South of Bikini 4: Episode 8- Exodus II

With things quickly deteriorating in Egypt, can Alex and her sisters keep Pharaoh and his royal family alive long enough to make it back to the Temple of the Sun to begin their politically-driven journey to their next life? How does a very, very…VERY, abstract chess match figure into their pre-procession preparations? Only time will tell.

 

Copyright: 2014, R.G. Beyer

 
 


Episode 8


“Exodus II”


 
 

1313hrs, Temple of the Sun Complex, Egypt, 2510BC
 
 

I watched tears roll down Allie’s face as I felt my own cheeks moistening.

“NO!” I shouted as the rush of emotions fueled my anger. “This shouldn’t have happened!”

My whole body began to tingle as I noticed everyone and everything stop moving.

Though, that wasn’t quite true.

Allie looked over at me as she finished wiping her tears away and raised an eyebrow.

“Alex, what are you doing?” She asked curiously, her still shaking voice echoing ever so slightly.

“This shouldn’t have happened.” I reiterated as calmly as I could, noticing how my quavering voice echoed too. “This man’s future was bright, happy, and challenging. I can’t let this happen, Alex!”

“But it has, Alex. Won’t we upset Upper Management? I don’t want you to end up like Momma.” She countered.

“I can’t let it happen, Alex…I just can’t! This man was only doing his job. Instead, he went above that- far beyond what was required…or necessary.” I pushed.

“Then let’s do this, Alex. Like I said, I’m not ready to lose you. If you must be punished, we will share the burden.” My twin said as she stepped toward me and took my hand.

“Alex?” Emily’s frightened voice asked- also echoing somewhat in the temporal eddy I had just established, surprising both Allie and I. We both looked over to our sister, noticing she had a bluish aura surrounding her- not unlike the light now emanating from both of us.

“Alex, this wasn’t supposed to happen! He goes on to do great things. I’ve seen it!” Emily cried as she continued to look around in bewilderment.

“Emily, how…how can you…you be unaffected? I stopped time…how?” I stuttered out.

“I’m not sure, Alex, I just felt this was wrong and wished I could change it. I guess I’m more like you than I thought?” She responded as she stepped carefully and took my free hand.

This was all so surreal. The three of us remained silent for at least a minute.

“Alex, we have to fix this.” Emily urged. Allie nodded her agreement.

“Agreed, sisters.” I said as I concentrated and time amazingly began to move in reverse.

Continuing to concentrate, I slowly rewound recent history until the three recently deceased men were lying prone before us.

“So now what, sis?” Allie asked as we gazed at the time-frozen men. I noticed the young guard’s eyes were closed tightly.

He knew exactly what he was doing and what his fate was to be.

It was a good thing I didn’t believe in fate!

“I’ll right this wrong.” I replied as I released my sisters’ hands and walked over to the courageous guard.

“How can you be doing this, Alex? I thought you had to be in contact with us to keep us here?” Emily cried out in shock as I reached down to touch my target.

“If mother can do it, so can we.” I replied.

“Awaken, my courageous knight. Your time to leave us has not yet arrived. There is more required of you.”

The light emanating from my body flowed like a wave and engulfed the young captain of pharaoh’s guard. His eyes blinked then shot open.

“What is this magic?” He gasped in surprise as he slowly stared up at me.

“It’s called repairing a bump in time, my young sir. Your sacrifice should not have been required today.” I told him as I offered a hand to help him up.

Once standing, he looked around. “What is happening here? Why is no one moving except us four?”

“She stopped time, hun. We can do that. Empress of Time and Space, remember?” Allie informed him with a smile.

“Why me? What did I do to receive such favor?” He asked disbelievingly.

“You did what you felt necessary. What exactly possessed you to jump on those men to begin with?” Emily answered with anger in her voice as she pointed at the two statued men on the ground.

He looked at my sister strangely. “My job is to protect the Supreme Administrator and others of the royal court…no matter the cost.”

“Well we can’t let that happen this time. Come here and take my hand, please.” Allie said confidently.

I guided the bewildered young man over to my sister. Cautiously, he first looked at then took her offered hand. I inserted myself back between Allie and Emily.

“Tell me,” I asked, looking forward and not over at him, “if you could be anywhere else at this very moment, where would that place be?”

“I would be at the Administrator’s service, Empress.”

“Really?” Emily asked sarcastically as she leaned out and looked at him, questioningly. “You mean, given the Empress’ gift, you would just assume stay here? Don’t you have a mate and newborn son you’d rather be with?”

“My duty is to the Supreme Administrator, M’lady, though, my last thoughts were that I would never see my son and his beautiful mother in this existence again. I had come to terms with and accepted that.”

“Too many concessions have already been made during this mission! I refuse to concede yet another- especially when a very important and bright future is at stake.” I said as our location changed.

The room that appeared around us was small in comparison to the lavish residence of Pharaoh, but was comfortable. A young woman sat in a comfortable chair, nursing her newborn. There was no movement, no sounds except for the young guard’s gasp.

“This is where you should be, captain.” I said sternly. “This child…your family- they need more protection than any royal. Khufu and Anna Beth would both agree.” I nodded to Allie, who pushed our guest away from us and released her hold. I continued as the young man’s expression became frightened.

“You will remain here with them today. Tomorrow, you and your young family will pack for a week’s vacation to the western hemisphere. You will then travel, using your government-issued, holographic cloaking device, to the Sun Temple in order to participate in the departure ceremony two hours before noon. You will make sure that your mate and child ascend the temple steps, enter the gateway, and do as instructed by one of my sisters one hour prior to its start. There they will safely await your arrival. You will then take your place in Pharaoh’s processional. Is that understood captain?” I ordered.

“But Empress, I…” He began to complain before I released him from my temporal protection and he became captive in paused time.

“Let’s get back to the temple, sisters.” I said as the scenery changed once more.

“Emily, you need to resume your position before I release time.”

“I love you both, Alex.” Emily said, kissing Allie and I on the cheek before hurrying back to her original place on the landing.

Allie and I separated and resumed our positions opposite each other. Time slowly advanced to the point from which I had stopped it. The stress I was feeling ebbed as time again moved forward.

Allie motioned to her nose while staring at me. It was then that I felt the warm trickle on my upper lip.

Anna Beth also noticed and glared at me curiously with a raised eyebrow.

“Alexandra, what did you just do?” She accused quietly, looking at Allie and I alternately.

“What we always do, your majesty.” I answered simply. “What we had to do.”

She immediately looked up into the heavens then glared at us again.

“I presume everything is as it should have been, Empress?”

“Everything is as it should be, majesty.” Allie assured her with a smile.

“Did something just happen- something more than was seen, Alexandra?” Khufu asked looking between Anna Beth, Allie, and I in astonishment.

I closed my eyes slowly in answer.

The three remaining protest leaders looked around at everyone still on the landing.

After a few moments, Khufu nodded to Allie and I with a look of admiration.

“Gentlemen, it has come to my attention that this protest and subsequent meeting was designed for the sole intention of forcefully removing me from office…not by negotiation, but by violence! Furthermore, there have been numerous reports of seemingly random attacks around the lower kingdom in tandem. I’m afraid I shall have to ask you all to vacate this temple area immediately. If you are not here to discuss politics in a civil atmosphere, consider this meeting at an end.” Khufu said politely.

“Administrator, the prophet said you would do this. He claimed an attempt would be made on your life just before you would resign. Are we correct in assuming that is what you intend?” The oldest and apparently wisest of the three said. He seemed frightened and paranoid now as he kept glancing back nervously to Allie and I.

“Gentlemen, it has struck me as possible, given this temporal control device the Empress has described, that your so called ‘prophet’ may well be in our audience at this exact moment. It would also seem possible that his present observations could be the source of his ‘premonition’. I will now consult with a proven authority on temporal logistics.” Khufu looked to Allie and me.

“Empress? Your gift of prophecy has never been questioned and its accuracy has served this administration well over the years. Is this man correct in his belief that this is the time you spoke of twenty years ago?” Khufu asked diplomatically.

The three remaining protest leaders’ mouths dropped as they heard how long my prediction had been known.

“The time of the great civilization known as Egypt is at hand, Administrator. Today is the delineation between old and new era.” I began.

“The reign of Khufu has now waned on this Earth. Quickly, he is to be replaced by a new Pharaoh. The new Administrator will lead this society further along its path of historical greatness in the annals that are compiled history. From here on scholars record that Egypt will be ruled by an administrator declaring his lineage directly from the Gods themselves.” Allie continued.

“On the morrow old will pass to new and the true ‘kingdom’ of Egypt will violently come into being. This new empire, as with the present socialist-democracy will see its downfall in due time as the region will fall to those more brutal in nature. Life will be callous in the new era- more cruel, unforgiving, and challenging than any time seen to date.” I took over for my twin, continuing the ‘prophecy’.

“Tomorrow, shortly after Ra reaches his zenith, the region will have a new leader and the legend of Khufu begins. His epitaph will endure on this planet throughout the millennia as one of the most popular, but misinterpreted administrations of all time. It is advised all knowledgeable persons be well clear or in the safety of this temple site before the Supreme Administrator and his devout followers depart for their next life.” Allie declared as she finished our prophecy.

All eyes were set on the two of us as each person interpreted our words differently. Khufu and Anna Beth stared, aghast with open tears, at us, while the older of the three oppositionists looked sadly to the prophesized, departing royalty. The two other gentlemen smirked with satisfaction that they had successfully defeated their opponent- that after tomorrow, they were somehow to be in control and the Supreme Administrator and his queen would be entombed for all eternity.

Khufu remained quiet as he contemplated this new prophecy for a few minutes.

“Well…there you have it, gentlemen. As of tomorrow, I will no longer be your Administrator…your Pharaoh. As the Empress has declared, the new regime shall face many difficult challenges…much hardship. Pray to the Gods things work out as you have all obviously schemed. Governing this large a society has many caveats and cannot be taken lightly. If you gentlemen will now excuse me.” Khufu advised before walking to the edge of the landing.

“My fellow citizens.” He shouted with outstretched hands, attempting to gain the peoples’ attention. “It is with a heavy heart that I announce today, here and now, that I will step down as your Supreme Administrator effective tomorrow mid-day. Having been given overwhelming evidence of a need for governmental change, an election will be conducted to choose the next Pharaoh. The three gentlemen attending our impromptu discussion today will select electible candidates and submit those selections to the kingdom’s media outlets. You should receive the formal election form on your personal communication devices by tomorrow, mid-morning. I ask for a quick, but knowledgeable consideration for each candidate before your selections are officially registered. I wish to thank everyone for your confidence over the many years I have served this great society. Now, I wish to spend time with my beloved mate and my close friends and relatives. Thank you once again for your support. Good day, ladies and gentlemen.”

A mixture of applause, gasps, and crying echoed up from the crowd as a defeated-looking Khufu stepped back from the edge and turned around. Anna Beth rushed to him and wasted no time wrapping her arms around him. She broke down into sobbing tears the instant her face touched his shoulder.

“Gentlemen…and we use the term very loosely…it is time for you to give Khufu the privacy he deserves.” Cami said somberly as the three men began to hover off the granite landing of the temple. All three began to panic as their altitude increased.

“Do not struggle,” Jack advised calmly though both her and Cami’s face said otherwise, “as much as we would like to, you will not be harmed. You have achieved your goal here. Go now and join your constituents. Prepare for your much-sought election.”

All three men hovered out and over the gathering. Cami gently lowered them to the ground in the crowd.

The gathering suddenly became silent and I noticed people nearer us once again holding their heads in pain. The protesters began to break up. Apparently Jack, and or Cami told the crowd to disperse peacefully.

Our Mind Warriors stayed vigil for several minutes more until it was clear the danger was over. They both turned in unison and stepped off their perches.

“Those! Arrogant! Assholes! They seriously think they are now in control! Can you believe that?” Jack growled angrily as she and Cami joined us.

“Is this truly the day for the Exodus of the Great Khufu, Uncle?” Peyton asked with tears still falling from her eyes.

Khufu took a large breath, tapped Anna Beth gently on her back so that she would release him, and turned to the celebrated heroine of Egypt.

“It is, dear one. Egypt demands fresh leadership.” He responded. Persephone Peyton rushed her uncle and embraced him tightly, squeezing the air from his lungs easily.

“And just when did you get so strong, niece? Could it be that this future military institution is having positive results?”

“Just shut up, uncle!”

Moments later, Yuuka and Sunni flew into view. Yuuka landed on Allie’s shoulder and Sunni landed on mine.

“Area is secured, Alex. All previous threats have been successfully neutralized.” Sunni reported.

“Thanks, hun, good job.” I complimented.

“Alexandra, if not too much trouble, can we return to the residence to prepare?” Khufu asked after catching my attention.

I silently offered my hands and nodded to Cami. I motioned for the royal guards to join hands with us also.

“Meridian, external security protocol alpha-zeta-seven-three-epsilon-acknowledge.” Cami ordered loudly into the temple’s gateway.

A thick granite panel slowly slid down into place, completely covering the entrance, thus securing the temples interior.

The large dining room of Pharaoh’s residence surrounded us and I released my sisters’ hands. Twelve young men remained still as statues, fright displayed blatantly on their faces.

“You gentlemen surprise me,” I giggled. “I would have thought Pharaoh’s select guard would fear nothing.”

“M’lady, I have never experienced such transport before. It is most instantaneous! I only wish our captain were here to experience it with us.”

“Gentlemen,” Khufu started. “I have a feeling circumstances have favored the men of the royal guard today. You are hereby relieved, with compensation, of all duties for the rest of the day. This evening you and your families are invited to dinner here at the residence- casual attire, please. In the meantime, pack your families lightly for a trip abroad and at first light, escort them to the temple gateway terrace. One of the Empress’ sisters will meet and explain things further at that time. Once seeing your loved ones securely into the temple you will report to the Sun Temple parade preparation area by 10AM.”

“Administrator?” All twelve chorused.

“Those are my orders, gentlemen.”

“But Administrator, we do not wish to join you in the afterlife! Some of us have just started our families.” One of the guards gasped in horror.

“Gods man, is that how you took Alexandra’s prophesy?” Khufu looked stunned.

A look of complete confusion washed over twelve faces.

“Is that not what she said, Administrator- that your mate, friends, followers, and relatives will follow you to the next life?”

“That is exactly what we said, hun- though the meaning was meant to be interpreted differently by those attending.” Allie confirmed with a devious smile.

“M’lady?” The young man- now acting captain- asked in confusion.

“Just follow the Administrator’s orders, hun, and know that the Empress will not allow harm to come to anyone in Pharaoh’s favor.” I recommended as I too smiled deviously.

All twelve men nodded cautiously before breaking rank and walking away. As expected there was some quiet discussion as they all exited the dining hall.

“Would you care to share, Alexandra?” Anna Beth asked after a moment of us just standing quietly.

I instead turned to where I knew the wait staff stood watching.

“Can we have two, one hundred and fifty milliliter containers full of honey, please? I have two well deserving pixies to reward.”

Anna Beth’s butler looked confused, but nodded and disappeared into the hallway behind him.

Minutes later he returned with two bowls of honey.

“Where shall I place them, M’lady?”

“Anywhere on the table will do, they worked up quite the hunger and are not picky about location.

“I’m not real picky, but I refuse to eat off the floor, Alex.” Sunni said from my shoulder. “Wow! That smells like the good stuff!” She purred before streaking to the surrendered containers.

The servant’s eyes almost popped out of his skull as he witnessed several aerial maneuvers before our two pixies nose-dived to the table.

“I have never witnessed such a sight, Empress! Are these also part of your sisterhood?”

“Highly valued sisters, hun,” I told him. “The yellow-winged woman is Sunni and this is Yuuka.” I added in introduction.

“You are Lady Yuuka?” He exclaimed as he began to reach and point. “But that means you can…”

“It is wise not to disturb hungry pixies, honey. Yes, both women have a normal form as well.” Allie giggled.

“Gather the staff here for a meeting.” Khufu ordered.

“Many of them have yet to return from the Sun Temple gathering, Administrator.”

“That is anticipated. Spread the word then, that Anna Beth and I humbly request that all staff, on or off duty, and their families attend tonight’s dinner. Tonight we celebrate our many years of service to each other.”

“I will do that, Administrator, and thank you, sir.”
 
 

1800hrs, Pharaoh’s Residence, Egypt, 2510BC
 
 

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to all of you and thank you for accepting our invitation. By now I’m sure you have all witnessed or heard about the events at the Sun Temple gathering this afternoon.” Khufu began as he stood to address those attending dinner. “I’m afraid that Anna Beth and I will be leaving our home of many, many years.

Discussions erupted around the thirty tables set for the guests. There were three hundred men, women, and children dining in the residence’s large dining hall tonight, though it could easily have held twice as many and still been comfortable.

“At this time Anna Beth and I wish to extend our invitation to you, our faithful and dedicated friends and family, to join us as we travel to our new home.”

“New home? But the Empress’ prophecy clearly stated that you were going to the afterlife.” One of the chambermaids’ interrupted- her young daughter taking the opportunity to quickly snatch a piece of baked chicken from her mother’s plate while she waited for an answer.

“Alexandra fashioned their answer to deceive our opponents. We move to start a new life- very much alive- somewhere else. Again, we welcome all in this room if you should wish it.” Anna Beth told her.

“Has the Empress also misled us as to how the new government will treat its people, majesty?” Another housemaid asked, her hand securely grasping her fiancée’s.

“Majesty…if I may?” Allie asked politely. Anna Beth nodded. My twin stood from her seat.

“We have actually taken kind liberties as to treatment under the new regime. Though I spared you all some of the more, shall we say, colorful highlights.”

Allie waited for the murmurs to die down.

“What my sisters and I have seen would horrify the most courageous soldier. Inhumane treatment, slavery, debauchery, famine, and plagues- manufactured and natural- all assail this kingdom in the forthcoming years. Only the royal monarchy, Pharaoh and his favored cabinet, will bask in the luxuries you all share at present. Wars, against your peaceful neighbors, result in millions of deaths as the outlying peoples fight to regain the freedoms enjoyed under Khufu and Anna Beth. Of course, life for most in the middle classes will remain somewhat stagnant for a generation into the future. Those are the facts that I have recorded on my many travels through this and future times here in Northern Africa.”

“You paint a vividly dismal picture, Empress Alexandra. Surely, as you say, times won’t be that dramatic?” The woman’s fiancé accused.

“I offer my hand to any who wish to view several small samples of the future I just described. I do not wish to shade the truth from the people my friends hold so dear, sir.” Allie said as she remained standing and walked to the center of the hall. She held out her hands freely while slowly turning about the room and waited.

Not one adult moved, instead they all looked to Khufu and Anna Beth. However, several older children wasted no time gathering around my twin sister. Allie smiled in relief. Khufu meanwhile, looked to Anna Beth for her take. When she nodded with a tense smile he stood, walked over, and took one of Allie’s hands.

“Since I will not be here to officially see my countrymen’s future, I will chance the offer. I suggest anyone with doubts about Alexandra’s prophecy join us.”

Half the room joined my twin in the center of the room.

Allie began her pre-travel announcements.

“At this time I would request everyone join hands with your neighbor. I would also request each of you to continue holding hands until we return here. We will be safe from harm while we are joined. We will also be immune to any violence; weather conditions, plagues, and attacks as long as our chain of hands are not interrupted. Are we ready?”

“Empress?” A young girl of six or seven years tried to get Allie’s attention as she looked around. My sister smiled brightly.

“Yes, honey?”

“Empress? Can the yellow-winged sprite come along? I saw her at the Temple and would feel better if she came along. Can she come along? Please?”

Jim Smithson blushed. He and Yuuka had exited Pixie mode a few hours ago after having downed their individual portions of honey in record time.

“Honey, they aren’t Sprites. They prefer to be called Pixies, and why don’t you ask him yourself?” Allie suggested.

“Him, Empress? I remember seeing a yellow-winged GIRL Pixie.”

“Pixies are very curious people, honey. Sometimes they look different when they’re all grown up. Yuuka, the purple-winged pixie and James, the yellow-winged pixie are seated right over there.” Allie pointed to the end of our table. The youngster politely excused herself and approached them.

“Um…excuse me, sir? Can the yellow-winged pixie come with me to see the future? I would feel better with her there.”

Jim’s jaw dropped. He preferred to change modes in private to reduce his embarrassment. After a moment he gave in to the child’s darling request though.

“How about both the yellow and the purple-winged pixies come with you, sweetie?” He asked kindly.

“Really? They would both do that for me?”

“Of course we would do that, sweetie.” He answered the girl. “Just give Yuuka and I time to change.”

“How long will that take, sir? Father says my mother takes forever and a day to get ready to go anywhere.”

Laughter rose up from our guests- except from the tike’s blushing parents.

“We just need a few seconds and a little room, sweetie.”

Jim stood and helped Yuuka from her seat. He then offered his hand to her. All three joined the group in the center of the hall. Allie motioned for everyone to make a space so the two could change modes.

“James, you really don’t need to do this. I know changing in public embarrasses you.” Yuuka challenged.

James Smithson took both of Yuuka’s hands. “Who am I to deny such a delightful request?”

Yuuka nodded and both closed their eyes. They immediately began to shrink. The group gasped as a whole- most having never seen the transformation.

Within seconds two Pixies shot from the ornate floor, did several passes around the group, hovered momentarily before the young girl then landed on her shoulders. She giggled ecstatically.

“Did I also mention that pixies love to show-off?” Allie giggled as she offered her hands again.

We will now transit to our first stop. This will be five years into the future.”

Allie and her curious companions disappeared.

“How long will they be gone, Alex?” Anna Beth asked after a full minute.

“About thirty minutes. Allie wants to make sure everyone believes in time travel.”

“Why on Earth would she do that, Alex?” Anna Beth asked.

My expression grew sad and I looked to the table. “Not everyone here will accept our invitation.”

“Why on Earth not?”

“Their beliefs.” I told her quietly. “Some believe more in the Gods than they do their own eyes.”

“That’s ridiculous! I’ll just have to have a word with everyo…”

“Majesty…please let it go.” I said, stopping her as I felt my eyes begin to burn. “Requiring compliance will only strengthen their resolve. Allie will make several rescue missions to Egypt’s near future in the coming months, as will I. Most will have a change of heart by then.”

“The girl…her family remains behind?” Anna Beth asked as realization hit.

“No. Something more terrible, I’m afraid.”

“No! That cannot happen to such a bright and courageous child! Empress, you must remedy what is to be!” Anna Beth cried.

“Alex will be limited in what she can do, majesty.” Emily told our hostess as she wiped tears from her own eyes.

Changing the subject quickly, I looked across the table at Jack. “There will be an attempt on Khufu’s life later tonight, Jack. I’d like you and Cami to monitor the whole residence for covert thoughts.”

“Someone inside will make an attempt? But how could anyone…” Anna Beth began.

“How could anyone possibly reject your hospitality?” I asked, cutting her off. “Have you ever heard the phrase: ‘The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence’?”

Anna Beth shook her head gently.

“It means that no matter how good things seem to some people, they always expect for more- money, power, fame, luxury…it doesn’t matter. Simply put, some people just aren’t content with what they already have. Once on the other side though, they grumble about losing what they had prior.” I explained. “It’s what we call ‘catch number twenty-two’.”

“Many of your friends will choose to stay then pray they could start over, Anna Beth. Some will realize that much too late.” I added.

Anna Beth’s eyes flew wide open.

“Alusia!”

“Your niece will join Meridian’s complement tomorrow.”

“Oh, thank the Lords!” Our hostess said as she exhaled heavily.

“Alex, what do we have to look forward to tomorrow?” Ricky Lynn asked- her concern very evident.

“Tomorrow at 0800, I will transport you, Natalia, Uhm-Shu, Peyton, her older sister, Sythia, and Emily into the temple where y’all will commence your station pre-flights.” I told the professor, laying out the plan. “Once the temple gateway is re-opened you will escort the arriving families into Meridian, stow their personals, assign quarters, and see to their needs.”

“Haven’t you forgotten that MY presence is required to gain access to MY ship, Alexandra?” Anna Beth reminded tersely.

“Of course not captain, I could never forget that detail. A good first officer never forgets her captain. At least that is what I’ve been told by those under my own command.” I answered, looking to Jack. “A good first officer also tries to compliment and forestall problems for her captain, ma’am.” I added with a wink.

“Once access has been granted, I will return Anna Beth here. Together, Jack, Cami, and the rest of us will transport to the beginning of the Processional Causeway to join the parade. Meanwhile, Allie will transport luggage, supplies, and fresh water to Meridian. Ricky Lynn, once Engineering’s pre-flight is completed you help Alex stow the supplies in the holds.”

“Alusia and Khafre will join the procession just before we step off.”

“What about my Djedefre? Where will my son be during all this?”

“Djedefre will take his rightful place in Khufu’s procession, majesty. The Royal family will remain together for the parade and will top the temple steps to fanfare, applause…and mocking.” I responded. And projectiles, I thought.

“Why do I get the feeling you’ve intentionally left things out, Empress?” Anna Beth looked at me cynically.

“I have told you the truth as I have seen it, majesty.” I assured her.

Anna Beth’s right eyebrow twitched once, subtly.

“Alex, how many attempts will be made during the procession?” Cami asked.

Again I looked down to the table sadly. “Enough and from a distance that will make quite a fireworks display. You both should get plenty of rest tonight and eat a good breakfast in the morning, Sweetheart.”

“Sounds like we’ll need all the energy we can spare, Alex.”

I closed my eyes softly. She didn’t know the half of it. Tomorrow would be a procession through Hell itself.

Crying and sniffling alerted us to the fact that Allie had returned from her excursion. Everyone quickly dispersed and returned to their seats- many using their napkins to wipe their faces dry or blow their noses.

Khufu returned, stoically, to his seat next to Anna Beth, shaking his head slowly as he walked.

No! Don’t let me go, Sunni! I want to go with you- to the future- to your future!” The previously brave, young girl cried as she refused to release Sunni’s tiny hand. Jack and Cami both stood from the table instantly and hovered over our heads. The girl’s parents gasped. They, unfortunately, had elected not to see their future. The girl’s mother quickly ran to her daughter, but stopped short of persuading her to let go of my pixie’s hand. She appeared to freeze, terrified that our Mind Warriors would take action on them.

Allie hurried over to the scene as the girl’s mother retreated hastily to her seat.

“It has been my experience that not everything is cut in stone, Tath’ba. The future is based on the past- on history- and also by what happens in the here and now. If something happens to change the past, it affects the future. Just changing your mind here and now is sometimes enough to accomplish that. Though my sister and I can show the future and suggest ways to steer it, we cannot make you change your mind if it is made up already. Our minds are exclusively our own honey, and only we can decide the direction we go.”

“But I saw something terrible! Something you need to change, Empress! I want you to change it before it happens. You can do that, right?”

“Some things must happen, honey. I call them temporal waypoints. If this particular instance you observed is one of those points, I cannot, nor even attempt to change it. I’m sorry.”

“But you will try for me right, Empress? I’ve seen how you have already helped people today. You’ll do that for me…say you’ll try, Empress?” The girl pleaded through her tears.

Allie closed her eyes momentarily. “I’ll give it my best effort, Tath’ba. Now, go to your parents and tell your mother that Camille and Jacquelyn wouldn’t hurt you or anyone in distress. They are only interested in everyone’s safety. I’m sure you realize how delicate pixies are…just by their size, right?”

“Yes, Empress, I’m sorry.” Tath’ba said shyly. She looked to where Jack and Cami still hovered. “I’m sorry for startling you both, Lady Mind Warriors. I’ll watch myself better in the future. If I have one, that is.”

The young girl turned sadly and slowly walked back to where her worried parents stood.

“The kid’s got Moxie, I’ll give her that, Alex.” Ricky Lynn commented after the commotion died down.

“I know…such a waste.” I mumbled. Allie returned to her seat next to me and took my hand momentarily, under the table. She gave it a gentle squeeze as an almost perceptible tingle passed between us.
 
 

The rest of our banquet went surprisingly well and Emily and I retired to our room to get some sleep. Given my rest patterns over the last few months, I stood to lose more than I gained.

“So what’s up with the twerp, sis?” Emily asked as soon as she closed and locked the door.

“What ‘twerp’?”

“That six year-old. She seemed very upset when Allie returned. What’s going on? I saw that she boards Meridian tomorrow.” Emily pushed.

“She saw her parents’ graves, sis! How wouldn’t that destroy her?” I replied angrily.

“So…so they don’t make it.” She stated quietly, looking down to the floor quickly.

“No…they don’t, and there is absolutely no way Ah can change that! What is with you lately? Why so stern and brooding all of a sudden? You’ve done nothing but bitch since you arrived on Atlantis.”

Emily quickly glared at me, but her expression softened quickly.

“I haven’t been getting as much sleep as I need. Its…its starting to affect me, I think.”

“Bullshit. Need Ah remind y’all Ah’m a farm girl and Ah know the difference ‘tween mud and manure?” I groused. “Why don’t y’all tell me what’s actually goin’ on?”

“Doctor, patient privacy, Alex. I can’t divulge information without the proper permission. You know that.”

I snapped my finger.

Emily and I were suddenly in my private domain.

“How…how…?”

“How did Ah do that- snap mah fingers and poof, we’re here?” I asked sharply.

Emily simply nodded in silent astonishment.

“Obviously the same way y’all phased yourself into mah protective temporal bubble earlier- Ah used mah imagination, sis. That IS the key to our gifts, y’know.”

“I…I…I didn’t until now, Alex. Thanks for all the hints by the way! It would have been nice to know when we visited daddy last week.”

“Are you astartin’ your mense?” I asked without blinking an eye or blushing.

“What? No…I mean…why would you ask that?”

“Because you’re acting like it, sis.” I replied before pausing a moment. “This strange behavior wouldn’t have nothin’ to do with Ricky Lynn, would it?”

“You knew?”

“Duh! Empress?”

“Then you know why I’m upset. So why bring us here- to show off a new facet of your gift?”

“To confirm what Ah already know’d.” I admitted- “and to give y’all a chance to talk about it away from prying minds. As someone told me on many occasions, sometimes it helps to talk to your sister. They’re the only ones that can understand and comfort a body when a confidant’s needed most.”

“So we’re here, sis, now dish.” Allie said after appearing in front of us.

“How can…”

“I have an imagination too, remember?” Allie giggled and smiled devilishly.
 
 

0500hrs, Pharaoh’s Residence, Egypt, Day 2, 2510BC
 
 

“Time to get up, sis.” I said nudging Emily on the far side of our king…pharaoh-sized bed.

“God, it isn’t even light yet, Alex. Go back to sleep.”

“We need to prepare for things, so get up.”

“How can you be so alive this early? We were in your domain for what, about ten days?”

“Quit complaining and get out of bed, Em, there’s a lot to do before we head down to breakfast.” I reminded.

“Like what? I thought you had this all worked out, Alex?”

“I do, but I left out some things.”

“So Anna Beth was right? Alex, you’ve rarely lied to any one, why do it to her? Why now?”

“Technically I didn’t lie, I just didn’t tell her everything- and she knows that already or didn’t you pickup on that subtle twitch of her eye last night?”

“I didn’t see it. I was on your other side at dinner last night, remember?”

“But you didn’t see it coming?” I asked in surprise.

“No…I didn’t. I decided to give my gift a break last night.”

I rolled my eyes in annoyance.

After another long half hour of waiting for her to wake up enough to wash and dress, we finally left our lavishly appointed room and headed for the grand staircase.

Emily looked down to her left and noticed it as we reached the large entrance hall.

“What is that reddish-brown circle about?” She asked curiously.

I closed my eyes and sadly let out a sigh in preparation for my explanation.

The circle she was asking about was roughly eighteen inches in diameter and dark red- almost brown, bordering on black. It looked like something had puddled and dried in that spot on the highly polished granite floor.

“There’s another one back there.” She said as she pointed toward a door just inside the wide, main hallway.

My sister’s eyes widened instantly.

“Alex, those are puddles of dried blood! I’m still picking up some cellular activity. Human cellular activity!” She swallowed loudly. “These were…these were…people!”

“We couldn’t afford to take chances,” I began coldly. “Allie left orders with Jack and Cami to protect with extreme prejudice before she joined us in my domain. There were two attempts on Khufu and Anna Beth overnight, while we were gone.”

“But the circles of blood?”

“Jack and Cami placed a reinforced acoustic field around each perpetrator before tripping their concealed explosive devices. The force fields were spherical. What little that didn’t vaporize pooled at the bottom. When the fields were removed…well…that’s…that’s the result.”

I thought I had steeled myself well enough, but…

“My God, Alex! What have we become?” Emily gasped in sickened shock. “Haven’t we taken enough lives back home? How many people have already died by our hands because of the war? Alex, the Sisters of Kili are meant to protect life, not judge who lives or dies!”

“Emily. Dear sister, sometimes even the Empress has no say as to who survives.” Allie said sadly as she and Cami descended the wide, granite, stairs on the opposite side of the opulent entrance hall.

“If it means anything, I feel terrible about carrying out my orders, Emily. Jack and I had little to no time to react, but admit we reflected on our actions most of the night afterward. You know we value life over everything else.” Cami said reverently. She looked like she hadn’t slept a wink.

I couldn’t blame her.

“I’m sorry, Cami. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it…the killing…all the death.” Emily apologized.

“Unfortunately, it is a fact of life…especially here and now, sister. Opponents to Pharaoh outnumber his allies many times over. Therefore, the Sisters of Kili must be the final line of defense and, as you’ve already foreseen, Khufu, Anna Beth, and their close friends must survive to right this timeline.” Allie said sadly.

“I understand that. Still, it doesn’t mean I’ll ever accept it…or the reason it had to be done!” Emily argued.

“Last night’s attempts were just the tip of the iceberg. Today will prove to be the most dangerous processional on record. For any period or society.” I revealed as I saw Anna Beth coming down the long hallway.

“Attempts? There were actual attempts made IN this residence overnight? Why weren’t we notified?” She demanded, obviously hearing a part of our conversation.

“I’m dismayed to report that the attempts were discretely handled.” Cami informed her, looking down sadly. “They left us no other choice, captain. I’m sorry.”

Anna Beth noticed the strange, dried circles. Her eyes widened.

“By the Lords of Terra, who were they?” She asked, covering her mouth dramatically.

“Do you really want to know?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be better listing them at a later date as missing and avoid any resulting scandal? I’m sure their families would rather remember them as loyal right up until their disappearance.”

“But what if more…”

“There will be no more attacks in this residence while you are here, majesty.” I interrupted.

“So…this is what you neglected to tell me last night, Empress?”

“Partially.”

Anna Beth glared at me intensely.

“So there is more that you’ve conveniently left out?”

“Not out of convenience, I assure you. Certain things need to happen today and your inclusion of those specifics would certainly hamper- if not stop them entirely.”

Anna Beth stared into my sad, dead-serious, eyes for several long moments before she closed hers- a single tear escaped each.

“Empress…” She said quietly…reverently. “Tell me. Will my family live through this day? Please…I beg of you. Answer me truthfully?”

I regarded her in anger for a moment before I answered. Her request almost sounded like a prayer.

“Yes.”

“Oh, thank the Lords…”

“But it won’t be easy or gratifying, my sister. The processional will be fraught with danger, despair, and most certainly death today. There will be severe loss- both physical and emotional.” I interrupted to continue.

The woman’s mouth and expression dropped.

“Anna Beth, Jacki and I will do our best to keep everyone safe, but I cannot guarantee complete safety.” Cami promised. “We barely had time to thwart the perpetrators overnight. They seemed highly skilled at hiding their true thoughts and intentions.”

“Fellow Terrans?” Anna Beth asked, surprised by the thought.

“Or revisions, possibly.” Allie nodded.

Something yellow caught my attention from the second floor balcony. Sunni flitted drunkenly down the near set of stairs to where we were standing in the main foyer. She hovered unsteadily while yawning and absentmindedly scratching her buttocks- very ‘un-ladylike’, but forgivable given Sunni’s unusual circumstances.

“Mornin’ everyone. God, I feel like shit! What the hell did you have them put in that honey last night, your majesty?” Sunni said in a half drunken stupor- her eyes barely open.

“Are you alright, Colonel Smithson?” Anna Beth asked in worry.

“Of course! I always feel like hell in the morning. Especially when I’ve had way…” she suddenly paled, “too much to…drink…the night befor…urp...’scuseme!” Sunni replied tersely before unexpectedly zooming over to one of the potted palm trees and upchucking in its planter. After a minute she shot back over to us.

“Alex? Alex! I’m still a Pixie! Why am I still a Pixie?” She shrieked in horror and moaned. Her hovering still hadn’t stabilized.

“Maybe because you didn’t change yourself back?” I wisecracked with a stupid smirk, my downcast mood temporally broken.

“Alex! I’m in no mood!” She shouted then quickly grabbed her head and moaned louder. “Oooohhh God did that hurt!”

“Sunni, if you can, drop your natural defenses so I can evaluate you, please?” Emily said in her professional voice. She held up her hand, open-palmed, to the hovering pixie, closed her eyes, and began to concentrate.

“Alex, she’s been ‘Mickey’d’. I’m detecting the physical and psychological remnants of some narcotic substance in her system. They seem to be similar to ecstasy or Rohypnol according to my future memories.” She gasped in concern.

“The ‘Date Rape’ drugs?” Sunni gasped. “I’ve been Roofied?”

“Apparently. Thankfully, your hymen is still intact.” Emily added professionally.

Sunni hovered open-mouthed, but silent for a few moments.

“ Ya…well…that’s certainly a big relief!” The Pixie deadpanned before shouting, “What the hell is going on here, Alex?!”

She groaned again as she lost altitude.

I shugged my shoulders in reply.

“Jeez! I’m a girl for just under a day and I’ve already been… Can things get any worse?” Sunni asked in pained anger as she leveled off again to eye level.

“I’m afraid you’re starting to menstruate too, Sunni.” Emily added sadly, but still professionally.

“WHAT???” Her wings sputtered spastically causing her to lose even more altitude this time. She quickly recovered though.

“Oh, that’s just great! Just what I needed! Ya got any more delightful news, Doc?” Sunni whined sarcastically as her hands cradled her throbbing temples.

“No, but make sure your Reilly is charged and its sanitary system is operating properly.

Sunni crossed her arms, hovered closer to my sister, leaned forward, and glared at her.

“I didn’t sign up for this part, Doc.”

“It’s all part and parcel, hun. Still, you’ve only experienced half of the whole female condition.” I giggled.

Sunni flew back over to me; arms still crossed, and leaned closer.

“You aren’t helping, Alex!” She said sardonically.

“Why would someone drug her?” Anna Beth asked looking between Allie and I for an answer. All five of us looked to our host.

“Sis, take Emily to Yuuka’s room. Sunni, stay with me…and try not to barf on my shoulder.” I said.

Sunni gave me the ol’ one finger salute before landing heavily on my right shoulder.

“You’re all heart! Sometimes you can be such a bitch, Alexandra Steinert!” She said into my ear after grabbing my earring forcefully to steady herself.

“Anna Beth, do you know where Khufu and Djedefre are?” I asked, ignoring my tiny passenger.

“My mate should be in our chamber. We had difficulty sleeping…for obvious reasons as I’ve just found out. Djedefre is an early riser. He could be anywhere at the moment.”

“Cami?” I asked. “Picking up anything from our future Pharaoh?”

“Camvailence has him in the physical development center at the lower, rear level of the residence, Alex.”

I rolled my eyes.

“Camvailence?” I asked warily.

“Well Jacki has ‘Jackdar’.”

A collective moan escaped our little group.

“What? You don’t like it?” She asked innocently.

I rolled my eyes a second time.

“Just tell him and Khufu to meet us in the dining room when they’re able.”

“Where are Jack and the Professor anyway?” I added.

‘Waiting for you and the others in the dining room, Alex. Is your foresight acting up today?’ Jack’s voice echoed in my head.

“Actually, Jack, I’m busy working out the best way to accomplish today’s objective.” I said out loud as I began walking down the wide hallway.

Although Sunni’s somewhat comical situation was a welcomed distraction, it was now time to rejoin this painful reality.

Anna Beth stared at me the entire way to the dining room. Just inside the massive, opened, archway doors, she reached for my shoulder to stop me and turned me around.

“You mean you don’t have things worked out yet, Alex?” She hissed quietly so as not to alert our sisters.

“Look,” I said quietly as I turned to her. “Things are really in flux right now. The obvious thing would be to transport everyone into the tomb, load up Meridian, and fire her thrusters, but history needs to see the royal family and all their loyal subjects triumphantly enter the tomb in a spectacular procession. The gauntlet the Causeway presents poses the major problem. That being the case, how do we get as many of the followers through in one piece?”

“Will it be that brutal, and why do you call the temple a tomb?” Anna Beth asked in a whisper.

“I wouldn’t just call it brutal, and I called it a tomb because, from the outsiders’ perspective, we will enter, but not one of us come out before the gateway is sealed. History will speculate that the mighty Khufu was entombed this day and his family and followers entombed along with him…alive.”

Anna Beth’s face paled drastically, her hand slowly slid off my shoulder and dropped limply to her side. She stared, open-mouthed, in awe at me- of what was to come.

“Look, I’m sorry it has to be this way,” I said sadly as I turned and walked to the table. I tried to wipe my tears quickly so my sisters wouldn’t notice.

“So you told her?” Jack asked quietly as I sat down.

I nodded. “Not all of it, though.”

“Alex, what I saw…” Jack paused a second. “The brief glimpse that you allowed…that I saw…” She stopped again. “Why, Alex? Why would these people turn so completely against a leader that treated them all as equals?”

“Clemson has poisoned them; reawakened long dormant thoughts of excess, luxury, greed, and power. His half-dozen visits to this civilization- the rallies and speaking engagements- they all added to devalue the good things Khufu did. They brought his ineffectiveness against Hathor back to the forefront in everyone’s mind. Clemson has succeeded in dismantling a promising, thriving society to remake it- to make it fit the text books of the future.” I said wiping more tears away.

“And there is absolutely no way you…”

“Our hands are tied, Jack.

“Cami and I…we can…”

“Jack,” I said, trying, but failing to hold back my tears, as I leaned over and took her hand in mine. “This has to happen. As much as I or Allie would like to change it, this has to happen.” I paused and sniffed back more tears. “It’s going to be a blood-bath out there for both the royal procession AND the innocent spectators.”

“Not if I have anything to say about it!” Jack whispered through gritted teeth as I felt the hairs on my arm begin to stand.

“Jack…please don’t do this? You’ll only make things worse.” I pleaded hoping to stop her power buildup.

“How?!” She almost shouted. “How can it get worse?! How, Alex?!”

“It would drastically change the course of history, Jack. The Greeks and Romans wouldn’t have conquered Egypt. If that hadn’t happened, Rome wouldn’t have expanded across Europe and into Britain. The major wars that shaped and reshaped the borders of the continents wouldn’t happen as they should. Our home time wouldn’t exist, as we now know it. In short, Jack…we’d cease to exist as we are now!”

“But that’s happened before, Alex. We were able to fix things then, why not now?”

“Because…Temporal Waypoint…and, ” I paused a moment frustrated that I had to admit the real reason, “and because I’m tired, Jack. I haven’t been able to sleep for more than an hour at a time in the last five years- ever since I started this mission.” I paused to wipe my eyes again. “Allie and I are tired, Jack- so very, very tired. I want a happy ending for everyone as much as you do, but I just can’t do it anymore. I don’t think I can hold it together long enough. I make one miscalculation, lose my temper at the wrong time, save the wrong person…screw up any number of things and one or both of us get banished to some inescapable universe- possibly forever. Are you starting to understand, my friend?”

“I won’t let that happen, Alex.”

“You don’t have a choice! Remember there are things more powerful than you, Cami, Cassi, Connie, and even Billie out there, Jack.”

“Then I’ll go down with my captain, Alex! Screw what is right or wrong! We have to do what is necessary and moral. If the powers that be decide we botched it then I’ll plead guilty and stand right alongside the Empress to share her fate.” Jack perjured herself further.

“Jack’s got a point, skipper!” Ricky Lynn chimed in as Cami nodded her inclusion also. “You ain’t getting’ rid of us that easily. I’ll do anything I can ta save as many people as we can! God be damned!”

“Count me in too, Alex. If you fall then we all crash and burn,” Sunni said resolutely into my right ear. “Besides, I could use to go pixie on some of those assholes out there…and now I have the perfect excuse to be a bitch!”

I couldn’t let them do this!

ENOUGH!” I shouted in anger as things went dark.
 
 
 

I found myself in my private domain.

…Or was it?

Thinking about it, something wasn’t right.

The sun was directly ahead of me?

This WASN’T my or Allie’s domain.

So whose was it?

But whose it was really wasn’t important right now. I found myself wearily dropping to my knees, sat on my heels on the unseen floor, and completely broke down, sobbing hysterically. I felt completely defeated and ready to give up.

I was tired of this mission; tired of worrying about ‘Upper Management; exhausted from the five years worth of trips through history, so far, trying to repair that little shit, Clemson’s, changes instead of sleeping at night…

I felt physically…and…emotionally…beaten!

And on top of that, my sisters wanted to help fix time by any means necessary! I certainly couldn’t have them perjure themselves for my benefit or this mission’s. Didn’t they understand what doing that would mean? What punishments they might draw?

I couldn’t bear the thought of them sharing Momma Scott’s punishment, or worse, with me!

As I knelt wallowing in my own dread and anguish, I noticed my surroundings begin to brighten.

I found myself on a large white square of what looked to be an expansive black and white checkered floor; almost like a life-sized chessboard. Composing myself a bit more I finally raised my head to look around.

“Well, hello there, Alexandra. Has my mother had herself a good cry?” A voice that sounded similar to mine asked from somewhere out of the blackness in front of me. It was gentle, sympathetic, and there was no malice or scorn in it that I could detect.

“Where am I,” I asked timidly? “Who are you?”

“I’d have thought you had that all figured out by now, mother?” The unseen voice answered in a playful tone.

“I don’t have time for guessing games. Who are you and where am I?”

“Why, we’re in your domain, Alexandra. Where else could we possibly be?”

“This isn’t my domain and you know it! Now show yourself.” I demanded impatiently.

“Ah, now that’s the Alexandra we know so well! So confidant. So inquisitive. So…observant.” The voice stated evenly- though still with the playful undertone- as more of this ‘place’ began to brighten and reveal itself. What appeared to be a young woman sat partially visible in a pink leather, Victorian style wingback chair. It was angled away from me to a degree. From my position close to the floor, I could see she had her legs crossed demurely at the ankles and tucked in between the chair’s decorative front legs.

A stone fireplace and hearth with a thick, stained wood, mantle, and inviting wood fire appeared just past her.

“Why am I here?” I asked- my tone a little calmer.

Why…to play a game, of course! Isn’t that something people do to relax, mother?”

“I need to get back to Egypt.” I said as I envisioned the royal dining hall.

Nothing happened!

“Why can’t I leave? What’s going on here?”

“Sure you wouldn’t rather play a game, mother? I know this isn’t your mundane version of chess, but the rules only differ slightly.” She asked countering my questions. I still hadn’t seen her face.

“Chess? I never said anything about playing chess!”

“No?” I woman teased. “Let’s.”

The place where I had arrived changed slightly and was now fully illuminated.

What I thought was a black and white squared floor turned out to be some kind of game board eight squares by eight squares. The square I was now standing on was three feet by three.

“What is this?” I asked as I looked closer at my surroundings.

“Why, this is our game board, mother. Don’t you like it?”

“It looks like a scale. An Assayer’s scale specifically. Why?”

Very observant, mother, but this balanced playing board has a twist.”

“You mean that the other side of the scale is at least fifty times larger? Or that there’s another slightly smaller, lower level between them?” I asked.

“Those are the cosmetic differences, mother. Like all games though, opponents must start on separate, but level playing fields. The lower level I’d term a ‘Battleground’ of sorts- the place where opponents meet to clash or negotiate. But that is not the twist I referred to.”

“So…pray tell what is the twist?” I asked trying to keep any sarcasm or patronizing out of my voice.

“If either of the opponent’s levels should go too far out of balance, both levels will topple.”

“Some twist, hun. What might the lower, battlefield, present? Inescapable quicksand?”

The young woman giggled and I could imagine her smile broadening.

“No, mother, that level is stationary and quite stable.”

This was ridiculous.

“I’m really not in the mood to play any games, hun, I have other worries to contend with. Maybe some other time.” I told the unknown woman as politely as I could.

“But I’m sure you’ll like this game, mother. It pits ‘Time’,” she said as her left hand rose above the chair back with a flourish, “and the masses…”

On the opposing top level, appeared a life-sized ‘king’ chess piece. Hundreds of smaller ‘pawns’ appeared in front of and around it. Each looked the typical chess piece- round, wider at the base, ball-shaped on top, and completely uniform in all respects, though, strangely, they seemed to be milling around the king slowly.

The voice continued.

“Against,” She paused dramatically, “you.” The same hand made a flourish motion to me.

“So how is this game anywhere near fair?” I asked, deciding to play along while pointing to my over-abundant adversaries.

“Oh, you’ll have some help, mother. I wouldn’t dare do anything underhanded or illegal. I might, however, take my cue from you and not reveal all or some of my motives.”

“Motives? I don’t understand. What motives?” I asked in alarm.

“Let’s not worry about such trivial things at the moment, mother. Right now you’ll need the rest of your playing pieces.”

Her hand raised above the chair back again and flourished carelessly in my direction. I noticed that Allie, Camille, Emily, Jack, Ricky Lynn, Yuuka- in pixie-mode, and Sunni- also in pixie-mode, appeared on either side of me.

“My sisters have nothing to do with this- whatever this actually is about! Return them at once!”

“Ah! But this is all part of the game, mother. You see, you designed this game yourself, and have already played it countless times over the years.”

“I’ve done no such thing, now return them! They’re innocent.” I demanded.

“‘Innocent’”, The voice giggled before continuing, “is such a subjective term, mother. ‘Innocent’, in the most basic of definitions, would imply no knowledge of what you’re ‘missions’ entail. That term ceased to be relevant when our sisters willingly offered to put their lives on the table to better the odds, and hasten your current mission’s success. They have involved themselves as much as you in the outcome of your so-called mission and therefore are decidedly NOT innocent, but unquestionably complicit.”

“Why do you keep calling me mother? I don’t recall having another child.”

I could almost hear this woman’s smile brightening again!

“Oh, but I am! You’re first-borne as a matter of fact. You see…I was born the day you first utilized your gift, Alexandra Francis Steinert. I came into being that afternoon in Honolulu when you first found your ‘private domain’ as you call it. In essence, I am the product of your travels and experiences throughout time, mother.”

“You’re insane. How could you claim such things?” I declared.

“I’m as miraculous as your gift, mother, and, I am far from insane. Although, I suppose it may appear that way to you at the moment.”

As I struggled to evaluate my situation, I tried to buy some time.

“So IF you ARE my daughter, what is the name I gave you?”

“Oh, mother, I’m dismayed you had to ask…although, this being our first ‘official’ meeting, I’ll humor you.” The woman paused a moment and began to lean forward in her chair then turned to face me.

“I am called…Andora.”

My mind reeled upon hearing the faintly recognizable name and seeing my own face looking back at me. Her name… ‘Andora’…it hovered in my mind like a specter- something familiar yet unfamiliar at the same time. Where had I heard that name before? And why did it trigger such frightening memories and emotions?

“I see your mind is running the possibilities, mother. Father would be proud to know that his mate still retains her deductive skills.

“I have only had three ‘mates’ that I’ve seen and Andora was not among any of the names we’d chosen for our offspring.”

“Well, that was certainly cold, mother, and I am rather disappointed in you. Maybe this will key up that elusive, but vital, bit of memory.”

‘Andora’ turned, twisting around to the opposite side of her seat, leaned over to pick something up, turned back around to me, and produced a small, nicely stained, wooden box with bright brass hinges, lock, latch, and trim.

“I believe you’ve seen this before? Maybe in a dream, perhaps?” She said turning back around and holding it out for me to see.

“The box.” I mumbled quietly, recognizing it. “Pandora’s box.”

“Andora”, she corrected pleasantly with a warm smile. “So you have seen ‘it’ before. Wonderful, mother.” She said as she opened and closed the box several times then played with the latch several more times, but couldn’t get it to stay closed.

“Too bad the latch is broken; it won’t keep anything now.”

She opened it fully and tilted the box toward me to show that it was empty.

“Of course you know what was contained in here, don’t you? You yourself filled and locked this chest so very long ago.

Andora pouted.

It really is a shame that one of our sisters felt curious enough to pry it open. What she allowed to be re-released into this existence had only grown stronger while it lay dormant within, mother.”

“Get to the point, Andora. Why call me here to play chess and show me an empty box with a sprung latch?” I said angrily.

I just wanted this to go away. I wanted to rest- to sleep for more than an hour a night.

“This rendition of the game is not called chess, mother. I thought you already realized that?”

“So what IS the name of the game, Andora?”

“Life, mother. That is the name of this game- though it is more of a high-stakes gamble; you and our sisters against time and his pawns- all those that are slaves to him- those that do not call you mother, sister…or friend. Those that would see the ‘great’ ‘Empress of Time and Space’ defeated and/or dethroned.”

“And the objective of this game, Andora? Would it be the same as its namesake?” I asked as my eyes narrowed not liking this situation at all.

“You would think that, wouldn’t you, mother? I’m sorry, but this game has another, more compelling caveat- so simple, really.”

“The game board must remain in balance. If it does not, both sides lose- completely.”

Andora smiled deviously. On any of my sisters or me, the expression would look cute- endearing even. On this young woman- this version of me- it looked creepy- almost obscene.

“So who starts?”

“Not so fast, mother. Shouldn’t we introduce the players first?”

I sarcastically flourished my hand back to the young woman.

“Unlike your current version of chess, we will start out with three queens: you, Aunt Alexandra, and Aunt Emily.”

Allie and Emily started to move and looked around to either side of me.

“Alex? Where the hell are we?” Allie asked cautiously in confusion.

“What she said, sis. What is this place?” Emily added.

“Apparently we are somewhere in my domain- or so I’m told. And that, over there is my daughter ‘Andora’…supposedly.” I answered without taking my eyes off the young woman- apparently our ‘moderator’ for this inescapable ‘game’.

“So why are we here?” Emily inquired.

“Andora wants to play a game. A game similar to chess, but that she calls ‘Life’.”

“So let’s just leave.” Emily said as she phased out only to rephase on the lower, ‘battlefield’ level of the game. She looked around in confusion as the scale went out of balance slightly. “Why can’t I leave?”

“Really, Aunt Emily? Rarely in life do we get the opportunity to just disappear from our responsibilities! Responsibilities aside, it just won’t do.”

Emily frowned, phased out again, and rephased beside me. The levels rebalanced.

“So…that is one of the ways you move in the game; any questions so far?” Andora asked, though still with the same pleasant, playful tone. A hard thing given the devastating glare Emily was giving her right now.

The young woman stood up gracefully and placed the small, open, wooden box with the sprung latch back on the fireplace mantle then turned to face us.

The warm living room scene faded then disappeared completely as she walked closer! There was now just the playing field and the small observation area on which ‘Andora’ now stood.

“She looks just like you, Alex.” Emily gasped.

“She is nothing like me! I don’t know what she is, but she only resembles me.” I told them both.

“Oh mother, really? Do we have to continue this blameless subterfuge?”

“Alexandra’s real daughter would never play games with people’s lives in the first place!” Emily growled.

“THAT’S A LIE AND Y’ALL KNOW IT, AUNT EM!” Andora spit back in a flash of rage. “THE SISTERS OF KILI PLAY WITH PEOPLES’ LIVES EVERY DAY OF EVERY MONTH OF EVERY YEAR!”

“We try to repair the timeline- repair peoples’ lives to the way they were originally meant to be.” Allie countered.

“Moving along to your knights,” Andora continued, composing herself instantly and completely ignoring Allie’s valid argument.

“Camille Darough and Jacquelyn Cummins: Protectors of the realm, defenders of the meek and righteous. Warriors Extraordinaire of the infinite mind.”

Cami and Jack began moving and immediately looked around. The hairs on my body began to stand on end as the air charged with energy.

Instantly they vanished and reappeared on the lower level of the game. The balance tipped favorably to our opponents.

“Jack and Cami, key up your gifts and get back up here on the double.” I said quickly.

Looking at each other in total confusion, both nodded and instantly stood beside Allie and Emily again.

“Next we have the ‘bishop’- the preeminent representation of education, intelligence, class, and understanding.”

Ricky Lynn wiped at her eyes and stared around.

“Professor, don’t use your gift unless you want to move to that other level and throw us out of balance.” I said quickly.

“What the hell? What kinda shit’s this, Alex?” She barked excitedly as she looked around. “Are we on some sort of friggin’ chess board, skipper?”

“Yes, and don’t ask me how. I can’t explain it myself.” I answered.

“Oh, mother. Do I have to explain it all again? Is your mind so feeble and frail that you cannot remember such details for more than a few moments?” Andora asked with a pout.

“You’re her mother, Alex? Wow…and yuse lectured me about behaving myself.”

“This is serious, Prof. Samuels!” I growled.

“You should listen to mother, Ricky Lynn. Finally, she’s starting to understand.”

“I’m always serious, Andora!” I spat venomously.

“Yes, but what version of serious are you, mother? Here, there are two kinds. Serious from the game’s point of view and serious from a life-ending standpoint. Which ‘serious’ are you now, mother?”

“Since you call this game ‘Life’, I’d have to choose the ‘life-ending’ one.”

“You can be so intuitive at times, mother. I’ve always thought that your best quality. So, moving along to our final contestants, I give you your ‘rooks’. Yuuka and Sunni-Jim. They can move anywhere they wish, unlike their namesake pieces in your version. Use them wisely, mother, for they are the most delicate of your pieces.”

Sunni and Yuuka began to move around and immediately shot into the air and hovered in front of Allie and I. Our level began to rise and go out of balance once more.

“Take a shoulder, girls, we have to keep things in balance.” I advised quickly, but generically.

“Alex, what the shit?” Sunni said in alarm as she landed and latched onto my earring.

“I’ll tell you in a moment, hun. Let’s just listen for now.” I suggested, nodding to our moderator.

“Now that all the players have been introduced, shall we start the game, mother?” Andora smiled.

A loud, metallic groaning filled our ears and as soon as we heard the deep, metallic ‘thunk’, the floor we stood on lurched and shimmied while the scale rebalanced.

“If this game represents life then the game has been running for eons, Andora. What special circumstances brought about this ‘latest edition’?” I asked as the floor finally settled.

“Let’s call this the ‘Egyptian Exodus’ edition, mother.”

The ‘king’ chess piece suddenly became fluid and took on the likeness of a well built, virile, strongly bearded man in his mid-to-late twenties.

“Who’s the knarly lookin’ mook behind all them pawns, cupcake?” Ricky Lynn sassed.

“Oh. Where ARE my manners? That is your opponent, Professor Samuels. My father.” She explained, now sounding sarcastic for the first time.

“I thought you introduced our opponent as ‘Time’?” Allie questioned as she suddenly looked confused. I realized that she wasn’t here when ‘Andora’ introduced our opponent.

“Now you’re catching on! I’m so proud of you, Aunt Alex.” Andora chortled.

Though heavily bearded, our opponent resembled my first husband Sanford Fleming in face, and hair, but much taller.

“Sandy?” I called out in surprise.

“You disappoint me, Alexandra! On your world I am called Chronos.” My opponent responded in a rich, baritone.

“Alex, didn’t Chronos eat his children- except for Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades?” Emily asked as she swallowed loudly.

“That’s what I was taught, sis.” I said as I stared at the handsome man.

“So…um…how did you and the Titan of Time hook up exactly, skipper?” Ricky Lynn asked stupidly.

“Only time will tell.” Allie said absent-mindedly with a quirky grin.

Chronos began laughing. “Good one, Alex! Like I’ve never heard that one before, but for the record, I never tattle.”

Allie stuck her tongue out at our opponent.

“That is what Alexandra likes about me.” Chronos retorted as he continued his light-hearted laughter.

“Can we get this started already, Andora?” I asked impatiently.

“One more…’little’ piece of advice, mother. There are different weightings assigned to different pieces. For instance, a knight will weigh many times more than a rook, because it holds more destructive force. The more destruction or devastation a piece is capable of, the heavier it’s weighting.” Andora explained with slightly devious smile.

“Fine. Let’s just get this thing going.” I groused as I took one step forward.

“A bold move mother, but a bit premature, wouldn’t you say?” My supposed daughter chuckled.

“Just standing around won’t get this over with.” I replied sternly.

“You always were the bold one, Alexandra.” Chronos chuckled. Several pawns appeared on the level between and below us. Our side of the scale dipped and leaned slightly astern of us- toward the outside edge of this huge scale. I noted that if tipped too far, we would all side off to goddess knew where!

I took two steps forward. Balance slowly returned.

“One of the queens immediately goes on the offensive. Do you always lead by example, my mate?” Chronos chided as he moved several more pawns to the second level.

Again the scale tipped against us. I took two more steps forward and was now at the front edge of our level. There was no more forward progress for me…unless I dropped to the battlefield below. I didn’t know what would happen if I did though. That was never explained.

Several more pawns appeared below me.

“So self-reliant, Alexandra, but headstrong will not win this game.” My opponent chuckled in amusement.

“I’d rather be the one to go if it protects everyone else.” I said as I leaned out over the lower level as far as I dared to keep balance. The scale kept tilting.

“Oh for God’s sake, Alex! You obviously can’t do this all on your own.” Emily said as she took several steps forward.

We just kept tilting. Slower than before, but the angle increased all the same.

“Hey, what gives?” Emily said trying to figure out why she didn’t carry as much weight as me.

“It is because you are the Queen Physician, and because of your Hippocratic Oath, I’m afraid you carry much less weight in this game, Aunt Emily.” Andora informed her.

“Then I’ll take the offensive, hun.” Allie said as she took two steps forward.

Balance again returned to the game board.

Chronos sent more pawns onto the lower level. Again the scale tilted out of our favor. Allie took a few more steps forward.

“Sis, this seems futile. He has way more pawns than we do actual pieces. This game was rigged from the beginning.” Allie said from my eight o’clock.

“I’m trying to buy some time, Alex. I need to figure out his strategy before I can counter it.” I told her. “I’ve seen this scenario somewhere before. If I could just remember…”

“Skipper, if I may?” Ricky Lynn said from beside me. I didn’t even notice her moving up and it didn’t seem to affect the balance.

“Got something, professor?” I asked as I continued to poll my memories.

“Alex, this game theoretically mirrors real life, correct?” She asked.

“I’m thinking that’s the general idea. What are you thinking?”

“Alex, life is unpredictable.”

“We all know that, hun. What about it?”

“Except in your case, Empress. You, Allie, and Emily can see the future- act on what you see happen there. Aside from your offspring no one else here can do that.”

“OKaaaay, so why tell me something I already know?” I asked in confusion.

“Alexandra Steinert! To you three, time is a variable! You’ve said that dozens of times to us in the past.”

“I got that, Ricky Lynn. Get to the point.”

“Skipper, Time is time! Time can only be one thing- that being ‘time’! It cannot change its characteristics. Time will always be time- the very definition of a constant. Sure, there are those that claim that ‘times: they are achangin’, or ‘time flies’, ‘time’s dragging’, or even ‘time’s at a stand still’, but those are relative proclamations by people unable to move seamlessly though the medium like the Empress.”

“But if I use my gift, I’ll end up on the second level amongst the pawns. Who knows what might happen to me down there? They’d probably swarm me like a plague.” I warned.

Something clicked and the preverbal light went on over my head!

“Per’fessor, you’re a genius!” I chirped as I turned and hugged her lovingly.

“I’m also a damned fool, skipper,” she said as she vanished from our level and reappeared on the level below us. “Now let’s see what happens in amongst the population. Tempest Fuckit!” She declared.

I watched silently as Ricky Lynn and two-thirds of the pawns on the battlefield disappeared.

My cheeks became wet.

“Well done, mother.” Andora complimented with a sad smile. “I was wondering how long it would take to use one of your other pieces.

“She was more than just a piece to some game! She was my friend, you cold-hearted bi…”

“Now now, mother. She knew the risks. Ricky Lynn had the courage to act first.”

“I’m so sorry you lost your scholar, Alexandra. What will you do now that you no longer have that resource?” Chronos asked with a gloating smile. Andora looked at her supposed father- visibly displeased by his callousness.

“Losing a teacher is not as bad as failing to apply and refine what was learned from them, Chronos.” I leered.

For the first time, Andora’s smile widened. “Well said, mother. Knowledge increases understanding of the world around us and thereby unlocks the mysteries life presents by allowing people to question their beliefs, teachings, and surroundings. The more people understand about the world in which they live, the less they will blindly follow. Innovative, isn’t it, father?”

Seeing and hearing Chronos snort in disgust, I nodded and turned around in place. Summoning my sisters to come closer, I took a few steps to them, thus maintaining balance while we huddled.

“Ladies,” I began, “I finally remembered where I’ve seen this strategy.” I informed them.

“So what’s the plan, Cap?” Jack asked.

“Not so fast, Jack, I’d like to know the basis before hearing any plan.” Emily said as she looked at me critically.

“The Old Testament- Book of Exodus, sis,” I told her. “Moses’ departure from Egypt- the ten plagues prior.”

“Alex…in case you didn’t notice, we aren’t ‘plagues’ and there aren’t ten of us.” Emily argued.

“No, but I’m speaking metaphorically, sis. Clemson was the catalyst. That little ‘toad’ started this whole mess!”

“But I was taught the plagues happened in a specific order, Alex.” Jack insisted.

“Again, we’re talking metaphorically here, Jack. “Specific order’ would imply time. Ricky Lynn just proclaimed time to be a variable to me…to us…here. Any ‘order’ therefore becomes a variable as well thus, null and void.” I explained.

“Getting’ kind of deep, Alex?” Sunni groaned on my shoulder. I shrugged lightly and continued.

“Being the catalyst, Clemson became the first plague to hit Egypt- frogs or toads. Next: Jack and Cami’s defensive actions at the temple yesterday. The insurgents they neutralized were the first-born sons of the opposition’s leadership.”

“You’re kidding?” Emily gasped. “Just how do you know that, Alex?”

“I overheard a news communication late, last evening. The severely biased report emphasized that point to stir public sympathy, I think.”

“So that knocks out two of the ten, Alex. Where do we come in- what plagues do we represent?” Jack asked, rolling her eyes once.

“Mother, do I need to incorporate time limits into our game? Delaying it serves no useful purpose.” Andora said catching my attention.

“One thing I learned early on was to plan my strategy accordingly, therefore I must constantly reassess as the game progresses, hun.”

“Very well, mother, but do not delay for much longer. Father grows impatient.”

“Just another minute.” I told our ‘moderator’.

“So where do we fit into all this, Alex?” Jack insisted.

“Ricky Lynn,” I began, but took a deep breath to control my emotions toward having lost her again. “Ricky Lynn decimated the ‘livestock’ by educating the masses. We’ll all agree that education is a powerful force in its own right. Educated people take what they have learned and use it to make responsible decisions, thereby taking out a fair share of our opponent’s ‘ignorant’ pawns. She…she committed…committed herself to their education.”

I felt Emily and Allie place their hands on my shoulder in commiseration. I took another deep breath to calm myself and continued.

“Yuuka and Sunni represent the flying plagues- flies, lice, and locusts. Jack, you and Cami represent natural, Earth-based, disasters that kill people and destroy property- lightning and thunder, hail, tsunamis, Earthquakes…volcanic eruptions.”

“Ya know, Alex, Cami and I still aren’t too happy about having to do that this morning.” Jack said sadly.

“No one should ever be proud or comfortable with taking another’s life, Jack, but you two already knew that.”

Jack and Cami nodded sadly.

“So where do I come in, sis? What plague am I?” Emily asked, annoyed to even be compared to a ‘plague’.

“I’m afraid you are the real deal, sis- the plague. The Bible calls them ‘boils’ or legions of the skin. Being a physician, you have the expertise to understand how something like that works, so you can not only cure people, but to infect them as well. That is why I expect your weighting in this game might change if Andora and Chronos realize what you really signify.”

“You’re serious about this aren’t you, sis?” Allie questioned. When I looked up at her through my tears, she closed her eyes slowly in understanding.

“I’m deadly serious, Alex. I’ve already lost Ricky Lynn again, and I’m certain we’ll lose the rest of our sisters to this…this ‘game’ in due time.” I answered.

“Mother? I do insist you continue the game. Father does not like to be kept waiting.” Andora urged politely.

“Your father is also forgetful, Andora.” I said in response. “As I recall, I just lost my bishop to him.”

“You made no move against me, Alexandra! Your bishop took it upon herself to engage my pawns!” Chronos barked in anger.

“Mother is correct, father. Under the rules of this game, mother’s side indeed made a legitimate move; therefore it is now your turn.” Andora replied with a look of satisfaction.

“Fine!” Our irritated opponent growled as he placed more pawns on the battlefield. He still had plenty in standby on his side.

Again our level started to sink slowly.

“Alex, I’ll go next. I’m good at being a pest…at least that’s what the Director keeps telling me.” Yuuka said as she took to the air. “Look out below, here comes the swarm! BONZAI!” she screamed as she dove headlong into the hoard of pawns at high speed.

Flying several, high-speed, spasmodic circuits through the crowd, she managed to eliminate a good third of the pawns before disappearing without another sound.

Now I had lost two valuable sisters because of this horrible ‘game’!

“Hmmm. I didn’t think something so small had the power to destroy so many. Brilliant offensive move, Alexandra! I am impressed…though not very.” Chronos goaded smoothly.

Andora remained quiet, but kept a small grin on her face.

Dozens of pawns filled the level below us and the scale tilted against us yet again.

“Alex, you think we’ll go up or down?” Jack asked as she and Cami moved up and stood next to me. “I mean with all the blood already on our hands, I’d expect it to be hell.”

“Why would you ask that?” I asked in confusion.

“Well, the way we,” she nodded to Cami, “see it. You’re running out of pieces. Lt. Commander Jacquelyn Cummins reporting for duty, ma’am.” She said saluting me smartly.

“And Lt. Commander Camille Darough volunteering also, Capt. Steinert.” Cami said as she snapped to attention and saluted also. “Begging the Director’s pardon, ma’am.” She added glancing to Allie.

“Sorry, girls but its Chronos’ move again. You two just moved for me.” I said motioning from where they stood now to where they had been.

“But I already made my peace, Jacki.” Cami whined childishly, complaining to her sister Mind Warrior.

“Such foolish pawns to freely sacrifice themselves for their queens!” Chronos jabbed as he chuckled.

“We aren’t pawns, you ‘Chron-illogical Asshole’, we’re knights! Knights protect the realm and their queen with their very lives!” Cami shouted in anger. “It is an honor to die for a noble cause, Phallus-Cranium!”

“That’s ‘dick-head’, Cami.” Jack said quietly, turning toward her sister and placing her hand to the side of her mouth to shield her correction from our opponent.

“My, aren’t you the aggressive one! Such hostility from so young an adversary. Do you not fear me…- fear ‘Time’, little one?” Chronos amusingly prodded.

“I’m not that fearful. You see, I’ve witnessed almost a thousand years of you, you self-absorbed…”

To Cami’s chagrin Chronos began laughing thunderously. Almost a hundred pawns appeared below us.

Cami and Jack looked out over the crowded second level in stunned silence as our level started to tilt.

“Time to put up or shut up, little pawns. What will it be, Alexandra? Do you wish to forfeit and save your valuable game pieces?”

“As long as I have trust and confidence in my sisters, we shall continue! As much as I feel the need to save them, my sisters have volunteered and availed themselves to my strategies. Like me, they have the utmost confidence in their sisters. LOOSE THE DEVASTATION OF THE NATURAL DISASTERS!” I shouted, dramatically raising my hands high above me. I nodded to Jack and Cami.

“Sick ‘em, girls!” I hissed.

My sisters jumped down, straight into the fray that had become level two.

“Hi, I’m lightning and thunder!” Jack shouted with a crazed look.

“And I’m frozen, spherical precipitation and volcanic activity!” Cami added with the same crazed look.

“That’s ‘hail’ you dumb nerd! Let’s just do this.” Jack said to her sister as both women joined hands and began to concentrate.

A visible shockwave erupted and radiated out from them as they disappeared.

Only twenty or so pawns remained, and for once the scale tilted against Chronos.

“I’m stunned, mother! You just willingly sacrificed your and Aunt Alexandra’s best friends. I would have held onto them for as long as possible.” Andora said as she wiped a tear from her eye.

“Obviously the work of a desperate woman, little one!” Chronos goaded once more. Andora angrily eyed her father.

“I should think it takes a great deal of courage to call upon one’s best friends to give their lives, father! It was an admirable move- quite gutsy if you ask me!”

“No one asked your opinion, little one. Just monitor over the game. That is all that can be expected of you.” Chronos ordered.

“That was rude and cold, Chronos!” I shouted in anger. “Whether she is from my womb or not, no one should be degraded in such a manner! Especially by her own supposed father! Like every other sentient being, Andora has the capacity to do many great things in her lifetime- if such a thing even exists here! She can choose to do whatever she wants…including go out on her own where she can get away from your harsh, demeaning treatment!”

“Ouch! You wound me, Alexandra. Your verbal assault has cut me deeply. No matter through…as I have been rumored to heal all wounds.” Chronos began chuckling at his own pun.

Several hundred pawns appeared from nowhere. Chronos had nowhere near that many on his side of the board.

“Father, where do all these come from? Why do you feel the need to cheat?” Andora cried as her eyes went wide in surprise.

“I do not cheat, little one, I merely call it recovery. While we have been otherwise occupied, my remaining pawns have been ‘busy’.” He replied with a devious grin. “Will you consider resignation now, Alexandra?”

“In some games, hiding face cards would get y’all shot, hun.” I informed my opponent. “I’ll let it slide for now.”

“I’ll go next, Alex.” Sunni said, still on my shoulder.

“Not so fast, hun, I’m saving you for a special mission.”

Emily looked at me strangely then began looking around nervously. Allie noticed.

“I’ll go next, Alex. I’m getting bored with this game anyhow.” My twin told me- the look on her face told me she didn’t really mean what she said.

“I’m sorry, Em, but I need to send in my own flesh and blood next.” I said sadly to her. I completely ignored Allie though. She and I were destined to do something miraculous.

Or so I hoped.

“Are you sure about this, Alex?” Emily asked nervously, her eyes pleading for me to reconsider.

I leaned over to her and whispered in her ear.

“Use your knowledge of diseases to pick the deadliest and most contagious virus you can imagine. Access your future twin’s memories. If it isn’t a strain indigonous to Earth- all the better. We want something that kills on contact within seconds- something that attacks so fast there won’t be time to find an antidote. Can you do that for me, sis?”

“Alex, I’m afraid. I didn’t think I would end up dying here in some strange world…especially on a game board!” Emily whispered in anguish.

“You have to trust me on this, sis. This is only a game- a heinous test to prove some point that I…that we have overlooked in my…er…our development. Take a good look at the woman claiming to be my daughter. Has she once addressed me, or any of us with anything but love and admiration? Except in answer to you once, has she not addressed everyone here other than Chronos with respect? Emily, this is only a simulation – a game in its simplest definition. Just think of this as the only time you can ignore your oath and take revenge- take out your frustrations- your anger- and get away scot-free. As Pa’d say, sis: ‘let them feathers fly, Emmy’!”

“You really think I’ll live through this, Alex?”

“It’s been my observation that anything, even natural death, results in some form of pain. When someone takes a terminal wound to their body, they scream or at least grunt out in pain. Have you heard our sisters cry out as they disappeared from the game board?”

“Now that you mention it, no. They’ve all disappeared without a peep- Jack and Cami with that wild-eyed, crazed, look, and war cry, but nothing indicating pain or even discomfort. You might be right, Alex!”

“You’ll probably wakeup back at the residence and not remember any of this ever happening.”

“You really think so, Alex?” She asked, hope filling her eyes.

“I’d stake my life on it, sis. Now go do your worst to this arrogant asshole.”

“Aye, captain.” Emily said with an evil smile as she set the most intense, evil glare I’d ever seen on our opponent.

“It’s about time, Alexandra! I was beginning to think you might have had a change of heart.” Chronos clucked. “Are you really willing to sacrifice your own sister? One, I might add, that doesn’t bring much weight to this game?”

“I’m not afraid of you, Chronos!” Emily said bravely. “As you mentioned earlier, sometimes the smallest things do the most damage.” Emily vanished from my side and reappeared below me in the center of the hoard of pawns. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment, smiled, reopened her eyes and began to blow out her breath, exhaling at the pawns around her.

Instantly those pawns closest to her began to waver and disappear. She repeated blowing her ‘germs’ around the ‘board’ several times.

When Emily quietly disappeared from the game, only five of the two hundred or so pawns remained.

“You cheated!” Chronos spat vehemently, as he looked wide-eyed at the decimation below him. “The Queen Physician was not that powerful a piece. How could someone with little destructive force completely rout my minions? You have cheated Alexandra, and have therefore lost the contest. Little one, do what must be done. Destroy her and her sister! Let me once again, reign unrestricted!” He ranted tyranically. As he did, the few remaining pawns he still had fell down and disappeared one by one.

“I will not, father! Mother’s move was legal and completely explainable.”

“Explainable? How do you explain a piece of near worthless destructive ability annihilating my minions?” Chronos argued vehemently.

“Father, that ‘piece’ as you called Aunt Emily was not the destructive portion of her actual arsenal.” Andora informed him angrily- satisfaction on her face. “As with the Scholar, It is the knowledge she contained that was the actual weapon. As a physician she carried the knowledge needed to eradicate, OR in this case, to design an actual plague- one that apparently had the power to kill ninety-nine percent of your pawns. As you claimed earlier, the smallest things can sometimes be the deadliest. In this case the microscopic…the unseen things have killed the most. The move stands, father!”

“Impossible! I would have been able to cure at least some of my pawns in the time it took her to spread her so-called plague!”

“Not if it was something you had never seen before, honey.” Allie giggled. “You implied that if you had time to find a cure. One worlds’ common cold could theoretically be catastrophic if introduced on another, unsuspecting world- especially if there was no known cousin to compare it to. Our sister certainly pulled the organically-grown, sheared weaving material over your eyes, dear Chronos.”

“That’s wool, Allie. ‘Pulled the wool over his eyes’.” I corrected with a satisfied smile.

“Your move hun.” I said aloud. “Or…would YOU like to resign the game?” I cooed as I noticed the last remaining pawn drop over and disappear from the playing field.

“Great job, Alex! You got him right where you want him!” Sunni said excitedly into my ear.

“Not yet we don’t, hun. I’m still going to need your experience after he makes his next move.”

“My experience? I don’t get it.” Sunni asked, sounding confused.

“What do both of you have in common, hun…um…normally.” I asked quietly as a dozen more pawns appeared out of thin air. Only a few dropped and vanished this time though.

“What do we both have in common? If I’m lucky, nothing, Alex!”

“Think normal-mode and not pixie-mode, Colonel.” I hinted.

“Okaaaay. We’re both guys…um…normally?”

“Right. And did you notice that this whole time he has been staring at us like pieces of meat? You of all people should have picked up on that. You’ve only been female for not even a whole day- or are you becoming accustomed to your present form?”

“Um…ah…maybe?” Sunni squeaked timidly.

I rolled my eyes.

“Dammit, Jim, what would you normally do if you saw eight first-class babes standing right in front of you?”

“I’d try to score with at least one of them, Alex. What red-blooded All-American man wouldn’t…hey, I think I’m starting to get it. You want me to get him horny, right?” she asked, finally getting a clue.

“Almost. I want you to go Jiminy Cricket on him, hun. Start appealing to his masculinity. Get him so worked up that he starts to lust after Allie and I!” I said as a brilliant smile appeared on my face.

“Is that even legal, Alex?” Sunni asked as her mouth dropped open.

“To quote a phrase, ‘all’s fair in love and war’, Colonel.”

I turned toward our moderator. “Andora?”

“Yes, mother, what is it?”

“Would it be possible to send an emissary to work out a diplomatic solution with our opponent to end this game peacefully?” I asked politely.

“Suddenly realized you had no chance to win, my attractive mate? Has my superior intellect and strategies aroused or confused you into submission?” Chronos laughed heartily.

Andora glared at her father. An evil smirk appeared on her lips.

“There is no rule against it, mother. You may send your emissary if you wish, though such diplomatic methods might have little positive effect on father.” She ruled.

“Talk Allie and I up to him as much as you can, hun. I’m sure you know how to do that. If he fails to take the bait, change to ‘plague B’ and take out his remaining pawns.”

“Rodger that, Empress! Count on me, ma’am.” Sunni said as she hovered off my shoulder, turned around and saluted me before shooting off toward Chronos.

“You send a bug to negotiate your surrender? You really must be stymied by my tactical brilliance, Alexandra!”

“I’ll give you time to hear her out, baby.” I said in as sweet and sexy a voice as I could manage.

Andora’s head snapped around and stared at me in surprise.

I winked as I took Allie’s hand. Now that we were linked, she knew everything that I knew. We listened in on Chronos’ apparent one-sided conversation.

“Do you really think so?”

“Of course I find them attractive. Wouldn’t anybody?”

“Yes, noon til night! That’s a stupid question.”

I noticed Andora’s face become confused as her father continued to talk with Sunni for several minutes.

Chronos’ face flushed red suddenly.

“You perverted bug! I thought my disobedient mate and her sister wanted to negotiate terms! Why do you pester me about my intentions after her surrender? Get away from me at once!” Chronos shouted in anger as he waved his hands at our emissary.

Sunni evaded his attempts to swat her from the air several times before she broke it off and nosedived into the remaining pawns.

After several successful passes, she and the pawns disappeared.

“It seems you are in check, Alexandra.” Chronos chuckled as he stepped forward to rebalance the scale.

“Think again, baby.” I said as I accessed my heads up display.

“But you have no more pieces at your disposal- or do you wish to sacrifice your twin sister also.” Our opponent gloated as he leered at us hungrily.

“I assure you, baby, we are nowhere near unarmed.” I purred as Allie and I stepped to the edge of our level.

Chronos closed his eyes slowly as if thinking about some feeling or remembrance.

I squeezed Allies hand twice in rapid succession.

“Can’t we just call a truce and talk things out like adults? Just you and us…man to women, baby?” She purred sensuously.

“Allie’s right, baby. We can do a lot of talkin’ and more if y’all want.”

Chronos’ eyes sprung back open.

“I will win this contest and then have my way with both of you! Resign now or suffer my wrath.”

“I’m afraid we can’t do that, baby. Just agree to negotiate and we’ll help you feel better. Much better. Allie an’ I really know how to make a big…strong…viral, guy like you feel really, really, good.” I said pouring on the sex in my voice.

“How do I know you will not go against your offer?”

“You don’t baby.” Allie said sensuously as she began licking her lips invitingly.

“If I agree to negotiation, you will promise to fulfill your offer?”

“If you agree to negotiate, baby, but not before.” I cooed.

Allie and I keyed our Reilly suits. We were both wearing our original ‘Aryan Empress Outfits’.

Chronos’ eyes almost popped out of his head as he scanned every provocative detail revealed by the translucent fabric.

Andora’s eyes went even wider and her mouth dropped open in shock.

“Like what you see, baby?” Allie cooed this time. “You could have all this for your very own.” She promised with a wink, throwing him a kiss.

“Why don’t we meet in the middle to discuss things, baby. After all, we don’t really want things to go out of balance, right?” I chimed in.

“How do I know that you will do as you say?”

“You don’t, baby. Nothing in life is assured or guaranteed. Y’all are just gonna hafta trust us.” Allie purred.

Chronos remained silent for a while. I could almost picture the debate ‘raging’ in his mind. We could definitely see the debate raging in his tight pants.

“Maybe on the count of three, baby?” I asked sweetly.

He nodded.

“One.” I began to count.

“Two.” Allie continued, licking her lips again.

“Three.” I finished as we reappeared on the lower level. In front of us was Chronos- all six-foot-eight of his muscular, well-developed body, staring at us like a hungry wolf would a flock of unguarded sheep. Even with my highest heels on I felt small and vulnerable.

Allie moved to his left side and I moved over to his right. We both took hold of a muscled forearm and began running our other hand up and down the massive bicep we found there.

“Doesn’t this feel better, baby?” I asked, watching his eyes close slowly.

He nodded, not saying a word.

“So, do you want to negotiate, baby?” Allie asked sweetly as she began kissing the bicep on her side.

“Oh, yes.” He whispered.

“What was that, baby? I didn’t hear you.” I asked sweetly for clarification.

“Yes.” He said a little louder.

“Yes to negotiation, baby? Or yes to more of this?” Allie probed sexily as she continued to place kisses up and down his arm.

“Oh yes.” He exclaimed, looking completely blissful at the moment.

It was my turn to start kissing my muscled bicep.

“So…will you agree to our negotiations, baby?” I purred.

“Yes.” He moaned.

“Are you sure, baby?” Allie asked as she began to rub his well-defined pec.

“Ooooh yessss.” He moaned louder.

“So…” I also began to run my fingers over his other pec. He moaned louder this time. “you’ll submit to our negotiation?” I asked gently.

“ooooohhhhh.”

“Didn’t hear you, baby. Will you submit to our negotiations?” I repeated as I began rubbing my breasts against his arm.

“I’ll submit…yesssss.”

“Say again, baby? We still couldn’t hear you.” Allie purred as she began to rub her breast on his other arm.

“I submit.” He whispered.

“Louder, baby. We can’t hear you over the moaning.” I urged.

“I submit!” He shouted.

“The game has reached its conclusion!” Andora shouted excitedly. We found ourselves standing next to the young woman.

Chronos opened his eyes suddenly, realizing Allie and I had stopped.

“So you resigned! Good, now we can get started in earnest!” He gloated with a very sated smile on his face. He began undressing us with his eyes.

“You lost by resignation, father.” Andora informed him, displaying a satisfied, but devious grin.

“I resigned? I didn’t…I…but Alexandra cheated!” He argued.

“You know better than that, father. There are those that may try, but in the end, no one can cheat you.”

“But…she…and…”

“Father, don’t make yourself look any more foolish, it isn’t befitting.” Andora admonished. “Besides, we both know that you ran out of pawns four moves back. If anyone cheated, it was you, but because mother let it slide, I allowed it. You should be ashamed.”

“All the same, little one, Alexandra took advantage of me. Surely that cannot be legal?” Chronos argued.

“Father, may I remind you that the Empress is the only entity capable of bending- even stopping you- as has just happened. It has been so since…” Andora stopped short. Her eyes sparkled brightly for an instant. “Father, it’s time for you to go on. Thank you for an enjoyable contest and I will join you in due time.”

With a casual wave of Andora’s hand, Chronos was gone.

“Sis, is it me or did she just make ‘time’ disappear?” Allie whispered as she leaned closer to me.

Andora snorted, apparently having heard the comment.

“No one can make time disappear, mother, you should know that.” The young woman giggled pleasantly.

“I thought my sister was your mother and I was the adorable Aunt?” Allie tried to clarify.

Andora began to giggle.

“A minor differentiation for the game, mother- after all, the Empress of Time and Space is still the Empress of Time and Space, is she not?”

“So this…’game’…it was to test me…us…the Empress?” I asked curiously.

“Why mother? Did you find out something about yourself? That’s what tests are all about, right- a way of finding out what you’ve learned- to find out how much you knew about yourself- to find out things that you didn’t realize you knew?” She countered. Her eyes sparkled…actually twinkled a moment as she smiled at us.

“Maybe reminded me of some things, but definitely one thing I hadn’t known.” I answered. “More of a theory, I suppose.”

“Oh, mother? What theory?” Andora looked at me with curious excitement.

I took a deep breath.

“Are you,” I paused to make sure I really wanted to ask. “Are you God…the Almighty…the Creator of All Things?” I rattled off in quick, nervous, succession.

The young woman in front of us began laughing hysterically!

Allie and I looked at each other in confusion.

After a few minutes, Andora composed herself enough to address the question.

“Oh! Oh. Oh, mother, you always knew just how to amuse me. Did you actually think that I…oh…oh, mother! How could you…really?”

“You made your alleged father disappear,” I stated logically. “If we are to believe your father represented ‘time’ and you stated decisively that no ‘one’ can make time disappear, how could time simply go away?”

Allie nodded to confirm my hypothesis.

“How can a woman, originally a man of loving parents, travel time? Moreover, how could that woman bend and twist time to her will- even stop it- if she so chooses?” Andora countered with a question of her own.

Allie and I turned and looked at each other. I had never ventured to think of that scenario. Apparently, we both arrived at the same response.

“You’re saying I’m,” We both spoke as Allie and I pointed to each other. We both continued. “That I am…”

Andora burst out laughing again.

“I…I said nothing at all, mother!” She said as her eyes sparkled brilliant blue- they actually looked like bright blue lights! “The idea of a higher power- an all-seeing, all-knowing being that watches over the sentient species of this reality, is but a construct to easily understand that which defies understanding. To define either of us like that would not be humbling, or accurate.”

“I just thought…that…um…given your…seeming…control over time that…that you might be…um the leader of…of Upper Management, Andora.”

The young woman giggled again, took the few steps toward Allie and I, and kissed each of us on the lips.

“For now, mother, we must part, but we will again spend time together many more times. I so enjoy our meetings.”

“But what about our sisters?” Allie asked gently.

“As you concluded earlier, no one was hurt in this exercise, mother. Travel safe and rule wisely, Alexandra, Empress of Time and Space.”
 
 

0800hrs, Pharaoh’s Residence, Egypt, Day 2, 2510BC
 
 

“Alex? Alex, wake up! By the Lords, what is going on here?” Anna Beth’s worried voice startled me.

I was back in Pharaoh’s royal dining room.

“Oh, thank the Lords, you’re awake! Alex, you all frightened the life out of me! You all passed out at the same time, I thought something sinister happened. Are you alright?” Anna Beth continued, looking a little more relieved.

“I’m fine, hun; in fact, I’ve never felt better, considering where I’ve just been.” I answered truthfully.

“Where you’ve just been?” Anna Beth repeated, perplexed. “Alex, you and your sisters have been sleeping…here…for the past two hours! Why would you think you were somewhere else?”

“Two hours? Well at least that’s better than one, I guess. At least I was with friends.” I rubbed my face with my palms a few times. I noticed her Physician standing nearby looking completely baffled.

Anna Beth just stared at me in astonishment. “Where do you think you went, Alex?”

“I don’t think you would believe me if I told you.” I said as I noticed Jack starting to lift her head off the table. I noticed Sunni was still out cold, lying, face-first and spread-eagled on the table in front of me.

“Alex? What happened? Why did I fall asleep at the breakfast table?” Jack asked carefully as she rubbed her eyes then wiped her mouth. “I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.”

Ricky Lynn began to stir next.

“Wow, that was the damnedest dream I think I’ve ever had!” She said, scratching the top of her head. “Never played chess in a dream before.”

I couldn’t help it! My head snapped around and I stared at Prof. Samuels in astonishment. Had it really happened?

“Come to think of it, I dreamed I was playing chess too!”Jack began scratching her head as well. “I seem to remember something about a plague…maybe?”

“Oh, my head!” Sunni grimaced, rubbing her tiny forehead as she rolled and sat up on the table Indian style. “Man, twice in one day? Alex? I had this weird dream where I was talkin’ with some big, Muscle Beach-type dude about two hot pieces of ass! They kinda looked like you and Al…ee…” She stared up at me suddenly, her voice breaking into a squeak on the last syllable of my sister’s name. “Alex? What the hell was that all about?”

Anna Beth continued to stare at us with worry- concern plastered on her face.

“Empress? Did you and the others…go…somewhere? Um…because you…you never left here…um…physically.” She asked cautiously.

“I’m…I’m thinking so, your majesty. I think we all went to my domain, and…and played a…a really strange game of chess?” I said as I fought hard to not sound crazy.

“Are you telling us that whacked-out, Alice-in-Wonderland, nightmare actually happened, Alex?” Sunni cried out as she stood up and angrily put her hands on her hips.

“What’s going on, skipper? What happened to us and why didn’t that look like your domain usually looks?” Ricky Lynn demanded.

“Girls, by what I’m seeing in her mind right now, we were definitely not in Alex’ domain- we were someplace else entirely.” Jack said, relating her eavesdropping in my mind. “Who is this Andora, Alex? Is she really another one of your daughters?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “Ah got nothin’, Jack. It felt like Ah was there with y’all, but Ah’m not sure Ah wonna admit that just now. If Ah believe my memories though, Ah think we won.”

“Was the guy we were playing against really Time?” Sunni asked as she lazily hovered off the table and stopped level with my nose. “I mean, was he really, like, Father Time?”

“Alex? I remember this Andora calling you mother and him, father. Is there something you forgot to tell us?” Jack smiled tensely.

“Honestly, Jack! Ah’d definitely remember him!”

“Ya, he was ‘hard’ to forget, alright.” She said raising one eyebrow.

“Could somebody please tell me what’s going on?” Anna Beth shouted in frustration.

“Someone…I’m not sure of the relationship…wanted to remind me of what we were and what we can do…how we should conduct ourselves.” I said, not quite answering her question.

Yuuka shot into the room and tackled Sunni in midair- so hard in fact, they both tumbled head over heels several times before coming to rest on the table several feet away.

“Colonel! I am so glad you’re alright! I was worried when I had to carry you up to our room last night. If you were going to get inebriated, why didn’t you exit pixie-mode? You could have easily drunk a hundred times more.”

“Emily said she was drugged, hun. Where are my sisters, anyway?” I told her as Sunni fought to push Yuuka off of her.

A sharp slap across my face told me that Emily had just phased-in beside me.

What an arm!

“Don’t you ever, EVER, make me have to do that again, Alexandra Francis Steinert! My job is to heal people, not kill them with what I know- and how dare you even think of me as one of the ten deadly biblical plagues of Egypt!” Emily seethed in rage.

Again Anna Beth stood and stared, watching in confusion.

“It was the only way to win the game, sis. That was his strategy.”

“Win the game? Alex, we shouldn’t have even been there, let alone been the playing pieces! What the hell was that place anyway?” Emily demanded.

“It was a classroom of sorts, Emily.” Allie said as she appeared on the other side of the table with Cami. “The Empress had to be reminded of her responsibilities and working parameters.”

“We were being tested?” Emily asked in astonishment. “Who would try to test you, Alex?”

“We were fighting against ‘time’, sis. After we won, the one calling herself Andora made ‘time’ vanish.” I explained, slowly shaking my head side to side.

“We don’t know anyone powerful enough to do that.” Allie added to complete my explanation.

“There’s only one I know of, Alex.” Emily said with a look of horror.

“We asked her that and she just laughed, sis, then she more or less implied that the Empress was…” I answered.

“Like that could ever be the case, right?” Allie concluded, cutting me off with a laugh.

“Humility WOULD be an assumed trait of a higher order power, ladies.” Anna Beth interrupted as she bowed before Allie and I.

“Knock it off, your majesty.” I growled. “There is no way that theory would fly! Can we eat breakfast? I’m feeling hungry all of a sudden- like I haven’t eaten in weeks.”

“UHJ!” Anna Beth suddenly shouted out. Her voice echoed through the residence as she called her trusted servant.

Jack and Cami’s heads bowed.

“UHJ! Where is that man? He seems to have disappeared today.”

“Um…majesty?” Jack tried to get Anna Beth’s attention as she shouted the name several more times.

“What is it, Jacquelyn…oh, where is that poor, deaf man?” She answered, though remained distracted.

Jack got up from her seat and, taking Cami’s hand for support as she too stood, faced our hostess.

“Uhj…um…Uhj, he’s…he’s in the grand foyer, majesty.”

“If he’s so close, why won’t he answer when called? What could he be doing that he wouldn’t heed my call?”

Jack and Cami suddenly embraced each other and began to cry on each other’s shoulder.

Anna Beth looked confused and shocked by their sudden loss of composure until her mouth dropped open in realization.

“But…but he was…I trusted... We’ve had each other’s back since the…the early days…before…before Hathor.” She paused in thought, quickly wiping tears away. “No! That cannot be! He wouldn’t…he couldn’t!”

Jack lifted her head off Cami’s shoulder and turned to our hostess.

“He was carrying enough high explosive around his waist to destroy the entire royal suite, majesty. Cami and I are truly sorry, but we had orders to protect you at all costs.”

“We really didn’t want to do it, but according to his mind, he had less than a minute before detonation. Coerced or not, he had to be stopped, ma’am.” Cami added.

“Uhj had to be coerced! He would not do that voluntarily!” Anna Beth declared stalwartly.

“I guess we’ll never know, ma’am. He was a tough one to read- by Jack or me.” Cami replied.

Anna Beth remained silent as she looked at our two distraught Mind Warriors for several minutes.

“Thank you.” She finally managed, placing a hand to a shoulder on each. “You did Khufu and I a great service. I thank you for your dedication and timely defense.”

“Excuse me, mistress, but have you heard news of Aaron? He hasn’t reported to work. I’ve gone to his quarters, looked in his office, and even searched the grounds. I wondered if you knew of his whereabouts.” Sa’ra, the Residence’s Senior Cook asked as she bowed politely.

Anna Beth immediately looked back to Jack and Cami, who nodded sadly again. She inhaled deeply to calm herself.

“I’m afraid Aaron has chosen to resign due to the difficult political climate. He left the Residence early this morning carrying only what was on his person. He did not say where he was going, but I wished him luck and happiness all the same. He shall be missed in our new home.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, mistress. He was a good man- quiet, but good, nonetheless. The entire staff will miss him greatly.” Our cook sighed loudly.

“That being said, what can I make for you ladies this morning?”

We each gave the woman our requests and she hurried back to the kitchen to fill them.

“So…my two most trusted servants deceived me. Alexandra, how do we stand a chance in the procession today? I don’t think I can live with the results. How can I just…just leave knowing the cost? Are you sure we must proceed in this fashion?” Anna Beth asked as she waited for her fresh citrus drink. She wasn’t hungry for obvious reasons.

“The procession must take place. As I said before, the entire population must see Pharaoh, his royal court, and all loyalists approach and enter the tomb. None shall reappear. None shall rea…” I restated prophetically.

A glass shattered on the floor. Sa’ra stood like a statue, her mouth wide open and face pale as alabaster.

“Mistress, I don’t want to die!” She cried as she bent down to start picking up shards.

I stood, walked around the table, gently placed my hand on her shoulder, and urged her to stand.

“No one said that you are going to die. Have you forgotten that from last evening, Lady Sa’ra?” I told her calmly. “Yes, it will be a blood-bath along the processional route, but most of you will be safe inside the temple before that, hun.”

“But you said we won’t exit the tomb! You said ‘tomb’, Empress!” She argued.

“Tell me something, and I want you to be truthful. Do I look like an ‘Empress’, Lady Sa’ra? Do Allie and I act like any noble you’ve ever seen or served?” I asked the frightened woman.

“Had I not witnessed your arrival and departures several times, I would never believe you capable of such miracles, Empress.” She replied.

“Good, because things aren’t always the way they seem, Lady Sa’ra! Here is what I would like you to do. After everyone has had something to eat and cleaned up, have the staff and their families start to assemble here at eight. I suggest packing lightly- as if you were attending the royal family on an all residence holiday outing. You might also gather the supplies needed for such an outing. Understand?” I recommended.

“But if we are going to be locked away in a tomb…”

“Do you trust me, Lady Sa’ra?” I asked the middle-aged woman, seriously. “Have I done anything to lose your trust?”

“No, Empress.”

“Then trust me now, Lady Sa’ra. This turns out better than prophesized. Now leave this mess for me to clean.” I said with a bright smile, holding my hand out to accept the recovered shards.

As our cook hurried back into the kitchen, I reached out, dropped the pieces, and placed my hand above the complete, shattered remains.

“I’ve wanted to try this for awhile now.” I said excitedly. As I focused on the mess, the shards and liquid collected, reassembling as I slowly turned back time- specifically for the glass and its contents. It righted itself then rose off the floor and slowly gained height- exactly the reverse of how it happened originally. As it reached its original start point, I stopped my rewind of time, stopping the glass in mid-air. I then grasped the now completely intact beverage, released my localized, temporal stoppage, and walked back, confidently to the table.

“I believe this is yours, sister.” I said, handing the glass to Anna Beth with a broad, satisfied smile on my face.

“If that doesn’t qualify as showing off, I don’t know what would.” Jack commented jealously- still with a look of amazement etched on her face.

Anna Beth too, stared at me in disbelief, almost allowing the glass to slip from her hand.

Sa’ra appeared with Ricky Lynn’s order and stopped suddenly. She again looked ready to pass out as she looked to the floor where she had dropped the glass just a moment before. She then looked, confounded, at Anna Beth’s hand, before finally looking at me.

“I couldn’t see wasting it.” I said with a big smile as I pointed my finger at the serving tray she had just left fall out of her grasp. It hung there in midair- frozen in time.

The woman remained still and continued to stare at me.

“As I said, hun, things aren’t always what they appear.”

I waggled my finger in a single circular motion and the tray ‘rewound’ until, to her amazement, it was righted again.

“You really should be careful and concentrate on what you’re doing, Lady Sa’ra. I won’t always be around to offer assistance.”

The stunned woman slowly, carefully took possession of the food tray.

“Yes, Empress. Than…thank you, Empress.” She said as tears began running down her face.

“Lady Sa’ra?” I said after she began walking- mechanically- toward Ricky Lynn’s seat.

“Empress?”

“My name is Alex, hun- or Alexandra if you so wish. I’ve told y’all that enough times.”

She gave me a slight nod and a tense half-smile before serving Prof. Samuels’ meal.

“Alex, your nose.” Emily pointed out quietly. “You pushed too hard again, didn’t you?”

“If we don’t push our gifts, we’ll never know or reach our limits, sis. You of all people should have realized that earlier.” I responded as I dabbed at my upper lip.
 
 

0900hrs, Pharaoh’s Residence, Egypt, Day 2, 2510BC
 
 

“Alex, I think it’s time we started rounding everyone up.” Allie said as we watched the residence staff slowly assemble the requested stores. The pile of foodstuffs slowly grew along the wall nearest the kitchen.

“You get Peyton, Natalia, and the rest of their family. Anna Beth, you go with Allie; I’ll get Alusia and her bunch. Anna Beth, try to get all the staff together after Allie brings you back. Be aware that not everyone will show, instead wanting to take their chances in the crowd.”

“Are you sure about this, Alex?” Anna Beth asked as Allie and I stood and walked to the open section of the dining hall. We separated and put space between us.

“Prof. Samuels? You and Emily front and center, please?” I ordered while motioning them over to Allie and Anna Beth just before I attempted to open my trans-temporal comm link.

‘Alex calling Alusia.” I thought, hopefully opening the link to reach her yesterday.

‘Alex?’ Her voice replied in my mind. “Oh, thank the Gods! I was beginning to wonder if you had forgotten us.’

‘Pack some things for a brief trip- not too heavy though. You know the restrictions in place for Meridian. I’ll arrive precisely at 1000hrs tomorrow.” I thought to her.

‘Meridian? We’re leaving in Meridian 12? Wait! Alex, are you sure we’re talking the same time period?’Her concern was very evident in her voice.

‘When I am, the start of Pharaoh’s grand procession into the Sun Temple is an hour away.’

‘But that’s tomorrow morning on my end, Empress.’ She responded.

‘I didn’t want to surprise you. Be ready and see you tomorrow at ten.’ I said as I cut the link.

Reilly Research Station’s Rec Room appeared around me.

RVP, is Carroll Sheldon and Randi Van Pelt on site?” I asked the AI hoping my memories remained correct.

“Affirmative, Alex. Would you like me to notify them as to a possible meeting?”

“Yes, I’ll need them to meet me in my conference room in ten minutes, hun, thank you.”

“Acknowledged, Alex. Both women have been notified and are enroute.”

“Thanks, hun.” I said as I exited the room and headed for the elevator.
 
 

“You wanted to see us, Alex?” Carroll asked as she and Randi appeared at the open doorway to my private conference room.

“Come in and have a seat, ladies. I’d like to bounce a few things off you both.”

“Things, Alex?” Carroll asked narrowing her eyes in suspicion.

“I need specifics on the Gaza Beacon from you, Randi, and I need exact calculations from you, Carroll.”

“Sure, Alex, but why?” Randi wondered.

“Here’s what I need to have happen…” I said as I began to set out my plan to them.
 
 

A small, dimly lit room appeared around me. I had just arrived in the main equipment room for Pharaoh’s residence. From here the residence’s Meridian control system received and transmitted orders to every other computerized system in Greater Egypt.

“Meridian. Request voice authorization OakRidgeEmpress0816.” I announced as I rephased.
 
“Authorization for Alexandra, Empress of Time and Space accepted. How may I help you today, Alex?”

 
“I need you to do a few things for me, hun. Security override, Exodusday1-3-5-7-9-11-12-tango-tango-charlie-rho-omega-phi-tempest fugit- decode, alpha-alpha-omega-7-commit.” I said plainly and without emotion.
 
“Working…Top Secret security mode enabled, Empress. What is your command?” Meridian asked as her voice became monotone and ‘mechanical’
 
“First command. Establish communications with Giza Beacon Controller with no local mirror and no annunciation.”
 
“Communications channel established to GBC.”
 
“Second command. Jetison Main Transmitter Output WaveGuide protective Lens.”
 
“Jetison of MTOWGL complete and comfirmed with no local announcement.”
 
“Third Command. Request status of Sodium Hydroxide reserve and Granular Aluminum reserve.”
 
“Sodium hydroxide reserve steady at 53%. Refined Aluminum reserve at 67%.”
 
“Fourth Command. Increase reactant solution mixture ratio to three-point-four-four-one-eight, NaOH to one, Al.”
 
“Warning! Requested mixture ratio falls well above the established safe hydrogen generation limits! Do you still wish to readjust reactant mixture ratio?”
 
“Fifth Command. Confirm and initiate.”
 
“Hydrogen generation reactor component ratio has been reset to requested levels.”
 
“Sixth command. Disable all local reactant controls and disable all local alarms.”
 
“Disabling local reactant supply controls and warnings. Manual controls offline.”
 
“Seventh Command. Increase main transmitter gain feedback to positive-point-nine-nine-nine-nine-six-one-one-nine-six-one-two.”
 
“Warning! Feedback value exceeds recommended beta feedback limits! Main transmitter oscillation and runaway imminent in four hours and thirteen minutes! Do you still wish to readjust Main Transmitter Beta?”
 
“Eighth Command. Confirm and initiate.” I confirmed and swallowed hard as I mentally dispersed my doubt.
 
“Main Transmitter Beta setting can only be adjusted by authorized personnel. Enter valid identification and passcode.”
 
“Nineth command. OakRidgeEmpress0816, Override infinity.”
 
“Valid authorization confirmed. Passcode confirmed. Main Transmitter Beta has been reset to requested value.” Meridian Control reported.

 
“Tenth Command.” I announced, but stopped to close my eyes and nervously wet my lips. I took a deep breath. “Disconnect all Static and Lightning Suppression Devices from Earth Ground except for lightning arrestor at location nearest MTOWGL.”
 
“Warning! Disengagement of SLSD and MTGL safety systems could result in static or natural potential discharge and possibly cause detonation of hydrogen resonance medium! Valid authorization and passcode needed to disconnect all high potential arresting devices?”

 
A tear ran down my cheek.
 
“Eleventh Command. OakRidgeEmpress0816, Override infinity.”
 
“Valid authorization confirmed. Passcode confirmed. Proceed with instruction?”
 
“Twelth command. Yes.”
 
“All high potential arresting devices except those specified have been removed from Earth Ground.”
 
“Thirteenth Command. Re-enable Local Alarm annunciation in three-point-seven-five hours.”
 
“Re-enabling Local Alarms in three hours-forty-four-minutes-and thirty-eight seconds.”
 
“Fourteenth Command. Delete last thirteen command requests from controller log.”
 
“GBC command log redacted.”

 
“Fifteenth command. Disconnect remote communication to Giza Beacon Controller.”
 
“Communication channel to GBC detached.”
 
I quickly wiped my eyes dry.

“Meridian Control, reassert OS-VUI, OakRidgeEmpress0816, Frank-Oscar-Romeo-George-Ida-Victor-Edward, confirm, Michael-Edward, enable.”

I promptly phased out and moved to my next objective.
 
 

A small, but comfortable looking, living room appeared around me. Two, young, teen-aged girls dropped their knapsacks to the floor to my left. Both girls had suddenly stopped, stood straight, and looked to each other.

“Do you feel that, Ana?” The older said, beginning to look around nervously.

“That disturbance and the sudden chill? Yes, what does it mean?” The younger girl, Ana answered, as she too looked around the room, frightened.

I opened my temporal comm link back up.

‘Alusia, I’m here, but don’t want to frighten the kids. Care to warn them I’m by the front door, hun?’ I thought.

“Momma says to get away from the front door, Lexie an’ Ana!” A younger boy of about ten shouted as he ran out of the archway to the rest of the house.

“Lusius, not so loud, and I didn’t quite say that, darling. I said to tell your sisters to stay clear of the entranceway.” Alusia said rushing in after him.

“Why do that, mother?” the oldest, Alexis, asked curiously. “Does this have something to do with the strange feeling Ana and I just got?”

Alusia looked at her two daughters curiously.

“Alexandra has arrived and she does not want to frighten you, so move back toward me and watch.” Alusia told them, motioning for her children to retreat from the doorway.

“Alusia, dearest, what is happening? I heard shouting out here.” Khefra, Alusia’s husband and nephew to Pharaoh asked as he appeared behind her.

“Alexandra has arrived, my dearest.”

“Oh? I don’t see…”

I rephased just inside the front door.

“Wooooahhh!” All three children exclaimed. Khefra wiped his eyes in disbelief.

“Empress. Welcome to our home.” He said as he fell to his knees. His three children followed suit.

“Knock it off, you know that’s not necessary.” I giggled.

“But you are the Empress. Why would you not want homage or respect paid to you?” Young Alexis questioned in confusion.

“Because hun, I’m no different than anyone else. Just because I have a gift, doesn’t mean I should treat anyone, or be treated, differently.”

“You were right, momma, she is amazing…pretty too!” Her boy said staring at me in awe.

“Hurry and get your bag, Lusius. We mustn’t keep Alexandra waiting.” Alusia patted her son’s shoulder gently.

“But Momma, I don’t want to leave! I have friends here that like me. I have a boyfriend.” Alexis looked at me. “Is he coming too, Empress?”

“I’m afraid he isn’t.” I replied sadly.

“Then I don’t want to go!” Alexis huffed and stamped her foot. “You can’t stop me, Empress! Momma says you can’t stop me if I’ve made up my mind!” She shouted as she ran past her Ma and Pa into the back of the dwelling.

“Now where have I seen this before?” I deadpanned as I rubbed my chin several times.

Khefra began to laugh. “I have noticed the similarities many times over the years, Empress. The two are more alike than they will admit.”

“Remember when I told you that you don’t know when to stay quiet, my dear? This was one of those times.” Alusia growled. “We will be ready in a few minutes, Alex. We will be going straight to Meridian I assume?”

“The royal family must be seen in the procession, I’m afraid.” I said sadly.

“You WILL take the children straight to the Spacecraft, Alexandra!” Khefra declared. “There is no compromise in that regard!”

“Then you better catch your oldest before she exits the house from the rear, hun.” I suggested before snapping my fingers and smiling. I walked past the stunned couple noticing that Ana and Lusius were right on my heels. Alusia and Khefra fell in line behind them. We all headed for the dwelling’s back door.

A headstrong Alexis stood frozen in time just reaching for the latch on the rear gate in the small back yard of their home.

“Woooow, Ana, check that out! Lexie isn’t moving! Empress, what did you do to her? Did you turn her into a statue?” Young Lusius bubbled excitedly.

“Alexandra? What did you do to my daughter?” Alusia asked cautiously as she stared at her stationary daughter.

“Localized temporal disruption. I had to stop her before you lost her forever, sister.

“So…there is some grand plan for her, similar to our first meeting?” Alusia asked tersely.

“Yes,” I answered. “I did it to guarantee a family’s continued happiness. As I told a certain someone so long ago, I can only guide someone to make the right choices in their life. I cannot make them do anything they feel strongly against.” I paused as I saw Alusia begin to open her mouth. I now stood next to young Alexis.

“However,” I continued, not allowing her to interrupt. “Her parents can and should do everything possible to ensure her the best possible chance for survival and her future happiness!” I said angrily as I reached out and touched the teen’s shoulder.

Alexis suddenly jumped in fright, her knapsack automatically dropping to the ground.

“I wasn’t done talking to you, hun. Neither were your Ma and Pa. Let’s continue our conversation inside, shall we?” I suggested to the horrified girl- my grip on her shoulder tight and unyielding.

“Lexie, come back inside, dear. It’s become too dangerous to be out in the open. Memphis isn’t as safe as it once was. The grandnieces and grandnephew of Pharaoh are in danger.” Alusia tried to reason with her daughter.

“I don’t want to go, momma! End of story! I’m leaving and going to Abel’s house!”

“Would his parents know you are coming, Lexie?” I asked.

“They don’t have a problem with me staying there. Abel’s father said he’d love to have me stay!” She shouted belligerently.

“And pray-tell, what is Abel’s father’s name, pumpkin?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“It’s Aaron, your hein-ass!” she hissed insolently. “He works for my uncle…Pharaoh!”

“Honey, sorry to break this to you, but your boyfriend’s father was killed this morning as he attempted to assassinate your Aunt and Uncle. The authorities have arrested Abel, his Mother, and siblings in Alexandria where they were trying to board a boat for Crete.

“You’re lying! Abel wouldn’t do that to me! He loves me! He said so!” She shouted.

“Ask your father, hun.” I said nodding to Khefra, who took out his private comm device quickly and tapped its face several times. I released my hold of time as he did so. His mouth dropped open as he read the information on the small screen.

“Alexandra is right, Lexie. Abel’s father is suspected in an assassination attempt of Pharaoh and his queen. He has yet to be found. Abel and his family are being detained in Alexandria pending an investigation.”

“Alex, is Jacquelyn with you?” Alusia asked as her face paled even more.

“Jack and Camille both.” I admitted. “They were on Pharaoh’s protective detail over night.”

Alusia swallowed loud and hard, and greedily snatched her daughter and husband’s hands.

“Get inside! Alexis, you will get in that house this instant, young lady, and you will not utter a peep until told to do so! Now get in there! SCHNELL!” My sister snarled in anger to the girl.

A horrified Khefra broke free of Alusia’s grasp, grabbed his defiant, unmoving daughter roughly about the waist, and carried her, kicking and screaming, back into the house while constantly looking around in paranoia.

“Alex, I didn’t think it had gone so far. What do you wish us to do?” Alusia asked still looking quite pale.

“Let’s get everyone inside. That’s the most important thing right now.” I told her as I tried herding my sister and her two remaining, confused, children to the back door.

Once inside, Alusia kept a tight rein on her oldest while Khefra finished packing. Within minutes we stood holding hands in the small living room- the family’s gear piled in front of us.

“For those of you not familiar with traveling with the Empress, the trip is instantaneous and painless. Please remain holding hands until told otherwise.” I said, giving my standard announcement. Alusia glared at her oldest as she held the teen’s hand tightly.

The brightly lit interior of an Egyptian temple appeared around us.

“Woooooahhh!” Lusius and Ana exclaimed as they looked around in wonder. Even Lexi seemed sufficiently impressed.

“Okay, everyone can let go, now.” I said having rephased us.

“Meridian, have the doctor and chief engineer arrived yet?”

“Yes they have, Alexandra. The pilot and navigator are onboard also.” The ship answered to the kids’ amazement.

“What is this thing, Empress?” Ana asked inquisitively.

“I am the Terran Interstellar Space Probe, Meridian 12.”

“You’re a spaceship?”Alexis asked in surprise.

“I am the Terran Interstellar Space Probe, Meridian 12.”

“Why is it so small?” Young Alexis asked in a snarky tone.

“Looks can be deceiving, hun. You’d best remain silent until you get inside. Meridian, you remember Alusia, right?” I asked.

“Yes I do, Alex. Welcome back, Lady Alusia.” The ship greeted happily.

“You’ve been in this thing, momma?” Young Alexis cried in surprise.

“About seventeen years ago, Lexie.” Alusia said proudly. At first I was reluctant to enter her, but the Empress remained adamant that I come along.” Alusia began to explain before she seemed to get choked up. “It was the greatest decision I’ve ever made. Had I not, none of you would have been born. This marvelous piece of engineering is where my new, wonderful, life started.”

Both young girls sighed almost reverently, while young Lusius wrinkled his nose in disgust. ‘Eeeewww.”

I gave a quick laugh.

“Sister, would you care to do the honors?” I asked as I motioned to the opening outer hatch. Emily appeared and exited, quickly making her way to us.

“Welcome back, Alusia, we’ve been expecting you.” She greeted brightly.

After quick introductions, we all went inside carrying the family’s gear.

“Momma! Are you seeing this? It’s bigger on the inside! How can that be?” Young Lusius cried excitedly as the door opened onto the Bridge.

“Miss Samuels, report.” I said as Natalia, Peyton, and Ricky Lynn stood to attention. Two other people were on the bridge also- Ahm-Shu and a young woman resembling Persephone.

“Aunt Natalia! Sephie, Syth, Uncle Ahm-Shu, Why are you here? Are you coming along with Alexandra too?” Young Lusius interrupted as he ran to his Great Aunt.

“Someone has to navigate and fly her, sweetie. I used to be Meridian’s pilot, but I’m getting too old for the hot seat so I passed it off to Sephie.”

“Miss Samuels?”

“Engineering pre-flight completed, Ex-O- awaiting further orders.” She replied crisply.

“Navigation?”

“Nav sensors cal’d and syncro’d with present day star maps of this sector, ma’am.” Natalia reported professionally

“Thank you.”

“Helm, Subcommander?” I asked loudly.

“Pre-flight complete. Helm standing by, Cmdr Steinert.” Peyton responded.

“Medical.”

“Infirmary is stocked and ready should the need arise, Commander.” Emily answered professionally.

“Meridian, power status.”

“Fuel cells at ninety-seven percent. Full thrust for orbital insertion is available on command, Cmdr. Steinert.”

“Acknowledged.” I responded.

“Wooooow! You’re good, Empress!” Lusius exclaimed excitedly, his eyes wide in wonder as he stared at me.

“While I’m on this ship its ‘Commander Steinert’, son, understand?” I said sternly.

“Yes, ma’am, Commander!” The boy said as he stood to attention and saluted.

“We don’t salute indoors, son.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Lusius shouted.

“Lt. Samuels, you’re on baby-sitting duty till we get back. Make sure that one,” I pointed, threateningly, to young Alexis, “stays put- and keep them all away from the consoles.”

“Wow…thanks skipper. What’d I do to piss you off today?” Ricky Lynn griped.

“Lieutenant, she’s in love with a fugitive, remind you of anyone?” I asked calmly.

“So how old are you anyway, Lieutenant? All of seventeen?” Lexie hissed condescendingly as she regarded Ricky Lynn.

“Just turned a hundred and thirty, sweet-cheeks. Now mind yer elders, yer manners, and take yer seat.” Ricky Lynn pointed to the closest seat. “An keep yer mitts off the console, lest ya want them fancy-painted fingers broke!”

“Alusia, time for you, Khefra, Natalia, Ahm-Shu, and Seph to come with me. Emily, I’m going to need you too.” I said holding out my hands. “Sythia, stay with Lt. Samuels and help keep a watchful eye on your cousins.”

Peyton’s older sister groaned as she glared at her younger cousins.

Once we were linked, Pharaoh’s residence appeared around us. We were in the Dining Hall again. Now it was crowded with the residence staff and their families. Allie appeared a short distance away.

“Excuse me, everyone! At this time I need all families of the on duty staff to join this Alexandra’s hands for transport to the temple.” Anna Beth announced to the crowd, pointing to Allie. “Your loved ones will arrive there shortly.”

“I’ll get the staff’s families and supplies to the temple, Alex. You really need to get Khufu, the Royal family, and the remaining staff to the Temple Prep area.”

“Good luck, sis, I’ll see you in an hour.” I said with a smile. Sadly, I also noticed a certain little girl from last night and her parents were not in the group.

The population of the hall decreased drastically.

“Alex, we are still waiting for my mate and our son to arrive.” Anna Beth said as she came over and hugged Alusia then Khefra, Natalia, Ahm-Shu, and Seph.

“We aren’t anymore, my Queen.” Khufu said as he and Djedefre entered the room.

“I’m sorry, mother; I had some last minute business to take care of.” Djedefre apologized.

“Yes, I’ll bet you did, hun.” I said looking at him skeptically.

“I did, Alex! It is my responsibility to make sure the temple is sealed. The masons wanted paid up front.” Djedefre defended.

“Fine. Are we ready to get this procession started then?” I asked, trying to hide my fear of what was to come.

Everyone remaining in the Dining Room joined hands. The large linen tent set at the beginning of the wide, gracefully curving, cut stone street appeared around us. After moving some people out of the ceremonial litter and a pile of palm fronds, I rephased our large group.

The tent and its occupants- us- seemed heavily protected as all around the tent’s fabric walls, the bright sun revealed the silhouettes of Khufu’s formally dressed royal guards.

“Meridian command crew, formal ceremonial dress.” Anna Beth ordered. Natalia, Seph, and Emily’s clothing changed quickly. Cami, Jack, and I had changed earlier, before I went for Alusia and her family.

The tent flap opened and the captain of the royal guard entered and stood to attention.

“Supreme Administrator; my Queen; the people are waiting.” He said softly as Khufu and Anna Beth stared at what they thought a ghost.

Both looked back to me with thankful tears and bowed. I bowed back.

Captain, have your families been escorted into the temple as instructed?” I asked.

“They have, Empress. Are you sure they will be safe?”

“Safer than we are at the moment, I’m afraid. Have the litter bearers assembled?” I answered.

“Waiting outside, ma’am.” He answered with a wink. “Shall I send them in?”

“Not yet, captain, Anna Beth and I must ready ourselves.” Khufu said as his personal valet handed him his ceremonial headdress.

“I wish my great-great-great grandfather had never designed these audacious things.” He said as he adjusted the two-foot conical headdress so that it would stay put. His valet helped fasten the Pharaoh’s broach around his neck.

“I almost forgot how heavy this thing was.” Khufu complained holding the large round, gold scarab broach in his hand.

Alusia assisted Anna Beth with her own headdress and royal broach.

“Does this make my head look too big?” Anna Beth wisecracked nervously.

“Wow, you really do look like a bonified Queen, hun.” I giggled as I reached into my small, linen purse, pulled out my mission broach, and placed it around my neck.

Anna Beth looked at me like I had just found her guilty of high treason and sentenced her to hang!

“Oh, so you found it.” She said quietly, nodding to the broach.

“And I think it’s absolutely beautiful, hun, thank you both.” I said with a bright smile.

“Something is missing though, Empress.” She said looking me over several times. She began to motion a hand to her head.

“Okay, I get it,” I said getting her meaning. Reaching into my purse again, I pulled out my tiara and placed it carefully on my head. I quickly turned it on and checked the power level. Both pieces of finery indicated ‘Fully charged’.

“Are we ready now, my Queen?” I asked restlessly.

Khufu’s mouth dropped open as he stopped fussing, turned, and gazed at me. Anna Beth elbowed him quickly.

“Have them enter.” Khufu ordered the captain of the guard as he and Anna Beth stepped up into the ornately decorated, white linen canopied litter. Anna Beth looked around to me momentarily, the look of uncertainty very evident.

Four very strong, strapping, young men I recognized as groundskeepers entered the tent and took position on each of the four poles of the litter.

The conveyance began to lift off the ground on its own and the four men looked around in shock.

“We thought you guys could use a little help.” Jack said as she and Cami smiled deviously. Hovering to a suitable height, all four cautiously stepped under his assigned pole. The royal litter settled down gently onto their shoulders.

“Jack, I want a protective shield around the whole group as soon as everyone is out in the open. Cami, you’re on surveillance. I want to know the instant you pick up any intrusion close to Jack’s barrier. I want the Royal guard notified and protected too, Jack.

“Aye, ma’am!” They both chorused.

“Emily.” I said pulling her over to the side. “That young girl from last night- you remember her?” I asked.

“The brave one?”

I nodded. “Scan the crowd for her. She and her parents will be somewhere near the halfway point. Something will happen and we need to…”

“I saw the same thing, sis. I’ll alert Cami the instant I find her.” My sister assured with a smile. I nodded.

‘Jack, Cami, testing, one, two, three.’ I thought.

‘Read you loud and clear, Alex.’ Jack thought back.

‘Transmission received and acknowledged.’ Cami thought to me.

I nodded to each of them. “Ready, my Queen.” I said with a bow.

Anna Beth rolled her eyes at me. “Onward. Pharaoh grows impatient.” She commanded royally, but couldn’t help giggle nervously.

Khufu rolled his eyes at his mate.

The side of the tent opened wide and Pharaoh’s royal litter began its long, danger-fraught progress up the two percent grade to the Sun Temple. Djedefre, Khefra, and Ahm-Shu fell in directly behind Khufu and Anna Beth. Natalia, Persephone, and I followed. Emily, Alusia, then Cami, and Jack fell in line behind us.

As we exited the large tent, three of Pharaoh’s guard preceded the Royal Litter and the rest of the Royal Guard lined up on either side and peeled off to form an equally spaced, moving barrier at the curbs of the wide Causeway. When I looked back I could see that the attending staff members had fallen in behind my sisters.

“And so starts the final journey of Khufu, Great Pharaoh of Egypt.” I whispered sadly to myself.

“Is it really going to be that bad, Alex?” Sunni asked from my right shoulder. I had almost forgotten about the two pixies.

“Like leading lambs to slaughter, Colonel.” Yuuka answered from my left.

‘Cami, have all the staff cleared the tent yet?’ I thought to her.

‘Aye, commander, the royal procession is clear of all obstacles.’

‘Deploy the shield, Jack. Be ready to drop it temporarily on my command.’

‘Aye, commander, on your order.’ She acknowledged.

“Pixie One and Two, you are cleared for takeoff. Good hunting, ladies.” I said quietly. My tiny sisters immediately took to the air, circled me once, and quickly vectored off in opposite directions.

I began to concentrate on what I would have to do. It was going to push my gift far beyond anything I had done to this point.

‘Commander, we have incoming at three o’clock- a small explosive round- half a kilo.’ Cami reported as I quickly enabled my suit’s tactical display. ‘Commander…orders?’

Already?

‘Standby.’ I thought to her calmly.

I waited until the projectile was almost on us.

‘Now Jack. Drop the field now!’ I thought as I triggered my own gift.

The projectile’s tell-tale smoke trail passed harmlessly straight through the Royal carriage and impacted into the crowd on the spectator side of the Processional Causeway. A large explosion and screams assaulted our ears immediately.

Anna Beth’s head snapped around to me in terror.

‘Shield up.’ I thought back to Jack. ‘And please tell the queen to remain regal and not show her fear.’

‘Alex, what in the world did you just do?’ she thought back.

‘What I have to do to make this right.’ I answered simply.

Two minutes later, Cami reported another small shell inbound from the Cliffside. Again Jack dropped her shield and I partially phased out our large procession. As before, the ordinance passed right through us and exploded into the unsuspecting crowd on the left side.

A tear slowly rolled down my cheek at the carnage happening around us.

“Why don’t they give up, Alex? They have to know there is no way to win.” Emily asked sadly.

I angled my head back to her.

“It won’t stop till they deplete their arsenal or Pharaoh is dead. This is just the beginning, sis.” I answered with disappointment.

“Alex, your nose.” Emily replied as her eyes bulged. “Don’t do it, sis.”

I turned back around. Immediately, my HUD alerted me of more target locks.

‘Incoming, three and five!’ Cami reported in the same instant.

Again Jack and I repeated our sequence. Once again many innocent people along the Causeway lost their lives.

Once more, I felt a tear trickle down my face. I also felt a warm liquid on my upper lip. My tongue immediately went to investigate…more blood. My hand quickly removed the evidence.

“Alex, there’s a landmine dead ahead!” Emily shouted. She was apparently really tuned into her gift at the moment.

“Damn, not fast enough!” Cami spat angrily out loud.

The explosion, though deflected, opened a hole in the Royal guard directly ahead of Pharaoh’s litter. Two men had instantly lost their lives. Another lay critically injured. It was enough to stop our procession and also left us exposed.

As the Captain of the guard checked the third man’s vitals, Allie suddenly appeared, motioned for him to step away, looked at our procession momentarily, placed her hand on the severely wounded man, and vanished.

‘Cami, ‘Warrior’ mode.’ I heard Jack say in my mind. I looked back in time to see Jack and Cami’s linen gowns become full-fledged Xena costumes. Xena? Where did I get that from, I wondered?

Both women jogged past us and took up position ahead of the Royal Litter bearers. All to our royals’ amazement.

From the perspective of the crowd, the two deceased guards’ dual weapons flew magically into each of our Mind Warriors’ awaiting hands. Jack and Cami spun the newly acquired weapons in front of them extremely fast for several seconds before placing them over their shoulders, crisscrossed, on their backs like dual-wielding battle swords.

The rattled, but astonished captain of the guard nodded his head at Jack and ordered us to proceed. We all moved off to the side to avoid the deep crater left by the explosion.

I tried not to look at the remains and bloodstained stones as I carefully walked past them. More tears escaped my eyes. I hadn’t been quick enough to protect our forward guard this time.

One hundred yards further along the inclined, stone Causeway, several large blocks lifted up magically then re-settled themselves after a medium –sized object floated out and up. Jack immediately reached over her back, pulled one of her newly acquired weapons, and pointed to the sharply climbing object. A burst of blue plasma fired from the tip of the ceremonial weapon. An explosion high overhead signified Cami had found another landmine.

‘Incoming on our six!’ Cami shouted in my head.

‘Now, Jack.’ I thought quickly.

The strange feeling of something flying directly through me indicated that I was successful in my phasing this time- and that a new weapon had found it’s way into the dissidents’ arsenal. This rocket had a temporal distortion generator!

According to the smoke trail, the projectile had veered off course to starboard and explosively impacted somewhere below on the Cliffside.

“Alex, I found her!” Emily alerted me excitedly as I wondered how many of these new ‘temporal’ weapons Cleamson had built and left behind.

“Alex, I found the little girl from last night! Her parents…they didn’t make it.” Sunni reported. I hadn’t felt or seen her land on my right shoulder.

“Head back to her and cover Emily.”

“Rodger that, Empress One.” She said before quickly flying off. Emily had already phased out and was probably half way to the girl by now.

‘Alex, Emily just rephased at the site of that previous explosion. She found a little girl! She’s in bad shape, Alex. Emily said she’ll do what she can, but the girl needs the Infirmary.’ Cami reported.

‘So noted. Divert Dr. Scott to Meridian, ASAP.’ I ordered.

‘Aye, Commander. Empress Two is on the scene. We have more incoming, Alex- three-sixty!’

“Shit!” I growled as I phased us out instantly. This time I varied my phasing in a rolling, repeating fashion, just in case.

All around us Jack’s shield, which I hadn’t ordered her to drop, glistened and pulsed with a bright bluish hue. Anna Beth looked around at me from her seat high up in the Royal Litter. Her face betrayed her fright, but also showed her astonishment by the sudden light show. She quickly faced forward again.

I counted ten exhaust trails crisscross our location; half exploded into the crowds to our left.

Pharaoh Khufu and Queen Anna Beth remained regal and indifferent as the procession continued closer to ‘safety’. I knew they were far from being calm and indifferent at the moment.

Again, I wiped my upper lip dry of the blood that I felt there.

Several more paving blocks lifted along several yards of Causeway ahead of us. This time, though, an explosion went off a hundred or so yards off and below on our left.

‘Found the owners of that one.’ Cami thought to me. ‘Thought I’d return their property to them.’

Dual, blue plasma balls flew from in front of Pharaoh and vectored off behind us. Two explosions, one on either side of the Causeway echoed back.

‘Scratch ten more bad guys.’ Cami thought. There was a definite sadness in her voice though.

We were now over half way to the temple. I looked around to see how the staff was doing, only to find my premonition confirmed. The group had thinned.

‘We lost some people.’ I thought.

‘Assassins, Commander. Every time Jack lowers her shield a couple more get jumped.’ Cami thought back.

‘Jack, keep the shield up around all of us.’

‘But, Alex…’

‘That’s an order, commander.’

‘Aye, Cap.’

‘More incoming! Small arms fire only!’ Cami shouted.

Again the shield protecting us shimmered and pulsed as I took us slightly out of phase just in case. Jack’s shield twinkled as the projectiles hit and vaporized.

‘Heavy ordinance incoming!’ Cami cried out in my head.

I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF THIS!” I shouted angrily.

The world around our processional group seemed to slow down noticeably. It then stopped.

Cami, can you take care of those shells, please?” I shouted.

Twenty explosions erupted overhead from all sides.

Anna Beth and Khufu turned to stare down at me. Their expressions reflected both fear and admiration. Anna Beth’s mascara was starting to streak badly. I called for her personal maid and asked her to repair the smudges.

“But Empress…what has happened to the onlookers? Why is no one moving?”

“Because I’ve stopped time for them- something I can’t do for very long. I suggest you fix Anna Beth’s face before I pass out.” I answered with a warning.

“At once, Empress.” She said as she scurried up to the litter.

The woman quickly, but carefully reapplied Anna Beth’s makeup after being assisted onto the litter by either Jack or Cami and stopped as she passed me on her way back to her place in line.

“Empress, you bleed heavily from the nose!”

“The sooner you get back in line, the sooner I can restart time around us, and we can get this procession going again, hun. Please…hurry back.” I more or less pleaded.

Finally, I left my grasp on time relax. I quickly brought my arm up to my face to let my suit remove and recover the blood from my face.

Time began moving again.

‘Alex, Ricky Lynn wants to know ‘what the hell just happened’? She reported that Meridian’s temporal anomaly sensors just went wild.’

‘Tell her it couldn’t be helped, Jack. Too many incoming, too fast. I had to buy us some time. Get the procession going again, hun.’ I thought back.

Apparently my stoppage of time had bypassed the temple. Something I hadn’t intended but had pondered briefly.

We began to move again.
 
 

We were now three quarters of the way to the temple.

‘Commander, we have…’

‘Got ‘em, hun.” I interrupted as Jack’s shield lit up in a pulsing, bright bluish glow again. I now felt the strain beginning to take its toll on me. If only one of my sisters was close by so I could ask permission and link to their energy.

“Alex, Jacquelyn suggested you take my hand, sister. You have my permission to supplement with my reserves.” Alusia said as she grasped my hand firmly.

Nodding, I imagined a valve with her name on it and opened it a quarter turn.

Alusia cried out in pain. I immediately eased up the draw from her.

“No, Empress, if you need so much you are more than welcome, please take what you need. It is the least I can do for you.” She assured me with a tight little smile.

I notched the imaginary valve open one more click. Alusia noticeably flinched as she felt the increase. Though it didn’t help that much, I was grateful she had agreed to help.

My HUD showed five target locks in five different directions. I had to try something else- something I had been tossing around in my brain since this whole deadly procession started.

What if, I surmised, I could stop time for individual objects, such as a rocket grenade or some other ordinance? If I stopped time in their specific locality for just long enough, I might cause them to pass harmlessly- in relation to us in the procession- behind us?

I decided to try.

Pointing to each individual projectile, I commanded them to stop before hitting Jack’s shield.

Alusia gasped as she looked into the sky around us.

“Mein Gott, Alex, was machst du? Ich hätte nie gedacht, Sie so viel Macht geboten. Wussten Sie eigentlich aufhören Zeit wie sie sich auf diese Raketen? (My God, Alex, what are you doing? I never thought you commanded so much power. Did you actually stop time as it relates to those rockets?)” She cried out in German.

Ignoring her astonishment, I watched my HUD to see when it was safe to release.

Five rockets fell into the crowd and detonated on the port side of the Causeway behind us.

I had to use my newfound talent several more times before we arrived at the temple steps. Doing that actually allowed me to conserve some energy.

Fervent applause from the loyalists keeping close to the temples base filled our ears as we neared and stopped at the bottom of the temple staircase. Cami and Jack now ascended the granite steps and took their places on the same pedestals they had occupied yesterday. Their stoic expressions when they turned in unison and stared down at the crowd even frightened me! Both my Mind Warriors were well past pissed and eagerly, impatiently awaited my order to rein down Valhalla on all the ungrateful insurgents. Somehow, I knew they had been keeping tabs on every one of them and their locations!

All I would have to say would be…

Even thinking that would extinguish hundreds- if not thousands of lives- innocent or otherwise.

Once stopped at the base of the steps the Royal Litter gently raised off the four bearers’ shoulders. They stepped out from under the poles and Pharaoh and his Queen gently settled to the ground. Khufu cautiously stood, looked around, and stepped down. Offering his hand to Anna Beth, her visibly shaking hand gently took his and Pharaoh helped his Queen off the litter.

I felt a tug on both earlobes. “Pixie One and Two have returned to the hanger and are standing hot for further instructions, Empress One.” Sunni reported. I nodded slightly in acknowledgement. Alusia and Natalia walked forward and joined their husbands.

“Thank you, my loyal employees,” Khufu said, deeply saddened as the staff gathered between him and the steps. He looked to the litter bearers.

“At this time I give you four a choice.” He removed his ornate headpiece and assisted Anna Beth to remove her’s. They were placed back on the litter reverently. “You and your families are welcome to come with us to our new home, or you can take this reward and settle outside the strife that will become Egypt. Anna Beth and I will not feel insulted or resentful either way. We all understand that your decisions are your own and respect whichever option you select.” Khufu said then approached each young man and embraced them before climbing back onto the Royal carriage and lifting the bench’s cushion.

All four pairs of eyes burst open in wonderment of the riches hidden within. Two of the men visibly shook their heads, stepped back, and looked through the crowd of family gathered, choosing to reunite with their families instead of accepting the riches. The other two men began stuffing the revealed treasure into any pockets or space they could find. Having no more room, they cautiously, but quickly slunk off and disappeared through the staff into the onlookers beside the stone Causeway.

Khefra and Djedefre now motioned for the gathered staff to proceed into the temple. As they passed, the family members that choose to remain outside rejoined them. The un-reunited family members began to cry and wail loudly realizing they had been widowed or orphaned.

Anna Beth’s head bowed in sorrow and she began wiping tears from her face.

“Please,” Khufu urged. “Everyone coming with us…into the temple. Once through the gateway you will be escorted to safety.

“But my wife,” asked one man, tears visibly rushing down his face?

Khufu dropped his gaze to the granite beneath his feet.

“I’m so sorry, sir. There were heavy casualties.” He apologized to the man.

My gift AND HUD lit up like a Christmas tree!

NOOOOO!” I shouted at the top of my lungs as I turned toward the oncoming assault.

Again, all munitions stopped! To my surprise, the remnants of my shout echoed for some time.

Hundreds of exhaust trails hung, frozen in time, on their course headed straight for us.

Everyone inside the protective barrier gasped at the spectacle and stopped what they were doing.

“ITS ARCADE TIME, SIS!” Jack shouted in gruesome excitement from higher above us. Both retrieved their dual weapons and started shooting ‘Rambo-style’. Where did I get that reference?

Warheads started exploding in the air over us.

“Like fish in a barrel!” Cami shouted back evilly.”When will these losers understand that they’re just urinating us negatively?”

Jack just laughed as she continued firing. “I know, right?”

“Ladies and gentlemen please hurry into the temple. You will be safe inside.” Khufu pleaded.

“We’ll also be dead, old man!” Someone shouted angrily.

I turned around and glared directly at the insolent male voice. Though I knew it was fear driving him, I felt my temper start to rise. With my heightened anger, I felt an unexpected surge of energy fill me.

“You are here with Pharaoh! Either way you will be dead! Your only choice is whether it will be a painful death here in Egypt or a peaceful, natural death after many years in your new home!” I growled loudly- my voice echoing eerily. “Choose now, before I loose time on this place once more!”

The young man’s face paled noticeably as he looked at me in horror. What? Did they think it was a natural phenomena- time suddenly stopping around them?

“Don’t be an ass! Get into the temple!” I shouted as I felt my mysterious surge of energy start to balance out. I also started to feel lightheaded.

“Alex! Your ear- it’s bleeding!” Yuuka shouted from my left shoulder. I had already opened both Pixie’s valves more than three quarters.

“Oh God, Alex, you have to back off! You’re gonna die if you don’t!” Sunni shouted frantically.

“Not until everyone is safe inside.”

People began to run up the steps and into the temple.

“Get inside girls. Help oversee Meridian’s loading.” I said softly to the pixies on my shoulders. I made a mental note to apologize for shouting. Yuuka and Sunni shot from my shoulders and headed straight for the temple gateway. I immediately felt the load increase drastically and released time for the shattered ordinance.

Once again bluish pulses lit up Jack’s shield as the shards and shrapnel fell into it and vaporized.

I turned around to face the throngs that had gathered for the procession. Using my HUD, I monitored the progress of people entering the gateway.

“Alex,” Khufu said as I felt him touch my left shoulder. I felt him move my hair away from my ear and inhale deeply, suddenly. There was a delay before he said anything else. “I’d like to say something to the people before our departure.”

“I saw as much, sire. Let your followers find safety though, before the final act commences.” I told him without the slightest emotion. It was taking almost everything I had to maintain consciousness, yet I still had one miracle to pull off.

“Mother, I don’t think you should be down here! You should be in the temple.” Djedefre argued from behind us.

“I will not leave your father’s side, Djedefre. This is where I belong.” Anna Beth argued back.

“Then here is where I shall stay- beside my mother and father- to the end!” The young man countered tenaciously. Anna Beth and Djedefre passed on my right while Khufu passed on my left. They moved closer and joined hands in front of me.

‘Alex, all passengers are safe within the temple. Alusia, Natalia, and Peyton are proceeding with boarding’, Cami reported in my mind. I noticed her volume was lower than usual.

“Sire, all passengers are safe in the temple.” I alerted the Supreme Administrator.

The noise from the crowd was mixed. Crying, moaning, shouts of anger, and a few cheers filled the air around us.

Everyone in visual range reached for his or her foreheads as everything quieted.

“My people,” Khufu began, “As of daybreak this day, I have resigned my position as Supreme Administrator of this great society. It is with great sadness and a heavy heart that I now follow my assigned path and begin my journey into the heavens. I pray that everyone finds the life that I have not been able to provide you. I bid you all farewell and good fortune in all endeavors. May all your families find peace and strength in the upcoming years.”

The majority of the crowd began to shout obscenities and throw things at us. That quick turn of attitude stabbed my last nerve.

I rudely pushed myself forward between Anna Beth and Djedefre and stopped several steps in front.

"YOU ALL SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELVES!" I shouted.

Several shouts of ‘shut up, whore’ emanated from the crowd nearest us. It only irritated me further!

Something inside me snapped as another rush of, what I could only call ‘raw power’ surged within me.

I raised my hands over my head.

"YOU ARROGANT! STUPID! MORTALS!" I hissed at the top of my lungs. The eerie echo of my voice sounded malevolent, frightening. Even to me!

My hands began to tingle.

The sky grew darker and took on a light red hue. Dark, forbidding, clouds quickly developed above us and as far as the eye could see.

"YOU HAD EVERYTHING YOU WANTED, YET YOU ARE BLIND- IGNORANT OF THE BOUNTY BEFORE YOU!" I continued as my frown deepening into a scowl. Light, in general, seemed to slow further as my anger increased. The clouds overhead thickened and became darker- more foreboding as I glared out upon these fickle, greedy, creatures.

"DESPITE BEING COMFORTABLE, YOU WANTED MORE AND LOOKED TO A FALSE PROPHET TO PROVIDE IT! HOW FOOLISH YOU HUMANS ARE!" The sky darkened more and now cast a blood red hue on everything under the solid black, thunderclouds.

I began hearing cries of anguish and screams of terror escaping these inconsequential beings gathered before me. I could smell the fear I was evoking from them!

"HOW DARE ANY OF YOU CONDEMN THE ONE MAN THAT HAS ADVANCED THIS KINGDOM BOTH TECHNICALLY AND SOCIALLY? IT IS UNLIKELY ANY OF YOU HAVE EVER TRULY FACED THE WRATH OF YOUR SUPPOSED GODS, BUT I NOW PROVIDE A SAMPLE!" My anger raged higher.

“By the Lords! Alexandra, what…what are you…what are you doing?” Anna Beth’s frightened, quivering voice cried quietly from behind me.

"HOW DARE YOU INSULT THE GOD-MADE-MAN STANDING BEFORE YOU?" I hissed! "HE WAS LIVING RIGHT UNDER YOUR NOSES AND YOU NEVER BOTHERED OR CARED TO NOTICE! HOW COULD ANY OF YOU PLACE CONFIDENCE IN A COMPLETE STRANGER PROFESSING HIMSELF A PROPHET OF THE OLD GODS!"

"YOU KNOW NOTHING OF THE OLD ONES!"

I felt my eyes blaze into the ignorant heathens gathered before me. Lightning began to arc from the jet-black clouds. Thunder echoed loudly across Egypt.

"I…" As the words began to form, I felt my expression change once more- the corners of my mouth curling up into what I assumed to be a very malevolent smile.

"I AM NOTHING LIKE THE SUPREME ADMINISTRATOR- YOUR LIVING GOD- YOUR PHARAOH, YET IT IS POSSIBLE FOR ME TO SLOW AND STOP THE SUN’S LIGHT FROM REACHING EARTH. IF I CAN ACHIEVE THIS, THINK OF WHAT KHUFU IS CAPABLE OF!" My voice now resonated from all around me echoing across the crowd.

The sky was almost black and still darkening. The lightning and thunder increased and began striking the ground all around us. I noticed hundreds of people on the fringes of the crowd running for their lives in terror.

"BUT…YOU’VE ALL MADE YOUR CHOICES. ONCE AGAIN THE GREED OF THE MINORITY HAS INFECTED THE MASSES."

The sky was now black. The lightning suddenly stopped. A bluish light cast an eerie shadow in front of me as I continued. Jack and Cami were doing their best to illuminate our immediate area.

"IN THE FUTURE, BE WARY OF THOSE CALLING THEMSELVES ‘PHARAOH’ AS NOT ALL WILL REPRESENT THE IDEALS OF THE GODS, AS THEY WOULD CLAIM. REMEMBER THIS DAY WELL, FICKLE CITIZENS OF EGYPT! REMEMBER THE DAY PUBLIC PRESSURE, VIOLENCE, TREACHERY, AND GREED MADE A GOOD AND FAIR LEADER RESIGN HIS OFFICE!"

"ALSO REMEMBER THAT I, ALEXANDRA, EMPRESS OF TIME AND SPACE WILL BE WATCHING!"

"FOR ALLYOUR SAKES, DO NOT ANGER ME FURTHER!"

The speed of light re-established itself; the clouds quickly dispersed, and the sun once again shone across the land, though oddly its glow was not so bright- its warmth strangely absent.

My arms lowered. My body now felt tired, heavy, and my mind seemed on the cusp of consciousness. Fighting those feelings, I turned. The Royal family quietly yielded in outright fear as I silently walked back through them. Slowly, carefully, I ascended the finely polished, granite steps. When I reached the landing, Jack and Cami were staring at me in something well past terrified astonishment. Wearily nodding to each of them made me feel very lightheaded as my head began to swim.

My vision began to narrow as I proceeded through the gateway and down the long passageway to Meridian’s ‘throne room’. I felt warm tears slowly cascading down my cheeks and dropping from my chin- the metallic taste upon my tongue told me these were not actual tears, but something far worse.

When had they decreased the ship’s exterior lighting?

Feeling on the verge of blacking out, I made a crucial decision.

“Meridian, medical emergency outside the ship.” I said before darkness fully engulfed me.



If you liked this post, you can leave a comment and/or a kudos!
Click the Thumbs Up! button below to leave the author a kudos:
up
50 users have voted.

And please, remember to comment, too! Thanks. 
This story is 29679 words long.