“No better friend; no worse enemy”

This is a freebee to all my readers. It is from my short story collection entitled “Empire’s Agent.” The reason I’m tossing it out there is that a fellow Gabber, and a good man, is dying and expressed concern what to tell his grandkids. Thought I could lend a hand.

Now into the concluding parts of this collection, things take a more somber turn.

Orloff made his first appearance in “Echoes of Family Lost” as a guide for Lily and Fausta.  You read a little about him in “Pine Bluff,” earlier.  Even in that were hints as to who he really was.

I lay it out at the end of “Crosses & Doublecrosses.”  And here, too, if you are paying attention.

*****

The man sat up abruptly, quickly shading his eyes against the bright ochre sky with his right hand.

“What…where?” He saw a flat, rocky desert that seemed to stretch off in all directions.  Glancing about, he noted first that he was sitting on a particularly large boulder, but was quickly overwhelmed by what he noticed, then felt.

“That’s my… real left leg….” He quickly swung his left arm in front of his face.  “And…my own arm…!” Rather than the artificial one he’d been using these many years.  He felt his face.  The burns and scarring were gone and he could see out his left eye.

“I feel great!” he exclaimed.  Placing his hands on the boulder, he first noted there was a slight layer of moss and lichen on it, then slid down the four or five feet to the desert floor.  His boots crunched on the shale.  Boots?  Looking down, he saw he was wearing tough leather hiking boots, khaki cargo-style pants, and a white tee shirt.  He didn’t recall owning anything like that…oh!  From rooting through the pants pockets, he found some glasses.  He put them on.

“Now maybe I can figure out just where the Hell I am…” he muttered.

“Oh, I hope not.” A feminine voice, but deep and rich, with a hint of a Hispanic accent.  Just above him. 

He looked up to where he’d just been sitting.  A woman, perhaps late twenties, wearing a field gray outfit that wasn’t quite a uniform – but close – squatted where he’d been only a moment ago.  Her nondescript face was framed by her wild, dark brown hair and complemented by the most remarkable emerald eyes he’d ever seen.  They almost glowed.

She very slowly ran her right index finger along the boulder’s moss, then put her finger into her mouth.  Her eyes closed, and she seemed to shudder a little.

“Co-creation…male co-creation,” she murmured.  “Quite different than her Path… I could get used to this…” 

What in the world was this woman talking about?

“I don’t mean to interrupt your reverie, miss, but do you think you could tell me where I am?” he asked.  Oh.  “And, please excuse me.  My name’s… is….”  He stopped, at a loss.

Who am I?  he thought.

The woman nodded a little and jumped to a spot just in front of him.  She was about half an inch taller than he was.  She smiled.

“My apologies.  I did this without Dorina’s help, and am very young at bringing you people to our home.” She raised her right hand.  “If you permit it, I can touch you and restore most of your memories…?”

“A beautiful woman asks to touch me, alone in the middle of a desert?” He grinned at her.  “You really expect me to say no?”

She smiled thinly.  “Very well.”  In a flash, she moved her hand at his forehead, her fingers sinking through bone into his brain.  He heard someone screaming with his voice.

He woke up.  Again.  Not on the boulder this time, his butt was sore from the rocky ground.  At least the cushions behind me are pleasant… He opened his eyes and glanced behind him.  The woman’s face was inches from his.  Her eyes sparkled as she put her arms around him and gave him a hug from behind.

“You’ve no idea how long I’ve wanted to do this, Mister…  Oh.  Do you remember who you are now?”

With his face only inches from hers, he could care less about who he was.  It was more important where he was…  Then, like an enormous wave in his mind, it came back.  Before the Breakup.  The Terror.  “Orloff.”  He pitched forward out of her lap, retching his empty stomach over and over.  After a minute, he’d recovered his breath.

“You…you’re Fausta.”  He coughed and spat.  “Forgive my rudeness.  Thank you for looking after Lily.”

She stood and helped him to his feet, turning him towards her as she did.  For some reason, when she touched him, her eyes seemed amber, and she was covered in gold scales….

“The connexions between my family and Lily’s family continue to develop in ways that even we cannot foresee,” Fausta said with a small smile.  “However, one of those connexions is about to close.”

She saw the question in his eyes. 

“What’s the last memory you have before I brought you here?” she asked, letting go of him.

Still a little confused, the man took his eyes from Fausta and thought.  For a moment, he let his right hand come up to his chest.

“It… wasn’t an angina attack, this time,” he said slowly.  “My DNR tattoo notwithstanding, I had to get away from anyone who might be stupid enough to try to save me.”  He’d been walking down a gravel road in the middle of the night.  Like a dog, he knew it was his time, and he had to be alone.  Seeing headlights in the distance, he allowed himself to fall into the arroyo at his right…  He looked back at Fausta sharply.

“Why did you interfere?” he demanded.

To his shock, she leaned forward and kissed him on his left cheek.  Her green eyes swam with tears.

“I did not,” she said quietly.  “But, I, and another, wanted to say goodbye.  Which, I have now done.”

She touched his face where she had kissed him.  “I do not think I like getting older like this, Mister…Orloff.”

The beach stretched for miles in each direction.  Far, far out at sea, lost in the distance and mist, he could just make out what looked like a volcanic island:  largely conical, but impossibly huge.  Fist-of-God, he thought wryly, thinking of the Ringworld story.  Then, he remembered.  Fausta.  He blinked quickly, trying not to snarl.

“You didn’t let me say…”

“Hey.  Mister.”  There was the soft voice of a little girl to his right and behind him.  Turning, he saw Henge with her denim overalls and her white tee shirt.  No shoes, like always.  Her face expressionless, but her burnt-orange colored eyes were a field of concern and worry.  Her light purple hair was in its typical twin-tails, just past her shoulders.

“Henge,” he said.  “It’s been, what, a year, since I was on your beach?  It’s prettier than ever.  You’ve gotten much older.”

He pointed out towards the massive, distant island.  “That’s new.”

She came to him and gently took his right hand with her left.  In his mind, he saw a happy little otter playing about a meadow and stream.

“No,” she replied quietly.  “In fact, it’s very, very old.”  She pointed along the beach with her right.  “We have to go now.”

He wasn’t sure how long they walked.  At one point there was a mist of rain.  At another, he could almost discern a hint of a real sun in their home.  Every now and then there was a cry of a gull.

“Where are you taking me, Henge-tan?” he asked.  She shook her head.

“Where I am told to.  This is very hard for Dorina.  She’s never balanced three worlds before.” For a moment, he grinned at what Lily must go through with these people.  It was getting misty again.  They seemed to be angling away from the beach.

“I’m getting a bit tired, Henge,” he said.  “Can we stop for a moment?”

“No.” She scrunched her eyes shut, making a strained sound.  He was suddenly aware of what looked like ruins about them.  Ghostly.  Indistinct.  Not letting go of his hand, she faced him.

“Alone of my family, I am a follower of the Way,” she said, looking up at him.  “But this is as far as even I can go.”

“Stay on this Path.  You will come to the river.” She stopped and looked down the path she indicated.  “Pray that the boat comes.”

Oh.

With a start, he looked closer around him.  Ah, yes.  It was a lifetime ago, but he still recalled it:  the ruins of Ostia Antica, the old Roman port at the mouth of the Tiber.

“I…see.  Now.” He took a breath.  “Thank you for being my Guide, Henge.” 

He released her hand and took a few steps along the path.

“Hey!” she raised her voice. 

He turned his head back towards her.

“Goodbye, for now, granddad.” She was crying, just a little.

“For now, granddaughter.” He walked on into the mist.

There was a flicker of light.  Thaad looked up from the book he was reading.  He sat in his curule chair just off from Miss Lily’s Path.  Henge came to him and pulled herself into his lap.  She was crying.

“Father?  Getting older is hard, sometimes.”

He gently rested his hand onto her head.

“Yes.”

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