Monday, March 19, 2018

March 26, part 1

I’m trying to stay positive in the aftermath of yesterday’s events. There’s got to be a silver lining to this, right? Maybe not, but today’s mantra is that old chestnut: when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. And then add vodka. Okay, I made that last part up.

Adjusting to police patrolling our home is no easy task. Here are these strangers, roaming all over the place. I know they’re protecting us, but it feels like being in a prison. After all, Anrel and I can’t go bopping off wherever we choose, whenever we choose. Any place I wander on the rock, there’s a guy in body armor in sight. This is exactly the scenario I swore Nang wouldn’t drive me to. Yet here I am. Jailed in my own home.

Silver lining: no one from my clan went to work today. Seot and Cifa set up shop in our home, relying on computers and coms to do their jobs. Thank the prophets and ancestors they own their businesses and can set their own schedules. As could I, if I could settle down and accomplish something. I tried and managed to complete a few tasks. Yet I’m frustrated that it’s reached this point. Angry. Scared. I tried to stay busy, but all the angst kept getting in the way. The tiniest peeves kept short-circuiting my endeavors.

Silver lining: I can take a lot of breaks. Playing with Anrel, dawdling over lunch, extended training exercises, meditating, and reading a book helped me regain my equilibrium more often than I can count. When an instance of chaos threatened my senses, I indulged myself.

One of us was not so easily distracted. Larten can’t train his students remotely. Not only that, but he’s furious over Nang’s threat and not being able to do much about it. He and I worked out together and practiced self-defense until we were soaked with sweat, but it wasn’t adequate to stop the poor guy from worrying and feeling useless.

I took a little stroll this afternoon, wandering about the house in the attempt to clear my head after my mind started jumbling from anxiety for the millionth time. As I passed Larten’s private suite, a beastly growl issued from the open door.

A Global Security officer was walking past at the same second. He quirked a wry smile at me as I paused in the hall outside the room. He leaned to whisper in my ear. “Your Nobek is unhappy with the situation.”

“Can you blame him?” I whispered back.

“Not for a second. I’m actually impressed that he’s maintaining this level of control. Push him too far, however, and you’ll have an animal on your hands.”

I almost offered the tart comment ‘you say that like it’s a bad thing’. No, Shalia. We do not talk to men outside our clan in that manner. Not even to be humorous.

I went into Larten’s personal room, which he’d assured me I was welcome in any time. As the bodyguard continued on his rounds, I said, “Door, close and lock.”

Larten stepped in from the balcony. He wore a dark look that was simultaneously enraged and vulnerable. He wiped it off quickly, but I saw. I’d known he’d been putting on a calm exterior for my sake. Well, not entirely calm, but not the infuriated angst I caught a glimpse of in that moment.

We stared across the space at each other, over the obstacle course of dropped clothing, hand weights, Anrel’s toys from her frequent visits, floor cushions, and emptied water pouches. Larten, who is so tidy everywhere else, is a slob in his private suite. The cleaning staff has a betting pool for various sports—the losers have to go in and clean up behind my Nobek.

Mimicking the floor, Larten’s desk and the low table in his meditation area were cluttered. I couldn’t spot their surfaces for the items crowded on them. Still vid shots. Broken gadgets he would find and tinker with until he got them working again. Small wood carvings he fashioned from driftwood that washed up on the rock.

None of the jumble mattered to me. I was concerned for my clanmate, who no doubt felt more caged and impotent than I did.

“My Matara,” he said after recovering from his surprise. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes and no,” I said. “Yes, I’m okay, no emergencies to report. No, I’m not okay, I’m a prisoner in my own home. I suspect you’re on the same page as I am.”

Larten relaxed a touch. Probably as much as he was able to. “It’s unbearable, isn’t it? We have no means to deal with our frustration either.”

I moved towards him, stepping around his obstacle course of messiness. “There’s always one fun technique to blow off steam.”

He came to alert, knowing full well what I was talking about. Yet he stayed where he was, not coming to meet me. “I’m afraid to touch you. I’m forceful when I’m not upset. The way I feel now, I fear I won’t be able to maintain that small bit of control.”

I stopped a foot away from him. Refreshing sea breezes eddied through the arched opening that led out to the balcony, drifting past me, lifting my knee-length skirt to mid-thigh as it swirled teasingly. I didn’t miss Larten’s gaze drifting down in fascination.

I gave him a level stare. “The tension has you feeling like an animal. I should tame you.”

His avid attention sharpened. “Do you think you could?”

If you’ll play along. I thought he might, if only to escape our shared frustration. My own sense of losing charge over my life made me eager to gain power from somewhere, including places I usually didn’t find titillating. Bending Larten to my will would release some of the irritation on that front.

I turned from him and wandered about the room. “The rest of your clan come in here from time to time, when your door is open to us. I’m sure you’ve considered the potential to indulge your favorite whim on that front.”

“I’m not following you, my Matara.”

A falsehood, as well as growing excitement, in his tone. I’d have to punish him for it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

March 25, part 2

Breft stopped barking orders at his men, turning to us. He addressed Seot. “Dramok, I’d like to ask your Imdiko if there is an office here we can use to talk privately.”

At Seot’s nod, Cifa loosened his hold on me a touch and pointed to the nearest administration building. “We can find a space in there.”

A few minutes later, we gathered in a small conference room. Everyone sat down around the rectangular table. Larten grimaced as he sat between me and Cifa, who had reclaimed Anrel. “Sorry about the sweat,” he apologized.

“I’d rather have you stinky than not at all,” I teased weakly. “That’s love, big guy.”

My goofiness eased the tension. Anrel was a help too. She was excited by the chaos and babbled with a happy, enlivened yell. Breft grinned at her before settling into the seriousness of the situation. “Raxstad is checking with the cruise line’s security office to check if they have any vid footage—ah, here he is.”

The big bruiser came into the room. “The surveillance system recorded something. I can use the computer?” He pointed to the device in the middle of the table.

“Whatever you need.” Hanging onto Anrel, Cifa jumped up and pushed the computer to an empty spot for Raxstad.

The burly Nobek clicked a drive home into the computer’s port. Within seconds, he brought up a floating vid and enlarged it so we could watch it. “Play section four-point-zero-seven-eight, Monitor Seven.”

The pier’s shuttle bay came up. A steady stream of people coming and going filled the shot.

“Isolate and enhance Sector Two-B.”

The shot zoomed in to the extreme left corner. There he was…Nang stepping out of a small, older shuttle and striding to the tunnel that led out of the hill where the bay was located and out to the pier.

Seeing Nang in person less than half an hour ago should have been the bigger fright. I guess I’d been too shocked to feel the stab of terror that I did viewing him on the vid. I thought I’d shatter into a million pieces as Raxstad called out the time and monitor and sectors that showed Nang coming out on the pier, stopping to watch me, then returning to his shuttle, which took off.

“He’s gone,” Larten said, relaxing.

Raxstad told Breft, “I called off the search of the area. We’re trying to pick up his trail.”

It was Seot who noticed I was on edge. Of course I was. The immediate danger was gone, so ass-backwards me chose that moment to think flipping out would be worthwhile.

“My Matara, he will not get to you.” My Dramok curled a protective arm about my shoulders and pulled me as close as our chairs would allow.

“I just—seeing him again. It’s as if someone punched me in the stomach.” I laughed weakly and winced at how screamy I sounded. “Prophets and ancestors, it’s like losing my balance at the edge of a cliff and doing my best not to fall over. But why do I feel this way when I knew there was a chance he was here? When I’ve known he was coming?”

Larten crowded against me, as did Cifa on the other side of him. Even Anrel reached out a pudgy hand to me, as if to offer security. Their support helped snap me out of the worst of my fear, as did Larten’s vow to tear Nang limb from limb…whispered in my ear so Anrel wouldn’t hear of such violence.

Breft did his best to answer my questions. “It’s one thing to suspect the worst. It’s another to encounter it. The shock will pass, Matara.”

I inhaled to steady my thundering heart. Breft was right. He sounded as if he knew a thing or two about dealing with the worst. He’s a cop, what would be a federal-level cop on Earth, so maybe he has.

He stood and paced, a riled tiger in a cage, except there was no containment field between Nobek Breft and us. He was reining himself in with obvious effort. He acted like Nang’s appearance was a personal affront to him. A good officer, he took the issue to heart.

“The fly-by checks are in place over your home. The trackers implanted on Matara Shalia and the baby are active. You’ve kept in the company of others at all times. That this deranged stalker came as near as he did today tells me we need more.”

“I should hire around-the-clock personal bodyguards.” Seot said.

“You could, and no doubt you’d be able to afford the best money could buy. But the absolute best you can get would be Global Security officers. We’re not for sale, but I can assign men to Matara Shalia and Anrel.”

Seot didn’t bother to ask the rest of us for our opinions. We all had the same idea on that matter anyway. “We welcome your men’s assistance, Officer Breft. Thank you.”

Breft flashed his teeth—he could have been smiling, grimacing, or snarling. Or all three. “Dramok Nang has serious problems showing himself so openly. If he’s foolish enough to do it again, we’ll catch him.”

Raxstad shook his head, his dreadlocks whispering over his boulder shoulders. “I’d seen everything when I viewed that vid of him jumping out of a seed transport. Only someone rabidly desperate would contemplate such a thing. Three days of travel in a space too cramped to turn in, in utter darkness with barely a sufficient amount of air to make it? No sane person would consider it. To actually do it—I’m at a loss for words.”

“You’re freaking me out worse than before,” I said.

“I’m sorry, but you should know the lengths he’s gone to in order to find you.” Raxstad looked us over. “Guard yourselves well. I’ve never encountered anyone like this Nang.”

“Nor I. And I’ve dealt with some pretty hard characters.” Breft drew a breath. “I suppose you will all go straight home?”

Nods all around. Nobody would be able to work for the rest of the day, not with our sense of security shattered as it had been.

“I’ll have some men escort you. They’ll remain in place until we put your assigned bodyguards in place.”

“Thank you,” Seot said again. “You have my gratitude for all you’re doing for my Matara.”

As we rose and readied to leave, Breft and Raxstad gave each other an intense look. Raxstad shook his head slightly. Breft’s lips pressed together. My concern edged up a notch.

When the badasses are worried, I get scared.

After some discussion, it was decided I would ride home in a police shuttle. Cifa and Anrel rode in another. Nang couldn’t target me and the baby at once, not that we thought he was messed up enough to come after either of us while we rode with Global Security.

Then again, no one had expected him to show up in broad daylight when I had a slew of companions with me. I kept replaying the gazes Breft and Raxstad exchanged. Maybe they suspected he was a lot more unbalanced than we’d been led to believe.

A third Global Security shuttle kept pace with Seot and Larten’s vehicles as we wended home. Our little bay in the rock was crowded with all those shuttles. We had twelve officers inspecting the home, learning all the avenues into it, interviewing the staff for their schedules and routines, and consulting with each other on the best plan to keep the clan, especially Anrel and me, safe.

It was hectic and weird for about three hours before we started to settle into something that approached normalcy. Ha! Like having armored cops standing at the home’s entrances or patrolling the grounds could be construed as normal.

Yet by the time we sat down to dinner, we’d begun to relax. Cifa had even put Anrel down for her nap in her nursery and left her there to slumber. Maybe us parents were a bit obsessed with checking the monitors every few seconds, but at least we weren’t hovering over her nonstop. We were coping in a healthy manner.

I had an appetite for the broiled ronka roast set before me. My stomach had rumbled steadily when its aroma had begun to fill the air of my home, reminding me that I’d had nothing since breakfast. My appetite for lunch had been nonexistent.

We sat down to eat, our expressions showing pleasure at the kitchen’s usual wonderful offerings. We gorged on a superb meal and oohed over the large dish that came afterward, ready for us to fill our dessert bowls with. Anrel saw the berry sorbet sitting in the middle of the table inside its clear, cooling dome and voiced her demands. “My, my, my, my!” Which is her way of saying, “I claim that for me. It is mine. Hand it over or suffer my wrath, peasants.”

We laughed at our insistent queen. Then we began voicing our more frequent concern of her becoming spoiled rotten. I kept to myself the suspicion that soon Anrel would have to share her throne. I might be pregnant, but I’m not ready to test for it. I could be wrong, and I don’t want to get anyone else’s hopes up quite yet.

Unbelievable as it seemed, we had restored ourselves. Despite me sighting Nang and the presence of law enforcement in our home, we’d managed to take back our contentment with life. I was smiling at Cifa’s attempts to convince Anrel to use her spoon instead of burying her face in her bowl of sorbet when my com went off. Chuckling at the pair, I checked the message that had come in.

No number of police surrounding you will keep us apart.


Monday, March 12, 2018

March 25

It happened. I saw Nang. He is on Kalquor. He is stalking me.

Because I’m being so careful, I was thankfully not alone. I was surrounded by people who could keep me safe though I was not at home, at the office, or with any of my clanmates. I was at the Cifiler docks with my vid production crew and a couple of the Nobeks from the company’s security department.

We’d decided we deserved some air and inspiration for the upcoming winter marketing schedule, so we loaded ourselves up in a company shuttle and flew out to the pier. Soaking in the holiday atmosphere would give us a boost of motivation.

I was reminded of when I’d gone on the inaugural cruise of the smallest ship of the fleet. The cruise hadn’t ended quite the way any of my clan had envisioned, but it had started off magnificently. I felt wonderful as I wandered with my staff along the lineup of ships in port, either disgorging happy and relaxed passengers, taking excited vacationers on, or being cleaned and readied between trips. Music and laughter filled the air, against a background of humming hovercarts, which zoomed about with luggage, provisions, and mechanical parts. The air of celebration was so effusive that I wanted to convince my clan to cruise again. There is no greater energy than that of anticipation and satisfaction, and it was there in plenty this morning.

It was exactly what my team needed. Ideas came fast and furious as we watched the fun. And we were all on the same page, which never ceases to launch new creativity. No sooner did I have an idea, then one of my team would say it out loud.

“Open with dreary, mundane work scene, cast in muted colors. Ask the viewers if life is tedious, monotonous. Then, boom! Colors, music, brightness!”

“A clan dragging themselves off to work in a shuttle. They fly over this scene, look at each other, and agree without a word. They’re out of here!”

“Matara Shalia, your people celebrate some festive holiday in the winter, don’t they? What about a spot featuring a clan with an Earther Matara boarding a ship to commemorate that occasion?”

I greeted Dramok Iknu’s suggestion with wide-eyed delight. “Iknu, not just a commemoration! An actual Christmas cruise! Is it too late to pull something like that together? Tarl, make a note for me to talk to Cifa, asap.”

My Imdiko aide grinned and lifted his handheld. “Already have it, along with everything else. Keep talking, team.”

They did, the suggestions coming faster and faster. I was laughing with the others, giddy with our inventiveness, when I saw him over Iknu’s shoulder. A fleeting glimpse of Nang, as the constant eddies of voyagers and ship’s crews between us parted for an instant.

For a moment, it was as if I’d materialized back on Earth. It was me boarding the transport all over again, leaving my home planet for the last time. And in the distance, a man almost as tall but not as broad as Dr. Flencik. Standing as he had on that long-ago day, watching me flee from not my ravaged, dying world and him, as well.

Except not quite. Where Nang had watched me with a sense of loss as I departed Earth, appearing forgotten and alone, he now stared at me with determination. A smile curled his lips, as if he’d won a victory.

I stood frozen, unable to move. I couldn’t scream as Nang and I stared at each other. He was the same and yet not the same as I’d left him. The determined gaze that could denote security or threat had not changed. The set jaw, square and matching the rest of his rugged face. The scar on his chin—had I ever asked him where it came from? If I had, I couldn’t remember the answer.

His jet-black hair had a sheen to it that had been missing before. A silvery shine in the sun, the first hint of gray. His eyes were hollowed, the shadows deep pools beneath them. More creases on his forehead and bracketing the corners of his lips. Thinner, honed to muscle and sinew by deprivation. Yet with the changes, there was no doubt it was Nang. I knew him though I had no more than two seconds to identify him.

A group of people passed, blocking my view. At the same instant, Tarl noted something was up. “Matara Shalia? Is something wrong?”

In the sudden silence that descended over my crew, I heard myself say, “Nang. He’s here.”

Startled exclamations greeted my words. They had been briefed. Nang’s picture had been posted to every employee of Cifiler’s headquarters. The men surrounding me turned and twisted, trying to find my pursuer.

My bodyguards, Nobeks Der and Etin, crowded at my side in a flash. “Where?” Der asked.

“He’s right over—well, he was over there, near Dock Twelve.” The group that had interrupted my view moved, clearing the sightline for me to discover Nang was no longer there. “Where did he go?”

“Stay with her, Etin. I’ll check.” Der raced off in the direction of Dock Twelve.

Etin nodded, his gaze as sharp as his chin and nose as he raised his com to his lips. “Cifiler Dock Security, we have a sighting of Dramok Nang. Coordinate and search.”

Meanwhile, I had my own com out. I buzzed Nobek Breft of Global Security.

“Matara Shalia, how did you know I was about to contact you?” came the fierce officer’s greeting. “I’ve viewed a security vid from a spaceport on the Esofu Continent. Last month, some seed containers arrived from Haven Colony and landed there. A man was in one of them. It was Nang.”

Any other time, the news would have stunned me. However, I’d seen the news vid report of that exact occurrence. It had played before my promo for Cifiler’s small ship cruise aired. It had played during the official launch of the ship. Empress Jessica had joked about it.

I should have known it could have been Nang, but I’d been so nervous that night. All I’d cared about was my damned promo.

None of that was important now. “Officer Breft, I saw the son of a bitch. He wasn’t thirty yards from where I’m standing now.”

Stunned silence. Then he barked, “Are you with others?”

“My vid production crew and a member of Cifiler security. The dock guards are trying to locate Nang now. He disappeared a moment after he made certain I saw him.”

I gave Breft my location, promised him I wasn’t going anywhere without every last member of my team by my side. Indeed, my Imdiko companions appeared as fierce as Nobek Etin. Breft said he was on his way and signed off.

My next coms were to my poor clanmates. I pitied them at that instant. They’d really signed themselves up for a piece of hell when they chose to make me their Matara. Yet none of them sounded anything but angry and frightened that I was under a threat.

Naturally, it was Larten I spoke to first. “Before you freak out, I’m fine. I’m in the company of security and my team. I saw Nang at the docks.”

“Stay with the rest and in full view of the public. I’m coming.”

Next it was Seot, who cursed colorfully after I assured him I was safe and would remain so. If I wasn’t so upset, I’d have begged him for lessons on how to wield profanity with such style. I’d never heard him rant like that before. He finished as soon as he reached his shuttle.

“Don’t com Cifa. He can’t pilot worth shit when he’s upset, and odds are, he’ll ignore automatic travel controls in this situation. I’ll pick him up, and we’ll be right there.”

When I ended the com, I noted our grim party had gained the attention of many of those coming and going on the cruises. Ugh, this was not the kind of publicity Cifiler needed. I told my crew, “Okay guys, even someone as far around the bend as Nang won’t chance a real confrontation in front of everyone. I’m safe with all of you. Smile at our clients. Don’t let on anything is wrong. They’re trying to have fun.”

Bless those boys, they did their best to follow my orders. When anyone glanced our way, the guys grinned, nodded, and waved them on. The act lasted until Breft’s gang showed up.

Sirens were wailing when Global Security appeared. Holy Hannah, what an uproar, with at least fifteen enforcement shuttles touching down nearby and scattering Cifiler’s patrons. So much for putting on a good face for everyone.

Larten’s smaller shuttle landed among them barely a second later. He trotted up with Breft and Raxstad. As Breft came close, he was shouting at the other ferocious-featured officers, erupting by fours and sixes from the shuttles. “Surround the place! Search the entire pier, including the ships! Make certain Dramok Nang isn’t hiding anywhere!”

Sweet prophets. I had visions of Cifa’s company going out of business as Global Security swarmed all over the pier, administrative buildings, and ships. All because of me. As stupid as the thought was, I almost wished I hadn’t told anyone I’d spotted Nang.

“Is this normal for a stalker case on Kalquor?” I asked Larten as he grabbed me. As sweat-soaked as my Nobek was from his training class, I was grateful for the hug. Sweaty embraces from Larten are welcome when I’ve been as rocked as I was at that moment.

He stared at me for a couple of long seconds. I guess he was confirming to himself that I was okay. At last he said, “We take the protection of our women seriously, my Matara. If Officer Breft doesn’t search every cranny of this pier, I’ll know the reason why.”

Breft was still giving orders to his men when Seot and Cifa arrived a couple minutes later. Cifa had Anrel. “She’s not leaving my sight,” he snarled to Larten when they arrived. “I dare that freak to touch my child.”

Seot hugged me, sighing. “I wasn’t sure whether to bring Anrel with us or keep her away. It wasn’t worth arguing with our Imdiko over the matter.”

Larten hugged both our baby and Cifa. “There is no one better to watch over our child.”

Cifa relaxed and managed a shaken smile. He crowded against me. “Are you all right, my love?”

“I’m fine. Just shaken. Part of me wants to deny it.” That was true. I knew Nang had been there. Yet with all the hubbub, a small bit asked if I’d really seen him or imagined it. I also felt awful about the trouble it was causing the cruise line. People were shouting questions at Cifiler personnel, who were as confused as the clients were. “I’m sorry about all of this, my Imdiko.”

Cifa didn’t pause an instant. He shoved Anrel into Seot’s arms, his expression shocked. He jerked me close, holding me as tightly as he’d held her. “This is not your fault. Don’t apologize for anything.”