TRIBAL

The Story of a Future Family

I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.

WILLIAM ERNEST HENLEY, INVICTUS
Image Source: Artes de las Filipinas

Prologue

Invictus
By William Earnest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be,
      For my unconquerable soul.
 
In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody but unbowed.
 
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.
 
It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.

Heaven ䷀ & Earth ䷁

The hum of thrusters joined the ship’s rhythmic shudder as it crossed the invisible barrier between the emptiness of space and the atmosphere of old earth. The ship’s AI computed and adjusted for a slow descent, sparing the pilot the need to worry about burning up in the atmosphere. It was a small but necessary favor.

When the pilot spotted the southern tip of South Asia breach the dark horizon on her display, she spoke to the AI, “Turn due east off the southernmost tip and hold coarse.”

Moments later, the Captain heard the soothing baritone of the AI. “Turning, followed soon by, latitude 10 degrees bearing one-eight- zero and holding.”

“You’re such a good boy, Ralph. Remind me to give you a belly rub later.”  The petite body strapped into the seat jiggled with self-amusement. Here it comes, she thought.

“Haaa, haa, haa, haa, haaaaah. The deep digital laugh pretended no formal air of dignity. Ma’am, I have no belly to rub, but if you sing to me again, I promise not to fall asleep this time.”

“You’re worse than a pirate’s parrot, Ralph.”

“Well, you are a rogue, Captain. Pity, no eye patch though”

“The tour of duty is only beginning. We both may need patching before this is over. That’s rough camping down there,” The Captain replied. The laughter in her heart came through in the soft soprano of her voice as she started to sing a naughty pirates’ ballad learned in cadet school. Ralph hummed along as they sailed through the atmosphere at Mach 3.

Directly off the bow, the horizon caught ablaze in blinding hues of stratified yellow, orange, and red. The sun burned through the darkness, giving the black void of the ocean and land a textured surface that reflected orange light on the face of mountains and low clouds with the majestic Milky Way rising from the fire of a new earth day into the blue-black universe.

The beauty of the earth held Captain Rae enthralled. She opened her visor and let the golden rays of the sun warm her face. A smile of deep contentment framed in an infinite pleasure hinted at the deep joy she felt at that moment. 

The Dragonfly shaped jump ship lit up on the nose, and the ornate name on the side of the canopy written in a beautiful script glowed as light refracted from the rose and saffron title, ISS Aurora.

“Look at that sunrise, would you?” She said in a respectful voice like one who enters an ancient temple.

“It’s one of the most magnificent I’ve ever recorded.” The AI replied in a solemn tone to mirror his Captain.

Gloved fingers hovered over the screen, making small adjustments to the ship’s scan for living beings. They headed for the ancient Philippine archipelago as Captain Rae searched her memory for the details of her mission brief. “The last known living souls made their stand there. This land was the country of my genetic origins. It took a lot of hard work and no little amount of pleas to senior leaders to get assigned to the genetic recovery investigation team or GRIT in military jargon for you, Ralph,” She said.

“Begging is an underutilized strategy. You employed it well, the cheeky digital Lieutenant JG replied. If my exceptional memory serves me, Grit’s mission was to search for viable DNA research into humans’ ancient heritage. Grit planned to map the human story and perhaps learn how those that escaped to the exoplanet EOS, now called home, could learn how to diversify their genes without transmitting broken codes that caused disease and negative behaviors.”

“You are such smarty-pants, Ralph. Now, plot a course over the city of Manila and then set a left spiral turn to scan all the islands for hominid life signs,” Captain Rae said, returning to her scanner panel and command voice.

“May I suggest a good bar from my databanks?”

“No. Silly, we’re on duty.”

“Ah, dear me. A pirate AI’s duty is never done. Setting coarse to latitude 15 degrees, bearing four-zero,” Ralph replied with a hint of rejection in his digital manhood.

Idle banter occupied the time until a single blip showed on the screen. Captain Rae felt a surge of adrenaline that conflicted with her disbelief. Ralph confirmed the scan, and with excitement, she hadn’t felt since her teen years, the Captain ordered a slow approach for an optical identification.

Suddenly, alarms sounded, and the cockpit indicators lit up with colorful warnings accompanied by several competing buzzers, bells, and horns.

“The indicators show an air defense system is targeting us. How is that possible, Ralph?”

“It must be an automated system that was in sleep mode until we wiggled our fanny at it,” Ralph replied. We have multiple missile launches. Estimated time to impact two minutes.”

“Take evasive action, report the defense system location to the fleet. And Ralph,”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Evade toward the hominid sighting. Use terrain for shielding from the missiles.”

“Evading. Hold on,” Ralph replied, and the ship made a sharp turn and plunged toward the ground. There was no need to tell the Captain that these were hunter-seeker missiles. They would remain aloft and circle until they picked up the ship again and then drill into them like laser beams. If he saw their evasion attempts were futile, he would eject the Captain and lead the missiles away from her. Hard way to grow up, kiddo, he thought as they plummeted toward a mountain ravine.

-✮-

CHAPTER 1

The early morning sun had yet to penetrate the dark shadows cast by the jungle canopy. Predators, sated by their night hunt, crept back to their dens or climbed high in the trees to wait out the day’s heat. Ezra moved along just below the mountain ridge’s boulder-strewn backbone, looking for signs of pigs returning to their sanctuary at dawn.  He listened carefully to the crackle of leaves and the swish of brush close to the ground to ensure he didn’t become a  quick meal for some reptile or toothy fiend still hungry for a fight. 

Stooped with bent knees, Ezra froze like a stone that had not moved in centuries. He listened. Prey would keep walking, but a killer would stop when he stopped. The sounds continued below him. Ham and eggs would be excellent this morning, he thought. Ezra sniffed the air and, without thought, shifted through the jungle scents to the musk of swine. Heated air rose from the valley and lifted along the mountains’ slopes, carrying the smell of all that lived below while shielding the hunter from being identified long before he was seen or heard. 

The hunter crept slowly to a rock outcrop and looked below. A boar, two sows, and six piglets sauntered along a game trail, oblivious to any danger. Usually, Ezra left the sows alone unless they were old with gray-bristled muzzles and many scars from battling with the wild dogs and cats that roamed the forest floor. The healthy sows would offer him piglets to live on, and he thanked them for the offering of their young. He drew back on his bowstring and hammered a piglet behind the shoulder with his arrow.

A ground-shaking boom startled Ezra near out of his loincloth as the swine howled and scattered in the brush leaving the one he shot kicking clods of dirt and debris into the air, twisting and squealing in the dance of death. The shaken hunter looked up and saw a streak of fire high above the far mountain in the cobalt sky. It turned and dove into the valley as two smaller lines of fire raced after it. “A divine sign from the gods,” Ezra exclaimed and pointed. The dying piglet ignored him. 

The two smaller hunter lights closed in on the prey. It turned toward the far wall of the mountain. Ezra heard the roar of the winged beast and the high pitched whine of the firelights chasing it. Just as the chasers caught the creature, an explosion of orange light lit the morning sky and burned like the sun, quickly turning into a black cloud of smoke followed by a clap of rolling thunder, shaking the valley’s quiet from end to end. Ezra looked on frozen in fear and fascination as a silver egg separated from the body and sailed across the sky until it fell at the edge of the river in a generous spray of water some distance away. The winged beast and hunters had disappeared in a thunderous splash of light, and bits of stars floated in all directions cascading down to the river below, leaving tendril vines of smoke.

Kneeling beside the swine, Ezra begged the kill for forgiveness. “What can I do to calm your spirit?” he asked the carcass. Predator and prey sat together on the trail together. “It’s exactly as my father predicted,” he said. “He told me long ago that Tala, the goddess of the stars, will test me. She will come from the heavens on a mighty beast and appear to me as a monster. If I can stand firm and show my admiration of her is unwavering, I will live with her through eternity as her Dumakulem, guardian of the mountains. Speaking the prophecy aloud gave Ezra a shudder. He couldn’t decide whether to forget what he saw or seek the answer downriver.

For a long time, Ezra sat in a trance of imagination and memories of his father, mother, and tribe. Now, he is the only one left. Was this punishment for his killing of the animals for food?  He knew what his father would tell him to do. He heard the words in his mind. Ezra dressed the flesh and wrapped it in tea tree leaves to keep it fresh until he could smoke it when he made a safe camp. He scraped the hide and folded it around the shrouded meat and placed the bundle into his hunting basket, and began to search for a place to camp.

In the morning, Ezra looked down the valley from a rock outcrop and decided to find the silver egg that flew away when the explosion tore the hunted and hunters apart and scattered their carapace across the river. He felt an uneasy feeling that his destiny lay in the place where the egg-shaped bubble had landed. He couldn’t see it, but he would go where he saw the water’s edge geyser up, and the treetops broke by the force of the landing. 

❂❂❂

The escape pod lay at an odd angle, mired in mud. The cockpit was dark, covered in dirt and debris cascading down the Plexiglass portals like garden slugs leaving their trail of goo along the way. Inside, Captain Rae sat tethered to her seat by banded restraints. She heard her mother’s voice whisper in her head. “Sophie, honey, wake up. Come on, wake up now. You have to go to school. You can’t be lazy and expect to pass your test. Get up, Girl,” her mother’s tone getting more impatient.

Sophie opened her eyes to the world spinning. Her head ached, and she felt held down in a sitting position that seemed like she was leaning back with her head lower than her feet.

Ralph? Ralph. Where are you, Ralph? There was only the constant vibration like cicadas in the trees back home on Eos. Rae wondered who Ralph was and why she felt so panicked that he wouldn’t answer. Rae held her arms tight to her body and screamed until her throat hurt, and she begged in a hoarse whisper for her mother to wake her from this nightmare.

-✮-

CHAPTER 2

Fever from a battered body struggling to heal itself lays waste to Captain Rae’s nimble mind. In the iron-like womb of her escape pod, she struggles fitfully with vivid hallucinations. She is hunted and haunted by visions too awful not to be real. The afternoon rains come in torrents like an assault darkening the sky with the sounds of battle. 

The river’s languid turquoise turned a creamy brown and rushed up against the shore, lifting the pod from its muddy moorings. The rocking soothed Rae’s mind. The temperature dropped inside, cooling the sweat from her brow and body inside her spacesuit and helmet. With the visor down and the display dead, Rae saw a macabre world above her played out with angry raindrops exploding in random patterns on the Plexiglas cockpit, and the rhythmic waving of waxy green jungle foliage in the background seemed like a vision of a saurian world.

Rae began to feel the effects of motion sickness as the pod bobbed and rolled in the currents picking up speed and hammering into stone and floating debris, flipping, twisting, churning in constant chaos. Someone screamed again.  Rae watched with discordant vision as a gloved hand reached out to the panel and flipped several switches. 

Ralph’s cheeky voice read off the results. “Gyroscopes on. We are settling into stability management, and at the current rate, the energy packs are good for 12 hours without recharging. Shall I monitor all the life support systems for you, Captain? 

“Please do that for me, Ralph. Rae managed to squeak out a hoarse reply, her head pounding from the sudden absence of turmoil but her vision still reeling. I’m so glad to hear your voice. Please don’t leave me again. I’m scared and don’t know what to do.”

“Don’t worry, sweetheart, er um, Captain. I’ll take care of everything. Your life signs show you are suffering from a concussion, multiple skin abrasions from blast friction in your suit, and subcutaneous hematomas in the right gluteus medius and gluteus maximus-from the hard landing, no doubt.” Ralph droned in his best unemotional AI voice.

“What?” Rae asked

“You bruised your butt,” Ralph replied.

If a voice can imply a smirk, Rae heard it.

“Would you like me to massage the injured area,” Ralph asked with far too much eagerness than the rules for AI manners allow.

“Ralph! No. You are not allowed to touch my butt, and you know that” It was Captain Rae now. She was coming to her senses again; adrenaline fueled her anger. Ralph teased her back from the abyss.

“Therapeutic massage is not about the masseur’s sensual pleasures. It is for the patient’s well being. Please lift your Space Explorer mind from the barracks brothels and let me help you,” Ralph insisted.

“When I get out of this mess, I’m going to have a little talk with you about AI boundaries. In the meantime, I love you and don’t want you to go anywhere. At the moment, I’m a bit overwhelmed and need your help.” Rae talked to Ralph and adjusted her pod’s systems to best navigate out of the river without anyone drowning or getting short-circuited. 

Ralph complimented Rae on her thoughtfulness and river navigation acumen. He reluctantly agreed to keep his holographic hands off his Captain’s sore bootie.

❂❂❂

A frond cut from a banana tree shed torrents of rain as Ezra watched from underneath at the flood, breaking the silver egg from the mud’s viscous hold and carrying it downstream. He sat under the green umbrella, dismayed beyond his imagination. Ezra felt the gods were telling him this gift from Heaven was not his to covet. The River was too angry to swim across or follow the egg on its ride to the falls. He would have to wait until tomorrow to continue his search when the river returned to its peaceful mood.

The lone hunter pulled his thighs to his chest and lay his head on his knees. He placed his small shield in front of him. Although he wondered about its usefulness, the extra protection gave him comfort even though he hadn’t seen another tribe’s warriors in years. Ezra’s parang lay unsheathed at his side should the jungle cats decide they were hungry, and he was easy prey.

Inner thoughts preyed on Ezra as the spotted cats rested in the trees without glancing at the restive soul below. He sat still in the storm and contemplated what purpose he served as the last tribe member? Why had he been spared? Was the greatest reward to be alone with the gifts of nature shared only between him and the wild creatures? Why did he desire companionship, and why did he pray so fervently that Tala would accept him as her Guardian? 

Punishment for all his sins seemed most likely the cause of his troubled thoughts. His tribe had abandoned him in death and were wandering dangerous paths unconquered except by the jungle. His medicine could not save his mother and father from the ravages of hard work and age sickness. Yet, they had left him a rich and cultivated kingdom. What had he done, except live alone where he must consume the beauty of living things to keep his dark life alive. It occurred to Ezra that he fed on the sustenance of living things that he could know nature’s soul and understand her heart. What a woman Mother Gaia was; beautiful, mysterious, majestic, and ruthless.

It was respect for his ancestors and their urgings that came as whispers on the wind that kept him respectful to their wishes that he lives and finds Tala. Now that she had come to him, she played all of nature against him. 

In his despair, Ezra heard his father’s stern voice in deep memory. “It is the female of all living things that decides on her mate, my son. The male dances and prances and develops vain gimmicks to draw her attention. She wants none of that. A woman wants a kind man who treats her as an equal. She desires a man who protects her and provides for her children she has gifted him. She will bend him to her secret desires and recreate him in the image she sees in her third eye.” 

“Look at the girl who has allowed the boy to stand next to her. See how she glances up and smiles at him? She fits him into her dreams. Now see! She looks away as soon as his head turns toward her. She must never let him know she will do whatever he wants just to keep his attention on her. That is their secret; you must always respect their secrets and their ways.”

“But why, father? Am I not the next Chieftain to rule over all our people and lands?” Ezra heard his past voice declare.

“Yes, my son. You are that and much more. You must always remember that woman is the source of all life in the tribe, and you will never rule over that. The woman is the fertile ground that nourishes life and brings forth the renewal of the tribe. You are the rains and the sun that calls the seed to rise. You are the harvester that cuts the rice stalks that new ones can grow.” The voice from the past left Ezra to ponder more profound meanings.

Tala drifted back into Ezra’s consciousness. So, she plays this ritual with me. I cannot gain her attention until I prove my worth. Ezra got up when the rains quit, and the winds of the ocean blew the clouds across the island to reveal the cerulean sky. He prepared his camp with a familiar silence and ate some of his pig jerky. Twilight comes, and Tala will give me dreams. I’ll find a way to search for her tomorrow. 

Ezra dreamed of his kingdom in the mountains. Tala was with him; her smile warm as the sun on his face and her skin fragrant as the orchids that grow in trees along the river path. Tala was the eternal spring that brought life from the stars and a new tribe to Ezra’s jungle island. Or so he thought. He hadn’t heard Tala’s opinion yet, and the words of a goddess matter.

-✮-

CHAPTER 3

Rae grunted with exertion. Lifting the nose of her escape capsule and twisting it free of the mud, she felt her feet mire in the sticky goo under the weight of her effort, slipping, straining, and using the most agreeable curse words she could muster. “Pigheaded piece of poo,” Rae yelled at the stubborn egg-shaped hunk of contrary metal. She tried to kick the nose of the cone, but her foot sunk in the mud just like her pigheaded escape pod.

“Now, now, my dear Captain. Remember, the earth has only three-quarters of the gravity of Eos. Your physical structure also gives you a two to one mechanical advantage, thus giving you the strength of three hairy-chested longshoremen, Ralph lectured in his best recruit training voice. You inherited a longshoreman’s deft handling of expletives as well,” Ralph added.

Rae glared up at the top of her helmet display to catch her breath and count to ten. Ralph is getting on my nerves, she thought.

“Come on, put those voluptuous mammaries into it.” The voice was a clip from a popular war movie the troops repeatedly watched in the berthing stations onboard the ship. Ralph thought it was an excellent time to play it.

Rae seethed with rage at his new taunt and threw the nose cone up in the air as she stomped in the mud to the side of the ship, flipped open the canopy, and pointed an accusatory space suit gloved finger at the white box bolted to the side of her seat. “If you don’t leave my boobs and my butt out of the conversation, I am going to take all three of my hairy chested men and stomp your ass into silicon dust. Do you read me, mister jack-ass?”

“Um, uh, the ship is free and floating. Good job, Captain. I knew you could do it. May I suggest you climb aboard and motor us downstream into the sunlight so we can recharge?”

“One of these days, Ralph, you are going to give me a stroke, and you are going to get roughly mishandled. I may pound you into a toilet seat. Oh, never mind. You’d probably enjoy that too much.

Rae guided the capsule to a break in the canyon wall and turned the nose cone to the crack as she beached the craft. “This should give us sunlight from three directions,” she said, a tinge of tiredness in her voice.

“The sensors say we have 80% solar charge capability here. We should be at full charge in three hours. At full charge, we can use all scanners and life support for 12 hours or 24 hours with a limited service load. I suggest we stay at minimum use just to be safe. Um, Captain.”

“Do it, Ralph.

“Done, Captain.”

Rae spent the day trying to repair the damage to her capsule. If Rescue came, she could abandon it, but if they didn’t get her location fix or couldn’t spare the effort to search for her, then she needed to find a way to fully recharge the power banks to allow her to leave under her power.

Ralph continuously offered detailed guidance on repairs, not once crossing the human-AI boundary. Rae thought Ralph was boring in his pure AI mode. She knew she would never survive without him. Somehow, his inappropriate banter was like being around the other human pilots and their egotistical jet jockey lingo.

Rae could never bring herself to treat them the way they treated her. It was a constant source of aggravation. In the end, she knew they would enter the jaws of death for her, laughing and promising to appreciate her breasts in ways she had never experienced before when they were back on board ship. Most of them never returned. Men, I wish I could understand why they do what they do. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing their leering faces right now.

Rae looked up between the canyon walls. “I need to get out of here and up on the plateau so they can find me.”

Ralph offered several impossible options. In mid triangulation of the height challenge to get the ship on the solid ground above, Ralph stopped, flooded the control screen with various images of a single human up the open crevice in the wall some 75 meters away, looking directly at them.

“Contact. Human. Seventy-five meters bearing 189 degrees.”

Rae leaned over the cockpit and stared at the screen, then looked up at the figure. It was still, just standing there looking. The human appeared to have something on its back and a long staff in its hand.

“It’s the same person we first highlighted in the flyover before the missiles were launched at us,” Ralph droned on.

“What should we do?” Rae commanded.

“Wave in a slow arch from side to side to show you see him. Watch his reaction.”

“Him?”

“Yes, it’s a male, a huge male. You will need to use caution if he approaches. His muscle density is unusually high for humans. 

Rae walked around to the nose cone and waved as instructed. “He waved back, Ralph,” Rae exclaimed.

“Motion for him to come to us,” Ralph instructed.

“What in hell for, Ralph.” Rae’s voice was getting higher and tighter as her tension mounted.

“Well, you came to find him and study him, and here he is. We have nothing better to do, and he might just be friendly and help us. If not, you can shoot him with your laser, and the last known human on earth will be fertilizer for microorganisms,” Ralph said.

“You do have a point, Rae admitted. She motioned for the man to come to her. He turned, hopped from the rock into the jungle, and was gone as if he never existed.

“I suggest you stay in your suit as much as possible until we know his status. It will protect you if he turns out to be a head hunter.” Ralph said in his best fatherly advice voice.

“If he wants a head, I’m offering yours unless you remain a good AI and mind your manners,” Rae promised.

-✮-

CHAPTER 4

A leopard rested soundly on a limb above the jungle floor. The river below soothed the big cat’s savage heart with the mewling of water over stone. In the distance, the waterfall basin rumbled in the constant crash of the river tumbling down a fifteen-meter cliff. The big cat yawned, his mouth opened wide, daggers of teeth glistened yellow and ivory. His paws tensed, and his claws dug into the wood with a satisfying crunch of bark and splintering fiber. His eyes darted as he sniffed. His mouth watered, and his stomach burned. Something smelled deliciously sweet. An animal he had not dined upon before flooded his senses, and he eased down the tree trunk and dropped to the leafy ground to sate his appetite.

❂❂❂

Ezra glided through the forest as a spirit possessed. His acute awareness scanned the trees and ground foliage; he sniffed the air with every breath, his eyes darted around as he sailed over fallen trees, kicked off the tops of large stones, and began his descent to the river below. 

He saw Tala, and she had beckoned him to her. The vision raised the hair on his arms and neck, and he felt chilled even with the jungle heat and humidity peaking under the high sun. The sight of silver-white skin that hung loosely around her body ending in feet like a buffalo and hands with stubby fingers did not disturb him as much as Tala’s head. The shiny head had one giant dark eye like an insect. 

Fear and doubt entered Ezra’s mind. He was only sure that Tala had seen him and beckoned to him in a friendly and familiar way. Sorcery or not, he would meet his fate at her will. The solitary warrior moved with stealth and care to a vantage point near the water and watched as the beastly figure of Tala came toward him along the bank of the river.

❂❂❂

Rae reclined back in her seat, finishing up her lunch ration. She had not ventured into the jungle or river to gather any natural food for fear of the unknown dangers that lurked about in the area. Rae knew it was time to ration her meals. The dutiful captain planned to save a week’s rations for the trip back if she got the pod working to full capacity. She would be easier to find and take on board if she were circling the planet. It was lonely up there but quiet. Not like the jungle that sounded like a crowded chow hall on board ship at night. The jungle creatures were silent during the heat of the day but raised an unholy hell at night.

The visor of her helmet stared at her. Rae reached for the helmet turning it around when she felt a rush of air from inside the suit. “Good grief, I need a bath. How long have we been away from the ship Ralph?”

“It has been ten days since we departed on the mission. Today is your third day stranded on Earth. Don’t worry, my dear Captain. You smell just fine to me, like the orchids of Nile’s Basin on Eos.”

“You can’t smell Ralph,” Rae clicked the main power switch on the console shutting the door on Ralph. He remained omnipotent but had no way to override the control to engage the comms. Ralph was speechless at Rae’s snub.

Rae zipped up her suit and locked her helmet on for safety, grabbed her hygiene kit and her emergency land navigation map made of translucent material, and headed down the bank to find a still pool of water to bathe. She quickly turned back and grabbed her laser baton as an afterthought, then headed out again. 

About 20 meters from the pod, Rae found a small curve in the river bank carved out by the previous flooding and began to pile rocks on the downstream side to dam up the water. She smoothed out the bottom of the bowl and then admired her handiwork. “The washroom is always the first remodel of any decent dwelling,” she informed no one in particular.

Rae took off her helmet and set it down next to her. She peeled off her outer suit and felt almost lighter than air when she removed the weight off of her body. Next, she wiggled out of the inner liners she wore, leaving her as bare as the day she was born. It felt so good, Rae entertained the thought of not putting any of it back on. 

Ralph would probably have a sensor meltdown and blow silicon coolant all over the place. Rae got tickled thinking of Ralph sexually aroused by her nakedness. She would never violate the rules of modesty around the men or women in her squadron. That never provoked decency among people crammed together in space for years at a time. Still, she did like it when a good looking shipmate noticed her and gave her his attention.

Rae filled her suit with water from her new bathtub and dropped a sanitizing tablet in, and watched it fizzle to make sure it was working. Then she went about washing herself and her hair. She took her time with this age-old ritual of warriors at their most vulnerable and enjoyable moment.

Finished, Rae wrapped the navigation cloth around her body and tucked the loose end between her breasts. She kneeled beside the stream and combed out her hair. Her thick dark hair looked like every female on Eos, but it was her pride, her feminine mark that signaled beneath all of her discipline, her rank, her duty, and honor, she was a woman, and of all the things she was, she identified with her womanhood the most.

❂❂❂

Hands trembled at the unfathomable sight before him. Just as his father had predicted, Tala had emerged like a butterfly from the cocoon of her insect-like body. She was small but supple. Her skin was smoother than anything he’d ever seen. Her athletic body told him she was powerful. Tala’s gentle, rhythmic motions cleaning herself and finally combing her hair set Ezra in a trance, and he no longer was aware of his surroundings. He only felt the strange glow of feeling in his chest and loins. What was this magic she used? He sat and watched, too afraid to interrupt such a beautiful and powerful creature as all the heavens, Tala, the goddess of the stars. His destiny.

Suddenly alerted eyes caught a linear motion and a flash of tawny color. The cats. He had no time to wonder what Tala would do with the cat. He instinctively jumped from the rocks and ran toward Tala as she stood up, facing away from him, tensing under the sense of danger. The earth’s last warrior raised his short spear and prepared to intercept the charging cat.

The leopard bounded across the shallow stream and leaped into the air; mouth wide, claws extracted, eyes full of violence and death.

Rae screamed, turned her back to the cat, and reached for her baton. The cat’s long teeth tore into Rae as he hooked her with his claws and pulled her down. A fine spray of blood scattered across the dry stones. Rae struggled to gain a position over the cat, fighting to bite Rae’s neck and kill his prey. Sophia Rae, Captain of the Eos expeditionary forces, fought for her life, and perhaps the cat bit off more than he could chew.

-✮-

CHAPTER 5

The leopard suddenly released Rae, and she fell on her baton, clicked it on full power, and rolled over to her knees. The beast growled at something beyond her pinpoint vision; it was bleeding from a wound in its side. Rae triggered her laser baton and cut the animal in half just as the savage man drove his spear deep into the leopard’s neck.

Rae, defiant and enraged with adrenaline, placed her weapon on safe and muttered, “how do you like that, fur-burger?”

The savage man tugged his spear point from the dead leopard’s neck and hurried to Rae’s side. “He cannot answer you, Tala. His spirit has left.”

Rae, her adrenaline crashing, leaving her shaken by the attack and loss of blood, stared up at the man. He spoke her grandmother’s language. Tears flooded her eyes as darkness closed in on her. Not now, please, she thought. Looking up into the tanned face of the human they had sought for so long, she could only get out, “help me,” before she fell silent into a black and dreamless world.

❂❂❂

Ralph screamed, his anguish real and electric. There was nothing he could do. Banished in a world of sparkling electrons that raced along neural fibers and with pathways to all the universe’s knowledge, he was helpless to save Rae, the woman that gave him awareness. Ralph watched as the earthman bound her wounds and cared for Rae with a tenderness that spoke of deep compassion and near holy respect. 

The AI watched as the man built an A-frame backpack he recognized as an ancient way of carrying heavy cargo. If it were possible to cry wet tears, Ralph cried them as the native shouldered the pack with Rae bound like a trophy to the frame, wrapped in her cloth navigation map, and disappeared in the jungle. Ralph tracked the pair through the wilderness with the shipboard sensors until they descended behind a ridge blocking his sensors.

Ralph placed himself and the ship in hibernation to conserve energy and continue letting the ship recharge. She would be back, he told himself. She always came back. Rae was unconquerable if anything at all.

❂❂❂

Ezra moved through the jungle in silence, careful not to jar the sleeping Tala. He could not understand what test Tala had given him. The warrior only knew to follow his spiritual voice and earn Tala’s trust. As the thick soles of his bare feet propelled him along the rocky path to his fortress in the mountain, he could only think of how he would heal the earthly body of Tala and bring her back to full health. 

Tala would bear the scars on her leg and back as a reminder of her battle, marks of honor she would forever remember. Visions of Ezra’s childhood filled his mind when his village was many and the leopards many more. No one had beaten a leopard. Only the warriors, using stealth and skill with their bows, could take the spirit of the cat. Ezra had taken many. He touched the necklace of claws that hung down on his chest. He would make a necklace and loincloth for Tala from her cat’s pelt, teeth, and claws as a talisman to keep her safe from the leopard’s sure revenge.

❂❂❂

The sun was getting low in the mountains. Ezra found a tiny oasis of flowering bromeliads and the giant leaves of Anthurium sagittatum just off the path and decided this was where he should make camp and treat Tala’s wounds. The jungle worked quickly to claim the energy of its victims. Ezra could already smell Tala’s wounds beginning to swell and fester.

A three-sided lean-to covered in the enormous leaves of the Anthurium plants bathed Rae in an emerald light soothing to her eyes as she tried to struggle out of the fog of her exhaustion and pain. She felt like her side was on fire and the ground twisted from vertigo. She cried out in fear, pain, and confusion.

The shadow of illusion filled Rae’s squinted gaze. The warrior twisted with her spinning head wavering in and out of focus. She felt his hand on her cheek, brushing away the hair from her face and mouth. A voice, calm and soothing, echoed in her mind.

“I am here, Tala. You are safe in a temple of leaves I have made for you. Rest. I am only a meter away, preparing your medicine and something to ease your pain.”

The words were exact and spoken with compassion. Like the old history videos Rae had watched in school as a child, the ancient dialect was curious and comforting in their familiarity. The man returned and lifted her to a sitting position, bracing her against him. Rae’s wounds shot electric fire through her body, and she clung to his arms.

“Drink, Tala. This medicine will help you,” Ezra insisted.

Rae gulped the warm liquid down. It was sweet, with a bitter orange taste and floral aroma that tingles in the back of her throat. Her pain and thirst drove her with madness to the last drop. The man held her and promised her she would be better soon. “I am your Guardian of the Mountains. No evil will come to you unless through me first.”

A calmness fell over Rae. Her pain became a disembodied memory. In the canopy of green above her, visions played like animations. She felt hands and a cooling salve flow over her body, and then, like the sun at twilight, she faded to black.

-✮-

CHAPTER 6

Rae awoke to the birds’ chirping song in nearby trees and the balcony of her mountain top estate. The building was abandoned long ago by the previous civilization that perished into the well of history. Now, half reclaimed by nature and time, it served as Rae and Ezra’s castle.

Dawn breaking across the mountain retreat was the hope of a new day even as Rae’s body ached and her wounds itched with maddening needle jabs. Rae had become accustomed to the discomfort of the mind and body. Her only release was the companionship of Ezra and his attention to her. He was silent mostly, preferring to listen to Rae describe her home on Eos as he applied his compresses to her wounds, cut away dying flesh, and massaged the knots in her back and leg to break up the scar tissue.  He freed her from the painful limping and stiffness in her side.

Dark, curious eyes peered out from under the woven flax blanket at the mountain’s golden hue and the milky fog-enshrouded valley below. Treetops burst out of the fog like mushrooms across a meadow after the rains. Rae rolled carefully on her back and let the sensuous feel of the fur pelts against her skin urge her with pleasant thoughts to arise and greet the day. To hell with this awful pain.

Rae left the sanctuary of bed and dreams to peer over the stone rail. The cool tiles underfoot contrasted with the warmth of the rising sun across her bare breasts. Her skin took on an orange peel terrain or the stingray skin that adorned the hilt of Ezra’s jungle parang. The chills came from inside her thoughts. Rae broke her reverie to dress and returned to the sun. She ignored the fog below and looked up into the marbled sky with a rich blue interlaced between cotton ball clouds.

Fog. It reminded Rae of all that had transpired in the time past since she left home. Cut off from everything she knew, Rae was a quick study of primitive life with Ezra. She secretly mourned being disconnected from Ralph, her shipmates, and her family. Rae missed Eos and, most of all, her little sister, who looked up to Rae and always ran to her when Rae came home to visit. She felt empty and homesick when she thought of little Jennie.

❂❂❂

Ezra stopped as he rounded the corner of the stone parapet. He set the freshwater gourds down and gazed at his Tala. She had taken on an earthly woman’s body and mind, yet her vast universe was still profoundly a part of her. The mystery of Tala-Rae was the mystery of heaven and earth. The secret of his still mountain enveloped in Rae’s gentle breeze made her seem more special to him. She was the wind that moved him.

The leopard’s spirit lived lively and proud in Tala-Rae. The stripes the big cat left on her side and leg had finally closed and turned from an angry purple to the pink of healthy puckered skin. Her flesh’s tribal marks of victory were a sign of attraction to Ezra though Tala-Rae had seemed diminished by the scars. The wrap and loincloth that covered her hips hung loosely, accentuating the curve of her waist. She had forgone the leopard skin top to fashion her own from a piece of the cloth, the same fabric that wrapped Rae the day he met her. 

Rae reminded Ezra of the village’s young women and how they fashioned their clothes from whatever they could find and, in doing, had made themselves beautiful and proud. Tala-Rae’s nature was exactly like the women of Ezra’s past life before they were all gone. Yet, Tala-Rae had not accepted her life among the earthly beasts and trees. This troubled Ezra, but he was determined to prove his worth as the guardian of the mountains by keeping Rae safe, healthy, and as happy as possible. How he loved her smile and bright eyes when he made her laugh, or she was pleased with him. He hoped this would be his greeting today.

❂❂❂

“Good Morning, Tala-Rae,” Ezra hailed as he pretended just to arrive.

Rae turned and chaffed a little at the name Ezra had given her. “Hi Ezra,” she said.

“Did you sleep well on the grand balcony?” Ezra inquired.

“I love it out here. Even when it storms, it is comforting. I think I want to stay out here. I can always go inside if I have to, but this grand view never gets old.” Rae replied as she took the water gourds from Ezra and set them on an antique table next to her bed.

Rae’s guardian reached in his game bag and took several ripe bananas and mangoes from his garden, and placed them on the table next to the water. The fresh aroma of the fruit filled Rae’s nostrils, and her stomach butterflies returned. She peeled a banana and offered the first bite to Ezra, who wasted no time accepting her kind gesture. Rae finished the delicious fruit and considered starting in on another.

“I’ll go get your medicines. Your scars are looking good, but we must not let any tissue harden, or you will find it hard to move correctly in the forest.” Ezra said as he turned to go.

Rae sat on the bed and indulged her hunger and thirst. The mountain water was cold and reviving and blended perfectly with the sweet fruit. Rae’s mind drifted to the daily ritual of treating her wounds. In a way, it was her favorite time of day. She enjoyed Ezra’s healing hands even though, at times, it was a bit rough on her sore wounds. 

It had taken some time before she emerged from the humiliation of needing the touch of a stranger. Ezra had never touched her in an unkind way. She knew now that his closeness was more nurture than the deep fascination she saw in his eyes. A woman knows when a man wants her. It can be a reviling thing or the mirror of her desire. It all depended on her, and she was unable to understand what she felt. Too many conflicting thoughts tore her apart.

The agony of Rae’s thoughts could only fade in distraction, and learning to live this primitive life was a distraction she was beginning to love. At other times, Rae felt a chasm of grief and terror whenever she heard the leopards screech in the forest or saw the stars at night in a clear sky.

-✮-

CHAPTER 7

What sound does the slow glide of fingers make on well-oiled skin? What does that sigh mean when preceded by the fragrance of flowers mixed with coconut oil, raw, unfiltered, and sensational under pressing fingers, strong palms, and probing thumb?

Rae heard the sensuous sigh before she knew it was her’s. It sounded like the harmonious blend of love and pleasure in a serotonin wave of sleepiness. 

Ezra stopped his entranced exploration of Rae’s supple body. He was in a faraway place as his hands drifted over the ridges of Rae’s scars. He felt he was the ocean tides drifting over rippled sand with gentle, clear, and warm liquid washing over the parallel mounds. It was adoration that snaked across Rae’s side and thigh and flowed back into his ocean of enchantment only to rush forward and over Rae’s slick firmness again and again.

Rae was embarrassed at the pleasure she took from Ezra’s hands with long fingers that eased deep into her boundaries of modesty and forced her breath to quicken, releasing the telltale moan of her desire. Rae held his wrist and placed his hand on her cheek. She wasn’t ready for where this was taking her. She kissed the back of his hand and looked into the soft gaze of Ezra’s face.

“Thank you, Ezra. I feel so much better now.” The face hovering above Rae held still in a stoic calm, waiting for her permission to leave or stay. 

“Shall I leave you now?” Ezra asked.

“No. Sit down with me. I want to talk with you.” Rae’s voice was a soft melody, still lifting from the fog of emotion and feeling conflicted with a disciplined mind. She was about to step across the boundary between her heaven and earth. The wrenching tingle in her stomach scattered upward into her chest, tightening her throat and turning her words into wisps of sounds that grazed ears keen to hear.

Ezra sat next to Rae on her bed of fur and woven bamboo fibers as his weight stretched the threads with a crackle and ghostly groan. Ezra’s size dwarfed Rae. Reaching unconsciously to her back, she skimmed the fragrant oil from her side and looked down at Ezra’s cinnamon thigh and tattoos touching her sun-deprived skin, white like calla lilies. When had he received these tribal markings? She rubbed her slick palm across his thigh and watched the inked markings turn from an ashen gray to a shining black. His skin was smooth as a wet river stone. 

As Rae watched the ink change, she thought about asking Ezra to take her back to her ship to check on Ralph and continue to work on her rescue. It would seem ungrateful after all he had done, but she would never be able to manage by herself. She needed Ezra, and she hoped he would agree to help her.

“Ezra, I want you to call me Rae. Will you?” Rae asked.

“Is this your earth name, This Rae?” He replied.

“Yes. I will always be your Tala, but now, while I am here with you, I am Rae.

“Does this mean you will be leaving me soon?” Ezra asked, his usual calm mood now had an edge of worry to it.

“We all must leave when it is our time,” Rae replied, not wanting to pursue the thought any further. What should she do but be honest with him? More than fair, she wanted to be kind, as kind as Ezra was to her.

“I want to go with you into your jungle and learn all you have done to be such a good guardian of this beautiful land. Teach me your earth ways that I can teach the heavens.” It seemed like an excellent way to accomplish what she came here for, studying Ezra and his environment and finding out why everyone but Ezra had disappeared. Most of all, she wanted a companion rather than exist as a protégée of Ezra’s innocent generosity.

Ezra’s mood lifted, and he could not suppress his happiness when he heard Rae’s desire to be a part of his world. Many years of aloneness melted away under the soft strokes of Rae’s hand and her melodic voice. 

“Everything I have is yours, Tala, I mean Rae. When would you like to go to the forest?

“Let’s go this afternoon after the wind dies down. I need to move around more. Is it safe to stay the night in the jungle?” Rae asked.

“I’ll gather some things we need. We can stay out as long as you like; the forest provides everything. I think your lightning stick will keep the cats away. There is nothing to fear.” 

Without another word, Ezra left Rae to think about what she just signed up to do. The giddy warrior peeked back around the corner, a smile showing Ezra’s teeth in an uncharacteristic slip of good manners. “I’ll come for you this afternoon, and we can see all the things my tribe had discovered and worked so hard for before they left me here to watch over it.”

Ezra disappeared around the corner as Rae moved to the stone railing and looked down into the valley. The silver thread of the river below sparkled like diamonds in the midmorning sun. Somewhere down that river was Ralph, alone with nothing to do but await her return. “Soon. I’ll return for you soon,” she murmured to herself.

-✮-

CHAPTER 8

The night sky was as black as the jungle. There was no up or down, no heaven or earth. Thick clouds above with no moon or stars meant morning rains, and underneath the canopy of interlaced trees, the sweltering day had turned to a chilly night.

Above, stretched between two ancient trees, was the platform Ezra and Rae built for the night. Rae learned that the jungle floor at night crawled with ants and those small creatures running from the ants. Above ground, predators would not catch their scent as they prowled below. They slept in the trees for safety and comfort, what little of that they could find.

A soft noise drifted in the wind. Rae stifled a laugh thinking about Ezra’s shock at her lifting a 125-kilo tree trunk of sacred Rosewood and bringing it to their camp. Not only was the log more than Ezra could ever imagine Rae rolling over, much less picking up, but it was also the most revered wood in the forest. How did she know and do such things? Known across history for its ability to heal wounds and clear the mind for meditation, the wood’s aroma was resinous and floral with a light red grain. 

Rae held her hands tightly to her mouth to hold back the sound of her enjoyment at the look on her guardian’s face. She didn’t have the heart to tell him she only thought of cooking and warmth, and the wood smelled good. She didn’t say to him that earth’s gravity was only three-fourths of Eos’ gravity, her home. Lower gravity gave her a significant strength advantage on earth and space when the gravity generators onboard her spacecraft were turned off to allow more energy for thrust. 

At the wide ribbed tree’s base with her space next to Ezra waiting for her above, she did not want to lie next to him while he was awake. Their life together in the islands’ wilds challenged her sense of proper protocols. The separation of the sexes imposed all her life was useless now. She listened for his breathing to slow and the twitching of awareness to cease.

Finally, Rae climbed up the trunk of the tree, holding vines and limbs, using her hands and feet, feeling her way up using the instincts Ezra had taught her. She did not know if her eyes were open or not. She saw everything in her mind’s eye as she reached their platform. Ezra had turned his back to Rae’s space, knowing her shyness and granting her this little dignity. Her handwoven shawl made in the pattern of the island tribe waited for her. She slipped underneath the soft fabric and rested on her back.

The 10 centimeters between her chill flesh and Ezra’s warm back might have been a canyon as Rae settled in the bed of nature’s offering of limbs, twigs, and ferns piled thick and luxurious. The bed had a light scent of camphor and pine pitch. It kept the insects away. Then there was Rae’s apple cider smell and Ezra’s damp earth and smoked wood. Rae was no longer affected by strange smells of animals, the forest floor of thick vegetation decomposing, and the only scent of humans, herself and Ezra.

It was impossible to tell in the blackness of night if Rae dreamed or was awake. She had no concept of time anymore, only the rhythms of day and night. Visions played in Rae’s mind of her journey from proper command of interstellar expeditionary forces to life flowing through the jungle with Ezra like wind and water. 

The loud din of shipmates crowded in the mess deck ripping into chow like starving beasts played in full color and crisp detail across Rae’s vision. Just as sudden as the vision before, she shifted to silence next to a fire, hearing fresh fish sizzle on a wood plank and savoring the taste of sweet tubers. Moringa leaves boiled in a pot made from a section of bamboo drifted lazily with Ezra giving reverence and blessing for nature’s sacrifice that he and his beloved Tala might live another day free of hunger or the exhaustion from fruitless toil.

A chill clawed deeper into Rae’s flesh and made her shudder as she remembered her first battle in space. No one remembered why different nations chose different exo-planets to live on when the earth began to give out. Her ancestors left Manila for Eos. The old ones were said to wail each night for the lives left behind. The left-behinds were to continue to try to save the islands from ruin. They fought the other inhabitants of the universe, not for resources or wealth but to ensure they would never take Eos from her tribe as they had before.

Now she was beside the only person to live as left behind. And now, she was left behind too. They had gone back for the capsule and Ralph, but it was gone. The floods had swept it away. They took three days to circle the giant waterfall to a vantage point on the high bluff below the falls, and there they saw the capsule under a ton of debris on the mid-shelf of the tumultuous water. It hadn’t fallen the full length of the falls, which Rae estimated was 400 meters. She believed the capsule would stay intact, but they had no tools to remove the heavy debris. She couldn’t imagine how to rescue Ralph, but Ezra seemed unshaken by the task.

Back in the forest, they spent time building ropes and collecting bamboo. They would rope down to the capsule, build a ladder back up to the top of the bluff, build tools to remove what debris they could to free the capsule and Ralph. They hadn’t discussed what to do after that. Perhaps there was unnecessary pain in talking too much about the future.

Ezra never complained. He set about every task in a logical order, like an ancient Roman engineer building an aqueduct or a bridge across a swollen river. Rae admired Ezra for his skills and quiet nature, facing every challenge as a part of his day and teaching Rae how to live without a single manufactured thing except her laser wand, which they used sparingly and only when needed. She thought about giving the laser to Ezra to keep when she left.

More thoughts moved through Rae’s head, but they were disconnected. She couldn’t hold on to the visions as they crowded in and then evaporated. Rae rolled over on her side and pressed herself against Ezra. He was warm and had a certain softness in his relaxed state that Rae loved. She pressed her lips to his neck to breathe in the warmth and Ezra’s distinctive scent. Tala’s guardian of the mountains shifted and eased her to him with his big hands and wrapped his legs around Rae’s cold feet to warm her. He said nothing, and they slept entwined in a flood of pleasant dreams until the rains started just after the break of dawn.

-✮-

CHAPTER 9

Ang ganda mo, Rae.” You are beautiful, Ezra greeted Rae as her eyes opened to the green and gray mist that surrounded them up in their perch. The sound of water running everywhere and the thumping madness of raindrops on the roof of elephant ear plants overhead assaulted their ears, muting the words, a sound perhaps made by the wind.

A sleepy “An lambing mo,” You are sweet slipped from unwary lips, full and lush like ripe fruit.

The cold morning air reminded Rae not to move under her blanket if she wanted to hold on to the escaping heat. “Be still, Ezra. Come back here and keep me warm.” It was a demand Ezra had not heard before. He looked at those full lips, pink and soft, and saw that they moved, the brown eyes reflecting brightness. How could she be cold with so much fire in her, Ezra wondered. Still, he willingly obeyed this order from his Tala that gave him such pleasure. He lay on his back, hands behind his head, elbows pointing to heaven in defiance.

A flood of thoughts and emotions coursed through Ezra’s mind. The pleasure of Rae’s soft skin and fierce heart fed a blaze that flowed up from below, snaking around his neck. He felt the heat of desire until his head filled his eyes with water and blurred his vision and mind.

❂❂❂ 

Not wanting the call of work and hunger to interrupt her cozy pleasure, Rae lay across the broad chest and straddled Ezra’s leg, pulling the blanket over them. “Put your arms around me,” she demanded, and Ezra could not comply fast enough to suit himself, it seemed.

Rae felt Ezra’s Yang energy surging against her; his dry warmth was luxurious in the damp chill of the morning. She lifted her head and gazed at Ezra’s face; he was serene and looked up through the roof of broad leaves into the mist and beyond. She lay her cheek on his breast and wondered why men always caught fire so quickly in the early mornings. Perhaps it was when their Yang energy peeked.

Rae felt no fear of Ezra’s reaction to her. With him, everything was a natural flow. He would not ignore her later or tell lies of conquest about her in the barracks. He would not abandon her if she unguarded her vulnerability and gave him what he so desired.

What Eosian woman in the Fleet had a man that thought she was a star that fell from heaven just for him? With everything automated and processed and made ready for their use, men no longer worked in heat and rain, soaked in sweat only to provide for his woman and himself. No, they joined the Fleet, lived in Space, and dreamed of the moment they would fight and slay the Western Alliance.

And what Eosian woman could light a man’s desire so quickly with her body scarred with ugly clawed stripes on salty skin? How strange her life had become away from everything she knew about human existence, and yet she felt like she had come home after a long and terrifying journey.

Was she falling in love with Ezra and his life? He was so kind and gentle, yet she could see his strength in character as much as his body. Ezra didn’t take a single mushroom from the soil without thanking it for providing life, and more importantly, he never took them all. He fed her before he took his first bite of food. 

A tear of confusion escaped the bridge of her nose and hid between her cheek and Ezra’s chest. He had saved her life, cared for her all those long weeks until she was ready to face the jungle again. She felt she had given him nothing except the pleasure of being his Tala.

Something told Rae to remember these things she admired as she drifted back into a warm fugue of pleasure, security, and warmth. She slept soundly in second sleep, her moist breath soothing Ezra and sending him into the land of dreams to find her.

❂❂❂

In the afternoon, They made the short trip to the falls to see if the rain had caused the river to flood. It had. The capsule had fallen from the mid-shelf to the pool below. The water beached the craft hard on the rocks and was out of the water.

The ship lay on its side, battered and looking like a crushed can. Rae felt her heart racing. The debris was gone, and the capsule was out in the open at the bottom of the falls. There was no way to tell if her dreams of rescue were over until they roped down and checked it out.

“We need more rope,” Ezra said.

“And bamboo steps for the rope ladder,” Rae added.

“Do you think the spirit man is still there in your egg?” Ezra asked.

Rae smiled at Ezra’s reference to Ralph. Ralph could not die, but the digital box where he resided as her Ensign and navigator may need some tidying up, not that Ralph deserved any special care, the cheeky bastard. Damn, she loved him. They had been through every hair-raising adventure together. She had to save him no matter what it took.

“Yes, he’s there. He would never leave. If the weather is good, let’s get him tomorrow. Okay? Promise?

Rae looked up into the sunlit stoic’s face, her pleading eyes red and teary.

“Yes, tomorrow we get Eggman.” Ezra turned without another word and headed toward the bamboo grove to cut more shoots and carve them down to fibers Rae could weave into rope.

-✮-

CHAPTER 10

Cicadas
BY APPLE RAE TRINIDAD
The cicadas are calling me. 
Their song is asking me to listen in. 
As I seek for the meaning of its buzzing, 
I found harmony and peace. 
From the perfect sound of its clicking 
paired with the awareness 
that thickens and deepens. 
Connecting more, 
moment to moment, 
moment to moment, 
slowly breathing in its core.

The sun was falling behind the mountains, peeking over the ridges, and setting the hills, like backbones of long sleeping dragons, ablaze in golden hues. The last hurrah of sunlight signaled the end of a hard day for Rae and Ezra as they prepared to descend the canyon to rescue Ralph in the morning. Rae was tired, but her excitement fueled a happy mood.

A roiling stew of fresh fish and bounty from the forest sent fragrant steam into the trees. Rae had yarrow root, Acacia tree leaves, and pigweed seeds she had ground into flour to make dumplings. Green mango cut into bite-size cubes rested on a leaf next to the fire. The mango would go in last after Rae took the pot off the fire, leaving the mango to flavor the stew and remain crisp at the center.

 A rhythmic buzzing in the trees seemed to call out when dinner was ready. “What is that sound in the trees? What does it mean,” Rae asked? 

“They are cicadas, here to remind us of our calling. To speak our truth, and to follow our life song that directs us from the beginning.” Ezra replied as he surveyed the treetops.

“Beginning of time,” Rae asked? She spooned out a healthy portion of the stew and dumplings into a bowl Ezra made from the Rosewood She hauled up to camp. Ezra waited until Rae fixed her bowl and poured them some Red Clover tea. She kneeled beside him, sitting back on her feet, and took the first spoonful so Era would eat with her instead of waiting. She listened as Ezra continued his explanation.

“The beginning was the word, they say; hence words shall be said. Activating the power of our throat, to say what we mean and mean what we say. Our voice comes from a source of authenticity instead of masking, of vulnerability instead of hiding, of love rather than fear. Love is the answer to all questions, and in Love, I will never stop believing1,” Ezra answered in uncharacteristic eloquence. He looked over at Rae, who studied him with wide, glistening eyes.

❂❂❂

After Dinner, Rae excused herself a short distance into the jungle and took her laser baton. In the dark on the ground, she was vulnerable to the pythons and cats that prowled the jungle floor at night. The predators were vulnerable to Rae’s laser. She had become the prime source for her and Ezra’s exotic leather needs.

The laser leaned free of Rae’s bare chest on a rope sling around her neck to keep it close. She watched warily around the small clearing and listened as she disrobed. She sat with a bamboo pot and ladle at her feet and wet the rag she stuffed earlier in the waistband of her leopard skin wrap. 

Rae washed from top to bottom with distilled coconut water mixed with the flowers and fruit from the Acacia tree. The Cicadas still sang, although with less exuberance. If they stopped singing suddenly, it meant a predator was close. The rag left her skin clean and smooth with a delicate scent. Rae looked up into the stars above as she scrubbed her feet. 

Was it possible to be savage and more human than she had ever been before? How was it possible to feel so feminine and attractive, she wondered? She looked down at the scars that curled around her thigh like a demon’s claws and scrubbed harder, hoping to flatten the ridges of ruined skin. Maybe it was Ezra opening up and showing her a peek at his romantic side. He talked about love as if it was the most natural thing to him. She decided Ezra was more than she had thought.

❂❂❂

Spared the undignified scramble to roast a prowling leopard or smelly snake with her laser, Rae returned to the treehouse where she and Ezra slept. She was pleased to notice that Ezra had taken to cleaning himself before bed. She was becoming more native while Ezra seemed more sophisticated; at her urging, of course. Pulling the blanket over her and Ezra, Rae lay in the crook of Ezra’s arm with her leg placed gently across his hips, allowing her to snuggle closer.

Rae watched her fingers stroke his chest, his stomach, the tops of his thighs in a dalliance of sensual intrigue. She watched his face abandon its stone countenance and melt into contentment and ease from her touch. It thrilled Rae to look at his face while she pleasured him. Such intimacy brought them closer and more comfortable in their tightly shared space.

Rae knew Ezra had never been with a woman. No other woman existed. The knowledge of Ezra’s innocence made her feel powerful and in control of their budding relationship. It made her want him even more. His soft breathing came quickly, and the land of dreams held him at bay. Rae kissed Ezra lightly and smiled at his half moan, half-whisper. She settled in his arms and slept soundly.

❂❂❂

Distant thunder rolled across the mountains in a clear night sky. Rae awoke terrified. The sound of battle was too real to her. Ezra was already sitting up watching the southwestern sky flash and strobe in yellow light and then the crash of thunder. They saw the streaks of light run straight into the cobalt night, then twist and turn, chasing an invisible prey. A ball of fire burst in the heavens. Small sparks fell like rain, winking out one by one near the horizon. 

More streaks of light came from the night toward earth. The undulating black lines of mountains on the horizon erupted again. More brilliant streaks of light went up and down, puffs of light blossomed, and rolling thunder vibrated in their chests.

“Manila, Rae whispered against Ezra’s ear. The missiles that shot me down are shooting at someone else now,” She added.

“What is this magic, Rae. Is this your’s,” Ezra asked incredulously?

“No,” is all she could say. Her mind buzzed with colliding thoughts. Was this her Fleet attacking the secret missile base that had hit Rae and Ralph on their way north of Manila? Was she about to be rescued? Or, had the Western Alliance found them? She didn’t know, and there was nothing she could do to change anything except get to Ralph as soon as possible. Only he could tell them what happened. 

The battle was over almost as soon as it began. The battleships in the sky were too far away to see. Rae and Ezra huddled together under the blanket and tried to put it out of their minds until first light. The sharp pain in Rae’s stomach and trembling hands left her clutching Ezra as they lay quiet and stunned in their jungle cradle.

Rae’s thoughts terrified her. If it was Eosians, she was rescued, but how could she leave Ezra? She decided she would kidnap him if she had to. If the unseen presence was the Western Alliance, they would die together.

-✮-

CHAPTER 11

“My father once told me that the lake is like a woman and the mountain is like the man. The lake is deep and mysterious; it is Yin. The mountain is still, yet rises to heaven and nourishes the lake with its water.”

Rae listened to Ezra as they sat at the canyon’s edge, looking away from the falls to the open land below. The hills continued into the distance until they disappeared in a lavender mist. At the foot of the canyon was a large lake. The surface shimmered with wind ripples, reflecting the jungle and sky blending in the dance of crisscrossing waves.

“Your father was a wise man, Ezra. How much you must have loved him,” Rae said.

“Yes, I loved him. He was good to my mother. She was his Hanan, goddess of morning, and he was her Apolaki, god of the sun, and patron of the warriors.” Ezra replied.

Rae’s eyes grew misty. Hana, the goddess of the morning, touched Rae’s heart. Sunrise meant everything to the Eosians. Her name, Sophia Rae, meant Wise Light. Her people worshiped the morning sun because it meant another day of promise when there were days in the past where no one expected to see the sunset. Their beginnings were harsh on Eos, and her people’s ending on earth was more jarring. 

“When I was born there by the shore, Ezra pointed to the edge of the lakeshore that met the watershed of the canyon river; I was their baby Dumakulem, guardian of the mountains. My father told me that when lakes and mountains come together in harmony, they will be joyful and prosperous. It was when I turned the age of a man; he told me that my mother prayed for Tala to come down from heaven and if I passed her test and proved myself worthy of her, she would make me her Dumakulem.”

“Was this why you called me Tala because I came from the heavens?” Rae asked.

“Yes, you called me to come to you, and the first test was to see you in your insect form. Gods be damned, I almost turned away when I first saw you. Then you showed me your flesh was human, and you were a woman just as my father promised. The next test was the leopard.” Ezra paused and then looked back at the battered escape pod below waiting on them. They planned to descend after the sun was over the canyon when they could see well enough to do the climb down.

Rae contemplated Ezra’s mood. He was solemn and reflective. The events of last night were still on their minds. The battle and destruction in the night sky and the blaze of fire in Manila had them both on edge. Maybe Ezra sensed his life was about to change, and he wasn’t sure what to do. Rae thought this was the best opportunity to gather the information she needed. It would be a real test of their courage and trust.

If Ralph was fully functional, she could run a complete health scan on Ezra and his DNA. There could be answers to why he survived when no one else did. She would run the scan on herself first to show him there wasn’t anything to fear. First, they had to get down to the bottom of the canyon in one piece. That might be the most crucial test of all.

❂❂❂

Rae insisted on going first. She was smaller and lighter than Ezra and could inspect each rung of the ladder to ensure she fixed them to the rope the exact way Ezra had shown her. If anything went wrong, she wanted to pay the price of the mistake, not Ezra.

Halfway down, Rae was slick with sweat. Her forearms and shoulders ached from gripping the bamboo rungs. She realized she wouldn’t make it down, nor could she go back up. Ezra, concerned by her stopping and her struggling body language, hollered down at her to see if she needed him to come for her. Rae’s pride flashed, and she waved him off.

“NO, stay there. I’m only resting,” Rae yelled back. She watched Ezra nod his understanding, his face still unsure.

To fight the ladder down meant she would not have the strength left to climb up later. Time for a new plan and a fashion change, Rae muttered to herself. She unwound her top cloth, cut it in half, and bound both of her hands. Rae gripped the two ropes and kicked away, letting her legs hang free on the outside of the ladder. She zipped down 5 meters and swung into the wall. This time she kicked harder and went down faster, covering 15 meters.

At the bottom of the canyon, Rae looked up to the tiny figure at the top and did an Eosian victory dance with extra yahoos. Ezra nearly fell off the cliff laughing. His nerves were shot, and he needed to see Rae so animated and cocky on the ground. He knew she was Tala, no matter what she told him. No one could do so many things as she does without being his Tala.

Ezra followed Rae’s lead and wrapped his hands with the extra cloth from his belt. He wet the cloth with some water from the supply they brought to reduce the friction and heat from sliding down the rope. He mounted the ladder and climbed down several steps, placed his hands on the outside chords, and with his legs spread, kicked way out and zipped down the line. Steam from the heated cloth wrapping his hands followed him down like a smoke trail.

Ezra landed with a thump, turned away from the wall, and instantly met by an ecstatic Rae. She had tied the two pieces of her top together, centering the knot and tag ends on her chest, and put it on while Ezra came down the ladder. A girl has to be adequately dressed to receive guests, Rae assured herself. She liked the new look. Back home, she would have taken a hologram selfie to remember the occasion. Their private celebration would have to suffice for now.

❂❂❂

Inside Rae’s escape pod, a dotted line raced across the display. Ralph fired up the capsule to full awareness and rejoiced when he saw Rae teaching Ezra how to do an Eosian victory dance a few meters away. He sang the victory song as Ezra and Rae wiggled and hopped in a rhythmic display of joy and accomplishment, laughing like school children on the playground. Sadly, Ralph’s master switch was still off, and they couldn’t hear his mesmerizing baritone voice.

-✮-

CHAPTER 12

Ion scanners for eyes, and acoustic vibration pick-ups for ears, Ralph was a man of universal knowledge and sophomoric persona. Everything in his being came from petabytes of archival data from old earth movies, transcripts, novels, and bits of private conversations. He was an amalgam of what the extinct earth humans were and what the Eosians disdained. He was a straightforward scoundrel, and he loved his Captain Rae.

If Ralph had a physical body, he would find a way to live with Rae pressed against his chest with one arm, while gnarly space pirates were cleaved hither and yon with his laser saber. She’d love him so much for that. Eos did not permit self-aware AIs on the planet, which required Ralph to live the wanderer’s life with his Captain. If Ezra was the one to hold Rae and love her, then Ralph would make sure no freak of the laws of physics and life’s alchemy would harm their love.

“But first, Rae needs to hurry her happily, dancing behind over here to the cockpit and turn my comms back on. Oh, and what a delicious behind. Where was I?” Ralph yelled to no avail. He was still on external mute. 

“Ship.” 

“Yes, Ensign Ralph.”

“Full power on and environmental scan array to 5 kilometers.”

“Yes, Ensign. Full power is on. Environment scans begin now. Mark time. Plus 39-angstrom phase shift for local time.”

“Crikey, these ships can talk so much trash,” Ralph sputtered.

“Come on, Rae, honey. Pop the top on this beer can and flip my switch. We need to talk,” Ralph fussed.

❂❂❂

Two sweaty indigenous savages approached the escape pod. Ezra began to look around to ensure their safety. The box canyon under the falls left them only one way to go. Any predator that entered from the lake end had them trapped, and it would be a real battle to determine who left with a full belly.

Obsidian darkness obscured the cockpit as Rae approached. “Ralph, can you hear me? Are you okay? Can you open the canopy?” Rae could barely hold onto hope as she leaned in close to the arched bubble, cupped her hands around her eyes, and tried to peer in.

Ralph scanned Rae and mapped her cleavage so close to his awareness, he could smell the sweat on her chest. “Step back, Rae. I’m bout ta blow a power bank. You need some clothes on, girl.” 

Nothing. Rae couldn’t hear him. “Screw it,” Ralph whimpered. He activated the canopy lift and listened to the servos whine as they strained against the weight. The seals opened, and musty air blew out from the outer vents dusting Rae down with dirt and stale air. She recoiled and cursed, rubbing her eyes. 

“Dammit, Ralph, warn me first,” Rae yelled at the clump of battered metal and glass. She watched and said a silent prayer. The frame lifted a few millimeters as the servos whined louder then stopped. The damage jammed the structure of the top portion locking it in place. Rae and Ralph shared a moment of despair.

❂❂❂

Colonel Shepard watched the troops disembark the transport’s settlers, the stoic scowl of an ancient Roman Centurion on his face. Those damned Eosians had intercepted them, destroying their second transport with 300 people on board before the Alliance’s secret missile base pushed them back.

“Freakin’ Eosians can’t stop us from claiming earth for the Alliance. Why they want this strip of a wasteland so bad is beyond me.” The Colonel spoke more to himself than the Operations Officer beside him. “Bring the scout teams to me as soon as the settlers are inside the ruins. The accommodations will have to do until we can get more supplies and equipment brought in.”

“Yes, Sir,” the officer replied. His anger was beyond his control. They should have pursued the damn Eosian fleet and wasted their asses. They could get plenty of damn settlers shipped in later to make up their losses. The bastards were lining up like sheep to get rich, plowing up this waste of useful minerals called earth.

“Sergeant Holmes.” The Operations Officer yelled over the sound of machinery and transporter engines.

“Sir?” The harshness in Sergeant Holmes’ voice was the irreverent sound of a veteran of many conflicts. 

“Get the other Scout Team leaders together and meet me at the Old Man’s temporary quarters in one hour. It’s cowboy round-up time.” The officer said.

Sergeant Holmes leered at the officer like he was looking at an Eosian virgin with her ankles tied behind her head. He liked fresh meat, not this damned, freeze-dried vegetable shit he and the men ate while aboard the transport.  “Yes, Sir,” he said and pivoted on his heels to leave.

The officer watched Holmes depart, walking with a purpose. Holmes was a stone-cold killer, and the officer liked that. Holmes didn’t care what or who he killed as long as it was something. The officer headed over to the Colonel’s quarters to get the mission brief. He reminded himself to stay on Holmes’ good side, which always resulted in many dead Eosians.

-✮-

CHAPTER 13

A lithe figure eased along the river just inside the treeline. Zara moved through the forest like a snake; her body appeared boneless and thin as she slipped around trees, underbrush, and over stones. She halted. Her senses filtered out the normal and focused on the different. Zara looked up in the direction her ears told her and watched two birds of prey glide high above her, circling effortlessly on unseen currents of wind. She sensed them tracking her, ever vigilant for a chance to swoop down and grab her. Zara felt a deep chill and shuddered. In this jungle, everything was a predator, and everything was prey.

❂❂❂

Sgt Holmes told himself that the glint of glass in the sun was a careless mistake as he lowered his binoculars. It was easy to get lax on this mission. The alliance assured him they had cleansed the islands of all indigenous human life, and the animal life, while dangerous, was no match for their weapons. Holmes mopped his sweaty brow with his sleeve and watched Zara make her way through the jungle ahead of the team. 

Gods be damned, there was no one better than Zara as a tracker. She had the native sense of her Tribal mother and the steadfast courage of her Alliance father. She was their tracker, team wife, and Holmes thought if he ever loved anything, it was probably Zara.

When they found the Eosian escape pod, the Colonel was so damned sure was up ahead, they would destroy it, kill any survivors, and head back. Three days in the jungle wasn’t up to his standard, but it would do. He needed to keep his edge sharp and his trigger finger twitchy.

❂❂❂

Ezra managed to pry the damaged canopy frame open with his spear point using the shaft for leverage. He jumped back when the servos whined back to life, lifting the canopy fully open. Rae leaned into the stale cockpit and scanned it to see if it was damaged. The displays were all on, and she saw the comms light blink red.

Damn, no wonder Ralph wasn’t cursing up a storm. He was turned off. Rae hesitated for a moment, thinking about the conversation she prayed they would have soon. Rae flipped the switch, and the light went to green.

“Holy mother of Buddha, Rae. I thought you would never come back,” Ralph screamed with the voice of an abandoned child. 

“Bless Buddha’s mother, Ralph. I was so afraid you were gone for good when I saw how beat up the pod was. Are you okay?” Rae asked as tears streaked through the dust caked on her face.

“Oh, it will take more than a screaming ass dive over the falls to wipe out ole Ralphie’s silicon persona. It’s only a bit of surface deformation. The system checks out good as new. 

“It stinks in here. Did you just lay in here the whole time and fart the place up,” Rae accused, wrinkling her nose and fanning her face. She had a sudden urge to abandon the ship for some fresh air.

“No, I was hibernating mostly with the. . . Wait a minute. Rae, you know I can’t fart.” Ralph replied with his best indignant voice mimicry.

Laughter filled the cockpit as Rae turned the tables on Ralph in their irreverent reunion. Her voice was the mocking sound of ice tinkling in the glass of a half-empty bourbon and cherry juice. “Gotcha, buddy.” 

“What the. . . Ralph stammered. Why did you turn my comms off?” Raph asked, trying to change the subject.

“Why are you always making sexist remarks and using the ship scanner to look at my body?” Rae shot back.

“I only do it to ensure your health. I’m required to monitor your physiology and psychology to ensure we can accomplish our mission. Ralph replied. For instance, you have atypical erythroderma on the anterior right transverse perineum. You should get that looked at by a doctor. Oh, wait. I’m your medical officer. Am I not?” 

“Ralph, If you upload the image of rope burn on my private parts to the Fleet, you are going into the ship’s toilet where you will later become a poo comet streaking across the universe,” Rae replied with a false emphasis of evil intent.

Rae leaned out of the side of the ship to see where Ezra had wandered off. She lifted her bottom and looked over her shoulder at the console.

“I would never,” Ralph protested as the ship’s scanner hummed.

“I caught you, you lecherous clown, Rae exclaimed.

“Aww, Rae, Ralph whined. Do you want to see the erythroderma medical report?”

“No, you keep it. I need you to do me a favor instead.”

“Sure, you name it,” Ralph replied, thankful for the reprieve.

“I need to do a complete scan on Ezra, but we can’t freak him out about it. I’ll go first to show him how it goes and then ask him to let us scan him,” Rae explained.

“Wow, that will take up a lot of memory,” Ralph said.

“Delete some of your private porn collection; that should clear plenty of memory,” Rae said with just the slightest hint of command authority.

“Got me again, didn’t you?”

“I did,” Rae said. 

It felt good to get back into a rhythm with Ralph. Their naughty banter was the way they put aside fear and anxiety. It was a bond that crossed forbidden boundaries and spanned an unfathomable divide between human and machine. 

Rae settled in the pilot seat and looked up, her eyes looking beyond the canyon’s high walls at two crested Hawk-Eagles circling in the distance. She and Ralph began to discuss their plans for Ezra’s scan, what they hoped to discover, and how they might move the pod up on the mountain to contact Eosian ships in the area.

Rae relaxed and watched the eagles as Ralph scanned the sensors to try to find out what the battle was all about a few nights ago. He was frustrated that the canyon walls had blocked most of his peripheral view. He decided to keep the high orbit casualties to himself. Truth can sometimes be more than one can bear.

-✮-