The travelers made a wide berth around the skeleton army that moved slowly through the wilderness. When they came to the forest, they turned in. Boston said the Kairos should be among the trees, even if they got off track for the next time gate. When they came to a meadow, they thought to stop for lunch. They hardly dismounted, however, when an advanced troop of humanoids caught up to them.
The humanoid soldiers pulled long knives, which they clearly knew how to use. No one talked. No one debated. The humanoids just attacked, and the travelers nearly got caught. Fortunately, Boston and Katie both sensed the approaching soldiers, even if they did not realize how close they were.
Katie and Decker flipped their rifles to automatic. Boston and Lincoln had their handguns. Elder Stow, Sukki and Alexis rounded up the horses, while Lockhart turned his shotgun on one that seemed to appear suddenly, and very close. The travelers mounted and rushed off, even as one humanoid began to shout orders. A couple of shots from humanoid rifles pierced the woods, but by the time that happened, the travelers were lost among the trees.
The travelers soon broke free of the trees and found a sheltered dip in the landscape to keep the horses. Then, while the others held the horses, Lockhart, Katie, Decker, and Boston went to the tree line, to make sure none of the soldiers followed them.
“They probably had orders not to use their heat rays among the trees,” Lockhart said. He lumped all alien weapons under the generic, “heat rays”.
“A sudden turn in the wind, and you risk getting your own men trapped by the flames. Plus, when the air fills with smoke, it isn’t easy telling friend from foe.”
“Plus, there is no way to control it,” Decker added. “A forest like this; a fire would run wild. It might burn down half the countryside.
“I’m not sensing any soldiers following us,” Boston said, with a shake of her head. “I should have known sooner, but they don’t feel like human beings, even if they look like us.”
“Hey, Lockhart.” Lincoln walked up to join the crew. “Have you seen Muhamed?”
No one had.
After getting around the skeletons, Muhamed simple waited for the chance to slip away. He might have gone for firewood and not come back, if they planned to prepare some lunch. Instead, the attack of the soldiers proved the perfect opportunity to leave unnoticed. Indeed, he hurried.
Muhamed stayed unaware of the larger events going on around him. He imagined the army as local men, since they looked like ordinary enough soldiers, in their leather, and they used no weapons of power. He imagined they were headed to attack one of the cities nearer the coast, so he did not think twice about them. And he did not imagine there might be another army coming from the other direction.
He heard a voice. He saw a person in a different sort of uniform. He saw three of them. He just started to wonder what he stumbled into, when he vanished.
Muhamed reappeared a hundred miles away, directly in front of the time gate. Ashtoreth stood there, hands on hips, looking cross. Muhamed fell to his face and trembled for his life, while the goddess spoke.
Muhamed spouted his thoughts, and proved unable to hold them in. “The skeletons would not follow my commands. I found your enemies. They should be ripe for the taking.”
“Silence.” Ashtoreth shouted, and Muhamed turned ashen white and spit up some bile. The anger of such a goddess would have killed many. “They are mere flies—annoying insects to be squashed without a second thought. But they are being watched by many in the heavens. I will not be a fool, like you.”
“But the skeletons would not follow my commands.”
Ashtoreth appeared to take a deep breath. “The elixir gives life. It does not give you mind control. Fool. You must catch them in the swamp before you make the hungry swamp creatures live.”
Muhamed said nothing, but he thought, what about my life? How could he bring the swamp creatures to life and get away before they ate him?
“I am not concerned about your life,” Ashtoreth said, knowing exactly what he was thinking. “Unless you fail to kill the travelers. I am tempted right now to torture you for the next thousand years, to start.”
“No, please. I will kill them, dead. I will do this. They are Kafir. They do not deserve to live. I will use the elixir to trap them in their worst nightmare. You know I will do this.”
“I am not known for patience,” Ashtoreth said, and vanished.
Muhamed stayed where he was for a while, and breathed. But eventually, he picked himself up, dusted himself off, and stepped through the time gate and into the next time zone.
Artie cried when she hugged her adopted mother Katie. Katie cried with her. Dad-Lockhart put his big arms around both of his girls and nearly cried with them, but they were happy tears. Boston’s eyes teared up, empathic elf that she was, and Lincoln and Alexis held each other and smiled to watch. Decker and Elder Stow kept one eye and their ears on the receding battle, and one eye on the android troop that followed Artie. Sukki did not know what to make of it all. She stayed beside Elder Stow, being shy in front of so many people, even if the androids were not exactly human people.
Finally, the love-fest broke up and Artie called for a young man. He looked mostly human, but he had some cyborg enhancements here and there. “David,” Artie called him. “He is about seven or eight generations from my son. Apparently, when the Kairos made me an android again, he left my uterus alone, temporarily. I was pregnant.”
“I didn’t know,” Katie said, and her face showed both joy and concern.
“I am fully android now, but I gave birth to a son, so I did have the full human experience after all. I got to be a mom.” Artie and Katie hugged again, and almost shared some more tears.
“David,” Lockhart put out his hand, and David knew to shake that hand, but he said nothing and kept looking at Artie to explain, even if he knew the stories.
“He calls me Grandma.” Artie turned to David. “These are your great-grandparents.”
Lockhart let go of the handshake and reached out to hug David instead. “Welcome to the family.”
Katie looked at Artie. “You make me sound so old,” she protested, before she also hugged David. “You have your grandmother’s look about you,” she said, and turned again to Artie. “Do I get to spoil him?”
Artie smiled at that thought. “I spoil him enough,” she admitted.
Decker interrupted. “You need to pull your troops back. It sounds like the Humanoid troops have run into the skeletons.”
Elder Stow checked his scanner for confirmation. “That appears to be the case.”
Sukki looked at Boston and nodded.
“We leave no one behind,” Decker said.
“I remember,” Artie agreed and smiled for the marine. “But come. We need help in scanner technology and in code breaking, if you can. I wish the Kairos could be found.” She began to walk, and the travelers and her escort followed.
“Artie.” Katie came up to walk beside her and slipped her arm over Artie’s shoulder. “Sweetheart. You should not be so stressed. After more than four hundred years, you are still here. You must be doing something right.”
Artie cried. She let loose, and rivers flowed; and these were not happy tears. She did not stop until they got to the android camp.
They found several odd-looking humans in the camp, and only realized what they were seeing when one younger man opened his arms and shouted, “Boston.”
A red-headed streak raced into his hug. “Wow.” Haniashtart raised her eyebrows at such speed, and a few androids looked equally impressed.
“Ibelam?” Lincoln had to ask.
“I am,” Ibelam said. “And these swarthy fellows are my associates. Haniashtart is an elect, like Katie, you know.” The two women nodded to each other. “Abdanath is my marine, or the equivalent in this age.” Ibelam pointed to Decker who appeared to be in conversation with one of the android officers. “Ahumm is my navigator, and knows the stars, though he has never gotten close to one. Gerbaal is my cook. He can make anything taste almost good.”
“You mean he can make almost anything taste good?” Alexis said.
“The android people, maybe,” Ahumm said. “I see what you mean about them being people. But who are these others? They look like a strange crew.” He gave Boston a double stare, having seen her run faster than any human ought to run
“Stranger than you know,” Ibelam said, with a grin. He raised his hand, and the glamours around Boston, the elf, and Sukki, the Gott-Druk fell away. He lowered his hand, and the glamours of humanity returned.
Artie stood quietly that whole time, her head lowered before the Kairos. Ibelam obliged her by stepping up and giving her a big hug. “I have spoken to Anath-Rama. She is going to help me remove the humanoids from this world. Meanwhile, she says you have kept her very busy. Tell me about it.”
Artie nodded. She introduced General Redfern and his first officer, Captain Korman. She got stools, a couple of chairs, and several big logs for seats, though some, particularly Ibelam’s crew, were happy to sit on the ground. Then she spoke.