Ordinary Velorians

Episode Seven

By Brantley Thompson Elkins

With Advice from Shadar and Alternate Histories

And inspiration from a Princess in an Emerald Bikini


Kim'Vallara Residence, Vest'athy

She might have been a freeze frame in a holo.

Naomi Kim'Vallara's face betrayed neither shock nor sadness nor anger. She sat there motionless, and seemingly emotionless.

Even Sara, whose career was reading as well as expressing emotion, could read nothing. But she knew what had to be there, buried too deep to come out -- yet. Yet come out it would.

She said nothing; there was no right thing to say. She did nothing; there was no right thing to do. She understood that much. Better than her brother.

James had tried to approach their mother, to vent his rage or offer his sympathy, she knew not which; but Sara had stopped him with a withering look, ushered him out of the room.

"You have an appointment at the Great Door," she reminded him.

"But that's not for--"

"Go, just go. There's nothing you can do here."

Until early this morning, this morning of all mornings, there had been a faint glimmer of hope, but that had proven only a fantasy. People didn't have accidents on Velor, people didn't get killed, people didn't get lost. And, most certainly, they didn't simply disappear. Not unless they wanted to.

Nikki had been brought back to her group home by the proctors, necklaced, Naomi and Sara were there to greet her, Naomi having already scolded the administrators for letting her escape in the first place.

They'd had to cancel the pre-Rites party, of course, but that had been a blessing in disguise: the turnout would have been embarrassingly small. Jeu'di had first call on the other Excelsor Jahr'lings for her own party, and Naomi suffered James go with them.

Ari had hung around the Kim'Vallara residence, and was still waiting there when Naomi and Sara returned. Waiting for Alisa. But there had been no word from her. They had checked with the Hotel Cosmos; she was still registered, but she was not in her room. There was no response from her PersComp. Indeed, PersComp could not even be detected.

It was only when they ran a further records check that the truth became unmistakable: Alisa had converted all the funds in her account to her credit chip; there was nothing left. Nor had she used that chip once since checking in at the hotel.

They had known their duty, but none of them had wanted to be the first to carry it out. It was left to Sara, at last, to notify the High Council. Naomi and Ari were too distraught.

"I am adding no interpretation," she told a junior official. "I am only conveying the information."

"But there can be only one interpretation," the official insisted, his face still white from shock. "Please wait a moment."

The next voice and image on the screen were those of a high councilor.

"You will immediately reveal any suspicions as to the whereabouts of the deserter Alisa-zar Kim'Vallara," he demanded, without even a greeting. "You and all concerned in this matter will remain at home to await interrogation by Judicial Branch."

Sara had her suspicions, but she hesitated to reveal them, and the high councilor's attitude turned her hesitation to reluctance.

"I regret, Sir, that I have no suspicions to share. I think you will find it the same with the others."

She sounded completely sincere, as only an actress could. Voice analysis would reveal nothing.

Sara didn't mention that James and Nikki were elsewhere. They surely knew that already. Indeed, she soon learned that a pair of inquisitors had gone to the group home, roused Nikki, and gotten nothing out of her but a steam of curses.

As for James, two inquisitors had caught up with him at the Jahr'lings. He had cursed Alisa, cursed Nikki, told them that he knew nothing, demanded to be allowed to go home. They kept grilling him for hours, so he didn't make it until near dawn.

The inquisitors who came to the Kim'Vallara residence hadn't gotten anything out of Naomi but hysterics, which soon turned to a numb stupor. As for Sara, she was calm, and seemingly cooperative. One of the officers even expressed his appreciation for her loyalty under "difficult circumstances."

Circumstances that had never occurred before. No candidate, ever before, had refused the Rites.

Deep Space, Outward from Velor

They hadn't looked for her in the drive chamber. So soon after docking the environment remained too deadly for the Scalantrans, Velor being only a brief stopover on one of their long trade runs. Yet the proctors would have relied on the Scalantran crew, according to the Compact,

The crew here would have checked the cargo holds, as would have crews on all outgoing ships. By the time it occurred to the authorities to extend the search elsewhere, the Takhmasib would be safely past the police zone and subject only to military inspection. And the military had its own priorities, not to mention its differences with the High Council.

She could overhear the conversations of the Scalantrans. Mostly small talk, chicken shit stuff. They didn't suspect she was here; she had come on board with the contract cleaning crew from the Station; who paid attention to laborers? She'd worn a wig, and a pilfered uniform that more or less fit her. The other laborers assumed she was a new hire, or a transfer. She hadn't enlightened them before she disappeared.

Under the work uniform, she wore her civvies. And under her civvies, she had secreted a reasonable facsimile of a Reigellian passport in the name of Alisa Liddell. She'd thought of calling herself Alice, but that was too risky. Somebody, somewhere, might recognize the Lewis Carroll reference, become suspicious.

The passport might have passed muster at Reigel Five: she'd researched forgery on the sly there, and she'd had plenty of chances to examine the genuine article. But she wasn't going to Reigel Five, or anywhere near there. She was going to -- Wonderland.

Kelsor 7. Dr, Ramasekhar.

For this, she had risked everything, had gambled with her life.

And other lives.

She thought of Naomi and Sara and James and Nikki.

She thought of Ari, who would be standing now before the Great Door. He would be surrounded by Candidates and Councilors and Witnesses -- and yet utterly alone.

It was necessary , she told herself, I couldn't help it .

Couldn't she?

There were things she'd never be able to tell, even on Kelsor 7. And there were things she'd never want to hear about.

She bathed in the radiation from the drive, feeling it warm her body. But in her mind she still felt a chill that would not go away. Yet she knew it would go away -- eventually. Certainly after she reached her destination.

That was actually the worst part.

Hall of Protectors: the Great Door

Centuries ago, this had been the only entrance to the Hall of Protectors. But the Hall had been much smaller then. There had been no public atrium, no shrine, no soaring tower with floor after floor of artificial environments and training arenas. That had all been erected over and beside the original Hall, a simple structure of rough stone.

But the gargantuan gate with its massive ring -- that was still the same. And the ritual, that was still the same. Well, almost the same: Aphro'dite herself no longer appeared before the Great Door to welcome the candidates, although she still initiated them in the ancient manner once they entered. Her place was taken by the presiding elder of the High Council.

It was he who addressed the candidates and their Sponsors.

"Protectors there were of old, Protectors there are today, Protectors there will ever be. So was it ordained by Skietra."

"It has ever been so, and ever will be," intoned the Witnesses.

"And thus do we gather here to fulfill her ordinance. Here come all that be new to try their vocations before the Great Door. And here today, on the ninth day of the eleventh month, come --"

The presiding elder recited the names, including that of Alisa-zar Kim'Vallara. There was no hint of irony in his voice, nor any look on the faces of the Witnesses to betray that anything was amiss.

They knew that Alisa wasn't coming, but nobody said anything about it -- neither the candidates nor their Sponsors nor the Witnesses. The subject was taboo here, at this sacred place, at this sacred occasion. Alisa's treachery would be announced, and denounced, at the proper time and in the proper manner.

Because this was not the proper time, Ari'jis had to endure the indignity of waiting for the absent Alisa, making a show of ignorance of what had happened, being honored for his service to Skietra and to Velor as there were anything here to honor.

James had never seen such a look of sadness and hurt on a man. Nor, he saw as he turned towards Jeu'di, on a woman.

He couldn't bear to look at her, but even more he couldn't bear not to speak to her -- some word of understanding, some acknowledgement of what had become a charade.

"I'm sorry..." he whispered to her. "I'll understand if you don't want me here. If you'd rather one of the Witnesses..."

"Don't let her ruin this day," she whispered back. "For me. For us."

"But Ari?"

"Let him see me empowered. Let him see me pass through the Great Door. Let him be happy for us, if he cannot be happy for himself."

"But can he?"

"Not today, perhaps, But later. When he needs something to remember. It might help him heal. And even if it doesn't... I want you here. Not just to help get me through the Door, but to make me forget, if only for a moment, all that has happened."

So they waited until Jeu'di's name was called. In one swift motion, James stripped her of her toga and she stepped forward naked to try her vocation in the ancient manner. She was a stunner, maturely voluptuous for her age; people could hardly believe she was 16.

"They wanted me to make an impression," she'd explained once. "They tweaked my gene sets so I'd look bigger and badder than any of the Vest'athy Jahr'lings before I took the Rites."

The Great Door was awesomely massive, more than 100 tons, resting on a grooved stone base: the friction as much as the weight would deny entrance to all but the worthy, It might have been made by giants; the Ring dwarfed her hands, even as the Door itself dwarfed her.

Yet Jeu'di would not be deterred, She mounted the steps, touched the Ring. James was right behind her, and began caressing her -- softly at first, then roughly, running his hands across her breasts, up and down her legs, into the cleft between them. She could feel his cock against her, but penetration and release were not the object here: arousal was,

She wondered for just a moment how Alisa could have stood it, offering her virginity here. But that had been a ruse; it must have been. Ari should have seen that. Even she should have seen that...

The thought faded as Jeu'di felt her breasts swell under James' touch, as she felt the orgonic energy manifest itself within. She felt the muscles of her arms and legs swell as well, her seemingly soft flesh revealing the steel beneath. Like a potter at his wheel, her Sponsor shaped the clay of her body into the image of the goddess she was to become.

He no longer touched her intimate center; that would have pushed her over the edge. She wasn't sure she could stand his caresses much longer; the way he squeezed her breasts and tweaked her nipples, even the way he stroked the small of her back and her ass.

She felt the power flow into her in wave after wave. And then, finally, it happened, She erupted into ples'tathy. As soon as she came back to herself, as soon as she was able, she seized the Ring and pulled.

The Great Door, even now, yielded with agonizing slowness, with a sound so ominous it was as if the lifeless metal could feel pain and anger, as if it could fight back against her. But hers was the will, hers was the purpose, and in the end the dead weight of the Door opened to that will and that purpose.

She entered, to be seen by the world no more until she truly became the Protector she was destined from birth to become.

Ari was there behind her, she knew. She had glanced at him briefly, seen him standing there stoically.


Kim'Vallara Residence

The netcasts, Sara knew, were inevitable. But that didn't make them any less painful.

Sara had been watching. She had to know what the world was thinking. She already knew at least in part what it was thinking: her holos were no longer on the Nets. No announcements, only pre-emptions. No calls, either, from the Nets or the Studio.

Alisa's defection had eclipsed even coverage of the civil war on Reigel Five. War coverage itself had increasingly focused on Naomi's failed relationship with Bergstrom, as if it were somehow connected with Alisa's act, as if one had led to the other.

The Kim'Vallaras hadn't even been mentioned before, except for Naomi's recall months ago. But now the netcasters couldn't let go of them; there were endless rehashes of Nikki's escapades, including the latest -- there were even innuendoes that Nikki had helped plan Alisa's escape. As if Nikki were capable of planning anything.

"This just in," one of the netcasters was saying. Then the set went dead.

It was Naomi. She had finally roused herself. Her first move -- her very first -- was to silence her electronic tormentors as they returned to the story of her daughter.

"No, no, not Alisa," she whispered. "No, no, not Alisa."

"I should have shut it off before," Sara apologized. "There's nothing new, anyway. When they realize that, maybe they'll stop. At least slow down. It can't last forever."

"But she 's lost forever. Don't you understand? Forever ."

"Forever is a long time."

"Where's James?" Naomi suddenly asked.


Downtown Vest'athy, Foodini's

"You've to get me in," James pleaded.

"What makes you think I can get you into anything?" Terri asked. "I'm not exactly a mover and shaker these days. And I'll be leaving before long for Erin'dor. Surely you wouldn't expect a raw recruit to be assigned there, even if his family had influence -- which yours assuredly will not."

"I'll take anything I can get. It's the only thing I can do. To at least try to save the family honor. You know what's happening. It's tearing them up inside, and there's nothing they can do about it."

"Is it about your family... or Jeu'di?"

"I'm not going to talk about Jeu'di. In fact, we're not going to talk about Jeu'di at all. We're going to leave her out of this."

"Is it still about me, then?"

"No, it isn't about you. Not that way. Maybe it was, at first. Only, that was before..."

He hesitated, unsure not of the thought, but whether he wanted to let it out, to let it become words.

"Could you bring Alisa back? With or without the Kryp'terrans?"

"I could -- without them. She hasn't been enhanced, remember. She has no experience in combat. But what's the point? They'd never send me on that kind of mission now. I told you so before."

"They'll send someone, though? She won't get away with this?"

"As soon as they find out where she's gone."

"I think I know."

"What? But why haven't--"

"Because I didn't remember then. I was too angry, I had the stupids."

"And now?"

"I want what I do to count for something. I don't mean getting credit, either. I don't think Mother could ever forgive Alisa, but I don't think she could ever forgive me, either. No, that's the last thing I'd want."

"And the first thing?"

"You already know that. I want to fight. I want to be part of it."

"You don't have a clue, You don't have any idea what it's like. The closest you've been to a war was that siege in Senegal, and you just watched it on the newsnets like everybody else but the poor sods who had to die or watch others die. I can tell you one thing, for sure: it would make you sick."

"I can tell you one thing: Jeu'di is positive about this."

"I thought we weren't going to talk about Jeu'di. And she doesn't have a clue, either. Maybe she'll get one on Erin'dor. She'd better, if she wants to exceed the average life expectancy for Protectors. Was this her idea?"

"My idea. But she supports me. And she's worried about Ari."

"The blind leading the blind. You really think this would help him?"

"Couldn't hurt. If Jeu'di and I are blind, I guess that makes him blinder."

"So you rat out your sister, without taking 'credit' for it. How about blame? And in return I help you get into the military to salve your wounded ego? Is that the deal?"

"Who said anything about a deal?"

"Now you think you're a politician. Skietra! Do you really have any useful information? I'm not promising anything, mind you. Not a damned thing."

James hesitated for a moment, them blurted it out.

"Kelsor 7."

Hall of Protectors, Administration

It was a few days later that Korn'Ellis returned from his latest mission.

Like all Messengers and all Protectors, he'd had to land on Erin'dor and hop a shuttle to Velor. By the time he arrived, therefore, he'd heard it all. His first impulse had been to return home immediately, but sworn duty stood in his way.

That duty required him to report to the Hall of Protectors, to deliver any message crystals that might have been entrusted to him and to undergo routine debriefing.

Debriefing this time was anything but routine.

He had reported to the Office of Communications, according to protocol, but was summoned from there to the Office of Inquisition in the Judicial Branch. That was not according to protocol.

"You are naturally aware of the criminal act of your kinswoman Alisa-zar Kim'Vallara," said Senior Inquisitor Erik'atal.

"I am aware of the newscasts."

"Then you are also aware of the difficult circumstance in which you find yourself, and of the need for unquestioning loyalty and complete cooperation on your part."

"None has ever questioned my loyalty. None has ever had cause to. None has cause to today."

"It is not customary to show disrespect to officers of the High Council."

"It is not customary for Messengers to report to inquisitors."

"It would be better for you, far better, to reveal whatever you may know about the criminal act of Alisa-zar Kim'Vallara."

"I can tell nothing because I know nothing. I barely knew Alisa. You will recall that she and the other children returned here only recently, I was able to stay with them but a brief while before my next assignment. I haven't even seen Naomi since Sara and I were married."

"It is not customary for a Messenger to marry."

"But neither is it illicit, nor has it ever been. None have questioned it before."

"Perhaps a change in the law is called for. We cannot afford to have even the appearance of divided loyalties."

"Protectors, too, have married. On occasion."

"Perhaps that too should be reviewed."

Korn'Ellis dared not rise to the bait, Instead, he submitted to Erik'atal's interrogation, passively enduring unending hours and incessant repetitive questions. Over and over again -- what he knew about Alisa, what he knew about Nikki, James, Sara, Naomi. The inquisitor even wanted to know about his sex life.

Everybody knew what a Messenger's sex life was like, so Korn'Ellis told his interrogator exactly what he judged the man wanted to hear. Erik'atal, to judge from the way he lapped it up, was properly titillated. Korn'Ellis didn't know what kind of a sex life a man like that had; he didn't think he wanted to know.

Was what came next intended as a kindness, or a twist of the knife?

"Am I free to go now?" he asked, when the interrogation finally seemed to have wound down.

"For the time being," Erik'atal said. And then added, "It's a pity."

"I don't understand."

"Her name might have gone down in glory rather than infamy. She had her baptism of fire on Reigel Five. She even flew a wormhole -- did you know that? No?" He shook his head. "She could have qualified for advanced placement at Erin'dor, could have... well, you'll see it on the nets in a few months."

With that, Erik'atal waved dismissal.

Messengers were not known primarily for their intelligence. Yet without it they could never have traveled from star to star to perform their duties -- which went well beyond those generally known. And they had their secrets, shared only furtively with the Guild.

The Guild must be made aware of this, if it were not already.


Vest'athy, Messengers Guild Hall

To the casual eye, and even the trained eye -- if any were watching -- this was not a meeting. It was not even a meeting hall, only a club where Messengers between assignments gathered to swap stories and catch up on events in each others lives and the life of the Enlightenment.

The Messengers knew how they were perceived, and everything they said or did here conformed to that perception. But there were messages behind the messages, shrouded in elaborate verbal and visual code.

"She'd been going crazy there on Bitters World," one might say. "Hadn't had a good fuck for a year. Really needed a tune up, but I had the right tool for the job. We went at it for seven days straight. Young stuff; she still had a lot to learn."

What he'd mean was that the Protector in question had been traumatized. When he gestured with his middle finger, it wasn't a reference to his "tool," but to the fact that a Prime had been involved. The number seven referred not to days, but to the number of natives killed before she had managed to take down the Prime -- that was what had driven her crazy, being young and not yet hardened to reality. And while there had undoubtedly been plenty of hot sex between them, the Messenger's true service had been as her grief counselor.

"They oughta teach them better on Erin'dor," another Messenger might remark. Which meant that Protectors should be better prepared emotionally to deal with such situations. They hardly needed sex education, although any spy might well conclude that Messengers believed they did.

Korn'Ellis was there this evening. It wasn't a formal meeting; with all but a few Messengers being offworld, formal meetings were impossible. But through encounters like this -- here and elsewhere, by chance or otherwise -- matters of vital interest to Messengers could be discussed, word gradually spread, reactions sought, consensus reached. It was agonizingly slow, but it was the only means they had.

"They think I'm nuts to have married Sara," Korn'Ellis remarked.

Meaning, the High Council might intend to circumscribe their rights .

"Maybe it's because you keep telling her crazy stories," the senior among them responded. "You haven't been telling her any crazy stories about Galens, have you?"

By glancing towards the newsnet screen, the senior made it clear that he was referring to the story about the Galens' intervention at Earth.

"Not me," Korn'Ellis said. "Who makes up that stuff, anyway?"

Meaning, he figured somebody had to have planted the story.

"Just somebody who likes tall tales, I guess," the senior ventured.

Meaning, the High Council .

The others murmured in agreement.

"People like that just want to make an impression," Korn'Ellis said. "Seem more important than they are."

Meaning, he had the impression there was some sort of power play in the works .

"Like those Scrumbles showboat jocks who think the home team can't live without them."

Meaning, it might have to do with the rivalry between the Senate and the High Council over home defense.

"Nothing new there," Korn'Ellis observed. "They're always trying some grandstand play."

Meaning, the High Council might be planning some spectacular operation.

"Won't be in the playbook."

Meaning, the senior would have to look into the matter, as discreetly as possible.

Conversation turned to other matters, some actually routine, others only seemingly so. The Messengers exchanged ribald stories, made fun of the holos that purported to portray them.

"Except for Sara's," one of then remarked.

"She really does her research," another chimed in, innuendo in his voice and expression. But he squeezed Korn'Ellis' hand unobtrusively.

Meaning, we're with you .

"That's really rough about your sister-in-law," he added. "You want some of us to come over and commiserate?"

"I'll ask Sara," Korn'Ellis promised.


Kim'Vallara Residence

In the end, Korn'Ellis almost forgot to ask Sara. She was so glad to see him. They were too busy in bed, making up for lost time. It was always like that when he came home -- a second or third or fourth honeymoon.

They'd been afraid that they'd upset Naomi, But they didn't.

Naomi was speaking again now. She could get through the day. She talked of going back into teaching. She was more than up to greeting Korn'Ellis, she could even feel for Sara's joy at his return, although she was not yet up to sharing it.

Korn'Ellis and Sara were therefore free to be, and make free.

"Where did you say you they sent you?" she asked.

"Klaphen IV," he told her matter-of-factly."

"And did the Protector learn some new tricks there, or did she bring them with her?"

"You know I'm not allowed to tell you," the Messenger said, repeating the same trick. "Anyway, we agreed not to discuss such things."

Sara moaned, and soon she came.

"Of course, it could be just something you heard about at the Guild Hall," she kidded afterward."

"Not much else to talk about at the Guild Hall," Korn'Ellis agreed.

There could be no exceptions, even for someone like Sara, when it came to the secrets of the Guild.

"Dirty old men."

"Dirty young men."

But it was a chance to change the subject, and he picked up on it.

"Some of them really enjoy your holos," he told her. "They'd like to come by some time, show their appreciation."

Some time was a few weeks later. And Naomi no longer needed someone to commiserate with her. At least she didn't seem to. She seemed chipper. But a bit too chipper, the Messengers judged.

Because they weren't supposed to be able to judge such things, they had to take her at face value. So they talked about cheery things, like Scrumbles and holodramas -- not just Sara's, although they did express appreciation for those when she was in the room.

They shared dirty jokes, the dirtier the better, some involving impossible pairings like Scalantrans and Pacts -- real Pacts, not the oxygen breathing look-alikes.

"Frostbite of the dick, for sure," Za'len concluded that one.

It was Naomi who finally brought up her worries about James. The whole business about Terri and Jeu'di, and now he was taking this pointless job on Erin'dor. It wasn't even a military posting, after all his talk about wanting to go into the military,

"Some women, and I think Terri must be one of them, like to do a man a favor," Za'len opined. "Just a good turn for the night."

"We all like that kind of good turn," chimed in another Messenger. "Of course, we always return it."

"Thing is," Za'len continued, "A young man can take that kind of thing too seriously, take it for more than it is. Always be looking for seconds. What's a woman to do? Especially 123 years old, and knowing what she must know. There has to be more to her love life than tutoring young men."

"She was showing off in one of those Over 100 holos," one of the other Messengers remarked. "Said she was getting it on with a senator."

Neither appearing in erotic videos nor having affairs with senators was anything to raise eyebrows on hedonistic Velor.

"Anyway," Za'len resumed, "James was probably hanging around her like a puppy."

"But he was over her," Naomi interrupted. "He was with Jeu'di."

"Who's in training now. He can't see her. Absence makes the heart grow fonder -- for someone else. And a guy can't ever get over his first great fuck."

"But she was hardly--"

"I said his first great fuck, right? I rest my case. Anyway, she probably just felt sorry for him, That's all this job on Erin'dor amounts to. And he'll get sick of it pretty quick. You'll have him back home in no time."

Naomi seemed happy about that, seemed at ease.

It was one of Za'len's few mistakes. But he was used to dealing with Protectors, not mothers and sons. And he hadn't factored in Alisa -- he kicked himself later, when the newsnets were all over the story of her being headed for Kelsor 7.


Five Months Later


Vest'athy Stadium

It was seemingly a chance encounter at a Scrumbles match. Such things happened. Such things were also planned. The message had been innocent, just an gift e-ticket, Row K, Seat 77. Korn'Ellis knew the drill.

Despite the roar of the crowd, he also knew the drill for contacts. It was the same as at Guild meetings. So he and Za'len yelled and cheered and booed like any Scrumbles fans, as the occasion called for. It was only during a time-out that they got to the point.

"Daro'lat just touched down. We should throw a party, invite some girls," the senior said. "Many happy returns."

Meaning, a number of Protectors had been recalled by the High Council.

"Anything special in mind for the girls?"

"What do you think? Moon them!"

Meaning, they'd been sent to Erin'dor .

Some big operation must be in the works, for veteran Protectors to be called in for maneuvers.

"I don't think they'll like that. Won't get too many RSVPs that way."

"Oh, we'll get a hundred, easy. They have a soft spot for us."

A hundred Protectors, maybe more? Korn'Ellis thought . Even if they were being recalled from soft postings, that was unprecedented .

"And we have a hard spot for them."

That didn't have a double meaning, but Za'len's next line did -- and it was a shocker.

"You're not into virgins, are you?"

Korn'Ellis couldn't believe his ears. They'd actually send inexperienced Protectors into combat in a major operation? It was insane. Worse. Obscene. He struggled to keep his voice casual.

"Not my thing."

They stayed for the rest of the game, rooting for the home team. They even watched some of the post-game orgy. But only some; they'd seen it all before. And then they went their separate ways.

Korn'Ellis knew the ways of the Guild now. Za'len was Senior, but only here and only now. The Guild was not what the High Council thought it was, or what the Protectors thought it was, or what anyone else thought it was -- including himself not that many years ago.

He had been enrolled at soon as he had completed his training at the Hall of Protectors. He'd attended a few meetings at the Guild house; they had seemed a waste of time. He was eager to get into space, eager to do his duty. That duty, of course. But he also looked forward to seeing other worlds, as few Velorians did, and bearing messages from world to world -- messages that, betimes, might hold the fate of those worlds.

It was on Belside that he'd first met a Senior. Knowingly met one, that is. A true Senior, ancient of days and now living in retirement. Korn'Ellis had thought at first that he was demented.

"In the beginning was Skietra," the man began, like some street corner bard. "And she said, 'Behold, I send my Protectors, and they shall bring aid and comfort to all worlds. But who shall protect the Protectors, and who shall bring them aid and comfort? Therefore I also send my Messengers, who shall know all things needful and share all things needful, that they may be of succor to them.'"

But then the man gave his Name and his Office, and certain Evidences that he was who and what he said he was. And it was then that his education as Messenger truly began.


StarBright Command, Erin'dor

Velor's second moon was one of the worst pieces of real estate around. It was barren and blasted. Like nearly every moon in any system, it bore the marks of ancient impacts. Unlike most, it also bore the marks of more recent impacts.

James Kim'Vallara hated it. But he had only himself to blame. He could still remember the sudden and unexpected offer to serve Major Terri Raul'lan as a civilian aide-de-camp. She had done nothing to make it seem glamorous.

"What will I do?" he'd asked.

"You will keep records. You will file reports, You will issue vouchers."

"Is that all?"

"There are also things you will not do. You will not see Jeu'di. You will not speak to Jeu'di. You will not speak about Jeu'di."

Actually, there wasn't a chance of seeing Jeu'di on Erin'dor in any case. She was still training in the simulation theaters of the Hall of Protectors. Only after six months of sims would she move on to field training here. He wasn't sure he'd last that long.

It wasn't just the boredom, it was the confinement. A B class couldn't survive indefinitely in a vacuum, so perforce he spent nearly all his waking hours flying a desk in a pressure dome. He rarely saw Terri. He rarely saw the Protectors; they had more pressing business.

Erin'dor was far enough out from Velor to be beyond significant influence of the gold field. If it weren't, it wouldn't have been any use as a training facility. Velorians were empowered here, but probationers couldn't let that go to their heads -- their fiercest enemies, too, would be empowered.

Training at StarBright had to be as realistic as possible, James knew. It had to be harsh, uncompromising, even pitiless. There were constant warnings. And sometimes there were accidents; he even knew that.

James never heard from his family. True to her word, Terri had kept the source of the tip confidential, but it hadn't taken Naomi and Sara long to figure out where it must have come from. Even Nikki must know by now. Did Jeu'di?

Protectors practiced close-in personal combat with robots. "Fraul'isets without frills," people called them. Strictly functional in appearance, nothing like the housings the Designers of Shalmirane had once supplied Vendor. They were programmed with the fighting techniques of Aurean Primes, and there was a reason for that.

Velorian trainers might be able, and consider themselves willing. But in certain situations, especially the use of light sabers and layer swords, they couldn't invariably be trusted to be as ruthless as the Enemy. They might hesitate, if only for a fraction of a second -- as Primes never would.

For the sake of their survival, Protectors had to master every technique of escape and evasion from all the classic schools of martial arts when facing the few weapons that could harm or kill them. They must be prepared to act quickly, without conscious thought. The robots were part of that preparation.

James had no way of knowing, no standard of comparison, but the training program that had begun during his stint was said to be especially intense. He saw none of it, save flashes of light beyond the horizon -- blinkers making practice runs, he was told. He knew of the robots, had even processed orders for them -- whether additions or replacements, he was never told.

Then came the day when the worst happened.

Terri had summoned him to the scene. It was the first time he'd actually visited the training fields, his first encounter with the training robots themselves rather than their images. There was a gathering of probationers and StarBright officers there, the only living things to be seen.

In the center of the crowd, not far from one of the robots, lay a body. It had been sliced in two at the waist, bled out red against the blackness of the rock. The cut was clean, through her uniform as well as her body. Had to have been a layer sword.

For a brief, terrifying moment, he thought it must be Jeu'di, although he knew that Jeu'di wasn't even here. But the broken body wasn't hers, after all. She'd been beautiful, however, like all Protectors, and now she was dead -- victim of a war she'd never seen, that she'd only learned about in books and holos.

James was suddenly sick; he had to remove his respirator before turning aside to vomit. Only when he need for air overcame his need to vomit did he slap the respirator back on his face. The flow of oxygen from the chest tank somehow calmed his nerves, enough for him to sign-talk with Major Raul'lan -- strange that he thought of her as such now, rather than as Terri.

"Why am I here?" he asked.

"Your assignment, whether or not you choose to accept it, is to return to Velor and explain to Jam'la's parents. And if they start screaming, you're through."


Kim'Vallara Residence and Beyond

They had nothing in common but their hurt.

Nikki was back home now, free for the first time since her escapade at the Hotel Cosmos -- but licitly this time.

Naomi and Sara had been expecting this. What they hadn't expected was for Ari'jis to come calling.

They couldn't understand why. Neither could he.

He knew they hadn't heard any word of Alisa. They knew where she was. Everybody did. It had been on the netcasts, even the part about a Messenger having been dispatched to demand her return. It had been rumored that the legendary Captain Janu'ary would lead a retrieval team.

The nets would later have to downplay the reception of the Messenger on Kelsor 7, and there was no further mention of Captain Janu'ary. There were those who had never believed in the existence of Captain Janu'ary.

Ari had been back in Excelsor. That was all he had told them. He had the look of studied normality, but there was nothing normal about the way he looked at them -- especially the way he looked at her.

She looked nothing like Alisa, talked nothing like Alisa, acted nothing like Alisa, and yet somehow he seemed to see Alisa in her -- an Alisa that might have been.

Nikki wasn't sure whether to be offended or flattered. But she saw the need in Ari's eyes, and she was too weak to deny him. In any case, sex was no big deal on Velor.

Naomi wasn't sure whether to feel embarrassment or relief. Sara could see nothing good coming of the relationship, But neither believed that Nikki would listen to them, so they held their peace.

At first, Ari and Nikki made nothing but love and small talk. He couldn't interest her in music -- his kind of music, at any rate. She had no talent for chess, orthodox or fairy. There was nothing to discuss, really, except Alisa -- and they never discussed her, although her ghost hung in the air between them.

What Nikki was good at was fucking, and she could fuck Ari into oblivion. That sufficed -- for a while. Oblivion was what he wanted. What he thought he wanted, at least. But fantasy was what she wanted: a particular fantasy.

"I'm a Protector, and you're a Messenger," she whispered one night. "I've been so lonely on this undisclosed world. There's nobody here to fuck me, and I need a fuck so bad. Oh Skietra, I've been waiting so long for a Velorian cock and I need it so bad..."

Ari froze at first, but her hand was between his legs and she could feel his excitement. With her other hand she pulled him in for a kiss, and he was gone. Even with the gold field to inhibit their strength, they almost destroyed the bed that night.

Night after night, and even during the day, they played variations of the same scenario. They make love in the shower, pretend they were on some other primitive world, that the spray of water was the spray of bullets from a band of primitive warriors that came across them, and that they were so caught up in their passion that they ignored the gunfire.

There came the night she told him, "I've just defeated a Prime, and you were there to watch. You saw it all. You saw my triumph. And now I claim my reward."

Ari rewarded her. But perhaps this fantasy was too close to his own. Up to now, even in the frenzy of passion, his words had been impersonal -- all the standard exclamations like "Forn'tu." He'd never cried out her name, not once. Tonight, he cried out a name, but it wasn't hers.

"Alisa!" he screamed as he came. "Alisa, Alisa, Alisa...."

Nikki did not protest, did not complain afterwards. Ari didn't even seem to remember what he'd said after he came down. He could hardly know how deep her fantasy truly ran; she'd never told anyone but Alisa, and who could Alisa tell now?

She had another fantasy now, of making love in the air. But there was only one place they could do that. She hadn't been there since her return to Velor, except for once with her therapy group on a planetary holiday. But she begged Ari to go with her now, and he agreed.

They really thought they could get away with it, have a quickie, at least, in one of the alcoves of the Atrium. They picked a slow day, a slow hour, a deserted alcove among deserted alcoves. But their moans betrayed them. What was worse, Nikki was recognized.

They made the newsnets. They would have made them bigger and longer if another story hadn't broken the next day -- a story from an Aurean moon called Klas'ten.


Klas'ten, Aurean home system

The Battle of Klas'ten became the stuff of legend. More the stuff of legend than all but a handful of Velorians imagined at the time. The High Council managed to keep the story under control.

James had known a major operation was in the works, but assumed it had something to do with Binkley's World -- that was the current rumor -- or even with Terra. The rumor was disinformation, intended for people like him and any Aurean agents who might try to tune in on the military chatter. So was the rumor behind the rumor, that whole business about the Galens. Two layers of disinformation.

If he'd known what was actually going down, he'd have wanted no part of it, even if he'd really been in the military, which he wasn't. He was only a civilian staffer, and he wouldn't have rated even that if Terri hadn't needed every fighting man and woman at her command for more urgent purposes.

Sending him back to Velor should have been a tip-off that the balloon was about to go up, even though his mission there was legitimate.

Jam'la's parents hadn't screamed. But they'd cried a lot.

James knew the right words, although he hardly had the right to say them. That Jam'la had died a heroine, preparing to defend Velor, to defend people like them, Training had to be cruel, because the Enemy was cruel. Without that training, the Protectors could not fulfill their mission on distant worlds, and Velor might find the Enemy at the gates.

James wasn't about to remind them that the Enemy had actually been at the gates barely a decade ago. It had only been a single raid resulting in a few dozen deaths and/or abductions, but home defense had been the responsibility of the High Council at the time, and they had never forgotten the humiliation.

Jam'la's grieving parents, in any case, bought his story; his visit ended with tearful embraces. He accepted those embraces, but felt uncomfortable about it.

It was the High Council, still smarting from the embarrassment of the Aurean raid and all that had followed, that had planned the Klas'ten operation. It was to prepare for it that Terri Raul'lan had been restored to StarBright Command. If she had had her doubts, she never expressed them. She had simply driven the training harder than ever before, especially with the handful of novices who had been chosen for their exceptional talents.

One of the novices was Cher'ee Belan'gan, first in her class at Erin'dor. She alone had a personal stake in the mission, although she knew well that it could do nothing for her missing parents -- even if they still lived so many years after their abduction. She had grown up wanting to strike a blow at the Enemy; now was her chance.

Strike at the heart of the Empire. Shock and Awe. That was the plan. And Intelligence, having finally analyzed the complicated route the Aurean raiders had followed to Velor, was able to plot a reverse course that would take the Velorian raiders into the Aurean home system on an unexpected vector.

Shock was the name they gave the blinker, a single small attack ship, its known weaponry unlikely to intimidate anyone. But most of the bulkheads had been removed to create an airless chamber in which a sphere of some hundred tons of anti-matter was held in place by magnetic fields.

Riding the back of the blinker were 120 Protectors, nearly all veterans -- albeit most of these from "soft" assignments on worlds deemed not to be seriously threatened by the Aureans. The few novices from Erin'dor were the cream of the crop.

The only man aboard the Shock was the pilot, whose only job was to keep the ship on a collision course with Klas'ten, bring it in as close as he could without being spotted. It was a suicide mission; he'd volunteered for it, had even been awarded a medal in advance.

"He was the bravest of us," Cher'ee later told the official inquiry. It was the only chance she had to give him any credit. All the survivors were, of course, sworn to secrecy. Some details were released after the inquiry, but the full story didn't come out for decades.

The Protectors had already jumped ship before the Shock emerged from the wormhole, formed up in squads of a dozen each. Following the ship at what was judged to be a safe distance they formed a cape behind the Shock's mantle, ready move in and finish the job once the bomb in the blinker went off.

Klas'ten was a major Imperial industrial center, bristling with shipyards and munitions plants, and ringed by orbital fortresses. If they'd been really, really lucky -- if the Shock had managed to reach the moon, or come within a few thousand kilometers, the explosion would have done nothing less than obliterate the entire satellite. The Protectors could then head for home.

Was that what the High Council had been counting on? That its blonde warriors would have nothing to do but collectively thumb their noses at the Enemy? Major Raul'lan could have told them war was never that easy, probably had -- and done the best she could to prepare for the worst.

The Shock made its approach cloaked, shields off, to avoid detection. But someone in the defensive batteries was alert in good time, and scored a hit that killed the blinker's power while it was still a million klicks out. Without power, the deadly sphere at its heart was freed of its constraints and did exactly what it'd been designed to do.

The rest was photons.

Betan workers in the shipyards and factories on the near side of Klas'ten died almost instantly. The Primes survived, but they were dazed and confused. As the Protectors -- the Awe part of the operation -- descended on Klas'ten, they carried the day, decimating the Primes and destroying key installations methodically.

But Aurean reinforcements -- including five tset'lars -- rushed to the scene from the other side of the moon. The High Council had never expected tset'lars to be assigned to Klas'ten; neither had the military.

"Major Raul'lan should have been the field commander," Cher'ee testified. "As it was, only her training saved us. If she hadn't borrowed that virago and forced us to drill for mass attacks on tset'lars none of us would have gotten out of there. I know I wouldn't have made it back."

In the confusion of actual combat, it took time for some of the squads assigned to Wrack and Ruin -- the destruction of the yards and factories -- to regroup, and the tset'lars inflicted heavy casualties before the Velorians were able to eliminate them all and stage a strategic withdrawal. They flew naked through the wormhole to rendezvous with a troop ship on the other side for the long journey home.

It was a harrowing experience, especially for the younger Protectors like Cher'ee. Facing a lone Prime back on Reigel Five had been hard enough. But tset'lars? It took her some time to get back to her old self . The High Council granted her compassionate leave. She turned it into a passionate leave, with one of Vest'athy's young swains.

Knowing only the official story, he was driven into a frenzy of lust at the thought of making it with, not just a Protector, but one of the Heroines of Klas'ten. She didn't disabuse him, and not only because it would have been a breach of security. They spent a week together, doing nothing but fuck. Her stud had no idea that it was therapy as well as passion for her. He also had no idea about about Jaz'la -- until Cher'ee invited her to make it a threesome.

Operation Shock and Awe inflicted heavy damage, no doubt about it. But shipyards and factories could be replaced more easily than the 37 Protectors who perished in the battle. The damage was compounded by the fact that for each death, an entire planet was left virtually defenseless.

It wasn't long before Aurean Intelligence identified those worlds, most of which had never been targets before but became targets now. The newsnets never made the connection, or were perhaps discouraged from making it.

Klas'ten, after all, was a famous victory. It would be many years before the words Shock and Awe were bracketed with Arrogance and Stupidity.


Immigration Portal, Kelsor 7

She had hitched a ride in the first Kelsorian ship she'd found, It was a commercial vessel from the Production Directorate, making deliveries of QED modules.

The Energy Star had a number of stops to make, it could not accommodate Alisa's earnest wish to head straight for home. But neither could it deny her appeal for provisional asylum; law and custom were clear on that.

But now at last she had reached her destination. The Energy Star had exited the wormhole, passed the warships guarding it -- she didn't yet know that most of them were Quaker ships, unmanned and with automatic weapons that might or might not be able to successfully target an actual invader.

Alisa had messaged Dr. Ramasekhar at the Institute. He was off shift, it being officially night by the local calendar although the actual nights and days were each eight of Kelsor 7's arbitrary 25-hour Short Days.

She already knew the calendar by head, but it was going to take time to know it by heart, what with its two-week Long Day/Short Year (Kelsor 7's orbit around the brown dwarf Kelsor 6) and its Long Year of some 50.8 Short Years, '2.35 Earth years' some eclectic part of her brain informed her, (Kelsor 6's orbit around the system's true sun).

It was also going to take time to adjust to Kelsor itself, with its bleak vistas of red and purple vegetation, and a native ecology that went no higher than insects. The Kelsorians could have terraformed their world, but they had chosen to leave the native life alone. Humans had settled this world early, but they had used it lightly -- the population was only a hundred million.

There were non-humans here, although they were a minority. Because the humans had left the world pretty much as it was, it was equally alien at first sight to any and all newcomers. The non-humans appreciated that.

Most of the humans, whatever their race, were thoroughgoing secularists, But there were also the Christ'la, an offshoot of Christianity that paralleled the teachings of Teilhard de Chardin while also observing the strict morality and sacraments of traditional Catholicism.

They did good science, and that was enough to make them welcome. It was going to be enough to make her welcome, too, although none from her world had ever settled here before. Dr. Ramasekhar had promised and, as soon as he had been roused, he had performed. Technically, he lacked the authority to waive the day-long entrance examination usually required of prospective immigrants. But such was his prestige that none would dispute him in this matter.

The immigration officials were nevertheless surprised when Alisa herself waived a rehearsal of the ceremony -- even more surprised than they had been by Dr. Ramasekhar's word that he would sponsor her.

Because he had vouched for her, her credentials were beyond question. She would be a credit to the world, this world she had chosen. There was no hesitation in her voice as she answered the Four Questions.

"What is your true name, and whence come you?"

"Alisa-zar Kim'Vallara. Velor."

"By what name and world of origin shall you be known to us?"

"Alisa Liddell. Reigel Five."

"What do you bring to us?"

"My mind. My hands. My heart."

"Do your come to us without reservation, forswearing allegiance to any other world or polity?"

"I do."

That was all it took. She was now a citizen of Kelsor 7.

Five Years Later


Reigel Five, Southy

Captain James Kim'Vallara hated being on Reigel Five.

But he couldn't complain; he'd asked for it.

Without any training, without any experience, he could never have sought a commission any other way. He'd had to start at the bottom, as a buck private, go through Basic on Erin'dor -- the opposite side of Erin'dor from where the Protectors trained.

He'd had to learn the weapons, learn the battle suits. Not that he'd ever need the latter, but the Reigellian regulars he'd be working with would, and he'd have to be familiar how the fighting would look from their viewpoint. Velorians were just advisors here, technically.

Yet he'd been assigned to the Velorian Security Service when he'd first arrived in Senegal, working with local intelligence. He hadn't been in on the fighting then, unless you counted flying interference for Cher'ee and Terri at the Great Keep. He wouldn't have wanted to be in on the kind of fighting they had in those days -- the bombs, the missiles, the biotoxins of the High Cruel Years that had brought the deaths of millions. Nobody had ever reckoned exactly how many. Nobody had wanted to.

Working with the Security Service had earned him a commission. Working with with frails, now that the war had ground down to hit-and-run guerrilla attacks by Aryan die-hards, had earned him a promotion. Was this going to be his lot in life? Or at least his lot in strife? The only Vels he saw were back in Senegal, when he managed to get there. Embassy people. He had a thing going, or maybe it was just a fling going, with one of them, a probationary Scribe. He hadn't seen Jeu'di in four years -- she was posted somewhere far, far away.

It hadn't been easy for him getting into action, even with Terri's backing. B Class Velorians weren't supposed to have any talent for this sort of thing. But he refused to be bound by his gene sets. That's why he'd gotten Terri's blessing to stay on here as an advisor after the worst was over -- including that rogue Protector nobody was even supposed to think about, let alone talk about. The way he figured, he could establish the neural connections and pathways for a military mind, if only he worked at it hard enough, drilled himself as harshly as he had been drilled by Command.

It seemed to have worked. Anyway, here he was. Far from Velor, and far from the newsnets. The nets had bothered him there, He had to be the most famous recruit in memory, but the only reason for that was that he was the brother of a traitor. They'd always asked about that, and he'd always had to fight to hold his temper -- to keep from showing that he wished he could kill them, as he wished he could kill Alisa.

It was different here. There was an enemy he could fight, an enemy he could kill. Within the rules of engagement, of course, which had changed since the civil war began and changed back under the Reformasi government. They weren't bombing the greenhouses any more, they hadn't used biotoxins since the purging of the Deep Keeps.

The squad was advancing up a valley of rock and tundra. It was far below zero, but the battle suits kept the Reigellians warm. The suits also made them good targets. Fortunately, few of the Aryans any longer seemed to have the kind of weaponry that could take advantage of that.

They were supposed to have a fewground-to-air missiles hidden up ahead. That was what the snitch back in town had told them. It was hard to tell a good snitch from a bad snitch. They both tended to disappear -- the bad ones into the next town, the good ones into the next world.

James was flying point, a few meters ahead of the rest of the squad. For the umpteenth time, he zoomed in on the terrain. Rocks and tundra. What else? The guerrillas liked to dig holes and pull them in over themselves. Tunnels, actually -- deep enough to fool the heat sensors. He looked again: still nothing out of the ordinary.

But then there was a slight movement in the gray-green growth.

"Heads up! Watch for incoming!"

Incoming, once the guerrillas had burst from their tunnels, turned out to be a pitiful volley of RPGs. The loyalists' own GARs made short work of the grenades, and shorter work of those who'd fired them.

They checked the tunnels, checked all around. No sign of missiles. They dumped the Aryans' bodies -- what was left of them -- back in their own holes.

Had it been a pathetic attempt at an ambush, or had his squad surprised them this time?

Maybe they'd find out when they got back to HQ in town and asked after the snitch.


Kim'Vallara Residence, Vest'athy

Work was proceeding on the Klas'ten epic. It would be very patriotic. No one would ever be able to accuse Sara Kim'Vallara of being unpatriotic. Even the High Council was being unusually cooperative.

Korn'Ellis had made one of his visits a few months back, and they'd talked about that, among other things. In bed, sheltered by the privacy screen, so they could speak freely. Six-year old Jin'neva was in Alisa's former room, devoted to her childish pursuits.

"It's important to keep things stable here," she'd said then. "Safe. For Jin'neva's sake. And Nikki's. In some ways, she's still a child herself. Maybe she'll find herself one day. Find something. I can't do it for her."

"You shouldn't let yourself be co-opted," he'd told her.

"I'm not," she'd said. "People know by now that mistakes were made. But that doesn't change the fact that it was a heroic operation, perhaps the most heroic ever undertaken by Velor. I could never be a heroine myself, but that makes it all the more important for me to honor those who can be, who are."

"Or were."

"Protectors have died before. The memorial reminds of that."

"I don't think they ever had to add 37 statues at once."

"They didn't die in vain. I have to believe that."

"Suppose Alisa had been one of them?"

"She wouldn't have."

Korn'Ellis knew otherwise. But he judged that it wouldn't be prudent to reveal that. Not here, not now."

"But just suppose."

"What's the use of supposing? She did what she did. She has to live with it now. So do we. We can take it. I wish James could."

"He was so fixated on Terri. And then on Jeu'di. He can't find love. Hate will have to do for now. Not that I entirely blame him. I can't forgive Alisa, either."

"For Ari."

"Yes. Not for myself, or Naomi, or even for James. But for Ari.

Ari'jis had never gotten over Alisa. And after the embarrassing affair with Nikki, he'd felt uncomfortable living in Velor, so he'd moved to Daxxan, gotten a teaching position in comparative culture at the Academy of Scribes. They never heard from him.

As for Nikki, Sara had managed to get her a front office job at NFN, once she was back in the good graces of the Studio. Nikki did well enough to get by, but she'd never earn a promotion. It was a sinecure, nothing more.

One day, after she returned from a lengthy errand, a co-worker told her that a man had stopped by looking for her. An old friend, he'd said. Nikki couldn't remember having any old friends. So she asked her co-worker.

"He didn't leave his name."

"Well, what did he look like?"

"He was funny looking."

"What do you mean, funny looking?"

"Really, really funny looking."

Velorian Embassy, Bering's World

Bering's World was nothing like Reigel Five.

The climate here -- political as well as meteorological -- was temperate. The government was honest and benign. There were no ethnic rivalries, nor any great disparities of wealth.

Naomi Kim'Vallara was content. Most of the time, at least. Her duties as ambassador were light and she could spend much of her time simply enjoying the sights and sounds and smells, from the botanical gardens near the capital to the distant forests and beaches and mountains.

The planet was far from Velor, and even farther from Aurea. The war had never come here. Hopefully it never would.

The thought reminded her of James, now serving in the Reigellian campaign. She hadn't wanted that, hadn't wanted James to have anything to do with the military. And yet she realized that his show of patriotic fervor had played a role, perhaps a decisive one, in her own rehabilitation.

Their relations during their final days together on Velor had been tense. James could never forgive Alisa; the whole course of his life now seemed dedicated to cleansing the family of her existence as thoroughly as the official diplomatic biography had been cleansed of her name.

None of her family had followed her here. Nikki was living with Sara at the Kim'Vallara residence in Vest'athy. Sara had gotten her... some sort of a job. She heard from them occasionally. Moonless Night was still doing well, and Sara was working on another holo -- an epic about the Battle of Klas'ten, her most ambitious project ever.

She and Korn'Ellis had adopted a baby girl whose father had been the pilot killed in that battle and whose mother had become deranged. Naomi hoped that Sara would make a better mother than she herself had. She was doing better with Nikki. Seemed to be, at least.

It was pointless to reproach herself. She'd done the best she could. And yet...

Only one thing to do when she got into a mood like this: go out and people watch.

The sun here was warmer than Velor's, enough to give even its fourth world a mild climate. Thanks to a small axial tilt, there wasn't much change of seasons: aphelion winter was pleasantly cool, perihelion summer pleasantly warm. Rains, when they came, were gentle. Snows were practically unknown, even at the poles.

On almost any given day, you could see people out and about. Young lovers, hand in hand. Parents with their children in tow. Seniors playing chess, or just sitting and taking in the sun. People being people, and enjoying being people. Nothing more. But, and that was the important thing, nothing less. It never failed to lift her spirits, especially when she thought back to Reigel Five – especially the mission she'd carried out for Sandal. It did not fail her today.

But even if it had, the face that suddenly appeared from the crowd at this moment would have filled her with joy. It was Korn'Ellis.

"But how?" she asked, after they'd exchanged greetings.

"They said at the Embassy you'd probably be here. Your habits are well known."

"And what brings you to Bering's World?"

"Nothing. Just a stopover. I can't stay long."

"It can't be nothing."

"Well, Sara and Nikki wanted me to remember them to you. Since it was on the way."

They talked for half an hour about Sara and and Jin'neva, and about Nikki – still trying to find herself. But Naomi could tell there was something else on Korn'Ellis' mind, and she pressed him in it.

"There was something I always wanted to tell you," he said. "But it didn't seem right. It would have been too painful then, so soon after Alisa..."

"You don't have to be afraid to mention her name. You never did."

"Then I must tell you. If she'd gone through the Rites, she'd probably be dead by now. They were going to send her to Erin'dor, prematurely, might even have assigned her to Klas'ten. Like those other top recruits. What possessed them to do such a thing I don't care to imagine."

"Nor do I. But how do you know this?"

"We Messengers have our ways. The same ways that have brought me word that she is doing well among the Kelsorians, You might even hear from her one day. Arrangements can be made. Devious, but secure."

"Your news is welcome, but not exactly news."

"How so?"

"I have felt it," Naomi said. "We mothers also have our ways."

The End

[first posted March 4, 2004. Edited March 8, 2005, April 21, 2013]

(The Ordinary Velorians cycle is continued in "Alisa's Story" and Shore Leave, first posted at Aurora Universe: Other Worlds, and later edited for The Bright Empire; as well as in "Pictures of an Expedition," Throne of the Gods and Encounter at Westfold, posted at The Bright Empire to begin with.