Ordinary Velorians

Episode Five

By Brantley Thompson Elkins

With a wormhole scene by Alternate Histories

And concept, advice and assistance by Shadar


Reigel Five and Beyond

Idiots! Fools! Imbeciles!

Terri Raul'lan was furious as she launched herself into space. Hell, that wet-behind-the-ears Protector and her protegé knew that Primes couldn't fly; they were hand-carrying the Aurean prisoner to the capital even now in their foolishly idealistic gesture.

But had they stopped to wonder how Ulexa had gotten to Reigel Five in the first place? Nooooo! And chances were the government would be just as slow on the uptake. Defense screens here must be as leaky as a sieve, but that was no big surprise. If the Aureans could make sneak attacks in the home system a decade ago, what could you expect on the allied worlds?

Why dwell on that? What was the point?

For now, she simply prayed that those kids could keep the Prime under control. If she got loose, she'd find some way to contact her agents here and go to Plan B. Or broadcast a warning to the ship. Both, most likely. Probably had a fail-safe, too. The Aurean warrior had to know the score; had to know what Terri's next move would be, even if she hadn't so much as hinted at it in her exchange with Cher'ee and Alisa.

The scout ship, she was relieved to see, hadn't moved far from where she had spotted it on her way in. Should she take it out now? Better not; if they managed to send a warning to the mother ship, it would complicate things. The enemy was bound to have at least one agent planetside, doubtless a Betan, but she'd have to worry about that later.

It was a long journey to the frigate she'd chosen for the operation.


In Flight over Southy

It was a far longer journey from Arcady to Senegal than from Senegal to Arcady. Gold wasn't nearly as resistant to natural forces as Supremis flesh. Alisa and Cher'ee had to pace themselves, much as they hated it.

The gold bracelets around their captive might melt. They might even break from the buffeting of the air at higher Machs. When Alisa had advised them to fly below Mach 4, she'd been overly optimistic -- especially after the Prime came to and began struggling in her bonds.

Mach 1 turned out to be more like it. They'd actually had to land once to knock out their prisoner again. Good thing, actually; they'd neglected a body cavity search before, and the Prime had been trying to reach for something. She'd still had a trick up her sleeve. Well, up her...

The GAR wouldn't have harmed them, but it would have sliced through the gold easily. Cher'ee crushed the weapon and threw it away. She and Alisa then double checked the prisoner's bonds before resuming their flight.

Dawn had already broken when they began their journey; now it was mid-morning. Southy seemed to pass below them at a snail's pace, as the Reigellians might see it from a commercial jet.

The open land was mostly drab green. It was summer in the Southern hemisphere, but that didn't mean much on Reigel Five. It was warm enough to support native tundra, but the imported staple crops could be grown only in hothouses -- fueled more by plasma than the distant native sun.

With two billion people to feed, the hothouse farms clustered thickly around the cities and towns, often occupying entire valleys and stretching for dozens of kilometers in whatever direction they could. Not that developing the land actually improved the scenery much; there was nothing to see from this height but the seamless black surfaces of solar panels. In the towns, the Southys spent some of their plasma growing shrubs, flowers and ornamental trees under plexiglass domes, but these were too far below them for Cher'ee and Alisa to appreciate, even if they'd had the time and the luxury to focus their vision downwards.

Aryans, the Southys called themselves, which would have confused most Velorians, Alisa mused. But here, you had to know the difference between Aryans and Aureans. It was sort of like Georgia the American state versus Georgia the country on old Earth, only natives of the latter would never be confused -- they called it Gruziya.

The Southys considered themselves superior to everyone except the Velorians. It was a sore point with her mother, who had to walk on diplomatic eggs. It was also a sore point, she gathered, with President Bergstrom, half Diaboli himself, who presided over a shaky coalition of Northerners and moderate Southys.

The sky below them clouded over as they neared the equator. They had traveled by solar reckoning, Cher'ee calculating the path in her head and taking the lead. Alisa, too, could have reckoned the course but deferred to her elder, even if she was "elder" only by a year.

They hadn't talked much; it was hard to keep up a conversation at Mach 1, with the wind roaring past them. Alisa's thoughts turned from the President and the coalition and the Tigran rebels to Kelsor. Education Minister Tofflan had been at the party; she knew he had been instrumental in luring that Kelsorian astrophysicist to the university, which meant that--

"Down!" Cher'ee shouted in her ear. Which meant it was time to start their descent to the capital. Alisa followed her lead as they broke through the clouds. It was snowing again, but it was a light snow, not one the blizzards all too common in northern winter. The city lights glowed brightly to welcome them. They had made it.

Alisa watched Cher'ee closely as they approached the Administrative Complex at the center of Senegal. She looked so strong, so confident, despite having twice beaten Ulexa into unconsciousness. In contrast, her body still hurt from the Aurean's blows, her throat was still sore from where it had nearly been crushed, her abs were bruised, one rib still aching. Cher'ee looked cool and untouched; her Rites having given her many times Alisa's strength. Strength that had made all the difference.

For a brief moment, Alisa found herself looking forward to being that strong. Then she remembered: this would be her entire life after the Rites, Fighting, killing, only sometimes bringing the bad guys home for sentencing. A warrior always, a cop sometimes, and bound by all kinds of archaic rules. And probably dying young despite it all. A lonely life, stationed Skietra-knows where.

It would be such a different life than the happy swirl of friends at school or at the University, a place of innocence and experimentation and growth. A place to expand her mind with knowledge beyond the boundaries of her imagination.

Not a lethal battlefield filled with people who wanted her dead.

There was some sort of disturbance in front of the Complex; police had cordoned off the main entrance to hold back a growing crowd. Alisa let her vision zoom in; the newsnet crews were there. Only the authorities were supposed to know about their mission, but the nets had apparently found out. It was inevitable, she supposed.

Cher'ee took in the situation, and had evidently anticipated it; she was guiding them towards the roof of Central Security. If by chance the crowd below didn't already know about their prisoner, if the demonstration was about something else, there was no sense letting word get out any faster than it had to. Emotions were bound to run high over the enemy attack. As for the enemy, she had come to again. Maybe she'd come to long before and had only been feigning unconsciousness.

"You little bitches are dead, do you hear me," Ulexa screamed as Cher'ee removed the gag that bound her. "My people are watching. They'll come and get me. And they'll deal with you." She spat on the roof in front of Alisa.

Alisa felt a fresh stab of fear. Despite having her wrists bound in golden cuffs, the Prime was still very dangerous. One on one, she didn't stand a chance. She could do a lot of damage even with both of them there if she got loose. Alisa held onto the Aurean's arm as tightly as she could, Cher'ee doing the same on the other side, and still the Prime jerked them around as she struggled to get free.

Ulexa wasn't going anywhere; they could hold onto her until Central Security forces arrived. But instead of relief, Alisa felt sudden terror as the meaning of the Prime's words sank in. Were there other Aureans in the system? But of course, there must be! Why hadn't she seen it before? She silently cursed herself for a fool.

She turned to Cher'ee, but before she could get a word out, the roof doors flew open, and a squad of State Security Men burst forth. They were armed with light sabers, and carried lengths of gold chain.

"Top emergency," she shouted at them. "Full military alert!"

Declaring top emergency was properly only a Protector's privilege. But Cher'ee, with the same realization as Alisa, quickly concurred.

"There is an Aurean force somewhere in the system," she declared with a voice that carried a weight of authority far in excess of its carrier's mere sixteen and a half years. "Top emergency. I say again, top emergency!"

One of the security men was already on his com, evidently alerting the defense net.

These men mean business, Alisa thought. It's good to know that there are men here who know their business. If only we'd known it better.

The State Security Men had surrounded Ulexa by then. Cher'ee and Alisa kept their grip on the prisoner as the cops bound her more securely, But they knew their limitations, and left it to the P1s to escort her to the holding area, one of them taking point to show the way.

"We've frog-flown her 10,000 kloms," Alisa quipped. "Frog-marching her a few hundred meters is no big deal."

"Frog what?" Cher'ee wondered.

"Old Earth expression," Alisa explained. "I just adapted it."


Aboard the Dauntless , Deep Space

Captain Marshall Keith was positively shocked when he saw a woman in full Velorian military dress on his viewscreen.

It didn't shock Keith to discover that the approaching object his sensor officer had warned him of was a woman flying unprotected in space; he knew about Velorians. Moreover, he knew who she was; he'd seen the official announcement when she'd taken up her appointment.

No, what shocked him was the violation of protocol. But then, these Velorians were so arrogant!

The Reigellian heavy frigate Dauntless was in deep space, and there had been no word of an official visit by the Velorian embassy's military attaché. But... who else could it be? She was signaling to be admitted, and he was tempted to deny her. First Officer Paul Linebarger caught his look, and advised against it.

"If she's come this far, she might not take no for an answer. She could force her way in."

"That she could..." Keith admitted doubtfully. Unauthorized entry to a ship had been a serious offense ever since ships sailed on water. Rupturing a pressure hull of a starship was an act of war. Still, the Velorian looked agitated. "Okay, open the main airlock and bring us about to an affable course relative to her heading. But Jan," he indicated to a stocky red head standing in the room's recesses, "I want you beside me whenever she's in the room. Understood?"

Jan Korecki was in charge of ship's security. She called two squads of armored marines to the bridge. While they wouldn't pose much of a threat to the Velorian, they would serve to remind her of her position aboard ship, and of the diplomatic ties linking Reigel and Velor. If the Velorian tried to influence the Captain with her pheromones, she as a woman would be more likely to notice, and be able to think straight afterwards. If nothing else, she and the troops would remind the Velorian of the lengths they were willing to go in order to safeguard the Dauntless.

It took Major Terri Raul'lan only moments to reach the bridge after coming through the lock. Once there, she didn't waste any time on ceremony, and simply saluted brusquely.

The Captain stood beside his chair. The Velorian didn't offer her hand in greeting, but instead announced, "You are Captain Marshall Keith. I am Major Terri Raul'lan. I have reason to believe that an Aurean warship is nearby and require an immediate scan of the area."

"You require?" The captain looked down at her, instantly disliking her. "What gives you the right to make demands on my ship?"

"I don't have time for protocol, Captain. I need a full scan. Immediately. The very existence of your world may be at stake. I give myself the right. Top Emergency. Help I demand in the name of my duty."

Coolly, Keith answered. "I'm sorry but only Protectors--"

"I'm as close to a Protector as you're going to get at the moment." The major allowed a little heat to enter her glare, the glow reflecting from his eyes as his skin warmed. "And my patience is wearing thin."

"We're already scanning continuously," Keith replied, holding himself rigid. He pushed away an unbidden yet horrifying mental image of his glowing skeleton, flesh melted from his body. He'd seen dramatizations of Supremis heat vision and wondered how tightly the Velorian was controlling her emotions. "And our sensors have detected no anomalous objects of any kind. Except you that is."

"And these scans, will they detect cloaked ships?"

"Of course." Keith answered without hesitation. "Ladar pattern matching on low energy objects."

"Idiot!" Raul'lan fumed. "That only works on ships lying doggo! Don't you know the drill for cloaked ships? Scan for what should be there but isn't."

Keith was left speechless for a moment. Before he could think of a retort, she'd singled out the senior sensor officer and barked an order.

"Full scan, Mister, matched against previous scans. Do it!"

The officer palled as he smelled his hair singing. He looked to Keith, who nodded slowly. He saw the Captain signaling something behind his back to Korecki Beside him, Linebarger took that for authorization and gave orders to prepare the ship for the scanner sweep.

It was a reversal of the same method astronomers had used in past times to detect new planets or asteroids and comets, only it was a lot faster with computerized scanners than with photographic plates. Still, it took the better part of an hour; the heavens were that vast.

The Velorian silently paced back and forth across the Bridge, her long limbs and scant uniform drawing furtive glances from the men, blonde hair falling low on her back, the multicolored strands the fingerprint of a Velorian. All the while Keith was doing a slow burn, which might have turned into a fast burn, except --

"Part of Scorpion nebula missing in current scan," one of the techs announced.

"That's my target." Raul'lan declared as she slammed her fist into her palm like a gunshot. Turning to Keith, she ordered, "Prepare to abandon ship!"

"What!?" Keith shouted. "Are you out of your mind?" He was about to blow; Linebarger and the others could see it, but Raul'lan wouldn't cut him any slack. Stepping so close her breasts were pushing into his chest, so close that the marines readied their weapons, Terri stared into the captain's eyes and shouted.

"Haven't you figured it out yet? Don't you get it? That's probably a cruiser out there -- an Aurean cruiser. They weigh in the region of ninety thousand tons; their forward guns are larger than this entire vessel. The Dauntless is no match for it. Our only hope is to ram them when they're not expecting it. And I don't think you'll want to be on board when we do."

This is not happening, Keith thought, his emotions swirling. His crewmen were staring at him. He tried not to let the fear show on his face. An Aurean cruiser? This was not happening.

"But you can't," he croaked. "We have no evidence of hostile..."

"I can and I will. And you'll go along with it. Hell, they might even make a hero of you for it, if I tell them the scan was your idea."

"But destroying my ship." He shook his head. "Do you even realize how impossible that is? Reigel isn't at war with the Empire, we're just an ally of the Enlightenment."

Major Raul'lan's expression suddenly softened. "You mean you really don't know? Nobody told you?"

"Told me what?"

"That the war has already begun."

"Begun? What are you..."

"Contact your military, ask them if anything has happened recently in the Arcady Province."

"The Diaboli community?" Keith asked. "What does that have to do--"

"A Prime landed there!" Raul'lan said with bitter satisfaction. "She murdered three people without a thought and would have killed a fourth before going on to commit Skietra knows how many other atrocities if I hadn't been there to stop her."

Linebarger twitched his head towards the communications station, sending a non-verbal confirmation to the man's questioning expression.

Tense minutes passed as the laser query and the Dauntless' own sitrep were bounced around Reigel's com grid. Eventually the reply was dispatched.

It was a simple five word response.


That solved it. Keith didn't know what burned most: that the Aureans had so callously killed three of his people, that he was about to lose his ship, or that the Velorian major was right. But he now had only one concern.

"Can we do this?"

"We have no choice. The only Protector on the planet is a probationer, fresh from her Rites and not yet trained, let alone assigned. She is still... dealing with the Prime. We have to be more imaginative than that. But we can do this. And we will."

"But what about its escorts?" Struggling to recall information on Aurean naval deployments, he continued. "A cruiser usually sails with at least two destroyers and six or seven frigates, not to mention a few wings of attack craft. And," he pre-empted her exclamation, "what if it's not the only detachment? The Aureans can easily afford to send more. What if they're attacking from opposite sides of the system? This Cher'ee might be able to take on one group but our entire Navy couldn't hope to engage the other task force."

"Has anything else shown up on scan?"

Keith looked to the tech, who shook his head. "They could still be hiding behind one of the outer planets," he ventured.

"I doubt it." Terri shook her head. "This has the looks of a stealth mission. Given the advantage of surprise, they would rightly consider one ship sufficient."

"And if you're wrong?"

"Then you'd better start praying." The major answered with a cruel smile. "Because your worst nightmare is about to happen."

She paused for a moment, forcing a smile to her lips.

"But I'm hardly ever wrong."


Reigellian Ministry of Justice

Chere'ee and Alisa were the heroines of the hour to the newsnets, which was not exactly what they wanted to be -- and even less what the Ministry of Justice wanted them to be.

They'd already been debriefed by the Ministry of Defense; the threat of an Aurean invasion force made that the top priority. Minister Sayid Nazillah himself had been there to hear what they had to say, which admittedly wasn't much, and he'd seemed sincerely appreciative.

It was a whole different story with Justice Minister C.G.B. Spender.

"What were you thinking of, bringing her here?" he complained. "Why couldn't you have disposed of her quietly in Arcady?"

"We're Protectors, not executioners," Cher'ee responded naïvely.

"We simply want the norms of justice to be observed," Alisa added. She decided it was best not to mention that she wasn't really a Protector, still less that she didn't want to be one.

"'Norms of justice'? There aren't any norms of justice. Not here. Not now. Nothing's normal on Reigel Five. Half the people in that crowd out there are demanding the Prime's immediate execution; the other half think this whole thing is the Diabolis' fault and want them kicked off the planet, Guess where that leaves the President."

Guess where that leaves Mother, Alisa thought, but she didn't say it. Yet Naomi hadn't seemed worried about that when she'd been able to reach her daughter by comlink.

"My daughter the Protector," she'd said with obvious pride.

"Almost a dead Protector," Alisa pointed out.

"But you did your job," Naomi insisted. "Everyone's proud of you. James. Even Nikki."

There hadn't been time to say much more, and Alisa had no idea how soon she'd be home. Spender had still wanted to talk to them. And talk to them he had, in a speech full of recriminations, delivered in a Spartan conference room.

Monitors on the wall relayed security feeds of the crowds outside from several vantages. Spender had the sound muted, but it was easy to see that the police were trying to keep rival factions apart and barely succeeding. Some of the more militant demonstrators looked as if they might jump right through the holo screen.

Spender switched off the monitor with his remote.

"The question is, what do we do now? That's what we have to decide. Fortunately, you two don't have to decide anything. The newsnets are out there waiting to see you, and they're going to get their wish. But you're going to tell them exactly what they need to hear, and what they need to hear is what I'm going to tell you."

"Only if it's the truth," Alisa ventured.

"Oh, it's the absolute truth," Spender assured her. "And the absolute truth is that the Central Court of Justice will hold a hearing beginning at noon tomorrow to determine the fate of the Aurean Prime Ulexa Gabborn. That she will be allowed to plead her own defense at that time."

"Surely you can make the announcement yourself," Cher'ee said.

"And so I shall. But you two will, in the course of your interview with the newsnet pool, express your complete support of that decision. You will express your trust in the legal and judicial system of Reigel Five, and you will make it clear that your trust in the system was what led you to take your action in this matter."

"Is that all?" Alisa asked.

"I think that should be quite sufficient. But to be most effective, of course, it has to be combined with your account of your exploits. Feel free to embellish, if you think that necessary. The more colorful your tale, the better. The world will be hanging on your words and, as a consequence, it will be hanging on mine as well."

"There will be a hearing? We can trust you on that?"

"Of course you can trust me. You can trust all of us. And now that we understand each other on this, it is time to repair to the auditorium where the newsnets await. Let understanding be unconfined."

The rest of the day was a blur. A blur of lights and holocameras and the newsnet people wielding them. Most Velorians on Reigel 5 kept a low profile, but Cher'ee and Alisa were suddenly high-profile. Very high-profile.

They'd stuck to the script during the press conference, but the newsnets hadn't. It got really sticky when one of the reporters asked the obvious: were there any other Aureans in the system?

Their minder, a man named Waite, quickly stepped in to assure the press that the Ministry of Defense had planetary security well in hand, and that there would be further news at the appropriate time.

Following a whispered bit of advice from Waite, the two superheroines tried to take up the theme of Velorian-Reigellian amity, the common cause of bringing enlightenment to the Galaxy.

This quickly palled.

"Fly for us," one of the newsmen shouted.

That was more like it. There wasn't much room to fly in the auditorium, but for the space available they put on a good show. Cher'ee made light of the whole idea by "walking" upside down on the ceiling; the sight of her cape hanging beneath her drew laughter.

Alisa tried the same thing, and drew cheers. She didn't know why at first, then realized that in her designer outfit she was giving the crowd below a good view of her cleavage. It wasn't as heroic as Cher'ee's would have been in the same outfit, she knew, but it was Velorian cleavage, and that made all the difference.

They posed for the nets, together and separately, arm in arm or hands on hips, thrusting their chests out on cue, laughing and smiling or taking on that tough don't-mess-with-me look that Protectors were known for. Not that any of the newsnet people knew anything about the true life of a Protector. They got their ideas from holodramas like Allura.

I don't know that much myself, Cher'ee thought.

I don't want to know any more, Alisa thought.

Not being diaboli, they didn't know how close their thoughts came.


The Velorian Embassy

Aur'ana had outdone herself, From the look of things, you'd have thought the reception had been planned for weeks instead of improvised in a matter of hours. Whatever, it was another lovefest for Cher'ee and Alisa.

They were stationed at the entrance to the banquet hall, flanking the hosts: President Sandal Bergstrom and Ambassador Naomi Klm'Vallara. Sandal and Naomi greeted each of the honored guests by name, but most of them paid less attention to the hosts than to the P1s. It didn't occur to them that Alisa didn't recognize half of them, and that Cher'ee knew hardly any.

Alisa saw a number of familiar faces from the night before, including Defense Minister Nazillah and Education Minister Tofflan. With the latter this time was Brent Nichol'son, visiting professor of Velorian History and a Velorian himself. She assumed he'd been added to the guest list as a mere courtesy, and was surprised when he took her aside for a personal word,

"Your application for advanced placement has been approved," Nichol'son told her. "We look forward to seeing you next term. Dr. Ramasekhar himself reviewed your paper. He is anxious to meet with you."

Subrahmanyan Ramasekhar himself! Alisa might have fainted with delight, if Velorians were prone to such things. She'd heard of him for years, and read all his works, but had never hoped to meet him short of Kelsor itself until she'd learned about his recent appointment at the University of Kelsor,

The news carried Alisa through the night, As soon as they were through with the reception line, she told Cher'ee, who congratulated and embraced her. She sought out James to share her good fortune, but he seemed distracted. For some reason, he wanted to talk with Nazillah and the other military types. Not, she observed, that they seemed particularly interested in talking with him.

As for her mother... she knew what her mother would think. That's nice, dear. But you have a higher calling. Or something along those lines. Right now, she could see, Naomi had eyes only for Sandal, That was excuse enough to put off telling her.

Even so, the knowledge that she might, just might realize her dreams had her floating on air. Literally.

There hadn't been time to hire a team of chefs, but Aur'ana had been able to arrange for a catered buffet. Naomi's executive secretary deserved, and got, a place at the head table with the Kim'Vallaras, Bergstrom and Cher'ee and Cher'ee's grandfather -- too weak to share the meal, but still able to share the occasion. There was a one vacant place.

"Nikki?" Alisa asked her mother at a discreet moment.

"I don't know," Naomi whispered. "Don't make an issue of it."

Alisa didn't. She hadn't before, although she'd noticed early on that her sister was missing. She'd been relieved, actually, Nikki tended to make a scene at social gatherings. So did James. But James, thank Skietra, seemed to be on his best behaviour tonight.

The Velorian and Reigellian flags hung behind the head table. Sandal was dressed in a plain yet elegant black uniform with sash of office in the colors of the flag. Naomi wore a formal gown, just inside the edge of being too revealing as was her Velorian style. Cher'ee and Alisa were dressed as they had been earlier that day at the press conference.

The newsnets weren't here, although an official recording was being made for archival use. Sandal and Naomi were the first to speak, and they spoke for the Archives: what was expected of them, neither more nor less. So the guests were more interested in hearing from the heroines.

"What can I say?" Cher'ee asked. "I've gone through my baptism of fire. I knew it would come, just not this soon. And I came through it all right, but it was a learning experience. Not the kind I wanted, not like diving through wormholes.

"With wormhole transits, you have to know the math, you have to know the vectors. But the rules are always the same. It's not like that with enemy warriors; the math isn't the same, you can't predict the vectors their minds follow.

"We had a close call on the way here, closer than we like to admit, and it was because we didn't know all the vectors. We still don't, Fortunately, it's out of our hands tonight. The Prime is in safe hands now, as Reigel Five itself is in safe hands. Let us count our blessings."

President Bergstrom basked in the glow of the moment, and Naomi basked in his glow. Alisa was happy to see that; it looked as if things were finally coming together for them. Skietra knew, Naomi deserved some happiness -- the kind of happiness she herself, perhaps none of her siblings, could ever give her.

Cher'ee was warming to her unaccustomed role as after dinner speaker, letting loose with a ribald account of the hidden GAR, but also touching on her grandfather, who had lived to see her honored here as a heroine.

Cher'el smiled up at her, saying nothing, but leaving no doubt about the joy he felt this night. She smiled back at him, continued with anecdotes and jests -- some involving him.

"He's my hero," she said. "Seriously. I wouldn't be here without him."

So it went, until it was Alisa's turn.

She wasn't much for words, at least for composed words. She didn't like having to say something now; hadn't she said enough at the press conference? But something was expected of her, and she owed it to those who expected it.

"I don't really belong here," she began. "I'm not even a Protector, and I've got the aches and pains to prove it. I'd never have survived last night without a little help from my friends -- one who sits here beside me tonight, one who cannot be with us to share the occasion.

"I call them my friends, although I've met them only recently. But they are friends indeed because they are friends in need. And because they are true, true to the values that make Velor what it is, that make Reigel Five what it is, that make the Enlightenment what it is.

"Today, we have proved that we are powerful. But far more important. we have proved that we are just. We have accorded our enemy the very rights that we claim and defend for ourselves.

"This may seem a small thing, yet it is the essence of the Enlightenment. If we are to ultimately prevail in the struggle that confronts us here, we must never forget that. I am not saying that we should love our enemies, only that we must always strive to be better than our enemies."

The guests had expected more. When it became clear that this was all they were going to get, there was a patter of applause.

Alisa noticed that Spender seemed annoyed; she couldn't imagine why. She knew that she was annoyed with herself, that she had fudged the truth a bit, with regards to how she felt about Terri, about Reigel Five, even about her own involvement in the struggle.

But she couldn't hurt the feelings of those she really cared for. Her mother, James, Cher'ee, even the absent Nikki. Not tonight of all nights, although it might come to that some other night. Or day.

The festivities wound down. The guests made their departures, until only the Kim'Vallaras, the Belan'gans and Sandal were left. Cher'el, who appeared both cheerful and sickly, needed a lift home.

"Both of you," he said, weakly but clearly. "It would be a great comfort to have you spend the night with me."

Cher'ee looked questioningly towards Alisa.

"I couldn't possibly refuse an invitation like that," she said. And, turning to Naomi, "It's all right with you, isn't it mother?"

"Of course."

Alisa suspected that Naomi wanted some time alone with Sandal, but she didn't make a point of it. Gently, she and Cher'ee lifted Cher'el to his feet and, just as gently, floated him out the door.

James followed them out to wish them well, and said he was headed home.


Home, and Long Home

As they made their way through the night sky, holding Cher'el between them, they couldn't help but think of how they'd carried Ulexa less than a day before.

"But it's different," Cher'ee said.

"Yes, totally different," Alisa agreed.

"Different? What?" It was Cher'el.

"Everything, Grandpa," Cher'ee replied. "Everything."

"Oh, some things -- always the same," he said weakly,

Of a sudden, his voice regained its strength.

"My algorithm," he said. "You must study my algorithm."

"What algorithm?"

Cher'ee had thought she was already familiar with all his work.

"The one about the war. I didn't... want to tell you... before. So... much happening. But... you have to know now... have to. Perhaps you can... falsify it. I wanted so much to..."

But then his voice faded, as if he'd lost his train of thought.

Cher'el had nothing more to say for the rest of the journey to his home, where they laid him gently in his bed and joined him there.

As they had embraced Cher'el in flight, they embraced him here. He could no longer absorb energy, they found, but they could still give him comfort, let him feel their breasts and intimate centers -- a kind of communion Terrans could never understand, that Terrans would consider obscene.

It came to them that this was the time, that there was nothing left for them to do but ease his passage. They poured their warmth and energy into him, but it did not warm his core. He had completely stopped metabolizing orgone.

"It's a good time..."

Those were his last words, although it was yet some hours before he drew his last breath.

As they had carried him home, they must now carry him to his long home, and it would be a long journey, all the way to Reigel itself. They had already held Omag'en, the living wake. But they held their own vigil now. They laid him out like a fallen warrior, although he had never been one. It was ancient custom.

It was also ancient custom to invite others at this time. For Velorians to honor their own, to raise a toast as they would to a warrior, to remember the accomplishments of those who made their contributions with their minds. No one except those born on the golden planet were welcome.

But somehow Cher'ree wanted this to be a private occasion. She said as much to Alisa, and Alisa called Naomi. Not getting am answer, she left her mother a message about her plans. Their plans.

Her face turned somber then, for she was reminded of how it came to be that she was raised by her grandfather. That was when she really let her hair down. Her nightmares about her parents. Her impossible fantasies of one day finding them, or at least avenging them. She was sobbing at the end.

"It's why I'm a Protector," she said when she recovered herself.

"You're a P1," Alisa pointed out. "You never had a choice."

"But it was my choice," Cher'ee said. "It was always my choice."

Something came between them then, something that Alisa dared not give voice to, hardly dared acknowledge to herself. But there was something else between them that she could deal with, that they could deal with together. Something that they had taken upon themselves.

Velorian invulnerability did not end with death. Not for a very long time. More was needed. Two people had to carry him to the sun. The nuclear fires of Reigel would complete the transition of his body back to the fundamental elements of existence.

The two young woman held Cher'el's body between them as they soared upward to circle the room, finally disappearing through the huge skylight that opened above them.

In seconds they'd left the last tendrils of atmosphere behind, and accelerating hard, they hoped to return before morning.

Their journey ended above the photosphere of the star, where Cher'ee and Alisa released the body of the aged mathematician. Carried by its momentum, it continued on, out of sight, into the stellar fire.

<"From star stuff to star stuff,"> Cher'ee signed.

<"From star stuff to star stuff,"> Alisa responded.


Deep Space

There was no way to approach the Aurean cruiser undetected. But stealth wasn't the object.

Let the Aureans think they were stupid. Let them think they were crazy. Let them think anything but the truth.

They were down to a skeleton crew. Keith, Linebarger, and a few others. Enough to man the bridge, and complete the programming there. No need for missile crews; the missiles were already armed and programmed to explode a few seconds after impact. No need for the marines; there wouldn't be any boarding party. No need for repair and maintenance personnel.


It was a tech named Kiyoshi, and what he'd done was create a program for the final approach.

The Dauntless had been on a path that would pass by the enemy cruiser and, thus far, had given no indication that it was aware of the heavier ship's existence. Only after Terri and the remaining Reigellians had left would the programming take over and put the frigate on a collision course.

If the Aureans attempted evasive maneuvers, the program would match them. It would raise the frigate's shields at the first sign of enemy fire, and keep them up, until -- hopefully -- the moment of impact.

It was time for the skeleton crew to take to the last lifeboat. Unlike the others, this wouldn't be leaving a heat signature that might give away the game; Raul'lan herself would power it, following a course that would use the Dauntless to shield it from scanner detection for as long as possible.




It had been almost a day since Commander Gabborn had left the scout ship Shez'hen Prev, and there had been no word from her.

In keeping with standard protocol, they were keeping radio silence; they were too close to the planet to risk detection before their mission was accomplished. Their com was tuned to one frequency, and one frequency only.

Aureans were like that with standard protocols, which were often stupid protocols in practice. If their agent on the ground. And'rea Cuppers, had been able to reach them with word of Gabborn's capture, Reigel Five would have been toast hours ago.

Nothing having come in on Gabborn's frequency, the Shez'hen Prev sent a message burst to the cruiser Zhu'roushiya. Moments later, the scout ship was toast. Full military alert on Reigel Five meant full military alert. They were catching on at last.




"They've altered course," Keith shouted.

"We've allowed for that," Terri responded. "Including the possibility that they'd head for Reigel Five."

"Which is exactly what they're doing. Still cloaked."

"All the better for us," she said. "Either they don't think we're aware of them, or they don't consider us a threat. If they did, they'd be firing missiles in our direction right now. I'll have to see to it that they can't fire any at the planet. You know what you have to do, and I know what I have to do."

Minutes later, with a super-shove from Terri, the lifeboat was on its way, leaving no heat signature and concealing itself from scanners in the wake of the Dauntless. The crew could fire up its engines later, after -- hopefully -- she had dealt with the cruiser.

Even a P1 would have been hard put to take on a cruiser single-handed. But that wasn't her plan.

She knew the designs of every class of Aurean warship, including this one. She knew their strengths and vulnerabilities. So she headed for the missile tubes.

Like the rest of the ship, the missile tubes were shielded by Vendorian steel on the outside. But they were lined with ordinary steel.

Terri approached as fast as she could, knowing she was sure to be detected, and she was. They couldn't be expecting a Protector; none were supposed to be in the Reigellian system. But they had to know that the object approaching them was a Velorian.

She decided to make it easy for them. If they saw her coming, they'd try to take her out. That would give her the opening to take them out.

As she descended towards the hull, the nearest missile tube snapped open. Before a missile could be loaded, she dived in. Smashing holes along the tube, she forced her way through the far end with seconds to spare.

Terri emerged into the bowels of the auto-loader's superstructure. Next to her the missile that would have been fired at her jammed as it tried to fit into the tube. She paid it no heed; by then she was deep in the cavernous belly of the missile room, and only occasionally swerving to avoid the fast moving arms and equipment of a ship preparing for war. She avoided the heart of the cruiser; she could probably survive any energy weapons the Aureans had on board, but why take a chance?

Did they have their shields up? Much good would it do them now. The layout of missile tubes was standard design for a K-Class cruiser, and she'd memorized it long ago.

Outside, the cruiser's energy weapons were tearing at the Dauntless, The Aurean captain had assumed that this was just a hit-and-run raid; what else could such a small foe hope to achieve? Yet the Reigellian frigate, shields up, without even firing ant missiles, kept coming. The captain tried to take evasive action, but it was too late.

Even the lowest Naval rating knew that war wasn't like war holos. Capital ships didn't simply blow up in a shower of sparks. They might be holed, have sections gouged out, even be sliced in two. But they were hard to kill, and as long as they were alive, they could fight.

Terri could feel the ship shudder as the Dauntless struck. She had to imagine the rest: the cruiser's shields and hull resisting for a fraction of a second, then yielding in a rush of atmosphere, armor, and bodies as the hull was blown apart. Finally a staggered series of explosions as the Dauntless' munitions went off.

As the last of the Dauntless' missiles exploded, ripping upwards through the Aurean hull and tearing out into space in a vast plume of superheated plasma, Terri was finishing her own work on the Aurean warheads.

Time to leave, she thought, diving away from the wrecked machinery and towards one of the other tubes. Forcing the doors and jettisoning herself into space, Terri looked behind her; where what was left of the Dauntless was embedded in the cruiser like a knife in flesh.

The metal surrounding the ugly wound glowed orange, red and even white. There were bursts of heated gas and smoke, doubtless from the failure of more bulkheads. She circled the cruiser, watching it slowly list as secondary explosions rippled beneath its skin.

Satisfied that it was crippled, she set course for Reigel Five. Let the Navy clean up what was left; Keith would have gotten word to them by now.


Downtown Senegal

"Hey, wanta fuck a Vel?"

Even the jaded Reigellians at the Sybaros were taken aback by Nikki. Not that they knew who she was, although it was pretty obvious what she was.

"Sure you want to fuck a Vel, Everybody in the fucking universe wants to fuck a Vel."

If the techno band hadn't been taking a break, most of the crowd at the club might never have noticed. Sure, Nikki attracted attention, dressed as sexy and funky as she was. Sure, she was acting strange. But people were supposed to act strange at a place like this. Half of them were high on one kind of drug or another, and behaving lewdly, or both.

Couples, and even groups, were groping openly, and some could be seen heading for the encounter rooms upstairs to do more than grope. There were rules of etiquette, even at the Sybaros: groping was okay on the floor, but displays of genitalia and actual fucking had to be taken upstairs. House security saw to it that etiquette was enforced. Other than in that crazy hour before closing.

Nikki had been topless for some time, not terribly unusual for her, but apparently that wasn't attracting enough attention, even without the noise of the band to distract the crowd. She was caressing her breasts and thrusting her pelvis at the crowd, but they'd seen plenty of that kind of thing, and most of them soon turned their attention back to whomever they were groping.

"Look at me, damn you," Nikki was shouting at them. "These are Velorian tits, the best tits in the universe. The kind of tits bullets bounce off. Anybody here have a gun?"

Nobody there had a gun. Weapons of any sort were strictly forbidden. The very mention of any such thing was strictly forbidden. That got the attention of the crowd all right. There was a sudden silence.

"No gun? Guess I'll have to improvise," said Nikki.

House security reluctantly stepped in. There was a fine line between titillating and pissing off the other customers, but even under gold intoxication, she was far stronger than they. Thrusting them aside, she headed for the bar, grabbed a bottle of the finest Scalantran whiskey and broke it against the bar. She then proceeded to rake the broken glass against her breasts.

"See, best tits in the universe. Stronger than steel."

The crowd was speechless. Softness and vulnerability were sexier traits to most of them. The security men circled her warily. One spoke into a comlink.

Nikki, reveling in the attention -- even if it wasn't necessarily approving attention -- decided to take in to the next level, stripping off her hot pants.

"This is a Velorian cunt," she shouted, using the broken bottle to demonstrate that it, too, was invulnerable. Glass crunched loud enough to make those closest to her cringe. "Best damn cunt in the universe. Any of you up for a test drive? I'll give you the best ride in the universe."

Nikki's pheromones filled the air. She was eliciting a crude response from the Rigelian men in the crowd, but despite her overtures nobody made a move to accept her offer of a "test drive." One guy, looking extremely nervous, might have been about to succumb, the splinters of glass clinging to her wetness notwithstanding, but then the cops showed up and saved him from doing something he'd regret.

So did one of the newsnets, tipped off by either House security or the cops. The lights of their cameras bathed Nikki, who turned and smiled into them.

Before the newsnet could finish with her, the cops closed in, throwing a gold mesh net over her. Although there weren't that many Vels on Reigel Five, Central Security knew the drill from previous experience with those few who got out of hand.

They had a place to take them, too. And so it came to pass that Nikki Kim'Vallara, daughter of the Velorian ambassador, ended up in a cell across from Ulexa Gabborn. She was too gold intoxicated to pay much attention; she was too busy thinking about her sister, the heroine of the hour, who wasn't even a Protector yet, but would be -- just like her friend Cher'ee.

Their interview at the Ministry of Justice had been replayed endlessly on the nets. They'd found something elegant for Alisa to wear, not an official uniform like Cher'ee's, of course, but almost as impressive. They'd brought an Aurean Prime to bay, then carried her clear across a continent to stand trial. They were oh so brave and oh so noble -- and oh so full of platitudes.

Naomi ate it up, of course. She could talk of nothing else that afternoon, and had been planning a gala dinner that evening. Two parties in two nights? Nikki didn't want to be there. That's why

she'd slipped out, spent the rest of the afternoon and evening club-hopping until she'd found the Sybaros -- the first place where people didn't seem to be talking about her sister.

Her sister. The Protector-to-be. She glanced at the prisoner in the other gold cell. Dark hair, so she couldn't be... And that meant... She knew what it meant, but she couldn't focus. The other prisoner was cursing her, but she couldn't make out the words. She was too far gone on gold, and soon passed out. That was a stroke of luck for somebody. Maybe even for her.


Central Security

When Ulexa Gabborn was found dead in her cell in the wee hours of the morning, Central Security had wanted to give Nikki the third degree. But she mumbled something about diplomatic immunity, so really didn't have any choice but to call her mother.

Nikki had already insisted that she had seen nothing and heard nothing. They found that hard to believe, but what were they to do? Even if they'd dared try them on an ambassador's daughter, extreme interrogation tactics - physical or chemical - were ineffective against Vels,

The detective lieutenant in charge finally did what he should have done in the first place and called in a Diabol officer. Naomi showed up about the same time, demanding her daughter's release. The detective lieutenant explained to her politely that all he wanted was to rule out Nikki as a suspect, and to determine whether she indeed had no evidence to give,

The Diabol was skilled at his work. Not that he needed to be, since Nikki had no training or experience whatever in resisting mind reading. The Diabol got an immediate reading, which proved disappointing.

"It's as she says, Detective Lieutenant," he informed him. "She was out cold at the time. She heard nothing and saw nothing. Furthermore, she doesn't even care who killed the Prime. She simply wants to go home. She also wonders why you've been putting her through all this questioning instead of trying to fuck her. She considers herself a prime fuck."

There was no point in detaining her further. It had been clear from the start that Ulexa had been killed -- beheaded, in fact -- by a light saber. That alone ruled out Nikki as a suspect. It was hardly credible that she could have smuggled in such a weapon and then disposed of it -- or that, in her gold weakened state, she would have been able to strike hard enough.

Naomi was pacing outside the interrogation room. She had awakened that morning to see her errant daughter on the newsnets. Only the day before, the Kim'Vallara name had stood for heroism. Today it stood for -- she didn't want to put a name to what it stood for.

Standard procedure was to release prisoners through the front entrance, but at Naomi's insistence -- she still had that much credit -- she was allowed to use the same roof exit that had served Alisa and Cher'ee.

The Ambassadorial aircar had been summoned, and was waiting outside. Nikki was still too disoriented to make it home under her own power, so her mother bundled her into the vehicle for the short ride home.

There was a repair crew there, working on the larger pool. Naomi ignored them, led Nikki to her room, sat her down.

"Do you have any idea what you've done?" Naomi asked her, trying to keep the anger out of her voice.

"Had some fun?" Nikki ventured.

"That's your idea of fun, making a public spectacle of yourself? Trying to have sex with--"

"What about James and his frails? What about you and Sandal? Everyone knows you're--"

Her mother slapped her so hard that it sounded like a small thunderclap.

The noise was enough to attract the repair crew. Seeing nothing amiss but the shocked expressions of mother and daughter, they returned to their work.

The noise also attracted James, who had been upstairs doing... whatever.

James could see that something was wrong,

"What's up?"

"I've been consorting with frails," Nikki said, before her mother could get a word in. "Disobeying our Minder. Not that I've seen him around lately."

"It's much more serious than that," Naomi said.

"Yeah, I got arrested," Nikki retorted. "Big fucking deal."

"It's one hell of a big fucking deal," Naomi said, her voice rising. "It was all over the newsnets."

"Oh?" said James. "I wasn't watching."

It turned out later he'd been searching the World Brain for anything and everything about Terri Raul'lan. But Naomi suspected something else.

"You have a Terran up there? Is that what it's all about?"

"Like brother, like sister," Nikki interjected,

"No, I don't have a frail up there. I'm swearing off frails."

"At least you show a little discretion," Naomi said, not believing him. "Whereas Nikki here has created a public scandal. If this gets back to Velor -- and it will -- it could lead to my recall. I've already been cautioned about your previous behavior. So get ready to feel like frails again yourselves. That's how you'll feel under the gold field."

That silenced her children for the moment. Long enough for Naomi to access the newsnet. A holo appeared before them.

"Watch, listen and learn," Naomi instructed.

For a few moments, there was nothing to learn about except sports and the weather. But only for a few moments, until the morning anchor came on.

"Recapping our top story, President Bergstrom has denied any involvement in the death of the Aurean Prime captured two days ago in Arcady. He has also denied that the Velorians Cher'ee Belan'gan and Alisa-zar Kim'Vallara were acting without authority in bringing her to Central Security."

The scene cut to a press conference earlier that morning, at which a nervous Sandal Bergstrom was facing a phalanx of skeptical newsmen.

"It may seem a bit irregular," Bergstrom was saying. "But we are facing a state of war. And we were facing an Aurean Prime. Who else could we have sent? The provincial militia? We don't have an assigned Protector here; we'd never thought we'd need one. But Cher'ee is a Protector, and Alisa is a P-1. Reigel Five owes them a--"

"Why not have settled the matter right there in Arcady?" interrupted one of the newsmen.

"They were following the law," Bergstrom insisted. "We are all following the law in this matter."

"Including those responsible for the death of the prisoner?"

"Justice Minister Spender has launched a full-scale investigation. Those responsible will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

"It was obviously an inside job. What if Spender--"

"I will not dignify such scurrilous innuendo with a reply."

So it went, newsmen hounding Bergstrom about the Gabborn affair. But there were also personal questions. Questions about his relationship with Naomi, the mother of not only Alisa but the scandal-scarred Nikki.

"I'm not going to discuss that," the President declared, with as much dignity as he could muster.

But the newsnet talking heads were discussing it endlessly. There was file footage of Sandal and Naomi together at receptions, interspersed with clips from Cher'ee and Alisa's news conference and Nikki's infamous arrest at the Sybaros.

Even worse were some of the reports of reactions around the world.

A Jellutong priest denounced the Velorians, saying that Nikki's depraved behavior was only their norm. Reigel Five should break with the Enlightenment, he declared, and find enlightenment in the true faith. "The events of the post few days are a judgment upon us," he declared.

A Southy legislator was hardly kinder, although his perspective was far different. "It is a scandal that a Velorian should brazenly consort with those of other races in such a manner," he said of Nikki's performance. "But then, it would seem that other members of her family are hardly setting an example in this regard."

The implied reference to James, and even Naomi herself, could hardly be overlooked. But the legislator was the voice of sweet reason compared to an Aryan extremist who advanced the bizarre theory that the Diaboli were actually in League with the Aureans, and that the death of the Prime was part of the cover-up.

"What can you expect of a half-breed president?" he asked. "If Bergstrom is truly loyal to Reigel Five, he can prove it only by ordering the immediate internment of these accursed interlopers and the expulsion of every one of them from the sacred soil of our planet."

There was more like that. About the only relief came in a clip from an interview with Jim Jones.

"This is madness," he said. "Absolute madness. My wife was murdered by that creature. Two of my best friends were murdered. And these racists say that she was our ally? They belong in a mental institution. As for Cher'ee and Alisa, I don't understand why they did what they did with that Aurean. But they saved my life, damn it. They and Terri. I'll say nothing against them."

Naomi switched off the holo.

"Now do you understand the seriousness of the situation?"

James and Nikki had nothing to say, not at that moment. The next moment Naomi's comlink -- her scrambler comlink -- buzzed for attention.

She listened for a moment, ignoring her children, who were polite enough not to try to use super-hearing to follow the other side of the conversation. But they couldn't help overhearing their mother's side of the conversation.

"That's not possible, it's simply not possible... No. I can't... I refuse to be put in a false position... How can you be sure... No, I won't, not on just your say so... All right, but not here, and not at your office... That place we met on Founders' Day, and there'd better not be anyone with you. not even your guard detail... I'm a Vel. I can protect you, if it comes to that..."

There wasn't any doubt in James' mind who was on the other end, even if he had no idea what the conversation was about. But Naomi was clearly upset about something, and for once it didn't seem to be about him or Nikki.

Not that it mattered.

"You're both grounded," she told them.

"But," James protested.

"No buts. Neither of you is going anywhere until I get back. Neither of you is to make or answer any calls. Neither of you will so much as answer the door until I get back. Black out the upper stories; as far as the public's concerned, nobody's here."

"What about Alisa?"

"She's helping Cher'ee deal with her grief. I doubt that she'll be back soon. If she does return before me, she can let herself in. And you'll tell her to stay put, just like yourselves."

Before leaving for wherever she was going, Naomi dismissed the swimming pool repair crew, giving them credit for the day but refusing to give them any explanation.

It was shortly afterwards that the news of the Aurean cruiser and its destruction reached the newsnets. The Ministry of Defense had withheld the story as long as it could, but rumors had begun to leak.


Administrative Complex

Senegal awoke the next morning to the snap of energy weapons, the crackle of gunfire and the occasional pop of grenades.

The newsnets were as confused as anyone, their initial reports assuming that another Tigran terrorist operation was in progress. Reporters couldn't get anywhere near the scene, and that was even more confusing, because it appeared to be the Administrative Complex -- the military had cordoned off the area after breaking up demonstrations the day before..

When it dawned on the nets to tap into the street security cameras, confusion turned to consternation. Units of the Army were besieging Internal Security headquarters. Before someone in authority cut off the camera feeds, millions of viewers had been treated to the spectacle of open battle between the military and security forces.

One corner of the building was sagging, the stone melting as a military GAR traversed the rock while flicking from one window to the next, the ghastly screams of burning men coming from inside the building. Security forces were generally armed with nothing stronger than K7s, but the actinic flare of a LAMP was returned from an upper window, ripping through an armored personnel carrier and slicing deep into the ground. Even the slightest touch was enough to set the APC ablaze like a newborn sun. When the glare faded, all that was left was a sagging metal frame with a half dozen tangled human skeletons inside.

The Army GAR, big brother to the LAMP, returned fire to melt a huge hole through the sixth floor, silencing the return fire from the Security forces. Four soldiers ran toward the building, two were cut in half with a narrowly focused laser, the third screamed and fell to the ground as his face was melted away by a passing beam and the last died in a burst of gunfire.

Hand rockets raced into the front of the building, blasting giant gouges in the native stone, which was further eroded by needle-gun bullets that struck by the thousands, many of them finding open windows to leave millimeter-wide holes through the men and women they encountered.

The Security forces inside the building were brave, and rained fire down on the troops, finally lobbing grenades powerful enough to knock down most of the troops and some of the vehicles blocking the street. That elicited an aerial attack by two fighters that sterilized what remained of the upper stories.

The outcome was inevitable, the newsnets agreed, even after they lost the feed. The only question was: why?

Internal Security came under the Justice Department, and was dominated by Aryans -- they were attracted to that kind of work, and they were said to be favored by Minister Spender, himself an Aryan. It was part of an informal but long-established power-sharing arrangement that the Ministry of Justice was headed by an Aryan and the Ministry of Defense by a northerner.

Defense Minister Nazillah's family origins in old Earth's Middle East, however remote, could not but displease the racial purists among the Aryans. As a member of the Jellutong, he was also suspected of having some kind of hidden religious agenda that would also put him at odds with the Aryans.

Nazillah had always denied any playing politics with religion; just the day before, he had chastised the priest who had denounced the Velorians. As for Spender, he had always insisted that he was above racial prejudices, and had even denounced the extremists of his own race. Nevertheless, the official story, when it came out, was that he had been planning a coup.

President Bergstrom came on the nets at noon, with a brief statement.

"My fellow Rigelians, our military forces have this morning thwarted an attempt to overthrow your elected government by force and violence. While we have the situation well in hand, there are isolated pockets of resistance. I have declared a state of martial law in the capital, and I urge all citizens to remain in their homes until further notice."

The statement was pre-recorded, and by the time it was netcast, there was no chance for anyone to question the president; his whereabouts were unknown. By that time, too, after the Army had gotten through with it, there wasn't much left of Internal Security HQ. Computers were fried, and paper records burned; if there were had been documentary evidence of an attempted coup, it was gone.

Conspiracy theories emerged. The few survivors at Internal Security HQ denied everything; Diaboli police interrogators insisted they were lying, but how could anyone trust the Diaboli? Maybe they were behind the whole thing. Maybe it was a setup between them and Bergstrom -- including the murder of that Aurean. Or maybe it was the Jellutong, alone or in concert with... whoever. Maybe the Velorian embassy was involved. Maybe, maybe...

The most absurd theory of all was that there was a connection between the Aureans and the Aryans. Yet there were those who believed it; after all, the battle in downtown Senegal began not long after the story had come out about the cruiser.


Ambassador's Residence

Even if she hadn't caught up on the news, Alisa could have told from the look on her mother's face that something was profoundly wrong. And Naomi could tell that she could tell.

"Thank Skietra you'll never be involved in anything like this," she said. "You'll be a Protector. You'll be above politics. You'll be above... other things, too. You can't imagine what a comfort that is."

"I've watched all the newsnets, and I still can't understand what's going on. The riots, the siege, all the crazy rumors."

"I can't talk about that yet, Maybe not until after I'm recalled."


"It's inevitable now. I've been compromised. And I don't mean what you may think I mean."

"It has something to do with the Aryans," Alisa said. "I know you don't like them. I don't like them, either.

"They used to worship us. When we first came here. When you were all young, and couldn't do anything to spoil the image. People always seem to create gods in their own image, and when the gods fail to live up to it... But you weren't the ones who failed. Not the first, in any case."


Naomi was silent for a few moments before she answered.

"Alisa, I'm going to tell you something I'd never tell Nikki or James, or even Sara if she were here. Because you're the only one I can trust with it. Because you'll be a Protector. Because I know you'd never betray me."

Never betray, Alisa tensed at the words. But she had to know.

"About Bergstrom."

"He's half Diaboli, after all. Not empowered. At least I never thought so. Surely I'd have felt it. Not that it matters now. But the thing is, I truly believed in him. And I thought, if it could work between us, perhaps it could work between our races. A lot of Velorians don't like the Diaboli, you know."

"I've studied history, mother."

"Ancient history. The Elders. The Galen. What does it matter now?"

"It matters to a lot of people here."

"It mattered to him. Only for him, it wasn't about Velorians, obviously. And he knew how I felt about the Aryans. He thought I'd approve. He actually thought I'd approve."

"There never was an Aryan coup in the works?"

Naomi shook her head.

"And the Prime?"

"Your guess is as good as mine. I... I was afraid to even ask."

"What happens now?"

"We go back to Velor. We all go back to Velor."


Velorian Embassy

When Major Terri Raul'lan called a press conference a few days after the assault on Internal Security, the newsnets peppered her with questions about the coup, or alleged coup. But she refused to be drawn into any of that.

"As the military attaché of the Velorian Embassy, it is not my place to involve myself in or even comment on the internal affairs of Reigel Five," she insisted. "I am assigned here only to assist your government in dealing with the Aurean threat."

"Can you at least comment on the assassination of the Aurean Prime Ulexa Gabborn?" one of the reporters asked.

"I know nothing more about it than you do. It is regrettable, obviously, as we no longer have a chance to interrogate her about her objective here; The few survivors of her cruiser are saying nothing, and we expect them to know nothing. Although, naturally, they will be mind-probed."

"Does it strike you as convenient that two Velorians delivered her to the very place of her execution? That there might be--"

"Don't you dare make any such vile insinuations," Terri shouted. "Cher'ee and Alisa were acting with my full knowledge and approval. They risked their lives, they did their duty as Velorians. And who did they do it for? The people of Reigel Five, including scum like you who would libel them so."

That was the last time anyone brought up conspiracy theories with Terri Raul'lan. The rest of the conference dealt with strictly military matters.

"Naturally, I cannot give precise details," she told the newsnets, "But I have specific plans for improving the defense screens, to make certain that no enemy ships will again enter the system undetected. I have also arranged for a scouting mission to make certain that no other Aurean ships are lurking beyond the wormhole."

"What if there are?" a newsman asked.

"I have arranged for that, too."

What Terri had to say later to Cher'ee and Alisa in private was a far cry from what she said about them in public.

She gave them holy hell.

She also gave them a chance to redeem themselves -- in her eyes, at least -- by accompanying the scouting mission she had already arranged.


Down the Rabbit Hole

The Wormhole lay before them, insubstantial and glowing with tachyon light. Wider than a thousand planets, the wash of barely constrained energy rippled and coiled around itself. Spreading like an immense gate to an alien heaven, the wormhole dwarfed everything around it.

Compared to the vast storm, the two observers were reduced to dust motes before a hurricane. Alisa could almost imagine lightning arcing between the ghostly white clouds expanding before her eyes, she had to flick back to normal vision and its view of apparently empty space several times just to reassure herself that she was safe from the maelstrom.

Seeing the awed fear on her companion's face, Cher'ee smirked and flew closer, laying her hand on Alisa's shoulder to catch her attention. It was a small action yet it was enough to make the young Velorian jerk suddenly and dart away from the contact.

Returning sheepishly, Alisa signed an apology. <"Sorry... it's just that it... well it's so... so impressive!"> The motion for the exclamation was especially expressive. <"And it looks so close, almost as if we could reach out and touch it!">

Cher'ee tried to giggle, only to find out why it's impossible to do this in a vacuum. The expression on her face was enough however and she had to make a few quick hand movements to reassure Alisa, <"I'm not laughing at you. It's just that you're reacting exactly as I did when I saw my first worm hole."> She shook her head at the memory, <"It was this huge great thing that'd been standing in space for a million years. It didn't care who I was or what I'd done, my rites - my power - were nothing to it; no matter what I did, it'd just swallow me up and spit me out again.">

<"Wow, you really thought that?"> Alisa asked, following Cher'ee's nostalgic gaze. <"I just thought it was really, really big.">

Cher'ee glanced at her in puzzlement, <"But it's so much more, don't you see that?">

<"See what?"> Alisa shook her head. <"What am I meant to see?">

Cher'ee remained incredulous for several more seconds then smiled in realization, <"You haven't been through the training yet! When you have you'll understand."

Alisa ignored the prophetic comment and instead asked, <"But I already know about Wormholes, I know how they're just gravitational anomalies that, millions of years ago, were somehow harnessed by the Galactics.">

<"You understand the physics,"> Cher'ee answered, her hand movements almost terse, <"But not the truth. They're more than just 'gravitational anomalies,' they're guides, cutting paths through space, bringing planets and people closer together.

<"They're also guardians, watching over us all, protecting worlds by providing but a few entrances to their systems. But more than that, they represent the unknown. There are more than four hundred billion wormholes out there and we've charted less than one percent of them. Skietra knows where they go; uncharted planets, new people, other galaxies, maybe even to the Galen Homeworld.">

A pious shudder passed through the Protector's body as she whispered the final utterance. But Alisa shuddered for another reason: they weren't really supposed to be here. They were supposed to be aboard ship. Just as they had in Arcady, they were acting impetuously, without the least shred of authority.

<"We're not really under her command,"> Cher'ee had pointed out. <"I'm a Protector, and she's not.">

<"Probationary Protector,"> Alisa reminded her. <"And I'm not even that.">

<"But you will be. And you want this. I can tell you want it."?

Yes, she wanted it. She hadn't objected, or even looked askance, when Cher'ee convinced the captain of the probe ship Klaxton that it made more sense for them to trail the ship, ready to overtake it at the wormhole exit, than to have to make their way to the airlock if there turned out to be Aureans on the other side. It was a weak argument, but the captain -- in awe of two P1s -- had bought it.

<"If you say so... are you ready to go?">

<"Any time."> Cher'ee grinned. <"Do you remember what I told you?">

<"Follow you in and copy your movements exactly if I don't want to end up as a pink smear..."> She hesitated. <"One thing. While you've gone to great lengths to describe what I should do on the way in -- and paid especially graphic detail to the dangers of doing so incorrectly... you haven't actually told me what to do once I'm inside the wormhole? Should I keep on following you or should I try to find my own way, are there any additional dangers I should be aware of?">

Alisa wouldn't have thought it possible, but Cher'ee's grin became even wider. <"I wouldn't concern yourself about that; once you're inside... well you'll understand when you get there.">

Alisa was less decided. <"Unless I hit a gravity current, a temporal variance, micro-electric streams, quantum distortion or any one of a hundred other things that could go wrong in which case I'll be lucky if what comes out the other end is recognizable as humanoid.">

Cher'ee waved her concern aside, <"You worry too much. Now, you want to join me or not?">

Alisa gestured to the gaping aperture ahead of them. Though tiny in comparison to the rippling reaches of the wormhole's horizon, even five hundred million kilometers away the entrance appeared larger than the shipyard that'd built the Marla Streb. She swallowed; for all its size there was only one thin vector that'd deliver them safely to the other side. <"After you.">

Cher'ee dipped her head in acknowledgement and turned towards the waiting Reigellian vessel. Waving her arms in a prearranged signal to prepare for the insertion, she gestured for Alisa to follow her as she headed behind the ship and its thick radiation shielding.

The Marla Streb started up its engines and a microsecond later, the two Velorians followed its course. It didn't surprise Alisa to see that they weren't making a direct run at the entrance but were aimed a little off center. The enormous gravity being leaked by the wormhole had distorted space to such a degree that going "straight" would have required several severe curves followed by a near right angle turn.

Not that heading straight for the aperture would have been a preferable, or wise, course of action. Even had the tachyon guideposts not dictated a far more elaborate route, Cher'ee had made sure they'd all memorized the latest approach vectors before they'd disembarked. She'd even made the ship's navigator recalculate, despite the fact that it was the computer -- not he -- that would handle the actual maneuvers.

Thirty seconds passed before Alisa realized she was no longer flying towards the aperture but falling towards it. It was a strange sensation without the rush of atmosphere against her skin but she was undoubtedly falling; her stomach was doing belly flops in the increasing gravity and without air friction her hair tumbled straight ahead of her.

The wormhole had become a wall, filling her vision with an infinitely detailed etching made in cobalt. In her head she knew that the panorama couldn't possibly be infinite, yet as fast as she was falling, the vista never stopped expanding. Each minute ripple swelled until every microscopic line was revealed to be an entire universe made up of an infinite variety of blue and white shades.

Guideposts, floating balls of incredibly bright Tachyon light installed by the Old Galactics began to flash past her faster than she could see, forming unbroken multiple streams of sold white as her body struggled to reach a quarter the speed of light. Slightly ahead of her Cher'ee with her post-Rites body showed no sign of the ache beginning to seep into Alisa's muscles. Where the young Velorian was fighting to maintain the insane pace, the Protector gave the appearance of being able to hold it up indefinitely -- for all Alisa knew, Cher'ee might very well be able to.

A brief pang of sorrow spiked her heart at that thought for, while she still had no desire to live the life of a Protector, it was hard not to be impressed by the sight of so much power contained within a single, perfect, body. It was even harder to ignore the surge of excitement that came with the possibility that, with a single decision, she too might become an invulnerable goddess.

The thought went almost as quickly as it had arrived; power had its price and she had no intention of paying it.

More immediate concerns tugged at her attention. They were rapidly approaching the wormhole's mouth and Alisa could the see swirling, nebulous gasses parting and reforming across the mammoth pit. Vast plumes that her conscious mind told her were mere expressions of compressed gravity were transformed by her imagination into the trisected beak of some unimaginably monstrous squid.

From within the cavern a ghostly tongue rose, twisting and contorting as if alive and searching for prey. It was so large that it was easily visible past even the bulk of the Streb, the size between big and vast made it appear to loom all the larger as she was forced through yet another surge of acceleration.

Turning back was no longer an option. It wasn't just a matter of being unable to maneuver; the wormhole had her in its grip and was drawing her in. With sight of the maw looming larger, every instinct began to scream that she had to turn and run, that to descend into the hole before her would mean instant death.

Yet she resisted. It was moving away from the blurred stream of beacons that'd be death, either from the gravity, or from a stray particle stream as strong as any pulsar's.

Fear that up till now had been an itch at the back of her consciousness now leapt to the forefront of her mind. There was no margin for error any more, a single deviation could be the difference between this life and the next. Cher'ee, and even the Streb were gone from her mind; though the ship's mass was a constant guide as to where she should be in a fraction of a second, this close to the entrance she couldn't allow her eyes to drift from the beacons for even an instant. Instead she had to rely on her reflexes, and the remembered vectors to carry her through.

Alisa's furious passage wasn't helped by the environment. Dust particles caught in the wormhole's gravity hurtled past her face, spinning and finally bursting in rainbow sparks as gravitational sheer ripped them apart. She could feel others striking her skin like microscopic bullets before ricocheting away at a sizable fraction of the speed of light.

She could feel the cruel gravity constricting around her, compressing her ribs and making every heartbeat an experience in agony. Alisa's blood seemed to have been turned to syrup, oozing through her veins and collecting in the pits of her body. Her head started to pound with every twist and turn she was forced to perform, her eyes snapped from right to left, up and down as they tracked the constantly shifting beacon, relaying the impossible maneuvers to her muscles, forcing them to perform in ways Alisa had never thought possible.

Faster and faster she fell. The maw expanded before her, appearing every iota to be what her imagination told her it was. Her vision filled with an utter darkness surrounded by a contorted ring of furious blue flame and the solid white streams of the beacons.

Instinct ruled everything, her body twisted, moving ever faster in every more complicated maneuvers, dodging unknown dangers and propelling her inexorably further into the featureless pit.

And then, just as her sight was stretched into a single long blur of blue, white and black, it was over. There was an audible snap as Alisa crossed the threshold between universes, and she was through.

The world inside the wormhole was one entirely removed from the one outside. The overall impression was one of an unimaginably vast tube whose sides were barely visible beyond a sky blue haze. Though the tube appeared utterly smooth, it undulated and waves of light momentarily transformed the blue to an entire spectrum of shifting rainbow colors.

Other objects could be glimpsed in the haze. Subatomic particles, magnified by the unique conditions within the wormhole appeared as small moons and planets drifting through the clouds.

The scene was amazingly tranquil after the barely contained violence of her entrance. Alisa found herself imagining that she was adrift in some alien atmosphere complete with its own strange weather patterns, she almost expected to see a flock of birds cresting one of the clouds, or feel a sun -- the tube seemed more than larger enough to contain one -- beaming down upon her.

It was in trying turn her head towards the fictional flock that she realized why Cher'ee had said not to worry about navigation within the wormhole; quite simply, it was impossible. She was locked into the wake cast by the Streb; any effort to move more than a few meters in any direction other than the ship's was met with a strong tug back to her previous position.

Cher'ee had greater leeway thanks to her Protector strength and throttled back her acceleration until she was level with her friend. Struggling slightly against the current, she signed, <"So what do you think?">

Alisa found it even harder to move her hands but was able to answer, <"It's beautiful. Like nothing I could have ever imagined!">

<"I told you it'd be an experience worth seeing, but you know what's even better?"> Cher'ee asked. <"We're the only ones who can see this.">

<"We are?"> Alisa frowned, gesturing towards the Reigellian, <"What about the people on the ship?">

<"They're bound by their sensors."> Cher'ee made a surprisingly competent job of conveying a derisive snort through her gestures. <"They can't see this, not as we can. At best they can look at a screen with some overlays, we get the full panorama.">

<"It is beautiful."> Alisa agreed. <"If only there was sound as well. I keep getting the impression that I should be able to hear... something, like my ears aren't working properly?">

Cher'ee's expression soured slightly. <"Well there is that. It's a combination of micro-gravity waves against your inner ear and stray particle radiation. After a while you'll stop noticing it.">

Something was beginning to draw attention to itself beyond the blue mist. At first Alisa thought it was the sun she'd been half looking for but then she realized that it was much too bright, and that the light it gave off was wrong... almost silvery with a weird shortfall, as if its brightness had caused the photons to burn out much sooner than they would ordinarily. Shadows, already acting erratically in the undulating light, took on a weird feathery quality, collecting in odd points of absolute darkness, bridged by shifting scraps of intense brightness and lesser patches of dusk.

<"What's that?"> Alisa pointed at the illumination. Now they were closer they could see yellow, almost golden, shafts of light punching through the clouds.

<"The singularity."> Cher'ee answered with a distant look to her eyes. <"That's what we Protectors call the... 'bend'... where the major fold is represented.">

<"Bend?"> Alisa frowned then realized. <"Oh, you mean where the folded space that led to the creation of the wormhole reaches its most critical angle?">

Cher'ee nodded. <"The boundary between the wormhole's inside and the physical universe is especially weak there. Subatomic particles such as photons from nearby stars can break through and, given the extreme gravity of the wormhole -- not to mention the temporal effects -- the effect is somewhat concentrated.">

'Temporal effects?' Alisa mused, wormholes were even more interesting than she'd thought. <"You mean we could be struck by multiple copies of the same particles over and over again, or even all at the same time?">

<"Not could be, are. That's why the light looks so weird.">

Alisa couldn't resist a smile; Wormholes were certainly more interesting than she'd thought... if only she had more time to study them.

The light was getting brighter as they fell ever closer to the fold, Alisa could feel the tug on her body growing stronger and looked towards her companion for reassurance. She didn't find much for even Cher'ee was struggling against the renewed pull.

<"This bit gets a little bumpy!> The Protector managed to make out. <"Even behind the Streb. Just go with your instincts and look for the path of least resistance..."> She didn't get the chance to finish her sentence as a random riptide caught hold and dragged her away.

Alisa had a few seconds to digest the information then the wormhole began its assault anew, trying to drag her in a dozen different directions at once.

However in doing so they also revealed the meaning to Cher'ee's cryptic comment; the light streaming in from the outside universe was blinding, but it also refracted through interstellar dust drawn in with her, revealing faint paths where gravity rippling off the Streb was in equilibrium.

'"Look for the path" indeed.' Alisa's smirk grew with her improved confidence. Twisting hard, she headed for the thickest band she could find, weaving a way through the meandering stream, making sudden corrections as gravity shifted and dodging hard as the Reigellian's shields threw up unexpected twists in the trail.

Her early burst of adrenaline gave way to cautious reassurance as Alisa realized there was no need for fear. While the path was narrow, and danger no further away, it was more than within her ability to navigate the undulations, and even if she over corrected, or allowed herself to drift too close to the edge, sharp tugs on her skin and face gave her more than ample warning of the danger.

The light continued to grow ever brighter, exceeding the Streb's running lights, expanding past the point where it would have rivaled a laser, past the point where it began to sear even Alisa's eyes and forced her to try to redirect her vision. Yet there was no escape; the light was everywhere, acting almost like a liquid, seeping into every pore and orifice until she felt she could drown in the thick, blinding soup.

Alisa was surprised to notice the wormhole's grip was lessening in direct inverse proportion to the light's intensity, a sign, she realized that they were passing into the foci of the wormholes' curve, an area where its gravity was the most balanced -- or at least had reached a point of such imbalance that the inequalities canceled themselves out.

From that point onwards, Alisa knew, escape would be an uphill struggle as she would be moving away from the wormholes source, rather than falling towards it.

That was not to say exiting would be extraordinarily difficult -- at least according to Cher'ee's pre-mission warning. There was no "backwards" in a wormhole; once you were committed you had to stick with the direction until you exited. It was a major part of what made fighting inside a wormhole so terribly dangerous and why, even in the fiercest firefights, both parties would usually forego hostilities until after they'd exited.

The second half of the journey was mostly free of incident. Alisa had to do more maneuvering through dust lanes on the far side of the fold, but with her new knowledge they were considerably easier and far less fretful than the ones on the way in. She was even able to make contact with Cher'ee again, though the gravitational trails prevented them from joining up, even in the wake of the Streb.

It wasn't until the last quarter that the wormhole tossed her its last surprise, though to Alisa's relief it was considerably more pleasant than anything else it'd thrown at her.

Gravity had prevented her from seeing the far side of the wormholes entrance after her insertion, but now it prevented her from looking away.

From the outside, the wormhole appeared huge and menacing, but from within, bathed by its own unnatural radiance, Alisa's could see the innate beauty Cher'ee had described. The outer wall glittered like Skietra's Cathedral in mid-summer. When the sun was just past being overhead it reflected off the crystalline walls, causing them to glow and bath the surrounding region in red light.

The sight before her was exactly the same except enormously magnified. Light, having depleted most of its energy transiting from the outside universe, had red shifted almost out of the visible spectrum. The swirling, ever changing scene was the mirror of the one she'd seen coming in, but painted in real colors instead of the surreal shades cast by tachyons: it was striking and beautiful instead of alien and threatening.

The sight was made all the more pleasurable by the energy fall off. Molecules that had survived their descent were ripped apart in the sheer currents and, when bent around the Streb's navigational deflector, bathed both Velorians in a soft shower of easily metabolizable energy.

This time when the maw opened, it did so outwards, away from the pair, almost as if the wormhole was opening its hands and leading them back to the universe from which it had so harshly torn them.

Transition upwards was equally easy. Although there was some turbulence as they made the final transition, once the final plumes were behind them there was nothing to do but coast under their own inertia. Wormhole exit vectors were usually a great deal simpler than the entry vectors and shared properties similar to those of the dust trails closer to the fold in that they corrected the courses of objects using them.

It was also a period of relative calm the Velorians could use to better prepare themselves for attack as, even if there were Aureans waiting for them, the currents surrounding their trail remained intense enough to render any weapons fire ineffective. Of course the downside was that, while gravity blurred the Streb's sensors almost to the point of uselessness, any enemy force would be well aware of their chosen vector and could prepare their firing solutions appropriately.

While the Streb's shields no longer protected them the current was more than wide enough to give the Velorians leeway to navigate under their own power. Cher'ee used their short window to drift closer to Alisa and ask, <"Impressed?">

The only appropriate answer Alisa could think of was, <"Wow!">

Cher'ee grinned and pointed to her golden tresses and then Alisa's bleached locks, <"When we get back on board, you should look in a mirror... you might be in for a shock.">

Alisa wasn't that shockable. In any case, she was relieved to learn, there were no Aureans on the other side. As far as the captain and crew of the Streb were concerned, it had been a wasted journey.

She didn't see it that way, naturally. She knew that she'd want to do it again, one day. But not this day. Even Cher'ee couldn't think up a good reason for them to leave the ship for the return journey.


University of Reigel

Alisa had longed to meet Dr. Ramasekhar, but never expected that meeting to take place under such strained circumstances.

She'd have recognized him from the newsnets, even if his name and fame hadn't reached as far as Velor. Velor and Kelsor 7 had a peculiar relationship, she knew. No formal diplomatic ties, despite the essential technological trade that bound the two worlds together. No direct commercial travel.

Kelsor 7 was a hard place to get to. Not that any Velorian wanted to.

Except her.

She feared that was impossible, but she'd still hoped to study under the famed astrophysicist at the University of Reigel. With all that had happened, she'd forgotten her application for advanced placement until she learned at the reception the other night that it had been approved,

"Sir and Scholar," she addressed the distinguished visiting professor.

His nut-brown face broke out in a smile,

"Or Shri and Scholar, if you were to use the language of my ancestors' homeland... You're acquainted with our social formalities, I see."

That same face now took on a more serious look.

"More important, I see that you're acquainted with our astrophysics. I read your examination paper on the parallels between Terran string theory and Kelsorian wormhole theory with regard to alternate realities. Unusual material in unusual hands and, I hope, to an unusual end."

"I'm afraid there won't even be a beginning," Alisa confessed. "Not here. Not now."

"But you have been approved. Furthermore, the department is prepared to offer a full scholarship."

"Which I would gladly take. Here, or anywhere. But I must return to Velor. My mother the ambassador is being recalled. Surely you've seen the news?"

"I don't like to watch the news. The news here the past week has been the stuff of madness, But I can't see how it could have anything to do with your mother."

"It's... complicated. But they'll say it happened on her watch. That's all the Velorian Foreign Ministry will care about."

She couldn't tell him any of the rest, obviously. She didn't even want to tell him about her obligation to become a Protector. Did he already know? Did he at least know that she was a P1? Her wormhole mission with Cher'ee had been kept under wraps, but word was bound to leak out. And there'd been all the publicity about the flight from Arcady with Ulexa. Still, he gave no sign.

"I don't understand politics," Ramasekhar said, shaking his head. "I don't want to talk about politics. I'd rather talk about physics."

So they talked about physics, far into the afternoon. They talked about strings and wormholes and hidden dimensions and branching universes. It was the kind of communion that nobody in her family could hope to understand, nobody she knew -- except for Cher'ee, of course.

When he reminded her that he was due for a meeting, when she knew she could stay no longer, they bid adieu.

"Perhaps you can return later, after the dust has settled," Ramasekhar told her. "In any case, the offer remains open indefinitely. Here, or on Kelsor 7."

He knows, she thought, with a leap in her heart. He must know.

But she said nothing, beyond parting niceties. There must be a reason for his oblique approach, Perhaps the office was under surveillance. Or perhaps she was just paranoid. Paranoia was catching on Reigel Five...

But one thing she knew: Velorians weren't welcome on Kelsor 7.

Except, it seemed, for her.


The Ambassador's Residence

"You'll have to see that Nikki reaches Velor without causing any further trouble," Naomi told her.

"Why can't James?"

"Because he can't stand her, now that he's 'reformed.' Or hadn't you noticed? Also because you need to be home to prepare for the Rites. Almost 16, and still a virgin? I wish I could be there now to help you find a lover, but I really need to sort things out here. You'll have to trust to Sara. She has contacts in the Messenger Corps as well as the entertainment industry. I'm sure she can find someone worthy."

Someone worthy.... What did "worthy" mean? Alisa wasn't sure. But she couldn't bring herself to ask that. She didn't even ask why Naomi wasn't coming, now that things were through with Bergstrom, now that her career as a diplomat was in ruins.

"I still want to salvage something here if I can," her mother had said the day before. "Not for myself. For Velor."

Alisa couldn't see how that computed. Anything done by Naomi could and probably would be undone by her successor.


Points of Departure

Sergeant And'rea Cuppers felt less disappointment than might have been expected for a Betan operative who had lost not only her commander but her only safe ticket home. But then she had been busy, extremely busy.

Scalantrans were sharp traders. But they were also sharp rumormongers. And what better place to spread rumors than through her lover's Terran business associates?

Of course, she had plenty of help from the suspicion, even paranoia that seemed to be endemic here. But she'd certainly done her part. She remembered something from her study of Terran history, how a country called Yugoslavia had come apart...

It was happening here. Already there were reports coming in from Southy of clashes between regular Army troops and provincial militias.

There's more than one way to conquer a world, she mused.




Cher'ee had put off going through Grandpa's things. But she was due at Erin'dor to begin her training. She had to close up the house, decide what to take. If anything. Weren't her memories the best memento.

Then she remembered him talking about an algorithm. What algorithm? It must be on one of the cubes. But there were so many. She popped a few into his PersComp. Routine stuff: puzzles, old lectures, old papers, correspondence. Then she tried the red cube -- the only red one among all the blues and greens and yellows and grays. She'd already noticed that his papers were classified by color, although otherwise identified by code numbers known only to him.

The contents of the red cube confused her at first. Then, as the patterns became clear, intrigued her. And at last, as the meaning became clear, alarmed her.

The High Council must be informed of this, she told herself.




Nikki had been nccklaced; that was the law. But as a Protector-to-be, Alisa was allowed to travel free.

Even so, the trip weighed on her. She was soon bored. She'd scoured the ship's library in the subject of wormholes, but found nothing she didn't already know -- certainly nothing remotely touching on her recent experience.

She wanted to relive that experience. And she could, soon: practice with others, learn to dive solo. If...

But she didn't like that "if."

She thought of her sister. She'd be put in rehab. Put in a cage, for all intents and purposes.

Could Alisa herself escape the cage that awaited her?

[first posted Dec. 21, 2003]


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