Episode Three: To Hold the Center
Begun by Shadar based on a concept by Thomas H. with edits by JH; continued by Brantley
Based on March 28, 2004 partial draft intended for AUOW.
Bright Empire version, Sept. 19, 2014, Oct, 13, 2014, Nov. 25, 2014, Feb. 1. 2015, March 8, 2015, revised May 1, 2015
Continuing and merging the stories from McCloud’s Daughters and Shore Leave, The Gwyndylyn. Thanks go to Thomas for his many ideas and emails, which have earned his alter-ego a role in this story. (Original draft blurb by Shadar, 2004).
As first conceived by Shadar, the plot for this story got too complicated, too arcane and too implausible, and he was never able to resolve it – although off-group he shared a number of climactic chapters, some fairly complete and some fragmentary. For The Bright Empire, I have reworked it to center on the conflict between the Gwyndylyn and the Kirke, the intervention of Klara to help bring about a new world order based on democratic principles with the help of the Third Force (the human Underground), and the pivotal personal story of Alisa Liddell and how she finds not only a new love but a new interest in the dynamics of history – which will be a focus of her career in decades to come. Some chapters are adaptations of Shadar’s, and some of those had had input from JH and Thomas H. Others, especially later in the story, are my own in part or in whole; but a few passages from the 2004 draft have been edited to place them in the context of my reboot of the overall plot. – Brantley Thompson Elkins
For dating system, see:
Previously in Shore Leave:
Alisa Liddell and the Kelsorians are still caught up in the bizarre Byzantine politics of Rostran, with the Gwyndylyn and the Kirke both maneuvering to take advantage of the crisis the visitors have unwittingly touched off.
Captain Peter Durgin and two Marines captured by the Guardians during their ill-conceived mission to “rescue” Alisa, are brought to the Rivera by Lara. But she defies Frida’s express orders to kill them – and even saves the severely injured Durgin’s life at Alisa’s behest by shapechanging from a child to an adult and enhancing him with a Galen retrovirus. That changes the political dynamic, for Lara is now far more powerful than the flightless tset’lar Frida.
When Andre Kalik comes down with a high fever at Underground headquarters, Dargrin Cooper, leader of the Human Underground, assumes he must be dying from some local disease to which he lacks immunity, and has him dumped at a hospital, not wanting to have to deal with a dead body. But it turns out that Kalik has actually been enhanced by the promis Gudrid, in preparation for the Conjugational.
Only Gudrid, unknown to him or to Alisa, is playing a double game. A former member of the Gwyndylyn Salon, but now serving the Kirke, she has been assigned by its Prester – in the name of the Goddess Tyla – to expose Alisa to one and all as a hated Heathen (Velorian) during the Conjugational of Prince Talak and Frida’s daughter Layla. With hitherto unrevealed tset’lar power, she can destroy Alisa and, for good measure, Andre.
By this time, moreover, Kalik and Alisa have lost contact – left behind at the Palace, he doesn’t have any idea what been happening at the Rivera, before or after enhancement, and she hasn’t had any word from or about him. And reports that Prince Talak has fallen for Alisa threaten the Conjugational. Unknown to Crown Princess Andrea, who wasn’t keen on his marriage to begin with, the newly adult Lara is making a play for the Prince.
Knowing nothing of any of this, Klara McCloud, sent from Sanctuary by her mother to make contact with the Human Underground, has just arrived at the southern resort city inhabited by Ordinary humans. Only, she has been tracked by the Gwyndylyn.
Without having heard any word from Rostran, but fearing that the ship’s Kla’ven, presumably captured during Durgin’s raid, may be turned on the Anders Flame, Chief Science Officer Daniel Pestrov decides that the ship must be prepared to leave the system immediately at the first sign of hostile activity – even if that means abandoning Durgin, Alisa, Kalik and all the rest.
(Date: 1052-11-03, 13:00 ST)
“So this was just another of your ‘life challenges’ for Lara?” Alisa stood angrily in front of Frida, arms crossed beneath her breasts. Lara had left wearing her nightgown, leaving only her too-small leather skirt for Alisa to wear.
“She’s just learning about life. She had to make a hard choice.”
“Except that choice involved my shipmates, whose lives were hanging in the balance. If she’d done as you commanded, they’d be dead right now.”
“Former shipmates, Alisa. You are part of us now.”
“All I know is that you’ve made returning to the Flame practically impossible now. But Lara has made it impossible for you to command the Gwyndylyn as you have.”
Frida’s eyes flashed angrily. “You dare challenge my authority, when you know I could destroy you with but a glance of my eyes?
“We both know you're not going to. Your authority has already been challenged. And not only by Lara. There was what happened last night.”
“What happened last night is not your concern,” Frida said ominously. “But don’t assume my charity and tolerance is without limit. For you or the girl.”
“Don’t try to bluff me. I doubt you could do more than make Lara uncomfortable with your eyes. I saw the way she changed her form. If she’s not born to the Galen, then she’s got a lot of their genetics in her.”
Of a sudden, it was as if Frida had been humbled, as if her very aura had faded.
“All right. She’s Kryp’Terran,” she confirmed quietly. “Favoring her Galen side.”
“So how did you come into her life? Or she into yours?”
“Our ship found her, floating seemingly lifeless near the wormhole exit. She was barely a year old.”
“Another survivor of a shipwreck?” Alisa wondered out loud.
“Except that neither the Galen nor the Kryp’Terrans have ships. They have no need. My assumption is that she flew off from her homeworld, a young child’s overly enthusiastic play, and wound up on the wrong side of a wormhole.”
“And since the wormhole is uncharted, and the Kryp’Terran homeworld is hidden from us all, there was no way to get her back.”
“We didn’t even try. Our own ship had battle damage. It was all we could do to make it to Rostran after we careened through that damned hole.”
“So you arrived much as the original settlers did. Shipwrecked.”
“Our arrival was more dramatic. Our ship was crewed solely by Betans, and it burned up in the atmosphere. Lara and I were the only survivors.”
“And your volatai were injured, leaving you flightless.”
“A dozen Viragos are a force to reckon with, even for me.” She turned to look wistfully out the window of her high tower. “They’ve never healed.”
“Yet you didn’t realize the extent of Lara’s abilities until today, Frida. I saw the shock on your face when I told you Lara had changed her form.”
“You never know with Kryp’Terrans. Some favor Velor, becoming little more than Viragos. Others favor Gala, and might as well be gods.”
“Have you seen her since her change? I suspect she’s the latter.”
Frida shook her head. “I was rather attached to her as a ten-year old, even though she’d been with us for nearly twenty years. I liked having a young daughter to raise, and she grew up slowly.” Frida closed her huge eyes. “She tried so hard to make me happy.”
“She’s still your daughter, Frida. In her upbringing if not in her bearing. That hasn’t changed.”
“But now she realizes her true powers. She knows that she’s far more powerful than me.”
“You’re afraid of her, then?” Alisa asked. “Even though she’s your daughter.”
Frida looked back at Alisa, eyes wide. “I grew up believing I was among the most powerful beings in the universe. Now we both know that her abilities are an order of magnitude beyond mine.”
Alisa was tempted to say something about the value of humility, but forbore, and said instead, “So that’s why you didn’t want her to grow up. Or to understand her true nature. It was your obsession with power.”
Frida turned her back to Alisa again. “I was raised for one purpose. Killing your kind. My upbringing was… unique.”
Alisa tried to imagine the years of military training, the elitism among the other Aureans, the fact that she’d been granted a license to kill anyone she wished, right from an early age. Even her own people. If what she’d read about tset’lars was true, she suspected that young Frida might have settled playground quarrels by vaporizing her opponents with a flash of her angry eyes. And been rewarded for it. The Aureans had been intent on creating a monster. Yet now there seemed to be a hint of humanity, an evolving conscience and sense of compassion in Frida. She had thought to shape a world, but the world was shaping her.
“I don’t think Lara really understands much more than she did before,” Alisa said now, her thoughts racing. “She knows she can morph, and she saved Durgin’s life with the Galen retrovirus. Beyond that, she’s as uncomfortable with her new skin as you are.”
But Frida’s eyes only grew cold again.
“She’s had a bite of the apple, thanks to your meddling, Alisa. She’ll figure the rest out soon enough.”
(Date: 1052-11-03, 13:25 ST)
The Northern Shore
Corporal Nevil Rafish stood nervously along the shore of the sea where Tanya had taken him. Defying the recall command from the Rivera, she had crushed her communicator in her hands and flown the two of them to this remote and distant shore.
Tanya wasn’t ready to turn Rafish over to the other sisters, who’d torture and interrogate him. She’d learn his secrets herself, although it was becoming less than clear who was questioning whom. There was something about Rafish that fascinated her. Something beyond the color of his skin she told herself. Unlike the oppressed men of Rostran, he was free and proud and unafraid to proclaim his masculinity.
Rafish hid his nervousness well, the bravado of a soldier substituting confidence for fear. He watched as she walked along the surf line and then back toward him. She was stunningly beautiful in her reflective combat uniform, designed for fighting opponents armed with energy weapons, or so she’d said. Her eyes were large and shockingly blue, her blend of Nordic superpowers and African beauty a fantasy come true. As a professional soldier, he’d long realized that Primes were the ultimate warriors in all the universe.
Strangely, the feelings he had for her were more intense than mere professional interest. More than the obvious desires that came from her physical beauty. He’d found that Tanya’s personality and feelings were warm and sensitive – nothing like what he’d expected from a fearsome Prime. She’d awoken feelings inside him that he’d buried deep after his wife left him. Fearful of those emotions, he tried to concentrate his questions on the physics he could see and touch.
“You underestimate me, Rafish,” she said as she walked up to stand in front of him. “Other than my skin color, my genes come from the oldest Primes. Others of my race have grown less powerful rather than more over the centuries. That is something the Empire never understood.”
“But your skin is so soft, your features so delicate.” He licked his lips, his heart racing. “It’s… you know, hard for me to believe the power that lives beneath that beautiful skin.”
She smiled, and the effect was like staring into the sun. Her eyes sparkled, her teeth so ivory white. “You think I’m beautiful?”
“Beyond my wildest imagination.”
“No one… no one else has ever told me that. I’m considered deviant, unworthy, a woman no man nor any sister would want to lie with.”
“Because of your skin?”
She nodded. “Aurea is a racist world, even as they have found uses for my kind. The most dangerous assignments, the highest risks.”
“Which is why your family has such power?”
She nodded. “Power even you cannot imagine.”
He laughed nervously. “I can imagine a lot right now.”
“You don’t have to imagine. Use your weapon to dispel your doubts, Rafish. Then your mind will accept what your heart already knows.”
Rafish looked scared as she turned and walked a dozen feet from him, then turning back to face him. She did not fear him, which was why she’d left his weapons intact, also his armored exoskeleton. He felt as if he was in the midst of a surreal dream. Standing before him was the most beautiful woman he’d ever imagined. A black woman who was also a Prime. He’d dreamed so long of this impossibility, even while living in the reality of a universe of fair-skinned and blue-eyed Supremis. His racing thoughts filled his body with nearly uncontainable excitement as he closed his eyes and daringly went with his instincts.
He lifted his LAMP-7 and thumbed the power button to 50%. He remembered the way her fellow Guardian had shrugged off such a blast, but his hand was still shaking slightly as his L7 screamed and sent a blinding laser beam across the gap between them. The laser itself was not the real weapon. Instead, it merely created a vacuum that carried the L7’s most devastatingly cargo: a tiny stream of plasma that could supposedly vaporize any matter.
The plasma splashed against her bare legs, heating her skin to red hot, the annihilating heat sufficient to have vaporized even a Betan’s body. She gasped, pleasure or pain he wasn’t sure, as he briefly focused it at the apex of her long legs. He quickly released the firing stud.
“Don’t… don’t be afraid,” she exhaled, her chest rising and falling as she took deep breaths. She reached up to unzip her top, pulling it to the side to reveal the chocolate brown perfection of her chest. Her breasts were firm and full, her nipples standing out proud and black as she rested her hands back on her hips. “You truly cannot hurt me here.”
He felt as if he was floating on air, a heated thrill exciting him, as he daringly thumbed the power to FULL and touched the firing stub again. This time aiming higher. The flair of his weapon was blindingly hot, the ravenous energy beam hungrily trying to eat clothing, flesh, even the very air around them. It found little to feed on except skin oil and the particles of dust in the air. Rafish swallowed hard in disbelief as his shaking hand played the beam across her rounded chest, her dark nipples flaring bright to glow brilliantly, both of them growing larger as the annihilating heat teased them. The chocolate of her skin glowed a radiant cherry-red after the beam passed.
She closed her eyes and floated closer, forcing Rafish to cease firing. Her chest was glowing like molten steel as she wrapped her impossibly long legs around his waist, her skirt riding high over her hips. “It’s said that the forcefield in your armor can resist even a Prime’s strength.”
Rafish’s heart was racing wildly as he looked down at her smooth legs, his forcefield flaring to deflect the heat of her body. After Keri’s demonstration of power, he was terrified of her strength, exoskeleton forcefield or not.
She leaned down to brush her lips against his ear, whispering sexily. “It is also said that the men of your race have a special talent with women.”
Rafish’s face flushed dark as obsidian.
She lifted her head from his shoulder to look into his eyes. “Show me your power, Rafish. Show me all of it.”
Rafish stared into her blue eyes with wonder. Was she asking him to do what he thought she was? Despite all the rumors of excessive Supremis sexuality, he hadn’t been prepared for this.
He felt her fingers fumbling with the armor over his crotch, her strong fingernails catching it to bend it aside. His forcefield flared brighter now as it compensated, attempting to keep his invulnerability intact. He was very much a man now, the field adapting to the unusual outline of his body by flaring brightly around his huge erection as it rose.
Her hand found him, a shimmer of sparks protesting her encircling fingers as she held him with a desperate strength. He saw in her eyes the hungry desire of a woman who loved men, but who lived unfulfilled in a matriarchy of sisters. A woman who needed a man in the most primal of ways. A superman.
Rafish gasped as her hand stroked him, a riot of sparks obscuring his lower body, her touch as erotic as a lover’s. He realized with a shock that she must be using incredible strength to transmit that sense of touch through his invulnerable forcefield.
Yet even as her arm turned hard with the steel of her strength, the rest of Tanya’s body softened. She smiled sexily as she wrapped her long legs around his hips, centering herself over his erection, then lowering her weight over the hot, glowing protrusion of his forcefield armor. She bit her lip as she struggled briefly to hold back the fantastic power of her inner muscles so she could take him, his forcefield flaring to blinding brilliance deep inside her. She gripped him with the inner strength of a Prime, thrilling to the way his augmented hardness did not yield, hoping he could feel it too.
Inside his forcefield, Rafish was in ecstasy, the millimeter thick energy sheath protecting him from her strength, yet transmitting the tactile ecstasy of simple fucking. The shimmering field slipped smoothly inside her, the buzzing sensation of the field generator the ultimate vibrator.
Tanya gasped in unfamiliar pleasure as he felt so hot and hard inside her. She gave up an pretense of gentleness to bear down on him with the incredible strength of an ancient Prime, yet he didn’t gave as much as a millimeter. Her libido soared on gilded wings as she began the ages old dance of lovers, her body rising and falling on his shaft, taking him deeper than she’d dreamed was possible. Leaning her head back, black hair flying, she opened her mouth to softly scream in pleasure as she found true ecstasy for the first time in her life.
Rafish was barely aware of the warning sounds of his exoskeleton as it went into maximum overload, the forcefield generator threatening to collapse. Tanya dug her fingers into the Vendorian armor across his shoulders and hugged him to her with all her Primal strength, the upper part of his suit flaring as brightly as the lower as it struggled to resist her impassioned strength. Rafish tripped and fell as he tried to return the same, the two of them landing hard on her back to slide across the beach. He tried to take her in his accustomed fashion, yet she fought back beneath him, twisting and turning as she playfully resisted him, his augmented strength dueling passionately with her birthright of power.
He finally pinned her shoulders against a large boulder in the sand and turned all his mechanically-augmented strength to a single, passionate purpose. That of making love to the woman his heart had longed for all his life.
(Date: 1052-11-03, 14:00 ST)
Talak was out of breath by the time he sprinted the two miles from his quarters to the dormitory near Frida’s tower. He ran up ten flights of stairs to knock on Lara’s door.
“Who is it?” an unfamiliar woman asked in reply.
“Who’s with you in there, Lara?”
“Just me.” The voice was richer with overtones and lower than Lara’s.
“I, ah, I heard what happened, Lara.”
“You heard what?”
“That you saved that human. That you’ve… changed. Everyone is talking.”
“I don’t want you to see me.”
Talak leaned against her door. “Well, I’m not going away until you do.”
“Just leave me alone.” Her petulant voice sounded like that of a little girl again.
“What are you going to do, Lara? Live the rest of your life in your room?”
“I’ve tried to change back and I can’t,” she said through the door. “I’ve done… a woman’s thing. A grownup thing. I can’t undo that.”
“So, I’m a grownup, and I’m not complaining.”
He heard her chuckle and could imagine the smile on her face. She always looked so cute when she smiled, which was all too rare.
“We have a special friendship, Lara. A little tweak in your appearance isn’t going to change that.”
“What if it’s not little?”
“You know what I mean, Lara.”
“Promise me you won’t laugh?”
“I promise,” Talak said.
“All right. Then come in,” she sighed. “But close your eyes until I say to open them.”
Talak did as instructed, feeling around for the door handle. The heavy wooden door opened easily.
“Close the door.”
“Walk forward three steps and sit down on the fur. Don’t open your eyes.”
Talak felt his way forward to sit down on the edge of the soft Tigran fur that he knew covered the middle of Lara’s room. He heard her take a deep breath.
“Now, open your eyes.”
Talak did. His heart leapt as he found himself staring into the eyes of a stunningly beautiful young woman. She sat on the fur in front of him, the only light in the room shining down on her. She wore nothing but a halter top, the straps hanging down, her legs folded to preserve her modesty. She had very long blonde hair that was pulled behind her back, and her skin was a marvelous golden shade of tan. She was tall, her slender arms and legs almost too long, much like a weed that had grown too fast under the mid-summer sun.
“Lara?” he asked in a soft voice. “Is this really you?”
She blushed and looked down at herself. “Alisa made me do it. To save her Captain. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? How can a woman as beautiful as you ever be sorry?”
She looked back up at him, a small smile tilting her lips. “You called me a woman. That sounds very weird, Talak.”
“But you are. Look at those legs.”
Lara ran her hand down her left thigh. “They’re so long I can’t even walk on them without tripping. Look.” She rose to stand over him, legs slightly spread, her modesty suddenly vaporizing. She was easily six feet tall, and most of that was in her legs.
Talak traced her slender legs upward, astonished that this was really Lara. His eyes reached their apex, and he swallowed hard, forcing himself to look away, suddenly very aware that she was indeed a grown woman. “Sit down, Lara,” he said quickly. “You’re going to give me a heart attack.”
She folded her legs back up to sit closer to him now. Smiling mischievously, she slipped her fingers under the right side of her top. “I even have breasts. Want to see?”
“No!” Talak blurted out quickly, raising his hand to stop her. “I’ll, ah, I’ll take your word on those.” He was uncomfortably aware that her body had aged eight years in a day, but his perceptions of her hadn’t caught up the changes.
Her smile evaporated. “So, I do bother you now.”
“Bother? Talak said, forcing a grin back to his face. “Depends on what you mean by bother.”
She reached out to brush her fingers across his face. “You are blushing, Talak. I didn’t think a kella’prime could do that.”
“My blood is rushing.”
“So you do think I’m sexy?”
“And you already know I’m stronger than anyone.”
Talak nodded, suddenly afraid where this was going.
She leaned back while trying to pull the straps of her top back up, but struggled to get them to stay. Talak reached out to help her.
“I’ve got some catching up to do. Even my clothing is complicated now.”
“You’re not used to wearing much clothing,” Talak observed.
“Maybe I still won’t.”
“That was acceptable at ten, Lara. It isn’t at eighteen.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Lara said with a shrug, clearly uncomfortable wearing a top. She’d run around bare-chested on Rostran since she was a year old.
“Alisa did this to you?”
“Of course not. I did it. But she told me what she wanted.”
“She wanted you to grow up in minutes as opposed to years? Why would she ask you to do that?”
Lara shook her head, saying nothing.
“I really want to know.”
“I told you, to save her Captain.”
“And why would you care about him?”
“Alisa was very persuasive.”
“What does your physical age have to do with that?”
Her eyes sparkled like blue diamonds as they rose to meet his. “You don’t want to know, Talak.”
He laughed. “Now you sound like a teenage girl.”
“Which I don’t want to be. We both thought I could just go back to the way I was, but I can’t.”
“Any idea why?”
“I… let’s just forget it.”
“Look at me, Lara.”
She did, and the words suddenly flowed. “What she had me do was weird at first, Talak, and it almost hurt before it suddenly felt so good I couldn’t stand it. My body felt like it was exploding from the inside out, every part of feeling like I’d gone to heaven.” She paused to look down again. “But afterward, it was really embarrassing.”
Talak stared back at her, his eyes wide. There was only one physical act that fit that description. Enhancement. The retrovirus to heal her Captain. He tried to imagine the scene, and then thought better of it, even as one part of his mind kept reminding him that Lara’s true age was closer to twenty than ten. She’d deliberately kept her appearance young to please Frida. But given that her friends were the same age as she appeared, she’d been slow to mature her personality. And of course, she’d had no experiences in this area.
“Well, if you can’t change back,” he finally said. “Then you’ll have to learn how to be a woman.”
Lara nodded. “But after today, I think I already know that I like men better than women.”
Talak laughed. “And what do you know about men?”
“Only that I think it would feel really good to have a man make love to me. Not just with his tongue and fingers like Alisa, but with his…”
“Stop right there,” Talak suddenly interrupted her. “This is going way too fast for me.”
“Am I embarrassing you?” The tiny smile on her lips said she knew she was.
“Yes. Why don’t we sort out this walking thing first. And get you some new clothes.”
And give me time to get my head on straight, he didn’t say.
She wasn’t fooled by his silence. “You’re still thinking of me as a young girl?”
“It will take me a while to adjust.”
“But you’re my best friend. I’d like to share everything new and wonderful with you first.”
“Isn’t there somebody your own age that you can…” Talak stopped in mid-sentence. Her friends were all as young as she’d been. The older teenage Gwyndylyn had made fun of her every chance they got, many of them knowing her true age. It was going to take time for them to accept her sudden acceleration in physical age.
Lara winked at him as if she could sense his thoughts.
“All right, I guess that was a stupid question,” he smiled.
“At least I’ll always have you, Talak. No one else has ever understood me. Not even Frida.”
“That’s nice,” Talak replied, trying to gently change the direction of the discussion. “But it doesn’t change the fact that we need to get you some new clothes. Grown men and women don’t walk around naked in front of each other.”
“Unless they’re lovers?”
“True, but that’s totally different.”
“Then I want to be your lover,” she said in a decisive tone of voice. She reached up to hold herself, slowly tearing the fabric of her halter as if it was tissue paper. She tossed the torn fabric to the side and took a deep breath to emphasize her new figure.
“Lara!” Talak gasped as he looked up at her, and the shocked and excited expression in his wide-open eyes sending a wave of tingling warmth through her.
She floated to her feet to hang in mid-air.
“Layla will just have to cancel the Conjugational and bond with someone else. After all, you were my friend first.”
“Tell her I’m leaving her for Alisa. And then tell Excelsia the real story. I’m sure she’ll be glad to bring word to Mother. She never liked Layla anyway.”
(Date: 1052-11-03, 15:30 ST)
The Royal Palace
“Think of it as a stroke of luck,” said Excelsia, when she met her mother after hastily returning to the Palace from the Rivera to bring her the news.
“And it couldn’t have come at a greater time of need,” Crown Princess Andrea declared, having just read Layla’s tirade against Prince Talak – which concluded with her demand that the final night of the Conjugational, which would have culminated in their marriage, be called off.
They were talking about Layla, but they were thinking of the treachery of the Kirke. They would never have learned about that but for Anyal, who had paid with her life for revealing her sister Gudrid’s involvement – and they still didn’t know what else Prester Sundanjan might have in mind.
The Gwyndylyn knew about the fate of Anyal. They had felt it in their minds and in their very bones. But by common consent, they had avoided talking about it – and, thus far, kept the media in the dark. Even now, in private, Andrea and her daughter focused on the seeming fortuitousness of Layla’s tantrum.
“It all seems so silly now. How could she possibly have possibly objected to Talak doing what custom required of him – and her?” Excelsia wondered. “She was required to do the same.”
“What makes a difference is that Talak was consorting with an Outworlder. It was a mistake to have accepted her as a guest in the first place, but we were blindsided by that Betan Lawgiver. It would have been bad enough even if she hadn’t turned out to be a Heathen Of course, that Kelsorian man who came with her was no prize; he didn’t even know proper etiquette when you greeted him.”
“I tried to hide my resentment. I don’t think I succeeded.”
“Yet you could hardly have expected him – or her, for that matter – to know our ways. But remember, it was only in deference to the Lawgivers that they were allowed to stay. Never mind how the Kirke itself obviously played a part. And yet we believed that we had to make allowances for the sake of Rostran unity; so did the Goddess remind us at the last Joining.”
“What do you suppose Tyla tells the clerics when she meets with them?”
“We were never supposed to ask, and Anyal never got a chance to.”
There it was. Andrea had finally broken the silence about the Salon’s agent and her terrible fate, It was that dire a matter. And Excelsia knew now that she would have to be more forthcoming.
“I can’t believe that this could have come to pass but for the arrival of the Outworlders,” the crown princess continued. “Whatever the Kirke was planning, may still be planning, it must have to do with them.”
“It would be wise for us to have nothing further to do with them,” Excelsia said.
“I’ll see to that,” Andrea promised. “Beginning with Kalik. I can’t do anything about his enhancement, but I can keep him out of touch with that Heathen Alisa. The less he knows the better.”
And now it was time for the Big Lie, concealed in a Big Reveal.
“It pains me to tell you, but we should also distance ourselves from Frida. She has an agenda of her own,” Excelsia said. “She has been trying to persuade the Heathen to join the Gwyndylyn as a teacher – to corrupt Rostran with the knowledge of the Outworlders. And that isn’t the worst. Have you been told about the Kelsorian attack?”
“I see that Frida’s managed to keep a tight lid on it. Their captain led a commando raid, supposedly to rescue the Heathen from us. He and his men were all killed or wounded by the Guardians, of course – but the Heathen somehow persuaded Lara to save him by Galen enhancement.”
“How could a mere child–”
“She is no longer a child. She has morphed. And after saving the captain, she seduced Talak.”
“Layla doesn’t know about her, only about the Heathen – and we had better not let her or anyone else learn otherwise. Frida’s adoption of Lara has always been a sore point, and not only with the Kirke. It could only play into their hands if word gets out about the golden child having become a Golden Woman – with powers beyond those of Frida herself.”
Andrea pondered that for a moment, and Excelsia could see that what the crown princess said next was a matter of political expediency.
“Powers that we might need on our side,” she said. “In the name of the Queen.”
Excelsia had suspected that would be the case. If Lara could be turned against Frida, she could also be used against the Kirke. But she herself would be in the clear; nobody would suspect her role in trying to recruit the Velorian. She surmised now that the Heathen Alisa had been playing a double game herself, in hopes of protecting her shipmates. If so, she would have to be eliminated… somehow.
Somehow. That was the real challenge.
But all she could do now was echo Andrea: “In the name of the Queen.”
(Date: 1052-11-04, 8:30 ST)
It was an underling who brought Andre the news.
“What do you mean, the Conjugational has been cancelled?”
“All I know is what I’ve been told,” said the man, who had introduced himself as Zhenforo, but hadn’t identified his position on the Palace staff. “It’s in the statement I handed you.”
“I don’t understand,” Andre protested. “I have to get back to my quarters to meet up with Alisa. We’re supposed to be at the ceremony at seven.”
“Your presence is neither required nor desired. The Rivera has made that clear.”
Andre’s irritation was turning to anger.
“I want to speak with Andrea.”
“You have no standing to call her by name. And no standing to speak with her in any case.”
Andre couldn’t believe his ears.
“But she spoke with me just yesterday. Alisa and I have both been guests of the Palace and–”
Zhenforo cut him short.
“You assume too much, presume too much and protest too much,” he snapped.” Especially for a Frail.”
With that, he turned on his heels and left Andre’s apartment.
Andre was startled by the insult; apparently Andrea and her inner circle hadn’t spread the word about his new… capabilities. Belatedly, he read the message Zhenforo had handed him. It didn’t clarify anything, and it wasn’t even addressed to him; it was only general advisory to officials and staff that the Conjugational had been canceled due to “circumstances beyond the control” of the Palace, and advised one and all to avoid “idle speculation” and “baseless rumors.”
I’m not going to find out anything here, he thought. But maybe the Underground. The Third Force…
He gave it some thought. He couldn’t call attention to himself, and surely couldn’t do anything that would advertise his enhancement – like jumping out an upper story window to escape the Palace. Instead, he made his way to the Palace kitchen, where Cooper had told him they had an undercover agent, one of the cooks. He had been described by look, rather than by name.
Andre had never expected to need his help, but recognized the agent, the man he’d been told could serve as handler – and remembered the recognition code.
“Did he send you?” the cook whispered.
Andre simply nodded, saying aloud only that he wanted to get a bite to eat before going out for a walk. The man made a show of serving him some fish left over from the previous night.
“No sense letting it go to waste,” the cook said, before excusing himself and leaving the kitchen.
He returned a little later.
“Do you need to use the toilet?” he asked. “It’s just down the hall. Let me show you.”
Only, the cook took him instead to the laundry room, where he handed Andre a bag with workman’s clothes. Andre changed quickly as the cook stood by the door to make sure that the coast was clear, then handed the Kelsorian his tracking ring.
Andre headed for the servants’ entrance, without attracting any notice. He caught the same flitter as on his previous excursion with Gudrid. Once in the right neighborhood, he left the ring at a pre-arranged location to be sent back to its rightful owner as part of a routine delivery.
He didn’t have any trouble finding his way to the ground car garage that hid the entrance to the Underground headquarters.
Dargrin Cooper was shocked to see him still alive.
“You’ll be even more shocked to learn why,” Andre said.
Cooper heard him out.
“It makes sense,” he said. “They wouldn’t want to have one of the guests dying on them at the Conjugational. If there were going to be one.”
“Why isn’t there? I just heard this morning…”
“There’s all kinds of message traffic going back and forth between the Palace and the Rivera. The story is that Prince Talak has fallen in love with that Velorian woman and wants her to marry him. Princess Layla’s gone berserk and called it off.”
“Alisa?” Andre croaked, his heart sinking like a rock. “Alisa?”
“She’s got to be the only Velorian here. Unless you count the blonde girl at the Rivera. Or unless there were others among the raiders from your ship.
“I’ll have to explain about the girl later. As for the raid, your captain got it into his head that Alisa was in danger of and led a squad of Marines to rescue her. They were in over their heads. I guess they were all either killed or captured by the Guardians. Probably not long for this world, the ones that survived.”
Andre was stunned, at once angry and ashamed. Angry at the Gwyndylyn and all their works; he hated them with a passion. Yet ashamed because his first thought was for only one of his comrades.
“Alisa… is she still alive?”
“As far as we know. But she may be in for it. Getting involved with Talak wasn’t a smart thing to do. And if she’s made an enemy of Layla, she’s made enemies of the Palace and the Gwyndylyn. As if that weren’t enough, she’ll be blamed for the attack, too. I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes.”
Andre leaped to his feet. “I’ve got to do something. I’ve got to get out of here. There has to be a way to get to the Rivera.”
“Sure.” Cooper smirked. “Just wave your Underground Subversive badge and Frida will take you out. You’re not enhanced enough to stand up to her. Let alone the Goddess. And even if you could, they’d all gang up on you.
“I don’t care,” Andre said angrily. “Once I get close enough to Alisa, she’ll deal with the others.”
“Do you really think she will, or even can?
“She’d never let them hurt me.”
“Kalik, a Kella-Prime Guardian could kill you a hundred ways. Sure, she might say sorry to Alisa afterward, but we’d still have to bury what was left of your body. Assuming they’d let us.”
“I’m willing to take that risk,” Andre insisted.
“Well, I’m not,” Cooper barked back. “You know too damn much about our operation. If they can kill you, they can torture you, or maybe drug you – make you tell them all about us.”
“I didn’t tell anyone at the Palace.”
“It’s different at the Rivera, and it’s going to get worse – there and on the rest of this planet. We’re in a precarious position as it is. I can’t let you have a chance to undo everything we’ve accomplished the last twenty years. If you hadn’t been enhanced, I’d have you shot right now. As things stand, I just might find a use for you. Might. And only on my terms.”
“And what might that be?”
Cooper was about to tell him when an alert flashed on his perscomp. He seemed alarmed.
“We have an emergency,” he said quickly. “An intercept from Gwyndylyn com traffic. They say a flying woman has landed at München – that’s a seaside resort, way south of here. It has to be Tyla – how they managed to track her I have no idea. But they’re sending the Guardians. I’ve got to get the word out to our nearest operative.”
As he spoke, he was entering the code for a scrambled call on his com.
(Date: 1052-11-04, 9:30 ST)
Durgin slowly awoke, the intimate sensations of his dream shattered into a thousand bright fragments as he opened his eyes to stare into what appeared to be total darkness. He groaned and rolled over on his stomach, closing his eyes tightly, praying that he could fall back asleep and re-enter that most perfect of dreams.
He’d been dreaming as usual of making love to Alisa. But this time, strangely enough, his dream had included another Velorian, someone even younger than Alisa. He smiled in his half awake state of mind, and decided not to apologize for the excesses of his dream. It had seemed so real.
His early morning thoughts dwelled as they usually did on the reality of his failed relationship with Alisa. He cringed as he remembered her telling him that human men could not separate the intimacy of friendship from the intimacy of sex, and how they confused the vulnerability of her emotions with the invulnerability of her body. She claimed she’d only wanted friendship. That and a diversion from her duties.
Once started, the sex had been very, very good between them.
Alisa’s erotic needs and loving skills eclipsed those of any woman he’d ever known. And his confidence and long-practiced skills at pleasing women thrilled her.
Yet she was also enough of a Kelsorian to be impressed that she was sleeping with her Captain. A young woman’s secret pride.
Only, Durgin had wanted more than her pride and her body. He had known right from the start that he was falling in love with her. He dreamed of moving beyond sex and into the sunrise of true intimacy. He wanted to become the man she'd want to share her life with, not just some frantic moments of ecstasy with in the darkness.
Alisa had never wanted to cuddle or be caressed afterward. She would rise and leave his quarters as their bodies began to cool, leaving him to his private dreams until morning came.
Durgin gradually came to understand why Velorians were widely said to have problems with relationships with humans. Between her sexually open nature and playful enthusiasm in bed, her needs far greater than merely human, she always left him wishing he was more man than he was, striving to fulfill expectations that were the product of his own imagination. How could she settle for one man, even a dozen, especially if they were merely human?
As everyone knew, Velorian culture had no concept of sexual exclusivity, a fact that could easily drive a human man to distraction. If you dated a Vel, you had to be willing to share her, or so the story went.
His only consolation was the knowledge that Alisa was unlike other Velorians. She wasn't promiscuous. She didn't regard sex as a mere social skill like other Velorians. Her true passion in life was science, and her first love was the study of wormhole physics. Her soul was gentle and caring and totally unlike the fierce like the warriors so many of her sisters had become.
But sharing that soul of hers… ah, now that was another matter entirely. Despite her tearful confession their first night together -- her guilt over having left home and family, her fears about the fate of galactic civilization -- he sensed at times that she was still hiding some deep hurt, something done to her or even by her. Once, in a moment of passion, she cried out a word that sounded like “Regis.” Could it be the name of some previous lover? She denied it. It was just a Velorian exclamation of passion, she said. But she'd never used that particular word again.
Durgin sighed loudly as he rose carefully from his bed, feeling his way through the darkness to discover the faint flow of cool air. Far from being disconcerted by the darkness, he’d become accustomed to sleeping this way with Alisa. He was unfortunately an expert on the pitfalls of the sharing of souls now, especially given that he and Alisa had passed beyond the final chapter of their relationship. After professing his love for her, after he'd said he wanted to marry her, she had refused to see him socially any longer. The hollowness of his loss, driven as it was by his confession of love, still haunted him at the beginning and ending of each day.
He stood in the middle of the room now, wondering if he could assuage some of the pain by writing a book about Velorians. There would be other men whose dreams had been shattered as his had, and he could seek them out and learn their stories. And then there was the Velorian angle. Alisa had talked about her mother, and had described her mother’s strange inspiration of spirit that came from living among humans. Perhaps he'd look her up some day. Perhaps she could help him understand the feelings that Alisa was so reluctant to share.
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he began to see a faint glow in front of him as the last of his waking dream vaporizing. It grew rapidly brighter as his eyes cleared, the sudden realizing striking him that it wasn’t the room that had been dark. He’d been blind when he woke up!
A rush of memories shoved the fantasies of his dream aside. His heart leaped as recent memories fell back into line. The landing, the attacks, the desperate flight. The Guardians‘ attack, her legs closing inexorably around his head. His death?
And then this dream. Finally awakening – and feeling more refreshed than he could remember in decades. How could that be after such a battle?
The light in front of him slowly resolved itself into a window. Outside the window was an image of perfection. A deep canyon with waterfalls cascading down the sides, green meadows and a rushing river below him.
“What the hell,” he whispered as he realized that his fantasies and his sense of reality had become intertwined. Was it the last fantasy of his dying mind, his imagination trying to re-create life in the face of death?
Was it Heaven?
Or even Hell?
And then he looked down and saw that he was wearing gold bracelets…
“Good morning,” came a familiar voice from behind him.
Alisa. Speak of the angel…
He turned to face her.
“I can tell you’re feeling better,” she said. “You’re a very lucky man.”
“So it would seem, I suppose you must have had something to do with that.”
She nodded. “Me and Lara.”
“Lara? Who is she? And how can this be? I don’t understand.”
So she told him – all about the girl who had brought him and Alejan and Roth back to the Rivera for execution, then spared their lives at Alisa’s behest, then…”
Durgin took it in as best he could,
“Keri helped me find the others,” Alisa continued, after she’d finished with the tale of his enhancement. “We brought Jim here, he’s undergoing treatment.”
“Not the same kind I received?”
“No, He’ll be all right, I think. But perfectly human… I buried Gallup and Patterson.”
“It’s all I could do, Perhaps we could have a proper service… whenever the Rostrans manage to resolve their differences – if they can. Until or unless that happens, there’s really nothing more we can do.”
“Nothing? But we’re not mere humans, either of us.”
“We might as well be. We’re hopelessly outnumbered, and even outclassed. Frida could eliminate us in an instant, if it weren’t for Lara. We’re here only on sufferance. They won’t let me communicate with the ship, let alone fly there. I could, of course – Frida can’t fly, but she could kill you while I was away. And the Rostrans could attack the Flame in force, with ships and long-distance weapons, and I couldn’t fight all of them at once. On top of all that, I don’t have any idea what’s going on in the Capital, or even what’s happened with Andre.”
He didn’t want to think about Andre, but another name popped into his head.
“The Capital? Smyth was supposed to head there.”
“I doubt he ever made it. It’s most likely the same with Rafish.”
“What you seem to be saying is that all we can do now is try to cut our losses, and hope we can find a way off this planet. Surely we can do better than that. Surely you can do better than that. You’re our Protector. You’re a Velorian.”
“But I’m not a magician.”
He could see that he’d have to talk her around, now that he was up and about…
(Date: 1052-11-04, 10:00 ST)
Thomas Harnig was taken by utter surprise at the word from Cooper that the Goddess had returned – and wondered why she had chosen München to make her appearance.
Only, Gwyndylyn flitters manned by the Guardians were heading there too... and he was suddenly expected to do something about that.
“We estimate they’ll arrive in forty-five minutes or so,” Cooper advised him.
“Right. We’ll rendezvous at the safe house outside Haszko. I’ll contact you once I’m airborne with our visitor,” Harnig barked into his com.
“Should be Tyla,” Cooper said. “But the description of her appearance we intercepted is inconsistent with her last form. She may have evolved.”
Harnig winced at Cooper’s faith in the Goddess. He had never been a true believer. He suspected that Tyla, the same being the Kirke worshipped – admittedly with different prayers – was one of those shape changers he’d heard about. A trickster. Not to be trusted. But he wouldn’t get anywhere if he tried to broach that idea. Instead…
“I don’t know why she’d land in the middle of a city – that city – if it was her,” Thomas offered diplomatically. “She’s always been very careful to reveal herself only to the elite. I’m guessing this woman is truly a Heathen.”
“Then be even more careful,” Cooper said darkly. “You are but human.”
“Send the boy for my ring. Over and out.”
Thomas closed his link. His thoughts were racing wildly now. He had no idea how to contact the Heathen, nor a clue how to convince her to come with him. But clearly, if she appeared in the open, the Guardians would engage her. They generally shot first and asked questions later, for all the propaganda from the Rivera of how they’d become a policing force with the interests of all Rostrans at heart. Nobody born human believed that.
He put aside his doubts and fears, and began running down the hallway toward the turbo lift. He stepped out of the lift seconds later in the ground-level garage, but in his haste, he went the wrong way, losing two precious minutes as he searched for his old flitter. He keyed the opening sequence; the clamshell door rose from the streamlined hull. A quick glance around told him that no one was watching, so he reached under the dash to activate his illegal modification that bypassed the speed governor. He belted himself in and fired up the turbine.
Seconds later he was racing toward the garage entrance, his flitter fairly exploding out of his parking lot as the unrestrained engine hummed loud enough to make his teeth hurt. The G’s pinned him against the seatback as his vision narrowed to a tunnel.
Eight G’s. Nine.
Thomas roared supersonically over the beach less than three minutes later, pulling hard G’s as he circled and descended while bleeding off as much speed as he could. The Heathen wasn’t hard to find, given the crowds of people who were gathering around her. He cut in the braking power to land hard at the edge of surf, his flitter gouging a long trench in the sand. He leaped out, brandishing his other illegal possession – an original military GAR. The bulky antique was Aurean make, not one of the detuned Vendorian knockoffs, and powerful enough to kill a Prime.
His first task was to disperse the gathering crowed. He thumbed the safety off, and aimed a brief burst of GAR-fire into the air. “The Guardians are coming!” he shouted. Some of the people looked his way, but didn’t respond otherwise. He fired again at a parked flitter; it flared like a tiny sun and turned into slag. A third shot in the opposite direction melted down an old concrete bathhouse, molten ferro-concrete spreading across the sand. That was enough to panic the crowd. People began to run both ways down the beach, others spilling out into the parking lot.
Only the tall alien remained. His heart was pounding in his chest as he turned back to walk toward her. Unlike the usual black leather outfit and raven hair of a Gwyndylyn, she wore a simple white coverall that left her shoulders bare, the short hemline covering only the upper half of her ass. She was a vision in forbidden beauty, especially the way her exotically golden hair lay wet against her head, the fabric of her outfit nearly transparent where the surf had wet it. Her backside and legs were as perfect as any Gwyndylyn’s.
(Date: 1052-11-04, 10:30 ST)
The Rivera/Royal Palace
Durgin was impatient about still wearing gold.
It would take him a while to get used to his new strength. But it hadn’t taken him long to decide what was really in it for him. When Alisa looked in on him, and once he’d been brought up to date, his first thought was about how they could and should and even must get together again.
“We’re both super now,” he said. “End of old story. Beginning of new story.”
She quickly disabused him of that idea, politely but firmly.
Durgin’s second thought was about salvaging the trade mission. Surely the Rostrans would now be eager to buy QEDs and end their isolation from the rest of the Galaxy.
Alisa quickly disabused him of that idea, too.
“They don’t want to trade with us, they don’t want anybody to know about them, and because of that they don’t even want to let us leave,” she said. “If it weren’t for Lara, you wouldn’t be alive, and neither would I – or any of us. At least two of our people are dead as it is; two still missing and presumed dead. I’ve told you before that the Gwyndylyn could take out the Flame if they chose and–”
“Can we even depend on Lara?”
“We don’t have any other choice. But now that you and the others are safe here, for at least the time being. I want to find Andre. Frida hasn’t let me have any contact with him, but I had been expecting him here for the Conjugational – but that’s suddenly been called off.”
“No Conjugational? Sending you two down was all for nothing?”
Alisa winced inwardly, remembering how he had practically forced them into a potentially deadly situation without bothering to do, or have done, any research into the true nature of this world. But she forbore speaking of that.
“Another long story, but there are plenty of others here who can fill you in,” she said. “I’m worried about Andre. The Kirke has it in for us, and chances are it’s likewise with some of the Gwyndylyn back at the capital.”
“And maybe you just have a thing for him!”
Alisa ignored that dig, and headed for the open window.
“Bye,” she said, giving him a wave before she took flight.
* * *
It didn’t take her long to reach the Palace. What did take long – at least so it seemed to her – was to find anyone willing to speak with her.
A petty retainer at the main tourist entrance passed her on to a somewhat less petty retainer in the public affairs office, who in turn passed her on to a still lesser bureaucrat whose job it was to “manage” the media – meaning, make sure it had the right take on whatever news it disseminated.
Alisa had already gleaned that his office didn’t have any take at all on what had happened during the last few days at the Rivera – except for cancellation of the Conjugational, which had been played up for all it was worth when the Palace had announced the impending marriage of Talak and Layla. And if people in the city had any idea what had gone wrong, they wouldn’t have learned it from here.
After an hour of frustration, she was passed on to a member of the Palace staff, Zhenforo. The staff reported to Andrea, she knew, and if she could persuade him…
“The Crown Princess is extremely busy,” he told her. “We are all extremely busy. I am extremely busy.
Zhenforo was doing something with his deskcomp. She had no idea what; she didn’t even want to know. Without a further word, she grabbed the unit and crushed it in her bare hands.
“How dare you!” he shouted. “The crown princess will hear of this.”
“Call her by all means!”
But when Alisa finally got to confront Andrea, it turned out that the crown princess hadn’t spoken with Andre for more than a day, and had no idea where he might be. A quick search determined that he wasn’t in his room. A further search failed to find him anywhere in the Palace. It seemed he’d last been seen by the very underling, Zhenforo, whom she had just encountered – and that had been early in the morning.
“What have you done with him?” Alisa demanded.
“We’ve done nothing to him,” Andrea insisted. “And, given his enhancement by Gudrid, nobody here could – at least, not easily. Perhaps he went to look for Gudrid. I suppose you must have heard about her treachery, and much else. We are at odds with her now, and even more at odds with the Kirke. That much you also surely know, and I shall tell you no more.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to,” Alisa said. “But I wouldn’t expect you to pretend he’s involved in some sort of conspiracy.
“Whatever has happened to him, or might happen, or will happen, I wash my hands of it. I have more pressing concerns.”
There was nothing more to be said. Alisa retired to the balcony, looking out at the city. The Palace had lost none of its splendor, but lost all of its appeal. She couldn’t stand it any longer. If only she could find Andre, out there in the city…
He hasn’t been seen for more than four hours, she thought. He could be anywhere.
Only much later would she learn what had gone down at München. She hadn’t known to ask about any unusual developments, and Andrea hadn’t been in the mood to volunteer anything. For now, all she knew was that she had to get away.
She took off from the balcony, began flying aimlessly over the streets and parks and rooftops, trying to figure out what to do next. She was so wrapped up in her own problems that she didn’t take thought how much attention she’d attract – Rostran might be a world of Supremis, but neither Primes nor Betans were ever seen flying in broad daylight.
And if they had been, none of them would have been blonde.
* * *
It was only after Alisa left that Durgin had another visitor. She looked familiar, but he couldn’t place her.
“Mara Kaltquest,” she introduced herself. “It was me in that video invitation to the Conjugational. You’ve come damn close to sabotaging the purpose I had in mind when I sent it. If Frida hadn’t undermined her own cause by attempting to enlist Alisa, and by foolishly giving Lara an enlightened sense of Gwyndylyn ethics, you and I would both be dead by now – and the rest of your people with us. If you want to stay alive, if you want to ever see home again, you’d better listen to what I have to say.”
“You’re the one who got us into this to begin with.” Durgin protested. “Now you’re saying you’re the only one who can get us out of it?”
“It’s all about authority, theoretical and actual. In theory, Rostran is governed by the Assembly, and the Crown Princess is the head of state. In practice, the Salon is all-powerful, and that means Frida. Andrea is merely a figurehead. Yet she might become more than that, and the Conjugational offered an opportunity – or so I hoped. In your unexpected visit, I saw a chance to influence the course events by dealing directly with you instead of letting Frida exploit the spectacle for narrower ends. She would rather eliminate the lawful government entirely. So would the Kirke, for that matter; and both the Salon and the Kirke profess that the Goddess would approve.”
“A being who has appeared to us, with seemingly miraculous powers. The Salon believes in her, or at least pretends to – in order to command the awe of the younger primes and the kella-primes and the humans. I myself do not believe, and neither does Andrea. Only, we dare not say so, or seem to be acting in concert. The cancellation of the Conjugational has left us powerless to act. It is an embarrassment to the Crown – and, indirectly, to the Assembly. The Salon will want to hold Alisa responsible. To get Frida and Layla off the hook, and you Outworlders on it. But I think I can work for your release – if you keep quiet and let me work behind the scenes.”
“What can I do?”
“Nothing. That is, nothing that could give them the excuse they need.”
(Date: 1052-11-04, 11:00 ST)
The Northern Forest
He was armed and dangerous… and totally helpless.
From where Arnold was hidden in the mountains overlooking the Capital, he had a clear view of the glittering spires of what he knew must be the Palace. The Klav’en could take it out. It could take out the entire city.
It would be a slaughter on a scale greater than any seen since the Aureans had taken out Belside. Like all Kelsorians, Arnold Smyth knew the tragic story of their ancestral planet. The people of Kelsor 7 had hated war, and given asylum to those escaping conquerors or militaristic cultures. Like Rafish, whose Alecan forebears had come from Tanzrobi. Like, as he had learned only days ago, Alisa Liddell…
Durgin had imagined that the attempt to rescue her would be a mission of mercy, but it had proven only a fool’s errand. He should have known better; they should all have known better. The others must all be dead by now; they were to have met up with him after taking care of the Guardians in the landing zone. He had been point man, but now there was no point to being here. No point to him even being.
Yet he hadn’t been spotted by the enemy. No sign of flitters in the nearby air yesterday or today, let alone any sound of the enemy approaching by ground. He’d decided to get some sleep last night, after forcing himself to stay awake the night before, when the battle was raging behind him. He’d kept com silence that night, as ordered; but he’d gotten readings on the others, dead and alive – after a while, they’d been cut off.
If there’d been any Guardians in the air to shoot at, he could have used the Klav’en safely. Safely for the city, that is. But there had only been birds. He kept scanning the sky, in a surely vain hope…
And then, suddenly, not a flitter, not a bird, and headed straight for the city, A person. Could it be Alisa? The flier was too far up for him to tell for certain. As far as he knew, none of the Primes here, let alone the Betans, were capable of flight. But how much did he know? How much had any of them known?
He’d never find out here. But he couldn’t go there – not with the Klav’en and still wearing his exoskeleton. He’d be attacked immediately, with no defense but a weapon to terrible to use. Even if he stripped down to his uniform, he would be recognized immediately as an Outworlder – captured, perhaps killed. Like the others, he’d been deeptaught in basic Scanian, enough to get by, but his accent would seem strange to the Rostrans, at least to those in the capital area. Could he pretend to be from elsewhere on the planet?
Decisions, decisions. One thing he could do was disable the Klav’en and hide it. The same with his armor – there was a ravine nearby, with overhangs on the slopes. He could conceal them with brush and branches.
But he’d feel naked without them.
(Date: 1052-11-04, 11:30 ST)
All their best-laid plans had gone awry. Because of Layla, damn her! And damn Frida for spoiling her daughter and letting her have her way.
Gudrid had arrived at the Rivera for the Conjugational, only to learn that there was to be none. The closest thing to an official explanation, which wasn’t supposed to be shared with the media, was that Layla had been enraged over Talak’s dalliance with the Heathen woman. As if Layla had ever really cared for him! But it was whispered that the prince was actually smitten with Lara – no longer a golden child, but a golden adult – who had turned on the Highest by siding with the Outworlders, even going so far as to save their leader through enhancement.
Could she fulfill her mission, given that Alisa was now under Lara’s protection? It would be risky at best, and perhaps futile. As for Kalik, he wasn’t even here, and while she could easily fly to the Palace to kill him, there would be no public spectacle to it – and nothing to be gained, politically, if the rest of the Outworlders remained alive. One thing for certain: the Salon could not be trusted to deal with the situation – or claim that the Gwyndylyn served the Goddess in their own manner. Neither could the Kirke play the public role of a loyal opposition.
Her wristcomp buzzed at that moment. It was Prester Sundanjan, of course; only he was authorized to contact her when she was on a mission. But this time it wasn’t about the Conjugational. It was about something even more serious, potentially alarming.
“A flying woman has been seen landing at München,” he said. “The Gwyndylyn don’t know what to make of it, but the Palace is sending Guardians to find out – and take whatever action they may find necessary.”
“It can’t be the Goddess. It isn’t time for another Joining; even if it were, she’d never appear there. Only humans live in that region, and few of them are allied with the Kirke. If Tyla indeed has some purpose in going there, she would surely have told us.”
“My thinking exactly. It could be another Heathen, come looking for Alisa and the rest of the Outworlders. But that still leaves the question: why München? The Salon and the Palace have been refusing to communicate with their ship, even now that the solar storm has abated, and we certainly have no interest in doing so. But we have to find out who this interloper is – hopefully before the Gwyndylyn. Unlike any of them, moreover, you are surely capable of taking action to eliminate her, and thereby removing any threat she may pose,”
“Your wish is my command, Eminence,” she said, and began flying south.
(Date: 1052-11-04, 11:45 ST)
Klara had been lost in her own thoughts as she listened over the roar of the surf. The mood of the crowd was still mostly curious, their talk was full of references to the Gwyndylyn and the Betans; they wondered what she was, and she heard the word Heathen.
Then she heard the sizzle of GAR fire behind her, people looked past her with apprehension. Moments later another sizzle, and felt a wave of heat. She turned then, and saw the burning flitter – and a man with a GAR, now aiming at the bathhouse. Far from feeling threatened, she was tuned to the emotions of the humans, their fears peaking and turning to panic. They began to scatter when the bathhouse went up in flames. Except for the man with the GAR; He was clearly a human. There was another flitter parked behind him; he must have come from elsewhere.
“Welcome to Rostran, Lady,” he said. “My name is Thomas Harnig.”
She was amused by his formality, but he didn’t give her much time to dwell on it.
“They are coming, Lady. We have little time.”
“Who is coming?” she asked smoothly, her voice so soft as to be barely audible over the roar of the surf.
“Guardians. Gwyndylyn warriors. Surely you know of them, if you are the Lady Tyla. We have places that are hidden from them.”
“My name is Klara. I shall have to explain about that. But what makes you think I want to hide from anyone?”
“This is not the time or place to confront them,” Thomas said as he eased his hands from beneath hers. “They are quite powerful and armed with energy weapons. Many innocents will be killed if they engage you here. As I said, we have places of safety.”
“We?” Klara asked as she held his hands fast.
“The Underground. The human underground.”
Klara glanced up again, and this time saw two small ships approaching. Flying very high and fast, they were fifty miles away but heading directly toward her. Her instincts told her to stand her ground, coming as they did from her mother’s Primal side. A warrior’s pride. Instead, she looked back down at Thomas, wondering if he was influential in the human political movement. If he was, then her first meeting with a Rostran was fortuitous but fortunate. She glanced back up. The ships were closing fast. No time to hesitate.
Her decision was followed by a tensing of the perineum muscles in her pelvic floor, the power from her fantastic inner strength floating her out of the waves. She slipped her long arm around his waist and quickly flew the two of them over to land next to the antiquated machine he’d arrived in. “Perhaps we should take your vehicle, Thomas Harnig. I doubt they will expect me to be traveling with a local. Or so slowly.”
Thomas chuckled. “I think I have a surprise for you.” The doors hissed open as he climbed into the pilot’s seat. Klara sat next to him as the clamshell doors closed with a secure click. Thomas’ fingers flew across the controls as he spun up the engine. When the dashboard indicators turned green, he shoved the throttle to its limit, and was instantly pinned against his seat by 10G’s of acceleration.
Klara was unaffected by the heavy G’s as she turned to watch him fly the ship. Her left eyebrow lifted as she saw the skin pulling back from his lips and eyes, his cheeks flapping as his eyes grew dim from the loss of blood flow. He was straining with every ounce of his strength just to remain conscious. She leaned effortlessly across the cabin to place her hands on his, and put her faster than human reflexes to work. Guiding the flitter downwards to race through the streets of the city, she stayed below the rooftops, twisting and turning around the corners at 12G’s.
The Guardians weren’t fooled for long. Their computers must have picked up the unusual flight path of the flitter and converged on it. The first blast of GAR fire tore through a building just in front of them. Klara narrowed her eyes to use her tachyon vision, but could barely see well enough in the weak tachyon stream to avoid the buildings. She jabbed two fingers through the clear plastic to make holes to look through, and then jammed her palm against the dashboard, tearing through the plastic to grip her fingers around a strong section of the steel frame. Tensing her perineum muscles again, she pressed forward as her volatai flared inside her chest, propelling the tiny flitter far faster than its own power could. Twice the speed of sound, then three times. As the buildings of the city disappeared in a blurred tunnel of rushing walls, she tugged on the attitude control to send the ship soaring into a ballistic arc.
Climbing was a mistake. Actinic beams of GAR fire slashed the air around their flitter, one shaving a few inches from the tail, destroying the engine. The Guardians’ military flitters were far faster than Thomas’ modified civilian ship. Klara was its sole power source now as she pushed forward harder, the steel frame bending slightly as she struggled to stay ahead of her pursuers and also keep the flitter in one piece.
She dropped back down over the flat land outside the city, skimming only inches above the ground. The GAR bursts turned the landscape around them into a cloud of exploding rock and soil as she jinked from side to side while guiding the ship toward the approaching mountains. The flitter took two more glancing blows from the GARs before racing into a narrow canyon at the base of the mountain range. Abandoning the useless controls, she punched upward with her fist to shatter the canopy, and then ripped Thomas’ harness loose from its mounts to pull him out of his seat. She hugged him against her chest as she turned her back to the supersonic slipstream and launched herself free of the flitter. She climbed vertically, barely clearing the cliff face which the out-of-control flitter smashed into at three and half times the speed of sound.
Firmly yet gently, Klara wrapped her arms and legs around her fragile cargo as she somersaulted over the top of the cliff to drop down into the canyon beyond. The other side of the ridge turned white-hot from the explosion of the flitter's power cell, the blast tossing the Guardians’ flitters high into the air. While they were struggling to regain control of their ships, she ducked into a cave behind a thundering waterfall, hoping to confuse their sensors. Despite her inexperience in battle, she already understood how to use the weak tachyon field of Rostran to her favor.
But that hadn’t all been to the favor of Thomas Harnig. Overwhelmed by the G forces, he had lost consciousness. She could sense that he was alive, and that his mind was sound, but he’d be in a good deal of pain when he awakened. The trouble was that, without access to a com – that was gone with the flitter – she didn’t have any way of communicating with the Underground.
Perhaps there was a clue in his papers. They gave his home address as in some town called Couvreur, and his occupation as carpenter. Could that be just a cover? Who would send a mere carpenter to meet an alien visitor like herself?
She’d have to be patient, wait for him to recover…
She prayed that her mother’s hopes for these weak and fearful people were well-founded. Clearly, it would have been child’s play to make them believe that she was an omnipotent goddess. Yet she was charged with contacting the Third Force, the human underground, and discrediting Aayla. The humans seemingly worked beneath the radar of either the Gwyndylyn sisterhood or the Kirke. While the sisterhood was composed of a handful of arrogant and female Primes and their kella offspring, the Kirke was made up of politically scheming and clever Betans – also all female. Only the humans, male and female, would be willing to accept a compromise to govern the planet.
A matriarchy. Rarest of gender power structures. Men were dominant, at least in appearances, on nearly every other world. Aayla had filled Klara’s head with her pet ideas before Klara left for Rostran – mostly about how easy it would be to support the Gwyndylyn, as they were tantamount to goddesses themselves, even though she had not taken their side outright.
Ann had countered that Primes had never shown themselves capable of running a planet. Protecting it yes, but not running it. Aayla had shown enough savvy to avoid the easy decision, and had instead supported the Betan Clergy. She had become their deity, and they were both her worshippers and the agents, to ensure her will became law throughout Rostran society. Most of the humans had sided with the Kirke, given that the elitist Gwyndylyn would have nothing to do with them.
Klara could already sense how easy it must have been for Aayla’s judgment to become clouded by encouraging the Clerics to worship her. The Kirke was obsessed with finding ways to control the Primes – a reasonable enough objective on its face.
She looked out to sea and smiled at the seeming folly of her mission. That she of all people was to destroy the foundation of religion on Rostran. To convince these Frails that she wasn’t a goddess like Aayla. This was to be her redemption for her past sins.
Clenching her fists with her immeasurable power, her first thought was to simply destroy both competing groups. She could then hand Rostran over to the underclass of surviving humans and be done with it.
No, that would never work, she thought with a sigh.
Becoming an angel of death would be even worse than becoming their Goddess in order to carry out her mother’s instructions to destroy their beliefs. While Aayla had sought to inspire them by being unknowable and omnipotent, she must come across as fallible and human at heart. She could meet violence with violence like a Protector, but otherwise she had to find a way to get these people to accept responsibility for their own destiny.
She had looked into his eyes before their flight, and seen an expression in his face that intrigued her. Unlike the slavish and worshipful glow of her one-time monks, this man looked at her with anticipation – but also questioning doubt. His doubt was mixed with anxiety and more than a little fear.
She closed her own eyes now and listened further to his thoughts, picking up the usual fragments and images that filled any man’s head – and images of her – but also an undercurrent of doubt. Impressively, that last strong emotion was accompanied by a rising sense of purpose and determination. She’d never felt that mix of emotions, nor this much mental strength in a man before. He was clearly a leader of men.
(Date: 1052-11-04, 12:15 ST)
Andre was tired of cooling his heels here.
For that matter, he was tired of the place itself: shabby and depressing. There were no windows; it was too far below ground. Walls of drab concrete, not even painted. Only the barest furnishings in the meeting room: a plain table, plain chairs. No books or bookcases; no filing cabinets or hard copy files.
On the off chance of a raid, the Guardians would find nothing – the deskcomp was programmed to self-destruct if anyone but Cooper tried to access it. Whenever he left, he would download any vital information onto a memory stick. But any such raid was extremely unlikely; the headquarters couldn’t be seen from the street, and even the entrance from the garage was disguised as just another slab of concrete.
None of that had bothered him his first time here. It had been all too exciting, with Cooper eager to expose the ugly secrets of the Gwyndylyn and recruit him for the cause. Only now he apparently wasn’t of any use, even after enhancement. He was just taking up space. But where else could he go? What could he do?
Only wait and hope – for something good to happen. To get a chance to contact Alisa. To…
But there hadn’t been any word from Harnig, the man Cooper had dispatched to find the flying woman – and that didn’t bode well. The only plus at this point was that the Underground had better intelligence than the Gwyndylyn gave it credit for.
“We’re only frails,” Cooper said wryly. “How could we tap into their com traffic?”
It’s just a matter of time until we get word about what the Guardians have been up to in München, Andre thought.
But when it came, the word was grim.
“Harnig may have been killed,” Cooper told him sadly after reading the intercept. “They chased his flitter after he picked up that flying woman, and shot it down just short of the Südlichen Bergen. Its power cell blew, and the Guardians almost lost control of their own flitters. No sign of the woman, so they headed back to München, just in case she might make another attempt to contact somebody there.”
“What do we do now?”
“You do nothing. You go nowhere. Talk to no one. Only the Goddess can help us now.”
“If that was the Goddess in München, why haven’t we heard from her?”
“I don’t think it was her there. She was reported to be a blonde. If that means she could a Heathen, then–”
“It can’t be Alisa,” Andre interrupted. “She’s at the Rivera with the Gwyndylyn.”
“Are you sure?” Cooper challenged him. “I can find out.”
Cooper went back to his deskcomp, checking intercepts. After a few minutes, he looked up again – this time in puzzlement as well as dismay.
“You’re wrong, and right,” he declared. “Alisa is no longer at the Rivera. She flew to the Palace just this morning, looking for you. She was there at the very moment the Heathen or whoever it was appeared in München. Only nobody seems to know where she is now; she simply took off.”
“But if the woman in München was another Velorian, she might be on our side. She might have saved Harnig. He might still be with her – wherever she is. Maybe she just doesn’t know how to contact you.”
“I had arranged with him where to meet. He was going to contact me.”
“But if his flitter was shot down, and she rescued him, he might not be able to. He might be there now, waiting for you, or on his way there with her.”
Cooper pondered that for a moment.
“You might have something there,” he said. “Just might. But I have to consider all the alternatives before I take any action. I need to call in some friends. We have to be prepared for any contingency.”
Cooper made a series of calls, supposedly ordering deliveries of food and other commodities to an address in the neighborhood. With that, Andre was banished from the headquarters to the garage. Other agents began to drift in; some he recognized from the last time he’d visited, but he didn’t know their names – and he knew Cooper wouldn’t volunteer them, let alone those of the men and women whose faces were new to him.
Whoever they were, Cooper didn’t want him to take part in their discussion.
“Here,” he said, removing his tracking ring, It’s coming up on lunchtime. You can pick up eats for us at the Green Door a block down the street.”
“Better keep the ring,” one of the newcomers said. “The Guardians are out in force right now. Shouldn’t take any chances. Give him cash.”
“Anything to make you happy,” Cooper told the newcomer, a wiry man with black hair and a small mustache, Then he turned back to Andre, dug some paper money from his pocket, and held it out to him.
Andre reached out and took it.
“Bart there knows what we all like,” Cooper said. “He’s with us. And so are you now. Whatever you want for lunch, you can get while you’re at it; it’s on the house.”
“Right,” Andre said, with a singular lack of enthusiasm.
“I said before I might find a use for you,” Cooper carped.
Andre didn’t want to make any further trouble, after seemingly getting off on the wrong foot. He headed on out to the street. The Green Door was easy to find, as they’d told him – but just as he reached it, there was a commotion in the street. People were looking up into the sky, and shouting about a Goddess.
His eyes followed theirs. It was Alisa!
(Date: 1052-11-04, 12:30 ST)
“Another Heathen?” Andrea exclaimed. “How can this be?”
The news her daughter had brought this morning had been disturbing enough, but now…
“Nobody knows,” Excelsia said. “She got away from the Guardians, but only after they shot down the flitter she fled in. They didn’t know who the pilot was, and neither did anyone they interrogated afterwards at the beach.”
“Why would she need a flitter? If she’s a Velorian, it would take more than a GAR to harm her.”
“She must have wanted to save the pilot. But what was he doing there? We knew she was headed there, but how could he have known? Is this some intrigue by the Kirke? Could it have anything to do with… the night before last?”
“I suppose we should have detained that other Velorian, instead of letting her just fly off,” the crown princess said. “She might know something, or guess something, of use to us.”
“Just how would we have detained her? Or her friend, for that matter? Now we may have another dangerous Outworlder loose. And we can’t trust Frida to take any action.”
“We can at least issue an alert, and have the Guardians on the lookout for Alisa. But only here in the Capital; we have to keep Frida out of this as long as we can. And Lara too, for that matter. I suggest that you return to the Rivera and keep an eye on things. A very close eye.”
“By your leave,” Excelsia said, trying to hide her disappointment.
Andrea reasoned with as best she could.
“I think it’s important at this time that I be seen as in command here,” she said. “We are officially representing the Queen, after all. That’s what we tell the world, and we can’t tell them any differently now.”
“By the popular will, under the Founding Letter,” Excelsia reminded her.
“And who shapes the popular will?”
“It is a matter of information, and how that is shared with the people.”
The media, she thought. The airwaves, too, have their queen…
“Precisely. Which is why I need you there to look after our interests in the present emergency. We can’t afford to have Talak or Layla or even Frida causing further trouble that could be exposed to the public. We have enough to contend with as it is.”
“I understand,” Excelsia said, and followed with a mantra in taking her leave: “Let the Queen’s will be done.”
But what would the Queen’s will be, if she actually had a will? Andrea wondered. For me to have nothing to do with the Outworlders this morning, and now to seek their cooperation?
Could she trust even her own daughter to be telling the whole story? Or any of it? Could she trust anyone? The government of the realm she reigned over in the name of the Queen was a matter of theater, but what kind of performance could the Palace put on without there being any reliable information, with the Salon and the Betans and rival factions of both all trying to manipulate her?
Perhaps there I should try to call a convocation of the Salon to seek some sort of consensus in dealing with this situation. In theory, that should be the prerogative of the Assembly, and I’m sure Mara Kaltquest would love to try to assert its authority – after having acted on her own authority in regard to the Outworlders I now have to deal with. But nothing can be done until we know where we stand – with the Outworlders and the Kirke.
(Date: 1052-11-04, 12:45 ST)
Andre shouted to Alisa, and she heard him. She came in for a landing right in front of him.
Before they could even greet each other, however so did a flitter, manned by Guardians.
“You’re wanted back at the Palace,” one of them said, while the other told the rest of the crowd, including Andre, to disperse. Andre didn’t respond, and that pissed off the second Guardian, who started to draw a pellet gun.
“He’s with me,” Alisa said, and the second Guardian decided to keep his gun in its holster.
“Just who wants to see me?” she asked the first Guardian.
“Crown Princess Andrea.”
“She didn’t seem to want me around this morning.”
“I wouldn’t know about that. Only that she had us sent to find you.”
“As it happens, we have some unfinished business.”
“Then step inside.”
Alisa got aboard, and beckoned Andre to do likewise.
“He’s with me,” she said.
It didn’t take long to reach the Palace, and Andrea was there to meet them at the landing stage.
“You must know that you and your shipmates have caused a great deal of trouble,” the crown princess said.
“I suspect that we’ve simply become the convenient focus of a great deal of trouble that was already brewing here.”
“I’ve heard several accounts of what’s been happening, and don’t know if I can trust any of them. I don’t know if I can trust yours, either, for that matter; but I’m willing to hear it, if only because I can’t imagine what vested interest you might have in the rivalry of the Salon and the Kirke.
She turned to Andre. “I’m not going to ask how you managed to slip out of the Palace this morning, although I can well imagine why. But I am going to ask what you know about Gudrid. We believe her to be a key player in a conspiracy against the Salon by the Kirke.”
“I have a long and complicated story to tell,” said Alisa. “Perhaps Andre can add to it. But at the outset, I want to make it clear that neither we, nor any of our people on the Anders Flame, came here with any intention of interfering in your troubles – which, given the mixed signals we received from your people before Andre and I were assigned by our captain to take part in the Conjugational, were already ongoing,”
“Come to my quarters, then,” the Crown Princess said. “It will be just me and the two of you; I’ll determine in due course what to share with the rest of my government and how soon to do so, It’s a very delicate situation, and increasingly volatile. Hold nothing back, and I’ll do likewise. We can take all day and all night if need be.”
As it turned out, it needed be.
(Date: 1052-11-04, 13:00 ST)
Gudrid could see Guardians, standing next to their flitters on the beach, surrounded by a crowd of frails, but there wasn’t any sign of her quarry.
Had they actually managed to drive her away? There were signs of fighting; a nearby building was damaged, but now all that seemed to be happening was that the Guardians were trying to explain something to the onlookers.
I’ll find out what’s going on soon enough, she thought. But as she came in for a landing, the Guardians opened up on her with their GARs!
How dare they!
Without any further thought, she attacked them with her heat vision. Then, her fury still aroused, she swept the beach…
The Guardians died horribly, but had a few seconds to know they were doomed. The nearby frails were luckier in a sense; they never knew what vaporized them. But those on the fringes of the crowd died more slowly, or suffered severe burns. Those who could ran; those who could not stumbled or even just crawled.
They deserved it. All of them. The Guardians must have let the Velorian get away, and the crowd on the beach had been there to support them. The whole city deserved to die for having sided with the Gwyndylyn against the Kirke, of that she was certain. She used her heat vision again to incinerate more of the frails, and set fire to the nearest buildings. As she smoke and flames filled the air, she looked upon the scene with grim satisfaction.
Time to head back to Castle Kirke, report to Prester Sundanjan and the other clerics and monyks. They were sure to be pleased, and the Kirke would now be positioned to inherit control of the world. Let the Gwyndylyn and their Salon tremble; their day was done, even if they had yet to realize it.
She herself would go down in history, as the heroine of a story of triumph – of putting things right after so many years of betrayal by the Frida and the timorous Lawgivers like Mara Kaltquest, allowing Outworlders like Lara and now the other Velorian and her Kelsorian fellows to violate the sanctity of Rostran, risking the ultimate doom of Baalan’s Curse.
* * *
It was another story back in München, where the humans had never had any love for the Guardians, but who had trusted the Goddess to protect them.
It was a man who calling himself Zook – not his real name – who was first to cry out. His family had deep roots in München, which took its name from a city on Earth from which his distant ancestors had been abducted to a seeded world called Fernenreich, from which some of them had later been abducted to Rostran to serve the Gwyndylyn. Zook had believed that the Betans had been defending his kind’s interests, but he believed that no longer.
“The Goddess has betrayed us,” he shouted to his neighbors. “The Kirke has betrayed us.”
He hurried home, and got on his deskcomp to spread the word. First throughout the city, and then by com to other humans as far away as the Capital, and last by word of mouth there among who didn’t have coms or were away from them in the streets. They couldn’t understand. They felt anger, but also hopelessness. Now the Primes and Betans alike could treat them like vermin.
“Who can we turn to now?” they asked.
(Date: 1052-11-04, 13:30 ST)
“So what do we do now?” asked Alejan.
“Too bad Durgin can’t fly us back to the Flame,” quipped Roth.
Roth Yanni’s jibe was a bit of black humor: even if Durgin were capable of flight after his enhancement, his men would have needed space suits. But Alejan Barstenal didn’t think there was anything funny about it.
“That’s disrespectful, even insubordinate,” he said. “I’ll let it go for now. What can I do, throw you in the brig? But I don’t want to hear any more of it.”
“Understood, Sir and Captain,” said Yanni, properly abashed, and reverting to the proper Kelsorian formality.
Marine Captain (as opposed to ship Captain) Barstenal and Sergeant Yanni had come out of the ordeal better than any of their comrades – at least, to the best of their knowledge. George Gallup and Scott Patterson were KIA, Jim Krupps seriously wounded and Nevil Rafish and Arnold Smyth were MIA. It seemed that Tanya, the Guardian who’d fought with Rafish and Krupps, was also MIA – Krupps was still too out of it to shed any light on that.
Not that anybody here at Gwyndylyn HQ seemed to care, Roth mused. They were all upset over the cancellation of the Conjugational – and something to do with the Kirke, a rival power center here on Rostran. Alisa hadn’t had time to explain any of it at length, and what she had said didn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. Only now she was gone off to the Capital.
For a moment, it seemed as if Alejan could read his thoughts/
“We haven’t exactly covered ourselves with glory,” he said. “We’ve been thinking of ourselves instead of those we’ve lost. Oh, it’s all been very exciting, the whole thing with Lara and Alisa and Durgin. Fantasies come true.”
“As if Lara were interested in us. Or even Durgin. But then Prince Talak has it all over us – he’s trained in the studly arts. Alisa says he’s the reason she’s so glad to be grown-up, not because of any good deeds she’s done for us.”
“Good deeds seem to be in short supply here, and good luck likewise. The reality is that we’re stuck here. None of the Gwyndylyn want to have anything to do with us, and they’d still do away with us if it weren’t for Lara. Maybe they’ve done away with Rafish and Smyth – out of her sight, out of her mind. There’s not a fucking thing we can do to escape.”
“Maybe Alisa can come through for us,” Roth ventured.
“But we’re still under Durgin’s command. We have to respect that. No matter what Alisa can propose, he’s the final authority. Beyond that–”
Alejan broke off as Durgin himself stormed into the room.
“All hell’s breaking loose,” he said. “There’s been an attack on the Guardians and civilians at some place down south called München – a massacre, and they’re blaming it on this so-called Goddess they keep raving about. She’s switched sides, or whatever from the Salon to the Kirke. Frida’s calling for retaliation against their HQ on the other side of the mountain.”
“Have we gotten ourselves into a civil war?” Alejan asked.
“Could be. Not what we came here for. Definitely not. We’ve got to try to stay out of it. We can’t let anyone have the least suspicion of that. Not if we want to get out of here. All of us, I mean.”
“I can’t see that happening, unless Lara gets involved. But I hear she’s too busy fucking Prince Talak to take much interest in anything else.”
“Making up for lost time, is she?”
Alejan was tempted to remind Durgin that his remark was in extremely bad taste, given that Lara had been a seeming child just a couple of days ago. But he’d insisted that Roth respect their commander, and he himself could hardly do otherwise. Whatever else happened, they had to maintain discipline.
“We shouldn’t count on her in any case,” Durgin added. “I’ve been reliably advised that we might be offered an out from another quarter. It has to do with political rivalries here, but I can’t say any more than that – it’s a very iffy situation. For now, we all have to be on our best behavior… even humble ourselves.”
“Too bad we can’t pass that advice on to Smyth and Rafish,” Alejan observed.
(Date: 1052-11-04, 15:00 ST)
The Southern Mountains
Thomas awakened to find himself lying in the sun, a thundering waterfall a short distance away. He stretched and tried to sit up, only to feel a sharp pain in his side; for that matter, he felt a dull ache all over. He vaguely remembered blacking out from the heavy G’s as his flitter accelerated faster than should have been possible, modifications to the speed governor or not.
What he remembered clearly was Klara. He ignored the pain to finish sitting up, and was rewarded with the sight of her standing beneath the waterfall. She was washing her hair, her back turned toward him.
He leaned against the warm rocks as he studied her. Flawless was the only one of the ways to describe her. Statuesque came next. She didn’t carry enough weight to be considered voluptuous. Too lean. Of course, that was what she was all about. Extreme strength. The ability to fly. He presumed she could do everything else that Velorians could do.
She had to be a Velorian. She had the body, the hair, the eyes. Too beautiful for words to describe, that’s what everyone said about Vels. Or Heathens as the Gwyndylyn called them. He’d long studied them in the archives, such as they were on Rostran. More of a “Know your Enemy” kind of thing. The old military manuals from the Aurean ship had made it clear that their eroticism was a weapon. It would confuse and distract a man, drawing him in, enticing him until the Vel could deliver her killing blows. Or simply crush the life from her hapless victims.
Only, he knew he couldn’t trust most of what the Aureans had written. If she was their enemy, then she was his potential ally – the ally of his whole people. He’d seen the look in Klara’s eyes, moreover, and it wasn’t anger or lethal intent. It was gentleness and caring, tinged with a strange touch of innocence. Klara wasn’t here to kill anyone. She was on a mission.
But what was that mission, and did she know how to accomplish it? If so, could he help – assuming that whatever she had in mind would or at least could be of help to the Underground? .
She finished her shower, the waterfall pounding her with a force that would have broken his back. She shook the water from her long hair as she walked his way, pausing halfway to stare at a large reddish rock. Her eyes flared with actinic light, the glare making him blink and cover his eyes. She focused her heat vision on the rock in front of her for a few seconds, then on another beside it, heating both until they were glowing cherry-red. Turning as she combed her fingers through her hair, she used the thousand-degree heat radiating off the rocks to dry it.
She resumed walking his way after finishing with her megawatt hairdryer. Her eyes met his, and she smiled. She wore no clothing, but seemed completely at ease with her casual nudity. Thomas drank her beauty in with his eyes, looking for the tiniest wrinkle, the slightest flaw. He found none.
He tried to get to his feet as she approached, but the sharp pain in his side pulled him up short.
“How long have I been dead to the world?” he asked.
“I don’t think I’ve come out of it very well.”
“It’s not that serious, Thomas. The slipstream was pretty intense when I pulled you out of the flitter and I think you got twisted around a bit.”
“But we must have been going at 10 Gs when I blacked out, Nine’s my limit.”
“It wasn’t for very long. Just until I could lose the Guardians.”
“Are they going to stay lost?”
“Hopefully. They may have crashed on the other side of the mountain,”
“They were trying to find out who you are and what you’re doing here. Same as me. Only they’d have tried to take you out.”
“They wouldn’t have succeeded.”
“I’d already figured that out. So what are you doing here?”
“Looking for the Human Underground.”
His jaw dropped, but his hopes rose.
“Well, you’ve just found it. Part of it, anyway.”
“You’re fighting the Gwyndylyn? They’ll make short work of you if they catch you.”
“Ah, the operative word. If.”
“Are there many of you?
“Tens of thousands. We have our people everywhere.”
“Impressive. Are you fighting the Kirke as well as the Gwyndylyn?”
“Some of us think the Kirke will help us, because they hate the Gwyndylyn. I don’t believe it myself. Only, without their kind of help, we’re too weak to face them openly. We have to stay underground.”
“But that could change if you had a Protector?” Klara asked.
“Right. But who would…”
“I would. If you’ll have me.”
Thomas’ jaw dropped again. He was dumfounded by the enormity of her simple offer.
“Why would you take our side? We’re just ordinary men?”
Klara knelt in the cooling sand, enjoying the soft touch against her skin. “Neither the Gwyndylyn nor the Clerics are fit to lead this world. Humans are the most capable of administering governments.”
Thomas stared down at her before quickly kneeling as well, surprised to find that he still had to look up slightly to meet her eyes. “But we’re just men. Unless you stay with us, they’ll easily overpower us again.”
“Not if the ruling elites are gone and the planetary culture changed. Surely there are moderates among the Primes and the Betas.”
“Some, but they’re afraid to speak up. Some of us thought that Tyla was going to find a way to empower them. That she truly was a Goddess.”
“She was,” Klara said, “And I could be too if I wished.”
Thomas looked back at her, the doubt visible in his eyes.
“But I don’t wish.”
She smiled brightly.
Thomas sighed in relief, and then in dawning belief. But he didn’t quite...
“A goddess who doesn’t want to be a goddess…” he began.
He regretted the words the moment they left his mouth.
Surprisingly, Klara smiled even more brightly. “Is that what you doubt about me?”
“I’m sorry. I guess I just wasn’t raised to believe in anything that goes beyond our experience here. And what do you know of that? You seem to be well-informed, but have you ever lived here? Even visited before?
“No. All I know is what Mother got out of Tyla. So while you may need me, I need you… if we are to succeed, where Tyla has failed. I have a responsibility, you see.”
“Why might that be?”
Klara rose to stand over him, her hands on her hips. Thomas’ eyes slowly traced her long legs upward, quickly crossing her obvious charms, then looking deeply into her bright blue eyes.
“The woman you knew as Tyla, the woman the Kirke calls the Goddess. She’s my older sister, Aayla.”
“But what is she?” he asked hesitantly. “Not a Velorian, because she isn’t blonde. Which means you aren’t a Velorian, either. Is she kin to the Galen? Are you?
“Yes, and yes. It’s rather complicated. It would take a while to explain? What do you know of the Galen?”
“Nothing really. I mean, other than that they created the Supremis. The rest is just wild rumors and speculation.”
“The rumors are true, and even then, they only scratch the surface.”
“Go on,” Thomas said warily.
“Well, for one, you know how strong the Gwyndylyn are?”
Thomas shrugged. “Sure. Every human does. They can shape steel in their hands like we can warm putty. Hundreds of times our strength.”
“Then what you need to understand, Thomas Harnig, is that my strength eclipses theirs as theirs eclipses yours.”
Thomas’ thoughts reeled. A hundred times a hundred? Could it be possible that anyone was that strong.
“And it’s the same with Tyla?”
Thomas nodded. “
“Now I understand the Kirke’s' obsession with her. A Galen Goddess could easily subdue the Gwyndylyn.”
“Which she didn’t do.”
“She asked only for our worship. For our belief.” He paused. “As I said. I’m not one of the believers. I believe that we have to make our own peace. That our future must be in our hands, not some Galen’s.”
“Well spoken, Thomas Harnig. I seem to have chosen you well.”
“Funny. I thought I chose you.”
She looked up to see Thomas grinning mischievously at her. “We both chose. That’s good.”
“So what’s this all got to do with me, Klara? With the Underground.”
“We have some work to do to convince others to believe as you do. I will put the Gwyndylyn in their place to buy you the freedom to come forward. To form a new government.”
Thomas laughed mirthlessly. “Right. That’s a task only a Galen would consider possible. They’d slaughter us where we stood if they could find us. They have a hundred ways to kill our people.”
“Which is why I’m here. To protect you. To buy you time to nurture a government that allows everyone to participate. A democracy.”
Thomas looked up at her, confused by her words, even as his heart leaped at the bright promise of such a world.
“Democracy?” It was a dream beyond all imagining. “You can bring that to Rostran?”
“I can try. But first I have to find your people, and we don’t have a com. Do you know where we are?”
“Most likely the Südlichen Bergen,” he said. “Those are the mountains closest to München.”
“And how far away is Couvreur?”
“A couple of hundred miles. But that isn’t where we need to be. There should be a safe house ready near Haszko. That’s a 500 miles further away, but closer to the capital. Dargrin will meet us there.”
“Dargrin Cooper. Our leader, or as close to a leader as we’ve got. But without a flitter, I guess you’ll have to carry me.”
“We’d better keep low to the ground. I know now that I was spotted coming in, but they were scanning the skies. And if we fly at treetop level, we can hide quickly if and when we have to. Can you guide me?”
“I know the general direction. We may have to zig-zag a bit towards the end, but I’ll recognize Haszko when I see it.”
(Date: 1052-11-04, 16:00 ST)
Things hadn’t gone well at the Palace, No sooner had Andre and Alisa gotten together with Crown Princess Andrea than there had been a series on interruptions – the first having to do with the second attack on München...
It was during that interruption that Andre – Andrea having excused herself to join a conference with Salon leaders in the capital and at the Rivera – briefed his shipmate on what he had learned from the Underground. She knew something about politics, from Velor as well as Kelsor 7. Thought she knew, at least. So she took it all in calmly – until he mentioned the Brooder Program.
“It can’t be true,” Alisa protested, a hint of desperation in her voice. “It mustn’t.”
“There can’t be any doubt about it,” Andre insisted. “It’s an open secret. And members of the Underground have lost women they know, loved ones, even wives–”
Of a sudden, Alisa was no longer in denial.
“Damn them!” she shouted in anger and anguish. “Damn this whole planet.”
“But we have a chance to do something about it,” Andre insisted, clearly trying to give her hope of working through and past her despair. “Don’t you see now why we have to take the side of the Underground?”
“I see now that I’ve been an utter fool,” Alisa cried. “I was there, at the Rivera. But I saw only what they wanted me to see, heard only what they wanted me to hear. They wanted me to be a brooder, to help create a new generation, to mentor and inspire them. I saw the smiling faces of the children of the current generation, and never knew where they came from, never knew that far below me, where I never ventured, never thought of venturing, women…not Supremis, but ordinary women like those back home, were–“
“We can stop it,” Andre responded, an air of resolution in his voice .
“How? If you believe that, you’re as big a fool as I am.”
That must have hurt; she could see the look on his face. But she didn’t have a chance to make amends – not then.
It was at that moment that the Crown Princess returned, with news that seemed to them of no consequence. About how the Kirke might be trying to stage a coup, beginning with that second attack on München.
“We’re still trying to figure out what the first raid there was all about,” she added. “It was a flying blonde, according to our Guardians – who, unfortunately, are no longer available for further questioning. Can you explain that?”
“Can you explain the Brooder Program?” Alisa asked.
Andrea looked shocked, but whether out of shame or only surprise, Alisa couldn’t tell – the Crown Princess seemed to be at a loss for how to respond, and she was too impatient to wait for one.
“Why haven’t you put an end to it?” she demanded.
Andrea was speechless for a few moments, but finally answered,
“There were so few of us, and so many of… them,” she said gravely. “The Gwyndylyn were desperate to build up our numbers, and we did. Only, by the time that it was no longer necessary, it had become a matter of faith, like much else here. The Salon and the Kirke alike sanctioned it, and declared it beyond the authority of the civil government. I have no say in the matter.”
“What about the Queen?”
“I saw her in the Dance of the Freyen at the Rivera. She–“
“She is nothing but a symbol. She was the consort of the Czet’len, the only male Prime aboard the ship that brought our peoples here, along with humans enslaved from a seeded world. He it was who instituted the program for breeding kella-primes from Betan stock, using human brooders, and for purging both of any Outworlder genetic traits.
“But the Czet’len was later driven away, after seeking power and conquest for himself rather than for the new generations. That left the Queen, and the Salon still rules in her name, She knows her part by heart. But only by heart. The Goddess enhanced her body at our first Joining, in hopes of restoring her youth, but her mind – there, indeed, it was quite the opposite. Yet we pretend otherwise among ourselves, for the sake of the younger generation… even my daughter Excelsia… and if the world at large were to know…”
“This is insane!” Andre broke in. “Your people are a bunch of lunatics!”
“Our way has kept the peace and served us well for generations,” Andrea answered as calmly as she could. “Who are you to question it? Even Lawgiver Kaltquest had no right to question it when she took it upon herself to invite you to the Conjugational. She had nothing but hope… like me. But unlike me, she presumed to turn it into reality, to end our isolation, find a new path.”
“And how were we supposed to know any of that?” Alisa snapped.
“Even Mara wouldn’t want you to get involved with the Ordinaries.”
“What about the Ordinaries?” Alisa said scornfully, beating Andre to the punch.
“Things don’t appear very peaceful at the moment,” he added. “Among your people or the Betans or the Ordinaries.”
“Who is to blame for that? Nothing was amiss before your arrival. And what about the other Velorian who appeared in München this morning? What purpose does she serve, other than as a provocation?”
“We know nothing about her, I swear it,” Alisa said. “We came here to speak the truth, and we are speaking it. We believe that you too have been speaking it, even if it pains you. You have already told us things you do not tell to most of your own people. Let us proceed from there. Perhaps, with your aid and counsel, we can still find a way out of this crisis that threatens my fellow Kelsorians as well as the future of your Rostran, for which I am sure you feel just as dearly.”
She knew she had to swallow her anger, and her pride.
She glanced back at Andre, and could see his own feeling of relief on his face.
And perhaps something more…
(Date: 1052-11-04, 17:30 ST)
The Northern Forest
History Professor Papadoglou had been winding up his course at the Academy with an inspirational lecture about how Kelsor 7 represented a Third Force between the Velorians and the Aureans, the true hope for the future of the Galaxy.
It was all bullshit, Smyth knew. His homeworld didn’t represent anything but itself. It had clients among the other neutral worlds, but none were true allies and surely none would go to war on its behalf. Like the Velorians and Aureans themselves, they were dependent on Kelsor 7 for the quantum electric drives. It was the same with the Scalantrans, who resented them for allowing any potential competitors to acquire QED’s, but couldn’t survive any such competitors without them.
Papadoglou droned on about rival ideologies, and how Kelsor 7 had escaped them; of how the Survey Service was opening new worlds to contact with the Galactic community and how men like him would ensure the safety of the survey ships. That too was bullshit; it was all about commerce. Smyth was sorely tempted to tell him so, even if that meant he’d be washed out of the Academy, never become a marine…
And then he woke up. He was lying in the ravine.
He remembered deactivating and then disassembling the Klav’en. He had made a more thorough job of it than he had first intended. The thing was too dangerous for him to risk the chance that somebody might find the pieces and reassemble them. It had been delicate work, and he’d had to remove his exoskeleton to fully free his hands. Putting it back on, he had then dug holes by main force, up and down the ravine, consigned the components to them, and covered them over.
He set off towards the city, wondering whether there were a way to cover his tracks. By chance, he came across a small pond, and waded into it: a perfect place to ditch the armor. The pond emptied into a stream – it went in the wrong direction, but he wouldn’t leave a trail and it wasn’t as if he were in any great hurry.
Luck had been with him so far. He didn’t expect it to hold up once he got close enough to the capital to be spotted.
Look on the bright side, he thought. Maybe Alisa can cut a deal for me… for us. All I want to do is get home, and perhaps the Rostrans will spare us, if only we can convince them that we won’t give them away…
The Northern Shore
“But what do we do now?”
That was what Rafish wanted to know, and Tanya couldn’t tell him. They had been too fucking busy – well, too busy fucking – to give thought to the future; the present had been all that seemed to matter.
But they’d had another close call with the force field generator that protected his cock – too close a call. And without the force field, he couldn’t even squeeze her breasts or pinch her nipples hard enough to bring her off. He was still so hot for her that he could come just from watching her play with herself, but she couldn’t even feel it when he shot his load on her. It was a real bummer. Of course, he could still use the LAMP-7 on her, but that wasn’t the same – there was no fucking intimacy to it.
She was frowning in response to his question, but suddenly her face lit up.
“You’re already my prisoner of love. Why not be my prisoner of war? If I’m the one with that LAMP thingy when I report it, and I won’t stand for your being treated any differently. You could give your parole and–”
“Stay here? On Rostran?”
“Why not? Your comrades may think you’re dead, and if they knew you’d been taken I don’t think they’d want you back. If they knew you’d come with me voluntarily, they’d probably want to punish you for treason. And, even if you have a woman back home…”
“I don’t. Nobody beyond casual acquaintance.”
“Come with me,” she invited. “And then you can come in me all you want. I’m sure you know about gold. It works with kella-primes, too.”
“Besides which, we won’t have to forage for food,” Rafish joked. Finding anything good to eat, animal of vegetable, had been a challenge; if Tanya hadn’t been familiar with Rostran fauna and flora, it would have been a lot worse.
Light of foot and light of heart, they set off for the Capital. They didn’t have any idea that Smyth yet lived, and would get there ahead of them.
It was the ultimate humiliation, that their survival depended on Lara.
As a gal’lar, Frida was a match for Gudrid in sheer strength, and more than a match in experience. But Gudrid could fly, and Frida couldn’t. There was no way she could defend the keep, if it came to that – and it might well come to that, if the enemy attack on the Guardians at München was any indication.
The enemy… That in itself was a humiliation. The Salon and the Kirke had long been at odds, but the rules of engagement had been strict, and the Goddess had always prevailed on both parties to restrain themselves. Only they couldn’t turn to the Goddess now, if they ever could have; she seemed to have abandoned them – and Gudrid had made things even worse: the frails thought that she had been the Goddess and turned against them. It was only a small comfort that this might weaken the power of the Kirke – the frails had never been more than a token presence in the Order of Monyks.
None of it would have happened if it hadn’t been for these damnable Kelsorians and their Heathen emissary. Only, she had been fool enough see an opportunity at the time, thus incurring the enmity of Prester Sundanjan – could that have precipitated the execution of Anyal? – and, later, even try to turn Alisa to the cause of the Gwyndylyn. And now she had to contact Sundanjan, pretending to know nothing about the execution, or about Gudrid, but to warn him off just the same,
I should have ordered the bombing of the Castle, she thought. At least that could have eliminated the threat of the annihilation chamber.
Yet she hadn’t, and it was too late now. Only Lara stood a chance against Gudrid, but she had to convince the Prester that the possibility was a certainty – that Lara’s advantage as a Kryp’terran was great enough to overcome any lack of experience in combat. She’d have to stretch the truth, and keep a straight face doing it.
And, even if she succeeded, she might not remain Highest. Those had questioned her adoption of Lara, even if she were now a godsend, would be looking for any excuse to mount a challenge to her command. The disastrous cancellation of the Conjugational, and the perfidy of Talak, which couldn’t be concealed forever, would become a scandal in itself. Chances were that Excelsia would be leading the pack…
Come what might, there was nothing for now it but to retreat to her inner sanctum and place the call to Sundanjan. Only, at the last moment, she realized she might still have an out – if Gudrid herself was there with the Prester…
(Date: 1052-11-04, 19:30 ST)
Dargrin Cooper had taken a commercial flitter for his journey to Haszko. He had legitimate business there as a marketing executive for a regional timber cooperative, after all, so it made sense to travel openly – above suspicion.
With Andre apparently once more in the hands of the Palace, it was even more important to avoid suspicion, It wasn’t that Andre would betray them; he was beyond any threat the Guardians could make, and so was the Velorian Alisa. But the Guardians might snoop around the neighborhood, looking for any signs of where the Kelsorian had been. He’d ordered the warehouse office cleared out and abandoned – for the time being.
Now to see what Harnig might have learned, if he made the rendezvous. Dargrin borrowed a company truck to head deep into a nearby forest, where a lodge served as a safe house. He parked at the end of the main logging road, well past the point where the lumberjacks were presently working, and walked the rest of the way. He couldn’t see any signs of life at or near the lodge, but he knew that he himself could be seen. That was the drill.
He hadn’t heard from Thomas; he might even be dead, or else just keeping com silence. Reports from München had it that he’d picked up the flying woman and fled in his flitter, pursued by the Guardians. The Guardians had returned empty-handed, but the flying woman, or perhaps a second flying woman, even the Goddess – witnesses were confused – had later appeared and annihilated the Guardians and dozens of bystanders before taking off for parts unknown.
None of it made any sense, and the very possibility that Tyla might have been involved was unsettling. But if Harnig had survived, he’d make his way to this place. That too was the drill. It would be up to him to make the first move, once he was sure the coast was clear. And that was how it went down.
“Over here,” came a voice from somewhere in the trees. It was Harnig, no doubt about it.
Cooper walked around the rude wood structure. Thomas emerged from cover with a slender woman who was inches taller than he was.
He stared at the long hair that cascaded over her shoulders. It was the color of burnished gold. He’d never seen hair like that except in the most taboo of pictures, but he’d long imagined that a Heathen might look like this.
She wore practically nothing. That was distracting, but her words were to the point.
“Are you the head of the human resistance on Rostran?” she asked, her voice melodious and sweet.
Cooper glanced at Thomas, and then back at her. “I am.”
“Then I have come to make you and your allies the new leaders of Rostran.”
“I… I don’t understand.”
“She’s Tyla’s sister,” Thomas said. “Her name is Klara.”
He paused for a moment, then added:
“She saved me from the Guardians, but we lost the flitter and my com. No way to get in touch. Have I missed anything?”
“Missed anything?” Cooper said sarcastically? “Just an attack on München. A lot of people got fried, and not just Guardians. Please tell me Klara here had nothing to do with that.”
“Indeed I had nothing to do with it, I swear,” Klara interjected. “Thomas was out cold for a while, from the acceleration. I was taking care of him.”
“Could it have been… Tyla?” His voice was shaking.
“It can’t have been. Our mother told her never to come back.”
“And your mother’s word is law?”
“She has her ways.”
“Let’s assume you’re right. Who could it have been?”
“I don’t know. I’m new here. But she can’t have been from Sanctuary.”
“Where we come from. Only family members know the way here.”
“It’s all news to me, too,” Thomas added.
Cooper was confused. He’d worshipped the Goddess Tyla, and had believed in her omnipotence since the first time he’d seen her floating over the towers of Castle Kirke. But no matter what Klara believed, Tyla might have betrayed him and his fellow humans. And Klara, who had saved Thomas, might now be the Underground’s only hope.
He prostrated himself before her, but was surprised by her reaction.
Klara knelt in front of him.
“You don’t have to do that,” she said.
Thomas remained standing. “She’s not into that stuff, Cooper. She’s just here to help us.”
Cooper still couldn’t lift his forehead from the sand. He began chanting the verses of the First Prayer.
“She’s just a woman, Coop. A Supremis.” Thomas knelt down beside him. “You know, just like the Gwyns. Only more so.”
Klara leaned forward to cradle Cooper’s head in her hands, guiding him to stand back up.
Cooper stiffened as he found himself staring into her blue eyes. They looked like blue diamonds, faceted and sparkling. The eyes of the Goddess! He tried to bow again, but she held him fast.
She slipped one hand down his arm to guide his right hand to the warmth of her bare thigh. “Feel me. I’m just a woman.”
She looked up to take Thomas’ hand as well, guiding it down to her other leg. Both men were gasping for breath. Cooper from the sacrilege of actually touching a Goddess, and Thomas because he was starting to get very turned on by Klara. He daringly held her tightly, testing the steel of her muscles.
“Body of Steel, Heart of Gold,” Thomas said softly, “or so I once read in a book about Velorians.”
Klara rested her arms on their shoulders, enjoying their simple touching as she had so many times with her monks. “Except I’m not a Velorian.”
Cooper stared up at her in shock, his thoughts truly confused now. If she wasn’t a Velorian, why was she talking like one? He looked down in disbelief as Thomas traced his hands upwards between her strong thighs, caressing her as a man did with his lover. Was she truly a goddess? Or was she…
* * *
Klara smiled her encouragement as she felt Thomas losing control of his libido. She closed her eyes and let her head fall backward, tuning herself into the men’s wild emotions.
She could sense now how Cooper saw her, as if she hadn’t already guessed. A blonde goddess, of immeasurable and omnipotent power. Unknowable. Untouchable.
Thomas was different. She felt an electric tension building in him like a gathering summer thunderstorm. The sense of male pressure grew even harder as he began to inhale her flowery scent. Like any man in such a situation, he soon lost any sense of rational thought, he was could think only of her body and what he longed to do with it.
Turning back into Cooper, she found that her pheromones washed away even his sense of worship, leaving him with no thought save one. Both these men wanted to make love to her. To possess her, to pour their passion into her.
She had once exploited her monks, but now she was ashamed of that. She was here to atone for it by freeing men like them from murder and oppression. But it wouldn’t do to tell them about her past; she had to focus on the future.
She took their hands and extended them out to her sides. At the same time she throttled her pheromones back to near zero. “You have weapons that will injure a Gwyndylyn, do you not?” she asked Cooper. “Thomas lost his, with the flitter.”
“We have another GAR hidden in the lodge,” Cooper said. “An original. Designed for killing Primes.”
She drew up her skimpy outfit as far as her midriff, to which she gestured.
“It won’t kill me. Brace your weapon in the sand, aim it, fire it, and then get back.”
“Shoot you? There?” Cooper asked in a disbelieving voice.
“Nothing you could possibly do can hurt me.”
She pulled her outfit the rest of the way off, cast it aside, and stood there proudly naked.
Copper’s hands were trembling as he did as she bid, burying the handle of the weapon deep in the sand as he aimed it. Cooper backed up a dozen steps, a flurry of emotions traveling across his face. If there was one thing that everyone knew about a GAR, it was that it could vaporize anything in the universe if its beam was concentrated on the target for long enough.
Thomas turned to see the worried yet hopeful look on his face. If this was what it took to convince him that Klara would be the savior of their cause, then so be it.
Cooper turned back and leaned over to sight carefully along the barrel.
“Shoot, shoot!” Klara challenged him, assuming a hands-on-hips pose.
Cooper pushed the firing stud. The ray lanced out at her. A brilliant hotspot flared on her chest. Klara continued to look back into his eyes, showing no discomfort as the firing continued for long seconds.
Both men knew that a Gwyndylyn could endure five seconds of GAR fire, maybe ten if she were willing to risk serious burns. But that time quickly came and went without Klara showing any signs of distress, even as her body grew hotter by the second. She moaned, but with pleasure rather than pain at the feel of the annihilating energy against her skin.
Yet a moment later, she signaled for Cooper to stop. Her body gradually ceased to glow as it assimilated the energy, augmenting her already magnificent breasts.
“I think I’ve made my point,” she said. “We don’t want to risk overloading the GAR and starting a fire here. Not to mention killing the two of you. That would be very counterproductive.”
Klara smiled at them, then startled them.
“And in case you were wondering, I’d love to have you both fuck me,” she said. “I’m a woman, with a woman’s needs. You may already know that there’s an element I need to make it safe for you. I’m sure it can be found here. But right now, I need to pick your brains instead of riding your cocks. I need to know all I can about how things stand here. We can win your battle, but it isn’t going to be easy.”
She might have gone against Mother’s advice, tried to play the Goddess. But that would have made them too dependent on her, discouraged them from doing their part – and their part was going to be essential. But she wasn’t about to dash their hopes for reward.
“You’re the keys to it all,” she told them. “I can’t help you unless you help me. But once we’ve gotten into that, and once I obtain that element, you’ll both be welcome put your keys in my lock – and my lock will be eager to receive them, if you get my what I mean…”
They got it, all right. But right now, Klara told them, she was eager to learn all she could from them about their world and its troubles – whether of Rostrans’ own doing or Aayla’s.
(Date: 1052-11-04, 22:10 ST)
Night had fallen, but there was no rest for them. Kalla’s thoughts were as dark as the sky outside, and Andre was trying vainly to console her after they had gone over what they had learned from Andrea – gone over and over.
“We’ve still got to try to do the right thing,” he ventured now.
“But what if there’s no right thing to be done?” she asked. “What if there’s no way out, or round, or through? There’s this Terran poem a friend showed me once, back on Velor. It got to me then, and I’m remembering it now – because the poet must have thought Earth was going through the same kind of thing as we are seeing here on Rostran:
“Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
Andre was surprised she would remember something like that, especially coming from a world that knew nothing of falcons or falconers – which were an imported affectation even on Kelsor 7. Yet he could appreciate the sentiment; he imagined Cooper and his men would also appreciate it. Throughout their private conference with Crown Princess Andrea, he and Alisa had endured one shock after another. Madness seemed to rule Rostran, and the people here didn’t seem to know the half of it. It wasn’t only about things like the basis of the Kirke’s annihilation chamber – that came as no surprise to Alisa; anti-matter was the only possible explanation it – but Andrea and the rest of the Salon didn’t know about their own history, the very basis of their passionate intensity.
Like, just who was this Goddess who had appeared to the Salon and the Kirke – only not, it seemed, lately? It was clearly not Gudrid, the promis assigned to educate and enhance Andre. She had herself later been somehow enhanced as a tset’lar (gal-lar, they called it here) to attack the Guardians – but it wasn’t clear why the Kirke had ordered the attack, or even if it had. Frida had reported afterwards to the Crown Princess that Prester Sundanjan had called it a misunderstanding; that the intended target had been that flying blonde – who had vanished as mysteriously as she had appeared. And if neither the Goddess nor the flying blonde lived in some remote part of Rostran, doing Skietra-knew-what most of the time, where had they come from?
In the civil war that seemed to be developing between the Primes and the Betans, or at least between the Salon and the Kirke, the Gwyndylyn had the obvious advantage. And yet the government was in disarray over the cancellation of the Conjugational and animosities within the Salon and the ruling family – if it could be called a family. Andrea had tried to explain the whole thing about Frida and Layla and Talak, but it didn’t make any sense to the Kelsorians – any more than the business of a figurehead princess supposedly carrying out the will of a less- than-figurehead Queen. Then there were the matters of the Founding Letter and Baalan’s curse – which might or might not be authentic.
Rostran had been settled by Aureans; that was clear enough, and there had been more than one wave of settlers. Humans had arrived as slaves with the Betans, which was why they had become aligned with the Kirke, and there had been occasional contact with other peoples, not to mention the attack by a Velorian protector – only, why would she have tried to take on a whole planet of Primes? Truth and legend were inextricably linked in the local mythology, and there was no way to independently verify any of it – might not be back on Kelsor 7, or even Velor itself.
“Compared to these people, the Christla are perfectly sane,” Andre had ventured at one point. “I don’t suppose even de Camp could figure them out, and he was the one who saw that they were deliberately falsifying their history, even to the point of building castles that looked as if they’d been here for centuries.”
“If only we could reach him,” Alisa sighed.
But they were all alone now. They might never see de Camp or their other shipmates again, save for those captured marines sequestered at the Rivera. And Durgin, of course. But would any of those still on the Anders Flame be allowed to return home, knowing as much as they did, even if it was far from all?
“The Underground has its hopes. But those depended on an alliance with the Kirke, and no matter why Gudrid did what she did, that alliance has to be dead by now. Who else can even speak for the humans, let alone defend them.”
“What’s needed here is a change of heart among Primes and Betans alike. The Salon and the Kirke are just ruling elites. But the rest of the people let those elites speak for them, perhaps because the elites in turn claim to speak for the Goddess, whoever she is… or was. What this world needs is not a goddess. But nobody here is going to listen to me, or to you, or to any Outworlders.”
“Alisa, don’t be like this. I can’t take it.”
“Do you think I can?”
She looked into his eyes. “Hold me. Please hold me,”
Andre took her in his arms. It was meant to be just a comforting hug, but they suddenly realized they couldn’t let it remain that. The aching need they shared at this moment went beyond the power of words to express. Their bodies spoke for them. Alisa took him by the hand and led him, to the bedchamber.
Andre had longed for this, if not for it to come at such a painful moment in Alisa’s life. It was a dream come true, a fantasy suddenly becoming reality – and there was no denying his excitement and anticipation.
Only, as they were about to take it further, beginning with deep kissing and fondling, they saw a flash in the sky outside through the window of their bedchamber – and then heard a distant rumbling.
(Date: 1052-11-05, 12:05 ST)
First came the blinding light, then the thunder and the shock wave. He could practically feel the walls tremble, and Peter Durgin was trembling with them.
My God, he thought. They’ve launched a nuclear attack!
Walark. It would have to be Walark, taking over command from Pestrov. Only, what was he attacking? The capital? It couldn’t have been the Rivera; even a near miss with a nuke and the whole complex would be gone – and him with it.
Damn that Christla fanatic! he raged inwardly. He might as well have signed our death warrants!
Even with his enhancement, he knew, the tset’lar Frida could make short work of him. He didn’t imagine that creature Lara would intervene for him this time – or for Alejan Barstenal or Roth Yanni. He could only hope that their deaths would come and their pain end more quickly…
Yet nothing happened. It was only half an hour later that Barstenal and Yanni stormed into his room.
“The natives have gone crazy!” Alejan shouted.
“And yet you’re still alive?”
Alejan and Roth stared at him in seeming incomprehension.
“After Walark nuked the capital?” Durgin added.
It was Roth who set him straight.
“It’s got nothing to do with Walark, or the Flame,” he explained. “It was an accident at Castle Kirke. An anti-matter explosion. That’s what Frida’s been telling them.”
“What were they doing with anti-matter?”
“Some sort of execution chamber for their enemies; they used it against a double agent just the other day. But the stuff somehow got exposed tonight; they had only a gram of it, but that was enough to leave just a crater where their headquarters used to be. And it let loose a storm of radiation – the kind only Primes can perceive. That sent everyone into a panic; they thought at first it was the end of the world. Now they know better.”
“Thank God for that; if they could have pinned this on us...”
“They couldn’t anyway,” Alejan pointed out “They had the Flame under surveillance, and it wasn’t even in the right position to launch an attack.”
“Hell, why didn’t I think of that?” Durgin chided himself. “But if what you two say is true, the Gwyndylyn have Rostran all to themselves now. We’re still in deep shit. Unless we can find some other way to get out of it?” Any ideas?
Barstenal and Yanni simply shook their heads.
“Do you suppose Alisa can do anything?”
“How the hell should we know?” Yanni said.
Maybe that Kaltquest woman would know… Durgin told himself after they left. It looks like it all comes down to her… and maybe on that Crown Princess, if they’re really on the same page…
Andre was still trying to get his head around it all. One moment they had been engaged in slow foreplay. Then came the flash of right and the rumbling. Of a sudden, there had been a look of desperation on Alisa’s face – then she had ripped off their underwear, impaled herself on his cock, and begun pounding him into the bed – which could take it, being designed for primes, His enhanced body could likewise take it. And yet he wasn’t focusing on that at the time.
She’s fucking me, she’s fucking me! was all he could think. And despite his training for the Conjugation, he couldn’t hold himself back but exploded inside her in a moment. Perhaps he should have felt embarrassed, he thought later – only, later, he had a lot more to think about. At that moment, all he could think was I’m coming inside her, I’m shooting inside her! He could feel her cunt spasm – such powerful spasms would once have turned his cock into jelly, assuming he could have gotten it into her at all when she wasn’t wearing gold. But at the time, he didn’t think about that, either – he was too thrilled that he hadn’t gone soft after coming. It wasn’t just the heady scent of her pheromones, but the excitement of knowing that she wanted his cock, that she wanted him.
She had paused for a moment, and what she said didn’t make any sense at the time.
“It’s all right. We’ve lived through it. Nothing can hurt me now. We’ve got all the time in the world.”
“I mean, there’s nothing to be afraid of, after all.”
She looked puzzled.
“Didn’t you see it? Didn’t you feel it?”
And then her expression changed.
“Skietra!” she exclaimed. “You’re not a Velorian, even after… you can’t see neutrinos or pions or gamma rays. It was an anti-matter explosion that lit up the sky just a little while ago – the radiation you can’t see was so intense that I thought for a time it might destroy the world, and us with it.”
“I did only what was necessary,” Frida said. “Gudrid was a threat to all us of. She could be eliminated only by the same means the Kirke employed against Anyal.”
“But what do I tell Mother?” Excelsia persisted. “She can’t believe it was an accident.”
“That I saved her life, and yours, and those of all of the Salon and the royal household. Gudrid’s actions at München made her intentions manifest, and she could never have done so without the sanction of Prester Sundanjan. He tried to deny it when I spoke with him, he even tried to make me believe that his gal’lar would be disciplined – as if he had any means to do so, as if he could force her into the annihilation chamber.”
“What can we tell the rest of the world?”
“If it comes to that, we can always blame Tyla. Or we can find the Outworlders and their Heathens responsible, as ultimately they are – none of this would have happened except for them.”
The Highest paused for a moment.
“We can still contain this. Nobody here is any the wiser; the Guardians who dropped the bomb are nothing but atoms now; they never knew what they were really attacking. Nobody in the capital besides you and the Crown Princess should be any the wiser, either.”
“What can we do about it?” Andrea asked her daughter.
They were in the Crown Princess’ inner chamber. Nobody else could hear. Nothing was being recorded.
“For the time being, we pretend to go along with her,” Excelsia said calmly.
“Just as you have actually gone along with her in the past?”
“Only until I learned she was trying to shift responsibility to me, regarding dealing with the Outworlders.”
Not exactly what I heard from the Outworlders themselves, Andrea reflected. Perhaps it is time for me take my own counsel, and act – even govern – accordingly. What’s left of the Kirke is powerless; that is surely a fact. But the Salon will be entirely discredited if it should get out about what Frida did – and Excelsia might well let it get out, if that suits her own purpose. I must distance myself from both of them, and try to make a new place at the center of things. But for now…
“She’s put you in a difficult position,” Andrea agreed with her daughter. “She’s put both of us in a difficult position, and that threatens to put Rostran in a extremely difficult position. As head of state, I cannot allow it. We must work through the usual channels to ensure that what should be the truth is perceived as the truth.”
“Indeed,” said Excelsia, in an obvious tone of relief.
“Just a day ago, I was worried about how the people would react to cancellation of the Conjugational. Well, this, even as we have to play it, is going to make them forget all about that. Prince Talak can carry on all he wants with that Lara creature, and nobody will care. By the way, how did they react to…
“Lara didn’t even understand what was happening; she lacked any education in science – when Talak was overcome by panic, she thought it must have been because she’d drained him of his libido.”
“She’s been told about the ‘accident’?”
“Of course. She feels very bad about it, even worse than she felt about the Outworlders. She wishes she could have saved those Betans too, and Frida had to explain that she couldn’t have – that if she’d been there, even she would have been annihilated.”
“She’s still a child at heart. She has much to learn.”
“If she ever learns what we know…”
“We must see to it that she doesn’t.”
Unless it becomes necessary, to deal with Frida…
But Frida wasn’t the only problem.
What am I to tell the Kelsorians? That Velorian Alisa must have sensed what happened, But if I tell her and Andre the truth, a truth for which Rostran is unready, how can I keep them from sharing it with others… with the humans?
Perhaps it’s time to move against the Salon, as Mara hinted at the outset. Only, I can’t let Frida or any of the rest of them suspect… and certainly not the Outworlders.
(Date: 1052-11-05, 6:10 ST)
Timber Cooperative Lodge, Near Haszko
Klara had felt it, seen it, during the night. She knew what must have happened, but she didn’t know how or why. And Harnig and Cooper had slept through it, after a long evening of briefing her about the Underground and what it knew of the Salon and the Kirke and the people behind it.
Where do I begin? she wondered. This changes everything, but I don’t know yet how it changes everything. Dargrin and Thomas won’t know, either; I may have to depend on them to find out. So much for being a goddess! I don’t even know who that other goddess was, except that it can’t have been Aayla, alias Tyla...
As she pondered that, Harnig awoke with a start, crying out something incoherently. That awakened Cooper. They must have both been dreaming, and Klara could surmise what they’d been dreaming about – they both had raging hard-ons. She wished she could make all that they wished for come true, once she had found gold. But she’d shown some mercy last night, masturbating furiously before them until she came, and then letting each privately in turn run their hands over her admiringly and come on her breasts.
There was another treat she could offer this morning; it wouldn’t do much for her, but it would work wonders for them.
“Time for breakfast,” she told them. “But first, an appetizer....”
Their eyes lit up when she explained
Cooper got to go first. Klara had to be very careful about how she took his cock in her mouth, but she had experience with that sort of thing back on Sanctuary. It took only a second for him to explode, but the caress of her tongue kept him hard, and he came again – and again. When he finally went soft and she let him pop out, she made a show of licking her lips and swallowing his cum; never mind that she could hardly feel or taste it. Still, she felt a warm glow in her heart from having pleasured him so.
It was the same with Harnig. And now that they could think of something besides their cocks, it was time to get back to business – the business that had actually brought her here. Over actual breakfast, Klara explained that she wanted her arrival in the capital to meet with other leaders of the Underground to be as inconspicuous as possible. That meant going by commercial flitter.
“I’ll just be some country girl you met,” she said. “But you’d better drive into town first and find… appropriate attire for me. Something modest. Also a black wig. You’ll see why.”
The Crown Princess had summoned Alisa and Andre just after breakfast, telling them that she had grave news. And she looked utterly bereft.
“I think you must know what this is about,” Andrea began.
“We need to know the truth,” Alisa responded.
“The whole truth? I can tell you that if it got out now, it would make things worse for you, and for anyone you care about or would like to help – including the ordinary humans, who are no threat to us but might be threatened by… the chaos that could erupt. The official story is that there was an accident at Castle Kirke involving anti-matter.”
“And the unofficial story?”
“What you need to know is that it destroyed the hierarchy of the Kirke, and also she who attacked my Guardians – and the ordinary citizens – at München. You must take my word for it that the Palace was on no way involved. As I have explained before, my government is not the Salon, even if the Salon has presumed to be the power behind the throne. But in this case, even the Salon cannot be held responsible.”
“I think you can guess, and can therefore guess why it can’t become known. But what you must also realize is that the arrival of you and the other Outworlders, regardless of your intentions, was what triggered the crisis – a crisis I am trying to deal with.”
“I know that. I keep feeling that I should be doing something, but I don’t know what.”
“But you are a stranger on a strange world. I’ve lived on Rostran all my life, and I don’t know what to do. Not in the long run, at any rate. I’m playing things by ear, moment to moment – knowing that there is nobody I can fully trust, that I cannot even fully trust my own judgment. And yet I have come to believe that the Salon, although it was not responsible, cannot be trusted in the long run, now that any possible challenge by the Kirke has been eliminated.”
She paused for a moment.
“Only, without the support of the Kirke, the ordinary humans here have no defense. No effective defense, in any case. Their leaders will be helpless. Even I will be helpless if I try to challenge the Salon on issues like the brooder program, or further contact with Outworlders. Perhaps the most I can do is secure the banishment of you and your comrades, on condition that you vow never to tell your homeworld about us. I hope you appreciate my position.”
(Date: 1052-11-05, 8:30 ST)
Aboard the Anders Flame, off Nomi
“It’s our best chance, it may be our only chance, Sir and Chief Officer,” Alisa told Daniel Pestrov.
That she addressed him so formally underscored the seriousness of the situation. She had dreaded having to come here, but after what Andrea had told her, she didn’t think she had any alternative. Andre had agreed, and suggested they contact the ship by com, but that didn’t set well with her.
“What I have to tell you isn’t for every ear on the Flame – yet – and certainly not for any Rostrans here or in space who might be listening in.”
It had felt good to be flying through space again, to feel the light and heat of the naked sun on her body. And it would feel good to see her comrades again, to assure them that all was well with her and Andre – more than well in his case. But her comrades would have to wait. She had to break the less pleasant news – and the offer of the Crown Princess – to the man who would now be commanding the ship under the rules of the Survey Service.
She had rounded Nomi and spotted the Anders Flame. She approached the airlock and made her presence known on the remote intercom. A junior science researcher let her cycle in, and she bade him take her to his leader, which he did.
So now here she was, meeting privately with the Chief Science Officer, only not as the Chief Science Officer. Pestrov was fully aware of that, but not comfortable with it.
“Surely Captain Durgin should be making this decision,” he said.
“Captain Durgin may not be aware of all the facts. Especially the most recent news from the Capital.”
“You mean that accident last night?”
“That’s what they’re calling it in their broadcasts, but I don’t believe it. It’s too convenient to the Salon for the leadership of the Kirke to have been taken out. At least they can’t blame this on us, given the timing.”
“They can blame us for Durgin’s attack. Walark is afraid the Rostrans have captured our Kla’ven. Do you know anything about that?”
“Nothing. Two of our men are missing in action, and one of them had the Kla’ven. That’s what his comrades told me at the Rivera.”
“Smyth. He’s a good man. Keeps a cool head. Unlike some I could mention. But cool heads may not count now. That’s why Walark has to call the shots when it comes to any threat by the Rostrans, and how to respond to it – fight or flight.”
“And I have to advise flight. I really have to. And to get Durgin and the others back, we have to agree to the Crown Princess’ terms.”
“Then I’ll have to talk to Walark, and we’ll have to call a general meeting.”
It’s as if everybody here has forgotten me, Layla thought. I was supposed to marry the Prince. Mother had it all set up. And now she won’t even talk to me about it – as if it were all my fault. Instead of that Velorian bitch Alisa’s. Or that backstabbing Lara’s – after all I’d done to for her. She could have challenged Tyla… that was the whole idea…
Even when she had arranged the Conjugational with Talak, Frida had kept her out of the Salon’s inner workings. Since that had gone awry, her mother had been preoccupied with the attack on München yesterday by Tyla, and then the disaster at Castle Kirke last night. The latter was good riddance, as far as Layla was concerned, but there was nothing to be done about Tyla, or even Alisa, now that Lara was siding with the Outworlders.
Well, as long as Lara’s busy with Talak, I can deal with the Ordinary Outworlders…
The Capital, Guardian HQ
Smyth had expected to end up in some sort of jail, and that was exactly where he found himself. He hadn’t expected to share his cell with Corporal Rafish. Still less had he expected Rafish to be happy about it.
“Don’t worry, Arnie,” Nevil said. “She could have me sprung pretty soon. I figure she could have you sprung, too, as long as you formally surrender.”
“I already did,” Smyth said. “And here I am. But who’s this ‘she’?”
“Tanya. She captured me, up there on the ridge. But then she captured my heart, and I captured hers, and she said I’d have a better chance with the Guardians than with the Salon’s security people.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Smyth said contemptuously. “I’ll believe it when we get off this stinking planet.”
“I don’t want to get off,” Rafish said. “Tanya and I–“
“Are you crazy? She’s one of them. You can’t even have sex with her!”
“I did. We did. In my exo. I could come, and make her come, and–“
“Oh, so you’re a pervert, too!”
“There are other ways, she told me. Like with gold. Alisa must have–”
“I’m not hearing this. I am definitely not hearing it.”
(Date: 1052-11-05, 13:10 ST)
Nobody paid any particular attention to Klara McCloud when she made her way into the human neighborhood. Since she wasn’t wearing a tracking ring, neither did the Guardians’ monitors. But she kept her hands in her pockets, lest any government spy notice her bare fingers.
She was not only dressed modestly, but had done a modest bit of shape-shifting back at the lodge. Her bones were unchanged, but her flesh was distributed differently – less above, more below. Her face was plain and her hair was black. She was a woman men here weren’t likely to take a second glance at.
Cooper had left her at the flitter station, after giving her directions to the headquarters of the underground, and Harnig had followed him a few minutes later – he needed to stop at a neighborhood eatery to retrieve his ring from the ringer boy; as far as the authorities knew, he had never left the Capital. The flitter pilot hadn’t challenged him – being sympathetic to the movement, if not involved in it.
After giving them time to get settled, Klara made her way to the neighborhood. It was shabby and smelly, but the people there looked busy – that was a plus for her. She found the tunnel, stopping to make sure that nobody was taking any interest in her, then dodging inside. It seemingly led only to a storage area, but there was a door that didn’t look like a door near the one that did, and she rapped a code on that.
Cooper and Harnig were there, along with half a dozen other Ordinaries, introduced to her by their first names only. One of them, a heavy-set man, was called Fats; the others were Castor, Brad, Eric, and even a couple of women – Daphne and Evelyn.
“We have another strange visitor from another world,” Cooper said in introducing her. “Her name is Klara, and she is more than she seems in her present guise, but also less than she seems as Thomas and I have seen her. She is the sister of Tyla and–”
“Tyla’s betrayed us,” Castor interrupted. “She murders our people, and you–”
“Please hear me out,” Cooper said. “Klara is here to undo what Tyla has done. It was she who rescued Thomas from the Guardians at München yesterday. He can testify to that.”
“Indeed I can,” said Harnig.
“And it wasn’t even Tyla who appeared there later – she had already been… removed. At least, that’s what Klara told us. The massacre must have been the doing of the Gwyndylyn – they must have learned how to acquire flight capability. Only, now the media are reporting that Castle Kirke has been destroyed in some sort of thermonuclear accident. Can this be mere coincidence?”
“If all that is true, we are helpless,” Daphne said grimly.
Cooper spoke quickly to reassure her, and the others..
ìWith Klara, we are no longer helpless,î he said. ìShe is of Galen heritage, and more powerful than any of the Gwyndylyn. But she doesn’t seek to rule us, only to put a stop to the Salon and help us and the Betans regain our freedom. Please hear her out.î
So they heard her out. And they were full of questions. But to their surprise, she had a lot of questions of their own, about the workings of the system as they related to Ordinaries, the role of the monarchy as opposed to the Salon, and how they saw the current crisis as having erupted.
ìIt all started with the Conjugational,î said Fats. ìAnd the Kelsorians.î
None of the other humans could shed any more light than Cooper and Harnig on what had gone wrong with the Conjugational. They knew only that it was trouble for the Palace and the Salon alike – and that it might have helped touch off the further troubles – perhaps even the destruction of the Kirke.
ìAs for the Kelsorians, our only direct contact with them has been Andre Kalik,î Cooper reminded them. ìBut another of them, Alisa Liddell, is actually a Velorian. She could doubtless tell us more, and perhaps be able to advise us or even aid us in our struggle. It might be wise for you to consult with her, Klara.î
“I’ve heard of Alisa,” Klara said, breaking into a slight smile. “Heard things about her. We have an acquaintance in common, you see, although she couldn’t possibly be aware of it.”
“We’ll could ask Andre to help set up a meeting,” Cooper said. “And hope for the best.”
“Have him tell her I know the man was her minder, once upon a time...”
(Date: 1052-11-06, 9:00 ST)
Peter Durgin hadn’t expected to see Alisa, today, and certainly hadn’t expected the offer she made.
“Come fly with me,” she invited him.
“Had a change of heart?” he asked hopefully.
“No, just need a change of place. Beyond earshot. I have word.”
“From the ship?”
“And from those here who can help us leave this system safely.”
“Then carry on… well, carry off.”
After a short flight, Alisa set him down in an idyllic forest glade, complete with flowers and a babbling brook. A perfect place for a romantic encounter, if there’d been any romance left between them. But Peter was relieved by the news of the Crown Princess’ proposal, and how it had been received on the Anders Flame. Yet he wasn’t entirely surprised.
“That Lawgiver, Kaltquest, who encouraged us to send a delegation after we’d gotten the cold shoulder at first, came to see me a couple of days ago. She was hinting at the same thing. Only she said it all had to be very hush hush – there was already a lot of Machiavellian intrigue between different factions here before we got caught up in it, and now there’s this business about Castle Kirke being nuked—”
“It was an anti-matter explosion, to destroy an annihilation chamber they had used to execute an agent of the Salon. And it was Frida’s doing. Andrea all but said as much.”
“We’re just pawns in whatever’s going on here, is that it?”
“And sacrificing pawns is part of the game for Frida; she can convict us by innuendo of the Castle Kirke attack, no matter the lack of evidence. And the Crown Princess doesn’t think she can challenge the Salon openly.”
“That’s pretty much what Kaltquest told me, before the latest… They seem to be on the same side, after all – the head of state and the head of their version of the Secretariat. Too bad they can’t get a better game going. But I’m game for getting out of here any way we can, and I’m sure my men will agree,”
“Smyth and Rafish gave themselves up at the Capital, in case you hadn’t already heard. They’ll be part of the deal.”
“I hadn’t. But I’m glad of it. Takes a load off my mind.”
Peter gazed about him as Alisa was about to fly him back to the Rivera.
“It’s a beautiful world,” he said. “Too bad the same can’t be said for a lot of its people. On the inside, I mean.
Alisa had made a quick flight to the Flame after meeting with Durgin, briefing Pestrov and the rest of the crew. Even Walark, once he knew that their captain was safe, went along with Andrea’s offer – notwithstanding the casualties the Marines had suffered.
“It was an unwise operation,” he’d admitted to her privately after the general meeting approved the Crown’s proposal by acclamation, “But I couldn’t have lived with myself if we’d lost the captain, without even trying to avenge him. And we couldn’t just cut and run the way Pestrov wanted. But if the Rostrans are willing to let all of us go, I’m willing to swallow my pride – and take the vow of silence with the rest. We have nothing to gain here in any case, and I’m sure Durgin will agree – as the trade people already have.”
Now there was another matter in the Capital she’d have to resolve. But first she needed to bring Andre up to date. Only, when she met him at the Palace, it turned out she too had to be brought up to date – about the human underground and its new ally.
“She claims to be from the same planet as the Goddess Tyla, only she wants to undo what the Goddess did. And she says she knows somebody who used to be your minder. What the hell does that mean?
“Ben Shaffer? What could he possibly have to do with all this?”
“Who was he and what did he ever have to do with you?”
“An Earthman. He’d been granted Kiral’ing by one of our people there for risking his life against some terrorist bunch, but he tricked her into having to enhance him by asking to finish school on Velor as his reward. It was something of a scandal, but there was nothing anybody could do about it – except send him out on odd jobs as far away as possible, mostly as what they called a Cultural Analyst, trying to keep diplomatic families and other expatriates out of trouble. One of those jobs was a stint riding herd on me and my siblings when we were kids on Reigel 5. Long story; maybe I’ll tell you some time. But where does this Klara know him from?”
“From Sanctuary, I guess. That’s her world. It’s off the charts, just like Rostran. But she wouldn’t tell me anything more – she must have thought you couldn’t resist trying to find out.”
“I could, but she might be able to tell me something else I really need to know. Tell them I’ll come by tomorrow, I’ve got a couple of other complications right here – our prisoners of war.”
She paused for a moment.
“A lot to do, But I have time for a quickie right now.”
The Capital: Guardian HQ
It was a captain of the Guardians brought word to them.
“This your lucky day,” he told Smyth and Rafish. “You’re going to be sent home. One of your people got the ear of the Crown Princess herself.”
“Was it Durgin?” asked Smyth.
“I don’t know. I don’t care. But if you ask me, we’ll be well rid of you. Outworlders have never been anything but trouble.”
“I don’t want to be sent home,” Rafish interrupted. “I—”
“Shut the hell up,” snapped Smyth. “We got a deal and you want to queer it?”
“Everything’s settled with Durgin,” Alisa told the Crown Princess. “So all we need from you is clearance for the release of our detainees here in the capital as well as at the Rivera so they can return to the Flame.
“You have it,” said Andrea. “The sooner we’re free of you and you’re free of us, the better.”
“Durgin should go first to arrange things.”
“Agreed again. The sooner the better. Frida might make a play against you – and me – at any time by blaming your people for Castle Kirke. If that happens, I don’t see any way of stopping her.”
“Let’s just hope we’re gone by the time she tries that.”
“It’s been a busy day for us,” Alisa said, with a sigh or relief. “But it’s been good knowing you, knowing that you’re done your best to help us. I’ll remember that.”
She hadn’t confided in the Crown Princess about Klara. It looked like yet another complication; she’d had enough complications already. It might be just a dead end. But if this new player needed advice and knew she needed it, that was a point in her favor. She might even help Andrea and other people of good will make some progress here – once the Flame was safely away.
(Date: 1052-11-07, 15:00 ST)
The Capital: Underground HQ
By the time Alisa met her, Klara had shape-shifted again. For the leaders of the human underground, it was a blonde goddess meeting a blonde goddess. But Alisa wasn’t thinking of that when their eyes met.
“So. Are you to be a minder?” she asked.
“More like a re-minder, of how not to go about ‘helping’ a world.”
“And you have an idea of the right way?”
“I’ve been told you yourself might have some insights, based on recent events, as seen by an Outworlder.”
“I’m more concerned right now with the safety of my fellow Outworlders. I have the word of the Crown Princess that we will be free to go, as long as we agree that to alter our records to show we were never here to begin with and vow never to talk about it. Our captain and crewmen are all on board, figuratively – and I want to make that literally as soon as possible. Once we’re gone, the Rostrans can sort things out for themselves. I’ve given up an illusion of playing a part myself.”
“Even if it means a bloodbath?”
“Not our problem.”
“But it is our problem. Sanctuary’s, I mean. At least to the extent that Tyla aggravated the situation here. We hadn’t kept an eye on her; we didn’t even know what she was up to here until Ben let it slip.”
“How would he know? And what was he doing on Sanctuary?”
“Would you believe he saved my mother’s life? And that she enlisted him as a breeder?”
It took some time for Klara to relate the story, and Alisa found it hard to believe. While what she knew about her old-time minder’s previous life rang true, it was hard to imagine him being put out for stud to Ann McCloud’s daughters – although that hadn’t quite worked out as planned. Far harder to imagine was Klara’s motivation in coming here to try to mend Rostran’s problems – it just seemed… too facile, even narcissistic. Only then she confessed to having fostered a cult of worshippers at an island retreat – with nearly deadly consequences.
So Klara wanted to atone. But could the end justify whatever means she had in mind? It had nothing to do with the crisis here, but she had gotten talking about her sideline back on Sanctuary of redistributing wealth; did she think reforming Rostran would be as simple a matter as robbing banks? Alisa was irritated enough about that to reproach her.
“You won’t be up against bankers here,” she said. “You’ll be up against a tset’lar.”
“Is that all?”
“Isn’t it more than enough?”
“Not for me. I’ll have to explain.”
The Capital: Guardian HQ
“I’ve had his armored dick,” Tanya was telling her commander. “Now I want his naked dick. I want him for keeps.”
“Just where do you get off?” Thane Brynild taunted her. “You think you’re entitled to the spoils of war?”
“Nevil wants it too!”
“Well, he’s not going to get it. And nobody at the Palace, let alone the Salon, is going to sanction making it possible for him to get his naked dick into you. We’ve had a couple of cases already with these Kelsorians, and that’s two too many. I ought to put you on report – if you weren’t one of our best sisters, I’d have already done it. Now get back to your barracks, and stand alert for any emergencies – we might face some from the Betans. They don’t believe the destruction of the Kirke was an accident.”
“By your command,” Tanya said, and saluted.
Brynild prayed she wouldn’t have worse things to contend with.
The Capital: Underground HQ
Klara leaned her head back and stared up at the ceiling.
"Let me tell you a story, Alisa. When I was fourteen years old, Mother took me out on a flight beyond the atmosphere of Sanctuary. We flew toward the sun. It was cold and so empty there in that vacuum, and my lungs felt so empty. I wanted to go back, but she kept flying forward, urging me on.
"I wasn't a good flyer yet; my abilities came later than my sisters’ – but I was able to keep up with her. Soon it was getting really hot. A flare licked at us – hot enough to vaporize worlds, had it been concentrated enough.
"We flew past it and plunged into the photosphere of the sun itself. We sank deeper and deeper, closer to the fusion reaction that powered it. There, ten thousand miles beneath the sun's surface, Mother drew me to a stop, our bodies now the same temperature as the glowing plasma around me.
"More than hot plasma, my skin was being licked by the fires of fusion itself. It seemed as if the heat was being drawn out of the star's core, drawn to me. The fingers of nuclear hell burned hot across my nipples, the heat enveloped my entire body, triggering a protective response in my chest. My breasts, which were really small then, began to burn terribly. They were trying to absorb the heat of the star.
"They began to expand, to grow painfully. I gripped myself with my hands and held on, staring at the glowing visage that was my mother, but she just smiled at me. I felt myself stretching painfully like balloons. It hurt so, I wanted to leave, but Mother wouldn't let me.
"Only, suddenly I wanted more rather than less. I'd never had breasts before, just budding nipples, and now I felt like a woman, my body suddenly so full of curves. I tried to fly deeper, closer to the power, but Mother held me back. We struggled, but she was still more powerful than I was at that age. She flew me back to the surface of the sun, and we burst free, two long flares following us thousands of miles out into space.
"How... how long were in there."
"An hour, maybe more. I've normally got a perfect sense of time, but I was so out of it inside the sun that it could have been a day. All I do know is that my body was drinking in the energies of the sun like a sponge in water."
Klara paused for a moment.
“So, yes, I can go up against a tset’lar.”
"Perhaps. But Mother thought at the time that Aayla's genetics were more Galen than my own, mostly because she could change shape more easily and read minds almost perfectly – even influence them. That was what she had been doing here with the Gwyndylyn, and the Clerics, and the Queen… She apparently ignored the Crown Princess and her staff, and the Assembly – but only because they seemed to be of no account.”
"And how do you know all this?”
“Mother sent me here a month ago. I shape-shifted several times as one or another kella-prime tourist from the South visiting the Capital and the Rivera, or as a humble monyk at Castle Kirke. Although I couldn’t read peoples’ thoughts as such, I could sense their feelings – and could tell if they had been tampered with. And finally, in my true form, I called on Aayla, closing my mind to her and telling her only that Mother had sent me to summon her to an urgent family meeting. It was all we could do to overcome her, and she gave in only because she thought my own mission was doomed to failure, that she would ultimately be vindicated… but I have returned here knowing what she’d wrought… and how I could deal with that.”
At that moment, Alisa was overwhelmed by a sense of revelation, so powerful that it left her speechless. Andrea might have an out, Rostran might have an out – if Klara could work with the Palace, if the Underground could join them in common cause.
Klara saw her expression.
“Is something the matter?” she asked.
“Something is very much the matter,” Alisa said softly. “Only, to deal with it, you need to learn a lot more. Beyond what the people here, with all due respect, may have told you. It’s not just a matter of going up against a tset’lar, but of going up against the system she represents. To do that, however, you’ll have to trust me, and persuade the Underground to trust me – and to trust the Crown Princess. With your help, she might just bring a revolution – by exposing the leader of the Salon and discrediting all she stands for. It’s a chance. Are you willing to take it?”
Frida must never suspect… until it was too late. But it all depended on Klara…
“Tell me more,” the new Goddess said.
(Date: 1052-11-08 10:00 ST)
It had been a long conversation, and it had taken an unexpected turn.
“You really believe we need to reschedule the Conjugational?” Andrea asked.
“That’s where it began for us,” Alisa said. And that’s where things went wrong for us – in more ways than one. But I think we can make things go wrong for them, if you play them the way they’ve tried to play everyone else.”
“It’s the perfect opportunity,” Klara said. “Frida set great store by the Conjugational. For Rostran’s new Goddess to take her side in this and other matters will seem too good not to be true.”
“And with me playing a seemingly passive role as the third member of the Triumvirate,” Andrea added. “We can speak as one voice, and that will be Frida’s voice. We can even bring in Mara Kaltquest, but only at the last minute – she may need convincing.”
“It’s a good thing Frida can’t read minds,” Klara added. “Neither can I, as I said before –but I’ll be able to sense it if she seems to be catching on, and try to nip her suspicions in the bud. If she does catch on, of course, all bets are off.”
“My comrades will be off the planet by then, of course,” Alisa said. “They’ll have to wait for me before leaving the system, but they’ll be beyond Frida’s reach. Whereas I’ll play the fool – and seem to be risking my life.”
“Without being in any real danger,” Klara observed. “I’ll see to that. But only when we’re ready to spring the trap. And setting the trap begins with the Conjugational. Alisa and I have it all worked out.”
Klara had kept the lowest profile she could on her previous visit to the headquarters of the Salon, but now she had to do just the opposite. That meant appearing in her full glory and majesty.
Playing a goddess was easy, if you looked the part – and she looked it. Her hair was Aurean black for the occasion, but the morning sunshine was golden and she made of show of herself as the came in for a landing on the terrace outside the main tower. Nobody else here could fly, she knew, except for Lara. But she wasn’t here to see, or even to impress Lara
A crowd quickly gathered on the terrace.
“Are you Tyla?” asked one of the Gwyndylyn, who appeared to be a woman of great importance although not of great years.
“I’m her sister Klara. She’s taking a well-earned rest, but she told me I could come here for the Conjugational. She said it was going to be a very festive occasion, not to be missed.”
“You missed it. We all missed it. It was cancelled. All on account of the Outworlders.”
Klara kept a straight face as the woman who introduced herself as Excelsia told all.
“We’ve heard Mother is trying to sneak them off the planet,” Excelsia concluded. “We ought to do away with them instead – Layla agrees. But we can’t, we dare not, as long as Lara is looking out for them – damn her, and after all we did for her! But maybe you could distract her long enough to give us an opening...”
“This is all new to me. Tyla never said anything to me about Outworlders, just about the Salon and the Kirke – she seemed to be partial to the Kirke, but—”
“Those Outworlders destroyed the headquarters of the Kirke,” Excelsia interrupted. “If you’re here on their behalf, it’s too late. Frida can explain. She’s our leader, and if you want the truth about what’s been happening here, she’s the one to tell it.”
Aboard the Anders Flame
Chief Science Officer Pestrov saluted Durgin when he came through the airlock.
“Sir and Captain, the Anders Flame is yours again to command, as am I.”
“It’s great to be back… Daniel. It would be greater if we had something to show for it. But we have to be thankful for small blessings.”
“Don’t let Walark hear you say that. He might try to convert you!”
“We got word from Alisa. Said they’re going through with the Conjugational.”
“I don’t give a fuck about the Conjugational. It’s caused us enough grief. We lost some good men. We’ll have to report them as KIAs.”
“There wasn’t any action to be killed in. We were never there, right?”
“Oh, right. Hard to get my head around that, but I guess I’d better.”
“We’d all better. And we should agree on a story before the rest of the men catch the next shuttle. Alisa wanted you to be here first – that’s why she flew you to the Capital, and had a shuttle ready for you.”
“So she said. I’d have been willing to take a flitter with the others.”
“Speaking of the others, we have a problem with one of them.”
Durgin listened to his account, then added, “If Smyth is with Rafish, we have a problem with him too. Or, more precisely, with the klav’en.”
“Then we’d better advise Alisa.”
(Date: 1052-11-08, 15:00 ST)
The Palace had only just gotten word that Nevil Rafish wanted to defect, and the Crown Princess was in a panic.
“It could undermine our agreement, and even undermine me,” Andrea said. “Besides which, how could you account for the absence of Rafish when you reach home?”
“We already have to account for the Marines who were killed, come up with something tellable – an accident at the wormhole, whatever,” said Alisa. “We could add Rafish to the list. The problem is getting everyone else is on the same page. That’s what Peter is doing back on the Flame – he’s the captain, and he’ll be better at it than I could. We’ll have to rehearse our account as if it were a video drama, and then stick to it.”
“Could you count on Rafish himself to stick to it if we force him back?”
“We’d have to be very persuasive. With Tanya as well as Nevil.”
“And whose job would it be to deal with Tanya? I can’t involve myself in that, and neither can you.”
“Perhaps Klara will have some idea – when she gets back. We have to know how things are playing out at the Rivera.
Frida had told all, and Klara had pretended to believe all. She had even promised to try her best to get the child woman Lara on board against the Kelsorians.
But when Ktara met privately with Lara– it took a while to get her to dismiss Talak for the time being – she laid out a quite different agenda.
Lara was understandably confused.
“Why am I supposed to do this?” she asked.
“Because the future of Rostran depends on it,” Klara said calmly but sternly. “Because you’ve been placed in a position you weren’t prepared for, but which empowers you to help determine it. Do you understand?”
“You’ve protected the Outworlders.”
“It felt right.”
“They’ve agreed to leave, and never return. But Frida and Layla are determined to kill them just the same. Does that feel right?”
“No… but I could stop them.”
“You didn’t stop Frida from killing those people at Castle Kirke.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Can you read her mind? Or Layla’s? Or anyone else’s?”
“That leaves them free to do whatever they can, whatever they will, as long as they can keep it from you.”
“But why me? You’re a goddess, like Tyla. You could stop them.”
“I have to join them. It’s part of a game I’m playing.”
“I like to play games.”
“And in this game, we’ll both be winners. That’s all I’ll say.”
“That sounds like fun.”
“But you can’t play it with Talak.”
“Because he has to marry Layla, to make Frida happy.”
Why should those two have get married. “Why should I have to make Frida happy?”
“That’s how the game begins.”
“How does it end?”
“We’ll find other men for you, just as good as Talak. The rest is a secret. But you’ll love it, I promise. You’ll become a very famous person, and the whole world will look up you. You’ll go down in history.”
“What do I do right now?”
“For now, the important thing is just to keep an eye on Frida and Layla. Don’t let them come near the prisoners. They’ll be gone soon, anyway…”
(Date: 1052-11-09, 9:00 ST)
The Capital, Guardian HQ
Being a mistress of disguise served Klara again when she came to call on Rafish and Smyth. She looked the part of a Guardian, and Andrea had seen to it that she had the proper uniform and credentials.
“A shuttle is ready to take you to the Anders Flame,” she said. “Your captain has agreed to leave the system and never come back. He and the crew have also agreed never to reveal your visit here. The Crown Princess herself has signed off on this.”
“Well, I haven’t,” Rafish declared.
“So I’ve heard,” said Klara. “But your life will be forfeit if you remain here, should the Salon hold your people responsible for the destruction of Castle Kirke.”
Klara explained, without mentioning Frida by name. The name wouldn’t mean anything to them in any case.
“That isn’t fair!” Rafish complained.
“That’s just life,” Klara retorted.
“But we love each other,” Rafish insisted.
“And it’s an impossible love.”
“Tanya says otherwise. She’s heard that Andre—”
“That was a mistake. A mistake that we won’t allow to be repeated.”
She hadn’t expected Rafish to know about his enhancement, and he still couldn’t know about Durgin’s. So she’d had to think or her feet – but she was sure that would be the official position of the Salon, and the Palace.
“You can force me to go home. You can’t force me to keep quiet. Unless you kill me. Is that what it’s come to?
“Maybe I should kill you,” Smyth interrupted.
“Shut up, the both of you,” Klara snapped. I’ll have to report back to Brynild, And she’ll have to report to High Command. And— never mind.”
With that, she stormed out.
“We’ve definitely got a problem with Rafish,” Klara said. “I think we’ve also got a problem with Smyth. He was giving off bad vibes. I think he’s hiding something.”
“He was carrying the ship’s klav’en when he escaped from the Guardians on the ridge,” Alisa said.
“Now you tell us,” Andrea complained.
“I only heard from the ship about it after Durgin brought them up to date. And then, suddenly, there was… all this other stuff.”
“Smyth must have gotten rid of it somewhere before he turned himself in,” Klara said. “We can’t leave any loose ends, and yet we can’t get so tangled up in them that we lose sight of the plan.”
“We’ve got to get the others back to the Flame immediately,” Alisa declared. “We can’t risk endangering them, if Frida decides to drop the hammer prematurely. Rafish and Smyth we can at least keep out of sight – take them back to wherever they were hiding before. Maybe get the klav’en at the same time. I can fly it back to the ship.”
“After it serves its purpose at the Inaugural,” Klara clarified.
Aboard the Anders Flame
“They’re on their way up, Sir and Captain. All the men from the Rivera. They’re still trying to deal with the Rafish-Smyth situation.”
“Any definite word about them, Sir and Colleague?”
“They’re going to be taken… elsewhere. Alisa didn’t want to get specific on the com, just in case somebody was listening in.”
(Date: 1052-11-10, 9:00 ST)
“My predecessor… failed to understand the situation here. Failed utterly. I am here to amend that failure.”
Klara was in her pure Aurean guise again as she met with Frida and Andrea to lay out her agenda as Goddess – which was calculated to correspond to the agenda of the Salon and, in particular, the Highest.
“Might I ask what accounted for her failure?” Frida asked.
“She was corrupted by… certain ideas propagated by our Inferiors on Aurea. When this came to our attention, those true to the Superiors recalled her and sent me to restore the proper order. But Tyla performed one great service: informing me of your heroism in dealing with a Protector sent here by the Enemy – dealing with her at great cost to yourself.”
“There is one here I had hoped might restore my volatai; she is a youngling of great power but also great foolishness. She is Kryp’terran, and she and I were the only survivors of a ship attacked by the Velorians. I adopted her as a seeming child, but I knew her knowing her true potential – and how I might profit from it. As I said, however, she is foolish; she was seduced by the Outworlders and even protected them when they invaded our territory. And as if that weren’t enough, she disrupted plans for the Conjugational, transforming herself into a seeming adult and making an utter fool of Talak.”
Klara concealed her astonishment at learning the secret behind the secret about Lara, but quickly turned the knowledge to her advantage.
“Where the child woman failed, Highest, I might succeed. I too have powers from my Galen heritage.”
Frida’s eyes fairly lit up.
“We could make that part of the Inaugural celebration,” suggested Andrea, who had feigned having just learned plans for the New Order – and also feigned embracing it totally.
“We still need to deal with the Outworlders,” Frida complained. “You should not have let them off so easily.”
“I didn’t know about Klara or her plans at the time,” the Crown Princess replied. “It was my attention simply to remove them our midst. I could never understand why the Lawgiver Kaltquest invited the first of them to the Conjugational.”
“It was… a misunderstanding,” Frida said. “A misunderstanding that grew into a crisis that threatened – that still threatens – the New Order. I had hoped that the child woman Lara would deal with. Were I to regain own my power of flight, I would surely deal with it myself. If not, Goddess, we have you to answer to that purpose. Indeed, you could answer to it even now.”
“All in good time,” Klara said. “It will take weeks for the ship to reach the Cygnias 275 wormhole. Long before that, we shall manifest ourselves here.”
“Let them think they’re home free,” Andrea said with apparent relish. “Let them watch a broadcast of the Inaugural – where I can announce that you will exterminate them. I can even invite the Velorian among them, Alisa Liddell, to appear in person – never suspecting the doom that awaits her.”
“Perhaps we can share in administering that doom,” said Klara. “I could begin it, and hold her down for you to finish it.”
Frida’s eyes not only lit up this time, but showed their power…
The Northern Forest, the Capital
Arnold Smyth had never expected to return here. He had adamantly refused at first. But this Klara was very persuasive. And very perceptive. He could remember the general area where he had hidden the parts of the klav’en, but she could actually see them.
Klara knew enough about the weapon to reassemble it, but left it where it was and flew him back to the lockup. He was supposed to wait there for a flitter to take him to catch a shuttle – it seemed that the Palace must have arranged it. But she ignored him once she had given him his marching orders, and was off to see Rafish. Not long after that, she emerged with him in hand, and the flew off northwards – this too with the apparent blessing of the Palace.
Rafish looked happy. Smyth could guess why, but why the Palace had given in to him… that he couldn’t guess.
* * *
Nevil Rafish didn’t have to guess. He knew.
“You’ll have to lie low for a while,” Klara told him. “It takes day or two to work, but you won’t have to go through the fever like Andre did.”
Andre? Fever? She had to explain about that, and Gudrid.
“Lara could do it faster, with an intermediary, but she can’t be seen leaving the Rivera – let alone heading here.”
Klara had to explain about that, too.
“I can’t guarantee that you and Tanya will find immediate acceptance here; you may have to go to ground in the South, where the humans live and will be willing to hide you. But we’re hoping that, sooner or later you’ll become symbols and inspirations for a new Rostran…”
(Date: 1052-11-12, 21:00 ST)
Aboard the Anders Flame
“Does watching it turn you on?” Andre asked.
“Not particularly,” said Alisa.
They were talking about the Conjugational. They had been watching the broadcast of ceremonial orgy on shipboard, headed for the wormhole. Andrea had given her blessing to letting the world see it, uncensored and uninhibited, in all its... whatever.
“Do you miss not being there?” Alisa teased him.
“Not a bit. We can have our own private conjugational whenever we want.”
On screen, Layla – now commander of Planetary Defense; that had been part of the deal – was getting into the swing of things, and not just with Talak. There were dozens of men eager to honor her, and to share the spotlight. They knew the drill, and had the skill – and if the bricha had any reservations, she hadn’t shown them.
But then this was really Frida’s show; she and Klara shared a box seat with the Crown Princess, and everybody knew that the broadcast was part of the propaganda campaign for the Triumvirate.
But Rostran hadn’t seen anything yet. Tomorrow, Klara had announced, she would proclaim herself Goddess before one and all – the Salon and Kirke faithful in the city stadium and the rest of the world in a global broadcast from there.
Everything was in place. Smyth had caught up with the Anders Flame, his shuttle had been given military priority by the Palace.
Andre knew it was a setup; Alisa had told him all about it. She herself would play her part there, while he remained safely on the Flame.
Alisa would play her part there, but Andre would remain safely on the Anders Flame.
Nevil and Tanya were also watching the Conjugational, and wishing they could take part – just to show up the Gwyndylyn.
Brynild had been shocked when she tendered her resignation from the Guardians. She didn’t give any explanation, and her commander didn’t press her on the matter – there was too much else going on, what with word from the Palace about the New Order. Brynild was all for it, and didn’t think Tanya would have any place in it; she was too… soft.
Tanya might be soft, but she loved it hard. Meaning Nevil’s dick; they were fucking even as they watched the Conjugational. They’d be watching the Inaugural tomorrow. That was supposed to be a propaganda triumph for the New Order, so Frida and her minions believed. But Klara had trusted her and Nevil with the truth, that it would be the New Order itself that got fucked.
They could hardly wait.
* * *
Cooper and Harnig and other leaders of the Human Underground had also retreated to München, at Klara’s advice. There was always the chance that the Salon would try something desperate in the Capital, once things had played out in the stadium.
Ordinary humans in the Capital, and here in München, knew only what they could see on the official channels, but the Underground had its own broadcasting station at ready to go at Haszko. It had been set up years ago, but had never been used. It was only a contingency, to be used only if the time should come.
And now the time was coming….
(Date: 1052-11-13, 15:00 ST)
The city stadium was filled with thousands of Rostrans – Gwyndylyn on one side and Betans on the other – as Klara floated naked overhead. Frida and Andrea had the places of honor, and Layla commanded the military. The Betans represented what was left of the Kirke, and knew that their status was about to change for the worse.
There weren’t any humans anywhere near – none that the Salon or the Betans knew about. They would have no place in the New Order; the Triumvirate had seen to that. Images of Frida, Andrea and Klara had been appearing for days in the news broadcasts that set the stage for this day. The whole world would be watching.
Only Frida and the Salon didn’t yet know what it would be watching….
Klara relaxed her body to drift down toward the grassy field below. All eyes were on her as she touched down lightly in the very center. They were all expecting her to prove herself a goddess, just like Tyla, or even more powerful. That she would do, seemingly – but what was to come after would prove something else entirely. She suppressed a smile as she thought of it, but there was a warm feeling between her legs as she anticipated the pleasure to come.
The fun began with a squad of Guardians, who opened up on her with conventional and energy weapons.
“Shoot! Shoot!” she teased them.
A hail of bullets tickled her breasts and bounced in all directions; fortunately, the bodies of all those in the stands were also bulletproof. The energy weapons were likewise harmless to Klara, and she showed her contempt for them by placing her pussy in the path of the beams and screaming with ecstasy as she came. There were yet other weapons, like flamethrowers that turned her body into a blazing torch.
“I call this my fire dance,” she shouted, as she performed an elaborate ballet. When the flames died down, her flesh was sooty but otherwise untouched.
So it went.
But now it was Layla’s, turn, and it was she who would wield the klav’en, later to be wielded against the Outworlders – or so she believed. There was a risk here, but not a great risk.
“I bear the most powerful weapon of the Outworlders,” Layla proclaimed. “The Heathen fear it, even those who call themselves Protectors, But our Goddess fears nothing, and today true Rostran need fear nothing. Behold, and believe.”
Klara had ascended into the air, taking a position that would allow Layla to fire on her without endangering anyone else in the stadium, or the city, or even above it – flitter traffic had been barred, and the time had been chosen to avoid any threat to satellites or spacecraft.
Layla let loose, and Klara just hovered there and took it. Her body turned red hot, then yellow hot and finally white hot – it was as if a new sun had appeared in the sky, so bright that the onlookers had to avert their gaze. Layla herself was wearing dark glasses, in order to keep her aim and avoid being blinded.
The Gwyndylyn reveled in the demonstration; this their moment if triumph. But as Layla ceased firing, and laid the klav’en aside, they were in for a shock. Their new Goddess, having proven her utter power and invulnerability, faded from white hot to yellow and red, until she no longer glowed at all and was revealed as a blonde goddess.
The Gwyndylyn reacted with shocked silence. All but one.
“Impostor!” Frida screamed. “Charlatan! Prepare to meet your doom!”
It was an act of desperation, and she must have known it. Perhaps she imagined that the klav’en would have depleted her orgone, rather than actually enhancing it. Her eyes exploded with malevolent energies as she lashed out with an intensity that could vaporize any Velorian in seconds. But Klara only smiled. Her heart did not vaporize, nor did the blood boil in her veins. The only visible evidence of the lethal attack came from the hardening of her nipples with arousal
Every eye in the stadium was riveted on this duel of superfemmes, Klara made no move to counterattack, and it eventually became clear she didn’t need to: Frida's heat vision was at last exhausted, and Klara descended to the ground. Her victory manifest, it was now time for her to expose and humiliate the tset’lar
“Perhaps you should have brought another bomb, like the one you had dropped on the Castle Kirke,” she said. “But then you should also have brought another annihilation chamber. Of course, you would have killed all the others here, but that wouldn’t have mattered to you, would it?”
“You lie!” Frida cried. “It was the Outworlders, They—”
“The Crown Princess knows better. So does the Chief Lawgiver. Both of them can tell you here today.”
A flitter approached, and landed – and the leaders of the civil government stepped out. They had brought a microphone with them. Their appearance had been expected, but only to celebrate the New Order – not to challenge it.
“She speaks the truth,” Andrea said for all to hear.
“And we are no longer afraid to say it,” added Mara.
“Yet Frida can still be a menace to all of us, if she is given time to recover her power. That cannot be allowed. Even she who was raised by Frida and Layla agrees.”
It was time for Lara to make her entrance. The Golden Woman, never before seen in the Capital, but known to the Gwyndylyn there as well as those at the Rivera, suddenly emerged from the changing room for athletes beneath the Betan stands, and made her way to the center of the field to greet Klara.
“It is a sad but necessary duty, Lara, I wish it could be avoided, but it can’t.”
Frida looked at her former protégé dumbstruck, then tried to flee – but she was now too weak, and there was place for her to go. Lara grabbed hold of her, and carried her up and away into the sky.
“She will be joining the Sun,” Klara said, a tone of regret in her voice.
There was dead silence in the stands, where a moment ago there had been exchanges of surprise and shock. Now a few voices began chanting, “Goddess! Goddess!” Others took up the chant, but Klara turned from one stand to the other and back again, holding up her hand to signal that she had more to say.
“You have called me a Goddess, like she whom you knew as Tyla; but I am no more a goddess than her, or Frida – although I hope I am a better person than either of them. And I hope you can all learn to be better persons – kella-primes, Betans and even… humans. They too are part of your world and your community. I have invited two of them here today. Their names are Dargrin Cooper and Thomas Harnig. They have been considered criminals, and yet their only crime has been to seek a decent life for their people, to be accorded the same rights you take for granted in life, liberty and… love. Today, I will grant them that last right."
A few murmurs of discontent could be heard from the stands, especially the Gwyndylyn side. But they were hushed as Lara returned, and hovered over the center of the stadium – no one knew what to expect. It was Alisa who now led the Underground leaders into the stadium. She was carrying something glittering in her right hand.
“I'm incredibly horny after all that foreplay," Klara said. "So I'm inviting all these men to fuck me. Right here. Right now. In the clear light of day. Before all of you – and anyone else watching the broadcast."
She took the golden necklace from Alisa, and put it on. She wore nothing else, of course, and Frida had even done her an unintended favor by vaporizing the soot from her previous ordeal by fire. She stood proudly before the humans, flaunting her body shamelessly – inviting them to worship her with their own bodies.
There were gasps from the stands, and signs of outrage. One of the Salon Gwyndylyn dared up and shout, “Sacrilege!”
Lara swooped down to confront her. Perhaps thinking of what had befallen Frida, she sat down again.
Cooper and Harnig were blushing uncontrollably, but they had come here knowing their part. They had worn only robes, which they now cast aside to reveal to one and all how ready they were. They stood before Klara at attention, like their cocks – which she eagerly awaited.
It was Thomas who took the first turn. Klara levitated just enough to impale herself on him. He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her passionately as her orgone-engorged breasts pressed against him, as she wriggled on his cock to tease him unmercifully. Then she laid him on the ground, and began fucking him furiously. Before long, they rolled over, and he began pounding her into the ground.
“Shoot! Shoot!” she cried.
He obeyed her command, and over the next hour he and Dargrin had at her again and again, and she had at them. It exciting and entertaining, but would the spectators come to see it as edifying?
Alisa didn’t stick around to find out. Andre awaited back at the Palace. And from there, she’d fly him through space to the Flame to join Durgin and the rest. It would a new experience for her true love…
(Date: 1052-11-13, 15:00 ST)
Aboard the Anders Flame
“Do you think it will really work?” Andre asked.
“I don’t suppose we’ll ever find out,” Alisa said. “Never going back. That’s still part of the deal. But will it really help to make Sanctuary part of Klara’s plan? What would it mean for her to be “chancellor” of both planets? I hope she’ll take advice from Andrea and Mara; they seem to have their heads on straight.”
“That broadcast from Haszko must have been as great a shock to the system as what went down at the Inaugural. And it seems to have accomplished something.”
“Letting humans serve in the Assembly is a good start, but it’s only a start. Even with Frida and the Salon gone, there’s a lot of inertia to overcome. And down the road there’s going to be an issue of royal succession – now that Andrea is Queen in name and in fact, she’ll have to beget and groom another daughter…”
“Maybe De Camp will have some theories. But, not our problem.”
“For which I’m thankful. It’s going to be enough to keep our story straight when we get back home.”
“That could be a while, with Durgin pushing us not to return empty-handed.”
“But it’s a golden opportunity for us. With trade out of the picture, there’s nothing left but science. And those temporal anomalies at Cygnias… if we can figure them out, we’ll go down in history.”
“I can hardly wait!” Andre teased her. “But right now, let’s go down on each other.”