Category Archives: Stories

20161025_114214

From the Pit

A jagged diamond of bright white light, fuzzy like he was looking through an unfocused camera, appeared directly above him.  At the same time the pain awoke, a searing fire in his lower back and legs, and then he noticed the cold.  He didn’t want to move in case he’d broken something when he fell, assuming he could move, and assuming he did fall, so he just laid there, blinking up at the jagged white diamond.

The sides of the enclosure gleamed softly beneath the opening, a faint silvery luminescence gracing the edges and faces of the gray-black rock unlike any of the rocks he’d seen in the hills around his home.  “Home,” he thought.  Where was home?  Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck his back, convulsed his whole body, a cloud of steam burst up toward the diamond light, then another, smaller cloud, and another, each one frying his nerves like a blast of fire.  “Note to self,” he thought when the pain had settled.  “Try not to cough.”

How he had landed at the bottom of the pit may have been a useful question to try to answer, but his memories vanished like fleeing shadows; his own name wrestled free from his grasp.  A fall like this practically guaranteed severe brain trauma.  Staring up at the diamond some seventy feet above he felt a rush of gratitude for being preserved alive.  Drawing open his jaw, he whispered a word of thanks, one word, “God.”

Soon after that he slept, he must have, because the next thing he knew the diamond had disappeared and the pit was covered in darkness.  Fixing his eyes on the place where the light had shone down he searched for stars, clouds, the slightest hint of moonlight, yet found nothing, and shutting his eyes again, resolved to sleep until daylight.  Before the numbness could swallow him, a crawling sensation on his right calf alerted him to the presence of some creature lurking there, a small animal with strength, insect or lizard.  With a simultaneous kick of his right foot and flail of his left arm, he managed to smack it off, then laid as still as possible till the fire in his bones subsided.  Sleep overtook him, smiling in the dark.  He could move.

The next day proved somewhat productive, though advancement was slow.  By the hour at which the diamond began to grow dim he’d completed a turn onto his stomach, and had inched forward two or three feet in the direction of what he judged to be the closest wall of the enclosure.  The floor of the pit, mostly sand and gravel with a few large rocks the size of car batteries, felt soaked by collected rain water or maybe thin puddles seeping up from an underground stream.  Whatever its source the liquid was nearly frozen, numbing his flesh on contact.  Sinking into sleep that night, his thoughts narrowed upon the goal of crawling to the wall by the end of the following day.  He remembered a line his brother used to say, a quote from the Bible.  “All things,” he whispered.  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Voices, sounds, groaning…  Spirits churning in the deep…  Dull chanting like the songs of a demon choir woke him, drove him up past the surface of oblivion.  He gasped, a quick succession of panting breaths, the gritty taste of sand in his cheek.  He turned his head upright and spat, resting his chin on a smooth flat stone, and blinking his eyes, detected the faint sheen on the nearest wall, twelve, thirteen feet away.  “This is possible,” he assured himself.  Drawing three more deep breaths, he hoisted the weight of his torso onto his right elbow, unleashing a tortured wail, and threw all the power he could summon from his right shoulder and lat into propelling his upper body forward, in the hope that his legs would advance behind him.  The maneuver planted him flat on his face in the rocks, with a succession of gnawing aches pulsing out from the base of his spine.  Ten long minutes elapsed before the agony receded enough for him to open his eyes and gauge the progress he’d made.  The gently luminous wall still shone twelve feet away.

The day he’d set for reaching it became one week, and the week became two.  Every attempt to move forward tormented him worse than the last, however this impression faded with the agony itself.  When the sober working of his faculties returned at the end of the day, he believed the pain to be lessening with each new attempt.  Whether or not this was wishful thinking, or the projected longing of sheer faithful desperation, was impossible to say.  He hoped the pain was receding, that his body was healing, but these concerns fell into periphery on the morning he reached the wall.

The full utility of his right arm and most of the use of his left would help him grip the holds and hang there, for a few minutes at least, to catch his breath, before pulling up to the next resting place.  To even begin the climb required a minimum of leg strength to support his body while resting, letting him search out the next viable hold with his free hand.  His legs had proven useless during his journey across the floor of the pit, since any endeavor to bend his knees or push with his feet spiked a debilitating shock into his back, blinding him and nearly rendering him unconscious.  But he felt better now, stronger, like God had empowered him for the second phase of his escape.

Turning so he sat with his back against the wall, he felt behind him for leverage to stand up without bending his legs.  Securing his palms to the edges of two uneven holds about a foot off the ground, he strained up and back, shifting more and more weight onto his outstretched legs, lifting higher, to the highest position his grip would allow, the pain smoldering in his back, until his left palm slipped off the wall and he fell, catching himself with a backwards slide of his right foot, able somehow to support him now.

He stood up for what felt like the first time ever.  He turned around, rocked from heels to toes, heels to toes, leaned his head back and shouted for joy.  The bright diamond beamed down at him from a height that looked insurmountable.  His joy ceased instantly, destroyed by the cruel hammer of reality, and he dropped, hollow, to the ground.

For days he stayed there, curled up by the wall.  The sun would rise, somewhere, illumine the mouth of his pitiful den, grace the cold rock in front of him with a soft blue sheen, and set again, immersing his life in empty darkness.  One day, two, three, he stopped counting, buried his mind in the chambers of his soul where a soft dim warmth still glowed.  Waves of grief passed through, turned him over in riptides of hungriest despair, roaring death pounded nightly at his door, and then, hearing no answer, tore away again, letting warm comfort envelop him and soothe his damaged heart.

One morning as the diamond light waxed brighter up above, he extended his arm, pressed his hand against the cool angular surface, when instantly the stone awoke, enlivened by his touch and animated inside by golden flowing particles of light.  The light poured through the rock, entered his fingers and traveled up his arm, collecting at his core and radiating outward in slowly widening rings.  This occurrence jolted him awake, though he failed to move from his place by the wall.  No physical sensation had accompanied the influx of this new light, but rather an awareness, the sudden activation of knowledge so familiar, so native to his soul, as if a vital circuit were now restored, engaging the harmony and totality of his being.  Silently rolling onto his back, and standing up, he started to climb.

Carefully at first, making certain not to slip, testing the holds with his hands and feet before committing his weight to them, then more quickly, each safe elevation adding new courage, strength, boldness.  Toward the light he struggled with increasing confidence and ease, joints and muscles working smoothly, painlessly, like he’d been built to scale this wall, intentionally designed to conquer this surface.  The stone gleamed brighter and brighter—in an instant he felt it, his right hand breached the diamond entrance of the enclosure and grabbed hold of the jagged shelf.

A combined lift and pull of his arms let him swing his foot over the ledge, and at last he was free, on his back in the light.  Shielding his eyes, cautiously, he looked around.  At first all he saw was mini-blinds.  Light filtered through the horizontal bars outlining a female body standing beside him, speaking quickly and squeezing his arm.  The words grew clearer as his vision sharpened, and he saw her, a young dark-haired woman wearing a stethoscope and black scrubs.

“Don’t try to move,” she told him.  “Can you understand what I’m saying?  Blink once for yes and two for no.”

“I can hear you fine,” he said.

“You can talk.”

“I can talk.”

“Stay still, please, sir.  We’re going to have to run some tests.”

 

rebellion

Lighter Side

Square stone tiles the color of white ash formed a rectangular grid on the second floor balcony of the food court at the Vibrant Valley mall.  Half of the tables had been collected and moved into storage for the winter, while the remaining twenty formed a dotted right triangle over the other half of the balcony, leaving a triangle of empty space outside the doors.  A dark-haired girl stood smoking in the corner opposite the staggered line of tables.

The soles of her shoes had started peeling away from the webbed fabric on the toes.  She’d only bought them two months ago, paid eighty dollars for them.  Her feet looked small inside the large square, almost like two hooves.  “They call me Goatgirl,” she whispered, letting smoke flow out the side of her mouth.  She smiled.  “Stop by the Vibrant Valley shopping mall from two to four today and see the amazing Goatgirl.  Watch her clop across the floor in worn-out tennis shoes.  Scratch between her horns and hear her say, ‘bah.’  Be careful, though, she will headbutt you.”  She dropped the cigarette and ground it out on the tile.

“I think you meant bleat,” said a voice as she passed the gap beside the automatic doors.

“Ahh!” she jumped, stumbling backwards.  “What the hell are you doing there?”

“I’m sorry,” he laughed.  The man wore all denim, a denim shirt, jeans, and a tight jean jacket.  His hair was silver and curly.  “I couldn’t help hearing you just now.  You said that goats bah.  Goats don’t bah, they bleat.”

“Alright,” she smiled, continued walking.  “Don’t make eye contact.”  The doors slid open and she stopped, walked backwards to where he was standing.  “What are you doing here?”

“I work here, at the music store.”

That’s where I’ve seen you.  Stocking cd’s at Javelin Records.”

“Guilty.  What are you doing here, Goatgirl?”

She thought for a moment.  “Killing time.”

“That’s rather impolite, don’t you think?”

“Eye for an eye,” she said.  “Time kills all of us, so…”

“Ah,” he laughed.

“Just returning the favor.”

“You don’t work here?”

“Nope.”

The droning hum and choral rush of cars on the highway filled the space in their conversation.  The girl’s expression conveyed sadness mixed with confusion, a perplexed melancholy, as she peered at the concrete, then back up at him, and nodded goodbye.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Minette,” she told him.

“Well, Ninette, there’s an old—”

“No, Minette, with an ‘m.’  Like Minnie Mouse.”

“Well, Minnie Mouse, there’s an old Bob Dylan song, ‘Gotta Serve Somebody.’  It goes:  You may be an ambassador to England or France—”

“I don’t really like Bob Dylan.”

You may like to gamble, you might like to dance—”

“He’s a little before my time.”

You may be the heavyweight champion of the world—”

“And his voice sounds kind of… nasally.”

You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls,” the man sang in a low, bluesy baritone.

She started laughing.  “You’re a lunatic, aren’t you.”

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” he sang louder, “yes indeed, you’re gonna have to serve somebody.  Well it may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”  He punctuated the verse with a sky-splitting howl.

“You are… a true maniac,” she said, still laughing.  “What’s your name, Bob Dylan?”

“K.R.,” he bowed.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you, too.  I hate to break it to you, K.R., but I don’t believe in God or the devil, so that song doesn’t really apply to me.”

Glancing at the horizon, he asked, “What about your parents?  Do they believe?”

“My parents are from China.  They’re non-practicing Buddhists, I guess.”

“Brothers?  Sisters?”

“Solo Minette.”

“Well, Solo Minette, the force is with you, whether you believe in it or not.  Let me show you something.”  K.R. pushed off the wall he was leaning against.  “Creak,” he groaned, walking out from the cutout by the doors and across the empty side of the balcony.

“Where are you going?”

“Come on, Minette, join me by the railing for a moment.  I wish to impart some wisdom.”

Directly below the balcony, one of the mall’s main entrances stood at the vertex of a giant parabola opening out toward the parking lot.  The patio of an Italian café formed the left side of the arch, from where they were standing, and the psychedelic windows of an art gallery and supply store formed the right.  Shoppers approached from the lot a couple hundred feet away.

“Now humor me, please, Minette, and just observe these people for a minute.”

She stepped up to the railing, looked down at the shoppers.  A few teenage boys in a row, joking and laughing, not much younger than her.  An elderly woman digging around in her patchwork bag while she shuffled past the vibrant paintings in the art shop window.  A middle-aged married couple discussing something serious or troubling as they hurried inside.

“Okay.  What’s your point?”

K.R. stretched his hands over the railing, palms down.  “What do all these people have in common?”

“They have money.  I mean, they can afford to come and buy stuff, so they must have money.”

“Probably so,” he nodded.  “What else?”

“They’re all from Vibrant Valley?”

“No, you don’t know that,” he shook his head.  “They’re all alive, Minaret!”

“Are you high right now?  Seriously, did you just smoke like a bunch of pot?”

“No,” he grinned, “I don’t smoke anymore.  I’m trying to illustrate an important truth here.  Look,” he pointed at the hillside beyond the parking lot.  “You see that grass on the embankment?  It’s tan and dry, right, it’s dead.  Now look at the bushes down by the patio.  Green, lush, radiant.  They’re alive.  Do you see the contrast?”

“Yes.”

“It’s night and day, like the difference between seeing a dead person and a live one.  Have you ever seen a dead body?”

“My grandpa, when I was three.  I don’t remember it very clearly.  What’s your point, K.R., I’ve got loitering to do.”

“Life, child.  My point is life.  You said you didn’t believe in God.  I’m telling you that life is proof that there’s a God, life itself.”

Minette turned back toward the parking lot and the oncoming shoppers.  Their faces looked sullen and vacant now, their gestures cold and mechanical.  “War,” she said.  “Sickness, hatred, anger, jealousy, death…  If you ask me that’s proof there is no God, or if there ever was then it’s like that philosopher said, God is dead.”

“Friedrich Nietzsche.  I don’t think he meant that exactly.  God is the very source of life.  The source of life can’t die.  I’m tired.”  He walked a few paces to the nearest table and sat down.

She leaned forward with her arms crossed on the railing and slid down toward him.  “Are you married, K.R.?”

“No, ma’am, I am not.”

“You were, though.”

“Yes, ma’am, I was.”

Minette gasped.  “She’s not dead, is she?”

“Unfortunately not,” he laughed.

“What a diabolical thing to say.  There it is again.”

“There what is again?”

“Proof, that there isn’t a God.”

“How’s that?”

“Well,” she sat down beside him.  “You were married.  You proposed to…”

“Natalie.”

“You proposed to Natalie, she said yes, I presume, you walked down the aisle, spoke your vows to one another, till death do you part, you kissed each other, and so on, and however many years later, you broke up.  Did you get married in a church?”

“Our Lady of Peace.”

“A Catholic church no less.  So, if God brought you two together, why would He separate you?  Why would He let that happen?”

The sun had emerged from a screen of wispy clouds as she was talking.  K.R. had to squint in order to look at her.  “I asked Him the very same question.  Want to know what He said, Ms. Minnie?”

“God actually talks to you?  You really are a lunatic.”

“He answered by telling me He didn’t split us up, or even let us split up, and in His eyes we’ll always be married.  In the kingdom, that is.”

“But you’re divorced.”

“Yep, and she’s remarried.”

“How…?”  She raised her hands, shaking her head.

“It’s a great mystery, Minnarino.  I can tell you this, though.  Nothing that is loved is ever lost.  Wise man said that.  Peace out, little sister.”

“You’re leaving?”

“Cd’s to stock.  Bob Dylan cd’s,” he smiled back.  “Hey, maybe I can get you a job there.  What do you say?”

She thought for a moment, glanced down at her worn-out tennis shoes.  “Yeah, check and see, will you?”

“Come on then, Minaret.”

 

20160131_092358-EFFECTS

Mountain of Silver Dust

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Audio_MOSD_YouTube

 

I.

Each grain of azurcose was a truncated icosahedron.  She remembered this from school as thousands of them avalanched into her crystal mug of dark brown coffee, “like a million tiny footballs,” she whispered.  Only these had flat faces, whereas the tiles on a football were convex, giving it its smooth rounded shape.  “Thirty-two faces…  Twelve pentagons, twenty hexagons, sixty angles, ninety lines.  Remember that the next time you slurp your darn SyraNova drinks,” she mimicked her Chem teacher’s gravelly voice.

Someone snorted a few booths away, the group of punks she’d clocked on her way inside, only other people in the diner besides the cook, the server, and herself.

She wasn’t going to make him stay in her life if he didn’t want to, baby or no.  How could she?  Korratrea was still a free country, unless there’d been a coup she hadn’t heard about yet, which was unlikely.

The short one slid in beside her, and two more across the table, while the cautious one sat lightly at the adjacent table to her right.  Clack-clack-clack, the man’s knuckles tapped on the hard plastic surface beneath her chin.  Clack-clack-clack.

“Did you order yet?” he asked.

“Nope, just trying to enjoy this coffee.”

“Nice ring.  Where’s your husband?”

“He said he was on his way.”

The man smiled to his friends, who laughed.  “Yeah, well, I think he’s crazy to leave you alone like this.  Middle of the night, strange neighborhood…  Uncivilized company.”  His friends laughed again.

“Funny, I was thinking the same thing.”

He reached around her shoulders with his left arm and let it rest on the back of the booth.  “Amazing girl like you, if I was him I’d be afraid someone might take you away.”

“Did you take Chemistry in high school?”

“What?”

“How about Geometry, do you remember Geometry class?”

He stared at her quietly, boldly, in offended disbelief.

“Because if you do, you’ll probably recall hearing about the Goldberg polyhedron.  It’s a multi-sided shape made up of hexagons and pentagons, the faces joined together at vertices like this, here.”  She picked up the azurcose shaker and sprinkled some out on the table.  “Every grain is like a—”

“Like a tiny football,” said one of the friends, before a dark glance silenced him.

“That’s right,” she continued, “and unlike snowflakes each grain is one hundred percent identical.  Zero variation, upon production at least.”

“Is there a point to this little lesson?”  He let his hand fall gently on the back of her left shoulder.

“There is,” she nodded.  “Because azurcose, due to its structural shape, has an amazingly high degree of both molecular strength and flexibility.  So if I were to say, smash this container on the wall, the stuff would fly everywhere.”  She swept the shaker up and crushed it on the wall to her left, simultaneously leaping out of the booth, eyes closed, and flipping backwards onto the tabletop behind them.  As the short man and other two sat groaning and rubbing their eyes the tall one darted from the farther table, his lightblade drawn and glaring.

Waiting for him to slash, she caught the knife under the sole of her boot and stomped it down against the plastic tabletop, pivoted on his hand, and caught the hinge of his jaw with the toe of her other boot.  Two seconds later she was out the door and in the pilot seat of her motordeck sailing up toward the storm cloud where she could lose them.  Their engines revved and hummed below, behind her, fading gradually as she launched into the flashing mist and set the coordinates for Jadengate 794.

*         *         *

The motordeck hatch shot open as she approached, and the vehicle maneuvered into position on the landing board.  Zipporah swiped the ignition card and stepped out before the pilotside door closed and the board raised the motordeck into the ceiling.  Removing her jacket, kicking off her boots, and pulling the elastic band out of her hair, she grabbed a bowl of leftover noodles from the fridge and plopped into the basket chair in the corner by the window.  Space looked cold and blue, like it always did.

After dinner she checked her mail, took a shower, and crawled into bed—the bed they’d shared until a few months ago, before he ditched her.  Her fingers dragged across the skin of her softly rounded stomach as she descended, away from consciousness, her mouth whispering, “Great and marvelous are your works, Lord God Almighty.  Just and true are your ways…”

The Egg in the center of the living room broadcasted the System Daily News from every angle, literally, as she cleaned up and made breakfast.  Dark matter readings off the Southeast edge of Chambrek’s orbit were “disturbingly disproportionate,” higher than any time on record.  The InterSolar Truth Observers commissioned a quantification team to investigate the anomaly.  Planet-wide political and social reconstruction on Taldrathon was coming along nicely, with fewer incidents of intra-species assaults-and-consumptions than in prior weeks.  System health in general was up, effective plague containment, lower cancer and terminal disease statistics, continued vaccinations on the Outer Four (less advanced worlds), and the Sun shone bright and strong despite the frequent outcries of the Implosion Hypotheorists.  Zipporah felt in her soul that it would be a good day.

While eating her breakfast salad the phone rang, she jumped up and ran into the living room.  “Egg off!  Hello and greetings…”  She stood waiting.

“Hello, honey.”

Her eyes dropped to the maroon carpet.  “Hi, Mom.”

“Don’t sound so excited to hear from me.  Where were you last night?  I called seven times and no answer.”

“Cabin fever.  I went out for coffee.”

“What happened to the coffee maker I gave you for Christmas?  Does that not work anymore?”

“No, it works.  I wanted some air so I went over to the sand fields for a short walk.  It was nice, actually.”

“Did you see anyone?”

“A few guys at the diner.  I’m fine, Mom, no worries please.”  Zipporah glanced at her boots next to the doormat, eyeing the brown crust on the right toe.

“You aren’t fighting again, are you?”

“Me, fight?  Pshhh, I…  Come on, I…  Pshhh.”

“Okay, just remember, ‘those who live by the sword will die by the sword.’”

“Will die by the sword,” she echoed, “yes, I remember.  Thank you, Mother.”

That afternoon she went for a jog around Power Town, the enormous generator in the center of their quadrant, forty-six cubic miles of engine machinery encased in a mammoth bubble of reinforced explosion-proof glass.  The platform of steel grating around its perimeter measured to just under fourteen miles, a little more than a half marathon.  She’d been running there for years and had completed the lap with no problem a few weeks ago, but that was before she’d started to show, and this time she only made it three-quarters of the way around before having to slow down and walk.

“What are you doing, child?” she said cradling her belly.  “Trying to make me a couch potato?”

*         *         *

Nights were quiet, slow, and lonely.  She took her mom’s advice about steering clear of the sand fields and the outlands in general.  The worlds were too dangerous these days, and the child far too precious.  She spent her free time listening to music, reading French Existentialism, praying, and dreaming of the day when Karrick would return.  He would return, she felt it, knew it to be true.  The only question was when.

On the fifth waning moon of Quintember the doorbell chimed at four o’clock in the morning.  No phone call, no warning, no guests expected, and by now Zipporah was visibly pregnant.  She approached the door in her husband’s boxers, a t-shirt, and one sock, and pressed a button illuminating the screen by the keypad.  Three soldiers appeared on the step, one in uniform and two in full body armor behind him.  Captain’s hat.

“No, no, no,” she bowed her head against the door.  Then, drawing a deep breath, punched a code on the keypad.  The door clanked, parted, and slid open.

“Zipporah Dallens?”

No, no, no…

“I have news from the Colonel, ma’am.  May I come in for a moment?”

“Just say it.”

“Your husband, Lieutenant Karrick Dallens, perished honorably in service of the KWPAF.”

 

II.

The hazy green nebula over the distant horizon swirled slowly, but not too slowly for its tranquil rotation to be observed with the naked eye.  The inhabitants of Calperon-T34 called it the distant side because that was the direction of the uncharted lands opposite the highly populated, heavily policed colonies of sector T15-30.  T34 designated a liminal territory between the crowded city and wild country, both hazardous in their own ways, the land between providing a supply station, a hospital/information center, and a village for the local residents as well as the occasional weary ex-traveller, a category to which Zipporah now belonged.

She ducked out of a tan igloo, straightened her back and reached for the sky, letting her eyes drift from the pale green cloud up to the starry space above, opening her mouth and releasing a mighty yawn into the galaxy.  A second later the baby started crying and, smiling drily, she turned and ducked back inside the metal dome.

“Hush, little théquo,” she said, rocking him gently in her arms.  “What’s wrong, don’t think today will be a good day?  Shhhh, shh, shh.”  Her warm brown eyes were circled underneath by dark crescents, her black curls cropped short at her ears, and her forehead marked by three sharp lines from squinting in the evening winds.  The dust on Calperon tanned your skin a chalky copper color if you spent any time outside, which you had to do if you lived beyond the colonies, where fresh water was scarce, reserved mainly for cooking and hydration.

On her way to work she noticed a body stretched out among the nettles by the path, she almost kept walking but heard a faint cough and saw a limp hand draw toward it’s cloth-wrapped head.  Glancing at the infant bound against her chest she asked, “What say you, Saiojéte, should we investigate?”  The goggled head of a miniature mummy tipped back and peered up at her, dark lenses staring, and emitted a gurgling squeak through his beige mask.  “I agree,” she circled round to see the man’s face.  His cheek and jaw were red, possibly wind-burnt, lips dry and dark, eyes concealed by a fabric head covering.

“Can you walk, sir?” she called from several steps away.  “Hello.  Can you walk?” she asked more loudly.  Hugging the child tightly, she walked over, slowly, and nudged the man’s shoulder with the toe of her boot.  “Are you alive, sir?”

“Ah, huh,” he mumbled.

“Okay, I’m going to fetch an airsled.”  She bent down close to his ear, “I will be back in one hour.  One.  Okay?”

“Ah, uh-huh.”

Edging her way past the line of customers and into the supply tent, she hurried along the right wall to the other side of the counter, and up to the slender arachnoid woman operating the register.

“Hulé, I need you to watch Saio for twenty-five, thirty tops.”

“Do you see this mob I’m dealing with?”

“I know but someone’s injured, a traveler from the outlands I believe.”

“He better take a number.  I’ve seen fifty injured travelers this week.  Put some gloves on, please.”

“Hulé, I promised to help this man.  I promised I’d come back.”

“You promised me you’d mend these time suits today.”

“I will just as soon as I get back.  Here…”  Zipporah untied the papoose and hoisted her son into her highest left arm.

“Don’t you dare walk away.”

“Relax, you still have seven good arms to work with.”

The man lay on his back when she returned.  The airsled fishtailed to a halt and hoverparked beside him, she dismounted, approached, and gently shook his shoulder.  He awoke, attempting to look around through the cloth over his eyes.

“Here,” she said, folding it back.  “I’m taking you to a hospital.  Hospital.”

“Manglokel,” he groaned.

“Yes, medical.  Come now, help me lift you.”  Sitting him upright, she hooked his arm around her neck and stood him up on wobbly legs, guiding him to the vehicle.  Once she’d secured him to the rear bed she looked into his wandering blue eyes, squeezed his hand and said, “You’re safe now.”  He nodded and closed his eyes.

*        *        *

The music that evening reverberated from the Shell like an echo chamber, as if the sonic drums and whale horns were being played at the mouth of a cave.  Zipporah and the child had remained in the village after her shift ended to await news about the traveler.  She bounced Saio on her knees at a table not far from the arched enclosure where the less reserved inhabitants of T34 celebrated their evening revels.

Behind the Shell a flock of théquos grazed at the edge of the creek, snuffing at the dusty ground with dangling beaks.  “Look,” said Zipporah, turning Saio around.  “See them?” she pointed, “Your papa used to call them flying pigs.  Whenever we saw them back on Korratrea he’d say, ‘Anything’s possible, Zeeah, now that pigs can fly.’”  She made a high-pitched clucking sound in his ear and the baby squealed and started laughing.

A young man of nine or ten solars jogged up and stood before them panting.

“What news?”

“He’s awake, your traveler.  Frantic, speaking Braekean, no one understands him.”

“Where is Hulé?”

“I don’t know.  How should I know?”

“Never mind, I will fetch her.”

The two women hiked along the trade road in darkness with only their ion lamps to light the way.  “You owe me, sister.  First you abandon me at work and now you drag me out of bed to translate for you?  I want extra shifts for this, Zeeah.”

“Fine, whatever you want.”

“No, you know what?  You can clean the store for me.”

“I said fine.”

This week.”

They heard him wailing before entering the hospital tent.  He sat straight up on a cot in the rear corner, waving his arms at the doctor and two nurses, shouting what sounded like accusations then reaching up and crying out to heaven.

“What’s he saying?” Zipporah asked.

“Help me, save me…  Dear God, save me from these lunatics,” Hulé answered, rushing toward the corner with all eight of her arms extended, palms showing.  Upon seeing her the traveler shrieked and froze for a second with wide terrified eyes, then, apparently recognizing her species, exhaled a deep sigh of relief.

They spoke for a while as Hulé relayed messages to the medical staff.  The man had a severe drug allergy and had been refusing the pills they’d attempted to give him.  After a while he calmed down, took the medicine, and reclined on the cot to try and sleep.  Zipporah watched with Saio from a distance until he looked relaxed enough for them to leave.

“What did he say?” she asked on their walk back.

“His town was invaded.  His wife and son were killed, across the System, way out in the Outer Four.”

“Which planet?”

“Raanved, early last solar.  Claims he spent ninety moons on a salvage freighter before arriving here.  What is it, what’s wrong?”

“Probably just a coincidence.  Karrick, before he left, that’s where he was going.  His last mission was on Raanved.”

 

III.

The cots were lined about one pace apart, about a hundred and twenty beds in the hospital tent.  It reeked of sour blood and excretions, the rotten odors mixed with the sterile smell of rubbing alcohol and fresh medical supplies.  Zipporah slipped past the rows of patients, some dazed, others sleeping, a few of them wide awake and frightened.  One who’d arrived the previous week from crash landing in the outlands, a male TigerMole, a soldier, beckoned her as she passed by the foot of his cot.  Pausing for a moment, she turned and stepped up to the creature’s bedside.

His eyes were watery, elliptical orbs, gray iris’s nearly eclipsed by the pupils, gazing up through her face, through the roof of the tent and into distant space above them.  She held the digits of his paw and smiled.  Under the sheet lay the form of a right hind leg and the absence of a left one.  Zipporah placed her palm on the mole’s forehead and stroked his charcoal fur with her thumb, quietly humming the gospel hymn her mother used to sing to her when she had lain sick as a child.  Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, come, He’ll show you the way.  Sons and daughters, great-grandfathers, come, He’ll show you the way.  Follow Jesus, Lord and Savior, take a drink, be still, no greater, peace, He’ll show you the way…

The traveler she’d rescued had settled down since the day he was admitted.  He sat propped in the corner intently watching the Egg mounted over the center aisle of the tent.  Nodding curtly when he saw her, he kept his eyes on the System news, watching over her shoulder after she pulled up a stool and sat beside him.

“Do you remember me?”

He glared at his visitor, then back at the luminous Egg.

“I hauled you in from the road the other day.  I helped you.  Helped, remember?”

He shook his head and muttered something in Braekean, likely a profanity.

“I only want to talk,” she continued.  “It’s possible you can help me.  I need to ask you about Raanved.”

The mention of his home planet got his attention.

“I need to know what happened there.  I know this is painful for you, but will you talk to me?”  Zipporah tapped her fingertips together and pointed back and forth between them.  “Talk?”

The man stared in her eyes for a moment as though he knew exactly what she wanted, then turned and locked his focus on the Egg.

Work was slow that afternoon, she and Hulé sorted boxes of worn out time suits, making three piles for the varying levels of dilapidation.  She glanced at her boss.  “How does the store look, Hulé?  Clean, is it not?”

“You did a fine job, Zeeah.”

“Thank you.  It took quite a while.”

Hulé sliced open another box of time suits.

“Hot yesterday, too.  And the dust, aye, terrible.”

“What do you want, sister.”

“Talk to him again?” she asked.  “Please?”

“The sick traveler?  What about?”

Zipporah smiled meekly.

Hulé’s four top-eyes opened wide then narrowed sternly at her friend.  “Not in a million solars would I ask that man to discuss his past.  His wife and son were murdered, Zeeah.  Would you like to relive that?”

“I do relive it,” she answered.  “Every morning, every day, every night I wonder what happened to Karrick.  I lay awake and watch him getting blasted, exploding in his craft or worse, getting shot down in some terrible outlands where God knows…  I do relive it, sister.”

Hulé stood now with head bowed and eyes closed.

“All I want is one conversation,” she said softly.  “And I think I know how to appease him.”

*         *         *

Saiojéte rose up and ran forward, toddling across the floor at an increasingly reckless incline until she caught his arms and swept him up, twirling around under the dome of their tan metal igloo.  “You are mad, little théquo,” she laughed, rubbing her nose against his.  “Just like your papa.  What should we do today, huh?  Take a drive in an airsled?  Go and hike by the river?  If only that stream were water and not indrosludge we could jump in and have a swim, you and me.  Cluck-cluck-cluck,” she chirped in his ear.

The land around their dwelling was desert; dark red sand, weathered rock formations, and harsh dusty winds.  Woodland also with patches of thick forest, tenacious plant life, gnarled old trees, and the occasional pool of slime welling up from subterranean currents fed by the colonies of Calperon T15-30.  The area was far from safe, although as long as one didn’t fall and cut one’s skin, or physically ingest any elements of the environment, it was possible to survive the wilderness for short periods of time.

Zipporah trekked through the trees with Saio bound to her chest in a papoose, the limbs curling above them as they hiked, wandered, seeking something new.  “Look at this flower, little one—no,” she slapped his hand away, “just look.”  The pedals were white with purple flecks like teardrops running out from the center.  “Beautiful, no?  Bee-yoo-tee-full.”

“Brrrrrrmmmphrrrll.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

They trekked on past the plants and trees and out into a rocky expanse of rolling sand hills that rose into reddish crags and layered rock walls overlooking shallow dusty canyons and dry ravines.  The tallest peak spiked half a mile into the sky, a makable trip from where they stood now, not too far from their dwelling.

“Do you feel like an adventure?” she asked the child.  “A bit of a climb?”

Saio cooed happily.

“Alright, mum-mum,” she wrapped the head cloth round his nose and mouth and fixed the goggles over his eyes.

*         *         *

“Eklokeyli gand lávwequor, beczun vaknegáu,” spoke Hulé to the traveler.  “Vikhan Raanved.”

“Uliel ke guavgon,” he retorted, not without compassion.

“I know this is difficult,” she continued in Braekean, “I wouldn’t want to look back either.  My friend is like you, seeking only peace.  Is there anything you can tell me about the invasion, anything at all?”

The man sighed, looked down at his stomach.  “If I do this, I do this one time.  You mustn’t return with your widow friend to ask me more questions.”

“No, of course not.”

“Alright.  I was a clayworker by trade.  My store crafted dishes, pots, bottles, mostly kitchen pieces for those in my village and sometimes the neighboring towns.  My wife, Duijairo, helped at the store, firing the kiln, repairing broken vessels, manning the register—”

“I too run the register, at my store,” Hulé said cheerfully.  “Sorry.  Please go on.”

“The Trozek armies had been robbing our land for years.  Every two weeks, when it was bad, a new gang would fly through and storm our town, take what little food we had.  When it was good, half a solar might pass without a visit from the thieves.  Nevertheless we hid portions of our goods away, you know, always keeping enough in the open so as not to anger them or cause suspicion.”  The traveler smiled faintly, “One thing about the Trozeks, they never raised a hand against anyone in my village.”

“No?”

“No.  Their war was with the rich, the government, not us farmers.  As long as we had enough food for them to eat their fill they remained civil.  People feared them, complained.  Duijairo, she complained all the time.  ‘Trozek this, Trozek that, a Trozek stole the Egg remote.’  Most of us knew it could be worse.  Some Raanvedians,” he shook his head, “never knew peace.”

“Your son,” said Hulé, “did he work in your shop too?”

“Ccazi?  No.  Ccazi was a musician.  Altophone, drums, harpong…  He played everything.  The night… it happened… the night they died, he was playing a drum and singing outside in the market.  Duija and I had come to take an order and buy groceries when they arrived, eighteen of them, on a Rettrian Plank.”

“A destroyer ship?  Trozek rebels?”

“These were not Trozeks.  They were Korratrean soldiers—I know,” the traveler’s face darkened, “I was surprised as well.  Until then I had only seen Korratreans on the System news.  What are these men doing here? I asked.  Then the leader, a commander, you can tell from the eyes, he looked over the whole market, like he was scanning the place for, I don’t know, something.  Then he turned around, spoke a word to the captain, and reboarded the Rettrian.  That’s when it happened.”

“What happened?”

“Genocide.  They murdered my village.”

Hulé held his hand between two of her own.  “I’m so, so sorry, Ccazolan.  How did you survive?”

The traveler scoffed.  “Dumb luck, I guess.  No reason for the gods to spare my rotten bones, not when my wife could have walked away instead.  She saw me, truly.  My soul was the last thing she saw.”

They talked for a while longer about pleasant things.  She asked easy questions about Duijairo’s favorite foods, favorite trees, favorite seasons on Raanved.  When it was time to go he asked, “Don’t you want to know what the commander said, the word by which he murdered my family?”

“You heard him?”

“I saw his lips.  My son, Ccazi, was deaf since birth.  The word he spoke to his captain, I’ve never heard it before, but there is no doubt in my mind as to what this man said.”  A spark of silver flashed in the traveler’s eyes.  “Manglokel.”

 

IV.

The papoose had been shifted to Zipporah’s back for the climb, the child looking out over the desert through which they’d hiked to the foot of the mountain.  She moved quickly, gripping holds with confidence, even leaping to catch ledges a full body length above her.  The reflexes she’d acquired as a young warrior returned alongside the exultant joy of climbing, the fresh air, the danger, and the thrill of freedom.

“Don’t worry, Saiojéte, I could do this blindfolded,” she called back.  The child squealed a reply touched with fear.  “No, I won’t actually try it,” she added.

The steep cliff they scaled flattened onto a broad shelf where they could rest and rehydrate.  Zipporah untied the papoose and gave Saio a drink from her canteen.  “Look,” she pointed, “you can see the village from here.  You see the supply tent, and the Shell, look, aha.”  She squeezed the last of the water into her mouth.  “What will we see from the peak I wonder?”  She kissed her baby’s forehead.  “You’re a brave one, little théquo.  Your papa was brave, too, as brave as one could be.”

The rest of the climb was relatively easy.  A thin ledge circled the highest rock so all she had to do was cling to the wall and shuffle sideways, one step at a time, until the uneven plateau came within reach.  Hoisting herself up and sitting atop the tallest boulder, she unfastened the papoose and cradled Saio so he could see the vast horizon.

The metropolis of Calperon T15-30 dominated the skyline, its massive buildings looming far into the purple and green swirling vapor that filled the upper atmosphere.  T30 limits ended more than eighty miles away, yet the colonies gave the impression of bearing down on the outer territories, of imposing on the inhabitants of T34 despite their considerable distance.  Even from the mountaintop Zipporah felt as though the city were towering above her.  “Okay, brave one,” she said, casting a final glance at the stars twinkling out beyond the radiant mist.  “Let’s go home, shall we?”

*         *         *

On the way to work the next day, she stopped into the temple so she and the child could receive the sacraments.  The village priest, a cheerful old Urguit, greeted her with a hug and kissed both her cheeks.  He inquired about her work, the baby’s health, the general wellness of her existence on Calperon, and they stood before the altar and prayed.  The priest anointed the baby’s head with oil, then Zipporah’s, before distributing the elements.

“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” he blessed them, making the sign of the Cross over the empty sanctuary.

The store was busy that morning.  A shuttle of Chambrekian refugees had arrived with no clue where they were or why they’d been displaced.  The dhreion bomb that hit their sector dissolved their mid-range memories, a trick employed by rogue nations in the Outer Four.  When people don’t remember their lives before a change of power takes place, they’re more adaptable and less likely to revolt against the new leadership.  Two hundred and thirty amnesiacs filed into the village like so many children in need of grownups to provide them food and shelter.  Hulé and Zipporah took charge of collecting their time suits and arranging proper clothes for them all.

“Next,” called the flustered arachnoid, motioning the line forward with her eight skinny arms.  “Name please.”

“Abimiku Ckezvwa Topepsmaquodrote,” said a small human woman.

“Alright if we call you Miku Todrote?  Good.  Date of birth?”

Zipporah passed out clothing vouchers, guided people through changing stations, and directed them to the bathing facility just past the hospital tent.  In between gathering time suits and replacing fresh polyrobes she unfastened Saio and let him chase his pneumo-ball around the sideyard of the store, keeping a close eye on him at all times.  T34 could be peaceful for long stretches but was no place to let a human child go unsupervised.  The price one could get for him could pay a year’s worth of rent in one of the looming towers on the horizon.

Perhaps it’s for the best, she thought to herself.  The Chambrekians looked almost happy as they received their instructions and ventured out into their new temporary home, their unknown futures.  For a moment she wished her own memory had been erased when the news of Karrick’s death arrived, then quickly no, she thought.  No peace of mind, nor even freedom, was worth her memories of him.

Later on after dark, after all the refugees had been cared for, Hulé offered to buy dinner at the market bar and restaurant.  She chose a table inside opposite the patio where they could talk and ordered a bottle of warm liquor and two small mugs.

“I didn’t want to tell you amid all the craziness today, but yesterday I went and spoke to your injured traveler.”

“What?” cried Zipporah, “without me?  How could you—”

“Shhh, quiet, sister.  Here, drink.”

“No, you’ll need the bottle to yourself, once I snap off one of your arms.  Why did you not wait for me?”

“He would have held back with you there, he might not have told me what I know.  Will you listen?”

“I’m listening.”

“Before I say this you must promise to not do anything foolish, Zeeah.  You have a baby who needs a responsible mother.”

“I also have a friend who gives me no credit.”

“And don’t forget a temper that sometimes gets the best of you.”

Zipporah poured herself a cup and drank it down.  “I’m listening.”

“The traveler, Ccazolan, he lived in a sector of Raanved where rebel forces frequently sought provision and shelter.  They rarely had problems with the Trozek rebels, but one day last solar a division of soldiers arrived on a destroyer ship.”  Hulé spoke slowly, “Korratrean soldiers.  A commander, a captain, and their men.  They annihilated his whole village, Zeeah.”

“Karrick was not among them.”

“I don’t know.”

“I know.  How much money do you have?”

“No way,” Hulé shook her head, “none for you, sister.”

“Suit yourself.”  She leaned over the table, hugged her, and whispered in her ear, “You are my only friend.”

The following morning Hulé rose from bed, stretched, and walked out to find Saiojéte in her living room, standing and watching the crabfish swimming laps in her aquarium.

 

V.

On the kitchen counter beside an unplugged Egg lay a sheet of notebook paper, which read:

Dear Hulé,
I do not expect you to approve of this decision, but I know you’ll take good care of Saio.  As you’ve probably guessed by now I’ve gone to seek the truth about my husband.  I cannot say where this quest will lead, nor how long I will be gone, and yes, it is possible that I will not return.  Please do not worry, and please don’t be angry, for neither of those feelings ever does any good.  Love my baby for me.  I go with God.  ~ Zeeah

P.S.  The Egg is for the traveler.

*         *         *

The sidewalks of Calperon T15-30 were made of reinforced glass suspended every thirty feet around the buildings to allow traffic to fly between the levels.  Zipporah walked quickly up a ramp along the Gomtroyer Heights, the tower that housed, among thousands of other offices, the Raanvedian Embassy and Travel Bureau.  She ascended the ramp, traversed the crosswalk to the wall of the adjacent tower, and ascended the next ramp, and so on and so forth until estimating the number of ramps she’d climbed at somewhere in the triple digits.  The architecture struck her as being absurdly inefficient despite the fact that the ramps were intended for people to advance from one level to the next, or perhaps to walk up two or three.  Everyone else used the elevators inside of the buildings, however admittance to the elevators required an ID scan, and preferring not to leave a trail of bread crumbs, she had no option but to take the ramps.

The nebula had fallen by the time she reached Floor 462, when the sector lights switched on, saturating the streets with blinding fluorescent light.  The various caps and boards zooming by enabled their shield screens while the pedestrians all disappeared into the towers.  At night, apart from air traffic, the city streets were bright and vacant.

“Name?” asked the gnarly-eyed Talitron behind the travel counter.

“Abimiku Ckezvwa Topepsmaquodrote,” said Zipporah, covertly reading the ID.

“Date of Birth?”

“Quartember 9th, 12,091.”

“Place of Birth?”

“Bazeldown, Fohposkal, on Raanved.”

“Can you spell that please?”

“Uh, sure…” she hesitated.

“This town and country isn’t in our system.”

“That’s because it doesn’t exist anymore.”

The Talitron looked up from his Egg screen.  “Can you spell it or can’t you, Ms. Topepsmaquodrote?”

“Of course I can,” she answered, looking him in the eye.  “B-A-Z-L, I mean E-L-D-O-W-N.  And the nation is spelled, F-O-H-P-O-S-K-A-L.  Would you like me to spell Raanved also?”

“That won’t be necessary, Miss.  How long will you be staying?”

“I’d like an open-ended ticket, please.”

“How many items will you be taking?”

“Just me and my time suit.”

He leaned forward and inspected the weathered silver garment.  “Is that standard issue?”

“Yes, for five solars ago.  They’re still regulation for intra-System space flights.  Are we almost done here?”

“Almost, Miss.  May I ask the purpose of your journey?”

“Visiting family.”

He finished punching sensors on the magnetic Egg pad, and the inverted pyramid to her right spat out a holographic ticket.  “Your flight leaves at 19:00 on the forty-first of Thorgh, one waxing moon from tonight.”

“Is there no earlier flight?”

“Not to Raanved there isn’t.”

“Right, thank you, Mr…”

“Thank you, Miss.  Have a pleasant journey.”

*         *         *

Zipporah spent the days leading up to her departure reading what information she could find about contemporary Raanvedian power shifts and land disputes.  Failing to discover any connection between the current governments of Raanved and Korratrea, or any logical reason for the KWPAF to send troops there, she resolved to find the village where the genocide had occurred.  Whatever interest the Korratrean Military had in that location was somehow linked to her husband’s death, or possibly… well, too early to say.

 

VI.

The day before the launch Zipporah went back to the library to see if the name of the traveler’s village or the commander’s death word, “Manglokel,” would turn up any last minute search results.  She surfed down from her cube gate on the complimentary graviboard they’d given her at check-in.  Accelerating into the right lane, she leaned forward and sped up behind a sluggish motordeck.  There was a time when she would have swooped the front of the vehicle just to teach the driver not to fly so slow in the airlanes, but she was older and wiser now, and all the more cautious for being on an important mission.  Sliding left and away Zipporah flipturned into the plummet shaft and dove toward ground level where the T29 Public Library was located.

You had to scan your ID in order to use the personal Eggs there, a calculated risk she decided to take.

“GREETINGS, ABIMIKU!” the Egg flashed in pink and green strobing letters.

Zipporah flinched and shielded her eyes.  “SyzNet search, please.”

“PROCEED WITH YOUR QUERY.”

“Search for Raanvedian village, Henlopyow.  Spelled, H-E-N-L-O-P-Y-O-W.”

“SEARCHING RAANVEDIAN VILLAGE: HENLOPYOW… … … … …”

She glanced around the library.  Mostly human and radnoid beings seeking employment opportunities.

“… … … … … … … … …”

“End search, please.  New query.  Search for life form, location, or verbal expression, Manglokel.  Spelled, M-A-N-G-L-O-K-E-L.”

“SEARCHING LIFE FORM, LOCATION, OR VERBAL EXPRESSION: MANGLOKEL… … … … …”

From the sound of it the term could have originated in any number of Raanvedian languages, only Hulé said the traveler denied ever hearing it before, and when she’d searched SyzNet the last time nothing came up.  Manglokel could mean anything in the universe, or nothing.  The traveler might have misunderstood what the commander said.

“… … … … … … … … …”

She sighed.  “End search—”

“MANGLOKEL,” the Egg flashed.  “PHYLOGENETIC SPECIES RECOGNITION AND SPECIES CONCEPTS IN FUNGI.  ECTOMYCORRHIZAL FUNGAL COMMUNITIES.  SPOROSTATIC PRODUCTS OF MANGLOKELIAN FUNGUS, EFFECTS OF ZYGOMYCETOUS VESICULARARBUSCULAR MYCORRHIZAL FUNGI ON HOSTS, CHANGES THE ENVIRONMENT, ESPECIALLY THE SOIL.  ANTAGONISTIC PROPERTIES OF SPECIES, ALGONIZED SYMBIONTS PLACED IN LICHENIZED GENERA WITHOUT CONCLUSIVE EVIDENCE…”

Zipporah read on for a few minutes, understanding little other than the apparent fact that “Manglokel” was a type of fungus.  The connection could be coincidental, but on the other hand this may lead to the truth about Karrick’s death.  Grabbing the synthepage from the printer on her way out, she hopped on her graviboard and surfed up to the Raanvedian Embassy to get her ticket stamped for the next day’s flight.

*         *         *

That night in her cube, she lay on the fan bed, slowly turning, staring up at the intergalactic map on the ceiling.  So many Systems, so many worlds, a limitless universe of infinite possibilities…  The swirling clusters of stars and planets reminded her of the lights she’d seen in Karrick’s eyes.  They seemed to hold the vastness of creation within their delicate lenses when he looked into her own brown eyes.  Saio’s too reflected the universe, beaming bright and giddy, twinkling with delight at the wondrous discoveries they made each day.  What life her family carried, stored up and burning, shining, blazing, trailing out like comets’ tails wherever their hearts conveyed them.  How she missed him, how intensely she wanted him to behold his son, how many times she’d imagined the look on Saio’s face, the curious smile he’d make upon seeing his papa for the first time, on recognizing his own form, his own source and life in another.  She closed her eyes and pleaded silently for Karrick’s return with her to Calperon.  She didn’t care if he lay dead and buried on Raanved.  A kiss from her faithful lips would raise him.  Grant this, O Lord.  Grant this, O Lord.  Grant this, O Lord…

*         *         *

The trip would take five-eighths of a solar, one way, during which time she’d be asleep in her cryopod.  The craft prepared for launch as she sealed her helmet to her time suit and locked her ankles, thighs, waste, torso, and head in place.  The passengers began the journey conscious, standing up in their pods, then after exceeding the reach of Calperon’s gravitational pull the captain would initiate cryosleep.  The engines rumbled below Zipporah’s feet.  The helmet clasp rattled in her ears.  Any second now they would launch and then it’d be like waking up from a long nap, in another world, where maybe, finally, she’d find the man who vowed to bring her home.

 

VII.

At first glance the capital of Raanved reminded her of certain places she’d read about in history books, developing nations where new technologies promoted growth, prosperity, and vitality.  The same vehicles flew the streets as on Korratrea and Calperon, but these looked newer, more colorful, and the people more alive with anticipation of future happenings.  The whole land rang with purpose, which startled Zipporah since she had envisioned the place as a wasteland.

Her first order of business was to find the traveler’s village, Henlopyow, roughly twelve thousand miles away, a distance quickly covered by the Raanved Express, a beam train running the span of the primary continent.  She had preordered a ticket at the travel bureau on Calperon, naturally, under the alias of Abimiku Ckezvwa Topepsmaquodrote.  Her train left at 10:00 that night, leaving her four hours to explore the city and learn what she could about Manglokel and the Korratrean Military’s involvement there.

Another difference she observed was that all the advertisements in the capital, the holographic billboards, the digital posters, even the Egg commercials between segments of the System News, they all seemed like public service announcements of a self-help, do-it-yourself variety.  Instead of typical slogans like, “BroomSled, It Tidees As It Glidees,” she read inspirational mottos like, “Only You Can Achieve Your Purpose,” and, “Attention: You’re Already A Winner!”  At first Zipporah figured this for a symptom of cryofatigue, selective vision and hearing, but literally every advertisement she saw conveyed an encouraging message.

The next strange difference she observed had to do with the inhabitants themselves.  They were all human.  Unlike every other location she had visited in the entire System not one nonhuman being appeared in the streets of the capital, not piloting the vehicles, not working at the stores, not strolling on the sidewalk.  Every life form she saw was a human.  She scanned the busy crowds for quadrupeds, to no avail.  Not so much as a pug walked among them.

Last on her list of bizarre observations pertained to the phenomenon of Raanvedian communication.  Far from the language through which Hulé and the traveler had conversed in the hospital on Calperon, the language employed in the capital used no words at all, but merely facial expressions—a series of smiles, frowns, raised eyebrows, scrunched up noses, all manner of facial contortions in precisely ordered combinations functioning as what appeared to be a coherent and articulate vocabulary.

Zipporah proceeded down the street, gripping the train ticket in her pocket, determined to board the Express and finish her journey.

*          *          *

She got on the train early, found her seat, and sat down, the only one in the passenger car.  The door at the back slid open with a sharp whoosh as the gray haired attendant entered and sealed the door behind him, a gentle humming as the cabin repressurized.  He marched up the aisle to her row, spun right ninety degrees to face her, and planted his feet.  “Your baggage, Miss?”

“You can speak,” she said, relieved.

“Indeed.  Do you have any bags, Miss?”

“No, no, just myself alone.  Tell me something, has this place always been like this?  The ad slogans, the humans, the faces and all?”

“I don’t follow,” replied the attendant.

“Has there always been such a low nonhuman population in this city?”

“I’m afraid so.  As long as I’ve lived here, at least.”

“What about their faces?  It seems like everyone here communicates by making odd faces at each other, everyone but you I mean.  Is that how the inhabitants speak, by making faces?”

The attendant stood silently for a moment watching Zipporah’s expression as if to assess the full significance of the question.

“Do you understand what I said?” she asked.

“I believe so.  Would you mind joining me in the dining car?  I’d like to address your concerns over coffee, if I may.”  The attendant smiled and stepped backwards, indicating the aisle with his hand.

“Ohh-kay,” she stood up and shuffled past the empty rows.  At the back of the car she turned the handle and the door slid open with a sharp whoosh.  They passed through four or five more passenger cars before reaching the dining car, which happened to be filled to capacity by people eating quietly and conversing in the peculiar way she had observed on the street.

“There’s one,” spoke the attendant, pointing to an empty table beside her.  “Please,” he pulled out the chair.

Once they’d sat down, she said, “You understand my confusion.  People don’t normally interact like this, and I haven’t seen a single nonhuman being since my arrival.”

The clinking of utensils and soft clatter of dishes grew louder in his silence.  He only watched her, smiling faintly.  “Perhaps you’re dreaming,” he said at last.

The words sounded like she had said them, like it was her own voice speaking from the mouth of the attendant.  “Could I be…  Am I still in cryosleep?”

*          *          *

“Can you walk, Miss?  Hello.  Can you walk?”  Zipporah felt the edge of a hard object push against her shoulder.  “Are you alive, Miss?”

“Uh-huh.  Yes,” she responded.

“I’m going to fetch an airsled.  I’ll be back soon, okay?  Very soon.”

When she woke again she was being loaded onto the back of an airsled like a pallet of Egg adaptors.  “I can walk,” she called to the blurry figure above her.  “I’m awake, I can walk.”

She rode shotgun as they flew down the path, back to the city where the craft must have docked.  Out beyond the forest to the left of the towers, looming over the trees and over the highway leading to and from the capital, a silver-peaked mountain shone softly in the moonlight.

The man piloting the airsled noticed her looking.  “Manglokel,” he said, pointing at the mountain.

“What?”

“Manglokel.”

“Take me there,” she asked, reaching into her time suit for the last of her money.

 

VIII.

The silver sheen at the peak acquired an aspect of movement the closer they got to the foot of the mountain.  The shimmering light flowed in subtly pulsing waves from the icy peak down the pine-blanketed face and sides, making Zipporah doubt the validity of what she saw, and wonder if this weren’t all a dream or hallucination induced by cryosleep.

“Do you see that?” she asked the driver, “can you see those light waves?”

“This is the magic of Manglokel,” he smiled.  “The Mountain of Silver Dust.”

When the road ended at the base of the foothills and the airsled could fly no farther, the man hoverparked at the gate of a chain link fence, turned and said, “Take care that you do not abide here.  The mountain is beautiful, though it is not for us to make our home here.  The people of Raanved have always known this.”

“Thank you,” she handed him a stack of thin emerald plates.

The wind blew cold and strong as she bounded up the trail as quickly as her space-weary legs could carry her.  The pines whispered the presence of awakening life forms, some predators no doubt, and she without so much as a lightblade to protect herself.  No sign of the waves she’d seen from the road, not until she mounted the crest of the highest hill below Manglokel’s wide face.  Peering up through a gap in the trees she saw rivers of flowing silver light cascading over the mountain’s surface, ice, stone, and trees, like a projected ocean, billions of tiny particles glimmering and sliding weightlessly in paper thin layers over solid elements and beneath the air.  Zipporah’s curiosity about the nature of the dust combined with her need to uncover the mystery of Karrick’s disappearance, an occurrence she knew to be inextricably linked to the power of this mountain.  To reach the source of the waves she would have to climb all night and into the morning, uncertain of what effects the dust might have on her mind and body.

Many miles up the mountain, long after abandoning the winding trail for a more direct path, and still no sign of the dust on the ground or in the pines, she unsealed the top half of her time suit to cool off and tied the sleeves around her waist.  Glancing down in the dark, suddenly her black shirt and bare arms shone with silver light, the sweat trailing lines of bright moisture on her skin, the fabric of her shirt emitting a silver-blue radiance.  She squinted up at the treetops but could see no dust.  “It must be invisible from below,” she thought, “or else activated somehow by water.”  Zipporah drew a deep breath, exhaled.  She felt neither sick nor weak, no more than expected after a climb like that.  Judging by her view of the orange dotted towers of the capital she must be at least halfway to the peak.

*         *         *

“I knew I’d return to you,” he said calmly, “as soon as it was safe.”

She ran to meet him, kissed his lips, his hands, his face.

“The mission here, there was too much at stake.  They never gave me a choice, Zeeah.”

They spun around and held each other, she kissed his neck, his cheek, jumped up into his arms.

“Every night I dreamed of waking you, every night.  I watched you die ten thousand times.  No other way he’d leave us alone, no other way.”

He wrapped his arms around her, tucked her head beneath his chin, rocked slowly back and forth, back and forth.

“Civilizations, Zeeah.  Not towns, not cities, not even worlds.  Whole species will be saved because of this.  Life as we know it, life itself.”

“What of my life?” she demanded.  “What of Saiojéte?  The life of your child for the life of the worlds?  You would make that exchange?”

“Why not, our Creator did.”

“God did that so we wouldn’t have to,” she cried.

Karrick lifted his hands and held them up in front of Zipporah’s face.  “A soldier of my company, not much older than a boy, received this back because of Manglokel.  His arms were severed at the wrist and at the elbow.  We flew him here, took this,” he dipped his fingers in a glass cylinder of luminous silver grains, “spread some on his bleeding stumps and in minutes, Zeeah, his hands were restored.  Since then we’ve seen cancer, plasma burns, failing organs, shattered bones, wasted nervous systems, all completely, instantly healed.”  He drew a dark curl of hair back from her left eye.  “I’m sorry I was not there for our son’s birth.  I’m sorry I have not been able to share in his life thus far, but Zeeah, you must believe that I have not been able.  My allegiance is to God and look, He has cared for you.”

“I met a traveler,” she said, “from the village of Henlopyow.  A man named Ccazolan.  Your commander and fellow soldiers, your brothers, murdered his family.”

“I wasn’t—”

“I know you were not there!  Is innocent blood the price of healing, Karrick?  Your men destroy a village and why?  To keep the natives from resisting your presence here?  To send a message, we will save the world at any cost?”

The Commander entered the laboratory with the Captain and two soldiers.

“Commander Xinn,” Karrick saluted.

“Lieutenant.  Do you mind telling me what your wife is doing here?”

“I’ve come to—”

“I was just trying to ascertain that information myself,” he answered.  “It sounds as if a survivor from Henlopyow informed her of my location.  I apologize for the inconvenience, Commander.  I will make haste to tie up any loose ends.”

“Like your so—”

“And I will prepare a full report for you by quarter moon, Sir.”

“By tomorrow, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, Sir.”

He eyed Zipporah calmly.  “Can I trust her to keep her mouth shut about our operation?”

“She won’t be a problem, Commander.”

“Escort her home please, Lieutenant Dallens.  Report back on the first of Thorgh, next solar.”  He eyed Zipporah once more.  “If I see her again she dies.”

As the Commander marched toward the laboratory exit, Zipporah called out, “His wife was Duijairo.  She helped him at his store, firing the kiln and repairing broken vessels.  His son, Ccazi, was a musician, and brilliant, deaf since birth.”

Commander Xinn paused for a second, and kept walking.

 

IX.

Zipporah, Karrick, Hulé, and Saio sat at a table on the patio of the market bar and restaurant in Calperon T34.  Karrick was attempting to persuade Saio to eat his cacti pasta, while Zeeah and Hulé speculated about the fate of the injured traveler who’d journeyed into the outlands once his health had been restored.

“Perhaps he went seeking a village where he could open a new store?” said Zipporah.

“I don’t think so, he didn’t have the look of a man in search of a home,” said Hulé.

“What did he say before he left?  Did he mention anything about his plans, or a destination?”

“It has vitamins,” said Karrick.  “Yummy vitamins.”

“Not to me.  All he said was goodbye and thank you for the Egg, last I heard from him.”

“He took the Egg?  I never said he could keep it.”

“How about you, Lieutenant,” Hulé asked, “what happens after the first of Thorgh?”

“Report for duty back on Raanved.  The KWPAF arranged a sky home in the capital for these two théquos,” he nodded at Zeeah and the child.  “I guess I’ll be working in the lab on Manglokel.  There is more to that mountain than any mortal can know.”

Zipporah thought for a moment watching Saio poke a slice of cactus with his index finger.  “Why do you think Ccazolan claimed he’d never heard the word, Manglokel, before?  Every native of Raanved knows that name.”

“I wondered that myself,” said Hulé.

“He probably lied,” said Karrick, “to protect the secret of its magic.”

“I doubt that very much,” said Zipporah.

“Is it possible he failed to recognize the word, not because he’d never heard it, but because of the context in which the Commander spoke the name?  If the mountain is as sacred as you say, perhaps the name is only true for those who honor it.”

 

~*~       ~*~       ~*~