Chasm stood on the baked, pounded ground and stared at his shoes, profoundly aware that they were several sizes larger than the others lined up beside his. A cool breeze cascaded over his hot body. He could hear his mother’s words loud and clear, “Don’t get overheated, boyo, cause I can’t find any glaciers to cool you off this time of year.”
He forced his smile in check.
The kid next to him squirmed.
Chasm nudged him. “Don’t move, Oleg, or he’ll kill us.”
The boy heaved a strained, exasperated sigh.
Coach screamed, “Hey, you two! Give me five more!”
Oleg’s eyes widened with horror.
Chasm choked. “Wasn’t my fault!”
The twenty-eight boys held the line, observing in constrained silence as Chasm awkwardly led the smaller boy around the track, taking tiny steps to keep pace with his companion’s short strides.
Giggles broke the tense silence.
Coach, his arms crossed high over his barrel chest, stood on the sidelines grinning, his jaws masticating contraband chewing gum.
The blazing Luxonian sun seethed in a white sky, heat piercing through protective covering. Even the best eye protection was poor defense against the damaging rays.
A wonder more of us don’t go blind. Chasm wiped sweat off his brow as he jogged forward, his arms limp at his side. Three more…
Chasm reached out.
The boy fell limply in his arms.
“Drop him and finish your laps!” Clearly, coach enjoyed his work.
The watching boys froze, stiff as petrified rocks.
So many times, he’d come home burning with humiliation, a sorry excuse for a son, but his mother’s nudge combined with a healthy snort, always revived his drooping spirits. “Think you got it rough? Try being a giant woman! Then you’d know what rough looked like up close and personal. Giant guys are fine. But giant gals scare the hell out of most everybody, even Luxonian shape shifter-types. Lordy, they can morph into Ingoti Lava Lizards, but a seven-foot human woman sets ‘em giggling in weird ways.” Her black eyes flashed, and her ebony skin glistened as she jutted her chin, contempt oozing through every pour. Until a glint of humor discharged the poison. “Should thank their lucky suns I’m so good natured, or they might not be so powerful now.”
Chasm knew the story, oft repeated, how she managed to chase off a strange ship that landed in one of the busiest intersections of the capitol. No one knew who the aliens were or why they’d come. But the Luxonian crowd that gathered round had been profoundly grateful for Adah’s help. Unexpected as it was.
Being the only refugee over seven feet tall, many boys looked to him for help. Chasm didn’t mind, but he wasn’t sure what to do most of the time. He looked around for help.
Coach sauntered forward. Unlike most Luxonians, his attitude sparked with resentment at the outsiders. Even though the human refugees had originally come to Lux by invitation, coach narrowed his eyes at every specimen he met, especially the boys he forced out under the sun “to keep them fit and healthy” as his job description decreed.
Killing us with kindness.
Chasm gripped Oleg’s limp body tighter.
Rex, a lanky kid, not nearly Chasm’s size but with an outsized spirit that towered above the average stepped from the disciplined line. “We’re done here.”
Coach turned his full glare on Rex’s impassive, staring eyes. “You think so?”
“How about I make you all do ten more?”
Rex peered along the line of watching boys.
Everyone knew that they lived at the mercy of their hosts—Luxonians who had accepted the burden of caring for a dying race of beings—but resentment had elbowed its way in over the years, making humans not so welcome.
Chasm’s heart clenched as his gaze darted from Rex to Oleg’s reviving form.
Oleg shook himself free and stood on shaky legs. He blinked as he stared at the coach. “Think you can kill me?”
Coach’s amused glance spoke volumes.
Rex waved at the line of boys ahead with a formal bow. “He can try. But we don’t have to let him.” He sauntered off the track.
The line wavered, eyes following but feet still.
Oleg gripped Chasm’s arm. “Let’s go.” He strode after Rex, panting but determined.
As the sound of footsteps padded after them, Chasm’s heart swelled. No matter his size, he finally filled his shoes. No glaciers needed.
Teal watched Arc’s holographic message twice and sighed. He passed his hand over the holopad; the wavering image disappeared.
Her touch soft, Sienna placed her hand on his arm, slipping around from behind. “What’s wrong?”
The thrill of her unexpected touch dissipated too quickly for Teal’s comfort. He glanced from the low couch to the shelf packed with OldEarth crafts—a decorated pot from Aram’s clan, a woven blanket from Ishtar’s clan, even one of Neb’s forgotten obsidian knives. He shrugged and turned away. “Arc’s worried. So, he’s got Zuri worried. And before you know it, I’ll be worried.”
Sliding around her husband’s waist, Sienna snuggled under his arm. A smile played on her lips. “Cerulean has been begging to go. Maybe…”
“I should have followed up before this. It’s just—”
Sienna nodded. “It was a big event. Everyone talked about it, but then, things died down. We’ll probably never know.”
Teal padded to the window and peered across the Luxonian skyline, the suns setting and moons rising. “Things are happening, changing. I don’t think humanity will ever be the same.”
“Can they handle the responsibility?”
A snort sounding rude to his own ears, Teal shrugged. “Of course, they can’t. No one can. It’s impossible. The very notion. God-man? We don’t even dare define—”
“Children can imagine what adults don’t dare dream of—the limitlessness of youth, perhaps?”
Teal rubbed his forehead. “I can’t even begin to go there. It’s has to be a misunderstanding. Wishful thinking.”
“And if it’s not? If it is real…” She joined him at the window, sharing the view.
Heat working through his body, Teal swallowed. “Define real.” A soft sound caught his ear. He glanced over his shoulder.
Cerulean, youthful, eager, and ready for anything stood in the open doorway. “Ark sent a message. He has something for me.”
Teal closed his eyes. Oh, God. He opened his eyes and met his son’s innocent gaze. “I’m sure he has.” He peered at his wife. They both knew. No one would be the same.
Ark zipped up his bio-suit, dragged on his boots, and glared at the pod swimming energetically in the murky pool against the back wall.
The door swished open, and Zuri tromped in, his head and hands bare, but wearing a modified version of Ingoti armor. “You ready?”
Ark huffed through his breathing helm; bubbles rose. “Now or never.”
The pool swished spasmodically, a riot of bubbles rising. The pod stopped and hung weightless, its large eyes staring, imploringly at Ark.
Zuri halted and glanced back. “What’s—I mean—who’s that?”
Ark cleared his throat and tugged at the collar of his bio-suit. “Uh, my son, Tarragon.”
Zuri’s eyes couldn’t have opened any wider if he’d had implants. “What? You never told me you had a son!” He slapped Ark on the back. Hard. “Congratulations!”
Stomping to the doorway, his boots smacking the ground with emphasis, Ark aimed for his escape. “It just sort of happened.”
Zuri swiveled his head as if testing the limits of his joints. “What does that mean? You have a son and you’re—what—irritated?”
Stopping on the threshold, Ark waved all six tentacles and forced a smile at the pod. “Just out of sorts, really. It wasn’t expecting it.” He scowled at Zuri. “I have important work to do. We both do.” He turned his back on the pod. “There’s a new player on Earth, a mystery being, who has a bet to win…a challenge. He’s trouble, make no mistake.”
“In proper diplomatic response, we’re going to…?”
“Meet Song and discuss possibilities. Then we return to Earth.”
“I thought we couldn’t.”
“Couldn’t is strong word. Shouldn’t perhaps…” Ark clumped out the door.
Noman smoothed down his tunic as he paced before the wooden table laid with the evening meal of wine, boiled fish, nuts, olives, bread, honey, cheese, dates, and pomegranates.
Abbas was coming to see him.
He played the words over in his head. Abbas was coming… to see him… To see him…
The laughter of boys crashed against his ears. He stopped before the window of the Hospitia and peered at the bucolic scene.
Three boys chased each other across hard packed earth. Their clothes tattered, their feet bare, and their eyes bright.
A shout split the air, and the children scattered.
A gesturing heavyset man, flushed and furious, jerked forward. “Didn’t ya hear me! Get back to work, you fools, or I’ll cut your useless legs from under your bodies.”
An old man, dressed in a long white tunic with a fine robe draped over, stepped close upon the angry man’s heels. He raised his hand as he passed.
All bombastic bravado fled. The heavy man bowed low, scraping the ground in a servile fashion.
Unimpressed, the old man stopped and peered at the window.
Noman caught his breath.
Abbas had come. To see him.
Noman poured wine into an ornate cup and passed it across the table. The food sat untouched. Neither needed to eat but that had never stopped them before. He spread his hands wide, a genial host. “Please, enjoy.”
Abbas, ever the master of kindness, broke off a piece of fish, slipped it between his lips and chewed with a hum of pleasure. “Very nice.”
Pride fought gratitude in the playground of Normand’s mind. He smirked. “I picked it out myself. Best fish this side of the Divide, they say.”
Abbas choked and grabbed the goblet for a quick swallow. He wiped his lips with his sleeve, and leaned against the hard-baked wall, his penetrating gaze searching. “You know about The Evidence?”
Noman wasn’t going to play. “Evidence?” He smirked. “An attempt to make humans appear worthier than they are. A trick, really, to see how we’ll react.”
Abbas stroked his chin. “Is that all, you think?”
“I know so!” Frustration needled Noman like a thousand biting insects. “I told you. They are a mere plaything. A toy. He just wants to see how we’ll respond. If we throw ourselves at his mercy and beg for forgiveness—”
“We need forgiveness?”
“Of course not. But if we were fools, we might think so. Lesser beings are always ready to beg. It’s what they do. Humiliate themselves before greatness.”
Abbas sighed. “You’d certainly never do that.” He rose from the bench and strode to the window.
A little boy sat on the ground, playing with round stones. A sparrow landed and hopped nearby. The boy watched, then raised his hand, a stone poised. The bird pecked at the ground, unconcerned.
Noman stepped over and propped his arm against the wall, his gaze fixed on the opposite side of the room. “We know our true place in the universe.”
The boys’ gaze softened as he watched the bird, his brows knit together. Slowly, he lowered his arm and dropped the stone. With his other hand, he dug into a pocket.
Abbas sighed. “Do we?” He glanced aside. “Really?”
“Our power informs us.” Noman threw his arms wide. “I could remake this entire village into a treasure of pleasure—if I wanted.”
Abbas’ gaze returned to the scene.
The boy held out his hand, palm up. Breadcrumbs offered.
The wary sparrow hopped close and stopped. With a cock of the head, it eyed him.
Smiling, the boy tipped his hand and scattered the crumbs within easy reach. Eagerly, the bird snapped up the morsels.
Noman cocked his head and stared Abbas. “Excuse me?”
“I keep hearing the word in my mind—like a verse, a song.”
“Ah! Song—the Bauchi witch. She’s always playing mind games.”
Brooding irritation flooded Abbas’ eyes. “No, not that Song. A song. Music. Harmony and melody. Beauty in sound.”
Noman shrugged. “I’ve never understood the concept.” He peered out the window.
The boy grinned as the bird pecked the crumbs.
Annoyed, Noman shouted, “Go on, boy! You’ve no business here.”
Abbas sighed. He started for the door.
Jolted, Noman gripped his arm. “Where are going?”
“You may be right. Song may be exactly who I’m thinking of.”
“But what about me—about my mission?”
Abbas peered at Noman’s fingers gripping his tunic. “I say that you’ve underestimated The Event. There’s more to humanity than meets the eye.” He jerked free. “I take my leave of you now. But I suggest that you don’t do anything—you’ll regret.”
Cold seeped through Noman. Regret? Not possible. Chilling that Abbas could even suggest the word. He bowed and peered at the door.
Elmer knew better than to believe in ghosts. But when he awoke with sweat beading on his forehead and the sensation that he had just returned from a long journey through wild-lands with only his body and wits intact, he knew that something otherworldly was at work.
His wife stirred at his side. She slapped the blankets, her face half-smashed against the pillow, her eyes squeezed shut. “Don’t get up…too early.”
Too early or too late? He pressed his chest trying to steady his galloping heart. “Hon-honey?”
One eye opened. Not a flicker of interest.
“Do you remember going to a desert town with broken-down buildings and getting kidnapped?”
Lana sat up, groggily rubbing her fingers through her short tufts of hair.
Elmer swallowed the lump in his throat. What happened to her luscious brown locks?
She steered her gaze over her husband, taking the long tour. Dubious. Pity?
His hands shaking, Elmer threw off the wrinkled sheets and stalked to the bathroom. He swiped on the cold water, splashed his face, straightened, and snatched a towel. He wiped the drips running down his baggy t-shirt. Have Ilost weight? He sucked in a shuddering breath. “What day is it?”
Lana padded across the bedroom. “Sunday, goof. New Year’s Day, remember?”
An electric bolt sizzled through his body. “N-new year?”
With a snarky laugh, Lana strolled into the bathroom wearing a calf-length night dress that should look sexy as hell, but didn’t.
Elmer stared. Why?
She leaned her head on his shoulder, a buddy-nudge, nothing wifely about it. “You remember the year, right?”
Terror gripped Elmer, nearly closing his throat. “Twenty-twenty—”
“Ha-ha! Got ja!” She smacked him, grinning like a lottery winner. “You had a whole year to get used to the thirties, and now you’ve slipped-up. Used to make fun of me!”
His gaze shifted from his wife to the mirror. Where did these grey streaks come from? His eyes—haggard and…vacant? Lord, have mercy.
Frowning, Lana shoved off and crossed her arms, the tilt of her body accenting the sharpness of her bony frame. “Twenty-thirty-one! We toasted and the VR bots cheered. Remember?”
Elmer slapped his face. “Ten years?” He retreated to the bedroom, marched to the window, and lifted the curtain. A barren square of dead grass met his eyes. Only a rotting stump stood in testimony of past life. “What the—” He turned and glared at Lana. “Where’s our backyard?”
“Backyard?” She tiptoed forward and pressed her cold hand against his forehead. “You feeling all right?” She leaned in and stared deep into his eyes. “Time for your new-gen?”
A chill ran down his spine as he stared at the strange woman.
An elegant roll of the eyes. She flounced to the bedside, yanked open a drawer, and gripped a tube. She shook it, grinning. “You skipped your last dose—see what happens? Bad dreams, memory troubles… You need a pop and time inside.” Swinging the tube, she strode out of the bedroom.
His stomach dropped. Dragging it along behind, Elmer followed like a wary dog.
He faced what should have been his living room—a modern setup with overstuffed chairs, a broad couch, a large screen television centered on the back wall, matching end tables with iron lamps—opening to a large island-dominated kitchenet.
Two worn chairs faced a bank of curved screens.
His gaze scraped the bare walls and grey floor. Cold. Dingy. Crumps, dust, stains, clutter. Broken family portraits lay scattered. One oil painting, ripped on the left side, stood propped on the floor, a forgotten project.
Elmer licked his lips. “Wh-where’s the Christmas tree?”
A snort and hollow laughter. “Christmas tree! What the hell is wrong with you?” She lumbered to the kitchen and dragged a chipped cup from the sink. She slapped the faucet, let water fill the container, plopped in a white pill, and watched it sizzle. She held out her offering. “Drink up!”
His whole body trembling, Elmer backed up, his hands raised. “What’s going on?”
Confusion raced irritation over Lana’s face. “I’ve heard of memory lapses, but this is a bit much. What’s the last thing you remember?”
Elmer edged his way to the nearest chair and plopped down, his body conforming to the seat, oddly comforting. “Christmas. We stopped at church for our ten-minute visit, came home, did our family video, then opened gifts. Jason gave us that new Virtual Reality Game…”
Lana sneered. “Ancient history, Elm. Christmas…church—mythology. Video chats for work, yeah, but who cares about family—it’s only DNA.” She wrinkled her nose and held out the cup.
He accepted it and sniffed. Nothing.
She tapped her wrist, bringing the screens to life. Rotating images flashed—a rainforest, a medieval castle, and a desert with broken down buildings. “Time to get back to the real world.”
Sucking in a heaving breath, Elmer shot up in bed, his heart racing. He glanced wildly around.
Lana, her long brown hair running riot over the blankets, lay on her side, her face in peaceful repose.
He heaved a long sigh and softly inched out of bed. Padding to the bathroom, he stared in the mirror. No grey streaks. A little bloodshot and brooding, but definitely his eyes. Thank God.
“I’m so tired. Get me that New-gen Marge gave me last night, okay?”
Blinking, Elmer trotted to the living room and snatched the curtain away from the bank of windows. A soft blanket of snow covered their miniature backyard. The maple tree still standing in the center. Furniture, Christmas tree, paintings on the wall. Familiar. Home. He released a long breath.
“Honey?” Her voice had risen to a whine.
Like a wolf approaching a strange den, he sidled toward the kitchenet. The flash of a curved screen glinted from under the tree as he went by.
A red box with huge letters “A New Generation” screamed on the central island.
His fingers trembling, Elmer opened the box.
Elmer closed the door, padded to his bedroom, and flopped onto the bed.
Sitting propped against a bank of colorful pillows with a book in her hands, Lana peered at him through narrowed eyes. “I still don’t get why you had to have the whole family over.”
“And what happened to the new VR set Jason gave us?”
Elmer kicked off his shoes and slid back onto the pillows. He wrapped his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “We don’t need it.”
She shook her head. “Like Marge’s gift?” She laid the book on her lap. “You know, you’ve been a different guy since New Year’s Day.”
Elmer exhaled and pulled his wife close, his passion real and desire rising. “I hope so, sweetie. I hope so.”
Sven massaged the woman’s flesh with renewed vigor. His last day! Visions of vacation paradise floated before his eyes.
A groan froze his fingers. Opps! He peered down at the figure sprawled on the table under his skilled hands. Perhaps the warm up massage was a bit much for her first time.
Sliding off the edge of middle age, Ms. Tolliver had stumbled into his office last week, complaining about shoulder and neck pain. He had done a quick check, diagnosed the problem—frozen shoulder undoubtedly—lots of ladies her age suffered from the common ailment, and set up a schedule for Physical Therapy three times a week for three weeks. He only had to manage the first visit, and then, while he was gone—having the time of his life—his aides would take over. By the time he returned, she’d be ready to beat her university peers at a high stakes game of Zinzinera.
Sven frowned as he peered down at her. She didn’t look very good at the moment. Her color seemed off somehow. Granted lots of ladies liked to dye their skin all sorts of weird colors these days. The multi-colored zebra look rather turned his stomach, but hey, who was he to make fashion comments. It was the year 4798 after all, and humanity knew how to have fun…
Speaking of fun…his mind trailed away to the playground he was going to enjoy for twenty whole days.
After the designated warming pad to relax the stretched tendons, Sven handed Ms. Tolliver a list of twelve routine exercises she could practice at home.
She wrinkled her nose, peering at the datapad as if she wasn’t sure what it all meant.
Annoyance crept over Sven. Good golly, was she an idiot? “They’re the same exercises I just did with you. Just repeat them at home each day and come in on your scheduled visits. You’ll be good as new in no time.”
Doubt clouded her eyes.
Fury boiled up in Sven. She doubts me? Me? Why, I’m the best physical therapist on the entire island. He had won the Australian “Healthy Lives” award six years running. Six! Bloody idiot. She didn’t deserve his attention. Just as well that he’d leave her to his aides. They weren’t as good as he was…well, that hardly mattered. They were good enough. He had trained them, after all. NewContinetalEurpose wanted him to speak at their next Inter-Alien symposium on how physical therapy could assist communication in mixed marriages. A bit of a stretch in his mind—after all, physical therapy wasn’t a cure-all. But heck, who was he to refuse the honor?
Ms. Tolliver tapped his arm. “Sorry, but I’m not sure I understand. I mean I don’t think I can—”
A bell chimed.
Sven’s heart pounded in anticipation while his voice rose above the tumult of various therapists, aides, and clients preparing to leave for the day. “You’ll be just fine! Go home, put your feet up, and relax.” He didn’t exactly mean to nudge her toward the door, but the silly idiot didn’t seem to realize that it was time to go.
In a matter of minutes, he had loaded his packed bags on the transport and was heading off planet to his dream vacation. He deserved some fun. After all, he worked hard and no one knew how to thank Sven better than he did.
Three weeks later…
Chenier grabbed a bottle of polish and tried once again to wipe the blood spot off her uniform. It wasn’t a big spot, but part of it smeared her embroidered nametag—Chenier Dobson, Physical Therapist Aide. Marcus had one just like it, except of course, his stated his name, Marcus Arius, and there was no blood spot on his. He had kept his distance when the poor woman started to bleed out.
Chenier sighed. She didn’t regret her actions. There was little she could have done to change the outcome. But she did think her boss had been a little remise. In fact, he had bungled the whole affair. Complete records were due on her datapad by the end of the day. Perhaps they would give her a better idea of what had really happened.
The chime signaled the start of a new day. She glanced at the roster streamed to the wallboard. A full week of patients waiting for relief from pain.
Marcus trotted near and leaned in, whispering, “He’s back.”
Fear shivered down Chenier’s spine “Does he know, you think?”
“Not by the look on his face.” Marcus sneered. “He’s been having the time of his life. His mother could’ve died, and he’d probably shrug it off.”
Chenier frowned. “His mother died seven years ago and, from the records, he doesn’t have much to do with his DNA relations.”
Marcus heaved a sigh and pressed his colleague’s shoulder. “Don’t expect too much.” He glanced at the line of men and women shuffling into the room. “It’s our job to relieve pain and loosen up tight joints. No one could’ve known Ms. Tolliver’s condition. She never said anything. So, let it go. Don’t even bother telling him. He won’t care.”
Chenier bit her lip as she watched her friend stride away.
Sven sauntered near, raising one hand in languid salute. “So, how are things? I’ve had the best vacation of my life!”
Chenier nodded. She squinted. Something seemed off about his color. A tinge green, perhaps? She shrugged the thought away. “You had a good time, I take it.”
“Of all the playgrounds off-planet, Corpus is the absolute best. I’ve already made reservations to go back next season.” He wiggled his eyebrows. “Can’t get too much of a good thing, I always say.” He looked around. “Everything as I left it?”
Chenier braced herself. “Well, there was one case, Ms. Tolliver…”
Sven yawned and stretched. “I need a little PT myself. Been having a bit of pain in my shoulder.” He rubbed his neck. “It got a little vigorous at one point…” He grinned. “If you know what I mean.”
Chenier stuck to her point like plaster to the wall. “Ms. Tolliver died on her third visit. Apparently, she suffered from—”
“That old bitty? She couldn’t follow directions if there were written onto her synapsis. Don’t worry about it.” Alarm spread across his face. “Unless someone here—”
“No it wasn’t our fault. It’s just that she had a pre-existing condition. She had—”
“Oh, well, then. Forget it. As long as it wasn’t out fault. I mean, old women die. Happens all the time. We’re Physical Therapists. We’re not God. Can’t fix everyone, you know.” He smiled down at his well-trained aide. “Just get on with your work.” He rolled his shoulders. “I’ll get Marcus to give me a bit of a work out. Gosh but I’m feeling a stiff today.”
Chenier watched him stumble across the padded floor, his arms stiffly at his side. “Serves him right if he does have a pulled joint or two.” She shrugged, checked the roster, and called on her first patient.
A week later, Chenier stood before the open vault, tapping her fingers against her thigh. She hated this place. Sweat dripped down her back, and she remembered with chagrin that she’d forgotten her deodorant this morning. Of all days too. Fear stank, and she was always afraid at these things.
When Marcus strolled up, relief surged through her. “Thank, God. I was thinking you might not show.”
Marcus held up his datapad. “I’m designated secretary. The Inter-Alien Alliance wants a record. Apparently this is now considered a dangerous trend.” He smirked. “Guess there is such a thing as having too much fun.”
Chenier pouted. “Ms. Tolliver didn’t do anything wrong. She just didn’t think to mention that she had just come back from vacation. Who would?”
Marcus lifted his hand authoritatively. “Sven should’ve seen the signs…”
With a sigh, Chenier shook her head. “If he had cared to see the danger for her, he might’ve see it for himself. Funny that.”
Marcus snorted. “Yeah, well, once I get his remains sent off, I’m taking a vacation myself.”
Chenier’s eyes widened. “Where to?”
Marcus laughed. “Me? Oh, I’m just going home to spend time with my DNA relations. As for Sven’s remains? Well, I’m sending them to Vacation Paradise. It’s where he always wanted to be.”
Noman surveyed the white walls, considered the silence of the empty tomb, and knew that hell existed. He wiggled his sand-encrusted toes and straightened, his long, loose tunic rippling with the movement. Sweat dripped down his back as blazing sunlight glared from an unrepentant blue sky.
Where was Abbas now?
With a smothered curse, he shifted his gaze away from the gapping hole. There was no point in torturing himself with what might have been. If only Abbas had listened. If only someone had cared enough to believe him. But it was too late. He was on Earth, the challenge had been made, and he could not unmake it. He could only prove them wrong.
Abbas’ face appeared before his eyes. A man he could have loved and served heart and soul. Instead, he had another mission. Even love had its limit.
A squeal turned his attention. A woman stood frozen on the rocky path, her eyes wide with fear.
A scorpion poised in her path, ready for attack.
Bumbling woman! Humans had an ever-ready supply of idiocy. He stepped forward. Stopped. Why should he? What was this archaic inclination to assist lesser beings? The very image of Abbas. Noman stayed in the shadows.
A young man jogged forward and froze. He glanced from the scorpion to the woman.
Her voice shaking, the woman covered her mouth with her trembling hand. “I was bitten once, nearly killed me.”
The youth leapt aside, grabbed a stone and whisked it at the pest.
The venomous creature scuttled away.
Clutching her chest, the woman swayed, closing her eyes.
The young man held her upright, gripping her elbow in his hand. “You’re safe. It’s gone.”
She opened her eyes, gratitude in every feature. “Thank you. My name is Anna. I’m going home—I was too scared to think.”
“I’m Georgios. Now worries. Will you be able to—?”
She clasped her hands with a formal bow in humility and gratitude.
After a parting smile, Georgios sped off.
With a glance ascending like a prayer, the young woman paced forward, a serene expression replacing her former anxiety.
Noman stepped forward and shook his head.
The scorpion was still nearby. Its mission to paralyze and eat its prey had not changed. Mutant kindness meant nothing. One day, she would not be so lucky.
He peered along the path Georgios had taken. The perfect object lesson. Georgios would prove his point to Abbas. Kind-hearted fools—the best argument for humanity’s humiliation.
Ark stared at the vial clasped in his mate’s tentacles. She was grinning. He had no such intention. Still, it was an honor, though an unexpected and unwelcome one.
“Are you absolutely sure?”
Meta shook the clear tube. “As sure as a triple check can be.”
Immersed in his studies in the laboratory, Meta should’ve had the sense to wait until they were in the pool to share this news. But what can one expect from a female? They’re always so blasted unpredictable. “Watch where you put your tentacles” and “Don’t turn your eyes from a female in the lab” were two oft repeated truisms bandied about the private male laboratories. The females had their own scientific centers, ones Ark avoided with due care.
He adjusted his nostril tube and rubbed the cilia on the top of his head. What he wouldn’t give to speak with Teal at this moment.
“You will own it, won’t you?” Meta was clearly in no mood for obfuscations.
“I’ll run my own tests, if you don’t mind. But in end, if as I suspect is true and the pod is mine, then, of course, I will own it.”
Meta exhaled, bubbles forming around her breathing tube, and her smile widening. “Good. Once I give birth next cycle, it’s all yours!”
A crash splintered the silence.
Ark peered at the floor where his latest experiment had spilled in a gelatinous goo across the floor. One brief, well, three brief pleasant encounters, and he’d be paying for uncountable cycles. Perhaps for the rest of his natural life!
Meta shrugged her numerous shoulders and waved all six tentacles. “Make sure you clean that up carefully. You don’t want to get sick. New father and all.” With a giggle, she waddled through the open doorway.
A throb building behind his eyes, Ark lusted for a tall glass of green and a trip to Lux. Yes, he’d stop by and see Teal. Compare fatherhood stories. After all, it was Teal who made interacting with the opposite sex so appealing. Had it all been a lie?
Before he officially met his offspring, he must find out.
Teal held Sienna close, her head resting comfortably on his chest as she slept in perfect security. They didn’t need to maintain human form, but he realized, with a luxurious sigh, that the human body offered something the Luxonian experience lacked: a wide range of physical pleasures.
Despite humanity’s limited knowledge and complete absence of technology, they did know a thing or two about adding spice to life, literally speaking.
Before leaving Earth, Sienna had rubbed coconut butter into her skin, and the exotic scent pulsed erotic sensations through his whole body. Her hair, rain-washed and lightened by the sun, rippled through his fingers as he ran his hand along her back. After they returned to Lux, they had made love late into the night, but arousal returned with a vengeance as the first streaks of morning light filtered through the window.
Sienna stirred, stretched, and opened her eyes.
Their gazes met.
Would he ever stop falling in love with this woman?
“You’re awake?” Sienna stretched. “I thought you’d be worn out — ready to sleep through the day.”
With a grin, he ran his fingers along her side and —
Sienna sat up, clutching the bedsheet. “I don’t feel so — ” Leaping from the bed, she ran to the lavabo, the Luxonian refreshment room. Luxonians, as light beings, didn’t need the same care as humans, but they did need refreshment at times.
Trying to realign his plans for the morning, he climbed out of bed and grabbed his clothes. Disgruntled, he glanced at the doorway Sienna had sped through and considered following her. No, if she needed him, she’d ask. He pulled on his tunic and tied on his sandals.
A muffled call. “Dad?”
Teal stepped to the door, opened it, and met the gaze of his young son in his human form dressed in a simple brown tunic. “Cerulean, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just wanted to know when we’re going. I read a report about an unusual — ”
A heavy weight dropped on Teal’s chest. He had promised his son, but a visit to Earth wasn’t high on his agenda right now. He glanced back to the bed. “We haven’t decided yet. There’s a lot to think about.”
Sienna, dressed in a long dark blue tunic with a matching belt, swayed forward. She lifted Teal’s arm, snuggled in close, and pressed his hand onto her hip. She grinned at her son. “You’ll go soon, honey. But your father and I have some decisions to make. Let’s figure out the best time, and we’ll get you all set.” She arched her eyebrows. “You’ll be a guardian your whole life, don’t rush your childhood away, all right?”
Shifting his gaze from his mother to his father, Cerulean bit his lip, his words stifled.
Teal’s heart ached. He knew that look. He’d wanted to go on his first mission so much he could hardly contain his enthusiasm, but it had taken several tries to find the right placement. Once he discovered humanity on Earth, he never wanted to leave. He ran his fingers over Sienna’s belly. Until lately.
Cerulean liked to practice every mannerism he had learned from his off-world studies. With a curt nod and a slight bow, he respectfully turned away.
Teal closed the door.
Sienna sighed. “He really wants to go. His heart is set on it.”
Teal shrugged. “But we just got home. There’s nothing going on that can’t wait. He has to learn patience. The most important lesson in guardianship is knowing how to bide your time.” He leaned over and kissed Sienna, first on the cheek and then on the lips.
She groaned, Teal believed in pleasure, but then she slid her hand between them and halted his momentum toward the bed. “I can’t.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m not feeling well.”
Teal looked away and tried to regain his composure. Anxiety crawled over his spine. He peered at her. “Are you ill?”
After a playful pinch on his arm, Sienna strode to the window. She leaned against the low railing and rested her head on the flower entwined post. Light shone over the calm blue-green water and cascaded across her face. Her whole being shimmered. “I can feel sick without being sick.”
An electric bolt could not have shocked Teal more. He leaped across the room and grabbed her arm, tugging her out of her reverie. “Are you — ”
A languid smile spread across Sienna’s face. “I think so.” A shadow darkened her features as she met his gaze. “It’s so rare these days — to be twice blessed. I must be one of the lucky ones.”
Cold fear shivered over Teal’s body. “But is it safe?”
Sienna stared at the sun and shimmered, her whole body wavering into colorful light beams. “Life isn’t safe, my love.” She stood there, a brilliant chorus of light rays, her voice clear as crystal. “Take Cerulean to Earth and let me rest. The future will unfold as it must.” She blinked away.
Joy and terror ran riot through’s Teal’s mind. He peered at his trembling hands. Humanity may have an edge on physical pleasure, but they faced fear much the same.
Every now and again, an opportunity strolls up and shakes my hand. Over the years, my response has changed from over-exuberant my-life will-now-be-so-much-better fantasy to a take-it-as-it-comes-live-in-the-moment reality, saving me a great deal of disappointment and offering me a whole new take on life.
A few weeks ago, Dick emailed and asked if I wanted to be on their show. The old me would’ve read the title and shied away. The new me investigated, listened to a podcast, and realized that with their down-to-earth sense of humor, I might have some fun. So I took a chance and, on Sunday, I wrote a short story from their prompt, got online, chatted with them about science fiction characters, books, the writing process, and even read Jay’s story out loud. Good golly, I did have fun!
I didn’t spend a minute beforehand trying to imagine what the process was going to look like. I didn’t spend quality brain space on what might be, should be, or futuristic could be. What a relief.
The show should air next Monday, and I have no idea what it will sound like, but I’m confident that the final product will reflect nothing less than fellow human beings’ passion for a good story, no matter what the title.
During the week, an online friend, Anne DeSantis, invited me to create a podcast describing God’s mercy in my life. Once again, the old me would’ve balked at the whole idea of creating my own audible podcast. The new me figured that if I could learn how to text without causing inter-planetary disturbances, I could learn this without risking human extinction. I did manage to record my story, and Smart Catholicshttps://smartcatholics.com/now have an A. K. Frailey podcast on their roster.
So many people have written to me from various places and online sources that I can’t possibly keep track. I’m happy to read a book, reflect on a story, answer a question, or simply wish someone a good day. The old me would try to keep records, arrange future chats, attempt to sell my books, or micro-manage every situation. Not possible these days. And that’s been a blessing.
One memorable evening, years ago, I was eating dinner with my husband at a diner on the way home from visiting my Dad in Kansas. We had five young kids at the time, but they were well behaved. (The food stayed on the plates anyway.) A lady stopped by on her way out and congratulated us on our parenting skills. My husband practically glowed. Though, what I remember most was her parting comment, “I don’t know how you do it. I simply don’t have that much love to spare.”
I’ve thought about that comment through the years. Personally, I believe that love and opportunities have a great deal in common. Neither likes to be over-managed or stuffed into a box. The old me managed every detail and loved as safely as possible. The new me understands the difference between organization and a straight jacket. The old me thought I knew what the future held. The new me laughs a lot more.
In fact, I’d say that when an opportunity approaches these days, I don’t size it up with a critical eye. I just take its hand and love it.