drops. “Joke’s on us—eh?”

Sadie rose and stepped closer, her gaze fixed on her brother. “You got hurt—really hurt, Giles. I know you did. Divorce is hell, no matter what.” She laid a hand on his shoulder. “Listen to your older, wiser sister, will ya?” She tilted her head and peered deep into his gaze. “I love you, idiot. And I never want to see you in so much pain again.”

Giles dropped his head to his chest.

Sadie swung away. “I don’t care how hot she is…now.” Sadie ran her fingers along the edge of a crib set against the wall. “You know perfectly well, looks fade or get ravaged.” She glanced back. “Remember mom?”

Giles jaw hardened, his moist eyes darkened. “Don’t go there, Sadie.”

“Listen, Giles. Every relationship you have with a woman is colored by every other relationship with women—mom, me, Janet…and all the little flings you’ve had…online or in person.” She lifted her hand. “Don’t pretend innocence. I’m not stupid.”

Giles plunked down on the couch and buried his face in his hands. “Why are you making my life so damn complicated?”

“It’s a sister’s job. Actually, it would’ve been mom’s job…if she hadn’t—” She swallowed and turned away. “Don’t forget, Giles, this gorgeous woman you like so much is someone’s daughter…maybe someone’s sister.” She strode over to an iPhone lying on the table. “These tech toys help us forget—but we’re dealing with real people. Not just names. Not just faces. People someone else might love just as much as I love you.”

Giles rubbed his face and stared across the room through vacant eyes. “I’m not a creep, you know.”

“I never thought that for a moment.” Sadie returned and knelt at Giles’ side, folding her hands prayer-like on his knee. “But you are unguided. You could use some help to make a real relationship work—better than Mom, better than Janet. Heck, she could even be better than me.”

Giles reached out and brushed a strand of hair from Sadie’s eyes. “Not possible, sister-o-mine. Not possible.”

 

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

Test a Theory

From OldEarth Ishtar Encounter

Ark, dressed in a somber grey bio-suit and brown boots, waited for his superior to approach. It would never do to appear hasty.

Ungle, a Crestonian with bright red cilia wavering on top of his plump head and dressed in a spring-green bio-suit and matching boots, meandered the circuit of the room with two tentacles wrapped behind his back in a contemplative manner. A third tentacle held a long-stemmed glass filled to the brim with blue gelatinous goo, and with his last tentacle, he shook hands—or mechanical armatures as the occasion required—with various Luxonian and alien representatives.

Ark slumped and glanced at a staring Luxonian. He patted his breathing helm as if stifling a yawn. His wide-eyed, peeved glare turned the Luxonian’s gaze away. Boor.

“So you finally made it.”

Ark’s head jerked so hard he felt a crackling in the bone holding his spine erect. Blast. I’ll have a muscle spasm from that. Holding out two tentacles, he clasped Ungle’s offered tentacle with gaudy bracelet attached. Ark blinked and swallowed. Better not expect me to kiss that thing—like some weird Bhuaci sign of obeisance.

“Not for kissing, just admiring.”

Ark swallowed convulsively. Uh, oh.

Ungle laughed, nearly spraying liquid over the top of his breathing helm. “I can’t read your mind—but really—Ark, you’ve become practically translucent. Among humans too long in my opinion.”

A waiter glided in close and offered a tray of pink, blue, and green drinks.

Ark glanced at Ungle.

Ungle poured his blue goo into his breathing helm, slurped, and shivered. “Not bad. But I’d recommend the green. Not authentic green, you understand, but less of a kick than the blue.”

Ark swiped the blue drink off the tray and poured it daintily into his breathing helm. Like a connoisseur savoring an ancient wine, Ark sipped his liquid while his gaze wandered the room.

Ungle waved the servant away.

Ark returned to his superior. “You were the first to recommend Earth observation. Have you changed your mind?”

“Not at all. I think humanity has a great deal to offer—in time. But I also realize there are many complications that must be considered—”

A bell tinkled.

“Bothmal those bells!” Ungle tapped Ark on the shoulder. “Meet me in my chambers after the meeting.”

“You aren’t staying for the Balatin Reenactment and festival?”

Ungle gurgled. “I’m a Crestonian. Science not pleasure dictates my schedule.”

Ark took the hint.

~~~

Ark settled in a pump chair and hated the hiss of his bio-suit as it wedged between the stiff arms. Dark waters, I’ll never get back up without help.

The Crestonian chambers included a mini-pool built into the back wall, plump, light-colored furniture, and a simple cleansing and dressing closet.

Ark glanced over as Ungle tapped a console, lighting up a holopad.

“Pay attention now. I’ve done careful research, and I think I have just the solution we need.”

Ark grunted as he tried to wiggle out of the chair. “What…is…the…problem?” Popping like a cork, he sprang to his feet.

Ungle straightened, and a hologram of Teal appeared before them.

Ark clumped forward, his embarrassment forgotten. “Teal?” His gaze swiveled to Ungle.

“As I mentioned earlier, science dictates the direction of my life. I believe that humanity has a great deal to offer Crestonian studies. Not the least of which is their obsession with good and evil.”

Ark wrapped his tentacles behind his back and meandered in closer. “Surely we understand the concept as well as anyone. Why—?”

“We don’t experience the polar opposites as humans do. It makes quite a difference. Consider—” He tapped the console. Teal dissolved, and Chai appeared beautifully dressed in his crimson robes embroidered in gold. “A dangerous—by all human standards—evil force controls this man. It’s a force I’ve rarely encountered before. Yet, this human believes he’ll benefit from the experience.”

Ark’s tentacles wiggled nervously behind his back. “What does he have to do with Teal?”

“This being—calls himself Chai—will cross paths with the one you call Ishtar. It doesn’t take serious extrapolation of data to figure this out. Their paths must intersect.”

“So—”

“Teal will be watching. He’ll care what happens. He might even attempt to interfere.”

“That goes against all his training.”

Ungle shrugged. “Given proper motivation, we all go against our training. Don’t be obtuse, Ark.”

“What do you want?”

“I want to see the natural exchange between Chai and Ishtar. I want to witness a soul damned to—”

“Hell?”

“Yes, I believe that is the term.”

“You want me to keep an eye on Teal—is that it?”

Chuckling, Ungle tapped the console. “Not primarily. I want you to keep your eye on her.”

The holographic image of Chai dissolved, and Sienna appeared in all her radiant glory on the holopad.

“Sienna? She cares for Teal, but—”

“She’s a Luxonian with a healer’s soul. She wants to help so badly, she could do a great deal of harm in the process.”

Ungle tapped the screen and Chai, Teal, and Sienna appeared together on the holopad facing away from one another.

“They are each convinced that they know what’s best for humanity. I’m convinced that they have no idea what’s in store for them.”

“And you want me to observe and collect data?”

“I want to test a theory—about good and evil.”

Ark waited.

Ungle smirked. “You’ll see.”

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