Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Ch. 102

 

“We can’t risk a fire. I’m going to shift. I’ll stay warm, and you can layer up with my clothes.” It was getting darker, and Ases was right. There was no way we should build a fire this close to the port, if I even had the ability to start one. At least the lightning arcing from the storm kept the complete darkness at bay.

“All right.” Bouncer had grumbled, probably about the lack of easy access dinner. I’d encouraged him to go find something to eat, but he wasn’t the best hunter. “You should take Bouncer to go find something to eat.” He didn’t usually eat in shifted form, but I knew he’d done it before.

“What about you?”

I was hungry, but I sure wasn’t eating raw whatever-they-could-catch meat. Nope, no thank you. Maybe in a day or two, if we were still out here, I’d be hungry enough to gnaw on raw flesh.

“I don’t want to leave you unprotected.”

Being alone wasn’t ideal, but Bouncer would never settle if he wasn’t fed. Ases had never seen it, but a hungry cerops was a restless, cranky cerops. “I’ll be fine. There’s no one anywhere close to here, and the electricity from the storm keeps everything but the trincophants away. They eat charged particles, so my tender flesh should be safe.” My joke fell flat when Ases looked uncertain.

“Hey, who’s the biologist here? I think I’d know if I was in danger. What are you afraid of?”

“Garjah finding you all alone, then killing me when I come back because I let a little thing like hunger leave you unprotected.”

If only Garjah would come find me that quickly. He wouldn’t be able to find me, though; we’d never talked about this. He’d always assumed if the house was attacked, I’d make it to the security suite, which was impenetrable. At least I’d taken the time on our space flights to research the planet and its flora and fauna, always looking to learn about new wildlife. I’d extracted a promise from Garjah to take me out to explore when we’d settled… well, everything.

Guess the Kardoval moved up the timetable. They’d also taken my guide away from me. I clenched my hands into fists. “Just go. He won’t be coming here; no one knows where we are. That’s why we’re safe. There’s nothing here to hurt me, excerpt the constant sound of Bouncer’s whining giving me a headache.”

“Fine. But if he finds out, I’m telling Garjah you made me leave you. We won’t go far, and we’ll be back as soon as we can. I think I smelled some burrowing mammals back by that small spring we passed.”

I nodded. “Bouncer’s got the claws for digging.”

My feral little ball of energy flexed his paws, digging furrows into the ground. “No, don’t dig here. I don’t need a tripping hazard. We talked about this.” I yanked his big paws out of the dirt, grimacing when clods rained down on my lap. “Thanks.” I tried to brush it away, but it was damp and smeared. “Great." I glared at Bouncer. He butted his rough cheek against mine, and I held firm until he chirped and tilted his head. “You’re lucky you’re cute.”

Ases, already done shifting behind my back, chuffed. His tail flicked.

“What? He is cute.”

Ases flicked his ears, then nosed his clothes. I leaned back and grabbed his robe, wrapping the long fabric around my shoulders like a cape and draping his pants down my legs. Good thing he liked flowing clothes.  

Left alone in the near-dark while they hunted, I had nothing to do but think. I ignored my hunger as best as I could, the water we’d drank at the spring at least taking care of my thirst and putting something in my stomach. We’d been too busy just getting away from Garjah’s house and worrying about pursuers to forage, but tomorrow we’d have to try to find other food. There were some ground plants I could eat raw that Ases should also be able to digest.

What was harder to digest was the conversations we’d listened to. Someone had known that Garjah had left the house with Timok, leaving us vulnerable. Could Timok be the traitor? Leaning back against a tree trunk, I tried to figure it out. Who could possibly be working against the alliance?

Timok was extremely knowledgeable about other species; he didn’t hide his amusement or pleasure at flicking at me, especially when I got irritated. An alliance with the Galactic would give him more aliens to meet, to learn about, to experiment on. Of course, his callous disregard about the genetic changes he’d forced on me—regardless of how he claimed it was saving my life, not seeing how I was different and what he could manipulate medically—could hide a traitor’s motives. Maybe he’d intended to kill me?

Maybe Timok wasn’t as good of a doctor as he claimed to be?

I just wasn’t sure if that fit though. There were easier ways to kill a person if you were a doctor. Hell, he could have injected me with a placebo and did nothing.

So who else knew Garjah’s plans that morning? Seedrah? Garjah claimed he was loyal. He was like a young cerops, always eager and happy to please. He did his duty, and he was eager to learn, always asking questions. But we’d been alone a lot too.

If he wanted to kill me, he could have.

I ran my hands through my hair, pulling on it. Stars! Why couldn’t I figure this out? Thumps crashed through the bushes. I turned to warn Bouncer to be quiet, a little surprised he wasn’t more tired after our long day of trekking through the jungle, but it wasn’t him.

Ases was going to kill me.

If Timok wasn’t the traitor, and he didn’t do it first. 

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Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Ch. 101

 

Our beautiful home was being violated, which made me sick and furious at the same time I felt relief that every moment they spent searching in vain for us there, they weren’t out scanning the jungle.

We’d been walking for what felt most of the day, and the trees were starting to thin. Sweat had slicked every inch of my body and matted my hair until it started to stand up on its own. A hum, almost on the edge of my ability to hear, and the scent of ozone, made my nose itch.

Where were we? If I was lost, did that mean no one else could find us either?

Bouncer and Ases had kept looping me, one keeping to an inner track and the other wider, often taking turns and switching, both popping up unexpectedly to make my heart race until I’d grown too tired to jump and curse. Now they both appeared through the gap in the trees I was making my way toward. It looked darker, as if night was falling or a storm was approaching.

“Oh shit, a storm.” But not a natural one. Had we come that far?

We had. Without planning it, we’d moved perpendicular to the city from Garjah’s house and made our way toward the port. There was a wide field with a yellow carpet of plants dotted with pink fronds that spiked above it. The dying sun glinted off the arches of orange and black rocks dotted here and there rocks glinted in the sun like geometric bridges going to nowhere.

The trincophants were flying over the canyon collecting the last of the energy from the sun before they returned to bulbous bulge of their nests anchored to the ground with matte green strands. Each poky tip spiked into the sky.

This could actually be good. The electricity from the manmade storm would block the scans of anyone looking for us. I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to cross the short plains or how to get over the ravine and storm to the port, though. Exhaustion and fear dragged at my steps, and I faltered under the canopy of one of the last big trees.

I sank down to a squat, the collapsed onto my butt on the ground. We needed to take a break. Bouncer came back first, nuzzling against my shoulder and then laying down with a sigh. His ears stayed upright, and he didn’t put his head down across my lap like he usually would. “I’m sorry, buddy. You probably would’ve been safer back on your home planet, huh?” I rubbed at one side of the thickened scales that ran over his spine. He arched, his only indication he was paying attention to me as he stared to my left.

My muscles tensed, I relaxed when Ases called out. “I’m coming out, naked. Close your eyes if you don’t want to be jealous.” He pulled back a bush so it wouldn’t whack him in a delicate place, then stepped into the small clearing under the large tree I’d picked to stop.

I didn’t stare, but I didn’t hide my eyes like a child either. “Dork. Like you didn’t used to enjoy stripping and changing just to freak out the newbies all the time.”

“You’d think more people who were into science, diplomacy, and politics would be exposed to aliens who didn’t look like themselves.”

I snorted. “Why? Outside of diplomats, or first contact scientists, those people are the blindest of all. Stuck in their ways, only able to focus on what their goal is, they don’t understand what they can’t envision controlling—be that the lab, or the people they hope to lead.”

“Isn’t that the truth.”

It was, and I blinked, my hand slowing on Bouncer’s back where I’d resumed scratching his scales. “Stars.” That had to be it. Garjah kept saying it wasn’t them, that it was too clumsy, too obvious.

“What?” Ases jerked his head around, pausing with his hands on the waistband on his pants.

“It’s the Kardoval. They might have all the memories of all the people, but they don’t leave the planet. They don’t have any experience with aliens they don’t control; the few they do trade with, they do so off-planet or at the port.” I waved my hand toward the crackling storm and wide ravine that cut off the rest of the world from that space.

“When Garjah explained how that security feature worked, and how they had to have special shielded vehicles to get past the storm and the trincophants, I was amazed at their technology and ability to protect their people. But it’s not as much protection as fear.”

“Fear of aliens like you, me, and Bouncer?” Ases cocked his head. “That would set them off.”

“Sort of. But we’re not that scary, you know? We’re not invading, we’re not a danger in and of ourselves. It’s what we represent.”

I could see the realization dawn on Ases, just as it had on me. “We represent change. Loss of control. Loss of power.”

“Exactly. The factions of people who oppose them before were small and no one who was respected paid them attention. But now Garjah, the head of security for the entire planet, has. Others are looking. Others will benefit from an alliance with the Galactic. They’ll see that, and push for it to continue. The near total control the Kardoval had over their people and what they were exposed to is over. New people, new ideas, new ways… it’ll change everything about them.”

Ases sank down beside me. “And there’s no way they will allow that.”

My stomach churned. “Not if they can stop it. Prove we’re dangerous. That’s why they wanted to capture us. To make up some sort of scenario to paint us as the bad guys. ” Stars, where was Garjah? What were they doing to him? 

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Ch. 100

 

I turned on shaky arms, the bile racing up my throat until I vomited what little of the morning meal I’d managed to eat. My muscles clenched, and I heaved repeatedly until nothing was left and spit and snot drooled in nasty strings from my face to mix with the tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see, and all I felt was certainty that Garjah was gone and I was going to die.

Something nudged me in my ribs, and I collapsed onto my side. Curling into a ball, I pulled my knees up with my lower arms and hid my face in my upper arms, blocking out the cruel world. I knew what we were doing was dangerous, but Garjah was so confident in his skills, and I never thought that I’d lose him. We were always together; if he was going to be taken, I always thought we’d be taken together. He’d protect me.

How could he protect me out here? I was all alone in the jungle. I’d die, and if he’d already been captured he was probably already dead. Whoever did this had been willing to kill anyone and everyone at the greeting celebration for Ases. Why would they keep him alive?

They wouldn’t. He was dead. I was sure of it, and my heart was just as dead in my chest. Silent sobs wracked me, and I ignored the tugs on my arms. I couldn’t move; I wouldn’t. I’d just stay right there until they found me. Maybe they’d take me to his body. Maybe they’d give me that at least, as his bonded. They’d let us go to the stars together.

A hand wormed between my arms, grabbing my tunic and fisting in the fabric. I was wrenched up, and the snarling visage shocked my swollen eyes as wide open as they would go. “Essell Deray, if you don’t stop this right now, I’m going to slap you!”

I stared at him, unable to focus beyond the pain in my soul. Ases cursed, drew his hand back, and slapped me across my cheek. The sharp pain echoed through me, stilling the manic thoughts that had blocked out everything else.

Bouncer jumped to my defense, shoving his bared muzzle between us, his chest vibrating with a warning growl. 

“You back off. He needed that, and I am not going to sit out here and die because he had a meltdown.” Ases turned his stern look away from Bouncer and then to me. “Essell, are you with me?”

I blinked, taking in one long, shuddery breath after another. “Yes,” I croaked.

Relief melted some of the tension in his shoulders and face. “Thank the stars.” He eased the grip on my shirt and used his other hand to help me sit up in a better position. Crouching in the dirt path in front of me, he stared into my eyes. “I know what you overheard was a shock, but they didn’t say Garjah was dead, and he’s a strong male with many skills. I believe whoever was stupid enough to capture him and try to take us will regret it. My mech is still recording what’s happening at his estate, but we need to put some distance between it and us. We’re too close.”

He was right. I still didn’t know all the technology they had, but on Ardra they’d been able to follow me with scans. There was a chance they’d be able to do that here. We’d stand out; I was a hybrid and Ases and Bouncer were other species entirely. “Maybe it’s best if you stay in your shifted form. I know there are a lot of animals here; there’s a chance that I’d ping on their scanners as a Four Arms, and you and Bouncer might just come off as animals. Your senses are stronger in that form, and I can steer us based on what I know of the planet.” I had spent time on the ships while we were traveling studying what I could get my hands on about Garjah’s planet as well as Ardra. A big part was for negotiating—it was always important to know what you had and what you could spare to trade with—but we’d given up precious little other than some transporting lanes through space and sharing resources on Ardra.

Still, I at least knew what the most dangerous plants and predators were. With those I could probably work out the biggest risks to our life and keep us from beying before our allies could find us. Because I had to trust that Garjah had allies who would be looking. Both for him and us.

Grimacing at the stench of the vomit on the side of the path, I struggled to my feet. Bouncer leaned against my thigh, and I rubbed his head, taking comfort in his protection and closeness. “Can I still monitor the recording your mech is making with you shifted?” I asked Ases.

“Yes, but he won’t take any orders.”

“Okay.” Not ideal, but it was better than nothing. I’d listen to the recording as we walked, and then I’d watch it later, see if I could discover any clues who’d done this when we found a better spot to hide. “Shift, and I’ll carry your robe again.” This time I rolled it up and tied it around my waist like a belt so my hands were free for the comm.

I winced at the sounds of them destroying the place. It was going to take a long time to fix it. Whoever was in charge had overridden the voice who believed we’d left the house, and they were convinced that Garjah had a hidden secret room, not just the security suite. They had the men searching for hidden spaces, tearing up the house and the garden. 

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Julie Lynn Hayes


Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Ch. 99

 

Bouncer ran circles around us, which was probably a good thing. I was a hot, sweaty and panting mess as I trotted through the jungle. The sun filtered through the tall trees to leave a dim view of the ground, and there was silence all around us. I wasn’t sure if that was because we were pursued, and the jungle sensed the brewing danger, or if the cerops running around us was danger enough.

I almost wished Bouncer was sentient right then. If only he could answer some questions about what he was seeing when he ran the perimeter around us as we moved deeper into the jungle and farther away from the Four Arms who’d invaded Garjah’s home.

Ases might be able to answer my questions. He was shifted, loping by my side, his ears swiveling. The straps to his knives were the same expanding material as the necklet he wore that let him communicate and transmitted his location to his mech.  

“Can… they track you… through your link to… mech?” I gasped out between breaths.

Ases tilted his head, then shook it. I hoped he was sure. “Do you hear anyone following us?” That got an instant head shake. So what was Bouncer looking for? Or maybe he was just looking. We hadn’t spent time around the wild areas on the planet, and everywhere we’d gone was full of people.

He was a predator. Ases, for all he had thick back limbs with flexible, wide feet and a tail to help him balance, as well as strong forearms with clawed paws with opposable thumbs that let him run bipedal, climb, or fight in ways people didn’t expect, was still a civilized being. He loved to let his wilder side out to explore, climb, and tussle, but he didn’t have to shift unless he wanted to.

Staying on the ground with me when he would be twice as fast in the trees was probably killing him. I appreciated his dedication to my safety, but he’d be of more use checking out our back trail. “Why don’t you go up… and look?” My chest was starting ache, and my feet and calves felt like hamburger.

I needed to get more exercise.

Ases narrowed his eyes.

“I’ll be fine,” I swore. “Just gonna… keep running. If no one is… following… we can maybe stop.” A break would definitely be welcome. My brain was whirling with a ton of questions, and my body was quickly flagging. I kept my word, skirting around a tall tree with a thin trunk when it bent into my path under Ases’s weight, but not stopping.

Bouncer came leaping through the bushes behind me, startling me and sending my heart rate spiking even higher. “I wish… you’d stop that!”

He nudged me as I jogged. “Stop,” I complained. I rubbed my shoulder over my eyes, getting the stinging sweat out of them, and banged into him. He chuffed. “Sorry.” But… not really.

Ahead of us, Ases leapt down onto the path. He stood sideways across it, so I slowed then finally stopped. Leaning forward, resting my fists on my knees, I struggled to catch my breath. “What?”

He grunted, then a moment later, Ases rose to stand on his feet. “There’s no one behind us. Either they lost our trail and gave up, or they never figured out where we went in the first place.”

I wasn’t so sure I was happy at the sound of either option; if they lost us so thoroughly, would Garjah find us? “What do you think happened?” The words still came out choppy, but I didn’t have to gasp for air between words. I shoved the bundle of his robe I’d twisted around my arm in case he needed to shift back into his bipedal form toward him. “Put that on.”

“Someone clearly stole Garjah’s transport. Or they attacked him and incapacitated him and then took it. Nothing else would stop him from getting back to you before we were attacked. It’s a good thing you recognized their intentions when you first saw them.”

“Sneaking like that? Not hard. I was just glad I got Bouncer out. I’m sorry about your mech.”

Ases shrugged. He fingered his necklet. “They can’t use him. He shuts down if I go out of range, and if he comes online because I’m close by, which I’m clearly not.” He gestured around to the jungle.

“So you can’t use him to get a message to someone?” I slumped, squatting down on my heels.

“Oh no, I can. He only responds to my signal. I can send messages through the controller in my necklet or issue commands.”

“Can he see what’s going on at the house?”

“If you want me to set him to record, he can, yes.”

“Um, yes.” I collapsed onto my ass into the dirt. We were on a game trail, and I’d like to sit in something besides dirt, but Bouncer didn’t care. He dropped onto his belly next to me and started chewing on his front paws.

“I won’t be able to see what he’s recording without a comm,” Ases said.

Grinning, I flipped open a pouch in my pants. “I got that covered.” I handed it to him. “Let’s see what’s happening.”

At first, nothing looked like it was out of place or unusual. Then I could hear voices. “Where are they?”

“I checked the atrium. Nothing in there but claw marks going up the trees.”

“Did you check the roof?”

“Of course.”

The voices were getting louder. “Garjah wouldn’t have risked leaving them here unprotected if he didn’t have a Plan B. They’re not in the house.”

The meeker voice spoke, hesitatingly. “Do you… do you think this was a trap?”

“What? Of course not. He didn’t even notice the vapor before it knocked him out. How could he have known we were going to capture him and then come get his mutated freak and the offworld invader?” 

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Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Wednesday Briefs: Ancalagon Chapter 98


“Is there any way to bring him out of that?” I wasn’t even sure what it meant.

“Ordinarily? No. Our minds are different from most species. We can retreat within our memories, sort of lock our consciousness away. It’s the opposite of learning how to bring forth memories as we become adults instead of needing to be taught.”

Which means the male who attacked, or at least who was left holding the remaining silver ball thing, wasn’t young. Seedrah was still learning from Garjah, which meant he couldn’t activate his racial memories fully without help. I assumed the opposite would be true.

“But Timok can do something?”

“Yes, he’s developed a drug. It’s another controversy—the main one I was embroiled in before I met you.” Garjah ran his hand over my neck and squeezed my shoulder. “He studied my mother, and me, along with several others who had the ability to access more than one set of memories. Timok developed a drug to help our brains create connections that could make it easier to connect with new information, new learning.”

“Oh, I bet the Kardoval didn’t like that.” Not with their power being centered in being the repository of all the racial knowledge.

“No, they didn’t. But, all that aside, in the course of his study he also found a way to suppress the memories, which would return our attacker to consciousness despite his intentions.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Ases leaned forward. “You guys have racial memories? That you can consciously access?”

“In a way. I know the knowledge of my forebears who held the same abilities I do. Not their memories, not their consciousness, but their skills are mine.” Garjah leaned forward and tapped a few buttons on one of the screens.

“Wow.” Ases raised both eyebrows. “You have got to be going nuts with wanting to study that.”

I shrugged. I did, but that was more cultural than my central focus. Besides, if Timok was already that far long studying them, I’d have to work with him and that was not happening.

“Timok is coming in the morning; we will head back together.”

 

“Well, you’re looking healthy. You can thank me anytime.”

“Nope.” I should have known Timok would come in and be obnoxious. It was his default setting. How could someone with such a serious job, who did amazing work like Garjah described, act like such a child? I put a bite in my mouth and chewed, ignoring him.

Ases tilted his head, watching with his eyebrows raised. He gave a slow pan up and down Timok’s body, and I nearly gagged. That had better be a look cataloging the differences between Timok and the security officers who Ases had spent the most time with.

Timok was slender, and his green coloring was lighter in most places except for the ridges that went alongside his temples and back over his head. He also wore a tunic, the rich blue edged with orange.

His fashion sense was way off, and he was far too dramatic for me. I’d take my sandal-wearing, kilt-clad security officer with the stern expression who was glaring down at me any day. “What?” I asked defensively.

“Stay here where it’s safe. Timok and I will be back as soon as possible, but I don’t want you running around outside. If there’s any sign of trouble, go straight to the security suite and lock the door. Ases has already given his mech orders to secure the property if there’s an intruder.”

I felt like giving him a mock salute, but I knew how much it scared him to leave me alone. “Bouncer will be with me, and Ases has his mech. We’re safer than you,” I said. “So how about you promise to come back in one piece?”

He did salute me, bowing his head. “Of course. I’ll even comm you before we head back.”

 

Once again left alone, I pushed the food around on my plate with the tip of the knife left beside my plate. “I’m so sick of being left behind,” I mumbled.

“So do something about it.” Ases was full of great advice, as always.

“Like what?” I pushed my plate away. I’d clean it up later. “I need to move. You done?”

“Sure. What do you want to do?”

“Let’s walk around.” I honestly hadn’t seen that much of the house outside of the atrium, bedroom, and kitchen, and of course the security suite. When Garjah was with me, I didn’t see much beyond him. He consumed my attention.

“You do have a nice place here.” We looked around, poking in corners and moving things. The windows on the backside of the house looked out on a wide expanse of wild nature. The atrium looked wild, but this was completely different. The bright morning light didn’t even penetrate beyond a few feet.

Ases’ comm beeped. He glanced down, and then his eyes widened. “What the stars?”

“What?”

He tapped it, and a holo popped up. The front doors of the house were wide open, and there were Four Arms sneaking inside that I didn’t recognize. Worse, they held weapons in each hand.

“Could they be with Garjah?”

“No, he said he’d comm first. That is his transport, but I don’t recognize anyone.”

“We have to get to the suite.”

“There’s no way.” I turned to the window. “We have to go out here.” I hit the sensor, and the window slid open soundlessly. “Out the window, and shift when you get under that bush. It’s safer.”

Bouncer was growling, his ears pricked forward. “No, you go too.” I pushed him, and he jumped out after Ases.

I couldn’t be sure they didn’t have air support, so we’d do best to disappear into the jungle. I hopped out of the window and tapped the sensor to shut it again so we might get a little lead time. Ases’ robe was on the ground.

“Go. Run”

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Julie Lynn Hayes