Illustrations by Morgan Wagner
This phony-gig-turned-kidnapping kicked Luna and Danzi’s instincts into hyperdrive. They were still innocent in many ways about human nature and their temporary home planet. They had only brought their borrowed instruments and a minimal amount of gear. The feedback screech at the base of Danzi’s skull seemed to emanate from the metal of her new piercing. Something was either tracking them…or calling for help.
She shrieked a wordless cue at her partner. There was a hidden advantage to their callings as priestesses on their home planet of Narius: part of their training was knowing how to fight.
It only took a flick of their wrists to remove the bags from their heads and fling them at the cultists who tried to entrap them. A split second later, Luna vaulted herself into the air, hand connecting to the chest of hooded man who was about to grab her. He flipped like an overturned bucket and landed on his back with a grunt, more surprised than hurt.
Danzi also moved at a speed too fast for anyone to track, even her partner. She effortlessly broke the grasp on a hooded figure who had her wrist. Another figure found himself somersaulting away, and a third went into a tailspin. If they weren’t so hostile, Danzi thought, they wouldn’t keep making colossal fools of themselves, as she continued to use their energy against them.
The melee became an entropic blur of human pinwheels in Luna and Danzi’s wake. With every scuffle, candles surrounding the circle tipped over. The Narists frantically yanked off their robes and began smothering the flames before the old building caught fire. As the candlelight grew dimmer, someone flipped a switch, illuminating the giant room in sickly greenish track lighting.
The throng shrank away like vampires in the sun, trying to hide their faces, uncertain what to do next, except for one – a slovenly, unwashed-smelling man blocked the two otherworldly musicians’ path to the door, unfazed by their superior defense moves.
“This is what you get when you snub a psychic astrologer to celebrities,” he hissed. “I had a feeling you ladies weren’t quite what you claimed to be. We know Narius exists, and about your plans to blow us to smithereens.”
“You’re that crazy man Michael!” Luna suddenly recognized him. “You came to our gig at the Neutral Ground.”
“We’re no threat to you.” Danzi tried to reassure him. “We’re trying to save you!”
“Aha! So you’re not denying that you’re from another planet and that there are plans to destroy Earth! Come on people,” Michael commanded his minions, “Don’t be afraid of these bitches. It’s not murder if it’s self-defense.”
The bruised crowd started back toward them, buoyed by Michael’s urgings.
Danzi bared her teeth, something that she’d seen dogs do. “You’ve got nothing on us. Gadda vey’tha yurik!” she spat, and instantly every cult follower dropped to the floor in a state of near paralysis.
Michael lay on the floor at Danzi’s feet, helpless but not beaten. “You might escape,” he sneered, “but you’ll regret leaving without something you really want!”
Danzi looked around to see what he was talking about and then saw something at the far end of a hallway, now lit with dirty yellow bulbs, leading from the main room. A hunched figure was gagged and duct taped to a chair. A familiar mop of lank brown hair hid his face, and his eyes widened as he saw the blonde woman running toward him.
“Danzi, what are you doing?” hollered Luna. “We have these crazy cultists under control!”
But Danzi was oblivious to everything but the hostage. “Raphael!” she shrieked in recognition. “It’s okay, I’m coming to free you!”
She dropped her bouzouki case and knelt beside him and frantically tried to rip at the tape, but it held strong. She was about to go at the tape with her teeth when she remembered the wire cutters in her jacket pocket. They were only meant to cut guitar strings, but they would work.
As she gnawed away at the sticky tape with the cutters, she whispered to Raphael, “Do you remember me? We danced together at the Sting concert. I’ve never forgotten you…”
He growled in agitation, and she remembered that he was still gagged. She sprang to her feet, untied the handkerchief knotted at the base of his skull, and yanked the offending cloth from his mouth. His glasses were cracked, his left eye bruised and his lip cut from a struggle. His shirt was stained with dried blood and sweat. This was her fault and she could barely look him in the eye as she went back to work on cutting through the tape.
“They’ve been stalking me for weeks! I don’t know what they want.” he spluttered. “How did you find me?”
“I’m afraid we’re the reason they kidnapped you. They wanted us.” Danzi admitted. “I’m so sorry. I had no idea they’d come after you.”
Raphael’s relieved, grateful look turned to confusion and then rage. “If we ever get out of this alive, you’d better stay the hell away from me …”
Tears sprang to Danzi’s eyes, obscuring her vision. She had to get a grip if she wanted to free Raphael without cutting him. Blinking hard, she whimpered, “I would never do anything to hurt you. I didn’t even know they had you.”
Luna appeared beside her, calmly taking the tool from Danzi’s shaking hand and cutting through the final piece of tape.
Raphael stood up weakly, his eyes filled with fury. But his anger turned to terror as he saw the mass of cultists charging through the hallway towards them. The incantation had worn off and now the three of them were trapped in a tiny room with no escape. The crowd was beginning to fill the room. The women grabbed their cases and prepared to defend themselves, but they were cornered so tightly up against the wall, they had no space to move. Danzi instinctively wrapped her free arm around Raphael to try to protect him.
Suddenly the wall behind them slid open and someone reached out from the darkness and yanked the women by the collars, pulling all three backwards into a black void. The door slammed shut again before anyone realized the Narians were gone.
The women spun around in the pitch black, ready to fight again. Then a cellphone lit up a familiar bearded face. His blue eyes were wide with excitement as he put a finger to his lips and shushed them.
“Weeb…!” Luna hissed.
Lighting their path, Weeb guided the dazed three through a series of narrow corridors full of turns and bends that clearly had taken quite some time to memorize.
The women began to lose track of how long the maze went on. Every now and then, the thump of someone attempting to breach the labyrinth along the way startled them.
“Don’t worry,” Weeb assured them, “I locked all the doors from the inside.”
A dented metal door finally appeared at the end, and when their rescuer swung it open silently, a blast of humid night air met them. They scuttled out, instrument cases in hand. Raphael stumbled on the broken sidewalk and Danzi held his elbow to steady him.
Weeb beckoned. “We need to move fast. They know where this exit is. I locked the front door, but it won’t take them long to break it down and come around the block. The van is parked behind the fire station. There’s usually some sort of security there, so we can all get…”
His words died in his throat as Raphael shook Danzi off his arm and limped off into the night as fast as his lopsided legs could carry him.
“Raph—” Danzi started after him.
“Let him go,” Luna caught her arm gently. “After everything he must have endured, we’re the last people he wants to be around. Besides, he’s probably safer away from us right now.”
Danzi managed not to burst into tears as she followed Luna and Weeb to the van, head hung. But as she slid into the back seat, tears poured out for the first time in twenty years, and she sobbed all the way back to their haven on River Road.
The first rays of dawn peeked over the levee by the time the three dragged themselves into Ed’s house. They expected their host to be asleep, but Ed frantically rushed to the door. “Did they get you?” he gasped. “I was worried sick that PORN might have gotten you…”
The three tired guests froze, not daring to move or speak as they processed what their host just said.
“Wait, what?” barked Luna after a long moment, too frazzled to be polite. “Did you just say PORN? You knew about this horrible cult that was out to get us the whole time? Weren’t you in the least bit suspicious about this gig when you took the message?”
Ed sighed. “Not at the time, and it didn’t even dawn on me until I noticed an hour ago that you ladies still hadn’t come home. Come on,” he said, gesturing to the dining room table. “I’ll make some tea. I think it’s time we talked.”
Steaming mugs did little to calm their nerves, but it gave the four something soothing to hold onto as new truths began to unfurl one by one.
“I’ve heard of your home planet Narius,” Ed confessed. “Every now and then, some self-published book will turn up in the New Age section at Oak Street Bookstore. I began to wonder if I could benefit somehow from keeping my disbelief over this planet in at least a tiny bit of suspense.”
“We were pretty freaked out when we found out there was a cult that knew about Narius – and us!” Luna said.
“When Weeb helped us at the Nudist Colony, we took a chance and told him. Our original plan was just to take some horses back to Narius before letting Lord Snord annihilate Earth.” Danzi added.
Luna cut in quickly, “But we want to defend Earth now. We kind of like it here.”
Danzi glanced over at Weeb. His eyes looked haunted, but his fuzzy jaw was set in a determined rictus. “So you’re all okay, then?”
“My friend, are you okay?” Danzi could tell he was trying to appear nonplussed, but she could see his hands shaking. “Thank you for rescuing us.”
“It’s lucky you found us,” Luna reached out to hold his hand, but he pulled it back and looked down.
“How did you find us?” Danzi asked, suddenly on alert. “You infiltrated the building, and even got us out through that crazy maze hidden in the walls. That wasn’t a fluke.”
Their first friend on earth stared at the floor, trying to keep his whole body from shaking. “I, um…” He licked his lips and blurted, “I used to be a member of PORN, okay?”
He dropped his head into his hands on the table, his whole body racked with sobs. Nobody moved, allowing the sacrament of their friend’s guilt and shame to come pouring out. The ticking of the wall clock echoed like a drum as realization sunk in.
“So … we almost betrayed each other at some point,” Luna concluded gently.
“But that was before we became friends.” Danzi picked up on it. “Do you see how all people—terrestrials and Narians alike—can learn and change their ways?”
Ed rolled his eyes. “This is getting too social justice warrior for one night,” he huffed. “Let’s all get some sleep.”
Unresolved issues still hung in the air, but their host was right. Fatigue and fading adrenaline had sapped the conversation of its remaining rationale. The others agreed and they headed towards their chambers, untouched tea gone cold in their mugs.
Luna put her hand on Weeb’s shoulder as he opened the door to his room. She didn’t quite know where to begin. “Weeb, I…”
His eyes were tired but relieved, his smile caring and reassuring. “I am here in the morning’s promise, regardless of the evening’s purpose.” He closed the door behind him.
Silence blanketed the house once more, and each Narian woman lay awake, pondering. Now they officially had two adversaries: Lord Snord and PORN. None of the terrestrials could prove that Luna and Danzi were from another world, but enough fanatics knew their faces now. This would add an extra level of risk to play gigs, or even set foot outside of Ed’s house.
Danzi shifted her thoughts to the rush she got from playing these earthly instruments, the surprisingly tender responses from their listeners, and her beloved Raphael, who was out there somewhere. This was worth fighting for. She wasn’t going to let them intimidate her just as they were on the cusp of understanding humanity.
Before sleep overtook her, she growled into her pillow, “Come and get us, you bunch of amonal’toos.”
“I don’t get it,” Weeb snapped at Ed. The four were once again seated around the dining room table. Revelations and a few hours rest did nothing to sooth anyone’s nerves. “There’s been some seriously weird shit going down right under your roof, and you haven’t even batted an eye. Come on, man. We’ve known each other for ten years. Why is this so normal to you?”
“Maybe Ed has seen enough madness in the French Quarter alone?” piped up Danzi in her host’s defense.
“Or maybe it’s because I’m a KINC,” Ed sighed. He was met with uncomprehending silence, as the other three just blinked at him.
“Okay, here goes,” he began. “We call it Kindness In Narian Connections – KINC.” He spelled it out. “Instead of trying to weaken the infrastructure of Narius, we believe that we can prevent interplanetary hostilities with peaceful gestures towards our extraterrestrial neighbors by showing all the beauty and love this planet has to offer.”
Weeb narrowed his eyes. “Were you planning on ratting me out to your fellow KINCs, buddy?”
Ed shook his head. “No, we’re pacifists. Our mission is to find friendly ways to get PORN to see our perspective.”
“So, in other words, you try to convert people,” shot Weeb accusingly.
“Please,” Ed snapped. “We’re not a religion!”
“I’m hungry,” Danzi whined, hoping to break the tension. “Can we discuss this over breakfast somewhere?”
“I could go for some food as well,” remarked Luna dryly, “Last night’s adventure proved that the venue was neither a theater nor a place for dinner.”
Ed gave them a rueful smile. “It’s impossible to stay mad when you’re chowing down on anything the Camellia Grill serves up.”
“Okay, but just in case other people are listening in, we’re only using the acronyms,” said Weeb sternly. “Got it?”
The Camellia Grill was a hopping 24-7 diner with fare that ranged from rich, fluffy omelets to decadent, greasy burgers. The four were lucky to grab adjacent stools on the corner of the bar before the tourists began pouring in after them. Four steaming white mugs of rich black coffee seemed to be the gateway drug to honesty.
Weeb spread his hands and splayed his fingers in a no-secrets gesture. “Okay, when I first got involved, I didn’t believe in anything. It was just a job. They needed a hired goon to make sure no one suspicious got into the meetings, and they needed someone to deliver records. They liked me because I had no immediate family and they apparently knew I was antisocial.”
“That doesn’t sound like you,” said Luna, frowning as four chatty girls took seats at a table behind them. “You seem so friendly and helpful.”
“People change,” said Weeb. “The money was crazy-good back then. PORN was my only source of income, and I was young and tireless.” The Narian women couldn’t help noticing that the girls next to them had gone completely silent.
“When I discovered PORN, I struggled with its addictive qualities, especially with the escapism.” Ed chimed in. “But then I found KINC, and forged some real bonds. Why were you satisfied with PORN? Didn’t you even care what the end game was, or who was watching?”
“It was only about the money for me at first.” Weeb continued, trying to defend himself. “I didn’t want anyone in my life. I could work for ten, twelve hours a day, and everyone was satisfied. It didn’t matter if I blew my whole wad after the job. There was always more where that came from.”
“Um, guys…?” Danzi warned in a low tone. “I think we’re attracting attention …”
“KINC is a better way to establish understanding,” Ed pressed hotly, ignoring Danzi. “As long as everyone respects each other and goes by the code, no one has to be ashamed.”
“That sounds too complicated,” growled Weeb.
Luna banged her coffee mug on the table and hissed, “You two seriously need to keep your voices down…”
“So why did you get out of PORN?” Ed demanded.
“I didn’t like being told what to do. I thought I had better ideas on how to make people come together, hundreds at a time, in fact! And when everyone is naked, everyone is free. That’s when I saved up my money, found a place in Texas where everything is allegedly bigger, and…what?” He snapped his head around and glowered at the girl who had timidly appeared at his shoulder.
“Um…do you have a Tinder account?” she asked, blushing.
Luna flopped down on her bed, full of pancakes and coffee. “If we’re going to make this universe a more harmonious place to exist, we have to rethink everything we’ve been taught by our elders,” said Luna as the two women regrouped in her bedroom. “Number one, men are equal to women, not just beasts of burden.” The goats bleated their agreement from somewhere in the back yard.
“They’ll never be our beasts of burden,” murmured Danzi in assent, as if recalling a song she’d picked up somewhere. “All genders have important roles. People like Weeb and Ed have been our allies. Not like the men on Narius who have probably never had any say-so on how our planet is governed…”
“Except for Lord Snord, who rose to power while we weren’t paying attention,” spat Luna bitterly. “But we can’t let our traditions dictate what we choose to do for the future, no more than we should let one man ruin what we know about humanity.”
“Fair enough,” said Danzi. “What else?”
“All emotions are sacred and must be preserved. All this talk about how Earth should be destroyed due to the warlike tendencies of its denizens? That’s…what do they say here? Bovine poop. I think it’s just a front for some other reason Lord Snord wants to carry out these machinations.”
“Agreed. For how can we truly know joy if we don’t know what pain is?”
“It’s more than that. It’s not up to us to play Sentient Nonphysical. All thoughts go into a vibrational bank. We priestesses have just been holding the pleasing ones up to the light and calling it sacred work. Our denial has weakened the system. Now Lord Snord wants to obliterate anything negative and create a utopian existence that isn’t even possible. And he’ll try to achieve it at any cost. It’s time to call the cavalry.”
Hoobie whinnied outside their window at that moment. Both women burst out laughing at the break in gravitas.
“So we’ll meet with KINC, and then what?”
Danzi sighed. “I want to write and record a love song for Raphael. Can we at least do that? If we play it on the radio, maybe he’ll hear it and figure out that I really care about him and I’m not dangerous. Maybe he’ll come find us at a gig.”
“Are you nuts? After that disaster at a fake venue?”
“Why not?” said Danzi. “Now that PORN knows of our existence, we might as well hide in plain sight, make them look like the crazy ones. People will either laugh at them or figure it’s satire, like they do those Trapezoid Earthers.”
Luna’s expression turned somber. “You’ve got to forget about that man you’re so infatuated with,” she sternly informed her closest companion. “Someone was clearly spying on us from almost the beginning, if they saw you dancing with Raphael, or even overheard you gushing about him. Somebody out there has been watching our every move and knows that he’s special to you.”
“Well, what if I don’t want to be a priestess anymore?” snapped Danzi “They’ll have no reason to find leverage against me if I just walk away from this quest.”
“If we abandon our new mission, everything on this planet is in danger of annihilation: the horses, our friends, and your precious Raphael!” snarled Luna. “Is that what you want?”
Danzi sat in silence, looking out of the window, blinking back tears. “Don’t insult me,” she whispered. “You know that’s not what I want. But I wonder if jealousy’s the reason that you want me to compromise. I’ve seen the way Weeb looks at you. You never know how powerful an emotional archivist you could be if only you’d allow yourself to feel something instead of just analyzing it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to sit outside with the horses and the goats and try to write some songs.”
She stalked out of Luna’s bedroom, leaving an unfamiliar gap in their energies, their journey in danger of coming to a fork in the road. For the first time in their shared existence, each Narian had thoughts they kept secret from the other.
To Be Continued…
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