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!

Parting the Waters

All was darkness.  And it was empty … so very empty.  Deuce expected that, and the sensation of floating added to his disorientation.  Darkness and emptiness was all that space had to offer, except for the occasional colliding asteroid or lethal radiation … wait a minute.  He was breathing.  That shouldn’t be possible.

In fact, the last he recalled, breathing had required effort….

No, he wasn’t floating.  He was lying on a bed.  And he was becoming aware of funny but familiar smells.  Ah yes, a medical ward.  And then his memory flooded with images of the battle where he was wounded.

They could still be in danger–

His eyes snapped open, and the light, although soft, caused him to squint.  He started raising one hand to shade them – except he couldn’t.

“At ease, soldier.”  A familiar male voice he hadn’t heard in weeks offered more consolation than the words.  “Kyla said you might wake up ready to fight.”

The speaker leaned into his field of vision, and Zeke’s gray-streaked beard didn’t conceal his grin.

“Where…?”  Deuce’s voice came out in a squeak, which seemed to make him more conscious of the sore tightness in his chest.

“You’re safely onboard the Ascension.  And you’ve been here for three days.  Kyla kept you sedated all this time so your lungs would have more time to heal before she took you off the respirator.  Yet again, your genetic engineering helped you survive something that would’ve killed anybody else.”

He appreciated Zeke’s thoroughness, but then his memory dredged up a crackling voice transmitted from the com patch he wore in battle.  A ship had gone down during launch.

“Ita?”  He wished his voice didn’t sound so pathetic.  “Which ship?”

“Oh, you don’t have to go far to find Ita.”  Zeke started removing the restraints from his wrists.  “She’s here on the Ascension.  Good thing, too.  Told us about the bomb that needed to be removed from your chest while Kyla was patching your lungs.  Imagine the fracas that would’ve caused if we’d just stumbled upon it!”

Ita was safe.  There was no more implanted bomb.  But his relief was transitory.

“Rest of the fleet?”

Zeke’s demeanor grew somber.  “We lost two ships.  One was taken down during takeoff, and the other was destroyed by a hunter satellite before our drones could take them out.”

Deuce closed his eyes again.  Thousands of lives lost on the cusp of freedom.  That did leave them with ten interstellar ships and over thirty thousand persons … a mere fragment of humanity.  And most of them found out only three or four days ago they would be spending the rest of their lives in space.

Them … and generations after them.

“I regret I’ve got another bit of bad news.”

His eyes opened, and Zeke continued.

“Oswald passed away.”

That statement was like a bolt from the blue, and Deuce stared at him.  Oswald was quite elderly, but the last he’d heard, his other mentor had been doing well.  “How?”

“Old age, it would seem.  Right as the evacuation was beginning.  Ita managed to arrange being with him, so that’s been a comfort for her.  But I figured it would be good for you to know before she swings by to check up on you.”

“When?”

“She should be getting off duty in a couple of hours.”

“I see you’ve turned him loose already.”  Kyla stepped beside her husband and locked her gaze on Deuce.  “But how do you feel?”

He tapped his chest.  “Achy.”

“That’s all?”  She smirked.  “Having you for a patient makes me look like a blessed genius.  You know, once you’re recovered, we might ask for a closer look at your DNA.”

Between Zeke filling him in on more details and Kyla updating his medical condition, he lost all track of time.  When Ita walked into the ward, he was sitting up on the edge of the bed, and the smile that sprang to his lips was too spontaneous to suppress.

He did manage to keep from cracking a grin when she smiled back as she approached.  “Well, I see our peace and quiet has come to an end.”

“You have an odd definition of peace and quiet.”  His voice was slightly stronger, although Kyla had warned him not to push anything that involved breathing … which meant everything.

“I see Zeke has informed you of what’s transpired since evacuation.”

He nodded as his smile evaporated.  “He also told me about your grandfather.  I’m sorry.”

She shrugged, although a glimmer flashed in her green eyes.  “Thank you.  I at least got to be with him when he passed, and his last words will stay with me forever.  He was at peace.  He even smiled as he said, ‘Don’t be afraid.  We are surrounded by light.’”

Those words seemed to soak themselves into his psyche as well, determined to become as permanent for him as for her.  “I suppose I’d expect him to say something like that.”

“He asked about you.”

“How so?”

“He wondered if I’d blasted you yet.”  She tilted her head slightly.  “I told him that was no longer on my to-do list.  So, Kyla says you can walk around as long as you keep it to a saunter.  Want to see a little more of the ship?”

“Might as well start learning my way around.”

“Most people are still learning their way.”  She grasped his arm to help keep him steady as he stood.  “You can imagine the culture shock going on right now.  And not everybody’s thrilled about taking up permanent residence on a spaceship.”

Although he didn’t need her assistance, Deuce was glad she continued to offer it.  “That’s perfectly understandable, considering you’re looking at one of them.”

“You’re still nervous about space?  After all you’ve been through?”

“Colliding asteroids.  Lethal radiation.”

Ita smiled and squeezed on his arm as they strolled to the ward’s exit.  “I suspect you’ll get over it.”

As long as she was around, he was sure he would….

They discussed the challenges ahead for the ragtag remnant as they passed through the conduit-lined hallways.  Other pedestrians were sparse but representative of the occupants, ranging from singles to whole families.  She led him to a narrow, dim room that was little more than a corridor itself, but its oval windows caused his heart to flutter.

“Storage and observatory,” she announced.  “One of the few places you can see the stars for real, instead of on a view screen.  This seems like a good first step to getting you acclimated.”

He stood at one window and she at the one beside it, and the clarity of the constellations scattered around them did strike him with a sense of awe.  He glanced toward Ita and noted the slight part in her lips as she gazed into the depths of the universe.

His attention drew back to the stars that pierced through what seemed eternal night.  Each was a point of light, and each shined on, defying the empty darkness that couldn’t overcome them.  He wondered if Ita was also thinking of Oswald’s last words.

No matter what lay in store, no matter how much darkness overshadowed them, there was no need to fear.  They would always be surrounded by light.

THE END

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Woo-hoo!  Final installment!  This month the prompt word for #BlogBattle was Fragment, and the stories are rolling in.  Check out the other entries because you sure don’t want to miss out!

If you just discovered this novella, you can find the whole serialization HERE, although there is one caveat:  An e-book will be available for free once I get it formatted, and it will include a bonus chapter.  This chapter is longer than the others (around 4000 words) and contains what I call the heart of the story.  The print version on Amazon will be as cheap as I can get it.  When will it be ready?  Hopefully, soon:  I promise to keep you updated.

Pillar of Fire

By the time the squad reached the launch pad, more cyborg troops started breaking through accesses that were barricaded earlier.

Deuce’s annoyance, sparked with the realization his unit might have made a cleaner escape if they hadn’t come back to rescue him, flared with renewed resolve.  Since they took it upon themselves to get him to the shuttle hidden within a larger, incomplete ship, he might as well do everything in his power to insure they made takeoff.

“Load everybody up!” he barked to Quint.  “I’ll hold them at bay!”

“Don’t take too long!”  The colonel tossed his own blaster to him and drew a sidearm instead.

Utilizing both blasters, Deuce sprinted in spurts toward the main bulk of the unfinished interstellar ship.  To his consternation, he no longer drew the brunt of enemy fire.  IMP2 must have decided stopping their escape took precedent over the satisfaction of killing him….

The com patch near his ear continued to chatter with updates on the dozen completed ships.  Most had launched, but he’d lost track of which ones they were.  He glanced back toward the shuttle and regretted at least two more soldiers had fallen.  But the hatch door closed, securing the rest of them behind solid steel that repelled blaster fire.

“The ship is down!” crackled from the com patch just before a searing punch thrust into his chest.

The jolt knocked him against the frame of the doorway where he’d been taking cover.  Then he dropped to one knee.  No more reports issued from the com patch.

He also couldn’t breathe.

Deuce surged to his feet and staggered into the armory room, one element of this decoy ship that was complete.  His body armor had managed to keep the buster round to penetrating only partially into his chest.  But he was mostly grateful it didn’t set off the bomb implanted only a decimeter above the wound.

IMP2 had brought out the big artillery, and that was probably who shot him before refocusing on the shuttle….

He lurched toward the turret controls and fumbled with the com patch near his ear.  It remained silent, and upon lowering his hand realized it wasn’t only his chest that was bleeding.

What ship had gone down?  His throat tightened at the possibility Ita could have been on board that doomed vessel.  No, he couldn’t allow dread to overtake him….

Breathe.  Only his genetically-engineered athletic superiority permitted him to suck in wisps of air, and that was still only with concentration.  He had to keep breathing.  Every breath, however meager, bought him a few more seconds.  And every second he gained allowed him to help the shuttle succeed in launching.

The four cannons could be programmed to fire in a predetermined pattern, and Deuce activated three of them.  He took the controls on the fourth, however, and first targeted the battalion that directed more potent buster rounds at the shuttle.

Steam was hissing from its launch boosters, but it wouldn’t be able to take off and fire upon enemy troops at the same time.  Then again, it wouldn’t need to – anybody in the vicinity of the launch pad would be reduced to a pile of ash from the flaming rocket engines.  That included him.

Breathe.

He bombarded several charges into IMP2’s battalion while the other cannons fired into the supporting flanks.  The booms and explosions muffled other sound, and it was only when he spied boulders and dirt and support beams falling around them he realized the ceiling was caving in just like it was supposed to.

The descent of the debris was controlled, opening up the ground above them so the shuttle could blast off.  He also appreciated how it added to the chaos the enemy had to contend with.

Concern surfaced in his mind about the ship that had gone down.  Was Ita on board?

The view screen of the control panel showed steam and smoke and dust, but he couldn’t detect any more activity.  No movement.  No shooting.  Had IMP2’s forces been crippled that much, or were they only regrouping?  The roar of engines firing up confirmed the shuttle should lift off soon, so nobody had much time left here.

Then this was it.  His vision grew blurry and fatigue seemed to seep down to his bones.  If he allowed unconsciousness to overtake him, he would stop breathing.  And maybe being unconscious or already dead might be merciful when the shuttle took off and engulfed the launch pad in flame.

The revolution that had endured for decades was finally going to end … at least as far as he was concerned.

But what about the other ships?  There was no guarantee they would be safe upon breaching the stratosphere.  If his prayer that Ita was on board another vessel proved true, she and all the others could still be in danger.

Dying now would be too … convenient   He could almost hear Ita’s voice, tinged with droll sarcasm, telling him “Don’t think you’re getting out of this that easily.”

Breathe.

He stumbled off the platform and staggered in the direction of the shuttle.  It was just as well he experienced difficulty breathing – the air was thick with particulates.  And this attempt could turn out to be an exercise in futility.  His enemies might drop him with another shot.  His comrades might not be able to see his approach, and he’d be incinerated while trying to reach the vessel.

He almost tripped over the ramp that led to the hatch, and nearly crawled up it.  He reached out and felt the smooth metal pitted slightly from buster hits.  Was any of the structure compromised?  Would he trade suffocating here to suffocating in a vacuum otherwise sprinkled with colliding asteroids and lethal radiation?

The metal retracted from his fingertips and at least two pairs of hands grabbed his arms and yanked him forward.

Breathe.

The voices around him were muffled by more than the roar of engines.  With two soldiers supporting him, and a wall nearby, Deuce managed to stagger to his feet.  Despite his dimming vision he locked his attention on the view screen beside the hatch.

The lurch of takeoff added to his wooziness, but through the haze both outside and in his head, he caught sight of movement where IMP2’s battalion had been.  From the familiarity of the motion, he figured it was IMP2 himself.

And then flame filled the vicinity.

“Get a stint for him!” Quint’s voice sounded oddly distant.

His vision darkened more as a remorse he hadn’t anticipated swelled through him.  In a way, he was glad IMP2 perished this way.  Most likely his former comrade would have been executed by the Elite for failing to quash the evacuation.  And although they found death by cremation efficient, they were also known to take hours turning up the heat when especially displeased with the condemned.

When the physical pain subsided as he faded from this world, Deuce couldn’t decide whether or not to welcome that release….

###

When the word this month for #BlogBattle came out, I nearly laughed out loud:  It was Revolution.  Considering this is the next to last installment for this novella, I’m glad such an appropriate word for the story arc came out before it got finished….  You can find the earlier installments on my Blog Battle Short Stories page.

And with such a great word, don’t miss out on the contributions from other writers this month!

Pharaoh’s Chariots

His resolve steeled as Deuce surveyed the smoky battlefield.  Withdrawing from this arena alive was a natural desire, but his concern for the lives of the score of soldiers with him finalized his decision.

Over twenty men had originally volunteered to assist him with luring the cyborg forces to this fallacious location, even though each one of them knew it was possible none would return.  And the ones that had already fallen knew no more about the bomb surgically lodged inside his chest than their surviving combatants.

The people he had become part of were on the verge of escaping their tormentors.  There had been enough death already.  He was determined to see that these brave servicemen would rejoin the families they were fighting to keep free.

“They’re flanking to cut off our access to the chute!”  The voice that buzzed from the com patch attached near his right ear disclosed strain but not panic.

Although battle hardened, Deuce was a bit struck at how calm his own voice sounded.  “Retreat now, before they get there.”

“What about–”

“That’s an order!  I’ll hold them back.”

There was a couple seconds hesitation before he heard “Yes, sir!”

He set the charges in his blaster for a cluster spread.  That meant he would run out of ammunition soon after reaching the entrance of the passage that sloped down to the launch pad, but when he detonated the bomb within his chest, that wouldn’t matter anymore….

Once the soldiers cleared the chute leading to a purposefully unfinished interstellar ship, they could board the real escape vessel hidden within.  Right now, in a dozen locations scattered around the Earth, completed space-bound behemoths were launching from their hitherto underground platforms.

The com patch also chattered with reports from those other sites.  Some of them were under attack as well, but at least he’d succeeded in drawing the majority of the Elite’s forces here.

He was, after all, the best bait he could offer.

“Go!  Don’t wait for me!”

Deuce leaped from behind the jagged boulder that was inherent to the rocky outcrop shielding the underground launch pad.  Maintaining cover behind other stony features, he fired into the closest enemy troops as he trailed his soldiers pulling back to the chute.

Return fire was aimed more toward his retreating unit than him.  He knew why.

Less than a minute after the last man disappeared into the downward tunnel, he darted into the entrance, but then held his ground.  After only a couple more blasts from his weapon, the cyborg forces scattered as though fearing the meager obstacle he presented.  They ceased fire and ducked into cover of their own on the other side of the rocks.

He wanted to hold this position for as long as possible before activating the bomb and blank off this chute.  But even though he was fairly exposed here, the enemy still didn’t fire.  They had to be under orders to leave him for the individual who wanted him most….

When IMP2 stepped into the clearing, Deuce figured his former ally wanted to make this confrontation really personal.  Good, it gave his soldiers more time to escape.

“You’ve been wasting ammo.”  As IMP2 approached, he held a blaster in his remaining human hand even though his mechanized arm was also a shooting weapon.

Deuce gripped his nearly empty blaster in the ready position.  “Considering your casualties, I wouldn’t call it a waste.”

“What is your strategy, IMP17?  Your speculation is consistent, but this maneuver is deviant even for you.”

Hearing his old designation churned a slight touch of nausea.  “Are you sure you want to find out?”

A leering smile formed on his opponent’s face as he stepped closer.  “I will deign to compliment your evasiveness, but observation of your tactics conveys desperation.  Whatever ships don’t get grounded before takeoff will be terminated by the hunter satellites when they reach orbit.”

They had a plan in action for those satellites, too.  But even though IMP2 was about to die with him, this was no time to tip his hand.  But he might enjoy giving them something to worry about, even if was a bald-faced lie.

“Didn’t you know satellites can be remotely reprogrammed to change their targets?”

The commander hesitated and studied his face, perhaps searching for some unconscious betrayal he might let slip.  With half of IMP2’s face outfitted with technological improvements, Deuce didn’t bother trying the same.  It didn’t matter.

“You are too calm for somebody who knows his life is forfeit.”  That statement sent a chill through him, and Deuce began sliding his left hand up the front of his uniform.

IMP2’s gaze locked on that hand.  Deuce knew he was anticipating he would draw a weapon, but had no idea what was actually about to happen.  Self-sacrifice didn’t register in his psyche.  When IMP2 continued, Deuce was relieved to hear his assessment confirmed.

“But you will not remain so complacent.  My enhancements far outweigh our biological engineering, and you owe me satisfaction for the trouble you have caused.  By the time I’m through with you, you will wish you’d been executed by the Elite.”

Deuce’s index finger reached the thoracic depression at the base of his throat.  The seconds began crawling, as though every cell in his body understood life in this world was about to end and wanted to savor what little time was left.

A reflection on Ita, with her fiery hair and emerald eyes, surfaced from his subconscious.  More so it was her feisty personality and stoic bearing he would miss.  They had only recently started to understand each other, and he regretted they wouldn’t finish working out their differences.  Still, it was comforting to know he’d taken part in her ultimate escape….

He pressed hard into the shallow cavity until his fingertip sensed a small, hard protuberance that hadn’t been there before the bomb’s implantation.  One more push set the device to standby, and he had only to murmur the single, five-syllable word that would detonate it.

“Uni–”

Fired charges from behind hurtled past him.

IMP2 spun and twisted and leaped to avoid the barrage like any Intellectual Militant Prototype worth his genetic engineering should.  A couple of sparks emitted from his arm, but with a few shots of his own succeeded in taking cover with the cyborg troops.

Deuce swung to one side as charges continued streaking past him.  Had anybody other than the colonel who strode forward and grasped his arm performed such an action, he would have demanded they withdraw.

Quint was supposed to be back at the ship as the commander of the crew that would launch it.  But considering he was one of the first people to accept Deuce when he joined their forces, he was inclined to concede to this change in plans.

“Let’s go, general!” Quint barked.  “No man gets left behind.”

Arguing would only cause a delay that would endanger all of them.  Deuce retreated into the depths of the passage with his troops as they fired back at the enemy resuming attack.

###

If you noticed this month’s story submission for #BlogBattle seemed a little longer, good for you…!  The rules of the battle have changed a little this year, including we can now go up to 2000 words.  This month the prompt word is Blank.  And as always, be sure to check out the stories others have posted.

I confess I learned a definition of that word I hadn’t been familiar with before, but it was one that worked well for the next installment of this arc.  And if you’re new to this serialization, you can catch up on my BlogBattle Short Stories page.

Standing on the Shore

Ita strode into the medical ward.  Choking back tightness in her throat only seemed to push it down to her chest, and the sight of half a dozen terminal patients lying in beds on either side of the room increased the sensation.  Most were accompanied by monitoring equipment.

The only other person present was an elderly nun in a light blue habit.  She looked up from an emaciated girl whose hand she grasped, then murmured something to the patient before stepping toward Ita.

“How may I help you?”  Her voice was thin yet warm, like a shawl offering comfort on a cool summer evening.

“I’ve come to see Oswald Taggart.”  As her eyes swept across the room, Ita spied her grandfather on a bed near the far wall.

The nun nodded as her gaze matched.  “He’s weak, but coherent.  The priest has already been here.  Unless there’s something you’ll need, I’ll leave you be so you can visit.”

“Thank you.”  The significance of the nun’s presence flashed into her conscience.  Mere hours ago the evacuation to the space ships began.  People all over the world discovered there was an escape plan, a last-ditch effort to elude once and for all the enemy that had hounded them for decades.

But the plan also had to address the reality there would be individuals too weak to embark upon such a journey.  Volunteers stepped up to minister to the dying, and to remain behind to ultimately die with them.

Why now?

No sooner had the evacuation begun than Ita received word her grandfather had collapsed.  Leaving her own duties in capable hands, she sped across a quarter of the globe to reach him.  It was probable none of her aunts, uncles, and cousins had time to visit Oswald in his final hours.  They had to escape quickly … before the enemy Elite caught up.

The blankets failed to disguise how he looked thinner than the last time she saw him around three months ago.  Work on this project, a job he’d handed over to her, had kept her away for too long.  If only she had been better about staying in touch….

“What brings you here?”  His eyes opened upon her approach, and he smiled.

Only then did she notice the audio sensor attached near his ear.  Oswald had been deaf for over a decade, but he must have consented to using this device in order to artificially hear what others needed to say to him.

Ita sat on the bed’s edge and grasped his hand.  “I came as soon as I found out, Grandpa.”

“It seems our journeys will be separate now.”  His voice was weaker, but his speaking still had the flat tone that developed after he became deaf.

“No, we’re supposed to travel into space together.”  Ita leaned closer to him.  As the youngest child of his youngest child, she always remembered him with gray hair, but until now he’d always been strong.  It was difficult to see him this way now.

But the glint of oil on his forehead suggested the priest had been here more recently than she’d assumed, offering an incomprehensible consolation.  Its shimmer was subtle, a reminder that humility was a potent charm and strength surged far beneath the surface.

“I always wanted to see the stars in their own element.”  Oswald closed his eyes, but his smile deepened.  “Though it seems I have other business to attend to.  And where I hope to head now will be even more spectacular.”  His eyes opened.  “When we see each other again, which I pray we will, you can tell me all about it.”

Her own eyes burned as she squeezed his hand.  “It won’t be the same without you.”

“Just pretend that Deuce is me.”  His gaze locked on her face, and his smile grew crooked.  “You have refrained from shooting him, haven’t you?”

She couldn’t resist smiling back.  “I nearly did, once.  But since then….”  She hesitated.  Oswald didn’t know about the bomb Deuce insisted be implanted in his chest.  The Elite had gotten wind of their evacuation plans, and in order to keep the project protected, he had to insure they never captured him and discover information that would bring ruin to everyone.

The willingness to sacrifice himself began altering Ita’s perception of him.  He once numbered among their enemy, and she considered him to be only a cold-blooded killer.  But lately she started admitting he exhibited appealing qualities, like discipline and humility, she’d hitherto ignored.  In fact, if he didn’t have his hands full with overseeing security to encourage success in launching the ships, he’d be here with her.

She decided to not worry Oswald about Deuce’s predicament.  “I forgave him.”

“And that right there is proof that miracles do happen.”  His eyes closed again, and his next breath staggered a bit.  When he spoke again, his voice was hoarse.  “Ita.”

“I’m still here, Grandpa.”

His eyes opened, and she could have sworn they blazed with the wonder of a child on Christmas morning.  His smile matched, and the decades seemed to slough off as though he were a young man again, the fullness of life ahead of him.

“Don’t be afraid … we are surrounded by light.”

She was so focused on his smile that she didn’t notice the radiance of his eyes dim until realizing his hand no longer clasped hers.  Ita felt her own breath shudder as her eyes began burning again.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”  The nun’s warm voice must have come from behind her, but it seemed to travel from every corner of the room.  “I’m aware of your grandfather’s work, how it will save all these people.  He’s brought great blessing to us all.”

Ita glanced at the woman destined to die with this remnant, and nodded.  As her attention returned to him, she appreciated his peaceful expression, and noticed again the oil on his forehead.

The chrism continued to shine.

###

So here is this month’s contribution to #BlogBattle, and the word this round was Charm.  With a word like that, there’s bound to be some delightful stories, so be sure to check them out!

If you’re new to this serialization of short stories I’m compiling in a novella, you can find the previous installments on my Blog Battle Short Stories page.

Charm … such a nice word to end an interesting year on…

The Red Sea

“So why didn’t you call it Noah’s Ark?”  The awe and marvel over all the structural and technical engineering surrounding them subsided enough for Deuce to ask a long-standing question.

He watched Ita’s frown from the corner of his eye since he knew better than to make any direct contact with her.  She had finally brought him on board one of the spaceships scattered, hidden, around the globe, a spectacular behemoth that offered hope for everyone … but very few knew about their existence.

“For one thing, Noah had it easy.”  She never looked toward him.  “All he had to worry about was his own family and two of each animal and one boat.  Our mess is more like what Moses had to contend with.  We’ve got multiple nations and all their livestock and rootstock, and have to keep them alive on several ships in the desert of space for multiple generations.”

He nodded.  “Recreating a miniature facsimile of the world and condensing it to a dozen interstellar ships still sounds like an enormous risk.  Space is a vacuum that’s otherwise sprinkled with colliding asteroids and lethal radiation.”

“No more risky than having the Elite attack us relentlessly, where they either annihilate us or we have to annihilate them.”

“You’ll remember Pharaoh’s army got drowned in the Red Sea.”

She almost cast a sidelong glance toward him.  “Pharaoh’s army, not the whole of Egypt.  And drowning the army is your job.”

Yes, figuratively speaking, that had been the focus of his assistance over the last few months.  Once the exodus began, the Elite would do anything to stop them, even shooting the ships out of the sky as they launched.  He had been coordinating defensive measures around the Earth, and each location had different parameters around which to devise strategy.

But less than two days ago he learned of a detail which dictated there was another part of his plan he would have to implement if they were to succeed.

“I apologize to prevail upon you with a request.”  Deuce knew to get to the point, but this entreaty needed some prefacing.  “But there’s a matter, concerning that job, I need your help with.”

The furrow in her brow deepened.  “This had better be good.”

“I need to have a bomb implanted, preferably in my chest.”

Ita stared at a display panel on the wall behind him, and didn’t respond for a few seconds.  “Why?”

“Standing orders have always been to kill on sight any IMP like me that defected.  Instead, they tried to capture me at the last raid.  It’s a miracle the Red Sea stayed secret all these years, but that action can only mean the Elite have begun to suspect you have a project like this.”  He drew a deep breath before continuing.  “If they capture me, they will find out about it.  I can’t defend my knowledge from the central data core.  So … I must ensure they never make that capture.”

Her frown remained, but there was something pensive in how her lips pressed together.  “You would really blow yourself up?”

Odd, he’d expected a more positive reaction from her, like a quip “Consider it done.”  Ever since the first day they met, Ita made it clear she despised him for killing her father.

Deuce wasn’t sure whether to bless or curse the fact he couldn’t remember the man.  On the one hand it was nice not to look at her and recall the final few seconds in the life of a defender performing above the call of duty.  On the other, he would have liked to acknowledge the eminence of such a person, perhaps even confirming her father’s bravery.

“The blast must be sufficient to shatter my remains beyond reparation.  I’ll need it set up where only I can detonate it, and I must have several options to do so should any avenue become inaccessible to me.  And since this procedure must remain as secret as the Red Sea is, we need as few people as possible involved to insert the implant.”

Ita continued gazing at the wall as though she spied an instrument that didn’t belong.  “You need me to contact the right people?”

“We’ll also need to override the security protocols that would detect the implant.”

She studied the panel for several more seconds before responding, her words proceeding slowly.  “An ion bomb is small enough to do the trick, but as far as the programming … I know a woman who could probably help.”

Her statement didn’t surprise him.  With every able-bodied man needed for combat, the supportive fields of medicine, technology, and engineering were heavily populated by women.  Ita’s role in the Red Sea kept her in touch with the most pioneering individuals.

“We need the procedure to be completed promptly.”  A surreal sensation pulsed through him as the reality of what they were discussing began to solidify.  His entire life he’d been conditioned to accept the possibility of death on the battlefield, but to personally sacrifice himself carried weightier implications.

“I’ll stress its urgency.”  For a couple of seconds her gaze darted to his face, and then she turned aside and muttered, “You always have to keep us on our toes with surprises.”

“What do you mean?”

Ita hesitated and glanced back at him.  Her eyes met his for another couple of seconds, and her impassive expression continued to puzzle him.  She turned aside again and began walking away.

“I wasn’t talking to you.”

Too bad, Deuce thought.  That would have qualified as the nicest thing she ever said to him.

###

So here’s the next installment of my serialization for #BlogBattle this month.  The word this time is Miniature, which kind of like abbreviation seems like a pretty big word for a small thing….  Be sure to check out their website for other stories submitted this month.

If you’re new to this novella in progress and want to catch up, you can find the previous stories on my Blog Battle Short Stories page.  Have a prosperous November!