Chapter Six Nalda
Saturday, 4 July 2020
Earth, Jupiter, Saturn 17*
Del thought about taking herself out for an early dinner . . . but the air, while hot, was also dry. No sound of motorcycles. No sound of drums. She hiked up the hill behind the house and sat to watch the sun set. The cow wandered closer, and eyed her suspiciously. Then it laid down twenty feet away to chew its cud or whatever cows did when they were just laying around. Across the fence to the north, a trio of horses looked her over, decided she wasn't going to dispense sugar cubes, and wandered away again. I ought to at least brush Missy . . . she's practically mine.
A faint rustle in the dry grass . . . a thin black dog circled around her, and slid under the fence and into Bev's pasture.
Overhead, the sky darkened to a deep blue. the western sky glowed golden and as the sun sank, deepened to orange, to red, a faint ripple of color . . . Surely we're too far south for an aurora! A flick of wind raised dust devils. One blew over the cow and it lunged up and fled down the hill.
The sun was gone, the colors faded, the blue deepened. Her eyes adjusted to the light . . . she had a shadow. She turned. The moon was rising over the trees. Just past full, a faint eroded edge away from perfection.
The dry grass rustled, a bit of cool air brushed against her bare arms. The delta breeze, Mother always called it. Adiabatic winds, if I remember rightly from science classes. I remember as a teenager, camping in the backyard, and the relief almost every night, and the sticky discomfort when it failed.
It was different, in Pasadena. But I still liked camping in the backyard. I was camping out, babysitting Prissy, when the police came, about the car crash . . .
Del jumped to her feet and walked back down the hill. No point in remembering the bad parts. I'll work at getting to know Prissy better. And anyway I'll need to come back for more clearing and cleaning.
Sunday they hauled out more news papers. Patty left a bit early, so Del bought a sandwich and took it up the hill to eat. The cow peered out of the barn, but looked suspiciously up the hill and didn't follow her this time. Suspicious my ass, it's probably nice and cool in there.
The black dog—surely part german shepherd, not coyote—looked so wistfully at her sandwich that she tossed him half. It inhaled it without chewing, and vanished back into the tall grass.
The late afternoon was so golden and peaceful that even the odd hunched form below her on the slope wasn't alarming. Del shaded her eyes from the late afternoon sun, stood up and walked closer.
The figure turned; an elderly woman with a basket. "Oh, hello, dear. I didn't know any young women lived out here."
"I just came out to . . . " Del trailed off as she looked down the hill. No farm house. No barn. Weedy furrows with the stubble of some grain harvest. She walked stiff legged down two more steps. "What?"
The old woman turned toward her, and stepped . . . inside her with a gluey sticky sensation that sent shudders down Del's spine. Her brain felt like it was trying to squirm away from foreign ideas, and she would have whimpered, but she didn't seem to have vocal cords . . .
"Oh dear. Oh, Sophia! I thought we'd both dodged the Hunter, last month." Del put her hands to her moving lips. "And you're a bit young for this, but I don't think there's anyone else around. Hmm, you don't believe in magic. What a pity. All that native ability and my knowledge won't do you any good if you don't know you can do it." There was an odd sucking pull and Del staggered away from the woman and sat down on the summer dried grass of the slope.
"What was that!" She scrambled away, her voice was high in panic, she panted for breath. Sweating in the heat, chilled to the bone.
"The Alignment, Dear. Let's see. Not quite a month to go until we reach the peak of stress. When Jupiter and Saturn on one side and the Sun on the other stretches reality, and things leak through the weak spots. The narrower the angle everything falls within, the stronger the effect And the Moon can help or hinder. The next two months, those will be the most dangerous times. And the most advantageous as well. When the Change can happen. When all thirteen Worlds can trade both the best and worst they have to offer. The Worlds can accept or reject either. Choose wisely."
"What? You stay away from me!"
"It makes me uneasy, that it's starting a full month ahead . . . Be careful on the Full Moon as well as the New Moon. Oh dear, if this is as strong as I fear . . . every full and new moon could stress the weak spots for years . . . I wish I still had access to the . . . "
Del blinked sun blinded eyes and backed up, away from the strange . . . nothing. She shaded her eyes and looked down hill again. There was the house, the horse barn, the old dairy. No old woman. She took a deep breath. Released it. Her hands were shaking.
"Calm down. I fell asleep, sitting up on the hill and had a nightmare. That's all."
She rubbed her arms, the skin of her hands rough. Dry and old looking. "Very weird. Was that my subconscious telling me 'more hand lotion in the low humidity!' Ha, ha." She rubbed her hands on her jeans. Old and worn, suitable for cleaning a disastrous mess, they ripped a bit more.
Then her careful control slipped and she bolted down the hill, and into the barn.
The black and white cow was there, looking past her. Head up and alarmed, but nothing was in sight. The sloped pasture was empty. Dry. The breeze whipped up a dust devil, golden in the setting sun.
"What was that?" Her voice was shaking and high. She was panting, woozy. She cupped her hands over her mouth. This was no time to hyperventilate.
The cow snorted, shifting a bit, clearly uneasy.
"And where were you, eh?"
The cow looked from the hill to her, and apparently found her uninteresting. It looked back up the hill and shook her impressive horns. Fortunately she seemed to be threatening something out there, not Del. Up close, the cow was huge. She could barely see over its back and the shoulders were even higher.
"Huh. Disappearing and taking the house and barn with you. Guess I shouldn't talk to animals, either. People will think I'm crazy." She breathed into her hands for another minute. The Universe stayed where it ought to be. "I must have nodded off. Had a nightmare. Stress at work, and jet lag and all."
The cow snorted, as if amused. Del reached over the inside wall of the draft horse sized stall and found the switch. The modern lights in the ordinary old barn banished all shadows and calmed her further. She let herself out of the stall. The cow left her post at the door, forgetting her scare—which had probably been caused by Del's panic attack—and wandered back out to the pasture.
She turned the light off as she let herself out the front door. She shivered a bit at the memory of her dream up on the hill. Silly. Just had a case of nerves. The sun was still well above the western ridge, the sky was light, the yard sunny. Nothing scary at all.
After the strangeness up the hill, the house looked cheery and bright. Normal. She hustled across the yard and locked the door behind her.
Not quite a month until . . .
No. I just dozed off and dreamed . . . something very odd.
Early Monday morning she hauled the trash out to the curb. The dawn light was silvery as the sky lightened.
Turned and froze at the sight of the girl. Twelve? Thirteen, perhaps? Naked, dirty, cringing and frightened. Her gaze darted around, as if looking for a place to hide.
"Are you . . . all right?" Del swallowed. The girl was obviously not all right. "Come inside, we'll call the police." She held out a hand.
The girl stared at it, glanced up at Del, obviously surprised. She reached across, right hand to right hand, turning and backing into Dell with that same sticky, horrible sensation . . .
The stranger wanted to merge? With a worthless hornless fugitive?
"Hornless?" Del croaked, staring at hands that suddenly seemed smaller, thinner. Ragged nails that had never seen polish.
The girl cringed—they both cringed, their bodies merged—"Se behah . . . I cannot change for the Dance. I cannot hunt. I am the hunted."
"Who hunts you?" Del remembered the dance, the satyr . . .
"Yes, him. The King of the Dance. The Hunter. My father." Tears ran down their face. "When my moon times came, I could not answer the call. My one year's grace is up, now I must run. Soon they will catch me, and I will be the sacrifice to the Moon Goddess."
"Why are you here?"
"The nexus is close, I thought I could escape to another world, but I can't, I can only merge. And that, only while the wave is flooding outward. The ebb will pull me back under."
The edge of the sun cleared the trees on the ridge. Del straightened blinked in the bright light . . . Of course there was nothing. No naked waif, either inside or outside of herself.
"I really wish those odd . . . dreams would stop." She hunched her shoulders and felt her tee shirt rip in the back. It was old, and getting worn.
She looked around. The world was normal. Except when it wasn't.
She walked around the house and stared up the ridge. The nexus, the weak spot, the dancing floor. Am I really going to turn my back on this . . . insanity? Never find out if it's real? Or if the trash in Aunt Sophia's house was growing psychedelic mushrooms?
What if it is real?
What if it keeps happening?
Chapter Eight Fly NYC
Monday, 6 July 2020
Earth, Jupiter, Saturn 16*
Delphi showered, dressed, and took Prissy out for a farewell lunch.
"I'll be back July 17th. If you can possibly get out here next Sunday, bag up more nasty cushions and put them out for the garbage men."
"Right!" Prissy's eye lit. Apparently have a filthy old house to herself was better than babysitting.
Probably true, from what I've seen of the kids!
The flight was bumpy, the cabin lights acted odd, with sudden shadows flitting by. Blasts of chilly air . . . Del staggered into her shared apartment at three in the morning. Set the alarm for seven and collapsed.
She managed to get to work before ten.
"How was the funeral?" Marti the receptionist-and-everything-else looked obscenely perky and bright.
"Meh. It was a funeral. I met a bunch of her lady friends, a couple of guys whom I hope saw her as a motherly figure. My little sister and I tried to de-junk her house. Ugg! Turns out she was one of those old women you hear about, never throws anything out? I've already got reservations to fly out, the weekend after next. The boss is going to scream."
Marti nodded. "He has some people in for a financial audit, from the company that is thinking of buying us. I'd recommend just getting to work and keeping your head down, for now."
Del huffed out a breath. "Well, sooner or later one of those companies will actually buy us, and then we'll find out if we still have jobs."
"Yeah. Depressing thought, that."
At home, Vanessa and Kerry comparing weird dreams.
"Ha! I've been living weird." They all laughed at her descriptions of the piles of trash, howled at her descriptions of the "Alien brain sucker.". They ordered pizza, drank wine. The other two "owned" the lease on the apartment. Del had sub let their extra room three years ago, when the previous occupant—a mutual friend—had married. She still dreamed of her own place, and more solitude, but Van and Kerry were good company.
I'd have plenty of solitude in Reilly Creek.
But it was back to work in the morning. Jack had tested her program and left a list of problems on her computer. The man had a twisted mind and could break programs in new and unforeseen ways. Worth his weight in gold. Del sighed and started digging. Nothing like a day of debugging code to make one appreciate hallucinations. Or hallucinatory mushrooms.
A friend was crying on the sofa, when she got home. Van and Kerry had already supplied tea and tissues.
". . . acted weird all weekend." Chrissy glanced up at her, cheeks damp, eyes red. Hot tea and tissues on the coffee table in front of her. She gave a little wave and kept talking. "Then this morning, like, click! All of a sudden he's back to normal and accusing me of acting weird all weekend! We had a huge argument, and wound up screaming at each other." Chrissy wiped her eyes. "So I need a break, some time away from him. Can I crash on the couch?"
At work Del got pulled into meeting with the prospective buyers. Explained all the programs she'd worked on the last four years. Got taken out to lunch and found herself being steered into talking about herself. Navy and enough college to get a few certifications . . . they didn't look impressed. Her boss looked depressed. Uh oh.
She worked eleven days straight. "Weekends? What are those? Look Chrissy, I'll pack up more than I actually need for California, so there's some closet space. You take the bed for the weekend, so you at least get some sleep."
She packed Thursday night, took her suitcase with her to work and then headed for La Guardia.