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Ephemeral: Chapter 17
Clara wandered aimlessly down the dirt path completely unaware of Mother Alden's arrest or of which turns she took. Initially, she focused simply on placing one foot in front of the other since contemplating how to tell her teammates their lives were over proved too overwhelming. She plodded in silence, oblivious to the floral breeze and the green landscape taking on an ochre hue as Elpis slowly sank toward the western horizon.
She'd walked nearly two miles when she heard some distant hoof beats behind her and someone call her name. “Clara Milton!” It was a woman's voice.
Mary Rutger rode a black horse. She wore a bright green blouse, shiny black boots, and a perfect French braid with no hair out of place. She checked her steed's trot and slowed to a walk. “Fancy meeting you way out here! Out for an Elpis-setting stroll?”
“Yes,” Clara said with a flat attempt at a smile.
Oh my goodness! Isn't it obvious? Clara bristled. “Just me!” She said aloud with forced cheerfulness. Then she added, “In case you were wondering, Aaric left Mother Alden's house several degrees ago.”
“I wasn't wondering,” Mary said quickly as she fiddled with her reins. “Aaric's amazing, though. Steady as the stars. We've known each other our whole lives. In fact, he's coming over next Elpis-rising to help with Granna Kate's service.”
“Yes, her memorial service. She transitioned shortly after midday meal. Not that it was a shock. More of a relief, really.”
Clara wasn't sure whether to give her condolences or congratulations. “How is your mother?” she finally asked, recalling the tender episode in the marketplace.
“Oh, much as you'd expect. Tuckered out. Aaric agreed to run some errands for me. We've invited a third of the clan. It will probably take sixty degrees to get everything ready.”
Why is she telling me all this? Clara fought to repress a frown. She didn't have energy for catty banter and wanted to be alone. “Well, I hope all goes well,” she said absently. She looked past the black horse and then to the path on her right. Which way did I come from again?
Mary looked to the mountains in the west. “It's getting late. See you around!” Mary pressed her heels into her horse's sides and walked on. Then she spoke over her shoulder. “By the way, if you want to take a shortcut back to Mother Alden's, you can use that path.” She pointed to a faint depression in the grassy pasture that lay beyond the fence.
“Thanks!” Clara called.
“Don't mention it!”
Clara climbed over the wooden barrier and hopped down onto the path. She set out with purpose, but soon became distracted by the waist-high purple spires and yellow disks growing on either side of the way. They were the largest and most lovely wildflowers she'd ever seen. After going about a quarter mile, a vague sense of unease started growing in Clara's mind. Shortcut or not, if I don't see Mother Alden's barn in the next sixty seconds, I'm turning around.
She looked behind her and stopped in her tracks; Elpis had set the sky ablaze, its flaming yellow, orange, and pink hues licking the atmosphere. It was the most vibrant sky she'd ever seen and made Earth's sunsets seem tired and faded in comparison. She wished she hadn't left her recording device in the hovercraft and climbed a nearby boulder to enjoy the light show from a better position. She reached an indentation halfway up the bulky rock, and sat down with her feet hanging over the edge. Here, ten feet above the world surrounded by cosmic beauty, Clara felt a little less hopeless.
I at least need to tell my team I'm not coming home this evening. I can figure out how to say the rest tomorrow. She double-tapped the scan-stone communicator pinned to her shirt. “Hello, Raven? Are you there?”
Oh no! Am I out of range? “Raven?” she repeated. “Come in, Raven!”
Clara thought she heard some confusion, then recognized her friend's voice.
“Clara? Are you okay?”
Clara sighed. “I'm okay,” she lied. “Just checking in.”
“I thought you'd be back at the hotel by now,” Raven said, almost reproachfully.
Clara massaged her forehead. This was supposed to be the easy message. But now she felt rotten.
“Clara? You there?”
“Yes! I wanted to let you know my hovercraft isn't working, and my mentor is putting me up for the night.”
“Oh.” Raven sounded disappointed. “Tomorrow's our day off. I was hoping we could get an early start and explore the city. Aliyah wanted to check out the shops. What time do you think you'll get back?”
“Probably sometime mid-morning?” Clara guessed.
“Okay, then. We'll wait for you. Thanks for letting us know. Actually, you're not the only one staying out tonight,” Raven said slyly.
“Nope! Eden is taking Darian out on the town, so I doubt we'll see him till tomorrow. You sure you're okay staying in Almitas?”
Clara had mixed feelings, but she tried not to betray them. “I'm sure. It'll be great.”
“Good! We'll have plenty of time to shop after you get here.”
Plenty of time … Clara shook her head ruefully. You have no idea, Raven.
“Rest well, Clara! Don't let the bed bugs bite out there!”
Clara tapped her communicator off. If Raven could enjoy one last carefree evening on this deceptive planet, Clara didn't want to ruin it. She looked at the sky. Elpis had started descending behind the mountains. She could see less than half of the bright yellow star now, but no sign of Mother Alden's house. So much for Mary's shortcut. Clara frowned. I ll jog back the way I came to make up lost time.
Clara stood from her rocky perch and was about to climb down when something in the distance caught her eye. She squinted in the twilight. Something tall and tubular rose above the distant fields. It turned to the right, then gave a deep, rumbling call. A group of ten or more tall, curved creatures ascended from the meadow and slowly followed the leader toward a clump of trees – now merely silhouettes against the fading light.
Clara could hardly believe it! Are those dinosaurs?! Or dragons?! She felt a child-like thrill and scrambled higher up the boulder to get a better view. From her new height, she could clearly see the magnificent creatures' long, lithe necks, round bodies, and massive tails as they trod through the tall grass. “This is incredible!” she nearly giggled. For the second time that evening, she kicked herself for leaving her recording device in the hovercraft and gazed at the giant beasts until the setting star turned their bodies black against the pink sky.
I've got to get back. Clara squinted down and realized she could barely make out the trail she'd followed. It was also more difficult to navigate her way down the boulder. By the time she reached solid ground, the sky had darkened to lavender. She trotted along the recently-tramped grass, but started having trouble seeing the path. Before long, the nearly-depleted light forced her to slow to a walk. With arms extended in front of her, she stumbled along knowing that where the grass grew highest was where she did not want to go.
Then she heard a distant commotion behind her. She whirled around, but could only see shadows against the starlit sky. There was movement. The herd of long-necked reptiles crashed through the fields. She could feel their reverberating footfalls like dull thunder through the ground. Something was making them run.
Then she heard a sound that made her forget to breathe; a howl echoed through the darkness.
Fear shot through Clara, petrifying her.
Moments later, another howl sliced through the clear night air, shocking Clara out of paralysis. Without regard for any direction except for that which was away from the howling, Clara tore through the field. The three-dimensioned grass blades nicked her arms and cheeks, but she felt nothing but panic. Clara ran until her lungs burned and her legs felt like putty. Where is that darn fence!
Another howl sounded behind her, closer than the first two.
Clara swore with every breath as her feet pelted the ground. Pure adrenaline pumped through her veins as her eyes strained for any sign of civilization. But she knew she couldn't keep up her current pace much longer.
Another howl – the closest yet.
I don't want to die here! I'm still young! Clara screamed inwardly. She'd been mourning a shortened future. But if she didn't reach safety soon, she'd have no future at all.
Clara's legs cramped. Her speed waned. Her adrenaline was nearly spent. Then she came to a small rise in the terrain and saw a beacon of hope; about a hundred yards off she saw an electric fence outlined with a soft blue glow!
Had her lungs not been about to burst, she would have let out of whoop. But then she heard a growl.
Clara did not dare glance behind her; she sprinted for her life. The fence was only seventy yards away and closing: sixty, forty, twenty ...
Then panic gripped her as she saw something dark and hairy approaching from her far left, beating her to the fence. The creature was the size of a large mastiff but stockier with wide, bearlike paws and a long snout. Its eyes glowed green in the ambient light.
Clara was too close and going too fast to either swerve or slow. In one final, frantic leap, she dove over the animal and the fence, hands first.
The beast also leaped. One of its claws scraped Clara's chest painfully as she flew overhead. Before she could process what was happening, electric fire seared her shoulder as she grazed over the blue wire. All her muscles contracted for one excruciating millisecond. She could not even shriek. But her momentum carried her safely to the other side. She broke the electric current and hit the dirt road with an inglorious thud. For several moments, her limbs spasmed; it was a miracle she'd survived the high voltage. Once the convulsions dissipated, she laid on her back sucking air into her lungs.
No fewer than four pairs of ravenous green eyes stared at her from the other side of the fence. Cheated out of their meal, the hairy beasts threw their snouts upward and howled in rage, then slunk back into the tall grass – the shadows of nightmares.
Clara staggered to her feet. Her chest ached. Her legs ached. Her shoulder ached. And she was bleeding. But she was alive!
Clara tried to touch her shoulder and winced. “Ow!” Her fingers went to her face. The three-dimensional grass had inflicted a thousand paper cuts over her exposed skin. Even frowning hurt. She squinted with discomfort down the blue-lit road in both directions. To her right a mile off, she spied the outline of several buildings with lights. The town! She nearly cried for joy. If I go in the opposite direction, I should reach Mother Alden's house in no time!
Clara hobbled down the road like a bicycle with square wheels, keeping a respectful distance from the glowing blue wires. Despite questions of her future, she felt relieved to be moving at all and reveled in this moment where she could see the stars and smell the honeysuckle wind.
Relief flooded through her as Clara spied warm light shining through Mother Alden's windows, guiding her back. Wounded and weary, she trudged up the porch steps, knocked twice on the sage wooden door and waited.
When nothing happened, she knocked louder. Has Mother Alden already gone to sleep? That seemed unlikely since the lights were lit.
Then the door opened a crack, then fully to reveal not Mother Alden, but her son, Thomas standing in the doorway.
“Mr. Alden?!” she blinked in the sudden bright light coming through the doorway.
Both persons stared at one another, momentarily speechless.
Thomas recovered first. “What happened to you?!”
Clara glanced down. That was a mistake. The sight of her own blood and blackened shoulder tissue made her stomach turn. She swayed on her feet.
“Easy there,” Thomas said, grabbing her by her good elbow. “Come inside.” He ushered her into the house and locked the door behind her. “The Elders are here. We need to talk, but I'll get Aaric to patch you up first.” He tapped a few buttons on his wrist band.
“Where's Mother Alden?” Clara asked as she saw a dozen people gathered in the living room. “What's going on?”
“We were hoping you could tell us!” A burly man with a gray-streaked beard standing by the fireplace reached inside his dark green vest and pulled out a document. “We found this tacked to the front door!” He held up the paper. It read, “Notice of Arrest” in bold red print with some smaller writing underneath.
Clara's eyes widened. “Arrested?! For what?! By whom?!”
“By His Eminence,” said a younger woman seated on the couch. “Didn't he send you here specifically to spy on her?”
At first, Clara could only stare agape at such a suggestion. “No!” she finally protested.
All eyes bore down on Clara – some with question marks, others with daggers.
Clara felt as if someone had yanked away the floor from beneath her feet. Her knees nearly buckled. “I'm from Earth! I came here to do academic research, not spy!”
“A likely cover,” muttered a white-haired man leaning on his wooden cane.
“That's enough!” Thomas Alden said. “It's obvious this young lady needs medical attention. If she were in league with the soldiers who took Mother Alden, they wouldn't have left her here. Besides, we all saw the rocket from Earth enter our atmosphere. This woman is not Silexian.”
The gathered murmured in begrudging assent.
Clara felt incredibly parched. She turned to Thomas Alden. “Can I have some water, please?”
“No, I'll get it. You sit on that stool.”
Clara hobbled to the kitchen island and sat, completely aghast at the news of the arrest. Mother Alden had said sharing the truth could lead to trouble, but she hadn't told anyone yet. How could His Eminence have known?
Thomas Alden returned with Clara's water. She emptied the glass. He then brought out a clean cloth from a drawer, poured something green onto it from a brown glass bottle and held it out to Clara. “This is an antiseptic salve. I want you to dab your shoulder and your chest. It will sting like the dickens, but it'll prevent infection.”
Clara took the cloth and barely touched her injured shoulder. Holy cow! She gasped. The stinging sensation came in spades, making her toes curl and her eyes water.
“You good?” Thomas asked.
Clara nodded and wiped an eye with the back of her hand. Then she braced herself for another round of pain and bravely applied the cloth to her shoulder again.
“What I want to know is,” said the burly man back at the fireplace, “is how the devil did His Eminence get anything on Mother Alden to justify this ridiculous charge! It's nothing but horse shi--!”
“Bruno, please!” Thomas interrupted.
The old man pointed at the paper with a crooked finger. “Regardless of the charge's irrationality, we can't deny the Silexians their Triad Agreement rights. It's all spelled out right there: Section twenty-four, paragraph C: Whereas inter-tribal crimes may be tried by the offended party's justice system regardless of clan jurisdiction.”
“But insurrection?!” Bruno threw up his hands. “Can you honestly believe Mother Alden would incite a rebellion? This is a set up, an excuse to put us in Silexian debt.”
“I don't know what Mother Alden said or how he found out about it,” a woman with close-cropped curly black hair spoke from her seat near the windows. “But I believe His Eminence capable of misconstruing the slightest criticism as a political threat. And he's just added this arrest to a growing list of things to criticize.”
“Hear, hear,” said the young woman who'd accused Clara earlier.
“If you ask me, the Silexians have been acting too big for their britches.” The burly man crossed his beefy arms on his chest. “And the irony is we're the ones feeding them!”
“It's only Aaric,” Thomas said as he went to unlock the door.
Aaric stepped inside and bowed politely to the gathered assembly.
Thomas spoke to him quietly. “Patch her up and bring her back. We need to hear exactly what happened before Elpis-setting.”
Aaric nodded and approached Clara with his characteristic see-saw gait. He looked her up and down and sucked in a sympathetic breath. “Let's go to the restroom. I need a sink. And the medical bag.” He went to a cupboard, procured Mother Alden's black bag, and drew out some vials and a syringe.
Aaric placed them back into the bag and offered her his arm. She wrapped hers in his and felt reassured by his strength. He took her to the main bathroom off the hallway, flipped on the warm lights, and seated her on the closed toilet seat. Then he started to wash his hands. “So what on Elpis happened to you?”
Clara let out a short laugh. “I had a run-in with some local wildlife and leapt over an electric fence.”
Aaric stared at her, astounded. “You leapt over the fence? While it was on?! You could've been killed!”
“I know,” she said flatly. “But I had no other choice.”
Aaric opened the medical bag. “Why were you beyond the fences after dark?”
Clara sighed. “Mother Alden suggested I go for a walk to clear my head. She warned me about the fences, too. But I lost track of time watching some huge long-necked creatures in a field.”
“Elpisaurs, most likely. They're skittish enough to leave people alone. But they can be dangerous if you get caught in a stampede.”
“They didn't chase me. It was those other things – those nasty, howling animals. I thought they would tear me to pieces.”
“Looks like they tried,” Aaric nodded toward the gash across Clara's chest. “Snarleks. You're lucky to be alive.”
“Yeah. Real lucky. I'm just glad I found Mother Alden's house despite Mary's shortcut. I couldn't even see where I was going half the time.”
“Mary Rutger?” Aaric frowned. “What shortcut?”
“The one across the fence with the tall boulder. That's where I watched the Elpisaurs.”
Aaric's eyes widened. “She told you to go into that field?!”
Aaric pursed his lips and looked away. His arm muscles flexed as if he were fighting to control his temper.
Clara had never seen him like this. “What's wrong?”
“That path leads away from Mother Alden's house. Not toward it.”
“Oh ...” Clara felt deflated. She hadn't realized Mary disliked her enough to deliberately put her life in danger. But now her pain was crowding out every other concern. She winced as she shifted her weight on the toilet seat.
“Do you think you can get that cloth off your shoulder for me?” Aaric asked.
Clara tried to lift the cloth and hissed in sharp pain. The white fabric stuck fast to her shoulder.
“I was afraid of that. Give me half a degree.” Aaric stuck a needle in an overturned vial, drew out some clear liquid, and flicked the syringe.
Aaric's mouth twitched. “Don't worry. It's just a pain killer. And some antibiotics to be on the safe side.”
“Do you have a lethal injection handy?”
Startled, Aaric looked up from applying a cleanser to her tricep with his free hand.
“Sorry,” Clara said as she looked down at the blue and white bathroom tile. “Deathbed humor.”
“You're not there, yet. Ready?”
Clara nodded, continuing to look at the floor. She grimaced at the pinching sensation, but looked up when Aaric removed the needle. While he put a small bandage on the injection site, her gaze wandered to the window where tiny purple, pink, and blue lights danced and flickered in the darkness. “What's that?” she asked, pointing with her good arm.
Aaric looked up. “Those are Elpis flies. Different species have different shades of bio-luminescence.”
“We have fire flies back on Earth, but they're all yellow,” Clara said. Earth … how I wish I were home. She sniffed and turned back toward Aaric. “Thanks for catching me earlier, by the way. It's been quite a day for me falling on my face.”
“No problem,” Aaric said as he washed his hands again. “I take it Mother Alden explained things when you recovered?”
“If you mean how I'm going to grow old in a matter of days and probably never see my planet again, yes.”
Aaric wiped his hands on a yellow hand towel. “I'm really sorry, Clara,” he said. “Truly, I am.”
Clara looked up into his deep, gray eyes. She was surprised to see them nearly as glassy as her own. She turned away to stifle a welling sob, then cleared her throat. “The thing that kills me most is that I promised my sister I'd return. She didn't want me to go.”
“Why can't you?”
Clara faced Aaric, incredulous. “Don't you see? I'll be an old woman by the time the shuttle returns. Old age is a living death sentence – quite literally where I'm from!”
Aaric fiddled with the medical bag's clasp. Again, his hands looked restless without reins. “Clara, can I ask you a question?”
“Do you think growing old will make your life somehow less significant?”
Clara thought a moment. She hadn't spent much time contemplating old age; it had never been a possibility before. “I … I don't want to grow weak and worthless. I don't want to feel uncomfortable in my own body or make others feel uncomfortable around me. And I certainly don't want people treating me like a burden or a child. When you boil it all down, I guess I don't want to be dependent.”
“But weren't you dependent on your parents when you were a child?” Aaric asked.
“Did they expect you to change your own diapers or help pay the rent?”
The silly idea made Clara smile unexpectedly.
Aaric continued, “When you were a baby, your parents valued you simply because you were theirs – not because you earned your keep. So why shouldn't you be valued as an older dependent – especially after a lifetime of contribution?”
Clara shifted atop the toilet seat. “I suppose it's easier to grow old if you belong to a supportive community. But I bet it's harder to change an adult diaper.”
“Oh, it's dirty work,” Aaric wrinkled his nose. “But it's good work. And many hands make it lighter.”
Clara took a deep breath. “Yes, but this isn't my clan. So who would take care of me?”
Aaric gazed at her with a curious look in his eyes – a look which made Clara's cheeks grow warm. She gazed down at the tile.
“That painkiller should be in your system by now,” Aaric said. “Can I try to remove that cloth?”
Clara tensed. “What if it's not fully working?”
“Don't worry, I won't rush.” Aaric reached for her shoulder but quickly withdrew his hand as her scan-stone sputtered to life with static and snatches of voices, then went silent.
Clara sighed and unclasped it from her shirt. “It's my communicator. The electric fence must have shorted it out. I guess I'll have to get a new one. But at least I got to tell my team I wasn't coming back into the city tonight. They would be worried, otherwise.”
“Can I see it?” Aaric held out his hand. “You spoke to your team? Way out here?”
“Yes. To Raven.” She dropped the circular pin into his palm.
Aaric raised his eyebrows. “This thing's heavier than it looks. I had no idea its range was so wide. What frequency do you use?”
Clara shrugged her good shoulder. “No idea. Whatever frequency they use in Agilis.”
“You mean, this isn't Earth tech?” Aaric stared at her.
“No. Eden gave them to us so we could communicate with each other over a long range ...”
Again, the smooth, black stone chattered to life. “Yes, sir. No … switching to offline ...” Then it fizzled out.
Aaric studied the stone in his palm. “Were those your teammates?”
“No.” Clara frowned. “I don't recognize any of those voices ...” Then her eyes grew to saucer size as she realized how His Eminence had overheard her conversation with Mother Alden. “Have those people been listening in the whole time?!”
Aaric's face darkened. He wrapped his calloused fingers around the communicator into a fist. Clara could see the veins throbbing just underneath his chiseled jaw.
“Aaric, I ...”
He put a finger to his lips, stormed past Clara, opened the bathroom window, and hurled the communicator outside with all his might. Clara heard it shatter against something – most likely the barn wall.
Aaric stood with his back toward Clara, shoulders trembling.
“Aaric, I swear I had no idea the scan-stone was bugged! I thought it only switched on when I sent messages to my team!”
He said nothing, his fists clenched by his sides.
“Aaric?” Clara felt desperate. “I would never harm Mother Alden! She's the kindest person I've ever met!”
Aaric still gazed out the window into the darkness.
Clara put her head in her hands. Tears trickled down her cheeks and dripped onto the tile. So the old man was right; I'm a spy after all! What on Earth will they think of me? What will Mother Alden think? Clara let out a sob.
“It's not your fault,” the horseman finally said.
Clara lifted her face from her hands. Aaric was still facing the window, but his hands had unclenched.
Clara sniffed. “You believe me?”
Aaric turned to her. “You've shot straight with me so far, Clara Milton. A real spy wouldn't have drawn attention to their covert gear. Or worn it on their breast pocket.”
Clara wiped her face with the back of her hand. “When Mother Alden told me about the colony, she was so careful. Drew the curtains and everything. But she didn't want to start a rebellion. She just told the truth!”
“For those seeking power through deception, telling the truth is rebellion.”
Clara snagged a piece of toilet paper and blew her nose. “So what happens now?”
“I need to tell my father.”
“Oh, no! He'll hate me! They all will!”
“No, he won't. You're not the first person Captain Karnak's used to meet his own ends.”
“Please tell your father I had no idea. And that I'm very sorry. And that I think the world of Mother Alden.”
Aaric nodded. “I will. And when I get back, I'll see to that shoulder.”
So what do you think?
Okay. I want to hear about a crazy time you got lost. Doesn’t have to be as dramatic as getting attacked by a snarlek, but please share both harrowing and humorous stories below in the comments.