In which Jase is rescued and meets his savior.
Jase was a boy again hiding beneath the covers in his bed back home. He tried to breathe, but each yearning gasp grew less satisfying, the air more stifling. With a final convulsed gulp, Jase’s eyes flashed open with a desire to throw back the covers and suck in a breath of cool, fresh air. Instead, he opened his eyes to a misted faceplate an inch from his nose and a glowing amber lightbulb dangling above his head
Where was he?
Jase tried to breathe but his lungs wouldn’t fill. Like the stifling sensation of his dream, the air of his spacesuit was flat and warm.
Spacesuit? He was in a spacesuit, that much he knew. Confused, Jase’s gasps echoed through the helmet. He had to have air. Had to have it now! In a panic, he fumbled open the latches and slipped the helmet from his head.
Jase’s back arched in the blessed inhalation, but instead of sweet relief, it felt like an avalanche of shattered razorblades and broken glass cascade into his lungs. Smoke filled his eyes and clawed at his throat as he bent over choking for breath between his drool spattered fingers.
He remembered then, where he was. Inside the Stardust’s escape pod, a closet-sized enclosure with his seat at the center and the hatch just opposite his chair.
The pod lay tilted on its back with Jase’s upright seat angled like Aunt Anna’s recliner back home. A section of wall behind his seat had been smashed in by the crash and a fistful of wires as a finger of gray smoke seeped from within.
At least there’s gravity. The thought rattled Jase’s mind as he reached up and yanked the escape hatch handle. Nothing happened.
Desperate, Jase turned in his seat and pressed a shoulder against the hatch. The door cracked a centimeter then two as he grunted with effort. Light stirred the darkness as the hatch rose a finger’s width more, then another.
Fresh air swirled the smoke around him, and Jase drank it in. He pushed harder, his legs quivering with the effort. The hatch would rise no further. Jase coughed in the growing smoke as darkness once more creep across his vision. The hatch clanked shut and Jase fell panting to his knees. He was trapped. For an instant, he’d glimpsed the rose-tinted sunlight of dawn and a veil of verdant green. He fell to his side and vomited to the floor.
He’d stopped coughing now, too tired for the effort. He could taste the burnt rubber on his tongue, could see the golden flicker of flames through his scrunched, watering eyes.
He wished he could see his mother just one last time.
In the slowing stream of Jase’s consciousness, a tunnel of pure, icy light opened up above him. Bright as winter dawn, it filled his mouth, filled his nose, filled his lungs with icy delight. He blinked and raised a hand against the glow. A form stood silhouetted there, a giant. Light glinted off her great bald head as she peered in, then with great, sinewy arms, she lifted Jase into the light.
“Are you the Goddess?” he asked.
“No,” the smiling giant said, “but I think she sent me.”
Jase woke to a musty darkness and the dappled glow of sunshine freckling the sandy floor beside him. After the terror of the escape pod, he didn't question his predicament, not yet. He lay with the cool earth pressing against him and relished the rise and fall of his chest and the simple joy of being alive.
Pushing to an elbow, Jase looked around. He was inside a cave no more than four meters across and barely tall enough to stand. He sat near the cave’s mouth where light trickled in through an ivy curtain dangling across the opening. When he looked out, Jase saw that he was several paces up a steep, rocky rise. A wave of course vines flowed down the slope ending at the edge of a wide, green clearing. Beyond, trees swayed in the breeze as it raced up the forested valley and rippled the ivy on its invisible sprint past.
In the distance, he spotted a finger of smoke curling above the tree-line and whipping away in the wind.
Jase parted the ivy and stared out at the trees blinking in disbelief. Each species he recognized, oak and pine, elm, and willow. What struck him was their size. Regardless of species, each tree rose over forty meters, some growing much, much taller. Even the smallest of these giants squatted on woody trunks as thick as a man. Craning his neck, Jase could just make out the tops of the most mammoth oaks towering high above him on their majestic wooden pillars.
“Be careful,” a voice said from the darkness. “They're probably still out there.”
Jase spun, bright spots dappling his vision as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.
“Who's there?” he asked.
“My name’s Takoda. Takoda Ironcloud.”
A face emerged from the shadows. A youthful, pretty face, with shaved head, sensuous lips, and tired hazel eyes. At first, Jase thought the light shadowed one eye, then saw it was a birthmark extending from below her right cheek to just beneath her ear on the same side.
“You?” Jase cocked his head at the familiar features. “You're the one who saved me.”
“That's right,” the giantess said. “You were trapped inside your craft. A fallen branch blocked your exit.”
As Jase's eyes adjusted, he made out more of the woman. Or girl really. Despite her monstrous proportions, she looked no older than seventeen.
“You said they're still out there.” Jase jacked a thumb towards the entrance. “Who's still out there?”
“The Harpies,” Takoda said. She retreated once more into shadow, the gravel of the cave floor scrunching as she lay back down.
“Like the ones from mythology and movies?” Jase asked.
“Yes, very much like.” The sound of a yawn drifted from the darkness. “You need your rest, friend. So do I. Sleep now and we will talk later.”
Slowly, Jase’s eyes adjusted to reveal the shadow of his rescuer laying prone in the darkness. Even as he watched, he heard the big woman’s breath grow measured and deep.
Despite the warning, he crept to the entrance and peered out. As he watched, the dark line of smoke faded to white then vanished altogether. Through tired, scratchy eyes, he kept watch on the clearing until the sigh of the wind lulled him to sleep.
When Jase awoke, it was to the comforting golden glow of a campfire and the aroma of roasting meat. He pushed to an elbow and found the giant peering at him from across the flames of a fire.
“Well, I guess you needed more sleep than I,” the giant said.
Jase sat up rubbing his raw eyes. “Yeah, I guess so.” The fire revealed the cave to be a great smooth tube. Further back, it rose to over three meters and twice that in width, its flat, smooth walls stretching into the darkness beyond.
“I’m Jase, by the way.” He reached across the fire and extended his hand. “Jase Hildebrand, King of Texas. Thanks for saving my life.”
The giant rose, hunched beneath the ceiling and took Jase’s hand. “Takoda Ironcloud of the Elk clan. Pleased to meet you Jase Hildebrand, King of Texas.”
Jase’s first assessment of the giant had been right. Despite her prodigious height, she couldn’t have been much more than seventeen. Her dark eyes sparkled beneath bushy, dark brows, and her face and body were strong and lean. Most surprising of all was her clothing, or rather the lack of it. She wore nothing more than a white breechcloth which exposed her hips, tan leather leggings, and a thin, leather vest. She seemed quite at home in the unusual garb.
Despite his falling asleep at the lip of the cave, she’d somehow managed to creep out the opening without waking him. She'd even managed to sneak back in after trapping one of the largest rabbits Jase had ever set eyes upon. If he hadn’t seen the creature’s head lying in the corner among a pile of fur and innards, he’d have mistaken the spitted form grilling above the flames as that of a small dog or a fox.
Takoda tore off one of the rabbit’s legs and passed it across the flames. When Jase took it, she broke off a piece of her own then bowed her head rocking back and forth while chanting a strange sing-songey prayer. At the end, she paused, formed the Gaian circle over her chest, then looked up and took a bite. She stared at Jase as she chewed.
“I did not bring any spices, Jase Hildebrand,” she said, “but the Goddess has provided us with a fine young coney.” She took another bite wiping the sheen of grease from her lips.
Jase considered her a moment longer before taking a bite. He couldn’t recall the last time he ate and relished the juicy, golden flavor. “So, Takoda.” He wiped the course material of the spacesuit across his lips. “How is it you found me? “
From what Jase remembered from his view at the cave's mouth, there’d been nothing in sight but trees. No rodes, no villages, just an unending forest extending along a valley as far as the eye could see.
“The Goddess brought me,” Takoda said.
Jase’s brow bunched in surprise.
“I was flying across the sea when I saw you fall from the heavens. I asked for a sign and...” She shrugged. “And there you were.”
“You … flew?”
“So, there’s an airfield nearby?” Jase asked. “Or did you set down on a road?”
“Air...field?” Takoda shook her head. “I don’t know about air fields. I just landed atop your craft.”
“You just … landed?” Jase chuckled. He was beginning to think he’d been saved by a mad woman. “I suppose you just flapped down and pulled me out of the wreckage.”
Takoda nodded. “Yes, Jase Hildebrand, that is exactly what I did.”
She pulled a package from the shadows and unfolded an enormous white wing, its edges were charred and broken.
“Sadly, I left my wings too close to your ship. Some of the underbrush caught fire and damaged them quite severely.” She folded them up and pushed them away. “I’m afraid these will never fly again.”
Jase had seen plenty of movies set on Luna. He’d laughed at the people flying into combat, their characters swinging across the screen on barely hidden wires. He’d always assumed it was a fantasy, an invention of the writers to hold the audience’s attention.
“Could you teach me how to fly?” he asked.
“Certainly, if that is what you desire. But may ask a question, Jase Hildebrand. What brings you to Luna? Surely not a desire to fly.”
Jase considered the question. Should he trust this simple peasant? There were few on Luna who knew of his task yet looking back on the short history of his adventure, there was no telling who he might trust.
“I’m on a holy mission for the church,” he said at last. “More I cannot say.”
Takoda nodded, apparently satisfied with the answer. “Are you from Earth, Jase Hildebrand, or did you arrive from Mars?”
“From Earth. The continent of North America to be exact.”
“And is this where your kingdom lies? This Texas?”
“And you are on a holy quest?”
He nodded again.
“A quest?” Takoda said. She pressed her palms together and looked beseechingly towards the heavens. “Oh, thank the Great Mother I have chosen the right course.” She turned and met Jase’s stare.
“I will join you on your quest.”
Jase had planned on paying the young rustic a tidy fee for leading him back to civilization, but this willingness to help might just have saved him the trouble. Either that or Takoda was leading him into a trap. Regardless, Jase would have to rely on someone and there was a quality in the young woman’s face which lent itself to a sense of trust. Besides, once he’d found a competent guide, he could send her on her way with a pocketful of thanks.
“Okay,” Jase said at last. “I need to find someone.” He stopped a moment to consider. “Or perhaps it’s a place.” He waved his hand dismissively. “I don’t know which, but I need to find The Oracle. I don’t know much about this Oracle other than whoever or whatever it is, it’s supposed to be in the Symthii sea.”
Takoda’s eyes brightened. “I know the Symthii sea. I’ve seen the maps.” She waved towards the cave’s mouth. “It is many day's journey west of here, but I could lead you.” She leaned back; her brows furrowed in thought. “But I have not heard of your Oracle. What sort of place is it supposed to be?”
“I don’t know,” Jase said. “The church was supposed to tell me how to get there and what to do when I did.”
He extended an arm towards the cave’s mouth and his wrecked pod somewhere beyond. “Then this happened.” Jase straightened and took a breath. “Look,” he said. “I appreciate your enthusiasm, but all I need is to be taken to a city. Someplace I could inquire about this Oracle. Maybe locate a guide, some gear, and weapons.”
Takoda stared into the flames nibbling at the rabbit leg. Finally, she tossed the ragged bone into the fire and wiped her hands across her leggings.
“I know just the man.”
Jase took a final bite and flipped his own rabbit leg after Takoda’s. They sizzled greasily amongst the coals. “So, who is he?”
“His name is John Gage,” Takoda said. “He is a judge in New Surat.”
Although Jase liked the idea of a judge, he imagined a potbellied old man perched behind a bench.
“Does this judge know someone who can help?”
“Oh, no, John Gage is the man we want.”
“And New Surat,” Jase said, “Is it far?”
“Takoda shook her head. “Not far. But we must hike through several kilometers of Harpy land to get there.”
Jase didn’t like the sound of that. “Who are these Harpies anyway?”
“The Harpies,” Takoda said, “control the area north of the Moscovience Sea.” She bobbed her head towards the cave entrance. “You crashed almost five kilometers from the Moscovience Sea which puts you smack dab in the middle of Harpy country. That includes most of the land east of here as well.”
“I’ve got plenty of money,” Jase said. “Couldn’t we just pay them for safe passage?”
Takoda shook her head. “Their interpretation of The Balance is more violent than that shared by most.”
Jase knew of The Balance. It was the cornerstone of Gaean doctrine. According to holy writ, it was the goal of every person, individually and all of mankind, collectively; to achieve balance in their life, not just establishing harmony with other people, but with nature as well. To achieve Balance was to attain inner as well as outer peace. To scorn Balance was to invite destruction and sin.
Jase had learned of The Balance at the hands of his Aunt Anna. He’d been taught the history of the Purification and the church’s part in rebuilding civilization. How the faithful had endured while the rest of the solar system had died.
“I’ve never heard of a warlike clan since the Purification,” Jase said. “Why doesn’t the priesthood control them?”
In the fire’s dim glow, it was difficult to read Takoda’s expression. If he were to guess, Jase thought his young savior wore a look of surprise.
“Don’t you have churches?” Jase asked. “Priests?”
“Of course,” Takoda said. “But it is not the responsibility of priests to force compliance but to teach by example. To lead the good life in support of the people.”
Now it was Jase’s turn to look surprised. Apparently, the church’s influence across the solar system was not as uniform as he’d been led to believe. He couldn't imagine a situation on Earth where a rogue clan wouldn't be crushed beneath the combined might of the royal families. Of course, on Earth, the church ruled with an iron fist. They purchased influence with the coin of technology and maintained control through the power of tradition. Based on what he'd seen, these people had little interest in either.
“If these Harpies catch us, what will they do?”
“It is their belief,” Takoda said, “That the balance can only be maintained by the elimination of man. By that, I mean the male of the species in particular and mankind as a whole. If they find us, Jase Hildebrand, they will most certainly do away with us in a most unpleasant manner.”
“So, they're all women?” he asked.
“Yes. Few can compare in fighting prowess and none can match them in flight, and when it comes to the bow, they are without peer.”
Jase shot a glance at the cave’s dark opening. “Is there any chance they’ll see our fire?”
Takoda shook her head. “No, I’ve checked. We’re quite safe for now. It’s when we leave that we risk discovery. The Harpies are sharp-eyed.” She pointed skyward. “They will be watching.”
Once they’d eaten, they smothered the flames and crept to the cave entrance.
“Wait here,” the big woman said, and slid outside.
Jase stripped off his spacesuit, touching briefly the signet ring hidden beneath his shirt. Just as he began to consider the possibility of Takoda’s betrayal. The giant beckoned him from the darkness.
“The way is clear, Jase Hildebrand. It is time to go.”
Crawling from the musty stillness of the cave, Jase wasn’t sure what to expect from his first real encounter on this strange new world. He was met by a humid breeze whose intimate caress would have been familiar to any living along the tropical Texas coast.
“How far is New Surat?” Jase asked as he followed Takoda down the shadowed slope.
“Not far”. Takoda sprang across a four-meter gap in the trail like she was striding across a pothole. “Twenty, maybe thirty kilometers.”
“Thirty...kilometers?” Jase eyed the gap not even wanting to guess how far the drop might be. He took a step back then a clumsy, running leap forward.
Takoda lifted a hand. “Jase, no!” she hissed.
To his surprise, Jase found his first step in the Lunar gravity carried him further than he’d intended. Instead of leaping over the gap, he headed straight for it. The big woman dove, snaking out a hand and grabbing Jase’s foot as he tumbled over the edge. His momentum, however, was too much for Takoda to halt and she was dragged across the ground and they tumbled into the crevasse together.