Newearth Justine Awakens—Chapter Twenty-Six

An Honest Fool

Taug had used not a smidgen of hyperbole when he described Mitholie’s suite. It was the finest set of rooms available on Crestar. A full wall tank undulated with colored lights at one end while creeping vines and swaying foliage draped every centimeter of surface area not designated for sitting, walking, or working. Lab equipment held their proper station against one wall, spilling into a neighboring wing, while an ample food station and accompanying attendant waited for orders against another wall. Comfortable chairs, a widescreen, and plenty of room for guests completed the luxurious setting.

Taug stood with his tentacles clasped in an attitude of contemplation, his gaze lowered until Mitholie should deem to speak.

Mitholie deemed. “The android’s not quite what I was expecting, but she’ll do.” He strolled to the food station, motioned, and waited while the attendant splashed a dark liquid into a tall glass and handed it over with a proud bow. Mitholie swirled it playfully. There was not a hint of an offer. “With her technology, I’ll live forever.”

Taug peered up but remained expressionless.

Mitholie tossed a glance at Taug. “I suppose you know how to turn the damn thing off?”

Taug swallowed. “It is not easily done.”

“I could blast a hole through its middle or its synthetic brain. Would that help?”

Taug lifted one tentacle beseechingly. “If you damage her—”

Mitholie inhaled a long slurp and grinned over the glass. “I have a backup. Governor Right sent a message. Apparently, there’s another one, and it’s coming here. To affect a rescue, no doubt.”

The yellowish tinge drained from Taug’s features. “Alone?”

“Who knows? Who cares?” Mitholie surveyed Taug’s swaying tentacles. “You’re not frightened of an android? They’re just tools, like any other.”

“Even tools can be dangerous. Especially when they have a will of their own.”

Mitholie chuckled. “So you are completely useless to me, eh? You didn’t take care of the little matter of the crossbreed, and you can’t manage an android. Your father‘s reckless experiment is free, tromping around Newearth like an angry ox. You know, he yelled at me? Actually threatened me.” Mitholie’s face darkened perceptibly.

Taug closed his eyes. “He’s one of our own. At least partially. I could’ve learned a great deal from him.”

“Dark waters!” Mitholie slammed his drink on the counter. “We don’t need him. Androids are stronger and more durable. If the creators could make one, there’s no reason why we can’t. As long as they don’t find out.”

Taug exhaled. “What do you want from me?”

A slow grin played across Mitholie’s face. “Nothing.”

Taug’s eyes widened in alarm.

The door at the far end of the room slid open.

Justine sauntered in, an appraising gaze roving over the two Crestas. “You look like you need to say your prayers, Taug. How does it feel to be expendable? Derik never liked it either…maybe you’re more like him than you realized.”

Taug’s gaze shifted to Mitholie.

Directing the attendant to leave, Mitholie refilled his glass and sauntered to his desk. “I have been informed that a friend of yours is rushing here to see you, Justine. Does the name Max Wheeler mean anything?”

Justine froze. Her gaze shifted from Mitholie to Taug. Her eyes narrowed. “I almost felt sorry for you. Almost.”

Mitholie reached behind the counter and withdrew a Dustbuster. “Don’t bother.” He tossed the weapon to Justine.

Justine caught it and sneered at Mitholie. “You think I need a weapon?”

The corners of Mitholie’s wide lips rose in a flabby grin.

Taug lifted a tentacle. “Before you act on impulse, know this, Justine. I never wanted to hurt Derik. I only wanted to study him. As for this Max Wheeler, I’ve never heard of him.”

Justine circled Taug like a predator eyeing her next meal. “And me? What was I?”

Mitholie wagged a tentacle at Justine. “A useful tool! Now get on with it. I’m not Taug; I don’t like to prolong the inevitable.”

Justine laughed, her eyes sparkling with ironic pleasure. “The inevitable? There is no inevitable.” She swiveled around faster than Mitholie could react, her fingers flying across his console. The widescreen flickered, and she grinned at a screen full of expectant Cresta faces.

“Your brain trust awaits your next move, Mitholie. I informed them that you had a surprise. As a scientist, you surely want every experiment made transparent so others can verify the results. Or perhaps you’d rather create a spectacle?”

Mitholie darted forward.

Grabbing Mitholie by the neck, she splayed his body against the screen. “You use beings for your own purpose. You say it is for the glory of science, for the good of Crestonians, but it all ends up as a matter of entertainment in the end. You don’t need to live longer, Mitholie, you need to live wiser.”

Mitholie’s tentacles flailed as the android lifted him off the ground. His eyes bulged to enormous size as he squeaked. “Kill her!”

Taug remained motionless. Excited murmuring filled the room as the assembly on the screen jabbered their options. Three Crestar guards burst through the door, their weapons ready. Their eyes shifted from Taug to Mitholie to Justine.

In a blur, Taug wrapped his tentacles around their legs and swiped them off their feet. He snatched their weapons out of their grasps.

Justine aimed the Dustbuster and blasted through Mitholie to the screen behind him. With unexpected agility, she tossed Taug over her shoulder and fled.

~~~

Derik slouched against the transport wall and tapped on his datapad. Max sat at the controls and fixed his attention on the dozen monitors arrayed at the front of the craft. Cerulean stood with his arms folded, across from Bala and Clare who sat crumpled in their bucket seats.

Clare groaned. “How long is this going to take? I’m not used to space travel, and I’m not even sure I can handle Crestar gravity. They do have gravity, don’t they?”

Bala huffed. “Really, Clare, don’t be so ignorant! They have an artificial environment that nearly matches ours. How did you ever make it through the academy?”

“I studied about Crestonian environment the night before and—”

Bala covered his ears. “Don’t tell me another word. To think I always held you in such high esteem.”

Clare’s gaze rolled over Derik. “What’re you doing?”

Derik shrugged. “Research. It helps to know the planet you’re invading.”

Bala nudged Clare. “Bet you wish you’d have thought of that.”

Clare shouldered Bala off his chair.

Heaving himself to his feet, Bala sauntered over to Derik. He stretched and tried to look over his shoulder. Suddenly, he shrieked. “Eek! What’s that?”

Cerulean turned sharply while Clare jumped to her feet.

Derik froze. His fingers paused above his datapad. “What?”

Clare inched up. “Is that a… SPIDER?” She raised her hand.

Cerulean jumped forward and grabbed her arm. “Don’t!”

Derik swiveled around and, with a graceful motion, slipped the spider off his shoulder and into his pocket.

Bala’s eyes bulged. “You keep a spider—as—a—pet?”

Clare spoke through clenched teeth. “Bringing unauthorized life forms to another planet is strictly forbidden! All insects die in exit sterilization anyway.”

“Shut up!” Max swiveled in his chair and faced them. “Justine’s in trouble!”

Derik pounded forward, slamming his leg against one of the monitors. “Oh… Ah!” he limped ahead. “What happened?”

“No poetry this time.” Max tapped the console.

Justine’s face appeared on an overhead screen. She huffed heavily and seemed to be carrying a sack over her shoulder. She looked up and frowned. “I’m dropping this off at Bothmal transport baggage department. Land there and pick it up. Then return to Newearth. Don’t look for me.” The screen blinked to black.

“Bothmal!” Max shook his head and tapped the console with alarming speed.

Clare staggered to the console. “What’re you doing?”

Max stared ahead as Crestar came into focus on the main viewer.

“Going faster.”

~~~

“Okay, everyone, this is where tiptoe practice in kindergarten really pays off.” Bala hunched his shoulders and followed Clare, who followed Cerulean, who followed Max. Derik took up the rear, his Dustbuster at the ready.

Clare glared over her shoulder.

Bala shrugged.

Max whispered. “I see a guard. I think I know him.” Max straightened and motioned for the others to stay back. He sauntered forward and tapped his datapad. “Hello, Thurston. Captain Kimberling sent word that he’d be docking here, and I thought I’d be ready. Any news?”

Bala tapped Clare’s shoulder as they huddled closer to Cerulean and whispered. “He can lie? I thought that was against android code or—”

Cerulean squeezed Bala’s shoulder and glared.

Abashed, Bala swiped a finger over his lips and squeezed them tight.

The guard grinned. “Finally mastered contractions, eh, Max? Good for you.” He shrugged. “Nothing new here.” He scrolled through his datapad and frowned. “You must’ve got your info wrong. Kimberling isn’t due for another month. You mean some other captain?”

Max scrolled through his datapad with a grimace. “Huh? I don’t know how this happened. I got a message saying to pick up a package. I thought it was from Captain Kimberling. I just assumed—”

The guard smacked him conspiratorially on the arm. “Don’t worry about it. We all make mistakes.” He tapped his thigh. “But hey, there is a package here. I don’t know if it’s for you, just says—” He darted away and came back with a data-chip. “An honest fool?” He shrugged and handed it to Max. “I’m not sure if that’s the name of the package or the receiver. Everyone likes to be funny these days. Bothmal! If I had a unit for every idiot—”

Max peered over the guard’s shoulder. “Yes, that’s for me. Though the last time I came, it was anything but funny.” He sighed. “Mind if I take it?”

“Long as you sign for it. I’m not losing my job over a dumb joke.”

Max waved Cerulean and Derik forward. “I have assistants who are working on my transport.” His voice took on an authoritative tone. “Come on! Hurry it up. I haven’t got all day. Take the package.”

The guard beckoned with a wagging finger.

Cerulean, Clare, and Bala trudged after the guard with let’s- get-this-over-with expressions.

Clare nudged her partner. “What do you think’s in the package?”

Bala sighed. “As long as it isn’t Taug.”

~~~

Faye ambled along the corridor ceiling. It was never fun being an arachnid, but it was rather interesting. Everything looked different from the upside-down perspective. She scurried toward a crowd of excited Crestas doing their utmost to hold an enraged android at bay.

A cargo door was at Justine’s back, and her hand flew over the console. Her eyes glowed with triumph. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness….” Her fingers hovered.

Faye slid down a drop line, morphed into a hulking Cresta, and spoke in a guttural voice from behind the crowd. “…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….”

Justine’s gaze fixed on the looming figure.

Faye passed through the crowd as if crossing the Divide and laid a tentacle on Justine’s shoulder. “I have the authority to take this prisoner to her just destination.”

A new voice made the entire crowd turn their heads once again. “But I’m afraid you don’t.” Cerulean marched forward and stared at Justine through forlorn eyes. He slid Faye’s Cresta tentacle off Justine’s shoulder and sighed. “As a representative of the Inter-Alien Alliance Committee, I’m taking Justine Santana into custody, where she will await a trial at the convenience of the court.” He returned Faye’s bitter gaze. “Nice try, though.” Stepping forward, he led Justine by the arm.

Max, Derik, Clare, and Bala rushed forward in a straggling huddle. Seeing Cerulean and Justine, they bounded to a heaving halt.

Max grinned. “You found her!”

Derik heaved a sigh. “Thank God.”

Clare and Bala grinned.

Justine sighed. “You got the package?”

Derik’s chin rose and Max’s chest swelled as they nodded in unison.

Justine straightened her shoulders and offered her wrists, a prisoner ready for her manacles. “Well, here’s your fool.”

“Human nature will find itself only when it fully realizes that to be human it has to cease to be beastly or brutal.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Nine

An Honest Weakness

Zuri stood on the hilltop and inhaled a deep breath of air, then exhaled slowly. Exhilaration spread through his limbs. Happiness? Joy? Ecstasy? He couldn’t define the emotions soaring like twittering birds through his body. He peered at his tanned, slender fingers. Though they weren’t nearly as strong without the mechanical gloves, their sensitivity sent shivers of delight to his brain. He wiggled his toes and shrugged. Not much joy there. Couldn’t have everything.

Kelesta sauntered close and wrapped her arm around his waist. “The boy is home now, reunited with his papa, so why don’t we do something interesting?”

Peering down at the petite human form, beguiling but deceptive, an image of his previous mate passed through his mind. Jeni used to ask innocent questions when she wanted something. Zuri narrowed his eyes, focusing his lenses. Peering through the human façade, he stared right into the Bhuaci essence.

Kelesta flared and swung away. “If you’re going to take x-rays…you should ask permission first.”

A hot blush worked up into his cheeks. “Sorry. It’s an Ingot defense mechanism.”

“You’re afraid of me?” Kelesta slapped her hand on her chest in exaggerated shock, her eyes unnaturally wide.

“Not afraid…just—” He turned away from Ishtar’s village and stomped down the hill. “After Jeni chose another, I always wonder what she wanted from me in the first place.”

Practically dancing alongside, Kelesta flung her arms out wide like a butterfly, each nimble foot bouncing from one spot to the next. “She’s the one who wanted you to go primitive, right?”

“She said she wanted me to experience life without all the mechanical hindrances. Talked a lot about freedom and unique personal expression.”

“So you do it, and she dumps you?” Kelesta shook her head. “Some beings are brutally cruel.” She glanced aside. “But you’re left rather naked, aren’t you?”

Slipping his datapad from his arm holster, Zuri tapped the keypad. “Turns out, she was doing research. She wanted to gain a position at the Ingoti Magisterium Laboratory. Quite a leap for a fourth tier.”

“So, you were attracted to her mind?”

Zuri frowned as he scanned the area. “No. Her mother was actually a reject that slipped through the system but managed to make good by inventing a better detector so other rejects would be caught at an earlier stage.” He pointed north. “Chai is that way.”

Her mouth hanging open, Kelesta stood frozen a moment before she leapt ahead and grabbed Zuri’s arm. “But then she’d be killing others like herself…the ones who might prove the system wrong!”

Zuri nodded. “That’s why I found her fascinating.” Turning, he stomped northward.

Kelesta crossed her arms high on her chest and scowled as she marched at Zuri’s side. “But you still liked her?”

“Not in the least. Fascination is a different experience altogether.” He slapped an insect on his neck and wrinkled his nose. “Though I do enjoy the myriad of skin sensations and the exhilaration of freedom from certain mechanical bio-ware, I must admit, coverage had definite advantages. ”He held a dead wasp by the wing. “Stings hurt.”

Kelesta stopped short. “So why did you stay with her?”

Halting, Zuri took another scan of the area. “Choose her as a mate, you mean?” He glanced at the flat horizon. “You don’t understand Ingoti culture. Since we are conceived and developed in laboratories, we don’t consider relationships to be anything more than temporary arrangements for emotional, psychological, and physical pleasure.” He snorted. “It’s not like I needed her. Or she needed me. Except…as a test specimen for her lab experiment.”

“You used each other?” Kelesta swallowed and started forward, her gaze sweeping the ground.

Zuri shook his head and paced after her. “Yes. And I don’t see why you’re upset.” He gripped her arm, coming to a standstill. “You’re using me right now.”

Kelesta jerked her arm away, fury flooding her glinting eyes. “How dare you!”

Zuri lifted his arms to the sky beseechingly. “May the Magisterium send me home this very day if I’m wrong. But—” he peered down and zeroed in on Kelesta. “But aren’t you using me to get to Chai? Isn’t that what Ungle asked you to do?”

A hawk soared overhead, and Kelesta followed it with her eyes. “Originally, yes. But I told Sienna the truth. I told everyone the truth. I was being used to get information because I was desperate to protect my people.”

Zuri glanced at his datapad and pointed. “Chai isn’t far.” He shrugged. “When I scanned you, I saw your heightened energy levels. You’re hiding something.”

Kelesta dropped her head onto her chest and closed her eyes. “You’re right.” She peered up and met his gaze. “Even if I tried to explain, you wouldn’t understand.” She sniffed and tapped his naked hand. “Even without all your filters, I wonder if you can ever really love anyone.” She started forward. “Come on! Let’s go study a man possessed by demons.”

~~~

Ark wiped a tear from his eye.

Sitting on a rock ledge, Sterling glanced at the Cresta beside him and slapped his forehead. “If I’d known you were so emotional, I would’ve taken the Ingot. He may have a fascination with children, but at least he can hold himself together at a family reunion.”

Wringing his tentacles in his lap, Ark felt like a chastened pod. “I just didn’t think he had it in him…to be so repentant.” He sighed, his shoulders slumping. “It takes courage to ask for forgiveness.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

Ark lumbered to his booted feet, a flash of enlightenment clearing his weary brain. “That may be quite significant!” Waddling down the stony path, he sniffed the air. “There’s water near, and I’m desperate for a dunk.” He peered at Sterling. “I believe a swim would do us both good.”

“Luxonians hardly need—”

A sudden strong wind swirled around them, choking the air with thick dust.

Ark gripped Sterling to keep him upright.

When the air cleared, the two stood frozen, covered in dirt, appearing like mere ghosts of their former selves.

Sterling cleared his throat and wiped grime from his eyes. “Where’s that pool you mentioned?”

~~~

Sterling dropped the second boot and watched Ark lumber into a murky green pool surrounded by tall boulders and flimsy grass stems. He wiped his slimy hands on his tunic and stared at the water. I couldn’t possibly. It’s much too disgusting. Besides, I can just as easily—

“Hurry up! It’s glorious. Don’t be frightened of innocent liquids.” Ark splashed a tentacle as he swished from one end of the pond to the other, flipping like an Ingoti eel at each turn.

Thinks I lack courage—eh? Blast him! Taking short, determined breaths, Sterling tiptoed into the water. He winced at the slimy green surface and wrinkled his nose. “Don’t take offense if I just bathe my toes.” He fingered his long tunic and robe. “I’m hardly dressed for full immersion.”

“Toss your robe next to my boots and slip in!” Ark giggled, watching Sterling’s every move. “You’ll regret being a coward when I tell Teal that you stayed on the edge like a frightened—”

“Oh, shut up!” Sterling flung his robe aside, pinched his nose, and dove into the pond.

Ark rose, his tentacles on his thick middle, his eyes wide, watching bubbles surface.

More bubbles surfaced.

Ark frowned. His tentacles wiggled at his sides.

More bubbles.

Ark’s bulbous eyes widened.

The pond stilled, the surface smoothing to reflect the sky.

Ark took a step and leaned forward, anxiety riding like ridges over his skin.

Sterling broke the surface, laughing. Genuine amusement cascaded throughout his whole body. He stared at Ark’s open mouth. “I saw everything! You were worried about me, poor dear.”

Falling backward and paddling with his arms, Ark maneuvered to the other side. “Was not.”

Sterling stood and wagged a wet finger at Ark, drops of water cascading before him. “Oh, please. For all your talk of courage and cowards, you certainly refrain from admitting an honest weakness.”

Ark banked against the sandy shore and sat up. “What weakness?”

Sloshing out of the pond, water plants trailing behind, Sterling padded to a smooth boulder. He sat down, letting the water drip onto the sand. “I’m not nearly as obtuse as you think me, Cresta.”

Ark leaned back and folded his tentacles over his ample stomach. “Tell me.”

“You think that Ishtar’s strength lies in his ability to humble himself.” Sterling shrugged. “From Teal’s early reports, there does seem to be a pattern.”

Ark’s eyes narrowed as he stared at Sterling.

Sterling clasped his hands together and stared at a flock of birds soaring across the sky. “When Ishtar accepted Eoban’s assistance, he broke free from his father’s stranglehold. When he accepted Pele’s witness, he found the strength to fight the giants.”

Ark nodded. He glanced at the whirl of birds and frowned.

“But when his pride was hurt, and he accepted the glory of wealth and a woman who offered an escape from shame, he fell into madness.”

The birds flew away, becoming mere specks in an endless horizon.

Ark rose and shook himself free of pond plants. “I admire your perception.” He waddled closer and crouched by his boots. Snatching them up, he padded to Sterling. “But that’s not what I meant by courage.”

Sterling stared at the offered boots, pursing his lips, disgust rising from his middle. “What then?”

“When Ishtar met Matalah, he met a new father figure. He could’ve rejected the very idea. After what he’d been through, I wouldn’t have blamed him.” He dropped the boots at Sterling’s feet. “But he accepted Matalah’s kindness and, as we’ve seen, returned to his own sons.” Lifting one of his four-toed feet, Ark balanced himself by gripping Sterling’s shoulder. “It takes great courage to trust again…to risk caring. To allow oneself to be helped…to love and be loved.”

Lifting his gaze, Sterling met Ark’s golden eyes. He swallowed. “By the Divide, you’ve got me beat, Cresta.”

~~~

Teal crouched low in the tall grass and swore under his breath. He fixed his gaze on Obed as he stumbled at the end of a long line of prisoners. Teal turned to Sienna, who crouched next to him and pointed north. “Go and follow Eoban’s trail. See if he found the child and made it home.”

Sienna glanced from the ragged throng of slaves to the marching warriors and beyond to the stalwart figure leading the assembly. She hissed. “I don’t remember pledging obedience to you.”

“Remember your promise to Sterling?” He peered into her eyes. “You told him that you’d do whatever it took to become the best healer Lux has ever known.”

“To do that, I need to stay close to Chai—not chase after a fool who thinks he can save his people through daring exploits.”

“Eoban isn’t that shallow.”

Sienna stared at Teal, widening her eyes alarmingly.

“All right, maybe he is—sometimes. But he’s also brave and resilient. And he knows a thing or two about dealing with injuries and healing emotional wounds. There is a great deal you could learn from him.”

“What I need to learn, only Chai can teach me.”

His colors flaring, Teal bit off his words. “How to succumb to evil?”

“How evil holds a person in its grip.” Sienna shook her head. “Luxonians were once very sheltered. You know what exposure to the outer world has cost us. We’re losing our traditions, our values, our political framework—even our fertility.”

Teal dropped his gaze.

Clasping his hand, Sienna shifted closer. “You’re one of the last of the old guard, a Luxonian with ambition but without guile. You’re so honest, I don’t think you’re capable of seeing Chai and the power that rules him for what they really are.”

“But you can?”

“Let’s just say that I’m more ambitious than you.”

Teal shook his head. “I’m not about to let you get one step closer to that monster. Even Sterling fears the power it wields.”

Sienna sucked in a deep breath. “Have it your way.” She nodded decisively. “Someone should check on Eoban, and someone must keep an eye on Chai.”

Relief surged through Teal’s body, surprising him. He stood and pointed south. “Eoban knows his way around. He probably brought the boy home already. Start at the grassland village and work backward if you have to. If they’re there, stay and wait for me.”

Sienna clasped her hands and winked away.

Teal turned and faced Chai. He took two paces before searing pain crashed into his skull and blackness took him.

“The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” ~Ernest Hemingway

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Thirty-Six

He Ran Faster

Eoban’s legs wobbled. He called for a halt and dropped to his knees before a broken tree trunk and gulped warm, stale water from his skin bag. After wiping his mouth, he glanced from Obed to Barak. “I’m not sure, but Luge’s clan might’ve left for their migration by now. It’s past their usual time.”

Barak guzzled his water, scowled, and tossed his empty bag aside. “It’s past time we went home.”

Eoban frowned and took another long drink.

“I think we’re close enough now. We could go in either direction.” Barak shrugged. “I’m ready to go home.”

Obed stepped forward, wiping his lips as he held his bag in a tight grip. “But what about Amin? Surely, you’re not suggesting that we leave him behind?”

Barak shook his head. “By no means! I want to find him, but I’ve a clamoring in my mind, insisting that I go home.”

Eoban waved Barak’s words away though his stomach twisted, anxiety churning the fluids in his middle. “You worry too much.”

Barak slapped his thigh and looked to the sky as if beseeching the heavens for strength.

Obed raised his hand. “I’ll find Amin. You two return home and make sure everyone is safe.” He raised his eyebrows and tipped his head at Barak. “I’m learning to trust your instincts.”

A relieved grin broke over Barak’s face.

With a dizzy sensation and a feeling that his world was swiftly falling apart, Eoban pounded over to Barak and shook a finger in the direction of Obed. “You really believe that man can find Amin and make his way home again before the season turns?”

Barak met Eoban’s gaze, steady and unblinking. He crossed his arms high over his chest.

Turning, Eoban glared at Obed. “You’ve never traveled alone! You prefer to sit around and think—”

A small stick smacked Eoban on the nose.

Eoban turned and caught Barak’s hard gaze and his fingers still in the flicking position.

Barak dropped his hand and faced Obed. “It’s a workable plan. We’ll split up. You find Amin. I’ll take Eoban, and we’ll meet at home.”

With a quick nod, Obed turned and began clearing a spot for their evening fire.

Eoban threw up his hands in mock surrender. “Oh, of course. I’m talking nonsense, just being difficult as usual.” A flush worked up his face as he indulged in a righteous pout. “I know when I’m not wanted. I’ve half a mind to go off on my own.”

Snorting, Barak bundled kindling into his arms. “And where would you go?”

Eoban ripped into his bag and pulled out a handful of shriveled berries. “I could go anywhere.” He tossed the desiccated fruit into his mouth and chewed vigorously. “I could visit friends. I could find new trade routes. I could —”

Barak looked at Obed. “Take him if you want, or he’s welcome to come with me, but I think you’re right. I can’t ignore this inner turmoil any longer. I must get home.”

“Inner turmoil?” Eoban rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Now I’ll be worried about you, Barak. Obed might get lost, but you’ll make yourself sick.” He blew air through his teeth. “I’ll go with you for Milkan’s sake. She’d be devastated if you perished—even though you’re enough to drive any man mad.”

~~~

Obed rose at daybreak refreshed and ready for adventure. Springing to his feet, he relished the very thought of traveling alone, with its unparalleled level of freedom. Closing his eyes, he sucked in a deep breath of fresh air. At the sound of footsteps, he flicked his eyes open.

Eoban stood three feet away, staring at him through narrowed eyes.

Obed waited, dreading an announcement.

In an unexpected move, Eoban threw his arms out and enveloped Obed in a bear hug. “Since I may never see you again—”

Relief flooding his senses, Obed shoved Eoban away with an awkward laugh. “Likely, I’ll make it home with Amin before you and Barak even get out of this trackless wilderness.”

Eoban lifted his hands in defeat. “If you say so.” He lifted one eyebrow. “I’ve gone over the directions to Luge’s place. Any questions?”

Chuckling, Obed stepped around Eoban and slapped Barak on the shoulder. “Thank you, my friend, for your loyalty to the clan. Best of luck on your return journey.” He glanced aside. “I surely have the easier task.”

Barak dropped his head to his chest and sighed.

Pursing his lips, Eoban clapped his hands. “Enough blathering.” He swung his bag over his shoulder and stomped away.

As Barak trailed after Eoban, he glanced back, met his friend’s gaze, and rolled his eyes.

Obed grinned.

~~~

Obed sauntered over the rough woodland, his arms swinging at his sides, whistling a jaunty tune. Sweat trickled down his back as he swatted insects beyond all possible count. Three times he circled around prickly thickets, and twice he forded meandering creeks and joyfully splashed himself as he went. He reveled in his slow pace and the exuberance of running down an incline with his arms spread wide to catch the breeze. When his stomach rumbled, he stopped to gather berries. By noon, he came upon a large tree with branches hanging low from an abundance of nuts. He pawed through his bag and drew out an empty leather pouch.

He scrambled up the lowest branches and picked to his heart’s contentment. When the bag was bulging, he dropped to the ground, toed through the foliage, and found a rock of sufficient size. After smashing a handful of nuts, he rested against the firm, smooth trunk and enjoyed the crunchy, meaty insides.

The filtered sun speckled the ground around him, light and dark dancing like children at play. Birds chirped and flew from branch to branch overhead. A rodent scampered near, sniffed the broken shells, then rose on its haunches and peered at Obed through tiny black eyes.

Grinning and satiated with simple pleasures, Obed relaxed in weariness and closed his eyes. Pleasurable rest spread through his whole body and cast pretty images of woods and streams in his mind…

Sometime later, strange shuffling, huffing sounds stirred, disturbing Obed’s rest. He rubbed open his eyes, yawned, and climbed to his feet. Glancing at the sky, he squinted at the bright rays of sunlight. He gathered his bag and spear and stumped forward. In bemused exhaustion, he trudged across a wide, meandering stream and circled around large boulders.

By late afternoon, the air grew thick and his feet dragged. He stumbled twice and then stopped to catch his breath.

Speckled sunlight glimmered through the branches before him.

Pursing his lips, Obed craned his neck around.

Twilight descended behind him.

Frowning, he turned and peered at the low, western sun before him. He rubbed his jaw, his confusion ending in a bemused chuckle. Obed crouched beneath a large spreading tree and murmured, “I can’t be lost. It’s too ridiculous.” He pointed at the sun and grinned, wondering if he was drunk on innocent pleasure. “You’re supposed to be behind me.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Maybe I—”

A blurred force of wind and a stone sped by, nicking his face. Confused, he slapped his cheek and glanced aside.

A spear embedded in the tree wavered like an insect tail. Cold shock drenched Obed.
Crashing, pounding footsteps accompanied by grunts and yells drew close.
Without thought, Obed rushed madly into the woods. As the voices grew more distinct, all strength drained from his limbs.

A gruff voice rose behind him, and a sharp pain on the back of his head sent brilliant lights flashing before his eyes. He fell into blackness.

~~~

Obed awoke with a throbbing headache, barely able to recognize the moon shining down from a star-studded sky. When he tried to rub his stinging neck, he found his arms bound tight. Groaning, he realized that he lay among a crowd of people all trussed up like pigs fit for a feast.

His cramped legs ached, demanding a stretch, but when he tried to straighten, his ropes jerked a heat-laden, stinking body close to him.

A groan swelled on his right.

Obed twisted and peered at a scrawny, filthy boy with a rope strung around his neck and waist. When he twisted to the left, his mouth fell open at the sight of half-starved men, women, and children tightly packed all around him.

Sour body odor, stomach leavings, stale urine, and excrement dragged a retching sensation from his stomach. He heaved and realized that there was no place to throw up except upon another person. Squeezing his eyes shut, he fought the upheavals through gritted teeth.

Once he gained mastery over his stomach, he turned his attention to the hot, smothering camp. Flickering flames danced amidst a huddle of armed warriors, who stomped and pounded their spears in rhythm to a low, incessant drumbeat.

In the distance, a whimper rose, followed by a skirmish of shuffling feet and flailing arms.

A murmur flittered among the prisoners, then a gasp and a stifled cry.

The beat grew stronger and more insistent.

A shriveled, ragged figure was dragged before the fire, pleading and whimpering.

A new figure appeared following the first, short-sleeved, muscled, straight-backed, and pointing a glinting knife.

Nausea again erupted from Obed’s middle, spreading acid through his mouth. He dropped his head to his chest, gasping short breaths. Fear closed his eyes and hunched his shoulders against his ears.

A scream tore through the night air.

Arrows of agony ripped through Obed. Everyone stiffened. Even the air held its breath.

The cry faltered, slipped to a groan…and died.

Tears flooded Obed’s eyes and slipped down his cheeks.

~~~

Obed jolted awake as cold water splashed his face.

A giggle passed on and then a cry, a jerk, and another giggle. Obed swallowed back the sour taste in his mouth, glancing at the dripping figure beside him. He wanted to wipe his own face, but since his hands were restrained, he couldn’t reach it.

The man on his left scuttled to a sitting position and wiped his face against his shoulder, peering from the passing guard to Obed. “He generally do like that. Funny he thinks it. Giggles like a maniac every morning. Always the same.” He shook his head.

Obed pictured Luge’s anxious face when he’d mentioned his lost son. He blinked the drips away and met the other man’s gaze. “Where are they from…these slavers?”

Jutting his chin outward, the man glanced away. “Over the mountain some say. Talk of a stone city and glories beyond description.” He shrugged. “Demons of hell more like.”

Obed peered at the well-armed warrior who stalked among the captives drenching the sleepers, kicking those who didn’t budge, and giggling like a fool. Demons of hell…indeed.

~~~

Tobia strode with purposeful concentration, relieved of his burden yet anxious to get home. With his back to the setting sun, he charged ahead with dexterous steps, paying little heed to his surroundings.

As evening fell, a strange silence caught his attention. No birds flittered about, as if an unseen warning held every animal at bay.

Slowing, he turned aside and noticed broken branches and a beaten path across the woodland floor. He crouched low and examined the ground, tracing the prints of feet shod in soft leather and the marks of numerous bare toes.

He rose and rubbed his sweaty neck.

A scream ripped through the air.

Scuttling like a crab, Tobia made his way forward and stopped on the edge of a large assembly gathered around a central fire. His innards twisted into a hard knot.

He circled around the gathering, freezing when the scream rose and fell in torment and finally faded in a pitiful death. After a silent moment, he crawled forward. When his muscles contracted, he stopped before a ragged throng of prisoners. Studying the assembly, his throat tightened and his stomach lurched.

He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Surely his eyes were deceiving him. There, tied to a long line of men, women, and children sat a filthy man with a bowed head. Shadows covered the man’s face, but still, Tobia recognized him. “Obed?”

Tobia tried to swallow. Had Ishtar failed? Had his people been attacked and overcome? Cursing himself for his stay at Kamila’s village, he leaned forward and studied the group. Tears filled his eyes as he frantically searched the crowd for familiar faces.

He frowned even as relief poured over his body. He recognized no one except Obed.

Shaking, he scuttled backward slowly to avoid any undue noise. Stopping some distance away, he crouched on his haunches and considered his options. He glanced back the way he had come. Remy was too far away and unprepared for such a situation. Only the united clans with Eoban and Barak in the lead could hope to make a successful attack.

Scowling, he positioned himself like a man prepared to race like the wind. He turned toward home. A question haunted his mind. What happened to Ishtar?

With narrowed his eyes, he darted ahead, his whole body screaming. Run!

As he picked up speed, tears blurred his vision. He had not saved his first father or Vitus, and most likely Ishtar had come to a bad end. But still, he had a slim chance of saving his second father and his village. His heart hammered against his chest, ready to burst.

He ran faster.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
~Lucius Annaeus Seneca

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Nine

—Mountains and Grasslands—

Madness Will Take Us All

Ishtar ran under a warm sun at an even pace for much of the day, stopping every now and again to rest, gain a view of his surroundings, and get his bearings. He wound his way down a mountainside populated with cedars and pines. The ground, spongy and matted with brown needles, softened the blows to his feet, and the boughs overhead blocked the harshest rays of the sun. The ancient trees comforted him but with a reserved, haughty demeanor.

By late afternoon, the trees, held back by an invisible command, gave way to scrublands and rounded hillsides. When Ishtar reached the top of one, he considered his surroundings and tried to puzzle out where the raiding clan had come from. He glanced back at the distant mountains and frowned. Even if they managed to cross the distance, how would they ever get their slaves home safe? He shook his head. They’d be mad. A stab of fear plunged into his gut.

By evening, he spied a group of stocky, muscular hunters passing into the open grasslands. He followed as they chased a fat stag. After a successful kill, they grinned in mute joy and pounded each other on the back. Sucking in a deep breath, Ishtar straightened his shoulders, rose from his grassy shelter, and approached. He lifted his hands high, signaling his peaceful intent.

Frowning and circling their kill, they huddled close.

Ishtar spoke slowly, gesturing with each word. “I’m Ishtar from the grasslands. I’m returning home from a long journey.”

Allowing him to step nearer, the shortest and thickest man in the group addressed him. “Ishtar, I’m Butros. We come from the south.” He gestured in the general direction, and then swept his hand at the stag. “We return home, too.”

Clasping his hands, Ishtar bowed in a sign of respect. “You are skilled hunters.” He motioned back the way he had come. “I found a village devastated by raiders. My friend is helping the survivors. But I must warn my people.” He stepped closer. “And warn you too. They are a dangerous enemy.”

“We’ve heard of their approach. We hide in the woodlands, and when necessary, we move again. In this way, we keep safe.”

Ishtar nodded. “Very wise. But have no other clans been attacked? Were none of them your friends?”

Butros glanced at his men before fixing his gaze on Ishtar. “We’re too few to fight such a powerful enemy. Their leader is intelligent but mad.”

Stiffening, a cold shock ran over Ishtar. “Why do you say so?”

Butros shrugged. “His success declares intelligence, but his ambition demonstrates madness.”

Rubbing his temple, Ishtar tipped his head. “You are wise indeed.” He glanced toward the setting sun. “I must go and warn my people.”

Glancing aside, Butros nodded to the stag. “It was kind of you to stop to alert us. Take some meat. You must arrive strong enough to fight…if need be.”

Blinking at this unexpected generosity, Ishtar waited while they cut a section of the rump and wrapped it in skin. When he accepted the gift, he bowed low. “If ever the need arises, send a runner to the western grasslands. Call for Ishtar, and I’ll come to your aid.”

Butros smiled. “If ever the need arises.” He titled his head. “I pray it will not.”

Ishtar turned, but Butros called after him. “Beware of their god! It eats men, devouring them whole.”

Bile rising, Ishtar froze, stunned. He glanced back wide-eyed. “You know this?”

“I know the sound of a man in torment, and I have seen the sacrificial fire.” Butros shook his head. “That’s why we stay far from them.” Peering through haunted eyes, he crossed his arms over his chest. “The danger is too great.”

Turning, Ishtar sprinted away.

~~~

Ishtar rose early the next morning from a short sleep and started again. He soon discovered a wide, beaten trail of travelers who had no desire to hide their steps and held in contempt those who might follow. Under a glaring noon sun, he arrived at an abandoned encampment. Stepping around the remains of an enormous blackened ring, he toed the remains of a feast.

He crouched low, frowning. They had enjoyed roasted deer; the bones and hide scraps lay scattered about. But in the fire pit, the bones did not match the meal. Fresh blood stained a circle of blackened stones. Ishtar’s nose curled, and his stomach squirmed. When he found the remains of a hand, his insides revolted, and he retched in the grass.

With sobbing moans, he wiped bile from his mouth and rose on his haunches. Pounding the dirt, he rocked like a child in torment. Lifting his gaze to the sky, he raised his fist. “Oh, God! How could this happen—again? Is there no evil men will not commit?” He staggered to his feet and stared wild-eyed at the scene. “Madness will take us all.”

A huge black raven flew in low, snatching at the remains. In fury, Ishtar swatted the air, flailing his arms and attempting to drive it away. Three more birds arrived, and Ishtar leapt at them, flinging insults and fury.

More birds darted into the pit, and Ishtar, with tears streaming, snatched the hand and what bones he could find. Bundling them in his arms, he ran some distance away, and, using his body as a shield, he dropped the remnant in a heap. He yanked his knife from his belt and scoured the ground, loosening the earth and scrabbling a shallow hole with his fingers. After placing each bone and fleshy piece into the hollow, he covered them dirt and grass.

The birds, unaware or uninterested in his work of mercy, circled above the remaining feast, quarreling for their share.

His hands black and bleeding, his face sweat-and-tear- streaked, Ishtar stepped back and stared from the tiny grave to the angry birds, his mood as black as their feathers.

~~~

Ishtar—exhausted but resolute—loped through the swaying grass and detected a flicker of firelight in the distance. Crouching low, he crept over the uneven ground, his gaze fastened on the assembled throng.

A waning moon rose as one by one, stars blinked into existence. Low clouds spread across the sky like a frayed shawl.

Studying his enemy, Ishtar peered at the beardless, stocky warriors in the bright moonlight. They wore colorful robes dirt-stained and ragged but clear reminders of a proud history.

Sentries paced the perimeter and stalwart guards stood at fixed points before a huddled cluster of wretched women and children. The women clutched babies and small children in their laps, while adolescent girls and boys huddled with their arms wrapped around their middles, crouching low, their eyes blank and unseeing. On the edges, a few male survivors sat hunched-shouldered, bruised and filthy. The guards smacked them without cause whenever they strode near.

A single tent dominated the scene. Two guards, still as stones, stood on either side of the entrance.

As the glowing moon rose higher, Ishtar’s eyes drooped with exhaustion. He dropped his head over his arms, which were wrapped around his knees. His eyes closed.

Suddenly, a commotion jerked him awake. Craning his neck, he peered over the tops of the swaying grass.

A heavyset man, short and broad, with a beardless white face that practically glowed, marched stiff-shouldered from the tent to the center of the assembly. His iridescent robe, thrown back from his shoulders, rippled in the evening breeze. He stood in the center of the assembly and spoke in a confident, commanding tone, all eyes fixed on his face.

Ishtar could not hear the words, but he understood their instructional intent.

The leader pointed, his voice rising.

The assembled warriors lifted their arms, their fists raised to the night sky, chanting, demanding, and affirming. Among raucous sounds, only one resolved itself into a clear word. “Chai.”

Sheltered by blackness, Ishtar half-rose and growled in an undertone. “Chai? You and I must meet.”

Chai turned and peered in Ishtar’s direction, his eyes glowing like a cat’s.

A chill racing through his body, Ishtar turned south and fled.

It is not enough for us to restrain from doing evil unless we shall also do good. ~St. Jerome

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OldEarth Ishtar Encounter—Chapter Twenty-Seven

—Lux—

Boiling Lava Rocks

Sienna studied a large hologram rotating before her. Rainbow-colored disks spread across the universe. She tapped the console and squinted. One sector magnified a thousand percent, rolling closer like a storm. She bit her lip and tapped the magnify button again and again. Beyond the Divide! Where are you?

A chime rang.

Sienna frowned and turned. “Come in, Kelesta.”

The door slid open and the Bhuaci clerk ambled in, a smile wreathing her petite face. “Any success?”

Sienna shook her head. “They’re gone…as if they never existed.”

Her lips puckering in a childish pout, Kelesta stopped at Sienna’s side. “They’re just hiding.” She waved a languid hand. “They can’t hide forever. At some point, their curiosity will get the better of them, and they’ll expose themselves to us…or to someone.”

A doubt shivered through Sienna. Her gaze slid over to her friend. “Have they shown themselves to you recently?”

Her body stiffening, Kelesta frowned. “Not really. The one who contacted me originally pretended to be human…an old man. I knew, of course.”

“And why did he contact you?”

“He said he needed help.”

Sienna waited.

“He knew we needed help.”

Pacing away, Sienna crossed her arms. “An exchange of assistance?”

“We would be each other’s ears and eyes.”

Sienna turned, her anger building. “And were you?”

Kelesta sighed. “I told Sterling—I told you all—the truth. I thought they were going to protect us…that was the arrangement.”

“So you haven’t had any contact with them—lately?”

Kelesta crossed her arms, her body enlarged and hardened, and a menacing scowl rolling over her face. “No! And I’m not looking to contact them.” She reverted to her former petite shape. Sidestepping Sienna, she wandered around the revolving hologram. “There’s only one way to keep an eye on such a powerful enemy.”

Sienna’s eyes followed the Bhuaci. She titled her head. “How?”

“Let them keep an eye on us.” She arrived at Sienna’s left and tapped the console. The universe dissolved and reappeared with Earth in the center. “Let’s return and discover what it is about humans that fascinates Ungle and the Ingilium so much.”

“Crestas are obsessed with science, and Ingots only care about trade.”

“More than that…” Kelesta grinned and cast a side- glance at Sienna. “Besides, I’d like to understand Zuri better.” She licked her lips. “He’s unlike any Ingot I’ve ever met.”

A hot flush worked up Sienna’s cheeks. “You’re interested in Zuri?”

Kelesta straightened her tunic and tugged at the collar. “Professionally. Certainly. The more I understand our enemies…the safer the Bhuaci will be.”

With a shrug, Sienna turned toward the door. “Teal seems to trust him.” She stopped. “But Teal wants me to bring information about the mystery race—”

Kelesta nudged her forward. “And you will. Once we get back to Earth and discover what all the fuss is about.”

—OldEarth—

Teal, dressed in a patched, sleeveless shirt and gray leggings, stood on the brow of the hill and glanced back at Ark and Zuri. “You two, stay here. I’m going in.”

Ark blinked as sweat dripped down the side of his face. “Is that wise?”

Zuri scratched his short blond hair. “You look human enough, but up close…someone might notice differences.”

“No one ever has before.” Teal peered around. “Where’s Sterling?”

Ark glanced at Zuri.

Zuri shuffled his feet. “He’s with Ungle.” He pointed to a rocky outcropping. “But I don’t think Ungle—”

Glowing at the edges, Teal frowned. “I’m tired of tiptoeing around that Cresta’s sensibilities.”

His eyes alarmingly wide, Ark waved a tentacle. “You may not want to get irritated in front of humans…you’re glowing—”

In an instant, Teal returned to his human state—sans the bright outline. He stomped to the enormous boulders.

Sterling sat on a jagged ledge, his hands clasped like a contrite child.

Ungle paced before him, waving his tentacles. “Lux cannot afford to indulge—”

Teal clambered the rest of the way up the incline and glared at Ungle.

Ungle stared back. “This was a private discussion.”

Pointing to the stone city below, Teal shrugged. “I don’t think they care.”

His jaw rotating and bubbles rising, Ungle hissed through his breather helm. “Bothmal was created for such—”

Teal threw up his hands. “Please. No threats. No lectures.” He turned and faced Sterling with his hands perched on his hips. “If we’re going to learn anything useful, we’d better get down there—now.”

Sterling blinked like a mystified child. “We?”

Rubbing his neck, Teal kept his eyes fixed on Sterling, dearly wishing he could knock him backward with the force of his gaze. “It’ll be a lot easier to pass myself off as a merchant if I have a slave to sell.”

Jerking to his feet, Sterling choked. “A slave!” His whole body shimmered. “I never!”

Rejecting Sterling’s idiocy, Teal stomped over to Ungle and leaned in close to Ungle’s watery orbs. “Do you—or do you not—want to learn about Chai?”

A grin slid over Ungle’s face. Wrapping a tentacle around Sterling’s shoulder, he led him to the brow of the hill overlooking the city. “If there’s a Luxonian alive that can take us beyond murky waters into clear pools, I believe it’s you, Sterling.”

Sterling’s shoulders slumped. With a long shuddering sigh, he shrunk and shriveled, losing stature and weight. His clothes dissolved into mere rags and his gorgeous locks of hair turned stringy-brown, matted with dirt and lice.”

Ungle stepped back hastily, flipping his tentacles out of reach.

Teal frowned. “Don’t overdo it. Lose the lice. I want to sell you not drown you.”

Grinning, Ungle waddled down the hill and turned toward Zuri and Ark at the bottom. He waved a tentacle in salute. “I’m returning home, so you’ll be on your own.” He glanced at Sterling. “I want details, Sterling. Colorful details!” He passed Zuri, who stood frowning and merely patted Ark on the shoulder.

Ark called. “Leaving so soon?”

Ungle chuckled as he headed to the hills. “Mission accomplished!”

Teal nudged Sterling toward the city. “Ours has just begun.”

~~~

Zuri scanned through his datapad, scowling in the bright afternoon light.

Ark flopped down and poured a green liquid into his breather Helm. “By the Divide, I hate waiting.” He glanced over to Zuri. “What’s wrong?” He nudged Zuri. “I thought you’d be thrilled. Sienna’s gone. Ungle’s gone. Granted, we still have to deal with Sterling, but he’ll leave as soon as this temple business is taken care of.”

Zuri’s gaze stayed fixed on the datapad. He rubbed his hand over his short hair. “Oh, blast!”

Ark frowned. “Naughty girlfriend?”

Zuri glanced over. “She liked the picture I sent.” He wiggled his eyebrows and pointed to his head.

Ark licked his lips. “That’s good, right?”

Zuri sighed. “Now she wants to see my hands.”

Tentacles flying to his face, Ark looked every millimeter the blushing, scandalized matron of every-world. “What next I wonder? Your…do we dare think it?” His voice lowered as he leaned in, his gaze dropping to Zuri’s mechanical boots.

Zuri dropped the datapad aside. “This could go places I’m not really prepared—”

A shuffling noise stiffened them both into statuesque poses and complete silence.

A goat trotted forward, sniffed, and bolted back the way it had come.

Ark thrust a tentacle over his chest. “That was too close.”

Crouching, Zuri scrambled to the outcropping and peered over the edge. In the distance, three children and a flock of goats ambled in their direction. “Boiling lava rocks!”

Ark edged closer. “Please, no ugly images.” He peered over the edge. “They’re between us and the cave.”

“Bet they bring those quadrupeds up here for the season and use that cave for…” His eyes widening, Zuri scrambled for his datapad.

Ark peered at him. “What’re you—?”

“Creating a diversion.”

An explosion blasted from inside the cave.

Screaming, the children darted down the hill with the goats close at their heels.

Crouching over, Zuri skedaddled for the cave entrance.

Ark lumbered behind, huffing, his gaze searching the perimeter. When he stopped next to Zuri just inside the cave, he patted his chest as if to keep his organs safely inside. “I’m a scientist…not an explorer. I tried to tell them.” He glanced at Zuri. “Teal would never’ve made that mistake. We were just sitting out there for all the world— ”

Zuri clambered to his ship, pressed the datapad, and waited while the hatch fell open. “I’ve been distracted.” He climbed the ramp and huffed. “What’s your excuse?”

Ark padded behind. “Touchy, aren’t we? Just because your girlfriend wants to see you au natural—it isn’t any reason to—”

On the main deck, Zuri turned and faced Ark. “I can handle that. One article of bio-ware at a time.” He shifted into the helm’s seat.

“What then?”

“Sienna’s coming back…and she’s bringing her Bhuaci friend.”

“Boiling lava rocks!”

“Like I said.”

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” ~Aristotle

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Yelsa’s Choice

Yelsa loved sunshine. The rays of light pouring down on her elven face and perfectly petite form immersed her soul in ecstasy. She lay back on the shore, her sandaled feet falling to the side, her dark brown shorts contrasting with the tan grains of sand, while her white blouse rippled like the waves in a gentle breeze. She gazed up at a wispy cloud sweeping across the blue expanse. Birds twittered in the tree line behind her, animating a smile on her lips. “The Creator be praised—”

Her sensitive ears perked at the sound of footsteps plowing across the sand. She waited for a shadow to intercept the sun.

“Yelsa?” The voice, though deep and commanding, hinted at a need.

Raising herself on one arm, Yelsa turned and faced the being before her—a Luxonian in human form: dark skinned, muscular, black eyes, wearing casual long pants, a dark blue t-shirt, and sporting a black headscarf. Her left eyebrow arched.

“Yes? May I be of assistance, Luxonian?”

The stranger grinned as he pulled his headscarf away. “No fooling a Bhuac, is there?” Kneeing on the sand, he gazed across the waves and inhaled a cleansing breath. “Beautiful. Hard to find serenity on Newearth, but you’ve got something good here.” Facing her, he thrust out a work-roughened hand. “Roux, a friend of Cerulean. Faye gave me your name.”

Yelsa sat up, shook his hand, and nodded. “Faye is revered among my people.”

“Apparently she thinks a lot of you—bragged non-stop about your tracking and tactical abilities—”

Yelsa’s cheeks flushed as she stood, her eyes dancing over the waves as if to find a path across. “Faye likes to exaggerate our merits—part of our culture—to always appear better than we are.”

Roux heaved himself to his feet and brushed the sand from his pants. “I haven’t met a race yet who wants to appear any less than the best.” His sudden grin disappeared as he turned toward the woods and gestured an invitation forward.

After picking up a yellow bag, Yelsa wrapped its long embroidered strap over her shoulder and padded across the shifting sand.

Glancing in her direction, Roux’s gaze swept over her. “You’ve heard about Cosmos?”

Yelsa sighed. “Faye sent word through Bhuaci channels. I doubt there’s anyone on Newearth who’s ignorant of our impending doom.”

Roux rubbed his hands across his face. “From the way most are reacting, you’d never guess. Business as usual.”

“Rumor has it that Cerulean is leading a mission to find the mysterious Omega—so he can deal with her. Of course, the Inter-Alien Alliance and Newearth authorities assure us that they have everything well in hand.”

The sand gave way to black earth and short grass as they entered a copse of woods. Leaning against a large, spreading oak, Roux shrugged. “The IAA has no interest in panic, so they’ll assure us of anything and everything. But the truth is….  Well, Cerulean’s mission is only a part of the plan. No one, not even the Supreme Council, knows exactly where Omega lives, so the whole venture is a gamble.” His gaze lingered over Yelsa as she shook the sand out her sandals, propping one hand on the tree.

Comfortable again, she crossed her arms and waited.

Roux pressed forward and strolled deeper into the park-like woods. “We’re sending a ship out in search of Cosmos herself.”

“To determine her exact location?” Yelsa strode along, her gaze sweeping her environment.

“To intercept and—” he hesitated and glanced her direction, “—to engage if necessary.”

Furrows formed between Yelsa’s blue eyes; her gaze fell to the ground as she stepped evenly at his side. “You have the IAA’s authority—?”

Roux slapped his leg. “They’re lending me a ship….” He stopped and faced her, his gaze searching hers. “Listen, I worked with Cerulean on the original Inter-Alien-Alliance, and it was no picnic, trust me. Nearly got ourselves killed. Trying to get everyone to agree is about as dangerous as waiting for Cosmos to devour us.”

“So you’re taking the law—”

“We’re not taking anything!” Roux threw back his head, closing his eyes. Inhaling a deep breath, he held up a hand. “I’m explaining this badly. Cerulean should’ve stopped here first. He’s more eloquent.”

Yelsa’s chuckle brought a relieved sigh from Roux’s middle.

She arched her brows. “You’ll do fine. Just tell me the facts.”

“Facts? Okay, the fact is that we are sending out another ship—the Merrimack—to locate Cosmos, and we need you on board.”

“And if we find her, what will you do? Form a treaty—?”

Roux rolled his eyes. “A treaty like—say—Please don’t eat us, or we’ll be forced to cause you digestive problems?”

Yelsa stared deep into the woods. Finally, her gaze refocused, and she locked onto Roux. “Cosmos devoured our sister planet. My sister lived there….”

Roux closed his eyes; his hand pressed together. After a moment, he blew air between his lips and glanced at Yelsa. “You understand why we need you.”

Yelsa took the lead and marched along the winding path, slapping stray vines out of her way. After hiking a steep hill, she stopped at the edge of a vast viewing platform overlooking Newearth’s largest transport docking bay. “Once you direct me to the Merrimack’s shuttle, I’ll know exactly what to do.”

~~~

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

Last of Her Kind—Novel

Last of Her Kind

Available on Amazon

Prologue

In serene, black-enshrouded silence, Earth turned on its axis, a sharp contrast to the bustling reality on the surface. The gaze of a hidden mind slipped past the blue and white sphere, shifting between burning stars and vast planetary systems, all of which moved according to their own placid, pre-determined paths. His interest focused on one planet, Lux, a world of light beings, luminous in the reflection of their own glory.

On the balcony of the Capitol building, as the sun nestled itself over the horizon, two figures faced each other. Roux, a Luxonian guardian, glowed as a golden brown, humanoid figure, while Sterling, draped in his Supreme Judge robes, shimmered yellow-white, faintly defined by his elderly human outline.

Sterling, somber and erect, turned his back on Roux and faced the Luxonian world gloriously set before him. The sky burst with brilliant colors, while shreds of gray clouds drifted aside and revealed three distinct moons. His voice rumbled. “You understand your role when you return?”

Roux grinned, a mischievous sparkle in his luminous eyes. “I’m your inside man, a guardian and—a spy.”

Sterling pulled his mesmerized gaze from the scene and faced his companion. “You use such colorful phrases, Roux. All I ask is that you stay alert. Watch for an opportunity.”

“For what, exactly?”

“I’m not sure. Humanity won’t survive the coming crisis. But Earth will remain.”

The sparkle faded and Roux’s features hardened, defining his human figure in greater detail. His curly, black hair, sharp chin, and muscled arms clarified his youth but little else. His eyebrows rose. “You’re going to harvest an abandoned planet?”

“Whatever is left. Perhaps more. Maybe the remnant. We need help, too. You do realize that?”

Roux sighed, his broad shoulders slumping. As he strode across the room, his figure gained definition. He snatched up a stack of clothes with a pair of shoes perched on top.

“It’s them or us?”

Spreading his shimmering arms wide, Sterling returned to the setting sun. “Let’s just say that their loss may be our gain.”

In a few steps, Roux retreated behind a partitioned wall. A zipping sound punctuated his grunted words, and shoe thumps pounded against the hard ground. “And Cerulean? You know—how he—feels—about humanity.”

Sterling stepped to the very edge of the balcony, his eyes following the sinking glow. “I’m afraid I do. So like his father. But not like his son. I’ve sent Viridian over, just in case.

Roux reentered the room dressed in jeans, a sweater, and a pair of tan loafers on the wrong feet. He frowned at Sterling. “To take his place?”

Sterling shrugged, stared at the shoes, and then returned his gaze to the horizon line. “We’ll see. Time is running out. Do your job, and we might just survive.”

April

Their Place in the Universe

Bright sunlight flooded the bedroom, casting a glow around Anne, the center of Cerulean’s universe. Unaware of being observed, Anne stared at the white rectangular stick in her right hand. Her left hand moved to her middle as her eyes widened. Her lips trembled. “Damn!” Taking one last look at the stick, she blinked back tears.

Her disappointment surprised Cerulean; she had never given any indication that she wanted children. The last time he had visited, she had made it quite clear that she never wanted children. She had been seventeen then; she was twenty-seven now. Things had obviously changed.

Dropping the testing stick into the trashcan, Anne flushed the toilet, her face pale and pinched. She stepped into her bedroom.

Peering through the open doorway, Cerulean contemplated the wedding photo on the dresser. Had her husband wanted children? Ten years ago, Anne had wanted nothing more than to concentrate on a career and travel. Framed teacher certificates, graduation photos, and vacation pictures now lined the walls. Cerulean had no doubt in his mind; Anne may be established, but she was not happy.

“Stupid!” Anne pulled on her blouse and adjusted her skirt, “Dang it, why doesn’t this skirt ever hang right?” Tugging at the waistband, she adjusted her clothes and then glared at the mirror. She turned sideways, smoothed her hand down her slim figure, eyed her 5’ 6” frame, and then patted a few stray hairs back into place. Her weight was good; her brown eyes were steady, her skin clear and tanned. Wiping away the last vestige of a tear, she pinched her cheeks to add color. Her chestnut hair hung down her back in a thick braid.

Cerulean evaluated the grown woman before him. There was nothing extraordinary about her, but then there was nothing to object to either. To his surprise, Cerulean felt a sensation run through his being, a sensation he thought had died with his wife. When Anne’s brows furrowed as she silently surveyed the room, Cerulean dimmed his exuberance. Could she feel his presence?

Anne looked at the closed door and then the window. The view went on for miles with no interruption in sight. Only the birds flying by could see anything. If they tried. Which they wouldn’t. “Stupid birds!” Anne hurried into her stockings and bundled her nightclothes onto the bed. “Later.”

Cerulean’s gaze shifted as Anne’s husband, Philip, walked into the room. The lawyer tapped his expensive watch. “Do you know what time it is? You’ll be late.”

With an exaggerated sigh, Anne scowled. “Don’t remind me, Philip. I’m never late, and I don’t want to start a rumor that I’ve died or something.” Anne wiggled her foot into her shoe and shook her head. “Fifth grade is precarious enough without giving them that anxiety.”

Slender with sandy blond hair and deep blue eyes, Philip moved across the room in fluid, confident steps. “Anything wrong? You seem a little tense. I could—” His hands opened in a beckoning motion.

Anne stared, daring him to say one more word.

Philip’s hands dropped to his side as he shut his mouth.

Anne waved her finger. “You better stop. I’m in no mood. Now grab me that sweater, and I’ll be out of here.”

Surveying the assortment of skirts, sweaters, and various apparel draped across a chair, Philip gestured. “Which one, the black or the blue?”

“Give me the black one. I feel like I’ve been to a funeral.”

After handing her the sweater, Philip ignored the earlier warning and reached out, putting his hands on her shoulders and gently massaging them. “You going to be okay?”

Anne stiffened as she blinked back new tears. “No, but that doesn’t matter. I’m an idiot. I should have my head examined. Or my heart.” With an unrelenting shrug, Anne moved past her husband. “Sorry, but I’ve got to go.” She rushed through the door.

Philip shook his head as he watched her disappear, her shoes clicking down the steps. A moment later the front door slammed. Walking over to the dresser, Philip swiped up his car keys. He started to whistle and then stopped. The sound of water running caught his ear. Stepping into the bathroom, his gaze fell on the towels lying askew. He frowned.

After jiggling the toilet handle, he snatched up a piece of paper from the floor and bent over to throw it in the garbage. The testing kit caught his eye. He lifted it, examined its single pink line and, with another shake of his head, dropped it into the trashcan. While examining his reflection in the mirror, Philip adjusted his tie with a slight nod of approval to his well-tailored suit. Running his fingers through his hair, he appraised his chin where he had nicked himself earlier. After a final adjustment of his suit coat, he left the room. His footfalls made hollow thumps as he sped down the steps. In a moment, the front door slammed a second time.

***

A brief flash of light illuminated the bedroom as Cerulean appeared with his son at his side. Dressed in jeans and a brown leather jacket, Cerulean had assumed the look of a muscular, middle-aged man. A few streaks of gray in his dark hair and a couple days’ growth of beard gave him a casual but dignified look. His somber, brown eyes bore testimony to a spirit, which had experienced more than words could say. His gaze rolled over his son. “Observe, Viridian: humans have the capacity to lie, even to themselves. We are not allowed that luxury.”

A flash of anxiety filled the youth’s eyes. His bulky figure with brown hair, brown eyes, and tan skin stood hunched in dejection.

Flicking a lock of his son’s hair back into place and examining his human form, Cerulean changed the subject. “I like it. The look suits you. It took me a long time to get used to a human body, but now the transition is easy. I like the sensation: limiting yet strangely safe. I understand them better this way.”

The lock of hair slid back into Viridian’s eyes. “I hate it. Humans don’t admire fat boys. I’m as ordinary as a rock.”

Cerulean nodded. “Exactly. You’re an uninteresting, teenage boy, a boy who will excite no comment and attract no attention. Besides, I like your coloring: variations on a simple theme, so different from our natural state. Light captures every color, but humans, they make do with less. They can find great beauty in mere shades. And you’re not unattractive—plump maybe, but not overweight. In any case, I know what you really look like. Humans would be overwhelmed. As it is now, you won’t excite much interest.”

“Interest? I’m repulsive.” Viridian paced across the room. “Humans will avoid me like one of their plagues! And besides that, I can hardly move. How do they see anything? It’s like being underwater. Everything is so distorted and blurred.”

“You’ll get used to it. True observation is more than seeing with the eyes. Besides, if we are to observe, we must be able to interact, at least sometimes. And we can’t interact well if we don’t at least appear human. Though there are guardians who like to take animal or plant form.” An image of a rodent-guardian he once knew came to mind. Cerulean stifled a shiver. “I don’t enjoy that so much.”

Hunching his shoulders, Viridian stuffed his hands in his pockets. “But what if something happens—something unexpected? What if someone attacks us? Or there’s a storm and the house falls on us, or one of their insane vehicles crash into us? What then?”

“We get out of the way if possible, but if necessary, we die and come back later.”

“Humans will want to know who we are, who our bodies are anyway.”

“Humans face conundrums all the time. Eventually, they just close the file.” Cerulean’s brows furrowed. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were frightened.”

“I am not frightened!” Viridian scowled. “I just don’t like it here. Sorry if this offends you, but humans are pitiful. They’re not like us at all.”

Taking a few steps away, Cerulean folded his arms over his chest. “You’re not here to do a comparative study, just learn your place. You’ll be a guardian when your time comes, and you must be willing to see everything but not judge. Judging is for others.”

Cerulean gazed out the window. His son would have to learn, as he had learned after long years of service. How long ago? It had been centuries. He had followed in his father’s footsteps, as he did his, a long tradition that wound back seven thousand years, for as long as Luxonians had been observing this race. Before that time…. Well, there hadn’t been much to see.

Viridian surveyed the silent room. “So why here? Why this one? What’s so special about her?”

With a deep sigh, Cerulean marched into the bathroom. “It’s an odd thing about humans. They’re surprising. I once heard a well-known, human author declare that no one cares about the man on the bus or the woman in the grocery store. But he was wrong. That’s where I first noticed Anne—in the grocery store. She was with her mother, and though she was only seven, she actually helped. Unlike most children, she knew how to keep to the designated list. Her mother was ill, a frightened woman, terribly frightened. Margaret—that was her name—she saw danger everywhere. She once told Anne that when they drove up a hill, the other side might not be there. Anne learned to cope with fear early on. I could see her strength—even then.”

Stepping over to the trashcan, Viridian pointed inside. “She was afraid today. She was afraid when she thought that she might be pregnant.”

“No, that’s where you’re wrong. You must be more careful. Don’t leap to conclusions. You must not only look at the actions but the motivations.” Cerulean’s eyes darted to the wedding picture on the wall as he moved back into the bedroom. “Why did Anne act as she did? She was not frightened that she might be pregnant; she was frightened when she realized that she wanted to be pregnant. And well she might be.”

Viridian sneered, one eyebrow rising. “Why?”

Pursing his lips, Cerulean strode to the window. A sharp pang of disappointment disturbed his usual equilibrium. With forced detachment, he pointed at the sky. “We can come and go. We know there are more worlds than our own. We’ve been observing various races from time out of mind. But she,” Cerulean turned back to the picture of Anne and Philip on the dresser, “she knows nothing about us, or our kind, or that the human race is not alone. She both fears and craves intimacy, the kind of intimacy motherhood would demand. Humans are often blinded by fear. I have observed for a full year every decade. This is the third time I’ve met Anne, but I never know when it will be the last.”

Viridian bit his lip.

Cerulean patted his son on the shoulder as a brief flicker of hope welled up inside. “It’s time to go. Anne will be at school, and our job is to observe. Let’s see what she’s up to now.” He started forward, but his son stood silent, unmoving. Cerulean heaved a heavy sigh and stopped. “What?”

“How long will we watch them? I mean; will I have to do this my whole life?”

Cerulean tried not to let the question hurt too much. “I don’t know. The human race won’t last forever.”

Gazing up at the sky, Viridian stepped to the window. “Is it a punishment? Their not lasting very long?”

A cloud covered the sun, plunging the room into shadows. “Remember, we don’t judge. We observe. Funny, though. Humans believe their end will come with fire and storm, war and pestilence. But not necessarily. Their end might come slowly, quietly, like a sunset with no sunrise.”

Viridian sucked in his breath and glared at his father. “Should we warn them? What’s the point of observing them if they’re just going to die anyway?”

“That’s not for us to decide. We observe to learn. Eventually, humans will understand their place in the universe, and we’ll watch until they do.”

With one last look around the silent room, Cerulean raised his hand in command. “Let’s go.” He stepped forward.

Viridian hesitated an instant.

With a brief flicker of intense light, they both disappeared.

***

Books by A. K. Frailey

Science Fiction

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

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

Historical Fiction Novels

Melchior—Vengeance Is Minehttp://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