Salesti buzzed—its anxious buzz, not the happy one. Narci looked up; Shannon followed suit. A group of about twenty dragonpanthers swooped low over their heads. Long necks craned down to glare at them. Silver-blue eyes blazed. Two of the dragonpanthers peeled off from the rest and descended toward them.
Becky at last looked over to her former friend, her smile widening. “Do you know what this means? I will get out of here. It’ll take a while, but I will win my freedom. My freedom!”
She flew off the bed, pulled Shannon to her feet, and hugged her as if she meant to cut her in two. Jolting pain shot up Shannon’s leg and Becky had caught her injured arm inside the fierce hug, but Shannon didn’t utter a sound, didn’t say a word.
She’d worked for this day for six long years. Her friend restored. She savored the moment.
“We include the future in our thinking and do not limit our view to the moment,”
The little dragonpanther without wings has come as well? Roebor asked, anger tinting his weak voice. Shannon, shame on you! Without wings, the little one is helpless.
Well. Shannon wouldn't go that far. She’d seen Narci sink her small, sharp claws into creatures of some size and to excellent effect. Not helpless, no.
She explained to Roebor that the guard on duty now snoozed in blissful ignorance of Shannon’s escape plans.
Except she had no escape plans.
So, back to square one. Any ideas? she asked.
Nothing, he said. Salesti?
salesti thinks of nothing.
How about you, Narci? Roebor asked.
The cat purred, as if pleased Roebor had consulted her. Slipping from the shadows, she crept along the cave’s far wall and wiggled through the bars. She pattered over to the latrine, and peered into the opening.
Narci was hinting she should escape that way
They motored at high speed until Shannon called out for the pilot to cut the motor. A right whale surfaced next to the longboat before the motor had died down. He was perhaps twice the length of the boat. His broad, dark back rolled forward out of the water, splashing them, as he released his blowholes with a “poosh” and the air above the two adjoining holes clouded the air in v-shaped mist. Shannon’s heart lifted; to sit so close to that much gentle beauty, and majestic size and power overwhelmed her.
“Oh my god,” the pilot said. “He was so close I could have touched him. A right whale! I can’t believe it.”
SHANNON KENDRICKS FELL with a thud and an “oof” from the wormhole onto smooth, hard, pink-gold rock. She rolled, jumped up, and checked in every direction for unfriendly dragonpanthers, as she rubbed the shin she banged when she landed. Since dragonpanthers grew as big as houses, sported brightly-colored metallic fur, and possessed wings longer than oak trees, she wouldn't miss one.
THE DRAGONPANTHER ROEBOR NEEDED SHANNON’S HELP, but exactly what help for what trouble, Shannon had yet to learn, and she must find out now.
She’d just left Earth through a portal to Riverworld with her cat Narcissus in her arms and the hummingbird-sized alien, Salesti, by her side. They tumbled into the cave of portals.
“Okay, Salesti, time to tell us what’s happened to Roebor. Is he—”
Before Shannon finished her question, Salesti dived into another portal: the one to Roebor’s home on FireWorld. “Wait—”
But Salesti disappeared in a blazing flash of white flame. Shannon cursed under her breath and followed.
Shannon’s hospital visits always punctuated the aliens’ visits.
She ought to rent a room here.
How she hated hospitals!
“I’m fine, cara.”
Luke grinned. “It was all a grand adventure to him. He’s at home chewing on his new stuffed toy bone.”
“Who's watching Narci?”
“I am going by twice a day to feed her and make sure her water bowl is full. I usually stay and hour or so with her in my lap so I can give her a full report on how you’re doing.”
Roebor? You and Essi and Toss?
We, too, are fine, Shannon.
“How serious are my injuries? Truth.”
Luke pressed his lips together.
Behind them, a sheer cliff dropped hundreds of feet to a vast sea burning with fire. The flames burned the same silver-blue that lit her friend Roebor’s blazing eyes, the same silver-blue fire he could blow from his lungs to such devastating effect.
The roar of the fire carried all the way from the cliffs to where she crouched, steady, menacing, a constant warning, do not come near or you will burn
Roebor, who’d hidden the truth to protect her.
To protect her.
And there lay the heart of the matter.
Roebor’s lies might complicate their friendship, but his willingness to die to protect her made the friendship itself clear enough.
Right. Shannon stirred and pulled herself upright. Time to get to work
“Cuts and bruises. No broken bones.” He turned away. “A sizable chunk missing from your thigh, including muscle. You’re going to get a graft, but. . . they’re not sure whether you’ll be able to walk unaided.”
The sound of the crackling fire in the pit carried to her across the quiet slope from the amphitheater and filled her with revulsion. The low rumble of a hundred voices all talking at once disgusted her, like the Roman amphitheaters where lions devoured men while the crowds engaged in casual conversation.
“What is it, Salesti? How can I help you?”
The burning fire pit’s heavy smoke had settled over the island like a black fog. A swirling wind blew in from the sea, but the dark cloud persisted.
Shannon’s pale braid whipped into her face, a braid so long now that she could tuck the tip under her leg. She settled below the boulders and eased Salesti from her pocket, cupped in her palm. Stray hairs snapped around her face.
Roebor had once explained to Shannonthat FireWorld entertained a strange mixture of new and ancient ways. Roebor told her he’d urged his people to abandon public executions to no avail. But he’d spared her the details of the crane and the pit.
The two descending creatures swooped in and came to rest next to Shannon’s hiding place, their great wings humming on the wind and folding inward like umbrellas next to their bodies as they settled.
“Salesti? Narci?” Shannon whispered. “You two duck under those rocks at the far end and stay there. No matter what.” Narci’s black fur would blend with the dark recesses between the stones, and Salesti could nestle beneath her.
Salesti and Narcissus disappeared into the shadows where three boulders leaned together.
Shannon pulled her silver-blonde braid over one shoulder and ran shaking fingers down to its tip. She tried and failed to stop the trembling in her legs as the two giant creatures stamped toward her—heads lowered, silver-blue eyes blazing.
Shannon awoke with a jerk, Narci’s sandpaper tongue licking her nostrils.
An hour later, Shannon’s uber driver dropped her
in a parking lot at the Central California Institute for the
SHANNON’S FIRST PORTAL JUMP took her to
RiverWorld. She longed to go on to Earth with a second
jump, but she must deliver the news of Salesti’s death,
return its body to the other salestis, and ask them what do
with the power Salesti had given her.
Shannon Kendricks thought all she had to do was venture to a strange world and face a giant ace of aliens to save her friend Roebor. Boy was she wrong.
One of the dragonpanther’s huge front paws whipped out. He wrapped his long toes—more like fingers in length and dexterity—around Shannon’s body and flapped his great, bat-like wings to lift him far enough off the ground, so she dangled beneath him. There he hovered.
Not good. Not good. Not good.
Shannon struggled in his grasp; he tightened his fist.
Salesti buzzed—its anxious buzz, not the cheerful one—and Narci glanced at the sky; her sapphire eyes grew even larger than usual. Shannon followed Narci’s gaze. A group of about twenty dragonpanthers flew high over their heads. Long necks craned, and silver-blue eyes glared at them. Two peeled off from the rest and descended.
Although dragonpanthers communicated without speaking, Shannon understood them; she’d become telepathic herself during the Alien Troubles six years before, catching images and emotions before they became a language.
Shannon coughed under the onslaught of their breath. “Yes, I’m from Earth. My name is Shannon Kendricks. I came here to learn what happened to my friend Roebor.”
The bigger dragonpanther reared back and growled. “No friend of Roebor will find welcome here.”
No, not friendly to tiny, squishable human Shannon.
She took a deep breath. The breeze flowed in from the ocean, carrying its familiar scent, a scent she never thought she’d smell again. And there was the back door of her house in her neighborhood in her town, all so mundane and familiar, yet all so refreshing and wonderful, because she was alive and she’d returned.
Below her, the sewage flowed along in a canal with a wide pathway running along beside it. The edges of the canal sloped outward, so that the pathway was a long distance from her, at least fifteen feet.
It might as well be a mile.
She would take a plunge when she dropped, and it would be horrid. But it had to be done.
As she prepared to swing, she happened to glance behind her.
To her surprise, the edge of the canal behind her rose from the muck less much closer! On that side, beyond the sewage, the path itself wasn’t more than five feet from where she hung. One at a time, Shannon flipped her hands around on the mat until she faced the closer canal edge. She began to swing her feet back and forth.
Shannon Ubered home, asking the driver to stop at the fast-food restaurant near her house for three double veggie burgers, three large orders of fries, three salads, three fruit bowls, two chocolate shakes, and four cherry turnovers.
“You need me to pick up your other friends, or are they meeting you at home?” the Uber driver asked.
“Oh, everyone who’s coming will be there.”
That would be Shannon, Shannon, and Shannon. And Narci would get a couple bites.
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