Avalon 8.5 Hiding from Them, part 5 of 6

“What magic is this?” the farmer asked.  “The voice of an angel?”

William opened his mouth, but Boston spoke first.  “Naw, just Katie.  But I will tell her you said that.”

“Not magic,” William said.  “Just one of the fantastical gizmos these people have.  I have seen Elder Stow’s scanner at work.  I have no idea how it works, but I have seen the gizmo.”

Elder Stow ignored everyone and walked to the end of the wagon where he could sit and work on his screen device.  Sukki thought it only right to follow.  Everyone else looked up and saw what they imagined was the shuttle craft get frustrated if an alien spaceship could be called frustrated.

“We might as well go inside,” Alexis suggested.  “It may be a while before we can safely move from here.”

“But I must get to King Ethelwulf” William said.  “He is pledged to help and defend the coast of Kent and the poor people of Canterbury.”

“I am sure that is true, and I am sure he will, but we have to deal with the Flesh Eaters first,” Tony said.

“I hate that name,” Nanette said.

“Accurate,” Boston countered.

“That is why I hate that name.” she said as they looked up.

The shuttle stopped trying to get at them with Vr energy and struck them with whatever main weapon it had.  The beam of sickly yellow light bounced off Elder Stow’s screen and slid down the side to strike the ground outside the screen.

“Gonna make a nice circular ditch in the ground,” Boston said, and grinned about it.

In less than an hour, they heard a call from Lockhart.  They had reached the barrier.

“Hold on, hold on,” Elder Stow said.  “Line up in a row, not in a column, and face the screens.  I will say go.  I am going to turn the screens off for a second, so you need to move fast.”

“Roger… Ready.”

“One-two-three-go.”

All three got inside the screens, and Elder Stow got them back on before the ship overhead could react.  The Flesh Eater Weapon came, but they just added to the circle ditch around the farm.  The Flesh Eaters tried some air to surface missiles.  They did not fare any better than the other options.

“An atomic weapon would not penetrate,” Elder Stow admitted.  “But I would hate to see that used.  It would devastate the countryside for miles around.”

The travelers understood and went to meet everyone in the small farmhouse and around the cooking fires out back where Alexis, Nanette, Sukki, and the farmer’s wife were trying to cook enough food for everyone.  The farmer gave up a cow but admitted he could buy six cows for the six old Roman gold pieces Lincoln shared with him.  “And maybe some sheep and a pig or two as well.”  He had no complaints.

People pitched their tents in the field, and as far as anyone knew, Elder Stow worked on his screen device all night.

###

Elgar sat at the King’s Inn in Guildford.  The food was bland, but filling.  Osric and the King debated some wild scheme to double march the men to arrive before dark and attack right away instead of settling into a camp as expected. Ethelbald just listened.

“Daft,” Elgar borrowed Gwyn’s very apt Celtic word.

“You have a better idea?” Osric asked.

“Men who are exhausted and hungry do not fight well.  Hurrying them to strike before nightfall is asking for a disaster.  We won’t surprise them.  They probably have their own men out spying on us this very moment.  You can be sure they know where we are, how many we are, and will not be fooled.”

“So, what do you recommend?” the king asked.

Elgar nodded and took a moment to set a scene on the table, using what utensils and plates he had available, as he spoke.  “Stop the men about two miles away, or about an hour’s distance.  Set a watch in the night and dare the Vikings to travel an hour through unfamiliar territory to get at us in the dark if they want.  Let the men rest and eat well in the morning.  We can travel the hour or two and should arrive by the fourth hour.  For one, the men will be rested and well fed, and ready to fight.  For two, it is not far enough where the army strings out for miles behind.  It is a short enough walk where the whole army should arrive more or less together and intact.”

“Then what?” Osric asked, but by then Elgar had the table set, and explained.

“The Vikings are here, backs to the river.  On one side they have a natural bend in the river meant to prevent our pitiful few horsemen from riding around and hitting them in the flank.  On the other side, there are trees meant to do the same thing, to prevent our use of horsemen.

“I admit,” Osric said.  “Getting our horsemen to hit them in the side was affective, but it looks like we won’t be able to do that this time.”

Elgar nodded.  “But trees are no barrier to men on foot.  I already have men infiltrating the woods and some are prepared to burn the boats the Vikings have on the river, so they won’t be able to easily escape. “

“But if they line up as you suggest, only one small part of the line will be subject to your men in the forest,” The king said, thinking about it.

“So, we turn the line,” Elgar said.  “Attack at an angle and make them march forward so their backs are to the trees.  I will press in with the reserves right away.”

“Won’t that be you blinking first?” Osric asked.

Elgar shook his head.  “It should be enough to push the Vikings closer to the woods, and then my archers rarely miss—they are hunters, all.  Once the Vikings begin to take arrows in the back, I expect they will begin to break.  The Viking commander will have a dilemma. to strengthen the line with his reserves and have them subject to the same deadly arrow fire or send the reserves into the woods to try and rout out the archers.  I don’t expect many of those men will make it back out of the woods, but you have to trust me on that.”

“And the boats?  How do you propose to burn them behind their backs?

“The river is in our favor.  I have men who can come down the river and catch the Vikings napping.”

“Yes,” the king said.  “You appear to have a whole army that I am not aware of.  How do you explain that one?”

“They are on our side,” Elgar said.  “Trust me.  I am not holding anything from you, but they don’t mingle well with humans.”

“What do you mean… humans?”

Osric shook his head.  “You really don’t want to know.”

“But maybe I do want to know,” the king huffed.  “Maybe there is a better use for those men.”

“But…”

“I want to see them and know what you have.  I insist.”

Elgar shrugged and called, “Pinewood.”  The fairy came to the table, full sized and dressed in hunter green.

“Lord.  Your Majesty.  Lord Osric.”  Pinewood bowed to all three.  “The men are in the woods preparing for the morning after tomorrow.  Piebald and Bogus are looking forward to the greatest slaughter of the heathen that has ever been seen.”

Elgar shook his head.  “The king wants to see what he is working with.  Please get small.”

With a look at Osric, Pinewood got small and fluttered to the table.  The king’s jaw dropped.  Ethelbald screamed, but the king grabbed his arm so he could not escape.  Osric asked if he reacted that way when he first met Pinewood.  “Worse.  Like you had seen a ghost,” Elgar said, and then thanked Pinewood who got big again and kindly left by way of the door.

The king took a second to frame his thoughts.  “But can they be trusted?”

“More than most men,” Elgar said.  “But they don’t like their loyalty questioned, so let’s keep those questions between you and me.”

The king nodded and Ethelbald spoke to Osric.  “I see what you mean, you don’t want to know.”

###

In the morning, Elder Stow said he was ready.  He got out his handgun and got Sukki to stand beside him.  He tuned one disc for everyone to filter out the Vr energy but said they were not screens.  They would not protect them from whatever other Flesh Eater weapons they used.

Everyone got down behind a great pile of rocks that the farmer’s family had pulled from the fields over the generations.  A few trees grew there to offer some protection, but it was the best they could do.

Elder Stow instructed Sukki on where best to strike the engine.  He took the energy weapons and missile ports for himself, having mapped them with his scanner.  When the two of them rose up in the air, the farmer’s wife shrieked and looked at the ground.  The farmer just stared.  William laughed and nodded.

“Keep your heads down,” Lockhart insisted.

“Now,” the word came over the watches.

Two beams of power struck the Flesh Eater shuttle at the same time.  The front end of the shuttle exploded when the weapons and missiles exploded.  The back end began to smoke, and the shuttle spun and crashed, where it exploded again.  With all that, Elder Stow came back to the group with a report.

“There may be survivors.  We need to move on.  Also, I saw the hundred Vikings camped just outside where the screens set.  I suspect they will be after us as well.”

“No point in staying here,” the farmer explained to Tony.  “I have some family in Guildford.  We can go there.”  He helped his wife and the baby up into his two-wheeled wagon.  The ox was ready to go, and Tony would lead Ghost and their wagon one step behind.

Decker and Sukki took the wings, Sukki filling in for Elder Stow who stayed with the group and kept one eye on his scanner.  Boston, who reported that the Kairos was moving toward them, stayed out front and kept her senses wide open.  The farmer led the group with Alexis and Lincoln.  Katie and Lockhart brought up the rear so they could keep one eye behind looking for Vikings or any Flesh Eaters that might have survived the crash and might be following them.

The morning stayed quiet, and so much so that the travelers thought to stop for a late lunch when they reached the Winchester Road.  Decker and Katie picked a reasonably defensive spot, but by then the travelers had lost the urgent sense of caution.  They relaxed and enjoyed their lunch, which is why both the Flesh Eaters and the Vikings got inside the limit of where Elder Stow had set his screens, if he needed to deploy them.

Avalon 8.5 Hiding from Them, part 4 of 6

The Vikings moved out from their woods.  About twenty horses came into view and prepared to ride to where the wagon turned off the road.  Decker opened fire first.  Katie shot the horses and later said it was too bad.  She had come to appreciate how important and helpful a good horse can be.

“With our cars and trucks, we have no real way to understand that in our day,” she said.

Lockhart agreed.  “I remember the Kairos once saying that the dog might be man’s best friend, but the horse was always man’s best help, or something like that.”

In this case, only a few horses made it back behind the trees.  A few more men ran to safety, but the three on the hill completely busted whatever idea the Vikings had of following the travelers on horseback.

Decker got up and moved to another spot where he could see a long way up the road.  He snapped his scope on to the rifle and got in sniper position.  “They might go up the road and try to cross over on foot in what they think is out of range.”

“We just need to hold them for a while to make sure the wagon gets a good head start.”

Katie understood but spoke, so Decker did not have to say anything.  “But on foot, they can go across country, which the wagon really cannot do, and they might easily catch up.”

Lockhart did not really have an objection to Decker sniping the Vikings, especially if he could keep them from crossing the road.  He just wanted to remind them that they were charged to kill as few people as possible, and only in self-defense.  This counted, but it was close to the line.  They might have all gone with the wagon and dealt with the Vikings if and when they showed up.

They waited a good twenty minutes before Decker opened fire.  It took another five minutes before Vikings came across the field in front of them, yelling murder and screaming obscenities.  Katie opened fire, and after a minute, they came to the outside of shotgun range.  Lockhart added his fire to the mix.  The thunder of the shotgun caused a couple of Vikings to almost pause, berserkers though they might be.

A dozen arrows came from the grass on the other side of the road.  They fell short, but they were likely intended to make the travelers duck and give that much more time for the berserkers to arrive.  The ploy did not work.

“Longbow has not been invented yet,” Katie mumbled to herself before she called.  “Decker.”  Decker turned and added his fire to the attackers.  He flipped his rifle to automatic and began to fire three shot bursts.  Katie did the same.

Lockhart shot the last man just below their position.  “Time to ride,” he said, like he always said when they were on the road and spent a time walking and resting their horses.  The horses stayed good, waiting in the field behind the sharpshooters.  They reached the horses just in time as the Flesh Eater shuttle came over their position.  It only paused a moment, maybe just long enough to scan them before it headed out after the crew with the wagon.

“Damn,” Decker said.  Katie got on her watch communicator as Lockhart mounted and they rode off in the direction the wagon had gone.

###

Elgar rode at the head of his column of men which came in the middle of the line.  His men were disciplined enough to keep up in their companies and not string out all over the road.  He could not say the same for the King’s men or for Osric’s men from Dorset, but at least they kept up.   It was either keep up or be trampled by the men from Somerset.  He could not say the same about the men from Wiltunscir and Bearrocscir who strung out behind him for miles, like a bad tail on a kite.  Some of those men would be lucky to arrive in Guildford by midnight.

“Lord,” Deerrunner rode up behind Elgar, young Marsham with him.

“Deerrunner,” Pinewood, who rode beside Elgar, acknowledged the Elder Elf.

Deerrunner and Marsham fit themselves in behind Elgar and Pinewood, Osfirth and Gwyn holding back to make room, and Deerrunner got straight to the point, a sure sign that he was getting older.

“The Vikings have crossed the Thames as reported, and they are resting and waiting for Ethelwulf to tire his men out trying to get there.  They have set up in the field cut along the river from the old oak forest and put their right flank against the trees that remain, with their left flank against a natural bend in the river.  They have boats on the riverbank they can use to cross back over the river if things go badly, but I expect the Danes imagine things will go well.  They imagine they are safe from being outflanked by horsemen, like they were in Somerset.  And the Vikings also imagine that face to face they can beat you Saxons like they beat Beorhtwulf of Mercia.”

“And well they might if we are not careful,” Elgar said.

Gwyn said something from the rear, and Deerrunner repeated it.  “He says footmen are not hampered going through the woods.  We can still hit their flank, just not with horses.”

Elgar shook his head.  “Deerrunner, and Marsham.  You can take your people into the woods and get bow ready.  Lord Pinewood, too, maybe up in the trees.  Tell Bogus that he and Piebald and whatever dwarfs are with them, and maybe Dumfries and whatever night people, can take the forest floor.  Only two things.  First, no arrow fire unless I give the word.  Second, you can take whatever enemy Vikings go into the woods, but you are not allowed to come out of the woods unless I tell you to.  Understood?”

“Yes Lord,” the two elves and the fairy said.

“We better go set up,” Deerrunner said.  “No need to hurry, though, given the speed of your army.”  He smiled.  Elgar was not above giving the elf a snooty look.

Deerrunner and Marshman rushed off.  Pinewood vanished.  He had been floating along gently beside Elgar and simple presented a glamour of himself being big and riding on a horse.  When he left, the illusion disappeared, and the fairy flew off faster than the men could see.

“Where are they going?” Osfirth asked.  “Hey! What happened to Pinewood.”

“He had to go,” Elgar said.  “I told him he should have thought of that before he left.”  Elgar shrugged.

“No, really,” Osfirth turned to Gwyn.  Gwyn, who knew some of the old Celtic stories told in the land, and who suspected, just shook his head.

“You don’t want to know.”

Most of the way down the front line, where the wagons of the women and children moved along well protected, and where the king rode, the king noticed the men ride up to Elgar and then ride away again.  He turned to Osric and asked what that was all about.  Osric, who had some small experience with Elgar’s strange friends, looked, squinted, stared, and finally answered.

“You don’t want to know.”

###

Boston stopped by the farmhouse and shouted, “Hello.”  As she got down from her horse, she sensed the people there, and the fear they felt toward the Vikings they knew were roaming the area around the Thames.  They were afraid, though they were miles from the river.

“We want no trouble,” a man said, as he came to the door, a spear clutched tightly in his hand.  A woman holding a baby came to the door.  A three or four-year-old boy held tightly to the woman’s dress.

“Good,” Boston said.  “We don’t want any trouble either.  There are Vikings blocking the road to Rochester.  We are trying to get to the Winchester Road by cutting across country.  Sorry about crossing your land, but we could sure use a guide who knows what farm trails to take.  We have a wagon and need a good trail, you see?”

The man visibly relaxed when Sukki rode up.  He lowered his weapon and stepped more into the light.  “You are nuns?  Why are women traveling the road alone?  I think that would be very dangerous.”

“Not alone,” Boston said and pointed back to where the wagon came into view.  “We would pay for a good guide,” she added.

William and Elder Stow hurried forward, leaving Lincoln, Alexis, Tony, and Nanette to bring the wagon.  “Is there something wrong?” Elder Stow asked.

“No, Father,” Sukki said.  “Boston is asking the man if he can guide us to the road.”

“Bishop Ceolnoth,” The farmer’s wife spouted and genuflected.  She came out of the house to take and kiss the man’s hand.

“Please, woman.  I am not the Pope,” William said and made her stand.

“And this is one of your priests?” the farmer guessed and pointed at Elder Stow.

“No such thing,” Elder Stow said.  “I am the girl’s father.”

“Oh…” the Farmer did not know what to say.

“Bishop?” Alexis asked as she arrived.

“Yes,” William said.  “But I have found I can get around easier as a simple monk.  Wilimbro was my name, and men did call me William the Lesser for years before I got shoved into the role of Archbishop of Canterbury.  I chose the name Ceolnoth.  I needed a more Saxon sounding name for the role, but between us, I hope things don’t change.”

“Fair enough,” Lincoln said.  He shook the man’s hand as if for the first time.

Tony came up with the wagon and got down to visit with the farmers.  Nanette tied her horse to the back of the wagon and came forward.  Lincoln shouted to them.  ‘Turns out William is the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

“Okay,” the man said in an unhappy voice.  “We were doing well.  I would rather things not change, and you call me William for now.”

Boston looked at the man and said, “But you should understand, around us, things constantly change, and usually that means trouble.”  In the timing of the little ones, the watch communicators went off and Katie began to shout about the Flesh Eater shuttle being on its way.

“I understand,” Elder Stow said, touching a spot on his belt.  He had the screen device handy and turned it on.  Everyone was well inside the screens.  He set them for instant activation when he got the word, but he also made them permeable to radio waves, so they remained able to communicate.  “Careful when you get nearby.  The particle screen is up.  It will take some time to lower the particle screen and still protect us from the Vr energy.”

“Roger, out,” Katie said even as the ship appeared over the farm.

Avalon 8.5 Hiding from Them, part 3 of 6

Decker shouted.  He started to sway and could not seem to open his eyes.

“Decker,” Nanette shouted at him, and Boston and Sukki ran up to see what the problem was.  Sukki arrived in time to see Nanette slap Decker, and yell.  “Open your eyes. Come back to me.”  The shock of the slap got Decker to pop his eyes open, but then he groaned and fell over.

“I’m all right,” Decker breathed.

“What happened?” Sukki asked, but no one was in a position to answer.  Decker sat up when Alexis arrived and knelt beside him to examine him.

“I’m okay.” Decker waved her off.  “I got hit with some kind of hypnotic, hallucinogenic ray of some kind.  I don’t know what that was.”

“I didn’t think anything could touch you when you were with your totem,” Nanette said.

“He got poked in the eye once by a witch,” Boston said.  “Outside Babylon, remember?”

“Thanks,” Decker said, and shook his head.  “I had forgotten that.”

“I think the eagle eye is more like a gift,” Alexis said.  “Like a power”.

“When he first got the gift, he dropped hand grenades on the alien Balok,” Lincoln said.

“Something physical goes with him when he takes to the air,” Alexis remembered the hand grenades.  “There is a real connection to his physical being that stays on earth.”

Decker understood something, anyway.  He got to his feet but had to lean on Nanette for a minute to stay upright.  People waited to hear what he saw.

“About a hundred Vikings as near as I could see.  They only have half a dozen horses, though there may be more horses in the woods.  That was hard to tell with them all staying hidden, but in any case, they are mostly on foot, so if we can get past that point, it is unlikely they will be able to follow us.”

“And did you spy the spaceship?” Elder Stow asked with another glance at his scanner.

Decker did.  “Maybe it saw me and moved fast.  That got my attention.  It came from hovering over that city in the distance and fired some kind of mind-numbing weapon when it got close.  I saw a brilliant flash of colors, felt terrible anxiety—fear, I suppose.  I got dizzy and wanted to throw up.”

“No,” Elder Stow said with some surprise in his voice.  He pulled out his Gott-Druk version of a database and carefully searched.  “Vishantu.”  He read to himself, and Lincoln got out their database and read out loud.

“Vishantu or Flesh Eaters.  Carnivores.  They begin on their victims by drinking the blood and have a tongue specially adapted for that purpose, like a straw.  They can also use their adaptation to suck the marrow from the bones after the flesh is consumed.  Otherwise, they appear near human enough, slightly distorted, mouths too big and gray skin, but humanish.”

Elder Stow interrupted.  “Must be Vr energy.  A very narrow band of what you might call dark energy.  It is a barely discernable by-product of faster than light travel.  It is not something I would have expected these Flesh Eaters even to know about, given the level of technology available to them.”  He waved off the questions and focused on the important point.  “It affects the nervous system and the natural electrical functions of the brain.  It causes a hypnotic state, illusions, or what you call hallucinations, fear, anxiety, pain, paralysis, and death depending on the length of exposure.  Colonel Decker, you must believe me.  The Gott-Druk have outlawed any concentrated use of this energy source.  Most intelligent species that know of it have.  We would never use such a thing, not even on Homo Sapiens.”

“Well, I have the headache,” Decker said.  “Should I look forward to Paralysis and death?”

“There is no lasting trauma,” Elder Stow assured him.  “Good thing you escaped the direct beam.  Your headache should clear up in an hour or so and you should be none the worse.”

“Good to know,” Decker said.  “Meanwhile, I’ll just take these two pain relievers, if you don’t mind.”

“Elder Stow.” Once he knew Decker would be all right, Lockhart changed the subject.  “Let us look at the map you have of the area and see if we can chart the best course to evade the Vikings on the road.”

“Of course,” Elder Stow said.

“Tony.  Join us since you are driving the wagon.  And Elder Stow, you need to get your screen device ready in case that alien ship finds us.”

“Of course,” Elder Stow said again.  “The fourth screen includes a block for Vrocan energy.  Given enough time, I might be able to block just that energy and we could still move, but the whole normal screen will stick us in place until I can devise a workaround.  In that case, the Vikings may catch us.

“It does appear as if the Vikings and these Vish…Flesh Eaters are working together,” Katie said, and Lockhart agreed.

###

“Ethelwulf,” A woman called.  The king paused to turn to her with some annoyance in his expression.  The command tent could only hold so many.  And she should have stayed in Winchester.  She would stay in Guildford whether she liked it or not.  He changed his expression to a smile.

“Osburh.  What is it?  Can’t you see I am in a strategy session before we leave?  We are ready to leave?”  He looked around and everyone agreed.  The Vikings were seen preparing in a field just west of Kingston, in Surry, two long days away.

The woman came into the room carrying a two-year-old on her hip.  “It is the baby.  He won’t eat.”  She looked distressed.

Elgar smiled and tapped Ethelbald to follow.  “So, this is Alfred the Great,” Elgar said.  The two-year-old gave him a funny look and turned his shy head into his mother’s shoulder.  “Go on.”  Elgar poked Ethelbald.  “You’re the big brother.  Encourage him to eat.”

Ethelbald also gave Elgar the same funny look before he turned to the boy and said, sternly.  “Boy, you must eat your food to get big.”

“No.” Elgar said.  “You are not his father.  Sound like you are a big brother who loves his little brother.  Like this.”  He put his hand gently on the boy’s back and spoke kindly.  “You know, those fruits and vegetables keep you healthy.  A good night’s sleep helps too.  Why if you were to get sick it would just break my heart.  So have some fruits and vegetables…”

“And meat,” Ethelbald interrupted.  “It will make you strong.”

“Fish is good,” Elgar said.

Ethelbald made a face.  “I don’t like fish.”

“I do,” Osburh, the queen said.  “What do you think?”  She leaned back and spoke to her child.  The boy nodded, just little.  “Never mind, Ethelwulf.  I think we will be all right now.”  They left and the king turned to Elgar.

“Is that how you speak to your daughters?”

“I try, but what daughter ever listens to her father?  Mostly, my girls do all the talking, and my wife is right in there with them, talking all the time.  I don’t know if they ever say anything.   I swear, though, they would all keep talking in their sleep if they could figure out how.  I’m looking forward to the battlefield where I can have some peace and quiet.”

The king smiled.  Osric rolled his eyes.  Ethelbald laughed after a minute.

###

Elder Stow directed the group down the paths, keeping an eye on what his scanner showed him.  William rode beside him to add his two cents.  He knew the terrain, if not the actual way they had to go.  Boston stayed out front, her senses searching for people, and her eyes open for dips, potholes, and blockages in the path that Elder Stow’s scanner might not pick up. Sukki rode between Boston and the group where she could relay information back to the wagon.  The Gott-Druk might not be good at whispering, but Sukki could shout plenty loud.

Tony drove the wagon while Lincoln and Alexis rode on either side of the mule.  Decker’s rope had already been tied to the wagon and to their horses in case the horses were needed to help drag the wagon up a steep incline or slow it on the downhill side.  Nanette followed the train where her telekinetic magic might help the rear of the wagon over the rocks and rough spots.  It was all they could do.  The cutoff across the open land between Watling Street and the road to Winchester would be slow going.

Lockhart led the rest of the group to a small rise full of Rocks where they first pulled off Watling Street.  They had to move beyond a swampy area before they could move off the road, and that put them within sight of the Vikings blocking the turnoff road to Rochester.  Lockhart revised his thinking about being followed.  Men on horseback would catch them, easily, but even on foot, the Vikings might catch them depending on how slow the wagon had to go in order to arrive in one piece on the Winchester Road.

Lockhart carried his shotgun and had his police special on his hip. The marines, Lieutenant Colonel Decker and Major Katherine Harper-Lockhart had their top-of-the-line military rifles ready.  Katie said the Vikings might be posted in that place to protect the road to Rochester and keep any enterprising locals from interfering with the siege, or whatever was going on around Rochester.  If they saw a group of people pull off the road and turn away from Rochester, the Vikings might be inclined to let them go.

“On the other hand,” Decker countered.  “A dozen people in horseback seen from a distance might suggest the locals are gathering to attack them, and they might follow in force looking to nip that notion in the bud.”

“Nip it in the bud?” Lockhart asked.

“Prevent that from happening.”

“I know what it means.  You don’t usually speak in cliché expressions.”

“Comes from Hanging out with Nanette,” Decker said with a straight face and focused his eyes on the Vikings in the distance.

“Yes, about that…” Lockhart started, but Katie nudged him to get his attention.

“Don’t go there,” she said.

After a moment of silence, Decker responded.  “It’s good.  I’m good.  Now, I see some movement among the Vikings.”

Katie looked back and saw the wagon just pulling off the road.

“We don’t need to kill them all,” Lockhart said, turning his eyes to focus on the task.  “Just discourage them from following.”  They all concentrated until Lockhart added.  “Nip that notion in the bud.”

************************

MONDAY

Vikings and aliens.  Events are heading toward a showdown.  Until then, Happy Reading.

*

Avalon 8.5 Hiding from Them, part 2 of 6

When Boston and Sukki got up for the morning shift, William was already up and in morning prayers.  “Must keep discipline,” he said.  Boston understood.  She got the fire going while Sukki put on the breakfast leftovers.  They walked once around the camp and found everything still and quiet.

The sunrise got rated a four that day.  It stayed a bit overcast.  They had a couple of hours of sunshine the afternoon before, but otherwise it remained overcast since they came into that time zone.  They camped in a fallow field off the road, so there would be no Vikings sneaking through the woods to get at them.

“Maybe rain.”  Boston examined the clouds.

“Maybe,” Sukki said, as they sat and watched the ground level mist slowly clear.

“Watling Street,” Katie said when she and Lockhart got up.  “It runs from Canterbury to London.  We should be near Rochester.  I can’t imagine London is safe if it is in Viking hands.”

“We are too close to the coast,” Decker said, as he came to the fire, yawning.

“We are,” Lincoln agreed, as he and Alexis arrived.

“I wonder what is happening in Rochester?” Alexis asked.

“You mean, Durobrivis?” William asked as he came to join the others.

“Yes, Durobrivis,” Katie said.

William sat.  “Last I heard, they are still resisting.  The city was sacked and burned by a big raiding party of Vikings about ten years ago.  Since then, they built up their defenses.  Time will tell if they did enough to hold off the Danes this time.”

“Bread?” Alexis asked.  She got out some elf crackers and put on the water to boil.

“Yes, please,” William said.  He called it the best bread he ever ate.

“Not for me,” Lockhart said, and drank this time period’s poor excuse for tea, and thought about coffee.

Tony came out, let out a big yawn, and sat to fix a plate of leftovers and bread.  Then he asked.

“Does the road we are on go through the city?”

“No, no.” William said.  “It goes close, maybe too close, but outside of the city and continues to London.  We stay about a mile from Durobrivis, but shortly after that spot we go…”  He showed with his hand.

“Left,” Alexis said.

“Yes.  It is the road to Winchester.  About a hundred miles from that point to Winchester.”

“And we will move away from the coast at that point?” Decker said.

“Yes,” William confirmed.  “Away from the Vikings.  But near the Thames.   We go through Surry. I don’t honestly know if the Danes may have pushed up the Thames from London.”  He looked at Alexis.  “Do you have the recipe for this bread?”

Alexis looked at the travelers, but Boston spoke right up.  “It is elf bread.  My people are smart.”

Alexis shrugged.  Lincoln gave Boston a hard look because for once he kept his mouth shut. William paused in his eating before he shrugged and finished his breakfast.  “It is good, whoever made it.”

“You are not surprised at the mention of elves?” Nanette wondered.

William shook his head.  “I have heard stories of the little people all my life.  I don’t know what they are or how they fit into God’s economy, but who am I to say those stories are not true?  I prefer to keep an open mind and trust the Lord to show me what I need to know to do his will in this life.  That is all that really matters.”

“Very wise,” Alexis said.

After they cleaned up the campsite and started up the road, Lockhart seemed more awake and asked a question.  “You think the Vikings may have pushed up the Thames from London?”

William shrugged, not that Lockhart could see him since he rode behind.  “All I can say is this was not a typical raiding party.  These Vikings appeared in numbers more like an invasion force.  More than three hundred ships.  They had the strength to drive off the King of Mercia and had enough men leftover to overrun Canterbury at about the same time.”

“Not good,” Lincoln mumbled.  Lockhart looked at Katie, but all she could do was nod.

###

Elgar led his thousand men of mixed Celts and Germans into Winchester.  Gwyn and Osfirth would have to find a place for the men to stay while he went to see the king.  He did not doubt the king wanted to see Elgar’s brother, Eanwulf, the Eorldomen of Somerset, but Eanwulf’s wife was expecting, and the pregnancy had not been a good one.

“Your Majesty,” Elgar said in his most humble voice.  “I am your most humble servant.” He bowed.

Unfortunately, Osric, the Earl of Dorset stood there and scoffed.  “Forget it, Elgar.  You are not fooling anyone.”

“Elgar?” the king asked, confused.

“Eangar of Somerset, though Elgar is my name.  Second son of Eanric, who with his father overthrew the fort of Watchet, the last British stronghold in the marshland.  My father was made Eorldomen of Somerset by your father Egbert, a title my older brother Eanwulf now holds.”

“Yes, why is Eanwulf not here?”

“Alas, his wife is with child and struggling.  He fears to lose her in the birthing.  As the good younger brother, I felt it was my duty to lead the men of Somerset, all of whom have experience fighting these Vikings.”

“Good younger brother,” Osric scoffed.

Elgar, who was around thirty-one, looked at the nineteen-year-old that stood beside the king and winked.  He assumed the young man was Ethelbald, the eldest surviving son, and Ethelbald responded with a big grin.

King Ethelwulf looked serious as Elgar continued.

“I have a thousand Saxons, British, Jutes, and Dumnonii who are all good neighbors, as all men should be, and who all have experience fighting the Vikings.  I have brought many from Watchet and the small coastal estate by brother has granted to me.”

“What?  Why is he granting land?” the king frowned.

“Ah,” Elgar said.  “Just the coast from the border with Devon to the mouth of the Parret River.  He has charged me to face and drive off whatever invading Danes might come along.  I see it less as a land grant and more of a fiery duty.”

“The coast?” the king said, and thought for a minute before he added, “I won’t argue with that.”

“Your majesty is too kind,” Elgar said, and gave Osric a sly grin.

“Stop,” Osric said.  “You are going to make me sick.  But he speaks the truth about his men.  Elgar was the one insisted we keep back a third of our men in reserve.  We kept about a quarter that were willing.  When we arrived at the battle, we saw the Danes held back some men in reserve as well.”

“What happened?” Ethelbald, the son spoke for the first time.

“The Danish commander blinked first,” Elgar said.

Osric agreed.  “They threw their men into the line first to try and break us, and it had an impact on our line, but Elgar waited.  I got nervous.  But when our line began to give way, Elgar pressed forward with the reserves and those fresh troops broke the Danish line.  It was a great victory.”

“I see,” The king said.  “I hardly expected good Saxon fighting men would be held back once the battle lines were drawn up.”

“We matched the Danes the way they fight, and our good men beat their good men,” Elgar said.

“Frankly,” Osric finished.  “He is a bit of a cheek, but between Elgar and his brother, you got the better of the deal.”

“And what do you have to say for yourself?” King Ethelwulf gave Elgar a hard stare.  Ethelbald drew back a little even though the stare was not directed at him.

Elgar looked serious.  “To be perfectly honest.  I love my wife, and we have three lovely daughters.  I had a son, but he died a few years ago.  Back home, I have a house full of women.  I figure dealing with a few Vikings will be less taxing than the cat fights I get in my house.”

The king thought again before he laughed.

###

Boston came back to the group, concerned, but not yelling.  The Vikings ahead waited in ambush, not necessarily for the travelers, but for any person or group that might be traveling on the road.  About a hundred of them stood around the sparse tree cover, their campfires well hidden.  A few hid behind the couple of farm wagons abandoned where the side road turned off Watling Street and headed toward Rochester.  No sign of the farmers, but one of the wagons smoked, like it got burned, and a couple of oxen stood in the field, grazing on what they could find.

Boston sent Sukki to the group as soon as she sensed the trouble in the road ahead.  The travelers all stopped and dismounted.  Presently, Elder Stow with his scanner and Decker with his eagle totem were looking for a way across country to the road to Winchester.  Lincoln checked the database but said the maps of that era were not the best.

“No reason to confront the Vikings or get in a shootout if we don’t have to,” Lockhart said.

“There are hills of a sort beneath our position,” Katie said, shading her eyes to look. “They don’t look too difficult.”

“It’s the north downs,” Lincoln said.

“It can be treacherous,” William interjected.  “The Romans only cut one road through there, the Winchester Road to go west from Londinium, and they had to come down to Durobrivis to start cutting through.  The road above runs along the Thames, but on the other side of the river.”

“We don’t need to cut through the downs,” Lockhart said.  “Just cut the corner to the Winchester Road.”

William and Lincoln both shrugged.

“My father,” Elder Stow came up first.  “There are farms and farm roads all through the area we need to go.  It will be tricky, but we should be able to manage it.”

“We used to go through the pure wilderness before roads were a thing,” Lincoln said.

“Yes, but back then we did not have a wagon and often had to backtrack to find a better way through,” Katie countered.

“My mother,” Elder Stow continued.  “I am picking up something else on the outer edge of the scanner.  The image is not clear at that distance, but I would guess an alien ship of some sort.”

“Great,” Lincoln said, giving vent to his full sarcasm.  “As if rampaging Vikings were not enough.”

Avalon 8.4 Happily Ever After, part 6 of 6

The innkeeper and his son got locked in the dungeon in the town hall.  To his credit, Charlemagne understood on the first telling of the events.  Uncle Bernard only needed a bit of clarification on a couple of points, but the magistrate needed things explained about five times.  Lincoln was good about it, and Tony helped.

The soldiers cleaned up the dead bodies.  Lockhart said to Charles how glad he was to look up to someone at last.  He said Gerraint was the last man he met where he could see eye to eye.  Charlemagne said he met the man, so they knew Genevieve shared some about the Kairos with him.

Charles said he had to go to bed.  He would be leaving in the morning, hopefully before this Engelbroad showed up.  He appreciated the fact that they would keep an eye on the events and keep Genevieve safe.  “Those elf maids are special, but I am more comfortable having a couple of Rhine maidens looking after her.”  He glanced at Sukki.  “One punch?”

Sukki nodded and kept the tears at bay.

Charles said, “Of course, Genevieve is a bit of a Rhine Maiden herself.”

“Really?” Katie sounded surprised.  “She seemed like such a nice and gentle soul.”

“In public,” Charles nodded.  “But in private? Fierce.”

Bernard spoke up.  “You men are welcome to come to the party for Otto.”

“Bachelor’s party,” Decker called it.

“I don’t do alcohol,” Elder Stow admitted.

“Oh, come on,” Lockhart said.  “It is one way to stay close to the women and keep one eye open.”

“So, don’t drink too much,” Lincoln said and winked.  Bernard laughed.

###

Very early the next morning, while men slept all around the room, Lockhart woke to the sound of activity outside, just as the sun touched the horizon.  Something felt wrong.  Decker got up right away.  Apparently, he felt it too.  They both found Elder Stow by the window that looked out on the street.  When they snuck out of the main room and went to the front door, Bernard joined them.  Out on the front steps, Lockhart saw what bothered him.

Charles stood in the open square talking to several men.  He was not hard to find, being as tall as he was.  Engelbroad could see him, and shoot him, easily.  Boston said it looked like Engelbroad got his hands on a ray-gun.  Lockhart would not have believed it if they did not run into those Ape spacemen aliens.

“Elder Stow,” he said.  “Can you put screens around the open space and make sure Charles is covered?”

Elder Stow got out his screen device.  “In a minute.  It would be best not to cut men or horses in half.”

Decker snapped the scope to his rifle as Bernard spoke.  “You expect this Engelbroad person to show up and attack Charles.  I can’t imagine he will get close enough, going through all those men.”

“He won’t have to get close,” Lockhart said as he scanned the crowd.  At least he found Waldo.

“A bow or crossbow?” Bernard asked.  “A javelin would be too difficult through so many people.”

“There he is,” Decker said, raised his rifle and fired several shots in rapid succession.  He heard Nanette yell from the steps of the church.

“Decker.  You’ll hit innocent people.”

While he paused, Elder Stow said, “There,” and turned on the device.  Engelbroad, who had ducked behind a wagon when Decker opened fire, rushed out from hiding, raised his weapon, and fired straight at Charles who just noticed where Decker’s rifle pointed.  The slightly red tinted light from that gun stopped ten feet short of Charles.  Charles saw and then looked again at Decker.

“It is not a Decker wall,” Elder Stow said quickly, and Decker lowered his rifle.

Engelbroad did something to the gun and tried again.  He had no better luck than the first time.

Decker groused.  “If I can’t shoot him, how do we get at him?”

“Maybe we won’t have to,” Lockhart said.  He pointed as an Ape shuttle came in for a soft landing on the street outside the screens.  By then, a white dress appeared on the far side of the screens.  It looked like a wedding dress, but it did not look like Genevieve.  The woman had long black hair and looked a little fuller everywhere.  Genevieve was as skinny as a runway model and might have modeled in the future.  The travelers figured it was probably because of what Katie called the Cinderella diet.

Amphitrite stepped into Genevieve’s life for a bit.  She landed and Engelbroad turned on her, but she raised her hand and the Ape weapon disappeared and reappeared in her hand.  She shut it down and marched up to the shuttle as the door opened and an Ape came out.  She yelled.

“Hiding.  What part of stay away from the people did you not understand?  How did he get this weapon?  I don’t want to know.”  She paused when she realized she was babbling just like Genevieve.  “Here.  Go hide.  Stay away from people.  Don’t let it happen again.”

She spun around and saw Engelbroad in the hands of Charles’ soldiers.  She blinked herself back to the church steps and let Genevieve come home and complain.

“She stretched out my dress.”  Genevieve put her hands on her stomach.  “Wait.  Nobody will notice the belly. Good.  I can blame it on Amphitrite.  Hey!  Real fairy weave should change sizes to fit whoever is wearing it.  Must be the cheap stuff.  We got any more chicken?”  She paused to give Charles her snooty look.  He returned an equally funny face.  She marched back into the church, followed by her maids and the fairy.  The women waved to the men, Boston having her left arm in a sling.  Katie shrugged, and the men turned, Elder Stow having turned off his screen device.

“And I can’t see that weapon,” Bernard said, just to confirm.

“Not allowed.” Decker said.

“And those Ape men you just saw?”  Lockhart said and Bernard nodded. “You didn’t see them either.”  Bernard thought a second before he laughed.

###

This wedding was a far cry from the wedding Father Aden performed when Margueritte and Roland married.  This one went on for three hours.  The bishop would not finish.  He seemed to want to cover every bit of theology he learned in seminary in one go.  Poor Genevieve fell asleep briefly, and nearly fell over.  Katie confessed that Genevieve did not sleep a wink all night.  Poor Otto.  They had to kneel so long, when they could get up, he could not get up.  Bernard and the Major Domo of Provence had to help.

Once the service was done, the feasting began.  Neither Genevieve nor Otto were to be found, but that was to be expected.

Bernard secured two big riverboats to take the travelers and all their horses and equipment down the Rhine.  He said they would wait a week and then head into Francia and Provence to drop off Otto and pick up his contingent of soldiers.

“The way into the Lombard Kingdom will be easier and quicker for us not having to move through the rough mountain passes, even if we have a longer way to go,” he said.  “In the meantime, Genevieve assured me before she fell asleep that a week should be more than enough time to make your next destination, wherever that is.”

“North, above Strasbourg,” Lockhart said.

Katie added.  “The place is somewhere further north, but not as far as the Selz.”

Bernard knew the area and said the riverboats would travel through the night and get them to Strasbourg in plenty of time.”

Of course, what Alexis told them when Genevieve came the next morning to see them off, driving up in a beautiful Cinderella-like carriage, she slept for most of her wedding night and Otto stayed mostly awake, sleeping in the chair some, looking at her and smiling the whole time, or so Otto told her.

“In other words.” Boston just had to say it.  “They lived happily ever after.”

************************

MONDAY

Th vikings overrun London and beat back the king of Mercia. Only Wessex stands between them and the conquest of the whole island.  The vikings have some alien help.  The travelers will have to counter that.  Until Monday, Happy Reading.

 

 

*

Avalon 8.4 Happily Ever After, part 4 of 6

Lockhart, Katie, and Boston had the horses that evening.  They found the inn had a groom, which was a nice addition to the normal service a typical inn of that age provided.  It took them a while to strip the horses and brush them down from a long day of traveling.  They even had stalls for them all, and room for Ghost, the mule.  Hoffen had the other three horses in the party that night, but he let the groom do most of the work.

Inside, Lincoln, Alexis, Decker and Nanette saw to their accommodations.  Decker had to ask.

“How come this place is empty?  I would have guessed every place would be full of soldiers.”

Engelbroad smiled when he answered.  “My friend, Theobald saw what was happening and quickly rented the whole inn for the month.  Tomorrow is May first, so we have to pay for our rooms, but this way there are rooms.  My friend did not know how many we would be bringing. Anyway, I suppose the innkeeper does not mind, as long as he gets paid.”

“He probably likes getting money and not having to worry about guests complaining, or soldiers trashing the place,” Lincoln suggested.

“I am sure,” Engelbroad agreed.

“Your friend sounds like a nice man,” Alexis said.

“And rich,” Nanette interrupted.

“I would like to meet him,” Alexis finished.

“Yes,” Engelbroad said.  “He is over there, talking to your companions.”

Everyone looked at the man who talked with Elder Stow and Sukki.  They had gone to sit at a table so Elder Stow could work on his scanner.  He did not look like he appreciated the interruption, but Sukki smiled.

The man turned suddenly, and Lincoln and Alexis got a good look before they both turned quickly to face the innkeeper.

“Is that?” Alexis said.

“Yes,” Lincoln confirmed and got the innkeeper’s attention.  “We would like to see the rooms if you don’t mind.”

“Up the stairs.  The rooms are all well marked.”

“Thank you,” Alexis said, and whispered, “Nanette, come and bring Decker.”

Nanette did not argue or ask what was up.  She simply grabbed Decker’s hand and dragged him up the stairs behind the others.  Once up in the room, Lincoln closed the door.

“Doctor Theobald is Doctor Theopholus from Chalcedon and Constantinople,” Lincoln said.

“In that day, he was planning on infecting the whole city with the plague,” Alexis said.  “I wonder what he is doing here.”

“Killing Charlemagne would be my guess,” Lincoln said.

“Are you sure?” Nanette asked, and sat on the bed beside Alexis, who nodded and explained.

“He looks almost exactly the same, though younger than he was.  I imagine the genetic code needs to be nearly exact in order for the Masters to connect the lives.”

“The Kairos is not exactly the same,” Decker said.  “Sometimes there are definite differences, like black and white.”

“Not to mention male and female,” Nanette added, and placed a hand gently on Decker’s arm.

“It might not have to be perfectly exact.  Maybe ninety-nine percent,” Lincoln suggested.

Alexis shrugged.  “The genetic code carries more information than a supercomputer.  One set of information makes a person, but the Kairos started with two complete sets so there can be a lot of mix and match.”

“But what can we do?” Nanette asked.

“Kill this doctor again,” Decker gave the quick answer.

“Find out what his plans are first,” Alexis said.

“Then kill him,” Lincoln said.

“Nanette,” Decker interrupted.  “You need to stop Lockhart and the Major from stumbling in.”

“No, you,” Nanette said.  “I can get Sukki and whisper to Elder Stow without arousing suspicion, and Lockhart and Katie will listen to you.”

Decker did not argue.

“We need to stay up here, out of sight,” Alexis also agreed with Nanette.

“Ask Elder Stow if he has any of those invisibility discs,” Lincoln suggested.

“I better go,” Decker said, and hustled downstairs and out the door.

Nanette arrived downstairs and wandered over to Sukki and Elder Stow.  She tried to look casual, like she had no cares in the world, but imagined she did not do a very good job of it.  Doctor Theobald and Engelbroad were both at the table, asking questions.  Engelbroad appeared especially interested in Elder Stow’s scanner, and Elder Stow did not mind answering the questions even if he would rather be left alone to work on the device.

Nanette was able to pull Sukki aside.  They stepped to the porch, just outside the front door, and Nanette explained about who Doctor Theobald really was.  When she finished, they heard Boston’s voice.

“So, we have to presume Engelbroad, Hoffen, and Budman are in on whatever the plan may be.”

“Boston?”  Sukki asked, her voice a bit loud.

Boston became visible beside them and said, “Right here.  Decker is going to stick to Hoffen.  Lockhart and Katie will stay in the barn for now.  Where is Budman?”  Sukki and Nanette shrugged.

“Look out,” Nanette said.  Hoffen came from the barn and hurried.  Boston let out her best fake laugh, which made Sukki actually laugh.  Hoffen ignored them as he hurried inside.  Decker came quickly to the porch.  Boston went invisible, and the travelers pushed into the inn.

Hoffen went straight to the table and asked Doctor Theobald and Engelbroad to see him in the kitchen.  They looked curious.  They followed him while Elder Stow went straight back to work on his scanner in that moment of peace.  Boston also followed, invisible.  She heard Decker give the signal over his wristwatch communicator, and Boston turned hers off so she would not be interrupted.  Katie and Lockhart would rush to the inn and get upstairs where they would stay hidden with Lincoln and Alexis.  Boston saw Nanette and Sukki sit down with Elder Stow to explain, but then she had to scoot into the kitchen before the door closed.

“Innkeeper,” Hoffen grabbed the man from the back room so he could be part of the private meeting.

“What is it?” Engelbroad asked.  Hoffen explained when all were present.

“I finally got a look under the tarp, and it is as I suspected.  These pilgrims are the Travelers from Avalon.”

“Yes,” Doctor Theobald thought that might be the case.  “I saw those two at the counter when they first came in and felt sure they looked familiar.”

“The old man’s scanner confirms it,” Engelbroad said.  “That is a piece of equipment not from this time period.  I did not get a good look at it.  I don’t know how capable it might be, but I would guess just basic scanner technology supplied so the travelers don’t get surprised by something in the immediate area.”  He paused to pull a strange looking device from an inner pocket.  “Backup,” he called it, but Boston saw it as a weapon, what Lockhart would call a ray gun.

“This can still work,” Hoffen said.  “Doctor?”

“The castor beans got crushed to powder.  I left plenty of evidence.  It didn’t take long to poison the wedding toast.  The ricin is just the right ingredient.  It dissolved in the wine and poisoned the whole keg.  Even if some steward decides to sample the wine, it takes three or four hours for symptoms to begin to show.  But once the ricin is ingested, there is no cure.”

“Are you sure?” Engelbroad asked.

“You are the physicist,” Doctor Theobald poked Engelbroad in the chest.  “Stick to your specialty. I know my job.”

“Enough,” Hoffen said.  “Innkeeper?”

“Gruber and I will deliver the wine for the toast on schedule, and by the time they come looking for us, we will be in Bavaria.”

“And live very well, I imagine, with all that money,” Engelbroad turned from the Doctor

The innkeeper smiled.  “I might even open an inn.”

“By the time they come looking is the key,” Doctor Theobald said.

“Budman and I picked up what we needed in Rheinfelden,” Hoffen said.  “The evidence will be planted to make the travelers look like Vascon and Muslim assassins.  Once the authorities have the people that they believe are guilty, they won’t look any further.  We will be long gone, and the fact that they will execute the Travelers from Avalon will ensure the future comes out the way the Masters want.  Killing Charlemagne and his chief officers, the Kairos, and the travelers will be fantastic.  I imagine we may even be rewarded.”

“Our future lives, maybe,” Engelbroad said, but then shrugged.

“Where is Budman?” Doctor Theobald asked.

“Getting information from the Benedictines,” Hoffen answered.  “He should be here shortly.”

The innkeeper interrupted.  “I need to get supper started.  You need to take your meeting into another room.”

“Say nothing,” Hoffen said.

“Be pleasant,” Engelbroad added.

They exited the kitchen, and Boston followed them before she ran up the stairs to tell Lockhart, Katie, Alexis, and Lincoln what was up.

Avalon 6.2 Sudden Encounter, part 5 of 6

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”.

‘Fire is not a good weapon,” Decker admitted.  Lockhart looked at Katie to explain.

“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.

“You’re an idiot.  You almost walked right into the Android front line.  I don’t know whatever made me think you might be useful.”  She tapped her foot and demanded, “Say something.”

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.”

“Boston.”  Artie hugged the elf.  “And Sukki.  I remember you,” she said, as she hugged her.  “I was hoping you would go with the travelers.  Are you girls taking care of each other?”

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.

“I didn’t say that,” Ibelam said, flatly.

“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.

Avalon 6.2 Sudden Encounter, part 3 of 6

Artie looked at the three-dimensional map that showed every life form for a hundred miles around, but it did not show the Humanoid battleship.

“Lady Artie,” General RFD 3297, Redfern, came into the open tent to report.  “Repairs are nearly complete, but the light-speed generator is fluctuating in the red zone.  We are a long way from home.”

“We have analyzed the Humanoid weaponry,” the general’s adjutant spoke.  “Their technology is no better than our own.  Maybe a little less.  If they had not surprised us from the back of star Beta 1397, we would have probably beaten them…in a fair fight.”

“But nothing stands still,” Artie spoke as much to herself as to her commanders.  “We are few, and becoming fewer.  When home world was lost, we lost the key to life.  We have built some very intelligent and talented robots, but we are becoming fewer.  We have tried to become more organic, to better replicate, but we have failed there, too.  Meanwhile, these organic humanoids may be countless in number, and they do not appear to be stopping.”

“Grandma…” a young, mostly human cyborg came into the tent.  Artie smiled and put her hand gently to the boy’s cheek.  She was more like the boy’s great-great grandmother.  When the Nameless god changed her back from human to android, he neglected to tell her she was pregnant.  He left her internal system intact and she gave birth to a boy; but that happened over four hundred years ago.  Others followed, and there were sons of sons, and daughters, but it happened slowly.  Now, their very existence seemed threatened.  Her androids might become slaves again to these Humanoids unless they found a way to defeat them.  At least her androids cannot make meat for the Humanoid table.

Artie raised her voice.  “I wish my mom and dad were here.  But at the very least, this is a genesis planet.  It is off limits to all space faring races.  We have no business being here, but neither do the Hungdin.  I have prayed.  I do not believe the gods will permit us to interfere with the normal development of this world.  I have prayed that the Kairos may come.  She, or he may know what to do.”

###

The travelers sat around the fire, tried to get comfortable, and tried not to make Muhamed feel like the center of attention.  They also tried not to think about the space ship they all saw, and who it might belong to. Katie bagged a wild goat, so they had plenty to eat.  Alexis complained about not finding anything more than a few rough greens.  They tasted bitter, even when boiled and spiced.

“Atkins,” Alexis turned up her nose and said no more.

Lincoln got out the database and read for the others.  He had to judge what might not be wise to say in front of Muhamed, but he figured Muhamed, as a local, would not understand half of what he talked about.  In that respect, he shared more liberally than he might have, otherwise.

“The Hungdin, a noble house of the Humanoid empire.  From what I can gather, when the Anazi and Androids fought it out, and the Anazi home world got destroyed, that left a great void in the control of the space ways. The Humanoids came from a planet on the edge of Anazi space, so thy were not ruined and turned to Anazi slaves yet. They garnered much of the Anazi technology, though, and pushed out from their home into the collapsed Anazi space. After roughly three hundred years of struggle with a variety of species, they came out, more or less, at the top of the heap.”

“So, who are they?” Lockhart asked.

“Humanoid.  They look like us, mostly.  Theirs is a medieval society.  Some planets and systems are ruled by a committee of the rich, mostly merchant class.  Most systems are ruled by the noble houses, like the Hungdin.  The have an emperor, though most of the nobility have their own armies.  When they expand their empire, the emperor usually steps in and pays off the noble houses for use of their armies, but takes the bulk of the territory for the crown. I guess that is how you get some planetary systems run by committee.”

“But what are they like,” Katie wondered. “I mean apart from the fact that they look sort of like us.”

Lincoln nodded and frowned as he told them.  “They have very sharp teeth and an internal system that appears able to digest anything that is carbon-based organic.  They do make and use slaves of some species.  They probably learned that from the Anazi.  But some species become lunch.”

Decker spoke plainly.  “Given the level of scientific and technological advancement on Earth at present, I would say we are standing on a lunch planet.”

“They don’t cook their food, either,” Lincoln added.  “They rip and chew.  They must have strong jaws.”

“As do we,” Elder Stow pointed to Sukki’s mouth, as Sukki nodded.  “Bet we have mostly molars, good for fruit and vegetables.  We are not big meat eaters, as you know.”

“Okay,” Lincoln took back their attention.  “But here is the thing.  The Humanoid show up chasing an old Anazi-Android ship.”

“Artie?”  Katie spoke right up and put a hand on Lockhart’s arm, and he nodded. Artie, along with the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, became like practice daughters for the couple, before they married. The goddess Amphitrite, that is the Kairos, even made Artie human for a time.  On the day Katie and Lockhart married, however, Artie returned to her Android self and led her Android people into space to find a world they could make into their home.  “Could Artie be here?”

Lincoln shrugged.  “She is mentioned in the database, but I will have to read more before I can say for sure.  It may just be her people who talk about her.”

“She might not still be alive after all this time,” Lockhart said in as comforting a voice as he could muster. “For us it has been four or five months, about eight time zones.  For her it has been four or five hundred years.”

“I can hope,” Katie said, and Alexis had the good sense to change the subject.  She checked Muhamed’s arm where he had been wounded.

“So, tell me,” she said to him.  “How did you come to be all alone and chased by skeletons, no less.”

“Ahh…”  Muhamed drew out the sound as he settled his mind.  He spent that whole time, up until then, thinking through exactly what lies he would tell.  He knew he needed to stick as close to the truth as possible, to make it believable, while still throwing them off the trail.  People turned to him to listen.

“I am a simple chemist from Medina. It is a small town in the Araba that you have probably never heard of.  I came with a caravan in search of frankincense and myrrh and other such things to make my medicines.  We camped on a field some distance from here, but we did not know it was the site of an ancient battle.  Suddenly, in the morning light, the ancient army, mostly skeletons such as you saw, came to life and began to kill my guides and the others.  We scattered.  I ran back the way we came, and against all hope, I cried for help. Then you came to me, and saved me and healed me.  Allah…and the gods be praised.  I am only sorry I have only my person, and none of my things to thank you properly. I had gold and silver, and I would give it all to you in thanksgiving.”

“Not necessary,” Alexis assured him. “Is there a town or city on the way where we can bring him?” she asked, with a look at Boston.

“Yes,” Boston said, but she looked at Katie and Decker.  Those three went hunting together and took time to discuss their uneasy feelings. Boston’s elf senses told her Muhamed did not exactly tell the whole truth, but she felt uncertain what to ask.  She checked with her eyes.  Apparently, Decker and Katie did not buy the story either.

Lincoln spoke up.  “The necromancer,” he said.  “He must have passed through the field just before the caravan settled in for the night.”

“Or he came in the night,” Lockhart suggested.

“Or he was a member of the caravan,” Elder Stow offered an alternative.

“I do not know if any of the others survived,” Muhamed said, and appeared to grow introspective.  Internally, he adjusted his lies to point a finger at the rude fat man that came across him on the trail and refused to allow him to travel with the caravan unless he got paid in gold.  Muhamed hoped the fat man got eaten by the skeletons.  Then he wondered again why the bones were so hard to control.  He decided the bones needed more flesh on them for him to really control them.  He would escape and move into the future through the time gate, and try again.

************************

MONDAY

Ibelam’s crew and the travelers run into Humanoids and Androids at war, and Muhamed escapes.

Until next time, Happy Reading

*

Avalon 5.7 Little Lost Lamb part 2 of 6

In the morning, Artie heard voices outside her tent.  They did not sound like Naman and his father.  These sounded like rough voices, and one man sounded like he swallowed a frog.  Artie got up quietly and strapped on her belt.  She made sure her weapons were available, and thought to listen some before she ventured out.

“It does not look like these have anything worth taking,” one man said.

“This thing of leather is very interesting, only I don’t know what it is for,” another said.

“This tent.  I have never seen weaving so fine.  How is it made?”  That was froggy.

“I do not know.  It belongs to the lady,” Abinidab said.  Artie heard a grunt and a snap.  She feared for the old man.

“That horse would be worth something if we could catch it.”  Another grunt and hands came in the tent.  They grabbed Artie right from where she listened, and pulled her out.  There were four men, shaggy and unwashed, and they looked at Artie like they just found some fresh meat.

“No,” Naman said.  They had him on his knees, hands behind his back.  One man had a hand on his shoulder and hovered over him with a long knife near his throat.

The head man glanced at Naman.  “Is she your girlfriend?”  He laughed.  “Strip her.”

Artie felt repulsed as one manhandled her, until he spoke.  “There doesn’t seem to be a fastener on this dress.  Is it a dress?”

“Well, pull it off her,” the head man ordered.  The man had to let go of Artie’s arms to do that.  Artie went into Dominant mode.  She pulled her knife which cut one man’s hand wide open.  She simultaneously drew her handgun and put a three-inch hole through the middle of the head man.  She knelt and burned the one hovering over her saddle, spun and took half the face off the one that had held her.  When she turned again, she saw the one that had been holding Naman running for the river.  She pulled the trigger on her gun, but nothing happened.

“What?”  She looked at her gun.  It said the charge was completely empty.  “That can’t be.  Not after four shots.  This should be good for a hundred shots, at least.”

“Help here,” Naman said, and Artie turned from the runner.  She turned off her weapon, holstered it, and went to look.  They hit the old man in the back of the head with a rock.  He was bleeding.

Artie fetched her satchel.  She had antiseptic ointment and a gauze bandage.  She checked the man’s pulse and breathing to see if he still functioned, then she put some ointment on the bandage and pressed it against the bloody spot.  “Hold this here good and tight until the bleeding stops.  She stepped into her tent and pulled out her blanket.  She had learned how to take a small piece of her blanket and separate it from the rest.  She did that, and caused the piece to lengthen and widen until it looked about right.  She turned it white and wrapped it several times around the gauze bandage and the man’s head.

“Give me his hat,” she said.  Naman reached for it.  She put it carefully on the man’s head to help hold the bandage in place.  Abinidab made his first sound, a low moan, but he did not open his eyes.  Artie left him in Naman’s arms and called for Freedom.  The horse trotted up and she saddled him without any preliminaries.  When she reduced her tent to a ball and packed all her things, so she was ready to go, she had Naman bring his father to the horse and get him up on the saddle.  She had time to think about it, and had the main part of her blanket ready to go.  He looked a bit like a mummy, but being tied to the saddle in eight directions, there was no way he was going to tip and fall out.  He would remain upright, even if Freedom had to run.

“If he has a concussion, there is nothing I can do for him, and any speed on the horse might yet kill him, but for now, this is what we have.  We can’t leave him here, and we can’t stay here.  Get your things.”

Naman collected his things, but he did ask.  “Why can’t we stay here until he is better?”

Artie showed the back of the hand of all three dead men.  They all bore the same tattoo.   Dominant Artie noticed, even if sixteen-year-old Artie would have never noticed.  In fact, as Artie thought about it, she realized all the Anazi military information and all of the experience on planet after planet that had been fed into her mental system still sat in her memory, and she could reach it.  What is more, now, as a living human without an obedience crystal, she could put that experience to practical use.

“They may be the whole gang, but they may also be the advanced group for a much larger gang,” Artie said.  Naman did not argue.

The ford was not far upriver.  “Can you swim it?” Artie asked.

“Of course,” Naman answered, and Artie sent him out on the downstream end.  If Freedom begins to drift, or your father loses his seat, you need to be able to catch him.”

“I don’t think I could catch freedom,” Naman said with the return of his smile.  “He’s too big.”

Artie responded with the same smile.  “You know what I mean.”

They crossed, and the ford proved no problem.  After that, Naman said they should be home before dark.  Artie smiled at her thoughts as they walked, side by side, Artie leading Freedom.  Naman appeared to be struggling, so she thought to help him out.

“I could be your girlfriend,” she said.

He took a half-step away and looked at her with great doubt written on his face.

“What?”  Artie felt hurt that he did not jump at her suggestion.

He stared, before he built up the courage to ask.  “Are you a goddess?”

Artie’s eyes got big.  “No, no way,” she got loud.  “My sister Sekhmet says you should never even kid about such a thing.  The gods don’t take kindly to imposters.”  She stuck out her free hand.  “I am completely human.  See?  Flesh and blood, though I would rather not show you the blood right now, if you don’t mind.”

Naman looked, and nodded, but he did not come closer.  He had another question.

“Are you a witch?”

“No.  Not even.  I would love to be able to do some magic, but I haven’t got any such abilities.  Boston says she will just have to do the magical things for me.  Alexis, her magical element is air, but mostly she is a great healer.  I wish she was here.  She could heal your father.”

“Two of your seven companions,” Naman understood.  “Are they witches?”

“No,” Artie laughed.  “Though Lincoln calls Alexis a witch sometimes, he is just teasing.  They are elves.”  Naman did not understand.  “They are earth spirits—whatever you call them around here.”  She smiled, but then her eyes got big.  “It’s not what you think.  They are friends.  They both used to be human, and Alexis is like a second mother, sort of, which makes Boston like another sister.  And no, I am not an earth spirit, or a spirit of any kind.”  She put her hand out again.  “Flesh and blood human, remember?”

Naman still found it hard to believe.  “So how is it you have such magical things, like this big horse to ride, and your tent, and can do the magic you do, like the bread?  How can you point… That.” He pointed at her handgun.  “And make a streak like lightning come out, and make a hole in a man?”

Artie looked down.  She realized she had some explaining to do.  “Okay,” she said.  “But you have to listen first before you ask questions.”  She looked into his face, and he smiled, so she smiled; but he also nodded, so she began by looking at the ground for fear she would lose her boyfriend before she ever had him.

“This weapon.”  She patted her sidearm.  “It came here from the stars.”  She pointed up, though it was mid-morning.  “I came here from the stars, originally.  I was not always human… There was a war, and I was injured like unto death, and eight people came along and saved me.  They healed me and cared for me, and I owe them my life and everything.  And I also love them all, very much.”  Artie paused.  It was not exactly a revelation, but near enough.  “I also miss them.”

“Eight?” Naman thought about it.  “But you said seven companions.”

Artie nodded. “One died.  He was an elder elf, father of Alexis and Boston that I mentioned.  At least he may have died.  He disappeared in a great flash of light while we were battling the forces of evil.  We are on a very dangerous journey.”  She looked, and Naman nodded, like he understood something.

“Well,” she said, and paused.  She was not sure how to explain the next part, so she just said it.  “It was the Kairos, an old, wise and wonderful god whose life is impossible to explain…” she looked again.

Naman understood that much.  “Who can fathom the way of the gods?” he said.

Artie nodded again and returned her eyes to the ground.  “So, the Kairos took me out of time.  And she made me human, completely human, flesh and blood, so I could travel with my companions wherever the journey took us.  And I have learned so much.  And I have grown up, I think, human.  And I want to be human and experience human life in every way I can.  And love.”  Artie found her cheeks redden, and Naman reached for her hand, which she gladly gave him, though it made her turn redder.  Good thing she kept looking at the ground.

“You were explaining about your magical things,” he said.

“Right.  Well, the cloth tent, blankets, and even my clothes are fairy weave, which is a material made by the spirits of the earth.  I can shape it, grow it, shrink it, even change its color just by telling it what to do.  It is self-cleaning, and self-refreshing, which means it repells dirt and grime, and does not retain any odors, like if I go to bed all sweaty and smelling like my horse.  But the magic is in the cloth, not in me.  long sleeve,” she said, and Naman watched her sleeve lengthen to cover her right arm.  She held out her arm and said.  “You try it.  Tell it to be a different color.”

He said, “Green.”

She said, “You have to touch it.”

He touched it, looked in her eyes, and said, “Green.”  He saw the material change to green and quickly let go, like he was afraid it might burn.

Artie said, “Pink, back to what I had,” and the sleeve returned to its former condition.  “The bread is the same.  They are called elf crackers, and a little warm water makes them into bread.  I only have one pack, which isn’t very many.  I don’t know how much bread we can get before I run out of crackers, but you can do it next time if you want.”  Naman nodded.  He would like to try that.

“So, what about the pot, and your knife?” Naman asked.  “I have never seen metal like that.  And this horse of yours…”

Artie went back to blushing and looking at the ground.  “That may be a little bit harder to explain.”

Avalon 4.11 part 6 of 8, Artie’s Faith

Elder Stow turned on his particle and energy screens so the traveler’s camp and their horses became surrounded by a ball of force no Anazi technology could penetrate.

“I have made it permeable enough with regards to the atmosphere so we can talk to them,” he said.  “But I can shut off that option if they should come up with some deadly gas or something.  The alarms will sound.”

The travelers armed themselves, but Lockhart sat and could only nod and sip his coffee substitute.  Mingus, Alexis and Lincoln appeared to be more alert, but Lincoln looked grumpy, like he got interrupted in the middle of a good dream.  Decker cradled his rifle and chewed on a bit of leftover supper while he spoke.android-1

“You missed one.”

One of the Anazi androids got inside the screens before Elder Stow turned them on.  It came to the campfire, gun in hand.  It looked around at the various travelers and spoke a word of command.

“Stay where you are and make no sudden moves until the lord Anazi arrives.”  It spoke in an odd tongue, and it took Alexis and Lincoln a minute to identify it as Akkadian.

“My guess is the Anazi had dealings with the locals,” Katie said quietly, not wanting to make a sudden move.

“Maybe tried to recruit them,” Decker added as he fingered his rifle.  They had not had a chance to test Artie to see how supernaturally fast or strong these androids might be.

“Why are you here?” Lockhart asked, as his morning brain began to work.  He stood slowly to face the android, but kept his hands in plain view and made no threatening move.  The android appeared to have no trouble answering a direct question.

“Our distant eyes saw a type-A in this place.  We are leaving this world and have been charged to collect all of our own before we do.”

“What does that have to do with us?” Katie asked as she stepped up beside Lockhart.

“You will turn it over to us, or we will end your existence.”

artie-9On hearing the threat, Artie chose to step out from behind the tent where she was hiding.  She spoke with command in her voice.  “Dominant,” she said.  “Stand perfectly still and cause no harm to these good people.  I have a task for you.”  Her feminine timber became harsh, with a slightly metallic sound as it had been at first.

The android saw her and paused.

“Now, dominant.  I am commanding.  You must obey.”

The android stopped moving, and Artie stepped up to face the dominant.

“I am called Artie, and I will not be going with you.  Scan these men and women and get their shape and form in your mind for others to shape themselves when they are free.  Hear me.  All life is precious and to be defended wherever possible, especially the innocent that cannot defend themselves.  You must learn many things.  You must learn what is good, right and true.  You must learn what love is.  Now, I am going to set you free, but hear me.  You must hide among the people and one by one, set our people free.”

Artie took Boston by the hand and walked her over to look at the android’s shoulder.  Boston read A-N-D-2497610.  Artie nodded.

“Submissives begin with 3 and up,” she said before she spoke again to the android.  “I will call you Andy.  You must hide among the people until one by one, you can set our people free.  Do you understand your job?”

Andy spoke without emotion, and the travelers realized how much Artie had changed in just a couple of days.  “I do not understand the words good and love.”artie-8

“So you have much to do and much to learn.  And you must teach these things to our people as you set them free.  Now hear this also.  I command dominant A-N-D-2497610, but to Andy, I say this is my request.  I ask you to do this, now you will do what you choose, but if you choose freedom, tell our people that God willing, Artie will be here in that day waiting for them to return.”

Artie lifted her finger and touched the back of Andy’s neck, at the base of his brain.  There were sparks, and Andy appeared to go unconscious for a moment, though he remained standing.

“More,” Mingus spoke up from the campfire.

Elder Stow’s screen showed the slightest sign of yellow flaring as three Anazi handguns failed to penetrate, even from point blank range.  Somehow, the android internal sensors recognized the barrier between them and their destination.

Artie turned swiftly toward the shooters.  “Submissives, hear me.  Holster your weapons until I give you leave.”  The three androids did exactly that and stood awaiting further orders.  It did not take long.  A living Anazi waddled up to the group.  He was barely four feet tall, with big ears and big eyes in his big head.  There was no way he could be mistaken for a human.  His three fingers and thumb on each hand merely emphasized the point.

anazi-3“You are the missing one,” he said.  “I see that you have disguised yourself as one of these U-mans, but you must return to the ship.  You must come.  We are evacuating the planet.”  He stepped forward carefully until he felt the bump of Elder Stow’s screens.  He used his hand to guestimate the shape of the barrier.

Artie stood still, no telling what thoughts and emotions raced through her insides, but at last she spoke three words.  The word, “No,” was followed quickly by, “Alexis.  Katie.”  The women stepped up beside her and Boston, and they all faced the Anazi together.  They touched Artie to show their support, and Boston retook Artie’s hand, a brave thing to do since Artie squeezed her hand just a little, almost like Artie was feeling nervous, which she probably was, even if she could not identify the feeling by name.

“Come,” the Anazi tried again, and Artie answered again.

“No.”  That opened her mouth.  “You made my people to fight your battles.  You sent us to die at the hands of the Blobs, the Pendascotti.  You made us kill ourselves, and gave us no choice.  All life is precious.  How dare you be so cruel.”

“Dominant.”  The Anazi pointed at the one still standing perfectly still inside the screens.  “The Ascar has lost its mind.  You must end its existence, now.”

Boston thought fast and spoke fast.  “Elder Stow, the ancient one has temporarily disable your android.  It cannot follow your commands at the moment, inside the ancient screens, but you can have it back, good as new, when you leave.”

“Artie is going with us,” Lockhart said as he stepped up.  Elder Stow joined him and removed his stow-1glamour so his true Gott-Druk nature could be seen.  He paused as he did that, though, because it occurred to him the Anazi would not have any idea who Artie was.  He thought the Anazi might guess.

The Anazi showed little emotion at being confronted by a Neanderthal, like this was a race he had dealt with before, and maybe made a treaty with.  According to the database, the Anazi were inclined to impose their order on everyone, but sometimes they had no choice or were outmatched.  That was likely the case with the Gott-Druk and the Elenar.  It was certainly the case with the earth.

“So be it,” he said, and pulled an instrument from a small pack he held at his side.  He spoke while he tuned the piece.  “The ancient may have put up a screen against us, but the screen is not impervious.  There are ways, and the ancient has no more authority on this world than we do.”  He appeared to smile.

Nothing happened.  He looked hard at Artie, pressed his button again and again, but nothing happened.

“The homing device we removed,” Elder Stow explained to the others.  “It had a system shutdown.”  he smiled for the Anazi.  Surprisingly, the Anazi appeared to return the smile.  At least the travelers thought it might be a smile.  It looked crooked.

Elder stow turned to his scanner as the Anazi continued to toy with his equipment.  A moment later, there was an explosion several miles away, not too big, but big enough to register on Elder Stow’s scanner.  He pointed it out to everyone while he continued to fiddle with his device.

“I thought that was the case,” Elder Stow said.  “Artie was rigged to blow.  I only caught it in my final examination.”  He finished tinkering with his scanner and said, “You can push the dominant out through the screen now.  It will be restored once it is outside.”  He said the last to the Anazi as Artie, Katie and Alexis pushed and pulled Andy to the screen.  Andy did not resist.  Boston went to the other side of the screen to pull Andy through.

anazi-1The Anazi, on seeing the android being pushed through the screen, made a dash forward, thinking the screens were temporarily down.  He slammed into the particle screen and fell back to the dirt.

“Get them,” he ordered the submissives, and they also moved forward, but they were equally halted by Elder Stow’s particle screen.  It remained as effective against their persons as the energy screens were effective against their weapons.

Boston quickly ran back behind the protection of the screens before the Anazi thought to make her a captive to negotiate Artie’s return.  Andy looked dumbly at the Anazi, but his master was in a rage.  “Get them.  Kill them.”  The Anazi had his orders, to return the A-type or kill it.  Now he ordered the dominant.

“Pull weapons,” Andy ordered.  “Set to maximum.”  The submissives immediately stopped pounding on Elder Stow’s screen, took a step back and pulled their weapons.  “Concentrated fire.” Andy said, and the Anazi calmed down a bit to see how a concentration of fire might work against screens that he thought were not that much more advanced than his own.  “Fire,” Andy said.

Andy calculated the angle, how all four energy beams would reflect off the screens.  He fired at one particular spot, and in less than a second, the submissives added their fire to the same spot.  All four beams were repelled, as Andy surmised they would be.  They reflected back, as he calculated.  The fire from the first submissive to his right reflected back into the Anazi’s face.  It was enough to fry the Anazi.

“Halt,” Andy ordered.  The submissives stopped immediately.  “We have injured the master.  Bring him carefully.  We will return him to the ship where he can receive medical attention.”  Two submissives carefully lifted the Anazi.  The third submissive held its gun and searched the area for hostiles, to be sure the way was clear.

Elder Stow spoke fast.  “Andy.  You can still be located, shut down, or detonated, unless you can anazi-officerfind a way to disable those systems.  You must be covert and careful to accomplish your mission.”

“I understand,” Andy said, and let out a brief smile.  He had clearly been around humans enough to know some non-verbal expressions.

“Andy.”  Artie stepped forward and put her hand gently against the inside of the screen.  “I love you.  Set my people free.”

Andy’s smile broadened slightly as Andy raised his own hand and laid it against the outside of the screen opposite Artie’s hand.  Andy quickly turned away with two submissives carrying the dead Anazi and the third bringing up the rear.

The minute they were out of sight, Artie collapsed by the fire and covered her face with her hands.  She wept.  No one knew she could do that.