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!

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!

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!

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!

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!

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!

Stolen Moments

pixabay.com

He didn’t want to be conspicuous, but Kelwin still glanced back at his wife as he strolled closer to the administration building.  His grip on their son’s hand tightened as he spied her perusing the variety of meats offered at one of the market stands.

As he expected, Norah betrayed nothing about fulfilling the role of lookout.

The underground systems of Eda were surprisingly comfortable for not only the indigenous Martimu, but Humans as well.  Artificial lighting reflected off the ivory-colored walls of the predominant stone, casting a glittering luminescence throughout the broad, chiseled caverns.  It was quite probable that being forced to live underground, due to the inhospitable surface, had contributed to their proclivity for designing and building interstellar ships.

And that was why he’d dared to come here.

Their son, seven years old by Earth standards, pulled on his hand and spoke in Olde English because it was indecipherable to any translator.

“Can we go to the Grendelette Pools after this?”

Kelwin drew a deep breath, wishing yet again he could say yes, even in an archaic language.  “You know that all depends.”

Colmac’s lips pursed.  As a youth so accustomed to disappointment, he’d developed a stoic cynicism already.  Kelwin had given up on cursing the prophecy that had abstracted his son’s childhood.  That achieved nothing.  Their focus was better served at ensuring the Voratene never succeeded in … executing … him.

So Kelwin spent much time teaching his son how to survive.

A new ship had started appearing in the ports.  Before the Voratene threatened his family, Kelwin serviced and repaired all kinds of craft.  Their years of living as fugitives dictated consistent travel across space, and his familiarity with the vessels proved useful.

But he wasn’t going to set foot on one of those new contraptions until he knew how it was constructed.  He needed to know all the ways of escape, first.  And quite possibly the Voratene forced the Martimu to design snares within it.

There was only one way to view the abstract.

Although no flashing light or electronic beep betrayed they were being scanned, he knew their entrance into the administration building was recorded.  Norah had programmed false identities for all three of them even though there was no plan for her to enter the facility.  But plans had a way of getting changed in an instant….

This invasive monitoring didn’t exist until the Voratene established their domain and decided all their subjects needed to be supervised.  Luckily, keeping track of races on eleven different planets scattered many light years apart made their surveillance system sluggish.

“Why aren’t there any drafts on the syncosphere?”  Colmac pulled his hand free as they entered the library room.  Several dozen stations, in an assortment of sizes to accommodate various races, created a bit of a maze.  Each was outfitted with a screen and buttons, knobs, and levers to manipulate the devices.

“Because our toads control what’s on it.”  Since there was no Olde English word for Voratene, they employed some code to further stymie any eavesdropping translators.  “They keep off anything that’s genuinely useful.”

There were only a few other patrons, mostly quadrupedal Martimu, in the library.  He had no difficulty locating a station they could access, and showed his son how to go about bringing up the information they sought.

Kelwin’s heart fell as he studied the schematics.  His wife’s suspicion had been right, and he offered thanks for her suggestion they should investigate how these new ships were constructed.

“Look.”  He tapped a finger on different parts of the screen.  “What do you see?”

“Air-locks?”  Colmac frowned.  “Those are standard.”

“Compare them.  Do you notice a difference?”

His son leaned forward, chewed on his lower lip for a few seconds, and then looked up at his face.  “Some are missing escape hatches?”

Kelwin nodded.  “So that means?”

“Trap.”  There was no mistaking the disappointment in his voice as his gaze returned the screen.

As he watched the child stare at the diagram, Kelwin wrestled with his own competing emotions.  That Colmac was a swift learner stirred a bit of pride … but like how the Martimu were brilliant engineers because of the bright and barren surface, he had to be.

He had to adapt and think and confront all sorts of situations a youngster shouldn’t have to face.  Declared guilty of a crime he’d never committed, he was hunted to guarantee that he never would.  Even by staying alive, he had to sacrifice his childhood.

Life wasn’t fair, but more so for his son….

Colmac looked up again.  “What about the Grendelette Pools?”

He started to calculate how long they’d been here, what the odds were that sentries would try to track them down because their fake identities might be discovered by now.  At least Norah hadn’t alerted them of any troops approaching their location.

The sensation that pulsed through him brought those calculations to a halt.

Of course his son wanted to visit the pools.  The grendelettes, fish-type creatures, were so domestic they would frolic with any swimmers who entered those waters.  The youth of all the races who visited there found them quite enchanting.

By God, he wasn’t going to allow the Voratene to dash his son’s hopes yet again.

Kelwin smirked as he switched the station off.  “We’re going.  But before we do, we do need a plan of escape in case any sentries track us there.”

Colmac nodded, his beaming smile making worthwhile any complications they might run across.  And then his words prompted that mixture of emotions again.

“I have an idea.”

###

So here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the word this round is Abstract.  It took me a while to get around to drafting this one, so I decided to milk it.  And don’t miss checking out the other submissions!

Father’s Day is nearly here in my part of the world, which might have had some influence on the theme in this story.  So happy Father’s Day to all you dads!

Greatest of These

Hin

“Of course you can decline at any time … even now.”

Rejali stared at the prioress for a few seconds before she strolled to the nearby window.  Her motion seemed automatic, as though she were sleepwalking.  Indeed, the proposal Mother Juthfride just informed her about seemed like an event in a dream, something preposterous.

She placed a hand on the smooth wood of the sill and gazed at the rugged mountains standing sentry over the valley her community thrived in.  Directly outside the window a few members labored in the garden, cultivating a mixture of crops from both Earth and the native soil of Hin.  The sight of the garden struck a chord of longing in her heart….

She didn’t want to leave.

“Why me?”  Even as she spoke to the window pane, Rejali already surmised what the answer would be.

“Besides the obvious fact you’re a young woman, your standing as a Disciple is exemplary.  You possess both the physical skill and spiritual girding someone in that position would need.”  Juthfride’s tone was both calm and conciliatory.

“Why not assign somebody to just be a bodyguard?”

“That option is still on the table.  In fact, if this supplicant had been a woman, you would be their choice.”

Rejali frowned at the pale reflection of herself in the pane.  Ever since she undertook training in the Discipline, she’d wanted to serve in the fullness of her capacity.  But what the curia asked of her now seemed a call beyond that of duty.

“And this … deliverer … is sanguine with this arrangement?”

“He is open to it.  I wasn’t informed of any of the particulars in that regard.”  Juthfride’s lips hinted at a curt smile as she folded her arms.  “And of course if he decides he doesn’t like you, he is also free to decline.”

The deliverer … was for real.  For as long as she could remember, even if only once in long while, Rejali heard whispers of this individual.  His existence was something of a worst-kept secret, a rumor, a possible lie that humanity harbored someone who would break the absolutism of the Voratene empire.

And now she was being asked to consider the possibility of becoming his wife?

“There is one detail that makes me poorly qualified for this assignment.”

“None of us are perfect.”  Her mouth retained its shape.  “I presume you’re alluding to the fact you’ve engaged little in space travel?”

“I … was never very interested in that.”  Frankly, the thought was a bit terrifying, but she hadn’t spoken of it since childhood.  Her family figured she’d outgrown it.

“If you agree to this arrangement, you will grow accustomed to it.  He is, obviously, very experienced in that regard.”  Juthfride unfolded her arms.  “It is true that by Earth calculation he’s around a year younger than you, but flight has been his entire life.”

“He’s … younger?”  She’d always thought he’d be a little older, but considering how relative age was among the various alien races, it was understandable such a detail would be blurred.  “So, why did he come to us now for protection?”

“I don’t have all the details, but several years ago, when his father was killed, his mother made the request that if she also died, we would provide a companion to help him evade the troops.”

“When was she … killed?”

“Nearly a year ago.  He managed on his own for much of that time, but in the last month a … heated … encounter crossed his path with a Disciple who offered help.  When this deliverer discovered he was a family man, he tried to slip away.  But the Disciple convinced him to give the curia a chance to assign him a more suitable advocate.”

“And I was their first choice … but because of the obvious, I can only carry out this duty if we’re married.”

“Don’t make it sound like they’ve dismissed matrimony as a convenience.  It is precisely because of its sanctity that the two of you have complete control over what you decide to do with the situation.”

Naturally.  If this supplicant had been a woman, Rejali would have simply received her marching orders and taken on the task despite any trepidation about space travel.  But this matter was more delicate.  She had the option to decline.

And she could decline right now.  She could say no and be done with it and keep working in the gardens and refine her training with the Discipline.  She wouldn’t have to worry about being exposed to space … at least not for a while … depending on what assignment might come up later….

The curia must have decided their top-rated Disciple, despite her youth, was necessary for the charity of defending a fugitive who’d demolished nothing and yet was still on the Voratene’s most-wanted list.  But there were plenty of other adherents they could choose from.  Her refusal wouldn’t leave them in a void….

No … she hadn’t become a Disciple to avoid her fears.  God had given her a gift, not only of life but also of miraculous healing.  When Rejali chose to join the Discipline as a mere child, it was because it was the most significant way to show her gratitude.  She wanted to serve in the fullness of her capacity … she’d just hoped to do so on Hin, or at least get to reside on another planet.

She thought of the quip attributed to Saint Teresa of Calcutta, how God would never give one any challenge that couldn’t be handled – she just wished He didn’t know she could handle so much.

Every cell in her body seemed to shudder before the words that emerged from her mouth.  “Since this agreement must be mutual, I suppose there is no harm in taking that first step.  When do I meet him?”

“Your transport can be arranged anytime, so you might as well take a day to spend with your family and get yourself packed.”

Her heart fluttered.  “No chance of his coming here?”

Juthfride shrugged.  “He claims that wherever he goes, devastation often follows in his wake.  It is for the safety of this community you must meet at his current location.”

Rejali drew a deep breath and managed to nod.  “Then I’ll get ready to leave.”

She strolled out the door and into the hallway, her heart pounding against her chest.  The light breeze that bushed her face upon stepping outside the chancery was also welcomed for another deep breath, and her attention drew again to the garden.

When she wasn’t training, there was little more soothing to her than working in the soil, of tending to the crops that the ground provided.  It was such a basic and primal activity, harkening back to the origin of humanity.  These days could soon become only memory, and she wondered if she’d ever return to the garden.  And then a realization dawned on her.

Was she really more afraid of traveling in space than deciding if a complete stranger would make a suitable husband?

###

So here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the word this time was Proposal.  There are a couple of ways to define that one, so I just thought I’d try to work both of them in.  And don’t miss checking out the other entries this month!

A Very Brief Announcement

All the ducks are finally lined up for the publication of my novella, Tossing Dice.  Eighteen of the chapters were posted online, but the free e-book contains a bonus chapter that delves more deeply into the story line.  A $4 (US) paperback is available at Amazon for those who like the feel of a book in their hands.

Here are a few more links for your clicking convenience:

Smashwords

Barnes and Noble

Kobo

tossing-dice-3

Whew!  It’s nice to check off that task and move on to the next one….

Hootenanny

“It is silent and deadly.”

“I’m glad you used the conjunction and.”  Rhys peered into the inky darkness of the cavernous arena before them.  “It’s those silent but deadly attacks that give me cause for alarm.”

The examiner, a willowy woman whose white hair was more pronounced than the lines in her face, narrowed her eyes.  “Mr. Cadwalader, your irreverent levity contributes nothing toward this assessment of your capability.”

Every time she addressed him by his surname, he suspected Val was on the cusp of striking him from the Tracker program.  Although he saw nothing wrong with a little jocularity to ease any tension, Rhys figured he’d better remove any and all complaints she might use against him.  He was, after all, not a typical candidate, which was why she scrutinized him so closely.

“My apologies.”

Her brow remained furrowed.  “The Owl may seem a mundane descriptor for this simulation, but two-thirds of the applicants fail to neutralize their quarry on the first trial.  And remember, despite your … proclivity, you must rely on the techniques that were outlined in the introduction.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Absolutely.”  Truth be told, he was hanging on her every word.  He was about to enter a test that would challenge his prowess, but even with his physical advantage, anybody with an IQ higher than a rooster that got hit in the head understood knowledge was the real key to overcoming an opponent.

The fact Val reminded him to stick to the techniques did cause him to wonder if she wasn’t as eager to eject him from the program as she usually appeared.  Maybe his quips amused her more than she wanted to admit….

“Then you may proceed.”

That was all the clues she was going to give him?  As unwilling to divulge his agitation as much as she might be to admitting amusement, Rhys responded with a smirk and a shrug.

Ball pistol in hand, but loaded with digital blanks, he took one step into the ancient chamber.  With peripheral vision, he noticed she already started jotting notes on her modern, technological clipboard.

Or maybe she was manipulating the Owl.

 He took another step into the cool yet dry sub terrane.  Dug out millennia ago with hand tools and lined with stone throughout, this vault had been witness to countless training sessions.  It also adapted readily to advances in technology, so was currently outfitted with holographic projectors hidden within the chiseled columns supporting the arched ceiling.

The Owl was only a simulation, so it was guaranteed to strike as silently as Val claimed, but its lethalness was confined to the readouts fed back to her clipboard.  Still, only a third of the Tracker candidates succeeded at their objective on the first attempt, and Rhys was determined to number among them.  After all, he should be very good at this.

He skulked to the nearest column and peered deeper into the chamber.  Sparse flickers of light, the only illumination, teased his imagination with the image of some snickering sprite hurling a swarm of fireflies into this lair to taunt its hunter.

Except the only sprite here represented an abomination, a technological rendering of the result when corrupted flesh bound itself to a beast—

The blow across his shoulder blades sent Rhys somersaulting to the neighboring column.  Part of his response had been evasive maneuver, but this mere simulation legitimately struck him with enough force to shove him forward.

He righted himself at a crouch, this time shoving his back against the lithoid pillar.

No Owl loomed before him.  And this was no time to kick himself for allowing his guard to drop.  That whack had probably been delivered to remind him of exactly that.  If there was any trait abominations and examiners shared, it was tormenting their subjects….

Heck, yeah, this thing was silent, and Rhys remembered his rudimental lucidity, usually triggered by someone’s approach, was incapable of alerting him to a non-living simulation.  He was as “blind” as any other man to its approach … and maybe that had something to do with Val’s instruction to rely on the techniques—

It whirled from behind the column he crouched against.  From the corner of his right eye, he caught a flash of rainbow colors swirling together.

Rhys ducked and rolled to the next support, and heard a whump against the pillar where he’d just been.

These columns offered little protection.  He sprang to his feet and performed a whirling routine of his own as he fired ball blanks into the darkness.  When he hit the closest wall, he pressed his back against it and surveyed the arena.

Exactly what beastie had the trainers created for this little exercise?  Despite his in-depth knowledge of the Nephilim, he didn’t recognize it.  But there was one trait these creatures all had in common, and that was a weakness specific to their kin.

Like fending off a vampire with a crucifix or felling a werewolf with a silver bullet, this Owl had to be susceptible to something—

It unfurled from behind the pillar nearest him.  In two seconds that felt more like two minutes, the beast reared before him, suspended for an instant in its full glory.  In an intimidating way, it was one of the most beautiful things he’d seen.  What first appeared to be multicolored feathers were in reality spiky scales.  It didn’t just pummel.  It could slice.

And could do so silently….

Most other quarry would have frozen at the spectacle, but Rhys leaped aside as he squeezed off another shot.  The Owl’s wings swooped toward him, but struck the wall at the level of his neck.  Another whump was the only noise it generated.

It silently swung toward him as he backed away at a quick clip.

Silence … of course!  The Owl had to be susceptible to noise.  But it would have to be a considerable clamor, or the screams of its victims would be a disadvantage to it—

It lunged toward him, talons and wings outstretched.

Rhys hurtled to the next column.  With his free hand he wrested a digital pad from his belt.  With pure muscle memory his fingers tapped against the keypad and screen.

The Owl swerved and brushed past him as he ducked around the column.  He was pretty sure that pass scored some more injury points for his opponent.

It twisted around and lunged again as he sprang back – but thrust the pad before him.

The cacophony of bagpipes that erupted from the pad was jolting enough, but the fife and drum accompanying them underscored the formidable acoustics of this chamber.

If the Owl screeched, it was drowned out by Scotland the Brave.  It did halt its advance, but began twisting and contorting in a macabre dance, as though thrown into a vat of acid.  It remained suspended, its method of flight not dependent on the aerodynamics of lift.

Rhys took no chances.  He fired digital blanks into its head, chest, and belly.

One or all of those balls made it finally crumple to the floor.  For a couple more seconds he watched its form, confirmed it wouldn’t rise again, and turned off the music player on his pad.  Silence didn’t entirely reestablish itself, however.  There was a slight ringing in his ears.

With a final glance at the Owl, he strode back where he’d left Val.  She hadn’t moved, except this time she was poking at her right ear with her pinky, and her left eye was squinted.

Rhys grinned as he approached.  “I’d say I passed that trial with flying colors!”

She opened her eye to look at him.  “What?”

Repeating the jest would only sap the life from it, so he stood directly in front of her before speaking about the next topic.  “That Owl isn’t real, is it?”

Val’s gaze remained locked on his, and she spoke slowly and distinctly.  “It is a simulation.”

Sometimes he wondered if she really did have a sense of humor, it was just extremely dry.  “The lot of you made up something I wouldn’t recognize, didn’t you?  You purposefully tailored the trial to be more challenging for me.”

“Considering your heritage, working as a Tracker will be more challenging for you.”

She had a point.  It was the same point that hounded him ever since he declared he wanted to be a Tracker.  But did it really make sense to challenge him with trials that directly confronted his … proclivities?

“I still call it cheating in reverse.”

Her gaze locked with his again.  “Nephilim will always cheat.”

He returned the stare.  Val never wavered, her demeanor cool and steely.  During the prime of her life, before he was born, she had waged battles against creatures like the Owl … and others like him.  She had every reason to doubt his sincerity….

His response was not a challenge, but an assertion.  “There are those who were known to play fair.”

Her expression didn’t change for the first few seconds.  And then one corner of her mouth curved upward.

“Which is why you must learn how to cheat.”

Wow, that was the most encouraging thing she’d ever said to him.  “One thing’s sure, if you keep the training this hard for my benefit, actually working in the field will seem easy.”

Her smile deepened.  “And that, son of Cadwalader, is the wisest observation you’ve made in weeks.”

###

Here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the prompt word this round was a bit challenging, if I do say so myself:  Owl.  That’s owl, not ow, although that was my first response when I tried to figure out what to do with it….

So be sure to check out the other submissions, and see how creative the other writers got!