Book 1 - Archaia
The game one of them suggested was hushed, but Donderon would not let it go. Touch the Wall required daring, agility and speed and it was forbidden.
"We will be killed!" one of them objected.
"Of course we will not be killed" Donderon countered. She examined her friends through a disgusted smirk. "Are you all such cowards as that?"
"I will!" Falleen was her closest friend. She counted on her joining in.
"I will!" said the youngest. After that, the others could not refuse.
"Great," said Donderon, "now let us find the right place, hmm?"
They could not play Touch the Wall out in the open, the Elders would stop them before they ever got started. The other side of the pen was their only option. The girls set off walking along the boundary area, around the outskirts of the pen. The ground of the pen formed a low mound. It was just high enough that one seated near the foot of the mound could not see another on the opposite side. When they reached the other side, they stood in a line, facing the wall.
About eighty feet in from the tall wall enclosing them was the boundary, enforced from infancy. The ground there was flat, the only place in the pen where it was flat. The stones were different too. Boundary stones appear less smooth and slightly lighter in color than those covering the ground in the pen area.
"Everyone must bring back a jagged stone" Donderon insisted. "Whoever gets back here with a stone first, wins."
"Throw a stone to start" one of the others suggested. It was how the teachers started competitions, athletic or otherwise. Donderon bent over and chose a small one.
"Ready?" There was agreement and she tossed the stone into the air. It followed a high arc out over the boundary area. It tumbled painfully slow and then began falling towards the ground.
"It would be wise to refrain from such hazardous activity." The voice came from behind them. The stone hit the ground, but no one moved. "The Line Maker would have to finish you in two sessions. It may be too much for her." The girls slowly turned to face the owner of the voice. They all knew who it was when they heard her; the Elder One called Inthex. All but one did what they were taught, averting their eyes to the ground. Donderon, on the other hand, looked directly at her.
"Shall we go?" Donderon asked snidely. There was no sign of respect in her tone. Donderon's attitude was leading them further into trouble. Her friends would not dare to hush her, though. Inthex, undisturbed by the slight, smiled and gestured for her to lead the way.
"We are finished" Falleen bristled under her breath.
Most of the Elder Ones were present when they arrived at the space for discussion. Donderon's mother, first to be called Donderon, was absent, as were two of the others.
"I discovered these youngsters preparing to Touch the Wall." Inthex made her report to the partial Council. Donderon watched Serruphu, the leading Elder present, look them over. It was this Elder One's temporary duty to pass judgment.
"Donderon," she said, "you are to be a leader one day. Why would you risk your life on a game?"
"I risk nothing, she answered. Her tone was rebellious, but the Elders were used to her manner; they were her teachers. Donderon was destined to become one of them, but she did not want to be. She was not interested in what they taught her. She had no concern for the future. She simply did not care about anything but herself.
"Your mother will be waiting for you" Serruphu said. Donderon did not think it was what she meant to say. Maybe she heard it wrong. She looked at the Elder, waiting for more. "That is all, Donderon." Donderon shifted her weight from her left foot to her right. She was preparing to object, but realized that she would not be heard. She balanced her weight between her feet and took a deep breath. She was dismissed and now had to leave. It made her angry. She huffed and turned to go.
"The rest of you must be punished" Serruphu said. Donderon slowed her pace. "You will all have double duty for ten weeks." There was a noticeable vocal reaction from some of the six remaining girls. "You will remain separated for that time as well." Donderon could not understand what had happened. Serruphu had to know that she led her friends. She was the oldest, by three weeks, but excluded from punishment. It made no sense to her.
Every daughter performed the duty of second mother to her sibling and Pentel was no exception. When Donderon began following her around, Pentel had to allow it. She spent her days forming the social connections of adult life and she did not want her little sister getting in the way.
Pentel had recently passed the seventeenth anniversary of her birth and was expected to begin moving into the adult world. Being the daughter of the most respected Elder gave her a certain advantage over her peers. She was quite strong willed and had no trouble asserting herself into the most respected social circles. This was the path to Elder status. When an Elder One disappeared forever, the remaining Elders chose one to fill the place. The positioning that preceded these events was quite often the most exciting thing that happened in the culture.
Every day, Pentel, with Donderon following her every step, visited the spaces of three dominant adults. She spoke with each one for a while, exchanging pleasantries and then went on to the next. The two of them returned to recline at their own place on the ground in the early afternoon, the time of day-rest.
"Why do you think I was spared punishment?" Donderon asked her sister. Pentel groaned. She did not want to discuss this again. Donderon asked her about it several times over the past few days and she grew tired of fending her off. Pentel knew what she thought the answer was and Donderon could tell she was keeping something from her. This was not unusual, though, it seemed everyone was keeping something from her.
"You must have some idea."
"I would tell you if I did."
"I am sure of that, Donderon answered. She did not believe her.
The Elders taught Pentel it was wrong to lie, but they always made an exception for her little sister. They said that the time would come for the truth, when she was old enough to understand. Now was not the time, they said. Pentel knew they were wrong. Her little sister was twelve years old. Everyone her age had already committed the Tales of the Future to memory. It was time that she learned of her significance.
"If I tell you what I think, will you not let it out of your head?"
"Yes, you will, or yes you will not?"
"Tell me!" Donderon demanded.
"Like that I will not, Pentel said. She rolled onto her side, with her back towards her little sister, concealing a mischievous grin.
"Pardons" Donderon said. She sat up and leaned over far enough to touch her forehead to the ground. "Pleeeease tell me." Pentel turned her head to look over her shoulder. Concern replaced her grin. It was forbidden to mention the Tales of the Future in the presence of Donderon, but it had to be done.
"You are the First One" Pentel said quietly.
"What?" Donderon did not understand. Pentel rolled over to face her.
"You are the First One." Pentel repeated. Donderon shook her head from shoulder to shoulder. "You are the First One" Pentel said a third time. Donderon frowned. The story of the One Who Should Not Be had a mention of the First One. There were no details, just the name. To Donderon, First One was just a name.
"What exactly do you mean?" One of her teachers used that question on her all the time. It was irritating as a student, but at this point, it seemed to be the only thing to say. Pentel did not know how to explain, other than by simply reciting the first Tale of the Future, so she did. The prophecy began with how the people would recognize the advent of the new time.
"A woman in a boy's place. She is the one who first understands. Clear thought, swift action. Then the Ma will be gone." The first Tale of the Future filled Donderon's ears. Pentel continued reciting what she learned at the age of nine. It was the most dominate memory of her training. It was the most important part of the Oral Tradition. When she finished, she waited to see what Donderon would do.
"I am in a boy's place" Donderon said after a few seconds in silence. Pentel nodded. Donderon was the first known birth of a second daughter. Before her, there had always been a first daughter followed by sons, since the beginning of the captivity. "But I cannot be the First One" Donderon asserted. "I have no understanding."
"They say it will come. In the future." Donderon was shocked. She could not fathom this news. She understood it explained what everyone was hiding from her, why everyone treated her differently. It explained why, even in the face of direct disobedience, she was pardoned, but the thought that everyone considered her a powerful omen was too much for her. She had never accepted the idea of becoming an Elder One, now she was the First One, without ceremony or announcement. It would be years before she began to grasp the significance of her situation.
Donderon's people are descended from well over thirty thousand generations of slaves. They live out their lives on a barren terrain, surrounded by a fifteen-foot high stonewall. Their captors provide just enough to sustain their lives and everything they do is dictated to them.
Their captors' instructions are relayed through generational stories contained within an Oral Tradition. It was originally meant to educate each succeeding generation on the dictates of the unseen captors, but was drastically altered during the first years of captivity. Now, this massive collection of stories and wisdom is systematically taught to all female children. This process begins with the mother and is carried on by the teachers from the age of three.
First are taught the stories from the past. All of these stories are attributable to a single source. Her name was lost shortly after her everlasting disappearance, but she is known to Donderon's generation as The One Who Knows. By the ninth year children are taught the prophecies, which the One Who Knows called the Tales of the Future. They tell of an incredibly distant future where "None will remain un-free." Although the One Who Knows had intended they remain apart from the teachings, the Tales of the Future were eventually added and over the millennia, became the focal point of the whole of the Oral Tradition. The sacred nature of the prophecies, which inevitably developed, causes them to remain the providence of adulthood.
Donderon was born the child of an Elder One. Her training was more intense than the training of other children her age, however, Donderon's own mother, her first teacher, believed that she should not be taught the Tales of the Future until much later. She felt that it was for her daughter's own benefit. She convinced the other Elders that if Donderon realized the significance of her existence too soon she could develop abnormally. The Elder Ones informed the people, who unanimously agreed to maintain the deception.
Convincing the people to deceive her was not a difficult task. Everyone believed the Tales of the Future referred, in part, to Donderon. Her very birth was the symbol of emancipation that the ancestors had hoped for. For over six hundred thousand years each first born was female and every child after that was male. The oral history of her people in captivity had no mention of any other way. Her existence alone was the fulfillment of the first line of the first Tale of the Future: "A woman in a boy's place."
Donderon became more and more aware of the position she held within society as time went by. Although continuing to proclaim she would never seek Elder status, she was viewed as the most important person who ever lived. Everything she did was seen as a precursor to freedom.
In Donderon's eighteenth year, her mother passed her forty-third birthday. Donderon the Elder was the oldest person alive, ever. In the entire history of the captivity, there had never been a woman stay past her forty-second year. This was seen as a portent and soon repeated as more and more remained past their forty-second year.
In Donderon's thirty-third year her mother became quite ill. She found it more and more difficult to move. She was crippled by pain and over a period of a few months appeared much less in her official capacity. Shortly thereafter, she removed herself as a teacher and an Elder, feeling that she was unable to fulfill her duties. This cleared the way for Pentel to take her place. Within the year, Donderon the elder died during the night. Hers was the first ever death. Prior to Donderon the elders death all had simply disappeared sometime in the night. Her body was covered with stones on the far side of the pen. It decomposed quite slowly in the dry climate. Nothing very exciting happened in the ten years that followed.
Until, one morning, before the sun had completely risen over the wall, a loud scream resounded throughout the entire area. When Donderon and her sister reached the location of the commotion, they both gasped in horror. A single, tiny infant had wondered across the boundary and was several feet beyond where anyone had gone before.
Without a thought of herself, Donderon bounded over to the child, scooped him up in her arms and headed back toward the waiting crowd. They stood gawking at her, shocked by her bold, suicidal action. She wanted to test the boundary her entire life, but since the time she was caught playing Touch the Wall, she had not. With the sudden realization of what could happen, she felt a wave of fear shaking her unconscious confidence. It rushed down her spine and into her legs. She felt a stumble coming. It was with all of her effort that she forced her way through the moment, totally intact. When she reached the others, she handed the screaming baby over to his mother. It had been less than five seconds of real time since arriving on the scene, but it seemed to her like much longer. She was suddenly exhausted.
"That was the act of a mad woman, her sister whispered in her ear.
"Thank you Pentel" Donderon said between deep breaths. The group began to laugh and shout. They enclosed her and each in turn congratulated her on her performance. She had little time to contemplate what she had done, becoming immersed in the adulation of the people. She thoroughly enjoyed every second of it.
Over the next few days, Donderon began to weigh the implications of the event. The Line Maker, the dreaded guard of the pen, had failed to materialize as the stories said it should. Donderon crossed well into the area known to have caused an appearance in the legendary past. What did this mean for her and her people?
The first Tale of the Future said that the First One would "understand", that she would have "clear thought" and "swift action." Was it referring to this incident? She had acted instinctively. Quiet swiftly. The fact that the Line Maker had failed to appear was strong, she thought. Was there no Line Maker to strike them down? What if they could reach and then climb the wall?
It was a frightening thought. Not even the Elder Ones understood freedom. It was known that the ancestors before the enslavement had traveled between planets, that they built a single society from many and that they could go and do as they pleased. The stories abounded in the Oral Tradition, but what they truly meant, what the ancestors had actually done was a mystery to them all.
Donderon blinked her eyes. She was squatting near the boundary where the infant had wandered just a few days prior. She looked at the wall, well over one hundred feet away. Her decision was based on the combination of a lifetime of belief and a single event. She believed that her people were to be blessed with opportunities to live out an ancient prophesy and that it was up to her to make it happen. Since the age of fourteen she knew that this time would come and now, at forty-three, she was about to change the lives of everyone around her.
Although she never had been comfortable with the attention her people gave her, over the years she grew accustomed to it. She lived her entire adult life believing that one day she would have to act. What she was to do had been the subject of speculation since her birth, but after what happened just a few days ago, she knew exactly what she must do. She decided the night before that she would have to test the limits of the boundary. If something is supposed to happen, if she is to be the one who frees her people, her inaction is the only thing holding it back.
She closed her eyes. The thoughts came easily. She recalled the first time she realized her significance to her people; the day Pentel told her the first Tale of the Future. She remembered stepping into the boundary area just a few days ago. She imagined herself continuing on towards the wall, but as she did the fear rose up from the pit of her stomach. She opened her eyes. The words she heard were her mother's. "The Line Maker will strike you down." The voice was as clear as if she were standing next to her.
"Not if my action is swift, Donderon whispered back. She looked at the wall once more. It was a dull gray color, lighter than the stones on the ground. The sun, rising over the wall behind her, cast a long shadow. She lifted her right arm. The outrageously stretched shadow lifted its arm. She stood up as straight as she could. The tips of her shadow-fingers touched the base of the wall.
"There is no reason to believe that the Line Maker is not there" Falleen said. Donderon dropped her arm, turned to her friend standing behind her and smiled.
"You will, though?" Donderon turned back towards the wall.
"I have to. It is who I am." Falleen nodded. Donderon saw her elongated shadow nod. "Will you stay?"
Falleen nodded again. She felt like crying, but did not. She knew that her friend was determined to discover the truth and she wanted to show her support.
"I know that if this works, I will have found the reason for my being." Donderon would not allow the truth to evade her again. "My birth must mean something."
"She is the one who first understands" Falleen quoted from the first Tale. Donderon finished for her.
"Clear thought, swift action. Then the Ma will be gone. It could not be any clearer. If I am the First One, I must act. If I am not, I have lived a lie my entire life."
"It is not a lie" Falleen whispered.
Donderon spent the next few hours sitting, watching her people go about their daily lives. She felt a scene of loss and her thoughts were filled with a longing for her dead mother. She wanted her to return and tell her that she was doing the right thing, that she would not die when she crossed over the boundary again.
She looked on the ground between her outstretched legs where she had placed her few possessions. A pebble her mother had once told her was magic, a stone with an image scratched onto it and several small bones, the remains of a left hand her mother had given her.
The hand bones were the most powerful talisman in the culture. It is told that they were on an Elder One who went out of her mind. She had gone running through the pen, trying to scream her head off, until she passed the boundary and the Line Maker took it off for her. It was by far the most popular story for sleep time and told to children to keep them away from the boundary.
Donderon reached down and picked up the longest of the six remaining bones. She held its ends between her thumb and fore-finger, examining it as closely as her slightly blurred, close-up vision would allow. She tried to imagine the face of the original owner. She could not. She never could. She replaced the bone and picked up the etched stone.
It had been fashioned by an ancestor a few generations earlier. The image was of the mother of the one who created it. It was difficult to see some of the lines because it was a very hard stone and was only slightly scratched by the artist. Donderon was fond of it because she thought it looked a little like her own mother. She rolled it in her fingers to see the entire wrapped around image.
The magic pebble her mother had given her when she was less than four years old was her dearest possession. Her mother told her that it was magical because of its size. She gave it to her so she would feel safe when she was alone. Now, as she held it in the palm of her hand, the magic gone. She again felt the fear coming up on her and quickly took her things in her hands to stand up. She looked around for her friend. Falleen was where she had left her. She walked over and handed her the things she was preparing to leave behind.
"If this goes badly, I want you to keep the little stone. It has magic." Falleen somberly received the articles and then embraced her closest friend in an unannounced hug. Once finished with good-byes, Donderon turned towards the boundary just a few feet away. Falleen was the sole observer; no one else knew what was about to happen. With one last look at the oblivious people, she took a deep breath and began towards the wall.
As she proceeded, she picked up speed. She swung her arms and kicked up her knees as she was taught in childhood. The distance she covered with each step was tremendous. She was over the boundary before anyone noticed her. There was a scream. Donderon was surprised for a moment, but did not allow it to throw her off stride.
Five steps past the boundary, further than she had gone a few days before, she noticed something she had not anticipated. The stones covering the ground were no longer smooth, they were, in fact, quite sharp. It seemed fairly obvious from where she was now, but having never touched a boundary stone before, it was an understandable mistake. She began to stumble. Automatically throwing an arm in the opposite direction, she tugged herself back into balance and continued on without missing a step.
There was another scream, a different voice and three more steps beyond. The wall appeared as a blurred, gray mass and she raced for her life towards it. Another step and another, she was almost half way there. The stones were rearranging, flying up behind her as she leapt yards at a time, taking the biggest steps of her entire life. She felt the bottoms of her feet reshaping to accommodate the piercing, irregular edges of the stones. She resigned herself to dealing with some amount of pain, if she lived long enough. She hoped that this would be her biggest problem.
Five more steps, she was almost there. The wall appeared to grow higher as she closed in on it, to spite her nearness to it. When the surface came into focus she could see it was of a different material than the stones on the ground. It had a strange looking, rough, uneven texture. Five more steps, she was there and stopped abruptly, almost coming into contact with the wall. She looked up. It towered over her, well over twice her height.
Donderon began to breath in her first breaths of wall air. It was quite different from the air inside the boundary. She could smell those whom she had left behind, as well as something else, something quite different. She swept her hand through the air towards her nose, trying to get a better sample of the scent. Perhaps it was other people. The Oral Tradition had a few tantalizing accounts of people over the wall, but there were no specific descriptions. There was only one way to know who, or what was on the other side. Donderon had not come all this way to simply turn around.
She reached up and placed her hand on a protrusion. It was a small, hand sized lump, cool to the touch. The rough surface gave her an easy grip. She lifted her foot and lodged her big toe firmly onto the wall. There was a stinging sensation. Looking down, she saw the drops of blood on the ground and then she looked back up at the top of the wall. Its massive appearance instantaneously suppressed the pain.
She lifted her weight with her arm and leg, left the ground and placed her other hand and foot onto the wall. It seemed almost too much like a dream to her. For a second or two, she wondered if she should actually be doing this. The thought was gone when her right foot slipped from its precarious place on the wall. She held on tight, but could not hold on long enough to recover her footing. Down she went. Donderon landed on her rear end with a smarting thump. Without a second thought, she jumped up and tried again, never taking her eyes off of the wall.
There was no sound as she pulled herself higher. She had completely forgotten about her injury, her friend, and her people. Her only thought was to reach the top of the wall. It seemed immensely high, but before she realized how far she had gone, her fingers reached the top. She pulled herself up enough to cautiously peer over.
There on the other side, Donderon saw what she could never have guessed. It was another pen, just like hers. It was populated with people very much different from her own people. She gasped from the exertion of forcing her way to a higher position. She held herself up chest high to the top of the wall. There, the air moved of its own accord. It pushed gently against her face. She could smell the world in that first breeze.
One of the people on the other side noticed her and shouted out to the rest. They all stopped where they were, stunned by the unprecedented sight. Donderon was almost as shocked as they were. She never thought that there could be another pen. She assumed, as did the rest of her people, that their's was the only group of humans held as slaves.
Donderon turned to look at her own people for the first time since beginning her race against the missing Line Maker. As she did, the excitement they were holding in boiled over. They exploded into cheering and dancing. Falleen, standing at the boundary, hesitated and then took her first steps out into the jagged stone area.
Donderon returned her attention to the new people. They were still frozen in their tracks. She pushed herself up and got her leg to the top. She was nearly overcome with excitement. She wanted to get to the other side as quickly as possible. She swung her leg over the top of the wall.
Without warning, there was a blinding flash of light and a crackling sound emanating from just a few feet in front of her. Donderon was startled and nearly lost her hold on the wall. She fluttered her eyes, trying to see where she was. The other people began to yell. Were they yelling at her? What were they saying? She heard the word go.
Momentarily blinded by the flash, she first noticed a distinctly different, almost revolting smell and then she saw it. The dark image of a figure, covered from head to foot in red. It was as tall as the wall and only a few feet away from her. It carried in its left hand a stick, half again as long as the Line Maker was high. Her entire body, suddenly and uncontrollably, convulsed with fear. She had the overwhelming urge to jump down and run, but suddenly realized that the Line Maker was facing away from her.
It took a step forward. The other people, who had been screaming and shouting at her, scattered, running off in the opposite direction. The Line Maker planted the base of its huge stick into the ground and then stood, unmoving, waiting for something.
Donderon was astounded at the creature before her. Its shiny, blood red covering hung off its shoulders and flowed down to the stone covered ground. Its skin, what she could see on its hands and feet, was as dark as the space between the stars, much darker than the darkest of her own people. It had only three fingers and three toes, one of the strangest things that she noticed about it. She also noticed that it breathed slowly; less than one breath for five of hers.
As Falleen reached the base of the wall, Donderon realized that she had to act. Her five breaths had taken quite a long time and she was suddenly struck with a feeling of intense urgency. She pulled her other leg up over the wall, stretched her arms out in front of her and lunged for the neck of the Line Maker. She hit it hard, taking the full brunt of the impact with her collarbone. She wrapped her arms around the Line Maker's neck and held on. Falling lasted less than three seconds, but it seemed like another lifetime to Donderon. She did not breath. She did not move. She simply went where the Line Maker took her and that was to the ground.
When they finally impacted, Donderon was jarred loose from her place and thrown a couple of tens of feet straight out into the new pen. Her next conscious thought was of her shoulder and then her head and then her feet. She felt as though she had been attacked and left for dead.
"The people over the wall!" she blurted out. She threw open her eyes. There were people crowded all around her, people she did not recognize. They were staring at her, chattering away, laughing and pointing. She could hardly hear their strange language over the ringing in her own ears. As their overly round faces hovered above her, she saw they were much lighter in color than her own people.
She remembered the Line Maker and tried to sit up, but stopped when her head thudded its disapproval. Having noticed there was no longer any urgency relayed on the faces of the strange new people, she took a deep, relaxing breath before trying again. This time she tightly held onto the warm, throbbing lump on her head with her one useful hand and just made it. After a few moments, she spotted the unmoving body of the Line Maker, stripped of its clothing and stick, lying near the wall.
"Are you alright?" It was Falleen. She leaned over Donderon and extended her hand.
"Not really" she answered loudly. She assumed a grin as wide as her face and took Falleen's hand. Falleen smiled at her.
"They speak a strange language, but some words are the same" Falleen said to her. "Ma go" she said to the people gathered around them. She pointed to the lifeless Line Maker. "Destroy!"
"Destroy!" several of them shouted back. Falleen asked her if she felt she could be moved. Donderon assured her that she was not so damaged that she would easily break. At Falleen's request, five or six strong women carried her to a place in the smooth stone area of the new pen. As they moved her, Falleen continued speaking. "There are hundreds of other pens."
"Could be more. Standing on top of the wall, it is possible to see more walls for as far as the world can be seen." Donderon was amazed. She could barely fathom the amount of people that these other pens must be holding. There were close to one thousand of her own people and if each of the other pens held as many... , well there would be a lot of people. She was beginning to loose her breath from excitement.
A few more days brought a new event. It seemed that the Last Wall had been climbed and something was on the other side. When her healing wounds allowed, Donderon and her closest friend, Falleen went to see. As they journeyed along the tops of the walls towards the Last Wall, Donderon was mobbed as people wanted to see the First One. Her story had traveled everywhere and everywhere she went, she was recognized. Their journey was extended by a few hours, but hospitality was not scarce.
What lie on the other side of the Last Wall was an astounding experience. A massive blue-green surface covered everything in front of them, as far as their eyes could see. Having been born and raised in the confines of a finite space, the sight of this apparently endless body of water was completely foreign. Aside from that, the water itself was a mystery. Besides drips off the body in the heat of the day, the only water they had ever been exposed to came from the soaked, gray food they were forced to subsist on.
After scaling down the outside of the Last Wall, Donderon, assisted by Falleen slowly approached the water. They weaved their way through the huge crowd gathered on the Beach and at the water's edge, watched as dozens of other people waded out into the calm water. Waves of one or two inches lapped at their toes, delighting them both.
The walls began to come down in the weeks after the Line Maker was destroyed. Hundreds of people spent several hours of strenuous work toppling the first piece. In the months that followed, several groups of individuals went about offering their experience in the effort to knock down the walls. There were some pen groups, however, which did not wish to have their walls destroyed.
During this initial period of freedom, the ability to communicate between pen groups was nearly nonexistent. While neighboring populations seemed to have several, sometimes even scores of words in common, the further away from ones own home one ventured, the more difficult it became to communicate. One consistency among the individual pen groups, however, was a prophesy of freedom. All pen groups had an Oral Tradition to a greater or lesser extent and most held a prophecy dealing with the ultimate freedom of the human race. Hundreds of these prophecies fulfilled the basic storyline of the first Tale of the Future. Donderon's destruction of the Line Maker made it inevitable that for the next several years she and her pen-mates were the center of attention. Just about everybody wanted to know what Donderon had to say and it fell to her people to relate her story and their own Oral Tradition. It was not an easy task.
A common language evolved from the synthesis of Donderon's language and most of those surrounding her home pen. Within two years the groundwork for communication was set and the language was being quickly taught to others. Anyone who wanted to talk with Donderon or someone from her pen could learn the rudimentary form of the language within a few days.
During the fourth year, a fish was caught from the Ocean. The one who caught it soon caught another, and then another. Within a short time the fish catcher was teaching dozens of people a day her technique. The rotted, smelly corpses of several of the first fish were carried throughout the known land and shown to the curious. When Donderon and Falleen were finally shown a dead fish, they were immediately repulsed by its dilapidated appearance and offensive aroma. It would be another year before someone discovered that a freshly dead fish was good to eat.
In the early hours of the twenty-fifth day of the third month of the sixth year after the destruction of the Line Maker, the incredible news reaching Donderon and her people contained few details. That there was a discovery was understood, but just what it was remained unclear. The first messenger said she had heard from a weary runner that another dead Line Maker had been found. A little more than an hour later another messenger arrived telling of a building that had been discovered.
Everyone gathered in the center of the mound which had once been their pen. Donderon, with Falleen at her side, stood apart from her people to receive visitors. This orderly audience was how she had bargained her privacy back early on. Her people, though well meaning, had begun to take far too much of it. She was surrounded for days at a time and had to finally declare that it was enough. Her own people wished to please her and took it upon themselves to keep strangers at a reasonable distance. She, in turn, agreed to receive visitors whenever the need arose. In ones and twos, they came to the First One to offer their opinion, ask a question, or just be seen with her. Most of the people had nothing to offer, nor did they ask anything of her. Some though, considering that she was the First One, felt that she should go see what had been discovered. She had considered going after she heard the news from the original messenger. The second messenger prompted the audience and afterwards, it was apparent to Donderon that she had to go to see it herself, whatever it might be. She told her people that she would leave early the next morning.
The decision, as soon as it was announced, began to travel back to the location of the discovery. By morning, the route was lined with people eager to see the First One. As she and Falleen set out in the direction indicated by the two messengers, they discussed the events unfolding before them.
"If it is a building it would be very surprising that it was not discovered sooner" Falleen declared.
"Sooner? Why do you say?"
"A building is said to be as tall as a wall, and as wide as twenty people arm in arm. It seems that something that large would have been noticed before." Donderon did not comment. "Do you disagree?" Falleen asked her.
"No. I am unsure. There must be something, if not a building."
"You recall the vehicle from the Traditions?"
"The Waking Dream?" Donderon asked her. Falleen smiled coyly. The story of the Waking Dream related the experiences of an ancestor who was awake as she was taken and impregnated with her first child. In the story she is transported in a vehicle described as "long, low, dark and cool. It carried her inside, like a mother carries her unborn child, and flew her to the stars."
The idea of a vehicle was exciting. Something only dreamed of and understood as an abstract shadow. Donderon laughed. "A vehicle?" she whispered. Falleen turned her head to look back at the people following them. They kept a respectful six feet away. She turned back towards Donderon and leaned in to whisper her answer.
"I think it is possible. Since the shelters, the vehicle has had nothing to do." No male children had been taken and there had been no new mother for over a year, not since everyone had been sleeping under a roof. Maybe it was a vehicle Donderon thought. It would definitely change everything.
"You must not disturb the relic!" A short, thin woman jumped in front of them. She startled them and they stopped so as not to walk into her. "The Ma will return if we touch the relic!" She held her arms out in front of her and shook her hands at Donderon and Falleen.
"Remove yourself!" someone shouted at the woman. Two or three people took the woman by her arms and pulled her off to the side. Donderon and Falleen felt their action was a bit overzealous but they did not stop them.
"It is the end of time!" the woman shouted at them. "The relic will end it all!" Falleen took Donderon by the elbow and pulled her along. Donderon stared over her shoulder at the woman behind them while they continued on their way. She carried on shouting various derivatives of what she had already proclaimed. Donderon had never seen someone act like that. It confused her.
By the time the sun had reached overhead, they arrived at the hole in the Last Wall. They stopped to take in the scene. The Beach was crowded with people milling about doing this or that, but as Donderon appeared through the hole, they stopped whatever they were doing and united to watch her. Donderon could see that the object of their journey was in the water. She saw something... black. There were hundreds of people hip deep in water, gathered around the thing.
"That is no building" Falleen quietly stated.
"No" Donderon agreed. She watched the people on the Beach, which extended to about two hundred yards beyond the wall. After a few moments she noticed several women approaching them. One of them led the group. She had long, wavy, lightly colored hair cascading down her back and over her arms. Donderon could not hide her amazement. She often saw people with long hair, but it never failed to amaze her. Her own people, the only people she had seen for the first forty-three years of her life, had little or no hair. She herself was completely without hair of any kind.
"First One" the leader said matter-of-factly. She stopped as she came within six feet of them. She crossed her waist with her right arm and executed a deep bow, keeping her eyes on Donderon the entire time. The ten women behind her imitated her dramatic bending, without looking up. Donderon was delighted with the formal greeting and quickly moved to return the bow, though not as dramatically. Falleen, catching on at the last instant, bowed as well.
"I am Surella. These are the Elder Ones." The lead woman indicated her companions with a wave of her hand. Donderon stepped forward, extending her hand in the way she had seen her own Elder Ones greet each other. Surella looked at it, obviously unaware of the custom. Donderon made a friendly, urging gesture and smiled. Surella extended her hand a bit, uneasy about what was going to happen and Donderon took it, firmly shaking it up and down.
"It is a pleasure to meet you" she said. Surella, slowly relaxing, began to smile.
"It is a pleasure to meet you" she responded. Several yards away, near the base of the ridge they were standing on, seven or eight children mimicked the ceremony, laughing and exaggerating the movements. Surella's Elder Ones were not all of the same type. Most of them were pale in color, as was the leader, but two of them were darker in complexion. Other details confirmed to Donderon that this group of women were not all of the same pen.
"Did you say Elder Ones?" Falleen asked. The leader gave Falleen a cold stare. Falleen, not usually affected by such things, felt as though she should not repeat her question.
"I have come to offer you the full cooperation of the Elder Ones" Surella said to Donderon. "We are at your disposal."
"What is the Elder Ones?" Donderon asked.
"We are the leaders of our own home pens. We have joined together to help in the development of the new society."
"Joined together? You control the pens of these women?"
"Not entirely" Surella answered. "They control their homes, as always, but if something should arise that needs to be addressed by more than one group, it comes to us." Donderon wondered if Surella did not mean all of them when she said us. "This is just the sort of occasion I speak of" Surella said. "We have agreed to offer our aid in whatever it is you decide to do."
Falleen wanted to finish their journey and leaned over to whisper her wishes into Donderon's ear. Once again, Surella looked at Falleen. It seemed that she was simply watching, but Falleen could feel the tension. She did not understand why it was there.
"I would like to see it" Donderon announced.
"Of course" Surella said with a smile. She turned aside and gestured for Donderon to lead the way. Donderon walked on and as she passed, Surella stepped off, falling in directly behind her, usurping Falleen's place. Falleen glared at the back of Surella's densely covered head. After a second or two, realizing nothing would come from that, she took a deep breath and followed.
Falleen tried to see what she could of it from a distance. It was a rectangular object, about chest high and almost the full height of two people long. It appeared to have no features what so ever. That could be a problem, Falleen thought. If it were a vehicle, how could they control it? Would they be able to use it? Perhaps they would have to climb on top. The ridiculous thought made her smile broadly.
The group of women walked straight out into the Ocean and the people parted to let them through. Donderon hesitated at entering the water, but restrained her reluctance with logic. As they approached the slick, black object, Falleen marveled at its appearance. It had sharp, angular edges, unlike any she had ever seen before. Its color was so dark that she at first thought it was sucking the light from her eyes. When she came close enough to touch it, her fingers trembled as she slid them down the first edge that she came to. It was as sharp as it appeared, and smooth, almost slippery. She let out a subdued giggle.
"It is fantastic" Donderon announced. "What do you know of it?"
"Almost nothing" Surella answered. "It was found two days ago and this morning, anticipating your arrival, we pulled it into the shallow waters." Falleen wanted to know more. She looked around at the people watching them. They were from everywhere. Short, tall, light and dark, every type of person in the world seemed to be represented in this crowd. Falleen knew that the people of the local area where light skinned, hairys, so she picked one out in the crowd and approached her. She met the gaze of the other woman, whose eyes widened, communicating her surprise. Her surprise grew as Falleen approached.
"Can you tell me about this?"
"I can tell you what I know" she said. She diverted her gaze as Falleen stopped at the now universal polite distance.
"Did you help to bring it here?"
"No, but I saw it" the other woman said. Falleen smiled. An observer was what she had hoped for.
"How many moved it?"
"At least sixty. As many as could get a hand on it."
"Have you heard of it moving on its own?" The woman's eyes noticeably narrowed. She looked directly at Falleen.
"I have not." Donderon entered Falleen's field of view. Surella was walking next to her.
"Come, we are going there!" Donderon called through the crowd. She looked in the direction that Donderon was pointing. There, constructed against the Last Wall, several dozen yards to the right of the hole, was a shelter. It was huge. Falleen was shocked that she had not noticed it before. It was easily the largest shelter that she had ever seen.
"I will meet you, First One!" Falleen responded after a moment. It was the first time that she had ever used the title while addressing her directly. The fact was not lost on Donderon.
Falleen tried questioning others, but after a while she realized that she had already collected all the information there was to get. She learned nothing more from any other bystander than she had from the first. It was time to give up and go find Donderon.
Just as she had formed the thought in her mental dialog, she was startled into forgetting it by the sudden, loud appearance of a strange looking boy.
"Are you an Elder One too?" the boy asked her. He was chewing on a small piece of the grey food that the captors sent once a day.
"No" Falleen finally answered. She had never seen a male as physically mature as this one. It was a strange sight to see a boy who was as tall as herself. His arms and legs were overly long and he seemed a ridiculous sight. She did not think that he could be more that thirteen years old, since the oldest males at the time of the defeat of the Line Maker were six.
"You were with the First One?" he asked her.
"Yes." She noticed that he was incredibly lean. He carried little, or no fat, and his muscles were distinct. She realized that her eyes were on him too long and she looked over at the object.
"Do you know anything about this?" she asked him.
"I know it flies at night." Falleen thought that she must have misinterpreted his unfamiliar accent. To clear things up, she asked him the same question again.
"Did you not hear?" the boy laughed. He glanced at the thing. "It flies at night. I have seen it every night since I found it."
"What?" Falleen was astounded. Did he say..?
"I found it a week ago. I have seen it fly every night. It will fly again tonight. I know exactly when, too."
On the Beach, Donderon and Surella's Elder Ones were approaching the tremendous shelter.
"Will you sleep here?" Surella asked. Donderon had been asked and had agreed to stay the night in dozens of shelters over the past few years. Having the First One sleep in one's own shelter was considered an honor, although Donderon failed to see why. To her, it was just a space on the ground to spend several hours each night drooling. The strong social leverage such a visit could bestow on someone had yet to dawn on her.
Instead of answering Surella's invitation, Donderon stopped to examine the structure of the shelter. The shelters that she had seen in the past were all constructed in the same common manner. They were made from wall material. The walls were slabs of stone-like material with a center comprised of incredibly thin, massively strong sheets of material, which came apart in six-foot squares. The shelter walls, made with stone, could only be built to a certain height before buckling under their own weight. Shelters were built quite low. This shelter, though, was constructed with the Last Wall in place of one of its four walls. The Last Wall was straight and strong, standing almost thirty feet high at this part of the Beach. Because of this, the walls of the shelter were almost completely straight up and down.
She looked up at the top of the shelter. It was almost as tall as the Last Wall itself. She considered it an astounding feat. The slabs of stone were broken up into long, narrow pieces and stacked. Donderon wondered about clumps of sand she spotted placed between the stones. The pieces from the center layer of the knocked down pen walls, light weight and thus far indestructible, were used almost everywhere as roofing material. She could just make out some sticking out over the top.
The entryway, simply a space where two walls meet with enough room to get through, was located where one of the shelter walls came up against the Last Wall. Surella watched Donderon admiring the shelter. Donderon returned the look with a smile.
"This is a fantastic shelter. Is it yours?"
"It is everyone's" Surella said through her toothy smile. "Come inside." Donderon stepped over to the entry and peered into the darkness. She smiled at Surella again, who urged her on. Gathering up her resolve, she placed her right hand on the edge of the entryway, and then ducked down to make her way through. It was narrow. For a moment she felt like she was in a huge, sharp mouth. She turned sideways so as not to scrape her shoulders on the jagged, rough teeth-stone.
She entered a large, dark place. The sand she had noticed between the stones of the wall kept the light of the sun out. She figured that it must have taken a lot of time to fill in all the holes. She marveled at the patience of the builders and stood still for a moment trying to listen to the silence of the room.
"This way." Surella's voice pierced the darkness. She took Donderon by the elbow and led her across the dark place and into a smaller chamber. Several small beams of light shined onto the ground from tiny holes in the wall. Several large, flat stones circled one similar stone situated in the center. The smaller chamber felt warmer than the rest of the shelter.
"Please... " Surella said as she led Donderon to the central stone. Donderon followed her lead and sat down on the stone. Surella placed herself on one of the stones between the light sources and her guest, making it difficult to see her face in the shadows.
"This is where the Elder Ones conduct business" Surella volunteered. Donderon tried to listen to the room once more, but it was different in this location. She felt that something had changed, but could not guess what it might be. She looked at Surella, who seemed to be patiently awaiting a response. Donderon could not see her face very well. She had no idea what the subtle expressions on Surella's face could have told her. If she had, she may have questioned her, perhaps even ended the encounter, but because she did not, it was no longer mutable. That afternoon, in that dimly lit room, the future became the past.
Falleen found it hard to accept that she could not see her closest friend when she wanted to see her. She stood for several minutes arguing with a rather large woman calling herself a guard, but finally had to accept that she would not get through. She walked the few yards over to where the boy claiming the discovery of the vehicle was waiting.
"We can go in now?" Jer asked in a sarcastic tone. He grinned at her. "I told you" he said after receiving no response.
"We will just have to wait until she comes out." The guard told her, several times, that she had been ordered to allow no one to enter. No exceptions had been made, so Falleen would just have to wait. It had to be the one called Surella that kept her from relating this rather important finding. She would see her friend sometime, but meanwhile there was nothing for her to do but wait, so she headed back out to the vehicle. She was almost convinced that it was a vehicle, but to be certain she wanted to examine it in more detail.
She spent most of the next two hours looking at its above water surface and carefully going over its below water surface with her hands. Her biggest concern was how to enter the vehicle. She could find no holes or cracks or any other sign of a way inside. It was resting on the ground under the water and she was beginning to believe that her only hope of finding a way in might be on its bottom. Eventually she gave up and returned to the Beach.
After another uneventful hour, Jer appeared before her once more. He had with him something that she had not seen before. When she asked, he told her that it was what remained of his snack. It was the tail of a fish. Falleen was fascinated, having never seen one in such good condition. He offered it to her.
"Where did you get it?" she asked him as she turned it over in her hand.
"I caught it." It glistened in the warm, late afternoon sun. It seemed to change colors before her very eyes. It went from black, to blue, to purple, and back to black. After a few seconds, she realized that the angle of the light source was causing the color to change. The discovery delighted her, giving her a few moments away from her concerns. "Do you want me to show you how to catch a fish?"
"On another day, maybe" Falleen answered. She returned the tail to Jer. "I do not want to leave until I have seen Donderon." Jer smiled. He did not want to leave without seeing Donderon either. She was the most exotic person he had ever seen. She was tall, unlike the people of his own home pen. Her skin, as well as Falleen's skin, was many shades darker than the color of anyone from this area. Her eyes stood out against the darkness of her complexion. Their magical, bright green color startled him when he first saw her. These things and more intrigued Jer and he wanted to see Donderon from a closer distance. He wanted to see what kind of person she was, how she talked to her friends and he knew that to do that, he would have to stick with the First One's assistant.
Falleen estimated that there were about two hours remaining until sundown. Jer had told her that the vehicle had risen from the water and flown away every night just after dark. If this was true, she may figure a way to ride the vehicle to wherever it goes. She still had not solved the problem of how to get inside, though, and time was running out. She wanted to ride the vehicle tonight. Not tomorrow night, or the next night, but tonight.
"What did you find?" Jer asked her.
"The vehicle. What did you find?"
"Oh, nothing. Still no way in."
"What does that mean, no way in?" Falleen turned to see Jer. He was standing behind her looking out towards the Ocean, chewing up the remainder of the fish tail. She stifled her impending laughter. He seemed ridiculously out of proportion to her. His hopelessly long arms and legs along with his lanky body gave him the appearance of one who ate very little, even though she had yet to see him without food of some kind in his mouth.
"If this object is a vehicle" Falleen finally answered, turning back towards the Ocean, "we need a way to ride it. We need a way inside."
"You mean like a hole" Jer stated flatly.
"Yes" she responded. She waited. She did not dare to consciously hope he would say there was a hole. After a few moments, each moment longer than the last, Falleen could no longer tolerate the suspense. "Is there a hole?" she asked him dubiously.
"May be. I saw something under it. It could have been a hole." Falleen sat up and eyed the boy. Did he purposefully keep this from her? Maybe he just did not remember. No matter, she knew now.
"Tell me all that you remember about what you saw." She stood up to meet Jer at eye level. As far as anyone knew, at six feet, he was the tallest male to ever grace the face of the planet. She felt awkward trying to dominate a male who was eye to eye with her.
"Umm, it is hard to say. It was only there for a second, but it looked the same each time."
"You have seen the hole more than once?" Jer peered into her eyes. He was afraid they would jump out and shake him by the throat.
"I am sorry that I did not tell you before." Falleen took a deep breath. She did not want to loose his cooperation. She refocused her thoughts in a quick second and smiled at him.
"Never mind that, what did you see. Tell me exactly what you saw."
"It was dark, and the vehicle is dark, so I could not see anything except a light under it."
"This light came from a hole?"
"I think so. Umm... I am not sure. It could be a hole." Falleen stopped her attack. She figured he would not remember if she pressed him, so she would wait for him to volunteer the information.
"Fine" she finally said. She turned her attention back towards the object in the Ocean. Over the next two hours, as the sun slowly sank towards night, Jer volunteered nothing new. Falleen questioned him several more times, with no results.
Jer wanted to make Falleen happy, but he could not. He thought over the events of the previous three nights in his mind, but there was nothing that he had not already told her, except for one thing. He knew that the vehicle would fly away before Falleen could get inside. He was not sure that he could make it through the hole himself, if there was a hole, but without first seeing it fly, there was no way that she would make it. Not wanting to further anger or disappoint Falleen, he kept that information to himself.
As the sun neared the water, Falleen began to grow more anxious. She wondered what was keeping Donderon inside the shelter for such a long time. With every passing minute, she could feel her chance to ride the vehicle slipping away. She was afraid that someone else would take her place and she did not want to allow that to happen.
There was a shout from the direction of the shelter. "Gather all!" Falleen hurried up the Beach towards the gathering crowd. Standing with Donderon was Surella and the other ten women called the Elder Ones. Falleen tried to approach her friend, but was held back at some distance by the same large guard.
"Let me through!" Falleen protested. She fainted first to the left, and then the right. The guard met her in both directions.
"You must wait!" Donderon, surrounded on three sides by the Elders could not hear Falleen above the noisy crowd. Surella stood on a mound of sand to elevate her above the crowd and spoke to them. Falleen could not hear her words, but they were carried to her through the crowd.
"The First One has agreed to lead the Elders in an endeavor to understand the vehicle" someone nearby announced. There was a cheering and by the time Falleen received Surella's latest words, the cheering had died down. "They plan to tame the vehicle and ride it to the stars! Surella and the others have offered whatever assistance they can to discover the secrets of the vehicle." As Falleen heard the last of the relayed speech, she watched helplessly while Donderon, followed by Surella and the other Elders returned to the confines of the shelter.
"This is insanity!" Falleen shouted at the guard. She whirled around, took Jer by the wrist, and marched away. "I will ride the vehicle myself, she said under her breath, finally declaring what she had hoped for all along.
Just before the moment when the sun sinks below the water, Jer and Falleen made their way towards the shoreline. They both sat down at the water's edge watching the people who populate the Beach in the daytime, filing back through the hole in the Last Wall.
"It will be soon, Jer said as he looked up at the sky. Falleen looked up too. She saw a few dim stars, but nothing else.
"What do you see?" It never ceased to surprise him when someone asked him that question.
"The Time Keeper" he said. "Do you not know of it?" Falleen squinted at the sky. She saw nothing. Jer described telling time to no less than one person per week.
"There... " He said pointing to the brightest star. He began his well-rehearsed explanation. "That is the arrow's tip." He shifted his arm towards the darkest part of the sky and the next brightest star, just above the Last Wall. "That is the Time Keepers eye. The line that intersects the two stars is the same line that the Orb rises on."
"The Orb? Do you mean the sun?"
"Right" Jer answered. "Now, when the arrow reaches that really dim star there... Then the vehicle will have just left." Falleen frowned. Although it had grown noticeably darker, Jer recognized her impatience with him. "Just before it reaches that star, that is when the vehicle will go." Falleen looked back up at the stars. It seemed like a very short distance between the two stars.
"Take me to the vehicle."
"There is still time... " Jer saw that she had lost her patience with him. He did not want to loose his grip on this strange new world, so he stood up and took Falleen's hand. "This way."
The vehicle was quite a distance from the shore and even though it was straight in front of them, in the darkness, without a clear understanding of direction, it would be easy to miss it altogether. Jer deftly maneuvered through the water, around the larger stones, and over the smaller ones, until they came directly to the vehicle. Falleen let go of his hand so that she could caress its surface. It was almost totally invisible in the dark of night. She felt its cold, smooth texture under her fingers. She frowned for a moment, wishing that Donderon were there too. According to the sky, there was just a couple of minutes left, if that long. Her level of excitement was so intense that she began to shiver. She felt cold, even though the air and water was quite comfortable. She wrapped her arms around herself and took a deep breath. Her movements had masked the moment when the sound began, but there was a definite sound.
"What is that?" she whispered.
"The vehicle" Jer answered. Falleen reached out to touch it, but pulled her hand back when she felt the warmth draining from her fingers. She felt a deep, quiet vibration through the bottoms of her feet. "It rises" Jer whispered to himself. His eyes darted about, trying to see what there was to see. He could not make out the outline, but he could see the total darkness that marked the vehicles presence. As it slowly lifted itself out of the water the humming grew louder. Jer knew that it was about to clear the surface. He also knew that when it did, it would be too late to try.
He dropped, face down into the water, pushed against the seabed with his feet and moved himself under the slowly rising object. He heard Falleen's muffled voice calling after him, but remained focused on his objective. As he rolled over and looked up towards the bottom of the object, he saw what appeared to be an opening; a three foot wide, six foot long opening, from which a dim white light glowed, illuminating his face.
Falleen saw Jer bathed in a strange, unreal light, just before he disappeared under the vehicle. The light blotted out, and the vehicle, darker than night, rose swiftly into the air. She saw a dim yellow sliver of light and for a split second, she thought she saw a face and then it was gone. The vehicle, the light and whatever else she had seen, it was all gone. There was a soft breeze tickling the tiny hairs standing up on the back of her neck. She finally took a breath. All she could see were the stars and the Time Keeper. The arrow tip was just covering the very dim star that Jer had pointed out to her.
"The vehicle has just left" she whispered to no one.
Jer gazed through the hole in the floor, but could see nothing outside. It was like looking into the darkness of his eyelids at night. He sat back on his heels and examined the inside of the vehicle. It was shiny white and the ceiling seemed higher than he thought it should be. He could see a faint, blurry image of his own face, like the reflection he saw on the water. He looked down at the floor. The water draining from his body gently rained down under him, disappearing before it had a chance to form a pool. This caused him to move his face closer to get a better look. It was by far, the strangest thing he had ever seen.
He wondered if the vehicle was actually taking him somewhere. He could feel no movement and wondered if he should put his head through the hole to look around. At that instant, sunlight poured in through the hole, filling the vehicle. The brightness of the light hurt his nighttime eyes. He tried looking through his hand. He moved it around to block out the glaring rays of light, but he could see nothing else.
Suddenly, like entering a dream, the shiny white vehicle began to contort itself. It folded to one side, wrapping itself around the space it occupied. Jer could see the wall in front of him vibrate and expand until it was as large as the Last Wall itself. In an instant, the vehicle appeared to violently crumble and explode into nothing. What remained was a bright speck of light that just as quickly engulfed him in a warm and relaxing pool of water. He felt completely safe. He took a deep breath and slowly opened his eyes. He looked into a darkened infinity. To the left and the right were the connections. They appeared to him as huge beams of light, with multi-colored pulsing rings traveling along the outside surfaces. One traveled towards him and one away from him.
Jer felt like he belonged there, but at the same time he knew that this was something he had never seen before. It was like a dream in that he was not in the world he knew, but it was so much like reality in every other way. He suddenly felt as though he were in danger. The panic that immediately followed caused his heart to race and his breathing chased after, but almost as soon as it started, Jer relaxed and took a deep, calming breath. The panic was gone and forgotten within an instant. He looked up at the huge beams and then turned his head to look over his shoulder. The beams and their pulsing rings of light disappeared into infinity below him.
Jer wanted to understand, and in response felt he was moving upwards and then abruptly stopped. The beam to his right, the one that carried rings of light down to him, began to bend in towards him, moving closer. The rings of light, each changing color a hundred times a minute, stopped their traveling and gathered together just above his head. They aligned the rotation of their colors to form a shifting, brilliantly alluring pattern. Jer was transfixed by the beautiful display of dazzling lights. He wanted to reach out and touch them and as he did, he was abruptly confronted with the superimposed image of a large round object. It floated in darkness with stars in the background. Jer somehow understood what he was seeing. He knew the stars he was seeing, in places that were completely unfamiliar to him, were the stars of the daytime sky.
"Teteda-Ma." It was the name given to his home by the Ma. It echoed in his mind. He wondered who had spoken. "I am the satellite." He had been surprised by the voice in his mind, but was instantly aware that he was in no danger. He posed a question.
"Where are you?" His perspective shifted in a split instant to another view of Teteda-Ma. He looked down on the Orb-lit planet. It was the color of the sand on the Beach, except for the green Ocean that was less than one tenth of the surface. On the edge of that green pool was a speck, a dull grey speck almost invisible to his eye. Jer knew that it was his home, the home of his people and all of the other people of Teteda-Ma. He turned and over his left shoulder saw a very bizarre object. It was huge, larger than he could have ever guessed an object could be. It was grey and reflected some of the light that was cast on it. And it was long. Jer looked to his left and then his right. It seemed to be almost as long as he remembered the horizon to be. The strange object reminded him of the Line Maker's stick. He had seen it a few years ago when it was carried through his pen by a parade of eternally happy women. It was, up to that time, the strangest thing he had ever seen. Now, in orbit around his home world, he watched the massive mother of the stick slowly rotating in front of him.
Although this was all completely new to him, Jer understood what he saw, where he was and how he had arrived. How he would return to his home was his next thought and exactly on cue, he was moving along the infinite space between the beams of light. He felt himself dropping down to his original location, and then the space around him began to move as though he were being whisked along at an incredible speed. Just as quickly, he was enclosed inside the walls of the vehicle. They appeared to condense from the air into pieces in random places and then vibrate themselves into alignment around him. The entire event passed in a flash and he was back in the vehicle, sitting on his knees, peering out the hole in the floor.
He blinked his eyes with a newfound urgency to make sure he was not dreaming, because the entire experience seemed like a dream. He had been there, acutely aware of every detail and now could remember it all. It was unlike any dream he had ever had, but it felt like a dream.
"Am I awake?" There was no response and he knew why. The vehicle had no voice of its own. It was a thought that was both strange and familiar. Jer was filled with strange and familiar thoughts. He stared blankly at the space in the hole as he recalled hundreds of thoughts that he had had during his time in the satellite. Most of the thoughts had been completely unconscious, but were readily available nonetheless.
He smiled broadly, almost laughing out loud at his discovery. He could hardly wait to tell everyone else and did not have to. It was within thirty seconds of returning to the vehicle that it landed him on the surface of Teteda-Ma, in the very spot that he had imagined in his mind.
Jer's adventure was the subject of every conversation in the world. The Elder Ones discussed it for several hours, arguing about who would return to the satellite. The debate went on through the early morning hours and into the day. Surella pursued one of the many issues raised. She told the Elders that she felt Donderon should not go because she was too valuable to risk in the unknown. Several of them agreed with her, but there were a small number who held out, apparently convinced that Donderon was perfect for the journey. For Surella, it was a difficult argument. Laton, practiced in persuasion as she was, ably assisted her, yet they made no headway. After more than a couple of hours of at times heated debate, Donderon announced that she would stay behind. She silently decided on one condition, however, and retired for the night to wait for word of who would go. Eventually, three hours into the daylight, Surella asserted her authority over the other Elder Ones. She announced that she would lead the expedition and chose Sof, Ponderall, and Laton to go with her.
When Donderon returned, she announced that Falleen would be joining them. Surella disagreed. She argued that it was appropriate for the First One to go but if not, only an Elder One should take her place. Donderon thought that there had to be more to it than that. Surellas argument was almost ludicrous. She had reversed her earlier position to strengthen her new one. What would she do next?
After what Falleen had described about the guard to Donderon, she was beginning to think that Surella wanted to get Falleen out of the picture altogether. Surella's insistence that Falleen not be allowed to go strengthened her belief. Falleen, for her part, had no intention of vying for power. All she wanted to do was keep her friend safe. Perhaps because Surella did not have that information she saw her as a rival. Donderon again insisted that Falleen go, without explanation. Surella would need to be convinced by Falleen's actions, not a debate.
"She has no part in this" Surella loudly argued. "She is only a curious bystander." She stood in the center of the ring of stones, watching Donderon in the shadows off to the side circling the group.
"Am I not the one who commands this expedition?" Donderon asked the Elder Ones. She slowly walked the circumference of the room, looking at each Elder One as she passed.
"We have asked you to lead and you have accepted, said Surella. "It is not a question of-" Donderon cut her off, speaking to all of the Elder Ones.
"Falleen is my closest friend and I want her there in my place. She sees things as I do." That was enough explaining. Donderon directed the rest of her statement to Surella. "This is not up for discussion. If I am to remain behind, Falleen will be there in my place." Surella gave no indication of her feelings. If Donderon asserted her place in the expedition, the debate would return to the beginning. She did not want Donderon to go with them. Donderon stepped into the center of the chamber, maintaining a respectful distance. She examined Surella's long brown hair. Surella, in turn, looked down at the ground. "The expedition will go ahead as planned" Donderon finally said. In a low, nearly whispered tone, she asked, "Unless there are any more questions?" The room was quiet enough for all to hear, but the question was obviously directed at Surella.
"As you say, First One" she said without emotion. She looked directly at her as she spoke. Donderon was caught off guard, as she had expected a more confrontational reaction. She focused herself to keep from revealing the release of her anxiety as she breathed. She turned and motioned for Falleen to follow as she left the smaller chamber and headed for the exit.
Outside, Donderon put her left hand to her forehead trying to shade her eyes. She observed children playing in the water. Falleen stood in her usual place, slightly behind and to the left, and watched her. She was trying to understand the change that she saw in her friend. The Donderon she thought she knew had turned down Elder status before it was offered and had only reluctantly accepted her role as the First One. She knew from childhood that Donderon was a strong leader, but she assumed that she never wanted to be one. Now she seemed to be slipping easily into the very sort of role that she had claimed she did not want. She was Donderon's closest friend and on many occasions they had helped each other out of difficult situations. If Donderon wanted to accept a leadership role, it was her duty to support her. It was something that she had done many times. The night before the first day of the new time they had a conversation about destiny, the future and other similarly thoughtful subjects. There had been no real answers forthcoming and none were actually expected, but the conversation itself had given Donderon a powerful feeling. The ability to control one's own destiny had been a myth to the humans on Teteda-Ma, but Donderon wanted to change that and did. Now, six years later she was about to take action again and Falleen was determined to do all she could to help her. She looked out at the children playing in the water.
"You have always been my sister" Donderon said. They watched the children laughing and playing. "Even when I realized that you were not my sister, I still felt a strong connection to you. I believe after today everything will change, more than ever before, and I just want you to know that I cherish our friendship."
Falleen wanted to tell Donderon to watch out for Surella. She wanted to ask her why she agreed to lead the Elder Ones, why she was now accepting the type of role that she had previously refused. She had dozens of questions but realized she already had her answers. Donderon was the First One. She was the only person alive who could do what they were planning to do. She knew it and it was becoming clear that Donderon knew it too. She remained silent and Donderon spoke again.
"I want you to know how I feel because I am afraid that I may not have another chance." She turned and looked at her friend. Falleen met Donderon's gaze and then gave her a hug around the neck.
"Everything already has changed, my closest friend" Falleen said as she released the hug. "You know I feel the same way about you."
"Be careful up there, Donderon said after a few moments. "Surella does not like you very much."
"Yes. I figured that, said Falleen with a smile. "Do not worry about me. I am much larger than she is." They both laughed out loud. The thought of Surella, nearly a full foot shorter and much softer than either of them in a physical confrontation with Falleen, struck them as ludicrous.
The First Expedition was scheduled for that afternoon. All of the Elder Ones departed for their respective homes to announce the event to their people. During that in-between time, Falleen had a few hours to spare and took Jer up on his offer to show her how to catch a fish. Jer led Falleen on what would turn out to be a two-mile trek along the shore.
"The fish are afraid of noise," Jer had explained, "so we have to move away from the shelter." They arrived at the place that Jer indicated was his favorite fishing spot and stood on the beach, a few feet from the water. The Last Wall at this part of the beach was nearly five hundred yards from the shoreline. The sand was quite warm beneath their feet. Jer explained how to scan the water's surface for the tell tale ripple of the fish. After a few minutes he saw something.
"There" Jer whispered. He put his hand on her shoulder and then leaned over until his cheek was nearly touching hers. He was pointing out into the water. "Do you see it?" he asked her in a hushed tone. She looked out at the Ocean. She could see the sunlight glinting off the water and about twenty yards from the shore she saw ripples.
"I see it" Falleen exclaimed. "Is that a fish?"
"No. It is a family of fish." He grabbed her hand. "Come on!" he urged. As they began running, Falleen did what Jer had instructed. They dashed out into the water, split up, and closed in on the turbulent water from either side. The fish feeding in the shallow water, suddenly recognizing their danger began to flee. Jer pounced, diving with arms outstretched before him into the middle of the rippling water. Falleen caught a glimpse of several fish as they darted about just below the water's surface, trying to make their escape. They were about ten inches long and there must have been thousands of them. She was astonished at how fast they dispersed and were gone. After a few seconds of struggle, Jer stood up with a fish in each hand.
"Two at once!" he shouted with a beaming smile. They made their way back to the beach. Falleen had never seen a live fish and was very eager to examine one. Jer handed one to her. It wriggled more fiercely than she had expected. It was very slippery. She was only able to hold onto it for a moment before it burst from her clumsy grasp and fell onto the sand.
The fish was gray, with a white belly, and two crescent shaped slits behind unblinking eyes on either side of its head. The slits were opening and closing in unison with its mouth and she assumed they somehow helped it breathe underwater. She deduced that it was trying to breathe the air but was failing and surely dying.
Meanwhile, Jer had taken his remaining fish in both hands and with a grunting effort ripped off its head. He tossed the head into the water, placed the bloody opening to his mouth and began to suck and chew on it. The sight horrified Falleen. She began to feel nauseous.
"What are you doing?" she asked him incredulously. Jer stopped ingesting the still wriggling body of the fish.
"Eating it, he said as he chewed what he had in his mouth. He wiped his face with the back of his hand and then extended the fish to Falleen in offering. "Want some?"
"No!" she blurted out. She was having difficulty retaining her morning food as it was. Jer merely shrugged and resumed eating. Falleen looked once again at the fish on the ground. It lay there, sporadically flicking its tail. It was covered with sand and she thought that it seemed a sad creature. Did it know that it was about to die? Did it know that its companion was already dead?
She reached down and carefully picked up the exhausted fish. It squirmed a bit and she dropped it twice but it soon gave up. She headed towards the water holding the fish in her hands in front of her. Jer watched as she waded a few feet out, bent over and gently placed the fish back into the water. It relaxed on her hands for a moment and then, with a flick of its shimmering tail it was gone. Falleen stood up straight, watching as the fish disappeared into the deeper, darker water. She smiled and turned to look at Jer. He thought that she wanted to eat a fish. He thought that she was hungry and that was why they were fishing. As Falleen headed back towards him, she became cognizant of his confusion.
"I am sorry, Jer. I hope you do not mind." After a moment, Jer shrugged again and continued eating his lunch. He appeared more bizarre than before. He was dripping with water and there was a reddish glaze flowing down his chin and dripping onto his chest. He bit off huge chunks of fish flesh and chewed them up. Falleen forgot about her earlier disgust and began to laugh.
There were exactly sixty-six thousand six hundred sixty pens on Teteda-Ma, with about one thousand inhabitants each. During the last six years, any sort of government, referred to in the Oral Traditions of most of those pens, was usually seen as unnecessary. Now, with the formation of a coalition of Elders and the impending expedition to the satellite, everything had changed. The news about the vehicle and the expedition to the satellite was spreading rapidly and leaders all throughout the pens were either coming themselves or sending representatives to demand inclusion. Some even wanted to stop it.
Hundreds upon hundreds of emissaries were arriving and filling the area around the Last Wall shelter. Donderon was beginning to worry that there may be a problem. Before the afternoon was half over, she sent some of the guards to ask Surella and the others to meet her as soon as they could. Surella and Laton were the first to show up. They and Donderon discussed the situation as the Elder Ones arrived one by one.
"Some of them want to join the expedition, Donderon told them. "Others want to replace the Elder Ones." Falleen had interviewed dozens of new arrivals for Donderon. Most of them were there to see the proceedings, but it soon became apparent that there were some who were not happy. One in particular considered the Elder Ones to be abhorrent.
"That is out of the question, of course, stated Surella flatly. She was standing in front of Donderon who was seated on the center stone in the dimly lit smaller chamber.
"So, what do you suggest we do?" Donderon asked her. She had expected that Surella would be quite upset, but she just stood quietly. She wanted to keep things as they were. She figured that Donderon would gain acceptance as a leader because of her reputation. She hoped that she would be able to easily manipulate someone so inexperienced. It became apparent almost three hours ago that she was wrong. She was beginning to see that she might loose everything she had worked for. She had to do something to save it, and quickly.
"You must talk to them, Surella blurted out. "They will listen to you." That was true enough. Donderon had traveled to many places, and had always been received with enthusiasm. It seemed that everyone wanted to hear about the destruction of the Line Maker and anything else she had to say. She was sometimes asked for her opinion on matters of local concern as well.
"What do I tell them?" she asked. Surella was thinking, trying to focus herself on the problem. She knew what she wanted but was still in the process of figuring out how to get it.
"Tell them that there will be a vote, she said slowly. "Tell them that you will lead them, if they wish." By this time the Elder Ones had all arrived and taken their respective places around Donderon and Surella.
"A vote?" asked Donderon. "How is that done?" Surella looked thoughtfully at the ground for a moment. She was taking her ideas from the Oral Tradition of her family. There were dozens of stories about the various ways her ancestors had maintained their power over the others in their pen. She went through each of them in her mind, trying to form a plan.
"Each pen will vote, then they will send a representative to announce their decision." She looked around at each of the Elder Ones. They had no way of knowing that she was paraphrasing her own Oral Tradition. She focused on Donderon. "Surely you will win, she continued. "Who else is known to everyone in the world?" The Elders, nodding and whispering, agreed with her.
Donderon feared this time would come but she was amazed by how soon it had arrived. She did not like the idea of accepting all of the power that was being given to her. She had never been comfortable with the way her own people had treated her, but eventually she grew accustomed to it. She assumed the same would happen in this situation, but she thought she would eventually make a mistake. When that happened, if someone with the wrong intentions replaced her the terrible events described by the One Who Knows could come to pass. If the future were as the Tales of the Future described it, it would be because of her. She again dreaded the future, like she had as an adolescent
"As it stands now, we have to delay the expedition" Donderon said. "We cannot go until this thing is decided."
"Very well" said Surella. "Are we all agreed?" She looked to each Elder in turn for a response. It was unanimous.
"I suppose I should tell them myself, Donderon said quietly. She stood up and headed out the door with Surella close on her heals. Surella stepped out in front of the crowd and held up her arms.
"Quiet! Please!" she yelled. The crowd that was gathered on the Beach was not prone to silence. Several people near the shelter gave Surella a cold stare but most ignored her completely. The migration had been continuing almost unnoticed since the announcement of the discovery in the Ocean. When the news of Jer's adventure aboard the satellite began to spread though, the people started to come in larger and larger groups. By the time the sun rose there was a continuous stream of immigrants. Most surely were coming to satisfy their own curiosity but some were coming because they wanted to be somehow included in the decision making process.
"Please! May I have your attention? Surella shouted. "Donderon, the First One would like to say something to all of you!" Everyone in the world was interested in seeing as well as hearing the First One. The crowd silenced quickly. Surella stepped aside and Donderon replaced her on the mound of sand. She felt as though each person there expected something from her but she had no idea what it might be.
There was a murmuring in the crowd while she stood there. From her place on the mound of sand she could see over the gathering numbered in the thousands. The ones standing nearest to the shelter were standing still, looking at her. The rest of the crowd was going about its business, but soon they too stopped, finally receiving the news that Donderon was about to speak.
She was trying to decide what to say. She thought about her story of the Line Maker but everyone already heard that. She also thought about saying as little as possible but realized that she would need to capture their attention if she was going to get them to do what she asked. Seconds passed and she was beginning to wish that she could just turn and go back into the shelter.
The people, waiting patiently snapped to attention when she cleared her throat. Surella wondered what could be wrong but the truth of the matter was Donderon began feeling comfortable in the silence of the crowd. Over a minute passed. The people, concerned they may miss hearing her when she spoke waited patiently, growing more silent as the seconds went on.
Donderon thought of something to say. She opened her mouth slightly but did not speak. She considered her thought for a moment and then began to change it. She rearranged it, changing some of the words, and then felt satisfied with it. She remained silent, however and looked over at Surella who appeared quite fretful. Her obvious concern gave Donderon a smugly satisfied feeling. Finally, after more than two minutes in front of the quiet crowd she was ready. In a conversational tone, she began to speak.
"We humans are curious by nature, she said. She waited, knowing that what she said would have to be carried to those who were too far to hear her for themselves. After what she thought was a couple of multiples of the amount of time necessary, she continued. "If we could all go to the satellite, I am sure we would already be there." She made eye contact with person after person. There were people of all shapes, sizes and colors, and she was suddenly struck by the range of difference in the appearance of her fellow humans. She continued after a somewhat longer pause. "Of course the vehicle is large enough for only a few of us, and I have been told...."
She saw Jer a few yards away from her, looking completely out of place in the sea of women. Many of them had never seen him before, and being that he was now the second most well known person on Teteda-Ma, save for Donderon herself, they were delighted at the sight of him.
"I have been told" Donderon said as she gave Jer a friendly smile, "that the satellite is a strange place. To fully understand it will take time. Someone must investigate and tell us what can be done with it." Her voice was rising in volume ever so slightly and her cadence was gradually increasing. "I offer myself as leader and if you accept me, I will appoint a team for the first expedition to the satellite." She paused to let this new information filter through to those who were out of hearing range. "I will do whatever you ask of me. If you want me to lead you, I will. If you want me to leave you, I will." She bowed slightly, and it was over. Surella stepped onto the mound to address the murmuring crowd.
"Is there anyone here who wishes to oppose the First One?" There were several audible no's throughout the crowd and it was more than obvious that they were prepared to do whatever Donderon asked them to do. "Return to your people. Tell them what you have heard here today. Tell them that Donderon the First One has offered to lead this expedition to the satellite. When you and your people have decided what you want her to do return here and we will have an accounting of the wishes of all people." Surella was pushing it out as loud as she could, and had to take a few seconds to catch her breath. "Spread the news through all the world" she yelled, "the election of the first Supreme Commander is underway." The excited crowd broke into cheers while Donderon disappeared through the doorway into the darkness of the Last Wall Shelter.
By sundown, over thirty thousand representatives had arrived and departed, and they were still coming on strong.
"This is going to take a long time, Surella said. "Perhaps several days." Donderon nodded her agreement. They were standing atop the Last Wall Shelter. It was the highest point around and afforded them a spectacular view of the crowded Beach. Donderon had been watching the sun sink down into the Ocean. Surella joined her just before it disappeared below the horizon.
"Do you actually think that I am the only one who could win the election?" Donderon asked. She knew what Surella's answer would be, but was interested in delving deeper into her psyche. She thought this could be a way to start.
"You are the only one who has the ability and the name recognition" Surella said. "The one who is to be Supreme Commander must be strong, and decisive." She chuckled nervously. "And you are those."
"But what if someone else wants to try to win the election?" Donderon asked her.
"I do not... "
"Who could win?" Surella continued. "You are the only one whom everyone has heard of. You destroyed the Line Maker, and set us free. There is no one who can even enter her name into the election. You will be unopposed."
Donderon was extremely curious, and could not resist the question: "What about you?" Without missing a beat, Surella let out a sharp laugh.
"My name is known in this area, but everyone here would choose you over myself, regardless. There is no one, including myself, who can challenge you." Donderon turned her head to look directly at her.
"But do you want to be the Supreme Commander?" Surella was obviously surprised by the directness of the question, and looked away to conceal her emotion. She wanted to tell Donderon that she would be Supreme Commander, just as soon as the situation was stable and she could make her move. Telling her that was out of the question.
"When you are tired and wish to give up the position, then I will offer up my name for consideration." She looked back at Donderon and smiled. "But not until that day."
Donderon knew she was lying. She did not know how she could be so sure, but she was. She returned the smile. She could not overlook how much it felt as though she were baring her teeth to an enemy.
Below them, inside and outside of the Last Wall, were gathered thousands of people. It was the largest and the longest gathering of people in the short history of freedom. Some of them were looking up at Donderon, who by now had learned to ignore the stares of strangers. Every now and again throughout the day one or two intrepid souls had introduced themselves to her. They were always courteous, but it was beginning to wear on her nerves.
"I am going to sleep, said Donderon.
"Very well. Good dreams." Donderon hopped down through the space between two ceiling tiles into the second level of the shelter. It was another incredible innovation in shelter construction. This second level, where Surella had invited Donderon to spend her nights, was so far one of a kind.
She climbed down to the first level and stepped outside to address the guards. There were three large women outside the shelter's entrance. The womens job was to keep everyone else outside. Donderon spoke to the guard commander, a tall, thickly built woman with a scar over her right eye. She was the same guard who had detained Falleen the day before.
"If Falleen comes by allow her in."
"As you command, First One" the guard said. Donderon went back inside and lay down in the darkest corner of the second level. She fell asleep in less than a minute.
Her dreams were disturbed. One disturbing dream was about Falleen and Surella. Its images were disconnected and out of order. Somehow Surella had killed Falleen and was laughing at Donderon. Another dream that felt more real was filled with thousands of people. The people were all calling her name but she refused to answer. After a short while she could feel that there was someone else who was prepared to take her place. At first, she assumed that the other was Surella, but the people began calling a name and it was not hers. She could not understand them and strained to listen.
"Who are you calling?" She approached various people asking them each the same question. She shook one of them by the shoulders and shouted, "What are you saying?" The sound of her own voice woke her. She opened her eyes and saw that it was completely dark. She remained where she was for a few seconds trying to recall her dream. In a sudden revelation, she knew what the people in her dream were saying.
"Quexzyl" she whispered. The name was from her Oral Tradition. Quexzyl was the hero from the Tale of the New World. She recalled the passage that contained the name.
"Quexzyl will refuse the adornment. She will accept the truth and throw away the past to make a new future. She will find the new world and alter the fate of all who live lived, or will live. Quexzyl will be the bravest of us all."
Donderon's dreams had warned her of a few mostly unimportant events when she was a child, but this was the first such dream she had had for nearly forty years. She felt certain that there would undoubtedly be a Quexzyl in her future. She thought about it until she could no longer hold off unconsciousness.
Donderon, Falleen and the Elder Ones were in the Last Wall Shelter observing Surella as she questioned Jer about his adventure. He had been through several such ordeals over the past few days, enjoying them until now.
"You were taken into a bright light, is that correct?" Surella asked again.
"Right" Jer said. She was less interested in the satellite's knowledge than in what it was capable of doing.
"What did you see there?"
"I told you," he said looking up at the ceiling. After a sigh he began again. "I saw the knowledge. Where it was I mean, and all I had to do was touch it. I could see whatever I wanted to see but it was in my own mind." Falleen had heard enough and stood up to leave.
"I will return shortly, she whispered to Donderon. Donderon nodded to her as she slipped out the door, mostly unnoticed. It had been six days since the vehicle had brought Jer back from the satellite. By now, almost all of the pen representatives had returned and announced their votes. There were a few thousand votes as yet unregistered, but it had become obvious to everyone that Donderon had prevailed.
Surella was quite happy with her hastily conceived plan. The people easily accepted it as the way to conduct things and because of Donderon's speech had not questioned its origins. Surella was made the vote keeper, pretty much by default, and devised a way to keep track of the votes. Each pen representative brought a stone from home. To vote in Donderon's favor they brought the jagged stones from the former boundary. The people of Teteda-Ma were using the un-trodden stones as universal symbols of the future. The connection was not lost on most who saw the pile of stones that eventually formed. Off to the side of that pile, representing the votes against Donderon, were six smooth stones. As Surella had predicted, there were no other candidates.
In the interim, the Elder Ones held a series of meetings to determine exactly what their role in this elected government was going to be. For inspiration, Surella presented several examples from her own Oral Tradition. It was ripe with stories of ancient human governments and each story was filled with details. In the end, the Elder Ones agreed that the Supreme Commander should have the final say on anything that they did. They could over-rule any of her decisions with a unanimous vote and the Supreme Commander had the sole authority to make nominations to the new Council of Elders. The Elder Ones will be the initial Council and retain the right to refuse admission through an approval vote. Donderon had accepted the conditions of the Council's support and the title of Supreme Commander the night before. As a final formality, one that Surella insisted on, Donderon appointed her as second in command. Henceforth she would be the Second.
After Jer's final briefing, Surellas incessant insistence forced Donderon to agree to deliver a short send off speech for the First Expedition. There were several thousand people watching the ceremony. Donderon, Surella, Falleen and the three Elders chosen to go were standing together, apart from the crowd. Jer stood behind the vehicle, watching the ongoing event with a contented glee. His mood stemmed from the fact that he was about to lead some of the most powerful people in the world on the First Expedition. He felt like the single most important person in the world and he did not try to stop himself from quietly laughing.
Donderon stood in the opening in the Last Wall, looking down at the people on the Beach. It was easily the largest crowd yet. People gathered at her feet and flowed out onto the Beach, left and right along the shoreline. There were hundreds of them out in the water as well. Some were so far out that they were bobbing up and down in chest deep water. Donderon cleared her throat and began speaking in a quiet tone. The crowd immediately hushed, straining to hear her every word.
"While we watch the dawn of a new age in human history, we should take time to remember our humble origins. She scanned the crowd of unfamiliar faces. Our ancestors were brought here against their will, after the complete destruction of Sol. They transformed their culture and it has been passed down to us, surviving as the Oral Tradition. Donderon paused and took a deep breath. We have the Wisdom of the Ancients to guide us as we rise from the Arms of Our Mother and return to walk among the stars. Let us pray that our ancestors will continue to watch over us as we go beyond what they have given us."
Donderon glanced at Jer, who had been told to get into the vehicle when she gave him a signal. She nodded and he knelt down, crawled under and then up into the vehicle. The other members of the expedition followed one at a time; Surella, Laton, Sof, Ponderall, and finally Falleen.
Surella had coordinated the ceremony. She was always eager to have a ceremony. In her home pen they were a part of everyday life. There was a ceremony for rising in the morning, lying down at night, and every conceivable event in-between. Donderon and Falleen were from a more typical pen, in which there were fewer ceremonies and most were simple as well as private.
As the women climbed into the vehicle and sat down around the entrance, they were all surprised by how much room they had. It seemed somewhat larger inside than it appeared outside.
"Now, boy, let us be away." Surella spoke as though she were addressing an inferior being. Jer did not like Surella. She was the leader of his home pen, but he did not understand what made her worthy of the position. He believed that even he could do a better job.
"Return" he said quietly. The ground shot out from under them. The women were quite startled and held onto each other. One of them let out a short scream. Jer giggled. Falleen studied the patch of grey shrinking below them.
Before the end of a minute, things began to drastically change. In an instant the vehicle evaporated from around them and they were each swept away to a bright spot of light that immediately took them into total darkness. Each member of the expedition floated in endless space.
"Laton?" Surella whispered.
"Yes? Surella, is that you?"
"Yes. Are the rest of you here?" Surella asked into the darkness. One by one, the other expedition members answered her.
"Where is this place?" one of them asked. Her name was Sof and she had not expected an answer.
"You are currently within the medical satellite."
"That is the voice I heard before" Jer volunteered.
"What are you? Surella demanded. She had been expecting a voice and her tone was sharp. Falleen winced. She hoped that, whatever it was, it was not angered by Surella's brash manner.
"I am a Sentient Central Intelligence. I am here to answer your questions."
"Where is the place that Jer was taken to?" Falleen asked.
"I will ask the questions, Surella snapped. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence. Surella remembered a detail of Jer's story and spoke again. "I want to see where we are." In an instant, a bright, but comfortable light showed them the huge room they were in. It was several times larger than the Last Wall Shelter. Surella looked around at each of her companions.
"Where are we?" she asked Jer. He shrugged his response. Laton leaned over to whisper in Surella's ear, who in turn nodded and addressed the room itself. "Where are we?"
"The holding room" the voice stated.
"There is light, but no Orb" Sof observed. Falleen looked around the room. It was bright white and absolutely featureless. It appeared to her that the light came from every surface of the room. After a few moments, Jer recalled something that he had never before experienced.
"Follow me," he said. Knowing exactly where to go he headed for a corner and disappeared into it. His body seemed to turn to sand and melt. The women were astonished. Their jaws dropped and they stood there, not having a clue as to what to do. A few seconds later, Jer reappeared.
"Well..." he said impatiently. He stood in the corner holding his arms by his side, palms out, in a gesture common to his local area.
"What happened to you?" Falleen asked him as she stepped forward. Surella pushed past her and Jer stepped backward. Surella followed and they both disappeared into the corner. Laton put her hand on Falleen's shoulder.
"Forgive her, she is overanxious." Laton was Surella's closest friend. She had known her for almost six years. "Shall we?" she asked, gesturing towards the corner. Falleen went last and as she stepped through she saw the others appear from a dark mist. It was a truly bizarre experience. They stood in a long hallway in front of the first of many doorways lining both walls. Inside the first doorway was a black, spherical place with a single, small, white light at its center.
"What is this?" Surella asked the wall.
"The SCI monitor." Surella craned her neck into the room to have a look around. She immediately jumped back.
"Something is in there." She touched her nose with the tips of her fingers. Jer was smiling, trying not to laugh out loud at Surella's odd behavior. He had been unconsciously aware of the monitor room from his previous encounter with the Sentient Central Intelligence. Just as with the corner he stepped through, the knowledge of this room was presenting itself to his conscious mind. He knew that a carrier beam was trying to take hold of whatever passed through the doorway. He decided that it was up to him to show them the SCI monitor too. After all, that was why he was there.
Without a word he stepped into the room and floated to its center. The others watched him as he floated for a few seconds looking at the little light, hypnotized by it. Then he floated back to the door and stepped out into the passageway.
"Try it, he said to Surella. She put her foot into the room. She was frightened, but knew that she could not show it in front of the others. If the boy had so easily done it she must also. Hesitating only for a moment, she took a deep breath and continued on into the room. An invisible force engulfed her. She tried to fight off her panic as it carried her to the center of the room. When the tiny light exploded in her face, her panic overpowered her will and she let out a loud gasp.
"What is going on?" Sof shouted.
"A problem with the synaptic relay has resulted in a medical emergency. The subject is now undergoing adjustment."
"What happened to her?" Laton asked, looking up at the ceiling.
"An examination has shown that the subject was overcome with emotion. The proper synapses have been stimulated."
Surella tried to see where she was, but could only see emptiness. She became aware of what had happened to her, but it was like a dream that happened the night before. She could only vaguely remember a feeling of panic and then the next thing she knew she was perfectly calm. It was certainly a strange experience.
Her next thought was of the Ma. What had happened to the race of beings holding them? The answer she received stunned her. She wanted to laugh. The beings that had destroyed Sol, the beings that had been the keepers of the slaves that the human race had become were dead. She did not want to believe that they were all dead, but she knew they were. She knew instantly that the last Ma to live had died more than six thousand years ago. The Teteda-Ma slave system was an autonomous system. It continued operating unchanged until fifty years ago. The Sentient Central Intelligence altered the sex-determining schedule and produced a second female, who was born forty-nine years ago. That change set off a series of random alterations to the programming of the SCI.
Surella knew the numerical designation of the first second female, the first second female's mother, their pen, and on and on. She was being overwhelmed with information and vocalized her need to "Stop!" In a flash she was back in the small spherical room and floating to the doorway. She stepped into the corridor and was caught by two of her companions as she stumbled, stunned by the entire experience.
"Are you alright?" Laton asked. "What happened?"
"Yes" Surella whispered. "I am fine." She wiped the sweat from her brow and looked at her friend who had a mix of bewilderment and concern on her face. "I just need to rest a minute."
"Perhaps we should split up and check these other doors, Falleen said. "If Surella does not disapprove, she added with a subtle sarcasm.
"What are the rooms in this passage?" Surella asked in a quiet voice.
"There are fourteen rooms in all" said the SCI. "There are three levels of monitor and eight various medical facilities. Apart from these there is a tactical interface, a navigational interface and a surface conditions interface." The last three were intriguing.
"What is a tactical interface?" Surella asked without a moments thought.
"A tactical interface allows an individual to directly control the tactical subsystems. The local star system, as well as a large surrounding area can be monitored for any sentient activity. Any vehicle within three light years can be scanned and identified. The sixth door on your left contains the tactical interface."
"Laton, find out about that one."
"As you command," Laton answered, bowing her head.
"What is the navigational interface?" Surella asked the SCI.
"A navigational interface allows an individual to directly control the subsystem which monitors all interspatial displacement activity in a radius of over one million light years. It is located behind the seventh door to your left."
"Investigate the navigational interface." Sof nodded, and proceeded down the hall.
"What is a surface conditions interface?" Surella asked.
"A surface conditions interface allows an individual to control the Teteda-Ma surface and geothermal conditions subsystems. All weather conditions, as well as foliage and water levels are accessible. Terraforming and structural creation are also accessible through the surface conditions interface, which is located through the last door on your right."
Falleen was very curious about this. Did the voice mean to say that she could create a building using the surface conditions interface?
"Surella, I would like to investigate that one. If we can create structures... " Surella glared at her. " ...I think we would greatly benefit from such a power." Falleen diverted her gaze towards the floor doing her level best to allow Surella her illusion of control.
"Fine" Surella said after a few moments of consideration. "Ponderall, I want you to return to the surface and give the Supreme Commander an update on our progress." She looked at Jer, standing to the side, trying to appear important. "And take the boy with you."
"At once" acknowledged Ponderall. Jer sneered. He did not want to return, he wanted to see what other wonders awaited them on the satellite. He was still years away from being emotionally strong enough to protest, though, so he quietly returned to the huge shiny room with Ponderall.
"Take Ponderall back to the surface and then return the vehicle here." Surella had easily recovered from her ordeal and knew that the SCI monitor was the key to controlling everything. Falleen's wish to go elsewhere could not have been more opportune. She swallowed the lump in her throat. The idea of returning to the SCI monitor frightened her but she had to do it. She stepped into the room and floated into place.
Laton had not been surprised by their experiences in the satellite. Jer had told the Elder Ones of the way he had been mysteriously transported to another place, and Laton knew that it meant something special would happen to them. She was reminded of a story told to her by her mother. Many generations ago one of Laton's ancestors had had a waking dream. During one of her disappearances, she dreamed that she was in the presence of a captor and had been told that her people would be set free. The captor told her that her head needed to be opened so that what was inside could be seen. Laton's ancestor was taken to an infinite place and a strange disembodied voice spoke to her. It told her that she was the ancestor of a freewoman.
The story was told to each succeeding generation. Laton had told her daughter the story more than thirty years before Donderon destroyed the Line Maker. She never dreamed the freewoman would be her. When Jer told the Elders of the infinite place and the voice, Laton recognized his description immediately. She hoped that it was the same voice that had spoken to her ancestor and she was eagerly anticipating her first encounter with it.
She stepped into the spherical room, which she had been assigned to and unconsciously held her breath. A soft force, almost like a gentle breeze, surrounded her and she was carried to the center of the darkened room. As she reached the little spot of light, it expanded, and she was in that other place. She had often fantasized about it as a child. She was happy to see that it was as she expected. It was quite similar to what they had experienced when first arriving.
Laton felt completely relaxed. She was unaware of her body, but she was completely aware of everything that surrounded her. Instantly she knew that there were no signs of life or travel anywhere in the Teteda-Ma system and that the SCI subsystem was awaiting her instructions. She had no intention of giving any, so she was back in the black, round room and heading for the door.
Sof on the other hand, was quite worried about entering the room Surella had assigned her to. She did not know what to expect, and wanted to be ready if she encountered trouble. She cleared her mind in the way of the ancients, which she and her pen mates had been brought up practicing. She closed her eyes, touching her forefingers to her thumbs and took ten deep, slow breaths. She cleared her thoughts of dialogue and by the tenth breath her mind was quiet. The affects of fear were gone; she was ready to enter the room.
She stuck her foot through the doorway and encountered the carrier force. It felt like stepping into un-wet water. Once she let go of the doorway, she was quickly pulled towards the spot of light in the center. It erupted, filling the entire room.
She was instantly aware of the spatial displacement junctions that filled the galaxy; navigational lanes between Teteda-Ma and thousands of other worlds. She found that the last spatial displacement had been over six years ago and that the nearest displacement vehicle was over thirty-five hundred light years away. She thought that it would be a good idea to have one here and then realized that it would arrive in less than eight minutes. There were thousands and thousands of worlds to which they could travel. She knew that they would need more than one displacement vehicle. Within two hours all of the displacement vehicles under the command of the Ma would be in orbit around the Orb. Sof was overwhelmed. She knew all of this, as well as what it all meant, but did not know how she knew. She did not know what she was supposed to do next and left the room.
Falleen could hardly wait to try the surface conditions interface. She had wanted to try the SCI monitor, but knew Surella would not allow her. She figured that if she had not spoken up, she would be in Ponderall's place, back on Teteda-Ma, and Ponderall would be here, about to step into the future.
She jumped in with both feet plunging a bit, and then floated up and in towards the light in the center of the room. When she reached it the light took her in and she felt warm and safe. She felt almost as though she had been there before.
As she engaged with the monitor, she discovered that the Ocean supplied oxygen for the entire planet and was a mile and a half at its deepest point. She also found that Teteda-Ma was completely barren, had no geothermal activity and was completely devoid of any other kinds of surface features. Finally she was informed that the weather was kept to a bare minimum by the technology of the satellite. She knew that altering any of these factors would certainly change the life of the people of Teteda-Ma and decided not to take that sort of power into her own hands. The structural creation control however, was another matter entirely.
Surella had entered the SCI monitor and was discovering exactly what the others were discovering. The monitor had the ability to show her their activities. None of them even knew she was there. She was quite pleased with the fact that all of their instructions to the SCI could be rejected by anyone occupying the primary SCI monitor, but when she more closely examined the functions she discovered something even more important. It would alter everything from that moment on however, she made sure that no one else would know about it for a long time to come.
Another discovery, one that she would have to share, was the use of displacement plasma in conjunction with the carrier force. The vehicles that Sof had called to the Teteda-Ma system were formed from a plasma which, when manipulated by the carrier force could be formed into any element. It could be used, she found, to create dwellings, to light and heat or cool those dwellings and clothe and feed the inhabitants. It could apparently be used to make anything that could be imagined and for the Ma had ultimately replaced all other natural resources. With displacement plasma and the carrier force, the humans would be able to fashion anything they desired and the satellite was capable of refining more than the entire population of Teteda-Ma would ever need.
When Falleen tapped into the terraforming and structural creation control, Surella was informed that the plasma was being readied for use. She commanded the SCI to put a hold on all production and to eject Falleen from the monitor. As the tiny light in the center of the room began to strobe at an alarming rate Falleen was back where she had started and headed towards the door.
"What is happening?" she yelled.
"The surface conditions interface has been put on stand by, said the disembodied voice. Falleen was furious. She stepped out into the hall.
"What reason?" she demanded. Receiving no answer she glanced down the hall and saw Laton squatting in front of the SCI monitor watching her. The door had been shut as soon as Falleen was deposited safely outside and she pounded on it with the heel of her hand. "Open!" she demanded. She was about to kick at the door, when directly behind her Sof emerged from the navigational interface.
"What is wrong?" Sof asked her.
"Our esteemed leader, I presume" Falleen answered with a sneer. She turned and marched down the hallway towards the SCI monitor. Sof, with a smile showing the animosity she was developing for Falleen, followed after her. As they neared where Laton was squatting, Surella stepped out of the SCI monitor.
"Now we will return to the surface... " Surella began to say. Falleen could not believe what was happening. Without warning, she jumped forward, trying to push her way between the others into the monitor room. Laton and Sof, each grabbing an arm, held her back. Surella eyed her adversary, showing her customary emotionless expression. "If I may continue?" she taunted. Falleen struggled for a moment and then realized the futility of her situation. She looked down at the floor and relaxed. Laton let go of an arm and then several seconds later Sof released her too.
"As I was saying, we will return to the surface to report to the First One and all of the inhabitants of Teteda-Ma: We can now return to the stars." Falleen did not understand the meaning behind the statement.
"What exactly do you mean?" she asked Surella.
"Sof, if you would care to inform the others?" Surella went into the corner and disappeared. Falleen turned to Sof waiting for an answer.
"There are space ships coming" Sof said. "They can take us anywhere in the galaxy." Without any further explanation she stepped into the corner and Laton followed her, leaving Falleen there alone. She stood in the empty hallway for a moment. Space ships? There are space ships out there? It was a thought almost to big to grasp. In a moment she realized that the others had left her behind and she dashed through the corner after them.
Donderon was briefed by the First Expedition members, on the Beach, in plain sight of the huge crowd gathered there. The rest of the Council of Elders, as well as a couple dozen by-standers lucky enough to be allowed proximity heard the information they relayed to her.
"We found that the Ma have all died." Surella reported. "There is not a single one left." The other expedition members were just as shocked by this news as Donderon was. "We also found that we could bring the Ma's space ships here. They should begin arriving here in about five minutes. Apparently they can take us anywhere in the galaxy. There is also a material that we can make into whatever we want. They made their vehicles and everything else they used from it." She related the essential facts and nothing else. Donderon wondered what Surella might be keeping from her. She suddenly realized that she had made a mistake. She had been suspecting she should not have remained behind, but now she was sure. It was a mistake that she must not allow to happen again.
"What did you find Falleen?" she asked after a moment.
"We can make anything. Including food, clothing and buildings. Anything. The only limitation is what we can imagine, I suppose." Donderon decided to give the information directly to the people waiting on the Beach. She walked up to the top of the ridge and positioned herself in the hole in the Last Wall.
"In a short while there will be a space ship arriving" she said to the crowd. They took the news in several ways. Some just waited for her to continue, others began talking to their neighbors. A few people began to laugh.
"The Ma are returning?" someone shouted from a few feet into the crowd.
"No! The Ma are dead!" Donderon answered. There was a noticeable hush that followed her latest revelation. After a few seconds, her words were being heard passed back and forth among the members of her audience. "The Ma are dead, she said. She repeated the sentence more for herself than anyone else. She took a few seconds to contemplate it, but then remembered that something miraculous was about to happen. "We are about to receive the power to create dwellings and make any manner of things that we can imagine" she said. She looked down at the other two expedition members. Sof stared back blankly but Laton was smiling up at her. "Did you find anything else?" she asked Laton.
"Only that there are no others in this system. We are all that there is." Most who could hear Donderon speak could also hear Laton.
"What did you find Sof?" Donderon asked. Sof began to answer but could not think of anything that Surella had not already mentioned. She shook her head back and forth.
"Nothing" she answered.
The first ship arrived in the Teteda-Ma system exactly on schedule. The sight of it was enough to send everyone off in a crazed panic, but fortunately the people on the Beach had expected it. The fact that the First One was in awe of the sight instead of afraid was another factor in convincing the crowd to remain calm.
When it appeared in the morning sky, it was a faded, ghostly image from imagination. Many people simply refused to see it for the first few seconds. Over those seconds, it appeared to grow in size as it closed the distance between itself and the planet. As it approached, it shimmered in the harsh light of the Teteda-Ma day. From the ground, it was seen as a translucent pink sphere almost as large as the Orb itself. Its center was a pale, nearly white color. The entire apparition appeared to slowly rotate and there was a faint burst of color that moved over the surface just within visible range.
After a few seconds a strong feeling of excitement flowed through the people as they stood staring up at the space ship. The majority of the people in the world were afraid of the sight. Those who were on the Beach initiated the spread of the good news but it would be hours before its calming effect took hold.
"I want to see the space ship up close, Donderon announced after several minutes of neck strain. She spoke directly to Surella. "You and Laton will come with me. We will go in five minutes." She strode down the side of the ridge, stepped between the Council members disregarding their reactions and headed into the shelter. Falleen was close behind her.
"What are you planning to do?" Falleen asked as they reached the second floor. Donderon looked up into the sky. There were several ceiling tiles removed for light. She could easily see the ship through one of the holes.
"I need to get up there and learn what I can about the space ship before Surella does." Donderon knew that if she was to remain in command she had to keep ahead of Surella. At this point she was a step behind. Standing there listening to her relating the experiences of the First Expedition, Donderon had suddenly realized that she could no longer allow Surella to learn something before she did.
"Surella wants to be the Supreme Commander herself, Falleen said after an appropriate amount of time.
"That is a fair assessment" Donderon replied as she sat down on the floor. "Surella created this entire organization." She stretched herself out relaxing onto the cool, dark tiles. "She made up the roles, this shelter, the expedition." She looked up at Falleen who was silhouetted by the hole in the ceiling above of her. "If I do not stop her" she continued, "she will take it all for herself. She used me to create the power and I am sure she is thinking of a way to take it."
Surella, Laton and Falleen went with Donderon to her home pen area. She was there to pick something up. While her people did not rely heavily on ceremonial activities, they did place great value in possessions with an historical significance. Donderon figured that she could create such an object at this moment in time and wanted to get the object from her own home.
When the vehicle landed in the center of the place that used to be Donderon's pen the few people who remained there encircled it. There were mostly the very old and the very young along with their mothers.
"Wait here" Donderon said to her companions. She stepped out from under the vehicle, wondering why the door could not be on the side. She smiled at her people and nodded to her sister.
"I am about to go to the satellite, she said to the crowd. "I have come here to gather two stones to take with me." She looked around at her people. They were hanging on her every word. After a few seconds, she bent over to speak to a small boy about five or six years of age. "Will you find me a jagged stone from over there?" As she spoke to him she pointed to her right. He smiled brightly and dashed off to find a stone. "And you" she said to a little girl who was a couple of years older. "Will you find me a jagged stone from that side?" she asked her, pointing to her left.
"Yes First One" the little girl said and then ran off to do her duty.
"With the jagged stone, we will claim the satellite" she said addressing her pen mates. Serruphu, who was now the lead Elder, stepped forward. She was seventy-five years old and used a sliver of the stick from the Line Maker to prop herself up.
"You are fulfilling the prophecy. Bringing together the entire human race" Serruphu said in a withered voice. She reached out and took Donderon's hand in her own. "I am old, she said quietly. "You are now an Elder One." Donderon looked into her eyes, surprised by what had happened in a single breath. The transfer was short and to the point. Serruphu had whispered so most could not tell what had happened. "Lead our people" she added after.
"But I... " The former Elder One squeezed Donderon's hand.
"It is alright." Donderon said nothing else and as they parted, the little boy returned. He held out his hand and presented her with a jagged stone. It was identical to the others that surrounded the living area of every pen on Teteda-Ma. A child though, chose this one.
"What is your name?" Donderon asked him. The little boy blushed and said nothing.
"Ben" a woman in the crowd called out. It was obvious from her glowing expression that he was her son.
"Thank you Ben" Donderon said as she took the stone. The little girl returned with a stone that was just as identical as the other. "What is your name?"
"Rees" she responded.
"Thank you Rees" she said as she took the stone. "Now I will go." She bowed then turned and squatted to climb up into the vehicle. "See what you can do about getting a side door for this thing" she said to Surella.
When they arrived on the satellite, they were taken directly to the large, shiny holding room. After a few seconds to recover from the initial shock of watching the vehicle disappear from around them, Donderon positioned herself in the center of the room. Laton, Surella, and Falleen faced her. She held a stone in each of her closed hands.
"These are the symbols of our future" Donderon said as she extended her arms. She opened her hands to reveal the stones to the others. "I will leave one here and the other will remain with the Supreme Commander." She bent over, and placed the stone from her right hand on the shiny floor. It was the stone that the boy Ben had presented her. "You are the witnesses, Donderon said straightening up. "Today we take our first step into that future." She looked around at the other women. They each presented a solemn countenance. Donderon smiled large. "Shall we?" she said and motioned for Surella to lead the way.
Surella was disappointed with the short, unrewarding ceremony. She made a silent vow to control that part of the still forming government as soon as possible. They passed through the corner then gathered around the doorway of the primary SCI monitor.
"This is the room?" Donderon asked. She looked in at the spot of white light in the center. The inside surface of the sphere was black. There were no apparent surface features, and Donderon wondered how the light remained where it was.
"Yes, answered Surella. "This is the Primary Sentient Central Intelligence Monitor." Having vocalized the entire title dissipated some of her frustration over Donderon's short ceremony. "Just step in and..." Donderon had stepped in and was being carried to the center before Surella could finish the sentence.
She was in the primary monitor for only a few seconds before someone joined her from the secondary monitor. She felt as though there were two distinct, autonomous lines of thought in her mind and one of them was Surella's. When the light first took her she felt comfortable, but Surella had hurried her way into the secondary monitor and her presence was causing Donderon a strange uneasiness.
After becoming fully aware of Surella's presence and everything that it implied, the first thing that Donderon thought about was the vehicle parked in orbit. As the information came she began to expand her inquiry. She was absorbing as much as she could, as quickly as she could, apparently trying to loose Surella in the rush. Surella did not know what to think because she could not follow along and had to reroute the information out of her head. Donderon was quickly exhausted from the information overload, and after giving a command to the SCI to send to the space ship she ended it.
She was in the monitor for less than a minute and Surella wondered what had happened. The SCI informed her that the blood supply to her brain was insufficient for the speed at which information was transferred through the synaptic relay. Surella's curiosity led her to more information about the synaptic relay and human anatomy. The way that her thoughts split as she accessed the pathways simultaneously, startled her. The bad memories of her earlier SCI encounter resurfaced, and she wanted out, so she was out.
Donderon regained her consciousness and looked around to regain her bearings. She was on her back in a small room. She could not see the ceiling because it was obscured by bright, warm light cascading down on her. As she tried to sit up an invisible force helped her to her feet.
"Where am I?" she asked the room.
"You are in a holding room aboard the medical satellite in orbit around Teteda-Ma" came the answer. She was beginning to remember the events leading up to her blackout and was astonished at the information that she had as memories. As she accessed a new bit of information it came to her as though she had studied it, or experienced it before but she knew she had not.
She was aware of the vehicles that were under the command of the captors. She knew their names, their sizes, their uses, the theories that allowed them to operate, and so on. Her adrenalin was beginning to flow again and the SCI, which was continuing to monitor her condition, readjusted her once more.
Donderon's thoughts trailed off and she stood there for a moment wondering what was going on. She remembered thinking about the ships, and then... nothing. Well, no matter she decided and left the room. She entered the hallway and pushed her way through the women, grabbed Falleen by the wrist and led her through the corner, which took them to the large, shiny holding room.
"What is going on?" Laton asked Surella.
"I do not know." They followed through the corner. As they entered the room they saw Donderon and Falleen standing inside a large, mostly transparent, pinkish blob. It was slowly moving up away from them. The instant that Surella and Laton stopped to gape at the odd sight it was gone, having shot up through the ceiling at an incredible speed. It went so fast that it seemed to disappear.
"What was that?" Laton gasped. Surella was dumbstruck.
"That was a displacement vehicle trans-pod, said the SCI voice. They stood motionless for a moment. Surella finally recalled that Donderon had sent a command to the space ship and as everything came together for her she grew quietly angry. Donderon was going to claim the space ship, without any other official government representatives. Surella saw this as a major breach of authority and became determined to put a stop to it.
Donderon and Falleen had stepped into the holding room, and were swallowed, one after the other, by a pink blob.
"This is the transport to the space ship" Donderon said to alleviate any fear that Falleen may have had. After a few seconds, as Laton and Surella were entering the port, the trans-pod shot into space.
The blob was almost transparent and as they traveled they could see the satellite moving away at an astronomical speed. It was a long thin tube, which appeared to be over three miles in length and of a dark blue, almost black color. The planet below them appeared to hang motionless in space. After a few seconds they were so far above the satellite that it disappeared against the sandy background of Teteda-Ma.
Above them, they saw the space ship and it was an incredible sight. It looked like a pink, see through planet with an opaque white core. As they approached, they could see dozens of tiny bursting colors. Red, green and yellow streaks moved over the surface of the ship. There were hundreds of thousands of jagged electrical discharges issuing from the sphere and the entire ship seemed to expand and contract ever so slightly. As they got closer, they could see ripples that were scores of miles long moving across the surface of the ship, as though it were made of liquid.
Before crashing into it they slowed, but not much, and then plunged into a small spot of red just after it appeared in front of them. Under the surface, the trans-pod seemed to melt away, blending into the ship. They were carried along, floating in the bubble that remained surrounding them, towards the center.
In the seconds it took to reach the core, they saw several oddities throughout the coagulated interior of the space ship. Falleen saw hundreds of gigantic tube-like structures, carrying a darkened material away from the white core. Donderon saw other bubbles like theirs, some smaller, but most much larger, carrying unrecognizable objects.
They abruptly stopped and an opening formed from the pinkish material, exposing the surface of the white core to their bubble. Donderon reached out towards the white surface, whereupon it twisted itself into a hole, revealing a long passageway disappearing in darkness. She quickly stepped into the passageway and turned to look back at Falleen who was obviously stunned by the last forty-five seconds.
"Are you coming?" Donderon asked. Falleen hesitated and then stepped slowly into the hallway. "SCI" Donderon commanded at the nearest wall.
"Sentient Central Intelligence Voider standing by at your pleasure" said a voice. It was something like the SCI voice on the satellite, but with an accent as well as a characteristically human sound.
"What is the status of this vehicle?" Donderon asked.
"DV Voider is fully operational, said the voice. Donderon remembered something she had been force fed by the satellite's SCI.
"Tell me the lead ship of this fleet, she commanded.
"DV Phantom" came the answer.
"Link up all vehicles with DV Phantom and then route the command functions here." Donderon looked at Falleen and smiled.
"Understood," answered the SCI.
"Where is the SCI primary monitor?" Donderon asked. The door they were nearest to suddenly glowed with a soft, white light.
"What are you doing?" asked Falleen. Donderon laughed with relief.
"I can control every ship in the fleet from this monitor."
"All of them?" Falleen asked after a moment of studied thought. She was beginning to understand.
"Yes" Donderon said as she stepped up to the monitor door. In a flash, the door slid up and to the right. If she had blinked, she would have thought that it simply disappeared. The room behind the door was larger than the room on the satellite, but otherwise identical. Donderon smiled at her friend. "Look around. I am going to see what I can do from here."
"Umm... sure" Falleen answered.
Surella was upset. She felt as though there was something she had left exposed. She was not sure why she was feeling vulnerable, because everything seemed to be going well enough. She secretly had command of the satellite's SCI, which gave her the world and thus far she could see no way of that being discovered. She figured that Donderon claiming the space ship without her present was the cause of her agitation. It was a nuisance but not a threat as far as she could see. All she needed to do was keep an eye on Donderon and another on Falleen, but for now, it was time to put it out of her mind. She would remain on guard, but she had to concentrate on the matter at hand. She and Laton were choosing crews for the satellite and space ships.
Surella sat with Laton in a shelter in the center of their combined home area. It was the area that led directly through the hole in the Last Wall to the Beach. In the time immediately following the destruction of the Line Maker, Surella and Laton formed a loose alliance and were among the first to remove the wall that separated them.
Laton was the only person whom Surella respected; everyone else seemed to be a potential enemy. Laton retained that label in the depths of Surella's suspicious mind, but she had proven her loyalty over and over. The fact that Laton's own Oral Tradition gave a detailed accounting of a ruling class/working class culture, along with her intention to have her people included within the former when it reappeared as she believed it would, put her on Surella's side in every case. She knew the power of numbers.
She used her innate ability to gauge reactions and anticipate actions to diffuse any areas of contention between herself and Surella. She seemed never to get angry or frustrated and always knew when to leave her alone. Something like a friendship had developed over the six years since they first met.
During the time of that initial meeting, Surella began forming the thoughts that would lead her on the path to power. With several ideas from her Oral Tradition and a few years, she was able to organize the Elder Ones. The simple idea of representation was the basis of what she professed to be the Wisdom of the Ancients. This wisdom she privately realized, was the devise with which she could control the focused power of the many. With this in mind, she devised the structure and powers of the Elder Ones and placed herself at the top. She asserted her right to the top position by quoting dozens of passages from her Oral Tradition, but her real power was the fact that she had Laton's backing.
Laton, a quiet, incredibly intelligent woman, had become a highly respected leader in the vicinity of the Beach. She was able to convince other leaders who were interested in joining them that Surella had a vision of the future that would benefit those who followed her. In the end it was Laton, as much as Surella, who was the driving force behind the formation of the Elder Ones. Ponderall and Sof were the first to agree to follow the basic ideas that Surella outlined and the Elder Ones had grown to ten by the time the vehicle was found.
"I believe Besfa would be the best candidate for the satellite command position, Laton said.
"Besfa is the tall guard with a scar here?" Surella asked with a finger on her right eyebrow.
"Yes. She is quite trustworthy, and follows orders diligently." Surella nodded. Those were exactly the sorts of traits she was looking for. "However" Laton added, "she is not very intelligent and sometimes quick to anger."
"No matter" Surella said. "Besfa will be my recommendation for satellite commander." Laton smiled and gave Surella a short nod. "I think that the best thing to do about the ships" she said a few moments later, "would be to appoint a Military Commander." She stood up. They were in the smaller of the two rooms of a newly constructed shelter. It was ten feet square, with a large stone positioned just outside the door blocking the view. The ceiling had not been completed and the sunlight poured in from several large, angular holes. She was standing with her hands clasped behind her, looking up at Displacement Vehicle Voider through one of the holes. "I thought about this for several days. What I am looking for is someone who I can trust, who I know will obey my commands without question." She looked over at Laton, seated on one of the six large stones placed in a circle in the center of the room. "You are my choice." Knowing Surella as she did, Laton had expected something of this sort, but she also thought it important to feign surprise.
"I...umm, do not know what to say." She blushed and looked at the ground.
"Accept my offer" Surella said. She was pleased with Laton's behavior. She knew that Laton wanted to be involved with the space ships, but thought that she surely was not expecting this.
"As you command, Second. I accept your generous offer." She smiled up at Surella. Who else could do it thought Laton, Falleen?
After a few minutes, they left the new shelter and headed for the Last Wall Shelter. There were many thousands of people gathered in the pen, and outside the Last Wall on the Beach. More were arriving every minute. The space ship, looming ominous in the sky, was bringing everyone in the world. Surella was thinking about this as they crested the ridge and she stopped.
There are so many people who need direction, she thought, and with the power she had as Second, it was her duty to give it to them. Laton was looking up at Surella from the base of the ridge.
"What is it?" she asked.
"I have a wonderful idea." She raised her arms up in the air, and yelled. "Listen to me! I am Surella, Second to the Supreme Commander, Donderon the First One! May I have your attention! Please!" The crowd, still stunned by the arrival of the space ship, settled down quickly. On top of the Last Wall Shelter, Donderon and Falleen stopped the discussion they were having about the preceding few days.
"Who is that?" Donderon asked. Falleen had stepped to the edge to investigate.
"Surella" Falleen responded.
"Today I saw the satellite!" Surella told the crowd. "I have learned that we are on the verge of stepping off of this prison and into space!" From the top of the shelter, Falleen could hear everything that Surella was saying and she motioned for Donderon to join her. Surella gestured up towards the huge vehicle. "With the arrival of the displacement vehicle it is time to begin." She lowered her arms, and looked over the crowd. They were ready for anything, she thought. After a lifetime of confinement and then six years of aimless freedom, the people of Teteda-Ma were eager to do anything she told them. "I have appointed Laton to the position of Military Commander" she went on. "After the approval of the Supreme Commander and the Council of Elders, she will begin to organize the new military." Donderon wondered what she was talking about. What exactly did she mean by new military? "Those of you who are willing to join us will be rewarded with adventures beyond imagining." She paused to gauge the reaction of her audience. They were listening intently. "We will explore the entire universe, but we must have you to help us." She looked at the faces of those closest to her. They were smiling up at her and awaiting for her next words. "Will you join us?" she asked in a conversational tone, directly to those people.
"Yes!" came some answers. "We will join you!" shouted another.
"Will you join us?" she yelled as she swept her arm out over the crowd.
"Yes! "Yes! and "Yes!" came the answers. The crowd was getting very excited, very quickly. There were people yelling and cheering, and a few whistles here and there and everyone seemed to be ready to go wherever Surella led them.
"What is she trying to do?" Donderon asked rhetorically. Falleen wondered the same thing.
As Surella entered the crowd, they mobbed her. It took her several minutes to cross the dozen yards to the Last Wall Shelter, as people were grabbing at her, trying to join her.
"I did not expect such enthusiasm, she said with a laugh as she stumbled in through the door.
"What have you done?" Donderon quietly asked. She stood directly in front of her. Laton pushed her way into the shelter behind Surella.
"Laton will organize the new military, Surella answered between breaths. "She will choose commanders for the ships, and they will choose their own crews." She squinted to look at Donderon, the darkness of the room making it difficult for her. She thought for a moment that she saw Falleen in front of her, but realized that it was just a trick of the shadows. "Of course, this is subject to your approval."
"Of course" Falleen said sarcastically. Surella turned and glowered at her. She wanted to tell her to be silent, but held herself back.
"I thought we should get started. Regardless of how we choose commanders, we need the people for the crews." Surella waited for a couple of seconds, and then added, "I trust you approve." Donderon studied her, trying to see what she must be missing. She accepted the truth of the last statement, but wondered at Surella's motivation. It was something that she would have to watch, but for now she mentally shrugged it off and dropped the subject.
"Yes, Commander." Laton answered. Donderon examined her features for a moment. Her skin was darker than Surella's, but much lighter than Donderon's or Falleen's and she had wide, bright, light blue eyes. She smiled at Donderon, awaiting her next words.
"Will you accept the position of Military Commander?" Donderon asked her. Laton was the obvious choice after all.
"Yes. And thank you for your trust." Donderon noticed that Surella seemed amused by the proceedings. She had something that may change that, she thought.
"Are there any questions?" She addressed a nearly empty room. Falleen could not keep in her laughter, and it came out in a snort. She blushed, and covered her mouth with her hand.
"Fine" Donderon declared. "It is done." Surella was confused, suddenly realizing that Donderon was appointing Laton without the approval of the Elder Ones. Surely they would all agree with the appointment, but she was disturbed that Donderon was acting on her own. This blatant disregard for the Council reinforced Surella's pledge to herself to do something to restrain the powers of the Supreme Commander. Surella was now certain that there were too many holes in the government. She felt that there needed to be an entirely new set of rules to cover the possibilities. For now though, it seemed that Donderon could do whatever she pleased.
Thousands of people wanted a chance to participate in the adventures that awaited the human race. After consulting directly with Surella, Laton appointed ten generals to command the new military. She worked with them to learn about the space ships and then train the quickly growing ranks of volunteers. Besfa, the satellite commander picked twenty women to go with her to occupy the satellite. They spent their time coaxing secrets from the SCI, learning things that the human race had never known before.
While there was no one truly opposed to Donderon leading the endeavor to explore, some were not happy to just follow the lead of those whom she appointed. Thousands were asking for an audience with the Supreme Commander to appeal for one thing or another and Donderon readily agreed to it. She organized the audience and asked Falleen to design and construct a building especially for the occasion.
After spending the better part of a day designing it, Falleen used the satellites capabilities to create a building in a matter of a few seconds. She did the deed early in the morning of the first day of the audience. To the amazement of everyone lined up on the Beach, the building shimmered into existence, taking the place of the Last Wall Shelter.
Two days later, with the Supreme Commander's permission, Falleen finished designing and constructing a set of buildings that were to serve as the center of the government. Surella, in an emotionless display, ceremoniously dedicated the building complex as the Commander's Palace. It was a marvel. No one disliked it, although Surella was unhappy with its location.
On the outside, the Palace complex was golden. It reflected the daylight, causing it to glow with a radiance that could be seen for miles around. The four sections of the Palace were each topped by a roof of gold, giving them the appearance of a shimmering, cresting wave.
To the left of the audience room was the Council chamber, which was small, but spectacular. The inside of the chamber was the same golden color as the outside of the Palace and the ceiling was soft white light. Situated on the golden floor for the Council members, were ten two foot boulders in a circle around one three-foot boulder.
Behind the audience room was Donderon's sleeping room, which was fashioned, per her request, just as her sleeping room in the Last Wall Shelter; rock walls, tile floor and the only light coming from cracks in the walls and holes in the ceiling.
Behind the Council chambers were the Palace Guard quarters. They consisted of twenty rooms, each twelve feet square, with an eight-foot high ceiling. They were stacked four each atop one another and were connected by a series of narrow hallways and stairs. The rooms were stark and flooded with light.
The audience room was Falleen's first masterpiece of design. She constantly received positive feedback from acquaintance and stranger alike. She had been experimenting with the carrier force and found that it was capable of holding up any substance in any configuration. The walls looked like huge, rectangular pools of water, except that they were up on end, defying gravity. A stone cast at a wall would enter the water, causing ripples, but remain suspended within. One of the Palace Guards was appointed to remove the dozens of stones that accumulated within the walls every evening. Another favorite trick was to reach into the water and with cupped hands, bring out some for drinking. The water in the walls was pure, at Surella's insistence, as a symbol of the intentions of the government.
The ceiling of warm, yellow sun light was also made possible by the carrier force, which created it out of what seemed to be thin air. The grass floor was the final touch and Falleen's favorite part of the room. It was what first attracted the attention of those entering the room. Walking on the cool, soft grass was something that could not be done anywhere else, at least not yet.
To make the scene complete, placed on top of a glossy black step pyramid that rose fifteen feet above the floor was a large flat stone. Surella had insisted on including the pyramid, but had never expressed a reason. There were two ways into the twelve thousand square foot room, one small doorway behind the pyramid, and one, which faced the Ocean that was much larger.
The three remaining original shelter guards were now commanding a group numbering seventeen. Their immediate job was to keep the huge crowd on the Beach out of the audience room. They asked those who wanted to see the Supreme Commander to remain in orderly lines. Surella had elected to dress the guards in red, sleeveless robes, which covered them from shoulder to floor. The symbolic similarity to the Line Maker's robe silently enforced the authority of the guards.
Donderon wore a long piece of white cloth draped around the back of her neck and over her shoulders. She had originally worn it simply because Surella insisted she display herself in some unique way, but after a few days she became accustomed to it. The Council of Elders remained unclothed, as did the vast majority of people on Teteda-Ma. Clothes had been the first thing offered by the government after Donderon returned from the space ship, but because of the absence of weather, they were mostly seen as a novelty.
Over the last three weeks, shelters had also been offered, but few cared since most had already constructed one if they wanted it. When they saw the audience room however, many changed their minds about new shelters and the waiting list grew by daily leaps and bounds.
Donderon granted the audience with the people as the last step prior to officially beginning the occupation of the Ma fleet. A few days into the audience however, she was beginning to regret her decision. It was not until the middle of the fifth day that someone managed to grab her attention.
" ...According to my research, a group of people, each representing a larger group, meeting in a centralized location, was the most successful of the ancient types of governments."
Donderon was amazed that someone would do what this one said she had done. She claimed she had visited almost one thousand different pen locations in the last few years. It seemed an unbelievable accomplishment.
"What is your name?" Donderon asked the woman.
"I am called Crinn by my pen mates." She was one of the shortest women Donderon had ever seen. Perhaps it was the height from which she looked down on her. Regardless, she could be no more than four and one half feet tall. She had dark brown skin and short, straight, shiny black hair, which was layered in uneven rows, as if it had been shortened intentionally. Although small in height, her build was anything but slight. She was quite muscular in comparison with most, and her shoulders were wide, her waist and hips, narrow. Donderon figured that she was probably in the middle of her forth decade.
"Do you have a proposal detailing that sort of organization?" Donderon asked her as she sat up to convey her interest. Crinn was amazed that the First One had even asked her for her name. Now she wanted more information.
"I do have a few ideas" Crinn began. "But I would not presume to inform you how to command." Words to that effect were becoming an all to familiar opening of a long speech, which proceeded to do exactly that however, Donderon felt that Crinn seemed so much more genuine and actually meant it.
"Please Crinn, elaborate for me." After a deep breath to gather her thoughts, Crinn began to speak.
"One of the things I have consistently found in most Oral Traditions is a mention of an organized government. Most Oral Traditions that have an extensive accounting, describe the representative type."
"What do the traditions say about the size of the groups?" Donderon asked her. Crinn could not hide her surprise. The Supreme Commander seemed to understand her and was also interested enough to ask intelligent questions.
"That is difficult to answer, she said with a frown. Donderon watched as Crinn scratched her ear. She thought for a moment and then answered. "The numbers range from the tens, to the thousands. I think that the population of the groups was arbitrary, but... " She paused. She looked around at the important people surrounding Donderon. Surella was reclined near the top of the fifteen steps of the pyramid. She seemed interested, as was Falleen, standing on the floor just to Crinn's right. "I would say, in the range of a million people per group." There was a noticeable increase of chitchat from the people lined up behind her to speak. "The Traditions also suggest a multiple layer of representation, Crinn added as an after thought.
"What exactly do you mean?" Donderon asked her, leaning forward.
"For instance, a group of one million could have, say, ten groups of one hundred thousand. Each group sends someone to vote for one from among them to represent the entire one million."
Crinn had several new, interesting ideas, but after a few minutes of enlightening conversation, Donderon abruptly changed the subject. "Would you care to join the Council and myself for dinner tonight?" Crinn was overjoyed. She had been traveling and collecting information for a long, lonely time and was about to see her efforts pay off in a way she had never expected.
"I would enjoy that very much, she answered. Donderon signaled for a guard to escort her to the Council chamber.
"Next" she announced with a renewed hope.
Surella spoke privately with all but two of the Council members. She expressed her concern about Donderon's handling of the appointment of Laton to Military Commander. They were eager to please Surella, and agreed to vote with her when she brought up the new rules. Sof, on the other hand, was a bit more difficult to convince.
"The helper woman follows her around everywhere, Surella said to her. Falleen has a lot of influence. What if she decided to oppose us?" Surella proposed. "Right now the Supreme Commander can do just about anything she pleases." Sof's countenance took on a grim cast. Falleen had no authority and accepted no responsibility, yet she had the ear of the Supreme Commander. The thought of her, or anyone else like her as the Supreme Commander gave her a sinking feeling. She finally and reluctantly agreed and Surella was left with just one more Council member to convince.
Xashwin was the last to join the Elder Ones a few short months ago. She was the youngest Elder, as she was from a pen in which the leader was chosen based on merit as opposed to status. Surella knew little about Xashwin and she was unsure that she could win her over.
Xashwin's pen was nearly an hour's journey at a normal walking pace, but Surella covered it in less than twenty-five minutes. As she neared the area, she slowed to catch her breath and compose her thoughts. Xashwin met her as she stepped through the hole in the wall. They exchanged greetings and made their way to the shelter constructed by her people for their leader. It was a single, long room, with an opening on each end. The floor was carved into benches on each long side, running the full length of the room. They stepped down and sat across from each other.
"What brings you, Second?" asked Xashwin. She was slender, about five and a half feet tall and had thick, curly, dark brown hair, which sat like a bush on her head. She was as pale in coloring as Surella, but covered from head to toe with a light sprinkling of freckles.
"I wanted to tell you about this myself," Surella said.
"What is it?" Xashwin asked with concern. Surella looked into her eyes and leaned in closer. She spoke softly.
"You are aware of the appointment of Laton to the position of Military Commander?" Xashwin nodded. "Are you aware that Donderon had no intention of allowing the Council to approve the decision?"
"Donderon is aware that we approve," Xashwin said. Surella sat up and returned to her normal conversational tone.
"But she has not consulted with us."
"That is merely a detail, Xashwin said, dismissing Surella's argument with a backhanded sweep through the air. Surella remained quiet for a moment. She looked away for a split second as a thought came to her.
"She is blurring the truth. Without fact of law a leader can simply dictate the perception of truth anyway she sees fit." She could not help a small smile as she sat waiting for Xashwin to respond. She was quite proud of the impressive statement.
"Have we elected law as Supreme Commander?" Xashwin said after a short flurry of thought. "Or, have we elected a woman of impeccable integrity, whom we trust to do the correct thing?"
"Can we trust her? Can we truly trust anyone?"
"Without trust, there would be no progress. Without trust, there is nothing." Xashwin stood up. "We have given the First One our trust, and I cannot take it back without a justified reason." Surella looked up at Xashwin who was glaring down at her as Donderon had done on a few occasions. "I am sorry Second, but I cannot be a part of anything which goes against what I perceive as the truth." Xashwin paused and then added, "You should go now." Surella was stunned. She wondered if Xashwin knew what she was trying to do.
"As you wish" Surella said resolutely. She stood up. "Although, I do not understand why you are taking such a strong position against change when change is in our nature." Xashwin could not believe that Surella was truly as misguided as she appeared.
"A change for worse is not in our interest."
"Agreed" said Surella tersely. "A change for the better is all that I am interested in." They looked at each other and Xashwin's frown was replaced with a mixture of distrust, and curiosity.
"Then why do you come here behind the Supreme Commanders back to build an alliance against her?" Someone had told her, but who? Sof? She figured it could have been almost any of the Council members. Whoever had told her was unimportant. This was her opportunity to move Xashwin, if not to her side, then at least away from Donderon's side.
"I am simply trying to present a united front against lopsided power. If the entire Council agrees on a few simple rules it will finally put to rest those possibilities." Xashwin frowned again.
"I am sorry, she said quietly. "Perhaps I am alone in my trust of Donderon."
"No, we all trust her to make the correct decisions, but what if she were no longer the Supreme Commander? If... I was elected, for instance. Would you not feel more comfortable with the situation knowing that I could not do as I pleased? That I would be governed, just as I would govern?" Perhaps she was getting through. Xashwin appeared to be considering the argument. "Keeping power in check is the duty of those who give it away, Surella said. She put her hand on Xashwin's shoulder. "Surely you understand my concern. Not because of Donderon, but because of those who may come later."
Xashwin glanced at Surella's arm and Surella removed it. Again they looked at each other. Xashwin's brows were lowered and her mouth was clamped tightly shut. Surella was playing the part of the concerned patriot, strictly by the Rules. The things she was learning from the satellite were becoming of greater importance than the things she had learned from her own mother. The Rules taught her how to do what she apparently did.
"I will remain open minded on this subject" Xashwin said quietly. "But, I will promise nothing more." She was frowning again. Surella nodded, doing her best to show concern on her face.
"That is all I ask, she said. They left the shelter and after a few goodbyes, Surella headed back for her own home. She had a smile for everyone she met along the way.
Falleen took great pleasure in making the Palace. When she finished the buildings, she landscaped a large garden area in which Donderon, the Council and their guests could enjoy themselves. It was twice as large as the Palace itself. She designed it with a complex maze of stone paths and lined the border with a knee high stonewall. Near the side closest to the water, Falleen designed a large, raised porch where people could congregate. In the center of the porch was a large rectangular table. It was a pleasant shade of green with a small square of black in the center and showed no visible means of support, hovering just two feet off the ground.
It was the day of the dinner. Donderon went to the garden dining table, asked for and instantly received a random menu with enough food for fourteen people. Out of apparent nothingness the table filled with fruits and vegetables prepared in a marvelous variety of styles. In the center were two large, oblong, green fruits. They were each over a foot long and one was sliced down the middle, revealing a pink, fibrous center. Around them were arranged a circle of large, orange berries, with their thin, five inch stems still attached. There were about fifty of them, all about the size of a fist. The rest of the table was covered in small fruits and vegetables in dishes keeping some hot and others cold, or even frozen. Arranged around the edge of the table as place settings, were fourteen large bowls. They were half filled with a thinly shredded, blood red leaf material.
When Crinn arrived in the garden setting, she was astonished. She had never seen food other than dead fish and grey Ma rations. The Council members were sitting on either side of the table with Surella at one end. She insisted that Donderon sit facing the setting sun and Donderon was happy to do so. Falleen was seated on Donderon's left and Crinn to her right. They ate and told each other stories for quite a long time, until eventually most of the Council left for the evening.
Donderon, Falleen, Surella, Laton, Sof, and Crinn were the ones who remained after the Orb sank into the Ocean. The area of and around the table was bathed in a pleasant yellow-orange light. Crinn told the others about some of her travels and a few of the people she had seen, and eventually she returned to her favorite subject, the Oral Tradition.
"What I have noticed, is various Oral Traditions have many of the same elements in common." She popped a small, red, frozen berry into her mouth and chewed it up. "Not only that" she added, still chewing on the icy berry, "but there appears to be a pattern based on location."
"What?" Falleen had followed her up to that point. She shifted from leaning on her right elbow to her left. Crinn looked at the women. They appeared to be listening to her, but from what she could see only Donderon, Laton and an apparently perplexed Falleen were paying attention. Sof seemed preoccupied with something small and shiny and Surella, she thought, was just not intelligent enough to follow the conversation. She underestimated her.
"Just as our languages are obviously derived from a mother tongue, our stories seem to be connected as well. Follow this, Crinn thought. There are a significant number of commonalities throughout. Religion for example." The interest of her audience appeared to increase at the mention of the word, just as she figured it would. "I have been to more than two hundred pens that have a spiritual mother figure. More than half of those have the same name for her." Crinn looked around at each woman again. "I would say that at least two of you pray to Mary." She counted the expressions on the faces of her audience. "More than two" she said.
Surella suddenly felt uncomfortable. She was the only one present who knew nothing about Mary, apparently one of the most influential people in history. There was no mention of Mary, or any other deity in her Oral Tradition, thus she had dismissed the subject as unimportant. Over the last few years she slowly became aware of Mary's influence and was interested in learning more, but had no way of doing it on her own.
"In every Oral Tradition I have encountered, there are stories about outer space" Crinn said, expanding the subject. "And of course, we are all aware of why we are here on Teteda-Ma." She looked directly at Donderon and continued. "I believe that the history of the human race is locked away in our various Oral Traditions."
"Would you propose that we relive our history?" Surella asked in disbelief. "Certainly our future is more important to even the smallest child." Donderon looked across the table at her. She had remained on the other side during the entire evening.
"What harm would it do to know our past?" Donderon asked. "We are all curious about who our ancestors were all those millennia ago."
"If we do not know of the mistakes of the past" Crinn said, "we will undoubtedly repeat them." Sof looked at her as though she had guessed some great secret.
"Where did you hear that?" Sof asked her. "There is such a phrase among my own people."
"There are many Traditions which have such a saying. Undoubtedly it comes from the before times."
"If the past can help us, then we must learn all that we can" Donderon announced. She paused thoughtfully and then added, "Would you accept a nomination to the Council to carry out such a mission?" This did not surprise Surella, but it made her angry nonetheless.
"Will you offer Elder status to all?" she asked loudly across the table. Donderon laughed while the others sat motionless, stunned by Surella's challenging outburst.
"I may offer Council membership to whomever I wish, Donderon said with a sharp grin. "However, as you all know, that is not my intention." She returned her gaze to Crinn. "Will you accept my offer?" she asked her quietly.
"I sure will" Crinn said quickly. "I would be honored to work under the command of the First One."
Surella vowed to herself that she would act as soon as possible. Another day or two may be too late, she thought. She would call a meeting of the Council for in the morning. There shall be no more oaths of allegiance to Donderon as far as Surella was concerned.
Later that night, she met with Laton, and they began to spread the word about the early morning meeting.
Donderon was sitting on the short wall that surrounded the Palace garden, watching the Ocean waves role in. The Orb had just risen, and was casting long shadows onto the Beach. The waves, now nearly half a foot high, were larger than they had been just a few days before. According to the SCI on the satellite, the strengthening winds were a sign of the coming change in the season. She knew that other things were changing as well. The tranquil mornings that she enjoyed would be ending soon, but she was content to enjoy them while they lasted.
There was something missing but Donderon could not place what it was. As she wondered about her feeling, Falleen approached her from the Palace.
"New day!" Falleen said with a big smile. It was a greeting she had heard a few years ago while visiting another pen and she was fond of using it. Donderon smiled at her but said nothing. Falleen stood next to her, taking in a deep breath. "Will you attend the meeting?" she asked casually.
"I have not decided," Donderon said. Two small children, one about eight years old and another a couple of years younger, ran hand in hand towards the Ocean from their right. They were laughing and yelling and Donderon and Falleen laughed too.
"Most of them have arrived" Falleen said. "I believe they are waiting for Xashwin... and you." She looked back at the kids, now playing in the surf. A few moments of peaceful silence passed.
"What are your plans for this fine day?" Donderon asked. Falleen stuck her arms up in the air and stretched, letting out a groan.
"I am going to the satellite to show Crinn and to set up our program." She turned towards the garden and walked to a nearby fruit tree. It was the tallest thing in the garden, well over twenty feet, and had sprouted thick green leaves, some as much as three feet long. She reached up and plucked one of its bright red fruits from a low hanging branch and bit into it. It was about three inches around and gushed a sweet pink juice that traveled down her chin. It was one of Falleen's favorites of those she had had a chance to try. Donderon turned to see what she was doing.
"What is that one called?" she asked her. Falleen shrugged. She knew a lot of new things, but not the names of the plants. She finished the fruit and tossed the remaining core of seeds onto the ground. Donderon had turned again towards the Beach.
"You know" Donderon said quietly. "It seems to me as though there is something missing."
"What exactly do you mean?" Falleen asked as she walked back to where Donderon was seated. She stood up as Falleen approached her.
"Something... " A memory of a story from childhood burst to the surface of her thoughts. Falleen watched as the realization crossed her face. Turning, Donderon headed for the Palace.
"What is it?" Falleen asked as she followed.
"Animals." Falleen knew what animals were but she did not understand the context.
"What about animals?"
"Do you not see?" Donderon asked emphatically. She stopped to face her. "We have everything except animals."
Falleen was a little disturbed. Donderon recognized her apprehension and took a step backward. She looked up into the sky. There were long, thin, wispy clouds, high up in the atmosphere.
"Except for the clouds, the sky is empty, she said calmly. She looked back at Falleen and then glanced around them. "This world is empty. There are no animals to bring it to life. Look at the garden." Falleen looked at the garden. "Three weeks ago... " Donderon's voice trailed off and she said nothing else. She turned around and headed off past the Palace towards the vehicle. Falleen stood watching her as she walked up to the vehicle and touched her hand to its top. A piece of it slid back to reveal the stark white interior. She stepped in, the door shut and the vehicle shot straight up and was gone from sight within a couple of seconds.
Surella was anxious to get the meeting started. She was hoping to begin before Donderon showed up, but they were still waiting for Xashwin to arrive. Xashwin's home pen was located further away from the Palace than any of the other members, so she was commonly the last to arrive.
"Could we not start without her?" asked Rinda. She was the seventh Elder. Surella shared her aggravation.
"No need to wait" said Xashwin, dashing into the room. She wore the wide smile the others had become accustomed to seeing on her.
"Good" said Surella. "Now that we are all here... " She watched as Xashwin took her place. "Some of you have expressed a concern about this unscheduled meeting." She began pacing the golden floor of the Council chamber, cool and smooth on her stone hardened feet. "You all know that as Second I can call you when the need arises and I believe this is such an occasion." She stopped her pacing and faced the doorway leading to the audience room. "Let me put your fears to rest, right now." She whirled around. "Donderon is fully aware of this meeting. We are not here to tie her hands, quite the contrary. We are here to set some specific guidelines for the Supreme Commander, as well as the Council on certain... difficult subjects." She smiled. It was just as she had planned. The Council sat watching her, taking in what she said, waiting for her to continue. Her eyes came to rest on Sof. "Some of you... " She glanced at Xashwin for a split second and then began her pacing again. " ... would be content to allow the Supreme Commander to make arbitrary decisions, with no guidelines for her to follow. But given the option of allowing anyone who occupies the position to do as she wishes, or setting down a few common sense rules... " She stopped to look at the people milling about in the audience room. "I believe we agree on the matter now."
"Can we please proceed?" Rinda said tersely.
"Certainly" Surella said with her teeth showing. "The rules that I have in mind are simple." She moved to the center of the circle. The Council watched as she continued with her recitation. "There are three basic categories. Judgments. Laws. And appointments. I will discuss them one at a time.
"As you know, sometimes authorities must decide on a problem between two women. We have not had to deal with anything like this between two separate authorities, but the day will come, I am sure of it." She paused a moment to let that sink in. "Who will judge?" she asked. "The Supreme Commander? Would that not prove too much of a burden." Surella paused her presentation. Most of the Council quietly waited for her to continue. Sof was preoccupied with some other thoughts, Rinda was fidgeting in her place and Xashwin was looking at the floor tracing lines with her slender index finger.
"I propose that we appoint a judge, whose only duty is to decide on these types of matters. I propose that the Supreme Commander make a nomination and that at least eight of the original Elder Ones approve for the nomination to go through." Xashwin looked up from the ground.
"Would this be limited to problems between people from different homes?" asked Loove. Loove was the fourth to join Surella's Elder Ones.
"No" answered Surella, "she would also be responsible for a decision on any matter between a woman and the government and... " She took a breath. "Or between two or more members of the government."
"That seems like quite a lot of power for one person to have" Xashwin finally said.
"What would you suggest?" Surella asked her politely.
"Maybe a panel of judges." A few of the others nodded in agreement.
"That is a good idea, said Loove. "How many do you think?" Xashwin shrugged.
"Seven" Sof spoke up. All of the Council members looked at her.
"Why seven?" Surella asked.
"There will be no split decisions that way, Xashwin answered for her.
"Right" Sof agreed readily. Surella saw that most of them seemed to like the idea.
"Very well" she said. A panel of seven judges. Are there any questions?" Surella winced. Donderon often used that phrase to put a subject up for a vote and now, unconsciously, she had used it herself. No one said anything and she went on to the next subject.
"Next is laws, she said. "We will eventually need to create laws that cover all women if we wish to maintain any sort of order to our existence. When that time comes I think that power should rest in the hands of the Council alone." Several of the Elders were obviously disturbed by that statement but Xashwin did not seem to be one of them. "I propose that anyone should be allowed to offer an idea for consideration but at least three fifths of the full Council must agree to pass it into law."
"Anyone?" asked Xashwin suspiciously.
"Right. Anyone." Xashwin had been weary of Surella's unscheduled meeting, but so far she was relieved by what she had heard. Surella's ideas were not what she expected and they were actually thoughtful as well as practical.
"I think that is a good idea, Xashwin said. Surella could not help but wonder at her sincerity.
"Thank you Xashwin. Does anyone disagree with the idea?" No one spoke.
"Right, and now the final subject." Surella sat down in the center of the circle. "Personally, I believe ten Elders is ideal, but some of you disagree. So now we have the potential for new Elders. The Supreme Commander nominates anyone she cares to and the sitting Council must agree one hundred percent to approve her." She looked at the group. They were all waiting for her to continue. "I propose that we settle on a number and not allow the Council to grow beyond that."
"And what number do you suggest?" Loove asked.
"According to Crinn, as you all no doubt heard, a number like sixty or seventy would be in accordance with the Wisdom of the Ancients." Xashwin was surprised and she showed it. She had expected Surella to say twenty at the most but not sixty or seventy.
"I think that sounds like the right amount, said Loove.
"So do I" agreed Karna. Surella looked at Xashwin, who was studying her.
"What do you think Xashwin?" Surella asked as she leaned forward. Xashwin blinked her eyes, clearing her head of surprise.
"Sixty sounds fine to me, she answered. Surella produced a wide smile.
"Excellent" she said quietly. "Anyone disagree?" she asked of the women. "If everyone agrees, we will go with sixty." Everyone seemed to be in agreement.
"Now, there is one more thing. I feel that allowing only the Supreme Commander to nominate Council members leaves the Council far too vulnerable." She saw Xashwin watching her as if she were waiting for something to happen. "I feel that we should change that to allow the seated Council to nominate."
"If we do that" Xashwin said with a sly smile, thinking she had finally seen through Surella's plan, "we must keep the one hundred percent criteria."
"I agree, said Karna. The others followed along.
"Very well" said Surella. "May I suggest that we put these rules on a higher level than common laws." She paused to watch their reactions. This, she thought, was the key to everything. "If we set a unanimous criteria on these rules as well, we can be assured they will stand." She stood up. Most of them seemed pleased with her proposal. Xashwin, however, was not smiling. "Does everyone agree?" Surella asked. She looked about the room at the women. All of them, including Xashwin acknowledged her with a nod. Surella smiled. "That is all I have then. Thank you."
At that very moment, as though following a plan, there was a loud screeching sound that issued through the door and broke the relative quiet of the room.
"What was that?" Surella asked.
"Look!" shouted Talk as she dashed out the doorway, pointing into the air. The women filed out of the room onto the Beach. There were a few hundred people already gathered there gazing at the sky. Looking up, they saw what captured the crowds attention.
There were ten or twelve winged creatures flying in a loose V formation about fifty feet over the water. They were each about a foot long and their coloring was mostly white with grey on their heads, and backs. They dove and climbed in unison, performing rudimentary aerial acrobatics as the people ooed and ahhed. Finally, after a few minutes the birds completely disappeared from view down the shore in the morning sky.
It was two days until the next scheduled meeting of the Council of Elders, during which Donderon would be able to put up her nominations for membership. Before that time Donderon wanted Falleen to introduce Crinn to the satellite, to let her start on her project. Upon arriving, Crinn was amazed at everything she saw. The wonders of the satellite kept her breathless for most of her time aboard. Like Donderon, she too passed through the corner twice. Falleen introduced her as a Council nominee to the satellite Commander as they met in the passageway. It was a brief encounter, but long enough for Falleen to note that Besfa appeared uncomfortable, despite her cordial demeanor.
"You cannot be telling the whole truth, Crinn said to Falleen. They stood in front of the open door of the tertiary SCI monitor. She peered in at the single spot of light in the center of the room.
"I am" said Falleen. "Should I show you how?"
"No." Crinn looked down at her feet as she timidly placed one into the room. After a moment to experience the sensation of the carrier force, she placed the other foot through the door. The invisible support was enough to give her the confidence to eventually let go of the doorframe. As she floated in and her head finally entered the room, she was completely enclosed. She puzzled at the odd experience. Her face was covered with something, yet she was not at all smothered by it. "Fantastic!" she shouted as she reached the center. A look of complete relaxation immediately crossed her face. Her eyelids fluttered and drooped, almost completely closing.
As she had reached the light and let out her exclamation, it erupted into countless bright points, which in turn multiplied and multiplied again, until a pure white light surrounded her. Crinn perceived an incredible expansion within her mind. It was as though her head, except for her face, was ballooning up and filling with space for thoughts. The entire event, up to that point, took less than a quarter of a second. In these first moments, her thoughts were focused on the incredible feelings of detachment and awareness. She wanted to know how it worked. She immediately began receiving the answer.
She was flowing along a thought trail. She realized it was coming from outside of her but it seemed to be in her own mind, as though she were having the thought herself. She became aware of an energy bathing her body. It was her connection to the computer and she knew she was reaching her consciousness out through that energy. If she traveled back down into the confines of her mind the connection would cease. It was not time for that.
For a moment there was another presence that seemed to disappear at the very instant that she detected it. The information as to who or what was limited to the knowledge that the SCI tertiary monitor was subject to observation from the other two higher level monitors. Well, even so, she thought, she was having a superb time.
Falleen, meanwhile, went to the surface conditions control to set up the program that she and Donderon had discussed earlier in the week. It was to operate the dwelling maker, creating one million homes, along with the needed infrastructure, in a place on the coast about sixty miles south.
Falleen noticed that the climate control and foliage/creature creators were operating. It was of a Ma design, developed to remake a planet to their suiting, generally coinciding with human habitat. The SCI informed her that the program consisted of four parts, and that it would be a little less than a year before phase one was complete. The next major event on its schedule was rain. Falleen asked to see rain, but the computer had no record of it in its memory. When she insisted, however, the SCI showed her its best approximation. She was flabbergasted. She could see, as though she were there, a field of long, green grass with rain pouring down. She looked up at a single, massive, black cloud as it slowly turned in a thick, seething circle. She was amazed at the staggering amount of water gushing from the dark sky.
After enjoying the continuous cycle of computer generated rain for a short while, Falleen turned her attention to her original task. To begin with, she accessed the files of human habitat that the Ma made in the time prior to the destruction of Sol. The records were extensive, covering every micro and macro detail. Everything Falleen needed was available to her. Construction designs, as well as all of the furnishings, vegetation, communications networks and lighting and heating/cooling technology were there for her use.
She accessed the human habitat files using the satellite's dwelling creator. It led her, step by step, through the process. She picked a few three, four and five room plans and a few ten and twelve room plans for those who preferred larger accommodations. She chose layouts for parks, transportation infrastructure and mass transit terminals and then several basic neighborhood layouts. Afterwards, all of her choices set, the automatic program asked if she would prefer to substitute more advanced technology where available. She agreed, and the dwelling creator began its mission. The SCI informed her that it would take thirteen days to finish the entire job, but that the first neighborhood of one hundred buildings would be ready in four hours.
Sof wanted a private meeting with the Supreme Commander. She asked Falleen to relay her request for her and Donderon agreed to see her during her breakfast the following morning. When the appointed time arrived, Sof made her way to the garden where Donderon ate her first daily meal. It was the day before the next scheduled meeting of the Council. Orb rise was yet half an hour away.
A soft, yellow light bathed the porch where Donderon was seated. She wore a small fabric pouch, which hung from a string tied around her waist. In the pouch was the stone that the little girl, Rees had chosen for her. She also had the white bolt of fabric over her shoulders, which she had taken to wearing whenever she left the Palace. Sof watched from a respectful distance as Donderon peeled the outer layer off of a large, round, orange fruit.
"Good morning" Donderon said after she noticed Sof standing quietly just outside the circle of light. The word morning, used by some of the local people, was new to Donderon. She enjoyed using new words whenever she could. "Would you care to join me?"
"Thank you" Sof answered demurely. She sat facing Donderon at the low, round table, picked up one of several large, orange fruits that littered the table and began to peel it.
"How can I help you? Donderon asked her. Sof swallowed a piece of fruit and looked across the table at her Supreme Commander.
"My religious leader has put a question to me that I think should be addressed as soon as possible." Donderon, having finished her fruit, picked up another and began the peeling process over again. "She is interested to know what your decision will be."
"About an official religion."
"Yes, First One" Sof answered. She had assumed that the Supreme Commander would know what she was talking about. She was surprised that it appeared she did not. Donderon considered the question for several seconds as they finished their fruit.
"I do not think that I want to make that sort of decision, Donderon finally said. "I am afraid that my knowledge on the subject is far too limited."
"But you are the Supreme Commander and the First One" Sof said emphatically. "It is not only your privilege but, if I may say, it is your duty to lead the people in the right direction." Donderon took on the manner of a woman bewildered.
"What is the right direction, Sof?" she asked.
"Our Holy Mother Mary" Sof answered without hesitation.
"And what of the trouble within your church?" Donderon asked her. Sof wondered to whom she had been talking.
"Perhaps you should ask the Dow that question, Sof finally answered.
"Perhaps I should."
"She is In The Dark today, but if you go to her she will see you."
"Then, we should go now" Donderon said, rising to her feet. Sof's thoughts wavered between speaking and rising. Donderon waited for her to figure out what to do. After a moment, she stood to follow and they left the garden.
As they traveled the sun was beginning to light up the morning sky. Donderon saw that the clouds appeared larger than usual. They were tall and fluffy, with a noticeably darker color than before.
"It will rain in about three weeks, she proclaimed. Sof looked over at her.
"Rain? What is that?" Donderon had assumed that everyone knew what rain was from the Oral Traditions.
"Water from the sky" Donderon answered as a matter of fact. "Those clouds are water" she added. She knew that very few were aware of that. "In a few weeks, they will fall to the ground." Sof's mouth dropped open as she gawked up at the clouds.
When they were approaching her home, Sof explained that Donderon would have to wait outside the sanctuary for a few moments.
"When you enter, do not speak until spoken to." That was something she hadnt done in a couple of decades.
"Alright" Donderon said cheerfully. They entered Sof's home. There were about half a dozen people that Donderon could see and on the other side of the compound was what appeared to be a large mound of dirt and rocks. It was in the area of thirty feet across and as high as the wall. Perhaps it was a ramp, thought Donderon. As Sof led her towards the mound, she could see a hole in the right side. She saw that there were no jagged stones surrounding the pen area, as they appeared to be gathered up in this unique mound.
"What is it?" Donderon asked as they stopped near the hole in its side.
"Sanctuary" Sof answered quietly. "Wait here." She got down on her hands and knees and crawled into the hole.
While waiting, Donderon took the time to examine her surroundings more closely. There was a single, large shelter over to one side of the pen and two much smaller ones on the other side. The larger one was constructed using a new way. It was made of single pieces of deconstructed wall instead of the usual stacks of pieces. This enabled the builders to construct the shelter quite high. There was a door on one side, and through it she could see another directly opposite. As she studied the area, she noticed that the people had stopped whatever they were doing and along with several more who had come out of their shelters, were now watching her. Sof crawled back out of the sanctuary.
"The Dow is ready to see you" Sof said while brushing the dirt from her knees. Donderon knelt down and crawled in through the dark hole. Inside the mound, she saw nothing. She felt the floor angling downwards in front of her and when she reached a relatively level spot, she sat up. There was a whispering coming from in front of her. The words seemed to blend together and were obviously in a language that she did not understand. Donderon remembered what Sof had told her and remained silent. After a few seconds, the whispering stopped and a throat was cleared.
"First One" said the voice in a quiet, conversational tone.
"Yes." Donderon detected youthfulness in the strangers voice.
"I am Dow of the Church of the Holy Mother Mary, the stranger said. "You may call me Saffer. It is a pleasure to finally meet you." Donderon was disturbed by the almost absolute darkness; she wanted to see who was speaking to her.
"A pleasure" Donderon said brightly.
"Sof has told me that you are here about the trouble in our church."
"Are you aware that there are certain militant minded groups threatening to disrupt the conversion of the people?" the Dow asked her.
"Militant?" She had not heard that derivative of the word before.
"They are prepared to do whatever it takes to attain the power that rightfully belongs to the church leadership. I understand that they are receiving guidance from the satellite itself."
"What sort of guidance?" Donderon urgently asked. She squinted, trying to see the Dow.
"Unfortunately, I do not know. What I do know is that they are over three thousand strong." That would certainly cause trouble, Donderon thought.
"Can you tell me who these people are, or where they are?" Donderon asked.
"I only know that they are ready and soon will be able to carry through with their intentions."
Donderon considered the problem for a moment. The Dow was surely holding back. She certainly knew who some of these people were, otherwise how would she know there was a threat?
"I understand that you are interested in having your church recognized by the government."
"We are prepared to offer you the full backing of the Church of the Holy Mother Mary and all of Her followers. All we ask for is that you, as the Supreme Commander recognize that we are the only church." Donderon wondered about what this "full backing" entailed.
"Tell me about your church" Donderon said. Saffer shifted her position.
"Our tradition descends directly from the ancients of Sol." Her voice was at a noticeably higher point in the room than it had been a moment before. "Mary was the incarnate form of God, who saved all of humankind from eternal damnation eight thousand years before our captivity." Donderon shifted her position trying to compensate for the difference in height. "We believe in a life after death of eternal bliss for the righteous and eternal suffering for the unrighteous."
"I was taught that death ends it. You do not believe it is so?"
"We are beings of energy and as such cannot truly die. It is a simple fact that energy only changes from one form to another. Have you not been taught this?"
"I have never associated it with myself."
"There lies the very reason for the church's existence. There are several tens of thousands of us who feel a duty to teach others but we are not very organized. That is where the Supreme Commander can help us."
"And if I recognize your church and your Holy Mother Mary, you would be the leader of this new official church."
"Correct. With the strength of the government behind us, it would be a simple matter to remove our obstacles." They were strong words and their meaning was a little too vague for Donderon's comfort but she did not have the time to follow up. She had an idea and had little personal time remaining.
"Thank you Dow Saffer. I must go now, but I will send word within a day or two."
"Very good. And may the Spirit of Mother Mary guide you in your decision." Donderon exited the sanctuary and Sof met her as she stood.
"Well...?" She asked. Donderon dusted off her backside and legs.
"I want to hear the words of these threatening groups with my own ears. Do you know where I can find them?" Sof appeared shaken by the question. Her eyes widened and she took Donderon's arm, leading her away from the mound. A few seconds passed as they crossed the pen and then she finally spoke.
"This must remain a secret between us alone" Sof whispered. She looked straight into Donderon's eyes, something she had never done before. "Do you promise?" There was a touch of fear in her voice.
"Yes" Donderon answered somberly. She had hoped Sof would be more forthcoming than Dow Saffer.
"Then I will take you there."
After about ten minutes of walking, Sof led Donderon off the beaten path. They climbed onto a wall and walked along its top for the length of three pens. When they climbed down, Donderon noticed the pen they entered had no holes in its walls. There was a ten foot wide, three foot deep ditch dug around the inside of the entire pen, right up against the wall. Donderon had an hint of its purpose as they scurried up the side of the ditch into the main area of the pen. There were at least ten small shelters scattered about the area and one larger shelter in the center. She noted the absence of anyone in the open space between the buildings.
Sof led her up to the larger shelter and pounded on the wall next to the door with the heel of her hand. The shelter was about fifteen feet high and looked to be at least thirty feet on each side. It covered a remarkable amount of space. The rugged doorway was blocked by a single roof square. It like all the other composite squares. It was dark brown in color and looked as if it had been woven from cords of fibers. Donderon could see over the makeshift door. There was white light inside. White light could only mean one thing. She wondered if that was one of the things they received guidance on.
Sof pounded on the doorway again. A moment later the brown square moved aside enough for an eye to peer out at them. A stern question, in an unknown language escaped the doorway. Sof answered and while obviously less proficient than the person inside, the door quickly slid to the side to allow them passage.
Once inside the source of the light was revealed. There were several sources of brightness scattered about in the ceiling. It was apparent to Donderon that these people had somehow come up with a dp/cf device. That was something she knew she would eventually have to contend with.
Sof and the woman who had answered the door conversed as Donderon examined the shelter space. It was a single room with a ten-foot high ceiling. She figured there was a second level above them since outside the building was much higher. It was the single largest hand fashioned room that she had ever seen. There were four pillars of stacked stone, placed about the room in strategic locations, supporting the vast ceiling. Donderon was suitably impressed.
Standing on either side of the doorway through which she and Sof had entered the room were two large women. To the right of the door was a foot high pile of stones. There were jagged ones and smooth ones alike. In the back of the room was a group of women. Donderon counted close to twenty women in the group. They were sitting along the wall on a mound of dirt, listening as another woman spoke. This woman paced back and forth in front of them, quite animated in her gestures. The woman Sof had spoken to went over to the woman talking to the group and whispered something in her ear.
"That is Umbobo" Sof said. "She is their leader." She squinted to see the women to whom Umbobo was speaking. "I think those are the leaders of the individual pen groups." The woman whom Sof had spoken to turned to speak to the group of women as Umbobo strode over to meet her guests.
"First One. This is my true honor" Umbobo said in the common language. She stuck out her hand. Donderon took it and Umbobo shook her hand vigorously. "Sof" Umbobo said to Sof in greeting.
"It is a pleasure to meet you Umbobo" Donderon said.
"You have come directly from a conference with the Dow Saffer" Umbobo said with a big smile. Donderon nodded and Umbobo continued. "I am sure that she has told you of the great threat that our organization poses." She paused to watch for a reaction, maintaining her smile. "Let me assure you Commander, our intentions are to be simply included."
"Saffer told me your group was prepared to do whatever is necessary to accomplish your goals." Umbobo threw her head back and laughed. She was as black as the night sky and nearly as tall as Donderon. She appeared quite strong and could not have been over the age of thirty. Her thick, black hair was tied into fifty or sixty intricate, cord like lengths that dangled around her shoulders. Her mouth, encircled by thick black lips, seemed to cut her head in half as she let out her guffaw.
"I trust that Saffer was quite sincere in her condemnation of our little group" Umbobo said, finally suppressing her amusement. "But, if you want to speak with our leaders... " Umbobo stretched her arm out towards the group of women she had been speaking to. They were all watching them. "I am sure you will find that we have a legitimate request." Donderon and Umbobo crossed the room. "These are the leaders of twenty three of the thirty two pens included in our group. We are prepared to fight to keep what is ours, but I am sure it will not come to that. All we ask is that we have a say in the direction of the church."
The problem that Donderon was facing was beginning to make itself clear. This group represented some thirty two thousand people. The numbers mentioned by Saffer were ten times less. If she had decided to recognize the Dow's church, there could have been a serious problem with Umbobo and her people. The fact that there were two churches, both teaching the same things, but completely opposed to each other made no scene to Donderon. As it was, she thought she might have an answer. She crossed her arms.
"We know that the Dow Saffer has asked you to recognize her organization as the official church of the government. All we ask for is inclusion." Donderon looked at the women seated in front of her. There were women of various shapes, sizes and colors. She thought she recognized one or two of them, but was not sure.
"What do you think would be appropriate?" Donderon asked.
"We require an equal voice in the church, Umbobo said. "Without that... " She looked around at the women, then back at Donderon. "Without a voice, we would have no choice but to back another authority." Donderon hoped Umbobo did not mean that, but she knew she did. She uncrossed her arms. She had heard enough. Her mind was made up.
"I assure you, here and now, that you will have a voice, Donderon said addressing the group of women. "I am prepared to recognize a new, official church that will have you... " She looked at Umbobo, "as co-leader with Dow Saffer." The women seemed to like that, as they began to excitedly discuss amongst themselves. Umbobo smiled.
"That is very satisfactory, she said as she put her hand on Donderon's shoulder. That afternoon, after Donderon returned to the Palace and finished a few hours of the now obligatory audience, she sent messengers to Umbobo and the Dow, asking them to come to the Palace the next morning.
It was the morning of the scheduled meeting of the Council of Elders. The Council was seated in their chamber listening to Donderon as she spoke. "I am here to offer the name of Crinn, the researcher for a vote. You are all aware of her abilities and ambitions, and I hope you will vote in favor of membership." She looked over at Surella, standing at one side of the Council, who took her queue and headed for the center of the room.
"Crinn is nominated for membership in the Council, she said. She took Donderon's place and all eyes were on her. "Would anyone like to speak?" she asked the Council.
"I have spoken to Crinn" said Laton, "and I am satisfied that she would make a beneficial addition to the Council." She looked up at Surella. They had discussed the nomination more than once over the last few days. Surella said that she was prepared to vote in favor of the nominee but wished that Donderon were elsewhere. She was anxious that Donderon had grasped the significance of Crinn's research before she had. For Surella, the importance of knowing the mistakes made in the past was a concept that she was slow in understanding. The fact that Donderon knew instinctively what to do added to her now growing belief that she should not have backed her for Supreme Commander. The task of replacing her was appearing to be more and more difficult as time went on.
"I call for a vote, Xashwin said. Surella looked around at each of the Council members.
"Then let us put it to a vote" she said. "Is there anyone opposed to this nomination?" She waited a few seconds. "There you have it." She nodded to the Palace guard blocking the entrance from the audience room. The guard whirled around and disappeared from view.
The audience room was packed with people, many of whom were wearing a garment of one sort or another. Donderon noticed this and thought it seemed somewhat out of the ordinary. A few seconds passed and then in stepped Crinn. She wore nothing but a smile as she made her way to the center of the room. The guard, along with another entered the room after her. They were carrying between them a stone similar in size and shape to those that the Council used to sit on. They placed the stone carefully on the ground in a space that had been prepared between Laton and Xashwin, the first and the latest members of the Council.
"Crinn" said Surella. "Donderon, the First One, Supreme Commander of the new military, on behalf of the people of Teteda-Ma, has nominated you to a position on the Council of Elders." She paused to allow the drama to build. "Do you accept membership, and all rights and duties associated with the position?"
"Yes I do, Second" answered Crinn in her most reverential speaking voice.
"Then take your place in the circle" Surella swung her arm out towards the new stone. Crinn quietly took her place on it.
"Welcome Crinn" Donderon said.
"Welcome Crinn" the Council repeated in unison.
"And now we will adjourn to the audience room" Surella announced. The women stood, and one by one, in ascending order of seniority, entered the audience room. Surella followed the Council. There she climbed the stairs of the pyramid to the top. The Council moved into a semi-circle formation around the front of the pyramid on the grass floor.
Donderon heard an odd sound. After a few puzzled moments, she was able to attribute the sound to the entire crowd slapping their hands together. It was an apparent substitute for the cheering and hollering that usually highlighted the audience's favorite parts. The slapping sound died off for a short time as Surella made a boring speech about the importance and usefulness of the government. She next spoke of Crinn's induction into the Council and the fact that the new military would be commissioned within the week. Those final two subjects elicited an enthusiastic response.
Surella concluded her speech by introducing Donderon, who entered the room to a customary ovation. She headed for the front of the pyramid, shaking a few hands and greeting dozens of people by name as she proceeded. After a minute, during which the ovation quieted little, she bounded up the stairs. As the crowd that filled the audience room finally caught a glimpse of their leader, they exploded. The addition of clapping hands gave the sound of the ovation a whole new timbre. At the top of the pyramid she held her arms up and out, waving her hands in greeting to the crowd.
After less than a minute, Donderon began to speak. The crowd, having quieted only slightly by then, quickly settled down to hear what she was saying.
"Have you seen the birds? Our world is coming to life." She walked down a few steps to get closer to them. "Less than four years from now we will have a lush green planet on which to live out our free lives." She spotted Umbobo in the crowd. Several women who were apparently there to keep others away surrounded her. She wore a robe of dark green, with intricate designs of yellow bordering the collar and cuffs. "In less than two weeks we will have one million buildings ready for occupation and we will be making more." She stepped down a few more steps to stand behind the new Council member. She rested her left hand on Crinn's shoulder. "Crinn the researcher will be in need of assistants. And under her guidance, those of you who wish to learn the wisdom of the ancients, history, science, and anything else that we can learn, will become members of the Information Committee.
"As you are all aware" she said, returning to the top of the pyramid, "the military will be activated in a short while, but we have already been delivered from our enemies. So, I am going to direct the military to explore the galaxy. To this end, we need volunteers to fill the various positions on the space ships. We have only enough people to fill out the crews of a few ships, so any of you who are willing, there is room for you all."
She looked about at the people in the room, who were eagerly awaiting her next statement. She could see through the ten foot square door to the Beach where there was a huge crowd straining to hear her words. She wondered why there could not be some sort of device that would carry her voice to them. She made a mental note to check into it.
"Today" Donderon finally said, "I have called the Dow Saffer and Umbobo here to unite the Church of the Holy Mother Mary." A noticeable commotion broke out in the audience to Donderon's left. There, surrounded by several obviously irate women in white, long sleeved robes, was an old woman, wearing a small, white, ragged cloth on her bald head. The old woman, also dressed in a white, long sleeved robe, stood motionless with her gaze fixed on Donderon. She wondered if that old woman was the Dow. She had sounded so much younger than she looked now. After the noise subsided, Donderon continued.
"Today and forever after, the official church will be known as the First One's Church of the Holy Mother Mary. The Dow and Umbobo will be co-leaders." The crowd took this announcement in and after a few seconds the cheering began. It started sporadically, but within a minute the entire crowd was cheering.
"First One! First One!" they chanted. It was a magical moment for Donderon. She felt the adoration of the crowd almost as a physical force; like a gentle breeze on her face. It reminded her of the first moment that she was higher than the wall. That breeze was something she would never forget. These moments in front of her people were incredible as well. She knew no one else in the world could feel what she was feeling at that moment. She stood on the pyramid, watching the people celebrate, absorbing their adoration.
At that same instant, Jer was making his way through the crowd on the Beach. He had plans to see a girl he met earlier in the week. Until then, he was searching for something that a friend had told him of. He thought it might occupy his time. His friend, Bond who was a couple of years his junior, told him that there were people from far away telling stories. He thought that this was nothing special since he had seen story tellers many times before, but these tellers, Bond said, showed the stories.
As he approached the area of the Beach that Bond had directed him to, he spotted several people about a hundred feet away, towering over the crowd gathered around them. They were wearing colorful clothes and walking around in a confined space. As he got closer, he could see that they were on top of some type of platform. It was about three feet off the sandy ground. Hundreds of people, mostly children were watching the storytellers and thoroughly enjoying themselves. One of the storytellers was sitting with her legs hanging over the front edge of the platform. She spoke loudly. Her four partners appeared to be acting out the story as she told it. When he got close enough to hear what the speaker was saying, he instantly recognized the story as one that he had heard since before he could remember. It was a story about a child who leaves home at a very young age and encounters a myriad of strange and delightful characters.
"Lees saw the house of the Matter, the teller said. The actor in the role of Lees feigned intense surprise. The crowd of young children laughed with delight. "It was a very small house, said the teller. "It was too small for Lees to enter." Lees, wearing a bright, powder blue, sleeveless robe, got down on her hands and knees. Another actor, a smaller woman, wearing a white, sleeveless robe made a square with her thumbs and forefingers, and then positioned the square in front of Lees' face. Lees closed one eye and peered through the square. "Inside" continued the teller, "she could see the tiny tables and chairs of the Matter." A third actor, on the other side of the platform, wearing a sleeveless robe with thick, alternating horizontal stripes of red, yellow, and orange, sat with her legs crossed. She glanced in the direction of the first two actors and erupted with overdramatic fear. "She saw the Matter inside too" said the teller. "And the Matter was afraid." Jer was amused but uninterested. He heard the story many times and considered it a children's story. He was no child, no matter what anyone else said.
On the other side of the actors platform, he spotted another gathering of people. Slowly, he made his way towards them. As he approached, he saw that there were children closer to his own age watching the lone figure in the center of the gathering. She was tall, very attractive, and wore a long sleeved, white robe. She spoke in a loud, deliberate manner, gesturing wildly now and then to emphasize selected words. Jer wanted to hear what she was saying and he moved closer.
The area around her was filled with four or five rows of people who were seated on the ground. They smiled up at her, watching her performance with anticipation. Behind them was the standing crowd. Their expressions varied, but they were obviously apart from those who were seated. The woman was speaking directly to those who were standing.
"The essence of woman, without moving, is quicker than the mind she was saying. She moves, and She moves not. She is far, and She is near. She is within all, and She is outside all." Jer had never heard anything like this before. His curiosity drew him closer.
"One who sees all beings within herself, and herself in all beings, loses all fear" said the woman. Jer understood that. It sounded like common sense to him, but their expressions, ranging from amusement to disbelief, showed him that the crowd did not see it.
"The sun" the orator said, gesturing towards the Orb. "The life giving sun, offspring of creation, spreading its light so that we may see the essence of our Mother. Far away within it is our own innermost spirit." Jer was increasingly intrigued by the woman's words. "Behold the universe in the glory of the Mother, she shouted with a sudden flurry of arms, and white sleeves. "Leave this transient world and find joy in the eternal!" The seated crowd began to clap their hands together. The woman in the center bowed to her patrons and began speaking again as the applause ended.
"Who among you has not found the essence of the Holy Mother Mary within your own soul?" she asked. She scanned the standing crowd, apparently awaiting a response. "She is everywhere, waiting for you to call her into your heart of hearts." She focused on someone and then excitedly said, "Yes, come forward friend and receive the blessings of our Mother." After a second or two, a young woman, around sixteen, or eighteen years old, stepped forward through those seated, into the center of the crowd. The woman in the white robe took both of her hands and said, "Are you ready to accept the spirit of the Holy Mother Mary into your heart of hearts my child?" The younger woman nodded. Jer noticed that the girl was crying and he was hardly able to subdue his laughter. "Then open your heart my dear. Open your heart and let the love of the Mother of us all in." The older woman was beginning to cry along with the girl. Jer's interest was waning. A group of crying women was the last thing that he wanted to be around.
There must be something he could do. His thoughts turned to the military and his desire to go on an expedition, but he had been told that he would have to grow for a couple of years. He thought that was silly, since he was the largest person anyone had ever seen. A few weeks ago, the satellite implanted a nutritional device and since then he had not been quite as hungry as he was since reaching puberty. How much more did they want him to grow before he could join?
Later in the evening, when he met his date at the newest hole in the Last Wall, they each ate a fish he caught and specially prepared. Afterwards, they strolled along the Beach. The sun was on the horizon, throwing a golden-orange hue into the sky. It was a beautiful scene. Chedra asked him about his adventures aboard the satellite and he was happy to tell her. After a few minutes, as they walked arm in arm, they encountered a crowd of people watching the storytellers. The story was an apparent original and unknown to either of them. Jer and Chedra made their way to the middle of the crowd, close enough to get a good look at the actors.
"The hero struck down her enemies, shouted the teller. The five actors were running around in the confines of the platform, pretending to hit each other. After a few moments, only one remained standing. She turned towards the audience, placed her hands on her hips and struck a triumphant pose. The crowd cheered. "The hero of the battle was ready to return home, said the teller.
"I will go home now, said the actor playing the hero. The sun had sunk below the horizon and the sky was turning a deep, bright pink. The hero sat down next to the narrator on the edge of the platform.
"She boarded her space ship" the teller said, "and headed home."
"Return home" commanded the hero. She slowly rose up off the platform and began to float around above them. The crowd let out a unified gasp.
"How do they do that?" Chedra asked in a whisper.
"The carrier force" Jer guessed. The hero zoomed over their heads in a seated position, as though she were riding an invisible vehicle. Jer wondered how the power of the satellite could reach from the sky to the ground.
"Suddenly" shouted the teller, "the space ship crashed." The hero, expressing profound concern on her face, plummeted towards the platform. As she descended she let out a yell and then, gently landing flat on the floor, rolled a few times to add drama to the event. "She was stranded on a wild planet, with no way home, said the teller. The hero stood back up, holding her arm as though it were disabled.
"Where am I?" she asked. "How do I get home now?" The sun was completely gone and the color of the sky was fading, quickly turning from dark blue to black. The actor was seen as a silhouette to the audience.
"The hero was alone, without her space ship to take her home" said the teller. The hero squatted, and wrapped her arms around herself. After a few moments a small, yellow light slowly activated, illuminating her. "She was resigned to her fate, said the teller.
"I am resigned to my fate, the actor repeated.
"Suddenly" the teller shouted again, "a huge monster came to eat her." As she spoke the light flickered followed by several bright flashes and a loud, roaring sound. The crowd screamed and drew back as the hero cowered, covering her head with her arms, stepping back towards the front of the platform. A cloud of white burst over the stage and rolled out over the audience. A bright, white light flashed on behind the platform. Between the light and the hero, was a large, shadowy creature. It was at least ten feet tall, and half that wide.
"Please do not eat me!" shouted the hero. "I have survived a horrific battle, only to be stranded on this terrible planet."
"The hero pleaded for her life, said the teller. "She told of her horrific battle, hoping that the monster would show her some charity."
"You may live, boomed a voice louder than Jer thought could be possible, "if you defeat me in combat." The crowd was frightened and Jer felt some of it himself, even though he knew it was not true. Realizing he was in no danger, yet felt fear brought a smile to his face. Chedra gripped Jer's arm tightly.
"Please" the hero begged, "I am tired from the battle, could you not let me go without testing my abilities?"
"No!" shouted the monster. The hero straightened up, striking a strong pose.
"Very well then" she said, "I will fight you, monster." The monster, which Jer had correctly guessed was two people under a large piece of material, moved slowly towards the center of the stage. They engaged in mock battle, circling and lunging at each other. The monster roared, the lights flashed and the clouds boiled out from the back of the platform. The crowd cheered them on and Jer, with Chedra hanging off his arm, laughed and laughed.
"Soon the battle turned, said the teller. "Our hero bested the monster." The hero struck out at the monster, which promptly fell over. There was a loud booming sound and a huge puff of white as the monster hit the stage. The crowd erupted and Jer was swept along. It was the most exciting thing he had ever seen. After the clouds had cleared the crowd settled down.
"We will be here tomorrow at the same time. Tell your friends." Jer was concerned for the hero. He wondered how she would return home. He decided that he could not miss the next performance.
"That was great, said Chedra after they arrived outside her family shelter. She was the daughter of the daughter of Laton and lived in a large shelter with the rest of her family. Jer walked her home and they were ending their evening.
"Yes" Jer agreed, "I liked it too." Chedra reached out to touch his arm.
"Good dreams" she said.
"Good dreams" Jer repeated. They parted, and Jer headed for home. He watched the Time Keeper above him as he walked. Thin clouds occasionally obscured the sparkling stars that made it up. The indistinct outline was that of someone aiming an arrow towards the horizon where the Orb would rise in the morning. During this time of year, when the Time Keeper reached the opposite horizon, Orb rise was immanent.
Jer decided to sleep on the Beach, and watched the stars as he drifted off. One of them, a particularly large, blue star in the arm of the Time Keeper, held his attention. He imagined what a planet orbiting that star might look like. He often tried to imagine other planets, but this time his fantasy was inhabited with monsters. Big, frightening monsters, waiting to strike him down.
Sometime during the night, Jer was awakened by a strange tickling sensation on his face. Half asleep, he reached up and brushed his nose where the tickling originated. Unaware of the tiny, six legged creature that he knocked away, Jer resumed his dream cycle.
The Orb set five minutes ago. Its light was nearly gone by the time Donderon stepped out of her room and into the dark corridor leading to the Audience Room. Two rows of guards waited to escort her to the top of the black step pyramid. They were dressed from top to toes in bright red, hooded and long sleeved robes. She walked between the rows and they stepped off into a well-rehearsed march. Trepidation hovered over her as they marched out of darkness into the harshly lit Audience room. The crowd hushed and the procession climbed the rear of the pyramid. At the top, where her escort left her, Donderon noticed the front wall had been removed, revealing a mass of people on the Beach. They were so compacted that there could be no way for them to move. She never understood why the crowds pressed in on her, but this was frightening. The throng covered every square inch of available space. There was no ground to be seen anywhere and the light cascading from the Palace illuminated those in the rear, bobbing up and down in the Ocean.
Surella and the Council of Elders, now eighteen strong, were standing in two rows behind the Seat of Command. As Donderon walked around them the crowd caught a first glimpse of their leader. They exploded with a deafening sound, a single voice superseding all other sound, pushing on her eardrums with immense pressure. It was unlike her previous experiences in front of crowds. Her fright was difficult to control and she sat down to wait it out. After close to five minutes of uninterrupted enthusiasm, Surella, arms high, stepped forward to stop them. She tried to speak, but could not be heard, even by herself. She stood there for a few moments, arms in the air, trying to hush the exuberance of the crowd. Finally, she dropped her impotent attack and turned to nod at Crinn. Crinn raised her right hand to her mouth and spoke. She held a slender, silver, featureless rod. After she spoke four short words into the rod, she lowered her hand and returned Surella's nod.
"Be silent!" Surella shouted turning back towards the audience. Her voice boomed out over them. There was instant silence. Everyone, including Surella herself, was stupefied by the incredible sound. She recovered enough to take advantage of the silence and as she spoke, in a softer voice, her words echoed off the water walls and out over the crowd on the Beach. "I am speaking to you through a new device called a relayer. You will be able to hear the First One's words as she dedicates our new military. Our volunteers on the satellite and space ships will also be hearing the ceremony with this device." She paused long enough to take a breath and then introduced Donderon. "The Supreme Commander, Donderon, the First One." She stepped aside, gesturing towards Donderon and the crowd erupted once again.
During another few minutes of ovation, apprehension long since turned to impatience, Donderon looked down at the front of the crowd. She stood at the edge of the pyramid, watching people making noise in a variety of ways. Most of them were yelling and clapping their hands together, but some were also whistling. It was a skill that Donderon would like to learn.
"Now!' said Donderon in a strong voice. She had given up the idea of waiting for them to quiet down. Her words, sent through the relayer, carried and echoed over the entire Beach. The people hushed and waited for her next utterance. In a subdued tone, she continued. "Now we take our next step." She raised an arm towards the ceiling of pure light. Crinn again spoke into her silver rod and the ceiling disappeared. The crowd let out a simultaneous gasp as they were plunged into darkness. Unseen in the near total darkness, Crinn once again spoke and the entire surface of Teteda-Ma came alive with a soft pink glow. The crowd let out another, more startled gasp, followed closely by a prolonged murmuring. The magical scene of it dazzled Donderon. She looked up in the sky for the source. Surella had outdone herself today, organizing an event witnessed by the entire population. Four space ships, each giving off soft, pink light, hung in the night sky. The light itself seemed to emanate from everywhere but over a few seconds time, the audience slowly realized they were under four, artificial, pink suns. Each much smaller than the ship which first appeared more than two months ago, they were lined up, reaching half way across the sky. They were identical to one another, as were all displacement vehicles, but the colored light patterns dancing over their surfaces identified them for those in the know. The four ships began to break formation and move away. The light dimmed and four other ships moved into their place, returning the planet's surface to pink. This repeated again and again for several minutes; each group of four ships remaining for less than ten seconds before moving off to be replaced by four more. The effect, a slowly oscillating, pink light, hypnotized everyone watching. Those filling the Palace area quietly stared up at the spectacle. Immediately after the eleventh group of ships moved away a single ship filled a quarter of the sky. It was monstrous. It illuminated much brighter and came much closer than the preceding ships. Again there was some vocalizing from the crowd. Colored lights danced over it and a slight rippling of its surface could be seen on Teteda-Ma. It approached within one hundred yards of the satellite, the minimum safe distance allowed by the ship's own SCI.
"The command ship, Ram" Donderon said after a few moments. The ship slowly receded, its light disappeared and Teteda-Ma was again cast in darkness. After a few seconds, some of the crowd began showing their approval, some clapping, or whistling, some shouts here and there. They snapped those around them out of their astounded state and a cheer built until within a few seconds, the deafening roar returned. Donderon was surprised to discover that this noise, undistinguishable from the one before, did not cause her any sort of anxiety. The ceiling of the Audience Room reappeared, slowly glowing back to life. Surella returned to the front of the pyramid to address the people again.
"I now wish to introduce Laton, your Military Commander." Laton stepped forward. The audience quieted, some. Not having a chance to experiment, Laton was unsure of how loud to speak.
"I have...!!" Her voice pierced the room. The audience, as well as herself, were momentarily stunned by the sound. She spoke again with a much softer voice. "I have appointed ten generals to command the military." Ten women walked from the rear doorway to the front of the pyramid and began climbing the stairs. At the thirteenth step they stopped and stood facing the audience. They each wore a dark red robe, identical to Besfa's. Overcoming an acute awareness of how silly she felt, Laton continued with the introduction, just as Surella had instructed. "We need more of you to fill the vacant positions."
The ceiling flashed away. Ten ships, glowing a much softer pink, blotted out the nighttime sky. After a few seconds, they moved away and were followed by smaller ones. There were ten more ships behind each of the first ten and together, they flew away. Ten giant, pink fingers shot off in ten different directions. Three vanished over the horizon; the others raced away from Teteda-Ma, shrinking away until winking out, streaks of pink disappearing in the vast field of stars. The sight was breathtaking, a spectacular final to a spectacular show. The new military, as arranged by Surella, would encounter far fewer detractors after tonight. A few seconds later, the ceiling slowly returned to a soft, yellow glow. The Palace Guard spent several hours in an attempt to disperse the crowd.
The first forty-four ships, as well as the Ram, remained in the Teteda-Ma system for protection. A small number of the other one hundred ten ships departed on the expeditions.
The decision was necessary. The idea of changing history, even for the right reasons, unsettled Crinn, but her motivation was for the greater good of the people, all of the people. She could and would do it.
"Begin playback" Crinn said. The viewer complied, reciting the story of Shan and Gar and the last war on Earth.
"In the fifth century before the captivity, the people of Earth bid farewell to Jentre, the King of the World. His kingdom covered the entire surface of Earth as well as the satellite called Moon and several asteroids in close proximity. Jentre's sons, Shan and Gar inherited their father's kingdom and set about to rule as equals."
"Edit mode" Crinn interrupted. "Change gender of all characters." The viewer signaled its compliance. "Continue playback."
"The armies of the Kingdom of Earth were divided. Many of the generals followed Shan, the eldest of the daughters of Jentre. The other daughter expressed her intentions to expand the Kingdom of Earth throughout the Sol system. This enticed many of the generals to follow her, but Shan insisted that freedom was the legacy of their mother. She would not allow Gar to start a war.
"The last war for the control of Earth had been two hundred years earlier. Shan and Gar's ancestor led the armies that ended the war and united the people of Earth in a monarchy. The threat of a new war, a civil war, frightened the people. They were anxious to keep peace on Earth, but it would not be so.
"The generals of Shan and Gar met to decide the fate of Earth. Those generals who followed Shan would not allow their armies to be used to subjugate the people of Sol. The generals of Gar were determined to unite the planets of Sol under a single banner. During the congress a battle of wills ended in deadlock. Tempers flared, as they tended to do and the generals came away believing there was no way to avoid a civil war.
"The first conflicts in the civil war took place in near space over the control of huge battle stations. The armies of Gar took most of the battle stations, thus ensuring that Gar would control the space near Earth."
"Edit mode" Crinn said. "Change Gar to Shan in the last paragraph." The viewer confirmed the change. "Continue."
"As the civil war spread over the Earth, the people of Earth took up arms to defend themselves against the armies of Gar. Gar's generals ordered their armies to take what they needed and to disarm the citizens. The armies of Shan were ordered to protect the people of Earth at all costs. The battles grew more and more horrific as time went on. Citizens of Earth were slaughtered without prejudice by the armies of Gar."
"The people, fleeing in fear, gave up ground to the armies of Gar. The armies of Gar soon took control of the majority of Earth's habitable territory.
"The final battle took place near the stronghold of Shan's and Gar's ancestors. In a small building, the last general controlling a small army, held out to the end. Gar's forces fell upon the last army, overwhelming them with superior weapons and numbers, killing all who did not surrender. None surrendered. The news of the decimation devastated the people of Earth.
"Shan held out in the home of her ancestors. The armies of Gar encircled the remains of Shan's armies and demanded they surrender. Shan had no alternative.
"Over the next few decades, Gar ruled the people of Earth in a heavy handed way. She destroyed the freedoms her people had enjoyed and ordered her armies to begin the advance on the other planets of Sol. Beginning with the two inner planets, Gar's armies moved on to the last Earth-like planet to break their will and subjugate them to the rule of Earth. During this time, Gar's armies were refreshed with the very citizens they had oppressed. The underlying tension in the armies finally broke to the surface. The battle on the fourth planet turned and the armies of Gar were routed, driven off and would never return.
"This defeat signaled the death of the Kingdom of Earth. In the ensuing decade, rebellious groups gained independence from the Kingdom of Earth inciting others to follow their example. With her armies dwindling, some rebelling, Gar was forced to make concessions. In a short amount of time there were few places left that did not dare to strike back. A little less than forty years after the beginning of the civil war, Gar surrendered her Kingdom and disappeared, thus ending war on Earth forever.
"End of playback."
Crinn bit her lower lip thoughtfully. She was sure of the need for change, but not of the change itself.
"Edit mode" she finally said. "Erase everything after the last altered paragraph." After a moment, the viewer reported in.
"The final sentence is: 'The armies of Shan took most of the battle stations, thus ensuring that Shan would control the space near Earth.' "
"Add this:" Crinn said slowly, "Soon, the generals of Gar began to see the error of their ways. They understood that Shan was their rightful leader and gave up their goal of ruling the Sol system to fall in with the other armies of Earth. Gar was placed under arrest and the civil war ended.
"In time the people of Earth settled into the freedoms given them by Shan. War never again came to Earth.
"End." Crinn smiled. She was determined to play down the role of war in the history of humans. This was the first, but not the last time she would do so.
Laton was sleeping peacefully before waking with a start. She tried to see what had disturbed her sleep, but the room was totally dark.
"Hello?" she called out. Her heart raced, she felt someone was in the room with her. She sat up. "Who is there?" She used her sternest inflections. A tall shadow moved, blocking the doorway.
"Forgive me, Mother Laton." The speaker was obviously low on breath.
"Who is that?" Laton snapped.
"Besfa" the silhouette answered quietly. "I am sorry that I woke you" she continued, "but I need to speak with you." She paused and then added, "It is very important."
"Could this not wait for daylight?" Laton asked as she scratched her elbow.
"I could not wait for tomorrow" Besfa answered urgently. There was a thick silence. Laton could hear Besfa's rate of breathing slowing. She had arrived with some haste, apparently.
"Very well" Laton sighed. "What is it?" While Besfa stood in the doorway Laton could see she was not wearing her commander's robe. Besfa was most proud of her position. What was she doing here without it? Laton stood up.
"Well?" she asked. Her agitation stemmed from the interruption of a dream. She knew she would not remember it after this.
"Do you not feel that I am capable of leading?" Besfa finally blurted out.
"Certainly I do" Laton retorted. "What is this about?" She was dodging annoyance. It was not easy.
"You have sent me to play guard to the satellite" Besfa said. "Why have I been pushed aside so?"
"Do not be ridiculous. The satellite is our most vital possession." She took two short steps toward Besfa, who simultaneously took a long step forward, planting herself in Laton's path. "Without it" Laton continued, "we would remain enslaved on this barren planet."
"But I am capable of more" Besfa argued. "You hold three different titles yourself." Acrimony was not well hidden. Laton felt the anger, but sleepily dismissed it.
"Your position is vital" Laton responded calmly. "Surella needs you on the satellite, with your full attention on duty."
"I am quite aware of what my duty is, but I want..." She thought better of her words. "I feel... that I would make a good Council member."
"An Elder?" Laton did not stop a short laugh. "Do not be foolish." Besfa had expected Laton to dismiss her, but the laughter enraged her. She reached out. She wanted to grab her by the wrist, but in the darkness, clipped Laton's chin with her fingertips. Laton was shocked and overwhelmed. She had not expected a challenge so early. She threw her arms up, automatically defending herself from the perceived attack. Before she knew what had happened, Besfa struck Laton in the chest, knocking the wind out of her. Laton fell backwards, caught completely off guard. Her head cracked as it fell against a sitting rock embedded in the floor. The sound of Laton's limp body settling to the ground was the last sound that Besfa heard. She stood quietly for a moment trying to listen through thunderous silence. With no results, she finally spoke.
"Laton?" There was no answer. She could see nothing but the doorway behind her. She turned and ran through it.
Donderon was dreaming of the Ocean. She was swimming alone. It was a peaceful, warm day and she felt completely carefree. Someone nudged her shoulder and called her by her latest title. She realized that it was one of her guards and she woke up.
"What is it?" Donderon asked without opening her eyes.
"Surella is here to see you, Commander, said the guard. "She insisted I wake you, she added apologetically. Donderon, lying with her face towards the wall, rolled over and saw Surella standing just outside the doorway. The guard stood straight and exited the room. Surella stepped in and cleared her throat.
"What" Surella stood for a moment and then stepped forward again. She sighed and slowly shook her low hung head.
"Laton has been found... " She swallowed dryly and finished the statement. "Dead." Donderon blinked her eyes. She was not completely sure this was not a dream.
"Dead?" she asked propping herself up on her elbow. The guard at the door turned to look into the room. Surella did not answer. "Did you say? Donderon's voice trailed off as she saw Surella nodding her head. She blinked her eyes several times in succession to clear out the sleepiness and then took herself to her feet. "What happened?"
"Silence, her daughter, found her. She was in her shelter, alone." Surella spoke slowly, without looking up. "She fell and lost the life from her head." Donderon walked past Surella into the dark, narrow hallway.
"How long until sunrise?" she asked the guard.
"Come, Surella" Donderon said as she headed for the door. She and Surella left the Palace and headed for Laton's pen.
Donderon knew that this was the most serious thing to happen since the space ship came. She wanted to show Laton's people that she cared and the best way to do that, she supposed, was to make a mourning call on them. The first thing she did when they arrived was to view the room where Laton was found. Surella showed her where someone had traced a line in the sand around where the body had been. She saw the little, red pool that had poured out of Laton's head. Donderon knelt next to the outline and said a short prayer for the dead she had learned during a journey a few years ago. It was twelve words long and when she finished, she stood and left the room.
"Does anyone know what happened?" she asked the crowd gathered outside the small, single room shelter. No one responded to her. They all stood watching Donderon as she tried to pick out someone she recognized.
"She was found a half hour ago" said Surella. "She must have fallen."
"Besfa is here, said someone from the crowd. They parted and Besfa appeared, stepping forward between them.
"Laton is dead, said Surella. "You are her successor."
"Yes" Besfa responded. Besfa stood quietly examining the two visitors. Donderon wondered about Besfa's calm attitude but assumed it was due to the variations in the way different women dealt with things like this.
"Would you take me to the Laton family?" Donderon asked Besfa. Besfa nodded and led Donderon and Surella around to the rear of the shelter. There, in another shelter only a few feet away, Donderon saw a crowded, dimly lit room through a narrow doorway. The people were slowly walking around the room in a single direction. They appeared to be circling a large object in the center of the room. Besfa signaled Donderon and Surella to wait and continued on past the shelter to a group of women standing in the shadows. Besfa greeted the women and then hugged one, after which the two of them left the group and met Donderon and Surella at the corner of the building.
"First One, this is Silence, daughter of Laton" Besfa announced.
"My mother always spoke kindly of you" said Silence. "We are glad you are here." She resembled Laton but a few inches taller. She looked to be in her thirties.
"I want to do anything I can for you and your family" Donderon said quietly.
"Besfa" said Silence, "I would greatly appreciate your blessing at the ceremony." She looked at Donderon. "It will begin tonight, after the Orb has set" she said, "I hope that you will be there." Donderon answered her with a short nod. "Would you care to join the walk?" Silence asked. Donderon wondered what this walk was but did not ask. She simply nodded and followed as Silence led them into the shelter. They entered the procession around the room. There were more than thirty women, all walking slowly in a circle to the right. Now and then, one or two women would leave or enter the room. In the center of the room was a large, flat, shiny gray stone, on top of which the lifeless body of Laton had been placed. She was on her side, her knees were drawn up to her chest and her arms were crossed. Laton was not at all dark in life but she was as white as a cloud now. An unpleasant, but not unknown smell filled the air in the room. Since she had been to a few mornings over the past several years, Donderon recognized the smell of death.
A few revolutions around the room brought Donderon closer to the deceased Military Commander. She circled the body, lingering to look at the long gash on the side of Laton's head. Her hair, not yet washed for burial, was crusted with dried blood. After a few moments, she noticed a faint abrasion on Laton's chest. This gave her cause to wonder. She tried envisioning how one fall could have caused two such opposing wounds. She could some up with no satisfactory scene and she decided at that moment there needed to be an investigation.
When Donderon left the room she met up with Surella. She mentioned her plan and Surella, controlling the grief that had begun to overwhelm her in the walk, acknowledged Donderon with a grunt and a nod. She would eventually be surprised at Donderon's interest in the circumstances of Laton's death but not for several more hours. After reaching the Palace, Donderon went to the satellite to meet with Crinn in her quarters. The two rooms she occupied were as bare as the day the satellite was discovered. After a courteous greeting, Donderon got straight to business.
"Laton was found dead this morning. I want you to assign someone to investigate the incident." Donderon waited for a moment, realizing that Crinn was not completely awake. "There is a mark on her chest that I cannot account for. It cannot be explained away by a fall. I want you to find out what happened to her but make sure that the family is not disturbed. Do not add to their grief."
"I understand" Crinn said. "I will assign someone to it immediately." Crinn looked up at the ceiling and spoke. "Ex Twelve, have Beromm come to my quarters right away."
"Yes Crinn, said the SCI voice.
"How is everything going here for you, Crinn?" asked Donderon. Crinn smiled sleepily.
"I expect to be finishing my historical research very soon and I will have a preliminary report ready for you four days from now."
"Fine" Donderon said. Crinns precise personality made Donderon comfortable. She stood up. "I will be returning to the surface now, Ex Twelve, she said to the room. "Crinn, I am looking forward to your report." She extended her hand and Crinn stood, shaking it.
As Donderon left the room Beromm arrived. She was amazed at the appearance of the First One as she stood outside of Crinn's room. She saw her speak once from several hundred feet away and then later on the satellite viewer. Now she passed within inches of the First One but it was over in an instant and Donderon was hurrying down the hallway.
"The Supreme Commander has asked me to begin an investigation into the death of Laton" Crinn announced after Beromm entered. Beromm was surprised and showed it. "I want you to absorb whatever information is available from the SCI dealing with the investigation of death and then carry out a thorough investigation." She paused and then added, " But keep it unintrusive, do not disturb the Laton family." Beromm nodded. "That is all that I have for you. Begin as soon as you can." Beromm nodded again.
"I will begin now" she said and turned to leave.
"Report to me on your progress at the end of each day." Crinn returned to the smaller of the two rooms and lay down on a grey floor mat. "Continue music file, she told the ceiling. A quiet humming sound filled the room. It was a slowly progressing series of tones, which changed almost imperceptibly. The affect was quite hypnotic.
Crinn discovered music in the SCI files two days earlier. After several hours of playing around she ultimately created a program that randomly generated relaxing pieces. It began with music that was much more complicated than the current piece, but Crinn could not relax listening to it, so she removed all but one instrument from the program. She was pleased with her product and was sure that the song playing now would remain her favorite. It was the last thought that she had before returning to unconsciousness.
For as long as she could, Donderon resisted the urging of her people to place something between her body and the world. She had been wearing the white robe Surella gave her for several weeks. Yesterday she submitted to furnishings. She was reluctant at first but when she saw her small room, newly redesigned, she was quietly pleased. It was what she considered appropriate and she almost immediately felt at home.
On this evening, she was to meet with Crinn, who would be presenting her initial report on the research into human history. Donderon also hoped that there would be some news from the investigation into Laton's death, something that she thought of quite often. She asked her assistant (she knew that she was actually her bodyguard) to bring a second chair and placed it next to the small round table with a single chair situated in the center of the room. She reclined on the soft sleeping surface next to the wall patiently awaiting Crinn's imminent arrival.
Since the daily audience finished, Donderon found herself with time to spare and was spending her days in the garden watching the children play in the surf. The waves were higher than ever, almost three feet. She recently forbad the youngest children from playing in the water. Some of the mothers protested but not much. She remained steadfast in her decision. The waves would be getting much higher over the next few months and within only a few more days it would begin raining. The clouds grew in size and number until they filled the sky daily.
Crinn arrived at precisely the appointed time. The Orb was beginning its final decent towards the horizon. She had with her a small, thin, brown, rectangular object.
"Have you news of the investigation?" she asked her expectantly.
"Unfortunately, no. My agent is continuing to follow up on several theories but no news for now." Donderon nodded with resignation as they sat down at the table in the center of the well-lit room.
"Very well" she said. "Would you care for something to dine on before we begin?"
"No. I am eager to begin. I think you will soon see why." Donderon gestured for her to go on. "First of all, I have begun to commit to permanent record the various Oral Traditions. I have organized the research into five basic categories."
Donderon listened attentively and nodded at the appropriate times as Crinn placed the object she had with her on the table. She unfolded it. Originally a square foot, it was now twice as large. Donderon saw columns of bright green symbols floating flat, just above its smooth surface. "This is a viewer, Crinn explained. She paused to allow Donderon a few seconds to look over the interesting new thing. "Once I organized the research, the SCI compared it to its own record of human history." She looked Donderon directly in the eyes. "What I have found" she said quietly, "may be hard for you to believe."
Donderon watched Crinn with pent up anticipation. Crinn continued her report, at a somewhat quicker pace. "The vast majority of the Oral Tradition reported as true events, with origins prior to the captivity, have a counterpart in the human history files. From what I can determine, the Ma were watching the human race long before the captivity. Humans and Ma coexisted in the galaxy, peacefully, for thousands of years." She paused to ascertain Donderon's reaction, which was nonexistent. She looked down at her viewer and touched the top of one of the columns with her left index finger, slowly sliding it down the screen. The symbols followed along. Donderon watched, thinking about what she said. Donderon's newest expression, a frown, triggered Crinn's next statement. "I have found no evidence to suggest that we knew of the Ma's existence until it was too late." Donderon's brow furrowed as she leaned back.
"What exactly do you mean?" she asked. Crinn looked up from her viewer.
"I have found records" Crinn answered grimly, "proving the Ma were observing our ancestors, on a regular basis, by the advent of agrarian society. But there has been no evidence found of any two way contact." Again, she looked directly at Donderon. "It is quite odd indeed. Do you not agree?" Donderon watched her carefully, not responding. "There is a record of a technology developing during the time period just prior to the capture." Crinn enunciated her words carefully. "This technology was reported to be a means of traveling interstellar distances in a short time." Crinn waited for the First One to process the information. Donderon was aghast.
"Do you mean to imply that the Ma destroyed Sol because of technology?"
"It is only a hypothesis, but I have found no other explanation. For thousands of years, the Ma quietly observe human society and then just as we are expanding our habitat, they destroy Sol and capture every last living one of us." Donderon slowly nodded. There was a disturbed look on her face.
"I see, she said. Crinn tapped and slid her finger over the viewer, rearranging the symbols once again.
"I have made this, Crinn said after half a minute passed. "It compares the Oral Tradition with the SCI's human history file. I hope you will try it soon." She looked up at Donderon once again. "There are two points which I would like to go over now however, if I may." Donderon signaled her agreement and Crinn continued. "First, I have found a record of a service which I believe should be reinstated. It was called free press. It was the way the people related with their government." She waited for a few seconds, touching her viewer a couple of times with her finger, replacing one symbol with another, which changed every other symbol on the viewer in a cascade effect. The other subject" she finally said, "is war." Donderon did not understand the word.
"What is war?" To answer her, Crinn read almost verbatim from her view screen.
"It is when two or more large groups of people meet in conflict, each with the intent to destroy the other." This brought the largest frown to Donderon's face. "There was a war for the control of Earth nearly four hundred years before the captivity. After that, there are no records of war on Earth itself, but there is evidence for it on some of the other Sol satellites. The reason I tell you this is that I believe war is the way of things. It is a natural behavior of sentient creatures. There was constant war throughout the history of Earth and I fear that eventually it will make a reappearance here." Donderon contemplated something, which she obviously disliked. She had not heard the word before, but she knew instinctively what it meant. She quietly spoke the word.
"War." The sound of it made her feel almost sick. The word was quite appropriate. "Are there extensive records?"
"Yes. There are files of both human and Ma war. There are also a plethora of programs teaching the techniques of war." She grimaced and added, "They are quite detailed." She struggled with a distasteful memory. Donderon stood up.
"I want you to go back to the satellite, right now" she said sternly. "Remove those programs and files." Crinn stood up, too.
"Certainly" she said. "Should I make a record of them for your viewing?" she asked. Donderon considered the question. She had been quite decisive in the previous matter, but now she hesitated. She finally answered, but she was not so sure if she were doing the right thing this time.
"Yes." Crinn folded and picked up the viewing device and left the room. Donderon fought back her anxiety. War was an inevitable defense of freedom. Throughout the Oral Tradition of her own pen, there were examples of what one would call war. While ultimate freedom could not be the goal, the events coincided with what Crinn had described. The most well known example was a story her mother told her about a grandmother several generations removed. She had been injured in a struggle between groups. The story she heard from her mother placed the majority on the other side, but when she heard the story from some of the other families, the numbers were reversed. Up to now, it always struck her as funny.
Surella planned Laton's memorial ceremony with time to include a blessing from the church her family belonged to. Surella was keenly interested in the possibilities of the worship of a non-corporal entity as a tool for gathering power. She invited the Dow Saffer, the co-leader of the First Ones Church, in the area already, to meet with her to discuss the ceremony.
The room she chose for the meeting was in a corner of her new home, facing the Ocean. The Last Wall had finally been taken down and the Ocean was visible from where she stood just inside the doorway. The two outside walls were constructed of a thick, transparent material. The ceiling too, was transparent, making it appear as if the room was simply a patio. There was a single door in one of the two sandy colored walls, leading to a hallway. One of Surella's assistants, a girl of about sixteen, came charging through that door.
"She is two pens away!" the assistant said excitedly.
"Thank you, Peren" Surella said graciously. She stepped out onto the sandy ground. There were few inner walls left on Teteda-Ma and none could be seen from where she stood outside her home. Instead, she could see more than a hundred new buildings, which were of all shapes, sizes and colors. They had been built, using satellite technology, over the past few weeks. She turned and saw a crowd of people moving slowly in her direction. They were still several hundred feet away. She stepped back into the room, commanding the walls to darken. They almost instantly fogged over, turned white and then slowly, the color of sand. In the center of the twenty-foot square room, was a large, round, sunken, cushioned area, split down its center by a foot wide section of the floor. Those occupying the cushions could use it as a table. There were two, tall, thin, transparent receptacles, filled half way with an amber colored fluid, standing on it.
"Lights" Surella commanded. The ceiling, which also turned opaque, suddenly glowed to life. The light grew steadily brighter, until, "enough" she said. She examined the scene and smiled. Surella figured that by now the group heading towards her home was close enough for a greeting and she stepped back outside. "Welcome" she said extending her arms. They were within twenty feet of her but she could not see the Dow, figuring she was obscured in the center. The group parted. A woman, dressed in a long, flowing, white robe, with a ragged white cloth on her head, stepped up to greet her. The woman appeared to be in her forties, possibly early fifties and she stood straight and strong. Surella had expected an old woman. She was nothing like the description Donderon had given her.
"A pleasure to finally meet you" said the woman. "Of course, I would have hoped for happier circumstances." There was a twinkling in her bright, green eyes and a warm smile on her healthy, round face. The bright, white robe she wore covered her entire body, hands and feet as well. She was less than six feet tall, but much taller than Surella. She had no noticeable hair and the ragged, white cloth she wore on her head was full of holes and quite threadbare.
"Thank you for coming, Dow" said Surella. She gestured towards the door of her home. Saffer nodded and glanced at one of her companions. The other women also wore white robes, however their arms were exposed. Saffer entered the room with Surella behind her and the others remained outside.
"Very nice" said the Dow as she looked around the starkly furnished room. She noticed the cushioned central area, as well as two small stools next to a small table in a corner. There was a small black box on it.
"Please" Surella said, "feel at home."
"I do" the Dow said with a courteous nod.
"Would you care to relax?" Surella gestured towards the cushioned central area. The Dow examined it more closely.
"I think not, she finally said. "Would you care to begin?" Surella was surprised by her abrupt attitude, but thought nothing of it.
"As you know" she said, " I have planned a memorial ceremony for the Elder Laton." She paused to see that Saffer was listening. "I have planned for a religious ceremony." The Dow Saffer was watching her closely and Surella was feeling a bit nervous. She had not had an occasion to feel nervous in nearly thirty years. "Quite frankly" she finally said, "I am not at all familiar with the ceremonies of your church." The Dow frowned slightly. A puzzled look flashed over her face for an instant.
"You are not a member of my church?" the Dow asked her.
"There is no religion in my pen" Surella answered. "I am not familiar with the traditions of the church at all, I fear." The Dow seemed to be contemplating something for a split second and then she looked again at Surella.
"You should come to the services tonight" Saffer said. "There, you will be able to experience the wonders of the Holy Mother Mary for yourself." Surella was perplexed.
"But" she began slowly, "I presumed she was a myth."
"Certainly not!" said the Dow admonishingly. "The Holy Mother Mary lives within each of us, she preached. "She guides our every action, as well as those of our enemies." Surella was more confused than ever.
"I am afraid that you are speaking another language" she said. It was a phrase used in the common language.
"All will be clear after tonight, Surella. If you will grace us with your presence."
"I would enjoy the opportunity." Surella donned a friendly smile.
"Then I will expect you just prior to sunset." Without further comment, the Dow exited the room. Surella was intrigued and happy at the prospect of seeing, first hand, a religious ceremony. She expected she would be refused entry, being a non-believer. She was quite excited and the afternoon dragged on for her until the time finally came to depart.
When Surella arrived at the new church, she was amazed at its grand scale. It was tremendous in size, completely white and during the day, could be seen from very far away. She stopped at the ten foot tall, four foot wide, transparent, double doors and looked one hundred seventy five feet straight up, past a gigantic oval window, to the top. The building loomed over her. It appearing to be toppling over on top of her, making her instantly dizzy. She had to catch the doorframe to keep from plunging to the ground. She entered the building, shocked by its gargantuan insides. She discovered that she would have to navigate a throng of devotes to reach the platform where she saw Saffer.
"We are here to dedicate this marvelous new church, in the memory of our foremothers, to our Holy Mother Mary." The Dow's words reverberated as Surella passed through the door. "Using the technology delivered into our hands from the enslavers, we have built the first of many wondrous new shelters of worship."
The Dow Saffer was standing, hundreds of feet away, on a small platform, raised about fifteen feet off the floor. The platform was at the apex of a large mantle, which was in the shape of a pyramid hiding a small area of the room from view. The room itself was colossal and Surella stopped inside the doorway to take it all in. Looking up, she saw titanic, white ribs, over ten feet wide, lining the black walls and extending up to the vaulted ceiling. They were at least fifty feet apart and there were no fewer than ten on each side. At the peak of the arch shaped ceiling, as well as where the walls suddenly curved inwards to form the arch, single beams ran lengthwise, identical in size and color to the vertical beams.
"Welcome to the First Church of the First One's Church of the Holy Mother Mary" the Dow said. Surella enjoyed the long title that the church had been given. It appealed to her innate sense of formality. "And now" the Dow Saffer continued, "I want to publicly recognize those responsible for this miraculous new church."
Surella entered the crowd gathered on the vast floor and began to make her way through as quickly as she could. She figured there must be ten thousand people there and felt truly in awe of the drawing power that the Holy Mother had. She decided that she would do whatever was necessary to gain access to the power of the church.
"The chief architect" Saffer said. "The Elder One, Mahalla." Surella stopped where she was, trying to see the Dow from her place near the back of the crowd, but she could not. She knew that Mahalla was a devout follower of the church but was unaware of her involvement in this cathedral's construction. She was worried that Mahalla was already where she wished to go. According to Surella's sources, Mahalla was interested in fame and glory; things that Surella considered as tools for gaining power. She felt that if she had any doubts about the urgency of her immediate mission before this moment, they were certainly gone now.
Surella resumed her trek through the crowd, as Saffer continued to call out the names of those involved in the construction of the new church, none of whom she recognized. It took her all of half of an hour to hurry her way through the crowd to a close enough vantage point to see the Dow on her platform. She was a magnificent visage to behold. She wore the same garments that she wore earlier that day, but seemed somehow more vital, more alive. She was extremely animated and presented a fiercely dominant personality.
"We are all the children of Mary, the Dow was saying as Surella approached the platform. "In Her eyes, we are as one, precious, newborn babe."
Her bright green eyes flared to emphasize each word. Surella was within twenty feet of the base of the mantle now and she thought the light was playing tricks on her. The Dow looked as though she were no more than thirty years old. She seemed quite fit and appeared to be much more than six feet tall. Surella was confused by the Dow's appearance. There was little doubt that this was the same woman she met earlier in the day but she seemed so much more intense.
"If you believe in Her power to save your soul" Saffer said, "you will be saved. It is within your grasp. All you need do is accept the truth of it." She was speaking very loud and the relayer was multiplying her volume one hundred fold, allowing the crowd to relish in her dynamic speech. "If you feel empty, if you feel alone, if you feel powerless, if you feel useless, if you feel as if you have nowhere to turn, all you need do is accept the truth." She emphasized the last few words with spit and volume. The crowd made assenting sounds as she spoke and burst into cheers when she paused to look them over. She spotted Surella as she approached within twenty feet of the platform. The Dow Saffer nodded a greeting to her and she returned it. "There are those among you" the Dow said with a quiet, calm voice, "who do not believe." She glanced again at Surella who was suddenly sure she was speaking directly to her. "Ask yourself what you feel in your heart. If you are wondering how you can believe, in the light of what you know." She hesitated. Her voice had risen in volume during the last sentence and she was again speaking in a strong, loud voice. "Simply know this: God does not exist in knowledge, for that is a creation, a fabrication of human beings. God exists in the air you breath, in the ground you tread, in the food you eat." She waited for a couple of seconds and then quietly added, "In the people you love." The crowd enthusiastically applauded the statement.
She was quite enticing, Surella thought but her message simply did not apply for her. She loved no one but nonetheless smiled at the Dow as she looked down at her. After several more minutes of similarly inspirational rhetoric, the Dow Saffer finished, left the platform and was replaced by another speaker, dressed in a sleeveless robe.
"In the name of the Holy Mother Mary and with the blessing of our most precious ancestors, I hereby open this First Church to the public, for unlimited worship and celebration." The new speaker raised her arms and looked up at the ceiling. "Guide our endeavors, Holy Mother, she said in a most serious tone. "Lead us out of the depths of despair, up to the heavens and a new beginning. Bless this church which we have built in your honor and visit on us the blessing of an eternity of freedom." The crowd was silent. Surella thought it odd that they would cheer and applaud for a while and then become suddenly silent. She looked around for a clue. There must be some meaning in it. Perhaps the fact that the speaker was addressing Mary directly had something to do with it.
Surella's confusion passed with a tap on her shoulder. She turned and saw one of the women who had been with the Dow earlier in the day. The woman was signaling for Surella to follow and as she did, led her to a small room behind the area in which the platform stood. It was quite a contrast to the huge room, which she came from. There were six women standing in the small, dark room, as well as the Dow Saffer seated at a table.
"Welcome Surella" said the Dow. In the shadowy room she looked once again as she had when Surella first met her that afternoon. "What do you think of our wondrous new church?" Surella smiled.
"I am quite impressed with everything, she answered. A few of the women, whom Surella could see from the corner of her eye, leaned together and spoke several silent words. The Dow made a shooing motion with her hand and the women, except for one, left the room.
"Please" said the other woman, "have a seat." She pointed to a chair across the table from Saffer. Surella sat down.
"This is my clergical assistant, Jancoo" Saffer said.
"A pleasure to finally meet you Second" said the woman.
"Likewise" said Surella. Jancoo was obviously not of the same pen as Saffer. She was quite short, shorter than Surella and had very dark skin. Her dark eyes, thick lips, large, broad nose and long, thick, black hair, which she wore in a bun on the top of her head, were all in contrast to Saffer's light, thin features. She smiled at Surella.
"Right, then" said the Dow to broach the subject. "Shall we discuss the arrangement of Laton's memorial service?" Surella nodded in agreement. "What have you in mind?" Saffer asked her. Surella quietly cleared her throat. Again she was nervous. She could only attribute it to the fact that Dow Saffer was an unknown, with a large powerbase and she was anxious that she not ruin the relationship they were developing.
"First, I have an assistant working on a permanent memorial in the Palace garden. That is due for construction in two days. To dedicate the memorial, I have asked the First One and Besfa, Laton's successor to speak." She stopped and looked at Jancoo, who was standing to her left in a white, sleeveless robe, hands clasped in front of her. She wore a smile on her face. Surella had not expected the smile and it momentarily threw her off her thoughts. She put it out of mind and quickly returned to her words. "What I am missing is the proper religious ceremony for the occasion."
"I see, said the Dow with a glance towards Jancoo. "And you are asking me for advise on this?"
"That is right" Surella answered. "I had hoped that you would have a suggestion for the ceremony, as well as the person who might perform it." Surella was hoping that the Dow would volunteer herself. She was not going to ask her, though, as she was already indebted to her for granting a meeting. She was not prepared to go any further at this point.
"Are you prepared to accept the Holy Mother as your savior?" the other woman asked. Surella was caught off guard by the unexpected question and took a moment to regain her composure. She brushed a few loose curls away from her face to cover her surprise. She could not jump in now, they would surely see it as insincere, but she could not let it go either.
"I was intrigued by the ceremony" she truthfully admitted, "but I am afraid that I do not understand your beliefs." Jancoo looked at her with a pitying demeanor.
"You simply need to look within yourself, said Saffer. "If you find emptiness... " Surella looked down at the table top. She did feel an empty space, but it was power that would fill the hole, not some disembodied spirit. "That is where the Holy Mother belongs" Saffer finished.
"I feel it" Surella said feebly. "I do, but... " Her voice failed and she looked up into the Dow's eyes.
"Accept it, the Dow Saffer said. "You are a daughter of God, the omnipotent Mother of the Universe." She paused, searching Surella's eyes for a sign of acknowledgement. "Do you feel it?" she asked quietly. There was something about this woman that Surella could not quite understand. Here, in this dark room, she reminded her of her own long dead mother. She was wrinkled and hunched over the table, yet her eyes pierced the darkness, looking right through her eyes down into whatever was in there. Surella blinked. Did she have a soul? Were the Dow's words working their way in? She pulled her head back. No, not only could she not see into her nonexistent soul, but she would not even know she was lying to her face.
"I do" Surella finally uttered. "I feel it." Saffer reached across the table to take Surella's hands in hers.
"Repeat what I say, Surella" the Dow said softly. "I am a child of God!"
"I am a child of God" Surella whispered.
"I accept the Holy Mother Mary as my savior!"
"I accept the Holy Mother Mary as my savior." The Dow Saffer smiled and stood up without letting her go, pulling Surella to her feet.
"Welcome to the church. You are the first convert to the Holy Mother we have had in this new church. I think it is quite apropos." Surella held back a full laugh, but could not stop a large smile. The Dow Saffer and Jancoo accepted it as happiness at her conversion.
"Thank you" Surella finally said. "But I thought... "
"You will learn our ways over time" said Saffer, anticipating Surella's question. "All that is required for membership in the church is the acceptance of the Holy Mother as your savior." Surella smiled again. She did not know what Mary was going to save her from, but she figured that if there was something to be saved from, she was certainly not going to turn away any offers of help.
The discussion returned to the Laton memorial for a few minutes. The Dow offered the services of Jancoo for the ceremony, explaining that she would not appear at official government functions.
When Surella left, the empty cathedral shocked her. The people were almost all gone and she thought she could hear the echo of her footsteps on the soft, grey floor as she proceeded towards the door.
Beromm absorbed all that she could from the SCI about investigating. As she practiced the techniques, she found that she was sincerely interested in learning everything she could about the subject and thoroughly enjoyed carrying out the investigation into Laton's death. It was not long after beginning her questioning of the members of Laton's pen that she began to suspect it might have been more than an accident. Several people had seen a mark on the chest of Laton's dead body, but they all admitted they believed she died because of the loss of blood from a wound on her head.
One of the rules of investigation, fresh in her mind, dealt with the necessity of determining the cause of death. Beromm's instructions from Crinn precluded her from examining the body at all, so she had to go on what the witnesses told her. She had to assume that the cause of death was a massive head wound and based upon that assumption, she deduced that the strange mark was a secondary injury. However, she could figure no way for it to have been caused without the involvement of another person.
The evening before, she had a flash of insight and had reported to Crinn that she was ready to give her final report. She figured that someone must have hit Laton in the chest, causing her to fall, whereupon she struck her head on the stone. She instinctively knew there was no other explanation.
The report was due in a few minutes and she was spending the remainder of her time organizing her thoughts using a viewer. Crinn made viewers identical to the one she used available to anyone. She could talk to it, or write if she decided to learn. The one thing that Crinn did not tell anyone was that anything stored on a viewer was automatically uploaded to a database on the satellite, which only she knew about. Beromms voice issued from the viewer. She was playing back her recording and a high speed, making her voice sound comical.
"Without examining the body, I have had to make certain assumptions."
"Stop" Beromm said. She heard it all the way through several times and changed something each time. She concluded that it was as good as it was going to get and folded the viewer, placing it on the table next to the chair she occupied.
"Count down to meeting?" she asked the wall.
"The appointed time is just about four minutes from now, said the SCI in her exact voice. She programmed it the day before to use her voice in her quarters, but had grown tired of it after only a few hours. She decided she would change it as soon as possible. She left for the small meeting room down the hall, wearing the sleeveless and knee length robe of the Information Committee. It was the color of the sun and she was the first to be given one. It made her feel proud beyond her position.
"What is your news, Beromm?" asked Crinn as Beromm stepped through the door.
"I have concluded the investigation, Beromm said. "And within the limitations set forth, I was able to determine, circumstantially, that Laton was physically attacked. That the attack was, indirectly, the cause of her death." She had organized her thought over time and was pleased with how she vocalized it.
"What is your evidence?" Crinn asked. She seemed preoccupied by something on her viewer.
"Those who saw the body reported an abrasion on her chest" Beromm said. "However, based on my interviews with those same witnesses, the cause of death has been determined as a massive head injury." She cleared her throat and then went on. "It would appear that someone, or something, struck her, causing the abrasion. This blow caused her to fall against the stone, which gave her a terminal wound on the back of the head." Crinn acquired a thoughtful look. "Without an examination of the body" Beromm added, "I cannot verify the cause of death, therefore the case is entirely circumstantial."
"That is all that you have then?" Crinn asked. There was a tone in her voice that Beromm recognized as disappointment.
"I am sorry" Beromm said looking down at the floor, "that is all I have." Crinn stood and headed for the door.
"Very well" Crinn said with a sigh. "Have a report ready for my viewer in the morning." She left the room.
Beromm was not surprised by Crinn's reaction, but it did upset her. Crinn had been her teacher for nearly four years prior to the new time. She was a difficult mentor to please and Beromm often felt as though she had let her down. Crinn disappeared just after the First One defeated the Line Maker to research the Oral Tradition, her one true passion. Now, Beromm was as eager to please as ever but she could only feel like a failure when she was around her.
Jer was sitting on the Beach, in the afternoon, watching the people play in the surf. He especially liked to watch the girls play, because he thought they moved in a most enjoyable way. As he was watching a particularly gifted girl, he saw something he never saw before.
Far out over the water the clouds grew quite tall and dark during the last few hours. He heard several far off booming sounds. Everyone was told about the rain that was due in the next couple of days. Everyone knew what thunder was in theory, but it frightened many of the smaller children home. The first time he saw a bolt of lightning, it was from the corner of his eye. He learned about it, but had no idea that it would be so intense. He saw several more bolts arcing from the surface of the water to the looming cloud. The sky grew darker and the wind grew stronger and cooler. After a few minutes Jer had to wrap his arms around himself to stay warm. The people on the Beach, children and adults, began returning to their homes, but Jer remained. He wanted to see the first rain.
It was only about two minutes after seeing the first bolt of lightening that Jer noticed something else. A single, huge cloud, in front of the rest, appeared to be fast approaching the Beach. He figured it to be at least ten miles high, twice as high as any cloud he had ever seen before. It had a curious flat top, which was spreading out to the sides in a new and unique shape. It resembled a bizarre, black cup, overflowing with liquid. The cloud reached all the way down to the water and seemed to be no more than three or four miles away. It moved steadily closer as the sky grew darker and darker. He saw more lightning and felt the wind growing stronger and colder. The thunder too, continued to grow louder. Suddenly there was a light mist in the air and without warning; a gust of wind blew sand into his face. The same wind, which was blowing straight from the water, a moment later, pounded him from behind. Just as quickly, it returned to its original trajectory. The waves, topped with white foam, were coming four and five feet high and quite a bit faster.
Jer stood up and wiped the sand off his face. The wind wrapped around his body, causing him to rock side to side as he struggled to maintain his balance. The mist grew thicker and began to cover his body in a thin layer of cold water. His windblown hair stuck to his face. The thunder grew stronger, but now he could only see the cloud-hidden flashes of lightning. He looked up, squinting to keep debris out of his eyes. The huge flattop cloud was almost directly on top of him.
The waves, thunder, wind and mist, as well as the strobing effect of the quickened lightning, combined to accelerate Jer's excitement, when suddenly the rain began to fall. It came in large drops, at first slowly, but growing quicker and bigger, until within a few seconds he could hardly make out his own feet below him. The rain blew by him in waves. First a huge burst and then it slowed for a few seconds, followed by another huge burst. With each gust, the wind drove the rain into his face so hard that he finally had to shield it with his hands. He could not see anything and was beginning to shiver from the cold rain covering his body. He decided it was time to go and turned to make his way to the Palace garden, where he was allowed to stay during the day.
The memorial for Laton was constructed the previous day and Jer took refuge under it. It was a small shelter consisting of a ten foot high, fifteen by twenty foot roof supported by two poles, one on each end. The smooth, cold floor was covered with a three dimensional image of Laton's face.
Jer stood shivering under the shelter as he watched the rain. It rained for nearly two hours before finally letting up enough for him to make his way home. As he walked, the sand oozed through his toes and clumped onto his feet. He laughed, hopping over the gullies; the rain cut them out in the loose sand as it made its way down the gently sloping Beach. He was completely immersed in the experience. His feet seemed to weigh a hundred pounds each. The wet sand covered them and some of the people standing in the doorway of the Palace Audience Room laughed along with him as he trudged by.
The first time the newly liberated humans of Teteda-Ma traveled through space, the world looked on with apprehension. The Council chose four volunteers, from the thousands who wanted to go, for an automated journey to a nearby star. Before the journey, there were rampant fears that they would never come back, possibly return hideously deformed, or may even be killed. Upon their uneventful return, however, the fears subsided.
Most of the people of Teteda-Ma who had not joined the new military had little to no interest in roaming outer space, so the two and a half years that the government spent preparing a displacement vehicle for the use of the general public was generally ignored. When the time finally arrived for the first journey, it carried three hundred passengers to a neighboring star system. The vehicle was scheduled to go on the ninth anniversary of Donderon's defeat of the Line Maker, the annual celebration commonly referred to as Anniversary Day.
The ninth Anniversary Day ceremonies lasted three days and culminated in a six-hour light show. The people to whom Surella entrusted the organization of the show consulted with Crinn's Information Committee, which sanctioned the use of a variety of technologies ranging from fireworks to low-density plasma emitters. The climax of the ceremony, choreographed by Surella, was a fly over by the space ships of the Command Fleet. It was the most flamboyant spectacle ever witnessed on Teteda-Ma.
In synch with the Anniversary Day finale, the space liner, renamed after Laton, with its full load of civilians, zoomed away at a ninety-degree angle from the orbital plane of Teteda-Ma. The ship's SCI, controlling every aspect of the displacement journey, maneuvered it towards the appropriate displacement junction. Within three hundred thousand miles of the junction, the SCI activated four carrier force generators. The generators emitted a burst, dousing the huge displacement plasma shell. Within a handful of nanoseconds, the plasma's gravity increased to a critical threshold, near infinite proportions, creating a huge, momentary black hole. The hole, which had been the hull of the space ship just an instant before, engulfed the remaining center sphere and then collapsed. The ship, with its numerous features designed to withstand the stresses inside a singular event, traversed the extra-physical connection between Teteda-Ma and Vend-Ma. After a span of time barely measurable in memory, the displacement plasma reverted to its original, rudimentary form. Less than one quarter of a second after the SCI began the process, the entire vehicle reentered normal space.
The lone planet of the Vend-Ma system, a lush, watery planet, was a few million miles from where the vehicle appeared. Within a minute, it closed the distance to the planet. The passengers were boarding the transpods to depart for the planet surface. Jer could hardly contain himself. He stood inside one of the transport bubbles, watching as it carried him and several others from the Laton and dropped down towards the planet below. It took less than two minutes to reach the surface while Jer kept his attention focused on studying the first alien world he had ever seen with his own eyes. The features on Vend-Ma were a huge contrast to the still mostly gray and brown features of Teteda-Ma. There were forests covering the entire equatorial area and huge, blue-green oceans over both poles. The Information Committee determined the Ma altered the planets weather. They stopped all of its geological activity, removed all of its mountainous terrain and kept the two polar oceans well above the freezing point. Apparently, whatever caused the unnatural balance (there was no satellite in orbit) was still in perfect working order.
After touching down, Jer, along with the other nine passengers, filed out of the shiny, pink, blob-like transpod. It danced and rippled, just over the ground, waiting for their return. Jer was delighted with everything he saw. The sky was a bright, deep blue. It was a much richer color than the sky of his home planet. There were long, wispy clouds traveling along in the upper atmosphere. Numerous species of flying creatures could be seen. The area where they landed was the top of a high hill in the midst of a rolling countryside where a multitude of various sorts of plant life flourished. The ground was dark soil, covered almost everywhere with one to two feet tall, thick, greenish-blue blades of grass. Under a nearby fruit-bearing bush, Jer caught a glimpse of a small animal scurrying away from his dispersing group. Over a mile away was a herd of beasts stretched out towards the horizon. The beasts covered an area larger than a thousand pens. They moved slowly across the land, eating the blue grass and leaving the land barren in their wake. There were hundreds of trees, mostly of a single variety, placed sparsely across the landscape. The nearest tree, about one hundred feet away, was over fifty feet tall, comparatively small. Far off in the distance, perhaps ten or more miles away, Jer could see the edge of a forest. He looked up and was again struck by the beauty of the sky. One of the dozens of winged creatures, which was flying almost directly overhead, seemed to be watching them. He first noticed its strange wailing cry and then, when he saw it, immediately became uncomfortable with the situation. He seemed to be the only one who was, however, because the others in his group were moving out over the area surrounding the transpod, oblivious to any possible threat. After a moment, the flyer turned and headed away. Jer relaxed as he watched the thirty foot long winged creature glide out over the widely placed herd of beasts. After completing a single, giant circle, the flyer swooped down at the edge of the herd and plucked one of the smaller beasts up from the ground. With no noticeable effort, it flapped its long wings and shot back up into the air, carrying its struggling catch.
The preceding events came together in Jer's mind. The winged creature spotted him and his group, apparently passed them by as unacceptable prey and then attacked the edge of the slow moving herd. The beasts were at least two or three times larger than Jer was. He was the largest person alive, at least for now, standing nearly seven and a half feet tall and weighing over three hundred pounds. He had not felt small for several years. As a matter of fact, a couple of years ago, when the satellite implanted the nutrition devise, he started growing faster. He became acutely aware of his size and how he noticeably grew over just a few days time. However, on this strangely unnatural world he felt small. It was a welcomed feeling.
He sat down where he was in the two-foot tall, blue grass. The smell was faintly sweet and he breathed it in. He was happy in this immense wonderland. He laid on his back, looking up into the sky with a wide, toothy grin.
It was to be another year before the Military Commander would allow Jer to apply for duty and he spent that year building up his travel log. He returned to Vend-Ma more than ten times and visited the three new systems added to the list of destinations over the next several months. None of them seemed as large and eye opening as Vend-Ma, but they were each a new and exciting experience for his restless young mind.
On the sixteenth anniversary of his birth, the arbitrary minimum age for acceptance into the new military, Jer reapplied. Surella, while not fond of him, knew that the first adult male in the military would give her recognition of a sort. She made sure that his application was reviewed with expedience. Two days later, Jer was told to make his good-byes and report to the Long Voyage, a newly commissioned expeditionary vehicle. He arrived on the satellite to undergo the removal of the nutrition device, which had ceased to be a necessity and afterwards sat with Falleen for a few minutes while waiting for the transpod that would take him the rest of the way. She asked about his plans, he had only one, and wished him luck in the future.
"You will make a fine officer one day" Falleen said. Jer smiled and climbed into the transpod.
"Thank you for seeing me off." They waved to each other through the pink plasma of the transpod and he was gone.
The DV Long Voyage was much the same as the space liner Laton, but with less room for comfort. When Jer boarded the Long Voyage, bringing nothing with him, a crewmember met him at the transport entrance.
"Welcome, Jer" she stated in a proper manner. "I am Gerbin, the navigational officer." Jer smiled, extending his hand. She nodded and shook it. "Come with me. I will show you your room and your duty station." They went to a small room near the end of a deserted hallway. The room was less than ten feet square and featureless. "You will be staying here during off duty hours, Gerbin said. Jer stuck his head through the door and looked around. Having been told that a crew slept in community quarters, he wondered about the single, small room. His mother told him that he should not ask questions and he heeded her advice. Next, they proceeded to his duty station, located in the command section in the center of the large spherical ship. Jer was previously never allowed into a command section and his anticipation grew with each step. "You will be assisting at the tactical station, she informed him. They came upon a large round doorway through which Jer could see a small portion of a large bubble-like room. "This is the command sphere, Gerbin said. They entered and Jer gazed in wonder at the luminescent, gray room. Twelve podiums, with corresponding stools lined the inside surface area of the sphere. Jer looked at the closest podium, noticing the intricate designs covering its top. "The ship will keep you on the surface anywhere you are" Gerbin said. With that announcement, she stepped off and headed towards the top of the sphere, motioning for Jer to follow. It was one of the strangest sights Jer had ever seen. She mysteriously stayed affixed to the surface of the sphere as she traversed it. She continued up the side and then stopped as she reached directly over where she had begun, where Jer was still standing. They each looked straight up to see the other. Finally, slowly, Jer followed Gerbin to the top.
At one of the podiums in the shadowy bubble-room sat a lone figure whom Jer had not seen before. He could not tell if the mysterious person was interested in his presence.
"This is the tactical station, Gerbin said as Jer approached her. She was standing at a podium. Jer examined it closely. It was three feet high and glossy black. On top were three separate designs hovering just above its surface. One of them was green, another violet and the third white. Jer neither recognized nor understood anything about the patterns. "You will begin your training in sixteen hours. The SCI will let you know when that is. Go and relax now." Gerbin gave him a little smile and turned to head back for the entrance. Jer looked around, once again spotting the lone figure seated at the podium halfway down the side of the sphere. It was totally quiet in the room, except for an almost indiscernible vibration.
"You are Jer?"
"Yes" he answered. The stranger was about twenty feet away from him and he could make out nothing but her silhouetted outline. Jer smiled, but realized that she could not see him either.
"You are larger than I thought, she said. Jer's growth had slowed to less than half an inch a year but with the nutritional device, he continued bulking up at an enormous rate. He hoped that was coming to an end as well. At more than seven feet tall, he towered over everyone else. He long ago grew tired of it. "Will you be working on the command deck?" she asked after several uncomfortable seconds of silence. She knew what the answer would be.
"Yes." He nodded his head. "I'll be assisting at the tactical station." He began walking towards her. As he approached, he saw that she was a girl not much older than him. The look that came over his face could have given the impression that he had never seen a girl before. She was stunning.
"I am Lauopp, said the gorgeous girl as she stood up. Jer was struck by temporary muteness. He studied her face; feeling like it was all he could do just to keep from falling over. She was close to six feet tall, with smooth, tan skin; a thin lovely figure and a smile that made his knees buckle underneath him. Her hair was long, straight and silvery and her eyes were deep and dark, the color of the void of space. She extended her hand for him to shake and Jer stared at her for a moment. He finally took it and smiled meagerly.
"It is a pleasure to meet you Jer, she said. Jer said nothing. He was spellbound by the warm grasp of her hand. "Jer?" she asked after a couple of seconds.
"Pleasure to meet you" Jer repeated.
"I am a navigation assistant, she said. "I hope we will have the same shift, she added, knowing full well they would. Jer managed to upgrade his expression to a silly grin. Lauopp waited for a response and getting none continued speaking. "My shift ends in about four hours. Would you like to get together then?" Jer was still caught in her entrancing eyes and his subconscious took the initiative.
"Yes!" he croaked.
"Good. See you then?" she asked after a few silent seconds.
"Yes" he answered after clearing his throat. There was another uncomfortable stretch of silence.
"I will meet you at your room" she said.
"Yes" Jer answered again, finally understanding that the conversation was over. He blushed and turned to leave the command sphere. Just before stepping out through the doorway, he looked up at Lauopp and then slipped away.
Lauopp reserved some time in the secondary SCI monitor after her shift. When she met Jer at his cubicle, she took him there.
"If we go in together" she told him, "I can show you music." Jer did not understand music, but was eager to go with her. She took his hand and together they stepped through the doorway into the spherical room. It was identical to the monitors on the satellite and Jer had no problems connecting. The place it took them to, however, was not at all like the satellite. Jer took notice for a moment. They were bypassing the normal monitor functions, which were blaringly off limits and connecting directly into something totally new to him. The representations of their physical selves stood holding hands in a large cathedral like room.
"Crinn discovered the entertainment programs on the satellite, but I found this one here" Lauopp said. "It is a human program" Jer tilted his head, trying to hear a far off, deep thumping sound. "That is the beat, Lauopp explained.
At just that moment, a figure appeared from nowhere on a raised stage about ten feet in front of them. The figure, wrapped in a long, rainbow hued cloth covering his entire body, was adorned with an array of shiny golden accessories. On a strap around his neck, he carried a large, long, circular object with a flat top. The figure pounded on the flat top, which was apparently the source of the deep thumping sound.
"That is called a drum, Lauopp said. Jer was startled by a new sound. It was a high-pitched wailing. It reminded him of the eerie cry of the flyers of Vend-Ma. After a few seconds, he realized the pattern was repeating. A second figure appeared on the stage, cradling in its arms a large, colorful bag, which had several long, thin tubes sticking out of it. It appeared that the wailing sound emanated from the strange devise. The combined sounds of the tubes were reminiscent of some bizarre alien creature from his dreams. It was full of emotion. Jer was amazed. "That is a bagpipes, Lauopp said. "It makes the melody." The second figure wore a knee length cloth around his waist, which was mostly red and another, black in color hung over one shoulder, covering his torso. "The beat and the melody are two basic parts of music, Lauopp said. She smiled at him. As he tried to focus on her smile, he realized that he could not, that he was almost seeing through her. He returned his attention to the musicians. "I made this song myself, Lauopp said proudly. "Do you like it?" The song was evoking a response Jer could not understand. The only experience he ever had with music was when his mother sung him to sleep as a small child. He had a flash of a memory. He felt sad.
"It's sad" Jer finally answered.
"I made it when I was thinking of my mother" she said as she looked away from him. "The program told me to compose with emotion." She seemed to want to say or do something as she looked back up at him, but she did not. Jer smiled at her.
"Do you have any more?" he asked.
"No, not yet."
"How do you do it?" Almost instantly, the room faded from view, replaced by the normal monitor interface. Jer followed as Lauopp led him through the song-writing program. There were colors all around them and the link told Jer that each color corresponded to a different sound, note, or pitch. He watched as Lauopp's stream of consciousness, a bright white, oval point of light, flitted about, throwing off sparks, moving colors around. The colors, at first lying about in a totally random manner, began to form patterns that were pleasing to behold. He examined them closer, first from the outside and then from the inside. As he moved around and through the colors he could feel them as well as hear their sound. From one angle he could hear them all at once as a dissonance and from another they approached him one at a time, as single, quiet intonations.
Lauopp continued to rearrange the colors and Jer began to understand. The music he heard was something that worked with and on his emotions. The colors of the composing program represented not only sounds, notes and pitch, but even more so, represented certain states of emotion. Some emotions go together, just as some sounds go together, so a visually pleasing composition would therefore be aurally pleasing as well.
After a short time Lauopp finished her new song and they returned to the listening room. The sound coming from somewhere above them was entrancing. There was a moderately quick beat and a complicated melody along with several other elements Jer enjoyed. It made him want to move around. He swayed left and right with the beat.
"I thought about you" Lauopp demurely admitted. Jer was enjoying the music and did not register what Lauopp had said. "Do you like it?" she asked after a few seconds. Jer nodded and then realized the weight of her previous statement.
"You thought of me?" he asked her.
"Yes" she answered reaching out to take his hand. They stood hand in hand swaying to the music.
"Thank you" Jer said after a few minutes. "I think it is great." During the rest of Lauopp's monitor time, they composed several songs together and after a few hours returned to Jer's room where they sat and talked. Jer told her about his adventures aboard the satellite and she let him in on the goings on aboard the Long Voyage.
"We had a crew meeting and the Commander told us you were coming. She told us we were to treat you as a female member of the crew." She smiled at him. "I find that hard to do." Jer smiled back. "Some of the others are jealous." Jer expressed his surprise with a tilted look.
"Huh?" he said.
"They think you received special treatment."
"That is a lie!" Jer was astonished. He had waited a year to join the military. That was certainly no special treatment.
"Anyway, you should watch yourself. You have been moved ahead of everyone else your age." Jer looked down at the floor. He knew that Surella asked Besfa to assign him to the Long Voyage.
"There are no others my age" he insisted. Lauopp nodded.
"I just want to explore. I do not care what others think of me."
"Do you care what I think of you?" she asked with a shy voice. Jer shrugged.
"I guess so, he answered. He suddenly felt uncomfortable. She smiled. It was better than a no.
After several hours, the SCI interrupted them, informing them that their shift was about to begin. They talked about all kinds of things, Jer's plans, her plans and they both enjoyed the time. When the call came, they went together to the command sphere.
On a displacement ship, the only thing for an individual to do is watch. During nominal operation, the SCI is capable of controlling everything. Human presence is only necessary as a back up should a problem arise. The Ma had kept extensive records of their space ship activity and the only instances in which a Ma was needed to play a role in the ships function were in times of battle, when certain parts of the ship were damaged. Because of that information, it was assumed that the SCI would never fail, but the Ten Generals decided to take no chances. They fully trained their crews. To do this, they employed the SCI monitor aboard each ship. The monitor could implant a lesson so that the student felt as though she had done the job herself. This was not their only training method, however, as the Supreme Commander insisted on real training as well. "One must do the action before one can be said to be familiar with the action. To know is not enough." The statement was repeated throughout the spatial displacement training files the Supreme Commander had given to the Ten Generals. They took it to heart, constantly training their crews.
Jer finished his first shift knowing little more than he had when he started it. Buran the tactical officer, a bulky, middle-aged woman from his own home pen, spoke not a word to him and simply sat watching the designs on the podium. The designs moved about, often intertwining with one another. Buran occasionally touched her finger to the surface of the podium, in apparently random locations. The designs flapped and fluttered and then quickly returned to their slow dance. Upon closer examination, Jer noticed that the patterns were slowly changing. He could not pick out any recognizable, repeating patterns, but he did see various patterns shifting and changing within each design. By the time his shift was over, Jer felt that he had more questions than ever, but once again, taking his mother's advise to heart, as well as following the lead of the other assistants in the room, he remained silent. There was an occasional word or two from a few of the officers, but otherwise, they were silent as well. At the end of three hours, Buran told Jer to meet her at the secondary SCI monitor twelve hours hence. Jer acknowledged her and exited the command sphere to wait for Lauopp outside.
After a few minutes, he took a quick peek back in and saw that the assistants who remained were now in the place of the officers they assisted. Lauopp was at the navigational podium, concentrating on the designs. He could see the colors shining up onto her lovely, soft features that were contorted in thought. Jer shrugged and went to his cube to sleep for the first time in over thirty hours.
He could hardly close his eyes, there were so many thoughts bursting out of his mind. Soon, the Long Voyage would be setting course for unknown worlds and the thought of going somewhere that no one else ever had excited him very much. The fact that the Teteda-Ma exploratory fleet was already exploring many of the nearby stars for nearly three years discouraged him little. He knew there were a near unlimited amount of worlds to visit. First his mother and then the Elders had told him so and later on, during his time aboard the Laton, he learned that there were many charted worlds which the Ma had visited and kept records on. So far, the exploratory fleet had been to less than ten percent of those worlds. The thought of stepping onto those dream worlds followed him as he finally drifted off into his own dream world.
"I have decided to scale back the number of my public appearances" Donderon said to the full Council. Most meetings were attended by less than two thirds of the Council. She instructed that Surella insure everyone was present for this particular meeting. "I have found it increasingly difficult to conduct business. It has become impossible to see everyone who wants to speak with the Supreme Commander. I am sure you understand my point. She took a pause and a breath. This is my final word on the matter." She drew her white robes about her and proceeded to exit the Council chamber.
"What will be done to fill the void?" Xashwin asked. Donderon stopped and turned to meet her gaze. She showed a slight frown, which Xashwin realized was especially for her.
"The Second, or any of you can speak to the people any time you wish. I have no intention to limit what you say or how often you say it. The freepress will surely deem you, as an important government official worthy of coverage. I am sure they would like to analyze you as much as they have analyzed me."
Jer's first thoughts upon waking were of Lauopp. The thoughts he had of her while he prepared to leave his room made him blush. He recalled the previous evening's encounter. It was his tenth night on the space ship and the things they did transformed his opinion of females. He never even considered that they were designed to mingle so well. It was fairly obvious now, but he guessed that without a willing partner, he never would have thought of it on his own. As he left his room and hurried down the hallway, his thoughts turned to the mission the Long Voyage was preparing to undertake. There had been a meeting of the ship's entire complement in the dining room the day before, in which the ship's Commander, Klaopa described the journey ahead.
"We are going on a standard exploration," the Commander told her crew. She began reading out loud from her personal viewer. "The star Fairga-Ma holds four planets in its orbit. The closest to the star has a natural satellite appearing in the records as an outpost." Klaopa looked up from her viewer. She smiled, being a generally jolly person. She was from the pen of Sof and wore the knee length, white, sleeveless robe of Saffer's church. She looked at one or two specific individuals as she finished in her own words. "We have ten planned missions and others are authorized. These assignments will be based on merit. Now, everyone on this vehicle is qualified, or will be, by the time we arrive, so I hope everyone will have the opportunity, but it is up to you to show me who I have on this ship."
Being on the Long Voyage instilled excitement in Jer and after Klaopa's briefing he was even more anxious to join in on one of the surface missions. He truly felt that he was ready, but the curiously aloof attitude displayed towards him by Buran, his officer, had originally caused him to wonder. She seemed like a nice person when he was acquainted with her on Teteda-Ma, but now she treated him as though they had no history. After a few days on the ship, however, he assumed that it was how she was expected to act. Now it was what he expected from her as well. He no longer wondered if he were ready. He knew he could show them he just needed the opportunity.
Standing behind Buran, watching what she did for six hours was usually a real bore for Jer. He got through it by telling himself that soon he would be seeing things no one else had ever seen. On the day of the journey, Jer was not bored. From where he stood in the command sphere, he could easily make out the worried expression on Commander Klaopa's face. She sat in her chair, floating in the center of the spherical room. She was a large woman with a large demeanor. She hid her cheerful side well during on-duty hours, but Jer knew that she was not hiding anything at that moment. She was nervous for a reason; it would be the first trip for this vehicle. Nothing could be guaranteed.
"How long?" Commander Klaopa asked in a stern voice.
"Four minutes, thirty-five seconds remaining" Gerbin, the navigational officer announced. Lauopp was standing behind Gerbin and Jer noticed her long silvery hair, recalling its soft feel. He began to blush again and he forced the thought out of his head in a near panic. He steadied himself, frightened by his near uncontrollable reaction to these simple memories. He looked around to see if anyone had noticed. This was a powerful thing he had discovered.
"Three minutes" said the navigator. Jer's heart sped up again, but this time he was not alarmed. The impending spatial displacement to the Fairga-Ma System was the source of his excitement. He could feel the other's anticipation as well. He watched Commander Klaopa as she checked the numerous dancing spots of color on the arms of her floating chair.
"Beginning final start up sequence" said Buran. Jer watched his mentor manipulate the odd symbols in a recognizable pattern. He smiled to himself. Perhaps he had learned something from the three-hour session in the SCI monitor. When Buran told him that he learned all that there was to learn from that lesson, he held back his protest. He knew that he should not question authority and did not, yet he had not one single memory from the experience that he could relate to her. Now, he realized the memories were coming back in a very selective way. He knew what Buran was doing. She was going over the final start-up checklist for the carrier force/displacement generator. He realized that he could easily do the same thing if given the opportunity. He felt supremely self-confidant.
"One minute" said the navigational officer. The announcement startled him. It seemed for him that the time was going by very fast. He began counting in his head. He was at twenty-six when Gerbin announced Thirty seconds. She continued counting down out loud. With each number spoken, with each second that passed, Jer felt more exhilarated, almost beyond belief. His previous displacement experiences were not counted down for him and he never even felt the jump through space. This time would be different because the journey was to be several times longer and he knew would be noticed in a physical way.
"Twenty seconds" Gerbin said.
"Start up sequence is complete" Buran announced. Jer inhaled each lungful of air as if he would not get another. By ten seconds, he felt that he would not be able to contain his excitement much longer.
"Five" said the navigator. The Commander took a deep breath.
"Four." The room was almost audibly crackling in anticipation.
"Three." Jer took a deep breath and held it.
"Generator initialized" Buran blurted out.
"One!" Buran touched one of the symbols that Jer recognized would send them to another part of the galaxy. He felt a sensation throughout his body. He felt like he was growing in height. His feet were suddenly further away. Before he could examine the effects visually, it was over.
"Displacement location is point zero zero four three off the mark" Gerbin said a moment later.
"The gravitational mass is equivalent to the target body" said Buran. Jer saw the particular arrangement of the symbols that she interpreted to make her report. He was astonished to find that he was reading the language of symbols that he was only beginning to recognize a few seconds ago. He was confused for a moment, but it passed. His excitement overpowered any other emotions he could possibly muster.
"Assume standard first orbit" Klaopa commanded. She rose from her suspended chair in the center of the sphere, spun around and glided up through the air to the exit.
"Take over the display, Jer" Buran said. She and the other officers rose and followed Klaopa through the exit. Jer did not know what to do, so he stood there for a moment watching the other assistants. They each took the seats their respective superiors had vacated and commenced watching the display in front of them. Jer copied their actions, but had no idea what he would watch for on his display. He sat there watching to see if any of the others would look his way. He kept his eyes on Lauopp for almost a full minute, waiting to see if she would look over at him, before finally looking down at his display. When he focused his attention on them, the symbols dancing just above the display leapt up towards him. He was startled and reflexively checked if anyone noticed his odd behavior. When he refocused on the symbols, he felt as though they were drawing him in. He recognized everything he saw. The SCI learning session came back to him in what felt like a burst of insight. Jer knew not only what he was looking at, but also how to interpret it. He was astounded at the wealth of information he could glean from the three symbols as they danced and meshed with each other.
They orbited a huge planet of gasses, with hundreds of tiny satellites. One of those satellites however, was quite larger than the others. It was about three quarters the size of Teteda-Ma and had a vibrant environment. The Ma used it as a simple outpost on the outskirts of their defended territory. They expected it to be mostly unaltered by technology. This mission to the first possible wild habitat caused a noticeable excitement within the new military. There had so far been no habitable planets discovered that had not been altered in immeasurable ways by Ma technology. Jer hoped that it was true and that he would be able to directly take part in its discovery.
There was no word from the officers for nearly an hour. During that time Jer used the display to learn all he could about the external sensors readings of the target body. He knew that the information would surely come in handy. He also enjoyed it. When the officers finally did return and chose a team for the first surface mission, Jer was devastated he was not included. Lauopp, chosen for the team, gave Jer a quick, sympathetic smile as she left the command sphere. Jer managed a smile in return. Well, a description from her first hand would be some consolation anyway. Buran returned to the display and took her position as Jer jumped up from the seat.
"Your shift is over" she said. "Go and report to the SCI for another lesson program." Jer's lip turned up. He was disgruntled at having to spend more time in the monitor while his companions where exploring the surface of the target body. He knew he should be going with them.
"As you command, Buran." Jer showed all the enthusiasm he could manifest, which turned out to be very little. He retreated through the exit and grumbled the entire way to the SCI monitor.
Jer had to wait only two ship days to live out his dreams. He was chosen for a surface mission and told to report to the briefing room. He wasted no time in doing so. After waiting several minutes for the briefing to start and then sitting through what he had earlier gleaned from the information available, he and four other novices, led by two officers departed for the surface.
Jer could not believe his position. As a child, being held captive on a lonely, barren planet had been a hindrance to his capacity for dreaming. He recalled a time, as recently as three years ago, when all that was available for him to do was to lie out under the stars, imagining what it was like to see those other worlds he was told were there. Discovering the vehicle had been the turning point of his life and now he was here, watching from the transpod as he and his companions were expelled from the plasma hull of the Long Voyage. The trip would take them to a far away, unexplored world, a real world. He was grinning and did not even consider trying to hide his exuberance.
The briefing was only useful to Jer in so much as it organized his thoughts. He learned about the mission and all the surface information during his last shift. He had been studying each mission in anticipation of just this occasion. It was to be a simple information gathering expedition, basically the same sort of mission that the previous six had been. He and his four peers were assigned to go to one of the areas of the large moon which had been shown could be hiding Ma structures. They would spread out over the terrain and, using portable scanners, search for any signs of technology. The two officers would join in until something was found, at which point they would stop to investigate while the crewmembers continued searching. It was to be a ten-hour mission.
According to the Information Committee, the only reason to engage in surface missions was that the technology used to examine the worlds of the long dead Ma race was Ma technology. The Ma were aware of the faults in their own systems, faults that humans were not aware of. The ability of an SCI to scan the surface of a planet was limited to discovering only those things that the Ma were not hiding. The only way to be sure was to carry out a surface mission. The Supreme Commander's training manual formulated it in one simple sentence. "One must do the action.
So far, over the past two days of exploration, nothing had been discovered since the long distance scan of the moon on the first day. Only the outpost facilities kept here by the Ma had been discovered then and they had been in ruins for millennia. There was no sign of anything worth salvaging.
Jer examined that scanner information for nearly an hour in the SCI monitor during his off time the previous day. He recreated the ruins and walked through them using his physical representation. There was little left of the buildings that were above ground. The rooms located below ground were filled with debris and were of no consequence. The indigenous plant life almost completely overgrew any sign of the facilities. The team that first encountered the ruins had to remove the plant life using a dp/cf device before they could move in and examine them first hand.
As the transpod flew out and around the huge displacement vehicle, Jer caught his first personal glimpse of the massive gas planet. It was a beautiful blue-green color, with sparse, thin bands of white fluffy clouds dribbled across its upper atmosphere. At first, it looked to him like a huge planet of water, but he knew that was not the case. Jer watched the wispy clouds as the transpod zoomed low over the planet towards the tiny speck that was their destination. As they traveled along, they streaked through the very top layer of gasses that comprised the planet's atmosphere. Jer watched, wide eyed, as the bottom half of their transpod softly glowed from the friction. They skipped over the top of the atmosphere and headed directly for the speck in question, which was by now a dot.
The mission members were all dressed in knee length, gray, open front robes. They were held closed with a strip of cloth, secured around the waist. The strip was of the same gray color for novices and red for officers. The cloth belt was used to hold the tunic closed, as well as for carrying their personal survival devices. The devices, miniature displacement plasma/carrier force devices, were endowed with enough power to sustain life in most harsh environments for several weeks. They were programmed specifically to create and sustain an atmosphere held in check around a single individual. The device is controlled through the chemical reactions of the user's body. The members of the expedition each carried in their hand a slender, eight-inch long, silver rod, capable of broadcasting and receiving in every wave length of the physical spectrum. Their range is several hundred miles and are used for communication as well as a portable, personal scanner and recording device.
Jer watched the tiny moon as they flew closer and closer. The pod began slowing and they plunged into the atmosphere. It spit back a shower of fire and sparks as they slowed significantly. The transpod dropped through the atmosphere towards the wild, multihued green surface, coming to a gentle rest over a low ridge. The expeditionary members exited the transpod. The officers led them down the ridge into the jungle that blanketed most of the small moon. They spread out. The jungle, with its thick, tall trees and vegetation of all types, was quite dense and difficult to maneuver through. Jer walked along, slowly waving the temporarily issued rod out in front of him. He almost immediately lost sight of his companions, as he expected. The jungle ceiling began about twenty feet overhead, but the vegetation was so thick down near the ground that he had difficulty seeing even his feet, not to mention the trees above him.
Due to the high nitrogen content in the atmosphere Jer's survival device already activated as he stepped out of the transpod. Now it was powering up to repel the onslaught of a multitude of plant life, all of which was attempting to do him harm in one way or another. The device created a field of energy about his body that was impervious to the pricks and jabs of the vines and stems surrounding him. After a few minutes of slow progress, a cloud of incredibly tiny creatures suddenly surrounded Jer. The creatures swarmed him, making it even more difficult to see where he was going. He tripped, almost completely loosing his footing. As he grabbed at the nearest branch to regain his balance, he dropped the silver rod. It repeatedly clinked against various pieces of vegetation as it found its way to the ground. He looked around, trying to see where the device may have come to a rest. He could see nothing.
"Where are you?" he quietly asked in a melodic voice. He bent over the location where he thought he heard the last of the clinking sounds and began prying back the concentrated plant life. After a few tries, he spotted the device and with a grunt and a final tug on a large vine, he was able to reach through the vegetation and retrieve it. By now, he figured, he must have gotten quite a bit behind the others. He hurried his way through several yards of dense jungle.
"Where are you Jer?" the silver rod said. It was his mission leader's voice and Jer's heart sank, realizing he had been caught.
"I beg your pardon, commander, he said in a whiny voice. "I encountered an odd species that slowed me down." The device carried his response to his leader, who was only another few yards ahead of him.
"I found something, one of his peers announced over the device. "I think it is another building." Jer could hear the excitement coming from Meargra's voice. He leapt over a felled tree and came out of the jungle into a relative clearing. He spotted his leader, along with two of his fellow novices making their way towards where Meargra was standing.
"What have you found?" asked Tradjie, the mission leader. As Jer rushed over to join them, the other two members of the expedition entered the clearing as well.
"It appears to be an underground structure, Meargra said. "It seems to be sealed from the inside." As the group reformed around the spot where Meargra indicated, Poll, the mission's second officer, held her silver rod out over the ground. The others followed her example. The device was designed by the Ma to input its information directly into the concious stream of the user so as they held their devices, the team became aware of the large hollow area beneath them. It extended under the area in which the forest opened up, apparently hampering the growth of the larger plants. The spot they concentrated on was the area where the ground was the thinnest. They were able to determine that it was a door of some type with no handle or any other visible means of opening.
"Stand back" said Tradjie. As they all stepped back, she lowered her arm, aiming her silver rod at the apparent door. Jer guessed that she was preparing to clear away the dirt and vegetation that blocked a direct view. She stood there aiming towards the ground. The dirt and dead vegetation began swirling around in a small funnel shape.
The next thing Jer recalled was opening his eyes. The branches above him crisscrossed the sky. He was sprawled out on the ground at the edge of the clearing. His head throbbed with pain like he never experienced before and a powerful ringing assaulted his ears. He quickly realized it was not an external sound and wondered for a second what it could be. He next noticed his belt, with his survival device and silver rod were gone. When he attempted to rise, the pain, accompanied by a bright flash, burst through his head and he slumped back onto the ground. Whatever happened must have been devestating. Surely one of his companions would have come to his aid by now, if they could. His head, though throbbing horribly, was not going to stop him from determining what happened and he again tried to rise, much slower this time. As he pushed himself into a seated position, he could see that there was a large hole where they had all been standing during the last moment. There was no one else in sight and he began to fear. Up till now, he side stepped panic, but understood he was going to have to fight it off full force here after.
He placed his hand on his head, in an attempt to keep the pain at a tolerable level, and tried to stand. The thick, thorny underbrush slashed and pricked him, but he paid no attention. As he attained a standing position his head felt as if it were about to explode from internal pressure. He stood without moving, eyes closed, holding his head between his hands. Within a few seconds, when the pain was once again bearable, he opened his eyes and saw, for the first time, the devastation that he only imagined before.
The hole was about ten feet across and descended into darkness. The vegetation, which previously covered the ground, was now hanging off the nearby branches. The ground, or rather, the top of the structure they had discovered, was now exposed to direct view. It was a dark brown, almost copper color and had a texture that resembled the fabricated inner linings of the pen walls back home. Jer looked around the clearing, trying to see if he could spot any of his fellow explorers.
"Where is everyone?" he asked aloud. There was no answer. The eerie quiet almost overpowered his attempt to maintain control. After a moment, he slowly stepped towards the gaping hole in the ground. He noticed the ground, the ceiling of the structure below, was rather warm under his bare feet. "Are you there?" he directed into the hole. A minor echo returned to him, but nothing else. Just then, he spotted someone through the trees in front of him. He could see the dark shape of a body lying on the ground, motionless. As he approached her, he knew instantly that she was dead. His heart jumped into his throat and he stopped. It was Tradjie, his mission leader and she was covered in blood. Her robe was blown completely away and she was lying face up. Jer could see the sunlight glinting off of her lifeless eyes. Blood was pooled on her seared, crushed chest. Jer was standing behind her just before everything went black. She apparently took the full brunt of the event; broken and burned as she was. Jer turned to make his way back to the other side of the hole and spotted a second body. He was surprised to see someone hanging in a tree, just to the left of where he had been thrown. He hurried around the hole and before reaching the second victim, whom he recognized as Yetrella, nearly stumbled over Poll, who was lying on the ground, face down, apparently lifeless. He bent over, fighting his panic, as well as the intense and increasing pain in his head and turned her over. His heart raced. She was alive, though her breathing was very shallow, having also lost her survival device. He moved to quickly position her as comfortably as he could, elevating her feet, as he was taught by the SCI and then continued towards Yetrella. When he reached her, he wrapped his arms around her waist and eased her out of the tree. He gently placed her on the ground. She also had her clothing blown off of her but she was alive. She was bleeding profusely from a wound on the back of her head and struggling for breath. He cursed the fact that they were so far from the waiting transpod on the ridge. The only way out, he knew, was for him to personally carry Poll, Yetrella and anyone else he could find, to the ridge, wherever that was.
Jer noticed he was breathing very hard. He could not get a full breath of air no matter how hard he tried. He opened his mouth wide and sucked in all he could. The nitrogen rich air he was breathing was slowly killing him and his companions. He had to act quickly.
"Can anyone hear me?" He called out as loud as he could. Again, there was a dead silence. Heaving his breath, Jer was about to give up on finding the three other expedition members when he heard a sound. His first thought was that he imagined it and then for a moment he thought that it might be Poll, but he heard the sound again. It was definitely another survivor.
"Where are you? Can you hear me?" Once again the groan came and as he made his way towards it, he spotted her. It was Meargra, lying on her side in a large patch of green-brown vegetation. The plant covered her with tiny gashes. As with the others, she had lost her tunic and belt. Jer rushed to her aid and saw another victim, Bralill, laying on the ground just the other side of the patch of vegetation. After carefully extricating Meargra from the thorny plant, Jer ascertained that, though she was worse off than Poll, she was not yet in grave danger. Next he went to the aid of Bralill, who was so far the only one still in possession of her personal survival device. He reached down and turned her over. Her face was covered with a swarm of tiny creatures, the same creatures that earlier hindered his progress through the jungle. They were apparently feeding, as they already consumed her face, eyes and tongue and were teeming through her nose and ears. He gasped in horror, dropped her and stumbled backwards, falling over the final victim. Sallisa was lying crumpled at the base of a tall tree. Jer could see the point at which she impacted the tree. Her tiny body was crushed. Jer, with his legs draped over Sallisa's bruised and battered body, propped himself up on his elbows. Completely out of breath, he had to vastly alter the self-calming method his mother taught him to keep from hyperventilating and passing out. He knew that if he gave up now, it might be the last chance for all of them.
Jer focused his attention on the point within himself where he received his life force and within several seconds, was able to almost bare the pain. His breathing deepened and slowed some and he regained his composure, a bit. He tried to stand again, but this time, he was completely unsuccessful. He could hardly see from the pain and was ready to give up, when he remembered Bralill's survival device was still around her waist.
Jer forced himself up onto his hands and knees and peering as well as he could through the quickly descending cloud of pain, crawled the couple of feet over to where Bralill was lying. He collapsed onto the ground and reached out, fumbling for her belt. He could not even lift his head and it was a frustrating few seconds before he could inch along far enough to finally grasp the device in his hand. Instantly reacting with his living body chemistry, it saturated him in an oxygen rich atmosphere. He was able to take in his first deep breath since awaking and the cloud of pain began receding. With a few more deep breaths, he was able to lift his head off the ground. The pain, though still excruciating, was letting up enough for him to once again think about getting his companions and himself out of there.
It was more than a full minute before he was finally able to stand. He wrapped the one remaining survival device around Yetrella and lifted her and then Meargra up onto his shoulders. The strain nearly toppled him both times, but he kept his mind focused on the task. After they were securely on, he turned to take a last look at Poll. He had reservations about leaving her there, but he knew he would never be able carrying all three of them. Poll seemed to be in the least danger at the moment. He had to make a decision, so he chose to leave her for the time being and get Yetrella and Meargra out of there as fast as he could.
Without a silver rod, Jer had to rely on whatever innate sense of direction he might have. He headed off towards where he came from, squinting to see through the undergrowth of the jungle, trying to spot any sign of the short ridge they landed on. He climbed over and ducked under plants and trees, getting more and more exhausted and discouraged as he went along. The jungle seemed to go on forever. It was as if he were traveling hundreds of times the distance he thought was necessary. He was once again on the verge of total collapse when he finally caught a glimpse of the pink transpod through the dense jungle. With renewed hope and an as yet untapped reserve of energy, he surged through the remaining vegetation and bounded up the ridge towards the waiting blob. He heaved Yetrella and then Meargra into the transpod and then clambered in behind them. With a flash of thought, the transpod zoomed into the air and retraced his journey. He was amazed at how short the distance actually was. From the ridge to the clearing was little more than thirty yards. He almost laughed.
In a flash the transpod came to a rest just off the ground in the center of the clearing. Jer took two more deep, oxygenated breaths inside the transpod and leapt out onto the ground. He lifted Poll, who appeared to be close to consciousness, up and into the transpod. As he climbed in, he directed the vehicle to take the shortest route, as fast as possible, to the Long Voyage. It shot up at a fifty-degree angle, leaving the atmosphere within fifteen seconds.
With the help of the medical facilities aboard the Long Voyage, Poll and Meargra recovered in a matter of hours. Neither of them had sustained any serious injuries. They, as well as Jer were simply knocked unconscious. Yetrella however, incurred a serious head wound. She had to be isolated and monitored for complications for several days. It was determined that if she had been left without medical aid for only a few more minutes, the damage would have been irreversible.
Within three hours after the return of the surviving expedition members, Klaopa ordered the crew to prepare for the journey to Teteda-Ma. Jer's initial reaction was disappointment, but the gravity of the events quickly removed the thought from his head. For hours afterwards, each time he recalled the day's events, it seemed as though everything had been a dream. He wondered if it was not some sort of SCI training session, but when he remembered the image Bralill's horrible death, he knew better. It would be a day before the ship was ready to depart.
After an exhaustive debriefing by several of the officers, Jer was finally able to return to his cubicle. Lauopp was waiting for him since hearing about the incident on mission seven. She wrapped her arms around him, hanging on for a long time. Jer was bruised all over and covered in minor cuts and abrasions. They were healing at a sped up rate due to the remedy applied at the medical facilities, but they still smarted. Since his intensive interview, he was in no mood for company. Standing there with her, Jer suddenly felt that he was no longer as enamored with her as he was over the past few days. He had enjoyed her company, but now he was anxious for his own company. He finally pushed her away and told her that he was very tired and wanted to sleep. She hugged him again and then, head down she left.
Jer ordered the SCI to play some music for him and he tried to relax. It was less than five minutes before he realized that he was not going to be able to sleep. He got up and went for a stroll along the corridors of the Long Voyage, eventually finding his way to the secondary SCI monitor. Jer entered the monitor and proceeded to examine the data collected from the seven silver rods of mission seven. The SCI combined the information into a single virtual environment. The entire jungle around the ridge and the clearing was recreated for him. He walked around the clearing in his physical representation. He watched while the seven mission members stood around Tradjie as she began excavating the area at her feet. There was a spike in the energy spectrum around the clearing and then a single, massive burst of heat energy sending them flying through the air. The scanners showed that Tradjie was dead before reaching the zenith of her short flight over the clearing. Bralill, standing just to the left and behind Tradjie, had her neck broken and died within a minute of landing in the dense vegetation. After her survival devise deactivated, the bizarre swarm consumed her entire head in just a few minutes. Sallisa, as he had surmised at the time, was killed from the impact with the tree. Meargra and Poll, as well as Jer himself, were all thrown clear by the shock wave and sustained little serious damage. Yetrella was also thrown clear by the shock wave, but incurred a head wound when landing in the tree. Jer watched the ghostly image of himself, battered and bleeding, moving about, examining the victims, one after the other. It was several hours later, hours that Jer hardly noticed, when the SCI informed him that he would have to leave the monitor due to a previous reservation. During that time, he relived the disastrous event and the minutes after, several times. By the time he left the SCI monitor, Jer determined that it was just a simple matter of where one was standing as to whether or not one was killed. This began to weigh heavy on his mind and he began thinking of ways that this type of incident could have been avoided altogether.
Long before the Long Voyage finally returned to Teteda-Ma, the news of the disaster rapidly spread throughout the population. In her report to the Council, Commander Klaopa did not have to emphasize the fact that Jer performed admirably during an impossible situation. His actions spoke for themselves. She did explain that Yetrella would most likely have died had he not acted as he did. Military Commander Besfa recommended a commission for Jer. After a days deliberation, the Council agreed and promoted Jer to officer. Besfa assign him to the Ram, the Command Fleet's flagship. Jer was not as thrilled as he pretended to be when Klaopa gave him the news, but he knew he would be reassigned at a later date. He knew it would be foolhardy to turn down such a generous reward.
A week later, the Council released the scanner data to the Information Committee. The Committee converted the data to be read by personal viewers, quite common by that time, for broadcast over the satellite network. The variety of viewer shapes, sizes and colors multiplied profoundly and the information available on the thousands of wavelengths to which a viewer could tune was sometimes overwhelming. The freepress specialized in filtering the information, offering it in a few simple categories for the perusal of the public. The data from Fairga-Ma One point Seven was sifted and reduced to its prime factors and presented as a scene in a story. The disaster became the most talked about event since the appearance of the first space ship over Teteda-Ma. Jer was instantly elevated to the status of hero in the eyes of the populace, as well as those within the military.
Jer went out of his way to avoid Lauopp during his last four weeks aboard the Long Voyage. Mostly, he remained in his room, announcing that he was tired, or that he was busy reviewing data. She made every effort to accommodate him, but it became quite clear to her that he was no longer interested. She was disappointed, but not terribly surprised. She certainly did not understand his sudden loss of interest, but some of the pre-captive human literature she discovered in the Long Voyage's memory showed that it was not an uncommon behavior for a young male. Jer, for his part, did not understand it either, but neither did he care to. It was over and he was done with her. It was quite simple. When the order came through for him to relocate to the Ram, Jer bid farewell to his crewmates and went directly to his new ship.
Donderon was in her fifty third year and had been thinking for days about the decision that faced her. A small displacement vehicle of the expeditionary force called the Rundown failed to return from a very high profile mission. It was six weeks since the ship was scheduled to return from Send-Ma, the star system located at the center of Ma charted space. It was supposed to be a standard information-gathering mission, but by now, something had obviously gone wrong. The news of the missing mission became a regular topic on the freepress channels less than a week after the Rundown failed to return. After a few more days, everyone on Teteda-Ma was waiting for Donderon to do something and wondering why she was not. Donderon pondered her options. She was limited to doing nothing, or sending another mission. The former would undoubtedly be unacceptable.
"I am at a loss for what to do" Donderon confessed. She and Besfa sat in a small, secured room aboard the Voider, Donderon's personal ship.
"It is a difficult development, but if I may suggest...?"
"The Ram has a full complement of crew and that crew is most well trained. Commander Atru has gathered over a dozen of the best officers in the fleet and they are quite ready for anything. I suggest you send the Ram to find the Rundown. Bring it back if possible, but find her crew for sure." Donderon thought for a moment. She would have to send another ship. The Ram was the biggest, strongest and best-crewed ship in both fleets. It was the obvious choice.
"Thank you, Commander." She considered some other problem for a few seconds and then spoke again. "I will address the public in four hours. Do you think Atru can have her people ready by then?"
As Donderon made her speech, her face showing the fatigue and restlessness that she experienced over the past few weeks, the Ram moved out of Orb orbit and made its way towards the local displacement junction. It would ultimately trace three of them to arrive at Send-Ma. Jer was at the navigational interface inside the huge command sphere in the center of the flag ship. He deftly guided the oversized ship towards its destination and called out when they were within range. Commander Atru silently signed a command to turn the rest of the displacement procedure over to the Ram's practiced novice command crew. She and the rest of the officers left the command sphere to meet in the room next door.
"We doubtless have a difficult mission ahead of us, said the Commander as they were all taking their seats. Jer's anticipation was building since he first guessed that they would be chosen for this mission. He knew what they were going to do, as did the rest of the crew, but this was the first time that Atru had actually broached the subject. "The Supreme Commander herself has given us the task of finding the Rundown, determine what happened to it and if at all possible, to bring it back."
"Has there been no word?" Bendrall, the tactical officer asked.
"None. We have zero information." The room took on a distinctively gloomy cast while the fact that there was absolutely nothing known about the first mission sank in. Jer knew for days that the Ram was the most likely candidate for the mission. He was hopeful about the new unknown, but now that he understood the facts of his mission, that an entire displacement ship, along with its crew, may be lost, or even destroyed, he followed the solemn example of the other officers. "We will take a full, system wide scan as soon as we enter the Send-Ma system and then decide our next move" Atru said. "I am sure that I do not need to tell any of you how important it is that we proceed with complete caution." Atru looked around the room at her officers. She regarded them all with the utmost respect and would trust any of them with her life. There was one member of her crew that she regarded above the rest, however, because of the outstanding talent and effort that she had seen manifest in him so many times during the past year.
Atru first became aware of Jer when she saw the scanner records of his heroic performance on Ferga-Ma. She was impressed with the determination he had shown and had asked several of her contacts in the Council to assign him to her command. She was, at that time, still bringing her current crew together and knew that anyone with experience on a wild planet would certainly be an asset. When he came aboard she was very pleased with his eagerness to learn and the way he performed his job. He was, by now, her strongest officer in every position, an unprecedented accomplishment. Eventually, she knew, he would command his own ship, but for now, he was in her crew and she felt no reservations about using his abilities to the fullest.
"Jer, I want you to lead the surface team. You choose who will go and they will be the only surface team for this mission."
"As you say, Commander" Jer answered. He knew the significance of the mission and the fact that Atru had chosen him to lead the only surface team, seemed like quite a coup for him. He also realized, however, that his was probably the hardest and possibly the most dangerous job on this mission. He put that out of his mind and began thinking of whom to choose for his team. At that moment, there was a chiming sound, which signaled that the final displacement was beginning. The officers somberly rose from their seats to return to the command sphere.
As the Ram entered Send-Ma local space, the crew initiated a full range, system wide scan, aimed at revealing the location of their target. About half of an hour into the scan, Bendrall reported that the Rundown was found in a standard orbit around the second planet. Close to an hour after that, when the scan was finally over, Atru gave Jer the order to move them in. They were nearly one billion miles from the Rundown and it would take all of two hours at an average speed to cover such a distance, but Jer was not going to take any chances. While leaving the controls to the SCI, he limited the ships speed to less than half of what it was capable of. The trip took over four hours, during which they repeatedly tried making contact with the Rundown or anyone in the area. There was no answer. Finally, after completing its careful approach, the Ram entered a long-range orbit of the second planet. All scans up to that time had shown there were no signs of life on the planet, or in the ship, but a simple visual observation showed that the planet was a thriving preserve of life. The Commander decided that the first surface mission would be to the Rundown, to see if any of its crew survived. Jer had to hurry to finalize his team member list.
Jer packed the surface team with the best and most intelligent crew members aboard the Ram. He chose ten team members and five backups in the event any problems arose. Sherom, a short, slender woman, nearly twice his age was his choice for mission second. She was an abrasive person, who would accept no excuse for failure. She expected the best of her peers and subordinates, as well as her leaders and always performed her duties beyond expectations. Jer was usually not too comfortable around her because of the rivalry that he perceived existed between them for the still unassigned position of ship's second, but he did not allow that to cloud his judgment. Lycium, Jend and For All, rounded out his team officers. He considered them the best of the command sphere crew. The rest of the team was formed from those whom Jer considered to be the best of the novices. There were four males and two females and the back ups were all males.
The males of Teteda-Ma were growing as large, lean and muscular as Jer had. He stopped growing only in just the last year. He was now an imposing seven feet, ten inches tall and weighed three hundred sixty-two pounds. His physiology had transformed him into a titanic display of muscle and while it was going on, he was constantly hungry. The satellites medical files had the specifications for a device that supplied him with the proper nutrients each day, but the hunger pangs never went away. Usually, he was distracted, but whenever he did eat, sometimes as much as ten times a day, he would consume several pounds of food. It had only been in the past few months that his body, as well as his hunger had stopped growing. Now, he was able to get by on four or five meals a day. Slowly, the satellite files had explained, his physiology would return to nominal and eventually, by the age of twenty-five, he would be able to get by eating as he had before beginning his race into adulthood. Some of the older people that he had known when he was younger told him that every male human would one day mature as he had, but it was little consolation at that time. Now, as he met more and more males in the military, all of whom exhibited the same sexual dimorphism he did, he began to relax about his enormity. Lately, the quickly maturing male population of Teteda-Ma was bolstering the ranks of the new military, filling up the positions aboard the remaining un-crewed ships. The Ram took on over one hundred new recruits during the last four months, over three quarters of whom were male. Atru once mentioned to Jer her belief that he was the reason so many males were joining the new military, but Jer considered that a silly assumption. However, after having conversations with quite a few new male novices he had no choice but to accept it as a possibility. There had been only two who attributed their initial interest in the new military to anything other than watching Jer's experience during Fairga-Ma One point Seven on their personal viewers.
Anticipating that the surface team's target, the Rundown, may have permanently lost its command functions, Jer took along a portable SCI in a box about two foot square. It would be capable of directly connecting to the vehicle, allowing it to guide the crippled ship home. The connection would be made using the dp/cf device built into it and thus it had no openings or other markings on its white, metal surface. His team members wore the standard mission garb; a gray tunic held closed by a cloth belt containing a personal survival device. They each also carried with them a silver rod. The team assembled in the transpod corridor nearest the command sphere and boarded a transpod.
The Rundown was several hundreds of thousands of miles away and the trip between the ships lasted for nearly ten minutes. There was absolute silence during the voyage, save for the occasional sigh, or clearing of a throat. As they neared the Rundown, they all stared at the ship as it floated, apparently lifeless, in the black void.
The Rundown was a model of the smallest version of displacement vehicles, with a standard crew of thirty, which was just one percent of the full crew of the Ram. There were more of these smaller types of ships than any other, but they were the last to be fully crewed, since the Supreme Commander wanted the largest ships filled first. The Rundown was one of the first small ships to be sent on an exploratory mission, nearly six months ago and the trip to Send-Ma was its fifth mission. Up to now the exploratory fleet encountered only the one problem of the mission to Fairga-Ma and Jer was determined to not let the same thing that happened to the Rundown, whatever it may have been, happen to them.
As they reached the area where the ship was floating, Jer gave the transpod the order to remain a safe distance out from it. The team visually inspected the dead ship, noticing that they could not see through the displacement plasma shell into the center where the ship's core rested. The surface of the plasma was a dull gray color and there was no movement or lights of any kind.
"Jend, give us a scanner report" Jer said. Jend had been using her silver rod to scan at full range during the journey, as Jer instructed her to and was now directing her scans straight in towards the center of the Rundown.
"I am reading some of the structure of the ship, she announced slowly. She had her eyes closed, which allowed her to more readily visualize the scanner information. "I have no readings on the SCI, or any life signs. And there is a curious absence of oxygen in the ships atmosphere."
"Jend, I want you, For All and all novices to spread out through the ship. Sherom, you and Lycium will accompany me to the command sphere." As Jer finished his statement, he directed the transpod to proceed into the plasma shell of the Rundown. As the vehicle changed course and headed for the surface of the ship, there was a collective breath holding, as if they were preparing to go underwater. The transpod slowed greatly, to minimize the collision with the inert plasma. Its carrier force generator went to full power, allowing it to penetrate the surface tension of the dead ship's hull.
The going was slow and a bit bumpy, but they finally made it all the way through the gray, dead plasma to the center core of the ship. As they generated an opening, activated their survival devices and cautiously entered the dark, foreboding corridor, Jer gave instructions to each individual team member. He sent most of them to locate specific areas of the ship and report back on the conditions there. The others he told to wander the halls looking for any signs of life. Jer, Lycium and Sherom, waving their silver rods in front of them, made their way through the darkness towards the center of the ship with the portable SCI following behind them under its own power.
After Surella was inducted into the church, she began devising a plan to gather whatever power she could, as well as bring new followers to her dream. She estimated that within a couple of years she would be ready to act on her original plan of removing Donderon from her place as the head of the government. Several years ago, she finally came to the realization that she would not be able to remove Donderon as originally planned. Ma technology made a removal by force very dangerous and if it was to succeed, she knew she would have to have the military on her side. The military however, had developed a loyalty to Donderon that Surella did not understand and she knew she would have to figure out some way to disgrace her to accomplish her goal. She had thought long and hard about a variety of ways to throw aspersions onto Donderon's ability to lead, if not her character, but she finally had to accept the fact there was little that could be done to a leader who was rarely ever heard from. The Send-Ma mission speech was only the third time since beginning her self-imposed exile that the public had even seen the Supreme Commander.
There was another way. She could divide Donderon's power base. She could work on the people themselves. She could use the rift in the church, between those who followed the Dow and those who followed Umbobo, to exploit the tensions seething just beneath the apparently calm surface of Teteda-Ma society. She had attended several of Donderon's so called audiences and saw first hand how the people were divided over even the simplest of subjects. When the military was being organized, there were calls from over twenty pens to abandon the space ships and remain on Teteda-Ma. The formation of the Information Committee received several complaints from a wide range of leaders and average women alike. Surella knew that there were a large number of dissatisfied groups out there just waiting for her to exploit. All she had to do was find them and be nice.
Council member Jona, being possibly the most controversial, as well as one of the most influential members within the church, was the first and most obvious target for Surella. She was a diminutive, if not frail woman of forty-seven years and was the type of person who believed the best about everyone, until they gave her reason to rethink her opinion. Jona almost always had a smile on her face and a kind word. She was one of the most cheerful people Surella had ever encountered and at times she felt she was a little strange. Jona's position within the church was without title, but unmistakable. She had the ear of the Dow Saffer, as well as Umbobo's trust. The only other person in the church whom Surella had ever seen her defer to was Sof, the Dow's chosen successor. Jona seemed to be the unacknowledged spokesperson for the church. She was chosen for delivering addresses through the church's assigned satellite broadcasting channels more often than any of the other powerful church members combined.
Since Laton's unfortunate death, Surella and Jona became closer as colleagues, as well as acquaintances. She was the first, after Laton, whom Surella had approached to join the original Council and the first, after Laton, to do so. Surella felt that Jona, while certainly not her equal, was one of the few truly important people and more often than not, enjoyed her company. During the last three years, Surella reinforced the trust Jona seemed to have in her.
Over the past four years, Xashwin had completely changed her attitude towards Surella. She was equally distrustful of Donderon as she had originally been of Surella. Over a year ago Surella began to suspect that she changed her opinion of Donderon. She questioned her actions more frequently and was the most vocal of the Council members who felt an invisible leader was no leader at all. Her role in the church was as the foremost of those who wanted it to have more power within the government. Surella knew that Xashwin would need little convincing to join her in her plans and hoped that perhaps if Jona saw how she had won over someone who originally had been against her, she would be less resistant.
Surella asked Jona and Xashwin to join her for dinner one evening. They arrived around Orbset and Surella greeted them with a now customary handshake. She invited them into her huge home. The building itself was half underground and was one of the most elaborate dwellings in the area. The style over the past couple of years was to build as large and posh as possible and Surella designed this new home with that in mind. There were soft, thick, multicolored mats on the floors and elaborate, decorative wall hangings throughout. The walls and ceilings were various bright colors and there were dozens of huge stained glass windows set in the three above ground levels. She incorporated many of the human comforts recorded in the satellite files and added those that had been created by the new stylists.
As she led her guests to the dinning room, she ordered her personal assistant, Peren to fetch some refreshments. The room had bright blue walls, with white columns in each of the four corners. The ceiling was also white and was covered with complex design work in lush shades of color. The designs represented plant and animal life. There were long curling vines and tall intricate trees filled with a colorful array of birds. There were depictions of insects and small reptiles throughout the vines and trees and one bright orange bird had a four-winged creature hanging half out of its mouth.
They made small talk during dinner and laughed a few times at each others stories. After finishing their meal they retired to a smaller room with a view of the Ocean.
"I suppose I should tell you why I have asked the two of you here, Surella said in a rhetorical way. She was still not exactly sure how she would begin, but she was not going to let that stop her from starting. "I remember when you were the most vocal opponent I had" she said looking straight at Xashwin. They sat down on a large, cushioned, sunken couch, occupying the center of the small, cozy room. "And now I call you friend."
"And I you" Xashwin responded with a smile. As Peren brought them each a tall glass of clear, thick liquid, they said nothing. When Peren left the room, Surella cleared her throat and began speaking again.
"I want to call for a vote to remove Donderon from the Seat of Command and I want you two to help me." Xashwin's eyes grew wide and she discontinued drinking.
"Did you?" Something catching in her throat interrupted her and she coughed loudly.
"Is this some joke?" Jona asked with a laugh.
"No" Surella answered. "I realize this is a shock, but if you will give me a few moments to explain?" Jona nodded seriously.
"Please do" Xashwin said. Her eyes watered from the discomfort in her throat.
"When the First One originally accepted the Seat of Command, it was on a temporary basis, as you are both fully aware. But that changed. The events leading up to the First Expedition left us with no choice. The people wanted the most well known person to lead them.
Understandable." She paused, as she often would, to see how her audience was reacting to what she was saying. So far they had accepted her telling of history. "There are quite a few people who do not believe that Donderon should remain in the Seat of Command indefinitely. I am sure that if asked, most of the people would think that there should at least be a new vote, but we all know that will never happen."
"Why do you say that?" Jona asked.
"Donderon has no intention of relinquishing her place. She will never allow a vote to throw her out."
"Where did you get that information?"
"It is self evident" Xashwin answered for Surella. "She would have called for a new vote years ago, if she had the intention. Just look at what she is doing." Surella smiled, but not too much.
"Xashwin refers to the Supreme Commander's refusal to perform her duties publicly."
"But she explained that" Jona said.
"Right" Xashwin responded, "and she used it as an excuse to stay out of the public eye. She does not want to be seen anymore than is necessary. It would cause people to ask questions."
"If she stays out of sight" Surella said, "the people will forget that she is actually running the government. She knows that the only way for her to increase her hold on power is to remain out of sight."
"There is no evidence of that, Jona said.
"Donderon was who we needed when we first began exploring our freedom," Xashwin said, "but now what we need is a leader. She united us but her time has passed."
"I want to organize those who feel as we do" Surella said. "If we could force a vote I feel sure that Donderon would withdraw voluntarily."
"And what makes you think I feel as you do?" Jona asked.
"I do not assume" Surella answered, "but I do know you are intelligent and fair minded. A vote is the only intelligent and fair minded thing to do."
"I have heard of the same complaint from within the church, Jona said. "Umbobo began to speak of this sort of thing before she was made co-leader, but those voices were quelled when they were included in the new church." Surella could hardly believe what she had just heard. There was always a suspicion on her part about the formation of the official church, but she could never figure out Donderon's angle. She had finally decided that it must be as it appeared; a simple maneuver to reunite the church and add to her power base. Now she realized that it was the only thing she could have done if what Jona said was true. Why would she lie?
"That is a fine example of exactly what we are discussing" Surella said. "If Umbobo had been able to organize, Donderon would have been forced out of the position long ago. She is manipulating things that she should have no part of to begin with."
"As the First One, it is her right to do what she feels is best for the church" Jona countered. Surella conceded that point reluctantly.
"Even though a nonbeliever, the First One does have every right to do as she wishes with the church. But that does not give her the position of Supreme Commander for the rest of her life. She is there only because the people wanted her to be there."
"I cannot disagree with that."
"She is the First One because she was born the First One" Xashwin said, "but she was not born a Supreme Commander. We think it is time she answered to the people."
"That is why I want you to join us, Surella said. Us was a much stronger word than I. With Xashwin trying to convince her, it would be just a matter of time before Jona gave in.
"I do not know" Jona answered. "I understand what you are saying and it seems to me that a new vote is not out of line. But... "
"I know what you are feeling" Xashwin said. "When Surella called the Higher Laws meeting, I was more than just skeptical, but I eventually saw that she was right. You will see too." Surella called for Peren to refresh their drinks. It was her way of breaking the tension and giving everyone, including herself time to recover. She could hardly believe that it was going so smoothly. She could say anything she thought they would believe and then do what she pleased and get away with it. The possibilities suddenly seemed endless to her.
"If I join you" Jona said slowly, "what would I be expected to do?" Surella took a deep, calming breath. That was it. Jona was in.
"You are the most influential member of the church, Jona" Surella said. "If you know of someone discontented with the ways of things, you could let them know about us." She paused to see what Jona might be expressing on her face. So far, it was the longest that Surella had ever seen her go without a smile. She remained expressionless.
"I would not be expected to argue against the First One?"
"That is for you to decide" Surella said. "If you think that is something worth doing. But I ask only that you consider our request."
"I will, dear, Jona said with a feeble smile. She was weary of the problems this conspiracy could cause and was not prepared to commit right away. There was no doubt in her mind that Surella was sincere, but she wanted to think about it. "Give me a day or two, she said after a moment.
The next day, after the morning church services, Xashwin and Jancoo had their breakfast together, as they did almost every morning. Jancoo, the Dow's personal clergical assistant, had been responsible for bringing Xashwin and her entire home pen into the church and they had been best friends for the seven years since then. It was that afternoon that Jancoo told the Dow Saffer about the clandestine meeting between Xashwin, Jona and Surella. Xashwin was fully aware that the information would get to the Dow and was counting on the fact that Saffer disliked Donderon very much. She was hoping to work out a meeting with the Dow to help Surella force the vote. She was, however, unaware of Saffer's distrust of Surella.
From the time that she brought her into the church, Saffer wondered if there were some ulterior motive behind Surella's conversion. Originally, she felt that Donderon may have sent her to disrupt her ability to control the church, but she soon disregarded that theory. Surella was out to further her own interests and no one elses. This was backed up by the findings of a short investigation conducted by her people in the Information Committee. Surella knew that the church had a great influence on the people of Teteda-Ma. She was now apparently doing her best to reignite the divisions that existed before the church had been united. If she was successful, the church could re-divide and Saffer ran the risk of loosing her leadership role to another. She was not about to let that happen. Well over a year ago, Saffer began a plan to use the Council of Elders to fortify her place at the top of the church. She urged those Elders who pledged their allegiance to the church to nominate other devout church members to the Council. There were now more church members than non-church members on the Council.
Saffer figured on using that power to leverage herself into a position that would ultimately allow her to remove Umbobo as co-leader of the church, but now, after learning of the secret meeting, she wondered if she might be able to do something about Surella also. She began thinking about it day and night.
Umbobo was teaching others the ways of the Holy Mother Mary for something like thirty years. She was not exactly sure when the first time was, but it was no later than the age of five. From that time, she steadfastly learned from her mother everything she could and passed it on to those who would listen. She attracted attention from the start. Her outgoing, energetic personality allowed her to develop a loyal following as well as a few daunting enemies. Her followers, now greatly populated by people from outside her home pen, enabled her to attain a very powerful leadership role. Her enemies ranged from jealous colleagues to rivals for her power. The most notable of these enemies came later on when the Dow Saffer entered the scene.
Although her earliest memories of teaching the ways of the Holy Mother Mary were blurred with distance, she still had a vivid recollection of the first time that she realized the strength of her convictions. For years she taught things she had taken for granted. One day during her seventeenth year however, her entire life took a drastic turn. Everything that she processed through her own mental dialogue coalesced and for the first time she saw the entire view. Her mother had disappeared for the last time. Everyone was touched by the disappearance of the most respected teacher of the ways of the Holy Mother Mary. A days long ceremony was given in her mother's honor, but she could not join in the mourning. She was confused, even disappointed by the way the leaders turned the event upside down. Umbobo thought they should be celebrating her mother, not crying over their loss. A few days later, she assumed the role her mother left her.
For the next dozen years, Umbobo used her place to change the way the Holy Mother Mary was praised and sung to. It was a gradual change from social self-pity to joyous celebration. By the time the walls came down, Umbobo lead her people as Elder for half of those dozen years. After the revelations of the First One, it was brought to Umbobo's attention that the Holy Mother Mary was not universally known. She set about organizing small groups of missionaries to venture out into the world, charged with teaching the unforgiven. Soon after, the Dow Saffer contacted her, explaining in quite simple terms that there could be only one church. She announced that she was prepared to graciously absorb Umbobo's version of the church into her own.
Umbobo and her people, undaunted by the egotistical attitude expressed, began a dialogue with a succession of representatives from Saffer's church. After several months of seething hostilities, Sof, Saffer's personal assistant, finally took it upon herself to settle the question of who would absorb whom. In a short time, Sof, face to face with Umbobo, agreed to model the future church hierarchy on the organization of the First One's home pen. With that agreement, tensions relaxed and time went on, but Umbobo never let her guard down.
In a span of five years, little progress was made in the development of the new church leadership. The gentle hand of Sof pushed along what did transpire. Umbobo never really expected much from her enemies and she conducted herself with that in mind. She grew content with the situation, since there appeared to be no organized threat, but when word came that the First One was taking control of Surella's Elders, change was again immanent. Umbobo correctly guessed that Saffer would do what she could to provide her church with a strong voice in the new government. She also assumed that she would undoubtedly use the occasion to imbue herself with more power. Umbobo sent a messenger to the Dow telling her that the people she represented would accept no less than an equal voice in whatever new power structure arose within the approaching government. Saffer saw fit to ignore the messenger, never allowing her to deliver her message. Once this fact was relayed, Umbobo knew that time had grown short. She redoubled her missionary efforts and began to plan for a time of confrontation.
The Traditions of Umbobo's people warned of such a time. There would be an actual battle, people fighting against people; this the Traditions spelled out for her: "In the forming days of the second church, just as all is returned to calm, the true test of faith will come. Sisters will be forced to destroy sisters. There will be blood on the hands of the innocent. Two churches will rise from the ashes." Umbobo often wondered what Saffer's Oral Tradition had to say about these times. Was there a warning of an unavoidable disaster? Umbobo's people kept this revelation secret, had Saffer's people done the same? The future would tell and in the meantime she could only prepare.
When the First One offered co-leadership of a new church, Umbobo wondered if the prophesies of doom would turn out to be wrong. She only wondered for a short time. It became painfully obvious that the Dow had no intention of incorporating Umbobo's people into the church leadership. Umbobo herself was snubbed at every turn. She realized, with a burning in the bottom of her stomach, that the time of devastation was quickly approaching.
Over the next four years, Umbobo's approach to teaching the ways of the Holy Mother Mary changed. Once a joyful experience, attending one of Umbobo's services now left one with a distinct feeling of impending doom. While she would never discuss the prophesy in public, she constantly alluded to a personal knowledge, which, she claimed, would save all who heeded her warnings. By the tenth year of freedom, Umbobo's services had taken on a legendary status in the community of Teteda-Ma. There was never an empty seat in the tiny church where she taught and after a while she began holding services twice a day, instead of the standard once a day.
"Have you come for entertainment or for salvation?" she would often ask her audience. The regulars, accustomed to her flamboyant manner, answered her with a rousing shout.
One afternoon, a small woman, calling herself Urun, came to see Umbobo. She wanted to broadcast one of the legendary services to the entire world.
"Is this something the First One has asked for?" Umbobo wanted to know.
"I have been given a channel to use as I wish. I wish to let the people see you."
Urun sat across from Umbobo, watching her for signs of a decision. She had been a devoted follower of the church of Dow Saffer, until the day she saw Umbobo speaking on a late afternoon a handful of years ago. She was so moved, that she renounced her old ways, converted and committed to getting Umbobo's message out. She became a member of the Information Committee, working on the inside, eventually making her way to her current position. Just a few days earlier, she was given a channel on the satellite broadcast system. She was to program what she felt would entertain the people. It was time for her to act and she was meeting with Umbobo to get things moving.
Umbobo was not sure if she should allow her words to be amplified. She wondered if it would detract from her message, it seemed such an unnatural thing. After a few seconds, having fully deliberated the question within her rapid mental word flow, Umbobo decided that it would be a benefit, in the long run, to have her words reach as many people as possible.
"Yes. Tomorrows second service, will that be alright?"
"Of course!" Urun answered excitedly. She took a breath to relax herself and then asked one last question. "Do you have a special message prepared?" She waited in anticipation for a response. Umbobo eyed her, taking careful notice of the scores of fine braids resting on her shoulders. The hair that comprised them was at least three different colors, black, blond and red along with hints of a few others.
"I will do my best to save their souls. That is all I can say for now."
"I understand. Thank you, Mother Umbobo. The world will not soon forget what you are doing." Umbobo was sure of that.
By the next morning, she prepared nothing and as the day went on, she continued to remain unprepared. She was not the worrying kind, but the upcoming appearance on the satellite broadcast system had her focused on one thing after another. The day tripped by at a dizzying pace and by the time of the first services, scheduled for the early afternoon, Umbobo was beginning to have doubts as to whether or not she would allow her second service to be broadcast.
Urun sent two of her assistants into the tiny church to set up the three silver rods needed to record every detail of the evening service. They finished their work and were preparing to record the first service as a test. Urun opted to keep Umbobo uninformed of this tiny detail. She figured it was quite insignificant.
When Umbobo made her appearance for the first service, she was still uninspired for a new, rousing message and decided to go through her usual routine. She could almost do it without thinking and figured that she might try a little improvising near the end, just to see where she could go. The routine teachings, warnings of everlasting damnation and a call to repent before it becomes to late, went routinely. As she came to the end of her speech, she remained uninspired and prepared to leave the stage when she was hit with a new idea that surprised her. She had never thought of this before and wondered why not.
She stood at the front of the church, surveying the multi-colored faces of the unforgiven. There was an almost palpable tension in the air. She had not excited the audience during the service and they seemed disappointed. She took a deep breath and spoke again.
"There are two forces in this world, my sisters. She held up a hand. One, the force of good, the force of our Mother Mary, is a passive force. It remains only by invitation. Be passive yourself and the force of evil will push itself into your life. And then, sisters, you will no longer have a life. Evil will take control, leaving you as a worthless shell." Her voice rose in volume as she closed in on the point. The audience, not half awake from the uninspired monotony of the preceding speech, were jolted into attention. She would eventually need to ask her people to fight, to lay down their lives for a cause, and she realized that that time was fast approaching. She must begin now.
"We cannot wait for the force of good to take us to some salvation, in some heaven, far away. She lifted her hand up towards the ceiling of the church. To live life forgiven, you must fight!" She shouted at her audience. They were shocked. The few regular members of the audience perked up to watch as Umbobo shifted into a fiery, animated messenger mode. "We must all fight. I fight every day to keep the force of evil at bay. Do you, my sisters? Do you fight?"
"Yes!" several people answered. She looked through the people, various sizes, shapes and colors, looking for someone she could recognize. She fixed her gaze on one whom she had seen at her services before. The woman, obviously in the twilight of her life, smiled up at Umbobo. She was one of the few vocal members of the audience.
"Do you fight every day? Do you fight to keep the force of evil at bay?"
"Every day!" the woman answered.
"That is right, sister. We must fight!" She looked over the rest of her audience. She felt like she could explode at any moment. If the words came to her, as they usually did, she had the emotion, the might in her mind to deliver the message.
"If there is not a constant struggle, every day, to keep evil at bay... Beware! She shook with excitement. It came through her voice. We have to move forward. We cannot stand still. Standing still is a mirage. It is a delusion of the unforgiven. Inaction is a choice. I urge you to make a better choice. The only right choice." She waited a moment and then shouted at the people watching her. "Stand up! Stand up and show evil we will fight to the death! We choose the right way! The only way to live forgiven! We will win the struggle!"
As she waited for the audience to get on their feet, she suddenly had the words. She smiled, almost laughed at her joy in finding them. She enjoyed this kind of moment more than any other. She knew that the Holy Mother Mary herself had given her the words. She knew that she would be saving souls now.
"When the time comes we will be called on to fight for more than our own insignificant souls! We must be ready to give our very lives to save the souls of thousands! Thousands of unforgiven souls!"
"Mother Mary forgive them!" someone shouted to her. She lowered her voice, forcing the people to listen quietly to her next words.
"The act of giving, sacrifice, that is how we will be remembered. We are the first generation to live in freedom. When we are long gone, sisters, we will be looked to as the example. We will be the models of behavior. The children of the future will conduct themselves according to what we do now. We are the example for the fighters of the future." She threw her arms out, symbolically embracing her audience. "We will fight and die and live forever!" The audience cheered her and Urun thought that she might send out this service instead. The last few minutes were more than she could have ever hoped for. She was on her feet too, cheering for the fighters.
Sherom and Lycium accompanied Jer to the command center of the displacement vehicle Rundown. Their personal survival devices had activated, allowing them to function in the absence of oxygen. There were no lights, no sounds, nothing to indicate that any of the original crew was still aboard the ghostly ship. As they continued, Jer received periodic reports from the mission members he sent exploring the rest of the ship. So far, none reported any sign of the crew. The ship seemed like a cave to Jer. He explored several caves during his trips to Vend-Ma, but this was the most eerie exploration he had ever undertaken.
The silver rods they carried with them projected a beam of bright, white light in front of them. The rods were unable to pick up any infrared energy and there was no other energy registering from the ship itself. It was as though the Rundown had been completely emptied and shut off. Their silver rods pointed them in the direction of the command sphere and when they finally reached their destination they stopped to examine their surroundings.
"Sherom" Jer said, "see what you can do about getting that door open." Jer sent the activation code through his silver rod to the portable SCI. It hummed to life and waited for his next command.
"The door will have to be forced open, Sherom said. She was investigating the control panel on the wall next to the door. Command sphere doors were designed to withstand the stresses of combat, as well as interspatial travel. Forcing one open would not be an easy task, however this door, a monstrous, metallic circle, ten feet in diameter, was not locked. Jer and his two officers pushed it aside using a force beam from their silver rods. It began to slowly roll out of the way. After moving the door enough so they could squeeze themselves through, Jer shined his light into the dead, darkened sphere. He had never seen such an ominous sight. It was dark and hazy and there was a unique, oddly attractive scent, which seemed to fade away after just a few seconds.
Jer gave the portable SCI a command to search out and connect with the command section of the Rundown's computer. The two foot square box slowly floated into the command sphere and began reaching out with its energy emitters to find a way to hook into the ship. Jer monitored its progress, watching as the white box floated motionless, invisibly probing the command sphere. He wondered what could have possibly caused the damage to the Rundown that he was seeing through his silver rod. There were signs of power over load as well as power drain. He was stumped and figured on determining the cause as soon as possible. The SCI signaled there were no salvageable circuits throughout the entire command sphere and that it would be half an hour before it could create enough replacement pathways to activate the ship. Jer acknowledged the report and gave the go ahead to begin.
"I want to investigate the displacement generators" Jer said, "you two wait here."
"Are you sure it is safe for you to go about on your own?" Sherom asked. Jer headed off down the corridor.
"I'll be fine. When the SCI connects, contact me." He disappeared into darkness.
Walking slowly, he made his way south through the ship, towards one of four displacement generators. He could not help but feel odd about the condition of the Rundown. Before, he did not want to let on about his feelings, but now that he was alone, it seemed to be growing more odd by the second. He felt a fear in the back of his mind. On three separate occasions, he stopped and turned around to shine his light down the hallway. He felt as though something was watching him, but there were no signs of life anywhere. His silver rod, like all silver rods, was not capable of penetrating some of the walls of a displacement vehicle and he was limited to scanning the immediate vicinity, leaving him wondering about the rest of the ship.
Each time Jer would descend another level, he caught the faint smell that he first noticed upon entering the command sphere. The silver rod registered nothing and Jer began to wonder if he were imagining it. As he moved closer to the generator level, the scent grew stronger. It seemed to remind him of the succulent aroma of food, but he could not determine exactly what it was. By the time he was half way to the generator level, Jer was beginning to think there was definitely something wrong with the situation. He called for his entire mission team to report in. One by one the team members reported. Everything was going fine. Sherom reported the SCI had finished almost half its job, updating the time estimate to less than twenty minutes. Jer took a deep, calming breath to relax and continued on his way.
The team he sent to investigate the carrier force/displacement generators had reported in, telling him that the one generator they already checked, appeared intact, but was completely shut down. That certainly did not surprise Jer, since he saw first hand the damage to the command sphere circuits. There would be no way for the generators to remain activated with the total loss of command functions. It seemed that once the portable SCI re-established command functions, the generators would be ready to power up.
Jer finally reached the generator level and a couple of minutes later, entered the large, bare room where the first generator was located. There was no sign of his team members. He cast his light onto the gray, floating sphere. It was seven feet in diameter, the smallest displacement generator model so far discovered. It was suspended in mid air, three feet off of the ground. The single light beam from Jer's silver rod split into two as it reflected off of the dark sphere's surface. Jer thought that the double beam bouncing off and lighting up the room created an interesting effect.
The scent that had been everywhere was strongest in the generator room. He looked around, trying to spot anything that may be the cause. What he did see, at first caused his mind to quiet. The words usually flowing through his head silenced. There, lying on the floor, as though it had been carelessly dropped, was a silver rod. After a moment, his mind registered the object and his word flow started up again. He quickly walked around the generator, to the rear of the room and squatting down over the silver rod, got a closer look. There was a clear, liquid like substance covering the rod, forming a small pool around it. Try as he might, he got no readings from the liquid or the rod on his own silver rod. It had to be the source of the strange scent. He reached out his finger, touching the liquid and then raised it to his nose, breathing it in. It was definitely the source. What could it be? He stood up and looked around. There was nothing else in the room. Using his silver rod, he called the team that had been here just a few minutes before. He received no answer. He suddenly realized that he was right all along. Something was wrong. He could not fathom what it was. He spoke into his rod.
"I want everyone to meet me in the transpod corridor" he commanded urgently. "Is there anyone here?" he called out into the hallway. There was no response. "Hello?" he shouted. His voice echoed through the hall, finally dying away after a few seconds. He sent two novices to investigate the generator level and now he was beginning to think it may have been a mistake.
When Jer showed up at the transpod corridor, there were already six of the ten mission members waiting for him. Sherom, Lycium, Bis and Fri Rul were still out somewhere in the ship. He was able to immediately ascertain that Sherom and Lycium were on the way, but still could not contact the team he sent to investigate the displacement generators. He ordered the six into the Ram's transpod and stood guard at the doorway, waiting for the others to arrive.
"What happened to Bis and Fri?" For All asked. Jer stood motionless outside the transpod.
"I wish I knew, he answered quietly. There was a coughing echoing down the corridor. Jer saw two lights rounding the corner over a hundred feet away. "Sherom?" he asked through the silver rod.
"Yes?" Sherom answered.
"That is you down the hallway?"
"Yes." Jer's heart sank. He had hoped that somehow his novices had found their way back to the transpod. He knew they would have reported in by now if they could. As the two officers hurried down the corridor and entered the transpod, Jer tried to raise his missing team members once again. There was no response, as he had feared. Reluctantly, he turned and boarded the transpod. He gave the order and the vehicle dislodged itself from the ships center and proceeded to make its way through the inert plasma hull of the Rundown.
"What was the status of the SCI?" Jer asked without turning to face his team.
"As we left" Lycium said, "it was less than five minutes from engaging the Rundown." She coughed. Jer was shaken by the rough sound of the cough. He turned to look at her.
"Are you alright?" he asked her. In the dim light of the transpod, Jer thought she seemed a bit off color. He could not be sure.
"I think so, Lycium answered. "I do not know what is causing" She put her hand over her mouth and coughed again. This time the cough was harsher, much heavier and she seemed to have a hard time regaining her breath. As she finally did catch her breath, she brought her hand down from her mouth and stared at it. It was covered with a clear liquid, which was mixed with blood. After a few moments, the blood completely disappeared, leaving only the clear liquid behind. Jer was appalled. He examined her closely and saw that she was somewhat discolored after all. It was then that he noticed the aroma. It was only for a split second, but unmistakable.
"Commander Atru" Jer said into his silver rod, "Prepare the medical facilities." His team went from watching Lycium to watching him as he spoke to the Ram.
"What is it?" a voice asked through his rod. The voice was slightly garbled by reception interference, but understandable.
"I don't know" Jer answered. Lycium coughed again. This time she was seized by a convulsion throwing her to the floor of the transpod. She let out a groan between coughing and gasping for air.
"What is wrong?" Sherom asked her urgently as she knelt over her, holding her head up off of the floor. There was blood coming from Lycium's nose and her eyes were rolled up. The clear liquid was flowing down her cheeks from her mouth and she seemed to be unable to breath. Suddenly, she heaved and a burst of liquid exploded from her mouth covering Sherom's arm. After that, she lay on the floor, motionless.
"What is happening?" one of the novices screamed.
"Quiet!" Jer commanded. "Is she?" he asked Sherom. She carefully lowered Lycium's head onto the floor and then looked up at Jer. He did not require an audible answer. It was obvious from her face what the answer was. Jer stood looking at his officer, dead on the floor. He could not think. There was a booming silence in the transpod. Sherom stood up.
"What are we going to do?" she asked him. "If this is what happened to Bis and Fri Rul, what is keeping it from happening to us?" Jer remained transfixed by the lifeless body of Lycium. After a few seconds, Sherom shouted at him. "Jer!" He snapped out of his trance and looked at her. She appeared slightly off color. Did she have the same fate awaiting her? Did they all?
"I... " Jer began to say. Sherom coughed.
"Holy Mother Mary!" shouted the same novice. "We are all going to die!"
"Shut up!" Sherom said between coughs. "What are we going to do?" she asked Jer again. There was a cough from one of the others and Jer began to think it was possible.
"I do not know, he said quietly. Sherom began a fit of coughing and was joined a few moments later by another.
"Jer" shouted the novice, "you have to do something." They were half way to the Ram.
"Just relax, he said. "There is nothing we can do until we reach the Ram." Sherom, coughing horribly, fell down to her knees. She tried to prop herself up against the side of the transpod, but it oozed out of her way and she sank to the floor. There was blood coming from her nose and the clear liquid flowed freely from her mouth. Jer backed up against the wall and watched in astonished horror, as one by one, the remaining team members began coughing. They were trying to comfort each other as well as they could, but it was less than two minutes later that every one of them, except for Jer, was coughing and heaving on the floor.
Jer was spellbound by the ghastly spectacle playing out in front of him. He was rooted to where he stood. Sherom, Jend and For All, his surviving officers, were on the floor heaving and coughing. Sherom looked up at him. He saw fear in her eyes and as she gasped her last breath, he thought she had an accusatory look. The transpod seemed to close in on him and as the others writhed on the floor, Jer dropped down onto his knees. One of the novices reached out to touch him and he drew back in fear. He could read the word help as it silently left the novice's lips and he slumped over, dead.
"No" Jer said quietly. Tears welled up in his eyes. His mission team was lying quietly on the floor of the transpod.
"What has the Holy Mother Mary allowed?" Commander Atru exclaimed. She was standing at the opening of the transpod, staring at the repulsive scene before her. Jer was sitting on his legs on the other side of the pile of bodies. There were tears streaming from his eyes and he was shaking. The people who had once comprised his mission team were lying across each other on the floor of the transpod. They were terribly discolored. The ones on top were a grayish-blue and those underneath were turning from gray to an appalling, brackish black. Sherom and more so, Lycium were almost completely wasted away. Lycium's corpse was now completely unrecognizable and her cloths as well were beginning to deteriorate. Atru noticed the oddly sweet scent and thought for a moment that this must be some sort of misguided hoax. It was only a moment later that she coughed.
Jer, whose eyes had been clamped shut, stopped sobbing and looked up at her. He tilted his head slightly, waiting to see if she was going to cough again.
"What?" Atru asked him. She looked at him, afraid of what might happen next. There was an odd tingling sensation in her chest. She swallowed and felt a tiny stinging in her throat, as though she had been screaming for a prolonged period. The quickly shrinking mound of remains just inside the doorway of the transpod was giving off a pungent aroma. Atru related it to burning plants and huffed through her nose in an effort to expel the scent. She felt something running down her upper lip and touched her finger there to see what it was. As she recognized that it was blood, she refocused on Jer, hunched over in the transpod. He watched her and she coughed again. This time she felt like she was going to throw up. Instead, a clear, tasteless liquid came up and trickled out of her mouth. As she bent over in agony, coughing, Jer put his hands out on the floor of the transpod and pushed himself to his feet. He swallowed, trying to relax his gag reflex. His hands were covered by the clear liquid pooling in the center of the floor under the dissolving pile of death.
Atru was finally able to regain her composure. Jer carefully stepped around his comrades, exited the transpod and stood next to her, watching as she straightened up. He saw that her color was changing and he shook his head in disbelief.
"No. No." he wined.
"What is happening to me?" she asked him, holding back the next cough.
"I do not know, he cried. The light in the hallway dimmed and Atru looked up.
"What is that?" she asked in a rhetorical whisper. Jer looked at her and then realized what she was asking about. At that instant, he knew what was happening. The Ram was coming under attack by the same enemy that shut down the Rundown and killed his team. His mental dialogue told him the SCI had to be protected above all else, or the entire ship would be done for.
"I am sorry Commander, but you will be dead in less than five minutes." She looked at him, trying to determine whether or not she had actually heard him say those words.
"What?" she asked and then coughed again. Jer took off running down the corridor. He was headed for the command sphere and hoped that he could make it in time. It was some ten or so miles to the center of the huge vehicle and the only way he would reach the sphere in time would be to use the closest travel tunnel.
Travel tunnels were special hallways reserved for traveling great distances through the larger vehicles. The ships carrier force generators whisked the travelers along at high rates of speed. The nearest travel tunnel was just ahead and as he reached it, he dived in headfirst. As the force grabbed and accelerated him, he envisioned his destination so that the local computer would be able to guide him to where he wanted to go and then extricate him from the tunnel. He noticed that there was a short delay in the acknowledgement of his request. It was surely a sign that the computer was under attack and every computer circuit sooner or later led to the Sentient Central Intelligence. Jer wished he could somehow speed himself up and stretched out horizontally in a futile attempt to do so. After about thirty seconds, he slowed and then was safely deposited outside the travel tunnel, just a few yards from the entrance to the command sphere. The door was still opened, as he figured it would be and there seemed to be little activity inside. As he hurried over to the doorway, he heard someone inside coughing. It was so shocking to him that he had to stop and shake the disbelief from his head before entering.
"We're under attack!!" Jer yelled as he ran into the room. Everyone in the huge darkened sphere turned their attention to him as he leapt up towards the empty command seat floating in the center of the room. "Commander Atru is dead. We have to protect the SCI!" He concentrated on the SCI and instantly he was hooked into a synaptic interface. He relayed the past hours events, while at the same time commanding the Ram to sever all lower function connections. The SCI responded instantly and began the process of cutting itself off from the rest of the ship.
"Shut everything off!" Jer said. The SCI analyzed the situation and determined the enemy was microscopic and probably already in the command sphere. The command crew, at first stunned by his outrageous actions, began following his orders. They were still unsure of what was transpiring, but trusted that Jer knew what he was doing. After determining the severing of all connections would take about ten seconds, Jer ordered the SCI to send a message to Teteda-Ma as its last function before the final cut. The communication device, used for extra stellar communication, was a miniature displacement vehicle carrying only a radio broadcasting/receiving device and a computer. Once the vehicle reached the appropriate destination, it would broadcast the message and could receive and return with a response whenever necessary.
The SCI reported that the message was sent and that the final connection was severed. Jer asked the Ram to examine itself to determine if the precautions were successful. After he received an affirmative report, he brought his consciousness into the command sphere and heard coughs. He knew the end was near and began sobbing uncontrollably. His crewmates watched him. He recognized their bewilderment, but he could not face them. He knew what was about to happen to them, but he could not bring himself to speak up.
He rose from the chair and floated down to the surface of the spherical room. The room was fairly dark and Jer looked around at the people who stood watching him. Most of them were coughing already and he knew that it was just a matter of a couple of minutes before they all died. There was no way he could face watching his people die and he left the room, headed for his quarters, where he could at least hide himself away from what was happening. As he ran down the short corridor, there were several people lying on the floor along his path. He did his best not to look directly at any of them. He recognized them all and could name a few of them. Most were already dead, but one lunged for him as he passed and he was forced to hurdle the outstretched arm.
Trying to keep his mind clear enough to negotiate the hall, Jer suddenly realized that the message vehicle might be a carrier. If the enemy could go from the Rundown to the Ram, how long would it be before they reached the people on Teteda-Ma? The thought was horrific. He had to warn his people that the very message he sent telling what had happened could end up actually destroying them. He turned and headed back down the morbid corridor. He walked slowly at first, but picked up speed as he reached the first corpse. He remembered that each message vehicle carried with it a record of the ships command sphere activities up to the moment before it had been launched. The record was only accessible by retrieving the vehicle itself. The thought caused him to begin running as fast as he could down the hallway. It seemed much longer than it had when he was going the other way, but he finally reached the command sphere, where there were two or three crew members still on their feet. He approached the healthiest of them. She was holding her hand on her chest. There was a baffled look on her face and when she noticed Jer, she looked at him quizzically.
"Kezmin, can you begin the displacement start up sequence?"
"You know I can, she answered. "What has happened?"
"There is no time to explain" Jer said as he jumped up and flew into the command seat. "Begin the start up." He connected to the SCI to monitor the four displacement generators while they fluxed their molecular structure. It was imperative that the four generators remain in balance with each other. If they did not, they could create a phasing effect sending them to all parts of the universe at the same time. The start up sequence began, he guided the vehicle with his mind towards the displacement junction and then seventy two seconds later the displacement began. He had to repeat the displacement three more times to finally reach home, but the initial start up was all that Kezmin had to do. It was the last thing she would do, for she was the last command crewmember to die, just as the Ram left Send-Ma local space.
"I am sure you are all aware of the discovery made just a few hours ago." Surella's voice was quiet. Many of the Council members in the back of the room had to strain to hear. Donderon, seated on an exquisitely carved stone chair watched her from behind. She stood just to her right, facing the Council members seated or standing around a small podium-like table. Floating just over it was a ghostly image of the Ram. "Crinn has prepared a report." Surella said after a few seconds. "Crinn...? " Crinn, standing near the wall, away from the other Council members, moved to the center of the room. She nodded to Donderon and then to Surella. She turned to face the gathering and began to speak.
"The satellite files have been searched for all pertinent information." She held a smaller version of the now familiar silver rod in her left hand. She manipulated it in some slight way and the faded image of the crippled Ram dissolved, replaced by an image of what appeared to be a strange, alien creature. "This is what we are dealing with. The Ma called it O.W. 41, for Offensive Weapon number forty-one. This device is atomic in scale, smaller than the smallest organic creatures known to exist. It operates by rearranging the molecules of its target into an exact copy of itself. Gathered in huge numbers, they form a liquid. One drop is enough to devour a person in a few minutes." There was a collective gasp. The Council members began whispering amongst themselves. Several of them, newer members, stood in apparent shock, watching the image of the devilish device on the podium. Crinn waited for a few seconds to let the Council get a firm grasp on what she told them and then continued with her report. "One of my agents has been searching the satellite files for a way to stop this device. Two hours ago, she succeeded." She waited a moment, unconsciously building the drama.
"Do not keep us in suspense, Crinn" Donderon ordered.
"Each device is powered by a single oxygen molecule. Once oxygen is no longer available, the device shuts down. Once shut down, it begins to break down, rendering it useless. We simply need to create a vacuum."
"What about Jer?" Donderon asked.
"Three things about Jer" Crinn answered over her shoulder. She again faced the Council, which hushed as she continued speaking. "First, any ideas of his being responsible for this are utterly wrong. If anything, he put a stop to it sooner rather than later. Second, he seems to have some sort of immunity from the effects of these devices. We have not had access to examine him, so it is a mystery for now. And third, we have determined that we can suspend his life functions long enough to purge his body of the devices.
"Is there anything else?" Donderon asked. Crinn looked over her shoulder to answer.
"That is all I have for now, Commander."
"I suggest we begin the purge of the Ram immediately. Are there any questions?" The room was silent. "Crinn, if you will...?"
"As you say, Commander." Crinn hurried out through the lone door.
"I will be announcing an annual day of mourning to take place on the day before Anniversary Day" Donderon said to the Council. "I will address the public in an hour." She rose and swept out of the room. Surella stood motionless, examining the image of the device on the podium. It was an oblong, featureless devise. Light grey in color, it had a tapered, apparent front from where two stiff appendages sprouted. She was having trouble coming to terms with the fact that something with such a mundane appearance could cause such havoc. She looked up from the image and spoke.
"I want to declare six days of mourning, starting tomorrow. Do I have your approval?" No one disapproved.
After being declared free of the murderous devices and allowed to return to Teteda-Ma, Jer sought out Falleen. He had not seen her in the nearly two years since joining the new military. The last time he saw her, on the satellite, just before he boarded the Long Voyage, they spoke about his ambitions for a few minutes. She expressed an interest in what he had to say and the experience left a favorable impression on them both. Just a few years before, she had been the reason he was first in the vehicle and first on the satellite, which in turn strengthened his urge to explore and gave him his focus. She was the most dominant figure in Jer's memory of his last two years on Teteda-Ma and memory was all that he had left of happiness. Memory was, lately, easily overpowered and he searched her out in an attempt to return to happier times.
When he arrived at her door, she greeted him and invited him into her small, unassuming home. They spoke about her life for a few minutes and then she asked him about his unbelievable experience. He began explaining the events leading up to the death of the Ram, as he had done a dozen times and more during his questioning by the Information Committee.
"It was dark on the Rundown, he said quietly. "There was no sound. Nothing. We... I sent them to check out the rest of the vehicle and Sherom and Lycium went with me to the command center." He paused for a moment, taking a deep breath. He was staring down at the floor, unable to bring himself to look at Falleen. "I... I went to look for... " He suddenly could not remember the names. He felt the embrace of a powerful wave of remorse. His entire body separated from him, it was someone else's body. He took a deep breath again, returning to his body as the names returned to him. Heat turned to cold and he shook with an uncontrollable shiver. "Bis and Fri Rul. They disappeared. I... " He could not continue. He recalled the puddle of clear liquid he discovered in the generator room. He should have known. He should have been more careful. Those thoughts swirled around in his mind. "It was too late" his mouth said. He recalled for the thousandth time the desperate fear he had seen on the faces of his team as they began to die before him. He remembered Sherom, looking at him, accusing him with her eyes. Tears rolled down his face, dropping onto the floor. Falleen wanted to help him however she could. She put her arms around him to comfort. When she did, Jer released his emotional demons. He had not cried since he was a child. He had never been trained to feel that he should not, it just never happened. It lasted for almost an hour and during that time, he told her most of the details, loosing himself in the emotional release.
When the pain was dulled, he was able to fall asleep in her arms. Jer dreamed about the last moments before his team died. He began to shake violently in Falleen's arms. She held onto him, letting him ride out the nightmare. After a few minutes, he burst into consciousness, screaming.
"It is alright, Jer. I am here with you. Everything is alright." Falleen did what she could to calm him down. Jer pushed her away, sweat blanketing his face.
"No!" he said. "They're dead! Dead!" He was crying again and Falleen tried, with little success, to calm him. There was nothing she could do that could help him, except be there and she wanted to be there.
Over the next few days, Jer mourned his lost crewmates. As the healing continued, he became quite attached to Falleen's presence. After several days, whenever she was home with him, he was able to forget, but when she left him there alone, he fell into his sad, nightmarish memories. In an attempt to stave off a move into madness, Jer began to do whatever he could think of to keep Falleen with him. She was often called away to design a building or a garden and Jer was miserable when she was gone. On more than one occasion he intercepted a message meant for her. The guilt he felt from his underhanded attempts to keep her to himself could not eclipse his fear of being alone.
One day, after Falleen received an invitation to design a residence for one of the newest Council members, in an attempt to keep her from leaving, Jer discovered that the same type of touch that had affected Lauopp affected her. Jer had nearly forgotten her, his only sexual partner, but what he learned, the secrets he shared with her, came rushing back. Falleen, for her part, felt that Jer was an attractive man, but had never considered him a possible mate. The truth was, she had no experience with a man, no one of her generation had and when Jer began touching her in that pleasurable way, she was taken by surprise. It was only a few moments until she understood what was happening and, without inhibition, she thoroughly enjoyed herself. During the next few weeks Jer began removing his mask of mourning.
When he decided it was time to come out of hiding, Falleen took Jer to the Restaurant on the Beach. It was a huge, open air dining area serving one thousand people for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. The social destination of the developing culture, the place allowed him to forget the Send-Ma mission for most of the evening. He was at ease with Falleen by his side. The fact that they were arm in arm the whole time caused those who saw them to tell those who did not and as with every other bit of news on Teteda-Ma, the word of their partnership spread quickly. When Surella heard about it, she went to speak to Donderon.
"People are talking about them, she said. She was trying to cover her own disdain for their relationship and voiced only what she thought would give Donderon reason to act. "It could cause doubt about the government." It was a weak argument. Donderon shrugged.
"There is nothing I can do. They are causing no harm." Surella was shocked by her attitude. She assumed that Donderon would feel the same as she. It never occurred to her that she might actually feel happy for her friend. The relationship between the military hero and the First One's closest friend was a topic of discussion for everyone. Surely Donderon knew that. Surella could only figure that she was protecting her friend.
Little more than a month later, in recognition of Jer's heroic actions, Donderon announced a dinner to take place in a private room at the Restaurant on the Beach. On the day of the dinner, hundreds of pounds of exotic foods were brought in from various planets in the explored regions of space, specially prepared by a staff of fifty volunteers from the Information Committee. There was something from every life-baring planet the Information Committee had approved. A few unapproved items requested by Donderon were included as well. At the dinner, Jer tried to relax as well as he could. He and Falleen ate and listened to music and watched a variety of amazing acts. A few of the performers juggled stones and sharp objects. Others performed daring acrobatic feats. Donderon, true to form, did not make an appearance the entire evening. Falleen thought that Donderon's elusive behavior was beginning to seem somewhat bizarre, but she also knew that she was not comfortable with large groups and did not wish to judge her too harshly.
After the dinner, the acrobats and other performers left the room. There was a short, one act comedy skit, which Jer enjoyed very much. He recognized one of the comedians from the play on the Beach he enjoyed so much a few years ago. There were three actors, all dressed in ridiculous, multicolored garments, performing a physically demanding series of falls. They also performed one and two line jokes in which the three insulted one another. Jer thought that it was the funniest thing he had ever seen and repeatedly told his fellow diners so. It was the first time since the incident that he had actually laughed out loud.
As the comedy skit was coming to a close, an aid to the Supreme Commander approached Falleen and Jer with a personal invitation to come to the Palace. It was only a few steps from the back door of the Restaurant. They were led by the aid to the hallway outside Donderon's private quarters, redesigned to incorporate several new luxuries. Donderon stepped through the door, into the hallway and greeted Jer with a handshake.
"Thank you for coming" she said to him. He grinned and nodded. He had always wanted to meet her like this, but he felt strange standing there with Falleen. Nonetheless, Donderon was a stunning sight. He looked at her from head to toe, but his eyes did not linger.
"Thank you for the dinner" he said. "I had a great time."
"I am glad. Come in and sit with me." She gestured through the door, into her quarters. "I have missed you, she whispered to Falleen, giving her a short hug.
"I have missed you" Falleen responded. They entered a large, split level room, with dark walls and a ceiling of dim, yellow light. The abundant and colorful furniture was large and plush and seemed out of place in the sparsely furnished Palace. Donderon took a seat on a chair and Jer sat on a couch next to her. Falleen, noticing that Jer had not looked her way since they arrived outside the door, sat on the couch as far away from him as she could.
"I was quite impressed with the scanner records of the incident on Ferga-Ma" Donderon said to Jer. He blushed a little and turned away for a moment. He noticed Falleen on the other side of the couch. "You will be well rewarded for your performance at Send-Ma" Donderon said. "Would you like to command your own ship?"
"That would be fantastic" Jer answered enthusiastically. He had forgotten all about the unfortunate catastrophe and felt completely at ease in the presence of the First One. "I have wanted to command all along."
"You are certainly capable and I see no reason why you should wait any longer." Jer sat up straight and seemed to glow with pride. His beauty struck Donderon, but there was something about this man that confused her, something she deeply wanted to understand. She almost reached out to touch him, but knew she must not.
"Which ship?" he asked her. She was looking at him as Falleen, Lauopp and some others had. There was an odd tension in the atmosphere. Jer wondered about it for a moment.
"I am still considering that. You will get a fine ship, though." Donderon looked at Falleen on the other end of the couch. She wanted to speak to her, but could not think of anything to say. They made eye contact and she quickly looked down at the floor. She felt ashamed, but did not yet realize why. "Would you like to hear some music?" she asked them.
"Yes, I would" Jer spoke up. He smiled and turned to look at Falleen. She sat leaning against the side of the couch with her hand holding up her chin, frowning at him. He could see that she was ready to go, but did not really care.
"Music, selection... umm... four" Donderon said into the air. A deep thumping sound vibrated the entire room. It was soothing and the beat was fast enough to cause Jer to want to move. He sat swaying to the music on the edge of the couch. Over a short period of time, several more instruments joined in and the music seemed to flow around the room. Jer smiled at Donderon.
"What is it called?"
"I do not know. Selection Four, I suppose." She looked at Falleen again, who had not moved and then back at Jer. "Do you like it?"
"Yes. It moves me, he said. Falleen abruptly stood up.
"I am sorry, but I must rise early tomorrow" she said. She smiled courteously at Donderon and then watched Jer for a reaction. Just as he became uncomfortable with her looming over him, she spoke again. "Will you remain?"
"I would like to" he said with a smile. He turned to look at Donderon, as did Falleen. Donderon could almost see the tension emanating from her friend. For a moment, she imagined it as a dark orange flame. It burned, but she did not want Jer to leave. She wanted to enjoy his company as long as she could.
"If you want to stay" she said, "I do not mind." Falleen frowned again. She did not want to leave Jer here with Donderon, but she was trapped. She could not change her mind now; the embarrassment would be too overwhelming. She gave Jer a deep stare. "Are you sure?" she asked him. He knew she did not have to rise early in the morning. He knew what she was trying to do and refused to play.
"You go, I'll be fine, he said smiling up at her.
"I suppose so, Falleen said quietly. She headed for the door.
"Good evening, Falleen" Donderon said as she watched her silently leave. She turned to look at Jer as he sat uncomfortably waiting for the next moment. "I hope she will be alright, she said.
"She is tired. She will be fine" Jer assured her through a forced smile. The silence would have been unbearable but for the music. After a few seconds the selection came to an end and Donderon chose another.
"It is nice, do you think so?" Donderon asked him. He smiled at her, nodding agreeably. He did not know what to say. Donderon began to talk about the song, first telling him what instruments were involved and then, as she got going, she explained the elements of music, a subject she was studying at the time. Jer quietly listened as she explained rhythm, meter and several other things he barely grasped. He sat at the edge of the couch, watching her. She was unquestionably the most graceful, beautiful woman he ever had the pleasure of beholding. Her lips, thick around her wide mouth, formed her flawless words. Her slender hands gestured in synch with those words, emphasizing the important points. He was fascinated with everything she said, every move she made.
After a while, they entered into a true conversation, discussing a few of the more interesting expeditions, staying away from his involvement. When she finally did draw him out, asking him about his own interests, she displayed a large base of knowledge. She knew about navigation and propulsion theory. She had also studied the Ma charts and knew quite a bit about the unexplored worlds, one of Jer's favorite subjects. He was not surprised that she knew as much as she did; she was the Supreme Commander.
The conversation, which had started slowly, easily grew into a marathon. Jer enjoyed his time with her more than he ever enjoyed conversation before. When they finally noticed the time, the Orb was rising. After sharing their surprise, she invited him to accompany her to the Palace garden for breakfast. They laughed and talked there for another couple of hours and then returned to her chambers.
"I think I am getting close to sleep" Donderon said.
"Me as well" Jer agreed. Donderon knew it was probably the last chance she would have to ask him what she wanted to ask him all night.
"Would you like to sleep here?" She spoke softly and felt her last words wavering. She hoped that Jer had not noticed.
"It would not be an inconvenience?" he asked her.
"Of course not." She was almost unable to control her sudden excitement. "I can have a bed made in here and anything else you require." Jer's mouth dropped open. He hoped she would let him sleep in one of the guards quarters, but she was talking about her own private chambers. He became aware that he was gawking at her and closed his mouth.
"Umm... No. A bed is all I need."
"Fine then. One standard bed please." A split second later, the dp/cf device hidden in the ceiling replaced the couch against the wall with a full size bed. Jer stood up and pretended to examine it. Having slept upright in a chair on more than one occasion, he was not interested in the bed, but figured that he should appear to be.
"Perfect" he said. Donderon stood up. Jer was attracted to her since the first time he saw her on the Beach almost five years ago. She was tall and slender and one of the most exotic people he had ever seen. Her constant smile and bright, shining eyes made him long to touch her. She was beautiful to behold and he could not help himself when she stood up, less than half a foot in front of him. He reached out and lightly brushed his fingers up the length of her arm. In the same motion, he ran his fingers through his hair, hoping that she would think it was an accident. Donderon almost perceptibly jumped when Jer touched her. She was suddenly afraid she would not be able to control herself any longer and turned to quickly leave the room.
"Good dreams" she said. She passed through the door to her sleeping chamber.
"Good dreams" he said.
For the first time, Jer went alone to services. It was a nice service, covering the same general topics with some of the same stories and a couple of new ones. It lasted until the noon hour. He stayed afterwards to pray by himself. The Dow led group prayer during the service, but she often preached about solitary prayer as well. Jer was not sure whether or not he got any results from group prayer. He was told to ask Mary for forgiveness. It was understood that forgiveness would allow him to forget. He forgot more often lately, but was not sure of the reason. It could be prayer, or simply time. This new guilt had been constantly on his mind, however, and he wanted to forget it too.
He followed each step of the ritual, finished his three prayers and stood to leave. A young girl, in the standard, white robe of the church, approached him and told him that the Dow Saffer wanted to see him. He had never spoken to the Dow before. He felt increasingly nervous as the girl led him to the sanctuary in the rear of the cathedral. She opened the door for him, stepped back and then turned and left. He drew himself together with a penetrating breath and stepped into the darkened room. An indistinct melody tweaked his ears and the smell of fresh flowers filled the air. He stood motionless, trying to identify the silhouette in the seat behind the desk.
"Welcome, Jer. Please have a seat." He recognized the voice from services. It was the Dow. With as slight a movement as possible, he sat in the chair before him. "I have heard that you are becoming a regular visitor to the church."
"Yes I am, he answered. "I have been since returning from Send-Ma."
"I hope that we have helped you."
"Yes. You have." Jer was almost telling the truth. It was close enough. Since having no hope would be worse, he certainly felt better than he would if he were not attending services. He liked the grand style of the church and the Dow, but so far, all he could do was hope that Mother Mary could save his soul.
"I noticed that you remained after the service to pray on your own. Is there something causing you trouble?"
"There is something, but I am not sure... " Jer wanted to ask her advice, but did not know if he should. "I cannot allow anyone to know, he said. "It is something that I must figure on my own." The Dow Saffer's people, quietly moving through the official ranks of government and military, informed her of his night alone with the Supreme Commander. She recognized the implications. She was aware of his public relationship with Falleen and guessed at the problem he was encountering. She wanted to relax him. She wanted him to tell her what the problem was. He would feel better, but her true motive was that the strength of the connection would almost guarantee his conversion. She wanted that very much.
"I can assure you that anything you say will not pass through my lips." She smiled, without showing her teeth. Jer studied her for a moment. The Dow Saffer was shrouded in shadow, but he was able to discern an expression. It was calm. Her green eyes pierced through the darkness, telling him he could trust her. He released the tension in his shoulders. Her gaze held him transfixed as he spoke.
"I have feelings that I do not understand" he began. He broke eye contact, unsure if should continue. "Falleen and I are close, but I do not think I want that anymore."
"You and she have been intimate?" Saffer asked. Their eyes locked. Jer was shocked, not so much by her directness, as by his answer. "If so, you must tell her how you feel. It is the righteous way." He stared at her. He saw the truth, all of it. She stared back at him. Her eyes, for a sliver of the moment encompassed him. It was not an accusing look, far from it. She seemed to be conveying the very forgiveness he had been looking for in solitary prayer.
"But I cannot tell her the truth, it would be wrong."
"The truth can never be wrong."
"But it will destroy something that is good. I cannot do that."
"The Holy Mother will forgive you, if you can accept her in your heart. There is nothing the Mother's blessed children can do that she would not forgive." Jer knew that she would say something like that.
"If I do this, I will not be judged as wrong by the Holy Mother?"
"Perhaps you should fill in the details for me" she said, taking advantage of the question. Jer looked down and sighed. He would tell her, but only after being assured once again.
"You will not repeat what I tell you?"
"No" she said. She would close the deal with this. "As the Dow, it would be a sin to repeat something confided to me in sanctuary." Jer looked into her eyes again. He was ready to believe what she said. She made him feel as though the outside world was a dream and that, right now, the Dow was his only link to reality.
"When I am with the First One... " He hesitated. There was a moment of doubt in his mind, but he struggled through it. "She is so beautiful. I can think of no one else. I know if I tell this to Falleen, it would destroy the friendship they share. I have seen how it could happen. They are strained by me already."
"You must serve the truth my child. There is no choice for you if you wish to follow the righteous path." Saffer liked hearing directly from Jer. It was a symbolic victory in her mind, but she refrained from feeling proud for too long. Jer felt a great relief having unburdened himself. If she said it had to be done, what right did he have to refuse the chosen voice of the Holy Mother Mary Herself? "Would you like me to say a prayer for you?" Saffer asked him.
"Yes." She reached across the desk and took his hands in hers. Together, they closed their eyes.
That evening, when Jer went to see Falleen to confess his attraction to Donderon, he went to her abode, located in her old home pen area. Showing her surprise at seeing him, she did not ask him in.
"Did you enjoy yourself?" Falleen asked. The sarcasm was thinly veiled and Jer recognized her vulnerable emotional state. He did not want to hurt her anymore, but there was nothing he could do to make this easier.
"I have feelings for Donderon. I am sorry, but... we cannot... be together anymore." He stumbled through his announcement. Falleen did not move. She had known without acknowledging the fact. The news hit her like a Line Maker's stick and silence hung over the tiny, poorly lit porch she kept him standing on. She looked directly at him, her eyes holding back the tears. There was no expression on her face, simply a disturbing blankness. Without a word, she stepped backwards and shut the door in his face. He waited for a few moments, considering whether or not he should knock on her door again, but finally turned to leave.
That night, Jer could not find sleep. He rose to walk alone on the Beach, somewhat disappointed by the starless night. The waves were quite a bit higher than they had been when he last took the walk. It was almost a year ago. The idea was distant. He felt closer to up there than he did to down here. This was no longer his home. He lived far away, in space and time. After a few dozen yards, he sat down on a small dune and tossed clumps of hardened sand into the surf. He thought about insignificant things, trying to keep the memory of the Send-Ma mission out of his concious word flow. Not being on guard against it, the thought of the actor he saw, leading to the story about the hero and the monster, made him recall his misfortune on Ferga-Ma. He remembered his mission team leader and his peers who were killed. He remembered the way he found each of them and began to feel a little queasy. He figured that he had put that time behind him, but he felt it as powerfully as before. At that moment he recalled the scene in the transpod when he was forced to helplessly watch his entire team die. The memory flashed uncontrollably through his mind. He gasped as he recalled Sherom looking up at him with burning, reproaching eyes. The memory made him feel as though he were about to regurgitate his dinner. It was all too much for him. He cried out and jumped up, rushing towards the surf. A few yards into the water he dove in and swam out into deeper water. He rolled over to float on his back, looking up at the low clouds speeding towards the shore. When he was younger he could float for quite a while before the waves washed him up on the Beach. It was so relaxing and he had forgotten all about it. He laughed and the sound of it reflecting off the clouds struck him as funny too. He laughed again and thought of Donderon. Her gleaming eyes, laughing in his memory, made him laugh more. Something happened just then. His life spared, meeting Donderon, he was overcome by his good fortune and he could not stop laughing. He floated, laughing until there were tears streaming from his eyes. A couple of minutes passed before he quieted down and several minutes later rolled over and swam back to shore.
Donderon gave Jer an open invitation to stay in the Palace and he accepted. They spent all of her free time together, carrying on conversations for hours at a time. They discussed every aspect of their lives, enjoying each other immensely. They conducted themselves as privately as possible, remaining in the Palace for the most part. In contrast to Jer's relationship with Falleen, which everyone on Teteda-Ma knew about, only a few government insiders were privy to this newest association of his. He sat next to her on the couch whenever she discussed official business with her advisors.
Besfa was happy to meet him. She considered him a hero of the new military after his exploits at Send-Ma. They sat and talked for several minutes after she concluded her business with the Supreme Commander. Crinn seemed not to notice Jer and when Surella visited, she radiated disgust. She sat glaring at him, spoke quickly and left as soon as she was able. After she was gone, they took turns imitating her odd mannerisms and way of speaking as they laughed.
"I do not think that I can command the Rally Round" Jer said. Donderon was surprised to say the least. She expected he would welcome the chance to command. The Rally Round, the name she gave the Ram after it was rebuilt would be the most prestigious command in the entire military.
"What exactly do you mean?" she habitually asked. She sat upright on the largest of three colorful couches occupying the other side of the room. "I thought you would be happy to command that ship." She did not have an inkling of the torment Jer experienced each and every time he thought about Send-Ma. He turned to face her.
"You do not understand" Jer said. "I do not expect you to." He watched her for a moment thinking of how magnificent she was. In her presence he was always calm. She could relax him with a touch. He always felt safe with her and he decided it was time to place himself in her hands. He took one last absorbing gaze, focusing on her long, strong fingers folded together, resting in her lap. Turning to face the setting Orb, he spoke again. "When I saw my shipmates dying... right before my eyes... " He paused long enough to take a deep breath. "It is something that I do not wish to remember, but I will never forget." It was the first time since returning that he talked about Send-Ma without feeling sick. He realized the memory was loosing some of its glare and for a moment hoped against all indications that he may eventually forget. It was only a moment, though. He would never forget the crew of the Ram, if only because he owed it to them to remember.
"I am so sorry, Jer" Donderon said. She stood up and crossed the room to stand next to him at the window. She slipped her arm around his waist and held him loosely. "You know that I would never... "
"No" Jer said, cutting her off. "I did not mean to say that you would." He turned to look down into her eyes. She smiled up at him, trying not to show how sad she felt for him. He smiled back, trying not to show how sad he was feeling. "I will go see the new fixtures, Jer announced. "Maybe it will not be so difficult after all."
"Don't do it for me" she pleaded. He returned his gaze to the remaining fragment of Orb disappearing below the water. The sky was streaked with bright orange. It was a beautiful sight and Jer sighed with relief.
"I cherish you, my love but I do it for myself. If they will allow it, I would like to return." Returning to the Ram, even under a new name, was a frightening thought, but perhaps the ghosts of his dead comrades could be exorcised if he did. It was something he knew he had to try. "Thank you, he said after a couple of minutes. The sky was growing ever darker as the bright orange streaks receded. Jer put his arm around Donderon's shoulders, holding her close.
"You are welcome, she said.
"What, exactly, is wrong with the government?" Mum-Ahn-Dah asked.
"There is no freedom to travel." Seward answered. "If I wanted to go to Send-Ma, I would be refused passage."
"That is ridiculous" Mum-Ahn-Dah said. "No one wants to go to Send-Ma."
"But if I wanted to... "
"Only you would want to, Seward." They were having a conversation in front of nearly a half dozen onlookers. Seward was one of the three most visible news reporters in the world, with her own show on a satellite broadcast channel. Mum-Ahn-Dah was one of the writers and directors of the show.
"What if I were a scientist? I want to find out what is on the planet's surface. What do you think the government would say?"
"It is the military that makes that decision."
"Yes?" Seward said slowly, moving her head side to side. She glanced over at Surella, seated on a low, soft chair. There was a moment of exchange. Surella suddenly understood what was happening.
"The Supreme Commander has given the military that decision because it is the best thing to do" Mum-Ahn-Dah asserted.
"Who said it is the best thing?" Seward asked her.
"You think it is not?"
"Who is to say?"
"We should vote on it? We should vote on everything, I suppose?"
"Why not? It would not be too difficult to arrange a vote."
"Nothing would get done. We would be waiting years to find out about the latest technology."
"We already do" Seward said. She suddenly shifted to a quieter, more somber intonation. "The Information Committee is an illegal organization. The information in the satellite's files should have been released the first day, but open access is still not allowed." At that point Mum-Ahn-Dah did not respond. Instead she turned towards the group of five quietly watching them. Surella, across the room, held a short, fat glass of sweet liquor in her hand. She watched their reactions with bemusement. Surella and two of the others had heard the conversation before, or rather, a close facsimile of it. Seward and Mum-Ahn-Dah composed the argument several months ago and since became rather convincing in the spontaneity of their performance.
"You heard this before, Xashwin" Surella said. "What do you think?" Xashwin, standing with the group, turned and proceeded towards the seating area. Seward, Mum-Ahn-Dah and Jona immediately followed her.
"I agree with Seward" Xashwin responded. "And I think that if the Supreme Commander would allow us to use the remaining ships to go where we wanted to, her power would dissolve. She knows that, that is why we cannot travel freely."
"You are Council members, Seward said. She paused and then looking at Surella, continued. "You are the Second. Why do you not pass a law?" She looked back at the three other members of the gathering. They remained where they were, listening to the exchange.
"Please," Surella said, "come join us in the sitting area." The three newcomers made their way across the elaborately furnished room. One of them, Motix, was a member of the Information Committee. The other two were twin sisters. They were, by all accounts, the first such case since the capture. Zequang and Wershan were their names and since its inception, they were members of the Palace Guard. Surella waited for them to be seated and then answered Seward's question. "The military is answerable to the Council, but they cannot act on our orders alone. The Supreme Commander is, after all, the Supreme Commander. Would you not agree, Zequang?"
"And what about you, Motix. Do you believe that the Supreme Commander is the last word?" Surella stared at her. Motix was a hard one to read. She gave nothing away by her expression. After a moment of thought, she answered.
"If you mean that her order would override an order from the Council, I agree with that."
"There you are, Seward, there is nothing we can do. As people, we are powerless against the ultimate power of a lifelong dictator."
"If she cared about the people as much as she pretends to" Xashwin said, "she would call for a vote."
"Maybe she is afraid there would be trouble, Jona said.
"Sure she is. That is why she will never do it."
"But is not a vote only called for by the people?" Mum-Ahn-Dah offered.
"Do not be naive" Surella said. Motix, leaning forward, showing all the signs of intense interest, offered her thought on the subject.
"As long as there is opposition, Donderon will never allow her authority to be opposed." The women looked at her. They did not think she knew what she was talking about.
"What?" Surella finally asked her.
"I know how that sounds, but the contradiction illustrates a point." Motix sat looking back at the women. "Do you not understand?" With no response, Motix continued. "A despot will not allow her rule to be threatened. The only way she will allow a vote on her authority is if she controls the outcome."
"Very good" Surella said with squinted eyes. She was pleased with the direction of the conversation. It was leading through all of the difficult territory and she had but to push it here and there. "I understand that you have been a Palace Guard for five years" She said to Zequang.
"Is it true that you are not allowed a dp/cf devise of your own?"
"No one is allowed to possess an autonomous dp/cf device" Xashwin interjected. "That, I believe, is wrong." Surella nodded and then spoke again.
"The Rules of War are kept secret. Even the Military Commander is unaware of their existence." Zequang tensed up noticeably. The entire gathering hushed. The Ma Rules of War were thought to be a myth by most.
"The Rules exist?" Wershan asked. She had not previously spoken. She was not much for groups, but her curiosity insisted that she ask.
"Would you like to see?" Surella had them all in the palm of her hand.
"Yes" Zequang hissed. Surella reached out and lifted a half sized personal viewer from the table in the center of the seating area. She touched her finger to the screen and swirled her secret recognition symbol.
"This is the introduction, she said as she handed the viewer to Zequang. She had shown the same introduction to Jona and Xashwin. Seward and Mum-Ahn-Dah were told Surella had possession of the Rules, but they never saw them. They both sat up, trying to get a look at the viewer screen. "I have the entire file carefully hidden. With it, the game can be fairly played."
"There will come a time when we will have to act" Jona said. She was addressing the newcomers. "We want you all to know that you are welcome to join us."
"If this is a truth, why has there been nothing done before?" Wershan asked.
"It is obvious," her sister said, "the military."
"Right." Surella smiled. Zequang was there. Motix and Wershan were not far behind.
When Jer went for his tour of the Rally Round, the vehicle he was shown was a complete change from the vehicle he remembered. It was re-fashioned in the style predominant at the time. The hallways were extra wide and high and the walls were decorated in a large variety of colors. Throughout the ship the floors had been covered in soft, luxurious copies of grass in a multitude of colors and heights. The individual quarters were large three and four room affairs, fully furnished with opulent and superfluous items.
Jer was pleased with the change. He enjoyed the lifestyle he led as a guest at the Palace and now he could continue it on his new ship. His new ship. He was surprised he thought it. Was he ready to accept it this quickly? He expected to be more solemn about the whole thing, but perhaps the new interior did the trick. He finished the tour and left the group he came aboard with and then made his way through a transport tunnel to the command sphere. The changes there were not nearly as opulent as in the rest of the ship. The room was darkened except for fourteen spotlights, each illuminating an individual duty station. The podiums and chairs were changed superficially, but the controls were just as they had been. The command seat was surrounded with small, thin, free-floating monitors. Jer stepped into the room and the seat swooped down to meet him. He was impressed as he sat. It took him to the center of the huge spherical room where the commander could watch whatever was going on, when something was going on. It was more comfortable than before, thicker and wider cushioning. He relaxed, taking in a deep breath. The monitors hovered just inside his lower line of vision. They were tuned to various operational locations within and around the Rally Round. He focused on one for a second and it slowly lifted to a more comfortable viewing level. He identified the people who attended the tour with him and then took his eye off the monitor. It slowly returned to where it started. He smiled.
Jer liked the way it felt to be there. The happiness he felt with his comrades on the Ram returned to him. He remembered the people and the exciting and interesting things they did. He remembered what Commander Atru once told him. After being on the Ram for a few months, he worked up the courage to ask her what she thought of his command skills. She told him he was going to be the best commander to come out of the first generation. It was a break from her usual character and Jer understood the significance of her compliment. She rarely told anyone what she felt. As far as Jer knew, she never mentioned to her other officers how good she thought they were. There was no doubt that they were good, it was just that Atru never told them so. He was never more flattered in his life. Atru recognized what Jer was trying to do. She knew what it was to need new frontiers in life. Exploration was as new for her each time she went as it was for him. He felt a kinship with her and it was almost as though she was right here with him. Calming warmth filled the center of his being and he sat quietly engrossed in it for several minutes. It was the first time in over three months that he had been able to enjoy his memories of the Ram.
A few weeks later, Jer was promoted and assigned to the Rally Round where he spent another few weeks assembling a crew. During this time, he and Donderon spent as much time together as they could. He went to see her on the Voider, or in the Palace, where she spent less and less of her time. She, in turn, went to see him on the Rally Round, wearing a big, concealing robe, hiding from rumors. There was no frame of reference for their relationship, but it was obvious to everyone who knew them that something special was happening. Their's was a loving relationship in every way.
"Sometimes I cannot wait to be with you" Jer confessed. "I am afraid that I may be neglecting my duties." He sat with Donderon, each with their arms held tight around the other. Donderon let out a small, knowing laugh.
"That is exactly how I feel, she said. "My duties have become my enemy. I can only get through it knowing you are here waiting for me." The daily ritual cleansing of the difficulties of their workday was something they each looked forward to.
"That is how I feel, too" Jer responded. "When I looked at the monitor and saw you rushing to me, everything suddenly smelled better." They both laughed, Jer at himself, Donderon at his delightful sense of the absurd. "I do love being with you. It is like you are all the people I need in my life, all become one beautiful woman."
"That is what I feel. Sometimes I comfort you, sometimes I listen, sometimes I... "
"Sometimes I listen, you know" Jer protested. Donderon pinched him in a sensitive area that only the two of them knew about. He jumped, letting out a yelp. "Stop!" Donderon laughed.
"What I mean is, you fulfill my needs. I need those things as much as you."
"What I need is this" Jer said. They thoroughly enjoyed what each could do for the other, several times, until they were interrupted by a voice.
"Please excuse this intrusion, Commander." The voice was that of the SCI on the Voider. Being that Donderon was with Jer in his quarters aboard the Rally Round, this was a surprising development. "I have some bad news. I figured that you would want to hear this from me."
"Continue, Voider" Donderon said. She was a bit out of breath, as was Jer and they both relaxed to listen to the report.
"I have monitored a displacement vehicle leaving the local system. The authorization came from Falleen." Donderon sat up.
"Light" she commanded. The lights slowly came up as she spoke again. "What else?"
"The displacement took the vehicle several thousands of light years. The vehicle traveled again, but there was no way to track it further."
"Is Falleen aboard the vehicle?" Jer asked.
"There is no way to determine that, but her life-signature no longer appears on the surface. Neither is she aboard the satellite, or any other displacement vehicle." Donderon sat where she was as Jer slowly got out of the bed they shared. Neither of them spoke. A dread mood settled over the room. Had she left for good? Where did she go? There were questions, but why was not among them. Falleen was gone and they were responsible. Everyone would certainly understand that. They understood it.
Beromm was always trying to impress Crinn. She rarely succeeded, but she pressed on, always watching out for some little thing or another that might lead to something bigger, something that Crinn did not know. That would be an accomplishment because Crinn knew it all. Four years ago, in the year of Laton's death, when Beromm had exhausted her leads and could go no further in her investigation, her conclusions rolled off Crinn's stone faced facade. It was by no means on the level of the revolutionary discovery of the vehicle, but the fact that there could be no doubt Laton had died as a result of a struggle should have elicited some sort of response. Crinn simply nodded and asked her if that was all she had. On that day Beromm silently vowed to find who had been in the room with Laton. If she could show Crinn a name, prove it to her, would that satisfy her? She eventually gave up the search, never coming across anything worth pursuing, but the thought resurfaced with regularity.
During the past few years, Beromm found religion. The church delivered, she was surprised to find, on a promise that she could ease her feelings of inadequacy with group prayer. The Dow Saffer personally inducted her into the church just a year ago and since then Beromm made several new friends. One of them, Shera, was a member of the same home pen as Laton. The opportunity to discuss the events of Laton's death intrigued Beromm, but she left the subject alone, more out of fear of loosing the contact than respect. The time came when she could no longer contain herself, however, and she decided that if she was to loose her contact, so be it. One crisp evening, after a somewhat lackluster service by one of the Dow's assistants, Beromm and her church friends went to the Restaurant on the Beach for dinner. The conversation, which lingered on the church and the presence of Mary in their lives, eventually ceased to hold their attention. Beromm spent most of the time as she ate thinking of ways to broach the subject and when she saw her opportunity, she did not let it pass.
"When did your people first find Mary?" she asked Shera. She knew the answer, but it was as innocent a beginning as she could think of.
"Mary has always been in our lives, but we joined the church after Laton met Sof." The other two church companions nodded. Sof was one of the more active recruiters in the first years of the new time.
"Did you have your own religious leader?" Beromm asked her. "Was Laton the religious leader too?" She wanted to get quicker to the point.
"In a way" Shera said thoughtfully. She considered a thought, but could not find the words before another spoke.
"Our Elder was separate from our religious leader, one of the younger members of the group volunteered. Beromm pretended to care. Perhaps she could wind the conversation around to the topic she desired through this innocent one.
"What became of your religious leader? I mean was she discarded, or... "
"Oh no. She was accepted into the church as a high official." The younger one looked a bit sad. She looked down at the ground. "She has since gone on to join Mary." Beromm wiped invisible something from her nose. Perfect.
"How did you appoint another?"
"We have not. We have simply been absorbed into the church. Some of our people have become devoted followers, but there is no separate leader."
"That seems... I mean you would not disregard electing a new Elder, would you?" The younger one tilted her head slightly.
"I do not think so."
"How did your people deal with the loss of Laton?" Beromm asked Shera.
"The line of succession was clear, she answered.
"Then the eventuality was considered before hand?"
"Once a new Elder takes her place, her first duty is to announce her successor."
"That would cover any unforeseen tragedies. That is very prudent."
"It is more than that. The successor has the right to take her place when she feels ready. It keeps the Elder alert." The group was silent for a few moments as they contemplated the statement. Beromm squinted her eyes, examining the apparent carefree expression on Shera's face.
"What does that mean?" the other young one asked. Shera looked at her friends. She did not know what to say.
"Is there a challenge?" Beromm asked her. A yes would solve the mystery. A yes would put Besfa there, but had the entire pen group kept this to themselves? What a coup. Even Crinn did not know this. After a few seconds with no answer from Shera, Beromm knew what the answer had to be. "I suppose it is not talked about."
"I have said too much already, Shera said. "I am sorry."
Beromm searched the records of the Oral Tradition, Crinn's vast archive, her proudest achievement. She could find no mention of a challenge as the means of succession of leaders in Laton's home pen. Either Crinn had missed it entirely, or it was not true. If it were untrue, why would Shera say what did? Beromm had to find out. She let it rest for the next several days, but not without nearly bursting with questions. One week to the day after the fateful dinner conversation, Beromm asked Shera to her quarters aboard the satellite. Shera enjoyed visiting off world and Beromm counted on her excitement to loosen her lips. She met her at the vehicle room and showed her some of the normally off limits places in the satellite. Beromm had access to what she pleased, being the chief of the investigative arm of the Information Committee. The tour made a decided dent in Shera's calm exterior. She was chattering away during the tour and afterwards, as they settled down in Beromm's sparse yet comfortable room, she almost glowed with excitement.
"So, you enjoyed your visit?" Beromm asked her after a while.
"Absolutely! I especially liked the zero gravity. I think something like that on the surface would attract a lot of attention."
"Certainly" Beromm agreed. She waited for Shera to speak, but she did not. "Would you like to do something for me?" Shera looked into her eyes. She knew what the something was, or at least she had a strong suspicion. Her slip of the tongue a week ago would easily go unchecked by others, but this was Beromm, Chief Investigating Agent of the Information Committee.
"I would, she answered. There was no sign of reluctance in her voice, or on her face. She was resigned to the presupposition that secrets were a thing of the past. Beromm took her demeanor as a sign that she did not know what was to be asked, but she was wrong.
"Tell me of the challenge" Beromm said. She watched Shera as she considered the request. She was built like the others of her home pen, short, sort of round and her light brown hair, tied with a bright blue scarf, hung down her chest, almost to her waist. There was a small scar on the edge of her upper lip, barely visible. Beromm noticed it before, but it took on a whole new life for her. The culture of challenge was not unheard of. If her entire culture revolved on the challenge, scars could be a show of strength, a sign to be respected.
"I cannot speak of this" Shera said. She seemed sad. "I wish that I could, you are a close friend, but it is not told to some of our own people. I cannot tell you." Beromm thought for a moment. She could not let this opportunity evade her.
"Then I am correct. The challenge does exist." Shera just looked at her. She would not confirm her guess, educated as it was. "Laton was killed in a challenge, was she not? Besfa went to her to make a challenge and Laton lost." Shera did not move, her face or anything else. "That explains why no one questioned the mark on her chest. But why was the Supreme Commander not told of this?" Shera's expression changed.
"It is not her concern, she snapped. "She leads the Council, not our people." She had suddenly become angered. Beromm pulled her head back, trying to give her some space.
"Forgive me, I meant no disrespect." It was a simple sentence, but it could accomplish so much.
"I am not angry with you, my friend. I understand your curiosity. I hope it is somewhat quenched, because I cannot tell you any more and I hope you will not compromise my place by announcing our secret to the world." Beromm had not thought about that. If she told this to Crinn, it would be made a matter of record, adding to the archive of the Oral Tradition. She was suddenly stuck.
"I will not, she said, but she was not convinced.
Donderon could not believe her ears. Besfa, even in some ways, Laton had been deceiving the world. A challenge culture was one of the more brutal ways to live, as witnessed by several examples, none of which had risen to the role of leadership that Laton's people had. Perhaps that was why it remained a secret. Even some of the lower level members of the society were unaware of the challenge, according to Beromm.
"I promised that this would not become a matter of record, Beromm said. "I wish to ask that you consider this as well." Donderon's thoughts changed coarse for a moment.
"I will see to it" she promised, "but I cannot let this go. Besfa will have to answer some questions." That was exactly why Beromm came to her with the information. Besfa must answer to the Supreme Commander. She killed the Military Commander as well as her own Elder. Beromm nodded her understanding and turned to leave the room.
"I can not believe that Besfa would... " Jer was stunned by the news. He had become as close to Besfa as Donderon had, closer in some respects. She was a strong leader and on occasion asked him for an opinion on matters of military importance. The thought of her challenging and killing Laton was a strange thought indeed.
"I find it difficult as well" Donderon agreed, "but she must answer the accusation. She deserves the chance to deny it."
"And if she does, will you believe her?"
"I must. I pray that she does."
Besfa was awakened from a sound sleep and told of her order to report to the Supreme Commander aboard the DV Voider. She hurried her robe on and took the same transpod that the messenger rode over in. The short trip was strange. The two did not speak and Besfa watched the satellite disappear against the darkened globe below them. She did not know what was about to happen to her, but she felt an apprehension that would not settle. When she boarded the Voider, she went directly to the Supreme Commander's quarters and was ushered in with haste.
"I have been told that the death of Laton was no accident. Do you have anything to say about this?" Donderon wanted to give Besfa every opportunity to acknowledge or deny, whichever it was to be. Besfa stared at her. The expression she wore was one of surprise. She did not appear to be ready to answer. "Did you challenge her, Besfa? This is something I must know." She paused. "She was my Military Commander" she said to focus her reasoning.
"I cannot say" Besfa finally said. Jer, watching from the shadows, let out a flabbergasted gasp. Besfa turned to see who was there. Donderon sat, unmoving, trying to find her word flow. Her mind had simply gone blank. "This is our way" Besfa explained. "We have not changed since the first generation." She chose her words carefully, trying to tell without telling. "When it is time, it is time." She shrugged. She would not, could not say more.
"This is dire" Donderon said. Her voice was quiet and cracked on the last word. She took a cleansing breath and continued. "I cannot let this go. I understand that you acted as you were taught, but Laton was Military Commander. You were appointed to replace her because we assumed it was the right thing to do." She sighed. "With this new information, I think we cannot go on." Besfa's head lowered. She had not anticipated this, even up until the very last second. How could this be explained? "The Council will be told and I think you can assume you will not continue in your present position." Besfa looked at Donderon with wide eyes.
"Please Commander, I will resign my position, but I ask you not to share this information. It is forbidden information. I will be challenged outright if this becomes known to outsiders." Donderon wondered if it would not be justice, having Besfa challenged out of her place, but she considered it for only a moment. The workings of Besfa's culture were none of the Supreme Commander's concern. She nodded her agreement. "Thank you, Commander."
Surella silently counted to ten, as Jona taught her. It was the only thing she could do to relax her anger. The middle point of the night was fast approaching and she had just received the news from Motix that the Supreme Commander, with the question of Latons death had confronted Besfa. She had no way of knowing what transpired inside the Supreme Commander's quarters, but Besfa's resignation told her everything she needed to know. She had begun to consider Besfa a friend and thought she was doing an exemplary job as Military Commander. This stunning news provoked a sharp barrage of emotions. First she had to deal with the raw anger of the realization that Besfa had duped her. It overpowered her thoughts, she could think of nothing else. To dull her emotional edge she took a few deep breaths. There were no fixtures nearby that she could throw at a wall so she counted out loud to calm herself. It finally began to take affect.
Next, she had to put aside the revelation of Laton's death in challenge and turn her thoughts towards the implications of Besfa's resignation. She sent a message to everyone she felt could be trusted to follow her, asking them to come at once. This was the opportunity she had been waiting for and even blinding anger could not silence the single-minded vision that Surella had been following for almost ten years. She had only hours to act. The scheme was long since worked out and while waiting for her comrades to arrive she thought about what she would do afterwards.
When all of her fellow conspirators finally arrived, Surella led them down to the lowest level. There, a large room had been prepared that would comfortably seat forty people. It was a thinly furnished room, with a single, large, round table, surrounded by chairs of modest comfort. There was a hidden security array monitoring the room, which sounded an alarm that only Surella would recognize. It was tuned to register any recording, or broadcasting devices brought in. Surella and her guests took their places around the table and she wasted no time with pleasantries.
"I have found out that Donderon means to arrest myself and anyone she thinks may be sympathetic to my cause. I expect that she will act on this before the end of the day tomorrow and I have called you all here to ask for your help." She knew that everyone here had already heard about Besfa's resignation. They could not know the reason why and she counted on that. They would draw their own conclusions, leaving her free to initiate her plan. The group of conspirators sat watching her, waiting for her next sentence. She stood up and placed her hands flat on the dark, lustrous surface of the table. She looked at Jona, Xashwin and then Wer krand as she spoke. "I am sure that you understand the urgency of the situation. We must act before Donderon does."
"As you wish" Jona responded somberly. "Everything is in place."
"I am ready, said Wer krand, one of the newer members of the Council.
"As am I," Xashwin said excitedly.
"Fine." Surella turned and examined the other people assembled at her request. There were thirteen in all, four who followed her from her own home pen and the rest whom she recruited more recently.
"Number and Cardine, you will accompany Jona. Zequang and Wershan, you go with Xashwin. And Setell and Lyter, you go with Wer krand." She looked back at the three Elders. "Be careful my friends. I will see you in a few hours." She watched as her nine revolutionaries left the room and then sat back down in her chair. "Motix, you will accompany me. The rest of you return to your homes. There will be news soon and then you can begin." The remainder of the people, including Seward and Mum-Ahn-Dah stood up and filed out of the room. Motix was by far the most productive of her operatives, having brought fully half of her followers to her. She wanted to show her appreciation of loyalty. She stood up and slowly walked around the table, keeping her eyes on Motix.
"Xashwin asked that her people be allowed to take the Palace. She has four hundred fifty people with her as well as Wershan and Zequang. They will be unstoppable against the miniscule defenses of the Palace."
"What of the satellite?" Motix asked. She included a touch of concern in her voice. Surella stopped where she was, examining Motix from a distance. She appeared as a small child in the large room. Almost a pitiful sight, but not quite. Motix was no pitiful child. She smiled and continued.
"Jona and her people will be boarding the satellite at the very instant that Xashwin invades the Palace. They will remain in contact with each other. The timing is essential." Motix smiled, acknowledging her understanding of the crucial time factor. She was familiar with the basic teachings of the Rules of War. "Wer krand's people will be standing by to assist either group." She continued on her trip around the room. As she came closer to Motix, she lowered her voice and finished her point. "My greatest fear is that there will be a strong resistance on the satellite. Saffer has been in close contact with Donderon of late. They may, or may not be joining forces. In either case, that is not the only potential problem." Motix nodded somberly.
"The Military" she said.
"Right. A new Military Commander cannot take her place until the morning and I am counting on the headless entity to remain dormant. But many of them do have some sort of strange fixation on Donderon. If someone with enough respect within the military tried to counter our attack, it could be trouble."
"What of the morning, Commander?" It was the first time that someone had addressed her with the title. She took in a deep breath and smiled again. It suited her. She knew what it was to command.
"Seward and Mum-Ahn-Dah will see to it that our position is touted as the reasonable one. They are prepared to do what it takes. I am confident the population will not rise in defiance. The other reporters and news channels will be your responsibility, Motix." Motix waited for the rest of the announcement. She maintained her mask for the moment. "The Information Committee is yours, but I would like to give those who wish to follow us the chance to come over. Do not detain too many, my friend." She smiled a third time. This smile was covered with mischief, though.
"You can count on me, Commander. I will arrest only our most despised enemies." Motix had not guessed he would become the head of the Information Committee overnight, but the news sank in quickly and she was already making lists.
"The only thing we can do now is wait, Surella said, patting her advisor on the shoulder. "Would you like to join me in the sitting room?"
On the Rally Round Donderon was talking with Crinn, Beromm and Jer. She was concerned about the news she received of a meeting of influential people at Surella's home. There was a separate report of a sudden movement of people overland towards the area of the Palace. Crinn was alarmed and told the group of her fears that war had come to Teteda-Ma. Donderon listened as Crinn and Jer discussed the possible explanations of the movement of people.
"There is nothing else they could be doing" Crinn was saying. She was trying to convince Donderon that she better do something quickly.
"Perhaps they are meeting to show their support for Besfa." Jer offered.
"Surella has the full Rules, Crinn countered. There is no doubt in my mind that she is using its teachings to organize an army"
"The Rules of War?" Jer asked her, his disbelief obvious in his voice.
"If she follows the Rules, will she be able to take the Seat from me?" Donderon asked.
"Possibly" Jer said.
"Probably" Crinn said.
"She will not miss an opportunity" Donderon said, "and I fear that she may see this as such."
"Then there is no time for debate, Crinn urged.
Donderon looked at Jer. His brow was furrowed and he shrugged slightly, indicating his acceptance of Crinn's argument. Next she looked at Beromm, who was quietly listening to the conversation. She was in a state of shock, not yet able to fully grasp the fact that war may be a short time away.
"What do you think, Beromm" Donderon asked her. She focused on the face of her Supreme Commander and thought about it for a moment.
"If Surella intends to take the Seat" she said carefully, "then there is no doubt that this is her best opportunity thus far. And the movement on the ground could be something else, but what are the odds?" Donderon looked at her quizzically. She had never heard that word used like that before.
"It means any other reason for those people being there is less likely true" Crinn said. Donderon looked back at Jer.
"You agree?" she asked him.
"I do" he winced.
"Then I suppose I must act." She stood up and looked at each one in succession as she spoke.
"Jer, position this ship on the far side of the planet from the satellite. Crinn, return to the satellite and prepare a defense. Beromm, go to the Palace and tell Furbinn to do the same." When she finished giving her orders, she hurried out of the room and headed for the transpod corridor. At the same time that Beromm and Crinn each took a separate transpod, she boarded one of her own and flew down to the First Church. There, she entered through the rear door, which opened directly into the hallway the sanctuary was adjacent to. She went to the small room that led to the sanctuary and found a young girl there, half asleep at the desk.
The girl heard Donderon enter the room and looked up at her. She did not recognize her for a moment, but then her expression shifted and her eyes enlarged. She jumped up from her seat.
"Is the Dow here?" Donderon asked her patiently.
"Yes!" She turned and disappeared through a slender doorway. There was the sound of whispering from the other room.
"Bring her here" the voice of Saffer sternly commanded. After a second, the girl reappeared and motioned for Donderon to enter. As she did, she saw the Dow rising up from a low, thin mattress. She quickly donned her long, white robe and then placed the ragged, white cloth on her head. She stepped up to greet Donderon. "What brings you so late?" the Dow asked. "Or is it early?"
"I do apologize, but it is imperative that I speak with you in private."
"Leave" Saffer commanded to the girl. The girl slipped out the door, closing it behind her.
"I fear that Surella is preparing to take the Seat of Command by force. I have come to ask for your help."
"What could I possibly do for you First One?" Saffer restrained her joy, but Donderon noticed the cracking in her voice.
"I have an idea that may end up benefiting us both" Donderon said. She sat down at Saffer's invitation and continued. "I understand that you were not happy with the creation of the church and that there is someone you would like to see removed." She awaited a response.
"Go on" the Dow said. She was almost visibly vibrating from the excitement that overcame her in the last few seconds.
"I would be willing to back any move you make in exchange for a guarantee that your people on the Council will follow me when I disband it." Saffer sat showing no emotion, watching her as she spoke. When Donderon was finished, she slowly rose from her seat and walked over to a small window. Donderon disliked the habit that some people had of stretching out the moment. She knew Saffer had her where she wanted and it irked her that she relished in the victory.
"I will follow you First One, but there is one thing." Donderon turned to look at her. She watched some far off lights twinkling in the darkness through the window.
"What is it?" Donderon asked. What else could she possibly want? She was dreading it, whatever it might be.
"You must join the church." She looked over at Donderon and smiled. "If you convert, I will do as you ask." Donderon took a deep breath. That was not too much.
"Very well" she said. "When all is done, I will join the church." Saffer shook her head.
"It must be now, she said. Donderon looked at her. She figured that Saffer was not prepared to risk her going back on her word.
"Very well, but I have little time."
"It takes no time, First One. You tell me that you accept the Holy Mother Mary into your heart and it is finished." Donderon did not know if she should step so blindly into whatever Saffer was offering, but she could see no other course of action.
"I accept Mother Mary into my heart," Donderon lied. The words almost caught in her throat. She spit the sentence out. Saffer returned to her seat and bowed her head for a few seconds. She finished her minor meditation and then smiled up at Donderon.
"I will let them know as soon as possible, First One. I think it would be safe for you to act whenever you feel it is necessary."
"Thank you, Dow Saffer." As she stood up, she extended her hand. Saffer took it and then Donderon left to return to the Rally Round.
Jona returned to her home pen area to introduce her people to Number and Cardine. She dreaded the next few hours, but she knew there was no turning back now. She had to make sure it worked; her people were counting on her.
She sent a messenger, on foot, to find Umbobo and ask her to meet her. She left the where up to Umbobo, but asked that the meeting be as soon as possible. She received a reply and quickly left for the church.
When she arrived, she and Umbobo talked for several minutes. She explained what was about to happen and asked that she do the best she could to keep the church out of it. Umbobo told her that it would come down to whether or not Saffer joined in. If she did, she explained, there was little that she could do, other than keep her own followers out of the way. Jona thanked her for her cooperation and returned to her home pen to await the signal from Xashwin. She figured that everything should be in place before the Orb rose in the morning. The attack would probably come in the minutes during daybreak.
From a third floor terrace of her home, she watched her people preparing to board the transports that had, since their creation a few months prior, been disguised as dwellings. There were seven of them, each capable of holding up to one hundred ten people. They were just as quick as the vehicle discovered on the Beach. They were designed to link up in a row and attach to the satellite so that the people aboard them could quickly transfer over. It was estimated that it would take less than five minutes to off load all of the transports and fill the satellite with people.
Cardine and Number were in the process of organizing Jona's people into units and then assigning each group to a particular transport. Jona admired the orderly way they conducted themselves as they followed the Rules of War in organizing the units.
It was only a few minutes after Jona returned from her meeting with Umbobo that a handwritten note from Saffer arrived by messenger. She dismissed the messenger and then read the note, which was written in the symbolic, cryptic language of the church. The message told her, in six words, of Donderon's plan to disband the Council and Saffer's wish that she remain quiet on the matter. Jona scowelled and then laughed. She prepared a short message, describing what she learned from Saffer's message and then sent her own messenger with it to Surella's dwelling.
Up to that time, Jona was harboring serious doubts about the taking of the satellite by her own people. After this telling message from Saffer, however, she knew it was the right thing to do. She was anxious to begin. As she returned to watching the preparations for departure, she wondered what would cause someone who seemed so intelligent and well meaning to do something so drastically and obviously wrong. Donderon was wrong for giving the order and Saffer was wrong for following it. Had they been corrupted by their power? Regardless, she felt there was no excuse for such blatantly incorrect thinking. She was more determined than ever to see that Donderon was removed from the Seat of Command.
When Xashwin received a message from Saffer, she laughed first and then grew angry. She disliked Saffer and had her doubts about whether or not she was a fit leader of the church, but now her mind was perfectly clear on the subject. Saffer would have to be removed as well. She prepared a message detailing the pertinent information and sent it to Umbobo using a secured wavelength. She received a confirmation of the message within a few seconds and returned to her duty of overseeing the movement of her people.
It was assumed that the movement of over four hundred fifty people towards the Palace would be noticed and they had to be careful. Zequang and Wershan divided the people into two groups and were leading them to preplanned positions only about eight hundred to one thousand yards from the Palace. After everyone had taken their places, Xashwin was to send Jona a signal and then command her people to take the Palace. It was risky and she expected that there would be injuries and possibly even deaths, but she was determined to return the control of the government to the people. There would have to be some sacrifices made. Now, with this latest news from Saffer, who apparently was prepared to side with Donderon, the urgency of the situation seemed to multiply right before her eyes. She called her two generals on the same secured channel and told them to hasten the advance.
When Umbobo received Xashwin's message, she was shocked. She hesitated in guessing whether Donderon fell under the spell of the Dow, but she did not hesitate in deciding what to do about it. In a flurry of activity, she sent word to the leaders of the groups that she knew would follow her. She asked them to inform their people of the impending conflict and to be ready to move on a moments notice.
In the time before the unification of the church, they had organized themselves into an army, with no help from the Ma Rules of War. After the unification, they met on occasion to make sure they were ready to back up their interests if needed. Everyone believed it would eventually become necessary.
After receiving a reply from each of her messages, she left her dwelling in the back of the small church and headed for Surella's home. She had only met Surella once, a few years ago, but she knew from Jona that she was the person to see on this important occasion. She decided that it was time to offer the future leader of the government of Teteda-Ma their support.
from the first Tale of the Future
Crinn personally went to Donderon on the Rally Round with the bad news. She brought Beromm, her lead investigator, to answer any technical questions. Over the past hour, reports were received from several agents about suspicious activities on the surface of Teteda-Ma. Something like five hundred people were preparing to board a few space faring vehicles and almost as many were moving suspiciously toward the Palace.
"With the movement on the ground towards the Palace," Crinn concluded, "it would be reasonable to say these others are headed for the satellite." Jer and Donderon sat next to each other, as they always did, and said nothing. The shocking news was almost too much for either of them. After a few moments, the silence began to weigh down on Crinn. "What would you have us do, Commander?" Donderon was unable to speak. She could not believe this time had arrived so soon. Jer was less tongue tied, however.
"You say these ships are located in Jona's area?" Crinn looked over at Beromm.
"Right" Beromm answered. "Jona has been working with Surella since around the time of Laton's death."
"So, there is no doubt" Jer said quietly. She shrugged.
"As you know," Crinn said, "Surella has been preparing for a few years now. She has people in place and I think she was only waiting for the right time. This is the best opportunity for her so far."
"I did not expect this so soon, Donderon said. Crinn cleared her throat.
"If I may, Commander, that is what she is hoping for."
"Then we must act" Donderon said with a sudden strength. "What suggestions do you have for that?" Crinn sat up straight to respond.
"As for the people on the ground, it will be difficult to avoid a confrontation, but if we were to destroy the satellite boarding party, in flight, they may reconsider." Everyone in the room glared at her. Even Beromm, her trusted aide and protιgι since before the new time was taken aback by the suggestion. "Destroying the vehicles would end the threat of control by force for all time" Crinn said to sell her idea. "You can stop war here and now, Supreme Commander. It would be the greatest accomplishment in the history of humanity."
"That is preposterous!" Jer was unabashedly outraged. He stood up and shook his fist at her. "You have lost your soul, Crinn."
"It is a tactic from the Rules and we have the capability." Crinn seemed to be defending herself, but as she spoke her countenance changed. She paused for a moment and then, addressing the entire group, resumed speaking. "Surella would do the same. We must not allow ourselves to be hampered by emotion. The end result will satisfy any who may now disapprove." She focused on Jer once again. "I am guessing you would agree if you knew you would otherwise loose." Jer did not meet her eyes. She looked at Donderon, who was gazing into the empty center of the room. Donderon felt like she was pulled into two different directions at once. She wanted to end this quickly, before it began if possible, but she would not kill outright to attain it.
"Should we take such a risk with the trust of the people?" Donderon asked them. "I cannot ask my people to kill their own sisters. Destroying a ship in flight would be like stepping on a bug. It would be easy, but it is wrong."
"Right or wrong, people will die if we do not stop this before it begins" Crinn argued.
"Is killing five hundred people justified" Jer asked.
"Many more could parish otherwise."
"But maybe not" Jer countered. Crinn eyed him for a moment. She was not accustomed to his input. He had not done so before, what gave him the idea to do so now? "Why not destroy the ships where they stand? Or even capture them?" he asked her.
"There may be more. If there is, that will not deter them. Destroying the boarding party in flight is the only way we can convince them we are determined."
"I have no doubt that you are sincere, Crinn" Donderon said. "You may even be correct, but you are not right." She waited a moment for the others to focus on her. "Destroying the vehicles in flight is not an option."
"You are making a mistake" Crinn responded. "I beg that you reconsider."
"Save yourself for what is to come, Crinn. It is decided." Crinn refocused her thoughts into winning a more conventional battle. After a short time, she spoke again.
"We need overwhelming superiority."
"I am aware of that, Donderon snarled. She knew that basic rule, along with many others. She was well versed in the tactical parts of the Rules of War, having spent the better part of a year focused on little else.
The room remained quiet for more than half a minute. It seemed like an eternity to Jer. As he sat on the couch, next to Donderon, he studied the expression on each face.
Beromm's demeanor was the easiest to interpret. She seemed to be torn between concern and disgust. Jer recalled the look that she had given Crinn when she first suggested her contemptuous idea. Beromm was a member of the church and it undoubtedly gave her a better grasp on the evil implications of such a plan.
Crinn's expression gave little away. She was no doubt running several thoughts through her head at the same time, but her face appeared blank. There was nothing they could do but hold the Palace and the satellite until the attackers fell back, but if Crinn could come up with a better idea, it had better be soon.
"What are we going to do?" Jer asked Donderon, breaking the deafening silence.
"All that we can do" Donderon said. "We shall fight and hope that they will give up."
Just then, a low toned sound began to emanate from Crinn's personal viewer. A message was being received and Crinn opened her viewer to read it.
"The Palace Guard reports that two of its members have not answered their calls" she slowly read. She studied her viewer for a moment and then touched its screen with her forefinger. After she slid her finger down the screen and then tapped it twice, she spoke again. "Zequang Berr and Wershan Berr, twins." Crinn looked up at Donderon. "They are from the home pen of Gantryl Stok." Donderon peered at her, trying to decipher the reason she mentioned their home pen. Crinn continued with her thought. "Gantryl is one of the leaders of Umbobo's factions. She is openly hostile towards Saffer and has publicly denounced the official nature of the church."
"Why do you tell me this?" Donderon asked.
"It may be nothing" Crinn replied. "I hope that I am wrong, but I feel there is more to this than simply two Palace Guards who have missed a signal. If they answer to Umbobo and Umbobo is in allegiance to Surella... " Crinn did not finish her sentence. She did not have to, Donderon understood. For only the second time in her entire adult life, she was afraid.
"I have come to offer my services to your cause" Umbobo said. She was standing in the luxurious sitting room where Surella and Motix awaited news from their forces. She wore the green robe she usually wore when she left the church and carried a small black box in her left hand.
"Please have a seat, Surella said. She eyed the box for a moment as she gestured towards one of the long, deep couches that filled the center of the room. Umbobo took a seat and Surella and Motix followed, sitting on a couch opposite her.
"I understand that you may be in need of an army." Umbobo displayed a large toothy grin.
"What sort of deal?" Motix blurted. Umbobo was surprised by the abrupt nature of the question, as was Surella, and they laughed simultaneously.
"We need not rush this" Surella said.
"No, I am not slighted. I honor such enthusiasm." Umbobo sat looking at Motix, who felt a bit uncomfortable. She did not mean to appear so overly eager and thought that Umbobo must now think her a child. After Umbobo felt that Motix was reasonably embarrassed, she returned her attention to Surella and began to explain her offer.
"I have a ready force of some twenty thousand who will follow my orders. I will have them attack whatever target you wish. All I ask in return is that the new government recognize a new church, with myself as sole leader."
Surella was almost visibly shocked. Twenty thousand people would overwhelm the armies of both sides combined. It would be more than enough to insure she would occupy the Seat of Command. She could not refuse Umbobo's offer, but she did not want to appear anxious to accept either. She stood up and paced around to the rear of the couch where Umbobo sat. Umbobo remained smiling, not appearing even the least bit uncomfortable with Surella's ceremonial outflanking maneuver. She did not try to watch as she moved behind her. The move always worked before.
"If I accept, all you want is to lead the church?"
"That is correct"
"There must be something more." Umbobo slowly stood up. She was much taller and wider than Surella who felt somewhat intimidated, even before Umbobo turned around.
"There is something." She smiled at Surella. Her teeth were big and white and almost glowed in contrast to the dark-night skin that surrounded them.
"Yes?" Surella urged.
"I want you to be the first member of the new church." Surella did not understand what the reasoning behind Umbobo's request was. She looked over at Motix, who was seated on the edge of the couch, listening to the conversation.
"Why do you request that?" Surella asked.
"It is important that the leader of the government be a member of the church. To make this a deal, I must have that."
"But what exactly does it guarantee?" Motix asked. Surella was pleased with the brash manner of Motix's question. She watched as Umbobo's big grin subsided and disappeared. Motix had overstretched Umbobo's patience and Surella wanted to see what would happen next. It would show her what her decision should be, she decided.
"I will indulge your questioning because this is an important step in the development of our people." Umbobo said. She turned towards Motix and continued. "Please do not assume that I am prepared to indulge you in the future." She turned back towards Surella and smiled. Surella pushed down her apprehension and looked into Umbobo's eyes.
"What does it guarantee, Umbobo?" she asked.
"It guarantees that you will not change your mind. It guarantees that the church will have a role in the governing of its people. It guarantees that there will be a friendly and fair policy towards the church." The smile reappeared on her face as she finished her statement. "There will be no agreement without such a guarantee, she said as she sat down. Umbobo would no doubt be easier to deal with as an ally than an enemy. If she refused her, she would return to where she was a few minutes before, unsure of victory. She could not allow such a potentially devestating force to be lost to the other side. The one thing that irked her though, was that Umbobo was not following her. She would do as she requested, or so she promised, but she was not doing it for Surella, she was doing it for herself.
"I cannot refuse such a generous offer. I will gladly join your church, after we have won. And I assure you that Saffer will have no role in the church, or the government. She will meet the same fate as her infamous leader." Umbobo turned her head to see Surella where she stood behind her.
"Very good. What are your orders?" Surella spoke as she made her way back around to her place on the couch next to Motix.
"I have a force preparing to take the Palace and another, the satellite. I want to have those forces backed up and if possible we will accept a surrender." Umbobo nodded her head.
"How do you get the force to the satellite?"
"There are vehicles in Jona's home area. As soon as those vehicles return from the satellite, your people can board them."
"I will give the order. May I use your viewer?" Surella showed her to a soft, shiny, red cloth hanging from a small horizontal rod on the wall. She moved the cloth aside and the view screen was revealed. It was four feet square and bordered with a weave of thick, golden threads.
Umbobo sent a short message and then turned to look once again at Surella and Motix.
"Things are underway. Is there anything else I can do for you?"
"Not until we see what happens, Surella said.
"Then I would like to be with my people. I will be available on the channel I tuned your viewer to, when you need to contact me."
Jona marched along rows of people, shaking the hands of those she was preparing to send into battle. Surella informed her that it was a preferred morale enhancing technique. She could boost the confidence of her people just by showing herself, the Rules taught. As she proceeded, she was struck with a mental numbness. It caused her some amount of concern, but after a few minutes, she welcomed it. She was able to smile and wave; meeting hundreds of people she had known all of her life and after it was over, not remember any of them. It was all a smeared image of faces.
When Jona moved through the rows of people and was seen by all, she retreated to her home. She decided there was no other way to assure the world would remain free, but the anguish of being forced to make the decision to send her people into battle was beginning to overwhelm her.
It was getting close to the time that Xashwin would be sending the message. The time frame for the attack had been accelerated and it was now scheduled to begin an hour before Orb rise. She stepped out onto her terrace and saw her people from a distance. It was much easier for her to think about it from a distance.
Xashwin joined her people at the point of departure. She followed the tactical example given to her by Surella to the letter and Zequang and Wershan were exemplary officers. Everything was going as planned and she felt she was ready.
Her people were spread out over a line almost a mile long, prepared to converge on the Palace when she gave the signal. They were within visual range of the rear entrance, less than half a mile. Xashwin figured it would take no more than five minutes to have the full numbers of her force in the Palace.
Zequang told her about the alert call that she and her sister received. Xashwin relayed the information to Surella, who authorized the attack to commence as soon as possible.
"Final ready check" she said into her communicator.
"All is ready, Elder" Zequang answered through the same device.
"We are set as well, Wershan reported.
"The time is now, my friends" Xashwin called back. "Move your people to the Palace entrance." After giving the order, she sent the pre-arranged signal to Jona.
One of Jona's personal assistants, not quite an adolescent girl, tapped her on the shoulder. Jona turned and saw the viewer in the girl's hand. The girl turned so that Jona could read what was on it. Her heart sank and she felt like she would cry. Instead she shook her head at the girl, who bowed slightly and turned to go. The girl would tell the messenger to relay the news to Number and Cardine. They, in turn, would begin the invasion of the satellite.
Jona sat on a low, comfortable chair on the balcony overlooking a large pool of water. The water held several species of creatures in it and it was a beautiful scene. She could see the large gathering of people around the seven transports reflected in the darkened water. It appeared as a dreadful dream, but she could not awaken. As she shifted her focus from the reflection to the real thing, a shudder racked her body.
The vehicles were tall, black structures with the shape of a slowly twisted tree trunk. The top and bottom ends were enclosed with a carrier force beam. They were designed specifically for what they were about to do.
About two minutes after Jona sent the girl away, the seven groups began to board the vehicles through the bottom openings. The army was loaded onto the vehicles in less than three minutes. Fifteen seconds after that, they began lifting off the ground, one by one. They slowly tilted about ten degrees, pointing towards the tiny dot of a satellite and drifted into the sky. As they attained altitude, they picked up speed and after forming a close formation they shot away into space.
Crinn's personal viewer announced another incoming message. She had not bothered to close it up after the last message was received. It was lying open on the low table between the couches where she, Beromm, Jer and Donderon sat.
"It is started" Crinn said. She squinted at the view screen. Her face did not divulge any bit of the emotional quality of the news. "The ground force is moving towards the Palace and the satellite is detecting seven vehicles in flight."
"What are we to loose if we give up the Palace?" Donderon asked. She had the question on her mind for quite some time, but did not ask it until she had no other move. The events were in motion and under their own power. There was one final decision to make before this began.
"Surrender?" Crinn said with disbelief. "We must not surrender the government."
"You cannot" Beromm agreed. Donderon looked at Jer. He sat next to her on the couch. He seemed frightened and she fought off the urge to hold him. He looked into her eyes. She was almost like someone else at that moment.
"I will never surrender the government. I would not betray the people's trust. But perhaps I could transfer the seat of power. Move out of the Palace. Could it not be easily done?"
"But the people have seen there is power in the satellite. It must not be surrendered" Crinn said.
"I suppose that is correct" Donderon reluctantly agreed, "but the Palace is only a symbol, is it not?" Crinn considered the thought for a moment.
"I think you are correct, Commander."
"We can defend the satellite with the Palace Guard, correct?" Donderon asked her.
"Yes, we could." Crinn nodded her head. "That is a good idea."
"Then go to it" Donderon said. Crinn leaned over her viewer and tapped it a few times. When she slid her finger across and down, she looked up.
"It is done."
As Xashwin hurried through the darkness towards the Palace, she saw something strange in the dark sky. She slowed down to get a clearer view. There was a large, dark, vaguely cubical object flying up from the top of the Palace. In an instant it disappeared into the starlit sky. As she continued advancing, she contacted Zequang Berr on her transmitter.
"Did you see the vehicle?" she asked into the tiny transmitter in the palm of her hand. There was a crackling of static and then a voice pinged through the tiny speaker in her ear.
"Yes." The communicator transmitted encoded signals and could only be translated by a complex set of numbers and letters, or so she had been told. The encoding left the voice with a distinct metallic ring. It was a technology secreted from the satellite files by Surella and given as a gift to her followers.
"What was it?" she asked into her hand.
"It appeared to be the Palace vehicle. It is used to deliver goods from the space ships." Xashwin wondered what it was doing. Maybe they were heading off to pick up reinforcements, she thought. She quickened her earlier hurried pace.
The seven vehicles closed in on the satellite. As they slowed, they moved into a new formation. Lining up end to end, they connected together. The carrier force enclosing the ends of each ship disengaged and the vehicles joined to form one very long vehicle. One end penetrated the satellite's vehicle port and the carrier force holding the atmosphere inside the vehicle, disengaged. Number hopped down onto the cold, shiny floor of the vehicle port. There was no one around and she turned to order the army out of the vehicle.
She stood motionless with her arm in the air. She did not move. Cardine wondered about her comrade's odd behavior for a moment. Then, as a worried expression shifted to fear, she commanded the carrier force beam to reseal the vehicle's opening.
"What happened?" someone in the darkened vehicle said. There was a movement of voices carried to the top of the very tall transport.
"On the count of three, move out with haste" Cardine ordered. She counted down and on three, released the carrier force once again.
As the invaders rushed out into the port, some of them were frozen in their tracks. One after the other invaders became immobilized. Cardine hoped the shear numbers would overtax what she assumed was a dp/cf device. She stepped up to Number, feeling the static tugging on the fine hairs of her arm as she reached out to touch her. Number watched, unable to move. Cardine lifted a silver rod out of its pouch on her short black robe and neutralized the carrier force field.
"Thank you" Number gasped, inhaling deeply. "I could not breath well." She and Cardine went through the large port room neutralizing the field around the twenty or so others who were frozen in place.
Crinn issued weapons to the satellite defenders. Each member of the satellite defense force was given a simple projectile thrower and hastily trained to use it. Most were uneasy about injuring, or possibly killing another human being, so Crinn explained her reasoning.
"Surella has ordered her people to take this satellite." Crinn said as she handed out the weapons. "She does not care about how. They will destroy everything we have worked for. They will not stop at killing you. You must be ready to defend yourself." She dramatically subdued their apprehension, for the most part.
The invaders found no resistance. Everything was deserted, except for a single, locked door at the end of the main corridor. The invaders filled the corridor, awaiting further orders. Number and Cardine pushed through the crowd to the door. Number leaned over to place her ear on it. She straightened back up and motioned for the others to move back. It was not an easy accomplishment and some of those at the rear of the corridor had to return through the corner to the port.
"There is no escape! You cannot win this battle! I urge you to surrender!" At that same instant the transport disappeared from the port. It separated and returned to the surface of Teteda-Ma to load up once again. Within ten seconds, another transport took its place. This one was a cargo vehicle. It filled the top half of the port, raising the pressure and filling the ears of the surprised invaders. Most ducked down to avoid being hit in the head by the transport as it first appeared. A few were hit, sustaining head wounds. After a second, the vehicle rose to about eight feet above the floor, settling into place.
A ramp lowered and a door opened from the bottom of the vehicle. The remaining invaders stood watching as the first of the Palace Guards charged out of the ship, shooting projectiles out of the end of some sort of device. The Palace Guard easily overtook the unarmed invaders in the port.
The damage from the projectile that shot out of the weapon was frightening. When hit, a living target lost the ability to control its own muscles. The wound itself grew over a few seconds time until it was horribly huge. Before the victim could succumb to blood loss, the growing wound often penetrated deep enough to reach a vital organ, causing a terminal injury.
"May Mother Mary forgive the righteous" the Guard leader prayed out loud as she surveyed the dead and dying invaders. They were strewn about the floor, a horrible scene. The Palace Guard had been trained in the use of weapons for several months, at Crinn's orders, but they had never seen the effects.
"What have we done?" cried one of the Guards. She fell to her knees, dropping the weapon to the floor. "We are damned!"
"Be quiet, Guard" the leader shouted. "We have our orders. We all knew this would be difficult." The port was silent, but for the moans of the invaders who remained alive. The Palace Guard quietly regrouped and lined up to continue their advance.
Number did not receive a reply from behind the door. She gave the signal to force the door open. As the preparations were being made the Palace Guard burst into the corridor, firing the projectiles at all who stood in their way. Number and Cardine could not see what was happening and headed for the other end of the hallway. When they got close enough to see what was going on, it was too late. The door at the end of the corridor slid open and out poured the satellite defenders. They and the Palace Guard trapped the invaders between them.
Seven of the invaders, besides Number and Cardine had been given a silver rod and they were all doing their best to hold back their attackers. After no more than two minutes, the invaders left standing were reduced to less than twenty. The corridor resounded with the screams of the injured and dying invaders. The ozone smell of the projectile weapons began to nauseate many of the warriors. The defenders closed in on the last of the invaders to begin a final assault. The Palace Guard leader, using a secured transmitter, informed the Rally Round of the impending victory.
Xashwin strode up to the rear door of the Palace. Her army had swarmed in and she watched as her people rushed through the halls connecting each room of the Palace. So far, there was no sign of the defenders. Where were they? There had to be a secret room, or something similar from which the Palace Guard would suddenly rush them.
"I wish to report, said one of her people approaching her from behind.
"Do so" Xashwin properly ordered.
"There is no one inside the Palace, Elder One. No defenders, or otherwise." Xashwin examined the person reporting to her. She was one of the leaders of the units responsible for leading the advance invasion forces.
"Have you twice checked?"
"Yes. There is no one." Xashwin's face drew into a sour expression. She was at once relieved that there would be no blood shed, but she did not know what to think about the situation. She retrieved the palm sized personal viewer from its place in her black tunic and sent a message to Surella, informing her that the Palace has been taken.
Surella received the message and let out a cry of joy. Motix was also quite happy. They had only to await the report from the satellite.
"Shall we go?" Surella asked rhetorically. They left the building and headed for the Palace, maintaining a leisurely pace. When they arrived, she and Motix entered the Palace through the rear door, walking along the hall towards the Audience Room.
Surella's concern for her satellite invasion forces quickly slipped her mind when she saw the pyramid with the Seat of Command perched atop it. She bounded up the stairs of the pyramid and amidst cheering and applause from Xashwin's army, sat down on the large stone seat.
"What do you think, Motix?"
"Perfection" she answered as she finally reached the top. Xashwin entered the Audience Room through the large Ocean view front door and climbed the stairs of the pyramid.
"There was no one here when we arrived, she said to Surella. "What do you think of it?" Surella eyed her suspiciously.
"None" Xashwin answered.
"See if you can raise Umbobo" Surella said to Motix.
At that very moment, aboard the satellite, Number and Cardine, as well as the seven other invaders now left standing, were on the verge of being overwhelmed by superior numbers. Cardine was just about to surrender herself to the mercy of the defenders, when a new army charged into the corridor.
Not knowing of Umbobo's involvement, Cardine thought they were reinforcements for the defenders, but the actions of the leading members of the new army told her otherwise. They attacked the defenders, using small and black boxes.
The defenders were tossed aside, or furiously knocked to the floor, crushing bones. The weapons the defenders used so successfully on the first invading army had no affect on this new army. The defenders, along with the Palace Guard made a hasty retreat into the room from which they sprung only a few minutes ago.
A few seconds after Motix called, Umbobo responded.
"My people are on the satellite now."
"Do you know how things are going?" Surella asked her.
"I will relay the report to you the minute I get it."
"Alright, thank you" Surella said and closed the connection. "Try to raise Jona. Inform me the moment you get any news." Motix bowed. Surella began preparations to broadcast over the government channel.
"I am Omubowa, said the apparent leader of the newest army.
"Number is my name and this is Cardine. We are more happy to see you than you will ever know." Number smiled from ear to ear. She was a short, pale woman with long, light hair. Cardine fit into the same general description, just as did most of the women from Surella's home pen. They were splattered with the blood of defenders and invaders alike. The smoke and fumes from scores of horrible wounds filled the air.
Omubowa was a tall, midnight black woman with no hair. She was from a pen near Umbobo's and involved in the secret force from the start. When Umbobo gave her the order to move out, she decided to personally lead her people onto the satellite. She was the first to strike down an enemy and was still in the process of catching her breath, coughing from the acrid atmosphere.
"There could be no more than ten defenders, said Cardine.
"I will offer them the opportunity to surrender once more" said Number. The corridor, once again filled with people, was more difficult to maneuver than before. There were hundreds of dead and injured bodies strewn about. The smell of blood and death and ozone filled the air. The walking injured as well as the uninjured helped those they could, whether friend or foe. Many of the new invaders were stunned by the carnage. Dozens wept, joining those who were already crying for the lost souls of their sisters.
Number stepped over a few mangled bodies, keeping her eyes on the door. She pounded on it with her fist, taking out some of her fury from the terrible way the defenders had defended themselves. The sound echoed on the other side and she could hear the people scurrying to take cover.
"This is your last chance to surrender, she shouted. "We give you ten minutes to contact your leaders." Number turned to Cardine. "Reach Jona and tell her we have won."
Jona remained in her seat on the terrace since the first wave of invaders left for the satellite. When Umbobo's forces arrived and boarded the transports, she watched carefully. She prayed to Mother Mary that with an overwhelming force, the battle would end before it began.
The girl who brought her the messages tapped her on the shoulder once again. She showed her the viewer and Jona smiled. As she read the report of the successful attack, which did not include the injury report, another girl approached with another message. After quickly reading it, Jona stood up.
"I will go to the Palace now." She announced that very thing many times before, but now, it took on a whole new meaning. She would return from the Palace as the Second and her people would be assured a place in the powerful new government. It did not seem to affect her as she thought it should. She was neither happy, nor disturbed. She was having a difficult time feeling anything and it worried her.
Crinn finally expressed it on her face. She did not need to report what she read, but she did.
"We are defeated, she said quietly. "The defenders number eight and there is another five hundred invaders aboard the satellite." Both Donderon and Jer were silent. They stared at Crinn as she reported what had happened. Beromm held her face in her hands, sobbing.
"What are your orders, Supreme Commander?" Crinn asked. Donderon turned to look at Jer, who sat motionless, watching the viewer on the table.
"I will speak to the people, she said. She stood up and walked over to the other side of the room. She looked back at the others and then left through the door.
"All is not lost" Crinn said.
"What do you mean?" Beromm asked her, looking up.
"The satellite is lost but the people are where the power comes from. If they want to fight Surella, Donderon will lead them."
"Do you really think there is any hope?" Jer asked in a rhetorical manner. Crinn and Beromm looked at him as he stood and left the room.
Surella spoke into the microphone Mum-Ahn-Dah held for her. It was a short, slender tube with a soft, porous material covering the receiving end. Her words would be sent at the speed of light, up to the satellite, which in turn would broadcast them to the people of Teteda-Ma.
"This is Surella speaking, she began. I am pleased to announce the formation of a new government. Forces under my command have taken control of the Palace and the satellite and I have assumed the role of Supreme Commander until an election can be arranged. In the mean time, I have appointed Jona as Second, Xashwin as Military Commander and Motix as Information Committee leader.
"I urge those of you who are members of the military, or the Information Committee to report to these new authorities. You will be welcomed into the new government. Those who do not, will be presumed enemies of the new government. You and will suffer the consequences of your inaction.
"Free citizens of Teteda-Ma, you have my assurance that you will be allowed to continue with your lives as usual. I have taken this drastic action due to the circumstances that prevailed within the old government. This will in no way affect your life now, or in the future. I thank you in advance for your cooperation."
Donderon's speech, as well as her image would be carried to the world by three displacement vehicles located in strategic orbits around Teteda-Ma. They broadcast her on all the channels the personal viewers received and there was no place on the surface of Teteda-Ma that did not receive a strong signal.
Donderon listened to Surella's speech as she was preparing to make her own. She could hardly believe what happened, but Surella's audacious words were a sobering reminder of reality.
When Donderon delivered her speech, she looked directly into the image-gathering device and said what she had to say.
"I will not betray the trust of the people. I will not give up the authority you have placed under my control. It is true that the Palace and the satellite have been lost to opposing forces, but the government does not reside within those inanimate objects. The power of the government comes directly from the people and as long as I live, I will never betray that trust.
"In an attempt to bring stability to the events taking place in and around the Palace and the satellite, I am declaring the Council of Elders, as well as the position of Second to be illegal. The Council and Second were not directly approved by the people and I offer my sincerest apologies for allowing them to continue for so long.
"Along with Surella and the forces of Jona, Xashwin and Wer krand, Umbobo and those who follow her also have been involved. From this day forward, Umbobo and those who follow her will be cast out of the church and are to be regarded as enemies of the people.
"Those of you within the Information Committee who heard Surella's premature declaration of victory, do not be concerned. In time, we will reclaim the satellite, but until then, the Information Committee will operate from the DV Voider. The entire satellite memory file is located aboard the Voider and your work may continue uninterrupted.
"Those of you in the military. I regret to inform you that your Military Commander has been charged with causing the death of Laton. Besfa has resigned, rather than allow the truth to become known, however I can see no alternative, given the events of the night, than to announce the reason behind the decision.
"After considering the possibilities, I have come to the conclusion that the only choice for her replacement is General Jer. He will continue to command the Rally Round and will also serve as my Military Councilor.
"The Dow Saffer will advise me as Religious Councilor." Donderon rubbed her eyes. She looked over at Jer standing just out of viewer range. He smiled at her, giving her the initiative to continue.
"Before the ancestors were brought to Teteda-Ma, someone composed a statement that might help clarify what has happened here today." She paused and looked down at the palm sized personal viewer in her lap. She read out loud without looking up.
"A life blessed
Given willfully for another
Fought not for a cause
Yet still worth the dying
All else is expendable."
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