Ordinary Velorians


Shore Leave


Episode Two: Primal War


By Shadar with edits by JH and Brantley


AUOW version Aug. 23, 2005; Bright Empire version Feb. 1, 2014; revised Oct. 13, 2014, Feb. 1, 2015



This episode continues and merges the story lines from McCloud’s Daughters and Shore Leave, the Gwyndylyn. Thanks go to Thomas and Andy for their many ideas and emails, which have earned Thomas’ alter ego a role in Episode Three. Also to Brantley for his continued encouragement, his ideas, his linkages to the other stories, and several chapters of fine writing that are included here. (Original blurb by Shadar for AUOW)



Previously in Shore Leave:


Ensign Alisa Liddell and Lieutenant Andre Kalik have been ordered down the surface of a previously unknown planet on the far side of an uncharted wormhole. They are there as the Kelsorian representatives to a local celebration: a royal wedding called a Conjugational. Alisa wears a black wig to disguise her true origin, and the two officers are shuttled to the surface.


Alisa’s shipboard romance with Captain Durgin has recently ended badly, and while Kalik has feelings for her, he is too inhibited to share them. This all changes once they encounter the Rostrans. Kalik soon discovers that the Ensign he’s been working with for the last year is one of the fabled (and much maligned) Velorians, which leads him to finally share some of his feelings toward her.


Unfortunately, they are split up shortly after arriving, and before they make the simultaneous discovery that this is truly a world populated by dangerous Aureans, many of them Primes.


Calling themselves the Gwyndylyn, the Primes are all female and part of a ruling matriarchy. Yet the world consists of Betans too, with most of the males enhanced to become Kella’Primes. There are also humans, some of who are leaders of a religious order, the Kirke, which seems to be at odds with the ruling Gwyndylyn.


Alisa falls under the care of the Kella’Prime groom, Prince Talak, and soon finds herself in danger from a Tset’lar named Frida who heads the Gwyndylyn — and her daughter Layla, the bride-to-be. Remarkably, instead of killing her, Frida tries to recruit Alisa to stay and teach a young girl named Lara. A girl who she believes, wrongly, is part of a failed Velorian genetic experiment, which was intended to match the Tset’lars for power.


Lieutenant Andre Kalik falls under the spell of a promis named Gudrid who tries to teach him the essential rites that, as a visitor, he must perform at the Conjugational. They all turn out to be sexual rites, something an inexperienced man like him finds intimidating. Fortunately, Gudrid, being an outcast Gwyndylyn, has a few skills of her own, and he passes with flying colors. Only when he goes AWOL to visit a neighborhood of Ordinaries with an agenda of their own, he shows early signs of what he doesn’t know is Enhancement Fever.


Realizing too late that he has sent Alisa down to a planet of Primes, Captain Peter Durgin launches a rescue mission. The Kelsorian Marines fare poorly after landing on the surface, despite wearing advanced exo-skeletons, deploying protective force fields and wielding GAR-like weapons. Durgin and several of his men soon find themselves being hunted by murderous Primal warriors called Guardians.


Alisa, unaware of her crewmates’ desperate battle, and unable to do anything about it in any case, is invited to attend a pageant where she witnesses a strange ritual: the Queen re-enacting the destruction of a Protector by the Goddess. The mythology of their world is based on that single event. And then Excelsia, daughter of Crown Princees Andrea, tries to recruit her to join the Gwyndylyn and their cause.


Meanwhile, Durgin is caught in the killing grip of one of the Guardians, his armor and force-field about to collapse as his men struggle frantically to free him before its too late. Part One draws ends as an unknown woman is executed in an annihilation chamber. Alisa feels her horrible agony, and passes out from the pain.



Chapter 39


(Date: 1052-11-03, 5:30 ST)


The faintest promise of dawn was teasing the darkness of the eastern horizon as Gudrid landed her flitter at the Castle. Here the real business of the Kirke was conducted, not at that showplace in the Capital. She could have come earlier, but had been advised that her presence was not necessary for the annihilation of Anyal — as if she’d have had any qualms about that. In any case, she’d been able to experience it from afar, like any Aurean of Prime level.


She was immediately surrounded by a group of black-robed monyks who chanted verses from the Book of Bal. They formed a procession to lead her through a small doorway and down a maze of stone hallways to the lowest levels of the building. The monyks paused reverently at the entranceway to the innermost sanctum of the Kirke, letting Gudrid enter alone to face the Prester.


"How may I honor you, your Eminence?" Gudrid said as she prostrated herself at the Cleric’s feet. She was dressed appropriately in the long, black robe of an appellate.


"To serve us in our time of need," Prester Sunjandan replied.


"I yield my power to the Goddess and to the Kirke which serves her."


"Rise, and then be so anointed."


Gudrid rose slowly to her feet, her nearly two-meter height towering over the Prester and her monyks — her jewel-like blue eyes glowing so brilliantly that they drew all other eyes in the room. A Betan monyk stepped forward and slowly untied her robe, letting it slip from her shoulders and pool at her feet, her bare skin proving to all that she was empowered and pure. That she wore no gold.


A dozen more monyks, all Betans, entered the chamber and knelt around her in a perfect circle, their hands touching her feet. The Prester alone remained standing, reaching out to place her bony, withered hands on Gudrid's chest, delicately tracing her full curves, enticing her body to awaken in the ancient ways. Gudrid took a deep breath as her nipples began to tingle pleasantly, rising to stand out proudly in the way of a Gwyndylyn. She had no idea how the withered, old Cleric could send such a powerful surge of arousal through her body.


"Oh Goddess, by the power and grace that is yours alone, we welcome your servant into the Order. We who exalt you must rise again to the defense of our world. Guide this woman, Gudrid of the Gwyndylyn, possessor of the legacy of the Tset, to become your instrument of power. Guide her and protect her, by the grace of our Goddess, Amen."


The monyks rose to begin the most sacred of ceremonies. The preparation of a Holy Warrior.


They first spread a scented oil across Gudrid’s skin, rubbing it into every inch of her, the flakes of gold illuminating her skin until she shimmered like a hundred golden stars in the subdued lighting of the Kirke.


Next, she was given a glowing liquid to drink.


Then, two other monyks of the Gal’lar Order, both human, stepped forward to begin layering fine gold chain about her. They marched around her in ritual lock step, one on each side of her, slowly going round and round. Gudrid grew visibly more aroused as the links of the chain surrounded her, her body awakening in the way of a Gal'lar.


Or as the Velorians called them, Tset’lar.


The monyks held Gudrid’s arms outstretched as they drew her forward, leading her through a massive stone and iron entranceway into a smaller inner chamber. This one was shaped like a circular chimney, the floor made of rough stone, the walls five meters thick, the strong stone anchored deeply into the bedrock with massive iron beams. Overhead, the chimney rose until the walls converged at a tiny spot of light six hundred feet overhead.


Two other Clerics of the Order were waiting inside, both as ancient as Prester Sunjandan, who followed Gudrid into the hall. Gudrid knelt in the center of the stone floor, a large yellow light coming on to shine down upon her.


Prester Sunjandan stood before her. "Gudrid of the Gwyndylyn, you have faithfully served the Kirke for lo these many years, under the very eyes of their Salon. Our blessing be upon you."


"Blessing upon you," the other clerics chanted in unison.


"It is now time for you to perform the task you have prepared for all these long years. A Heathen has come into our midst, and she is forging an alliance with the golden child. Your sisters who forsake you do not see the danger; they do not see the true form of the snake. They welcome her for her knowledge. This cannot be allowed."


"Cannot be allowed," the others chanted.


"Show me the way, Your Eminence," Gudrid said, her words slurred as if she was drugged. "I live only to serve the Goddess."


The aged Prester smiled, and leaned close to speak softly to Gudrid. "The female visitor, the one who claims to be human but is not, she must be destroyed. Along with all those who permitted her sanctuary here."


"But how, Your Eminence?"


"At the Conjugal," the Prester whispered. "You must entice her to commit a transgression, and while so doing, you must remove her disguise so that all can see her true colors. The golden snake even now curls around us, lying disguised in the midst of our people, smiling as she prepares to strike at us with venomous fangs."


“And the male visitor?”


“He too must be destroyed, but thanks to your ministrations he will have been enhanced all unknowing, and serve as further evidence of the female’s perfidy.”


“I could tell that the female wanted him, wanted him enough to risk it. Preparing him for the Conjugation was only an excuse.”


“Little does she know that she has helped us prepare for her destruction as well as his. To destroy both of them will surely please the Goddess.”


Gudrid nodded as the Prester’s visions grew clear in her mind, the mild hallucinogenic in the drink activating her imagination. She felt a cold chill filling her as images of fangs closed around her sister's throat. Around everyone’s.


"We will execute one of the condemned prisoners tomorrow morning," the Cleric continued. "Let the Heathen watch and listen so she will be filled with much dread — dread that will make her tremble when you bring her to the chambers for her own execution. Dread that will weaken her."


Gudrid nodded again, her eyes moist and unfocused.


"Now prove to us that you are strong enough for this task. Prove that our trust in you all these years has not been in vain. Let us perform the Yan'wa."


Two Betan monyks came forward, both of them phenomenally large and muscular. One of them offered her another cup of golden elixir, allegedly a gift from the Goddess herself. Gudrid raised it to her lips and drank it all in a single draught. Her face turned visibly green, and she gagged, doubling over in painful spasms to send the silver cup clattering empty across the stone floor. The monyks ignored her agony as they began to unwrap the gold chain from her body.


The clerics retreated to stand behind three stone pillars that were spaced equidistantly around the room. Gudrid straightened up with difficulty, her face a mask of pain, sweat running down her brow.


By the time the chain had been reduced to a mere two links around her waist, a dozen other Betan monyks had entered the room, struggling to drag heavy woven steel cables behind them. Their bodies were strong and muscular beyond the bounds of merely human, and they wore only loin-cloths, their skin oiled. Yet despite their strength, the heavy steel hawsers tested even their strength, for each of the cables was as thick as Gudrid's thigh.


If not for her pheromones filling the air, they might have failed. The sweet, flowery scent energized the Betans, awakening them in the most primal of ways, making them stronger yet. The uniquely Aurean mixture of adrenaline and testosterone filled their veins. Still, the sweat was steaming against their skin by the time they fastened the thick cables to massive anchors sunk into the walls.


Immensely powerful electric motors began to hum loudly, the vibration shaking the very foundation of the building. The anchors slowly withdrew, tightening the thick wire hawsers, pulling on them with uncounted tons of force. The hawsers slowly spread Gudrid's weakened arms and legs wide, crucifying her as they lifted her upward to hang in the exact center of the room.


The Prester signaled to the monyks to leave.


They marched as one toward the door, closing and barring the massive door behind them. It was nearly two meters thick and made from the hard, local ceramic steel.


The clerics were now the only ones left inside, standing close to the safety of the stone pillars in the corners of the room.  Gudrid looked down on them with dazed eyes, the golden elixir coursing through her blood, her body so needful now in the ways of a gal'lar. She panted, her chest heaving as her body burned inside with unrequited desire.


One of the clerics walked forward to reach up with his sword, tracing its point along the inside of one leg. Gudrid gasped, praying for him to use it in the most exotic of ways, impaling her, giving her something to expend her passion against. Instead, he lifted it higher, slashing it cruelly across her stomach. The last of the gold chain parted and fell free.


Instead of the usual energy flare of returning physical power, the effect on a gal’lar such as her was a surge of erotic power. Power so great it could not be contained. Her long-delayed passion exploded inside her, sending a powerful surge of orgone throughout her body, including her eyes. Her retinas flared blindingly bright, the beams vaporizing the outer layers of metal from the first of several heavy plates affixed to the wall, heating the underlying meter-thick iron to a cherry-red glow. Located ten feet above the floor, each plate was composed of a ton of raw iron. Still, her eyes heated it to incandescence in seconds, the brilliant glow giving the darkened room a blood red glow.


The Cleric quickly retreated behind her protective pillar. Gudrid turned her head, focusing her heat vision on two additional massive plates. The air began to swirl in the room, an artificial tornado forming in the circular tower from the intense heat of the equally spaced plates. Bits and pieces of dirt and dust were sucked into the huge vents along the periphery of the floor as the windstorm grew. The air was roaring like a tornado by the time the third plate was heated.


Cleric Sunjandan huddled behind her protective barrier, the boundary of the swirling tornado only meters in front of her. The youngest of the Clerics, her eyes large with fear, handed the Sunjandan the sacred GAR, an artifact from the original starship that had brought the People here to Rostran.


The Cleric raised it and aimed through a narrow portal in her rock pillar as the other Clerics began chanting the Epistle of Power. She pressed the firing stud, and the lethal beam splashed against Gudrid's heaving chest, igniting the oil on her skin. The flames enveloped her as a blinding glow that spread slowly outward from her breasts, her body slowly heating to hundreds and then thousands of degrees. Yet its primary effect was on the gold elixir that circulated in her veins. An elixir had been designed to transform the gold into inert lead when exposed to five thousand degrees of heat, rendering it incapable of affecting her physical powers.


The GAR beam was so intense that the rock floor beneath Gudrid began to glow, then the walls. The rock pillars and the cooled air that blew from special vents behind them was the only thing keeping the human Clerics alive.


When Gudrid’s body reached the blinding brilliance of a star, her form but a faint shadow inside the fireball, Cleric Sunjandan released the firing stud. The glow quickly faded inward, her hands and feet appearing first, the ends of the thick cables fading to a dull red. It shrunk inward further until only her breasts were glowing, the orgone conversion of the empowered performing its magic. Her body had quickly re-established equilibrium, energizing and strengthening her beyond the farthest reaches of her race.


“Begin,” Cleric Sunjandan said simply.


Gudrid looked down at her right arm and then her left. She tried to curl her wrists inward, tensing her arms. The slenderness of her arms was suddenly replaced by sinewy muscle, harder than steel, her biceps straining as she grew stronger, her chest tensing with muscle, lifting her breasts even higher into the air.


The huge wire hawsers began to sing as they channeled the uncounted tons of force from her muscles through to the rock anchors behind them.


Yet nothing happened.


Gudrid bit her lip and concentrated instead on tensing her strongest muscles. She concentrated on closing her legs, the tight curves of her inner thighs growing hard-edged, the steely muscles of a Tset’lar born standing out in bold relief. Muscles that had been designed to crush the life out of any Velorian she met.


The steel hawsers sang from the strain, but they held.


She took a shuddering breath and clenched her teeth to concentrate harder yet, concentrating on the burn that lit the inside of her thighs, pushing herself past the burning pain until it was replaced with ever building waves of tingling arousal. The clear sign of maximal orgone metabolism.


The hawsers began to vibrate so rapidly now that the deafening hum forced the Clerics to cover their ears. Gudrid's panting cries punctuated the unearthly whine of steel, only to be drowned out, as the buzzing scream of tortured steel grew as loud as a siren. The twin songs of ultimate power became unbearable, forcing the Clerics to open their mouths wide as they ducked lower, their hearing turning to white-noise as she slipped past the boundaries of erotic desire and into the erotic power that lived beyond.


Her muscles were flexing so powerfully that her body appeared to be made of wire and sculpted steel. Wire and steel stronger than the hawser on her right ankle. It failed catastrophically, sending an explosion of sparks to fill the room as the freed ends whipped around to score the rock walls.


Gudrid looked down at her heaving chest, working her chest muscles the same way now, pulling her arms inward to stretch the thick hawsers, her biceps flexing larger than seemed possible given her slender frame. She smiled fiercely as the hawser on her left wrist suddenly exploded, the shredded ends once again scoring the rock walls as they raked the room at nearly supersonic speed. Falling to the floor, she struggled to tear the remaining cables from her body.


The tornado that now roared around her was filled with brilliant sparks, rising like the Goddess' fire to explode from the tall chimney to light the night sky over the Kirke. It raged for several minutes before slowly weakening as the heat that powered it was removed, dying out entirely as the iron plates cooled.


Gudrid rose proudly to stand in the center of the scored rock floor, her hands resting proudly on her hips. Prester Sunjandan emerged from behind her pillar, her sandals smoking from the hot floor, and lifted her hands to place them on Gudrid’s shoulders. Those shoulders felt like sintered steel beneath her hands.


Gudrid slowly knelt before the Prester, bowing her head once again. “My power is yours to command, Your Eminence. Use me as the Goddess commands.”


“Rise, Daughter of Rostran, and receive your final instruction.”


The monyks scurried around her, dressing her in a black metallic armor and leather boots, her body fading back to her usual smooth slenderness. They averted their eyes from hers, the lethal eyes of a Tset’lar filling them with fear.


She finally rose to stand a head taller than the old Prester, who bowed and addressed her. “Our world has known peace for fifty years, Gudrid. Now the Heathen dares come again, this time with deception, claiming she seeks peace as we do. You must show our Goddess that the Kirke no longer needs the protection of warriors. You must prove that a simple woman, an outcast of the elite, has the strength to rid of us of the devils that seek to enslave us.”


“As you command, your Eminence. The Kirke and the Goddess are my only love.”


“Unveil the Heathen, Gudrid. Reveal her true evil, and expose the treachery of the gullible Gwyndylyn sisters. Show how the abomination of the golden child, living under their protection, even their encouragement, weakens them, prevents them from performing their duties. Show that only the sacred devotion of the Kirke can lead our people to safety."


 Gudrid kneeled down and bowed again. “The Goddess’ will be done.”


 “Goddess' will be done,” chanted the clerics as they gathered around their champion, the supreme protector of the Holy Faith of Rostran.



Chapter 40


Aboard the Anders Flame


(Date: 1052-11-03, 05:45 ST)


Then the LORD said to Isaiah, "Go out now to meet Ahab, you and your son Shearjashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, on the highway to the fuller's field.


Duty Officer Shearjashub Walark had always been embarrassed by his first name, which appeared but once in Scripture. It was one thing to be learned and pious, but one could take it too far…


Never mind; there was no time here and now for embarrassment, only for anger — and fear.


Nearly two days had passed since Captain Durgin had embarked on what was a suicide mission in all but name. It was bad enough that he had left his command. It was far worse than he had left it without any rational explanation. Could he actually have been so besotted with that young physics tech that he couldn't stand being separated from her? There had to be more to it than that, but whatever it was, he was out of the loop. Even Pestrov seemed to be out of the loop — and Pestrov and Durgin were old friends, which seemed to count for more than duty or even common sense.


They'd practically ignored him, once they'd gotten into details of the drop mission — details that had not included an exit strategy. Suppose Durgin and his team found Kalik and Liddell. How were they going to bring them back? Storm the no-doubt heavily guarded shuttle in the capital and take off under enemy fire? Steal one of the Rostrans' own craft, and try the same stunt with that?


Nobody had asked his opinion, and it would have been against protocol for him to volunteer it. If they had asked, he would have told them that the whole idea was insane — not to mention a clear violation of the rules of engagement by External Affairs and the Secretariat itself.


It was hopeless. Completely hopeless. And for what? Walark was seething with anger and resentment.


That Culture Tech De Camp must have known something — he'd come to the Bridge in tow with Durgin, and wearing a shit-eating grin. He shouldn't even have been allowed on the Bridge. Walark felt a sudden hatred for De Camp, like gorge rising in his throat — followed almost immediately by guilt.


Forgive me my foolish pride, O Lord. Help me to find the true path.


There was no chapel on board, but he could pray as he stood watch again on the Bridge. The Lord Himself stood watch here, as he stood watch everywhere. It was his duty to the Lord to seek His counsel, just as it was his duty to the ship to help preserve the lives of its crewmen. That was his other duty, security officer, and perhaps he had failed in his duty by paying insufficient attention to the solar weather — even if that were primarily the task of Physics. He must humble himself before the Lord, and the Lord would surely reveal to him what he must do.


It didn't matter what De Camp knew, he realized. It didn’t matter what the captain's motives had been. It didn't matter what had possessed Pestrov to accede to them. What was done was done; no recrimination on his part would serve the interests of the ship or the mission or Kelsor itself.


De Camp hadn't been seen on the Bridge since then, nor had any of the other science techs. There was nobody left on the Bridge but himself and Pestrov and the comm techs trying vainly to monitor Rostran broadcasts, communications and Internet traffic for any clue to what was actually happening down there.


Walark waited for a sign, any sign, of the Lord's will.


The hours passed, slowly and relentlessly.



Chapter 41


(Date: 1052-11-03, 05:55 ST)


Captain Peter Durgin was fighting for his life — and he was losing. The Guardian named Keri landed on his shoulders, her slender body deceptively light, her long legs beautiful beyond compare. And deadly beyond imagination. Her warm thighs tightened around his armor, Supremis muscle and smooth, tight skin turning harder than steel, her knees pressing inward with immeasurable raw force, his force field flaring as it amplified his strength hundreds of times.


Marine Captain Alejan Barstenal came to his Captain’s aid, desperately firing his L7 at Keri’s upper body. The pinkish-blue beam flared white-hot where it touched her skin, its heat capable of finishing off the Captain before she did if he misaimed.


She turned and snarled at him, eyes flashing blue, her mouth twisted in agony as the beams tore at her skin.


He squeezed off two more shaky bursts, both aimed high. They just grazed her shoulder and the side of his head, sending her raven hair exploding in a halo of sparks. He adjusted his aim and fired again, this time scoring a direct hit on the back of her head. Nuclear fire bathed her skull, her sweat vaporizing and skin oils igniting to enclose her upper body inside a blinding fireball of plasma.


His shot would have stripped the flesh from a human’s body, reducing even their skull to calcium dust, but Keri was a Gwyndylyn, and they do not die easily. Her face was outlined in fire as she turned to glare back at him, her eyes flaring blue and then red, sending a violent blast of heat vision splashing across Alejan’s exoskeleton. His force field flared brilliantly, deflecting it, yet still letting enough heat through to sing the hair on his chest.


He grimly held on and kept firing, desperately trying to make her blood boil, forcing her heart to pump red steam, interfering with the flow of orgone in her body. That would weaken her, maybe even render her unconscious.


Her heat vision lowered down his body, sending an excruciating burst of heat through his groin, trying to frighten him into turning away. He grimaced and kept firing, desperately praying that his force field would keep him alive just a little longer.


Durgin’s exoskeleton whined louder and louder in overload as he desperately grabbed her knees and pulled outward, his well-toned muscles amplified hundreds of times by the exoskeleton.


To no avail. The Guardian’s thighs were made of a far harder form of steel than any machine made by man. Durgin gasped in excruciating pain as her legs closed millimeter by millimeter, the smaller blood vessels in his scalp bursting, his skull creaking loudly as it threatened to collapse. His flaring force field lit the inside of her thighs with an eerie blue glow as it drew more and more energy from his nearly depleted backpack supply. The only thing keeping him alive was Alejan’s attack, which had so far proved distracting enough to keep her from locking her ankles and applying all her strength — the killing hold of a Prime.


Alejan knew he had only seconds left. He turned and shouted to Sergeant Yanni who was still lying injured on the ground. “Get some more fire on this bitch, Sergeant. Captain doesn’t have much time! Force field’s going fast!”


Sergeant Roth Yanni grimaced in pain as he struggled to roll over and sit up. His armor was still glowing from where he’d absorbed a burst of her heat vision, and his skin was scorched, the inside of his suit filled with the stench of burned hair. His hand shook from the pain as he lifted his L7 and fired wildly.


The beam tore a deep groove through the rock behind the Gwyndylyn.


He fired again, and this time the nuclear fire splashed against her bare chest.


It was exactly the wrong place to shoot a female Prime, for she could convert that heat to orgone faster than it could change her core temperature. But the blast was enough to further distract her.


Durgin responded to this last chance by commanding his exoskeleton to enter combat overload mode, a desperation technique that would burn out the actuators and circuitry if used from more than a few minutes. He twisted his head and pulled outward with all this mechanically-enhanced strength, his force field struggling to expand as well, and managed to open her legs a critical half-inch – just enough to take the pressure off for an instant. He used that moment to push her upward with hundreds of times the strength of a strong man, ducking down at the same time. His head popped free of her thighs like a Champagne cork, and he used his newfound freedom to dive head first off the face of the boulder.


Yanni cheered as Durgin tore himself free, but the arcing flashes of Durgin’s overloaded force field horrified Alejan.


The Guardian gave Durgin no time to celebrate. She hissed at him like a cat and raised her hands to deflect some of the horrific heat from Yanni’s blaster. The reflected energy bursts scoured the surface of the rock around her, heating it to incandescence. She took a deep breath of the enveloping plasma, her already dramatic bust line growing more voluptuous as she metabolized the energy from their nearly depleted weapons.


Durgin staggered a few steps further away, struggling to keep his footing as he tried to run, knowing the Guardian was growing stronger as she absorbed the energy of their weapons. His depleted exoskeleton started to beep to tell him that the suit’s energy level was too low for further combat engagement. Which was fine with him. Escape and evade was the agenda now.


Unfortunately, he’d barely taken five steps before the Gwyndylyn leaped off the boulder to slam him down on his back, dropping over him to straddle his hips and pin him to the ground, her knees pressing inward with lethal force. He stared up as she gripped her chest, the center still glowing white-hot from Yanni’s burst, to see her eyes glowing a lethal blue as she smiled down at him. A cold certainty came over him – he was a dead man.


His force field flared red instead of blue as her knees pressed inward — the unmistakable sign of energy depletion. He knew that nothing in the universe could save him from this lethally beautiful woman. Not his strength, not his men’s weapons, certainly not his force field or exoskeleton.


Visions of his recent life flashed through his mind, a final burst of tingling warmth thrilling him as he remembered the way Alisa had straddled him this way, holding her breasts much the same way, yet instead of hurting him, she’d lowered herself over his manhood with loving tenderness, her passion and blonde hair enveloping both of them. That sexy memory was instantly washed away as the horrible pressure of the Gwyndlyn’s thighs sent a surge of pressure through his body that nearly forced his eyes from their sockets. A deafening shriek filled his ears as his exoskeleton began to vibrate painfully, the steel yielding, his force field failing, his pelvis starting to collapse with it.


Alejan made a final desperate attempt to save his captain by leaping toward his attacker; his exoskeleton’s power launched him twenty yards through the air to smash his armored fist into her face with all his augmented strength. The Gwyndylyn threw her head back and screamed in mortal pain, the impact tossing her backward twenty feet to thrash around in mortal agony at the edge of the boulder.


Alejan stood up and looked at his fist, the armor glowing. Despite delivering a desperate blow backed with the strength of a hundred men, he’d truly expected the Prime to shrug it off.


Yanni didn’t pause to wonder at their change of luck, and fired his L7 again and again into her glowing body until the rock began to melt around her.


That was when they heard the other screams coming from further along the ridge. Then many screams in the distance, the horrible keening cries rising into the sky like the wailing of a thousand banshees.



Chapter 42


(Date: 1052-11-03, 06:05 ST)


Alejan hobbled upward toward the ridgeline with Durgin strapped to his back, trying desperately to put distance between him and the injured Guardian. He had no idea what had happened to her and the other Gwyndylyn, but he wasn’t going to hang around until they recovered.


Above him, the summit was alive with the orange and red glow of sunset. Streamers of dark blue, azure and purple filled the sky. Under normal circumstances, it would have ranked as one of the most beautiful sunsets he’d ever seen. Under the circumstances, it was probably the last one he’d see.


They were running for their lives, their exoskeletons amplifying their strength so they could leap from boulder to boulder, traveling ten meters at a step. Still, they were gasping for breath by the time they crested the flat, narrow summit and came to a sudden stop. A house-sized boulder blocked their way, its sides overhanging the steep slope on either side. The ground leading up to it was a jumble of smaller, waist-high boulders.


Yanni led the way across the tricky ground toward the boulder, picking his footing carefully as the sun cast long shadows across the ground. The glow of his force field had faded back to normal by the time he paused to look up at the boulder, looking for handholds. Tracing his eyes upward, he was startled to find himself looking at a small figure who stood on top of the huge boulder. He blinked, but the apparition was still there.


“Captain,” he called out in a shaky voice. “I’m not sure if I’m seeing things… but it looks like a girl up there.”


Alejan craned his stiff neck upward to follow Yanni’s gaze. A girl truly did stand on top of the large boulder, her long blonde hair billowing in the breeze, her bare legs slightly spread, hands resting confidently on her hips. She was barefoot and wearing a very short red skirt, her upper body bare. A wide, glittering diamond choker encircled her neck, with a long, red scarf floating weightlessly behind her, almost like a cape. Her skin was so darkly tanned that it glowed like polished gold in the setting sun.


Alejan noted her unusually large and blue eyes, and instantly knew she a Supremis. Her bold posture, exotic clothing and long legs were further proof. Yet she was anything but Aurean. Not with that straight blonde hair billowing on the breeze.


It didn’t take him long to guess what kind of human she was. Between that tiny red skirt, her dramatic pose and all that golden hair, not to mention the nudity, inappropriate for anyone Terran raised, Alejan realized, as impossible as it seemed on this Aurean world, that he was facing a young Velorian. A glance at her boyishly flat chest and the softness of her face told him she was very young. Cursing under his breath, he realized she couldn’t be a day over ten years old. How was a girl her age going to help him?


She looked down at him, her irises sparkling nearly as brightly as the blue diamonds that studded her choker, and Alejan had to look away, finding that she looked disturbingly beautiful despite her young age.


“Who are you and why are you here?” the girl called out in an unnervingly loud voice. It was a girlish voice, but seemingly amplified.


“There’s a Guardian behind us… down there,” Alejan pointed as he resumed walking toward the boulder. “A Prime. One of our party has been injured, others killed. You’ve got to help us!”


“Why ask me for help? You are the ones who landed illegally on our planet.”


Alejan strove to project his voice with an air of command. “I’m Marine Captain Alejan Barstenal and this is Sergeant Yanni of the Kelsorian starship Anders Flame. The man at our feet is our ship’s Captain. May I ask your name and title?”


“Lara,” she said simply. “As for a title, perhaps…” She paused to smile impishly. “I suppose Goddess will do.”


Alejan gawked at her. “What?”


Yanni looked nervously behind him, and then leaned closer to whisper to Alejan. "We don't have much time, Sir. I don't see a way around this boulder though. Sheer drop on either side. We gotta climb the face right up at her."


“The Guardians won’t harm you if you stop resisting,” Lara said innocently. “Mother alone is allowed to decide your fate.”


“Bullshit,” Alejan shouted back. “Our ship’s captain is probably dying, and two of my men are already dead. Others are badly injured.” He didn’t mention Smyth; had he eluded the Primes, did he still have the Klav'en?


The confident look on Lara’s face softened as she gazed over his shoulder, her eyes sparkling even brighter. Her expression faded to a frown as she snapped her eyes back to look down at Durgin, the blue glow of her eyes growing brighter. Alejan followed her gaze to see that blood was flowing from his nose and mouth now. “What did you do to provoke the Guardians?”


“We tried to defend ourselves, for all the good it did.”


“You’re humans. You can’t possibly defend…”


Yanni shook his head and interrupted her. “Look, Lara, we can’t undo our mistake. What we don’t want to do is face the women who are chasing us. Can you protect us from the Aureans?”


He talked to her like he would his niece back home. Goddess or not, she was the same age.


“Their names are Keri and Tanya,” Lara said stubbornly. “They’re Guardians, not Aureans. And Tanya is my friend.”


Alejan joined in, desperately trying another tact. “The Guardians attacked my men first, Lara. Why don't you take us to your mother and let her decide. It’s only fair to let her judge what should be done with us.”


He had no idea who her mother was, but anything was better than facing a pumped up and angry Prime in the field.


Alejan turned his attention back to Durgin while Yanni argued with the girl. He punched an inquiry into his MedScan, and was relieved so see that Durgin had only suffered a concussion and a broken pelvis. No serious internal injuries, but he’d be out of action for a long time.


“Don’t know why, but the captain’s MedScan is clear.”


He looked up as the girl stepped off into space to float over his head to drop down into the darkness behind them, disappearing.


“Start climbing,” Alejan shouted. “With any luck, the girl will slow down those murderous bitches.”


“How do you know she’s even helping us? She might have gone to bring them here faster.”


“Doesn’t matter. If she isn’t kicking some Guardian butt, then we’re already dead.”


Both men tore at the smooth rock with armored fingers, trying to make their own handholds. Durgin was strapped to Yanni’s back. They were fifteen feet off the ground when the boulder lurched strongly enough to toss them off, crashing back to the ground as another powerful tremor shook the mountain. Alejan turned his head in time to see a spray of shattered rock explode into the air far below them. Unlike the long rumble of an earthquake, this shaking came and went, feeling almost like explosives. They turned to stare at each other with eyes wide. “The girl really is fighting… over us,” Yanni said in awe.


His words had no soon left his mouth than Lara suddenly reappeared overhead, her hair in disarray, her scarf missing and her skirt torn and barely hanging on her narrow hips. Alejan struggled to get back to his feet.


"Stay down," she hissed at him.


Alejan flattened himself between some smaller boulders, turning his head to look up at the girl. He was stunned to see her standing at the face of the massive boulder. It gave off a cacophony of cracking sounds as she violently jammed her outstretched fingers up to her wrists in the weathered rock, chips exploding outward. She then bent her long legs and lifted, her youthful back turning into a maze of muscle that had no place on a girl so young. The gigantic boulder gave off a horrible groan as she straightened her legs, and she slowly lifted her arms over her head, a thousand tons of granite tearing loose from the Earth as she bent far backwards to lift it.


Alejan stared as if seeing a vision. If his combat briefings on Velorians were correct, not even a muscle-bound Virago was this strong. He gawked open-mouthed as the young girl thrust her arms high over her head, and tossed the house-sized bolder over the edge of the hilltop like it was a giant’s beach ball, the suction from a thousand tons of rock flying so closely over their heads lifting the men off the ground.


Seconds later, the largest jolt of all bounced both men off the ground. The sound of shattering trees and crushing rocks rose over the edge of the hill as the boulder began to roll ponderously down the slope they'd just climbed.



Chapter 43


(Date: 1052-11-03, 6:35 ST)


Keri wasn’t sure how much time had passed when she woke up, her last memory being the sight of that huge boulder crashing down on her. Looking around, she noted that the sky looked much lighter, the red glow fading to blue.


Jumping up to brush herself off, she looked downhill at the huge swath the boulder had cut through a grove of meter-thick hardwood trees, snapping them off at the trunk and grinding them to splinters. She cursed, knowing this had to be Lara’s doing, although how a Velorian had managed to tilt a boulder that large over the summit she had no idea. What was clear that the girl had switched sides to join with the humans, just the way she’d predicted when she’d argued her case in front of Frida a year ago.


Adrenaline filled her veins as she raced the rest of the way up the hillside in powerful leaps, only to find it deserted. A huge depression in the ground indicated where the boulder had lain. She sprinted along the ridge in the direction she thought the enemy had gone, pausing at the edge of a small lake. She spun around, searching the sky, and barely caught sight of some dots racing toward the eastern horizon. Squinting into the disk of the rising sun, she cursed again as she saw a diminutive figure surrounded by blonde hair carrying three bulky, armored soldiers.


A movement caught the corner of her eye, and ducted low before she saw that it was just Tanya, limping along the crest of the ridge. She was wearing the remains of a pair of charred white shorts; her clothing was otherwise blasted away from the violent assault. She seemed distracted and confused as she dragged one of the Terrans with her — the soldier with the same dark skin coloration as hers. Portions of his exoskeleton were smoking from being dragged across the rocks and trees at high speed, but he was still conscious.


“Was that seizure what I think it was?” Tanya asked as she sagged to her knees beside Keri.


Keri nodded. “They executed a sister. Annihilation chamber.”


“Those murderous bastards,” Tanya growled as she played with her earpiece, then ripped it angrily from her head and threw it away. “I’ve lost contact with the Rivera. The effects must have been a lot worse over there.”


“Lara flew off with the invaders,” Keri said calmly, struggling to contain the murderous rage that grew inside her. “She didn’t seem affected by the seizure.”


“That makes no sense,” Tanya said as she turned toward the brightening horizon, shading her eyes with her hand. “She’s as much a Supremis as we are.”


“All I know is that the little bitch has interfered in Guardian affairs for the last time. Not even Mother can’t defend her this time. This is treason.” Keri sounded like a woman who'd finally found her vindication.


Tanya struggled to squint into the sun, her tearing eyes barely making out a cluster of four dots descending into the rising orb of the sun. “She seems to be taking them toward the Rivera. She’ll be standing in front of the Highest a long time before we will.”


“Curse that blonde witch and her interference.”


“At least we’ve got one of them,” Tanya said as she glared down at Rafish, who lay panting in exhaustion beside her. She lashed out with narrow beams of heat vision to sever the rest of his weapons from his exoskeleton, its power source depleted.


Rafish gasped in pain as molten metal from his exoskeleton splattered his unprotected skin. Tanya ignored his discomfort as she straddled his prone body, glaring down at him with her dangerous eyes. “I’ve treated you well so far, Rafish. But that’s going to end if you don’t tell me why you’re here.”


“Serial number 1728303…” Rafish started to chant as he stared up at her.


“Fuck him,” Keri growled, her fists clenched. “Just kill him.”


“No,” Tanya said with a shake of her head. “Our mission was to capture and interrogate.”


“He won’t tell us anything,” Keri said as she reached down and gripped the armor across Rafish’s chest, the quarter-inch Vendorian steel deforming as she jerked him up to dangle at arm’s length. “We both know the Kirke is somehow behind this. Skietra knows what they told the Frails to entice them to land here. We need to get our hands on that head Cleric, and fast. This Frail meat will only slow us down.”


Chapter 44


(Date: 1052-11-03, 06:45 ST)


It was an Ordinary hospital for Ordinary people… Frails, as they were called here. But it was an extraordinary situation, even if Dr. Malin Broudy didn’t realize it yet.


The patient was running a high fever, and was incoherent. He didn’t have a tracking ring or any other form of identification. He’d been dropped off at the emergency room the night before, and nobody had gotten around to seeing him for several hours.


“Did you talk to the man who brought him in?” Dr. Broudy asked the orderly.


“He took off in a hurry, Doctor. Like it was something to do with drugs and he didn’t want to get involved with the Guardians.”


“Was the patient like this at the time?


“He could walk, but just barely. I helped him get to a cot. He might be a dream duster, was what I thought, and just needed to sleep it off. He started screaming in the middle of the night, but since then he’s just been muttering off and on.


Dr. Broudy looked back at the patient, who was poorly dressed; his shabby clothes didn’t even fit him right.


“Well, if that were all there was to it, he should have recovered by now.”


The strange man was talking some sort of gibberish.


“Aypha ani? Aypha Alisa? Ani zikvik Alisa. Ani ahara lavirgyh.”


“It can’t be just dream dust,” Dr. Broudy said. “There’s something seriously wrong with him. We’ll have to run some tests.”


Rostran didn’t care to spend lavishly on the needs of Frails, but their clinics and hospitals could well afford the cost of pinpointing and containing disease outbreaks that might impact the labor force.


The tests didn’t take long, and they didn’t show positive results for any common illness that could account for the patient’s symptoms. But they did produce one surprise… a disturbing surprise, very disturbing. Disturbing enough for Dr. Broudy to contact the Chief of Staff, Dr. Abel Lembit.


“We have a patient who is not of this world,” he said.


There was silence for a moment.


“Man or woman?” Dr. Lembit asked.




“What seems to be the matter with him?”


“I haven’t been able to determine that. But he’s in high fever, getting worse, and babbling in a language I can’t understand.


“Say nothing more about this to anyone. I must contact Higher Authority.”


“Higher Authority” meant the Palace.



Chapter 45


Planet Sanctuary, some weeks earlier


Klara McCloud stuffed the envelope in her pocket, and smiled as she walked out of the door of the LePenfat bank. Unlike the first bank she visited this cycle, where she’d had to rip the meter-thick door of the vault off its hinges to get the money she was due, the staff at LePenfat had quickly handed her a check for the “equitable distribution to the needy, the destitute, and the unemployed.”


Klara had come dressed in a pair of jeans overalls and a white wife-beater top, an outfit she’s selected to look as out-of-place as possible among the business suits and expensive fashions of the banking world. It would also give her some freedom of movement to use her strength to tear open their vault. Fortunately, the management at LePenfat proved to be more realistic than the other banks. They carried her ‘tithe’ on the books as a necessary business expense.


Ben Shaffer was waiting by the curb, holding the door of a rented limo open. Given that they could both fly, this luxurious coach was a purely romantic touch.


He bowed as she walked closer. “My lady Robin Hood, where can I take you this fine morning?”


She winked at him as she slid into the leather seat.


Ben slipped in behind, closing the door as he leaned forward to direct the driver. “The Alice More charity Hospital, if you please, James.”


Ben indulged Klara, as he indulged all the McCloud daughters. It was his own choice, although in theory he didn’t really have any. You couldn’t argue with the McClouds — especially Klara. Perhaps there were better ways to solve Sanctuary's social problems than robbing banks, but he wasn't going to suggest them — any more than the bankers, who would doubtless make up the loss by raising interest rates and nuisance fees for middle and upper class clients.


Back on Earth, governments often played the role of Robin Hood, but money taken from the rich tended to stick to a lot of fingers before any of it ever reached the poor. Klara never kept any of the funds they extracted from the bank — they went straight to agencies that actually served those in need: in this case the Alice More Hospital. And she let them spend the funds as they saw fit, without seeking her approval or filling out forms in triplicate. At Alice More, the medical staff made the decisions.


Dr. Roderick McNeill, chief of staff, met them at the front entrance and was properly grateful for the check, which would be deposited in the hospital's account at a rival bank, much to the discomfiture of the LePenfat executives who had drawn it. And the money would continue to circulate, in the form of wages for additional staff, purchases of new diagnostic equipment and the like. Some of that, no doubt, would end up back at LePenfat.


Despite Dr. McNeill's effusiveness, Klara had to cut short her visit.


"If we'd stayed any longer, I'd have had to fly home myself," she told Ben as they got back into the limo. "But that wouldn't have been much fun."


"Unless we flew united."


"We’ve already done that."


"So we have. Several times."


"And you don't miss the Vendorian steel—"


"I've found something better, as you well know. But I wish there were more of it. I can indulge ordinary guys under gold, including some of my former monks. But they don't have as much staying power as you, so I have to take on a whole bunch of them. If only I could have a gang bang with my own kind — that would be Heaven."


Ben didn't know how to respond to that, so he kept his silence.


When they pulled up at the McCloud skyscraper, Ann, who told Ben politely but firmly that the Important Family Business didn’t involve him and that what she to discuss was for family ears only, met them at the lobby door.


I'm part of the family, and not part of it, Ben thought as he reluctantly turned and walked away. I don’t even get to see my son that much; Paris dotes on him so, and Myra usually has him when she’s not on patrol but I’m busy with the other sisters. So it goes.


He crossed the street and walked into a restaurant to order a beer. A young couple were sitting in the front window with a young child, both of them doting on the smiling infant. The scene tugged at Ben’s heart. If I'm ever going to really have a family, he realized, it would have to be with somebody else. Only who? Has to be a Supremis. But what Supremis would want to live here?




The name leaped at him. As opposed to Ivy and Bentley, who’d been working out detailed plans to escape to a mining colony, Nikki was lost. She hated Velor, but she didn’t have any idea of where else to go. No plans.


On the other hand, she was such a flake. And Ann loves Myra so much, what with her being the coolest and mellowest of the McCloud girls. 


Yet even she doesn’t trust me with — whatever it is they’re up to now.



Chapter 46


Nomi, larger moon of Rostran


(Date: 1052-11-03, 07:10 ST)


They were all part of a family on Nomi, but the family ties were getting strained.


The Culture people had had nothing to do, as the nearest Rostran base was 500 kilometers away and they had been forbidden to approach it. Section Chief Michelle Hegson also resented the lack of contact from the Flame, even though she could understand the reason for it.


As for the Biology Techs, they'd been too busy cataloguing the local flora and fauna to have had much time for the Culture Techs — except to berate then for having failed to collect comparative data on Rostran species, although that wasn't Culture's job. Too late now; the solar flares that interfered with radio communication also made it impossible for them to access the planet's Internet databases.


They'd had to move the shuttles again to hide from the local sun. Biology Section Chief Walter Schmerz wondered what effect the radiation was having on Nomian life dayside. If these flares were a regular occurrence, he supposed, native life might have adapted to it. But if they were a rare thing, there might be massive die-offs, perhaps serious mutations in the next generations. Kalik and Liddell might have told him whether there was a periodicity to the solar flare-ups, but they weren't here.


Schmerz was a dour man who was never caught smiling. He hadn’t been caught smiling even during Shragnel, after their emergence from Cygnias 275. Michelle had taken part in the orgy, as had they all — saving a handful of Christla like Security Chief Walark. But when she took her turn with Schmerz, it was the oddest sexual experience she'd ever had.


It wasn't that he didn't know the moves — in fact, he was letter perfect, so to speak. But it was as if he did them all by the numbers. He played her like an instrument, but without any spontaneity or originality. He grunted and groaned at the right times, and cried out when he came — but never whispered words of endearment, never held her hand, never brushed her cheek.


He had given her pleasure. But he had seemed incapable of giving delight to her, or even to himself. She'd compared notes. It was the same with the other women.


Now they were stuck here. Custom dictated that they be of comfort as well as help to one another. The women in Biology accommodated him. It was the politic thing to do. But she and the other women in Culture felt no such obligation. And they had better alternatives, including Ensign Davis.


Percy was crazy. He did crazy things. But they were fun things. He'd put on some music, and make love in time with the rhythm. He'd praise her to the skies — her body and her soul — even though she knew that neither was perfect. He'd moan one moment and laugh the next.


"Do you always giggle when you do this?" she asked when he entered her for the first time.


"But it's so much fun," he managed to say, between giggles.


Then she giggled too.


"Oh, do that again," he cried. "I can feel you giggle inside!"


Michelle began giggling uncontrollably, and he exploded inside her, laughing with surprise and delight.


"Your cunt’s so much fun," he managed to tell her once he got his breath. "The most fun place in the world."


After which they made love until they collapsed from exhaustion, giggling and laughing like crazy people. He smiled down at her afterwards, seeing her delight and taking joy in that delight as he stroked her hair, and moved in for post-coital kisses that seemed to last forever.


It was like that again here on Nomi. For the moment, at least, she could forget their plight while she was in his arms, and that was a precious thing.


Tomorrow would take care of itself, she thought.


But it wasn't true. They'd still be cut off from the mother ship. They'd still be cut off from their work. And there'd still be Walter Schmerz.



Chapter 47


(Date: 1052-11-03, 07:30 ST)


“You should have called a meeting.” Harnig protested.


“There wasn’t time,” Cooper insisted. “I couldn’t let an Outworlder die here. We’d have the Guardians all over us.”


“He was that far gone?”


“Not at first. He was eager to meet with us, thought we might help him find his shipmate Alisa. She’d been abducted by Prince Talak, after they’d been invited to the Conjugational. He’d been taking lessons from some promis named Gudrid; said she had in place in town.”


“That doesn’t make much sense; why not at the Palace?”


“There’s no accounting for anything they do. But Kalik didn’t know about the other things they do, like the Brooder program. He was really shocked, and wanted to hear more, so he could tell Alisa — he was afraid Talak and the rest would be taking her down the garden path, showing her only what they wanted her to see, telling her only what they wanted her to hear. I said I could tell him a lot more, about the Kirke, maybe even help him contact Alisa. I’d found some old clothes for him so he wouldn’t look conspicuous when I brought him here.”


“You told him that much, and let him go? He could have—”


“He wasn’t going to live long enough for that, and I didn’t take him to the hospital until he was pretty much out of it.”


“Whatever he had, it’s a good thing you didn’t catch it.”


“Probably something we don’t usually catch ourselves. He was an Outworlder, after all; no natural immunity.”


Chapter 48


Planet Sanctuary, a week earlier


Ann McCloud paced back and forth on the top floor balcony of her skyscraping home in the capital city of New Edinburgh, clearly upset. “What do you mean, you’re nurturing a more primitive society? Who gave you the right to decide how anyone should live?”


Her oldest daughter, Aayla, the focus of Ann’s outburst, sat calmly on a stool, leaning her chin on one knee.


Her middle daughter, Klara, sat across the room, trying to stay out of her mother’s line of fire. She was dressed in a long nightgown, and in contrast to her older sister, she looked young enough to still be in school. Thnaks to their father’s shape-changing genes, both women’s appearances were often more a reflection of their mood than any biological imperative.


Aayla was launching into her appeal a second time. “Rostran is a unique planet, Mother. They need my help.”


Ann settled lightly into her chair, her body tense but controlled. “And Sanctuary doesn’t? I think we have enough challenges here, Aayla. The Aureans will come again, and we’ll be hard pressed to defend these humans against an all-out assault.”


“You don’t understand,” Aayla replied with a shake of her head. “Rostran was founded by shipwrecked Primes and Betans, along with the Ordinary humans who serve them. They’ve formed a unique matriarchy of peace and tolerance. My mission is to reinforce their system, yet convince them to maintain their isolation so they don’t threaten anyone elsewhereÖ including us


“And you think pretending to be a goddess is ‘leaving them alone?’ There is such a thing as the Prime Directive.”


“Which has nothing to do with intervening in a world populated mostly by Supremis,” Aayla argued. “That was to protect humans from cultural collapse when faced with the sudden knowledge of more advanced races.”


“Yet you said some of the Rostrans were human.”


“Who are living as third-class citizens on a world run by Aureans. Practically slaves.”


“You can’t keep the Aureans from contacting others in the Empire, Aayla. If they have any idea we’re here, they’ll send ships.”


“Rostran is totally isolated between our back door on one side and a very dangerous wormhole on the other. Besides, I've reinforced their culture of isolation. They haven't even attempted to rebuild their interstellar space-faring capacity. Trust me, nobody else is going to find them.”


"And yet when I sent Klara through the back door, she discovered that these Kelsorians had made it through that other wormhole."


“You dared?"


"What else was I to do, after Ben let it slip to Myra that you were leading a double life there? And who else was I going to send? Paris?"


"I should have known not to trust Ben. Damn him!"


“Never mind that. Did Klara report truly?”


“They found Rostran by accident. A research ship. I won’t allow them to leave orbit.”


“You won’t allow? Whatever happened to self-determination?”


Aayla shrugged. “The political situation is too delicate for that. The Rostrans have an ongoing internal struggle between a Kirke made up of Betans and the ruling clan of Primes who call themselves the Gwyndylyn. Empowering the Kirke is the only way to keep the Gwyndylyn from falling back into old form and cleansing the humans from the planet.”


“Cleansing them? You mean, genocide.”


Aayla looked up sharply at her mother. “You would know better than I the way Aureans deal with threats, militarily or political.”


“Don’t try that high and mighty act on me, Aayla. I was born Aurean, but I wasn’t raised as one any more than you or your sisters have been.”


“Trust me,” Aayla said in her most confident tone. “I can handle this, Mother.”


“No, you can’t,” Ann replied angrily. “We aren’t gods, despite the fact that weaker races are willing to believe otherwise. You are way too involved there.” She turned to glance meaningfully at Klara. If not for Ben’s arrival, she’d still be basking in the worship of her so-called monks. “We don’t have access to any special reservoir of wisdom. We can make mistakes as easily as any human.”


Aayla persisted. “But if we’ve learned anything of human history, it's that we can inspire them to rise above their pettiness and greed by giving them something bigger than themselves to live for. Like a goddess.”


Ann grimaced. She’d heard enough of that kind of rationalization in the last few days. The fact that it was also true was the reason they were having this argument.


“So you plan to go back and continue this charade?”


“They need me. And Skietra help the neighboring star systems if the Aureans attempt to bring that sector into the Empire. There are six sentient but completely alien races in the surrounding systems beyond Cygnias 275.”


“Need you? Are you sure you aren’t confusing your needs with theirs? Can you truly say you don’t enjoy all those worshippers throwing themselves at your feet, willing to give up even their lives to satisfy your slightest whim?”


Aayla looked away, saying nothing.


“That’s what I thought.” Ann’s voice softened, taking on a motherly tone. “Look, this can get complicated for all of us. Especially when we really feel we can make a positive difference on a world. But the Protectors have learned from long experience that we can rarely make a permanent and positive change in a human culture. That’s why their High Council has always been so adamant about limiting their role on their assigned worlds to defense against the Empire.”


“The first thing you taught me, Mother, was that we don’t have to answer to a High Council or anything like it. We have a freedom to make our own rules.”


“We do indeed have that, Aayla, but that doesn’t mean we throw way a thousand years of experience and learning. The Protectors’ creed has served us well.”


“All I know is that if I don’t go back, Mother, many Rostrans are going to die. The power balance will collapse in favor of the Gwyndylyn, and then we’ll have a planet ruled by the most militant of the Primes. Do you have any idea how terrible that will be for the humans and Betans?”


“You’re too involved to see the situation objectively, Aayla. Klara told me how you've appeared to the Gwyndylyn as well as the Kirke — creating the very dilemma you complain about now. Pretending to be some kind of ancient warrior, for Skietra’s sake! Flaunting your sexuality to them. You can’t build a religion around that, and you can’t inspire people forever with your beauty.”


“Klara did.” Aayla said flatly. “You never tried to stop her.”


Klara glared at her older sister while flipping her a rude gesture behind their mother’s back.


“Klara’s obsession wasn’t changing the culture of a world,” Ann replied. “She was just using that cult to cater to her misplaced sexual needs.”


“Just?” Aayla asked, incredulous.


“And she got over it. Thanks to Ben. She knows better now, after what almost happened. And despite the questionable morality of her actions, Aayla, such behavior by a Supremis is not unheard of. Your objectives, on the other hand, the creation of enduring institutions to govern an entire planet, have far more serious implications.”


Aayla laughed haughtily. “How Velorian of you to claim we can serve no higher purpose, Mother. What is that? Aphrod’ite’s rule? Fuck ‘em but don’t change ‘em.”


Ann’s face flushed an angry red. “You know nothing of Aphrod’ite or the sacrifices of thousands of Protectors. We have learned that humans are too easily misled by those who they consider to be gods.”


“Assuming you are trying to mislead them. I’m not. I know enough of human and Supremis culture to realize that I can do more, at lot more, than merely duke it out with the bad guys.”


Ann shook her head. “No, Aayla. What you are attempting was tried on Earth several times. The gods of the Greek, the Roman, even the Norse civilizations, were people just like us. They were sent there to try to elevate human culture.”


“So, all the more reason for me to continue. Earth turned out okay.”


“No, it never worked on Earth, Aayla. The Galen long ago decided that it couldn’t ever work with humans. They have to figure things out on their own.”


“Even if they kill themselves off in the process?”


“Even if they do that,” Ann nodded solemnly. “It’s called self-determination.”


“It’s called bullshit,” Aayla burst out angrily. “Especially when we can set them on the right course and then get out of the way and let them continue.”


“You mean, your course?”


“I know what is best for them.”


Ann laughed. “Trust me, Aayla, you don’t have the wisdom to determine the internal politics and governments of worlds. To rule humans. None of us do. And even if we did, it is not our place to interfere in such a way.”


“Oh? So our place is to just hide here on Sanctuary forever? Just how much of an impact do you think we have on the humans here?”


“They don’t see us as gods. Just ask Klara about her recent episode at that bank. The people here are beginning to resent us. That’s a very healthy thing for humans to feel.”


“I think you’re the one who’s got it all twisted around, Mother. Love is always better than resentment.”


“Love? That’s what you think the Rostrans feel for you?”


Aayla looked boldly back at her mother. “Yes, they do.”


“Then that’s all the more reason that Klara should go back there and try to clean up your mess.”


Aayla sat bolt upright in her chair. “Send Klara? That’s insane. She’s the last person who should—”


“She needs to prove that she’s learned from her earlier mistakes,” Ann interrupted. “And you are far too close to your precious Rostrans to figure out how to extract yourself from their affairs.”


“Mother,” Klara said in a worried voice, “Aayla’s right. I don’t know enough in detail about what she was doing there. I’d never been to another planet before.”


“Paris and Myra haven't been at all. And they can't shapeshift, or have your sixth sense. Which is why you are going to replace your older sister, and you are going to convince them that you aren’t a real goddess.”


“But… I am,” Klara replied in a soft voice


Ann sighed in frustration. “We’ve already had this talk, Klara.”


Klara crossed her arms and glared back at her mother.


“Look at this as a challenge, Klara. A chance to grow.”


“She’ll completely fuck things up there,” Aayla added disgustedly.


“You’ve already done that. Now the Rostrans must be encouraged to decide their own fate. They don’t need a self-professed goddess to believe in. Such beliefs are short-lived and dangerous. Humans have to take responsibility for their own actions.”


“I already told you,” Aayla spit out, true anger in her voice. “Most of them are Aureans, not humans.”


Ann shrugged again. “No matter. Humans and Supremis are much alike in our thinking.”


Klara pulled her golden hair from her face as she looked worriedly up into her mother’s eyes. “Exactly what am I supposed to do there if I go? Tell everyone that my sister isn’t what they thought she was?”


“You will pretend to act her part at first. And then you will prove to them all that you aren’t a goddess. Let them discover that you aren’t a superior being except in body. Dazzle them with your strength or your sexuality or anything else you want, but make it clear that you just came out of another corner of the Supremis bloodline. That you aren’t worthy of worship.”


“Well, that’ll be easy enough for her,” Aayla said with depreciating laugh.


“You’re so damn high and mighty,” Klara spat back at her older sister. “You fucked that planet up, not me.”


“Enough of this!” Ann said in a firm voice. “I’ve made up my mind. Klara will fix the damage you’ve done, Aayla. She will force the Rostrans to take responsibility for their own future. You will stay right here on Sanctuary, Aayla, until she and I get this sorted out.”


Aayla rose to her feet. “Now who’s playing goddess, mother dear?” she sneered as she stalked angrily from the room.


Ann turned to smile at her younger daughter. “I’ll come and help you if you need, Klara, but I’d like you to really try to do this yourself. Convince the Rostrans that they alone must decide their future. Let them down gently if you must, give them time to work things out between them without war, but make it clear that they alone must decide their fate. Try to be a Protector, not a goddess.”


"I understand."


"But it will help to know the lay of the land. Especially regarding the humans. What I can squeeze out of Aayla — and believe me, I'm going to squeeze hard. You'll have to play a lot of it by ear, but you can't go in totally blind."



Chapter 49


(Date: 1052-11-03, 07:45 ST)


Planet Rostran


Gudrid flew under her own power for the first time in her life, the miracle of her long night’s ritual enabling her Tset’Lar’s ability to fly. Far from feeling like an outcast from the Rivera now, drummed out of the Gwyndylyn for the mere sin of believing, she was now an instrument of the Goddess herself. She had the power to re-balance the equation between the Kirke and the Gwyndylyn.


In favor of the Kirke.


Even more importantly on a personal level, it was time to get even with Frida. With Mother Superior, as she occasionally called herself just to spite the Kirke — the devil incarnate.


That self-assumed title made Gudrid's blood boil. Mother Superior was the one who’d banned her from the Rivera, telling everyone that Gudrid and her sister lacked the discipline to become true Gwyndylyn. It was just an excuse to keep the true believers in the Kirke out of the Rivera, and to keep the Gwyndlyn’s plans secret from the Clerics.


Gudrid smiled confidently as she coasted effortlessly over the mountaintops, diving faster than the speed of sound as she descended into the canyons beyond, her outstretched arms swept back to guide the shockwaves behind her. Looking down, she was surprised to see that she wasn’t alone. Squinting her eyes, she was shocked to see Lara flying slowly toward the Rivera with three men in tow. They wore armor and carried strange weapons.


“Human soldiers?” she muttered to herself. She smiled into the slipstream, her lips flaring. The foolish girl was about to become a tool of the Kirke's deliverance, revealing to all the depth of collaboration the Gwyndylyn had with outside races. The older Velorian named Alisa had traveled here with the humans, and she was clearly working with Lara.


Now was the moment of service to the Goddess that the Cleric's had long trained her for. She would reveal and then kill both Velorians tonight during the Gwyndlyn’s Conjugational. Everyone would know of the Gwyndylyn treachery, and no one would trust the sisters after tonight.


Chapter 50


(Date: 1052-11-03, 09:07 ST)


Aboard the Anders Flame


Lionel De Camp had slept fitfully, and felt exhausted this morning, both physically and spiritually.


He hadn't felt at peace since that day on the bridge. There was no longer any joy in knowing Alisa's secret. Not when she could be dead by now, or dying. And perhaps the Captain and his men with her.


Yet what else could he have done, once he had discovered the truth about Alisa? A truth that, even now, he dared not share with any other?


It was Hegson's fault, really; she should have seen that the patriarchal mythology of Rostran was a lie — a lie that existed only in the planet's electronic archives, a lie meant only to deceive Outworlders like themselves.


Ancient gods breathing life into rocks and creating men of stony courage who subdued a world to their will. These same gods transforming trees into beautiful women who submitted to the men and over millennia forged a race of god-like beings like those he and the other Culture techs had seen in the broadcasts and the image archives.


It had apparently never occurred to Hegson and the rest to wonder why there were no shrines to the ancient gods, no graven images. It had never occurred to them to wonder why there were no signs of ancient cities, or any evidence that the Rostrans had lived here for millennia. It had never occurred to them that the population here was far less than would have been expected after millennia of growth. Civilization here had a newness to it; not only were there no old cities, but no old neighborhoods.


Now that he knew the truth about Rostran, other questions swam in his mind. Why had the Aureans come here, and why weren’t they in contact with the Empire? Despite the matriarchy, it was socially stratified. There was the usual underclass of Betans, but he hadn't seen any signs of ordinary humans. Only, they might have been edited out of the "reality" shown to Outworlders. The control of "truth" here might be as tight as in that old Terran horror novel 1984.


Whatever was going on here, the cover story had been well prepared. It was far too elaborate to have been concocted on the spur of the moment to deceive the Kelsorians. Rostran must have feared visitors ever since it had been founded, and with good reason. Had there been others here before the Anders Flame? Chance visitors? Scalantran probe ships seeking trade? Surely there would have been word, from or about them — had they ever returned. It was a scary though, that; the Scalantrans, at least were always careful. They had to be, given their own history.


He might never learn the truth of it. But of a sudden, he could no longer focus on that. His thoughts, and more than his thoughts, turned elsewhere.


The only truth he knew for certain was that he was obsessed with Alisa. Just like Captain Durgin. He wished he could share her bed, as Durgin had. Only Durgin was risking his life for her, even though they were no longer lovers. De Camp himself was risking nothing. Like all young men, he dreamed of being a hero. He dreamed of rescuing a fair maiden and being rewarded for his bravery. But he knew nothing of being a hero. He was only a drudge who worked with facts and figures. A clever drudge, perhaps, but still a drudge.


He thought of Durgin, and felt a twinge of jealousy. The captain might be a fool, but he was a courageous fool.


Not that he was in any hurry to die as Durgin had, or would.


He thought of Alisa, and his heart almost froze. He had failed her, failed her by half an hour. It was his fault as much as Durgin's that she had gone into the Valley of Death. That she might perish, that she might already have perished, was more than he could bear. But if she should survive, by some miracle, he would dedicate his life to her — to work that would be worthy of her, even if he himself could never be worthy of her.


Would he ever have that chance? Had he been a Christla like Walark, he would have prayed for her deliverance. But there was nothing of belief in him; any more than there was of heroism.


He couldn't imagine where she was now. He didn't want to.



Chapter 51


(Date: 1052-11-03, 8:16 ST)


Alisa woke groggily again to find that her head was aching. She tried to sit up, only to be rewarded with a stab of painful pinpricks behind her eyes.


She slumped back on her pillow, her eyes wide in pain as she stared at the ceiling, unable to understand what had happened to her. The horrible pain had torn at her like something was eating her guts from the inside out. Pain she should not have been able to feel. She was Velorian. She was invulnerable to the dangers that plagued humans.


She struggled to clear her mind enough to retrace the events of the last evening, hoping to find a clue there. She remembered returning from the Renewal play to slowly climb the steps to her tower bedroom in the Rivera. Once safely out of sight of any of the sisters, she’d giving up the pretense of being earthbound and had floated up the last flights to land lightly in front of her door. The room was thankfully empty. Without her gold chain, a visit by Talak would have been awkward.


As it was, she recalled how hard it had been to politely deflect Excelsia’s invitations back at the bar. Rostrans were Supremis at heart and that meant that their loving appetites were large and had few boundaries. Alisa had never felt a strong interest in having a partner of her own sex, so it had been difficult for her to deal with the way Excelsia had come on to her so hard.


She remembered undressing and slipping naked under the luxurious silk sheets of the huge bed. The phenomenally soft bed made her feel like a baby bird in a nest, very much as she’d always felt in her own bed back on Reigel 5. For the first time since she’d signed onto the Flame, a strange pang of homesickness had created a pit in her stomach. She’d curled in a ball under the feather comforter as she found herself longing for the feel of Talak or Kalik’s body against hers.


Between the loneliness and the events of the day, sleep had proven elusive. After tossing and turning for a half hour, she’d risen to walk out on the balcony to observe the rising moons. The smaller moon, Tis, was waxing yellow just above the horizon while the larger, Noml, in contrast, filled the sky about forty-five degrees above the horizon. It shone faintly blue and green with glistening white at the poles. A rare moon with a class M atmosphere, its climate was nearly as chilly as Reigel 5’s.


The light of the two moons had been magical. The steep canyon walls glowed with shades of yellow, blue and green, the illumination level similar to the last minutes of sunset. Fascinated by the ethereal beauty, she dared to float up across the ceramic tiles to sit near the apex of the steeply sloping roof, holding her position with the tiniest bit of flight power. The 360-degree panorama had been breathtaking.


Then the ungodly pain had hit in the middle of the night. She had somehow managed to slip back into sleep, if only because the sight and sound of a woman being tortured to death had left her exhausted — and the next thing she knew it was way past sunrise. Had it been some sort of mental attack, the kind Diaboli were said to be known for? Only, there weren’t any Diaboli here — none that she knew of, at any rate. Had it been real? If so, who had been the victim? Had anyone else here experienced it?


She pushed away a growing ball of fear in her stomach. Was this was it was like to be sick? She wished Andre were here, although she knew he couldn’t shed any light on what had passed in the night. One thing was certain: Rostran was nothing if not shocks and surprises. No matter how much she learned, there was always something new around the next corner. From her initial assumption that this was a world of surgically-enhanced humans, she’d come to realize that it was a world of lost Aureans. Even more startling, it was a true matriarchy led by the Primes.


Which made it dangerous yet beautiful, backward yet enlightened. Rostran tantalized her with hopes one moment, and then confirmed her worst fears the next. From Talak’s inspired lovemaking to that horrible moment of realization that Frida was a deadly Tset’lar, a super being engineered for the express purpose of killing Velorians, she’d found that Rostran was in fact a world of both violence and peace.


It was a world in its own pocket universe, displaced on the wrong side of an unexplored and unmapped wormhole, far outside the influence of either Empire or Enlightenment. A planet that had been founded by beings whose only talents were physical ones, yet a people who now wanted to develop scientific talent. A world with the potential to allow Aureans, Velorians and humans to live side by side, if only its peoples could overcome the last of their communal hatreds.


And now this invitation from Excelsia, a chance to stay and become one of the Gwyndylyn. To become a teacher. Frida had teased her with visions of flying her young and invulnerable students deep into unexplored space, showing them the mysteries and wonders of creation itself. To found the planet’s first university and establish a curriculum that would expand the minds of hundreds of young Gwyndylyn. To combine her unique genetic legacy with theirs. To share her unusual intelligence. To create a new generation of Gwyndylyn.


As appealing as was the thought of teaching that new generation, of even having a child of her own, there was an even stronger draw. She and her students could explore the time anomaly that she and Andre had discovered. While no ship could endure the extreme heat and gravity that their instruments had detected in the rift, she and Lara could. And now even Andre, if he were further enhanced. Wouldn’t it be incredible if they could find a way to travel as freely in time as they now traveled in space?


And yet, if she stayed, what would become of the Flame and all her friends there? Would the Rostrans allow them to leave with what they knew? She doubted it. They valued their isolation far too much. Hopefully, there was little they could do to harm an orbiting starship like the Flame if it chose to protect itself. The Rostran fleet consisted of small shuttles only. Their only hope would be to land a group of Gwyndylyn on the hull so they could force their way in. But the Flame had its own weapons, and it could easily blast any ship to dust before it got close, not to mention the way its mirror-like hull and shields could deflect even Frida’s lethal eyes. Between that and the wartime injuries to Frida’s volatai that had left her flightless, the Tset’lar was not a threat to the Flame.


That left only Lara. Alisa wondered again what kind of upbringing she’d had. Would the girl follow Frida’s commands and destroy a giant starship with her bare hands, or was she as independent and stubborn as Talak had suggested? Would a Velorian’s genetic mandate to protect weaker life forms surface in time to stop her? She couldn't be certain of that, couldn't be certain of what the right thing to do might be... or even if there were a right thing to do.


Alisa’s head swirled with too many unanswered questions. She pushed them away to focus on more tangible things. Andre in particular. Was he back in Gudrid’s arms now, enjoying still more of her unique lessons? If so, would he still be as enamored of her when he returned? Even more important, would he be well enough trained — and enhanced — to survive the upcoming conjugal with Layla?


Alisa hadn’t felt any warmth in Layla. Just pride and arrogance. She was a Primal warrior of the first degree; she might kill Kalik during the Conjugational just to spite her. A Princess’s right she’d claim afterward. Was she above the law like so many regals? Alisa couldn’t take that chance. And Gudrid would have eliminated the risk, if only to avoid being embarrassed if Kalik failed to survive Layla, or even performed poorly. But it was also to remove what the promis had called the “tension” between her and Andre. 


Enhanced. Alisa felt a twinge of guilt about not having told him, although she found it hard to imagine he wouldn’t have figured it out for himself — still less that he would object to it. After all, he could have his pick of supremis women after the Conjugational — although she hoped it would be her. Of a sudden, another thought welled up in her mind — something she should have realized before: what about after they left for home? He’d be a freak back on Kelsor 7, just like her. Perhaps he could find a place for himself here, as she hoped to find a place…


It was an unworthy thought. She realized. She had chosen for him once already, and now she would be choosing for him again. Was that why she had tried to put the whole enhancement thing out of her mind until this morning?


Questions on top of unanswered questions.


Alisa sighed. Today would surely provide some answers, at least about her own future. And tonight… Andre would be surely be here. She could have a heart-to-heart talk with him. He’d have been through the change by then, under Palace supervision. He’d know what it was all about, but he deserved to know the why. She hoped he’d understand... She leaned back and began the stretching exercises that every Velorian had to perform daily. A muscle cramp with her strength was a major problem.


She was finishing her routine a half hour later when she saw something out of the corner of her eye. She turned her head just as an object flew down the valley. Squinting to study it, she was shocked to see a young girl flying with two bulky men hanging awkwardly from her hands, another laying on her back, his arms around her neck. Blonde hair streamed out behind her.


Lara? Carrying men wearing exoskeletons? The landing party from the Flame!


Her heart leaped as she stepped off the roof and dropped down into the darkness between the towers to watch. The figures descended to land at the top of the tallest tower on the opposite side of the castle. Frida’s quarters! The most dangerous place for her crewmates to be.


Alisa flew slowly toward the tower, staying in the shadows of the rising sun as she crossed the myriad of rooftops to finally hover just below the lighted windows of the other tower. Brushing her hair free of her ear, she heard Lara and Frida arguing about something. It sounded serious. A shock of recognition flashed through her body as a very familiar male voice joined in.


Alejan! What the hell was he doing here? With Frida of all people? Fearing the worst, Alisa rose high enough to just see over the balcony wall. Lara was standing on her tiptoes with her hands on her hips as she faced Frida. Alejan and Yanni were standing on the other side of the room, dressed in combat exoskeletons. They looked battered and exhausted.


“Keri was intent on killing the rest of them, not the least the ship’s captain who lies over there, probably dying,” Lara was complaining. She suddenly sounded a lot older than her ten years. “Was that by your order?”


Alisa’s heart was suddenly in her throat. Durgin? Dying? She turned and scanned his body, but wasn’t able to see through his armor.


“You know better than to use that tone of voice with me, little one,” Frida replied angrily, a sparkling flash from her x-ray enhanced eyes blasting Lara’s blonde hair backward.


A dangerous shower of sparks surrounded Lara, but she stood her ground.


“And where are my Guardians now, Lara? The other intruders?”


Alejan answered for her, his voice angry. “One of those bitches butchered my men. Your so-called Guardian would have killed me as well if Lara here hadn’t taken us out of harm's way.”


“I didn’t ask you, human,” Frida spat back.


“It was Keri,” Lara shrugged, as if that explained everything. “She tried to kill me as well.”


“I’m sure you confused that with…” Frida started to say.


“Not on my life, Mother. She used Fal’ar’lan killing moves on me. Moves that were designed for one purpose: killing other Supremis. Fortunately, she underestimated me.”


“One of the benefits of letting the others think you are merely Velorian,” Frida said softly, her expression momentarily softening.


“You’ve always told me that Fal’ar’lan is forbidden except when you command us.”


“There are other things that are forbidden. Did you not feel one of them last night, like the rest of us?”


“What are you talking about?”


“A crime of the Kirke that we have to deal with. That you may have to deal with.”


So it was real, Alisa thought. But who, and why?


Frida wasn’t about to enlighten her, it seemed, or even Lara, She paced back and forth, clearly agitated. “Where is Keri now?”


Lara shrugged. “Back in the jungle. Her flitter was damaged, leaving her on foot. I think Tanya is with her, along with another of the Kelsorian soldiers.”

"We had other men back there," Alejan interrupted. "One's dead, at least, maybe another. But the rest—"


Frida suddenly paused in her pacing to glare at Alejan, cutting him off in mid-sentence. “We can deal with them later. We have to decide what to do with these men first.”


“I’m Marine Captain Alejan Barstenal, head of Security from the starship Anders Flame. Our mission is as peaceful one to secure the return of our two crewmen.”


“Peaceful? Is that why you’re wearing the most advanced armor I’ve ever seen? And armed to the teeth.”


“Merely a precaution. The solar flares required additional protection during our descent. And the weapons were to fend off any dangerous wildlife.”


Frida walked up to pull the K7 from his holster. She turned and aimed it at Lara. The searing flame of charged particles enveloped her legs, momentarily turning her skin white-hot, her hair lifting the swirl around her body like a living flame, vaporizing the last remnants of her clothing, leaving the men to gawk at her before their sense of decency returned to divert their eyes. “Just what kind of ‘animals’ were you expecting, Captain? Primal Warriors?”


“There were rumors of hostiles on the planet.”


“So you came hunting Supremis.”


“Your Guardians lived up to our worst fears,” Alejan said as he stood stiffly at attention. “They attacked without provocation. We had to defend ourselves. We took casualties.”


“Impossible. My Guardians are too well trained for that. Your men must have panicked and shot each other.”


“We did neither. We were attacked by your…” Alejan started to say, only to have Frida cut him off with a wave of her hand.


She sighed as if tired. “But I do accept that a warrior’s battle lust yet lives in the hearts of some of my sisters. We have not completed our evolution to peacefulness.”


“Then let's chalk this up to getting off on the wrong foot,” Alejan said tightly, trying to be diplomatic despite the loss of his men. Strangely, he’d never heard accounts of an Aurean talking like this. Even more, he still hadn’t contacted Alisa or Kalik, and there was still a chance that Durgin would survive if he got medical treatment. “From what the girl told us, you obviously have some kind of power struggle going on regarding our visit.”


“Which is none of your business,” Frida said coldly. “What is your business is that I need one good reason why I shouldn’t kill you right now. And have Lara remove the threat of your ship.”


“There is only one,” Alejan said quickly but smoothly, trying to think like Durgin. “If you value the opportunity for trade with unaligned worlds, if you wish to improve your technology, then you need us to carry a favorable report back to Kelsor.”


“And why should we expose ourselves to discovery by the Empire or Enlightenment?”


“You already know that Kelsorians have no love for either Empire or Enlightenment. Yet both Supremis governments need us for their ship’s QED coils. A move on us by either side would jeopardize the other’s access to vital technology. So the two powers watch each other, both dedicated to ensuring our neutrality. Our independence.”


“Yet you are always in their eyes, Captain,” Frida said with a shake of her head. “What you are starting to ask is impossible. We do not wish to be discovered by either side.”


“Hear me out, please. We are a race accustomed to keeping secrets.”


Frida turned her back to stare out into the night, her fists slowly relaxing.


Alejan continued, his hopes hanging on a single thread of logic. “We could bring you into our trading alliance. That would give you the same protection as we enjoy, even if word of your existence did leak out.”


Frida spoke after a long moment. “And just what would we have to trade in return for such protection?”


“Your only technology is your genetics. And given our neutrality, we can’t possibly tap into the talents of the Empire or Enlightenment, despite the obvious value of such specialized talents. There are many ways and places where Gwyndylyn genetics would bring value to Kelsor.”


Frida considered that for a long moment, wondering why he didn’t mention Alisa. Had she hidden her true nature from her shipmates the same way she had the other Rostrans? Was that why these men had come to rescue her and her companion? “What do you need of us, Captain? You have all the hard technology in the universe.”


“There are many places where the physical prowess of the Supremis could expand the range of our explorations. Places too dangerous even for shielded starships. Not to mention dangerous manufacturing and mining operations, which could be staffed by your people.”


“Is that why the Velorian woman is part of your crew?”


Alejan blinked “I don’t understand? What Velorian?”


“They don’t know,” Lara added with a shrug. “About Alisa I mean.”


Hovering outside the window, Alisa grimaced. The cat was out of the bag now.


Frida turned back to face Alejan, a grim look on her face, her eyes flashing dangerously. “The woman you sent down is not human. Her presence is giving the political opposition a reason to intrude into Gwyndylyn affairs.”


Alejan bravely met her eyes. “Ensign Liddell? That’s ridiculous, she’s just a scientist.”


Yet even as he denied it, Alejan’s thoughts were racing. Alisa’s blonde beauty had always been just a bit too perfect. He shook his head, remembering her affair with the Captain. No that was impossible. Alisa was so meek, so demure; she acted nothing like a Velorian. And everyone knew that a Velorian couldn’t have a sexual affair with an ordinary human anyway.


Frida tilted her head, a tiny smile tilting her lips as she saw the emotions flitting across his face, guessing his thoughts. “The Velorian fooled you all, didn’t she? She deserves an award, for her acting if nothing else.”


“You have her here?” Alejan asked, the sense of dread he already felt turning darker.


“She’s right behind you.”


Alejan spun around to stare at the empty balcony behind him. “I don’t see…” he started to say; only to stop in mid-sentence as a blonde head floated into view. It was Alisa, wearing a filmy nightgown that covered very little, her hemline provocatively short, the fabric very sheer. Her long hair floated around her, glowing palely in the moonlight.


Both men’s jaws dropped. In Alejan’s eyes, Alisa suddenly looked like an angel in white. She was so beautiful that she made his heart ache and his body soar. He gritted his teeth and struggled to push those misplaced thoughts away. Showing any such weakness in front of a militaristic Prime would weaken his status further. He forced a gruff and commanding note to his voice. “It’s about damn time you showed up, Ensign. Why didn’t you report in?”


The sharp tone in his voice surprised Alisa; especially given the way it contrasted with the excited and slightly flushed look in his face. It took her a long second to realize what he was doing. Or how hard he was working at sounding angry.


“We were doing as Captain Durgin asked, Sir. Preparing to attend the Conjugal. What are you doing down here, all suited up for battle?”


“Trying to save your asses.” He flicked his eyes meaningfully toward Frida, denoting their enemy, hoping the Tset’lar wouldn’t see the gesture. “Where’s Lieutenant Kalik?”


“The lieutenant’s safe,” Alisa replied. “At the Palace.”


Safer than he would have ever imagined. And yet there was still no word of him, let alone sight of him.


“Well, my men aren’t fine and none of us are safe,” Alejan growled. He lowered his voice to a subliminal whisper, knowing that if Alisa were what Frida claimed she was, she would hear him. “They’ve got some kind of power struggle going on and we fell into the middle of it. Might work in our favor.”


“Captain, my ears are as sharp as your young crewman’s,” Frida interrupted. “Don’t insult me by trying to whisper behind my back.”


Alejan turned back to face Frida. “So that’s it? The reason for all this. The reason we’re still alive. You want our technology.”


“Is that what the Clerics have told you?”


“Those fucking Clerics haven’t told us a thing. But I see the desire in your eyes, Frida. You want to regain access to space, if not for commerce then for protection. But not everyone here is as forward thinking as you. You have your fundamentalists, don’t you? A Kirke that wants only to return to the past.”


Frida raised one eyebrow in a fleeting gesture of respect. “You learn our ways very quickly, Captain.”


“Not just your ways. The scenario of religious fundamentalism leading to isolation and the rejection of technology by the truest believers has been played out on every world with human descendants.” He paused for a long moment. “It’s also a problem we can help each other with. A problem we Kelsorians solved a long time ago.”


“How could you possibly help solve our internal problems?”


Alejan waved toward Alisa as he tried to remember some of the things Durgin had been talking about back on the Flame, and extended them to include Alisa’s uniqueness. “A young Velorian like Ensign Liddell who is also a top scientist can be most useful to you. We could command her to further develop a private transit protocol between our worlds. We both have so much to gain.”


“And what makes you think I need you to ensure that?” Frida glared at him. “I could direct Lara to pull the QED module from your ship, or to have Lara power our ships through the wormhole herself. Once we were on your side of the hole, your world would stand little chance against her power.”


Lara stared at Frida as if her mother had suddenly gone insane.


Frida turned to Lara, waving her hand. “Just kill the humans, Lara, and be done with it. Their ship too.” Then she turned to Alisa. “Join me in the baths, Alisa. We can plan our future together.” With that, Frida spun on her heel and walked from the room, a tiny smile tilting her lips.


Behind her, Lara and Alisa stared at each other in shock. Alejan and Yanni fingered their weapons nervously.


The tense silence was broken when Durgin stirred on his bed. He blinked his eyes open to see Lara standing over him, dressed in her exotic choker and a thin red robe. “Who… who are you?”



Chapter 52


(Date: 1052-11-03, 09:15 ST)


The Guardians had arrived at the hospital just in time, although Dr. Broudy didn’t appreciate that at first. He’d assumed it was just a fever-driven burst of hysterical strength that had enabled the patient to smash a shelf full of medical equipment as he flailed about, having unexpectedly gotten up from his cot and kicked it across the room.


Now the Outworlder was safely under gold restraint, being carried out to a waiting vehicle by the Guardians.


“Everything is under control,” the officer in charge told him. And that was all they’d tell him.


Dr. Lembit had called to warn him they were coming, but beyond that he hadn’t been very forthcoming.


“As I said before, it involves Higher Authority. I will add only that this person is known to the Palace, and that his presence on Rostran is a sensitive matter of diplomatic matter relations. Unless you can assist in the investigation of how he came to be brought to this hospital, you and I will have nothing more to say about it.”


“Diplomatic” wasn’t a word often heard on Rostran, and it was generally used only to refer to the etiquette of relations between rival factions. But for an Outworlder to be involved reminded him of its traditional meaning, brought by the ancestors men like him from other worlds in raids. Rostran had never had “diplomatic relations” with any of them, but now it appeared that it was entertaining such relations with whatever world the patient had come from — and that some group here had reacted in a very undiplomatic manner.



Chapter 53


(Date: 1052-11-03, 09:05 ST)


Lara studied the older human as he stared up at her, her eyes comparing his bones and organs to the human pathology she’d long ago memorized. There were a number of things out of place or swollen. He was clearly badly injured.


Even worse, she was confused by the conversation that had just swirled around her, and horrified that Frida had told her to kill these people. She’d grown up within the society of the Gwyndylyn and had no concept of the broader dimensions of human culture, and their social conventions had been focused on warfare and later on developing their sisterhood. Direct action and plain talk were the only honorable ways for a Gwyndylyn to relate to others. Their honor depended on doing exactly what they claimed they would do.


But Frida’s orders were in direct conflict with everything she’d ever taught Lara. If there was one thing she was certain of, it was that Frida’s orders were those of a callous fanatic. Not a Gwyndylyn, as she had been given to understand the Gwynylyn.


“Don’t hurt them, Lara,” Alisa said softly.


Lara turned to glare at her. “You couldn’t stop me if I decided to.”


“I know,” Alisa nodded. She didn’t understand exactly what Lara’s genetic background was, but she knew that she was far more powerful than any Velorian she’d met before. More powerful than even Frida.


She glanced down at Durgin; frustrated that she couldn’t image his injuries with her weakened Tachyon vision. But she knew enough to realize that bleeding from his ears was a very bad sign.


“We have to save your Captain,” Lara said as she turned her back to the men and dropped her robe to the floor. She picked up a tiny leather skirt from the bed and slipped it on. She left her chest bare in her usual fashion, the brilliant choker around her neck sparkling exotically as brushed her hair back over her shoulders and turned back around.


Alisa kneeled beside Durgin. He looked up at her with hurt eyes, but didn’t seem to recognize her. “I think he’s having a stroke. What happened to his head?”


“Damn near crushed by one of the Guardians,” Alejan growled as he walked closer. “But the MedScan said his injuries were peripheral.”


“It’s wrong,” Alisa said.


Alejan paused to admire the twin expanses of golden tanned skin and blonde hair in front of him. He’d never expected to actually see a Velorian, now there were two of them here, looking like sisters, both of them dazzling. Every outrageous fantasy he’d ever read about exotic Velorian beauty was revealed as simple truth.


Alisa turned to look at Lara. “If you are what I suspect, perhaps you can save him.”


Lara’s eyes met hers. “And what do you think I am?”


“I won’t say the word here.” She nodded toward her crewmates and lowered her voice so low that only Lara could hear her. “Humans respond irrationally toward those who they consider gods.”


“I am too young for the ritual.”


“I’m not. This man used to be my lover. I will be the intermediary.”


Lara’s were wide as she stared into Alisa’s. She finally nodded.


Alisa rose to face Alejan. “Leave us, Captain. The ritual of salvation is not for your eyes.”


“Ensign…” Alejan started to say, only to bite off his next words. He might be her superior officer, but the look in her eyes told him that was suddenly irrelevant. Half the universe considered her kind to be goddesses. He suddenly wasn’t sure what he thought; he only knew that if Durgin was having a stroke, then only a god could save him. “We’ll be outside if you need us.”


Alisa followed him to the door, stopping just long enoughto assure him that she'd try to get help for the other marines. Closing it behind him, she bent the steel lock with her fingers so it couldn’t be opened from outside. Then she returned to kneel beside Lara. “I’m not sure exactly how we’re going to do this.”


“I don’t understand.”


“The healing power of your body is transmitted via a retrovirus. And that’s only available during an orgasm.”


“Oh…” Lara said in a soft voice. “That’s going to be a problem, isn’t it?”


Alisa smiled. “Not if you can change your form a little. That should be easy for a high-born.”


“You think I’m a Geheimite?” Lara smiled. “With enough Galen genes to change my form?”




Lara’s eyes sparkled. “You’re so wrong. But you are right on the last point.”


Alisa’s brow furrowed, and then a shocked look opened her eyes wide.


“You’re…?” She wasn’t able to say the word. Like all Velorians, she had been raised with a reverence for their creator that bordered on religious.


“We can talk about that later. We have to fix your captain first.” She looked down at Durgin and then at Alisa. “I know how to do this at one level, but not on another. I’ve never assumed a form older than my current one.”


Alisa’s thoughts raced, her emotions soaring even as she realized they were treading on ground that was pushing the mores for decency, even among Velorians. “Just think forward, Lara. Imagine what you’ll be like in the future. About ten years. And become that now.”


She looked back down at Durgin, and saw the fading light in his eyes. “But we have to hurry, Lara.”



Chapter 54


(Date: 1052-11-03, 10:15 ST)


Alejan paced back and forth in the hallway outside the room. Yanni sat on the floor and stared up at him, both men’s imaginations trying to envision what was going on inside the room.


“Who would have guessed that the ensign was one of them?” Yanni said in amazement. “I mean she’d cute… but a Velorian?”


Alejan nodded. “The signs were all there, but we all just ruled it out, assuming it was impossible that we had a Vel on our ship.”


“Except the Captain.” You couldn’t hide a love affair on a starship. Too small.


“Guess that’s why he’s in charge and we ain’t,” Yanni quipped. “Wonder how he figured it out?”


“Gotta be in her files. We can talk to doc when we get back. They’re the only two who have access to confidential files.”


“Still kind of weird. Vels aren’t into science, or so I’ve read. Just the body perfect. But I heard some other science officers saying once that Alisa might be the best scientist on the Flame.”


“Definitely some strange shit, Sergeant. Over here on this side of the hole, seems as if the whole world is populated by Supremis.”


“I saw lots of humans when we flew over that corner of the city.”


“And you can tell from a distance,” Alejan said doubtfully.


“Easy. If they’re cuter and in better shape than anyone deserves to be, then they’re Supremis. Otherwise, human.”


“Definitely works with the ensign.”


“No wonder the Captain was sleeping with her.”


Neither man said anything for a long moment, both lost in their private thoughts on that subject.


Yanni finally broke the silence. “You ever read any of that wicked stuff about enhancement, Captain? X-rated stuff.”


Alejan nodded. Porn was pretty much universal on starships. Life got boring locked up in a can for years at a time.


“You figure that’s what’s going on in the room there?”


“Only thing that makes sense. Giving him a shot of DNA. In fact, I think he’s maybe already had some of that. He shouldn’t have survived that Guardian bitch’s embrace as long as he did.”


“Jesus. Durgin has all the luck. Gets all the women. Gets muscled up too.”


“He’s also got a fractured skull and a likely fatal stroke from all those broken blood vessels. That’s not what I call lucky.”


Yanni shrugged. “But when they fix him up, he’ll be better than new. And you know how they do the fixing?”


Alejan paced rapidly down the long hall and back. “Yeah. I’ve read. Not sure I believe that shit.” If half of what he’d read was true, and it involved that young girl, then he didn’t want to know any more. He told himself that Velorian mores were different, and left it at that.


He was on his hundredth circuit of the hall when the door suddenly wrenched open, the hinges ripping out of the frame as the thick hardwood door splintered. He turned in time to see the door topple outward to land with a crash against the other side of the hallway. A naked woman with very long golden hair staggered into the hallway and collapsed against the far wall.


“What the…” Yanni started to say. The blonde stared back at the two of them with an oddly confident, excited and scared look, almost as if she was trying to see herself in the reflection of their eyes.


The only thing Alejan was certain of was that this wasn’t Alisa. Instead of Alisa’s friendly but analytical stare, this girl’s eyes were innocent and wide. Alejan’s heart leaped as he found himself staring into the most singularly beautiful face he’d ever seen. A face so beautiful that he was filled with a strangely intense desire to kneel down in front of her.


Yanni was also staring at the girl as if he was seeing an angel, a look of rapture on his face.


Then, before either man could say or do anything to embarrass themselves further, the blonde leaped to her feet in a blur and dashed the length of the hallway, crashing through the brick wall at the far end, broken masonry flying everywhere. When the dust settled, Alejan gawked at the huge I-beam that had been bent upward by the impact of her shoulder. Turning, he saw Yanni staring down the hall as if he was having an epiphany.


“Who in God’s heaven was that?” Yanni gasped.


“Sure as hell wasn’t Alisa.”


“What race is cuter than Velorians?”


“Didn’t thing there was. Sure hope Alisa’s okay.”


“I am,” came a feminine voice from inside the room.


Yanni got to his feet to follow Alejan through the door.


They found Alisa standing against the wall over by the window, dressed in a silver metallic outfit that she must have borrowed from Frida. “So, Captain, we have some decisions to make.”


Alejan walked over to check on the Captain, leaving Yanni staring at Alisa. He checked Durgin’s eyes, and found his pupillary reactions were normal now. He was breathing comfortably, the bruising on his face fading even as he watched. Reaching out to touch his face, Alejan was shocked to find he was running a fever. “He’s going to be okay?”


“Much more than okay,” Alisa replied, her voice soft and smooth as honey. “Both of us, it seems.”


Like Yanni, Alejan found it hard to take his eyes off Alisa. She looked radiantly beautiful now and strangely, clearly a few years younger. Her hair was glowing like burnished gold instead of her usual sunshine blonde, her skin more darkly tanned, her eyes clear as glass.


“Where’s the girl?” Yanni asked, breaking Alejan’s spell. “Lara?”


“You didn’t see the door hanging off its hinges on the way in?”


“That… that was Lara?” Yanni gasped, eyes wide.


It all crashed down on Alejan. He knew what had happened without even thinking about it, being the Supremis scholar that he was. “She morphed,” he said matter-of-factly, hardly believing the sound of his words. “She’s a Geheimite.”


Alisa shook her head, her eyes glowing as she stared at the open doorway. “Not exactly. But it doesn’t make any practical difference. She could draw on orgone directly from sub-space and convert it to mass to accomplish her physical growth, with enough left over to enable—”


“So… how old is she really?” Alejan interrupted, too carried away by the rush of excitement to grasp what Alisa was saying. Given what he was pretty sure had happened in this room, that was suddenly very important to him.


“I haven’t a clue, Captain. She could be ten, could be a hundred.” She wisely kept Lara’s anxiety with making herself older to herself, also her hesitancy and difficulties after making the change. The girl was naive, whatever her age. She’d never looked or acted like an adult before. “For now, I’d appreciate if you could keep what you just saw a secret. I don’t think anyone here, including Frida, realizes what they’re dealing with.”


“What the hell are you guys talking about?” Yanni joined in, clearly confused.


“Go check on Captain Durgin,” Alejan said, his eyes still on Alisa. “Describe what you see.”


Yanni walked across the room. Alejan heard his sharp intake of breath as he leaned over the ship’s Captain. “I don’t fuckin’ believe it. The gray in his hair is gone and the lines in his face have evaporated. Like he’s getting younger as I watch.”


Alejan smiled grimly and nodded. Between the girl who’d just grown older and his two crewmates who’d just done the opposite, he realized he wasn’t dealing with anything within the science or genetics he’d learned about in school. Nothing that a Supremis could do either. He knew there was only one race that had this power. Some of their genes were in the Geheimite population, but the purest ones belonged to those the Velorians worshipped as gods.


Durgin interrupted his soaring thoughts as he started to moan and stir in his bed. Alisa turned from the wall to float over and stand next to him. She leaned down to kiss him gently on the lips, and a flash of blue sparks enveloped their upper bodies. The unearthly glow sizzled for a few seconds before she stood up and turned back to face Alejan.


Alejan felt as if he was in a dream. “You just transferred some orgone energy to him, didn’t you?”


Alisa nodded.


“Which meant that he can use it now. Which further means his metabolism isn’t… isn’t all human any more.”


“Don’t leap too far,” Alisa cautioned. “He’ll always be human. But it is true that he’s undergoing a metabolic refocusing.” She staggered and slumped against the side of the bed. “As I am.”


Alejan raced to her side, steadying her. He had no idea what metabolic refocusing meant, but he did know one thing: the relationship between Alisa and the rest of the crew had just gotten a lot more complicated. Yet Alisa herself was still aware of other complications.

"I'll do what I can for your comrades," she said. "I hope it's not too late. But this other thing... couldn't wait."



Chapter 55


(Date: 1052-11-03, 11:45 ST)


Aboard the Anders Flame


Chief Science Officer Daniel Pestrov had a problem. He had been left in command of a ship he no longer felt he had any business commanding.


There had been no word from Durgin. There had been no word from, or about, Andre or Alisa. Pestrov still hoped for the best, but he was forced to consider the worst: that the captain, the marines and the physics techs were all lost. And that would mean the Anders Flame was in a war situation and should be placed on a war footing.


Duty Officer Shearjashub Walark, as a lieutenant commander, was the highest-ranking military officer on board. No matter that Pestrov himself was commander; that was a strictly a courtesy for the duration of the mission. Because this was a Survey Service mission, the Flame followed the Kelsorian custom and tradition of civilian command. But was this was no longer really a civilian mission.


Walark must have sensed what he was thinking.


"Sir and Commander?" he asked now.


"You have permission to speak freely, Sir and Lieutenant Commander," Pestrov responded, anticipating the duty officer's request.


"There are a number of things we should do. I'll lay them out for you."


"Beyond full sensor alert, you mean." I doubt that their insystem ships are any threat to us, but I'm fully aware that we must prepare for the unexpected."


"Well beyond. There are the Primes."


"Who can't fly."


"We daren't assume that. We daren't assume anything about this planet. They might have Tset'lars, or something even worse. The gentech labs are always busy on Aria; it could be the same here. And even if they haven't any flight capable Supremis, they might launch a Prime aboard a missile. We can destroy approaching missiles, we can’t destroy approaching Primes. But they could destroy us.


“Destroying the missiles would knock the Primes off course.”


“It might not matter, since there is one other obvious danger.”


“Which is?”


“They must have the Klav’en by now. They could blast us out of space.”


“We could blast them first with conventional weapons. Their spacecraft all appear to be conventional. No Vendorian technology.”


“But suppose they launched a barrage of missiles, only one of them manned by a Prime? Could we blast them all in time? And even if we could, the surviving Prime might still have time to deploy the Klav’en.


“What can we do?”


“Prepare for the worst. Our one certain advantage is that we can outrun them – they don’t have the QED. I advise you to recall the shuttles from Nomi as soon as communications can be restored. We must be ready to break orbit at a moment’s notice, and head for the wormhole at all deliberate speed. If we cannot recall the shuttles in time, they will have to be left behind. Along with Durgin and the rest, if they are still alive.


“Abandon the Captain? Abandon Andre and Alisa? Abandon the Marines? Abandon the Culture and Biology teams? I can’t countenance that.”


“You may have to. In a situation like this, individuals don’t matter. Your only concern has to be saving the Command itself. Your only duty is to Kelsor. The Secretariat must be informed of what has happened here. The fate of Kelsor itself could be at stake if the Rostrans find a means to travel beyond their system – and I wouldn’t put it past them.”


“And what could even the Secretariat do about that?”


“I don’t know. At the very least, they’ll want to quarantine this system, and make sure the story doesn’t get out. At the most – they might try to find some way to sanitize Rostran.”




“You know what I mean.”


“It can’t be done. It mustn’t.”


“I don’t know whether it can be done. I don’t even want to know. As for the rest, I can only beseech Christ that it not be so. That we may not be damned for what we do.”


Pestrov had forgotten for the moment that Walark was a Christla. He found this reminder disturbing, almost as disturbing as the Duty Officer’s words.


Again, Walark must have sensed what he was thinking.


“Sufficient unto each day is the evil thereof,” he said. “Our business now is survival — survival of the mission, which means survival of the ship, which means survival of ourselves. That is our job now, our only job. Are you up to it?”


Pestrov nodded.


“So what we do now is send an Emergency Recall message to the techs on Nomi. Loop it so that the signal will get through the solar hash whenever it lets up. Next, we program the navigational computer with a random number program keyed to the thrusters, so that in case of attack we’ll make sudden moves which even we can’t anticipate – and which the enemy won’t be able to anticipate, either.”


“The enemy?”


“What else can we call them? And that weighs heavily on me as a Christla, for we are commanded to love our enemies, even if we must slay them. Only in this case, they are far more likely to slay us. We have to think of them as enemies, for otherwise we may not come out of this. Do you understand me clearly, Sir and Commander?”




“Then I await your orders.”



Chapter 56


(Date: 1052-11-03, 12:00 ST)


(Interstellar space)


Klara was tucked into a tight ball as she emerged from the hellish heat of the wormhole, a thousand kilometer wake of glowing plasma trailing behind her. She exhaled for the first time in hours as she relished the near absolute cold of the interstellar void. Her skin cooled slowly in the vacuum, as there was no convection, only the slow radiation of her inner heat into the hungry vacuum.


She stretched her arms and legs wide to accelerate the process, and began the search for the proper star patterns. She examined and rejected a dozen before she found the a small, yellow sun with orange sunspots. This was the sun of Rostran as Aayla had described it.


She corrected her course and headed in-system, still traveling at a phenomenal 40% of the speed of light. Even at that speed, it would take around 20 standard hours to reach her destination. Space flight could be incredibly boring — but she had a lot to occupy her mind. Ann was counting on her and, while they didn't know it yet, the humans of Rostran would have to count on her. I've got to get it right, she thought, as she tried to imagine every possible contingency.


When she crossed the orbit of the fifth planet she began to slow. Tensing her body in the age-old ritual of the Supremis, she drew the orgone energy from her breasts, converted it to useable form via the tension of her fantastic muscles, and directed the resulting power back to her volatai. They in turn attempted to displace her relative to the parallel dimension that it was always locked onto. A dimension with different but very useful physical laws.


The result of all this was that she began to decelerate at a steady 10G’s. She held the tension in her arms and legs for nearly eight hours, her muscles cramping by that time Rostran loomed large in front of her. Her speed was a mere 10,000 KPH, but still very fast compared to orbital descent velocity — she'd have to brake hard coming in for a landing...


She entered the atmosphere at a glancing angle, and her body was once again surrounded by plasma, this time from friction against the nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere. She knew her body would look like a blinding meteor from the ground, slashing across the southern hemisphere of Rostran, slowing only slightly before passing over the horizon. Now all she had to do was to make her grand entrance and pick up the fragments of the life Aayla had been leading here.


Unfortunately, her sister hadn’t been very communicative about her affairs on Rostran, but Ann had dragged enough out of her to suggest that Klara should land along the southern coast of the largest continent. The heartland of the Gwyndylyn was 900 Scanian miles further north, in the temperate zone. In contrast, the southern coast was a largely human region and therefore the least likely place for her to run into Guardians. She’d need time to understand the culture before confronting any Gwyndylyn.


What she hadn’t counted on was an extremely effective near-planet sensor system that was optimized for detecting the energy signature and skin reflection characteristics of Velorians. Her readings sent the sensors off the scale, triggering a Red Alert signal to the Gwyndylyn. She had no idea she’d been detected when she floated down in the early dawn to land by the edge of the ocean. She was pleased to find that the water was warm and salty, nearly like that surrounding her island back on Sanctuary. The principle difference was the more distant horizon. Rostran was a fourth larger in diameter than Sanctuary, and the sky glowed in shades of pink and blue where it met the horizon, suggesting early sunset even at mid-day.


She and her mother had discussed her initial strategy on Rostran. She was to find the leaders of the human race and reveal herself to them as a Galen. Not exactly truth, but she did carry a lot more of their genetics than a Velorian.


Unfortunately, Aayla had barely hinted about the Third Force vying for political power on Rostran — an underground made up of secular humans. It seemed to be a force of moderation that sat squarely in the center between the polarized fundamentalisms of the Kirke and the Gwyndylyn.


Ann had learned enough during her upbringing on Velor to firmly believe that humans were better at organizing and administering a planet than the Aureans. The question was how to form a coalition government with the secular humans playing a pivotal role.


Aayla had laughed at that suggestion. She had little enthusiasm for human capabilities. The Kirke had tapped deeply into Supremis secrets, and Aurean Betans largely led it, albeit with many human members. The Gwyndylyn, on the other hand, were just Primes who’d adopted a less lethal code of ethics. The secular humans, she said, were just a rabble — mostly merchants and laborers.


Ann ensured that Klara spent her days prior to leaving Sanctuary by reading up on human civilization. Starting with Earth, she studied the history of two dozen of the many worlds seeded with humans over the last two thousand years. She already knew Sanctuary’s history by heart. More importantly, Ann gave her a long note that her father had written just before he disappeared. One he’d intended for his daughters to read when they were ready to understand it.


In that note, he described how her grandfather’s people, the Galen, had breathed the life-force of sentience into the apes of Earth, and how they had later come back to that genetic seed to form the Supremis race. He wrote that humans were unique and special in the eyes of the Galen. They were the closest to natural beings in the universe. They were the foundation.


That note had left Klara wondering about the one obvious thing he didn’t describe. Who exactly were his people, the Galen? Where did they come from? What did they look like? Were they also the product of some master architect and therefore less ‘natural’ than humans?


Such were her thoughts as she waded towards the ocean shore on Rostran, watching as a crowd gathered. Aayla had said that would happen if she displayed her pale hair. Blonde hair was the mark of the Heathen, an abomination on Rostran, but also a fascination, and not coincidently the ultimate sexual fantasy. She knew that the crowd was bound to attract the attention of the authorities, but as long as they were human, they would serve as the first step of her journey to find the Third Force leadership.



Chapter 57


(Date: 1052-11-03, 11:30 ST)


“What else do you need to know about this?” Frida demanded.


“Nothing, Highest,” protested Princess Andrea. “I was just wondering how it came about. It was so terrifying. I had no idea they could—”


“It was the doing of the Kirke. What you felt last night. What we all felt. That is what you are to tell your staff and the media and anyone else. They imagine they will have the support of the Goddess, but if so they will be in for a rude awakening. You tell them that, too. But calmly, of course, very calmly.”


We can’t have panic in the capital, Frida thought. We must give the impression that we are in control of the situation.


Given that the Prince and Princess and their retainers and guests were all at the Rivera, it had fallen to the Crown Princess and her staff to manage affairs at the Palace, and in the capital, to maintain public order among the kella-primes and leave no doubt among Betans and Frails as to the Palace’s authority. But with all she had to contend with here, the last thing Frida had needed was Andrea’s frantic call.


It had been a long and difficult conversation, and she thought she’d made everything clear to her, but then Andrea brought up another matter that promised to be troublesome.


It seemed that Andre Kalik, the other Kelsorian, had disappeared the morning after Pala. So had Gudrid, the promis assigned to him to substitute for Layla, he being a Frail. Only, Kalik was a Frail no longer, having been enhanced. He had mysteriously appeared at a hospital in the Frail quarter, in high fever. Wisely, the hospital had contacted the Palace, and he had been picked up by the Guardians. Although he was coming out of fever, he claimed he couldn’t remember anything except that he had gone into city to seek transportation to the Rivera after waking up at the Palace and finding Alisa gone.


“A likely story,” Frida snapped.


“Perhaps nobody had told him where the Rivera is, or how restricted. But an even unlikelier story he told us is that Gudrid had taken him to a place of her own to see to his ‘education.’ He wouldn’t have known any better, but she would have. And, as I said, nobody has seen her since.”


Frida’s patience had been wearing thin, but the mention of Gudrid made her snap. Had the promis been an agent of the Kirke? Was this business of Kalik part of the conspiracy? Was Alisa herself unwittingly a part of it? A small part compared to the annihilation, and yet it drove Frida over the edge.


“You bear the ultimate responsibility,” she told the Crown Princess. “You were supposed to be in charge of arrangements with the Outworlders. It was your daughter who introduced Alisa to Talak. Only now Layla is complaining that Talak has left her for the Outworlder, and—”


“I can’t believe that. He’s there for the Conjugational, and surely Alisa is only a guest.”


“Alisa is not what she has represented herself to be. And who authorized the enhancement of Kalik?”


“The Conjugational itself required it. It was my understanding that Kalik would be required to honor her on the third night, like any other guest. Being a Frail, he might have died, or at least suffered serious injury, which would have surely been an embarrassment to the her — and to us.”


“He should never have been invited at all.”


“We were but following Conjugational custom. The most distant visitors—”


“It has never been our custom to invite Outworlders. That was at the instigation of Lawgiver Kaltquest, pursuing another agenda, as you well know.”


A Gwyndylyn who disbelieved in the Goddess, who had seen the arrival of the Kelsorians from the start as an opportunity...


“But by the time we learned of that, it was too late to rescind the invitation. What else were we to do? What else are we to do now?”


Frida wasn’t about to tell Andrea how she was trying to deal with the Kirke, or with Alisa, and certainly not about the raid by her shipmates — or the whole business with Lara. And there was still the Goddess...


“You are to do nothing. Remain where you are. And see to it that Kalik also remains there. I can still salvage the situation, but I can’t brook any interference.”


She couldn’t get back at the Kirke. Not yet, at least. But she could still show her authority in this matter.



Chapter 58


(Date: 1052-11-03, 12:00 ST)


Aboard the Anders Flame


Chief Science Officer Pestrov had called a general meeting as soon as the shuttles had returned from Nomi.


It had been a close call there, and the Culture and Biology techs hadn't even known it had been one, or what kind of a threat they'd faced.


"Our scanners had picked up a Rostran flitter headed our way," Hegson said. "We thought maybe they were finally going to pay us a friendly visit. Then we got the recall order and skedaddled. We didn't know what it was all about till we got here."


"The flitter attempted pursuit," Schmerz added. "But we left them in our dust pretty quick, the bastards."


"Was the flitter armed?"


"Not that I could tell. But we weren't looking for that kind of thing, see. Even if they didn't have heavy weapons, they could have had small arms. Shot us down like dogs. Aurean fuckers."


Michelle felt a hot wave of embarrassment, not at Schmerz' language, but at her own failure to correctly analyze the data. She'd never encountered a world that practiced cultural disinformation on such a scale, and never expected too. When Pestrov had briefed her about De Camp's discovery, she'd expected him to read her the riot act, but he hadn't.


"We’ve all made serious mistakes here, not the least Durgin and myself. We can't dwell on any of that now."


Indeed they couldn't. She'd been horrified to learn what had happened while they'd been away on research and what passed for R&R.


"Communications are finally clearing up," Pestrov said now. "We can reach Rostran now. But what are they going to say to us? What can we say to them? What can we say for ourselves?"


"Are they even saying anything to each other that relates to us?" Michelle asked.


"Nothing," Pestrov confirmed. "I've got De Camp monitoring their newscasts and net traffic. He should be good at that, and it gives him something to do. He's been in a bad way. But no mention of Andre and Alisa, even in relation to the Conjugational. Not a word about Durgin or the rest, unless they've got some private channel we're unaware of. You’d think it was just an ordinary day with peanuts down there — and if you think that's scary, you're right."


"We're scanning their military strong points," Walark added. "Some signs of activity, but we don't know what they mean. No indications of any imminent shuttle or missile launch. Our own shuttle is heavily guarded, as might be expected."


"There are all sorts of possibilities," Pestrov said. "Unfortunately, none of them are pleasant. We are not only facing Aureans, but also an Aurean society such as no one has ever encountered before. There is no way we can predict what their behavior will be, although De Camp is working on that. We know that they hate Velorians, and they surely know that Alisa Liddell is one — De Camp fessed up to that, and Medical confirmed it. It was irresponsible, in my opinion, for Durgin to have kept this to himself — and I counted him as a friend. I still do. But again, that's water under the bridge. We can't let our personal feelings affect what we decide now."


"I think I see where this is leading," Michelle said. "And I don't like it."


"I don't like it, either," said Pestrov. "But it has to be said. Durgin and the rest are either dead or lost to us. I can't see any possibility of getting them back. Neither can Walark. I could order us to leave the system right now, but I want to give the rest of you a chance to come up with an alternative — any alternative."


"I say let's get the hell out of here," Schmerz opined.


"That's a horrible thing to say," Michelle protested.


"The situation could become a whole lot more horrible," Walark broke in. "That's why this meeting in necessary. The problem is, we don't know what we're facing. It might just be Primes, but it could be Tset'lars, and—"


"If that were the case, would we still be here?" Michelle asked. "We surely have the firepower to deal with Primes, should they be foolish enough to launch any of them against us. Perhaps enough to threaten even Tset'lars, if we can make them think we have other weapons — say, a Klav’en."


"We had a Klav’en," Pestrov revealed. "It's no use keeping it a secret from the rest of you any longer. But Durgin took it with him. The Rostrans must have it by now. Furthermore, Durgin may have told them the truth about our remaining capabilities. Under torture. Any of the others in his party might have. It only takes one."


"I explained to Commander Pestrov earlier how they might deploy our own weapon against us in space," Walark said now. "But an even worse scenario has just occurred to me."


Pestrov was taken aback.


"What could be worse than hiding a Prime with the Klav’en in a missile barrage?"


"Firing it at us from the ground. I must apologize, Sir and Commander, for my failure to consider this possibility before. The collateral damage to Rostran would be totally unacceptable for any ordinary world, but this is no ordinary world."


"The Klav’en isn’t designed for use within an atmosphere at full power," Pestrov objected. "It might not be able punch through, even at maximum load, and it would soon overheat and self-destruct in any case."


"They could hook it up to a generating plant and give it all the power it needs," Walark countered. "And it wouldn't have to last long if they could get us in their crosshairs."


"Oh God," said Pestrov. The rest were too stunned to say anything, but the Commander soon recovered himself.


"Even Vendorian steel can't protect us against a Klav’en. But Nomi can. We're breaking orbit immediately and placing the moon between the planet and ourselves. We'll deploy one of the shuttles to keep watch for any ships bound for Nomi from Rostran. I'm assuming that they haven't sent the Klav’en there yet. It won't occur to them until we make our move. But after that, all bets are off. We still have time. But we don't know how much. At the first sign of any potential hostile activity from below, by word or deed, I'm taking us out of here. The command comes first, our duty to Kelsor comes first."


There was silence among the officers and the section chiefs. Their lives were on the line. They might hate themselves ever after for what they would decide today, but they knew their duty.



Chapter 59


(Date: 1052-11-03, 13:30 ST)


“You don’t know your own strength.”


Andre understood that. Why he had to wear gold until he had time to get used to being… the kind of man he now was. What he couldn’t understand was why he couldn’t see Alisa.


“She’s at the Rivera,” Crown Princess Andrea had explained. “For the Conjugational.”


But he too had been invited,


“That was a misunderstanding,” Andrea had insisted.


But he needed to see Alisa.


“I had this nightmare last night,” he said. “About somebody being torn limb from limb. One of your own people, it seemed. I think it had something to do with Alisa.”


“I can assure you that all is well with Alisa. Your shipmate has a great deal to attend to. Surely you can wait until she returns.”


He’d been about to tell Andrea just how important it was to for him to see Alisa. Nothing to do with the nightmare. Only he quickly realized that he couldn’t. Andrea didn’t know what he knew. Nobody at the Palace knew. Maybe nobody at the Rivera, either. And if they found out, the lives of Cooper and the rest of the Third Force would be in danger.


The Rivera. He could have kicked himself for having been such an idiot, for having assumed it was some place in the city, that he could have just taken a public flitter there. And just to profess his new-found love for Alisa.


Yet if he hadn’t snuck out of the Palace, instead of doing the sensible thing, simply asking somebody there about joining Alisa for the Conjugational, he’d never have met Cooper and the others. He’d never have known about the Third Force and its alliance with the Kirke. And his eyes wouldn’t have been opened to the truth about Rostran and its ruling class, the rivalry of the Gwyndylyn and the Kirke, and the supposed Goddess whose favor they sought.


Yet he’d still have undergone Enhancement, even if he’d never learned any of it. That must have been Alisa’s plan. Maybe even the Palace’s — after all, Gudrid was their agent. Only nobody would talk about Gudrid. Anyway, he’d been such an idiot about that, too. He should have figured it out, about the Rostrans being simply too fit to be merely human; how was he to “honor” Layla at the third night of the Conjugational without…


Only now it seemed he wasn’t welcome at the Conjugational…


Whose doing was that? Not Alisa’s; he couldn’t believe she’d treat him so cavalierly, without a word of explanation. It must have something to do with politics. The same kind of politics that was behind the invitation to visit Rostran that had been offered, then withdrawn, then renewed. And Durgin had obviously had an agenda of his own in choosing him and Alisa as Kelsor 7’s emissaries.


He hadn’t known the truth about Alisa then, but it was obvious now that she was Velorian — how else could she and Talak… When he’d come out of his fever, when he awakened at the Palace, when he knew he hadn’t just contracted some local disease as Cooper had assumed, and learned that he was now a superman, his reaction had been totally selfish.


All he could think about was fucking Alisa. Fucking and fucking and fucking. If it hadn’t been for Gudrid, he’d never have dared admit to her — or even to himself — how much he wanted her. Or how much he loved her. He fantasized about their future together, revolutionizing temporal physics by day, making passionate love by night, in all the delicious ways that the promis had shown him; maybe even having children — was that possible? Was anything possible between them, or was he just indulging in wishful thinking? Did she have a thing for Talak? More than just a passing thing?


He felt a sudden shame at that thought, but also a sudden fear. He might be a superman, but he was just one superman in a world of supermen. Alisa might be a Velorian, but she was just one of her kind in a world where the rulers were as powerful as her, some perhaps more so. What was she getting into? Did she even know what she was getting into? They wouldn’t let him speak to her; and when he asked leave to contact Durgin back on the Flame, the Palace insisted that a solar storm was preventing communication with the ship, or with the away team on Nomi.


He didn’t know whether to believe that or not.


And that nightmare, which Andrea seemed to have casually dismissed.


He didn’t know whether to believe her about that.



Concluded in To Hold the Center