A Last Time For Everything

“Who goes there?” he heard, the words sounding as muffled as the form in the dense fog, but he could make out the spot of light from the lantern.

He stopped and hesitated before he answered.  When he did so, his voice broke with fear and exhaustion.  “I know not if I have stumbled upon friend or foe, and if I tell you who I am you may run me through!”

“I am a guard of Qurn,” the guard replied.  “Now speak if you are friend or foe!”

“Praise the goddess,” he cried, stumbling forward.  “I am Nebosa, a recruit with the Night Patrol’s second squad.”

The guard saw as he came closer the gash on his head, bound haphazardly with some strips of cloth.  “Second squad?  We’ve heard no word on them for three nights now,” she said.  “We thought them all dead.”

“Three nights?” he repeated, astonished.  “Then I must have been unconscious for an entire day.  I was injured, the Hets must have left me for dead, though I fear the others were killed.”  He threw back his cloak to reveal his uniform, recruit stripes on his shoulder indicating the lowest rank of the army.

“Then welcome back from the dead, brother.  We are glad to have you.”  The guard called for a medic to help him to the infirmary, but he shook his head.

“No,” Nebosa insisted, holding out a satchel.  “I must deliver this!  Our squad captured a messenger, and Captain Dayio believed they carried information on the Hettani’s army.  I must give this to the general, not a moment can be lost, for I’ve already lost a day!”

“Of course.  Yes, you will be taken there at once!”

Two guards were dispatched to escort Nebosa.  The general’s own doctor looked after him while the general looked through the satchel, drawing out various documents, a Hettanian army captain’s emblem, and what appeared to be a map, though Nebosa only caught a glance as the general looked through the items.

“This may well turn the tide of this war,” the general said at last, looking over at him.

“Sir,” Nebosa mumbled.  His head ached, his mouth was parched, and had he not felt compelled to deliver his burden, he would have gladly taken a sip of water and a bed and slept for as long as he might be allowed.

The general, however, was very much interested in one thing.  “Tell me, how did a mere recruit come to be the lone survivor of your squad and return with such a prize?”

Nebosa’s gaze fell and he stared at his hands.  He felt at a loss to explain.  “I do not know, Sir.”  He felt the tension creep up on him, like water filling the tent, threatening to drown him.

“Do you have any idea what it is you brought back?”

“No, Sir?”  He looked up at the general.  “That is- I knew it was important.  Captain Dayio said we needed to deliver it, but I had no need of knowing the particulars.  She would have… she would have given it to you herself, but we were ambushed on our way back.”

The general put a hand on his shoulder and nodded.  “You’ve done well, and you’ll be rewarded for this.”

“Thank you, Sir,” he said, though his voice betrayed that reward was not what he had been after.  Or if it was, a soft bed was the one he’d be most looking forward to.  “I was just doing my duty.”

“We could use more recruits like you, then,” the general said.

***

Three days earlier:

Nebosa stared down at the body; the lifeless face stared back at him.   Something inside him was not quite able to accept the reality of the moment.   He barely registered the pats on his back and shoulder as his companions praised him with ‘well done, lad’ and ‘we’ll make a proper warrior of you yet.’  All he could see was the blood on his knife and hands.

He pulled the war-mask from his face, feeling suffocated by it.  He wanted to protest he hadn’t meant it.  He had turned to see the figure looming over him and instinct took over, his knife finding its target before he had even really seen what it was.  But he hadn’t meant it.  He wanted to scream it at them, at the sky, at his god.  He hadn’t meant it!  But words refused to come to his mouth.

Later, as the other four of his squad gathered around the fire to warm themselves and their food, Nebosa sat hunched beneath the crumbled remains of a rock wall a short distance away. He drew his blanket tight around his shoulders but even so it could not keep out the chill of night that pierced him to the soul.

After finishing off the wine found among their enemies things, three had bedded down, but Captain Daiyo had been keeping her eye on Nebosa ever since the battle.  Now she approached him quietly, her imposing frame seeming even larger silhouetted by the remains of the fire.  Without a word, she found his hands, pressing a cup into them.

He wanted to protest, but the warmth was a welcome change.  He mumbled out a half-hearted, “Thank you.”

She gave a little hum of acknowledgement as she settled in beside him, looking up at where the moon and stars played hide-and-seek with breaks in the clouds.  The silent companionship she offered, the intimacy of darkness, gave him that impression of safety to find his words.

“I can’t stop seeing it,” he said after some time, eyes fixed on the cup.

“You’ve never killed before, have you…”  He remained silent, but she already knew the answer.  “Maybe you thought killing would bear no consequences if it was an enemy.  But you can’t get their blood on your hands without seeing it is the same color as yours.”

The image of it flashed in his mind again and he set the cup aside to cover his face with his hands, hiding the tears he refused to let fall.  She stroked his hair gently, as a mother might.

“I don’t understand,” he said after a while.  “Why did he have to die?  Why did…”

“Wars are not about the people who must fight them, Nebosa.  The man you killed, I doubt he was evil.  But there exists an idea,” she said. “An idea that says their ways are better than our ways, and their gods are better than our goddess.  Swords cannot kill that, nor arrows pierce it.”  She rested her cheek against his head and sighed.  “We fight the Hettani and they fight us, not because Hettani are evil, but because they think we are.”

“I don’t understand,” Nebosa repeated in a whisper.

Daiyo took a long breath and stared back at the sky.  “Neither do I,” she confessed.

They sat in silence for a long time after that.  When Daiyo did speak again, she sounded strained, her breath heavy.

“I’m going to turn in.”

Nebosa pulled away at that.  “Is something wrong?”

“I don’t-” she shook her head, “I’ll be fine.  It was a long day today.”  She stood, holding her hands out as if for balance.  “You should get some sleep,” Daiyo added as she walked away.  “And make sure you eat.”

“I will,” he said, picking up the cup she had brought earlier, but it was cold now.  He waited until she settled in some distance away to keep watch before he discretely poured the contents out onto the ground.  Then he let his tears fall in silence, holding the symbol of his faith so tight it cut into his palms.  He prayed for atonement, for some penance that might undo what had been done.

The light of morning roused him from the sleep that had eventually claimed him.  He stood, still numb with grief, and walked over to where his companions lay.  He nudged Daiyo, then rolled her to her back.  Her lifeless body offered no resistance.  He checked through her pockets and bags until he found the orders she carried.

There was not much to take from the other three, nothing he wanted, anyway.  He left even their money – it could never pay the debt he carried now.  He dragged their bodies into a dense patch of brush, then gathered his things.  Taking his bearings, he set off north to find the Hettanian camp, arriving just after mid-day.

As he approached, the guards raised their weapons, calling at him to halt.  He continued to walk forward.  As he got closer, he pulled a faded emblem from his bag and held it up.  The guards, who at first seemed confused, stood back and saluted.  Without a word, or glance to either side, he went straight to the commander’s tent, pushing open the flap and throwing the pouch with the orders in it at her.

The commander nodded for the guards to step outside.  When they were alone, she stood up from her desk and took a step toward him.  “I heard.  I am sorry-”

“Don’t.”

“Krayle-”

“You knew I was with them,” Nebosa screamed.  “You knew!  How could you let him go on that patrol!”

“It’s war.  I have five thousand soldiers to think about,” she said, keeping her own voice calm.  “Do you think I personally know where every one of them is?  What every order given by a sergeant might be?”

“His blood is on my hands!”  He held them up as if in proof.  Though they had been washed clean, Nebosa could not but see it still, accusing him.  “And it will be on your head!”

The commander came over and took his hands in hers, pressing them together as if in prayer.  “And I am truly sorry, Krayle.  I am.  There’s nothing can change what has happened.  But I need you to go back.  I need you to finish your mission.”

“There is no mission anymore!  I killed them!”

“No, Krayle.  There is still a mission.  Now, as the lone survivor of your squad, you may be in an even better position.  Go back, and you may yet win this war for us.”

“For you?”  Nebosa jerked his hands away, tears of grief and anger obscuring his vision.  “I killed my own husband for you, was that not sacrifice enough?”

She bowed her head.  “Then don’t let his death be meaningless.”

“His death was meaningless!” he cried, his whole chest filled with rage..  “It accomplished nothing!  His blood flowed on these hands, sworn ever to honor and adore him, and you let him be sent when you knew – you knew – it was my squad that was out there!”

“Would you have chosen to kill someone else in his place?  Deprive someone else of their love so that yours might have been spared?  What of the others in his squad, did you spare even a single thought to them?”

His hand twitched toward his knife, imagining for a moment how much pleasure he might take in depriving her of her own life, but he also recognized the truth in her words.  If it had not been Saru it would have been someone else, some other eager  young warrior who would have spilled their blood on his hands.  That did little to ease his pain but it did at least still his rage for a moment.

“We will give him a hero’s funeral,” she said softly.  “And if the gods will, his spirit will stay with you, protect you.”

If there was any justice in the universe, Saru’s spirit would kill him instead, that they might be at least united again in death if not in life.

“Now, Krayle,” the commander continued, “you must return, to finish your mission.”

“I want to see him first,” Nebosa said after a moment.

The commander sighed, then nodded and called her guards back in, sending one to escort Nebosa to where Saru’s body was laid out for funeral.  Almost overcome, his knees went weak as he walked into the tent, a lump forming in his throat that refused to be swallowed away.

Saru looked almost peaceful laying there, as if he merely slept.  He was arrayed in white and red with his weapons situated around him.  On his chest was the pendant Nebosa had given him at their wedding.  Though it seemed someone had tried to clean it, it still held the stain of blood.  Shaking, Nebosa reached out and placed a hand on Saru’s cheek, tears dripping on his robes.

“Forgive me, my love.”  He pressed a kiss to Saru’s cold lips, then laid his head on his chest.  Part of him wished he would have died at Saru’s hand, and part of him would not have wished this grief on him for the world.  “You will be with me always, and I pray I will be with you again, soon.  This life holds nothing for me now that you are gone from it.”

He slipped the pendant from over Saru’s head and put it around his own neck, and there he stayed beside Saru’s body, refusing food or drink.

When night had fallen, a pyre was made ready.  Nebosa carried the torch but remained silent as those around him recited the prayers to take Saru’s soul to the halls of the gods.  When it was time, he thrust the torch in, and as the flames engulfed the pyre he briefly entertained the idea of throwing himself onto it as well, but even as the thought crossed his mind, he could almost hear Saru chiding him for being such a romantic fool.

“I know,” he whispered in answer to his thoughts.  “I’m sorry.”

After the rituals had finished, the commander came to stand beside him.  “You’ll have to leave before dawn.”

He nodded in reply.

“I’ve had some fake documents drawn up for you to take with you – including a false cypher that we can use to deliver misinformation.”

He nodded again, not really wanting to discuss this right now, but his fight from earlier had died out.

“You’re a hero, Krayle.”

“I’m a risan bastard,” Nebosa corrected her.

The commander’s lips curled up slightly.  “Heroes generally are, Captain.”

Nebosa looked at her.  “I will curse your name until the day I die.”

She didn’t seem surprised by the sentiment.  He turned away.  He would do his duty and complete the mission.  He would infiltrate the intelligence of the enemy.  And, gods willing, after he had died, he would haunt her.

It was an hour before dawn when he stopped, about two miles gone from the encampment.  He took his knife and cut a deep gash in his head, then bound it hastily with some scraps of cloth before too much blood was lost.  He sat down to wait for the light-headed feeling to pass, thumbing through the documents intended for the Qurn general.

The cypher caught his eye and he took it out, looking at it – staring right through it.  Unbidden, the kind words that Daiyo had spoken to him that night came to mind.  Though in his grief he had killed them all for simply being there at Saru’s death, thinking back on it now, she had been genuine in the comfort she had offered him.  Though she could not hope to fathom what his pain had been, she had allowed him to grieve, and for a moment he wished he had not poisoned them.

His eyes refocused on the cypher.  Setting it down for a moment, he struck a spark with his flint, then lit it on fire.  The orange glow reflected in his eyes and little sparks fancied themselves stars, rising into the still-dark sky.  He held it until only the edge beneath his fingers remained, then let it fall to the ground, crushing the blackened parchment under his heel.

He took from among his things a true cypher and his Captain’s badge and tucked them both into the satchel.  He wouldn’t be needing them again.

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Announcement

So I’ve been very quiet here, but that’s not because I don’t have stuff to share.  Instead, it’s because I’ve started on a new project.  Or rather, finally started on an old project that has been bumping around in my brain for quite some time but I couldn’t quite manage to put it all together until just recently when the last piece of my creativity puzzle fell into place!

A big project.  Well, a big-for-me project.  I’ve been putting off saying anything because I didn’t want to jinx myself or something or make promises and not deliver.  But I am going to tease you mercilessly now.  I have begun writing a book in earnest.  Well, a book-sized collection of stories.  I have no date of completion yet, for now I’m just going to say it’ll be done when it gets done.  But I will give you a hint as to what lies inside:

Disguised gods, warrior maidens, magical items, kidnapped princes, lost children, tricksy gentlemen, binding vows, dark forests, enchanted creatures, powerful witches, cruelty, greed, bravery, love – and yes, even some happily ever afters, but mostly not in the way you expect them.

I am writing what I hope will be fairy tales with heroes and heroines for our modern age while maintaining the essence of classic tales.  Though I say ‘essence’ I don’t mean that I will simply be retelling existing stories in a new way, but rather I will be completely deconstructing the very building blocks of these tales and rebuilding them in a new way.  I want to create stories that feel familiar and yet are refreshingly new and different in how they play out.

I don’t have a title for the collection yet, though I’ve jotted down a number of ideas.  “Once and Ever After” is currently the best, but I’m still looking for something that just says “ah, yes, that’s it!  That’s the title!”  And I don’t have that quite yet.

I do have at least working titles for most of the individual stories, and you may think you will recognize a few of them, but I promise you won’t know the ending until you’ve turned that last page.

Some of the stories already in work include

Skin of Ash
The Snow Raven
The Two Kings
Xiao Dan
The Wise Queen
The Woodcutter’s Children
A House in the Woods
Seven of Hearts
A Bird May Love A Fish
The Empty Cradle

There are more that don’t yet have titles, also.  Some of these titles might change, and some of the stories might go in a way I didn’t expect and end up changing the title that way… but I have a pretty good start on most of these and a clear end in mind for most of them, too.

I’ll leave you to (hopefully?) be excited for this!  I know I am 😀

The Machine

The Machine shone irritatingly from the garden.  The morning rays glinted off its copper and glass surface like a second sun, sending beams of light to swirl and dance across the far wall of the library.

“Draw the curtains, will you, darling?” the elderly woman said as she dramatically draped her arm across her eyes, sinking further into her plush chair.  “I cannot abide that monstrosity out there.”

From the corner, her husband gave a sympathetic smile and set his beaker down.

“Come now, my dear, come now,” he said as he shuffled across the room.  He had the air of one always on the verge of laughter, even when speaking of the most serious of matters.  He took his wife’s hand and patted it gently.  “The Machine is just doing its job.  No need for such distress.”

“Oh, Maltricus,” she bemoaned, “why must we bear it?”

“Drink your tea,” he encouraged, picking up the cup and saucer from the side table.  “You’ll feel better once you’ve had your tea.”

She waved the offering away and turned her eyes to the far wall, her voice taking on a far-off quality.  “I do not want tea; I want to be free of this place.”

He set the cup down again.  “In time, my dear.  In time.  Do you want to know what I am working on?  Would you like to see it?”  His eyes glinted excitement, the little wrinkles at their edges growing deeper.  Though his wife gave him no reply, he shuffled back to his desk again.

“This,” he said, bending over to gaze at the liquid inside his beaker which caught the light and set it to sparkle, “this will do the trick, I think.  Yes, I think it will.”

His wife gave a greatly exaggerated sigh.

“I have bridged the gap, you see?  Between the physical reality we live in and the quantum reality that hides beneath.”  He used his hands to illustrate, holding one over the other, about an inch apart. 

“There are all these realities, all around and under and over and beside us.  We cannot perceive them, generally.  But this…” he gave a giggle as he swirled the liquid around inside the glass. “this is the bridge.  Quite clever, don’t you think, Pari?”

She slowly rolled her head back the other direction and reached for her tea, having never understood anything her husband said.  He fussed and fiddled with his machines and his formulas, rambling on and on whether she answered him or not.

“Come, come,” he said, waving her over.  “Come and watch. You’ll see, you’ll see!”

Despite his supplications, he did not seem to even notice that she did not relent.  Instead she sipped her previously unwanted tea and made sure to give occasional tragic sighs.  He turned to open the window which overhung the Machine.

“Now, what I’ll do is- yes, what I’ll do, is pour this solution into the Machine-“

His wife began to hum to drown out his voice.  She was still humming as the Machine blew up, sending bits of her husband to swirl and dance across the walls.  She set down the teacup and rang the bell until her husband’s assistant arrived.

“Be a darling, mon cher, and fetch Maltricus’ next incarnation.  The Machine has blown him up again.”

Continue reading

Blood Is Thicker

There was a light breeze playing in the woods, rustling the tree leaves; an echo of birds claiming their territory; a passing car on the distant highway; the crunch of dirt and rocks.  And then, there was my mother.

“You know what would be nice to hear once in a while?” she said as we paused.

“Silence?” I suggested, though not terribly hopeful.

“‘Hey, mom,'” she offered, “‘why don’t I take you out to dinner?’  ‘Hey, mom, I just called to hear your voice.’  You know what I hoped for today?  ‘Hey, mom, happy birthday.’  But no, I don’t ever get those kinds of phone calls, do I?”

“Maybe you should have had another kid, then,” I said, in no mood to be lectured on familial duties.  I took a drink from my flask.

She continued our ‘conversation’ as if I wasn’t actually part of it.  “No, I get the 3 AM phone calls, the ‘can you bring the car ’round’ phone calls, the ‘I need a new dump spot, the last one is compromised’ calls.”

She dropped her shovel and waved for the flask.  I sighed and handed it over.  “Yes, and I pay dearly for it.  You make sure of that.”

“Don’t be impertinent, dear,” she said after swallowing.

I tucked the flask back in my pocket, then wiped a rag across my forehead.

“Hey, mom,” I said, voice mockingly sweet, “How about when we’re done here we go out for ice cream and get our nails done?”

“Well, you may have no femininity to speak of,” she huffed, “but a manicure wouldn’t go amiss after this.  Just look at my nails.”  She held her hand out for me to see the chips in the polish and the dirt caked beneath.  “You know, it wouldn’t take much for you to be real pretty.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes.  “Can we please just get done!?”

“Why don’t you let me take you shopping?  Get you some nice dresses, some make-up-”

“Over my dead body.”  We both looked down.  “Over my dead body,” I revised.

“What ever happened to Elias?”

“He was Mossad,” I reminded her as we hoisted the bag between us.

“So what?  He was a very nice young man.”

“His mother threatened to disown him if he married a non-Jew.”  The body made a soft ‘thud’ as it rolled to the bottom of the hole.  We grabbed our shovels again and started to fill it in.

“Well, blood is thicker than water, dear,” she said, lamenting my singleness yet again.

“Yeah, but water doesn’t leave incriminating stains on your clothes,” I pointed out.

She pursed her lips.  For a few minutes, only the sound of digging passed between us.

“Fine, I’ll get you a manicure when we’re done,” I said.  Her silence always made me feel guilty.  Lectures and pleadings I could ignore, but silence was her true weapon of evil.  Silence got me offering things that I shouldn’t, and got her hopes up for more.

“Oh, manicures!  You’ll come, too, of course,” she insisted.

“No.”

“We can make a day of it!”

“No.”

“And then we’ll have brunch at the cafe.  I’ll invite May, her son just got out of prison-”

“Nope.”

“We’ll have to buy you some good bras.”

“Not gonna happen,” I said as I put the shovels back in the trunk.  She wasn’t listening, as usual.

“And we’ll get our hair done, and go dress shopping…”

“If it’s your birthday why do you keep insisting on buying me things?” I said, exasperated.

“It’s my birthday, I get to do what I want,” she sang sweetly.

“I am not getting a dress!” I said as we got in the car.

“I know this delightful little Turkish lady,” she mused as she checked her hair in the rear view mirror.  “Always wears the prettiest scarves.  Just got a new shipment of guns in.”

“That I might do,” I conceded.

She refreshed her lipstick before putting the car in drive and pulling away from the scene.  A few miles down the road we passed a lighted sign across the highway.

UTAH HAS NOT HAD A
TRAFFIC RELATED DEATH
FOR 4 DAYS

“You’re due,” I mumbled and opened the folder on my next target.

Leaving Town Abruptly

Writer’s Digest Creative Writing Prompt: Leaving Town Abruptly:

A friend rings your doorbell way too early in the morning to be ringing doorbells. You answer the door in your PJs, and the friend says, “Pack a bag quickly. I have to get out of here now and need you to come with me.” You are intrigued.

I grabbed her arm and pulled her inside.

“Ten minutes,” I said, both of us knowing I would take twenty. I stood in the middle of the living room for a moment, my body trying to move in three directions at once as my brain moved in twelve. Finally they both settled on one at the same time and I ran up the stairs, two at a time.

Fortunately I hadn’t put away my travel bags from my weekend trip to the islands so there was no having to dig them back out of the closet. Unfortunately, I also had not yet done laundry. I pulled my drawers open and stared at their contents, stumped.

“Okay, Micky,” I called down the stairs. “I need input. What am I packing?”

“Warm weather, um… four days?” She paused a moment, then added, “We can do laundry there.”

I grabbed a handful of underwear, three summer shirts, a pair of shorts, and one sweater – just in case. Then I shuffled out of my PJs and stuffed those in as well. Half of what I put in was dirty but the promise of laundry invigorated me to take my favorite shirt from the hamper.

I hesitated beside the bed for a moment before I grabbed my teddy bear and stuffed him in as well. Never know when you might need the moral support.

Back in the living room, I left my bag on the couch as I counted off my fingers of what needed to be done.

“Feed the cats, grab toothbrush and makeup, call my mother- once we’re gone,” I added as she made to object. I looked around again for anything I might be overlooking.

“What about food?”  I asked.

“What about clothes?”

I pointed to the bag; she pointed to me. I looked down.

“Oh, that. Yeah, I mean, I suppose I could get dressed,” I said nonchalantly.

“Well hurry,” she said, barely concealing her laughter. “It’s been ten minutes already!”

“Alright, alright! You get the cooler from the back porch and raid the fridge, I’ll be back down in a minute.”

Armed at last with pants and a proper shirt, I grabbed my purse, shoved a camera into the side-pocket of my travel bag, decided there was nothing to be done about my hair anyway and conceded I was done. We loaded my things into the trunk beside hers and then got in.

“This is what I love about you, Liz,” she said as she put the car in gear and pulled out of the driveway.

“What’s that?”

“You never ask.”

Lokadottir

Lokadottir ©2014 Eliza Murdock

Lokadottir ©2014 Eliza Murdock

Now Hel’s abode was beneath the second root of Yggdrasil,
There cast down by Odin, where a portion of the dead are taken.
In winter’s maw she dwelt, within the hall of Éljúðnir.
Her countenance eclipsed, her weeping rose
Even to the ears of her father
Who desired to know the source of such grief.

Then spoke Loki, “What has turned your eyes to seas,
Oh daughter?  What your brow to blackness?”
Hel replied, “For the face of he, oh father,
Who is counted fairest, whom I am denied.
For the company of my heart’s desire,
Barren in my breast as my bed.”

Then spoke Loki, “Be still, oh daughter, and quell your rivers.
Call your servants to array you in dresses and jewels
Your heart’s desire shall be fulfilled, but in time.”
Then upon her father’s cheek Hel gave her offerings of obedience
And her servants bore away her tears in vials of glass,
To make of them jewels upon wires of sunlight and threads of moonlight.

But Loki returned to Ásgarðr, purposed already in his mind
For what father could be blinded to such sorrows?”
Then taking upon him the appearance of an old woman
And in disguise, he persuaded Frigga to tell him Baldr’s weakness;
For the mistletoe alone had she not secured the promise
Of bringing no harm upon her son.

In this was found the chance Loki needed,
And from the plant he crafted a spear.
Giving it to Baldr’s brother to throw
So that it pierced him and instantly he fell dead,
Thus would the fairest of the gods be sent
To the Grave-warden’s halls upon flaming ship.

As Odin banished Hel, so Loki sent Baldr, also,
And to her bosom he was received, fairest of the gods.
When the Æsir came with supplications for his return
She replied that unless the whole of creation grieved –
Even as she had grieved for his absence –
Then he would not be released from the grave.

All creation grieved, save for one alone;
Who, being Loki in disguise, ensured his daughter’s joy.
What father is there who would do more?
As Odin banished Hel, so Loki sent Baldr, also,
To bind them until Ragnarok.
For as Odin does, so too shall Loki Laufeyson.

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Neutral Giedian Solar Republic

The humanitarian effort on Cygnus Minor seemed to lose more ground every day.  Factions had risen out of the refugees there, possibly through deliberate efforts of one side or the other in the Trans-Galactic War in an attempt to draw Neutral Giedian Solar Republic into the fight or otherwise destabilize their footing in the sector.

Though only three planets, Giedia Prime, Geidia Proxima, and the latest to be colonized Cygnus Minor, NGSR held considerable political sway and controlled some very rich resources.  Cygnus Minor was mostly populated by refugees from the Trans-Galactic War which was now entering its hundredth year, and seemed to draw more and more planets in as it went.

Despite not being part of the voting membership of the NGSR, nor having a great amount of valuable resources on planet, Cygnus Minor was still a prime target both for terrorist activities and as a base for possible attacks against either of the main Giedia planets.  Both of which were of great concern to the paramilitary humanitarian corps stationed in the Northern hemisphere, where most of the attacks were concentrated.

Sergeant Kebede bent over the body of one of the latest victims, a woman.  She closed her hand around a stone pendant at her neck, and though the symbol was faded and half obscured by dirt and blood, she had known what it was the moment her eyes fell on it.  A symbol of protection from another country on another planet, and one she had first seen almost twenty years ago.  It now threatened to send her falling into memories of the past, but her moment of reverie was broken by the sound of a baby’s cry.  She moved around the toppled cart to find the babe among soft blankets, frightened but no apparent injuries as she lifted it into her arms.

It continued to cry until she started to rock back and forth, bouncing gently.  She pulled one glove off with her teeth and rested her hand on its body.  A tiny hand wrapped around her finger, pulling it into its mouth like a pacifier.

Looking back at the broken bodies around the cart, likely the parents, she ordered her squad to collect them.  They would need genetic ID to ensure the child belonged to the deceased. Protocol required it for proper disposition of those displaced and orphaned, as children this young had often not been officially identified by the government, though the parents almost certainly would have been.

That meant the bodies would not be collected and put into cold storage with the others from the attack, likely not to be identified for up to a year with the current back-log.  Instead they would have to be logged, stored, and tracked separately.  Because of that it was a protocol generally ignored in the field, but she insisted, ignoring the few protests.

With too much work left to be done, she could not devote any time to the child yet, instead giving it over to the medic for a full evaluation but tagging it with her ID.  She would be checking up.

After there had been an accounting of the attack: the number dead, the types of weapons that had been employed – all of which pointed to an operation by the Laran Resistance which the media would no doubt play off as speculation and unverified accounts – there were finally a few hours of down-time.  Sgt. Kebede sat on her bunk and pulled the stone out of her pocket, drawing a matching one from beneath her shirt and holding them side-by-side.

***

Aliya felt her mother’s grip tighten and looked up.  Her lips – usually so full of smiles and laughter – were drawn tight, pressed together to prevent the words she so dearly wished to send flying at the man behind the counter from slipping out.  She chose her words with care, tone kept as neutral as she could manage.

“My husband is already on Giedia Prime,” she repeated.  “These are his embassy papers and our immigration visas,” she said, holding them out again for the man.  He did not look at them.

“No new visas are being issued to residents of this sector,” he said, not looking up from his screen.  “Please contact your local embassy if you wish to apply for refugee status.”

“We are not refugees, sir, I have our visas already!”  She pulled Aliya closer.  “Please, just look at my documents!”

Aliya’s gaze moved from her mother to the man in question.  His dark grey uniform was buttoned up tight to his throat, giving him an appearance of being strangled, helped along by his fat, red cheeks.  His hand at last moved to snatch the offending papers from her mother’s grip and look them over with no attempt to veil his disdain.

“These are dated from three standard months ago,” he said, tossing them back at her, dismissive of their content.

“They document our travel window as open now,” she insisted, pointing to the range of dates at the bottom.

The man yawned and finally spoke into his head piece.  “Sir, this is Kelt at desk two.  I’ve got a… Delta Cygni here and her kid, claims she’s got visas to Giedia Prime.  No, sir, no husband.”

Aliya’s mother stood stone silent but her grip got tighter again.  Finally the man turned back to them, gesturing vaguely as he gave directions with little care whether they were understood or remembered.

“Take your papers and effects, go to the second lift, up six flights, first right, then second left down the hall till you see refugee processing.  They’ll evaluate your case.”  Barely pausing for breath he looked around them and called out, “NEXT!”

Aliya’s mother picked up her papers and they both took their bags and left the desk without comment.  She didn’t speak again until they were in the lift and Aliya tugged her shirtsleeve.

“It’ll be alright, dear,” her mother said, lacking any hint of conviction to her words.  “This next place will help us.”  Unlike the three places before it.

“But we aren’t refugees,” Aliya whispered.

Her mother’s face flinched momentarily and she nodded.  “No, dear.  We aren’t refugees.  Except perhaps from that man.”

She tried to give a smile, but Aliya could tell it wasn’t genuine.  She rested her head against her mother’s stomach until they reached their floor.  Mumbling under her breath, her mother recalled the directions.

“First right… second left.”

They followed the curve of the hall, and Aliya wondered if that was meant to be the second left or if the next hallway to their left was it.  Thankfully a sign reading REFUGEE PROCESSING guided them the rest of the way, and not exactly to the letter of the directions they had been given.  Even had it not, though, the sound of the waiting room would have drawn them to the correct location.

To Aliya it looked like a hundred people were there, the sound filling the small space, and the smell of that many bodies having gone who-knew-how-long without baths overwhelmed her at first.  She pushed her face into her mother’s skirt as they approached the counter.

In the next line was a family of five children and their beleaguered father, all dressed in what were likely their best clothes, yet old and worn.   Each clutched a bag, and the smallest child had a doll pinched under his arm.

One girl, the closest to her, returned her gaze and their eyes met, a shared tiredness reflected between them.  But Aliya lacked the hopeless edge the other girl had; she was not a refugee, they had visas.  Her mother had assured her they would get through, they just needed to go through the proper channels.

Aliya gave the girl a smile.  The girl looked at her father, but he was distracted with paperwork.  She let go of her brother’s hand and came closer.

“Hello,” Aliya said.

“Hello,” the girl replied.

“I’m Aliya.”

She hesitated before saying, “Ebhiante.”

Her accent was heavy and Aliya had trouble making out all the sounds, asking her to repeat it before trying it herself.

“Where are you going?” Ebhiante asked, looking between Aliya and her mother in a way which said they didn’t look like refugees.  Not like the others here.

“Giedia Prime.  My father is there.”

“Oh.”  Ebhiante looked down at her bag.  “Where are you from?”

Before Aliya could answer, though, her mother gave her a tug and hushed her.  Ebhiante started to retreat back to her family, but suddenly turned and grabbed Aliya’s wrist.  She pulled a stone amulet from around her neck and pressed it into Aliya’s hand.

“Imha keep you safe,” Ebhiante breathed.

Aliya felt another tug behind her, pulling her apart from Ebhiante.  She turned to see the two armed soldiers who had approached her mother.

“Kebede, Siria and Aliya,” one said, reading the papers.

“Yes,” her mother said, showing no hint of fear at them or their weapons.

“Right,” the one said, pushing the papers back at her.  “This way.”

“Where are we going?” her mother asked, not willing to follow them blindly, but the other soldier took her by the arm and pulled her along.  Aliya looked back to see Ebhiante, hand still out as if she could reach her.  Then they were gone, escorted past the counter and down a long hallway with many doors.  They did not take any of the doors, but the hallway at last emptied out into another room, larger than what they had left, and divided in half by a thick glass wall with a set of double doors like an air-lock.  There were soldiers with guns everywhere Aliya looked.

Leading up to the wall on both sides were narrow walkways, turning back and forth like a maze, and cut off at waist height.  They were escorted down one of these passages to the doors on their side of the glass wall.  The soldier who had spoken handed their papers to one of the guards at the door who looked it over carefully.

“Siria Kebede,” she said.

She nodded.

“Aliya Kebede,” she said, looking now at Aliya.

Aliya nodded, and the guard handed the papers back to her mother.  Addressing the soldiers who had escorted them here, she said, “Thank you, we’ll take them from here.”

The doors opened and the guard motioned for them to pass.  “Go straight toward the far doors.  Do not stop.  Present your papers at the window, they will ensure you are directed to your transport.”

Aliya’s mother looked at the guard, letting a moment of weakness show as she pleaded, “Tell me where we are being sent.”

The guard gave her a sympathetic look. “You are going to join your husband, Ma’am.  This is the check-point for travel to NGSR.”

Aliya had never seen her mother cry before that moment, and yet it seemed only to increase her strength.  Standing straight and tall, she did not even bother to wipe the tears from her cheeks as she picked up her bag in one hand, gripped Aliya’s hand tight with her other, and nodded.

“Thank you.”

The guard gave a nod.  Aliya wasn’t sure whether she should be relieved or afraid, but together she and her mother walked from war to freedom in thirty feet.

***

Boots stopped outside her tent and a voice soon followed.  “Sergeant Kebede.”

She rubbed her nose between her thumb and forefinger, trying to fight off the headache threatening.  “What is it, McKay?”

“You wanted to be notified about the child?”

She got up quickly at that and pushed back the flap to her tent.  “Yes?”

“We have a local acting as a wet-nurse,” McKay said.  “They’re in recovery.”

Sgt. Kebede nodded and holstered her pistol, then followed him toward the medical tents.  “Wet-nurse?  Is she pregnant?”

McKay shook his head.  “She lost hers, I think.”

That stopped her up short.  “You think!?”

“Sorry, Sgt.  We’re having trouble finding a translator.  We’ve gotten a few words but…”  Then he dropped his voice and added, “Not sure how long we’ll have her around, to be honest.”

They started walking again, and she followed quietly for a minute before she put a hand on his arm and asked, “The baby… is it a boy or a girl?”

“Girl,” he murmured.

There were too few patients in the field hospital for the population this town had on register; far too few.  There was no thinking that it was from lack of injured, rather from lack of survivors to be treated.  She pushed that thought aside for now as they approached the woman, part of an arm missing and bandages on her face red from the injuries beneath, and yet against her breast lay the child, sleeping peacefully.

Sgt. Kebede stood a short distance away and watched.  The woman lifted her head to meet her gaze with only one blood-shot eye visible from beneath her bandages.  What she could see of her face was no older than she was, thirty at most though of a much harder life.

McKay spoke softly, “Internal bleeding.  We tried to give her an IV for the pain but she refused because of the child.”

“McKay, what the hell are you using her as a wet-nurse for?  She’s in no condition-”

“Sergeant, she heard the child crying and the nurses couldn’t keep her in bed.  She tore a few stitches out in the struggle, and only calmed down when we gave it to her.”  He scratched his arm and reluctantly added, “I think she might think it’s hers.”

Sgt. Kebede took the stone from her pocket and  ran her thumb over the symbol of the Goddess, recalling the face of the woman from whose neck she had taken it.  There was little chance of it being that same girl from all those years ago, but she couldn’t help feeling as if she owed something to the past.

She drew up a stool and sat beside the woman and child, holding up the amulet.  The woman seemed to recognize it, and made no objection when she tied it through a grommet in the child’s medical blanket.  The woman patted her hand and gave what might have been a smile.  With a rough voice and thick accent, she spoke a few words.

Sgt. Kebede looked back at McKay, but he only shrugged.  The woman frowned slightly, then pointed to the medic,  “McKay,” pointed to herself, “Thella,” then pointed to the child and looked at the Sergeant to fill in the unspoken blank.

She was about to shake her head, she didn’t know, but instead found herself saying, “Ebhiante.  Her name is Ebhiante.”

The woman thought for a moment, then nodded, leaning back into the bed and closing her eye.  Sgt. Kebede got up and left them to rest, pulling McKay into an area cordoned into an office.
“Find a translator, McKay,” she snapped.  “We have to have someone in this dishat army who understands her.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

“And keep me informed of their conditions.  Both of them.  I don’t want them to sneeze without me knowing.”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

She picked up a file on his desk, flipping through some of the reports inside.  “And I want an ID on those two bodies, PDQ*, you understand? I want to know who that child is!”

“Sergeant?”

She dropped the folder and raked her fingers through what little hair she bothered to keep on her head.  “What is it, McKay?”

“Who is Ebhiante?”

She opened her mouth, then shut it and turned around.  “You’ve got patients to see to, Corporal,” she said on her way out.

He shook his head.  “Yes, Sergeant,” he sighed after she was gone.

***

It took two days for a positive ID to be made.  Of the two bodies, the woman was related, but not as a mother.  An aunt was more likely, though there was a chance she was an elder cousin.  The man was registered as the woman’s husband, and so was unrelated by blood.  They would have to search the government registration database for likely relatives, and then compare their DNA to the child’s.  Because children had up to a year to be registered and there was no file on her, there was little hope of a quick resolution to the case.

The wet-nurse, Thella, had beaten McKay’s odds and survived her injuries after another round of surgery.  It took another week to get a translator transferred since no one was sure exactly which language the woman was speaking.   McKay had been partly right, it seemed; Thella had thought the child was hers, but only at first.

Now, Sergeant Kebede was using all her connections, some of questionable legality, in order to push through paperwork to adopt Ebhiante and to sponsor Thella as a domestic worker so she could bring them to Giedia Prime.  Even twenty years later, it still took a mountain of paperwork to get onto the two main planets.

So when, a month later, she had a civilian messenger come up with an encrypted communique and ask for Sergeant Aliya Kebede, it was the second time in her life she wasn’t sure whether she should be relieved at having an answer at last or afraid of what that answer might be.

***

A hush fell over the Assembly as the First Consul entered and stood at the podium.  She cleared her throat and began to speak.

“For one hundred and fifty-three years, our galaxy has been consumed by war.  A war which has laid waste our most precious resource, the lives of billions; the only cost worth considering, and one which must temper our joy at the news that this war is now over.”

The speech was brought to a halt as the entire Assembly erupted in cheers which lasted a good several minutes.  As it died down, she continued.

“Treaties were signed by all parties to bring an immediate end to all hostilities and all future claims of right to territories beyond the agreed upon borders.  These treaties are set to go into effect on twelve-point-oh-nine of Galactic Year one thousand and three, at ten o’clock Giedian Standard Time; which is just two minutes from now.”

Another round of applause filled the room.

“May our children remember this day, may we remember our fore-bearers, and may we endeavor to be worthy of the lives we have.  Please join me in silence as the Giedian Galactic Peace Treaty goes into effect.”

Silence washed through the room, broken by a canon which signaled the moment.  Cheers followed, and for a good ten minutes there was no bringing the room back to attention.  Slowly the celebration of the moment died down and the First Consul was able to continue again.

“I would like to now call forth the woman who was most instrumental in crafting this treaty, whose tireless efforts to bring the parties to the negotiating table have brought us to where we are today.  Please welcome Ambassador Ebhiante Kebede.”

 

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