City of Refuge, Episode 2: The Taxman

Jer considered his options. He was not only choosing his crew. Whoever he didn’t take would be left here to run the ranch, with all the complexities that brought. With Ma and Pa still away, there was only one person who really knew the ins and outs of the ranch well enough. Haddy could keep things running just fine. The hired hands respected her a lot more than Ethan, and she was family, unlike Tamar and Lem. She had the authority to act as needed.

Now, who to leave with her? Tam and Lem were tough as nails, and either could back Haddy just fine. There were bandits in the area, off and on, and for all the Theocracy’s efforts to convert everyone to the true religion, there were still holdouts. The Squatters, the unauthorized colonists who’d tried to claim land without Theocracy permission, surfaced now and then to register a violent complaint, contracts notwithstanding. If something or someone riled up those unauthorized colonists, Haddy needed someone who knew the defensive systems as well as he knew how to put on a hat. That meant Lem.

So, Haddy and Lemuel would keep an eye on things here while Jer, Tamar, and Ethan chased down Kane and made him pay for the crime of killing Dave.

“Haddy, I’m leaveing Lem here with you to watch over the homestead. Keep your eyes open. We haven’t heard or seen much of the Squatters lately, but that don’t mean they aren’t planning something.”

“That means I’m going?” Ethan grinned.

“You and Tamar. We’re leaving as soon as you’re packed.” Jer clapped Ethan’s shoulder.

Brow furrowed, Haddy hid her quivering hands by crossing her arms over her chest.

“Meet you back here in fifteen.” Tamar stood.

Ethan followed her to the second floor stairs. After they disappeared around the corner, Jer sat where he could see both Lemuel and Haddy without straining something. “Sorry to leave you two short-handed. Haddy, you just need to keep things running. Put off big decisions until Pa’s back. I’m leaving Lemuel with you in case someone riles up the Squatters.”

“They have been remarkably quiet lately.” Lemuel rubbed his stubbly chin.

Jer nodded. “Don’t expect that to continue.”

“No, patrols will happen as planned. We’ll keep eyes and ears open.” He stood and tugged his pants up and jacket down. “Speaking of which, if you’ll excuse me, sir, patrol’s due back shortly.” He settled his hat on his sparse hair and nodded once to Haddy. “Ma’ am.”

Jer waited for him to leave. “You’ll be okay here, Haddy. There are good folk here to help you out until Pa gets back.”

“I’ve only run the place for a day or two before. How long will you be gone?”

“I can’t say for sure, but Ma and Pa will probably get back before I do. A lot depends on what the judge decides.”

“Do you really think you’ll catch Kane before he gets to the City of Refuge?” she asked.

“No, but the judge will give me a week to get there before hearing the case without me. I’ll stop and break the news to Ma and Pa on the way.”

She shook her head. “I already told them. Ma called to give me an update earlier and wanted to know why I’d been crying.”

Jer leaned forward with his elbows on his knees? “How’d she take it?”

“Better than I expected, actually.” Haddy sniffled and wiped her nose with an embroidered kerchief. “I guess no one’s too surprised. She said for you to watch yourself with Kane and forget planning any kind of memorial until they get back by the end of the week.”

“Makes sense, but probably shouldn’t wait for me and Ethan to get home. If the judge rules it an accident or if Kane rabbits out of there after the trial, we might be a while. We’ll pay our respects when we get back.” He stood. “Anything you need me to do before I leave?”

She hugged him. “No, I think I can do this, but come back soon. Be safe out there.”

“I’ll be home as soon as I can.” He kissed her forehead.

#

When the solar gravity numbers reached the safe zone for the quantum drive Jer engaged the stabilization systems. Retrorockets fired, and Yireh slowed to a stop. At least it felt like they weren’t moving. They had a long way to go before the quantum drive would be satisfied. He entered the coordinates for Shechem.

“I’ll see you at Shechem.” Tamar slipped out.

Jer turned to his brother. “Glad to see you’re looking less green.”

“Yeah, sorry, Jer. Zero G just turns my guts.”

“Happens to lots of folks, kid. Don’t fret over it.”

Ethan sighed. “Yeah, but I know your leg doesn’t trouble you as much at Zero G.”

“True, but if a half G Keeps your dinner in its place, I’ll be fine.” He turned back to his console and called up the holoreader. “Go be still somewhere so the quantum drive can cancel out our movement.”

“M’kay. See you when we’re there.”

As Ethan left the bridge, Jer watched the estimated stabilization time climb upward. Even the minimal force of walking across deck plates had to be zeroed out before the quantum drive would engage. Once the drive established the ship’s momentum at absolute stop, their location could be anywhere in the universe. This time, it’d be Shechem.

The holoreader scrolled at Jer’s comfortable reading rate so he could read without any motion. With a page width of only one to two words, he didn’t even have to scan left to right with his eyes. Meanwhile, miniature thrusters all around the ship fired in different directions, at different durations. After he’d read for a while, Jer refocused his eyes be on the instrument panel beyond his book. That miniscule motion added a couple hundredths of a second to the countdown. He watched the last few seconds. The timer hung on a tenth of a second before everything went black.

The darkness cleared and Jer looked out the viewscreen at a yellow, main sequence star with its collection of planets: Shechem. The quantum drive powered down, and Jer keyed the ship wide PA: “We’re here. I’m taking us into Refuge.”

He powered down his reader and engaged the thrusters. With continuous acceleration, he closed the distance quickly at an increasing rate and adjusted course for Refuge, the planet where the Theocracy’s major court issues were settled. As he passed the system’s fifth orbit, four small fighters rose from the planet’s surface. Jer checked the radar and keyed the identification protocols.

Bailiffs, probably coming to see what our business is.

Tamar walked onto the bridge and perched at the communication station just moments before it pinged.

She answered the call. “This is the Gibean ship Yireh. Please identify.”

“City of Refuge patrol group Theta. State your business.”

“Jeremiah Baruch is onboard pursuing Kane Lindemann who is responsible for the death of David Baruch at Nain.”

“Standby.”

As Yireh passed orbit four, he reduced his acceleration.

Yireh, we have record of Kane Lindemann’s arrival. All cases involving the Nain asteroid field are settled in Heptam City, We will send you coordinates and the approved course. Do not deviate.”

Jer looked back at Tamar and nodded.

“Understood,” she said.

The radar showed Theta patrol keeping pace with Yireh. The communication system pinged.

“Got the course. Sending it your way.” Tamar droned.

The course appeared in the radar a moment later. The required route, almost as complicated as breathing, took him all the way to a specific landing hangar. Jer adjusted course and speed to match the specifications before the patrol returned to the planet by a different route.

When Yireh entered the atmosphere, the attitude jets fired to turn the better-armored underside to the reentry burn. Orange and red haze filled the screen for almost a full minute before it faded and the jets fired again to turn Yireh back into flight mode.

Most of the colonized worlds of the Theocracy were terraformed into ranch and farmland, but Shechem was the exception. The rocky surface had been leveled for industrial purposes, and the eight Cities of Refuge had been built as judicial and manufacturing centers. A gray haze filled the air in spite of scrubbers scattered all over the planet working full time to keep the air breathable.

The course led Jer around to the day side of the planet. Heptam City grew larger on the horizon. Factories reached up through the smog blanketing the city, but there was no obvious sign of pollution sources. No smokestacks belched black clouds. Modern vehicles had no exhaust fumes, and yet the pollution was worse over the city.

Jer settled the ship in the designated hangar and set all systems in standby mode. He’d never been to Shechem, but merchants who did business here called it City of Refuse. There had to be a reason why.

“Take me with you,” Ethan pleaded.

Jer startled and spun toward his youngest brother. “Y’know, one of these days I’ll get used to how quiet you move.”

“Sorry.” Ethan’s goofy grin had nothing like an apology in it. “Really, though. I want to go to court with you.”

“Nothin’ doin’, kid. You and Tamar are staying on the ship. Only avengers of blood, the accused, and members of the court are allowed in the court itself.”

Tamar shook her head. “Tales I’ve heard about these cities? Uh-uh. No way, Ethan I’m not leaving this ship, and neither are you.”

Ethan frowned. “If it’s that bad, shouldn’t we go along to protect Jer?”

“And come back to Yireh totally stripped of all useful parts?” Tamar asked.

“Wait a minute.” Ethan propped his left hand on his hip and pointed with his right. “Shechem is the legal center of the Theocracy. Shouldn’t there be more law here?”

Jer smirked. Such innocence. “Maintaining law and order requires something like ninety-eight percent of the population to be law-abiding citizens. When somewhere between one-third and one-half of as Shechem’s population is criminals who beat the court waiting for the high priest to die so they get their pardons, what do you think that amounts to for those trying to maintain order?”

“Oh.” Ethan flopped in the nearest chair. “Guess that means I’m stuck here. Why’d we come if we’re just going to sit on the ship?”

“Get going, boss.” Tamar indicated the loading ramp with the twitch of her head. “While you’re gone, I’ll explain the likely scenarios to Ethan here. We’ll make sure you have a ship to come back to.”

“Good. Button it up and use the ship’s defenses if you need to. I’ll be back when I can.”

Jer grabbed his cane and headed aft with Tamar on his heels. The half-gravity gave an extra bounce in his step which complicated using the cane, but the pain wasn’t so bad. He could tolerate more weight on his bad leg without the pain getting the better of him.

Tamar lowered the ramp, letting in a gust of Shechem’s air. The chemical stench threatened to turn Jer’s stomach. He hobbled down the ramp as quick as he could, pausing at the end and making a deliberate downward step as if he were on stairs instead of level ground. The increased gravity pulled at him, and he gritted his teeth against the pain in his leg. After making sure he’d gotten the pained expression out of his face, he turned back to the ship and waved. Tamar closed everything up again.

“Jeremiah Baruch.”

He turned toward a voice deep enough to come from the center of the planet. A lean man in a dark green uniform stood there with a demeanor of careful confidence.

Ready for trouble and capable of handling it? Jer limped forward, switching the cane to his left hand and offering his right to the man. “I’m Jeremiah Baruch.”

The man kept his own hands loose at his sides. “Physical contact with court officials is strictly forbidden. Come with me, please. The court was alerted to your arrival. Your case will be heard as soon as you arrive at the judge’s bench.”

Jer followed the official out of the hangar complex and into the open air. If it were possible, the stench outside was worse than inside. The official stopped at a heavily-armored car and reached into his pocket. The hovercar beeped twice and two doors opened.

“Get in.” The official pointed to the nearer open door.”

Jer sat on the heavily cushioned seat and swung his left leg in before lifting his right leg with his arm. He set the cane next to him. The official climbed in the other side and tapped a button on the control panel. The hovercar beeped as the doors slowly closed and sealed. Cool air smelling of sweeter chemistry blasted from the air vents for ten seconds, eradicating one disagreeable stench with another that was only somewhat better. After the official entered information into the navigation system, the hovercar lifted off and drove itself.

“I am authorized to accept your tax payment.” The official pulled out a ledger.

“Tax payment?” Jer asked.

“Yes. To support your use of the court system, there is a voluntary tax in any amount you wish contribute.”

Jer thought back through his civics classes in secondary school. “The court is supported by the Theocracy. Otherwise justice would only go to the wealthy.”

The official snickered. “That’s what the textbooks say, don’t they? The real world doesn’t work like the textbooks. Consider it like a donation to church. It’s not required, but the judge loves a generous giver.” He leaned closer. “For an extra ten shekels, I’ll tell you what the accused paid for his tax.”

Is this a scam or are you for real?

#

Help Jer decide.

Should he pay the tax?

You have 1 week to vote. Results will be posted on 9/3/15.

O Is for Fish Sauce

With pervasive food allergies causing me some technical problems, coming up with interesting food can be a challenge. Sometimes it doesn’t look like I have much to work with, so I end up with variations on the theme of [slab of meat] + [veggies and/or grainy things]. Hey, it’s food. Food is good.

grocery store flickr Lyza 2004 creative commons

(c) 2004 Lyza // Retrieved from Flickr // Used unchanged under Creative Commons License

So, I’m often on the lookout for things that might make an interesting addition to my culinary choices. From time to time, I scan through recipes looking for ones I can mutate. If I can find one that doesn’t need mutating? Even better!

On one of those hunts, I came across a recipe for tilapia with orange ginger sauce. Okay, so I can eat cod, which is close enough, and I can do oranges and ginger, so maybe a prospect? I read through the article and there were some typical mutations I had to make: lose the added sugar, dump the cornmeal breading, skip deep frying anything … I was left with cook fish. Reduce a combination of orange juice, grated ginger, and garlic until you get something more or less syrupy. Y’know, I think it’s a winner!

I have even repurposed the sauce. I use that sauce on grainy things with veggies in it sometimes. Good stuff, really.

Next up: P is for Useless.

Voting Results from City of Refuge Episode 1

In case you missed it, City of Refuge Episode 1: Fatal Accident? is here.

Voting for Jer’s crew closed last night. The results are…

Haddy, the generalist: 2

Ethan, the mechanic: 3

Tamar, the medic: 2

Lemuel, the weapon specialist: 0

Huh… not quite what I expected. I thought someone would pick Lemuel because they’re going after a bad guy, but … okay! Surprises are good in Agile Publishing, sooooo….

Looks like Ethan’s going for sure. Then there’s the tie between the two gals. I need a coin, or at least something flat with two distinct sides… *scrounging for a coin* Aha! Dime.

Heads = Haddy

Tails = Tamar

*FLIP!*

Tails!  Tamar it is.

Jer’s crew will be Ethan and Tamar.

Stay tuned!  Episode 2 posts next Wednesday.

N Is for Jitters

I get the jitters a lot. My hands shake and twitch, and sometimes my whole upper body does the same, kind of like when you’re about to fall asleep and your whole body jerks? Yeah like that. It freaks people out, but there’s a perfectly good reason for it: my nervous system is outta whack. That’s why N is for Jitters.

There’s a dispute in the medical world about why I have the jitters. Some doctors say I’m epileptic. Some say I’m not because nothing shows up on the EEG except a “variant pattern” and “photic driving.” (I didn’t know photons could drive, actually). One doctor speculated PTSD because I have risk factors and a possible triggering event or two about the time the seizures started. What’s going on for real? Beats me. All I know is that flashing lights, stress, sleeplessness, and some foodstuffs increase my jittery misadventures. For the moment, my official diagnosis is “non-epileptic seizure disorder,” subject to change if I go to a different neurologist. Hey, I don’t blame them. One neurologist told me, “Hon, you might just be a little weird.” Yep. I can go with that.

(c) 2012 Alex Prolmos // Retrieved from Flickr Creative commons on this date and used unchanged

(c) 2012 Alex Prolmos // Retrieved from Flickr Creative Commons on this date and used unchanged

I would hope that in this era, people would understand that people who have the jitters aren’t doing it on purpose. Sadly, I have found that’s not the case.

At the start of every school year, I would explain to my class that my hands shake and twitch. It happens more when I’m tired, but it’s nothing to worry about. It isn’t contagious. It’s not dangerous. Worst case scenario, I’ll need to sit down and send someone for the nurse or to the teacher next door. I might then go home. Usually, that did the trick. The kids asked me some questions ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime and then all was well.

One year, during parent conferences, a parent came in to talk about her child. The child had been an A student in previous years, but this year she was fighting for a B. I explained that 4th is hard because there are a lot of new skills and writing has to be perfected in fewer than 6 months. A sudden grade drop was not unusual especially in the first six weeks when the students were getting used to the change in workload.

The parent had her own theory. Her child was “failing” (B is not failing) because my hands shake. Really. My semi-permanent case of the jitters resulted in the kid pulling a B average with some effort. I explained the jitters to the parent, who then told me that in the interest of her child, I had to make my hands stop shaking.

Um. I can’t. Medications don’t work. Weird epileptic-friendly diets don’t work. Meditation exercises don’t work on the jitters, but they used to work on other types of seizures I used to have. Trust me. If I could make it stop, I’d make it stop. I don’t choose to have the jitters, and I sure don’t enjoy them.

When I “refused” to make my hands steady, the parent went to the principal and requested a transfer out of my class. Eventually, she got her wish.

Your next prompt: O is for Fish Sauce

City of Refuge Episode 1: Fatal Accident?

Jeremiah Baruch guided his engine-drawn, flatbed hovercart into Bethlehem City, a rather generous name for a frontier town with one packed-dirt street bordered by shops. A few other hover-vehicles of different sizes and configurations parked down each side of the street, and folks walked on the sidewalks in front of the stores, which were elevated a couple feet to stay above the water and muck after a storm.

He parked the hovercart in front of the general store and powered down. The cables connecting the two cylindrical engines to the wagon whined and settled onto their landing struts. The flatbed wagon, little more than a bench on low-walled open box, floated down onto its landing gear. The dull hum faded out, leaving the more distant noise of other hovercarts and the sounds of people doing business in the local shops. Music from the saloon’s synthesizer carried down the street in spite of the early morning hour. How people could be drinking and carrying on like that before lunch was beyond him, but the sheriff allowed it so long as those partaking kept the “partying” in the saloon.

In the seat next to him, Dave looked down the street at the Rusty Robot Saloon and grinned like a kid with a new lollipop.

Knew I should’ve left you home. Jer grabbed his cane. “Stay with the wagon.”

Dave sneered. “Stop treating me like Ethan.”

“Maybe if you acted like you were six years his senior, that’d be easier to do. Stay put. We don’t need trouble today.”

Jer swung his left leg over the side of the hovercart and grimaced as he helped his right leg with his hand. Weather would change soon, and as stiff and sore as his leg was today, the approaching storm would be a bad one.

Need to secure the animals, close the cover on the crops … He stopped the list of storm preparations. The town errands needed doing while there was still time to get them done. He’d left Haddy and Tamar at home with Lemuel and Ethan. They’d organize the ranch hands into finishing the chores.

Bracing himself with the cane and the side of the wagon, Jer stood. In spite of his effort to keep as much of his weight as he could on the cane, a sharp pain shot from his knee to his hip.

Yeah, there’s a storm coming all night. That’s the only time the pain get this bad. Better hustle and get the errands done. Maybe Dave could take care of the bank.

Jer paused and glanced at his middle brother. Yeah, he could stop at the bank, but how much of Pa’s money would make it into the account and how much would end up in Dave’s pocket? Jer sighed and continued on to the general store. Anything he wanted done right, he’d better do himself.

Like nearly all the structures on Gibeah, the general store had been built from panels of the generation ship that had brought the first colonists. The periodic storms on the planet had weathered the shine off the metal.

The three steps up from the street to the storefront would have been murder, but he took his time, stepping up with his left foot and lifting himself up onto the step then balancing on his right leg and cane to step up with his left foot again. At the top of the short run of steps, he paused for a moment then entered the door. A bell over his head rang.

The inside of the store had been reorganized, probably by Mr. Rubin’s wife while he’d been away at the new Jebus hospital week before last. All the premade clothes and cloth had been moved out to the shelves filling the middle of the store along with lanterns and other gear. Anything small enough to disappear into a pocket or pouch had been moved to the shelves behind the counter. Prudent, really, more than one family in the area had their own version of Dave.

Old Man Rubin came out of the back. “Morning, Jer. Got your email with your order. I saw you pull up, so I got the boys loading your wagon.”

“Thank you, sir. How’s the new shoulder?” Jer limped forward to the counter.

He moved the new cybernetic replacement through the range of motion. “Not bad at all. The surgery didn’t hurt near as much as I expected. All that new-fangled medical technology on Jebus was something else. I was in and out in two days. Good as new. Better maybe. Your Pa is getting his heart replaced?”

“Yes, sir. That last heart attack scared Ma.”

“He’ll be fine, I’m sure, but I’ll say a few prayers for him tonight.” Mr. Rubin dug out his ledger from the shelf under the counter. “Not to be telling you your business, Jer, but you might consider a replacement for that, um, weather detector of yours.”

Jer smiled. “Yes, sir. Pa’s heart surgery was first. Now we’re saving up for Haddy’s eyes. Then we’ll decide if my bum leg is worth the fee.”

“I’d say it is, but you and your folks will have to decide that.” Mr. Rubin scanned through all his clients and stopped on Pa’s name. “That’s two hundred sixty-three fifty this week.”

Jer pulled out his credit chip, set it on Mr. Rubin’s ledger and tapped his payment code. The display showed the money transferring to Mr. Rubin’s account.

Aaron, the older boy in the family, rushed in from the back and skidded to a stop. “Mr Baruch! Mr. Baruch! Your brother’s in an awful fight with Mr, Lindemann! Micah already went for the sheriff, but come quick!”

There was no such thing as “come quick” on days when his hip was acting up, but he limped along as best he could. Mr. Rubin’s strong left arm, the recently repaired one, caught Jer under the right elbow and helped bear his weight down the stairs.

Halfway down the street, Kane Lindemann and Dave were throwing fists at each other while Kane’s two pals, Nahum and Vashti, stood off to the side cheering their friend on. The gathering crowd stayed well back. Nearby, Jessie Zimmel, Rusty Robot’s head barmaid, leaned on a light pole and watched the fight with a grin on her face. Sheriff Weisser ran down the street.

Dave’s fist connected with Kane’s jaw and sent him sprawling in the dirt. Kane came back up with a knife in hand. He thumbed the switch and energy crackled down the length of the blade. Jer reached for his pistol but from his angle, he’d have to aim past too many people.

Sheriff Weisser pushed his way through the crowd and shot the dirt at Kane’s feet. “Put it away, Kane, before I stun your hide and stick you in a cell.”

After turning off the plasma edge of his knife, Kane slammed it into its sheath. He jabbed his finger in Dave’s direction. “You stay away from Jessie.”

“Or what?” Dave spat at the ground.

“You won’t always have the sheriff and your kin around.” Kane made a fist. “Then we’ll see.”

“Oh yeah, we’ll see.”

Sheriff Weisser stood between them. “That’s enough.” He pointed at Kane and his pals. “You three, get outta here before I decide to put you in a cell for disturbing the peace.”

Jer wove his way through the dispersing crowd. “Dave, I told you to stay with the wagon.”

Dave gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. “I’m not your boy!”

““No, but he talks sense,” Sheriff Weisser said. “You know Kane is sweet on Jessie, so –”

“And you aren’t.” Jer chimed in.

“– Why are you coming onto her so strong even I can see it on other end of the street?”

Dave shrugged.

“Words, boy. I’m not your Pa, but I’m the law. Unless you want a night in a cell for disturbing the peace, you’ll answer with words, not head jiggles. Why you coming on to a girl you don’t even like?”

“Joking with Kane.”

Jer rolled his eyes. “Only Kane’s not joking.” He turned to Sheriff Weisser “I’d be obliged if you could sit on Dave until I’m done with errands. Shopkeepers don’t want him around after last month, and looks I can’t leave him with the wagon.”

Sheriff Weisser nodded and got a good grip on Dave’s upper arm. “Yep, Me and Dave here are going to have a little chat about a man’s responsibilities, just like I promised the last time you came in here and started trouble. Let’s go, Dave.”

Jer watched them go and blew out a sigh.

The crowd went about their business, except for Jessie who still leaned on the lamppost. Her dress, transparent except for a few strategically placed decorations, shimmered in the orangey light of the sun overhead.

She smirked, pushed off from the pole and practically slithered over. “Poor Jer. That brother of yours is like a stampede waiting to start.”

“This is all one big game to you, isn’t it?” Jer adjusted the grip on his cane. “Do you care at all for either of them?”

“Those two?” She snorted. “Boys have been fighting over me for years. I have never belonged to any man, and certainly never will to some penniless asteroid herder like Kane.” She reached for him. “Now a ranch owner like yourself …”

He stepped back. “Good day, Ma’am.”

Jessie’s laugh followed him back to the wagon. Mr. Rubin’s boys had done a fine job packing the supplies. Jer tightened one of the bands securing the load and increased the power on another. Both adjustments probably weren’t necessary, but he felt better to have done something. The remaining errands to the church, the bank, the butcher, and the dairy went smoothly, and the supplies were added to the wagon.

That left one more stop, and Jer was of a mind to leave his brother in a cell until Pa got home next week, Dave would stay out of trouble and everyone else would have some peace. Everyone except the sheriff, that is. Maybe Dave would go out on one of his asteroid-herding runs and give everyone a break that way. Jer hobbled across to the sheriff’s office and took the steps one at a time. Inside, Sheriff Weisser sat on one side of his desk and Dave sat on the other, sulking while the sheriff worked at his computer.

Now, almost two hours after the fight, the side of Dave’s face had swelled some and a shiner was developing under his left eye.

“Sheriff, can I take Dave home?” Jer asked.

“Yep. Lack of common sense isn’t a crime.” He looked up from his computer and drove a hard glare into Dave. “But the next time you come into town and instigate a problem, David Obadiah Baruch, I will find something to charge you with. You got me, boy?”

Dave pushed off from the chair. “Yes. Sir.”

“Let’s go, Dave. Storm’s coming and we need to get ready for it.” Jer indicated the door with a twitch of his head. “Thanks, Sheriff.”

“Don’t mention it.”

They went back to the wagon in silence. Dave grabbed the side of the wagon and vaulted up and over with an ease Jer hadn’t known in ten years. Jer set his cane behind the seat and grabbed the side.

Dave offered his hand. “Come on, Gimpy, or we’ll be here all year.”

You’re not joking with me, are you? Gonna throw me in the dirt soon as I trust you? Jer clasped his brother’s wrist with one hand, and rocked back for momentum. Dave pulled as Jer pushed off with his stronger leg. He turned as he got up onto the wagon and planted himself in the seat.

“Thanks.”

“Oh, no, thank you, big brother. Don’t know when I’ve ever had so much fun in town.”

“No one told you to start a fight with Kane.” Jer flipped the switches for the engines.

As they wound up and lifted off from the dirt, the wagon floated upward, too. Jer took the control sticks in hand and throttled up slowly. The cables connecting the two motors to the wagon scooted forward until they were taut then picked up speed as Jer increased the throttle.

“Why’d you make me come in the first place?” Dave asked.

“You were one more innuendo short of Tamar’s fist up your nose, that’s why.” Jer glanced at his brother. “I was trying to keep you from a fat lip and a black eye. Lot of good that did.”

Dave planted his elbow on his knee and his chin on his palm. “No one around here knows how to take a joke.”

“No one around here thinks your jokes are funny. Flirting with a girl you have no interest in just to get Kane’s goat or making fun of Tamar one moment and grabbing her butt the next while suggesting a roll in the hay? Don’t know many who’d find that funny, Dave, and certainly no girl worth having?”

“Maybe you and I like different kinds of girls.”

“That may be, but you need to look further afield than Tamar. She’s had it up to the gills with you.”

Dave sat back, kicked his feet up on the front of the wagon, and crossed his arms over his chest. “Sounds like everyone’s had it up to the gills with me, which is fine by me. I’m tired of everyone treating me like a kid. I’m going to herd some asteroids to the refinery.”

“Just get your supplies honestly this time. Take them from our storeroom, not a merchant.”

Dave sat up straight again and jabbed his finger at Jer. “Stop needling me, you self-righteous jerk. What I wanted on that trip wasn’t in the storeroom, and those merchants got paid back for everything I borrowed and gained another twenty percent. They made money off the deal. That left me with almost nothing to show.”

“Yeah, because the judge gave you a choice of that, ten years in prison, or thirty-nine lashes. How much would those merchants have gotten back if you hadn’t been caught? Anything?”

After glaring for a moment longer, Dave crossed his arms over his chest and stared straight ahead.

A cool wind picked up from the North bringing a scent of ozone. A blue-black storm cloud loomed. That storm would hit by tonight. Jer increased their speed.

***

Kane hustled around the ship he called home. Imperious had been a gift from his grandmother in an attempt to get him to do an honest man’s work. Herding asteroids to refineries paid decently for him, Vashti, and Nahum, even if it wasn’t always the safest job.

Vashti’s footsteps, softer than Nahum’s, ran up the loading ramp. “Kane! You were right!”

“About Dave Baruch?” Kane closed up the engine maintenance hatch and dogged it.

“Yeah, he’s just filed flight plans.” Vashti hollered. “Where are you?”

He left the engine room and met her at the ramp. “Where’s Dave headed?”

“Nain, according to my contact,” she said.

“That’s perfect. Let’s get there.” Kane jogged toward the bridge. “Get Nahum and button it up. I’ll file plans.”

***

The storm raging outside rattled the house with bursts of thunder. The winds shrieked. Jer had gathered not only his own hired hands but also the surrounding neighbors under his roof, the only shelter for miles around rated to handle the worst of the storms. This one, a category eight, ranked high enough for the record books. He prayed earnestly for the safety of those who were meant to come here to his house for shelter but hadn’t made it. The Michalsons, the Greenburgs, and at least four others. Maybe they had found somewhere else safe. Jer sat in his room, reviewing the ranch’s financial statements on a battery-powered handheld computer. The power supply for the building could conk out any moment now with a category eight raging outside.

A strong knock banged on the door. Jer looked up from his handheld. “Come i–”

The door flew open, and Ethan, the youngest of his brothers changed in. “Jer, we’re getting a message over the FTL.”

“In this weather?” He set his computer aside.

“It isn’t clear at all, but sounds like it might be Dave.” Ethan waved for Jer to follow. “Come on!”

Jer grabbed his cane and hobbled after Ethan to the radio room at the end of the hall. Haddy sat there listening intently to a static-riddled transmission that sure sounded like Dave’s voice.

“…in troub…ran into…maj…mage…”

Jer snatched the microphone and squeezed the transmitter button. “Dave, we got a bad storm here. Your message is all static. Soon as the storm lets up, I’ll come get you, all right? Get somewhere safe if you can and sit tight.”

“Wha…Jer, I c…ear you…ran into K…out…I–”

The light on the FTL transmitter went dark. A second later, thunder shook the house. The lights guttered then went out, leaving everyone in darkness for a few moments while the house system turned on the red emergency lights and ignited the backup generator. All the talking in the house went quiet then resumed at a lower level.

Haddy turned toward him and pushed her thick glasses further up her nose. “Sounds like he’s in trouble.”

“That’s what it sounds like, but we’re guessing. There wasn’t much to that transmission. What’d he say before I got here?”

Haddy frowned, which made her glasses slip. “Not much I could make out. I recorded it, but we’ll have to wait for main power to listen to it.”

Who would’ve thought we’d need the FTL radio on the emergency power grid. “Fair enough.”

“But what do we do?” Ethan asked.

Jer gripped his brother’s shoulder. “The only thing we can do. Take care of our guests until the storm passes and pray everyone stays safe. Once the weather clears enough for me to launch, I’ll fly out to Nain and find out what’s happened.”

The wind shrieked outside the house and the thunder roared.

***

The quantum drive dropped Jer’s ship at the edge of the asteroid belt orbiting Nain, a red dwarf further out from the galactic core than his own home system of Gibeah. The asteroid belt took up the space of four planetary orbits, the largest collection of asteroids anywhere in the Theocracy’s holdings. As the most dense asteroid field, Nain was both the most lucrative and the most dangerous. A man could make good living here if tumbling rocks didn’t kill him first.

Jer unhooked his flight harness and pushed off from the chair. The sense of flying in zero G was the only chance he had to move without pain. If he didn’t have obligations at home, he’d happily brave the risks of asteroid herding. When he landed at the scanner station, Jer called up a reading of the Nain belt. Five ships aside from his own were in the system, all congregated on the near side of the ring, which was odd in itself.

Asteroid herders tended to maintain a greater distance from each other to prevent getting caught up in stampedes, runaway chain reactions that happened when one misstep with a tractor or repulsor beam sent asteroids smashing into each other or anything else in the way. Jer switched the readout on his screen to show vectors, which made the odd choice clear. The far side of the belt tumbled at a greater speed in random directions, the telltale of a stampede dying out.

The dull ache of tension spread across Jer’s shoulders. Had Dave been caught up in that? Jer called up a transponder readout and searched for a familiar code. The tension became a tremor. Maybe Dave had left the system. He was a good pilot and an experienced herder.

The communication system pinged.

Jer pushed off from the sensor station and flew across the bridge to the communication console. It pinged again before he had himself settled properly. The code on the screen identified one of the other ships in the system.

Jer punched the Accept Call button and identified himself. “Who is this?”

“Name’s Zack. Just a friendly bit of advice for you. Stay this side of the belt. Couple fellas got into it just yesterday on the other side, started a stampede and ended up getting one of the ships blowed up. The other one lit out on a course for Shechem.”

“Sir, you didn’t happen to catch the name on those ships.”

“Yep. One of them. Imperious was the one what lit out of here. Just about ran over old Adon on the way out.”

Kane. Ma will be devastated if the other ship was Dave. “I hate to be a bother, mister, but last night, I got a message from my brother. He was supposed to be here at Nain, and he sounded like he was in trouble, but a storm kept me pinned down. If–”

“I hope that other ship wasn’t your kin, but let me get the transponder number outta my sensor log.”

“I’d be obliged, sir.” Seconds passed like decades. Tension in his shoulders became a persistent ache. He whispered prayers that the most obvious answer wasn’t the real one.

“All right. I’m sending you the transponder number of the ship what got caught in the stampede.” Zach’s voice startled Jer out of his thoughts.

Jer swallowed hard and checked the readout screen.

“Sorry, but that code’s only a couple digits off yours.” Zach’s voice held equal parts certainty and condolences. “If you both registered near the same time or place, I’m afraid it’s not good news.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you for your effort.” Jer rubbed his forehead and shut off the system.

He was the nearest kinsman. Chasing Dave’s killer was his job, but first he needed Sheriff Weisser to deputize him.

***

Jer parked his wagon in the barn and hobbled inside. His shirt weighed more with a couple ounces of titanium pinned to it. Sheriff Weisser’s imprimatur had turned Jer from ranch boss to avenger of blood. Now all that remained was to chase Kane down and see justice done according to Theocracy law. First, though, he had to pick two people to crew with him. Short runs by himself were fine but this hunt for Kane might take a while. Ethan and Haddy along with the managers of their Pa’s hired hands, Tamar and Lemuel, sat in the front room. Ethan tinkered with one of his mechanical widgets. Haddy’s brown eyes were red from weeping, but she had composed herself as well as could be expected. Lemuel sat still as a board with his hands folded in his lap, while Tamar stared out the window.

Ethan set his widget aside and bolted to his feet. “Take me with you. I’m really good at fixing stuff, and he was my brother, too.” His words came out faster than last night’s wind.

“Calm down, Ethan.” Jer patted the kid’s—er, rather, young man’s shoulder. Eighteen makes you a man by law, but you’re still my kid brother. “I haven’t decided who I’m taking.”

Tamar turned away from the window. “You know there’s no love lost ‘tween me and Dave, but if you need a medic on this trip, I’m with you.”

“With a snake like Kane, you might need someone who knows weapons.” Lemuel smiled.

Haddy said nothing and pushed her glasses up. Words had rarely been necessary between them on important matters like this. She was a real jack of all trades, and that familiarity with a little of everything made her valuable, but she would trust his judgment and go along with his choice no matter what it was.


Haddy, the generalist

Ethan, the mechanic

Tamar, the medic

Lemuel, the weapons specialist.

Jer needs 2 people for his crew. Who should he take? Leave me a note in the comments below or on my Facebook page. You have one week to vote. A week from tomorrow, I’ll post the result.

M Is for Telepath

My folks tell me I’ve been writing stories since I was in 2nd grade. Do I remember that? No, but the first stories I do remember writing were fanfic (really, really amateur fanfic) set in comic book universes, mostly X-Men. My friends and I read lots of those and made up our own tales and then I wrote about them or came up with my own stories.

The characters that interested me the most were the telepathic ones and the ones who could teleport. Why? Because people didn’t make sense to me, and I hate long roadtrips. If I were telepathic, maybe people would’ve make more sense. If I could teleport, I could avoid roadtrips. What a deal, eh?

When I wrote Mindstorm: Parley at Ologo, I made the main characters telepathic. That’s why M is for Telepath.

Grace Bridges designed the lovely abstract cover, which actually represents what Calla sees when she goes into someone's mind.

Grace Bridges designed the lovely abstract cover, which actually represents what Calla sees when she goes into someone’s mind.

In science fiction, especially the superhero genre, telepathy is as common as breathing. I wanted my telepathic characters to be unique in some way. Giving the normal ones the ability to teleport, too, was not all that unique. Anyone remember the 1970s TV series Tomorrow People? (I understand there’s been a reboot, but I haven’t seen that one).

Calla, one of the main characters in Mindstorm: Parley at Ologo, is a doctor who specializes in psionic medicine. I decided to use that to make my telepathic characters different. How does she perceive the mind? Here, check out this excerpt. (No spoilers.)


Nikk aimed a portable scanner at one of the bullet holes. “Two patients, both in their twenties. Appeared in the waiting room unconscious. Female was shot twice in the chest with an old-style projectile gun. Both patients have psionic injuries, but I’m not sure how severe. Check the male first.”

I’m on it.” Calla hurried to the male patient and perched on a stool next to a portable vat of pseudo-amoebic growth accelerator.

She reached into his mind. Visualizing his mind as a maze of glass panes, she took a moment to survey the mental landscape. Areas of blackened, broken panes stood out against the others near them.

For such a young man, he’d had a troubled life. Discounting the obvious damage, years’ worth of panes bore witness to endless tribulation.

Childhood, usually marked with brilliantly colored support poles and almost cartoon-like images, looked oddly muted. An illness couldn’t have caused the problem. The panes would have been thin and brittle if that were the case.

Calla had seen the dull, lifeless color scheme associated with feelings of isolation, often from absent parents or a perceived lack of security. The boy she mentored had a similar run in his maze between the time his mother had left and a month later when Calla had met him and taken him under her wing.

Adolescence showed a dramatic change to a blindingly bright scheme marking fear and hypersensitivity. More reds and oranges appeared, and the supports now bristled with spikes to keep people at a distance. Some of that could be normal, but Calla rarely saw such an intense anger.

That span lasted a short distance before the real tragedy reared up. In the space of a few weeks, the maze changed from garish to monotone. Images were blurred and warped, and the frames were twisted and frail. Some pictures were too grayed out to discern. Chemical dependence. Judging from the severe degradation, she supposed drugs rather than alcohol had been his poison of choice.

Then, some seven or eight years ago, there had been a gradual change. Colors returned, first the hot colors of anger and fear, and then in time the cooler colors of happier times until the images looked like photos in an album. The supports showed the change by becoming straighter and melding their colors and materials to provide a pleasing match to the images they held.

He’d righted his life again, and the depressing monochromatic drug addiction hadn’t returned even once. An admirable achievement, given how many patients she’d seen who had never made the journey or had tried, only to lapse back into the old, destructive ways.

She completed her general overview in less than a minute, and then she returned to what damage there was.

Calla shifted her attention. A sense of pain and weakness from teleporting with injuries stood out in her perception. Her natural sympathetic reaction threatened to pull her down, but she kept her focus on the patient.

Two collections of the glass walls lay in black pieces, one in the monotone addict phase of his life and the other more recent. Scorched or cracked single frames and short runs were scattered about.

One of the cracked panes in his drab childhood broke apart and fell. A nearby one darkened and splintered moments later. The floor in this area looked uneven, marking damage to a deeper level of his mind.

Although the male patient’s condition would slowly decline, Calla could afford to leave him for now and come back later, provided she didn’t wait too long. From the other bed, the pain and instability in the woman’s mind demanded more immediate attention. Calla hated to leave her current patient, but the woman’s physical and mental injuries might compound each other.

With a promise to return, Calla pulled away from the young man and spun one hundred eighty degrees to the other victim.


There are other levels of the mind. If you want to check out how Calla sees them, you’ll have to read the tale.

Your next prompt: N is for Jitters

L Is for Griffin

I have had a fascination with birds for a looooong time, especially parrots because they’re so goofy and birds of prey because they just look interesting. Add to that a fascination with mythical critters and is it any wonder I’m fond of griffins?

Griffins have now made an appearance in my writing. Lines of Succession has a griffin named Tiercel for a character, and he is quite a character! That’s why L is for Griffin.

When coming up with Tiercel’s character, I originally had the idea of telling scenes from the griffin’s perspective. I wanted him to be intelligent but distinctly not human and not exactly sentient. That made him an unreliable narrator, a skill I still don’t have nailed down too well, so I reset his character and came up with a different approach.

In the current form, Tiercel is pretty smart and fiercely protective of his rider, Elaina. If you take a smart parrot and cross it with a well-trained, large dog, you’ll get pretty close to his personality. He listens to her, usually, but he does have a mind of his own.

Here, check out this excerpt starring Tiercel (no spoilers. It’s from very early on in the book):


A much closer griffin screech drew his attention to the bridge connecting the aerie to the launch area on the castle’s roof. Princess Elaina walked her griffin over. The feathered, raptorial forequarters and wings were black with tan flecks gradually transforming to black and tan speckled feline hindquarters.

The griffin towered a foot and a half over the princess, who barely stood five feet even with riding boots on, but then her mother had been petite too.

Looking at the princess now, Alexander felt an urge to add his protest to the growing list of people of all ranks who opposed the king’s plans. Such a spirited girl wouldn’t last a full week in Toshiroan society without emerging a dull, lifeless shell of her real self. Even if they set aside the religious concerns, that alone should have killed the deal.

Her male griffin whistled and said, “Fly, Tiercel! Fly! Fly! Fly!”

Elaina preened her griffin’s neck as they walked. “Not yet, you big goof. We have to wait for Errol.”

“Favwit twin, Eh’ol. Yeah.” The griffin nudged her with his beak.

Alexander found the nearest guardsman by the white eagle on the tabard. “Guardsman Roderick, take the telescope please.”

Jerrell Roderick whipped around and jogged over to the platform.

Alexander hopped down and walked to the eastern half of the roof where griffins launched and landed. He approached the princess and moved to bend his knee.

Elaina caught his arm and pulled him back up. “I don’t need any of that.”

Tiercel’s huge, yellow eyes narrowed and his head lowered until Alexander found he was looking beak to nose with a four-hundred-pound griffin. With the big, hooked beak so close to his face, Alexander hoped this beast was in a better mood than Lint. He rubbed the fingers the pigeon had pecked at.

“Who you?” Tiercel asked.

Alexander stepped back. “He’s a talker.”

Elaina hugged the griffin’s neck. “My favorite chatterbox.”

Tiercel tipped his head to one side and leaned closer, forcing Alexander back up another step. “Who you?”

Elaina rubbed the feather tufts on Tiercel’s head. “It’s okay, Tiercel. This is Sergeant, um, Sergeant… I’m sorry. I should know this.”

“Sergeant Alexander Richmond, Your Highness.”

She pointed her finger at him. “Right, right. From Dovecote.”

“Good gerfin?” Tiercel tilted his head to the other way. “Good gerfin?”

“Good griffin.” Elaina stroked Tiercel’s neck.

Tiercel straightened up and chirped. “Good gerfin, yeah. He’s a talker!”


Terry and Sam Pray did excellent work on the cover art!

Terry and Sam Pray did excellent work on the cover art!

In addition to Lines of Succession, there’s a sequel planned and a passel of short stories and novellas related to the novel in the works.

Your next prompt? M is for Telepath