Tidal Bore Excerpt

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ISBN: 978-1466306509

The fifth book of this series, Tidal Bore, follows the adventures of Hana and Rantu on a roller coaster journey beyond the familiar and comfortable. As in each volume, transformations and challenges await… The Curious Voyages of the Anna Virginia Saga is an allegory of man’s inner worlds. This series spans the development of awakening—from a simple chance encounter to the intentional exploration of the cosmos, from our little bit of real estate in the solar system to the center of the galaxy. A parable of a small nucleus of individuals who band together and set out on the journey of a lifetime.

Read an excerpt below or read it at the Voyager Press page:

Tidal Bore Read Inside (eReader embedded)

 

 

Excerpt from Chapter Two of Tidal Bore  © J.L.Lawson 2011

‘Imranuse, Irteise and Irhanase,’ Vashi mused aloud. “There’s just something familiar somehow about those names…” she remarked to Jonibob and GingerKat as they tied up loose ends aboard the Anna and prepared to accompany their family to Haven.

Leva observed, “Well they should be familiar by now, you’ve practically used them as a mantra these last many months…”

Jonibob added, “They are revered, it’s clear. That they are on the lists long after their absence from that Orchard is proof of that.”

GingerKat nodded, “The important thing is that there are Enthileste regaining our rightful authority maintaining the balance on and around developing worlds throughout the Orchards once more.”

The twinses rushed by in a flurry. “We’re going to get into the Tournament of Champions this time!” Isabou called over her shoulder as they flew into the elevator. Yensa and Danielle walked in after them.

“It’s just grand to be in the pitch again…” Yensa sighed.

Danielle seconded that. Norah and Vivian stepped in and took their places. “Let’s give it our best, ladies!” Norah encouraged and said, “Haven!” The doors closed and as they stepped out into the great Banqueting Hall, the Enthileste walked in through the far doors.

GingerKat repeated, “Yes, do give it your best. Now, let’s go and greet the other early arrivals shall we?”

The Masters went out onto the Haven docking ring to await the arrival of the Tygress, bringing Alfred, Vera and the ‘Lords.’ Above Rutin, Rudy and Hana were guiding the shuttle, with their friends Anton, Mara and Tei, to a convenient landing in front of the ancient steps. They gathered their picnic bags and walked toward it, passing through the courtyard and into the sanctum of Nissa Ahlnouresse.

Rudy pointed out, “This is an Enthileste sanctuary. Only they can see or read the inscriptions and only they can command the temple to do their bidding.” Anton and Mara gazed in wonder at the intricately carved, almost alive-looking screens in the windows.

Tei asked, “And they only visit the Gates thirty-seven times every thousand years?!”

Hana chuckled, “If that were the case, they might as well not be here at all. Actually each of the Temples—of the Gates at least—have other functions. For instance, the one on Nirra grants access to individual Enthileste scattered across several Orchards. Alta is the repository of all knowledge, whose oracle can answer almost any question about what actually is. Enta can grant the immediate control of Time itself—stopping it, or repeating a duration of it—and Nissa, this one, is the gate that can open up the past or future.”

Rudy was quick to add, “…for the Enthileste. It’s just a really cool place to folks like us.”

Mara and Anton walked up onto the raised dais, Anton mused, “…Open up the past or future? Well if I was listening in Professor Torbald’s class accurately, the future is an ever-changing and undefined result of the myriad of actions taken in the present. So how can even an Enthileste Gate open up that can of worms?”

Rudy stepped up and agreed, “Torbald was right. But what this gate can do is reveal the future as it will be from the moment the request is made…and the conditions at that moment everywhere…I guess the whole universe, but maybe just in the Orion Spur?”

Hana and Tei joined them on the raised platform and gazed back into the depths of the cavern mouth at the back of the temple. Tei asked, “But then the past would be a cinch, right? Because it’s done.” Then she thought aloud, “The Enthileste wouldn’t go back and try to change anything…would they?”

Hana chuckled, “Now that would solve a world of troubles! Just drop by here, look up at the ceiling and command, ‘Take us to the beginnings of the Naradin Empire…” The room grew cloudier of a sudden and Hana finished her statement cautiously. “…and then go do some preemptive housecleaning in the Third Orchard…” She looked with more than a little nervousness to Rudy standing on the other side of Tei from her. Instinctively she made a step toward them. Rudy called her name as she vanished.

She instantly realized she wasn’t staring at Rudy and Tei through the odd gathering mists of the temple. The mists were smoke and the faint voice of Rudy calling her was turned into the screams of dozens of horribly disfigured forms attempting to escape their own bodies in what might have once been a village. Across the open space in front of her a building exploded in a massive fireball that rocked her back on her heels, she looked down out of reflex and the ground at her feet was slathered with the still bubbling charred blood of countless victims. A severed leg dropped with a thump and squish just steps in front of her. The flesh was still steaming from the explosion that had twisted it from its former owner. She looked up again to the building, now engulfed in flames. Through the gaping maw that was a doorway moments before, she saw an armored figure emerge carrying a long oddly shaped rifle. A short one of the red and crusted blobs, that had to have been villagers just shortly before, ran up to the figure at the building. Instead of assisting the bloody urchin, or at least putting it out of its misery, the monster grabbed at the child’s neck, lifted it in the air and hurled it over his shoulder into the conflagration behind him. Another concussive fireball erupted from within. The armored beast howled with a piercing screech of evil laughter, proud of his timing. He looked up into the sky, Hana followed his gaze, when at that moment he launched himself on a arcing flight toward the passing scavenging ship, the noxious steam of his jetpack leaving a plume of death in his wake.

Rudy gasped and reached passed Tei, she grabbed his hand and they vanished. They weren’t looking at the wall of the temple behind where Hana had just been standing a split second before. Instead it was the broken and burning wall of a barn or stable. Disemboweled and steaming beasts of several sizes were strewn around the red muddy ground all around them. Tei caught her breath and the acrid smoke clotted in her throat. Rudy pulled her closer as four or five ghastly figures in bloody tatters fled passed them shrieking in torment and confusion. The screeching gears of hulking machines split the air behind them, followed by the grotesque crunching noises of wood and bone being crushed under extreme weight. A nearby concussion shook them and they instinctively turned toward it. Hana was standing several feet away transfixed by some gruesome sight through the haze of choking smoke. Tei screamed her name. Hana turned from the revulsion of her vision with an emptiness in her eyes. She seemed drained of her spirit in disbelief at the carnage and chaos around them. Rudy pressed them both to his sides just as another scavenger ship careened through the skies overhead in an eerie hollow scream of blasting engines. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion; the devastation and destruction dragged on eternally before their eyes.

Mara and Anton turned from where they’d been looking into the cavern, realized they were alone all of a sudden. They held hands and made a step toward the edge of the dais, calling, “Hana, Rudy, Tei…” but their voices didn’t echo off the temple walls. The sounds of their calls were lost in the din and smoke of the raging fires erupting from buildings all around them. Their calls to their friends were nearly drowned in the ear-splitting riotous rushing howl of the ghoulish forms in a deathly dance around them. Muck and blood, steam, smoke and debris burning and stinging their eyes and throats. They crumpled in a heap to their knees as the shock and jolts of explosions ripped through the air and jerked the ground from beneath their feet. Anton thought he could see three figures close at hand—the only immobile and still standing shapes in the inferno surrounding them. He pulled Mara to her feet and staggered with her clutching at his side in horrific revulsion of the pageant of agony playing out in front of her eyes. Summoning all he had left of his incredulity and strength he called out again for Rudy, Hana and Tei.

One of the three figures snapped their head around to squint in his direction; it was Rudy. They struggled to tow their clinging partners towards each other as they reunited at the vortex of the desolation into which they’d been cast like ragdolls into a cesspit. Trying to avoid being trampled by the fleeing and burning villagers going berserk all around them, Anton shouted over the melee, “I thought you said only an Enthileste could operate the Gates!?” Rudy held a hand up to his ear, a gesture of incomprehension. They huddled together, grasping each other as belay lines to their sanity. Rudy shook his head violently to dispel the nightmare from his vision and thoughts. It was all still there.

Hana was still seemed in shock, as was Tei next to her. Their eyes were wild with fear. Mara was in a state of abject disbelief. She asked in the strange sing-song voice of a schoolgirl, “You don’t believe we just got tossed back into time to the beginning of the Naradin Empire?! That was thousands of years ago! Right?!”

Anton put his arm around her and waved for them all to find more shelter than the middle of the village square. Rudy pulled Hana and Tei along after Anton and Mara. He shook himself again, and in spite of his shaken nerves, tried to get his bearings. He made himself heard to the others, “If by some really weird phenomenon Hana has activated the Nissa Gate, and if this is the Third Orchard, and if this one of the early planets of Naradin conquest…Then yes, Mara; we are thousands of years in the past, and thousands of light years from home.”

His words fell on vacant expressions, but it got the wheels of their minds turning once more. Tei muttered, “The Naradin took over from the Hamulk…an even more barbaric empire of brutality…”

Hana wrenched her will to slam a wall between the haunting sights she’d been forced to watch and the present of that moment. She composed herself just enough for her brain to kick into gear and make a plan. “We have to get out of this ‘village’ first and foremost….these people aren’t fleeing for no reason—There is evil here, and mortal danger if we remain to suffer the same fate as these…these…” Her voice cracked, but she set her jaw and forced her way forward, “We have to find food and shelter…” She pointed, “There’s an open gate on the other side of that corral over there, and it looks like hills beyond the forest…”

The searching eyes of the others turned to where she was pointing and they nodded mechanically. They tensed to spring and run. Rudy insisted, “Stay together! Hold hands and don’t let go…” he made sure they each heard him as best he could. “Go!”

They bolted for the corral, whatever beasts had been penned there had already stampeded in bloody terror or were lying in the street behind them. They made the far gate through the slippery red, gray and brown mire of the abandoned paddock. Without taking even one more glance over their shoulders at the horrific nightmare of devastation behind them they raced for the edge of the forest and cover. They gripped each other’s hands and were thankful that at least they were each in similar physical shape from all their training…no stragglers. Once beneath the canopy, they found a path but didn’t stop; they kept up as quick a pace as they could manage to wind deeper and deeper into the dark wood and gradually into the hills beyond. The air was clearer, the ground less moist, the din of the slaughter was far more muted with each stride through the undergrowth and trees.

At a little stream, when they could no longer hear even the echo of blood-curdling screams, or feel the heart-stopping battery of now dwindling explosions from the valley below, they stopped and drank one at a time, still keeping alert to any movements around them. Anton looked up the trunk of the nearest tree. “I think we can get up there and gain some vantage of where we just left…”

Hana nodded and reached for the lowest limb. The others followed her lead and shortly they were decorating the higher branches and gazing back at the way they’d come. What met their eyes was no comfort at all. In the distant sky, and for as far as the eye could see, were drone ships that erratically spewed out blasts of burning incendiaries…seemingly randomly. It didn’t matter if it were buildings, animals, people or empty ground that was set aflame. Everything was ablaze and the smoke of destruction hung like a veil over the wide valley. Buzzing over the surrounding hills and forests were larger craft, presumably manned, likely scavenging crews waiting to wipe away any living remnants, any evidence of what had been villages and fields.

“That village must’ve just been blasted, and the drones were already moving on when we popped in…” Mara observed. “But why would the Gate send us here? What is the significance of this valley to the future Naradin Empire, or the significance of this whole cursed world for that matter?”

Rudy thought hard. “Tei remembered it was the Hamulk who may still be holding onto whatever power they might yet wield…If this is typical of the random acts of violence being visited to these people all over this world…”

Tei finished, “Then it could be an act of desperation, not surgical strikes to solidify a strategic position. On the other hand…”

Anton and Hana agreed in principle, “You two took Dr. Hanson’s seminar on the Naud and Naradin, and are more versed in this than we are,” Hana asked quickly, “What do you remember, if anything is known about it: Was there a turning point, or critical battle for supremacy between the old and new regimes? Or was it a gradual, unnoticed transition?”

Rudy shuddered, looked to Tei who shrugged, but offered, “All I remember for sure is that the Hamulk were the ones who exploited starships far better than their predecessors, the Urulai. What the Naradin did that set them up as the inheritors of the previous two dominions was…” An explosion erupted suddenly just a couple hundred yards from the tree in which they were perched. Another wave of drones was making a back end sweep of the area. They passed over more quickly than the first assault had flown. Rudy instinctively whispered the end of what Tei was saying, “…they applied the law of large numbers to the proven tactics employed by the Hamulk. They literally filled the skies of every encountered world with their machines…”

Tei nodded vigorously, “This isn’t a last desperate act then…it has to be one of those earliest experiments at mass annihilation! Maybe the first!”

Rudy caught what she was driving at, “That would put this planet in the middle of the Crux Arm—the Third Orchard—in the Tarsion system…”

Tei finished, “…The first demonstration of Naradin superiority—the planet of Narad!”

Hana, Anton and Mara did a double-take, “Huh?! They destroyed their own world?”

Tei explained, “They aren’t the Naradin from Narad…They are the Naradin, because they won Narad through total devastation and were called the ‘Naradin’ because of it…”

Rudy added, “No one except maybe the Enthileste know the true name of the people that are called the Naradin…and frankly, I’m not so sure it matters one whit…”

Anton tried to smile, “But what does matter is that we perhaps know where we are and what’s most likely to happen next…Don’t we?”

Hana agreed that they probably were on Narad, and Mara asked, “What did they do after obliterating the existing population? They had to erase them entirely didn’t they, to claim total destruction?”

Rudy commented, “Not necessarily; remember the Naradin have no respect for any peoples but themselves…but they also don’t do actual work themselves either…Whoever survives this assault will probably wish they hadn’t as they face life under the Naradin as slaves…”

Hana asked, “Where do…did…do they set up the capital?”

Tei answered, “The Imperial Palaces were built on top of the former great city that was Onsu. Narad doesn’t have a tilt to its axis…Onsu was situated on the south pole.”

Mara looked up through the dissipating, choking layer of smoke into the now barely twinkling first stars of twilight, and smiled a wan smile. “Who remembers second year Astro-Navigation? How do you tell your way around if you’re suddenly plopped completely outside of all the stars that are familiar to you?”

They said almost in chorus, “Find the Milky Way and track its passage through the sky!”

Rudy clapped and rubbed his hands together, “We have no food, no shelter, but we have the beginnings of a plan. Anton and I will get busy on the shelter part, who’s for scavenging up something tasty?” And he let himself drop from the branches to land on all fours below the tree. Hana followed him as Tei, Anton and Mara climbed back down the way they’d climbed up.

Mara’s pack got caught on a branch as she descended, “Hey! We have our picnic! That got pushed completely out of my mind…somehow…” Their first attempt at a chuckle was weak at best. Anton pulled off the other forgotten pack from his own back and announced, “We have an assortment of beverages as well…”

Hana remarked, “My eyes are adjusting very fast to the low light… should I start looking around for a cave, or should we build a lean-to here near water?”

Anton looked around at the clearings on either side of the stream. “This side’s higher by a bit…” Rudy nodded and began scouring the area for branches to use as a lean-to roof-wall. Anton began sweeping the litter on the forest floor toward a long low branch that might serve as the support for what Rudy was able to gather. Mara, Tei and Hana joined their feet together to push the dried leaves and needles into a thick mat. Their labors began to take shape as a serviceable bivouac.

“We could risk a fire…but personally, I’ve had enough smoke for one day…” Anton remarked as they set down to their few provisions.

Mara set her backpack before them, opened it, selected one container of the four inside, and left the other three in the pack. She answered the unasked question, “Rationing…Don’t know how long this’ll have to last us…”

Anton took out one of the four bottles from his pack, shrugged, opened it and sniffed it. He handed it to Tei. “Here Tei, this one’s a blended fruit thing; you’re the thinnest of us…you probably need the nutrients more…” Mara noted his consideration and smiled.

Tei wouldn’t take it, “Don’t let my frame deceive you…” she glanced around at them, “…My inner physiology is a little different than the average Nourii…Let’s just leave it at that, okay?”

Hana reached for the bottle, then handed it back to Anton, “Here Anton, you carried them, you take the first drink…Mara same with the sandwich…Go ahead!” She encouraged. Anton and Mara looked uncertainly at each other then to the other three.

Mara shrugged, “Yes, Boss…” and took the first bite, then handed it to Anton, who handed her the bottle. Once that was out of the way, they handed the items to Tei and Hana, who accepted them and did the same. Rudy accepted his turn and handed the items one by one back to Mara and Anton and the process repeated until they finished their first meal on Narad.

Tei lay back on the ground and stared up at the stars, now more visible than before. “Those there, straight up above us, haven’t moved. But those others, there, there and there,” she pointed, “Are already out of the position they were when Mara first drew our attention to them.”

Rudy and Hana concentrated on the night sky above and around the horizon. Mara suggested, “There’s still too much burning. Between the light of the fires and the smoke, I can’t make out much except what’s directly overhead…” Anton agreed.

Tei, Hana and Rudy, however, had eyes which resolved even the faintest images in the lowest light. Hana tried to explain, “I don’t know about Lascorii, but Rudy and I got the best of both worlds, Rutatoi and Human, when our folks granted us these bodies…”

Tei was reticent to admit anything about her people, but added, “The Lascor can see in the dark…we’ve had to…uh….adapt to so many harsh and unyielding physical circumstances over the length of our existence as an outcast race. I’m not pointing fingers, or complaining, just explaining the facts of my physiology…” she paused but continued, “Master Leva seemed to know; she anticipated certain of my potentials as we talked more and more…and in some really odd places during the last Games. Like underwater, in near vacuum, total darkness—I know because we were in a vault, no light sources—then there was the way she spoke to me, sometimes not even speaking louder than a whisper and from the next room…but she was speaking to me directly.” She sighed, “That gives you all a gist of what my body’s capable of in the Instinctive Center department anyway. My Moving Center is…well…also unique…as compared to Human and Nourii, I mean.” She looked at Rudy and Hana, “I don’t think it’s anything you two can’t demonstrate, though…”

Anton and Mara yawned and snuggled closer. Rudy put his arms around both Hana and Tei. There was only weariness and a sense of fraternity—they were together, alone facing the near unknown and each hoped in their heart they would just wake up in the Nissa Temple as if this were just an awful dream or vision. Rudy watched the stars above them nearly all night. When he felt he couldn’t keep his eyes open a moment longer, he roused Tei and Hana and dropped into sleep.

They rubbed sleep from their eyes, glanced at Anton and Mara still slumbering peacefully and tried a smile at each other. Tei raised a finger and pointed to the far side of the stream as petitely as she could manage. Hana smiled and understood implicitly…she had the same present urge. They rose carefully and went to watch the area as the other peed. They silently crept back to ‘camp’ and Hana pointed directly over their heads at the stars. Tei followed her arm and sure enough, the same stars they’d seen the evening before were still there, but all the field of other stars, stretching to the horizons, had rotated and were now on opposite horizons than where they started.

Tei whispered, “We’re at one of the poles…”

Hana nodded, “I’m betting the South Pole, which explains why we were sent to that village…it’s a future suburb of the Imperial City…” and she pointed up over the hills in which they were taking refuge.

Tei’s eyes grew round, “We’re at the future Center of the Naradin Empire?! The very Center!?” Hana just shrugged and nodded. They instinctively looked over at Rudy’s sleeping frame at the same time. Noticing the other mirroring her own concern, each reached for the other’s hand and they sat down at Rudy’s feet.

Hana whispered, “MamaLeva asked me and Rudy to take especial care of you…”

Tei stifled a giggle, and whispered, “Am I that dangerous?”

Hana shook her head, “Not that kind of special! We didn’t ask why, but like Yantin says, ‘An Enhiides serves the Masters and it is the depth of inanity to refuse an Enthileste request’…” She hesitated, “That and we both think your great…” She looked at the ground; Tei sensed embarrassment.

“Hana, I swore to stick by you through anything after you defended me in that cafe…what seems like ages ago…” Tei whispered.

Hana interrupted with a smile, “…Ages in the future, more like…”

Tei smiled and continued, “I don’t know what the Masters see in me, but I see my life with you and Rudy. I’ll serve, talk, or just be near you two, but no one’s prying me away without a fight…”

Hana put her arm around her friend, and whispered, “We love you too, Tei-tei…” She put her forehead next to Tei’s and purred. A moment later she stood, “Now I have a favor to ask…”

Tei cautiously asked, “What?”

Hana pointed up the ridge, “Will you stay and watch over these three while I sneak up the ridge for a peek at the other side…I may be gone an hour or so…”

Tei leapt to her feet noiselessly, put her hand to Hana’s elbow and whispered in her ear, “Absolutely NOT!” Hana relaxed.

“Worth a try…I’m dying to see if what we suspect is true…” she muttered.

Tei relaxed, “We should probably come up with some plan for getting off this planet…unless you’re thinking we can enlist in the slave workforce…terrible benefit packages, but the views are better than here…”

Hana stifled a belly laugh and looked at Tei, “Tei! You made a joke! That’s the first time I can remember your ever making a joke!”

Tei shrugged with a smile, “This situation just brings out the best in me I suppose…” Hana’s head wagged back and forth.

“You are a precious jewel—” Hana almost said aloud, but remembered to whisper. She needn’t have.

There was a sudden crashing accompanied by the sounds of thrumming engines approaching over the ridge, a half mile distant. Tei and Hana quickly roused the others with a hand over their mouths to stifle their objections. When they came to themselves once more and heard the thrashing growing louder, they gathered up the food packs and Rudy pointed in a direction ninety degrees from the ‘bull-dozers’ and where they’d slept. Nods all around met his suggestion and they started off at a trot, careful to disturb as little of the undergrowth in their passage as possible.

What seemed like hours later they were out of earshot of the droning machines and Hana called a halt. “We had better eat something or this flight isn’t going to last much longer.”

Mara and Anton heartily agreed and pulled out a sandwich and second bottle to repeat their eating ritual. Tei and Hana repeated what they suspected about where they were and what they envisioned as what would likely next take place just over the ridge from them. Tei explained, “We’ve been running laterally to this ridge that seems to surround what is most likely a really immense plain on the other side…I think it’s a vast crater or bowl…”

Rudy, Anton and Mara agreed with that, and that their first order of business was to get off-planet as soon as they could devise. “Like Tei said,” Hana explained, “Slavery isn’t an option…”

Anton asked, “Do you suppose they have supply ships, freighters, transport vessels and such just waiting in orbit to begin the construction?”

Mara pointed out, “It’s pretty unlikely those bull-dozers back there were homegrown…I get the impression, from what’s left of that village, that this world’s residents weren’t a technological match for the Naradin… They must’ve already begun sending down a construction corps.”

Rudy nodded, “Yeah, and they wouldn’t be doing the work themselves…”

Hana observed, “So long as those transports actually go back and forth…meaning they can escape the gravity well of this planet, we may have an opportunity to ‘hitch a ride’.”

Tei cautioned, “We really need eyes on the situation…but we have got to stick together…” She held Hana’s eyes, “No individual scouting!”

Rudy replied, “Agreed. Here’s how the Rutatoi go about this sort of thing…” and he explained the techniques for discovering the gaps in a predator’s defenses. “…Of course that’s for packs of animal predators…” he added at the last.

Anton remarked, “Naradin…Animal?” and he held out his hands as if weighing the options in an invisible scale.

“Alright then,” Rudy took a deep breath, “Let’s get on with it…”

Hana held them back a moment longer, “Wait, there is one more reality check I think needs to be mentioned,” and she held Tei and Rudy’s hands tightly, “Should we become separated…for any reason…it is imperative that we do not admit where we come from, who we are, or anything that might jeopardize the future we already know exists. Probably just our being here isn’t too damaging, but let’s really try and keep it that way!”

They nodded solemnly. It was a reality check alright. With the adrenalin of the evening before, and the fast pace of the morning already, none of them had contemplated the larger dangers that confronted, not just them…which were daunting enough, but the worlds and lives of the Orion Spur they had been ejected from should they make a serious misstep.

Rudy led the way on around through the hills, gradually narrowing the gap between them and the crest of the ridge. They came to an broad open meadow and waited in the cover at the edge of the trees for what felt like an interminable time. Yet none of them were anxious to rush on across, and seeing the thick growth of brambles and other thorny clumps of bushes discouraged the thought of skirting it.

Mara wiped her forehead again, and whispered, “Do you suppose they’ve killed all the animals too? Has anyone seen or even heard the sounds of anything but a few birds?” That was thought-provoking. Anton looked at the ground around where they had been crouching; then he looked back along the way they’d come and crept back there a little way.

Rudy, who had been methodically studying the perimeter of the meadow, whispered, “I’m sure I’ve seen something like squirrels, and the occasional slithering creature…but I haven’t seen anything larger than that…”

Hana shook her head. “Not even any recent tracks or spoor. No strange calls, nor any inexplicable rustling in the undergrowth…”

Anton sidled back to within their circle. “Not even insects…Even if they blanketed the forests with some kind of poisonous gas…there’d have to be carcasses laying around…but nothing! No smells of decay or buzzing bugs.”

Tei interjected quietly, “Lascor doesn’t have but a handful of indigenous mammals. There are more reptiles and amphibious species than you can count but even they are mostly in the equatorial regions…”

Mara asked, “Do you think the Naradin chose this planet for that reason? I mean, maybe they have a phobia of animals or something?”

The others chuckled at the image of the great empire of conquerors, brutal as they were, leaping to chairs at the sight of a mouse or bunny. It was just too rich to not find hilarious. Rudy held up his arm and pointed to a spot on the other side of the meadow.

“The grasses are just tall enough to conceal us if we have to suddenly avoid a drone or something. I think we can make those three crooked trees in fifteen minutes even taking a serpentine route to get there. Ready?” The others took a deep breath and let it out, stretched to get their stiffening bodies prepared for another push and they nodded one by one. They made it there in less time than anticipated. They gathered in the spreading roots of the largest tree and caught their breath. The sounds of another stream met their ears and Tei crept through a tangled mat of thick mosses and waved back to them to follow.

“It’s brackish in the pools,” she pointed, “but clear where it’s running, and it smells sweet enough…” They sipped and felt revived to some degree. So the march continued through the rest of the day.

By late afternoon, they were just below an outcrop that spanned the ridge crest. The Naradin, or whoever was orchestrating the follow-up to the assault and subsequent construction projects, didn’t seem to think there was any threat to their plans. They had encountered only a dozen or so scout drones during the whole of their progress since rising that morning. That kept them wary, but at the same time it was a relief that there wasn’t a more active cleansing campaign following the purging by fire during which they arrived the day before. They peered around the outcrop and got their first glimpse of the scorched plain that once was Onsu and which one day would be the early seat of a vast Empire. They ate their light supper from the backpacks and reviewed all they knew so far.

“They’re certainly not wasting any time!” Anton observed as he scanned the still smoldering area as far as his eyes could see.

Tei whispered, “Over there, eighty degrees from our location and maybe four miles distant, those look like unloading towers…”

Mara whispered back, “We’ll know soon enough…Look up there…” she indicated with her chin a small dot of fire growing nearer and nearer to the opposite side of the plain from where they were. In another few minutes it was close enough to see that it wasn’t a little anything.

As Tei suspected, it came in low firing retros and settled near those towers she’d noticed. As soon as the rockets were stilled, teams of what looked like ants from that distance, pushed the rolling towers into place and the ship began disgorging its cargo down the ramps.

Hana retreated and sat with her back to the outcrop. Tei and Mara did the same and they began whispering while Anton and Rudy still watched the scene in fascination. “No cargo is going aboard, just machines, equipment and materials being off-loaded. How are we going to get aboard?” she mused.

Mara reviewed all her memories watching the supply shuttles come and go from the port near her home as a girl. Tei was thinking much the same, and Hana racked her brain to consider all that was required for the Naradin construction to be effective. What supplies? What manpower? What machinery? What infrastructure would have to be installed? Which were the projects that would be done first then their builders leave? She snapped her fingers, instantly gaining the others’ attention.

“The architects and surveyors! They won’t be Naradin…and the architects at least will likely have to shuttle back and forth between their employers, Masters more like, in the biggest ships in orbit and what’s being surveyed and prepared on-site…They’ll have to come and go!”

Anton nodded, “Okay. And?”

Tei caught the sense of what she’d said. “And…we need to go undercover and become surveyor lackies or go-fers for the Architects…”

Mara smiled, “Even more undercover than this?”

Rudy and Anton thought her sarcasm was apt. Rudy suggested, “Let’s drop back down the ridge and circle to another vantage point, we need to know the locations of where all their shuttles land and leave before we can make a useful plan…”

Hana took one more look at the plain. “We need to know pretty quickly, they work fast….”

In the hour before sundown and twilight, they set off once more around through the hills, but shortly came to the end of the forest cover. Blasted and charred ground stretched out in front of them with no obvious hiding places scattered anywhere in reach. Tei smiled cryptically, “It’s time to really blend in…”

Mara understood that clearly enough. “If you think we are going to roll around in that…that…muck! Just to get around this plain to the other side…and for who knows how far…I…I just can’t! I mean who knows what’s in that goop?”

Hana looked at her askance. “Mara? I thought you said you spent your last summers on Dwarlii working at the spa resorts? You mean to tell me they didn’t have mud-baths at those facilities?”

Mara clucked, “Of course they did! But that’s different! The operative word there is baths…cleansing things…not muddy muck and goop!”

Rudy and Anton just looked at each other trying hard not to laugh. That really wouldn’t help at all and they knew it. Tei tried a different tack. “But Mara, we’ve already noted that this world is lacking in wildlife…at least it is at present…so there won’t be droppings mixed in. And it’s obviously been scorched, which suggests there were crops or some tended vegetation that the Naradin felt compelled to eradicate for whatever reason, so it’s been cleansed by fire. And then there’s the fact that it is mud, not dust, so the irrigation that once fed these huge fields came from a spring, or stream or reservoir…likely the same used as potable water for the city that used to be on the other side of this ridge…”

Hana summed it up, “This stuff you’re calling muck and goop is probably cleaner and more ‘cleansing’ than whatever constituted the ‘mud’ in those ‘baths’ you seemed completely comfortable with…”

Mara’s tense expression of disgust slackened enough for her to look between the two girls and try a sheepish smile. “You two think I’m being ridiculous…that after all we’ve already been through…that a little mud gives me the heebie-jeebies?” They cautiously and as considerately as possible, nodded. Mara looked up at the last rays of light disappearing behind the distant red-grey clouds on the horizon. She sighed, “At least…can we wait until closer to morning…please don’t let’s go out in that in the dark…”

Rudy finally interjected, “Even though it would be easier to not be detected if we went out now…” Mara stiffened and her revulsion of the prospect reasserted itself. Rudy continued, “We’ll wait to get started, as Mara suggests, really early in the morning. We can’t see the other side of this charred landscape right now anyway…it may stretch completely around…perhaps the whole rest of what we estimate to be the seventy or eighty mile circumference of this crater-bowl plain thing.”

Anton remarked, “If Tei’s suggestion about irrigation was correct, we may find ditches and canals. That might make our progress a little quicker, even give us a break from crawling—which looks like what we’re in for as soon as we enter that morass.”

It was settled for the time being, and they moved further back under the cover of forest canopy—the last they were going to see for a while. Although Mara hadn’t said so, the night before had been terrifying as well. Spending time in the wilderness had not ever been one of her activities. Boutiques, Resorts, Restaurants, pristine beaches, even the occasional mountain lodge…but not just ‘plop down on the ground, wind your way through forest wilderness’!

They had to conserve their last bit of food for the morning and the long ‘creep’ that they anticipated would fill all of the next day. A small fire was out of the question, so they huddled under their night’s lean-to shelter and were quiet with their own thoughts for a long while. As the stars began to shine brighter and brighter, Anton mused, “Why haven’t we seen the moon, or moons, I wonder?”

Rudy suggested, “If I was going to plan an assault on a technologically deprived people…who might very well still have superstitions about nature and the heavens, I’d attack in the darkness of the new moon—far more terrifying—and work my way around the planet in the darkness.”

Tei proposed, “It isn’t enough for some people to simply destroy the lives of others…they feel compelled to, as Rudy said, terrify them. To inflict as much mental and emotional devastation on their victims as they intend to wreak on them physically. It’s a sociopathic…even psychopathic drive that compels them to demean, degrade, mortify, torture and clearly objectify their victims…” she shuddered and her companions had to wonder at the depth of her personal experience with such monsters. Anton had certainly had his share—his own parents were cast from that mold.

Hana began a little song, at first just in whispers, then in a quiet voice that wasn’t even a rival to the rustling leaves above them in the treetops. Rudy hummed a low harmony and Tei picked the higher part. Neither Mara nor Anton had ever learned to sing or play an instrument and they felt as though the little performance was just for them. After a fashion, it probably was. When the ‘trio’ was quiet once more, Anton pondered aloud, “What’s to become of our vault of gold and rhodium if we don’t get off this rock?” Then the realization finally settled on him that it wasn’t the gulf of space that alone separated them from their snug nest at Bag End, but the great chasm of time. He chuckled at himself, “Never mind that…We are thousands of years from even mining that asteroid! We’re not even twinkles in our parents’ eyes yet. Hell, my ancestors weren’t…rather, aren’t…” he corrected as he readjusted his sense of time and place, “…any different than the late unmourned saps on this planet…somewhere on a little blue marble in another part of this vast sea of stars…”

That realization became more real to Mara as well. She nodded, “My ancestors are just now establishing the first fleet of trading ships to connect all the outposts and fishing villages around the great sea of Dwarlii—our Renaissance. In several more years the great families will build the first Universities.”

Rudy smiled, “My ancestors just finished mapping Rutin for the first time using a new geometry, and are preparing to rezone the habitable lands and townships as distinct from arable lands, parklands and scenic wonders according to climate, latitude and clan occupations…” The others stared at him. He chuckled, “Just because we hiss and spit at each other every step of the way, doesn’t mean that we haven’t had an extraordinarily high level of civilization for thousands of years. We just don’t have much ambition, compared to others we’re finally getting to know at any rate…”

Hana giggled, “My ancestors were tilling the land, as their ancestors had for perhaps thousands of years already, and formulating the practicable method for passing on, generation to generation, the path toward reclaiming our birthright as sapient beings in the universe…and as Anton said, probably weren’t any more technologically advanced than the late inhabitants of Narad.”

Mara cocked her head, “I keep forgetting you’re not Rutatoi!”

Hana giggled, “I almost have also. Nope, I’m South Asian traditionally on my father’s side, and absolutely Skandinavian on my mother’s. I am the heir to a most prodigious heritage from both, and my adoptive parents…well, like we tried to explain once before, Enthileste are ‘different.’

They drifted off to sleep. Mara nestled into Anton’s arms, and Rudy sat up with Tei and Hana curled up around his back like two spoons. He watched and listened to the few noises of the night, and thought about where they were, when they were, and what could possibly be their next steps forward. Like Tei reminded them, slavery was not an option. He let them all sleep until just about two hours before sunrise. He roused Hana and Tei and they nudged Anton and Mara into wakefulness.

Tei didn’t let Mara have time to revisit her misgivings about what they had to do this day. She picked up handfuls of the sooty mud and began smearing it over her body and clothes. Hana did the same while Anton and Mara opened up their packs. Anton looked at the bottle of juice, and the one remaining sandwich. “Let’s hope there’s a buffet table for the grunt labor…” They ate quickly, made sure they were each well-coated and began the day’s trials.

In less than twenty minutes from when they’d awakened, they were creeping slowly across the open scorched area, just five undefined shapes of mud-caked lumps zigzagging up and across a slope of the ridge through the charred fields of what once were crops…probably just days before. They rested at odd intervals, taking positions at a distance from each other, unevenly spaced. The good thing about the mud coating was that they didn’t lose any moisture through perspiration, because the mud shielded them from the glaring sun as the forest canopy had done for them the previous day. It was an unending trek, on all fours, moving like beetles over field after field after field. The few irrigation channels they found weren’t deep enough in which to walk erect, and they were absent any water to quench their growing thirst. Still, drones passed over head at odd intervals and they froze in place becoming just nondescript lumps in a wide open lumpy expanse of monotone gray-brown.

By twilight they were within the sparse cover of the main irrigation canals that once brought water to the ditches and channels they’d passed all day in the fields. Their pace increased and they at last came to a staging pond of sorts still holding water that looked clear enough to drink. It was and they did. Not far from there they were able to reach the low stone walls that had to have been the edges of one of the main roads into the former city—now an empty plain. They worked their way up to the crest of the hill where the road turned and ran around the inside of the ‘bowl’ that was the boundary of the new construction.

Rudy spotted a tangled pile of broken and twisted stone and metal halfway between themselves and the low rows of what were probably workers’ barracks beyond. They followed him stealthily under the rising starlight to the relative safety of the massive rumble pile. The smells of cook fires and the occasional sound of voices were all that evinced life of any kind still inhabiting the plain in the darkness.

Mara related, “In the distance today, I noticed four ships arrive, like the one we saw from the outcrop, and two smaller ones. The four big ones left again, I think, but I only noticed the smaller ones arrive…”

Hana nodded, “I didn’t see them leave either, and it looked like they should be somewhere right around over there,” she pointed, “…if I got their approach trajectories right…”

Rudy and Tei nearly squinted to discern any shapes in that direction. Tei whispered, “There is something out there, but I can’t tell if they are ships or more barracks…there are only a few lights around them.”

Mara said, “That aroma is ambrosia…we need food and more water…”

Hana added, “…And someplace safer than this for the night…”

Rudy sat on his haunches; they all were become used to squatting and crouching more than standing. “The last five barracks don’t look occupied like the others further down…”

Anton gasped, “We’re not taking up residence in their own barracks!”

Rudy shook his head, “Actually I was thinking ‘under’ them…”

Anton was relieved…slightly. Hana was staring at the few fires still burning and what appeared to be boxes scattered in no particular pattern nearby. “Crates of food packs…I’d bet money on it…They can afford to just leave them lying about…sealed packages, no refrigeration needed…no animals…” She looked at her mates. The gleam of the thought of shelter and a bite to eat was a powerful incentive to dare the approach.

Tei suggested, “If we do this, we need to keep two on watch at all times…Rudy did a great job, but…”

Rudy commented, “Understood. But before we situate ourselves under one of those,” he waved his hand, “we need to know how we’re going to get out in the morning and locate the shuttles with all these workers around.”

Tei smiled, “Why wait ’til morning…right now we sorta have an advantage…”

Hana agreed, “…And get back to the cover of under a barracks before sunrise. If we haven’t found a more suitable hotel before then…”

Mara and Anton liked that notion. Anton muttered, “Early breakfast instead of late dinner it is then…” They followed Tei and Hana along the ground toward the place they hoped was the landing site of the shuttles. That they hoped hadn’t taken off unnoticed. That they hoped would offer better shelter and some idea as to how to secretly get themselves aboard and escape. That they hoped would be somewhere other than the Naradin ‘mothership.’ So ran their thoughts as they crept farther and farther into the open plain.

Then something unexpectedly awful occurred; a most spectacular moonrise just began to peek over the horizon off to their right. Rudy gazed through the slightly increased light and made out the outline of one shuttle surrounded by several low buildings and what looked like a circular reservoir. He whispered, “That may have been a plaza in the old city, and it’s only two hundred yards or so awa. We haven’t got a choice now…”

They picked up their pace, scuttling on all fours like stalking cats in a flock of birds. As the first brighter rays of moonlight broke over the far rim of the bowl, they were panting next to the reservoir thingie. A figure was leaning against one of the buildings. A ring of smoke drifted up from something in his hand at his mouth. Anton whispered, “Smoking?”

Tei sniffed, “It’s not any smoking mixture I’ve smelled before…”

Rudy and Hana estimated the interior arrangement and capacity of the ship. “She’s barely scout-class…”

Hana nodded, “More like a yacht or shuttle. I think we’ve found our architects…at least one of them…”

Mara asked, “Now what?”

Tei suggested, “We can slip over into this holding tank and get rid of our camouflage…we’re not going to need this disguise for whatever we do next…”

There was a unanimous nod from the rest of them on that score, especially from Mara. They crept around to the far side, out of sight of the guarded building, and slipped over the wall into the water one at a time. It was stale and undrinkable, but it was water and the caked mud did come off in it. After quietly cleaning each other’s backs and other parts out of their individual reach they crouched, dripping, next to the cool stone.

Mara quipped, “How’s my hair?” and she pantomimed primping her long tresses. Stifled giggles and chuckles met her performance.

Tei asked, “How much cargo space do you think is in there? If any?”

Hana replied, “If it’s like the Tygress, plenty. If it’s like the Federation runabouts, practically none.”

Rudy had a flash of insight, “Did anyone hear the ships arrive, or did we just see them?”

“Huh?” they answered collectively.

“I mean did anyone hear engines! I didn’t,” he insisted.

Tei and Hana shook their heads. Mara and Anton did likewise. Rudy continued, “The main hatch is open and I’m betting the pilot and crew are in the buildings, not sleeping on the ship…”

Anton whispered hoarsely, “Are you out of your mind?!”

Mara was shaken by his outburst and looked at Rudy skeptically. “That would require all of us to go aboard, find out if your ‘guess’ is correct, and then all of us get out again if it is occupied, or, if we are lucky, skeedaddle in it as quickly as possible if it’s empty…In a ship you’ve never flown, using controls you’ve never seen!?”

Hana looked around them and waved her arm. “We’re running out of options the closer we get to our objective. The question isn’t: whether to or not; it’s: when is the right moment to strike. This is as close to an escape route as we’re likely going to get from the Naradin any time soon!”

Tei nodded. Anton sighed and stared up at the stars. Mara sat back and closed her eyes. Rudy calculated the distance between the nearest spot they could still remain under cover—sticking close to the stone reservoir until the last moment—and the ship’s open hatch. Hana stared at the figure next to the wall of the building, still blowing smoke rings. If he was a lookout and not just a fellow having a smoke after dinner…he needed to be neutralized before anything else they did or didn’t do. Was he the only one? How noisy was the ship’s hatch when it closed? How long was the ship’s start-up sequence? Could they even locate and decipher the controls? Were there armaments at this building site ready to be activated? And where would they need to set course in the stolen yacht to escape the inevitable pursuit?

Her mind raced and she took a deep breath. Tei seemed to sense and understand what was filling her thoughts. She put her hand on Hana’s cheek and mouthed more than whispered, “We can do this…”

Rudy looked back to them all and sketched out his ‘plan.’ They listened. Hana inclined her head to the ‘guard.’ Tei whispered, “That’s in my wheelhouse; just be ready to move when I give the signal…” and she scampered to the edge of the building, ran her hands repeatedly over her body as if putting on lotion, then sauntered along the wall toward the figure.

Mara asked, “What was supposed to be the signal?”

As if in answer, the figure slumped forward and Tei dashed for the hatch. Hana was on her feet at once, “That!” she breathed and they dashed across the forty or so yards and leapt into the yacht behind Tei.

Rudy and Hana went forward immediately. “Don’t raise the hatch until the last second…” she cautioned over her shoulder. “We have to play this really close to the vest.” She turned to the control panels that Rudy was already examining.

He pointed, “Navigation, Ops, Comm, and here’s the helm controls…”

She cleared her mind and took in the whole series of panels at once. Noticed the wear on certain of the controls versus others, judged the organization of the levers, knobs and buttons. “There! That’s the Engine controls…Start-up is here,” she pointed and pantomimed their use. “Altitude and thrusters are here,” she motioned to another grouping and looked at Rudy for confirmation.

He glanced up at her and muttered, “That’s as close as I got… Close the hatch; we’re gonna blow this burg!”

Hana wheeled and waved her arm up in a motion imitating closing the hatch. Anton stood next to it and had found the controls; he pressed a button and winced. To everyone’s relief the ramp came up noiselessly…almost. As it sealed there was a really loud clanking and thumping as the bolts fell into locked position.

Rudy had just started the Engines which began in a low humming noise. Then as he pulled on the ‘Altitude’ lever they shifted to a high pitched whine.

“Strap in!” Hana ordered, “We’ve only got this one shot at it, and it’s going to get real bumpy, real fast!” She turned and strapped herself into the seat next to Rudy, picked up the commlink and flipped a switch.

“Might as well take this charade to its logical conclusion,” she announced and pressed the switch on the mic. “Control, this yacht…” she read from the plaque below the view screen, “…One One Three Seven Seven, the ‘Instarrett,’ advising of emergency return…medical issues…” and she cut off the mic and turned off the system entirely. “That might get us a moment or two of leeway before they drop the boom on us…”

The landscape below them was a blur as Rudy got up to speed and turned her nose for the stars on an arcing trajectory that was tangential to any orbit he could imagine ships might be using around the planet. “Check sensors, scan for anything larger than a breadbasket…”

Hana flipped switch after switch until the little scanning screen glowed brightly. “I don’t know what the numbers mean…maybe registrations…but there’re skads of ’em off our starboard stern…and only two or three off our port bow…”

Lights began blinking all over the Comm. She repeated sedately in response, “…I’m sorry the number you have dialed is not in service, please…” and a flash of light blinded them from just in front of the ship followed by a concussion. The whole yacht shuddered but was still whole.

Rudy called aloud, “Does this thing have any shields? We’re gonna need ’em, NOW!”

Another concussion rocked them but the flash came from behind. Hana located the only panel she couldn’t discern a use for. Opening it she saw three sliders. “Okay, maybe they are and maybe they’re not…Here Goes!” Just as another concussion erupted to their left. The ship didn’t shudder as much. Hana grinned, “Lucky guess…” and she slid the other two up into a similar position. “Put the pedal to the metal, Jackson…we have a date with anywhere but here and we’re running late!”

Rudy’s grim smile was all that showed he was as hardened to the situation as he could be. He asked through gritted teeth, “Is our course still splitting the difference between the two clumps of blips?”

Hana nodded, “Better than that…They’re behind us and there’s nothing in front of us except that moon…”

Rudy’s eyes caught hers, “Moon, did you say?”

She smiled back at him…glanced at the scanners, and tried to increase their resolution of the lunar surface. “There are apparently some tunnels or caves…my Captain!”

He blinked, rolled the nose away from their approach toward the natural satellite and called over his shoulder, “This is going to feel like a mountain just fell on your chest in: three…two…”

Everyone braced as he threw the ship over into a dive for the dark side of the moon so quickly that their sudden course change couldn’t be recovered by any scanners for half a second at least…that’s what he was counting on. Once in the shadow of the lifeless satellite, he flipped the ship one eighty, killed main engines and shifted to thrusters only. “Find me one of those tunnels or caves…And soon! That little maneuver won’t fool anyone for long… They’ll be coming to poke around here for us before the hour’s out.”

Hana examined the scanner, and kept looking up between that screen and the main viewer above. “There! On the inside edge of that steep crater…It’s plenty wide enough!”

He banked and went for it nose first, at the last second he flipped her over in a tumble and held his arms out against the levers as the thrusters screamed. He let them push the ship into the tunnel stern first. “Scanners Aft!”

Hana began calling adjustments in a steady voice…until she gasped, “We’re out of room! Full Stop!” Rudy gently yanked the controls in his hands and the ship floated softly down a few more feet…’Thump!’

He let out the breath he was holding, unstrapped and nearly floated up out of the cockpit. “Ladies and Gentlemen please be sure your seats and tray tables are in their upright and locked position…”

Hana cackled, “That’s pre-landing! Dunce!”

Mara, Anton and Tei just stared up at them…only slowly understanding that they were relatively safe for the moment. Anton muttered, “I hope there’s a bathroom on board…I need a change of underwear…”

A concussion shook the ship and walls of the tunnel. “They’re testing the waters…but we can hold out for quite a while yet…” Hana commented confidently. The shuddering remained constant, sometimes near sometimes remote. “They can’t know for sure if this is where we went to ground…there’s an asteroid field on the last course they actually saw this ship dash toward. Rudy’s sudden ‘left turn’ and instant acceleration had to have given us a little breathing space…You see sensors can’t respond in real time…they ‘guess’ about two seconds ahead and when they get it wrong, they instantly re-calibrate…that’s the gap he dove through…” She explained that as she shuttered the main viewer and flipped off flight system switches.

Mara unstrapped, “They better have food on board…I’m starved…”

Anton went to look for a head. Tei floated over to Hana and Rudy. “That’s the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do since leaving Lascor in a duffle bag…You two are Great!”

Rudy balked, “A duffle bag?!”

Hana put her arm around Tei and purred, “The most precious package ever to leave that planet!”

Their revery was interrupted by silence. Rudy glanced around as if he could see and hear through the bulkheads and walls of the cave. “They’ve stopped…for now at least…”

Mara called aloud and held up her find, “No food packs for these guys! First class all the way… Who’s ready for ‘wine, bread, cheese, meat and chocolate’? At least that’s what I’m calling it…don’t tell me if I’m mistaken,” and she tossed the treasures around to their waiting hands.

Anton emerged from a closet, almost naked. “Don’t press the button over the sink unless you have your pants on…” They cackled with laughter at his expression. Anton was a funny guy.

Rudy went and scrounged through lockers and cabinets. “We can’t run the batteries just for heat if we want to keep breathing—to which I am personally addicted. It’s going to get very cold, very soon…you’re going to wish you had your pants back, Anton… Here!” He began pulling blankets, pillows…you name it from two of the closets and tossing them to his friend. “Gather all the food you can find and let’s make a nest. We have to conserve body heat for as long as it takes to be sure we’re clear of our admirers outside.”

They wrestled and arranged the bundles into a practical ‘den.’ They huddled together as tightly as they could manage and still maintain their own circulation. Tei was visibly subdued. Anton sniffed, “Tei, is that you? It smells like raw sex!”

She blushed, but in the dimness it was hard to tell. “Sorry, I couldn’t take any chances with that watchman back there…and then with the excitement of our escape…well…I’m a little over-excited.” She hesitated to add, “It will wear off in a day or so. On the brighter side, you all are going to have dreams like you never imagined!”

Anton gulped, “And me without pants…”

Time was a repeating disruption of waking, eating, and sleeping over and over and over again during the next who knew how long. Hana found the life support cabinet and estimated they had been there for four days. “If I correctly calculated the volume of this vessel…and assuming all her tanks were topped off before we borrowed it, we still have a week of useful atmosphere in here…or maybe two days if we make a run for somewhere else…”

Mara asked, “Where to next? This ship is going to be on every wanted poster in the quadrant before long; if it isn’t already. And the Naradin Fleet is just down there below our front door step…”

Anton suggested, “Waiting for this moon to be in a position to physically mask the route we wish to take, and zipping off behind it might be a first step…But what route should we take?”

Tei mused, “We know they will spend the next however long cementing their hold on the planet and establishing their domain. Don’t forget this is just the furtive beginnings of their Empire…they’re not everywhere yet…”

Rudy nodded, “The Enthileste haven’t been active here for many millennia already so help from them isn’t likely…”

Hana stiffened. “Rudy! What was the path of Sigrid? It had to have come through this Orchard to get to the Spur!”

Both their brows furrowed in concentration. Mara, Anton and Tei carefully remained quietly ignorant of what Hana was talking about. They just waited. Rudy finally muttered, “Like finding a needle in a stack of needles. Even if I could remember its path, I don’t think we have enough to go on to navigate an intercept course.”

Hana wasn’t relenting; she bounced to the Nav console and pulled up whatever was available inside its limited little ‘brain.’ She scanned and scanned until she was about to give up the search. Then a pattern in the star systems she was scouring took on a curious configuration. She backed up from their positions as far as the device would let her and ran it forward again. “I think I have something…” she said almost under her breath. The others floated up and looked over her shoulder. Rudy had quietly explained what Sigrid was and why it was a long shot at best.

“See,” she traced a little patch of nothing with her finger as the clearer, brighter systems moved along through time… “There!” she pointed at a momentary little blink at the tip of her finger. It was a tiny glowing spot for all of two seconds then disappeared again. “That’s Sigrid the Roaming-Planet of the Enthileste! I know it!”

Rudy looked skeptically at her. “And which direction is that from us and how far away?”

She noted the coordinates, reeled through map after map until she found their own location again. In a few minutes her face drooped. “We’re here she pointed with the tip of her finger in the air between them all, then she nudged passed them and went into the doorway leading to the main cabin; just inside she turned and held her finger at a point near the door jamb. “And the Sigrid was here…six years ago, at least.”

Mara asked, “How far are you from us? Light years? Parsecs? Kiloparsecs?…”

Hana answered meekly, “Light years only, but close to a hundred of them. With this ship’s capabilities, we can look forward to a reception there just after our two hundred and fortieth birthdays…give or take…”

Anton remarked, “Is that the Golden Jubilee, or the Diamond Anniversary…I get those all mixed up?” There were a few faint-hearted chuckles. “Okay, so Sigrid is a non-starter… Same Arm of the Galaxy, but not close enough to RSVP… Where else?”

Rudy slapped his head. “RSVP! Anton you’re a genius!” And he went to the Nav display again.

Tei asked, “Now what?”

Rudy looked up for a moment, “We can’t intercept them anytime soon…but they’re not the only ones sending out invitations…”

Hana wasn’t following his thoughts any more than anyone else was. He bent over the screen searching for…only he knew what. At long last he turned to them, placed his hand on the comm system, picked a frequency only a handful of people knew and flipped a switch. Still facing them, he said aloud into the mic, “Rantu, Hana, Tei, Mara and Anton request pick up from these coordinates…” he read them off the nav screen, and continued. “You might ask a Sigrid Master for directions…Sigrid just passed us…”

Four blank looks gazed back at his beaming face. “What?! Too wordy?” he asked meekly.

Anton asked evenly, “Is this how Space Fever begins? Are we all going to go bonkers now?”

Rudy rolled his eyes. “I see I was the only one paying attention during our shifts at the Tahoe’s Comm…”

Hana said plaintively, “That transmission won’t even get as far as Antares for another…” She did some mental calculations; a smile began to stretch across her face. “Brilliant!”

Mara and Anton looked uncertainly at both of them. Tei giggled with comprehension, “Talk about a message in a bottle!”

Hana finished what she was calculating in her head a moment before, and explained to a still bewildered Mara and Anton. “That little transmission, at just under the speed of light, providing it remains even marginally coherent, will arrive…if we have a definitive knowledge of the founding of Naradin Empire…” Tei and Rudy nodded confidently. She continued, “…and if we really have been here four days, plus two and a half days on the planet…six and a half days all told from when we fell through the looking glass… That transmission will arrive in range of the Tahoe’s reception…” She actually counted the rest on her fingers. “During yesterday evening’s or this morning’s watch!”

Anton and Mara were silent for a second longer then burst out laughing. “You have gone off your heads! We are several millennia in the PAST…You know: spilt milk…done as yesterday’s dinner…Aulde acquaintance be forgot and all that! So what if the Tahoe is near Antares…somewhere in the distant future…”

Tei interjected, “Five thousand, eight hundred, twenty-two years, sixty-nine days, thirteen hours and an odd number of minutes…”

Hana rolled with it, “Precisely how long it will take that message to travel at point nine three of light speed from here to there…”

Rudy folded his arms across his chest, “…And reach the ears of the Comm Officer on duty on the Bridge of the Tahoe, who will notify the Anna at Haven and alert the Masters…They’re the ones we’re sending…” The cabin became a vapory mist in his eyes. “…out an invitation…to…” Suddenly the scene in the cockpit of the yacht became a flurry of fuzzy shapes, shouts and laughter.

They dropped with a plop onto the dais in the Nissa Temple, the cold morning air blowing across Anton’s bare legs startled him as much as the faces of the four Enthileste standing over them.

Vashi grinned, “Imranuse, Irteise and Irhanase, I presume?! I knew those names sounded familiar!” she crowed to her partners. Hana, Rudy and Tei just stared back not comprehending her words.

Master Jonibob stepped forward and gazed with pride and concern into the eyes of the three young people in front of him. Leva and GingerKat helped Anton and Mara from the dais and out of the temple.

They heard Mara exclaim, “Show me the way to a shower!”

Jonibob waited until they were out of earshot. “We really couldn’t have been certain. When the transformation was occurring in Leva, we thought it was a gradual process that only our intervention accelerated. It appears that the Temples have their own estimation of what is an Enthileste.”

Tei gasped. Rudy whistled and Hana just stared back into his eyes. “I was the one who made the ‘request’ aloud, but it was only as an example of what y’all would, or rather wouldn’t do to utilize this Gate.”

Vashi beamed. “That was enough. We’ve found out the hard way too, just how literal and prompt the Gates respond in fulfilling their functions.”

Rudy and Tei looked at Hana. “She’s an Enthileste?!”

Master Jonibob laughed out loud and the sound of it was like a thrill of excitement in their blood. “Yes…’she’ is, but she’s not alone.” He glanced over his shoulder and they followed his look. “This’ll take just a moment…They’ll never know we were gone.” He and Vashi took their hands in their own and they all vanished. Tei, Rudy and Hana looked up at the capitol around the ‘Rolls’ temple at the Haven of Memories.

Jonibob pointed, “There. What do you see?”

The three young people stared for a moment at the blank wall where he was pointing. Rudy started to say, ‘Nothing,’ when of a sudden he could see writing begin to illuminate all along the circuit of the room. Hana and Tei saw it too.

Vashi read aloud, “Leading the Rolls of the Third Orchard: ‘Imranuse, Irteise and Irhanase, followed by: Master GingerKat, the Sigrid Master Sriros, and her cadre of Nioumeste Rangers.’ The transmission had degraded to the point that that’s what your names sounded like when Iseul picked it up in the wee hours of this morning. A transmission from the heart of the Third Orchard! Clever piece of work that…very clever indeed. I recognized the names instantly when Gypsy repeated them to us.”

Jonibob exclaimed, “That’s how these new Enthileste, on the lists after you, were able to enter the Third Orchard! You three had been there first…not exactly recently, but then Time is a curious medium where the Gates are concerned.” He smiled and winked. “Of course it still took GingerKat’s demonstration at the Imperial Palace—the second Palace by the way, the new one in the Sagittarii Arm—to re-establish a clear recognition in them of Enthileste superiority. You didn’t exactly inspire them into awe during your little run-in at the original palace site, did you…” They weren’t even mildly fazed over his casual synopsis.

“We better get back, you three have a team to get to Haven Arena…” he pointed over their heads.

Vashi took a moment before they transited to put her hand on Tei’s shoulder, “Dear, it’s not proper for the Masters to participate in the Games…you do understand that, don’t you?”

They all reappeared in the Nissa Temple. Tei replied, “But…but…”

Rudy and Hana, still more than a little overwhelmed asked, “But none of us have any special abilities…Not like y’all…”

Jonibob responded, “It is a quandary of evidence at present, but the Temples reallyonly respond to the Masters…No one else…period. You’ll develop more as time goes by…but Tei, you really should ask for an alternate to take your place. It would be a bit embarrassing if you happened to vanish and reappear or something inexplicable…Bad form, bad form…”

They followed Vashi and Jonibob out to the waiting shuttle. Anton was just exclaiming, “You mean we’ve been gone all of two minutes!”

Mara muttered, “That’s the longest two minutes I never want to live over again as long as I live!”

GingerKat winked to the other three, as Leva whispered to Tei, “Well done young Master, well done!”

Tei whispered back, “Hana and Rudy did it all, I was just there…”

Leva chuckled, “Have it your way…you know your ‘wheelhouse’ better than I do…” Tei just gaped at her and boarded the shuttle. She leaned over to Hana and whispered, “How do they do what they do?!”

GingerKat took the shuttle controls, “I’m sure you could pilot this bucket better than me, Rudikins, but perhaps a little rest is in order. You and Hana have a busy morning ahead of you…And Anton? Mara? There are some energy bars in the pockets of your jackets…Something from Teniqua’s kitchens I believe; you’ll be ready for your first match in no time…”

An instant later they were zipping for the Rutin Space Port and the silhouette of the Artemis loomed up fast. “Docking in thirty seconds. Good Luck! See you all in a moment at the Haven Arena….Oh! And it’s probably best to leave your last six days and our little chats out of casual conversation, or any other for that matter!” She laid a finger beside her nose and vanished.

The airlock opened and Elena was standing in the hatch with a grin. “That was quick! Couldn’t bear to stay away from us, huh? The Razhul are aboard and scrimmaging with some of us in the little practice pitch the Artemis sports…it’s a little like the Sheranara…” She turned and called over her shoulder, “They’re back already…less than an hour to the Big Show, get your game faces on!”

Hana walked with Elena inside, and whispered something to her as they made their way to the bridge controls. Elena looked saddened, glanced at Tei and put her lip out. “I hope you feel better before the Games are over!”

Tei shrugged, “Results just came in; I’m afraid it’s a terminal condition, but thank you just the same.” She sighed and said aside to Anton and Mara, “You guys are going to have to take up the slack…Are you up to it?”

Anton grinned, “I feel like I could play a four hour match after that little bit of ‘extra’ training…”

Mara chuckled, “These energy bars really do work wonders…I’m going to have to stock our pantry at home…”

Rudy called over the speakers, “Bouncing in three…two…” Tei and Hana held hands; Hana whispered, “Well Sis…you’ve seen our Rudikins at his best and worst…glad to have you in the family…”

Tei answered in the same low whisper, “We are one together!”

Rudy was on the comm, “Haven Control this is the Selena Ship Artemis with the soon to be victorious Loonies and Razhul… Requesting permission to dock.”

“Rudikins! Great to hear your voice so close for a change… Docking Berth Four…You can still maneuver something larger and newer than an old yacht these days can’t you?” Gypsy’s voice and words were about as subtle as a cold bucket of water.

Rudy acknowledged, “Saddle Four…Thank you Captain…Oh, and sorry to have disturbed your beauty sleep this morning…”

“No problem at all Young Master…not a problem at all! Control out.”

For five people exiting the Artemis that morning, the lights, cheering and laughter of their reception at Haven had a much different significance than for anyone else in the Arena.

Gretchen Davis was only a little uncomfortable at taking Tei’s spot in the line-up. Tei whispered to her, “You’ll be great in there…just be strong, and be yourself…” Gretchen grinned and kissed Tei’s cheek.

“Thank you…I’ll strive to do you proud…”

“I know you will, Miss Davis, I know you will,” Tei replied and waited as the rest of the team filed on by her, she wanted to walk with Hana and Rudy the rest of the way up to the locker-rooms-suites. This time around the ‘Loonies’ wouldn’t be in the pitch for their first match until Day Two, against the ‘Champions’ of all teams. For the benefit of their newer flyers, watching a few of the early matches couldn’t help but be instructive.

Sometime around mid-day, Rudy, Hana and Tei left the team to their own devices and sought out the Enthileste. They still had about a thousand questions. For Hana and Rudy’s part, although they’d been around their folks all these years, knowing about what an Enthileste can do and does and actually becoming one were two vastly different critters. As for Tei, it was all pretty surreal. Except for not doubting a thing the Masters ever said, it was a lot to swallow. She, a Lascorii of all people—noble birth or not—was an Enthileste? It was beyond the pale.

They found GingerKat and asked if she could spare a bit of time for them. “All the time in the world!” she answered and excused herself from the gathering of VIPs in the Masters’ skybox above the pitch. “Just relating some encouraging information to some of our more remote delegates… Now…” she looked up at the sky, “…What could possibly bring you three in search of me?”

Hana began, “We have questions.”

Tei added, “How can this be?”

Rudy asked, “Jonibob said we’d develop…what do we do to develop?”

GingerKat smiled, “We have had a few questions of our own, and we have resources not yet available…as directly that is to say…to you three. We went to the the oracle. It turns out that we four, and a few of the Masters of Sigrid, are the rare and unique ones. You three, on the other hand, are as normal as it gets for Enthileste. So while our abilities were thrust upon us you might say, yours will gradually appear as normal development dictates.”

Hana asked incredulously, “We’re normal?”

GingerKat laughed, “Yep! But there is one thing the oracle was rather specific about…you see in ‘normal’ cases there is always someone to guide and watch over the new, most special being who is in the process of becoming…and we have an appointment just now to fulfill one of those vital first acts of responsibility…” Leva and Vashi appeared next to them.

Tei muttered as she realized the ‘we’ GingerKat was referring to, “That still takes some getting used to…”

Leva put her hand on Tei’s shoulder as Vashi touched Hana, and GingerKat took Rudy’s hand. “By the way, we thought it was a remarkable coincidence that you named your first starship Sheranara…” and at once the six of them were standing on a platform above the glowing heart of that most beautiful of planets. Tei, Hana and Rudy gasped.

“The oracle was very clear on this point. In order that you are not lost through an unfortunate and inadvertent happenstance…” GingerKat began, but was interrupted by Leva.

“…Like suddenly being cast thousands of years into the past into one of the most dangerous and notoriously barbaric moments and places in all the Galaxy’s history…”

Vashi sighed, ‘Yes just like that…We were almost deprived of you before we knew we could do something about it…’

GingerKat continued—but now the Enthileste weren’t vocalizing—Tei, Hana and Rudy heard them directly, and what was more, they could hear each other as well. ‘You should each be protected as only an Enthileste can be…’ and she motioned with her eyes to the bright burning glow of the planet’s core behind them. They turned slowly to face it. ‘You are to become invulnerable to accidental death…’

Hana balked, “How?” though she hesitated to ask.

Vashi said simply, “Leap into the heart of Sheranara.”

Rudy, Tei and Hana used their rapport and spoke amongst themselves to resolve, ‘After the last several days, nothing seems weird any more…’

They turned to their mentors and bowed, faced the exquisite sight in front of them and leapt forward. The heat seemed to pass right through them, as if they were phantoms, only shadows, and the throbbing pulse of intensity was meant for someone else…not them. They impacted the surface of the ‘heart’ at the same moment. Instead of being vaporized as they half expected to be, they just landed gently as if touching down on the deck after a tlachtli match. They turned and tried to see the ledge from which they came. Through the spiraling waves of the heart’s emanations, they caught sight of their mentors waiting patiently for them far, far above. Without a thought between themselves—where they were, what they were doing, the inexplicable nature of their situation—and what they wished…they were instantly standing on the ledge once more next to GingerKat, Vashi and Leva, who were grinning at them like silly girls.

They turned to look at each other and gasped. Tei exclaimed, “You two look just like the Masters! Dragon skin and all!”

Hana and Rudy thought clearly enough for it to feel like a shout in her mind, ‘Get a mirror Sis…you’re not a Lascorii anymore!’ She ran her hands over her sides and reached for her face and hair. They were right.

Leva began, ‘Step one, according to the manual, accomplished. Now, as for the rest, it seems when my partners and I stumbled upon the techniques for changing our appearance at will…’

Vashi continued, ‘…We were actually taking a page from Young Enthilestes 101. Apparently the first thing you three are supposed to handle, after being made impervious to physical injury, is to reacquire your ‘normal’ appearance…”

GingerKat explained, ‘It’s really just like in the rest of the natural world; the young are camouflaged so that potential predators can’t readily find them. This is something like that. If you look the same as you always have…no one will give you a second thought. That’s just the way it has to be until you are fully developed and can leave the nest as it were.’

Each Enthileste bonded in rapport with one of their charges and explained the overall process and detailed steps for the ‘appearance transformation techniques.’ In a remarkable flash of a moment, the explanations were complete and Vashi smiled. “Okay you three, back to the way you were!”

GingerKat and Leva looked anxious for a second, like the way a parent looks when they have to sit in the audience and watch their child perform by themselves on the stage with no assistance. Tei, Rudy and Hana closed their eyes, and they glowed. As they dimmed once more, they looked up into the faces of their benefactors. They were smiling.

Leva let out her held breath, “Great! That was step two…”

GingerKat announced, “Just one more thing and you three will be pretty much on your own for a while…It’s not exactly according to the ‘manual,’ but…”

Again Leva put her hand on Tei’s shoulder, GingerKat touched Rudy and Vashi, Hana. They vanished, only to reappear at the Alta temple oracle. They looked around the capitol and read the illuminated script with their own eyes, then looked up to GingerKat, Leva and Vashi.

“Well?” Rudy asked.

GingerKat opened her mouth to say something, but hesitated and Vashi smiled to her. “Yes they grow up just so fast…but they are themselves…just not our memory of them.”

Leva put her arms around her partners. “Allow me to do this for our children…” And she repeated aloud, as she had seemingly ages ago, at that same temple in the company of her partners… “Are their any ceremonies of union for the Enthileste?”

Tei, Hana and Rudy got their first taste of the oracle’s thoroughness in answering the simplest questions. Quite a while later, they felt they knew more than they’d ever imagined they’d need to know on the subject. They wandered outside to join GingerKat, Vashi and Leva.

Rudy remarked, “That was an education!” and he looked at his mates. “Ladies, we have a lot of work to do between now and when we shall make use of this instruction!”

GingerKat giggled. “That’s one way of looking at it—-Work!” They transited back to the same corridor outside the same VIP lounge at the Arena, seemingly without missing a moment of time in the interim. Tei noticed the same lady still walking away down the corridor that was walking away from them when they found GingerKat. She thought, ‘Be careful what you ask…’

Hana and Rudy’s thoughts came back to her, ‘Amen to that!’ She giggled in spite of herself.

They bowed to the three Masters in front of them and turned to head back and join their team. Leva cleared her throat. “Ahem!” They turned and faced the Masters once more. GingerKat, Leva and Vashi were instantly joined by Jonibob. He said, “We offer our service to the Enthileste of the Third Orchard, long may we all serve the One. We are one together.” All four Enthileste bowed deeply to them, smiled and vanished.

Rudy cackled as he thought, ‘We gotta learn how to make an exit like that!’ The girls laughed out loud, and they drew glances from the few passersby who heard nothing but their spontaneous burst of laughter and suspected it was about themselves. The three young masters offered uncertain smiles and hurried on their way. Rudy really howled at them then—in his mind…not aloud—he was learning fast.

Hana repeated, “Enthileste of the Third Orchard!” Rudy and Tei shuddered involuntarily. As they reached the door to their own suite, before they opened the door, they looked each other over to be sure they did in fact look the way others anticipated they should look. Satisfied, Rudy held his breath, turned the knob and entered, followed by his partners.

Elena turned and smiled to them when they came in. She held Tei’s eyes in hers for an uncomfortable few moments. Soon each of the other teammates were staring up at her as well. Tei noticed the eyes of the room on her, and her hands went to her face.

“What?! Do I have boogers in my hair or something…?” she ran her hands through her hair.

Elena almost whispered in a surprised awe, “I can look you directly in the eyes, and I can still think clearly!” Those around her muttered similar astonishment. Tei looked instantly to Hana and Rudy.

‘Uh, oh…’ she thought aloud.

Hana stepped toward her and made a show of putting an arm around her shoulders, “The doctor said there may be side effects from the medication…her Lascorii nature may…”

Tei quivered. “I have to pee!” and she dashed into the bathroom and slammed the door.

Hana turned to the rest of the team and proffered a wan smile. “She’s not herself. Her condition and all…”

There was an explosion of what sounded like laughter from behind the bathroom door, masked abruptly by a serious fit of coughing. ‘This is hilarious!’ echoed in Hana and Rudy’s minds from their partner.

Rudy acted fast and leapt to the window, “Wow did you see that?!” The team turned to find what he saw. Hana let out the breath she was holding and went to the door. ‘Tei, darling, you can’t stay in there all day… Do try and play nice with the regular people…’ Again there was a burst of muffled laughter and the door opened.

She whispered, “This is just the most marvelous, freeing, dream-come-true a Lascorii girl who never wanted to be Lascorii ever had! I want to run up and down the corridors and not have people stare at me for once!”

Hana looked over her shoulder at the rest of the team still being distracted by Rudy’s commentary. She shifted to rapport, ‘Running up and down the corridors like a crazy person will elicit stares…Lascorii or not! I’m glad for you, I really am…but now can you pretend that we are who they think we still are for the next few days, or we going to have to talk Rudikins into taking us back to the Nest right this minute and get our ‘rite of union’ over with, so you can focus on the task at hand?!’

‘I’m not thinking of the ‘rite of union’!’ Tei insisted.

Hana took another peek at the group behind them… ‘Really?! Next you’re going to say that I’m the one who just stopped thinking about that when Elena interrupted my thoughts, and I was the one who asked: Are there boogers in my hair? Seriously?!’

Tei demurred. ‘It’s that obvious?’

Hana smiled, ‘Takes one to know one…’ She winked and asked, ‘Can you manage it? Pretending, I mean…’ she added quickly.

Tei grinned mischievously, ‘Right with you sister… Rudy can’t hear all this!? Why not?’ she added a little too conspiratorily.

Rudy, across the room, turned his head suddenly. ‘I’m struggling to shut you guys out! Jeez! Women!’

Hana and Tei burst into laughter; that did catch the rest of the group’s attention again. Quickly, Hana added her attention to Tei’s as she attempted to do something intentionally that had always been mechanically active—turn on her pheromones. Elena, and the two players next to her looked up at Tei. They swooned and fell across each other.

Hana announced, “Get some smelling salts…it seems our Tei’s condition comes and goes…” She glared at Tei with a twinkle in her eye. Rudy rolled his eyes and tried to keep the attention of the rest of them for a little while longer.

‘Subtle, girls. Very subtle!’ he contributed. Hana and Tei stifled their exuberance long enough to tend to their victims…er, teammates. Once Elena came around, she was careful to look only at Tei’s eartips, when she dared look at Tei at all. The other two players weren’t sure what happened to them and put it out of their minds, turning instead to the action below.

Rudy backed away from the glass as the final gong sounded and the flyers in the pitch circled down. Elena suggested that they take a break. She wanted to show off her new team to some of the other teams with whom they had made such good acquaintance over the last year. The novices to the HART Games were visibly thrilled; the veterans were almost smug. They left their coaches with the promise to at least see them at their table at the Banquet.

Alone for a while at last, Hana, Tei and Rudy collapsed into the lounge chairs and stared out into the pitch. Their thoughts were a jumble of recent memories, awe, surprise, dawning obligations, the matches ahead, the last year at University, all their family and friends… Rudy shook himself and the other two shuddered involuntarily at his sudden clarity.

‘We have got to take greater control of our thoughts! I can’t follow the track of my own musings…I’m not sure if they’re mine or yours, or yours…’ he looked at each of them in turn. Hana and Tei just giggled.

Tei said, ‘Yours are the ones about the matches, starship designs and graduation…’

Hana nodded, ‘Ours are the ones that actually make sense!’ and they both cackled at their little joke.

Rudikin sighed. This was going to be a much different future than ever he’d imagined, he thought. Tei and Hana threw right back at him, ‘And you suppose we have been yearning to have a man eavesdropping on our girl-talk?’ They all cracked up at that.

Hana pursued, ‘But seriously, we should set some guidelines or something for this most basic activity we all now share.’

Tei straightened up, ‘Perhaps one of our first lessons—or pieces of Work—is to strengthen our ability to focus all our thoughts as never before…’

Hana added, ‘It was that way for MamaKat when MamaVera was training her the first few years…Auntie Viola told me so.’

Rudikin nodded, ‘That’s the same thing PapaRusty told me about MamaVashi’s training too…’

Tei hesitated but admitted, ‘Actually, you wouldn’t know it to hear them now, but that was the first cycle of training I underwent as a geisha princess…and they were more ruthless on me because of my being the heir to the matriarchy than to any of the other girls.’

Hana smiled, ‘So we have that going for us.’

Tei responded, ‘We’ll get better…We have to!’

Rudikin merely smiled and began running through the next three days’ schedule, the sequence of matches, the real chances the Loonies had relative to other teams chances…

Hana and Tei followed along and amplified his data with facts and information of their own as each topic arose. Then his thoughts turned to the first match specifically, and of Randi, Isabou, Isha and Ada in particular. Tei wasn’t nearly as familiar with the twinses as Hana and Rudikin, naturally, and she stopped the flow. ‘Tell me, or rather now that I can see, show me all you know about the twinses—and maybe be chronological?’

Hana and Rudikin nodded and they began alternating between the two sets of earliest memories until that place in time when the two sets of twins merged into the ‘twinses’ that everybody now knew them to be. The images flashed quickly through all their minds. When they reached the cusp of time when Hana and Rudy began to spend more time at University than with the girls, the images became scattered and less like a story, more like snippets of anecdotes.

Tei grinned and her body visibly glowed, ‘I am so going to get used to this!’ Hana and Rudikin were glowing also and it took them each to notice the others before they realized it. ‘We glow!’ they crowed in unison. That led to a review of their other recently acquired senses and abilities. Rudikin was most curious about their combining their attention to force Tei’s body to emanate her once mechanical pheromone production—which would not activate of its own accord anymore—presumably because she was only ‘wearing’ her appearance now. They were each actually physiologically very different now!

That realization came back to the surface again and they looked around the room like mischievous school children to see if anyone was watching. ‘But what if we can’t put on our old form again without the Masters looking on?’ ‘What if we don’t even get it right? Rudy and I didn’t even historically look like we do now!’ ‘What if…’ and the plethora of uncertainties arose like a plague of locusts in their thoughts.

Rudikin suddenly thought forcefully: ‘Stop!’ There was silence in their inner worlds as if time had halted and the world ceased to spin. “We’ll wait until we are at Bag End, without any interruptions and without any pressing engagements before we attempt to practice shifting appearances. That’s as it should be after all, and the purpose the camouflage is in place at all. We will not endanger the perceptions of others until we are very good at shifting and are more developed. Deal?’

Hana and Tei looked a little chagrined. They looked to Rudikin and moved in close on either side of him. ‘Rudikins, thank you for being our anchor…’ ‘And being so gentle and reasonable…’ ‘And caring for us so selflessly…’ ‘And thinking of that RSVP thing!’ ‘And never saying I told you so, or making us feel in any way inferior…’ ‘Because we’re not!’ ‘We’re your partners…’ ‘For all time…’ He finally added his own thoughts to theirs as they agreed, ‘We are one together!’

All anyone, who might have been looking into the suite since the team left, would have seen or heard: were three weary-looking people lounging back in silence in three of the room’s chairs. After quite a while, the two women on either side of the fellow in the middle, put their heads on his shoulders, wrapped their arms around each of his and seemed to take a nap—While he continued to stare into the space of the pitch, not really following the aerial engagement before his eyes. No conversations, no emotional outbursts; just three quiet souls recuperating from an active morning. Which is exactly what Alfred and Vera saw when they tapped on the door and opened it to peek inside.

“Oh good, you’re here!” Alfred called softly.

Rudy turned his head to the door and smiled. Vera came down first and gave him a kiss on his forehead, she assessed the two women just opening their eyes on either side of him, and gave them each a peck on their foreheads as well. “GingerKat said you were probably resting in here when we didn’t see you with your team just now.”

Alfred grinned, “They are having the time of their lives doing some ‘power-mingling’ I think they call it. Congratulations again on your licensures. Now aren’t you going to introduce us to your newest partner in crime?” He looked with a smile at Tei, who couldn’t help but grin back up at the both of them.

Hana stretched, “Tei, this is my mother and father, Dr. Vera Elizabeth Masterson-Livingson, and Fleet Admiral George Alfred Nils Livingson.” They took her hand and squeezed it warmly as they were properly introduced. “Mama, Papa, this is Her Highness Lei’tressa Reja Tei Emiclairsenne VII, Eldest Princess to the Hundred and Seventeenth Matriarch of Lascor. High Priestess in the Royal Order of Geishas, Keeper of the Eternal Knowledge and Wielder of the Lascorian Flame.”

Alfred and Vera’s eyes widened, and Tei blushed. No one had used her right name since she’d ‘escaped’ from her Lascorii family and taken up a new life on Selena. Rudy asked cautiously, “Have you had any chats with the Masters since arriving? Or had a word with Captain Gypsy?”

Alfred and Vera winked at them, “As a matter of fact, it was as a result of our little chat with GingerKat that we came to find you three…” Vera replied candidly.

Alfred took a seat near them and gazed into each of their eyes. “But I have to tell you, I can’t for the life of me see one whit of difference in you now than when we saw you at your Captain’s ceremony a month ago…”

Hana and Tei beamed. “That’s great!” they announced oddly.

Vera cocked her head at their interesting delight in appearing no different. Rudy explained, “Our first task was to resume the recent forms which are most familiar to those around us… So it’s pretty cool that you can’t tell any difference!”

Both Vera and Alfred looked relieved at the explanation. “And we understand you had front row seats at what you probably wished was a mere re-enactment of an auspicious historical event…?”

Hana nodded and responded, “Two days of good clean exercise…”

Tei interrupted, “Save the mud-baths…”

Hana grinned and continued, “Followed by an extended excursion in an antique yacht… Just a walk in the park really…”

Rudy and Tei tried to keep their calm expressions and nearly succeeded until Hana thought aloud, ‘NOT!’ They cracked up at the gross understatement.

Alfred hesitated, looked to Vera who just rolled her eyes and said, “You’re going to ask anyway, might as well get it over with…” He grinned and looked back at them.

“Are there any insights you might be able to offer about the Naradin? I realize who they were then probably doesn’t nearly compare with the people they are now, but…anything?”

Tei volunteered. She assumed a clinical detachment and noted, “If we were to profile them…as a people you understand, and this isn’t meant as a stereo-type per se… We would have to say they are conscienceless, smug, self-satisfied psychopathic megalomaniac sadists who are on the one hand, overly arrogant about their abilities, but conversely, don’t like getting their own hands dirty…”

Hana quipped, “I’m sure they’ve mellowed over the years though…”

Rudy added, “Oh, and who desperately lack a sense of direction and are wholly missing any sense of spatial relationships…”

Alfred nodded impassively. Then asked, “What about the Hin; did you encounter any of them?”

Hana shot back, “Gee Dad, we missed them! We’ll just slip on back to the Nissa Gate and make arrangements to interview one of the blood-thirsty bastards that serve the sadistic ideals of their masters, but who actually enjoy getting their hands dirty! Them; whose wanton depravity allows them to gleefully throttle and toss an already broken and bloody child into an inferno rather than just ignore it!”

There was silence for a moment in the suite. Hana took a deep breath and apologized sincerely. “I’m sorry Papa, you didn’t deserve that…our memories are still just a little raw I suppose…” she explained.

Vera shuddered involuntarily. “I am so thankful you all returned unscathed!”

Tei smiled up at her, “Thanks to Rudy and Hana!”

Hana rolled her eyes, “Outside of the indirect relationship we developed with their incessant drones, scavenger ‘clean-up’ ships and bull-dozers, the only interaction we directly had with them was Tei neutralizing a guard to win our freedom!” To her partner she scolded, “And don’t think for a second we’ll ever forget that little tidbit!”

Tei sighed, “I was genetically appropriate to the task is all…’Doing what came naturally,’ you know…” the two girls giggled at their own little joke.

Rudy continued, “As for the rest, you’d probably gain a clearer picture of our most recent personal revelations from the Masters… We’re still trying to get up to speed on it all.”

A tear trickled down Vera’s cheek, “You three are so brave…So much in so short a time…We are just so proud of you!”

Alfred rose and took his wife’s elbow, “We should probably let them get a bit more of the rest we interrupted just now.” To the three of them he offered, “We’ll talk again at the Banquet and hopefully often over the next few days. Thank you for an enlightening chat…” And they walked to the door opened it and glanced back for a moment, started to say something else, thought better of it and closed the door once again.

Vera turned to Alfred abruptly once they were in the corridor. “What possessed you to press them for more information! When it was as plain as day they weren’t ready to revisit every horrible memory they’d just escaped! They managed to effectively protect this entire corner of the galaxy by not interfering with a single event of the past…though they were certain to have dearly wanted to lash out at the depravity that faced them the moment they entered the heart of the most wicked empire ever spawned! Those three in there just saved everything we know, everything that exists in the present that we hold dear!”

Alfred looked as chastened as he felt. He volunteered, “But they are bearing up much better than some others might be under similar circumstances… Even Anton and Mara went straight to the pitch and threw themselves into their matches rather than dwelling on the debacle they just survived…”

Vera grabbed his shoulder, “If it’s their coping mechanism and they truly are integrating those experiences…and not just burying them—giving them free rein to haunt their unconscious emotions for the rest of their lives—then great. I know our children are integrating…but we have to give them the respect and space to take it at their own pace! Not be forced to re-open their wounds every time some brute insists they examine it again! I’m surprised she didn’t vanish rather than simply call you on your inconsiderate disrespect…And she was being kind—You did deserve that!”

Alfred was rarely the brunt of Vera’s frustration and disappointment; she was immaculate in applying her reason to her own and others’ actions and emotions. It was just really bad timing, then, to open his mouth and say anything other than to confess his contrition. Instead he muttered, “And they are now Enthileste? A fifteen year old girl wields the power of a demi-urge?!”

Vera shuddered and her back stiffened as if recoiling from a blow. She seized her rampant emotions and forced them to her bidding. In a calm, even tender voice, she reminded him, “She’s not ‘Daddy’s Little Girl’ anymore, dear. She is her own woman and possesses her own body, heart and soul. She and Rudy and Tei areonetogether…they are Enthileste of the Third Orchard! And they discover that little fact on the heels of one of the most harrowing experiences of their lives?!”

She might have left it at that, but there was something nagging at her own heart as well. “Do not think for a second that they can be manipulated, tricked, persuaded or bullied into anything by anybody! They are not vulnerable children to be protected. They are powerful entities to be respected, even revered—not pestered with insensitive self-serving questions!”

Her voice had been gradually rising and she found herself doing precisely what she was ‘counseling’ him to avoid…namely trying to protect them, although to be fair she was intending to protect her Alfred from the danger of his own identification. Ever since his appointment to the Constellation, the weight of responsibility bore down on him with greater and greater force of gravity. And not for just the lives of his company and crew, but the ship itself, and her unprecedented mission, from their Federation sponsor’s perspective. Then there were the obligations and responsibilities he was forced to meticulously consider every time they encountered a new and inhabited world…his sense of service and protection had to be extended over them as well. And now he was pressed between his leviathan body of duties and the seemingly sudden transformation of their daughter from the cute playmate of pets and friends into the perilously powerful Shepherdess of planets. It was a lot to handle in one day.

Hana sighed, ‘Mom and Dad are beside themselves with a thousand questions…’ She turned to Tei, ‘They really love you!’

Rudikin commented, ‘And nobody would know that better than Hana Nasrin, she’s been reading them since before they knew she could!’

Tei grinned, ‘And whatever possessed you to introduce me by my whole title?! I can’t even spit it out correctly every time… And by the way, every Lascorii is connected to the royal family in some way…’

Rudikin chuckled, ‘It is a mouthful…’

Hana grinned, very pleased with herself, ‘MamaLeva taught it to me the last time we were here. I just think it’s so Cool!’

Tei rolled her eyes and said aloud, “The next ‘Memories Session’ we undertake, I volunteer to give y’all a peek into my ‘Cool’ upbringing…but I warn you, it’s not for the faint of heart. I didn’t leave Lascor in a duffle bag because it was fashionable…”

The Banquet went smoothly. Another new record was achieved, for the first time two teams from the same Alliance people, outside of the Tahoans, won the day and moved on to the Fourth Day’s final matches—the Nourii teams, Troubadours and Chasers! The parties that night around the Nourii ships were not to be missed. Back on the Artemis, however, the young Enthileste entertained their family and responded to as many questions as they were able…mostly from the twinses, who adored Tei and she adored them.

The Loonies’ matches went well enough. It was themselves and the Champions, to whom they’d suffered their only loss of the day, who moved on to Day Four. The next day the Razkul and Steamers won the right to move on. The Fourth Day’s matches were a blur of adrenalin pounding low-scoring pairings. When all was said and done, the Steamers’ names were engraved as the third victors of the year and joined the Rangers and the Daedalus Brotherhood to vie for the Grand Champions’ Cup at the end of the year…in three months’ time. All the teams were invited to the Tournament of Champions…as if they could be kept away…and the Artemis, with two very satisfied teams—Loonies and Razkul—transited back to Rutin, then on to Selena.

Getting to the Final Matches of Day Four on each of their attempts their first year was more than cause for celebration to the student body of Selena University. The Loonies wouldn’t hear of joining the celebrations without their coaches and new assistant coach, as Hana and Rudy had dubbed Tei. Captain Elena was only mildly disappointed that Tei wouldn’t be rejoining the team proper. “We could so have scored big with you in the pitch!” She reiterated over and over the later the festivities lasted on the night of their return.

The rover bounced up to the front airlock just after ‘midnight’ Bag End-time, and five very weary, including two very drunk Loonies dragged into Bag End. Hana and Tei took it upon themselves, according to an earlier decision between them, to install Anton and Mara in Concession instead of the ‘lack of privacy’ they’d get in the Nest. “You two are clearly ready to cook your own meals, wash only your own clothes and ‘make houses’ together without us in your hair all the time…” That was Hana and Tei’s official line and they said as much to Rudikin when he asked where ‘those two Loonies’ had gotten off to now? He wasn’t even the slightest bit surprised.

In fact each of them were beginning to realize they were facing a future with fewer and fewer surprises. The more they developed, the longer they lived, the less and less there would be in the world…or in the Third Orchard which they were destined to inhabit one day…that would ever astound them. “However,” Rudikin reminded them as they retired that first night at home, “the Masters seem to accept each new day as a fresh and unknown experience…Why wouldn’t we ultimately become like-minded? We still have a lot to learn and a long way to go!”

 

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