OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirteen

—Desert—

Forever in Your Debt

Ishtar stared at the bleating herd of sheep and sighed. “Move on, you stupid—” He glanced aside. Not another soul on the horizon. Three distant tents, green fields, and plenty of rocks.

He set his jaw. “Not your fault.” A memory flashed through his mind. His warriors lined up at his command as they faced the giants from the north…he and his men hunting for game…his men lounging around a sizzling fire, laughing, teasing, eating…” He closed his mind.

No!

Still, memories tore through his brain, searing all other thoughts.

He could feel his sweaty body steaming in passion as he and Haruz embraced on their first night together…the birth of his son with his head full of black hair…the ore-empty earth slipping through his fingers…the glinting knife in Haruz’s hand—

He screamed. “Noooo!”

The startled sheep scattered, their bleats high and terrified.

His eyes snapped open, his whole body shook.

Matalah stepped outside his tent and glanced up, shading his eyes from the sun.

Ishtar unclenched his hands and sucked in deep, calming breaths. He dropped his voice to a coaxing whisper. “Come, sheep. Green pastures…just ahead.”

A fleecy lamb scampered near and wagged its tiny tail.

Running his fingers along its back, Ishtar surveyed the landscape. All lay quiet. No Matalah. No memories. For the moment.

He struck the ground with his staff and started climbing. The sheep trailed along behind.

~~~

Ishtar stopped for a rest and stretched across a level spot. He opened his satchel, and slowly chewed his bread and cheese. Watching the rosy sunset deepen to black night, he battled every memory of his father. Neb in battle, jabbing a man with his spear…Neb sneering at Haruz, shoving her into a corner with an angry retort…Neb grasping Ishtar’s knife and plunging it deep into his own breast.

Ishtar choked, his head dropped to his chest, and his bread crumbled in his fisted hand.

A lamb rose and sauntered near, butting its head into his arms.

Ishtar clasped the lamb and sobbed on its shoulder.

~~~

Ishtar led the sheep to greener pastures as days passed uncounted. The tents moved with them. He ate his allotment of bread and cheese and sipped at the single stream that gave life to this barren land. His tears joined the stream.

One hot day, two lambs frisked in innocent joy and bumped into each other. Their collision sent them careening backward where they sat down hard.

Ishtar laughed. “You are like Caleb and Amin—children at play with no notion of—” A burning flush worked up his cheeks.

Fresh tears flowed.

~~~

Ishtar stood on the top of a hill and glanced at an approaching figure. He swallowed back a sour taste and tried to ignore a disconcerting tightening in his stomach.

The eldest son of Matalah wound his way toward him. Ishtar tipped his head in courtesy. “Abdul.”

“Ishtar.” Abdul did not incline his head but, instead, folded his arms across his chest and narrowed his eyes. “I’ve been watching you.”

Ishtar waited. He squinted in the bright light, watching the sheep, wary.

“You know your way in the world.” Abdul turned his focused gaze to the east. “Tending animals is hardly a fitting occupation for a man of your skill and intelligence.”

Ishtar’s fingers tightened around his staff.

“I’m sure my father didn’t mean to insult you, but he doesn’t understand the greater world. He travels but never goes anywhere.” A grin quirked on Abdul’s lips. “I’m a more fortunate man.”

“Fortune can be deceiving.”

A twinkle sparkled in Abdul’s eyes. “I’ve seen glorious horizons. There is a great deal to desire in this world.”

Swallowing, Ishtar shifted. He glanced at the three tents at the bottom of the hill.

“My family served you well in your hour of need. Perhaps you could render us assistance in return.” His broad smile flashed and disappeared.

A lamb butted Ishtar’s hand. He stroked its soft head.

“Of course, this is just between us.”

Ishtar glanced at Abdul. Their eyes met and fought for supremacy. Neb’s gaze glowed through Abdul’s eyes. Ishtar stiffened.

“Accidents happen. You understand.” Without another word, Abdul turned and strolled down the hill, his garments billowing in the stiff breeze.

~~~

Ishtar led the sheep back to the Bedouin’s camp, the cool evening air tingling over his arms. After washing at the well and nodding to the brothers around the fire, he made his way to the central tent.

Matalah sat cross-legged before a simple meal.

Ishtar remembered their first meal together. Weariness enveloped him.

Matalah’s eyes lit up with an inner fire. “Ah, my adopted son. Come, sit, and enjoy a well-earned rest.”

Ishtar offered a deep bow and sat by the old man. He leaned back on a firm pillow and stared at the array of food. “You are ever a kind host.” Ishtar clasped his hands in his lap and looked down. “I was never so good to my guests…not even to my own family.”

Matalah pressed his hand over Ishtar’s. “Kindness is a gift, given to me, which I pass on to you.” He smiled and met Ishtar’s gaze. “Share it well.” His smile vanished, replaced by a shadow of doubt.

As they ate, Ishtar peered out of the corner of his eyes at his host’s worried face. His stomach clenched even as the good food nourished his exhausted body.

When they leaned back and sipped wine, Ishtar wrapped his fingers around the vessel and lifted his eyes from its depths to Matalah. “My friend—for so I dare call you— it’s clear that something weighs heavy on your mind. If there is anything I can do—”

“I thank you, Ishtar. You’ve become like a son, though I hope not like some sons I must claim, though I’d rather not.”

A murmured conversation passed outside the tent flap, and Ishtar glanced over. The voices faded into the evening.

Matalah dropped his tone and leaned forward, tapping Ishtar’s knee. “You’re a more honest man, despite your troubled past, than my sons who, though they have been raised with love and security, are little less than cheats and thieves.”

Ishtar sat up. “I’m here to listen…though I may know your story in part.”

“My sons plan to gather men and take by force what would have been theirs if they had but waited for the proper time. I am not yet dead, but they wish me in the ground.”

Ishtar shook his head. “Why? They are free men in charge of a prosperous territory.”

“They wish to acquire more land and grow rich and mighty.” He spat to the side. “It is no use telling them that a man’s wealth grows cold and more heartless over time.”

“They’re willing to battle for more territory?”

“It’s what they look forward to the most.” He gulped the last of his wine and placed the cup aside. “My two eldest, Abdul and Wasim, asked permission to scout out the weakest tribes in the area, gather a strong force, and put our friends and neighbors to flight. Once the land is abandoned, they’ll claim the herds and servants for their own.”

Like a man witnessing before God, Matalah waved his hand high. “It is an evil plan, which under any circumstances would be difficult, but as they have little experience in battle, it’s preposterous. They received no permission from me.”

Closing his eyes, Ishtar clenched his cup. “But they did not listen?”

“Worse. They convinced my third son, Assam, to join them, and they’re gathering such a force that it makes my blood boil. Every day they bring in strange men, insisting that I am too feeble to manage matters. They invent troubles that never existed.”

Rising, Ishtar paced before the old man. “Your sons can’t control what they are setting into motion.”

Matalah waved to the doorway. “I told them—no one would be left unscathed by their evil ambition.”

Ishtar stopped and stared at Matalah. “Such was my father. A curse he passed to me.”

A shadow wavered at the door.

Matalah frowned. “Come!” His youngest daughter scampered forward with a full carafe of wine. Matalah gestured toward Ishtar, but Ishtar refused with a soft smile. Sending the girl away, Matalah wrung his hands. “Everyone must endure the battle between good and evil.”

Kneeling before his friend, Ishtar peered into his eyes. “But you don’t deserve such a fate. You are innocent.”

Using Ishtar’s arm as a brace, Matalah rose and strode to the doorway. He stared at the starry sky. “Innocence does not protect us. It only offers alternatives.”

Standing aside with his hand on Matalah’s shoulder, Ishtar gazed upon the same sky. “I will do anything you ask. Such ambitious plans take time. Perhaps your God will intervene in some way we can’t yet see.

Matalah turned and stared into his eyes. “If you don’t side with them, they’ll turn on you.” He gripped Ishtar’s arm. “You must leave—soon.”

Weaving around his friend, Ishtar crossed the room and turned at the doorway. “I’m not dead—thanks to your kindness. If it’s not disagreeable to you, I’ll stay a little longer. Let’s see what the future brings.”

Lacing his fingers together before his face, like a man in earnest prayer, a tremulous smile crossed Matalah’s face. “God sent you.” He peered at the twinkling sky. “My kindness has been repaid a hundred-fold.”

“Yet I am forever in your debt.” With a nod, Ishtar padded into the dark night.

~~~

“Truly great friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget.”
– Unknown

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twelve

—Lake Land—

Do the Right Thing

Barak stood outside his home and stared at the mountains in the distance. Bright sunlight glinted off the peaks and colored the crevices with a blue tinge. Pointy evergreens lined the west side. He could almost feel the breath of the big cat, as it chased his clan from their ancient homelands, curl up his nose. A mad desire to run into the mountains shivered down his spine.

His shoulders slumped. “Do Aram and I share the same fate? I can’t make sense of anything, but I’m supposed to lead others! Hah!”

A high, childish voice echoed. “Hah!”

Barak spun around so quickly he tripped over a root and fell backward. He searched wildly for someone to fix upon, but all he saw was the same thin air he had been talking to a moment before. Rising, he tapped his ears and shook his head.

At the base of the tree in front of him, a brown foot gripped an exposed root as if clinging to it for dear life.

Relief flooding his body, Barak heaved a sigh and grinned. “All right. Who are you? Heath?”

Silence.

“No? Then Lamech. Come on out, son.” Barak took a step closer.

A whimper.

Barak stopped. “Eber? You know I’m not really mad.” He frowned. “Yet.”

Silence.

“All right, Shad? Rula? Come out here, or I’ll come get you.”

The foot retreated behind the tree.

Barak tiptoed forward and leaned around the tree.

The child backed up and bumped against Barak. He screamed.

Barak clutched his chest and spun around, ready to grab his miniature tormenter. He froze. His mouth fell open. “Who are you?”

The little boy wrapped his arms over his head and burst into sobs.

Barak closed his eyes, mumbling, “I will be calm,” and then inhaled a deep breath.

Continuing to cry, the child’s whole body shook.

Barak laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder and led him to a bench. He went inside, poured a cup of water, returned, and put the drink into the child’s hands, guiding him to drink between sniffles.

A few hard sniffs jerked the boy into apparent calmness.

Barak crossed his arms. “So tell me…who are you?”

“I’m Caleb.”

“And why have you come, Caleb?”

“My brother told me about you. He wants to talk to you.”

Barak rolled his eyes skyward and rubbed his forehead. “And who is your brother?”

“Amin. He’s older than me and very wise. He’s talking to Namah. He wants to work everything out, but I want to talk to you first.”

Barak tapped his fingers to his lips, holding onto his calm demeanor by sheer force of will. “So, what do you want to tell me?”

Caleb laid his cup aside and propped his head on his hands like a weary old man on the brink of despair. “Amin and I should go far away—maybe follow our father into the mountains. When everything is better, we can come back. But for now, we should leave.”

A sharp pain stabbed Barak’s chest as he plunked down at Caleb’s side. “By Aram’s soul—you’re Ishtar’s son.”

Caleb blinked. “Father left. Mother died. Only Hagia wanted us—” He swallowed and shivered.

Barak rubbed his eyes. He patted Caleb’s shoulder. “Well, about your leaving… Ishtar might come looking for you. Or you could get lost…or hurt…or something.”

Caleb peered at his feet dangling over the edge of the bench.

Barak glanced into the blue sky. Help me. He tapped his fingers together. “Listen, Namah is a good woman, and perhaps she and your brother will—”

Caleb shook his head. “Amin said that Namah wants to sell us into slavery. Not everyone is nice, you know. Some people are very bad. Amin told me.”

Stroking his short beard, Barak’s eyes narrowed. “But not everyone is evil. Many people will do the right thing if given the chance.”

“Do you?”

“What?”

“The right thing.”

Barak opened his hands expansively. “I do pretty well. My family seems to think so.”

“And your clan made you their leader.”

Barak ruffled Caleb’s hair and grinned.

Two voices meandered close.

Barak and Caleb turned.

Namah and Amin strode around the dwelling ignoring the mother who suckled her baby, a young girl tending a stew pot, and four men who hefted a boat on their shoulders and headed toward the lake.

Amin stopped in mid-motion and scowled at Caleb. “What’re you doing here?”

“Talking to Barak.”

After offering Amin a reassuring pat on the shoulder, Namah strode forward and met Barak’s gaze. “I know you’re busy, but we need to discuss something important.”

Barak glared at Namah and snorted. “I’d say we do. The last I heard, you were bringing food to these two. Now, I hear they’re being sold into slavery?”

A rather alarming smile spread across Namah’s face. “Yes, you’re right. I admit my mistake. I apologized to Amin for my interference, and I ask for your forgiveness as well. As clan leader, you should’ve been consulted. These boys need a home, but very few people—”

His pent-up frustration flaring into rage shot Barak to his feet. “What? One can never have too many sons! Any man would be blessed to have these boys at his side.” He patted the top of Caleb’s head.

Caleb grinned.

Amin leaned against a post and folded his arms.

Barak puffed out his chest. “Tell me. Who’s the lucky man to inherit such stalwart sons?”

Namah pointed at Barak. “You!”

Barak froze. He glanced from Amin’s cold stare to Caleb’s beaming face.

Caleb’s eyebrows lifted as he stood and clasped Barak’s hand. “So? Will you do the right thing?”

Barak closed his eyes. After a long silent moment, a chuckle bubbled up from deep within.

He opened his eyes. Without warning, two boys raced around the dwelling and careened into Barak.

The first boy, laughing, pointed at the second. “I won!”

A sudden, surprising joy flooded through Barak. He tousled the two boys’ heads.

Milkan strode into view, caught Namah’s eye, and nodded. “My friend, how good to see you.”

Namah smiled and bowed her head.

The first boy shuffled over to Amin. “Are you hungry?” His gaze remaining steady, waiting,

Amin glanced at Barak.

Barak locked eyes with the boy.

Milkan gestured to the door. “There’s food enough for all. Go inside, and I’ll arrange things.”

Still gazing at Amin, Barak cleared his throat. “Take Caleb and get something to eat.”

Amin nudged his little brother and the two boys followed the others inside.

Milkan watched the children tromping into her house.

“Will they stay long?”

“As long as need be.”

Patting Barak’s arm, Milkan followed the boys. “We’ll need more fish.” She stepped into the house.

Exhaling a sigh of relief, Namah clasped Barak’s hand. “You don’t know what this means to me. My heart can rest easy tonight.” She waved goodbye.

Barak watched Namah stroll away and listened to the happy chatter inside the house. He glanced into the bright sky and shook his head. “Hah!”

Thanks.

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It Might Have Been

A wrong number. Not a scam. Just some innocent woman looking for her sister Pearl. Jason assured her that he wasn’t Pearl, hit the end button, and slid the phone across his desk. He dropped his head onto his hand and tried to concentrate.

Inventory. Yay!

Even mental sarcasm fell flat. He should be pumped. The holidays approached with days off for leisure time, sleeping in, parties with assorted junk food, and perhaps a chance to head out to the park for a little fun and games. The image of a woman clad in a tight winter sweater and black leggings danced in front of his eyes. Heat licked his body.

The phone chimed. Jason tapped his fingers. Answer? Not answer? Hardly a life or death decision. He tapped the green button and slapped the phone against his ear. “Dad?”

“Jas?”

Carol? Cold water doused the flames. Oh heck, anybody but his stepmother. He’d rather have a root canal. Not that she wasn’t a perfectly nice person. It’s just that with a root canal, you know what you’re getting into. With Carol, Russian roulette seemed tame. Besides, he hated it when anyone shortened his name. What? Two syllables asking too much? Ja-son. Oh, forget it.

“Hey, Carol. What’s up?”

“Jas, I don’t want to take up your time, so I won’t beat around the proverbial bush, but your dad’s not doing too well. He’s really struggling, and I just want to give you a heads up before you come visit.”

Very subtle. Okay. It had been a while. A few weeks. Jason rolled his eyes over to the wall calendar—the one his wife had bought for him. Landscapes with hymns scrolled over the top. Oh yeah. Something safe that would keep his mind on celestial matters. Instead of other things.

Pine trees and a little manger scene. Hmmm…that time already?

He leaned back and let his chair fall into the relaxed mode. His head tilted, he considered the state of his office ceiling.

“You caught me, Carol. It has been too long. Waaay too long. I need to get my bu—, I mean, I should get Dinah and the kids and head out your way. Christmas season and all.” He grimaced at the thought of driving through snow and ice into Wisconsin but then the possibility of escaping Dinah’s family…

Carol ran roughshod over his thoughts. “You know, your dad always said that nothing mattered as long as his kids were happy. He still knows who you are. He recognizes me. Most of the time. But if you wait…”

Jason’s feet hit the floor with a slap. “What do you mean? He didn’t have any trouble recognizing me or the kids last time we were there.”

“A year ago.”

Jason smacked his forehead. He leaned in, peered at the calendar, and squinted. Was it? “Hey, you know. You’re right. I need to talk with Dinah and set something in motion. I’ll call you back, okay?”

“You won’t forget, now, will you?”

The snarky tone mixed with anxiety roiled Jason’s stomach. “No. I won’t forget.”

Once home, Jason perched on a stool at the kitchen island and outlined a quick road trip. Dinah listened in empathetic understanding. Such a generous spirit. Of course. She visited her parents every month. Good woman that she was. He couldn’t go most of the time, despite the fact that they lived only twenty minutes away, because, well, you know. He had a hell of a honey-do list and getting older wasn’t a picnic; let me tell you. Hey, I need some me-time, too.

His mind wandered back to the woman he’d met at the park last week. Gorgeous. Funny. Didn’t quote scripture while they strolled along the path. She wore a ring. He wore a ring. But still…

Dinah rattled on. “It’s all settled then. Next weekend, we’ll leave early Friday and be back by Sunday night. I’m sure your dad will be pleased. He loves you, you know.” Her eyes lingered on his face like she was sending some kind of coded message.

Sheesh. Lay on the guilt with a trowel why don’t you?

All evening, images of the park woman meandered through Jason’s mind. In frustration, he cuddled up to his wife in bed, but she was already asleep. Or so she wants me to believe. Great. Now I got nothing but a lousy trip to look forward to. He yanked the blanket to his side of the bed, exposing his wife’s slumbering form to the cold night air. She probably doesn’t even notice. Martyrs never do.

Images of the park woman slithered through his mind. Her perfect form, flashing smile, the teasing glint in her eye. Then, out of nowhere, his dad appeared on the opposite side of a busy street. The old man tried to cross, but trucks and cars whizzed by in city traffic madness. The old man locked eyes with Jason, bewildered desperation peering from the depths. He waved and called, “Ja-son!”

Jason dropped the woman’s hand, his heart pounding. “Dad? Hey, don’t try to cross there. It’s crazy traffic. You’ll get—”

Dinah’s scream ripped through the air as she ran out from behind, shoving the park woman aside. She dashed across the street, stopping traffic like magic. She reached her father-in-law’s broken body. In true superwoman form, she carried the old man across the street, tears streaming from her disappointed, despairing eyes.

Her words shot Jason like bullets. “All yours.”

Suddenly another man, a shrewd well-dressed gent with clever eyes and high cheekbones stepped forward and swept everyone else away. He pointed toward a wide doorway. “If you please.”

Heat flickered through Jason’s body, but he shivered uncontrollably. “What’s this?”

“What you wanted.”

“Wanted?” Jason wrinkled his nose at a strange stink. “I never get what I want! Seems to me that I have to pay a pretty steep price for everything.”

The gentleman chuckled. “Think so? But it’s all free. Free will and all.”

Jason looked around for his father, his wife, his home, anything familiar and comforting. “But I wanted to see dad. I could’ve—”

Laughter rang in Jason’s ears. “The saddest words man ever penned, were the words…”

Jason bolted upright. Sweat beaded across his brow. He shivered. “Oh, God!”

Dinah murmured and rolled over. She reached out. “You okay, honey?”

The Sahara desert had filled Jason’s mouth. He couldn’t utter a word.

Dinah sat up and leaned in, her fingers stroking her husband’s arm. “Worried about your dad?” She cuddled closer, pulling the blanket around them both. “It’ll be okay. He’s a good man. He’s made his life and even if he doesn’t remember now, when he dies, he’ll know the truth. Besides, he’s not dead yet. You still have time.”

Jason hugged his wife, tears streaming down his face. The words, “It might have been…” rang in his ears.

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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Ten

 

—Planet Lux—

Legitimate Concerns

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

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

Sterling glanced at Teal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teal and Sterling turned to the door.

Exhaling a long exasperated breath, Sterling shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teal stared him into the ground.

If that were possible.

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

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

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

Teal frowned. “Who’s Ungle?”

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

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

Ark snorted.

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

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

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

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

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

Ark harrumphed.

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

“What does this have to do with—?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sterling jumped to his feet.

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teal leapt at Sterling, grabbing him by the neck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Easy way to lose a friend.”

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

“Someone has to keep an eye on you.”

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

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

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

Sterling closed his eyes.

Ark poked him in the back. “What?”

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

Teal groaned.

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

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

Oh hell.“

~~~

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

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Eight

—Wilderness—

Beyond Mortal Strength

Ishtar stumbled over the barren lands, sending stray pebbles skittering in all directions. He barely had the energy to lift his feet. Since there was no point in dying among the barren rocks, a life must be forged from the nothingness of his existence.

He traveled north over the great mountains. Ancient stories told of a great civilization that once built stone monuments to gods more powerful than any ever imagined. Rumors whispered that the inhabitants of a stone city knew the secret to immortal life and could help a man enter the world beyond in safety—and style—if he had the wealth to make it happen.

After ascending a steep rise, Ishtar crumpled to the ground in an exhausted heap while the sun beat upon his bare, blistered skin.

Pain woke him. He crawled beneath the shade of a boulder and closed his mind to all agony and thirst.

Dreams haunted him, filling his mind with horrifying images of his father and grandfather. The spirits of the dead called to him. Claiming him. I have nothing. I am nothing. But the netherworld did not take him. With eyes squeezed shut, Ishtar scoured the ground with his fingers as if digging his own grave, but he found neither death nor relief.

After the sun settled behind the mountain, a chilly wind sent dust rising into whirlwinds. Shivers wracked his body. Groaning, he sat up, leaned against the warm boulder, and rubbed his blistered face. He winced in pain.

Exhaustion, hunger, and thirst tormented him. Staggering to his feet, he threw back his head and stared at the pink and golden firmament. As darkness descended, uncounted stars blinked into view and hung in the sky like bright jewels beckoning his soul. Bowing his shoulders, he dropped his gaze, fixed his eyes on the distant mountains, and let his feet lead the way.

When the pink rays of the sunrise once again shimmered over the horizon, he listened for signs of life. A faint birdsong twittered in the distance.

He staggered on.

The sun rounded and glowed in bright white glory, small insects flittered from boulders to thorny desert plants, and lizards and tiny rodents scampered under rocks. A scent of foreign blossoms floated to his nose, awakening his senses.

Tears trickled down his face.

When the sun’s heat burned too fiercely, he followed the lizards and small creatures into crevices and shadows. Scooping sand aside with his torn fingers, he smoothed a soft bed and rolled under a ledge, safely hidden for a few hours from the burning glare of the sun.

Beyond count of days and nights, he couldn’t remember how many rocks he crawled under or how many lizards he caught and ate. Ignoring his revulsion, he ground in his teeth and swallowed whatever he could catch.

Thirst tormented him.

In delirium, he reached a pass and scuttled into a valley where a strip of green broke the monotony of the scorched earth.

Three tents rippled in the evening breeze, sending shivers of expectation running through his worn and exhausted limbs.

Crouching low, and feeling more like a wild dog than a human, he limped to a watering hole.

A wide, stone well within a circle of palm trees and verdant grass appeared like a vision from another world. His cracked lips stung at the very thought of liquid.

As the sun descended behind the mountains, he felt his face break into a grimace. He searched for a bucket or a ladle of some kind.

Nothing.

Digging his toes into the shifting sand, he pressed on the heavy stone lid. His blackened arms splotched by scorched skin and shredded by fierce winds trembled when he tried to lift the lid.

It would not budge.

A moan escaped his lips. Madness gripped his mind. Fear and agony tore his soul. He would die of thirst beside a well. Would this be justice—at last?

A young girl in a long-sleeved embroidered dress humming a strange tune and swinging a jug in one hand sauntered forward.

He tried to rise, but his body shook so violently that he merely staggered and fell.

The child’s eyes widened in terror. She froze. Her mouth opened. Without a sound, she turned on her heel and fled, the sand spraying behind her.

Ishtar felt heaving sobs break inside him like waves on a distant shore. But no tears came. He could no longer even cry like a man.

A few moments later a brawny, dark-skinned man with curly black hair, wearing a white tunic with a gray robe thrown back over his shoulders, jogged forward. He halted when he met Ishtar’s gaze.

Ishtar closed his eyes.

A shadow covered the glare of the sun. A hand clasped Ishtar’s shoulder. Water brushed his mouth.

His eyes fluttering open, Ishtar opened his cracked, bleeding lips and, with the last of his strength, lifted his hand to direct the cup.

He drank until the man told him to stop and pressed his shoulder. “Come. I’ll take you to my father. He’s always glad to meet travelers and hear news.”

With the help of a pair of strong arms, Ishtar limped to the largest of the three tents. He stopped. Fear enveloped him. Choking him.

The girl stepped out of the tent and smiled. With a nod, she lifted the door flap wide open and stepped aside.

Ishtar stared at the child. His heart squeezed so tightly, he could not breathe.

The man touched his elbow, edging him forward.

Ishtar stumbled inside.

A thin, elderly man with piercing black eyes and a gray beard, wearing the long white robe of a Bedouin, stood in the middle of the tent straight and tall. His gaze scoured Ishtar no less than the brilliant sun.

A scent of stewed goat meat, spices, and something sweet almost overpowered Ishtar as he waited, trembling, just inside the doorway.

The elderly man drew near, one hand extended as if to catch Ishtar should he fall. “You’ve come at a good moment, my friend, for I have too much food for one man. My wife wishes to fatten me up, but I can never do justice to her ample portions. Perhaps you could assist me?”

Ishtar wasn’t sure if the quirk of a smile he thought in his mind actually appeared on his face. He followed the man across the room and nearly collapsed on a large comfortable pillow. He swallowed a sharp pain in his throat. “It—it’d be an honor to eat with you. Thank you.” He grimaced at the sound of his reed-thin voice.

The heavyset man who had helped him drink settled to his left and handed him a bowl of water.

Ishtar frowned.

The man laid the bowl on the pallet, dipped his fingers in, washed and dried them on a cloth. He gestured from Ishtar to the bowl.

After Ishtar washed, a dish of beans and rice with spicy meat was placed before him. He waited for his host to begin, and then dug in, pinching clumps of the savory food with his fingers and carrying it to his mouth. His stomach clenched, and he heard a whimper break from his throat in relief as the delicious food met his teeth and lips and traveled down his throat.

The girl sashayed into the tent again, balancing a tray of cups filled with wine. She placed one cup in Ishtar’s hands.

He trembled.

With a glance, the older man nodded to the girl. She knelt at Ishtar’s side and directed the cup to his lips. He sipped, peering over the rim into her wide black eyes. Warmth spread through his body.

The older man leaned back and gestured to Ishtar to keep eating. “Please, take your time. Enjoy. My wife will be pleased to have it so well appreciated.” He gestured from the young man to the girl. “You have met my eldest son and youngest daughter. We welcome you to our home. It’s clear that you’ve traveled long and hard. From some misfortune, perhaps?”

As Ishtar swallowed the last morsel, his whole body relaxed.

Undisturbed, the old man rested his hands on his lap. “My name is Alanah Matalah of the tribe of Sirah men Talah. I have the fortune of traveling the lands of my fathers and grandfathers, going back generations untold. We are a simple people who look for nothing more than to tend our flocks and care for our families in peace.”

Ishtar leaned back, his mind dizzy with the joy of food, wine, and comfort. He rested his gaze on his host.

“God-Above-All has been most generous. I have four sons and three daughters, all healthy and strong. They care for the flocks, and my sons travel to neighboring lands and trade and learn the news of the world. Many things have I seen, and many stories I could tell—” Matalah lifted his hand as in an invitation. “But if you have a story to share, I would gladly hear it.”

Ishtar peered down at his bruised, torn hands clasped on his lap. Peace settled over him. He lifted his eyes to his host. “I have lost my way in the wilderness. My story is a bitter one, which I’d rather forget. I can share nothing but the pain of my past and a future shrouded in darkness.” Without warning, Ishtar felt flames lick his body and searing pain stab his innards.

Matalah sat silent and still. His children’s eyes grew large and anxious.

Ishtar swallowed a lump rising in his throat. “If I told you what I’ve done, you’d gather your sons and throw me out your tent. I do not deserve to live.” Staring at the ground, his vision blurred, and his voice cracked. “I certainly do not deserve your kindness.”

Matalah motioned to his children, and the two rose and left the room.

A tear meandered down Ishtar’s cheek and slipped off his chin.

Matalah spread his hands wide. “I’m not a man of great wisdom, yet I believe in wisdom, and I know there is a force beyond mortal strength that calls each soul forward into the light of truth.”

The image of Pele flashed before Ishtar’s eyes, and he stifled a gasp.

“In truth, you may have done terrible wrong, but I suspect that there is more to your grief than your own chosen evil. I have learned that evil begets evil, and I acknowledge the source of all evil is a constant temptation to the soul of every man.”

Ishtar squeezed his eyes shut, and the face of his father appeared in his mind’s eye.

Matalah’s voice lowered to a gentle invitation. “Each man must learn where his evil comes from…and to whom he passes it.”

Like roaring waves, sobs crashed over Ishtar. Covering his face with his arms, he rocked back and forth. Grief and pain warred with shame and humiliation.

With a light touch, Matalah clasped his shoulder. “You are wounded. And true healing cannot be rushed. May I make a suggestion?”

Ishtar stopped, frozen, like a child awaiting his punishment.

“Stay with us for a time. Assist my sons for the season.” Ishtar glanced up, afraid to hope. Afraid to breathe.

A smile flashed over Matalah’s face. “No one in love with wisdom can ever have too many sons. My daughters enjoy fussing over strangers, and my wife lives to cook enormous meals. Rest, work, and grow strong again.”

As if rain fell on his blazing body, Ishtar felt relief wash over him.

“If a troubling memory disturbs you, come to me. I may not have a sagacious remedy, but perhaps that does not matter so much. Let the Lord God heal you.”

The memory of being rocked in his mother’s arms unclenched Ishtar’s body. Peace entered his soul. He met Matalah’s unwavering gaze. “You would let me stay…without knowing my past and what kind of man I truly am?”

“I will let you stay as long as you allow yourself to stay.”

As a hot flush burned his cheeks, Ishtar bowed. “I will do whatever you ask. I am your servant.”

Matalah rose. A smile hovered on his lips. “I consider you my guest. My sons will show you where to sleep, and they’ll assist you for the remainder of the evening.”

Ishtar stood with his back straight once again.

Matalah stepped to the doorway. “I must get an early rest for the Lord awakes me early with the quiet beauty of His creation.”

The son and daughter opened the flap and stood on each side.

Matalah gently gripped Ishtar’s arm. “You have nothing to fear.”

~~~

Ishtar lay awake while the four brothers slumbered in quiet repose. He could glimpse the starry sky through the open tent flap. Rolling on his side, he stared into the night and savored a sensation he could hardly recognize. Peace felt so strange and unfamiliar that he could not sleep for want of basking in its presence. The madness swirling in his mind had vanished like early morning vapor under a hot sun.

The image of Pele floated before him. Matalah’s gentle touch still tingled on his arm. The memory of the young girl’s piercing black eyes sent a pleasant shiver over his arms.

*A new chapter every Tuesday and Thursday.“

One’s friends are that part of the human race with which one can be human.”
– George Santayana

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Trying to Be a Hero

Susanne shivered. Rain had settled into a steady drizzle, and dark clouds hid any vestiges of the evening sun. One of the very last pink and golden leaves of the season fluttered in a gentle breeze and then, without warning, careened from the heights to land on her head. She tried not to take offense as she plucked off the ragged symbol of autumn beauty and held it before her eyes. She glanced up. “Trying to tell me something?”

Her car, tilted at an odd angle sat before her like a shopping cart that had lost a wheel. Without premeditated thought, she kicked the flat tire and immediately regretted her actions. “Oh, holy cow, that wasn’t so smart!”

“I’d say not. It might decide to kick back, and then where’d you be?”

Susanne glanced across the road and met a strange woman’s gaze. Embarrassment and a tinge of fury ran laps around her insides. She knew perfectly well that she looked pathetic. She certainly felt pathetic. But heck, no one need make snide comments. Widening her stance like a prizefighter preparing to enter the ring, she ignored her toes yelping for immediate attention and faced the stranger. A scene from the OK Corral flashed through her mind.

Apparently, the strange woman had never seen the movie, didn’t comprehend body lingo, or she simply didn’t care how terrible Susanne’s day had been since she breezed across the street as if it were mid-summer and the sun was shining.

“Flat, eh?”

Susanne peered at the outstretched hand. Like now was a perfect time to say howdy and make friends!

“I’m Georgia. Visiting my niece this week from Michigan. I saw the flat and hoped the owner might be some muscled guy who worked for an auto station.” Her eyes roved over Susan’s petite form and shrugged. “Guess not.” Her eyes continued their stroll and landed on the elementary school. “You’re a teacher?”

Mental fibers started to snap, but with a mighty yank, Susanne gripped her emotions and demanded that they stay in line. “Office secretary. Terrific job. Just, I can’t get home with a flat tire.”

Georgia pointed to the trunk. “You got a spare in there?” She shrugged. “I’ve never actually changed one myself, but I watched my sons do it three or four times. How hard can it be?”

Bundled in a winter coat over a thick sweater, it was hard to tell Georgia’s body build, but Susanne guessed it to be somewhere between a heavyweight wrestler and Highland Dwarf. “Well, we can try, I guess. I hate to call the service station. So bloody expensive just to take it a few miles.”

In the style of a Commander and Chief taking charge of his army, Georgia flipped open the trunk, swept back the cover, lugged out the spare, dropped it handily on the ground, snapped open the enclosed tool kit, and plopped down on the wet ground, fitting the crank under the car. “I think it goes here.”

The word “think” sent another shiver down Susanne’s spine. But since Georgia seemed to be on a roll, she had no desire to interrupt. When it came time to unscrew the bolts, Susanne regained a modicum of self-respect by remembering “lefty-loosey” and thus saved her rescuer heaps of time.

The sudden downpour didn’t seem to affect Georgia like Susanne thought it would. In fact, it appeared to have no effect on her at all. The gray-headed woman unbolted the flat, switched out the tire, and then bolted on the spare with the same calm composure one would expect from a surgeon doing his fiftieth appendectomy. The painful tangle in Susanne’s middle began to loosen. Just a bit.

Once everything was put away and Georgia slapped her hands free of street grit and broken leaves, Susanne felt her newly assembled composure disintegrate. “Can I pay you for your—I would’ve—”

Georgia waved the suggestion away. “You would’ve called a tow truck and paid a bundle. How far you live from here?”

“Oh, just a few miles. It’ll be fine. I really…” As Susanne pictured her empty apartment, loneliness galloped over confusion and ran it into the ground.

“Well, before you go, I want you to come in and have a hot cup of tea. My niece is off on one of her trips. God knows where this time. That’s why I’m here. I saw her for a few hours and off she ran. I stay and watch the house for a week. She’s got an old Tomcat that can’t find his way from the yard to the food bowl without help. So I got the job.” She shrugged. “At least it’s something to do…” She grinned at the replaced wheel. “In my declining years.”

~~~

Embracing a hot cup of tea like a rescue buoy and ensconced on a very comfortable chair, Susanne wondered why this stranger felt like the best friend she never had.

Georgia plunked down, set her cup on a side table and leaned forward, clasping her hands over one knee. “Seems to me that you’d already had a bad day before you even saw your flat tire.”

Susanne’s sudden tears surprised her. But it was her own wracking sob that unhinged her.

Georgia sat comfortably in her chair, waiting, not cajoling or trying to hurry the process. She simply let the strange woman before her cry her eyes out.

Susanne could not have been more grateful. After she wiped her eyes with a tissue that seemed to spring out of thin air, she sat back, took a long sip of her lukewarm tea, and sighed. She lifted her gaze.

Georgia munched a fig newton. Completely at ease. No agenda. No tapping foot or imploring expression. Just calm acceptance, as if to say, “So this is how today is going. Huh.”

Susanne exhaled, pulled her feet onto the couch, and wrapped her arms around her knees. “I lied today. Have you ever lied?”

Georgia grunted. “Oh, yeah. Of course. We all do. Sometimes on purpose with lots of planning. Sometimes on the spur of the moment without thinking. We usually have a fairly good reason. Or at least, we think we do.”

“Well, I lied for one simple reason. To get back at someone who hurt me. I wanted her to feel bad. The details don’t really matter. Maybe she deserved it for the way she treated me. But the lie was all mine. I knew it was wrong. But I did it anyway. And what’s worse, I did it over and over again so that this woman’s reputation will now be forever shattered. Or at least, questionable.” The tears started again. “I wanted to punish her, but I punished myself far worse.”

“And then you got a flat tire.” Georgia snorted. “Bet you thought Someone was trying to tell you something, eh?”

Nausea rose and started an open rebellion in Susanne’s stomach. She couldn’t look up.

“Listen. You did an awful thing. No matter why, you knew it was wrong, and you did it anyway. So deal with it. You admitted it to me. So tomorrow, go tell the people involved that you lied. Apologize to your enemy, regain your self-respect, and stop hating yourself.”

Susanne blinked, her eyes stinging with the effort. “It’s not that simple. I’m the nice person. Everyone looks up to me. They trust me. She’s the witch everyone hates. If I do that, they’ll think I’m some kind of blithering idiot trying to be a hero.”

“Well—in a way—you are.”

A cat appeared on Susanne’s right. It crouched, sprang, and landed on her lap. She yelped in surprise. And then, as the truth of Georgia’s words hit home, she laughed.

Georgia grinned “You like cats?”

“Not usually. But this one—” She peered into the orange-eyed calico as he kneaded his paws into her lap and started his engines full throttle. “He’s fine.”

“Good. I’ll leave him in your care while I go warm up the kettle. I think one more cup is in order before I send out into the rainy night.”

Susanne leaned back against the chair and felt the cat curl up in a contented ball. Her shoulders relaxed and warmth spread throughout her whole body.

Novels by A. K. Frailey

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OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)

OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)

Children’s Book

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Inspirational Non-Fiction

The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd0z

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)