New Release: Clawing Back from Chaos: Excerpt

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Chapter One: Wintertide Respite

“Consider it the Graf-General’s farewell tour,” Captain Maria de Alba suggested as she looked over the list of things they were supposed to have had done already. In early December General Joschka Graf von Hohen-Drachenburg would be making an “informal inspection” of the 58th Regiment of Foot, better known as the Global Defense Force’s British branch, forcing everyone to catch up on all those things they hadn’t had time to do because they’d been too busy doing what they were supposed to do.

The adjutant shook his head, “No, if it were a farewell tour there’d already be t-shirts for sale, and I haven’t seen an order form for the commemorative DVD.” The rest of the staff officers and their advisor groaned at the Israeli’s abysmal joke. Even Commander “Rachel Na Gael” managed a laugh and Moshe grinned even more broadly. He liked the one-eyed alien and he missed hearing her laughter and her wise-ass comments. Ever since the regiment’s return from Germany, she’d been growing quieter and quieter, and Captain Moshe ben David worried about her.

“Actually, this is his way of settling bets, since there was a large chunk of the pool that wagered he’d just fossilize behind his desk and get rolled out for meetings and receptions like Jeremy Bentham,” Colonel Tadeus Przilas, the executive officer, confided to the others, drawing another round of chuckles. He switched topics. “Commander, what’s this I hear about no Christmas crackers?” It had been a hard few months and everyone was looking forward to the Christmas holidays, even the non-Christians.

She snorted. “Utter codswallop, as usual. Someone decided that,” she mimicked the logistics officer’s tone, “‘out of concern for those suffering from PTS,’ we would only have crackers that did not make a popping sound. Which, of course, do not exist. Thus no crackers.” She leaned forward conspiratorially, whispering “or so Oatmeal thinks.” Captain Edward O’Neil, now branded “Oatmeal” because of his behavior during the Harz campaign, had earned the disgust of the rest of the officers, and they made no effort to hide their unprofessional snickers. Then the conference room door opened and Regimental Sergeant Major Sheldon Smith, Captain O’Neil, Father Mikael Farudi and Major General James McKendrick joined them.

“Remain seated,” McKendrick ordered as chairs began sliding back. He took his usual place, and once everyone but the chaplain had taken their customary seats, he started the briefing. Rachel gave her place to the Anglican priest and instead leaned against the wall. Father Mikael had a Most Secret clearance, so his attending the regular briefing was not a problem. “First things first,” the Scottish redhead rumbled. “Congratulations are in order for Maria and Edward. Both of you will receive promotions at the new year, Maria for her ongoing service and excellent work on developing the satellite use capabilities of the Branch, and Edward for his combat role in Operation Heart’s Blood.”

A round of congratulations flowed through the room and, as much as she hated to admit it, Rachel agreed that O’Neil had earned his major’s crown. “To spike the logical rumor, I put Moshe in for promotion as well, but the Israeli Defense Force informed me that he lacks time in grade. However, you will get a raise and I assume you will be fast tracked, Moshe.” The Israeli shrugged. The IDF was notoriously picky about what it demanded of career officers, so he wasn’t surprised by the denial.

“Now for our regular business.” McKendrick snorted a little as the others chuckled. The meeting went swiftly and finally the general announced, “Father Mikael has a request.”

The Lebanese priest smiled. “I need help. I need someone who can read Hebrew, and a Greek-speaker if at all possible, to assist with the Christmas Eve service. Just to read two passages of scripture—they can come and then leave again if they need or want to. And if any of you know of a good high-treble singer in your sections, let me know so I can try to persuade them to sing with the choir that night. Male or female will work. First Sergeant Lee will be gone on leave.” Rachel smothered a bit of a grin. Poor Tony—he caught hell for singing countertenor. That he remained single and never cursed fueled less amusing rumors and now she smothered a sigh.

Everyone agreed to ask, and an unusually cheerful McKendrick adjourned the meeting. “Ah, Commander, a moment please.” He let the others leave, then nodded for Father Mikael to shut the door. “Is something wrong, Rachel?”

She shook her head. “No, sir.”

The two men exchanged a glance. McKendrick didn’t press but just said, “I’m sorry you won’t be singing with us this year. And I’m sorry that Vienna has denied my request to award you either the Silver Cross or the Honor Medal.” Those were two of the GDF’s highest awards, one military and the other for civilians working with the Defense Force.

Rachel smiled a little. “Thank you for nominating me, sir.” She had nothing else to say so McKendrick dismissed his advisor. She walked out, her cane giving the familiar “step tap step” cadence as she returned to the laboratory.

The general and the priest waited until her steps had faded away. “PTS again?” Father Mikael asked.

“I don’t know. I just hope that General von Hohen-Drachenburg’s visit will improve things.” He took off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’m told that they are very old acquaintances.” He replaced his spectacles. “I never thought I’d say this, Father, but I miss her bad jokes and wise-ass remarks.”

“As do I, General. I also miss her singing,” the priest sighed a little, worried about his unusual parishioner but not certain what to do for her.

#

“Ten-SHUN!” RSM Smith bellowed as General Joschka the Graf von Hohen-Drachenburg, military commander of the Global Defense Force, stepped out of his car and accepted Major General McKendrick’s salute, then returned it. In a very rare show of formality, the regiment stood in ranks at attention for inspection. Even though it was cold and he was tired, Joschka returned the courtesy, studying the formation and the appearance of the men and women drawn up on the cloudy December afternoon. He made note of some people whom he would be seeing later that evening, then complimented the formation and the work the branch had done recently. As quickly as was seemly, he ended the inspection, and Joschka followed McKendrick and Col. Przilas inside the regimental headquarters. “Dismissed!” Smith ordered, and the ranks broke as people set new speed records getting inside out of the cold. Not that they begrudged giving the Graf-General the honor, but the wind chill was vile.

Commander Na Gael, who had been standing with the staff officers, watched the soldiers disperse before making her own slow way around the rear of the building to the rose garden. She checked a few of the cones covering her precious roses, making sure they were secure, adding more snow to the mounds protecting the Sweetbriar and Goldbusch. She wanted to see Joschka, but it was probably for the best if they didn’t spend any time alone. She didn’t want him catching her bleak mood, especially this year. As she made her rounds, she sang one of the suicide praises from Ilmto under her breath.

Meanwhile, inside the warm building, Joschka savored a hot coffee and made mental notes of what he’d seen. Not counting the September Disaster, it had been many years since he’d visited the British branch, and he approved of the changes he saw, both in the buildings and the personnel. The British branch was small as the GDF went, but its reputation and activity level made it stand out. To have served and survived a rotation here was a good mark for advancement and promotion within the other GDF divisions. Not that all the Branches weren’t excellent in their own way, and not that the British were without fault! But there was just something about them that made the Brits different.

After the initial professional talk was out of the way, General McKendrick decided to venture a question. “Sir, do you know much about Rachel’s background?”

With an understatement that would have done a native Briton proud, Joschka replied, “A little. Why?”

“We’re worried about her, my lord General.” The Austrian leaned forward, his bright blue eyes intent as McKendrick continued, “She’s not been herself since we returned from Germany. It’s been a difficult autumn, between the Vreenahlwee and the episode we had here, but Rachel’s been more subdued than I can remember since taking command.”

Joschka frowned, hiding a surge of worry for his oldest friend. “Is she still carrying out her duties?” She’d sounded fine in their occasional late-night phone conversations, but Joschka had seen her bluff before.

“Oh yes, sir, as admirably as ever, and I have no complaints about her performance, my lord General. But,” McKendrick’s voice trailed off. “She’s refusing to sing anymore, sir. She doesn’t give a reason and she won’t even participate in the Christmas Eve service.” McKendrick was not in an especially festive mood himself, but this was a very worrying development.

The Graf-General sat back in his seat in McKendrick’s tidy office. “General, what I’m about to tell you goes absolutely no further. You are correct—I know a fair amount about Commander Na Gael Ni Drako’s past.” At the Scotsman’s puzzled look Joschka nodded. “That’s her actual name, although she doesn’t use all of it.” And he told McKendrick the barest bones of Rachel’s personal story, omitting her ongoing service with the Azdhagi.

When the Graf-General finished, McKendrick didn’t know quite what to say. “Good Lord, sir. I’m surprised she’s still here and still sane. I knew that she was the winter Guardian, but the rest . . .” After a bit he concluded, “Thank you, sir. I’ll keep that in mind and see what I can do for her.”

Joschka smiled and stroked his beard. “You’re welcome. And I’ll try to see if she’s willing to talk to me. Now,” and he opened his briefcase and pulled out a handful of papers. “Walk me through some of these names, please, so I don’t embarrass anyone—including me.” He could get through most European surnames, but some of the others still gave him difficulty and Joschka didn’t want to make a mistake during the awards ceremony. It was too bad Rachel’s contract didn’t allow her to receive official recognition. At the time, restricting her because she wasn’t a native had seemed like a good idea and fair. Now he regretted Brigadier General Eastman’s decision.

He found a chance to talk to Rachel the next day. “Commander Na Gael,” he said at dinner, “If you have some time free, I’d like to see this glasshouse that I’ve heard stories about.” She looked up from poking at her baked fish and nodded. She’d not had much appetite since the end of the last mission.

“Certainly, my lord General. Whenever it is convenient for you.” Rachel wanted to show off the glasshouse, but wasn’t feeling good. I just need time away is all, she tried to tell herself. Come spring I’ll take a long decade and go to the Azdhag empire, go trading, maybe visit that wonderful spa that Zabet keeps gushing about. The Wanderer suspected that her problem went much deeper than simple fatigue, but she shoved the thought away.

“Fourteen hundred hours, unless you have anything I need to see?” he inquired of his hosts. McKendrick and Przilas both claimed to have nothing special planned—not that they would have admitted it if they had.

Ninety minutes later, Rachel opened the door for the Graf-General. “This way, sir.” Joschka noted the well-trampled path in the snow and followed it down the edge of the rose garden, then around a semi-ornamental hedge. He spotted the glasshouse and stopped, studying the simple glass and steel building, then continued forward. Rachel followed two paces behind him, then trotted ahead to get the door.

“I apologize for the mess, my lord General,” she began, but her old friend waved her off.

“No, I apologize for straying from the program and intruding on your personal retreat,” he said, reassuring her. She showed him the rose starts and winter herbs and vegetables, and he complimented her efficient use of space. “Where does the heat come from?”

She smiled conspiratorially. “You are standing on the thermal exhaust for the underground parts of the headquarters.” Joschka looked down, scuffed away a bit of the gravel, and saw very tight metal grating. “The heat vents here. That’s why General Whitehead accepted the engineers’ proposal for the glasshouse—it fits the overall plan of this sort of building complex, plus it camouflages the excess energy if someone were to do an IR scan.”

Joschka shook his head. “Was this all your idea?”

“Not entirely, but some.” She studied the ground, embarrassed.

“Very good thinking, Rada,” he switched to Trader. “Since you’re here and there are fewer eager rumor mongers,” he started. Rachel braced herself. He studied his old friend, noting how thin she seemed even compared to earlier in the fall, and watching her reaction to the news. “Pending approval by the Secretary, Colonel Rahoul Khan will return to Britain as commanding officer with a promotion to brigadier general.” Rachel bit her lip and swallowed hard. “What’s the matter?”

“I just,” she turned away and leaned on a potting bench. “Dear Lord, Joschka! I remember when you were a gawky corporal and when Rahoul was a wide-eyed lieutenant reeking of Sandhurst! And now you’re retiring from being the highest ranking soldier on this planet and Rahoul will be commanding here.” She hung her head. “And I’m still playing the resident wiseass and running from shadows.” To his vast surprise Rachel had tears in her eye, and Joschka pulled her to himself, holding her against his chest as she cried.

“Shhhh, shhhhh,” he soothed. “Truth, Hairball, what’s wrong?” But she didn’t answer, just fought to regain control of herself. After a bit, he tried a different tack. “McKendrick wanted to know if I understood why you aren’t singing at Christmas Eve mass this year. I hadn’t heard.”

Rachel pulled free and turned away, hugging herself. “I can’t sing anymore, Awful. The songs died inside the mountain. There’s nothing left but ash and shadow.”

“Not even ‘David’s Lamentation,’ or ‘Coventry Carol’?” he asked quietly. The Christmas after Johann’s death, Magda had asked Rachel to come to the Drachenburg and she’d mourned with and sung for the grieving family, helping ease some of their raw pain. “Not even for me?”

The small woman straightened up and he watched her shoulders rise as she inhaled. But instead of “Lulla, lullay my little tiny child,” what Joschka heard was “I’m sorry, sir. There’s nothing but darkness and silence where the music used to be.”

“What does the Gospel of John say? ‘The Light shone in the darkness, and the darkness overcame it not’,” he gently reminded his oldest friend. “Just promise me you’ll think about it, please?”[1]

Rachel wouldn’t meet his eyes, and Joschka grew more concerned when she didn’t answer him. Instead, she opened the door so they could return to the lab. At last, moments before they reached the main building, she said quietly, “I promise.” That was all he’d asked, and he accepted her words. But Joschka’s heart hurt for the pain he sensed hiding below the surface and he worried for his friend and love.

The Graf-General left the next day, and soon it was December twenty third. Rachel grumbled as she finished her end-of-the-year financial report. She actually had almost a hundred pounds left over and needed to hide or spend it before December 31 or face having it cut from the next year’s budget. What to do? As she fretted, someone knocked on the door. “Oh, come in” she grumped.

“Ah, I’m not interrupting anything, ma’am, am I?” First Sergeant Anthony “Tony” Lee asked a bit hesitantly. Hesitantly, because chemicals and alien technology were not the only things that had been known to explode in the lab.

“No, just giving myself a headache is all,” Rachel grinned at the tall, lean NCO. Then she tipped her head to the side, studying his clothes. “Not your usual uniform,” she observed.

He looked down at the black tunic and trousers with brass buttons and red insignia. “No. I’m off duty and heading for home. Decided to go on and change, since as soon as I reach Manchester, mum’s going to put me on kettle duty.” It was not well known or understood, but Lee’s parents were both “Sally Anns,” as the British called members of the Salvation Army. Lee was one as well, although his was more of a reserve commission because of his military career and lack of wife.

Rachel stood up and grinned, extending her hand. “God bless, Tony. That’s hard work and much needed.”

The scout sergeant turned the handshake into a quick hug. “Thank you, ma’am. I just wanted to say Happy Christmas before I left.” He looked a bit shy, and the woman gave him a true smile.

“You too, and thank you. Have a wonderful leave.” She gently shooed him on his way. Rachel sensed a winter storm winding up in the Irish Sea, and the roads and rail schedules could get bad quickly.

After Lee departed, Rachel gave up on the bookkeeping and instead picked up a walking stick and made a slow trip down to the chapel. Her leg wasn’t bothering her too much, but she felt no need to hurry. The main hall of the office area was quiet since at least half the unit was on leave. Many were staying close enough that they could come in quickly if something arose, but London and Vienna had been generous with leave this year. God knows they deserve it, the Wanderer sighed. We didn’t suffer nearly the losses that the Germans and Poles took, but things have still been rough. She nodded to a few people, then poked her head into the chapel.

No one else was there so she slipped inside, genuflected to the Presence, and took a seat toward the front, where she could stare at the stained glass. Rachel let her defenses down with a relieved sigh, taking advantage of the chapel’s shields. It was the winter solstice, and Logres’s power surged through her, strengthening her own inborn gifts and skills. If her guard slipped the least bit, she felt every single person in the building, as well as everything going on in the grounds and woodland beyond the fences. That was one of the hazards of being a Guardian of the Isle of the Mighty, especially this time of the year. Tonight, she’d go out into the storm and revel in the power. For now she just wanted peace. The shadowy quiet of the chapel kept her interior shadows at bay—for the moment.

Well, she’d promised to think about darkness and light. Rachel tipped a kneeler down and settled onto it with a bit of a creak. She contemplated the flickering Presence candle and the snow-lit image of St. Michael Archangel descending from heaven, his sword half drawn as he prepared to do battle with evil in the form of a bilious green dragon at the bottom of the window. The warrior saint wore the original regimental uniform, and Rachel smiled a little. Then her thoughts returned to her current woes.

Nothing had been the same since that September, three years before. And now, after what had happened in Germany three months ago, Rachel didn’t know what to make of herself. She kept trying to believe that she’d done the right thing, but then she’d remember the bloodlust and rage, and how easily she’d killed who knew how many Vreenahlwee, granting deadly mercy to the parasitized humans she’d found. Thirty? Forty? And before then? How many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives had she taken over the centuries? “The wages of sin are death,” the Bible said, and she’d committed mortal sins how often? There was no forgiveness for that, was there? Scripture said there was, and Rachel hoped that God could forgive her, but more and more she wasn’t so certain. And yet, and yet . . . McKendrick and Joschka and Father Mikael never blamed her for what she’d done, never even commented on it. “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” The Wanderer searched her faith for some kind of hope and prayed.

As his advisor contemplated life, death, and sin, James McKendrick gave up trying to pretend he wasn’t depressed. First Jamie and then Mary had called to inform their father that they had other plans and wouldn’t be coming all the way down to central England to visit for the holidays as they’d said they would. There was more to it than that, James knew. The children blamed him for his and Ellen’s divorce, even though his transgression had occurred before they’d even been born. He’d been married for more than twenty-five years when she had reappeared and shattered what had seemed so solid and stable. Ellen had always insisted on hosting a holiday party for his command and their families this time of year, filling the house with light and color, guests and music. Despite his strict Calvinist faith, McKendrick had a special place in his heart for the holiday festivities, and relished them even as he heartily disapproved of the tawdry excesses that surrounded Christmas itself.

From atop the bookshelf next to the window, a raven squawked quietly, then stalked over until it could bounce onto his desk without much effort. The bird gave the man a sympathetic look.

“You are getting fat and lazy, Knox” the general informed his alter ego.

“Caw,” the corbie replied, before poking at the silvery computer mouse. McKendrick bought Knox off with a tidbit of dried meat and let the bird sidle up onto his shoulder. Normally Knox lived outdoors, but just this once the redhead was allowing the raven to come in and stay through the nights. Truth be told, he wanted the company. No family visits, no holiday festivities, nothing to mark the season except for the midnight service on the twenty-fourth. McKendrick let himself mope for a minute or two, then went back to work.

When he finished, he locked the computer and left his office, heading for his quarters before going to supper. To his surprise, he met Rachel leaving the chapel. She looked much more relaxed and peaceful than he’d seen her in months, and he wondered what had changed. She smiled at him and gave Knox a little salute. In turn, the raven bowed deeply—to McKendrick’s chagrin. “It’s the solstice,” she reminded him.

“Humpf. It is also two days before Christmas,” he grumped.

Rachel’s quiet smile broadened. “If you want to talk about it, sir, I’ll be up late tonight,” she offered, then went on her way.

Knox made a noise suggesting that it would be a good idea to accept the offer. “What do you know?” the unhappy Scotsman inquired, half-joking.

The raven shook and made another soft caw, as if to say, “More than you can guess, my friend.”

“I’m surrounded by insanity,” McKendrick groaned.

At 2000 hours McKendrick tapped hesitantly on the door to Rachel’s personal quarters, not even certain why he was there. “Come in,” a quiet voice called, and he pushed the wood farther open, then stepped inside. He closed the door behind him and blinked at the sudden darkness. Three or four meters ahead of him, a fire burned in a stone and tile fireplace, and he walked toward the cheery orange and yellow glow. As he got closer, the room opened out, and he realized that he’d been walking between bookcases, paired to form a short hallway and to provide a little privacy in a very small efficiency flat.

“Welcome to my lair,” Rachel offered from where she sat, curled up in an odd-looking wing chair, one of a pair in front of the fire.  She’d taken her long braid down and the firelight shone red on the black-brown plait. “There’s hot water for tea and hot milk for cocoa here on the fire, and cold drinks in the icebox around the corner there.” She gestured with a mug. “Nibbles are in with the drinks, or here.” She picked up something from a plate piled high with snacks that sat on the petite coffee table between the chairs.

The Scotsman opted for cocoa and carefully settled into the very comfortable chair across from his advisor. Aside from the books, her quarters were even more spartan than McKendrick’s own, and he wondered a little. She seemed content to wait for him to speak, sipping her own cocoa and bundled up under a heavy blanket with what looked like fur trimming the edges. McKendrick finished about half his drink, had a handful of nuts and a “sugarplum?” he asked, looking at the dark-colored treat.

“Someone sends me a box every year. It’s a private joke,” she explained. “I’ve grown rather fond of them, but I’m not going to tell the sender that.” The brunette smiled and the officer found himself smiling in return. He ventured around the corner she had indicated and cleaned out his mug, then fixed a cup of tea. “Gourmet jerky?” she offered, holding out a box.

“I’m glad someone seems to be having a happy Christmas,” he said, then felt bad as he realized how bitter he sounded.

The alien set the box aside and drank more cocoa before observing, “Yes, I am. Because I decided to have a happy Christmas despite what the world says I should be feeling. My friends are alive and are doing as well as can be hoped for, no one is shooting at me, and I’m warm, dry, and clean, with a full stomach and warm hearth. That makes a very happy Christmas, in my experience,” the woman said, gazing into the fire with a small smile. “So why not enjoy it, savor it and remember the best of Christmas?”

McKendrick grumped. “Of all people, I’d think you’d be the last one to be a Pollyanna, Commander.” He couldn’t stand people like that, even when he was in a much better mood than he was just then. “And you’re alone,” the human pointed out, coming to the heart of his own bleak mood.

Now Rachel looked at him, still smiling a little as she got up, added a log to the fire, and excused herself for a moment. Her heavy wool skirts swished quietly as she rounded the other corner, and McKendrick used her absence to indulge his curiosity. To his surprise, there in the shadows, he saw what looked like an oversize cat basket! He stared at the bed-sized, wicker-lined, wooden box with its thick mattress, bed pillows, a heavy-looking duvet that draped over the back of the frame, and two or three fleecy blankets neatly folded and stacked at the foot of the box. Rachel’s pistol and a long knife hung within reach of the sleeping area, and McKendrick started shaking his head at his advisor’s paranoia, then stopped himself. She did have enemies, and if somehow someone came after her here, it would take time for help to arrive. The man returned to his seat and his tea just before Rachel emerged from the W.C.

She curled back up under her blanket, nibbled a bit of gingerbread, and sipped her drink. “I am alone, sir,” she agreed. “But I know that my friends are thinking about me.” She gestured to the treats and to some cards standing on the mantle. “And I believe that my family is at peace, wherever their souls have gone. So why not celebrate the birth of the One who brings us that peace and that hope?”

The human considered her words as they both stared into the crackling fire. He thought about her past and how grim the little bit was that he now knew: both parents murdered, child killed as she watched, and spending most of her life on the run from people who wanted her to die as agonizingly as possible. And yet she remained apparently sane, and could laugh, and kept her deep faith in the Lord. It made his own troubles seem small by comparison, and he felt ashamed for his bad mood. “I think you’re right, Rachel,” he admitted after much thought.

She laughed quietly. “I’ll go write it in the report book so I can prove that it happened at least once in my life,” she joked, as she got up and took their mugs to rinse while McKendrick visited the WC. When he finished, she was standing at the fireplace with a shaker of some kind in her hand. “Here,” she offered. “Add a little to the fire.”

He did and a rich scent, unlike anything he’d encountered before, filled the small room. It reminded him of clove and cinnamon, but also of spring’s life and of snow’s cleanness. Rachel took the shaker back and capped it tightly, then set it on a tiny sideboard next to the fireplace. “Happy Christmas,” she offered, extending her hand and a smile.

McKendrick took the hand, then pulled her closer, forgetting their positions and his problems for a little while as he hugged the small woman. “Happy Christmas,” he replied, as she returned his embrace. And it was.

#

A wicked gleam lit Rachel’s eye as she surveyed the mess table two days later. Because so many people were gone on leave or visiting with family or friends nearby, the officers and senior NCOs had thrown both protocol and tradition to the winds and combined their messes for the evening meal. And there, at each place, lay a large, gaudy Christmas cracker. “Hey, where’d those come from?” Sgt. Tom Mackintosh asked. “And what are they?”

Colour Sergeant Morgan St. John shook her head and tsked. “Barbarian American! Those are Christmas crackers. It’s an old British tradition.”

“English tradition, Sergeant,” General McKendrick corrected. “My people look at such frippery as a corruption of the holy day.”

“Then may I have yours, sir?” Rachel inquired politely.

“Certainly not,” the Scotsman rumbled.

Supper consisted of far too much roast goose and turkey, stuffing and dressing, carrots, turnips, potatoes beaten with real butter, hot fresh bread, mince pie, and plum pudding. The cooks even managed kosher and halal options for Captain ben David and the other Jews and Muslims in the group. After everyone ate what they could manage, and the volunteers on mess duty had cleared away the dishes, McKendrick sat back and picked up the brightly colored tube next to his plate and offered the end to Lieutenant Van Doren.

The South African took it and pulled. With a loud pop! the cracker exploded in a shower of confetti to reveal a silver watch fob, a toy whistle, and a whisky-filled chocolate, along with a riddle involving an appallingly bad pun. She, in turn, offered him an end of her cracker, and pop! out fell a piece of honey candy, a plastic crocodile, a knock-knock joke, and a charm in the shape of Africa. The black woman smiled at the strange mix of items and decided that, indeed, the British were crazy. Soon the room filled with laughter and popping as the crackers revealed their trinkets and treasures. Rachel’s held a paper dog mask, a heart-shaped silver charm, another horrible pun, and a stick of jerky. Captain ben David got a plastic dreidel, a blue-and-red paper crown, and chocolate coins. About half the crackers had chocolate coins in them, as it turned out. “I suppose this is our end of the year bonus,” someone quipped, generating more laughter.

Soon the men and women broke into their usual officer and NCO groups, each heading to their respective place to continue the celebration. Rachel spent time with both sets of personnel, as was her custom, and then retreated to the lab still wearing the dog mask. She took it off, folded the delicate tissue paper, and tucked it away in a drawer. As she did, she noticed a small red-and-green box in the middle of her desk. There was no name on the box, piquing her curiosity. Inside she found a note saying that two donations had been made in her honor to the Salvation Army—one by Anthony Lee and one by James McKendrick. Touched, she smiled, and took the box and note up to her quarters to add to the collection on the mantle.

When Joschka finally escaped momentarily from his horde of grand and great-grandchildren and checked his phone messages later that week, he found one from Commander Na Gael saying only, “I kept my promise. Happy Christmas.” Two weeks later, a CD arrived from England. It was a recording of the Lessons and Carols from the British Branch. Curious and hopeful, Joschka put it in his computer and hit play. First he heard a hand bell chiming, then a sweet, clear voice singing “Once in Royal David’s city / stood a lowly cattle shed . . .” He smiled. Perhaps her shadows would stay away now.

#

Two months later, Rachel regarded the item on her desk with a combination of amusement, trepidation, and concern. It was a box, covered in crimson taffeta and shaped like a heart. A gray bow decorated one corner and white lace outlined the top of the box. In short, it strongly resembled one of the containers of chocolates that Terran males gave to their preferred females on the Feast of St. Valentine. Since the Wanderer did not have a mate, fiancé, sibling, or “just a friend, really,” she frowned at the puzzling item intruding on her world.

She poked it with her pen. The box scooted and rustled a little, suggesting that it was not very heavy even though it had something inside. Rachel decided to ignore it for the nonce. Perhaps it had gone to the wrong place, although that was unlikely. Just to be certain, she wanded it with a small metal and electronics detector to rule out explosives. Well, that’s a relief. She pushed the heart to the back of her desk, out of the way. She frowned and opened up her portable supercomputer, entering the codes to connect it to her timeship’s central processor and secondary computer. She needed to look more closely at the Dark Hart’s logs. Something about the timeship visits it had noted and a news story, what was it?

Four hours later, she was reminded of the mysterious item when she reached for a binder on the shelves above her work desk. Oh foo, might as well see what it is and if there’s a note or something. Rachel dragged the box to the front of her desk and popped the top open. “Whee!” Someone had replaced most of the traditional contents with no less than five kinds of dried meats in bite-sized portions, neatly interspersed with a few remaining gourmet chocolates. And there was a note in a standard computer font that read in English, “For Commander Na Gael.”

Later that day, she called Joschka to check in and update him on any new developments he needed to be aware of. She also told him about the box and they both wondered whom it could be from. He wanted to know if she’d taken precautions, testing it for poison and so forth, and she assured him that she had and had found nothing besides dried meat, vanilla and chocolate creams, and caramels. The Austrian didn’t offer any suggestions, but after he rang off he smiled and helped himself to one of the chocolates he’d dumped into a small container in his desk drawer. He rather liked the ones filled with liqueur, and was glad that Rachel didn’t care for them.

[1] Gospel of John, 1:5. RSV

(C) 2017 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved.

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