Red Sky in the Morning
The Covenant of the Rainbow, Book 1
God, he was sick of fat white chicks.
Adrian suppressed the unworthy thought and forced his face into yet another welcoming smile as the participants in his fourth workshop of the day filed into the huge convention hall and took places on the numbered mats carpeting the floor.
Like always, a good eighty percent of the people facing him were female, the great majority white, and at least half significantly overweight. The advertisements that had blanketed the city for the past month were designed to hold strong subliminal appeal to individuals with latent psychic talents, but apparently they also spoke directly to the bored housewife set.
Six workshops a day, a different city each week, nonstop for eight months, and what had he achieved? Just over two hundred recruits for HBQ, most with limited potential. The strongest he’d yet found might, with enough training, learn to travel a few thousand miles in astral form and telekinetically move a couple hundred pounds.
How could they hope to defeat the coming alien invasion with such paltry talents?
He projected his voice to reach the milling crowd in the back. “Please find your assigned mats. I promise there’s room for everyone.”
Gradually they sorted themselves out. His assistants escorted the last few to their places. When everyone was settled, he spread his arms. “Welcome to the ‘Discovering the Hidden Potential of Your Mind’ workshop, sponsored by HBQ Incorporated. I’ll be leading you through a series of exercises designed to unlock the power buried deep within your brain. Today’s session is based on the ancient practice of yoga, modified to incorporate techniques HBQ has found enhance psychic potential. During the next two hours, your body will be pushed to its limits. Your mind will be brought to a receptive state. During the meditation session at the conclusion of the workshop, your full mental powers will be released.”
Why couldn’t he have been assigned the karate-based sessions? You’d think his black belt would count for something. Or even the Tai Chi version? No, Rabbi Sensei had to put him in charge of the stupid yoga program. Guaranteed to attract the most timid and weakest candidates, because it ventured only slightly outside the narrowest comfort zone.
If he ever discovered a significant talent, it would be a miracle.
His mind drifted as he settled into his spiel. “Everyone come to the front of your mats. Stand with your feet a few inches apart and your arms at your sides. Feel gravity pulling you into the earth…”
Beverly tried to follow the directions the instructor delivered in his deep, smooth, slightly bored voice, but she felt more incompetent with every word. She kept getting her right and left confused and ending up facing the opposite direction from everyone else. When they bent at the waist and reached for their toes, most of the others could at least brush the tops of their feet, while Beverly’s hands dangled a good foot up. When the instructor’s lean, flexible body demonstrated a lunge and she tried to imitate him, her arms trembled and her knees buckled. Even the simplest resting posture was difficult, for her belly prevented her from reaching the neatly tucked position that he curled into effortlessly.
What had possessed her to attend this ridiculous workshop, anyway? Usually she’d ignore a flyer like the one posted on the bulletin board at work, its bright colors and gaudy fonts doing their best to catch her attention. She knew better than to fall for overblown promises of mental powers and life transformation. And though the flyer claimed the event was free, it would undoubtedly include attempts to extract her hard-earned money.
But for some reason she’d torn off a dangling slip. She’d visited the website one evening when the sitcoms that filled her empty hours seemed especially inane. Nothing she found changed her first impression. She didn’t believe in woo-woo new-agey crap like the stuff splashed across every screen. Yoga was good exercise, which heaven knew she needed, but nothing more.
And yet… she’d filled out the form to reserve a spot, and here she was. It wasn’t as if she had anything better to do. She was fiercely proud of her small apartment—the first place she could truly call home, paid for by her own labor, her name on the lease—but weekends could get lonely.
She should have known better. Wiping sweat from her forehead, she stretched her legs and arms into a crude approximation of the next pose. The instructor made it look so easy. She’d been surprised at first to find an African-American man in charge of the class, but he was clearly highly skilled. His limbs were lean and firmly muscled, his movements an elegant combination of strength and grace. She wished she could just flop on her mat and watch him, but she’d never risk drawing all eyes that way.
Beverly’s muscles burned, her t-shirt sported wet blobs, and her lungs strained to suck in enough air to satisfy her thundering heart. Still the instructor calmly forced them into one impossible tangle after another.
Finally he gave them a warm smile. “I expect most of you are more tired than you’ve been in a long time. That’s good. When your body is spent, its hold on your mind is weak. Now we’ll move into the meditation portion of the workshop. Because you’ve worked hard and put your body into a state of exhaustion, your mind will be free to move into a far deeper state of meditation than it could otherwise achieve.”
Beverly didn’t buy it, but she didn’t care, because he was gesturing for them to follow as he lay flat on his back. She closed her eyes and listened to his soft, hypnotic voice. “Take a moment to get comfortable. I’m going to lead you through some muscle relaxation exercises, followed by deep breathing. After that, we’ll meditate in silence for about twenty minutes. During that time—”
Beverly quit paying attention. It felt so good to lie still. But she did make an effort to follow when he started on the exercises. First one foot, then the other, tense hard, then release. They continued up the body: calves, thighs, belly, back, hands, arms. Although she was sure she had totally relaxed, when she tightened her shoulders and released them, a whole chunk of tension she hadn’t been aware of melted away.
The slow, deep breaths left her dizzy. The instructor’s words echoed in her ears from far away. “Imagine the tips of your fingers slowly drifting upward. Your knuckles follow, then your whole hand. Now your arm is hovering a few inches above the ground. Let it go, loose and weightless. Feel your body drifting, floating, flying. Gravity can’t hold you. Your soul is free of your body, without boundaries, without limits. Feel yourself float upward…”
His voice droned on. Funny, it really did feel like she was floating. She liked the sensation. It was nicer than floating in water, because there was no fear of losing control and slipping under. Only calm, peace, comfort. How long had it been since she felt so tranquil?
Had she ever?
She gave herself fully to the experience. Higher and higher she drifted, joyfully free for a few blissful moments from the body she despised.
Adrian spoke more and more softly until at last he fell silent. No sound but quiet breathing disturbed the huge hall. Anyone capable of doing so would have reached a deep trance by now.
He made the familiar mental adjustment and sat up, leaving his body lying on the mat. The transparent form of his astral self separated easily from his flesh as he climbed to his feet.
He checked, as always, to make sure the tether running from the center of his astral chest to the center of his physical chest was a thick, sturdy cord. Neither soul nor body could survive for long if totally separated. Satisfied, he let it fade from view.
He walked along the rows of supine forms, examining each with his astral vision. Most showed only a slight blurring of their outlines, as souls pressed a millimeter or two beyond the bounds of flesh. Normal for a standard, ungifted human. Here and there a finger or two floated free. Minor gifts, not enough to be useful.
There. One hand loose, along with its arm up to the elbow. A modest but usable talent. Adrian perked up and noted the woman’s mat number. In a few days she’d be contacted and offered further training. If she accepted, she’d become a valuable soldier in the coming war. Sometimes days would pass without a prospect so good.
Much cheered, he strolled along the rows. His work wasn’t in vain. It made it easier to endure the sight of soul after soul trapped within flesh prisons, straining without hope to break free. How could people stand it? How had he, before the Covenant found him and taught him how much more existed than the physical world he’d always known?
Even so, the unmoving form of the plump woman saddened him. Not even a faint fuzziness touched her pale, freckled skin. Was she bound so firmly within her flesh, penned so tight within her dungeon, that not even a hair’s breadth could slip through the bars?
He stopped and gazed down in melancholy compassion. He hoped she was at least enjoying the minutes of quiet rest. For someone so void of any psychic awareness, life must be cold and lonely. Maybe if he’d spent a few more minutes on the induction, cared a little more, gone a little deeper, it would have reached her and granted her at least a tiny taste of freedom.
Wait, maybe he was mistaken. There was just a trace of blurring, right in the center of her chest—
“Oh, hello. I thought I was the only one.”
Adrian whirled around. The woman stood there, her astral form translucent, softly glowing.
“Does this seem as weird to you as it does to me?” She turned her hand in front of her face, examining its ghostly contours curiously. “I think I must have fallen asleep. I love flying dreams. Don’t you?” She bounced experimentally, floating up several feet and drifting down. “Oh, this is wonderful.”
Adrian’s heart raced, his astral form mimicking the responses of his physical body. To be able to leave her body completely after such a rudimentary induction, this woman must be phenomenally gifted. Far more so than he was. His arms and legs had separated at his first test, but it had taken him days of patient training before he’d achieved full projection. Even Rabbi Sensei hadn’t learned so easily.
Hope flooded Adrian. This was what they’d been searching for. This was what they desperately needed. This woman’s strength could be the difference between defeat at the hands of the aliens and salvation for all the people of Earth.
She flapped her arms, maneuvered into a slow tumbling flip, and laughed.
The tether between her soul and body was only a delicate, fuzzy thread. As Adrian watched, she leapt higher. The thread stretched, thinning almost to the breaking point.
Beverly luxuriated in the dream. Every leap carried her higher into the cavernous space of the convention center. She felt as light as a speck of dust drifting in the wind. She stretched her hands over her head and swooped into a long smooth dive, the speed thrilling her.
When she came to rest, toes lightly brushing the concrete floor, the instructor was next to her again. She looked him over, enjoying the sight of his fit body and handsome, intelligent face. Maybe this would be a very good dream.
He seemed tense as he extended a hand to her, his friendly smile not touching his anxious eyes. “Hi. My name’s Adrian. What’s yours?”
In real life he’d never look twice at her, of course. She wouldn’t want him to. But this was fantasy. She took his hand, and it gripped hers, warm and strong. “I’m Beverly.”
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Beverly.” She couldn’t doubt the intensity in his voice. “I’m glad you came to my workshop today. Did you enjoy it?”
“It kicked my butt.” She laughed. “But this part is great.”
He nodded, humor playing around his mouth and crinkling the corners of his eyes. “You’re a good student.” She could tell he was trying to keep his voice calm, but it took on a note of urgency. “Can I ask you to do something for me? It’s important.”
She gave him a flirtatious sidelong glance. “Anything you want.”
He acknowledged her with a wry twist of his lips, but kept his tone strictly professional. “Look closely here. Do you see the tether that connects me to my body?” He gestured to his chest.
She willingly looked where he indicated. It was a very shapely chest under his tight-fitting black t-shirt. For a moment she simply enjoyed the view, but then something came into focus, and she blinked. A glowing band sprang from over his heart and traced a softly shimmering path across the room. She dropped his hand and followed where it led, indulging in long gazelle leaps whenever meditating bodies blocked her way.
The glowing rope ended where it had begun, in the center of his chest, where he lay flat on the mat at the front of the class, eyes closed, hands open. Beverly frowned and looked back and forth from the man who’d accompanied her to the one on the mat. “There’s two of you.”
“This is my astral form. My soul, you could say. Spirit, ghost, whatever you want to call it. That’s my physical body. I’ve learned to separate the two. Some people can do that.”
She blinked and looked at her shining, see-through hand. “Is that what—”
“Yes. But look. This is my tether. It maintains the connection between my soul and body. They need each other. If it broke, I’d stop breathing, my heart would stop beating. And when my body died, my soul would cease to exist. At least in this world.”
Beverly’s heart caught at the thought of him snuffed out of existence. “That would suck.”
“Yeah. So I’m careful to keep it thick and strong. It doesn’t interfere with my astral form. I can travel as far as I want, and it’s always there, so I can find my way back when I’m ready.”
His hand came up and brushed the center of her chest. Beverly’s heart raced. Would his fingers stray to either side? Did she want them to?
She wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved when he remained carefully impersonal. “You have a tether, too. See it?”
Reluctantly she shifted her eyes from his hand to what it indicated. A thread of light, much thinner and dimmer than his, extended from her chest. “Huh.”
“This is what I need you to do. Look at your tether, think about it. Imagine it getting thicker and brighter and stronger.”
“Um… okay.” She tried to do what he asked. Sure enough, the bright thread grew larger and more distinct. He took a deep breath, and his broad shoulders relaxed.
“That’s very good.” He reached for her hand again, and she let him take it. “Now let’s follow it back to your body.”
She yanked her hand away. “Why?”
He spread his palms placatingly. “You’ve been out of your body a long time for your first try. We need to get you settled back in.”
“No!” She backed away from him. “I’m not going back there.”
His voice was gentle. “You have to. It’s all right. This is just—”
“I won’t!” She glared at him.
His brow wrinkled. “Why not? What’s wrong?”
She grabbed his hand and towed him back across the room, her tether marking the way, to the place where her pale, lumpy body lay like a stranded whale on its mat. “Look at it! It’s horrible! Fat and weak and ugly…” She panted, staring down, a lifetime of loathing rising up to choke her. “I hate it!”
From what she could see, her astral form looked like her physical body, but it felt so different. Light and nimble and vibrant. She’d been able to change the way her tether looked; maybe with concentration she could change the appearance of the rest.
“There’s nothing wrong with your body.” Adrian’s words were earnest, but she saw how his eyes slid away from her flabby belly and thick limbs. “You need it.”
“No, I don’t.” She looked up, evaluating the distance. “I’m never going back.”
“You have to. You need to eat and drink, which you can only do when soul and body are united. When your soul is traveling, it’s like your body is in a coma. It can’t survive that way forever.”
“I don’t care!” Beverly flexed her knees and launched herself into the air with all the strength she could muster. She shot toward the ceiling. Catching one of the network of metal joists that honeycombed the space below the roof, she swung as deftly as an acrobat to perch on it.
Adrian was pursuing her, zooming up with an intent expression. She couldn’t let him catch her, but his greater experience with this non-corporeal state would give him a big advantage. How could she escape? She’d die if she was forced to exist in that prison of a body again, now that she’d tasted freedom.
If she was nothing but spirit now, why were things of the physical world solid to her touch? Maybe they didn’t have to be. She glared at one of the joists and swept her hand toward it. It passed through without even a trace of resistance.
With a shout of exultation, Beverly hurled herself at the ceiling. She burst through into the afternoon sunlight.
Higher and higher she soared, her astral form responsive to her every wish. The sky stretched above her, brilliant blue, dotted with huge, fluffy cumulous clouds. Laughing, she tipped her head back to drink it all in and flew toward the infinite heights.
Cursing, Adrian shot through the roof of the convention center and chased Beverly into the sky. Damn the woman! And damn him for his carelessness. If Earth’s best hope of salvation was lost because he’d bungled her initiation…
The faint thread of her tether led him up through layers of atmosphere. God, she was strong. To go so far, so easily, with no training at all—he couldn’t imagine what she might become with all the resources of the Covenant devoted to developing her potential.
What would he do if she outstripped his range? He was comfortable as far as the moon’s orbit, and he’d been to Venus and Mars under Rabbi Sensei’s guidance, but to her native power such boundaries might mean nothing. How long would it take to fetch the leaders of the Covenant to help him? Dammit, he should have already called in Rabbi Sensei.
He reached out to send a telepathic message, but before he made contact he spotted her, hovering where the shining Earth below bent into a visible curve and space blackened overhead, revealing the stars. He abandoned the effort and glided to a stop beside her.
Her face was rapturous as she gazed back and forth between the Earth and stars. He kept his voice soft. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes.” She pinwheeled, stretching her astral arms and legs wide as if she wanted to embrace the whole universe. “It’s amazing.”
How much should he tell her? He didn’t want to overwhelm her—she’d coped with enough mind-bending revelations already today—but if he didn’t make her understand at least the basics, he’d never win her cooperation.
“We protect this,” he said, waving to encompass the whole planet. “HBQ, the organization I work for. That’s our mission. We were created to protect Earth from its enemies.”
She drifted around to face him. “Enemies?”
“Yeah. Aliens. They tried to conquer Earth once, millennia ago, and we know they’re coming back, very soon now. That’s why we’re seeking people with psychic gifts. People like you. We need you, Beverly, desperately. What you’re doing now—it shows you have the ability to do even more. We need your gifts to fight the aliens, to protect the people of Earth.”
She stared at him, lips slightly parted, a faint vertical line creasing her forehead.
Abruptly she shook her head. “This is just a dream. A lovely dream, but I guess I’m going to have to wake up soon.” She turned to look wistfully out at the stars. “Supposedly if you die in a dream you die for real; have you heard that? If I just keep flying on and on, until this” —she gestured to the slender thread at her chest— “fades away, do you think I would keep dreaming forever?”
He clenched his fists. “You’re talking about suicide.”
She shrugged. “Haven’t you ever thought about it? I almost tried, once. But I hated the thought of the mess, the ugliness. Guns are awful, of course. Even drugs can make you puke or shit yourself. And there would be pain, at least for a moment. But this… this is so beautiful… so peaceful…”
God, her tether was thinning out before his eyes. If she truly surrendered her will to live, would it vanish? Her eyes were so bleak and empty.
“I can’t let you do that.” Despite his best efforts to keep it gentle, his voice roughened. “You’re too important.”
Anger flashed. “How are you going to stop me?”
“I don’t know. But I have to try.”
For a long moment she glared at him. He stared back, willing her to capitulate. His fingernails dug into his palms.
She turned away with a bleak snort. “Aliens. Astral projection. Flying into space. None of this is real. Nothing I do matters.” She pointed at him. “And you’re nothing but my imagination.” Her voice trembled. “I hoped we might—” Her hand went to her heart and trailed over her breast. She turned away. “But I guess not even in a dream—”
Maybe he could reach her that way. She was nothing like the type of woman he’d normally be attracted to, but his heart went out to the pain so obvious in her face and voice. And her astral form was so luminous, her reaction to her liberation so uninhibitedly joyous.
He reached for her hands, his voice going huskier than he’d expected. “Is that what you want?”
She stared at him, trembling. Her hands tightened on his, and her tongue came out to lick her lips. “Yes.”
“Come with me then. Back to our bodies.” To his surprise, his heart was beating hard, his senses vibrating.
She drifted slowly toward him. But before their lips could touch, she turned away. Her hands lost solidity and slipped through his. “You’re just trying to trap me.”
“Beverly, please!” He grabbed for her, but his hands passed through her like vapor.
“No! I won’t go back! I don’t care!” She turned and fled, toward the sun that blazed yellow in the black sky.
Her tether snapped. Adrian lunged to seize the falling end, but it crumbled to nothing in his grasp.
To be continued…
Red Sky in the Morning, coming Fall 2017