Chapter One: THE RETURN
Earth: Arlington, VA.
Anno Domini: 2010.12.27
The spirit of the holiday season died inside of Lena as she looked down at her daughters. They sat quietly on a blanket over their father’s freshly sodded grave. The sight of the twins, huddled close against the winter wind, burned itself into her memory. For as long as she lived, Lena knew this image would stay with her.
“Mama, is Daddy really down there?” Leila asked, patting the grass next to her.
“Yes, sweetpea. He is.”
The child didn’t cry, only looking thoughtful and confused. Her sister, Sasha, pulled her thumb out of her mouth, staring at the plain, white cross. “Am I still going to look like Daddy when I’m a big girl?”
Lena mustered a smile. “I know you will.”
What she didn’t know was when they’d be back. Life, duty, and the need to keep her daughters safe meant coming back was not a probability.
She gave the twins the time they needed, knowing this would be the last time they visited the gravesite for quite some time. When Sasha finally relinquished her flower, laying it gently on the ground, Lena knew it was time.
Sasha stood, gathering up the blanket in her skinny arms, then bent to kiss the plain white cross that marked the grave. “I’ll be back, Daddy. I pwomise. Be a good boy and wait for me, okay?”
Lena swallowed hard, blinking away the sting in her eyes. “C’mon. We have a long drive.”
She took her time getting the five-year-old twins into the car and strapped into their safety seats. The compact sedan was crammed with their belongings, making the twins a little cranky. But then, why wouldn’t they be? The poor kids barely understood what was happening; didn’t fully grasp that burying their father meant they would never see him again. Lena’s heart ached for her babies as she settled into the driver’s seat, and checked the rearview mirror.
Sasha popped her little thumb into her mouth to stare silently out of the window. Leila pulled her woobie over herself, and settled her head against the backrest, then found her mother’s eyes in the mirror. “Are we going to your house now, Mama?”
“Yes, baby. We are.”
Leila smiled faintly. “And we’re going to meet aunty Lindsay there?”
Lena nodded again. “Yes.”
Sasha didn’t look at her mother, but her small voice held a definitive note. “Aunty Lindsay has to be my best fwend now. Daddy was my best fwend, but I don’t have a best fwend no more. So, it has to be aunty Lindsay.”
Lena chuckled. “I’m here, Sasha. I can be your best friend.”
Sasha shook her head stubbornly. “You’re just my mama. Aunty Lindsay pwomised me ice cweam.”
Lena clipped her seatbelt into place as a figure in the distance caught her attention. The man stood maybe fifty meters away, but she recognized him instantly. Heartbeat accelerating, Lena kept her eyes on him as she revved the engine. “You’ve never even met your aunt Lindsay. What if she doesn’t give you ice cream?”
Sasha turned to her mother and met her eyes unblinkingly through the rearview mirror. “You won’t let no one lie to me. You never let no one lie to me. You pwotect me.”
Forcing down the ball of emotion those innocent, trust-filled words caused her, Lena smiled faintly and pulled out onto the road. Checking her rearview mirror, she scanned the cemetery behind her.
He was gone.
The Minister of Bantam Health and Progenic Care was dead. His blood lay on the floor of the ministry, surrounding his head in a crimson halo. Upon his brow was a swollen lump, indicating a head wound. No other signs of violence or foul play were apparent. Yet, something did not sit well with Khamuel. A sense of foreboding whirled around him.
Khamuel waved his hand, activating the security’s holographic recording. Olaf, the Minister, was depicted tidying up his workspace after the last of his charges left with their progenitors. He seemed fatigued, but otherwise in good health. Until he clasped his head, stumbled and lost his balance, striking his head upon the edge of his workstation. By the time Charity noted his failing vital signs and sent up the alarm, it was too late. Olaf was gone. Although the recording showed no foul play, Khamuel still wanted a post mortem done.
The reptilian Regulate of Ethics Detachment, r-RED, moved about the room, performing their function as investigators, while Khamuel stood back and watched the process with sharp, critical eyes.
As ’NKa’al, Khamuel did not have the luxury of ruminating upon his loss. He had to think past the dull ache in his gut. A trip to Earth was in order. It was the closest populated planet to Charity’s position. His people had a full, long history with the indigenous people; the ind-Earths. He would find all he needed there. ’Twas a quick fix and plausible solution to a problem he should have rectified long ago.
Having only one medical provider for the few bantlings was irresponsible. So was not ensuring someone trained under Olaf, in the event of an emergency such as this. Bantlings were the highest of blessings, a symbol of celestial favor from the Eternal One and the All. They were the one veritable treasure of the universe. Even a single day, with no opportunity to access a minister, was reckless and dangerous to their frail little lives. He would not fail the young ones, his people, again.
Turning his back, he left the r-RED to their work. Anger at his failure pooled in his gut and spurred his thoughts as he traversed the epicenter pathways of the mother-ship he commanded. He would gather a small contingent of personnel and outfit a forager. They would leave for Earth immediately.
Between Roswell and Alamogordo, NM
Anno Domini: 2010.12.29
Khamuel made his way through the hallways of the quarantine building where star travelers were greeted and processed before being given free rein of the compound. Khamuel never understood the affinity the Eternal One held for the ind-Earths when there seemed to be such a flaw in their genetic compilation. As he looked around him, he wondered if the eternal favor finally waned. They appeared to be deteriorating as a species rather than evolving.
It was with irritation that he and his pilot, Mord, arrived at the shower stations.
Contamination? Disease? Pestilence? Bah! No race of “aliens” was more hygienic than Ka’al!
After being cleansed, the escort gave them fresh clothing to wear. The ind-Earths called these lightweight, comfortable suits “scrubs.” They took his personal clothing and sealed it in clear bags to be returned to him upon his exit from the compound. Next, the gave him a small flimsy square called a “badge” to wear upon his person, showing his visitor status. His escort reminded him of standing policies. “There is to be no instigating, nor response given to provocation. There are no allowances for killing ind-Earths. Only Aramaic will be spoken at all times.”
Khamuel waved the annoying, monotone reptilian away. He had been traveling to this planet for centuries, and he thought it prudent that ind-Earths should learn to follow their own laws. There was a time when all species of star-travelers walked this dirt-covered rock of a planet freely. Khamuel’s people were once thought to be gods by those who overpopulated and polluted this rock. They were only half wrong.
Ka’al left Earth to avoid the harmful influence the ind-Earths were becoming. Where Ka’al believed in working with the natural design to further the Eternal plan, ind-Earths seemed bent on proving they were above the Creation. Having seen the state of the planet since his last visit some 400 Earth-years ago, he wondered at their ego.
Making his way over to the large, metal, sliding doors that led into the main complex, he lifted his badge to swipe against the security scanner. For doors that weighed approximately one ton each, they moved with surprising silence. He scanned the main receiving room with shrewd calculation, perceiving no imminent threat.
Khamuel and Mord crossed the room with the surety of familiarity, ignoring all the eyes that followed their movement. It was rare for any planet to welcome Ka’al upon their terra, let alone one who bore the mark of ’NKa’al.
They dipped into a corridor and followed the glyphs. Except for the new technologies, and now ever-present r-RED who roamed about in austere uniforms and loaded weapons, these hallowed halls had not changed overly. A few minutes later, the door they were looking for appeared and Khamuel opened it without so much as a knock.
Khamuel knew the image he made as he stood in the doorway, with his head held high and his shoulders squared. His enormous form caused a glow to stretch across the room. All eyes went to him once again, and a hush fell over the crowd. His eyes searched each face until he found the one he sought.
The man had not changed overly, his rich brown skin neither dimmed nor spotted with age. Yet, the way he wore his hair was much changed. It no longer hung down his back, weighted by beaded braids and twine, but cropped short and close to his head. His clothing was different as well. No longer clad in flowing robes but soft, faded blue trousers and a black tunic of some kind. Later, Khamuel learned these items were called “jeans and a t-shirt.”
The man was standing perhaps 10 meters from Khamuel. Close enough to note the genuine look of surprise light his coal-black eyes. Noah made a name for himself long ago amongst Ka’al. He was a quiet man with a natural touch and a heart never truly marred by darkness. His blind faith and loyal soul kept him pure and set on his path. Khamuel respected Noah for both his intelligence and his integrity.
Khamuel took a single step into the room. When he spoke, he was careful to moderate his tone to show his respect. “Do you welcome me?”
Noah took an equal step forward. “With a glad filled heart.”
The two men embraced, breaking into companionable laughter. “So many years!”
“Lifetimes worth,” Noah agreed. “Why have you returned?”
Khamuel looked around the room at all the curious onlookers. Long had it been since being surrounded by so many Watchers. He took in their numbers and designations, and though he maintained his easy composure, the lick of adrenaline spread through him.
In return, their glittery copper skin rippled in agitation at his presence.
Ka’al and the Watchers, ever at odds, often pitted their wills against the other; mostly in good sportsmanship and other times … Well, those were thoughts for another day.
Noah, however, was a good and trusted friend; or had been. Realizing the passage of time could have ramifications, Khamuel spoke quietly. “I need your ears bent to me in confidence, old friend.”
Noah escorted him to a room just off to the side and closed the door behind them. “We can talk freely here. We sweep these rooms daily.”
Despite the reassurance, Khamuel’s eyes searched every visible surface. “We have come for permission to harvest. Our minister of bantling care is dead. Perhaps midwives as well; it is near time for procreation. Also, our numbers have dwindled. We respectfully request any Ka’al who volunteer return to us.”
Noah tilted his head. “The skies have been unkind to you lately, eh?”
“A short-lived war with the Maravana.”
A look of sympathy crossed Noah’s features, yet Khamuel could not cipher for whom the sympathy was meant. Ka’al were no cowardly, meek people. Indeed, they were hale and lusty; passionate and zealous. Yet, they avoided the heartache of war when possible. “I beg your favor in keeping this between us. I would not have my brother hear of this. He has begun a new life; I would have him remain unbothered if that be his will.”
“My word,” Noah assured. “The moment we can gather the volunteers and have them sign your ship’s law and ordinance contracts; I’ll inform you. How is your brother? I haven’t seen Yeshua in a while.”
“He is doing well. How can I repay you?”
“When the time comes, you’ll want to deny me, but I’ll come to you all the same.”
Khamuel’s gut clenched. “Very well. When the time comes.”
“Give me a month; one complete moon cycle to-” Noah began, only to be interrupted.
“For all else, I have asked aye, yet not for the young ones’ care. We are in critical need of a minister. Our bantlings are afflicted.”
Noah nodded in sympathy. “Will you accept a beta-Dracona?”
Khamuel sat back in shock. A half human and half reptile being? “That is allowed again?”
Noah let loose an exaggerated sigh. “We have a lot to catch up on, old friend. Though the beta-Dracona is uneducated in Aramaic. You’ll need to speak to her in English. No talent for languages that one, although she is talented as a healer.”
They spoke for a while longer as the friends they were, sharing and laughing until it was time for Khamuel to make his way back to Charity with the beta-Dracona. As Mord readied the vessel, Khamuel saw to it his new citizen was comfortable.
The beta-Dracona smiled at Khamuel, her eyes steady on his. Khamuel felt the impact of her pheromones being aimed at him, and he gave her a smile of promise. The female would be a pleasant diversion after the day he’d had. He turned away to settle in the co-pilot seat of the forager.
Mord issued a mild, frustrated curse.
“What is it?” Khamuel asked.
“Our shields are not powering, Kravan’n. Their air forces will detect us.”
Khamuel waved a negligent hand. “Then we hurry. Though, why Noah refuses to disclose our existence to the ind-Earths is beyond my comprehension.”
Anno Domini: 2010.12.29
There was no darkness quite like New Mexico at midnight. With nothing but brush for miles around, the winding roads seemed endless, with hardly any streetlights to illuminate the dusty, winding back roads. The scent of snow hung in the air, and Lena kept her window cracked so she could feel its brisk freshness. After driving for days, she was grateful for the late hour that forced her twin daughters to sleep.
“It’s all too much, Lindsay.” She spoke to her newly found cousin, whom she spent the last two hours on the phone with. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Yes,” came Lindsay’s no-nonsense response. “Yes, you do. You’re a mom, and from what little I know, a great one. You can fall apart when you get home.”
“They’ve been through so much. I don’t know how to explain it all to them,” Lena murmured. “Seth and I? We had so much potential. We were just too…”
“Damaged,” Lindsay supplied when Lena faltered. “I know, hun. I’m so sorry.”
Checking the rear-view mirror, Lena looked into the back seat where her girls slept. Sasha had her father’s blonde hair, long lanky limbs, but Lena’s burnished brown skin and green eyes. The child’s coloring always made Lena think of the beach, as if the little girl lived and breathed for the ocean. Which she did. Sasha loved the ocean.
Leila had her mother’s dark, almost midnight black hair and petite build, but her father’s blue eyes and fair, freckled complexion. Despite their differences, the girls shared the same facial features; the shape of their eyes, nose, and lips, jaw and even their hairlines were exact replicas of each other.
Lena focused back on the road, satisfied that her girls were comfortable. They were all she had in this world. “I just don’t know how to help them through this.”
“I know. I wish we had found you sooner. We would have been there for you every step of the way. I swear.” Lindsay’s voice was full of emotion. “Right now, you need to focus. I need to know that you’re all safe.”
“I’m always safe.”
“Yeah. Says the lady who spent the last eight months in an Iraqi combat zone,” came the droll retort. “But that’s why I am taking the first flight out. I’ll meet you in Colorado the moment you get there. We can-”
A startling flash of light off to the right snapped Lena’s attention back to the road. At first, she thought to ignore it, thinking it was just a car in the distance. Except, the light grew larger and larger; traveling at a speed Lena knew to be impossible. Behind the light, Lena recognized the unmistakable sound of F-16 fighter jets. What the hell was going on?
Suddenly the light veered, aiming itself directly at her car. “Son of a bitch!”
“What?” It was the last thing Lena heard before her phone lost connection and loud, pulsing throbs filled the air. Is that a plane? It was coming in too fast! Her sedan vibrated, and her arms prickled with static energy. The light became blinding as sparks flashed in a confusing kaleidoscope of color. The sound of screeching and breaking glass rent the air. Then suddenly, in a rush of scalding cold, everything went black.
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