Chapter 3. A Drowning World

Chapter 3

Moving

“Mommy, Mommy?”  Arie’s small voice cut through Lauranya’s grief.  Lauranya looked up, wiping tears away with a hand.  Her daughter was a blurry bundle of blond energy. “Mommy, I brought you a tissue!”  Arie held out a tissue only slightly sticky from the trade bar chocolate.

Lauranya swept the child close, hugging her tightly.

“I love you!” she whispered fiercely.

“I love you too, mommy!”   Arie squirmed from the tight embrace, tugging on Lauranya’s hand..  “Mommy come see what I built!”  

Lauranya allowed herself to be pulled from behind Jhen’s desk to see the child’s loc–n–bloc creation.  The blocks had been stacked in a tall tower shape, with the blue blocks on the bottom and red blocks on top.

“See?  It’s the God’s tower in the water.”

“Water at the bottom,. Lauranya whispered.  She turned to look out the window to the tower.  The scientists had rolled their eyes and wrote unheeded reports on the used materials for a 30-story building just for the guests and Gods visiting, when those same resources could have been better used for more research funding.

“Out of the mouths of babes.” She smiled.  Lauranya ran to the desk for paper and pen.  She searched the drawers frantically, her fingers crawling over various paper clips, binders and small loose…things.

“He’s got to have one damn pen that works!”  she growled.

“Bad mommy!”  Arie said at her mother’s bad language, putting hands over her ears.

“Oops.  Sorry, baby.  Mommy’s a little…” a little what?  Sad? Angry? Scared? “A little distraught.”  The big word wouldn’t scare Arie but would convey urgency.   “Yes.  Mommy should not swear.  It does no good and limits my vocabulary.”  Lauranya took a deep breath and smiled reassuringly.

Arie giggled and turned back to the loc- n- bloc filling in the rest of the city.  Lauranya scribbled numbers.  She reached to turn on her phone to do calculations then stopped.  No telling if the ship could track the phone; however best not to take chances.

Dr. Jhen had taken his laptop not the main computer with him to the port.  Lauranya fired up the desktop computer.  She did not remember Jhen’s login, so she went in through the back way to boot up the system.  

She breathed a thank you for the foresight of her grandparents.  “Thank you, G-pa for insisting we learn more than one field.”  She could hear Nisuo’s deep but thready voice.  “You will never know exactly what a God or Overseer wants, but the more you know, the better you will be placed.  Learn everything!”  His whip and sword-scarred face burned fierce in her memory.

She looked up from her math to hear the engines of the last shuttle taking off.  She looked out the rain-smeared window, watching the vapors plumes across the sky, raising the shuttle in a bright arc until the clouds swallowed it whole.

Lauranya took a deep, steadying breath.  “30 levels, 6 inches a day… slope of the hills… length and width of the valley.  Need topical maps.” she muttered pulling up the various maps on two screens.  Lauranya tugged at a loose strand of hair while numbers resolved into an answer.

She ran a worst case and a best case scenario.  Neither set of numbers were comforting, but they were a start.  The building would withstand the rising water.  The top six floors should be safe from flooding, even in the worst case.  Should be.  She was betting their lives on her numbers and the information on hand.    

“Two weeks for the water to reach the first floor of all the buildings.  Eight weeks to flood the living quarters.  Weather model says lighter rain and melting snow caps for the next two years.”  The hair tugging continued as she thought aloud. Worst case, she had two weeks to compile everything she and Arie would need for the rest of their life.  

“Looks like we’ll finally get to see how the Lords and Gods live on the top floor.”

Lauranya threw the remaining trade bars into the loose woven throw blanket and bundled up to take with them to their quarters.  She then bent to pick up Arie,  after a moment of pleading the loc-n-blocks joined the bars.

The green and silver nanny bot lit up when Lauranya and Arie came dripping through the door.

“Good morning, Dr. Lauranya and Miss Arianya!”  the nanny bot chirped cheerfully.  Lauranya could swear she heard Jacks laughter at the bot’s overly cheerful tones.  He had programmed the thing after all.  A fleeting smile as as she remembered the short curly haired scientist and his warm brown eyes, followed by a lump in her throat.

“A prototype.” he had said with a dismissive wave when she protested the gift.  “A hobby, which will probably be destroyed when a real Overseer makes landing.” She had smiled and acquiesced, accepting the gift to help Masia with the raising Arie while she and Tine’s were at work.

Arie wiggled out of Lauranya’s arms to give the familiar nanny bot a hug and a kiss.  The nanny bot’s long metallic ring-jointed arms gave the child a loose hug back.

“Nanny, I will be out for a few hours.  Keep Arie safe and occupied until I return.”  Lauranya spoke slowly and clearly as if to a slow adult.  

The bot swiveled its dome head to Lauranya.  The eyes glowed green in understanding.  “Yes, Dr. Lauranya.  I will keep Arianya safe and occupied.”  The robot chirped.  The head swiveled back towards the toddler who was busy unwrapping the couch throw filled with the loc-n-blocs and bars.  “Shall we continue with your lessons in numbers and letters, Miss Arianya?”

“No.  Want to play.”  The child said firmly.

“You may have five minutes of play then we will do our lessons.”  The nanny bot responded.  Arie nodded, use to this answer.

“Nanny bot, there are trade bars for dinner and there should still be water on tap.  Have her fed and in bed at the usual time.”  Lauranya said, her brain starting to spin with supplies and transportation.

“Trade bars are not the most nutritional…”

“Stop.”  The bot stopped mid-sentence. “All nutrition is subject to availability from this point on.  Only bring up food if what is on hand is poisonous or inedible.”  

“Acknowledged. Dr. Lauranya.”  The bot chirped.

Lauranya turned to Arie.  The child was frowning at the exchange between her mom and the nanny bot.

“Mommy why are you mad at nanny?”  She asked, tilting her head to the left.

Lauranya opened her mouth then closed it again, thinking.  With a deep breath, she tried again. “I’m not, sweetie.  I am upset and probably yelling at an object that has no feelings to get hurt.”

“That’s still not very nice.” Arie said with the certainty of a child.

Lauranya knelt down, wrapping her arms around the child.  “No dear, it is not.  Arie returned the hug tightly.  “Sweetie, I need to get a few things set up and I may be gone for a few hours.  Nanny will watch you while I am gone.  I need you to be good.”  Before Arie could ask, “Yes you still have to do lessons but after lessons you may play with the blocs or watch a movie.

Arie squealed at the treat of a movie, giving a tighter hug to her mother.  “Okay mommy.  Don’t’ worry.  We’ll be fine.”  Arie smiled, giving her mother a kiss on the cheek, then went to see what nanny bot’s screen was showing.

Lauranya slipped out of their rooms quietly, just in case Arie had another question that needed answering.  Time, they did not have.  

“Food, shelter, clothing.  Food and shelter first.” Lauranya could feel her heart beating faster and the need to run building.  She leaned against the hallway’s wall, getting herself under control.  Where to start her mind kept circling on the impossible task of surviving in a drowning world like a mouse in a cage.

“Cages!  I need to see what is in the labs.  Seeds.  No animals but generators.  Then the tower.  Then I start moving things.”  With a nod, she pushed off the wall.  “Right.  Lab is first.  One step at a time.” She stepped quickly.  They were running out of time.

The labs were locked. However, Lauranya had her key pass.  No one had bothered to mothball the buildings or shut down the electronics.  The water would destroy any attempt to preserve, so minimal effort was made.  Lauranya’s hands shook for a moment. The Gods wouldn’t know for years of the intellectual property loss.  The scientist had been the largest asset to be saved but even that was a lie.  The other deaths weighed heavily.

The solar generators could last for a couple of generations in space; however when enough water hit them things would start to short out.  The generators were never meant to be waterproof, just water resistant.  She chewed her lower lip.  What if the generators shorted sooner rather than later.  Electronic doors would not open.  Should she prop the doors open or leave them closed?   She hesitated for a moment, thinking to prop the door open with a chair, but the thought of a whiskered cat wandering in out of the rain was enough to check the locks behind her.

“If something big gets in here while I’m collecting items, I’m dead.  So unlocked but take out the electrical locks can be manually opened.”  She headed to her office first.  She sat down, flipping on the computer, experiencing a serious sense of déjà vu of opening Jhen’s computer, causing another moment of hyperventilation.  She drove her nails into her thigh to keep from losing it again.  “No damn time! Concentrate.  Survival first.”  A deep breath through her teeth and the pain from her leg refocused her on the tasks at hand.

The computer flared to life.  She had disabled the voice program months ago.  Having a nanny bot speak was grating enough, having her computer imitate her husband’s voice made her skin crawl.  

“Computer list all solar generators in the compound.”  She thought for a moment.  “Unconnected and connected.”  Lauranya started to flip through the monitors for the labs.  All the large animals had been put down yesterday.  No help there.  Would not have been able to house the cheo goats anyway, they were too big both in eating consumption and room for movement.  Too bad about the chickens or the rabbits though.  

Lauranya stopped her screen on the incubators.  The lights were still on.  She gave a puff of laughter.  The eggs were still viable then.  “Computer list the egg types in incubator 1101, 1102 and 1305”.

The screen scrolled through the genetics of eggs listed.  

“Chicken, 3 different types listed, over 25 eggs, but only 5 ducks eggs.  Cannot fault Tass for wanting to experiment on an actual water based bird.  Competent scientist just excellent ass-kisser, just a lousy co worker.”  Lauranya rolled her eyes, unconsciously muttering about the well-worn dislike of the scientist.  “Crap!  Do we have enough food for the chicks? I need to find out.”  She tapped her computer again.  “Computer, list all feed for chickens and ducks.  Also all edible seeds in storage that can be used for crops.  Nutrition density seeds first with care instructions.”  A tap of her finger on the wooden desk.  “Also list soil density needed and soil nutrition needed to maintain with water usage required for maximum growth.” A quirk of her lips.  “Though water probably will not be a problem.”

Her fingers tapped on the keyboard without striking hard enough to type as she thought.  Lots of water would be available but then moving the water to the plants or even to the building would be an issue.  Clean water for her and Arie would be an issue.  They would need clean water on tap for both drinking and cooking. Hygiene would be an issue without water as well.  The ground floor generators would be drowned in 4-5 weeks that precluded using the ones in place.  Lauranya chewed the inside of her cheek, her head starting to hurt.  Another stray thought.  Medication!  What was left?  What had the captain and his crew not taken?  How was she going to apply what was left?  She was not a physician.

“Computer, list all skills needed for …” for what?  Surviving a drowning world, being lost without technology or at least limited technology….who was going to fix the broken things?  “Breathe damn it.  Breathe.”  She reached into her pocket.  Drat!  Her anxiety meds were in her overnight bag, which was still in the concourse at the shuttle port.  She took more deep breaths.  One-step at a time.

“Waiting for command.” Scrolled across the screen as the computer beeped at her.  

She tapped the appropriate keys to keep the beeping at bay.  “Computer print all items pertaining to and instructions for growing food plants in a greenhouse type environment…”  She stopped mid-sentence a sob breaking free.  There were no people, a drowning world, and such a long shot to survive.  Would the Gods’ accommodations actually be waterproof or just water resistant?  Could she find and grow enough food?  Medicine?  What would they need for the years, hells the months to come?

This time she did start to cry, burying her head in her hands.  Was she even doing the right thing for her daughter?  Would it have been better if they had drunk the champagne?  The thought of her daughter dead, frothing at the mouth, choked her even more, but the image of what had been done to the others filled her with a fury.

“No! The Dead Gods be damned!”  She wiped her eyes angrily.  Lauranya clenched a fist.  “So mote it be.  We will survive!”  They would make a go of it at least trying to survive.  The practical side of her brain kicked in.  In a worst-case scenario, there should be something on hand to slide them gently into death’s arms.

She took a deep cleansing breath and continued to dictate to her computer.

Lauranya stepped into the labs.  The computer had listed the edible seeds stock inventory as ¾ full.  The planting from the last year had gone amazingly well but this year’s planting had not started.  The spring rains had never abated.

There were enough of each seed to plant two acres each and still have seeds to eat.   Well, those seeds that could be eaten, she amended.  The fruit tree seeds were not going to be edible, no matter how long she boiled them.  

She looked in the animal lab wistfully. Camdia had done her job though and had euthanized and disposed of the bodies.  The protein would have been useful if not for the strong euthanizing drug in their system, so no salvaging the meat was available.

All four incubators showed green lights.  Lauranya grinned, walking up to the incubators to visually confirm the power on green lights were working. Bless Camdia and her forgetful genius!  That girl could map out genetic codes on reproduction, but she was absent minded on anything not in her area of specialty.  

“Thank you Camdia!  May Yemoja, the all mother, hold you close.” Lauranya whispered.  She flinched and looked around guiltily if someone overheard her prayer.  “No one here but you, woman!”  Lauranya shook her head, hissing her breath out between clenched teeth.  Her back ached from the last time she had prayed to the forgotten Gods and not the Undead god of her world, and gotten sent to the Overseer for correction.

She touched her ear bud, connected to the computer’s interface.  “Computer I will need all growing …raising instructions for chickens and ducks from incubator.”  She stopped for a moment looking at the hatching estimate.  “One week from hatching to full growth.”

This lead to the next train of thought. “How do you even cook one of these birds?”  She spoke into the empty office.    

She flinched when the computer responded. “There are over 200 recipes for chickens and ducks.”  

“Damn…Never needed to worry about turning off the computer’s voice for the ear bud.” She shook her head, but continued without disconnecting the voice.  “At least it is not Tine’s voice.  Computer, add all recipes pertaining to chickens and ducks with grains from the seeds listed at this location.”  She continued to explore the fowl lab.  “Add that to the manual being printed.”

“Would you like recipes for the grains, legumes and root vegetables with the spices on hand?”

“Yes.”  She said absently, and then stopped.  “Spices on hand?”  She queried with a frown.

“The hotel has a rarity of spices on hand. Some of which are in seed or cove from that could be grown for further replenishment of stock.

Lauranya’s mind raced.  If they left spices, could the ship crew have left other food stock?

“Computer, is there food stocked in the hotel as well?”

“All lower kitchen food stocks including spices were removed…” The computer started.

“Damn you for raising my hopes.” Lauranya said through clenched teeth, her hands turning to fists at her side.  She felt the prickly sensation around her eyes, as tears started to form.  She missed the first few words of the computer’s next sentence.

She almost sobbed, whispering instead “Repeat.”

The computer droned on, “However, the upper suitee portion of the hotel is fully stocked with spices and food items.  Shall I list all foods and spices on stock?”

Lauranya stopped with her mouth open, and then closed with a snap.  “No, wait.” She thought for a second.  “How long will the food last one adult and one child?  Are the cooking facilities only in the lower portion of the hotel or in the upper portion?”

The computer gave three soft beeps while computing. “The food stocks will last one child and one adult for three years on three meals a day.  There are cooking facilities both in the lower and upper portions of the hotel. The upper kitchen is not dependent on the lower kitchen for operations.”

“Computer, can the kitchen cooking facilities be attached to solar generator for use?”

“With the use of one connecting solar power generator, the entire kitchen facility will be operational.”

“What other equipment does the kitchen facility have?”

“Food preparation stations, cooking station, freezer sections and pantry.  The pantry and food preparation areas only require lighting for use.”

Why did the captains leave the food?  Like here did they just assume the kitchen had not been stocked?  All the slaves who had filled the pantry and freezer gone with the first transports off so no-one to correct this assumption.  

Lauranya sagged with relief, leaning against the wall.  Her hands shook for a moment, and then steadied.  Three years they could survive, while she and Arie learned how to raise plants and birds.  

Lauranya passed through the labs, confirming no other surprises until she got to the personal offices next to the children’s lab.  There she paused for a moment as she heard a high-pitched squeaking, like a rusty wheels spinning repeatedly but un-synched.  Lauranya hesitated but followed the noise moving as quietly as she could on the tiled floor.  

The sound got louder the closer she got to the far side of the labs.  Here she found the second bit of good news in the source of the squeaking wheels.  The kids would come in with their parents and given small tasks with personal pet projects.  There were eight cages, each cage holding either one rabbit or a rabbit and her litter.  There were five singulars and three mothers with litters.  

“Yes!”  Lauranya gave a small whoop.  “Bless you, Camdia, again for not thinking outside your orders.”  She leaned close to one of the cages for a better look.  Fat and sassy, the six-legged mammals seemed not only well fed but happy to see her.  The closest one rolled onto its back with all six legs up and loose, as if asking for a stomach rub, with a toothy grin.  This reminded Lauranya of her own pet rabbit before it had been contributed to the family dinner one lean year.  “We’ll get back to you eight as soon as I can.” Lauranya promised, with a smile.  She checked food and water levels.  All seemed to be stocked well enough to last another few days if necessary.

She continued on to the warehouse storage.  The warehouse was right behind the labs, with a walkway wide enough to accommodate two lift jacks at one time. The sound of rain beat steadily on the metal roof walkway between the labs and warehouse.  Any other time she would have enjoyed the effect of the rain, but now it just drummed out in a staccato pattern that reminded Lauranya she was running out of time.

The concrete had been sealed, leaving the floor shiny and reflective.  The overhead lights pierced the gloom, but did not really alleviate the shadowy corners at the ends and at the bottom of the high reaching rows of equipment.  Lauranya swallowed.  The shadows could hide so many things, and usually nothing good.  Taking a deep breath to clear her mind and steady her nerve, she headed deeper into the bowels of the warehouse proper.

The warehouse, even after the ships had cherry-picked the contents, was a vast treasure trove of survival items.  She went to the area listed for holding the solar generators.  There were four.  “Damn you, to the hells!”  Lauranya whispered.  The computer had listed over thirty.  It seemed the various transport crews had helped themselves to the generators as well.  Lauranya had to crawl to them, as they had been pushed to the very back wall, of the holding pen.  Of the four left, one looked to have been cannibalized for parts, the interior wiring and electronic boards showing through a gaping open panel.  The remaining three did not seem to be missing any parts.  One was dented slightly on the side, but not serious enough, Lauranya hoped, to be damaging.

Each one weighed 90 lbs.  There was no way she was going to get these to the hotel by herself.  She stopped for a moment, chewing on her lower lip.  “Right. I need moving discs.  Now, where the hells are the discs stored?”  She muttered to the ghostly silence.

“All frictionless discs are in the first row by the office door, third shelf up.  There are also keys to unlock the lifts, and tarps varying from 6’x4’ to 12’x20’.”  The computer chirped into her ear, causing Lauranya to jump up startled, smacking her head against the metal shelving row above the generator section.  

“You bloody sand wasted piece of…”  Lauranya clutched her head, then clenched her jaws, her breath whistling through her teeth in pain.

She crawled out of the pen to locate the discs she needed for moving.  The discs were exactly where the computer had stated.  She gathered six– two for each generator.  The discs did what they were fashioned for, making a heavy load easy to slide over any surface with the touch of a finger.  These she moved to the warehouse bay door to the left.  She found the barrels with the markings for seed grains.

“Why the hells did you not take these, Captain?” She looked for a forklift to move the grain plastic barrels to the hover lift. “There’s enough here for years of growing…ahh…growing.  You need dirt or hydroponics and most small ships will not have those.  Only the world ships.  And I am betting you didn’t think you could eat those or have room for a growing medium.”  She stopped with her hand on the forklift, closing her eyes.  “Dirt or hydroponics.  How do I grow these now?”  she said, realizing the same dilemma that kept the seeds from being stolen in the first place.  She shook her head.  “Seeds and eggs with power generators.  I will find dirt next!”

With her computer’s help and judicial application of machine help for moving equipment and supplies, she spent the next few hours sorting useful from not so useful into sections near the warehouse doors.  The most useful items went next to the bay doors, while those not immediately necessary further back from the door.  The incubators she would leave until she had a space cleared out in the hotel main floor.

The first trial run of packing the lift, she over-loaded the seed side, causing a tilt on turning.  The seeds did a slow tumble to the left, with the solar generators  with only a thump.

“Esu!”  Lauranya snapped irritably, and then started crying.  “No Overseers and I cannot do a single thing right.”  She angrily wiped the tears away, pressing her lips into a stubborn line.  She straightened her shoulders, with a deep breath.  “The road to the end requires many steps.” she whispered her grandfather Savo’s favorite quote.   It took her two tries to reload the lift correctly with the heaviest items center middle, picking up the various items that had spilled.

“Doctor Lauranya, I have a problem to report.”  The computer chimed into her ear.

“That’s a surprise…?”  Her voice was dry in response, as she concentrated on each item’s placement.

“Excuse me, doctor?”

“Nothing.  What is the current issue?”  Lauranya swallowed her sarcasm.

“The map of the suites shows all rooms to be filled with furniture or bedding.  There is no room for your influx of equipment.”

That stopped Lauranya cold.  She had not planned on there not being room. “Computer, is there enough space to move the furniture into a room or a set of rooms?”

“Not without much lifting.”

“Visual.”

The computer projected a hologram in front of her eyes with the upper floors schematics and furniture.

“Lots of furniture.  Inefficient use of space.”  She tapped her upper lip with one long finger.  More lifting, it looked like.  “Well I will have a lift with me.”  Another thought.  “Computer, keep track of all items I am moving.  I will want to move the equipment into the main lobby while moving the furniture into the rooms.”

“Yes, Dr. Lauranya.”  The computer intoned.

“Arie and I will take the upper suites and I will fill the lower suite with furniture.  Sheets, towels…those will need to be found as well.  Cleansing suds for us and clothing.  Add that to the list of items to find, computer.”

“All cleaning supplies and fresh linens can be found on the first floor in the laundry rooms.  To a lesser extent, there are also cleaning supplies and fresh linens in the laundry room of the upper floor.”

“Oh!  Yes that is perfect.”  She stood for a moment gathering her thoughts and rearranging the order of items needed to be collected.  “Computer add to the list all medical remaining and take notations.  I will need to move the supplies to the upper floor, second room from end right.  That can be our medical.”

“Acknowledged, Dr. Lauranya.”  The computer flashed a holo to her right with the list are ready compiled a line drawn through the warehouse items on the lift.

“Second floor can hold equipment, cables, computer and generators here.” She said pointing to one suite of rooms.  Another thought.  “Computer, are there discs on the furniture or do they have to be lifted?”

“Final inspection has not been completed by the majordomo, so all furniture items are on frictionless discs.”

She breathed out.  “Something going right for the moment.  Ok, we will start with the leftover moving items, and I will start arranging furniture over there.  Have a list ready with each moved item and their location so I can put them on the moving lift easily and quickly in order of need.  Priority to food, generators, medical, and animals.  Each moved needs to contain a portion of each.

“Acknowledged, Dr. Lauranya.”

With a shake of her hair, she returned to the task.  The lift was loaded without wobbles.  She used three tarps to cover the generators and other items from the downpour.  

She pulled the lift with her to the bay doors, opening them only a fraction so she could look outside, no whiskered cats in sight.  She opened the door, pulling the lift behind her.  Once cleared of the door, she reclosed it.  

She was soaked to the skin within seconds.  She came to realize her office flats would not work after a few feet on the water slick road.  She was stumbling, catching herself against the lift, as one foot or the other would slip out from under her on the running water covered concrete.  She did not swear at the slips just grateful the water was still running downhill and not pooling around her ankles or higher.  

It was a short walk brought to the hotel, but Lauranya kept stopping every few feet to check the lift, not trusting her packing for this first, most important load.  What should have been a quick four-minute walk was a good 15 minutes.  

Lauranya tried to not think how much more dangerous and time consuming the trips would be when the water was pooling at her feet and rising fast.  She concentrated on her footing and breathing pushing her anxiety aside.

The service door was wide enough to hold three lifts at a time and twenty bodies.  The door was a palm reader, which had Lauranya worried for about 30 seconds.  “Computer have biometrics been set for the Lords building?”

“Not yet, Dr. Lauranya.”

“Ok, let’s give this a try, before I have to gladiator stomp this thing.”  She placed her hand on the door.  The idea of her trying to kick in the metal door make her smile for a moment. the door plate beeped thrice then opened to let her in.

“Generic hands will open it.”  Lauranya was both grateful and appalled at the lack of security.  She pulled the lift into the dry service elevator over the rough stone tiles on wet squelching shoes.  Cold air blew on her from ceiling air vent, causing shivers.   

“Please no key.” She whispered, reaching with shaking hands to hit the upper most floor button.  A heartbeat in time, that felt like an eternity, later, the button lit up.  The locks had not been set.  She leaned her forehead against the smooth steel walls.  The service elevator started to move up and music started to play.  Soothing classical.  Lauranya rolled her eyes at the sporadic touches for the building.  The music reminded her to add another list for compilation.  They would need music on file.  

“Computer, download all music into the hard drives.  Duplicate all information requested not just music, no triplicate into multiple files areas.”  She shook her head.  “Redundancy must have more than one.”  Another thought.  “All entertaining and educational videos as well.”

“Yes, Doctor.” The computer chirped compliantly.

The ride up gave her the time to chew on her lower lip thinking.  Her brain kept turning over the thoughts of what might be missing, like a burrowing rodent tunneling through her brain.

“Shhh…calm…shhhh.” She whispered to herself as she would to Arie.  Her hands were shaking so she gripped her upper arms to quell the hands.  The hands still trembled but not as badly.

The double doors opened onto the bottom floor aerie suitees entryway.  Even with her anxiety spiking, Lauranya stopped and stared.  The entryway was the size of the lab building.  The windows stretched from floor to ceiling, showing a grey drenched view with rain streaked glass.  The stone floor was muted sandstone pavers, covered with natural fiber rugs in geometric patterns in floral and mechanical interwoven. The overstuffed couches were in dark brown and red colored leather.  Lush and luxurious furniture and materials, and Lauranya had to move it all.

She set the grav lift to the side and went to explore the rooms to assess the extent of moving that she would need to do in the hours of the day remaining.

Brother shook the rain from his fur futilely, stretching his front paws out and back legs up.  His tail curling to the side, the tip of his tail twitching, never still.  He gave a yawn.  The assignment to watch the colonists had been tedious at best; however the rain made it an assignment to detest.  However, it was needed.  So here, he sat watching the others living and now their leaving.

 The colonists had taken longer than expected to realize their settlement was in a low-lying area.  This past week had been the most exciting to watch vaguely.  Like watching neon-ants scattered when their pebble mounds were kicked open, lots of motion and hand waving, sometimes even fights.  The men and women with the whips had taken the first three shuttles out, with many of the others in tow.  After that, the loading of passengers and items had gone slower and somewhat smoother.  There was no more scent of blood and fear.

Brother, watched, captivated by the dichotomy of the family units.  He had seen pale skinned parents with children of much darker pigmentation or the opposite. Some parenting unites were made up of one light and one dark with their children either dark or light.  In his one hundred and fifty years, he had seen fair parents produce fair children and darker parents produce darker children.  Children with parents of light or darker skin usually had a combination somewhere in between.  For the colonists, there did not seem to be the norm.  Brother’s curiosity was piqued.  There had to be a reason for the unusual genetic combinations unfortunately it wasn’t as if he could approach one of the colonists and ask how this happened.  It was as if nature had been denied her normal randomness to follow an unknown but set law of genetics at someone else’s’ behest.

Brother was looking forward on riffling through any books or notes left behind.  Sister and the council wanted to know why the Dead Gods had come here and if they would be coming back.  Brother just had his curiosity to settle.  He shook his ruff again and settled into a slightly more comfortable position on an uphill brush covered vantage point.

The last shuttle was leaving today.  He saw the last of the men women and children start to bring out their bags, handing them off to the men and a few women of the ship.  He flicked an ear as he saw the bags tossed to the side.  Every other loading he had seen the bags had been thrown into the ship, but not this one.  An odd thing.  And odd things should be watched closely.  Therefore, he watched and waited.

There was a steady stream of people entering the shuttle port, in twos and threes, some family units with children, other’s single adults.  He watched the last two people outside, one small child jumping into puddles whose infectious laughter even from where he as camouflaged, her blond hair in wet tangles down her cherub cheeks.  She tried to outrun her mother with squeals the howls of outrage at being caught but the slender woman with matching green eyes and longer blond hair in the same sun streaked shade as her daughter. The captured child’s howls cut off as they entered into the port.  

Brother waited patiently for the ship to take off so he might start to examine the works left behind.  Ten minutes passed when the odd happened.  The woman with the small child came running out of the port.  She stopped for a moment looking around frantically before darting to the non-living facilities.  Brother stilled, including the tip of his tail.  The ruff on his spine starting to rise at the smell of fear and fresh blood reached him faintly.

Moments later, men and women boiled out of the shuttle port, running to the living quarters.  There was hand waving and yelling for a few minutes then those who had stormed the living quarters came back out grim faced and empty-handed returning to the shuttle port.  Within minutes, the shuttle took off.

Brother slipped from the brush, eeling under wet bushes and chin high native plants, careful not to disturb the forest floor detritus, making no sound as he went to step on to the concrete grid worked roads.  

He went to the shuttle pad first.  Something had happened here.  Something unusual.  Between one-step and the next, he shifted from a large feline four footed shape to his human two.  Clothing did not shift so he stood naked at the entrance of the shuttle building.  The doors opened as swiftly for him as any colonist; however it was the smell that made him recoil a half step, shaking his head.  Even in his human skin, Brother could smell 20 times better than his non-shifting companions of two legs.  Here he smelled Death, and it had come neither gentle nor kindly.

He walked through the glass covered vegetation area first.  No death, only plants dying slowly.  Yet the scent accompanying Death’s was not that of decaying vegetation but an almost overwhelming chemical smell of things not natura,l emanated from the floors wall-to-wall seamless rug.  He walked on this rug, soft on bare feet yet there as a slightly crunchy texture underfoot to the carpet.  

He sniffed the air, turning towards a door to the right, pushing it open.  A small death in this room.  A man with pulped facial bones.  Not an easy death but the killer was desperate by the looks of the wounds and the man unprepared for the violence that befell him.  He sniffed the air.  Blood, feces and the scent of a woman and a child.  The blond woman, Brother thought.  There was nothing else of interest in the room where human waste was deposited, as softly as he had entered, Brother slipped back out.

The next door to open was on the right and most of the death smells emanated from this room.  Brother opened this door cautiously, fearing a trap.  The door opened easily if messily.  The pulled skin and muscle with much blood, from one small girl’s hand, slicking the tan room rug so the door slid easily was the first sight that greeted him.  The multiple bodies with self-inflicted death wounds or foaming mouths were the first hint of poison.  

Brother walked gingerly over the dead to the table filled with empty bottles and the remains of various food items.  Not touching anything laid out, he leaned his head over to sniff a small cookie.  He wrinkled his nose and sneezed at the amount of poison lacing the treat.   A growl broke from his throat.  Poison, a coward’s tool.

With narrowed eyes, he slipped from this room back to the foyer, only to freeze feet from the door. He dropped to the floor, crawling behind a container of plants raising only his head to observe.  The blond woman with the small child was exiting from the building across the way.  Her main hand held her daughter’s hand as she furtively looked around ready to jump out of her skin at the slightest sounds.  Her other hand carried a blanket, oddly bulky.  She and the child hustled into the building where most of the others had lived.  

Brother watched, the door close behind her, thinking. She would know why these people were dead and why she had fled from the ship that would have taken her off the drowning world.  However, was it worth her knowing about the islanders or guessing about the sea dwellers?  Should he offer her the island for sanctuary?

His sister’s voice came unbidden to mind.  “Observe…do not interfere.” Brother let out a soft growl, shaking dark waving hair in irritation. If he had been on four feet, his tail would be lashing.   He did not like letting the helpless die, but he would not interfere in the Torch’s orders.  It was important.  Even if he knew there was no way the two could survive on their own.

Brother slid to the non-living quarters building, searching for a way in.  The doors would not open.  He searched his memory of watching the normal day to day activity.  Everyone who had entered had used a small rectangular item.  He jogged back to the shuttle port and the room of the dead.  He searched the bodies finding a couple of small rectangular cards that matched his memory for those entering the other building.  

He slipped out of the shuttle port checking for signs of the blond woman and child, the whiskered cats weren’t likely to be moving this way, yet.  Yet being the key word.  He trotted back to the other building, sliding the card in the sideways motion observed.  The doors slide apart with a woosh and push of cold air.

He glided along well-worn carpet of unnatural fiber, rougher on his bare feet than the shuttle port carpet, though soft enough his footsteps made no sound.  He moved around desks and offices looking for paper or odd notes that might help answer questions from the islanders, either belaying fears of preparing for an invasion.  

Brother made a face.  The islanders had a few of the disc guns left and two of the cannon’s left from the ship, but they all knew the outcome if the Dead Gods really wanted them.  The only ones who might survive would be the water shifters or himself as he blended in with the native wildlife.  Parents would slit throats of their children and their own before allowing capture back to the life of a slave.

He didn’t know how to log onto a computer but he had been briefed on what to look for.  The small memory sticks that held precious data.  

Grenich could probably open the files.  The old Silver could work wonders on electronics.  He had asked Brother to keep an eye out for the small half circle pull tabs, showing him what they looked like either inserted or laying out on desks and in drawers.  Those he found, were placed these in a small plastic bag, gleaned from another desk.  Keyma had the tube to actually hold anything of interest and electronic for the trip back.  

Grenich had been very emphatic about keeping the discs dry. Brother winced at the remembered pain of a pointed finger from the Silver’s three fingered hand driving into his chest, leaving small crescent cuts at how the pull tabs were to be kept dry at all cost.  Brother had gotten the impression that Grenich’s threat to skin him had not been in jest.

Brother had found over a dozen when he stopped between offices with a disgusted look on his face as a sudden thought made him stop dead in his tracks and he thunked his head into a near wall.   The sound carried slightly farther than his voice

“The dead, just like the cards.  I’ll need to go back to the shuttle port.”  His voice was quiet but no less chagrined in the empty hall. He rolled his eyes at his own oversight of the obvious.  He continued searching through the offices, leaving the shuttle port for the last place he searched.

“I don’t think I’ll tell Sister about this.”  The chagrin in his voice quiet in the empty hall

A quarter of the way through he stopped.  He heard a door open, so distant from his current position that even his elevated hearing heard the noise but softly.  Brother dropped the rapidly filling pouch onto the floor to shift to his four footed form.  He picked the pouch up in his mouth, silently padding back down the way he had come to observe.

He heard the woman’s voice before he saw her.  “No damn time! Concentrate…survival first.”  A deep breath sucked in through her teeth.  Brother listened two doors down from the office she was in as she talked to herself.  He could smell both fear and sorrow from her but her voice held determination.  He could hear her listing what she needed and could hear what the computer chirped into her ear.  The computer’s voice was very mechanical in syntax even though it was a good mimic of person, like Horran’s computer on the island.  

When the woman left her office to go to the warehouse, Brother followed behind hiding on soft padded feet in the shadows, lurking in the hallways and under desks, making no more noise than fur rubbing against a wall.  She never looked back so engrossed on her survival tasks.  

He watched her load up her lift the first time, seeing the imbalance, he had wanted to shift and help her load it correctly but stifled that thought.  He watched as she broke down as the lift tumbled down, then wipe her eyes and stick out her chin in the most stubborn way and clench her jaw unconsciously.

Brother chortled to himself as she picked everything up and reloaded the lift with far more care this time..  The woman was a fighter.  If there was a chance to survive she would exceed that slim chance and excel.  

Brother stopped following her when she left the warehouse, melting back into the shadows to finish his search in the other offices and labs.  He had seen the results when Sister’s visions and comments had been ignored.  The persons usually brought about mayhem by doing what they had been told not to.  Brother knew if he helped the woman something would break the threads for her tenuous survival and possibly the islanders as well. As much as it went against his desire to help, he would not break that thread.

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Ch. 2 A Drowning World

Chapter 2

The Beach and Sanctuary

The beach wasn’t quiet.  Waves pounded the white fine sand with a steady rhythm like a lover’s heartbeat.  Five children played in the shallows, searching for shells and clams for the evening’s dinner, shouting to each other and low flying blue-green wave skimming birds searching for edible tidbits, each child as precious as oxygen in space brining smiles to the faces of those on the beach for less joyful reasons.  

A young girl, coltish with flying blond hair ran to Brother as he accompanied the village Torch to a reed walkway over the water.  He feigned being unaware of her only to catch Leah just as she tried to pounce on the taller sturdier peace keeper.

“I almost got you!”  She squealed as he tossed her into the air as if she weighed nothing instead of the sturdiness of an outdoor child.

“Almost is never your friend.”  Brother ruffled her hair as he placed her back on the wet sand.  “Where are your parents?  Surely none of you are here without some sort of supervision?”  He looked around with a slight frown.   

Leah gave a squeal of outrage brushing the hair from her face into a less messy coif.  “Treasher is keeping an eye on us.”  She motioned to the huge Katherian whose buff fur coat blended into the edges of the forest shadow; well enough that even Brother had to look twice to spot him.  Treasher gave a flick of an ear while keeping an eye on the other four rambunctious children he would fondly call godlings within their hearing.

“Mom and dad are at the funeral.”  Leah asked, digging a toe in the sand, quickly looking down than up at Brother.

Brother’s eyes darkened for a moment.  “Funerals are sad affairs and this one even sadder than usual.”

“Did you have to kill Nathan’s mom?”  Leah looked into Brother’s green gold eyes with an innocence that made his heart squeeze and he hoped she would never lose.

“She was poisoning Grenich. When the poison didn’t work…”

“Thanks to Mauri.”

“Yes thanks to Mauri.  She tried to stab him.”

“Why would she do that?” baffled at an adult acting illogically.

“Because Grenich isn’t human.”

“Why does that matter?”  Very confused now.

“Nathan’s mom, was unable to live with non-humans.”  Sister snapped.

Brother looked over at his sister with a quelling look as he amended his original response tempered to Leah’s age.  “On the ships she could stay with humans most of the time.  After the shipwreck though, with all of us living in close quarters and no village without at least a few others that weren’t pure human, her brain didn’t process the differences very well, which made her try to kill Grenich.”  

Sister snorted but she added no commentary either.

“That’s very sad.”  Leah said, her lips pulled down.

“Yes it is.”  Brother gave her a quick hug.  “Time for you to join with the other’s.  Sister has to do a Reading.”

Leah’s eyes got huge and darted to the small wizened woman waiting patiently next to Brother.  “Oh!  Bye!”  She gave Brother one more quick hug and a bobbing nod to Sister before scampering off to the other children.

“She takes after her mother.”  Sister said, watching the children with a smile for young antics.

“And we are all happy about that.”  Brother said with a smile of his own for the next generation of Runners.  He turned back to Sister and offered his arm to her with ship formality.  Sister inclined her head to her slightly older brother accepting the arm, leaning heavily on her heavy and knobby cane.  They walked in silence to the edge of the reed path recently built just for this occasion.

Sister took a deep breath as her foot touched the reed walk way over the ocean water.  The skies and the readings waited for no one.  With the thought of the skies, she threw a superstitious glance up at the boiling skies.  Behind the clouds, the sky was a deep blue.  The kind that if you lay on your back looking into feeling of falling was very real, making you want to clutch the dirt under hand to keep from losing contact with land.  Gravity always worked though.  

She should have been dead three times over.  Wrinkled skin with liver spots covered her face neck and hands visible through the loose flowing wrap.  She had survived war between the Gods, or world ship crash landing and years on a world so dangerous the first month saw a mortality rate of over a third of the crash survivors.  

Yes, death had kissed her hand a few times but had declined a final dance.  Soon she thought, soon Death would want to finish this soiree.  She was seeing an extra shadow when someone was close to death these twilight years of hers.  

The thought sent a shiver through her.  She clutched her bag of Gods’ bones a little tighter.  She wasn’t scared exactly, but she didn’t want to leave life just yet.  No one ever did, she snorted to herself.  Death was a fickle lover, coming and going as it pleased, sometimes at the most inopportune times, either too soon or far too damn late to have been a mercy.  Sister shook her head with lips pursed in annoyance.  She wasn’t dead yet so time to roll the bones.  

The clouds were moving in from the east, large, dark and pendulous. The storms were coming soon enough.  The water would raise, a vision seen for the last few decades, bringing more than just change to the land and ocean.  The other two Torches had gone insane waiting, but Sister had waited with patience akin to the Silvers.  Sister was the last of the world’s precognitive.  A torch to lead the way out from the empty darkness of space, the old saying went.  The clouds coming wouldn’t reach the island today, maybe not even tomorrow but the rain they shed would be felt and the clouds would be here soon enough.

The water had been shallow for many feet out two weeks ago, now deeper than could be measured with heavy knotted rope and wider, wilder than a strong swimmer could dare unless they had fins.  The walkway had been bucking and heaving till she stepped foot on the sturdy arm sized bound reeds.  The first step onto the walkway caused the water to still for two body lengths in either direction.  Water still surged and raged except the area she was walking onto became as smooth and clear as battle plastic canopy on a fighter spacejet.

When she had been young, the ocean had been larger but slowly receding.  The world’s axis had finally tilted throwing the weather patterns from a dry climate worldwide to whipping up clouds and moisture to drown the parched lands.  The world was no longer a dry world but they could still die in the deluge.  The shipwrecked survivors on the island and in those living in the waters needed to know the future.   

Sister straightened as she continued walking on the now calm water, the bones vibrated at her touch, sensitive were the bones of the Gods, none of which anyone had seen in the last three generations on the islands.  The bones had been given to her uncle, of quick wit and fiery red hair in a different pouch, his pouch, when the ship still flew through the stars, now hers to read and protect.

The village was down to roughly 150 people.  The other villages scattered over the area were not faring population wise much better.  The drying rivers had been low on fishing but the grazing for their animals precarious with the native wild life finding the goats and pigs as tasty as the shipwrecked survivors did.  

The old woman shook her head again.  “Getting old and senile.”  She thought to herself.  The years were not weighing lightly and the path of a Torch usually lead to insanity at a young age or suicide at an older age.  Rarely was there another path.  She was the last Torch for the shipwrecked, the last seer and guiding light of the Gods. Duty lay heavy across withered shoulders.  

Sister was careful to never read too many times in a handful of days.  She had been told her grandmother had the sight in such quantity that bones for focusing were not needed.  But the sight had come at any given moment eventually driving her poor grandmother insane.  Her uncle had decided swimming during a storm when flathead sharks were mating off the shores, a good idea, when the bones became too much for him. Sister still held onto her sanity but there had been days when she worried.  Today was not that day.  

She motioned with her chin for her brother to come help her.  There was a time when her grace and poise while reading the bones had been perfect.  Those years were no longer hers.   Unlike her, Brother still looked to be in his early second decade, tall strong and flexible.  Things her Power had deemed unnecessary for her to retain.  Yet for all his youth, she would not trade their jobs.  She told the future and guided the survivors’ paths.  He had the task of enforcing the peace.  Sometimes all that the transgressor needed was a talk reminding them why everyone worked together, other times a grave was added at the foot of the mountain.  Those enforcements were the hardest.  Every member was valued.  Everyone needed.  

Brother stepped forward on two legs, not four of his other shape, so silent his footsteps the reeds did not creak once on the walkway over the still water.  Sister reached out a hand.  Brother supplied an arm to help her down to her knees on the reeds, before backing up off the pathway as silently as he had approached.  

She settled on aged sagging haunches with a deep breath, calming her mind.  The calm was as important as the medium from which she was reading.  With a deep breath out, her hands reached into the squared pouch, with a tying flap, at her side.  Flipping back the cover fold, her hands touched the skin with reverence.  She gently pulled a folded piece of thin tanned leather from the pouch.   The first item she needed was butter soft and smooth, unlike the coarse tanned goatskin laid out for her old knees.  The skin was not small, rather thin and compact covering roughly two and a half feet by one and a half feet, the width of most women’s backs.  

With a flip of her stiff fingers, she laid the skin out in front of her.  Next, she pulled bones of various sizes with symbols out in a wrinkled hand, thick jointed with hard work and long years.  The pouch held fifteen bones yet only nine or eleven could fit into her hand at a time.  Sometimes only five were grasped.  The different runed bones pulled and the number helped her to concentrate her Power to See.   The bones, like the skin, came from the body of the Goddess Red-Eyes in one of her various incarnations after she had died.  

This time when she pulled the bones and threw them, she had enough time to gasp once seeing all the bones pulled, then the Sight came.  Faster and faster images flooded her mind leaving an impression and images that would never be erased.  She let the images flow through her brain until like a cup running over until no more could be stored.     

Raising to her knees she yelled “Stop! Stop for the love of Gods and my sanity, stop!”  She coughed her plea to the air and sky.  The images slowed but one last one burned into her brain, a woman and a laughing child, surrounded by the corpses of both the followers of the Dead Gods and Islanders.  “They must live.”  Sister screamed in a whisper before collapsing back onto her knees, tears of pain and the coming deaths pathing down her face.

Sister woke with a pounding head, not an unfamiliar sensation with the sight or with drinking too much.  Something she had not indulged in since her late second decade.  She looked up into familiar faces.  Some concerned and other’s hopeful.  “Not dead yet, damn vultures!” She snapped irritably, waving a hand weakly above her head.  The crowd of five backed up, one or two chuckled at her well known waking temper.  She struggled to sit up for a moment to give word of her Seeing.
“We are waiting on your word, Torch.”  The headman said his beard and hair so dark there was almost no light reflection.  Young, unaged and unknowing, Sister thought with disapproval towards Nathan.   Sister glared up at him and his rudeness.  

The headman’s face was neutral, neither hoping nor hating, though he had more reason than others to hate with both Island and personal losses from her readings or Brother’s enforcement.

“The waters will rise and Dead Gods own are leaving.”  She turned to look at her brother..  He heard the words she didn’t speak.

“I will ask if Jolie is available to pull a trireme to the mainland.” Was all he said offering a hand off the woven reed mat she was laying on.  She waved off his hand laying back.  

“Brother.”  He stopped as her voice changed to the Torch.  “Do not interfere.”  With that, she closed her eyes and fell into a sleep of recovery.  Brother frowned but continued to the beach to find a merman to carry a message.

 

“Torch.”  The sitting woman didn’t respond to the taller than average Katherian.  He tried again with the human’s given name. “Atlanta!”

This got a response.  The woman looked up with haunted purple eyes and deep bruising underneath from sleepless nights.  “Yes?”  Her curling red hair, unconfined, seemed to float around her shoulders.

“You ready for this drop?”  The Katherian swiveled an ear at her, the tip of his tail twitching.  His face was covered with a bone mask concealing the upper brow and cheeks, leaving his orange eyes and short dark furred muzzle visible.  The mask could have covered up scaring, but Atlanta knew it covered Redeyes Judgment mark.

The stone steps of Sanctuary were still coalescing in front of the fifteen people, the early morning mist, mixing with the still see-through stone steps and massive metal doorway making the grassy area more surreal than enjoyable.  Each of the team members had found a small lightning mark on their hands, a summons for a retraction.  Someone or a few beings to be brought into Sanctuary.  There was no telling how many or how few Sanctuary was opening up for but Sanctuary answered its own criteria for helping those in need.  

The band, for this retraction, was particularly motley; three humans, seven Katherian and five Wolfen.  Usually there was only one token human among the larger races, this time there were three.  No Silvers, so the humans would have to do the crawling through tight spots and only one of the team members had not gone through full training.    The God with them, the Torch.  She didn’t carry any variety of swords or disc guns, like everyone else had, but she did have a sleek long barreled rifle with top grade sightings, slung over her shoulder.  An assassin’s gun.  The gun and her lack of other extraction missions making the others give her more than the occasional sideways look.  The Torch being the unknown element on this mission.

The token leader, the unnamed Katherian was notably concerned with a potential rogue God messing up the retraction.  

The Katherian had approached the red headed woman in the black body suite with an aggressive tilt to his head and a growl in his voice.  “You can sit this out.”  He said into her ear, not carrying to the others, though his body language screamed his thoughts.

The implied we don’t need novices who are going to hurl or get someone killed.  More a command then a suggestion, one that Atlanta, as a God, could ignore.  She smiled sickly, waving a hand dismissively at the stated and unstated commentary.  The Katherian pulled his lips back over sharp carnivorous teeth in annoyance at this gesture.  

“I can handle myself and my gun.  Though this time, they shouldn’t be needed”   Atlanta said calmly, lying to the Katherian as convincingly as she had to the vampires of her own world.  She tried to stand but stumbled, the Katherian stuck out a hand to keep her upright, his claws sheathed.  Bare skin touched fur covered skin.  The Torch flared and she sucked in her breath as a Seeing occurred by accident.  

“Redeyes will forgive you.”  Her voice a mere whisper, caring no further than his ears, her eyes misting white for a second before clearing to purple again.

The Katherian gave a soundless snarl, baring predatory teeth.  “The goddess will skin me, next we meet.” His voice no louder than a breathy whisper.

“That was when you stole a ship with some of her best people on it as a gift to the Dead Gods.”  Atlanta kept her voice low.  Roland was a name, that history deemed the worst of the worst.  One who had sold every other race on a world ship for his own race’s freedom from war.  History had not been kind to Roland and his doomed mutiny.

The others coming along on this trip didn’t know who the tall Katherian was and neither He nor Atlanta were going to inform them.  The others would have shot Roland on principle had his true name been known, no matter how many centuries or for some millennia past his crime had been committed.

He gave a more audible growl this time, drawing looks from those nearby.  Two of the band gave the Katherian and the God more than a cursory quick glance, the other individuals looking away to give privacy in close quarters.  Ship manners.  The Katherian couldn’t place the two’s uniform, which told him they were from a future millennial then the one he or his regular extraction teammates were from.  An unusual team of two post period guardians, a short human male and a young Wolfen female, turned their heads toward them, breaking off a conversation.

The Wolfen stepped towards them, her eyes narrowed at the Katherian, both sets of arms, upper and lower, reaching for sword or guns. Her partner stepping to her side on the left, his left hand resting lightly on his disc gun.  A united front, the body language said team not lovers making Roland reassess their danger level from low to medium.

Atlanta waved them aside.  “I’m fine.  We are having a professional disagreement.”  

“If you need help…”  The man said with a level gaze, but it was at the Katherian he looked at.  The Katherian did not need to read the man’s mind to know what he was thinking.

With flattened ears, the Katherian glared back.  “I don’t do humans.”

“Not what it looks like to me.”  The young Wolfen female growled back, her icy blue eyes steady on the Katherian, the ruff down her spine starting to rise.  Her lower set of arms resting heavier on the huge disc guns, while she crossed her upper arms within easy reach of either set of swords strapped to her side or back.  Roland would bet she had had some training, so the threat of their use wasn’t childish posturing.

“I am not forcing myself on the Torch!” The Katherian snapped at the young pup of a guard, his tail fluffing and twitching with his obvious irritation.  He was having trouble keeping his hands off his own guns.

“Winisa,” Atlanta’s voice wasn’t loud yet still carried to the Wolfens and Katherians.  The Wolfen startled at the Torch’s use of her name, her beautiful cupped ears swiveling forwards to catch every word Atlanta had to say.  “I am fine.  Really.  He,” She motioned to the Katherian. “Is concerned that I don’t have the knowledge or fortitude for this mission.  He’s just not very good at being told to butt out.”  Atlanta said with humor at the Katherian’s expense, earning her a glare through his bone mask, but the others in the team gave a laugh.  The unnamed Katherian was known to be overly controlling for retractions; however, his teams never lost anyone to accident or gunfire.  No one asked his name or why he wore the mask.  Sanctuary was a safe haven for many reasons.

The Wolfen girl gave an opened mouth smile to the Torch, flashing a mouth of sharp teeth from her long muzzle.  The human only raised an eyebrow, but he did touch his partner on the arm settling her down.  Her hands came off the guns and they went back to their quiet discussion, keeping a discreet eye on the other pair to their right.  Just in case.

The Katherian turned back to her, a sideways tilt of his head, and  a glare.

Atlanta reached up to touch the right sword strapped to his back.  The left sword its mate.  “Beautiful swords.”

“Thank you.”  His eyes narrowed, not mollified.

“You do very nice work.”  The Torch Power flared again, this time causing Roland to pull back slightly as a spider web appeared over her left hand.  The threads of the future and the past forming a web of possibilities.  “Swords that will kill a Dead God in the hand of a Siren.”

“Why are you coming on this mission?”  Roland said in exasperation. “You’re not out of Change or fully a God yet.  And Torches are always in short supply.”  Torches were also rarely stable and this one seemingly less so than the few others he had met in Sanctuary.  Those Torches went gratefully  into their very own cryo units.  No dreams or futures but their own filling their heads.

Atlanta didn’t answer for a moment, her eyes on the changing spider web of infinities.  “Because I need to speak to Redeyes guards.”  She paused for a second, tearing her eyes from the web to look into the Katherian’s fear dilated eyes, her voice dropping to a whisper. “And one of the team isn’t going to make it back.”

Roland’s spine stiffened and his tail snapped twice.  “Everyone makes it back in my team.”  He growled with bunching jaw muscles, turning with liquid grace, walking as far as he could and still be in the group waiting for the steps to solidify and the mission to start.

“Not this time.” Atlanta whispered sadly, shaking out her left hand dissipating the spider web of timelines. Sanctuary’s  light hit the steps, mimicking sunlight at dawn, a new day of safety promised.

 

A Drowning World. Ch.1.

A Drowning World

Water Series

Book 1

   

“Hello, Lauranya.” Captain Alen Jameson smiled at her. “Ready for the lift off?”  His smile was in place but his eyes were looking over the buildings, his hands clenching and unclenching his faux leather belt..

Dr. Lauranya Torvins gave the dark skinned captain a smile in return.  Slower than his, as if smiling used muscles long forgotten.  Once the smile started though, she grinned shyly at him, brushing her blond hair away from her face in unconscious reaction to his kind interest and charming smile.

“Ready to stay and do more research…Arianya!”  She turned from the captain, catching her daughter about to jump into a well filled rainwater pothole.  “Please do not jump into puddles that are over your waist line!”  The small blond child looked up and giggled are her mother.  The captain joined in the laughter, which made Lauranya smile, erasing the frown.  

Arianya or Arie, as almost everyone called her, was enjoying the relative freedom and the lighter hand of her mother, outside.  Water puddles were still a novelty to the child and she wanted to enjoy every chance to splash that she could.  Not to mention the fun of wet stuff falling from the sky into her hair and her skin.  It was like taking a shower with momma but warmer and with clothes on!

  “Well, doc if you don’t mind, I need to round up the scientists and their children for a pre-take off cocktail.”  The captain’s slow smile and was infectious and his quirking eyebrow a novelty to her.  “Meet you in the conference lounge.”  With that, he nodded and headed back toward the shuttle bay.

    Lauranya took a deep breath trying to control her obvious interest in the captain trying to enjoy her last moments outside.  The rain had stopped, in a moment of broken clouds and blue skies, but that would not last.  She breathed deeply, water and fresh air were what she smelled.  She wanted fresh air before her lungs were filled with recycled air and the smell of metal, oil and people living too closely together.  The shuttle would be filled to capacity, always on the edge of almost too small.  A few others were enjoying the last few minutes in the open air before being hustled into the shuttle port.

  Camdia was sitting on the curb around the shuttle port, her shoes next to her, her feet submerged to the ankles, in flowing runoff rainwater.  Camdia’s tightly woven hair, had droplets of rain, glinting like diamonds in the dark strands, making her look younger than her 30 years.  She grinned up at her boss like a small kid, flashing bright teeth against dark skin, taking a few more years off.  

“Just another hour and we’ll be strapped down heading back to the world ship.”  Camdia looked happy at this prospect.  

“Eight weeks in close quarters.” Lauranya gave a shudder.

“Again.” they said in unison. Laughing as only those sharing the same miserable short-term conditions could.

“Dead Gods, I can’t believe we’re leaving so soon.” Camdia started.

“Well it has been five years.” Lauranya said looking at Arie splashing in the rainwater.  Her clothes would dry quickly having the advantage of being made from finely woven synthetics.  Lauranya touched her own shirt.  Captain Jameson had given her a shirt woven from this world’s natural fibers yesterday, as a take-off gifting.  She made a face.  Her husband was sure to ask about the shirt.  Thankfully, their marriage contract finished as soon as she delivered one more child or two more years had passed.  Arie might stay with her, when his family sent Lauranya packing, back to her own family but she could not sure.  They could be spiteful when given even the slightest provocation.  Lauranya was going to have to hide the shirt well.  Maybe among Arie’s things, which he never bothered looking through.

“And your research has barely begun!”  Camdia’s voice brought Lauranya back to the present.  Lauranya smiled slightly.  Camdia was more outraged than she was.  Oh, she was disappointed but the Dead Gods and Lords decided to shut down this world’s research during the flooding years so ship ward bound they were.  Lauranya bit her lip to keep from saying what she should not.  There were no Overseers but that did not mean no one was not listening.  Dissension was not tolerated.  Scientist were given a certain latitude but they were not allowed to actually have an opinion other than what they were told when the final orders were given.

“At least I will not have to fix every computer routing issue or downed screen some idiot savant forgot to turn on, on top of my daily work.”  That part Lauranya did not have to fake being happy about.  Gods forefend the other scientist could remember how to log into their computers or backup their data.  She hated computers, preferring the beauty of water and the creatures in, but computers ran everything, and she had a knack for solving puzzles, biological or electronic.  This made her valued, which meant better placements.  She said a small prayer to the goddess Yemoja for a water research placement for her next assignment.

“I didn’t get any more whip marks this assignment!” Camdia chirped happily.  “I hope the next place is as nice.”  Lauranya did not have the heart to tell her it had been a close thing once or twice.  The girl, was brilliant in her narrow field of stress reproduction.  Some days though Camdia could not focus on other things that did not pertain to her specialty or hide her true thoughts.  

“I hope so to dear.”  Lauranya feared Camdia would end up strangled by an Overseer for verbally, or Gods forbid physically, stepping over the line.  Camdia was not a Free Person; she had just spent too much time around scientists who were usually free and very open in their thoughts around their equals and underlings.  Camdia would have to have a very good marriage contract to buy out her freedom or any children she produced.  She was smart, maybe smart enough for that type of marriage.  

Gods please do not let Camdia be harvested for her genetics, Lauranya prayed silently.  The world ships needed more upbeat and lively personalities.

Lauranya had a thought.  “Camdia, did you put the animals we were testing down?” Brilliant but not always focused was Camdia.

“Yes.” Camdia stopped for a second. “I’m pretty sure I got them all.” she amended.  “I was sad, they were just so cute.”  Camdia made a face.  “Would rather the ship have room to take them with us.  I would have loved to see how the stress levels of the flight affected their hormones for reproduction.”

Arianya took that moment to come running up to her mom, blond hair flying in the wind, wrapping her arms around mom’s knees.  Lauranya scooped up the wet child and blew zerberts on her tummy.  Arianya squealed in a high-pitched baby squeal of happiness.  Arianya planted a kiss on mommy’s cheek before squirming to be let down to splash and get wet.

Lauranya gave a quick nibble to the neck and put her only daughter safely back on her bare feet.  No sense in getting her soft leather shoes wet.  Lauranya thought of how she might be able to trade the shoes for something of value on the ships.  Leather was as rare as fresh water.  She reached a hand out to the slight splatter of rain, licking the fresh water from her hand, sweet and free of chemical traces.  A rarity on ship.  

She should be able to sell the shoes and the shirt for either food or medicine, possibly even amnesty if things got very bad at the next assigned world or ship.  Overseers had a tendency to take bribes and gifts made to the world Lord or the presiding ship’s God.  Lauranya sighed again at leaving so soon.  

Jacks and his two children waved at them through the shuttle port thick sliding glass doors.

“Looks like it’s time to move up.” Camdia said, sounding less than thrilled with a definite pout.

“Well the company will be good for the trip back.”  Lauranya gave the younger woman a quick hug.

Camdia gave her a sideways grin. “Bet you are glad Tine’s left on the second shuttle with the twins.  Will give you and the captain a chance for a quickie or two.”

“Camdia!”  Lauranya said.  The girl could not keep her thoughts to herself.

“What?  It’s no secret ya’ll were barely on speaking terms, or that he spoiled the boys.”

Lauranya pressed her lips together thinking of the twins, crossing her arms over her not quite ample chest.  “Yes, the boys were a bit rambunctious.”  

The boys had favored their father, and not just in their lovely dark luminous eyes or velvet dark skin.  They had become more demanding as if they were little Lords and not children of Free, a dangerous attitude for children on the ships before mental and physical evaluations. Lauranya, shook her head, Tine favored the boys too much.  Lauranya knew that culled for gladiatorial entertainment or to the tender mercy of the military was a real danger if they did not pass mental evaluations.  She could do nothing but pray for them.

“Luckily your contract only has two more years.” Camdia continued on blithely as she stood, brushing off her pants bottom.

“Or I give him another child.” Her voice was tinged with bitterness she could not quite hide.  Lauranya tapped a finger on the opposite arm in annoyance.  She took a deep breath trying for a measure of calm.

“He has to actually spend the night with you and not Masia.” Camdia said slyly over her shoulder with another quick smile.

“His body slave has no choice.  And if I slip the right word into his mother’s ear, the conception of another child will be that much faster.”  Lauranya looked away to hide the distaste for either action.

“Duty but no love.”  Camdia shuddered, hugging herself.  Camdia enjoyed the emotional upward spiral of love.  Very few of her lovers left angry or bitter when there was a parting of ways.

“Love costs too much.” Lauranya said sadly, her eyes distant for a moment.

Camdia shot her favorite boss a worried look, giving her a quick hug.  “I’m sorry I didn’t mean to bring up…”

“Camdia, please.  Stop.”  Lauranya sighed gently.  “Maison died a long time ago.  And his little brother knows he will never measure up to what I felt for him.  I can’t fault Tine for keeping time with Masia then with me, except when I am ovulating.”

“But still.” Camdia was working on her outrage.

“Stop.” Lauranya put up a hand to fend off Camdia’s next few words.  “We have a shuttle to catch and I have to arrange my notes for maximum effect.  I want a good placement next assignment, preferable without my overreaching husband and his family.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Camdia said hunching her shoulders, finally catching the hint, hunching her shoulders.

“Thank you.”  Lauranya smiled to take the sting out of her rebuke.  Camdia gathered up her leather sandals, heading inside with a swish to her generous hips. Lauranya had always been envious of the girl’s lush hips where her own were not nearly so generous.  

“The Gods gift everyone differently.” Lauranya said to herself with a smile.

She lingered outside for a moment more.  Arianya was soaked and splashing, her laughter infectious.  Lauranya knew that the next few weeks would be tortures for the child in the small space of the ship.  Lauranya smiled at her daughter, committing this moment to memory for her own pleasure later on.

Her pouch phone rang.

“Yes?”

“Time to come in Lauranya.”  The captain’s voice was warm and rich over the receiver.  Lauranya shivered.  Damn Camdia for pointing out the obvious.

“We will be there in 60 seconds.” Lauranya’s voice was throaty, breathless.

“Can’t wait.” The voice was almost like a physical touch.  Warm and lingering.  Lauranya looked at the small phone when it went dead.  

“He was purring at me.  Camdia, damn you.” Lauranya smiled at the phone only slightly vexed at her lab assistant.  Eight weeks and no privacy.  Luckily, exclusivity had not been part of the marriage contract, only genetic combination between her and Tine.  Maybe something nice would happen before she had to rejoin her husband.  Another good memory to add to her horded stash.

“Arie.”  Lauranya called to her splashing child.  The child looked up giggling from a particularly large set of waves in a small puddle, from her stomping.  “Time to go in.”

“No!  Want to play in the water.”  The child said with an out thrust chin.  Lauranya could feel her jaw tightening.  She had seen that stubborn look on her husband when he was losing an argument.  

“That’s nice dear but we have to go.  We’re off to see your brothers and father.” Lauranya kept her voice calm as she walked towards the child.

Arie seeing her freedom about to be curtailed took off towards their apartments to hide.  Ten steps and Lauranya had caught up with the small child, picking her up and putting her on a hip, walking back towards the shuttle pad.  Arie went stiff, howling in the unfairness of it all, trying to squirm her way out of her mother’s lean arms.

Arie was still howling and crying when the two of them arrived at the Lounge.  Everyone else, from adult to small child had a either wine or juice in hand with crackers.  Lauranya walked in, both wet and slightly embarrassed at her child’s behavior.

Jacks tried to give her a glass and Arianya a small juice box.  Lauranya smiled gratefully at her fellow research scientist, shifting Arianya to her other hip to accept.  This set Arianya into a second screaming fit with flailing legs and arms.  The child managed to kick the glass with her mother’s fuzzy drink up, into Lauranya’s face, and down the front of her cotton blouse.

“Damnit child!” Lauranya through clenched teeth, grasping the child tighter so she didn’t fall to the floor like the wine and juice box.  “I just started getting us somewhat dry!”

“”You’re both covered now.” Tass observed unhelpfully with a snide grin.  He of course was looking collected and well-coiffed with studied grace holding a wine cup.  The snide look was the usual for the tall willowy blond man.

“Yes thank you for pointing out the obvious, again, Tass.” Lauranya snapped at the other marine biologist.  There were a few soft chortles at his expense.  He glared around the room turning to see who was laughing at him.  Those who were above him didn’t hide their contempt, the others kept a straight face, knowing from experience it wouldn’t help sooth his petty ego.  He sneered at her before turning his back shunning her from his sight.  Lauranya rolled her eyes but grateful for his turned back.  She shuddered to think of what his attention would be like.

“You won’t be able to change for a few hours once we aboard the shuttle.” Camdia said from the side, twisting her hands together tightly.  She had had a few run in’s with Tass before, only Lauranya’s intervention had kept her from being whipped.  Aria’s howls were not diminishing, which caused Tass to smirk even more from the sideways tilt of his head.  Jacks’ youngest child, a tow haired little boy, took a few absorbent napkins from his dark skinned sister to hand to Lauranya.  She smiled at the children while juggling Ariany and drying herself off.

“Captain says we are leaving as soon as we finish off these four bottles and the snacks.”  Jacks said.  He edged Tass off to the side with two steps and a twisted hip inserted into their little cluster.  Jacks gave Lauranya a wink from his honey brown eyes, handing her a few more absorbent towels.  

“If only I had your skill at keeping idiots away.” Camdia muttered softly.

“Camdia!”  Lauranya hissed in shock, looking up from wiping herself off.

Jacks laughed.  “It’s all in the hips.” he said with a suggestive wink and wiggle of the aforementioned part. Camdia blushed hard looking down at the floor.  Jacks was a tease but the exclusivity of his marriage contract with major penalty for straying keeping Jacks suggesting but never follow through.  Both families were moderately successful.  The penalties for breach of contract on either side was job crushing punitive.

“And a few years of battle training.” Lauranya said with admonition, handing Jacks the sopping napkins. Lauranya did not mention his very exclusive marriage contract and harsh penalties written within.

“That too.” His grin was bright.  Tass would never be able to do anything to him or challenge him.  He had no fear of reprisal from the blond man who was slinking off glaring in a not so subtle fashion at the smaller but wiry dark man.  Jacks just grinned wider.

“Stop teasing the animals, Jacks.” Lauranya said softly.  “Not everyone has your immunity.”  She nodded to Camdia.  Jacks moued in disappointment for not being able to antagonize the other scientist but he did stop making eye contact.

“Damn.”  Lauranya sighed.  Her shirt was still damp and clinging, outlining her upper torso and lack of undergarments.  Hardly worth noticing, Lauranya thought dismissively of her own physique more worried about the shirt as the drink had started a spreading pink stain across her chest.  

“The shuttle boys haven’t loaded the luggage just yet.  Think I saw the bags downstairs.” Camdia said, bringing more napkins and taking the sodden ones Lauranya handed to her.

“I’ll get us changed and see if I can find her stuffed rabbit as well.” Lauranya said giving up on trying to dry the two of them off.  Arie was settling down to whimpers, laying her head on Lauranya’s shoulder.

“Might want a blanket as well for her.” Jacks said over his shoulder as his daughter brought him another cookie while she ducked a shy smile to Lauranya.

“Thank you!” Lauranya said with feeling as she moved through the door.  In her own rush, she would not have thought of that.  Shaking her head at her own lack of foresight, Lauranya moved quickly down the side stairs to stay out of the shuttle crew’s way.  They might need the wider passage hallways for last minute moving equipment from the labs onto the shuttle.

The inside landing area by the tarmac was still filled with their luggage.  Lauranya frowned.  There was no way they would be leaving in 15 minutes with all of the bags still unloaded.  

Lauranya sighed in annoyance.  “The edge of a foot may be how they plan to load our things.” Sometimes Overseers were useful, she thought, searching through the bags for hers and Arie’s.  Arianya’s bright green bag and her own yellow and maroon were visible among the other brightly colored bags.  Seeing the bags made her smile.  The vinyl bags had been presents from her family when the announcement came that she would be accompanying Tine on a very plum assignment.  She pulled the bags to the side of the curving stairs.  Again, she did not want to get in the crew’s way if they decided to load in the next five minutes.  No one needed more interruptions when the Gods gave a task, especially the menial tasks.

Arianya had stilled to just mostly unhappy whimpers, until she saw her bright green bag.  Then she was cooperative with helping momma move the bags to the side.  “Bunny?  May I have bunny now?” She asked, wiping tears from her red blotched cheeks.

Hearing none of the crew coming up or down the stairs, Lauranya stripped off her damp shirt and wiped down with a small cloth in her toiletry bag.  “Yes, love we can get your bunny but we need to get you out of your wet dress as well.” She said reaching for the small child’s wet hem.  “We cannot have bunny getting wet!”

She stripped Arianya from her dress without issue until the child started being wiped down.  “Blech!  Momma cold!”  Arie exclaimed with a pout, wrapping thin arms around her torso.

“Yes I know!”  Lauranya giggled at the imperative statement from her daughter.  “We would be warm and dry if you had not had the tantrum.”

“But rain is more fun.” Arie stated to her mom with the complete conviction of a child pronouncing a truth so obvious even a dense grown up should see what was in front of them.  “Don’t wanna go!”  Arie started to sniff as her eyes filled with tears, tears that welled up and fell more and more quickly down her baby cheeks.

Lauranya pulled the child close.  “Oh, baby.”  Lauranya rocked the crying child close to cuddle warm damp skin to warm skin.  Neither do I, my dear. Neither do I.”  Lauranya held the girl close trying to push back her own tears.  She swallowed hard looking over Arie’s head to the grey sky that was growing darker by the second, rocking back and forth to soothe both of them.  She swallowed again the bitter resentment and anger for their orders to leave.  “The Gods will.” she murmured the catechism all people of the Dead Gods learned in the cradle.

“They are wrong!” Arie said with a quivering lip looking up into her mother’s blue eyes that mirrored her own blue eyes.  

“Arianya, we never say that!”  Lauranya said with a gasp, pulling her close, looking furtively around to make sure no one heard her child’s blasphemy.

“But, they…”

“No.  We follow, they lead.  That is how it is.”  Lauranya said firmly.  Arie stuck out her chin but she knew from her mother’s tone there would be no winning this argument.  

“Can I have a cookie?” She wheedled instead.

Lauranya smiled indulgently at the shift in her child’s tone.  “If you stop kicking wine all over me, yes.”

“I can do that!” Arie hugged her bunny close, with a smile and mercurial change of temperament that only small children could do.

Lauranya took a deep breath for calm.  “Let’s get you dressed and you can play with Marion and Mia after we get into space.”  She said, reaching for the child’s things.

“Will we be floating?!” Arie asked.  The idea seemed to both excite and scare her.

“Yes.  For the next eight weeks you can hang upside down like a monkey and walk on the ceiling.”

“Oh!  That will be fun!”  Arie clapped delightedly, jumping from her mother’s lap to hop up and down excitedly.  “Bunny!  Don’t forget bunny.”  

Lauranya reached into the bag for the patchwork bunny, with its four eyes and six legs.  Arie hugged her favorite stuffed animal close.  Wrapping the foot long fluffy faux fur tail around her arm and chewing on the small-cupped leather ears.

“We must get dressed now dear and meet back up with the others and you have to be on your best behavior or the captain will ask that you be leashed to your seat.  

“I wouldn’t like that.”  Arie said looking up at her mother with a serious expression.

“No, probably not.  It would be rather boring.”

“Okay, let’s get clothing.”  Arie gave a long-suffering sigh.  Lauranya just managed to contain her own giggle, chewing on her lip in amusement.  Arie was usually trying to get out of her clothes, not into them.

Aria was swiftly dressed and Lauranya had a new top and bra in hand when she looked down to her skin, scratching.  She was itchy from where the wine had splashed through the shirt, touching skin.  Lauranya frowned taking a closer look.  This was not a normal reaction for her to wine.  Sticky, she could understand but a dermatological reaction was odd.  She would take a closer look once they were on the shuttle.  Until then she pushed the skin issue to the back of her mind, finishing dressing and rooting for the last minute comfort items either of them might need but would not be available for hours after takeoff.

Lauranya picked Arianya up onto a hip, the child clutching the bunny tightly, humming softly.  The humming made Lauranya smile.  “Glad to see someone having a good day now.”  She murmured into Arie’s soft hair.

Arie grinned up at her mother blowing kisses.  Lauranya blew kisses back carefully navigating the stairs, with one hand on the stonewalls, back up to the lounge.  They came into the main hallway, to the gold and scroll worked door without any further delays.  Lauranya pushed on it inward, the door sticking slightly before cracking open.  Lauranya frowned in annoyance.  The door had not stuck on their way in or out last time.  She pushed harder putting her hip and shoulder into the push.  The door swung free on what it was caught on, letting Lauranya into the room.

She stopped stunned at the scene and site before her.  Every man, woman, and child were collapsed on the floor or chairs.  Jacks was staring at the ceiling with foam at his mouth drying, clutching his youngest.  The towhead child was rigid in his arms.  His nails dug into his father’s biceps.  His daughter, with her large lovely eyes had tried to escape through the door.  It was her hand the door had stuck on as she had collapsed a few feet from the passageway with her hand outstretched on the carpet.  She had been inches from the door when the poison hit.  Camdi was on the floor. Her neck, hands and chest covered in tattered flesh and blood.  It looked like Camdi had tried to claw out her own throat.  Each person had died in pain and horror, with sphincters loosening at death’s onset.

Lauranya could not move.  The horror was overwhelming. Arie’s tugging on her sleeve and whimpering brought her out of her stunned daze.  

“Mommy, someone’s coming.”  Arie whimpered.  

Lauranya tried not to panic.  She clutched the child closer, stepping over the bodies of her friends and co-workers.  Lauranya moved to one of the couches next to a large multi paneled floor to ceiling window with a stunning view of the drowning lake.  There was just enough room for her and Arie with three feet to spare between the wall and the couch. She  dropped down behind it.  Luckily, no one had died behind here.  The one favor death had done for them.

She put her mouth to Aria’s ear.  “I need you to be very still and close your eyes till I say open them.  Can you do that baby?” she whispered

Arie’s eyes were huge, frightened but she nodded stuffing a fist in her mouth to chew on for comfort.

“Shhhh, shhhhh” Lauranya arranged them both on the floor with her back to the couch and Arie spooned against her stomach and an arm draped over the child with fingers just touching the window in an artful display.  Lauranya then shook her hair out over both their faces covering any telltale facial twitches.  The blanket crumpled over them as if they had collapsed looking out the window.  Arie still clutched her bunny.

“No momma! No hair!  It’s itchy!”

“Shhhh.  Just for a few minutes and we are playing the hiding game.  No noise and no movement.”  Lauranya whispered desperately, trying to convey the urgency to a four year old without scaring her.

“Is everyone else playing the hiding game too?”  Arie whispered back, snuggling close to the body warmth and comfort of her mother.

    “No dear.  They are playing the very still game.” Lauranya choked out the lie to her very young child.

    “Oh!  I can do that.” Arie whispered back excitedly.  She loved games and loved getting treats after games that she did well at.  Arie went very still closing her eyes.  

Lauranya combed her hair back over them as voices came from just outside the room.  The door opened, with a shush over the carpet.  She tensed up then relaxed.  Using the same technique for when sex with Tine was especially bad, slowing her thoughts and concentrating on slow shallow breathing.  Footsteps could be heard.  Several sets of footsteps into the room.  Lauranya opened her eyes to a slit, peeking through her lashes.  

“All accounted for captain.”  A twangy voice said somewhere on the other side of the couch.  Lauranya did not know which ship tech it was.  They had kept separate from the civilians and scientist.

“I know Jorgie.  I know.”  The captain’s voice was at the end of the couch.  Lauranya worked very hard not to breathe.

“She’s dead.  Just like the others.”  A different voice said from the captain’s right.  “Easier than most it looks like.”

“Doesn’t help Tiron.”  The captain’s voice sounded heavy.  “I found her to be…a delight.”

“Nope, but we can feed our own families now.  But…”

“But we have to beat the oncoming storm and deluge.” A deep breath sounded.  “Right.  Let’s move out.”  The captain’s tone took on the tone of command.  The death of 37 men, women and children brushed under the rug for the survival of his crew.

The door swooshed open again.  Lauranya lay still for another five minutes, her mind digesting the captain’s words and the horror of the room.  

Arie squirmed.  “Momma…I gotta potty!” she whispered urgently.

Lauranya nodded into the child’s hair.  “Ok dear. But we have to be very quiet still.”

She rose to her feet and crept to the door, cracking it just a hair.  Arie started her potty dance, with a little humming song that accompanied it.  Lauranya looked both ways quickly. No one about.  She grabbed the child’s hand and ran quickly to the bathroom, 3 doors down and across the hall, their feet barely whispering on the plush fiber carpet.

The bathrooms were huge, multi-tiered, with beige, and gold granite floors and seats, done with painted walls in vivid colors and gems.  A bathroom for the Gods and Lords, when visiting.  Lauranya felt only a mild twinge of guilt using this necessity instead of the plebeian one downstairs.  She took Arie to a bathroom counter with a child sized opening for her to sit on.  Lauranya started to help Arie with her panties, when the girl refused.

“I can do it!” Arie said emphatically.

“Ok, sweetie.  Please hurry though.”  Lauranya said in a soft voice. She left Arie sitting, turning back to the door, with an almost tiptoe gait.  She cracked the door a hair to listen if anyone was heading towards them.

Two shuttle crewmembers were roaming down the hallway to the reception room and the bodies.  Close enough for her to hear them.

“Thought the boss said 37 bodies?”

“He probably miscounted.” one voice said in a deeper baritone dismissively.  “Bodies ain’t his strong suite.”

“Blood ain’t his strong suite!” The other voice said derisively .

Both men laughed.

“Remember Thimas hanging from the post and how grey and swollen he was?  And Cap’t going “Oh my Gods!”  I thought he was going to puke then and there!”  Said baritone voice.  The men stopped walking to laugh in braying tones.  They were almost to the door, shadows on the carpet.

“I’ve never seen a more squeamish person in my life.  You’d think he’d never seen a game or been around the whipping stocks.”  The first voice with a derisive sniff.

Lauranya held her breath, whispering “Keep walking, damn it just keep walking by!”  Her luck ran out when baritone stopped laughing. “Gotta take a piss.  See you on the ship.”

“Durn, that’s the women’s.” The other voice said with apprehension.

“And do you see any round here?  Other than the dead ones?” Baritone asked with a sneer.  Lauranya imagined him curling a lip while saying that.

“Sick man. Just sick and wrong.”  The other voice just kept walking, passing by the bathroom door, as his ear bud started to beep.  A slight and younger man, in his mid-20’s. “Yes boss.  We’re doing the last round of scavenging now.”  A pause as the man passed out of sight but not hearing. “No sir we’ll be right there without dicking around.”

Baritone waived his friend off as he grabbed a drink from the water fountain.  Lauranya shut the door and stepped behind it with her back to the wall, slipping off a shoe.   Two things happened, the man with the baritone voice entered into the bathroom and Arie finished going to the potty.

“All done!” she sang out, wiping off and dropping the soiled toilet napkin down the waste hole.  She hopped down to find her mother.  The man stopped his forward momentum to stare at the blond child in front of him.

“What are you doing here sweetie?” Baritone asked in a soft happy voice, his hand had been reaching for the stolen Overseer’s asp on his hip but stopped, changing course mid action starting to reach for the little girl instead.  Arie froze looking up at him, like a small animal caught in the gaze of a large predator.  

Lauranya stepped forward, soft as a ghost whisp, from behind the door, to stand behind baritone while he was distracted with Arie.  She took the shoe, in her right hand, swinging it as hard as she could onto the sweet spot on the back of his head as hard as she could, driven by fear and fury.  The man hit the floor stunned, shaking his head, while groping ineffectual to his side for the asp.  Lauranya skipped to the other side of him, braced by a hand on the floor to kick him on the side of the head, with her shod foot, as hard as she could.

Arie started to scream.

“Arie quiet! Put your hands over your mouth!”  Lauranya snarled, fear making her harsh with her daughter, as she brought the shoe down on the stunned man even harder than the first time.

The child did stifle her sobs behind small chubby hands.  She watched her mother bludgeon and kick the much bigger man until he stopped moving.  

Lauranya came out of her fear and fury filled fugue when her shoe started to sink through crunching facial bones.  She backed up sobbing, dropping to her knees.  Arie ran to her wild-eyed mother.  Lauranya hugged the girl close the view of the destroyed face hidden from the child.  Lauranya rocked Arie back and forth on her knees, as much to comfort Arie as herself.  

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” She whispered repeatedly in Arie’s hair to no one in particular.

Arie pulled back for a moment.  “Mommy are you going to do that to anyone else?” She asked in a very quiet voice, her eyes filling with tears as she looked into her mother’s wild eyes.

Lauranya ran a hand over her face to scrub off the tears, giving one more sob.

“I hope not baby, but we aren’t safe here.”

Arie nodded solemnly, taking her mother’s hand in her own.  Lauranya squeezed the child’s hand but let go to approach the body cautiously.  She rifled through the pockets, belt, picking up the asp and communicator, and then ran to the sink to rinse of her shoe, and blood splattered hand.  There was nothing she could do for her clothing.

“Ok sweetie, stay with mommy.  We need to leave here without being seen and quickly.”  Lauranya walked back to the door, cracking it just a hair to check the hallway.  Clear.  Lauranya slipped out the door silently.

Arie was wide eyes and as scared but slipped out the door as quietly as her mother.  The hallway was empty.  Lauranya could not run with Arie in tow, but they did go at a very quick walk.  Lauranya kept looking over her shoulder trying not to run, as she desperately wanted to.  Arie struggled to keep up, running on short legs, whimpering at the quick pace but she didn’t stop.  Arie sensed stopping would be very bad; she tried to keep up still clutching her bunny tightly.  

Lauranya stopped at the end of the hallway before the main lobby area.  The marble floor and arched gleaming windowed lobby looked pristine belying the bodied 12 doors down. Lauranya heard the radio before the man.  Ten seconds between the voice and the man gave her the chance to grab Arie and duck behind one of the many large planters with wilting tropical vegetation.  She turned the volume down on the radio she had from the dead man.

His partner was in the hallway they had just vacated.  

“No boss.  I don’t know where he is.” Pause.  “I saw him heading into the women’s lavatory.” pause. “How the hells should I know?  Maybe he was changing his tampon!”  Pause.  “Soon as I find him he’s all yours!”  The crewmember snapped into his radio.  He was moving down the hall towards the bathrooms.

Lauranya picked up Arie and ran for the front door.  Arie clutched her mother’s neck in an almost choking grip.

“Rooms.  Have to hide!  Rooms are too easy.  Lab!  Lab was closed.  Can go there.”  Lauranya muttered to herself, running and panting through the whooshing opening doors across the water filled street. Her feet never slipped on the wet pavement even as she was hobbled by child around her neck and the street was ankle deep in runoff.  Fear giving her a sure footedness in the rain.

“Mommy, I’m hungry!”  Arie whispered into her mother’s ear.

“We’ll get something in a moment dear.”  Lauranya said ducking into the science building entryway to fumble with her passkey still attached to her pants belt loop.  

“Dr. Jhen had trade bars in his office.”  Arie said trying to be helpful.

Lauranya grimaced at the thought of the bars but Jhen had been fond of the overly sweet crumbly things.  She juggled the card and child to get the doors to open ignoring her daughter’s comments for a brief moment of necessary fumbling.

“Could I have one?  Do you think he would mind?”  Arie was trying to remember her manners.

Lauranya choked back a sob while swiping her card against the reader.  “No baby, I don’t think he will mind at all.”  The door lock showed grin, sliding open. The cold interior air whooshed out raising goosebumps on chilled wet skin.

Lauranya ducked into the tidy five-story complex moving to the stairs.  Just in case, she did not want a power signature of the lift giving her away.  She managed the two short flights without stumbling or loss of breath, trying to breathe through her nose so she could hear if anyone came through the lab’s front door instead of drowning out her hearing with loud panting.

Jhen’s office was on the third floor overlooking the lower valley.  Spacious and sparse, natural light, even on this cloudy day, filled the room enough Lauranya did not need to turn on the lights.  

Jhen had packed up most of his books and notes for the trip.  His studies always a benefit for his God so he had been given greater latitude than even most pampered scientists.  She had enjoyed the banter and discussions she could have with him, covering a large array of subjects.  He had seen her as a person and colleague, never “just Tine’s wife” who was a scientist on the side.

Lauranya swallowed, pushing down her grief, to search his office drawers for the bars.  The desk bars were cleaned out; however, he had forgotten two boxes worth of bars in a lower side shelf.  

 Lauranya smiled at the memory when he had 12 boxes there at one time,  Jhen had grown up a slave, only to win his freedom with his second scientific discovery.  Successful as he was he could not break the habit of having extra food as a just in case.  He would forget he had a box and would stash another there just in case. His need  needed to squirrel away the bars for at least two month supply, a gentle joke among his friends.  Everyone on the ships had his or her little quirks.  Jhen’s was safe compared to the quirks of a few Lauranya could think of off the top of her head.

Lauranya frowned then searched the other lower compartments.  She laughed aloud.  “Thank you Jhen and your fear of hunger!”  Three more boxes were still there.  “I wonder how many boxes he actually had on him when he packed.”

“Oh chocolate!” May I have chocolate please?”  Arie squealed in excitement, her hand inches from the bar before she remembered her manners, as she looked at her mother.

“Yes dear.” Lauranya gave Arie a bar, before she sat down on the sidewall leather couch.  She swallowed hard twice.  She had promised she would allow herself an indulgent crying session later but right now, she needed to plan.  

She looked out and saw the valley basin had already been swallowed by the center lake, swollen over its normal shore and ring of trees.  The trees were drowned with only the very crown branch tips on two or three of the very tallest now showing over the water surface, the remaining trees were just ripples in the newly formed lake.  She could see flashes of whiskered cats with glimpses of other animals, on the high grounds melting in and out of the brush.  A wave of panic threatened to engulf her.

“Breath! Breath!” she whispered to herself, clutching her knees to her stomach.  Burying her head into her knees, taking deep breaths, trying not to panic.  A child hiding under the blankets from the monsters in the room.

Arie was happily munching on her travel bar, going to the cabinet the doc had stocked with interesting things for his children and their friends.  She found the Doctor’s plastic loc-n-stack set.  She pulled them out, after licking her fingers clean, to play with, burbling happily to herself.

Lauranya rocked back and forth muttering quietly.  “Cannot go to the hills.  Everything will be moving to high ground.  A boat? Not certified on the current models.  Storms are too severe to chance the inexperienced to… That leaves the building or a platform of some sort.” Her mind running in circles when the stat phone on her hip squawked, jolting her out of her circular panicked thinking.

“Dr. Lauranya, I know you can hear me.  Respond.”  The captain’s voice came over the phone, urgent yet calm.

Her hands shaking, Lauranya switched on the voice, no video, looking fiercely into the blank screen.

“Why?” her voice shook with fear and rage.

“Why?”  The captain repeated, clearly not expecting this singular question.

“Why were….why did you have to kill everyone?  We will be missed.  You can’t think no one will ask questions.” Her voice was hoarse from the force being used to speak through unshed tears.

“Orders were to drop the scientist off at whatever port we made and arrangements would be made from there to their next travel destination.  The escaped slaves are closing in on this quadrant.  Every ship for itself.  If there were no drop offs, there would be no questions and no red tape.  You will be missed in a few months or years, maybe, but not until we’ve had time to clear out.

Lauranya laid her head back on her knees.  Truth.  They would not be missed for a long time.  A thought wove through her brain to her mouth.

“The others?  My husband?  My sons?”

There was a long pause before the captain’s voice came back.  “The other captains were dumping all their passengers into space once the thermosphere had been hit.”  His voice was emotionless.  “No one is coming back to this planet till the water levels are stabilized or before those bodies would have fallen back to the earth and burned in the atmosphere.”

A sob escaped from her.

The captain heard this small muffled sound, taking pity. “Doc…Lauranya, I am truly sorry.  I…didn’t want you to learn this…from me.  We…”  A heavy sigh.  “I thought the poison would be an easier death than implosion.”

Lauranya’s hand shook on the phone.  “Why?”  She cleared her throat from the clenching tightness.  “Why did you have to kill all of us?  What did we ever do to you?!” She whispered glaring at the phone as if he could see her through the blacked out screen.

“Will you come to the ship?” the captain asked, avoiding the question.

“No!”

“There is a critical shortage of food on the outer colonies and sub ships.  What we make is sent to the main ship worlds with little left for most of our families.  Wives, husbands, children starving to feed the Dead Gods.”

Lauranya made the connection.  The pilots and their crew needed food and medicines from this failed colony.  Everything and everyone else was a liability.  Stolen to start fresh away from the Dead Gods, their freedom for everyone else’s lives.  

“So you stole the food and medicine for yourselves.”

“And our families.”

“Our families don’t count did they?” Her bitterness bled through the fear. “Babalauye curse you!  I hope you like the taste of blood!” Lauranya hissed the old curse at the Captain, switching of the stat phone with a savage twist the knob.  She pulled her knees up to her chin hugging them close sobbing softly at her losses.

 

“Should we go find her?” the second mate asked.  He was worried.  Loose ends had a way of biting people in the ass.

“No matter how beautiful and well-made a coffin might look, it will not make anyone wish for death.  Especially not a scientist.”  The captain chewed his lower lip.  “How long till the water reaches the buildings?”

“Three weeks or so.” Came the pilot’s answer, the handcuffs around smooth dark skinned wrist to the controls, rattled softly as she tried to gesture with chained hands.  Her eyes were dark and wide.  She hadn’t been agreeable to the killing, but they had needed her to get the shuttle off the ground, so she had been chained to the controls till take off.  

“Think she’ll survive moving to higher ground?” the second mate asked.

“With those damn long whiskered cats or the sun spiders?  Pfft.” The pilot didn’t hide her scorn for the second mate’s comment.  She didn’t try to duck his blistering backhand that caught her across the cheek and nose.  She gave him a sneering glare through the tears, while touching the tip of her tongue to the blood dripping from her nose.  

“You hit like a pussy.”  She said softly, with a curl to her lip.  The second mate was breathing hard at the physical outburst.  He raised his hand for another blow when the captain caught his wrist.  

“Stop.” His voice was calm but he turned his hooded eyes to the pilot. “That is what I was thinking.” His comment was on the doctor.  He shook his head.  “No, we’ll leave her and let the world do our killing and burying.  We have our own families to pick up.  This world can hide one or two  more bodies.  Start the flight check.”  He released his second in command wrist with a look the smaller man couldn’t meet.

He grabbed the pilot by the back of her neck, digging fingers into her skin, bruisingly.  “Do not piss me off any more.  I need a pilot, but we have lots of time to learn how to do this without you before we get to our first destination.  Understand?”  His voice was cold velvet with controlled violence underneath.

“Yes sir!”  The woman swallowed hard.

“Good.”  He nodded walking out of the cockpit.  “Release her once we are in space, Nori.  And don’t take your bruised ego out on her.”

“Yes sir!” came the second’s snarled reply.

“Good luck to you doc.  May your death be easy.” the captain whispered, as he went to check on the rest of his crew, the only blessing he knew to give to the doomed scientist.