Into Moose Valley

A First Glimpse

On a world as far away as the edge of a dream and as close as the end of a slide there is a broad, fertile valley snuggled down between two high mountain ranges, running down into a wide natural harbor. In the valley at the salt water’s edge, on either side (though more to the south than to the north if you want to be exact) of the river (which runs, jumps, plays and falls from the high mountain lake where the two ranges meet in the west all across the valley) lives one of the two strangest and most wonderful towns ever found anywhere.

If you are ever so lucky as to sail there, the first you see of Moose Harbor is the tall, graceful lighthouse. Its lamp never lets sailors go astray in those waters. The light pierces any obstacle, never hurts the eyes and always shines the color to sooth one best in any storm.

Once in the harbor itself, on a calm day, you can look down through the deep water at the stone ruins and all the fish and the young alligator who live there. Of the town, you would see to the north of the river the Port where boats and planes and hot air balloons and zeppelins and bicycles and land ships and space planes and all sorts of other modes of transportation may easily come to discharge their passengers or cargo, take on new passengers or cargo, refuel, recharge, re-provision or just relax without causing anyone any bother. Near to the Port floats the Inn. The broad, multi-story, comfortable, wooden building with the bluish slate roof drifts about over the water with a nice bit of lawn and a broad patio out back where one may sit and enjoy the sea air. If you do not happen to fly for yourself, just give a tug to one of the ropes which tether it in place and it will float down to the ground for you in short order.

Many of the other buildings have similar qualities, though most are content to stay on the ground if not always in the same place. There is the Moosiversity which makes up most of the town to the south of the river. It has classrooms in other lands and times that you reach just by going through the correct door at the correct time just like you would to reach your math lecture in a more ordinary school. Read more

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A Valley Holiday (Excerpt, Part 2)

I had only intended to post the one segment of this story, but I have since been convinced that I should give a bit more. Who wants a Christmas story that ends on a sad note, after all. I will give a few more bites, and hope to leave off with a sweeter taste in the mind.

Christmas Morning started very early for Rachel and Mommy. Mommy carried Rachel across the street still wearing her forested, footy pajamas in the dark. Still half asleep, Rachel thought it odd that the Grammy-like person who met them at the door wore a robe that matched Rachel’s pajamas but then the girl was tucked into a nice, warm bed. Someone soft and fuzzy was tucked in with her just as her Bear had been before he disappeared into the big box of toys which never came. With a contented if sad sigh, Rachel hugged the bear-like person and knew no more until sunshine kissed her face and the smell of fresh sticky buns and coffee tickled her nose.

Rachel was not quick to get out of bed and go face someone else’s Christmas. First, she had to assemble her Very Brave Girl face. She would be good. She would be quiet. She would not cry if there was a Daddy there that was not her Daddy. She would not mope or pout about presents that were not her presents. She would eat what she was given if she could, and not complain.

Rachel was still putting together her instructions to herself, frowning sadly at the ceiling when a soft, small, gentle voice asked from quite close by, “Don’t you want any sticky buns?” It paused for a breath or two before continuing, “They are quite fine cold or reheated, of course, but I’ve always thought the very best ones are still warm from the oven.”

Rubbing her eyes and trying to smile, Rachel sat up and looked around for the speaker, but the door stood closed and she could see no one. Rachel let her smile slip and gave a small sigh. She squeezed the soft, furry body warm from the stay under the covers and rubbed her cheek on the top of his head for comfort like she would with her bear. This stuffed animal had antlers instead of round, baby-chewed ears but they were soft with short fur just like the rest of his body and seemed almost to caress her face so she did not mind.

Rachel slipped sideways out from the covers and felt carefully for the floor. The strange bed stood taller than hers, made taller still by the soft blankets and the heavy, old quilt with a big patchwork Christmas Tree. Rachel made it to the floor without a stumble and barely a sound before looking around the room.

A rocking chair sat beside the window with a round embroidery hoop framing an almost finished pattern of roses and ivy. The dresser had someone’s things upon it and a book sat on the little table by the bed so Rachel decided it was someone’s bedroom and not a guest room, or at least not an unused guest room, so she did not explore, but she did not see any clothes set out for her. Rachel thought about last year’s Christmas dress and spending all day at someone else’s Christmas in her pajamas and it was very hard not to cry.

Rachel moved over to look into the big, oval mirror with the pale wood frame standing taller than she in one corner of the room and smiled for practice. The first try looked tired and sad. It was Mommy’s smile, which did not help. Rachel tried again, imagining that Daddy came home early as a surprise and swept Mommy off the ground in a big circle like he did sometimes when he was very happy. Mommy would scold and slap his shoulder, demanding to be put down, but she would be laughing, too. Rachel held hard to that image and found her Brave Girl smile, hugging the stuffed animal tight, then she went in search of a sticky bun, finding enough brightness in that thought to hope for lots of walnuts, raisins, and dried cranberries like Grammy put in the ones Daddy would not eat.

Rachel pulled open the door to find another girl standing in the hall hugging a mass of dark red cloth with her eyes and mouth open wide in surprise. The girl in the hall was older though she was not much taller. She had a good start on a woman’s figure but some lingering baby fat. Rachel’s smile was nearly all real when she saw flannel footy pajamas with a snowy winter forest behind the red fabric.

The other girl looked down at her feet and said, “Even when it is too warm for snow, the linoleum floors get gold, socks get dirty without shoes, and I always end up losing one slipper,” by way of explanation. “We usually do not dress before breakfast, partly for comfort and partly in case of sleep induced clumsiness, okay?”

Rachel nodded, smiling her nearly entirely real smile and parroted, “Okay.” A shadow loomed up from further down the hall, nearly as tall as Rachel’s Daddy but thinner.

It tugged the other girl’s long, dark, sleep mussed braid, “Are you going to tell her about that great mass in your arms or carry it around all day?” The other girl rolled her eyes but she still smiled. Before she got the chance, the tall shadow spoke again. “I bet you have not even introduced yourself yet. Have you?”

“No, I haven’t  and if you don’t pause for longer than a breath. I will never get the chance,” the girl said with her head tilted back to look him in the face, somehow looking down her nose at him even from that angle.

“The little slowpoke here is Susan,” the shadow said, flipping Susan’s braid in her face.

Susan shook her head and easily flipped her hair back where it belonged. “And the giant’s beanpole up there is my brother, Raymond. As there is no justice in the world, he is actually my Younger brother by over a year. Anyway, I heard your mother mention to Nan that you outgrew your Christmas dress and I thought that since you are so tall for your age and i am so small for mine, you might like the one I outgrew. It may still be a bit big but I am certain we can fix that. If we don’t cut where we raise the hem or take in the seams, they can be let out again when you start to outgrow it again.” Susan adjusted her grip on the bundle of fabric and lifted it by the shoulders so Rachel could get a better look.

The dress was made from a heavy, shiny, cranberry red fabric embroidered with burgundy poinsettias, snowflakes, and ornaments. The skirts were long, full, and many layered like the princesses in many Disney movies but more practical (and less itchy) than they often were in real life. The long sleeves buttoned tightly from wrist to elbow with buttons like tiny, multi-colored Christmas lights. Susan turned it around so that the row of similar buttons ran down the back from the high collar down the back past the waist.

“It is not horribly comfortable if you want to spend a long time leaning back against something with these buttons but i could not resist when we found them. Look!” Rachel laid the dress partly over her shoulder and fiddled with something inside the right cuff and the buttons all lit up and started to blink in merry patterns.

Rachel laughed spontaneously. “LED lights, right? They are tiny, they last a long time, and they do not get hot. Daddy and I hung them all over the house last year,” Rachel caught herself and tried very hard to keep smiling. She barely slowed down at the end of the thought and bravely went on, almost immediately, trying to remember the way the words went when Mommy helped her with thank you cards. “It is a beautiful dress and if you are sure, I would be very thankful to have it.”

“She’s sure. Just wait until you see what she has come up with for this year. She and Nan have done nothing else for the last week to get it ready on time,” Raymond teased and Susan very maturely and seriously put her tongue out at him.

“Children, stop playing in the hallway and come eat before all my work goes cold or I feed it all to the Mooses. They will at least appreciate it,” a warm alto voice called from the kitchen.

“Nan,” Susan mouthed with exaggerated enunciation to be sure Rachel got it. Rachel nodded and Susan said in a louder voice, “Coming, Nan. I just want to lay out this dress for Rachel.” Susan and Raymond ushered Rachel out first so Susan could get into the room Rachel woke up in.

“Go ahead and try, Nan. You know very well the Mooses would not let us go hungry and anything from the Valley would be at least as good as what you have,” Raymond added side stepping around Rachel once they reached the wider living room area on the way to the kitchen.

“Well, pook. I should never have let you two have those books. It takes all the umph out of my threats now that you have probably read them as often as I have,” Nan said, stepping out where they could see with a steaming mug in one hand and a plate heavy with sticky buns, fried eggs, and rashers in the other.

Without a word, the Grammy-like person held her mug out behind her and handed the plate to Raymond. The boy did not come close to spilling even a crumb when he swept the plate out to the side with a straight arm and bowed deeply with his empty hand over his heart to the tall, grey haired older lady. Her smile sat comfortably on what once must have been a beautiful face made warm and full of character by filling it with laugh lines. “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!”

“What? I feed you and now you want me dead by poison and treachery? Ungrateful boy. Hamlet was a melodramatic idiot,” Nan said frowning with pursed lips.

“True, but it still sounded good,” Raymond said rising with a smile. He turned in search of silverware and continued while opening a drawer, “How about, ‘May squads of Mooses dance among your thick, grey curls?”

Nan laughed, shaking her head. “It is better but it needs work.” Then she looked over and saw Rachel and her smile brightened, “Hello, my dear. Did you get enough sleep? I hope the two hooligans did not wake you.”

The Nan seemed genuinely concerned so Rachel answered the second sentence before the actual question. “They did not. I thought I heard someone ask if I wanted any sticky buns but I did not see anyone, but I was awake already…” Rachel saw Nan and Raymond exchange smiles and trailed off. Maybe she should not have mentioned the voice. She hugged her antlered sleeping companion up under her chin.

“Well, Would you like any sticky buns?” Nan asked, still smiling. Rachel hesitated a moment but then she nodded. “Oh good. You like extra walnuts, raisins, dried cranberries, and cinnamon in yours,” Nan said with no trace of a question as she turned to one of the baking pans of rolled, filled sweet dough on the peninsula of counter space that divided the kitchen area from the rest of the room. Nan loaded two large buns, oozing filling onto a plate and gave Rachel a thoughtful look. “Scrambled eggs for you, I think.” Nan added a generous helping of fluffy yellow eggs from a plate by the stove, moving around Raymond as he made his way to the dining table with plate, knife, fork, and a large, steaming, blue mug which smelled strongly of chocolate.

When Raymond passed Rachel with a wink, Nan caught the girl’s attention again with a, “Hmm,” and narrowed eyes. “Salt but no pepper or any of the more exotic things Raymond and his father load into their eggs. Though, I am certain we could find an omelet to suit you if we started from scratch,” Nan ground a careful amount of salt onto the eggs, like a brief flurry of ice crystals onto the tiny yellow mountain range.

Nan said with another glance, “Rashers? On no, thin and crispy, a girl after my own heart.” Nan added several strips of crispy bacon to the plate. “If you want to go sit with Raymond, I will bring this out to you with the utensils. It is a bit much for you to manage one handed, I think.”

Rachel looked from Raymond at the table to Nan and back.” I can put her down and get my own plate. It is no trouble,” she said, unconsciously tightening her hug as she spoke.

“Don’t be silly,” Nan said, picking up a second, already filled plate with an assortment of silverware and headed towards the table, herding Rachel towards the chair Raymond pushed out with one foot. “Mooses appreciate hugs before breakfast. Now, would you prefer juice, milk, or hot chocolate?” Nan asked, turning to look at Rachel after sliding her mug in front of one place, the plates in front of two, and arranging the silverware in front of three.

Rachel wanted to say, “Whichever is the least trouble,” but before she could, Nan seemed to see a different answer somewhere about Rachel’s person and Raymond distracted her.

“He’s a him, not a her,”he told her quietly.

Nan nodded her head sharply and went back to the kitchen mumbling, “Hot chocolate it is with real whipped cream and a touch of peppermint.”

Rachel looked back and forth between Nan and Raymond a little out of her depth as she slid into the chair pushed out and in front of the plate filled for her. Rachel looked back after Nan with a touch of wonder. Grammy could not have chosen better what Rachel would best like. Rachel turned back to Raymond and said, “What?”

“For the most part, you can tell the boy Mooses from the girl Mooses by their antlers. The girl Mooses have antlers darker than their fur and the boy Mooses have antlers that are paler,” Raymond explained patiently.

Rachel took her first good look at the boy Moose in the crook of her arm, holding him out in both hands to look him in his furry face. His fur was a pale blue, with a darker blue on white print antlers and hooves. She tilted her head slightly to the side looking at the Moose then over at Raymond.

He smiled and said, “His antlers are more white than blue.” Rachel nodded and hugged the boy Moose, again.

Nan came back with two mugs held by the handle in one hand and another filled plate in the other. Raymond had only sipped at his mug and neither he nor Nan ate once they were seated so Rachel waited too, presumably for Susan.

A Valley Holiday (Excerpt)

Between the Holidays, and a shifting focus onto some of the longer works in progress, there will not be a lot of time for turning out new short stories, so instead I shall be posting pieces from those longer works that I hope to publish.

Rachel sat quietly in her room, staring out the window at the bare branches of the tree and the grey sky beyond. Her eyes strayed, for the hundredth time, to the small strand of multi-color lights she had hung across the window. A good many of the bulbs were burned out. It had taken hours for her small fingers to untangle the short strand and they stretched across the middle of the window instead of the top. She could not reach much higher without climbing and she knew better than to try to borrow her daddy’s hammer to have anything but the curtain ties from which to hang the lights. All the same, she was glad she found them in the neighbor’s trash on her way home from school.

Last year, Rachel and her Daddy decorated their whole house, inside and out. They put up so many lights on the tree in the living room that Mommy worried there might be a fire until Daddy laughed and told her they bought LED lights which would not get hot. Last year, Grammy and Poppop visited and marveled at how beautiful the house was. Last year, Rachel got a new, dark green, soft velvet dress to wear to the parties Mommy and Daddy took her to where they worked and at their friends’ houses. Last year there was baking and candy and friends and presents and family. Last year, there was Christmas but that was last year.

When summer faded and the trees started to put on their party dresses Rachel and Mommy and Daddy had to move. Rachel’s daddy was a soldier and a hero and the government decided they needed him somewhere new. Rachel’s Daddy did not want to go, and Rachel’s Mommy cried when she thought no one would see, but Rachel’s Daddy was a good soldier, so they went. They packed up all their things, Mommy’s books and sewing machine; Daddy’s books, tools, and fishing pole; and Rachel’s toys and games and much of her clothes. Somehow even the bear she slept with at night went into the big, carefully labeled boxes which then went into the back of a big truck.

Daddy went on ahead while Rachel and Mommy stayed with Grammy and Poppop. Mommy tried very hard but Rachel heard the crying in the dark when they were both supposed to be asleep. Rachel was a Very Brave Girl, just as Daddy bid her before he left but then, she did not really understand yet.

She hugged her Grammy and Poppop every chance she got. Rachel sat still and did not fidget when Mommy wanted to hold her and watch grown up movies. She laughed and played and carefully got every address of every member of her class and what they brought for thank you cards at her going away party at school. Rachel did not cry, not even when they realized her bear had gone in the big boxes in the big truck. She was a Very Brave Girl and she did not really understand yet.

Rachel and her Mommy took the last of their clothes and the few things that did not disappear into big boxes on the big truck and flew a long, long way from their home, their friends, from Grammy and Poppop to a strange new place with strange faces which spoke words Rachel did not understand.

Daddy me them at the airport and took them to a Base, like the one he worked on before but now they had to live there. Their new house was not nearly so nice. There were no carpets on the floors and all the windows but Rachel’s had plain white blinds instead of rods where Mommy could hang the curtains she made for their old house. Daddy tried but their neatly labeled boxes had not yet come, not even the one’s labeled Rachel’s Room: Clothes or Rachel’s Room: Toys which held her Bear, and Rachel heard through her new, thin, bedroom wall that Mommy and Daddy were not going to have room for all their boxes even when they arrived. Mommy and Daddy never said, but Rachel learned soon enough that there would be little money for new things even if there was room.

Rachel started a new school with many other soldiers’ sons and daughters. She even got some letters from back home. Thanksgiving with just the three of them was strange but Mommy and Daddy made it all right. Mommy had a new job and Rachel’s bed and some of their things came.

Then one day, Daddy was late for dinner without calling ahead, which he never did, and when he got home he could barely smile, not at Mommy or Rachel’s hug or even when he found one of his favorite meals on the table which Momma had managed to keep warm without overcooking. After a very quiet, very strange dinner Rachel was sent to watch television while Mommy and Daddy talked in their room with the door closed. When Rachel’s bedtime came and passed with the door still closed, Rachel turned off the television set, brushed her teeth, and crawled into bed. The sound of her parents’ voices in the next room was too low to understand and soothing until Rachel realized that while Daddy spoke very gently, Mommy was crying.

It was very dark and quiet out when Daddy came to check on Rachel. He helped her out of the plain dress with the buttons she could not quite unfasten herself and into her forested footy pajamas. Then he carried Rachel to sleep with him and Mommy. Three days later, a week from Christmas, he was gone.

It took Rachel some time to understand, listening to the adults and some of the other children whose Mommy or Daddy had gone, too, but now, sitting staring out at the grey sky through bare branches past her colored lights, Rachel knew some bad men were attacking some good people so her daddy and the other Mommy and Daddy heroes had to go do what heroes do and save them, but Rachel knew some other things as she stared out the window.

Mommy was new in her job so she had to work, even on days when Rachel got out of school. Tomorrow, Rachel would spend the day across the street watching strangers open presents until Mommy got home. Rachel would be very quiet and polite. Daddy should get to call, but if he got his chance too early, no one would be there and he probably would not get the chance to call again. Grammy and Poppop were much too far away to visit. Her dark-green, soft-velvet dress from last year was too small and their decorations were in one of the boxes for which they did not have room. There was no tree, no baking, and no parties. Mommy did not have time and energy to cook much anymore and no matter how much Rachel sat there and wished, it was too warm for that grey sky to hold any snow. As Rachel glanced at the sad string of lights for the hundred and first time, she heard her teen-aged babysitter call, “Lunch is Ready!” and wondered if lunch Christmas Day would be sandwiches, too.

(Excerpt) Death Beneath the Trees

In keeping with the last story I posted, and because the Minion and I are too exhausted by NaNoWriMo to have come up with something new so soon, here is the first draft  of the cameo by some of my friends into the Minion’s second Jullian Grey novel. This is my version of what happened. When it gets recorded from Grey’s perspective in the novel it will probably be quite different, distorted by the transition back from dreaming to waking, and her special, but not especially moosey mind. Of course, mine is the more accurate, but hers may end up more…interesting.

Grey was dreaming. The dream felt perfectly real, but she could still tell. It was a skill anyone in a family as big and…complicated as hers, with the slightest shred of self preservative instincts, develops. So she knew as an absolute fact that at that moment she slept, and while she slept, she dreamt. So why did the rest of her mind insist on the reality of what she experienced?

It could be that what she heard sounded just like she would expect to hear in the great, sprawling family pile of stone, wood, and antiques where she grew up. It was the sort of silence made up of soft, every-night sort of sounds. They were sounds that soothed, that reassured, but one did not really listen to.

The room, also, would have been right at home in with the other hundred odd rooms in the house, one of the smaller, private sitting rooms, perhaps, but one that had been remodeled and redecorated in a similar but not quite familiar style without her knowledge since her last visit. Nothing could be a more plausible, even possible, and probably even likely scenario. Technically, Grey owned the house, the grounds, most of the contents of both, and much of the surroundings, but she never really looked at it that way. The enormous, drawn out row that would blossom into world swallowing proportions the instant she attempted to take up the position did not appeal any more than the appalling amount of work involved in running the great motley show.

For want of other occupation since the dream was not providing any more entertainment value than such rooms usually do, Grey wandered around, looking into cabinets and drawers for anything which might clarify the situation. For some reason she could not quite identify, she did not try the door. The room held no book case, or she might have settled down to read, which is an odd but entirely characteristic thing to dream about doing.

Grey found just what she expected to find, nothing of much interest, in the drawers and cabinets. She came to rest facing a small, round, wooden table suitable for sharing an intimate meal or the playing of cards, although at the moment, no chairs ringed it round. Only two things occupied the smooth, lovingly polished, dark surface; well, three really, if one counted the creamy white lace circle that covered half the table’s diameter. Actually, if one wanted to be technical and quite exact, rather a lot of things sat on that table, but since most of them were intricately twisted and knotted wire flowers and leaves, it is easier to say an engraved brass vase containing a variegated metal bouquet rather than to count and describe each element involved.

The artist who made the bouquet—something about the arrangement clearly labeled it the work of an artist rather than the product of a machine turning the flowers out by the hundred—used no steel, platinum, silver, or aluminum. With lacquered rust and verdigris to add red and green to the muted golds, ruddy browns, and mute the dark greys, the overall effect was soothingly autumn that left one with a feeling both old and eternal. Oddly, the pale, mint green, fluffy bunny sitting just in front and to one side of the vase seemed at home against those flowers, like the native denizen of the metal garden rather than some child’s toy left abandoned in her mother’s room. One long, floppy ear hung down over what was probably a warm brown eye (judging by the visible partner) while the other ear hung down behind the soft head.

“If I am dreaming, why does this feel so real? And why doesn’t something happen?” Grey asked, planting her fists on her hips. “Why would I dream about wandering around in someone’s sitting room being confused?” For want of anyone else, Grey addressed the only other—if fuzzy and green—face in the room. Rather than wait for an answer, Grey threw up her hands and started pacing around the room.

Something kept her from charging out the door in search of…who knows what. It was a very polite, gentle, requesting more than commanding sort of something, so Grey did not fight against it as automatically as she might, but it still would not hold her for long.

A low, soft, warm, and mildly amused voice floated in the dimly lit room, stressing the middle word, “You are dreaming.”

Grey snapped around, looking for someone in the room, or somewhere they might be hiding that her earlier search missed. “I saw that movie. Next I look outside and see a great black wolf tearing out the farmer’s throat,” Grey said, narrowing her eyes. She set off to check the floor to ceiling folds of brown fabric embroidered with autumn leaves which flanked the tall, narrow windows that occupied up much of one wall.

“No farmer or wolves, only me. Just because you are dreaming does not mean this can not be real, too, though. You know people who go dream walking; explore places and talk to people with just their minds while their bodies sleep, do you not? Someone told me that you can go visiting people’s dreams yourself in a limited sort of way, and should know the damage that can be done there better than most,” the voice went on, less ethereally and clearly located behind Grey this time. She spun around, scanning the room with a frown that fought to become a glare.

“Over here, on the table,” the voice added and Grey’s eyes were caught and held by the moving bit of mint green. The bunny waved one paw while standing near the table’s edge, both ears thrown back now.

“In the ordinary way, I would say you are striking a definitive blow in the favor of the unreal, but it does not feel that way. I have seen far weirder things in more unbelievable circumstances,” Grey’s voice trailed off thoughtfully as she approached the table.

“I guess it all depends on your definition of real. You know perfectly well that your reality is not the only one. You have spent enough time in the mirror lands, walked dreams, visited the grey realms, and spent time in some of the courts of those like your mother. You are smart enough and well read enough to realize that there have to be others even more divergent in nature.”

Grey folded her arms and frowned down at the fuzzy smile aimed up at her. “You are better informed as to my activities than I am comfortable with, and none of those places have been particularly benevolent in my experience. Let us take my suspension of disbelief for granted, provisionally, and move on to what comes next. If not my suspicious disposition may intervene in your efforts to be convincing and this conversation could go on for ages. I assume you arranged this meeting for a reason.”

“Do not worry. We have not been spying. You have encountered a few friends of mine along your way and they told me what they knew when they found out what was going on,” the bunny soothed waving her little green paws in the air for emphasis as she talked.

Grey’s frown grew thoughtful. “I remember a lavender hippopotamus about your size,” she mused and the bunny nodded enthusiastically, sending her ears flying around her head.

“You remember!” she said, and somehow Grey knew the bunny to be a she. “Most people from your sort of world have trouble seeing and hearing us in the first place, much less remembering anything about it afterwards. That should make this so much easier.”

Grey started to relax now that she had a memory to tie the present to, but the confirmation of current agenda tightened her up again so much she took a step back. Some extremely nasty and dangerous things could appear small, cute, harmless, and friendly, after all, especially in dreams.

Seeing Grey’s reaction, the bunny utted, “Oh my,” and covered her mouth with two paws. She pushed her ears back slowly and equally slowly backed up to the vase on the table. “You really do not have to worry. Technically, you could say I am not even here or there…where you are I mean. This is two dreams pressed together, and I am in the other one.”

Little green paws waved in the air, indicating the walls around them. “The room and most everything in it is your dream. This table and what is on it were crafted as a place for me. If you care to test it, your wards stand between us, making my dream rather like the pearl in your oyster. Or, more accurately, it is the grain of sand with your ward smoothing our intrusion.” The bunny wrinkled her nose, not liking the way her simile was going. “Anyway, you get the idea.”

Grey nodded. Rather than approaching as one might expect for testing a barrier, she took a deep breath and blew it out again in a focused stream towards the table, infusing her breath with just a touch of magic. The elongated cone of air stirred thereby stretched out invisibly until it reached the area above the table edge. There it struck and swirled out and around the slightly squashed sphere which held the table. The effect resembled the oil-on-water rainbow effect of nacre more than the shimmer of a pearl, but the bunny clapped her soft paws silently in appreciation nonetheless.

After the first wave of colors, they faded to mere hints of rainbow swirling in the air, visible, but no more obscuring to the eye then a window screen. “Physical manifestation of dream representation of my personal ward,” Grey muttered to herself. Then she unbent enough to grab a straight chair from behind a window curtain that may or may not have been there before. She carried it to the table in one hand with no scrape of dragging of legs across the floor to the rainbows in the air and collapsed upon it with practiced boneless grace. She sat almost at the edge of the seat with her shoulders against the back facing sideways so a turn of her head had her chin only inches away from and above the table edge.

“So why all the effort to bring us face to face? Contiguous dreams can’t be easy to arrange or maintain so seamlessly,” Grey asked, stretching out her long legs and crossing her ankles.

“No, well I have some friends taking care of that. This is a rescue mission, of a sort. I am here to ask you a favor, I guess.” The green bunny strolled over to a more conversational distance and plopped down on her tail with such force that one ear flopped back over her eye. “It is so hard to know how much to explain without over explaining or just confusing the issue.” She raised both front paws to stroke the long, silky, soft ear in a thoughtful gesture.

“Just tell me what favor you want to ask, and I will ask for any explanation I want.” Grey hooked her hands behind her head and turned to look up at the ceiling.

“We want you to let someone through your ward,” the bunny stated baldly, a little too baldly as it turned out. “Though Grey hardly moved, the way of dreams made her incipient absolute refusal screamingly obvious.

The bunny waved her paws quickly in the air. “Not in! Not in your wards, we want you to give someone permission to go out through them. He could probably have gotten out any time he liked, but without permission he would have been forced to break the wards. Not only would that leave you unprotected and unaware, but it is also rather rude. Hence this meeting.”

Grey sat up slowly and looked down at the talking stuffed animal on the table. “You are telling me there is someone else in my ward with me, my personal ward that barely stretches far enough to include my clothes, like a rider or possession?” Grey demanded, her voice empty and soft like her expression.

The bunny was waving her paws in denial well before Grey finished speaking. “No, no, no, nothing like that. He’s just small and happened to be about your person when you put your wards up.”

“Why would anyone, small or otherwise be about my person without my knowledge or permission?” Grey asked, cooly.

“He is a member of a group who try to look out for, well soldiers mainly, but anyone who leaves home, comfort, safety and family behind to go help and protect others can qualify. The group can can do only do little things, usually, like help the mail get through, especially letters from home and care packages. They help keep socks dry and if the opportunity arises, they yell, ‘Duck!’ or draw attention to sneaky people. Unfortunately, each one takes care of hundreds of people, so there is only so much they can do for each.

“He was checking on you and then got stuck when you stepped up your defenses. I told you it is a rescue mission, sort of.” The bunny smiled at Grey, tilting her fuzzy head to one side to clear her ear from her eye.

“Right.” Grey did not actually roll her eyes, but she somehow gave that impression with a certain timbre in her bland tone and the lack of expression on her face. The bunny just laughed and bounced up and down a few times without leaving the table.

“Why did your friend not ask me himself and save you and yours all the trouble of setting up this meeting?” Grey asked, once again wishing she could raise a single eyebrow to punctuate her query with her expression like a certain tyrant she had read about.

The fuzzy green nose wrinkled up and tilted to one side. “He probably assumed you would not hear him in the ordinary way, since most people, especially adults do not. Then there was probably how you might react to finding him about your person. It would also be rather difficult to get up close enough to your ear without stressing your warding. Imagine having a tiny someone slitting the inner surface of a pocket you were not aware of possessing and then crawling up your anatomy inside your clothing–a process anyone might take amiss–as a prelude to conversation.” The bunny smiled up at Grey from under one soft ear.

“Such an experience would definitely not put me in the right frame of mind to do anyone any favors, especially considering my current waking conditions,” Grey admitted with a quirk of her lips. “But, in this dream space, he could have managed his appearance and explanation easily enough.”

The bunny sat back so abruptly she had to push both ears out of her face. “That would not be very nice.”

“It wouldn’t?” Grey asked, a little startled herself.

“Well of course not!” the bunny said, planting her paws on her hips. “After I went through all the time and effort tracking down where he must have disappeared and setting up this rescue? To get to the exciting part,” she paused and waved her paws around indicating Grey, herself, and the general situation, “just to arrive and find he rescued himself? That would be like fighting your way to the evil wizard’s castle to find a note pinned under the princess’ window saying she stole his ring of flight and took herself home a day or so after the king sent you on the quest!”

“More like you set your ladder against the tower and she climbed herself down while you fought off a surprise attack, since I still would not have managed the escape without you,” a deep, growly voice that still managed to be little and warm said from one of the high backed arm chairs set facing the stone fireplace.

“My example was more dramatic,” the bunny said, crossing her little, furry arms across her chest. At the same time, she hunched her shoulders forward and bowed her head, so that her long, soft ears covered most of her face.

She could not hold the caricature of a pout for long before she started bouncing in place again and admitted, “And less accurate but it…” she broke off and looked from the source of the new voice to Grey’s blank expression and back again.  “Maybe we should save our debate on comparative image crafting until after we conclude our negotiations with Dame Grey.”

Grey scowled a little at the bunny, but something else danced in her eyes. Blandly she said, “It is more like the princess using the fight at the base of the tower as a distraction so she can sneak out the back and find her own way home, leaving the rescuers to charge bravely into an empty room once the fighting is done.” Only the amusement in Grey’s eyes showed that she was teasing.

“Come on out, princess. Let me get a good look at you before we find out if the next chapter involves a daring rescue, or feeding you to a dragon.”

The bunny stopped bouncing and dropped back onto her tail. “Why would you want to feed the princess to a dragon?”

“Dragons have to eat, too, and some of them have a very particular diet,” Grey said reasonably.

“Well, that is certainly true. I know one who subsists almost entirely upon lemonade and honey, but still…” the bunny broke off, looking distressed.

“She is teasing you, Vert,” the small gruff voice said, sounding a little clearer and higher in elevation than before.

Both the bunny, apparently called Vert, and Grey turned to look at the speaker, now sitting calmly atop the chair’s back. In contrast to the deep voice, the soft bear sitting with crossed ankles and his hands laying in his lap could not have sat more than a few inches high. He wore a dark tan uniform with big pockets neatly belted at his waist. Being indoors and in the presence of two ladies, he had doffed his cover and it sat on the upholstery beside him. His dark fur shown dully in the dim light, but not at all compared to the bright gleam of the buttons and other metal fittings on his uniform.

He saluted briefly in Grey’s direction, smiling like an old friend. “Good evening, Dame Grey. It is a pleasure to have the opportunity to formally make your acquaintance.”

The bunny looked from Grey to the bear and back, thinking hard. “Teasing me? Does that mean she has already decided to give you permission?” Vert asked hope coloring her tone, not giving Grey the chance to acknowledge the introduction.

“Of course she has decided. She did that almost as soon as you told her I was trapped. Our lovely Jig has never been the sort to leave someone relatively innocent trapped against their will if there was something she could do about it. Besides, even if she were perversely inclined in this instance, she would still give her nod considering the mischief someone of unknown capabilities and possibly suspect motivations might get up to who could get about her person without her let, leave, or even knowledge, especially in her current situation,” the little bear told Vert, confidence and amusement coloring his tone.

Then he turned back to Grey. “You’ll have to forgive the little, green, fluffy butt. She doesn’t get out among other peoples often and she isn’t used to talking to people who don’t already know her when she knows them. In this company, I want to say my name is some version of Brown, what with her name translating to green and your name being grey, but really, the name is Jeremy. I would offer to shake hands, but since you could cradle my entire anatomy in your palm, that might be a trifle embarrassing, so assay it or not as you see fit.” He held out one paw with no hint of finger or claw and waved it a little in a slightly teasing, slightly challenging manner.

Grey sighed, drawing the breath up from her toes and then struggled up out of her chair as if the movement took a monumental effort. She somehow managed to stomp across to his chair back without making any noise on the rug-covered, hardwood floor. With an incredibly gentle yet swift and abrupt swipe of her left hand, like one might use to snatch a baby bird who was nothing like ready to be pushed out of the nest out of the air without mussing its downy feathers, Grey snatched Jeremy and his hat from the back of his chair. He resettled easily upon her open palm when she held him up before her face, still holding his hand out with a grin.

Grey nodded to acknowledge his sangfroid, her lips kicking up at the corners in spite of her best efforts. She grasped his paw between her index finger and thumb and shook it gravely. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Jeremy,” Grey assured him so dryly he had to laugh.

With no comment, but a slow, very definite set of movements. Grey walked over to Vert’s table and lowered her left hand until Jeremy could quite easily step from her palm to the surface. The faint rainbow swirls in the air by him stilled for a moment, and then parted just there, like a sheer curtain pulled aside to reveal the doorway behind. Jeremy stood up, tucking his hat under his arm he bowed solemnly to his involuntary host then turned to step across. The ward immediately snapped shut behind him, so abruptly it should have made some sound.

Even though it happened behind him, Jeremy started, spun, and looked up at Grey with wide eyes. She just smirked at him, pleased at getting the reaction her snatch failed to produce. Jeremy scowled and rolled his eyes, then a thought rolled across his face, widening his eyes and wiping the amusement from his furry little face. “You are going to let me come back, right? I’ve got a bunch of people to catch up on, but keeping an eye on you is going to be much harder if you don’t.”

Grey’s eyes grew wide. Without the studied indifference and faint hint of hostility with which she customarily masked herself, Grey looked more like a teenager than the infamous independent operator, Julian Grey, whose name had been known in certain circles for decades, whose naturally maroon colored hair and definite if often–sometimes ridiculously–denied femininity never turned out to be quite what was expected. Jeremy smiled at her and her ward distended out towards her to somehow allow him to pat her still extended hand.

“It helps to know there are people looking out for you who have no obligation to do so, doesn’t it?” he asked, confusing Vert while giving Grey what she needed to start pulling her face back together. “He sometimes forgets you’re even younger than he thinks you are, but you can be certain he would sacrifice not one whit less in your defence and care than her spell has compelled him to, if given that choice.”

Rather than explaining what that might mean to the bunny sitting behind him, impatient to get on with the rescuing but still itching with curiosity, Jeremy strolled over and blithely climbed up to Vert’s shoulder, using her ear as his rope. “It doesn’t matter if you allow me in or not, I shall continue to keep an eye on you…whether you like it or not,” Jeremy told Grey, a touch smugly and with a teasing smirk on his fuzzy face.

“I just bet you will,” Grey mock snapped as she rolled her eyes and slumped back into her chair.

Neither of the ambulatory stuffed animals responded with words, but between one blink and the next, Grey woke with the sound of quiet, deep-toned laughter in her ears. She sat on a cold, stone floor with her forearms resting on bent knees and her shoulders pressed back against a wall that matched the floor. She could not have been asleep long. The ghost in the small room had not yet reached the door.

He glanced back over one shoulder at her before slipping through the solid barrier. Grey met the palely-luminous, slightly-transparent gaze with such a gentle, sweet, almost shy smile that he stumbled in surprise. He paused and opened his mouth as if to speak, but with a slight shake of his head, he passed out of the room, leaving Grey alone in the darkness, softly laughing.

Caught Between Grey and Green (6 of 6)

It was difficult for Andrew Green to determine exactly what the nature of the emergency could be, not that he really tried very hard. When he was first brought to the ‘secret government installation’ Her Majesty’s servants made clear that while he was not under any circumstances allowed to leave the rooms assigned him, he would be encouraged to continue with his research as long as he proved willing to also explore any little avenues which they found interesting and while one of the purposes for all the guards, complicated defenses and security systems was to keep an eye on the scientist and artificer residents like himself, their real job was to protect said residents. They made sure that none of the people irritated by various failed attempts to take over the world could bother the residents with plots for revenge. Also, they prevented jealous rivals from sneaking in and stealing or sabotaging the geniuses.

In the end, if Green wanted to be fair about it, which of course he never would, the change in his circumstances was a distinct improvement. He was safer than his own defenses ever made him. He had no bills. The government provided all the vastly expensive and hard to come by materials he needed and on a more reliable and timely basis than had the black market for no cost except the time it took to fill out the forms. They no longer persecuted him, trying to find out what he was up to and stop him. The cooking provided was far better than what he could have managed (Do you realize how difficult it could be to get delivery to your super secret hideout?). Besides, it is not like Green went out much even before he was caught.

Of course, staying in because you are busy and staying in because you have no choice are two entirely different kettles of fish. And, though he spent a lot of time working on weapons as well as the advanced robotics, Green was never allowed to build or test them without ‘supervision’. They also stressed how he was in no way allowed to ever arm the robots they allowed him to keep with him in his lab. There was also his frustrated monomania at having to take anyone’s orders or ask anyone’s permission about anything which occasionally, like now, sent him rampaging through his high tech cage screaming at the top of his lungs in a bewildering jumble of languages. Yet, the sound of explosions, raised voices, and the harsh barking of various weapons penetrated the walls of his vault, with increasing volume, interrupting him mid-tirade and destroying his trains of thought.

With a petulant command, Green dispatched his two electro-mechanical assistants to carry another complaint to the guards. “It’s probably just one of the lesser scientists attempting, crudely, to escape again.” Grumbling much more quietly, he stamped his way back into his lab. Green was fully absorbed in his work within moments. He was attempting to improve the mechanism which extended and retracted the reinforced titanium claws his blasted keepers wouldn’t allow him to reinstall in the robots who served him. It still jammed sometimes at the top range of force the arm could put behind a thrust. Then the claws would have to be removed entirely for repair if the fingers were ever to be used again. The problem was moot as long as he remained a ‘guest’ in that government funded purgatory, but Green believed in planning ahead. He did not even notice when the robots failed to return until he asked one for a tool and the tool was not promptly delivered.

With a barely contained growl of pure rage at yet another distraction, Green charged out into the stairwell leading up from his vault to the triple locked and guarded door which led to the rest of a complex he had never seen (except through the security cameras whose feed he tapped among so many other things he was not supposed to be able to do). Green did not make it past the inner door before he tripped over the fallen form of his favorite of the two creations who served him, female formed and fully functional in esoteric ways which made his solitude easier to endure without the bother and trouble of a human assistant who might object. Green just had time to see the other robot crumpled halfway up the stairs and the unconscious guard leaned gently against the inside of the upper door when he felt another body step in close behind him while at the same time his arms were pinioned to his sides and a sharp blade nicked his throat.

The voice straight out of his nightmares and the target of so many of his tirades sounded harshly in Green’s ear, sending his world spinning with panic. “You know the saying, ‘Those the gods would destroy, they first make mad,’?”

Green did not dare nod his head lest he slit his own weasand, but Peter Morland’s voice continued on regardless. “Well you, Green, are no god, but you certainly did make me mad.” Without further ado, the blade traced a deadly line of fire deep into the neck, slitting esophagus and jugular with one swift stroke. Green felt his blood gushing down his throat into his lungs, drowning him even as he bled swiftly towards death with Peter Morland’s arm still holding him helpless.

Green woke choking and gasping, bound tightly up in the sheets the benevolent state provided and kept clean. Before he could calm his pounding heart and free himself he noticed the nude young woman with green hair and bloody eyes sitting at his feet, one hand resting lightly upon his bare ankle. If it were not for the early morning erection bound at a painful angle within his cotton cocoon, Green might have lost the sudden skirmish between toilet training and dignity on a panic stimulated full bladder.

“You may take this as your only warning. Morland knows about the one you sent after him and has dealt with the problem. This time he is content to let the authorities handle the recriminations. If there is a next time, he will not be so forgiving.” Grey patted the ankle lightly and stood.

She crossed over to the mirror hung on the back of the bathroom door by a previous ‘tenant’. She leaned close and exhaled slowly onto the glass. As he stared, strange designs in maroon, hunter, and silver, glowed a moment under her skin, then the reflected image flowed into a dark paneled room Green never before had seen. With a brief harsh glance back, she stepped through to that other room and the reflection returned just as it had been before.

The next morning when the guards invaded Green’s room to find out how he was contacting the world outside, they were surprised to find Green curled naked in a corner of the lab with his favorite robot and every mirror in the room smashed.

Caught Between Grey and Green (5 of 6)

“I wanted to catch it, not kill it Morland. It is near impossible to question destroyed Sandmen.” With a frustrated sweep of her blade, she splattered all that was left of the Sandman across the room. It quickly melted back into the reflected sunlight from which it first formed.

Stoically, he rose to his feet, bracing himself against the wall as Grey paced around the room. Though the intensity faded to almost nothing with the dispersal of the creature, his head still throbbed with reaction. Ignoring that, Morland asked for want of anything else to say. “And what exactly is a Sandman? I assume the children’s tales of the man with his little sack is inappropriate to the case?”

Without stopping or looking at him, Grey deigned to explain. “It is a construct, mostly mindless, crafted of nightmare, usually a little bit of death, and some element associated with sleep, in this case, moonlight. Darkness, breath, and mist are more usual. It feeds on your dreams. In effect it prevents all the restful restorative things a body does during REM sleep. I could tell you how to make one, and all its limitations and all that, but it is rather beside the point. The point is that thing had a master, and there is not a single thing to stop that master from making another one and sending it after you tomorrow night except perhaps the time and effort involved.” She stopped pacing, and sighed, “Sandmen can be devilishly difficult to ward against if their master is clever, and even then he could just change tactics…” Grey drifted off, studying him. “Your head doesn’t still hurt does it?”

Morland shrugged, “It is nothing to be concerned about.”

“Oh it does.” To his surprise, Grey started, gradually, to grin. The grin turned into a giggle, and that grew into a full blown belly laugh.

“Not so clever…after all.” She gasped regaining control, and started studying the room intently. With a positively child-ike joy she pounced on the door of his wardrobe, and dragged it open, sword poised.

With a disappointed raspberry, she lowered the weapon, and turned to plop down on the edge of Morland’s bed. That is not to say she was wrong. The Sandman’s master was hidden in the over-sized piece of furniture, but the figure who stepped out to meet them already held his hands in the air when revealed.

“Mortimer James Calloway!  You promised not to play with normals anymore, no matter how much you were offered.” Morland could not decide which startled him more, the fact that Grey obviously knew the strange man with the young face and boyish curls of pure white, or the disappointed older sister tone she addressed to his tormentor.

“You can hardly call him a normal, can you Jig. He has a reputation to rival yours in his own sector, and it took me over a month to worm my way past his shields. You know that is almost unheard of for me.” As he spoke, Calloway’s hands moved to accent his words then fell to which Grey said nothing, to Morland, that “Jig” sounded suspiciously like an endearment.

With a sigh Calloway continued, “You’re going to make me break my contract and turn over my employer and all that aren’t you?” He had the effrontery to sound amused. Grey nodded. “And, if I refuse you will employ violence, pain, and other unpleasantries to convince me, won’t you?”

“I have been known to use such methods, yes.” She said with a mock solemn tone and twinkling eyes.

“So I really have no choice.”

“None whatsoever.”

It was obvious that this man was going to give them all the information they could possibly desire. However, the bantering gnawed at Morland’s frayed nerves. Also, the realization that this man who hounded him so long would be let go without any return of pain offended him somehow, even though the last of the headache faded when the wardrobe opened.

“You cannot seriously intend to just release this man once he answers your questions!” Morland broke into the conversation he no longer listened to. Grey and Calloway just looked at him with infuriatingly similar astonished expressions. Morland went on, speaking much louder than he intended. “He just admitted to perpetrating a slow diabolical attempt at murder for money.”

“Not murder,” Grey responded soothingly, and what she said next quite robbed Morland of speech, “Uncle Morty never does anything a mundane doctor couldn’t produce a full recovery from, though he does not inquire as to what his employers do once he softens someone up. He is almost totally amoral, but he does have some principals.”

“Quite so, young chap, don’t worry, I never consent to hit the same mark twice, either. It is no challenge. A few good night’s sleep should see you right as rain, and Jig here can set you up with some quite decent charms against any more jiggery-pokery of this sort.” Calloway’s tone was damnably urbane, but Morland regained control rather than push any farther against apparent family bonds.

Calloway turned back to Grey and his interrupted sentence. “As I was saying, Jig, I don’t think you will have any trouble with the little scientist fellow who hired me. It seems your friend Morland got him into trouble over some great take over the world with super robot’s scheme or other, and now Her Majesty’s government keeps him on a rather short lead. He’s doing some damned good work for them, I understand, but he still bears the grudge. He kept babbling about how, ‘Those the gods would destroy, they first make Mad.’ or some such. I imagine a discreet word in the right ear among his keepers would do the trick.”

With a few more words of a mundane familial nature about visits, letters, and telephone calls, Grey let Calloway step out of Morland’s dream. Suddenly, he just felt so very tired and let down. He felt a gentle caress on his hair beyond the sleeping world.

“Are you going to want my help with the scientist?” Grey asked him gently, fading out of his mind’s eye.

“No, that is all right, I think I can handle what needs to be done.” He felt that shift that he interpreted again as a nod.

“I will stay and guard you tonight and leave in the morning then.” She returned her hand to his shoulder. “Get some rest,” she whispered, and he did.

Caught Between Grey and Green (4 of 6)

The transition from waking to dreaming happened so abruptly that his first sentence in the dream came out, “That was interesting,” before he had time to register where he stood. A long bureaucratic hallway stretched out ahead of him, a dead end stood just behind, and no doors or connecting corridors could be seen. He knew immediately he was not alone, though he saw no one else. The meeting with Grey had kept him awake later than usual that night, and it appeared his tormentor had waited up for him. “That is odd,” the words were just thoughts in the dream, but the part of him that still felt Grey’s arms and legs enfolding him heard them said out loud.

The same part was answered with a question, “What is odd?”

He started walking down the dream way, thinking, “If he was already here, waiting for me to fall asleep, why did I not feel him before?”

“That’s an easy one. Why don’t you wonder something more interesting, like why you are wearing that bright pink monk’s robe?”

Morland scowled, noticing for the first time the long full sleeves, deep cowl, floor length skirts and a significant lack of anything else he wore in the landscape within his mind. A couple moments thought dressed him in trousers, shirt, shoes, and appropriate under garments, but he did not set aside the point made. “You constructed this dreamscape whole, did you not?” he said, not quite asking, and he felt his real shoulder patted, though the wrist was careful not to break contact. “Where does this corridor lead?”

“Go to the head of the class. There is a room at the end of the corridor, and if I do this right, the one haunting you should be inside.”

She paused a moment and he was about to propose another question when she added, “Please don’t ask any more questions. The one pulling your strings knows what he’s doing, and I don’t want to scare him away. This is not as easy as you think.”

Morland wanted to respond, “How would you know what I think,” but considering their method of communication and how obviously she occupied a portion of his mind, he aborted the thought unborn.

As is common in dreams, Morland kept walking for what seemed an unending age in the unchanging corridor until it suddenly ended in a heavy oak door. He reached for the metal ring which sat in the knob’s stead, but Grey’s voice stopped him. “Be careful once we are inside. I have been blocking out most of the effects as you approached, but once we engage, I won’t be able to spare that much of my concentration. Please don’t try to help me. What you’ll see is just your subconscious’ interpretation of a conflict happening on another level that I don’t have time or patience to explain just now.”

A trifle put out by her tone, Morland opened the door and stepped through into… his bedroom, and stared at himself, lying asleep on the bed. The heavy curtains he always kept tightly shut over the broad windows were missing, letting in a wide shaft of impossible moonlight illuminate his still form. At first, Morland thought he slept alone in the bed, but as he watched a translucent creature took shape out of the pale light.

Long fingered hands held his face and a bald, narrow skull bent down as if kissing his forehead. Without warning, the presence of the naked figure of moonlight grew opaque and solid. The monster and the pain of it’s presence within Morland’s skull both screamed with the change, sharp and merciless as a stiletto in the dark. The Peter Morland in the bed slept on, the face peaceful in spite of the ragged bleeding hole where the creature had fed. The Peter Morland by the door collapsed against the wall with both palms pressing against an injury not there, breathlessly not screaming in the agony the other did not feel.

Morland sat helplessly as pain blurred eyes caught the creature leaping from the bed towards him. Then there appeared the shadow of a second figure standing between them. Up until that point, only moonlight from the window and then the creature lit the room. The new figure brought with it a new light, etching her shadow more darkly on the wall. This was the light of a young sun made bearable by a gentle screen of leaves, crafted into curved shape of a sword raised to block the onslaught.

The creature almost impaled itself in the rush of its initial attack, but some how it managed to shift trajectory in mid arc. Between one thought and the next, the bedroom vanished, and the second Morland with it. The walls receded to reveal an overgrown coliseum. The rows of anxious teddy bears lining the stone benches indicated that the Grey shadow with the summer-sword initiated the change, not the bloody mouthed moonlight nightmare. The pain diminished slightly with the change in setting, which could hardly be taken as a bad sign.

The two combatants faced off before him and the glowing monstrosity lashed out, feinting strikes, with taloned hands. Morland recognized Grey only by her shape. The initial darkness of her form did not lighten. She stood motionless, her sword held in both hands high by her head, parallel to the ground. Morland was caught unprepared when the creature darted suddenly to Grey’s left, aiming full speed for him.

Grey’s sword again blocked the way, transported as if by magic. This time there was no facing off. The creature truly turned to her. The two intertwined into a seething knot of violence. It took Morland a long moment to make sense of the roiling movement, but the moonlight seemed unable to mar the shadow, while each touch of the sword diminished the creature. Still, the swift ferocity of his longtime tormentor began forcing Grey back toward Morland.

When it seemed inevitable that Grey’s next dodge would send her falling backward over him, Morland crawled out of the path. He helped her, just like she told him not to. In an impossible jump, Grey sidestepped a two-handed lunge, trailing her blade through where she should have been, or at least she would have if her foot had not caught Morland in the stomach instead of passing through empty air. Off balance, Grey could not avoid the back hand blow which tore away a chunk of darkness from her side, revealing a dripping redness.

A rumbling scream of rage was torn free from her as well. The dreamscape snapped back into Morland’s bedroom. An overhand blow removed the creature’s head in a flash of mingled lights, and she turned to glare down at Morland, suddenly as real and solid as he in bare feet, cutoff khakis and flannel shirt matted to her side with blood, with a plain steel sword in her hand dripping moonlight to puddle on the floor.

Caught Between Grey and Green (3 of 6)

Automatically, once he entered the flat behind Grey the door closed and bolted, keys and wallet dropped into an odd, dark metal box on the table in the entry way, and he did a quick round of the antiseptic metal, leather, and electronically furnished rooms to make sure everything remained as he left it. The habit ignored the duties of a host to his guest, but then the situation never before had arisen. Peter Morland did not entertain guests. When filial devotion rose up within him, he would take his mother out, or visit her in the house of his childhood. His was a three bedroom flat, but one room contained his library and study, the second held his meditation circle and electronics workshop, and only the last contained the bed.

When he returned to the living room, Morland was forcibly reminded of his ‘guest’s’ presence. Her duffel sat open on his deep black couch. The latex pants were draped over the back. Her boots sprawled upon the floor behind it. She stood facing the ever-so-wide television screen. She could not have seen it, though. Her top paused at that moment over her eyes as she shifted her grip to finish pulling it over her head. Fortunately for Morland’s gravity and sanity, she quickly covered the only remaining article of clothing she wore, a V-back in a surprisingly somber shade of blue with a mannishly cut flannel shirt in dull green and cream which hung past mid thigh before she turned to face him.

Ignoring Morland’s incipient explosion, she asked, “Does your unknown visit you every night? Obviously I will have to stay awake, or at least aware, as I monitor you and even such as I can’t go more than a week or so without sleep and stay sharp.”

Her business like tone robbed his indignation of its impetus. Morland sighed his reply, “He began the night time visits once every week or so. Of late, it has been a nightly occurrence. I become aware of him as I begin dreaming. Though I am, by nature and training, a very lucid dreamer, while he remains I cannot wake and search for him.” Barely a hint of his fear and frustration touched his face. Grey, thoughtfully, ignoring that hint.

“I do not know your usual mode of night time apparel, but for my purposes, I must ask that you leave at least your upper body bare. Of course, complete nudity would be better.” Deliberately, she turned to pack away discarded garments before finishing the statement, giving Morland the chance to regain his composure before speaking.

Still, his breathing came a trifle faster when he spoke. “I do not think you understand, Dame Grey among other things. I am a contact clairvoyant, and I no longer have complete control of the talent. Much skin contact between us, or even that well-worn shirt you wear, could send me into a wash of visions from which I can surface only when released. In such a state, my antagonist could burn this building down around us, and I would remain unaware of it.”

Grey’s mouse eating grin crept out of where consideration had hidden it, touched with a decided superiority. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s get to work.” She patted one black clad shoulder as she passed and asked, “Your bedroom’s this way isn’t it? I assume you sleep in the master, and so many of these flats are laid out the same.”

Morland was not quite silent when he asked of an uncaring universe, “What the hell have I allowed myself to get caught up in?” But still he followed her, unbuttoning his cuffs.

Reluctance must have slowed his steps. When Morland entered his room, Grey already sat at the head of his wide bed. She leaned her back against the wall, legs bent, knees wide. The shirt he just unbuttoned and pulled free of the confining waist band gaped no more widely than hers. Morland paused, staring, one shoulder uncovered, and Grey scowled at him.

“Don’t worry I am not making a pass at you. Like yours, some of my talents work more strongly through contact. I have a fairly good idea of what’s been haunting you, but in order to make sure I’m going to have to walk your dreams. Besides, you would probably like to know who sent it and why, and that can’t be done without confronting the whatever-it-is.” He still stood frozen and Grey sighed. “Don’t worry about your visions either. The other reason for this is to keep you out of contact with the shirt. I am less than half-human and more than capable of keeping you from accidentally wandering my past. The thong is new and machine made. Strip as far as you’re going to and come over here. The sooner we get this begun the sooner you pay me and I go away.”

“I am not sure I will be able to sleep. I am unaccustomed to sleeping in company.” Morland said with stiff dignity. Calmly he shucked all but a pair of commonplace cotton boxer shorts, in spite of the curious way Grey watched him. He knew his figure was not match for Grey’s youthful athletic curves, but it hardly stood to scorn for a man of 35. He wondered what she thought of the scars and other marks of old violence he saw no sign on her skin. Some trick of her mixed genetics must include super-human healing. Theirs was not a sedentary or uneventful profession.

Only a little tentatively, Morland took his place between her legs to pillow his head on her lower stomach. When visions came, some of the tension flowed out of him. Gentle fingers moved into his range of sight to trace the parallel scars running from the back of his shoulder down to his upper stomach from bottom to top. “These look like cat claws, but they’re too clean.”

He answered the implied question, “It was robotic.”

Morland felt her shift slightly and inferred a nod. He heard a slight, quick exhalation and the lights went out like blown candles. She rested her hands lightly on his pectoral muscles, and stretched her legs down his sides. “Go to sleep, Peter,” she whispered, and he did…

Caught Between Grey and Green (2 of 6)

The coffee shop Grey took him to provided a far more familiar setting for Morland. It nestled into a side street with a subdued sign and calm atmosphere. The furnishings made an unorthodox picture. Old comfortable couches and heaps of pillows outnumbered the typical tables and chairs, but the subdued atmosphere encouraged thought and study, rather than riot and laughter. Students in singles and small groups clotted the room with books and papers often eclipsing coffee cups and pastry plates with the occasional don wading through a stack of essays. No mob of club-fresh young people would totter into that place for something to eat before consenting to disperse back to their own rooms.

Morland went there sometimes to read in peace when the weather frowned to wetly for sitting outside and the confines of his own rooms became too small, but he never received the greeting and service inspired by Grey’s company. Once upon a time a pair of foreign exchange students from the American north-western coast came to be the latest incarnation of the Heavenly Cup’s management. Now, as a middle-aged husband and wife team it still showed in the way each step from roasting to serving of the coffee preparation stood on display and the expansive variations on the theme of caffeine overdose, but they adapted very well to Oxford’s atmosphere of hallowed antiquity beneath the modern bustle. Their eldest child, Kaitlyn, presided at the counter with her displays of skill that night but she barely paused to finish the orders she was preparing when she saw Grey enter the place. Morland was overwhelmed and nearly forgotten in the sedate rush to greet the odd young woman who claimed to be Julian Grey, heir to Lord Aaron Grey, knighted by two monarchs from under the hills, one of the most talked of but least well known independents in the fantastic field.

Softly, sullenly, on the edge of the babble that swept up several of the customers as well as almost the entire staff, Morland grumbled, “She can not be Julian Grey.” She paused to glare at him over the head of a bubbling waitress. Grey heard him, and he wondered why he was surprised. He could have heard him in her place too, even with his earphones on. Independent troubleshooters do not last long dealing with those other than humans without a good bit of the Other in themselves.

Before long– though it seemed an eternity to Morland– they were established in one of the mounds of pillows with a low table in reach loaded with cups, sandwiches, pastries, and at least two kinds of soup, and business settled back to its normal level of serenity. Morland would have preferred one of the couches if not actually a table, while Grey settled comfortably into place. Rather than ask to move, he napped, “What was all that about? Work here part-time while up at University, do you?”

Grey smiled at him, like a cat at a particularly energetic mouse. “In a manner of speaking, yes, I did some work here when I was a student. The present management was having a spot of bother with a former owner which I helped straighten out for them.”

“Oh how impressive,” Morland muttered, his mind drifting back to his own problems and whether or not this fraud could actually help him or if she should be left to pay the rather large tab as a lesson in deference to her elders and betters while he went in search of the real Julian Grey or some more reasonable substitute.

Grey’s tone went cold and flat as her blood dark eyes. “The former owner was haunting the place, scaring away the customers, breaking the equipment and beginning to physically assault the staff when I stepped in. He did not approve of their bringing in the cappuccino machine and had severe doubts as to the capabilities of a pair of freshly matriculated Americans with two young children in properly running this place.” She paused reminiscently then added, “He isn’t such a bad old boy for all that. I caught him playing with Kaitlyn while her parents busily cleaned up the latest mess he had made. Once he agreed to listen, I had a friend incarnate him long enough to try one of their concoctions, and helped them negotiate terms they could all…go on with. Then the excitement died down. He pops in now and again to check on them. He only manifests to Kaitlyn, usually. I believe he still prefers macchiato to cappuccino though.”

In spite of his stubbornness, Morland was not stupid. He caught the hints in the tale, most notably that if Grey was in University when the young woman behind the counter was in diapers, she had quite a few more years behind her than he did. Secondly, Grey had skills beyond the obvious court connections and talent for violence which formed the most part of his, rather her, reputation. Either that or she was a liar, a fraud, and probably part of the plot surrounding him.

For several minutes Grey left him with the scrambled mess that she helped to make of his thoughts, and made her way steadily through the range of calories, carbohydrates, and caffeine spread before them. Almost, Morland got lost in his own mind and started up his music again, forgetting Julian Grey and his intention of fetching help but he caught himself in time and the near miss gave new urgency to his need. Never before had his thoughts wandered so. It would be a great way to get killed if it happened on an assignment, or worse, a way to lose his mind entirely.

Morland wondered if Grey could read his thoughts when she spoke as the decision to trust her formed, but he hoped his concentration was not that bad. “Are you ready to tell me what’s biting you now?”

“Your hair and eye colors are natural aren’t they?” he asked and almost instantly wondered why. The question was so inane.

Grey, however, nodded as if it were the first intelligent thing he said the entire evening, “A legacy from my mother. I was lucky. One of my half brothers is bubble gum pink from head to toe. Even the whites and pupils of his eyes, and teeth have a pinkish cast.

Morland captured a deep breath for a few moments and nodded. “Julian Ialliam Grey. I am being hunted. I do not know by whom or for what reason. All I know is that the one after me is male, and his powers are completely beyond my realm of expertise. I know when he is nearby. He is like a jagged rock tearing into my mind, but I can determine no more than this. I feel him mostly at night while I sleep, and the longer this goes on the harder it is becoming for me to focus my mind. I have had to resort again to wearing gloves to prevent picking up visions from everything and everyone I touch, an expedient I have not needed since I started shaving regularly. My few contacts among the Other all deal with my own line of work and have gotten no farther than that the threat is most likely Fantastic in nature, though there are hints of the Gothic involved. Her Majesty’s paid servants who deal with the Other, in having all Her resources to draw upon, rarely achieve great skill as individuals, and could find nothing in my case on which to gain purchase, even hinting, ever so indirectly, that I was imagining things.”

For a moment, it seemed Grey’s second bowl of soup disagreed violently with her palate considering the way her face contorted and the extreme care she took in setting bowl and spoon aside. “And so you went through the time and trouble of tracking down Julian Grey, the great man ennobled by the Others for services rendered, heir to a title in his own right, and famous all over the world for single handedly slaying a moderate sized dragon of the non-sentient type in the middle of a small German town square with no weapon but a small dagger and wearing nothing but shorts, tank top, running shoes, and a lot of dragon blood where a libelous reporter with a quicker camera than wit could see and further confuse the question of my gender with his poor grasp of German grammar and pronouns from which all the other editions were translated.” Grey vented all in one breath though, perhaps, not legitimately all in one sentence.

Morland’s smile in response was small but authentic, and after a moment Grey smiled back when he responded, “Something like that, yes. Are you interested in the case? I understand that the fees in your area vary by the degree of the threat involved so in a case of the unknown like this, one begins with a flat rate by the day plus any medical costs, with the bulk to be paid on the determination of the scope of the issue. Does that sound agreeable to you?”

Grey’s response to the discussion of money was desultory, but then her mouse eating grin snuck across her face. “You said you sense your antagonist mostly at night.” She waited for Morland to acknowledge with a nod then went on. “Then it looks like I’ll be sleeping with you tonight. I hope you drove, because I would like to stop by my digs for a few things on the way back to your place and taxi men can be such nosy parkers about such things.” Without another word she bounced up from her place and over to say her good-byes to Kaitlyn and the rest while Morland stumbled to his feet. He noticed there seemed no hint of cash exchange in the goings on. It seemed that free food was part of the Heavenly Cup’s ongoing attempt to repay Grey for services rendered.

Looking around at the array of empty dishes she left in her wake Morland muttered, “The haunting must have been worse than she it sounded, or she comes by very rarely. Otherwise, they’re likely to go out of business with the way that she eats.” He looked up to find both Grey and Kaitlyn glaring at him from across the room. Peter Morland blushed and made his way outside to wait for Grey and wonder what on earth he was getting himself into.

Grey’s “digs” turned out to be no more than a single crowded room in a tiny bed and breakfast a few miles out of town. Either she had only just checked in or repacked the bag before she went to meet him. When Morland followed her into the second floor room with the high canopied bed and the country Victorian furnishings he found everything neat and tidy save for the large army green duffel sitting at the foot of the bed. Grey had to argue a bit to get the active white haired proprietress to accept the sheaf of notes she produced. Morland could not fathom where it had been hidden in her pocket-less brief sheath of spandex and latex. The lady kissed Grey on the cheek as they parted. Morland found himself following her around like a sleepy puppy, wondering about the odd feel he got from the elderly little woman.

Relative peace reigned on the drive back to town, where Morland had the opportunity to restore some form of order to the disarray this Julian Grey made of his expectations. Unfortunately, he was not quite able to do so. The persecution had a longer history than he admitted to anyone, much less this discordant note he invited unwittingly into his life. Beyond such immediate concerns as keeping to the left side of the road, watching for pedestrians, pets, and traffic signals, Morland found himself quite unable to force his thoughts into the order he desired.

“What have I allowed myself to become embroiled in? Julian Grey should have been a tall, slim, quietly dressed gentleman. Well, she is tall and slim, taller than you are even without those spikes on her boots. Yes, but she should be a he, an older, wiser head for one to turn to, not this teenage club cub. But she is not teenage and you both know and believe it. She is at least in her mid forties possibly older no matter what she looks like.

With a slight jolt, Morland braked harder than was his want when the vehicle preceding him over reacted to a shift from green to yellow ahead and tried to drag his thoughts back in line. “Julian Grey was to have listened to one seriously, perhaps over a quiet cup of tea. She did give you tea, even if she drank coffee, and after a few sharp questions Julian Grey should go off and investigate, possibly including one in a bit of that fantastic mumbo jumbo. After all, if it didn’t fall into one of the other Other classifications you wouldn’t need help in the first place, in spite of how skeptical and derisive you may be about the validity of the magic dealing realms of interest. A couple of days after the initial consultation, maybe four at the outside, after all not everyone can be as efficient as you are, and there might have been the need to wait for the full of the moon or some other such nonsense, Julian Grey should explain the issue, and the problem should be dealt with neatly, cleanly, and finally. Then one could return home and finally get some real rest for the first time in months. Does she really plan to sleep with me tonight?  Oh god, will she wear a proper night dress?” Morland glanced over at Grey, taking in the brief scrap of green spandex barely covering her breasts and the latex hugging her from the hips down to her boots with zippers from ankle to knee as well as standard at the front as the only way her feet could possibly fit through the narrowness of the cut and despaired.

With a sigh, Morland turned into the small parking garage where he kept his spotless Rabbit when he was at home. Another worry drifted through his mind. “Talking to yourself is not a good sign you know. I am not yet doing it aloud, and there have been indications talking to oneself may be a sign of higher intelligence. Many madmen are said to be above average intelligence.” Quietly, Morland led the way upstairs to his flat.

Caught Between Grey and Green (1 of 6)

We Mooses and our friends have only a brief cameo appearance in this story, but it is November and my Minion and I are going to be focused on writing our 50k word Novel for NaNoWriMo.org (where the minion goes by the name of Moosette rather than working for me directly). This short story served as the initial idea for her first NaNoWriMo novel, so it seems appropriate.

The noise in the room flowed deep enough for Peter Morland to drown in. People’s voices and the throb of techno music filled the place to overflowing, as any good dance club should on a Friday night during term time in a  university town. Much of the two-story room’s population exuded youth and vibrancy drop by drop to swell the flood even higher.

In an odd corner, he sat calmly fighting back the tide, swathed in black from neck to fingertip and from fingertip to toes. His was not a trendy black or a Goth black, it was just the mixed black of a man whose entire wardrobe was dark, simple, and chosen primarily at random. He chose his position facing the room only to keep his back unassailable. Even in the smothering heat of the room he wore a high collar and thin gloves that left not a square inch of skin below the jaw exposed to view. The small, black, wire-tethered earphones battled the drowning tide of sound in the room with a steady stream of his own choosing. And his flat supercilious stare prevented the approach of inquisitive or even affable strangers, for a good forty minutes anyway.

As music momentarily faded to the shifting percussive bridge between one song and the next, a single figure detached itself from the churning mass of human flesh on the main dance floor. With bouncing steps it breached his small bubble of calm. A quick move and the chair opposite him spun so she could sit with arms crossed across the top and smile at him with an energy beyond just the zeal of youth. She chose to speak first, before his glaze could freeze her in place with its inhospitality and disdain.

“I give up. You win. You will not come find me, even though you are only drawn into this horrible den to meet with me, even though you live in Oxford all the year round, and could come during the vac when it is far less crowded if you chose. Now I have come to you. If the matter were to be left in your hands, you should most likely sit here until you decided I am not going to show, and leave having had no fun at all.” Her smile was bright and heavily colored. The  face was as young as any other in the room as she congenially shouted at him in a conversational tone but something in the eyes did not match. The smell of alcohol on her breath carried surprisingly well in the haze of cigarette smoke did, however. He could taste it with every inhalation, and so the discrepancy did not manage to diminish his initial distaste for the ‘young’ person addressing him.

“You are mistaken, miss. You are not the individual for whom I wait. Your hair is cut mannishly short and even in this subdued and erratic lighting it is noticeably green. Your face is hardly beyond teen-age. Your demeanor is too frivolous. And, your figure both too curvy and too well exposed to be the one I expect. Now, please remove yourself from my table and return to your alcoholic flavored fornications.”

She sat straighter and her cheerful tone dropped into an older, lower, more cynical register, matching his disdain, though retaining the humor. “I do not doubt I am not the person you were expecting, but I am the person for whom you wait. I suggest you rethink your assumptions before you open your mouth again, Mr. Peter Morland. You have already shoved one foot ankle deep within its confines. If you insist on sending the other in after it the combined mass may choke you.” The amusement she manifested did nothing to diminish the threat carried within the final remark.

Peter’s mouth opened wide as if to accommodate the metaphorical appendage. He removed the defensive devices he wore hooked over his ears. When he responded, his words came slow and at such a low volume no normal person could possibly separate them from the steady flood of sound in the room, “Sir Julian Grey?”

“That honorific is so obviously improperly gendered there is no need for its denial or correction. You may address me as Grey. If you still want my help you may also promptly dismiss any further displays of surprise or disbelief. You may, however, decide you no longer desire my assistance in whatever enterprise you have in hand for reasons I do not care to speculate as to the nature of. I would suggest, if so, that you say so at once. I am certain you have other places to be and I, also, have much better things to do.”

Peter snapped his mouth shut with a scowl, “Can we discuss my proposal somewhere it is not necessary to shout?” Grey’s nod was archaically gracious. She was polite enough not to point out they had no need to shout there, and suddenly Morland recognized the discrepancy about her eyes. Those eyes were far older than her face and form had any right to be.

Ships in a Bottle (Conclusion)

By the time Captain Amelia and Delbert returned with three half grown kittens and a puppy all very much after their parent’s patterns, things were already moving. Amelia closed the airlock and arrived…somewhere else with Tilda chattering in their ears. “Things took off rather faster than we expected once Ralf took over writing the general announcement to alert everyone on board as to what was going on, and Captain Milty found and enlisted the rest of his crew.”

Amelia had her son riding her left hip while one daughter held her right hand. Delbert carried their second daughter with her face buried in his neck under his floppy ear and restraining their third daughter’s urge to explore with a careful, but immovable grasp on her wrist. Tilda’s voice came from somewhere between the two adults, still clear through the restrained chaos in which they stood.

The newly reunited family stood in probably the only quiet corner left in one of the residential decks. They stood half hidden behind a large potted plant that helped frame a door between the long bit of hallway studded with doors on their left and a wide spot in the hall decorated with conversational groupings of furniture around sections of brightly colored rug, low tables, or raised fire pits that required no fuel and gave off only enough smoke to scent the air without lingering in people’s hair, fur, or clothing.

Every door along the hall gaped open wide. Some of the rooms beyond already stood dark and abandoned, but most had people of sizes similar to Amelia and Delbert but a wide variety of shapes rushing in and out with arms, wings, and claws full of the belongings they collected during their stay. Tilda had been very generous with new clothes, instruments, tools, books, and whatever else her unwilling occupants required to fill their time comfortably.

All along the walls a dizzying array of arrows and symbols glowed in a hyperextended rainbow of colors. As each person rushed passed, a certain arrow or symbol in a certain color shone out more brightly and slide to their eye level. In the common area small groups gathered under corresponding symbols and colors in one of the collections of furniture. Then, at some unseen signal or prompting the group vanished and a new arrow or symbol could blossom in its place.

“As you can see, we do not really need either of you to show people where to go, but Captain Milty, Monroe, Miltin, and Ralf have a task they are certain you and your children can help with,” Tilda said when Amelia and Delbert’s eyes and hands proved to busy taking in their surroundings and managing their four little ones to work their mouths.

“Are we going to go see the Mooses, Mama?” the puppy in Amelia’s arm asked, trying to look every way at once so as not to miss anything going on around them.

“Yes, Darwin.” Amelia smiled, bouncing the boy a little higher on her hip.

“Did you know we have story books with Mooses in?” Darwin asked excitedly, as if his mother had not read him every story book he owned at least once.

“Yes dear,” Captain Amelia said patiently. Then she really thought about it and exchanged glances with Delbert. They had not seriously made the connection before.

“Do you think we might get to visit the Star Child if we are a big enough help?” Little Amelia, or Amy asked, for the first time turning back to look up at her parents instead of tugging to get away from her father’s grasp.

“I do not know,” Amelia said, still looking at Delbert. There was a Captain Milty of the Star Child in some of the stories, and a Miltin, too, but they were just stories, or were they?

Before they could get too wrapped up in their family discussion, Tilda interrupted. “Let me set up a guide for you. I could have transported you right to them, but Monroe thought the young ones would like to see some of the ship along the way.” Suddenly, the great profusion of symbols, arrows, and colors on the walls faded out until only one remained. The stylised outline of a moose shown green on the wall facing towards the open space, with another a few feet further along.

“Can we go?” came a soft voice from Delbert’s shoulder.

“If even Violet has shown an interest, there can be no doubt,” a small definite voice said from the girl at Amelia’s side. Amy might have her mother’s bravery, but Jessica had the full measure of the Captain’s manner of command.

“Amy, you and Jess may lead the way, but only if you stay together and do not rush too far ahead.” Amelia released her grip and Jessica stepped forward to claim Amy’s  free hand before Delbert released his grip. The two little girls led the way, running a few steps ahead then Jess pulled them to a halt to wait for the grown ups to catch up. Amelia let Darwin down, at his insistence, but he was content to hold his mother’s hand. That way he could look his fill without getting lost, or walking into things, while still being independent enough to walk for himself.

In this way, they crossed the common area, the moose symbol shifting from the wall to the floor in the open space. They passed people who seemed all made up of fresh grass bundles and a trio of singing snakes who harmonized while they slithered, carrying their belongings in colorful sacks on their backs. The incredibly brave sailors made of salt sat waiting their return to the open sea with exaggerated calm wearing cellophane suits as they could not stand getting wet.

A confusing jumble of people stood arguing with an image of Tilda on a wall screen. They insisted that they had, most definitely gone to sea in a sieve, and they liked it just fine the way it was. “We do not give a fig if it has holes in it!” one of them yelled. “We like it that way. Now, just put us back where you got us and stop trying to ‘fix’ our lovely craft.”

Once across the common area and into the next stretch of hall way, Amy and Jess darted around frogs and slugs and insects and hippos and seals following the little green moose symbol. A tall human with messy hair and a long chin wearing a bowtie dodged down the hall in the opposite direction yelling, “Geronimo!” A redhead with a cutlass wearing a hat and coat not unlike Captain Milty’s followed close on the bowtie’s heels with a long nosed gentleman a close third.

“Really should not be running with a drawn weapon in a hallway this crowded,” Darwin told his mother after she lifted him quickly out of their way.

“I don’t think it is at all sharp or nearly as sturdy as it looks. Tilda did not transport anyone on board with any weapons. Sofo complained about it quite loudly and how ridiculous his belt looked with nothing hanging from it. Those three would have had to find their own way aboard, like we did, and there are no other ships in this area of space,” Delbert said, watching a bashful band of pirates torn between wanting to barge down the hall and not wanting anyone to get hurt.

“There are no others according to the same sensors that said this ship is really quite small, dormant, and unpeopled,” Darwin said without looking at his father.

“He has a point.” Captain Amelia laughed.

As they walked down the hall the crowd thinned, all heading back the way the family came until the hallway blossomed out into another wide, common area, but quite unlike the dormitory-like space they saw before. To the senses, the six star sailors stepped from a ship’s passageway into the open air of a meticulously sculpted and maintained garden. They could smell the flowers, grass, and water from the small stream lacing throughout the space. Something very like sunshine warmed their skin, gentled by a touch of breeze. They could hear the play of the water in its stony bed and see the warm Spring colors. If they tried, every thing would taste just as it should as well, but the children were too well mannered to go randomly licking the landscape and too well fed to try eating rocks and flowers without good reason.

In a wide swath of grass near the garden’s center, two large sized groups huddled together facing a much smaller one consisting of the three Mooses. Ralf seemed to have disappeared, and Sofo lay spread out at the stream bank snoring softly, as far from the confrontation as he could without departing entirely. It was clear, if very odd, that the two big groups–each one made up of at least three generations of big families where even the children stood much taller than the Mooses–stood in a defensive huddle with the defenders in the front and the young and old in the back, as if the Mooses were threatening them in some way. A ridiculous idea.

Captain Milty stood with his back to the two families, and waved when he caught sight of the new group’s approach. Monroe and Miltin were sitting in the grass, the former reading and the latter writing, but when the captain waved they tucked their books away and quickly climbed to their feet.

“Where is Ralf?” Darwin asked when they were close enough he did not have to shout too much to be heard. He wanted to know the answer, but he did not want to get in trouble about it.

“She went with the ship she came upon. Once returned to their ship, the crew and officers were disinclined to wait. Ralf and Tilda decided that while the poor humans did not really have any choice in the matter, there was no need to rub it in,” Monroe said, smiling up at the boy.

“So what seems to be the problem here?” Captain Amelia asked, turning her gaze to include the two families as well as the Mooses. The family on the left was a homogeneous sort. They had male and female, young and old, but they all had similar shades of orange skin. Their eyes covered a relatively narrow range of dark blues and greys, with hair all shades of brown from nearly black to a tan so pale as to be almost white, and their features all showed a familial similarity. The family on the right showed much more variety in shape, like Amelia and Delbert, they showed aspects of fox, raccoon, and bear though all shifted to similar size. But while with Darwin, Amy, Jessica, and Violet, the different shapes bred true, in the larger family they blended, so you got a momma bear with a raccoon mask and a fox tail and a poppa raccoon with fox ears and hardly any tail, with children blends of the two.

“We have been trying to find out where these fine people want to go, as their ship’s systems have catastrophically failed while they have been aboard,” Captain Milty said waving at the huddle on the right. “And we are trying to get permission from these good folk,” he waved to his left, “To board their craft and enact repairs so that they may pick up their travels again, but they both refuse, and they will not say why.”

While the adults were focused upon Captain Milty, the children from all three sides managed to slip away from their parents to form their own group in the middle. As they talked quietly, stayed nearby, and seemed to be making no trouble, no one sought to interfere.

“If our ship requires repairs, let us do the work. We do not need your help,” a fox eared bear with a raccoon’s tail rumbled from the right hand group.

“But we have already told you that the atmosphere in your ship is both too thin and toxic until the repairs can be made, and you know very well that your suits are not capable of withstanding the conditions long enough to make the ship safe, especially since some of the damage is in areas much more our size than yours. I could have fixed your ship twice in the time we have spent arguing about it,” Miltin said waving his arms.

“And we have told you time and again, that the only place we want to go is home,” a tall, sturdy matron in the other group said. She had long tendrils of straight, chocolate brown hair that arced low to either side of her face with the ends caught up in clips at the back of her head.

“Yes, you tell us that you want to go home, but you will not give us the first idea where that is,” Captain Milty said, his pooves sunk deep in his pockets as he met her gaze steadily. “And when we ask where you were headed before you got stuck, you tell us there is no point in going there without the cargo which was lost with your ship.” The matron nodded to acknowledge the words, without adding anything new.

Monroe smiled wryly at Amelia and Delbert. “Ralf seemed to figure out the source of our impasse, and that you and your children could help, but that was right before the human captain of her vessel became obstreperous and she had to rush off without explaining. Do you have any ideas?”

Violet slipped back to her father’s side as Monroe spoke, and climbed back into Delbert’s arms in a move so common that he hardly noticed her presence until she answered the Moose, looking out at him from under Delbert’s ear. “Please do not let Farbled go back to his ship the way he says.”

“Is that the spokesperson for the furred ones?” Delbert asked. He had been about to ask if Tilda could provide them new suits better up to the task.

“He and the others who go plan to destroy the ship, and Murbla does not want him to go away forever that way.” Violet pointed at one of the little furry girls, who had much the same markings as her uncle.

“Why in the worlds would they do that?” Captain Amelia asked.

“So the rest of the family can stay here. If this ship starts sailing again, they can still trade and visit and do all the things they used to do, but on the BoteFlascheru there is so much more room and no worries about fuel or food, and it has trees,” Violet said, and while her voice stayed quiet, her tone said that the answer should have been obvious.

“Did any of the orange skinned children say why their parents will not answer our questions?” Monroe asked, aware that Captain Milty and Miltin had engaged the attention of both families to pull it away from Violet and what she might be saying.

“They are not trying to be difficult and are giving you the only answer they have. Their homeworld was destroyed a long time ago, but they knew it was coming and sent out as many families as they could in ships to try to find a new one, a new home like the old. Then they were supposed to send out a special beacon to call the survivors to it. Unfortunately, they no longer know how the beacon was made, so with their ship gone, even if they find home, they can no longer tell anyone about it. This makes the grown ups angry and sad and embarrassed, so they tell you the truth but do not explain,” Violet said with a slow shake of her head.

“Perfect,” Monroe said rubbing his pooves together.

“Perfect how?” Amelia asked, patting her daughter’s shoulder in mingled congratulations and thanks.

“Both families can stay on board and keep Tilda company, and their two missions will give her enough to keep her busy. She can not go back to the people who built her. They have issues with computers that can think for themselves, and with her history they are likely to tear her out and replace her with a new model that will do as it is told.

“Between Miltin and Tilda I am certain that the beacon can be repaired or replaced, and Tilda can reteach them any technology they have lost,” Monroe said glancing over at where the negotiations were still getting nowhere.

“So I helped?” Violet asked.

“You not only helped, you solved the whole mystery!” Monroe answered without hesitation.

“Then, do you think my brother, sisters, and I could visit Captain Milty’s ship before everyone goes their different ways?” Hope lit up Violet’s eyes.

“Little one, if your parents approve, I am certain Captain Milty will agree that you may not only visit the Star Child, but also help set the sails, and take a turn at the helm,” Monroe said and bowed to her with one poof over his heart.

For probably the first time in her life, everyone in the garden heard Violet clearly as she yelled, “Hooray!”