Meeting the Sphinx

I parked my silver travel trailer at the edge of the RV park, as far from the national park’s main lodge as I could.  The park rangers had been careful to warn me about the dangers that came with the park’s heat and dryness.  I was an old hand at this.  I wouldn’t stray far from my base.  I’d carry plenty of water with me.

The dried lake bed stretched out from horizon to horizon.  Front to back, left to right.  In the far distance was the ridges of the Diablo Mesa.  I would leave early in the morning and keep to the edges of the dried lake until I found some degree of shade.  I’d stop, rest and draw whatever I saw.  It was repetitive, but it was relaxing.

There was a sphinx.  They weren’t uncommon in these parts, and I’d been told to stay away from them.  I watched in silence.  Browned skin of her head and chest gave way to the tawny fur of a lion’s body.  Wings spread back from her shoulders.  Jet black hair that shined.  I was transfixed and spent several days sketching her.

Some days later, the sphinx approached me.  She approached me in her glory, towering over me like a monster from some ancient childhood nightmare.  The light of Saturn glimmered off the gold she wore.  There was gold in her hair and on her ears.  Bands of gold, jade and lapis lazuli encircled her neck.

“I see you,” the sphinx said.

“And I see you too.”

The sphinx sat down on her haunches.

“I’m not supposed to talk to you,” I said.

“Yet here we are.”

“Here we are.”

The sphinx nodded her head.

My face was burnt red and was covered in sweat.  I held up my sketchpad to show the sphinx what I’d been drawing.

“That’s me,” the sphinx said.  A statement, not a question.

“It is.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I’m sketching life.”

“Life?  There is little life here.”

“I sketch what I see.”

“You’re trespassing.”

“This is public land.”

“I don’t recognize your government.”

“A sovereign citizen type, huh?” I asked.

The sphinx furrowed her brows.

“Sorry, bad joke.”  I wiped the sweat from my forehead.  “I can leave if you’d like.”

The sphinx studied me for several agonizing moments.  She stood up and shook her head.  Without answering me, she began to walk away, across the dried lake bed.

“What’s your name?” I called.

The sphinx remained silent, eventually becoming a distant figure marred by the waves of heat that rose from the ground.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. V

A naturalist named McClendon hired me as a guide, to take him through the Tochopa National Forest north of east of Carbonate.  Gundy didn’t want me to go by myself.  This McClendon was a stranger and Gundy wasn’t certain that he trusted him.  I reassured him that I could handle myself.

McClendon is a professor at some school I’d never heard of on a planet I’d never heard of.  He is a human with glasses and a golden beard.  Like all Autumn-Men, he is tall and slender, with long limbs and soft features.

He is soft spoken too.  This is his first time to the Tochopa National Forest, but he has read about it.  He marvels at the trees and the plants.  We must stop every so often so that he can collect samples, take pictures with his bulky Kodak camera or for him to make quick charcoal sketches.

“I’m a naturalist,” he explains as we start again.  “I specialize in evolutionary biology and biogeography.”

I have to admit that I am unfamiliar with those words, and McClendon simply smiles.  “I study the process that created biological organisms and their distribution across worlds.”

I nod my head.

McClendon talks frequently.  Sometimes I understand him, sometimes I don’t.  I keep my eyes open, looking for any threats.  Mountain lions often don’t come down from the Black Hills into the forests, but it’s not unknown–and we are skirting the edge of the Lumpong Agency.

The Tochopa National Forest is covered in all different sorts of pines.  There are Hawatama ponderosas–tall and narrow with dark red bark.  Then there are the smaller Tochopa pinyon pines–shorter and broader, with branches spreading up to twenty feet across.  Short grass and squat sagebrush cover the ground alongside discarded needles and pinecones.

McClendon is red faced and drenched in sweat.  We stop under a pine tree to rest and eat some lunch.  He says a few jokes and I laugh politely.

We finally set up camp in the evening.  We haven’t gotten far, but McClendon seems impressed with the progress.  He spends an hour cataloguing everything he’s seen and collected before joining me for dinner.  A cold chill settles in and I shiver reflexively.

McClendon clears his throat and he says he’ll offer me money.  I’m confused and his faces turns red.  After a few moments, I understand and I decline.

The second day is much of the same.  If McClendon is upset, he doesn’t show it.  He talks to me about the flora and fauna.  I nod politely and smile.  He enjoys it.  When we set up camp for the second night, he again offers me money.  It’s more money this time, but again, I decline it.

The third day is much of the same.  After setting up camp but before McClendon can say anything, I push him to the ground and start pulling off his clothes.

I may be many things, but I’m not a whore.

McClendon’s hands are soft and gentle, and his beard tickles me.  I’ve long since learned that there’s not much difference between a human male and an orcish male physically, so there’s no surprises.  We finish and lie together next to the fire.

“Have you ever been to space?” McClendon asks me.

I shake my head.  I haven’t.

“I’ve studied more than a dozen worlds, and I’ve studied dozens of biospheres,” McClendon says.  “What I should have studied were the orcs.”

The orcs?

“There’s been orcs on every world I’ve visited.”

I sit up and stare down at him, confused as to what he means.

“You don’t know?  There are orcs everywhere, all across the cluster.  Thousands and thousands of tribes and ethnic groups, and billions and billions of you.”

I had trouble comprehending that.  It is difficult for me to imagine life outside of the northern Hawatama Territory, let alone the stars beyond.

“Not all of them live on the agencies or reservations.  Most have assimilated into society at large.”

I look away from McClendon and into the fire, my mind swirling.  I am having troubling understanding the concept.  Orcs elsewhere?  Orcs not living on the edge?

“Washington doesn’t trust Muslims.  Haven’t since that Mahdi Revolt back in ’17, not that I blame them.”

McClendon places a cold hand on my back and I lay down again, unable to still my mind.

In the morning, I feel McClendon pressed against my back and I oblige him before we set out again.  My mind is elsewhere.  I can hear McClendon talking at me about trees and other worlds he’s been to, but all I can think of are other orcs on other worlds.  Orcs that didn’t have to live on reservations.

I am paying enough attention to see the saber cat in the distance.  The large cat stands on a small hill about two or three miles from us.  I tell McClendon to stop and I whisper that there’s a saber cat.  His eyes grow wide and the color leaves his face.  I tell him not to worry.

I unsling my hunting rifle, hold it in the crook of my arm and watch.  The saber cat is a large animal that weighs almost a thousand pounds with jaws powerful enough to tear a man in half.  It descends the hill and begins to approach us.  I raise the rifle and fire off one, two shots.  I shot above the saber cat’s head, just close enough to scare it away.

McClendon let out a sigh and put a hand on my shoulder.  “Thank you.”

I nod my head.

That night, we repeat the same thing we’d done the night before.  McClendon’s gentleness surprises me, but I don’t dislike it.  He points out the constellations as we lie in each other’s arms.  The sky looks like a black cloth that someone had poked little holes in.  He points somewhere on the southern horizon, just above a rise of trees.

“And that’s Old Earth,” he says.  I’ve heard that phrase used before, but had never given it much thought.  “That’s where we came from.”

We?

“Humans at least.”

I nod my head.

The next day is warmer, but we’re turning south to loop back to Carbonate.  We pass a spring, and I see movement, so we stop to investigate.  There’s a young woman with blue-green skin bathing naked.  A nymph.  It’d been years since I’d seen one this far north.  McClendon is staring at her, and I feel a wave of jealousy run through me.

We can’t stay here, so I pull McClendon back onto his horse and we continue on our way.

The last few days continue as the rest.  We ride during the day, with McClendon collecting samples and pictures–I know he’s taken a few pictures of me, but I allow him.  We lay with each other during the night, and McClendon’s attitude changes.  He talks less about the world and more about him.  He tells me about his life, what he’s done and what he hopes to do.  I have this strange feeling in the pit of my stomach that I can’t explain.  I say little, still acting the part of the savage.

We return to Carbonate a week after setting out.  McClendon hadn’t said much for the past few hours, and he bids me a hesitant farewell.  He checks into a room at the Roadside Inn while he waits for his train.  I take the mustangs back to the stables before turning to my own room in the Roadside Inn, which is on the first floor next to the lobby.

I shower to wash the dirt and grime off me.  After I’m done, I begin to dress but I’m interrupted by my room phone.  It’s McClendon.  He wants to see me again to talk.  I agree and go up to his room on the third floor.  It’s the standard one room motel room.  There’s a painting of seashore hanging above the bed.  I have never understood that choice.

McClendon kisses me on the mouth, and I’m surprised at how forward he is since he’d never kissed me when we were out on the trail.  “I want you to have this,” he says, presenting me with a choker made from turquoise, silver and ivory.  I hesitate to accept it, but I relent and let him put it around my neck.  “I want you to come with me.”

What?

“I’m leaving for Samawa tomorrow, and next week I’m taking a PanAm clipper for the shores of the Salt Sea.”

That’s on the other side of Redstone.

“I want you to come with me.  I need you.  And after that, I’m going back to Odysseus.”

I don’t know how to answer this.  He’s asking me to leave my home, leave my people, leave my world.  Can I?  He’s spent the past week filling my mind with stories of other worlds where orcs are more accepted.  Could I even believe him?  I need to think.

McClendon pulls me onto the bed and we make love for what seems like hours.  His skin his softer and smells sweater after a shower.  He’s more passionate and earnest now.  After he finishes inside me, he leans down and whispers, “I love you.”

Once he falls asleep, I sneak out of the room.  I go to the stables to get some mustangs and head back out.  I don’t want to be in town when he wakes up.

All Soul’s Day

The Inquisition came for the witches in the middle of the night.

Elizabeth Tran was woken up by a loud explosion that shook her room.  She crawled over to the window and looked out.  She could see fire and smoke rising from the old coven, hidden behind the tops of the distant trees.  She stared for several minutes, her stomach twisting into knots.

“Melanie,” Elizabeth said quietly.

Elizabeth closed the blinds and tried to sleep, but it eluded her.  She tossed and turned, unable to get comfortable.  Her mother woke her up for school, and she dragged herself to the bathroom to get ready.  Father and Mother were in the kitchen eating breakfast when Elizabeth was done.  Mother put a plate of French toast and a large glass of orange juice in front of her.

“You look like you didn’t sleep last night,” Father said, reading the newspaper.

“I didn’t.”

“So you heard that?” Mother asked.

Elizabeth nodded her head.

The phone rang.  Father got up to answer it.  The conversation was short and he returned after less than a minute.  “School’s delayed,” he said.  “Until noon.”

“What?” Elizabeth asked.  “What for?”

“There’s a procession they want us to attend,” Father answered.

After breakfast, the three of them left the house for the procession or parade.  Fall had come, and Elizabeth tightened the scarf around her neck.  Smoke was still rising from the coven.  Elizabeth’s eyes lingered on it for a moment before falling in line behind her parents.

Craftsbury wasn’t a large town, settled in a valley in the Oak Ridge Mountains.  The mountains were covered in ancient oak trees that were turning red and orange with the season.  At the center of the town square was a statute of General George Washington, and a platform had been built in front of the clapboard church.  Elizabeth saw a few of her classmates in their school uniforms, but no one made eye contact with her.

The procession started, and Elizabeth’s heart jumped into her throat.  There were a few dozen women of different ages chained together and being forced to march by a small army of Papal Zouaves.  Then there were four Rosarian Maidens in their powered armor.  Most of the Zouaves were white, but she spied a few blacks, Asians and even a few orcs amongst them.  All four Maidens were white.  Riding on a large white charger was the Inquisitor himself, his red cassock billowing in the cold, early morning wind.

The procession made its way to the town square, and the Inquisitor mounted the platform.  He looked at the courthouse and whispered something to an adjunct, who ran off to take care of whatever needed doing.  The flags in front of the courthouse were pulled down and reordered so that St. Peter’s key of the Papacy flew above the Stars and Stripes.

The Inquisitor opened with a benediction; everyone crossed themselves and bowed their heads as he prayed.  He gave a short speech, extolling the virtues of God and goodness–he said suffer not a witch to live at least three times.  The whole thing was finished by him hanging a dozen women for heresy, apostasy, witchcraft and other crimes.  None of them pleaded for their lives.  They already knew what their fate was.  Some of the remaining women and girls were crying.  The Zouaves had taken off their helmets, revealing their tonsures and shaved scalps.

Elizabeth stood on her tip-toes, but she couldn’t see Melanie amongst them.  Her stomach fell.

The Inquisitor dismissed the town with another prayer.  Father seemed upset and agitated, but he didn’t say anything on the walk home.

#

            It was dark out by the time Elizabeth returned home from practice.  Dark and cold.  The sun had set, and the world’s rings were visible on the southern horizon.  The rings of ice and dust glittered in the reflect light from the sun.  A tiny moonlet rose and set in the time it took Elizabeth to walk from the school back home, the chunk of rock zooming across the sky at speeds she couldn’t even comprehend.

It was cold.  She had her hands buried in the pocket of her sweater with her nose and mouth covered by the scarf wrapped around her neck.  Despite that, she could see her breath fogging in the cold air.

The bodies were still hanging in the town square, but Elizabeth didn’t look at them for long.  The Papal Zouaves and the Rosarian Maidens were bivouacked outside of Craftsbury, and the remaining prisoners were being held in the basement of the courthouse.  All Elizabeth could think of during class was Melanie.  The two had been life-long friends, but Melanie had run away a year ago.  Elizabeth assumed that Melanie gone off to join a coven or something like that.

Elizabeth’s home was on the outside of town.  It was a large, rustic mansion made from local timber with a heated pool in the back.  The Tran family was a large landowner, owning thousands of acres of old growth trees and apple orchards.  They owned one of the few automobiles in town, along with a large stable of horses and the only private inground pool in the whole county.

“Elizabeth, is that you?” Mother called out as Elizabeth closed the front door behind her.

“It is, Mother.”  Elizabeth could smell dinner, but Mother’s voice had come from the front parlor.  The servants must be here today.

“Come into the parlor, sweetie,” Mother said, solving that one.

Elizabeth took off her shoes and loosened her scarf before walking into the front parlor.  Despite the house’s rustic exterior, everything inside was sleek, modern and colored in neutral earth tones.  The sofas and chairs stood on narrow legs, and had sharps, angular edges.  The furniture was arranged in a small half-circle around a roaring fireplace.  Father and Mother were sitting on the sofa in the middle, and sitting next to them was a man wearing a blood red cassock.

The Inquisitor.

“Hello, Elizabeth,” the Inquisitor said in a voice that was surprisingly soft.

“Monsignor,” Elizabeth said, bowing her head slightly.

“A dutiful child.  I’ve come across dreadfully few in my years.”

Elizabeth raised her eyes to study the Inquisitor.  He was a white man, and judging by the lines in his face and his greying hair, he was a few years older than Father, who only had a few strands of grey at his temples.  The Inquisitor’s hair was almost entirely grey and cut short, and his small beard was mostly grey with a little black.  He still had a boyish look to him despite his obvious age, and his impish little grin was unsettling.  A black sash was tied around his narrow waist; he wasn’t a particularly large man.  He’d looked larger this morning when he was riding his charger.

“Elizabeth, go get washed up and changed,” Father said.  “Monsignor Humphreys will be joining us for dinner tonight.”

Elizabeth took the opportunity to retreat to her room.  She took a quick shower to wash the sweat off.  Her parents hadn’t told her what to wear, but they were having dinner with an Inquisitor from the Church, so she picked one of her Sunday dresses: grey wool and long sleeved.  Something simple and modest that the Inquisitor would have no qualms with it.

Everyone had retreated to the dining room by the time Elizabeth went downstairs.  She took her seat at the table, between Father and Mother with the Inquisitor across from her.  The servants came into the dining room with drinks and salads.  Hard cider for the adults and regular cider for Elizabeth.  There was a cinnamon stick and an orange slice in each glass.  The salads were tossed greens with tomatoes, dried cranberries, pecans and blue cheese.  Elizabeth poked at the salad and ate a few bites.  Her appetite had left her.

“Elizabeth is on the school’s passer team,” Mother said.

“Is that why you were late, Elizabeth?” the Inquisitor asked.

Elizabeth nodded her head.  “We had practice.  We’ve made it to the territorial playoffs.”

“You might make for a good Rosarian Maiden,” the Inquisitor said.  “Strong in body, strong in mind and strong in spirit.”

Elizabeth tried to say something, but she couldn’t figure out the proper words.

The Inquisitor laughed.  Like his voice, his laughter was soft and quiet.  “You have nothing to worry about, child.  Maidens are recruited from our orphanages and charities.”

Elizabeth looked back down at her food.

“Such a large house,” the Inquisitor said, “for only one child.”

“The older children have all grown up and moved out,” Mother said.  Elizabeth was the youngest of six children, but the next oldest sibling was still seven years older than her.

“Your youngest son is a seminarian, is he not?” the Inquisitor asked.

Mother nodded her head.  “Yes, Luke is attending the seminary at Immaculate College.”

“Immaculate College,” the Inquisitor repeated.  “The Jesuits always have such nice schools and they produce such civically minded priests.”

Elizabeth looked at Father out of the corner of her eyes.  He hadn’t said anything all night and he still seemed agitated and upset.

The servants brought the main course.  Smoked salmon with rice and asparagus.  There were slices of warm, crusty bread with apple butter.  Elizabeth’s mouth began to water and she felt her appetite returning.

The Inquisitor cleared his throat and said, “Mr. Tran, I noticed that you had an American flag in your front yard.”

Everyone froze at the Inquisitor’s comment.

“Yes,” Father said.  “We are Americans, aren’t we not?”

“But we’re also Catholics.”

Pro aris et focis,” Father said.

For God and country.

“I must say, this is certainly a new one,” Father continued.  “When I was in college, someone once asked me if I had a portrait of George Washington or Ho Chi Minh on my mantle.  I’m sure you noticed that I have a portrait of the Christ on my mantle these days.”  Father wiped his mouth with his napkin.  “Four generations of Trans have served the United States of America.  My grandfather was a Minuteman and died on some airless rock in the Titans’ Halo.  My father was a Zouave until losing both legs at Guernica.  I marched with Father Braxton through the Briarpatch, and I have one daughter in the Minutemen and one son in the Faith Militant.”

“I’m not questioning your patriotism, Mr. Tran,” the Inquisitor said.  Elizabeth was confused.  Father was as patriotic and pious as they came.

Father raised an eyebrow.  “Then what?”

Pro aris et focis,” the Inquisitor said.  “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other.”

“But yet millions of Americans choose both,” Father said.

“You’re the chairman of the local Committee of Correspondence, are you not?” the Inquisitor asked.

“And I’m the treasurer of the local Knights of Columbus.”

“Don’t misunderstand me, Mr. Tran,” the Inquisitor said.  “I’m not questioning your patriotism to your country or your piety to your God.  I’m just curious as to God or country.”

“Both,” Father said.  “I thought the United States was God’s chosen country.  I thought Americans were God’s chosen people.  I don’t believe the interests between the two can be divergent.”

“An apt answer, Mr. Tran,” the Inquisitor said.  “I’d heard you were critical of my methods here last night.”

“We cannot suffer a witch to live, I agree, but were the public executions necessary?”

“Public executions of witches is an American tradition, is it not.”

Father tapped a finger on the dinner table.

Mother was the one who responded.  “Robert just doesn’t agree with violence.  He’s a bit of a pacifist sometimes.”

The Inquisitor nodded his head and returned to his smoked salmon.

#

            Elizabeth had trouble sleeping that night.  All she could think about was the Inquisitor and the attack on the coven.  When she was awake, her mind was fabricating terrifying images of Melanie’s final moments.  When she was asleep, her mind put her in Melanie’s shoes.  She woke up in a cold sweat and her body shaking.  She turned over to face the window, pulled her knees into her chest and sighed.

Morning finally came, and Mother allowed Elizabeth to sleep in.  It was Saturday and she didn’t have practice today, so she lay there staring at her window and watching as the sun climbed above the Oak Ridge Mountains and into the sky.

Elizabeth got out of bed and got dressed.  Leggings, leather boots, flannel shirt and a fleece jacket.  Father was still asleep, but Mother was awake and listening to Tyler Bass in the kitchen.

“Are you going somewhere?” Mother asked.

“I want to go for a ride,” Elizabeth answered.  “I need some fresh air to clear my mind.”

“I understand that,” Mother said.  “You should have some breakfast first.”

Elizabeth sat down at the table and her Mother got up to make oatmeal.  “Mother,” Elizabeth said quietly, “is Father in trouble?”

“What do you mean?”

“The conversation with the Inquisitor last night.”

“Your father isn’t in trouble,” Mother answered.  “He’s just known in the diocese for having certain…opinions.”

“Opinions?”

“Yes, your father has opinions on how to handle witchcraft and the Marxian heresy,” Mother said.  “You shouldn’t worry too much about it, sweetie.  Your father is a personal friend of the bishop’s.”

“The Inquisitor didn’t trust Father.”

“No.”

“Because we’re Vietnamese.”

Mother didn’t say anything.

“It is, isn’t it?” Elizabeth repeated.

“Life isn’t fair, sweetie,” Mother said.  She put a hand on Elizabeth’s shoulder and kissed the top of her head.  “The only one who’s fair is the Lord.  Christ will protect us.”

Elizabeth nodded her head, her mind filled with questions, but it didn’t seem like the proper time and place to ask them.

“We’ve been tainted by the sins of the Viet Minh, and the Church has a long memory.”  Mother began to stroke Elizabeth’s hair. “But remember what Christ said during the Sermon on the Mount.”

“Jesus said a lot of things during the Sermon on the Mount.  It spans three chapters of Matthew.”

“When they strike you, turn the other cheek.”

“Even if they come at you with the entire weight of the Inquisition?”

Mother pulled her hand away from Elizabeth’s hair.  “Especially then.  Even if they kill your body, your soul will survive.  Your faith will make sure of that.”

Elizabeth nodded her head.  “Yes, Mother.”

“The Inquisitor was right about one thing.  You are a dutiful child,” Mother said.  “I’ll pack you a snack for your trip.  How long do you expect to be gone?”

#

            There was a single federal highway that ran through Craftsbury; it headed east out of the Oak Ridge Mountains towards the foggy port cities of Innsmouth and Barnstable and west deeper into the mountains and into coal country.  Smaller roads branched off from the federal highway, and they ranged anywhere from narrow paths between the trees that were unmarked and known to only hunters and trappers, all the way up to wider roads made of packed dirt and gravel that were maintained by the Territory’s government.

Elizabeth selected a pony from her family’s stables, saddled it and rode off.  She traveled on the soft shoulder of the federal highway for a few miles before veering off onto one of the packed dirt roads that snaked its way up and over the mountains.  Mother had packed her apples, hard cheese and nuts along with some apple tarts wrapped in wax paper.

It was a chilly morning and while a part of Elizabeth was wishing that she’d dressed warmer, she was hoping that the sun would come out and warm the day.  That was proving to be a futile wish, though.  The grey clouds obscured the sun and the planet’s rings and kept the temperatures down.  She climbed to the summit of one of the mountains and paused for a moment to look down into the next valley.  Fingers of fog still clung to the valley floor, wrapping themselves around trees and climbing up their trunks.

Smoke from the coven was still rising into the sky the next valley over.

Elizabeth gave her pony a rest before continuing.  She gave it some water and oats while she walked in circles to stretch her legs.  She ate one of the apples and a few slices of the cheese as she did so.  Something was gnawing at her stomach, but it wasn’t hunger.  Was it fear?  Fear of what she would find at the coven?

Everyone had known about the coven, and everyone had reported it to the Church, whose resources were stretched thing as it was.  It had only been a matter of time before the Inquisitor arrived with the Faith Militant to burn them out.  The witches had always kept to themselves, but it was as the Inquisitor said: suffer not the witch to live.

Had Melanie been a witch?  Elizabeth didn’t know, and Melanie’s parents certainly never had the patience to answer her questions.  “Some friend I was,” Elizabeth said.  She hadn’t even known Melanie was having trouble at home and she certainly hadn’t known that Melanie would run away.  She hadn’t said where she was going, but there were scant few places a runaway girl could go in this part of the world.

Elizabeth continued the ride down the valley and then up the next mountain.  The fallen leaves were matted to the ground, made wet by the fog and the mist.  The trees were also denser and closer together the further from town.  Most of the land around here was publically owned by the federal government, and it was rarely maintained.

A wolf howled in the distance, causing Elizabeth’s hear to turn to ice.  Wolves weren’t entirely unknown out here, but they were so rare that whenever one was spotted, it was major news.  She hadn’t heard anything about wolves in the area.  The pony didn’t seem to notice anything, so Elizabeth shrugged.  “Maybe I’m just imagining things,” she said.

Elizabeth found the ruins of the coven a little after noon.  She’d never seen the coven before it was burned down, but all that was left now were burnt ruins that were still smoldering and smoking.  It’d been a large building, set in a mountain meadow.  She tied her pony to a tree, dismounted and hesitantly approached the smoking ruins.  There were burnt bodies in the ruins, some of them nothing more than skeletons turned black by the fire.  She turned away and threw up everything she’d eaten today.

“Stop right there.”

Elizabeth looked up, wiping vomit from her mouth.  A young woman was stepping out of the forest with a battle rifle pointed at Elizabeth.  She wore ballistic leather and chain mail armor over a red cloak.

“Rats always return,” the young woman said.  As she stepped closer, Elizabeth saw that she was no older than her with a shaved head.  Her skin was dark brown and her eyes were blue and almond shaped.

A Rosarian Maiden novice.

Elizabeth took several steps back, tripped and fell backwards, scrapping her hands.  She tried to explain herself, but she only stuttered, her tongue suddenly turning to sand in her mouth.

“Sister Magda,” a second voice called.

“I’ve found one!” the young woman said. A second woman stepped out of the forest.  She was dressed identically to the first, but her hair was longer.  Sister Magda looked at her companion over her shoulder, and Elizabeth saw the rose tattooed at the nape of her neck.  “A rat has returned to the den.”

“She’s a bit late, don’t you think?” the second Maiden said.  Elizabeth was shaking as the second Maiden stood over her.  She put a fist on her hip and smirked.  “Today is not your lucky day, heretic.”

“Please, don’t,” Elizabeth said quietly.

The second Maiden reached down for her, but she was thrown backwards.  Sister Magda raised her battle rifle and fired several shots.  The rifle was deafening.  Elizabeth closed her eyes and covered her ears with her hands.  She found herself instinctively saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over again.

Everything felt very still.  Elizabeth moved her hands were ears and opened her eyes.  The Rosarian Maidens were gone, and the only sound was the wind blowing through the trees.  A few leaves fell from an oak and gently spun towards the ground.  She turned her head when she saw something out of the corner of her eyes.  It was a faint apparition floating a few feet next to her, looking like the negative of a shadow.

“Melanie?” Elizabeth asked.

It was hard to tell.  The apparition certainly had human features, but they were faint.  To Elizabeth, it looked like Melanie.

Elizabeth stood up on shaky legs.  “Melanie, is that you?  What happened?”

The apparition turned away from Elizabeth and the temperature seemed to drop several degrees.

“I miss you,” Elizabeth said.  “Things just haven’t been the same since you left.”

The apparition began to float into the sky, and Elizabeth watch it in silence.  She wiped away her tears and was about to turn away when she saw something glinting in the faint sun.  She bent down and saw a small crucifix on a gold chain.  It was similar to one that Melanie used to wear.  Elizabeth bent down, picked it up and squeezed it in her hands.

“Thank you,” she said, putting the crucifix around her neck.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. IV

The agency police were after him.  Conroy knew they were, though he hadn’t seen them for several miles now.  His thighs hurt but he couldn’t stop.  His horse was panting from the effort and seemed to be slowing down.

Could horses sweat?

Conroy had ridden south from the Lumpong Agency, around the Owl Creek Canyon and through the seemingly endless national forests.  He’d underestimated just how many trees the Hawatama Territory had.  The Lumpong Agency had been the empty, red desert he’d been expecting.  He hadn’t much time to gawk at the Owl Creek Canyon, but even that was behind him.  The trees were tall and narrow ponderosa pines, covering sparse and rocky land.

He reached for his canteen, but it was empty.  Where was the nearest water source?

“I’m going to die out here,” he said, licking his parched lips.  His vacation down from the orbital states was certainly not going as planned.

His horse had slowed down to a shuffling trot.  “Come on, buddy,” he said, patting its neck.  “Just a little bit further.”

His horse slowed to a stop, wobbling where it stood.  Conroy jumped down and the horse collapsed.  “Son of a bitch,” he muttered.  He took what he could from the saddle and began to run.

Conroy didn’t make it far before he tripped and fell face forward into a muddy wash, scrapping his hands on the rocky outcroppings.  He pushed himself to his feet and saw that he’d stumbled onto a camp.  Two Andalusian mustangs were tied to a nearby tree, and a single orc was standing over a smoldering fire.

“Son of a bitch,” Conroy muttered again.

It was a female orc–green skin, low forehead, heavy jaw.  She wore dusty jeans and a tight, grey t-shirt that said HAWATAMA in red and gold letters across her chest.  One side of her head was shaved, and the rest of her black hair was tied into braids.

“What?” she asked flatly.

“What are you doing here?” Conroy asked quickly.  She didn’t look like agency police, but she still an orc.

“Hunting,” the orc answered.

“Hunting what?”

A battle rifle was leaning against a nearby tree, as was a gun belt with a revolver.  She’d come prepared for something. “Elk.”

“Look, you have to help me,” Conroy said.  “There are some bad people after me.”

“Who?”

“Orcs.”

She narrowed her eyes.  Most of her face was obscured by a tattoo of a handprint that ran diagonally from above her left eye down to her right jawline.  “Why?”

“Look, if you get me to Carbonate safely, there will be a big reward for you.”

“Reward?”

“Yes, reward.  My family is quite rich and will pay you for rescuing me.”

The orc didn’t say anything.

“What’s your name?  My name’s Conroy.”

“Odima,” the orc said.

“A pleasure to meet you, Ms. Odima,” Conroy said.  He heard distant shouting behind him.  “I assure you, you will be paid handsomely if you–”

“There,” Odima said.

“There what?”

Odima pointed to a hollow under the tree.  “Hide there,” she said.

Conroy scrambled and hid inside the hollow.  Odima untied her horses and moved them to obscure his hiding space.  His heart was thumping in his chest so loud he was afraid the agency police would hear it.  After several long minutes, he heard the sound of approaching horses.  There was shouting in the harsh guttural language of the Lumpong orcs, and there were several voices, including Odima’s.

He was too afraid to move and eve to breathe, so he lay there, motionless and listening to a conversation that he couldn’t understand.

The agency police finally departed.  He was about to let out a sigh of relief, but a hand reached down to pull him out.  He struggled and shouted as the hand grabbed him by the collar of the shirt.  Odima pulled him and pointed a revolver at his head.

“Rape,” she said through gritted teeth.

“What?”

“They say you rape orc.”

“Okay, look, that was just a misunderstanding.  We were both drunk and she didn’t want to tell her parents that she–”

Odima turned her revolver around and whipped Conroy across the face.  “You bad man.”  She spat on him before pistol whipping him again and again and again.  When he tried to protect his face, she kicked him with her boots.  She finally stopped.  “Garbage.”

Conroy spat blood and several broken teeth.  “I’m sorry.”

Odima holstered her revolver, strapped a black ballistic vest across her chest and slung the hunting rifle across her back.  “It more cruel to leave you here,” she said.  She untied her horses and mounted one.

“You can’t leave me here!” Conroy said, but it came out heavy and slurred.

Odima looked down at him, a scowl on her face.  She turned and began to ride south without saying another word.  Conroy tried to get to his feet to follow her, but he stumbled and fell.  He rolled onto his back and stared up at the branches of the pine tree obscuring his view of the red sun.

“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, closing his eyes.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. III

The first Autumn-Men who had come to my world named the red sun Al Rescha and the world Hajar Ahmar.  After them came to current Autumn-Men, the Americans, who’d kept the name for the sun but renamed the world to Redstone.

I think it’s an apt name.

The mountain is a spire of red rock jutting up from the desert plains, its sides covered in dark pine trees.  I lean against one of the pines with my binoculars raised.  Binoculars.  The English word weighs as much as the devices do, but they are worth their weight in spices.

Below me is a meadow covered by tall prairie grass that waves in the high wind.  A mosque had been built out of stone and timber, but it is overgrown with weeds and moss.  The minaret has fallen into a pile next to it.  I see the ruins over other buildings, but all that’s left of them are their foundations.  The mosque largely survives.

The building’s design and purpose is familiar to me.  My father had been an imam once, back on the Lumpong Agency.  When was the last time I’d thought of him, of the religion that had been forced on us by the first Autumn-Men?

There’s movement inside the mosque.  Fire, at least.  Something comes out of the mosque and my breath catches in my throat.  The Arabs call them djinn, and the Americans call them fairies.  I’m not sure if my people have a name for them because they only appeared after the Autumn-Men did.

The fairies dance between the waving grass and disappear into the trees on the other side of the meadow.  A cold shiver runs down my despite the late afternoon heat.  I wipe sweat from my forehead; my forearms are still wet, and I know that my undershirt is drenched.  It has been a hard ride today through some of the most unforgiving territory on Redstone.

I need a place to rest for the night because Al Rescha is beginning to set, but not here.  I will not spend the night at a house of Allah that has been taken over by alien spirits.  I go back to my waiting Andalusian mustang to ride around the mountain and then down to a better place to camp.

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. II

“It’s gone.  All gone.  Can you believe that?”

Floyd Gundy didn’t look up from his accounting book, but he knew that Hershel Friedgen was pacing back and forth in the motel lobby.

“How could something like this even happen?” Friedgen asked.  The fat man was wearing a brown western suit with a bolo tie that had a large turquoise stone set in it.  Expensive, if real, and knowing Friedgen, it was.  The motel lobby contained several glass cases displaying silver and turquoise jewelry.  Most of it was fake because there was no way that Gundy’s clientele could afford the real deal.

“What should I do?” Friedgen asked, coming to a stop at the front desk.  “Do you know how much copper, how much money, I’ve lost?”

Gundy held in a sigh and looked up.  “Mr. Friedgen, I am attempting to attend to my own business by checking my books.”

“This is important, though,” Friedgen said.  “Those copper mines could be a major boom for this part of the territory!”

“You mean the illegal copper mines?” Gundy asked.

Friedgen wiped sweat from his brow.  The motel lobby was air conditioned, but the fat man was still drenched in sweat.  Set off from the lobby was the motel’s restaurant, a 24/7 dinner that served a mix of traditional Arab cuisine and the traditional American greasy spoon.  “Those mines are very rich in the metal, and it’s not right that they’re covered by federal land,” Friedgen said.  “I needed this shipment to show the investors that I was for real.”

“And then what?”

“I have connections with legislators so that we can get land set aside and mining permits.”

“Connections?  Certainly you mean bribes.”

Friedgen waved his hand.  “Such a dirty phrase.”

“How do you know something has happened to your copper?”

“Because the mules were supposed to arrive in Galahad two days ago, but it hasn’t.  At first I thought they were just slow, but then the bodies of one of the men I’d hired washed up in the Huvasu a few hours ago.”

“Perhaps he fell.”

“Dead of a gunshot wound,” Friedgen said.  “I had them take a back route specifically so they wouldn’t have any issues.”

“You know the back country is filled with tribals and raiders.”

“Tribals you say?”  Friedgen looked past Gundy at the orc sitting on the floor in the back room.  Odima was sitting on the floor with a disassembled hunting rifle in front of her.  “I haven’t seen her for a few days.”

“Are you accusing Odima of something?” Gundy asked.  Odima looked up at the mention of her name.  The right side of her head was shaved and there was a hand print tattoo across her face.  “Odima was hunting in the Black Hills all week.”

“The Black Hills, huh?” Friedgen asked.  “You knew where the mules were going.  What about her?”

“What about her?”

“Does she understand English?”

“Understand little, speak littler,” Odima said in a thick, husky voice.

“You speak less,” Gundy said.  “And you’re being paranoid, and racist.  Odima is one of the good ones.”  He tapped his pen on the table in annoyance.  “It could have been anyone.  6,000 pounds of copper is a lot of money.  One of the men you hired could have betrayed the others.”

Friedgen shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Anything’s possible, I suppose.”

“Are you going to send another load?”

“I have no other choice.”

Gundy looked back down at his books.  “Then I guess that’s what your next step is.”

“There’s no other choice.”

“No, there’s not,” Gundy said.

Friedgen sighed heavily and took his leave.  The bell above the door jingled as he left.  Gundy watched the door for several moments before turning around to look at Odima.

“Where have you been, Odima?” Gundy asked.

“Hunting,” Odima answered flatly.

“Hunting?”

“I shoot elk.”

“Where’s my cut?” Gundy asked.

“Soon,” Odima said.

“You don’t have to talk like a savage around me.  I know you know more English than you let on.”

Odima merely shrugged and picked up a piece of the rifle to oil it.

Gundy watched her work.  She’d grown up on what was now the Lumpong Agency to the west, but had been working for Gundy for several years now.  The Carbonate Roadside Inn catered to middle class tourists from Samawa or Sharqiah to the south, and natives like Odima served as guides and scouts for them.  Guests who came from the orbital states and skyhooks stayed at The Carbonate Manor Lodge paid more for less competent human guides, but at least they didn’t look like they would rob you blind and leave you for dead in the high desert.

Not that Odima had ever done anything like that.

“Hunting,” Gundy said.  “Well, I owe whoever did this a favor or two.”

“Why?”

“Friedgen thinks the copper will be a boom, and it will be, but not the boom I want.  You know what miners bring?  Hookers, blow and lawlessness.  We’re a tourist town.  If we become a mining town, what’s in it for me?”

Odima shrugged.

“It is what it is, I suppose.”

The sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to the noon prayer could be heard through the lobby’s closed door.

“Aren’t you going?” Gundy asked.

“Going what?”

“Prayer.  I thought all you orcs were Muslim.”

“Prayer wastes time,” Odima said.  “Not going.”

Gundy nodded his head.  “Well, take this someplace where guests can’t see you.  They’ll be coming in for lunch and I don’t want them getting the wrong idea.”

Odima gathered the pieces and cleaning supplies and went into the back room, closing the door behind her.  Gundy returned to his books, but he could only focus on one question: what reason would Odima have to hijack Hershel Friedgen’s copper?

From the Dusty Mesa – Pt. I

The wind blows through the canyon and into the cracks and holes, whistling.  The valley walls are red, but become paler the higher they go.  The upper bands aren’t even visible under the squat pine trees that cover the top of the buttes.  I sit cross-legged in a small indention of a butte, a ponderosa pine shading me.  Al Rescha is setting behind me, the glare from the red dwarf shielding me from being spotted.

My legs had gone numb hours ago, but I couldn’t move.  I’m a hunter stalking my prey.

The valley is still.  The only sound is the whistling of the wind and the only movement are the ponderosas waving back forth in the wind.  There are no birds, and lizards and snakes are not known for their singing.

The Huvasu River cuts through the bottom of the canyon, but this high up, I can’t hear the roar of the rapids.  A narrow mule trail runs down the valley, a terrifying maze of hairpin turns and switchbacks.

There’s movement down below.  I raise my rifle and look down the scope.  There’s a mule train making its way down the canyon.  A dozen mules tied together and loaded down with unmarked wooden boxes.  I count seven guards.  Some are walking in front of or behind the mule train.  Other are riding the mules.  They can’t walk beside the mules because the trail is too narrow.

I pick my targets.  I’ll start with the back and work my way forward.  I squeeze the trigger and the rifle kicks.  The gunshot echoes across the canyon and the mules panic.  I shift targets and squeeze again.