B E B O K I A

Future Lies Past


A preoccupation with the future not only prevents us from seeing the present as it is but often prompts us to rearrange the past. ~ Eric Hoffer


The Prophet

In between worlds of magical creatures, fantastic aliens and acts of legendary heroism, lies Bebokia. The empress of this great empire barely left the Nest. Everything she needed was in an extravagantly camouflaged building with over a hundred rooms for just about every purpose imaginable. Hidden in the Dark Forest, it was heavily guarded and so thoroughly disguised that even the keenest eyes could not recognize its oversized door upon close range. There were stories of trees putting intruders to sleep, unknown forces that transported intruders out, and feelings of confusion upon entering the gloomy woods.

"You can cloak an entire planet?" Empress Naja asked Tayna, the team leader of the Bebokian Scientist and Engineers (S&E). They were having lunch in Naja's private suite.

Tayna began to explain the importance of being hidden from those pesky Earthians.

"The people of planet Earth have been looking for us for centuries and they are starting to get close. Their current technology will not allow them to discover us for now, but they have improved dramatically in the area of science and astronomy within the last 200 years. It is only a matter of time before they discover us. We must cloak our planet now."

"Let me discuss the matter with my advisors" said Naja fiddling with her lunch "In the meantime, how is our Prophet coming along?"

"The Prophet's testing phase will be completed by tomorrow. I will personally show you how it works."

"I will expect a full demonstration of the Prophet Monday morning in the main conference room in the presence of myself and my advisors. Afterwards, we can further discuss cloaking Bebokia."

Naja and Tayna finished their lunch and politely discussed subjects of lesser importance. The Empress began to complain about her first advisor's upcoming absence.

"Everly has taken a small leave of absence to get married and has chosen a man for her temporary replacement. I believe his name is Soren. I don't know why she has so much confidence in men; she knows Bebokian history. Men have proven clearly inferior but she's convinced otherwise".

When Naja realized that it was time for her to prepare for the wedding she stood up signaling to Tayna that it was time for her to leave. Tayna thanked the Empress for lunch and gave the customary low bow.

***

Naja began to plan her disguise for Everly's wedding. It had been quite some time since she left the Nest and she was looking forward to having a small adventure. She could not risk going as Empress because that would cause way too much commotion among her people. If they recognized her they would gather around making it difficult to move forward. She, of course, never left the Nest without at least two guards, but even they could not defeat so many people alone. It was much easier to go disguised. She looked through dozens of disguises ranging from old beggars, teenagers, young men and tourist before making her final decision. She would be an old blind woman for this event.

She slipped out of her customary attire, which was just a simple white pants suit. The trousers had delicate pleating going down the length of each leg and the buttons on her blazer were shaped like little doors. It was basic Bebokian knowledge that the golden door was the symbol of the royal crest. She stepped into a bath of specially scented oils and soaked for thirty minutes to cover her pheromones. Bebokians have an extremely keen sense of smell and are able to recognize each other by scent. Being completely disguised meant covering your personal fragrance.

After the bath, she put on an old tattered linen dress and then sat down in front of the masker. This was one of Tayna's special gadgets that made the art of deception a little easier. It was a mask of Naja's face connected to a console. The Empress put the mask over her face and pressed a button. She was immediately transformed into an old lady. Her face would hold its new look for 24 hours before changing back. When she was done she hurried to the mirror. 'So this is what time has to offer' she thought and stepped away from the mirror.

The blind citizens of Bebokia use a very advanced system of echolocation to see. They have special attachments for their ears and an instrument that produces high frequency sounds around their wrist. Through this system and special training they could see quite well. Naja adjusted the fake ear attachments to fit her ears and strapped the fake sound-emitting instrument around her wrist. She grabbed her cane and was on her way.

***

Two guards that were dressed like local men escorted their old mother, Naja, to the arena in the city square. This was where all public ceremonies took place. The center of the arena was square shaped with graduated steps on all sides allowing spectators to sit and watch. They sat on one of the lower steps and waited a short while for the wedding to begin.

The priest and the bride and groom walked to the center of the field to begin the ceremony. The priest, who was dressed in a dark purple robe, began by asking that the two hold hands. Everly's right hand was holding Pax's left hand and her left hand was holding his right hand. They made a figure eight with their arms by holding hands in this manner. She wore a magnificent pale pink drapey bridal grown while Pax wore a dark tailored suit bearing his full naked chest underneath a jacket. He and his Bebokian beauty looked especially breathtaking on their special day.

The priest covered them with a transparent cloth and then began his speech. "Today you will witness the joining of this man and this woman." He raised his hands over the couple and began the blessing. "May the One regard you with kindness and give you the ability to love, trust and be loyal to each other. If it is your true wish to be joined for infinity then intertwine your scents and souls with a kiss." Everly and Pax gave each other a timid kiss under the veil. The priest continued by turning to the spectators and unveiling the newlyweds. "Please welcome this new union." The spectators cheered and yelled wishes of congratulations to the new couple. Naja, forgetting that she was disguised as an old blind woman, got caught up in the moment. She raised her cane and yelled 'Amushtar Everly, Amushtar!' at the top of her lungs. The surprised neighboring spectators turned and looked at her wondering how such an old woman could scream so loud. One of the guards responded to the curious spectators with, "Mother's still got it."

Everly noticed the loud old woman who knew her name. She and Pax walked over to thank her. "Do you know me?" asked Everly almost sure that she had never met this woman before. "Yes, I know you," said Naja delighted that she had done such a good job with her disguise. Everly was confused for a second before she recognized Naja's voice. "You should have drank yellow tea to distort your voice," said Everly smiling.

"I thought about it, but that tea is too bitter for me."

"Thanks for coming. My mother is giving a party later will you attend?" "I'd love to Everly, but I really must be getting back." Naja wished them both Amushtar once again and she and her guards were on their way back to the Nest.

"Who was that old woman?" asked Pax when Naja had left.

"That was the Empress" Everly whispered in Pax's ear. Pax's facial expression had such a look of surprise and amazement that she couldn't help but giggle.

***

Naja was not looking forward to spending three weeks without her first advisor. Everly's temporary replacement seemed a little too eager to tell her just what she wanted to hear. She valued the truth even if it wasn't always pleasant. The morning meeting was about to begin. All twelve of her advisors arrived in neatly pressed uniforms. There were eight women in dark grey pants suits and four men wearing the traditional white, deep v-neck shirts and black pants. The depth of the v-neck shirt became deeper when the male advisors were eager to sway the Empress to their point of view.

The conference room was plain but comfortable. The walls were white with no windows and the floor was made of very fine black marble. In the center of the room was a large square table. This table was centuries old and once served the very first ruler of Bebokia. The Empress sat in the finest chair made of soft black leather and occupied a whole side of the table for herself. Her twelve advisors, four on each side, shared the other three sides of the table. The chairs of the advisors were made of wood and were just comfortable enough for one to stay in her seat and pay attention.

There was a large cube hovering over the center of the table because Tayna had prepared the room for her presentation an hour before. It was customary to stand and wait for everyone to arrive. When it was time, Naja sat down and then her advisors also sat. Tayna began her presentation by first bowing to the Empress and greeting everyone in the conference room.

"I see you've all noticed the cube hovering over the table. May I present to you, the Prophet. We have been working on this project since the end of Emperor Leem's reign by the request of our new leader Naja."

The advisors looked thoroughly interested and surprised that their Empress had not discussed this project with them. They all turned and looked at Naja in disbelief. She acknowledged their glances by nodding her head towards Tayna and they at once returned their full attention to the presenter. "The Prophet, like the name suggests, is a highly sophisticated piece of technology that helps with decision making by predicting the future and can also recount past actions. The Earthians would call it a crystal ball. The only difference is, the Prophet actually works."

The Empress and her advisors chuckled at the notion of Earth's crystal ball.

"The Prophet is voice activated and will react only to those present in this room. I still need voiceprints of all advisors but the Prophet already recognizes Naja's voice. Empress, you may begin testing by saying the activation phrase: Prophet of past, present and future tell me what I must know."

After Tayna had said this phrase the cube lit up and answered, "What is your question?"

Tayna gave a smile of embarrassment, "The prophet recognizes my voice as well. You may ask a question, Empress."

"Prophet, what did I have for breakfast this morning?" asked Naja, not putting much thought in the question. "Why do you ask a question that you already know the answer to?" replied the Prophet. Everyone in the room including Tayna gave a sigh of surprise at the Prophet's answer. "Impressive" said the Empress and she rephrased her question. "What did Tayna have for breakfast this morning?"

"Why do you ask questions that are irrelevant?" answered the Prophet.

At this point Tayna was becoming a little nervous. She did not want the Prophet to insult the Empress but had no control over its answers and, quite honestly, Naja was asking irrelevant questions.

"Wiseass" replied Naja. She was more than a little annoyed and looked to Tayna for an explanation.

"Perhaps you could ask something about Bebokia" said Tayna nervously.

The Empress took a second to deliberate then asked, "Are all my advisors trustworthy?"

"A question worth asking" replied the Prophet. "The loyalty of your advisors depends on you. The future will soon present you with a difficult choice. Your decision may lead some to disloyalty." Naja had a troubled look on her face and everyone in the room was uncomfortable with the prophet's words, especially the advisors. "What is the cause of this difficult choice?" asked the worried Empress. She calmed herself a little by hoping that the Prophet was not fully functional. After all, it did not prove itself by answering any of her irrelevant questions.

"A time will come when twins will end your rule and peace for Bebokia will end."

Naja became very uneasy at the Prophets words. Her heart began to beat faster and she felt a little sick. She kept thinking to herself, 'Show no sign of weakness. The Prophet is wrong.'

"Tayna, can you please do a diagnostic right here to test the Prophets functionality." Naja had to know if this Prophet had any chance at all of being right. There were no signs of emotion on her face.

Tayna wasn't prepared for such a dramatic presentation and now, after the answers that the Prophet gave, she wasn't so sure that everything was working as it should. She only knew, if the Prophet failed a simple diagnostic in front of the Empress someone on the S&E team was definitely going to get yelled at, maybe even fired for making her look bad.

"Prophet, diagnostic, Tayna, S&E, past, present, future, comply." After Tayna had said this sequence of words the Prophet's light slightly dimmed and the cube began to emit a faint humming sound.

"You may all ask anything you like and it will answer your questions truthfully," Tayna said while thinking, 'At least I hope so'.

The Empress was the first to speak. "Prophet, what was my disguise for Everly's wedding?"

"You were an old, blind, woman", said the Prophet emotionless.

Naja once again felt sick to her stomach. Her heart stopped for a second and she turned pale. 'Show no sign of weakness' she thought to herself, but this time there was no overcoming it. She sat there quietly through the rest of the meeting contemplating everything the Prophet had said.

Tayna correctly interpreted the look on Naja's face. She knew that the Prophet had given her the correct answer and was thrilled that the cube was fully functional. Now that she was in the clear, she thought that a wiseass Prophet was very oovestic. Her team members would be rewarded for a job well done.

Soren, Everly's temporary replacement, was profoundly amazed with the Prophet. He was very young and had yet to learn the truth about how the last Emperor was overthrown. As time past many different versions of the truth were printed. Soren boldly took this opportunity to ask a question.

"Prophet, what is the true story of the reign of Emperor Leem and how was he overthrown?" The Prophet did something different. He didn't just answer the question, cartoon-like drawings appeared on the cube's monitors as it told Emperor Leem's story.

Vengeful Leem

The beginning of Emperor Leem's reign was peaceful. He appeared to be a fair man with the potential for being a good ruler. It was not until years later that he began to lose his sanity. His disdain for his wife, Seeru, heavily affected his role as Emperor and the resulting increments of treachery ultimately led to his own demise.

Seeru was an extremely intelligent woman who chose to be an Emperor's wife and mother to his children. Her only mistake was that she was smarter than he. Leem was often wrong but she never corrected or embarrassed him in public, even though there were many opportunities for her to do so. She loved him dearly and was always tactful. She felt that it was her duty to privately point out his mistakes, but only because she wanted him to be regarded with respect and admiration.

Her proof of superiority continued. She won in just about every game that they played. She read faster, spoke better, and was better liked by the people. And if that wasn't enough, Seeru was an extremely beautiful woman. Leem noticed the way his male advisors would look at her with desire.

A few years and two daughters later, Leem's jealousy turned into resentment not only towards Seeru, but to all women. He began to make laws that kept woman from progressing. They were not allowed to study advance science and math in universities. Their wages were lowered and they got less pay for doing the same work as men. Women were no longer allowed in the Nest. Emperor Leem fired all of his female advisors and erased their memory to prevent them from finding their way back. When Seeru saw all the awful changes that Leem had made she confronted him.

"Why are you persecuting women with all these laws?" Seeru asked practically in tears.

They were alone in Leem's private study. All four walls were filled with books. A massive reading chandelier gave warm light to a large, velvet couch that was in the middle of the room and the smell of old parchment saturated the air. This was where Leem spent most of his time sulking and planning. No one else was allowed to enter his library, but Seeru secretly borrowed and returned books when he wasn't looking. She had read most of the books on the shelves and then one day came across a secret door. The fear of getting caught left her no time to figure out how the door opened. She wasn't really concerned, thinking the matter innocent. Perhaps it was a room where Leem hid his favorite candy from the children. As smart as she was, she would have never guessed what was behind that door.

"I am Emperor, I can make any law I want. Why are you standing in my private study?" Leem was angry. How dare she intrude in his private space?

"Leem, I'm sorry that I had to trespass but you're always hiding in here. There's no other way to talk to you. The women are very angry with all your new laws; surely you can see that. I'm angry over them as well. Have you gone completely shastoik?" Leem was burning with anger after hearing his wife's words. "You are speaking to the Emperor, watch your tongue!"

He was so angry that he considered using his secret door but no -- that must wait. Seeru was a few months pregnant and Leem thought that after having two girls, she would surely deliver a boy.

"Get out of my study!" said Leem pointing to the way out.

Months past, the women grew angrier and some started to sabotage the men's work out of pure frustration. There were news reports of women trying to burn down the science and math departments in universities. Good men were caught in the middle of the issue. They felt powerless and were too afraid to go against the Emperor's laws. It was total chaos. During all of this commotion, it was time for Seeru to give birth. Leem anxiously waited for the birth of his son. His heart nearly fell out of his chest when Seeru brought home their third daughter.

"You have been manipulating the gender of our children!" said Leem accusingly. At that moment his anger, jealously, and resentment turned into a big ball of hatred.

"Now I know," said Serru. "You have gone completely shastoik" having said that, she turned and calmly left the room. Leem burned with even more hatred and began to plot his revenge.

***

A few days later Leem found himself apologizing for having welcomed his third daughter in such a dreadful way. Seeru was suspicious but wanted to give him another chance. Leem suggested that they talk things over in a romantic setting without the children.

"Why don't we send the children to aunt Naja's for a while, just until we get things settled between us" Leem said quite sincerely.

"That's a wonderful idea," said Seeru. She was convinced that she could persuade her husband into changing his ways. "I'll make arrangements right away."

Everything was organized for what seem to be a romantic revival. Leem lured Seeru to his study. It was decorated with flowers and lights. Romantic music was softly playing in the background. They sat and talked for a while and Leem was very agreeing to everything that Seeru said. She wanted so much to believe him that she ignored all her suspicions.

After they were nice and comfortable with each other Leem said, "I'd like to show you something -- a secret room."

Seeru's eyes lit up. She had known for a long time that Leem had a secret room and was very excited that he now wanted to share it with her. She watched as he opened the door. He walked over to the bookshelf and knocked three times. It slid behind the other bookshelf and led to a dark room.

"Come take a look," said Leem. He led Seeru inside the chamber. It was bare and dark with a lonely chair sitting in the center of the room. There were no windows but a dim light hung from the ceiling.

"Have a seat," said Leem.

"Why?" asked Seeru nervously. She didn't know why she suddenly felt so nervous.

"I have a surprise for you" said Leem smiling. When Seeru sat in the chair it immediately bound her hands and feet to it.

"No, let me go!" screamed Seeru full of terror and rightfully so. She tried to wiggle herself free but her hands and feet were bound too tightly. The more she wiggled the more her hands and feet hurt.

"You were right", said Leem with a grim look on his face. "I have gone shastoik".

All of a sudden Seeru heard a high-pitched noise all around her. The first thirty seconds was bearable but in a very short amount of time the noise became a tool of torture. It was very penetrating and dug itself right into her head. It was maddening; she couldn't hear herself think. Her head began to throb and she started to feel uncomfortable in her own skin.

"Make it stop, make it stop" she screamed "I'll do whatever you want, please make it stop".

She really started to panic when she saw Leem walking toward the door.

"No, don't leave me in here with that noise. At least turn off the noise before you go. Wait, wait, Leem come back!"

"Don't worry Sweetie" Leem said to her in a soft voice. "You're smart enough to figure a way out".

He left and locked the door behind him. He could still hear Seeru screaming from his library, but that didn't worry him. She would get weak and weary very quickly. Soon, she would not have enough strength to scream. He picked a book from his shelf, sat down, and began to read.

Seeru Rescued

Later that week, Naja became worried when she didn't hear from her sister. She was not used to being with children and had to endure not only one but three of them. Like all children they asked a lot of questions, for most of which she didn't have answers.

"Auntie Naja, why can birds fly and we can't" asked the middle daughter, Lainy.

"Because they have wings and we don't," answered Naja.

"That's a stupid question," said Neila, the older daughter, and the two sisters began to argue.

Naja was relieved that the sisters were able to busy themselves by debating whether or not the question was stupid. She went to check on their baby sister, Sasson. 'Not again' thought Naja. 'How often can this baby poop'? She cleaned up Sasson and washed her hands thoroughly afterwards. "Baby poop, how growkish" she said to herself with a disgusted look on her face. Then she washed her hands one more time for good measure.

With the baby in her arms she tried to call Seeru. The big mirror in the living room was occupied. The two older sisters had stopped arguing and were enjoying their favorite program, so Naja had to use the smaller mirror in her bedroom to make her call. She stood in front of the mirror and said, "Naja calling Seeru" her reflection in the mirror blurred for a few seconds and then refocused. 'Still no answer' thought Naja. She felt from deep in her stomach that something was wrong.

When Leem started to make all those unfair laws against women, Seeru became very afraid and secretly sent her sister a map, a small flashlight, and strict instructions on how to find the Nest. When Naja first received the package, she thought that Seeru had overreacted but now she saw the danger sign. 'I have to find Seeru' she thought and felt a surge of courage run through her body. She went to the living room and found the other children playing a game.

"Neila, something's come up and I'm going to have to ask you to babysit your sisters for a while. You think you can do it or should I call grandmamma?"

"Totally oovestic!" replied Neila. "I can handle it; I'll call grandmamma if there's an emergency". She was feeling very proud to be the older sister in charge.

"Smart girl" Naja said to Neila. "Lainy, you can help your sister take care of Sasson" and she put the baby in Lainy's arms.

"Why do you have to leave in such a hurry?" asked Neila.

Naja was not prepared to answer that question. She didn't want to tell them the truth because that would only scare them. How would the truth sound anyway? Your father may have gone completely shastoik and might have done something terrible to your mother. No, she would spare them that nightmare for now and just say,

"It's a long story, and I'll explain everything when I get back". She gave them all a goodbye hug and was out the door.

***

Naja found herself standing outside of the Dark Forest re-reading Seeru's letter. She was so nervous that her hands were shaking. The letter seemed to have been written in a hurry. The handwriting was sloppy and a simple map was drawn on the back.

Dear Naja, I'm sending you these instructions, a map, and this flashlight out of fear for the children and myself. Leem has lost his sanity and I don't know what he will do next. He locks himself in his study for days at a time. If the day comes when you have to look for us follow these instructions: Enter the Dark Forest and walk for one hour on the stony path. Keep your hands in your pockets so you're not tempted to touch anything. The flashlight that I've included is special light. It will show you the door of the Nest. Hold it outward and point it into the forest. While holding it, turn slowly in a circle until you see the great door. The door only opens by voice recognition so you will have to wait until someone comes out before you can go in. Hide in the nearby thickleberry bush so no one sees you. When someone comes out of the door you will have twenty seconds to enter before it closes completely. Be as quiet as possible. Your Sister, Seeru

Naja turned the letter over and looked at the map of the Nest. Leem's room, his study, the children's rooms, and Seeru's room were all there. 'Where would I look for Seeru first' she thought. Her head was cloudy with fear so she closed her eyes and said a small prayer. She put her bag over her shoulder, her hands in her pockets and began her journey.

The Dark Forest was gloomy. The taller trees blocked most of the sunlight from entering the woods. After five minutes of walking through the forest Naja felt like someone or something was watching her. She kept looking back but saw only trees. She wondered if there was something there that she could not see. The sounds of the forest contributed to her paranoia: the rustle of the trees in the wind, the crack of a twig under her feet, and many other sounds that she did not recognize. 'Ignore them and they'll ignore you' she thought to herself. After ten more minutes of walking, there was a strong breeze that made the leaves on the trees rustle even louder. She thought she heard a faint giggling through the sound of the leaves so she stood still and listened. The breeze faded away and the trees became quiet. She was relieved when all she heard were sounds of harmless forest animals.

She continued walking and then froze. Someone or something was giggling and whoever or whatever it was, was now closer to her. The laughter sounded like that of a small child, but what would a child be doing playing in the middle of the Dark Forest? Naja wanted to run out of the woods with every atom in her body but she could not abandon her sister. She walked faster but the giggling followed her. It came closer and closer and then her fear became so great that she could no longer help but run forward. At some point her bag fell off her shoulder but she kept running for a minute before she could make her feet stop.

She could still hear the giggling in the distance but now she was forced to go toward it to retrieve her bag, which contained the map, the flashlight, and other provisions that she needed to complete her journey. 'Do it quickly' she said in a whisper to herself. She ran back the way she came as fast as she could until she saw her bag lying on the ground. She bent over to pick it up and at that moment she felt a presence behind her. Again, she froze. The giggling began and she knew that it was just a few steps behind her. She slowly stood up and turned to see what was stalking her.

A blanket of relief covered her as she found herself looking at a binaborx. These were rare and gentle creatures. They were much like Earth's deer but with a shiny black coat, two silver stripes running along its spine and purple eyes. The binaborx was so rare that most Bebokians never saw one. There was a legend that said petting it would bring many years of good luck, so Naja slowly walked toward it.

"I thought you were a myth," she whispered. The binaborx looked at her curiously and let her stroke its neck before running back into the forest.

Naja took a few minutes to calm down. She felt privileged to have touched a binaborx and wondered if it would really bring her many years of luck. She continued walking with the flashlight and pointed it toward the trees. Seeru's instructions had said to walk for an hour but with all the excitement concerning the binaborx, she had lost track of time. The flashlight gave her a save feeling. Having a weapon against the natural darkness of the forest made her less afraid.

She walked forward with confidence pointing the flashlight in front of her. She saw nothing unusual, just trees and the occasional forest animal. At some point she started wondering if she had gone too far. 'What if I missed the door' she thought and considered going back. With thoughts of doubt in her head she, by a strange impulse, pointed the flashlight up to the sky.

Her eyes widened with awe. "The Nest" she said to herself. There were rectangular structures at the top of the tallest trees. They branched out in every direction as far as she could see. It looked sort of like a maze but the structures seemed to be all connected. 'How do they stay up there' she thought.

She turned off the flashlight to see what would happen. Like magic, they all disappeared. She turned the flashlight back on to admire the wonderful architecture and walked around looking up until she felt a sharp pain in her leg.

"Ouch!" she yelled.

She was standing near a flingtus and it was throwing its needles at her, "Stupid little plant!" She hurried away from it before any more of its needles struck her and sat underneath a nearby tree to doctor her leg. The needle was sticking out through her pants.

"This is going to hurt," she said.

She took a deep breath, held it, and with one strong pull she yanked the needle out of her leg. The needle was thick and long. It left a small wound in her leg but she was prepared. She was glad that she had remembered to pack a first aid kit. She bandaged her leg and repacked her bag.

She decided to keep the needle as a souvenir but instead of putting it in her bag she cleverly wove it through the sleeve of her shirt. This way she would not accidentally hurt herself by grabbing it while searching for something in her bag.

She walked a few minutes more when she noticed the thickelberry bush. 'The door must be close by' the voice in her head said. She pointed the flashlight to the trees turning in every direction and then there it was -- a big golden door in the middle of the forest. It seemed to be connected to nothing.

She hid herself in the thickleberry bush, turned her flashlight off and waited for the door to open. After what seemed like hours of waiting, a guard came out of the door. He unsuspectingly walked right past the thickleberry bush. Naja turned the flashlight back on and pointed it to the door to see how far it was open. She waited a few more seconds to let the guard get out of viewing range, and then with a surge of bravery she dashed through the door.

***

She was finally inside the Nest and felt very small inside the towering building. The ceiling was a good ten feet above her head and the walls were varying shades of white. She quickly scanned her surroundings for a safe place to hide and plan her route.

A door with the men's bathroom symbol was nearby so she covered her hair with a hat from her bag and quickly stepped inside. She managed to go un-noticed past two guards, who were washing their hands, by subtly concealing her face and naturally walking into one of the stalls. Pulling out the map, she took a few minutes to memorize it.

In Seeru's letter she mentioned that Leem spent days in his study so that's the first place Naja decided to look. After going down four flights of stairs, through a long hallway, and making a left turn, Naja finally came to Leem's study. She reached for the doorknob and then hesitated. 'Don't think about it, just do it' she told herself before opening the door. She was not at all surprised to see Leem sitting on a couch reading. Leem, however, was not only surprised but also furious that she had just popped in out of nowhere.

"How did you find here? Who lead you here?" Leem's face turned orange with anger.

"Where's my sister?" replied Naja. She knew that Seeru had to be somewhere in the room because she could smell her scent mixed in with the smell of books. She glanced around the room but saw nothing suspicious.

"Women are no longer allowed in the Nest," answered Leem and he attacked Naja. She struggled and kicked but he was too strong. He intended to lock her in his secret room as well, so he dragged her to the door and knocked three times. As the door slid open Naja was horrified by her sister's condition. She was tied to a chair and her head hung down. The noise in the background was gut wrenching. Naja bit Leem as hard as she could on his hand.

"You fuke of a woman!" yelled Leem.

The pain that he felt in his hand forced him to let her go. She quickly grabbed the heaviest book that was in her reach and struck him in the face before he could recover from her bite. He fell to the floor. His head was bleeding and he looked unconscious.

"You fuke of an Emperor!" Naja screamed at the top of her lungs.

She ran into the room to free her sister. She tried to unbind her hands and feet but the metal cuffs wouldn't budge. 'There must be a lock, lever, or button somewhere' she thought. She franticly swept her hands across the back, the arms, and legs of the chair but there was nothing.

The noise was screaming inside her head but she had to make herself think. She was still trying to free Seeru from the chair when she saw Leem standing in the doorway. Blood was running down his face and the look in his eyes told her that she would have to fight for her life. Leem attempted to wipe the blood from his cheek with the back of his hand but it just smeared leaving him looking like a psychotic killer.

He took three careful steps into the room and the noise stopped. It didn't take Naja long to figure out that he had turned the noise off by stepping on a certain combination of tiles on the floor. Now that the noise was off she had no trouble at all thinking.

"I'm going to enjoy killing you both" Leem said with an eerie casual tone.

"Wait, at least free Seeru. She's the mother of your children, doesn't that count for something?"

"Those little brats are just like her," he snarled.

"OK... let her go and" Naja thought about what she could offer a psychopath "I won't struggle when you kill me".

"Now that is interesting".

He went over to the chair and walked around it by stepping in a pattern on certain tiles. Seeru's hands and feet were freed. As he picked her up, he whispered, "I'll kill you second" in her ear and carried her to the couch in his study. Naja followed him out of the room.

After he had laid Seeru on the couch he turned to Naja and said, "Does death by knife sound good to you"?

"That's fine," said Naja bravely. He went to his desk and pulled a knife out of the drawer.

"May I suggest that you tape my mouth shut to muffle my screams," said Naja in a most by the way manner.

"What a clever idea. I don't have any tape, will this old scarf do"? Leem responded as if he were talking to a dear old friend.

"That'll work," answered Naja almost happily.

Leem walked over to her and began to tie the scarf over her mouth. As he did so Naja quickly removed the flingtus needle from her shirtsleeve. Leem was so busy with the scarf that he didn't see her movements. Her strike was so quick that he had no time to react against her attack. She stabbed the flingtus needle deep into his temple, making sure that it went most of the way in, and as death took him he crumpled to the floor.

***

When the Prophet ended the story all the advisors and Tayna looked at Naja with more respect than ever. Naja, however, had not heard a word of the Prophet's history lesson. She was deep in thought about his prediction. The words echoed itself

Everly's Announcement

Everly pulled the sheet over her head to hide from the wake up spotlight. It was 7:30 in the morning and her first day back to work was waiting for her. When the ceiling light detected that she had covered her head it grew brighter. Pax was lying beside her undisturbed. The beam of light was so well streamed that it only affected the person it was to wake. She slowly got out of bed with her eyes half closed and zigzagged her way to the opposite wall where the off switch was cleverly placed. When she touched the switch it gave her a painless energy boost through her fingertips and within seconds she was refreshed. Everly did not want to wake Pax so she was extra quiet in her morning rituals. When she was all dressed and ready to leave for work she decided to quietly say good-bye to him. "Have a good day," she whispered in his ear and she gave him a soft kiss on the cheek. Pax opened his eyes.

"We have ten more minutes before the honeymoon is completely over." He grabbed her and playfully threw her on the bed.

"No, no, no" protested Everly. "I don't want to be late for work. They'll make fun of me and besides, I already took a shower."

She tried to escape but Pax gently pulled her back and started undressing her. She was busy re-buttoning her shirt when Pax started to massage her temples and whispering in her ear.

"Everly. Everly, relax and enjoy our journey."

Everly could never resist him whispering in her ear. He could have said anything to her and it wouldn't have mattered. His voice was so enticing, so seductive, that she quickly un-buttoned her shirt again.

"OK, OK, but let's try and be quick".

They caressed each other under the sheets and then like magic disappeared and the sheets sank to the bed. They had achieved euphoria and were in their own time and space where their bodies were merged and their souls danced together with pure bliss. When they had returned to their bed, Everly was an hour late. There was no time to take another shower so she sprayed her body with deodorant and hoped that no one would notice. She quickly put her clothes back on, ran her fingers through her hair, kissed Pax goodbye and ran out door.

Everly found Soren patiently waiting for her in their office. He was reviewing his notes when she walked in.

"Sorry, I'm late," said Everly with a hint of embarrassment. Soren could smell the abundance of artificial fragrance and he gave her a big smile.

"Good morning, Everly. Glad to have you back. How was your honeymoon?"

"Incredible! We went to this little resort in the south called Pleasure Garden and it was everything I dreamed of. I have never been pampered so much in my entire life. When we checked in we were assigned personal servants and given little skin patches that stuck on the back of our hands. These little patches could read our every wish even before we knew them ourselves. It would then relay this information to our personal servants. The clever thing about the patches is that we could take them off when we wanted to be left alone. "

"I'm so happy for you. I've heard about Pleasure Garden and I know they assigned personal servants but the patches must be a new idea. When did you get back to the Nest?"

"We got back two nights ago. Pax is slowly adjusting to living here. He finds it difficult to deal with all the politics and is somewhat intimidated by the royal presence."

"Don't worry, he'll be fine."

"So, how were things here while I was gone? Did anything exciting happen?"

"Where do I start?"

Soren paused for a second to think about where to begin. From the expression on his face Everly could tell that he had something spectacular to tell her.

"First of all, I have to say that Tayna is quite the mad scientist. Did Naja tell you about the Prophet?" "Prophet? Is that a person? Did Naja hire a fortune teller"?

"No, better. She had Tayna make one."

"OK, now I'm confused."

"I guess I'll have to show you. Follow me."

Soren walked Everly to the main conference room, the home of the Prophet.

"Everly meet the Prophet." Everly's eyes bulged a little with astonishment.

"The Prophet can tell you events of the past, present, and future. Do you want a demonstration?"

"I most certainly do," said Everly as she stared at the suspended cube.

"Prophet of past, present and future tell me what I must know."

By saying this Soren activated the cube and it lit up and asked, "What is your question?"

"Everly would like to see what happened at our last conference?"

"Very well" replied the Prophet and it showed a recording of the meeting on its screen.

When the recording was over Everly was left speechless. She walked around the big square table to get a better look at the cube.

"Naja never told me about this project" she said.

"Isn't that a little odd?" replied Soren. "I mean with you being her first advisor and all".

"I would think so, but then again she never told me about Emperor Leem either."

"Before I forget" said Soren changing the subject a little "Tayna needs your voice print."

"OK, I'll get in touch with her as soon as possible."

As they were leaving the conference room they met Naja in the hallway.

"Welcome back, Everly. I see your protovisor is working on giving you a full report of what you missed while you were gone."

"Yes, he's doing a great job. I was just introduced to the Prophet and... There are no words. He's... it's wonderful."

"I know what you mean; Tayna's working on a promotion." They all laughed awkwardly and Naja went on her way.

"Did you feel the tension too or was it just my imagination?" Everly asked Soren.

"There was definitely tension," said Soren a bit uneasy.

Everly went on and had a pretty normal day. Once in a while she found herself pondering about what the Prophet had showed her in the conference room. Why was Naja's vibe so different? She couldn't have taken the Prophet's prediction very seriously. The chances of a Bebokian having twins were the same as seeing a binaborx and what would be the odds of Naja experiencing both?

Everly was happy when the day ended. She was excited to go home to her new husband and exchange stories about each other's day. When she stepped inside their apartment the first thing she noticed was the wonderful smell of a home cooked meal. She was very touched that he would take the time to make dinner. She found him in the dining room setting the table.

"Are you hungry?" asked Pax. He walked over to her and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

"I am now", replied Everly. "How did you find time to make dinner? It smells delicious."

"The jewel shop was slow so I closed up early. I had all of three customers but one of them had the most stunning smarzicone ring that I had ever seen. She needed it resized. I thought it was a fake at first but when I examined the stone I was completely shocked to find out that it was real. A smarzicone that size usually has lots of inclusions but this one was flawless. I wanted to bring it home so you could see it but I was too afraid of losing it; it's so valuable. I locked it in the safe. So how was your day?"

"My day consisted of answering the same question, how was your honeymoon? I must have answered that question at least ten times."

Everly continued to tell him about the Prophet and all the new things that she learned her first day back to work. They had a cozy evening eating dinner and enjoying each other's company.

***

The week went by slowly but it was finally Friday. Everly realized that she had forgotten to talk to Tayna about her voiceprint. Talking to her was a little intimidating. She was so brilliant that she inadvertently made others feel a bit self-conscious about their own intelligence, which was why Everly delayed paying her a visit. When she opened Tayna's office door she found her staring at a long mathematical equation that was written on an old chalkboard. Everly found it very odd that she didn't just use the S&E scientific calculator that was sitting on her desk.

"Hello Tayna, I hope I'm not disturbing you. I was supposed to give you a voice print, right?"

"Oh yes, that won't take long. I've been so busy with this equation that I forgot about that. I need to solve this to fix a slight problem with the cloaking devise." She took a thin pen-like object out of her drawer and gave it to Everly. "Please introduce yourself into this device."

Everly spoke into the device and said, "Hello my name is Everly". She then took the device away from her mouth and asked, "Was that all I needed to do"?

"Yes that's fine," said Tayna. Her eyes were still glued to the equation on the chalkboard and she made no effort of making eye contact with Everly.

"Why don't you just use the calculator?" Everly finally asked.

"This equation is too complicated for a calculator. I've been trying to solve this thing for two days now, but the answer keeps eluding me." Tayna gave a sigh of frustration.

"What are you cloaking?" asked Everly.

"Bebokia, didn't Naja discuss that with you?"

"You're cloaking the whole planet? No, Naja didn't mention it but she's been a little preoccupied since I got back. I'll discuss it with her next week."

"I thought it would be a good idea to cloak the planet because it's our best defense from enemies."

Everly stared at the equation in thought. Her mind was thinking about the cloaking of an entire planet. 'I guess there are no limits to what we can do' she thought to herself. As her eyes gazed across the equation she found a mistake.

"I think I know why you can't solve that equation," Everly said casually.

Tayna was in total shock, the expression on her face gave her away. It took her a moment to overcome her state before she could force herself to show a fake smile.

"Oh really, where is it?" she said this in her most humble manner.

"There", said Everly while pointing to the error. "You just forgot to close a bracket."

"Oh wow, you're right. I can't believe I spent two days staring at this equation without seeing it."

Tayna was now even more frustrated that Everly had found the error without any effort. She would have been happier if she had found the mistake herself, even if that meant working on the equation for another two days.

"If you were having such difficulty, why didn't you ask your staff for help?" asked Everly.

"Good question" replied Tayna holding her hands over her eyes. Everly took that as a clue to make her exit.

"Well, I'll see you around," said Everly. She left Tayna's office never to be intimidated by her again.

***

It was finally weekend and the couple enjoyed sleeping late. They rolled out of bed at 10:00 am and puttered around the apartment until noon. It was Pax who finally suggested that they do something fun.

"I'm bored, what's there to do around here?"

"I was thinking the same thing. Let's see, we could go to the vitual arcade, drop by the theater and watch a show, or go to gym and work out."

"We can do all those things right here in the Nest?" Pax asked a bit surprised.

"Of course, the 4th floor is all recreational. The gym even has a swimming pool." "I think I'm just starting to get the feel for how big this place really is. Swimming sounds fun. Are you in the mood for that?"

"That actually does sound fun. I'll just need a few minutes to look for my pool sandals."

"Did you suggest working out because I've gained weight?" asked Pax in a causal manner.

"Yup," said Everly sarcastically "especially right here." She pinched him on the derrire and burst with laughter.

"OK, I see how it is" said Pax and a playful pinch fight ensued after he pinched her back. They were rolling around the floor laughing trying to out pinch the other when Pax said, "Seriously, am I getting fat?"

"You're pamooky" said Everly while giving him a big hug. "Your body is perfect. I was only making suggestions because you said you were bored. I love your body."

"That's all I needed to know," said Pax and the two got themselves ready for the pool.

***

The fourth floor was quite impressive. It bustled with a wide variety of activities and boasted top-notch entertainment. Pax could see people jogging through the window of the gym. The joggers were jogging in place in front of individual screens that displayed interactive moving scenery. The images moved as fast as the joggers ran. One person was jogging through a forest, the next jogger chose a beach setting, and another chose to chase a Zorpkusfly that was just inches out of her reach. This rare insect had a long body with a pair of wings on each side. It was relatively large in size and teased its hunter with healing dust produced from its wings. These elusive creatures could cure every known illness if you were fast and clever enough to catch one.

The virtual arcade was packed, there were even people waiting to get in from the outside. Pax and Everly lingered around to see the cause of the big attraction. Everly made her way through the crowd and pressed her nose on the window. Inside the arcade she saw a big sign that read, virtual halistag race begins in 20 minutes.

Five contestants were warming up their virtual halistags, a very strong Bebokian horse ranging in different shades of browns, blacks, and olives. They were sitting on stools wearing headgear and moving their halistags around with the pedals and buttons in front of them. The crowd was able to see what each halistag was doing on a big monitor on the wall.

From overhearing the conversations that were buzzing around, Everly surmised that high bets were causing the crowd's fervid reaction. A loud whistle blew and the race began. The crowd cheered and yelled the number of their favorite halistag.

On the monitor Everly could see that the halistags were lined up and waited for the bright orange light. The light went on and the halistags started running. During the first minute they kept up with each other until halistag number three bit halistag number one and increased his speed. Halistag number one caught up with him and push him off the track, which meant halistag number three was out of the race.

The rest of the halistags ran a fair race. It all came down to halistag number one and halistag number four. Number one led by a head until the very last minute when number four found extra speed and overtook his opponent. He won the race by half a nose across the finish line. The crowd went wild and Everly and Pax were pushed out of the way.

On their way to the pool they past by the theater and saw the stage crew setting the stage for a play called Neighborhood Watch. There was a couch, an old-fashioned lamp sitting on a plain table and windows draped with very ugly curtains.

"This play might be good", said Everly. "It's about a meddling old lady who witnesses a murder through her window. The criminals know that she saw the whole thing so they try to kill her, but she's not as weak and feeble as they think".

"Sounds really funny, we can see it if it's not a musical. I just can't like musicals. The whole idea of people suddenly breaking out in song and dance in the middle of a scene is a little pamooky to me". The tone of Pax's voice made Everly smile.

"I know what you mean, but the Neighborhood Watch isn't a musical. It's more like a play".

The couple walked until they finally reached their destination and went into separate changing rooms before meeting at the fitness end of the pool. Aside from a few children, at the fun end of the pool, who were splashing around and diving to get a better look at the fish that were tanked at the bottom, Everly and Pax were the only ones there.

"Nice legs" said Pax flirtatiously.

"How about a little race before we begin our laps? The loser makes dinner," Everly challenged.

Pax smiled at the thought of Everly winning. He was an excellent swimmer and even though Bebokian women generally had more brainpower they were still considered the physically weaker sex.

"That wouldn't be a fair race", responded Pax.

"Oh, are you afraid that these nice legs will win"?

"I want black crusted stew for dinner" answered Pax and joined Everly at the edge of the pool.

"We jump in on three, you can count" said Pax.

"One, two, three" they dived in and started swimming as fast as they could toward the finish line.

Half way across, Pax turned his head and noticed that Everly was right beside him. He was a little surprised that she kept up with him. He then gave all his energy toward winning and pushed himself through the water as fast as he could. He didn't bother looking where Everly was because she would never beat him. He swam so fast that his arms and legs ached. 'Just a little further' he thought as the pain in his body tempted to slow him down. Finally his hand touched the end of the pool. When he looked up, Everly was already there to greet him.

"I hope you can find all the ingredients for that black crusted stew," she teased. Pax couldn't believe his eyes.

"How did you get here before me"?

"I'm faster than you are".

"No way, you cheated" accused Pax.

"Really, why don't you ask that little boy over there?" She pointed to the separation where a little boy, about 10 years old, was floating.

"OK, I will," said Pax still not believing her. He swam to where the little boy was resting.

"Hi, did you by chance see our race"?

"You lost that race pretty badly," teased the little boy.

"She didn't cheat"? "How's she going to cheat at swimming"?

"She could have gotten out of the water and ran to the end of the pool". Pax hadn't thought of how she could have cheated but he had to give the little boy some kind of answer.

"At one point in the race she swam so fast that I hardly could see her," said the little boy with amazement.

"I was so hoping that she cheated," said Pax disappointedly.

"Think of it this way, you came in second". The little boy tried his best to make him feel better but he only managed to put salt in the wound.

"Thanks" Pax said half rolling his eyes.

"No problem" said the boy and he swam over to a small group of children.

By his hand gestures and the fact that they all turned and looked in his direction, Pax knew that he was talking about how badly he had lost the race. He swam back to Everly.

"You're amazing," he said to her.

Everly felt a little bit mean for winning the race and at that moment couldn't find any suitable words to say, so she said nothing and gave him a half smile.

***

After the couple finished their swimming exercises, they went back to their apartment completely exhausted. Pax got himself a cold drink and was struggling to open the bottle when Everly took the jar from him, opened it, and gave it back to him.

"You have to use your thumb to push the top up" she remarked as she handed it to him.

"That's exactly what I did," Pax said with a hint of irritation. "I don't think we have all the ingredients for your favorite meal tonight. Do you mind having something else?"

"I'm not really that hungry anyway, let's sit and relax," said Everly. They both sat on their comfortable couch and rested their aching muscles.

"Don't feel bad that I won the race. It's probably just a temporary thing. Maybe something I ate is giving me more than my share of energy. You know, last week I actually helped Tayna find a mistake in a math equation that she was stumped on. I don't even know how. I think she was embarrassed getting help from me though."

Pax listened with genuine interest. "Did you really help Tayna solve a math equation"?

"Yes, is that so odd"?

"Yes, considering that you're mathematically challenged and Tayna is a certified genius" Pax said in a funny voice.

Everly laughed, "Oh my goodness you're right". And right then they both knew why Everly's body and mind was enhanced. "I'm pregnant".

"You're pregnant". They said to each other at exactly the same time.

"Now I don't need to feel so bad that you beat me swimming," Pax said jokingly. He put his hand on Everly's tummy and said, "Can't wait until you're here".

"Really, do you mean that? You don't think it's too soon?"

"I mean every word".

Everly was overjoyed to hear those words. The two spent the evening cozily discussing their future. They were both thoroughly happy.

***

The next day Everly was glowing. She decided to tell Naja the news during their private meeting and made notes of all the things she wanted to say and how to say them.

"Everly, it's time for your meeting" Soren reminded her. She had been so caught up in her note making that she had completely lost track of time.

"Oh, thank you".

"Are you all right, you seem a little preoccupied"?

"Couldn't be better" answered Everly bubbling with happiness. She walked the short distance to Naja's quarters and rang the bell.

"Come in". The door opened and Naja was sitting at her desk.

"Good morning" Everly greeted. "How was your weekend"?

"We were bored at first, but then we decided to work out at the pool. I showed Pax around the Nest a little bit and we basically just hung out".

"You look rested", Naja said politely.

"I am, I feel great".

Now that the polite small talk was out of the way. Naja went straight to the agenda.

"I scheduled this meeting because Tayna has another brilliant idea and wants to cloak Bebokia. Do you have any objections or thoughts on the subject?"

"Tayna did mention that to me. I don't really see Earth as a threat, but there are other planets that do pose a threat to us. For example, planet Morstarga have a history of being hostile. For this reason I think cloaking is a good idea."

"I agree with you. I'll pass my official approval on to Tayna". Naja appeared to be somewhere else. She talked without looking at Everly directly and her eyes didn't seem to be focused on anything.

"Are you feeling well, you look a little green"?

"I'm fine; I just haven't been able to sleep for a while".

"Is it because the prophet said you were soon to be replaced by twins"?

"That does concern me a little" Naja said with a hint of sarcasm.

"Naja, you shouldn't worry. Bebokian twins are so rare it couldn't happen. How many twins do you know?

"Zero" replied Naja.

Everly found herself in the middle of a speech she herself doubted. She could only console Naja by lying to her. She saw what the Prophet could do and mistakes wasn't part his programming; Tayna made sure of that. Her eyes wondered around Naja's quarters and rested on the framed flingtus needle hanging proudly on the wall. She had seen it a thousand times before but now it held a new meaning. The fact that she kept it as a trophy was a little morbid, but it showed just what Naja was capable of doing. "You see, zero" she continued.

"I hope you're right".

"May I ask you a personal question" inquired Everly.

"Sure, but I'm not obligated to answer".

"The Prophet did manage to get the past right" Everly began "It told us the story of how you saved your sister. How did you explain to your nieces what happened to their father?"

"Seeru and I both agreed that it was better to tell them that she had become ill from a virus and that Leem contracted the same virus but was too week and died."

"I wouldn't have told them the truth either" Everly said agreeingly. She pondered everything that she had heard and seen and chose to withhold the fact that she was pregnant. Everly was unsure how Naja would react in her paranoid state of mind.

"Well, have we covered everything? Soren probably needs me to look over his shoulder".

"Have a good day," Naja said and Everly departed her office with a heavy heart.

***

A thousand things ran through Everly's head. Among them was a big "what if". Her pregnancy was not planned, what if the aforementioned twins was already growing inside her? And if so, would Naja welcome them with open arms? Her thoughts were far-fetched but she could not stop asking herself those questions.

Late that same night she secretly crawled out of bed, careful not to wake Pax. It was so late that the whole Nest was sleeping. There were always guards on duty, but she knew exactly where they stood and could easily avoid them. Most of them fell asleep during their watch. She snuck out of her quarters still wearing her nightdress and walked down a dark corridor.

She didn't carry a light or wear any shoes for fear of being heard and seen by the guards. She was about to make a right turn when she saw a guard standing in front of her destined door. She hid herself in a dark corner and took some time to think of a way out. 'I have to distract him' she thought and then did the only thing she could do.

She took off her nightdress and threw it further down the corridor from where she was standing. She was now completely naked and stood as close to the wall as she could so the guard would not see her. She coughed loudly to get the guard's attention and then waited a few seconds. The guard walked right passed her and went to examine the nightdress. Everly turned the corner without being noticed and hurried with silent steps to her destination.

"Prophet of past, present and future tell me what I must know..."

With her question satisfied, Everly had to sneak back to her quarters completely naked. The guard wasn't standing outside the door so she assumed that he was consulting with the others trying to figure out whose nightdress it was and if it was worth investigating.

Pax was still sleeping when she got back to her quarters. She was happy that she didn't have to explain where her clothes were and why she snuck out. Her mind was overloaded with information that she needed to sort out. She put on a fresh pair of nightclothes before going to bed and laid there for hours before she could finally fall asleep.

***

The next day arrived too quickly. Everly hid from the wake up spotlight as long as she could before she got up and staggered to the off switch. The wake up boost that she received from touching the switch was a welcome relief from her tiredness. Her planned conversation with Pax had to wait until the end of the day.

The day's gossip was all about the night dress the guard found in the corridor. Everyone had his or her own theory about who the owner was. Naja was the main suspect because of her recent unusual behavior. Tayna was runner up. She was a mad scientist, maybe an overload of intelligence caused her to go shastoik and run around naked.

Aside from the entertaining gossip, work was very unproductive. Time went by slowly and she felt eyes staring at her tummy. Paranoia forced her to go home 'sick', handing most of her responsibilities to Soren.

"I knew you weren't feeling well, go home and rest up. I can take care of things here". Soren was overjoyed for another opportunity to prove his worth.

"Oh thank you, Soren. If Naja asks where I am, could you please tell her I'm sorry but I had to leave early"?

"Don't worry about Naja, just go home before you get me sick".

"Thanks again, see you later".

***

Everly left the Dark Forest to talk to her husband. He was working in his jewel shop and was quite shocked to see his wife walk in. He looked at her and wondered why she was there but had to put all his questions on hold until he completed his transaction.

"What's the estimate of the repair," asked the well-to-do woman in front of him?

"Let's see... replacing the stone and polishing comes to about 75 Bomeks".

"That's really expensive, but everyone around here says you're the best gemologist around".

"Your ring is in good hands" Pax was flattered by the complement. "You may pick it up in two weeks" He said trying to hurry things along.

"See you then" She nodded her head ever so slightly to Pax and said hello to Everly on her way out.

"I will never understand why the cheapest people are rich," Pax complained to Everly. "Maybe they're rich because they're so cheap." Everly walked over to him and gave him a hello kiss. He knew that she was there to talk so he closed the shop by hanging a sing on the door that read: Will be back soon.

"We're having twins," Everly blurted out. There was a short moment of silence that lasted about two seconds but for her it seemed like hours.

"That's wonderful" Pax finally responded, "Did you see Doctor... I forget his name."

"No, I can't see him because he's Naja's doctor". Pax's smile disappeared. He was confused and felt that something was wrong.

"Then how do you know you're carrying twins and why can't you see Naja's doctor?"

"The Prophet told me," Everly said slowly fearing Pax's response.

"Great bowls of gravy" Pax said putting two and two together "That night dress belonged to you".

"It was the only way I could distract the guard," Everly said apologetically. She continued to explain the Prophets prediction, Naja's strange behavior, and why she could not be trusted. They spent hours in the shop talking and planning how to keep their children safe.

***

Everly scheduled a meeting later that week. When anyone asked what the agenda was she just said that she had an announcement to make. She avoided Naja as much as possible for fear of being forced to answer questions that she wasn't ready for. She still hadn't figured out exactly what to say or how to say it, but she had a few days left to prepare a speech. Soren was a big part of her plan but she was confident that he would be more than cooperative. After all, he was just about to be promoted.

The day of the meeting finally arrived. She stood before a large group of her colleagues awaiting her words. She took a few seconds to scan the audience. Naja had her usual blank stare. Tayna seemed somehow annoyed, probably because she had to step away from her experiments. Soren was attentive like the rest of the audience, ready to hear what had to be said. Everly began to speak.

"Good morning. I know that you're all busy so I'll be brief. It has come to my attention that Earth's space technology has advanced immensely in the past few years. We need to know exactly how far they have advanced so I will be working on Earth for the next year gathering information. Soren will be my replacement. Thank you all for coming."

Everyone, except Tayna, had the same look of shock on their face. Tayna's smile indicated that she was pleased with Everly's bold move. She welcomed new information about Earth, especially in matters of her cloaking device.

Naja stood up and said, "What a wonderful idea. Amushtar on your self promotion and good luck."

After everyone had left the room, Soren approached Everly. "Will I be in contact with you while you're on Earth?"

"Of course, I'll give you information about Earth that you can pass on to Naja and I'll also be expecting you to keep me up to date on Bebokian news. You will be my mediator."

"Thank you, Everly, and amushtar" while he was speaking he quickly glanced at her tummy then looked in her eyes and smiled. Without saying anything else, he left the room.

The Journey

Everly and Pax were quiet as they packed for their trip. With silent words they comforted each other's fears. A look, a smile, a touch said more than any verbal solace. Everly's thoughts rested on Soren. Did he really know her secret or was it just in her head? She saw what paranoia did to Naja, was that happening to her as well? After thinking about the subject for some time, she came to the conclusion that Soren's possible knowledge of her pregnancy was, for the moment, irrelevant. There were far more important matters ahead and for that reason she said nothing about it to Pax. Their journey to Earth would be a relaxing change from the Nest. The Earthians were as harmless as their technology weak. If she had thought for one second that her babies would be in danger she would have picked another destination. Earth was the safest place for them and since the Earthians and Bebokians looked so much alike, they would blend right in.

Pax didn't know what to think, he was just nervous. He had questions that he'd rather not know the answers to. Questions like: What are the Earthians like? Are they friendly? What did they eat? Would they be able to successfully blend in? The questions in his head went on until the doorbell broke the silence. Everly answered the door and was very surprised to see Tayna standing there holding a medium sized black box.

"Hi Tayna, please come in" Everly was curious what she wanted.

"Thank you" said Tayna as she walked into the apartment. "Hello, Pax". Pax reciprocated her greeting and waited for her to continue. Tayna looked around and noticed that they were packing.

"I hope I'm not disturbing you too much" she said excusing her unannounced visit. "I just wanted to personally give you this transport box. It allows you to transport samples from Earth directly to the Nest. I also made one for Soren since he's your mediator. I'm so excited about your decision to explore earth."

"Oh, how oovestic is that, well thank you", Everly was caught off guard and wasn't sure how to respond. "How does it work"?

"It's really simple. All you need to do is put something in, close the door, and press the button on top. The item will appear in Soren's box within minutes. It blinks when there's something in it."

"This is going to be plenty useful. I'm going to need some Earth currency. If I get a sample to you would you be able to duplicate it?"

"I was just about to bring that point up. That's something we're able to do. If you need anything else please have Soren contact me." She wished them both nevotar and left.

"Wow, that was really nice of her to do this for us", Everly said to Pax.

"I'm sad to say it, but I think she did it more for herself than for us" replied Pax.

Everly thought about it for a second and then nodded in agreement, "She must be working on her next promotion."

They both went back to packing in silence.

***

The space shuttle to Earth was relatively small. They had just enough room to move about. Luckily the estimated time of arrival was only about an eight-hour wait. The shuttle did most of the flying on its own, all Pax had to do was set the course. He would have to land the shuttle manually once they were on Earth but until then they had some time to kill. They talked, played card games, and slept. When they awoke they were excited and looked out the window, but still no sign of Earth.

"Are you sure you entered the right coordinates?" asked Everly accusingly.

"You can check it yourself," Pax snapped back.

"Don't yell at me".

"You yelled at me first".

"I didn't yell at you, I was just asking a simple question," Everly said in an exaggerated soft voice.

"You asked it with a tone" responded Pax with the same exaggerated soft voice. "OK, seems like we're both tired and cranky. Let's try to calm down and make the most of our remaining time. How much longer do we have to wait?"

Pax walked over to the control panel, sat in the pilot's chair and checked the course. "Time remaining: two hours".

"Want to spend that time talking?" asked Everly.

"Is there anything left that hasn't been said?"

"Good point. Do you know any good stories?"

"Have you ever heard the story about the Bebokian-Earth link?" asked Pax.

"No, but that look in your eyes tell me that my ears are in for a treat." With that said, Pax began to tell the tale.

***

Long before the reign of Emperor Leem there was chaos and mischief among the Bebokian race. Criminals made the life of the law-abiding citizens miserable. There was one prison on Bebokia and slowly a leader emerged from within the confinements. He had a reputation for being very clever. As soon as he had won the respect of the other prisoners, he began to plot the big escape.

"What does this have to do with any link to Earth?" Everly asked impatiently.

"Just hold your halistags, I'm getting there".

"OK, OK, I'm listening," said Everly and Pax continued.

The whole story began as York was closing his bookstore for the day. 'All day long and only two buying customers' York thought to himself. He followed his end of the day routine: organize and straighten books, vacuuming and dusting, balancing the daily accounts. Every evening it was the same routine, in exactly that order.

'It's been six months since I made any real money. I can't eat what I want, I can't live how I want, and it's time for a change. I have to do it, can't wait any longer, it must be done.' York's thought process rambled on this way the whole evening. He planned how to finally make ends meet and when he finally fell asleep had a smile of contentment on his face. He dreamt of power, money, and all the things needed for an indulgent life-style.

***

Emperor Tameer paid close attention as his chief S&E leader briefed him on Earth's most powerful natural disaster. They watched as three gigantic meteoroids wiped out Earth's population to almost extinction.

"Earth now has a population of 575, plus or minus 5 people," said the teary eyed messenger. "If I may be so bold to ask Emperor, why did we not help them?"

"We help them, they live then in turn destroy us. Survival of the fittest as the Earthians would say."

"What do we do now? We can still help the remaining 575. Their number is too few to hurt us."

"We'll have to wait and see. I need some time to think."

***

"Tell me why you're the best person for this position" said Curator Tak, adjusting her glasses. York paused before he answered her question.

"I adore books, always have. I especially value the ancient writings. I give you my word that I will protect the contents of this museum like they were my own." York was proud of his answer. Lying was his specialty but this time he answered quite truthfully.

Curator Tak assessed York in the short moment that she had. She judged his answers, his appearance, and body language. He was definitely telling her the truth. She sensed no negative energy from him, so she did something that she normally wouldn't have done.

"When can you start working?" she asked.

She saved herself some time from more interviews, paper work, and background checks. She could take an extra hour for lunch and get a well-needed massage. Hiring a guy with a peace bracelet, what could go wrong?

York smiled with satisfaction, "When do you need me?"

***

York took a guided tour of the museum on his first day at the job. There were so many interesting books but he especially liked the Ancient Earth section.

"How was the museum able to get these books from Earth?" he asked while noticing a rather odd title that read: The Queen Farts, by butler J.S. Thomas.

"We're not allowed to discuss how the museum acquires its artifacts. I've said that so often because that's what I'm told to say, but I honestly don't know. I asked the same question when I was hired."

York shook his head in acknowledgement. There were other ancient writings that seemed really interesting: Pharaoh's Pyramids by Moses, The Fourth Gift (a drawing of the holy Child given by one of the wise men), The Diary of Christopher Columbus, Maps of old Earth... The list of the books went on but those were the most interesting titles.

Every Bebokian learned a little of Earth's history in school, but these were omitted as if they never existed. 'Do the Earthians even know about these writings; were bits of their own history stolen?' York wondered to himself. These writings were very valuable and the religious drawing was especially priceless because Bebokian religion stems from that of Ancient Earth. His heart began to race with excitement.

***

It took York about six weeks to get a feel for how the museum worked to plan the heist. He had several options and chose the cleanest in his opinion. A high school tour was scheduled. The class teacher usually spent 97% of the time touring the great Bebokian books of History, Science and Literature. York carefully picked out his prey.

A young student separated himself from the others. He didn't talk to any of the other students and seemed very bored or uninterested with the class field trip. York watched him carefully. After a few minutes he saw him offering a female classmate his pen. His body language screamed infatuation. He purposely touched her hand as he handed her the pen and as their hands touched, for only a slight second, he was clearly in Utopia. The girl thought nothing of the situation. She appeared to say a polite thank you then turned her back to him.

York let the other security guards know that he was taking his lunch break. He went to the bathroom and changed out of his uniform into normal clothes. The young man was still standing by himself as he approached him.

"It's great to see young minds broadening horizons," York said as an icebreaker. The young man just smiled and shook his head.

"What school is this?" York persisted.

"We're Blue Coat Virtual Academy." "Is that the school that's always fighting with the Red Coats?"

"You mean they're always fighting with us. I showed them who was better a few weeks ago during a friendly debate."

"So, you're the class genius" York said.

"Well... I don't know about that."

"Don't be so modest, girls like a little arrogance. I bet they're all over you."

"Not exactly."

"Would you like them to want you?"

"Sure, who wouldn't?"

"Here's a little advice. To get the girls to notice you, you have to do something rebellious."

"Like what?"

"For example, you could do something to make the alarm go off in here. The whole class would be talking about it for months, and the girls will be fighting over you. Tell me, which one do you like?"

The young student glanced at the girl he loaned the pen to before saying, "That seems an extreme thing to do just be noticed."

"Nothing will happen to you, the alarm will go off and you will just explain to the security guard that it was an accident. No harm done."

"I don't know," said the young student nervously.

"Hey, it was just a suggestion. You're the genius." Having said that, York excused himself and waited.

The waiting time was shorter than he had anticipated. The alarm went off and all attention was drawn to the Blue Coat Virtual Academy. The hardest part of the heist was over. He quickly grabbed the books he wanted, packed them in a brief case and left the museum before the alarm was turned off.

***

"The books disappeared at the exact same time that you triggered the alarm," said Constable Pay to the young man.

"My name is Dorn, I go to Blue Coat Virtual Academy and I just wanted to read the next page of the book. I didn't know the alarm would go off."

"So you had an accomplice, it would be a lot easier if you just tell me the truth".

"I am telling you the truth".

Dorn knew exactly what happened. He was more than just a little embarrassed that he had been such an easy target. He didn't want to be connected at all with the robbery or have to admit that he was tricked into setting off the alarm so he held to his story.

"My name is Dorn, I go to Blue Coat Virtual Academy and I just wanted to read the next page of the book on display. I didn't know I would set off the alarm."

Constable Pay had no reason to take him into custody, but he wanted to make him a little nervous.

"I'll be watching you," he said to Dorn in a threatening tone.

Later during the investigation York's co-workers made it known that he had been missing since the time of the heist. You didn't have to be a genius to figure out what happened.

***

"The Constable caught York trying to sell those books through an underground action and threw him in jail" said Everly enjoying the story.

"That's exactly what happened," replied Pax.

"If York had succeeded, how much do you think he would have gotten?" Everly asked curiously.

"He probably would have been Bebokia's wealthiest person. He had quite a few one-of-a-kind writings. Collectors would have gone shastoik trying to out bid each other. The Fourth Gift alone would have been enough to make him filthy rich."

***

Pax continued the story. While he was in jail, it took all his cunning to gain the respect of the other prisoners.

"So, here we are. Your new home," said the warden as he delivered York to his cell.

"Be gentle to this one Ghee," he said to the inmate that was already there.

"You know me Ward, I don't cause no trouble."

"Tell that to the poor soul that shared this cell with you last."

"Oh come on now Ward, you got to believe me. He stabbed himself."

"In the back?" the warden asked unbelievingly.

"I've never seen anything like it either. His arms were so flexible you'd think they were made of rubber."

"Uh-huh" the warden rolled his eyes, "You two play nice" he said and left them alone.

"You got a name?" Ghee asked while eyeing York up and down.

"I'm York," he said with all his confidence. He knew that this was no place to appear weak so he returned Ghee's eyeful glances.

"So, why do you think your ex-cellmate stabbed himself in the back?" York asked Ghee curiously.

Ghee smirked at the bold question. "Maybe it was because he couldn't stand the smell of his own feet. They smelled like death."

"Then he did himself a favor. Death is a more permanent solution than washing stinky feet. The stink always comes back, you know." York said jokingly.

Ghee couldn't help but giggle at the thought. Then York started giggling because Ghee's giggle was so catching. Before they knew it, they were both rolling on the floor with full-blown belly laughs. When the two could finally control themselves, Ghee gave York a friendly slap on the shoulder.

"I haven't laughed like that in a good long while."

"Me either" replied York.

"Looks like I finally got myself a decent cellmate so there's a few things you should know. Three gang leaders are struggling for the control of the upstairs bathroom. At the moment it belongs to Krone, so don't go anywhere near that bathroom."

"Why is that bathroom such a prize?" asked York curiously.

"Because it's the only room with a window. It's barred but you can still see the outside world from it. The names of the other two are Wikker and Taban. Stay away from them, they are very dangerous."

"What do they look like so I know who to avoid?"

"That's easy. They're really big fellows with their names carved into their cheek."

"OK, stay away from big scary guys with self inflicted face tattoos. Sounds simple enough, but why did they all decide to get the same kind of tattoo if they're in competing gangs?

"Taban was the first to cut his name into his cheek. The other two thought he was showing off to prove that he could tolerate more pain than they could. So, of course, Krone and Wikker did the same thing. They're like cavemen. It wasn't until a lot later that Krone and Wikker figured out that they were idiots. They were having a fight over who was the strongest when Taban said, "I'm the strongest, why else would you two copy my face tattoo? It's because you want to be just like me." There was a horrible fight that day.

"I hoped that you were exaggerating when you used the word cavemen to describe them, but after hearing that story..." York struggled to finish his sentence.

"I know exactly what you mean" Ghee nodded.

***

The jail cafeteria was packed. There was a lot of pushing and shoving in the long lines. When it was finally York's turn in front of the server he stretched out his tray to receive the only thing that was on the menu. It was hard to identify the food but it appeared to be some kind of bread with something that could pass for a very growkish soup.

"What is that?" York asked the server.

"It's food. Keep moving you're holding up the line", the server said rudely.

"Looks delicious" York said with sarcasm.

He stepped out of line and looked for a table. He scanned the room and caught a glimpse of the three cavemen. 'Ghee didn't exaggerate one bit' he thought to himself. Since he was new and had limited friends, he decided to sit with Ghee.

Ten inmates sat at one table. They all were gibber jabbering until York sat down. Because he was new, they all stared him down. Finally Ghee broke the silence.

"This is York, my new cellmate."

"So what are you in for," asked a rather thin, tall, lanky looking fellow.

"And who might you be?" replied York.

"They call me Tode".

'The name certainly fits' thought York. He almost said it aloud but bit his tongue at just the right moment. Instead what came out of his mouth was, "Well, Tode, I robbed a museum."

"What did you take?" Tode asked.

"Rare ancient Earth writings" said York proudly. "I would have made a fortune too if I hadn't got caught."

"Books? You're a book thief?" Tode said while laughing. At that moment York wished he hadn't said anything at all. He was embarrassed but forced himself not to show any emotion.

"What kind of a nissyput steals books?" Tode laughed and all the other inmates laughed with him.

York was smooth and did the only thing he could do to solve the situation; he pretended to laugh with them. It took all his will power to hold back from telling Tode exactly what was going to happen to him later.

"Yeah, book thief. I guess that does sound a little funny but, you know, anything to make a Bamek."

"You got that right" one of the other inmates said and it was the end of York's embarrassing moment. The gibber jabbering went on and things seemed normal.

***

Later that week York had almost forgotten the embarrassing incident that Tode had caused by calling him a nissyput at the lunch table. He was starting to get a feel for how things ran in the jail. He watched the other inmates and learned the jail's culture.

Everything and everyone revolved around the three cavemen. 'Now isn't that just pamooky' York thought to himself. 'If it takes three cavemen to rule this place then one of me can do the job much better.' He laid in his bed and stared at the ceiling in deep thought.

Ghee had laundry duty so he had the cell to himself for a while. His thoughts put him in a kind of trans, so it took his ears a few seconds to hear that he had a visitor.

"Hey are you alive?" asked Tode in a loud voice.

"Oh, I didn't hear you" York finally answered.

"I've been here for two minutes talking to you. Are you hard of hearing?" Tode said in his most irritating voice.

"Listening to your voice can make the ears go deaf" York replied back. "What do you want?"

Tode stepped into the cell. "I was looking for Ghee but I see he's not here."

"I don't remember inviting you into this cell" York said almost threateningly.

"Hey, there's no reason we can't be civil to each other."

"If we were civil we wouldn't be in here, now would we?"

"So, you're right. Can I at least borrow that deck of cards that I saw you playing with?"

"If that will make you get out of my cell then fine, but I want them back by tomorrow afternoon."

"No problem" answered Tode.

York turned his back to Tode to get the playing cards from under his bed. 'I've never met such an irritating personality' thought York. When the transaction was over, York took out his diary and would have started writing but realized that his pen was missing. He remained calm all the while thinking, 'That shastoik, frog face, fuke is going to wish that he was dead.'

***

The next afternoon Tode returned the cards as promised.

"So, did you win?" asked York in a by-the-way manner.

"I always win," boasted Tode. "That's probably because you always cheat," said York.

"Don't we all? Thanks for the loan." As Tode was leaving, York could see the top of his pen sticking out of Tode's pants pocket.

'A silent challenge' York immediately thought. 'Why else would he let me see that he stole my pen? Too bad for him that he chose me.' York went about his business as if nothing was wrong. An elaborate plan was brewing inside his head.

***

Out of pure curiosity York walked past the coveted third floor bathroom. From the outside it looked just like all the other bathrooms, but he could understand the need to control it. His urge to look out the window and see that there was still a free world was overwhelming, but he couldn't risk it. He had to wait just a little while longer.

In a few minutes he would be practicing his pick pocketing skills. He used to pickpocket every now and then when he was a free Bebokian but it never produced any substantial profit. No one seemed to carry anything of great value with them. Now it was different. In prison anything that you owned was valuable. The items that he was about to steal had great value, but not in the sense of a Bamek.

The cavemen were usually on their ruling floor: Krone the third, Wikker the second, and Taban the first. Since York was already on the third floor it only made sense to start there.

After seeing the famous bathroom, at least from the outside, York strolled around the third floor. As he was walking he wondered what could be seen from the bathroom window. The prison was very confined. The inmates were never allowed outside.

Vents were placed strategically throughout the building so they wouldn't suffocate, but everyone knew not to touch them. All vents were guarded with death herself. If touched, poison would seep into your body and death would greet you a few minutes later.

Funny, so much work was put into designing the building, into keeping everyone inside, but there were only a handful of guards outside. A handful of guards outside and a few booby-traps inside kept an army of prisoners from escape. 'Now there's a major flaw in design' thought York.

His long stroll finally led him to his destination. Krone was resting in his cell. He was alone, lying in his bed, and staring at the ceiling. 'What could he possibly be thinking with that big empty head of his' York thought. "Well, here goes my last Bamek," he said to himself as he approached Krone.

"Is this yours?" York asked standing just outside Krone's cell.

"Is what mine?" Krone asked with a husky voice. He got up and stood next to York.

The size difference between both Bebokians was huge. York looked like a young child standing next to Krone.

"I found this Bamek and thought that if it wasn't yours then I could keep it" York said with a quivering voice. He was very frightened.

"Yeah, it's mine. In fact, anything that you find around here is mine" Krone said.

As York handed him the Bamek he purposely let it fall to the floor. "I'm so sorry... really sorry" York babbled.

As they both bent over to pick up the Bamek, he purposely bumped his head with Krone's. This was the exact moment that York slipped Krone's bracelet off his hand and into his own pocket.

"I'm so sorry, I'm so clumsy," York said apologetically. Krone picked up the Bamek. "You're a nervous little fellow aren't you? Remember, anything else you find around here belongs to me." He turned and went back to his cell.

***

Stealing Krone's bracelet was quite an adrenaline rush for York. He said a little prayer, "Please don't let him notice that his bracelet is missing just yet." He collected himself and went on.

York spotted Wikker in the jail's activity room playing magnetic darts and watched as he hit the top outer pyramid. 'Lucky throw' thought York until Wikker lined the darts up in a straight line hitting the second top inner pyramid and the third top inner pyramid in a row. 'This fellow could do magic with a ray gun' York thought as he waited for his opportunity.

There were many inmates standing around. Some were just watching while others waited for their turn. York waited until the end of the game to make his move. It was no surprise that Wikker won the game. If he hadn't played so well, one might of assumed that the other players let him win because of his status.

As everyone patted him on the shoulder saying amushtar and well done, York walked past the winner and picked something out of his back pocket. No one noticed him at all. When he was safely out of the room he looked at his prize. It was a picture of a handsome young Bebokian man.

York was a little confused. If this was Wikker's son, there was no resemblance at all. Maybe it was his adopted son or could it be his lover? Now who would have thought that such a masculine, ugly fellow could ever be attracted to the same sex and what would a handsome young man want with Wikker? Could also be his nephew, thought York as he hid the picture back in his pocket.

***

York looked everywhere for Taban and was about to give up when he decided to check the jail's shabby little library. There was Taban reading a book. 'Who knew he could read' thought York. He walked around the library, randomly picked out a book, held it up as if he were reading and walked right into Taban's chair.

"Are you shastoik!" Taban yelled and stood up so suddenly that his chair fell over.

"I'm so sorry, I didn't see you because I was walking and reading at the same time," York explained.

"Well watch where you're going next time. If you do it again I'm going to make you eat that book." Taban turned and picked up his chair. As he was bent over, York quickly removed something from his pants pocket.

"I'm so sorry. It won't happen again," said York and he hurried away before Taban could change his mind about making him eat his book.

The contents of Taban's pocket were funny considering that he was bald. 'Why would a bald man carry a comb?' York was perplexed. It was even engraved with Taban's name. York figured that the comb might have been given to Taban as a gift when he had hair. The fact that he still carried it meant that someone of importance gave it to him.

***

York was relieved that the pick pocketing was over with. Only one more visit before he could rest. He found Tode in his cell.

"I want my cards back," York said.

"I already gave you your cards back. Don't you remember?" Tode said a little confused.

"You did no such thing. Now, I want my cards back" York persisted.

"How old are you? You're losing your mind. I already gave you back your stupid cards a few days ago. You really don't remember?" Tode was in disbelief.

"If that's true then you won't mind if I take a look around your cell." York was very convincing.

"OK, but you won't find anything. You should look around your cell because I know I gave them back to you. I don't have time for this. You can look around all you want, I'm going to lunch. Don't steal anything either." Tode left York alone in his cell. He was sure that he was a harmless little nissyput.

York was very surprised that Tode trusted him alone in his cell. 'He must not have anything valuable here' thought York. He hid the items that he stole from the cavemen under Tode's mattress. Now all he had to do was wait.

***

A whole day passed but nothing happened. York was beginning to wonder if all his pick pocketing was for nothing. 'Could it be that they were too stupid to figure out that they had been robbed. Maybe they believed that they had lost or misplaced their precious things.' York's thoughts were full of doubt. 'I didn't factor in their stupidity in my plan. Maybe it'll just take them longer to piece things together.' It was that very thought that got York through the next day but once again nothing happened. 'OK, maybe they need a little help.'

The following day York went about his business as normal, at least until it was time for lunch. He sat at Ghee's table as usual and scanned the cafeteria until he spotted all three cavemen. It was important that they witnessed what he was about to do.

York stood up on the table. "To all my fellow inmates, there is a petty thief among us. Someone stole my pen." York said looking Tode in his eyes. "Has anyone else been missing anything?" To York's astonishment most of the inmates confirmed that they were also robbed.

"Well, I know who has your missing things."

"Who is he?" an unknown voice asked.

"Tode!" York said pointing directly at him.

"You're a fuke of a liar!" screamed Tode. York jumped off the table, grabbed Tode and searched his pockets. He pulled out his stolen pen and held it up for everyone to see. "Then why do you have my pen in your pocket" said York.

"That's not your pen," protested Tode.

"Ghee, you've seen me write in my diary. Is this my pen?" York handed Ghee the pen to have a closer look.

"This is York's pen" Ghee answered. There was a look of terror on Tode's face and a hush fell across the room.

"He stole my bracelet" Krone yelled.

"My picture is missing" Wikker shouted.

"So is my comb" Taban added. All three cavemen stood up and walked to Tode's table.

"I wouldn't dare steal from you three," reasoned Tode.

"Then you wouldn't mind if they search your cell" York said.

"Good idea" said Krone.

The three cavemen dragged Tode to his cell followed by many curious inmates. They searched his cell and found their missing belongings under Tode's mattress.

"No, I didn't steal those. Someone else put them there. It was York! York framed me! " Tode was so scared that he was crying.

"What do we do with him?" Taban asked.

***

"Let me guess, let me guess" Everly said interrupting Pax from telling the story. "They killed poor Tode."

"Yeah, but guess how?" Pax asked.

"They probably beat the poor thing to death," Everly said.

"No, but good guess. York suggested that they feed him to the vents. The cavemen loved the idea so that's what they did. From that day on there were three cavemen and one brain. That was a bonding experience for them and the cavemen forgot about their differences and began working together with York as their leader."

"I'm enjoying the story, but what does this all have to do with Earth?" Everly asked. "I was just getting to that" Pax said and continued the story.

***

York convinced the cavemen to share the third floor bathroom and use it as a leader's den. To make it more comfortable, they added a desk and a few chairs that were stolen from the library. Once a week Krone would threaten a random inmate to clean it, in turn he would avoid a good beating.

York gave them some time to adjust to the new lifestyle before working his charm. He let them believe that they were in charge. He always gave them the right of way and thanked them for including him in their group. They had a meeting once a week, during which they discussed current events of jail life or whatever they had on their minds. Six weeks past before York felt that he had their complete trust.

"How many guards do you think are outside?" York asked the group. He was standing on a chair looking out the window.

"How many do you see?" Taban asked.

"Well, I see three. But how many are there that I can't see?" York answered. "I look out that window all the time. There are six guards that rotate their positions once a week," Krone added.

"Are you sure? Only six?" York inquired.

"Positive" Krone answered. "There are six guards outside and six wardens inside, two on each floor. The wardens are harmless though."

"Fellows, I have and idea." York said to the cavemen and he had their full attention.

***

It wasn't very difficult for York and the cavemen to convince all the inmates to cooperate with their plan. Their orders were to play magnetic darts to find the best shooters. York wanted the eight best shooters to report to the den. The other inmates were to make simple weapons out of anything that they could find.

In the meantime, York and the cavemen planned the attack of the wardens. It was a little complicated because they all had to be taken out at the exact same time to prevent any alerts to the guards outside.

The cavemen were the strongest in the entire jail but the wardens had ray guns. To even the odds Krone, Wikker, and Taban went in search of help. The recruiting and planning took about three months. The eight best shooters reported to the den. The cavemen found three strong accomplices and everyone else were armed with whatever simple tools they could find or make. It was time to leave.

The cavemen and their accomplices went in search of the wardens at the same time. Krone and his helper took the third floor; Wikker and his helper took the second; and Taban and his helper took the first. Their objective was to kill the wardens, taking their guns and keys. York suggested that they separate the wardens from each other and make a friendly approach. This way, by the time they realize that they were in trouble it would be too late for them to react. York was a little worried that they would fail, but it was the only way. He anxiously waited for them to return.

Just when he thought he could no longer wait, the cavemen arrived with six fully loaded ray guns, extra ammunition, and the master key that opened every lock in the building. Three guns were awarded to the cavemen themselves, one went to York, and the remaining two was given to the two best shooters.

The plan was to leave the same way that they came in. They proceeded to the front door. Wikker and the two best shooters lead the way. Krone, York, the remaining unarmed shooters, the strong helpers, and the rest of the inmates followed them. York had an army of about 600 criminals. When they were within a few feet of the door, York paused his army.

"Warriors, freedom is behind that door! Those of you who have guns aim before you fire. To the remaining of my unarmed shooters, when a guard falls quickly take his weapon. When we are free I will be headed to the Nest. None of you are obligated to follow, but those of you who do will be especially rewarded. Now let's go outside and make some noise!"

York's army roared with adrenaline and charged the door. Wikker and the shooters came out shooting. The six guards were so surprised and confused by the noise and attack that they hardly had time to aim. It only took a few minutes before all six guards were dead.

"Today is our day of Freedom!" York shouted and his army cheered. "Those of you who are loyal to me, we march to the Nest!"

York turned and led his army through Bebokia. He didn't realize that the whole criminal army had followed him. They had been in jail for a really long time, where would they go? They looted and terrorized as they marched towards the Nest. They took any guns or weapons that they could find and helped themselves to unprotected Bebokian women. The citizens of Bebokia were horrified. Emperor Tameer was alerted that he had a very big problem coming his way.

***

"What do you mean an army is headed toward the Nest?" Emperor Tameer was shocked.

"The Bebokian prisoners have escaped and they're marching towards us" the messenger clarified.

"You mean the entire prison? All the inmates have formed an army?" Tameer was furious.

"Yes Emperor" answered the messenger.

"How could this happen?" asked Emperor Tameer.

"The prison was understaffed and someone from inside was smart enough to take advantage. I'm waiting for your orders, Emperor."

"Alert my army. I want 2,000 of my best soldiers to intercept them before they get here."

***

York's army was captured, but they did put up a good fight considering that Tameer's soldiers out-numbered them. They took them back to the prison and were vigorously guarded. A few days later, Tameer decided that he didn't want criminals in Bebokia. He thought about having a mass execution but didn't want the history books to remember him in such a negative way. So, he banished them all to Earth. It was a brilliant idea. He saved Earth from complete extinction and retained his good name with one stone's throw.

After Tameer transported the criminals he moved the Nest to the now secret location. He had his scientists camouflage the building, manipulate the trees, and hired even more guards. He was so obsessed with hiding the Nest that he started the legends of the Dark Forest himself.

Some Bebokians wanted to see if the stories were true so they went into the Dark Forest but none of them ever made it through. The trees made them fall asleep and Tameer's guards carried them back outside the forest. They, of course, reported strange happenings to their family and friends and by doing so fueled the legends even more.

***

"I don't understand why York wanted his army to take on Tameer?" Everly asked Pax. "He had to have known that Tameer had a bigger army."

"My guess is that York went a little insane and was on a very big power trip. He thought he could rule the world." Pax answered.

"Did York ever find out if Wikker had a male lover?" Everly asked curiously.

"Would you ask a giant caveman if he was gay?" joked Pax.

Everly laughed at the thought. "No" she answered shaking with merriment.

"That was an electrifying story. So, Bebokian criminals with very simple DNA helped to repopulate Earth. How true do you think that story is?" asked Everly.

"I guess we're about to find out," said Pax as he pointed to the window of the shuttle. A bright, blue Earth was rotating outside.

First Encounter

"Are you sure you don't want to tell me where we're going?" Panda yelled to her husband, Cal, from their bedroom.

She was combing her hair and tried an updo but then remembered that her winter hat wouldn't fit over it. Since it was too cold to be outside without a hat, she took her hair down and decided on a low ponytail.

"It's your birthday, if I tell you where we're going it would ruin the surprise" Cal yelled back.

He waited patiently for his wife but paced anxiously through their little cabin. He had put so much effort on her surprise that he wondered if he had missed the target completely. Panda was in no way a fussy woman. She would have been happy with a glass full of snow and Cal knew that.

He really wanted to buy her a real smarzicone, no matter how small, to make up for the fossil ring that he had proposed to her with, but he never had much money. He was a hard working carpenter, a very big man with strong hands. His line of work paid enough but just not enough for a smarzicone. Although he knew his wife wasn't a materialistic woman, he wanted so much to give her something special.

"I'm ready" Panda said as she came out of their bedroom.

"You're the prettiest abominable snow gal I've ever seen" joked Cal.

"I'm not nice when I'm cold, so you better be glad that I'm dressed like this. Now come on, I want my surprise."

***

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. "Ya kuzadem pon 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 "Ya kuzadem pon" to her, she knew that he was in trouble. She wept bitterly and was screaming "Ya kuzadem pon wah, Ya kuzadem pon wah." 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.

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 'hiveluck' 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 faade 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. Tayna 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; 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?"

"I don't think it, I know it."

Pax and Everly completed 1/4 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. Everly had gone to her safe place. She took herself back to when she was a little girl. "Daddy, Anla said that monsters live under my bed. I can't sleep because then they'll eat me," sobbed six-year-old Everly. She ran to her father and jumped in his lap.

"My petal, your older sister is just trying to scare you." He held her in her arms until she stopped crying.

"Are you ready to go back to bed?"

"Only if you scare the monsters away."

"I'll show you that there are no monsters."

He took Everly by the hand and walked her back to her room. Anla was already asleep.

"You see, Anla is sleeping. If there were really monsters under your bed she would also be afraid because you both share a room."

Everly looked at her father with innocent eyes. "Daddy, you're the smartest daddy in the whole universe." She gave her father a big hug and held on tight. Nothing could hurt her while she was in her father's arms.

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. He thought of his trade and was back to cutting and polishing precious stones. The cutting of the stones sounded almost like the frightful thunder but once they were thoroughly polished, they shared a similar beauty to that of the flashes of light. 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.

Naja's Insanity

Soren was in his quarters lifting weights to the rhythm of music. He was just beginning his evening routine, which also included bath, dinner and a little reading before bedtime. Although the Nest offered many after work activities, he seldom went out. With the exception of Everly, he didn't have many friends. He had taken her place as first advisor to the Empress without warning and her absence was a big strain on him.

He could deal with Naja disliking him but there was an ominous change in her that made him afraid. She was now like a ghost, cold, aloof, and obsessively preoccupied with the Prophet's prediction of her losing her throne to twins. Even her appearance had changed. Her complexion was paler, she had become painfully thin, and her hair was tangled in a disarrayed sweep of negligence. Everyone noticed, but no one took it upon themselves to confront her. Everly would have surely said something, done something, but she was no longer there to protect him or anyone else from Naja. He missed the buffer that she had provided but most of all, he missed her as a friend.

Soren had romanticized the idea of travel to a far away planet and imagined a host of adventures experiencing new or dangerous things, so his heart nearly skipped a beat when he saw the blinking light coming from the transport box. While his perceptions rang true, the contents of the little black box was a big disappointment. There was no indication of adventure, no sign of new things, just a small vial of dirt with an unexciting note that read, "Dirt sample. Full report on our return home".

***

After a restless night's sleep, Soren found himself standing before Naja in the privacy of her quarters. He was nervous; he was always nervous in her presence.

"Everly has sent us a message" he began.

"Why did it take her so long to contact us?" Naja asked.

"I don't know because her message was short. In her condition, she may have been pressed for time." He handed Naja both the dirt sample and note. She examined the dirt with curiosity before responding.

"See that this vial gets to Tayna . . . and oh" she asked in a by-the-way manner "What exactly did you mean by 'in her condition'?

"My Empress, Everly had very little time to plan for her trip" Soren said thinking quickly.

He realized that he had made a mistake in alluding to the fact that Everly was pregnant. He was not sure of this information himself but even if he had been, would never put Everly in danger.

"For centuries no one has visited Earth," he continued. "She is venturing into practically unknown territory. Her journey is bound to be a little chaotic and a lot scary. Time for correspondence is probably a little scarce".

Naja nodded and Soren was happy that he could finally leave but despite his effort to cover his mistake, Naja had become even more suspicious and fearful of Everly.

***

The hovering cube was sleeping. Naja paced around the conference room table, where it was hanging, before finally deciding to activate it. "Prophet of past, present and future, tell me what I must know." The Prophet glowed and as it became brighter the light began to flicker. "My Empress, what is it that you wish to know?"

"Who are these twins you speak of that will take my place as Empress?"

"My Empress, there can only be one Empress or Emperor. Twin rulers could never share a throne."

Naja felt relieved and happy with the Prophet's answer.

"So, you were mistaken when you predicted that twins would take my place?"

"No, My Empress, what I said was twins will end your rule."

Naja's heart sank even deeper than it had before. She was struck with a ball of negative emotions and she threw it back with the momentum of inexplicable rage. She began to yell question after question at the Prophet not giving him sufficient time to answer.

"Who are these twins? Where are they from? Are they even born yet? Who are their parents? What are their names?"

The Prophet was silent and appeared to shut itself off. As Naja began to leave it said, "My Empress, they are close."

Without looking back, she stopped for second but then continued on her way.

***

Naja wondered why she had agreed to a day at the Nest spa with her sister Seeru. She was in no mood for beauty treatments when everything around her was crumbling. Her throne was in danger but no one cared. She thought about canceling, but that just didn't feel right. It wasn't very Empress-like.

"Shoradomy Naja, It's been too long." Seeru was genuinely happy to see Naja and gave her a big hug.

"Shoradomy, Seeru, it has been way too long. You're looking great" Naja particular noticed that her sister had gained a substantial amount of weight.

"Wow, so this is your private spa. It's beautiful. I should have invited myself here sooner."

"Yes, it really is beautiful and you are welcome here any time you want. It's a shame that I don't have time to come here more often."

"Naja, the Empress can do anything she wants. You can make time."

"You are so right. It's good to be Empress."

"It's good to be related to the Empress." They both enjoyed a hearty laugh.

"Let me give you a tour. We're obviously standing in the pool area. If you stand right here you can activate the warm bubbles. It stops by itself after about fifteen minutes. Standing right here turns on the waterfall at the opposite end of the pool."

"Oovestic! Let me try." Seeru was in awe.

"Down a little further is the sauna and massage area. I can call my masseuse if you need a massage, she's absolutely fantastic."

"Masseuse? Why don't you have masseur?"

"Why Seeru, I'm the Empress. What would people think?"

"They would think it's good to be Empress."

"Very funny" Naja giggled. "Seriously, would you like a massage?"

"Maybe next time, right now I'd just like to enjoy our company." They walked past the sauna and entered another section of the spa.

"In this area you can get your face, hair, hands, and feet beautified. Your hairline could use a little shave back. Your forehead has gotten so small."

"I know. Would you mind sculpting my hairline like we did when we were little?"

"I wouldn't mind at all, that's why we're both here, right? For a day of beauty and relaxation. Have a seat."

Naja made small talk while she sharpened and sterilized the oversized blade.

"So, anything interesting happen that you want to gossip about."

"No, everything is pretty routine. The children are growing up so nicely. The other day little Sasson asked me if Zeban was going to be her father. That was very odd. She doesn't remember Leem but she was very small when..."

"When Leem had that unfortunate accident." Naja said finishing Seeru's sentence. "Who's Zeban?" She gently began to shave Seeru's hairline.

"Naja, I told you that I was dating Zeban. Don't you remember? He's been a great help to me and the children adore him."

Naja had no recollection of ever hearing about Zeban. "Oh yes, Zeban. Do you plan to have children with him?"

She wanted to find out if Seeru was already in the motherly way. Naja's thoughts rested on what the Prophet said, 'they are close'. What did he mean by close? Close in relation or close in proximity?

She began to design zigzag patterns into Seeru's hairline.

"Naja, I already have three children, but I wouldn't mind having two more. They're growing up so fast."

"Two more?"

"Ouch!" Seeru yelled.

"Oh, I'm so sorry. I'll be more careful with the blade."

A bit of blood ran down Seeru's forehead but Naja gently wiped it away with a towel before it reached her eyes.

"These things happen. I'm Okay."

"I'm almost done."

Naja cleaned the blade close to Seeru's neck and thought, 'How easy it would be to slit her throat, but that would be too messy. So much blood in my beautiful spa - out of the question.'

"There, all done. Do you like it?" She held a mirror in front of Seeru.

"Pretty. I remember you had such elegant zags. What happened to them? Would you like me to put them back in?"

"No, I've decided to go natural. It's much easier and I just don't have the energy anymore to keep up with the latest zags."

Seeru looked at Naja lovingly and wasn't sure if she was allowed to say what was in her head. Naja hadn't just gone natural; she had stopped grooming completely. Also, by the looks of how thin she was, she was not getting enough nutrition. She wanted to help her sister with her apparent problem but fear of insulting the Empress held her back. "I have a surprise for you" Naja said interrupting Seeru's loving gaze.

"Uh oh, the last time I heard that I was locked in a tiny room and tortured with mind piercing noise."

Naja laughed at the awkward joke, which really wasn't a joke.

"Oh Seeru, you'll like this surprise. I had my chef brew you up his special cocktail that he calls galactic bliss. He made a whole bottle of it for you and I'm hoping that you'll share with me."

Naja led Seeru to another section of the spa that was used for quiet meditation. It had two cozy couches and a small table where the aforementioned cocktail was already sitting along with two regal glasses and Seeru's favorite confection, purpurloon.

"Naja, you didn't have to go through all this trouble." Seeru was overwhelmed by her kindness.

"We don't see each other often. I just wanted to show you how much I appreciate being your sister."

Seeru embraced her sister. "Ya kuzaden pon wah, my Empress." During the embrace she could feel exactly how slender Naja had become. "You should eat a little more," she added.

They sat, drank, nibbled on purpurloon and chatted for hours. Naja made sure that Seeru's glass was always filled with galactic bliss but was careful to only take small sips out of her own glass.

"Wow, look at that, we drank the whole bottle" Seeru laughed for no reason at all. She was so drunk that she almost fell out of her chair.

"You must get your chef to give me the recipe for galactic bliss. It was delicious" Seeru said with a drunken giggle.

"My chef isn't known for his generosity with recipes but I will try. Do you know what we need?"

"What's that?"

"We both could use some time in the sauna. It purifies the body, right down to the soul."

"Sounds delightful, but I'm going to need some help walking." Naja laughed contagiously and Seeru was infected almost immediately. She laughed so hard that tears ran down her cheeks.

The Empress helped Seeru to the sauna and they both enjoyed the steam. Seeru was unfortunately so drunk that she didn't realize how much danger she was in. The large amount of alcohol that she had consumed combined with an extremely hot, steamy room equaled her imminent death. The heat made her sleepy and her heartbeat gradually slowed down.

After Seeru fell asleep, Naja checked her pulse at regular intervals until she had none. She loved her sister but she loved her crown just a little more. In her mind it was not a crime to protect what was hers and she had concluded that her royal status was worth protecting at all costs.

"I'll miss you sweet sister," she whispered to Seeru with a hint of remorse.

***

Soren could hardly take his eyes off Seeru as she lay limp and half naked in the sauna. Naja had called him to clean up the mess.

"She's dead," said Naja while he checked if Seeru was still breathing.

"My Empress, what happened?"

"I don't know. One minute she was there and then... she fell asleep. I mean, I thought she was sleeping." Naja had a blank expression on her face.

"I'm so very sorry," said Soren regretting that he ever had disdainful feelings towards her. "Is there anything I can do?"

"Summon two of the best High Guards to my quarters and make sure they are masters at what they do."

"Does this have anything to do with Seeru's death, my Empress?"

"Don't let the why concern you, Advisor."

"Yes, my Empress."

Soren was now mad at himself for his recent moment of sympathy for Naja, but he did feel sorry for Seeru. He had a sinking feeling about the situation and his inner ear told him that things were awry.

A hushed suspicion rapidly spread through the Nest as it was abuzz with news of Seeru's untimely death. Flowers of obligation were placed outside of Naja's door. Her subjects feared her and Soren could no longer look the other way. He wrote to Everly warning her of the possible danger. The High Guards was just a fancy name for trained killers and Naja, in her state, could not be trusted.

***

The leaves of the tallest Earthian trees were greedy but unsuccessful in their attempt to block the summer sunshine from nourishing the bottom of the forest floor. Rays of sunlight broke through the leafy barrier, feeding the smaller plants that were, in turn, food for small animals.

Mandar roamed the woods, indulging in the warm light whenever he could. His white fur was a blinding contrast with the lush green of the plants. Now that the snow had melted and the trees were clothed, hunting was more of a challenge. He could no longer depend on Mother Nature to camouflage him and was forced to rely on his own ability, which would cost precious energy.

His attention was pulled by a stir in the bushes. The unsuspecting animal, whatever it was, was too far away and too busy to recognize danger. Mandar moved with the stealth of a ghost towards his pray. Once he was within the threshold of the animal's sight, he exchanged his lovely white fur for a lush green coat. Only the cold blue of his eyes gave him away while he stood frozen waiting for the right opportunity to pounce on his victim.

His patience was rewarded and soon a fat rabbit, oblivious of his presence, scurried toward him in search of more food. He was just meters away from Mandar before he sensed that he was being watched but it was too late to avoid the chase.

The rabbit saw a tree with a deathly stare move towards him, so he dashed with celerity the other way. Mandar, now transformed back into his magnificent white coat, was in pursuit. The rabbit, running in an odd half circle, led him into the clearing.

Mandar tried to cut off his path by running in a straight line but instead he ran into something hard. The force of the impact left him stunned. He tried to see what he had crashed into but there was nothing in front of him. All he saw was forest. He cautiously walked toward the invisible entity that had ruined his hunt until he touched it with his head. It was cold and smooth. He stood back straining his eyes to see the concealed inanimate object that was standing in the middle of the clearing but was unsuccessful.

Mandar could also not see that within the cloaked shuttle, the soft blinking light of a little black box waited for someone to receive Soren's important message. He eventually gave up and walked back into the woods, perplexed, defeated and hungry.

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.

Fading Sun

"Why oh why did I agree to vacation with you" Soren complained as he stepped in a pile of poop.

"Stop your complaining. It's just halistag poo. I think. Besides, you had nothing better to do anyway" Tayna defended herself.

"Flat countryside, animal droppings everywhere, and sunlight from all three suns bearing down on us - what could be better?"

"Shut up and help me with this telescope, would you?"

Soren rolled his eyes. "A smart person like you should know that sun gazing is bad for your eyes."

"That's why a smart person like me built a special lens to protect my eyes."

"Do you have an answer for everything all of the time?"

"Yes, I'm smart like that" Tayna teased. "Soren relax. There's nothing more enjoyable than sun gazing and if you do it right, it's perfectly safe. It's like watching a fire dance; so beautiful."

Soren reluctantly helped Tayna with the telescope. Once it was all set up, Tayna took the first look. He really didn't know what the big hype was about sun gazing.

"Take a look," said Tayna. She was beaming with excitement. "On your left is the Earth's sun, in the middle is ours, and to the far right is Morstarga's sun. Bebokia's sun is especially lovely today."

Soren looked through the telescope and was impressed. The movement in the sun was like an elegantly choreographed dance and it was somehow hypnotizing. Bebokia and the Earth's sun were energetic and full of fire but Morstarga's sun danced slowly like it was tired.

"Why is Morstarga's sun dancing so slowly compared to the other two? Is that normal?"

Tayna was astonished at such a clever observation. "You noticed that too? Most people think that it's just the nature of the Morstargan sun but I've been tracking it. Today, the dance is the slowest I've ever seen. That's why I came out here."

"Are you saying that the Morstargan sun is dying?"

"If you would have asked me that a year ago I would have said no, but today I have to say yes."

"Did you inform Naja?"

"I thought about it, but I doubt she would listen."

"Well, you at least have to try. Come on lets go. I'll go with."

***

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.

***

Empress Najakia. These were the words written on her majesty's door. The same door which Soren and Tayna now nervously stood in front of.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Tayna asked Soren.

"No" he answered and quickly laid his hand on the scanner before they could change their minds.

"Requested entry submitted" the scanner, next to the door, confirmed with a high-pitched computer voice.

"Oh hell" Tayna interjected.

"Scared?" Soren asked.

Tayna gave him an icy look. "My dear, it is courage that overturned my brain's order to run away and leave you to face Naja by yourself."

"Entry granted" the scanner announced before the door slid open.

Fake smiles were plastered on both their faces as they entered Naja's domain. She was sitting at her desk with her head buried in paper work.

"Please excuse our disturbance, Empress," said Soren trying to get her attention. Naja didn't reward his effort with eye contact.

"I thought I sent you and Tayna on holiday" Naja said with her eyes still on her work. "Yes, my Empress. We were in the country sun gazing when Tayna noticed that the Morstargan Sun is fading" Soren explained.

"I've been measuring their sun's brightness for a while now and today the sun is the darkest it's ever been" Tayna elaborated.

"So what does that have to do with me?" Naja finally made eye contact with both of them.

They were shocked at the question. She was not known for short sightedness; quite the opposite.

"Empress, we believe that the Morstargan's will have no choice but to seek out sunlight elsewhere and Bebokia will be their closest target" Tayna bravely explained.

Naja looked at her with a cold empty stare that sent chills up and down her spine. Her legs became weak. The Empress was deep inside her own head deliberating what to say next but her phone rang before she spoke. Tayna was relieved when Naja's eyes focused on the phone instead of her. She could feel energy return to her legs and her struggle to stand upright ended.

"Naja" the Empress identified herself. "Birds of Prey have landed and are waiting for further instructions" the raspy voice from the phone informed. Soren and Tayna tried their best not to look shocked at overhearing the message.

"I don't mean to be rude," said Naja "but, I have more pertinent matters to attend to. We shall cross the Morstargan river when or if we get there. Good day."

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 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, but I have a feeling there's more to this than just vanity 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 passion for her burns deeper than love." His voice was soft and his cheeks flushed a bright shade of pink.

"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."

Mandar felt a hard breeze as the blade flew closely past him but he did not flinch. He looked at the deadly weapon and thought 'Foe'. No longer needing to watch, he silently disappeared into the forest.

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!"

***

The orange in the Earthian sunset matched Feng's eyes. She strolled through the forest looking for her brother but instead of finding Mandar, found a rather pretty knife abandoned in the trunk of a tree. She was so fascinated by the shiny object that the strangeness of another aircraft standing in the middle of the clearing didn't bother her.

The blade was simple but the handle appeared to be made of carved wood with eye-catching iridescent feathers attached to the end of it. Feng knew the kind of birds that lived in her forest but couldn't recognize the species in which these particular feathers belonged. She was almost hypnotized by their beauty.

She used her mouth to hold the handle, careful not to cut herself on the sharp blade, and pulled the knife out of the tree. She could hardly wait to show her brother her find and hurriedly went off to look for him.

***

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 laying 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."

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.

"What happened?" asked Archer.

"The Bebokians were protected by a very large Earthian and a very fierce wolf. It was an extremely heated battle but Saber fought well."

"How is he?"

"I was able to stop the bleeding, but he passed out from the pain. He'll survive but I'm worried about infection. The wound is very deep."

"How did it happen?"

"Apparently they're wanted by Morstargans as well. At some point the Earthian combined forces with the Morstargans and then we were pretty much zipped."

"Morstargans?" Archer was utterly confused.

"Yeah, they unfortunately recognized the feathers from my blade as one of their own."

"So you knew them?"

"No, but I did know who their friend was."

"When were you ever on Morstarga?"

"I took a mission during the chthonic festival when you and Saber were on leave."

"You never mentioned this?"

"It was a small job, nothing to mention really and all I made was... well, not very much."

Archer looked at Blade completely engrossed on her every word then she stopped speaking. "No, you can't stop there, love, keep going."

"Oh, I wish I never took that stupid mission" Blade said covering her eyes.

"Now I'm really dying to know the details."

"Husley. That was his name. Why oh why did I let him talk me into it."

Blade looked at Archer and saw the enthusiasm on his face. It gave her a new kind of rush. A strange tingling sensation of satisfaction sprouted from dangling bits and pieces of not-so-important information into hungry ears that relished with curiosity. It was a lesser form of adrenaline and she wanted more.

The postcard said 'Easy job, good pay. Only the best will do'. It had a time and a hand drawn map of a location. There was no name signed to it.

I tried to ignore it but I couldn't get it out of my mind. Why was there no name? And then a thousand other questions flooded me. I felt like I was being interrogated from within my own mind and the torture wasn't going to stop until I found answers.

So instead of taking part in the chthonic festivities, I found myself in the middle of a sleepy Morstargan bar.

"What'll it be," the barkeep asked.

"Do you have anything stronger than flavored water?"

Judging from the looks of the place I was expecting not, but it didn't hurt to ask. If it weren't for the words "Deviled Water" flashing in neon pink behind the counter, I would swear I was in a church or temple or other place of worship. That's how quiet it was.

Round tables and sitting stools dotted the room in organized randomness. Everything, except the flashing neon sign, was bright white. Predominately Morstargan customers sat whispering to one another while sipping whatever it was that they were drinking.

The barkeep smiled at my question. "Netherdweller" He said as he reached under the counter and pulled out a bottle of something stronger.

"What did you call me?"

"No offense" he showed me his palms in apology.

I took a sip of the drink and gagged as it burned down my throat.

"What is this?" I demanded.

"That is fire water. You requested something stronger, yes?"

I gave him a mean look. I couldn't say anything else because I felt like I literally drank fire. I was trying desperately to play it cool but I don't think anyone believed me.

"Perhaps you are more suited to flavored water" the barkeep made fun but he was polite enough to exchange my drink with, what I believed to be, something more tolerable.

"The sugar cubes will stop the burning" a voice from behind me said.

I had noticed cubes sitting on the counter and had no idea what they were or why they were there. I quickly stuck one in my mouth before turning around.

A not so shabby looking Morstargan towered above me. His face was similar to the one I pounded not so long ago but with slightly larger eyes.

"May I sit next to you?"

"Sorry, I'm not really into the tall, dark, and feathery type."

He sat down anyway.

"Maybe not, but you are here because of me." I looked at him as if I didn't know what he was talking about.

"The postcard. The job. The money..." he clarified.

"You apparently already know who I am. State your name and business."

"My name is Husley and they tell me you're the best."

"Who are they?"

"Never mind who they are. I have sources and word is out that you will do just about anything for money."

"I can kill on demand if that's what you mean. Need anyone dead?" He looked at me as if I had asked a stupid question.

"Point him out to me and then we'll discuss price."

"You see that lady over there? The beauty with green and white feathers perfectly framing her delicate face." Husley pointed her out with a look in her direction.

She was sitting with a man at a table located in the back of the room. They appeared to be enjoying each other's company, holding hands and looking generally smitten with lust. I say lust because love needs no public display of petting to be recognized. It's powerfully subtle and cannot be seen but felt in the aura of two people as they magnetize toward each other's hearts. I've experience both so I know the difference.

"Okay, she's dead. What's your offer?"

He eyed me with such animosity that I almost cringed. "Oh heavens no" he said seemingly disturbed at the thought. "She should be mine but the man that she's with is standing in my way."

I saw where this was going. I should have declined the offer but there was money involved. I could have told him that his love interest was most likely still available... but there was money involved.

"Oh, you want me to eliminate your competition?"

"Exactly."

"Your offer?"

The offer was good. I tasted my new drink and spat it back into the glass. It just was a little less potent than the firewater I previously had. I ignored the barkeep's contemptuous smile and continued my conversation with my new friend. We sat there and waited until the couple left the confinements of the building.

In the meantime, we talked. His reasoning for not doing the job himself was "I'm not a murderer" - full quote. How open of him to volunteer such information to the likes of me.

"But you are" I said sniffing at my drink. "That's like putting poison in someone's glass and then claiming you didn't kill him, the poison did. Are you looking for a clear conscience?"

"I don't have to look. I am not a murderer," he repeated.

"Of course not" I agreed. I don't make a habit of biting the hand that pays me.

"I find it very fascinating that you and your crew call yourselves Birds of Prey. You are obviously not Morstargan. If you don't mind me asking, where is your home planet and why Birds of Prey?"

"My two crew mates are both Haboshans."

"Ah... Heads shaped like an upside down triangle? Bluish black hair? Not to be angered?"

"Yes, that's almost an exact description but I think the hot temperedness is a little exaggerated. My Haboshans are quite tame."

"And you my dear? Where is your home world?"

"I am half Haboshan and half Karnalan." "No wonder I couldn't place you. You have the Karnalan red hair and I'm guessing their razor sharp intellect as well." I raised my glass to that but put it back down without drinking.

"We call ourselves Birds of Prey because we have great respect for flying predators. In a certain sense that's what we are. The only difference is that we must use an aircraft to fly."

"Morstargans are not predators. We are a peaceful species."

"That is also very admirable."

It was almost closing time before my target and his girlfriend decided to leave. We followed them out to the empty parking lot. Husley hid in a nearby tree and watched.

***

While I was in the bar, I had some time to think about how to eliminate Husley's competition. A dart to the throat would have been my usual method but there's something about the chthonic festival season that lessens the desire for a macabre solution. Being in the festive spirit I decided to give Husley his clear conscience without forfeiting my profit.

"Nice vessel you have there" I said to my target. "Thanks" he thoroughly looked me up and down. His girlfriend held tighter to his arm.

"I always wondered why Morstargans needed transportation when they have wings - especially such strong wings like yours." I outlined the arch of his left wing with the tips of my fingers. His girlfriend stabbed me with an icy look but remained quiet.

"Partly status symbol and partly because we're not long distance flyers."

I could tell by his eyes, tone and overall body language that he was flattered so I gently pulled him to me, stroked the feathers around his ear and whispered seductively.

"Now where might your sweet spot be?"

He guided my hand to the nape of his neck and whispered, "Right there". I kissed him passionately while applying just enough pressure on his neck, bringing him to that perfect place between pain and pleasure. He pulled away just long enough to release a delicious sound of euphoria before pulling me back and demanding, "Do that again."

The sound of his girlfriend cursing and crying in the background just added to the heat's intensity. She must have left at some point because when I was done she was gone. I didn't say anything else to my temporary playmate. I just casually walked away.

"Wait!" he yelled after me. "What's your name? You can't just go like that."

I kept walking, didn't even look back.

***

Hidden in the branches of a nearby tree, Husley watched as Blade tore his lady love's heart from her chest. No hands or weapons were necessary to accomplish the gory task. Her seduction was bewitching and even he, watching from so far away, felt the allure of her womanly persuasion. He was protected from going into a full stupor by the sound of the damsel's weeping. It was like a sad melody that sung sweetly to him, calling him to her rescue.

She ran away from Blade and her newly made ex-lover. He flew to her with all confidence that she would now be his and landed directed in her path of escape. She was frightened by his sudden appearance. "Husley, where did you come from?" she asked with a gasp.

"I was just stretching my wings when I saw you. Why are you crying?" He brushed away her tears with his hand and she took a step back.

"I'd rather not say" she said completely embarrassed.

"Oh my dear, Anjasilk, you're safe with me." He hugged her and softly said, "I'll always love you."

His lips accidentally brushed against her ear and the smell of her feathers was intoxicating. He could no longer resist the forces that compelled him to kiss her but she pushed him away ferociously.

"What are you doing? I didn't love you then and I will not love you now!"

She sprinted then took flight, soaring with incredible speed out of Husley's visual range. It would have been pointless to chase her. He was tormented with heartache and stood frozen staring at the empty sky.

***

I caught up with Husley not so far away from the original spot where Anjasilk had left him heartbroken.

"Competition eliminated. I'm here to collect my payment."

"Your assignment was to kill him. He's not dead."

"No, my assignment was to eliminate your competition. He is no longer in your way. Besides, now you can rightfully say that your conscience is clean. There's no blood on either of our hands."

Husley look at me with contempt. "I will not pay you!"

I stood there in somewhat of a shock. Husley was the first client that ever refused me payment. I regretted that it would have to end with bloodshed, especially during the chthonic festival, but I handled the situation the only way I knew how.

Husley probably didn't feel much before he closed his eyes. He suddenly saw a dagger sticking out of his chest, and then his knees buckled. I searched his body for money but found none.

"Well then, your feathers will have to make due for payment. They are so lovely." I said to Husley's dead body.

***

Saber's scream ended Blade's recount of past events. She 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.

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. But, before we go down we have time for a round of bolt."

"Bolt? Are you drunk?"

"Maybe, this Earthian sun is making me feel a bit frolicsome. Come on, don't you feel like playing?"

"Something is making me feel a little..." "Like romping?" Kirkus finished his sentence.

"I was going to say bold but yes, romping too."

"So let's play bolt. Loser has to taste the planet's water."

Croy looked at Kirkus with an expression of disbelief. "Okay" he answered. "The things I let you talk me into."

Kirkus laughed, "I hope for your sake the water is palatable."

"I'll use your underestimation to my advantage."

"Classic rules; three and two?"

Croy shook his head in affirmation. "I'm ready".

Time stood still as Kirkus counted down. "One." The sun was high in a cloudless blue sky. "Two." The trees were quiet amidst a windless welkin and a sweet botanical smell filled the air. Just before Kirkus said "Three", they looked at each other and saw themselves: Daring but cautious, adult yet playing, Morstargan but confined. Kirkus let go of the shattered hull and Croy begins to count. "Two". The short wait was agonizing. They watched the debris fall almost in slow motion. "One". They quickly turned head down and pulled in their wings. They were falling at the same speed until Croy pulled his knees to his chest making himself into a ball. He shot past Kirkus and the distance between himself and the hull was shortened. As he reached for the debris with his hand, he became aware of a large, dark object that grew even larger as he neared the ground. Abandoning his attempt to hold onto the hull, he spread his wings and the monstrous object grew wider. Croy was too close to the ground to escape collision but the grass broke his fall and as he laid there with only minor scratches, he realized what had scared him. His body then convulsed with uncontrollable laugher, which was quite puzzling to Kirkus.

"You could have caught it, why didn't you? And what's so funny?"

Croy deliberated a second before deciding that it would not be very prudent to tell him that he had been spooked by his own shadow.

"Oh, I so miss the sun on our planet. I've almost forgotten what it feels like."

"This planet's sun has an intoxicating effect. You never could hold your firewater very well. Come, enough playtime. We need to find a way off this planet."

***

The wreckage was located not far from where Kirkus had found the first piece of debris. A collection of several bent, dented and broken parts laid in close proximity of each other. The Morstargans were, however, hopeful because the hull of the cockpit appeared intact. As soon as Croy opened the door it fell off, but that seemed to be the extent of damage. Everything looked just as it did before. They both stood at the doorway in great wonderment.

"My compliments to Morstargan manufacture" said Croy.

Kirkus was speechless but, as shocked as he was, anxiously entered the tiny room. He hurried to the healthy looking console and started fiddling with the controls.

"Vice Commander to General Platt. Come in General Platt. Vice Commander to General Platt..." Kirkus waited for an answer but there was none. The radio was dead. He checked the flight apparatus but it was also broken.

"How are we going to get off this hole of a planet?" he said. The hope that had filled them when they first saw the cockpit was drained to an insurmountable feeling of despair.

Croy had no answer for him. He was also extremely despondent but took a little comfort in finding a water bottle, which still contained a few drops. His fingers circled the rim of the bottle and he tasted exactly one drop before passing the bottle on to Kirkus.

"It's not much but it'll have to do until we find water."

Kirkus accepted the bottle and drank what was left.

"I'm still thirsty."

"Me too. On our way back, we'll have to look for water. Don't worry, we'll figure another way off this planet."

***

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 past 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 plant Earth. Because we weren't eaten by wild animals. Because we weren't strangled to death by hostile plants. Because 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.

Fulfillment

Dark, but not pitch black. There was just enough light for prisoners to see the horrors of their plight. Slimy multi-legged insects, fearless of other creatures, crawled on the walls. Filth from the sewers leaked in from the ceiling and collected in puddles making a horrendous "planch... planch... planch" at even intervals. Chains and shackles were the perfect accessories for the unfortunate souls who, at the whim of Naja, were doomed to endure such a dungeon.

"Almost perfect" Naja said holding a handkerchief over her nose. She was standing outside the bars looking in with an architect, by the name of Marbly, who was proudly showing off his masterpiece of torture.

"Almost?" asked Marbly noticeably annoyed. "I had the scentacles specially imported from Prutalis. The chains and shackles are made from an exquisite allergy inducing metal. It took two engineering experts and a psychologist just to time that wretched drip from the sewer systems. This dungeon is guaranteed to break the spirit of the toughest criminal."

"The prison is remarkably horrific with only one minor flaw. The temperature is way too comfortable. It should either be slightly too cold or humid enough to make the prisoner want to crawl out of her own skin."

"Of course, my Empress" Marbly said with a slight bow of the head. "May I ask for whom this dungeon awaits?"

"For traitors of the Realm, beginning with my first advisor Everly and her company." Naja's eyes became empty and Marbly could see the rusty, corroded aura of her soul.

"Traitors? Forgive me Empress, but would it not be better to execute such vile criminals?" He was extra careful not to offend.

"My dear Marbly, execution is too good for these kind of criminals."

"You are wise, my Empress. I will immediately see to it that the temperature is adjusted properly." He politely bowed before continuing on his way.

***

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 trashcan, 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 which 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 laying 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 Seeru was the most unforgiveable. How could she kill her own sister?

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.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

I wrote my first composition, entitled Myself as Ten Cents, when I was about eight years old. It was very funny reading it again as an adult.

I've had the pleasure of living abroad and the experiences have really shaped my writing. It took me approximately ten years to complete this book. Writing the last sentence was a major milestone in my life.

If I've entertained you, then I've accomplished my goal. Thanks for reading Bebokia.

Jenue Brosinski

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