Book One of the Story of Nov’ayul
By Lisa J. Binkley
I write this in response to Sharon and her scribing of Velor and Velorians. I do not contest her tales nor do I disbelieve. I wish only to offer a different point of view.
Sharon’s opinion of a Protector’s role is skewed by her own imagined inadequacies and her failure to be initiated as one. Each P-1 has her own tale and her own doubts. Sharon is arguably more confident than any Protector could ever be. The chosen ones come fully endowed with failings and flaws to offset their perfections and promise.
I know this. I am one, and not the best example. This is my story.
Not all Velorians live on Velor, though most Protectors are chosen from the residents of the homeworld. Nova’s parents were minor functionaries in the embassy on Belside. She’d long held the opinion that her optimal genetics were not a fortuitous accidental roll in the crap shoot of genetics but the result of an “occasion of opportunity” by her beautiful mother, Dai’ayn. Nova’s father treated her with casual affection until the day the first forms were given and the scores placed her in the 99th percentile. After that time, Ral’syul forgot his objections, doubts and reservations, claiming her proudly and vocally as his sun-child, Nov’ayul, which was her given name, after all.
Belside, at the time, had a vital economy, poised at a convenient transfer point and possessing, in their territory, moons and sub-planets rich in trans-atomic elements.
The options available to her parents for her education were limited. The Velorian School lumped all twelve embassy brats in a small classroom. The teacher would teach the alphabet to a few, history to others, and then attempt to teach Nova and her age-mate, Dar’nyot, astrophysics. The method was surprisingly effective. The students received a passable general education in a cozy environment.
Once Nova passed the first forms so glowingly, her parents worked to insure her continued success, doubting the ability of a sole instructor to properly guide the intellect of a future guardian. The guidelines from Velor were unequivocal. P1’s must be socialized, which meant no private tutors. The only other educational option was the strangely free-formed system practiced by the Belsidea and, though unorthodox, the scholars of Belside were renowned. The ambassador pulled a few strings to ensure the girl a place, and the prospect of graduating a future Protector thrilled the headmasters of the academy.
Nova adjusted after a time, holding back only until she found a sure footing. Always cautious, she watched until the basic structure and politics were clear to her. She continued to excel in the non-graded but highly competitive atmosphere. Her visits home were short but happy; though her father grumbled about the outlandish clothing she’d adopted to outwardly conform to the standards of her peers.
The second forms came and went with no change in Nova’s P1 status, except an incremental upward tick. Belside academia would continue to nurture and educate the young Velorian.
* * *
The mentor would present problems, ethical dilemmas, philosophical questions, mathematical equations, and historical situations (from a host of worlds) and the students would investigate, quantitate, debate, and document until the topics were exhausted or the solutions agreed upon. The mentor would then assign another problem set. There is a certain beauty in never being told an answer is correct; one must develop a barometer to judge. The only external confirmation of achievement came from being assigned to smaller groups with people one considered intelligent and compelling debaters. If included with those people then is one not such a person also?
Dar’nyot and Nova were placed in such a group. Amongst themselves the seven students named their group ‘Questlings;’ it was a common affectation of adolescence to adopt a communal identity. Once the mentor assigned the questions, his task and responsibilities ended and the students were free to pursue the answers in whatever venue preferred. The Questlings preferred the lake.
Daro (Dar’nyot’s pet name), male but still P1, had been sent along to academy for several reasons. Some were explained — to lower the demands on the embassy teacher, to keep Nova company, to receive an outworld education — but some were not and consequently were the more interesting ones. The Questlings speculated on those frequently. Sometimes when resting from the intellectual demands, the topic would percolate lazily through the group as they floated about. A series of air mattresses, tethered together as a star-shaped raft, provided an island of perceptual privacy. Though jet boats and kequas (kayak-like canoes with small sails) passed with regularity, the collection of youths and lasses felt insulated and acted accordingly.
“He was sent to keep you satisfied,” Tol suggested, as always thinking of sex. Ari Tol could be ready if a suggestion of a romp was mentioned. He also had a keen mind for geometry and physics.
Masa glanced up from her position mostly beneath him (at something just less than eight and a half decas, not all of her fit under anything smaller than the sky), a place she found most appealing judging by the dreamy-eyed look in her face. Her family was trades-people from Dancer. Her iridescent hair glimmered purple and black in the ruddy sunlight. Under a brighter sun the thick dark hair was a prism of colors and her black skin would gleam like oil. Belside’s red sun stole some of her glory if none of her exotic good looks.
Her soft lilting words carried only as far as the circle of heads. “To keep you from falling in love with any Belsidea hunk with a way with his…”
“Masa K-vason!” Kemi whispered in her little girl voice. “Vulgarity is the refuge of the ignorant.” Tsa Kemi was tiny and plain — a typical Belsidea girl. On this planet the males wore all the bright plumage. Her timidity extended to most things except debate. In an intellectual argument she became a tiger, devastating and dangerous. Her encyclopedic mind for detail could instantly rebuke any adversary’s weaker point.
She blushed at any verbal reference to sex but watched with great interest, occasionally offering advice. Her pater had fit her with a chastity belt before the term and checked the state of it at every visit. Virginity was a marketable asset among Belsidea females. Males like Tol had different priorities.
“Tool,” said the twins, back and forth, listing the various and descriptive names for that portion of a humanoid male anatomy. They did it to tease Kemi’s blush, a reaction which started somewhere around her navel and spread outward, upward, and downward.
“Balweck,” one said, with a grin.
Kemi tried to argue. “Balweck,” she whispered, blushing further, having said the word, “Doesn’t belong in your list. Theras aren’t humanoid.”
Balweck was the slang term for the Thera’s appendage that was roughly equivalent in function to a human’s nose but resembling another anatomical feature more closely — except in size. The said feature was commonly used for another purpose — an open secret of the sex trade. Many Theran made a living on cruiser ships.
“But that part of them certainly is!” Sae (maybe) said. Bae raised his arm and moved it back and forth through his twin’s hands. “Ooooo, less… Less.” Sae fell back laughing.
Masa moaned more convincingly, but from Tol’s actions not Bae’s.
“Faster, Tol,” Kemi said, without blushing. Nova wondered if the girl had some latent telepathic talent. Her suggestions were always right on target. Tol complied and Masa moaned again. One of the twins reached out absently and brushed back the glossy hair that had fallen in the tall girl’s eyes during her exertions.
Nova raised her head, momentarily, from her arms. Daro’s hands on her back and shoulders felt too good to maintain the position long, but the twins were nice to look at. The result of Belsidea attempts at eugenics, Bae and Sae were an apparent testimony to the success of the program. Unfortunately, the endeavors all ended in such disasters. The children of the experiment, all twins, were not only homosexual but also monogamous to each other. The fantastic genetics could only be transmitted by artificial insemination from a set of male twins to a set of females. The second generation followed the same pattern and would be the last. New trials had been postponed until a complete review of the first failure could be made.
Est Sae (or was it Est Bae?) could think in tri-dimensions and solve spatial problems in his head. The other twin had memorized every love poem in the library, and could build a Hypoid sonnet from a list of unrelated words thrown out at random. The results were usually highly erotic, sometimes funny or tragic, but always had excellent iambic pentameter and rhythm. His haiku were even better, small verses breathing life. The talent extended to dictating long strings of logical connections from a string of seeming irrelevant facts the others would provide.
“Why do you think you’re here, Daro?” Tol asked, able to share in the conversation and please Masa simultaneously. Nova hated when he did that to her, she preferred to be the center of her lover’s attention, not a distraction. Masa didn’t seem to mind and, admittedly, even part of Tol’s attentions was better than most male’s best efforts.
“Straight man, I guess,” Daro replied. He really did have a good mind, but his strengths were, as yet, undefined. He was the coordinator, keeping them all on task, getting them back to the question at hand, and summarizing the project.
Nova was uncertain why she’d been chosen for this group. The mentors had some arcane reason for everything they did, so this grouping was hardly an accident. Why did she belong, what did she bring or contribute? The doubt nagged her whenever the topic of Daro’s presence was explored. Her P1 status, obviously, but these younglings were geniuses, as she was not.
“His hands,” she said aloud. “The mentors gave us a prize among men for our simple enjoyment.” She felt Daro jiggle a little and by the small chuckle she knew he was laughing.
Kemi sighed. “A prize among men. That’s nice, I hope…” she said, trailing off, her frustrations plain. Marriages were political and economic, but once she provided a legitimized heir or two, the belt would be off and her body would be her own. Daro gave Nova a pat, a non-verbal promise to return, and clambered over the twins to Kemi.
“Poor baby. Let me help,” Daro said. He started at her feet, rubbing and soothing. Eventually he’d reach her shoulders and neck as he had Nova’s, and Kemi would be a lump of contented, if not sexually satisfied, flesh under his wonderful hands.
Tol stretched over and kissed the virgin. “A prize among men. Call me when that shitting thing comes off. I’ll give you a prize.”
“I’ve seen your trophy. I think I’ll take a cruise, instead,” she said, relaxing as Daro manipulated her ankles. The twins hooted in appreciation and mimicked a Thera’s equipment again. Sae rolled over Nova, and he and Bae hugged her between them. Not sex, just cuddle, a Nova sandwich. One of them or both would have rescued Kemi from her doldrums if Daro hadn’t.
Masa made a little sound of impatience, wrapping her legs tighter around her lover.
“Now Tol,” Kemi advised and he moved harder and steadily to bring Masa to her climax. The five minimally participating Questlings watched as the dark girl orgasmed, always a terrific show of fireworks. Tol would need a few more romps to reach his. Belsidea males were undeniably gifted in that regard. Nova’s turn would come, sooner or later.
“Fuck me, fuck me.” The exotic lisp only intensified the erotic message.
Kemi blushed, undoubtedly wishing to be in Masa’s place, panting and crying. Of course, Nova mused; it might have been the vulgarity that caused the Belside girl to redden.
Daro had reached Kemi’s knees, the backs of which were sensitive enough to give the little henbird a good taste of what she was missing otherwise. She squirmed but subsided when Daro shushed her.
Being between the twins was always a little strange. The caresses they started on her bare flesh would always end on each other and Nova usually wound up very hot and unfulfilled.
Masa’s aftershocks died away, slowly — rocking the raft with each. Tol showered attention on the nubbins that were her breasts, teasing her into a few more quivers.
Daro asked, “Why are any of us here?” His question dovetailed nicely with the philosophic topic of the assignment, “What is the purpose of existence? What is the proof of our existence?”
“I’m here because I amuse Tol,” Masa said. “But that could be true of all of us.” Tol grinned and smacked her bottom as she rolled away. Tol had no homosexual tendencies and would rather spend an hour in frustrated petting with Kemi than a minute in consummated sex with another male.
Masa slid off the raft for a dip in the cool dark green water. She could swim with the fish and frequently did. The first time she’d stayed under for more than three ticks, Nova had dived in after her. Finding her in the murky water had been impossible, but Masa had found her ersatz rescuer easily, gliding sleekly past with a mere touch in tender places. That had been the first time Masa had demonstrated any intimacy with the Velorian, but not the last.
Tol sighed. “I’m here to learn to be a praetor.” His father was a senator, a hereditary title. The first career of a senator was always praetor.
“And me, an amusing hostess,” Kemi said with an identical sigh.
“We’ll be deep-space explorers,” Sae/Bae said. Every schoolboy’s dream and the twins’ reality coincided.
Masa called, “Take me with you.” Her destiny was as set as any. Her family’s business would swallow her up in its anonymous legions.
“What good will you do us?” Bae called back, laughing. Her sexual appetite was as extensive as Tol’s, and neither twin could help her with those needs.
“I can speak twelve languages and program vectors from memory,” she said.
The twins exchanged a shrug. True but not enough to put up with her potential nagging.
“I can cook,” she added.
Sae said, “You’re on, but there are no fringe benefits.” He waggled his penis at her.
“No problem, we’ll hire a Thera.” The group all laughed, except Kemi who had no breath to spare. Daro had reached her inner thighs and with a feather light touch had, so far, managed not to trigger the chastity belt.
“Grab her hands, Tol.” Daro said. Kemi, thus restrained, wouldn’t set off the device by accident as she sought to bring on her own orgasm. They hadn’t quite figured out the sequence in the activation process but had eliminated some obvious things.
Tol whispered something in her ear and she squeaked. He continued his whisperings and her writhing increased. Almost there. Nova strained toward it with her, but something activated the chastity belt and a warning jolt knocked Daro on his ass. They heard an audible click as the force field engaged. Kemi sobbed and Tol cuddled her upper body avoiding the still glowing neural field. Daro resumed the traditional massage starting just above the dimples on Kemi’s back.
“Respirations,” Nova said. “Heartbeat and body temp. Does it trigger when you have wet dreams?”
Kemi recovered enough to blush. “I never…” The others booed and made phtt sounds until she nodded.
“How the fuck are we supposed to beat that?” Tol said in disgust.
Masa said from the edge of the float, “The fuck is not supposed to beat that.”
The twins laughed. Daro grinned. Kemi blushed and cuddled happily into Tol’s chest. Nova suddenly knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, why Tol and Kemi were grouped together. Someday Tol would not only beat the belt, but also own the key. In the meantime, he would learn a great deal about her preferences.
Nova, sandwiched between Sae and Bae, waited until Masa resurfaced and gave her the come-hither look. Sae (or Bae, no difference — physically — anyway) rubbed against her rump, and Bae pushed his erection between her legs. Both kissed whatever parts they could reach, of her and each other. She eased from her place, not really missed as the activity continued unabated without her.
As Nova shimmied into the lake Daro glanced over and smiled his pretty smile. Tol was propped on one elbow, watching the masseuse’s progress and occasionally kissing the Belsidea girl. His hard had subsided a bit, but twitched as Kemi made her little noises of contentment.
The water felt like satin and Masa glided between Nova’s thighs. The bubbles of the dark one’s exhaled breath tickled and burbled up the front of Nova’s body. Long-fingered hands gathered the sun-child’s breast with a delicate squeeze. Masa would sometimes come from an unexpected direction and caress her in passing. This time Masa simply surfaced and tucked herself around Nova’s backside.
“Why are you here, Sunny?” Masa murmured in Nova’s ear.
Nova leaned back into the buoyant form and let the clever hands explore.
“Do you want Daro or Tol?” she asked, attempting to distract the other from the question. “Or both?”
“I heard that,” Tol said, rubbing Kemi’s shoulders while Daro and one of the twins (Bae probably) dictated the day’s work into a wrist-pad. “Are you inferring inadequacy in my performance?” He laughed, completely confident — another Belsidea male trait.
Masa nibbled Nova’s earlobe and played with her suddenly tight nipples. “Shall I tell you why I think you’re here?”
Nova found the energy to nod but Masa didn’t enlighten her. The soft hands continued to tease and probe, finding erotic buttons in odd places. In a sort of fugue, Nova heard Kemi dismiss Tol. Moments later he was before her, letting Masa hold them both afloat, while he slipped between Nova’s wet-on-wet thighs, driving philosophy from her mind as he filled her body. Masa helped Tol’s efforts, kneading and pinching, and pushing those odd buttons of pleasure.
Knowing her untrained strength to be perilous, even to these superbly fit younglings, Nova forced her hands float in the water at her side and let her friends do the active work. When she couldn’t stand her empty arms any longer she hugged herself tightly, unwilling to chance harming either of the people who strove to please her.
“Who needs a Thera?” Masa whispered. “We’ve got Tol.” She stretched her dark arms over the end of a raft and held Nova and Tol with her incredibly long legs. She flexed her calves as he stroked — adding her strength to the big Belsidea’s thrusts. The pounding almost satisfied the growing hunger.
Daro’s familiar face appeared in her field of vision and finally she had a safe place to anchor her hands. He could withstand a little rough handling, so Nova clung to him as she reached for and obtained joy. Tol really was amazingly gifted, Daro kissed nice, and Masa knew everything else.
She heard Kemi say, “Now Tol,” and so it was.
“Why?” Nova asked, once again floating with Masa, feeling happily used and terrifically abused and oh-so-exhausted. The Dancer’s tall frame wrapped around the Velorian’s and kept them both gliding smoothly through the dark-jade water. Embryonic, safe and loved, Nova closed her eyes and let the sensation linger.
Masa’s lips tickled as she spoke, “To learn how to love us and for us to love you.”
Nova’s barometer for judging accuracy knew the answer to be correct.
Nova lay across the huge silky sheeted expanse, watching her mother arranging tiny-jeweled pins throughout the silver-blond mass of her hair. The jewels were emotion sensitive and at the moment, judging by the somber gray-blue of the ones that had been applied first, Nova guess Dai was either nervous or worried.
Belside had long straddled the fence between the Velorian and Arion spheres of influence. Both sides maintained embassies, both demanded first place in the treaties and trade agreements.
The gala tonight would be the first given by the new Arion ambassador in the newly remodeled (thus device-free) Afrahda compound.
“Afrahda.” Dai stared at her daughter in the mirror. “The Arions have the effrontery to name their embassy ‘Starting Place.’ Do they think Velor will step aside and allow Belside to fall to them?”
“Have you met the ambassador, yet?” Nova asked.
A tiny shake of her head as she placed the last pin, and Dai stood to judge the full effect of her ensemble. Nova could only hope to be half as elegantly figured in twenty-odd years. The azure dress fell in demure soft folds from silver brooches on her shoulders. Dai took a few steps and the secret allure of the gown was revealed. Long slits in the seams provided tantalizing glimpses of calf and thigh, and the material clung like a spider’s web to her breasts and hips. She stopped and turned, and the material floated back into the decorous folds.
“Tol’s father says that Berek is some big military hero.”
Adding a silver filigree bracelet, Dai tsked. “Ambassador Chul or Your Honor, Sunshine. Never forget to show proper respect — even if you could squash the bastard with half an effort. Manners are never wasted.”
So Dai had heard the rumors, also. Berek — His Honor, Nova sneered with a hint of bravado — earned his status by subjugating an innocent homeworld and killing the Protector in the process. What would he think of her mother? P1 status, but never given the final sequence to activate the dormant genes that created a Protector from ordinary Velorian perfection, Dai would be every Arion Prime’s wet-dream.
“We battle them in the hinterlands and feast with them in our banquet rooms.” Nova shook her head. “Why can’t we just destroy them and be done with it.”
Dai sat down next to Nova, carefully arranging the gown into an attractive fall. “What makes you think we can?”
Drawing designs in the sheet, Nova stopped cold and clambered to her knees. “Of course we could. Our technologies are similar, and we have the genetics to produce Protectors.”
Without wrinkling her brow or frowning, which — at some distant point in time — might cause a line in the smooth façade, Dai displayed disapproval. “Protectors are limited by their physical needs to planets bearing Orogen, systems with yellow suns. Fighting the Arions with machines of destruction has the side effect of reducing viable ecologies to slag and rubble.”
“So we let them win?” Nova asked.
“If we defeat them by using their methods, haven’t we become what we have vowed to fight against?” She patted her daughter’s cheek. “Checks and balances. They have every right to exist as Velor does.” She stood and gathered the light shawl around her bare shoulders and arms.
“Mother?” Nova said, hastily rephrasing at a sharp glance from the vivid blue eyes. “Dai-sa? Why are you not a Protector?”
Dai laughed lightly, the same care given not to produce smile-lines as frown ones. “I am far too selfish to give my life to defend a group of heathens on some backworld. There are other ways to serve in which the sacrifices are more to my liking and abilities.” The jewel pins flashed pink and purple.
“Such as?” Being a Protector was considered the highest calling. What could be more fulfilling to a Velorian?
Her mother gave her a long calculating look. She raised her shapely shoulder and smiled. “Such as seducing the new ambassador and learning his secrets. Such as placing listening devices in his private rooms. Such as accessing records and communication of the enemy. Such as engaging in espionage for my world.”
Swirling her skirt in a way calculated to show the maximum amount of leg, Dai’ayn swept regally from the room and greeted her waiting husband. Nova wondered how much her father knew about his wife’s activities.
* * *
“How does a Protector die?” Nova asked Daro as he lifted the crossbar into the rests. He curled to sit on the sweat-soaked bench, and then loaded more lead filled discs to the opposite end of the free-weight bar.
Nova tightened the bolt that prevented the weights from shifting and took her place on the bench. The burden would test her muscles but not strain them. Working without a spotter capable of lifting the same load hindered her opportunities to expand on the physical training. Back at school Tol and the twins helped Daro. Nova could lift as much as the bench could hold. This light workout would only be a stop gate measure.
She lifted the bar from the rests and slowly lowered them to her chest, and up, trying to isolate certain muscles to the task.
“I don’t know. Same as the rest of us, I guess… Just more of it.” Daro stood watching a minute. He climbed on to the bench, standing on the support frame. She laughed.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
At school, the program called for her to work different muscle groups on different days. Unable to follow the same schedule at home, her self-appointed coach had modified his plan for her. Legs and arms one day, aerobics the second and fourth, back and abs on the third, throwing in the odd training session for kicks. Some days Nova thought she had figured out Daro’s method but then he’d alter tactics and leave her wondering.
Daro placed his hands around the bar and pushed against it. His efforts created enough resistance and Nova had to work quite a bit harder to move the weights smoothly. He grinned down at her.
“I hate to see you waste a workout.” He pulled as she pulled and pushed as she pushed. Sweat soon covered both. Daro quit before she did.
“Good… Workout… Thank… You,” Nova panted, setting the bar on the rests. Sweat had glued her shirt to her skin, outlining every discrete muscle group, clinging to the half-globes of her breasts. She could see his eyes linger and her nipples tightened in response to his interest.
He reached out and fingered her little peaks; Nova rubbed her thighs together with a shiver.
“Shower?” she asking, an invitation in her tone, her scent changing from exertion to excitement.
She could tell he considered the possibilities. “Nah. Legs first.” Daro smiled. “You have to earn a shower with me.”
Later, in the shower, Daro caressed her to an orgasm. Her efforts to return the affection met with his refusal. She noticed that, for the first time, her nudity hadn’t aroused him.
“You don’t want me, anymore?” Nova asked, hurt by his rejection.
“I’m tired. You wore me out.” Daro kissed her. The steamy-hot water had pickled their fingertips. “Tomorrow, for sure.”
He held her tightly another moment. With an odd twisted smile he said, “Let’s fight.”
The VR facility, like the gymnasium, was deserted during the workday. Daro loaded the program and Nova slipped into the pressure-sensitive chair. Every movement would be translated to a similar one in the program. Nova didn’t recognize the opening sequence. Daro had dug up something new to train and test her reflexes.
“Okay, Sunny. That is an Arion light battle cruiser. You must find the hostage, put her in a pod, and destroy the ship.” Daro’s voice came out of a gaping hole in a nearby asteroid. The girl abruptly realized that she was drifting in space, looking toward a triangular shaped vessel a kiloklick away. The tiny jump sent her reeling into the side of the rock, bouncing off like a girl-shaped balloon.
“And, babe?” She could hear the laughter in his voice as she careened away. “You can fly… If you can figure out how.”
She succeeded in her mission, but was shot by the hostage who had been converted by subtle handling into accepting the Arion credo. Still, Nova had learned to fly — in theory anyway.
Flying meant a lifting away from something else rather than a drawing toward the destination. One had to know where one was, before leaving for the place one needed to be.
* * *
Shopping with her mother had always been fun. It never mattered to either of them what they had presumably needed and as often as not the needed item was the one thing forgotten, which precipitated another trip to the city’s central shopping district.
The ‘Tauran Table’ was the newest fashionable place to be seen for lunching. As usual, the combination of Dai and Nova facilitated a quick entrance to the establishment and, with a harried look, the host promised them a table ‘soonest.’
“Dai’ayn-sa.” A gravely voice startled Nova. Her mother, with perfect aplomb, turned with a smile toward the speaker.
Men often approached her mother in public places, politely interested. Nova had watched the former actress gently dissuade dozens of admirers with sweet but firm disapproval for the over-zealousness.
The dark-haired man, dressed severely in dark blue and black, bowed low over the proffered hand. “I had hoped to see you again.”
“Ambassador Chul. How lovely to see you enjoying Belside diversions at last.”
Berek? The Arion stood, towering above the Velorians. Nova had difficulty breathing in the small antechamber with his wide shoulders dominating the space, his lungs depleting the available air. The ramrod straight back and muscular legs added to the military bearing… Overbearing, Nova thought in a panicky way. This was the enemy — an uncivilized brutish beast, by all accounts. Why then were her knees suddenly weak? Why did that damned heat flare as if he had touched her intimately?
The small talk had continued and her mother’s hand on hers brought Nova back to the words.
“My daughter, Nov’ayul.”
The Arion took her hand in his huge one, and brought it to his lips for the traditional greeting. Nova suddenly imagined those hands on her, squeezing and exploring roughly and thoroughly. The kiss barely brushed her skin and she had visions of his kiss in other places.
“My pleasure,” Berek said. Nova caught an innuendo in the pleasantry. He held her fingers a moment longer than polite. He knew his affect on her, was playing with her.
Her mouth dry and her tongue confused, Nova murmured an automatic reply.
The host popped back into the room, reassuring the ladies they hadn’t been forgotten.
The dark blue eyes sparkled with the opportunity as Berek offered his table. “Join me. My associates have left and I hate to eat alone.”
Dai’ayn raised an eyebrow. “So my company is merely better than solitude?”
The Ambassador laughed — a low rumbling — and said, “My words are addled in the presence of such beauty. Without food, being in attendance on you would be sufficient sustenance for any man with blood in his veins.”
Dai’ayn paused thoughtfully, weighing the offer. Say no, mother, Nova begged silently. An entire meal with this man would be a torture — and probably ruin her dress.
“We accept, and will join you shortly. Allow me a word in private with my daughter.”
The Arion inclined his head and shoulders and returned to the patio. Dai watched him and sighed.
“Mother!” Nova forgot how much Dai hated that appellation.
Dai ignored the slip and rested her hands on Nova’s shoulders. “Go to the ladies salon. Do whatever you must do to compose yourself. Return when you can be courteous and objective.”
“I can’t.” The quivering had subsided but would come back stronger.
With a little shake, the older woman replied, “You must. Do you think I am unaware or unmoved by his — magnetism? We are sexual beings, but we cannot be ruled by sexuality. Rein it.”
“Have you?” Nova asked, bitter in the demand her mother was making.
Dai’ayn looked toward the Arion, who sat watching them with a scurrilous smile. “Yes. Pistu. I’d be naked on a table, begging to be skewered, if I had not.”
The vulgar image shocked Nova. Her mother had never been anything but elegant and poised. Her allure was, in part, the inaccessibility of her ice-goddess serenity. What hetero-male humanoid could resist the challenge of melting a snow-princess?
Somehow, ironically, knowing that her mother felt the same way, Nova managed to finish the meal without embarrassing herself by drooling or panting. She felt quite proud of her control.
A waiter interrupted during dessert with a call for Dai’ayn-sa.
“Excuse me, Ambassador. I’m sure it is a minor detail needing clarified.”
Berek’s eyes never left the slender figure until Dai disappeared around a corner. Nova averted her gaze to the crumbs of her cheesecake so he wouldn’t see her watching him. His regard settled on her, she could feel it like a sticky tingle. She shifted in her seat, feeling the tingle spread.
Feeling a blush in her cheeks, she glared at him.
“What amuses you, sir?”
The man leaned forward and smiled. “A whimsical thought, Sunny.”
Nova hated the sound of her petname on his lips but political correctness stayed her retort.
“Do you wish to share the joke?” She hoped her words were faintly mocking, as if his humor would be beneath her.
“No joke, little one. I was merely wondering if I would prefer to fill my bed with an accomplished actress or a naïve schoolgirl.” He pressed his finger in the crumbs on her plate and licked them away. “Then it occurred to me that, perhaps, no choice would have to be made.”
Nova’s hands shook, and she hid them in her lap. The burn in her cheeks faded, leaving her cold.
“Ready, Sunshine?” Dai’ayn said. She looked from Nova’s pale face to the smirk on the Arion’s. “Are you teasing my child, Berek. She has no sense of humor, you know.”
“As I have uncovered, Dai-sa.” Berek said using subtle words to further shame her. Uncovered, bare, nude, she and Dai together, with him. “A bad joke, Nov’ayul-sa. I’m sorry.”
He wasn’t, she knew. Berek had gotten exactly what he wanted from her. Her blush returned.
“I have a crisis to manage. The puddings have not arrived for the soiree tomorrow.”
The Ambassador stood. “Then I will see you — both? — tomorrow.”
Nova stood at her mother’s gesture as Dai said, “Me? Perhaps. But Nova will be heading back to her academy in the morning.” A day early, or a day too late, Nova thought.
On the way back to the embassy compound, Nova murmured, “He wasn’t joking.”
Dai glanced at her and, in a rare example of motherly affection, put her arms around the girl and drew her close. “Of course, he wasn’t.”
“I hate him but…” Nova said, miserably confused.
“As do I.” Dai agreed. “I would kill him if I could, but not before feeling him inside me.”
“Oh, Sunshine.” Dai rested her chin on the top of Nova’s head. “I love Ral, but I rarely want him. I hate Berek, but I want him so much I cannot think straight. The two don’t always come as a package. If you ever find someone you love and want, don’t lose him… Or her — though I think you will always be more attracted to males.”
Nova sniffed and, feeling the slight drawing back that signaled her mother’s end of patience with the cuddling, sat up.
“What will you do?”
“Let him chase me until I catch him. Satisfy my curiosity then betray him.” Dai spoke matter-of-factly but Nova heard a quaver in the tones.
“What if you wind up loving him?”
Dai shook her head. The blond strands fell like a veil around the perfect face. “I swear. No matter how it may seem, I am Velorian, first and always.”
Nova accepted the vow, but knew the temptation her mother faced and wished her strength.
* * *
As Nova kissed her mother goodbye in the pink-silver morning light, she whispered, “Be careful.”
Dai nodded. “I am Velorian.” As incomplete as the response may have been to anyone else, Nova’s questions had been answered.
On the train Daro said, “I found out.”
Nova, who had been staring out the window at the blur of passing trees, rolled her head to look at her seatmate. He looked tired. She’d worn him out again, last night, when true to his word he’d come to her bed.
“You look like you’ve been up all night.” She smiled.
“Only as long as it took.”
He kissed her hand he held and leaned back into the comfortable seat.
“What did you find out?” she asked, remembering.
Daro shrugged. “How Protectors die. You asked me and I found out.”
Nova, not certain she really wanted to know but unwilling to have asked him and then not want the answer, said, “So? How?”
”Three ways. Old age. Arions. UE’s.”
“I got the first two but what’s a euheaze?” Nova asked.
Daro laughed. “No, not a word. Initials. U. E. Unexplained Event.”
“Boy, that clears things right up.” She glared at him in mock exasperation, knowing he would explain, but enjoying the game.
“Collapsing worm-holes, black star formation, and just stuff they haven’t figured out, yet,” he said. “If a Protector is too close to a super-nova as it collapses to form a black star, she will be pulled in and crushed.”
Nova tapped her forehead. “Mental note… Stay away from super-novas.”
Daro cuddled in. “Mental note… Stay as close to this super-nova as possible.”
Stars, he kissed nice, she thought a few minutes later. “Protectors use worm-holes all the time. I never knew it would kill them.” She still didn’t consider herself one, but knew the day approached when she would have to choose.
“Even stable worm-holes come and go. If caught in one when it collapses… Well, no one is quite certain they die, but the Vels never come back. Missing, presumed dead.”
“I could defeat an Arion Beta now. How do they win?”
Daro had evidently put a great deal of thought and effort in his research. “Sheer numbers, wear you down, prevent regeneration, until you are no more invincible than anyone else.”
She sighed and looked back at the window, not through because she wasn’t seeing anything — let alone scenery. “I keep wondering why me? I’m not too smart, I’m on the small side, and my coloring isn’t perfect. My mother should have been the Protector.”
Daro took her face in his palms. Nova knew how she looked — blonde but not the silver or pale gold of the typical P1, eyes a shade too green to be true Velorian blue, a half deca shorter than the average Protector — but not what he saw.
“Dai’ayn is an island unto herself. Whatever your imperfections — and I don’t agree that you lack anything — you have the most amazing capacity for attachment. You connect. You need the connection. You love people and people love you. The world to which you are assigned will own you and you will own it. YOU will be the finest example of a Guardian, ever.”
He wiped away the little tears from her cheeks. “Now take a nap. You’ll get no rest tonight, either. Tol will see to that.”
Nova snickered and laid her head on the offered shoulder. The gentle rocking of the train lulled them both to sleep.
The return to the academy was both happy and bittersweet. Nova would leave for Velor sometime during the coming months if she passed the third levels. None of them doubted she would, so this was the last time the friends’ paths would coincide for any length of time. The Questlings had gathered in the girls’ room — the designation was purely incidental, it was a rare occurrence for the chamber to be occupied by all or only the females — because it was tidiest. The twins had hauled in their mattresses and between the existing and supplemental bedding the group was comfortably if cozily entrenched.
Nova revealed some of her adventures, leaving out only the parts about how she felt about Berek. She touched lightly on her mother’s intriguing confessions.
Telling the others of familial rites, Masa displayed her silver tattoo.
“Ouch.” Kemi winced. The body-art ritual had been substituted for the earlier barbarism of clitorectomy but still remained a test of stoicism. Every hair on the Dancer girl’s pubis had been plucked, each follicle treated with a depilatory and then the tattoo had been inflicted. The silver symbol represented womanhood and, although still a pre-adult by modern standards, the tattoo also identified her as a viable member of the Vason Kindred.
Tol caressed the hairless crotch and grinned. “Wow.” Masa smiled her languid promise.
A tap at the door startled them. Everyone expected was there — who would be knocking? Kemi, closest, clambered to her feet to hit the release.
The resident assistant stepped in with a polite half-bow of apology. “Forgive the interruption of your studies.” A joke, as the sessions hadn’t begun and no assignments had been given. “I have the happy duty of introducing your new group-mate.” New group-mate?
A broad shouldered, dark-haired youth stood just outside the door and the RA motioned him in, not that there would be any place for him to comfortably be within the crowded space. They jockeyed for position, stepping this way then that. Finally, with the adult just outside and the youngling in, with bow of apology for the delay, the RA continued, “I present Kolun Chul-ret.”
The Arion bowed minimally to the silent group.
After a long moment, Kemi inclined her head and said, “Welcome, Kolun Chul-ret. I am Tsa Kemi.”
“My pleasure, Tsa Kemi-sa” Chul said with a formal greeting, which echoed like his father’s in Nova’s ears.
One by one, each Questling welcomed the Arion. Daro hesitated; Nova saw his eyes dart toward her. He stood and extended his hand toward the newcomer, offering his wrist in the old manner of declaring truce between enemies. Nova could imagine Chul’s misgivings. Accepting the greeting obligated him to honorable behavior, rejecting the offer would jeopardize the group’s confidence.
The Arion reached out slowly. “Please, call me Kolun.”
Seven sets of eyes fastened on Nova, awaiting her reaction.
Kolun broke the silence with a laugh. “Are not the far tomorrows soon enough for hatred?”
“Can not the hours of now be restful in the company of friends?” Nova finished the quotation. “You’ve read Morat Kes?”
Kolun shrugged. “Even a warrior caste has its philosophers.” Another quotation from the warrior-turned-philosopher.
Nova slipped off the bed and to her feet. She extended her wrist. “Welcome, Kolun-ret.”
“My pleasure, Nova-sa.”
The ritualized greeting passed between them, indicating a temporary and situational truce would be in affect.
With a little shifting, a place was found for Kolun.
* * *
The weather had turned cooler; the water in the lake was no longer hospitable. The Questlings took over an enclosed patio as the venue for their discussions. In a strange twist, Kolun and Daro had complimentary strengths. Kolun would define the goals and perimeters. The group would argue the merits of the data with anti-advocate positions taken by Kemi or Sae. Tol, Masa and Bae would illustrate the mathematics and hypothesis various strategies for solving the equations. Daro would summarize and scribe. Nova served as a barometer, the gauge to change course or methods, if that choice felt correct to her.
Kemi watched, in breathless silence as her willing proxy bucked against her newest playmate.
“There is a way, you know,” Kolun said, evenly. The Dancer girl was on his lap, happily impaled. Masa had found a phallic toy, as unresponsive as an idol. He avoided touching her while aroused. His strength would be as devastating as Nova’s.
The Belsidea girl dragged her eyes away from the action. Daro had been napping, his head on Kemi’s lap. He rolled over and, reaching around, hugged her gently. Sae and Bae, in an eerie-mirrored curiosity, turned from their puzzle solving. Nova didn’t care what Kolun had to say as long as Tol kept his lips where they were. Tol indicated his attention by an interested noise, and continued his assault on her more hidden attributes. The little hum rocketed an electric-like sensation through her and Nova fought to not clamp her thighs together, against her own reflexes.
“A way to do what?” Masa asked, hovering in a holding pattern, the tip of his hardness at the edge of her wetness, teasing him and pleasing herself. Kolun grinned at her and with one careful hand guided her down, burying within her with a single stroke, preventing her from withdrawing even slightly, and then pushing a little more. He tongued the tight little nipples, and Masa mewed her bliss.
“A way to relieve your little virgin of her maidenhood.”
Tol’s head popped up. Suddenly everyone’s attention was on the Arion.
“You haven’t thought the problem through,” he said to the group. Masa struggled under his hands.
“Help me,” she whispered, the finely corded muscles showing like ripples under her kohl-dark skin.
“She needs to move,” Kemi murmured, the Supremis still intimidated her.
“No, she needs to listen.” The Arion kept the tall girl trapped on his erection. “Inside you.”
Masa moaned and tried to kiss him. He evaded her, easily. She rested her face on his neck and Kolun nodded approval.
“Shh. Slowly, tighten, hold. Push. Harder. Come on, beautiful.”
Masa tried to squirm but his hands held her stationary.
“Move. Only inside.” He continued his commands. Kemi’s knees twitched and Nova realized that, like Masa, both she and the Belsidea girl were following the instructions. Tol’s fingers found her and she contracted, without moving, around them.
“Gently, Sunny. I want to still have fingers when you’re done,” he whispered. The twins held her knees, as a reminder — not a restraint — massaging the muscles of her calves as she flexed inwardly. The soft feminine ah-ah-ah’s were the only sounds, other than the Arion’s whispers.
Masa climaxed first, having started further along. Nova mentally arched toward the sensation, waiting for each of the Arion’s hoarse comments. Finding it. Not an earth-shattering, soul-filling orgasm but an energetic one, all the force internalized.
Daro jumped back as Kemi’s belt activated. Kolun released Masa but, exhausted from struggling against his advantage and toward her orgasm, she didn’t budge. The Arion lifted her with ease and, like a forgotten plaything, set her aside.
“See,” Kolun said in an amused voice that Nova hated. The tone reminded her of his father.
“See what?” Daro asked. “A woman can be talked into orgasm?”
Masa had collapsed onto the mat, panting and sweaty. Kolun patted the sleek rump. She purred and wiggled under his hand. “Later. Rest a bit.” The Dancer girl closed her eyes and curled up against his thigh.
“We keep Kemi-sa on the edge, with our talk and our games,” he said to the waiting listeners.
Tol said, “Her excitement is our quest.”
“Oh? I thought virginity was the issue.” Kolun shrugged. “My mistake. Forget I said anything.” Nova pricked her ears, knowing that no one could forget the subject now. Clever tactic.
One twin asked, “What’s the difference?”
“The restraint was designed to ruin her pleasure. If stimulation is the trigger, then don’t.”
“Don’t what?” the other twin said.
“Don’t tease her. Don’t seduce her.” Kolun smiled — the nasty superior one — a reflection of Berek. “Rape her. She won’t enjoy it and the belt won’t trigger.”
With a whimper, Kemi drew back, and Daro interposed between them.
In a low dangerous angry voice, Tol said, “Leave her alone.”
“I said you could.” Kolun threw his hands up but Nova heard a low excitement in his tone. “I didn’t say I would.” Which seemed to infer he wouldn’t mind trying.
* * *
Her father waited at the train station. Nova noticed, first, his tired eyes and, second, her mother’s absence. The Council’s representative had arrived to apply the third forms and, if she excelled and agreed, begin her initiation as a Protector. In a few days time, the point of no return would be passed. Fate would beg her decision. The problem was — she hadn’t decided.
If she were to remain simply Velorian, her life would be her own, full of the things for which most humanoids wish, hearth and family, friends and little joys. She would always wonder what it would have been like, being the strongest and the best. If initiated in the gifts of the Galen, she would sacrifice those smaller things, forever separated by her strength and responsibilities, but become a key participant to the greater drama of the universe.
As always, Nova came out of the testing fugue with a splitting headache. The muscles of her forearms ached down to the bones and her joints popped as she shook off the painful stiffness. Even her fingers hurt. Pistu, what did that skinny little man do to make her feel like the Wheel of Vel had used her back as a pivot?
A steaming soak in the Ambassador’s personal jet-pool and a huge meal of her favorite dishes restored her to something approaching normalcy. Daro’s hands would have been welcomed, she thought with a grunt of discomfort for an unwary movement, resting in the quiet darkness of her room. The soft tap at the door announced her father, checking on her.
Ral asked, “Are you well, Sunbeam?”
“Sore and tired,” she said. “Did I pass?”
He sat on the edge of her bed, startling Nova into full awareness. He hadn’t stepped more than a deca inside her space since… Since her breasts had blossomed, she realized. Three years.
“I’m certain you did, though the representative hasn’t said.” With a touch on her hand, he indicated she should roll over. Nova felt his fingers dig into the rigid coils of knotted muscles across her back.
Nova cuddled into the familiar pillow. “I feel different.”
Her peripheral vision caught the nod.
“After each test, I am changed.”
“You look the same, but brighter.” He chuckled. The old joke, Nova knew, had occurred to him. When, as a child, she would smile at him, he had covered his eyes and cringed ‘from the brightness of her joy’, he had said. It made her laugh now as it had then. “What will you do?” he asked.
She sighed. “I don’t know.”
“You should talk to Dai-sa,” he said. Nova caught both the formality and sadness in his voice. “She will know, more than I, the situation you face.”
“Mother passed the third forms?”
His hands stopped kneading and rested warmly on her tired shoulders. “Yes, but she turned away. She knew the limitations of her spirit and the failings of her courage.”
Nova whispered, “Limitation of spirit, failure of courage.” She wondered about her own flaws and imperfections.
Ral brushed back the honey gold tresses and smiled. “You are cut of finer cloth, my sunchild. Speak to your mother of choices.”
Ah! He wished her to ask! What a convoluted way to encourage the question she’d wanted to ask since her homecoming.
“I will ask then, if you think I should.” Now. “Where is she?”
The Velorian man stood, walked to the still open door and, without looking into Nova’s face, said, “With Berek Chul.”
* * *
Afrahda had been built on the site of an old temple, and resembled one in the grand columns and high gray-granite walls. The road winded up from the city to a broad entrance. Made of titanium, the gates had been crafted to resemble heavy wood with archaic brass hinges. The watchtowers on either side had been designed to intimidate, looming and hostile even in the full light of day.
Nova stood beneath them, feeling their dour presence, letting the full effect wash over her before pushing the false accusation of inadequacy away with a laugh. Psychological warfare, even in peace, was so like the Arions. Still, her mother was within. Not an unwilling captive by any report.
She placed her hand on the entry request mechanism and a smaller door opened in the broad expanse of faux-oak. A Belsidea employee ushered her in. The door closed with a quiet click. For the first time, Nova was unsettled, sensing in the noise a warning.
A mixture of Arions, mostly Betas, strode through the passageways, making the effort to appear efficient and industrious for the rare Prime, who merely snarled at the world in general. Nova thought of the quiet hallways and sun faded offices of the Velorian embassy, slightly shabby as compared with this mausoleum of tile and marble, and felt homesick.
The Belsidea rapped at a door like the myriad others. Without being told Nova knew beyond this door lay the private quarters of the Arion ambassador. Another minion, a heavily armed Beta female, opened the door. Giving no greeting except a jerk of her head, the Beta turned and strode through the chambers of alien décor to a large room. The soldier pointed to a particular spot until Nova stood there. The woman grunted approval before stomping away.
This area was decorated differently. Soft pastels covered the walls in murals of fantastic design. Simple hangings supported lamps, which glowed in gentle luminosity. Sheer fabric panels created smaller chambers, each having a limited function, one for music, another for massage, still others with small tables and comfortable chairs… One chaise or two chairs, no more. Nova realized, with a cold hollow pit in her stomach, an unwelcome knowledge. This was a liasonairre, mistress quarters, and her mother lived here!
Further away, in the gauzy labyrinth there would be a huge bed with silken sheets. The image of her mother and Berek, intertwined, sprang unbidden to her mind, before she could push it away.
Nova whirled about. Berek stood there, gloating at her discomfiture. Her surprise was complete until she remembered he would have a private entrance to this boudoir.
Politeness proved beyond her at the moment. “Where is my mother?”
He strolled to a nearby chair — one of two, her mind pointed out again — and sat, lolling as if exhausted. “Bathing, I think.” He poured wine and, after offering the cup to the guest with a grin for her refusal, took a long draught. “I used her quite thoroughly and she worried the scent might offend you.”
Tears blurred, her cheeks burned. “I will…”
“You will what? Take her? I think not. Slay me? Try. You haven’t the strength or the temperament.”
Yet, she thought. The Arion locked eyes with her. She was the first to look away, as he casually adjusted himself, smiling his base victory.
“Sunshine?” Dai said from beyond one of the partitions.
Nova threw her tormentor a final glance.
“Dai-sa? Mother, I’m here.” She went to find the lost Velorian.
Dai wore a gown of blue silk chased with golden threads. Nova hugged her tightly, and then recoiled in horror. The gold was real, as was the necklace and rings, bracelets and hair band. The girl backed away rapidly and directly into the arms of Berek. He held her tightly, his hands intimately familiar on her breast and belly, and whispered into her ear.
“Doesn’t she look radiant? As you would, Sunshine.” He kissed her and, for a moment, she responded with eager open lips, gold-razzed by the brief contact.
Nova struggled. He released her and laughed as she stumbled. He turned to Dai and ran his fingers through her hair, resting his hands about her neck with his thumbs in the concavity at her throat. Giving a warning, perhaps, to the budding Protector?
“Remove your gold, pet. Your daughter wishes rationality, not passion, for her visit.” Berek picked up a lead-lined case and Dai piled the trinkets in. He bowed to them and withdrew to another gauze chamber, leaving Nova the illusion of privacy.
“Gold? Is that how he holds you here?”
“No.” The blue eyes seemed sane enough. “The gold absolves the guilt of my desire.” One long finger tapped on the tabletop. “Speak of other things.” Things of less shame, Nova guessed.
“I passed the third forms.”
Dai knelt before her daughter and held her hands. The well-manicured nail quivered against the girl’s wrist. “Those tests are so difficult, but you have such vigor. I am proud of you, though I expected nothing less.” She rose and sat on the arm of the chair. “You have a difficult decision.”
Nova nodded and settled her head in the offered lap. “What should I do?”
Softly, Dai patted her shoulder in an increasingly familiar tempo. “I can’t answer that. Only you know where your loyalties lie.” First, as a Velorian, the girl remembered her mother saying.
“What would you do?” Nova asked, quickly tapping out the pattern on her mother’s knee to earn an infinitesimal nod.
Dai laughed and stood. “We both know what I did, and where that choice has brought me.”
“To me,” Berek said. “I grow weary of waiting, and cold in distance.” He stroked his mistress’s breast, but watched for the girl’s reaction. Nova set her face firmly against her loathing… And longing.
Dai’s azure eyes flickered to her daughter, before she reached once more for the gold. Nova felt the dismissal and turned to leave.
“Visit anytime, Sunny. Stay as long as you like,” Berek said. “I have more gold.”
Nova fled but managed not to run
* * *
The Velorian Ambassador and the Chief Officer sat stone-faced during the interview. Ral leaned on the windowsill, looking out at the blank gray wall of the next building.
“Is she there against her will?”
Nova wanted to answer ‘yes’ but shook her head. “No,” she said, watching her father wither a little. “He poisons her with gold, addling her wits.”
The seated men exchanged a glance.
“You’re not going to leave her there. Are you?” she asked in disbelief.
Neither official would meet her eyes.
“There is nothing we can do,” said the security administrator.
Sounding bereft, Ral said, “Did she say nothing of…?” Me, Nova’s inner ear supplied. “Did she give you nothing?”
“She gave me this!” Nova suddenly remembered the patterned tapping. She tapped it out on the tabletop.
“A code? What does it mean?”
Another, longer, glance passed between the officials. The security chief left the room, awkward in his haste.
“Now can you rescue her?” Nova pleaded, looking from her father to the ambassador and back. “She isn’t a traitor.”
“No, not a traitor. She has put herself outside our aid. I’m sorry.” The man planted his hands solidly on the table and, sighing, stood.
“She isn’t dead,” Nova said angrily.
Ral pulled his attention from whatever had fascinated him. He gathered Nova to his chest. “She’s dead to us, Sunbeam. Part of the message…”
Looking a warning at the ambassador, Ral continued, “She gave us the sequence key of their encrypted messages. The other message was a request to leave her alone.”
Nova stormed from the room, as angry as she had ever been. Pride prevented her tears.
Berek would pay for his transgression, she vowed, ignoring her mother’s part in the offense.
Only a Protector could collect that debt.
Nova’s decision was made.
Nova sat in the midst of the devastation and tried not to cry. A sharp rap and the door swung open.
“I hope you’re not decent…” Kolun said, trailing off as he surveyed the once tidy room. The three beds had been forcibly disassembled. The tapestries hung in shredded piles. Pieces of what had once been clothing lay strewn on every flat surface. The dressers and mirror tables formed heaps of shattered hulls. Even the reinforced walls bore signs of the struggle.
His eyes lighted on Nova sitting against the wall, hugging her knees. “You’ve redecorated.”
The tears, held back by stubbornness, began to flow. Kolun watched, and then closed the door. He sat beside her until she trailed into sniffles.
“I thought you were lifting with Daro,” he said. He waited until the fresh spate of sobs abated. “Want to tell me what happened.”
“Probably,” he said with a shrug. “I do seem to be your last resort, though.”
His observation was accurate. Kemi and Tol had begun to spend an exorbitant amount of time together, apart from the others. Masa had forsaken the group for a Vason youth in another group. The twins spent as much time at the spaceport as at the academy.
Sniffing back another sob, Nova nodded. “The group is — dissolving, falling apart. I thought this session would be the best yet.”
Kolun plucked a bit of cloth from the drifts and stuffed the makeshift hankie into her hand. “You blame me for the break-up. Don’t you.”
Nova started to deny.
She shrugged. “At first, yes.”
“Now?” he asked. She glanced at his face, doubting the interest in his voice.
“I think it was time. Eventually, everything changes regardless of how much I wish otherwise.”
“Don’t wish for otherwise, Nova-sa. Enjoy the changes and stages.”
They sighed, at the same time.
Kolun spread his hands over the mess. “So…?”
Nova shook her head. “I’m so tired of breaking things.”
Kolun looked around. “I can see why.”
She smiled, as he had intended.
“I mean, before. Daro was pushing me to try a new program he designed. Something to help me learn how not to break things.”
Nova slapped her hand on the floor, leaving a palm imprint in the tile. “I knew you’d laugh.”
He raised his hands. “Look, I know exactly how it is, but you can’t learn how in VR. You have to use the strength to learn control.”
She grimaced. “You may be right. I broke something while Daro was getting the pressure pads on.”
“What’d you break?”
Though she fought against them, the tears escaped her eyes again. Miserably she said, “Daro.”
Thanking him for his patience, Nova had squeezed her friend’s arm. The audible snap of his wrist echoed like a blast in her conscience.
“I took him to the infirmary, and came back here to change clothes. I pulled too hard on the knob and overturned my dresser, I ripped my shirt putting it on, and the bed cracked in half when I sat down.”
“And the rest?” he asked with a grin. “You got mad.”
“Kemi will be very angry.”
“I don’t think Masa will be happy, either.” He stood and extended a hand. “Come on, let’s get you out before they come back.” Nova grabbed his hand, carefully. “You can’t break me… Yet.” He said, hauling her, in an easy pull, to her feet.
“I should clean up, first.” She toed the nearest dresser aside.
“Yeah, but don’t. My game starts in ten ticks.”
“Ice-sliders. You’ll love it.”
* * *
She had. Speeding across the frozen lake on a flimsy two-bladed, fan-driven, coffin-shaped bullet of plastic, dodging the other sliders who tried to block the lanes to the goal, Kolun steered and she guided the flat marker with the lance-like staff. The rules were simple… No rules. Keep the other team from scoring the markers, by any means. Kolun had narrowly escaped several rammings, one by shifting the sled onto one blade, and then slamming the competitor’s helmet with his staff.
The game ended when one player, who had been on Kolun’s tail all afternoon, called a halt.
“Nevid.” The Arion slapped the kill switch and set the brake.
“Is he the captain?” Nova asked, as he slipped out of the forward compartment.
“No.” Kolun pulled off his helmet and strode to where the man stood. Nova followed.
Kolun slapped Nevid between his shoulder blades and, when the man turned, jabbed a quick blow to his chin, sending the unsuspecting player skidding on the ice. “I call time.”
“It’s dark.” Nevid said, wiping the blood from his mouth and regaining his feet.
The Arion wasn’t mollified, and drew back his fist again.
“Kolun-ret?” she asked. “What’s going on?” He threw the fist, this time connecting with the man’s stomach.
“Etiquette lessons, Nova-sa.” Kolun said. “From one Prime to another.”
The girl looked at the circle of players. They — Arion Betas, most showing evidence of marker hits and staff blows — stared back at her.
Lying on the ice, Nevid looked from Kolun to Nova. “Still imitating your father, Chul? He beds a Velorian whore, so you find…” Nevid leaped from the ice and drove Kolun down, rapping him on the head with a marker. “Grab her.”
As the Beta hands reached for her, Nova stopped thinking and moved. The awkwardness fell away like unlocked shackles. The impact of her hands and elbows, knees and feet on the Betan flesh released all her bottled up worries of inadequacy. She didn’t know if anger or shame fueled her energy, but she only stopped fighting when the last Beta had crawled out of her reach.
She heard Kolun chuckle in the darkness behind her. He had Nevid around the neck, shaking the clarity from the usurper’s eyes.
“Not a whore, Nevid. A Protector. No imitation. His superior — in all things. Remember that.” Kolun dropped the still form and smiled at Nova.
“Nicely done. Best fight so far this season.”
Her jaw dropped in amazement. “This season?”
He smiled. “Ready for supper?”
* * *
Nova took a deep breath before opening the door to her room. Masa and Kemi had transformed the mess into tidiness. Those things broken beyond repair had been removed. The mattresses lay on the floor, neatly made. Clothing had been piled into wearable, mendable, and scraps. Both looked up from their notepads as she slipped in.
“I beg your forgiveness, Kemi-sa.” The wall hangings had been hers.
Kemi shrugged. “Time for a change.”
“I’m sorry about your clothes,” she said to both.
Masa shrugged. “You can help us pick out new. No hardship.”
Nova stood unhappily forgiven. “Yell at me, please.”
“If you insist.” Kemi jumped to her feet and put her little hands on her hips. “Sunny, how could you worry us this way? We came back to this and you were nowhere to be found. Even Daro didn’t know!” she said. “You should have left a note though, I admit, we would have probably been hard pressed to find it.”
“I’m sorry.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. She deserved to be scolded much more harshly. Their concern touched her more deeply than their anger would have. “How is Daro?”
“Fine… Though he worried about you, too.”
Masa clasped her hand. “Enough, Kemi. Give our friend a hug.”
Tol stuck his head in, awhile later. “Hey, a romp. You forgot to invite me.” The girls were curled like kittens around each other.
“Go away, Tol,” Kemi said firmly. He had slept in her bed every night since Kolun had commented on how to bypass the belt. As far as Nova knew that’s all they did, cuddle and sleep.
“Should I come back later?” he asked.
“Tomorrow.” Kemi kissed Nova again. The door clicked shut softly.
* * *
Kemi’s little sighs interrupted the quiet of each girl’s private thoughts. “He’s asked my pater about my bride price, you know.”
Nova and Masa laughed. “About time,” the Dancer said. “Can he meet it?”
“My mother said Tol offered more,” she said giggling with her happiness.
“Do you want to marry him?” Nova asked.
Kemi shrugged. “I would prefer a friend to a stranger.”
“You’re ahead of the game. You have him half-trained already,” Masa said in a droll voice. “I want a husband to worship me and dominate me.”
“Like Kolun does?”
Masa snorted. “Kolun dominates but he will never worship. He thinks himself superior to all of us.”
Nova was surprised. She hadn’t known that Masa shared the feeling. “You enjoy him anyway?”
Masa sighed, and then chuckled. “On Dancer there are large ox-like beasts that wander the dry grassy plains. They visit watering places and roll in the mud. Each animal carries a flock of birds, which eat the parasites from the thick hide.”
Kemi cuddled closer. “Point?”
“Can you picture the bull’s thoughts? ‘I have a perfect life. I have grass, water, cooperative females, mud to roll in, and these slaves to attend to my comfort.’ They must imagine themselves kings of the world.”
Nova traced the intriguing tattoo, carefully. Masa quivered as Nova skirted the tiny beak at the center of the design.
“Point?” Kemi repeated. Shyly, she nuzzled the tall girl’s little breasts, her tongue pale pink against the darkest ebony cones.
“The birds, on the other hand, are safe and fed. When the lions attack and take down an ox, the birds find another ride. Each bird must think ‘Don’t I have the perfect life!’ and never worries about the golden cat hunting her. The bird says ‘I must be the Empress of Earth’ and remains safe and fed and content.”
“Point?” Kemi said again. Masa kissed her little friend’s head.
“Chirp!” Masa said with a laugh. “Kolun can think what he wants. He’s more likely to hunted by a lion than I am.”
“Rrroarr!” Nova whispered, holding her fingers still and letting Masa move against them.
“Exactly,” Masa agreed. “Be careful, Sunny. Sometimes the bull wins.”
* * *
Daro’s wrist had been dislocated not broken, he told her. Nova had invited him to share her newly installed bed for a christening ceremony. Kemi and Tol cuddled on the other side of the room, the girl’s little squeaks giving testimony that on this night neither of them slept either.
“Shitting thing,” Tol swore as, with an audible pop, the chastity belt’s neural field engaged.
“Poor baby,” Kemi whispered soothingly. “Let me kiss it all better.” A few minutes later, his groans carried in the darkness.
Daro lifted an eyebrow at Kemi’s quick success. Nova buried her face in his chest to muffle her giggles. The Belsidea girl had twisted Tol around her every command like a drill bit and he had taken happily to her leash.
“Having fun, Tol?” Nova asked. The rasp of his uneven respirations still broke the quiet.
“Now we know why married Belsidea males rarely stray far from home,” Daro said. He laughed into Nova’s hair.
Tol gasped, “I have got to marry you soon, little one.”
“I’m free next weekend,” Kemi replied. Nova could hear the grin in her voice.
And so it was.
The wedding took place as Kemi planned. The ritualized deflowering followed a bride dance in which Kemi removed all her finery except a white cotton shift. Her pater hung the symbolic silver chastity key around his son-in-law’s neck, kissed his daughter and left the banquet hall. Nova and Masa held Kemi’s hands while Tol spread her knees. Ceremony prevented him from preparing her by a touch or a kiss, but the bridesmaids had been whispering encouragements in her ears all afternoon. Her thighs gleamed with readiness, as her husband pressed himself against her and penetrated completely with a single hard thrust. Kemi muffled her cry in Nova’s shoulder. He withdrew, true lovemaking reserved for a private moment. The witnesses applauded his performance, and the groom sighed his relief — public failure to pierce was every Belsidea man’s most secret fear. The white shift reddened with her virgin’s blood and the guests commented favorably on the color and quantity while Tol cut away pieces of the stained linen and handed the snippets out as good luck charms to everyone.
Nova heard him whisper to Kemi as he wrapped a silky red robe around his naked bride. “I’m sorry.”
Kemi whispered back, “I’m not. I’ve been waiting for this moment since I met you.”
* * *
“Time for a change,” Kemi had said. True enough, Nova thought.
Her tendency to break things had abated after the fight on the ice and the gentle lovemaking after. Kemi and Tol had returned to school to finish the session, but spent much of their time, as newlyweds will, alone. Masa continued her quest to opportune every able male, including the mentors. Her appetite was legendary. The twins wore identical jumpsuits and had delved into quantum physics with a unified concerted effort to learn everything possible about space travel.
Daro had persuaded Sae and Masa to develop a force field in which he and Nova could practice her fighting skills without damaging the building. The bubble arena, as the innovation came to be called, would withstand the impact of the dense Velorian bodies. When engaged the smooth outer perimeter glimmered like a soap bubble on a plate. From within, no shimmer distracted the occupants. Nova and the others had tested the bubble by jumping at the invisible edges. Leaping into the air, stopped by a firm elastic wall, they would slide slowly down the tackiness until reaching the base. The bottom was resilient but lacked the sticky qualities of the sides (and top — they discovered that by throwing the giggling Kemi up and watching her glide gently down the spheroid to the floor) merely protecting the participants — and the arena’s wooden floor.
Connecting with a solid object during her kata was surprise enough. Expecting to find an injured bystander, she turned to find Kolun grinning, adding another shock.
He couched and beckoned. “Show me.”
Nova shook her head and, trying to walk away, ran into the wall of the bubble.
“Turn it off,” she demanded.
“Timer’s set. Outer door is locked,” he said, kicking her feet out from under her. “Fight back, Nova-sa. At least, defend yourself.”
Using the bounciness of the bubble to propel her, Nova clenched her fists together and swung them hard against his midriff. With a grunt, Kolun grabbed her by her shirt — she could hear the seams ripping — and hurled her across the bubble. He followed quickly, meaning to pound at her while she hung suspended from the tacky wall, but Nova had learned to speed the descent by arrowing her body and she slid quickly to the floor. As soon as her hands touched the solid surface, she tucked and kicked with spring quickness. Her feet connected solidly with Kolun’s chin and he fell heavily to the floor. Nova planted her knee in his throat.
“Turn it off.”
He shook his head and grabbed her breasts, twisting brutally, until she released him.
“Two of three. You have one,” he said, launching at her again. She sidestepped but he had been ready and grabbed her knees as he fell, dragging her down beside him. Nova kicked free, somersaulting backwards. Running and diving, glancing off the invisible wall, she maneuvered behind him and flung her elbow around his throat. He struggled briefly, slammed his head back into her forehead, and then simply bowed forward quickly to propel her over his head. She fell to the flooring dazed by the head blow, but lashed out with her foot to hook his. He bobbled, but regained his balance before Nova did. He rammed her as she reached her feet, carrying her to the wall where together they sunk to the floor.
She opened her eyes to look into his deep blue ones — so like a Velorian’s. With lips as hard as she’d imagined his father’s, Kolun kissed her. Nova could feel his erection against her stomach. With an involuntary arching she drew him between her legs.
“Now I have one,” he whispered, smiling.
“You certainly do,” she whispered back. “What shall we do about it?”
He rolled to his feet, disappointing her. “Go for the third fall. If I win, I’ll fuck you. If you win, you can fuck me. Deal?”
She nodded, and climbed to her feet. She flexed as a distraction, knowing he admired her most with her muscles rippling with power and strength. Nova liked the sudden heat in her opponent’s eyes.
The third fall didn’t take long, and neither argued to claim the victory.
* * *
Licking his way up her panting chest, Kolun asked, “Same time tomorrow?”
She grabbed his head in both hands and dragged his face to meet hers. “I’ve a better idea.”
“You have my undivided attention, Nova-sa,” he said.
Nova giggled. “In light of recent developments, you can drop the formality, I think.”
Kolun got on his knees and rolled her over. He rubbed his hands on her back, so she flexed slightly and he chuckled. “Show off.” His powerful hands grasped her slender waist and slid upwards and forward to cup her breasts. She felt his tongue tickling her spine, and lapsed into pure sensation enjoyment, forgetting speech and intentions.
“What is your better idea?” he murmured in her ear, when he got that far.
Kolun laughed. “Better than same time tomorrow?” he reminded her.
“Oh!” Nova rolled over and squeezed the first thing that fell into her hand. “How about this time today?”
“Alright, but let’s go for a single fall.”
* * *
“Incredible.” Nova sighed, feeling both drained and full. Drained of care, full of Kolun, pillowed against the side of the bubble, arms and legs wrapped tightly around her lover, her sworn enemy, she hovered between the need to sleep and the need to gush all her happy thoughts.
He caressed her rump with one hand and roughly grasped her neck in the other. “Do you regret the time you wasted?” He stopped her words and thoughts with a devouring kiss.
“After this, can’t you admit how inadequate they are?”
She pulled her head free. “What?”
“Those inferior beings you call friends. We, you and I, Arions and Velorians, are superior creatures. We rule by innate strength. Didn’t we prove that here?”
Nova untangled her arms and legs, and dropped to her feet. “We’re stronger, yes, but my friends are brilliant. They can outthink us with no effort. It is we, who have limitations. We are inferior in many ways.”
Kolun tried to stroke her breast but she stepped out of his reach.
“So we conquer them and absorb what they’ve developed. Most are cattle, the rest are sheep. They wait for our firm hand on their collars, our foot on their bowed necks.”
Nova shook her head. “I can’t believe any of this.” A hard lump began to form in her throat. How quickly changes come sometimes. “Masa was wrong about you.”
“Pretty little beast.” Kolun smiled and leaned against the bubble’s perimeter.
Nova couldn’t look at that smug face another moment. “You can worship, just all the wrong things.” She turned on her heel and strode away. “I’m leaving.”
“How far can you get in a bubble?” Kolun laughed.
Smiling, she set her sights on a specific spot in the wall. “You might be surprised.” Driving her hand forward as straight as a lance, her arm penetrated the matrix and, with a push and a wriggle, she slipped through like a child through a birth canal, landing with a plop on the wood sheathed floor.
She glanced back to see a gratifyingly surprised look on the Arion’s face. Passing the timer, she gave it a vicious tap, resetting the timer to the maximum setting. Let him cool his heels in there for another four tocks. Maybe he should have listened while those inferior geniuses demonstrated the fail-safe escape iris in the otherwise impenetrable force field.
The letter awaited her. Nova’s induction had been scheduled and she would leave in the morning.
Goodbyes. Previously, they had been eased by the knowledge that any separation would be temporary. Now, harder because no guarantee existed she would see any of her friends or family again. There had always been the next time to remember forgotten messages and exchange words of encouragement. Never again seemed a high price to pay for the honor and the promise of revenge paled in comparison.
All of the Questlings, except Kolun, had gathered in the cozy comfort of the girls’ room. Remember whens were laughingly recounted, each story bronzed by the passage of time and circumstances of telling.
Sae and Bae described the ship Nova would be taking to Velor. Not a liner, merely a packet messenger, the accommodations were limited. The rare passenger was expected to keep to quarters, eat packaged rations, and sleep most of the time. Exchanging a long anxious look in which they came to some decision, the twins informed her that she would be expected to wear gold due to her untrained status. The gold would leach away the additional strength she’d have once the residual influence of Belside’s gold core had been left behind.
“I can’t go. I won’t wear gold,” Nova said, remembering her mother’s unexpected addiction.
Daro waved down the sudden tumult. “You’ll feel the same as you do now. The amount is carefully calculated to mimic the effects of a core on you, nothing more.”
Masa held out a package. The wiry muscles of her long graceful arms strained with her effort. “If you must wear gold then let the form remind you of our fare-thee-wells. We love you, Sunny-girl. Accept your destiny and make us proud.”
“Kick butt, babe,” Tol said.
The wrapping was a Belsidea shawl of Trevor-weave. The colors reminded Nova of the lake, jade and green with strands of pale tawny-gold. Inside was a lead-lined case covered with small shells and beads.
“The box holds a belt of gold, to wear when you must. In your weakest moments let the memory of friendship be your strength,” Kemi said, tears filling her eyes.
“Oooohhh!” Nova slung the shawl around her shoulders and held the case unopened in her lap. “I want to thank you all but I can’t find the right words. I’ve held you back these past few months, from whatever comes next in your lives. I appreciate the extra moments together.”
Daro said in a low voice, “There is no other place I’d ever be.”
Kemi’s sniffles led to Masa’s wet cheeks, which led to Nova’s sobbing.
The night was spent in saying goodbyes with kisses, loving encounters, and whispered tête-à-têtes.
* * *
The train ride felt like devolution, life narrowing to less instead of expanding to more. Daro’s comforting presence prevented Nova from leaping from the bulleting vehicle to run back to her safe place.
“Revenge isn’t enough,” she murmured, not to her companion but not minding if he heard.
“No. Do it for love and honor. Go. Your success will make so many others happy.”
Nova heard loss in his voice and rolled her head to look at him.
“You’re coming, too!” She had assumed he would follow her path as he always had.
Daro shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll work with my father or yours, and dream about a golden girl flashing down from the sky, one day. She’ll gather me in her arms and show me what it is to fly. In the waters of some jade-green lake with dear friends all around, we’ll laugh and swim and argue. She’ll make gentle love to me, and then…”
Nova smiled. “And then what?”
Daro’s voice lowered even further. “I’ll die in her arms, where the best part of my life as always been.”
“Wha…?” Daro’s fingers on her lips quieted her question.
“Let me tell you. Have you heard of Farez 3?” He didn’t wait for her answer. “My conception took place there.”
Nova’s sharp intake of breath caused him to smile, bitterly. Every Velorian knew why the Council had decreed that all children be conceived in vitro. Some had feared the teratogenetic virus had been deliberately released as Arion retaliation.
“I’m a lucky one. Most the afflicted were taken home. My parents came here. The others died — I lived. Some niggling variance in the different levels of Vel’s radiation, which Belstar lacks, accelerated their condition. Me — on Velor? No, I’ll never leave Belside.”
After a few minutes to silently digest Daro’s confession, Nova said, “Your parents wanted your life to be as normal as possible and encouraged our friendship for that reason.”
He nodded. “Don’t be angry. I never knew either. Not until you passed your second forms and I planned a future as a Messenger, did they tell me.”
“You should have told me.”
He snorted. “I wanted your love and friendship, not your pity or sympathy. As much of a normal life as possible — that’s what I wanted and that’s what I got.” He smiled his pretty smile and broke her heart. Fresh tears from some deep never-ending reservoir spilled from her eyes.
“Don’t be sad, either. Come back someday and fulfill my wish.” Daro wiped away her tears. “Be a Protector — not for revenge — but because of all the things I cannot be.”
* * *
The packet vessel was as unpleasant as the twins had said it would be. Her quarters were no larger than a double row of stacked coffins. The energy restrictions limited her usage of her notepad. The food was easier to ignore than digest, so she did. There was an unwritten dress code that she seemed destined to continually break. Never had she suffered so many rebuking glances and surly replies to simple questions. Sleep did become a safe refuge, so she curled in the too-narrow bunk and cuddled the few items she’d rescued from baggage storage. Though, technically, the filigreed belt had been adequate to balance the absence of a gold core, the captain had welded a bracelet on her wrist as insurance. She suffered a low-grade feverish longing that followed into her sleep.
In her dreams she had mastered flying. She and Daro (or sometimes Kolun) coupled as Chloean dragons did, soaring in and above the clouds. Plummeting headfirst toward the seas to skim the surface and feel the salt-spray cooling their super-heated skins. Diving below the waves, bursting free, cavorting like dolphins in their mutual pleasure.
Nova awakened from one such fantasy to sharp rapping on her tomb’s access panel. An emotionless voice announced, as if he had a thousand times and would a thousand more —
“Prepare to disembark. Velor.”
* * *
Nova stood outside the Hall of Protectors uncertain what to do next. Somewhere in the packet ship’s dozens of off-loads her luggage had disappeared. Letters of introduction, credit notes, the detailed list of where and when her father had prepared, and even her ceremonial robe were taking a scenic voyage of the wrong part of the galaxy. All her remaining belongings fit inside the tiny carry-on the captain had allowed her to keep in her quarters. The spaceport authorities had deadheaded her to the main continent, and promised to forward her baggage — if it were ever found. They had suggested that she contact the Protector Center, so she had come here, though her initiation wasn’t scheduled until the following day.
A younger girl of perfect form and face, exquisite coloring and long silvery hair had approached the stairs with an entourage. Nova watched the Velorrina reverently touch the massive ring on the gargantuan gate. One of her witnesses stepped forward and caressed the girl with increasing intimacy. The man — much older, Nova judged — nestled his lips on the girl’s amazing breasts. Nova felt a sympathetic tingling as the nipples tightened. Muscles quivered under the peachy skin and expanded as the candidate filled with Orgonic power. With a cry, the girl grabbed the ring and strained to force the door open. The man continued to stimulate her until, with a screech of metal against stone, the entrance yielded. Shaking free of her helper, the Velorian Protector-to-be wedged the opening with her slender body, pushing as the door threatened to close. Placing her delicate-looking foot against the metal plaque she gritted her teeth, Nova could hear the growl of concentrated effort, and gradually the gate gave way before the implacable determination of a not-quite Guardian. With a satisfying ka-dong the door struck the opposite wall and the throng cheered the success of their dainty aspirant.
The girl, grinning expectantly, stepped inside and promptly disappeared upwards. Nova understood immediately. The Hall employed a null-field. The young Velorian, suddenly exposed for the first time to an environment lacking the draining effects of gold, had rocketed to the domed ceiling of the structure. Cute trick, Nova thought, but was the purpose to initiate or intimidate the candidate? The older man and two handsome (but weren’t they all?) youths entered the chamber. Nova considered watching the Rites, but the interesting part was over and sex between strangers held no novelty. She worried where on Velor she was going to find some male counterparts to launch her into Ples’tathy, but the more immediate concern of a roof and a cot took precedence.
* * *
Nova tossed the carry-on to one side of the intimidating gate. She had arrived friendless and wouldn’t beg the attentions of strangers. She would do her best with no help save her memories. Hers had been an unusual path to this place; her clothing would reflect her individuality. In place of the tiny white robe traditionally worn for Rites of passage, she had draped the Trevor-weave shawl in a Grecian chlamydes. Her hand looked so tiny perched on the heavy ring. Nova brushed away uncertainty as she closed her eyes to find an appropriate fantasy to launch Orgonic energy. The one that kept forming was of Kolun in the bubble arena. She imagined her own hands to be his, and strove for the strength to tackle the obstacle. Unexpectedly, other hands slipped beneath hers. Whirling, she looked up into the azure gaze of a vaguely familiar face.
“Who are you?” Nova gasped, well on her way to pleasure. The man had wavy pale gold hair braided neatly down his back. His clothing proclaimed a high status and the discrete winged brooch indicated his calling.
“Vah’nayn,” he said. “I’m Dai’s uncle and these are my brother’s sons. Pel and Demi.” He indicated two glorious youths with a tilt of his head. He never wavered in his caresses and Nova felt the blue heat rising.
“She sent a message asking me to sponsor you. I arrived at the spaceport too late to meet your ship, but knew I’d find you here today.” He grinned. “She described you so well, I would have recognized you anywhere. My honor to sponsor you, Sunshine.” His voice glided over her pet name like another hand on her desire. She managed a nod of permission.
Nova could taste the viridium in her saliva as the force built inside her. His hands stroked in harder ever-widening circles as her pectoral muscles and breasts expanded with stored energy. This was what lovemaking should be like, she laughed to herself, momentarily distracted by two more sets of hands fondling her flanks and biceps. P1’s all three; Nova sent a reverent thanks to her mother who, even in her gold-addled state, had found a way to attend the Rites of her Sunchild.
Peripherally, Nova noticed a small crowd gathering at the foot of the stairs. Van turned her gently toward the door. Slipping the shawl from her shoulder, disrobing his applicant, he whispered, “Go, Sunny.”
Reminded of her friends and their unflagging confidence, of her parents and their pride, of these passionate strangers and their effort, Nova grasped the ring. As she lifted the handle from the vertical position, a blue glow crackled from her skin. In achieving this minor feat of strength, she had activated a partial null-field.
“Don’t drop it,” Van said, slipping his hand between her thighs. The sparks caused by his actions were not all of the blue kind. Never had Nova felt so incredibly powerful. Strong male arms devoted themselves to her pleasure as her mind and grittiness channeled the passion into her muscles. She had feared not knowing what transpired to achieve this end, and felt elation at the innate aptitude she’d discovered. The squeal of metal on stone sent tremors through the edifice. She planted her foot in the plaque where thousands of imprints matched hers. Her back felt the weight and fixed cold of the gate, and with a push — more of determined will power than of physical ability — the door crashed open as it had thousands of times for thousands of like-minded girls-almost-women. The metal of their minds of the sternest stuff ever imagined or created.
Within the entrance Nova could see a hazy barrier. Stepping through she felt the sudden loss of the core’s interference. In theory flying was controlled by awareness of surroundings, knowing the physics of a place and reacting accordingly. In practice the theory held — barely — but she was hampered by the lack of knowledge of this place and its structure. Lying against the ceiling, Nova studied the chamber. As her sense of spatial dimensions measured the various aspects, identified the building materials and memorized the patterns and niches, she relaxed and let instinct bring her to a hovering position in the exact center of the foyer.
A chime announced a being from one of the myriad portals design to be reachable by those possessing the ability to fly.
A Protector. Perfect of form, pleasing to every sense, hovered slightly above and before the aspirant. In a voice so cool as to be forbidding, the woman asked, “ By what right do you seek admittance?”
“I am Nov’ayul. Daughter of Dai’ayn and Ral’syul.” She corrected her level to match that of her challenger. “The Council requested my presence. I accepted the invitation.”
The Protector smiled slightly at Nova’s fine-tuning to equalize their status.
Nova’s next words brought a welcoming grin to the other woman’s lips. “I claim this right by birth and breeding. I am Velorian.”
“Who sponsors this Velorian?” The woman almost laughed as she repeated the ancient ritual.
Van hovered a few feet away. “I do.”
“Then perform your function, Messenger.” The Protector appeared annoyed at Nova’s choice (as if she had one) of mentor.
Van said, with a laugh, “Nice to see you, too.” He gathered Nova into his arms and kissed her. Stars, he kissed better than Daro.
“You know her?” she whispered. Van chuckled in her ear.
“Yeah. Don’t worry. You got a good one.” Whatever that meant.
Not like dragons or like dolphins, she thought. Nova neither guarded her strength nor feared its use. Anchored by one of the youths, as interchangeable in her memories as the twins had been, she writhed as Masa had done in her throes of ecstasy. The blue static jumped from her breasts as often as Van broke contact to stroke again in other places of equal appeal. His mouth concentrated more energy into the already aching nipples. One of cousins entered her, followed by the other, nudging her higher in incremental steps toward an uncertain destination. Clever fingers and strong arms turned her and positioned her for deeper and fuller penetration. Van’s practiced hands knew the ways of her body (and many others, she thought with a moan) better than Pel or Demi, though, in their youthful enthusiasm, they had brought her to the brink. He brought forth a quaking in her that would have destroyed anything less than a Velorian building. His orgasm triggered a response within her flesh — Ples’tathy — driving sensation into her very bones. Explosion.
Still Nova sought the missing piece of the puzzle of Rites. At the pinnacle of pleasure, even stronger arms embraced her and the mystery solved itself. The scent of honeyed flowers tickled her into distraction. Kissing the velvety path, she followed her nose to the source.
As the magnificent thighs opened to her tongue’s unspoken request, Nova asked, “Could I know your name, Velorrina-sa?”
The Protector giggled and leaned back into Van’s chest as his hands stroked her perfect half-globes. “Sometimes I’m called Saphro.”
“And sometimes, she isn’t,” Van said.
“Show respect, Messenger,” Saphro murmured as the girl’s lips found the golden core of her womanhood.
“Whatever you say, my Goddess.”
Their banter became as meaningless as the buzzing of insects in her single-minded determination to trigger the mechanism by which she would become a Protector. The sweetness overwhelmed Nova. Implosion.
* * *
The initiation had taken longer than Nova guessed. Several days, not tocks, had passed in the interlude. She remembered, vaguely, Saphro and Van leading her into a smaller chamber where the affects of gold had been stronger.
“Only the first taste needs to be taken gold-free during Ples’tathy. Now, we’re simply making love. You can leave if you prefer,” Sara had explained, raising her head from between the initiate’s breasts.
The girl opened her eyes to see Sara smiling. Leave? Not a chance.
“Never, Goddess,” Nova had whispered.
Sara smiled. “Soon, Sunny.”
Van returned from elsewhere with water and chocolate and a familiar-looking carry-all, and had teased both women with the candy until he’d been satisfied by their mutual efforts.
“When will the fugue begin?” Nova had asked, dreading the loss of these memories.
“No fugue, no fever, no pain,” Van whispered between kisses. At the girl’s look of amazed disbelief, he had grinned. “You are already changed.”
Nova had tested his words by besting him in a contest of arm wrestling, and then she gleefully challenged Sara. The experienced Protector had struggled only briefly before subduing the impetuous contender. She pinned Nova to the satin soft sheets and had claimed a winner’s prerogative.
“Sturdy, but not fully endowed. Each trial, each challenge, and each new experience will bolster your abilities and strength,” Saphro had told her.
Nova had slept, finally. Sara and Van held her between them, murmuring endearments to her and each other.
When she had awoken, her mentors were gone and the formal lessons to teach her the rules, directives and responsibilities of being a Protector began.
* * *
Nova, again, held back, watching the other initiates. She felt out-of-place — not only was she the only non-Velor raised student but also the oldest by a year or more. The youngest Protector-in-training had only turned fourteen four months before her induction and still cried into her pillow, or the shoulder of a friend, at night.
In her classes, she felt a sense of waiting — of marking time — for what and until when, she didn’t know. There were days when she felt as if the teachers were baiting them, encouraging disagreement, but when she gauged the other student’s faces all she could see was compliant acceptance.
“A Protector’s first duty is obedience,” Mak’atal droned. That pronouncement cut through Nova’s inattention and at her startled sound of disagreement, he repeated the statement, more firmly. “Obedience to the Velorian Enlightenment.”
“With all due respect, sir. Would not her first duty be to defend her protectorate?” Nova said, phrasing the opinion as a question.
The lecturer shook his head and went on to further illustrate his point citing several cases of disobedience leading to the ultimate rebuke of a willful Protector. Nova couldn’t help the thoughts that flickered emotional resonance tellingly across her mobile face. As the rest of the class dismissed, the instructor called to her.
“Nov’a Velor,” he said, reminding the girl of her place and status. “You have an opinion?”
Nova glanced at the elder’s face, before shaking her head.
Wheel of Vel — what could they do to her for speaking her mind? Uninitiate her? She raised her chin and willed her eyes to meet his as an equal.
“I doubt, in the same situation as the cases you used to illustrate, that I would do any differently. I wonder, sir, at the repeated admonishment to obey. Does the Council design Protectors to be puppets? Do they desire compliance or initiative in our dealings with assigned worlds?”
“Would they have chosen you if this is their intent?” the man asked, a quiet curiosity in his voice.
“Perhaps they believed I, as an outworlder, would be properly intimidated as much as the young…”
“Much as the younger girls are? Do you think the age difference is the factor?”
Nova sighed. What did she think? The idea had been tugging at her for the several months past. “I think there are certain — advantages to younger initiates, and others explaining me and the other more mature trainees. Disadvantages as well.”
He nodded, and motioned for her to continue.
“The younger ones have not experienced enough of living to have preconceptions. They, seeing only the stars and glory, listen to your words as if a sermon. I, and the others like me, have formed opinions. We recognize the responsibilities and honor, and judge the lessons based on the teachings of our upbringing. The younger the mind the cleaner the slate, but the longer the period until they are ready to assume the role. I, and a few others, could begin our duties anytime. The propaganda, however, is less successful. Thus we are more likely to disobey our training or become renegades.”
“Propaganda?” he asked. She shrugged. He dismissed her with a gesture, but as she turned away added, “These opinions, outside this room, are best kept to oneself.”
She nodded, wondering if she had been too candid for her own good. Nova knew that, if faced with the choice of disobedience or neglecting her duties, she would take the brand of renegade rather than fail her vow.
The test came sooner than she expected.
* * *
Daro had taken to sending a message cube containing the monthly news summary from the Belside embassy. The news was usually enough to bring a smile to her face in the worst of moments. Everything from small mysteries — where had the friendly canine come from and why did Moocher stay? (in Nova’s mind, the answer to the second question was obvious from the stray’s given name.) — to romance gossip and family announcements. She almost missed the small clip but once read she couldn’t ignore the meaning.
Rumor has it that the Arion embassy will be welcoming a new ambassador. No confirmation of the change in tenants has been released but the unofficial word is that Berek Chul has been reassigned.
If ‘His Honor’ were leaving, what would become of Dai? Would she follow her lover or return to her husband? What did Arions do with discarded liasonae? The most recent letter from her father contained nothing reassuring. Nova had only one option so she played it.
“This is impossible.” Van shook his head. “You aren’t allowed to leave until sent forth.”
Nova shrugged. “That’s not written anywhere, nor has it been spoken.”
Van raised an eyebrow. “An unwritten but very clear rule, Sunshine.”
“Forget implied rules, have you followed every written tenet?” Nova argued.
“I can’t.” He crossed his arms.
Sighing, Nova said, “Fine, I’ll go by myself.” She would have to dive blindly through wormholes, having only a vague idea of how to negotiate the massive anomalies. “I’m sure I’ll figure it out by the second or third passage.”
Van looked startled. “You can’t.”
She smiled. “Whether I can or can’t remains to be seen… I will try, and you can no longer stop me.”
A truth spoken that first stunned then convinced him to help her.
* * *
The first passage was difficult enough that she was glad Van guided her. By the last, her power stores had been depleted. Van seemed in better shape as he fussed her into a landing on a uranium heavy asteroid in the outer reaches of the Belstar system. The combination of radiation and the light from the sun slowly replenished Nova. Van hovered nearby until she gave him thumbs up. He mouthed his goodbye and admonished her with a shaken finger to be careful, before springing into the rock-studded sky. After a short nap, Nova found her target and lifted toward the blue-green and white planet.
A pair of Arion cruisers orbited Belside. Nova shadowed an incoming trader vessel to avoid detection. Berek would not know of her coming. She landed some distance from Afrahda. She could feel the gold-core sap some of her strength and knew that she’d need to fully recharge to fly from this surface. She sighed. Well… She’d cross that chasm when she came to it. First, Berek.
Nova found clothing next to a pool in which a couple of girls swam and laughed. The layered Belside fashions would stretch to replace the few items she took. Choosing a short blue skirt and a red top, Nova smiled at her outfit. As a not-quite Protector, there was a certain satisfaction to dressing like one.
The right window was easily found, but Nova wondered how many alarms she’d triggered in her approach. The liasonairre was quiet. Many of the furnishings were gone and the feeling of emptiness resonated through her. Angry tears sprang to Nova’s eyes as she looked at the deserted room. The tiniest noise alerted her and she whirled to face Berek.
“You’re too late, Sunshine.” He picked up a scrap of cloth and let it float from his hand. “I always remove my most precious treasures first.”
A hint of tightness in his stance warned her. She met his attack and parried his fist with a quick block. Fighting with Kolun had been playing, but this was real. Berek’s face wore the usual maddening smirk as he threw punch after punch. Nova misread a feign and he landed a powerful blow to the center of her throat. The impact staggered her slightly, and the Arion followed his advantage with a roundhouse kick to her midriff.
A double-fisted chop to the back of her head sent her to her knees, gasping. Berek laughed.
“Not quite there. Too soon for a good fight.” He ran his hand into her hair and drew her easily to her feet. As he lifted Nova yanked up her knee into his groin and flat-palmed her hand into the smirking face.
Her potent blow forced Berek backward. Nova pursued, sending a series of punches, kicks and elbow jabs to whichever piece of his anatomy he failed to guard from her lightning reflexes. Kicking his feet from beneath him, she pounced. She crouched, a knee on his chest, one hand on the muscular throat and the other drawn back to prepare for a massive strike to his face. The expression there gave her pause, unidentifiable but arresting.
Nova asked, “Have you harmed her?”
Berek shook his head.
“Where is she?” She drew back her fist as he shook his head again.
“If you kill me, you will never know. If I’m dead, who will protect her among the Arions?”
Nova released him with a shake, and leapt to her feet. “You sent her to Aria?”
Berek rubbed his throat and laughed. “No. I keep my treasures hidden better than that.” He climbed slowly to his feet, smiling as the Protector-initiate drew back warily.
He gestured to a single grouping of table and chairs. “May I?” He indicated a decanter of liquid. Nova nodded. He poured a dollop into goblet and sipped. “Ahh. Join me? Shall I speak of your mother’s safety and the provisions I’ve made?” He poured the second glass and refilled his own.
Smiling pointedly, Nova reached for his goblet and reclined into one of the pair of cushioned chairs. Berek accepted the switch and picked up the other goblet.
He paced the room, describing the accommodations on his personal vessel, the hauteur of his second-in-command and the explicit instructions regarding Dai, if he should happen to be killed.
Nova sipped the wine. The flavor filled her mouth like flower scent, encouraging her to drink more deeply. Absently, when the Arion refilled his cup, she held out her for more. Berek’s voice droned on, detailing the elaborate measures he had taken and, finally, delivering his threat.
“If I die by your hands, she will be abandoned on Beedassy.”
Nova understood her mother’s peril. Beedassy was an Arion pleasure world. Uninhabitable otherwise, bio-domes had been constructed over large meteor craters and served as brothels, arenas, and quarters for the crews of the visiting Arion ships. Dai would be passed from one Prime to the next, a trophy or prize for one of their bloody contests. Such contests served as foreplay among that warped Supremis race. Nova remembered the battle she and Kolun had fought against Nevid and his Beta cohorts on the ice. Her mind wandered to the bubble arena and what she and the Arion youth had shared there briefly.
Stars, what a match they had been! The memory of his hands so strong on her breasts and thighs stole her imagination. His lips and teeth on her skin teased more of a response than even Daro had. The broad heavy shoulders gave her somewhere to anchor her hands as she was swept away in a passionate wave. Wrapping her legs around him had only encouraged his ardor; unlike her other playmates with whom she’d had to be so careful and aware. The powerful caresses were exchanged on an almost equal basis, driving each to higher sensations.
The delicate weight around her neck seemed almost an annoyance but large hands caught at her wrists and directed her to another purpose. The Arion’s erection filled her palm, hard but with skin as soft and smooth as her own. Fine firm lips met hers, and parted them as easily as the muscular knee parted her thighs. A tongue slipped over her teeth, meeting hers and leaving a moist path from her mouth along her jaw to her neck. She arched toward the fingers that sought out her receptive bits, and the warm mouth now teased at her nipples, drawing them tight. How amazing that her initiation had only increased her sensitivity to such stimulation. Her hands explored the molded contours of his chest and arms, stroking through the dark hair and kneading the solid angles and curves of a totally male physique.
His lips found hers again, and his kiss demanded a response. The feel of his manhood against her belly inflamed her. Her hands guided him. She felt his big hands on her sleek rump, urging her closer. He found the right rhythm, driving her mind blank of every consideration except the next moment’s pleasure.
“So, sweet Sunny, is this so awful?” The hoarse voice startled her. Nova almost ignored the interruption in her quest for climax. A niggling doubt remained and she forced herself to concentrate.
Not a dream. The effort required every fiber of her mettle to push the fantasy away. Berek? The embassy. Her mother! Nova lashed out and rolled away. She fell to the floor — where was she? — and struggled to her feet.
Nova stood, swaying, trying to banish the fogginess from her mind and the glitter from her vision. Warm hands caressed her shoulders and arms, brushing her breasts. Soft lips tickled her ear and neck. “Shh, little one.” The clever fingers coaxed her passion anew. Her will dissolved under the attentions. She cuddled closer in the strong embrace. A cup was held to her lips. “Here. Are you thirsty? Drink this.” The sweet flavor slipped over her tongue and she gulped gratefully. A flowery scent wafted into her nostrils. The addled feeling climbed back over her mind, erasing worry and blurring all her pain. The taste of metal grew stronger in the dregs at the bottom of the goblet.
The wine! Nova knocked the goblet away and stumbled a few paces to escape from the caresses that continued to distract her.
With unsteady hands, she tried to rub the confusion from her head and tangled her fingers in the gold chains on her neck. She yanked them away and shook the broken links at the smiling Berek.
“What did you do to me? What is in the wine?” she cried. For every step he took toward her, she backed away.
“Gold microbeads. Amazing how susceptible Velorians are to poison.”
“Am I dying?” She felt as if she could.
Berek shrugged. “You drank a great deal. Shall we find out how vulnerable you’ve become?” he asked, in a conversational tone, as he leveled a GAR pistol at her — from lover to monster in the space of an answer or two. Like Kolun, Nova thought, in his transformation.
He flinched as she threw the chains at him. Nova kicked the weapon away, and they both jumped toward it. Berek would get there first, she realized, still feeling woozy and ill.
Nova fled and, this time, managed to run.
A klaxon warning began as soon as she escaped Berek’s apartment. Nova ducked into a small side passage and into the niche of a doorway.
The sound of heavy footsteps pounded by in the main corridor. Nova sighed. She needed to think but the gold-laced wine still numbed her brain with a glittery fog. The door, against which she was leaning, burst open, launching her across the hall. She collapsed in a dazed heap and looked up at the room’s occupant.
Kolun regarded her with an odd expression on his face. Suddenly he laughed and shrugged.
“I should have guessed you’d be the problem.” He held out his hand and, tentatively, she let him help her up. She leaned against his arm, dizzy. “You drank his wine?”
“Pretty stupid,” he said, steering her into the chamber and closing the door with a well-placed kick. He led her to a walkway that had a view of the ocean behind the embassy.
“Are you taking me to you father?” Nova asked, pulling from his grasp, feeling weak. She’d never win another fight today but would have to try.
Kolun shook his head. “He had his chance. Now, I’ll give you one.” He stopped at a balcony. The crash of the waves could be heard from below.
Kolun looked at her. “For the things we may have been.”
“And not the things we are,” she finished the quote. Moret Kes. “Might we have been friends?”
The Arion looked away. “No, not only that.”
Lovers then, Nova thought. She placed her hand on his cheek. “So, for the things we may have been, you’ll help me escape.”
“Yes.” He kissed her but ended it before she could respond, and then stepped out onto the balcony to glance back along the walkway.
“If we meet again?” she asked, softly.
“We will meet as what we are.”
Enemies, sworn and vowed. He drew her to him, stroking the curve of her waist. “How invulnerable have you become?”
“I don’t know. I flew through a wormhole.” Or three.
“I guess you’ll find out,” he said, tossing her over the rail. The last thing Nova remembered was Kolun’s face as he watched her fall into the surf.
Gentle familiar voices calmed her during the nightmares. Equally reverent Questling hands shepherded her during the gold withdrawal. Their presence allowed her to sleep more soundly. When the poison wore off, Tol explained that Kolun had contacted Daro, telling him where to search. The tide had beached a golden fish across the inlet from the Arion embassy.
Masa, vital and slender, made teas to cleanse her blood. Kemi, tranquil and gravid, soothed away the fevers and shakes with quiet cool ministrations. Both listened to the confessions Nova felt compelled to make. How close she had come to submitting to the intoxicating drug. Gold or oblivion — she was uncertain which had held more allure. Her friends comforted her, assuring her that they were confident of her innate strengths and immunity to both — but Nova wondered.
Frequently she’d awaken, certain she was in Berek’s bed, enslaved by gold and his will. One of the Questlings would always be there to lull her back to sleep, but none of them inspired her passion, as they all had done in the past. Daro seemed to understand the most completely.
In the months she been on Velor, he had visibly diminished. He would lie beside her in the sun for hours, with nary a word between them. He would die soon, words better left unspoken, if not before she left then definitely before Nova could ever return. There would be no final trip to the lake and no breathless fiery final passion and no flight among the clouds. They had now, two invalids sharing one’s recovery and the other’s decline. They both pretended to be content with the way things had turned out. Nova sighed into Daro’s neck, as they laid intertwined on a chaise, listening to the night sounds.
“Here we are, together again.”
He frowned. “But you shouldn’t be here, Sunny.” He kissed her to take the sting from his words and said, “Tomorrow, you start for Velor.”
In the morning, the twins smuggled her into space. She basked on the little moon where Van had left her until she felt strong enough to return to Velor — and what might await her.
* * *
The panel members may have worn masks for all the emotion in the five faces as she told her story. Nova stood while they discussed her fate and argued the consequences of her invasion of an Arion embassy. She hated that they ignored her presence, talking of her as a criminal and a renegade.
“I ask to say something in my defense,” Nova stated in a firm voice. The lone Protector, her hair white with age, was the only panelist to look up. She nodded slightly, so Nova repeated her request louder.
“What defense is there?” Mak’atal asked. Was he a possible advocate, the girl wondered, like the Protector?
“I was designed to protect. I was designed for loyalty. How can I be punished for either? If I am able to ignore the instinct on these personal issues, doesn’t that infer that I will be able to disregard them on the galactic ones? By the definition of what you hope I am, I could do nothing else. By my reaction to this challenge, I prove that I am not renegade.”
The debate continued. Finally, the judge proclaimed, “Nov’ayul Velor. The panel is unanimous on your guilt but split evenly on what form reprimand should take.” He stared at her for a long moment and she realized he was taking her measure; his would be the deciding vote.
“You are exiled to Gaugan. You will assist the Protector there until such time as the Council sees fit to recall you. Any further acts of this nature will convince us that you are unsuitable for the role for which you were chosen.”
This ends “Questlings.” The next time I saw Belside it had been transformed by war. I never saw my friends again and doubt I ever will. There are some paths that one may follow only in a single direction.
A Messenger, not Van — who had his own charges to face — escorted me to Gaugan and exile. What happened on that quiet hinterland world would change everything, but my banishment and its consequences is another tale, “Exiles.”
Part Two: "Exiles," from Lisa Binkley Archive