Risk Assessment

Perado had already broken away from the rest of the crowd that disembarked from the passenger carrier when a rumble like thunder rolled behind them.

The others, mostly Zora like him but a few were other beings of various shapes and colors, were probably going to switch to aircraft or spacecraft at the busy transportation port where he worked.  Everybody hesitated, some glancing at the clear azure sky framing the high buildings that displayed every color his mineral-rich world of Dea offered.  Perado was among those who looked back where he believed the noise originated.

Yellow and green smoke rose in the distance, from the other end of the urban settlement.  His stomach wrenched and his heart pounded against his chest.

That looked awfully close to home … where troops of Voratene had been prowling this morning searching for an infamous human.  And his wife Ervina was still there.

Gasps and cries arose from others as they began comprehending what happened.  Perado hastily tapped a specific pattern on the lower part of the interlink cuff on his ruddy left wrist.  The screen flickered on, pulsed, but then returned to a dull gray.

The communication service at home was down.

Perado broke into a sprint, dodging past other members of the crowd.  He darted back on the transport that brought him here and burst into the cabin with the Zora pilots.

“Take this carrier back!”

Both of them gaped at him.  One had green skin and the other was blue like Ervina.

“We can’t go back there!” the green one protested.

Perado tapped the cuff again, and the screen lit up with his credential to authorize transportation exchanges.  He thrust it in front of their faces.

“I said take it back, now!  Maximum velocity!”

They grumbled, but obeyed.  Perado braced himself in the doorway and scanned through the screen on the cuff, his throat tightening with each nugget of information that surfaced.

Voratene sonic burst … troops used … pursing unspecified number of humans … purpose unknown … sonic burst to prevent escape….

And it all happened on the division where he lived with his wife.

The conversation they had that morning, before he left for work, replayed in his mind as he hoped it wouldn’t wind up being the last time he got to speak with her.

“Have you ever wondered why this liberator they’re looking for would be human?”  Ervina asked as they stood in their kitchen, after the Voratene troops left their masonry home.

He sipped his cup of swizzle in an effort to assuage his annoyance.  Looking upon her was at least an enjoyable distraction from the rude interruption of having their house searched.

The blue cast of her skin reflected the nickel-rich hills of the planet Dea, just as his ruddy complexion was reminiscent of the iron-laden plains.  Her navy hair was twisted in five ringlets that cascaded down her back.  She also wore that shimmering jade outfit that complemented her graceful figure.

“The Voratene are a scourge to all the races of the confederation.”  That didn’t exactly answer her question, but it was true.

Her cobalt lips pouted.  “Of all the worlds in the confederation, why would the race that has no world produce somebody to challenge their regime?”

Perado redirected his gaze to what of the amber liquid remained in his cup.  “Why not?”

Ervina rolled her head and returned her attention to the window where earlier she watched the Voratene troops leave to pound on the doors of other homes.  “I think it’s because humans have nothing left to lose.”

“That’s a brilliant theory.”

“But if they have nothing to lose, then what are they defending?”

Her topic of conversation dug deeper into his consternation.  “Humans share more than basic physical characteristics with us.  I understand it was their devotion for freedom that drove them to leave their own world.  They might be scattered on different planets now, but oppression is oppression.  Nobody likes it.”

“Then why do we put up with it?”

His heart skipped a beat.  “Careful.  The Voratene are hunting down a man based on the yammering of a Yuri.  If they overheard what you said, that’s enough to arrest you, or worse.”

“You know, I’ve wondered, do the rumors of this liberator do the rest of us a disservice?  Are we willing to hide behind a homeless race and submit to foreign rule while we wait for a man who might not exist?”

“The Voratene believe he exists, and if that distracts their predations from the rest of us, well….”  The end of his statement was as dangerous as her question.  “That frees us up to work on our own projects, unseen and unheard.”

Ervina tilted her head.  “Do you know of such … resistance projects?”

“No, and we’re better off if it stays that way.”  He swigged the rest of the swizzle, and set the cup in the lavage bin.

Her brow furrowed.  “Wouldn’t it be better to participate in an uprising against the Voratene regime than just wait for what might unfold?”

Perado tried to ignore the quiver in the pit of his stomach.  “You want to get us all killed?”

Her gaze leveled on his.  “I don’t want to be a Voratene subject for the rest of my life.”

“There’s nothing average folk like us can do.”

So when he left for work that morning, he was somewhat relieved to escape Ervina’s questions.  They only stirred his annoyance at the troops … but right now he’d give anything to speak with her again on any topic of her choosing.

The carrier didn’t reach a complete stop before he opened the portal and leaped out on the decking.  A chill coursed through him as he approached the ruined buildings lining a couple of the roadways.

Built from blocks saturated with copper, the cottages used to abut each other, creating soft-green rows of columns and arches.  Now sickly dust lingered over rubble piles, and the patina blocks were scarred with orange.

Several excavator craft hovered over a segment of the span’s remains, shifting blocks and debris onto a central mound.  A sparse line of Voratene forces pointed pulsar rifles at the mobs of shouting Zora.

The Voratene, generally only about half his height, looked especially squat in their brown uniforms.  He could tell they were barely mature because they didn’t have as large or as many warts on their heads as the older ones.

Perado’s cry joined the noise as he surged into the crowd.  Others grabbed at him as he broke through the front of it.

A searing blow in his upper left arm sent a convulsive charge through his body.  He fell back, and others caught him as they hollered at the troops.  Multiple hands supported him as he collapsed and wound up sitting on the flagstones.

A matronly woman of ruddy complexion kneeled beside him.  “Stay there.  You’re lucky they’re using low charges, and it wasn’t a lethal hit.”

As much as he wanted to stagger to his feet, he couldn’t.  “Why won’t they let us search for survivors?”

“They want to reclaim the humans first, see if any are alive.  Of course they hope the liberator is among them.”

“The vermin!”  The throbbing in his arm, where a trickle of blood left a blue trail down his sleeve, was insignificant compared to the agony in his heart.  “More of us will perish if we don’t get them out of there!”

“We know, but … the Voratene refuse.”

By the time the stunning effect of the charge relinquished enough for him to stand again, the Voratene retrieved the bodies and started moving out.  The excavator craft dispersed to sift throughout the rubble, and Perado surged ahead with the others to dig by hand.

There was nothing recognizable about his home.  It was even difficult to determine if he was the correct distance down the division.  But he began turning over blocks and tossing away mangled household items, calling Ervina’s name throughout.

After what felt like an eternity, he shoved one block over and uncovered shimmering green fabric.

Crying her name again, he pushed another block away.  The fabric was stained blue.

The soreness of his hands and weariness in his body did little to slow his frantic work.  Block by block he dug down to the body of his wife.  Her graceful form was now broken and twisted, the flattering outfit more blue than green.  When he was finally able to pull her out from the debris, Perado collapsed again and clutched her in his arms.

* * *

Funerals were supposed to help provide comfort to the living, but the mass service Perado attended the next day offered no consolation.  He felt the condolences he offered to others, but their commiseration meant nothing to him.

When finally he was alone at the patch of ground where Ervina’s ashes were buried, he kneeled and placed his hand on the beryl marker over her remains.

“I’m sorry you were a Voratene subject for the rest of your life.”

His fingers curled into a fist.

The troops had done nothing to assist the Zora, leaving them to cope with the carnage the Voratene created.  The wound they caused from their invasion long ago had become like a scar to him, a blemish that one simply grew accustomed to.

But now they’d reopened that wound … and made it worse.  And he wasn’t going to let them get away with it.

Those murderers, so confident they were superior and more valuable than any residents of the other worlds, were rattled by one rumor:  Among the humans was a liberator who would bring about the end of their regime.

This prophesied liberator they sought for could be on any populated planet, or any ship in space.  When the Voratene didn’t have a lead to follow, they resorted to occasional intrusions like yesterday in the hope of uncovering him accidentally.

If the liberator had been among those humans they downed with a sonic blast, they would have heralded his termination over all the reports.  But it must have been a group of people hiding out for different nefarious purposes.  The Voratene’s silence only condemned them more.

“But I promise you will not have died in vain,” he murmured to the marker.

He would begin with his career.  He would track down the itineraries of all their air and space craft.  He would locate projects of resistance.  He would betray the Voratene’s movements to them, enabling them to intercept shipments and create accidents for the enemy ships.

From there he would be forced to leave Dea, to disappear into the universe by way of a path he would have to discover when that time descended.  But he would be armed with all he’d learned and use it against the Voratene, until either he or they were vanquished.

In their eagerness to track down this liberator, they’d created him.  He, Perado, would see to it the Voratene regime fell, and thanks to their focus on the liberator, they’d never see or hear him coming.

After all, it was because of them he had nothing left to lose.

###

Here is my contribution for this month’s #BlogBattle, and the word this time is Scar.  Be sure to check into all the other stories!

When Does an Idiom Become a Cliché?

Idiom:  An expression in language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically or in having a meaning that is not literal.

Cliché:  An expression that has become overly familiar or commonplace, making it trite.

The other day I glanced out the window and realized approaching rain clouds signaled my outdoor plans for that morning were going to have to wait until later in the day.  It also brought to mind the phrase storm clouds are gathering, and how that’s used to insinuate a conflict of grand proportions is about to happen.

Or has that phrase become a cliché?

If I told you it started raining cats and dogs, you know that phrase is overused.  The same goes for claiming we need to make hay while the sun shines, or there’s an ill wind blowing, or there are plenty of fish in the sea – just be sure you don’t rock the boat.

All of these sayings are built upon truisms, but they just don’t pack the punch they used to.

What about the idioms of today?  Many used currently seem headed for cliché territory.  If you’re feeling under the weather, you might not steal someone’s thunder unless you can wrap your head around how to get the ball back in your court – just be sure you don’t miss the boat.

It seems a good rule of thumb to use either sparingly.  Yes, you can even use clichés if they serve a specific purpose (such as revealing a character’s unimaginative thinking).  But if you want to write creatively, try coining your own phrase.

Instead of putting out the warning that storm clouds are gathering, you could allude to another event of impending danger.  Who knows, it might become so popular that eventually it gets overused, and one day becomes a cliché.

Let’s see, how about the chickens are getting organized…?

organize

 

 

Valley of the Shadow

Few stars twinkled in the partially overcast sky as Piper gripped her walking staff and hesitated in the doorway of the pole barn.   Clete stood just behind her, and although the brown goat would follow her anywhere, she’d tied a rope to his collar.

No droning of engines or rattle of equipment betrayed soldiers patrolling out on the road.

She wasn’t going to return to town by way of the road, of course.  Her mission of mercy involved trekking nine miles through backsides of farms.  The troops assigned here three years ago, just before she turned sixteen, strayed from the beaten paths only when actively searching for somebody.

She led Clete away from the barn and skirted along the edge of the fence that stretched toward the fields.  The canvas saddlebags that straddled him and the backpack she wore contained various homemade medicines and some foods that couldn’t be obtained in town.

One of those concoctions was tincture of lobelia, desperately needed by a boy in her neighborhood who collapsed from an asthmatic attack when evening fell.  The blue-flowered plant wasn’t commonplace in this region, and his family had only enough on hand to keep him from dying on the spot.  But death could claim him yet if he didn’t get more, and soon.

It was only a couple of hours ago that Piper arrived at the Martin farm.  Mrs. Martin, a widow who lived alone, chided her.

“It’s too dangerous to travel alone!”

“When it rains, it pours.”  Piper released Clete into the barn, where he could keep company with the sheep flock housed here during the night as protection from prowling coyotes.  “Before Phil collapsed, Dad got called to Ol’ Dave Steward’s bedside.  And then Mom needed to go help Stella Waters because she went into labor.  When I found out about Phil … he’s got to get that tincture, or he might not make it another day.”

“They don’t know you’re out here?  You couldn’t snag one of your friends?”

Piper sighed.  So many of the people she’d grown up with were gone now, many relocated by pressure or force.  A couple had even died since the disaster four years ago.

“It’s simpler this way.”

Mrs. Martin shook her head.  “I swear those pompous bureaucrats want to punish us for surviving as well as we did during that first year after the grid crashed.”

That was a common perception.  “They hope we’ll finally believe we can’t get by without their help if they can keep us from helping ourselves.”

“Their scheme would work better if they’d ever provide more than just a trickle of supplies.  Speaking of which, I’ve got a full load to send back with you.  Folks around here are always eager to contribute their produce to the cause.  I just wish I had somebody around who could go back with you.”

Piper was well acquainted with this pastoral route she and Clete hiked now, even though it changed as her community rotated through different farms for their arranged exchange of supplies.  They had to keep the soldiers from discovering their contraband commerce.  If anybody like her was caught, they’d wind up in a labor camp, which the politicians called relocation centers.

She and Clete walked along the edges of fields, located in valleys bordered by hills overgrown with woods.  Her eyes were accustomed to the dark, although she would have appreciated more moonlight.

About twenty minutes into their journey, Clete’s rope became taut.  Piper stopped also, and glanced back.  He probably just needed a potty break.

No … the goat was staring into the forest beside them.

She caught her breath as her heart thumped harder.  Yes, there was soft, sporadic rustling in the midst of the trees.

Maybe it was just a raccoon or possum, but these days no person could be too careful.  For one thing, if it was a larger predator, it could be considering Clete would make a fine main course.

She’d already saved him from freezing to death when he was a newborn kid.  And back then she’d determined nobody was going to make him into a meal.

Clete snorted, a sort of guttural sneeze used as a caprine warning, and she stroked his neck to help soothe him.

“Let’s go.” She kept her voice low from habit, but hoped it would also underscore to whatever stalked them that she was human.  Maybe it might regard her as an apex predator and stay away.

She led the goat at a gentle angle farther into the meadow and away from the sloping woods.  Thanks to their overlords, the only weapons she carried were her walking staff and a skinning knife.  Should she take the time to lash them together into a spear?

No, that would reduce her options….

A high-pitched, repetitive yip sprang from the forest.  Clete swung to one side in his attempt to see the instigator, and Piper tightened her grip on his leash.

A coyote … but why it was betraying its presence?  The odds were against it attacking … unless it was calling in others to outnumber her.  She wasn’t the one they were after … unless, perhaps, she got between them and their prey.

Her heart pounded as she leaned the wooden rod against her shoulder and slipped the rope’s loop from her wrist to under her belt.  She tied the leash, and gripped the staff with both hands.

“Stay close to me.”  Her words probably didn’t offer much comfort.

Despite the darkness, heading farther into the pasture should give her an advantage.  The coyotes wouldn’t be able to launch an ambush if she could see them coming.  Piper scanned all around as she and the goat walked through a hay field that was weedier than it used to be.  Clete kept looking back, but no more yips pierced the air.

Night’s shade appeared to ripple in two places at the edge of the forest.

Looking more like shadows than canines, they were eerily silent as they skimmed toward her and Clete.  The goat swung to the side again and snorted louder.

The coyotes lunged like specters released from the netherworld.

His instinct to bolt overcoming him, Clete yanked on the leash.  Piper managed to brace herself, but the tug on her belt pulled her off balance.

The closer coyote shot past her and pounced on one of the saddlebags.  Clete lunged against the rope again, jerking her back a few inches, but she swung the wooden rod at his assailant.

It smacked right behind its shoulders.  The coyote yelped and darted back, but its companion charged Clete from the goat’s other side.

Its jaws clamped on the side of his neck.  A shrieking bleat erupted from the goat as he veered toward Piper.  She swung again.

This time the stick dashed on the top of her target’s skull, producing a loud pop.  With a strangled gurgle, the predator released Clete and staggered to one side.

But the first coyote, snarling, charged at her.

The goat bolted again, yanking her back just enough to grant Piper room to swing the staff.  It slammed into the side of the coyote’s head.  The beast stumbled to one side, and then growled.  She lunged against the rope that kept pulling her back, and swung again.

The coyote darted away, but she clipped its rump before it sprinted several yards toward the forest.  Then it stopped.

She spun to face off with its companion again.  But the other coyote was staggering away, wobbling as though it had imbibed too many tequila shots.  She grasped the rope and turned back to the first attacker.  It trotted toward its partner.

The first coyote circled its discombobulated accomplice, and appeared to hesitate long enough to sniff its rear and confirm its identity.  The pair continued a slow retreat.  Would they regroup and try again if the second one recovered enough to gather its wits?

As she watched the sable shadows slink in the dark, she started trembling.  The speed and strength and accuracy that had gushed through her veins now ebbed and waned.  She might not be able to call upon adrenaline again.

Clete uttered a low bleat and leaned against her, and Piper absently stroked her hand down his neck as she confirmed the coyotes’ retreat.  Her fingers slid onto a damp and sticky patch.

“Clete!”  She kneeled beside him and tried to determine how bad his injury was.  The darker splotch on his brown coat was obscured by the night.  A flap of skin rolled beneath her fingertips.  Clete jerked with a sharp bleat, and she steadied him with her other hand.

“I’m sorry, baby,” she murmured as she scratched beneath one of his ears.  “Lie down, and let’s get you wrapped up.”

Making him lie down first would make the job of bandaging his wound easier.  When he was still a newborn kid, before she started teaching him tricks as part of earning his keep and staying off the menu, she thought about what to name him.  Folks who visited their home, often because they had business with her father since he was a minister, occasionally cracked a few jokes about the holy goats he’d acquired.

Piper remembered a formal designation for the Holy Spirit was Paraclete.  In its entirety, it was much too ostentatious, but the final syllable seemed a perfect fit for her little goat.

The pocket-sized first aid kit in her backpack had barely enough gauze and tape to cover his wound, but it would have to do until they returned home.  She urged Clete to his feet and also stood, and both of them scanned the dim meadow.

Something darker rippled along the edge of the woods, near the end of the pasture.

Her heart fluttered as she gripped the staff again and studied the shadowy form.  There seemed to be only one.  It was also too tall for a coyote.  In fact, she determined, it was human.

This could be even worse….

Clete stood beside her and also watched, but didn’t snort.  He had no fear of people.

She remained motionless.  If they didn’t move, maybe the stranger wouldn’t notice them.

But the form hesitated, stood for several seconds, and then a voice she immediately welcomed carried across the field.

“Piper?”

“Dad!”  She strode toward him.

His pace was even faster than hers, and he spoke again as they drew nearer.  “Thank God I found you!  When I got home and you weren’t there, it gave me a fright!”

“I’m sorry, but when I heard Phil had an asthma attack, I just had to come get the medicine.”

They stopped a couple of feet from each other, and he shook his head.

“It’s precisely because Clete was also missing that I knew where you must have gone.  You shouldn’t travel alone.”

Wasn’t that what her father had just done?  “Um….”

“Never mind.”  The hint of a chuckle suggested he knew what she was thinking, but his tone became serious again.  “Phil had an attack?  But why were you in the middle of the field?”

“Coyotes tried to get Clete, and one even bit him in the neck.  I ran them off, and I taped the wound, but … boy, am I glad to see you!”

“Are you all right?”  He rubbed the goat’s head as he looked where Clete was bandaged.

“Just rattled.”

“Then let’s get back and give Phil his treatment, and take care of Clete.”  He shook his head again.  “What you did was as foolish as it was brave.”

She broke into a smile as they set off.  “Well, they do say the Lord looks over small children and idiots.  Clete might not qualify as a small child, but I admit he’s definitely not the one who’s the idiot!”

###

Here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the word this round is Pastoral.  Be sure to check into all the other submissions!

Too Many Rules

We’ve already discussed the need for rules when it comes to writing.  And we’ve contemplated this framework reflects how writing mirrors life.  But what happens when rules proliferate for their own sake and become arbitrary?

Let’s go in that other direction and overburden ourselves with rules.  For instance, every sentence must be minimally subject and predicate (Floppy ran.).  Every sentence can only follow the subject-predicate-object format (Floppy ran home.).  No sentence can be longer than fifteen words.

Let’s check in with Floppy:

Floppy the hen led her chicks into the yard to eat bugs.  She spied a recognizable shadow slide along the ground.  She realized a hawk was flying overhead.  Floppy exclaimed “I say yikes!”  She spread out her wings and dashed to the coop as fast as she could.  The chicks ran under her wings.

The potential for page-turning drama (if you’re a chicken) falls as flat as the exposition.  There are even some fairly active verbs (spied, slide, dashed) used in an attempt to compensate, but the story doesn’t flourish.

Without any rules for writing, reading would be an experience of mass confusion.  But unnecessary rules in writing choke the vitality from the reading experience.  Just as we need laws (don’t murder and steal) to have a free society, oppressive laws (shut up) suck vitality from the culture.

It’s no shock writers tend to be proponents of free speech (spoken and written).  It’s no surprise people disagree on some matters (notice the range of reviews on any one book).  It’s true certain subjects should stay in their place (you don’t read War and Peace to kindergarteners), but some themes are universal (anybody can read Horton Hears a Who).

Let’s revisit Floppy now that she’s free of arbitrary rules:

Floppy the hen led her chicks into the yard on a sunny day when the sky was clear.  While they scratched around for bugs, she spied a sinister shadow ripple across the grass.  “Yikes!” she squawked.  Floppy whipped out the sawed-off shotgun strapped beneath her wings, and blasted off the hawk’s tail feathers.  Her chicks cheeped with delight as he bolted into the next county.

The hawk landed on a dead tree branch and rubbed his blistered rump.  “What the %*#& just happened?”

Yes, I know hawks are federally protected … but chickens don’t have inalienable human rights, so they live by their own set of rules….

 

Against the Odds

“You mean it’s … terminal?”  Anwen’s arms tightened around her three-year old daughter as she cast a glance at her husband Dermot.  The girl cradled against her squeaked, so she loosened her embrace.

The doctor sat on the front of his desk instead of behind it.  He’d drawn a screen across the window to soften the light, but the towering mountains that crisscrossed much of the planet Hin still cast their silhouettes through the filter.  He clasped his hands together and inhaled deeply before replying.

“The disorder does atrophy the muscles before moving into the internal organs.  So … yes, I’m sorry to say that’s usually the case.”

“Usually?”  Dermot’s voice was hoarse, but Anwen appreciated how he otherwise appeared calm.  “What’s the exception?”

“Your daughter does have one chance, but it all hinges upon if she’s an appropriate match to the donor.”

“Match?  What donor?”  Anwen stroked her fingers through the child’s dark curls.  The motion soothed Rejali, who relaxed against her chest.

Why did their eighth child, whom they called their miracle baby because most people their age didn’t bear offspring, now face a life-threatening illness?  Little Rejali was as beautiful and healthy as any baby could be when she was born.

But over a year ago she complained about stiffness and soreness, and her coordination worsened.  She became less active.  The local doctors couldn’t figure it out, so they sought the help of specialists.

Luckily for them, they didn’t have to leave Hin to find those experts.  The native Trepetti had been agreeable to human colonization, so this was one of the more heavily settled planets.  Many resources were already here.

The doctor leaned forward.  “Rej’s condition is extremely rare.  It only manifests in children born to … parents in their fifties.  And even among that small number, very few are afflicted.  So this isn’t an inherited disease where we could just harvest pluripotent cells and reprogram them to repair her defective cells.”

“But you can cure her with somebody else’s cells?”  Dermot’s gaze was locked on the doctor.

“Maybe.  Any form of transplant carries certain risks, especially the chance a patient’s immune system will reject them.  That chance is lessened the better the recipient’s DNA matches the genetic makeup of the donor.”

“So how do you find a donor?”  Anwen hugged her delicate child again.

“The cells already exist.  Our facility maintains a backlog from a … particular donor.”

Dermot frowned.  “How particular?”

“You’ve heard of this … historical figure.  The fact he was genetically engineered does make some people hesitant to receive his line of cellular therapy.”

She drew in a sharp breath and cast a glance at her husband before returning her attention to the doctor.  “Cells from centuries ago are still available?”

“We’ve maintained production from his line because it provides great efficacy at treating certain disorders, and Rej will need that level of potency … if they match well enough.”

Anwen’s heart fluttered as Dermot asked, “How does his engineering play into the treatment?”

The doctor shrugged.  “The fact he was designed with enhanced physical prowess is why his line works so effectively with some of our toughest cases.  But that’s as far as it goes.”

Her gaze remained locked on him.  “If Rej does turn out to be a match, how well will this treatment work?”

“That depends on how close the match is.”  His head tilted.  “If she shares only minimal parameters for the therapy, she’ll be able to get around and live a protected life that goes well into adulthood.  The more characteristics she shares with him, the more her life would be completely normal, extending all the way to old age.”

Dermot sat up straighter.  “Then let’s get this started.”

*** Two Years Later ***

“Let’s go to the top this time!” Rejali always used the local Trepetti language with her friend, and grasped Preeta’s hand to tug her back toward the unfinished rock wall.

Preeta giggled and lumbered slightly to keep up.  Since her short legs and long arms made her walk with her knuckles, being pulled by one hand made her scamper funny.  Trepetti build also included folds of tawny skin that stretched from wrists to ankles, although it was concealed beneath the loose garments they wore.

That physical characteristic gave them an ability to glide, which meant one of Preeta’s favorite games involved learning that activity.  Rejali couldn’t glide, but still liked to see how far she could jump.

Preeta always encouraged her.  “Bet you can’t go as high as me!”

“Maybe one day.”  Rejali let go of her friend so they both could scramble up the side of the wall that looked like uneven stairs.  “But not today!”

“Me first!”

“You’re always first!”  But really, she didn’t mind.  Watching Preeta jump into the air to see how far she could soar helped Rejali figure out how to make the leap herself, even though she wasn’t Trepetti.

Today wasn’t a work day, which was why the men who were building the wall weren’t around.  Mama had left with Preeta’s mother to run errands in town.  Going to the Trepetti town was fun sometimes, but the spring weather was so warm today.  The friends convinced their mothers to let them stay in the community where Rejali’s family lived.  After all, her brother was home to watch them.

He’d allowed them to go to the wall to play because he could see it from their house.  So surely he’d seen all the other jumps they’d made already, going a little higher each time.  Hopefully he’d see how high she could go this round.

Although … as she strolled with bare feet a few paces along the top, it seemed higher than it looked from the ground.  She already knew it was as tall as Papa’s shoulders, but standing up here was different from when he gave her a ride on his back.

Rejali stopped and glanced over at her friend.  Preeta was also looking at the green grass striped with blue beneath them, and her smile had faded.  She reached up with one hand and dragged short fingers through the brown, bristly hair that grew from her scalp down her neck.

Preeta’s voice grew softer.  “I never jumped from this high.”

“Ah, you can do it.”  Rejali kept her own voice level even though she could have easily sounded like Preeta.  “Your people fly off the mountains.”

Her friend cast a sideways glance at her.  “Your people call it falling with style.”

The reminder made Rejali smile, partly because it helped her confidence return, at least a little bit.  “That’s what we’ve been doing the whole time.  We got practice lower down.  Now we can do it from up here.”

“Well….”  Preeta looked at the grass again, and her grin returned.  “You’re right.  Let’s do it!”

Her friend took a step away so she could spread her arms.  Her blue garments fluttered as the skin unfolded from her sides.  She made a small hop, and then flung herself upward and forward.

The skin bulged and stretched as she sailed downward, and forward several meters.  Her landing was marked by a soft thump and she staggered a little.  Lucky Trepetti….

“I did it!”  Preeta spun around to face the wall.  “I even flew farther this time!”

“I knew you could!”  Rejali shifted from one foot to the other.  Goodness, this wall was high.  She’d never be able to match the distance Preeta covered, but maybe she could stick the landing better.  All she had to do was fall with style.

She took a deep breath and murmured, “Here goes.”

With a small hop, she flung herself upward and forward.  She spread her arms and legs because she liked Preeta’s jumping style.  And for a perfect instant she was suspended between the lavender sky above and the grassy ground below, a ring of mountains providing silent witness.

Mama’s screech reached her ears.

Rejali flinched.  The unplanned motion knocked her off balance, and she landed on her left foot first.  Pain jolted up that leg even as her right foot struck the ground at the wrong angle.  She tumbled to the left and landed on the grass that barely cushioned the ground.

For a few seconds she couldn’t draw in any air.  Both Preeta and Mama called her name, and her ankle throbbed with every beat of her heart.  Just as panic started to flicker, she sucked in a thin wisp of air.

Mama dropped to her knees beside her.  “Rej!  Don’t move yet!  Are you hurt anywhere?”

She managed another breath, but her voice was still thin.  “My ankle.”

Rejali pointed toward her left foot as her throat tightened and eyes misted.  No, she wasn’t going to cry in front of Preeta.

While Mama placed her hands over the injured ankle, her friend’s mom came to a halt on her other side.  “Do you need my help?”

Pain jolted from her ankle again as Mama felt around it.  A yelp escaped through Rejali’s gritted teeth, and the tears that welled only frustrated her more.

Mama released a loud breath before she replied, “Thank you, but at least it looks twisted and not broken.”  Her gaze returned to Rejali’s face.  “Are you hurt anywhere else?”

“No.”  Her voice still squeaked.  “Maybe.  I couldn’t breathe.”  She dragged her arm across her nose so it wouldn’t drip.

“I’m surprised it’s not worse.”  Mama stroked her fingers once through Rejali’s curls as she glanced toward Preeta’s mother.  “Thank heaven, she’ll be all right.”

“I thought humans were too delicate for such heights,” Preeta’s mom replied.  “Such a relief it’s not more serious.  I’m sorry, Anwen.  We’ll have a discussion with Preeta.”

That could only lead to boring grownup talk, and Rejali looked over at her friend.  Preeta stood beside her mother, eyes wide.

“It’s not your fault.”  Rejali’s ankle continued to throb, and her voice remained squeaky.  “I wanted to go on top.”

Preeta’s head tilted to one side.  “I thought you could do it.”

And Rejali would have, too, if Mama hadn’t broken her concentration.  She remembered those days of feeling weak, when just walking was a challenge.  When her strength finally began to return a little each day, she pushed herself to the limit because it helped her grow stronger.  After all, life was much more fun this way.

After a round of farewells, Preeta and her mom left, and Mama scooped Rejali up in her arms to carry her.

“I can walk.”  She squirmed.

“You’ll be limping for a while.”  Mama switched to speaking Esperanto as her arms tightened.  “Rejali, you must stop being such a daredevil.”

She was in trouble when Mama called her that instead of Rej.

“The doctors said keep trying harder things.”  She also switched to their common language.

Mama exhaled, and carried her toward the house.  “They didn’t say to try and break your neck.”  Her voice dropped to a grumble.  “So this is what happens with the most perfect match they’d ever seen.”

Rejali frowned.  “What match?”

“You’re still too young to understand.  Just remember, you can run and play like all the other children now, so you don’t need to push anymore.  We’ll take care of that ankle when we get home – and find out what your brother’s been up to instead of keeping an eye on you.”

She didn’t want to cry in front of him, either.  Rejali pressed her lips together and tried to ignore her sore ankle.  Was Mama right?  Now that she was no longer so tender, should she stop trying to see how far she could go with her reclaimed strength?

That didn’t sound like any fun.

###

 

So here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the word this time is Tender.  Don’t miss out — be sure to check in on the other submissions!

Getting Cultured

My kitchen can be something of a science lab, and no, I’m not just referring to those forgotten experiments growing in the back of the fridge.  Over the past several years, in my quest for alternative food preservation, I discovered culture.

Art may be in the eye of the beholder and music might soothe the savage breast, but probiotics provide therapy for the gut.  Before our modern conveniences of canning and freezing, humanity relied on a couple of other methods to store up food for the future: drying and fermenting.

Fermenting is expressed in several ways.  If you’ve ever drank wine or beer, or chowed down on sauerkraut or yogurt or sourdough bread, you’re interacting with protagonist bacteria.  How else would you expect a writer to describe the good guys of microbiology?  Don’t worry, this rambling will get tied to writing by the end.

Creating these things from scratch makes you realize how hungry our ancestors were to sample what was probably a mistake or accident in the first place.  The fact they thought “Okay, this didn’t kill me … and I think I know how to make it even better” is testimony to human ingenuity.

Sourdough bread begins as flour and water that gets bubbly from wild yeast that falls into it and goes wild. Just add a few more ingredients and bake it into something chewy.

Yogurt is milk with yogurt added to it so that it becomes more yogurt.  How did that very first batch of yogurt come about?  Some theorize that milk was sloshed around on a warm day, in an animal-stomach-turned-into-a-bag.  Yep, somebody was really hungry….

Real buttermilk is a byproduct of making butter, something more akin to skim milk or whey.  The cultured buttermilk is milk with, you guessed it, a culture added so that it thickens and sours.  Where that first culture came from is another mystery.

Sauerkraut, which is shredded cabbage crushed with salt, is only one example of fermented vegetables.  Ever hear of sour or half-sour pickles?  They’re fermented cucumbers, or pickles made by salting and aging instead of soaking in boiled vinegar.  All kinds of other fresh vegetables can be treated similarly.

Notice the sour trend?  You can also make your own apple cider vinegar by soaking chopped up apples in sweetened water for a few weeks.

My latest adventure has been with kombucha.  You start with a batch of sweet tea and add a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) and top it off with kombucha from the last batch.

scobys

These are jars of SCOBYs.  Yep, somebody was really thirsty….

Beer and wine also get their starts with fermentation, but their alcohol content becomes high enough I think the probiotics wind up passing out.

So there you go: a brief description of items that were probably originally perceived as icky, but some brave soul decided to perfect them anyway.  How does this tie into writing?  Many people look at their first draft and perceive it as icky, but decide to perfect it anyway.  And if they work hard enough at it, give it a little culture, they can produce something others enjoy consuming.

Such testament to human ingenuity….

Peering into the Abyss

“Can one person change the world?”  Cadwalader recognized Malach’s instructive tone as his steward looked up from the sword he was cleaning.

“No, of course not.”

The keening of women now replaced the howl of warriors as gloom settled over the meadow.  Their lamentations clutched his soul.

Earlier today a battle raged here.  Cadwalader kicked a small stone unfortunate enough to be near his foot.  It tumbled haphazardly over the matted grass until it clunked against a bronze torque.

He snatched the neck collar and slipped it into the leather bag hanging from his shoulder.  Clearing the meadow of implements overlooked while removing the bodies offered no distraction from his grief.  They reminded him of the fallen, and especially of a lad his age slain nearer the village.  He turned back to his companion.

Malach, seated upon a boulder, had pushed the hood of the cape he wore off his head.  That was unusual, considering a few villagers still milled about.  With hood up and gloves on, the pooka passed as human.  Perhaps the growing darkness and thickening mist convinced him nobody would notice his slit pupils encompassed by swirling irises.

“Why do you even ask?”  Cadwalader suspected an ulterior motive.  This being, who had taken him in as a toddler a decade ago, did not engage in small talk.

Nor was he forthcoming with condolence….

“Your friend.”  Malach focused on the stained rag he used to scrub the blade near the hilt.  “He was young enough to take shelter, but chose to stand and fight.”

Cadwalader’s stomach churned.  “That was my fault.”

“Did you place a sword in his hand?  Did you push him into the fray?”

“He might have taken shelter if … if we had not filled his head with vanity.”

Malach glanced up.  “We?”

Heat surged through his veins, dislodging some of the bleakness.  Cadwalader clenched his fists and frowned.

“Yes, we.”  Sharing the blame might offer some respite.  “Llyr was intrigued by the techniques you taught me.  He believed his skill was sufficient to secure his safety.”

Malach stopped scrubbing, and this time his gaze settled on Cadwalader’s face.  “He was an excellent sparring partner for you.”

“He was my friend!”  Numbness fled the advance of rage.  “I have so few, with the way you haul me back and forth across different regions.  Is that what you want?  Do you try to keep me from developing bonds with my own kind?”

His attention shifted to Malach’s chin, thickly bearded but trimmed short.  Gazing at those otherworldly eyes for too long proved disorienting.

“You know why we cannot settle too long in one place.”  As usual his demeanor remained detached.

“Because of the other one like you?”  Cadwalader swung one hand toward the desolate meadow.  “The Other had nothing to do with this attack.  This is the work of a rival tribe instead of the Romans.”

That was why the pooka bothered to participate in this conflict.  Local raiders didn’t threaten the same predicament deployed soldiers did.  His propensity to refrain from the affairs of men was, so he claimed, rooted in his unsavory past.

Malach’s attention returned to wiping the sword.  “And that is why I allowed you to fight.”

Those words struck Cadwalader with the force of a club in the gut.  Llyr had seen him grasp the sword and charge into battle to defend the village, which encouraged him to follow. His friend’s death was still mostly his fault.

But Malach wasn’t going to get off that easily….

“You could have done more.”  Heat rose with his words.  “Those raiders were no match for you.  You could have slain most all of them.”

Malach stopped wiping, but didn’t look up.  “There is already enough blood on my hands to fill a lake.  Getting involved in men’s aspirations is the curse of my kind.  The Other embraces it.  I … seek a different path.”

“Then why me?”  Cadwalader’s fists tightened.  “You strike only when I am in danger.  You never defend anybody else.  I am no different from any of them, so why me?”

Malach’s gaze rose to his face.  “Why did your friend join the battle?”

“Can you ever give a straight answer?”

“Why give you that which you already hold?”

He called the pooka something far less savory, dropped the leather satchel, and spun away.  Yet even as he stomped along the line of boulders interspersed with trees, regret over using those words settled over him like the shade in the valley.  Malach was a challenge to interact with, but he was also the only … father … he could truly remember….

Cadwalader halted after a few paces and grasped a low hanging branch of an oak.  Its bark dug into his fingers from the force of his grip, and he gazed the huddle of huts across the meadow.  He drew in a long, slow breath as a couple of inhabitants shuffled among the structures.

His memories of the family he used to have were so distant and murky, more like recalling snatches of a fleeting dream.  Malach encouraged him to cherish all the images and sensations of them he could recall.  That wasn’t always easy when those reflections ended with screams and fire and death.

That encouragement was one example of charity exhibited by an otherwise aloof being.  There were others, such as how Cadwalader’s impudence was never corrected with blows and berating such as those he’d witnessed from some fathers.

Nor did Malach ever use the language Cadwalader just hurled at him.  He knew those words only because he’d learned them from the men.

His steward admitted to being a creature of darkness, but there was no doubt about Malach’s struggle to comprehend the light.  If the pooka had an ulterior motive, it wasn’t to blame Llyr or anybody else for the young man’s death.  He always tried to guide Cadwalader … even though those efforts were often infuriating.

With another deep breath, Cadwalader released the branch and strode back to the boulder where the pooka continued stroking the blade with the tattered cloth.  There probably wasn’t a speck of dirt or blood left on that sword.

“I … apologize.”  He clasped his hands together as he stood before Malach.  “I should not have called you that.”

“That is not the worst name I have been called.”

“I was angry because … you know Llyr thought he could help.”

“Indeed.”  Malach’s attention remained on the weapon.  “But why would he want to help when the village’s men were already there to defend?”

There was no use repeating himself, so he dug deeper for an explanation beyond the obvious.  “He … believed one more person added to our strength.”

“Was he correct?”

Was he?  Cadwalader’s gaze cast out again toward the trampled and bloodied meadow.  The women’s choral mourning trembled through a breeze light enough to mimic the dying’s final breath.  The shadow in the east eagerly followed on the heels of the retreating sun.

“We won the battle.”  The words fell flat as they tumbled from his lips.  “But we could have won … without his loss.”

“And yet you also joined the battle.”

His attention locked on Malach again.  “You taught me to fight.”

“I also taught you to hide.  But when the attack began, you took up the sword.”  His companion sat up as he returned Cadwalader’s gaze.  “Why?”

He stared at Malach’s beard.  “I will never stand back when the welfare of others is at stake.”

“That is what your friend believed.”  He glanced away to set the rag down and picked up the scabbard balanced beside him.  “That is why you were friends.  There was much you shared.  And that is why I share in your grief.”

Cadwalader’s blood pounded in his ears.  “Did you ever consider rendering your aid to him instead of me?”

Malach sheathed the sword.  “You are the one the Other hunts.”

The Other?  That statement rattled in his mind before dropping into his stomach where it lay like a stone.  “What?”

His companion looked up again.  “He does not trail you like a wolf pursuing a hare, but he knows that I, too, roam these lands.  And he has learned I harbor a youth.  You do not threaten him in the present, but if he ever found you, he would destroy you to protect his future.”

This sudden turn in the conversation sent prickles from his chest and through his arms to the tips of his fingers.  Malach always avoided the Other, but Cadwalader thought it was because the two pookas would clash over a major disagreement.

“Why do you tell me this now?”

“Because one day you will have to face the Other, and if you hope to survive, you will need allies.  Honor the memory of your friend, for he was a worthy ally.  But never allow his loss to haunt you, because his will not be the last.”

So this was his ulterior motive.  Did he believe the impact of this revelation would be softened by the despair that already resided within Cadwalader?  He swallowed hard.

“Was this your scheme all along?”

“Scheme?”  Malach regarded the scabbard as though contemplating if he should oil it.  “When I plucked you from that razed village, I was unsure why I even rescued you.  My kind believes we exist to goad humanity into destroying itself.  It should be easy.  The desires your hearts conceive are evil all the time.  But you survive because of a promise.”

He placed the scabbard on his lap and looked at Cadwalader.  “The Other is influencing the Roman outposts to indulge in their worst vices.  When he has gathered enough soldiers to sweep through the land, he will release them upon your people.  This I have learned over the last few years.”

“And … you expect me to stop them?”  He gaped at his companion.  “Wait, are you not meddling in the affairs of men?”

“This time I attempt to defend.  I have come to believe it was not by accident I discovered you.  You have always … stood your ground.  Perhaps for the selfish purpose of seeking my own redemption, I can facilitate that quality within you.”

If this was what it meant for his usually reserved companion to become talkative, Cadwalader liked him better the other way.

“Why are you telling me this now?”

“Because deception is natural to me, and I am attempting to be … unnatural.  Instead of concealing my speculations, I shall attempt to be honest.  And that is why I must also tell you that the hardest thing you will ever have to do is stand back when others are at risk.”

Cadwalader stared at him, and even gazed at those unsettling eyes for a few seconds.  The pooka did possess capabilities regarded as magic, but used them sparingly.  Was he indulging in one that Cadwalader hadn’t known about before tonight?

“Can you also see the future?”

“I have lived enough centuries to determine what is truth for men.”  Malach rose to his feet and began fastening the scabbard back to its belt.  “It will soon be too dark to see.  We should return to the village and turn over the artifacts we found.”

Cadwalader picked up the leather satchel near his feet, and fell into step with his companion as they skirted around the meadow.

There was no doubt this qualified as one of the worst days of his life, and yet this was the occasion Malach chose to inform him it was only going to get worse.  He still wasn’t sure he appreciated his steward’s new openness.  But if the pooka was going to be more candid now, maybe he would answer a question that had perplexed Cadwalader for years.

“Why did you turn from your previous path?”

Malach glanced toward him, and his lips curled down in that suppressed and familiar smirk.

“Can one person change the world?”

###

So here is my contribution this month to #BlogBattle, and the word this time is Gloom.  You’ve got to expect all kinds of great stories from that one, so don’t miss out!

What Doesn’t Kill You

A writer died, but upon arriving at the pearly gates, St. Peter told her she could decide if she wanted to go to hell or to heaven.  He offered to give her a tour of each destination to help with her decision, so they went to hell first.

There in the fiery pits she saw rows of writers chained to their desks in a steamy sweatshop.  Demons repeatedly whipped them with thorny lashes as they worked.

“Oh my,” she said, “let me see heaven.”

So they ascended, and there she saw rows of writers chained to their desks in a steamy sweatshop.  Angels repeatedly whipped them with thorny lashes as they worked.

“Hold on,” she said.  “This is no different from hell.”

“Oh yes, it is,” St. Peter replied.  “Here, your work gets published.”

Although it’s too late for the protagonist in the above anecdote, this past week I was reminded of the saying “What doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger.”  That’s a good theme for a story full of danger and intrigue, but the philosophy can also apply to writing – and the life it mirrors.

My browser and cell phone decided to synchronize going kaput.  Luckily I don’t experience anxiety when separated from the virtual world, but it did put a hitch in my get-along.  The pain and suffering was caused by the processes of fixing/replacing those problems.  Nothing was life threatening, of course, but it was still an annoyance that managed to trigger some inspiration.

That’s one of the ironies about suffering:  If we lived in a world where dismemberment and broken bones never happened, stubbing your toe would send you collapsing to the floor and wailing, “Oh, Lord, why me?”

And our own suffering makes us more empathetic to the suffering of others.  When we see others suffer, we want to help them, which is a good.  Even in a fictional setting, you wouldn’t care if the hero of the story gets out of the dilemma he’s in if you’ve never faced a dilemma of your own.

Sure, we agree we’d rather avoid suffering.  But since there’s no avoiding it, we might as well try to take some comfort in believing good could come of it.

Just think of those writers who are going to get published….

 

A Brief Announcement

Yes, I’m a couple of days late making this announcement, but you still have until March 12 to take advantage of the Read an eBook Week sale going on at Smashwords.

Not a Smashwords member?  No problem, you can sign up for free.

Just click on the button below and you can begin browsing for all kinds of titles at all kinds of discounts.  May your quest for great reading be fruitful!

 

Facing the Unknown

“Don’t worry about me.”  Whit hoped his forced smile appeared relaxed.  “I’m too old and stringy for them to decide to serve mankind.”

The deadpan expressions of his fellow crewmembers betrayed how nervous everybody was … including him.  It wasn’t every day that an alien species tried to communicate with them.

Except for the past five days, that is.  When one of their interstellar ships came within visual range of a vessel not belonging to their fleet, word spread like wildfire.  At least, that was the way his late wife Sunny would have described it, since as a historian she liked using those obscure phrases.

Within hours after encountering the first craft, a second one showed up.  The first vessel departed, and the second one – twice as large as any in the fleet – proceeded to play something of a cat-and-mouse game with the ships.

“They’ve finished going belly-up again and are making their final approach.” The technician was probably the only one whose attention wasn’t focused on Whit.

Whenever it approached, the craft would roll enough to show its underside.  This mystified the crew for the first couple of days.  When one of the agriculturalists pointed out it reminded her of a dog rolling on its back to show submission, the idea proved intriguing.

After the first couple of days, what appeared to be robots began crawling about a specific area on the hull of the alien craft.  They built a tubular extension, mere meters in diameter and about ten meters long, matching the configuration of the portals on the fleet ships.

“How is their alignment with our portal?” the captain asked the technician.

“Their trajectory is immaculate.”

Yesterday, the aliens sent shockwaves through the fleet by communicating with all the ships.

Once upon a time humanity believed a fallacy that intelligence denoted benevolence.  Experience, which Whit had plenty of, proved no correlation between the two.  When the fleet received text in the universal code they used, all the specialists admitted the aliens were first to figure out how to communicate.

The language use was stilted, but the message was an invitation.  Assuming the interface they’d constructed was adequate, would the humans like to send over representatives and begin establishing an accord?

“Almost there….” the technician murmured.

The ship shuddered slightly, but nobody would have spilled any drinks if they’d decided to send off Whit with a toast.  Considering the vessel was a behemoth, the minor rattle made its navigators’ piloting skills quite impressive.

That still wasn’t proof against the theory they wanted to discover if humans were tasty.

“You’ll never be alone, Whit.”  The captain placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed.  “I know it sure feels that way to someone about to make history, but our prayers are with you.”

Make history?  His wife would have liked to witness this, but his status as a widower was one of the reasons he volunteered to possibly make the menu.

“Thank you.”  It seemed prudent to keep any further entree cracks to himself.  “I’ll just try not to screw things up.”

Well wishes followed him into the airlock.  The door behind him closed as he stepped across the cargo area used for passenger transfers.  Multicolored lights above the next doorway flickered, displaying how much breathable air filled the alien pod.

Seemed like a good reminder to draw a deep breath and calm his nerves….

Despite his age, or rather, because of his experience, he participated on one of the committees that discussed how to respond to the invitation.  If they sent somebody, that person should meet certain parameters:  Older, although not elderly and frail; no dependent family; and widower, which also implied male.

Upon his realization he fit the profile, Whit volunteered … which was another criteria they established.

All the lights above the door flashed to green, and the polymer panel retracted into the wall.

His heart began thumping against his chest and his stomach rolled.  He’d been in plenty of tight spots before, but meeting aliens for the first time still presented a handicap.  He might not be able to read their expressions as well as he did with his fellow man.  For all he knew, blowing a raspberry was a friendly greeting.

When Sunny passed away less than a year ago, he hadn’t expected it.  She’d always been spunky and vivacious, laughing at his jokes when others might groan.  One morning when she awakened, she complained for the first time in her life about feeling too tired to arise.

He signaled for a doctor to report to their quarters, and then Sunny assured him she felt better.  Immediately afterward she drew her last breath.

So little warning….

This open doorway was no competition for the despair that descended upon him then, but it reminded him of that loss.  For many months he’d coped with the first occasion of all events that now passed without her.  The first year was supposed to be the hardest….

Whit drew another deep breath.  If his wife still lived, somebody else would be standing in his place.  And precisely because he missed her was one reason he decided to volunteer for this role.

It wasn’t death that frightened him.  It was exactly how he got there that proved a bit worrisome.  And then there was the matter of keeping the fleet safe.

He passed through the doorway.  Lights all over the wall and ceiling flashed on, startling him.  Whit proceeded at a saunter as he slipped into his practiced scrutiny.

The instruments and panels presented a bizarre blend of familiar and enigmatic.  Geometry prevailed, with round tubes and rectangular frames bordered by lights of differing colors.  Some seemed to be purely for illumination, while others formed incomprehensible configurations that occasionally cascaded vertically against their backdrops.

It seemed prudent to continue heeding his mother’s advice and keep his hands to himself.

His soft footfalls on the textured floor were the only sound to reverberate through the pod.  Since the air had been provided from his ship, no aroma stood out … which itself seemed odd.  Shouldn’t it at least have, as Sunny would have called it, that new car smell?

His heart jolted again when a band of blue light, surrounding a screen or window at the end of the pod, flashed on.  Its luminescence pulsated as a shield lowered … revealing another being standing behind it.

He immediately noted the characteristics they shared:  bipedal, although the lower frame of the window concealed what was below its waist, with two arms and one head.  Its clothing appeared to be draped about its form, and was accented with swirling green and yellow designs.

Its broad, ruddy face was lined with plump wrinkles, reminding him of an overripe bell pepper.  The eyes were dark, the nose flat, and thin lips stretched from cheek to cheek.

The being raised its hands, each with five fingers, palms forward.

Was it possible?  Were the actions of showing their belly and raising hands really universal expressions of meaning no harm?

Whit mirrored the alien’s stance.  The corners of its mouth curled upward but the lips didn’t part.

He smiled back, also refraining from teeth disclosure.  It felt as forced as his earlier attempt to fake ease.  This was no time to reflect on those enduring alien probe jokes.

The being spoke.  Its mouth moved in an understandable way, but the speech that transmitted into the pod was undecipherable.

A screen below the window vertically scrolled the code used by the fleet:

Welcome.  We do not recognize ***** the ***** people we discovered.  ***** are small.  Why are ***** here?

Whit returned his attention to the alien that stood a full head shorter, and would have wondered what profanity had just been used if their original invitation hadn’t displayed the same stuttering.  They did appear to have problems with the pronoun you, but other gaps weren’t as obvious.

Lord knew what all got lost in the translator, but assuming it worked for both languages, he might as well answer the question.

“We have been traveling for generations.  You are the first … other people … we have met.”  Ah, maybe that explained one of the stutters.  “We found you by chance.”

The readout cooperated with spelling out an estimation of what it translated.  His associate’s expression, a deepening of the wrinkles, revealed little of how well his statements had been received.  After a few seconds passed, the being returned its attention to him.

Why do ***** travel?

This was starting to feel like an interrogation, which didn’t surprise him.  After all, his fleet was the trespassers, and perhaps these friendly aliens were just as wary of them.

That answer was long and complicated.  “How much do you like long stories?”

Its wrinkles deepened again, and then its head bobbed once.

***** are strangers.  Why are ***** here?

Well, he couldn’t argue with that.  Whit drew a deep breath, sorted his thoughts, and then tried to explain.  How well would the translator cope with the concepts of suppression and coercion and war … or defiance and liberation and compassion?

With his experience in giving reports, and marriage to a historian filling in any gaps he might have otherwise, his explanation sounded cogent to him.  The readout confirmed it looked like he used some profanity.

His associate’s wrinkles pulsed throughout the monologue, and then it gazed at him again.

***** left ***** problems?

Even without missing words, that question wasn’t as simple as it sounded.  Thoroughness and accuracy were still important to him, so he didn’t want his reply to sound misleading.  But if he told the truth, would that somehow condemn all of humanity to an end they’d been avoiding?

He had spoken the truth for too long to change that now.

“No.  Some of them came with us.  We are not … perfect.  Having to rely on each other in the confines of space has kept the worst of our behavior at bay, but lies and theft and even murder are still part of our behavior.”

Not only did its wrinkles pulse, the alien’s eyes bulged slightly.  After a couple of seconds, it looked at Whit … and smiled.

For all he knew, it was pleased to have some new recipes to try out.

Before people can be strong, must ***** know weakness.

Whit stared at the readout.  Despite most of the words being present, he still wasn’t certain what that meant.  Did the alien just declare it was now confident its species was strong enough to run weak humans out of this part of the galaxy … or worse?

All his decades as a crime investigator welled inside him.  If he just screwed things up, it was up to him to keep the people on the ship – including his children and grandchildren – safe.  They might have to make a run for it, and leave him behind….

I will tell about us.

Whit stared at his associate’s face despite not figuring out the cues.  “What do you mean?”

***** we share.  It is my turn.

The readout appeared to be sprinkled with profanity again, but he followed a narrative about geological turmoil and deception and seeking.  Interesting … sharing its own tribulations stirred a sense of trust in him.

“I suppose nobody is perfect.”

The alien smiled.

They discussed a few more matters about expectations and the future, and then agreed to withdraw to their own people and arrange another meeting.  As he returned to the ship, he noticed a slight trembling in his fingers.  Adrenaline aftereffects….

The crew’s greeting was hearty.

“Everything looked well from this end,” the captain said.  “But how would you describe it?”

The smile that sprang to his lips was spurred by more than relief.  Even though Sunny wasn’t here to share this event, she would have been pleased their descendants might actually benefit from it.  He heard her laughter in his mind’s ear.

“Delicious.”

###

Here is my contribution this month to #BlogBattle, and this time the word is Interface.  Lots of possibilities with that one, so be sure to catch the other submissions!