I almost forgot that I'm supposed to be up today. I could plead a whole day missing from my week due to spending it in a hospital watching a family member get a blood transfusion (not because of symptoms, but a decreasing red blood cell count) but in fact I should have taken advantage of that day of sitting to get some writing chores done.
In any case, my mind has been very much on the distance that is the past, contemplating the coming necessity of selling the house where I grew up and my father lived until four months ago. I have complicated thoughts about that distance between the past and the present, but I'm not up to digging into the subject when I'm already late in posting, so I'm going to punt by offering a look at my not-yet-published (and without official final approval) superheroine novel, which involves a link between a very distant past and our almost-present.
The Shadow Hand, Chapter 1
Tremors underfoot alerted Cleo before she heard the growl of distant engines and saw plumes of dust rising across the desert. Motorcycles, not on the road, but racing in leaps and jerks across rough terrain.
Lieutenant Ashton saw them an instant later. “Cleo! Ours?”
“No. Not ours.” Cleo and engines shared a common language, learned when she was raised above her uncle’s automotive repair shop. She shaded her eyes against the unrelenting sun. “Coming too fast for us to make it back to the jeep and get it going.”
She’d disabled the vehicle herself as an excuse to drop behind the convoy and have an hour or two exploring the ancient ruins of a walled palace built over a thousand years ago and deserted for centuries. The Lieutenant had read about El Ukhaidir when she’d studied anthropology and archaeology in college, knowing she’d be deployed to the Middle East and figuring she might as well know something about its history.
The turrets in the walls and the graceful, elegant arches within, some crumbling from the weight of years, were fascinating, and the courtyards still showed traces of great clay pots where flowering fruit and nut trees might once have grown, probably almond and apricot, according to Ash. There were even remnants of a low wall that would have encircled a shallow pool.
A place well worth visiting, exploring, even fantasizing about, although Cleo’s fantasies ran more to envisioning harem girls lounging beside the pool, while Ash kept talking about a famous woman who’d discovered and mapped ruins like this, an eccentric British explorer who’d become an expert on the desert and its tribes, and been called by some “The Desert Queen.” Cleo had listened, but more to the point as far as she was concerned—even more than imagined harem girls—was the chance to be together with Ash. Alone. A chance they’d taken as much advantage of as they could in the limited time they’d dared to stay.
But now enemies were approaching, and Cleo and Ash were less than halfway back to the jeep. As easy as repairs would be, no way could she do it fast enough to be gone before the oncoming motorcycles arrived.
Damn! Cleo knew better than to believe morning reports that a sector was secure. Why had she chosen to believe them today? Hope overriding skepticism, that’s why.
The stone ruins were already too far away to reach before they could be seen. Besides, that would be too obvious as a hiding place.
“This way!” Ash ordered. She veered from the path and bolted across sand and gravel toward the dry wadi that must once have provided water for the palace in the brief rainy seasons. Cleo gripped her rifle close and slid down a steep bank behind her. No need for Ash to look back to make sure she followed; they both knew by now that Cleo would follow her Lieutenant anywhere, even to the depths of hell—which this might very well be.
The undulating wadi was wide and shallow, the bank just high enough to hide them if they stood erect, but not from an observer on the edge looking directly downward. There were overhangs left by erosion in many places, some deep and cave-like. One hollow, where the dry streambed turned sharply, looked big enough to hold them. They scrabbled inside, making it still deeper and higher, clawing desperately at the packed soil and gravel, glad of the dirt that collapsed behind them across the entrance and provided more concealment.
“Behind me,” Ash panted, wriggling so that Cleo was shoved further into their burrow. “That’s an order, Sergeant Brown!”
“I’m the one with the rifle!” Not to mention the one with sharpshooter rating. But when the Lieutenant called her “Sergeant” in that tone, arguing was out of the question, so she crouched behind with the gun angled across Ash’s shoulder. If they were discovered…
By the noise and clouds of dust there were too many cyclists to defend against. Cleo knew what the fate of two captured woman soldiers could be. Her own skinny ass might have no more than propaganda appeal, if they even noticed her sex before shooting to kill. She’d been mistaken for a teenaged boy often enough. But Lieutenant Ashton, an officer and most definitely a woman, for all her tall, strong frame, would be a rare prize.
The growls of engines rose to a roar, louder, closer, closer—Cleo estimated a dozen machines—and stopped.
They’d found the disabled jeep.
Ash shifted in the confined space, trying to draw her sidearm. The slight movement triggered a shower of sand and stones from above. Cleo felt Ash flinch as something struck her right hand. Body pressed hard against Ash’s back, head against her thick, dark hair, cheek against her face, Cleo steadied her. Enough light came into their hiding place to show a trickle of blood along Ash’s hand, already beginning to crust over with the dust that covered every inch of them. Sweat trickling down their faces turned into gritty mud. Ash reached down with her left hand, groped for the stone that had hit her, and stared at it in the dim light. Cleo strained to see it, without success.
Voices carried through the dry desert air, shouts, questions, orders, too far away to make out individual words. The convoy Ash and Cleo had lagged behind left plenty of tracks, so the newcomers might conclude that the jeep’s occupants had gone on in another vehicle. Or they might not. The women’s own boots wouldn’t have made much impression on the hard ground, but a really skillful tracker might notice something. Cleo herself would have noticed.
The voices came gradually closer, paused for some sort of discussion, then moved on toward the arches and turrets of the ruins. Ash and Cleo dared to draw a few breaths, then froze as boots, more than one pair, crunched over pebbles until they stopped not far away near the rim of the wadi.
Two voices, arguing. The others must have gone on to search the interior of the fortress while these men checked out the wadi. One of them cursed and moved off to follow the rest, but the other could be heard starting down the bank and then, after the first step or two, setting off an avalanche of dry soil.
Under cover of the clamor outside Ash tried again to get at the holstered sidearm at her hip. Cleo’s leg was pressed so hard against the pistol that it bruised her knee. There was no room for her to shift—but suddenly the gun wasn’t there at any more. It was in Ash’s injured hand. A hand that hadn’t moved, and couldn’t possibly have reached for the pistol.
The sound of boots on gravel moved away. “How…?” Cleo murmured. Ash’s hand began to shake. Lieutenant Ashton’s hands never shook! They’d been in tight spots before, with their whole squad in danger, and she’d stayed cool as an October breeze in Montana.
The faint quaver in her whisper scared Cleo. She didn’t let it show. “Later. It’s okay. Hold steady.”
Cleo felt Ash brace and take command. “Sergeant. I’ll save two bullets. You know what to do, if it comes to that.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” One for each of them. They would not be taken alive. Cleo’d be the one to do it, as she’d promised once before, when it had not quite come to that.
The sound of boots approached again. No more time for talking. Maybe no more time for living. Cleo drew in a slow, silent breath, and held it, a breath filled with the aroma of Ash’s sweat, the lemon soap she used, and an essence all her own that only Cleo knew. If there’d been rumpled lavender-scented sheets beneath them instead of acrid desert, it would have been almost like her scent in that tiny room in Paris where they’d spent a glorious secret week of leave. Add in the musk of their lovemaking, just Ash and Cleo together, no barrier of rank, no sense of shame; and their reflections in the wall mirror framed by carved wooden curlicues and cherubs, with Ash’s dark tousled hair just long enough to brush her jaw and Cleo’s cropped coppery head pressed against her cheek; a memory to cling to. All the more if it would be the last memory ever.
A breeze had sprung up outside, sending little puffs of dust through the slit at the cave’s entrance. Anyone looking there directly would notice that opening. Cleo let her breath out slowly and drew another one.
The pistol appeared suddenly in Ash’s other hand while the fingers of her right hand tightened around the stone that had cut her. Bit by bit, with quiet rustlings and scrapings, the entrance to their hideaway changed form to allow them both a better view—and yet Ash hadn’t moved.
Cleo tensed. She must be hallucinating. Stress, heat, dust-filled air, fear for Ash, all screwing with her mind. Focus! Concentrate! Brace for whatever you have to do!
There was a hint of movement outside. Now she could see, clearly, the man pausing just beyond them under an overhang that jutted out like the prow of a ship.
He began to turn. Ash’s hand didn’t move, just tensed even more, and a tremor shook the overhang. She raised a finger, and a clod fell. Another twitch of her finger, and a bigger clod fell from the overhang, then another, and another. With a loud crack the whole formation began to capsize, stones and dirt pelting down, almost hiding the man. He yelled and struggled, lurched as though he’d been shoved from behind, and managed to stumble away before the full brunt of the landslide hit. When the noise and dust subsided he could be heard some distance downstream scrambling up the side of the wadi.
The returning silence felt louder than the turmoil just past. What had happened? What had Ash done? And how?
Ash kept on staring at the object in her hand. Cleo, with no idea what to say, said nothing. Eventually the men who had been searching the ruins could be heard on the path back to the road, but it was a while before they revved their engines and roared away. Cleo knew all too well what they’d probably been doing in the meantime.
At last, desperate to move her aching joints and feel more air and space around her, she lifted the end of her rifle and began to knock bits of dirt and pebbles out of the small opening in front of them. Ash looked up, and all at once great gaps appeared, as though some giant hand was punching through the wall.
Ash lurched forward and scrambled out on all fours, dropping the pistol along the way while favoring the hand still holding the hidden object. Cleo tumbled out behind her. They sat a few feet apart in the dry streambed, gulping fresh air, dazed, but not so much that Cleo wasn’t on the alert for any sign that someone had stayed behind.
“Cleo,” Ash said at last. She hesitated. “Sergeant Brown.”
This was serious. Cleo waited. Usually when Ash shifted into full Lieutenant mode her clear gray eyes took on a steely glint, but not now. This time her eyes begged for reassurance.
“Sergeant Brown, what…what did you just see?”
“I saw you save our sorry asses, Ma’am. I don’t claim to understand what happened, how things moved the way they did, but I saw it.”
“So if I’m hallucinating, so are you.”
Cleo could get away with a lot when it came to most folks, but she could never lie to the Lieutenant. To Ash. “We’re not hallucinating. Just because we don’t understand something doesn’t mean it isn’t real. I know plenty of things for sure without understanding them. Objects moved, and from what I saw, you made them move. How did it feel to you?”
“It was…strange. Things happened because I thought about them, but it wasn’t just me. It was this.” She opened her right hand at last and showed what she’d been holding; what, Cleo was pretty sure, had fallen on her in the cave and drawn blood. “Her.”
Not stone, at least not any kind Cleo had ever seen. Ivory, maybe, yellowed by age. Whatever it was made of, the carved figure was clearly, extravagantly female, four or five inches high, with three pairs of full breasts springing from her torso. Some kind of ancient goddess. She wore a sort of high crown that must once have been even higher but had been broken off. Her legs were obscured by a skirt incised with unidentifiable designs. Her face had lost part of its nose, but was otherwise intact, with a regal look about the chin and the direct gaze. Her arms, too, were mostly missing, although you could see where they’d been, and there was enough left of one of them to form a sharp point where it had broken—a point stained with recently shed blood.
Ash’s blood. All that mattered to Cleo right then, besides the unlikely fact that they were still alive, was Ash. The Lieutenant was…shaken. Not scared, not confused, not angry, exactly, but struggling with something made up of all of those, and more.
“She’s stuck in my mind,” Ash blurted out at last. “Trying to control me. She may have saved us, but I want her out. I get all the orders I can stand from my commanding officers.”
Defiance! Cleo nearly shook with relief. Ash was going to be all right.
“Toss her to me, Ash. See how you feel then.”
She held out her hand, then tried to duck when the figurine shot up and hurtled toward her head, stopping with a sudden jerk just before it hit. Ash’s face was taut with strain. A fierce heat flowed from the hovering figure, feeling as though it would sear Cleo’s skin, but all at once the goddess, or whatever she was, vanished. A few pebbles could be heard dropping inside the cave. Maybe she’d burrowed back into it.
Cleo’s whirling mind took refuge in crude humor. “Guess I’m not this particular Desert Queen’s type. Just as well. She wants somebody like one of those Hindu Kali statues, with a bunch of extra arms and hands to do justice to all her extra boobs.”
“What she wanted,” Ash said, standing somewhat stiffly, “was to hurl herself right through your head. I struggled to stop her, and I won. Now she’s gone. I made her go away. It’s over.”
Cleo got to her feet with an effort. It seemed like they’d been scrunched up in that cave in fear for their lives an hour or more. “So it was only your ass she intended to save, and mine was just collateral non-damage? I can live with that.”
“If you’re lucky,” Ash said. “She may be bound to this place, not to the palace over there—that’s only about 1300 years old—but to something much older. Astarte, Ishtar, Ashtoreth—many names for more or less the same goddess. Maybe some temple was here thousands of years ago that left no trace—except for Her.”
“A real Desert Queen, then? But ‘Ashtoreth?’ Really? That name?”
“Don’t go there! It’s just a coincidence. Besides, in this area her name would most likely be Ishtar.” Ash’s irritation was an improvement on worrying about possible hallucinations. “A hundred years ago the clerks at Ellis Island didn’t bother with figuring out how to spell immigrants’ names. My great-grandfather’s name became ‘Ashton’ instead of ‘Athanasiou.’ Greek. A whole different crew of goddesses.” Her expression warned Cleo not to mention her actual first name, Athena. “Anyway, enough of that. She’s gone now. End of story.”
“Sure.” Cleo watched Ash bend down for the pistol she’d dropped, now half-buried in gravel. The gun rose to meet Ash’s hand. “If you say so.”
“It’ll wear off,” Ash muttered, still looking down.
Cleo groped for words. What must it feel like, some impossible, unnatural power being thrust into you without your consent? Something that couldn’t be explained by experience, or training, or instinct? For that matter, was Cleo herself suffering from shellshock, to willingly believe in a stone goddess controlling her commander?
Right now it didn’t matter. She found some words. “Whether it wears off or not, you’re still you.” She reached out, and Ash’s hand met hers in an entirely natural grip.
“We’re still us,” Ash said.
What flowed between them when they touched needed no explanation at all. Ash rested her gritty cheek against Cleo’s until a stronger breeze sprang up, signaling the lowering of the sun toward the vast desert horizon.
That's not the end of the chapter, but I've gone on too along already, so I'll stop before the part about throwing a jeep through the air just as it explodes in flames.