The High Cruel Years

 

Part Three

 

By Brantley and Shadar

 

Chapter Eighteen

Vivi Bergstrom should have expected this.

She should have known that there was no escape from the madness, least of all for her.

The only thing that should have surprised her was that her captors were not Aryans, but Jellutong. They blamed her father for the murder of Sayid Nazillah. They might be right; it wouldn’t be the first time that he had eliminated a political rival.

They had barricaded the entrances to the building, using tables, desks and chairs -- anything they could find. They now took turns manning the barricades, while others watched her and the rest of the hostages. Still others spread prayer rugs and chanted appeals to Tuhan.

Vivi felt sorry for herself, but even sorrier for the others, whose lives were in danger through no fault of their own.

They looked at her now, her fellow pre-med majors, some of them her lab-mates. She returned their looks only furtively, trying and failing to gauge the thoughts and feelings behind them.

The militants had turned on the classroom TV monitors, tuned them to the newsnets, but left the sound so low that it was almost impossible to make out what the talking heads on screen were saying. The Jellutong themselves had headphones; presumably they were keeping up to speed on whatever was happening. That might be a good thing or a bad thing.

Vivi needed to pee, but there was no chance of getting a pass to the women’s room. She could already smell the urine in the classroom where she was being held, although it wasn’t coming from those nearest her. At least the militants had dragged off the body of her last security man; at least there wouldn’t be the stench of death -- assuming they had dragged him and the other casualties far enough away.

Between the talking heads, the screen was filled with images of the building -- from the front, from the sides, from the rear, from the air.

She hadn’t seen her father on screen. That was only to be expected. Nor had she seen Vozeh or any of the other ministers. That too was only to be expected. She recognized some of the low-level functionaries. They were doubtless saying nothing of any real substance.

The pressure in her bladder was growing. Finally, she gave in to it. Pissing herself was a small thing compared to what the Jellutong might have in store for her -- and the others.

She prayed. For herself. For the others. Even for their captors.

***

When Molly returned to the altar with And’rea, nobody noticed the absence of Anya. Not at first. They were too excited about the capture and imminent execution of the Betan.

But Martin Spengler had not forgotten the blood sacrifice, the rite of the blot.

"The Gods have truly favored us," he declared, after signaling the throng for silence. "We can honor them with a double sacrifice."

Only then did he realize that the other victim was missing.

"Where is the Diaboli?" he asked Molly. "Where is Anya?"

"I don't know," Molly said weakly, as if she knew no more than him. "I was busy with the Betan."

It might have worked, or at least might have worked longer, if And'rea hadn't spoken up.

"I'm not the only double agent here," she hissed. "Are you such fools as to believe Velorians would be working with the likes of you?"

Zar'ya was finally coming around.

"Of course I'm working with you," she said dreamily. "I'm here to liberate you."

"Do you know where Anya is?" Spengler barked.

It was a stupid question, and drew a stupid answer.

"Anya? Who is Anya?"

"We came before you," Molly said. "To defend the chosen people."

"But… they said the Velorians were attacking the Keeps."

"We fought the machines. Ask anybody."

"And they killed most of you anyway," And'rea broke in. "It was all part of the plan. I was there with Nazillah. These Velorians were part of it, from the very beginning."

"She's lying," Molly protested. "She wants to bring you down -- she's as much as admitted it. She wants to bring everyone down. She wants to destroy this planet. That's what Aureans do."

She realized then that she had misspoken. She shouldn't have said she had any concern for the world as a whole. Let alone mentioned the Aureans of the Empire.

Kommandant Null chose this moment to intervene.

"What do others matter to us? Why should they matter to you? Does that filthy Diaboli matter to you? Is that why you've made off with him?"

"I haven't. Don't listen to that Betan."

"Find Anya, then. Bring her back."

And to Zar'ya:

"Follow her. See that she does. If one or both of you fails to return, we shall know the meaning of it."

Molly took off, followed by Zar'ya.

I've gained some time, Molly thought. But is it enough?

***

“Siemsen Vozeh urgently wants to speak with us,” Ambassador Vern’danan told Terri.

“They send us an interim minister? What about Bergstrom?”

“Bergstrom is… incapacitated.”

Major Raul’lan knew she was expected to show sympathy, but it was hard for her to summon any.

"Incapacitated -- how?"

"Nervous breakdown, I suppose. Vozeh would know. But what he wants is to help us about the siege."

“So we fly over to the Justice Ministry? Or just trot over.”

“He’s here. Now.”

That startled the major, but it didn't intimidate her.

“I need to get James back.”

“What can he possibly do? That Cher’ee can’t?”

“He has military training. He may be useful.”

“Where is he now?”

“In the field. Pursuing leads about the bomber.”

“Well, get him back here. But for Skietra’s sake, don’t let him say a word to Vozeh about that rogue.”

Vern’danan stalled long enough for Terri to send a coded signal to Lt. Kim’Vallara, and to call in Cher’ee from her quarters, then ushered Vozeh into the conference room.

"In answer to your question, President Bergstrom decided he could spare me," the acting Justice minister said.

"Not exactly a glowing recommendation," Vern'danan quipped.

"That depends on how well you know the president."

The ambassador wasn't quite sure what to make of that, so he made small talk instead, awaiting the arrival of Cher'ee and James. The latter came rather heatedly, given the laws of friction, and an aide had to discreetly ratchet up the air conditioning. Vozeh paid no attention to this, and was patient with the formalities of diplomatic protocol that had to be endured.

It was Vern'danan whose patience was being tried, even though he should have been impressed that the minister was missing a cabinet meeting on account of the delay.

"A trifling matter," Vozeh assured him. "Nothing of importance is on the agenda."

If only he had known…

To his credit, Vozeh knew what he was doing. He came armed with a data cube that displayed complete plans of the Microbiology building -- every room, every door, every HVAC duct, every electrical conduit.

“You’ve got to realize that this isn’t anything like in the videos,” Cher’ee said. “I can’t just march in there and let them shoot at me. They’re too smart for that; they’ll be shooting at the hostages instead. And even if they shot at me, the ricochets would take out a lot of them.”

“Why do you think I brought the plans?”

This guy’s smart, Cher’ee realized. He may be smart about other things.

"Is there any way we can deal with them, any way to appeal to their better nature," she asked now.

"Jellutong, we name ourselves, after the wood of rubber trees back on Earth. Soft, easily carved, easily shaped. We believe that Tuhan means to shape us, making us His ornaments with His divine lathe, to His greater glory. To impose our own shapes is pantang larang, forbidden."

She had almost forgotten that Vozeh was Jellutong.

"The people holding the university don't seem to agree," the ambassador commented.

"The Aryans and -- dare I say? -- the president appear to agree even less."

"I'm sure Sandal would not be pleased to hear that."

There was an oddly ironic tone in Vozeh's voice. Something to do with political one-upsmanship, she supposed. That's what it was all coming down to now in Senegal.

"And he'd better not hear it from anyone in this room," Terri warned. "But we have to be frank here. We have a problem with Bergstrom. You know it, and I know it. We should be thankful that Sri Vozeh isn't there with the hostage takers, or organizing a coup."

"We've had one coup already, and see where it's gotten us," the minister said bitterly. "As we are being frank, I'm the first to want to see Bergstrom gone. He should be on trial. But the fanatics aren't going to help."

"It seems to me that we have two alternatives here," said Terri. "Find a way to get in there somehow and disarm the militants without touching off a massacre, or find a way to negotiate."

"It's easy enough to pinpoint the locations of the hostage takers and their weapons," Cher'ee observed. "Tachyon surveillance is part of our training. I could easily mark all the targets on Sri Vozeh’s cyber-chart. But that isn't the same as taking them out safely. Obviously."

James looked at the building plans, alternate approaches and strategies running through his head. Blast grenades. Gas. Cutting off the power and moving in by night. He'd studied such things on Atlantea, but this wasn't a classroom. This wasn't a theoretical exercise.

"Is Bergstrom willing to make any concessions?" he finally asked.

"Hasn't it gotten through to you yet?" Terri interjected. "The only concession they want from him is his head."

"Why do you suppose I'm the one here?" Vozeh asked. "And in answer to your next question, I'm not empowered to make any commitments."

"Which leaves the military option," Vern'danan surmised.

"Which means we’d been doing Bergstrom's dirty work for him and still lose all or most of the hostages," Terri complained. "I, for one, am tired of him making us play his game."

"The Senate," the ambassador reminded her.

"The Ministry of Enlightenment Affairs,” she corrected him. “I don't recall the Senate ever having voted to bend the Prime Directive. Certainly the High Council never countenanced it."

 

Chapter Nineteen

Molly was afraid there was no way she could delay Zar’ya. But luck was with her. The rogue Protector herself slowed at each side passage or side chamber, apparently thinking that Anya might be hiding in some crevice blocked to tachyon vision.

She was not. Molly knew it. But Zar’ya didn’t. That worked in Anya’s favor. Yet Anya dared not fly at full speed, Molly also knew, out of concern for the Diaboli. Perhaps he could cast some sort of protective spell; she had heard token of such things. But he might be too weak from his ordeal to accomplish such a thing, and Anya might not know enough to ask.

Of a sudden, Molly saw a small patch of daylight ahead: the narrow egress from the Keep. But there was a dark spot against it: Anya, it could only be Anya. And Zar’ya had seen her too, put on extra speed.

Molly tried to match her and, for a few moments, succeeded -- at the cost of a pain known only to B-Class Vels who exceeded their ordinary limits. Even so, Zar’ya was sure to reach the fugitives first.

“Stop!” Molly suddenly yelled, because she couldn't think of anything else to do.

Amazingly, Zar’ya hesitated for a moment. Just enough for Molly to catch up, to fly abreast of the Protector.

“You mustn’t do this,” she pleaded. “They were going to sacrifice him, only because he was a Diaboli. Anya agreed to take him home to Arcady. That’s all she’s doing.”

“A Diaboli? A mind-raper? How dare she succor such as him, against those I have pledged to Protect? How dare you defend her treachery?”

Molly felt a chill of despair, and the cold certainty of defeat. Zar’ya must have heard the worst stories of Diaboli on Velor -- in the Academy or on the training moons or elsewhere, it didn’t matter.

“They’re not like that,” Molly insisted.

“They are spies, sent by the oppressors of my people.”

Her people? How could she be so deluded? But then, Harry and Vance had thought the Diaboli might be working for the Aryans. In any case, there was no reasoning with Zar’ya. There was only….

Molly grappled her, using all her flight power to try to force her to the ground near the Keep exit, and to place herself in front of the Protector.

“Get out of my way!” Zar’ya screamed. “I am on a mission, and I declare Top Emergency!”

The protocol seemed incongruous here, and Molly ignored it, managed somehow to cling to the rogue for a few moments as they went tumbling through the air, coming down hard on the rocky terrain. The shock was enough to make her lose her grip, which Zar’ya would have soon broken in any case.

Zar’ya hovered to get her bearings, to draw a bead on the fugitives. In desperation, Molly began throwing rocks at the Protector and attacking her with heat vision -- not in any hope of harming her, but only to get her attention. Only to save Anya and her charge.

There was no hope of saving herself.

***

Anya knew that Zar'ya couldn’t be far behind. She dared not look back, but Alex -- that was his name -- had come around. He was keeping her posted.

He couldn’t raise his voice above the roar of the slipstream, but he didn't need to.

They've come out of the Keep, he thought at her.

A moment later:

They’re fighting, but she's…. we’ve got to slow down.

Slow down?

I've got to concentrate. Cast a screening spell.

She knew what that meant.

She also knew that Zar'ya might be closing in on them in minutes.

But can you? she thought back.

A small one, I think. Over there.

“Over there” was one of the greenhouses. What had been one of the greenhouses. All that was left was kloms of smashed panels and twisted metal. The crops exposed to the frigid air were already dead. There was no sign of human life.

Anya set down next to a tumbled mass of structural supports. She and Alex crawled under it -- she judged it safe, that it collapsed as much as it was going to. She held Alex close, to protect him from the cold, and let him do the rest. To the casual eye, they were to be no more than a pile of frozen vegetables.

In the distance, there was a sound. Not quite like thunder. Not quite like artillery. Anya knew what it must be, and tried not to think of it. But when the sound faded, she began to cry.

***

The end came quickly for And'rea Cuppers, but she was defiant to the end.

"You may kill me, but I have conquered you!" she screamed on her way to the altar, bound in gold hand and foot. "Everything you do here serves the Empire, even as everything they do in Senegal serves the Empire."

"Think not to frighten us with your blasphemies," the high priest intoned. "Ours is the master race, not yours. We have proof of that in the advent of Zar'ya."

"The more fool she. But it's so delicious. My only regret is that I shall miss out on the spectacle of Velorian fighting Velorian, for that is surely what it will come to."

"Zar'ya shall prevail," the priest responded. "The elder gods will sustain her, as they sustain their chosen people."

"Oh ye of blind faith," And'rea taunted them.

The priest glared at her.

"And little brains," she added. "If it weren't for that mind reader, you'd never have found out about me."

Her mention of the Diaboli enraged the priest and his acolytes beyond any reckoning. Those holding And'rea beat her unmercifully, or tried to, while screaming curses and imprecations not unlike those the menschenjagers had directed at them. That they should owe anything to, worse that they should have been outwitted by a despised man of a despised race was undeniable, and  unbearable.

"In das feuer!" screamed the priest, cutting short the elaborate blots he had planned -- first for both his sacrificial victim, and then only for the Betan.

So it came to pass. And'rea screamed, but not for long -- the fiery furnace had been set at maximum for Zar'ya, and nobody had thought to turn it down to prolong the Betan's suffering.

***

Zar’ya felt only pity for the woman who lay smashed and dead on the jagged rocks below her. She felt only hatred for those who had sent her into the Keeps to do their will.

Molly, her name was. She remembered it now.

Such an ordinary name, probably not the one she was born with. Not a Velorian name, surely. And only B-Class. What had she been doing on this world? How had she come here, and how had she become involved in this war?

Involved she had certainly been, to the point of madness, and she had fought madly. Zar’ya had tried to brush her off at first, but she had kept attacking -- first with rocks and heat vision, then with her bare hands -- trying again and again to get a grip on her, to turn her from her path.

Time and again, Zar’ya had thrown her to the ground. Time and again, Molly had returned to the attack, bruised and bleeding as she was. The Protector had tried to show mercy, tried to restrain herself, but her adversary was having nothing of it.

It was time to take her down, permanently. Zar’ya did so with calm efficiency. She could spare only a moment to reflect on what might have driven Molly to sacrifice herself.

For a mind-raping Diaboli.

Was that it? Had the Diaboli taken over her mind?

The Diaboli? Where was he? Where was Anya?

Zar’ya soared a mile over the Keep portal, then hovered, scanned in all directions.

Nothing. Only bare and broken mountains. Below them, a valley that sheltered one of the greenhouses. Had sheltered it. There must have been a bombing here while she was in the Keep. She had lost track of time -- finding her way here, the welcome, the altar….

She circled the area, still seeing nothing. They could be anywhere, she realized.

Her pity for Molly turned to rage -- at her and the Diaboli and Anya for having thwarted her.

Retribution would not be denied. Justice would not be denied. But she must have a plan. She must return to the Keep, she must seek further counsel there.

 

Chapter Twenty

When the government soldiers challenged Anya, she knew she didn’t have a chance of persuading them.

She had been advancing down the long valley fitfully, just above ground level, paralleling the greenhouses, never far from cover. Alex was sure Zar’ya was nowhere near, but Anya didn’t want to take any chances. She had to get back to the capital somehow, tell what she knew, let Alex do the same.

Settle accounts, too. Especially with Harry. Molly had talked her into coming on this fool’s errand, but it was Harry who’d talked her into it -- she’d saved his life, and how had he repaid her?

She had cried herself into numbness when she knew Molly must be gone, then raged at herself that she dared not even look for her sister’s body. But she could not rage at herself forever. Rage must have a proper object, and she knew now what that proper object was. Who it was.

They had scavenged clothing from what was left of an agritechs dormitory, ignoring the smashed bodies that lay there. Alex needed the clothes for warmth, but she needed them to look -- other than what she was. It was an extra measure of protection; Alex was weary from having maintained the screening spell as long as he had. It might be some time before he could manage it again.

He was still sleeping when the patrol found them; otherwise he might have given warning. She had been watching him, inattentive to what was going on outside their improvised shelter. The rustling sounds could have been scavenging animals for all she knew.

They were not.

“Out!” shouted the leader of the patrol. “Hands behind your heads.”

Anya knew what was happening. She just didn’t know the why. The why was that government patrols were targets for irregulars -- guerrillas who’d taken to hiding out in small shelters like this one. That made the soldiers nervous. Very nervous.

Alex had been awakened by the noise.

“Soldiers,” she told him. “Don’t make any trouble.”

He must be reading them already. He got to his feet rather clumsily, hands behind his head as instructed.

“We’re on your side,” she told the soldiers as she did likewise.

That wasn’t exactly true. Not any more. But it would have to do.

Only it didn’t.

“Where are the rest of you?” asked the leader, who later turned out to be a sergeant named Bilinco.

“There aren’t any—“

Bilinco smashed his rifle butt into Anya’s head.

The rifle butt got the worst of it. That convinced him she wasn’t an Aryan guerrilla.

“You’re…” he stammered, his rifle stock broken, his arms in pain.

“My name is Anya. My companion and I must reach Senegal as soon as possible.”

Consternation gave way to confusion on Bilinco’s part. His troops seemed equally confused.

“But can’t you just…“ Bilinco stammered.

Fly was what he meant.

Anya was about to tell them about Zar’ya, then realized that would be a mistake. But what could she…

Of course… She'd have to improvise.

“I’m with the Velorian Security Service,” she said. “I was sent here to investigate reports of possible Aurean infiltration. Those reports turned out to be more than well-founded. I barely escaped with my life from an Aurean Prime -- a new breed, with flight capability.”

Bilinco was aghast.

“A Prime? But how?”

“How did she get here? The same way Protectors do, obviously. Our blockade is effective only against ships. How did the Empire create her? I have no idea. But we’d better find out.”

“What’s he got to do with it?” Bilinco asked, gesturing towards Alex.

“My companion also has knowledge of her. He was held prisoner by the Aryans.”

The first true thing she’d said!

“We will require a Velorian military escort back to the capital. I can speak to Major Terri Raul’lan, if you can provide a secure channel.”

Bilinco knew who Raul’lan was. Any soldier did.

“Come with us,” he invited her.

***

Terri, Cher’ee and James were in the war room at the Embassy when Anya’s call was routed to them. It was Day Two of the hostage standoff, and they didn’t have any solution yet.

Vern’danan had been leaning on them. That didn’t help. There’d been no word from Bergstrom. That didn’t help, either. They were dealing with a man named Wilson, who’d been the President’s chief of staff and was now calling himself Minister of Defense. Wilson had been cooperative, but not helpful.

"Perhaps we could introduce gas into the air conditioning system," Wilson had said just as the call came in.

"That option has already been considered and rejected,” said Terri, wishing it were Vozeh here again instead of Wilson. “They'd feel it coming. They'd still have time to--"

When her wristcom chimed, she was at first of a mind to ignore it, thinking it was probably Vern'danan, wanting a progress report. But then she saw that the caller ID was Reigellian military. And when she learned who was on the other end…

"You'll have to excuse us for a few minutes," she told Wilson. "A Velorian matter."

Wilson knew enough to withdraw without making a fuss.

"Molly's dead. Zar'ya killed her," Anya said, after being assured the call was scrambled.

"Zar'ya?" Terri asked.

"They’ve got a Protector on their side."

"Impossible!"

"I saw her. I flew with her. But she's crazy. She's got all kinds of crazy ideas. If she finds me, she'll kill me too. And Alex."

"Alex?"

Anya explained about him, about the Betan and Sayid, told the whole story -- as much as she knew, as much as she could believe. She cursed Zar'ya, she cursed the Aryans, but she also cursed the government.

"They're killing everybody here," she said. "First the monsters in the Keeps -- I don't care about the Betan, they were going to use them anyway. And now the greenhouses. You've got to stop it."

It took some time to calm her down, to make arrangements for a pickup.

Cher'ee, at the mention of Zar'ya, had been consulting the data base on her PersComp.

"There's a Zar'ya Rhea-ling," she read. "She was just assigned to Nova Iberia. She was supposed to report in here on her way, but there's been no sign of her."

"Skietra!" Terri said.

"Good thing Anya decided to report directly to you. If she'd gone through Vern’danan’s staff, there could have been hell to pay."

"There still might be."

***

Payment was long overdue, Kommandant Null told Zar'ya.

"You must strike at the root and not at the branch," he said. "Forget about Anya and that mind-raping Diaboli. Forget about the greenhouses. That's not where it's happening. It's happening in the capital."

Of course, she realized. I can kill them all.

"I can kill them all," she repeated aloud.

"Only if they refuse to cooperate," the Aryan leader advised her. "Only if they refuse our just demands. But when they see that the gods themselves have sent you to succor us, they will believe. Yea, then they will bow down and beg for mercy. You may even lift the scales from the eyes of the others of Velor: those who have forsaken the true faith, who humble themselves before lesser races and even alien beasts out of false compassion."

It occurred to Zar'ya, not for the first time, that Kommandant Null was seriously deluded. And yet his cause was just, his people's cause was just. She had seen the work of the menschenjagers, even if she had been too late to do battle with them. She had seen the devastated greenhouses, starving Aryans in the node towns.

She had vowed to wreak vengeance. But…

"They will not refuse," she said now.

"Before we terminated the odious And'rea, she informed us as to the location of the presidential bunker."

Zar'ya didn't want to dwell on what "termination" had involved, much as it had been deserved.

"The gods have favored us at this moment, for those of you who have forsaken the true faith are distracted by that business of the Jellutong, even as the half-breed president and his retainers are distracted. We can fire you in one of our remaining missiles, having removed the gold for safekeeping. Perhaps they will shoot it down; if not, you can make your exit when it comes nearest the bunker."

Zar'ya examined the map, then swore by Skietra to carry out her mission.

When she had left, Kommandant Null turned to other matters. Such as the biotoxins engineered to single out the Diaboli of Arcady province, to leave none who might challenge the right of the Aryans to rule all of Southy.

She was young, still new to the faith. She might not understand the necessity of such things.

 

Chapter Twenty-one

Anya was quiet after telling her story to Cher'ee.

She was still remembering what she had seen as, flanked by James and Terri, she had flown here at near ground level with Alex. More death and destruction.

They said it hadn't reached yet into the heart of Southy; that the first phase of the bombings had been to create a cordon sanitaire between the occupied territory near the sea and rebel-held nodes and greenhouses further south.

She saw nothing "sanitary" in the smashed greenhouses, the lost crops, the dead and dying Aryans in the nodes. Insanitary, she thought. Or plain insane. 

It was an insanity that went on for klom after klom, and she saw it all, for they flew slowly and cautiously, always on the lookout for Zar'ya, fearing her appearance -- the three of them together would be sufficient to take her on, they thought, but they wished they had Cher'ee.

Only Cher'ee was restricted to the capital, unable to provide the Embassy a good reason for leaving the scene of the hostage crisis. Vern'danan and his staff still didn't know about Zar'ya, and Terri and the others didn't want them to know. Not yet.

Occupied territory, at last. Working greenhouses, populated nodes. The Aryans here might not be happy, but at least they were alive. For now. Anya suspected their agritechs might be driven out, even done away with -- if the North had anyone trained to replace them.

At last she saw the seacoast. Huge barges docked to load food. Perhaps the very same barges had unloaded the menschenjagers -- there were warehouses large enough to have hidden them. It must have been a massive undertaking, and a senseless one -- surely more conventional weapons would have sufficed. But then nothing on Reigel Five made any sense.

The sea, and beyond the sea…. It was only when Senegal came into view that she remembered Harry. Strange not to have thought of him all this time. And as she thought of him now, she hated him. It was a hatred that must have been simmering in her subconscious, and had finally come to the surface with a vengeance.

Molly saved him, she thought. Molly would have loved him. I would have loved him. And yet he spurned our love, preyed on our sympathy -- all head and no heart, all calculating, calculating how he could use us. The perfect soldier, knowing just what to say, just what to do, to command obedience. Using us as his tools.

She couldn’t do anything about the Aryans, or the government. But she could do something about Harry. Somebody had to pay.

***

The bunker where the cabinet now assembled was well-shielded and well-guarded.

That meant nothing to a Velorian.

The President and the ministers all carried their own sidearms now.

That meant even less.

The tunnel that provided the only access to the bunker was heavily-guarded, by soldiers and by weapons of gold, prepared in expectations of an Aurean attack that had never come.

That was bypassed.

Their only warning was a rumbling, like that of a subway train.

The wall behind the conference table burst open, with a shower of debris.

The President and the ministers froze in their seats when they saw Zar’ya emerge from her own tunnel, when they knew what they were facing. First from surprise and then from terror.

Bergstrom had been frozen in his seat all along, but was roused from his torpor now -- just enough to make a pathetic attempt to save himself.

"It wasn't me," he croaked. "It was Nazillah. I took care of him for you."

As if!

The other ministers present -- Vozeh being absent -- couldn't even manage that. 

Save for Interior minister Basil Sims, he who rarely said anything of substance. He took out his gun, aimed it…

“Are you that big a fool?” Zar’ya taunted.

Sims was not a fool. But he was desperate. He surmised that they all had seconds to live unless he could make an impression on this madwoman.

He shifted his aim. His gun barked. President Bergstrom fell dead in his seat.

Just like that.

The others instantly moved to react -- but almost as instantly thought better of it.

“You’re catching on fast,” Zar’ya told Sims.

Sims only nodded.

"You've just been elected President," she added.

Even Parliament couldn't do that. Reigel Five had a presidential system, unlike that on Velor where the Senate chose the Prime Minister. Zar'ya probably didn't know this. But nobody was going to argue the point.

Still, there were matters of practicality.

“Things will go more smoothly if the world believes our late President is alive and well,” Sims suggested. “As acting Minister of Defense, Mr. Wilson will naturally be presumed to be acting under his authority.”

The unelected president glanced knowingly at Chan.

Under other circumstances, Chan would have been a problem. Under the present circumstances, he would not. The look on his face told it all.

“All military operations against Southy must cease immediately,” said Zar’ya, ignoring the byplay.

“We’ll call it a truce,” said Sims. “That way, it is less likely to arouse suspicion or resentment.”

“Why should that matter?” she wondered,

“We must still answer to the electorate. Eventually.”

“That is no concern of mine.”

“There are other Velorians on this planet,” he reminded her. “Including the Protector. You cannot engage all of them.”

“We are the righteous who shall not be moved,” Zar’ya said, contempt in her voice. “Right is on our side. And my people have other weapons. Even gold, and they know how to use it, against those of Velor who betray their true purpose.”

That brought Sims up short. He was still pondering the matter when Wilson spoke up.

“You are correct, of course,” he said soothingly. “But I don’t believe that will be necessary. And I think it would be unwise. Velor can bring reinforcements. You cannot. We are prepared to deal. They will not. Let us handle the matter. Let us present them with a fait accompli. You and the Aryans will not be disappointed.”

“You’re just trying to save your own skins,” Zar’ya snorted.

“But we can freely grant you everything you would otherwise fight for,” said Sims, taking Wilson’s cue. “The Embassy doesn’t have to know about your role in any of this. You can count on our discretion precisely because it is a matter of self-preservation. None of us could win another election if the truth were told.”

“You agree to Southy’s independence, then?”

“Of course," Sims said. "But we shall explain that it’s simply a matter of economics, that we can’t afford the war any longer. That will sit well with our northern constituencies.”

“Do you really suppose that I trust you?”

“You don’t have to. You found us once, you can find us again.”

Sims turned to Wilson.

“I suggest that you draft the order for an immediate cease fire, and take it up to the surface for execution and broadcast. I further suggest that if you should fail in this, I’ll find you even before this lady does.”

It was a ploy: the only way Sims could make himself look tough. Wilson ignored it, seeking only a bit of clarification.

“And if they ask about Bergstrom?”

“We've already given out that he’s been suffering from nervous exhaustion over the fate of his daughter. Dead to the world. Only now it's literally instead of figuratively.”

Sims turned to Zar’ya.

“Thankfully for you, and for ourselves, this chamber is soundproof. Nobody outside is aware that anything has gone amiss. It will serve you and your people best if you leave the same way you came.”

“I won’t tolerate any delay,” Zar’ya warned.

But she left through her own tunnel.

Everyone looked at Sims.

"Are you out of your mind?" shouted Charlene Ohrenschall, who had kept silent until now.

"I was the only one in my mind just now," Sims retorted. "And if she'd known your part in all this, you'd be a smear on the floor right this minute."

“Are we really going to do this,” asked Tofflan.

“What about the greenhouses?” asked Ohrenschall. "We'll starve without them."

Sims looked at them,

“Do you really think we have any choice? Be thankful that she didn’t murder the lot of us. Well just have to work out the best deal with can with whoever ends up running Southy.”

***

"I was once unwitting trigger for a really nasty situation," said Cher'ee. "I was investigating a plutonium smuggling ring. One of the smugglers was Aurean, and I killed him; but his partner was Rigellian – beyond my legal jurisdiction, but I felt I had to turn him in, and he ended up on Delphi. Only he later escaped, and took hostages, and Naomi ended up having to deal with that, under pressure from the President, and it led to the death of his favorite nephew. He blamed us for that, and they'll all blame me if this latest operation goes sour."

It had been hushed up back then, but by now people at the Embassy knew the story of Erik Bergstrom and his son Algol, whom the former ambassador Kim'Vallara had failed to rescue... but they didn't like to talk about it. A lot of bad blood there. Only it was all new to Anya and Alex La'Reu, who had been brought in to brief the others.

"And now there's Zar’ya Rhea-El," Cher'ee added. "Do you have any idea where she is or what she's planning?"

"Skietra only knows," said Anya. "But she's convinced she's on the right side. She'll fight for it -- that's what Protectors do."

"But will she come after me, or wait for me to come after her?"

"It's your own fault. Violating the Prime Directive. Siding with a corrupt and brutal government."

Cher'ee fumed inwardly, but said only: "Not my call."

You don't have any idea how things work. But why should you?

"I take it you can't gauge her intentions," the Protector added.

"What do you want of me? I've told you everything I know."

And she had, Cher'ee realized. Thanks to Anya, they knew the full extent of the devastation of the Keeps. The Aryans might still have a lot of fight left in them, but they had few resources. Except for Zar'ya.

That's what it will come down to, she knew. Me and Zar'ya. To the death. As if she were a Prime.

Nothing in her training, nothing in her experience, had prepared her emotionally for this.

And they couldn’t pass this decision on to Vern’danan, or to the government, which amounted to the same thing. Terri was firm on that. Worse, they couldn’t trust Anya, not in the long run. She’d played fair with them, but they couldn’t play fair with her. She couldn’t remain on Reigel Five after this was over. No way.

And when I have to tell her that….

Meanwhile…

“I’m sorry,” Cher’ee said now. “We’ve got one crisis already, and you bring us another. Even a Protector can feel overwhelmed at times.”

Anya looked skeptical, but said nothing.

“I think I can help,” Alex broke in.

“With Zar’ya?”

“With the Jellutong. "I think I can get through to them."

“Even Vozeh can’t get through to them, and he’s Jellutong himself.”

“I could act as a relay. Just as I did in the Keep. But to a better end.”

“If he’s willing,” Terri cautioned.

“Yes, if he’s willing… I can't do it otherwise. I’ll need him to focus his thoughts, you see. Relaying random thoughts, his stream of consciousness, wouldn’t serve. And sooner or later he'd feel me, and panic. It would be futile as well as unethical.”

***

When the bomb failed to go off, the Diaboli thought at first that it had been a dud. It was mindless; they couldn’t gauge its nature or read its intentions. And those who sent it were beyond reach.

Not that there was any doubt about the bomb’s origins. They had cleared the entire area, just as a precaution, and reported the incident to headquarters of the Thirteen, which reported it in turn to Senegal -- a lot of good that would do.

But when some of the hikers who’d found the bomb came down with an ebola-like infection and started bleeding out, the Thirteen realized that the bomb hadn’t been a dud, after all. The survivors were warned not to approach any settlement, and because their thoughts could lawfully be monitored in such an emergency, they had no choice but to comply.

An alert was sent to Senegal, but was not acknowledged; if the Diaboli had known why, they would have been even more worried. The Thirteen ordered an air strike on the vicinity of the bomb with fuel oil explosives -- which, unlike more conventional weapons, could be hastily assembled, and be more effective in any case. Deux Labs was assigned to produce a vaccine against every known variation of ebola, but it was already too late for those in the quarantine zone -- they were doomed.

Jim Jones was back on the job at Deux now, still a widower although he had his eye on a lab tech named Amy Funtang. She was descended from one of the oldest bloodlines of the Diaboli, dating back the ancient abductions in Southeast Asia on Old Earth. And she was definitely interested; she'd shot him an image of herself in a hot tub with an X-rated invitation to join her there.

But the germ warfare attack had put a damper on their hormones, and they were soon too tired from their labors on the vaccines for amorous activities.

Not too tired, however, either of them, to dream of revenge… He could still remember the horrible death of Heather at the hands of the Aurean Ulexa, and his own near death. Now the very survival of Reigel Five was threatened by the Aureans and their treacherous allies the Aryans. The Funtangs too were part of the Resistance. Together, Jim and Amy would see this through. All true Reigellians would see it through...

Chapter Twenty-two

Siemsen Vozeh was at evening prayer when the message came. He had set his com to mute, but the blinking light was a reminder.

“Tuhan hadiahkanlah kasihMu kepadaku

“Tuhan kurniakanlah rinduku kepadamu

“Moga ku tahu

“Syukurku hanyalah milikMu”

[“God, grant Thy love to me

“God, bestow my longing to Thee,

“So that I may know

My gratitude belongs only to Thee.”]

Having finished his prayers, Vozeh responded to the message.

When he heard what Dr. La’Reu wanted, he almost threw the phone across the room.

But then he thought about it, and called back.

"Only your thoughts," the Diaboli told him. "Only the true beliefs of a Jellutong. Think of me as a microphone. A microphone has no mind of its own, it has no thoughts of its own. It only amplifies the words spoken into it."

"But you have a mind of your own. You have thoughts of your own. You are not a machine."

"I am a doctor, Sri Vozeh, sworn to do no harm, sworn never to use my powers except as an instrument of healing. I would no more violate your mind with mine than I would violate your body with my scalpel."

Vozeh was still doubtful.

"Think of me as a channeler," Dr. La'Reu said.

Vozeh had already thought of that. But now he thought of the hostages, and of the Jellutong who had strayed from the true path to threaten them. And yet….

“Why would you do this?” he asked.

“To atone.”

“For what?”

“For deaths that weigh heavily on me.”

“We all have deaths that weigh heavily on us, and mine more heavily than I can imagine for yours. I have failed in my faith as much as any of those at the university. If you can only spare me the weight of more deaths there…”

“Would that I could ease my own burden."

***

The hostage crisis was still dominating the newsnets as William Wilson, acting defense minister supposedly by vote of the Cabinet, worked on the statement to be read by Basil Sims, acting president supposedly by vote of the Cabinet.

Wilson hadn't given any warning to the Velorian embassy, and the only word to the troops in the field had been to prepare for an exercise. Field commanders accepted that; it was part of their job to be ready to carry out new orders on a moment's notice -- the only surprise was that there had been any advance notice at all.

The electronic orders for the exercise itself were encrypted, with the key to be transmitted by Wilson himself as Sims addressed the world.

Millions of people were following the latest developments at the university, such as they were, when coverage was interrupted by a special bulletin. The President was about to address the world. But the man seated at the presidential desk in the presidential office with the presidential seal behind him was not Sandal Bergstrom.

"Citizens of Reigel Five," Basil Sims intoned in a perfect imitation of solemnity. "I bring you grave news. Our beloved President Sandal Bergstrom died this afternoon of a heart attack. The burden of his office, aggravated by the tragic events at the University of Reigel, proved too great to bear.

"I know that your thoughts and prayers will be with his family and friends at this time, as his own thoughts and prayers were with all of you. At the time of his death, President Bergman was about to announce a great initiative — an initiative for peace. This war, the war that has weighed so heavily on you as it had on him, has cost too much to too many to be pursued any longer. It has wasted our substance, and taken far too many lives. Sandal realized this, and was prepared to take decisive action.

"The same burden that he bore so valiantly has now fallen upon me and my fellow ministers. We have thought and prayed, and determined that we shall honor Sandal’s vision of peace in our time. Even as I speak, orders have been given to our forces in Southy to stand down. We are offering truce to the Aryans, independence should they so choose. If they choose to remain part of a confederated Reigel Five, we will grant amnesty to them — complete and unconditional.

“We offer their leaders safe conduct to Senegal, to meet with us and seek mutual understanding and mutual terms of peace. I appeal to you, the people of Reigel Five, to remain calm, to obey the instructions of the government, and to find peace within you as we must seek peace between us. Thank you and good afternoon.”

That was it. No press conference, although a press secretary promised one in due time. No mention of the hostage situation, except obliquely.

“They’ve blindsided us,” fumed Vern’danan, watching at the Embassy.

“And we’ve still got a rogue Protector out there,” observed Cher’ee. “Is that truce supposed to apply to her?”

“We can’t allow that,” Terri declared. "We can't allow them to know that."

“Agreed,” said Vern’danan, out of pique more than wisdom.

***

Time marched on.

And it came to pass that the Jellutong at the university began to hear the voice of Tuhan. All of them at the same time, exactly the same words.

"Apakah Engkau Marah Kepada Tuhan? (Are You angry at God?)," the voice asked "Surely God is angry at you. Surely He is not pleased with the manner in which you shape yourselves. Surely the hatred of and violence you shape are not pleasing to Him. Humble yourselves, therefore, to His will. Let His beneficence shape you to His ends, and not your own."

They were fearful at first, for if Tuhan was displeased with them, it would not go well for them in this world or the next. Yet how could He be displeased; had they not risen to the call of the true Faith, after one of their own -- a defender of the Faith -- had been so foully murdered? Only, the images they saw, the words they heard, surely seemed like those of the Master Shaper….

The Jellutong might have resisted the seductive words and images, sensed untruth behind them. And yet they dared not, for they had the ring of truth. One looked toward another, and the other would look back -- without saying a word of their own, they knew thus that they were hearing and seeing the same thing.

And the hostages? They were puzzled by the strange distraction of their captors.

It’s as if they’re sleepwalking, thought Vivi. They hardly seem conscious of us, or even each other.

Their weapons hung by their sides, ignored, as if they had entirely forgotten them.

Should we do something? Vivi wondered. But how can we? Whatever kind of trance they are in, any action on our part would surely break it. And how could we take action in any case, without being able to communicate, without being able to plan?

Perhaps somebody was already doing something; perhaps that was the cause of the strange behavior of the Jellutong. But what that might be, she could not imagine. A few years ago, though, she couldn’t have imagined the Jellutong acting as they had the past day. Their faith, a syncretic blend of Islamic and Eastern beliefs, had always been one of peace. She had known Jellutong as friends during secondary school, but they had drifted apart since then.

Of a sudden, there was an announcement over the public address system, from a leader of the Jellutong,

“It is over,” he said. “We are reconciled with Tuhan.”

Whatever that meant.

Within moments, it meant they were free. Free to go.

It was only then that Vivi learned that her father had died.

 

Chapter Twenty-three

 “You’re going to face her, Protector to Protector?” James asked incredulously. “She’s got four inches height on you.”

“And I’ve got more combat experience, including Klas'ten -- if I could get through that, I can get through anything.”

Cher’ee shrugged, looking calmly up into his eyes with the blue of her own. “Anyhow, I’m way empowered, thanks to that dip in the sun that you and I just took.”

James was well aware that her laced-up leather top was straining to burst open. She’d very trustingly entered the sun’s photosphere while he made love to her, knowing that he’d have the power to draw the energy from her while inside that nuclear bubble. It was the one place where a male was stronger.  Instead, James had used his power to pour even more energy into her, using his sexual skills to take her helplessly to ecstasy again and again, each moment of release opening her body to an inrush of orgone.

Now that they were back on Reigel, she looked so calm, so innocent and so utterly unwarrior-like that he had trouble imagining her facing the deadly Zar’ya. A Protector who had already killed one of her own race.

“I just wish I were facing a Prime, preferably a male, I know how to take them down. We did a lot of that at Klas'ten. Of course, there were a lot of Primes there.”

James smiled. All he could think of was the way her body had spasmed so tightly around his manhood as she came again and again, holding him in her, using his steel until she could hold no more energy. He knew he’d never touch a Frail woman again.

"But I've never faced a Velorian before," Cher'ee said.

“You’ve sparred enough with your sisters,” Terri said in her blunt way. “Even with me, and you easily won. You are skilled enough.”

“I beat you with raw strength, not skill. I do not have that advantage over Zar’ya.”

“She’s a fanatic,” James added. “Use that to your favor. She’ll try to kill you with some kind of ritual -- a tactical disadvantage if you’re ready for it. The Aryan priests have been pouring all kinds of junk into her head.”

“James is right,” Terri added. “She’s too young to see the falseness in their bullshit.”

“This thing is 50:50. Maybe,” Cher’ee said.

“That's why we’ll be there with you,” James smiled. "All's fair in love and--"

“OK… 51:49,” Cher’ee smirked. “No disrespect, but you guys wouldn’t last ten seconds in Zar’ya’s grasp.”

“Twenty,” said Terri proudly.

“Like I said…” Cher’ee grinned. She’d always enjoyed Terri’s straight-forward way of facing danger. She was a warrior’s warrior. She had often wished she could give up her uniform to Terri and go study at the university. Mathematics was her love, not fighting. Terri had a Protector’s heart and soul.

“You’re loaded with orgone and well-fucked, thanks to James here. Anything else we can do?”

“Yeah. Help me find my uniform. It's gotta be around here somewhere.”

“Would it make Sims and Wilson any happier if you left it behind?”

“We catch hell, either way. But I’m ready for that. A Protector’s gotta do what she’s gotta do.”

***

Zar’ya stood in the room the priest had appointed for her, her 6’4” height towering over the two shorter priests who were preparing her. They knew it would only be a matter of time before the Embassy sent their Protector here. Two goddesses would meet, but their survival depended on Zar’ya’s victory.

They’d been pouring the last of their energy reserves into her all night, the heavy electrical cables attached to her body as she drank insatiably from their reactor, her breasts glowing like hot coals.

Her hair was glowing and her figure was dramatically curved, breasts engorged, as they guided her to a small, silver pedestal, asking her to stand on it as she pulled down the white gown they’d given her earlier. She towered proudly over the priests as their acolytes entered the room and began to anoint her skin with precious oils and scents, brushing her long, blonde hair, many hands touching her from head to toe.

 “You may honor yourself as we honor you,” the elder priest said. “You must be both strong and relaxed when you enter battle.” Oiled hands began to caress her breasts, focusing on her stiffening nipples. Other hands traced exotically between her thighs, caressing intimate folds they could never open.

Zar’ya wasn’t sure if she felt proud or embarrassed as she reached down to touch herself, one finger tracing around the button of pleasure. They had never trained her to handle being the object of godly worship back on Velor, but she found she was enjoying it. The oil, the scents, the gentle touches, the encouragement to pleasure herself in a room filled with priests who worshipped her. It didn’t seem wrong, yet it wasn’t anything she’d ever dreamed of doing.

She closed her eyes and began to move her finger, vibrating it in the way Velorians can, loving the way the hands on her breasts held her tighter, focusing on her nipples, the elder priests chant rising in pace and volume as her passions rose.

“One of our clan is dying,” she heard the elder say as she raced upward in passion, barely able to understand him over the pounding of her heart. “Grant him release as you are granted yours.”

She opened her eyes to see a very ill priest standing alone against the stone wall. He looked only days from his death, yet his eyes were bright as he stared back at her, smiling angelically. She realized with horror what they desired of her.

“He wishes only for the goddess to take him to heaven. To make his Ritual of Passing painless. To send him to heaven in a blaze of glory.”

Zar’ya started to shake her head, only to feel her sexual release rushing toward her. Her finger was still moving, faster even. The dying priest smiled brighter as he saw her continue, knowing she would bring comfort to him and hope to all others by granting this wish. Zar’ya felt lost and helpless in the chanting ritual as she closed her eyes and just concentrated on taking herself that last way to ecstasy, loving the oiled hands that tried to keep up with hers. That much she knew how to do.

Her body stiffened a few moments later as she closed her legs tightly, the priests’ hands barely escaping being crushed in her passion, the acolytes pulling away too as she reached up to hold her own breasts with all her strength, that pleasurable pain releasing the rolling storm of hot pleasure taking her over the summit of her desires to fly down the sunlit valley of her dreams, her two fingers moving deeper as she imagined it was her lover back home. A priest whispered in her ear, his words imploring her to complete the ritual. Lost in that dreamlike state of ecstasy, she opened her eyes just as she cried out from the sharp pleasure, unable to resist the wishes of her worshippers during this, her moment of glory.

Her eyes flared like two lasers, and the dying priest’s body burst into flames, shrinking, melting and vaporizing in seconds, his angelic smile of release from his painful illness the last thing she saw.

The rock wall was still glowing hot from the Ritual of Passing as the frenzied shaking of her pleasured body slowed, and the priests and acolytes returned, bringing her sacred red and blue uniform, slowly dressing her as they oiled her long hair, preparing their goddess for her inevitable victory.

***

Nobody seemed to know what to do with the Jellutong. For the time being, they were being interned in the university gym, guarded by civil police. Vozeh's orders, and nobody was gainsaying him.

Central government forces in Southy were standing down, as they obeyed Basil Sims' truce. But they were occasionally still being fired upon by Aryan irregulars, and were allowed to return fire by their local commanders. That might not have suited Sims, and surely not have suited Zar'ya. But the local commanders were keeping Sims out of the loop, and they didn't even know about the rogue. They'd have been scared shitless if they had.

Dr. Alex La'Reu, who did know, had been advised to keep his mouth and his mind shut about it. He'd already determined, while channeling Vozeh, that the acting justice minister knew nothing of Zar'ya. Could Bergstrom and now Sims have been keeping him out of the loop, or had the Embassy succeeded in keeping a lid on the treason of one of Velor's own?

Sims was a fool. The Velorians were fools, if they thought they could just sweep this under the rug. The truth had a way of coming out, and when this truth came out...

Back at the Embassy, at that very moment, Vern'danan was thinking: can we keep a lid on this? They'd have to put out a cover story -- Anya had already provided it -- that Zar'ya was actually an Aurean Prime, some new flying blonde version. He'd have to talk with Cher'ee or Terri about that. They'd have to get all their ducks in a row.

Otherwise they'd be sitting ducks for the newsnets.

 

Chapter Twenty-four

James was growing frantic with worry. They’d found Molly’s shattered body, a gruesome sight. Even worse, Zar’ya had not been seen since killing the Velorian singer. Terri and Cher’ee had been airborne for most of the last two days searching for her without success.

Now Cher’ee had disappeared, which jeopardized not only their plan, but also their very lives. If Zar’ya had found her and taken her down, then what hope did they have?

Terri, as expected, dismissed that worry, saying Cher’ee could take care of herself -- and that she could as well. James heard the forced bravado in her voice. Any battle that pitted one of Aphro’dite’s finest against a P3 female like Terri could have but a single outcome, regardless of Terri’s extreme level of training. Her death at the hands of one of her own caste would be even uglier than Molly’s.

He feared his demise would be very different, but equally final. Zar’ya was behaving more like an Aurean every day, and it was no secret that the Aryans, a reclusive sect of Terrans whose sound-alike name brought out the worst fears of Aurean omnipotence, actively practiced a form of ritual sacrifice of males. In some ways, that made them worse than the Aureans, who killed mainly to support their political and military agendas. Far worse, they’d enlisted Zar’ya to wield a sword aimed at other Velorians.

He smiled, a grim soldier’s humor. If Zar’ya found him, that sword was going to be own penis, stabbing inside her body with him as her sexual slave. In the end, she’d kill him with that same sword. Primes were infamous for sucking the life from Supremis men as they used their pheromic powers to prolong their own ecstasy. And despite the official story to the contrary, there were simply two many parallels between Aryan and Aurean culture for him to believe they weren’t influencing each other.

Fortunately, he knew something about playing the game of sexual conquest. Terri had long practiced her Aurean-defeating talents on him, draining and weakening him until she could ‘kill’ him. She was good at it, but sometimes he managed to turn the tables. She wasn’t a P1 after all, and her genetics were far more limited than she’d ever admit. Once, in an unusual moment of candor while the two of them lay exhausted in his bed, she described the envy she felt toward all Protectors. Envy that came from not being invited to Aphro’dite’s chamber because she was a mere P3, even after it was determined that her fitness level overlapped the lower end of the P1 range. And given that Aphro’dite hadn’t worked her magic on her, Terri lacked the Galen retrovirus that could insert a critical handful of Galen genes into her helix, increasing her physical powers. That had condemned her to a ‘lesser existence’ as Terri described it. She also couldn’t pass on any of that symbiotic infection. That was an honor reserved only for Aphro’dite's ‘children’ -- Protectors like Cher’ee, and, disturbingly, Zar’ya. No one had any idea what she was doing with the Aryans.

Terri took her resentment and disappointment out on Cher’ee every day, especially after Velor asked her to continue Cher’ee’s combat training. Terri rode the younger woman hard, claiming disappointment in any performance that Cher’ee achieved, claiming she wasn’t living up to her genetic potential. She even downplayed Cher’ee’s successes, some of them truly heroic, claiming she should have been able to save more lives.

In return, Terri didn’t understand why Cher’ee spent all her spare time at the Reigellian University, even going so far as joining her father’s Math department as a visiting research fellow. Cher’ee had once foolishly admitted that if she had her way, she’d try to take her father’s old seat in the Math department. Terri shared that discussion with the authorities on Velor, and of course they came back and said that such a career change was impossible for Cher’ee. Aphro’dite’s ‘daughters’ had but one role to play in the Enlightenment.

Now the two Primas were going to have to work together if they expected to live through this. James hoped Terri would bury the hatchet long enough to let Cher’ee become the Protector she was trying to make her. It was a matter of life and death this time.

He was interrupted from his introspection when a message came in -- a Diaboli down in Arcady who was friendly to the new government had picked up Zar’ya’s thoughts as the rogue Protector circled close overhead. He claimed that Zar’ya was hunting the remaining Velorians. As near as he could tell, her plan was to ensure that Aryans assumed all important posts in an entirely new government. A government that would withdraw from the Enlightenment.

 He reported the Diaboli’s impressions to Terri, and then added: “Well, the good news is that the Terrans are probably safe while she hunts us. All we have to do is keep our heads down until help arrives.”

Terri shook her head. “We can’t trust a single Diaboli’s guess as to Zar’ya’s mindset. She’s not exactly stable. For all we know, she might use Aurean tactics to draw us out -- like killing children until we come out of our hole to face her.”

James just stared at Terri, his face ashen. “No Velorian would… she couldn’t…”

“Religious fanatics will do anything for their cause,” Terri shrugged as she paced around the room. “The Aryans see her as a goddess, and they’ll turn killing us into some kind of religious ritual. The Aryan religion is worse than you know.”

A sudden idea came to him. “Then we use that. We tell Zar’ya where we are. Draw her to us.”

Terri blinked. “Since when have you gotten a death wish?”

“No… what I mean is we set a trap for her. I remember reading about this huge vault in the basement of the Planetary Bank. Walls are ten feet thick of high-carbon steel. It will take her a while to dig through that much steel to reach us, and Cher’ee can take her while she’s confined inside the vault wall.”

“Why doesn’t she just rip the door open?”

“Because it’s the strongest part of the vault. Very high tech.”

“Assuming Cher’ee isn’t afraid to take her on,” Terri spat back as she clenched her fists, strained muscles reshaping her body into a woman of steel. “Cher’ee never trains; hanging out instead at the University, wishing her life was more ordinary. Between her and your sister, what’s our world coming to? P1’s who want to think instead of fight?”

“Hey, don’t start blaming me for Alisa’s decision. And you’ve had months to whip Cher’ee into shape.”

Terri sighed, relaxing her fists as she slumped into a chair. “And now we’re facing a rogue Protector who plans on killing every Velorian on the planet in the name of the Aryans. And Cher’ee is missing… couldn’t get any worse.”

 James shrugged. “Even if Cher’ee doesn’t show up in time, we can use the gold inside to slow Zar’ya down and capture her. The planet’s entire gold reserve is held in that single vault.”

“Gold?”

“Yeah… about a half ton of it.”

Terri shook her head. “She’ll kill us both before we can fasten any of that around her. We’d never get close enough.”

 “You’re forgetting the 500 tons of steel in that vault, Terri. Zar’ya can’t melt her way in or she’ll be depleted by the time she’s finished. And it will take time to tear it apart. Time we can use to pile the gold at the entry point and blast it with our heat vision to coat her with the molten metal just as she breaks through.”

Terri looked at him, blinking. “That’s brilliant… you’re actually thinking like a soldier for once.”

James grinned. “I guess present company is starting to rub off on me.”

***

Terri and James pulled on a pair of the winter coats that the Terrans wore and walked out of the safe house an hour later. They tried to remain inconspicuous, even going so far as to use the public ground transport to reach the bank. Once inside, they explained their plan to the bank officer, a rather pretentious middle-aged man named Patrick Swartz.

He didn’t like it one bit, but James invoked Top Emergency powers, and Patrick reluctantly acquiesced. He took them into the basement and used his bio-sig to activate the vault door. The massive plug-type door opened ponderously on its oiled hinges, motors whining from the strain. It was easily twelve feet thick and made from high-carbon steel, the inner liner made of lead to keep radiation out.

“Impressive…” was all Terri would say as she walked inside, studying the locking mechanism on the plug door. She turned to face the bank officer. “Lock us inside.” Then she turned to James as he followed her through the round doorway. “And I need your energy.”

“What?”

“I’ll need you to toss the gold bars her way, so you’ll be weakened anyway. While you throw them, I’ll melt them in mid-flight. With any luck the molten gold will cover Zar’ya.” 

James looked down at Terri’s high, firm breasts, and shrugged.  “You look pretty energetic to me.” He’d never gotten used to the way Terri’s body felt so hard that even her breasts seemed to be made of muscle. She was to the average Velorian what a bodybuilder was to a normal Terran.

She saw him looking, and crossed her arms to pull her top off, revealing the generous curves beneath it. “Yeah, but giving me a little more oomph won’t hurt.”

James turned to see the bank officer staring at Terri’s nudity, his eyes like saucers. “Just lock the damn vault,” he said brusquely while moving to block the man's view of Terri. There were things that Terrans didn’t need to know. Like the way Terri made love as if she was fighting for her life, wrestling and then subduing him with her superior strength and then pinning him down as she took him, more intent on pleasuring herself than him. Her resulting orgasms were so violent that he sometimes feared she was going to injure him. Clearly, Terri’s idea of cozy intimacy was uncomfortably close to the Terran definition of criminal sexual assault.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to even say no to her today, for in her usual forward way, she reached down and took him out, her hand closing around his nearly flaccid member with crushing force. Which, given he was Velorian, made him instantly hard -- for she was challenging his manhood. She gripped him with most of her P3 strength as he became all the man he was, exerting her dominance by lifting him bodily off the floor. He closed his eyes to engage his usual secret fantasy when he was with Terri -- a fantasy that it was really Cher’ee who was making it with him. He smiled from behind closed eyes and gave himself up to his private dream.

When the dust settled a short time later, James’ back had been pounded several inches deep into the steel floor, leaving behind a near perfect impression of his body. Deep gouges from Terri’s knees dimpled the thick steel on either side of him from the way she’d straddled him while fucking him with her superhuman strength, coming a dozen times. If not for his dreams of Cher’ee, he wouldn’t have been able to withstand Terri’s crude fucking. But she’d never know that.

Not that Terri would have cared. She was on a mission and this sex was part of it. She was in an ebullient mood as she playfully pulled on his shirt and even donned his ridiculous looking Rigellian hat. A single button held the shirt closed, hiding the faint glow of her vagina, still hot and wet from her frantic fucking.

James couldn’t help but smile up at her as she dressed in his clothes. She was impressive as hell when she carried this much energy, and she had that glow that all Velorian women gave off after being properly fucked. “You look more like a Protector than Cher’ee ever will,” he lied. “I just love those muscles.”

In reality, those muscles had nearly squeezed the life out of him again. That wasn’t how he liked his women, but he wasn’t going to tell Terri that. He needed to boost her confidence higher than normal today, and some little white lies were his tool.

Terri smiled at the outrageous complement, swallowing it whole. She took off his hat and gave him a little curtsy. “Now I remember why I like to fuck you so much.”

“But at least you left me with a little energy this time. Thanks.”

Terri nodded as she turned and released a blinding blast of heat vision toward the vault door. The steel flared to send a blaze of white-hot sparks outward as her focal point slowly traced around the inner seam, welding it shut from the inside.

Using my energy, James thought as she finally blinked her eyes back to normal. The first thing he saw when the glare faded was the dangling communications lines, the fiber optic cables melted. “Oh, great… now you’ve burned up the holo lines… we’re cut off!”

Terri shrugged. “Cher’ee won’t have much trouble figuring out that we’re in here. That bank guy will tell her. ”

“And Zar’ya too?”

“Which is exactly the point. The good news is that Cher’ee will hang back and wait until Zar’ya tries to dig us out. She can then attack her while she’s distracted.”

  “You’re assuming a hell of lot of her. She has no idea what we’re planning.”

Terri shrugged again. “We have to assume it. Otherwise we might as well walk out of here now and offer our necks to Zar’ya. Besides, I’ve been working on her tactical awareness. She’s improved a lot lately.”

Despite the rare compliment on Cher’ee’s abilities, a shiver ran down James’ back. They’d be very, very lucky to be alive tomorrow.

He quickly went to work, stacking the gold bars up in a half dozen locations in the vault. They didn’t know where Zar’ya would hit them so they had to be ready for anything.

***

Time passed slowly, hours blurring into more hours. They checked and rechecked their preparations, then talked their way through the exact timing of the plan several times. Terri finally curled up in a corner, hugging her legs to her chest as she softly chanted her Katra the way she always did when waiting for a fight to start.

They were on their fourteenth hour inside the vault when an incredible blow shook the vault, the ten-foot thick walls ringing like they were inside a steel drum. James and Terri leaped to their feet, staring at each other with eyes wide open. Another blow shook the vault, this one clearly coming from the door. The deafening blows came faster and stronger with every passing minute. Placing her hands on the walls, Terri found the vibrations were strongest against the huge plug-like door. Zar’ya was definitely coming in the hard way, something only an arrogant Protector would try.

The two of them scrambled to partially melt and then weld dozens of gold bricks all around the vault door so they could blast them when Zar’ya finally tore her way through. All the while, the earthshaking blows grew louder until they were shaking the vault like a force 10 earthquake. The booms were now joined by the piercing scream of tortured steel.

James closed his eyes and imagined Zar’ya ripping the plug door apart with her bare hands, the steel feeling little stronger to her than modeling clay might to a Terran. Definitely a malleable material, although you had to work it at its own speed.  The blows eventually grew so loud that he had to huddle with his hands over his ears, protecting his eardrums. Any human inside the vault would have been crushed to a pulp by the overpressure and shockwaves as the wall bulged inward now with each blow, not to mention deafened by the sound waves. 

Ten minutes of agony that seemed to be hours passed before a brilliant glow began to blaze in the middle of the vault door. The lead coating was melting to run down and puddle on the floor. Seconds later the steel started to bulge inward -- Zar’ya had obviously thinned it out until she could bent it inward. Maybe only a foot thick now. Shockingly, a pair of fingers suddenly appeared, tearing through what was left of the steel.

“Show time!” Terri shouted as she lashed out with every erg of energy she could throw into her heat vision.  James threw gold bricks at the door and Terri’s blazing glare melting them in mid-air, coating everything. James’ optimism soared; it was all going per plan.

And then it all went to hell. The vault door exploded inward, sending a tremendous blast of molten steel his way. The white-hot liquid covered his eyes, painfully blinding him as he desperately tried to throw more bricks while wiping the solidifying steel away. He prayed they’d hit Zar’ya with enough gold to create an unbroken link around her body. Blinking the last of the molten steel away, he saw Terri staring at the glowing maelstrom that been the vault door -- and she was smiling!

“What the hell…” he started to say, only to follow Terri’s gaze. A blonde woman was standing in front of him, only a few spots of molten metal speckling the bright red and blue uniform she wore. She turned to the side to lift one of the white coats the vault workers wore from a hook and donned it. “Cher’ee?!” James gasped, dumfounded.

The Protector turned and looked blankly at him, displaying only the slightest flicker of recognition. She looked older, harder and more determined than he’d ever seen her before; all traces of reluctant teenage girl having vanished. Her eyes were brighter than ever and her hair shone like spun 18K gold, her skin a deeper, golden tan. Her figure was dramatic as well, to the extreme even, and the big ‘S’ on her chest glowed as if lit from inside, shining right through the white coat she’d just pulled on.

Those glowing eyes turned to focus on Terri for a long moment, and then returned to James. He barely caught the quick wink she sent his way. 

“You went back to the sun,” Terri laughed with joy. A Protector’s hair would only turn that color and her eyes would only glow that bright and blue when she was overloaded with energy.

Cher’ee gave Terri a quick bow and a little smile. “Guess you can call me a double dipper. At your service, Major.”

“Skietra!” James said, suddenly angry. “Where the hell have you been? We were worried that Zar’ya had taken you down. And then entering that way… we thought you were Zar’ya.”

“Sorry.” Cher’ee shrugged as she tried but failed to close her coat over her now oversized chest. “Your comm lines were down.”

James racing heart started to slow, finally processing what Terri had said about the sun. “So… in the sun, huh? You're looking wickedly energetic.”

“Zar’ya is very young,” Cher’ee said casually. “But she graduated at the top of her class. I was near the bottom of mine in terms of strength and combat skills. So I need an edge going into this fight. Terri gave me that edge at Klas'ten -- but that was only for mass attacks. Here I'll have to go one on one.”

Terri’s eyes were green with envy. “You really are loaded for bear.”

 “But why in Skietra’s name are you hiding down here?” Cher’ee asked angrily. “I wasted a lot of energy just tearing my way in to get you.”

“We were trying to draw Zar’ya in,” Terri explained. “Then hit her with that gold.” She saw only a few splatters in Cher’ee’s hair, far less than the mess that coated the inside of the vault now. The final explosion from Cher’ee’s entrance, her heat vision combining with her powerful fists, had blown everything back at them. 

“Not exactly a great plan. You didn’t know it was me until too late. If I’d been Zar’ya, you’d be dead by now.”

“Did you see her?” Terri asked while starting to peel the gold from her own skin.

Cher’ee shook her blonde head. “Nope. But she’ll find us soon enough now. Everyone up above was talking about you two hiding out down here. They aren’t happy. They seem to think you’re sacrificing them to save your own hides.”

Terri’s eyes flashed angrily. “I’m no coward. This is just part of a strategy.” She glanced worriedly at James. “Maybe not a good one, but its all we had given you’d disappeared.”

“So how much gold is down here?” Cher’ee asked.

“Hundreds of bars.”

“Good. Then let's try this a different way. I’ll engage her and you guys melt that stuff over both of us. Once we’re both down and weakened, you can finish her off.”

The Velorian major nodded enthusiastically. “Yeah… that might work. Definitely!”

***

Patrick Swartz paced angrily back and forth in the lobby of his ruined bank, the glass windows shattered from the Velorian’s violent attack on his vault. The young Protector, Cher’ee, had walked in the door, asked him a couple of questions and then tried to use the comm set, which unexpectedly was dead. She’d told him what to say if another Velorian came, and then proceeded to destroy his million dollar vault, leaving his bank in ruins. He had no idea why she was hunting the other Velorians or what they were doing down there now. Was she killing them or loving them? He’d never been able to sort out the Velorian penchant for confusing those normally diametrically opposed concepts. Maybe love and hate really were circular.

He pushed that strange thought away as he paced back and forth across his ruined lobby, his feet crunching on broken glass. He was on his fifth circuit of the lobby when something overhead caught his eye. He jerked his eyes up to see another blonde woman floating down to land just outside the front entrance of the bank. She was taller than the Protector, and had waist-length hair that enveloped her in a golden light as she descended. She paused to hover weightless just in front of his bank, letting him see that she wore a pale blue top with a faint ‘S’ over her breast and a tiny red skirt, her legs and feet bare. Based on the uniform, she was obviously a Protector as well, although a younger one. He guessed she was barely past her mid-teens. Something snapped inside him at that thought -- he was sick of dealing with these superhuman girls younger than his daughter. What right did they have to destroy his bank?

“Who the fuck do you think you are?” he demanded, his anger bubbling over. “Here to make amends for your friend, I hope?”

“Amends?” Zar’ya asked, puzzled. “Friend?”

Patrick suddenly remembered that he wasn’t supposed to say anything about the Velorians in his vault. That made him even angrier. “I’m god-damned sick of the way you arrogant and malicious aliens destroy property and lives here on Reigel.” He remembered the fight a few months ago between that Aurean and several of the Velorians. He suddenly couldn’t hold it back. “My bank is wrecked. I’m going to get fired, my career ruined. And all for what?”

Zar’ya paused to tilt her head slightly as she looked at him, her eyes narrowing. “I don’t think you should be worrying about your career right now.”

He waved his arms at the destruction. “And why not? Look at this mess?”

Zar’ya looked around, her eyes glowing brighter blue as she stared for a long moment at the marble floor.

“Why can’t I see into your vault?” she asked.

“Lead, you idiot.”

“Oh…”

Patrick couldn’t help but stare at her, despite his overflowing anger. She was stunningly beautiful, and he’d  never seen anyone with such an incredible figure; especially someone her age. And with hair that long and that blonde, hanging past her waist… she was truly an incredible sight.

“How many are down there in your vault?” she asked as she watched him checking her out. “Is it just the embassy people or has the Protector joined them?”

Patrick started to answer, then suddenly realized what he’d been told to say. That made him angry all over again. He wasn’t a Velorian lackey. Or a drooling fan boy. He was a bank officer. Standing up straight, he ignored the script he’d been given and blurted out the first thing that came to mind: “I’m not telling you anything until I talk to the police and my lawyer. Do you have any idea how much damage you assholes did to my bank?”

Zar’ya’s eyes flashed angrily. “Let me ask you as simpler question. Do you want to live?”

A wave of heat washed over Patrick. Yet instead of being intimidated as any rational man would be, her naked threat made him even angrier. “You don’t scare me. I know you Protectors have a code. And believe me, Velor is going to hear about this, you can bet your ass on that. Velorian fighting Velorian. Destroying property. That’s… that’s just arrogance and irresponsibility squared. You sub-human bitches can kill yourselves off for all I care, but leave us real humans alone.”

“Wrong answer,” Zar’ya said calmly. She walked over to tower over him, his face barely coming to the level of her shoulder. Before Patrick could step back, she pulled her blue top down to her waist, baring herself. “Is this the body of a sub-human? Are these the droopy breasts of a human girl? Or rather, am I the ultimate perfection of a true goddess of power!”

Patrick’s eyes opened wider yet as he stared at the young Velorian. Was she deranged? Or an idiot? What kind of woman would reveal herself this way? His anger was building toward a new high when a strangely pleasant tingling sensation washed over him, filling him with a wonderful warmth. He took a deep breath, and his senses were suddenly filled with her perfume, the scent seemingly composed of equal parts honey and wildflower. His anger faded as quickly as it had come. Her body was so perfect, her breasts so firm, so round, so big…. it was all he could do to open and close his mouth. “I… ah, what’s that got to do with… ah…?”

“Beauty is a virtue of its own right,” she said smoothly, her voice like that of an angel. “As is strength. Ultimate power must be worshipped.” She traced her fingers lovingly over her breasts, touching them as if they were objects of worship.

Patrick gawked at her, feeling himself soaring as his body came truly alive, even as he realized she was talking about her tits as if they were religious shrines. “Ultimate power? What does that…”  He paused in the middle of his dazed outburst as he was suddenly reminded of her age -- younger than his daughter. What the hell was he doing even looking at her? A final flash of anger blazed inside him as he took another deep breath, with that anger aimed as much at himself as her this time. “You can’t come prancing in here like…”

She stopped him with a smile, one that was as bright as the sun coming out from behind a cloud. He was rendered senseless, able only to stare at her, his mouth agape, as she traced her long fingers over her breasts, pausing to circle her rising nipples. “I am the ultimate manifestation of feminine power, and I have the strength to destroy those cowards downstairs. Strength great enough to end all war on your planet.”

Patrick’s head was spinning in several directions at once now, each portion moving faster by the moment. Misplaced arousal fought against his simmering anger, and the arousal was winning as her strange perfume drew him closer to her. Yet another part of him wanted to lash out and hit her. Far worse, he was overwhelmed with a desire to defile her. He closed his eyes and shook his head. What the hell was she talking about anyway? Super-powered tits? Tits that could save his world? Then those feelings changed again as if by magic, leaving him with the giddy sensation of floating on air -- and the kind of all-encompassing desire he’d felt the first time he’d kissed a girl. Her golden hair, those beautiful eyes, those inviting lips, those perfect breasts -- they all seemed to expand to fill all of his vision, all of his consciousness even.

“You… you really are a goddess!” he gasped, his body totally under her control now.

Zar’ya smiled, pleased that her pheromones had finally done their job. She cupped one breast and lifted it. “Please, worship me,” she cooed, remembering how much she’d come to enjoy that simple Aryan ritual.

Patrick felt as if he was lost in a twisted yet erotic dream that he couldn’t wake from. Goddess worship? A teenage goddess at that? The Aryans were into that, sick bastards all of them. His mind reeled even as his body surged with desire, an overwhelming urge to touch her washing over him. He couldn’t stop himself from leaning closer to her, gently taking her amazingly firm nipple between his lips, wrapping his arms around her back to pull her to him to ravish her. He was startled when the nipple suddenly doubled in size and grew incredibly hard. Strangely thrilled by his own power to excite her, he began to run his tongue faster around it, thrilled to hear Zar’ya sighing with pleasure.

Zar’ya smiled angelically down at him, kissing the top of his head as she luxuriated in his simple worship. She cupped the back of his neck and pulled him closer, burying his face deeply in her soft flesh. As with the Aryans, she’d never expected her bond with Terrans to become so comfortable and so intimate.

Inside Patrick’s head, that small voice that had always kept him out of trouble was screaming for him to come to his senses. If anyone else saw this, his wife especially, inside his bank lobby no less, he’d be fired and divorced. But he couldn’t help himself. The whole of his being, his entire consciousness, was drawn to this goddess, his emotions soaring so high that he truly felt as if he were flying, his body so warm and tingly that the rest of the world just seemed to fade away.

It wasn’t until he started to run out of air that his inner voice started to be heard over the rush of hot blood in his veins, screaming for him to pull away -- to breathe. He tried to do both, but as soon as he startled to struggle, Zar’ya’s hand buried his face even deeper in her softness. He desperately grabbed her forearm, but it felt as if it was carved from warm steel. He tore at her fingers, but they were made of the same steel. A wave of panic welled up inside him, and the surge of adrenalin washed away the arousal that had been so overwhelming only seconds earlier. He clawed at her uniform, glad to finally find something he could get a grip on, but it didn’t tear. He reached up to gouge her eyes, but he might as well have been trying to tear apart a stone sculpture with his fingernails. The only thing left he could think of doing was to bite down savagely on her nipple, tearing at it like a wild animal. He got a reaction to that.

Zar’ya gasped softly and relaxed her grip on the back of his head, if only marginally. She was surprised that this man knew exactly how to offer himself in sacrifice, the most private and powerful of all Aryan rituals. She closed her eyes while leaning her head back and pushed her breast gently his way, offering herself to him. Smiling softly, she savored his committed worship for a short while, only to feel his movements slowing far too soon. It was time to compete this spontaneous ritual in the way the Aryan priest had taught her only a month earlier during the celebration of her 17th birthday. Like all Velorians, she could express a tiny bit of the orgone she carried, but only when her nipple was fully engorged. The Aryan priests had seized on this as the ultimate form of self-sacrifice for true believers, calling it by the ancient name of Dahl’lar.

Zar’ya smiled as she accepted the unexpected request for Dahl’lar, even if this man’s dark skin made it obvious he wasn’t Aryan. She savored the tingling warmth of her engorged nipple while wrapping both her hands around her breast and began to massage it. It took all her fabulous strength to build enough internal pressure to overcome the tension of that tiny passage through her nipple, a vestigial human trait.

“I accept your Dahl’lar!” she cried out.

Patrick heard her cry out, and he was barely aware of a hot, saltiness that hit his tongue, lost as he was in his suffocating panic. Mercifully, he certainly wasn’t aware of the explosion of the hyper-reactive raw orgone that had suddenly appeared at the tip of her nipple, for his head instantly vanished in a blue-white blast of unimaginable power. The supersonic shockwave blasted what was left of his body to bits as it expanded outward to shatter the remaining support beams of the building, instantly collapsing the bank lobby. The powerful blast blew Zar’ya backward several feet, leaving her chest glowing cherry-red, but she regained her footing just as debris from the collapsing building rained down on her. A massive concrete beam weighing many tons crashed down on her shoulder, driving her feet through the marble floor of the lobby and nearly buckling her knees. Far from injuring her, the concrete was what shattered as the beam spun off to the side, held together only by its internal steel rebars.

That’s when it came to her -- for the first time, Zar’ya saw the potential of this ritual as a weapon and not merely as a form of Aryan worship. It would start with her overloading Cher’ee’s optic nerves with that specific frequency of heat vision that she’d been taught to use. That would render her briefly helpless. Then she’d express this raw orgone, letting it explode so violently inside Cher’ee’s mouth and sinuses. It wouldn’t truly injure her, but with any luck, the combined assault would render the Protector unconscious long enough to carry her body deep inside the sun. A fitting sacrifice and proper burial for a sister in arms, misguided as Cher’ee might be.

Pleased with her plan, Zar’ya opened her eyes to look around at the shattered bank building. Obviously, she couldn’t fight Cher’ee that way here. The people of this city might be immoral and corrupt, even enemies of her adoptive Aryans, but they were still Terrans and killing more of them than necessary was wrong. Willing sacrifices like this man was one thing, murder of innocents was something else completely. Besides, she was convinced that the Terrans would see the truth and join the Aryans in their sacred worship once she’d eliminated the disbelieving Velorians. To ensure that, Cher’ee’s body must be displayed on the sacred alter of the Keep for all non-believers to see. Then she could complete the ritual of sacrifice by casting her into the core of the sun.

Secure in the wisdom of her plan, and confident that Skietra always protected the righteous, Zar’ya glanced at the gathering crowd outside the bank. There was no further need to reveal her godly powers here, but also no reason to hide her presence. Pulling her top back up to cover herself, her breast still glowing like it was on fire, her excited nipples tenting the thin fabric, she walked out into the crowd. They fell silent as they gawked at her. She knew they’d seen Velorians before, their embassy was here, but they’d never beheld a true Velorian goddess. Today would be a very special day for them.

As expected, she tasted both fear and excitement in the air, not to mention the heavy musk of male hormones. Goddess or not, these Terrans were easily aroused and many of them were sexually confused. In this case, they froze in place, merely staring at her. Seconds passed, then a minute, as Zar’ya began to grow angry. This wasn’t right -- the Aryans had always begun their rituals when she appeared this way before them. This silence was akin to sacrilege. She was debating making an example of several of them when a young woman saved them all. She bowed down in front of Zar’ya to kiss her feet. Then a man joined her. Then another.

Zar’ya smiled -- they were not Aryans, yet their hearts knew the truth. She rested her hands gently on their heads and blessed them. She then urged them to their feet to stand before her, and gently kissed them goodbye.  then held two of them to herself as she pushed off with her toes to slowly ascended into Heaven above, taking her new worshippers to their sacred reunion with Skietra.

***

Back inside the lead-lined vault, Cher’ee’s heart leapt as she felt the ground shake and heard a muffled explosion above her. Clearly, Zar’ya had arrived. Terri glanced her way, clearly having heard it too, but James was too busy staring at her to have noticed anything. He’d always had a thing for her. Cher’ee ignored him as she applied herself even harder to the task of bending the massive steel of the door back into place, tearing at the steel with her fingers now as if it was no more substantial than wet clay, shoving huge gobs of it around with her palms, squishing it into shape with her grip. She had to get the opening closed adequately to slow Zar’ya down.

James watched her work, impressed to see Cher’ee’s soft curves replaced by fantastically defined muscles and wiry tendons as she used every ounce of her Protector’s strength. Impossibly, she looked more muscular than even Terri when she exerted herself, but was still so very feminine when she wasn’t. A paradox, but then, she had that smattering of Galen genes like all other Protectors. A gift from the Goddess herself.

James walked over to help Terri as she gouged small openings in the inner walls near the door with their fingers and wedged the gold bars into the cracks, hoping they’d stay put when the door blew inward a second time. Cher’ee finished bending the thick door closed at the same time, and then melted it with her eyes to weld it into a single mass.

He held on to the last twenty bars: with luck, Terri’s heat vision would last long enough to melt all the gold over both Protectors. They could then deal with Zar’ya in their own sweet time.

It was a good plan, or at least as good as any plan could be when the universe’s most deadly killing machine was fifty yards away and hunting you. It seemed so bizarre -- on any other planet, Zar’ya would still be in her middle year of high school, attending classes and laughing and going to parties and enjoying being with her friends. Instead, she was here on a planet she didn’t belong on, convinced by some fanatical Aryans that she was the goddess of their race and equally convinced that killing the rest of the Velorians on this planet was the way to prove it. Something had gone terribly wrong back on Velor if they were sending girls like her out into the universe. Or was it that they were simply training them better than ever before to defeat the Aureans and the training had backfired? He was suddenly glad that Alisa hadn’t gone into the program. He’d hate to think she could have become like Zar’ya.

On the other hand, Cher’ee was everything he’d always dreamed a Protector would be. Gentle and elegantly beautiful, considerate and smart and compassionate. She kept her fantastic power inside her, at least most of the time. The only question now was whether even she could hold her ground against Zar’ya. He glanced at the worried look on Terri’s face and knew that she certainly had her doubts about Cher’ee. But then, she’d always been so hard on her.

He closed his eyes and tried to envision Cher’ee’s face, luxuriating in his own private fantasies, when he was slammed to the floor as the massive vault suddenly blasted upward as if shot from cannon. Blinking his eyes open wide, he saw a huge section of the ten-foot thick steel floor bulge inward as they accelerated. “Zar’ya!” he shouted. “Shit… what the hell is she…?”

“Must have tunneled beneath the vault and blasted it out of the ground,” Terri shouted back.

James thought of the bank overhead and all the people he’d seen coming in. He prayed they’d evacuated the area before Zar’ya had arrived.

“Air pressure is only dropping a bit,” she added, nodding toward the leaky vault door. “She’s not taking us out of the atmosphere.”

Cher’ee didn’t say a thing as she floated across the vault as if the vault wasn’t even accelerating, and started to press against the floor. The vault started to slow rapidly.

“No!” Terri shouted over the scream of air that was building up around them. The vault was traveling supersonically now. “Let her take us as far from the city as possible. Save innocent lives.”

Cher’ee relaxed her body and the vault accelerated as fast as before. “Anyone want to bet where she’s taking us?” she shouted.

“The Keep,” James shouted back, trying to make himself understood. “She’ll do this ritual killing in front of her worshipers.”

“Exactly.” Cher’ee nodded, her voice the loudest of all, yet unstrained. “And when she fails to kill us, we'll put an end to their bizarre worship once and for all.”

“She’ll just focus on you instead,” Terri replied, clearly working to make herself heard.

“Then let’s not disappoint her.”

***

It took nearly an hour to reach their destination, even at what had to be multiple times Mach. The simple fact that Zar’ya could propel a 500-ton steel cube faster than a rifle bullet said everything that needed to be said about her flying abilities -- she was a uniquely capable Protector. Which also meant uniquely dangerous.

Finally, the vault started to slow, then free-fell, crashing down to land on the hard ground at nearly Mach 2.  The impact would have liquefied a human’s body, but it merely slammed the three Velorians into the floor as it flattened the vault, doubling its length and halving its width. They’d just started to pick themselves up when the vault started to spin around, one corner boring into the ground to create a hole. It fell another short distance before crashing to a stop again.

“We’re in the Keeps now,” Cher’ee said.

James swallowed hard. Zar’ya seemed to be outmaneuvering them so far. Hopefully, she’d grow overconfident. 

His hopes were realized when Zar’ya started to hammer on the vault with her fists, the blows every bit as powerful as Cher’ee’s had been. The steel screamed like something alive as she tore at it with her fingers. The worst of the noise came from the dome of steel that had risen from the bottom of the vault.

“She’s not coming through the door,” Terri shouted, her eyes wide open in alarm.

James floated upward to place his back against the gold-splattered vault door, his arms full of gold bricks, facing the bulging floor. He found it hard to fly with that much gold near him. Terri joined him, wrapping her arm around him to steady him. Cher’ee remained standing on the bulging floor. Zar’ya was tunneling her way inward far faster than Cher’ee had.

“Time for Plan B,” Cher’ee said, looking up at them, looking a bit scared. “I’ll take her on when she tries to enter, and then take the battle outside. You follow. You’ll have a few minutes to get some gold on her. I doubt if I can hold her off for too long.”

James nodded, his heart racing wildly. He glanced at Terri, only to see that she looked cool and determined, her heart beating slowly and steadily. He had no doubt she’d look the same way at the moment of her death. A warrior’s warrior.  Below them, Cher’ee nervously held her ground as the screaming steel and the trip-hammer blows reverberated inside the steel drum. The center of the bulge suddenly ballooned much faster than before, and Cher’ee threw herself at the top of the steel dome, her heat vision blazing to cut through the last few inches of steel. She disappeared through the floor in a firework of bright sparks.

Terri quickly followed, squeezing herself through the white-hot opening, her clothing igniting as she did. James struggled to follow her, but the ten-foot long tunnel was too narrow for his broader shoulders. He poured all his flight power into the effort and shrugged his shoulders to create a marginally wider passage, and the steel bent just enough to let him pop out the outside of the tunnel with all the drama of champagne uncorking. He smacked into the far wall of the cavern, his clothing shredded and smoking.

He looked around to get his bearings. They were in a huge cavern -- easily a quarter mile across and hundreds of feet high, far bigger than the Keep Anya had told them about. This must be the very center of the Aryan faith.

Far overhead, Cher’ee was fighting with Zar’ya, the two women’s red and blue caped uniforms looking so colorful against the gray rock. They were wrestling in what had quickly become a contest of raw strength. Staring in awe, James felt his stomach fall away as he saw the younger Protector bend Cher’ee’s arms backward, both their bodies a maze of unbelievably defined muscle.

Looking down, he saw hundreds of Aryans huddled in the corners of the huge cavern. Every one of them was staring upward at the spectacle, eyes wide with wonder. Yet strangely, he saw no fear in their expressions -- they were clearly brainwashed into the whole goddess thing.

Scanning further, he saw two priests standing boldly beside a raised dais. An elaborately sculpted stone altar had been erected on top of it. He recognized it from pictures Terri had shown him -- the Altar of Sacrifice.  The priests were waving burning sticks of incense in elaborate patterns as they chanted.

“That’s where she’s going to do it,” he said to Terri, pointing at the altar.

Terri leaned closer. “We have to wait until the final moment, when everyone is focused on the ritual, and then we hit them both with the gold. You did bring the gold didn’t you?”

“Shit!” James looked back at the vault. “I barely squeezed out of there empty handed.”

She glared at him. “And you didn’t say anything?” she accused.

“I’m over my head here.”

“At least keep it on straight.”

Before James could respond, Terri flew over to dive head-first back into the ragged tunnel that led inside the vault. The vault gave off a muted ring of steel hitting steel.   

***

High overhead, Zar’ya was slowly forcing Cher’ee toward the altar as planned. But Cher'ee still had to make a fight of it to lull Zar’ya into a false sense of security. She struggled to tear a hand free of Zar’ya’s grip and punched out at the tall girl. The supersonic impact of her fist landing on Zar’ya’s face sent visible shockwaves through the dusty air, and the blow sent Zar’ya flying to crash into the far wall of the cavern, a riot of cracks radiating outward for yards.

Zar’ya quickly shook off the blow and launched herself back at Cher’ee, traveling like a red and blue missile. The two superwomen collided in the middle of the room with a crash that sounded like the world’s biggest flitter wreck, the shockwave knocking the Aryans off their feet. That mighty blow was followed by two sharper cracks as Zar’ya’s fists sent Cher’ee flying this time, her body tumbling, arms and legs flailing limply around her. Cher’ee crashed into the distant wall a quarter mile across the cavern. Zar’ya launched herself after her, slamming her fists into Cher’ee’s stomach to double her over, hitting her so hard her backside was smashed deeply into the hard rock. Zar’ya delivered several more blows to Cher’ee’s face, each one shattering rock for twenty feet in all directions. Only Cher’ee’s feet were visible now.

Cher’ee came back with a bang as she spread her arms and legs outward, ripping a huge section of the wall apart to explode outward, the floor lurching as if in the throes of a large earthquake. James caught sight of something falling high overhead, and jerked his head up just in time to see two huge stalagmites falling. Without thinking, he launched himself toward the closest one, smashing it to dust with his fists before it hit the huddled group of Aryans below. The second one speared a man on top of his shoulder to drive all the way through his body, finally emerging from between his legs to nail him to the cavern floor. To James’ eyes, he looked like a bug pinned to a sheet of cardboard in a child’s insect collection.

The closest Aryan women screamed and started to run away from the wall, only to be crushed under tons of rock that had broken loose from the Protector’s fight. James saw more rocks falling, including a bus-sized boulder, and launched himself upward to deflect it to the side before it crushed more Aryans.

“Forget about them,” Terri hissed loudly from behind him. “Focus on Zar’ya.”

James blunted a second boulder to the side, sending it careening into empty space, and then looked around for Terri. She was hiding behind a rock outcrop with the gold bars piled beside her. His hesitation allowed time for more boulders to fall, this time crushing a group of Aryan men, their blood splashing obscenely across the rocks, their shattered bones protruding whitely from the mangled mess that moments before had been living beings. He gagged as the bile started to rise in his throat.

“Over here, damn it!” Terri hissed again.

Realizing that no one was safe if they didn’t take Zar’ya down, he turned his back on the Aryans and sped Terri’s way, praying that Zar’ya had been too busy with Cher’ee to see what they were planning.

***

Zar’ya wrapped her long legs around Cher’ee like a python smothering its prey, her fingers groping for the pressure spots that would momentarily weaken her sister Protector. She found one on Cher’ee’s neck, and Cher’ee’s arms went limp for a brief moment. That was the opening she needed to slam both firsts into Cher’ee’s chest. Three times her fists crashed down over Cher’ee’s volatai, each blow sufficient to have crushed a main battle tank. Cher’ee’s eyes rolled up in her head as her volatai went into spasm, her flight power deserting her. Zar’ya quickly carried the now flightless Velorian down to lay her on the dais.

Terri was horrified to see one of the priests wielding what appeared to be a Vendorian layer sword, its evil-looking edge sharpened to a single layer of atoms. It was so sharp that it could cut through the thickest steel or hardest rock without resistance. It was also one of the few things that could potentially cut a Velorian’s skin, although only if wielded with great strength -- strength Zar’ya had.

She leaned over Cher’ee, bending her neck back to bare her throat as the priest handed her the sword.

“Now!” Terri shouted. She threw a golden brick at Zar’ya, only to have it glance off her shoulder to hit one of the priest’s at nearly the speed of sound. Zar’ya turned to look at the priest as he crumpled to the floor, a huge hole in his chest. Turning to look where the brick had come from, she was struck by two more bricks, one of them thrown by James. James' brick hit her on the arm, with just enough impact to send the layer sword flying.

Terri swept the blonde strands from her face as released a flash of blue light that rivaled the brightness of an arc-welder, and several strands of hair that had floated back in front of her eyes flared with an actinic golden light. She quickly softened her focus so that the horrific energy beams spread out broadly enough to envelop the entire dais and both women, the air turning red as it heated the air around the altar. The rock platform began to glow as well, and the gold melted like butter under a blow torch. Encouraged by that, James aimed the remaining gold bricks at the top of that inferno, watching as they melted when they fell through the path of Terri’s heat vision to send molten gold showering the wrestling Protectors.

“Perfect!” he cried out to Terri. “Keep staring just like that.” He knew she couldn’t see much of anything while projecting energy that way.

By the time he’d thrown his last brick, molten gold was flowing freely down the sides of the half-melted stone dais to spread across the floor in a gleaming puddle. Terri’s heat vision faded at the same time. Depleted, she closed her eyes and staggered to sit down hard on the floor, her eye sockets glowing cherry-red.

It was all up to him now, James knew. Pushing off with his toes, he soared over the dais, the heat blasting up at him like an open furnace. Below him, Zar’ya and Cher’ee were completely coated in molten gold. Which Zar’ya was trying to wipe from her skin!

Cher’ee, having come to in the meantime, grabbed for her wrists to stop her, but she wasn’t strong enough to keep a grip on her wet skin.

Cursing, James threw himself at Zar’ya, realizing that they hadn’t taken into account the way the superheated rock platform would keep the gold molten long enough for Zar’ya to remove it. He grabbed Zar’ya’s weakened wrists, his hands gratifyingly stronger than hers now. She cursed and spit molten gold in his face as he spun her around and pinned her arms behind her, grinding her face into the half-molten stone. She twisted her head backward to shake her hair, splattering him with more golden droplets. He prayed a second time today, this time that the splatters wouldn’t form an unbroken ring around his body. If he succumbed to the gold and Terri was depleted, then Zar’ya would have them all at her mercy.

“You don’t understand what's happening here,” Zar’ya screamed at him as she struggled frantically in his grasp. “I can’t fail the Aryans. My people. They have been too long subjugated and suppressed.” She stared wild-eyed at James, clearly trying to burn him with her heat-vision, which thankfully sputtered and died.

James slowly shook his head, revealing no sign of empathy. “You’ve lost your way, Zar’ya. This isn’t how it’s done.”

“Join me and we will bring peace to this planet. You can join me. You can have me.”

“I’d rather see you in hell,” James growled.

Her voice rose shrilly. “But I’m their goddess. I’m divine. You can’t do this to me!” Her words ended in a scream of insanity.

“Divinely stupid you mean,” James said sadly as he leaned down to grab a section of half-melted steel railing from the base of the dais. He wrenched it free and then wrapped it around Zar’ya’s wrists, crushing the hot steel together tightly enough to compression weld it, effectively handcuffing her arms behind her back. “You’re just another murderous bitch in my book, babe. Insane to boot. Worse than a fucking Aurean.”

Aurean?” she screamed. “You compare me with those megalomaniacs? Those butchers?”

James unceremoniously threw Zar’ya over his back and carried her away from the glowing hot dais. He dropped her unceremoniously beside her worshippers. They stared down at her in horror. “I judge people for what they do, Zar’ya. For the human values they defend. Not for the accident of their birth.”

He turned his back to her and flew back to the dais. Cher’ee was smiling up at him, her eyes soft and warm. He remembered not to breathe around her -- the air was filled with both Protectors' pheromones.

“I owe you my life, James,” Cher’ee said softly, a sexy huskiness in her voice that signaled her developing mood.

Her bedroom eyes warned him that she was slipping into Ples'tathy, a danger for any Velorian who wore too much gold. A ripple of excitement raced through him at that thought. If she did go orbital, then he was going to have to attend to her for the next few days, an enticing thought. He’d never been around a Protector who was in Ples’tathy, but the stories of their endless passion were known to all Velorians.

Turning to look back at Zar’ya, he saw the Aryans attending to her as she lay on the floor and writhed, her hands between her legs. She was already in Ples’tathy, and still coated in gold. As long as it coated her, she’d be stuck in that intimate trap forever. Even worse, the Aryans would be killed as her pheromones compelled them to mate with her -- the strength of her legs, even under that gold, would be a dozen times theirs.

He decided to let Terri handle that problem. He didn’t even notice that she'd gone off to retrieve the layer sword -- and use it to administer the coup de grace.

Turning back to Cher’ee, he allowed himself to breathe now, inhaling the honey sweetness of her pheromones as he started to wipe away the gold. If Cher’ee did enter Ples'tathy, he would ensure she wasn’t wearing any of that hated metal. And she was clearly losing it.

“Can a mere Betan offer his services to a mighty Protector?” he asked, wishing.

“Nothing mere about you today.” She gasped for air, smiling sexily up at him. “You are my hero.”

 Terri interrupted them then, rolling her eyes as she stood behind James, legs still shaking from loss of energy. “For Skietra’s sake you two, we just saved the entire god-damned planet. And you two just want to go and screw? While I do the dirty work?"

Cher’ee ignored her as she reached up to wrap a golden arm around James’ neck, pulling him closer to her. “Intimacy is a celebration of life,” she murmured as her lips brushed James’. “And life is what this is all about. You should really try it sometime, Terri.”

Her lips met James, and her deep kiss told him everything else he needed to know.

Terri knew it was time to take her leave, having taken responsibility for the dirty work. But it would be up to others to deal with what to say about Zar'ya, now that she had been terminated. It was a matter of what the Aryans might have called realpolitik.

 

Chapter Twenty-five

The newsnets were filled with rumors. Everybody knew about the attack on the bank, but nobody seemed to know exactly how it happened. Especially how the entire vault had been lifted out of the ground and carried God knew where.

It had to be the Velorians. Only, what did they want with gold? Everyone knew they were allergic to it. Yet a Protector had been involved -- hundreds of people had seen her, and she was the last thing some of them had seen. Her image had been caught on surveillance cameras, some of which had survived.

Basil Sims had nothing to say. In fact, he couldn't be found. Nor could any members of his cabinet, except for Siemsen Vozeh, who appeared to be clueless. It was the Velorian embassy which broke the silence, with Ambassador Vern'danan going on the air to clear the air.

"Citizens of Reigel Five," he began. "Despite the best efforts of our allied forces to interdict access to your system, an Aurean Prime was able to infiltrate your planet just yesterday. Her aim was evidently to destroy your economy by destroying the central bank.

"You should know at this time that your Protector Cher'ee was able to track the intruder and neutralize her. Your gold has also been located, and will be returned as soon as a new vault can be constructed. Your currency is secure and your economy is secure -- you can depend on that.

"This new attack by the Aurean Empire was particularly insidious, as the Prime was disguised as a Protector. Preliminary analysis of her remains indicates that she was a prototype from the Empire's infamous research labs, enhanced with flight capability. As you know, ordinary Primes must travel by ship, and I can assure you that the interdict against suspect ships has been 100% effective. You may rest assured that we will spare no effort to protect Reigel Five against this latest threat. You can depend on Velor, you can depend on the Enlightenment. As I speak, your government is being given a thorough briefing on this regrettable incident."

That was news to Vozeh. It was news to Sims and his cronies, still hunkered down in their bunker, newly supplied with gold -- which they had quietly taken from the vault a day before the vault itself was taken. Fortunately, all records of that transfer had been destroyed, as had the bank manager who signed off on it.

But they knew the truth behind Vern'danan's announcement. It should be safe to come out now. Let joy be unconfined.

For others in the capital, joy was quite confined.

***

Harry Maclendon was fingering his sidearm.

Just checking it out, he tried to tell himself. Following procedure.

As if he could believe that.

He’d been sitting here since breakfast, remembering the scene with Anya on the phone that morning, remembering the look in her eyes -- deadlier than heat vision to him.

"Should I kill you outright, or just rip your dick off?" she'd yelled at him. "Maybe I should just let you stew for a while. Let you sit there and wonder when I'm coming for you. And when you think you're safe, when you least expect it--"

Something had interrupted the call at that point. But her words still reverberated in his mind.

When he’d first heard about Molly's death, all he could think about was that he’d wanted to go to bed with her. He’d never told her that, but she must have known. She knew full well the effect Velorian women had on Terrans. Had she ever indulged them? Indulged herself?

Would Molly be dead now, if only they had made love? Would he have acted any differently? He had run it through his head a thousand times, and he still couldn’t find an answer. He hadn’t known about Zar’ya, but he’d heard about the Aryans’ weapons of gold. They could have turned those against the girls, if they’d suspected them.

And it was only the menschenjagers that had spared them from that. Something he hadn’t known about, something he hadn’t factored in. If not for Nazillah and those machines, Molly and Anya would have had but two choices: expose themselves, or become murderers.

Oh, they could have simply fled. But Molly would never have fled. She believed in keeping promises. She had promised to see it through. She had seen it through, though it meant giving her life to save Anya.

Who hated him now. Who had every right to.

He’d wanted to take her to bed, too. That made it worse. He suspected that she’d wanted to take him to bed. That made it worse still.

Without conscious thought, he had been raising the gun to his head.

Damn you!” came a shout from the door.

Alice was home early. Or had time just passed more quickly than he’d realized?

“Don’t put this on me,” she said. “I was ready to forgive you, to forgive everything. But not this. Not this.”

Harry didn’t know what to say. But he lowered the gun, removed the clip, set them down separately on the table.

He began to weep, finally finding release in tears. Although he couldn't see her, he could hear her weeping too. He could feel her hand on his shoulder -- a small contact, that, but he wasn’t ready for more, not yet. Neither was she.

***

The belated funeral service for Sandal Bergstrom was formal but brief. No lying in state, certainly no open casket. Acting President Basil Sims had been insistent on that, refusing even Vivi’s request to say farewell to her father face to face.

“Death isn’t pretty,” he’d told her. “And because of the delay, unfortunately…”

Surely they still have embalmers in Senegal, she thought.

But she didn’t press the point. She was worn to a frazzle from interviews with the newsnets -- about the siege at the university, about her father’s passing, about Sims and his policies. These were things they must know more about than she. There had been reports, for example, that God Himself -- Tuhan, they called Him -- had persuaded the Jellutong to give up the hostages. What was she to make of that?

She wished she could read the minds of the interviewers. But whatever Diaboli genes she carried were recessive, and even in her father… they had given him charisma, perhaps: enough to seduce the former ambassador, enough to awe his ministers. Yet it was if they had otherwise been reversed in their effect, making him less rather than more prescient. Either that, or he was cursed with bad luck. Perhaps she was, too.

She had been expected to say the requisite words at the service, and she had said them. She had been expected to shed the requisite tears, and she had shed them. She had been expected to take a position in favor of the acting president and his policies, but this she had not done -- knowing little of Sims and even less of his policies. That had led to speculation that she might be mounting a challenge to Sims, that she might have a hidden political agenda of her own. There had even been feelers from a few opposition leaders about whom she knew next to nothing.

Vivi fended off the politicos with an icy look, and fended off the newsnets by dint of shutting herself up in her room and sending out for food. That meant staying away from class, but she managed to prevail on her professors to let her follow the coursework online. She couldn’t do the lab work that way, of course. Perhaps she could make that up later; but if she couldn’t, they’d have to give her a grade of incomplete.

This whole planet should be graded incomplete.

***

Vance Calloway had packed his bags. Nothing much to take with him, except his memories; and those he wished he could leave behind.

They were saying the worst was over, but he didn't believe it for a minute. There was still fighting in the streets of the capital, drive-by shootings, even an occasional suicide bomber. Nobody seemed to be able to put a stop to it; nobody even seemed to be in charge, now that Bergstrom was gone.

Basil Sims? Who the hell was he? Just a mouse studying to be a rat. Only as Interior minister, he'd been in charge of security -- and now as pretender for the presidency, he was supposedly in charge of everything.

He might have stayed for Uncle Harry's sake, but Harry was too far gone in self-pity. It turned his stomach just to think of it. No, he was going to get out while the getting was good, find a hole to hide in somewhere. Any dump of a planet would do, as long as it wasn't Reigel Five. If anybody ever asked about it, he'd tell them he hadn't even been born here -- just worked here for a while.

Vance didn't want riches, or glory, or any of the usual rewards. He just wanted to be an honest cop. And that, he was certain, he could never be here.

***

They'd given Anya new papers. False, but clean. That was after they'd warned her against going after Harry. They'd overheard her call -- not a cool move to have placed it from the embassy?"

"He's already punishing himself, if that's any comfort," Cher'ee had told her. It was she who was unofficially, very unofficially -- and with Terri's advice -- making the policy decisions for Velor here until the new ambassador arrived."

"Is Harry all you're worried about? I hope he's impotent for the next 20 years."

"I hope he didn’t notice where the call came from. We don't need this sort of thing associated with the embassy."

"That's rich. Considering what you've done from the embassy. Cozying up to Bergstrom and his killers, and then--"

"Enough," Cher'ee interrupted. "This isn't just about Harry. What we're worried about is that you're too close to this entire situation. That you were a part of what went down in the Keeps -- and after. Things we'd rather put behind us."

"Like giving me credit for your cover story about Zar'ya?" Anya's voice dripped sarcasm.

"You know we can't do that. One of the things we have to put behind us.

"Put yourself behind me. You were a lot bigger part of it than I was."

"Which is why I'm leaving, too, after taking care of a few loose ends."

"Like me."

"Like you. But unlike you, I can't choose where I'll be going. I don't have any idea where there'll send me, or for how long. It used to be that planetary assignments were for keeps. Klas'ten changed all that. We might even run into each other again one day, although I hope that we do not."

"That goes double for me. I never want to see you again. I want to be quit of the whole crowd of you."

She had her first class ticket. She'd picked her destination more or less at random, searching the World Brain on the local server. She hoped the description of the world she was heading for wasn't obsolete. It was hard for updates to make their way across the vastness between the stars.

***

It hadn't taken Vozeh long to ferret out the truth about Zar'ya's visit to Bergstrom's bunker -- and how Bergstrom had actually died.

Sims was finished, his entire régime was finished. But to avoid chaos, the Velorians were keeping the lid on that, and acting as if he and his retinue were heroes and patriots. In return, they were backing the story that Zar'ya had been an experimental Prime.

They assumed their régime was secure, and that its legitimacy would be confirmed as soon as Parliament could be assembled. The Velorians were content -- for the time being -- not to challenge that assumption. But when push came to shove, the ministers would be content to go home rather than prison. They'd still keep their mouths shut.

Vozeh could live with that, he told the Velorians. He was the only member of Sims’ cabinet who hadn’t been in on what had happened during  the cabinet meeting he had missed while advising them on the hostage crisis. What did it matter what the public knew about Sims and company? Let them leave the political stage quietly, as soon as he could put together an alternative government.

“In any case,” he told Cher’ee and Terri, “Sims is the least of our problems. The real problems are out there -- in the streets, in the temples, in the greenhouses, wherever irreconcilable people congregate.”

The Velorians, it seemed, had other things on their minds, which found expression after Vozeh bid them adieu.

"Sims and his people get to retire honorably, whenever," said Cher'ee. "Anya gets the gate. I get the gate."

"Welcome to the real world," Terri retorted. "Let it be a lesson to you. Maybe you'll stick to your job in your next posting, instead of your hobby."

“Well, I can still work on math wherever I end up. I don’t know what Anya’s going to do.”

“I hope you’re not going to bend my ear again about your grandfather’s algorithm.”

“It didn’t do any good trying to bend the collective ears of the Institute,” Cher’ee said. “But I think what happened here may relate to it. I’ll have to work on that, see if it leads anywhere.”

James had stayed out of this one, too occupied with where his own life was leading. The truce in Southy was still holding, after a fashion. With Zar'ya gone, there wasn't any point to pursuing a renewed war. But there was still guerrilla activity in the far reaches of Southy.

He had formally applied to become an advisor to the Reigellian military, forsaking the Velorian Security Service. It would be a tough job -- he heard it had been too tough for one of the advisors during the scorched-earth campaign in Southy; that advisor had gone AWOL But things were different now. Anyway, if he were going to be a soldier, he should serve in the field, and he felt that the troops would need him -- after all that had gone down, they were confused and demoralized. They needed to get back their discipline, get back their pride. He could help.

Besides, it would advance his own career.

He'd miss  Cher'ee.

He'd miss Terri, too.

But love was rarely for keeps among Velorians. And for recreation, there were the embassy women. Including that new Scribe. A real hottie, he'd heard.

 

Chapter Twenty-six

There was a new Protector for Reigel Five.

Dashiella Na'Gram was a veteran of the Battle of Klas'ten, in which she had distinguished herself by far more than survival. She had known Cher'ee there: also more than a survivor, but a distant junior to herself.

Dashiella was 325 years old, and had served as Protector on a disclosed world called Vysehrad for most of that time.  Like any Velorian of such years who had had the fortune to live outside the gold field, she showed no signs of aging — her face and body had launched millions of fantasies. Occasionally, she had made those fantasies come true. But only in service to a greater end.

Vysehard had a strange history, beginning with its settlement by abductees from what was then known as Bohemia. Hussite warriors and their families they were, followers of the martyred Jan Hus who had led the rebellion against the Catholic church and the Hapsburg monarchy. Preparing for battle, they sang Kdoz jste Bozí Bojnovnici (Ye Who are the Warriors of God) with such intensity that they struck terror into the hearts of the disciplined soldiers they were about to engage.

For all their courage, they had been hopelessly outnumbered. Yet they believed in their God, and when they and their families were taken during their retreat to the mountain fastness of Blanik, they had believed that the Lord Himself had come to their rescue -- to shelter them until such time as they could return and liberate their homeland. It came as a shock when they learned otherwise, that they could never return to that homeland -- a land that would know centuries more oppression, with only brief interludes of freedom, until it finally became the Czech Republic.

Yet they had recovered from their shock, thanks in part to the work of the Companions who had served on the world they named for their Earthly refuge, and helped them find a new purpose. Their simple piety turned to home and hearth, while their sense of justice led them send their warriors to do battle on other worlds -- but only against oppressors. There had been no Protectors in those days, and yet they had occasionally taken on Aurean invaders, singing their old battle hymn. On rare occasions they had even defeated Betan soldiers; yet when (more often) their own defeat was inevitable, they never wavered and never surrendered.

The warriors of Vysehard had become legendary, so legendary that a Czech elaboration of their battle hymn was eventually adopted and adapted by Velor as Ye who are the Warriors of Skietra -- the graduation overture and chorale of Protectors. By that time, Vysehrad's own mercenaries served only ceremonial functions, like the Swiss guards of the Papacy on distant Earth. Yet, like the Swiss, they were still ready to rise to the defense of their homeworld -- a world now as peaceful, egalitarian and modern as any in the Velorian Enlightenment.

Dashiella Na'Gram had needed only to follow in the footsteps of the Companions of old, some of whom she met in their retirement while she was still in her youth. She had learned much from them, and more from long experience. She had been intimate with the leaders of Vysehrad. But she had offered them more than her body; she had shared with them the kind of wisdom that few if any frails could accumulate in their lifetimes. That had served her well on Vysehrad, enabling her to avert several crises that might otherwise have destabilized the planet.

It was because things were so stable there that she had been drafted for the Klas'ten campaign. Vysehrad could get along without a Protector for a while, the Senate decided, and it had. Afterwards, a novice Protector had been assigned to her old post.

"There's a world where your skills are particularly needed," one of the senators had told her. The Senate didn't have the authority to assign her, but the Institute had taken its advice.

When she arrived at the Velorian embassy, she was briefed on the situation. There was an effort underway, unofficially supported by Vortada Jahr’ling, the newly-arrived ambassador, to reconvene Parliament in hopes of forming a new government with the kind of legal mandate that the Sims regime lacked.

There was also an effort by a new alliance called the Reformasi to organize a shadow government that might win parliamentary approval. It seemed that Siemsen Vozeh, architect of the Reformasi, was even now meeting with Jahr’ling and his staff. All very unofficial, of course -- for informational purposes only.

***

Starla Shin-zel was an apprentice Scribe, which didn't mean a lot here even if the office she sought was a high one on Velor, and yet she was present at the creation of a new government.

Vozeh led the Reformasi delegation, as the only minister who had any standing left with his own people, let alone the other factions, further let alone Velor… The others with were sundry deputy ministers and undersecretaries -- the sort of people who actually got the work done, but rarely got any credit for it.

Jahr-ling had arrived only two days earlier by courier ship -- that underscored how important the Senate considered his mission, and also added to the humiliation of Vern'danan, who had received orders to board the next commercial ship home.

Starla had arrived with Vortada, who knew that she could serve as a fair witness, recording the words and the sense of the words that passed here, leaving no room for doubt that the Senate would be receiving an accurate account of the proceedings. That was her job, and she could do it well -- even if she had to enter the record on a computer that was a relic.

Vortada Jahr-ling, who was competent if not brilliant -- his family name counted for as much as his accomplishments in the Senate's decision to send him here -- was trying to get a clear picture of the political situation. It seemed that Vozeh was attempting to put together a new coalition of Jellutong, secular Northerners and even Diaboli -- no easy task, even though his star had risen after the resolution of the hostage crisis.

Other survivors of the Bergstrom regime were still jockeying for position. William Wilson, in particular, seemed to think he should inherit the presidency — as if there were some rule of inheritance. He was even trying to take credit for improvement in the military situation. Wilson had had nothing to do with that, as Vortada well knew, having been briefed by Major Raul'lan. Terri couldn't be here, of course; this gathering was outside her province. Still, he valued her advice.

"So what about this Wilson?" Vortada asked now.

"The worst that can be said of him is that he's incompetent," Vozeh said. "He's totally unqualified for his present position. With hard work, he might become highly unqualified. But Sims -- now there's a scoundrel for you."

Jahr’ling hadn't asked about Sims. He had already heard the man was a scoundrel. But, until Parliament could be reconvened, he had as legitimate a claim to the presidency as there was amid the chaos that had ensued after Bergstrom's death had become known. In political as well as property disputes, possession could be nine points of the law.

Still, Sims wasn't actually running things. The ministries were all pretty much running themselves, under people like those Vozeh had brought here.

Except for Defense, and there Wilson had been reduced to a figurehead -- it was Terri Raul'lan and her advisors like James who were seeing to the reorganization and retraining of the Rigellian armed forces. The back of the Aryan resistance had been broken, but there were still die-hards out there with caches of conventional missiles and other weapons. The important thing was to do only as much as was needed to root them out, while trying to regain the trust of other Aryans.

It wouldn't be easy. Fire, plague and famine had reduced their numbers by half, maybe two thirds -- nobody had an accurate count, and nobody was in a hurry to take one. Moreover, nobody -- even here -- wanted to dwell on the fact that one element favoring success of a new government was that the balance of population had shifted: the communities of the North now far outnumbered the Aryans.

The fantasies of a master race had succumbed to fact. Never would they be masters here. They could pursue separation, rubbing salt in their own wounds, or join with the Northerners and the Jellutong and even the Diaboli -- they’d manage to nip the Aryan attack in the bud, by sacrificing a few to save the many. But how could they ever forgive the hereditary enemies who had contrived to bring down ebola upon them?

That question could not be settled today; it would not even arise today, for there weren’t any Aryan representatives on hand -- there were few such who would have been willing to come in any case. Vortada Jahr-ling thought it best to try to reach a consensus among the other factions, then let a caretaker government based on that consensus to approach the Aryans.

Vozeh had brought several of his Jellutong colleagues from the Education and Health ministries: Albertho Awang, Juhairi Fernandez, Fashran Ghazali, Tajuddin Sundram. But he had also invited Dr. Alex La'Reu, despite the misgivings of his fellow-Jellutong -- and they didn't even know the truth about how the hostage crisis ended.

"They are ashamed of themselves now," Vozeh said. "We feel that they should be granted amnesty."

Jahr’ling and Raul’lan nodded, in assent or complete indifference -- it was hard to tell.

“We also need to bring in the Aryans -- those who will come with us. And we need the Diaboli.”

“Are you crazy?” objected Raul’lan. "Is this your idea, or theirs? You can never be sure with their kind."

She looked daggers at Dr. La’Reu, who tensed, but said nothing.

“It’s not our call,” said Jahr’ling, noncommitally.

“It won’t be mine, either,” added Dashiella.

She had just entered the room, but her super-hearing had given her a heads-up.

"Our new Protector," Raul'lan observed, as if it weren't obvious. "And the only one I know who is my senior."

That wasn't as obvious. You could almost feel the men's blood temperature -- among other things -- rising. Except for La'Reu's.

Dashiella noticed that. She always noticed such things. Although she wasn't a mind reader, she sensed he was deeply troubled. She could also sense that he was important to the Reformasi, that he might play a key role in their plans.

I've to get a better take on the situation, and act accordingly.

That was why they'd chosen her for this posting, she knew.

***

When Alex Le'Reu returned to his hotel room after the session at the embassy, he should have felt relief -- at his role in ending the hostage crisis, at his acceptance by Vozeh, at the promise that the Diaboli could play a role in the Reformasi.

And yet he could still feel the contempt and hatred of Raul'lan -- as vile as that of the Protector Zar'ya, of whom nobody wanted to speak. She had been "dealt with," he was given to understand -- it would be best for all concerned not to know how. So he hadn't read them. He hadn't even read Raul'lan, although he assumed that she and they all assumed he had.

He might be on a fool's errand even now. Could the Reformasi really deliver on their promises? Could he, should he persuade his fellow-Diaboli to join a grand coalition? There was a lot of bad blood still -- loyalist Aryans, if any were to be found, might pay lip service to peace and reconciliation. But it would take generations at best to turn lip service into reality. And the Northerners might be no more tolerant than the Aryans -- Bergstrom had been a Diaboli only by courtesy, but many would blame his people for sins that were the late President's alone.

And there was his own sin -- the sin of cowardice that had cost him Alma and made him a murderer by proxy. It was such a small thing, against the mass murders committed by others, but numbers made no difference, ethically. He had betrayed his oath as a doctor, his people and his wife…

So absorbed was Alex in his melancholy that he didn’t see the naked woman in his room at first. Rather, it was the odor of honey and wildflowers that first betrayed her presence to him.

When his eyes focused on her, he saw that it was Dashiella, the new Protector he had seen at the embassy. She was reclining in the decorative pool of the luxury suite the embassy had obtained for him.

"Read me," she said, her blue eyes gazing at him, her golden body and her pheromones assailing his senses.

Alex read her, finding in her mind no trace of malice towards him or his kind. Only…

"Reigel Five needs you," she said. "But to that end, you need me."

"They say you Velorians can't tell the difference between sex and combat. That you make love and war at the same time."

"They say a lot of things about you Diaboli, too. And too many of my people believe them. Ancient animosities, instilled by those who created us."

"The Elders?"

"And the Galen. They were fanatics, most of them. No doubt we are well rid of them."

"Yet they are still out there, watching their children from afar."

"Only, we aren't children any more. We are not their playthings."

"You still serve Skietra."

"We serve the Enlightenment, which justifies its own existence no matter what Skietra, or Aphro'dite, may have meant for it."

"You have been intimate with Aphro'dite…"

"More than 300 years ago, when she enhanced me. I haven't seen her since I was posted to Vysehrad. And I can't say I really knew her. She is almost as much an enigma to us as to others. She serves her function, but otherwise remains aloof and keeps her own counsel."

"Not much of a life."

"I can't judge that. But she gave me a good life. I accomplished a great deal on Vysehrad. I hope I can accomplish something here. I hope you can accomplish something here. I've been informed about your role in the hostage crisis."

"Have you also been informed that I'm a murderer?"

He shot her his memories of how he'd arranged the deaths of the RIS agents on the cruise ship. It seemed to have been ages ago, it seemed like yesterday, he knew not which.

"Far greater crimes have been committed by men and women with far smaller consciences. Even by idealists. Sometimes they're the worst."

"Don't we need idealists?"

"Of course. And yet idealism can be taken too far. Zar'ya was an idealist, after all. She had the courage of her convictions, such as they were, but never the courage to question those convictions."

"You talk in riddles."

"We need people whose feet remain on the ground, even when dreams fill their heads. I think you can be that kind of person. That is why I have come to you."

"Perhaps you should be telling this to Vozeh."

"He's a politician. I know his kind. He's just realistic enough and just idealistic enough to become a statesman. But you're a doctor, and it weighs on you more heavily when you violate an oath as well as the law."

"You expect me to forget?"

"I expect you to forgive yourself. For your own sake and for the sake of your world. Come to me."

All the while, during their conversation, he had been trying to ignore his raging hard-on, trying to pretend she wasn't aware of it, that she couldn't actually be here to seduce him.

But now she stood, donning a gold necklace, and beckoned him. As he approached, she took his right hand and pressed it against her left breast. Her flesh felt as smooth as silk, yet as hard as steel; as he touched it, her nipple grew and stiffened against his palm.

She began undressing him then, smiling finally as his cock came into view, saluting her. He could see that her hairless pussy was dripping with desire.

"Read me," she said.

He was already reading her, and knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that she wanted him. She was revealing things he had never known about Velorian women -- especially Skietra’s Girdle, a ring of incredibly dense nerve endings just inside the "inny," a muscular inner vagina that had no parallel in human physiology.

The things she could do with a man's cock… she promised he'd feel them all -- from her point of view.

Alex was all over her then, worshipping her golden flesh, biting and sucking her breasts, feeling the hot wetness below, feeling her joy in his caresses. And when he entered her, feeling how her inner muscles and their sensitive nerve endings took pleasure from his cock, bringing her to orgasm after orgasm the harder and faster he fucked her. And when she finally gave him a delicious squeeze to send him over the edge, she could even feel him shoot…

They spent the night like that, floating on a sea of love, until he finally fell asleep from utter exhaustion.

Dashiella was still there in the morning, to offer a farewell fuck. But when they finally parted, she had some parting advice.

"There are two things you need to attend to. One of them is in Arcady. Please see to that first. The second is here in Senegal. As I said last night, I know about your role in the hostage crisis. What I didn't mention is that I shared that information with Vivi Bergstrom. She needs a friend just now. Perhaps more than a friend. I'll leave that to you and her. But I'll say one thing: I had a perfect record as a matchmaker back on Vysehrad. And those matches were good for the planet as well as for the parties."

 

Chapter Twenty-seven

"Everything is ready," the First Speaker of the Thirteen intoned. "Vengeance is at hand. Shall anyone object?"

None of the leaders of the Diaboli was of a mind to object to the launch of the missile. Not in principle, at least. But still…

"Sims' truce is still in effect," pointed out the Ninth Speaker.

"What has Sims' truce have to do with us?" countered the First. "What has Sims to do with us? What does Reigel Five have to do with us? We are strangers in a strange land. Neither should we nor can we trust in any loyalty but to our own."

There came a sudden interruption as the comm set at the First Speaker’s seat on the round table began flashing. Interrupting a session of the Thirteen was almost unheard of, and had occurred only to alert the Diaboli leadership to dire emergencies.

Assuming such an emergency, the First Speaker opened a link and put the caller on speaker.

“This is Dr. Alex La’Reu. I don’t know what you’re up to, but I can guess. I guessed as soon as the new Protector advised me that there was something I must—“

“What is the emergency,” the First Speaker interrupted.

You are the emergency. You are planning a biological attack on the Aryans. Am I not correct?”

“How did you—“

“It was obvious, as soon as I learned about their attack here.”

“You have no standing here!”

“And you’ll have no standing anywhere, if you pursue this folly. The Aryans have been defeated. Their top commanders and most of their people are dead. A few months ago, when they seemed to be carrying all before them, you might have been justified. Might have. Today, you can only forfeit any chance we might have of taking part in the reconstruction of Reigel Five.”

“Who says we have any chance?”

“Siemsen Vozeh. I have spoken with him, and read him. He wants us on board – if only we are willing to come on board. The train is leaving the station, and we need to be on it. Our only alternative is to be outcasts again, as we were before.”

“Talk is talk. We’ve heard talk before.”

“If you doubt me, meet me. Read me. And if you still have any doubts, Vozeh has told me he is willing to come here and be read by all of you. Protector Dashiella has given the same assurance.”

The Thirteen met with Alex, and took him up on his challenge. Dashiella flew Vozeh to Arcady, where they both opened their minds to the Thirteen – and where the eyes and minds of the Diaboli were themselves opened.

***

"You don't have to show me the bunker," Vozeh told Sims. "I know what happened there. And I know what's going to happen here. I think you know, too."

The acting president was back in his office now, the seat of his power. Only his power had evaporated.

"Somebody has loose lips, I suppose. And you're not going to tell me."

"It was Wilson. He'll own up to it. Not that it matters now."

"Oh yes. Well I suppose it was inevitable. The military."

"Precisely."

"As if you hadn't been a part of it," Sims snarled. "As if you had nothing to do with any of our policies. Why, you even voted in favor of deploying the menschenjagers."

"As a last resort, if we failed to find the Aryan bomb. Which, in fact, was found. But only after--"

"That was Nazillah's doing. I took care of Nazillah."

"You admit it?"

"I should have taken care of you, ingrate that you are.'

"Like you did Bergstrom? You're quite the caregiver."

"You're no better than I am. You'd have done the same thing."

"I hope not. But at least I'd have been ashamed of it."

"Bergstrom was no loss. He was crazy."

"You'll be no loss, either. Only you can't plead insanity."

"What does it matter? It looks as if you and your Reformasi are going to get your way. You have a club over me. You can beat me all you want, if that makes you happy. But you'll still be getting down in the shit, just like me."

"Grain grows best in shit. Perhaps we can harvest something better, if only we plant the right seeds."

"Oh, be off with you. I'll go along with your damned foolery. You know I don't have any choice. Why rub it in?"

"Why indeed? I presume your colleagues as well as yourself will have their letters of resignation ready at the appropriate time?"

"You can have them now, for all I care. But I suppose you want to observe the niceties. Much good will it do you." 

***

So this was the man who had saved her life. Saved all their lives.

“Only you mustn’t tell anyone else. Ever.”

Those were Alex’s first words to Vivi, and she could tell that he meant them.

“It would cause no end of trouble, if it got out. If the Jellutong were to learn that they didn’t hear the voice of Tuhan, that Vozeh was committing some sort of blasphemy, a sort they probably don’t even have a word for.”

He paused for a moment.

“I wouldn’t have come if Dashiella hadn’t told me she’d let you in on it. She’s put me in an awkward position, you see.”

Of a sudden he blushed, remembering all the positions he’d shared with the new Protector.

“This isn’t going very well, is it? You haven’t said a word.”

“It’s hard to find the right words for someone I owe my life to.”

"I understand that others may soon owe their lives to you. Or at least their limbs."

"You mean the tissue treatment project? That's not just mine."

"Tell me more about it."

And so she told him, all about the project for stem cell treatment of body parts damaged by frostbite on this frigid planet.

"I thought your religion didn't approve of that sort of thing."

"Not if it means taking life. But for our purposes, stem cells from fat will serve just as well. And we're learning how to tweak them to be just as useful as embryonic stem cells in other applications. But regeneration of frostbitten tissue is our first priority."

"We live in the coldest part, Arcady, you know. We have to be very careful, even though we have other means of safeguarding ourselves. And, of course, it's easier for us to call for help if we get into trouble."

"I really should work some time on Diaboli genetics. I never was able to understand…"

"It's training as much as genetics. The Elders never tried to do as the Galen later did -- rebuild the human genome from the ground up. But, naturally, some of their subjects took to their educational methods better than others, and those were selected for in their breeding programs. But, like speech in ordinary humans, our inborn talents need to be triggered early."

"My father--"

"Probably didn't have the right education. I know he didn't live with us. His mother married outside the community, and I suppose his father didn't want their son to…"

"That's what I heard. But he'd never talk about it with me. He'd never talk about anything."

"You must have been very lonely."

"Mother died from exposure, you know. She was  too far from her people to send for help when her flitter went down and her com was knocked out."

"No, I hadn't known. But I can see now why you got involved in your particular line of research."

He really hadn't known. He hadn’t read her, would never enter her mind unbidden. But he could read the sadness in her eyes. And perhaps something else.

***

The chairman of Parliament had agreed to call a session within a month.

"And you'd better be ready," the chairman warned him. "You'd better have something to show for it."

Vozeh knew it. He'd already been going over the records. Not those of the ministers or former ministers, but rather the secretaries and undersecretaries, the business executives, university boards, the military chiefs of staff.

There were even still some loyal Aryan officials, protegés of his late predecessor C.G.B. Spender, in his own ministry. He'd have to pick the best of them to succeed him in the post he hoped soon to vacate. He wished Bergstrom could have been called to account for having taken Spender out in the pre-emptive coup that had started the whole bloody mess he was trying to end now.

Vozeh had been ashamed to serve under Bergstrom, knowing what he had. His only excuse had been that he was trying to make the best of a bad business. Only the business had gotten worse, and he'd been powerless to prevent that.

Some would-be dictator back on Earth had supposedly said that you had to make good out of the bad, because there was nothing else to make it from.

He hoped that would-be dictator had been wrong.

***

When Vivi undressed for Alex on their wedding night, she wore a ceremonial chastity belt. It was a Christla tradition but, contrary to widespread belief, now reserved only for this occasion.

"Do people really think we'd want to wear these monstrosities all the time?" she asked.

"Of course not," he said.

And yet she had been true to her faith. She came to him as a virgin, and this was the first time he had seen her naked.

"You won’t be disappointed," she had told him, and he wasn't. She was nothing like a Velorian, but she was very beautiful, more than he could have dreamed from seeing her only in modest, loose-fitting attire.

It was he who had been afraid, afraid that Dashiella had spoiled him for any ordinary woman. And yet she hadn't. Somehow, she had prepared him for this woman, and this night.

She knew about his night with the Protector, of course; Alex had known better than to keep secrets from Vivi after they had fallen in love. "A venial sin, at worst," she told him. "Given our history with the Velorians."

And now she was holding out the key to him, inviting him to remove the last obstacle to their love. As the chastity belt fell away, as her bush and the entrance to her womanhood came into view, he gasped with delight.

Vivi disported herself on the bed they were about to share.

"There's something we can make together that you could never have made with her," she said.

"And that would be?"

"Babies, of course. Beautiful babies!"

 It was true. He could have a family now -- something he and Alma had postponed, for the sake of their work, when they thought they had all the time in the world. He didn't want to make that same mistake this time.

"Read me," she said.

She had never invited him into her mind before; that too was a matter of faith -- though there had been very few Diaboli-Christla marriages to test it. But now he could feel her excitement; it was as if she were all lit up inside at the thought of losing her virginity.

It was different with his friend Jim Jones, he knew. Jim and Amy Funtang had been going at it long before they'd decided to marry -- on the same day and in the same place as him and Vivi. Of course, they'd had to fly a Christla priest down to Arcady to perform the latter rite…

Alex joined Vivi on the bed, and began kissing and caressing her -- taking it slow. But she wanted to take it fast, and guided his cock into her, keeping her mind open, letting him feel how it felt to be penetrated for the first time. And it was she who thrust against him now, breaking her hymen -- a flash of pain, but with the promise of a lifetime of pleasure. 

 

Epilogue

"Much has been said and written of revenge over the millennia of human existence," Siemsen Vozeh told Parliament.

The newsnets showed his face in closeup on part of the screens, but also panned across  the assembled ranks of Parliament and the members of his proposed cabinet on the platform. Some zoomed in on a particular pair of prospective ministers.

"Some have held revenge is sweet, others that it is best served cold. Some have reserved it for the Lord, others argued that it is the birthright of every man. Too many of us have believed the latter, and brought us only pain and sorrow, only deepened our wounds.

"I appeal to you today -- all of you, be you Jellutong, Diaboli or Aryan, be you from the North or South -- to put an end to it here and now. Some of us may have suffered more than others, but all of us have suffered. We have all done wrong, and we have all been wronged. We all yearn for justice, but there can be no justice, for the very attempt to mete out justice after all that has happened can only lead to yet another cycle of vengeance and injustice.

"We must, each of us and all of us, be prepared to forgive the unforgivable, to endure the unendurable. I am ready for that. Those here with me are ready for that. I can but hope and pray that you too are ready for that. It is the only way out, or round or through our common pain and our common tragedy. We have nothing else to offer you."

People watching the newsnets could see the tears in Vozeh’s eyes. They might be spontaneous, they might be staged -- it didn't matter. Even if they hated his words, they knew the truth of them. Sooner or later, they would have to admit that.

Vozeh was introducing the ministerial candidates now. Civil servants they were for the most part, but also corporate leaders, educators, even a general. Competent men and women, apolitical but dedicated to their jobs -- the kind who had kept Reigel Five's vital services going when everything else was falling apart.

 But the last two -- they were different. The newsnets had been abuzz for days about Alex and Vivi La'Reu -- about their marriage after a whirlwind courtship, about their selection as co-ministers of health. There was no better tonic for a war-torn world than a love story, and the millions watching today could see the love in their eyes as Vozeh presented them to Parliament.

There was a scattering of applause, no more than polite, self-conscious. It seemed to falter at first, but then Alex and Vivi embraced on stage, and it was as if a dam of reserve had broken and a wave of relief had poured out. The applause rose to a crescendo.

The vote of confidence in the ministers, the designation of Vozeh as acting president until a new general election -- these would be only formalities. The tide had turned -- for now. Reigellians had another chance -- for now.

Maybe they'd get it right this time.

***

For Harry Maclendon, it was ending where it had begun, on a cruise ship.

He was director of the RIS now. Vozeh had insisted on that -- the man simply wouldn't take no for an answer. He had recruited a new string of agents, some from the civil police, others from private security firms.

In the capital, at least, the violence was winding down. Harry's agents had managed to infiltrate and break up the worst of the terrorist and criminal gangs. It had helped that the gangs had been losing favor with the public, and therefore had trouble attracting true believers.

He was working with the Ministry of Justice to find the kind of agents who could infiltrate what was left of the Aryan resistance. Southy was still a wound in the body politic, and many there still considered those who had joined the Reformasi to be traitors. He couldn't change that, but maybe he could help change the facts on the ground, as the military called them.

But he'd done enough to earn a break. That's why he was on the cruise ship.

There was another lounge singer. Not Anya; Harry had no idea where she was from. But she was not a Velorian. This was a Terran woman, about his own age. He could see it in her face, and he could hear it in her voice, in the words from a Terran song that would have meant nothing to a Velorian, for whom the years were long and the end did not draw nigh.

Her final refrain still echoed in his mind, and it was almost more than he could bear.

 

Time is so old

And love's so brief

Love is pure gold

And time a thief.

 

We're late,

Darling we're late

The curtain descends,

Everything ends

Too soon, too soon.

 

I wait,

Darling I wait

When you speak low to me,

Speak love to me and soon.

 

Harry was reminded of Tamra. He had loved her, but he had never spoken love to her enough. It had been the same with Alice. But he had made peace with her. He had made peace with his memories.

Should he approach the singer? Ask her out?

She might already have a man. Probably did. The song was just a song, after all.

But if not her, then someone. He was ready to love again.

Maybe he'd get it right this time.

 

THE END