Excerpt from THE GIFTING

“Once first responders removed the injured workers, Sah’Reena was able to quickly snuff out these flames, allowing fire and safety crews to go inside and bring out the rest of the crewmen before they burned to death. I spoke with Ralph Constance, Senior Maintenance Officer here at the refinery, and he told me they believe the initial cause of the explosion came from some deteriorated valves they were in the process of replacing. But at this time, according to the Fire Marshal, Captain Shamford, nothing is official until their investigation is complete. I’m Natasha McReynolds, Channel 13 Eyewitness News, here at the Ohrd Refinery in Texas City.”

            Pete hit the mute button on the remote and glanced over at where Robin continued watching the video feed shot by the news crew at the scene. “She reminds me of the way you were when you first started working at Johnson. All bright-eyed and excited. Giddier than a kid on Christmas Day. What she did there, she was in her element, wasn’t she?”

            “Yeah. We haven’t discussed it since we left the refinery, but I could feel it when she went in.” Robin took a sip of his soda, belched softly, and crossed his legs, resting his heels on the coffee table in front of him. “Being a Gifted, using her power, that’s what she’s meant to do. Not be stuck in some desk job. Even one at the space center.”

            “Too bad being a superhero doesn’t pay the bills.”

            With that one sentence, his father hit the proverbial nail on the head. What Sah’Reena loved to do, what she was born and trained to do, was to help others. “Dad, I’d give anything if she could pursue her dream and help others. But we both know she can’t go out there alone. And I can’t go with her because we need the paycheck.”

            “Quite a dilemma. Of course, I’ve known for some time she hasn’t been happy holding down a desk job.” Pete cut his eyes back to his son. “And no, I haven’t talked to her about it. I could tell by watching her. And by listening to what she didn’t say.”

            Robin sighed. “I thought a lot of it had to do with her emotional state. Dad, I don’t know how she’s managed to keep her sanity. I mean, think about it. She’s a totally alien species forced to live on a planet that is unknown to her, among people she can’t relate to, having to conform to customs and ideals totally new to her. And all the while she believed she’d never see her home world again. Or her friends. Or her family.”

            “You know she probably wouldn’t have survived if it hadn’t been for you. You know that as well as I do,” Pete admonished him.

            Yes, he did. And he agreed with him.

            “How is she taking all this?” Pete asked.

            Robin started to respond when a breaking news alert came on the air. “What’s that?”

            Pete hit the mute button again as Natasha reappeared on the screen.

            “—new information about the space ship that appeared this morning,” the news anchor stated.

            From the background behind her, it was difficult to tell where the woman was located, but it was safe to assume she was still in the vicinity of the oil refinery. There hadn’t been enough time since her last live report to make it over to the open field where the Deathship had landed.

            “Yes, Blake. A spokesperson at the Johnson Space Center has just confirmed that the space ship that appeared here this morning was not manmade. At least, not made on Earth. In fact, we were informed it originated from a previously undiscovered planet that sits on the opposite side of the sun.”

            Pete sat up and muttered a curse word under his breath. Robin dropped his feet to the floor and leaned forward.

            “Tasha, are your sources confirming that the ship was of alien origin?” the anchorman asked.

            “Yes. And given what we saw today in the interaction between Sah’Reena, Dr. Dickenson, and the humanoids they interacted with, it’s believed the ship may be from Sah’Reena’s home planet, Murrall.”

            “Has NASA identified the previously unknown planet?”

            “No, Blake. But after speaking to several people, it’s widely assumed that planet could actually be Murrall. How the planet managed to make it into our solar system is a mystery we hope we’ll soon have answered.”

            “Let’s hope so,” the newsman noted, then directed the broadcast to a preview of the weather forecast. Pete hit the mute button again.

            “I’d like to know who the hell snitched to the media.”

            Robin managed a humorless chuckle. “But you’re not surprised it leaked?”

            “No,” Pete grumbled, then snorted. “For all we know, Mason could have had something to do with it.”

            “You can’t prove it,” Robin noted. “But, for the record, I wouldn’t be surprised if he did.” Pulling his cell phone from his breast pocket, he unlocked it.

            “Who you calling?” the older man quizzed.

            Robin answered with a grin and hit the speaker button.

            “It’s about time you got back to me!” a female voice accused, then giggled. “I knew you’d be watching the broadcast.”

            “Where are you? Still at the refinery?”

            “Yep. I’m inside the van at the moment. Is Sah’Reena there with you?”

            “No, we’re at home. Sree’s upstairs asleep, but Pete’s here.”

            “All right, Miss McReynolds, tell us what you already know,” Pete requested. Robin could tell his father was trying to hold his temper.

            “Everything I know I just put on the air,” the woman declared. “Now it’s time you give it up.”

            “You’re not recording this, are you, Tash?”

            “Nope.”

            “Rob?”

            Robin held up a hand. “I trust her, Dad. I believe her. Tasha, the ship is from Murrall, and it’ll be back.”

            “Hot damn! I knew it! Why was it here?”

            “Do you remember when we told you about Sah’Reena being banished from Murrall?”

            “Yes. She was shot out into space to die, but some kind of space anomaly caught her life pod and brought it here.”

            Robin started to reply when she continued.

            “Did that anomaly bring Murrall here, too?”

            “We believe so.”

            “Go on.”

            “That ship, which is called a Deathship, came back to retrieve Sah’Reena.”

            “Why?”

            “Because she didn’t die the first time they launched her into space.”

            There was a pause on the line.

            “Hold on,” Natasha told him.

            They heard noises. A door slid open and shut. Voices.

            “Hey, Rob? Let me call you back, okay? Will you be available in, say, an hour?”

            “Yeah, I’ll be here.”

            “Great. I’ll call you back as soon as I get back to the station. Thanks, Rob.”

            “Talk to you later, Tasha. ‘Bye.” He hit the end call button and sat back on the couch.

            Pete shook his head. “You really need to hire that girl to be your spokesperson.”

            “I know, and we’ve offered her the job.”

            “So what’s holding her back?”

            “It’s not Tasha’s fault. Sree and I are still trying to get our feet firmly on the ground. These past few months…” He stood and started toward the kitchen. “I’m going to grab another Coke. Can I get you something?”

            “No, I’m good. So you and Sree put her on hold?”

            “Yeah,” Robin answered, his voice carrying into the den. He reemerged from the kitchen and took his seat back on the sofa. “We’re caught in a small conundrum, Dad. Sree and I don’t make enough to pay her a comparable salary to what she’s making now, and she’d have to quit her job at the television station if she’s going to become our intermediary. Jack’s already screaming foul because she’s having to do her job and handle God knows how many interview requests and questions from outside sources and news media. So Tasha’s new position would definitely be a full-time endeavor. On top of that, now that Sree and I are looking into buying some land to build a home, money’s tighter than ever.”

            “And if Sah’Reena quits her job, things are only going to get worse,” Pete observed. “Yep, that’s quite a conundrum.”

            Robin rubbed the back of his neck, hoping to ease the tenseness in his muscles. “We’re having to reevaluate our priorities. And any suggestions, observations, or parental homilies you can offer will be appreciated.”

            “Are you actually asking me for my opinion? Quick, where’s the calendar?”

            Robin cut his eyes at the man. “The calendar?”

            “Yeah. So I can circle this date in red.”

            “Dad.”

            “Or maybe I should check the weather forecast. See if there’s a blue moon tonight.”

            “Ha ha. Very funny,” Robin groused.

            Pete turned off the TV. “All right. First things first. You know you can stay here as long as you like.”

            “Yes, but we’d like to have a place of our own. Someplace not in the city, and where we could have a little privacy.”

            The older man snorted. “Good luck.”

            Robin chuckled. “We can try.”

            “Have you considered looking into acquiring sponsors? People who’d foot your bills for you? Maybe some sort of philanthropic backing.”

            “It sounds nice, but I don’t have the faintest idea how to go about seeking that kind of sponsorship. Besides, I’d be too afraid they’d want some sort of personal compensation for their generosity.”

            Pete grunted. “I’ll do a little digging. Ask some questions. I know a few people, let me see what they might suggest.”

            Robin’s cell phone went off. It was the default ring signifying a call from the space center.

            “Dickenson.”

            “Dr. Dickenson, this is Dr. Barton Foxx.” The elderly man sounded excited.

            Robin put the phone on speaker. “Yes, Dr. Foxx. What is it?”

            “We’ve been tracking the space ship on its way back to Murrall. Given the ship’s approximate speed and its elliptical pattern, and from what we’ve already learned when we initially located it on its way toward Earth—”

            “Cut to the chase, please,” Pete broke in. “How long?”

            “Less than two days. It takes the ship approximately thirty-nine hours to reach us.”

            “Which doesn’t include the time they’ll need to notify the Judiciary and have that governing body reach a decision,” Robin noted.

            Pete made a rude sound. “If they notify the Judiciary.”

            “They will,” a voice commented behind them.

            Robin whirled around. He hadn’t felt her awaken, much less come downstairs and into the den. Sah’Reena crossed the carpet to take a seat next to her husband.

            “You are thinking Roha Non will not inform the Judiciary about what happened today,” she said, stating the obvious. “He has no choice. He must.”

            “How do you know?” Pete questioned.

            “Because the other Utuli, the other Gifted, will make sure he does.”

            “Sree, do you have any idea how long it might take Roha Non to tell them what happened, and for them to make a decision?” Robin glanced at the phone, which showed the call to Johnson was still active. “Are we talking days here? Or weeks? Or months?”

            “Or years?” Pete added.

            She glanced down at her hands resting in her lap. “It will not take long.”

            “How long is not long?” Robin persisted.

            Her eyes locked onto his. “Soon. If they arrive back on Murrall today, they will be given an answer today. If they arrive tomorrow, they will know tomorrow.”

            “If that’s the case,” Dr. Foxx deduced, “they could return in less than two days.”

            “Two days? That would be Thursday,” Pete remarked.

            “Yeah.” Robin nodded. “And a lot can happen between now and then.”