By Brantley Thompson Elkins
With advice from Shadar
Vest'athy, Velor: Atrium, Hall of Protectors
She hated it when her mother brought her here.
It was a sacred place, she knew, the atrium of the Hall of Protectors. A shrine,
A place of the dead, she thought. Nothing more.
But she couldn't tell that to Naomi, nor to Sara, who portrayed some of these honored dead in holos. Would Sara play me if I became one of them? No, that was too cruel a thought. She knew that Sara loved her. She knew that her mother loved her. It was just...
They couldn't stop talking about what she'd done on Reigel Five. They talked about her as if she were already a Protector, as if it were a foregone conclusion. She couldn't blame them, exactly; it was destiny -- destiny enforced by law, the law of the High Council.
A man's war, but a woman's fight.
Where had she heard that? Some guy Nikki had been hanging out with, she seemed to remember. Nikki, now in rehab for gold addiction, Nikki, the black sheep of the family, Nikki, the one she had to make up for. Even James seemed to be counting on her for that.
James was so full of himself, ever since that major had seduced him. He was actually talking about going into the military! Just bluster, Alisa thought. Maybe he was trying to impress Terri.
Still, perhaps the Home Fleet could use him. The Home Fleet that hadn't even existed when he was born. Part of the belated reaction to Aurean raids in Velorian space -- the worst having taken place a decade ago, More than a hundred Vels, including the parents of her friend Cher'ee, had never been seen again.
The scandal had forced the High Council to yield jurisdiction over home defense to the Senate, which had quickly authorized arming of commercial ships and gone on from there with massive armaments program. Picket ships were sent to guard the wormholes, and replaced by cruisers and destroyers as fast as the Vendorian Vauld could turn them out.
Outside the home system, Velor still relied on its Protectors -- and the armed forces of Enlightenment worlds. That hadn't been enough at Binkley's World, and it almost hadn't been enough at Reigel Five. Wouldn't have been, except for Terri Raul'lan -- yes, she had to give credit where credit was due, which was more than the authorities had done.
"...honored at last."
Her mother was pointing out one of the floating statues as they passed by it. Alisa had followed the conversation with half an ear: something about a long-gone Protector, one of the Jahr'lings, no less, who had been disgraced and exiled but nevertheless died heroically on some planet called Gaugan. Oh,that one.
"Yes, Mother, it is fitting that she be honored at last."
No doubt it was. Had she herself died on Reigel Five, would her statue there be here now? That would have been quite irregular. She hadn't been a Protector then. She still wasn't. She didn't --
But she couldn't tell Mother that. She couldn't even think it. Not now. So she cast her mind elsewhere. To that day on Reigel Five when she'd met Dr, Ramasekhar. They'd talked for hours about knotty problems of string theory and how they related to the mathematics of wormholes.
She'd already qualified for advanced placement at the University, and he invited her to sign up for his seminar. That wouldn't be possible, she'd had to tell him. And then he'd dropped the bombshell, as casually as if he'd only been inviting her to dinner at the Faculty Club: that the offer remained open, even on his homeworld, Kelsor 7 itself. She remembered her excitement; it showed on her face.
Her mother misunderstood her look.
"It is exciting, isn't it?" Naomi said. "But you've got to be ready for it, you know. You wouldn't want to fail at the Great Door."
What she meant was, find a lover. Any lover would do, Alisa knew, so long as her arousal would assure that she'd have the power to force open that door, to enter the Hall as an acolyte. Not that her mother wanted her to settle for just any lover.
"The Jahr'lings are hosting a reception next week," she hinted. "And why are you still wearing those awful things on your face?"
Those awful things, the glasses, she'd picked up on Reigel Five. Nobody on any of the Enlightenment worlds really needed glasses, or even contacts. They were the affectation of the self-consciously intellectual youth culture there. Intellectuals on Earth were widely believed to wear glasses to this day.
She'd brought them back to Velor because... well, as an act of rebellion. Nothing like Nikki's, with the gold and all. But an act of rebellion just the same. And the perfect cover for the greater act of rebellion she dared not speak of.
Not that it meant anything to Sara, who'd had the house to herself since the rest of the family moved to Reigel Five. She could have stayed in her own apartment, but she felt a certain sense of responsibility. And she was glad of the company. The glasses didn't bother her at all. She'd even worn some herself once, for some Terran role in a holo
Alisa mentioned that now.
"She indulges you too much," her mother responded. "Four months and still no Sponsor? I should have come home sooner. I don't suppose she's even done anything about the pre-Rite party."
In point of fact, Naomi couldn't have come home sooner. No matter how inevitable, her recall order had to be processed by the bureaucrats at the Velorian Foreign Service, and delivered by Messenger. Such formalities took time. She'd had a strange look on her face when she'd first arrived here, as if there were something personal she wanted and needed to talk about, but couldn't....
The latest news from Reigel Five at the time she'd reached home was all bad. Southy, the homeland of the Aryans, had all but declared independence from the central government, and the provincial militias controlled most of the continent.
President Sandal Bergstrom had declared martial law, which had little effect, except to intimidate the newsnets in the North. But people could still log on to the Southy news servers. The rival media shed more heat than light on the situation, and most viewers made little effort to sort through the lies and try to find the truth.
Naomi had been helpless in all this. Because of her past relationship with Bergstrom, there had been no way she could have used her good offices to try to help arrange a truce, let alone a settlement. In any case, Bergstrom himself had turned on her after the failure of her secret mission to free his nephew Algol from the escaped outlaw Randik Begglestrom -- a failure that weighed on her heavily, and a secret that she felt she could never share. Thank Skietra the children were back home; she couldn't have explained her fall from grace and virtual exile from the Reigellian affairs. She might as well have been a prisoner at the Velorian Embassy.
Now that she herself was home, she still refused to talk about anything to do with Reigel Five beyond the official news reports, or, more precisely, always changed the subject when anyone brought it up. If pressed, she'd say only that she had been privy to information that she wasn't at liberty to share until the crisis was settled.
But how long would that take, with the civil war there heating up?
As for the other matter, the personal one... Or was she just imagining things?
Alisa dismissed that thought. She had heard other news, disturbing news, from the University of Reigel. Dr. Ramasekhar didn't know whether he'd be able to remain as visiting professor. Classes had been suspended after a bomb had exploded outside the chancellery. Students were splitting into factions, some Southys leaving to join their militias.
Knowing that she might have to travel to Kelsor 7 to study under him only steeled her resolve.
"If only they used the Cone of Battle, we'd have the Aureans on the run."
It was James. It could only be James, talking military science at the dinner table.
They'd heard it before, about how the great Terri Raul'lan had saved the day at Terdyne -- or maybe it was Bitters World -- by coming up with the idea of having the smaller vessels of the allied fleet envelop the larger Aurean battlecruisers in a cone formation, concentrating their energy fire to devastating effect.
It had worked, true, Naomi thought. Once.
But tricks like that rarely worked more than once. The enemy was smart. And it had been more than 20 years ago in any case. Nobody on Velor seemed interested in Raul'lan's past triumphs, or even her recent defense of Reigel Five against the Aurean incursion.
Naomi changed the subject.
"There's one bit of good news," she said. "Those Reigellian men all dropped their suit. The courts there are hardly functioning anyway."
"Nikki was wearing gold," James pointed out. "She couldn't really hurt them. And they sure never complained before."
Naomi was surprised. James hadn't had a good word to say about Nikki since that night in the Sybaros. Why now? She put the question.
"Maybe I'm just pissed at those frails," he said. "They all want to fuck us, and then they want to fuck us over. Still, I don't know about Nikki. Figure she'll learn to stick to her own kind?"
"Like Coach Ante'rion?"
"Yeah, Coach Ante'rion. But I don't think he'd want her now."
Nikki had almost been expelled from the Velorian School on Reigel Five after she'd announced she planned to seduce the Scrumbles coach, and then proceeded to do just that in the locker room shower. Other players had been there to watch them, and the imprint of Nikki's back in the concrete floor of the shower had become a shrine to Ordinary boys. They fell asleep at night dreaming of having the power to fuck Nikki that way.
But the bottom line was that Nikki had gotten away with it, in the end. Ante'rion hadn't, despite being a hero to the boys. He'd had been sent back to Velor and lost his job, He'd sued for reinstatement, but dropped the action when it became clear that he didn't stand a chance -- and that everyone was laughing at him.
"At least she didn't have to wear gold with the coach," James remarked.
"What about you? Were you wearing gold with those girls? Of course, you had to be faking it at the end. Or did you just come in your super-condom?"
Naomi was touching a raw nerve. She didn't know it, but he'd indeed vitaninium material as a condom -- only once it had slipped off and he'd barely been able to withdraw in time to cover himself before he came.
"Why don't you ask Ben?" he asked. "He was supposed to keep tabs on all of us."
Ben Shaffer had been their Minder, and a singularly ineffective one, back on Reigel Five. He'd pretty much given up on them by the time of the crisis.
"I'm asking you, James. Ben was never much help."
"While you're at it, why didn't he mind you?"
James instantly regretted that last, but it was too late.
Then Sara, who had been silent until now, intervened.
"It's bad enough about Nikki," she said. "Do we really have to do this to each other?"
Alisa breathed a sigh of relief. She'd wanted to say the same thing, but she didn't think James or Naomi would have listened to her. It took Sara, the most level-headed member of the family, to defuse situations like this.
She wondered if things might have gone differently if she'd been with them at the Embassy. Before everything went bad. But Sara would never have gone to Reigel Five. Alone among her siblings, she was content with her life on Velor. She'd never wanted to be a goddess, certainly never to be worshipped as one. She could play goddesses in holos, but it was just a job; she preferred roles as Ordinaries.
Alisa also wondered about Ben, that goofy-looking enhancee from Earth. He must be on some other assignment by now, she supposed. She wished him luck. Nikki and James had never been able to take him seriously; they'd always managed to make themselves scarce when he organized activities like sun diving for the Embassy brats.
Her train of thought had once again distracted her from the train of conversation. It seemed that James was on his favorite subject again.
"She told me back there that she might go into retrieval work for the High Council, team up with the Kryp'Terrans."
"Go after rogue Protectors, you mean?" Naomi asked.
"Well, it takes Kryp'Terrans to do that kind of work. And it's work that has to be done, distasteful as it might seem."
"Yes, it has to be done, that's the point. Things like that can't be allowed, can't be forgiven, can't go unpunished."
Alisa felt a sudden chill.
Jahr'ling Estate: the Crimson Spires
As it turned out, their treatment at the reception by the Jahr'lings was polite, but no more than that. Except for the poor relations -- poor only in the figurative sense.
The Jahr'lings of Vest'athy, capital of Velor and the Enlightenment, were the Jahr'lings. So many of them had been Protectors that their very name had taken on a secondary meaning, much like Caesar on old Earth, and was used as an honorific for Protectors generally.
Of course, most of the Vest'athy Jahr'lings were in the civil service and education. But they owned vast estates, dating back to the settlement of the planet, and the income from those estates was the source of the wealth that allowed them to indulge in careers of public service.
Then there were the Excelsor Jahr'lings. Excelsor was the second city of Velor, a city of commerce and industry, and the Excelsor Jahr'lings were men and women of commerce and industry. As such, they too were wealthy, But it was a different kind of wealth, looked down upon by their Vest'athy cousins.
The Excelsor Jahr'lings were descendants of those disowned or disinherited in times past -- far enough post that the Vest'athy Jahr'lings felt obligated to mend fences by inviting them to their functions. That wasn't quite the same as making them welcome.
To call the site of the reception an Estate was inadequate and misleading. But that was what the Vest'athy Jahr'lings called it. It was nowhere near the capital, but in a desert region thousands of miles away where a series of rock pillars overlooked the Western Sea.
The closest equivalent on Earth would have been Monument Valley, but the geological processes that had created the Crimson Spires were far different. Columns of ultra-dense igneous rock had broken through a line of weak spots in the sedimentary rock of the surface during some ancient cataclysm. Then, over tens of thousands of years, the sedimentary rock around them had eroded away.
Anchored deep within the crust, the spires were more stable than any tall building ever conceived, from the Petronas Towers on Earth to Velor's own Hall of Protectors. But the Crimson Spires were no longer entirely natural; at great expense, the Vest'athy Jahr'lings had smoothed off the tops, linked them with bridges, and built a set of elevators to carry themselves and their guests to the topmost tops.
There had never been a conservation movement on Velor to protest such tampering with a natural wonder. If there had been, it wouldn't have made any headway against the Jahr'lings. That's how the Vest'athy Jahr'lings were. They had made it all possible, including this reception.
But it was the Excelsor Jahr'lings who made Alisa welcome.
It began with Jeu'di, herself a candidate for Protector. Her Rites were scheduled for the same morning as Alisa's, so naturally she wanted to compare notes with a fellow candidate. Alisa had played the role of eager candidate as best she could, but Jeu'di had become bored when she turned the conversation to physics.
"Of course we have to fly wormholes," she complained at one point. "But that doesn't mean we have to be in love with them."
Alisa had been about to regale Jeu'di with her own experience, which had to be rare for a pre-Rites P1. But now she hesitated. Then she heard another voice.
"I see you've met my sister."
It was James, of course.
"She's been telling me all about wormholes," Jeu'di explained.
"She would," James remarked.
"She'll be with my group," Alisa told him.
"Well, you'd better hurry up and... you know."
James didn't spell out the rest, but Jeu'di was quick on the uptake.
"You really don't have a Sponsor yet?"
"Now that I've met your brother, you should meet mine, Maybe we could make it a double date at the Great Door. Me and James and you and Ari'jis."
Alisa could hardly believe her ears. Neither could James.
But whereas Alisa found the proposition unsettling, James was obviously delighted. Frails had always come on to him. But a P1? A Protector to be?
Jeu'di was like a younger edition of Terri. Solidly built, real meat on her bones. The kind of muscle tone that frail athletes had to work for but that came naturally to a Vel. Legs that wouldn't quit; he imagined her using them to pull him into her. Breasts that wouldn't quit either; he imagined himself devouring them. You couldn't do that with a frail and, anyway, their breasts could be disappointing. Velorian breasts never sagged a fraction of an inch...
Alisa could tell that James was smitten. Good for him, she thought. Made more sense than remaining fixated on Terri. But she'd never expected to be smitten herself. Which was exactly what happened when she met Ari'jis.
She'd expected him to be typically handsome, typical of Velorian men in every way, Like James. He'd either fawn all over her, or paw all over her. But he was more than handsome, He was beautiful. Yet it didn't seem to go to his head, or his hands,
"Would you like to watch the sunset?"
That was the first thing he said, after Jeu'di introduced them. Alisa was stunned for a moment. But then she thought, why not?
So they made their way through the crowd, past a maze of buffet tables and privacy tents, to the edge of the spire facing the ocean. The reddish sun was close to the horizon now, having transformed the usual aquamarine of the water to deep purple.
"You'll be seeing a lot of sunsets, wherever they send you." he ventured. "I envy that. I can't expect to do much traveling in my life. I'd love to join the Foreign Service, but I'm only B Class. Which also means I'm obviously not Messenger material..."
He hesitated for a second, then added wryly, "And certainly not Protector material!"
Alisa found herself taking his hand, letting that convey the reassurance she could not find the words for, They stood together in silence, watching the sun slip beneath the sea.
As the sky along the horizon faded from orange to red to black, the only light from the sky came from Erin'dor and Erin'lah. But the party lanterns were lit, and a number of couples were already heading for the privacy tents. Some of the more daring were making love in public; this was not forbidden, but neither was it considered in particularly good taste.
When Ari'jis invited her to one of the tents, she didn't know what to say for a moment. She didn't want this. Well, she did want it, but she couldn't... And then she saw the look of pleading on his face, the utter loneliness, and she couldn't deny him.
But once in the tent, he didn't press her. He actually wanted to talk. About her life, and all the promise he saw in it. About his own, and its seeming lack of promise.
"Your brother's B class too," he said. "You know how it is."
Yes, she knew. Like Ari'jis, he must fear that there was nothing ahead of him but a boring career and a boring life. The genetic caste system at work. Yet sometimes, determination could overcome caste barriers. She mentioned Terri Raul'lan, of all people.
"A P3 doing a P1's job? Thanks a lot, That's a real help. Oh, that's a real inspiration."
Ouch! She'd really put her foot in it.
She could have said the obvious. That there were compensations. With his looks, he could have any woman he wanted. Surely he already knew that. But unlike James, she thought, he'd never try to exploit it.
"You're capable of more than you realize," she told him now.
Strangely enough, she believed it.
He began talking about Velorian culture and its roots, of the Norse sagas and their influence on the world's literature, of the eclectic imports in arts and architecture, in music and dance.
"Eclectic?" Ari said at one point. "We're a bunch of kleptomaniacs!"
"There's so much to steal from on Earth," Alisa pointed out. "There's no other world like it. On Reigel Five, they had only three or four major cultures plus a few splinter groups. On Earth, there are hundreds,"
"And they haven't all melted together, like here. At least not yet. It's like a huge buffet, only for culture instead of food. And there's this amazing cross-fertilization that's still going on. Like between bangra music of India and American rock."
Alisa didn't know that much about music, certainly not bangra or rock. But this man's enthusiasm was infectious. Ari'jis really loved what he was talking about, as much as she loved astrophysics. So few people seemed to have a passion for anything.
Speaking of passion, she was beginning to feel that for Ari'jis. Something she hadn't planned on, something she hadn't wanted -- or thought she wanted. But she was a creature of Velorian flesh and Velorian instincts, however much she tried to suppress them.
"It looks as if they won't be creating that Retrieval Command for me, after all," Terri told him.
Foodini's was the closest eatery to the Ministry of Defense, which was why she and James were meeting here. Nobody seemed to know how the place got its name; there wasn't anything Terrans would recognize as Italian fare on the menu. Not that James would know a pizza from a piazza.
When he'd heard Major Raul'lan was back on Velor, he'd been eager to get in touch. More eager than she had been. But he'd been persistent. She had been equally persistent when they'd met, in not wanting to talk about her future plans.
Reigel Five had been a disaster; he didn't need her to tell him that. But he had been surprised to learn there was sympathy for the Aryans in some quarters here. A lunatic fringe, she insisted.
She was 100% Velorian, which meant that she didn't like the Diaboli any better than the Aureans. The Ordinaries, or Terrans as they called themselves, she could get along with; they knew their place in the scheme of things.
But the Aryans had been poseurs, and now they were troublemakers. They might as well be in league with the Aureans, they way they threatened to undo all she had accomplished for Reigel Five. At least the Ordinaries retained control of the Reigellian Navy, but morale was bound to suffer,
And then she too had been recalled. Maybe guilt by association with Naomi. But they'd promised her before that she would finally get her dream command, dealing with rogue Protectors. She'd worked so hard to become the next best thing to a Protector herself. So the one thing she hated most was...
Only they'd turned her down,
"But why?" James asked.
"They questioned my commitment, the bastards. There was a mission I was sent on. Before Reigel Five. I'm not supposed to talk about it. But it had to do with a retrieval mission. It was a failure."
"She got away?"
"She died. But she wasn't a fugitive Protector. I was told only that she was the illegal daughter of one, and that she'd been retrieved from Earth by certain elements of Internal Security. That made certain other elements in the government nervous. Only Protectors and Messengers are allowed there, but apparently they had agents of their own masquerading as Protectors. This could not be tolerated. And it wasn't."
"You retrieved the retrievers then? In Earth space?"
"Nowhere near," Terri said. "The people who sent me didn't really want them retrieved. They didn't want the illegal retrieved, either. So I killed the retrievers, and left the girl to die, because they didn't want any evidence. Somehow this made everything my fault. By the time I got back here, everybody seemed to have agreed on that."
"So what happens now?"
"Back to Erin'dor."
"Maybe I could go with you?"
"And just what would you do at a training facility for Protectors?"
"I could be a comfort guy," James kidded.
"No doubt. But there isn't any military rating for that."
"I've been reading up on military history. Including yours."
"Cubes won't teach you a damn thing, Not without experience. Are you ready for that kind of experience?"
"I was ready for you?"
"You think that makes you a warrior? It makes you dick."
"You changed me."
"So you don't play around with Ordinaries any more? Big deal."
As if there could be any Ordinaries to play with here!
"I met a girl. Jeu'di Jahr'ling A candidate. I'm going to sponsor her."
"She's actually agreed to this?"
"And her brother's sponsoring Alisa."
Closed Set, NFN Studio
The High Council would have been pleased to allow Sara Kim'Vallara to shoot some of her scenes in the atrium of the Hall of Protectors, But it pleased her not to. And it wasn't necessary in any case.
The same technology that could create the illusion of any distant world in the Studio could also create the illusion of flying and aerial acrobatics. It could even create the illusion of a real actress where there wasn't one. But people wanted to see real thing, even if the stories weren't the real thing.
There was another reason for avoiding the Hall and the High Council, one that the Studio agreed with. When she played Protectors, which wasn't all or even most of the time, she played them for drama, not public relations.
Thanks to Korn'Ellis, she knew enough to tell the difference. He was her muse; she was his Scribe.
"How could you ever marry a Messenger?" people would ask. "You have to know that his duties aren't limited to carrying messages."
"He always comes back to me," Sara would respond, without the least hint of irony or insincerity. "He never compares me with the Protectors. And he always brings back good stories."
They weren't always stories about Protectors, either. Right now, she was working on Moonless Night, based on the story of a literally fatal attraction between a Terran independent trader and a dancer on a world whose natives were exotically beautiful to human eyes.
It had been love at first sight for Junius and Lalominat, but their very biochemistries had doomed them: they were fatally allergic to each other. Bob Chilson, an old -- very old -- buddy of Juni's who'd told the tale to Korn'Ellis on Buckley Three, had been surprised that a Messenger would take an interest in such things.
"I'm moonlighting," Korn'Ellis, said. Then he explained.
"Well, they're both dead long since," Chilson said. "Can't matter now."
But it mattered to Sara, mattered a lot. It was so beautiful, so sad. She had her husband retell it again and again; like any Messenger, Korn'Ellis had a perfect memory. Now she was going to see that it was told to Velor.
Sara would never be mistaken for anything but a Velorian. She could easily pass for a Protector, and had. For this role, however, she'd need silver skin and green and yellow hair. It would have been easy to do it all digitally; they were even doing that kind of thing on Earth now. But she had insisted on being made up for the part although, for practical reasons, she'd have to rely on digital editing for the single nostril and the small breasts.
There'd also have to be some digital editing for the scene she'd just shot. It was the heart of the story, the scene where Juni and Lalom, unable to bear being apart any longer, finally embraced -- and almost died in each other's arms.
The way it had really happened, they'd had a plastic sheet between them, but that would look ludicrous in a holo. The Studio agreed with her; they had to cheat on that, make the embrace flesh to flesh. Tell a small lie for the sake of a greater truth.
Let the editors see to the technical details -- the rashes that would be seen breaking out instantly on their flesh, red on his and a sickly yellowish green on hers. The swelling, the leaking of bodily fluids through the skin. Her job, her co-star's job, was to capture the agony and the ecstasy, the look in the star-crossed lovers' eyes even as their eyes were gluing shut.
The story must be told. She must tell the story. That was her life. That was her imperative. But it was always other people's stories, never her own. What kind of story could she make out of her own life, or the lives of those closest to her?
Not that she'd ever want to. The Kim'Vallaras seemed to be a floating soap opera, and a poorly scripted one at that. The divorced mother, trying to cope with the randy son, the slut daughter, the moody daughter. Why did she have to be the only normal person in the family?
No, that was unfair. Naomi had been under terrible stress on Reigel Five; so had her siblings. Adolescence was a trying time under any circumstances. Maybe she'd just been lucky, finding something she wanted to do.
She had to keep her mental balance. For her own sake, and for all their sakes. Let hers be the voice of calm, the voice of reason, the voice of sanity.
Vest'athy: Outside, Inside
James and Jeu'di had gone off to see a Scrumbles match at the stadium. They could have watched it on holo, but that hardly seemed sporting. Besides, Jeu'di was a fan, and had been a player at her Academy.
To him, it was something like a military exercise. To her, it was more like a sexercise. The Vest'athy and Daxxan all-star teams were both mixed, and one of the rules was that the winners got to do anything they liked with the losers of the opposite sex -- or sometimes even same sex -- after the game.
The uniforms, it you could call them that, resembled those for Terran beach volleyball -- red for Vest'athy, blue for Daxxan. There wasn't any need for protective gear; even here on Velor, where the gold field reduced their strength, there was scant chance of anyone getting hurt.
But the ball was solid, and massed 50 kilos. That made things difficult, as Scrumbles was both a running and a passing game; upper body strength and long legs were essential, but they were seldom combined in the same players. That was what made mixed team matches so exciting. As on Earth, the men tended to have one quality, women the other.
Daxxan took the opening kick, and Samek Kriso'ijin. their biggest male forward got the ball. He and the other forwards formed a skirmish line and advanced up the field, passing the ball back and forth between them, It was legal to tackle only the forward actually holding the ball at any particular moment, which favored a man-for-man defense, It was heads-up ball on both sides; the moment a runner with the ball failed to keep the enemy's assigned defenseman in sight was the moment he was likely to go down.
This time it was a Vest'athy defenseman who was caught napping, making his tackle a second after the Daxxan forward had loosed the ball. That called for a penalty scrum, and Daxxan was in luck: Kriso'ijin managed to hook the ball to one of the female backs, who got past the scrum before the Vest'athy heavyweights could untangle themselves. She made it to the goal line for a touch, and Daxxan didn't have any trouble kicking the goal.
Score one, score five for Daxxan, It was a 6-0 game.
The teams lined up again.
This time Daxxan had the kick, and Vest'athy got the ball. But Daxxan didn't make any mistakes on defense; they tackled the carrier, and Vest'athy had to kick. As both teams fell into the rhythm of the game, it became a monotonous rhythm -- exchanges of kicks that led nowhere.
It was like that for the rest of the first half. But in the second, the Vest'athy all-stars began to play hardball. Moreover, Daxxan was tiring; the gravity on their world was about a tenth less than on Velor -- not much, but enough to make a difference after the punishing monotony of the first half. They began to make mistakes.
On first possession, Vest'athy's forwards formed a flying wedge, which wasn't considered sporting but wasn't illegal, either. It had the disadvantage of freeing Daxxan to attack any of the forwards, since it was impossible to reach the carrier without going through them. But Daxxan wasn't able to break through, and it didn't take long for the home team to make its touch and kick. All tied up, 6-6.
Daxxan considered its options, and chose the obvious one.
Daxxan took the kick and formed its own flying wedge. Vest'athy moved to block it. A fistfight ensued, calling for another penalty scrum. Bending over backwards not to favor the home team, the officials called it against the Vest'athy squad, and the scrum was sited deep in its own territory.
James and Jeu'di, like most of the home crowd, booed loudly.
Perhaps that actually energized the visitors. Daxxan managed to hook the ball to a back way over on the sideline, who scampered in for another touch. Despite renewed booing, the kick was good: Scrumbles pros weren't going to be fazed by that sort of thing.
Flying wedges were abandoned, for the time being, at least. Exchanges of kicks that went nowhere. Until Vest'athy got lucky -- and unlucky. Another touch, but the kick was fumbled. Daxxan still led, 12-7.
Not much time left. Emergency measures were called for.
Vest'athy played a conventional game, conserving its strength for the big play. Their forwards moved down the field in conventional fashion, with the backs close behind.
Then, at a time and spot ordained by the captain, they pulled together to form a wedge again. In a move again ordained by the captain, one of the backs, Jaime'Lee Smythe by name, vaulted onto the wedge, which carried her like a wave crashing towards the shore of the Daxxan goal.
It took a few moments for the Daxxans to react, but react they did. Soon enough to stop the wedge, but too late to stop the carrier from handing off the ball to Jaime, The forwards about her made a supreme effort, threws her bodily right over the heads of the visitors' defensemen. She kept hold of the ball and slammed it heavily into the grass on the other side of the goal line for a touch.
No problem with the kick this time. It was 13-12, Vest'athy, and there it remained.
James and Jeu'di didn't stick around for the post-game orgy, but headed out of town for an orgy of their own. The spot was hardly secluded: a rocky embankment below the Central Highway.
Jeu'di made a show of posing coyly, as if she were an ingenue doffing her clothes for the first time. But doffing soon led to boffing as her Sponsor-to-be pounded her into the rocks like a pile driver.
Daxxan might have lost to Vest'athy at Scrumbles, but here there were only winners. Except for the rocks, which quickly lost the battle to Jeu'di's invulnerable body. Stones were reduced to gravel as James slammed her into them again and again.
Their screams of ecstasy were almost loud enough to have shattered more of the rocks. But only almost.
As they held each other afterwards, they weren't complaining. Maybe the rocks were.
That same afternoon, but in a different place, Ari'jis and Alisa were playing fairy chess. Alisa had arrived wearing her street clothes: her school uniform and those glasses her mother hated. Ari'jis actually thought they were charming.
Chess was old enough to have come to Velor with the first settlers, and Protectors assigned to Earth had brought back the variations that'd evolved since the original colonization. Right now, Sponsor and Candidate were playing Pursuit, in which Black's every move had to occupy the square that had just been freed by the previous White's move.
Ari was playing Black; "Black must pursue White." When several ways of occupying a freed square were possible, it was his choice to make. When it was not possible to occupy it, he could make another move of his own choosing.
His choosing was to mate Alisa on the board, and then mate her in bed. But she was better than him; his choice meant nothing.
She knew it; he was surprisingly good for a B, and she suspected that his parents must have had some illicit talents slipped into his gene sets -- just as hers had. But he could never match her, just as his Hopper could never match her Amazon on the board. And because of that she could make promises she knew she'd never have to keep. Only, she wanted to keep them.
Their next game involved neutral units, which belonged to neither of them and could be moved by either of them when it was their move. It was possible to check your opponent with a neutral unit, but unless you were really, really clever about how you did it, your opponent could escape check by just moving away.
Ari'jis took the loss in good grace; he wasn't really, really clever. But he was really, really sweet, and he was really, really stuck on Alisa. It wasn't just desire, she could tell. He was pining for her. She could hardly bear the look in his eyes, the longing to become one flesh and one spirit with her that she had so long denied. That she must continue to deny.
Deny with a lie.
"Maybe I'll never get the hang of this," he said. "But as long as I can get the hang of you..."
"Soon," she told him. "Soon."
They put the board aside, listened to cubes of the songs of distant Earth, the songs of other worlds.
"You'll get to visit them," he said. "And then you'll come back and tell me about them. About your adventures. About the peoples you meet. About their songs."
"We don't always come back," she cautioned him.
"But you will. I know it. You'll always know the right move. Just like on the board."
Oh yes, the right move.
Away. She had to get away.
The summons had come this morning, the summons she had dreaded. All done up on parchment and sealed in a message crystal, of course. Very formal. Mother was delighted as she read the message to her.
"In the name of Skietra, in the name of the High Council that serves her, be it known to thee, Alisa-zar Kim'Vallara, that thou art bidden to appear at Great Door on the ninth day of the eleventh month to try thy vocation..."
Right, and all the rest. She knew the form. Mother had dinned it into her since she was a child. She knew the place, too, Mother had shown her the Great Door. Hidden behind a maze of hedges that you weren't supposed to go through unless you had business there, but Mother had influence and her own name had been entered at birth.
"Vocation." A calling. But she didn't feel called.
Still, it called for a family celebration. Sara and James were called, of course. Even Nikki, who was given special leave from her clinic.
"Hail, hail, the conquering heroine!" her errant sister said as she raised a toast at the family table that night.
"We don't conquer," Alisa corrected her. "We defend."
"Whatever," Nikki responded listlessly.
Even raising the toast had seemed an effort for her. With gold still in her system and living under a gold field again, she was doubly weakened. Alisa didn't want to make it any harder on her. Or on the others. Not tonight. Let them believe what they would.
James was first to break the silence left by Nikki. "I might see Alisa again at Erin'dor," he told the company.
"StarBright Command?" Naomi gasped. "When did this happen?"
"Well, it hasn't actually happened. But Terri says..."
"She's probably just humoring you," Sara remarked. "A B-class training Protectors?"
"It's obvious he's still hot for Terri," Alisa jabbed.
James blushed, and Naomi and the other women laughed. Even Nikki.
Recovering himself, James insisted that he was serious about Jeu'di, but also serious about turning his life around,
"You don't see me hanging around with frails any more," he said.
"James, you know I don't like that word," Naomi interjected.
"Neither do I," Alisa agreed,
"Whatever. There aren't any hanging around here," Sara observed.
Nikki said nothing. Everyone knew where she stood.
But at least they'd gotten off the subject of the Rites. For the time being.
Countdown: Vest'athy and Beyond
Now that the date had been set, there were all sorts of preparations to make. Alisa was expected to shop for both the ceremonial toga (instantly removable) that she would wear to the Great Door, and a formal gown for the pre-Rite party the night before.
The togas had originally been white, without adornment of any kind. But over many generations, initiates and/or their mothers had added distinctive flourishes. Subtle designs in the cloth. A hint of iridescence. Silver threads, sparkles, lace trim, an embossed family crest.
Naomi considered that last vulgar, almost as vulgar as the gauze toga one candidate had worn to her Rites centuries ago. A proper toga was supposed to conceal, until the proper moment of Revelation to the Sponsor and the official Witnesses. When Alisa chose an image of the Galaxy as her only adornment, her mother was annoyed, but held her tongue.
Choosing a formal gown was more complicated. Choosing the right designer was as important as choosing the right design. Alisa's measurements were taken electronically, of course, and submitted to the chief couturiers. Only after they submitted their designs would there be any personal meetings.
Alisa chose something tasteful and safe. It turned out to be a moot point.
Naomi was having trouble with the invitation list. Too many friends -- people she thought were her friends -- were begging off. They all had valid reasons. But she knew it had to do with Nikki, which pained her, and with the other events on Reigel Five, which pained her even more.
The Excelsor Jahr'lings, at least, had RSVP'd. That was especially welcome news inasmuch as she thought Ari'jis was a perfect match as Sponsor. Naomi found it odd, even troubling that she had insisted on remaining a virgin until her Initiation, but put that down to the fact that Alisa had always been odd.
Alisa too found it troubling, but not for any reason her mother guessed, or could be allowed to guess. Going against tradition by appearing as a virgin before the Great Door was the least of her concerns, given that she wouldn't be appearing before the Great Door at all.
She knew what she was doing, knew the consequences.
But Ari'jis didn't.
Neither did her family. But that was different. Family wasn't a matter of choice. Hurting them, as she would hurt them, wasn't a matter of choice. Not the kind of choice she could make.
Accepting Ari'jis as Sponsor had been a matter of choice. What she was doing to him was cruel. She'd told him the same story she'd told her mother, that she wanted her deflowering to be part of her Initiation. But she'd led him on otherwise.
They'd petted to orgasm, pleasured each other with their bodies as well as their minds. They'd been tempted to go further, and she'd always held back. But she'd promised; he had every right to believe they would become earthly lovers as well as speech friends.
Did it have to be? She could have said she'd wait until Initiation, allow one of the Witnesses to step in as Sponsor. But that might have seemed too strange, even suspicious. Whereas, since the reception, everyone outside the family had assumed that she and Ari'jis were already lovers.
It was a matter of protection for herself.
It would be an entirely different matter for Ari'jis, and that made her ashamed. More ashamed than she had ever been or, she suspected, ever would be.
The newsnets were full of wild reports that the Galen had struck in the Terran system after the war there had gotten out of hand, wiping out Velorians and Aureans alike. The High Council, as usual in such cases, refused to either confirm or deny. The Senate demurred, commenting that it lacked jurisdiction.
Alisa couldn't believe any of it. To begin with, she didn't believe in the Galen. Except for Aphro'dite, perhaps (Was she real? Would she ever know?). Nobody she knew had ever seen a Galen. Even in folklore, nobody had seen them for centuries. If they were still out there, why would they return now? Was Earth more important to them than Velor itself, that they should intervene there after so long?
"If Kira and... if they're really gone, you're going to be needed all the more," Mother told her.
"To drive the Galen away? Do you really suppose that's even possible? Or that the High Council would assign another Protector there, if what the newsnets say is true? And why would they assign me?"
"Well, I didn't mean they'd assign you to Earth," Naomi responded. "But the Aureans may strike elsewhere now and --"
"Against the Galen?"
She didn't really want to continue that conversation, so she begged off and called Ari'jis on her comlink. She wanted to see him, and he wanted to see her. Of course. For the usual reasons, and also because he'd just discovered another Terran writer in the World Brain. Really Terran. From Earth. Most of the works he introduced her to had to do with the troubled history of mankind's homeworld -- especially wars of passion as fierce as that her own people were fighting with the Aureans. But this latest had to do with the evolution of art.
"There are the three schools of art," he read to her from the screen of his PersComp. "Affirmation, negation and synthesis -- the negation of negation. The syllogism is closed, the circle completed. Over it arises a new circle -- new and yet the same. And out of these circles, the spiral of art, holding up the sky."
Ari'jis was so earnest. Art holding up the sky? She wished she could believe it. But she didn't begrudge him his earnestness; it was one thing they had in common, no matter that they were earnest about different things. And there was the music. Also from Earth, as usual...
This time he played a cube he'd programmed himself, various examples of cross-fertilization between schools as disparate as European classical and classic African, jazz and techno, American pop and Middle Eastern.
Sara would love this, she thought.
As she let the music flow into her, as she became the music, she could almost forget the rest. Forget what she had to do, But only almost.
She'd come in her toga, the one she was to wear to the Great Door, She assumed the Stance she would take before the door, let him practice flicking off the toga until he could do it smoothly in a single move. She let him assume his own Position.
But nothing more.
He said he understood. That was the worst part.
Refugees from Binkley's World were demonstrating again, on the grand promenade of Gateway Station. They still believed that the Senate would heed their plight. She pitied them.
So did James. It was the one thing they could share their indignation over the seeming betrayal of an ally.
"Why can't they do something?" he asked.
He didn't talk about StarBright Corps any longer; either that had been some misunderstanding of something Terri had said, or a complete fantasy. He hadn't talked much about Terri the last few days.
Instead, he talked about Jeu'di. Maybe he was really getting a life as well as getting into her. It was hard for her to judge. Jeu'di was reasonably intelligent, but hardly intellectual. But then, neither was James. No tweaks to their genesets.
Jeu'di was the perfect candidate for Protector. She'd been into combat and weapons since childhood, and played Scrumbles, of course. James bragged about her sexual prowess, of how she'd pin him down and ride him mercilessly. That wasn't proper form for the Rites, he knew, they were getting in plenty of practice for that. He'd been afraid he might topple her if he really let loose, but she'd proved otherwise.
Nikki had left rehab and somehow made it to the Hotel Cosmos, where she was up to her old tricks.
"It's not as if you're setting a good example for her," James complained. "Spending as much time on astrophysics as with your Sponsor. And not even going all the way with him. That's perverse."
Alisa ignored the slur; she sensed an opportunity.
"Let me go after her this time," she volunteered."
James was amazed. So was Mother.
"But the party," Naomi protested.
"There isn't going to be much of one. Mostly Ari and his cousins, and they can't stay but a little while -- they have to be there for Jeu'di's."
Still, they tried to talk her out of it, but she stood fast. Oddly enough, it was Sara who brought them around.
"We must first protect our own," her oldest sister ventured.
Thank you, Sara, she thought. Please forgive me for what I am about to do. To you, to Mother, to James, to Nikki.
She'd have found a way in any event, but this would make it easier. She'd thought it all through, planned it all out, knowing that it would come to this. The ID, the disguise, even the funds -- left over from that scholarship on Reigel Five that she'd never be able to use now.
Once in orbit, Alisa would check in to the Hotel Cosmos, but she wouldn't check out. She'd make a show of trying to aid Nikki, reassure her family that she was making progress (Not that she believed for a minute she could), and then...
That was the plan. But it didn't quite work out that way,
She found Nikki sharing a suite with a Scalantran adopt -- human in form but futzed by the traders. She hadn't even tried to hide it, had answered the door without even asking who was there.
The suite reeked of pheromones. The Scalantran reeked of sweat. The sheets on the bed were soaked with both. The adopt - Alisa never learned his name - was obviously embarrassed; he collected his things and slunk out the door.
Nikki, who had probably never learned his name either, wasn't in the least embarrassed as she put on her clothes. Only annoyed. She sat on the edge of the bed with a disdainful expression.
"So she sent you this time," Nikki said. "That's a switch."
"I sent myself," Alisa said.
"Because you're concerned?" Nikki responded sarcastically. "Because you love me?"
"But I am," Alisa protested. "I do."
"You're all such hypocrites," her sister complained. "Especially you. You're about to become a Protector. Travel to the far reaches of the universe. Have all kinds of adventures. And fuck anything that moves. They all do, you know."
"It's not true," Alisa said softly, as much to convince herself as to counter Nikki.
"The Messengers don't come that often, you know. You'll pretty lonely pretty quick, and pretty itchy, too. You won't be any different from me. Wait and see."
Alisa was trying to think of a response when Nikki took another tack.
"Hey, what if a Messenger comes and it's Korn'Ellis? Think he'll compare notes with Sara when he gets back? Will you compare notes with her when you come back?"
Alisa, disgusted, tried to redirect the conversation: "Protectors don't always come back."
"Oh, you'll be back, You're the lucky one. The favored one. Always have been. Mother chose to carry you herself. She loved you better than the rest of us, even when you were an embryo. All because you were a P1. Destined to be a warrior."
Alisa hated to admit it, but maybe her sister was right. But that didn't prepare her for what came next.
"Why couldn't I have been a P1? Why couldn't I have been a warrior?"
Alisa remained with Nikki as long as she could, endured her whining and her insults, kept her out of trouble but no more than that. Mother hadn't really expected more. Now she expected her back. It was only a day and a half until her Rites.
"Ari is willing. And eager," Mother told her. "You've really got him going with that thing about becoming a woman and a Protector at the same moment."
"Yes, Mother. But I can't get Nikki to come with me. I don't think James or Sara could do any better. You'll have to call the proctors."
Silence on the other end of the com for a moment.
"It's really necessary?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Will you call them for me?"
"Oh, all right. I'm her mother, after all. Just come on back as soon as they have things in hand."
"I'm on my way," Alisa assured her, the lie practiced and perfect. The Scalantran trade ship was waiting. She hoped she wouldn't run into Nikki's latest paramour. It would be uncomfortable but necessary, stowing away in the drive chamber.
She'd send a message to Naomi from the first stop -- and for her the last. Once she was safely past the gold field, safely past the first wormhole, safely past pursuit.
[first posted Feb. 12, 2004, revised April 21, 2013, tweaked Sept. 29, 2016]