“This life is a fucking piss off.”
Tom tramped through light mist and damp underbrush back to his camp after a miserable day’s hunt. He was about fed up with the only joy he seemed able to find anymore. At least the rain had let up.
The expletive even surprised him as it fell right out of his thought process, splashed off the fiddlehead ferns and assailed his own ears, accustomed only to the easy shush of wet leaves.
Life hadn’t been fair to Tom. He had lost his parents early. His wife of fifteen years was now married to his old hunting partner, and any pleasant memories of those times were wiped away with visitation arguments and child support increases.
This was why Tom was hunting alone. It seemed these days he was the only friend he had.
About now was when he recognized the telltale squish between his toes that indicated a hole in the sole of his neoprene hiking boots and a feeling of why not kick me, the line starts here.
A strange sound broke his mope and pinned him to his spot in the trail. The sound was metallic and his first thought was the cocking of a gun. Slowly but surely he eased to the ground and melted into the large Salal bush at his knee.
Just his luck he would be picked off by a hare-brain with a hair trigger who thought deer wore camouflage.
Tom listened for some time and heard the sound twice more, but it seemed to be in the canopy somewhere. He scanned for blinds in the trees. Nothing.
A half hour passed while Tom strained all his senses, but there were no more sounds that didn’t fit and the birds even started to move around him, preparing for evening roost.
One of his senses did, however, pick up a signal, and that was his sense of smell. Something like a mixture of rust and roasted coffee had stroked the air just enough to let him know it was there. He knew he had another mile and a half to put in to get back to his camp, but he may have stumbled on someone else’s.
Tom had to move. This was no place to spend the night with a leaky boot.
He stood to ease his pinging muscles and began to move one foot at a time down the game trail now that camp felt much more important. Perhaps hunting alone was really not such a good idea.
All was quiet now so he picked up his pace. “Screw the hunt. I’ve had enough for one day.” Again his outside voice broke silence.
Measured steps and a matured woodsman’s gait soon had him making good ground, and camp slipped into view.
An hour later, Tom, in dry clothes, sat on his tailgate, eating a fair good meal wrangled from his truck camper. A fire crackled nearby and hot coffee steamed at his side.
The rain had turned to mist about noon and had stopped completely by the time he got to camp. Now stars were poking through the clouds in the deepening dark with a welcome glitter that eased his troubled soul. Even in hell there are good moments, he thought, this time with his inner voice.
While contemplating the growing basket of sparkles over his coffee, the wildest moonbeam he ever saw slid down through the breaking clouds, then changed in hue to a silvery bronze glow. There was no sign of the moon to create such a beam, so amazement helped Tom’s coffee cup levitate slowly down to the tailgate. This was no moonbeam.
He watched as the beam grew more bronze and started moving through the now darkened forest. It made the tops of the trees it brushed look like their needles were on fire.
At first the beam slid across the bow-back mountain, then down the broken ridge to the south and on down to the alpine meadow where the logging road broke over the hump onto this plateau.
There was another metallic click like the one Tom heard on the trail but this time louder and in the direction of the source of the beam. The beam changed direction and was now on its way toward his truck.
Tom's hand slid up the seat at the back of the camper and wrapped around the butt of his .308 hunting rifle.
Another click and he became aware of the now strong smell of rusty coffee. A quick glance at his own cup stated the obvious; it was not his coffee that he smelled. The third symptom of this experience now hit. Tom’s hair was on end. All of it. Literally, even his head hair stuck out like he was a large magnet and his hair was iron filings. His arm hair was fluffed and even his chest hair and genitalia sent sensations across his body like a breeze through his hair. Tom did not enjoy this.
The beam swept the scrub spruce on the plateau now and neared his camp. The rifle was readied and a loud question was in the chamber.
Tom was aware of a shake in his hands but he worked his best to ease it off. “Probably a damn helicopter looking for a greenhorn... There goes that outer voice again.” Now he was talking to himself out loud. “Shit!”
The beam broke out into his camp and pulled up a seat on his campfire. The sparks were simply drifting up their own shining chimney.
Nothing changed for a millennium in Tom’s mind then three men and a woman simply lifted out of his fire and stepped back to be lit by its light, impervious to the heat and flames. Tom had a feeling his gun was of little use here. For another eternity, they didn’t speak, they just watched him.
The clothes they wore were a little city for this setting, but wind breakers and sweaters made Tom think they were feeling the chill. “What the hell?”
He didn’t know if that was inside or outside voice, and he really didn’t care anymore.
The smallest guy grinned a perfect smile and said, “Hi, Tom.”
The rest of the committee smiled with this and nodded in greeting.
The little guy seemed to be leading this slide into insanity, so he opened again with, “It’s been a while. You don’t remember us, but for a cup of your coffee, we’ll enlighten you to our last visit and fill you in on what this is all about."
Slowly, without a word, Tom replaced the rifle to its berth and brought camp chairs from a little used plywood box on the back end of the camper. He worked automatically and deliberately to accommodate his guests. A new pot of coffee was perked on the propane stove and Tom showed amazing patience before pouring their cups full, taking a place amongst them and asking, “OK, now who the hell are you?”
“Well, Tom, we three are your parole board, and this lovely lady is your wife.” The little guy still led the way.
“Parole board? If I didn’t know for sure I was going crazy right now, I’d say you were out of your friggin’ gourd.”
Tom made a mental note that he had edited his statement automatically for the lady.
The little guy tipped his lips to his steaming coffee and nodded gently toward the skinny one, who was doing the same.
The skinny guy now leaned forward and presented what looked like a pen to Tom. “Please take this; it will help explain what we are talking about.”
Tom reached out and took the stylus and it clicked that strange sound and the rusty coffee smell overtook him. Reality began to settle around him now and the setting faded away from campfire to softly lit boardroom with glass walls framing a city world at dusk with millions of lights like stars spreading around this tower they sat in.
The splendor of the evening vista flooded his mind with memories, and understanding poured back in.
These people were no longer human, and by now Zil knew he as not human either.
“Hello, Bel, Lar, Ras… Sure good to see you again, Gix. How long have I been gone this time?"
This time the small framed Ras, the warden, chimed in. "You have two human lifetimes in, Zil, one more to go. I have to say this one was your toughest so far, but you get to start fresh with the next one, so make it your best."
Bel, his personal incarceration guide, leaned in across the massive glass table. “Zil, as you know and understand now, purpose-bound killing is just not something society can warrant. You took three sub-species' lives when exploring that small planet, and two-thirds of your sentence is served. The first one you seemed to learn, as killing was repugnant to you. The second you became an expert in the field of tracking, hunting, and killing. Not a good sign in your rehabilitation. Since you lived your life as a human, this was in your nature, but we are hoping it will show you why our society is superior in every way.”
Lar, the sentence executionist, now took the floor.
“We could not see any reason for leniency from the last two lives, so you will be tasked to do the third life sentence as originally applied. The difference will be that during this lifetime, you will know who you are, and somewhere near your eighth year, you will begin to remember the former lives, why you are there.
"You will understand why you should work toward enlightening those of the human species you interact with, to the lesson learned.
"It will not be long before they are brought into the union and must live by the same laws.”
All eyes now turned to Gix, who remained silent
The warden now finished his review. “Gix was not guilty of your crimes, so society does not want to punish her. In our time, your life sentences have been but a few days. Gix should not be made to go without her right to mate, and you as her husband should be the partner in her needs. You will service her as appropriate before continuing your term.”
Lar spoke quietly now. “Tom just had a heart attack and died back on earth. When you are done with your visitation with Gix, you will begin your last term.”
Gix smiled coyly, stood, and walked around the table to lead Zil into the visitation room. As they entered, she flicked her hand across the opaque switch stand and the walls filled in to leave them to their own resources.
They dropped their shells and merged at once. Within moments, the room was radiant with their light.
Memories of Gix were sweet, and they carried Zil a long way. There was no way of escaping this confinement, and the black existence was increasingly painful. Unfortunately, those memories were beginning to fade now and his whole existence was comprised of the paradox in which he found himself. Bathed in warmth and nourished to the extent of his every need, yet contained and bound in this black senseless existence.
Suddenly there was a surge and Zil felt the support below him give way slightly. Panic set in as his benevolent prison began to give way.
The movement stopped and his heart rate began to slow. Zil stretched to ease the weight concentrating on his head and shoulders and suddenly another tremor, this time bigger, and his world rushed out around his head and shoulders, leaving him grasping and pushing to spread the pressure away from his head.
Zil slipped and his prison walls crushed down on him. His head was squeezed through a crevasse it couldn’t fit through, and he felt his energy waning.
Just as he thought he could gain some strength, another push from his compressing walls and his left shoulder was trapped. His struggle subsided now. He was giving up. This was his end.
Again the pressure from all sides and this time he didn’t resist. A moment later he was screaming at the top of his lungs and gasping for breath in a freezing hell of light and noise. The smell of rusty coffee was overpowering.
Finally some relief in the form of a warm, wet smoothing that pushed away the cold for a few moments, then the shock of cold metal against his bare skin.
The warm cleaning continued for a short time. He was wrapped tightly in cloth and placed in the arms of his mother.
Moments later Zil found a nipple and drank in a new life that for the moment pushed aside memories of Gix and the board.