Nikometros felt uneasy. Razor-sharp shadows, cast by the harsh sunlight, made the landscape flat and forbidding. The few sounds that came to his ears were muted, heard as if from a great distance. The stench of burning flesh assailed his nostrils. His horse shied as a vulture squawked and beat its way slowly into the air. Nikometros leaned forward, patting the stallion’s neck, soothing him. "Easy, Diomede, easy!"

The lone stallion and rider picked their way slowly over uneven ground past a burned out hovel. A dirty, unkempt figure moved slowly on foot alongside him. Bits and pieces of pottery and other debris lay scattered by the side of the track. The buzzing of flies around an unidentifiable corpse lying by the rough track and the muted jingling of harness were the only sounds invading the silence. He scanned the rocky ground ahead. A few kites circled high above, almost lost in the intense blue of the mountain sky. The tall young officer in Macedonian armor gripped his horse with powerful tanned thighs, controlling it easily, his hands only lightly resting on the reins. Light blue eyes squinted in the glare beneath blonde locks poking out from under a bronze crested helmet. He shifted his weight when his golden stallion fidgeted, stamping and trying to turn as another horseman came up alongside him. He turned to see his commander, Eumenion, smiling at him.

"I don’t like the look of this place, sir," Nikometros murmured. "Those bandits obviously passed this way and recently, but I don’t trust our guide. He keeps assuring me they are nowhere near. Besides, this valley makes me uneasy."

Eumenion glanced at the short figure of their guide standing stolidly a few paces away. His short and solidly built body, clothed in dirty rags, and reeking from accumulated filth blended in with the desolate rocky ground. His dirty face gazed vacantly at the hills around them.

"I’m not sure he’s capable of guile, Niko", he replied. "He hardly seems aware of us. Anyway, the men are ready for anything these savages can throw at us."

"I’ll move them ahead then, sir." He snapped off a salute, wheeled his horse, and galloped back to the

men waiting further down the dusty track. The body of horsemen broke into a trot when Nikometros beckoned them forward. His mind went back a few months to recent battles against the Persians. As a young captain in Alexander’s Companion Cavalry, he had led the elite of the army, sweeping all before them. Laid low by foul water for several days, he found himself stranded in newly conquered Sogdiana, as the ever-victorious Macedonian army swept eastward. Now he found himself detached as an auxiliary commander of new recruits, struggling to keep Scythia, part of the border territories, in some sort of order. He examined the men as they passed, putting a name to the face, examining their equipment, noting how each sat his horse.

"Ten only," he muttered to himself. "And only half-trained recruits at that. May the gods keep us." His right hand went to the ornate gold armband around his left arm, as it always did when he was worried. It had been his mother’s, and her mother’s before her, a trophy of some long forgotten war on Macedonia’s northern border. It featured a woman’s upper body merging into the coils of a serpent. It was a prized possession, and he felt that some daemon of good luck resided within it. He rubbed it absentmindedly, hoping his luck held for them today.

Spurring his horse forward Nikometros took up a position near the head of the column, the guide running alongside and holding onto his horse’s mane. When they entered the mouth of the defile, Eumenion raised his hand, and slowed the column to a walk. Nikometros scanned the rocky hillsides, looking for any sign of movement. Only the sun-baked earth met his intense gaze, waves of heat distorting the air. A few scraggly trees sprawled over the boulder-strewn ground, casting harsh shadows in the bright sunlight. Sweat trickled slowly down his back. Flies gathered in a small cloud around him, settling around his stallion’s eyes and mouth. It tossed its head irritably, snorting. Nikometros shifted uncomfortably, the worn, leather straps of his armor digging into tensed muscles. The column moved slowly forward, penetrating deeper into the valley. Eumenion moved up beside Nikometros, his brown gelding whickering softly at the golden stallion.

"I’m worried, Niko. It’s too quiet. We were close behind those bandits an hour ago, now they've just disappeared. Have we lost them, or are they waiting for us somewhere? They must know we are following."

Nikometros frowned at the easy familiarity in Eumenion’s voice. He knew he’d have to find some way to have a quiet word about it later. It was one thing to be relaxed in his presence, but sometimes Eumenion was too friendly on duty. Discipline was hard enough when separated from the main army, without appearing to show favoritism. He’d known Eumenion since childhood, and fought beside him throughout the Asian campaign. Consequently, he often treated Nikometros as a friend rather than a junior officer. Sometimes the men resented their special relationship. However, right now he sounded worried. The bandits they were pursuing were probably local tribesmen, but this last raid showed skillful planning. They had been following the trail of burned out farms for three days.

"That gap in the rocks up ahead," he went on. "If there’s a trap, that’ll be where it is. We’ll have to go through there in single file, Niko."

Nikometros reached down and tapped the guide on the head, grimacing as he did so. He was sure the man was covered in lice. "Raiders… where are?" he said, twisting his tongue around the recently learned syllables of the Scythian tongue.

The guide looked up at him with a blank stare then pointed once more up the valley. Nikometros cursed softly and drew his short sword, easing the small round shield on his left arm.

"A plague on this language. I wish I knew enough of it to really question him and find out where he’s leading us. I’d feel happier if we had enough men to send out a proper scouting party, sir."

"Headquarters is sure of him, Niko. The guide’s proved his loyalty before."

Nikometros grunted non-committedly. He searched the pass in front of him with his eyes, before turning to the fidgeting column of men and horses behind them. "Move forward slowly, and as you love your lives, stay alert as we go through there."

He pointed his sword at the guide, who looked up at him impassively, scratching his armpit. He leaned down, gesturing with the sword.

"Take there up," he said then cursing, tried again. "Take us up there, but if you lying, I kill you, no make mistake."

The man looked sullenly at him then turned away. The column, with the two officers at its head, moved slowly up the path in single file, passing between the larger rocks at the crest of the pass. Nikometros looked keenly about him when they entered the pass, but could see no sign of danger. The shade cast by the large boulders was a short but welcome relief from the heat. Nothing stirred on the slopes, on either side, as the column moved slowly through the pass. Nikometros found himself rubbing his armband again, and dropped his hand self-consciously. The gradient dropped away steeply on the other side, and the horses hooves slipped in the loose scree. The clatter of the rocks and the jangling of metal seemed too loud, echoing back from the sides of the valley. Nikometros slowed and looked back to check on the men, seeing the last of them emerge from the shadows of the rocks.

"That cursed fool’s half asleep," he muttered to himself. He opened his mouth to shout at the soldier swaying on his horse. A shadow flitted across the sun. He involuntarily glanced upward, glimpsing swift movement above. Eumenion grunted beside him, and Nikometros swung round, aware even as he did so, that the last soldier was falling off his horse.

Eumenion stared at him; a wide-eyed empty look of horror, and his hands scrabbled at his throat. He opened his mouth and a small freshet of blood cascaded down his chin. He slid slowly back off his horse, falling limply to the ground. Nikometros watched all this in numbed disbelief. The silence and lack of awareness of danger made the whole thing seem unreal. Eumenion lay on his side, an arrow shaft in his neck propping his head up. He seemed to be looking back up the trail.

Unthinkingly, Nikometros glanced in the same direction. So little time had passed that the trooper was still falling, though at least two others began to fall with him. A shout of warning left his lips as reality flooded into his mind. Nikometros jerked his horse’s head round, seeking the guide. He had disappeared. As another cloud of arrows whistled overhead, he saw figures moving on the far slope, many more than he would have expected. Nikometros looked back at his friend’s body for a moment then shook himself back into reality, cursing as he realized the folly in delay.

"Men, to me!" he yelled. "Form up on me … shields over your heads."

One of the soldiers was surging back up the path, whipping his horse in a frenzy. A man stepped out from the shadows at the top, and cast a spear, taking the horse low down in the neck. The horse screamed and reared, throwing its rider. Before the man could rise, two youths were upon him, hacking downward.

The remaining men closed on Nikometros, jostling his horse. Strained faces peered around shields as they struggled to maintain a position close to him. The clatter of arrows on the shields brought back an instant memory of hailstones on the wooden roof tiles of his uncle’s hall near Pella, and of Eumenion. He felt a strong desire to lose himself in pleasant memories, as the weight of his responsibilities fell upon him. His commander was dead. It was now his duty to care for his men. He looked quickly around, taking in the situation.

Time enough for grief later, he thought, I’ll have to act fast if any of us are to live.

"Listen, men," he cried, pitching his voice to carry over the din. "We are going to have to break free, and we can’t go back through the pass. Follow me down the valley. Keep in close formation, shields up!"

Nikometros kicked his horse in the ribs, pulling his head towards the slope. The powerful stallion leapt forward, plunging down, scattering rocks, and slipping in the loose rubble. High-pitched cries came from the far slope when the ambushers saw their prey escaping. Aware of riders close behind him, Nikometros spurred his horse on harder, fighting for control on the steep slope. The cries of the archers faded rapidly as his small troop raced onward, down the valley floor and, within minutes, out onto a broad plain at its base. They galloped onward, only slowing as their mounts tired.

Pulling his horse up, Nikometros turned to look back at his men. Only five remained. Sweaty, dirt-streaked faces stared back at him. They wheeled their mounts round, looking back the way they’d come. The horses panted and snorted, their coats covered with foam. Nikometros flicked his eyes over his men, registering who remained. He recognized Timon, an older grizzle-bearded Macedonian conscript.

"You, Timon . . . I saw Doriskos and Thyses fall. What happened to Leonidas and . . . who was that new man, Periscus was it?"

"Fell in the first volley sir," Timon grunted. "And another three of us took wounds. What do we do now, sir? We can’t go back through there."

Nikometros’ thoughts turned inward again. Five of the men dead . . . gods! And Eumenion too . . . my friend. He put his grief aside, thinking furiously. We can’t risk going back through the pass, but the hills are low at this end of the mountain range. Perhaps we can go around them. The Oxus River must be close too, and there’s a garrison on the river. Maybe two days ride. Lifting his head, Nikometros raised his voice so they could all hear him.

"We go around the hills, to the west. That will bring us back to the Oxus River. Then we go upriver." He paused, and his voice took on a gentler tone. "There’s nothing we can do for our fallen. We’ll be back in force later. We can honor our dead . . ."

His voice trailed away when a memory he fought to forget pushed unbidden into his mind. He saw again the ghastly stare on Eumenion’s face when death took hold of him. He swayed then recovered his balance.

"Goodbye, my friend," he muttered, "I’ll mourn you later, and I swear you will be avenged." Nikometros gathered his thoughts, and then addressed his men again.

"All right, listen to me. We have a hard ride to the river, but if the gods are with us, we can make it. Keep close together, and don’t be tempted to fight if we run into more of the enemy. This time we run." He quelled one or two murmurs at this with a fierce look. "We’ll be back and we’ll avenge all our comrades then." Nikometros looked into each man’s eyes as he spoke, seeing pain and doubt in some, exhaustion in all, but also a determination to survive. "Timon, lead out, double file. At a trot." He kicked his horse into motion and the six remaining troopers formed a rough double line, their shadows long behind them.

Toward dusk, shadows gathered around the tiny column when they rounded the last of the hills. In front, though still many miles away, lay the river. Nikometros reined in, letting his horse rest. He gazed over the plain, searching for any trace of the enemy. The ambush by archers and spearmen worried him, though he tried to conceal it from the others. The rabble of local tribesmen owned no horses, and none had been in evidence at the ambush, yet they had followed the tracks of at least twenty horsemen for the last three days.

Where are they now? he wondered. Have they come through the valley ahead of us? Are they waiting for us somewhere?

Nikometros looked around slowly then pointed towards a small rocky outcrop about half a mile away, nestled beneath the last of the hills. "We camp there tonight," he said, "and try for the river at first light."

The men were reeling with exhaustion as he led them toward the pile of rocks. He wished they could risk a fire tonight but he knew it could easily be seen on these featureless plains.

At least we have some rations, and a warm blanket apiece, he thought.

When they drew close to the rocks, a motion beyond caught his eye. Involuntarily pulling back on the reins, his spirit sank at the sight of a large body of true Scythian horsemen coming around the edge of the outcrop. They rode easily, with gaily-colored material hanging down around their horse’s legs. Nikometros’ weary band had nowhere to hide, nowhere to run, and they were heavily outnumbered. His men and horses, tired already, waited for his command. He knew that to sit and do nothing meant certain death. To flee, though, was but postponing their fate a short while. Wheeling Diomede, Nikometros gestured towards the distant river.

"Ride for the river," he yelled, "we will be cut down if we stay."

The horses reared, jostling and bumping each other when his men hauled on their reins. Before they could move more than a few paces, loud cries told him they were seen. Nikometros kicked Diomede, forcing him into a gallop, in spite of his great fatigue. His men strung out behind him, thrashing the sides of their horses, hoping for more speed. He glanced back. His throat tightened to see the Scythian horsemen only a few lengths behind. They screamed war cries while they rode. Their horses moved easily, fresh and full of energy. Nikometros snapped his attention back to his men. He could see their efforts were hopeless. Already, the horses faltered, their sides streaked with lather. As he watched, the Scythian horsemen swept by on both sides then curved around in a double line to block them. Nikometros cursed. His men hauled at their horse’s heads, desperate to avoid a collision with the encircling warriors.

"Ride through them," he screamed, "we cannot stay here to die."

As he did so, Nikometros’ horse swerved violently, almost unseating him. He saw it was too late. The soldiers sat slumped on their jostling horses in the middle of a ring of screaming and laughing riders. The Scythians, brandishing weapons, tightened the circle. At some unseen signal, the ring of galloping horses came to a stop amid clouds of billowing dust, and a complete silence fell. Every Scythian horseman sat staring in at the small group of Greeks. All held a weapon at the ready. The Greeks stared back at them, in no doubt that their deaths lay only moments away. The moment dragged out. Still the encircling Scythians sat silent and motionless.

"Fight, you sons of whores!" yelled Nikometros. "Come and find out how Macedonians can fight!"

Three riders detached themselves from the ring of horsemen and moved towards him. They halted twenty paces away. Two of the men were typically short and squat, but the third, tall and slim, sat his horse silently. The tall man wore a close fitting leather garment and leggings, with a cloak over his shoulders. Gold ornaments and jewels hung from his neck and encircled his arms. An ornate helmet of Persian design covered his head. Nikometros locked eyes with him, acknowledging him as the leader. The other two, far more plainly dressed, remained slightly behind him and to each side. They exchanged a few words, too low for him to hear. Then at a gesture from the leader, one of the others drew his sword and rode forward slowly, shouting at Nikometros.

Nikometros stood his ground. He resisted the temptation to draw his own sword. Their lives were in the balance and he knew he must not precipitate a massacre by any sudden action. A high, clear cry came from behind him, lifting the hairs on his neck. A soldier pushed past him, still calling out in a high voice. Agamis, the young Thracian, galloped towards the leader. He called on his gods to accept his spirit, to know he had lived and died well.

"Agamis," Nikometros shouted, "halt!"

A glazed look in his eyes, Agamis spurred his horse, calling on his Thracian gods again and launched himself at the trio. As he did so, a quick signal from the young Scythian leader released the ring of horsemen. Agamis died, transfixed by several arrows. The ring of horsemen surged inward, swallowing up Nikometros and his men in a confused melee. The clash of metal and harsh cries told Nikometros the final moment had come. His men died around him. He dragged his sword from its sheath. Holding his shield high, he dug his heels into Diomede’s sides. He swung his sword at a horseman on his right, slashing him across the chest, while blocking another blow with his shield. A spear caught him in the left shoulder and another in his thigh.

I die with honor, father, he thought, ignoring the pain and blood. A flare of pain in the side of his head dizzied him for a moment and told him his helmet was lost. The figure of the Scythian leader loomed in front of him. He swung blindly, determined to take him with him in death. A jarring shock in his arm swung him around when one of the leader’s guards parried his blow. The man shouted and thrust his spear at Nikometros’ midriff. The bronze point struck his breastplate and glanced off. Nikometros swung his sword, pushing the spear aside then again, hacking at the guard’s neck. The blow connected with his shoulder, slicing through the thin leather. The guard cried out shrilly, blood soaking his chest and his face pulled taut in agony. Nikometros pushed his horse past the dying guard, seeking the leader. Horses milled around him. Sounds of combat fell away behind. He couldn’t spare a look when another spear came at him, searching for his life. His men’s cries and shouts faded then ceased. He knew death had come.

"I am dead with you Eumenion," he cried out, "but their leader’s blood will feed your ghost."

His stallion pressed closer to the leader, and a startled look crossed the man’s eyes when Nikometros swung his sword again. The man jerked backwards, pulling sharply on his reins and half turned his horse to escape. Nikometros swung wildly at the arms clutching at him and ignored the spears probing his armor. Dropping his shield, he threw himself at the man. He fell on the other horse’s rump. He slid off, clutching at the man’s leg with his hand as he fell, dragging him off his horse. He fell to the ground, amidst flailing hooves and dust, coughing and clutching his sword. Nikometros pushed himself up on his knees. Blood streamed from a cut on his arm. Horses stamped and moved around him. A stray hoof thumped into his side. Nikometros looked around wildly.

. . . can’t see me for the horses, he thought.

The leader lay half-stunned on the ground in front of him, making feeble efforts to rise. Nikometros threw himself forward, chopping down with his sword. The blow hit the man on the helmet, knocking it off and away under the horses’ hooves. The leader cried out and raised himself on an elbow. When the horses parted, Nikometros gathered himself for the killing stroke, knowing his own death would closely follow. He raised his sword, his eyes locking with the fallen man’s. Deep green eyes, wide and staring, met his. Something stirred deep within them as they gazed at his pale blue ones. Long locks of black hair framed a delicate, beardless face; a face too soft, too gentle to be a warrior’s.

Awareness flashed through Nikometros’ mind at the same moment he started the killing downstroke, ". . . gods," he blurted, "a woman . . ." His arm jerked the blade to one side, missing her and burying the blade in the rocky earth. His sword slipped from his hand and he knelt in front of her. Nikometros felt himself weakening. His right hand crept across his body, fumbled awkwardly with his armband again. The young woman’s eyes followed the movement of his hand. Her eyes suddenly widened. A shadow crossed his face as a horse moved up beside him and a stunning blow to his head sent blood cascading over his face. Blinded, he was briefly aware of someone shouting before he slipped gratefully into oblivion.


December 24th
Christmas Eve
11:55 P.M.

The night hummed, electric with unbridled human energy. An inky black, moonless sky made a perfect backdrop for multi-colored light displays and gaudy plastic arrangements of false holly, pine trees, and religious figurines. Nervous wisps of gauzy snow clouds insinuated themselves across the velvet backdrop; their insubstantial fingers tenuously touching the strobe-like flashes, reflecting and magnifying them. Combined with raucously loud music and the voices of people jostling each other along the streets and in the stores, the chaotic lightshow of festivities turned the street into a parody of a 1970s discotheque.

It was Christmas Eve and death stalked the living on this holiday night.

One tall figure, bundled tightly in a heavy woolen overcoat and slouch hat, watched the party out of the corner of his eye as he blended with the shadows in a deserted alleyway. But the real cause of his celebration existed on the other side of the window he jealously guarded.

The sensory intrusion of merry-making reverberated through and around the man, a shadow within a shadow, deafening and jagged inside his skull. He ignored it. The window showcasing an old style 1930s ballroom, like a spectacular 3D movie, captured and ensnared his imagination. Within his world, this window, the only window to exist, he focused all his attention on her, the one face shining in a room full of dull, faceless people.

A full instrument band filled the room with cheerful, but seductive, music. She swayed with the crowd, her delicate long-fingered hand grasping the neck of a champagne bottle. Confetti and ribbons from packages littered her thick curly hair where it came loose from a pair of fragile filigree combs that earlier held it on top of her head. He loved to watch her hair cascading down to her small waist. He reached out a hand toward the frosty glass of the window; impulsively wanting to stroke that mane of silken hair as it tumbled over her porcelain shoulders. A golden strapless dress clung to her curves, imbuing her perfect body with the aura of a priceless work of art. The dress shimmered when she laughed and kissed the men surrounding her on the dance floor, under a large bundle of mistletoe hanging from the ceiling. He watched her move away from her admirers only to bend over and kiss a lone middle-aged man sitting at the bar who beckoned to her.

When her breasts threatened to escape from the tight, strapless dress she wore, the watcher’s painful erection pushed against the hard brick wall of the alleyway. Blood pounded in his ears, his hands shook harder, and his breath fogged up the windowpane when he panted in anticipation. His world hyper-focused on her and her alone.

Moist, pink lips formed a smile then erupted into a delighted laugh when the pesky drunk at the bar grabbed her arm. She distracted him by pointing at the big screen television mounted above the bar. It showed the giant Christmas tree in front of the White House as it came alive with lights, showcasing the multitude of ornaments and glittering tinsel it carried. A split screen showed an even larger and gaudier tree being lit in Times Square, eternally heralding another year of good will, peace and the promise of new hopes and revived dreams. It officially became Christmas Day.

She drunkenly swayed away from the drunk’s grasp again and turned to talk to the man standing pressed tightly behind. When he leaned forward, rubbing his hand over the satin of her hip and whispering in her ear, her face diffused with intense anger. Her elegant, ring-clad hand snapped up to slap him then stopped, as if an invisible wall had prevented her from making contact with the man sneering up at her. Sagging, she let her arm drop limply to her side and turned away, a defeated, worn look sinking into her beautiful face, momentarily aging it. She turned and fled.

Squeezing through the crowd, her tall, voluptuous body made slow progress toward the room beyond. She disappeared into the connecting room and out of the watcher’s view. Shuddering with anxiety and breathless expectancy he waited. His gaze alternated between the window and the street; knowing she’d appear in one or the other. His breath caught in anticipation of seeing her without the coldness of glass between them. While he huddled inside a long wool coat, crouched within the alley, the crowds on the sidewalks became noisier and their actions more blatantly sexual or violent. Their smells and noises angered him, awakening a sense of violation inside his gut that railed against the very presence in this world of such human vermin. This moment belonged to him… and to her.

Young, uncaring and mindlessly self-indulgent, men and women often ducked into the alleyway where he now stood motionless in the shadows. They groped, gyrated and moaned against each other; rutting in the alley like animals. Drunk beyond all self-control, they rarely took long and often left with most of their clothes open or missing, leaving naked bodies exposed to public view. Although deeply repulsed, he liked to watch. Sometimes he followed them when they left. But tonight was for her… only for her.

Tonight, the dream would bring her to him. He’d waited and watched, just like the dream told him to, and now, she would be his. His hands oozed sweat worse than ever and his body shook so violently he was ready to explode. He pulled sweaty leather gloves off and rubbed the moisture from his hands; roughly swiping them over the soft wool collar while subconsciously pulling at it, partially hiding his face. Nervously tucking the gloves into a pocket, he licked dry lips and waited for her, like an impatient teenager on a first date. The thought of finally showing himself to this vision of pure angelic womanhood set panic scurrying around his belly. Frantically putting the gloves back on, he pulled his hat lower to hide his eyes. His gaze swiftly shifted from the doorway to the building, to the street and back to the filth of the alleyway, like a caged animal ready to gnaw his way to freedom. His gaze locked onto the pattern of the brickwork he stood upon, forcing him to notice that snow was falling again.

After what seemed like eons, she stepped out of the building with a white fur wrapped tightly around her body and the dim overhead neon light emphasizing the pale golden cascade of her hair. She stood under the awning, slowly turning her head to the right and left, cornflower eyes searching for a taxi and giving him a private show of her classic beauty as her profile turned to accommodate his admiring gaze.

She’s so clean, so pure and she’s mine.

He vibrated with anticipation and licked his lips again. He could smell the heavy musk of her perfume.


Clinging to the staircase handrail for support, her body shivered with the cold. How he longed to warm her.


He poised himself at the mouth of the alley ready to follow whichever way she went. She cursed loudly, realizing the taxis were wisely staying away from the downtown area tonight, then shivered again. The harsh cold seemed to make up her mind for her. Shakily making her way down the stairs on thin-strapped high heels, her hand slid down the rail. He held his breath, hoping she wouldn’t fall on the icy concrete. She made it to the sidewalk, turned right and slowly moved down the street away from the alley. The watcher stepped out and turned to see if any of the loud party-makers clogging the street noticed his presence. He grinned.

Soon she will be mine. The grin widened into a leer.

Soon. The leer widened into a twisted snarl.

He hungrily riveted his gaze on her retreating back and followed. He knew her destination. A cozy apartment three blocks away.




While unseasonably icy rain pelted the windowpanes of the big bay window behind her overstuffed, floral velvet couch, Katherine Hurston lay snuggled warmly against Steve's sweat dampened side. The glow from the television lit the darkened room with shifting patterns of shadow and light. Neither of the lovers noticed or cared what was on the screen.

His warm hand caressed her arm gently as he spoke, his voice as soft and smooth as the velvety material under Kat's body. "You know, someday we’ll look back on this and wonder how we managed to be so comfortable and content just spending days in this cottage. No restaurants, no clubs and no other people to distract us. Do you miss it? I mean, going out, seeing plays in the city or going to parties?"

She smiled up at the masculine cleft in his chin that never failed to produce a flood of passion within her. "No, I don’t. I’m tired of pandering to people in order to make a corporate sale for a computer network that will be obsolete within a year. I got tired of all the commercial politics years ago. The only real peace I've felt in years is when I'm here with you." Kat reached up and gently ran her finger over his lips. "Truth is, I could gladly stay here like this for the rest of my life. I could stay here, alone with you, for the rest of my life. I don’t want to live without you. I won’t live without you.

She lifted her lips and ran them over his chin then eased back, nuzzling his neck as she went. His strong fingers ran up her arm, over her collarbone and then traced a warm pattern down between her full breasts. Kat sighed with contentment. "My life is yours, Steve. I could stay here forever." She returned the caress, lightly sweeping her fingertips over the dense blonde hair matting his naked chest.

"I could too, love, but…" he sighed, his fingers gently teasing her taut, erect nipple.

"I know, you have your practice and you can’t let all those criminals down." She laughed up into his serious face.

She sat up and took his hand gently in hers, lightly rubbing it while she spoke. "Steve, I’ve never felt this way about anybody before. She swallowed and continued, "I know it sounds corny but I’m in love for the first time in my life. I’m forty-eight years old and I’ve never been married for a good reason. All the men I’ve met are nothing compared to you." She lightly kissed the knuckles of his hand then held it tight against her cheek. "You're handsome." She caressed his face. "You're one of the most intelligent men I've ever met." She tapped his forehead and grinned. "You're loving and generous." She ran her fingers over his chest. "And, you're the sexiest man I've ever had the good fortune to be seduced by." She playfully ran her hands over his stiffening penis. A deep, throaty chuckle accompanied his groan of pleasure when she grasped him and gently began to rhythmically stroke the hard shaft.

"We are good together." He ran his shaking fingers over her cheek, cupped the back of her head and gently pulled her toward him, his free hand seeking the warmth of her breast again.

Kat leaned toward him and lightly ran her tongue over the curve of his ear. He shuddered with pleasure and began to thrust his hips in rhythm with her hand. Kat whispered, "Why don’t we live together, my love? Move in with me. It will be so good..."

Like quicksilver, his face darkened with anger, giving his clear blue eyes the look of hard gems. He grasped her shoulders and thrust her away. "How many times do I have to tell you I can't live here yet? Why won't you be patient? I thought you said you'd wait forever."

The sarcasm in his voice lashed her heart into ribbons. The old argument between them still had the power to wound her. Kat's response was immediate. Her back stiffened as she pulled her peach silk robe together. She grabbed the tortoise-shell hair combs off the coffee table and used them to anchor her long, red hair onto the top of her head. "We bought this cottage three months ago so we could be together but you still insist on keeping your apartment in the city. Why?" Her voice dripped hurt and anger.

She watched in trepidation as he ran his hands through his thick blonde hair in agitation. He shook his head slowly from side to side and said, "I told you, honey. I have to be close to my office. I’m a lawyer and I never know when something’s going to come up." When she made no remark, he continued, his voice tired and tinged with irritation. "Aw, come on, Kat, you know how it is...I know you’re stuck here because of your work but I’m here almost every weekend, aren’t I? You know I’d like nothing better than to live here with you but it has to wait. That’s all." He leaned over and slid his hand into her robe. His fingers on her bare breast took her breath away. He nuzzled her ear and whispered, "Be patient and when I can, I’ll move out here and start a small country practice. Okay?"

Leaning into his hand, she murmured, "Okay, I'll try to be understanding, my love. I don’t want to pressure you. I’m just afraid that all this is too good to be true. I love you, Steve."

As he pulled the combs from her hair and it tumbled down her back, his lips traced the contour of her ear and neck and he whispered, "I love you too, baby. You’ll never lose me, I promise."

He held her tightly to his bare chest, devouring her neck and shoulders until she trembled against him. She shrugged out of the robe and leaned back, naked, onto the couch, his body following hers.

Rising up over her, he looked into her eyes, his blue ones dark with passion, and said, "Kat, you’re the only woman for me. Someday I’ll prove it to you."

"Prove it to me now," she whispered as he lowered his body to hers and she spread her dampened thighs to welcome him.



"What is the most cunning creature in the world? The one you never see or hear."

He raised his bloodied face from the fresh kill, the antelope forgotten as the voices filled his head. They called to him, a siren’s song, stroking every cell and fiber of his brain. Picking up his spear, he rose onto his knees, listening. He anxiously fingered the black stone hanging around his neck; its angled facets catching the light in a rainbow of colors. Fear twitched thick, knotted muscles as he aimed his mind toward the message he knew he must listen to and obey. He could hear Umbra, his grown son, in the next valley, and the other men of his village. They all froze, joining their thoughts to his; listening to the distant message.

Garagh, my father, do you hear? They call again, Umbra’s thoughts connected with Garagh’s mind, that was now filled with images alien to memory.

Yes, I hear, my son. It is stronger this time. We must answer, as we have been taught to do by the ancients. Call the others. We must go--- now, Garagh answered.

No resistance was possible, or given, as he rose onto trembling, muscular legs. Slinging the kill around his thick neck, Garagh scanned the horizon for the other hunters of the tribe, his dark, penetrating eyes protected from the fierce sun by a thick brow. He could hear their thoughts and feel their reactions, and he knew they were aware of his inner workings as well.

Come my brothers. We go to the camp. We must ready ourselves and our people for the journey. It is time…at last.

Aiming his resolute face toward the south, he took his first step into a journey that would last 30,000 years and change the fate of mankind



Dr. James Hay felt a river of sweat run down the valley of his wide, sunburned back. The deepening color of his skin highlighted the small triangular scar on his right shoulder. He ran his fingertips absently over the faint ridge while carefully inspecting the rocks scattered over the table before him.

Straightening with a groan, he rubbed his hands over the knots aching in the small of his back and lifted his eyes to gaze at the brilliant blue of an Australian summer sky. As a cool breeze swirled around his body like a playful puppy, shivers of delight ran though him in spite of the intense humid heat. A small, secret smile curved his lips. His stomach muscles tensed when the damp, sensual smell of the rainforest mixed with the perfume of orchids wafted into his nostrils. His body betrayed him…

It smells like her; primal, sensual, earthy.

The forbidden thought sent a jolt through him, his body responding in spite of a lifelong regime of iron control. He pulled in a ragged mouthful of the heavily scented air.

It’s been too long… way too long.

The undulating sensuality of palm fronds swaying in the wind brought back a memory of watching her dance, her body moving with grace and elegance against the man who had held her tightly against him. Passion swirled through his loins, building an unquenchable fire. A torrent of desire that flooded his mind and body. He closed his eyes and willed away the feelings, the mental images assaulting him from all directions. With a ragged breath, he turned toward the sound of soft footsteps approaching from behind. He turned. Please be….

The lone figure of Maggie Chin, an elegant Chinese girl of twenty-two and one of his postgraduate students, slowly made its way toward him. Like a cold shower, her approach served to snap him out of this useless reverie and reminded him that fantasies, by their very nature, cannot fill an empty life. He yanked his shirt off the branch he’d hung it on to dry out, slipped it on and took a deep, cleansing breath, dispelling the images he’d fought to bury since his trip to Washington.

Work is what I need. It’s always been there for me and it always will be. Besides, Samantha Louis doesn’t even know I'm alive and if she did, a woman like her wouldn’t want me. He used his tried and true mantra to rebury the past and get on with the present.

He studied the site several volunteer students were working on with the diligence of ants. Their chatter and laughter echoed around the site, silencing the lorikeets, cockatoos and insects that normally dwelled there. The tangled, dripping vines of the rainforest almost obscured the view of the central site where a small knot of trusted people gathered. Each one worked feverishly on a facet of a towering, coal-black obelisk standing in the center of a perfectly round bare spot fired into the middle of the rainforest. Its smooth, geometrically cut surface reflected the sunlight beating upon it with all the brilliance of a perfect diamond. James stood on the outskirts of the site, away from the group, his hands resting on the carvings etched deeply into large fragments of the hard rock they’d found laid out in a perfect circle around the obelisk. Observing the high-energy activity of this elite group of volunteers, his body quivered with fatigue and suppressed excitement.

Part of it had to do with the unique object they’d found, but another part was due to the telephone call he'd made from his seedy hotel room two nights ago.

She is on her way to Australia. She’ll be here any moment. God, I wish she was coming here for me instead of the promise of a big story.

In spite of the knowledge that she couldn't be interested in anything other than another literary award, the thrill of seeing her again sent another tremor through his body. They had only met once, at a gathering of science delegates in Washington, D.C. where he gave a talk as guest speaker. He vividly remembered talking to her briefly about his work investigating Australian mysteries; her genuine interest surprising him. He also remembered thinking how it would be easy to drown in the blue of her eyes and lose himself in her arms. The memory of Samantha’s lithe body encased in a flowing black velvet dress, her flaming auburn hair cascading down the soft bare flesh on her back remained etched in his mind. Samantha Louis, as he found out later, worked as a world-class freelance journalist. After hearing she’d won several major awards, he stopped paying attention, knowing she was out of his league.

When a family friend out walking in the bush discovered the obelisk, and he sent a photo and a map to the University, James knew the find would be an international media circus unless he moved fast to contain it before it became public knowledge. That’s when he decided to do a thorough background check on Samantha Louis. He liked what he saw and heard about her integrity and professionalism. Her honest and precise reporting motivated him to contact her when it became obvious he’d have to let the media in on his find. James needed her to report the truth, to keep out the rest of the sensation-seeking press with her clout and, more importantly to him, to protect the Aboriginal people he loved

He realized he stood there with a silly grin on his face and instantly pulled his thoughts back to the present situation. Maggie stood patiently waiting for him to notice her before speaking out. "Lost in another world huh?" She fingered her long, black braid and smiled up at him. The silken tropical print of her blouse whispered when the breeze caught it.

Her child-like voice, smooth porcelain features and tiny figure never ceased to stir up feelings of fatherly protectiveness inside him. But then, he felt that way about all his students. He grinned at her. "No, a new found world, Maggie. What’s up?"

She held out a neatly typed report. "You asked for the analysis data I did of the black rock found on the coast, remember? To compare this one to?" Her calm, patiently modulated tone, one used by very young people when dealing with older authority figures, made him chuckle.

"Right. Too much on my mind lately." His face split into a lazy lopsided smile. When she turned to go he added, " By the way, I don’t think I ever thanked you for dropping everything, including your PhD, to come and help us with this. I value your expertise with the analysis. Thanks, Maggie."

She held up her tiny hand with an indulgent sigh. "I’ve told you before, Doctor, no thanks needed. This is a chance for me too. Anything that has to do with people’s beliefs and myths is just a part of the whole. Besides, I get tired of Oriental mythology. I wanted to see how other cultures fared in that department. Anything else I can do before I go help Ratana with the etchings?" She raised a perfectly shaped eyebrow at him.

"Well, thank you anyway. I’m sure your husband doesn’t appreciate your absence." When she grinned, he ventured on. "Since you ask, would you indulge me and go see how Nathan and the others are doing down at the blockade?" He absent-mindedly swatted at another mosquito attracted to the sweat saturating his clothes.

While she quietly walked toward the dirt road leading into the clearing, he opened the report, briefly scanned it then looked up to search for his research assistant. "Ratana, where the hell are those computer readouts I asked for?" he bellowed over to the young Aboriginal woman kneeling at the base of the obelisk and taking notes.

From where he stood, her thick brown hair obscured her face, but her body language spoke volumes about Aboriginal pride. Her wide shoulders tensed then relaxed, before she replied, "Patience, Uncle. They’ll be here when they’re finished. Eddy’s gonna bring ‘em and you know how slow he is, so calm down." She immediately dismissed him, absent-mindedly brushed dried red clay from her dark brown legs and returned to her work.

Grunting in frustration, he scanned the other students gathering information, hoping to spot Eddy at his usual pastime of harassing the female students when they bent over. James snorted with disgust at the image of Eddy’s small, piggy eyes devouring the sight of the young women’s bodies while they worked. He pushed the image out of his mind as he strode to a battered and ancient army tent used as a base office. He paused at the closed tent flap and listened. Issuing a low snarl of anger, he stepped inside. Eddy sat at the computer terminal, downloading files onto a computer disc. The young man’s frail-looking and bony body was bent towards the screen with intense concentration. The thick glasses he wore reflected the streams of file names moving down the screen. The slack-mouthed look of greed and evil malice shone from his pale face.

"What the hell are you doing?" James demanded when he looked over Eddy’s hunched shoulders and saw the data from the find streaming down the screen.

The young man’s skinny body jumped at the sharp whiplash in James’s voice. "Just backing up the files, Doctor Hay. That’s all." The pallor of his face blended his small features in with the dull, yellowish tinge of his T-shirt. He stammered, squirmed and peered anxiously at the flap of the tent.

James leaned over Eddy’s shoulder and stared closely at the list of files copying onto the disk. He could feel his cheeks and neck suffusing with a red-hot flush of anger. He glared at Eddy’s frightened face. "Okay, Eddy. Who’s paying you for this? One of the newspaper guys or your uncle?"

"I can’t talk. He’ll kill me. I didn’t mean it, Doctor Hay. Please don’t hit me." Eddy cringed back into the chair, his hands outstretched. His words degenerated into childish whimpers, sputtering and stuttering. Eddy jumped out of the chair and bolted out of the tent. James ejected the computer disk out of the drive and tucked it into the pocket of his khaki shorts. As he left the tent, Ratana headed in, almost bumping into him. "Hey, what’s going on? Eddy just flew past me like his tail was on fire," she asked, concerned at the thunderous look on his face. "And, you look like you just caught a blowfly in the teeth."

"He was copying our files. I’ll bet he intended to sell the disk to one of those newspaper vultures trying to get in here. I caught him in the act and he ran." Running his fingers through the wet hair wildly capping his head, fought back the bile rising in his throat at the thought of a student, even one as unsavory as Eddy, selling his data to those who regularly ostracized his work. "It was bound to happen sooner or later, I suppose. Peter would give anything to discredit me. I know he forced that kid on me so he could use him in some way. I just hoped Eddy would prove me wrong."

"Well, what’s done is done. I’ll make sure Nathan knows to keep him out from now on. At least you know he’ll bleed the reporters dry before he gives up what he’s stolen, if anything." She laughed, deep and throaty.

"Well, I managed to catch him before he made off with the disk anyway." He fingered the blue plastic disk while he mentally counted the stack of them on his desk.

"And, if they choose to print what he claims to remember, we'll hit them with a lawsuit based on faulty information. I'll be Ally McBeal and you can be Bobby what's-his-name from that other solicitor program." Ratana roared with laughter at the image of herself trying to walk in clunky heels and a micro-miniskirt.

He snorted, suppressing his own laughter. Forcing his face into a serious expression, he proclaimed, "They deserve it. Those people are like cockroaches, they just keep turning up no matter how hard you work to get rid of them."

Ratana subsided into a disjointed series of chuckles. "Yeah, and you’ve always been so nice to them too. Seriously, James, this find is drawing reporters from all over the world. This Louis lady you contacted better get here soon. We can’t keep the rest of them out forever, you know. The only reason they’re not swarming over this place is because it’s a protected Aboriginal hunting ground but that won’t keep them out for long. What do you plan on doing when that happens, shoot them?" Her deep brown eyes studied the distress James knew his face revealed.

"If I thought for one minute it would help to let them in, I would. At first, excited about my finds, I was the first one to call them, wanting to share my work with the world. I found out real quick how idealistic that turned out to be." He scowled and took a deep breath. "This is so much more than I’ve ever found before. Mick told me I’d have no choice this time. I have to cooperate if we’re to save it from the bureaucrats. Problem is, I don’t trust any of them. Maybe this American-lady journalist can find a way, I don’t know. I do know one thing, though, if Ms. Louis doesn’t show up soon, I don’t know what to do short of turning Nathan’s hotheaded native guards loose on them."

He groaned and sat down on a stool beside the tent flap. Rubbing his eyes, he continued, "This is one of the greatest alien finds ever and we have to beat off the press, the government and the nutcases just to study it. Worse yet, my own boss at the University refuses to let the board know I’ve found anything worthwhile. If I go back down to Townsville to get the funding I need from the board, the bastards here will seize the obelisk and we’ll have nothing. It’s a no win situation, Ratana. I’ve waited years for something like this to happen and now it feels more like a disaster to me than a blessing." He rubbed his eyes again. "God, I’m tired."

"Excuse me, Doctor Hay? Do you remember me? You called and invited me to come to do the story for you…," Sam looked awkward as she stood in the doorway of the tent. She tugged at a sweat stained business suit and pulled a high heel out of the sticky clay, obviously feeling like a complete idiot. James could almost hear her ranting inside his head.

Damn those travel people! No one warned me about what was out here. Neither did that bloody photographer of mine. I’m gonna kill him when we get back to the hotel.

He had to admit she did a good job of being embarrassed while maintaining a professional pasted-on smile.


When the tall, wide-shouldered man she knew to be Doctor Hay, rose and turned at the sound of her voice, Sam’s mouth dried up. He looked just the way she remembered. The sheer raw masculinity of him seeped into her body like hot oil; it massaged her libido. She felt her body come alive under his amused stare.

He’s not handsome but, boy, there’s something about him that hits a woman like a ton of bricks! Sam thought as she took in his looks at a glance, comparing the way he looked now to the shy stranger in a tuxedo she’d met before. Tall, older, but still muscular; in top shape. Long legs, tanned, rugged…wow…his eyes. She felt her stomach knot up when those incredible gray eyes swept over her.


"Ah, Ms. Louis, you finally arrived." James became aware of his voice; deep, sensual and vibrating with suppressed desire. Inwardly, he flinched and took a firm hold of his emotions. He took in her tall, athletic figure, superimposing his memory of her curves under a clinging dress onto the woman standing awkwardly in front of him now.

He also saw the young, tall, handsome man standing behind her with a video camera on his shoulder. "Who the hell are you and how did you get past the guards at the roadblock? I don’t talk to reporters so please leave. Ms. Louis, you may come in." He turned back to Ratana, immediately dismissing the cameraman as one more irritant to ignore.

"Doctor Hay, Marc is with me. If I’m doing the story, I need my cameraman." Sam’s eyes flared with irritation at the preemptory tone James knew he fell back on when under stress. Deliberately, she reached out to pat her cameraman’s arm, clearly sending a message that she would refuse to cooperate without the young man. Marc smirked at James, but his eyes flashed antagonism.

James studied the two and his heart hit his shoes when his fantasies of her disintegrated instantly. The hollow feeling inside his chest sharpened into anger, but he looked deep into her eyes, responding to their fire against his will. The sight of a running figure behind her yanked him back to the moment. "Just a moment, Ms. Louis."

Maggie trotted up, gasping for breath and holding her side. "Doctor Hay. Nathan says to get ready. There are some high-ranking military guys at the barrier. He says he can’t keep them out."

He nodded at Maggie, whose look of anxiety and furtive glances at the computer reminded him about saving any of the data he may have overlooked. Ratana had already thought of it. She sat in front of the computer deleting files at a furious pace. "Ratana what would I do without you?" He lightly shook her shoulder then turned back to Maggie, her face a study in curiosity as she inspected Sam and her cameraman. "Maggie, get the guys to pack up what they have as soon as they can manage it. I don’t want anybody confiscating our findings."

"Will you please tell me what’s going on here?" Sam wiped beads of sweat off her forehead then stood with her fists on her hips, an insulted tone tingeing the question.

James held up a hand to stay her question while he continued to give Ratana instructions. "We have to get pictures of all the markings on the stone made pronto. Have whoever does them use the Polaroid and take them from different angles." James deliberately kept talking, hoping to get his emotions in check before he faced her again.

God…she is beautiful but this isn’t the time or place.

The look on Ratana’s face told James he wasn’t fooling her, no matter how cold and professional he spoke to Sam. She responded to his orders with a smirk and a laugh in her voice. "Don’t worry about Nathan. He’ll hold them for as long as we need. However, that stone won’t wait and if the mobs are going to hit soon then we have to get as much as we can before they do."

James sent a tiny smile to Ratana, her knowing look boring into his thoughts. He took a deep breath and turned to Maggie, who stood quietly, but alertly, by the tent flap. "Maggie, go take some Polaroids of the obelisk; all sides, all angles. Bring them back and give them to either myself or Ratana." Facing the young cameraman, the video cam still on his shoulder, he barked out, "You. Go with her and get some film of the artifact. When you’re finished, I expect you to give the film to Maggie and clear off." When the man hesitated, looking at Sam for a nod, which she gave, James shouted, "Now!" Maggie turned and trotted away faster than she’d arrived, the cameraman hot on her heels.

Her fingers flying over the keyboard, Ratana spoke as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. "You know, it’s eerie. The markings on that thing are so similar to the Aboriginal drawings at Split Rock it’s uncanny. The black rock it’s made from looks the same as the stone in the Black Mountain out by Cooktown. The only difference is, this baby is much harder. Robbie had to analyze it standing up. Nothing would cut it, not even his diamond tip drill. He’s kind of thrown by that, I think…"

Her voice coiled in tightly held strands of self-control, Sam rounded on James. "Doctor Hay, if I remember correctly you are the one who called me. We spoke about my coming to do a legitimate story on what’s happening here. Remember? I’m assuming you wanted everything recorded? To do that I need my cameraman to have access to everything, and so do I. I need facts, information, pictures…you know, something to write about."

James realized that his lack of common manners was pressuring her to be sarcastic and he could see her struggling to keep a leash on it, not wanting to start off on the wrong foot. The jumble of guilt and desire that flooded up within him threatened to give his feelings away. In response, his voice dropped to even colder tones.

"Okay Ms. Louis, you may keep your companion, but keep him out of our way. I don’t want to be tripping over him every time I turn around."

His stomach twisted when Sam forced a smile and nodded her head in agreement. "Agreed, Doctor Hay. Marc is a professional and will not interfere in any way. Now, about the information you’ve already gotten? And any pictures too?"

"Good. I’ll fill you in later. In the meantime, when he returns you can take him and look around…get a feel for things. Don’t touch anything though and keep out of the way." He steeled his face with a stern look, in spite of feeling like he’d like to dive into the cool of her eyes and just keep on sinking.

"Doctor Hay, this is unprofessional. It’s…" Sam stood ramrod straight, her long fingers clenched so tightly the knuckles went white.

"That’s what you people do isn’t it? So go do it and leave me to my work, please." Her presence distracted him far more than he could afford at the moment, and he knew it.

Sam stared at his face. James could see her debating whether or not to push the issue. He towered over her tall frame, intimidating her; obviously something she wasn’t used to from anyone when she flinched but defiantly stood her ground. Without further comment, she made a sound of deep disgust and with a final sweep of contemptuous eyes over the tent and over James and Ratana in the process, she stormed through the heavy vines surrounding the tent.

After she left, James’ shoulders slumped and he quietly eased down on a chair tucked next to the tent flap. "Why the hell did I treat her like that? Talk about being a cad." He snorted, disgusted with himself. "I’m never that rude to people, much less to beautiful women."

Ratana chuckled again. "You noticed, huh? It’s about time, Uncle. We always wondered why you never married." She leaned back in her chair. "Besides, you’re not fooling me a bit. You’re rude to her because you know she’s the one who could finally get you to hang it up and get a real life." She glanced at him under her lashes and smiled. "You’re like an old, set in his ways bachelor. You’re fighting giving up your freedom."

He threw her a disgusted look and made a show out of ignoring her and her amateur psychology. When he tried to clear his mind, he found that he was too tired to worry about Sam, relationships or anything beyond his work. The obelisk took precedent. He steeled himself to brutally keep Sam out of his life and his heart, at least until he finished this work. Having decided that, he relaxed and awarded Ratana a smile. She frowned. "All joking aside, you look ragged, Uncle."

James closed his eyes in an effort to escape for the moment. Deep fatigue and worry made James feel much older than his 47 years. He leaned back heavily into the sagging canvas chair, groaned and closed his eyes, determined to grab this short respite from the chaos he knew was coming.

Ratana’s voice brought his eyes back open. "James, all my life you’ve protected me, taught me and cared when others didn’t bother. Why haven’t you ever made a life for yourself? You’ve never told me why."

He propped his chin on a hand and hesitated before answering. "When my parents died and I went to live with Mick, all I could think about was becoming a doctor. Then, when Mick taught me about our people, I knew I had to do something about the problems I saw all around me; something to help. When every avenue was blocked to me because of my mother, I realized the only way I could do that was to find proof of our right to be here; our right to claim the land." He paused, staring unseeingly at the computer screen. "I never made time for a personal life before. No woman caught my eye, even though my cousins tried hard to parade every girl over twelve and under fifty in front of me." He smiled a tired smile and poked her in the side. "Now, it’s in the hands of fate. I have other more important things to see to." His gaze returned to the open tent flap where a mixture of computer disks and paper littered the desk then back to the clearing and the obelisk.

The exasperation in Ratana’s tone yanked James’ attention back to the conversation. "It’s clear you’re attracted to her and she to you. Get a life, Uncle. Give her a go."

"Listen to you. Just a kid and giving me advice about my love life. What about you and Nathan? You’ve never told me about that either." He hoped to get her off the subject of Samantha Louis.

She lowered her eyes and came as close as she could to blushing but she didn’t answer the question.

His weak smile almost reached his eyes. "That’s what I thought. Well, this isn’t the time to be sitting around talking about my personal life. We have to get this thing out of here and somewhere safe. How the hell can we do it? Maybe she can help if I let up and be nice." He shrugged at his lame joke then ran his hands through his damp hair again. "I have to get back out there. Our fearless government has arrived and I’m not so sure they won’t arrest us." He started to stand up. Ratana pushed him back down into the chair.

Squatting down beside him, Ratana reached up to grasp his hand. "You okay, James? You look more stressed than you should be over this thing. You’re letting them get to you before the fight has even started. That’s not like you. At the settlement, you used to teach us kids to always look for opportunities; to be more, reach out more than we were born to be or have. Here’s our chance and you fizz out on us. Or did this Sheila get to you? Have you finally met a woman who can get through that thick hide of yours?" Her deep brown eyes peered into his, assessing how well her jibes were working.

He shot a disgusted sideways look told her, telling her that the old trick didn’t work anymore. "Can it, Ratana. I’m not passing on the opportunity and I’m not stressed over those damned reporters either, Ms Louis included. I’m just tired and I am worried Eddy may have taken something the government people will use against us. I want this thing secured before all the vultures, academic as well as military and government, get to it and ruin our chances of deciphering it."

" That can only mean that your old nemesis is on her way then; our illustrious Queensland MP herself. Don’t worry, we’ll be set up by the time she gets here. She won’t be laughing at our work this time. By the way, I got the rubbings of all the symbols for you. I hid them, and the fragments, in your car boot before anyone tries to lock us down and take away all we’ve collected. We have plenty of time to just talk for a change. So, tell me… what’s eating away at you? I’d like to help you for a change instead of the other way around." An impish smile twitched her lips.

In spite of her smile, James felt irritation this unaccustomed bombardment into his private feelings. He suppressed the feeling and deliberately smiled back at her.

"Thanks, little sister, but I’m fine; really I am. I’m just out of fuel, I think. I didn’t sleep last night. I kept waking up and crawling out to stare at that stone. There’s something about it that seems familiar to me…Hell, I’m just getting too old for this anymore…and I know it’s just a matter of time before the military comes in here and grabs it all."

"That’s what you keep saying but maybe, this time, the Uni will back you up. Maybe…" The impish look left her face and was replaced with a deep frown when James didn’t respond.

He reached down to scratch a mosquito bite on his thigh then sat back and looked hard at Ratana’s serious look. "Look, I know Peter Howard is on his own when it comes to shooting down my work. Thank God the University board is willing to give me time to prove my claims. It really pisses Peter off too. When this proves out, he’ll be out…finally. At least we’ll have something to work on when it happens, thanks to you." He patted her hand then stood up, stretching his back. "Which reminds me. I have to call the bastard, much as I hate to talk to him. He’ll have to get somebody to cover my classes next week."

Ratana pointed to the cell phone sitting beside the computer in the tent. "You might as well get it over with." She smirked as he rose from his chair and stepped into the tent to place the call. When he had dialed, she sat down in his vacated chair to wait.

James heard the phone connect and waited with tense muscles for the confrontation he knew was sure to come. When Peter spoke, James let out his breath. "Hello Peter. It’s James Hay here. I’m calling from the site." He knew he was speaking in stiff, clipped sentences but couldn’t stop himself. "Look, Peter, I’m on to something big here and I need you to find a replacement lecturer for my classes for the next few weeks."

Peter’s deep, lazy reply came through the line sounding like a tinny recording. "No way, Hay. You get your ass back here and fulfill your contract. That bullshit you chase can wait until you have a holiday coming."

James could hear the glee in his voice and gritted his teeth. "Dammit, Peter, you know I can go to the board and bypass your authority. They gave me leave to pursue this and you know it. You may be the Chancellor but they hold the moneybag. Are you really going to force me to call them again? Besides, in spite of your determination to inject pettiness into our working relationship, I still believe in calling you as a professional courtesy."

"Well, don’t bother, I don’t want or need a professional courtesy from you. One of these days I’m going to show you up for the crook and fraud you are, you know. Besides, you know that I can delay anything you want to do for so long that you might as well not do it to begin with." This time, Peter did laugh. "So don’t give me any of your shit, Hay. I’m not in the mood for it."

James felt anger, bitter and black, rising within and struggled to contain it. "Only a scientific idiot like you would be this blind to fact, Peter. And get this through that thick skull of yours, you may be able to make things hard on me but you can’t stop me. And while we’re on the subject, I caught your nephew, Eddy, trying to steal my data. I know you put him up to it. What I can’t figure out is why you want it when you think it’s worthless." James allowed a sneer of contempt to saturate his words.

The pause on the end of the line delighted James. He could imagine Peter frantically trying to figure out some way to deny his nephew’s behavior. When Peter spoke, his voice was strained. "What my nephew does has nothing to do with me. I’m not interested in your fantasies or your make-believe data. You may have the board fooled into thinking your little trips have value but I know you’re only fleecing them out of the cost of a free trip for yourself and your primitive black friends."

Before James could reply to his racist remark, Peter snapped, "Get back down here and arrange for your classes yourself. And don’t call me for anything again, Hay." He slammed the phone down so hard it came through the line with a crack.

James laughed out loud, knowing he’d bettered Peter Howard for a change and feeling good about it. He strolled back outside and smiled down at Ratana who was acting like she hadn’t heard the entire conversation.

She was watching the activity in the clearing while casually braiding her hair. In a calm voice she asked, "What do you want to do about the site?" She snapped a band on the end of her hair and looked up at him. "And how soon do you want to leave?"

Distracted by the hum of people moving about, he muttered, "We have to protect it somehow." His gaze shifted to the clearing. "How long do you think Mick and Nathan can keep the reporters and military out? Aboriginal rights only stretch so far. I don’t think Mick’s elder status will keep them out for long and Nathan’s young guards are way too over-zealous for comfort. The whole thing is waiting to go nuclear if we’re not careful here. Do you think we can hold them off for another day or two?" His eyes searched hers, knowing the answer before she spoke.

Shaking her head she replied, "Not for that long. Nathan told me earlier that the military guys are only waiting because some government bigwig told them to hold back until she can get here from Cairns. When she does, they’ll be all over us like flies on a dead 'roo. I don’t think anything is going to stop them after that."

"It’s got to be Henson. She’s been waiting to use my research to invade the Aboriginal lands for a long time now and I think that asshole, my boss, is working with her. This is just what she’s been waiting for. I should walk away from this and let your grandfather handle it. Maybe then she’d back down."

"James, I don’t even want to hear you talk like that to me. You’ve never quit on anything when it was important. This is important. When Nathan and I needed someone at the settlement, you were there. Grandpa didn’t raise you for nothing, you know. You’re special…special to all of us who call you family and this is something you’ve worked hard for. You of all people know you can’t back down from the bloody vultures that want to steal the rest of our land. Now, old timer, get off your bum and let’s go see what we can find out about this alien stone we’ve been given."

Almost completely lost in thought, James almost missed the twinkle that leapt into Ratana’s eyes as she obviously decided to drop the other bomb on him, no doubt hoping to get him fired up again. " Oh, I almost forgot to tell you. Mick told me to tell you the elders of the clan will be here soon. They want to speak to you about this thing. He says it’s a message they’ve waited for and they seem to believe you’ve been chosen to understand it for our people. Anyway, he’ll talk to you when he gets here."

James decided to ignore her feeble attempts to get him riled. His lips twitched into a tiny smile then settled into a serious compressed line. He took a deep breath and ran long fingers through his already tousled and sweaty hair. "Thank God. I can use Mick's help right about now. What about the mob Nathan's boys are holding back?"

"As for how long the guys can keep the mob off us, I have no idea, but I can tell you one thing. If anybody can manage it, Nathan can. Come on; let’s go get scientific. That always cheers you up. Take your stuffy teacher tie off, put your ‘Indiana Jones’ hat on and get your adventurer spirit in gear, Mate. It’s time for a new adventure." She nudged him in the ribs, tossed his old, battered Digger hat at him and then moved off toward the clearing.

When her tall, broad back was no longer visible through the undergrowth, James went back into the tent. Pulling the last computer disk out of the drive and putting it into his short’s pocket beside the first, he muttered, "Damn it, she’s right! I can’t lay down now and let the government take it away." Staring at the computer, he continued, "I hope Eddy didn’t manage to get anything else out to those sharks. This is my chance to show that fat bastard at the University I’ve been right about Dreamtime and the mysteries happening here all along. Peter Howard will shit himself when Ms. Louis is finished and I hope he slips in it and falls on his fat ass when he does."

Cheered up by the mental image of the Vice Chancellor at the University sprawled in the middle of his own waste, he shut off the computer and headed back to the site. When he approached the clearing, the absolute quiet, in contrast to its former hum of activity, set off mental alarms. He could see the group of students and village volunteers standing and facing the stone in the middle of the circle. A group of soldiers stood frozen in place on the road leading into the site. They shifted nervously, obviously uncertain what to do in this situation. Their officer stood glaring at the elders with the look of someone who wished he could be somewhere else. The news people handled their cameras and tape recorders, taking their cue from the military but not liking it. Nathan and his friends stood beside the road, angry at their failure to stop the mob from gaining entrance. All of them remained motionless and silent. And all of them faced the stone.

Standing off to the side and partially under the vine screen, he saw Samantha Louis and her young sidekick filming the drama unfolding in the clearing. The look on her face reflected the mood of the crowd standing inside the clearing; a mixture of fear, awe and indecision. The deadly quiet bound all of them to each other and to the stone and to the people themselves. When James stepped out of the tangle of thick bush, he understood the reason for their silence.


1 Corinthians 13:12
"For now we see things in a glass, darkly…"

Coal black shadows slithered across the cool green marble tiles surrounding a massive fireplace. Its heavy carvings of satin-like mahogany glowed dully in the flickering light. Blood red shadows glowed uncannily from the dead eyes of gargoyles and caressed their snarling lips, animating them, and making them appear to move with the shadows in silent conversation. Tendrils of ebony slithered up the dark carved wood of the walls surrounding the fireplace, giving the shifting patterns the look of pale-veined nightmares brought to life. Roaring flames, barely contained by a firebox large enough to roast an ox, gave birth to a ruddy glow that fought to overcome the shadows. The light flickering into the cavernous room seemed to feed the shadows instead of subduing them.

Deeply ensconced within a high-backed, Victorian armchair, Morgan Steele sat quietly, long fingers laced over his lean torso and his gaze fixed on the ornate burgundy and gold pattern of an antique Oriental rug under his feet. Dark curling hair, shot with streaks of gray, spiraled around his head like a wild thicket. His broad chest barely rose and fell under a heavy velvet dressing gown while his head lolled. His long chiseled nose involuntarily wrinkled with distaste when the odor of moulding earth and leaves assaulted it. The room full of heavily carved antique furniture seemed to be watching him expectantly as he arrogantly occupied their space and drifted, deep in thought and oblivious to his surroundings.

When a timid scratching of fingers sounded through the thick oak door, only Morgan's restless brown eyes moved in response. "What is it, Ehrich?" The heavy whispering bass of his voice carried around the room in spite of its lack of volume.

The heavy door silently swung open, allowing a bright square of light from the hallway to intrude upon the room's gloomy interior. The shadows fled before it. Morgan continued to stare into the flames as an ancient man with balding head glided soundlessly into the room and stood patiently behind the chair, waiting to be acknowledged. Steele raised one ringed finger, the ring's ebony facets flashing multi-hued arrows of crystalline light around the room.

"Mr. Steele, it is time for your meeting with the scientists." The old man's freckled head bowed slightly but his thin body, encased in an old-fashioned black suit, remained ramrod straight and at attention.

"Give me fifteen minutes then bring them into the conference room. Tell Travis I want a word with him afterward and to bring his latest report." Steele's voice was barely above a whisper but the tone of authority was one of absolute command.

Ehrich left the room as silently as he'd entered. When the heavy door softly closed behind his retreating back the shadows resumed their serpentine dance upon the walls and furniture. Steele rose slowly and deliberately, like a wary prey animal surrounded by ravenous predators. "What do you want from me?" he ground out between whitened lips.

The dry rustling whisper of ancient and crumbling paper filled the room.

Free us. Bring us to your world. We can offer power…immortality. The barriers must be breached. Free us. Free us. Free us….

The whispers faded, as if a great wind had blown them away from Morgan's hearing. Morgan shuddered and quickly moved to turn on all the lights in the room.

I’m losing my mind. The sentence whirled around and around his brain until he grasped his temples with shaking fingers and clinched his eyes shut, praying that the litany would end. When it didn’t, Morgan dropped his hands, ground his teeth and squared his shoulders.

But I won’t let the bastards know it. I’m the king here. I’m one of the most powerful men in the world. I can do anything…anything I want.

He threw his head back and stalked to the door. Hesitating with a death grip on the knob, he turned his face back toward the room, his eyes flashing like the black stoned ring on his finger.

Even you can’t make me do what I don’t want to do. He sneered, opened the door and left, slamming the heavy door behind him.

The shadows oozed out of the walls, undulating sensuously toward the portrait of Morgan that dominated the wall above the fireplace. They converged upon the picture, caressing it with tenuous fingers. The low, brittle sound of contemptuous laughter echoed around the room, then abruptly altered into something much worse. It permeated all, absorbed all colour and light from the room and reverberated through the walls like the muffled, desperate wailing of a lost soul buried deep within a cold, dark tomb.


The Rocky Mountains loomed majestically into the gray sky that enveloped them like a lover. Their immense power hibernated, torpid and frozen in sleep, while the valleys hidden between them teemed with wildlife. Wild deer and elk, thick-coated for winter, dug at hidden plants now deeply covered with icy snow. The rare appearance of a huge, sleek timber wolf spooked the deer into running for the cover of thick trees. Their hooves sprayed powdery snow up into the air behind them. The wolf stopped to stare with bright yellow eyes then quietly moved on, nose in the air and ears erect and alert.

Spring in the mountains seemed to be getting colder and colder as the years sped past. Even close to a large city like Colorado Springs with its ever-present lure of fast food, theatres and shopping malls, the mountains maintained their secrecy and their promise of sanctuary in a turbulent world.

Andromeda Jones sat in a one room, rustic cabin. It was sheltered within a small valley deep in the mountains, isolated and secure within its cover of thick pine trees. Andi’s blue eyes squinted through gold-framed glasses she vainly hated to wear in public. She sipped spiced tea and stared at the news items listed on her computer screen. She unconsciously fingered a thick folder stuffed with articles and pictures about her sister, Samantha Hay. Resting on top of the folder was a letter from a woman in Australia who claimed she’d seen Samantha and her husband, James, while hiking in the Blue Mountains. The woman claimed that they were deep in the mountains living with the Australian version of Bigfoot, called Yowies. As incredible as it sounded, Andi never let a lead go without checking it out for herself. That’s why she now searched for any news item related to the sighting. The furrows in Andi’s face deepened as she scanned the current list of newspaper items on the screen.

Please. Please. Just give me one shred of information I can use. Just one, dammit! Samantha where are you? Where the hell did you go with James that you don’t want me to know about? Why did you think you had to disappear? What are you afraid of?

A strong oath erupted from her lips when she reached the bottom of the screen. "Doing snoop work isn’t as easy as it used to be…or, you’re just losing your touch old girl," she mumbled to the air. Feeling irritable and not knowing why, Andi pulled up her thick, black hair, anchoring it for the tenth time with the pair of carved wooden combs Sam had sent her from Australia. Andi fingered the heavy carvings of Kangaroos, Emus and Koalas that intertwined on the combs. It made her feel closer to Sam.

Sam, I can feel you out there. But where?

While the small heater fan responsible for the condition of her hair pushed excessively hot air into Andi's face again, she reached over and banged a fist against it. "Damn piece of junk. Stupid thing is roasting me in the middle of winter! The fireplace doesn't work right and I can't get the hang of the damned stove. Is this some kind of plot to fast freeze me as a warning to women who arrogantly want to live alone?" She swore again then wiped damp hair away from her eyes and sighed with resignation. "I guess I’ll have to ask Moon Wolf if he'll fix it for me again."

The thought of her Native American friend prompted her to unconsciously search the smooth snow covering her front yard. Andi looked for his footprints. "Wonder where the old guy has been hiding these last three weeks?"

And why the hell am I holed up in the asshole of nowhere talking to myself? The thought grated against her fierce, thick wall of inner determination and bounced off into the void she reserved for those parts of herself she didn’t want to listen to.

Because, you dumb broad, Sam’s your sister and you don’t just let it go that easy when she vanishes into thin air. That’s why.

The antique air heater made a grating sound as it passed over her again. Another slap coming down on the dilapidated machine accompanied a string of curses. Finally, in disgust, Andi folded her arms across her chest and glared with flashing blue eyes at the computer screen. " So much for high technology." She closed her eyes as the air from the fan ruffled the papers piled up beside the printer. When the blast of air passed, she opened them, sighed at the computer screen and wished she could make any headway at all.

Her view shifted from the screen and onto bare toes and long legs propped up on the desk in front of her. "Well at least your legs are still good. Maybe you can fill these useless days with modeling and forget about being a super sleuth altogether," she chuckled as her toes wiggled into the fake fern sitting on the edge of the desk.

When the telephone rang, Andi jumped. Her foot knocked over the fern and her legs tangled as she tried to reach for the telephone. Her ancient office chair rolled out from under the desk and flipped her out onto the floor. " Damn it!" she hollered as she reached up to grab the telephone. " What?" she snapped into the mouthpiece.

"Jeesh, what did I do? Is that any way to talk to a man who lusts for you? More importantly, a man who has good news?" Marc’s deep voice rumbled across the line, a sly smile embedded in it.

" What do you want, Marc? I’m busy." Andi's voice lowered, heavy with irritation at his amused tone.

" Ah…busy are you? Since when? The last time we spoke, let’s see…that would be yesterday, you were still unemployed and had no plans or clues as what you were going to do next. Has that changed in less than twenty-four hours?" An annoying ‘click, click, click’ of an inkpen being played with accompanied his question.

Andi could picture the smile on his face widening as he baited her. " Oh, go pound salt, you jackass. Okay…I’m still unemployed. I haven’t found Sam and James; I’m still hot and sweaty in the dead of winter because my heater isn't working right. I’m still worried about my rent and I’m sitting on the floor with bruises because you called and I fell off my chair and I’m still talking to myself like the fruit loop you think I am. Now are you happy?" Her lips twitched into a smile, in spite of the anger her situation generated.

" Yep, I am and I’m sure when you hear what I have to tell you, you will be too. So, get those lovely long legs of yours working and pull your butt off the floor. Get back into your chair and listen closely. I have a wonderful story to tell you." This time his laugh rang loud and clear.

" Stuff your stories up your…Hey! Is this another one of your stupid sagas about how you managed to sweet-talk another local bimbo into that playboy flophouse you call an apartment? Because if it is…"

"Now just a minute here. I protest my innocence." His voice switched to feigned injury.

"Okay, but this better be good. Hold on." She dropped the phone onto the desk then took a moment to tuck her long hair back into a knot on the top of her head. Sighing, Andi eyed the bruises forming on the front of her legs and the tear in the old cutoff sweatpants she loved.

Rubbing the sore spots on her shins, Andi stood up and eyed the chair now sitting innocently against the bookshelves. She grabbed the arm and roughly pulled it back in front of her battered desk, seating herself firmly onto its worn leather seat. " Damn thing…ungrateful piece of junk. I rescue you from the trash heap and this is how you repay me," she mumbled, picking the receiver back up and putting it to her ear. " Okay, give. What really neat bedtime story are you hiding up your sleeve this time?" she crooned mockingly.

"No bedtime story tonight, Andi. I have something solid for you. Les asked me to offer you a once in a lifetime opportunity." His deep voice took on a faintly serious tone, one Andi rarely heard in her conversations with him.

"Well? Don’t go coy on me now, Marc. What’s this so-called plum opportunity you’re obviously reluctant to tell me about? Spill it." She braced herself, waiting for the inevitable practical joke to hit her broadside.

Another chuckle emanated from the telephone. "Not reluctant, oh sexy one, just teasing you with anticipation. You know I can’t resist baiting you; hoping you’ll offer me a bribe of your body for a night…or two." When icy silence signaled her reply, he groaned and continued, "Okay, okay, I’ll tell you already. Lester wants an expose on that eccentric millionaire who's holed up in that dead volcano in northern California. You know the one; the guy you dated last year?" The humour had left his voice, leaving an unspoken question in its place.

"Morgan Steele." Andi spoke his name with a numb mind and fluttering heart. "Whatever it is, I won't do it." The finality in the statement felt like it came from miles away when she heard herself say it. The pencil she'd been running her fingers around suddenly snapped in two and fell to the desk unnoticed.

"Before you go ballistic on me, just listen, okay? This is right up your alley and I think you’ll want to hear about this one." He paused for effect, and Andi deliberately bit her tongue, knowing he was waiting for her to protest further before he set the hook and made her feel a fool for doing so.

Not this time, Marc. I’ll wait you out and then say no. She smiled, waiting for him to realize she wasn’t going to take the bait again.

Marc rustled some papers and continued as if he had planned it that way. "One of my uncle's informants on the West Coast filed a report last week that suggests Steele is using his millions to do covert work of some kind. Steele has built a huge complex inside a volcanic island called Glass Mountain in northern California. A huge lake called Medicine Lake surrounds it. I think it's some old sacred Indian site." He laughed. "Should be right up your alley! And, did you get that Glass Mountain bit? That's where Sam, James and I went in Australia." He chuckled again but with a self-conscious edge. "Yes, well, Steele has security up the ying-yang there and nobody can get in unless he clears them. To make it even more interesting, he’s hired a team of notorious scientists to work there."

Andi could hear Marc rustling through more papers on the other end of the phone. "Notorious? What do you mean, notorious scientists, Marc?"

His voice held real excitement now. "Rogues. Here’s the list. He’s hired Dr. Kenneth Braun, a neurosurgeon. He used to be a top surgeon working at Johns Hopkins until he operated while drunk and killed a patient. Since then, he’s worked in second-rate hospitals and clinics. He was also doing research on the ‘God Module’ and ‘Frontal Lobe Epilepsy" studies for the Army. And then there’s Dr. April Newman, a psychologist who graduated the top of her class and was considered brilliant until she started taking shortcuts with her patients. It doesn’t say what but it must have been really bad because she was forced out of the profession within five years of being licensed. Let’s see, who else? Ah, yes. Dr James Spindler, a physicist who pioneered the field in laser development back in the seventies. He was living in Mexico and retired until Steele got a hold of him."

Andi could hear more papers rustling and felt herself beginning to feel impatience at his long, drawn-out game. "Marc, what does all this have to do with me? I don’t have time for any of your childish jokes. You know how I feel about finding my sister," she snapped.

The irritating paper rustling stopped. "Look, Andi, I’m not playing a game with you here. This is on the up-and-up." He took a deep breath and continued in a lower voice, "I’d like to find her too, Andi. I know you think I’m covering up, that I was there and that I know what happened to her and James and the rest, but I don’t. I’m trying to help."

The genuine sincerity in his voice momentarily surprised Andi. She hesitated, her gaze watching the snow come down outside the bay window but her sight focused inside on the images of her sister Sam. They were full colour pictures of Sam that Andi held in her mind and took out to inspect when she started to weaken in her resolve to find her sister.

Andi’s prize image was the way Sam looked the day they’d found each other again after being separated as kids at the orphanage in St. Louis. Another of the day Sam told her she was going to Australia for the story of the century and how they’d laughed about finding men down under. Another of the real photographs Sam had sent her showed a very happy woman, smiling, with her arm around the waist of a tall, serious looking man that Sam explained was Dr. James Hay, the man she loved. The final picture of Sam and James at their wedding with Andi smiling and half drunk holding on to both of them before they flew out to Washington. And the picture Andi tried not to acknowledge leapt into her memory as well. It was the picture of Sam and James that appeared in an Australian newspaper eight months ago. It was taken the day before they mysteriously disappeared from their home in Australia, never to be seen or heard of again.

Brutally pushing the images away and forcing herself to focus on the conversation and Marc, Andi rasped, "Okay. What else have you got?"

Marc’s voice now held an edge to it, almost a primal snarl. "Steele also hired Travis Parker."

"From the sound of your voice, I’d say you know this Parker guy and you two aren’t exactly the best of friends," Andi stated, her curiosity even more piqued now.

"He’s an egotistical, arrogant ‘whiz kid’ engineer. He was trained at MIT, the most prestigious technological institute in the world, and he gets off by coming up with new ideas for bigger and bloodier war toys. Last time I heard, he’d been thrown out of MIT in his last year because of several incidents the higher-ups covered up. He’s an asshole, violent and childish." The snarl in his voice deepened then was abruptly chopped off.

"You know this guy, Marc? It’s personal then?" Andi waited, knowing Marc would probably avoid telling her anything personal, as he always did.

"Yeah, I know him. We grew up together, used to be friends. I haven’t seen him or heard from him in years, but I hear about him enough." A small self-conscious cough stopped what he was saying, or wanted to say. "Well, that’s ancient history. Suffice to say, if he’s working for Steele then what they’re working on out there can’t be in the best interests of anybody but Parker and Steele."

"Okay, we’ll leave it at that for the moment. Now, tell me what all this has to do with me. And why does Les want me to go out and look into it for him? Why not you, or a pro? I’m no investigator or even a writer. Why me?"

"The talk is that Steele is doing illegal experiments that even the government is willing to turn a blind eye to. Les thinks you could get in to find out what's happening there. I couldn’t and neither could anybody else who didn’t have a connection to someone big out there. You do. You’re a physicist and you know Steele personally." Marc paused, waiting for a reaction to his words.

Andi stared out of the cabin's front bay window, letting her gaze wander over the pink and orange hues of the setting sun. She scanned the heavy snowfall covering the pines that surrounded her cabin. The shadow of an eagle swooping above the pines captured her gaze and she envied its freedom.

I feel like a trapped animal caught in an impossibly gruesome snare, she thought. Andi drew a deep, cleansing breath while she searched the open spaces around her home for the lone eagle that usually flew overhead. Her mind struggled to contain her anger and her pain and the empty sky emphasized her entrapment.

When the silence on the phone line stretched into minutes, Marc asked, "Andi? Are you still there?"

"Yeah, I'm here. I'm thinking." She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and let it out. When her eyes opened again, a hard light of determination flashed within them. "I told you before I came here that I've had enough of Les' harebrained schemes and ideas and it still holds, Marc. I don’t owe you anything anymore." A flash of guilt shot through her. She clenched her teeth and squashed the feeling like a virulent bug.

His voice dropped to a soft murmur. "You’ve never owed me anything, Andi. You just thought you did but, the truth is, I would’ve gladly reunited you and Sam even if I hadn’t fallen in love with you."

She rushed on before his words could sway her. "Look, Marc, you may not think it’s a big deal but if you hadn’t tracked me down and told me about my sister, then I’d still be agonizing over being without a family. I tried to thank you for that by helping with your investigations but I just couldn’t take it anymore." She took a ragged breath then an old hurt and anger returned. " I came here to get out of the gutter you two kept throwing me into for the sake of a story. It lost me my position as a physicist in Boston, then it almost killed me, remember?"

Marc's voice arrowed down the line like a shot. "Damn it, Andi, of course I remember! How the hell can I ever forget? That maniac doctor almost killed you because of my stupidity." He paused then continued with a calmer tone. "Look, I figured that eight months holed up in that cabin would be enough time for you to get over it. I thought…"

"You thought wrong, Marc. I came here because I finally woke up to the filth and violence out there and I don't want it in my life ever again. I want to find my sister and her husband then I want to settle down into an ordinary life, like everyone else. I want to work at what I trained so hard to become...a physicist. All my life I dreamed of finding a way to help the world and to make a difference. After I find Sam I intend to find a way to fulfill that dream. Besides, I'm happy here."

She took a deep breath. "Look, if I had any money to fall back on at all, I wouldn't even take the puny jobs you give me, but I have to eat. Truth is, Marc, doing the occasional scientific investigation on my computer is all I want of the outside world intruding on my new life. I’ve had enough of trying to save the world for the moment. I’ve had enough of Les and you dragging me into these crusades of yours. Maybe I’ll rejoin the army of people who want to have crusades, but not now. I just want to find my sister and get on with my life. Can you understand that?"

Andi knew she sounded vulnerable and pleading but she didn't care if it got the job done and Marc stopped tempting her with valiant causes, big ideas and even bigger amounts of money.

The exasperation in Marc's voice was barely concealed. "No, I can't understand how a woman barely in her thirties would want to go hermit. I don’t understand how you can throw your life away like this. I also can’t understand why you’re so angry at me, Andi."

Her own anger rose like a defensive cobra. "You know damned well why I’m angry. I worked hard to become a physicist. All I ever wanted was to contribute to bettering this battered place we call home and you and Les played on my conscience to get me to help you uncover the few corrupt scientists who only work to gain power or money. You dragged me into the gutter side of scientific research. You and your phony high ideals destroyed it all for me and all for the sake of a shitty story on the front page of a newspaper. A story that was forgotten days after it came out." She gasped for breath as the words rushed out. Andi clamped her lips shut, trying to still the hammering of her heart. She knew she needed to take a firm hold on the old hurts before continuing. "You used me, Marc, and I’ll never forgive you for that. You’re still trying to use me."

"I’ve never used you! I thought you cared as much about cleaning up the dirt in this world as I did. I thought… Damn it! How can I convince you that I never meant to hurt you, that it wasn’t just the stories for Les that motivated me, that losing you is the worst punishment that could’ve happened to me?" The questions came out abruptly, tinged with pain, anger and genuine puzzlement.

Andi felt as if he’d reached out through the phone line and battered her. She felt drained and tired. "Let it go, Marc. It’s over," she replied, the words limp and emotionless.

Her lack of emotion seemed to anger him more. "Don’t you know I still love you? I still want to marry you? Don’t you understand that every day you bury yourself away from me is eating me alive?" The exasperation had transformed into frustrated anger, then the anger disappeared and resignation took its place. "I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to bring all that up again."

She chewed on her lower lip and shut her eyes tight against the last blaze of sun now setting outside her window. "It’s okay, forget it. It’s done and over with," she almost whispered, remembering the haunted look on his face when she’d told him she didn’t love him and that she was moving to Colorado. Andi shoved the memory away and braced herself. "I have to go, Marc. Thanks for the offer but I’m not interested. Morgan Steele is the last person I want to see right now and I’m no longer involved with the scientific community so I wouldn’t be of any use to you."

"Before you hang up, at least let me tell you why I think you’d be interested in this one," he said in a detached tone. He paused then went on. "We don’t know how yet, but somehow, Steele is connected with Sam and James’ disappearance. I thought you’d want to follow up on it."

Her elbow slipped off the desk and her hair tumbled out of its combs as her head jerked up. An iron hand clutched at Andi’s chest as she gripped the phone with white-knuckled strength. "How? How is he connected with their disappearance? What do you know, Marc?"

"All I know is that Steele was throwing a lot of resources into finding the site James and Sam went to in the Glass House Mountains in Australia. He spent a bundle trying to get a hold of whatever it was they found. He was also in Australia when they disappeared. Since he’s the type of shark that doesn’t do anything on a small scale, it’s a good bet that what they were involved with was big enough to warrant him grabbing them, especially if he oversaw it himself. He rarely leaves his sanctuary and, when he does, he covers his tracks so well that it’s hard to get any proof that he was involved. He worked overtime to insure secrecy when he went to Australia so this must have been big, important and probably illegal. That’s all I know." The coldness in his voice disturbed Andi more than his anger.

A determined scratching sound at the door caught Andi’s attention. She let out the breath she’d been holding while listening to Marc and felt relief at the opportunity to think about what he’d just reported before she had to make a decision. "Wait, hold on a sec, Marc. It's getting dark here and Pi's scratching at the door. I have to light the lamp and let her in. I’ll be right back."

Placing the phone's receiver gently down on the scratched surface of her desk, Andi walked over to an old oil lamp sitting on top of the mantelpiece of a cold fireplace and lit it with shaking hands. When the light took hold and the cabin brightened with flickering shadows, she moved toward the solid wood door and threw the heavy bolt. A blur of tawny fur moved past her legs and headed straight for a large ceramic bowl that waited on the wooden floor next to a cast iron stove. A nearly grown mountain lion buried her head into the bowl and purred while she gobbled down a large meal of leftover hamburger and salad.

Andi forced herself to relax and clear her mind of conflicting impulses as she reached out to the big cat’s bent head and gently stroked her neck. "Rough day in the hills, Piwacket?" In spite of her racing mind and mangled emotions, Andi smiled when the cat took a brief moment to rub her head against her hand then immediately dismiss it to return to eating.

Marc's tinny voice emanating out of the forgotten receiver brought Andi's attention back to her problem.

I can’t ignore any lead that will help me find Sam and James and Marc knows it. Trouble is, I don't want to see Morgan again. Never again.

Andi grimaced at the memory of Morgan's hard, black gaze as he’d raked it over her body the last time they'd faced each other. He’d made her feel naked and vulnerable. She remembered every detail of how she’d become involved with the elusive multi-millionaire. In her first year of working as a physicist in Boston, Morgan had contacted her, offering a place on the team he was assembling for a project. The offer was flattering, mysterious and paid beyond Andi’s wildest dreams.

When she arrived in California to look the project over, the force of Morgan’s dynamic personality, his looks and his overwhelming charm had instantly enthralled her. She stayed for a month, participating in the preliminaries of the project, basking in the limelight of being chosen by such a man and being totally consumed by him until he commanded her to move in with him and to sever contact with anyone from her past. The offer forced her to look hard at the man, instead of the aura of power he embodied. It also forced her to take a hard look at what she’d become with him. What she’d seen had scared her. She’d left him and he didn't like to be left by anyone, at any time.

The thought of being in the same room with him sent waves of dread up her spine. She felt as if an icy claw was reaching into the heat of her blood and leaching its warmth out into a snow-blasted and very dark landscape.

What the hell are you so afraid of? He’s just a man who wanted you, a man who can’t take rejection, a man who’s used to getting his way. That’s all he is, Andi, just a man. She shook her head to dispel the artificial courage, straightened her back and forced her mind back to the problem at hand and Marc.

Steeling herself for a verbal onslaught, Andi sat down at her desk, picked the receiver back up and placed it against her ear. Marc was grumbling and cursing in that self-conscious way people use when they know nobody's listening. "Marc. I'm back." When he continued to swear, she shouted, "Marc!" until the line went dead quiet.

"Sorry about that. My damned beeper started going off and the doorbell was ringing at the same time. Now, can we please get away from all the personal stuff and back onto a professional track? I want to get this settled today. I need an answer. Do you want the job?" She could hear him struggling to sound objective and uninvolved.

"Before I commit myself to anything, I want to know what's in this for you? Why offer me something like this when you know my conflict. I hate being the sneak and the spy but you also know I can't turn it down if it finds Sam and James. So, again, why are you doing this Marc? Are you genuinely trying to help me or is this another one of those selfish ploys to get me to do your dirty work?"

The abrupt intake of air on the end of the line gave the impression of a whirlwind coming from a distant place. Andi flinched at the sensory impression. When his answer finally came, it shattered the icy shell she’d hidden inside and made her smile.

"I know you have money problems and that you won’t stop until you find Sam, even if it costs you everything you have, including your health. I wanted to help but I thought you wouldn’t take it so I talked Les into the story, knowing he’d foot the bill for the trip." The defensive snap to his words tried to mask the hidden plea behind them.

"Thank you," she whispered, touched by his attempt to spare her dignity and glad that he wasn't trying to use her. "I’ll take the job, Marc."

She watched Pi move away from the stove and onto a tattered blanket she used for a bed. Kneading the fabric, the cat looked like an overgrown domestic cat getting ready to sleep. When the cat lay down, Andi thought of Sam and how she’d always wanted a cat but couldn’t have one because of her restless travels. Andi squeezed her eyelids shut against the tears gathering there.

"I don’t want or need your thanks. Just do the job," Marc replied, the coldness of his tone reaching arctic levels.

Andi scrubbed the moisture from her eyes, flashed angry glares at the phone and replied, "Fine. Send me the tickets and all the information you have. When they get here, I’ll leave for California right away. I’ll call you when I have something you can use. I won’t need any outside help either. I’ll get you what you want, have no doubt about that." The stiff dignity and hard determination in her voice confirmed the statement.

Piwacket raised her head and narrowed her eyes at Andi, watching her with studied alertness. Andi smiled at the big cat and Pi gave a small yowl and laid her head back down on her paws.

"I’m not worried. I know you’ll do okay, you always do." The iron had left his voice when he finished with, "I’ll send the tickets air express to the travel agent in your town. You can pick them up tomorrow sometime. Goodbye Andi."

"Wait, Marc! Before you hang up there’s something I want to get straight with you." Gathering her thoughts, she hesitated. "I want it to be clear that if Morgan won't see me then the deal's off. I won’t try to get inside by other means. I'll get all I can on the complex and anything else I can dig up but I want it clear that I get paid either way. Agreed?" she stammered, embarrassed at the boldness of her demand.

To Andi’s surprise, he laughed. "Okay, but know this; if you get in there, I expect you to get all you can and to not let your past relationship with Steele influence you to hold back, no matter what you find. Agreed?" By the time he finished, his voice had moved from friendly to hard and uncompromising.

"Agreed. I’ll be ready tomorrow morning and I'll call you just as soon as I know whether or not Morgan will see me. Bye, Marc." She sighed with relief.

"One last thing, Andi." His voice faltered. "You’ve never told me why is it so important to you to find James and Sam. Sure, they disappeared after their meeting with the UN but everyone's convinced they just don't want to be found. She’s often gone off for months at a time without letting us know where or why. You know how she is. What makes you so sure there's reason to worry this time?" The genuine curiosity in Marc's voice came as a surprise.

"You really don't know, Marc? I thought you of all people would understand. You were with them in Australia." When the phone line remained silent, Andi took a deep breath and continued, "I'm convinced that whatever they told the UN has to have something to do with what they found in the Glass House Mountains. I know you said that nothing happened, but I'm sure it did. I also know that something is wrong, very wrong. Don't ask me how I know, I just do."

She knew her words sounded lame. But Andi had always harbored a certainty that her sister was not only hiding but that something momentous had happened to her. Knowing Sam, Andi surmised that something very bad had to have happened to make her disappearance necessary, something dangerous and important. Andi was determined to track Sam down and find out for herself. She'd spent months haunted by dreams that Sam needed her; called out for her. Now she had a chance to find out for sure.

"Fair enough, I guess. If you're convinced there's a reason to track her down and rescue her, then go for it." Marc stated with feigned indifference. A long pause followed. Then he whispered, "Good luck, Andi," and abruptly hung up, leaving her listening to the distant buzzing of the line.

After she hung up the phone, Andi bent and picked up the plastic plant she'd knocked over when the phone rang. Pi, who had quietly relocated and now lay at her feet, waiting for Andi to notice her, raised her tawny head and stared expectantly with large, liquid amber eyes. Andi reached down to pat her head. "Well, my pet, seems I spoke too soon, huh? Life is full of surprises." Fingering the artificial plant's shiny, stiff leaves, she stared unseeing at them and muttered, "I wonder if Morgan is still in the market for a good physicist… and if he’s gotten over my leaving yet."

The small fan gyrating back and forth in the background turned its head toward her, blowing more hot air over her overheated skin. Goosebumps rose on her body as a rare mixed feeling of excitement and anxiety swept through her. She shivered, closed her eyes and wrapped both arms around herself, almost wishing she'd refused to go after all.

A sharp rap on the wooden door startled her back into the now dimly lit room. She moved slowly to the door, almost afraid of what waited on the other side. When she slid the door open to peek out, she let out a forgotten breath of air.

Moon Wolf, a tall, broad-shouldered man with long blue-black hair sprinkled liberally with gray strands stood stoically on the front step. His buckskin clothing, all the subtle shades of earth and plant, gave him the appearance of being bodiless as he blended into the fading background. He didn’t smile. He didn’t move. His black eyes seemed to generate an aura of hazy energy around his chiseled face as he stared into Andi’s eyes. Before she could speak, he lifted his strong, square hand and stated, "I will be going with you."

Andi opened her mouth to ask how the old Indian medicine man knew she was going anywhere, why he wanted to go with her and what the hell was going on? Before she had a chance to formulate the first question, his granite gaze bored into her mind with such ferocity that she stood almost paralyzed and speechless. He stared for an eternity then dropped his eyes to gaze at Pi now standing alertly beside Andi in the doorway. The big cat voiced a low, soft growl then silently moved to stand at his feet, gazing up into his face with adoration. He reached down with a steady brown hand and caressed the big cat between her ears. She purred while eyeing Andi with brilliant yellow eyes. Both man and cat turned and disappeared into the thick, night blackened trees without a word or a backward glance.

Andi stood in the doorway, numb to the cold and the darkness until her body screamed a warning. She shook her head, rubbed her hands up and down her arms to dispel the chills rippling in waves under her cooling skin. She shivered and moved back into the warmth of her cabin.

The door closed. The ice-laden trees, now black and shapeless in the night, reached out bare, twisted arms toward the tiny cabin. While the snow swirled around them with a violent wind that swept in from the west, unseen watchers shivered in fear.



Queensland, Australia
28,000 B.C.

The upper northern most reaches of ancient Australia baked under a hot sun. The land lay steaming under a layer of thick, humid mist. Long stretches of thick fern groves, under tall gum and flowering tropical trees, made the landscape a primal forest of aggressive plants, each seeking to survive in a hostile world. A roar, loud enough to make the leaves shake, blasted through the foliage, shortly followed by a high-pitched scream of a terrorized, dying creature.

Oily water rippled softly, parting as the armored head of a large crocodile rose above the surface of a slime green pool next to the outer perimeter of the forest. Cold reptilian eyes scanned the muddy banks of the river and the small mob of short-faced kangaroos milling nervously near the water in the hot afternoon sun. The crocodile sank imperceptibly, a lazy flick of its tail moving it closer to the riverbank.

Massive, six-foot tall, reddish brown kangaroos moved toward the water's edge, impelled by a growing thirst. In spite of their great size, they were nervous, scanning the river and the dense shrubbery along its banks for predators. Females nuzzled eager youngsters back from the water, unwilling to be the first to drink. A young buck gave a bark of alarm and leaped towards the cover of a stand of paper-bark trees when a shadow swept over him. The shrill cry of a fishing eagle immediately reassured him and he turned towards the river once more. Dropping onto all fours, he slowly moved down to the water's edge and, ignoring the other kangaroos, lowered his head to drink.

A surge of water rushed over his snout, death following so closely that the young kangaroo never even registered the fact. The head and chest of the animal disappeared down a yawning gullet as teeth ripped through its hide, crushing its rib cage. The momentum of the crocodile's rush carried it half way up the riverbank, scattering the mob of kangaroos that fled screaming and barking for the undergrowth. Lying on the bank, the hindquarters of the kangaroo hanging from its mouth, the full size of the saurian became apparent. The young kangaroo had stood six feet on its hind legs but the monster's head alone matched its size. The crocodile swung its forty-foot bulk ponderously, slipping back down into the water and disappearing beneath the surface with a muddy swirl. The water calmed, leaving only a few tufts of hair floating near the bank and a splash of blood congealing on the grass.

The sun edged closer to the horizon. Gradually, life returned to the riverside. A family group of diprotodons, huge cousins of the wombat, lumbered into the shallows, drinking thirstily. Smaller wallabies hopped cautiously in their wake, sipping quickly then leaping again for the relative safety of the forest. A lone thylacine drifted silently from the undergrowth to the water's edge, drank and faded back out of sight. The fishing eagle that had startled the young kangaroo, now past all caring, returned, circling the scene then settling onto a branch of a dead gum tree hanging over the water.

The bushes upstream from the dead tree parted and a scaly snout pushed through into the grassy clearing. The eagle turned its head, looking down with interest for a moment, before returning to its grooming. The diprotodons snorted and splashed their way ashore, herding the youngsters away from the intruder. Black eyes gazed impassively as the huge beasts walked back into the forest. The intruder cleared the bushes with a sinuous motion, its immense bulk held clear of the ground. The giant monitor lizard, Megalania prisca, dwarfed even its cousin to the north on the island of Komodo, reaching a length of some twenty feet. The lizard's flat head weaved from side to side, its long forked tongue flicking as it tasted the air. It made its way slowly down to the water's edge where it drank. After a few minutes it raised its head and turned slowly, tongue flicking again. Abruptly it erupted into motion, moving swiftly up the bank. It nosed hungrily at the patch of dried kangaroo blood. Casting about it found nothing edible and moved on down river, tasting the air, following a trail of bare packed earth that held the impression of many feet.

Shrill voices chattered and screamed as Aboriginal children raced through the long grass, waving sticks as they ducked and weaved in some complex game. Motionless and unnoticed, the small figure of a young girl sat quietly on a termite mound near the edge of the grass. Pale-skinned but bronzed by the fierce sun she was naked except for a bark loincloth and sun hat woven from grasses. She smiled as the children played, half wanting to join them.

Why do you not, then? came a gentle thought from behind her.

The girl sat still, recognizing the flavor of the mind that spoke. I am no longer a child, Rima. I am twelve years old and can feel my womanhood rushing upon me. There is something I am called to do . . . The girl's smile faded and she turned toward the figure behind her. Although she sat on a termite mound over five feet tall, she had to turn her face up to look at her friend and protector.

Gazing back at her was a huge hairy being. A tall, conical head with a pronounced sagittal crest sat squarely on wide shoulders and a massive torso. Long arms stretched almost to knee level on muscular legs. Large pendulous breasts revealed the sex of the creature despite the thick silky hair that covered the whole body and face in a wave of brown with golden highlights. Large liquid black eyes peered out of the hair, the intelligence in them obvious and comforting.

The girl grinned and stood up, throwing her arms out to balance herself. Images danced through her mind of things never seen by her but remembered all the same. Gorilla, large African primate . . . Bigfoot, semi-mythical creature of the American northwest . . . Yowie, the Australian version of Bigfoot. How wrong they were, she thought privately, locking away her thoughts from the mind of the creature before her. They thought the Yowie was a primitive, or a myth. Instead it is a creature created long ago – or rather, in years to come – for a specific purpose. The girl opened her mind, I love you Rima, she thought fiercely.

A low rumble answered her as the Yowie put out a massive hand to stroke her leg. What brought that on, little one?

I miss her, Rima.

The Yowie patted her leg softly, nodding. Your mother loved you, child. I believe she still does and will find a way to come for you. You were everything to her, her whole world. That is why she named you Gaia. Rima chuckled softly. She had to explain that to me.

I can remember her you know, even though I was only a baby. Her mind was open to me and I can recall everything she knew. Gaia grinned suddenly. Even why she still calls you 'Cindy', despite you having a name of your own, a name of your people.

Rima shook her massive head, her silky hair swirling around her head like a cyclone. That was the first time I came face to face with humans who were not of the 'others'. I liked her. The Yowie glanced up at the sun dipping behind the low hills. We must go back. It is late.

Gaia nodded and held out her arms. Catch me then! She bunched her legs to leap off the termite mound then hesitated. She dropped her arms and half turned toward the river. "Hunger," she murmured. "Great hunger and coming swiftly." Gaia turned back to the Yowie with an urgent expression on her face. Go, Rima. Quickly! Chase the children toward the camp. The great goanna comes.

Rima nodded and dropped into a crouch, her long arms reaching forward as she flowed into a ground-covering gallop toward the playing children. She roared inarticulately, her mind screaming unheard warnings to the Aboriginal children ahead of her. They looked up at her approach and ran screaming, then turned and raced around her, laughing and throwing clumps of dirt and grass. "Rima! Rima!" they chanted as the Yowie turned and weaved, trying to chase them away from the river.

A small boy, clothed only in a broad grin, ran close to the scrub leading down to the river. As he neared them a brown avalanche hurled itself at him, long jaws agape, saliva trailing in thick ropes. The boy screamed and fell over, his legs tangling as the giant monitor lizard raced closer.

Gaia stood atop the termite mound and watched the boy fall over. She closed her eyes, concentrating. The lizard halted abruptly, all four legs scrabbling at the dry earth, coming to a halt only feet from the sobbing boy. It hissed, belching gouts of foul, saliva-specked air at the boy. It lashed its tail in a fury and backed up, still hissing. Suddenly it turned and raced off, its body raised and tail flying, crashing through the scrub.

Gaia opened her eyes, smiling. She jumped down as Rima ambled up with a questioning look. I made it see a bigger lizard, she grinned. It got scared and ran off.

Shouts made her look round. Several Aboriginal men emerged from the trees, carrying spears and killing sticks. The children ran to them chattering excitedly, leading the still sobbing young boy. Gaia put her hand in the giant hand of the Yowie. Come on then, Rima. You can carry me back to the village.

By Sydney Morgann

  “For Danu’s sake, Captain, turn that braincase‑splitting alarm off!” Malcolm shouted from the galley. His voice was calm, belying the harsh words, but an octave above the normal bass thunder Captain Cea Knight was used to hearing when the android deigned to speak directly to her.

Cea grinned mischievously then reached out and hit a flashing red button on the ship’s console. The alarm stopped, leaving a ringing vibration in the air that reminded her of the discordant music on the last planet they’d visited in their quest for marketable technology.

Stretching long legs, way past cramped due to hours in the captain’s chair scanning planets, moons and asteroids for a sign of derelict ships or useable ores, Cea groaned. The groan combined with boredom and a rising sense of cabin fever to produce a sound closer to pain than relief.

                It feels like a damned itch I can’t scratch, she thought while reading the data on the screen. The data indicated a large, indeterminate mass dead ahead. It wasn’t moving.

                “What set off the alarm?” Malcolm asked, still rattling dishes in the galley. “A dead ship or an ore lode?”

                She scanned the data then flicked the screen off after instructing Mother, her pet name for the computer that ran the ship, to save the data to the central computer brain. “Neither. It reads like an anomaly. It’s probably just another half‑destroyed asteroid. Those damned pirate scavengers keep using outdated atomics to blow these things for the ore. The radiation sets off our alarms and we waste our time checking them out.”

                She punched a button and the lights indicating the online sensors blinked out. “Not this time,” she snapped before turning her back to the view screen.

                The smell of cooked food coming from the kitchen set Cea’s stomach rumbling. Worse, a rising streak of mischievousness coursed through her, like a wave of overwhelming excitement.

                “Hey, Malcolm! When’s dinner going to be ready? I’m hungry, very hungry!” she shouted as she lay back in the chair, put her feet on the center console then closed her eyes. In more ways than one, she thought, a small smile spreading pink lips.

                “It’s coming!” Malcolm responded while clanking even more dishes.

                “I hope so, and soon! If you don’t become more efficient, I’ll trade you in at the next port and get myself a real servant.” She grinned at the reaction that comment was bound to elicit in the stiffly correct droid.

                The seven‑foot machine stepped through the hatch, balancing a large tray filled with steaming food and drink. “You may well threaten, Captain, but you know as well as I you’ll never find another combination robot of my quality for the price you’re willing to pay,” he replied in a dry voice, tinged with rigid dignity.

                “Why do you call me captain when I’ve asked you to call me Cea when we’re not around others?” she asked, knowing he never called her by her name unless they were having sex.

                He does have his protocols to follow, she thought with amusement.

                “I am not comfortable with casual forms of address to one’s owner.” Malcolm glared at her posture. “What is your full name anyway? Why won’t you tell me? After all, if it’s really horrible and you swear me to secrecy, I will be totally incapable of telling anyone about it.”

                She snuggled deeper into the personal indent on the captain’s chair and grinned up at him. “Okay, in that case, I’ll tell you but I order you not to tell anyone. Not anyone!”

                Malcolm balanced the tray and tilted his head, waiting for her revelation.

                Cea sighed. “All right, already! I hate this name but my father loved it, so I’m stuck with it.” She sighed again. “It’s Bodicea, after an ancient English queen who fought the Romans. She and her daughters rode chariots, wore armor and wielded swords as well as men. My father named me after her,” she grumbled.

                “I am well aware of the history of that great and noble lady. I fail to see why you are ashamed of her name,” Malcolm said, again glaring at the bottoms of Cea’s dirty feet as they perched on the command console.

                “I’m not ashamed of it!” she snapped. “I just know what kind of fun assholes would have with it. They’d call me ‘Body’ or the ‘Bod’ or worse. Besides, I like Cea. It’s exotic and, since I pronounce it Chee‑ah, it sounds almost like a dangerous animal, a fast cat, doesn’t it?” She folded her arms across her chest, tilted her chin at him in a proud manner and showed her teeth in a feral grin.

                Malcolm gently swept her feet off the console then placed the molded synthetic plate and cup down beside her. “Will there be anything else, Captain Cea? I have some minor repairs to make on the aft engine and I would like to finish them before shutting down for my recharge.”

                Noting the addition of her nickname, Cea smiled. “How about some conversation for a change?” she asked while making some minor adjustments to the navigational sensor.

                “I am not programmed for intelligent conversation, as you well know, Captain. I was designed to service the ship and you, nothing else,” his droll voice intoned.

                A full, robust gale of laughter erupted from Cea. “Yeah, I know about your servicing abilities…after the fact.” She giggled. “My bargain basement copilot and mechanic turned out to own some very special tools, ones I find very useful.” She glanced down at the large bulge in his skintight pants.

                “Why do you not employ a real human male if what you desire is mere emotional companionship?” He cocked a black eyebrow at her grin.

                She snorted and checked the gauges on the flight console again. “Men! Slimy, lying bastards. I wouldn’t have one on a bet,” she sneered. Turning back to smile up at him, she added, “Machines are so much more…,” the grin broadened, “…reliable.”

                “I suppose you found that comforting inside prison where only females were available?” He pointedly glanced at the tattoo of a sword piercing a penis that adorned her upper arm. A broad gold band encircling the arm drew attention to the tattoo, instead of covering it.

                The grin slipped off Cea’s face. “Sometimes, I think your declared lack of emotion is a lie Malcolm. You seem to delight in reminding me of things I’d rather forget.” She poked at the image of an Energizer Bunny in the middle of the short, white, sleeveless T‑shirt he wore. “And you seem to have a warped sense of humor, too.” The grin returned. “Is this your way of protesting your extra‑curricular duties?”

                He continued to stare down into the icy, pale blue eyes, challenging him to speak the truth. “Yes, it is. Now, is there anything else you require?”

                Ignoring the question, Cea grabbed the plasteel plate heaped with crispy Martian sand worms and began to gobble them down. When she finished a third of the delicacy, she noticed Malcolm still standing beside her chair, stiffly at attention, and staring out the front shield screen. “Aren’t you going to at least sit with me tonight?” she asked with a playful smirk on her lips. “After all, your positronic brain isn’t supposed to feel miffed when I insult you, so I know you’re doing nothing but playing at being human again,” she added before taking a long draught of the icy green Io water he knew she liked.

                Her gaze followed his outside among the stars, finally singling out Beta Centauri, a blue‑white star with a glow around its rim. “Beautiful, isn’t it? Almost as good as a moon for romance. If you were a human male, you’d be taking advantage of that right now.”

                She smiled.

                Malcolm’s broad shoulders quivered, but his expressionless face remained fixed on the shield screen. “I do not play at being human. I am programmed to emulate human behavior. Nothing more.” His voice rumbled under the soft synthetic skin of a broad male chest, complete with thick black hair that peeked over the low‑scooped neck of his shirt.

                Cea studied the masculine face she’d created. The cleft in his chin, laugh lines accentuating a full mouth, a strong jaw with a five o’clock shadow, and a thick black moustache, all combined in a male figure that looked remarkably like a young Sean Connery, an ancient Earth, male movie star who starred in her favorite antique films about a secret agent named James Bond.

                She admitted to herself that Malcolm still excited her, even after five months of service. “I dreamed of you Malcolm, created you, slaved to save enough credits to buy you then have you refitted, and now I enjoy you. It is a shame you do not enjoy me as much,” she said, watching simulated muscles contract under the tan‑colored synthskin of his body.

                “I am pleased you enjoy my company, Cea, but I remind you, once again, I was not programmed for emotions, only obedience. I fail to comprehend why you continue to expect pleasure from me. I cannot feel such a thing, or any other human emotion.” This time, he turned and met her gaze. Brilliant turquoise eyes processed her image, analyzing her mood and storing the information away in a databank complex and large enough to learn as well as assimilate data.

                “Then, why did they label you Malcolm?” she shot right back at him.

                “What does my name have to do with anything?” he asked, tilting his head in puzzlement.

                She laughed. “For a walking computer, you’re sometimes very dense Malcolm. Or didn’t you know your name is an acronym? It’s short for MALe COhabitational Luxury Mechanism.” A giggle bubbled out of her mouth at the look of studied consternation this bit of information evoked. “If that isn’t fancy talk for a walking dildo, I don’t know what is.”

                His face cleared. “My point exactly. Dildos do not feel, they only function in the hands of their owner.”

                Stifling a belly‑busting tidal wave of laughter, Cea reached out and stroked the thick ridges of his exposed belly. “Can you not at least believably pretend to enjoy it when I touch you, my pet? It would give me much pleasure to think, even for a few minutes, that a male who looks like you feels great passion for me,” she purred while slowly moving her fingertips down toward the skintight black latex pants he wore.

                She leaned forward and ran her tongue over and inside his bellybutton while running her hand down to cup the coiled mound of his penis.

                Malcolm regarded Cea’s down‑turned head without emotion and tripped the required connections in his positronic brain. In response, an erection began to harden and grow under her hand. The bulge became a fully erect penis that magically made its way past the waistband of his pants and up his belly a full three inches. The hardness came to rest under her palm, like something with a mind of its own. Cea curved her fingers and closed her eyes, dinner and the quest for wealth completely forgotten.

                “I’m so glad I ordered the top of the line tool for you after I found out what you are, Malcolm. It did cost more than I wanted to spend, but…,” she murmured while she admired the perfection of the penis she paid a month’s profit to buy. Her hand stroked the silken skin, now moist and warm.

                When her head moved toward the throbbing erection, his left hand reached down to stroke her thick white hair. After her lips clamped onto the engorged tip, his right hand slid under the waistband of his pants and gently pulled them further down, fully releasing him to fill her hungry mouth.

                “Why do you foolishly seek to pleasure me, Cea, while denying yourself the same pleasure?” he asked, cocking his head, as he watched her run her tongue up the length of his erect tool. “And why do you not want me to perform even the simplest acts of foreplay on you? Why do you not want me to kiss you or caress you? Why…”

                “Shut up! Don’t ask questions. Just get into the spirit of the game, get with the program, will you?” she murmured without breaking pace. She reached around to massage a tight buttock while the other hand cupped and massaged a large testicle. She groaned, spread her legs and began to move sensuously on the textured leather of her chair.

                “This is not logical,” he responded. “My primary programming demands I behave in a logical manner. I must understand. I can no longer accept your excuses for not informing me of your motivations in the act. I must have accurate data in order to perform with efficiency.” His erection lost some of its rigidity.

                Cea pulled back, dropped her hands and took a shuddering breath of air, clearing her head and regaining some control. “Dammit to hell!” she exclaimed, expelling the air in an explosive burst of irritation.

                As his erection began to dramatically droop, she shouted, “Okay, okay! I get the message already. Sometimes you are a pain in the ass.”

                “No, Cea, I am a heterosexual android with minimum coital programming. When you purchased me, I was given explicit instructions that no anal sex would be in my repertoire,” he said.

                The irritation on her face increased to volcanic proportions. “Oh, shut the hell up! I’ll explain, if it’s the only way I can get laid,” she muttered.

                He remained standing, his penis half‑erect and dangling in front of her face like a prize she couldn’t have until she earned it. “It is, Captain.”

                She leaned back and crossed her arms across her breasts. Erect and sensitized nipples rubbed against the soft, nubby cotton vest she wore, sending a shiver of lust through her, ending with a twinge of unbearable pleasure inside the engorged clitoris which strained against the crotch of the shorts she wore for comfort.

                “This feels too damned much like my father’s schoolroom,” she snapped. “It would be nice to get something without being forced to earn it for a change.” The memory of her father’s demanding learning curve in science, literature, math and astronomy sent a surge of pain through her.

                Subconsciously, her gaze traveled to the far wall of the cabin to rest on a photo of her father, grinning like every other tourist in Greece, as he stood next to a statue of Cea, the goddess of the hunt and her namesake. Below the photo, a full suit of lightweight, new‑age armor, custom‑molded to fit her body, and an enhanced replica of an ancient Greek sword hung, ready to don and use if needed. Her father had given her both items when she’d “graduated” from his lonely, space‑born classroom.

                I miss those days of sword practice and dad’s teaching, she thought, her body stiff and unyielding in the chair.

                Malcolm cleared a throat that didn’t need clearing.

                Cea turned her attention back to him and his rapidly disappearing erection. Facing her past wasn’t something she liked to do, and he knew it. “My history and my motives are none of your business, android,” she grated between teeth she wanted to bite him with.

                His penis throbbed momentarily, adding hardness back to its beauty.  Cea licked her lips and relaxed her tense body in resignation. “If you must know, I can’t stand to have any male…,” she glanced up at his impassive face, “…not even a synthetic one, in control of me. Not in mind or body.” Her arms tightened across her chest once more, pushing her large breasts above the vest. “I don’t want intimacy, just raw sex. Is that so hard to understand?”

                “No, but my sensors detect that you are not telling the truth, at least, not the whole truth. I cannot function…”

                With long white hair flying around her face like an angry cloud, her head whipped upward again to glare at him. “Before I bought you I traveled and worked with my father…” she unlocked her arms and shot one out to point at the endless vista of space in front of the ship. “…he educated me, taught me, loved me…” Her arm sagged until it came to rest on the console. “…we lived by selling whatever we could find out there. One day, we took on two paying passengers. One turned out to be a thief, Xander Crowe, and the other…”

                She turned her head away from his inquiring gaze. “…the other was an undercover cop. His name was Tal English. I knew him as Morgan Black, but I found out his real name later. I…fell in love him. I was stupid, naive and very young.” She stiffened her back and returned his gaze with a defiant one of her own.  “While arresting Crowe, English shot my father and killed him. I went to prison for the theft of some technology Crowe stole from a government lab. I couldn’t prove my innocence because the bastard got away. I spent two years inside that hell hole, vowing I’d get revenge for my father’s life and for the hell I lived for those two years. Somebody found enough evidence to free me.”

                Malcolm opened his mouth to speak. She held up a shaking hand. “It doesn’t matter who. Even if I knew, I wouldn’t care. All I care about is that I got out, scraped up the money to buy this rust bucket, and got the hell off that planet  I have no plans to ever live on terra firma again. Space is the only place where you don’t have barriers. And, I won’t give it up again.”

                She glared harder at him. “All I wanted was to get back into the freedom of space and be left alone, but, after a few months, I realized I couldn’t do it alone.  So I went back home to Europa and bought you from a junk dealer I knew. I upgraded you as much as I could afford, but I didn’t know I was getting a pleasure droid. Much to my surprise, you ended up being a decent mechanic and copilot.”

                Malcolm reached out to stroke the tangled hair clinging to Cea’s damp forehead and cheeks. She pushed his hand aside with enough force to fling it away before he quietly returned it to his side.

                “Now, I search for anything that will bring me money so I can stay free, and… I search for Crowe and English.” Her expression collapsed into rage. Blue eyes glittered with icy determination and hands gripped both sides of the chair, forcing the muscular biceps in her arms to stand up and strain against the gold circlets around them. “That’s all there is. End of story. Are you happy now?”

                “You were hurt, so you seek to keep yourself barricaded, yet you need a human touch.” He didn’t ask, he stated.

                “Yes! I was hurt so badly by Tal English that I swore no man would ever touch me again. Never!” Her body sagged, released from the tension that had previously held it stiff and unyielding. “And, yes, I do need someone to touch me, hold me, care about me…” She placed both hands in her lap and leaned back. Closing her eyes in weary defeat, she added, “That’s why I use you the way I do.”

                Her eyes opened, revealing sadness and the bright shine of unshed tears. “Should I apologize for my needs or deny them, Malcolm?”

                His erection became hard, throbbing and urgent in front of her face. “You need not deny yourself, Cea. Now, I understand…” He thrust his hips forward, inviting her to taste him again.

                She reached up and unbuttoned the vest that covered her breasts. Her nipples began to harden as she admired him and licked her lips in anticipation. She caressed one nipple, bringing it to a taut hardness, before dropping both hands to the drawstring of her pants and untying it. She stood and dropped them then shed the vest. Standing naked in front of him, she pulled his shirt off, revealing a thick mat of tangled black hair on a wide chest. Then, with shaking hands, she stepped close to him and pressed her nipples against him while shoving at his pants.

                Malcolm grasped the pants and pushed them down his long legs, while simultaneously clamping his mouth over one hard nipple. He gently sucked then rolled his tongue around it, ending by teasing the tip back and forth.

                Cea threw back her head, closed her eyes and moaned with pleasure. She grasped his waist then stood on tiptoe to rub her engorged clitoris protruding from the thick white bush of her pubic mound against his penis. She moaned again as his penis throbbed against her.

                Malcolm easily held her suspended with one arm as he continued to suck on each nipple in turn, while rubbing his erection against her clitoris. Slowly, he lifted his head and peered into her eyes. “Tell me what you want.”

                “I want…” she licked her lips and struggled for breath. “I want…everything.” Her voice barely a whisper.

                His lips creased into a smile. “Then you shall have it.”

                He eased her back against the console and forced her legs wider apart. When her back and butt were braced against the padded leather, he slid his thick erection into her wet and swollen vagina, with agonizing slowness.

                Cea grasped his shoulders while arching her back, silently begging for him to take her, invade her, overwhelm her, give it all to her, and hold nothing back. “Please…,” she gasped.

                He abruptly thrust forward, impaling her with enough force to bring his body completely against hers. Her moan deepened and became louder. “Oh God, you’re so big. So hard…please…yes, please,” she gasped between breaths.

                He slowly withdrew, let his penis ride up to tease her clitoris then slowly returned to slide into her again.

                At that moment, a backup alarm in the defense sensors erupted. Warning lights flashed red and urgent.

                Malcolm froze, inspected the displays and said, “There’s a ship in front of us, with laser cannons aimed and ready to fire.” He withdrew and pulled his pants back up, then reached for his shirt.

                Cea’s eyes slowly focused as she fought to regain self‑control. Her mind, now clear and without any hint of passionate desire, shifted to deciphering the data on the display screen. She pushed off the console and sat down in the captain’s chair, placing her hands on the controls. She punched up displays and information about the ship she now saw bearing down on them.

                “It’s an unregistered freighter. Big, well‑armed and coming fast,” she said as she activated her weapons array. “They’re probably space pirates.” Weapons warmed up and ready, she slipped on the headband that allowed her to control the ship and its firing power with mental commands. “If they think this old ship will be easy to take, they’ve got a real surprise in store.” She grinned but her expression held no humor.

                “Ready to fire upon your command, Captain,” Malcolm declared, now strapped into the copilot’s seat. He watched the freighter approach then stop.

                A deep, bass voice came over the loudspeaker. “Europa, this is the Blackbird. We have you in our sights, and we will blast you into atoms if you do not deactivate your weapons and surrender your ship immediately.”

                “Oh shit,” Cea spat. “It’s Scorpion and his brain‑dead, scavenger crew.” She glanced over at Malcolm’s impassive study of the ship that now lay implacably in front of them. “We’re fucked, my friend, and we won’t get any Vaseline to make it enjoyable either,” she muttered while hitting the button to deactivate the lasers.



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