A Place Called Earth

1
First Encounter

As Cal and Panda walked their boots crunched through the snow. The morning air was fresh and clean but it bit any exposed skin with bitter coldness. Every now and then a cold breeze would force them to squint, but they were used to cold winters. It wasn’t long before Panda realized where they were going.
“This is where we first met,” she said with a hint of shock in her voice.
“You mean where you first fell on me,” replied Cal.
“I can’t believe that you still remember that. We were children playing and someone dared me to climb a tree.” She looked around until she found the exact tree.
“There, that’s the tree” She said pointing to it in the distance.
“How could I forget? You fell right on top of me. I was surprised that I didn’t break any bones.”
“I didn’t break anything either,” said Panda.
“That’s because I broke your fall,” said Cal laughing.
“I know, well thanks for being there to break my fall,” joked Panda. They walked a little further until they arrived at the tree that Panda had fallen out of. There was a ladder attached to it.
“Surprise!” yelled Cal. Panda looked up and there was a beautiful tree house nestled between the top branches.
“Oh wow,” she said.
“You don’t like it?” asked Cal a little disappointed at her response.
“Give me a second to take it all in. This is the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for me. I’m so overwhelmed with happiness that I don’t know what to say. Thank you.”
She gave Cal a long hug and then they climbed the ladder. Panda went up first with Cal climbing behind her.
“Are they part of the surprise too?” Panda asked timidly as Cal stepped inside the tree house.
He quickly stepped in front of her in a protective motion and asked in a booming voice, “Who are you?”
Pax and Everly looked at each other. They only understood the word “you” and were terrified. The one that spoke was twice the size of Pax and his companion also looked threatening. They were both bigger than the tallest humanoid that they had ever seen.
Although it was clear that they covered their heads and faces to protect themselves from the cold, it made them look menacing. What were they hiding underneath their hoods and scarves? What did the aggressive one say? The unknown was quite frightening, especially when you’re backed in a corner looking into its eyes.
“Who are you?” Cal repeated.
“We mean you no harm,” answered Pax.
He didn’t understand Cal’s question but he had to say something. They were intruders and the Earthians had every right to be on the defensive. Judging by his body language, the aggressive one was confused by Pax’s answer. Pax and Everly would have given just about anything to understand what he discussing with his companion.
“What did he say?” Cal asked Panda in a perplexed tone.
“I’m not sure, the only words I understood were we and you,” replied Panda. Cal turned his attention back to the two trembling strangers and addressed the group.
“What do we do now?”
***

Pax landed the small shuttle in a clearing among the trees. Earth looked different up close. It was not at all blue like the view from space had led to believe; it was white.
“Why is there white powder all over everything?” asked Everly.
“I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s powder” Pax answered. They were unaware of the temperature from inside the shuttle.
“Don’t worry about the white substance. We’ll be safe; the Earthians breathe the same air as we do. We have to leave quickly and cloak the shuttle.”
“Can’t we cloak the shuttle while we’re still in here?” asked Everly.
“No, that only works while we’re flying. The cloaking device can’t work if the engine is turned off but I can attach a portable cloaker, which is battery powered, on the door.” Pax showed her two small devices.
“What’s that one for?” asked Everly pointing to it.
“That’s the remote control for the cloaker. The cloaker disappears with the shuttle. If there’s no remote control we would have a hard time finding the shuttle to make it visible again.”
“Ok, let’s go and see what’s out there” Everly was nervous. The white substance scared her and it was everywhere.
When they opened the shuttle door, they immediately felt the rush of cold air. They were not prepared for such a drastic climate change. Bebokia had mostly a constant climate. It was comfortably warm during the day and bit cooler at night. They both had packed sweaters but boots and heavy winter clothing was a completely new concept.
“Should we go back?” Everly had never felt so cold. Her instincts warned of danger.
“What about the babies?” Pax reminded her. “Naja will do everything in her power to protect her position as Empress.”
Everly stepped away from the shuttle door and started searching through their luggage. “We need to find our sweaters and then wrap ourselves with blankets before we leave.”
Pax closed the door and helped her search for the items. When they found what they were looking for they wrapped themselves up as best they could.
“Why didn’t Tayna warn us about the climate change?” wondered Pax.
“Either she didn’t know or she wanted us to return to Bebokia looking like fools,” answered Everly.
“We do this for the babies” Pax said.
Everly looked in Pax eyes, “For the babies,” she confirmed.
They walked out the shuttle door and their feet sunk deep into the snow. It was only a matter of time before their shoes would soak. Pax attached the portable cloaker on the shuttle and activated it. The shuttle disappeared.
***

Since they didn’t know exactly where they were, they walked in a random direction without a plan. Their feet made a crunching noise with every step. The blankets that were wrapped over their heads and body repelled some of the cold but not nearly enough to keep them warm. Their nose, fingers and toes began to ache with a strange tingling sensation. They were half frozen and scared.
“Where are we going?” Pax finally asked Everly.
“I was about to ask you the same question. I’m following you,” replied Everly.
“Ok, we’ll stop at the first house we see and ask for help.”
“What if they’re unfriendly and how exactly do we explain our situation to them?” asked Everly as she chattered her teeth.
“We’ll figure that out when we get there, for now let’s think positively.”
They walked a little more looking for signs of a house or people. They both realized that if they did not find shelter soon that they would freeze to death, but neither of them spoke of that. They had a little more hope than they had ten minutes ago when they were walking aimlessly without a plan. That was something, and they both held on to it for dear life.
“Ahooo” They heard in the near distance. A half a minute later an “Ahooo” coming from the opposite direction answered it.
“Please tell me that was just the sound of your tummy begging for food,” said Everly.
She knew good and well that the eerie sound did not come from Pax’s tummy but she was at her breaking point. She needed some form of illusion to hold her together. It was not enough that they were going to freeze to death; they were going to be eaten by wild animals as well. Those were the thoughts that ran through her head but she didn’t let them escape from her lips.
“Whatever made those noises sound far away,” said Pax “I know our situation is a little shastoik right now but we’ll survive this”.
He shared his blanket and body warmth with her and they stood in the middle of nowhere holding each other. For a short moment Everly forgot her fears and just enjoyed the safety of her husband’s arms. They continued walking once the feeling in their fingers had returned.
“Isn’t it funny how the sun can shine so brightly but it’s still so cold?” asked Everly as they trotted along.
“That is kind of strange,” answered Pax “I like the way the air smells; like tranquility.”
“I think the air smells a little like salt.”
“If we could taste it, it would probably taste like tranquil salt” Pax joked.
“I think you’re right” Everly said with a smile. Pax was delighted to see her smile again. “This white stuff that we’re walking in is unpleasant but I like the way it makes imprints of our feet,” continued Everly.
“Yeah, I noticed that too”. They walked along talking of things they liked about Earth until they discovered footprints that crossed their path.
“Either we’re walking in circles or those are Earthian footprints,” remarked Everly.
“No, we’re not walking in circles. Look.” Pax put his foot in the bigger footprint but the footprint was bigger than his foot.
“These are two Earthian footprints not ours,” Pax concluded. Everly put her foot in the smaller footprint and it was also bigger than her own foot.
“These Earthians are bigger than us but lets follow them anyway,” said Everly. She was excited to meet her first Earthians and had a gut feeling that everything was going to be Ok.
As they followed the footprints they walked faster in hopes of catching up with the Earthians. A slight breeze notified them that the smell of the salty tranquil air had changed. They both immediately stopped and looked around their surroundings.
“Is it the Earthians?” whispered Everly.
Pax got down to the ground and sniffed at one of the footprints that they were following.
“No” he whispered back “We’re being hunted by an animal.”
“So we are going to die here,” Everly said aloud. It was one of those sentences that slips pass the censor mechanism of the brain.
“No, you’re not” Pax said “We have to hide you before they get closer.”
“They? You mean there’s more than one?” Everly asked hysterically.
“I’m not sure but it’s a possibility and we have to prepare for the worst.” He was looking around for a place to hide Everly.
There were only naked trees and piles of that white substance on the ground. He stood there staring at the ground trying to figure out what to do before the answer came to him. He started digging through the white pile with his hands. As Everly watched him, she thought that he had gone completely shastoik.
“What are you doing?” she demanded.
“I’m hiding you” Pax answered.
“You mean I should hide under a pile of that wet, cold, thing.”
“That’s right.”
“Wait a minute. Why do I have to be the one to hide? Don’t you remember that I’m stronger and faster than you in my condition right now?”
“That’s true Everly but right now you are also worth three lives. I am only one life and will not risk my entire family. Don’t worry, I’m strong and fast enough. Come, we must hurry.”
Pax gave Everly his blanket for extra warmth before she lied down in her cold hiding place. He covered her completely but left a small hole so she could breathe. It was surprisingly warmer under the white pile but Everly was scared. She could not see anything nor could she move. The thought of losing her husband to wild Earthian beasts was a nightmare yet she was awake.
“Everly, I’m going to step away now, but I won’t be far. I promise to come back for you.”
Everly then heard Pax’s footsteps as he walked away and then there was silence. The quiet, the dark, the uncertainty merged together to form the fear that was now lurking within her body. As she strained her ears to hear something… anything, her mind began to wonder. Which of the three ingredients was worst?
Although she could not see, the dark kept her from being seen. It was a friendly dark. The uncertainty of her fate made a knot in the pit of her stomach, but so is the nature of life. She was smart enough to know that nothing in life was certain and constant certainty would make for a boring life. So why was she so afraid?
The quiet was the real monster. She could hear the sound of her own breathing and as she listened very closely for signs of life outside of her hiding place, she could hear a faint heartbeat. As the quiet grew, the rhythm of the beat quickened. It was the sound of her own heartbeat that she was hearing and it was a very accurate measurement of the fear that she was feeling.
If only she could hear something from the outside. She tried to filter out the sounds of her own body. Ignore the breathing, ignore the beating heart and there was only quiet. She waited for what seemed like a lifetime until she heard a moaning sound. “Wooo” it went softy past her. Was it the wind? If so, then why were the trees silent? Then she remembered that they were naked. Their leaves were buried under the same cold, white, substance that she was hiding under.
The sound of the wind was somehow comforting. It was a small connection to the outside world; proof that light was reachable. She was still afraid but to a lesser degree than before. She focused on the sound of wind for a while until her ears picked up another sound. This sound she had heard before. It was a menacing melody of “Ahoo” followed by a few yelps and growls. How many were they? She could not tell. She only knew that the beasts had finally found them. Was Pax okay? Was he even alive? How was she going to dig herself out if he did not return? Her heartbeat became louder as her fear grew but this time it was the uncertainty of her fate that was the bigger monster.
***

The air grew thick with the stench of danger. The howls and growls of the wild animals rung louder in Pax’s ears and in the distance he could see shadowy objects moving between the trees. He didn’t have a genius or even a clever plan of escape. His first thought was to run but having above average intelligence told him that was a dumb idea. Running would just accomplish a quicker death because the beasts were in all likelihood faster than he was.
He stood still in the middle of the frosty forest trying to think his way out. Was there a way out or was he indeed looking into the eyes of inevitable death? After about two minutes, he sat on the ground. His mind was so occupied that he didn’t notice how cold and wet the ground was.
He had a plan. The only way that he could save his family was to offer himself to the beasts. Once they’ve had their fill they would go away and Everly could dig herself out of the hole and save herself. He thought of his twins. Tears filled his eyes. He would miss their birth. How unfair, how mean, how tragic that would be. The father of Bebokian twins would die before their birth. A hero that saved his family the only way he knew.
He didn’t want to be a hero. He wanted to be with his family. He wanted to watch his children grow up. “Let there be another way. Let there be another way,” he whispered to himself. He closed his eyes and concentrated deeper on his words. “Let there be another way,” he continued. During this state of meditation he searched for a way out. He didn’t notice the twenty-one minutes that past or the animals, which were now a few feet away from him, until their growls had broken his concentration.
When he opened his eyes the first thing he saw were teeth attached to a drooling mouth. Its eyes were ice blue and the four-legged creature stood approximately ten feet away from him. Despite the animal’s threatening posture, it was a magnificently beautiful beast. It had thick white fur and a long tail. Its growls became more frightening as if it wanted to scare Pax into running. Perhaps it wanted to catch its dinner.
Pax felt nothing. His emotions had gone numb as he watched everything in slow motion. He knew that there was another creature directly behind him. He could feel its presence and if he strained his ears could hear it breathing. He slowly began to turn his body so that both creatures would be within his view. By doing so, the animals got startled and began to bark and growl warning him that they were about to attack. Pax still felt no fear but was cautious with his movements. Finally he was turned enough to see the second animal. It looked just as magnificent as the first but had fiery orange eyes.
Pax couldn’t wait any longer. His fate was clear and he was ready. “I love you, Everly” he yelled as loud as he could.
He watched as both animals charged. He did not cover his eyes nor did he use his hands to protect himself in anyway. He bravely sat still in a gaze as the animals ran toward him. The one with the fiery eyes was faster. When it was close enough to be touched, it looked Pax straight in his eyes and jumped over him. It landed right in front of the blue-eyed animal and growled at him as if to say “This meal is mine and I’m not sharing.”
The two animals argued and circled each other for a while. Pax didn’t move a muscle. Bravery had its time limits and that virtue had expired. He was horrified. The blue-eyed animal made a bold move and jumped at Pax but the other animal intercepted. The two beasts met in the air biting and scratching each other. When they landed they were in full fighting mode. It took Pax only a second to snap out of his statue-like position and he run as fast as he could in Everly’s direction.
***

Everly was experiencing a different kind of terror in her dark, cold hiding place. When she heard Pax yell I love you to her, she knew that he was in trouble. She wept bitterly and was screaming, “I love you too. I love you too.” She couldn’t make herself stop screaming those words as she wiggled, clawed and scratched her way out. It took only a few minutes but to her it seemed like hours. The faint, waning light of the sun hurt her eyes but she stood up as quickly as she could. As she was wrapping the blanket around her she heard Pax’s voice again.
“Run!”
She looked in the direction of the voice and saw a blurry image of Pax running toward her.
“Run!” he yelled.
She was overjoyed to see him but knew that there was no time for hellos and warm greetings. She didn’t wait for him to catch up to her. She ran as fasts as she could. As they were running the animals pursued and could be heard barking and howling not far behind them.
The frightening noise made Pax and Everly run even faster. Everly’s eyes had time to clear up. In the distance she noticed a little house nestled in a tree and ran toward it. Luckily for them, the tree even had a ladder so she climbed up as quickly as possible. Pax was only a few feet behind her and followed her lead.
Neither of them knew if the pursuing beasts could climb but it was a chance they had to take. Just seconds after they were safely inside the tree house the two animals reached the tree. They circled a few times before accepting defeat and went away. Pax and Everly spent the night in the tree house and had a few hours of peaceful sleep. They were both physically and emotionally exhausted.

***

“So what do we do now, ” Cal asked again. He addressed everyone as a group even though he knew that the two strangers wouldn’t understand him.
“They’re scared, probably lost and hungry,” replied Panda. “Let’s take them home with us and help them out. They look harmless enough. They’re so small, poor things must not have eaten for weeks.”
“What if they’re not harmless?” asked Cal in protest. “What are they doing out here in the middle of winter without heavy clothes? Where did they come from? And even if I hadn’t eaten for weeks, I still wouldn’t be that small. Something’s not right.”
As Cal and Panda were discussing whether it was safe to invite the strangers in their home, Everly and Pax strained to understand what they were saying. They communicated with each other through facial expressions and found out that neither of them knew what was being said. They agreed to remain quiet and wait for the Earthians discussion to come to an end.
“So we both agree that they’re no threat?” Panda wanted to confirm.
“I didn’t say that” Cal answered.
“Yes, you did. You said that even if you didn’t eat for a week you still wouldn’t be that small, which means that you could overpower them at any time if needed.”
“I hate it when you do that” Cal answered. “You should have studied to be a lawyer instead of a nurse.”
“A lawyer? Goodness no. I like to use my powers for good” Panda said jokingly. “So, we take them home with us?”
“Yes, we can take them home with us but they have ruined your birthday.”
“No, they made my birthday more interesting. We can come back to the tree house later and count the stars” said Panda.
Cal knew by the twinkle in her eyes that his wife couldn’t be happier. It was always a joy for her to nurse people, no matter how strange they were, back to health.
Pax and Everly were still waiting patiently. They watched the Earthians’ body language, picked out words that they could understand and tried to piece together information like pieces of a puzzle. By doing so they had figured out that the Earthians were discussing what to do with them.
The big one seemed more cautious while the smaller one seemed more curious. They knew that a decision had been made when they began to remove their protective clothing. It was not clear if that decision was positive or negative but they calmly watched as the Earthians slowly undressed.
They started by removing their gloves. They had five fingers on each hand just like Bebokians. The larger Earthians had abnormally huge hands. Pax’s eyes followed the huge hands as they were untying the scarf around its neck and caught a glimpse of a drawing on the inside of its wrists. Was it a tattoo like that of the caveman? The hands were too fast for him to tell for sure. He wondered if Everly had seen it too but wouldn’t dare to ask her right then.
The scarves were hiding normal Bebokian-like noses. The nose gave their eyes more character. The smaller one had warm brown eyes with a dainty nose. It was now apparent that she was the female. The male had shiny eyes that appeared black at first but a closer look revealed that they were deep hunter green. His nose was masculine with a chiseled look.
They took down their hoods and took off the hats that were underneath. The rest of their faces were now completely unveiled. Like Bebokians, the Earthians had symmetrical faces, jagged hairlines, smooth skin, and well-proportioned oval ears. There were a few bizarre features that Pax and Everly could not overlook. The female had pieces of metal that went through her earlobes. Pax had never seen such strange form of jewelry. Everly quietly wondered if the Earthians were born with holes in their earlobes. She couldn’t imagine punching holes through her skin just to ornament her ears with jewelry.
Both Earthians had dark hair. The female had long curly hair that was pulled back and held together by a small ornament at the nape of her neck. The male had short hair that stuck straight up in ever direction. It was difficult for Pax not to stare. He wondered how hair could stand up like that and what it felt like. His own hair was also straight but fell softly around his ears.
***
Panda approached the two strangers. The couple was frightened at first but soon calmed down when they realized that she was trying to tell them her name. She had her hands on her chest and repeatedly said “Panda”.
Everly answered her with the same sign language. She placed her hands over her chest and said “Everly” then she put her hands on Pax’s shoulder and said “Pax”. Panda nodded her head to confirm that she understood. She gestured to Cal and said his name.
Panda then offered them the hats, scarves, and gloves that she and Cal had just taken off. She spoke but Pax and Everly could not fully understand her. They assumed by her gesture that these were gifts and accepted them gracefully. They were relieved by this act of friendship and were glad to accept their help.

***

Pax and Everly were soaking in bathtubs that were separated by a curtain placed in between the two. The Earthians had a comfortable bathroom. It was very spacious and built to accommodate two people at once. They both laid in warm soapy water and thawed their half frozen bodies. It was nice and peaceful with a fruity smell in the air.
The room appeared to have a stone floor but felt smooth and warm to the bottom of ones feet. The walls looked like wood. There was a clean toilet, a sink, and plants that perfectly mirrored each side of the curtain. This was the first thing that Pax noticed as he peeked behind it to where Everly was bathing. She was lying in her tub and staring at sky through the glass ceiling.
“The sky is a lovely clear blue” she said when she noticed that Pax was peeking through the curtain.
“See how those clouds slowly float along changing shape?”
“It’s beautiful but should you be so relaxed?”
“What do you mean?” said Everly a little annoyed that Pax would spoil her mood.
“Do you think that we’re safe here?”
“Well, it’s either this or becoming food for wild animals” Everly joked.
“Why are they being so nice to us?”
“Panda seems nice but if Cal had his way I would tremble with fear. Who knows what he would do to us.”
“Well that’s comforting,” said Pax sarcastically.
“Look at it this way, we have no where else to go. We would have frozen to death if they hadn’t found us. Let’s just enjoy their hospitality while it’s being offered.”
“I know that you’re right. I’m just nervous and hungry.”
“I’m hungry too, our poor babies,” Everly said while rubbing her belly which was getting bigger everyday.
“Do you think that they know that we’re not from here?” Pax asked. He was trying not to think about food.
“Of course they know that we’re not from here. They found us lost and unable to speak their language.”
“I mean” clarified Pax “Do you think they know that we’re not Earthians?”
“No, I don’t think so. They most likely think that we’re from the other side of Earth.”
Just then, there was a knock on the door. Pax quickly ducked back behind his side of the curtain. Everly sunk herself a little lower in her bathtub to hide her body before she answered.
“Come in.”
The door opened and in stepped Panda with a handful of towels and clean clothes for the both of them. She placed them on top of a small cabinet and began to speak.
“Change. Eat. After” were the words that Everly understood. Panda gave her a big smile and politely left the room.
“Did she say something about food?” asked Pax still hiding behind the curtain.
“Oh wonderful, I’m so hungry.”
“Me too.”
***

Food. Pax and Everly had to force themselves not to behave like savages at the table. There was bread, meat, some sort of soup, a red paste in a jar, and fresh fruit. Table talk was difficult. They had to communicate with simple sentences and hand gestures but somehow it worked.
Everly scraped up the last bit of soup up with her spoon. When she was done she remembered her manners.
“Thank you,” she said to Panda. It was apparent that Panda did not completely understand her so Everly crossed her two hands over her heart, bowed her head and repeated “Thank you”. The warm welcoming smile on Panda’s face indicated that she had understood.
She answered Everly with words that obviously meant “you’re welcome, there’s more if you like” and passed her the plate of meat. Everly put a small portion on her plate and then she was passed the bread and the jar of red paste. She took portions from them both but had no clue what the red paste could be or how it was meant to be eaten.
She worked on finishing the meat and had a bit of bread while trying to hide the fact that she had no idea what to do with the red thing that was now on her plate. She watched Panda and Cal for clues being careful not to stare. Finally Cal smeared the red paste on his bread before eating it. ‘So that’s how it’s meant to be eaten’ thought Everly. She tried it herself and it was delicious. She didn’t recognize any of the spices but it made her tongue warm.
After Pax saw that Everly liked the red paste, he also tried some and found it to be very delicious.
“Very good,” Pax said pointing to the red jar.
“Tomato sauce,” Panda answered.
Her answer was actually longer but tomato and sauce were the only two words that Pax could recognize. He didn’t know what a tomato was but by its taste it was probably some sort of fruit.
The meal was pleasant and Panda was very nice. The only eerie and unsettling thing was Cal. During the entire meal he eyed both of them without saying a word.
***

The language barrier made it even more awkward after lunch. On the other hand, perhaps that was a good thing. It prevented Panda and Cal from asking probing questions that Pax and Everly were not prepared to answer.
Cal’s icy stares pierced straight through them. He was intensely suspicious, never attempting to speak to either of them. It was a great relief when Panda spoke with her warm voice.
“I. Show. You.”
It was clear that she wanted to show her visitors something from outside. She brought them some extra winter coats that she found in her closet and led the way. Cal was uninterested in being hospitable so he stayed behind.
Pax and Everly were not particularly thrilled about going out in the cold wet climate again but at least they could break away from Cal’s piercing eyes.
It wasn’t long before they were standing in front of a glass house or at least it appeared to be glass. They could see right through it and it had plants and trees on the inside. It was like an inside garden.
“How can plants grow in such cold weather?” Everly asked Panda forgetting about the language difference. Panda understood her question and responded.
“Inside warm” and she pointed to the sun, which was in the middle of the sky high above the trees.
She led them inside and the climate change was so dramatic that they had to remove their coats. The air smelled like vegetation and had the perfect balance; not really humid but not dry either. Pax and Everly were amazed at all the fresh fruits and vegetables. Panda also enjoyed showing them her garden.
“Tomato,” she said pointing to a plant with some nice looking red fruit.
Cal’s voice interrupted. He was heard yelling, “Panda, Panda!” from the house. Panda excused herself and left them standing in the middle of the garden. She was in such a hurry that she didn’t completely close the door on her way out.
“What a wonderful garden,” said Pax after Panda had gone.
“Yeah, what a clever idea. No wonder lunch was so delicious.” They walked around touching and smelling all the vegetation that they passed.
“Now that we know where the fresh fruits and vegetables come from, where did they get the meat?” asked Pax.
There was a long pause. Everly was bent over with her nose in the most delightful smelling herb. She took her time and enjoyed the aroma before answering Pax.
“I suppose that Cal probably goes hunting for meat.”
“But everyday?”
“Well, they don’t have to eat meat everyday.”
They walked around a little bit more before they noticed the slight draft that was coming from the half locked door and decided that it was time to go back to the house. They put their heavy coats on and headed out. When they opened the door they saw the backs of two wild animals that were lying in front of it.
The animals quickly stood up and turned to look at them. Pax was horrified to once again stare into the steel blue eyes of the same wild beast that had once held him captive in the forest. It had a dead animal hanging limply from its mouth and its face was stained with its blood.
The fiery-eyed beast was standing next to the blue-eyed monster. It had once saved Pax, perhaps by accident, but now seemed to have united with the other.
Pax and Everly did not move a muscle and neither did the beasts. They stood there sizing each other up for the inevitable face off between predator and prey.

2
A Leisurely Hike

Everything happened in slow motion. The blue-eyed beast gently laid his victim aside before giving us his full attention. We watched, frozen with horror, while they slowly circled us. I managed to turn my head to look at Pax. I wanted him to give me a sign of hope: a wink, a crooked smile, a nod. I needed to know that he had a plan, but all I saw was a blank stare. He didn’t even look back at me.
Fear, horror, terror -- none of these words are fit to describe the pending doom that I felt. When I was just about to give up all hope, I felt my babies kick for the first time. It was like magic. I knew I had to do something. Just for a moment I stepped out of my body, out of our predicament, and outside my realm of fear. As my brain processed solutions, I noticed that the animals behaved strangely.
They ignored me completely and focused all their attention on Pax. With their backs turned to me, they growled fiercely at him showing their teeth. I was proud of Pax. He didn’t move or react to their threats. He retained his composure, which in this situation is incredibly difficult.
My eyes kept watching while I searched for a solution. I’m almost there. The answer is just a few centimeters from my grasp. The blue-eyed animal has thrown itself on top of Pax and pinned him to the floor. Pax is fighting, pushing away the sharp, drooling teeth with all his might. The animal with the orange eyes sat down to watch as if it were some sort of entertainment.
I’m still reaching for the answer. It’s touching my fingertips. One more stretch… got it!
I screamed “help” as loud as I could. The answer was so simple yet genius. My yelling for help startled the animals. The blue-eyed beast let Pax go and his friend stood up and backed away from me.
Cal and Panda ran to our rescue. When they arrived at the scene, Pax was still lying on the floor. Panda fearlessly walked past the creatures and tended to his minor wounds.
“Mandar, Feng,” Cal called to the beasts and they obediently went to him.
I could tell from his tone that he reprimanded them. They both hung their heads but Cal lovingly stroked their fur. He then made a clicking sound with his lips that sent the creatures running back into the forest. I found it strange that they had left their dead prey behind.
Cal looked at us with a cynical smile. He tried to contain his laughter but wasn’t successful. It wasn’t an evil laugh; it was more playful and teasing. He walked over to where the dead animal laid, picked it up, and said “Dinner”.
Cal wasn’t joking about dinner. That poor animal was on the dinner table that night. Pax and I assumed that Mandar and Feng were his pets. They seemed to share a symbiotic relationship.
***

The few passing days were less adventurous. Although we didn’t see Mandar and Feng we knew by the meat on the table that they weren’t far away. It was obvious that they delivered meat to our Earthian friends but I wondered why. What did Cal and Panda give them in return and why were the animals indebted to them?
Our grasp of their language has grown almost to the point of fluency. It wasn’t difficult to learn because the two languages are very similar in structure and often share many words.
Now that we had a few days of peace, it was time to think about Naja and our façade for being here. We were supposed to gather as much information about Earth as possible. To prevent suspicion, I needed to contact Soren.
“What are you thinking?” Pax asked, breaking my train of thought.
“We need to get back to the shuttle.”
“Why?”
“We have to send something back to Bebokia. They must be wondering about us. Naja gave us that transport box for a reason.”
“I see. I didn’t want to think about them again, at least not this soon. How do you think we should proceed?”
I thought about Pax’s question as I gazed out the guest room window. How should we proceed? There was so much going on inside my head that it was hard to prioritize my thoughts. Panda is a warm person. I had no doubt that she would let us stay as long as we wanted but her husband was of big concern. Cal is Panda’s perfect opposite. He’s cold and ominously quiet.
We needed to get the transport box without arousing suspicion, especially from Cal. I slowly broke out of my gaze once I reached a solution.
“We’ll just have to go and get what we need. I don’t think that a leisurely hike through the forest is too conspicuous.”
“Right, we’ll just have to excuse ourselves.” Pax said finishing Everly’s thought.
***

It was late morning on a beautiful clear day. The weather was perfect for taking a stroll through the forest. Everly could see Cal from the guest room window chopping wood with a large machete. Panda was in the next room quietly knitting something with pastel colored yarn. Everly casually walked over to where Panda sat and began speaking to her in fluent Earthian.
“Today’s a beautiful day. Pax and I were thinking of taking a walk through the forest. Would that be alright with you?”
“Absolutely” said Panda with her trademark warm smile. “Are you planning a short walk or a longer hike?”
“A longer hike. It will give you and Cal a few hours of alone time.”
“Okay, then you’ll need to pack some food and drink. I’ll help you with that.” She put her knitting aside and took Everly to the kitchen. As they packed a few things for the hike, Panda warned her to be back before dark.
“There are wild animals in the forest that hunt at night but during sunlight hours it’s safe.”
“Then we’ll be back before sun down.”
When they were finished in the kitchen, Everly thanked Panda for all her help and soon she and Pax were on their way. As they were walking toward the forest they passed Cal.
“We’re just going for a walk,” Pax explained. Cal nodded his head coldly and went back to chopping wood.
“He gives me the creeps,” Pax said to Everly once they were out of hearing distance.
“Yeah, me too.”
***

It was the kind of cold that gently kissed their cheeks and left them tinged with the color of pink rose blossoms. There was no crunching sound beneath their feet because the snow had melted. The forest looked different, yet they both knew exactly what direction to walk. The shuttle was parked in a clearing near the middle of the forest. It was a long way but they had plenty of time before the sun would finish its journey to the other side of the horizon.
“This forest is really beautiful when you’re not afraid of freezing to death” Pax joked.
“Yeah, or being eaten by wild animals” Everly answered back.
The couple walked in silence and enjoyed the scenery for quite some time until Everly made an abrupt comment.
“I think he knows.”
“You think who knows what?”
“I think that Soren knows, or at least has a hunch that I’m pregnant.”
“Maybe he does know that you’re pregnant but he couldn’t possibly know about the twins.”
“What if he asked the Prophet?”
“Even if he did know, he’s loyal to you. He dislikes Naja so he wouldn’t tell her.”
“Let’s hope you’re right.”
“What do you think Naja would do if she found out?”
“No, I don’t want to think about that. I know her; I’ve heard her story. I know why there’s a flingtus needle hanging on her office wall. She will stop at nothing to protect what’s hers”.
“Then I withdraw the question,” Pax answered with a quivering voice.
They were halfway to their destination when they decided to stop for lunch. They found a nice dry spot to sit where there was no ice or snow. The dirt was hard and cold but Everly spread a small blanket over the area so they could sit comfortably. Since they were dressed properly, the cold ground wasn’t too much of a nuisance. Once they had started to eat, Pax made an observation.
“Where did those clouds come from all of a sudden?”
Everly looked up, “I hope it doesn’t rain before we get back.”
“That would be just our luck, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes it would, but we have good luck too. We were lucky enough to find Panda and Cal.”
“Okay, I agree that it was good luck finding Panda but I’m not so sure about Cal.”
“Do you think Cal is a bad person?”
“I wish I knew the answer to that question. It’s the uncertainty of his character that’s creating the formidable tension among us.”
“That is so true. I’m going to guess that Cal is a good guy but only because I can’t imagine that someone as pure as Panda would be intimate with a bad person.”
“Good point. But until I know for sure, Cal will still scare the spots off my spine.”
***

The couple finished eating and moved on. They walked a little faster because the cloudy sky predicted rain. Soon, they arrived at the clearing where the invisible shuttle was parked. Pax took a moment to find the remote and like magic the shuttle appeared in front of them.
“It’s almost like going home,” Everly said.
“Yes, it is” Pax agreed.
The transport box was sitting on top of the console, exactly where they had left it. Pax put a pre-written note and a small object inside the box, closed the door and pressed the button on top.
“We walked such a long way to do a one minute task,” Pax said.
“It had to be done. We don’t want Naja to get suspicious. She would send assassins to look for us.”
“Assassins? Do you think she would go that far?”
“She thinks that I’m carrying the predicted twins who will end her reign as empress. There’s no doubt, she will send assassins.”
Pax and Everly completed ¼ of the journey back before Everly felt the first raindrop on her forehead.
“Oh fuke,” she whispered.
“Well, that’s just our luck. It’s raining,” said Pax.
“We can go back to the shuttle and take shelter there or continue. What do you think?” Everly asked.
“Let’s continue. Right now it’s just drizzling, maybe we can get back before it starts to pour down.”
They kept walking but at a faster pace. Soon the skies darkened even more and they saw a flash of light in the distance before them. A few seconds later, they heard a loud boom.
“Do you have any idea what that was?” Pax asked a little frightened.
“None at all,” Everly answered with widened eyes.
Although it rained on occasion in Bebokia, thunder and lightning was unheard of. Pax and Everly were experiencing something entirely new so it was natural that they were afraid. They ran as fast as they could. The cold rain started to pour down. Their clothes and hair quickly soaked, clinging to their skin and water was now in their shoes but they had no time to think about how miserable they were. They wanted to get back to the cabin as fast as they could, so they kept running. Everly, in her condition, was a bit faster than Pax. He saw her step into a trap that left her hanging upside down on a sturdy tree branch. He summoned all his energy and ran even faster to get her down but he too stepped into a trap and found himself hanging upside down in a tree next to her.
“Oh fuke!” he screamed.
“My thoughts exactly,” Everly yelled back from her tree.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a reachable knife on you?”
“If I did I wouldn’t still be hanging here, Pax.”
“Fuke!”
“You already said that.”
“I’m going to try to swing myself up and untie my feet.”
“Hurry, I’m starting to drown.”
The rain kept pouring down and because they were hanging upside down, water fell into their nose making it very difficult to breathe.
Pax swung himself up to get a hold onto the rope that held his feet. He made it halfway up, his hands reaching out desperately to the rope but he lost energy and fell right back down. He made several attempts but failed each time.
“I can’t anymore. I’m too tired” he yelled to Everly.
“So, this is how we die, hanging upside down from a tree. No, I’ll try to untie us.”
She swung herself up and although her hands were closer to the rope than Pax had gotten, her reach fell short by a few centimeters.
Pax had regained his strength and made several other attempts. He and Everly swung themselves upward as often as they could. In the meantime, cold rain poured down on them. Lightning lit the dark sky and thunder crashed all around them. Their fear pushed them harder to rescue themselves.
After an eternity of swinging they both took a break. It was tiresome dangling upside down for so long. Neither of them spoke. They were too busy with their own private thoughts.
Pax’s eyes were fixated on the flashes of lightning that appeared at regular intervals through the grey sky. They were immensely beautiful as they zigzagged down from the dark clouds. Thunder chaperoned each bolt and the noise was frightful. How truly odd nature was, Pax thought – beauty followed by the beast.
His mind drifted to a comfortable place. The beauty of nature astounded him.
His eyes followed another flash of light and in a near distance he saw white fur and soft blue eyes. Mandar? Impossible, surely his own eyes had deceived him. A few seconds later, another flash of light illuminated the sky and he saw Mandar again but the magnificent beast was now closer.
“Everly!” Pax shouted. The sudden burst of her husband’s voice jolted her from her safe place.
“What is it?” Everly shouted back.
“We must try to untie ourselves and fast. Mandar is coming toward us!”
Everly looked for him through the grey but could not find him. She waited for the next lightning rod and then quickly scanned the area with her eyes. Pax was right. She saw Mandar’s cold, blue eyes in the near distance.
They both swung themselves upward to reach the rope that held their feet but no matter how hard they tried, they always fell short. After Pax’s 11th attempt, he was completely drained of energy and his muscles failed him. He hung there helpless in the dark grey welkin with a broken spirit. He was cold, wet and his body ached not only from swinging but also from being tied upside down to a tree.
The noise of the thunder no longer frightened him. A flash of light showed him that Mandar was now standing a few inches away. “Not again” Pax thought. An odd peace suddenly fell over him. His heart rate did not increase, his breathing remained steady, and he was ready for whatever the future held for him. He closed his eyes and relaxed his body; fighting would be useless in his position. He felt Mandar’s breath on his face and could smell the animal’s beastly odor.
“Just do it,” he said softly to Mandar with his eyes still closed. Pax was expecting to feel a sharp pain in his neck from Mandar’s deadly bite but instead he heard a “schwing” sound before falling head first to the ground.
When he looked up from the muddy ground he saw Cal standing over him with a large machete in his hand. Panda was standing next to him along with Mandar and Feng.
“Are you alright?” asked Panda.
“I’m fine. Where’s Everly?”
“I’m right here,” Everly said. She was already cut down from her tree and was standing quietly behind him.
“Let’s hurry home and get out of this storm,” said Panda.
Everyone agreed.
***

Pax and Everly were grateful to finally be back at the cabin. They took off their wet clothes, dried their hair, and enjoyed a warm dinner before retiring to their rooms. Everly was looking forward to falling into a deep sleep. When she opened her room door, she immediately noticed a small white box lying on her bed. She carefully opened it and was shocked to see a pair of perfectly knitted baby booties inside.

3
The Delivery

The adrenaline rush of Everly’s recent adventure had subsided and now she was face to face with the cutest pair of knitted baby shoes that she had ever seen. The seemingly innocent gift was indeed a threat and if she were not already numb from the tree hanging, booming thunder, fiery lightning, and the ominous presence of Mandar, she would have surely panicked.
She wondered how much Panda and Cal already knew but she was not intent on worrying, at least not now. She was too tired for that. After placing the pretty baby booties on her bedside table, she curled up underneath the sheets and let herself drift away into a world of deep sleep.
***

“Everly. Everly, wake up. It’s almost noon.” Pax gently shook her shoulder. She mumbled something and turned to face him with her eyes still closed.
“When did you find time to knit baby shoes?” Pax asked after noticing them on her nightstand.
Everly’s eyes immediately shot open. She turned her head and looked at the table. Sure enough, they were still there. “I was hoping it was a dream” she said a bit disappointed.
“No, we were really in the middle of the forest hanging upside down from trees.”
“No, no, not that. I mean the baby shoes. They’re a gift from Panda. I found them last night waiting for me on the bed.”
Pax was so shocked that it took him a while to speak. “How does she know?” He thought a moment more before reassuring Everly by saying, “Panda is nice. I don’t think we need to worry.”
“It’s either time we leave or tell them who we really are.”
“Leave and go where?” asked Pax.
“Exactly.”
***

Panda didn’t notice Everly watching her while she skillfully prepared a rabbit for the evening dinner. As she glided the big, sharp knife over the rabbit, its fur slipped off effortlessly. Everly almost lost the courage to approach her thinking, ‘what if she freaks out. That’s an awfully big knife’. She turned away but quickly changed her mind and turned back. Waiting was the worst. She didn’t want the task looming over her head when she could do it now. ‘Panda is nice’ she whispered to herself.
“What’s for dinner?” was her opening line.
Panda looked happy to see her. “Well good morning or should I say good afternoon” Panda joked. “Rabbit stew. How did you sleep?”
“I had a restful sleep. Thank you. And also thank you for the gift. The little shoes are lovely.”
“I’m glad you like them. When are you due?”
“How did you know?”
“Well, either you’re a bit fat around the middle or you’re carrying -- and you’re too athletic to be fat around the middle. I’m a nurse. I notice these things.”
“I’m not sure when I’m due. I think soon though. I’m having twins.”
“If you don’t know when you’re due then how do you know you’re having twins?”
“I’m not from around here, that’s a little hard to explain. Pax and I are from a planet called Bebokia and we’re here to escape our Empress who has become -- corrupt.”
Panda was quiet for a second and concentrated on chopping meat for dinner. Everly wasn’t sure if she should make a quick exit or not. She nervously stood where she was and waited patiently for an answer.
“A different planet you say?” Panda finally replied with a lot of sarcasm in her voice. She was clearly humored by the idea.
“You don’t believe me?” It never occurred to Everly that her story would sound so farfetched to an Earthian. She now felt a bit silly for trying so hard to hide the fact in the first place.
“I’ve heard a lot of strange stories in my time, but that one is unheard of.” Panda was doing her best to be polite.
“I can prove it.”
“How?”
“I’ll let you examine me. You did say that you’re a nurse by profession?”
“That’s right.” Panda took a moment to think things over. She really had nothing to lose, so why not consent to the alien’s wish? “All right.”
***

The examination took place on the same kitchen table where Panda had made dinner. It was thoroughly disinfected and the whole kitchen now had that hospital smell. Everly was stripped down to her underwear and was waiting patiently for Panda to return. She sat on top of the table swinging her feet while her hands were holding her barely-there tummy. Being examined by an Earthian was odd, but she had the utmost confidence that she could easily prove her Bebokian origin.
After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, Panda walked into the kitchen carrying a heavy, triangular, black suitcase. She placed it on a chair next to the table where Everly was sitting and ran her eyes across her new patient. Perfectly smooth, glowing human skin, but oddly so. But why was it odd? Panda, herself, did not know. It was a feeling in her gut and a little voice that whispered in her ear ‘something’s not right’. Being a woman of science, her head refused to believe in such a preposterous idea as aliens without solid evidence.
“You are certainly a vision,” Panda said to Everly.
“I don’t understand.”
“I mean you are a beauty.”
“Oh, thank you.” Panda’s compliment somehow made Everly uncomfortable.
“I’m going to begin by listening to your heart. Don’t be alarmed, this tool will not hurt you.” Panda pulled out a long, tube-like instrument out of her bag. She inserted one end in her ear and the other end on Everly’s chest.
“It’s cold,” responded Everly.
“It’ll soon warm up.” Panda listened to the rhythm and counted the number of beats.
“Very healthy heart.” She moved the instrument to Everly’s tummy and after listening in several different locations her only response was a wrinkled forehead.
“Everything Okay?” Everly asked a bit nervous.
“Sounds normal.”
When Panda moved the tool to Everly’s back, in order to listen to her lungs, she saw a design of very intricate, bluish, spots spread along her spine.
“Very lovely tattoos,” Panda commented.
“You mean my age marks? They’re not tattoos. All Bebokians have them. Every year we get a new spot.”
Panda gently touched the marks with her fingers. “I wish I could believe you.”
“Why can’t you believe me? You’ve been so nice to me and Pax, why would I lie to you?”
“I don’t know.”
Without explaining herself, Panda started to undress. Everly started to say something but changed her mind. She was perplexed and uncomfortable but decided just to wait and see what Panda had in mind.
Soon, Panda was standing before her wearing nothing but her underwear. It wasn’t until she turned around that it became clear to Everly why she undressed.
“I got them when I was fifteen.” Panda said explaining herself.
“They’re beautiful,” responded Everly to the pattern of bluish geometric shapes that went down Panda’s spine.
“When I was a girl it was the in thing to do.”
“These are tattoos?” asked Everly. They looked so much like her own spots that she could hardly believe they were not real.
“Yes, they are made of ink.”
Everly shook her head with understanding. Now it was profoundly clear why Panda could not believe her. The women stood looking past each other in thought. Everly was wondering how to prove that she really was from another planet while Panda wondered what to make of the situation.
Cal and Pax broke their gaze of deliberation by noisily walking into the kitchen with armfuls of firewood. Their eyes widened as they saw the two ladies half naked and, forgetting their manners, they stared with male curiosity.
Pax found Panda robust yet delicate. She was a small giant, compared to his Everly, with deep succulent curves and smooth long legs that seemed never ending. Her skin had an uninterrupted tan that made her look even more rugged and warrior-like which was an abrupt contrast to her soft brown eyes and gentle face.
Cal had never seen such a petite and delicate creature as Everly. She was like a beautiful flower with soft curves, flawless glowing skin and bashful turquoise eyes. Her legs were considerably shorter than that of his Panda but was gorgeously formed and provided sturdy support for her fairy-like body. Despite her angelic appearance, Cal picked up on an invisible vibe that radiated from her. It was not exactly threatening, but notified him she was not the innocent that she appeared to be.
The two gentlemen, now realizing that they were being impolite, blushed with embarrassment and quickly walked out of the cabin with firewood still in hand. Once they were outside, they both awkwardly continued chopping wood and were extra careful to avoid eye contact with each other.
The women weren’t in the slightest bit embarrassed. Their minds recovered from the evanescent distraction and were back in full thinking mode. Everly got dressed and was pacing about. Panda, once again fully clothed, repacked her medical tool bag and walked it to its place of storage. When she returned, she found Everly still pacing.
“How did you get here?” Panda asked. Everly was deep within her own mind but stopped.
“I’m sorry, did you say something?”
“If you’re from another planet, how did you get here?”
Everly took a moment to answer. “Now why didn’t I think of that,” she thought to herself. “No, I’m not going to tell you. I will show you.”

***

The women hurried past Cal and Pax on their way out, not taking the time necessary to explain where they were going. A very large pile of firewood was piled up at the side of the cabin, but they continued to chop more. When they saw the ladies scurrying toward the forest, the natural force of inquisitiveness ended their awkward restriction on eye contact.
“The women are shastoik today,” said Pax.
He was looking directly at Cal and noticed for the first time a crack in his impenetrable icy wall. His usual cold eyes were softened and there was a hint of a smile on his lips.
“Yeah, shastoik” Cal answered with his signature monotone pitch.

***

The ladies walked at a fast pace through the forest with Everly leading the way. She was anxious to prove to Panda that she was telling the truth. Half way to their point of destination, they met Mandar and Feng playing hide and seek. Everly was startled when Feng, out of no-where, appeared before her. She was unaware that they were masters of disguise. She knew, however, that if Feng was standing before her, Mandar could not be far away. The animals ended their play and escorted the women to the clearing in the middle of the forest.
“We’re here,” said Everly. Panda was confused.
“There’s nothing here,” said Panda.
Everly took the remote from her backpack, pointed it in the direction of the shuttle and turned the cloaking device off. Panda was awed as the shuttle materialized before her. Mandar and Feng, alarmed by the sudden appearance of the spacecraft, went into defensive mode. They placed themselves in front of the women and growled at the strange object.
“Shhhh… everything’s fine,” Panda said as she calmed Mandar and Feng by stroking their fur. Everly was impressed by their protective action but wouldn’t dare pet them.
“Come on in,” she said leading Panda inside the shuttle. “You’re more than welcome to look around.”
Everly sat down and relaxed. The shuttle reminded her of life back on Bebokia. The things that she missed most about home were the mundane feelings of old habits, familiar places, and ordinary knowledge. The involuntary ignorance of being new to Earthian culture was draining.
Panda was fascinated by everything in the shuttle. With a look of total astonishment on her face, she carefully inspected the console with her hands behind her back for fear of breaking it.
“Now I know what was so odd about you during your examination” she said to Everly.
“What was that?”
“Your skin is too perfect – no scares, no freckles, no moles or blemishes of any kind. That’s not human.”
“We scare, but only when a cut runs so deep that it goes completely underneath the skin. I’ve never thought about it, but it’s true. Other than our age spots, Bebokians have no freckles, moles, or blemishes.”
“I’m sorry that I didn’t believe you.”
“It’s done, the problem is solved, and everything is oovestic.”
Panda continued her tour of the shuttle. “So this thing can really fly?” she asked.
“Yes, it can fly.” Everly was amused by the question.
“What’s this blinking light do?” asked Panda pointed to something.
Everly couldn’t see it from where she was sitting so she had to leave her cozy seat to investigate. The transport box was half hidden behind the controls on the console.
“The blinking light means that I have a message.” She was excited to hear from home. She had been so distracted by recent events that she had completely forgotten it. She opened the little door, retrieved and read the note. The smile on her face completely vanished.
“What’s the matter?” asked Panda. Everly handed her the note. Panda looked at the message and realized that she could not decipher the language.
“Sorry, I don’t understand Bebokian.”
“It says Naja has contacted the high guards and I should be careful.”
“Bad news?”
“Very bad news.” Everly was so upset that she felt physically sick. Then she felt a sudden pain that forced her hand to her tummy.”
“Oh fuke! You’re going into labor.” Panda said panicking. “I don’t have my medical bag.” She helped Everly back to her seat. “I’ll go back for my bag and you stay here.”
“I don’t think I’m going anywhere” Everly joked.
“Mandar and Feng, stay with Everly” Panda commanded the animals before she ran off.
***

Everly wished that Panda had taken the wolves with her. She was nervous when Feng walked into the shuttle and started snooping around, but was afraid when Mandar decided to join her. Another sudden contraction forced her to yell out in pain. To her surprise, both animals walked over to her and brushed their fur on her hand. Mandar then went to her backpack that was lying on the floor, opened it with his teeth, pulled out the water bottle and brought it to her. Everly was shocked. ‘Were these the same animals that chased her and Pax through the woods not so long ago’, she wondered. She took the water bottle and carefully stroked his fur.
“Thank you”.
The next thing they did completely amazed her. They danced in the middle of the shuttle by walking clockwise in a circle, then counter clockwise, bowed to each other and started all over again. It was like they were attempting to distract her from the pain. Their level of intelligence blew her away and the distraction worked. Panda was back with Cal, Pax, and her medical bag before she was missed. The men and wolves waited outside while Panda helped Everly give birth.
Pax immediately went into the shuttle when he heard a baby cry. Cal politely stood at the shuttle door trying not to see anything that he wasn’t supposed to.
“You have a beautiful baby girl,” Panda announced. She wrapped up the baby and gave it to her mother.
“Wait, we’re not done yet. I’m having twins.”
“You only have one child,” Panda explained.
“What have you done to my other baby?” Everly said frantically.
“Everly, there was only one heartbeat in your tummy when I examined you. You only have one baby.”
“But the Prophet…”
“What exactly did the Prophet say to you?” asked Pax holding the baby’s hand.
“Two hearts beat within you” Everly answered.
“Everly, the Prophet meant your heart plus the baby’s heart”. Pax brushed her hair out of her eyes and wiped her tears away with his hand.
She was calmed and kissed her child for the first time. She emptied her mind and enjoyed the magical moment.
“Do you already have a name?” asked Panda
“I haven’t given that much thought” Everly answered.
“She reminds me of the wild pompoms that grow in the forest,” said Cal. “She’s so tiny and is as beautiful as the flowers.” It was a rare thing when Cal spoke more than two words, so he had everyone’s attention.
“Pompom. That’s very lovely. If daddy doesn’t have any objections,” said Everly looking at Pax.
“Then it’s settled. Her name is Pompom,” said Pax.

4
Fading Sun

My planet is dying, my people are starving, and the sun has forsaken us. Where to turn for help? Is there anything anyone can do? Earth knows not of us and relations between Morstarga and Bebokia has long been cold.
High noon, the sun once strong and nourishing fails to feed us. We stretch our wings towards the sky in vain to receive what little sunlight there is. The stronger of us wrongfully fight the weak for their sun lit territory. Morstarga has never been so dark.
“Are you going to just stand there, looking out the window, watching while that poor fellow is beaten for his own feeding ground.”
“I don’t see you hurrying to help him either, Kirkus.”
“You’re right, what’s happened to us? Our people are hungry when food is right next-door and you’re still reluctant. Croy, if we don’t act now our species will die.”
Croy looked at Kirkus but gave him no answer. He turned his attention to the red mark on his index finger and gazed back into the past when sunlight was plentiful.
***

The council was sitting on Croy’s delightful feeding ground. The flowers were in full bloom. The sunshine was strong and filling. The fresh smell of the garden wonderfully complemented their nourishment. Everyone was in a good mood and this heightened their talks of stratagem.
“The Bebokians are wingless barbarians,” General Platt warned.
“They eat with their mouths killing the vegetables that clean the air -- a stupid species.” Croy responded.
“The tests went well. We’re ready for the elimination. There will be no war and no causalities on our side. It will be like a natural disaster,” boasted Brass, the science engineer.
“Then the only thing left to do is set a date. Well done,” said Croy.
***

“I am reluctant because the last time we tried attacking Bebokia things went amiss or do you not remember the horror that was our own doing?” Croy was back in the present.
“I have that red mark on my finger too Croy” said Kirkus. “I was there, I watched, and it was like… an act of God.”
“You’re right, an act of God who chose to protect the Bebokians.”
“No, I meant there was no way for us to predict what was going to happen, Croy” Kirkus sighed. He rubbed the red mark on his index finger. He tried so often to wash it off but it was a permanent stain. The events of that day played over and over in his head.
***

The Morstargan common people were unaware of the council’s plans. All members voted unanimously to keep them in the dark. In doing so, they would avoid any resistance that may have shown itself among their people.
When the task was done and victory secured, the announcement would be grand. The commoners, rendered into a state of pleasurable shock, would revere the council as Morstarga’s biggest heroes. Such were the thoughts of Croy and his followers as they secretly met to execute their plan.
“This is the best water I’ve ever tasted,” commented Kirkus as his fingertips absorbed the liquid from the fancy glass.
“Yes, purified twice with an added hint of zorpkusfly dust. Expensive, but today is a special occasion” Croy bragged.
“Zorpkusfly dust is rare, how did you get it?” Brass asked. “I’ve only seen the zorpkusfly in books and have always wondered if they were indeed real.”
“You are right, it is very rare but I have my sources. Makes you feel good doesn’t it?”
“It makes me feel fantastic!” Here’s to your sources.” Brass held up his glass and the other council members followed. “To Croy, this wonder drink, and this special day.”
“Strength to Morstargan Wings!” The Council shouted.
“My dear friends it’s time. Chief engineer Brass please begin,” said Croy.
“The moment we’ve all been waiting for,” Brass began. He was now the center of attention, but with the touch of a button he quickly had all eyes focused to the screen that was slowly scrolling down at the back of the room.
“This is a satellite image, in real time, of the circle of suns. The Bebokian sun indirectly nourishes them; remove it and our threat and fear disappears with the extinction of their species.” Brass took a short pause before continuing.
“You were all handed a small circular device when you came in. That device contains the activation switch for the rocket that will extinguish the flames of the Bebokian sun. In order to launch the rocket we must all turn the switch at approximately the same time. Is everyone ready?”
The quiet room was suddenly abuzz with chatter. It was unexpected that they all would get a chance to directly participate. Brass patiently waited for the room to be still. When everyone was ready each gave a signal. Some just nodded while others made eye contact with Brass and whispered the word ready.
All eyes were again on the screen and the room was now completely quiet. Brass took his queue and began, “On my Mark. Three, two, one… Mark!”
The switch left a permanent mark on everyone’s finger -- a feature cleverly thought of by the general himself to honor all participants.
The council successfully launched the rocket and everyone watched with fervor as it traveled to its destination. It almost reached the Bebokian sun when, for no apparent reason, it boomeranged toward the Morstargan sun with twice the speed. Gasp of horror escaped from the members. They watched breathlessly as the rocket injected their own sun with poison. There was no spectacular show of devastation, just the disappearance of the rocket into the sun’s core.
The effects were felt soon after. Their sun dimmed a little more each day and the temperature cooled.
***

“We can’t undo what was done,” said Kirkus to Croy “But we can try to provide our people with nourishment.”
“The Bebokians are witches and warlocks. That’s the only explanation for what happened. How can we fight magic?”
“There is no such thing as magic, Croy. There has to be a scientific explanation for the cause of the boomerang.”
Croy looked out the window at the destruction that he caused. He truly did believe that the Bebokians knew magic. Every inch of his body told him not to give Kirkus the order to continue with the attack, but he had to do something. He had to help his people.
“Do it,” he reluctantly said.

5
Birds of Prey

“I am Feather-Blade. We don’t belong to any country, any planet or any world. We are hired hunters and we call ourselves Birds of Prey. We bow to no emperor, yield to no king but our loyalty can be bought. What is your offer?”
This is how I begin every consult. Our last mission took place on Wayward Rock. We had to use a magnifying glass to locate the planet but the Sovereign was willing to pay a high price to get his daughter back -- alive.
If you’ve never been to Wayward Rock or haven’t a clue where it is, count your blessings. It’s a swampy, hot, hellish nightmare with mosquitoes the size of your hand, snakes that can swallow you whole, and flying lizards that wouldn’t mind eating your eyeballs for breakfast. The conditions were harsh but our task was pretty simple: locate the Sovereign’s daughter, rescue her and kill her kidnappers.
The details concerning the kidnapping are actually quite funny. The Princess is really not very beautiful. She reminds me of my dolls that I never played with as a youngster; pretty on the outside, hollow on the inside.
She secretly posted pictures of herself on the local greet and meet board in the town square, some of them semi-nude. This board was apparently used to help grieving widows find new husbands but the locals found other uses for it. Well, it wasn’t long before she attracted interest. The interest turned into an obsession. The obsession led to stalking and before Princess Limone knew it, her casual flirting had turned into a real problem. This is the story we got from Daddy, who sincerely believes that his daughter is beautiful, so I have a feeling there’s more to this story than he knows and I can’t wait to hear it from the princess’s own mouth.
So here we are floating down a murky swamp in the dark of the night looking for any sign of the Princess and clues to where her kidnappers might have hidden her or her body. There are tiny little insects drinking the water droplets off our skin, making us itchy all over, and our clothes are soaked with sweat. Our boat is old and unstable and bright eyes are all around watching us. If I didn’t know any better, I’d probably be wondering what creatures all those eyes belong to, but I know better. This is one of those rare times when ignorance is preferable to insight. Unless they attack, the less I know about the creatures behind those eyes the happier I am.
“Oh no, no, no, no” Archer-Eye whispered.
“What’s the matter?” Saber-Claw asked. I said the answer before Archer spoke.
“We have a leak in the boat”
Saber pointed his flashlight at the bottom of the boat. “A leak? Well that’s putting it nicely,” he said. “Looks more like a big hole.”
“Any suggestions?” I was hoping that my partners would have an alternative to the obvious. Water was rushing in too fast to pail out. The boat was sinking fast.
“We’ve got to swim, love,” Archer answered.
“Oh hell,” I whispered.
Normally I would have yelled such an interjection but in our current situation, I didn’t want to startle the creatures that were hiding behind all those glowing eyes. We made sure that our head flashlights were securely attached before jumping in the dark unknowns of the swampy water.
Considering how hot and humid the air was, the water was shockingly cold. It was difficult to muzzle the splash from our entry. The noise frightened the animals. Eyes shifted. The bushes, plants, and branches rustled. I heard a twig snap. Clicking noises moved closer to us.
The three of us treaded water with our backs touching. We automatically formed what we called our circular position of defense. This way no one’s back was left unguarded. On land this method of defense was 97% effective but being suspended between air and water made things more difficult. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that until much later.
“Well, so much for being quiet” said Saber. His sharp curved sword was poised for action. Hundreds of eyes were now looking at us in every direction.
“Now what do we do, love?” Archer asked.
“Now what do we do, Saber?” Not having a clue, I passed on the question.
“Oh Crap! We just moved to the bottom the food chain, didn’t we?” said Saber.
“Did you guys feel that?” Archer drew his bow.
“Feel what?” I asked.
“Something went passed my head.”
“I didn’t see or hear anything, Archer.”
“Me neither,” said Saber.
We swam around in a circle, straining our eyes. The lights on our foreheads were too dim to properly see in the intense darkness.
Nothing. The clicking stopped. Most of the glowing eyes disappeared. No rustling in the bushes. All was quiet.
“Something’s not right.” Archer Eye whispered and just as he finished the sentence I heard Saber yell, “Shoot it! Kill it! Let me go you ugly dragon!”
I grabbed onto Saber’s feet and tried pulling him back in the water. A flying lizard had lifted him out of the swamp. The dragon had held onto Saber’s hand in which he was holding his sword. This made it difficult for him to defend himself. Archer aimed his bow and shot at the creature but his arrows bounced off of its thick, scaly skin and succeeded only in enraging the lizard. It made a loud ferocious noise, twisted and turned to make us let go of his dinner and started spitting down at us. I held onto Saber as tight as I could but some of its saliva caught my shoulder and my skin began to burn.
“Archer, it’s no use, help me pull Saber away from it!” With his help, we were both able to pull Saber a little closer to the water, but the creature wouldn’t give up.
“Saber!” Archer yelled. “Can you reach your sword with your other hand?”
“It’s worth a try,” Saber yelled back. His furthest reach was just millimeters away from his weapon.
“I can’t,” he yelled back. “Don’t let go of me!”
“Drop it and I’ll throw it back up to you.”
Archer let go of Saber’s feet so that he could catch his sword. The dragon felt the pull lighten and took advantage of it. It twisted and pulled harder but I pulled down with all my might.
“Hurry up!” I screamed fearing that I would lose my grip.
“Now!” Saber signaled.
Archer fearlessly caught it and immediately threw it back up, but I was out matched and Saber slipped out of my hands.
“No! No!” I was frantic.
I watch with a heavy heart as the animal started flying away with our friend. Luckily, he had caught his sword just in time and with a swift, mighty swing took off the lizard’s head. Both Saber and dragon fell into the swamp with a gigantic splash.
“What a rush!” Saber laughed. “I thought I was lizard food.”
“I thought you were lizard food too!” Archer teased. He and Saber splashed each other with water.
“You were lizard food. You just managed to get away. Good to have you back in one piece. I started to worry there for a minute.”
Saber splashed me with water. “Don’t get all girly on us, Blade.”
“Who are you calling girly? I could feel the fear in your feet.”
“Fear isn’t the right word. Terrified is more like it. I nearly peed on you, Blade.”
We laughed and played like children over our victory until we noticed that several of the dragon’s friends were flying in our direction.
“Dive!” I yelled looking up at the sky.
Lucky for us those dragons can’t swim. The water was deep and surprisingly clean a few meters underneath the surface. We couldn’t go up, at least not for a while, so we continued our search for Princess Limone underneath. We all knew that soon we would have to risk going up for air but until then we concentrated on looking for clues to the whereabouts of the missing Princess. The lights that were attached to our foreheads lit up the water world superbly. Life forms swam past us, apparently not in the least bit interested in our existence.
I was running out of air and signaled to my friends that I was going up. I handed my head flashlight to Saber and he and Archer escorted me half way up. I was very careful and only surfaced my face for a quick second before retracting and diving back down. I signed to the others that the dragons were still there and to be careful. Each took a turn surfacing and was successful in eluding the dragons.
As we swam back down a curious fish took notice of us. We ignored it but it wouldn’t go away. It was a small little thing; yellow with a greenish blue stripe going down its back. I got annoyed and threw one of my blades at it in hopes that it would go away and leave us to our work. This was not a clever idea. The small, innocent fish grew before our eyes. It showed us its jagged teeth from within its mouth and kept growing until it was the size of… well, I don’t know but it was definitely larger than any of us.
We still couldn’t swim up so we tried swimming away from it. For such an immense fish it swam pretty slowly but it was fast enough to follow us very closely. Archer led the way swimming into a small cave. Saber and I swam in after him. The monstrous fish tried to pursue but couldn’t fit into the small opening of the cave. We watched as it angrily charged us with no avail. It became so furious that it grew even more. I wasn’t sure if the fish was unbelievably stupid or unbelievably clever. If it had let itself become a bit smaller it would have eaten us for sure. On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t hungry and just wanted to drown us. It was blocking the cave’s entrance so we couldn’t get out. We’d already been holding our breaths for quite some time and started to feel the strain on our lungs.
We swam the depths of the cave looking for another way out until I could no longer hold my breath. Saber and Archer also stopped. I could see exhaustion and hopelessness in their eyes. All my will power could not stop me from opening my mouth and gasping for air. My partners must have wondered why I was smiling until they could no longer help but gasp for air themselves. Who knew that we could breathe under water, at least under this water on Wayward Rock?
We saved our celebrations for later and continued. We had to find another way out. During our search, we came across a door that was semi-hidden in the wall of the cave. Archer looked at me for instructions and at first I was reluctant to give him the okay to open the door. Anything could have been waiting for us on the other side -- including the Princess. It was the thought of all the money that prompted my permission.
Archer gave a tug but the door wouldn’t budge. Saber pulled as hard as he could but the door still wouldn’t open. I thought I’d give it a try but instead of pulling, I gently pushed and just like that we had entrance to the mysterious realm behind the door.
Archer and Saber were a little bothered and made silly gestures that said, “Now why didn’t I think of that.”
We went in and closed the door behind us. Inside was a short hallway that led to another door. Pushing or pulling wouldn’t open it. There was a big red button next to it and we were all nervous to touch it. Red buttons, or buttons of any color, always meant trouble. We stood here for a good ten minutes before I finally pushed the button. I wasn’t about to turn back. The water that we were swimming in slowly drained out. When there was none left, the door opened automatically.
“This mission gets more interesting by the minute” Archer said. He seemed happy to be able to speak again.
“I’m surprised we’re all still alive,” said Saber.
“Think of the money, men” I said.
“There’s more to life than money, love” Archer commented.
Dear old Archer. He was the sentimental fool that would give you the shirt off his back only to shoot you with one of his arrows two minutes later to get it back and then sulk the whole day because there’s now a hole in his shirt.
“Yes, there’s also adventure” I answered.
The first thing I noticed when we entered the door was the smell. After smelling murky swamp water, frightful fish breath, scaly lizard spit, and Saber’s putrid feet, the fresh clean smell of the room was a pleasant change. It was the aroma of morning dew on blooming flowers that were tied together with ribbons of rainbow. It was a scent fit for a king, queen, sovereign, or as we soon discovered -- a princess.
We walked into what appeared to be a bedroom and found Princess Limone asleep in a snuggly position with a man, presumably her kidnapper, by her side. Archer dragged her out of bed.
“Don’t be afraid, love, we’re here to rescue you.”
“Do I look like I need rescuing to you? Don’t touch me!” Limone tried her best to wiggle out of Archer’s grip.
“Let her go!” Demanded the man, who was now safely under Saber’s sword.
“And who might you be?” I asked.
“I am her mate, Revol. She ran to me, I did not kidnap her.”
“Is this true, Princess?” I asked.
“The heart does not surrender to the logic of the mind. I am a tortured soul because I fell in love, but the heart wants what it wants. Yes, I gave myself to Revol.”
“And do you love her, Revol?” I was merely entertaining myself. I knew what his answer would be.
Revol looked deep within the Princess’s eyes as he spoke. “My love for her surpasses her beauty.” His voice was soft and his cheeks flushed a bright shade of pink. Archer and Saber snickered at his honesty. I gave them a stern look and they quickly hid their merriment.
“The Sovereign will pay me nicely for the return of his daughter and he has requested your body for double the reward. So, Revol, how much is your life worth to you?”
“If it’s money you seek, I have none.”
Those were part of Revol’s last words. His life was ended by a feather blade thrown with such precision that his brain took a full minute before realizing he was dead. He continued speaking with my blade embedded deep in his chest.
“Even if I had money, I certainly would not be able to match what the good Sovereign has offered you.” He didn’t feel a thing before his body fell to the ground.
The Princess was hysterical. “You’ve murdered him!” She screamed and cried with such sorrow that I almost felt sorry for her.
“Love, you’ll find another mate.” Archer tried consoling her. Her agony was so great that the she finally fainted.
“So this is royalty,” I said looking at Limone as she lay lifeless in Archer’s arms. “Let’s collect our money.”
***

An oddly familiar but foreign scent was in the air. Being the curious creature that he was, Mandar followed the invisible trail that led him to the clearing where Pompom was born. There was another flying object standing a few feet away from Pax and Everly’s cloaked shuttle. Three people, who were the same size as Bebokian’s but spoke with a twang in their dialect, guarded it. He wasn’t sure if they were friend or foe so he camouflaged himself as a bush, watched, and listened.
“Earth looks like paradise compared to Wayward Rock. We should get more assignments like this, Love.”
“Yeah, I could get used to this. How about we stay awhile longer and have us a little vacation once we’re done?”
“Now now men, I know this place looks mellow but we can’t be certain of that until we venture into the forest.” She screwed on a new feather to the end of her blade.
“Love, all work and no play is no way to live.”
“I would thank you men to concentrate on the assignment. This Everly person isn’t going to capture herself. If everything works out as planned we can have a little vacation, but until then…” She threw her blade in the trunk of the nearest tree and it landed millimeters from where Mandar was standing.
“We shall be cautious. There’s no such thing as an easy mission.”

6
The Prize

“Air sick?” Kirkus was confused.
“You do know that you’re Morstargan. You have wings; we fly. How are you air sick?”
“Flying with your own wings is different. There’s no space in this machine to breath. The motion makes the room even smaller. We have to land. I just need a few minutes.” Croy broke out in a cold sweat and collapsed in his chair.
Kirkus wanted to be annoyed, but the sight of Croy was pitiful. “Okay, Crow, hang in there.”
“Crow?” Croy was able to show a smile. “You haven’t called me that since we were ten years old. Don’t worry, I’m not going to die on you.”
“I should be so lucky,” Kirkus joked. “You look awful. The only time you looked worst was when you caught that bird flu. By the way, how in the world did you survive that?”
“That was the first time you called me crow. Coming from you, being called crow was a compliment. I didn’t want to let you down so I imagined myself strong, crafty, smart and healthy.” Croy put his head between his knees.
“We’ll be landing in a few minutes. Don’t you dare throw up in my shuttle!”
Kirkus and Croy ejected themselves out of the crashing shuttle but as they spread their wings in an attempt at flight, got tangled in the leaves, branches and vines of the forest roof. The trees swallowed the tiny shuttle in the nearby distance and spat the two Morstargans out, bruised, battered, and thoroughly bound with vines on the forest floor.
“I told you not to throw up in my shuttle!” Kirkus yelled at Croy.
“I’m fine, thanks. How are you?” Croy answered back.
Kirkus tried to stand up but he couldn’t get out of the vines which tied his hands and feet together. “Can you get a hold of your gun or knife? I can’t get my hands free.”
Croy started to wiggle his hands. When that didn’t work he wiggled his whole body trying to get rid of the vines.
“Stop!” he yelled at Kirkus. “Don’t move any further”.
“What are we suppose to do, just lay here on the ground and yell for help?” Kirkus was beginning to panic.
“That may not be a bad idea because if you haven’t noticed, the more we move the tighter the vines become.
“Well doesn’t that just make my day brighter? When I get free of these vines, I’m plucking your feathers.”
“You didn’t have to crash the shuttle just because I threw up! It’s not like I did it on purpose.”
“Well excuse me for being distracted by the projection of your vomit, you bat!” Kirkus threw the insult at him before deciding to gnaw the vines off his hands.
When Croy didn’t answer his insult, and being called bat is quite the insult to a Morstargan due to their high disgust of the flying rat, Kirkus shifted his eyes in Croy’s direction. What he saw made him immediately stop gnawing at the vines.
Its fiery eyes were attached to a threatening head. Silky silver fur covered its entire broad body and it looked quite capable of tearing them limb from limb. It was standing so close that they could hear it breathe. The most frightening part of the ordeal was not the animal’s appearance but what it held in its mouth. The knife, although terrifying in itself, was not the object that scored fear from the pit of their stomachs. It was the feathers that hung from its blade.
The feathers were Morstargan and, judging by the unique pattern that only the Morstargan eye would recognize, once belonged to a close colleague of them both.
Escaping was impossible. They both laid as still as glass waiting to be broken but the inevitable never came. Feng walked over to Croy and gently laid the knife by his hands then stepped back and waited. Croy and Kirkus looked at other. Neither one of them moved a muscle. Feng, sensing their fear, walked up to the knife and moved it closer to Croy’s vine bound hands then stepped back.
Croy slowly took the knife off the ground with his free fingers and moved it to his mouth. While holding the blade with his teeth, he slid his hands across the sharp edge, cutting the vines away. When his hands were finally free, he used the blade to cut the rest of the vines away until he was able to reach his own weapon. Feng stood patiently watching him. He laid the knife back on the ground and backed away from it. She picked it up and went on her way.
Croy used his own knife to free Kirkus from the vines.
“We have to follow it,” said Kirkus.
“What! Are you crazy? We’re lucky it didn’t eat us.”
“I need to know where it got that knife. Didn’t you recognize the feathers?”
“Of course I did. I was just hoping you hadn’t.”
“When we find the owner of that knife, we find the person that killed Husley.”
“Killing whoever killed Husley is not going to bring him back.”
“I know, Croy, but it’ll make me feel better. Besides, we owe it to Husley. He’d do the same for us.”
“After surviving a shuttle crash, hostile plants, and that animal, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to test our luck any further” Croy reasoned.
“Stop being so cowardly! Let’s go before we lose that thing’s trail.”

***

Baby Pompom giggled and cooed as she grabbed a hold of Mandar’s fur. She gave his coat a good tug for having such tiny hands. Mandar tickled her tummy with his nose and her face lit up with joy.
“Looks like Mandar has a new best friend” Pax said. He was amazed that at one time, the same animal had tried to eat him. Now the wolf was best friends with his newborn daughter.
“Yes, he has taken a liking to Pompom,” replied Panda. “I was afraid that he would be jealous because I gave her his old bed. Actually, he and Feng used to share it.”
“Thank you so much for lending it to her” said Everly. “For everything. You both have been so kind to us.”
“It’s no trouble at all. We’re happy to do it. You’re already like family to us. Here have some more to eat. A new mother must regain her strength.” She put some more food on Everly’s plate.
“Dinner is delicious as usual,” said Pax.
Cal grunted approval and took another bite to eat.
“So, Mandar and Feng are siblings? I always thought they were mates,” asked Pax.
“Oh, no. We found them one winter shivering in the woods. Their mother was lying not too far away badly wounded. I tried my best to save her but it was too late. We took Mandar and Feng into our home. They’re our babies.”
Feng interrupted the conversation when she entered the cabin through the half open door. She went straight to Mandar, who was lying quietly beside Pompom, and dropped the knife in front of him. She tickled the baby’s feet with her nose and then laid down beside her.
Mandar picked up the knife and took it to Panda. She took the knife in her hands and examined it. Her face revealed that she worried even before she spoke.
“Could this belong to the High Guards you once spoke of?”
“Possibly,” said Everly with a matching look of worry on her face.
Pax got up and picked up his daughter who was half asleep. She laid there peacefully in her father’s arms.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
“Your first concern is for the safety of the little one, am I right?” Panda had an idea but she was unsure if the proud parents would trust her enough to take part.
Pax and Everly both shook their heads in agreement.
“There’s a secret room in the green house. Mandar and I will take Pompom there and simply hide while Cal and Feng escort you to your shuttle. It doesn’t matter where you go, just stay long enough for them to think, believe, you’re not here.”
“Why shouldn’t Pompom come with us?” Everly protested.
“And what if they’re waiting for you outside? Will your High Guards be kind enough to leave the child unharmed?” Everly and Pax looked at each other. She walked over to where Pax was standing and took the sleeping baby in her arms.
“We’ll come back for you my little purpurloon.” She kissed her gently on the forehead and placed her in the protective arms of Panda.
“Mandar” Panda said. The obedient wolf stood up and followed her.
Everly and Pax attempted to walk with her but Cal stood sternly in front of them. Panda stopped as she was just outside the door.
“I’m sorry but it’s much safer if you don’t know exactly where we are. Don’t worry, I’ll protect her as if she were my own.”
The parents watched as Panda, Mandar and their darling daughter disappeared into the depths of the green house. Everly dropped to her knees with anguish. She stared at the nothingness that was outside. Her eyes were blind to the beauty of the twilight that illuminated the sky.
“She’s safe, Everly” her husband said. He placed his hand softly on her shoulder. “We’ll get through this as well.” He helped her to her feet, looked in her eyes and she trusted him.
“Come, we must hurry” said Cal. He handed Pax a grim looking double-headed battleaxe that was slightly smaller than his own. It was a heavy weapon but Pax, being stronger than he looked, managed it quite well. Cal gave the smallest one he had to Everly but she was unable to lift it.
“This will only slow us down” she said. She scanned the room looking for a suitable weapon and spotted the butcher knife that was laying on the table. She ran into the kitchen and grabbed it. On her way out, she also took the feather knife for good measure.
“These are light.”
The party of four ventured into the night unsure of what was to come but ready to tackle whatever the unknown might throw before them.
***

Confused, the Morstargans stumbled around the forest looking for Feng’s trail but she left none.
“I’ve never seen anything like that!” exclaimed Kirkus.
“I know. If you hadn’t of seen it too, I wouldn’t bother telling anyone.” Croy looked up to the trees.
“It just disappeared right before our eyes.”
“I wonder what else this place has. I don’t like it here” said Croy.
“We’ll have to spend the night and look for a way out of here tomorrow. Did you find a tree where we can roost?”
“I like that one” said Croy pointing to a tall sturdy tree with thick branches.
“Oh yes. You have a good eye. That will support our weight.”
“After you” said Croy.
“You’re too kind,” Kirkus said sarcastically. He knew that Croy’s generosity was based on his fear of whatever might be hiding in the tree.
Kirkus flew up and landed on a cozy branch with leaves soft and wide enough to shelter them.
“It’s all clear. You can come up now,” he yelled down.
Croy landed on a branch opposite him. “Comfortable tree, but I still don’t like it here.”
“It’s not so bad. This is how the ancients used to live. Close to the sky, right next to the stars.”
Croy looked up at the sky. The moon showed itself and was surrounded by a multitude of glimmering stars that made him feel somehow insignificant. However, it was not the kind of insignificance that takes away one’s self worth. In contrary, it gave him pride that he belonged to a whole that was so beautiful and so captivating yet humble enough to give the smallest part of its puzzle piece a considerable amount of serenity.
“Croy. Croy” Kirkus dragged him out of his meditative state. “Look.”
Croy’s eyes followed Kirkus’ pointing hand. The animal was back, but this time it was with a giant and two Bebokians.
“Not a good idea,” Croy began to object.
Kirkus flew down with mystical speed leaving Croy in mid-sentence.
“You’re going to get us killed,” Croy finished his thought. He spread his wings and landed faithfully by Kirkus’ side. The giant, presumably an Earthian, would have been formidable enough without the battleaxe. He and the beast were standing protectively in front of the Bebokians.
Croy was terrified. He was a creature of logic and this fight was at the wrong end of reason. They were outnumbered, in unknown territory, with a flimsy cause. Whatever or whoever killed Husley was most likely provoked into doing so. He was a good comrade but his character lacked the merit needed to justify this kind of vengeance. And no, Husley would not have done the same for them.
Croy was torn between the fear he felt in his stomach and the loyalty that was in his heart. Had he been with any other Morstargan fear would have triumphed, but for Kirkus his loyalty was sharper than reason and more powerful than fear.
“Your High Guards don’t look at all threatening” Cal said to Everly.
“High Guards?” Kirkus yelled. He was quite offended.
“We are officials of the Morstargan Dominion” Croy was being diplomatic. “I am Croy and this is Kirkus.” He purposely left out the prefixes Prime Lord, from his name, and Vice Commander.
Croy answered Kirkus’ confused glance with a discreet shake of the head and continued his speech.
“We have no quarrel with you, friend.” The giant was obviously not the type to use such a small weapon. “We’ll just take the Bebokian holding our dead comrade’s feathers and be on our way.”
Everly at once recognized her mistake. “I am first advisor to her majesty Naja of the Bebokian Realm.” She stood safely behind Cal’s warrior-like body. “This weapon was found in the forest. We had nothing to do with the death of your friend. By all means, please take it along with our sincere condolences.”
Everly handed the knife to Cal who in turn offered it to the Morstargans.
Kirkus’ ears latched onto another opportunity even greater than avenging Husley’s demise. The first advisor to the Bebokian Empress would be very useful indeed.
Croy stepped forward to accept the knife but Kirkus held him back.
“We will not believe your lies!” said Kirkus. “We will be taking the Bebokian as well, giant!”
“Come and take her!” growled Cal. He raised the battleaxe and looked even more frightful as before.
Kirkus drew his gun but before he could pull the trigger a blade sank itself in his wrist. The pain forced him to drop his weapon. He removed the blade from his hand with a fearsome scream and in the process covered his hands with blood.
“Both knife and Bebokian belong to me, Morstargan!” Feather Blade yelled. She and Saber emerged from the trees.
“High Guards?” Cal asked Everly.
“Don’t insult me, Earthian” Blade snapped back. She looked at Everly. “Your Empress has offered me a high price to bring you back. You must have been very naughty, my dear.”
Croy attempted to draw his gun.
“My reflexes are faster than your gun, Morstargan. Care to race?” Blade felt a sharp pain in her shoulder.
“You bishtuck!” She screamed at Everly as she pulled her own knife from her arm.
Kirkus tackled her the moment that she lunged towards Everly, who was standing a bit in front of Cal.
Everly quickly took cover behind Cal and watched as a nasty battle ensued -- a battle where she was the main prize.
Blade fought gallantly but Kirkus overpowered her and pinned her to the ground. Saber ran to assist her but Croy confronted him with several poorly aimed shots from his gun.
“Go now,” Cal whispered to Everly and Pax. “Go while they’re distracted. I’ll stay here with Feng and keep them busy.”
“Thank you, my good friend” said Pax shaking the giant’s hand.
“Hurry” Cal urged.
Pax and Everly quietly escaped through the woods and ran as fast as they could towards their cloaked shuttle.
Cal stepped into action just as Saber’s sword was millimeters away from Croy’s throat. His mighty battleaxe blocked Saber’s weapon with a great clang, saving Croy’s life. Croy crawled out of the way as the two warriors fought fiercely. His heart was pounding from the near death experience. He sat on the ground and watched the scene with horror.
Feather-Blade now had Kirkus to her advantage. Having lost all her blades, she was pounding Kirkus’ face with her fist.
“I plucked your friend naked before I killed him!” she said to the Morstargan. Her fist came down and struck him again when Feng jumped on her. She bit, growled, and slashed Blade with her sharp claws.
Croy crawled over to Kirkus and treated his wounded face with a bit of zorpkusfly dust from a small pouch that he pulled from his pocket.
“Lay still. Your wounds will heal shortly.”
Kirkus was too weak to answer. He laid on the ground with his eyes half closed.
Croy heard a yelp from the animal that had saved them. She was bleeding from her leg and was struggling to stand.
Cal quickly ended his battled with Saber by cutting him deeply across his back. He fell but was still breathing. He ran quickly to Feng’s rescue. Feather Blade ran when she saw him coming her way, but he did not chase her. Feng needed him more. He looked to her wounds and saw that her leg was broken with the bone sticking out.
Blade collected Saber and disappeared in the woods.
Croy went to Feng. The giant growled at him and raised his axe.
“I’ve come to help.” Croy said with his arms extended, showing that he was unarmed. “She helped us when we were in need and now it’s our turn to help her.”
He handed Cal the small pouch and the giant cautiously accepted it. “Sprinkle a bit on her wound and it will heal her.”
Croy didn’t wait for the return of the pouch. He immediately returned to Kirkus’ side. His face was almost completely healed but he was still weak. Croy lifted him in his arms and flew away.
***

Pax and Everly ran through the moonlit forest. They were exhausted by the time they got to the clearing. To their surprise, stood a foreign shuttle a few feet away from their cloaked vessel.
“I know where the door is,” whispered Pax. “We can sneak in without uncloaking the ship.”
“We’ll have to” agreed Everly. “That’s probably the mercenaries’ ship.”
They snuck as quietly as they could to their aircraft. Pax was able to effortlessly locate and open the door. The couple felt such relief as they entered the space shuttle. Their joy was, however, short-lived.
When Pax turned to close the door, they saw Archer and his arrow pointing directly at them.
“Well, well, well. It seems that I’ve got the prize.”

7
Stranded

“I know you’re tired Saber but if we don’t hurry to our shuttle, I’m afraid you’re going to bleed to death.” Blade struggled to hold Saber up. “Just a little bit further. If those trees weren’t in the way and we had a bit more light, we could see the ship from here.”
Saber was weak, exhausted, and sleepy. “Just let me lie down for a while.”
“No, we need to close your wound as soon as possible. Come, you can do it. You’ve been through worst.”
Saber gathered all his strength and kept walking with Blade supporting a good portion of his weight on her shoulder.
***

“How did you get in here?” Everly asked Archer who was pointing his arrow at them.
“How did you know the ship was here?” Pax asked.
“Most people are usually begging for their lives right about now, not asking me questions.” Archer cracked an evil grin.
“I’m guessing Naja will pay more for us alive, so you won’t kill us” Everly answered.
“You guessed right, love. But I can hurt you something awful without killing you”.
“And why would you do that?” asked Pax.
“Just for the fun of it.”
Archer noticed that neither of them were afraid of him. He could see it in their eyes and read it in their composure. It was no fun without the element of fear and it annoyed him, but he was obligated to reciprocate their demeanor.
“The door was not locked” Archer said relaxing the hold on his weapon “and when I saw a bird perched on top of nothing, I knew something was here.”
“Archer! Archer! We need your help!” Blade yelled as they entered the clearing.
“Walk,” said Archer pointing Pax and Everly to the door at arrow point. When they stepped outside, they saw Saber collapsed in front of the gate of their vessel. He and Blade were both stained with blood.
“Help him inside,” Archer commanded Pax.
Saber was heavy. He was much larger than Pax but with Blade’s assistance, they both managed to get him inside.
The assassins’ aircraft looked small from the outside but was big and spacious on the inside. It was like a luxury ship with all the little conveniences of home. Pax laid Saber on his bed and looked around. He saw cannons that were standard for every space vessel but unlike his own, they appeared more intimidating.
Blade ran out of the room but returned very quickly with a medical kit.
“Oh no” she whispered.
“I’m going to have to stitch you up without anesthetic. We don’t have any more.”
“Fuke. We don’t have any disinfectant either,” she said under her breath.
She cleaned the area with plain water and prepared the needle and thread. Saber looked horrified and braced himself.
“Are you ready?” Blade asked.
Saber looked at the needle and paused before replying, “Just do it quickly.” He grabbed his pillow tight but did not make a sound as the needle pierced his flesh.
“You come with me,” Archer ordered Pax.
He walked with Archer to the door of a holding cell. He could see Everly through the bars. She was already waiting inside.
“I have to use the bathroom,” said Pax.
Archer rolled his eyes and put the door key back in his pocket, “This way.”
“No no, we’re still on land. I would much prefer to use a tree. I find aircraft bathrooms a little revolting. Don’t you?”
Archer thought about it for a second. It was a rather unusual request. To Pax’s surprise, he wasn’t denied. Archer changed directions and led him outside.
Archer took his bow off his shoulder and pointed it at Pax.
“Go. But if you run, I’ll shoot you in the back. I never miss. Then, I’ll have the pleasure of punishing your girlfriend. I’m well trained in the art of torture. Some say it’s a gift.”
“She’s my wife. I won’t run.” Pax answered calmly.
As he walked he ran his hands along the hull of the vessel.
“I like your shuttle” he said to Archer. He went a little further to water an unsuspecting tree with an invisible bull’s-eye on his back.
Archer lowered his bow when he saw Pax returning a few minutes later.
“You see, I didn’t run” Pax jeered.
“And I was so looking forward to a little target practice,” Archer answered back.
The two took the short walk back to the holding cell. Archer locked the door behind Pax and left. The prisoners were strategically kept within sight. The little room was located on the main deck where the vessel was piloted. It was also the crew’s favorite loitering area. Archer and Blade ignored their prisoner’s presence but Everly and Pax strained their ears to listen to every word that was exchanged.
***

Archer sat at the helm and lifted the vessel off the ground. Blade entered the room even more blood stained than when Pax last saw her.
Saber’s screamed. Blade and Archer ran to him. He was sweating and delirious with pain. Blade held his hand.
“Oh fuke! It looks like infection has already started to set in. He’s burning up.”
Archer went to get a cold towel when the shuttle abruptly came to a full halt, throwing him off his balance.
“What the hole!” he exclaimed and ran to the ships controls with Blade not far behind him.
“We’re out of fuel.” He was dumfounded. “We had sufficient fuel when we took off. How? What do we do now?” He looked at Blade hoping she had an answer.
“We wait,” was all she said.
“But Saber? He needs medicine.”
Blade looked at him but didn’t answer. There was nothing she could say, nothing she could do. They were stuck, stranded in vast outer space. She went back to Saber and held his hand.
***

The holding cell was cold, dimly lit, and all around uncomfortable. It was void of all things cheerful and the negative energy had a way of wrapping its victim tightly in a blanket of despair.
Pax and Everly sat closely next to each other on a hard stone bench. The gloominess of the room had difficulty penetrating the warm, positive vibrations that the couple projected. Their unfortunate situation created a no man’s land that prevented the birth of conversation, but they pondered and listened.
With nothing much to do but contemplate, their minds began to wonder. Everly thought of Pompom and the way her soft, little body felt in her arms. Through all their misfortunes, this one little thought was able to actualize an ever so faint smile upon her face. She was certain that Naja would not and could not be that great of an obstacle. She was her Empress and thus would receive all the respect which was entitled to her office, but nothing and no one was going to keep her away from her own child.
Boredom was curtailed by eavesdropping on Blades narration of events. They were delighted to discover that Cal had fought so fiercely to protect them. The quiet, gentle, ferocious giant had earned a special place in both their hearts – a place called friend.
They both listened with a kind of amusement to the tale of Husley. Even though it was entertaining, it gave them an approximate idea of how dangerous the storyteller really was. Everly found it very interesting that such an innocent looking woman could be capable of such atrocities. She compared Blade to a poisonous raindrop. You would never know that it was poison until you touched it.
The shrill of Saber’s scream gave them a jolt of fright. They saw Blade and Archer rush to him. They stood up and ran to the barred door but couldn’t see or hear what was happening inside Saber’s room. A few minutes later, they felt the aircraft as it came to sudden stop. Archer rushed back into sight with Blade following after him. Not wanting to draw attention to themselves, the couple returned to the cold bench.
“Why have we stopped?” Everly asked Pax. With all the commotion going on, it was impossible for them to hear everything. It was more of a rhetorical question. She never suspected that he might have an answer.
“I couldn’t stop them from taking us, so I figured that I would at least slow them down” he whispered. Everly’s eyes widened when he showed her the ships fuel plug that was safely hidden inside his shirt pocket

8
The Trade

Kirkus’ limp body felt weightless in Croy’s arms as they ascended through the moonlit sky. The aftermath of the recent battle had left him with newfound strength. He wished that he could fly home, but even Morstargan wings couldn’t conquer the atmosphere of outer space. His keen eyes scanned the surroundings through the evening dark for a safe place to rest.
Among the treetops would have been the optimal choice but Kirkus’ weak condition did not allow for such luxury. Even healthy Morstargans were occasionally known to fall out of trees, especially due to drunkenness. Croy’s eyes were sharp but the lush forest roof prevented him from seeing most of the forest floor. There was a noticeable bald spot in the woods but uncertainty led him to fly back to the place where they had crash-landed. Although the vines had proved formidable, his experience with the area would most certainly deter future altercations with the hostile plant life.
He descended very carefully to the bottom of the trees and made the best out of the situation. The ground was dry, the grass was soft, and there were no animals in sight. He laid Kirkus beside a tree with a massive trunk and there they rested for the night. Croy, however, slept with one eye open which put him in the most unpleasant mood the next morning.
“Croy, wake up. Wake up.” Kirkus was gently shaking him.
“Kirkus, unless there’s something eating you alive, let me sleep.” Croy covered his head with his wings.
“Come join me for breakfast. The rays on this planet are quite tolerable.” Kirkus was sitting in a beam of sunlight that broke through the forest roof. Several other beams were scattered in the area.
Croy slowly sat up, yawned and rubbed his eyes. He was happy to see that Kirkus was now completely healed and in good spirits. He stared at his face searching for scars but there were none.
“You look like crap, Kirkus!” said Croy.
“I feel great.” Kirkus answered back.
“That may be, but your face looks like hole.”
“Really?” Kirkus felt his face with his hands. “I don’t feel anything.
How bad is it?” He and vanity had always been close personal friends, so he was genuinely worried about having lost his good looks.
Croy sat in a nearby sunbeam and pretended to examine Kirkus’ imaginary scars with a long stare. “Well, you’ll always be the same Kirkus on the inside.”
“Oh no! It’s that bad?” Kirkus reached for his knife on his belt but it was not there. It must have been lost in the crash or in battle; he couldn’t remember which.
“Can I see your knife?” He asked Croy.
“Why?” Croy asked, knowing full well what he needed it for.
Kirkus became embarrassed by his vanity and blushed. “We’re going to need some kind of weapon if we’re to survive on this planet. First thing on the agenda is to find our crashed shuttle.”
“Yes, I thought about that while I was flying you here. The forest roof is dense. It’s almost impossible to see through it. We’ll have to walk through and search from the ground.”
“Hopefully our comms still work. We’ll contact the general, have someone pick us up, and then continue to Bebokia.”
“The invasion should be easy with Bebokia’s internal turmoil.”
“So it would seem.”
***

The search for the crashed shuttle wasn’t as annoying as they both had expected. They walked in the general direction of the crash hoping to find bits and pieces of the shuttle that would ultimately lead to its recovery. The thin beams of sunlight that broke through the treetops felt good on their faces. A summer-like breeze massaged their feathers with the gentle caress of invisible fingers moving whimsically about them. It was peaceful, relaxing, yet somehow a bit unsettling.
Perhaps their minds had created the idea that something was not quite right. They feared the unseen but could not deny themselves the little pleasures that Earth had to offer. The further they walked the more comfortable they became until they had completely lowered their guard.
They soon came upon a part of the woods where the trees were thinly scattered and the light of day was free to illuminate the area as it pleased. A twinkle caught Kirkus’s eye. It came from the far left of where he was standing. In between the sprinkling of trees something wanted his attention. He followed its calling and discovered its identity. It was a shiny piece of hull, presumably from their crashed shuttle.
He picked it up to examine it more closely: light weight, silver in color, blunt edges and black lettering that appeared to be part of an “M”. Kirkus, agonized with the thought of having a scarred face, tried using the shiny surface as a mirror but saw only a blurry reflection. He strained his eyes and touched his cheek but could hardly recognize the hazy figure, which was looking back at him, as himself.
After abandoning the attempt, he called to Croy. “I’ve found something!” Kirkus yelled.
Croy hurried over to him and looked at the broken hull. “We’re getting closer. The rest of the shuttle has to be nearby.”
“Maybe we’re able to see it from an aerial view?”
“It’s worth a try,” Croy shrugged his shoulders.
While he was still holding the debris, Kirkus shot straight up in the sky. Croy followed after him. They hovered in the clear sky and scanned the area with their exceptional Morstargan vision but could see no sign of a crashed vessel. They circled, using a wide perimeter, until Croy saw a metallic wing semi-hidden in a denser part of the forest.
“There!” Croy said, pointing out their destroyed shuttle to Kirkus.
“Oh, I see it.”
Judging from the position of the sun in the sky, Croy and Kirkus estimated that they had plenty of time before sunset. They were not in a hurry to get back to their campsite and took their time strolling about looking for water. Neither had any idea how to get back to Morstarga so they decided that the only thing to be done was to survive. Food, water, shelter and defense were top priority. Since the sun was plentiful, food was checked off the list. Water, shelter, and defense against anything formidable were still missing necessities for their survival.
Both were thinking thoughts of self-preservation but neither took it upon themselves to speak of it. They walked for several minutes until they came to a rather large bush with waxy cup-like leaves, each filled with water.
“Neither of us won at bolt, so who tries the water first?”
“You were always the bravest, Kirkus.”
Kirkus wished that he had rephrased the question. He wasn’t in the mood to be brave; not now, not after all they had been through but he couldn’t disappoint Croy. He kneeled close to the bush, looked at his murky reflection in the clear water, and carefully stuck his finger into one of the delicate leaf cups. The volume of the water sank just a minuscule amount before he retracted his finger and stood up. Croy waited anxiously for the verdict.
“Taste like… I don’t know what it tastes like but it’s not suitable for drinking. Hopefully, I didn’t drink enough to get sick.”
They both knew what that meant. Without water they couldn’t survive on the planet for very long. It was a death sentence but they were both brave and continued walking without mentioning that the likelihood of their survival was now reduced to the size of a pebble. Perhaps it was this knowledge that led them in the wrong direction. Pondering one’s own death has a way of commandeering the other senses.
They came to a part of the forest that had been cleared of trees. A small meadow-like, circular area with soft green grass laid before them. The sight of the clearing triggered their senses and had it not been for a strange blue light that was dangling in midair, attached to nothing, they would have simply corrected their course.
The thin rectangular light begged to them and their curiosity obliged its request for investigation. A closer look did indeed solve the mystery. The light was peeking out through a crack from a half closed door. The door led to the cockpit of a cloaked Bebokian shuttle.
Croy and Kirkus could not believe their luck. They both wanted to jump up and down like little children and squeal, “we’re saved, we’re saved” but instead retained their composure.
“Can you pilot it?” Croy asked in a by-the-way manner. His rank, Prime Lord, had trained him to hide anxiety and stress.
“Necessity is a fast teacher,” Kirkus answered. “We’ll be off the ground before the sun reaches the horizon.”
***

“Kirkus to General Platt, please come in. Kirkus to General Platt…”
“Platt here. Where have you been Commander? I’ve postponed the mission and we’ve been combing the galaxy for you.”
“Yes, we had a bit of technical difficulties. The mission shall remain stalled until further notice. Stand by for further instruction.”
“Standing by.”
“Transmission ended,” the console confirmed.
Kirkus and Croy relaxed as the small cloaked Bebokian shuttle soared to a preset course. They weren’t in any hurry to rendezvous with General Platt. It was nice not having to worry. Looking out the window at black space and many far away stars was the most peace that they had in days.
Time passed without anyone watching. Croy was in the middle of grooming his feathers when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something drifting in the dead black of space. On closer inspection, he realized that the floating object was a paralyzed shuttle in apparent need of help. The vessel was somewhat odd in that it was completely anonymous. There was no title or name written on its hull.
“Kirkus,” Croy called him to the window. “The shuttle over there seems to need help, doesn’t it?”
Kirkus took a long look before answering, “Yes, it looks that way.”
“Let’s contact it and offer assistance.”
“Why?”
“Because we didn’t die of thirst on planet Earth. Wild animals did not eat us. We weren’t strangled to death by hostile plants. We survived a ferocious battle with a giant Earthian and crazy assassins. It’s a way to thank our lucky stars.”
“The stars don’t need our thanks.”
“Kirkus, don’t make me pull rank. We will offer assistance to that ship!”
Kirkus was clearly annoyed but he uncloaked their vessel and waved at the unmarked ship. When the ship answered their wave his annoyance turned into a magenta of mixed emotions, for on the display was Blade in a most humble state.
“Crazy assassin,” Kirkus said under his breath.
She was just as shocked to see them but swallowed her pride and waited for one of them to address her.
Croy was quick to speak. The look of pleasure on Kirkus’ face cued him of the imminent nonsense that was about to erupt from his mouth.
“Enemies of Morstarga, we shall extend assistance to your incapacitated vessel in exchange for the return of our stolen possessions.”
“You’re most kind, but to what stolen property are you referring?” Blade seemed genuinely confused.
“The Bebokian prisoners aboard your vessel rightfully belong to us.”
Blade paused a little longer than normal before responding to Croys statement.
“Please allow me one hour to make my decision.”
“Of course.”
***

Off the screen, Blade was torn with indecision. Croy had successfully placed her in a dilemma involving money, friendship, and pride. Archer watched as she stared at the console. He could see her struggle but knew her well enough not to volunteer any advice. He left her to her deliberation and decided to visit Saber. Pax and Everly watched as he walked passed their prison cell.
The prisoners, of course, were aware of the situation but was untroubled by the intensity of the matter. If Croy’s demands were met, they would be transferred to a different prison but ultimately their fate remained the same. The end result would still be delivery into the hands of Naja. They waited and held each other close.
Saber’s condition declined. His fever was higher and he was now so week that he stopped fighting his delirium. He bowed to whatever hallucinations his fever conjured. Beads of sweat dripped from his nose and his head shook, ever so slightly, at regular intervals.
The extent of his misery compelled Archer to take his hand. As he was whispering a prayer for his friend, he saw Blade standing just outside the door. His failure in acknowledging her presence was not an act of unkindness but rather an act of understanding between old friends.
***

Blade waved at the Morstargan ship. Archer, Pax and Everly were burning with eagerness to hear her decision. Croy appeared on screen.
“Have you made a decision?”
Blade spoke and the words hurt her mouth as she said, “ We accept your terms.”
“How may we be of assistance?” Croy asked. Her answer did not in any way, shape or form surprise him.
“I require a complete medical kit including strong antibiotics and as much fuel as you can spare.”
“That puts me in a bit of trouble.” Croy paused thoughtfully before completing his thought. “You see, if I give you both fuel and medicine you will just destroy our vessel with your superior weapons, keep the prisoners and be on your jolly way.”
“If you weren’t going to help us then why did you offer assistance?” Blade was scalding mad.
“I intend to help you but not at the expense of my own vessel. I already knew of your friend’s serious injury because I witnessed his misfortune myself. Knowing this, it’s only natural of me to surmise that the extent of my helping hand is limited to providing only enough fuel for you to get to the nearest filling station. By doing so, I would be helping you quite sufficiently while discouraging you from attacking my vessel. You would not choose to waste the time and energy needed to destroy my ship. Instead, you would use your new resources wisely by hurrying to the nearest filling station and quickly getting your friend the necessary medicine.”
“Why didn’t you just lie and tell me that you don’t have a medical kit?” Blade rolled her eyes.
“Because, in this case it is unnecessary.” Croy showed her an evil little grin.
Blade was more than disappointed but Croy was right. She had to respect his talent for deduction but she hated being out played. If he had been gullible enough to offer her both fuel and medicine, she wouldn’t have thought twice before demolishing his vessel.
“Very well, you leave me with little choice. Prepare for the prisoners to be transferred.”
***

Pax and Everly were stuffed in a tiny, oval transfer pod that had very little heat and even less air. The transparent pod floated directly into the cargo bay of their new wardens. They were greeted humanely and placed in detention.
A full canister of fuel was then sent back, with the same transfer pod, to the assassins’ shuttle. As soon as the transfer was complete, Kirkus quickly piloted away without the usual end-of-transaction pleasantries.
Once they had reached a safe distance away from the assassins, Kirkus switched to autopilot. He walked over to where Croy was sitting and put his hand on his shoulder.
“Well done, Prime Lord.”
Croy appreciated the compliment. “We both did very well, Vice Commander.” They relished in their victory and shared a rare moment of mutual understanding.
***

The Bebokians felt good about being back on their own shuttle. The detention room was smaller but somewhat cozier than that on the assassins’ vessel. They were at a home advantage because they knew every inch of their ship. They also had the additional advantage of being in the presence of other beings with morals. Unlike the assassins, the Morstargans were not usually belligerent. They gave Pax and Everly more than adequate food, water, blankets, pillows and even a card game for entertainment.
“I wonder why they’re doing this?” Everly whispered to Pax over a relaxing game of cards.
“I guess we’ll find out soon enough”.
“You know, we could easily get out of here. We both have a master key for all the locks on this shuttle.” Everly couldn’t help but giggle at the thought of just walking out of their comfortable prison.
“Yes, they seem to have forgotten that we owned this vessel before they did. But, what would be the point of escaping now?”
“My thoughts exactly, Pax. Perhaps Naja will be so please about us delivering enemies of the Empire to her, that she will overlook our little vacation.”
“We’ll wait for the right moment. In the meantime, I win.” Pax proudly displayed his winning hand of cards.

9
Fulfillment

The right moment was soon upon them. The shuttle was approximately an hour away from Bebokia so Pax and Everly began putting their plan into action. They watched the two Morstargans through the bars of their cell.
“Croy sleeps and Kirkus is lost in his book. Which do we attack first?” Everly whispered.
“Kirkus. But, we must do it quietly. We have no weapons and we both lack combat training.”
“They have no weapons either” Everly observed.
“Ready?”
Everly looked nervous but shook her head in response to Pax’s question. “I think we can get him in this room without too much noise, just follow my lead.”
***

They watched the two Morstargans through the bars of their cell. Kirkus threw a piece of fruit in the overfull trashcan, which rolled off the top and landed on the floor. He tried to ignore it and continued reading his book but his eyes kept shifting to the lonely fapel core that was separated from the rest of the other garbage. Tormented by its presence, he finally got up, placed it securely in the trashcan and pulled the lever on the side of the metal container. It removed all the air from the plastic bag, sealed in the contents and released the rubbish in a neatly condensed package. After disposing of the garbage in the proper recycling bin, Kirkus replaced the plastic bag in the trashcan and went happily back to his reading.
Everly sat on her little cot, took the master key out of a hidden pocket of her shoe and then removed her shoes completely.
“Great idea”, whispered Pax. He also removed his shoes to reduce the noise of their movement.
She quietly opened the barred door with her key and, with shoes in her hand, slowly walked out of the room. Pax mimicked her every motion and was just a few steps behind her. They placed their shoes outside of the room and out of the way.
Everly took a deep breath, held it and continued to walk past Croy, who was still sleeping deeply. She concentrated so much on her mission that she blocked out everything that was potentially distracting, including Pax.
She was relieved once she had past Croy and now approached Kirkus, whose back was turned to her. He was sitting in his chair facing the window with his eyes focused in a book. Everly knew that she had to be quick but she made a slight detour to the trash-can, which was only a few feet from where Kirkus was sitting.
She picked it up and quickened her silent steps. When she was standing directly behind him, he saw her reflection in the window and reacted almost immediately but was two seconds too late. She had already put the trash bin over his head and pulled the lever. The plastic bag clung to his face as the air quickly seeped out. Everly removed the trashcan from his head and Kirkus was in a panic, struggling to breathe. He tried screaming to wake Croy but the lack of air had rendered him mute.
Pax took the opportunity to seize him but Kirkus resisted. He continued his attempt to yell Croy’s name but with no air and plastic clinging to his face, it was impossible. His voice wouldn’t work and his vision was blurred from the transparent bag, but he fought.
Everly tried helping Pax overpower him but Kirkus struggled that much harder. They dragged him by the arms so he used his feet to kick down his chair. As it fell, it made enough noise to startle Croy.
It took Croy a few seconds to realize that he had awakened from his dream world into the nightmare of reality. He lunged his lethargic body at the perpetrators with such speed that his feet hovered off the floor but Everly responded with a blitz reaction and threw herself in his path.
“Lock Kirkus in the cell!” She shouted to Pax while straining to pin the much larger Morstargan to the floor. Croy easily shook her off of him and tried to intercept Pax but Everly continued to charge him with her little body until Pax finally accomplished his task.
Once Kirkus was locked in the cell, still struggling to breathe, Pax hurried to aid Everly. Croy had no intention of being taken prisoner and fought fiercely. He knocked Everly down with a powerful blow to the head and pinned Pax to the floor with his hand around his neck.
“Your friend will suffocate and die if you don’t help him,” Pax gasped.
Croy looked over his shoulder and saw that Kirkus had almost turned purple from lack of oxygen. He was trying to pry off the plastic from his face but was too weak. Croy immediately released Pax from his grip and ran to the cell but it was locked.
“Give me the key!” He yelled to Pax.
“No! If you want your friend to live, you will have to accompany him in detention with the door locked behind you.” Croy looked at Kirkus again and he was so tired and broken that he had fallen to the floor.
“Agreed!” Croy was left with little choice.
Pax quickly opened the door and locked the bars behind Croy who wasted no time in tearing off the plastic from Kirkus’ face. Once Kirkus took a few deep breaths of air, his normal bird-like complexion returned but they suddenly found themselves in an unfortunate situation.
Pax helped Everly to her feet and nursed her minor head injury.
“You are certainly plucky for a little lady.”
“Does that surprise you?”
“Not at all, my dearest. Not at all.” He gently kissed her bruised head.
***
Upon her consultation with Blade, Naja was left so impressed that she had absolutely no doubt in her mind that the mission would succeed. She was well overdue for a briefing but, blinded by her need for Everly’s demise, failed to recognize all the signs of abandonment.
She tried contacting Blade but received, “These coordinates are no longer in service” from an emotionless, mechanical recording. Blade had given no other means by which to contact her while on location.
Perplexed by the message and the fact that the assassins were three days late with the delivery of her prisoners, Naja sat in her office and wondered what it all could mean. Never in her wildest dreams would she have guessed the events which were about to take place and it all started with a chime at her door.
“Enter,” She was quite ready to welcome anyone bringing some sort of news.
Soren nervously walked into her office and seemed at a loss for words to express what he needed to say. He stood in front of her and began to mumble.
“Uhm… My Empress…” Then he stopped speaking, looked at his feet and started fidgeting like a child who needed to use the bathroom.
“Go on,” Naja encouraged.
Soren forced himself to stand still and after re-establishing eye contact with the Empress, continued speaking. “A Bebokian shuttle is approaching and it appears to be Everly’s aircraft.” He was relieved once the words had left his mouth.
“Everly’s shuttle is approaching?”
“Yes, Empress.”
Naja was delighted. Blade must have captured Everly and taken her vessel. There was no other explanation. Soren was, however, shocked to see the smile that was beaming across her face.
“We’ll wait for her on the landing field. Please accompany me.”
Soren had no idea what was going on but could only speculate that his day was about to get interesting.
***

Pax and Everly’s vessel slowly approached its destination. The mood aboard was one of intolerable anxiety. Ironically, all parties were fearful of the same thing – Naja. Everly relieved some of her nervousness by planning a safe way to disembark the prisoners. Neither side had any weapons but the Morstargans had already proved their strength and prowess. She walked over to the cell and looked inside. Croy and Kirkus sat quietly and so motionless that they looked like statues.
“Are you okay?” She addressed Kirkus. “We meant you no bodily harm.”
Kirkus looked at her with a face of stone but did not answer.
“Are your thirsty?” Everly continued. “You’ve had nothing to drink for hours. We have good water and enough for us all. Please take it.”
Pax appeared with two bottles of water and offered them through the bars of the door.
“We don’t need your water!” Kirkus said furiously.
Croy, ignoring his cellmate, went to the door and accepted the water. Once Pax and Everly had left, he walked over to Kirkus and handed him a bottle.
“Don’t be stupid. We need water to stay strong.”
Kirkus hesitated before taking the bottle but he knew Croy was right. They sat down comfortably and absorbed the water with their finger. A few minutes later they felt an uncontrollable urge to sleep. Their eyes were heavy, their heads bobbed, and soon their will power was defeated.
As Pax and Everly entered the room, the screech of the iron bar door jerked them awake. Their hands were bound behind their backs and the view from the shuttle window indicated that they had landed in the middle of some sort of forest.
“We’re on Bebokia” Everly explained. “It’s time to disembark. I can’t speak for the Empress, but we will treat you humanely.” She and Pax helped the prisoners to their feet.
Neither Morstargan resisted. They busied themselves by rubbing the rope of their bound hands against their sharp, claw-like fingernails.
***

Two sworded guards stood on each side of the shuttle’s door while Naja and Soren waited patiently directly in front of it. She was so intoxicated with excitement that she could hardly stop herself from dancing. Soon her throne would be safe from the Prophet’s prediction and all her worries gone.
The door opened slowly. Everly and Kirkus were the first ones to emerge with Pax and Croy just behind them.
Naja’s heart nearly stopped. She felt sick to her stomach. Where was Blade? Where were Everly’s children? She thought about killing Everly right then and there with her concealed gun, but what good would that do? She was not the threat; her children were. Her soul was tortured with mental anguish so great that she felt it manifest as physical pain running through her body. She wanted to scream and release some of the misery but an Empress must always conduct herself with a certain savoir-faire.
Soon all the passengers gathered before her while she stood still bearing the pangs of her affliction.
Everly began to explain who the Morstargans were and as she spoke, Croy succeeded in freeing his hands. What happened next took place so quickly it left the witnesses stunned to the point of confusion. Naja, however, in her altered state of being, saw the occurrence through open and accurate eyes.
It was a whirlwind kind of assault that resulted from Croy’s desperation -- a predicament that Naja understood.
He ran like a firebolt back to the sworded guards and disarmed the guard on his right by removing his weapon and tossing it as far as he could straight into the sky. Using the split second that the soldiers took looking at the ascending weapon, he disarmed and murdered the guard on his left. With acrobatic skill, he flew into the air, retrieved the descending sword and abandoned the blade into the remaining guard’s body.
The spectators were too petrified to try and stop him for he was clearly a being that had succumbed to the allurement of complete and utter madness.
Turning his attention to another target, Croy flew over the small crowd with the bloodied sword in hand. He tackled Naja but as he pierced her flesh with the sharp blade, he felt an explosion inside his head that jolted his body backwards and ended his reign of terror.
Kirkus was severely distraught at the sight of Croy’s wounded head and lifeless body lying next to Naja. He ran to him, hands still bound behind his back, wailing heartbroken lamentations. Kneeling at his side, he wept bitterly.
“My dearest Crow”, Kirkus sobbed. “ How shall I live without my twin brother?” He turned to the crowd that now encircled Croy and Naja.
“You didn’t have to kill him!” He screamed vehemently, and was so overcome with grief that he laid his head on his brother’s chest.
Naja was badly wounded but she was still alive to hear that the Prophet’s prediction had indeed come true. Morstargan twins had attacked her. She was ashamed of herself for becoming an instrument of evil. Tears came to her eyes but not because of the great wound in her torso. She was remorseful of all her crimes but the sin against Everly was the most unforgiveable. How could she hunt her unborn children?
A deafening shrill was released from deep within her soul but it did not ease her pain. She welcomed death’s nothingness but before she left her body she turned to Everly, who was holding her hand, and bestowed the small gun that she had used to kill Croy.
“It is a pleasure and honor to have the next Bebokian Empress by my side. May this weapon always protect you.”

Having said her peace, she took her last breath and all her pain and worries were over.


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