Of Gods and Men

China @1041 AD

Bi Shang scooped a handful of sticky clay and set it on a wooden sideboard. Using sharpened sticks, he pulled off sections, and with sure and steady hands, shaped each piece into thin edged characters. Bending low, his eyebrows furrowed over the intense work, but a lilting hum escaped his lips.

A thin, young man draped in flowing pantaloons and a loose, grey tunic shuffled into the bright room, keeping close to the wall. His large eyes followed the older man with wide-eyed curiosity. “What’re you doing?”

Undisturbed, Bi Shang arranged each character on an iron baking tray. When the tray was full, he straightened and rubbed his back with one hand. With the other, he beckoned. “Come, Jian.”

Jian stepped forward, tilting his head to see better.

“I’m preserving human intelligence.”

Jian’s eyes narrowed. “My intelligence?”

With a chuckle, Bi Shang snatched a piece of wood from a basket and laid it carefully on a pile of glowing embers in a bake oven embedded in the wall. “Hmm. Yours and your children’s as well.”

Snorting, Jian waved the thought away. “You’re teasing.”

As the flickering flames grew, Bi Shang lifted a rack from the floor and placed it inside the oven. He grabbed a bowl of water and sprinkled the flames, taming them into smoky heat.

The boy’s eyes widened again. “But why—?”

“Because, this is delicate work, and I don’t want my characters to go up in flames.” Satisfied, Bi Shang carefully laid the tray on the rack over the radiant heat. With a contented sigh, he bent low and pointed. “See those shapes?”

Jian nodded.

“They represent the thoughts of men across the world.” His eyes twinkled. “And when we put many thoughts together—we shape both men and world.”

An angry pout formed on Jian’s lips. “You only tell me such stories because I’m small for my age.”

With a gentle hand, Bi Shang squeezed the boy’s shoulder. “On the contrary. I’m sharing great power with you. When my characters bake hard and strong, I’ll set them out for the world to read and ponder. Thoughts grow upon thoughts, and our people will know what wise men of the world believed.”

Stretching forth a tentative finger, Jian touched the clay and rubbed it between his fingers.

Tapping the boy’s arm, Bi Shang grinned. “Someday, if you watch and learn, you’ll know the thoughts of many and share your thoughts with the universe—wisdom to last beyond human sight.”

“Forever?” Jian squinted as if trying to see the edge of unlimited eons. “My thoughts are like the wind.” His gaze fell to the dusty floor. “And can sometimes be evil.”

Bi Shang stroked his face. “You are more honest than most.” Returning to his work, he turned his back to the boy. “Evil thoughts can teach us, too.” He glanced over his shoulder. “For none are barred from their embrace.” He sighed. “Though the wind sometimes uproots the old, it also carries in invigorating air.”

Jian shook his head, a worried frown etched across his forehead. “Such a power is for the gods and their anointed.”

Bi Shang nodded as he lifted his sharp sticks and began to shape a new character. He bent over his work in silent intensity.

Jian shuffled toward the door.

After placing new characters on a fresh tray, Bi Shang lifted his finger. “Before you leave, look at these.” He beckoned Jian forward.

Returning, Jian bent over the iron tray. A new light entered his eyes.”What do they mean?”

“Free—Spirit.” Bi Shang fixed his gaze on the boy. “We choose what we believe.”

Jian nodded, his bright eyes fastened on the figures. “Of gods and men.”

~~~

Sterling, a Luxonian disguised in the rough garb of a Chinese peasant, slapped a mosquito on his arm and frowned at the sight of blood. “Damn insects. Stupid humans! I’m so bored I could—”

“Sir?” Teal, a younger Luxonian dressed in a matching style, stepped out from behind a bush. He nodded toward a tree. “If you need to use—uh—want a little privacy—”

“I’d rather disintegrate.”

Smothering a smile as he rubbed a hand across his face, Teal nodded respectfully. “I doubt that’ll be necessary.” He started toward a sloping hill crowned with a copse of woods. “Though you did have five cups of tea.”

Laboring alongside his companion, Sterling blew air between his lips. “I keep thinking these new world voyages will stimulate me—invigorate my lagging spirit. But instead, everything is so blasted uncomfortable—it’s either hot and humid or dry and cold.” He tugged at his collar. “These ridiculous clothes scratch unmercifully, and the insect life—”

Teal huffed as he neared the crest. “But you enjoyed the tea and cakes—don’t deny it. And, you must admit, watching humans’ first foray into printing was rather fascinating.” With eager steps, he entered the woods.

Sterling tripped and grabbed a branch for balance. “I hate hiding in dark corners. And I’d hardly call a grown man attempting to convince a pathetic child that his clay characters imply a universal achievement—fascinating.” He snapped the twig off the tree and pounded further into the dense woods. “Really, I wonder if becoming a judge is worth all the risk.”

Yelping, Teal stopped and leaned against a tree. He dug a stone out of his sandal. “You have to understand the various life forms in your jurisdiction. How else will you make fair assessments?”

Sterling shuffled from one foot to another, his frown deepening. “I understand that. I just don’t like all the needless hardship. Why couldn’t I have been offered a position on Helm? Shapeshifters have much better sensibilities.” He swallowed and his face flushed. “I can’t stand it.”

Teal glanced around. “We’re safe here. Go ahead—return to Luxonian form.”

“No time!” Sterling rushed behind a tree.

Teal snatched a nut from a tree and studied it thoughtfully, ignoring Sterling’s long, shuddering sigh.

Wandering like a man lost in a dream, Sterling circled toward Teal. “I never imagined such relief—”

Teal pushed away from the trunk. “If you’re ready, we should make our report. Do a good job, and you’ll make a Supreme Judge someday.” He grinned. “As guardian, I’ll always be here to help.”

Sterling threw up his hands in renewed anguish. “But I haven’t got anything to report! It’s all so inconsequential.”

A brooding frown spread across Teal’s face. “Open your mind.” Teal strode closer and looked Sterling in the eyes. “Think about what you’ve seen—all of humanity’s challenges. They suffer from their corporeal bodies and their primitive living conditions—yet they manage to invent new ways to express themselves and preserve knowledge. They work hard, practice discipline and patience, endure pain and, yes, enjoy relief. And, from the look on the young man’s face, they also know ecstatic joy.” He waved his hands as if to encompass the entire planet. “I’d say that was consequential.”

Sterling peered up at the bright sky filtered between the leafy branches. “Perhaps you’re right.” He grinned as he leveled his gaze at Teal. “Supreme Judge, eh?” He glanced around, his smile fading. “Only if I survive.”

 

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 (In production)

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

My Love Is Strong

Wendy tripped over a block castle, fell against the counter, knocked the coffee maker askew, and apologized. “Whoops, sorry ‘bout that!” Grabbing a sponge, she quickly mopped up the spill and darted a worried glance at the wrecked castle.

Ginny, her six-year-old daughter, skipped into the room. “Who you talking to?”

Before Wendy could answer, Ginny’s gaze swept across the devastation of her former block-castle glory. Her eyes widened in fitful rage. “What’da do that for, Mom?”

“It was an accident, honey. You shouldn’t leave—”

“Hey!” A large, heavily built man with a close-cropped, brown beard sauntered into the kitchen. “You remember me?”

Wendy blinked as wrinkles spread across her forehead. Something on the edge of her frazzled memory sounded a weak alarm. “My husband—right?”

“Very funny.” Mitch tapped his watch. “We’re going out tonight—anniversary? Ring any bells?”

After swallowing back a gasp, Wendy clasped her hands together. “Yeah, I remember, but earlier—I forgot. I, sort of, invited Deirdre over for a cup of tea.” Wendy’s hands flew out imploringly. “Her life’s falling apart. I thought tea might help—somehow.”

Mitch pulled a cup from the shelf and poured out the coffee dregs. “It’ll take more than tea to fix that woman.” He took a sip and winced. “Sides, I asked for tonight first—about twenty years ago.”

Wendy nodded. “Of course. I’ve been looking forward to it. Did you get Keith off to his game?”

Mitch leaned against the counter and rubbed his jaw. “Like a happy gladiator going into battle. Scary actually.” He peered down at his daughter’s pensive face. Reconstruction was well underway. “Who’s watching—?”

Wendy froze. “Oh, my gosh!”

Heaving himself into a chair, Mitch sighed. “And I don’t suppose you have anything ready for dinner?”

Wendy peered at the ceiling. “The part of my brain in charge of dinner remembered about going out. The rest of my brain forgot.” She rubbed her eyes. “What do you think—early dementia?”

“Well, I did notice that you put Patrick’s jeans in my drawer. Wasn’t till I got stuck somewhere around the knees that I figured it out.” Mitch pursed his lips. “How does that kid stay so dang thin? I pay enough for the meal plan.”

Wendy slumped into the chair opposite her husband. “He’s not coming home like he used to—preoccupied. I think it’s a girlfriend, or—”

“He’ll never make it through college.” Mitch rubbed his forehead. “I should’ve just had him take up a trade.”

Wendy shrugged. “He’s used to having his own way. Perhaps if he fails—”

“Fails with my money!” Mitch glanced at his watch and stood. “I’ll order pizza, and we’ll make it an easy night. Maybe watch a movie or something.”

Wendy’s heart sank as she offered a brave smile. After her husband clumped out of the room, she peered at her daughter. “Time to clean up, honey. Daddy’s going to—”

“Can’t I leave it here—please? It took me so long to fix—after you messed it up.” Gina’s large brown eyes implored with every fiber of her being.

“Well, okay. I guess—”

A large, heavy-set woman bundled into the kitchen. “Lord, where’s that tea? I’m about done-in.”

Wendy’s eyes flashed from her friend to the kitchen door.

“Mitch let me in the front. There’s a ton of mud in your driveway—it’s not safe.” Deirdre plunked down onto a kitchen chair and dropped her head onto her hands. “I can’t take it anymore. Life is pure hell these days.” She peered up at Wendy who stood frozen in the middle of the room. “I’m thinking of ending it all.”

A rumble scoured across the heavens.

Wendy strolled to the window and peered at the dark, threatening sky. She bit her lip and glanced at Deirdre. “I hate to tell you, but tonight’s Mitch’s and my anniversary and—”

Deirdre dragged her limp body off the chair and staggered to a standing position. “I tell you I want to kill myself, and you toss me aside. Sure—I understand. Loving hubby needs you. Priorities.” With a shaky hand, she patted Gina on the head.

Gina glowered.

Lightning flashed, lighting up the descending gloom.

Deirdre shrugged. “Sweet kid.” She started toward the kitchen door, her foot knocking part of the block castle across the floor.

Gina wailed.

Deirdre clasped the door handle and looked back at Wendy, her eyes half-lidded. “You got it all. Lucky woman.”

Mitch’s voice called from the living room. “Hey, honey, you want sausage, pepperoni, or meat-lovers?”

Rain pelted the window.

When the phone rang, Wendy wasn’t the least surprised. In an automatic motion, she pressed the receiver to her ear. “Yes?”

Patrick’s voice whined across two state lines. “Mom, I’m sick. Can you come get me?”

Wendy’s gaze swept from Deirdre—still gripping the door handle—to her sniffling, miserable daughter, to her husband’s frowning face peering through the doorway.

“Mom?”

Wendy didn’t hear anything break, but she felt a snapping deep within. Her gaze darted to a crucifix on the wall. Standing completely motionless, only her eyes widened.

She gripped the phone more tightly. “Patrick, the college has a clinic open twenty-four-seven. Go there and see if they can help. Then call back and let me know.” She pressed the end button.

With a nod, she waved goodbye to Deirdre and watched her friend harrumph her way out the door.

Turning her attention to the block-strewn floor, Wendy pointed at her daughter. “Pick it all up—now—and not a word, or you’ll go straight to bed.” Her gaze swung to her husband.

Mitch started to back away.

“Let’s try something new—the Hawaiian or Taco—surprise me.”

~~~

As ragged clouds drifted across a waxing moon, Mitch wound his arms around his wife in the privacy of their bedroom. He peered through the dim light and grinned. “What got into you this afternoon—I hardly knew you.” He chuckled. “Scared everyone—even me.”

Wendy slid her fingers down her husband’s bare, muscular arm, her eyes radiating a serious glow. “When I looked at the crucifix—I heard a voice inside my head.”

With a startled jerk, Mitch fixed his gaze on his wife. “What did it say?”

Wendy sucked in a deep breath and enunciated each word carefully. “‘I said meek—not weak.’”

Mitch loosened his hold over his wife and swallowed. “Am I in for it now?”

Wendy giggled, leaned forward, and kissed her husband. “My love is strong.”

Grinning, Mitch pulled his wife into a tight embrace. “Lord, have mercy.”

 

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 (In production)

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 

Romantic Reality

romanticreality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh, oh. Can I rephrase—”

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

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

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

Bala nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~~~

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 (In production)

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

Native Elements

Cyril swore under his breath as he stared at the mounting black clouds sweeping across the mountain range. The pine trees swayed with warning sighs as the wind whistled through their branches. Crows whirled towards earth, out-flying the looming threat.

“Stupid weatherman never said anything about a storm.” Cyril didn’t realize he had spoken aloud until Jeanette curled her arm through his and clucked her disapproval.

“Weatherwoman, Cyrus. Or person. Not man for God’s sake. Besides, no one is perfect.”

Cyril didn’t doubt that for a moment. He had never really intended to invite Jeanette to his private sanctuary—but in an unguarded moment he had pontificated, “Kids today are out of their native element,” and Jeanette, being his superior by two grade levels and French proficiency, had laughed. Smirked really.

She had sat across from him in the teacher’s lounge, sipped her black coffee, nibbled her wheat crackers, and shook her curly-haired head. “Native element? What, pray tell, is a kid’s native element, Sorrel?”

Cyril squeezed his eyes shut against the memory. His face flushed, as it always did when she mutilated his name. When she first practiced her ruinous arts at a teacher’s convention— “Oh, good, here’s Floral, so we’re well represented—” he had dared to object.

“The name is Cyril—not Sorrel, not Floral—see if you can remember that.”

The flock of attending teachers froze in the face of his unflinching correction, but Jeannette merely grinned like a Cheshire cat. “Oh, Creel, don’t get all flaky and fall to pieces.”

His only retort had been a mute glare while his co-workers simply chuckled and wandered toward other entertainment. He had been bested. Clearly.

For two years, he waged a stoic campaign to keep his name unaltered, but Jeanette found myriad atrocious variations to spring on him—passing in the hall, at meetings, and even as she waved goodbye in the parking lot. In the teacher’s lounge, she would rattle on about her latest date, fashionable clothes, a got-to-go-see movie, progressive teaching, antiquated traditions, and whatever else fueled her current passion while he doodled swaying pine trees on a memo pad and retreated into icy politeness.

Occasionally, he’d vary his day by hunting up extra resources for a struggling student, but most six graders hated math and made little attempt to hide their distaste for the subject in particular—or for him in general. Even when he lugged in architects’ drawings, carpentry notes, checkbooks, and myriad other real-world examples of math’s viability, he would still be slapped down with the oft opined sentiment, “We’re never going to use this stuff—it’s a waste of time.”

He might as well be forcing broccoli down innocent kids’ throats. At least, Jeannette never made him feel like the enemy—a fool—but never an enemy. Perhaps that was why he accepted her question as a challenge and invited her to come to the mountains with him and experience the native elements herself.

Only when the muscled P. E. teacher, Mr. James, squeezed his shoulder and intoned the words, “Best of luck, ol’ pal,” did Cyril realize that staring down a pack of hyenas would have been a wiser option.

Their afternoon started more optimistically than he anticipated. Jeanette had met him in the parking lot decked out in cowboy boots, jeans, and a leather jacket.

He refrained from shaking his head and merely jiggled his keys. “Mind if I drive?”

Jeannette shrugged in utter nonchalance. “Might as well. You know where we’re going—I suppose.” Her grin widened wickedly as she added “Series.”

He sped up the winding road and, after arriving, started down the simplest and shortest trail. She bounced along at his side pointing out every squirrel and bird in hyper-exultation. When they returned to the parking lot, she deflated. “Is that it? I mean—that’s all you got, Virile?”

Cyril’s squinted at the lowering sun and considered his revenge—trail number five, meant for experienced hikers with a loud, splashing stream, a long, steep incline, two narrow passes, and one precipitous drop. His eyes narrowed as he returned to the forest.

They floundered across the bubbly stream and scrambled up the first incline when a warning rumbled across the sky. Distant trees swayed as a murmur rustled through the foliage. Cyril considered the low sun and a slight twinge shivered down his spine.

Jeannette scanned the waving branches with a frown. “How far have we come?”

“About half way.”

A brilliant flash of light made them blink as black clouds bundled together overhead.

That’s when he spouted his politically incorrect fury on the weatherperson. He could feel her arm squirming around his; searching for something he was loath to offer.

“Half-way? Seriously, Cereus, what were you thinking—”

He felt the familiar, hot flush rise to the roots of his hair. Cyril shook Jeanette’s arm away and snapped around like a wounded panther. “C-Y-R-I-L! My name is CYRIL!”

Jeannette blinked as the sky blustered overhead.

Cyril wrung his hands in a pantomime of strangling something—or someone—and bellowed. “Now shut up and quit acting like the stuck-up, little snob you always are and let me think of the quickest way out of here.” He looked up and down the paths and then pointed ahead. “Let’s go on.”

Doing a fair imitation of a rock wall, Jeanette folded her arms and glared.

Cyril stomped away with a wave of his hand. “Fine. Be a smart-ass. See if that gets you over the stream again. Not that I’d go back that way. But enjoy the incline and don’t slide off the edge of anything. There are about thirty minutes of light left—you might make it to a cave or something before night sets in.”

He was nearly a quarter of a mile down the path in the pelting rain when he heard her splashing steps. She charged into him, grabbed his shirt and yanked, sending them both careening into the mud. With her limp hair streaming across her face, she rounded a slug on his shoulder.

“You stupid pig! You mean, heartless idiot! Why I spent the last two years being nice to you is more than I can figure. But I never expected this! This—”

Cyril’s eyes widened as he staggered to his feet and watched her slip and slide. “You’ve been nice? When was that? I must’ve missed it. I could have sworn you spent the last two years tormenting me with your cruel, twisted, little name-calling.”

Lightning flared, and thunder crashed over their heads as Jeanette clenched her fists, facing him, bedraggled. “Always so high and mighty, aren’t you? Always getting your pants in a twist when I try to add a little fun into your life. Can’t climb down from your superior loft in the high and mighty world of algebra and advanced math. You think I couldn’t teach math? I could. I just chose to do something a little more creative, something that means something TO ME!”

A deafening crack of thunder sent them pelting down the path. Cyril slipped and threw his arms out for balance. The downpour increased, but Jeannette raced on. Cyril snatched her sleeve and pulled her to a jog. “You’ll fall, stupid. There’s a drop coming.”

Jeannette yanked away and raced ahead even faster. She shrieked as she started sliding down a steep incline.

Cyril grabbed her arm and pulled back, sprawling them both onto the muddy path.

Jeannette’s face twisted; she slapped his hand. “I’m not stupid!”

Cyril climbed to his knees, crawled under the shelter of a tree and let his head fall against the trunk, leaning back with heaving breaths. “Neither am I. Though every time you speak French, smirking as if I am too dense to understand, or when you mutilate my name—”

Jeannette rose shakily to her feet, slapped mud from her jeans, squared her shoulders, and started forward. She stepped into a dangling vine and yelped as a thorn scratched her cheek. She turned on Cyril, her voice low and menacing. “If you’re trying to get revenge—mission accomplished.”

Cyril rose and blinked at her silhouette in the dim light. He glanced at his muddy watch, sighed, and grabbed her hand. “Mission aborted. I’m an idiot, and we need to get out of here—now.”

Jeannette pulled away. “Don’t touch me!”

“You want to wander aimlessly in the dark under tons of swaying trees? Let’s make a truce and get out alive, okay?” Cyril stretched out his hand.

Jeannette turned and charged up the path.

~~~

As they sat dripping and muddy in the school parking lot, a sickle moon peeked through the vestiges of drifting clouds. Cyril hadn’t looked at her during the whole, miserable drive back to the city. She had stared straight ahead, silent as a tomb. When he parked, he expected her to bolt, but she just sat there.

Finally, he broke the ice with the most inane comment he ever made. “Well, at least it’s Friday.”

She stared at him a long moment, shifted in her seat, and faced him. “Native elements? You want the kids to experience the wonders of—”

Cyril let his head drop back against the headrest, though he would have welcomed a brick wall. He took a long cleansing breath. “I wasn’t expecting a storm of biblical proportions. I just wanted—”

Jeanette lifted her hand. “No, I get it. I just wish you’d have told me, not tried to kill me.” Her gaze dropped to the floor. “I was just joking. It was all in fun.”

The lump in his throat surprised Cyril. It was hard to swallow away. “Not so fun for me.”

They sat in silence, the school building a rectangular shadow looming in the background.

Cyril rubbed his dirty fingers together. “The woods—the natural world—it’s like God made it just for me. Thousands have been there before, but for a little while, it’s all mine. No forcing dreaded math problems on squirming kids—”

Jeannette sighed and wiped a stray strand of hair from her eyes. “Most kids think French is stupid. After all, who needs a teacher when there’s Google translator?”

Cyril folded his hands and shrugged. “Google would have me ordering snails for breakfast.”

The barest hint of Jeannette’s smile glimmered between the neon light posts and the black night. “To be totally honest, variables scare me. Letters smacked up against numbers, it seems wrong, somehow.”

Cyril never knew exactly what came over him, but he reached across the seat and lifted Jeanette’s hand, lacing her fingers with his. “Actually, they can do amazing things together.”

Jeanette tilted her head, the moonlight highlighting a teasing smile. “Like thunderstorms in native elements—Cyril?”

Cyril grinned.

~~~

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 (In production)

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

Off-World Faith

church

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

He accepted it, crossed himself, and stood.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bala shuddered. “I have to go. If—”

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

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

Kendra smiled. “My charm and money?”

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

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

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

~~~

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 (In production)

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

Life of Gorth—Fate of a Weapon Maker

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Planet – Ingilium

Moglum’s Land Base Rental

Renter: Gorth – practicing war games on the back lot…

“I will not die! At least not today! So take that! And that! And that!”

Bam! Fizzzt!

“Gorth! Hold on would you? You’re turning my back lot into a crater. I know you’re a lean, mean, fighting machine—but please—I need some space that isn’t constantly being bombarded with shrapnel. My poor nerves—”

“What a landlord! Where’s your Ingilum spirit, Moglum? Your mama should’ve packed you off on one of those slave transports.”

“Nice. Real nice, Gorth. Now shut up and listen. Someone from the Imperium just sent a message—”

“From the Imperium? For me?”

“Yeah, and if you’re being transferred, you better fix this mess before you leave!”

~~~

Imperium Central Office for Inter-planetary Security

Hologram message coming through…

“Citizen Iz, secretary for the Imperium, can I help you?”

“Oh, hi, it’s me…I mean…this is citizen Gorth. You sent a message….”

“Gorth! Yes, thank you for checking in so quickly. Good news. We’ve been watching your progress and decided that this is the time to support your… unique skills.”

“Um. What does that mean exactly?”

“Listen, Gorth, there’s a new threat. We’ve received secret information that the Cresta are planning an invasion… and they won’t be coming alone.”

“Annihilate! Really? This is big. How can I help? I mean with the weapons’ ban and all…”

“The ban has been lifted. Your research may continue where you left off. In fact, the Imperium is prepared to assist you by any means necessary.”

Silence.

“Gorth?”

“Oh, yeah… I just had to get back on my feet…I sorta fell over. Honestly, I never expected this. You know, weapons are my passion. I live to evaporate. It’s what I dream about. After the ban, I had to be content with just blowing—”

“We understand. That’s why you have been chosen. You’re gifted and if it hadn’t been for interplanetary pressure, we’d never have agreed to that infernal… Never mind. The fact is, you are now reinstated. Fully. Get back to work, Gorth.”

~~~

Three moon cycles later…

Back at Moglum’s Land Base Rental

Moglum’s Living Space

Moglum and Gorth sit hunched on a steel bench as they lean over a long table strewn with various weapon and weapon parts.

Gorth holds up a small, smooth, and rounded handheld devise, his chest puffs with pride. “I’m calling it the Evaporator.”

Moglum frowns. “Nah… Come on Gorth; don’t be stupid. That name’s already been taken. It blew the entire watching audience to smithereens. Don’t you remember? It was on every hologram from here to the Cresta Divide.”

“Musta repressed it. Hmmm… I’m not so good at naming things. Any ideas?”

“How about the Destroyer? The Atomizer? The Dustbuster?”

“Hey, I like that. The Dustbuster! I’ll call it the Dustbuster I. I mean, I’ve done about a kazillion of these things but nobody needs to know that.”

“Go down in history as the greatest weapon maker of all time… Brilliant. Oh, and when you get paid… You are getting paid for this right?”

“Sure. The Imperium said they’d give me what I deserve.”

“Well, then, you’ll be in a position to rebuild the back lot. I was thinking of turning it into something like that resort on the South Sea. You know, the one with all the foliage and females…”

“Yeah. Yeah… I’ll get to it. But first I got to present this to the Imperium. See what they think.”

“You’ll be a hero. No doubt about it. I always said you’d make the Ingot name great again.”

“Ah… Just following my passion.”

~~~

Universal News Today:

It has been verified that the missing inventor of the Dustbuster I, Gorth, has finally been tracked to the back lot of Moglum’s Land Base Rental. Apparently, his newest weapon had been used against him and then stolen.

The Imperium requests that any information concerning Gorth’s demise be sent directly to their Central Security Office.

On the interplanetary front, it appears that Crestas are once again up to no good….

~~~

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 (In production)

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

I Never Had a Son

Planet Lux, courtyard, dominated by a two-story fountain and decorated with generous fauna wafting in a gentle breeze as cloud sprays reflect every color in the spectrum. Cerulean stands before the fountain, silent and alone.

I miss Viridian. Or rather, I miss what I hoped we’d have together—my son, following in my footsteps or perhaps forging a new path together.

Must all such dreams die? Surely not…

Anne had a second chance with her daughter, and Peter has grown closer to his son. Not all families are doomed to a hideous fate. But me? My father has been long gone, and I’ll never have another son.

“Cerulean?”

“Yes, Judge Sterling. What can I do for you, sir?”

Surprise…. He’s in his human form, with his matching white suit and beard…looking as dashing as any aging Luxonian with delusions of—

“Supreme Judge. Formality, I know, but we must keep up appearances.”

“Yes, Supreme Judge. Sterling.”

“Odd. When you say it— Never mind. I’ve come to inform you that a council has been appointed to discuss the Human Question…again.”

“Sir?”

“Don’t think I haven’t noticed your efforts on their behalf.”

“I believe I told you my concerns up front.”

“Yes, and I was listening. You look doubtful.”

“You never appeared interested.”

“Humanity has proven useful. I’m not ignorant of their worth. I simply needed to understand how involved the Cresta was going to be.”

“Now that Ingots, the Uanyi, and Bhuacs have staked their claims—is it involved enough?”

“Stop scowling, Cerulean. If you’d appear like a proper Luxonian, I’d feel more comfortable.”

“But I wouldn’t.”

“So I’ve noticed. In any case, I have a friend…shall we say a benign enemy who—”

“You mean the reporter—Lang?”

“You know her?”

“She’s notorious.”

“Yes, well, we have an understanding. She lies to me… I lie to her… And we understand each other perfectly.”

“What lies has she been telling you now?”

“She was kind enough to inform me that Crestas have outlawed all crossbreed experimentation, that the Ingots have no interest in Newearth, that the Uanyi plan on relocating on the dark side of the Divide, and that the Bhuacs are quite happy being decimated.”

“With enemies like her, who needs friends?”

“My thoughts exactly.”

“So— What’s the next step?”

“We must regain our position on Newearth, but that means we need an alliance everyone can agree with.”

“An impossible challenge.”

“It’s your challenge, Cerulean. Come up with a plan, think of a way to present it to the Supreme Council so that they see how it benefits Luxonian society, in fact, make it seem like their idea. Then return to Newearth and make it happen.”

I can feel sweat trickling down my back. What I wouldn’t do for an ice-cold—anything. “I can’t do this alone.”

“You won’t. Roux will accompany you to Newearth. You’ll make friends—”

Uh, oh, that one-of-a-kind, tormented stare….

“You always do. Find allies; convince them that it is in their best interest if we all work together.

“It will be.”

“See? You’ve convinced me already.”

Odd. I never noticed that his smile has a certain charm. “When is the council meeting?”

“Tomorrow, early. Come ready for battle. Act like it’s the end of life as we know it—”

“I’ve already used that argument. It only works once.”

“True.”

By the Divide, he’s pacing the walkway, stroking his beard like a human patriarch of old.

“Lang advised me that since Newearth is so poor in natural resources, there isn’t a merchant within a million light years who’d be interested in it.”

“Merchants? They’re as dangerous as politicians.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Merchants are thieves and liars, but they have honest souls. They know perfectly well that war shrinks the profit margin. The Luxonian Council—”

“Supreme Luxonian Council.”

“Yes, of course, they want happy merchants because happy merchants protect our assets.”

“I see.”

Strange that I never noticed this side of Sterling before. How could I have missed it?

“Thank you, sir. I was nearly out of options.”

“I know. I do have eyes…never mind. I must attend to other Supreme Judge business.”

“Of course.”

“Cerulean?”

Deep breath. He’s staring again. “Yes?”

“I never had a son.”

Forget ice-cold; my mouth just went as dry as the dark side of the Divide. “If you had, he’d probably have been just like you.”

Exactly. But you—you’re nothing like me.

“Sir?”

“I never wanted a son, Cerulean…. See you in the council chamber.”

~~~

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 (In production)

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