Friday, June 02, 2006


Desert Find

Hunger gnawed him, as he would anything that would sustain him. But nothing was what was there for hunger or for him. So hunger gnawed on unrelenting, his attention distracted from time to time by the more distant knowledge gained from appraising the situation for the long term: He would die soon if nothing changed.

Water in the lake nearby kept him alive, but wouldn't be enough for long. Animals around the lake he was simply unable to kill for food. Too fast or too dangerous, almost all of his ammunition had been wasted on the effort. A few coins rattled in his pack, a constant reminder of failure to earn enough to simply eat.

Tell of better hunting to the south had come this morning from another vagrant like himself. Barely better off than he, they went that direction before first sun was up. Going south under first sun was dangerous, under both was suicide. Tonight he would make his last gamble in the desert that lay that way and hope his sword, duller than it should be, would save his life there.

Laying low in the shade, he waited.

Shadows lengthened, bright light flecked off tan rocks, second sun slowly marching down from the sky, following the first already out of sight, pointing the way west toward civilization or what passed for it: Outposts here and there, lonely in isolation; small cities; a large city now deserted for years that no one liked to talk about. And the bustling Port on the coast where he had entered this forsaken world.

An eternity separated starving now and wide-eyed wonderment then. Newness greased the wheels of commerce in the Port: Newness was orange coveralls given to recruits, money invested, money lost on foolishness, things unneeded. It was gleeful chatter, voices yammering on through the day and night about deals to be had, ways to get rich, places to go, adventures to intoxicate the jaded from the Old World, unmoved by familiarity.

Newness stripped the life out of people and gave it to the hardened, the veteran and the rich. And when they were stripped, they quietly disappeared in various places desperately trying to win back their survival: Swamps, forests, mountains and desert. All held the promise of more, all held the threat of death. All were graveyards for the innocent, the naive.

Another hour more.

In that Port, the woman in blue, always dealing, hawking, toward the end of the market: Her eyes. He remembered her smiling at him, faint as a flicker. Or was it laughter? He wasn't sure. He only remembered: Piercing, hard, knowing eyes. Looking through him, perceiving the soft underbelly of his inexperience but not eviscerating him as she could have, indeed should have, according the Port's unwritten code. Showing through her steely persona an uncommon and unexpected humanness: Mercy.

And now.

Both suns down, steeliness shifted from a distant memory to the present as he tried to gather what of it he himself possessed, along with his gear to make the run south. A pistol, a rifle—neither usable until ammo was begged or bought—a knife, and a sword—both needing repairs and with little more life left in them than was left in him. All these, along with all the water he could carry, would accompany him on his way, seeing him through to what comes. Cheap battered armor offered only marginal protection but would have to suffice and keep him alive. Southern slope in full shadow now, he ran, following a worn path where others had sought their fortunes before him. He knew he would have to stray from it to hunt now and again, but would always return to the only guide through the wilderness: The previous passing of others and the dead remains of their footsteps.

Body hardened by months of running and hunting, sub-cutaneous fat long gone, one foot landed in front of the others as dunes scrolled by, flat areas in between littered with rocks, all a hundred hues of brown, tan, coffee, blazing white during the day, stumbling into shadowed darkness at night. Softened under muted tones, they mumbled, murmured, and moaned as the heat of the day drifted skyward, releasing them from the torture of the heat.

He ran.

And ran a while more.

A quiet but persistent beep in one ear made him look down: A dot shown on his tracker, maybe a change in fortune. He prayed the fortune was good.

Sword out, crawling now as the tracker silently bade him on, he cautiously looked over the knife-edge crest of a dune. His heart sank when he saw the size of the creature. Dying was not something he was quite ready for just yet, and so he would have to skirt around the creature to continue in the direction of the path. Moving right and staying low, around the face of the dune he went toward the trail. As he approached it, his ears signaled him again. Again he looked down, this time on display were a group of dots.

Stopped motionless for several minutes he watched dots. The one representing death behind him, the others representing the unknown before him: A gamble, a chance. Something will happen soon one way or the other, he thought, and shifted the sword in his hand. He looked at it, eyes taking in the length of the blade and its condition, nodding mute approval to no one.

Attention back on the dots, the group was moving toward him. Seeking to create distance between the group and the one, he backtracked in the direction he had come from, moving toward a single dot at the edge of the group. The death dot, little farther away now, moved very slowly, but steadily south. Looking up from the tracker he spotted the group. Cursing, he realized that they were poisonous to eat but the hides and teeth could be sold. Gnawing continued in his stomach, but his teeth gritted down on the notion that he would survive long enough to get to a trade station and sell his earnings.

As he approached the group, the outlying one charged, not realizing what was waiting. The sword blade slashed the animal several times before it got inside of reach and got its teeth into his armor. As it expired on bloody sand, the next two picked up the scent and charged. He shifted toward one, keeping it between himself and the third creature. Slashing and shifting, now a final thrust and the second was down, he moved toward the third. It approached from dead center; he countered with a thrust that glanced off the creature's skull, creating on a superficial wound. The animal latched onto his leg, fangs piercing the thin armor. Wincing in agony, he held his breath as he laid his sword across the creature's neck and started sawing. It clamped tighter. He screamed and dropped his sword. Frantic, mind racing, driven by pain, he snatched his knife and as slowly and deliberately as he could manage, drove the knife into its eye and then twisted hard. A shriek from a now opened mouth pierced the desert night before dying into a sickening gurgling sound. He saw the last of the ugly beasts running toward him and scrambled for his sword, fumbling crazily. Aiming for his throat, it jumped toward him. He raised his arm as it hit him and knocked him down, his arm above the elbow in its mouth. The armor was better there and dulled the bite to a thick pressure. Forgetting the sword, he stabbed it with his knife again and again until it relaxed, life flowing out onto the ground and himself, sticky and warm.

Weariness seized him as he collapsed on his back. Night stars were shining, unmoved by the drama below. Gentle, calm sparkles against a black sky quieted his racing heart, but left his mind bemused by the contrast between them and the brutal frenzy of the fight.

Quiet beeping. Eyes opening.

The tracker showed a single dot, outside range, moving toward him very slowly.

Dragging himself up, he went to one dead animal after another, prying loose the fangs, dropping them into a pocket. After checking the approaching dot to make sure he had the time, he skinned the creatures, shaking his head at the large cuts that greatly reduced their value. Then he reached into the entrails of each and hastily retrieved a small gland that sometimes brought a little money on the market.

Consulting the tracker once more, he struggled up the side of the dune again and peered over the crest to see what was coming. A single person, just sheathing a sword and walking toward him, evidently in no hurry, left behind the carcass of the large creature that he had cautiously avoided. Its neck was nearly severed, as were both front legs. As he tried to imagine how that could be done, the person approached a little closer now and he saw it was a woman, a tall one. He tensed, nerves on edge. Something made him very uneasy, but he didn't know what, except perhaps sheer vulnerability: Judging from her last kill, he would be no match for her should she be unfriendly.

There was nothing to do but wait so he stepped up and over the lip of the dune and sat.

She walked, softly starlit, bluish shadows softening angular features of armor, a kind he thought he recognized but couldn't be sure of in the dim light. Approaching the base of the dune, she looked down, perhaps surveying the footing before trying the softer sand with full weight. Further up the slope, evidently satisfied, she looked up at him, eyes veiled by shadows cast across her face. One moon was behind her, another to one side, neither in a position to light the dark opening her armor left over her eyes, leaving him with the odd impression that no one resided within, and yet the figure walked toward him. As she neared him, she angled to his right, ascended to the dune's crest, a trail of depressions in the sand marking her lithe, catlike strides. Joining him at the top, a few meters away, she took her helmet off.

Immediately aware of his own mask, he nervously removed it, visibly fumbling the motion, belying tension held just below the surface. His other hand never left his sword hilt.

The figure she cut was as impressive as his own was ordinary: Her armor, he recognized now, would cost him several decades earnings. He had only seen pictures before and indeed wondered if anyone actually owned any, let alone used it. Weapons—a knife, two swords, a slung rifle, a holstered pistol—all spoke the same message of wealth combined with casual use, confounding his imagination that was rooted in much more modest means. The swords were sheathed and crossed, making an X on her back, both hilts as high as her head, the rifle muzzle pointing up between them. The pistol on one hip, knife on the other, only made him think that there must be other weapons he couldn't see. He noticed he was looking slightly up at her, an unusual thing, for he wasn't short. He glanced at the ground where she stood to be sure and was convinced she was the taller of the two.

“Headed south?” she inquired coolly, eyes now visible by the glint of starlight, eyes that shown an unknown tone, preserving a bit of mystery in the night. She looked behind him and surveyed the carnage of his kills, then back to him, quickly summarizing his state.


“Come with me, then. There is still time to make the outpost before second sun.”

Before he could speak, she donned her helmet and began running south, making for the path he had been following. He watched silently for a moment, and then failing to find a reason not to, began running behind her. Rhythmic steps in endless succession marked off the distance. She stopped to let him catch up when she got too far ahead. One stop for rest punctuated the time, the rest was running. Few words passed between them. Hunger ate at him more now and his strength began to wane, slowing his pace. First sun saw them still a ways from the outpost, rocky outcrops slicing the desert into discernible sections, rupturing the sand's hold on the land beneath. Walking now, unable to run, he grimly smiled as the lonely outpost appeared over the last rise, a few hundred meters away. Second sun was still an hour away when he shambled into the life-saving shade cast by the shelter's large awning.

As time often reveals many things, it now revealed more of this strange woman: Armor shed by the time he arrived, he saw more than just a tall attractive woman in full flower. Her posture and shape hinted at a muscularity honed from years of strenuous running, hunting and, he supposed, fighting. As he set his gear on the ground she sat watching, silently observing him, shimmering heat of the desert rising behind.

She stated, “You look hungry.”

His gun in hand, the other reaching for his sword, he only nodded and then looked at her. Pride at war with his stomach, “Yes. My luck has been better.” Hesitation followed by a forced grin. “I could use a good meal now.”

Her eyes narrowed a little, only partly from the glare behind him. She turned and reached into a small case, withdrew two small rectangles, wrapped in very thin metal. She held them out toward him. “I should have asked sooner.”

“How much do you want for them?” Pride gained a foothold with salvation in sight.

She tilted her head to one side, an odd gesture. “No need for that. Perhaps you can do something for me another time. Here. Eat.”

He quickly strode over and took them from her, stomach with the upper hand at that instant, while at the same time, a quizzical look on his face as he regarded her. “Me? Do something for you? That seems unlikely, but believe me, many thanks for these.” The grin blossomed into a smile, becoming quite carnivorous, as he sat on the ground, leaned against the shelter's side, and opened the first packet and popped the bar into his parched mouth.

“Certainly.” She thought quietly for moment, and then: “What brings you here?”

“Ah, isn't it what brought us all? Riches? Adventure? I'm just like everyone else.” His eyes were closed as he savored the aftertaste of the first bar, holding out the second for a similar feast shortly.

“I was born here.” She said, a touch of pride now flavoring the remark, a little defiance raising her chin. “My parents came as you did, though. They were on one of the first ships to arrive. I've known nowhere else.” She looked around her, surveying the brown sand, rocks, strange plants, all extending to the horizon. “This is home.”

He notice the way she beheld the land around them. “Do you mean, that here, right here,” and he patted the ground, “is home?”

“The desert, yes.” Her tone was completely matter-of-fact.

He started to reply but she spoke first: “And are you getting rich here?”

He laughed aloud, coughing on the remains of the second bar. “Not exactly. I am staying alive, as you see, though. And in wonderful style, too.” He chuckled and mimed a pompous pose, but when his eyes incidentally fell on her armor, the affect fell from him like a coin from a beggar's holey pocket, clanging on the ground alerting everyone around that the beggar will continue begging a while longer. He looked down, self-consciously.

“I see,” implacably delivered.

“Well,” and he thought, then added, all humor gone from his voice now, “I do my best. I've not been here long, only a year. I believe I will be alright.” He almost laughed at himself as he said it.

And now, as he looked up at her, he broke the flow of give and take, saying, “A moment ago, when you asked what brings me here, you meant right here, to this desert, didn't you?”

Her head tilted again. “Yes.”

He looked out over the parched land himself now, and spoke to himself as much as he spoke to her, still looking into the distance. “I was told the hunting was good here, as long as I could stay alive.” He shrugged. “I took the chance and came when I felt I had no choice.”

Nothing more was said and quiet settled on the outpost, a faint hum of power coursing through circuits in the small building, connecting it to distant cities west and east. In the building heat of second sun's rising, he drifted off to sleep, believing himself safe in the presence of this strange woman. If not, there was little he felt he could do about it.

She stayed awake for a while, noting distant activity on her tracker, but remaining in the shade, settled in the knowledge that more animals, more wealth-containing creatures, would happen by later when the day was cooler and hunting could be done safely. She considered the inexperienced man sleeping nearby, her thoughts wandering through the various things one does to stay alive in the desert. Harsh environment that it was, newcomers usually didn't last long either leaving or dying, sometimes through plain chance, sometimes through circumstances they were naively unaware of. She wondered how he would fare, thought of his effect on her own plans, and began to hunger.

Eventually she closed her eyes, too, and rested quietly, weapons at hand.

Hours later, first sun down, he awoke, finding her scanning the horizon, eyes peering out for something he could not sense. Second sun's reddish light cast a different glow on the world when by itself; first sun's was whiter and brightened things to a painful glare at midday in the desert where all was pale sand and rocks with the occasional strange plant, standing twisted and tortured in the heat.

After watching her for a moment to try to discern her purpose, he asked, “What do you look for?”

She looked over at him, a wry smile he hadn't seen before defying description in his mind: Sarcastic? Serious? Humorous? He cataloged smiles he knew and understood, found no match, and confoundedly made a new mental entry for this woman's countenance, but had no word to label it. He looked out to where she had been gazing to hide his bemusement. She answered, “Riches. What else?” and saw his face shift from an refreshed wide-eyed hailing following a daytime's sleep to a profoundly puzzled look. With his eyes' attention elsewhere, she smiled indeed and, had he seen it, would have noticed her beauty for the first time.

He sat silently, watching the baron land, musing over his predicament. She watched him knowingly, letting thoughts linger and time drift by as dust in the air, moved by a lazy wind, enervated by the heat.

After a while: “Some of the good hunting you were told of is near.” Now she watched him and looked for the reaction she knew would come.

He sat up straight and faced her. “So, it's true, then, what they said?”

As she stood, she nodded and said, “Put on your armor and bring your sword. I'll take you there. Some animals you will be able to take on your own. I'll help with others.” Picking up her own armor and weapons, she walked into the small building, emerging a moment later without them.

He noticed the one sword left leaning against the building where she had sat. “You will take only that?”

She took it by the haft and examined it, looking up and down its length. It instantly became an extension of her arm, gliding smoothly, as she swiped down and cut the air a single time. It then was utterly weightless in her grip as she sheathed it over her shoulder in a flash while looking straight at him. He just stared, mouth agape. The two motions, the cut and the sheathing, were of a kind the likes of which he had never seen, not in what they did, but in the qualities they possessed: unsurpassed grace, effortless accuracy, blinding speed, all belying a strength that shown in lean rippled muscle that, far from detracting from, actually accentuated her feminine form. At that moment, odd in its timing, he saw the stunning woman behind the sword and was himself stunned as many before him.

Long hair of deep reddish-brown was streaked lightly with grey—a gesture of acceptance of the passage of time—and tied back out of the way. The skin of her face did not show the time, though, and made him think of the various ways he had heard of in use to protect against the harsh sunlight. What it did show was a single scar, the only flaw on her face, that cut down through her left eyebrow, not large or gaping, but a significant cut, half the length of her straight nose, evidently not recent. Piercing emeralds sparkled in the bright desert light, eyes that had seen almost half a life in harsh conditions and spoke of experience he could scarcely imagine. Arms and legs, bare without armor, complimented a simple top and shorts serving the purpose of decency only. That skin also must have been protected from the suns, for it was smooth over athlete's muscles except in the few places it, like her face, was marked with cutting scars. Tall boots protected her feet, ankles, and calves.

He drank in her appearance, lost as a man can be lost in a women for the first time in recent memory. As she regarded him quizzically, he just said: “And your armor?”

She laughed and the gentle music of it unfroze time. “Let's go.”

She tossed him two more bars to eat and started running, lithely ticking off the distance. He scrambled into his worn armor, grabbed his sword and started after her while choking down the first bar. She waited on the horizon, still facing their destination, as he bounded up a rise. When he approached, she started again, this time at a pace he could keep. Second sunset was near when she halted them below an outcrop of cracked and splintered stone, a place where the top layers of rock had been sheered, one side buckled up, ages ago. She slowly led their way up, picking a path through debris at the bottom of the cliff, then up the cliff itself, ledge to ledge, until just below the lip, she halted while he joined her. Following her example, he gradually straightened until his eyes could take in the scene beyond: Animals by the hundreds.

With luck, they would harvest all they could carry.

They slipped up over the lip of the cliff—five times the height of a man—and started toward the animals, briskly striding, stepping around small rocks, knee-high plants, and now nearer them, drawing their weapons. She to the left, he to the right, distance between them growing, they approached, waiting for the closest one the charge.

It didn't take long.

He dealt with the first three easily enough, leaving them for the moment where they lay, when he looked toward her to see if the skill that shown before would manifest itself now. It was evidenced in the trail of slaughter behind her: fully a dozen creatures lay slain on the bloody ground as she calmly attacked the next two simultaneously. He found himself staring when the forth creature charged. His reaction was slow in coming as he parried the jaws of the ugly thing, just managing to alter a large bite into a small pinching one. His arm smarted as he yanked it away and slashed down with his blade, cutting the animal's neck deeply. Hindquarters landing in the dirt first, then shoulders, then the head whipped down, disconnected muscles contracting but failing to control its trajectory, it smashed into the dusty earth: The forth fell and died.

With the rest of the herd safely distant, he began skinning his prey, checking for valuables: glands, tissues, stones the animals swallowed that were sometimes valuable, anything to sell. Glancing up frequently, he noticed the herd moving toward him slowly, but was not alarmed. He saw her as well, walking toward him carrying her own take. He was confounded at her speed, but smiled just the same as his loot was very good for the time he himself had spent. Hers was enormous, and he laughed when he saw it as she came near.

“You must teach me how to do that.”

She smiled in return and reached toward his injured arm, now bleeding down his armor, apparently forgotten. “First, I should teach you to not get hurt. Or would you want that? You seem to like the pain.” Now she chuckled. He looked down mutely at his own blood, unnoticed until that instant, and indeed realized, that he didn't mind the pain. In fact, as he thought about it, he felt vaguely energized by it. His mouth opened and, failing to find words, closed. She saw the attempt at speech and wondered as his eyes rose to meet hers. He just shrugged, still no appropriate word found to dissipate the awkwardness of his realization: It was something he had not thought about before.

Faintly smiling, she said, “We have enough and now you know this place and can return on your own. Let's go back. The night is young.” With that she started toward the cliff, then disappeared over it. He stood for a minute, counting his loot in his mind, and considering the desert that held this strange woman with the unnerving smile. Just as the herd was close enough to attack him, he followed after her.

An hour later, the outpost came into his view as he crested the hill on which she had waited for him on the way out. He could see her now under the awning, sitting still in the moon shadows.

From those shadows: “The wounded hunter returns, I see.”

He sensed that smile again, but could not see it. “Yes. He doesn't run quite as fast as you, but he tries.” He grinned in the faint blue light, unseen.

“And your pain? Did you bring it with you?”

“Only a little.”

“And is it enough?”

The grin changed markedly at that. “What?”

“Is it enough for you or do you want more?”

Silence, suspended on tension, strung beneath strange stars. Words pierced close to his heart, but he only now began to comprehend. Feigning ignorance: “What do you mean?”

The smile audibly broadened, voice deeper, a little huskier: “I mean, would you like more of it? Here. Now.”

His heart pounded, palms slickened by sweat. “You—?”


“I've never—“

Gently, quietly: “I know. There is a first time for these things. Mine was long ago. Tonight can be yours.” She stood and walked toward him, and upon reaching him, lifted an arm and touched his face with rough fingertips, softly, a caress given with great care. “I need things just as you do. And here, in my home—“ she gestured to the harsh desert surrounding the tiny outpost “—even I cannot find them often.”

He shivered in the cool light, even as the heat of daytime, hours past, warmed him from the ground below. “What will you do to me?”

“Only what you want. And likewise, I will ask it of you. Can you give as well as receive?”

“I,” he stammered the words out, “don't know.”

“I will teach you what I need.”

He could only nod in the dim light, signing acceptance of himself, and of her, in that distant world.

She went to her gear and returned momentarily holding a tangle of something. “Here,” She said, handing them to him, and began, as gracefully as her swordplay, to remove her clothing. His eyes were riveted to her shape, outlined by shadow, softly lit now here, now there by the moonlights as first the top and then the bottoms fell to the ground with a faint rustle. “Give those to me now.”

He looked at what he was holding for the first time as he handed it to her: A whip, and four strips of leather. His breath caught, and a fire deep in his soul flared to life, small, but growing.

Her green eyes glinted in the light, looking straight into his: “Join me.”

And he did.

Hours passed.

She tended him, providing that delicious bittersweet mixture of pain and pleasure, soothing his neglected soul, made lonely by the months of struggle alone in a hostile world, recalling and touching places from years past, hidden in his depths, mostly forgotten, some hopefully so. He succumbed to her touch, her way, at once firm, even harsh, then nurturing and gentle, and in its way, loving. Tears were shed, inner sanctums emptied as barriers fell, new places explored. And then she took him and taught him of her own desires, entreating him to great care, then gave herself into that care. He faltered and fumbled, an inexperienced artist before a living canvas, weeping over his mistakes, and again weeping from her forgiveness. She had born worse at others' hands, and so she gently brought him back, reassuring him that he must continue, that she needed him to continue. At the last, pain gave way to pleasure and they joined, finishing weary and spent, marked by each other, satisfied by each other.

They slept closely the rest of the night and into the day, blue moon shadows crawling over them, later replaced by starkly black ones cast by searing first sun peeking under the awning, as they lay in the desolate waste of the desert, the only souls to be found.

She awoke, first sun long gone, second sun failing the day, soon to hide again: An hour at most. She lay next to him for a while, feeling his warmth in contrast to the radiating grounds around the outpost outside the awnings shadow. A single tear she allowed as she considered that she must leave him and continue on, hunting the desert and doing so in places where she would not be able to keep him alive. Welts were fading on her back as she feathered them with a fingertip, feeling the marks he had given her at her own behest. She smiled as she thought of him and his earnest efforts to please her, but shortly settled into a familiar melancholy: She would be alone soon.

She hoped he would survive.

Stepping into the weathered building briefly, she returned with her gear, and after leaving a small package with his, she dressed: Garments, armor, both swords, everything but the helmet. That she held loosely as she knelt and kissed him lightly on the cheek—he stirred slightly, surprising her, but then stilled.

And then she ran south.

He awoke as second sun set, warmth flowing into him from all around, heat from the sands and rocks baked in the glaring desert light. Behind him was a curious cool, though, and he turned, expecting to find her there. He sat up, naked in the shadow, looking all around, fear of what he knew must be true rising inexorably to his throat, halting there, cutting off speech: “Where—?” He got up and quickly checked the building and around the other side. There was no place to hide.

So he sat down and stared out at the desert, blankly trying to accept reality.

He looked for her on the horizon.

Second sun surrendered its grip on the desert and hid.

He sat.

Like her hours earlier, he reached back and felt a mark on his back, expertly left by her in the cool dark. No smile graced his face, only a longing and a knowledge of her touch remained to fill a place once empty.

His gear had been placed by the metallic wall of the building; he gathered it now. As he donned his clothes and armor, he found the package she left. Wrapped in soft leather was food and a short stack of coins of a denomination he had only heard about: A year's living in the palm of his hand.

Who was this woman?

Hot wind, rocks, and now stinging sand offered no answer but a muted gust now and again.

He donned his clothes and armor, weapons slung, coins safely hidden away. Desert's emptiness echoed his own, outpost's silence signed agreement, and so he left, running south, too.

Friday, March 31, 2006


Coming Home

A blaze of gunfire rattled behind him, allaying, then erasing, the fear that gripped his soul. Breath, ragged and torn, would not slow: Exhaustion took him as he fell to the ground on hands and knees trembling: Ground rushed up, tiny creatures visible in the tangle of green affirmed his own life.

Soothing noises just over there: Voices, criers, boots on pavement—a thousand feet chattering a conversation of trade, prosperity, perhaps desperation—the far from home looking for answers, guidance, a quick deal to make them rich.

Head hanging down, he looked behind him, past tattered orange, past the satchel laying on the ground, at the upside down world that a little while ago was pure panic: A beast lay on its side, holes burned in its back and side, wisps of smoke long gone in the air above, escorting life away, but lingering still among the charred flesh as if unwilling to leave. He turned toward it sitting up and considered: Another hundred meters or so and he would have died instead.

Nerves still jangling made him shiver and laugh a little with that giddiness that comes with any near miss.

And now the release and realization of safeness made him flop back on the ground and howl the roaring laughter of relief.


Door slides open upstairs, a few footsteps, door slides closed.

More footsteps from the ceiling, muted by the winding path between here and there: Carpeted stairs and rooms—books and magazines on every flat surface—one after another, children's toys kicked aside to be picked up later. Sounds travels down while thought travel up.

In my mind, I can see her silently standing, at the kitchen counter, a single light overhead to help her examine the business of the day, lingering on an article, shuffling scraps of paper, now looking for a snack in the refrigerator behind her. Through the front wall of glass—the door was only a small part of it—the pale glow of another light across the street throws long shadows of trees and a single wall into the gloom outside. Stars glisten coldly on the pond—breeze rustled the water—father away out front, beckoning under the branches of oaks, maples, and pines.

Deep night arrives, the day almost done.


Laughter having run its course, heart and nerves wound down, standing now, he walked toward the yellow walls, the teeth on the top biting the sky—were they there before? Incessant chatter from the market blankets his mind with possibilities: Buy a gun, a sword, minerals—to do what with?—gadgets, cheap pistols, hunting rifles costing a year’s pay, dung, everything imaginable. Through the gate into town and before him the bustling market of of the city. High and to the left, over a building, a globe, a model of a planet: This one?

A man tugged at his sleeve offering cheap axes, paradoxically beside some sort of pistol that used unfamiliar energy packs instead of ammunition he knew as a child. He held his satchel a little tighter after turning to face the man, looked at the ax.

“No, thanks.”

“It good price. You need. Two for price of only one. Look here.” The man held the ax to he could see it more closely: Very worn. Still sharp, but how long would it last?

“No, thanks, I—“

And the man was already turned away, loudly yelling to the insensitive crowd about his axes and pistols. Others echoed back the same refrain about their own.

In the noise, he heard now a different message: Standing on some boxes in a corner, a long, lean silver-haired woman in blue was buying, as well as selling. He started toward her, elbowing through the crowd, holding the satchel tight.

“Hi.” Unusual eyes regarded him, unmoving in the cacophony, flat without emotion: Simple business.

“Hi. I have a few things for you.” He smiled. She didn’t.

“Show me.”

He pulled out some odds and ends, holding them before her.

“One large bottle of this. Some hides. Some skins.” He arranged them so she could see them. "What’s the rate on the bottle?”

“1.1 per.”

“I need 1.3.”

“Sorry, 1.1. People bring me this stuff all the time. If you can get 1.3 somewhere else, do it. 1.1.” She was bored.

“This took me a week. Please. 1.3.” He smiled again. She didn’t.

“1.1 or nothing on the bottle. Now, I will give you good price on the hides, though. Say,...8.50 for the lot. The skins, I don’t need.”

He thought. And thought a little more.


Footsteps down the stairs now, headed his way, soon to be coming around the corner in the dim light.


“Very well.” He tried the smile again. The faintest hint of a grin flickered across her face. He saw it and caught his breath. He looked again and it was gone, replaced by a flat business presentation with one small difference: A certain knowledge, deep in the eyes.

She made change quickly, the way someone who does it for a living does, and gave him the money. He left the bottle and the hides with her, walked down a long wall—one person after another singing out the names of items and prices. He worried about selling the skins. No one cried the need for them right now.

Stairs going up the wall drew his attention. He climbed up, stood on the catwalk surveying the wilds outside of town on one side, the market on the other. The noise was a little less insistent, the view was a study in humanity on another world, both sides exhibiting elements of civilization and barbarism.


Footsteps closer, I looked up and saw a familiar smile. I returned it as I always do, indeed am compelled to do.

“How was class?”

“Very good. We talked about...” And I was quickly lost in the minutia of an unfamiliar topic, but the light in the eyes, the beauty on the face—lined now with laughter decades old. And worry. Beautiful nonetheless, in fact, even more so to me since I had witnessed the genesis of most of those lines—they drew me in as so many times before.

She paused.

I offered: “It’s a quiet night here. The kids are in bed, I’m just relaxing down here.”

She moved behind the chair. Warm breath on my neck, strands of hair fall across my face. I feel lips I’ve known for twenty years ever so gently on my ear. Then teeth. Again, ever so gently.


I reach forward and press the escape key.


The light in the sky looked the same now for the past hour. People came and went, popping in and out of thin air at the transport terminal near the market.

Still no one sang for skins. He waited, watching the people.

That woman in blue, though. Those eyes. What was her na...

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