Moon 514 has a final cover (thanks to Grant M. Hansen) and is available on Amazon.com. Now, if only B&N didn’t convert a perfectly formatted epub file into their own, messed up epub file, I’d have it available to sell there as well … rats.
Here is the first chapter … Gratis! There are unique formatting problems when copying it to this Blog but the section breaks (without images) shouldn’t be too jarring …
DESPERATE, BLAZE DOVE, ROLLED, AND FELL into an defensive posture to await his attacker. But the beast was already upon him. Without a moment to spare, he slashed at his opponent’s neck while diving sideways a second time. From the unnerving sound of shrieking behind him, Blaze guessed that he had successfully slashed a tender spot on its neck but he had no time to carefully assess the damage.
The young warrior had resorted to dive rolls precisely because his legs had been injured so badly. It was the only way he could quickly gain significant ground. And bulbous swelling on his throbbing right arm suggested a significant fracture. He tried hard to ignore the almost debilitating pain and realized he was running low on options. He stood up and spun around in one fluid movement, preparing to make a desperate last thrust with the bladed end of his staff, but the beast was already too close for him to avoid its attack. Checkmate. With no time to look at his opponent, aim, or otherwise methodically prepare for his attack, Blaze fell into instinct and thrust the blade parallel to the angle where the alien had attacked before – while simultaneously bending his torso to avoid a possible bite to his own head. As the beast crushed into him and pinned Blaze against a rock wall, the young warrior lost consciousness.
“Simulation ended,” announced the emcee.
Nearly instantaneously, the simulated, painful throbbing mellowed down to nothing and Blaze’s alertness flashed back to normal. He was always grateful when the simulator functioned well. It’s a tricky thing to manipulate the psyche. Sometimes the pain lagged on for several minutes. This time, the pain had been so intense that Blaze couldn’t help but to rub his legs out of instinct. Moments before, they had been a mangled mess, whole pieces of tendon and muscle torn from the bone. It had been difficult to suppress the body’s natural drive to panic in situations like that but now, his legs were perfectly whole. Still, a disquieting self preservation instinct lingered. Adrenaline coursed through his veins. He was ready for round two.
Blaze noticed the spear ominously peering out of the beast’s backside and then watched as his simulated opponent dissipated into nothingness. Simulated terrain followed suit and disappeared. Blaze took a deep breath. He won. He had been knocked unconscious but the beast had been slain. It looked like a modified velociraptor with spikes, bulky muscles, and long forearms, he mused. Jim usually came up with innovative simulations. This one seemed old school and lacked creativity. It just didn’t seem to fit Jim’s personality. He must be busy with another project, Blaze considered as he anxiously watched a few of his friends approaching.
“UNINTIMIDATING,” HE GRUMBLED IN FRUSTRATION. “That was the word she had used – unintimidating. Is that even a word?”
Evelia couldn’t have deliberately chosen a more damaging thing to say to bruise a young warrior’s ego had she thought about it carefully and preplanned the entire exchange. His voice growing louder and clearly betraying his mood, Blaze continued, “I mean, can you even create the negative of intimidating like that?”
“Oh, come on Blaze,” Jazz responded energetically, “she also said you were the best fighter on earth – how ‘bout that?”
“No contractions,” Blaze reminded the young boy, “We are not supposed to use contractions.”
“Sure – but that was a nice compliment don’t you think?”
“You did it again,” Blaze grumbled.
“Oh, come on Blaze,” Jazz encouraged. “You can’t be depressed when someone gives you a compliment like that!”
“No contractions!” Blaze reminded his young protégé with more gruffness than he used the first two times. “Context is everything.” He looked down into Jazz’s admiring eyes. “If you did not notice, she said that although I was ‘the best fighter on earth,’ I also held the element of surprise over anyone that I would meet outside of the Order because I was unintimidating. At best, she was warning me not to ask her father’s permission to date her. At worst, she was slamming me.”
“I think she likes you,” the young one contradicted. “She’s just trying to make sure she isn’t too obvious.”
“NO contractions!” Blaze emphasized in frustration. “You know, I will have to report you to the head mistress if you continue to employ sloppy language like that – our whole society will become corrupted.”
“You are just trying to avoid the subject,” the young lad retorted wryly. “You do not have a good response so you have to resort to a conversation about grammar – you will become quite the bore if you don’t … uhhh … do not stop that!” he jested.
Blaze hated to admit it but the young boy was probably right – there were very few girls to choose from and he really only held an interest for one young lady and she rarely showed the slightest interest in any of the other men – let alone him.
“You may be right my young friend,” Blaze responded in melancholy tones, “… about the changing the subject thing – but you still need to be careful. We have less than five hundred people left in the Order and only a very small handful of us are under fifty years of age. How we speak could change our language forever and the whole purpose behind the Order would be in danger of being lost. Do not assume that just because you are so special – being the only child in the entire Order – that you do not have the same responsibility as the rest of us. If anything … you have the greatest responsibility of us all.”
“Best fighter on earth,” Jazz repeated dreamily. “I would not be discouraged if someone said that about me.” His eyes gleamed as he pondered the thought.
With roughly five hundred known people left on the planet, the compliment could have been sloughed off as a jest. However, Blaze always fought the simulator – and he always fought the most difficult opponents that could be simulated in the database – everyone knew that. And many of them would come to watch him take on particularly tough opponents – and being designed as dynamic characters, simulated opponents could improve every time they fought a real person so they were far from challenge free simulations.
To give himself the ability to fight heavyweight opponents, Blaze regularly made adjustments to the simulator, preferring the disadvantage of fighting larger, heavier, and faster opponents. This time, his ears were still ringing. There must be something wrong with the fight enhancer, he considered. The enhancer was supposed to deal true-to-life blows but they were precisely calculated to avoid any significant damage. The punch should have come slightly softer to avoid hurting my ear like that. Or, Blaze considered more thoughtfully, perhaps I surprised it by being more unprepared than usual – the result of being distracted by the young lady.
“I am going to ask permission to leave the Order.”
“WHAT?” the boy shouted in astonishment. “Leave the Order? Why?”
“There have to be others who survived,” Blaze began. “I recently checked the database again. There is some chance that a small percentage of the population would have been resistant to the mutated diseases and radiation. There is some chance that some of those people are not sterile and therefore, there is a chance that there are people out there who could help us to continue our heritage. The Order is small now.” Blaze’s demeanor retrograded to gloominess again. “Even if we were able to continue reproducing at our current rate, we would be back to the proverbial Adam and Eve state within a few generations if the sterility problem does not subside – and despite all of Doctor Boyd’s advancements, I see little hope that he can reverse our situation.”
Blaze turned to Jazz and tapped his shoulder encouragingly. “Maybe you will be assigned to a pretty girl for a while! That would be a worthwhile change would it not?”
“Well,” the boy began, “I don’t think anyone could be as great of a teacher as you are,” he confided with a barely concealed blush.
NO CONTRACTIONS, Blaze silently shouted – he wouldn’t dare correct the lad after a confession like that. “Thank you,” Blaze answered. “I will put in a good word for whomever you would like to take my place – think about it and I will see if I can arrange it.”
“Evelia,” the boy quickly blurted. Evelia was the young woman that he and Blaze had just finished discussing. “Maybe I could put in a good word for you,” he finished with a beaming smile that was, without a doubt, both enthusiastic and sincere.
It never hurts to have someone like him on your side, Blaze mused, even if he is less than a dozen years of age.
“Do you suppose you could tell me why your hair is like that if you are really going to leave,” the boy asked. “You promised that you would tell me when you were not going to be my teacher anymore.”
“Right,” Blaze conceded. “Perhaps we should wait to see if my proposal is approved though – don’t you think?” he playfully jested.
“Do you really think they would say no, Blaze? After all – if things are really like you say they are, maybe there is no other choice.”
They would also risk losing one of their few young males, Blaze silently contradicted. In fact, it may not be worth asking permission at all – it may be better just to take my copy of the database and leave a letter of explanation. Or maybe … no, Evelia would not concede to go with him and if she said no, all of the elders would know faster than lightning.
The boy was still waiting for a response. “Blaze?”
“Sorry,” he answered. “Okay. I was born with a birthmark on my head.”
“A birthmark. I am not entirely sure how to explain that – anyway, there is a thing called a birthmark and if you get it on your head, sometimes it will change the color of your hair. That is why I have a blaze of white hair instead of it all being dark.”
“Nuh uh!” the boy answered. “Tell me – really.”
Blaze grinned at his young friend and ruffled his hair. “Really – I tell you the truth,” Blaze assured him. “I had it from the moment I was born and it was so obvious that everyone started calling me ‘Blaze’ right away. It was only supposed to be a nickname but it stuck. Plus, many people in the Order saw it as some sort of sign. One would think that with all of the education we receive that silly things like that would be abandoned by our people – but I guess they were feeling desperate and needed something to hope for.” He took a deep breath and sighed. “Like it or not, that is the truth – sorry there is no more glamorous explanation than that.”
“Glamorous?” the boy asked.
“That just means that it is exciting or especially interesting.”
“Oh,” he considered. “Well, I think it is really interesting if it is true – how could a birthmark do that?” he finished.
“You know, with all of the information that was preserved in our database, one would think that we would know the answer to that question, huh?” Blaze paused. He wondered if he should really engage in such sloppy speech even if it was for the purpose of cheering up the young lad. “But,” he continued, “none of us have ever read a thing on the subject in the database – and with all of the reading that goes on around here, I suspect that this means that we will never know.
“Mmmm,” Jazz mumbled almost inaudibly. What would life be like without Blaze, he wondered. It doesn’t sound very fun, he concluded. The young lad had unabashedly admired Blaze since he was a toddler and although years would pass, that admiration would never diminish. He had requested Blaze as his teacher for a number of years before the elders dared to approach the young warrior about taking on the only child in the Order. Although Blaze was known to be ready to serve others and to have a gentle temperament, he was also known for being neurotically devoted to his studies and to excessive athleticism.
Unintimidating or not, Blaze was athletic and strong – he just didn’t have a hulky build to prove it – nor did he have impressive height to give him the appearance of someone who was to be feared.
I really am unintimidating, Blaze thought as he looked over his shoulder and into the mirror. He wiped his brow and reached for the toothbrush in the bottom corner of the left cabinet as he considered another factor – I have a baby face, he thought. I look seventeen when I count nearly two dozen years since my birthmark gave me my name.
ECHOING THE DAY BEFORE, HE SILENTLY GROUSED, Unintimidating. His bruised ego was obstinately sore and it was showing in his disposition this morning. With furrowed brow, he tensely rehearsed a staff kata of his own invention, flexing his muscles as tightly as possible while slowly moving through the form. Liquid misdirection, he silently drummed into his subconscious mind. Although very young, Blaze had been trained by Master Kitana – a nickname that was so engrained in everyone’s mind that few remembered his birth name – Xun. Training with Xun was an advantage for anyone but few were able to be trained from their youth like Blaze had.
Xun had studied the entire UWC (The Ultimate Weapons Contest) database and several forms of martial arts before he died at 116 years of age. The natural extension of all hand to hand combat forums, the UWC took fighting to its inevitable climax: what style of martial art and what weapon would come out on top in battle with real weapons? Initially begun with smart armor and inert weapons designed to prevent permanent damage, the sport was woefully unpopular because it lacked realism. Decades later, as technology increased, the sport was revived with a simulator that allowed each opponent not only to feel simulated pain from blows received, it also simulated injuries so that a deeply cut muscle would fail to perform as it would in real combat and so that simulated blood loss would result in faster fatigue and lessened strength. Other advances eventually allowed the athletes to fight until one of the parties would have been killed in real life – but at the end of the simulation, each athlete would essentially leave the simulator physically unharmed – apart from occasional and unpredictable imperfections – or “glitches” in the programming.
Criticized for being too similar to the barbaric practices of the Roman gladiator games, UWC was a popular sport for centuries and eventually replaced nearly every form of martial arts practiced during the Classic Ages.
But Xun did more than watch the UWC database, he dissected it, digested it, reviewed its most significant contests, and developed his own form of martial arts. Founded upon empty handed techniques, Xun’s style was largely based upon modified, redirected circle theories and only focused on practical weapons that survived the millennia. Although Blaze learned several weapons under Xun, he was essentially addicted to bo staff and short sticks. Every other weapon, it seemed to Blaze, was just a modification of these two weapons; in private, he would admit that this was not really true but in public, he regularly jested that the only reason to learn other weapons was because it was important to know what to do with your opponent’s weapon once you disarmed him.
Strike, arc, trip, strike, he rehearsed without really thinking of each step separately – each action was simply a moment in time from a larger fluid motion. Trying to retain fluidity, he flexed his legs even as he jumped, performing a spinning hook kick and then spinning again as he landed, striking an invisible, fallen opponent with his staff. Moving back to starting position slowly and methodically, flexing specific muscles all the while, and doggedly focusing on every detail of his kata, Blaze ended the form and instinctively bowed before relaxing.
Unintimidating. Blaze rounded the corner of the gym and approached the simulator.
“Alien,” he gruffly instructed Jim, the programmer. “Six feet, five inches tall, four arms, and weighing in at 275 pounds,” he concluded.
“Come on Blaze,” Jim retorted. “Seriously? Are you forgetting how sore you were last time you tried that? I almost got suspended from my job!”
“Yeah, I remember,” Blaze grumbled, “but we both know that was just a big political façade – no one else can really do your job well and no one wants the thankless task anyway. You and you alone are the master of this arena. Make it 300 pounds.”
“No way Blaze,” he answered. “Until you master the four arm thing, I cannot risk taking you over 250 pounds – who knows what programming glitch that may create?”
“Who cares? It is only a simulation,” Blaze countered. “260.”
“Wow, you must really be in a bad mood,” Jim offered, changing his tone.
“Everyone is still at breakfast,” Blaze began, ignoring the comment, “no one will know.”
“Unless you get hurt again.”
“No chance,” the ambitious young warrior responded.
“All right,” Jim concluded. “250 pounds with 5% speed increase but that is it.”
“Thanks,” Blaze conceded, visibly disappointed but grateful for the concession given the circumstances. “Will you make it extra strong though?” he pushed, hoping for a little more intense experience. “I will confess to the bad mood thing if you just make it a little tougher. I need to let off some steam.”
Glancing over each shoulder and doubting his own wisdom, Jim raised one eyebrow, squinted the other, and offered a half grin towards Blaze. “265.”
No other words exchanged, Blaze went to his own terminal, silently reduced his weight down to 175 while Jim was looking at his own controls, quickly took off the mandatory safety monitor, and jumped into the cage. Nearly thirty feet in diameter, the cage was essentially a gigantic, circular chicken-wired fence with bars stretching across the top to allow unusual swinging moves that may occur in real life terrains. Blaze watched, muscles relaxed but ready to respond as the simulator morphed before his eyes. Rough terrain appeared to allow for natural landscape variations, small bushes appeared, and various rock formations grew in size until the terrain was complete. Blaze quickly surveyed this new simulation, gauged which areas would pose the greatest challenges and which areas might provide the greatest advantages, and controlled his breathing to keep his attention firm.
When Blaze saw the four armed alien, he immediately knew what Jim had been doing the last several days. Noticeably absent from a few community meals, Jim had been heavily involved in perfecting a new concept alien that boasted a noticeably unfair intimidation factor – this one was horrifyingly scary even for a warrior of Blaze’s caliber. Instinctively, his body slightly recoiled and regretted the request for an extra strong opponent – the extra weaponry on its tail and its triple row of fangs would have been enough. Consciously however, Blaze was excited and looked over towards where Jim would be standing – although unseen through the simulator – and beamed with approval.
Unintimidating? Perhaps. But then, he wasn’t easily intimidated either.
The creature appeared somewhat bulky and unrealistically large for the weight class Blaze requested. He silently wondered whether or not Jim accidentally typed in 365 pounds and tightened his grip on the bo staff. Slightly shorter in length than his height, the staff was mostly made of a titanium alloy that allowed for greater strength and flexibility while simultaneously allowing him to send electric shocks to his opponents. The staff was coated in the middle section to allow for a stronger grip and protection from any electric pulse. One end of the staff was punctuated with a double point that resembled an artistic dual-edged javelin. In reality, the staff had several lethal properties but he almost never used them in the simulator – these were for reality, not playtime.
The creature advanced using its two lower arms to more easily bend itself over the rough terrain, each hand gripping jagged blades measuring slightly more than a foot apiece. The length of its back and the backside of each appendage was coated with a plate-like armor that was punctuated with occasional spikes and otherwise rough textures. Eyes undeviating from its prey, the beast quickly and lithely moved towards Blaze with surprising speed. Plus 5% increase? Blaze silently queried. He wondered whether or not Jim had enhanced the beast by 15% after all. All of a sudden, Blaze felt more stress than he had felt in many moons.
But he was game.
He would have been willing to request stats like that if he thought Jim would have agreed to them. It was after all, only a simulation. The pain felt real, the loss of blood felt real, the fatigue felt real, and he supposed, the few deaths he had experienced felt real as well. Of course, no one knew for sure what death felt like but programmers simulated a painful knockout as their accumulative best guess as to what a lethal blow might feel like. But in the end, it was all simulation – and nothing more – apart from the glitches.
Blaze wondered whether or not the beast was programmed to know his habits and weaknesses and decided to test its knowledge right away by feigning a blow towards the beast’s lower right arm while circling the staff to strike at its lower left arm. Blocked once. Blocked twice. That probably answered the question: it held dynamic programming or else its responsive speed was enhanced to match its increased muscle speed. But Blaze had anticipated the second block and prepared the blow to be redirected, using the beast’s own block to deliver a powerful blow to its upper left arm.
Nearly breaking its wrist, the beast dropped its multi-bladed weapon to the ground, growling in disapproval. Encouraged, Blaze delivered two more feints before offering a reinforced, twisting downward strike to the lower left arm – but this time met disappointment as the alien creature dodged the blow and threw a knife at Blaze’s right thigh. Although an imperfect throw, the blade sliced the leg badly before ricocheting onto the ground. Two weapons down, Blaze forgot to rejoice as he winced at the pain. Partially cut tendon, he quickly assessed before throwing several more strikes at the beast and half jumping, half rolling over a medium sized boulder that was threatening to corner the young warrior.
In contrast, the beast was relatively uninjured, held one more weapon than his opponent, and boasted three perfectly functioning appendages – not to mention a semi-bladed tail. Rather than try a blow barely within its reach, the creature swung that tail at Blaze, hoping to catch him by surprise – but it too met with disappointment as Blaze was already wary of this extra advantage – and dodged it.
And so the contest continued for over ten minutes. Towards the end, Blaze felt as exhausted from the simulator as he had ever felt before and silently recited feelings of gratitude that the contest would soon be over one way or the other. Now bleeding steadily from his leg, Blaze had two new significant scratches on his right arm and a series of abrasive carvings decorating his abdominal area and lats – they looked as if someone had taken a power sander with coarse texture to his body. If it continued to bleed like it was bleeding now, Blaze was going to lose consciousness soon so he decided to make his moves more daring and unorthodox. Do or die, he instructed himself.
Blaze dove into a modified shoulder role to accommodate his injuries and his staff, grabbed one of the alien’s abandoned blades, and threw it at the beast as he stood up. Calculatedly overthrown, the beast stepped to the side to avoid the blade – regardless of whether or not the reckless throw would have landed blade or handle first – and then turned its gaze back towards its wounded combatant – but not in time to see the javelin like tip of the staff enter its eye socket and not in time to stop it from exiting the other side of its skull.
Contest over, Blaze silently groaned in relief before nearly passing out.
“WOW,” EVELIA REMARKED, watching Blaze’s eyes slowly focus back into full consciousness as the effects of the simulator dissipated. “I apologize for watching uninvited but at the same time,” she paused, chewing a little on her lower lip, “and even though that was the nastiest, scariest opponent I have ever seen, I am very glad I happened to be strolling by to see your performance. Impressive,” she finished, “Very impressive.”
Pain dissipating, fatigue remaining, energy gone, and frustrations evaporating very quickly, Blaze grinned but said nothing audible in response. A slight nod was all he had to offer but it didn’t matter. Evelia was already walking away towards her intended destination and Blaze couldn’t have intelligently responded anyway. Even though it was barely past breakfast, he was already exhausted and ready for a good rest. Besides, now it seemed like there was nothing left to accomplish. Impressive, he inwardly gloated. That was the word she used – very impressive.
As he let the words echo repeatedly in his mind, Jim walked by, patted him on the shoulder and apologized: “Sorry for the typo buddy. 365 pounds. Wwwhhhhhew. I almost stopped the simulator to reprogram your opponent until I saw your big smile. No one is game as you man!”
Blaze just smiled. Impressive was all he could hear – and for days, those words would remain at the surface of his thoughts.
MOON 4 | DAY 7
I DIDN’T BELIEVE IT. But there were a lot of things that I didn’t believe until I saw them with my own eyes. Other people may have faith in things but I’m a scientist – or rather, I was a scientist. I’m not sure what label should be placed upon me now. Explorer perhaps. Philosopher. Vagabond? I didn’t believe in flying snakes either. They have them you know – they survived the Third Holocaust. They spring from one tree to the next, slithering and flailing like a snake that swims, spreading their ribs and creating an indentation on the underside of their bodies that creates air pockets they manipulate. Scientists technically refer to these as “gliding” snakes and I suppose that is accurate if flying means that you flap wings.
But they didn’t see what I saw – the greenish-blue one.
The one whose second set of ribs separated away from its body like a whole train of wings. They didn’t see it glide over one hundred yards on a nearly even keel, undulating through the air on its spread appendages like some flying centipede until it landed on one of our junior scouts. They didn’t see it coil up around his neck until his eyes bulged and his tongue hung out. I did. They didn’t see the fierce fight it gave before releasing the hapless fellow and slithering away in its newly crippled condition – riddled with knife cuts from the natives. They didn’t see its separated joints like I did either. They didn’t see its insides. I did. I dissected it. The world’s only flying, constricting, poisonous viper. One of the other natives got bit while trying to rescue his friend. He was dead within twenty seconds – really: twenty. What is the point of constricting your prey when you have poison like that? I don’t know and I don’t suppose I’ll ever find out – or at least, I hope I never do. I don’t want to see one ever again – did I mention it was over six feet long?
But flying snakes weren’t what awakened me from my scientific disbelief. I analyzed the creature for days. I measured it, I analyzed the innards before discarding them, I made holographic sketches, I took samples, I even tried to tan the hide to preserve it. It was an embarrassingly poor attempt but at least I preserved the skin – it is surprisingly beautiful – striking.
Draco volans – the flying lizards didn’t make a believer out of me either – dragons some call them. I thought that was quaint – of course, they would get that label. That makes them sound exotic and inspiring and that generates better tourist revenues. But they were really sort of boring in comparison with what I saw – they just glide from one tree to the next feeding on ants and termites and such. The natives reported more ominous activities from these little creatures but they seemed more intent on providing folklore than legitimate information – more intent on capitalizing off of the flying snake incident than protecting our crew. With virtually no tourism, I suppose that I cannot blame them for capitalizing on freak incidents like the one we had with the flying snake. They are just struggling to survive like everyone else on the outside. Of course, as opportunists, they were bound to exaggerate.
At least, that was what I guesstimated until I met her.
Not much taller than five feet, she was incredible in every way. I found her when I went out on a hike on my own one evening. I thought our chief scout was going to suffer from an anxiety attack when he saw me leaving on my own. Our crew leader castigated me for wanting to venture out on my own but I reminded him that this was supposed to be a very safe area and that everything we had seen wreaked of funding issues – the scout just wanted a bonus for standing by my side – and the junior scouts’ comments about letting me die were surely similarly motivated. So he let me go without further protest. I hadn’t ventured more than a couple hundred yards when I spotted her.
She looked nothing like the natives. In fact, some of her features were so different from any person I had ever seen that I would have described her as a new species at first glance had I not been too far away to make a judgment call like that. Long, feathery eyelashes swathed around her eyes; an extra long waist gave her the false appearance of being a tall woman, and her skin glowed. It was surreal but its glow was so subtle that I initially assumed that she had oiled herself with one of Malaysia’s bazillion unique plant species. Only later did I learn that her natural skin glowed like that. Initially, I thought she was laced with subtle tattoos as well but those were natural markings – impossibly intricate and beautiful. Like many of the natives, she wore little clothing. What she did wear was comprised mostly of a decorative, feathered belt-skirt type thing and then lacey wristbands, armbands, anklets, and a necklace type thing that functioned as some sort of a half tank-top. All of that lacey material is made of a twine she makes herself out of a local “ngofe” plant as she calls it. The material is stretchy but extremely strong, one bracelet holding at least a few hundred pounds before it loses its elasticity; she showed me how to make them but I don’t think I knotted it quite right as hers seem much stronger.
If you would have asked me right then, I would have guessed that she was only fourteen or so – but I would have been very wrong. Maybe it was just her slender build or maybe it was her small size but when you look past that and see right into her eyes, you can somehow tell that she is older – much older – than fourteen.
She caught me by surprise when I first saw her. I happened to be walking upon a rare stone outcropping in those moccasin-type shoes the natives insisted that we wear so I was essentially silent in movement, having left my backpack and gear behind as this was simply a pleasure stroll. When I turned a bend, there she was, crouching down near the edge of one of those crystal clear ponds that you don’t expect to find in the middle of a deep forest like we were in, looking carefully into the water before cupping her hands for a refreshing drink. If I ever saw a woman look more vulnerable than her at that moment, I have no recollection of it – and I’m sure I haven’t read about anyone in the database either.
That is when it came: the griffon-dragon-thing. I know that sounds strange, but it is true. Its feathered wings flapped, its unusual saber toothed canine teeth protruded out of the front of its jaws, and its feline-like claws extruded when its digits were bent. Despite its feathered wings, it appeared mammalian … well, besides its short haired tail that punctuated with a sharp, quill-like tip that looked as reptilian as anything I’ve ever seen – except it too was white. It wasn’t overly large in size – perhaps only eight feet long without considering its tail but it made my heart pump hard nonetheless. That is, until I saw that it wasn’t looking at me. It was looking at this small woman. I froze. I didn’t know what to do. Calling out to her might have directed its attention towards me and I’m sorry to say that I acted the coward and did nothing. But that was probably best.
She saw its reflection in the pool. I quickly guessed that this is why she had been looking into the pool in the first place – she had been observing the skyline, not the water itself. I hadn’t noticed it until that very instant but there was what appeared to be a delicately carved stone ball next to her – one of those kinds where someone carved something on the inside so that there was a carving inside of a carving. I didn’t see right then what the inside carving was but I later learned that it was a sacred symbol for her: the griffon-dragon-thing. Casually, as if she were waiting for her husband to bring her some game to be cooked, she stood up, faced the dragon, held the ball in her hands, and began enchanting something in her native tongue. As she did so, the griffon-dragon exhaled some nasty fire of bluish hue that changed my life’s paradigm instantaneously, I know not how to describe it. It was utterly fabulous and terrifying at the same time. But she barely noticed.
The ball glowed so intensely as the flame engulfed it that I had to look away. I expected that when I looked back, the little woman would be barbequed and banished to my memories. But there she was, calmly staring down this griffon-dragon – the real thing – and speaking words to it that sounded like a mother scolding her child for coming to dinner too slowly. The dragon-thing bowed its head and tried hard to avert its eyes to escape her censure and that was when it happened. It stared me down.
By this point, I thought I was pretty much out of the picture. I was the fly on the wall observing this magnificent interchange and had carefully backed myself behind a leafy bush – foliage that I still don’t know how to classify. But it saw me nonetheless – and it glowered. It growled without opening its jaws much like you would expect from a mountain lion or perhaps some other large feline. When the woman’s eyes discovered my presence, she waved her hand at the dragon as if ordering it to fly away – and it did.
Now, I wouldn’t readily admit this to anyone who asked but since I’m just writing in my journal for posterity’s sake, I will say that this is the first time in my life that I was genuinely afraid of a woman. I had a mind to turn and run away but something kept me glued to the stony ground – but it wasn’t fear. Her walk was almost tender, mesmerizing. I don’t know how to describe it. She came towards me like a woman might approach a small, frightened child hiding underneath a table – but without the slightest air of condescension. I later found out that she was as curious as I was. Over six feet tall with pale skin, amber eyes, and ruddy hair splotched with white around the temples, she had never seen anyone like me and wanted a closer look. It seemed like an eternity as I waited for her to climb up to where I was. And she seemed entirely oblivious to the possibility that I might run away while her attention was distracted climbing up the rock wall – or that I might perhaps attack her or otherwise bring her harm. She has always seemed so innocent – which is very strange considering what she really knows and who she really is.
When she climbed up over the ledge to where I was, she remained on all fours, her knees slightly bent still above the ground and her eyes gazing up at me with those enchanting looks she gives sometimes. When I saw her up close, I was strangely attracted to her despite her odd skin color and her idiosyncratic features. And yet, part of me wondered whether or not I should have run away – whether or not I should be intensely scared of her; but then, the other part of me was still a scientist. I still had that worldview where discovering a new species was something exciting – something worth taking risks. Foolish. I know.
If I then had only a tenth of my understanding about species on other planets, I would have long before abandoned this barren wasteland we once called earth. There are much more wondrous places to explore – places where the inhabitants haven’t been so abusive to their environment or to each other – places where we can easily take up residence and enjoy a much easier lifestyle than what we endure here. Places where scientists haven’t made their final refuge in the forests of Borneo so that they can gene splice their hearts away, creating ever new and more monstrous creatures – even griffon-dragons. What fool was behind that project?
But there she was, some sort of new species walking – or somewhat crawling – right there in front of me. I hadn’t noticed until then – as she was working her way towards me – that she had a tail as well. It too appeared to be tattooed and it too had that glowing quality to it and there was only a subtle puff of hair punctuating its tip – hair that matched her head: a thick black color with an iridescent shine to it – bluish. By now I could see her eyes: also sort of a blue but they reflected a greenish tint when the light caught them right – sort of like when lights shine on a cat in the dark – but the effect was different and it happened in the daylight – never at night. Her pupils were oval instead of round but not pointed like a feline. Her ears had small, pointy tufts of hair that made them look almost elvish in appearance except for the extra concave curve on the sides.
Oh – and I didn’t notice it then – it was dusk after all – but the nape of her neck has gills. You almost can’t see them at all when they are closed. I didn’t notice them until the third or fourth time that I met her by the pond at midday. Perhaps the strangest thing about her though was her nails – although not hollow, tube-like feline claws, they are retractable and unusually sharp – though far from lethal. I noticed them retract as she turned her hands over and she reached towards me. Her movements have always been so gentle and soothing – graceful. Watching her is sort of like watching a swan or an egret – every movement is somehow soothing and relaxing and makes you feel like leaning back in a chair to soak up the nature around you. She is organic like that.
She smiled at me but I didn’t see her teeth until later. This was a soft smile – and perhaps she was aware that if I had seen her canine teeth, I might have been startled – or maybe she was too naive to think such things. Maybe she was just a little cautious herself. But her smile was so captivating and her eyes were so riveting and flashy that I didn’t even notice that I was no longer afraid of her; I was no longer wary of what she might do or what she might be like. I was like one of those prey fish staring at the glowing appendage of a vicious angler fish – only she was no predator – though her hand was glowing a little more than the rest of her body. As I reached out my hand to touch hers, I noticed for the first time that her skin was shimmering – not just … glowing – oh, what is the right word?
***Computer Contextual Suggestion***
***Glistening, shiny, glimmering, sparkling.***
***End Contextual Suggestion***
Because she wore little clothing, I could easily discern that some portions of her skin were more shiny and glowing than others. Her backside was quite shiny compared to her face and her front side but there were patches even there (mostly around her darker skin designs) that shined more effusively. She was stunning to behold.
The scientist in me wanted to study her, to run tests, perhaps even to dissect her – so much so that at first, I pretty much failed to even notice her breathtaking beauty. I guess that wasn’t the first time. I have seen rare birds and beautiful creatures before and hardly noticed their aesthetics – too entranced in learning about their anatomy and their ecological significance to see form and beauty.
But I digress.
She learned English in a matter of days. She could speak at a toddler level in less than a few hours and after I had spent a few solid hours with her the second visit, she could speak as well as any eight year old I ever met. I still cannot say her name – only half of it – and I still haven’t begun communicating in her language. She devoured information from our database much more quickly than anyone I have met before and she cried when I told her that she had learned almost everything we had to offer – and the database is almost finished. This woman knows nearly everything that I do – if not lots more.
***Computer Contextual Suggestion***
***Five completed database copies are housed in Unit 5, Compound B, and are held in receiving under code name “magic woman.”***
***End Contextual Suggestion***
Give us a few more months and I believe our efforts will be complete. I have unit seven reworking everything that has already been done to make sure that we miss nothing important but they remain thoroughly convinced that we are years away from completion.
When the database is done, I will take her with me to another planetary system. This one is being overrun by natives controlled by the gene splicing team – ever intent on gaining control over this ever shrinking piece of real estate we still call Borneo.
She believes she can find her way back to her home moon with a little help and that she was inadvertently left here by herself after an attack by local villagers. And because she gets quite lonely sometimes, she has always been anxious to trade promises of my resources for her knowledge of magic – the real thing. It’s all based on some primeval system of animism – only, rather than simply believing that everything around her has a soul, she actually communicates with them. She can communicate with soils, plants, animals, and anything with the slightest amount of life in it – she even changes the air. I’m a slow learner but I expect to learn enough to satiate my interests by the time I find her home moon. She says I could learn faster – she can use telepathy to teach me everything she knows quite quickly – I guess like we do with the database – but I suspect telepathy would lead to a mutual exchange of information so I have not accepted her offer – I cannot let her learn my true intentions.
She describes her home moon as paradisiacal – a blissful patchwork of islands. Perhaps I will settle there – or perhaps I will continue to explore as I have for years. Either way, I’ve chosen to take a few more recruits with me this time. Each Order continues to grow infertile – some have so far devolved that they may be entirely unfit to continue our race even with our modern medicines. I will only take the best specimens (scientifically speaking); the rest will go extinct or fall prey to the natives I guess. But that is no concern of mine – the database is finished and nature will run its inevitable course.
***New Voice Transmission***
“Good morning Doctor; how are you?”
“Oh, hello. I’m fine thanks.”
***Unexpected Transmission Error***
“IT SOUNDS LIKE HE WAS DICTATING it for editing.”
“Exactly,” Evelia answered excitedly, “but because of an interruption, he inadvertently sent the transcription into database archives instead of into his personal files. The recording was made over a month ago … can you believe the database is really almost finished?” she ended with sincere disbelief.
“And Dr. Boyd has been planning on leaving most of us here to die,” Blaze grumbled, not even trying to conceal his growing unhappiness. Not to mention he used several contractions, he quietly castigated in his own mind.
“But it sounds like he is going to take you with him,” Evelia soothed, “and it sounds like there are other people in other units … right … here,” she added with a touch of disbelief mingled with curiosity. “… only a couple of months from completion …”
A quick but not overbearing knock on the door interrupted their conversation. Evelia swashed away the screen of Dr. Boyd’s memo, tucked her hologram pad underneath a small blanket on the shelf, and motioned Blaze to silence with her finger. As she opened the door, she nearly gasped in surprise: Dr. Boyd was standing opposite her, offering a genuine smile.
“Evelia – I am glad I happened to catch you home. I hope I am not intruding but I have a small item of business I would like to run past you … oh Blaze! Good to see you,” he blurted to his own surprise. Then, turning back to Evelia, he continued, “actually, this works out quite well.” Pointing to Blaze, he added, “I just spoke to Blaze yesterday about the possibility of joining a new team. Top secret, highest security clearances, and utmost confidential,” he said in his characteristic manner – by avoiding contractions, Dr. Boyd was known to speak in incomplete sentences, a nuance that few really noticed but a nuance that deeply bothered Blaze: if the Order was going to insist on linguistic purity, its chief leader ought to be the exemplar, not the exception – regardless of his advancing age.
“Space exploration,” he began again. “I know we’ve all been taught that space exploration ended with the Third Holocaust but it is a living, breathing, viable technology that we possess … we’ve just been waiting for the right time to tell more of our Order members.”
Evelia all but fell backwards with surprise. Subconsciously, she’d successfully dismissed that detail in Dr. Boyd’s memo as wishful thinking. Hearing the doctor speak of it in person dispelled all doubt that he was serious. Connecting the dots, she remembered that had Blaze mentioned that his visit with Dr. Boyd was top secret and that he was excited about being invited onto an elite team but he had failed to mention this exotic detail – proof that he can keep a good secret, she mentally noted.
Dr. Boyd barely noticed her surprise and didn’t skip a beat. “I have been on a few trips myself and our special team in charge of exploration has performed a number of other trips besides that. In roughly two months, we will be making an extremely significant trip and will be in need of a larger crew. I am hoping that you will join us.”
Blaze’s temper, still smoldering after listening to the misfiled memo, was now brimming over – though by looking at him, you would never have guessed it. All of a sudden, the “special team” and the “extremely significant trip” meant a whole lot more to him than it had the day before and he felt indignant that anyone would be so brazen as to invite someone else on a mission to colonize a new planet without being informed that they would never return and that everyone you left behind would likely be exterminated by forces they didn’t even know existed and were therefore completely unprepared to defend against. Still, keeping a poker face was crucial in this situation and Blaze was bright enough to recognize that fact so he said nothing and revealed nothing. He simply looked at Evelia as if he was excited to have her invited on the trip with him. Truth be known – but for the memo – he would have been thrilled to have her with him on the trip – or maybe he was thrilled to have her with him on the trip despite the memo. But then, he realized he didn’t know if he really would be going – and if he was going to go, he didn’t know what the terms or circumstances might be.
“Yes, sir,” Evelia all but exploded with enthusiasm – whether well faked or sincere, Blaze couldn’t tell – but he guessed the former. “Well,” she began amending her first statement, “at least, I expect that the answer is yes – if I was to be responsible, I suppose I would have to say that I would like to think about it but based on my first impulse, I would have to say that my answer will be yes.”
“That sounds great,” Dr. Boyd replied, giving her an eye less full of caution than Blaze would have expected. “I will expect a definitive reply in a few days. Until then … no word of this to anyone … agreed?” Although his voice betrayed no tone of ominous pretensions, Evelia heard the veiled threat loud and clear – intended or not.
“Yes, sir,” she heartily agreed. “I presume Blaze is excepted from that requirement … is he not?” she pressed.
“Of course,” Dr. Boyd answered, “He is under the same injunction as you though. You are the first two new recruits that I have spoken with at this point in time. As I speak to others, I will let you know but even then …” he seemed to hesitate a little, “even then,” he repeated, “keep the conversations to an absolute bare minimum. Word of this cannot get out without causing a great deal of unwanted consequences,” he warned. Again, Evelia received the veiled threat with an enlarged understanding – she now interpreted Dr. Boyd’s statements with a great deal more context than he would have ever dreamed that she would hear.
As Dr. Boyd turned around and left the room, Evelia closed the door behind him in as casual a fashion as she could muster under the circumstances, nearly shaking from stress. She turned her eyes over to Blaze. He couldn’t tell from her look whether she was ecstatic, horrified, or whimsical.
“Looks like we will be spending more time together,” she observed without any clear emotional expression.
But that didn’t matter. Blaze accepted from her comment that at least something was going well in his life – even if everything else seemed to be falling apart all at once. At least he would be spending more time with Evelia. “What are we going to do?” he asked, hoping Evelia would have some insight better than his own stupor of thought.
But he was disappointed.
“I have no idea,” she answered, twirling her hair with her right finger and looking down at her foot as she tapped the tip of her toes to the ground. Then, as she looked up, Blaze could see for the first time a clear look of fear and uncertainty that mirrored his own heart. Fighting aliens was one thing; fighting false paradigms and incorrect beliefs is something entirely different.
But he was game.
That is, so long as Evelia came along.