Monthly Archives: February 2012

Chapter 28: River Crossing

The next morning at dawn cavalry units accompanied two fresh pairs of scouts up and down the river. The scouts and units were to return before evening. Again radio silence was to be maintained at all costs. Night descended, not much different from the day, but neither the scouts nor the cavalry units returned.

The morning after, the field commander divided the infantry, cavalry, heavy artillery, observational balloons, and logistics units into two equal groups, each with its own group commander. Each would move in opposite directions up and down the river bank until they found a point where the river could be crossed. Both groups would use encrypted radio signals to communicate with each other. The two groups would meet up on the other side, possibly organizing a pincer movement around the Rat enemy although they had no idea where the Rats were. The upriver group slogged its way around the bend and soon was out of sight of the downriver group, which moved slowly downstream.

The upriver group marched three days before they found a point apparently shallow enough to ford the river. The scouts and cavalry units were never found. There were rumors that they had been beheaded or skinned alive and left hanging upside down from a tree. The rumors served to increase their hatred of the Rats and their resolve to massacre every last one of them. No mercy would be shown. Among many of the soldiers, however, the rumors served to make them afraid and to wonder whether this military campaign was really worth sacrificing their lives. The upriver group commander called the downriver commander over the STU. The downriver commander had not reached a point where the river could be safely crossed but was optimistic that it was only a matter of time until they found it. They had not found any sign of the scouts or cavalry units sent downstream. He feared the worst had happened. His men were itching to kill the Rats with their bare hands.

The upriver commander, being senior in command, decided to cross the river without waiting for the downriver commander’s group to cross. He ordered some men to wade across the treacherous rapids with heavy coils of rope slung over each shoulder and shot-blasters held high above their heads. The rope coils were tied around thick trees and boulders growing stubbornly from the river bank. The stones below the white water were sharp as axe blades and provided slippery footing at best. The lead man slipped and hit his head, opening a bloody gash across his cheekbone. The second man caught him by the collar but lost his shot-blaster downstream while scrambling to maintain his footing. He waited for the third soldier to reach him and together they dragged the unconscious soldier to the other side. They laid the soldier on the sandy beach of the far bank and looped the ropes around gnarled tree trunks. One of the soldiers carried the excess rope back across the river to the near side. The ends of the rope were tied so that a long low hanging loop of rope crossed over the river. A hundred or so men tied themselves to the ropes overhanging the river and waded across with their weapons aimed at the forested hill tops on the far side. They reached the other side and established a beach head facing their weapons inland, the direction from which they thought the Rat attackers would come. The remaining soldiers built several rough-hewn rafts and thick staves to pull the carts, animals, and heavy equipment across, while trying to brake the strong downstream currents. The sun seemed to break through the thick roiling clouds hiding the treetops on the cliffs surrounding the beach they had secured. Some of the men were heartened to see a keyhole of golden sunlight, the first rays in more than a week, what with all the dismal weather they had slogged through. Some men wondered how in God’s own hell were they going to scale those cliffs. Small but sturdy piers were built under the ropes on either side of the river. An empty raft was tethered to the rope and to the pier and pushed, sliding into the water. The first drac and cart were driven reluctantly onto the unstable raft. The drac snorted and brayed, swaying his head and neck left and right, and nearly charging off the edge of the raft. The cart held a heavy cannon battened down for the river crossing. The rope to the pier was released and one soldier pulled the raft via the loop rope while another soldier planted the stave into the riverbed to keep the raft from flowing downstream.

When the raft was halfway across the river, a lightning bolt ripped through the grey sky and blasted the thick tree to splinters, around which the crossing rope was looped. The looped rope catapulted uselessly into the air and the raft capsized, drac, cart, soldiers, and cannon. The rope held onto the raft as it swung along the radius downstream of the tree trunk on the far side of the river, that is, until a second lightning bolt blasted the tree trunk into splinters. The capsized raft, now released from any and all commitments, flowed downstream until it broke up on one of the sharp rocks jutting up from the riverbed.

The upriver group commander was undaunted by the singular bad luck he had witnessed with his own eyes. He would not be deterred and resolved to cross the river again but the grey light was waning and soon the night would render it virtually impossible to cross the river. He called his men across the river to make camp as best they could for the night and the logistics units would bring provisions to them in the morning. He watched with his monocular the camp fires sputtering across the river. His own men made camp and settled in for the night. He ordered two standing guards and two roving guards to patrol the perimeter. He gave the same orders to the unit commander on the far side of the river.

At the crack of dawn, the commander scanned the far side with his monocular but saw only the grey mists. He called the unit commander on the STU but only a dead silence issued from the earphone. He called the downriver group commander for position and status. The downriver commander reported they were about to break camp and continue downstream looking for a safe place to cross the river. The upriver commander told him about the two lightning bolts and the lost cannon, cart, and drac. He had an eerie feeling about those lightning bolts but he did not mention it to the other commander.

The upriver commander slipped the STU into his backpack. He ordered some soldiers to tie a new rope around one of the other thick trees on the near bank of the river and some other soldiers to tie the other end of the rope around their waists. The first group of soldiers fed the rope out slowly as the second group waded into the river with their weapons trained on the cliff tops. The men in the river moved slowly, trying to maintain their footing in the rapids. They disappeared into the mists. After twenty agonizing minutes, the commander heard his STU bleeping gratefully. “Sir, we reached the far bank of the river,” the voice reported, “but we don’t see any of our guys. There’s no tracks in the sand or mud either.” “Keep looking!” the commander ordered. “There’s gotta be something left behind, a cigarette stub, a food bar wrapper, a smoking pile of dung, something…” “We’re looking again sir,” the voice crackled with static, “but we’re not finding anything.” The commander ordered the men on the other side of the river to stop searching and to secure the perimeter immediately. He told them to call him every ten minutes to update their status whether or not there was anything to report.

Two men looped the rope around another tree. One of the men waded back across the river with the excess rope.

After the rope loop was hanging across the river, another raft was shoved through the mud and sand down to the river side beside the pier. A drac and cart were driven onto the raft. The drac roared fire and the raft nearly capsized. The cannon was carefully lifted into the cart and tied down. The raft inched across the strong shallow currents with one soldier pulling the loop rope and the other staving off the pull of the downstream. The raft reached the middle of the river with great difficulty and then a single lightning bolt split into two tines slamming into both trees on either side of the river, replacing them with ash and smoke. The rope flew upward in a diabolic smile of flame. The raft flowed sideways downriver until it hit a half-submerged tree and the cart, cannon, and drac upended over the side of the raft and splashed under the grey water. The men were shot off the raft into the water as it flipped over. During the excitement of this rolling disaster, the commander had forgotten that he had not heard from his men on the other side of the river for more than ten minutes. He called the voice he’d talked to earlier that morning, but there was no response.

The downriver group continued to move forward, keeping the river to their left. Around every bend, the river seemed to widen until the opposite bank was lost in the undifferentiated grey mists. Just before nightfall at the end of each long march, the group stopped to set up camp and draw up lists for guard and patrol duty. The commander called the upriver commander every hour from sunset to sunrise to give and receive status updates. The downriver commander was appalled to hear of the losses in men and material. He was even more appalled to hear about the lightning bolts. He had to consider that the Rats had succeeded in weaponizing lightning.

The next morning the downriver group broke camp and set out on another long slog. You couldn’t really march in mud up to your knees. They slogged parallel to the river looking over to the other bank as it receded into the distance. Everyone suspected the uselessness of the effort and that the river would probably become a lake before it became a creek.

The rain turned to hail, which turned to rain again, and then to hail again. The soldiers turned indifferent to the weather. The rain softened and beat down on the cloth protecting their backs and shoulders, so that the hail hurt even more against their wet skins. Their minds were elsewhere, in warm dry local pubs or in warm dry beds. The grey afternoon darkened into evening as the soldiers rounded a bend and entered a boulder strewn inlet. They set up camp for the night, sipped cold soup from crusted cups, and cursed their downriver commander more than the Rats.

It seemed an endless senseless cycle of night and morning, dreaming and waking. Some men had been feverish for several days and they moved in and out of hallucinations, effortlessly, passively. One soldier fainted headlong into the mud. His comrades lifted him up, barely conscious, supporting him with their shoulders under his armpits, carrying his backpack or shot-blaster along with their own.

The fog moved in low covering the muddy ground, the sandy bank, and the river itself. The soldiers’ feet trudged along blindly, not knowing where to step. One man stumbled sideways into the river.

The rain poured down straight from the low clouds in thick globules, beating away the low lying fog until once again the feet knew where to step. Grey morning slipped unnoticed into grey afternoon and afternoon into greyer evening. The last light began to fade from the rain. They stopped to set up camp. Lists were drawn up for guard and patrol duty.

 

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Chapter 27: The Worst of Times

Laws were passed at the sector level and regional levels that mandated all blue infants be terminated immediately after birth, whether or not they were deemed viable. The various rag-tag mobs in each sector were consolidated into a more-or-less regular army. Officers were appointed to develop a viable strategy to track down and kill the Rats once and for all. It would require crossing into the Uncharted Areas.

The Rats did not see the need for a hierarchical military organization. They would defend themselves and their families as best they could, but each man, woman, and child knew what had to be done, come what may, and there was no need for any general to command them to do it.

That year there was another drought and the only crop that farmers like Styg reaped in Sector 87 was dust. In Sector 84, Javid, Thort’s neighbor and co-worker at the local mine, passed away. His wife, Dorka, had said it was from the Blue Lung. Javid had been coughing up blue phlegm in the worst way for the last few months. The company doctors claimed there was no such thing as Blue Lung. They explained that Javid had probably smoked and drank too much.

The Sap army moved through Sector 127 toward the Uncharted Areas with scouts, infantry, cavalry, heavy artillery, observational balloons, and logistics trailing behind. Command and Control Centers were set up just behind the forward units. Communications antennae were planted on hills behind the CCC’s. It was an impressive display of military power and organization. The weather was difficult though. There were constant electrical storms throughout the sector with horizontal lightning streaking across hilltops and through valleys. The ground was soggy at best and at worst the foot soldiers and the drac-drawn carts sank down in the mud. Thick bullets of ice hailed down on their dented helmets and thwacked the soldiers on their insufficiently padded shoulders. It was impossible to set up camp that night prior to crossing into the Uncharted Areas at dawn the next morning, so the soldiers hunkered down for the night and tried their best to ignore the relentless hail and the terrifying lightning.

 

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Chapter 26: The Best of Times

The Rats had a good season. Farms were thriving, but even better, the successes appeared to be sustainable. People were healthy and nobody went to bed hungry. There was no government, no laws, no judges, and no police. From time to time, a forum of people would meet to deliberate apparent conflicts of interest that were too difficult for both sides to resolve by themselves. The assumption was that both sides were right and their intentions were good, but there was probably a challenging paradox involved that warranted group deliberation.

All human societies had complex needs and the Rats were no exception. It did not make sense for everyone to be a farmer; besides, there were enough farmers producing enough food for everybody. The Rats could have produced enough food for the Saps too, but the Saps hated the Rats more than they loved eating. The Rats had begun to specialize their labors. In addition to farmers, there were doctors, teachers, builders, researchers, transporters, and broadcasters.

Nobody received money for any products, services, or work, so there was no need for money. Everybody did what was necessary to maintain a sufficient level of abundance in his area of specialization. It made sense. Once you were born, you had to do everything you could to survive until the day you died. If there were people in the society who lacked the means to survive, that society would break down. It was only rational to ensure that everybody had the means to survive and to thrive. Society needed everybody’s contribution if it was to thrive and nobody could contribute to society if he were starving, homeless, or sick. You had to take care of basic needs before you took care of secondary needs. Every child knew that. Even the politicians knew it.

For instance, take Farmon. She had not been born yet but she will invent something so great that a world will be named after her. If her mother and father were not to survive until she was born, the timeline of the Rats would have been very short indeed.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Chapter 25: Half-Twist

Lem led the robot to his home, accompanied by the rest of his group. The path they followed was convoluted and admittedly confusing even for a robot. He was not sure, but it seemed at one point the grassy path made a half-twist through one of the lesser known dimensions, just enough to cause his self-tracking log to reset and overwrite the coordinates previously recorded. The robot looked from Lem to the others to see whether they had noticed the twist in the space-time fabric, but nobody displayed any reactions out of the ordinary.

Since his log had reset, the robot had no way of gauging how long they had been walking, so he was not able to estimate how near or far his shuttle was from him.

The robot thought he’d utilize whatever time it took to get to wherever they were going, by bio-scanning the new humans to determine whether in fact they represented a new species. He ran x-ray, spectral, magnetic resonance, and low-dose computed tomography first on Lem, then on each of the men who surrounded him.

The robot noticed several differences between these humans and those he had interviewed at the tavern. The most pronounced difference was the diminished reptilian complex and limbic system in the brains of the men surrounding him. The so-called reptilian complex represented the primitive layer of the human brain and consisted of the cerebellum and the brain stem. The limbic system consisted of the amygdala and the hippocampus of the brain.

It was well known that the brain stem was responsible for the fight-or-flight response to stressful events and the amygdala was responsible for associating emotions with events.

Results of the initial predictive analysis were interesting: other factors like the cerebrum and frontal cortex being equal, an atrophied RC and LS might suggest a less primitive, less limited brain in the new species. It might be reasonable to assume that the behavior of the new species would be motivated by rational conclusions, that it would be biologically committed to rationality, as opposed to Sapiens who were limited biologically in their ability to respond rationally, and instead were motivated mostly by their emotions. Of course a short conversation with his hosts would verify that conjecture.

The robot clocked the response times on the neural pathways of his hosts. Visual processing showed 100 milliseconds as opposed to 150 ms for Sapiens. Object comparison took only 150 ms instead of 190 ms. Error correction speed was 400 ms, 70 ms faster than any Sapien. Motor response was 220 ms, 100 ms faster than the Sapien average. The results predicted that the new species was approximately 30% faster in any perceptual, cognitive, or motor activity.

Other than the differences noted above, basic genome analysis demonstrated a 99.5% similarity between Sapiens and the new species.

The group reached a ledge overlooking a valley between two mountain ranges. The sides of the mountains were pocked with glass-covered holes. Lem led the robot down a narrow path descending from the ledge down to the valley. Halfway down the path, Lem took a narrower path to the right that traversed a row of caves in the mountainside.

When he reached the third cave, Lem stopped and put his hand on the glass wall. The glass wall dissolved. The group passed through the entrance into the cave, after which the glass reformed. Lem guided the robot to a sofa and told him to make himself comfortable. The other men sat down on sofas and chairs nearby. Yani entered the room carrying a tray with fruit and tea for the men and synthetic oil for the robot.

“Thank you,” the robot nodded to Yani as he took the glass of oil from the tray. Yani nodded back and sat down next to Lem.

“Why did you land your shuttle craft here?” Lem asked the robot.

“We heard something about you from the humans in Sector 87,” the robot answered.

“Probably not very complimentary,” Lem offered.

“Certainly not very reliable,” the robot answered with an attempt at friendly humor. “We wanted to find out more about you in order to draw our own conclusions.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Yani interjected. “What do you want to know about us?”

“We were curious about the differences between your people and the others,” the robot said. “You should probably know that I scanned your biological signatures while we were walking through the forest…”

“Yes, we know,” Lem answered.

The robot was somewhat surprised. “How did you know?” he asked. “Could you feel me scanning you?”

“No, not really,” Lem answered, smiling at the other men in the group, some of whom chuckled back. “We knew you would scan us … then and there.”

The robot told Lem that some people at one of the taverns in Sector 87 had referred to the others as “Rats”. He wondered why.

Lem explained to the robot that the Homo Sapiens called them “Rats”, a pejorative term for “Rationals”, their dominant characteristic, aside from being blue-skinned. They had accepted the name, Rats, good-naturedly, and referred to the Homo Sapiens equally good-naturedly as “Saps”. Saps were rather exclusive in their concept of humanity, whereas Rats were far more inclusive. No intermarriage of Sap and Rat had ever produced offspring, although a few Rats were born of Sap parents, like Lem and Yani.

There had been a number of Rat births from Sap parents. Maybe it had to do with the cyanide compounds mined for processing gold ore in some of the sectors. Most Sap parents killed their Rat infants after child-birth. A very few, like Thort and Evanor or Kivo and Thana, let their Rat infants live and tried to raise them as Sap children. Unfortunately their Sap neighbors didn’t give that much of a chance.

It appeared that war between the two peoples was inevitable. Only one people would survive.

The robot sipped oil from his glass sadly. “Well, I really must be getting back to the ship,” the robot said, wondering whether he was Lem’s guest or captive.  “Do the Rationals have any special needs for supplies or assistance from his traders?”

Lem said there wasn’t very much the robots could do for the Rationals. “We can see where we are going and we knew what to do,” he added. “Our problems have to do with the Saps, who do not know where they are headed and certainly do not know what to do.”

Yani emerged from her sea of silence. “The Saps will never accept the Rationals, although they could use our help and they will continue to attack us, even though they do not stand a chance.”

Lem summarized, “In any event, the robots did not share our time line, except to intersect with it once every 64 years.” He did not tell the robot that the Saps only shared their time line up to a certain point.

The robot stood up and said that, if there was nothing the Rationals needed from them, there was probably nothing they had or wanted to trade off-world with the robots. Lem concurred. The robot promised to stop by just to check up on them once every 64 years, no strings attached.

Lem said somebody would always be here to welcome him.

One of the youngest members of the group accompanied the robot back to his shuttle craft. The way back to the shuttle seemed shorter than the way to the cave, but there was that funny half-twist along the way and the robot’s memory logs were reset once again.

The shuttle craft rose slowly into the clouds amidst thunder and lightning. Back at the main ship, the robot entered his cubicle and flipped on the QEB to report in to the watch officer.

“Did you find any evidence of that new species?” the WO asked.

“No,” the robot said honestly, “not a sign of them.”

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Chapter 24: Supplies

It was that time again. Sixty-four years had passed and a shuttle craft from a robot trading ship landed with thunderous reverse thrusters in Sector 87 to unload much needed supplies for the forsaken colonists.

The robot walked over to the local tavern to wait for the humans to unload the supplies they needed and to load their meager food stuffs and mined minerals. Later, after an accounting had been made of imports against exports, the sector governor would sit down at the table with the robot and renegotiate the debt. The robots trading in the Draco galaxy were running at a loss, but they seemed not to care too much about the profits and losses. They felt sadly responsible for the fate of the human colonists of Draco, so far from their home world, abandoned and forgotten. As long as they had the resources to do so, the robots would continue to give more than they received from the humans.

While sitting alone at his table the robot overheard two humans at another table talking about a new species of humans they called Rats. That struck the robot as strange as he retrieved an image of a rather unpleasant whiskered rodent associated with that name from his memory banks, since it had never been expected that it could achieve intelligence on a par with a human. Their brains were physically small and they lacked even a minimal frontal cortex. Oh well, the robot thought, it just goes to show you that anything that is possible is inevitable over a vast stretch of time.

But no – the robot listened to more snatches of the conversation at the next table. The rats they were talking about didn’t seem like any rats he had ever come across. “Excuse me,” the robot exclaimed amiably, “I couldn’t help but over-hear parts of your conversation in which you talked about rats as though they were like people…”

“They ain’t like any humans around here,” one of the men snorted. “They’re blue all over from the hair on their ugly heads to the toe nails on their ugly feet. They’re human-shaped, more-or-less, they speak our language ‘ceptin for their highfalutin words which no normal person kin understand, and they’re too quick to take a switch to.”

The other man nodded at the robot and added, “I know yer kind don’t believe in God, but them Rats is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord Almighty. He’s gonna smite them down and we’re his right fist.”

About that time the governor walked into the tavern with his accountant trailing close behind. “Ah, there you are,” the governor said jovially when he spotted the robot. The accountant pulled two chairs over to the table where the robot sat and the other two humans moved respectfully to the other side of the room.

Robots were always amazed by the human propensity for stating the obvious. “Indeed,” said the robot dryly, “here I am.”

The governor cleared his throat. “Our needs are great,” he opened stentoriously, as if speaking to his electorate, “but our resources are meager. We are at the tail end of a terrible time but things are definitely looking up. If you would be willing to carry our marker until the next time you come, we will certainly be able to pay you with a most generous interest.” Of course, by the time the robot returned, sixty-four years from that day, the good governor would be dead and the debt would be somebody else’s problem.

The robot accepted the governor’s signatures on the inventory receipt and shipping documents, and rose from the table to leave. He had a tight schedule to maintain, another seven planets to touch base before he could return home to his family. He walked back to the shuttle craft, checked underneath the thruster area to make sure no humans were hiding there, transmitted the wireless code to drop the ladder and open the shuttle hatch, and proceeded to climb up the ladder into the craft.

After checking the controls and indicators, the robot strapped himself to his seat, checked the vidcams around the thruster area one last time, and ignited the thrusters lifting off in thunder and billowing clouds. The governor and the accountant watched the craft rise slowly into the low roiling clouds until it disappeared from sight and hearing.

The shuttle entered into orbit and coasted almost to the main ship. The massive docking port doors opened silently, commanded by infrared code, and the small shuttle craft floated into the massive hull of the ship. The port doors closed shut smoothly. Since there were no humans on board, the robot did not bother to turn on the oxygen.

Back in his cluttered cubicle, the robot decided to call in over the QEB what he had overheard at the tavern to the Office of Human Affairs on his home planet. The watch officer back home suggested that the robot take the shuttle back down and scout around the other sectors and Uncharted Areas to see whether there were any signs of this new human species.

The trader robot took the shuttle back down to the surface and began to scout around in earnest, sector by sector. After combing the known sectors, he overflew what the locals called the Uncharted Areas and found signs of human habitation in the infrared range of the spectrum. The robot set the shuttle down nearby. He jumped down from the shuttle and started walking in the direction of the infrared blobs he’d noticed on the IR scope.

The silver coloured robot walked into a forest and quickly found himself surrounded by dark blue humanoids.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

 

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Part 4: Thunder on the Horizon; Chapter 23: Lem and Yani

Their world had revolved around the larger uninhabitable world in the sky many times since the two families had set out to find the Refuge in the Uncharted Areas. Because their hearts were pure (and because their children were blue), they were able to safely cross the wide river between Sector 127 and the Uncharted Area. They did not find the Refuge, so much as the Refuge found them wandering around in the dense primordial forests. Lem and his mother Evanor, as well as Yani and her parents were accepted graciously into the Refuge by the Rationals who had established and built it.

The Refuge was a utopia waiting since the beginning of time to be built exactly as it was, and then it was, simply, just like that.

Many months passed since their acceptance into the community. Lem and Yani grew up into fine young adults. Lem was tall and lean with the long musculature of a strong swimmer. What with his relatively small skull, his long neck, and his stocky legs and large feet, it seemed as though Lem had been drawn by the left hand of God. Yani was taller than most Sapien men. She was strong and lanky, but more delicately proportioned, as Rational females tended to be. She possessed large slanting eyes and high pronounced cheek-bones. Yani was not exceptionally beautiful as compared to the other young women of the community, but when compared to most Sap women she was exceptional.

Lem and Yani were inseparable, not that anyone had ever tried to separate them.

 

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Chapter 22: Just in Time

Lem opened the front door to his cabin quietly. A lop-sided cone of light from the kitchen spread out in the living area gracing the rough-hewn furniture with a shadowy gold softness. He walked noiselessly through the living area into the kitchen and put his arms around his mother who was stirring a pot of porridge.

“You frightened me Lem,” Evanor gasped and nearly fainted. “You mustn’t creep up on me like that. My poor heart!” She managed to turn around in Lem’s arms and return his hug with equal warmth. “Did you miss me?” she murmured to the top of his buried head. Lem shook his head, indicating he had in fact missed his mother very much during the week he was gone. “Good,” she said and squeezed him to her. “How was your visit with Yani and her family?”

Lem sat down at the breakfast table and told Evanor about the visit while she stirred the porridge and reached for a bowl to serve him. Lem told her about the group of grown-ups like Yani and him who had visited Kivo and Thana on their way to a place called the Refuge somewhere in another place called the uncharted area across a big river. He told her they wanted to see Yani too.

“Mama,” Lem mentioned between spoonfuls of porridge, “they told Kivo that all the people like us were going to the Refuge with their families… It was the only place where we could be safe.”

“Well I don’t know,” Evanor said sullenly. “I’m starting to get used to the place here. I’m not so sure I want to pick up and move somewhere else.”

“Mama, we can’t stay here forever,” Lem put down his spoon and looked at his mother seriously. “One day somebody is going to follow you back to the cabin from the village. He’s going to tell somebody else about you. Rumors will spread through the village and people will become curious. Somebody will come to visit our cabin and they will see me … or they won’t see me, but they’ll suspect something is not right because you’re not like them. You’re different. You don’t go to church and you don’t visit them and you don’t invite them to visit.”

“Lem, you know something’s going to happen, don’t you,” Evanor said feeling something, knowing it without being able to say it.

“Yes Mama,” he said.

“When?”

“Within one month, eleven days, six hours, twenty-two minutes, and three seconds, a large rock wrapped in a flaming oil-soaked cloth will be thrown through our window to smoke us out of the cabin to catch us and hang us upside down from the skag tree in our back yard,” Lem said in a monotone, as though he were reading somebody else’s newspaper account of their lynching.

“What will we do Lem?” Evanor pleaded for some other future other than what had been dealt them, some alternate fate that somehow hoping could make so.

“We’ll be long gone before then,” Lem said as though looking up brightly from the newspaper account he had been reading. “Oh and we’ll have company!”

Five weeks after Lem had come home from his visit, there was a soft knock on the door of their cabin. Evanor slipped her arms into her robe and went to the front window to slip the curtain aside so that she could see who was knocking at the door so early in the morning. It was Kivo and his wife, Thana, and their little girl, Yani! She rushed to the door to open it wide for them. “Come in quickly,” Evanor said urgently. “What’s happened? Why are you here? You look like you haven’t slept in a week!” She turned from Kivo to Thana, and then to Yani. “Oh, you poor dears! Come to the kitchen … The porridge is still warm … I’ll make another batch.” Then Evanor turned to the stairs and called out, “Lem! Come down and see who’s…”

Lem was already standing next to Yani and looking back at Evanor.

They all went into the kitchen and sat down at the table. Kivo spoke first. “I don’t know how she knew, but Yani had been trying to get us to pack up our things and leave our home … I told her she was imagining things that would never happen. I told her she shouldn’t worry her pretty blue curls. I told her …”

“I told Papa to look out our front window at the path from the village up to our cabin,” Yani interrupted, a little bit of pride mixed in with her tiredness. Thana was rubbing the sides of her head continuously.

“… I went to the window to prove there was nothing to see,” Kivo said and didn’t finish, lost in the memory of it.

“Papa?”

“… Oh yes … I could see the torches coming up the path from the village. The flames were small at first, but they grew larger as they came closer… I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. Thana ran to the kitchen and dumped whatever food she could from the pantry into some bags, while Yani ran upstairs to throw some of clothes into other bags. She dragged the stuffed bags down the stairs. They tumbled down and almost knocked her over. She dragged them over to me, looked me in the eyes, and said it’s time to go Papa! … We barely got out in time. We ran up the path to the place we had our picnic with you… About half-way up, I turned around and saw our cabin down below go up in flames… They probably thought we were inside it because nobody came after us.”

Kivo stopped to eat his porridge. He had eaten very little in the last week. He nearly vomited from eating so fast.

Thana had eaten her porridge while Kivo had been telling their story. Now she took over the telling of it. “It took us seven days and nights to reach you… Yani guided us all the way. She showed us where to drink, told us when and where to sleep, and when to keep going. She told us Lem had made a map for her when he came to visit us, and it was in her head.”

“I swear to the Lord Almighty,” Kivo said solemly, “I don’t know what witchery our children have in their heads, but our little Yani saved our lives! If it weren’t for …”

Evanor said, “It took me some time to get used to it, but I’d trust Lem with my life … He got so grown up, so fast, the day my Thort was murdered… I think we must trust that our children know what’s best for us and follow them blindly, because that’s what we are compared to them: blind as a day-old gorm.”

“They won’t be coming to our cabin for another four days,” Lem said, “but we should still get ready to leave tonight to get a head start on them, and be well on our way to Sector 127 and the uncharted area.”

Kivo’s family was already packed. Evanor cooked and baked for the long trip and packed their clothes. Lem told Yani to have her parents sleep upstairs on their beds so they’d be refreshed to continue that night.

Yani fell asleep in Lem’s bed. He lay down beside her and wrapped his arm around her. Lem stayed awake the whole afternoon, thinking about the uncharted area and the Refuge.

That night the two families left the cabin quietly, slipped over the ledge, and descended into the gulley.

Four days, six hours, twenty-two minutes, and three seconds later, a large rock wrapped in a flaming oil-soaked cloth was thrown through the front window of Evanor’s and Lem’s cabin. The curtains quickly caught fire and smoke began to billow out of the broken window, but nobody came out coughing and blinded and begging for mercy as intended. The good people of the village nearby were forced to wait until the cabin fire had died down before they could check the ashes for the charred remains of that godless woman and her evil guest, who surely lived with her in sin.

Mike Stone

Raanana Israel

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Chapter 21: The Refuge

Evanor and Lem lived quietly together in that cabin for the next twelve months. They tended a small patch, growing enough vegetables and fruit for their own needs, and then some. Evanor was able to trade the extra produce for a gorm with a few months of milk left in her. People would try to be friendly with her when she’d go down to the village but after she deferred their persistent requests to join them for some local church function, they left her alone thinking there was something not quite right about her. No matter. God would decide what to do about her in His own good time, they would think to themselves. Only Lem knew how to calculate just how long that good time would take. Until then they could live in that cabin.

Some of the forest animals would come close to the cabin at night just before dawn to lick salt from the rocks half buried in their yard. Lem enjoyed watching them nuzzle against the corner of the porch.

The gardening work was challenging for Lem. He dislodged the rocks from the garden patch and rolled them over to make a short wall around the patch. He tilled and seeded the ground with the seed his mother had purchased, the way he’d seen his father do it in the fields of Styg’s farm. The work made him lean and strong.

One evening, as they sat at the supper table in the kitchen, Lem told his mother that he wanted to go back to visit Yani and let them know where they were. “You’ll be safe here awhile longer Mama,” Lem promised Evanor. “I’ll be safe too because I won’t let anybody see me where I go.”

There was something in the sureness of Lem’s voice that made Evanor trust that he knew what he was saying and doing, as well or better than any grown-up would. She knew Lem could take care of himself and, if he said she’d be safe here without him, then she’d be safe here without him. Besides, she knew Lem had a thing for little Yani. Who knows? Maybe their fates were knotted. Who was Evanor to stand against fate?

Evanor baked a couple loaves of bread and packed some fruit and vegetables in a bag for Lem. Lem packed some clothes and filled his water bag.

Lem woke just before dawn when the forest animals were licking the rocks in their yard. The animals scarcely noticed him as he slipped past them, over the ledge and down the hill. He ran swiftly along the gully. Lem made the base of the first ridge by first light. Just as the sky was graying, Lem looked sideways at the boulder-strewn hillside and disappeared inside.

Lem knocked on Kivo’s door the morning after the third night. Thana opened the door and was alarmed. “What are you doing here? Where’s your mother?”

“She’s at home safe,” Lem said pleasantly. “I came to see Yani. Is she at home?”

“Well I don’t know Lem,” Thana answered.

“What do you mean you don’t know Thana?” Lem asked, knowing full well Yani was upstairs in her bedroom.

“I mean I don’t know if you should be here without your mother,” she said uncertainly. “Maybe Kivo…”

“Hi Lem!” Yani said, standing right beside her mother all of a sudden. “I knew you were coming today. Why don’t you come up to my room? Is that all right with you Mother?”

“Well, I suppose so,” Thana said reluctantly and the children ran past her up the stairs before she could say another word.

“I didn’t know where you were,” Yani complained to Lem as soon as they sat on her bed.

“I’ll show you,” Lem said. He drew a map of Sectors 87 and 95 in the air with his finger. The image lingered in their minds. He drew a line along the path Evanor and he had taken and by which he had returned, over the ridges, through the gullies, and up the hill where the cabin hid. The map and the path lines were etched in her brain.

Lem told Yani about the previous occupants he’d found hanging from the tree behind the cabin and how he managed to cut them down and bury them before his mother had seen them. “It was terrible Yani!” he said quietly. “I knew Mama would never have agreed to stay in the cabin if she had seen those bodies hanging there like that… She’d be afraid they’d come back and do that to us.”

“Aren’t you afraid they’ll come back,” Yani asked with a hint of a smile on her pretty little face.

“No, silly,” Lem said, “I know exactly when they’re coming back to the cabin … We’ll be long gone before they arrive.”

“You must be hungry,” Yani told Lem matter-of-factly. “Let’s go down to the kitchen and ask Mother to give you some breakfast. I already ate mine, but I’ll sit with you and we can talk.”

“All right,” Lem said. “I am really hungry!”

Yani and Lem descended the stairs and found Thana in the kitchen already preparing breakfast for Lem. “Thanks Mother,” Yani said.

“Thanks Thana,” Lem said as he sat down at the table. The stove fire warmed the kitchen.

“It isn’t every day we get special visitors,” Thana answered graciously.

“Lem, did you know there are others just like us?” Yani exclaimed brightly. “They came to visit Papa and to see me… They were bigger than us … like Papa and Mother, but as blue as us.”

Lem’s big blue eyes opened widely. “Why did they come to visit you?” he asked Yani. Thana was watching and listening closely while puttering around in the pantry behind the stove.

“They were all leaving the sector, just like Evanor and you,” she answered. “Some were only passing through our sector from another one, on the way to some place they called the Refuge … It’s in a place they called the uncharted area. Nobody has ever been there. Yani traced a map for Lem on the kitchen table with her index finger. “They are going the same way you went. From Sector 95, they’re going down to Sector 127 to a big river that separates the sectors from the uncharted area. The Refuge is somewhere on the other side of that river.” She returned Thana’s glance and continued, “They said the Refuge is the only place in our world that people like us can live in peace. Our parents can come too, if they want, and they will be protected … from the war.”

Thana couldn’t keep quiet any longer. “Your father told those people nobody was talking about war in these parts. If they were, he would’ve heard of it.”

“But Mother,” Yani said, “we see things happening before they happen.”

“I don’t know how that can be,” Thana answered without a lot of conviction.

Yani glanced over at Lem just as he turned his head and saw into her eyes. He finished the last of his porridge and pushed the bowl away from him. He thanked Thana for breakfast and told her he would have to go back home that evening after supper.

Yani and Lem ran outside to play a kind of hide-and-seek.

“Yani,” Lem said during one of their games, “you must persuade your parents to take you to the Refuge.”

“Of course Silly!” Yani said with a smile. “Why did you think I told you?”

Lem seemed not to mind Yani calling him “silly” anymore. The truth was that he didn’t mind anything she said.

After Kivo came back from work in the fields behind the cabin, they all sat down to a delicious supper. When Lem rose from the table and said he had to leave, Thana filled his food bags with fragrant bread, crisp vegetables, and fresh fruit. Lem hugged them all, but especially Yani, and disappeared through the door into the night.

Mike Stone

Raanana, Israel

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Chapter 20: The Lie

Lem took his mother’s hand and guided her up the path they’d taken to Kivo’s picnic site and Yani’s secret hiding place, only now it was pitch black and Evanor could not see her feet, let alone the ground beneath them. Eventually she fell into the pace of her son’s sure stride.

“I never realized you could see so well in the dark Lem,” Evanor said breathless from the upward slope of the hill path.

“I can’t see any better than you Mama when there’s no light to see by,” Lem said. “I just look ahead to see where I’m going to be in another few moments and then that’s where I go.”

Evanor tried to digest her little boy’s words. She could understand them and yet she couldn’t understand them. At least she wasn’t afraid of him anymore like she had been the morning after her Thort had been killed. She knew deep in her breast that Lem would protect her and would never hurt her.

They reached the rock picnic table. “Do you want to rest a bit Mama?” Lem asked Evanor.

“Yes,” she said, “just for a moment until I catch my breath… Do you know where to go?”

“Not really,” Lem answered. “We’ll walk along the ridge and continue eastward until we get out of this sector. We’ll only move at night. If we see a farm or a village, we’ll walk around it.”

“What will we do about water and food?” Evanor asked.

“We’ll walk parallel to a stream so we can get to one when we need to drink or refill our water bags,” Lem said, “and we’ll get whatever fruit and vegetables we need from the orchards and fields at night…”

“… But that’s stealing!” Evanor protested, shocked to hear her son talk like that. Thort and Evanor had raised Lem better than that.

“It can’t be helped Mama,” Lem explained looking down at the ground. “Otherwise we’d die … We’ll be honest again, as soon as we can afford to be … Come Mama, let’s go. We have to keep moving.”

They walked around the bend and kept on walking. Lem did not show his mother Yani’s secret hiding place. It wasn’t that he wanted to keep a secret from his mother. It was just that she was having a hard enough time getting used to her little son she thought she knew so well but didn’t and Lem did not want to make it any harder on her.

When the night began to grey into dawn Lem could see the dark meandering line of the creek below them running parallel to the ridge on the far side of the fields to their left. He moved Evanor away from the path edge so they would not be visible to any farmers in the fields. His mother must have been exhausted by now and he looked for a suitable place to eat and rest for the day. If only he could teach his mother to see sideways, they would not have been so exposed to prying eyes. Lem found a shallow cave hidden behind two skag trees and suggested to Evanor that they make themselves at home in the cave for the day. Evanor took out the rations for the day and spread them on the blanket for them to eat. She could scarcely eat her sandwich, she was so tired. She said to Lem that she would just rest for a little while but soon she was fast asleep. Lem picked up Evanor’s half-eaten sandwich and returned it to the bag. He lay down beside his mother and slept like he hadn’t slept since he could remember.

They made fairly good time. Within one week they reached the border between Sector 87 and Sector 95. The land was hilly with large tracts of virgin forest. There wasn’t much farm land and the villages were few. The roads weren’t well-maintained; mostly packed dirt. The gorm seemed to run wild. You could see drac tracks on the road and off it, but Lem and Evanor never actually saw any dracs.

Before first dawn they crossed over one hill and descended into a gully clogged with bramble and skagwood. Up on the hill to the left of them, Lem caught a glint of light from the sun below the hill. He squinted his eyes to see better and discerned a glass window in a cabin. He told his mother to stop a moment so he could listen to the sounds of the forest. Lem heard the quiet, the quiet of held breath the animals of the forest made when they were watching and listening for Lem’s and Evanor’s every move, the quiet when no farmer or farmer’s wife is up and about in the fields kicking around cans or driving the animals this place or that.

“Mama,” Lem said, “let’s go up and look around that cabin up there on the hill. We’re getting low on food and it’s been awhile since we had a good bowl of stew. I’ll stay out of sight.

“Can you see us inside that cabin up there, Lem?” Evanor asked suddenly.

Lem looked at his mother intently. Maybe she was starting to get used to him and his ways. “Yes Mama,” he answered. “I see us both sitting at the table in the kitchen eating our second helpings of thick soup … all by ourselves. There’s nobody else in the cabin but us.”

“Are you sure Lem?” she asked.

“Yes Mama,” Lem said matter-of-factly.

Evanor asked her small son hesitantly, “What happened to the people who own that cabin?”

“I don’t know Mama,” Lem lied for the first time in his life because he didn’t want to frighten his mother.

Against her better judgment, Evanor climbed up the hill behind Lem towards the cabin at the top of the middle of nowhere.

When they reached the narrow plateau where the cabin nestled, Evanor was tired and her skirts were torn from the bramble clinging to the hillside. She would have to sew and patch her skirts that evening. As agreed, Lem hid just below the ledge of the plateau while Evanor ascended the porch steps and knocked lightly on the door.

There was no response. She called out, “Hello there! Is anybody home?” in her most pleasant but loudest voice. There was still no response. She looked through the window, blocking the sunlight from her eyes with her hands in order to see through the darkness inside. “Hello there!” she called again. Still no response. Evanor walked back over to the door and tried the door handle. It gave way. She opened the door and leaned through the doorway, her heart racing under her blouse. “Hello there!” she called tentatively. She looked back in the direction of the ledge where Lem was hiding and then slipped inside.

While Evanor was inside the cabin Lem ran around to the back of the cabin to the skag tree at the edge of the clearing where two bodies, black with death, hung upside-down from the lower limb. He shimmied up the tree and cut the ropes so the bodies fell to the ground. He rolled them behind the brush and dug shallow graves for the man and woman and covered them with the soft moist dirt he’d dug out.

Lem ran stooping low around the cabin back to the ledge where he had been hiding. A moment later, Evanor leaned out of the cabin doorway and called to him, “Lem, you can come in. There’s nobody here in the cabin, just like you said!”

Evanor saw Lem’s head pop up from behind the ledge. He walked up the steps of the porch and they explored the cabin together. There was a fireplace with a stack of logs. Upstairs there was a real bed with blankets and sheets. The pantry in the kitchen was full of good food.

That evening Evanor and Lem sat at a table in the kitchen and ate their thick soup.

It was their second helping.

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An Interview

Last time I was in Columbus Ohio, Barbara A. Topolosky interviewed me for a local newspaper, The New Standard. Her questions ranged from what’s it like for an Israeli-American to my poetry and science fiction novels. If you are a little interested in learning a bit more about the man behind the curtain, you should read Barbara’s well-written article,

http://www.thenewstandardonline.com/PDFs/2011/tns_dec%202_2011.pdf.

You might want to check out Barbara’s blog at http://joyat60.wordpress.com/ to see her sometimes unorthodox but always entertaining views on life at the moment.

 

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