Terminal Bud

If she’d possessed the hard enamel teeth of the men below her, she would have gritted them.  The warm breeze that whispered through the branches offered no consolation.  The rough bark of the limb she’d lighted upon was only a coarse reminder this was not her tree.

Her tree lay upon the ground with many other casualties.  When the half dozen men arrived in this section of the forest, she tricked herself into believing they would not cut down her tree.

It was a beautiful entity, strong and stalwart and among the largest along this mountain slope.  After all, the trees her kind inhabited always grew into magnificent beings.

And at first the workmen focused their predations on her tree’s kindred, which was bad enough.  But then they turned to her abode with their saws and axes, and soon her scream became part of the creak and groan of the wood as her counterpart plummeted to the desecrated earth.

Stripped of her beloved, she sought refuge among these fated branches.  The despicable men beneath her deserved every shred of her ire … but the pittance that was her fault fanned her wrath.

Only a few of their generations ago, humans designated segments of forest meant to be preserved from their own marauding.  She must have strayed outside that invisible boundary when she united with the seed that would become her tree.

Or they might have changed that boundary.  One constant about humanity was their propensity for changing their own rules.

Somebody was going to pay for this….

She chose the largest of the men, the one most instrumental in felling her ally.  Even in her rage, a shudder rippled through her, because the sensation of descending upon him would not be pleasant.

She dropped from the branch and settled on his lumpy shoulders.  Ugh.  If only he could have noticed her, she would have liked to at least send a chill down his spine.

That she didn’t have an exact plan for his chastisement was of no concern.  After all, she was ancient, so waiting for an opportune moment was acceptable even as she despised contact with this goon.

Further back in history, when mankind struggled consistently with devastation and death – and feared it less – they offered supplication upon harvesting a tree necessary to help them struggle for survival.  The intrusion then was still annoying, but tolerable compared to the rudeness of these people, who whooped in profane words and made a variety of foul noises.

The tools of their trade were mostly too complicated for her to influence.  As she perched upon her quarry, the roar of a chainsaw gnawed through her almost as effectively as though she were entangled in its relentless teeth.  A bulldozer occasionally lumbered nearby, rending and crushing the smaller underbrush until they would park it to survey their next killing ground.

Her existence, which began when light was from separated from dark, was based on simplicity.  Whenever she occupied a tree while it was a tender sapling, she could preserve it from any beast that might dig it up or trample it or devour it beyond recovery.

But humanity, with whom her kind shared this narrow band of gray between the beings of light and the beings of dark, lost much of their communion with the immaterial as they became increasingly material in their pursuits.  Many no longer heeded her because they no longer listened for any voice whispered from beyond.

Limited in her ability to strike back, she could only wait and watch.  Eventually, surely, he was bound to do something that she could influence.  And then again he grasped the axe.

She’d observed them do this before.  One of his cronies pushed an orange wedge into the notch of a tree and stepped back.  Her corpulent transport stepped forward and swung the axe so the back of its head would drive the wedge deeper into the wound.

Now was her chance.

She shot up the lifeless handle formed from a material that was unnatural and therefore distasteful.  She grasped the heavy metal head as it hurled toward the wedge.

About halfway to its mark, she knocked it free from the handle.

She clung on as it spun, steering it into the hard trunk of the hapless tree.  And as it ricocheted toward her target, she rode it into the angle that aimed it at his forehead, beneath the bill of the hardhat he wore.

He flinched and tried to duck.

Despite the speed of the cool metal, she altered the course of the axe head to match his movement.  When the blade drove above his left eyebrow, she leaped free from the rebound and into the branches of the tree they were assaulting.

More profanity erupted from the other man as her quarry dropped to the ground.  The assistant called to the others as he dashed to the crumpled form.  The others scurried about, mostly to the fallen victim.  One grabbed a red bag from the bulldozer before sprinting to the mob.

She neither knew nor cared exactly how much damage the blow dealt.  For a split second, if she’d possessed the soft fleshy lips of the men below her, she would have smiled.  Her satisfaction evaporated as she contemplated her fallen tree, and she fluttered down to its remains.

As she pressed against the one of the sectioned off portions of the trunk, its cold and silence seemed to seep into her.  No longer did vivacious sap pump through the phloem beneath the bark.  No more did its branches hum softly from the wind’s caress.

She whispered her love to it, said goodbye, and launched herself into the warm breeze.

Everything that had a beginning had an end.  If she did not find another seed to unite with, the wind that carried her now would nibble her away bit by bit, eventually reducing her to her ultimate fate.  Otherwise, there was only one other time she was vulnerable….

As she soared over the green top of the forest, seeking a stand within those protected boundaries humans arbitrarily drew, she remembered her tree.  She yearned for the memory of its life, but the grief of its demise haunted her.

Odd, such events hadn’t disturbed her this much in the past.  Those darn men must have unsettled her in more ways than one.

Odd, recalling the form of the man she struck lying upon the ground was not as satisfying as it initially was … and seemed to deepen her grief….

She found a patch that was lush and promising, and hovered over the ground while sensing for sprouts that might awaken come spring.  A seed ripe with promise caught her attention.

The leaf litter and dirt lightly scratched her as she settled beneath it.  Darkness enveloped her as she settled into the seed and prepared to drift into the sleep that tied her to this kernel.  Its fate became her fate.  She could not influence it at this stage.  If it did not survive, neither would she.

The seed could be her womb … or her tomb.

Perhaps she shouldn’t have acted so hastily against those irritating men.  They did share more than this narrow band of gray.  After all, like them she was born in darkness.  And like them she had the choice of remaining in the dark or embracing the light that reached down to her.

###

Here is my contribution this month to #BlogBattle, and this time the prompt word was Park.  Such a simple word, but it proved to be quite challenging.  So be sure to check out the other stories and see how those writers handled a simple word!

Did You See That?

While scanning the article, the dangling modifier caught her eye.

You saw that, right?  The way the words are arranged in the preceding sentence, it sounds like an alien creature tried to pluck someone’s peepers while scanning an article.  And although the dangling modifier, also known as a dangling participle, can inject alien influence into a sentence, it’s also an easy fix.

In general the inappropriate word or phrase doesn’t actually refer the word it’s intended to modify.  Sometimes the word it meant to refer to doesn’t even appear in the sentence, which is an easy slip because the writer has the subject firmly in mind, but the words don’t come out the way they’re supposed to.  For instance:

With a glance at the gamboling goats, the gate closed.

Obviously gates don’t glance at goats and close themselves.  The farmer who actually carried out these activities fell out of the sentence.  And writers usually fall into that error because they’re trying to mix up sentence structure beyond the subject-predicate-object arrangement.

As stated, it’s easy enough to fix.  The first sentence can be:  While scanning the article, she noticed the dangling modifier.

And the capricious caretaker can receive his credit:  With a glance at the gamboling goats, the farmer closed the gate.

Making modifications to the wrong subject can cause hilarity as well as confusion.  When you look over the following examples, notice the twisted image they present, and then determine how to right their wrongs:

Hungry after the long hike, the sandwich was eaten with relish.

Having finished the romantic meal, the radio was turned on.

Drinking a glass of wine, the chicken tasted even better.

Disappointed, the woolly sheep could not be shorn.

Bedraggled but expensive, she decided not to buy the rooster.

Keeping those modifiers from dangling isn’t hard, although they can slip in when you least expect it.  Pay attention to those words and how they influence each other.  It just goes to show that by reviewing the writing, the error becomes clear.

You saw that, right…?

Common Ground

“But what will happen to humanity if it’s dispersed across numerous planetary systems?”  Oma wasn’t sure if it was the idea that unsettled her, or the simple fact that for the first time in her life she was walking on solid ground and breathing a natural atmosphere.

She wasn’t even sure why she had been selected to be part of this committee.  Yes, she was the captain of the first interstellar ship to make contact with an alien species … except the humans were the outsiders in this part of the universe, which technically made them the aliens….

“It’s not so different from being divided among eight ships.”  Her son-in-law, Jeron, smirked as he glanced toward her and shrugged.

Jeron and Kirati had convinced her to accompany them to an outside patio – for lack of a better word – as part of taking a momentary break from their consultation with the Bavphet.  The outdoor terrace overlooked a range of multiple islands stretched in a crooked line across a turquoise ocean.

“And this is what our ancestors hoped for.”  Kirati smiled as she swirled her drink, a pale blue, luminescent tea native to this planet.  Oma had never met her before yesterday since they were from different ships, but quickly learned the svelte history keeper was game to sample any cuisine verified safe for human consumption.

Oma gave them credit for convincing her to step outside the multifaceted building constructed from stone that reminded her of obsidian – or rather, of pictures she’d seen of obsidian.  She’d spent her whole life of nearly fifty years on a spaceship.  And while she appreciated the agricultural tracts maintained by keepers like Jeron, the lack of containment and airlocks on the planet’s surface proved to be a bit disconcerting….

“It was one of many possibilities.”  She leveled her gaze on Kirati.  “They also knew they might never find a planet that would sustain them.”

Jeron raised his dun arms toward the azure sky.  “And yet, look.”  He turned in a slow circle.  “The parameters for life seem to be universal.  Yes, oxygen and nitrogen levels vary a bit, but the elemental cycles are still present.”

Kirati’s green eyes stayed locked on her face.  “I don’t believe it’s coincidence we stumbled upon the Bavphet when we did.”

“Yes, finding this interplanetary alliance is fortuitous.”  Oma didn’t shift her focus.  “But we haven’t even seen the other available worlds.  Leastways, not it real life.  And you of all people should be aware of potential cultural conflicts, history keeper.”

Kirati smiled and shifted her attention to Jeron.  “You’re right.  She’s tenacious.”

Oma frowned at him, somewhat in jest.  “Sowing discord instead of crops?”

“Far from it.”  He grinned.  “I was pointing out what a dedicated captain you are.”

“Your viewpoint is in the minority.”  Kirati sipped from her tea, and then leaned against a knotty tree, one of several dotting the rosy flagstone.  “Our ancestors anticipated such an attitude, which is why they established keepers to perpetuate a fascination for the ecology of Earth and the desire to return to that lifestyle.”

“I understand most people embrace that desire.”  Considering her associates were around twenty years younger than her, Oma could grasp why they didn’t share the security she felt on board a ship.

Jeron shrugged.  “But that doesn’t make you obsolete.”

“Quite the contrary.”  Kirati nodded.  “Those who feel more space-bound would be ideal for shuttling between the colonies.  You would in essence be the glue that helps hold humanity together.”

She locked her gaze on the young woman again.  As a captain, she was accustomed to remaining calm even though this discussion caused her stomach to flutter.

“You’re talking as though we’ve already decided to merge with the natives of all the available planets.”

Kirati tilted her head to one side.  “I know you resist the idea … but you’ve got to admit there is no other alternative.”

“These Bavphet are technological geniuses.  They solved our communication barrier, for crying out loud.  They’ve already unified the sciences of other worlds, allowing the systems to live independently while working with each other.  They can help us rebuild our ships, modernize our equipment–”

“Forgive me, Captain.”  Jeron clasped his hands together.  “But you are ignoring the fact humanity – and the flora and fauna we brought with us – really isn’t designed for long-term space habitation.  Despite technology and medicine, we face challenges to keep surviving in ways that won’t erase our very humanity.”

She knew when her oldest daughter brought this guy home that he didn’t allow rank to intimidate him, and his reference to her rank signaled he was keeping this discussion on the professional level.

Somehow, that didn’t sit right with her.

“Our adaptability is a herald of humanity.  That’s how we made it this far.”

“And this is far enough.”  Kirati raised her glass.  “It’s time to return to terra firma, generally speaking.”

“Is that why you brought me out here?  To convince me to favor colonization on the available planets?  It sounds like my opinion is already outnumbered.”

Jeron drew a deep breath and slowly exhaled before replying.  “Oma, you’re right.  It’s inevitable that colonization will take place.  And it’s inevitable conflicts will arise with the natives.  They’re accustomed to interacting with each other, but not to living with each other.”

“And that’s where you come in.”  Kirati nodded.  “We’re considering several planets, not just a planet, because it lessens the socio-political strain for the inhabitants of this sector.”

“Your concerns are completely valid.”  Jeron folded his arms over his chest.  “And that’s why we need somebody like you to remain on neutral ground.”  He tilted his head and smirked.  “Or rather, neutral space.”

Was this supposed to be some kind of joke?  She was a captain of an interstellar ship, not a counselor or arbitrator.  Their suggestion made as much sense as the court’s appointing her to participate in this committee….

Hmm, everybody knew she resisted the idea of colonization.  And it wasn’t just the big picture that disconcerted her.  Humanity mingling with various aliens … natives … whatever … meant she had something more personal at stake.

“You’re threatening to break up my family.”  Oma locked her gaze on his face.

His mouth shifted into that smile her daughter claimed was one of the aspects she found appealing about him.  “It’s true we’re thinking Dea sounds like a nice planet to settle on.  But it’s not like we’re encouraging all her siblings to move in with us.”

She glanced toward Kirati, who had the good sense to examine a bug-like creature on one of the tree’s chartreuse leaves, perhaps wondering if it cooked up as a tasty treat.

“It would be the best of both worlds for you, or rather, world and space.”  He nodded.  “You can visit any time.  And rest assured, if you ever tire of flying among the stars, you’re welcome to land with us.”

Oma had to shift her gaze to the ocean for a few seconds.  Waves crashed against the craggy islands, expending most of their energy on the barrier that protected the shoreline.  By the time they reached the pebbly beach below where she and her associates stood, the pulsing water lapped among the stones.

Maybe it would all work out….

Her attention returned to Jeron.  “You’re trying to put ideas into my head.”

His smile broadened.  “I know better than to confront you directly.”

###

Here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and this time the word is Merge.  Be sure to check out the other submissions and discover how these stories come together to serve the noble purpose of writing encouragement!

Artificial Reality

There is a seed of truth in all stories.  Even in fantastical tales of flying dragons and slurping aliens, an element of reality gives readers something to identify with.

We snuggle into books, and the more we are immersed in a world other than our own, the happier it makes us.  Seeking out pleasure is not a bad aspect of human nature:  It inspires us to invent, stimulates social interaction, and encourages food that makes you want to go back for seconds.

But when pleasure takes precedence, we have a problem.

A saying I’ve heard also sounds like a plot outline in a (not so) futuristic story:  Bad times make good people; good people make good times; good times make bad people; bad people make bad times.

The term affluenza was coined to explain a malaise inflicting the culture over the last few decades.  Materialism led to a form of short-sightedness, a failure to understand consequences of actions and resulting in poor judgment.  And what has that led to?

There seems to be a rebellion against reality.  Humanity has grown so comfortable that it’s developed an aversion to anything that causes discomfort.  Heck, there’s talk of how some day people will be able to plug into virtual reality devices and spend their whole “interacting” with others through avatars.  They can create a comfortable world and hide from this one, where, quite frankly, reality bites.

Well, that’s the thing about reality:  In the end, it will always win.  And if it does so by biting, that’s because folks tried to deny it for too long.  There’s a lot that seems kind of bleak these days, that feels like we’re in the depths of some dystopian novel, but it can give us something to look forward to.

After all, bad times make good people.

And that seems to be part of the joy of reading a good book.  We get caught up in all the terrible things happening on those pages, and invest ourselves in the lives of people who don’t really exist.  But we reach the final page with satisfaction and close the book.  And then we return to reality … and hopefully bring with us that seed of truth.

Because it is in reality that seed can grow.

Skin Deep

“You will not find a more potent hypnotic,” Samiya purred as she offered Rhys the open jar.

He reached for it, but she slipped it back toward her chest.  Her full, burgundy lips curled in a demure smile, and her coffee irises seemed to glow from a hidden ember.  Rhys had trouble determining her age, and that enigma only confirmed her identity.

“I can’t examine it?”

“Look.  Do not touch.”  Again she extended her arm, slender and reminiscent of silky chocolate.  “Mere contact is enough to trigger an altered state.”

The drab, patinous powder filled two-thirds of the pint jar.  It was unremarkable compared to the dried plants and animal parts that hung from the beams of – for lack of a better term – her hut.  Constructed from canvas and hide and lumber and mud brick, it was a syncretism of modern and ancient architecture, blending into the arid landscape.

Her shop of horrors, located beyond sight from the town, was close enough for wayfarers to stumble upon.  Even now children played nearby in the cool of morning, their shouts muffled but clear.

And his investigating partner, Kazim, hid nearby, waiting for the quarry they truly sought.  Although native to this country, he determined Rhys should be the one to contact Samiya.  She would be less suspicious of him since he looked like just another khawarja, white guy, and was good at coming across as a witless wonder.

Kazim had a way with words.

“Hypnosis has its limitations.”  His gaze returned to her face, and in spite of himself admired her even, sculpted features framed in coiled, black tresses.  “You can’t, for instance, compel a pacifist to kill.”

Her lids lowered and lips pouted.  “What is it you desire?”

“I need complete control.”

The satisfaction of her smile made Mona Lisa look grumpy.  “Then you find what you seek.  All you need do is adjust the dosage.  A pinch renders the subject susceptible to suggestion.  A handful will make him submit to any whim.  Any more than that will cause unconsciousness.”

“How long until it takes effect?”

“A matter of seconds.”  Samiya tilted her head, which seemed to accentuate the gracefulness of her neck.  “This is my own recipe, perfected only recently.”

“Did your husband help you develop it?”

Her smile became impish, like a little girl caught lurking outside the boy’s locker room.  Her free hand glided from her shoulder to the wrist, and the tips of her delicate fingers rippled over an ornate bracelet of gold and shimmering stones.

“I have no husband.”

Despite the sultriness of her action, his acuity snapped into high gear.  That bracelet was not what it appeared.

She’d just summoned the husband she denied.  Okie-doke, two could play at that game.

“Oh, come now.”  Rhys shrugged as he rubbed the back of his neck, enabling him to tap the alert button on the communication device lodged behind his ear.  “Surely a sweetie like you needs more than some noxious potions to keep the wolves at bay?”

Her smile implied that whoever claimed flattery would get you nowhere had never tried it.  “The men around here know what is good for them.  They want their children to explore the hills and gather herbs they can sell me.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Poverty is a taskmaster.  But I control that condition, which makes me their ultimate master.”

Her admission was as startling as a used-car salesman proclaiming he peddled lemons.  Then again, that boldness was probably bolstered by expectation of her husband’s arrival.

“But what about your customers from beyond these borders?”

The curtain in the doorway rustled, and since Kazim hadn’t alerted him their quarry was on the way, Rhys only glanced toward the disturbance.  A local boy, maybe around ten years old, focused on Samiya as he stepped inside, perhaps hoping to sell her herbs.  Rhys returned his attention to the woman.

His subconscious twitched.

His gaze shot back to the lad, who glared at him with amber, swirling eyes and slit pupils.

Knickers – she hadn’t summoned her husband, but her son.

The preternatural offspring sprang forward, hissing, and at a height above Rhys’s head.  With a similar but lower spring, Rhys slammed into the wall behind the woman.  A Zulu-style shield hanging where he collided crashed to the floor of packed earth.

The boy landed on the spot Rhys just vacated.  With a rumble reminiscent of a crocodile’s growl, he raised a dagger probably in his clutches since entering the hut.

Rhys snatched the shield with his left hand, and with the right drew a pulser – like a pistol that fired charges – from his pocket.  He’d rather not shoot–

Gritty powder struck the left side of his face, a tangible reminder Samiya was nearby, and adept at flinging contents in jars.  A greenish cloud stung his eyes and an acrid aroma burned his nostrils.  He stopped inhaling, although the damage was already done.

His head swam.

Kazim burst through the doorway, pulser drawn.  And – like any good man upon spying a woman and a child – hesitated.

The boy spun around and lunged in a low tackle toward his new prey.

A peep cracked from Kazim’s pulser as a wad of light hurtled just over the boy’s shoulder.  The projectile flashed as it struck the wall between Rhys and Samiya.  The so-called lad nearly succeeded in slashing Kazim as he struck, but the man deflected the blow with an arm sweep and kick.

His knees wobbled as Rhys hurled the shield toward their attacker.  He tried to aim low enough to disable the boy, but the room seemed to spin around him and he struggled to avoid falling forward from his own momentum.

As the shield struck the assailant’s head, blood splattered toward Kazim as Rhys dropped to his knees.  No, he hadn’t meant to throw with that much force … and because it was impossible for a mere human to execute, he’d betrayed his identity.

He collapsed to the floor.

Traitor!” Samiya screeched, and from the corner of his bleary vision he spied her lunge toward him, a larger knife in her grip.

A flash of light struck her as a peep cracked from Kazim’s position.  Rhys’s vision darkened but he believed he heard her strike the wall.

Well, that went poorly was his final, conscious thought.

*****

“Don’t sit up too fast.”  Kazim’s baritone voice seemed to emanate from the acacia trees that surrounded them.

Rhys welcomed the warning since the world still felt like it was spinning faster than usual.  He preferred to not leap to his feet, ready to defend himself.

“Oh … what a night.”  As he propped up on elbows from his supine position, he noted they were nowhere near the hut, but in a dusty field dotted by trees.

His heart dropped when he spied only Kazim step closer to him.  No prisoners.  There was no question Samiya’s son didn’t survive the blow to the head, but he’d hoped his partner would be able to detain the woman.

Rhys inched into sitting up.  “Where’s Samiya?”

“I had plenty of time to dispose of the bodies.”  Kazim folded his arms, his left wrist bandaged with white cloth.  “You’ve been out for hours.”

“That doesn’t exactly answer my question.”  He had a nagging suspicion that if Kazim told him to go roll in rhinoceros dung, he might just do it, and not to symbolically express his opinion of how this takedown went.

“I don’t know if she turned the knife on herself or just cut herself accidentally, but she was already dying when I got to her.  That blade was poisoned.”

“Looks like it was lucky for you her son’s knife wasn’t spiked, also.”

Kazim shrugged.  “It might be lucky for you they’re both dead.  If word got out who you really are, your career as a Tracker will get cut short.”

Rhys pressed his fingers against his temple and rubbed, hoping that would make the spinning slow enough for him to stand.  “Finding our target will be harder with her out of the picture … and I really wish I hadn’t wasted his son.”

Kazim raised an eyebrow as a corner of his mouth curled up.  “You’re a hopeless optimist.  That creature would have never turned to our side.”

“Stranger things have happened.”  Nope, the world still seemed to have somewhere to go and was in a hurry to get there.  “And I’m not just speaking from personal experience.”

“Speaking of personal experience, this whole fiasco is going to be a truckload of fun to explain to the elders.”

Was it focusing on Kazim that helped to steady the swoon … or contemplating the reality of what his associate just said?  Maybe he’d rather go roll in rhino excrement….

“And you claim I’m the one who’s always the optimist.”

###

Here is my contribution to this month’s #BlogBattle, and the word this round is Hypnotic.  Be sure to check out the other stories!

Falling off the Writing Wagon

It’s fall, and speaking of which …you might not have traveled much last year.  Neither did Hubby and I.

This year we made up for it.

Between what needed to be done and what looked like reasonable fun, we became gadabout excursionists over the last few months.  The experiences were enriching, but my writing … suffered.  Deadlines became DOA.  Goals flopped into face -plants.

So I’ve fallen terribly behind schedule, but all we writers can do is continue persevering.  Shoot, one of my distractions this summer was a writers’ conference.  And now with the holidays coming up … well, better late than never, as they say.

They also say a picture is worth a thousand words, so since we’ve got a theme going on:

P.S. It seems like many people I’ve talked with also feel fallen behind on their own projects.  Maybe there’s something in the water….

We Come in Pieces

Bliss ran from hilltop to valley, and through fields and woods.  When she finally lingered near a stream to catch her breath and sip a drink, she cursed the Martians.

Well, the aliens weren’t really from Mars, but many people called them that.

The name game started when some busybodies suggested that calling them aliens was, well, alienating.  But after the attacks began, they got referred to in lots of other epithets.  Folks less inclined to swearing than Bliss was usually refrained from such monikers, but while she kneeled near the stream, she pretty much labeled them everything but Martians.

Wishing she had a light jacket to throw over her tee shirt, she surveyed the currently quiet forest around her.  Patches of smaller brush, guilty of lashing her bare arms and slapping against her jeans, were scattered throughout taller trees still sporting yellow and crimson leaves.

A sneeze from only thirty yards away prompted her to snatch the .45 pistol tucked into her belt at the small of her back.

Bliss swore under her breath as she aimed at the area the sound must have come from.  She had only five shots left, and these *#@%ing Martians were capable of splintering into eight components….

“Don’t shoot!”  The man who walked out from behind a tree swollen enough to conceal him held his hands up in the air.

Bliss lowered the pistol enough to keep him out of direct aim.  “Keep your distance!”

“I have been this whole time.”  His button-down shirt and khaki slacks looked as smudged as her own clothing, and he appeared to be wearing a daypack.

“You mean you’ve been following me?”

“Well, yes, there’s safety in numbers, you know.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”  At least imitating humans was not a feature of these fiends, but she couldn’t assume his motives were entirely altruistic.  “The Martians seem to like swooping in on groups to maximize their harvest.”

“Just two people don’t make a group.  My name’s Brandon, by the way.”

Bliss wasn’t in the mood to introduce herself.  “Unless you’re loaded for bear, I don’t need your help.”

“I was thinking more along the lines we could combine our resources.”  He began to slowly lower his hands.  “For one thing, I’ve got a little food.”

That was one of the oldest tricks in the book.  “I doubt you have enough for both of us.”

“It’s no banquet, but it could stretch berries and roots.”  He reached for his back pocket, so she raised the pistol.  “Easy there, I just need to wipe my nose before it drips.  Bad first impression.”

He pulled a white handkerchief from behind his hip.  It made her think of a surrender flag, and wasn’t sure if that should make her feel relieved or worried.

She waited for him to finish blowing his nose.  “How did you wind up bringing food?”

“I was in a pharmacy hoping to find some marbles that were out of stock in the other store when the Martians attacked the town.  Grabbed some bean dip and granola bars before making my break.”

She lowered the pistol again.  “Why were you following me?”

“I saw you take off after you gunned down an arm and a leg.  I know shooting them only slows them down, but creating an alliance with somebody who’s armed seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Why did you wait until now to make your presence known?”

A small smirk twisted his lips.  “I had trouble keeping up with you.  Did you run track in high school?”

Bliss shrugged as she returned the pistol to her belt, but still berated herself for never checking her rear flank.  “At least it seems we outran them.  Too bad you didn’t grab any ammo while you were at it.”

Brandon sneezed again, and wiped his nose with the hanky before replying.  “Ammo is probably even harder to find than marbles these days.”

“You sick?”

“Just allergies.  They’re always worse in the fall.  So, shall we form our own militia?”

“I suppose.”  She shrugged again while nodding for him to step closer.  “I just wish the scatter-brained politicians hadn’t pulled our troops out prematurely.  They could’ve at least slowed down a lot more Martians.”

“Well, if you like conspiracy theories, I heard a story they escaped from a lab.”  He strolled toward her.  “Being visited by aliens was supposed to distract us from the supply chain disruption, inflation, and spending bills.”

“Or it’s another crisis to take advantage of.”

Brandon tilted his head as he halted a few feet from her.  “Hey, you got a point there–”

A snap came from behind the tree.

Bleep, he didn’t check his rear flank, either.  Too drained to sprint away at the pace she’d held earlier, Bliss yanked the pistol back out.

The Martian darted into view, and for a second it was reminiscent of a child’s incorrect drawing of a spider.  It had a head and a torso and two legs, but sported four arms.  And then it did that creepy thing.

The body parts disjointed, and a head, a torso, two legs and four arms dispersed into a jagged line and scrambled toward them.

Bliss hesitated, wanting to be sure she got off an accurate shot.  Her new comrade grabbed a nearby limb and gripped it near his head.

“I shoot a part, and then we run for it!” she hissed.

“Oh no, I think this branch triggered my allergies–”

The head was at the front of the charge, and closer to Brandon.  Afraid she might hit him, she didn’t fire as it launched into the air and toward his face.

He should have been able to bat it away like a baseball, but instead, he sneezed.  His swing completely missed the head.

It bounced off his chest and rolled back on the ground.  And then Bliss couldn’t believe what she saw next.

As the head moaned in a high pitch, it and all the other parts ceased their advance and started writhing.  In the next few seconds the color of its skin darkened from a pale pink to a septic green.  The eyes of the head rolled back, the cheeks sunk in, and then everything became still.

They stared at the remains for a few seconds before he murmured, “What happened?”

Laughter rippled in her chest but didn’t break to the surface.  “Wow!  That was like War of the Worlds on steroids!”

His brow furrowed.  “Maybe I’m asymptomatic.”

“I don’t care.”  Bliss grabbed his hand.  “Let’s go Brandon!  We’ve got to let everybody know we might have a way to make these aliens something to sneeze at!”

###

So here is my contribution to #BlogBattle this month, and the word this time is Scattered.  As you can see, I decided to just have some fun with it….

Have some fun checking out all the other submissions!

Turnabout is Fowl Play

Back in the spring I pointed out how chickens are not on the bottom of the food chain even though everything likes the taste of chicken.  An incident from the other day reminded me what opportunists they really are.

In that previous post, we observed our hens running around with a fairly large snake they’d dispatched.  What I didn’t mention was that I did wonder how much revenge had come into play for that event.

 

You see, occasionally we’ll have a batch of chicks that are true morons.  They resist hopping up on the roost, even though nobody else claims the bottom rung.  One year I had an exceptionally large number of morons … until the blacksnake showed up and starting picking them off one by one.

These chicks were too large for the blacksnake to eat, but it was also a moron and never learned that lesson.  I would occasionally find a dead chick that had been slimed from head to shoulders.  When it became apparent the culprit was going to keep returning, I went snake hunting and banished the rattlebrained reptile.

When those hens caught the largest snake I’d ever seen them eat, I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them were from that batch of morons and remembered the terror that blacksnake had visited upon them.  If so, I could well imagine they relished eating that snake in more ways than one.

But that incident from the other day truly takes the cake.  One afternoon Hubby yelled up the stairs for me to look out the window toward the lilac bush.  When I did, I spied a mob of chickens picking on what seemed to another relatively large snake….

And then I realized there was a gray, furry lump attached to the other end of that snake.

 

If you’re ever driving down the road one night and see another car swerve to hit a possum, odds are the driver of that vehicle raises chickens.  We’ve been in the poultry business long enough to square off with almost every predator out there, but ninety percent of the time the hooligan we have to deal with is a possum.

Although it would warm my heart to believe the hens got organized and clobbered the malevolent marsupial, what probably happened is our dog (who’s done this before, although I wish he were more consistent) stumbled upon it the night before and demoted it to a chew toy.  This event must have happened under cover, because we never stumbled upon a dead possum throughout the day.

But some hen must have discovered the carcass that afternoon, and it was too big to hide from the other chickens.  They chase after whoever has the prized morsel, so in the ensuing ruckus they managed to drag the evidence into our side yard.  I don’t believe everything likes the taste of possum, but every hen in that mob sure wanted her share.

Yes, they may be chicken, but deep in their hearts they really want to be velociraptors….

Neither Moth nor Rust

This had to be the shiniest battle cruiser Abbot Bydar had ever seen.  It was true he’d never seen a battle cruiser before, but an air transport this gleaming, with no dents or stains marring any portion of its exterior, could only be brand new.  This must be the first time it was deployed.

The Voratene colonel that held a blaster pointed at him was a different story, however.

The crusty commander was two-thirds the abbot’s height, which was typical in regard to Voratenes and humans.  His width was nearly half his height, which was also a characteristic of the race.  The brown uniform and armor that covered him were dull and scuffed.  And the warty protuberances that covered his broad face were testament to years of maturity.

Humans tended to compare the Voratene appearance to toads, which Bydar always thought was a bit unfair.  He liked toads.  They were placid, and beneficial in the garden, although you did have to be careful when picking them up or they might pee all over you.

“Search him.”  The colonel’s command was stated in his native language, but the translator Bydar wore on his wrist allowed them to communicate.

“Really, now.”  The abbot raised his arms so they pointed out straight from his sides.  Two of the thirty Voratene soldiers behind the colonel stepped forward to frisk him, their calloused hands rough through the ecru shirt and gray slacks that he wore.

“We are a religious community,” he continued as they patted him down.  “That means nobody here will strike the first blow.”

He spoke of a form of belief that was, well, alien to the Voratene.  But hopefully the commander understood the insinuation that if his troops assaulted anybody, the residents here would defend all that was precious.

“You cannot guarantee that.”  The colonel’s eyes narrowed.  Other races in the system had noted that when it came to attitude, Voratene and humanity could be rather similar.  And unfortunately that comparison did seem fair.

“The inhabitants under my administration are obedient to the rule.”  Bydar knew to keep his verbiage as material as possible for the colonel to best understand him.  “And the visitors are only here to conduct commerce.”

There was no mistaking the commander’s toothy sneer.  “So you admit to sheltering fugitives.”

His heart skipped a beat.  Earlier today they learned the Voratene committed an act of genocide that staggered the imagination.  When their interstellar ships abruptly entered other planetary systems and immediately dispatched cruisers into the atmosphere, terror struck many inhabitants.  The peace they’d known ever since the confederation was founded had apparently died with the Bavphet.

And the Voratene must be looking for any Bavphet that happened to be on another planet during the annihilation.

“No weapons,” one of the friskers announced as they retreated to their colonel.  Bydar had made it a point to not only meet them alone, which stole any excuse for them to neutralize any perceived threat, but also eschew carrying so much as a medallion on his person.

“Relinquish the fugitives, and we will refrain from demolishing this place.”  The commander locked his gaze on Bydar.

His heart hammered now, but he managed to keep a calm tone.  “There are only humans and Juriki on our grounds.”

“Juriki?  Why would Juriki enter a human lair?”

“This is their planet.”  Obvious answers caused his stomach to flutter….

“So I see.”  That toothy sneer reestablished itself.  “They allowed vermin like you to settle here in order to cloak their own conspiracies.  We always knew the systems that agreed to harbor humanity were plotting conquests of their own.”

“That’s not true.”  Another obvious response, but he couldn’t alter the trajectory of this conversation in an instant.  The Voratene had made up their mind on what they would find here.  And they made that determination because they’d devised conspiracies of conquest while building shiny, new battle cruisers under cover of their own cloaks.

“Hold him,” the colonel murmured, and the two friskers strode back to Bydar to clasp his arms and twist them behind his back.

He gulped a deep breath as the soldiers looped a universal cuff that adapted to different races around his wrists.  “No one here has committed any crime.”

“You have not relinquished fugitives.”  The commander glanced back at his troops.  “Search the premises!”

They surged into the open gate of the rock wall that surrounded the abbey grounds.  Except for the colorful, tropical native foliage that grew around them, the structures looked much like their predecessors in ancient photographs from Earth.  And the Voratene squadron did remind him of historical footage of attacking hordes bursting into a village.

“Please, there are families in the community.  Babies.  Elderly.  Everybody will cooperate if you only ask.  We have nothing to hide.  We will take you anywhere, show you anything—”

Shouting started with the Voratene, and then human and Juriki responded.

The colonel smirked.  “If you are as ill prepared as you appear, you deserve to be wiped out.  It’s no wonder all these other races are so inferior.  They have a foolish regard for the insufficient.”

A couple of blaster reports echoed from behind the wall.  Bydar gritted his teeth as a swift but fervent prayer flashed through his mind.

He had been such a fool.  He had been arrogant enough to believe that if he behaved correctly with the Voratene, if he said the right things, they would pass through here without incident.  Instead, he had been too careless about trying to pick up this vile toad … and there was no telling how many others would pay for his mistake.

More blaster firing mixed in with the shouts.  Bydar tried to step closer to the gate, but barely got any forward momentum before he was hurtled backwards by the two soldiers.  Not quite as spry in his middle forties, he slammed to the ground on his right buttock and completed the crash on his shoulder.

Much of his right side throbbed as he tried to scramble to his feet.  One of the guards struck him in the other shoulder just before he succeeded.  Bydar tumbled again, but this time managed to land in a kneeling position.

“It seems to me nobody is as cooperative as you claimed.”  The colonel leered.

“These people are no threat to you!  Please—”

The receiver attached to the commander’s helmet crackled on.  “The humans are retreating.  Shall we pursue?”

He seemed to ponder the inquiry for a couple of seconds before responding.  “No.  We have more important targets.”

The relief that washed through Bydar almost soothed his aching joints.  Good, the residents remembered that if the community was ever attacked, the first thing they should do is run.  If they were captured or killed immediately, they would never be able to fight….

The blaster fire slowed.  Some soldiers began trickling out, and Bydar’s heart thumped again as five Juriki were dragged out one by one.  Even though they were nearly twice as tall as the Voratene, with slender limbs sporting various shades of green, they were also cuffed and shoved around by the stout soldiers.

At least they were alive, and the blast fire ceased….

Two more Juriki were carried out and dumped on the ground in front of their comrades.  His relief evaporated.

No!”  Bydar began scrambling to his feet again.

The first frisker lunged forward and thrust the butt of his blaster into the abbot’s right cheek.  The blow sent him tumbling back to the hard ground.

He wasn’t sure if the light that flashed over his sight was from impact with the blaster or the ground, but as he tried to catch his breath and regain his bearings, he managed to notice somebody stepped to his side.

The colonel leaned into his vision as it returned.  “Who are those Juriki to you?”

“They are – were – living beings.”  He rolled to his side, but didn’t yet feel capable of lifting himself from the ground.

“Juriki scum were the first to align with the Bavphet when they began their invasion of other systems.  They share more with the intruders than with you.”

Determined not to face this commander while lying on the ground, Bydar forced himself back into a kneeling position.  The Bavphet never invaded anybody.  All the systems had joined the confederation by choice – even the Voratene, although it was apparent now they had ulterior motives.

“All life is precious.”  Perhaps it was because his head was swimming that his voice cracked.

“Spoken like a true coward.”  The colonel pointed his blaster only decimeters from Bydar’s forehead.  “So let us hear you beg for your life.”

Indignant heat surged through him as he locked his gaze on the Voratene’s face.  This being had swooped in, proclaiming terror and death, and reviled all that was truth.  There was no way Bydar was going to give this fiend the satisfaction of seeing him so much as flinch.

But wait….

This was not the way he wanted to go, and it wasn’t just by murder.  If he truly valued all life, then he should pity this wayward being that believed wealth and power were the values to strive for.  This was the Voratene way of attempting to fill a hole they’d created.  Bydar focused his gaze on the colonel’s eyes, and tried, tried not to hate him.

The peace that descended upon him was as startling in its swiftness as it was in its thoroughness.  Although it seemed selfish in a way, he was grateful for it.  This was the way he would prefer to go.

The commander must have been waiting for him to break.  What was surely only seconds seemed to stretch into minutes.  It made sense that at the very end of his life he would have a taste of eternity….

A frown furrowed those warty brows.  With a shrug that Bydar wasn’t certain he’d seen, the colonel lowered his blaster and turned toward a soldier that had approached.

“We’ve searched the premises, Sir.  None of the quarry is present.  Do you want to pursue the humans now?”

He glanced back toward Bydar.  “The humans are a waste of resources.  Advance to the next target.”

What just happened?  The abbot stared at the reassembling troops as his two guards removed the cuffs from him.  Even the surviving Juriki were released, and then ignored as much as he was as the Voratene marched back to their battle cruiser.

Three of the Juriki gave attention to their fallen comrades, but two approached Bydar with long strides.

“Can you get up?” one asked.

He didn’t need the translator anymore.  His whole life had been on this planet, so he spoke several of the local dialects.

His whole life … had been spared.

But why?

“I think so.”  They helped steady him as he shuffled to his feet.  “Thank you.”

The rumble of engines preceded the cruiser moving away, gliding through the air to inflict terror and death somewhere else.  Their corner of the universe had been plunged into darkness, and this was how their lives would be lived for the unforeseeable future.

The colonel must have wanted to see him cringe … or maybe blast the rage right off his face.  It was possible that having been denied that satisfaction, the commander decided to find it elsewhere….

Or he could return and try again….

Bydar watched the cruiser fly away.  It probably wouldn’t take long for its coat to dull and its surface become soiled.  Such was the way of material treasures.

A certainty settled upon him.  Even if it wasn’t until long after that brand new battle cruiser rotted away, the Voratene rule could not endure forever.  The spirit of freedom was as ancient as life itself, a gift from eternity, despite those who wanted to seize it from others.  Eventually it triumphed … every time.

Bydar kneeled again.

###

This is my contribution this month to #BlogBattle, and this time the prompt word is Precious.  Yes, I mean Precious is the word, not that the word itself is precious….

And with a word that precious, be sure to check out the other entries!

Battle of Wills

“You could do something about this.”  Cadwalader’s eyes flashed as they shot to Malach.

The boy’s dissentient nature had surfaced over the last few months, a trait Malach noticed was common among seven year olds.  They stood together at the far edge of a wheat field bordering a village of rock huts and swarming with agitated people.

“You know I cannot reveal my true identity.”

Malach remained still, which allowed him to hide in plain sight.  Any who glanced in his direction perceived the illusion of a boulder or sheared tree trunk.  But the villagers before him weren’t curious about a lad lingering beside a landmark that didn’t exist earlier.  And the Roman soldiers were only interested in their booty.

Earlier today he’d brought Cadwalader here to investigate what other trades the boy might decide to learn beyond the art of war.  The village, although poor, abounded with talented craftsmen.  But shortly after their arrival, where they were viewed as an old man and grandson travelling together, he learned why they were impoverished.

Today was tribute day, when the local centurion arrived with troops to pillage their goods in exchange for protection … more so from the soldiers themselves than roving bandits.  Not content enough with larder and weapons and tools, the commander also claimed a young woman, barely more than a girl, to haul away with them.

“You said evil wins when good does nothing.”  Cadwalader thrust a hand toward the debacle.  “It is winning now.”

The boy had already grumbled about the pilfering of materials.  But the sight of the lass, weeping and pleading, being dragged away from parents who were beaten back by sword-wielding soldiers, made his protestations more insistent.

 “I never claimed to be good.”

“Nor are you evil.”  The boy’s gaze locked on his face even though it was partially concealed by the shadow of the hood over Malach’s head.  “At least I didn’t think so.”

The lad knew him better than any other mere human on this earth, and yet still knew so little.

“If I engage those troops, my identity will be exposed.  That will place both of us in grave danger.”

“Are you a coward?”

That question was a challenge, but Malach was too many centuries old to be ruffled by it, even though he had spent only the last couple of decades trying to lead a different life.

“Unless you can provide an alternative, we must allow these events to unfold.”

Cadwalader stared at him for a few seconds.  Then he turned on his heel and darted into the wheat field.

Well … Malach didn’t expect that.  Adults usually proved to be predictable, fitting within dozens of personality traits that could be exploited.  But children with psyches still developing could sometimes be confounding …  at least, this one did.

Before he took on the responsibility of rearing the lad over four years ago, decisions had been easy.  But then events unfolded that sent him into unfamiliar territory, literally and figuratively.  Cadwalader added another layer of complications.  The boy’s flight was to something, not away from it, and Malach might have to intervene … if he chose to do so.

The child understood he was too small to take on a troop of soldiers, but just what did he believe he was capable of accomplishing?  Malach had taught him to be self-sufficient – sometimes inadvertently – but the boy’s judgment was still questionable.

More than the parents tried to step in for the girl, some even peacefully, but all were struck and kicked and berated.  She was slapped around for resisting the centurion binding her wrists together with the end of a rope.

Movement around the Romans’ steeds drew his gaze from the center of attention.  There was no mistaking Cadwalader’s lithe form as he ducked from horse to horse, hesitating at each just long enough to slip something beneath the blankets, directly below the saddles.

Ah … the lad might actually be up to something clever.

He’d started at the rear of the ranks, where a soldier standing guard beside the commander’s charger didn’t notice him.  But the boy drew closer to the horses up front as the commotion began to settle.  He was in the midst of pushing something beneath the blanket when the guard glanced back in his direction – and sprang toward him.

“Hold it!” The invader barked in Latin, probably figuring his tone could be understood in any language.

He might as well have hollered Run for it in Cymraeg.  Cadwalader darted away like a hare flushed from its briar, the guard lunging after him with the enthusiasm of any baying hound.  A couple of the mounts spooked as the boy dashed beneath their bellies to evade him, but the Roman cut him off before he reached the adjoining edge of the wheat field.

He grabbed Cadwalader’s wrist and jerked the boy to one side.  Malach twitched as the lad bit back a bleat of pain.

The Roman smacked the child’s right cheek with the back of his hand.

Malach’s hand slid to the grip of the sword concealed beneath his cloak.

Cadwalader crooked his arm to the side and twisted it free, an escape maneuver Malach taught soon after he took in the child.  The Roman managed to cuff him as he darted for the wheat again, but this time allowed his escape because the centurion ordered it.  They were ready to leave.

The guard returned to the horse where he’d spotted the boy, and investigated the fittings of the saddle as his comrades returned with their booty.  He must not have seen where Cadwalader’s hand had actually been, and returned to his own mount at the front.

During that time the commander fastened the other end of the rope to one of the front pommels on the saddle.  The girl, still weeping, pulled against it.  Her parents, and other youngsters who must be siblings, held out their hands and wailed back to her.  The centurion yanked on the rope, throwing her off balance, and then barked to the soldiers to mount.

Although nothing more than bandits in metal and leather, this troop of Roman soldiers swung up on their steeds in unison.  After all, it would show off how superior they were.

The chargers’ reactions were not so synchronous, but each horse’s revolt erupted like bubbles breaking the water’s surface as it began to boil.  The more seasoned mounts crab-stepped and reared, but the greener horses bucked and more than a few squealed.  In a matter of seconds most of the troop was in disarray, and soldiers either dismounted or were thrown as the centurion hollered at them.

In those few seconds, Cadwalader darted from the wheat and through flailing hooves.  With the centurion distracted by the fiasco, the boy pulled a knife from his belt and slashed the rope near the girl’s hands.  He grabbed one of her arms and they scrambled back into the wheat.

The corners of Malach’s mouth twitched.  The lad was proving to be quite resourceful even if he was still foolhardy.  Humanity had been promised that thistles would grow among their crops….

He removed his hand from the sword and shifted in his stance.

That was enough movement to break the illusion, and the centurion must have glanced toward his direction at that instant.

“You there!” he barked in Latin, and spurred his horse toward Malach.

In no mood to be either trampled or beheaded, Malach released a long exhale as he drew his sword.  Despite his appearance as an old man to these people, they would still believe he maintained proficiency with a blade.  He wouldn’t have to cut down the commander—

The Roman turned his steed to the side mere paces from Malach.  As it halted, his gaze locked on Malach’s face, or at least what he’d be able to see of it….

There was no mistaking the recognition that rippled through the man’s expression.

A chill coursed through Malach.  How?  There could be only one way the Roman would know what he was.

Hoping he was wrong, Malach pushed his consciousness into the mind of the commander.  He entered easily, and that fact confirmed his suspicion.

Only those who consorted with beings like him, who in their lust for power allowed such creatures to break into their innermost faculties, were forever consigned to have their thoughts invaded by pure will.

And in those few seconds of access to the centurion’s mind, Malach learned the name of the other being this Roman was in league with.

The name meant nothing to him.  Like him, this other he had been aware of was also wandering these lands, and could also be going by a more native moniker.  Unlike him, this one was sticking to their original purpose.  This one wandered among humanity and encouraged them to destroy each other … until there would be nothing left of the race.

Thus far Malach had maintained his secrecy, and this other knew nothing of his presence.  But this commander would most likely tell that being how another like him roved in these mountains.

There was no immediate danger … but if this other realized that Malach had strayed from the original purpose – the proof lay in the fact he had taken on the care of an orphan – then he might decide Malach … and Cadwalader … needed to be destroyed.

So much for keeping his true identity concealed.

The centurion grumbled something that Malach didn’t catch, and urged his steed to gallop back to the soldiers.  Killing the Roman wouldn’t solve his dilemma.  He’d have to slaughter all the troops … and the villagers … to keep rumor from spreading about a pwca, as the local tribes would call him, who travelled with a boy.

The thorny thistles discovered beneath the blankets were promptly discarded, although the soldiers seemed disappointed their commander ordered them to ride out instead of wreaking further havoc on the village.  The Roman knew they stood little chance against Malach….

No sooner were the troops gone from sight than the girl, her hands unbound, sprinted from the wheat and to her family.  With shouts of praise to their gods, they embraced her tightly and kissed her about the head.

And then Cadwalader stepped out from where he’d ducked into the field originally.

“Reckless idea.”  Malach turned to face him, and the red mark on the boy’s right cheek annoyed him more than he would have anticipated.  “But also effective.”

“She is back with her family.  That is what matters.”  Count on an orphan to make such an observation.  “I was surprised they did not come looking for us, however.”

There was no need to tell the lad about his discovery, at least not yet.

“They decided she was not worth the effort.”

“We should help them learn to fight.  We should help them end this tribute.”

Such lofty aspirations for a boy so young … what awaited him when he would actually be capable of trying to attain such goals?

Malach placed a hand on Cadwalader’s shoulder.  “First, you need to learn a craft.”

###

So that was this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and this time the prompt word was Tribute.  Be sure you don’t miss out on the other stories that get submitted!