Walsh Estate Winery
Dad is not gonna like this.
I thought that over and over in my head since we left Jaruka’s camp. I wished we had some control, some choice. How long could I handle one annoying beat after another from Jaruka?
“Yeah… Yeah,” Scott said on his phone as he drove past the winery’s gates. “Good. All three with you?…Good. Thanks, Deryl.” He hung up and said to me, “They agreed. He can spare three of his men tonight and will call Temecula Police for more. Jonathan’s going to have a fit.”
“Yep,” I droned.
“Is there a problem, Ms. Walsh?” Shaotzi asked me. She sat on the middle bench seat behind Scott, far from the side door. Each time I looked back at her since we left, she kept her legs crossed, hands folded, and that super long decorated dreadlock draped over her lap. It was surreal she was with us. She was Jaruka’s sister, a complete one-eighty of the guy, and dressed well.
“Just for security. This is all last minute for us,” Scott answered. “Taking you both to a hotel wasn’t planned out.”
Shaotzi didn’t answer and continued looking out the window.
I turned a little more in my seat to check on Amber. “You sure you’re comfortable?”
The middle bench seat doesn’t recline. Amber had to brace herself in the back, arms and hands pressed to the corners of the roof and shoving her lower half against the back door to not bang around on turns and bumps on the road. She expressed some frustration.
“Still fine,” she said. “I’ve dealt with worse in ship access hatches than this.”
“Okay,” I said, but I blinked a few times and turned back to the front. Anytime looking at her and not seeing her and Jaruka… together in my mind, it made me taste vomit. Just… how?! And why?!
Scott stopped the van at the warehouse’s parking lot, but we didn’t leave yet. Behind us, the black van stopped beside us and four people came out. Deryl came up to Scott’s window as he lowered it.
“Stay inside until it’s secure,” Deryl said before leaving and calling out, “Marcus. Henson. Check the south and east corners. Grayson, help me lock the gate before you check the west.” All four of them walked away to do their tasks in the sunset.
Scott turned in his seat to face the aliens. “So, uh, like the view?”
Amber was now resting on the bench seatback. “It looks stunning,” she said. “Better than staring at stars and bulkheads for months. And those lanes are all fruit bushes, you said?”
“Grapevines,” I said. “They’re just starting to grow grapes for our wine.”
Amber cooed. “That explains Jaruka’s shirt stains.”
My body tensed a little. “And what do you think, Shaotzi?” I asked her. Her name came out of me over-pronouncing the o. “Sorry.”
Since we left camp, she kept looking out the window with a stern face. Quiet and proper, just getting used to a new world, I suppose. She was watching the agents do their job before looking toward me. “The similarities are uncanny.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“This land reminds me of home. Without the sea close by. Your family’s creation?”
I nodded. “Yes. I’m third generation.”
Shatozi hummed and said, “Nice to know some species appreciate nature’s bounty.”
We’ve known Jaruka long enough to tolerate his blunt comments and self-centeredness, yet I kept reminding myself this was not Jaruka. Was it that I mispronounced her name wrong she said that? It’s hard to tell because, at the same time, I tried my best to respect her.
So, I managed to say, “Um, thank you, Do you mind if…”
A knock from my door’s window interrupted me before I finished. Deryl stood there and I let him open the door. “All good and secure,” he said. “You all can go in.”
We left the van but Amber was let out through the back doors. She walked out without tripping her four legs, then she stretched her centaur-ish body. Lieutenant Manis Wringheart from Brill’s ship reminded me of her. Standing straight, she was a few inches higher than me. What little light we had, I could pick out some fox bits like her head and uncovered fur pattern, but some raccoon bits on her tail and feet. Or paws. Or… something.
Like clockwork, my parents came out from the front door. Dad stomped toward us.
“I told you all you can’t do this, you’re scaring off customers,” he yelled. “Put them in a hotel. Just not here!”
Deryl got between him and us. “You think I tried? Not even the casino wants them.”
Mom stayed back on the porch. I noticed her react to the aliens and cover her mouth. Which one she was reacting to, I wouldn’t know. I glanced at Amber as she grimaced from Dad’s outburst.
“Dad, we did this before with Xi’Tra,” I said. “That trashed ship is locked and Jaruka’s not having it tonight. This is the best we can do.”
“We had hoards of crazies squat outside the gates when that sonic boom hit. We can’t take this anymore.” The blood vessel on his forehead started bulging.
I could handle Scott and Jaruka, but calming Dad down? I felt smaller against him. Using magic to diffuse emotions was a line I would never cross with him.
Then Shaotzi’s ornate clothing occupied my sight. I stumbled back from the surprise. She stood a foot away from Dad, looking down at him. He too was shaken up with the same look I had if it was Jaruka as he stepped back a little.
“Mr. Walsh, I presume?” She asked, clasping her hands. “My sincere apologies, sir, for this abrupt visit. It’s not my place to be trapped in family squabbles. You might see me as a threat but I assure you, I’m not like my little brother. He said we could stay for the night. Although, with him being agitated by me and my co-traveler,” she nudged her head at Amber, already sitting on the grass with her animal half, “I’d be best to give him some space.”
Amber waved at Dad. “And the dropship is trashed to shit,” she added.
“That too,” Shaotzi said. “Anyway, rest assured, Mr. Walsh, we will not bring any annoyance to you or your family. No more, no less. Tomorrow, once she has a plan ready, we will return to the camp to get things sorted out.” Shatozi then pulled out an object from her dress pocket and held it to Dad in both hands. “Please accept this token of gratitude and goodwill from my people to yours.”
I had to lift on my toes to see it. Her hands were above her waist, holding a two-inch-wide wooden hexagon coin. The light brown wood had a charred etching design, some alien animal behind a circle if recall. The sunlight was fading so it was difficult to get a better look at it.
“Uh…” Dad was finding words before saying, “Wait, Jaruka has family?”
“His privacy is sacred to him, and me.”
Dad was apprehensive of the gift, looking between it and Shaotzi. He then took a second to accept the object. “Uh… thanks.”
Shaotzi smiled a little.
Mom soon approached us. “He never mentioned anything about his family. Did he, Katie?” She said.
I shook my head. Scott did too.
“We have some… reservations talking about our lives,” Shaotzi said.
Dad pocketed the token. “Well. I suppose if you’re not like him, we’ll let this happen. Not sure about you. What’s your name?”
Amber approached them. “Amber Diremoon of Nova Company. I’m part of the ship maintenance division.”
“Oh, that’s interesting. I’m guessing you’re a friend of hers?”
“More like Jaruka’s ex-girlfriend, but yeah. So nice to meet you both.” She said smiling.
My parents quickly went slack-jawed staring at Amber and I felt blood flush from my face. Dad looked at Amber’s bottom half, then back to the top, and a few more times. I noticed Amber realizing what she said and clapped her hands and said, “Sooo, lovely place you have here. Oh, are those your pets?” Amber pointed toward the house.
Wings flapped and heavy panting came from the front door. Arana flew over us, turned, then perched herself on top of the front lawn’s Wave crystal. Keeji whirled around us saying, “Newcomers, newcomers!” just as Scott groaned from his totem’s playfulness.
“Oh, they can talk,” Amber said. “Are they some science experiment or something?”
“Certainly not, miss,” Arana said. “It’s quite complicated if you never read what’s happened.”
“Geez, formal much?” Amber then yelped as Keeji pranced in front of her. She laughed and scratched the back of Keeji’s ears. “This one's friendly.”
Amber scoffed, then turned to Shaotzi. “Regardless, it’s an honor to have you both. First time we’ve seen honor shown from a species such as yours.”
Shaotzi tilted her head for a second. “So these are the totems I heard about.”
Shaotzi went back looking at the totems with a hum. “Interesting.”
So fast forward from that awkward meeting, Mom and Dad allowed them in the house. It was also dinner time for us, but the aliens declined to join. Both had immunity nanite injections recently and were still acclimating to the planet’s ecosystem. Amber calculated it’ll take until sunrise tomorrow to finish the calibration, so in the meantime, they ate freeze-dried food packs they traveled with. They asked for distilled hot water to reconstitute and eat them without speaking with us.
Still haven’t seen Robert come out of his room. Mom said he’s still having jet lag from the trip. Odd. Jacob on the other hand refused to meet the aliens. Understandable.
Deryl finished setting up security around the winery. The tree agents set their spots and had four local police officers rotate them for coffee breaks. They didn’t interfere with our as Deryl promised, something we're familiar with already. Deryl couldn’t stay for dinner, he had to get back to his family in Corona to rest.
For sleeping. Amber chose the large living room couch. With her whole body outstretched, the couch fit her length. Then she brought out a tablet computer to start her research and planning for tomorrow. For Shaotzi, that was an odd one. She opted to sleep outside under the stars. We tried offering Scott’s room once we got it cleaned up, but she refrained. Us and the agents told her it was a bad idea, but she was adamant and told us she has a personal shield device strapped to her upper right arm, the same make as Jaruka’s. With the lounge chair set at the fire pit lit, she was satisfied.
After dinner, Scott tapped on my shoulder before I went into my room. “Yeah, honey?” I asked.
“Remember what I said this morning?” He asked me.
I didn’t hesitate to remember. “Oh. Ohhhh…” I said with wide eyes. “Dad’s birthday.”
Scott nodded. “You trust me going out?”
He wasn’t talking about my Dad, but his. Every time his parent’s birthdays or a holiday comes up, he drives to the cemetery across from the airbase to visit their graves. Sometimes I go with him, but he prefers to go alone. It would be the first visit since last Thanksgiving.
I took his hand. “Want me to come with his time?”
Scott exhaled. “I think I’ll be alright,” he said. “I’ll have Keeji with me, and I feel my heart full. I gave the caretaker a heads up.”
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s do one more heart scan to be sure and brush up on your casting. Just in case.”
“Yeah,” he said and he joined me in my bedroom.
“Consider yourself fortunate, Jaruka. Any longer alone and you wouldn’t last beyond two full moons. Cholesterol is too high, your liver is almost poisoned, and you lack any necessary nutrition. By the gods, ration packs aren’t meant for casual meals, you know.”
He didn’t have to banter on about my health results, it was all background noise to me. That’s Domoja for you. Still looking out for my well-being. Bio-scans was a tedious task.
After I showered in the first hot shower in months, then put on a new shirt and shorts from the closet, I came out of the bathroom and something hit my head to make me yelp. “Just like first-year,” Domoja said. The object pinged on the floor and rolled to a stop, a silver coin from his homeworld.
I sighed and said, “Nothing about it is news for me.”
“You were ecstatic seeing the ship, but brushing off your health?”
“Not like that.”
Domoja scoffed and said, “This is worse, pupil. Killing yourself won’t solve nothing.”
Domoja sighed and set his touchpad on the dining alcove table. As the sunset, the ship’s lights kept the ship’s interior details lit, from the hull to the brushed metal walls. The bright white lights were too much for me. I told myself to change them in the future. “Say it.”
“Say what?” I asked.
“To stop eating ration packs,” he answered.
I said nothing. He took that as my answer and turned to the kitchen counter.
He had a small metal cauldron on the induction stove, the potion simmered for the last half hour. The air smelled sweet as he did my physical. He added a few more ingredients and stirred it with a wooden ladle as he stood on a pull-out bar stool.
“If I didn’t know better, you were ruining yourself just for a detox,” Domoja said.
I stood by him. “Truth doesn’t matter. I know the ending and you do too.”
Domoja stopped stirring and looked up at me. His big ears lowered a little. “The Jaruka I know never gave up and solved his way out of problems. Always looking for a way out.” He set the ladle down. “Even from an afternoon lecture.”
“Spare me,” I said. “Is the potion ready?”
Domoja turned off the stove. He then closed his eyes, raised his fingers above the potion, spoke in his ancient arcane language, and a cold gust penetrated the potion. The steam disappeared and the boil ceased. I felt a cold breeze on my arms, enough to wince from the ice magic.
“Alright,” he said, “now just…”
I snatched the cold cauldron with both hands and gulped the entire potion.
“Drink one cup every thirty minutes,” Domoja finished.
Ration packs are hazardous to anybody’s health. Full of salt, too many preservatives then nutrients, and can gum up everything. I had no choice. Drinking Walsh wine was the exception, yet I still refused to eat the local food. Faldegan rejuvenation potion is the closest to a nutrient-dense stab in the heart and plumbing cleaner that I can tolerate. All the known vegetables from his planet were macerated into a vitamin-rich soup and infused with Feldeg healing herbs, plus three percent alcohol and citrus juice to take the edge off.
I guzzled an equivalent of six doses in one action. It still smelled sweet, but it tasted woody and bitter.
I finished and set the cauldron on the table. I breathed. In an instant, I felt the effects without digesting for an hour. The potion is fast-acting, no need to wait for an hour. I felt an intense convulsion in my stomach and spine as I fell over. There was no reason to resist, I let the potion do its work. I was aware of it all, feeling my muscles constrict and relax over and over. My breathing turned erratic. Pain cascaded throughout my body, and then a euphoric sense of relief. Ever made love to a Vesto callgirl? Something like that.
The convulsions ceased all at once as I breathed heavy. I turned over and stood up on my knees. I set my hand on the counter, hanging on as I got my breath under control. “Goddess, what a rush,” I said coughing.
Then I felt my insides twist and gurgle out loud. “Shit,” I said, literally, and then ran to my new ship’s bathroom.
I’ll spare you the details of what went down, but I felt more clear-headed and pain-free than ever in years after expelling every toxin and preservative in my body. In the bathroom mirror, my skin gained a darker, healthier green hue and felt stronger for the first time in a Creos year.
I came out several minutes later to find Domoja back at the kitchen alcove. He was still reading my health report from his touchpad, unfazed from the profanity and barfing I’d done. “Seriously? Two packs a day?”
I shrugged, then said, “Thank you.”
He smiled. “It’s the least a good friend can do. Besides, I got some real food for you this time.”
I checked the table. Domoja had two recognizable wrapped bundles in white paper and a metal pitcher beside them. “You didn’t?” I said.
Domoja nodded with a sly smile.
“How did customs miss them?”
“I assured them that no crumb or drop will escape this ship. Told them it’s for medical healing, for you. I knew you wouldn’t say no to the family recipe.”
I laughed. “No sir, I wouldn’t.” I sat across from him and unwrapped my bundle.
It would be best to describe in detail what I held and confuse human readers with the pronunciations, but think of it as a vegetarian street Italian sandwich with more vegetables than a Cobb salad, paired with Domoja’s wife’s blood gourd pudding. The vegetable, not actual blood.
The pitcher was from his homeworld too. Homemade zuku ale. Domoja poured me and himself a glass of the deep yellow brew. “Now, enough with the medical stuff,” he said. “Let’s catch up like proper friends.”
We went on for hours, talking about anything but this planet. It’s what I wanted. Any chance to forget about my situation was worthwhile. Having Domoja by me to speak with is better than wasting away in depression.
I’ve known Domoja as long as I left Viro the first time. At the Capitol Academy on Creos, he was my paramagic professor. It’s the study of magical genealogy and evolution. Think of it as analyzing which fireball spell came from which magic system and species. Mostly used for criminal cases and descendant research, I think. But Domoja was not just a professor. He was a friend, a war buddy, my third father figure. We had each other's backs, but he held mine the most when my people increased the pressure on my well-being.
Here’s why I asked him specifically to come to Terra Firma.
Years ago, we were drafted to fight the Goomash Raid, the largest, bloodiest, and most damning GMT event the galaxy ever witnessed. It nearly wiped the Galmadesh species, the victims in that psycho dictator’s magic-science experiment, to near extinction. While I killed and maimed the GMTs on the frontlines, he was part of the team developing treatments to reverse the experiment on a massive scale.
GMTs are nasty. Taboo and illegal across the Republic. People debate about it to exhaustion. The paramagic community gets obsessive with the morals and ethics of it, how it destroys societies and cultures. What could happen, what would happen at the worst possible level when artificial magic corrupts genetics and natural magic evolution and blah blah blah. I only worried about how many corpses it would produce to make me sick.
I lost track of time reminiscing on the past with Domoja to the point I was laughing so hard from his stories working with the D.E.M.
“And then,” he continued, “the captain’s son, bless his soul, went missing in the bunker.”
“Oh, shit!” I said.
“And we had seconds on the countdown timer. Seconds, pupil! Taric aborted the ritual at the half-second mark.”
I almost spit my ale out. “Did you find the little croger?”
“Oh, we found him,” Domoja said. “The captain found him fooling around with the Administrator’s daughter in the view box above ours!”
I let out a full-belly laugh, strong and hearty. I almost cried. Domoja laughed as well, albeit embarrassed still from the story. It was the first real laugh I had in a year.
“Oh, man,” I said in between laughing. “The prick got it coming.”
“I know! Imagine if the void spell went off. He’d be blind for the rest of his life.”
“Yeah. Blind-sighted by his glands.”
Domoja did a spit-take and laughed, pounding his fingers on the table. A good laugh. Years apart and we still connect. Domoja then took a puff from his wooden weed pipe. All the portholes were open to vent the charred smoke out. Yes, our translators were adjusted, thank you.
“D.E.M. has you busy these days,” I said.
“Indeed. We’re just finishing some void experiments for the Locacsans,” Domoja said, refilling his glass with the last of the ale. “By this time most of the younger ones are out on holiday.” He glanced at me. “I’d be performing the audit if The Hammer didn’t summon me.”
“Hey. I asked for you. I wasn’t sure you would agree.”
“A PCPA planet experiencing a potential GMT event? All classified? And you involved? How can I pass that up?”
“Your wife would,” I asked, then sipped my ale. The sandwiches were already down to crumbs on the wrappers.
“Ah. Stepbrothers and sisters are plenty, and my job is demanding. I came because of you, pupil.”
I nodded. “Again, thank you.” I set my glass down and glanced at him. “So tell me, oh professor of mine. What do you think?”
He took a puff then said, “About what?”
“The couple. This planet. Have you caught yourself up with everything? I’m sure Xi’Tra had you review everything before coming.”
He nodded. “All of it. Three passes.” He paused to set his pipe down and said, “the two we met are the real deal?”
“I feel it in my chest when they cast. It’s… something else.”
Domoja hummed. “With the videos, the audio, those memory recordings she saved, it’s hard to conclude what we're dealing with.”
“How so?” I asked, then leaned back in the alcove.
Domoja scratched his chin. “Genetic Magical Transformations are unstable. It rattles the mind and body to the point of self-destructing itself. Every event I researched has always resulted in violent outcomes.”
“Like the Goomash Raid.”
“Yes. The Goomash Raid,” he said nodding. “However, the Galmadesh was mentally controlled by the dictator. Everything I’ve researched about this, and don’t you dare quote me on this, on one spectrum, they look stable.”
I nodded slowly. “Too stable,” I said. “Independent.”
“And I can’t make any conclusion without hard evidence. If those two I’ve met are trustworthy, I might get the cleanest samples from this ever.”
“Their media outlets are praying for a cure,” I said. “I have my doubts. Some are spreading cactus oil for all I know.”
“The mutated are spreading the rumors?”
“No. Humans. The non-changed. The corrupt. Some get downright hypocritical and split politics. I try to stay out of that.”
“I bet you do,” Domoja said and finished his ale.
“The amount of wormshit I deal with, Professor, is criminal. Those idiots outside the shield dome. They believe I’m their holy savior or some ‘Satan’ character they bitch about. Bunch of primitive idiots to me.”
“Yeah, well. Primitive cultures love their echo chambers.”
I nodded. “You believe they’re stable?”
“I told you, I must study them before I make any conclusions, pupil,” Domoja said. “Unless you did the work for me to peer review.”
I leaned back. “Depends.”
“Depends on what?” His big right ear tilted up, clanking a few rings.
I finished the rest of my drink and set the glass on the table. “Come with me. You need to see this.”
We left the new ship and all its security. The sky’s stars twinkled, but the lights from the camps outside the dome faded the dimmer ones. Once Domoja came out of the rear hatch, I heard them chattering away, trying to get a good look at him.
“They seem eager,” Domoja said.
I opened the dropship’s rear hatch and guided him in before I gave the campers the finger. I entered next and closed the door behind me.
The lights came on automatically, to which Domoja exclaimed in a disgusted tone. “Jaruka, for real, your stubbornness is gonna kill you,” he said. “Learn how to clean up for yourself.”
The trash hasn’t changed since the other night. Some of the spit-out seeds rested at the bottom of a paper cup. See? I can be thoughtful.
“Not now,” I said. “Now hear me out. From anything me or Xi’Tra sent, did it mention anything concrete about terran magic?”
He set both his hands on his cane and placed it in front of him. “I recall limb regeneration, how they cast magic, and such. That ‘keystone’ part was interesting. You wrote that it’s too much to send without help.”
“Exactly. If you want to study this GMT event…” I started, then began pulling the long on the starboard side of the ship away. “Get a stiff drink.”
To visitors, the upper-right side of the dropship that used to be the fire extinguisher and several seats embedded in the detachable hull side doors became unrecognizable for months. Ten to twelve square feet of the surface was defaced in my research. I had three tables installed to work on, plus added these pegboards from the local hardware store with Scott’s financial help. There were paper drawings, printed photographs, ripped and pinned pages from Scott’s spellbook with my handwritten notes, articles translated from the planet’s internet, and notes in my handwriting no human could translate. Each was pinned and linked with colored twine for specific categories. Offensive, defensive, ritual, incantation, process, you crogging name it. Scott’s spellbook sat in the middle table, closed, free from my defacing long ago. I still couldn’t understand how or why the pages regenerate when I rip them out.
I turned to Domoja. He went from a curious professor to a stunned one. He walked through the trash, looking over each note on the walls and table. “By the Court,” he said.
“I couldn’t send anything more because I couldn’t understand what I was about to send,” I explained. “Every day, when I mentally can, I watch Katie practice and study from a far distance. The government’s weak translator did little to help me understand the magic. Domoja, I feel it. It scares the living hell out of me.”
“Feel? You can feel the magic?”
“Have you? Those big ears of yours are more tuned to the Aether than anyone here. You had to feel a single heartbeat from their chests.”
Domoja went back to the corner. He noticed the spellbook, still closed, bearing the symbolism of Scott’s heritage. “Pupil,” he said. “I wouldn’t lie if I did.”
Domoja turned to look dead in my eyes. “At the hangar talking to the general, I felt a small surge from the male. Scott, I think. I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t want to alarm anyone about it… but it felt…”
“Primal,” I finished for him.
Domoja looked on at the wall of research. “But this, pupil? This is the surviving scholar I know.” A wide grin formed.
I stood by, looking down at him. “If they look stable to you, then how come the basis and knowledge just appear in their heads and they can materialize that knowledge in a bone-breaking tome?” I pointed at the spellbook. “GMTs don’t have this level of magic without breaking reality itself. I think.”
“Wait, you’re talking about neural-material storage?”
“Hell if I know. I’m raised on theory, not practice. That’s why I needed a clogging expert. I needed you, professor.”
“Whatever.” I knelt to be at eye level with him. “I can’t trust anyone with this research but you. You dove into the Goomash Raid and help create the cure. You defended the cure even after what that maniac did to the Council’s trust. And you know the right experts to ask for.” A long shot if Denverbay more outsiders into this. “And I believe you can science the shit out of this and be satisfied by bedtime.”
Domoja whined. “I’m not that young anymore.”
“Doesn’t matter. This is a diamond mine in the middle of a pulsar level of danger for all of us.”
I stood up. My knees weren’t taking it. “I mean you had to know what Nova went through to rescue me, what we all found out and survived! Domoja, the Malcar’Ji are here. On Terra Firma. I may not have magical abilities, but I sure as hell don’t like why those soul-sucking demons are doing here.”
“Pupil, hold that thought,” he said with a raised wing. “We still don’t know if the Malcar’Ji is here. You and I know the Republic tracks them ruthlessly.”
My heart rate rose, I could feel my heart pounding on my rib cage when thinking back to Groom Lake, the rescue. That monster. To this day, the Malcar’Ji are a species once demonic are changing their ways. They are hand-breeding themselves to be non-soul-sucking because they are aware of their nature. They understood that their old ways were not survivable and took the effort—strong effort—to rewrite their DNA by time and by science. Griffon was different. The Malcar’Ji I know has different colored skins and a non-scythe limb from their back. Griffon was all black, the back limb bearing a bone scythe, and enough strength to rival a celestial demi-god. I described all this to Domoja.
“Lasers, fireballs, armor-piercing rounds, a shadowwalker’s necroblade, the Endeavour’s main plasma cannon. My crogging plasma rifle’s collective power! He pushed that slug away like it was nothing!” I exclaimed. “None of that put a dent in that thing’s hid. But terran magic tore through it like a laser sword against parchment. Explain that.”
Domoja was sitting on a crate, leaning over his cane as I share my story. Everything. He didn’t interject or debunk my assumptions. He drummed his fingers on his cane.
“P-Perhaps it was a fluke,” he said.
“Oh, come on.”
“I’m serious. There are plenty of species that imitate Malcar’Ji power and counter plasma fire. The government would know if it was one with solid evidence.”
I bit the inside of my left cheek. “Evidence, huh?”
I then went straight to my cot on the other side of the dropship. I leaned down to pull a wide case as big as me from under the cot, weighing not much of my plasma rifle hanging on the wall by the cockpit. I slid it on the floor to Domoja then unlocked the four latches.
“Oh, I got evidence,” I said and flipped the case’s lid. “Just haven’t had the heart to port it off this planet. You know, top-secret and all.”
Domoja gasped so hard he stood from his seat.
Inside the foam-covered interior was an object I wish I didn’t want but necessary to prove it all. A Reaper’s scythe. It shrunk since then, measuring a little under my height. The limb slightly curved but it turned fast with the bone scythe at the end. The whole appendage was white as ash. Anyone would see that and think “awesome glave, Jaruka,” but wouldn’t recognize where it came from or what back it blew off of from Scott’s charged mana.
Domoja approached it. “Is that…”
“Yes,” I finished. “Nova’s scavenging crew found it while cleaning up Groom Lake of their tech. I told them to hide it away from Denverbay and Brill, especially from the Councilman because I damn knew he’d have it destroyed.”
“You and governments,” he said. He laid his hand on it. “You’re not joking, right?”
I blinked. “Joking?”
“This is solid granite. It’s not as proof as a vocal account.”
“You saying I carved this alone for four months?” I asked.
“Of course not. Your art grades were shit. This came off a Reaper’s back?”
“Positive. This thing blew off its back and stabbed the earth a few feet from us. I sleep with a four-month-old fossil under my bed to remind me how close I was to death that day.”
He kept staring at the scythe-like a paramagic conspiracy theorist.
“Got a working camera and enough notebooks for me?” He asked.
I smiled saying, “Enough to scare off a sports fanatic.”
Domoja set his cane on a crate and smiled with a hunger for knowledge. He cracked his neck and said, “Show me what you got.”
It was the hardest, longest sleep so far. Working on the vineyard doesn’t compare to the last ghost hunt. The second my eyes opened, I thought, “Am I still in trouble?” over and over in my head.
I grabbed my phone from the nightstand. No new text messages since. The last reply was from Mom after I got home.
I checked social media. Every post from my friends and mutual friends and businesses shared the same meaningless stuff: random food pics, mundane life updates, a post from Gregory anticipating his day to be a terran to almost obsessive, and some people I still follow, yet uncomfortable to be friends with, talk about their cultish fervor to hate everything terran and magical. Alex and Frank haven’t posted stuff about me, yet or not. Or the ghost hunt. They both unfriended me. Shocker.
Jokes and memes made up the rest of the feeds.
The news was the same propaganda as every day. I found nothing from Louisiana about me or Tabitha or the plantation.
A pit in my stomach formed. Did Tabitha talk her sister out of calling the cops? What are Alex and Frank planning? Or not planning?
I rubbed my face and grumbled in frustration. No use going back to sleep at this point. Maybe some food could help.
I washed my face and found some clean sweatpants and a sweater in the closet. I left my phone in my room. I figured everybody was asleep, being so late at night. I snuck through the upstairs hall and down the stairs in the dark, making sure to not step on the third stair, then beelined to the kitchen.
In the fridge, a plate was left for me with my name on a sticky note from Mom. Chicken casserole with roasted potatoes and asparagus. I unwrapped it from the plastic wrap and nuked it for a couple minutes. I stopped it before I beeped done.
Then a loud snore from the living room spooked me, almost made me yell. “The hell?” Was that Dad on the couch again? I set my plate on the bartop and checked on him.
Good thing I didn’t scream afterward.
Draped over the entire couch was not Dad but a cross between a dog and raccoon with a humanoid torso as its head. Its four legs hovered off the couch’s edge as the body took up most of the cushions and the long tail laid on the right nightstand, flicking every few seconds. It was covered in orange and red fur thanks to the kitchen light. It wore a blue shirt and nothing else. On its raccoon or fox-like head, it wore a thick eye mask and earplugs. Papers with alien symbols lay about on the floor and the coffee table and an alien tablet device sat on its furry stomach, almost ready to slip off.
It snored again, louder and deeper.
Great. Another alien. Who did Jaruka bring this time? But I didn’t want to wake the think up and have my face ripped off by hidden claws.
I snuck back into the kitchen and turned off the lights. No disturbance from it, or her. Just before I grabbed my plate. I noticed a yellow flickering light through the window above the sink.
I looked outside. The firepit had stacked split logs with a modest fire. Two people were posted at the edge of the backyard and cabernet vineyard. Both men wore government agent suits. They appeared to be looking at the firepit, but my gut told me otherwise. I looked more and saw someone in a lounge chair facing the firepit.
“Fuck,” I whispered. What is that oaf drunk doing here? I thought. Better not be drinking the wine again.
Can’t have the fire pit going this late at night. The idiot might fall into it and burn himself. I sneaked out from the kitchen, opened and closed the patio door as quietly as I could, and walked up to Jaruka.
“Hey,” I said, quiet but loud enough. “What’s with the fire? You’re not supposed to-“
Jaruka turned and faced me. But it wasn’t Jaruka. He never wore bright clothes or a bright orange headband. Or had a thicker, longer dreadlock from the back of the base of her skull and laid over the chair and grass.
“Did I startle you?” she asked.
“Y-You’re not Jaruka.”
She hummed and said, “I get that a lot. You must be the son I heard of. Jacob, is it?”
I blinked and said, “R-Robert.”
“Ah yes. The ghost hunter. Must be tough exercising spirits these days.”
“Huh?” I asked, but it took a second to realize and said, “Oh no no no. I don’t do that stuff. I just look for them and get visual proof they exist. Just a hobby.”
She raised an eyebrow at me. The same move Jaruka would do. “Not a priest?”
I shook my head.
“Odd path to follow,” she said.
“Gotta have something to do besides bending wine,” I said. “So… who are you?”
“Shaotzi,” she said. “Shaotzi Arados.”
“And you’re here to… take Jaruka away?” A long shot but was hopeful this alien would grant my wish.
“No. My brother is staying put. You know, laws and all.”
That hope then took a figurative summersault in my brain. “Wait. Brother?”
Shaotzi nodded, and I had to restrain myself from cursing. This is Jaruka’s sister!? All this time, I thought he was a grumpy loaner, but this changes things. She didn’t act like him so I was pretty hopeful Shaotzi was nice throughout.
“Uh… mind if we talk a bit?” I asked her.
“I don’t see why not.”
I dragged the second lounge chair from the other side of the firepit. With a closer look at Shaotzi, she had some similarities to Jaruka. Her jawline was rounder than her brother’s, and maybe as tall as him. The long, thick dreadlock had jewelry and straps around it, ending with the loop wrapped with colored string, reminding me of a dreamcatcher without the central netting. I sat down a few feet from her.
“Jaruka’s sister. Wow,” I said. “Like you have no idea how big this is for me. I was sure that jerk was alone.”
“Please. Refrain from name-calling my little brother.”
“Sorry. It’s just…”
“Him being irritated with everything?” she interrupted me.
“In a way. He’s been treating me and my family poorly.”
“Expected. Jaruka may be as he is now, but he’s a decent person when he’s happy. That phase will fade, I promise that. I do apologize for his behavior toward you and your family. What little I heard must be exhausting for you all.
“I can write a book about it.”
“And nothing from it will surprise me.”
“I bet. And, really, he’s your little brother?” Some disbelief surfaced in me.
Shaotzi nodded. “About a minute younger than me. To this day he’s still annoyed by it.”
“Oh, like born together? Or some…weird…alien…baby thing?” The hand gestures I made were taking it a much worse turn and I should’ve stopped.
“You’re species are mammalian, right?”
“Yyyyyes.” I rested my hands.
“Same with us. Jaruka and I are twins so that’s why.”
“Oooooh, fraternal twins,” I figured out. She nodded. “That explains some similarities, except for that long dreadlock of yours.” A log cracked in the firepit, sending lit ash in the air before it burned itself out.
“First time meeting a twin?”
“Twins are rare. The Gordon brothers across the valley are the only twins I know. And who’s the one inside? Is she related or from the government?”
“Her? Neither. Amber is from Nova. That Vyrokan’s got baggage with Jaruka.”
“Like physical stuff or…”
I wanted to think about it, but Shaotzi said, “Don’t. You’ll see when you speak with her.”
“Right. I will. So why didn’t Jaruka mention you, or family, or anybody than Brill?”
Shaotzi gave a short nod and said, “Trust issues.”
“See, my family has had turbulent relations with my people for a long time. It wasn’t like that, what father said. We’ve been fortunate to be protected by separatists and sanctuary laws.”
“Halcunac monarchs are no more,” she said. “Strong laws of the world. Hard to explain for outsiders.”
“But is it we can’t know anything because my family and Scott aren’t trustworthy? Because it’s more like talking to a brick wall when any of us ask him questions.”
“To Jaruka, yes.”
I felt a ting in the back of my neck. “Do you trust us?”
“You’re farmers. Trust is already earned once you share your results tomorrow.”
“So a full wine tasting. We can do that.” I smiled. “So where does that leave you? What do you do?”
Shaotzi said, “I’m the family caretaker. What’s left of it.”
“Ah. It stresses you out that Jaruka’s here and not with you protecting the family?” I asked. So many questions out of my mouth I couldn’t stop.
She shook her head. “Him being here is safer than in space. Or on Viro.”
Tensions between family and the rest of his species? Are they at each other’s throats or something?
“Confused?” She asked.
I nodded and said, “A bit. So why do your people, I assume, hate Jaruka so much?”
“One step at a time, Mr. Walsh. It’s hard for me to explain it. Feelings, but also repeating the story is exhausting. Nowhere near the mood to say it. You will know eventually.”
I sighed. So much for that. “Sorry. Got another question. Nothing about the past. What’s with that dreadlock... or skindread? Is that just for the women?” I pointed at her long dreadlock on her lap.
“No. Every halcunac has an honor dread.”
“It’s our conduit for our power.”
I noticed my head tilt to the side.
Shaotzi’s eyes closed a little. “Jaruka never told you?”
She signed and said, “Best that I show you.” She then outstretched her right hand over the lawn by two feet. Her left hand rested on her honor dread. Nothing happened for several seconds until the dreadlock and her open hand glowed bright green.
I held my breath.
Shaotzi breathed slow, mouthed unrecognizable words. Her eyes were closed. Where her hand hovered, the ground began to glow in the shape of her four-fingered hand. Sounds of rocks scraping each other and low termers I heard came next. The end of her honor dread glowed brighter, and the center of the loop had a sphere of green light appear from nowhere. Its loop rose a little where it rested.
She turned her hand upward and lifted it as if straining to lift a dumbbell.
And the ground rose with it.
A wide column of rock and dirt rose beside the lounge chair by two feet, crowned with a thick patch of sod. Rocks stuck out everywhere. The grass grew also as if on steroids, then weeds and dandelion flowers grew from it.
Shaotzi opened her eyes and the glow from her hand and honor dread subsided and the sphere in the loop disappeared. She felt through the grass and weed leaves, then plucked one flower from it, sniffing it.
“This world is rich,” Shaotzi said, satisfied.
I swallowed. My mouth was open the whole time. I blinked and shook my head. I glanced at the guards in the backyard and they had the same expression as mine, mind blown. “Halcunas are magical!?”
She set the flower down on the grass. “I need to have a word with my brother on secrecy. Unless you have plans to exploit my power, there will be trouble.”
“No, no… this is fucking wild! How did you do it? Can Jaruka do the same thing?” I had so many more questions in my head that I couldn’t narrow down the good ones.
“Without the honor dread, it is impossible. He’s no different than a human with a pocket lighter. Halcunacs have a deep connection with nature itself. Our bodies and souls are intertwined with it. We commune with it and the planet’s sekdio to shape it, mold it, improve it. We have tribes with specialties that excel in their schools of discipline.”
A popular kid’s show came to mind I had the idea what she was talking about. “Each tribe controls their own element? Are there four of them?”
“Several more,” she answered.
“This power is what made the empire thrive for the Republic. We help bring life to dead and dying planets. Sometimes on worlds that had no life at all. Habitable worlds.”
“Jesus. You can terraform whole planets!”
Shaotzi nodded. “With the proper rituals and accompanying technology.” She paused before saying, “That is… until Jaruka was born. Things turned dire ever since. we have vague memories of the thriving empire.”
“What did he do?” I asked with grave concern.
She glanced at me from her magic-made dirt mound and said. “It’s what he didn’t do,” she said harshly. “And that needs trust to explain.”
“So… more dangerous than we assume.”
“He’s not,” she huffed. “You know nothing of our past to assume anything.”
I didn’t rebuke. Her voice had serious weight to it.
“Trust my words, Mr. Walsh. Jaruka is not bad. Our family is good. It’s everybody else that thinks wrongly,” she said. “And I’m tired.”
“Goodnight, Mr. Walsh.” Her words were sharp to me, putting me in a bad position. I felt small in the lounge chair. If I pursued any father on this, she might use her magic on me. I stood up, managing to say, “goodnight.” And walked back to the house.
But stupid me, I turned around and said, “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
Shaotzi swallowed before saying, “Apology accepted.” She then turned off the translator on her neck and spoke in her language, I assumed a lot of curse words because I recognized crog in there. Her hand and honor dread glowed again and she pushed the dirt nightstand back into the ground as if it and the overgrown weeds never existed.
Halcunas have magic. This’ll blow Katie’s mind in the morning, I thought.