Clutching the thin air with each gasp, my lungs fought for breath as sweat crawled down my face.

“Five hundred.  Only five hundred more yards!”  My mind was clear of all thoughts except for this – the closing distance!  To not make it was not an option.  ‘Failure’ was banished from my reserve of possibilities.

Bloody fingers clung to sharp rocks.  The pain of a severely skinned knee, I pushed aside, firmly – resolutely.

“My heart is pounding!”  This thought I banished as discipline re-centered my concentration.  “Four hundred yards.”

The extremely rough terrain presented the challenge I needed.  To keep my body and wits maximally occupied kept my mind busy as well.  “Grab that root; that rock will slide under my foot, run that cliff ledge; up again; this plant stock will support my weight” – these were not thoughts but lucid concepts that flashed as my razor-edged focus upon my task kept any fatal mishaps at bay.  The fall, if I miscalculated, would be a long one.

“Two hundred yards.”

A reprieve – a grassy knoll – before more jagged cliff face presented itself.  In seconds the small knoll was crossed and the ascent continued.

“Why did this need to happen now!?”  My left foot slid from under me!

“Steriet!”  The alien swear word escaped dry lips with a hiss.  A quick scramble with severe, shooting pain from my left knee righted the misstep.

More than a therapeutic diversion, I was testing myself.  I had concern about my life at court.  Was it making me soft?  I could not and would not let that happen to me!  Too much was at stake!

Expertly, swiftly, my strong body made its way up the mountain side.

“One hundred yards!”

No more distractions entered the contest.  Indeed, it was a contest, imposed upon myself between who I knew I was and any possibility of waning vitality.  With a few more perfectly placed holds, my hand grasped a stable rock and I hefted my weight over the topmost edge of the very steep climb!

Puffing for oxygen at this high altitude did not faze me now.  Ah, to sit!  A stump presented itself a few yards from the long drop behind me.

“Here I am, Ray-a, sitting atop a beezlewood stump at one of the highest points on this continent,” I mused as I drew the pristine air into my lungs.  It was a far cry from the cushy chairs at court, nonetheless, a perch I now favored.

Sipping from my canister of hot anila, which I’d placed here for my “after climb reward”, was comforting while I absorbed the grandeur of the vista unrolling before me.  From this elevated vantage point I could view hectare upon hectare of virgin forest, undulating meadows of moss green and scarlet and a connected trail of lakes and streams.  These I drew into my being and marveled!

My breathing had slowed now and I allowed the thoughts, which I’d exiled during my climb, to re-enter.  How could father have managed to preserve all this through the difficult years he had faced?  Shalare, which had been my father’s name, and in our tongue meant “one who protects,” had somehow managed.  Had the severe strain of those years been what had killed him?  If not, what had?  I wasn’t buying the current explanation.

These questions I knew I must find the answers to.  At this time, though, I resolved to put to rest the immediacy of logistics facing me.  Certainly the concept of staying in one place, never mind one planet, for very long had been foreign to me for years.  It had been long since I’d stayed for more than a few days at a go, here at my home, “Shalare Nature Reserve.”  A quick review of my hitherto lifestyle was in order.

How could I give up flitting from one solar system to another in my luxury XEK Imperial two man craft; reveling in the glories of Zandar’s five mooned splendor; dipping in the effervescent hot springs of Lorez and attending at the fragrant courtyards of dukes and earls of the Kingdom?  These and many more past moments of adventure and contentment passed through my mind.

I had taken an emergency, extended leave from my coveted job as courier for His Highness’s King Lowge the IV’s court.  While I had not been privy to the inner sanctum of the king’s activities, the position held had been everything I’d wanted.

Now I was not so sure.  Life had dealt me a new hand.  Was now the time for me to don my heritage and take control of the unusual estate passed on to me by father?  I had to quell emotional pangs of great loss as tender remembrances of Shalare took shape.   My sense of bereavement was not just for my father.  It intermingled with a long standing feeling of something being quite wrong; of something – someone perhaps – what?  Gone?  I could not make sense of this haunting – I know not what…

SNAP!  I was jerked from my reverie by a breaking twig behind me!  In less than an instant I was standing poised facing the opposite direction, blasting gun aimed and finger tensed for a split second decision!

“Oh, Boney!  It’s only you!”  I uttered this as I strode to the creature to pat his horned head.  He had just emerged from a forage in the surrounding sparse forest.

Boney was what was generally called a “boe-ack.”  Seldom had a master possessed a more loved, faithful or protective pet.  A recent discovery in the animal kingdom, Boney had come from the kingdom’s newly annexed planet, Simoeen.  One didn’t mess with a wild boe-ack and expect to retreat unscathed.  The taming of these creatures had been considered impossible until the king had issued a challenge to the people.  The first person to develop a technique to tame the boe-ack would receive a highly paid and honored position in the king’s court.  The rest of the developments were obvious.  I guess I’d possessed the strength and agility needed to perform the task.  Avoiding the large pup’s claws and teeth while earning its trust had not been easy.  I believe it was an innate sixth sense I had; a rapport with animals, that I observed few possessed, which had put me at an advantage in the contest.  Boney’s protective disposition made the old pit bull terriers of Earth seem like house-trained sheep in comparison.

Tamed as a pup, Boney was unique.  Appearing to be a cross between a wolf and a wild boar, Boney had ferocious teeth and tusks and knotted muscular shoulders.  His long brindled coat shone in the light shafts of the setting sun.

“Well boy,” I spoke, “You’ve come back to stand sentinel for me, haven’t you?”  I ruffled his neck fur.  “Let’s head for Dad’s – err – I mean, our house, and settle in for the night.”

Boney rose to the height of my hip bone as he stood and turned towards the speedster.  I’d found almost uniformly that animals had a type of telepathy that I had no difficulty tapping into.  Boney seemed to sense my intentions and emotions effortlessly.  We made a very efficient team, the two of us.  Couriering in this galaxy as a woman required some pretty good security anyway!

After crunching twenty meters back from the cliff’s edge, over the forest floor to a small clearing where I’d parked the speedster, I opened the hatch for Boney.

“Into Zeek with you, you big carnivorous fluff ball!” I teased.  “Zeek” was an endearment I had unofficially christened my XEK Imperial Space Speedster.

Upon securing the hatch, I slipped into the comfortable pilot’s chair.  Boney took his accustomed spot on the floor near me.  As I flexed my wrists to commence departing maneuvers, I thrilled for perhaps the thousandth time at the technology which lay beneath my fingers.  Few there were indeed in the kingdom who possessed a small ship with the “legs” (ability to go very fast) and features of Zeek – another bonus of having worked for King Lowge.

To fly a short hop upon one planet – well, I felt I could do it with my eyes closed.  I had to vanquish an acute longing for an interstellar jump with the vast reaches of space to comfort me.  With a security code entered and the flick of a switch, a pale blue glow of geometric shapes festooned the instrument panel.  The 3D images showed the steeply falling contours of the mountain side rapidly disappearing as we departed the small wooded plateau.

Flying down to my inherited mountainside estate, a feeling of strangeness engulfed me.

“I didn’t expect to see this day for another twenty years or so,” I mused.  The shock of that photon message I’d received two days prior still shrouded my world.  Shalare – Dad had only been aged fifty-six at his death.  For him to have met with such a treacherous accident did not sit right with me.  Shalare had carefully schooled me with years of hiking and mountain climbing trips in the varied terrain around our home when I was a child.  To have just fallen over the highest cliff on Mount Trosper, every foot of which Shalare had explored many times, seemed the least likely fate for Dad to have met.

Solare had been explicit in his photon-phase (usually referred to as “phase” in lay jargon). The lawyer had said “Shalare is dead. Come home immediately.  Take extended leave from work.  Meet me Monday, 10:00 a.m., my office.”  The phase had also outlined the nature of the tragedy that had befallen my father.

A moan from Boney caused me to see I was about to side swipe a small turret on the manor!

“I’d swear that boe-ack has built in radar,” I thought in astonishment as I maneuvered Zeek onto the landing court!  “Recent developments have really put me on edge.  I’ve never had a near miss before with Zeek!”

Laurie Noelle
Copyright 2014-2022
All Rights Reserved

(In order of appearance in story.)

“steriet”: Alien swear word.
“beezlewood”: A type of tree on Ray-a’s home planet.
“anila”: A type of coffee-like drink served commonly in the kingdom.
“Shalare”: Name of Ray-a’s father.
“Zandar”: A planet with five moons.
“Lorez”: A planet with effervescent hot springs.
“King Lowge the IV”: Ray-a’s employer and King of a large sector of the Galaxy.
“boe-ack”: A newly found wild creature from planet Simoeen. It resembles a cross between a wolf and a wild boar, with big sharp teeth, tusks and a very muscular fore-section. Untamed, they are very vicious.
“Simoeen”: A newly annexed planet of King Lowge’s kingdom, where boe-acks were originally found.
“Zeek”: Ray-a’s nick name for her model XEK Imperial Space Speedster.
“photon-phase”: Similar to a written electronic communication, except ‘accelerated light’ is the carrier wave.
“Mount Trosper”: The name of a mountain on Shalare Nature Reserve.
“Solare”: Ray-a’s father’s trusted and quick-witted lawyer.

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