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Books by Quantum Muse contributors and friends.
Outrunning the Storm

by Michele Dutcher
Against a Diamond

by Michele Dutcher
A Fisherman's Guide to Bottomdwellers

by Michele Dutcher
Louisville's Silent Guardians

by Michele Dutcher

The Parcel

by

Michele Dutcher



The Parcel

“I’ll take another SoCo down here,” said Alex while tapping the side of his empty glass with a straw.  The bartender – a well-educated man in his late 20s nodded slowly, shrugged, and leisurely strolled down the back of the bar towards him.  The bar was dark and dank, the kind of place a customer didn't want to wander into during the daytime, when the insects could be seen scattering when the door opened and the sunlight shown in briefly. It was the kind of place where a patron needed to let his eyes get accustomed to the dim light, and Alex's eyes had done exactly that five hours ago.  Both Alex and the bartender, Chadwick Monroe, knew Alex was drinking too much, but all he needed to be able to do was walk across the parking lot to his hotel room.  Alex liked to keep ‘stumble home close’ when he was drinking, so Shadwick let Alex slide this time – as he had a hundred times before.

The only points of light in the cave of a tavern were the lighted shelves behind the bartender and the holographic images of women dancing on almost every table. Alex looked up from his empty glass into the grey-green eyes of the barely legal girl dancing on the counter in front of him.  She had probably been dead for at least a decade; at least that was what he always assumed.  This was just a hologram, a computer memory of what a female had looked like 40 years ago – before the China Plan been adopted worldwide to cut down the ‘excess population’.  Alex tried to push the reality out of his mind, focusing on what a lovely hologram she was.

 

“Here’s your drink, Alex,” said the bartender, pushing his face through the tanned girl’s abdomen.  “Should I put it on Mr. Curlovic’s tab?”

 

“Yeah, Shadwick, that’s fine,” replied Alex, transferring his straw from one glass to another.

 

“I could put some food on his tab too, if you want a sandwich or something to soak up a little of that alcohol you’ve been drowning yourself with.”

 

Alex snickered a little as the girl seemed to lift a leg and twirl around Shadwick’s head.

 

“Yeah, Shadwick, okay. Get me a turkey club with a baker. That way I won’t have to eat breakfast tomorrow.”

 

“Club and a baker,” the bartender shouted through a hole in the wall to someone in the back.  He then threw a dishtowel over his left shoulder and got in close enough to his customer to whisper.  “You pickin’ up another parcel tomorrow?”

 

Alex took a deep swallow from his glass before answering. “No, no – I’m just checking something out for Mr. Curlovic, up behind the Wall.”

 

“Ain’t nothing like the real thing, though, huh Alex?” asked the man behind the bar, raising his eyebrows.

 

“I just transport, Shadwick – I never sample the goods, not ever.” Alex made a motion with his hands for Shadwick to step back a little. “Now, if you could just bring me my sandwich, I’ll get back to enjoying my view.”

 

Shadwick gave huff, stepped back, and chuckled.  “You know me, Alex. I don’t mean any harm.”

 

“Yeah, I know, you’re just ‘taking the tending out of bartending…’” said Alex.

 

“Now you’ve hurt my feelings,” replied Shadwick, laughing. “I’ll get your food.  It’s just that it’s been eight years since I’ve seen one in the flesh.”

 

“Yeah, I know Shad – no harm done.”  He went back to nursing his drink while looking up at those lovely tits that he’d never caress or suckle.  “I think I’ll call you Suzanne,” he mumbled to the vision towering over him.  As he glanced around the tavern at the four-dozen other men drinking at tables, he noticed that eight of them had also chosen Suzanne’s image. Unfortunately, as he was looking around he caught the attention of an old man sitting close to him, who must have believed that Alex wanted conversation.  He tried to be polite, but couldn’t help but cringe a little.

 

“I can remember when I was in grade school,” started the clean-shaven man.  “We had three girls for every classroom – let’s say thirty boys. We believed in the China Plan back then, thinking that people could mess around with the boy/girl ratio as much as we wanted and nothing bad would happen.” 

 

“Yeah, you’re right,” answered Alex quietly, hoping the man would just wonder away.

 

Instead the man took a deep breath and plowed into a narrative.  “Even when they started taxing couples who wanted to have a girl instead of a boy, well, most people wanted boys if they could only have one child, so nobody thought a lot about it.  When I was a teenager I noticed there were even fewer girls around, of course. But you’d still see women in their thirties and forties at the beach or something.  It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that it became obvious all the women were gone for all of us normal guys. Of course THE RICH people, who could afford to pay the government a fortune to have a girl didn’t care. THE RICH people had half-a-dozen kids apiece because they didn’t have to work for their money, they didn’t have to scrape and claw for a 10 by 10 foot room like a common criminal paying for a cell.”

 

The bartender was back with Alex’s sandwich and laid it down in front of his customer before putting both hands on the bar in front of the old man. “Max, you’re getting all worked up again about the rich people and the poor people…”

 

The old man was on his feet now, as if someone had pushed a button.  “The rich got all the money and all the women too.  It ain’t right I tell you! It ain’t right!”

 

Alex took a gun out of his jacket and laid it in front of him on the bar matter-of-factly.  He looked over at the old man.  “Max,” he said to the man, finally getting his attention. “Your name is Max, right?”

 

“Yeah, that’s my name,” he answered shivering.

 

“Well, Max, I’m going to put my gun away now but I want you to quit talking to me so I can eat my sandwich in peace.  Do you understand? Bartender, let me buy Max here a beer, and then you can take your beer and walk away. Okay?”

 

The old man quickly shook his head up and down, was handed a mug of draft by Shadwick, and walked away quickly carrying his beer.

 

“Sorry if he was bothering you,” said Shadwick, eyeing the gun on the bar.  Alex picked it up and put it back inside his jacket.  “He’s like 80 years old or something and his brain’s all ate up.”

 

“I know, but I’m just not in the mood for a history lesson.  Life sucks, we all know it – so what?  All I need is just one more run and I’ll be set for good.  Maybe I’ll get a little land, kick back, and catch fish…”

 

A stocky man in a cream-colored buttoned down shirt and a blazer began to whoop it up at a table across the room.  “Take it off, baby! Take it all off!” he hollered at the Suzanne dancing on his table.  By the time Alex had finished his eighth drink and left the bar, Suzanne had done exactly that. 

 

*****

Alex Luekin awoke in the gray-black of his motel room and struck his alarm clock into silence with one swift blow.  He had an hour before daylight so he needed to wash-up, dress, and leave.  No one shaved anymore, but Alex scissored his beard short, out of respect for the people he’d be meeting just after dawn. 

 

One hour later, at a daybreak that had finger-like red clouds reaching out from the horizon, Alex stood in an abandoned Circle K parking lot in front of a thirty-foot stone wall.  He knew the barrier wasn’t a physical object at all – rather it was an electronic force-field with a thin holographic image in front of it.  The deception helped to keep rats and dogs away from the enclosure, and it kept The English away as well.

 

Alex glanced at the bracelet he was wearing.  It would protect him as he stepped through the wall by negating the force-field. 

 

Quietly, a foot, then a leg, then a torso, and finally a face walked through The Wall into the grass speckled concrete parking lot. The man standing before him now was dressed in a dark blue suit with black-buttons on the coat, a white shirt, and a flat-topped straw hat.  His dark-blue pants were held up by suspenders.

 

“Happy morrow, English,” greeted the smiling man.  “May you find peace this day.”  He extended his hand in friendship, his coat sleeve pulling up enough for Alex to see the bracelet he was wearing.

 

Alex grasped the man’s offered hand and returned the greeting by saying, “And may you find peace as well.”

 

“Our shouter is on the other side, English.  I trust you won’t be put off by this formality,” advised the Elder.

 

“Not at all.  I am familiar with and will respect your ways and statues while behind The Wall.”

 

“Well then, English, follow me.” Having said this the Elder stepped back through the force-field and Alex followed.

 

As soon as Alex was through the barrier, a man in his early twenties began to shout, “English in the field.  English in the field.”

 

The early morning sunlight bounced off the mist hanging over the streams and pastures in front of the men.  The gently rolling hills seemed to go on forever.  The far Wall was too far away to be seen clearly, but Alex knew this was one large rectangular area.  A small group of community buildings, built of riverbed limestone was no more than a city block to the east.  It was hard for Alex to not think of distances in terms of city blocks since that was how his territory was marked off. The odd trio walked past two young boys scurrying from a barn up a hill to a house while carrying pails of fresh warm milk, steaming in the cool morning air.

 

“English in the field,” continued to be shouted by the young man in front as they marched briskly towards the public buildings.

 

A teen-age boy chopping wood averted his eyes, allowing his ax to drop from his hands as he rested for a moment.  He kept his back to the trio as they passed by.  Alex understood that this wasn’t meant to offend the outsider but rather to protect the inhabitants of the field.  He had been here three times before to pick up similar parcels and knew very well the etiquette involved in these infrequent visits.

 

As they stepped onto the cobblestone street leading to the closest and largest public structure, Alex noticed a feminine figure concealed in the shadows between two buildings. Alex knew she would be there if she could and he was silently glad to see her.  She would be sixty-three now – no, sixty-four. Having received the glance, the woman left quickly, kicking up dust on a dirt path leading towards the pastures.

 

“I shalt enter after thee,” said the Elder, motioning for Alex to enter the open doorway first.  He kicked the dust off his boots before going inside and the other man did the same.

 

The meeting house was a fifty-foot-long building with two rows of pews running horizontally from back to front, all facing a slightly raised platform in the front.  On the pew nearest the platform sat five men on a wooden pew wearing similar dark-blue suits and yellow-straw hats, all with beards, none with mustaches. 

 

One of the men, the largest one, rose to his feet when he saw Alex approaching.  “Welcome, English, we bid thee welcome.”  His voice was large and booming, a far cry from the stark surroundings.  “May He bless thine path.”

 

“And may he bless thy path as well,” answered Alex.

 

“Was thy journey without trouble?” asked Daniel, his bountiful body sitting back down onto the wooden pew.

 

“It was indeed,” answered Alex, taking a seat on a simple wooden chair in front of the simple men.

 

“I trust that Naomi and Sarah are both doing well,” said Daniel.

 

“I have seen that both are content with their husbands and their children,” Alex reassured him.

 

“It is then as I’ve been told,” answered Daniel firmly.  The large, bearded man Alex a deep breath.  “Noah, present the sister before us now.”

 

The man guarding the door stepped aside, allowing a woman – wearing a black wool cape and black felt bonnet– to enter the room.  Her face was veiled in a black material thin enough for her to see through, but heavy enough so her features could not be made out. She stood beside Alex’s chair, facing the committee.

 

“Sister, dost thou wish to go into the English with this man as your escort?” asked Daniel.

 

“I do so wish,” she responded without emotion, a special mesh within the veil covering her face altering her voice to make it abnormally high.

 

“And willst thou takest the man to whom you are brought as your husband?”

 

“I will,” said the modified voice beneath the veils.

 

“I will need, therefore, the recitation of her ancestry now,” said Alex formally.  “So I can affirm her linage as a woman of The Field.”

 

“The woman Alex a deep breath and began the well-practiced recitation.  “I am she who is the daughter of Jeremiah, granddaughter of Samuel, great-granddaughter of Simon son of Benjamin, who was a son of Jacob…”

 

“Sister, you may cease,” instructed Daniel.  “Five generations should be enough.”

 

“This recitation is acceptable and is in accordance with the genealogical information given my client by the Mennonite Society of Pennsylvania,” concurred Alex. 

 

Daniel turned towards an elder who was holding a writing tablet on his lap. “Let it be recorded in the book that this sister, being a proven child-bearer, yet being without benefit of marriage, has consented to go into the English, never to return to us. Let the book also show that credit of a pre-determined amount has been donated to The Field and its followers, in return for the lost services of the sister leaving us.”

 

“It is so recorded,” responded the elder-secretary.

 

“Alex turned towards the woman, drawing something from his pocket.  It was a small wooden box.  “Let it also be recorded that a ring of betrothal was placed upon the finger of the woman. This ring is a promise and will also monitor the sister’s movements amongst the English…for her protection.”

 

“It shall be so recorded,” responded Daniel, nodding to the Elder/secretary.

 

The woman opened the box and placed the diamond studded golden ring on her finger, under her robes.  She noted the thin green electronic band that ran around the top of the ring.

 

“May He That Rules above the Heavens and the Earth send his blessings upon you and this assembly,” said Alex rising formally.

 

“And may He bless thy travels as you take this woman – no longer a sister of the Field’s -  into her new life,” replied Daniel.

 

As the woman and Alex left the meetinghouse, they passed a flatbed truck loaded with iron tools and kitchen pots.  A crowd had already begun to gather around the objects, inspecting the items that would be auctioned off later in the day. 

 

Just beyond the community buildings, a dozen or more boys in straw hats and short pants held up by suspenders, sat on a split rail fence overlooking a pasture.  Seven horses were being fed a bale of hay down the hillside where the horses would be auctioned later.  The river mist drifted over the banks forming pools of fog under the trees.  The boys had their backs turned to Alex and the sister, as the morning sun filtered through their white cotton shirts and wispy blonde hair.  A few of the boys held leather bound books as they balanced on the fence rails, shouting about which horse they wished was theirs.

 

“You don’t have to do this, you know. At this moment you could go back. There’d be no harm done,” said Alex.

 

She stopped walking for a moment as if to consider it. “My husband has shunned me. I will go with thee.”

 

As she began walking forward again, Alex noticed her simple black boots were caked with mud, as well as the hem on the deep-purple cotton skirt that ended an inch above the ground.   

 

“Well then, take this bracelet and put it on.  It will protect you as we walk through the Wall.”

 

The woman did as instructed, hiding the bracelet beneath the black wool cape. As they approached the wall, coming to within four feet of it, they could see through it to the other side.  There were cars moving about in the parking lot and tall buildings.  Alex turned back for a moment to view the peacefulness of the fields and the rolling stream and the quaint boys. But the woman closed her eyes and walked through the wall without hesitation, waiting for him on the other side.

 

If the two could have heard and seen what was going on in The Field they had just left, they would have heard The Shouter calling out that the English had left the field.  They might also have seen a middle-aged man scowl as he stood beside a carriage, sneering at where the woman had disappeared through the wall. He looked with pride at his carriage’s fine leather seats, sturdy wheels, and obedient horse that patiently waited for him to climb aboard so they could head back to the farmhouse and a bale of hay. He took the leather reins into his weathered hands.

 

As the man in the carriage was driving away, one of the horses in the pasture broke free from the rest of the herd, running playfully about the pasture in the early morning sunshine. The boys all climbed down from the fence, joyously running after it to chase it down.  

 

 ****

The sunlight on the other side of the wall came from the same source as inside The Field, but everything else about the outside world was different to the woman.  Those behind the Wall could only see the modern world if they got close to it – which was strongly discouraged from childhood. The building outside were ten times as large as the whole of the Common buildings. These buildings seemed to be surrounded by a sea of dry creek bed stone.  Even the trees were perfect globes sitting on cylindrical trunks.  Most remarkable of all was Alex’s hover car floating nearby.  

 

 “Hast thou ridden in such a carriage before?” asked Alex, motioning to the car.

 

“Never,” answered the woman firmly.

 

“Well right this way, Sister. Although things will seem odd for a time, eventually you’ll get used to most of our ways.”  He walked over to the car sat down inside it.

 

“As you say,” she responded, walking over to the vehicle’s side and settling in on the seat as best she could.

 

Alex drove the vehicle towards a lighted tube that descended steeply into the concrete.  After a few seconds he put his hands on his lap, leaving the hovercar on automatic.

 

“It’s really quite safe,” Alex reassured his companion.  “Magnets in the tube push the car forward while instructions in the computer tell the skycar which way to go.  The vehicle can react much quicker to some obstruction, much quicker than I ever could.”

 

Alex thought it always was odd to be talking to a pyramid of black linen, but the other women he had transported all dressed exactly the same way.  The veils and robes protected the women from the lurid stares of men who might accidentally view them in passing.  The women, in turn, could view their new world inside a cocoon of relative safety.  The material worn over the face was closer to a tinted two-way mirror: she could see out but no one could see inside. Her voice was also disguised by the material. All of the travel conditions were okay with Alex, as long as he got paid upon delivery.

 

 “Willst we be at our destination soon?” the voice from the cocoon asked.

 

Alex relaxed a little, chuckling to himself. “Really, once we walk through the Atom Transporter we’ll be at the home of your betrothed almost instantaneously.”

 

“Atom Transport? Explain this word to me.”

 

“Well,” answered Alex, searching for the right words, “I guess an atom transport takes a person or thing apart atom by atom, and then puts them back together again someplace else.”

 

“No!” gasped the woman, her arms moving under the cape. 

 

“It doesn’t hurt and it’s perfectly safe. It cuts a whole day off the travel time,” Alex insisted.

 

“No!” the woman stated a second time.

 

The car slowed as Alex retook control of the vehicle.  “At least let me show you what one looks like.  It’s not scary – it’s like a glass box.”

 

“As you say,” said the small voice in the seat beside him.

 

Then the two were outside the tunnel, racing over the concrete.  Buildings came and went for perhaps sixty seconds before the car came to a stop outside a business where men were eating outside.  Alex got out and went to the other side to help his partner out of the floating vehicle.  He quickly led her inside to a portal where shimmering silver flights floated in an electronic field.

 

“See, all we do is tell it where we want to go and then step through and we’re there,” Alex smiled.

 

“No.”

 

“It will save a whole day of travel time,” he pleaded.

 

“No.”

 

“Okay,” he sighed, looking at the tiles on the floor.  “Have it your way.” He turned towards the hoverpads, walking through the door into the autumn morning with the woman following him.  Somehow he knew that under all that material, her hands were clenched tight with defiance.

 

****

 

Even in a hovercar it is possible to travel the tunnels from Madison Wisconsin to Lexington Kentucky within eight hours, ten hours tops…unless you have a passenger dragging their feet.  And the woman Alex was escorting was just such a passenger.

 

“We will eat now,” announced his parcel about two hours into the drive.

 

Alex waved his hand in front of a cube on the dashboard. “Just tell the computer what you want and it will synthesize whatever you ask for.”

 

“No,” said the woman bluntly.  “We will stop this wagon now and rest ourselves.”  She waited and Alex could tell she was poised for a fight, even through the layers of clothing.

 

He shrugged and retook control of the crystal handles in front of him.  “As you wish, my lady.  Computer, we need a close restaurant for a quiet dinner for two."  A map appeared with detailed instructions about how to get to a diner carefully chosen by a satellite orbiting in the heavens. Then they were out of the tunnels and into the open air, flying past trees and low buildings.

As they ate, Alex could tell the satellite had chosen well, the quiet couple being the only diners in sight.  Perhaps this venue had been chosen precisely for this reason.  In any case, he had placed his hand-laser on the table between them. “For your protection, my lady,” he had told her honestly.

 

The two ate in silence but the food was excellent and the dining room pleasing.  Alex couldn’t keep his eyes from wandering occasionally to a Transporter Portal in the hall leading to the kitchen.  He knew his parcel could see him looking at the time saver wistfully.  ‘Oh well’, he thought to himself, ‘within twenty-four hours I’ll be comfortably retired.’

 

“Perhaps you were right,” Alex offered diplomatically after the meal.  “This was much better than we could have gotten aboard the hovercar.  One good thing about traveling is indulging in exploring new places to eat.” He smiled and bowed slightly but received no more conformation of his statement than an extended hand.

 

“You may help me up,” said the voice below the robes.  Alex obediently took her calloused hand, helping her to her feet.  He could smell her soft scent and feel her fingers against his palm.  There was something overtly familiar about her hand in his.  What was it?  Perhaps it was merely a faint memory of what it felt like to touch a woman.  He knew she was watching his face from beneath those veils so he lowered his hand and his eyes. He stepped back allowing the lady to pass in front of him.

 

Six hours later the hovercar was south of Louisville when his passenger asked to stop for a while.  “Perhaps it is merely the motion,” the lady said quietly.

 

He re-took control of the vehicle. “This is a far cry from a horse and buggy.  We’ll stop for the night up here.  There’s a stopover about five minutes east of this exit.  I know the owner there – you’ll like her.”

 

“Her? I thought there were no women left in the lower class, at least that is what I was told.”

 

“Charlotte is unable to bear children, so she is not eligible for my clients.”

 

“Is she not at risk in the world of men?” asked the heap of cloth.

 

Alex couldn’t help but laugh.  “Charlotte can take care of herself. She once broke my finger, in fact.  That’s how we became friends.”

 

“What an odd world this is,” sighed the lady.

 

Suddenly the vehicle was outside the underground tube and flying away from the sunset. 

 

****

 

The stopover was a three-story structure with a lunchroom and bar combined.  There were a dozen sleeping rooms upstairs.  Alex seemed quite comfortable with the people who worked there. “One good thing about making these runs is the hotel food while I’m travelling.  It’s much better than I can cook up by myself.”

 

She was glad that they had stopped moving.  She knew she’d feel better after something on her stomach besides the acid produced from all the unfamiliar activity.

 

After the food was delivered by a fellow named Jake, a short woman approached their table.  Her face was covered in a thin white powder.  Her blonde hair was long and had a natural wave to it.  “How’s the food?”

 

“Well Charlotte, it’s excellent as always,” answered Alex.

 

“And is this lady one of your parcels?” she asked, looking casually at the robe-covered woman.

 

“She is.  I’m taking her to The Gorge first thing tomorrow.”

 

Charlotte pulled up a chair, and she started talking to the woman under the layers of cloth.  “I envy you,” she began. “Your betrothed is rich beyond your dreams, so you’ll have everything you desire.  There are other wives there too, and lots of children, so you’ll be part of a family. Beyond that, he’s not bad looking either.”  Charlotte nodded to Alex and they both laughed.  “In fact, if I had my way, I’d be going with this guy to meet a wonderful man with lots of money who would take care of my every little need forever – even if I was just one of his many brides.”

 

Alex leaned back in his chair, taking a deep breath, looking around the place.  “You’ve done all right for yourself, Charlotte.  You have a nice business here.  He took a small cigar from his pocket and lit it, never taking his eyes off the blonde woman.  Although the tip of the cigar glowed brightly, the only smoke it produced was filtered before it exited into the air. 

 

“But it would be nice if life were a little easier for me.”

 

The layers of cloth shifted.  “Charlotte, whilst thou walk with me to the women’s comfort room?” 

 

“I whilst do as thou so bid,” she responded.

 

“Thou knowest the words of the Field?” asked the woman.

 

“Early in my life I received instruction in the Old Tongue. I’ve always been fascinated by languages.”

 

Alex instinctually put his hand over the laser-gun.  “I don’t know, Charlotte.  Maybe I should go with her, for her protection.”

 

“She’s wearing the ring. It’s monitoring her heartbeat.  If anything happens we’ll just take it off and you’ll be alerted immediately.  I know how these things work.” 

 

“I suppose,” replied Alex, still unsure.  "I was afraid we were being followed earlier.  Be sure to take your gun with you."

 

Charlotte patted a bulge on her hip, hidden under her blouse. "I always have my steel baby with me, Alex - you know that.  Your package will be fine.  It’ll be nice to have some girl talk for the first time in two years or more.”

 

Alex checked a mechanism on his wrist to be certain the ring was still being monitored and then he nodded.

*******

He was still staring at his wrist when three men entered the diner and approached the table.  The largest men quickly went to the opposite corners and stood.  The third was a man Alex knew very well.

"Well, we meet again," said the man in his twenties with a sneer.

 

"Kenny Rowe - I would say it was nice to see you again, but we both know I'd be lying."

 

"Please Alex, I have no beef with you - it's just that our agendas differ.  You want to supply rich men with fertile women and I want to rebuild the ranks of the 'surplus population' - the class of people irradicated by the birth tax."

 

"There are political channels to go through if you and your group doesn't like current legislation, Kenny."  Alex tightened his grip on his gun on the table.

 

"The top one percent has done what disease and years of economic servitude was never able to acheive: they have dwindled our numbers down to nothing.  It's genecide I tell you! Genecide!"  Kenny put his hand inside his jacket and the sound of the hammer could be heard.  "Just leave the lady with us and everyone gets out alive.  No harm will come to her - but she'll have the choose a husband instead of just being auctioned off to the wealthiest bidder.  Dustin and Andy and I will take her by force if it comes to that."

 

Suddenly two more hammers could be heard being pulled back as Charlotte and Jake were seen in the corners, holding rifles up to the heads of Kenny's bodyguards.  

 

“The lady wants to proceed on her way without any change of plans," said Charlotte.  "In fact, I think I'll accompany the two of you as well - sort of a vacation." 

 

“I would enjoy a female to see to my needs,” the voice beneath the face-veil said bluntly.

 

“I figure it's about time to leave - don't you, Charlotte?” asked Alex, training his gun on the other man at the table.

 

"Makes sense," replied Charlotte, backstepping towards the door, rifle still pointed to her man in the corner.

 

“So shall it be,” said the woman in the black robes, quickly heading out the door towards the hovercar.

 

"We'll see you boys later," said Alex stepping into the sunlight.  "Better yet, never seeing you again would be even nicer."  A small roll of cash was thrown onto a table by the door as Alex hollered, "Jake, see to my friends here.  Be sure they have a good meal and all they can drink - and a free night's stay." A few moments passed before the dust stirred up by the hovercar could be seen floating in through the open door as the trio soared into the distance.

 

****

By 8 AM the next morning the small group was flying through Lexington, still heading east towards the edge of the Appalachian Mountains.

 

Just before noon the hovercar was at the gates of the Curlovic estate.  Until the 2030s most of this territory had been part of a State park, but Kentucky had long since sold huge chunks of its wild lands to a few of its favorite sons.  These Kentucky Colonels promised to maintain the land’s primitive beauty.

 

As the hovercar entered through the gates, the three visitors bore witness to Mr. Curlovic’s adherence to that promise.  The mountainsides were crowded with a variety of trees, all struggling for life in the rugged terrain.  The trees were astounding in the autumn air as the sunlight filtered through leaves of gold and red and orange.

 

The man had even kept the one-lane tunnel leading up to the main part of the estate. Perhaps the tunnel was the ultimate barrier since blowing the 900 foot tunnel would close off the estate for weeks if outside forces tried to enter uninvited.

 

“I’ll radio to have the traffic held on the other side,” the watchman told Alex.  There were instructions given and received over the radio by the guard. “You can go on through.  Just check with Hal on the other side before you go up towards the Main House.”

 

Alex nodded and began to slowly advance into the heart of the mountain.  At first all that could be seen was the reflection of running lights off stone and then, finally, a teardrop of daylight became visible.  As they exited the tunnel, two guards approached the vehicle, both of them carrying rifles.

 

“Mr. Curlovic will be able to receive you at 1400 hours, and not before then.  Perhaps you’d like to take your companions on a tour of the Gorge. We have 70 natural stone bridges you know.”

 

“Sounds great,” replied Alex. “We’ll do exactly as you say.”  The ancient road on the other side of the tunnel had long been replaced by a tube for commercial business, so the trio found themselves racing around the concrete curves.  “Looks like we have the place to ourselves,” he reveled as they headed straight up the side of Chimney Rock Mountain.  The three got out at Princess Arch to view the floor of the Gorge some 45 feet below them.  They ate a light meal replicated from the car on a stone overhang.

 

“A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and you,” said Alex, lifting his glass of water towards Charlotte.  “And thou,” he said formally, addressing the lady beneath the robes.

 

The lady responded by lifting her glass to him.  “And thou, kind sir.”

 

“Shall we see the Sky Bridge then, my sweet ladies, during this our final hour together?” Alex asked playfully.

 

“I’m game,” was Charlotte’s reply.

 

“As you wish,” said the parcel.

 

Sky Bridge was the best known of the natural stone arches in the region. Over the centuries people had carved their names upon it, the way the wind had carved its soft earth away laying bare the granite beneath it. The woman in black stood on the top of the 12-foot-wide natural bridge, between two caverns cut into the mountainsides by different forks of the Red River. 

“Will you be okay here by yourself if Alex and I go down to look at the underside of the bridge?” asked Charlotte.

 

“I am most capable of being alone,” she answered with a deepening sorrow to her voice.

 

“Allow me to help you sit down,” said Alex, taking her hand in his.  He could see the bracelet from The Field and the ring of engagement beneath black of her linen.  As they touch he was reminded again of something almost remembered.

 

As Alex followed Charlotte down the hillside, he looked back a few times at the lady in black sitting on the arch.  When they arrived at the underside of the arch he began to point out names that had caught his attention during the other runs he had performed for Mr. Curlovic.

 

“See, this one here says ‘Hunter S’ – so I’d like to imagine Hunter S Thompson carved his name here, the writer from the 1950s.”  Alex allowed his eyes to look upwards to where the other woman sat alone.

 

“It’s okay to leave me here for a while,” Charlotte acquiesced. “I know you want to get back to her.”  She laughed almost in defeat.  “I don’t know what it is between the two of you, but there’s a definite spark between you and that pile of scarves.”

 

“You know I never sample the merchandise Charlotte.  Within the hour she’ll be the bride of someone else, someone who can offer her all this – someone with more wealth and power than I’d be able to accumulate over five lifetimes.”  He became quiet for a moment.  “It’s just that, when she gave her linage, well, it was the same linage as Rebecca’s.  Maybe she’s Rebecca’s sister or cousin. I’d like to know that she’s okay, you know.”

 

“Rebecca, Rebecca – still it’s Rebecca.  Well, run along and ask her about this old flame, Alex. Time’s running out.” 

 

As Alex reached the top of the seventy-two steps climbing the side of the Sky Bridge, he could see the woman was exactly as he had left her.  She must have been watching the half-a-dozen hawks that were playing in the updraft coming out of the canyons. She watched them as they seemed to swim in the restless air.  Suddenly a hawk raced towards her, gliding effortlessly from one canyon, over the bridge, into the canyon she was facing.  The woman remained perfectly still as the tip of its wing touched her shoulder before the bird plunged over the edge.

 

And the woman, believing herself to be alone, took off the linen scarf covering her head, so she could feel the sunlight on her up-turned face, tilting her head back.  Her hair was long and shone like gold in the light.

 

“Rebecca,” whispered Alex like a child reciting a prayer. “Rebecca,” he whispered once more, allowing his lips to worship her.

 

Suddenly he was back there, in that dark time over a decade of ago, when they had taken her from him.  He remembered the last time he saw her – he was dressed in black and owned the name ‘Joshua’.  He too had been born into The Field where he and Rebecca had played in the streams as children. She had been there with him for as long as he could remember: laughing together, talking, playing, learning.

 

But Rebecca had been given to his oldest brother to wed, given to Aaron, after her first moon-flow – as arranged marriages were the custom of the Field. Joshua was left to cope as best he could.

 

He thought back to the last time he saw her. He was with Aaron and a dozen other men inside the meeting-house.  He was trying not to get caught stealing glances out the window at Rebecca as she sat in his brother’s carriage. 

 

The carriage roof was pulled back, her blonde locks were pulled up tightly against her head, pinned there securely, with a black bonnet. It began to rain and the drops of water washed off Rebecca’s hat onto her face and down onto her dress.

 

“Brother, said Joshua, “it has begun to rain. Willt thou not tend to your bride and your horse?”

 

“Brother,” Aaron answered with a hint of swagger, “of what concern to you is my livestock?”

 

“If not your horse, brother, then surely your bride.”

 

Aaron had gone over to look out the window at his carriage in the rain.  Rebecca sat there obediently.  “It would appear to me that both the horse and the woman could profit from a loss of some pride, as both seem to be infected with too much spirit for their own good.”  As the oldest brother returned to the other men, he laughed and the others laughed with him.

 

Joshua boldly looked out at the woman sitting in the downpour, her tears mixing now with the raindrops falling on her face.  He knew then that he would need to leave The Field.

 

Alex came back to the moment, staring at the woman sitting on the natural bridge.  She was so close now.

 

“It’s her isn’t it,” he heard a woman’s voice behind him whisper.  “The girl you told me about – the one you left The Order for.”

“It is,” he answered Charlotte, not turning, not moving. 

 

The woman on the bridge modestly tied the veil back over her head.  Alex and Charlotte chose to move up onto the natural bridge.

 

“I am ready if thou art,” Rebecca told them, rising to her feet and dusting the earth from her hemline.

 

“If you’re certain this is what you want...” answered Alex, leading the women towards the hovercar.

****

Master Curlovic’s home had once been the Lodge at Red River Gorge State Park. It had been built on top of a cliff overlooking a bend in the Red River that flowed 50 feet below it.  The main dining room could seat 300 guests, although it was now commonly used to feed his seven wives and 36 children.

 

All 43 members of his immediate family, fourteen staff personnel and six cousins were all in attendance for Rebecca’s presentation.  They sat, four to a table, surrounding Curlovic’s desk – which had been moved into the center of the immense room. 

 

As Alex stepped into the dining area, he was immediately taken aback by the sheer spectacle of the man.  The tables were filled with sweet breads and fruit in abundance.  His true trophies though were the harem he had acquired while most men had no access to women whatsoever.

 

“Where is my betrothed?” Curlovic demanded. Even while sitting behind a desk he was an imposing sight, with deep hazel eyes, black hair cut close,  and  the best suit money could buy.

 

“She stepped into a bathroom with her female escort,” replied Alex formally.

 

“A second female?” asked Curlovic.

 

“A friend of mine who will be returning immediately to her home after the reception.”  His watch beeped and he touched it.  It beeped again.  Alex looked down at the ring monitor.

“Has the signal been interrupted?” asked the man behind the desk.

 

“Briefly it seems,” exhaled Alex. “Ah, there, it’s back on again.” The Sister appeared in the doorway. “We were concerned about you, my lady.  The ring went blank for a moment.”

 

“Forgive me.  I took it from off mine finger to wash mine hands,” she told the audience.

 

“No need to do that, fair lady,” instructed the man behind the desk, rising and coming to stand in front of Alex.  “The ring can be worn at all times.”

 

“As thou wish,” was her reply.

 

“Has your escort left?” ask Alex.

 

“A moment ago, yes,” answered the lady beneath the cloth and scarves as she circled around to stand before her betrothed.

 

“Welcome then to our home, fair lady,” the wealthy man beamed. “Me and mine welcome you into our lives.”

 

“May you and yours find peace, kind sir,” spoke the woman beneath the veils.

 

“I only need to hear the repetition of your linage, fair lady.”

 

“I am she who is the daughter of Jeremiah , granddaughter of Samuel, great-granddaughter of Simon who was a son of Joshua, who himself was a son of Jacob…”

 

“Enough,” ordered Master Curlovic, cutting off the recitation. “ I assume the recitation was correct..”

 

“It is,” Alex told his benefactor.

 

“Excellent!  Excellent!  You may now take off the veil so I can see my bride.”

 

The woman carefully untied the scarf covering her head as her blonde wavy hair fell freely over her shoulders.

 

Master Curlovic smiled at her beauty and the woman was incredibly happy with the arrangement as well.   

 

Alex stifled a gasp, seeing that it was Charlotte who stood toe-to-toe with the powerful man…but they both seemed to be satisfied.

 

“May I be excused then?” asked Alex.

 

“Certainly, certainly.” He couldn’t pull his eyes away from hers as he touched her hair and her face.  “You’ll find the appropriate credits have been placed into your account.”

 

Alex took his leave.

 

In the main hall was an atom transporter.  Alex stepped through it, mumbling the name of a small diner where two strangers, who knew each other very well, had eaten dinner together just yesterday. 

 

The End

 

 

 

 

 

 

    

 

 

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

 

 


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2016-03-14 23:03:40
robwhaynes86 - Wonderful story. I really was happy to read that that all the characters had their wishes granted in the end. I enjoyed the way the story flowed and the description of Red River Gorge State Park. Truly brilliant. A joy to read.

2015-09-29 21:19:03
Sidewinder4 - I like happy endings. To be someone else in order to be oneself; there are too many implications to list. And that creates a wonder in the reader. "This is just the beginning" really does beat "happily ever after." Sidewinder 4

2015-09-24 17:28:51
Wesson - It's a bold premise, I like it. Hopefully the world doesn't go this direction.




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