After nearly twenty years of the relentless call of the Great Book of Power and an unwavering bond with the Eye of Jupiter, Anastasie Eloise Bertrand was now free. The feeling was both liberating and terrifying. Liberating because she was alone with her thoughts for the first time in her adult life, and terrifying because she now stood on the surface of an alien planet light years away from Earth with no discernible way to return.
It was night in this place, but the golden moon lit up the rocky terrain and reflected off of the sapphire like surface of the sea lapping at the shore below them. They had already climbed halfway down the rocky bluff that the Eye of Jupiter had transported them to a short while ago, and now stood on a small outcrop of rock overlooking the water.
Her father, or rather the reincarnation of her father, stood a few paces ahead of her rummaging through the backpack he’d brought. She was still amazed at how much this twenty something year old man with the swarthy complexion and dark unkempt hair reminded her of the father from her memories. She decided it was his mannerisms...the way he arched his eyebrow...the tilt of his head...the way he held his mouth...a combination of little things that added up to make a whole. In this life she knew him as Frederick, and was still getting used to calling him Dad.
Frederick seemed to notice her gaze. “What’s wrong, Ana?”
She glanced back toward the top of the bluff. “I’ve lost connection with the Eye.”
“Are you sure? Perhaps we’re just so far away that it’s only a faint signal.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think so. When we stepped through I lost the connection immediately. It was abrupt.” She furrowed her brow. “Like a line went dead. You know what I mean?”
He scratched at the stubble on his chin. “I think so, but I’ve never been connected to the Book or the Eye the same way as you. Maybe you should sit for a while and meditate...try to reach out to it or something.” He retrieved a pair of binoculars from his bag. “I’m going to scan the horizon and see if I can see any signs of civilization...or wild animals.”
She smiled at his attempt at humor. She knew he was more concerned about the lost connection than he was letting on, but he had always been that way...forever the hopeful optimist. He was like a rock, and it was the one thing about him that kept her calm despite the circumstances.
“I’ll see what I can do.” She dusted off a patch of rock and sat cross legged on the cool surface, glad that she had opted for cargo pants over shorts. She closed her eyes, but opened them again to address her father. “Oh, and let me know if you spot anything.”
He waved at her and adjusted the binoculars. “Will do.”
Ana closed her eyes again and attempted to regulate her breathing. It was a technique that Master Jing had taught her in another life, one of many.
She didn’t attempt to make a connection again at first. Regulating her heartbeat and steadying her nerves was the first order of business. Shut out in order to invite in...Jing had said something like that. It was a little hard to remember all of these centuries later, in this new body restored and reinforced as a side effect of the process that Martin and the Horsemen had unleashed upon her…upon the world.
Breathe, Ana...concentrate on the now. Feel the energy of this place. Can you use the energy here? Amplify it in some way?
She kept her eyes closed and reached out with her mind. No detectable signal from the Eye, but the faintest pulse of energy below her. This time she reached out to that energy, pulling it up from the earth, spreading it out into a cone, expanding its mass exponentially.
A gust of wind rushed over her interrupting her concentration. The energy dissipated into the night air.
Focus, Ana. Shut out distraction and invite in that which you seek. That was closer to Jing’s intent, was it not?
She reached out for the energy again, repeating her previous efforts. Once again the energy was drawn upward, spread outward and expanded in mass. She guided it toward the top of the bluff with her mind, and just before it reached the edge, she simultaneously called for the Eye, and encoded her own message into the stream of energy.
A spark. The faintest of signals. There was something there, but it was too weak to establish any solid connection to. She let out a breath and opened her eyes.
Her father was looking back up at her. “Any luck?”
She shook her head. “Not really.” She wiped a bead of sweat from her forehead.
“Well, I did get a very faint signal, but it’s way too distant to work with.” She got up from her position on the rock. “Do you think we should go back to the top and keep trying?”
He seemed to consider the possibility for a moment. “I don’t think so, at least not yet anyway.” He smiled at her. “Besides, we came here to explore and find out more about our people didn’t we?”
“Well, yes, but--”
“But nothing.” He motioned for her to join him. “We’re here, and I haven’t spotted anything overtly hostile, so why not take a look around?”
She put her hands on her hips and bit at her bottom lip. “Well...”
“Come on, I know it must be disconcerting losing a connection you’ve become so used to, but we came here for a reason...you came here for a reason.” He held out his hand to her. “Besides, we can always come back to this spot and try again later if nothing promising turns up.”
He was definitely the eternal optimist, but she had to agree he had a point. They were in no immediate danger, and she had come here for a reason, to learn who she really was...where she came from...what her purpose was...where she belonged in the grand scheme of things.
“That’s it. Come on now.” He handed her the binoculars. “Plus, I think I may have spotted something interesting. See what you make of it.”
She adjusted the binoculars and pointed them toward the area her father had indicated several hundred yards from a craggy inlet at the edge of the sea. If it hadn’t been for the reflection from the moon, she may have missed it entirely. “What is that? It looks like a cylinder lying in tall grass.”
“I don’t know.” He rested a hand on her shoulder. “Try to look straight at it through the binoculars, and tell me what you see.”
“That’s weird. Whenever I look directly at it, it’s almost like it disappears…or that I’m looking through it.” She handed the binoculars back to him.
“That’s what I thought at first, but I think it’s actually some kind of reflective camoflauge.”
“How do you mean?”
“I could be way off, but the way the light distorts it makes me think that it’s actually reflecting the grass in the field.” He threw his backpack over his shoulder, and handed the other one to Ana. “I can’t imagine what it is though.”
He nodded. “Might as well take a cautious look. At least it’ll give us a destination until we see some other signs of civilization.”
She hefted her own pack over her shoulder. “Lead the way.”
They made their way down the rest of the bluff without much effort.
Frederick bent down at the water’s edge, his boots leaving slight impressions in the dense soil of the shore. He dipped his left pinky into the water and gave it a little stir. “It’s ice cold, damn cold. I’m kind of surprised there’s no ice on the surface.” He touched his pinky to the tip of his tongue. “Salty. It’s a good thing we brought our own water.”
“It won’t last us very long.”
“You’re right about that.” He dried his finger on his shirt and looked out at the field of straw colored grass undulating like waves in the night breeze. “Even if we’re conservative, I figure we’ve got about three or four days worth of food and water.”
“Hopefully we’ll find a source of fresh water soon.”
He pointed out toward the field. “Let’s get moving.”
When they got to the edge of the waist tall grass, Frederick stopped again. He bent a few of the reedy strands back and looked down at the ground. “Soil looks a little softer here.” He looked back at her. “Watch your step and keep your eyes open.”
“For what exactly?”
He shrugged. “Not sure, but who knows what kind of life this place has.” He took a tentative step into the grass. “Could be snakes...or spiders...or worse.”
She shivered a little. “What could be worse than snakes and spiders?”
“Don’t know, but if we come across it, I want to see it before it sees us.”
She quickened her pace to catch up with him, still happy to let him lead the way. “Should I get my gun out of the pack?”
“Probably not, we have a limited supply of ammo.” He pointed to a spot in his pack with his thumb. “I’ve got a machete tucked in there that might come in handy though.”
She didn’t waste any time. The blade felt good in her hand, not that the balance was exceptional, but it had a good heft. “I’m glad you did the packing. I never did get to do the scout thing as a kid.”
“Sorry about that, kiddo. I wish we’d had more time together...and that we weren’t torn apart like...well, you know.”
Ana stepped by his side and nudged him with her hip. “No sweat. We’re together now.”
His smile was just as she’d remembered from childhood, wide and infectious. He cleared his throat. “There’s nobody I’d rather be with.” He nudged her back. “Even if I’m stranded on an alien world a billion miles from home.”
She laughed. “Who knows, maybe we’ll find our home here.” Ana trotted a few steps ahead of him and turned to face him. “Thanks for coming with me.”
“I go where you go from now on.” The smile on his face went slack just before he dove at her and knocked her to the ground.
“What the hell--” She started to get up, but he kept an arm over her.
Frederick put a finger to his lips and pointed toward a spot she couldn’t see from her current position. He slid the pack from his back and rummaged through it until he found the binoculars again. “I saw a horse.”
She lifted herself up onto her elbows. “A horse? You tackled me because you saw a horse?”
“Shhh.” He looked through the binoculars. “A horse...and a rider. Wait...make that three.”
“She got up to her knees, trying to peek above the tops of the reedy grass. “Horses or riders?”
“Both.” He handed her the binoculars. “They seem to be near that strange object we saw.”
He held some of the grass to the side so she could get a better look.
“I think they’re reflected in the surface of that thing, but there seem to be more than three now...maybe five or more.” She grabbed his shoulder with her left hand. “Something’s opening up on the side.”
“A door...Oh my god, they’re attacking whoever came out.” She pointed toward the pack. “Maybe we should get the guns out.”
He shook his head. “We don’t have enough information to join this fight.”
She frowned. “But they might be killing them.”
He nodded. “And they might have a very good reason for it.” He took her pack. “Let’s see if we can get closer and get a better look.” He looked in her eyes. “Then maybe we can see if an intervention is necessary.”
“You’re right. I have a tendency to rush in.”
He smiled. “Guns blazing...and sometimes that’s the best way...but I’d like a little more to go on.”
Ana crept through the brush, keeping her head just below the tips of the grass. Frederick tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to an outcrop of rocks several yards ahead of them and to their right.
She nodded and altered her course. By the time they reached the rocks, they could hear the commotion, and when Ana looked through the binoculars again, she could see more clearly the scene playing out.
The horses looked more like stocky gazelles with red and black alternating vertical stripes spanning their midsection. Their horns curled downward to the sides of their slender heads and curled back up ending just shy of their snouts. The riders held onto ropy reins that were knotted to the animals’ horns.
As for the riders, they were humanoid with blue-tinted skin and wild shocks of brass colored hair. Each rider wore some kind of hide armor covering the center of their chests and their legs. Their arms were bare and appeared to be tattooed with strange inky symbols. Now that they were closer, she counted five riders, but what really drew her attention were the beings stepping out of a door floating in the air. They stepped out in an orderly line and didn’t appear to be putting up much resistance to their attackers. Other than the color of their skin and their shaved heads they looked to be mirror images of the riders. They were also wearing clothing that looked more like it belonged in a factory than in the fields, drab and dusty jumpsuits.
Her father must have sensed her outrage. He placed a hand on her arm. “Give it another minute.” He pulled one of the .45s from the pack.
She turned back to study the scene once more. The first rider threw his spear down at the feet of the first being in line. It stuck in the soft soil and swayed weakly in the wind. The man in front made no move to take it.
The rider dismounted and stepped up to the man next to the spear. At first she thought he was trying to choke the man, but on closer inspection she noticed he was tugging at a band around the man’s neck. When it snapped, the man’s features transformed. It was hard for her to make out in the evening light, but she thought she actually saw him smile. The rider embraced the man as the other riders dismounted and proceeded to remove the strange bands from the necks of the others. One by one their bands were removed and their expressions changed. It was as if they’d awakened from a long and fitful dream...or maybe a nightmare.
Ana handed the binoculars back to her father. “Good call, Dad.”
Frederick smiled on that last word.