Garima Jain didn’t know how she got aboard the spaceship or why its crew appeared to be unconscious and injured. They were in their chairs or on the ground with scorch marks on their backs or chests. There was an object on the ground that reminded Garima of a pistol. She was wearing a helmet with a tinted glasslike face-covering. She was in some kind of spacesuit but didn’t remember putting it on. The fallen crew had similar gray and white protective outfits which exaggerated their proportions, making them look overly tall. The overhead lights were low and flickering. The smooth obsidian-colored walls had embedded vertical columns of digital readouts using symbols and other markings she was unfamiliar with.
Garima felt nervous, flush with adrenaline. She needed to ascertain what she was doing here and if there was danger; there could be any number of threats to her on this vessel. Not being able to understand the controls or screens made it even more frustrating. She felt like she should be doing something, anything. She just wasn’t sure what. At the front of the cabin was a wide screen with rounded glass-like edges. She believed it was displaying the view ahead of the ship. She recognized the planet in the distance as Earth.
An abrupt pressure in her forehead made her squint her eyes. She leaned forward with the growing sense of discomfort and dizziness. There was a moment of weightless disorientation. And when she could see again, she was back at the North Carolina State University lab with her two colleagues. One of them was removing her test helmet. Then both of them peered at her with a mixture of curiosity and concern. The team leader, Jared Mackenzie, a thin bald man with a brown goatee and blue eyes, spoke first.
“Garima, can you hear me? Are you alright?”
Garima drooped forward in her chair and rubbed her temples. The light felt too bright and everything still seemed a second or two out of sync with her body.
“Yes, I can hear you,” Garima replied, sounding irritated and tired. “I’ll be alright, I just need a minute.”
She looked around to get her bearings and was glad when Patrice Calhoun helped her stand up. Patrice was a few years younger than Garima, who was twenty-five. Patrice was tall, dark-skinned and athletic, a fellow graduate student at the university.
“What did you see, Garima?” Patrice asked, still helping to steady her.
“I was on a ship -- some kind of alien craft. I seemed to be the only functional member of the crew,” Garima responded. “And the ship was approaching Earth.”
Jared sat down in a rolling chair and scooted forward to face Garima. He stroked his goatee and looked at her with intense eyes filled with possibilities and unspoken questions.
“Do you think you could write a detailed journal of the events?” Jared inquired, grabbing a pen and notepad from a nearby table. He didn’t hand it to Garima but he looked ready to.
Garima wiped some sweat from her brow, feeling more stable. She looked at her smartphone by her purse; its digital clock read 6:45 PM. Hearing the hum of the air conditioner, looking at the white walls of the small lab with various safety and procedural posters, the unopened boxes of server and other computer components, it all helped her recall the purpose that had led her to this point. She remembered that she had agreed to meet with Jared and Patrice here after her last class. Jared had explained to her that the helmet was supposed to create a virtual environment.
“Jared, I think you may have created something different than you intended,” Garima said.
“What do you mean?” he replied, ready for the critique. He laid the pen and notepad in his lap.
“I’m no scientist, but I am your friend and I believe your work is amazing. I liked the idea of using someone’s own biology to fashion a VR setting,” she continued. “I volunteered to test this because that sounded cool and intriguing.”
Jared thanked her with a humble nod.
“Could your device possibly tap into not only the test subject, but someone else’s mind as well?” Garima asked.
“I -- I don’t see how,” Jared replied, again stroking his goatee with aplomb. “The artificial intelligence I designed should be capable of generating a shifting algorithm, only based on what it detects from the subject’s brain synapses.”
Patrice shifted back and forth uncomfortably, leaning against one of the tables with her arms folded.
“Theoretically speaking, what would be the connection with some other mind?” Jared continued.
“What if this helmet is making a bridge between the two? Could the test subject see what the other person is seeing?” Garima added.
“Even if what you’re suggesting is possible,” Patrice interjected as she approached closer to the two of them. “How would we prove that’s what’s happening?”
Garima reached over and grabbed the helmet. “To do that, I need to go back in.”
Jared stepped forward and raised his hands in a warning gesture.
“Whoa, Garima! Are you serious? That thing threw you for a loop a few minutes ago,” he said emphatically. “Your heart rate and blood pressure were rising too quickly, that’s why we disconnected you. I’ll work on making some fixes before we try again in a day or two.”
“I think that’s the way to go, Jared. Garima --” Patrice began.
“Please -- hold on a moment. I think there’s some misunderstanding, so let me explain something,” Garima interrupted. “When I was there before, it was stressful. I thought I’d end up by myself with a virtual view of the mountains or Hawaii or something. Instead, I wound up on some spacecraft with an incapacitated crew. I couldn’t read the language on the walls. I had no idea what was going on. But we know what to expect now. We can handle it.”
Jared and Patrice exchanged glances with each other. Patrice looked somewhat skeptical while Jared was thoughtful, apparently considering Garima’s view as well as Patrice’s. The two of them seemed to have a wordless conversation over several seconds.
“I’d like to hear more about this,” Jared decided. Patrice didn’t look pleased but she conceded the point, relaxing her shoulders.
“If you’re right about that other person, wouldn’t they be aware that something happened?” Patrice countered. “How would that affect things?”
“We won’t know until we try again,” Garima answered.
Her friends looked like they sympathized but weren’t entirely convinced. She stood up and pleaded with her eyes.
“If you’re right, Jared, I’m just seeing a virtual environment and no harm done,” Garima continued. “But if we can confirm that this is real, that I’m seeing through someone else’s eyes -- well, we can determine what to do from there. I just need five minutes in that environment...please.”
Jared gently put his hand on Garima’s shoulder and viewed her with some lingering worry.
“Okay, but not five minutes. Three. Then we pull you out. Got it?”
Garima smiled. “Sure. I understand.”
Garima sat back down in the chair, donned the experimental helmet and closed her eyes. She could hear Patrice turning the device back on while Jared tapped keys on his laptop at a nearby table, humming some tune to himself. Garima felt a rushing sensation and then found herself in the control center of the spaceship. Earth looked closer. The rest of the crew was still unmoving.
“If this is a virtual environment, then taking off my helmet won’t do me any harm,” she thought. “But I need to see if I look like me -- or someone else. If this is real and there’s no air, I guess I’ll see how long I can hold my breath!”
She felt a tingling sensation as she released two small latches on either side of the helmet and lifted it off her head. There was air, even if it was cold and stale. She turned the helmet around, using its reflective surface to try and look at her face.
What she saw was nothing like what she expected: Her face was vertically elongated. Her brown eyes were now hazel and larger than normal. Her light brown skin had more of an orange tint to it. Her hair remained black.
She felt her heart pulsating faster and faster in her chest, a result of her fear and shock. It took quite a few seconds before she could coherently think again. Not wanting to hyperventilate, she began to take slower, deeper breaths.
“It’s -- like this is a different existence! I’m an alternate version of myself,” Garima thought. “Is the helmet the connection? Did Jared’s experimental device somehow tap into the technology in this spacesuit here -- wherever here is?”
She looked down at the helmet in her hands and felt a pang of dread.
“And what happened when I took off the helmet??” she thought.
“Jared, shut it off! She’s convulsing!” Patrice shouted.
“I did when the alarm sounded,” he replied in frustration. “Take the helmet off!”
Patrice removed the experimental device from Garima’s head. Her eyes were still closed and she was shaking uncontrollably. Jared took out his phone and called 9-1-1 in a panic. Patrice felt Garima’s forehead.
“She’s feverish and having trouble breathing!” Patrice added.
Garima opened her eyes and looked around. She was sweating profusely but her tremors were diminishing.
“You -- are base humans?” Garima said, her voice strained and barely above a whisper. “Where’s...the portscape?”
“Garima, you’re in the lab. We’re getting you some help,” Patrice soothed. “Hang in there, okay?”
“How do you know...my name? You can...treat Humanii?”
Her eyes began to widen, as if responding to some physical symptom.
“Hyoo-mah-nee?” Patrice repeated. “Jared, I think she’s delirious!”
“The 9-1-1 operator said the ambulance is four minutes away,” he replied.
Suddenly, Garima hissed and a massive seizure enveloped her whole body. Her hands locked and her back arched. Patrice’s face was frozen in horror for an instant. Then she snapped out of it and tried to hold Garima in place but was barely able to. Seconds later, Garima went limp in the chair, her head leaning to one side. Patrice heard herself repeating the word “no” over and over. Garima’s eyes were still open but unresponsive and she was no longer breathing. Jared rushed over and lowered Garima to the floor. Desperately, he administered CPR until the two paramedics arrived. They continued attempting resuscitation, then used a defibrillator to stimulate her heart but it was too late.
They confirmed that she was dead.
Garima put her helmet back on but aside from pumping in fresh oxygen, nothing else was happening. She tried to will herself to return to her body in the lab but there was no change. She fought against a growing fear gripping at her heart.
“Something is very wrong! I should be able to get back. Jared and Patrice would have tried to pull me out,” she said to herself. “Unless...they couldn’t?”
She looked down at her gloved and unusually long fingers.
“Am I trapped in this body?”
A long high-pitched shrill sounded at one of the consoles towards the front of the cabin. She looked up at the viewscreen and saw that Earth was dangerously close. It filled most of the screen and the ship did not appear to be slowing.
“Is this thing on autopilot? Doesn’t it have any emergency procedures?” she said aloud.
“Corpswake Garima Jintayos identified,” a computerized voice responded. “Do you wish to invoke emergency landing protocols?”
It took a moment for Garima to comprehend that the ship was “talking” to her in English.
“Yes! Invoke emergency landing protocols.”
“Please select destination: Northmost Carolok or Parisay.”
She thought the first location sounded like a strange alteration of North Carolina, her home state. The other sounded like Paris, France. Considering she had a fifty-fifty chance of surviving either way, the decision was relatively easy.
“Northmost Carolok,” she answered.
“Destination confirmed. Be seated and prepare for emergency landing. Energy lattice will activate ten seconds after protective straps are locked.”
Garima felt like she was in a dream but she forced herself to step forward. She moved the incapacitated occupant of the nearest seat onto the floor. Before she sat down, she wanted to know something.
“Are any of the crew alive besides myself?”
There was a brief pause before the artificial intelligence responded.
“Corpswake Jintayos is the only lifesign on the portscape Mizhfar.”
Even though Garima didn’t know any of these people or how they died, she felt bad for them. To her, all life was precious. Realizing that the descent and landing could get perilous, Garima dragged the bodies of the crew to another compartment and sealed the door. Then she took a seat and watched as the chair secured her in place with belt straps across her lap and chest. Then the energy lattice surrounded her with a sparkling red tint.
She could see through the viewscreen that the ship had a similar lattice. As the vessel descended, flames from friction surrounded it, filling the view. Garima’s helmet mask darkened automatically to protect her from being blinded by the intensifying illumination.
When she was a teenager, Garima's parents had taken her and her sister, Zoya, to India. It was to show them where their grandparents had lived before coming to America. She remember being scared of landing during a thunderstorm, though it all turned out okay. But that plane had experienced pilots.
Today, there were no pilots. Only a machine. And she knew the only way she would survive this was to pray immediately.
“Lord, please -- I know I’m impulsive. Maybe I shouldn’t have done this,” she said. “But I need Your help right now! If it’s Your will, let me survive this! In Jesus’ name --” The portscape jolted suddenly, banging loudly at atmospheric turbulence, shoving her to the right and back.
Garima had grown up with Christian parents but she had made her personal decision to give her life to Jesus Christ just a few months ago. She was still learning Biblical principles and what her faith entailed.
She was literally feeling the impact of her current rash choice: satisfying her curiosity.
The portscape leveled its descent and gradually slowed. The lighting through the viewscreen returned to normal and her helmet’s protective layer became translucent again. The vessel was cutting a gentle path through the clouds. Under different circumstances, it would have been breathtakingly beautiful instead of terrifying. Even at this speed, the surface seemed to zoom up at her. From this height, she still knew these incredible giants of soil and stone before her, the Great Smoky Mountains. The familiarity brought a small sense of comfort but she was still apprehensive, knowing all she could do was sit there and hope for the best. She grabbed the armrests in a viselike grip. Garima heard some kind of thrusters fire, causing the craft to rumble as it protested gravity itself.
Seconds later, the initial hit nearly tore consciousness from her, even with the active lattice on all sides. The final collision sounded like a barrage of ancient cannon fire. It halted the portscape and abruptly threw her body forward, pushing her seat restraints to their limits. With so much pressure against her, she couldn’t breathe. She wondered if her ribs were breaking, it hurt so much. Then the control center ripped away from the rest of the craft, exposing the back to open air and flipping the section forward. The lattices immediately shorted out as the portscape lost all power. The rest of the frame, including the other Corpswake bodies, tumbled away from the control center, triggering several small explosions as it fell out of view.
Garima’s elbow unintentionally hit the release button on the chair’s armrest and she was ejected from the rear of the control center. She felt completely helpless, like a speck of dust in a hurricane. She hurled through the air and landed on her side, rolling a few times before her head slammed into the stony ground, cracking the front of the helmet. With the last of her strength, she pulled her helmet off and passed out.
“She is stirring at last,” a mid-tenor voice said.
Garima opened her eyes. Her vision cleared and she noticed the dark expanse with more stars than she had ever seen with her naked eyes. She noticed she was laying on blankets in the open, surrounded by tall blades of green grass.
“Beautiful,” Garima heard herself say. She sounded weak.
“What do those stars mean to you?” the other woman interjected. “I heard you’ve always liked them.”
That voice belonged to a type of being Garima didn’t know, sitting next to her. Even illuminated only by the natural light, Garima noticed that the woman was tall and had orange-hued skin. She also had long, maroon-colored hair tied back. Her eyes, easily twice normal size, had deep green pupils. Garima couldn’t determine her age. Strangely enough, she also had a large, jagged “H” scarring her left cheek. It did not look like a recent injury -- or was it a tattoo?
“What -- where-?” Garima asked.
“Welcome back, Garima,” the other woman replied. “Your mission was a success but you barely survived it. You’ve been in and out of consciousness for two days.”
The orange-colored woman walked into a gray tent about ten feet away. It was roughly the size of a single-story shed. Garima could see the silhouettes of mountains behind it and other shapes nearby. She couldn’t tell if they were other tents or boxes. She wondered if there were any other people here. Before she could determine that, the orange-colored woman returned with a small gray bottle in her hand.
Then an older human woman with dusty brown hair and dark clothing walked up from nearby. She smiled when she made eye contact with Garima and started to speak, but the orange-colored woman tapped her shoulder and shook her head.
“Not now, for anyone, until I say so,” the orange woman quietly commanded. “Tell the others.”
The human looked slightly bewildered but accepted it. “Alright.”
She turned and went to enter the tent instead.
The orange woman sat down next to Garima and helped her lift her head. She was glad to receive fresh water. Garima looked away uneasily as she laid back down.
“Not up to talking?” she heard the orange woman say.
Garima wasn’t sure what she should do, so she stayed quiet.
A brunette-haired man who was part-human like Garima, approached the orange woman. He was also wearing dark clothing.
“Gynivrea, my team finished salvage on the Mizhfar,” the man reported. “We made it out with no problems. Actually, the military recovery operation should have arrived by now. But we saw no sign of them.”
“That is unusual. What could be more important than their new portscape?” she replied. “Still, this was noteworthy of your duties, Maltikk. Tell the others we’ll return to the Caverns at first light.”
“I will,” Maltikk confirmed. He turned and walked in the direction he had come from, disappearing into the nearby woods.
During the conversation, Garima had observed the two, especially Gynivrea. She noticed additional scars on the woman’s legs and arms. She also could see how physically strong she was. Gynivrea radiated confidence and fighting experience. The stress lines on her forehead and below her eyes also revealed that she carried terrible burdens and had seen much loss.
“Rest some more. We leave in the morning,” Gynivrea said, crouching beside Garima. “I need to contact your mother and let her know you’re alive.”
Gynivrea walked away towards some other part of the camp.
“Mother?” Garima thought.
Garima imagined her parents and family worrying about what had happened to her back home. Was her original body unconscious, hospitalized? Was the other Garima awake in her body? That was too troubling to consider, so she blocked it out of her mind.
She tried to shift positions but she was stiff and sore all over. Some angles intensified her pain. Many of her efforts seemed futile but she kept trying with whatever energy she had.
During this time, she prayed for a way home, all the while fighting the growing sense of panic from being stranded here.
Sleep did not come easily but exhaustion and weakness eventually claimed her.
Several hours later, Garima awoke. She wondered how her “new” body was so resilient. She was still sore all over but her strength had returned and she felt more focused. She was also very hungry.
It would be a few more hours before the sun rose and a chill was still in the air. She saw other people in dark shirts and pants like Maltikk’s. Some were human and the rest were like her. They were loading supplies into what appeared to be antique trucks, ones she had seen in photos from the 1950s and 1960s. She also noticed that she was able to see such details clearly in the dark.
She stood up, walked a few paces and tried to get her bearings. Her center of gravity was more than a foot higher than she was used to, so even standing still was strange, awkward. She looked at her hands with the long palms and fingers once more. She slowly wrung those hands together. She put them behind her neck and felt how it was a few inches longer than the one she’d known all her life. She placed her fingers on both cheeks and traced downward until they met her chin. Everything made her want to run away from herself but that wasn’t possible.
“Everything working properly?” Gynivrea said from behind her.
She turned around to face Gynivrea, this alien stranger who knew her. Garima always felt shy around new people. She gently gripped her arms and forced herself to nod sheepishly.
Gynivrea scrutinized Garima with her eyes for several seconds. There was an intimidating hardness in that gaze.
“Are you hungry? There’s food and water in the shelter,” she told Garima, who nodded in response.
They went inside the tent and sat on wooden stools at a small table where the food was waiting. There were wooden crates filled with other supplies, four plastic gallon jugs of water and a couple of other empty tables. Turning her attention to the food, the apples and grapes she knew but there was a blue rectangular fruit with smooth white stripes that was unfamiliar. It was softer and sweeter than the apples when she tasted it, which was surprising. There was a cold yellow soup with rice noodles and diced vegetables. As she took in a few spoonfuls, she recognized the tastes of celery, carrots, red onions and potatoes. It had a spiciness to it as well from some black and cayenne peppers. As Garima ate, she also had water, which she poured generously from one of the jugs. Gynivrea stood by silently the whole time, her mood a mystery.
“Are you well enough for a walk, Garima? I want to talk to you.”
Garima nodded nervously.
The two left the shelter camp and traveled about a mile away, in silence the entire time. Garima wondered why they were going so far from the others but was too timid to ask. They passed a field and entered a forest area before stopping at the base of a mountain. Gynivrea pulled a short knife from her belt and threw it into the ground in front of Garima.
“Be very careful how you answer me next -- and you’d better use words,” Gynivrea said slowly. “Depending on what you say, you may need that blade.”
Garima was stunned. “What?!”
“Who are you?”
For the first time, Garima saw the true steel behind Gynivrea’s presence.
“I didn’t get where I am by being careless or stupid. I’ve been around you a long time,” Gynivrea divulged. “You’re smart, cunning and brash. I was expecting you to hand-deliver me a portscape. You had already assassinated the crew. What went wrong?”
Garima’s eyes widened considerably at that revelation and she shook her head, mouth open.
“There it is again! That innocent look,” Gynivrea snarled. “I haven’t seen that since you were a kid! I have a hard time believing the military would send such an incompetent imposter into my ranks. So, I’ll ask again: who ARE you?”
Garima took in a deep breath, praying for the right words to say. Then she put her right foot on the hilt of the blade and slowly pushed it flat to the ground. She did not lift her foot from the knife.
“I’m...not the person you knew. I am Garima Jain, not Garima Jintayos -- and I was born human.”
A heartbeat later, Gynivrea was in her face. Her hand was closed around Garima’s throat and she had a different blade in her other hand.
“Explain...slowly,” she insisted.
Garima’s heart was like a jackhammer and she thought she might be hyperventilating. And then a focused sense of calm filled her. She felt assured that she would not be killed by this woman. A moment later, she told Gynivrea what she had pieced together since her participation in the experiment on her Earth. She related her theories about what had happened. She also described what she tried to do to go back and how it hadn’t worked. Finally, she shared how she survived the crash.
Gynivrea said nothing but she looked furious. She was teary-eyed as she let Garima go, opening her grip. Garima coughed as she stumbled backwards, slightly massaging her tender throat. The other woman picked up her short blade from the dirt.
“You’re saying my Garima is either trapped in a human body in another universe,” Gynivrea said. “Or maybe she’s dead.”
“I don’t want to believe she’s dead.”
“It doesn’t matter what we want, does it?” Gynivrea snapped. “She’s gone and you’re here. That’s the way it is.”
Garima refused to accept the possibility of the other Garima’s death. It was too final, like being exiled to this freakish body and locked into this existence. She had to get back! Couldn’t she just wake up in the lab and laugh at this crazy dream? Jared and Patrice should treat her to pizza for scaring her like this. Thinking about these possibilities made her see that, as grateful as she’d been for her life, she appreciated it all the more now. She felt cut off from everyone, even her humanity. She started to feel faint and quickly sat down on the ground, letting her arms fall at her sides, her neck almost limp.
“All you have is Me.”
She didn’t hear the voice so much as feel it. It resonated within her and she knew it was the Lord: a spark of hope in the midst of her mounting despair. She grasped at it with her whole being, feeling a profound solace as tears streamed down her long cheeks.
Gyniverea balked at Garima’s unexpected emotionalism. She made a huffing noise and looked away.
Garima was a little hurt by Gynivrea’s response but she kept that to herself. She decided not to hold that against her. She was feeling better and wanted to hold onto that. She exhaled in relief and wiped some tears from her eyes.
Kebron Olostor was running out of patience. The seven-foot-tall Withstanding operative had finished cataloging everything that had been retrieved from the crashed portscape. He was waiting at the edge of camp for his leader to return. He did not know why the group was not underway already, since Gynivrea had told Malikk they would be leaving at dawn. That was already forty minutes past.
He spotted Renee Corithar sprinting out of the woods. Olostor had sent her to do a final reconnaissance of the area. She was nineteen, one of the fastest runners and had unparalleled martial arts skills. Her expression was cold but she didn’t seem stressed.
“What’s out there, Renee?”
“Nothing but forest, mountains and soil, Kebron.”
“No military presence at all? Not even any flyovers?”
“Nothing,” she said with a hint on unease. “When are we getting out of here?”
Olostor looked over in the direction of the mountain to the east of camp and back at Corithar.
“As soon as Gynivrea gets back with Garima,” he replied.
Corithar looked like she was about to walk over to one of the trucks, but she turned her head to look at Olostor.
“What’s going on with Garima and Gynivrea?”
“I have no idea. Whatever it is, Gynivrea will handle it.”
“Right,” Corithar nodded.
Olostor knew what he’d told Corithar was correct but it didn’t make the waiting any easier.
The walk back to the shelter camp seemed longer than before. The first hint of sunlight was appearing on the horizon. Birds were stirring or flying over the trees nearby. Insects were heard all around, buzzing and making various noises. Gynivrea saw a few alighting on rocks and branches as they continued their stroll. Both women remained quiet. Garima appeared to be in deep thought. Gynivrea wasn’t sure if Garima was doing better or had gone mad. Finally, she spoke up.
“Where you come from, you -- humans have never seen or met my people?”
“No,” Garima replied. She paused briefly. “What are your people called?”
“Are the Fentawnii from this world?” Garima asked.
“Not originally, no. My sister and I were born here but our parents were not.”
As they followed a dry creek bed through an otherwise very rocky terrain, Garima spotted a large hawk gliding slowly downwards from the mountain. She considered that it was probably looking for a meal on the ground. She heard the other woman clear her throat. It seemed that Gynivrea expected some kind of response from her. Garima peered down at her long legs. She had on dark gray pants she’d been wearing since she first woke up after the crash. The question returned that had been burning at her since she first saw her changed face on the portscape. She felt frustrated, embarrassed and utterly conflicted about herself.
“What am I?!” Garima exclaimed as she stopped, her eyes pleading for an answer.
Gynivrea continued on, unmoved by Garima’s emotions.
“You are Humanii, the offspring of a Fentawnii -- my sister -- and a human,” she replied.
“Your sister married a human and they had me?”
Gynivrea stopped and looked at Garima with a mixture of derision and amusement. She sighed.
“No, nothing so romantic as that,” Gynivrea answered. “All humans have been forced to give blood samples since The Cessation. The DNA in human blood is compatible with the Fentawnii. She was given an injection and you were born seven months later. She had no idea who your father was and didn’t care.”
Garima was confused. “Wait, why would Fentawnii want to do that?”
Gynivrea looked further up the creek bed, pondering the best way to reply.
“I only know what I learned from the history files,” Gynivrea said. “The order to create Humanii was originally issued from the Quorum, the Fentawnii ruling body, after The Cessation. Now Humanii outnumber both humans and Fentawnii.”
“How is that possible? Are there eight billion of us or something?!”
“Last I heard, Humanii numbered at least three billion worldwide.”
That was stunning to Garima.
“What happened to everyone else? On my Earth, there’s over seven billion humans!”
“The majority were killed prior to The Cessation,” Gynivrea replied calmly.
Garima clenched her fists in renewed frustration. “That’s the third time you’ve mentioned ‘The Cessation.’ Can you tell me what that is?”
“It happened on October 31, 1968. It’s when humans ceded control of this world to the Fentawnii.”
Garima shook her head in disbelief. She next spoke at a very low volume. “Why?”
“They didn’t have a choice.”
Gynivrea began to walk again, stepping out of the creek bed and onto a grassy path that led into the woods, since the camp was on the other side. Garima followed but her slow pace and downward-facing expression broadcast just how emotionally numb she was feeling.
Knowing the truth about how the Humanii had come to be was morbid all by itself. She was the byproduct of an alien invasion. She felt desperate to look to God for answers, but didn’t know if she would ever get used to how she felt in this skin.
Gynivrea halted abruptly and turned her head in irritation. “Garima!”
Garima was startled to attention.
“Look, you and I need to reach an understanding! Like it or not, you’re in my niece’s body, so that makes you family, in a way. I need to be able to trust you and you need to trust me, too.”
Garima looked skyward then closed her eyes. She took a deep breath.
“Alright, I’ll put my trust in you,” she said with a slight tremble in her voice. She continued to silently pray even more earnestly. “I am doing all I can not to be scared of this world. And I’m terrified that maybe you’re right, maybe your niece did die. Maybe that’s why I can’t get back. If -- if that’s true, it means my body, my real body, is dead, too.
“I have a soul -- we all do -- but my soul is in this body now. If my human body is dead, then -- then that makes this Humanii body like a prison to me!”
She couldn’t believe she had said those words, but they reflected her raw feelings. Garima gripped her arms and looked away for a moment. Her eyes were tearing up when she met Gynivrea’s gaze again.
“I may look like your niece to you, but to me --”
For the first time, Gynivrea appeared somewhat sympathetic. She stayed where she was but her anger and frustration were gone.
“You think you look like a monster,” Gynivrea acknowledged somberly. “My people must seem like that to you, right?”
Garima’s lack of a response was its own answer.
“Would it surprise you if I said I agreed with you?” Gynivrea admitted.
Garima’s jaw dropped. “What?”
“Eighteen years ago, I accepted the blood of a human and had a Humanii son. In him, I saw the good of both of our peoples and I could no longer accept either species as ‘lesser.’ I found others who felt as I did and we took our concerns to the Quorum.”
Gynivrea sighed and then pointed at the scar on her cheek. “It...did not go well. I lost everything, except my son. And I gained the people in this Withstanding. The Fentawnii consider me a traitor.”
Garima looked Gynivrea in the eyes and knew she was being sincere. She also perceived that the “Withstanding” was some kind of resistance movement.
Gynivrea took the longer knife from its sheath on her belt and held it chest high. The sun’s red and yellow light began to glimmer off of the metal. She tossed it in the air and effortlessly caught it with the same hand. Without hesitation or looking, she hurled it to her left. The blade impaled a wild dog in the head. It barely had time to yelp before it collapsed in a heap on the grass. Garima briefly screamed in surprise, staring at the bloodied animal. Then she looked at Gynivrea, realizing she had saved them both.
“When you don’t have much, you protect what you have,” Gynivrea added.
She offered her hand to Garima, who skittishly reached out and took it. She led Garima back to the camp in silence.
The caravan of four trucks drove off from where the camp had been. A Humanii on a motorcycle had left before them to scout ahead. He had instructions to radio Gynivrea concerning any potential threats or obstacles. She and Garima were in the leading truck. It was now almost mid-morning. The skies remained sunny and there were few clouds. She told Garima the Caverns were two days’ journey in front of them, if they didn’t run into any delays.
The old trucks didn’t absorb shocks well but Garima almost didn’t mind. It was reassuring in its own way to be in a vehicle she was familiar with, even if it did look like something from another time. It was as out of place here as she was, but still functional and being put to good use.
“Is it the same for me?” Garima thought. “Lord, is this why I was torn from my body and abandoned here?”
“Who has abandoned you?”
The voice was once again only for her to hear. She reflected on it as she looked out the vehicle window, following the majestic mountains. They reminded her of God and His strength, the foundation He gave to her. In that moment, she realized that while she had taken comfort from His presence, she had not been leaning on Him. She had been letting herself flail about, fighting what had happened, resisting something unique He had done just for her. She didn’t understand it but she didn’t have to. She only had to trust God. And that meant letting go of her preconceptions, fears and doubts.
She had to accept that she was supposed to be here.
Garima felt like she had been balled up inside ever since she found herself back on the portscape. She had been struggling to keep her sanity and control over her emotions. Initially, that had been to stay alive and find out what was going on. But she hadn’t released that grip. And now it was time to.
With a wordless prayer, she took her figurative hands away from the wall she’d been holding up and let it collapse. In that moment, she was flooded with a torrent of grief, loss and fear. That manifested in the vehicle through her tears, heaving sobs and a look of anguish across her face and in her eyes.
But in the midst of it, the warmth of hope permeated her entire being. It didn’t stop the hurt but it helped her endure it.
Gynivrea had been stunned to see Garima burst into tears. Even though she knew this young woman was another personality, this display solidified that. Her niece had never been so emotionally expressive since joining the Withstanding. The Garima she knew was cold and ruthless, an excellent assassin and operative. Gynivrea had seen the pride her niece took in her work and helping their efforts. She wouldn’t let herself be weighed down by sentimentality.
The heartache this Garima was sharing was too real to be ignored. The reality that her own niece was dead and gone clawed at her viciously. It was inescapable. As was the fact that this was another Garima, one whose essence was human, not Humanii. And she was suffering even more than Gynivrea.
“Let it all out,” was all that Gynivrea could say, starting to choke up. She continued to hold the steering wheel with her left hand but put her other hand on Garima’s shoulder for few seconds. Shaking her head briefly, she fought off her own tears.
Garima cried until she fell asleep exhausted.
The next day passed almost entirely without incident. Then the radio squawked to life, startling Garima more than Gynivrea.
“Halt the convoy! I repeat: halt the convoy!” a panicked male voice said through the static-filled connection.
Gynivrea slowed the truck to a stop and the other vehicles did the same. Garima felt fearful as Gynivrea ripped at the CB radio microphone and pulled it close to her mouth.
“What do you see, Caleb?” she barked.
“Smoke in the distance and a rider on approach,” Caleb replied. “It looks like Beck!”
“Send my son to me, Caleb,” Gynivrea ordered. “We’ll wait here.”
A couple of minutes later, a man in all black clothing rode the dark gray motorcycle towards them at high speed. He swerved skillfully next to the lead truck and cut the ignition. When he dismounted and removed his helmet, Garima could see that he was in his upper teens. He was lean but strong, with long auburn dreaded hair. The epicanthal folds of his eyes and the shape of his lips made Garima wonder if perhaps his human father had been of Asian descent. He was handsome for his age but he looked worried.
Gynivrea approached and embraced him briefly by pulling him close and kissing his cheek. Her face appeared calm but her eyes displayed her relief that he was alright.
“What has happened, Beck?”
“The military has attacked the Caverns, they fell last night,” he replied gravely.
“How many did we lose?”
“I -- don’t know. Many. But Aunt Kess evacuated her group,” Beck continued. “We only confirmed ten more groups. Everyone is on radio silence now per emergency procedures.”
Gynivrea had to lean against the truck as her footing became unsure. Her son helped steady her.
“Only eleven groups...out of twenty-seven?” she whispered.
“Yes, Matra,” he replied, using his term of affection for her.
After Gynivrea stood up and walked back towards the vehicle, Garima finally felt able to approach her.
“We can’t go any further?” Garima asked.
“No. We’ve lost the Caverns,” Gynivrea said, mustering the strength she had. “We’re going to an alternate site. It could take us a week or more to get there. And there’s no guarantee it’s safe, either.”
Garima was getting used to hearing bad news like this. She now knew that nowhere on this world was truly “safe” for her or the Withstanding. But she no longer felt dread at that prospect. She felt something she didn’t expect: calm.
As she got back into the passenger seat of the truck, she understood something else. She had taken a great risk to support Jared in the research that ended up marooning her here. She was capable of taking such risks now, but for a different reason. Her counterpart had been a spy and assassin. But she was a pacifist who wanted to help people. It was an ironic juxtaposition of their lives.
Garima had landed in the middle of a savage and bloody revolution. She was biologically related to the leader of that revolution and had decided to trust her. She had to look beyond simple survival.
She locked her seatbelt into place. She looked at Gynivrea, whose face appeared pained but determined, as a friend now, no longer a stranger to fear. Garima reached over and softly put her hand on the other woman’s arm, conveying her sympathy. Now was not the time for conversation. Gynivrea looked over at her and relaxed briefly, conveying her gratitude in a nod. Then she started the truck and pulled forward, following the two motorcycles ahead of them.
As 2018 comes to a close, I am still awed that I signed with an amazing publisher, Ambassador International, for a total of 4 books (two in 2019 alone) and I'm working on more novels! I was able to be a part of several online writing-related events, met more authors than I ever have in my life...and this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I feel like even more is going to change in 2019 and that's okay!
Most of all, I feel blessed -- to have the opportunity to do what I love; to have the support, love and friendship of so many; and to be so encouraged and inspired by my Lord.
My personal thanks to everyone who is on this journey with me!
Wally Carson only had a split-second to wrench his steering wheel to the right. His peripheral vision detected motion, a dark-haired young woman running into the road directly in front of him. If he made the wrong choice, that person would face serious injury or death. He couldn’t live with that, so he swerved away. That decision had immediate consequences, as his blue 2010 Ford Ranger truck missed the woman by inches but sideswiped a parked commercial van. Ricocheting back to the left, the pickup’s momentum caused it to roll onto its side and skid to a halt. As the vehicle hit the pavement, Wally’s head smacked the driver’s side window.
Everything seemed to slow down and he was enveloped in conflicting sensations of warmth and pain. It was difficult to focus his concentration and his vision. He soon heard a thumping sound several times in a row. When he opened his eyes, he beheld a woman’s silhouette in front of him. She was banging her fist against the windshield.
“Hey! Can you hear me? Can you get out of the truck?” she shouted, her voice muffled by the glass.
Wally wanted to tell her that he could, but that would be a lie. He barely understood her words, which were half-garbled through his mental haze. He was hurting and couldn’t make his body do what he wanted yet. When he tried to speak, he coughed. Something smelled like smoke.
Aleta Jiménez felt her adrenaline spike and had to clamp down a growing sense of anxiety. She didn’t have time to comprehend how this had happened. She only knew that she was responsible for it. All of the businesses had shut down early because it was Christmas Eve. As a result, there were only a few cars on the street and no people out and about to assist her. It was getting dark and the street lights had just turned on automatically. She had been trying to get the driver’s attention but he was barely moving.
“He’s hurt! I don’t think he’s gonna get out on his own,” she told herself.
She turned her head to look at the hood of the truck. A small stream of smoke was escaping in odorous wisps. She didn’t know if it was from an actual fire or just a damaged electrical system. Either was dangerous to the injured driver. She was too short to reach the upturned passenger door, so she went to the back of the truck looking for anything to help free the man. Near the driver’s side of the tailgate, she espied a gray toolkit and a long tire iron. Without hesitation, she grabbed the very solid-looking tool and ran back to the windshield.
She wondered if such an extreme action was necessary. But she’d lost her cell phone on the way here, she couldn’t call for help. The truck’s hood was also becoming warm and the amount of smoke was increasing. She felt she had no choice.
“I’m sorry about this!” Aleta exclaimed as she swung the tire iron at the windshield.
It bounced off, only scratching the center of the glass. The second time, she put all her strength into the effort and shattered the windshield. It sprayed across the seat and the driver.
She reached inside the cab and unfastened his seatbelt. He was looking at her a bit more wide-eyed, his attention captured by the breaking of the glass. That was encouraging to Aleta but he still appeared groggy.
“I need to get you out of your truck,” she told him. “It’s not safe. Can you move?”
He nodded. “Y-yeah, I think so.”
Aleta wiped as much of the shards off the dashboard as she could. She took some cuts in the process but did her best to ignore them.
“Crawl through the opening I made,” she urged. “I’ll help you, okay?”
Without a word, the young man did as instructed, inching forward on all fours towards the hood. Aleta grabbed his hands and pulled him towards her. Putting an arm around him, she tried to guide him towards solid ground. Once on the pavement, she let him lean on her until they made it across the street. The wind was picking up, causing the nearby trees to sway and blowing off any remaining leaves. It was getting colder, too.
Aleta was grateful that this man was tall and slender. But she was concerned about his head wound, a jagged and bleeding cut above his left ear.
“I need to get you to a doctor,” she suggested. “Do you have a cell phone?”
“Truck...it’s in the truck,” he replied.
Aleta turned her head and saw flames starting to spit from underneath the hood with puffs of black smoke. Going back for his phone wasn’t an option. She knew it was only a matter of time before the truck might be engulfed in flames or possibly explode.
Aleta led the man to the next block as quickly as she could before they stopped and sat down on a bus bench. It was only then that she noticed she still had the tire iron in her other hand. She heard a car door slam nearby and let her hopes rise.
“Aleta! There you are! What are you doing? Who is this guy?”
Those hopes were immediately dashed and she felt a cold wave of dread descend over her. That voice belonged to Roman, her now-ex-boyfriend. Of course, he had tracked her down. He always did.
Roman was twenty-five compared to her nineteen years. She thought he was handsome enough, with his piercing brown eyes, angular face, shoulder-length scruffy black hair and long bangs. A few inches taller than her and muscular, he could be charming, tenderly praising her beauty and declaring his love. But he had a hair-trigger violent temper, made worse by drinking. Her self-esteem had taken almost as much damage as her body over the last year.
“Get out of here, Roman!” she yelled.
“Hey, it took me forever to find you! I just wanted to make sure you were okay,” he replied sounding irritated. His eyes were laser-focused on her and his arms and hands were open in a questioning manner. “You jumped out of the car while it was moving. That wasn’t safe!”
“And why did I do that, huh??” she bellowed, pointing at her swollen and reddened right eyelid. The area beneath her eye was already turning dark brown, blue and purple. “I’m not gonna let you beat me anymore!”
He stepped forward undeterred. “I’m sorry about that. Just come with me and I’ll make it up to you.”
Aleta brandished the tire iron in her hand like a sword, holding it close to her chest. She projected the pent-up frustration she’d been harboring for months at Roman.
“No more making up! No more lies. You have a problem that I can’t fix. Find someone else! I’m done,” Aleta declared. She looked at the blond-haired man, who met her gaze with confusion, and back at Roman. “This guy was in an accident, so I’m helping him.”
Roman took a few more steps towards her. She noted the stench of alcohol from where she was; this was not going to go well. She stood up and let the blond-haired man slump onto the back of the bench. When she took a step towards Roman, she held the tire iron in both hands like a baseball bat. She vanquished her fear and let herself channel rage.
“Last chance, Roman!” she shouted. “I just smashed a windshield. I have no problem knocking the stupid out of you!”
“You don’t know how to fight,” he replied dismissively.
She tightened her hands around the tire iron and smiled menacingly. “Do you wanna find out how wrong you are? You’ve backed me into a corner. I have to fight now!”
They exchanged a long, unblinking stare for almost thirty seconds. Then she saw a hint of what looked like fear in his eyes. His lips twisted into an ugly frown and his pride reasserted itself through his facial expression. He looked offended, nearly petulant.
“You know what? Have it your way,” he answered with a sigh. “We’re done.”
She was tempted to say something incendiary but figured that was a bad idea.
“By the way, it’s a couple of miles to the hospital from here and I have your phone. Good luck finding someone to help you,” he taunted as he walked across the street to his red Chevy Camaro and got inside. He started the engine and looked at her a final time. “Merry Christmas.”
Wally’s head still hurt and was damp. He touched near the cut. The sting made him recoil his hand and his fingertips were now dripped in blood. The pain had dispelled his grogginess, at least temporarily, and returned his attention to his surroundings. He heard two people shouting at each other. One was a man and the other was a woman.
His vision was slightly blurred but he could make out a few details. He knew he was in the warehouse district of town. About twenty feet away, he saw a black-haired man of average height with a muscular build. Facing him was a woman with wavy dark brown hair. She was short, chubby and threatening the black-haired man with what looked like a lug wrench.
From what he’d heard, they had been in a relationship but she didn’t want that anymore. And she sounded desperate to make the other man leave, which he eventually did. After the other man drove out of sight, the woman let the lug wrench fall to the ground. She looked emotionally spent.
Wally didn’t know who she was but he was almost certain she had saved his life. He made himself stand up, even though his balance was wobbly.
“Hey, are you okay?” Wally asked innocently.
“Oh! I didn’t know you were up,” she replied. “I’m okay. I’ve just been through a lot with that guy.”
He noticed her injured eye and immediately sympathized. He thought she was attractive, even with the blemish. And the thought of anyone hurting her upset him. “I’m Wally. You got me out of the truck, right? Thanks.”
“You’re welcome. I’m Aleta. Are you gonna be okay? You hit your head pretty hard.”
“I’ll probably need some stitches. But that guy was right about the hospital being far.”
Aleta looked at the sky for a moment. Wally followed where she was gazing and noticed the clouds and feel of the air. She looked down at what she was wearing -- a black jacket, dark purple sweater, bluejeans and tennis shoes. And then she gazed at Wally, who had on a gray jacket, red t-shirt, jeans and brown boots. She did not look encouraged.
“It’s getting colder and I think we’re in for sleet or snow soon,” Aleta said. “We better start now. Can you keep walking on your own or do you need to lean on me some more?”
“I’ll be okay for awhile,” he answered.
Wally only made it about a block and a half before he felt dizzy and stumbled. Aleta quickly caught him.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I feel lightheaded, it’s throwing off my balance,” Wally replied. “And I feel sleepy.”
That alarmed Aleta. She was no doctor but she had enough sense to see the problem.
“You need to stay awake. We won’t -- you can’t sleep right now, okay? Talk to me, Wally, tell me about yourself. Do you live here or were you just passing through?”
“Here” was Fopax, Texas. It’s a town with a population of just over three thousand, located about eighty miles east of El Paso. Its main tourist attractions consisted of Fopax Hollow, a series of excavated caves dating back tens of thousands of years; the restored sets of Bandit’s Gulch, an iconic Western television show from the 1970s; and the Robert Matthew Van Winkle (“Vanilla Ice”) Cultural Museum.
“I grew up here,” Wally answered. “My mom moved here when she was pregnant with me. It was to get a fresh start.”
Aleta nodded. “How far does she live from where we are now?”
Wally’s heart sank.
“She died two months ago from cancer,” he revealed.
Aleta’s jaw dropped. “I am so sorry!”
Wally pointed a shaky finger to their left.
“I live in an apartment on the west end,” he said. “On Third Street. Been there about two years.”
Aleta’s eyes flashed with recognition and she smiled.
“I used to live over there, when I was growing up,” she added.
“Small world, huh?” he replied with his own smile.
They both looked at each other and then straight ahead as they started walking again.
“Small town,” they both said in amusement.
They managed to limp along another couple of blocks before he had to stop again. This time, they both sat down on a curb and leaned against each other for warmth. They could see their breathing as puffs of condensation in the freezing air.
“You holding up?” Aleta asked.
“Somehow,” Wally acknowledged. “I think the cold is helping me not feel as much pain.”
“That’s good. At least some good is coming of it.”
“Tell me about you, Aleta.”
She tried to keep from frowning but she didn’t like talking about herself.
“What’s to tell? You know I grew up here, too. I left home and became Roman’s girlfriend...till tonight.”
“Can I ask why you left home?”
Aleta hugged her knees and looked away.
“If you don’t wanna talk about it, it’s okay,” he added.
“My dad was like Roman. He hit me and my mom. I got tired of it and left.”
She turned her head to see Wally’s reaction, expecting him to be disappointed in her. But he wasn’t. He was teary-eyed, almost openly crying.
“What?” she asked, bewildered.
“I -- I can’t imagine ever hitting a woman,” he answered, his eyes filled with conviction. “A man who does that isn’t a man.”
“What is he then?” she half-joked.
“An animal,” Wally said in disgust. “If I had a girlfriend or a daughter, I’d show her how much I love her. Not just with whatever gifts I could make or buy, but in the way I talk to her and behave around her. She’d know she was special. There wouldn’t be any question.”
Aleta was very touched. She could see and feel that he was being sincere. He was cute, too, in a boyish way. All of that made her feel worse, though.
“You are probably the only gentleman in this whole town...and I nearly got you killed,” she said as she looked at the pavement.
“Hey, I almost ran over you," he interjected. "So I think we’re even.”
Aleta noticed a few flurries drifting down onto the ground. She looked up and saw more of them, the light of the streetlamps illuminating them all along that road. She couldn’t help but notice how pretty they looked.
“It’s Christmas Eve, Wally. I think we’re gonna need a miracle tonight.”
Wally chuckled, even knowing how dire their circumstances were. “Yeah, I believe you’re right. I don’t think I can go any further, the way I’m feeling. Why don’t you go for help? I’ll be okay.”
Her eyes widened. “No! It’ll take too long for me to get to the hospital! And the weather’s getting worse. I won’t leave you.”
They looked at each other for a moment. The snow flurries were beginning to accumulate in their hair and on their jackets.
“If you stay here, you could freeze to death...just like me,” Wally stated.
Aleta nodded. “That’s alright. I won’t leave you.”
He put his arm around Aleta and pulled her closer to generate what little heat they could. The temperature was still dropping and they were both feeling its effects.
“Y-you know, if we survive this,” Wally said. “I may just ask you out.”
Despite her shivering, Aleta laughed. “Someone’s an optimist!”
She rubbed her hands together and then sank them into her coat pockets. All kinds of thoughts ran through her head but one kept repeating and she didn’t know why. Finally, she had to say it, no matter how it sounded.
“Look, mister, if we survive this, I’ll marry you!”
Wally stared at her for several seconds in amazement.
“Was -- was that a proposal, Aleta? You promise?”
She wondered if he was right. Had she just offered to spend her life with someone she’d just met? Then she thought about everything that had occurred this evening. In a surreal way, it made a kind of sense.
After a moment, Aleta shrugged. “Why not? We’re probably going to die, so let’s be honest. I already know you would treat me better than Roman. I’m willing to give it a shot.”
Wally smiled and forced his quivering hands together. He held them below his chin and closed his eyes.
“What are you d-doing?” Aleta asked.
“Praying,” he replied.
“Because I’ve got something to live for now,” he exclaimed. “I want a miracle!”
She smiled and closed her eyes. “If you think it’s a good idea, I guess I’ll try, too.”
A short time later, a man leaned over and shook both Wally and Aleta’s shoulders to wake them up. Aleta opened her eyes first. She had never seen this man before. He looked to be maybe in his thirties and tan-skinned, wearing light-colored clothing. He had dark hair, a trim beard and kind face. He put something in her hands. It was a cell phone.
“Miss, use this to call 9-1-1. Stay on the line with them until they arrive,” he told her in a reassuring tenor voice. “You two will be alright. I have to go.”
“Wait! How?!” Aleta blurted. “Who are you?”
As the man walked away, she sat up and dialed emergency services. When she looked around to locate her and Wally’s benefactor, she couldn’t see anyone in a one-block radius. It was as if he’d completely vanished. She noticed that the snow had lightly coated the street and the tops of the commercial vehicles, trees and light posts. It had gotten even colder and the breeze had picked up some.
Despite how frigid she felt, Aleta did as the stranger had instructed. After the operator answered, she kept talking to him until the ambulance arrived. When she ended the call, she took a close look at the phone.
It was hers.
At the hospital emergency room, Aleta was treated for her hypothermia and contusions while Wally was given ten stitches and treated for hypothermia and a mild concussion. Both of them were kept overnight to verify their conditions.
Aleta couldn’t help talking about what she kept calling the “miracle” that had happened to them. Word of it spread from the ER personnel to the hospital staff. Someone called it into the local television news station KFOP and they sent a reporter and cameraperson to the hospital to interview Aleta and Wally. The female reporter called the story “The Good Samaritan of Christmas Eve.” She gave an accurate depiction of the accident, Aleta’s rescue efforts and the duo’s survival as the result of a mysterious stranger who somehow returned Aleta’s missing phone to her. As an aside, the reporter also conveyed that Roman had been pulled over and arrested for DUI the same night.
Both Aleta and Wally were released from the hospital around noon on Christmas Day. They sat in side-by-side chairs in the hospital lobby. A few people were there to see relatives who had been admitted or waiting on those having surgical procedures. The hospital had a skeleton crew.
“You doing okay now, Wally?”
He turned his head to look at her. “Yeah. I think the worst is over.”
He really did look a lot better to Aleta. Color had returned to his face and his green eyes had a lot more sparkle to them. She was very glad, but now she felt embarrassed, too.
“I really said some things last night, didn’t I?” she chuckled.
He smiled in response. “Yeah, but I’m not going to hold you to --”
“No,” she interrupted. “Hold me to them. All of them.”
He sat back in his chair, looking straight ahead and somewhat stunned.
“Why did you risk your life for me last night?” he asked. “You did it several times.”
“I caused last night to happen,” she declared. “I wasn’t watching where I was running and you had to swerve to avoid me, so you crashed. You got hurt because of me...you could have died because of me. And I -- I didn’t want you to die. Something in me wanted to save you, even if it cost my life.”
She looked down for a moment, collecting her thoughts. And then she turned back to Wally.
“The same part of me knows that you’re a good man, Wally. You’re someone who will do everything he can for the ones he loves,” she continued. “I don’t think I deserve someone like that but I’m selfish.”
Wally turned towards Aleta and took her hands in his. His expression was soft and tender.
“I think you’ve been through a lot. And I don’t think wanting a better life is selfish,” he replied. “I think it’s normal. I don’t know if I can offer you everything you expect, but if you’re still willing to give it a shot, like you said last night-?”
“We’ve already done the ‘till death' part, haven’t we?” she considered aloud.
He laughed. “Yeah, I think we have!”
Now it was her turn to get teary-eyed. But she looked happy.
“I don’t know who that was that saved both of us,” she said. “But we both prayed for our survival...and we’re here. I’m not a religious girl but maybe that was an angel?”
“Maybe. I haven’t been to church in a long time, but maybe we should find one, let them know what happened to us.”
She nodded, considering his words. And she contemplated something else.
“With everything that happened, do you think -- maybe we were brought together? As a couple?”
His eyes glimmered with an idea. “Let’s find out!”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Let’s go see if anyone will marry us today!”
“Today? On Christmas?”
“If God, Jesus or an angel went to so much trouble just for us to meet and keep us alive, don’t you think He can make a way for us to get married on Christmas?”
Aleta grinned from ear-to-ear at that. What he was saying was so inspiring, it helped her let go of any doubts or reservations. And it felt right.
“When you put it like that, how can I say no?” she replied. “Let’s go do this!”
- THE END
I wanted to share this excerpt from my Christian steampunk novel-in-progress. It's set in the Present Day on an alternate Earth which has many Victorian era cultural and technological influences. Like all my stories, it has a twist or two, even in this segment. After you read it, feel free to Like the article (on Facebook), Tweet it or leave your feedback as comments. To comment, click the "comments" link at the bottom of this article (below the Like and Tweet buttons) and fill in the short "Leave a Reply" section. I hope you enjoy the story!
(Beginning of excerpt)
Catherine Olivia Baxter was at the esteemed manor of her best friend and the hostess for the evening, Gwynevere Gladstone. It had taken almost her entire life, but Catherine now enjoyed the privilege of being an “Upper” in society. She was even a celebrity, a world-class jazz singer known for seducing audiences with her velvety soprano voice and charming wit. She was sporting a sapphire-hued gown with matching jacket and heels that contrasted nicely with her sienna-hued skin. Her raven-colored hair was wavy on top and split in the middle but the sides were tressed in loose curls. Her entire body was soft and feminine in an hourglass shape but her cognac-colored eyes were hard like diamonds. She had seen hardship early in life and decided to rise above it, but the cost had been high.
The soiree she was attending was taking place in the impeccably maintained courtyard just outside the main two-story palatial estate on this cool night. There were tables brimming with gourmet foodstuffs to accommodate meat lovers, vegetarians and those with varying allergies, all labeled accordingly, each having servers to assist. There was another long table with numerous dessert offerings ranging from fruit cups to pastries and puddings.
The entire area was illuminated by hundreds of small white ball lights and a dozen dazzling string light displays. All were hanging from the surrounding perfectly landscaped trees. It provided an intimate feel while also becoming its own discussion topic for the guests.
Catherine stood with Gwynevere in front of the most grand of the tables. It held a huge, six-tiered chocolate cake. Each layer was separated by smooth and creamy ganache and overlaid with pink and white buttercream icing. It literally looked too good to eat, standing two feet tall and just as wide. Two slender young women in chef’s uniforms stood on either side. They were clearly proud of their creation and ready to dice up and distribute the sweetness on small plates.
Gwynevere was a prominent Massachusetts socialite married to a beloved senator. Everything about her was exaggerated and generous -- from her dazzling smile to her jewelry and even her physique, as one befitting her status. Her evening gown appeared to be made of fine black silk and her recently-colored, wavy blonde hair was flawlessly styled into an upward-sloping work of art atop her head. She held up a fluted glass filled with champagne, preparing to salute her friend in front of the two hundred-plus guests in attendance.
“Happy Birrrthday, Catherine!” Gwynevere said opulently, her loud voice and slight sway unintentionally revealing her level of intoxication. “How old are you again?”
That evoked polite laughter from the audience. Catherine herself attempted to diffuse Gwynevere’s seeming faux pas.
“Now, Gwyn, you of all people should know it’s not kind to ask a woman her age,” she teased with an air of warning.
“True, darling, but you know I’m just playing, right?” Gwynevere answered. Then she leaned close, barely able to maintain her balance and whispered in Catherine’s ear. “Between you and me, I think we’re the youngest ones here anyway!”
Catherine snickered at that, looking at the crowd with her peripheral vision. She noticed a distinct number of silver- and white-haired individuals. Others clearly dyed their hair. With new confidence, Catherine grabbed a glass of champagne and held it high, turning to address the people.
“I am so happy that you are all here with us this evening for my birthday party!” Catherine announced, slowly pivoting her stance to make eye contact with everyone. “And since my dear, somewhat tipsy friend asked, I will tell you -- I am forty-four years young today!”
That brought enthusiastic clapping and cheers. Gwynevere followed with an inebriated, tone-deaf rendition of “Happy Birthday To You” which was somewhat deflected by many others singing in unison with her. Cake was cut and handed out to everyone. The hostess began introducing Catherine to some of her guests.
“Catherine, this is Chiaki Dickens,” Gwynevere said. “Her husband is the senior partner at the Hertz, Lichten and Dickens law firm. Her daughter is an up-and-coming news anchor in New Liverpool.”
“Really?” Catherine replied. “You must be very proud!”
The sixty-something socialite was markedly thin and looked tired. Her unnaturally black hair was tied back into an indistinct bun near her neck and she wore a dark gray pantsuit. She managed a reserved smile at the compliment.
“I am quite proud of her, yes,” Dickens acknowledged. “One of her videos recently went, what do the kids call it now -- virulent?”
“Perhaps you mean ‘viral?’” Catherine suggested.
“Yes, that is it!” the older woman added enthusiastically. “One of her news videos went viral!”
“Which one?” Gwynevere asked.
“Oh, the one with the airship accident,” Dickens answered. “Two young people ran in and saved survivors from a crash. It was quite amazing!”
“I think I heard something about that but haven’t seen the video,” Catherine noted.
“Oh! My son downloaded it to my gearPhone for me,” Dickens recalled. “May I show it to you, Catherine?”
Dickens rummaged through her handbag until she located her device. She pulled it out and pressed several of the extra large digital numbers on the screen to unlock it. Then she went to the video application. The news report was the only one there. She pressed it and handed the phone to Catherine.
Intrigued, Catherine beheld the young reporter on the scene of a horrendous disaster. The camera shifted to show a damaged building and then angled downward to view the debris and buried remains of the airship. In a flurry of motion, the camera focus shifted back to the reporter as she continued describing what she had witnessed.
Next, the lens swung to a young woman who was injured but leaning over an unconscious man to check on him. Felicia Dickens introduced herself as she tried to talk to the dark-haired, light brown-skinned woman. She did not look well as she stood up, her bloodied left arm hanging loosely at her side. Dickens asked the woman her name.
Catherine’s world stopped as the woman being interviewed answered “Merritt Baxter” and then collapsed from her afflictions. Catherine suddenly paled. Her eyes dilated and began to produce tears. She felt like her throat was tightening and she started wheezing, unable to speak. Her heartbeat reverberated through her chest like a pounding drum. She was on the verge of fainting.
“Catherine?! What’s wrong?” Gwynevere urged, catching her friend by the shoulders.
“She looks like she’s seen a ghost!” Dickens suggested.
“I’ve never seen her like this,” Gwynevere added. “Please excuse us. I’ll take her to freshen up.”
“I am sorry, dear,” Dickens said to Catherine as Gwynevere led her by. “I hope you feel better.”
Gwynevere took Catherine to a chair away from the other guests and helped her sit down. Catherine was despondent and barely responsive. Gwynevere brought a small cup of water and held it out.
“Catherine, drink some of this.”
“What have I done?” Catherine uttered softly, her eyes eerily remote.
“Cat, you’re scaring me. What is wrong with you?”
“The girl in the video…” she started to say.
“No, the one she was talking to.”
“What about her?”
Catherine summoned the strength she needed to speak the truth.
“Gwyn, she’s my daughter.”
Gwynevere leaned forward and squinted, as if she wasn’t sure she had heard Catherine correctly.
“What did you say? Cat, I thought you didn’t have any kids.”
Catherine took some slow, deep breaths. She couldn’t look up at Gwynevere, she was too ashamed.
“I had her young, I wasn’t married. And I pushed her off on my sister right after I had her, so I could pursue my career.”
“I told myself she’d be better off with Marjorie. That’s my sister, who’s married. She already had a family, so I thought it would be good. I knew it was a lot to ask but I also knew she’d do it. Or maybe she just knew she couldn’t stop me and took pity on the baby. I don’t know.”
Catherine leaned forward in her chair and ran her hands through her hair nervously. Her tears collected one drop at a time in her lap. She was starting to tremble.
“Merritt...I named her Merritt. A pretty name for a pretty little girl,” she said with a tormented smile, a bittersweet memory.
(End of excerpt)
I have to apologize for not posting for the last month. I've been busy with several projects, plus music and choir rehearsals for upcoming Christmas-related events. That said, I'd like to tell you a little about the projects I've been working on.
I've been actively working towards completing the third book in the JORDAN trilogy. That has been very rewarding and amazing. The first book in the series is still set for a Summer 2019 release and I'm very much looking forward to that.
I also started the first book in a Christian steampunk trilogy. It's an idea I had over the summer. I wanted to challenge myself and learn a genre I'd never written before. That also meant creating a new world (an alternate Earth, actually) with its own unique history. I had to ask myself what I could do to make this story uniquely my own, not just a shadow or imitation of someone else's steampunk. And I feel like I have succeeded. This world and its characters will blaze their own path.
And lastly, on a suggestion from my publisher Ambassador International, I wrote a near-7000 word short story and submitted it to a science fiction and fantasy magazine called Empyreome. That took two weeks, a lot of hard work and the support and editing expertise of my wife, Angel, but with the help of the Lord, we did it.
That's all for now. See you soon!
Today, I hosted a 30-minute Facebook Live video in association with my publisher, Ambassador International, and their "Let's Celebrate Adoption!" event. I spoke about adoption, foster care and how the theme of adoption is weaved throughout all my books.
I hope to write books that inspire, lead to introspection and move each reader. I want to stir you up but leave you with a good feeling when you're done. I'd like to paint a fantasy world that gives you something to help face reality. I'd like to leave you wanting more, not for my sake (profit) but for yours.
About the author
Allen Steadham is a nondenominational Christian, happily interracially married since 1995. Father of two sons and a daughter. He and his wife have been in the same Christian band since 1997. He plays electric bass, she plays strings, they both sing. It's all good.
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