A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

Now for a limited time $.99 on Amazon and Smashwords.

A humorous Christian Fable/parody of a good kid who runs away to join a gang and the consequences he faces.  Fast paced and exciting, it emotionally follows a sheep from the peaceful meadows as he tries to become a wolf.

~~~~~

Timothy is a sheep who dreams of being a wolf. He is bored with the peaceful Meadows and the Shepherd’s watchful (but seldom seen) presence. His parents don’t understand him and he’s picked on by bullies. Timmy dreams of becoming a fearless wolf and teaching everyone a lesson, then he finds a wolf-skin …

 

Through humorous adventures and misadventures, plus some creative lying and bluffs, Timothy joins the Wolf Pack. He finds ‘clothes do make the sheep’. Dressing and acting like a wolf seems to transform him into one. After he’s accepted, he discovers other wannabe-wolves have slipped in, too. Soon, Timothy’s enjoying the wild-life, howling and playing with friends as late as he wants. He’s living his dreams.

But Timothy finds the grass is not greener in the Pack and events turn deadly. His dreams become nightmares as the wolves’ brutal nature is revealed. With wolves killing wolves, can a ‘SHEEP IN WOLF’S CLOTHING’ survive?

Too ashamed to return home to the Meadows and Flock, can Timothy protect his new girl or any of his wannabe friends? Soon he’s changed irrevocably as he’s forced to fight for his life. Will he live to learn any lessons from his wolf experiences?

Humorously parodying gang involvement and its violence, this story is suitable for Middle-Grade, Young-Adult, and Christian audiences. It has great action and some wolf-violence. One brief scene intended to discourage drug use.

Please feel free to read the free samples at at my web site or pick up a sale priced copy at $.99 at Amazon.com or Smashwords.com.

This isn’t your typical fable.

Hoping you all have a wonderful Christmas season as well as a successful 2017 that lets you meet your goals for the coming year.

You can purchase a copy at Smashwords thru the following link:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/579457

Or at Amazon.com thru the link below:

https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=A+Sheep+in+Wolf%27s+Clothing+by+Barnard+Cullen&rh=n%3A283155%2Ck%3AA+Sheep+in+Wolf%27s+Clothing+by+Barnard+Cullen

 

Flight Of the Hive – Chapter 4

Chapter 4 – A Veiled Approach

 

 

Flight-mother Fayon was not happy, Veta thought with dismay. Neither was Ship-mother Malen. The ill-starred Jump-Controller, its bubble eyed helmet under its arm, stood stiffly at attention in front of them and a double-eight of other senior mothers from the various ships in the Flight. Listening to others making reports on the extent of the disaster, she awaited her turn to speak. Mother Galeta! A Flight-Level Inquiry! Mother Falon was definitely upset, though she did not show it. Shame was attached to all involved in this event regardless of any actual blame assessed. This could black-mark her as unreliable under pressure. The flickering light on the screen had become a flickering disaster so fast. Veta in her mind again saw the warning green flash on the screen right at the moment of Emergence, thanks to Galeta Mother of the Universe. The green flash showed the ship’s warp-controls had failed.

Partially failed, according to the engineer that was talking now. “About two-thirds of ship Third-2-eighths-R managed to Emerge,” the current speaker said. “The remainder broke into several large pieces and is still traveling the Worm-hole. ‘May Galeta have mercy on those that fall into Singularity,’” came the ritual prayer.

“Galeta’s mercy knows no bounds,” responded several listeners automatically. There was a moment of silence. She wondered if they were thinking like her of the fate of those who may still yet be alive on the larger portions of ship. Better to be a messy random splattering of small bits than alive in a breached ship inside a worm-hole. What had they done to be judged so unworthy by Galeta?

This was the first time she’d heard the name of the ship. She tried to remember what she could about the ship and its crew. The ship, Third-2-eighths-R, was the third-ship of the second-eighths reserve detachment, hence its number designation. She recalled someone in the crew telling her they had named their ship Wehrbroch after a particularly fierce predator bird on one of the subjugated worlds. She couldn’t remember which world.

The fact that the missing parts of the ship carried missing parts of crew did serve to vex the Senior-mothers. Their major ire, however, was reserved to the explosion and oxy-chem-fire that had flared like a beacon for more than a crew shift. The losses had been high on the ship. She listened as other witnesses from Salvage and E-Ops, Emergency Operations, reported their experiences. The survivors’ descriptions were terse and sparing, but it could visualize clearly the demise of the crew. It felt the sickening dread every Warrior had for death by vacuum.

A large clone from E-Ops, she could tell by the yellow color of its suit, was saying, “When we arrived, the ship’s own E-Ops survivors had already extinguished most of the blaze by venting the adjoining compartments to vacuum, along with anyone trapped in them. Estimates are that two-eights and three were lost this way. They were using some of the smaller missiles and hand lasers to blast apart or cut off the remaining fuel and oxygen containers. Several supply lines that fed the fire were bent over on themselves and capped by laser welding until all that remained were a few flickers. The explosions caused four more breaches and another eight of casualties.”

Khree to the E-Ops crew, she thought admiringly. They were efficient and fast. And they took huge personal risks when something like this happened. The losses would grieve them all, but here deep in Enemy space, their ruthlessness would be considered an excellent move. It extinguished the flaring beacon before the Senior-mothers could decide to extinguish it all at once with a nucleonic. The bad khree of the crew was surely wiped clean by their heroic action in extinguishing the fire.

“Veta! Sumarize!” Jumping, she almost dropped her helmet. Her Ship-mother had barked her name out. She realized with a start that the E-Ops clone had finished. It was her turn. Control, Veta told herself. Swallowing she stepped forward smartly and gave the curt half bow proper honor required. Veta was pretty sure she could not be openly blamed as the recorders showed the events occurred too late to rectify. At least that was what she hoped.

Veta crisply began to recite her much-practiced speech on the course of events preceding the accident. “Ship Third-2-eights-R had trouble several times in the early sister-to-sister ship link-up. Their field repulsars were phasing above and below optimums. They managed to stabilize the fluxuations and they were holding steady up to the commencement of Emergence. As you all know, the field repulsors manipulate the worm-hole plasma, protecting the ship and controlling ship during Emergence. The modifications made by ship Third-2-eights-R appeared to be holding through its last few crew shifts. However, we had one preliminary warning during the last decalon of the countdown. Their field repulsor units had again drifted out of sync briefly, but ship Third-2-eights-R stabilized them and recovered sync. It looked like they would hold, but just as the Act of Emergence was being consummated, they lost their syncrosity and their plasma wavelength oscillated well beyond tolerance.” Too technical Veta, she warned herself. Keep it simple and stick to the facts. “They lost repulsor control completely. Without repulsor control the shear-forces generated by Emergence ripped the ship apart. It is surprising that so much of the ship Emerged.” Veta glanced at the Senior-Mothers to see how this was being received. The dark looks did not bode well.

Feeling the pressure, Veta went on defensively, “I am compelled to say, Ship-Mothers, that even given enough warning to abort emergence, ship Third-2-eights-R had little choice, as you know. Once the Flight starts final count, all ships have to Emerge together. The Flight cannot cease the count in the last decalon without causing a separation of the ships and scattering the entire Flight across Galeta-knows how great a distance. Had the ship chose to not Emerge, they would have had to repair the repulsors while still traveling in the worm-hole. And the repulsors would have to be on during the repair. Both situations present a great risk to the crew. Too much time would have passed in the worm-hole before they could repair the defective equipment.”

Veta carefully watched the Mothers’ reactions to make sure this basic information, that they all surely knew, was not offending one of them. “As we all know,” she continued, trying to show she did not consider them incompetent, “time in the worm-hole means distance in real-space. Huge distances in just decalons. To Emerge in blind, unscanned space, basically at random, would risk finding oneself inside a planet or other mass. Granted, that is a small risk, as ‘Space is large and the Jumper small’,” she risked that elementary quote with them. “But then, since the math is indeterminate for both them and us, our respective emergence locations can only be approximated. They would have to guess the Flight’s emergence location and jump again, and somehow manage to Emerge close enough to make a rendezvous with us. Essentially, an impossibility if they were not given the mission’s target coordinates.” Veta didn’t say it, but they all knew that no one had the target coordinates except the Flight-mother and a very few back-up replacements for her. Most ships would have no idea where the Flight was headed. A good practice in Enemy space. A couple of the mothers were beginning to shift in their chairs. Veta took that to be a sign of their unease with the elementary explanations in her speech.

She hurried on, “If they could have repaired the repulsors and Emerged within a few decalons, they may have, at best, entered real-space within an eight-and-a-half light-cycle sphere of the Flight. The Flight, of course, will not answer a distress call or give directions to lost ships in Enemy Space.” One of the mothers snorted. She was stating things too obvious. But Veta hastened to conclude, “Every decalon in the worm-hole out-bound, and then the return Jump without being linked to the other ships, brings a still greater risk of separation and loss. Separated ships are effectively lost. They are expected to attempt their own route home to the Hive, alone through Enemy-space. The wonder of Galeta is that some occasionally make it. Ship Third-2-eights-R, with its repulsars failing attempted the only thing possible or reasonable under the circumstances.” There, she had said it. Had she gone too far this time? She was somewhat famous for her outspoken mouth she knew. Hopefully this would not be the time she said too much.

After she stopped, the Senior-mothers began to debate. Veta could see that the Ship-mothers and the Flight-mother were still far from happy. Her lecture on the most rudimentary of basic knowledge of Insertion/Emergence policies and practices hadn’t made her any friends. She half thought the Bridge Crew and Ship-mother of Ship Third-2-eighths-R lucky. They were a part of the ship that was still plummeting through worm-space and safe from the shame of the event. The Senior-Mothers were unhappy with no one to blame, but had to content themselves with most of the ship’s support crews and approximately half the warriors alive. Besides, almost two-thirds of the hardware was salvageable. The lost fuel was easily recovered from a methane-ice asteroid with just an investment of time to scoop it into the holds with the mining equipment.

Veta wondered to herself if she shouldn’t volunteer for ground assault on the coming landing. It might get her killed, but it would wash her and her Ship-mother of any stain of lingering embarrassment. It would gain her some badly needed khree at this point to propose such an honorable response. And, most important, it would assuage any wrath Ship-mother Malen may have over the incident. It was obvious that although not at fault, it was her position as Flight Jump-controller that was causing Malen embarrassment. “Embarrassment in the Swarm often proves fatal.” There was a saying for every situation, she assumed. Also, other Warriors could use that as an opening to Challenge. There were several who would like to see her out of the way by any means.

The Flight-mother turned back to her. “Do you have anything else to add?” Typically, now was the time to finish with a contrite, lament of regret as she had planned. Instead Veta made a decision and boldly chose a different tact. “I am shamed before Galeta for this misfortune. My khree and my ship’s khree are stained with shame. My worthiness to Galeta must be reattained that such misfortune may not afflict my honor again. I request to volunteer for Forward Surface Assault that I may wash my grief in the life-fluid of The Enemy and erase my shame with Khree beyond the count of eights.”

Veta bowed her head to show her contrition, and looking through her brows noted that the Flight-mother and her own Ship-mother, as well as several others, nodded at the correctness of her choice. By volunteering for Ground Assault, she would show her Ship-mother her rightful willingness to shoulder any embarrassment for the losses. Also, a show of her tendency to violence would hopefully dissuade any but a serious Challenge. Hopefully, she though ruefully, I will survive the coming assault.

She carefully noted which Senior-Mothers her move had impressed. Should she survive, this could prove to her benefit and aid her career. It was clear that her Ship-mother was relieved at this offer. Ship-mother Malen would now not have any fear of lingering resentment within the Flight, or from the Flight-Mother, at having to defend one of her own troops. Veta was certain that Malen would remember this extra sacrifice, should she survive the landing. Showing sufficient violence during the Landing would also help her reputation and build up her khree. She vowed to herself to be especially aggressive.

As she left the meeting assembly, Veta worried about her partner. Swallowing, Veta remembered Enet could become extremely emotional. She hoped Enet would take this turn of events well. Enet had not seemed to be as close lately. Veta knew Enet tended to jealousy, and that it was mostly Enet’s own ambitions that kept them together. Enet wanted an attachment to a rising star. Veta’s position meant perks on-ship. Larger quarters, extra-credit to ships-stores, Veta took much of it for granted, but Enet didn’t. These things were very important to Enet. This turn of events could endanger Enet’s attachment. Veta was certain she herself felt a strong attachment with Enet in spite of her tendencies. She knew she’d have to diplomatically break this to Enet. She had to convince Enet that it had been the right choice. Not that there was a choice involved really in a matter of khree. Embarrassment or loss of khree meant demotion and revilement. It meant Challenges. Any Challenge could result in a death or, worse, an injury that would prevent her from serving the Hive as a Warrior. There was no way to avoid the consequences once Bad khree was attached to you. Anyway, Veta reasoned, “The only way out of the Flight for a Warrior is death”, was as true as ever. And another motto, “Better to blaze brightly and fiercely for a short time, than to die an aged cripple without khree.”

#

#

Garret grinned in satisfaction. By God, the damn thing actually worked. It had been pretty tricky, but using the small uniquely shaped piece of spring steel in place of that awkward shaped plastic piece had fixed everything. And the clincher? He chuckled with glee, the spring steel part could be bent from standard stock at the same cost as the complicated plastic part, but it’ll last ten times longer. He deserved to be proud of himself.

Let that dick, Jeremy, give him a bad time now. His change in design made the whole thing not just workable, but a beauty of simplicity and a work of art. Most of the parts were changed, and the layout of the mechanism was opposite of the way they had started. This would stand out as his own work. That would show them that he was really worth keeping around. He yawned. God! Look at the time! It was 8:30 in the morning already! He’d have barely enough time to get home, shower and shave and get back here for the meeting later this morning at 10. Grabbing his jacket he headed out the door, and ran straight into a figure whose arms were full of files in the hallway. Files scattered everywhere.

“Oh, darn!” Exclaimed Linda McBride as she grabbed hopelessly for the escaping files.

“Gee, Linda. I’m sorry. I didn’t see you.” Garret knelt down to help her recover the scattered papers.

“We need to signalize that intersection,” She quipped. Then, forlornly, “Ohhh man! Half these have come out of the folders. Look at this. They’re all mixed up. This is gonna take me an hour to sort out.”

Garret hesitated. God, he wanted to go home and get a shower at least. But . . . “Let me help. Together we ought to just take maybe fifteen minutes.” He began to gather up papers and peer at them. Picking out which files they belonged in.

“Thanks, Garret”, she said gratefully. “But, it is your fault you know,” she added with a coy smile. He was a nice guy she admitted to herself. He didn’t smile much and was always pretty stressed under some new tight schedule. But he was always polite and rarely complained. He was one of the workhorses in the office. She didn’t know many who worked as hard as he did. From the look of him, he’d been here all night.

Garret looked over at Linda as he gathered up another handful of forms. Her dress was pulled up to mid-thigh on one leg as she knelt. Not bad legs, and she was kinda cute. Single mom, early thirties, a teenage kid at home. A girl if he remembered right, he thought. She always had a smile, or a kind word, for everyone. In fact, she really brightened up the office. He had always meant to get around to talking to her, maybe asking her out. He had meant to do that since his divorce a year and a half ago. There never seemed to be a good time, or a place to invite her to. Or, sometimes, it just seemed like too much trouble to try and make another relationship. Maybe he’d offer to buy her a cup of coffee? Yeah. Maybe he would. Tomorrow, after he sees how the meeting with the Big Boss goes today. He can use the excuse with her that he is celebrating the success of his brain child. Yeah. He smiled at her as he helped get the rest of the papers.

#

#

” Mr. President?” Bob gently called him to wake him up.

The President opened his eyes and sat up on the couch. For a minute he seemed disoriented. “Oh. Hi, Bob. What’s up?”

“Sir, we’ve accelerated our disbursement of astronomy funds, and we have increased staffing at almost every significant observatory we have a tie with. Plus we have bought most all of the available time slots in the international observatories.”

“Is anybody starting to ask questions?”

“Nothing officially yet. There has been some curiosity, but the astronomers are too excited at our sudden funding to rock the boat by asking questions.”

“Do they know what they are supposed to be looking for?”

“One or two persons at each observatory have been instructed in our needs, along with the need for secrecy. If anything unusual occurs, we’ll get a communiqué right away.”

“Well, if we’ve tied up all the air time at these telescopes, we should at least delay any other nation from discovering that something is up.”

“Yes sir. That is a side benefit, I suppose.” Bob replied sounding distracted.

“You have more info for me?”

“Yessir. I have a report that the French have gotten word of our visitors from a Norwegian source.”

“Hmmmm. The Norwegians know?”

“No sir. A minor attaché at an embassy had a friend at a Norwegian observatory who apparently put two and two together. They were making side money by selling it to the EU.”

“So the EU knows? It’ll be everywhere in no time then.”

“Not likely sir. They sold it to the French, not directly to the European Union, and we picked up the two Danish entrepreneurs before they could make more money. The French are pretty likely to sit on it as long as they can perceive some gain from it.”

“The French, huh? So does their president know?”

“Maybe. But you can bet that the Minister of Intelligence, Pierre Lamour, knows. I’d say if he hasn’t shared that already with his president, he is probably intending to use it for his personal advantage.”

“What about the Russians?”

“The Russians are sure to know. They have an intelligence network as good as our own. It’s a wonder they didn’t collect the Norwegian and his friend before us. And, before you ask, the Chinese seem to be a bit slower on the uptake on this one, but they’ll find out before long too.”

“Well,” sighed the President with resignation. “At least we have a short list of those in the know.”

“Uh… We think there is at least one more, sir. I think the Israelis have the info already, Mossad at least. It may not have filtered up yet, but they are less bureaucratic, so it won’t be long before their Prime Minister knows.” Bob shook his head, “You know, it has always pissed me off that our friendly Israeli allies spend more time spying on us than they do on their Arab neighbors.”

“It’s mostly just economic spying with them,” the President chided. “Plus, surrounded with countries that would be happy to see them burn up, they really need all the ‘intell’ they can get, anywhere they can get it. You know how fickle Congress can be. Look what happened to the last peace initiative over there when it became a political football over here!”

“Yes sir. I guess I do remember that.” But there was something in the tone of his voice.

The President turned to look at Bob. “You sound like you have something new to tell me that you aren’t sure of yet, Bob.”

“Yes sir. I’m afraid so. We’re getting feedback from a new source of research stating that they believe that the object we are looking for is non-reflective.”

“Non-reflective?”

“Yes. In fact, the source is suggesting that the ship is a black body. That is something that doesn’t emit any radiation, reflective light, or other distinguishable characteristic. ”

“Black body? Sort of like our stealth fighters?”

“Well, in a way, except that the most perfect black body would be a black hole. Our stealth planes have worked by redirecting radar wavelengths so they don’t bounce back. No one has ever developed true black body technology. Well, not by us humans anyway. Some say it isn’t possible.”

“That could just mean we have a lot to gain by making contact.”

“Yes sir. It also means that the ship we’re looking for is going to be very hard to detect.”

#

#

“Comrade?”

“Come.” Vetri Vadik looked up tiredly from his pile of forms. It was his old comrade, Fyodar Gorbachev, his only co-worker in their branch of Astronomical Advances in the Office of Information. Information of course meant security. The two of them were the doing the work of the whole office since Glastnost had made security a non-essential government function. They were both too old to change jobs and Vadik’s past connections in the KGB had provided them both a place to keep working after all these years. It was something.

Mostly they processed a bottomless flow of papers. There were not many new discoveries to evaluate for national security. They were mostly papers from astronomers and research facilities begging for more financial support, and not getting any. Every field of astronomy had been cut to the bone since the economy had gone bad. Oil finds in Siberia and in the south, Georgia and Uzbek, promised a better economy, but until the oil in the new pipelines could flow to the West for a year or two, the budgets were still bare bones. Fyodar looked as if he was going to be sick. Vadik was suddenly concerned.

“What is it Fyodar? Are you ill, my friend?”

“No. Not sick.” Fyodar twisted his furred cap in his hands. Vadik noticed that he had his overcoat on. He had been out somewhere.

“What is it? Something has disturbed you.”

“You remember Sakharov and his young assistant?” His old friend seemed desperate that he remember this person.

“Da. Of course,” Vadik returned soothingly. Not THE Sakharov, of course. The old man had died long ago. No, this was his nephew Demitri, if he remembered rightly. Youngest sister’s third son. Or was it second? Not that it mattered. His normally excellent memory was badly stretched these days. Too much to remember and too much vodka to help him forget. Fyodar just stood there staring at him. He had something he wanted to say, but couldn’t seem to figure out how to get it out. “So . . . What, Fyo? What? You stand there like the Bolsheviks were back at the door about to take us out and shoot us both. What is this, my friend? You must spit it out.”

Fyodar looked behind him nervously. What was this? Vadik suddenly felt a cold chill run down his spine. The “KBG shoulder-glance”. He’d seen other fearful men do this in the past, but Fyodar? Here in the New Russia? Today? What could Fyodar be involved in that would make him afraid of being heard? Standing slowly, Vadic stalked around the elegant old wooden desk that pretended importance for him. He went past Fyo, directly to the open door and closed it. “Come, my friend. The winter is cold. I have a new supplier who gave me a good deal. You must tell me if it was worth the extra 500 rubles.”

Fyodar’s gratitude showed on his face as he followed Vadik to the small cabinet where Vadik always kept a bottle. He hesitated only a second at the half empty bottle, before passing it and taking down the only other bottle there. An unopened bottle of Crown Royal whiskey. It was a treasure from America. His friend needed a show of support and generosity. That the bottle was a week’s pay, only meant to Vadik that his old comrade deserved the best he could offer right now instead of the rot-gut Russian-made contraband he’d passed over. He would make up for the extravagance by drinking the rot-gut himself more often for a time. Fyo’s eyes widened as he saw what Vadik had opened for them. Eagerly he took the small glass Vadik offered. Fyodar started to speak, but Vetri waved him to silence. “Let us get some air.” He said, too loudly. Fyodar nodded gratefully, understanding that Vadik was going to take no chance of being overheard in what needed to be said.

Vetri took his own glass and the bottle in his other hand. He waved Fyodar towards the double doors that led out onto one of the hundreds of balconies in this old pre-communist building. They went out onto the snow swept balcony and stared out across Old Moscow. The wind was light but carried a deep bitter chill on this gray winter day. The changes of the various regimes and administrations had pretty much passed this part of the city by. To the north he could see the tip of the Kremlin itself where it lay past the Moskva River. No one else was on any of the other balconies. The weather was too bleak and cold for any but the brave or foolish to be out. Which was he, he wondered? Talking secrets at his age!

Setting the bottle on the thick concrete railing, Vadik took a swallow from his glass. Switching to English he said, “Let us practice our English my old friend. Da?” Fyodar stared at him for a minute as if confused. Then, Vadik saw comprehension dawn. Less apt for others to understand what they spoke of.

Fyodar couldn’t help looking over his shoulder back into the room though, before saying, “Da, Vadik. Da. English. Is good to practice.”

“Now, Fyo, tell me. What is this dire information you possess?”

Fyodar drank his entire glass in one swallow before answering. Vadik tried not to wince at the waste of such expensive whiskey. “There is a new directive that has come from the Kremlin itself. Demitri Sakharov has received an enormous amount of new funding. And his new accountants, within days have directed part of that new funding to Bogaevskaia and his mafia.”

Vadik scowled. “Fyodar. Even in English. Some things are not to be said. But, new funding? So, how much is this? Not enough to fund Sakharov’s request to search for his gamma ray sources, is it?”

“It is more than that, Vetri. Much, much more. And it is not for gamma rays.” Fyodar burst out.

“What then?” Vadik was puzzled. He poured his friend another glass. At this rate, he was going to have made a major investment in this conversation.

“To search the sky for something that is coming to earth.” Fyodar’s glass was shaking in his hands.

“What? A meteor? Is it big?”

“No, no. Not a meteor. A space ship.” He hesitated a second, then, “Maybe more than one.” Fyodar swallowed his second whisky in another gulp.

“Fyo. Are you crazy? Where did you hear this?” Vadik stopped sipping his whiskey.

“Sakharov. He says the Americans have seen ships coming from deep space. Sakharov says half the world is looking through every telescope they own. He says there is an extraterrestrial source to these ships.” Sweating, even out on the balcony in the cold, Fyodar did the shoulder-glance again. Then, in a hoarse whisper, not entirely due to the whiskey, he said, “The Americans are sending signals into space.”

Vadik was aghast. Either his friend had truly gone mad, or there were serious events unfolding. Pretending to misunderstand, he said, “The Americans are always sending signals into space. SETI, remember? Carl Sagan started it long ago.” He said cautiously, groping for one of his cherished American cigarettes. Oh, he was really splurging now.

“No, no.” Fyodar insisted. “This is new messages. In only one new direction. And it is in every wavelength they can put a signal on. They are sending with so much power, they are causing static on MSNBC and BBC and blaming it on sunspots.”

Vadik gave up searching for cigarettes as he remembered his last pack was inside his top desk drawer. “So then, my friend. Much money is going to Bogaevskaia, eh? He is not just connected to the underworld, you know. He hopes to bring Russia back to its former glory.” Fyodar stood there, hat in hand, anxiety written on his features, waiting. Vadik began to see a way to tap into this money. “Let us look into this, my friend. Sakharov and Bogaevskaia will need the proper paperwork, I’m sure.” He winked at Fyo. “To process this paper in less than a month we will need . . . hmmm . . .” He squeezed his eyes shut as he thought for a moment, “New staff, new computers, . . .” He trailed off staring out into the snow.

“Come, Fyo.” He said at last. “If Ivan Bogaevskaia wants his funding to be processed, he will understand our need for funds of our own for these things. And perhaps a raise, eh, Fyo? And an expense account?” Fyodar’s face creased into a large smile. “Oh,” Vadik went on, warming to the idea, “And some funds must be spread to other projects so that the Americans do not realize we are on to them. I know Popov needs equipment.” Vadik began to rub his hands. Popov was going to owe him for this one. The expensive bottle of whiskey seemed very affordable now.

#

#

 

My Free Promotion of my novel “A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing” has ended.

Sorry to all of you who missed the chance to get it for free.

It is still available for $4.99 on Smashwords at:

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/579457

or Barnes and Noble at:

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-sheep-in-wolfs-clothing-barnard-cullen/1122739404?ean=2940152384369

 

Here is a brief synopsis of the story:

Timothy’s a sheep who dreams of being a wolf. He runs away to become one, but the grass is not greener and events turn deadly.

Timothy Sheep is bored with the peaceful Meadows and wants to be someone else. His parents don’t understand him and he’s picked on by bullies. He dreams of becoming a fearless wolf and teaching everyone a lesson, then he finds a wolf-skin …

Through humorous adventures and misadventures, plus some creative lying and bluffs, Timothy joins the Wolf Pack. He finds ‘clothes do make the sheep’. Dressing and acting like a wolf transforms him into one. After he’s accepted, he discovers other wannabe-wolves have slipped in, too. Soon, Timothy’s enjoying the wild-life, howling and playing with friends as late as he wants. He’s living his dreams.

But dreams become nightmares as the wolves’ brutal nature is revealed. With wolves killing wolves, can a ‘SHEEP IN WOLF’S CLOTHING’ survive? Too ashamed to return home to the Meadows and Flock, can Timothy protect his new girl or any of his wannabe friends? Soon he’s changed irrevocably as he’s forced to fight for his life. Will he live to learn any lessons from his wolf experiences?

Humorously parodying gang involvement and its violence, this story is suitable for Middle-Grade, Young-Adult, and Christian audiences. It has great action and some wolf-violence. One brief scene intended to discourage drug use.

 

Please feel free to read the free samples at either site.  It isn’t your typical fable.

 

Hoping you all have a wonderful 2016 and that you meet your goals for the year.

 

 

Flight of the Hive: Subjugation

Here is chapter 3 of my sci fi novel.  What happens in todays world if suddenly astronomers see a flare of light out by Neptune?  When they read the spectroscopy of the light waves, they are conviced it was light from a burning mixture of gases that could only be fuel.

We have visitors…

 

Chapter 3: Hints and Spy Games 

 

Ship-mother Malen waited patiently while the Flight-mother spoke with the other Ship-mothers. As Ship-mother of the flagship of the Flight, Malen was aware of much of what occurred within it. Fayon, the Flight-mother, kept her close in the event that rapid maneuvers were needed. So Malen was usually present as the Flight’s business was conducted across the many ships. The Flight-mother was determined not to let the errors in the spiral arm be repeated. Losses had been severe, Malen reflected, but not bad enough for Fayon to abort the mission. The loss of Khree would have mortified the entire Flight had they been forced to retreat.

Fayon was just beginning to get feedback from the sensors. Recon had deployed immediately upon Emergence, bless the Great Mother for the Holy Act, but had originally been preoccupied with watching for the Enemy. Now the Recon teams would have begun monitoring all radio and radiation frequencies as well as Doppler ripple effects caused by worm-space Transmissions or Jumps. Recon had its own scouts to send out with sensitive eavesdropping equipment. Their computers were set up to decode or decipher all transmissions from their destination and separate out video transmissions from audio in every wavelength.

Usually they had to search diligently for signals, but not this time. The target was sending out enormous volumes of signals, willy-nilly across the spectrum. There was so much chatter in transmissions that their immediate problem was to isolate a few signals enough to be able to reassemble those into audio or video data. Malen shook her head at the thought of all those radio-frequencies being thrown out into space completely oblivious to who may be listening. She shuddered. This could still prove a trap she thought. The signals are just too loud and widespread to be anything except an intentional homing signal. Malen was no longer as comfortable with this “routine” mission. Homing signals were either for a distress call or a trap in her mind.

But there was no indication that the Enemy was within light-years. Here at their destination, the presence of the Enemy would have required an alteration in the Directives. This was worrisome. With the loss of the Drones, the Flight had lost the interpreters of The Great Mother’s will. Altering the Directives would have to be done without assurance they were correctly following the Mother’s will. They were lucky they did not have to make such a decision. Their mission was still viable.

She did not miss the Drones. Although they were Hive-mates, they made her uncomfortable as they scrabbled about. Malen knew that much of the Flight felt the same way. Part of our less than perfect manufacture, she thought, as the Drones tell us repeatedly. The Drones treatment of the Flight clones precipitated much of the dislike of them. It was hard to be treated like a sub-class race when you were just as much a part of the Hive as the Drones. But the Drones always did that. And when they came on these trips, they had to be watched.

There were occasions when a Drone or Drones would kill a clone. Malen curled her upper lip. One of those now dead Drones had been involved in such an act on an earlier mission. That one she had no regrets over at all. It was lucky that she hadn’t had an opportunity to let some of the more frenetic Warrior clones dismember it. If she had ever had it alone on her ship, it may have met with a tragic accident. The automatic intonation, “Galeta forgive me,” came unbidden to her lips at the thought. Malen was ex-Warrior and she liked to think that particular Drone knew she craved to kill it when it looked at her with its faceted eyes. And that was why it stayed close to the other Drones. Pity she wouldn’t have that chance now.

A blue-suited Services clone squeezed between Malen’s scarlet covering and Fayon’s purple. She offered them both some dark kante to keep alertness levels high. The stimulant was being disbursed to all Bridge-crew as well since they were well into the third cycle since Emergence, Galeta be praised, and they would not stand down to a routine watch level for at least another cycle. Malen watched the clone move away. The young clone’s limbs moved with a fluid grace that was only learned in weightlessness. Idly she wondered what else this Services clone did besides distribute drinks. She snorted, a dalliance with another on her own ship was poor practice for a Ship-mother.

Malen heard Fayon issuing an order to send mining teams to one of the nearby moons.  The Prospectors had reported that moon to have a frozen sea of methane-ammonia. The mining teams could use the bots to strip mine the surface for needed replenishment of resources while the Recon teams went to work. A second report of water-ice was rewarded with Fayon authorizing more mining teams being sent. There was still a small risk that the Enemy would turn up and Fayon would be keeping the working teams down to a minimum until they were more confident.

Behind her, Malen heard the clatter of running feet. Turning she saw a brown-clad Recon clone pushing its way between the mostly silver suited crew on the bridge. It ran up to the Flight-Mother gasping. Fayon made it wait until she finished her other task with one of the supply ships. Then turning she nodded for it to report.

It began to babble loudly, drawing more attention to it on the crowded bridge. Faylon waived the clone forward to her side and managed to hear, “We have a problem, Flight-mother. Look at these transmissions,” the Recon clone handed Fayon a mem-chit. “Look at what we found.”

Fayon frowned, the clone was on thin ice, Malen knew. This anxiety was unbecoming a Flight clone, reducing its khree. “Silence,” she barked. She took the chit and fed it into her reader. A video flashed up on the screen and began to play. Several calons of silence were followed by the Flight-Mother’s exclamation, “Great Galeta, look at these creatures! Seal the Bridge,” Fayon ordered.

#

#

“Andre? Andre LeGalais?” He turned to look at the voice. There stood a man of medium build in a well tailored suit. “I am Christoffer Lowe. I called you at the embassy.”

“Oui. Forgive me. Yes, of course. I sometimes forget myself and use my native tongue.” Andre stood politely, but looked the man over critically. “Would you be so kind as to join me?” He then asked inviting the man to his table in the open air café. Together they both sat, a waiter came up immediately, one of the reasons Andre frequented this sidewalk café.  The service was excellent. They ordered some wine. Andre already had an antipasto plate of salamis and cheeses. Andre loved being outside and watching all the people walk by. His eyes followed a pair of attractive young women. Ahhhh, the girls of Holland, he thought watching them recede in the crowd.

“I see you are certainly French,” Christoffer said smiling widely. “I find the warmer climes here much more conducive to scantily dressed women. In Norway, there is a much shorter summer.”

Andre found him a bit crude he thought. “You said that you had some information for me?”

“Yes. As I told you, I work at the Danish Embassy here in Amsterdam. And I was told that you would provide a reward for interesting information.”

“Depends on what it is that you feel that you have, Monsieur,” Andre answered casually. “If it has value, then I may find that my generosity is encouraged.”

“I know that there is a new American science endeavor commencing.”

“So. Physics?”

“No,” Christoffer said. “Astronomy.”

Andre laughed. “What value is there in a few pictures of stars? I do not think you will find me interested.”

“Ambassador LeGalais. Your pardon, but I think if you hear me out, you will find it very interesting.”

“I am not a full ambassador, Mr. Lowe. Merely an attaché”, but the Norwegian knew that or he would not be here. He had his own intelligence information on Mr. Lowe of course.

“Let me tell you the first part; then, if I find your generosity is ample enough, I will tell you the rest.”

Andre tasted his wine. If he was going to have wasted the afternoon, at least he would savor the wine. “Please proceed, Mr.Lowe.”

Chistoffer cleared his throat and leaned in speaking softer, “As I said the Americans have begun a new program in astronomy. I have heard from a briefing given to our Ambassador that they have seen something through their telescopes.”

“Seen something? Like a new star? Something new exploding a thousand light-years away?”

“Nothing like that at all. No, the Americans are suddenly very ardent about astronomy after virtually ignoring the field for years. Rumor has it, they are searching for something of extreme value. I have copies of their evidence of a clandestine space vehicle, possibly launched from Earth that has turned up in the outer part of our solar system. A secret launch.”

Andre was interested, but not convinced there was a value here. “So a launch was not announced. This is not unusual.”

“But the vehicle is estimated to be bigger than the Baton Rouge.”

Andre looked at him blankly. “You cannot be serious. Nothing like that has ever been launched,”

“The Americans think something is there. They have just pushed a $200 million dollar funds authorization through their congress to pay the cost of looking for this. Now they have begun hiring astronomers and tying up observatory time all over the world.”

Andre thought about it. That was a great deal of money to pay for social misfits to stare though magnifying glasses for hours. “You have some proof?”

“Give me 2,500 euros, and I’ll give you this flash drive.” He waived a small bright yellow flash drive in the air. “On it, you will see. If you find it as valuable as I think, my second flash drive will cost you 25,000 euros”

Andre snorted. “I would certainly have to see.” He paused and sipped his wine again, giving himself time to think. He was trained to notice unusual things. It sounded like too irregular an occurrence to be nothing. So it probably was something. The only risk here was if it were worth the euros or not. “Ok. My expense account is large enough to satisfy my curiosity. Give me the flash drive.”

“First here is an account in the Bank of Zurich, transfer the 2,500 euros.”

Andre picked up his phone and began texting. “The money is being routed. If I am being cheated, you will find I am not the forgiving kind. The paperwork I have to fill out will require someone suffer for it.”

“Oh, you will be satisfied.” Christoffer’s own phone dinged and he pulled it from his pocket and peered at the screen. “Ah, I see the funds have arrived. Here, run that and then let’s talk about the full e25,000.” Christoffer tossed the bright yellow flash drive on the table. Andre picked it up and pulled his tablet-phone from his pocket. He inserted the flash drive and began to run the information.

Andre sat very still. He read it twice, then lowered his reader slowly. “Sacre bleu!” he said under his breath, then aloud, “Did you want the 25,000 euros wired to the same account?” He hoped he had asked that calmly.

#

#

The smokey room was stale and overly warm. It was filled with the many smells of a cheap bar. The light was hazy and yellow through the windows. Chiang wondered if that was because of the years of tobacco smoke this room has withstood. He calmly motioned gently to his large bodyguard on the other side of the room, who gave one quick nod back, and then walked out. Being a man of slight build, he kept the bodyguard close. His acquaintances tended to try to eliminate him periodically and the big man had saved him at least twice. He looked back at his Turkish friend. He was nodding too, with a large grin on his face as he counted his money carefully. He sighed, the Turk was dependable. He was greedy to a fault and very meticulous about counting every American dollar before he would be satisfied. Chiang had no idea what the dark bearded man’s real name was. He was just, the Turk. About then the man looked up beaming and said, “Excellent. It is all there. Thank you for your purchase.”

“It is always a pleasure to deal with you, Mr. Turk.” Chiang gave a polite half bow.

“Good. Yes. For me, too.” He waved a wad of the $100 bills. “I have another shipment of AK’s coming. And a handful of those French rockets you liked last year. Any other deals coming up?”

Chiang Heung nodded, “Of course, my friend. There are always more deals coming. . . but not at this time. However, please keep me in mind for those missiles. I am confident I will have a buyer for them in perhaps a week.”

“Hey. Have you heard anything about the Americans and their observatory in Chile?”

Chiang was not interested, but arms deals with the Turk required a great deal of chit chat to consummate the deal and keep a good relationship. “Observatory? No. Did something happen to it?”

“Ha ha. No! Not like that. It didn’t blow up or nothing. Ha ha. No, nothing so entertaining. But, they got about a hundred new people there suddenly. It’s very busy there now, day and night. I used to have a good place near there at the port on the coast, to store my packages, but now,” he shrugged his burly shoulders. “It’s too busy.”

Still not interested, Chiang said, “I hope that does not slow your usual shipments. There are six in the next two weeks you recall?”

“Ha. Not to worry. No. I heard that the Americans have seen something in space through their telescopes.” Seeing Chiang’s low interest level, the Turk coyly said, “After they saw it, they lost it. Now it is something that they are suddenly desperate to see again. I hear from the foreman in their construction crew, that all they talk about is looking for something very important.”

Chiang cocked his head. While this had no immediate value to him, he regularly reported to contacts on the Chinese mainland on everything he heard in his travels. It provided free traveling money, though he doubted much he told them was of any real use. But it was something new, and different, to pass along so they would see he was doing his job of gathering information. Who knows, Americans and science, and a sudden flurry of activity? They may be spying on something from that observatory. His employers would probably add a bonus to his usual fees for this little tidbit of information.

#

#

The bustling morning’s activity made James DeHavland very happy. More than half of his new staff had already arrived. But over the past two weeks a steady stream of trucks had been bringing supplies and materials for the new staff quarters as well as an expansion to the observatory. Many of the new staff were still acclimating to the high altitude, and the barren vistas around the observatory. The observatory sat on the lava dome that formed the summit of Cerro Chajnantor in northern Chile. The summit was 5,640 meters in elevation, which was about 18,500 feet he reminded himself. Although they were well above any tree line at this altitude, it was their location in the Atacama Desert that probably contributed most to the severe lack of all vegetation up here.

About 5 kilometers to the south-southeast on a plateau, sitting up slightly higher than them, was the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory. That was where the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA for short) sat. ALMA was an internationally ran observatory that initially had been composed of 66 high-precision telescopes, operating at wavelengths of 0.3 to 9.6 mm. It was now expanded to 132 and all of them synchronized to act as one telescope. ALMA was run by the Europeans who called it their southern observatory. His own facility was officially the University of Tokyo Atacama Observatory (TAO), but it was known affectionately by many of the staff as the Hell-hole. He laughed at the name. The Hell-hole was officially the highest permanently manned astronomical observatory in the world. James was rather proud of that as its director.

Although it was summer in the southern hemisphere, the thin air at this elevation was still frigid. Too frigid for Hell, he thought with humor. Ah, well. You can’t please everyone. He finished his reflections and tore his gaze off the sight. Time to get busy. He wasn’t one of the ones who were up all night, but all day he had to analyze their findings to see if there were any indicators of what they were seeking. He headed to the administrative building, which used to be the original bunkhouse years ago.

As he entered, he was confronted with the sound of dozens of anxious grad students shuffling hundreds of papers all at once. The building was now mostly all one room and it was full of people all rushing about doing dozens of tasks. He headed between the students towards the one end of the building that held an extra room, his office. When he got there, he was not too surprised to see Clarice. Clarice was a grad student who acted as his main gal Friday, but for the life of him, he could not remember her last name. Not important, he told himself.

“Has anything turned up yet?”He asked her.

“No, sir. But, Randall said he has something that he wanted to bring to you himself.”

“Randall?” Oh, yes. Randall. A short plump boy who was always desperately seeking praise for whatever he did. Tiresome, De Havland thought, but a good hard worker. He was even moderately bright for an American student. James wondered if he could slip out and avoid him. Otherwise he would have to act suitably appreciative of whatever he had done last night. “Did he say when he was coming over?”

“Here he is now,” Clarice said as Randall burst into his office without knocking. So like Randall, De Havland thought with a sigh. No sense of propriety.

“Professor De Havland,” Randall was bubbling over. “I have something weird happening.”

Weird! Yes, it was pure Randall. “What is weird, Randall,” he asked patiently.

“The stars. We’ve been looking for moving lights, planets, asteroids, that kind of thing. Right?”

“Yes, Randall.” De Havland sighed again. Get on with it he thought.

“Well, I watched several stars wink out last night one after the other!” His pride was clear in his voice.

“And that means…?”

“Non-reflective.”

“What?”

“Non-reflective. The asteroid we’re looking for is non-reflective. It’s a black body. No emissions whatever. But it’s still solid. It passed in front of at least three stars in a straight line with each other last night.” Randall grinned wildly in triumph. Then he sobered, “Either that, or I found a new asteroid that’s not marked in the charts.” He was looking down now. Obviously, that thought had only just now occurred to him.

De Havland smiled graciously. “Why don’t you check that out more fully for the next few nights and come back then? By doing that, you’ll have accumulated a greater amount of data and your analysis would be able to carry more weight. Don’t you think?”

“Yes sir,” Randal mumbled as he turned around and marched out the door. Lord, give me patience, James told himself. These kids they sent me! Some are really too much.

“Anything else?” he asked Clarice.

“You have a message from Karl Wolfgang over at the Hawaii, Keck Observatory. He wanted you to know that he heard from JPL that they had reprogrammed the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes as well as the three other sister telescopes in orbit to all begin searching the zone too. JPL told us their latest planetary probe is passing close enough to scan the same area. They redirected its smaller telescopes yesterday.”

“Good.” James looked at his in box. Right on top was a new budget statement from Georgette Jefferson up at the HQ. On it was a sticky note with handwriting on it. Georgette’s handwriting. He read it. Then pealed it off and wadded it up. Silly, Georgette. She meant well he supposed, but her sticky note was a pretty poor way of trying to pass him a discrete message. “UFOs” her note said. “The Big boys are looking for UFOs.” Poor Georgette, she was really losing it. UFOs indeed! Well, he had more pressing items like his budget to deal with.

Next – Chapter 4

Ha ha. UFO’s indeed.  The next chapter promises more ans more as the acceleration of events picks up.

The Ice Queen: Blood and Ice Wolves

I hope everyone is enjoying my story.  With this addition, you will have read over 15,000 words of this fantasy. I was just looking over some of the nice comments I received from posting it on Authonomy (before they closed).  It really helps keep me fired up to write when I hear someone enjoys my stories.

Let me know any comments you may have. Critiques I get have almost all been used to improve my stories, so as long as you are constructive don’t be bashful.

Here it is:

 

Chapter 5 – The Pursuit of Wolves 

 

Feyt awoke to the toe of a heavy boot kicking him.

“Get up, boy,” Muroc ordered. “You got five minutes to eat.” With that, he was gone.

Ohhh. Feyt rubbed the sleep from his eyes. It was still completely dark. They were not kidding about an early start! He quickly climbed out into the frigid air, pulling his clothing on and snatching his parka. It is going to be cold until I get moving. The past few days, I just got up with the light and counted on catching up with them each day. This is harder, he complained silently.

Muroc sent the twins out ahead, then he stomped back by where Feyt and the others were still chewing their breakfast of cold jerky. He glared at them all with his one eye and growled, “I told Dokara and Seelus the rest of us would follow. Hurry up and grab your packs before they get too far ahead.”

Everyone began to snatch up whatever wasn’t packed, stuffing it into their packs. Feyt saw everyone had light packs like his, and there were two larger packs of food. Someone will have to carry an extra load, he thought.

Muroc came back by, grabbed one of the heavy packs and thrust it at him saying, “Here. Make yourself useful.” He paused, expectantly. Feyt could tell Muroc was daring him to say something. When he just set the pack with his own, Muroc grinned, picked up his own small pack, and moved to the head of their column. Feyt could see Gairet was picking up the other large pack.

Silently Feyt tied his pack on top of the other one and shouldered it with a grunt. Good grief! These men either eat too much or they’re planning to be out here till spring! Haven’t they ever heard of living off the land?

 

Muroc started at a brisk pace in the dark pre-morning air. They threaded between the low bushes and widely spaced spruce trees that dotted the landscape here, winding over ridge after ridge. It was not long before Feyt opened his parka to lose some heat. He did not want to get sweaty. That would bring a bone chilling cold later. At this temperature, once you were damp, it took forever to dry out.

The sun was finally about to clear the horizon to their right when Muroc stopped suddenly in an area thicker with trees. Dokara had appeared out of nowhere. He whispered something to Muroc and was gone again. Muroc slung off his pack and turned around, motioning the others to keep silent. Aterius quickly dropped his pack and the others followed suit as well.

Something is happening. It has to be the ice wolves. Feyt fumbled with his straps and set his large pack on the ground, thankful to feel the weight slide off his shoulders. He found he was trembling from a sudden case of nerves. Man, you would think I was making my first kill all over again, Feyt admonished himself. Buck fever, they call it. He saw Tauras unsling his big crossbow and fit an arrow to it. He realized Tauras had been carrying it cocked, but unloaded. Aterius and Gairet both had javelins they had been using as staffs, but now they brought them to the ready.

Muroc motioned Aterius to the right and Gairet to the left. They disappeared behind the trees to each side. Muroc’s sword was out and he signaled Feyt to follow him. As Feyt did, he drew his own long-knife. This is all happening so fast, he thought feeling slightly disjointed from the immediate events. I wish I had Selise’s recurved bow. Or even better, I wish she was here herself. She would not miss.

Muroc stopped behind a downed tree. Looking over his heavy shoulders, Feyt could see the ice wolves beyond. They were spread out over an opening in the trees. The wolves had pawed away the snow in the sparse grass and made beds for the night. Only a couple had gotten up yet this morning leaving round bare spots where they had lain.

Feyt swallowed. There had to be twenty of them. Maybe more! He felt more than nerves now. A little shiver of fear tickled his back, making his gut knot up. Then, he saw his wolf.

It was bigger than the others were, and it was in the middle of the pack, standing, looking away with its ears up. Does it hear us? He could see the freshly scabbed slash that ran across its right eye. He felt again the guilt.

Mum. Serente. My fault. I was not there. With the guilt came his hatred. The fear went away. He wanted to kill this one.

Muroc looked at him and nodded. He nodded back. Muroc whistled once loudly.

At the sound, half the wolves sprang up. Feyt heard Tauras’s crossbow twang and one of the wolves in the middle of the clearing went down. Muroc was already charging forward silently, racing for the nearest wolf. It stood with its back to them. Feyt charged forward himself, his long-knife over his head ready to slash down. Across the wolves, he saw Atrius throw his javelin, and heard a yelp. On the far side, Dokara and Seelus’s white furred figures were rushing forward as well. He heard their yells. Gairet’s javelin flashed as it flew into a wolf to his right.

Muroc’s blade decended on the first wolf. Everything else blurred as Feyt focused on his own target. Sprinting forward, a snarling wolf suddenly appeared from his left and he brought his long-knife down hard, stabbing. Yelping it fell and he stumbled over it.

He righted himself and kept running. He saw his wolf was now looking straight at him. Its eyes were intelligent and malignant. It curled its lips and snarled. He charged it, his knife back up. Blood ran down his arm unnoticed.

It whirled and leapt away. No! No! It cannot get away! He struggled harder to run faster in the snow, but it slowed him, impeding his feet. Suddenly a dark furred body crashed into his side.

He heard and felt his parka tearing as he went down with it. He rolled and thrust with his knife. It slid along the wolf’s flank, raking fur and leaving a bloody line. It yelped, but was not hurt badly. Feyt threw his arm up in time to block as it lunged again. The teeth grazed his cheek. He felt its hot breath on his face as his forearm held it back. He plunged his long-knife into it, but it snarled even more fiercely and doubled its efforts to sink its teeth into his throat. Now his knife was stuck. The struggling wolf wrenched it out of his hand.

Feyt grabbed a handful of fur in his now empty knife hand, holding its head back. It was as big as he was and he felt its claws tearing his parka more. It shook its head and tore itself loose from his grasp. Oh, God! Now I’m in trouble. As its snarling jaws lashed at his face again, something flashed across his vision. Suddenly the wolf above him was missing its head. It flopped onto him and he pushed and kicked it away. His face was sticky with blood.

Sitting up, he saw Muroc grinning at him, his one eye glinting. His sword up, dripping blood. “You make good bait, boy!” Then he was gone, charging after the wolves.

Feyt struggled up, staggering. The clearing was mostly empty. He could see the retreating forms of a few wolves. As he watched them loping away, he saw Tauras take aim and loose a last bolt. Lowering his crossbow, Tauras looked around and saw him. He waved and yelled excitedly. Feyt could not tell what he said. He looked around dazedly. There were several wolf bodies strewn about. A couple were thrashing or trying to crawl away. He heard their whines and yelps.

Dokara and Seelus were dispatching the living wolves as they made their way across the opening. Looking down, Feyt saw his long-knife protruding from the wolf at his feet. He reached down, and yanked. It was still stuck. He put his foot on the corpse and pulled harder. It came out suddenly and he staggered again. He stood there staring at it.

Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he looked up. Aterius stood there. “Are you hurt?” He could see the concern in his eyes.

“Hurt? Uh… No.” Funny question.

“You sure?” Aterius frowned.

“Yeah. I’m fine.”

“Let me see you face.” Aterius raised his hand to touch his face.

“Ouch. Watch it!”

“Not hurt, huh? It’s shallow. You’re going to have a nice scar there though,” Aterius grimaced. “We’ll wash it up and take a better look in a bit.”

Feyt touched his hand to his head where Aterius had been. Ow. That is tender! When did that happen? His hand came away bloody. He looked down at his parka, its front hung torn from his neck to his waist, and the one side had several smaller rips. From the wolf’s paws, he supposed. I knew the hunters were getting close to the ice wolves, but I did not know we would catch them so soon. Catch them… My wolf! Feyt looked around quickly.

He did not see any bodies that looked like it had a slashed eye. The cursed thing has gotten away! I missed my chance! How could I let it get away when… when it was my fault it killed them. My fault it got away, too. He felt his anger rising. I should have been faster. I should have thrown my knife. I should have done… something. I cannot go back without killing that monster. Feyt felt sick in his gut from his anguish.

Muroc called from across the clearing. “How many?”

Gairet answered back from the far side, “Eleven. There are at least two blood trails, maybe three. They’ll stiffen up in a few hours and we’ll catch up with them if we’re lucky.”

Catch up? “We’re going on? We’re not letting them go, right?” Feyt could not keep the eagerness out of his voice.

“Let them go? Of course not! We’ve still got a good size pack to hunt.” Aterius was wiping his javelin. “You’re keeping score aren’t you? You’ve got two.”

“One!” Muroc corrected. “I had to take the head off the second one.”

“Hey! Bait gets some credit,” Gairet said laughing. “One-and-a-half, then. All in favor?”

Feyt heard several “Ayes” echo across the clearing.

“This isn’t a democracy, regardless of Aterius’s high ideals,” Murac growled, but Aterius only grinned widely. “Go get your packs, the real chase starts now. Now, they know they’re being hunted.”

 

Feyt did not see the twins the rest of the day. They ranged out in front, scouting, while the rest of them slogged along behind. Carrying the large pack, Feyt was soon concentrating on just keeping moving. He struggled along placing one foot in front of the other in the thick snow. Before they resumed the chase, Aterius had wrapped a strip of cloth around his head and promised to “sew” it when they made camp. That had stopped the seepage of blood from getting into his eyes as he sweated. His left his parka wide open since most of the buttons were torn off. He was hot enough as he walked along that he was not too upset about the coat. Yet. I will be when it gets cold tonight though, he reminded himself.

Gairet had cut the tails off the eleven wolves they killed and, after flourishing them about for an hour or so, put them into his pack when he grew bored of the game. Taurus kept complaining he had lost five of his crossbow bolts. “I only brought forty. Do you know what those things cost?” he asked a number of times. Finally, Muroc assured him he would get them replaced out of the money the village leaders promised to pay.

Feyt had not known Swornson had agreed to pay the hunters. Something about being paid to do what honor demanded rankled him just a bit. Then it dawned on him. They are bounty hunters. I’ve heard of such men, but I never knew anyone who could say they ever met one before. Some of the Freebriers are supposedly bounty hunters. Only, they hunted men for their bounties. That brought a shiver to Feyt’s spine. I wonder if Muroc and his band normally hunt men?

Muroc did not push them as hard as he had when they first started. Their morning’s success made him talkative for once. “They are hauling their tails fast right now,” he said. “We’ll give them some space; make them think we’re done. If we do not push them hard, they will slow down in a day or so. Then we’ll hit them again.”

That made Feyt feel much better. I am glad to be among bounty hunters, however bad they may be, if that is what I need to get my revenge. He could visualize Serente’s face smiling at him. He shook away the tears that tried to form and pressed on. I am going to kill them, Serente. For you and Mum. You’ll see.

Just before dusk, Dokara came back with two more tails and a crossbow quarrel. He handed the tails to Gairet and the bolt to Tauras. Gairet laughed and began to try to guess which of them should count the two extra kills, but Tauras looked a little sad.

When pushed by the boisterous Gairet, Tauras complained, “I know Muroc. He will not replace what has not been lost. I’d have been better off with a brand new quarrel than an old worn one.”

“Let me throw that one away for you, then,” Gairet offered.

Taurus, however, became very protective of it, saying, “No. That is all right. I have grown fond of it, you know. I mark each kill on each bolt. See? This one has six kills.” He rapidly put it away to keep Gairet from absconding with it.

“Hah. So, you’re counting kills too. How many misses though?”

“No one counts misses,” he retorted.

“How do you know when you’ve used it up then? It has to be worn out sometime right?”

Disturbed, Tauras muttered, “Used it up? How do I know? That is not fair, Gairet. Misses don’t use them up. Do they?”

“Oh, yeah,” Garet turned his head and winked to everyone else. “Once they’re used up, you can’t hit anything with them. I bet that one is used up.”

Tauras mumbled and complained quietly for a while, but he would not return the “used up” bolt and assured Gairet repeatedly it was still good. He changed the subject when Gairet laughed and asked, “How do you know for sure?” one more time.

 

 

That night, when they made camp, Aterius sat Feyt down by a larger fire than normal and took out a needle and some thread. “This is not thread, it is sinew,” he insisted. “Thread isn’t good in a wound.” Feyt sat in front of him with the cut side of his face turned into the firelight.

“Ouch!” Feyt exclaimed, eliciting laughter around the fire. “That hurts!”

“It’s going to. Grit your teeth.” After that, Feyt bit his lip and other than a few grunts said nothing until Aterius finished the stitching.

Seelus, from across the fire, said, “Feyt-bait. Good job today. You got two. Not bad.”

Dokara nodded. “Yeah, not a bad job. Word of advice though, you charged right out into the middle of them. What were you after? That big one in the middle?”

“Yeah. The big one.”

That surprised, Dokara. “Really? The big one? Looking for a trophy?”

“No…”

“He’s the bait remember,” Gairet laughed. “He wanted to feed the big one.”

“No.” Feyt drew a deep breath. “The big one is the one that killed my mum and sis.”

The silence around the fire was thick. It lasted until Gairet said, “Hey, Feyt. I am sorry. I didn’t mean anything. I was just funning. You know.”

“I mean something though.” All heads turned to Muroc. He looked around the group solemnly. “Feyt is officially one of us now. A full member. Gets his share of the bounty. Any disagreements?” Tauras looked like he wanted to complain, but held his tongue.

Muroc went on. “And that big ugly wolf is his. He gets first shot at it. If anyone else kills it, you bring it to him. It is his by right. Got it? Good,” he said as heads around the fire nodded. He tossed a bottle of something to Tauras, who was closest to him. “Here, pass this around. We had a good start to the hunting today. But everyone needs to know, we were lucky. Those things did not know there was anyone after them. Now, they are going to be skittish. We put the fear of God in them.” That brought some laughter and agreement.

God? Is he a believer in the One God like my mum and I?

He went on, “Tomorrow, we start closing the gap on them again. With luck, we’ll hit them good again by the day after.”

“We better,” Aterius said dryly. “Weather looks like it may be changing soon. Feels like a storm is coming. If not late tomorrow, I’d guess the day after.”

“Not sure how you tell, Aterius, but, I won’t argue. Enjoy the drink, men. Tomorrow we push hard to catch up again.” Muroc walked away with Tauras, who had come up with another complaint about something.

Gairet laughed at their backs and leaned over to Feyt. “For Tauras, every silver lining has a cloud attached.”

“Here, Feyt,” Aterius nudged him. “Let’s sew up your coat now that your head is mostly held together. This needle has twine. Know how to sew?”

“Yeah. My mum taught me. We did all our own repairs. If I came home with my coat torn up like this, she’d make me stitch it back together to teach me to take better care of my things.” Thinking of his mum made his eyes misty briefly. Clearing his throat he went on, “Not like we could afford to barter for a new one.”

“Hmmm. Where I am from, I never learned anything, until I ran away to become an adventurer. My parents were wealthy. When they disinherited me for becoming an adventurer and a bounty hunter. I was forced to learn a great number of things I had to do on my own. Count yourself lucky to have learned your skills so young. I was less fortunate.”

I suppose his being a prince explains his fancy clothes back in Caernall. And why he acts different from everyone else. Sophisticated, Feyt pronounced it slowly in his mind. He looked at the black man differently now. Born wealthy, and I bet he can even read. Now, here he is with a band of bounty hunters. I thought my life wasn’t fair.

Feyt shrugged out of the parka. He emptied its pockets so he could pull the fabric straight as he sewed. As he did, he found the medallion in the pocket where he had placed it. He had forgotten he had it. It seemed like the horror of his Mum and Serente’s murder had occurred weeks ago, instead of just four days ago. He lifted the necklace up and peered at it. Doing so reminded him of his mother’s words. About the wolf and how it had talked. With her dying breath, she said it wanted the medallion. Crazy talk, or… was it really a demon? Feyt examined the round metal more closely, rubbing one face with his thumb.

How could something as dull and plain as this have any value, let alone be something some demon would be searching for? It made no sense. Mum was probably out of her head. He started to drop the medallion back into the bottom of his pack, but he paused. If some wolf demon does want it, I should hide it. Smiling, Feyt slid it into the linings of his parka. Sewn in, it would not be easy to find, or easy for him to lose either. A gust of frigid air reminded him, he had better finish or he would freeze out here. Thinking that, he shivered, feeling the icy sting of the night air more strongly.

He hurried along at his task, stopping once when he pricked his finger with the needle. He sucked on the throbbing finger as Gairet laughed at him.

“Stick the coat, not the finger. Ha ha.” Gairet grinned widely. He shook his hand back and forth as if he had stuck himself.

Feyt scowled, and then laughed back. Gairet was always cheerful. He was glad to have met him. They are all good mates, he realized as he thought about it. Feyt sighed, I am thankful to have somewhere to be, now that my family is gone.

 

I’ll follow up with chapter 6 soon.

Flight of the Hive: Subjugation

Here is chapter 2 of my sci-fi novel.

Chapter 1 was posted earlier.

 

Chapter 2 – Discovery

 

The young man shivered again. It was cold again tonight and no matter how many clothes he wore, he just couldn’t seem to stay warm more than half the night. He wondered for the millionth time tonight about the wisdom of pursuing his doctorate in astronomy. There were hundreds of other brilliant young genius’s all vying for his position here. And although he was very lucky to be here, here he was junior to everyone, including the eight resident cats. All he got were the boring and unglamorous jobs. Tonight he was assigned to take two routine spectroscopy readings each of a few dozen stars that just happened to be moving a little faster than their neighbors. Nothing special about any of them really, he moped. The whole thing involved some obscure theory about a star’s apparent velocity and mass, related to its surrounding dark-matter. Or was it spin instead of mass? He wasn’t sure and hadn’t paid enough attention to this particular assignment to care much.

Shivering, he looked at his watch. Time again. He pulled out the visual plate of the second reading on the twelfth-to-last star for the night. The visual plate was used to compare with the digital spectral photos and to verify nothing had obscured the reading. Using the old style visual plates meant that each one had to be exposed for a specific amount of time. He wished the lab had more up-to-date methods for the visual recordings. Talk about archaic technology! This was stone-age technology, he complained to himself. Why couldn’t he have gotten an assignment at a more modern facility? To top it off, it was pretty boring, too. The long exposure times were what used up the night, not the number of readings. Waiting between plates was a pain. Not enough time to go somewhere warm or to do anything else, but far too much dead time to suit him.

He looked at his watch. Time again. He pulled out the second visual plate of the pair. He wished again the lab had more current methods for the visual recordings as he went through the tedious step by step process to develop the plate. When he was done he set the plate up where he could examine it. He looked at the plate and cursed. There was a smudge on the plate that wasn’t on the first visual plate. Just his luck! Now he’d have to redo the plates and it would cut into the little time he squeezed out of each shift to do his own pet research. He considered ignoring it and claiming he hadn’t seen it, but they’d just find it in the lab the next day. And then, besides getting into more hot water with that prick of a lab-supervisor, Kyushi; he’d still have to redo the plates the next night.

He looked through the eyepiece with irritation, just because, and realized that the smudge on the plate was a visible star in the sky. He looked at the first plate again. Definitely nothing there. He looked at the previous plates, still nothing there. Excited, he looked back through the eyepiece. At this magnification through the scope, he was sure the smudge had moved minusculely from where it had been in relation to the other background stars on the plate already! He felt a thrill of excitement. It was close! Relatively speaking. Or moving pretty fast! Or both! Why, he may have discovered a new comet, or perhaps a near earth asteroid. Excitedly, he turned on the video recorder and then took several more extra visual plates and a spectroscopy sample before his watch dictated he continue with his routine.

Cheerfully now, he took the rest of the readings and visual plates assigned to him. His coldness was forgotten as he imagined the envy of fellow students as he named his own celestial body. He rushed through the rest of his work in a daze. He took another look at his object before his shift ended. It was already named by the time he finished his required work. Krause-1, after himself of course. One, he chuckled gleefully, because this was just the starting point of his career and he would surely discover many more astral bodies.

When he finished his work, instead of pulling out his data on his pet project, he spent all the free time left at the end of his shift looking at the flickering light. Part of that time he was happily setting up and developing more visual plates for extra evidence of his own minor planetoid. After taking several more visual plates of the object, he decided to get some extra spectroscopy readings. Maybe he’d be able to tell something about its composition. He took the readings in several spectral ranges besides visible light and then decided to take some spectral readings in the infra-red. He kept precise notes on “his” object’s movement in the sky before his shift ended. Shoot, not only could he chart a new body, he’d tell them what it was made of. He was forced to stop when the dawn shift chased him out about 3 am. But he contentedly took his treasured plates and spectral readings off to analyze them.

#

#

A variety of colored suits and vehicles swarmed around the gigantic burning ship. A large part of the forward sections were simply not there. Its improper Emergence from Worm-space had sliced the missing portions off cleanly at the moment the repulsars failed in the drive. Severed fuel and oxygen lines had been almost immediately ignited by the arcing power grid as pieces shorted electrically.

Veta stared at the view in the vid. Because of the disaster, she and the rest of the bridge crew had been kept on the bridge since Emergence, bless Galeta’s Acts of Faith. They were kept in readiness in case escape became necessary. It seemed unreal. It always did, she thought. All seen on a vid, it never seemed quite real. More sisters gone into Galeta’s keeping. As she watched, a soundless explosion erupted from one side of the huge ship turning into a flaming geyser of flames. Another flare up. E-Ops, Emergency Operations, had been struggling to control it for most of a cycle. It was mostly their vehicles and personnel floating about waving appendages and trying to direct Maintenance crews and bots to where the need was greatest.

Veta hoped they had managed to seal off most of the rest of the ship. Usually the automatic seals worked. Galeta grant they have. If so, other than where the myriad smaller pock marks scarred the surface of the craft, the rest of the cabins and quarters should be intact. But the bright light from the fires had been a shrieking beacon of their presence here. A beacon for any of the Enemy within several light-cycles to easily see. It had raged tremendously until several smallish, in relation to the ship, blasts had been set off by E-Ops to “blow out” the candle. Veta could see the lasers flickering over the shell of the ship. Sealing leaks of atmosphere and fuel or other combustibles. The ship had lost a great amount of its fuel, possible a quarter or more she estimated.

In the weightless vacuum of space, the small flares of light were occurring less and less often. Veta sighed. Galeta help them all if the Enemy sees this. She knew Recon would already be scanning the surrounding space for them. But, one of the Enemy’s favorite tactics was to leave one lone small scout-ship in a system on automatics with its pilot hibernating. The pilot would sleep until a sensor triggered by a signal or a flash woke them to examine what had set off the wake-up call. Once awake, if the Enemy pilot discovered them, they would send for a strike force by a Transmission through Galeta’s worm-space. She shuddered at the thought that the Enemy sent blasphemous Transmissions through worm-space just as they sent their sacred messages. The Enemy may make that Transmission immediately or slip away quietly to a location where they could send for it. Once they sent it, Transmission ripples, much like the Emergence ripples, would give it away and warn the Flight.

She knew that was one of the main dangers that Recon was scanning for. Transmission and Emergence ripples. When ships committed Transmission, or the holy Act of Insertion or Emergence, space-time “rippled” like a stone thrown into a pool. Veta had heard others discussing the ripples and saying that they were actually ripples of dark energy that escaped the worm-space with the Jump. The ripple actually carried the dark force with it that pushed all matter apart. That meant the ripple was similar to a gravitron wave, long lasting and not very prone to decay even across light-years.

If the Enemy were to show up suddenly, it would be those myriads of interconnecting ripples that would tell Recon how many and where the Enemy were. The fighter squadrons had launched as soon as the Flight had Emerged, blessed be Emergence in all its Forms. They were out there weaving and patrolling ready to respond instantly should Enemy ships begin to drop out of worm-space anywhere within range. Veta shuddered, her torso shaking. Galeta protect us from the blasphemy of the Enemy. She hoped the burning would be out soon, very soon. Being so deep into Enemy space was frightening.

#

#

Garret was sure the design would never work. He held up the prototype and looked at it critically. Something was still not right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. Disgusted he flipped it across the desk. Damn stupid little plastic gadget. He pushed his glasses back up on his nose and leaned back in his chair locking his fingers behind his dishwater-blond head. How did he ever get stuck in a job like this? Nothing he did really mattered, or made any difference. The Corp boys fed them all a lot of rah-rah, but there was no meat in Life-with-the-Company. Making the Company rich by designing the latest plastic version of a telescoping coat hanger just wasn’t very exciting. The fact that it was a telescoping laser pointer with a built-in remote control for a digital projector didn’t really make it any better.

He had never really done much exciting in his career, he reflected. Oh, he liked to go on remote hunting trips and wilderness hikes for the thrill and sense of adventure, but work-wise, he’d been too cautious and careful. He’d always gotten a solid, dependable, steady job. That was a Sawyer family trait. His dad had one County job his whole life. Maybe he needed one of those contract jobs. You were only there till the engineering phase was done, then you had to move on. But they often did some pretty exciting engineering. Not this boring shit.

“I wish something big would come along.” He whispered to himself. “I wish I could be doing something exciting.”

He looked up startled as the door flew open and Jeremy Rudstein strutted in. This wasn’t the excitement he had in mind. “Don’t you have that figured out yet? I swear, you better get on the stick or we’ll sack your ass.” Jeremy was an asshole who was related to the big bosses somehow. Almost everyone who lasted the five years to get vested in the retirement plan here was. They were either related or a toady.

No, he had to admit, he knew several hard working, decent guys who thought up most of the Company’s good ideas. They were kept around, too. Scuttle-butt was it wasn’t only because they were brilliant, but mostly because they were already vested. That made it cheaper to keep them than to cash them out of the Companies’ profit sharing plan. But he knew he’d never make this last year to vesting. They’d already started giving him loser projects that were sour from the get-go. When he couldn’t make them work well or turn a healthy profit, they jumped on his ass. All the projects he’d been assigned this past year were in-the-hole budget-wise when he got them, or they started with such a lousy idea that no one was able to sell the crazy gadgets once made.

He figured he was “marked” to be forced out. This way, they could fire him for failing to perform. Once he was fired, all his pension and bonuses reverted to the Company to be shared by the remaining employees who were vested. Again, almost everyone who was vested were relatives or toadies. They were also the very Bosses that would fire him. There was a lot of self-interest in that. But it was standard operating procedure here he’d discovered. He kept telling himself he could quit in a heart-beat, but to be honest, the dozens of small contrived failures had added up to make him fear that he really couldn’t make it somewhere else.

“I’ve just about got it, Jere.” Garret lied. Then, he rationalized, “You know . . . they’re not going to market this till after Christmas, and it’s too soon in the year to tool up to make it now. What’s the rush?”

“You just worry about your deadline, not someone else’s. Besides, where’s that report on your budget for the execs that I asked for yesterday?”

“Jere. You just gave it to me yesterday, and you said you wanted that product out first.”

“Well, you’re taking too long on that piddly little gadget. If you were any kind of an engineer, you’d have had it done by now.”

“I’m doing what I can,” Garret responded defensively.

“Like I said, ‘Get on the stick’, or start looking for a job somewhere else.” With that Jeremy turned and slammed the door shut behind him.

“God! I hate you.” Garret said to the closed door. He turned and looked at where the plastic prototype lay on the desk. The design they had started with and gave him just wasn’t going to work. If he stayed late tonight . . . again, he thought wryly, he could do a better job from scratch. They’d given him the dang thing designed half backwards, and kept claiming that it just needed a little tweaking to make it perfect. Obviously, it was someone’s pet brain-fart. Rolling up his sleeves he pulled up a new clean design sheet on his computer. Better get started.

#

#

“Have you seen this, Mr. President?” The speaker entered the Oval Office waving a folder, strode across the room and tossed it onto the desk. Then he took a long drag on his cigarette.

The President looked at his Secretary of State noncommittally, then he glanced down at the file, recognizing it immediately. “I’ve seen it, Bob. Are you sure it’s authentic?”

Bob began to pace nervously across the room, puffing his cigarette, as he spoke. “Well, the pictures and the spectral readings are definitely authentic. There’s no doubt about who took them, when and where. The only questionable part about it all is the analysis by the science types.”

“Is that all the information we could get?”

“I’m afraid so. If the student astronomer had reported it right away, we might have gotten more, but in all probability, it would have been ignored. Even the experienced astronomers would have expected it to be a minor asteroid or a new comet. Notable, but not a critical discovery.” Bob crushed out his cigarette.

“It’s been double checked of course?”

“It’s been quadruple checked, Mr. President.” Bob Farington tapped out another cigarette and lit up. He was a chain smoker who always blamed it on the stress. “Every scientist we’ve shown the astronomer’s spectral data to says, ‘It’s burning rocket fuel.’ They say that light was from a mix of gaseous oxygen, hydrogen and methane that was burning. They are all definite on the spectral lines. When, we tell them we took these pictures just inside the orbit of Neptune, they say ‘Impossible.’”

Bob puffed his smoke a few times, then went on, “The physicists say that it’s so cold that far out from the sun that molecular oxygen, hydrogen, and methane would freeze out there. Apparently if it freezes, the gases will separate out of the mixture into layers of separate gases, because they all freeze at different temperatures and have different specific gravities. Basically they’re saying that a mixture such as the one they are seeing can’t naturally exist if it’s frozen. To top it off they say that even if it could, it still wouldn’t burn by itself if it were frozen. The frozen phase structure is nearly impossible to ignite.”

Bob sucked on the cigarette again. “They say that if it were a natural fire, it would have to be volcanism, but it has the wrong spectral lines. They say there’s nothing natural to ignite such a fire out there. So, they conclude, we have to be mistaken.” He rubbed his head wearily with his free hand. “The only thing the scientists all agree on is, the only way for this mix of burning chemicals to have ever occurred is by design.”

“Design?” The President raised his eyebrows and made a show of waving away the smoke.

Bob grinned wryly and put out the half-finished cigarette. “They all concur that it’s artificial. They say someone mixed up some rocket fuel out there past Neptune, and then ignited it.” Without the cigarette, he began to pace again.

“What about another country?” Bob could hear the hope in the President’s voice as he turned and looked out the window of the Oval Office.

“We tried that angle, but the Russians aren’t in good enough economic shape to put anything up right now. Plus with their political problems . . . ,” Bob shrugged dismissively. “And, according to their top rocket gurus, they never did before. And that’s the truth, as near as we can tell. The Chinese could have done it, but they don’t have the technology to get out that far yet, or to even sneak one by us in the first place. We know where all their toys are. And the Europeans would be too proud of getting one up there to keep it a secret, besides the fact that we can see their launch pads anytime we want. No. Even the wildest scientists don’t believe that anyone on Earth could launch something, and get it out there, without the rest of the world seeing it through our telescopes.” Bob paused and stared out the window of the Oval Office with the President. A dog was playing on the lawn under the trees. The President hated dogs. Who would bring a dog here, he wondered?

“No, Mr. President.” He went on after a bit. “There doesn’t seem to be any possible terrestrial origin for this thing. And . . . it’s too big!”

“Big?” Startled, the President turned towards his adviser. “How big is too big?”

“Well, considering the length of time that we know it burned, and how brightly, and assuming that it was only carrying fuel, and no payload. . .” Bob paused, “. . .  it would have to be about the size of the Pentagon. Including its parking lots!” As an after-thought Bob added, “But it’s probably even bigger.”

After a pause came, “You’re certain about the size?”

“That much is certain! The next takes some conjecture.” Bob started to take out another cigarette. He caught the President’s hard look and decided against it. “From here on, there’s a lot of ‘ifs’. Now, ‘if’ it burned everything it carried, that’s a lot of fuel. ‘If’ we had that much fuel in space, and ‘if’ we didn’t have to land it on a planet; we’d be able to move something about twice that size all around this solar system for a hundred years.”

“My God! That is big.”

“Now you’re getting the picture, Mr. President. And that’s with our technology and that’s assuming it started burning full. What if it was only half full when it exploded?” Bob began to pace around the room. “This makes anything we’ve ever done in space pretty small potatoes.”

The President shook his head, “So the heavy launch rockets we have today aren’t even close?”

Bob shook his head and went on, “Some of our advisors are concerned even more, because our military guys have added in their two cents, which is . . .  anything that big, obviously comes from a long ways away. Interstellar!” he quickly added as the President’s shocked response showed on his face. “Apparently the NSA agrees, Jim. “

“Intersteller!” The President pondered the implications. Then looking at Bob he said, “And we’re the only ones who are aware of its being out there?”

“As best our intel can determine, yes.”

“Good. Hmmmm. Yes, that is good.” The President sat silently deep in thought for almost a minute. His Chief of Staff stood patiently, he was used to the President doing this whenever he had a problem to figure out. Then the President went on, “We need to keep a lid on this, Bob. We don’t want to word out there for the Russians or Chinese, or even our European friends, to be able to make contact with them before we do.”

“Yes sir, Mr. President.”

“If we can establish contact with them first, we could reap the first benefits, and profits, of a tremendous treasure trove of new technology. Even if they don’t give us the technology, once our scientists see what they have and start making measurements, I don’t doubt but that we’ll figure out much of it on our own. Of course, we’ll want to establish a diplomatic mission with them ASAP.” Bob listened dutifully as his boss and friend rambled on with plan after plan.

When the President paused, Bob interjected, “Our economic partners will be a greater threat to discovering our secret than either the Russians or the Chinese. You know who stole our last fusion break-through and began to publish findings before our physicists could claim it.

“Yes, you’re certainly right about that,” the President grimaced. “We need to maintain the utmost secrecy. But we need to do that while we have astronomers searching for our aliens. Obviously, we just select a small cadre who can be trusted. And,” he stressed the word, “we need to make sure that we haven’t been suckered by somebody’s brilliant hoax. Besides beating everyone to them, we need time to verify that we really do have aliens out there before we make an announcement to the public that turns out to be wrong. My administration, and our party, would feel a lot of repercussions if we fell for this and it turns out to be a hoax. We need to avoid embarrassment, just in case.”

“Yes sir. Elections are next year and the embarrassment will not go well with the voters.”

“Yeah.” The President mused a bit more. Then he said, “And in case it is real, I don’t want to panic the public either. There are lots of voters out there who are going to feel that anything like this that shows up, is the work of the devil. I think that panic is going to be a major concern, Bob.”

“Yes sir. We don’t want to stir up the Public until we are sure it is legit.” Bob pulled another cigarette out, and lit it up.”

“Well then, what are you waiting for, Bob? Get your tail out there and get as many teams of astronomers working on this as you can. We need to be the first to make contact. I’ll appropriate the funds, you just get the astronomers.” The President coughed and waved both his hands then. “Now get out of here and take that confounded cigarette with you.”

#

#

Demitri sat on the short wall by the Astrophysics Building despondent. Here I am the premier, the premier mind you, astronomer in Russia; and they cannot even spare a few hundred thousand rubles for the most significant search for new gamma ray sources since Hubble. He looked down at his rejection letter again and read, “The Ministry regrets to inform you . . .” Bah! They were funding Popov. That peacock! He was getting the money because he had found a new detection method for planets around even more remote stars than before. Not for the discovery of those, no! That would make some sense, except that Popov did that last year. No, it was because now several thousand more stars were automatically being searched and their gas giants noted. It was quantity not quality those morons in the government understood. Hmmmph. Miserable little man. Cretin.

His mental diatribe was interrupted as a large man stopped in front of him. Demitri looked up at him. He was large, both in height and girth. He was standing only a few feet away and was staring at him. This must be someone who recognized him from his pictures in the media, of course. “If you want an autograph, give me your paper. I am busy thinking,” he brusquely snapped.

“No Mr. Sakharov. I am not here for an autograph.”

Demitri appraised him again. This man apparently knew him well enough to pick him out on the University’s grounds. Moscow University was quite large and the Sternberg Astronomical Institute, just a small part of it. He had a long heavy grey coat, well made, and a fedora sat on top of a very short haircut. His gloves and scarf looked quite expensive. Demitri’s own clothes were a little ragged on his professor’s salary. His thin physique and long hair and beard made him quite the opposite of this man. The hat was an outlandish affectation he thought snobbishly. Nobody wore fedoras these days. He must be somebody with money who thinks the intelligentsia will cater to him. Hmmmph. “Well, I am busy. I must get back to work,” he stood up to move away.

The man raised one thick arm to block him and said, “You just lost your gamma ray funding, Demitri. But I have something that will obtain for you very much more funding.”

That captured his attention and piqued his interest, but he was angry at this peasant’s brazen approach. “”Who are you? What is it that you want?”

“I am Ivan Bogaevskaia. In some circles, I am as famous as you, Demitri.”

“Stop calling me Demetri. I do not know you. What is it you want,” he demanded again peevishly.

“To make you even more famous than you are. Here, take this,” Bogaevskaia handed Demitri a data chip.

“What is this to me?” He started to throw the disk away petulantly.

“Don’t throw it away until you have seen it. I am offering you the chance of a lifetime first. If you are not interested, Popov will be.”

That incensed Demetri. “Do not mention Popov to me.”

“Look at it, Demitri,” the big man said reasonably. “It contains secret information about something the American astronomers have just started trying to find. What they are after will open the deepest coffers of the Kremlin for you. The government will give you an entire astronomy program to run just so you can search for it too. Your gamma ray sources can easily be funded somewhere in the midst of these other ‘efforts’. They will beg you to take more rubles.”

“If this were true, why do you need me?”

“Why, because you are the most famous astronomer in all Russia. They will only want the best to do this search for Mother Russia.”

That flattered Sakharov. Popov indeed. “True, I am the best. What is this thing the Americans are searching for?”

“Look on the chip. If I tell you, you will not believe me, but the data there will show you the information, with names and dates, that will help you verify it is truth. Then, you decide.”

“My time is too valuable for a guessing game,” Demitri replied haughtily.

The large man ignored him. “If you are interested, contact me. I have more proof of what the chip says. You will need it to get your funding. If you are not interested, as I said, Popov will be.” With that he turned to leave.

“Wait!” Demitri called. The large man looked back. “What is in this for you?”

“I collect a finder’s fee from you. Every month, a little bit goes my way. You hire a couple of my accountants, and you are not even involved.” He smiled a confident smile and walked away.

Demetri stared after him. Bloody gulag hell! Demitri realized suddenly, he was one of the Russian mob. He had to be. He swallowed. Did he even dare to say no, whatever was on the chip? But, more to his concern, could he chance that Popov would say yes? He shook his head. He would have to ask who this Ivan Bogaevskaia was. It sounded like a name he almost remembered. That could be bad.

#

#

ICE QUEEN: Chapter 4

The Hunter’s Band

 

Feyt lifted the torch he had stolen from the pile at the Council meeting higher to see better and pushed the red door of his home open fully. He had left it ajar when he carried the bodies of his mother and sister out. The neighbors had stared then, but several other huts around theirs had casualties of the wolves as well. No one offered to help until a wagon came around and the men with it lifted the bodies of his mum and sister into it and took them away. Then, he had gone down to the Lodgehouse to plea for revenge. A lot of good that did me!

Now, just returned from the Council meeting, he stared at the shambles the wolf had made of the family’s one room hut. The table he’d had dinner on the night before was on its side, one leg broken and hanging. The chairs were scattered around the room. There were blankets and clothing everywhere. And blood. So much blood.

He walked around the room listlessly, feeling like he should pick things up, but not knowing where to put anything. As he passed the chests that kept their clothes, he saw that all the insides had been pulled out, and one chest, his, was flipped over and broken apart. It looked as if everything had been ransacked. Searched. By wolves?

What was it Mum said? The wolf was looking for something. How could a wolf be searching chests? And for what? She said it talked. He shivered. That scared him.

Then he remembered. His mother had told him what it wanted. Feyt stared at the fireplace. He walked over and squatted down. Setting the torch against the stone fire pit, Feyt tried to recall his mum’s exact words about the fireplace. He took out his short knife and began to poke at the cracks between the soot-covered stones of the hearth. “In the middle, left side, at the bottom…” he murmured.

There! A stone shifted as he poked. Wedging the blade into the crack, Feyt pried it out. He looked into the hole, but it was too dark. Pushing the knife back into the hole, he felt around with it. When it was half way inside, he heard a tinny clink as it tapped something. Feyt leaned down and reached into the hole. His fingers just managed to catch the edges of it and he drew it out. It was a metal box, filthy with soot and dust. Feyt blew it off and coughed from the poof of a fine gray cloud. Grabbing a cloth on the floor, he wiped the powdery ashes off.

It was a tarnished metal box with a clasp on one side. Flipping the latch, he opened the lid and held it nearer the torch. Inside, sitting on several pages of parchment, was a silver medallion and chain. Feyt lifted it up and examined it closely. Tarnished, it was clearly old, very old, but the flat surfaces of the medallion were just plain and bare of any markings. All he could make out was a fine pitting of the surface that kept the silver from shining. It looked dull and gray. He dropped it into his pocket.

He looked at the parchments, but left them in the box. Being from a poor family, Feyt had never learned to read. I can take them to the village scribe, Haran Ellisson, to read for me, but not until I get back. Thinking that, he closed the lid and clasp and replaced the box where it had been. He replaced the stone, making sure it was tightly back into place.

Time to pack up. He began to rummage quickly through things, gathering what he would need on his trip. I am sure they will be leaving at first light. I will be waiting for them.

 

 

After filling his pack, Feyt threaded his way through the huts to where he had snuck out over the low back wall only a few short hours before. This time, he had to take care to avoid the newly added sentries. Now that it is too late, there are plenty of sentries, he grumbled.

He made his way quietly around the walls outside the village to sit where he could watch the gates the rest of the night. Too charged with adrenaline to sleep, Feyt watched the city, still ablaze with torches and activity, through the remaining few hours of darkness. Watching in the dark, he suddenly shivered as a thought occurred. I wonder if Carnall is lit up because they are all busy, or if they are afraid the wolves will return. That thought left him unsettled and nervous. What if they do return? With me here outside the wall? Feyt shifted his long-knife and rested his hand on the hilt. Let them come, he growled. Still the thought left him nervous.

The lightening sky found Feyt sitting outside the village gates, off to the side of the road in the snow freckled bushes, where he could observe undetected. His parka was pulled close against a chilly breeze from the north.

Winter is coming, he thought. It is always coming.

Just past dawn, one of the village’s double gates swung open. Rousing himself, Feyt realized he had dozed. Out of the gate walked Muroc with his band. Several guards followed them out, loudly wishing them luck in their hunt. Muroc wasted no time chatting at the gate however but struck out at a quick pace with his hunters strung out behind him. Feyt recognized the black-skinned man from the council meeting, but this morning he was dressed like the rest, in practical clothing that blended with the surroundings. They all wore white and gray parkas with large worn and dirty white packs on their backs. He watched them march out of sight, before he stood, shouldered his own pack and started after them.

Feyt had no trouble following their tracks in the snow. It was not far before he saw where they had left the road and headed north. Soon there were wolf tracks among the men’s. They had cut the trail of the ice wolves. He felt a thrill, Now we begin the chase. I can see from the tracks, the hunters have quickened their pace to a jog. From here on, they will be moving quicker as they try to close the gap between them and the wolves. Well, there is no way they will lose me.

 

 

By the end of the second day out, the wolf-sign was almost as fresh as the man-sign. It was getting close to sundown, but Feyt was sure the hunters had almost caught up. He hurried his own pace to close in with the hunting party. If they caught the wolves, he wanted to be there. As Feyt rushed along the edge of one small ravine to climb the next ridgeline, he was tackled.

Caught by surprise he went down hard and tumbled down the slope. But Feyt got up swinging and drew his long-knife. His attacker backed off, but drew a much larger sword. Feyt swallowed hard, but doggedly held his woefully short long-knife up, ready to parry any swing. He could see by the man’s loose shoulder length hair that he was not a Northman. Well, Freebrier or not, no outlaw is going to take me easily.

Feeling something tickle his ear, he swiped at it with his free hand. What is a bug doing out in this cold? His fingers brushed metal. Startled, he dared a quick glance away from the man in front of him. He found himself looking at a shiny sword-point about four inches from his face.

“Put it down,” he heard from the other end of the sword. “Right now!”

“Okay! Okay.” Feyt scowled angrily and dropped his long-knife, raising his hands up with the palms out. The man in front of him snatched it up. He was disgusted with himself for letting them catch him unawares.

Looking at the other end of the sword in his face, he saw it was held by someone he recognized. It was the black-skinned man who had gone with Muroc. He had a fur cap on now, and rougher clothes, but with that black skin, it was surely the same man. Relieved, but still cautious, Feyt looked around and saw that there were actually three men surrounding him. The third was standing back with a taut crossbow at ready. At least the archer has the proper yellow braid of a Northman.

“Ha ha. He don’t look so dangerous up close now, does he, Gairet?” The man with the crossbow chortled.

“Well, how was I to tell from a distance?” Feyt’s tackler shot back. “Besides, with that pig sticker he has there, I wouldn’t want him prowling around my sleeping mat at night. Would you?” He walked over to where Feyt’s pack had fallen and lifted it by one strap. “He’s travelling pretty light. Nothing much in this.”

The black man holding the sword spoke up, “Now that we have him, what do we do with him?”

“Muroc will want to see him, Attrius. He’ll decide.” Gairet slid his blade back into its scabbard. “Let’s get moving. Muroc’s already annoyed at having to stop early and take care of our follower here. He’ll want us back.” With that, he turned and began to walk away.

“Alright, boy.” Attrius grabbed his shoulder and turned him to follow Gairet. Then he shoved Feyt forwards. “That way. Don’t give me any trouble or I’ll stick this blade in both your arms before we leave you for wolf bait.” He looked deadly serious to Feyt.

“Where are we going?” Feyt asked.

“Top of the ravine here and over the next rise,” the man named Aterius said. “Then down into the draw. We’re staying down there tonight.” As they started off, Aterius peered at him, suddenly appearing interested. “Hey! Aren’t you the kid at the council meeting? Yeah, you are. The one whose mother and sister were killed.”

“What?” Gairet whipped around suddenly and stared intensely at Feyt for long moments, then he nodded slowly. “You’re right. It is him. I guess that means he is not a Freebrier. Less to worry about if they’re not tailing us.” He turned and resumed walking.

“Let’s keep moving,” Aterius nudged Feyt forward. He started marching again following Gairet. After a bit, Aterius offered from behind him, “I’m sorry about your mother and sister.”

When Feyt did not answer him, Aterius went on, “What’s your name? We need to call you something.”

“I’m called Feyt.”

“So, Feyt,” Aterius smiled. “Why are you following us?”

“I told you all at the council meeting that I was going to go after the ice wolves with you. I have the right to revenge.”

“Muroc’s not going to like this,” the man with the crossbow complained. “We’re pushing hard to catch up. He won’t want to waste any time taking a boy back to Caernall.”

“I’m not going back!” Feyt lashed back.

“Not for you to decide,” Gairet threw the words back over his shoulder at Feyt flippantly.       “Muroc still hates wasting time,” came the bowman’s nasal whine.

Gairet waved an arm dismissively at the man with the bow, “Don’t worry Tauras, Muroc will probably send him back alone.”

“I’m not going back!”Feyt repeated. “Not till I kill the wolf that murdered my mum and sis.” Gairet raised his eyebrows and looked at Aterius, who only shrugged.

“Just keep moving,” Aterius ordered.

 

 

Feyt and his captors continued up the ridge further than Feyt had expected, until finally just at dusk, they slid down the steep sides of a draw and found themselves facing two more tall men in heavy white furred parkas. The big men were spitting images of each other. Tall, blond, mid-twenties maybe, Feyt guessed, from their smooth cheeks. Neither have any real beard to speak of. A little fuzz maybe. Feyt was glad to see more Northmen in the group. Beyond them, several packs were stacked against the side of the gully. This must be camp.

From behind him came a roar. “Caught our follower did you? Is he Freebrier?” Turning Feyt saw Muroc stalking up to him with an angry scowl. The braids in his grey hair and beard were swinging violently about in his agitation.

“Actually, he’s the kid from the council meeting,” Aterius drawled.

“Hmmph,” Muroc grunted and squinted at him with his one good eye. “What the blazes do you think you are doing out here?” he demanded loudly.

“I came to kill wolves with you,” Feyt said back just as loud. “It’s my right!”

“You? Hah! You’re practically a child.”

“Am not! I am sixteen! I’m a man!”

Muroc snorted. “Does your mother know you’re out running loose?” he snarled nastily. Feyt was so shocked at the question about his mum, and so angry, he could not speak.

“His mother is dead. One of the wolves killed her. Remember?” Aterius, again, had spoken up.

It was Muroc’s turn to be flustered. “Arrrgh.” He waved Aterius away. “That doesn’t matter to me. I ought to haul your skinny behind back to Caernall and tie you to the gate so you stay home.” Muroc took a step away, then whirled angrily and roared, “Didn’t you hear me say ‘No’ at the meeting?”

“You’re not my father. And I won’t go back.” Feyt was yelling back now, so angry he balled his fists.

“Relax,” Aterius half-whispered from behind him. “Like Tauras said, Muroc won’t waste the time. You’d do better to convince him you won’t be a problem.”

Feyt looked doubtfully at the black man. Why would he suddenly be on my side? Facing back to Muroc, he struggled to stay a bit calmer, “I won’t be a problem. I am the best hunter of all my friends. And, I am used to hunting and tracking, and being out away from the village. I fed my family better than most men did theirs. I have all my gear, and I’m not afraid of the wolves.”

“He has followed us the past two days on his own,” Gairet rubbed the back of his head. “It’s pretty clear he tracked us.”

“So you’re going to take up for this kid, too? And you!” Muroc whirled to glare at Aterius. “Don’t coach him. I may not be willing to take the time to drag him back, but I can slit his throat and use him for wolf-bait.”

“Live bait is better,” Aterius grinned widely, not the least bit intimidated.

Muroc snorted. Then he laughed. He shook his head, “It is better at that.” Suddenly gruff again, he faced Feyt, saying, “How do you like that? Want to be bait for us?”

“If it helps me kill wolves… Yes!” Feyt responded.

Muroc stared at him for what seemed forever, then said, “Okay, confound you. But the rules are simple. You make no trouble. You do what you are told. And I don’t want to hear any sniveling from you. Got it?” Feyt nodded rapidly. “If I do… I will beat you to within an inch of your life and leave you out here to die. We aren’t nursemaids!” He roared the last.

Feyt swallowed. “I won’t be any trouble. You will see. I just want to help kill wolves.”

Muroc nodded slowly. “Gairet! Give him back his pack. Find yourself a place to sleep. We’re leaving before dawn.” With that, he stomped away.

Gairet handed him the pack. “You got some nerve, kid. You’ll make fine bait.” He winked and grinned, his cut brown hair falling across his face. Feyt noticed he was missing one of his front teeth and the ones next to it were crooked. “Welcome to the hunt.”

Aterius smacked him on the back and laughed. “Yes, my young friend. Welcome to a most dangerous hunt.”

Feyt staggered a little at the unexpected blow, but wasn’t about to act cowed. “Can I have my long-knife back now?”

Aterius laughed again. “Most certainly. Here.” As Feyt took the proffered hilt, Aterius went on, “You met Gairet and Tauras. Those other two over there are Dokara and Seelus. They’re twins if you haven’t noticed. You may have heard of them. I understand they’ve already made a name for themselves killing ice bears.”

“Ice bears?” Feyt was awed. He swallowed. I have heard of them. I thought they would be a lot older.

“Where do you think they got those nice white parkas? Dokara! Seelus! Meet Feyt, our new bait.”

The two had approached during Muroc’s ranting and now seemed even younger as they jovially came up to greet him. The differences between the two towering blonds were subtle. Dokara’s slightly longer and straighter hair, and his more solemn countenance were all that Feyt could discern at this first meeting. The white fur coats had made them look much stockier from a distance, Feyt realized. Close up, they looked lean and trail hardened.

“Feyt-bait! Great name!” Seelus laughed, his face animated.

“Ignore him. My brother always thinks he is funny.” Dokara interjected. “Welcome to the hunt.”

“I’m just self-entertaining. Doka here is three minutes older than me, and stale in his old age.” He made a face and winked at Feyt.

“Ha! Those are the most maturing three minutes ever, I’ll bet.” Dokara said dryly.

As the two began to jibe each other, Aterius said, “You’ll have fun, if you live through this. Hot water and caribou jerky are on the menu. They are over by the fire. Make soup or choke it down however you please.”

By now, the dusk had become an inky dark. Feyt hurried forward to a tiny fire with his pack on his shoulder. Gairet and the one they had called Tauras were sitting at the fire eating already.

Gairet tossed him a thick strip of jerky. “Here, eat something.”

“Thanks,” Feyt caught the meat in the air one-handed and set down his pack.

“Don’t mind, Muroc. Once he settles down, he’ll be fine. As long as you hold up your end,” he finished ominously.

Wordlessly, Feyt took a bite of the jerky and chewed.

Tauras sat rubbing his bow with a wet looking cloth. When he saw Feyt watching, he frowned and said, “Oiling the wood keeps it strong and the moisture out.”

The nasal sound of his voice must be natural for him, Feyt thought as he nodded to show he understood. He held his free hand out to feel what little heat the fire offered. He saw Aterius spread an oilskin onto the icy ground and then spread out his sleeping-pouch on it.

“What d’you think of our black man, kid?” Turning, Feyt saw Gairet’s snaggle-toothed grin directed at him. He had not realized he had been staring.

“I… I’ve never seen a black man before. Does the color go all the way through him?”

“Naw. If he is cut, he bleeds the same color as the rest of us. He’s from the far south; where it’s so warm people go about mostly naked.”

Naked? Feeling a little scandalized, Feyt tried to decide if Gairet was teasing him. “Hmmph. I doubt there is a place that hot this side of the old god’s Hell. He wears awfully fine clothes for someone who used to go about naked.”

Gairet laughed. “That’s because he’s a prince. Youngest son of the King of Sudia.”

A prince! Now, I am sure he’s making yarns. Still… Feyt stole another glance back at Aterius as he asked, “What’s a prince doing up here?”

“Too many older brothers for him to stay home. Some places, they only let one heir live. Sudia, however, is too civilized for that.”

Feyt gaped, then shook his head, “You’re teasing me, right?”

“Why don’t you ask Aterius yourself.”

“Ask me what?” Feyt jumped, turning in surprise. Aterius was standing right behind him. He looked back at Gairet who was grinning widely in amusement at his discomfiture.

Turning hesitantly back to Aterius, Feyt mumbled, “Uh… Gairet, says you’re a prince.”

“And you believe him?” His black face looked ominously grim in the flickering firelight.

Darn Gairet. Am I in trouble with Aterius? “Uh… No… I mean,… I don’t know what to believe.”

Sighing loudly, Aterius sat down by the fire. He scowled at Gairet, “Gairet feels he has to tell everyone he meets about me.”

Giving an exaggerated shrug to his shoulders, Gairet said, “Not everyone has a black friend to show off up here, Aterius. Especially not one who is a prince.” His grin was undaunted by the black man’s ill humor.

“What lies has he told you about me?”

“Just that you’re a prince, who bleeds red like everyone else.” Feyt added the extra to be honest.

“Bleeds like everyone else.” Aterius paused, thoughtful, “I guess I do bleed like everyone else. As a prince of Sudia, it took me years to realize that I was, in fact, just like everyone else. I fear I had a rather pampered childhood compared to yours, Feyt.”

“I was the fifth son of the king of Sudia. My oldest three brothers were all groomed to be generals, or statesmen. One of them was to inherit the kingship someday. The other two of us were taught science and history, to keep us from aspirations of the throne, I believe. I suppose that worked. My parents expected me to become a learned academic like my older brother and stay in the Academy of History. But having learned to chase women and ale, I was in no mind to continue my studies as I grew older.

“I hung out with some equally spoiled children of my father’s nobles. We drank and planned adventures together. Until one day, I ran away with them to form a mercenary band and plunder the Steppes of Palasin. Unfortunately, the Sheik of Palasin was very good at breaking up armed insurgents. I barely got away with my skin in one piece. My friends did not fare so well.”

Aterius was silent for a while staring into the flames remembering.

“How did you get to be up here with Muroc and his hunters?” Feyt’s curiosity made him ask.

Rousing himself, Aterius rubbed his hands together. “I ran a good long ways from the Steppes before I stopped. The Sheik is known to be particularly unforgiving and pays a large bounty for fleeing criminals. Once I stopped though, I joined one band after another. Finally, I was in Capistain running out of funds when I met Gairet, here.” Aterius gestured at Gairet.”He was so taken by my stunning visage…”

“You were black, Aterius,” Gairet cut in. “I’d never seen a black man before then.”

“As I was saying, he was so taken by my stunning visage…” Gairet threw up his arms in mock exasperation, “… that he talked me into a trip into the exotic far north.”

“What do you think of our land?” Feyt ventured.

“It’s cold.” Atterious gave an exaggerated shiver.“Very cold. Speaking of which, my sleeping pouch is going to be warmer than out here. And Muroc will wake us early. Time to sleep.” Aterius turned away. Gairet shrugged, grinned and mouthed, “I told you so.” Then followed him off in the direction of the sleeping mats.

Feyt reached into his pack and pulled his own sleeping pouch out. Oiled sealskin, it would be fine right on the snow without a mat. As he crawled into it, he thought, I will show them. I will not be any trouble at all.