Cover Anniversary Waltz
a novella by Mardi Ballou
from New Concepts Publishing

Here’s an excerpt -- enjoy!

Celestial Spheres’ Life and Death Transition Central Office, 2007 C.E.

Despite the perpetually blue sky, rainbows and soothing harp music that formed the backdrop for the office, the atmosphere inside felt decidedly dark. Apprentice Transition Angel Second Class Astreluna braced herself for Lecture Number Forty-Eight, delivered in impassioned tones by Astreluna’s immediate superior, Venussuna.

Since Astreluna had heard the same lecture three times in the past three moon cycles, she already knew it by heart and could tune out, not focusing on Venussuna’s words until the older angel came to her concluding words. “So, Astreluna, I’ll overlook your peculiar ideas one last time and give you one more chance.”

Thinking the lecture was over, Astreluna grinned at her hopefully. However, Venussuna had more to say.

“But you’ve got to take the nature of our office seriously and stop giving people options. Once you arrive, their transition fate is sealed. Their time on the Earthly plane is over, and your duty is to escort them to the Celestial Spheres for their next phase. Death cannot claim them if you refuse to escort them. He’s been complaining to the higher-ups that you’ve ruined several missions by offering people options.”

“We’re supposed to take them on the transition even if they are young and still have much to keep them on Earth? That seems wrong.” Astreluna wished she had the gift of persuasive words, that she could find a way to move Venussuna. The other woman remained stony faced. When Astreluna started to point out her excellent reasons for bending the rules each time, the warning look in Venussana’s eyes convinced her to remain quiet. But, molten moonbeams, it was just plain wrong to transition people before their time! Death was even harder to deal with on this subject than Venussuna. Astreluna just had to change the system.

“You will complete the assignment as I will present it in a short time, or it will be your last. I am merely waiting for confirmation before I’ll tell you the exact details. Do you understand?”

Understanding wasn’t the problem. Disagreeing with management was. But Astreluna figured the only way to bring about the changes she envisioned was to keep her assignment and rise from her lowly position to one of more authority. Despite disappointments, Astreluna held on to her natural optimism. She would take this assignment and try her best to use it as a stepping stone to the fulfillment of her dreams. She knew, deep down inside, that her instincts would guide her if only she listened to them with her whole heart.

Dismissed, Astreluna returned to her home cloud to prepare for her next assignment. Since her arrival in the Celestial Spheres, after a too-short and less than satisfactory life on Earth, Astreluna had been in search of her niche and her bliss. With Eternity and all the resources of the supernatural at hand, she’d expected to at last achieve the success that had eluded her during her terrestrial life. She’d quickly won her wings, large white and gold feathery appendages that glowed when she flew. Far from a beauty on Earth, now she had porcelain skin, sky blue eyes and spun gold hair--not unusual in the angel population, but still thrilling to her. But in one major area, that of her heavenly work, Astreluna continued to fail, just as she had on Earth. She hadn’t needed Venussuna’s reminder to realize the dire consequences she faced if she didn’t upgrade her performance record quickly.

Astreluna took a few moments to savor the sweetness of flying among white fluffy clouds in the blue, blue sky. It felt like swimming without having to remember to breathe or worry about the fit of the bathing suit. But she couldn’t fully indulge in her distraction with her assignment hanging over her.

Convinced that her life on Earth would have been better if she could have postponed death until she’d achieved her dreams, Astreluna had committed herself to working in the Death sector to ensure that people were not transported from the Earthly plane before their time. But before she could be in a policy-making position, she had to work her way up the ranks. Currently she was an Apprentice Transition Angel Second Class. In reality, this meant she often had to follow orders she might not agree with--even when her reasons for disagreeing were excellent, which they always were. As an Apprentice Transition Angel Second Class, she had to escort people who were transitioning--who died--from Earth to the Celestial Spheres. She was supposed to welcome them, to ease any fears they might have and to make the transition as seamless as possible.

Sparing her charges, as she thought of them--allowing them to remain on the Earthly plane longer--was not supposed to be part of her job description. She did, however, have the power to allow people summoned after too short a life (such as she’d experienced) to remain on Earth—though she exceeded her authority any time she used that power--which she’d done whenever her charges appealed to her in any way. Actually, so far they’d appealed to her each time.

In fact, after messing up her last two assignments by allowing the charges she was due to escort to postpone their fate, Astreluna learned she was in serious danger of permanent reassignment--to the Celestial Spheres’ central filing division. Having spent too much time in jobs centered on filing on the Earthly plane, Astreluna resolved to avoid a similar assignment in the Spheres. Determined to plan strategy, Astreluna settled on her cloud. She hadn’t been meditating for long when Venussuna summoned her again, “I have the details of your next assignment.”

Astreluna rushed back to her office, where she found Venussuna looking very pleased with herself. “Here is your next assignment. I’m going to spend extra time with you on outlining your specific duties because I want you to get it right this time. If you make any mistakes, they will be your fault, not mine. You must, I repeat must, complete the mission assigned, or I will no longer be able to overlook your … irregularities.”

“Understood.” Knowing Venussana had no sense of humor, Astreluna resisted saluting.

Venussuna watched Astreluna very closely as if she suspected the younger angel had some subterfuge in mind. After several moments of silence, Venussuna began to speak again. “Your current task is to escort two married couples from Earth to the Spheres.”

“Two couples? Are they friends or relatives? Are they to die in some sort of accident?”

Venussuna nodded minutely. “In a manner of speaking. Both couples go on a weekend excursion to a ski resort. There is a freak storm and avalanche which traps them in a cave. Alas, rescue will arrive too late to save them.”

Astreluna gasped. “But that’s terrible. They expected to go for an enjoyable holiday and will instead die a slow painful death.”

Venussuna shook her head. “That kind of thinking is what gets you in trouble. Astreluna, they will have had their lovely weekends before they are trapped in the cave. But I will not enter into a discussion with you. You’re to escort the four of them here, where they’ll be together after their wonderful holiday. That’s all there is to it.”

Though numerous arguments sprang to mind, Astreluna knew Venussuna wouldn’t listen, not really. Already trying to steel herself for the chore, Astreluna asked, “Who are the couples?

“The first are two business people celebrating their first wedding anniversary--Beth Bartel and Todd Lanigan.”

“Beth and Todd?” Astreluna echoed. “They’ve only been married one year? They’re probably young and adorable and madly in love.”

“None of that is your concern. They can be cuter than two little puppies with gift ribbons ‘round their neck—their time is up.” She glared at Astreluna, who swallowed back her protests.

“Who is the other couple?”

Venussuna looked down at some notes. “Another couple celebrating their wedding anniversary—their eighteenth. Natalia Semarova and Rafael Volar are both artists who’ve managed to live together all these years.”

“Artists?” Astreluna adored artists. Her reflexive question had popped out before she’d thought. She could already, sight unseen, think up dozens of arguments to spare both these couples. As assignments went, this one would challenge her--which was probably one of Venussuna’s motivations for giving it to her. Rambling rainbows, this wasn’t an assignment--it was an ordeal, a test.

Astreluna took a deep breath. She wanted to share her concerns with Venussuna, maybe get the other angel to be more helpful than she’d ever been before. “I will find this assignment a huge challenge.”

Venussuna narrowed her eyes. “Are you giving up, Astreluna? Should I bring in another apprentice to complete this escort?”

That was the last thing Astreluna wanted for many reasons, including that a request for a substitute would be tallied as a failure and thus allow Venussuna to transfer her. “Not at all. Just, in light of this being such a challenge for me, perhaps I should have a strategy before I go to Earth.”

Venussuna nodded approvingly. Astreluna waited to the other angel to offer to help her come up with this strategy, but Venussuna appeared to be waiting to hear what Astreluna would say next.

Astreluna took her leave and flew back to her cloud to meditate. And when she’d come up with a strategy, she returned to explain it to Venussuna.

The senior angel looked up from a file. “So what is your plan?”

Astreluna smiled. “Since I have more than usual advance notice this time, I will get to know my charges before their fatal accident.”

Venussuna looked puzzled, which didn’t happen often. “Why do you want to get to know them?”

Astreluna figured that was clear, but she’d explain. “Through familiarity, I will become immune to any last minute stories or pleas because I’ll know what to expect.”

“You really think so?” Venussuna looked unconvinced.

Astreluna nodded.

Venussana started to say something, then evidently changed her mind and shrugged. “All right. We’ll give this a try. Though I have my doubts, I grant you leave to become familiar with the charges before the avalanche. Just remember one thing, Astreluna. I’ll be watching you--and I won’t be the only one.”

Determined to complete the assignment so she could complete her apprenticeship and rise in the ranks of Transition Angels, Astreluna set off to San Francisco, where Beth Bartel and Todd Lanigan lived.

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© 2006 Mardi Ballou