November 17, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Five Part 3

“We, uh . . . Thalia, my home world, a planet far outside this isolated sector—a place I’ve never seen—is dying. We needed a new place to live.” His gaze roamed her face, probing for understanding, acceptance. But found her thoughts and emotions heavily shielded. “A couple hundred years ago scout ships were sent out to different quadrants of the galaxy, searching for habitable planets. Fleet delegations were sent out to explore different possibilities. Our fleet came to Earth with advanced technology and the hope to quietly infiltrate human society without alarming the population.” Emotion seemed to grip his throat and squeeze.

Giving him a shuttered stare, Debra rigidly crossed her arms. “Living under a lake is hardly infiltrating society.” So why make up such a preposterous story if there wasn’t some truth to it?

Annoyed, Damon sprawled into the nearest thickly cushioned chair. “My sweet Debra,” he retorted sarcastically. “Quick and to the point as usual.” His teeth clenched tightly together as he studied his lover, his wife, poised like some warrior goddess on the side of his bed.

“You’re right,” he finally said. “We’re a long way from living with humans. And the cost of this journey to Earth may well be too high for any of us to pay.” His gaze locked with hers, commanding her full attention. “We orbited this planet for years, learning your languages and customs. Those picked for the on-land colony and construction teams were vaccinated against every known bacterial and viral infection ever recorded in human history.”

His eyes drifted away, seeing the past. “Six months into the settlement, the colonists started getting ill. Just respiratory problems at first. His brow furrowed, the anguish plain in his voice. “Our best scientific minds couldn’t find the cause until too late. It took three slow, painful years to kill everyone of the on-land team, not to mention all the craftsmen who helped build the town. If Rowan hadn’t mandated only the colonists and essential personnel be allowed ground-side, we most probably would have been wiped out entirely.”

Powerful fists clenched at the senseless waste. “The humans, through ignorance and apathy, damaged the protective ozone layer around the planet. Massive cell deterioration, like a cancer, then mercifully complete system failure. Killed them all,” he whispered, hands rubbing together as though still trying to remove the blood of so many victims.

Damon angled his head at her, dark eyes smoldering with emotion. “Now the humans are at risk as well. No longer totally shielded from harmful radiation, they struggle against a losing battle to overcome tougher forms of cancers and mutating bacterial and viral strains; each more deadly with every passing year.”

No longer able to sit still, Damon pushed to his feet, the weight of two worlds crushing down on his shoulders. He stopped in front of her, hands on hips and almost spat the words at her. “You wanted the truth? Well, there it is. We came looking for a home and now the humans have us all on a one-way track to oblivion.” Hands sliding into pockets, he pulled back from the anger and stared unseeing at the portrait of Debra. “So . . . the underwater cities,” he offered wearily. “It protects us from the atmosphere, and more. And should the worst continue above, then we left one dying planet for another.”

Debra watched him in silence as he turned away, feeling his agony without actually sensing it. Believing every word had cooled some of her own anger. But the truth was still a long way from easing the disappointment and mistrust that curdled sourly in her stomach.

“Surely by now your scientists have some kind of cure in the works for immunizing your people? Some theories, at least, of how to stop the damage?” she quietly asked.

A bleak despair flitted across his drawn face. “I lost both my parents to the virus. And there’s not a person in this city that hasn’t been touched by all those deaths in some way.” Cheek muscles flexed as he clenched his teeth. “A way to build up our resistance to the atmosphere is underway. And the ozone layer, as you call it, could mend itself if the humans would just stop poisoning the air,” he said solemnly.

Dark brows gathered in concern. “If above is so dangerous for you, why not stay here in this beautiful city? You have everything you could possibly need.”

Wide shoulders squared stubbornly. “If the earth becomes radiated to death, we die with her. But just as important, children who are born and live in the city have no immunity against the virus. For our offspring to have any chance for natural immunization to the atmosphere—“

“You need a human and an alien to mate,” she interrupted, eyes glittering hotly. “And the result is me.” Once more she saw the images of the black bordered photographs and the wretched face staring back at her. “No. not just me. But all the women like me who gave birth to Weena and the other children.”

And then the truth hit her, hard. “They’re all dead. Aren’t they?

He nodded slowly, emotions storming across his hardened face “Hally,” Damon said simply. “You’re so much stronger than they were—“

“Don’t,” she said tightly, eyes unnaturally bright in the bedroom light. “Don’t call me that like everything’s okay now. Like we’ll just pick up where we left off in the dream world.” She grew more distraught. “I will not be your broodmare. I don’t care how much time and effort you’ve put into conditioning me.” A sob caught in her throat. “The dream world, all the promises, just to keep me alive. It all makes sense now.”

Angry tears blurred his face. “You may have released the truth inside me, but I will never trust you again,” she cried heatedly, then called upon every ounce of strength to bury her emotions and humiliation. “Tell me who my real father is? Because it sure as hell wasn’t Jeffery Hall.” Her head was spinning, her stomach fighting waves of nausea but she pushed on, wanting to know it all.

Debra sat down hard on the bed. “What am I? Some kind of test tube experiment? Something spliced together in the blender and gestated inside my mother? Christ, no wonder she hated me.”

On his knees before her, Damon firmly clasped her trembling fists. He had never seen such naked fear on her face before. “No, it wasn’t like that,” he quickly assured her, his own eyes brimming with tears. “Your parents loved each other, deeply. Just as they loved you. But when your father died of the virus your mother was devastated and had to be hospitalized for a long time.”

Pinpricks of pain against his hands drew his gaze. Tiny slivers of kinetic energy arced menacing over her slender fingers. “Edith was right,” he whispered. “Everything’s instinctive with you. Already so deadly, yet you’ve barely touched your potential.”

Years of blending thoughts and emotions had made her strengths and weaknesses well known to him. Undaunted by the enormity of that power, Damon pressed his palm firmly against her smaller hand and willed the energy discharge to dissipate. “All you’ve accomplished, and on your own. If you won’t believe my words then touch my mind now and know how full I am of pride and love for you.”

Forgiveness just wasn’t in her to give at the moment. It was time to go before he weaved some spell that had her promising to jump over the moon for him. Just as he had so many times in the dream world. “I’m tired and I’ve had enough for tonight,” she said stiffly.

Annoyance, disappointment, and desire flashed across his face. “Sleep would probably do us both good.” He motioned for her to precede him into the next room. “Would you prefer quarters in the city or make the return journey above and stay with Edith?”

Debra hesitated in the bedroom doorway, her back straight and unyielding. “Why are Weena and the other children dying if they’ve never been above in the atmosphere?”

She heard his breath quicken.

“A generational genetic mutation,” he said grimly. “Weena and the other children have BiFetal Degenerative Syndrome. That means every system in the child’s body will begin to deteriorate from the moment of birth. Each one of them has or will suffer complete physical shutdown and death by their fifth or sixth year. Unless we find a way to stop it.”

Fear screamed the obvious in her head. Weena would die soon. Death for Ruthie and Weena. Death for her father and his parents. Now death was approaching for her. She wanted Damon to stop. Needed him to stop. But his relentless words continued to wound her.

“You’re the last of the original fifty bi-human children. You and the others were phase one of a Thalian-Human propagation program to fully immunize our newborn to Earth.”

His stomach tightened in helplessness as he watched her shoulders brace even more as though for a hard blow. Always it was too many questions with her. Always needing answers. Never letting go, no matter the consequences, until everything was made clear.

Damon shook his head in resignation. How many times had he hovered in the shadows, waiting to pick up the pieces, afraid that her tenacity would someday break her beyond repair? But she never broke completely. So much stronger than the others of her generation. And that formidable strength of mind and body would be needed if she was going to survive the next trial, let alone save a nation.

Debra turned, leaning against the doorjamb, watching him.

Love hit him like a hammer once again and the anger drained leaving his mind tired. “Phase one was successful; a human female and Thalian male were assisted in creating a female child. Your generation. All of you were immune to the atmosphere and able to live above. And as expected, integrating the two different species caused a skewing in the genetic makeup. The Thalian half of the psyche was buried in the subconscious to prevent knowledge of our existence from becoming public and raising alarm.”

Unable to help himself, his gaze roamed her emotionless face. “What wasn’t expected was the brutal emotional imbalance at the onset of puberty. Shari’s Syndrome. Or, as you like to call it, the black rage. A condition that worsens after the woman gives birth. Everything was tried and nothing worked. You’re all that remains of hope to the earthbound Thalian race.

Damon stepped closer to her, not touching, but offering what little comfort he could. “The second-generation children are highly intelligent and brilliantly gifted psychically. They also seem to have been born without the emotional imbalance. Although, it can’t be confirmed since none have reached puberty.”

His hands rested lightly on her arms. “But in embryo their genetic makeup went beyond skewed into a mutation that starts killing cells from the moment of birth, until there’s not enough new cell regeneration to sustain life.” Slowly he lifted one hand and barely touched his lips to her skin. “Day and night Rowan and her teams are working to save them. I swear, Debra. Rowan’s my sister and the head of medical-science. Like you she’ll never quit until the cure is found. So when you’re ready, she’ll provide you with all the details regarding the children and some possible theories as to why you may have an advantage over the others.”

Without fuss, Debra stepped away, further into the living room, pausing by a screen of fragrant flowers and lush green vines. How could anyone truly understand what the others of her kind had gone through? To say they merely had mood swings was like calling a Typhoon a simple rain shower. A black rage could kill the host and any bystanders in seconds, and took days to recover from. Abilities were a gift and a curse, often becoming apparent at the most awkward times, making them difficult to explain, let alone control.

Family members either encouraged with pride or condemned in fear. She doubted the others had it any easier. The black bordered photographs banished to the floorboards seemed to back up that theory. Friendships were nonexistent and neighbors eventually became curious and uncertain. Growing up with so much fear and anger meant a good day was knowing that suicide was there to stop the pain if it got to be too much to handle. Debra doubted any of the others had a dream world to escape to.

Her chin came up. “Did the others have a dream world and a Kalon to help them through the nightmares?”

“No,” Damon said, the muscle flexing in the side of his cheek. “Only you and I have the dream world. There’s always been a connection between us, since we were babies. One that medical-science tried to duplicate without success.”

Memories of those thousands of probing tests in the lab still had the ability to make his teeth grind in exasperation. “Whether you realize it or not, Debra, our mind’s found each other across a continent. And we created that dream world together. A playground, a sanctuary to help keep us strong. But it wasn’t real, even though it felt like it. And I couldn’t let you die for something that wasn’t real.”

This night was far from the loving reunion he had envisioned all his life.

Her head nodded, solemnly. Afraid to say anything more, Debra was too tired to even think straight. Tantria, and all its beauty and technology, was closing in around her. Yearning to be topside with the comforting night sky overhead, she moved into the entryway and noticed the thick crystal picture frame leaning against the wall.

A sad crooked smile touched pale lips as she turned the heavy frame over and saw herself. “I believe this belongs in your office bedroom,” she said slowly, tongue-in-cheek.

In the opened doorway she backhanded a loose strand of hair, her gaze once more serious and direct. “You and Edith are fools if you think I’m the savior of the Thalian race.”

Silently the door closed and Damon whispered, “We’ll see, my love.”

November 16, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Five Part 2

Debra’s hand wavered as she reached for the edge of the curtain, surprised and just a little alarmed by such curious words coming from a child, and a stranger until tonight. The words had been much kinder than those shouted by Naomi Taylor earlier at the house. Yet each response left Debra with the impression that something crucial was expected of her.

Did they really think she could cure Weena and the other children with the simple touch of her mind?

“Time for running is over, Debra.”

Her head swung in the direction of the clipped, irritated voice—deep and male and achingly familiar even when griping at her. Damon rose from Weena’s bedside, hands sliding casually into his trouser pockets, his black eyes flashing angrily in the muted light.

“You know who I am,” he whispered bluntly.

She watched the muscles twitching erratically in his jaw, was wary of the tight expressionless features of his handsome face. Even without sensing him she could tell he was on the verge of losing control. And somewhere deep inside, a small piece of her was glad.

What was it about him that made her want to push that control right over the edge? She could count on one hand the number of times they had actually been in each other’s company. And each time he made her feel defensive and angry and very uncooperative.

“And if you are that person, then you’ve got a helluva lot of explaining to do. Something I’m not in the mood to listen to. So back off and let it go for now.”

Not waiting for his response, Debra pulled the curtain open, looking to get as far from him as possible. All the lies, all the manipulating, and that bastard had the nerve—

She heard the low growl first and spun to see him vault across Ruthie’s bed. Large hands carefully, yet firmly, grabbed her by the arms and forcefully shoved her into the main room of the nursery and none to gently up against the entryway wall.

Pinned by hands with steel-like strength, Debra felt the jolt of adrenaline quickly fire through her bloodstream with enough reaction to bounce his sweet ass off the ceiling.

“You bas . . . tard . . .”

His cool fingertips had touched her forehead and the word dribbled from her mouth almost incoherently, knocking her senses quickly into oblivion. She never felt his strong arms lifting her as easily as a child, never felt his warm mouth press a tender kiss to her lips.

*   *  *

Eyes opened cautiously, vision slightly blurred, her heartbeat strong and steady as Debra sensed her body free of adrenaline. She also instinctively knew that the amount of time unconscious had not been long.

“His fingertips,” she murmured, seeing the image again in her mind, his long fingers reaching out toward her face. And then nothing.

Debra bolted upright, alone in the room with the vast firmness of his giant bed beneath her backside. It took a great deal of concentration to shut out the images of Damon sleeping alone and naked in this bed.

Soft black linen sheets snagged against the loose material of her borrowed white jumpsuit. A silk duvet cover of teal, black, and silver had been hastily pulled to the foot of the bed in a dark swirling heap. The spacious bedroom was twice as long as it was wide, the walls painted a soothing deep teal with black trim and exquisite crown moldings. Solid colored fabrics, metals, and lacquered pieces of finely crafted wood picked up the teal, black, and silver theme in the elegant furnishings and draperies. Paintings of various sizes and colors dominated the clean wall spaces or highlighted tucked away corners and small alcoves.

Sparkling crystal and fresh cut flowers pulled Debra’s eye around the well-tended room, then had her doing a double take at the far wall. Hanging on the wall beyond the foot of the bed was a stunning full-length portrait of herself.

Debra rolled to her knees, alarmed yet equally baffled. The clothing and background of the painting were completely unfamiliar. As was any memory of posing for an artist in either of the worlds she had lived in. But the face and body were definitely her own. She judged herself to be no more than eighteen in the portrait, standing, slightly turned away, as if looking back over her shoulder at someone.

No, she mused, not just someone, but a lover, judging by the affectionate gaze in the wide brown eyes and the look of sensual pleasure in the small satisfied smile that touched the full lips.

The woman in the painting was a fantasy, with her flowing happiness and graceful self-confidence. Debra bristled, staring at the illusion of femininity enjoying a lover’s attention, something she did not share. Call for a warrior or a skillful strategist and she was unmatched among humans. Needing another made you vulnerable. Made you take stupid chances.

Kalon’s lies came to mind. And Damon’s cold-hearted manipulating of her mind. Debra glanced at the portrait once more as she stepped from the rumpled bed. The blue killing power arced gently between her fingers.

One by one she shut her emotions down, clearing her mind, and refocused on the need to discover how this underwater city was connected to her, to the dream world, and to Edith. Time enough later to settle old scores.

As she tugged dirty sandals on her clean bare feet, a shadowed movement by the doorway caught the corner of her eye. No thoughts or emotions registered against her probe or brought warning of a nearby presence. Just the calm steady beating of his arrogant, aloof heart.

Damon stood in the doorway, hands in his pockets, shoulder leaning casually up against the doorjamb. “My sincerest apologizes for knocking you out.” His hand lifted, motioning in the direction of his forehead. “But I figured you were about to shout the house down . . . frightening the children.” His tone was quiet, yet stiffly resigned. As though he knew a battle was coming and had stepped behind the armor of logic and the olive branch of his deeply soothing voice.

“How did you stun me?” Debra asked equally as calm, facing him without concern for his greater height and weight.

Long fingers pinched the bridge of his nose, frustration unmistakable in his heavy sigh. “A shallow energy burst through a controlled exit,” he clarified, wiggling his fingers, “causing temporary unconsciousness.” He watched the thunderclouds gathering in her large brown eyes. And yet in spite of everything, they were eyes he was secretly thrilled to be watching in real time.

Screw politeness. “Who the hell are you?” Debra demanded, each word vibrating like clashing swords. “And don’t give me any of that bull that you’re Kalon, that I know you. Or I swear to God I’ll make you eat those words.”

An arrogant dark eyebrow rose dubiously. “So, damned if I tell the truth and damned if I don’t. Is that it?” His tone had acquired a bit of a biting edge.

“I don’t think you know what the truth is,” she snapped at him. “How dare you and Edith manipulate my mind to come out here.”

Hands raised in appeal. “I can explain—“

“Do you really think I’ll believe anything you say?”

His nostrils flared, his voice lowered dangerously. “Debra—“

“Even if you were Kalon, all that makes you is a lying bastard.”

“Enough!” Damon snarled in a loud whisper, incensed by her dogged unfairness, and chaffing under guilt because part of her was right. The decisions had not been his to make and he had suffered no less than Debra over the years because of them.

Separated by only a few feet of bedroom carpet, she met his intense gaze unflinchingly, holding her ground even though he loomed over her by a handful of inches. “What the hell are you angry about?” she accused. “I’m the one who’s been lied to and manipulated.”

A light flush bloomed across his hard cheekbones. Yet Damon remained silent, warning her to stop with just the intensity of his furious black eyes.

One more word and she could push him over that proverbial edge she had wondered about. But her heart wasn’t really in the mood to claim a gold star tonight. More than anything she just felt tired and fed up with everything that had happened since her arrival on Edith’s doorstep.

Debra reined in her temper and stepped back. “Look, she said wearily. “It’s been a long night and I’m tired. And I really don’t want to stand here and argue with you.”

She sat on the side of the bed, absently crossed her long legs, and looked him up and down. Definitely a body to die for in either world. “Okay, here’s what we’ll do. You’ll tell me who you are and what I have to do with this city. No lies, nothing left out. And I promise to listen to everything without once calling you a bastard or interrupting.” She cocked her head and matched him glare for glare. “I think that’s a fair compromise on my part. Don’t you?”

“Umm,” he grumbled, suspicious of her sudden change of mood. He was a man about to defy protocol for the first time in his life, and the break in trust did not sit well with his position of authority. Had Edith been right all along?

Damon combed agitated fingers through his long, thick hair, feeling cornered and just a little afraid of what was about to happen. He would have sat on the bed with her but thought his intent might be misconstrued and earn him a hard slap, or possibly worse. So he stood, much like a supplicant before royalty and offered the cold hard truth.

“My name is Damon. Kalon was my father’s name . . . and the name I decided to use in the dream world.”

True to her word Debra remained silent, despite the adage ‘if looks could kill’.

Habit had his hands returning to his trouser pockets while his mind searched for a starting point that would do the least amount of damage. As he mentally flipped through scenes, he watched as she impatiently re-crossed long shapely legs. And was reminded of just how tightly those legs could cradle him, how soft the skin, how firmly toned—

He blinked at the loud snap of her fingers; his erotic reverie rudely interrupted by the bombarding blast of exasperation. He made a note to himself to start a ‘to do’ list for Debra, with learning-to-keep-intense-emotion-to-oneself as lesson number one.

“Sorry,” he muttered, trying to squash his burgeoning libido as well as a distasteful, uncustomary case of nerves. Running a handful of underwater cities had proved much less taxing than dealing with Debra’s volatile temper and quick analytical brain. An unprepared brain, he reminded himself.

So, should he spit it out in a mouthful all at once? Or portion out the truth over several days? Either way he was doomed to a trip through hell.

Inwardly, Damon groaned. He should never have been put in the position of having to make such a choice. Damn Edith and her newfound conscience, he inwardly bristled. One more day and all the barriers would have been cleared and the truth accepted naturally. If he was going down, then Edith was bloody well going with him.

Swiftly running out of patience, Debra glared, eyes narrowing dangerously, the threat of bodily harm present in their irate depths.

Resentment at her lack of empathy tipped the scales. Damon gathered his own aggravation tightly about him. “Okay, here’s the truth. Nothing held back. There’s a ceremony that would have been performed the evening of your twenty-fifth birthday. The awakening is necessary for someone . . . in your condition.”

Unease had him clearing his throat, his eyes drawn to the grim line of her flattened lips; the telling silence poked at him like a sharp stick. “The, ah, buried memories and abilities are then released from the subconscious suppressor and . . . integrated with the conscious part of your psyche.”

To his own ears the truth sounded more like weird science fiction. Damon felt himself tripping up on boggy ground. From the bedside, incredulous brown eyes gaped at him, her face drained of color, and, like a fool, he could feel his righteous indignation slipping.

“Actually, it’s a mind meld with . . . with people who are highly trained.” His head bobbed as though affirming the words, his tongue skimming over lips gone dry.

In my condition? My condition? Restrained negotiations suddenly turned to stunned disbelief as Debra uncrossed her legs and leaned closer, her attention riveted on his darkly handsome face, and braced for the next baffling words to come out of his mouth.

“But, the . . . the real kicker is . . . and had we waited,” –Damon knew he was babbling, yet unable to stop— “the ceremony would have naturally and logically revealed the truth of your heritage. But . . . since we’ve jumped the gun here, the truth is, well, the truth is . . . you’re half alien, half human.”

Debra sprang up from the bed like a snarling tiger.

“Whoa!” Hands raised in self-defense, Damon stepped back out of range. “What happened to not interrupting?”

Hands on hips, she glared at him. “You expect me to sit here like an idiot, with nothing to say, while you drop a bombshell that I’m, I’m an alien?”

“No, I’m the alien,” he tossed out, dark brows lifting sharply, mouth twitching. “You’re just half.”

“You find this funny?” she railed at him. Then blinked in surprise. “What? What did you say? You’re an alien?

“Actually, I was born in Earth’s high orbit. And even though I’ve lived here all my life, I guess since I wasn’t born on Earth that makes me an alien.”

Stunned, Debra stepped back, legs wobbly, and plopped down hard on the bed. “What about the others, here in the city?”

“Weena and the other children were born here on Earth. Bi-human mother, alien father.” He watched her eyes grow big as saucers. “The, ahhh, most of the city’s population was born en route or in orbit and have lived here all their lives—“

“Why? Why here? Why stay here underwater?” she interrupted, confused.

November 15, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Five Part 1

To the right of the entry doors, dim nightlights offered a shadowy glow from recessed floor pots around the perimeter of the spacious nursery suite. Heavy floor-to-ceiling draperies covered three display walls, visible during the day, creating a soothing uncluttered sleeping retreat. Child-size tables and chairs grouped together into small clusters about the main room. Colorful carpets and fabrics covered the marble floors and adult-size furnishings, while paintings, drawn cutouts, and picture-writing symbols obscured almost every inch of wall space.

A bathroom and office/lounge veered off to the left, offering no surprises in the comfort and functional elegance of the chosen furniture, equipment, and displayed artwork; a lifestyle of luxury and prosperity that was apparent throughout the complex.

Debra quietly slipped behind the drawn curtain into the sleeping dorm and peered through the nightlight gloom. She counted twelve children’s beds, six on either long curtained wall. At the far end sat three baby cribs, each with its own changing table against the wall and a wooden rocking chair at the foot of the bed.

Pillows were heaped on beds and over the floor, with white linen sheets tangled around sprawling, sleeping children. Bedspreads lay folded neatly at the foot of each bed, while fuzzy toys were cuddled close, even in sleep.

All were occupied except for the vacant bed that seemed to stand alone by the curtained entryway.

A bedspread of quilted rainbow colors was neatly draped to the floor and crisply tucked beneath the plump pillow. Not a wrinkle or discarded toy or piece of clothing marred the tidy finish. Nothing to prove Ruthie had once slept and played there.

With a touch of her hand Debra could commit to memory images of the child’s short existence. Be reminded for a lifetime how slow death had brutalized a young mind and body.

A moment’s curiosity could condemn her to eternal torment of that last heartbeat, that final searing image of laborious release from earthly life.

Already too many horrible memories crowded inside Debra’s mind. Fear and dread had her shaking her head, refusing the knowledge and pain, backing slowly away from the bed as though an enemy, only to abruptly stop dead in her tracks.

Someone was watching her; she could feel their eyes probing the dark, the barest whisper of a thought quietly trying to probe her mind.

Adrenaline rushed through her veins like the sudden jolt from a thunderbolt, heightening senses, altering her body and brain into a focused lethal combatant. The killing power surged silently to life inside her body, waiting for command and release.

Dark eyes quickly searched the furthest dim corners of the room for an intruder. Nothing moved. Her gaze touched on each sleeping child, her internal hearing listening to each slow erratic heartbeat.

All but one.

Debra moved slowly passed Ruthie’s empty bed to the next and stood quietly looking down on an angelically sweet face, waiting, watching, curious to see if the child would reveal herself. The young mind was closed to all of her gentle probing. Only the accelerated rhythm of lungs and heartbeat betrayed a conscious restlessness.

Large black eyes suddenly opened, unafraid, and stared directly up at Debra. In that swift moment of eye contact all defenses came crashing down. Innocent playfulness and wisdom beyond years easily sidestepped Debra’s deep-seated mistrust of others with a single invasive merging, a bonding more compelling than anything known in her empty reality. In that heart-stopping moment of emotional blending, Debra finally grasped the significance of unconditional love, of wanting to give all the power in her body so that another could live—a dying child who would never see puberty.

Awed by the girl’s strength of will and the feeling of warmth that continued to rise and flush beneath her skin, Debra smiled for the first time in years, with her eyes and her mouth and her heart.

Slender fingers, no bigger than a toy doll’s hand, crept from beneath the sheet and boldly wiggled hello.

The mattress dipped gently as Debra perched on the side of the bed and allowed the tiny reaching fingers to touch her cheek.

“You’re real, not a dream,” came the child’s thin whisper in the darkness.

Had the dream through the meditation globe been a two way portal? Debra glanced around the dorm at the sleeping children, her eyes coming back to rest on the small heart-shaped faced filled with such sweetness and insightful understanding. Was it possible, from opposite sides of the country, to have shared the same dreams with someone other than Kalon?

Absently, Debra brushed back the wispy black bangs from the soft forehead and whispered, “My name’s Debra. Can you tell me yours?”

An impish grin made the tired little face come alive and glow from within. “Weena,” she murmured.

Debra bit back the sudden urge to laugh out loud, the warmth of the magical moment beaming brightly in her usually somber brown eyes. “A pretty name for a pretty little girl.”

Unprepared for the swirling rush of tenderness that made her simply want to sit and enjoy the closeness, Debra reached out with comfort rather than the need to lay hands seeking knowledge. The backs of her fingers feathered across the child’s softly curved cheek. She leaned closer, her voice low, “And how old are you, Weena?”

The shadows beneath the small chin revealed five slender fingers. “I’m the oldest now cause I’ve lived the longest. Ruthie use to be the oldest but she’s gone Home now.”

Debra blinked in surprise, leaning back. “You know about Home?”

Weena nodded matter-of-factly against her rumpled pillow. “Home is real time, where we were born, where we’ll all go when our time is done here. Ruthie’s free now. She’s lucky.”

Weena hid her face in the pillow’s soft folds then looked sheepishly up at Debra. “I’m not supposed to talk like that. Rowan says I have to make the most of my time here and not envy those who get to go Home. She says they’ve experienced all they set out to do and have earned the right to be released from their bulky bodies that are needed here on earth.”

Weena sighed as if reluctantly resigned to waiting her turn for release from this existence. Sitting up on a slender bare arm she leaned closer in confidence. “Time just seems long here but it’s not really. Before you know it I’ll be free like Ruthie. Someday soon we all will and new people will take our place so they can learn things too.”

Only one other person had ever talked about life as though it were some kind of college semester and war combat survival scholarship all rolled into one. Edith had been telling stories about “Home” and “true existence” and “in-body learning contracts” since Debra was old enough to string words together. Not a man-made religion, her aunt would always emphatically stress, but a search for the truth about everything. Truth was knowledge and without all knowledge there was no enlightenment, no growth, no existence.

A young Debra had been taught that her colorful dreams of temples with wide sweeping steps and gardens and landscapes filled with all the beauty of nature, without the intrusive blemish of mankind, were simply astral visits Home while the body slept. Unfortunately, the comforting dreams had stopped long before she had reached the age of puberty and the onset of the black rage.

“Do you dream of home, Weena?” Debra gently brushed the tiny fingers resting on the rumpled sheet, unable to dispel the sense of regret that suddenly pulled at her heart. Somewhere along the way, even before the beatings had begun, she had lost youthful innocence and the ability to see wonder and surprise in the world around her. Was that when the dreams of Home had stopped?

The only solace to her sanity had been Kalon and their created dream world. That and Edith’s unwavering love with her quirky reminders that Debra had chosen each hurdle she experienced in this life. But knowing a supposed truth did nothing to make day-to-day living any easier or less painful.

“When you sleep, Weena, do you visit those at Home and play with other children on the wide steps of the Hall of Wisdom?”

They simply stared at one another, the dying child and the disheartened woman, and understood the other completely without saying a word or sharing a thought.

Beneath the linen sheet Weena curled on her side and slid cool fingers into Debra’s hand. “I dream of Home but not as much anymore,” she whispered sadly. “Rowan says it’s cause I’m growing up. She says it happens to everyone . . . so we can ‘experience fully as mortals,’” Weena quoted. “She says what would be the point of coming here if we still had all our memories and abilities from Home.”

“I’d like to meet your Rowan sometime,” Debra smiled, her voice low. “She reminds me of my Aunt Edith.”

“I know Auntie E. She comes to visit every day. She was sad this morning. Everybody’s sad. I can hear them crying cause they miss Ruthie and all the others.”

“Dying is going to happen to all of us, love. It’s just a word used by those who don’t know or understand the truth. It gives me a lot of comfort to think that I can’t really be hurt and this body isn’t really me. And when you love someone, like Ruthie, isn’t it nice knowing she’ll be waiting for you at Home? Not on some cloud in some unknown heaven with nothing to do, but a real home and a real life with work we’re passionate about and lots of friends and loved ones.”

Debra snuggled closer, tucking Weena’s hand against her chest. “When I was your age and feeling sad because someone was mean to me or I felt all alone, my aunt would visit and hold me close and say, in a voice that always made me laugh, ‘Once you get here, sweet cheeks, there’s no U-turn back. Just do the best you can, no matter how hard it feels. Before you know it, it’s time to go Home. And you’re going to feel soooo good because you were courageous and stuck it out to the end.’”

Weena giggled at the funny face and voice Debra made, but too soon the large elfin eyes became serious once more. “I’m not scared of dying. Sometimes I wish it would happen soon cause I get so tired in my head. But mostly I want to stay cause I never want to leave Damon and Rowan and all the other people I love.”

Debra frowned at the mention of Damon’s name. He was a disturbing puzzle to her senses. Kalon’s face but that’s where the similarities ended. The man was arrogant, controlling, and totally closed to her.

“How long have you known Damon?” Has he always been here?”

“Of course he’s always been here. He’s too busy taking care of the city to leave. Everybody listens to Damon and follows his orders, even the Elders.” Weena leaned closer, her eyes shining at Debra. “I knew you would come. Damon knew it, too. He said we just had to be patient and you would come when the time was right. And now you’re here and everything will be all right and you’ll love Tantria cause it’s so beautiful.”

“Whoa, whoa. What’s Tantria?”

“Here! This city beneath the lake,” she giggled, animated once more, eager to share news of her world with a willing audience. A small hand tapped her narrow chest. “I was born here,” she said proudly, then glanced sheepishly about the dorm at the other children. “Well, actually, all of us were. Living under ‘the lake of shining waters’ is so cool. I bet even Anne of Green Gables would like it better than her Avonlea.” Weena grinned. “Rowan’s the story master. She told us all about Anne’s adventures. Have you read Anne of Green Gables?”

Debra chuckled, nodding quickly before Weena’s agile thoughts raced away with her tongue once again.

“Tantria is like a kindred spirit. You’re a kindred spirit, too,” Weena whispered through a toothy grin. “I like watching the growers bring in the plants and make things out of them. I can’t go to the growing caverns by myself, though. But Nessa, she’s our teacher; she takes us on field trips almost every day. You know what my most favorite place is? The waterfall. I can even swim in the big pond now.” Her smile drooped suddenly, a tiny grimace marring her forehead. “The only thing I can’t do is go above. Rowan says it’s too dangerous. But sometimes I wish I could see what it’s like up there for myself—“

“You’ve never been up top?” Debra asked, somewhat taken aback.

Heavy curtain material rustled behind Debra, the dim recessed nightlights casting pools of shimmering light along the tall shadowy folds of the temporary dorm partition.

Weena scrambled to her knees, bouncing lightly on the bed, arms reaching upward, her excited voice a loud whisper, “Damon, she’s here.”

Gone were the snug riding pants and boots and long black funeral cloak. Damon stepped silently from the shadows beyond the dividing curtain casually dressed in black trousers and long sleeve dress shirt open at the collar. His dark eyes focused on Weena as he reached for the excited child and held her close with hugs and muffled cheek kisses. The warm muted glow from the perimeter nightlights glinted sharply off the glossy silver belt buckle at his trim waist. A winking flicker drew her eyes to the heavy silver links of his cuff bracelet and the intriguing carved ring that swallowed his left finger up to the first knuckle of his large, well-shaped hand.

Weena giggled against his shoulder, clearly at ease with Damon’s commanding presence and gentle touch. “Shhh,” he whispered, helping her to settle comfortably in his arms. “How come you’re not asleep yet, hmmm?”

A bit startled by the obvious affection between the two, Debra backed unnoticed to the foot of the rumpled bed and watched as Damon tenderly tucked Weena back into bed. Seeing with her eyes and listening with her heart, the man before her was Kalon.

But her mind knew better. Everything about him was closed to her. When those familiar black eyes glanced her way, she found a guarded inflexibility staring back at her; not the adoring eyes of her lover from the dream world. Filled with a strange sense of fear and uncertainty for the man who now stood real and unreachable before her, Debra sealed her mind behind impenetrable mental barriers and eased slowly toward the curtain.

Weena yawned hugely and snuggled deeper into her pillow. On the verge of sleep she soothingly patted the large male hand resting on the bed as though offering comfort to an unsettled child. “At last, Damon. She’s here at last . . .”

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