The long and winding Road


DISCLAIMER: I don't own any portion of Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda. I just like to bring some of these characters out to visit my playground and promise to put them back when we've finished our game. No money has been made as a result of this fan's creation.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: There is little canonical information regarding the past of Telemachus Rhade. If you find inconsistencies, and have a canonical source to which you can refer me, please do it so that I might refine this work and bring it a little closer into alignment with “Andromedaverse.”


Chapters 50 - 60

Chapter 1

When Dylan Hunt heard the slaver’s introductory auction call and the crowd’s answering cry of anticipation, he knew there would be trouble, just not to what magnitude. He’d even purposely and loudly tried to distract his companion, attempting to divert his interest to some insignificant collection of baubles for sale at a nearby merchant’s tent. It had almost worked, would have worked with anyone else had that person not had the benefit of genetically enhanced hearing.

“Slavers,” the Nietzschean growled, gravel grinding beneath his boots as he did a complete about face toward the direction of the announcements.

“Rhade, we don’t have time for a rescue mission or to wreak havoc on slavers—“Hunt hissed, making a grab for his companion’s arm, catching only air as Telemachus strode beyond his grasp, disappearing into the milling crowd.

Dylan rushed after him, cursing under his breath, hoping some miracle would occur to prevent Rhade from doing anything conspicuous. If that miracle happened to be the ground opening up into a gaping maw beneath the unsuspecting man, then so be it. Dylan didn’t get his miracle, although Rhade did stop his angry march near the front of the crowd, powerful arms crossed over his chest, glaring menacingly at the scene developing before him.

A small, makeshift stage sat in the center of the market; the human-looking auctioneer leaned casually on the makeshift podium, smiling broadly at his growing audience. His silky clothing was gaudy and loud, vaguely reminding Dylan of an explosion at a paint factory, failing to hide the rotund physique beneath. Behind the stage, a small, enclosed cart was wheeled into position.

With a quickly barked order from the auctioneer, two burly men in distressed leather vests and leggings unlocked the doors and dragged a bony old human man into the bright light of twin suns. The old man coughed and squinted at everything. The bidding began slowly and without enthusiasm.

“Rhade, we really can’t—don’t have time for this—not now,” Dylan whispered, trying to sound compassionate, hating the idea of slavers nearly as much as the Nietzschean, but he knew it was a battle he’d already lost. “I understand your stance on slavers, but we have to choose our battles,” he added pointedly.

Telemachus cast the human a withering glance and would not be moved. “Go then. I’m staying.” Dylan could almost hear the other man’s words being engraved in stone on some distant world.

“We can’t really do anything about this—not here, not now—we’re sort of outnumbered, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Dylan pressed.

“Wait,” Rhade insisted, the tension in his voice rising to a dangerous level, his demeanor changing in a way that Dylan could almost touch, but didn’t understand.

“A fine morsel next up,” the auctioneer promised, snapping his fingers at the handlers.

The pair reached inside the cart and drug out a lifeless corpse, a dark-skinned demi-human male. The auctioneer frowned, gesturing quickly. The handlers tossed the body back into the cart amidst protest from the occupants. At a signal from the auctioneer, the handlers drug out another equally limp body.

“ is the promised morsel,” he announced excitedly as the pair mounted the stage, their cargo equal as limp as the previous.

Rhade’s reaction wasn’t specifically what Dylan had expected, although he wasn’t certain what his expectations should have been. The other man made some dangerous guttural sound, visceral and deep. Dylan grabbed Rhade’s arm as he began to move forward, not missing the sudden bunched tension or bone blades threatening to explode from some heated instinctual reaction.

Long, dark blond hair matted in blood stuck to a dirty female face that the auctioneer gently raised with his gavel. Her eyes remained closed as he peeled back her lower lip. “Lovely teeth,” he commented, his thumb lingering on her lip for a moment. “Don’t let her current state fool you. This is one healthy young female, a fine addition to any household or harem. Too highly spirited for some of the more delicate members of our audience, we were unfortunately forced to sedate this prize.” He then began an expose of her skills and talents, caressing her pale cheek occasionally.

“You don’t need a personal slave-girl,” Dylan nearly exploded, exasperated, but Rhade would not be deterred.

“...finely ornamented as well, ” the man continued, nodding to one of his workers who unlocked a metallic gauntlet on the girl’s arm. It clanked to the deck of the stage. Gingerly, the man pulled a delicate bone blade from its slumber at the base of her wrist, and its companion blades flared in agreement down her forearm. There were mutters of surprise and the enthusiastic bidding began almost spontaneously.

“How much do we have?” Rhade demanded quickly, dark eyes intense, countenance strangely fevered.

Dylan puffed his cheeks and exhaled, “Probably not enough to buy you that girl and get the supplies for Andromeda’s repairs, if that’s what you’re getting at,” he replied as he listened to the bids grow higher.

“Repairs can wait,” Rhade announced, throwing his hand into the air, barking out a bid of his own.

Chapter 2

Harper pranced around like a squirrel on flash, impatiently awaiting the arrival of the Eureka Maru. His curiosity was killing him, and he was anxious to get his hands on whatever Dylan and Rhade had been able to procure. It only added to the excitement that Hunt had been particularly tight-lipped regarding the Maru’s cargo.

“I sincerely doubt that the—supplies—we acquired today are going to provide much in the way of repairs, at least not for the Andromeda,” Dylan had replied tersely to the engineer’s question about the quality and quantity of the incoming inventory. “Hunt out.”

Beka Valentine was equally as anxious for the Maru’s return, but for entirely different reasons. She scowled at the scanner’s display, drumming her fingers on the lip of the control panel, charting her ship’s progress from the planet to The Andromeda.

She hadn’t been completely happy with the plan for the operation, and was very verbal about it, particularly the bit about her not piloting the Maru. Dylan was easily the most diplomatic negotiator they had, so it was reasonable that he would spearhead the excursion for supplies. She had energetically lobbied to go along, reminding him of her excellent bartering skills, not failing to emphasize to him half a dozen times that it was her ship that was going to be doing the traveling.

Dylan countered that if were going to leave Andromeda, someone reliable had to be in charge. For the moment, Beka had been the most qualified candidate for the position, although she had still tried to argue the point with Dylan. In the end, Dylan won out; he had taken Rhade and the Maru to get supplies. Beka grudgingly agreed and remained behind on The Andromeda, sadly contemplating their present circumstances. Through a series of extended circumstances too bizarre to comprehend, they had been vomited into a twisted existence that precariously perched itself between ludicrous and unfathomable. She had given up trying to understand it, and concentrated instead on trying to survive it.

Trance still floated between lucidity and oblivion, her memories and mental state still fluctuating from moment to moment, making it impossible to leave her alone and unsupervised. Just when it was apparent to all of them that her personal good luck charm was so much more than an enchanting enigma, possessing some godlike ability to reshape reality, the events surrounding Arkology had reduced a brilliant mind into a confused infantile state of gentle curiosity. A gifted healer, Trance had more than once used complex medical techniques to snatch a life from the brink of death. Now, she seemed sincerely doubtful about a plant’s need for water and UV light.

While Beka would have surmised that Harper’s mental state was equally as suspect as their ethereal friend, every additional minute he spent improvising repairs on the Andromeda was one minute less they’d be stranded in this godforsaken nightmare. Of all of them, Seamus’ trip through the confusing Route of Ages had taken a lengthier but less understandable turn—if any of it could be understood at all. Three years of time had passed for him before being reunited with his former crewmates, although the gift of his twisted genius had remained intact and deliberate.

As for Rhade—well, that was another story. She heaved a sigh and considered the Nietzschean. There had been a time in the not-too-distant past that Dylan Hunt’s immediate decision would have been to leave the Weapon’s Officer in command of the ship and crew with complete confidence. That was a different time. Out of all of them, Beka counted the man the most adversely affected by their journey through the fold in time and space. For him, nine months had lapsed, leaving him with a fragmented memory of events prior to the disaster than culminated into their present. Poor Telemachus, Beka thought, in an uncharacteristically kind moment. Previously an insanely competent military strategist, he had been carefully bred through the generations before him to be groomed into a privileged life of sophisticated elegance and logic. There had been a lethal and terrifying grace in his hand-to-hand combat skills. These days, however, he spent one drunken moment to the next either in search of the next drink or the arms of the next woman.

Beka marveled that Dylan hadn’t lost his desire to crusade for a reunited Commonwealth, even given the present situation. She reminded herself to take into consideration that the trip through the fold in time and space had lasted only minutes for him, so he was only slightly taken off stride on his fool’s quest. She, on the other hand, had spent that same moment of eternity that spanned into six months for her. She’d nearly died alone on the Maru—fuel exhausted, food and water consumed days ago, life support failing before she’d had the good fortune to be discovered by pirates. While Dylan remained cautiously optimistic that they would all find some solution to this problem and soon find a way to their proper place in the cosmos, Beka wasn’t convinced that it was even possible, and she was satisfied to simply keep living from day to day.

She was interrupted from her thoughts by Harper’s satisfied yelp of excitement. “Hey, boss! The Maru’s clearing the hangar bay doors in three—two—one—bingo, and she’s back!”

“My baby better not have a scratch on her, Dylan Hunt,” she whispered grimly as she monitored the progress of her beloved cargo hauler’s landing on the hangar deck.

“Race you to the hangar!” Harper cackled, rushing out of Command before Beka could comment.

“Not a scratch,” she repeated as she followed.

Chapter 3

Dylan Hunt cast a side-long glance toward Beka's small cabin beyond the Eureka Maru's cockpit, wondering for the ten thousandth time what was going on in Rhade's head. The man had become eerily quiet, and it was starting to unsettle him.

"You know, if I came to with your ugly mug two inches from my face, I'd probably die of sudden fright," Dylan cautioned, trying to lighten the tense mood.

"I can promise you by whatever you want to me swear it against, that our faces will never be that close, not while I draw breath," Rhade muttered with absent distaste. "Besides, I'm just making sure she's all right," he offered casually, resting his palm lightly on her forehead.

"By watching each and every single breath she takes?" Dylan demanded. "Rhade, you've literally hovered over her for the entire trip—been crouched at the head of that bunk the whole time! I hate to drag you away from your new hobby, but we're on approach to the Andromeda and you might want to get strapped in for arrival."

Rhade reluctantly agreed, murmuring something quietly to the girl before he slung himself into the co-pilot's seat, grudgingly snapping restraints into place. He nodded toward the waiting warship. "Land gently," he admonished with sincerity, glancing back toward Beka's cabin again. "She's had a difficult enough time recently without having to deal with your poor piloting skills, too."

Dylan flipped a mock salute. "Aye, commander, as you wish," he frowned slightly, smoothly bringing the Maru onto the hangar deck.

Rhade had his prize gently wrapped in a blanket, tucked up against his chest before Dylan had the engines completely shut down.

Dylan considered the pair for a moment. "I'm sure Trance will be able to help her," he offered. "I'll catch up with you later."

If Rhade heard, he made no comment, carefully shifting the girl in his arms before carrying her past the cockpit.

"Mr. Harper, I could use some help with the cargo," Dylan shouted out the hatch, his words accented by the stomping of Rhade's boots carrying him down the ramp.

Dylan didn't bother to glance out the portal, but crossed his arms and began counting from the moment Rhade left to the moment Seamus Harper would discover that Telemachus Rhade wasn't lugging a battered crate down the ramp. He got to three, closed his eyes, and leaned his weary head against the bulkhead.

"Woo-hoo! Now that's my kind of supplies," Harper crowed, followed by his loud protest of being unceremoniously shoved off the ramp. "I'm all right—I only fell a couple of feet, big guy. I'm sure you didn't see me right there in front of you!"

Dylan leaned his head out the hatch to see Harper dusting himself off, hopping back onto the boarding ramp as Rhade disappeared around the hangar exit, Beka waving her arms excitedly around her face as she followed him.

"I really could use some help with the rest of the cargo," Dylan admonished.

Harper glanced up hopefully. "Any more, uh, cargo like Rhade lugged out?"

Dylan shook his head and sighed. "Nope, we're fresh out of unconscious young women, but we've got some greasy mech stuff just waiting for your genius to turn them into some repairs for the Andromeda."

Harper considered the options and shrugged. "Almost as good, boss, almost as good. Besides, that girl needs a chance to clean up and rest up before she meets The Harper," he grinned.
"Now, let's look at those parts the anti-tech league managed to let slip past them," he enthused, rubbing his hands together eagerly.

" just bought this girl?" Beka demanded again, still waving her hands around her head, trying to force the words to make sense either to herself or to the strangely silent Nietzschean. "And Dylan let you?"

For a moment, Telemachus Rhade's long purposeful strides halted. "I don't need Dylan Hunt's permission to do as I choose," he snapped.

His dark eyes flashed as he considered the angry human woman at his side, and it seemed that he might speak. During the next heartbeat, Beka was sure she saw a swell of the old Rhade—the reasonable and sane Rhade--lurking in those eyes, and she wanted nothing more desperately than to draw him out further.

At length, he shook his head, and his expression softened. "I will explain it to you later, Beka," he began, in the patient tones of a wizened teacher to a first-day pupil. "But for now, can we please just get to Medical?"

"Okay," Beka conceded, "but you've got some serious explanations to make, buster. And don't get any big ideas about starting a harem or anything like that. It's hard enough to keep Harper's mind on what he's supposed to be doing anyway," she added tersely, following in his wake.

Chapter 4

Trance Gemini sang softly to her lemon tree as she misted its waxy emerald leaves. The fragrant blossoms were just beginning to open, and their light scent was just starting to waft about. Hydroponics was more and more a sanctuary to her these days as she struggled internally with a burden of growing knowledge that she fought to keep under wraps. She found that nurturing the plants in her garden was a blissful distraction from the chaos of converging realities; it was something comforting and non-threatening that she could control with a practiced ease.

She was jarred from her tranquil state by a hiss of static, and Holo-Rommie's unexpected appearance in the garden's fountain. The image was slightly unstable as it shimmered with white noise as water gurgled through it.

"You're needed in Medical, Trance," the hologram announced, lips moving slightly out of sync with the projected voice.

Trance put the misting sprayer down. "I'll be right there," she answered, hurrying toward the corridor.

Before the doors slid open for Medical, Trance could hear Beka barking orders and Rhade replying in equally tense tones. Trance couldn't help smiling. It sounded like a scene from the not-too-distant past replaying itself, the past where she knew what she was supposed to be doing, even when her motives remained a mystery to those around her. The present was a frightening prospect for her, because she was still missing pieces of what Harper referred to as "the big picture," and she lived in fear that something was terribly wrong and it was very important to find those missing pieces before… She wasn't sure what, but she knew it was vital to find those pieces.

With a deep breath, she entered Medical, prepared to face whatever medical emergency awaited.

Rhade and Beka stood on opposite sides of one of the exam tables, waiting for Trance, each with equally grim and expectant expressions. A young woman was bundled loosely in a blanket. Her eyes were closed, and her face was battered.

The bio-scanner view screen was swarming with activity, processing biological information, checking capacities of vital organs, displaying myriad readings. A wave of compassion overwhelmed Trance and she reached out a slender hand to gently touch a darkening bruise on her patient's cheek.

"Who is she?" Trance asked quietly, glancing up at Beka and Rhade. “What happened to her?”

Beka seemed poised to deliver some sharp remark, judging from the unhappy expression on her face, but she crossed her arms instead and looked expectantly to Rhade. "Those seem to be the pertinent questions of the moment, don’t they?" she asked, tapping her boot lightly on the deck.

"Don't be angry, Beka," Trance admonished lightly as she began to undertake an inventory of injuries on a flexi, gently placing the blanket on a nearby counter.

"I'm not," Beka replied, just a little too quickly to be believable.

As Nietzschean bone blades came into view on the bruised arms, both women glanced to Rhade. He'd pulled a silver flask from a pocket and took a slug, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

He met their gazes levelly. "She needs medical attention. Now. Can we please just do that? We can sit around, have a few drinks, and play a jolly round or two of 'Ask Rhade A Thousand Questions' later, all right?"

"It was only two questions," Trance whispered, pouting and offended.

Rhade reached out and lightly touched her golden arm. "Sorry," he said, his voice tight. His eyes were dark and Trance wasn't certain exactly what was brewing in the depths. "Please, Trance, help her."

Trance nodded and smiled. "You know I will, Rhade. Helping people is what we do, remember?"

Rhade tried to return the smile, but only nodded. Trance gently pressed a nano-bot injector against her patient's arm and released a herd of medical-bots into her bloodstream.

"Beka, can you hand me that bio-scanner?" she asked, reaching out absently to her left.

Before Beka could move, the scanner flew to Trance's waiting hand. Beka and Rhade exchanged bewildered looks.

"Thanks," she muttered, losing herself in the preliminary medical exam, slowly waving the device several inches over her patient's body, sending it on an investigative journey from head to toe.

"That's new," Beka mouthed, marking the unexpected flight of the scanner with a finger in the air. Rhade only shrugged indifferently and took another swig from his flask, trying not to hover over Trance's shoulder.

"I, uh, think I'll go find some clean clothes or something for our--guest, Trance, if you don't need me for anything else," Beka announced after a moment. “I’ll help you clean up our new friend when you’re finished.”

"That would be very nice, Beka," Trance agreed, monitoring the scanner's readings.
"Rhade's going to stay here, in case I need some help," Trance added, not looking at either of her companions.

"What she said," Rhade mumbed in agreement, not surprising Beka by remaining rooted where he stood. She doubted there would be much that could cause him to be moved at the moment anyway.

" Fine. I know I'd want a big, ugly uber for a nursemaid," Beka snorted, sauntering out of Medical. "I'll be back later."

Within half a heartbeat's time of the moment that the Medical doors hissed closed following Beka’s exit, Trance turned and looked directly into the dark eyes of the Nietzschean. Her expression was tinged with a desperate sadness.

“Was she in a terrible accident, Rhade?”

“Yeah, an accident called slavers,” he growled.

Trance pointed her scanner to the view screen, highlighting specific areas with a laser pointer. “I won’t lie to you, Rhade, her injuries are very serious. If she were an unmodified human, she wouldn’t have survived, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

“You see those little green lights, the little flashing ones? Those are the places where the nano-bots indicate that there is serious, potentially life-threatening damage. Several major organs—the liver, a kidney, a lung, and the heart, to name the most important-- have sustained damage,” she explained.

“Awful lot of little green lights up there,” he commented grimly, taking in the display that looked like a neon astro-navigation mapping than a medical scan, peppered with half a dozen flashing green blips in varying degrees of intensity.

Trance nodded, swallowed hard, and continued her macabre demonstration. “The blue lights show where bones are broken or fractured,” she said, indicating the lower half of the left ribcage, lower right leg, several vertebrae, and a nasty line that bisected the back of her skull. “The brighter the light, the more recent the injury. As you can see, some are relatively old, but some are as new as today.”

She chanced a sidelong glance at the man. It wasn’t necessary to have the ability to divine outcomes of probable realities; she knew beyond any question that someone would be paying dearly for the injuries inflicted on the Nietzschean woman. She had no doubt that that someone would be paying with his or her life, if she were any capable judge of the dark anger seething from a dark place deep within Telemachus Rhade’s soul.

Long minutes passed. Ordinarily, the nano-bots would have immediately gone to work, knitting bone fractures together, mending rips in tissue, repairing damage wherever it was encountered. The light patterns and their intensity remained unchanged on the viewer.

“Why aren’t the nano-bots in her system healing her more quickly than this?” he demanded, suddenly breaking the silence that had developed as he and Trance studied the display.

Trance shrugged helplessly. “That I can’t answer right now--I would have expected some improvement already; but you have to remember that these are serious injuries--it may just take longer than we expect. You can tell the nano herds are active, or we wouldn't even see them registered on the viewer."

She scribbled some notes on her flexi, mind awhirl with possibilities. "We’ll have to run some tests, get some blood samples, and see if Harper has any ideas. If anyone can boost their healing capacity, Seamus can,” she said.

Rhade rested his hands on the exam table and wearily watched the viewer. It stubbornly refused to display any alteration in its status, regardless of how hard he glared at it.

Trance gently laid one of her hands on top of his. "What's her name, Rhade?" she asked.

He sighed. "Stasia," he whispered. "Her name is Stasia."

Chapter 5

Harper cocked his head and absently surveyed the contents of the two crates in the Maru’s cargo hold.

“Y’know, boss, you could have just put this stuff in your pockets and dropped it off at the machine shop,” he commented with unveiled sarcasm as he rummaged through the contents.

Dylan sighed, not much happier than the engineer. “I know it’s not much to work with, Harper, but it was the best we could get with the amount of canals we had,” he offered.

Harper glanced up at the captain and nodded. “Well, you still managed to get at least two things that I can use, despite your best efforts to bring back a collection of useless junk. So, what’s the deal with the banged-up babe Rhade carted off to Medical?”

“It’s sort of a long story,” Dylan replied.

“Well, we’ve got nothing but time, since it doesn’t look like the Andromeda’s going anywhere anytime soon,” Beka answered, stepping from the shadows with a small bundle of clothing in her arms. “So, tell us a story about two guys and a considerable amount of wealth who go shopping on a backwater world. Feel free to take it from there.”

“Beka, that’s not fair,” Dylan huffed.

Beka waved a hand in the air, trying to snuff out his beginning of a feeble excuse. “Life’s not fair, Dylan. Haven’t you picked up on that yet, or do you need an interventional reality check today?”

“Uh, Beka, you okay?” Harper ventured, trying to attach one piece of tubing to something that looked like a power coupler. “You seem sorta—I dunno—mad, or something.”

“Let the man tell his story, Harper,” she snapped. “Oh yeah, and let’s hope he doesn’t leave out the part about how most of the considerable wealth belonged to a hard-working cargo pilot named Beka Valentine. I especially want to hear about how these two guys came back with worthless crap—“

“—and a babe,” Harper tossed in quickly before she was too far into her rant for him to shove in a word edge-wise.

She glared at him and crossed her arms, then turned to Dylan again. “--worthless crap that won’t fix the Andromeda or bring us any closer to getting out of this hell-hole.”

“I know this wasn’t the plan, Beka, and I’m sorry you’re disappointed,” Dylan began, trying to sound very diplomatic. “There wasn’t a lot to choose from, and we were expecting that. We were almost ready to leave, and a slave auction started up. Rhade’s reaction wasn’t what I expected. It was almost like--he was the old Rhade again; shocked, indignant, repulsed that sentient beings were being bought and sold. I was actually afraid he was going to start a riot just to shake things up.

“I kept trying to get him to leave—but he was like a mountain, and those aren’t easy to move, especially the Nietzschean variety. It was like he was there for a specific purpose and the purpose was that girl. There was no way he was leaving without her—it was like a moral imperative that couldn’t be denied.”

Beka snorted. “Moral and Rhade? Not something you hear in the same breath everyday. There’s more to it than that, Dylan. Have you noticed how he’s acting? I mean, I know Rhade and women—but this is something else.”

Dylan nodded, remembering the trip back. “We’ll get to the bottom of it.”

Beka turned and stopped short, glancing back at Dylan with a rare smile. “For what it’s worth, Dylan, you guys did the right thing. Nobody deserves to be a slave, not even a Nietzschean.”

Dylan returned the smile, feeling a weight lifting off his shoulders. “Thanks, Beka.”

“But, you still owe me the money I loaned you,” she added with a capricious laugh as she disappeared from view.

Chapter 6

“Stasia,” Trance repeated, a thoughtful expression crossing her face. “That’s a pretty name.”

From a nearby supply cabinet., she retrieved a blood collection kit containing a variety of needles, transparent vials, several syringes, and an assortment of small bits of gauze and adhesive strips. Swabbing her patient’s inner elbow, she glanced uncertainly at Rhade as she readied the long needle. “Um, can you hold her arm while I get some blood?” she asked.

The fleeting uncomfortable expression on his face wasn’t lost on Trance, nor was the momentary trembling of his hands as he gently held Stasia’s bruised arm. The universe could hold whatever opinion of Nietzscheans it wanted; Trance Gemini knew compassion when she saw it.

“I’m sure she won’t even feel it,” Trance soothed, expertly sliding the needle through skin, quickly collecting three small vials of blood. She pressed a small piece of gauze and adhesive over the tiny wound. “All done—and exactly the right color!” she announced with a quick smile, triumphantly admiring the crimson liquid within the collection tubes.

She busied herself with diagnostic equipment, preparing to analyze the blood, intent on discovering whatever mysteries it held. She snaked a glance back at Rhade and saw that he had resumed a calculated appraisal of the bio-scanner’s display. She also noted that he had absently taken one of Stasia’s hands, gently stroking her wrist with his thumb. Concluding a silent conversation with herself, Trance nodded and began to survey the analysis results with satisfaction.

“Here’s the problem,” she announced after a moment.

Another moment passed, and another. Rhade cleared his throat and waited for yet another long moment. “Trance, I’m not a telepath,” he said levelly, fighting to keep his tone civil.

She looked up sheepishly. “Sorry, sorry. There’s a drug called prollaium, and it’s a really super-duper sedative. Stasia’s got loads of it in her blood.”

He nodded, a moment of remembrance passing through his mind. “The slavers said something about keeping her—under control,” he replied, the words leaving a bitter distaste in the back of his throat.

“Well, the other thing it does it puts nano-bots in a dormant state,” she continued excitedly. “That explains why the nano colonies she already has weren’t really working that great, and why the nano herds I just put in didn’t jump up to the plate and go to bat pronto.”

Rhade raised his eyebrows and waited for the golden-hued woman to return to a lucid enough state that he might actually follow her train of thought. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with Harper again, haven’t you?” he asked slowly.

She waved her hands in the air. “Rhade, listen!” she implored.

“I’m certainly trying.”

“I think Trance is trying to say she’s got a fix,” Beka supplied helpfully, as she stepped out of the corridor into Medical. “I am right, aren’t I, Trance?”

“Yes, yes!” Trance replied, on the verge of annoyance at being forced to answer questions when she had work to do. She furrowed her brow and worked quickly at a console, keying in one chemical formula after another, synthesizing variable and equations. “I should be able to produce a counter-agent that will basically render the prollaium inert, allowing the nanoes to reactivate and do their work.”

“And she’ll heal,” Rhade concluded, a smile threatening to break his solemn countenance into something less menacing.

“Hey, if you got any left to spare later, we could all use a little healing,” Beka declared.

Chapter 7

The prollaium counter-agent started doing its job almost instantly, evidenced by the activity displayed on the bio monitors. Trance smiled proudly as her patient’s vital signs began to shift into patterns that were more acceptable and less alarming to the casually trained eye.

“You do good work, Trance,” Beka complimented. She idly wondered if this latest turn of events meant that her Trance was coming back, the Trance she’d always referred to as her personal good luck charm, the one who was as dear to her heart as a little sister.

“I remembered how to do some of this stuff!” Trance announced excitedly. “At first, I was afraid when I walked into Medical—but then I just knew what to do!”

“Um, that’s great, Trance,” Rhade replied, suddenly hoping that Trance had remembered all the right things in the correct sequence. Judging from the satisfactory results thus far, he was going to put his positive thought energy into the hope that a good outcome was still possible. He didn’t believe in luck, but he was learning about faith and hope.

She graced him with a knowing smile. “I remembered everything in the correct order,” she told him with great satisfaction.

Dylan and Harper quietly entered Medical.

“How’s our patient, Trance?” Dylan asked, eying the flickering lights on the bio viewer while Harper wandered over for a better look.

“She’s been treated very badly, and has many injuries. There’s a sedative—a drug called prollaium--in her system that had the nano-bots in a dormant state, but I synthesized a counter-agent for it, and everything seems to be working like it’s supposed to,” she reported quickly. “And, her name is Stasia.”

Dylan smiled. This sounded like the old Trance, confident in her ability to help a patient. It was a nice change of pace from the skittish golden woman-child who’d replaced their cheerful purple pixie.

“Good job, Trance,” he said with satisfaction, crossing his arms. “And you know her name—because…” he gestured emptily. “Because you do?”

“Because I told her,” Rhade replied.

“And a little bird told you her name, right?” Harper asked with interest.

The spilling of state secrets had seldom created this degree of anticipation as the senior staff awaited the answer.

Rhade straightened his shoulders. “She is Anastasia Theros, out of Maria by Nikolaus, Pride Majorum,” he announced formally, and seemed to be very pleased to be doing so.

“And you two are acquainted because you shop at the same market on the first day of the week?” Harper continued, tossing out feelers for information—any information—he could get. It could prove to be useful to his overall life expectancy to understand the intimate specifics of Rhade’s relationship to this young lady.

Rhade tossed him a strained expression. “Harper…” he growled, growing impatient with the engineer’s line of questioning.

“Harper, I think you’re treading on dangerous ground here,” Beka said, trying not to smile over the Nietzschean’s obvious growing discomfort. “Rhade, don’t tell us this is the one that got away!”

“Got away from what?” Trance asked, suddenly perplexed.

A new light of understanding dawned on Dylan Hunt’s face. Some of the pieces began to fall into place. He was a patient man; he could wait until a few more pieces were revealed.

“It’s complicated,” Rhade admitted. “We were considering…um…when my situation on Terazed took some unexpected turns, of which you are aware. Stasia would have come with me had I given the word—but she deserved better than to be the wife of a wanted man. I resolved to make myself again worthy, but again with the unexpected turns…then we’re stuck on Seefra. I’m not going to pretend to try to understand any of it.” Wearily, he ran a hand through his dark hair, examining the deck between his boots.

“Sometimes those unexpected turns aren’t necessarily bad things, depending upon your perspective,” Trance offered cryptically.

“It’s really not that fair,” Harper blurted. “You two get the girl all the time!” he ranted, pointing angrily at Dylan and Rhade. “Here’s a prime example—this girl,” he tapped the side of her bed lightly to emphasize his point. “I haven’t even had a chance to lay any of the Harper charm on her, and she goes to Rhade by default. Why can’t I get the girl for a change?” he demanded, tapping the bedside again.

Before anyone could give him a good explanation for his questions, a pale hand flew up from the bedside and grabbed him by the throat, slender bone blades flaring. Startled, he grabbed at the slender wrist, and was dismayed to realize he couldn’t break the steely grip that began cutting off his airway. With a gasp, Stasia’s eyes flew open, green and wide and panicked.

“She’s conscious!” Trance exclaimed happily, clapping her hands.

“That’s great!” Beka enthused.

“Stasia,” Rhade whispered, leaning forward to touch her face gently.

“Choking here!” Harper wheezed, waving a desperate hand in the air.

Dylan rushed over, trying to pry Stasia’s slim fingers off Harper’s throat, not wanting to hurt her but also astonished at the strength he was fighting. “Rhade—a little help here?” he queried as his engineer’s face began turning an odd shade of strangulation blue.

Rhade reached over and grabbed her wrist, gently peeling her fingers out of Harper’s windpipe. The little man staggered back, rubbing at his already-bruising throat. “Whoa! Marking this hottie under the ‘look but don’t touch’ category!”

“Don’t touch me!” she screamed, as she sat bolt upright, her free arm swinging toward Rhade’s throat, bone blades extended for the blow.

“Don’t hurt her!” Trance exclaimed worriedly, dancing around the edge of the bed. Dylan pulled her back quickly as Stasia’s bone blades sliced the air near Trance’s head.

“Stop this!” Rhade yelled, blocking her arm with his, their blades tangling. He wasn’t prepared for the leg that slammed between his legs, knocking the wind out of him. He twisted his hold, grabbed both her wrists and shoved her back onto the bed, holding her down with his weight. “Stasia! Settle down!”

She squirmed and struggled, until her eyes eventually lost their drug-induced glaze and slowly focused.

“Stasia?” Rhade whispered anxiously.

The tension drained from her body. “Telemachus?” she said incredulously.
“It’s me,” he said, carefully pulling himself up to a sitting position at her bedside, taking one of her hands in his with a squeeze. “You’re safe here, Stasia, I swear it.”

“Telemachus!” she burst out, the edge of disbelief sharp in her voice. “This can’t be happening—it’s not real,” she protested, her voice a raspy whisper. Her fingers trembled as they reached up so brush away the dark hair falling into his eyes. She rested her hands on the sides of his face, staring into those eyes that were sadder and wiser than the last time their gazes had been locked together. “You died! The Matriarch sent me the news herself. They buried you on Terazed, laid you to rest with your ancestors.”

He gently placed his hands over hers, basking in the sensation, and rested his forehead against hers. “Untrue. How many times did you stand at my grave?”

Tears pooled in her eyes. “In my darkest nightmares—a thousand times—and cursed myself every time, waking with a wasted soul, a broken heart and empty arms. I’ve grieved over you, Telemachus, and mourned what I lost and what might have been.” Her voice broke and she closed her eyes against the pain of remembrance.

He brushed a tear away, and then studied it intently as it glistened on his fingertip. “I doubt anyone other than my mother’s ever wasted the effort to shed a tear over me,” he said in amazement.

“There were thousands of others just like it,” she whispered, daring to open her eyes again. Her final measure of composure broke with a jagged sob as she found him, solid and real, still with her. Although twisted and impossible, this was no dream, no delusion of a drugged mind—this was all very real.

“Weep no more, my lady,” he admonished, pressing his lips against hers in a soft and tentative kiss, something not quite chaste but not overly demanding. She returned the kiss with enthusiasm, pulling him closer, feeling his strong arms wrapping her into a solid and comforting embrace.

Moments later, they broke apart, breathless and nearly overcome with deep emotion. “Convinced?” he asked, a devilish gleam in his eye.

Her incredulous smile was radiant, her cheeks flushed, and she nodded. “I’ve dreamed of this moment more times than I can count,” she sighed in contentment, resting against his broad chest. “Only there wasn’t a room full of strangers scrutinizing every move we made,” she added with a small laugh.

Chapter 8

“We’re not strangers, Stasia, just friends you haven’t met yet,” Trance said cheerfully as if that suddenly made everything in the entire universe completely better.

“I know she read that on a greeting mini-flexi in a gift shop on some drift,” Harper hissed at Beka, sidling a little closer for security from his some-time captain and friend.

Beka elbowed him really hard in the side to shush him.

“Oh, I’ve already announced you,” Rhade replied to the quick and questioning glance cast his way by the woman in his arms.

“Yeah, you missed that part—it happened just moments before you tried to rip out my throat with your bare hand,” Harper offered congenially, making sure he was out of arm’s reach of either Nietzschean.

“I’m sure it was purely a reflex action brought on by your annoying presence, Harper,” Rhade countered sourly. “I know I fight the urge on a daily basis.”

“Be nice!” Stasia chastised him in a whisper that human ears could barely register as audible sound. “Please, do finish your introductions,” she implored him in more companionable tones, patting his hand.

“Do you remember Captain Dylan Hunt?” he asked her.

She nodded. “Captain Hunt, you earned my deepest gratitude on the day you refused to give Telemachus over to the Council on Terazed,” she said. “Of course, you also promptly took him away to parts unknown, for which you earned some of the choicest curses I could conjure.”

“Uh, sorry about that,” Dylan offered uncertainly.

“Moving on, the lovely golden lady is Trance Gemini, our Medical Officer, who has today earned my deepest gratitude for her physician’s skills.”

“I owe you much, Officer Gemini, and shall endeavor in some way to repay you for your services,” the Nietzschean woman vowed solemnly.

Trance beamed at the accolades bestowed upon her. “We help people; it’s our mission.”

Rhade glanced at Harper and shook his head, turning his gaze instead to Beka who looked back at him with some expression he couldn’t decipher. “Beka Valentine, captain of the salvage ship Eureka Maru—and sometimes Dylan’s Executive Officer.”

The two women appraised one another momentarily. Beka stepped forward and stuck out her hand. “Nice to meet ya,” she said.

“Likewise,” Stasia replied, shaking the offered hand. “A salvager? Amazing.”

“That’s Harper,” Rhade concluded, clearing his throat, jerking his thumb in Harper’s general direction.

Stasia regarded the small human male for a long moment, remorse clouding her weary features. “I do hope you can come to forgive me for my earlier indiscretion,” she said. “It truly was a survival instinct over which I had no control,” she explained.

“Seamus Zelazny Harper, resident genius, engineer extraordinaire, accepts your gracious apology,” Harper declared with a dazzling smile, gently taking her hand to kiss it.

Rhade growled in annoyance and Stasia laughed. “I’m completely charmed,” she said.

Holo-Rommie phased into view near Dylan, surreptitiously clearing her holographic throat with a loud burst of static.

“Last, and certainly not least—“Dylan began, not missing the indignant tone with which the hologram “cleared her throat.”

“I am the Andromeda Ascendant,” the hologram announced in curt tones, hands clasped behind her back.

“Indeed, so you are,” she agreed, not aware that she was slowly digging her fingernails into his arm until Rhade quickly grabbed her hand away to lace her fingers with his.

“There! Now everybody knows everybody!” Trance piped in cheerfully. “But, you’re making my patient very tired—and you all have to leave. Now,” she added, her demeanor suddenly serious and commanding.

Dylan and Harper left without preamble as Holo-Rommie faded.

Beka turned to leave, but Trance grabbed her arm. “Beka, wait. I still need you,” she said quickly. “A patient always feels better when they are clean and in comfortable clothes, and Anastasia will need us to help her bathe and dress.”

Beka looked down at the small bundle of clothes that she had brought for Stasia from the Maru, and started to reply, only to be cut off by Rhade. “I will help with the bathing and dressing,” he announced calmly in non-negotiable tones. “You can go, Beka,” he said, taking the clothes she carried.

“No!” Trance exclaimed. “Rhade, that’s completely inappropriate! Beka, please, stay!” She grabbed the clothes out of Rhade’s hands, trying without success to pull him to his feet. “Rhade, go!”

Beka tapped her foot and crossed her arms. “Rhade, go! Beka, stay! Beka, go! OK, people, which is it?”

“I’m staying right here,” Rhade announced stubbornly. “You can do what you like, Beka, but I’m going to take care of Stasia.”

Trance stamped a small foot impatiently. “This is my Medical Deck, and you do not have my permission to stay, Telemachus Rhade!”

With a smile, Stasia leaned her face against Rhade’s, whispering something that neither Beka nor Trance could hear. Sudden revelation spread across his face like a bright dawn after a stormy night. He carefully pulled himself away from her, but not without another kiss. The kissing lasted longer than Trance deemed necessary and she began energetically clearing her throat, before repeating to him that it was time for him to leave.

“I’ll be back,” he announced as Trance nearly shoved him out of Medical into the corridor.

“And she’ll be waiting,” Trance replied, sealing the entryway before he could change his mind. She waved at him through the plexi-steel portal. “Bye-bye,” she said with a sweet smile, then turned on her heel and walked away, her strides full of great purpose.

Chapter 9

A torrent of confused contemplation threatened to drown Beka. She needed time and some distance from this intensely unexpected situation, some breathing room to sort things out.

For more than two years she had served aboard Andromeda with Telemachus Rhade. During that time she had: admired his military strategies, fought by his side, been possessed by the spirit of the Abyss and nearly succeeded in killing him with her bare hands, hated him for the fact that he was Nietzschean, been amused by his inability to bend rules she simply refused to acknowledge. She knew she’d be surprised if she could even come close to guessing how many hours she’d logged with him in the Maru on yet another of Dylan’s idealistic pursuits of one nature or another. She was shocked to realize that she couldn’t even list five details regarding his private life, prior to his joining the crew—and it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Rhade’s impressive and extensive military records were immediately available upon request through any of Andromeda’s vast databases. Precious little was recorded with regard to his non-military existence beyond basic facts such as Tarazed was his home world and he fell under the species category of Nietzschean. In two years, Beka had been able to personally glean little more information from Rhade himself. The many “No Admittance, Trespassers Will be Prosecuted” notifications posted on the locked hatches of various drifts had always elicited a rebellious urge in her to storm right inside and see whatever it was that someone had barred from public view. Beka sensed on many occasions the obvious “No Admittance” warnings plastered all over any aspect of Rhade’s past and very private life. Those warnings only served to pique her curiosity, creating a gnawing hunger for the information he wouldn’t share with them.

A lifetime ago, or perhaps only a year ago, aboard the ill-fated ship called Arkology, Beka had been given the tiniest glimpse beyond the barriers she so desperately wanted to breach. Rhade’s involvement with the Nietzschean woman, Louisa Messereau, sparked unexpected feelings deep within Beka that shocked her. She felt betrayed by his attraction to the woman, and felt somehow overlooked when it was apparent that Louisa was likewise attracted to Rhade. Beka could suddenly categorize every positive aspect of Rhade’s character, and was hard-pressed to recall any disagreeable traits that he might have carried. By the time Beka realized that she might have romantic intentions of her own toward the man, and that she had probably been in denial of said intentions for at least six months—she realized the opportunity was lost.

Then came the Magog Worldship and the sudden destruction of Arkology. Trance’s desperate bid to save the Andromeda and her crew by hurled them all through the unexplainable Route of Ages. Granted, she had managed to save all their lives in the process, but something had gone terribly wrong. They each found themselves estranged from one another in an entirely different star system. Lost and alone, various lengths of time passed before they were reunited, if one could call the haphazard way they all reformed into a loose group with semi-common goals. Beka was saddened for a long while to realize that each of her companions was a different person than they were before it all happened, herself included.

However, she’d had a bizarre epiphany only last week while she was returning from a supply run to Seefra-4. She’d been absently considering their situations—which had become a recent hobby of hers—listening to yet another broadcast from the mysterious Virgil Vox, when it happened.

“This next song goes out to a lovely pilot with hair like the sun--the one not threatening to blink out of existence, and take us all with it. These are confusing days for all of us, contemplating our journeys through life and the way time changes us.

“A thought for the day, my friend, perhaps it’s only the journey itself that changes, although the destination remains the same. Remember when you travel that strange road ahead, you sometimes have to be refined by the fires on the wayside before you can realize your true worth.”

With that, a mellow jazz montage followed, and Beka’s mind began to coalesce around the words that had been broadcast through the illegal communication. She found herself examining herself very closely since that time, scrutinizing her actions and reactions to everyone and everything around her, trying to estimate their value and worth in the scheme of things. She began to see her former crewmates in a fresher, more appreciative light. Then in a very gradual and subtle way, that aggravating desire returned, and she found herself often idly imagining about Rhade and what secrets he was keeping from all of them. It irritated and fascinated her in equal measure.

Trance had raised her eyebrows at Beka more than once recently when she’d caught her friend daydreaming, lost in her thoughts. “Beka, where are you?” she’d ask with a puzzled laugh.

Beka would make some lame excuse about something she was completely NOT thinking about—an AG drive tuning Harper was scheduling for the Maru, what outfit Doyle would wear next—but she always had the nagging impression that Trance knew the directions in which her mind was wandering. She wasn’t sure which embarrassed her more--the realization that she was attracted to Telemachus Rhade, or the fact that she was feebly trying to hide it from a woman who had at one time possessed the ability to traverse multiple realities.

Before the Seefran madness, Beka had been relatively certain that a certain Nietzschean commander might have reciprocated those feelings. Now, in the midst of the Seefran madness, she was only slightly less certain that her expression of romantic intentions might be spurned. Even when he swam in a drunken haze, Beka detected a certain smoldering fire in his dark eyes. Days, ago she’d decided that when the moment was right, she would approach him and hopefully find him in a state approaching sobriety, and spill the beans about the way she felt. If things went badly, she could always blame him for being a stupid drunk and dismiss the entire notion. It was a perfect plan, one that still presented her with a safety net for her fragile emotions and sense of self-worth if it turned out that she was sadly mistaken about his feelings toward her.

Only one thing marred that perfect plan. It was battered and bruised, crusted in grime, and Telemachus Rhade had carefully wrapped it in a blanket and carried it like some priceless broken treasure from her very own Eurka Maru right into Medical. It had a name--Stasia, from the Destroyer of Carefully Plotted Safety Nets, Out of Rhade’s Very Private Life Before Andromeda.

“Your timing really sucks, Valentine,” she thought to herself. “This outranks anything in Harper’s Elevated Scale of Suckitude. Shoulda shared that secret just a couple days earlier, before Rhade went off with Dylan, huh? Coulda, shoulda, woulda…it’s a done deal now.”

“…careful as you stand up,” Trance’s words leaked into Beka’s brain in a strange echo. The golden Avatar looked expectantly at Beka as Stasia’s bare feet tested the deck plating below them. “Are you feeling all right?”

The Nietzschean woman shut her eyes and swallowed hard. Her knees buckled beneath her. With the reflexes that had earned her bragging rights in a variety of barroom games of skill, Beka moved in a heartbeat and grabbed Stasia under the arms before she could fall. Beka was suddenly mortified to realize how light the other woman was, and realized with a start that she probably had been starved among the other abuses she had suffered.

“I’m sorry,” Stasia murmured, trying to regain her footing. “I just got a little dizzy,” she said.

Beka supported her easily, wrapping a spined arm around her neck, wrapping her own arm around the other’s waist. “Just take it easy,” she encouraged. “Just through that entryway, there’s a steamy bath with your name on it.”

“With wonderful medicinal bath oils,” Trance added brightly as the entryway slid open and a fragrant puff of eucalyptus with aloe steam wafted out.

The two women helped her step into the tub of steaming, opaque water, and she wearily sank up to her neck. She let Trance pull the ragged shift off her, not caring that it caught on her bone blades and ripped in two. Trance tossed it in a trash receptacle with a vague look of dismay on her face as she noted the collection of dried blood on it, and then busied herself at a nearby counter.

“…to show such kindness to me,” Stasia murmured sleepily, eyes closing as her chin started to slide under the water’s surface.

“Hold on, sleeping beauty!” Beka yelped, making a grab for her. “Can’t have you drowning in here; it’ll give Trance a bad name in patient care, and the malpractice suits will be hideous.”

Trance returned, gracing Beka with a grateful smile, tossing a couple of handfuls of jet-spraying nanoes into the water. After a moment, the opaque water churned lightly and bubbled, gently devouring dirt, leaving clean and freshly scrubbed skin and hair in its wake.

Despite her weary protests that she wanted to stay in the bath for three years or more, Trance and Beka managed to get her out and dried with fluffy towels. Beka was horrified by the massive amounts of bruising on the other woman’s body, the deep lacerations, and other injuries. Embarrassed when she realized that she was staring, she tried to glance away while Stasia quickly slipped the huge nightshirt over her head and stepped into the sleep pants.

Ever watchful, Trance caught the deep-rooted pain in her friend’s expression and smiled sadly, reaching out to squeeze her hand. “The fires that refine us, Beka, burn hotter for some than others,” she whispered.

Beka wanted to have a long conversation about that odd turn of phrase, but Trance indicated it was time to get her patient into a bed so she could rest. Beka kept her thoughts and questions to herself—for now. Like an obedient child, Stasia climbed into the bed Trance had made ready for her. With a peaceful smile, she was sliding into sleep as Trance pulled warm blankets over her.

“Andromeda, lights to 10%, and alert me of any changes in my patient’s status,” Trance ordered quietly.

Beka paused for a moment and glanced back as she followed Trance out of Medical. The bio monitor cast an ambient glow over the sleeping Nietzschean, and Beka again wondered about the fires of refinement. Trance gently took her by the arm and pulled her along.

Chapter 10

Rhade waited a full minute until his enhanced hearing could no longer hear Beka's and Trance's quiet footfalls and conversation echo down the corridor. With a smug look of satisfaction, he moved silently back into Medical and paused just inside the entryway.

She was asleep, curled onto her side with her back to the corridor. There was a subtle hint of some pleasant botanical fragrance hanging in the air that grew stronger with each careful step toward his objective. His smile was almost paternal as he crouched near the bedside, gazing at the woman lost in deep slumber. He glanced up and was relieved to see that the monitor told a satisfying story of continued rapid healing and recovery, hastened by Nietzschean physiology and medical nanobots.

Some of her hair had fallen over her face. As he cautiously lifted it away, he fought a growl when he saw the fading bruise on her cheek, a harsh reminder of her very recent history. He leaned over and kissed the bruise. She made a small sound and shrugged the blanket off in her sleep. He tucked the blanket back under her chin, his hand lingering for a moment on her shoulder, and time held no further meaning for him. Eventually, he moved soundlessly to a nearby supply cabinet and removed a pillow.

Settling back on the deck, he shoved the pillow between his back and the bulkhead, took a long drink from his hip flask, crossed his arms and watched Stasia sleeping. He contemplated the subtle expressions crossing her face, the faint flickering of closed eyelids, and knew she traveled through the misty world of dreams. He wanted those dreams to be so very gentle and pleasant, a peaceful respite from whatever demons had recently pursued her.

He absently twisted and untwisted the silver flask's cap, his hands as agitated as his thoughts. The questions he had were beyond number. How in the Progenitor's name had she wound up here? What was this insanity about the Matriarch telling her that he was dead? On Terazed, was his name engraved on the marble in his family's crypt? If that were true, did it mean he was dead? If this was death, then Seefra must surely be some variant of hell, but what had Stasia ever done to deserve damnation like this? If this was hell, since when did he start believing in an afterlife? He took a drink, and leaned his head back to consider that last thought, and then took another drink to keep the first one company.

Stasia murmured something in her sleep, bringing Rhade from his philosophical contemplation. Bundled in the blanket, she looked small, very small, almost as small as she was the first time he ever saw her. Remembering a morning years and years ago on a world he'd once called home, he smiled and slid into sleep.

After Rhade had been snoring softly for at least five full minutes, Trance suppressed a giggle and stepped from the shadows. She opened the supply cabinet door and removed a blanket, which she draped over the man sleeping in the floor. She pressed a chaste kiss to his forehead. "Sweet dreams, Rhade," she whispered with a knowing smile.

Quickly checking her patient's vital signs, satisfied with the progress she saw, she stepped into the shadows again and was gone.

Chapter 11

A hideous scream echoed down the long marble hallway. Telemachus Rhade’s eyes flew open and he looked wildly about the bedroom. The other children, his four brothers and a cousin, remained undisturbed and still sleeping, which he considered a miracle in light of the loud screaming.

He hopped out of his bed, small feet making no sound until they padded quickly down the tiled hallway. He bumped into his sister, Saphrona, as he ran around a corner, headed out of the children’s wing. She was eighteen, and he thought she was wise and beautiful, plus lucky enough to have her own suite because she was a grown-up. She was also one of Telemachus’ favorite siblings, the third daughter of his father’s second wife, Marketa. She was a restless sleeper, and Telemachus knew she often wandered the hallways or could be found in the library when everyone else was asleep.

“Telemachus!” she exclaimed, clutching at her chest, pulling her night robe a little closer around her neck. “You gave me a fright, young man! It’s very late--what are you doing out of bed?” she demanded.

“Something’s wrong! I heard a lady screaming—listen, there it is again!” Instinctively, his stubby, newly- emerging little bone blades flared, prepared to protect his sister and the entire household from whatever imminent danger awaited down the corridor.

She covered her mouth to suppress a quick laugh, amused by his reaction. “Oh, that’s only Maria Theros. Remember? The first wife of father’s friend Nikolaus Theros?”

“What’s wrong with her? Is the lady dying?” Telemachus asked his sister, his eyes growing wide as another howling shriek echoed down the long hallway.

“Of course not! Her baby is coming, you silly little man!”

He frowned and considered this information. Two years ago, when his sister Wynetta was born, his own mother had barely made a sound that could be heard anywhere in the house, and certainly not all the way to the children’s wing.. In fact, he couldn’t remember any of his other-mothers making a commotion like this, either. Lady Theros sounded desperate, and she kept pleading for someone to “make it stop!” He eyed his sister in consternation.

Saphrona smiled down at her little brother and wrapped her arm around his shoulders. “Telemachus, the lady is not dying,” she reassured him with a kind smile. “The birth pains are worse for some women than for others. They cry out when the pains come. The harder the pains come, the sooner the baby will be born.”

“The lady is really loud, Saphie. I’ll be glad when that baby is finally here so the lady will be quiet and I can go back to sleep.”

“I’m sure General Theros will be glad when the lady has her baby, too. This will be the very first daughter any of his wives has had, so she will be a very special baby in his household,” Saphrona explained patiently.

Telemachus nodded and yawned. His sister took him by the hand and guided him back to the large bedroom where the other children still slept, unaware of the drama unfolding in the next wing. Saphrona couldn’t help feeling a special measure of pride over her little brother’s keen senses and instincts that had awoken him while the others stayed sound asleep—excellent survival traits. Her parents said he was special, and this was another testament to that fact. She tucked him in, planting a kiss on his forehead.

“Go to sleep, little brother,” she encouraged. “In the morning, I’ll come get you and we can welcome our newest guest together, and you can see for yourself that all is well.”

“How am I supposed to sleep with all that noise?” he protested.

“Think about something else and just concentrate on that, and eventually you won’t even notice the sounds and you’ll fall asleep,” she suggested, recognizing a ploy to stay up later that he should. “Track your direct ancestors backward.”

“How far?” he asked.

“Tell me in the morning how far you got,” she challenged.

He agreed, trusting implicitly that everything she told him would come to pass. . Saphrona quietly closed the bedroom door behind her. With another yawn, he rolled over and began counting on his fingers, whispering the names of the Rhades who had come before him. “Galahad, out of Marina by Damon; Damon, out of Felicity by Alexandros; Alexandros, out of Kristobel by Josef; Josef, out of Sif by Ramos; Ramos, out of Velina by Andrew; Andrew, out of Eula by Zavery; Zavery…out of Zola by…..Nathaniel…..”

It seemed only minutes later that she was gently shaking him awake.
“Telemachus, wake up, sleepyhead,” she whispered in his ear, not wanting to wake the others. “Lady Maria’s baby is here. Do you still want to go see?”

Wiping sleep from his brown eyes, he nodded and slid out of bed. His sister raised a finger to her lips, indicating that they should be quiet, and they slipped out of the room without disturbing any of the other sleeping children.

“I got all the way to Zavery, out of Zola by Nathaniel before I fell asleep,” he announced proudly.

She squeezed his hand. “You’re learning your lineage very well. Father will be very impressed with you, and all the many things you’ve learned while he’s been away this time.”

Telemachus hoped so. There was nothing he wanted so badly as to please his father, because Galahad Rhade always seemed to hold him to a higher standard of achievement than that of his brothers. Telemachus had some vague idea that it had something to do with a special connection his genes held with that of his ancestor, Gaheris Rhade, but he was sketchy on the specifics. It only meant to him that sometimes adults watched him closely, seemed to expect great things from him in the future, and whispered the words “genetic reincarnation” when they thought he couldn’t hear them.

None of that mattered now, and he focused his attention on the all-important matter of proving his worth and competing. It would personally be a moment of personal victory for him to beat his brothers and cousin in the race to accurately recite their family line—paternal and maternal—at least as far back as Gaheris Rhade. To complete the recitation by the celebration of one’s sixth birthday was a mark of achievement in his family, and Telemachus knew his brother’s had been gently prompted from the sidelines by their mother’s as they presented the genealogy to their father. He stubbornly intended to be the one to do it without anyone reminding him of this one or that.

Finally the journey ended in the guest wing. Saphrona stopped and gently rapped on the closed double-doors outside one of the guest suites. The doors slid open and Telemachus took in a breath of surprise, the scene not being at all what he had expected, despite his sister’s assurances to the contrary. He fully expected to see the aftermath of some attempted murder. Lady Maria Theros sat up in the large bed, satin pillows propping her up. For all the horrified screaming she’d done the night before, she certainly looked happy enough this morning.

His own mother sat near Lady Theros’ bedside, smiling brightly when she saw Telemachus and Saphrona in the doorway. The Matriarch sat on the other side of the bed, her regal bearing making the chair in which she sat more a throne than a simple piece of furniture. She nodded approvingly at the young people, and motioned them forward with a gnarled hand.

“Come, children, and greet our tiny guest,” she instructed. To the new mother, she nodded to the approaching children, whispering proudly. “These are two of Galahad’s proudest achievements--Telemachus out of Brianna and Saphrona out of Marketa; their genes are simply marvelous. Saphrona is eighteen and Telemachus will soon turn six.”

Maria Theros had a brilliant and proud smile for her visitors as they approached her bedside.

“Telemachus was particularly concerned about your well being last night, Maria,” the Matriarch announced proudly. “Saphrona intercepted him rushing down the hallway to come to your aid, bone blades at the ready; he was certain some ill fate was befalling you.”

Brianna’s pride was evident, resting her hands on her young son’s shoulders, planting a kiss in his dark hair. “Your father will be very pleased when he learns how well you were attending to the security of the household in his absence.”

Telemachus’ chest puffed out, his ego swelling with the praise given to him. “It’s a man’s job to provide for the safety of the ladies within his household,” he said with solemn formality.

“And so it is,” the Matriarch agreed, sharing a secret smile with the two other women, all three having the decency to not make light of the boy’s perceived duty. “I see you’ve heeded your lessons well, my boy, and I’m pleasd.”

“I offer my thanks, young man,” Maria acknowledged him with a nod. “I’ve heard much of you from your mother and grandmother. Come then and meet my daughter, seeing as you’ve assigned yourself our protector.”

Maria gently shoved him forward, seeing that he was fixed to the spot where he stood, but beginning to lean toward the bedside to peer at the bundle in Lady Theros’ arms. Maria tenderly peeled away the light swaddling blankets, and Telemachus rested his hands on his hips as he stood on tiptoe. “This is Anastasia Theros, by Nikolaus out of Maria,” she announced, pressing a kiss to her newborn child’s head.

With that fascination all small children have for things smaller than themselves, Telemachus reached out to touch a tiny hand. He’d seen and touched other babies, of course, but he’d never one that had been the source of such commotion as to disturb his sleep. She was wrinkly and bald, and had that sweet smell that all babies had. Tiny fingers curled around his thumb as tiny eyes opened, seemingly transfixed on his face.

“She’s looking at me,” he whispered in awe, laying his head down on his outstretched arm. He gazed back deeply into her dark eyes, wondering what she was thinking.

“She likes you, ‘Lemachus,” Saphrona whispered encouragingly, crouching beside her brother, enjoying his mesmerized fascination with the newborn.

He nodded and smiled, but when the baby tried to suck on his thumb, he promptly pulled it back to wipe the slobber onto his pajama bottom’s leg. “Yuck, baby goo.”

The women chuckled and his mother announced that it was probably time for Anastasia to be fed by her mother. Lady Maria invited him to come back again later for a visit, and then Saphrona guided her brother toward the door. He paused in the doorway, thoughtfully watching mother and child for a moment. With a formal bow, he stepped out of the room with his sister and the doors slid shut.

“You’re the very first man that Anastasia has beheld, and that’s highly significant,” Saphrona said, ruffling her brother’s hair. “The very old women say that means you’ll play an important part in her life, and that she’ll marry someone in your bloodline now—maybe even you. What do you think about that, little brother?”

He shrugged noncommittally. “I guess that’d be all right, Saphie, but I’m really hungry now. Can we go to the kitchens and something to eat?”

She laughed in delight. “Just like a man to use a search for food to divert a serious discussion regarding matter matters of the heart! Fine, fine! Let’s get you some food and discuss your romantic future later, little man!” Still shaking her head in amusement, she took her sibling toward the kitchens. “Ancestors forbid that you should starve before you have a chance to fulfill your destiny.”

Chapter 12

Telemachus fidgeted as his mother buttoned his collar closed. “Mother, I’m choking,” he protested with a grimace, sliding a finger between his neck and the offending clothing.

She smiled knowingly. “I haven’t strangled a child yet on their sixth birth celebration, and I don’t intend to start today,” she replied. “You do want to look nice during your recital, don’t you?”

“I won’t be able to recite anything because I will have choked to death before Father even asks me to do it,” he complained.

“In that case, you’ll look especially nice for your funeral viewing, my son,” Brianna announced, straightening the seams on his sleeves. “You wanted your remains stored on the western side of the family tomb, didn’t you? I’ll make sure your crypt inscription details the valiant way you died, suffocation while dressing for a sixth birthday recital. Perhaps if a trend develops, your father will discontinue the tradition, and you will be the savior of siblings who have yet to turn six.”

He rolled his large brown eyes. He knew a lost battle when he saw one, and Brianna had never yet lost an argument regarding grooming and personal appearance. It was one of the sacred missions of her life, that the children of her household should at all times be dressed at the height of fashion and style. Telemachus reluctantly accepted that today’s events meant that he would be a living display of his mother’s taste in fashion, and his father’s ability to provide her with the most costly garments available. To him it only meant that his mother had found the most confining, itchy fabric prisons ever created and it was his fate to be trapped there for at least twelve hours or more.

With a final check for lint, Brianna stood and appraised her son with a critical eye. Finding all the seams hanging straight, trouser pleats sharply pressed, boots glistening, hair neatly combed, and face scrubbed pink, she smiled in satisfaction. Telemachus watched her warily until she turned to scrutinize her own reflection in the mirror, she flipped her flowing golden hair over the shoulder left bare by the elegant gown. Telemachus had little idea how much that gown cost, but he liked the subtle way the color seemed to shift from electric to midnight blue, depending upon his mother’s mood and the movement of the various layers of gauzy fabric.

With a smile, she nodded and took her son’s hand. She leaned to kiss his cheek, the used her thumb to wipe the lip coloring off his skin. “Happy birthday, my dear Telemachus. You are everything in a son that a mother could want. Know that I am always proud of you, and that I love you, no matter where go you or what you do in your life.”

He beamed happily, the gap from a missing front upper tooth making the smile all the more charming to his mother. “I love you, too, Mother.”

She squeezed his hand. “Then let’s go greet your guests and celebrate the day of your birth!”

When they arrived, Telemachus gasped in surprise at the number of people packed into the reception room. There had to be more than several hundred people—adults and children, minus toddlers and babies who would be confined to the nursery—waiting for him and his mother. Between his own household—himself, his father, his mother, his seven other-mothers, and fifteen siblings—there were twenty-five people. Even adding in the prerequisite playmates, family friends and house-staff, he had expected perhaps twice that number total to be waiting for him.

“So many people!” he hissed to his mother, his eyes wide.

“It’s a testimony and tribute to your father’s increased status,” she explained in a whisper. “They’ve come to greet you on your birthday, and some hope to curry some measure of favor in your father’s eyes by having done so.”

He considered and nodded. “I wonder if they’ve each brought a gift for me?”

She laughed and the sound was like musical chimes. Seated at the end of a long table that was formally set with slender goblets and gleaming silver and fancy plates, Admiral Galahad Rhade smiled when he realized his first wife had arrived with their son. A tall man with a charismatic personality and a chiseled rugged handsomeness , he stood quickly, light catching the gleam of each military medal that adorned the front of his dark dress uniform. He crossed the room in several long strides, and kissed his first wife on the cheek.

“My son looks very handsome today, Brianna,” he said as he offered her his arm. She took it, and he wrapped his other arm around his son’s shoulders, then his father escorted them to the head of the table.

The Matriarch was seated directly to the left of his father’s chair. She nodded approvingly as the trio passed by. To the right of his father’s chair stood two empty ones and he realized with a shock that the first chair was for him. He had never sat at the adult table before—on birthdays past he could only remember any of his siblings being assigned to the children’s tables, at least until they were acknowledged as young adults at seventeen!

The second chair was obviously for his mother. His seven other-mothers, his father’s other wives, sat in order of their status down the right-hand side of the table. Beyond his other-mothers, several of his older siblings had been promoted from the children’s table; Saphrona smiled and gave him a little wink when she caught his gaze.

The left-hand side, beyond the Matriarch, was traditionally reserved for honored household guests. Among the people seated there, Telemachus wasn’t surprised to see his father’s very good friend, Nikolaus Theros, with his first wife, and she smiled brightly at him. He suddenly realized that this was the first time he’d ever seen Lady Maria without her new baby, and he wondered where she was.

On down the table, he saw General Brighter Than Two Suns, one of his father’s Than advisors and several other officers whom he knew served in some capacity for his father, but he wasn’t certain exactly what they did. He only knew that he could always count on seeing those familiar faces in his father’s study just before the doors were closed and children ushered away. They seemed relaxed enough, and he hoped they didn’t have some official news to share with his father that might cause him to have to leave again; he’d only just gotten home after being gone for several months.

His father seated his mother and nodded to him to take his seat. His boots swung and dangled over the marbled floors, the elegant straight-backed chair being much taller than the ones he was used to using. His father brought the quiet murmuring to a halt by lightly tapping a goblet with a silver spoon, and then he cleared his throat as he stood.

“Revered guests, my family and I are honored by your presence as we gather to celebrate my son, Telemachus, on the occasion of his sixth year. It is the tradition of my household, that on the advents of a child’s sixth year, we bring honor to our ancestors by calling out their names. In this way, we also recall their noble deeds and the contributions they provided.”

He sat and nodded to his son. Telemachus stood on a small platform that a kitchen staff member brought over to him. His mouth felt like a desert and his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. Petrified, he looked to his mother. His father smiled and handed his son a goblet of water. He gulped it gratefully and handed it back to his father with a small bow.

He cleared his throat and clasped his hands behind his back. He suddenly found Saphrona’s encouraging face in the crowd and looked only at her. “I am Telemachus Rhade, out of Brianna by Galahad; Galahad, out of Marina by Damon; Damon, out of Felicity by Alexandros; Alexandros, out of Kristobel by Josef; Josef, out of Sif by Ramos; Ramos, out of Velina by Andrew; Andrew, out of Eula by Zavery; Zavery…out of Zola by…..Nathaniel…..” He paused and Saphie nodded, waving her hand in a rolling motion. He closed his eyes, then continued in a fresh burst of energy. “And Nathaniel, out of Racheal by Logan; Logan, out of Xavier by Gaheris.”

He father stood so quickly and applauded that it caught Telemachus by surprise. “Well done, my son, well done!”

“But, father, I’m not done yet…” he said in a very quiet voice. Galahad Rhade’s eyes grew wide in unaccustomed surprised. His smile was brilliant and he turned his attention to his guests.

“Honored assemblage, this is the traditional acceptable stopping point for the recital of the Rhade line. It’s been quite a while since any of my children has reached this achievement, and without prompting from a mother. I am very pleased with his performance on this auspicious day, but Telemachus informs me that he can go further. With your indulgence, I ask for your continued attention as my son continues an excellent recital.”

His father was pleased with him, and had made a public announcement of it—in front of very important people, too! For a moment, Telemachus couldn’t remember his own name, let alone the name of an ancestor from more than three hundred years ago.

With his face flushed with pride, Galahad nodded. “Please, do continue at your convenience.”

“Um….Gaheris was out of Guinvere by Gibran; Gibran, out of Kezia by Augustus; Augustus, out of Abigail by Abiathar; Abiathar, out of….out of…uh, out of….Lucinda by Mattias; Mattias…out of Adeline by Zcerise; Zcerise out of….out of….” Panic-stricken, he dared to glance at his father. He couldn’t remember anything after that! He was mortified.

Suddenly Telemachus stopped worrying about his memory and instead worried that gravity was spontaneously failing. His feet weren’t touching the little platform. More wondrous than that, he was being crushed in his father’s strong embrace and his guests were applauding. He thought he was going to burst from happiness when his father told him, “I am so very proud of you, my Telemachus. You have pleased me beyond measure, and have once again surpassed your brothers at this age. I love you, my dear son.”

Galahad stood his son on the platform and removed a medal from his jacket. Carefully he pinned it near Telemachus heart. “A memento of the occasion. May it serve to remind you of my pride and affection.”

There was a wonderful meal, made all the more special because he got to sit at the table with the grown-ups. A large three-layered chocolate cake was brought out after the meal. Six burning candles adorned the top layer. His mother encouraged him to make a wish and blow out the candles. He couldn’t think of anything he could possibly want that he didn’t already have, so he just blew out the candles.

The serving staff distributed the wonderful cake to the guests while his mother announced that he would now receive his gifts. The rest of the celebration passed by in a strange foggy blur. Telemachus found that his attention kept wandering to the medal his father had pinned on him. He wasn’t sure exactly when his father had received the award, but he knew it had been given because of superb action during a combat engagement. His father had saved the life of some high-ranking political official, and Mother said that there had been a parade on the day he received it from the Triumvir. In the vast collection of military decorations and awards he had received, this particular medal held personal worth to Galahad Rhade. And now, his father had given it to him—in front of all these people!

For a little boy who constantly competed with his many siblings for a slice of his very busy father’s attention, particularly one who craved his father’s approval, this was the pinnacle of life. He was certain that if he lived to be a thousand, he would never forget this birthday and no other birthday could ever be better than this one!

After the celebration began to dwindle hours later, Telemachus was slightly disappointed when his father excused himself and disappeared into his study. True to form, General Brighter Than Two Suns, the other officers, and Nikolaus Theros followed in his wake. Telemachus rested his hand on his medal and watched as the doors closed, sealing off the study from the reception area.

Saphrona, the ever-faithful shepherdess of her younger siblings, found him staring at the closed doors and dragged him off to visit with his guests, reminding him to be a gracious host and offer them his thanks for their gifts and their company.

Chapter 13

Telemachus decided that the summer he turned nine was the best and worst year of his life.

The political climate of Terazed was beginning to change in subtle ways almost tangible enough for children to recognize. Telemachus could detect a vague and disturbing tension in his father’s demeanor, although he didn’t know what was causing it. When he questioned Saphrona about it, she would always smile in that gentle way and tell him that it his job to grow big and tall and not to worry about such matters. His father was home with greater frequency, hosting more and more closed-door meetings. It was not uncommon to round a corner and find a variety of highly ranked political figures being escorted throughout his home.

Nikolaus Theros was a very familiar face at such gatherings. Telemachus assumed the man must miss his family because he had to be away from them so often; he certainly looked sad enough lately. A few weeks into the summer, the Theros family relocated to a home not far from his own

To the casual observer, it would have been difficult to identify the defining line between the Rhade and Theros households. The children migrated fluidly between households, creating a virtual nightmare for caregivers whose task it was to keep track of them. It soon became a natural assumption that if a given child couldn’t be found in one household, they would certainly be present at the other. As first wives of the households, Brianna Rhade and Maria Theros also became close friends, often combining their energies to host elegant gatherings for political and military officials.

Of particular importance to Telemachus concerning these new friends and neighbors, was his gaining a new friend, which certainly ranked as the best thing that happened to him that summer. One of Nikolaus’ sons by his first wife was also nine-years-old. His name was Jared and he became fast friends with Telemachus. Saphrona called them “the twins” because they were always together, although Jared’s white-blonde hair was a stark contrast to her little brother’s dark hair.

None of Nikolaus’ wives had produced any additional daughters, thus sealing little Anastasia’s position among her brothers as First Daughter and Reigning Princess of her father’s universe. While her brothers older than fifteen doted on her, her other brothers tolerated her with the tormented grace with which an older sibling must endure a younger one. Telemachus’ own sisters seemed to consider her a living doll to be played with and pampered.

One of Anastasia’s favorite people was Jared, and he endured his little sister with alternating degrees affection and teeth-gritting tolerance. Because of the great amount of time Telemachus spent with Jared, Anastasia quickly added him to her chosen group. Telemachus had several younger brothers and sisters, mentally adding Anastasia Theros to that number, and was generally accepting of the fact that he had acquired a three-year-old shadow.

He didn’t enjoy much success with teaching her to pronounce his name, although he had to admit that she came close than Wynetta or Joshua had when they were three. “What’s my name?” he would ask her.

“Himmycuss!” was always the enthusiastic response.

“No,” he would correct her. “Tell-LIM-a-cuss. What’s my name?”

She would giggle and run around him. “Himmycuss!”

He would roll his eyes and sigh. “Fine. What’s your name, little girl?”

“And I’m a Stasia!”

At length, he became resigned to being called “Himmycuss” by “Stasia.”

During his studies, Telemachus had been learning about an ancient Earth scientist called Sir Isaac Newton. This unmodified human had some sophisticated ideas that were still solid thousands of years after his death. One of his achievements was his defining the Third Law of Motion, which stated that for every action, there was an equal and opposite reaction. The teacher spewed on and on about how that particular law of motion also served to keep things in balance in the universe, something about chaos theory versus order substantiation.

He didn’t need to hear any more definitions; he had his own experiences that provided him with the evidence and meaning of that scientific law. It meant if something really good happened to make you happy, something bad had to happen to make you sad or mad. This way, your life stayed in balance with the universe and then you could strive to overcome it so you had the happy parts in a greater degree than the sad parts.

At the moment, he was miserably contemplating the fact that his beloved sister, Saphrona, would be leaving soon. He didn’t understand why she thought that she needed to propose marriage, but she had done it. Even more infuriating to Telemachus, Jeremiah Simon had the audacity to agree. In a few days, the she and Jeremiah would be leaving to make their new home deeper in the capitol city. It was a small consolation to Telemachus that Saphrona would be within easy walking distance, but he was already feeling the loss and beginning to feel sorry for himself. His older sister held a special place in his heart, and he brooded over the fact that he would have to share him with someone else. His father had only patted him on the shoulder and told him it was perfectly normal to be angry that another male had captured the affections of a female that he held in such high regard.

Despite what his father considered a pep talk, Telemachus was still sullen and unhappy. He had never considered in his wildest dreams that Saphie would ever leave him, but it would be a reality within days. If Saphie chose to leave with Jeremiah, did that mean she didn’t love Telemachus anymore? If Saphie could just stop loving him, then wasn’t it possible that his mother was also capable of severing her affections for her son? He’d overheard Saphie tell Jeremiah that she would love him forever, and Telemachus suddenly realized he’d never had this verbal assurance from anyone. Of course his mother had told him this for as long as he could remember, but that was the sort of thing mothers did, so that really didn’t count. That thought added itself to his burden of concern about the permanence of his relationships with those he loved.

Still pondering these thoughts, Telemachus was quite as he and Jared completed their lessons for the day. Newly enrolled in the beginning learners’ group, Stasia bounded down the corridor to greet him and Jared. Triumphantly, she waved a wrinkled piece of paper at them, and shoved it into Telemachus’ hand.

“Teacher said to me good job!” she announced proudly, waiting expectantly for his critique.

He smoothed the paper out, crouching to be nearer her level, and appraised her work. Two large stick figures with smiles that outdistanced their misshapen heads flanked a smaller figure with arms where the ears should have been. Smeared hues of green and blue were still drying in the two large circles under the feet of the strange trio. Amused, he glanced at Jared who was also trying not to laugh. “That’s really nice, Stasia. You sure used lots of paint, didn’t you?”

“Tell us about your picture,” Jared encouraged, squatting to get a better look at her masterpiece. He was hard pressed to determine what the work of art represented, wondering what the tiny artist was trying to convey. There had been some famous artists among the names of his ancestors, so perhaps Stasia would follow in that tradition.

“I paint all of us—the best friends!” she exclaimed, throwing her hands in the air. She poked a paint-stained finger at each of the three figures. “See? Dared, Stasia, and Himmycuss!”

“Ah, yes, I do see that now,” Telemachus nodded. “Um, and these two big circles are what?”

She rolled her eyes. “Fimmity.”

“Fimmity?” he repeated, his mind working overtime to translate that word. “I don’t think Teacher has told us about that one yet. What is it?”

She carefully traced a figure eight in the air for him. “M. Fimmity. Four evers.”

Suddenly, Jared started laughing and couldn’t stop. Just because her brother was laughing, she laughed also while Telemachus eyed them both as if they’d suddenly been struck mad.

Jared wiped at an eye that had suddenly started leaking when he couldn’t stop laughing. “Infinity!” he howled. “Infinity, ‘Lemachus, forever. That’s what she’s saying.”

“No, Dared, no cry,” Stasia said with alarm, seeing her brother wipe at his eyes. She hugged him and kissed his cheek. “I wuv you now.”

“And what about Telemachus?” Jared asked, giving her a little hug back.

She flung her arms around Telemachus’ neck and kissed him, too. “I wuv him fimmity and four evers!” she announced.

“Well, there’s a serious declaration of eternal love if ever I’ve heard it!” Nikolaus Theros announced as he walked down the corridor.

Stasia abandoned the previous object of her affection to rush into her father’s waiting arms. “You’re not trying to marry some boy already are you, young lady?” he demanded with a chuckle. He winked at Telemachus. “Hmm, Stasia Rhade does have a ring to it.”

“Stasia Wadday,” she nodded. “I wuv Himmycuss four evers, Daddy.”

He swung her into the air with a laugh. “Why don’t you wait and marry Telemachus when you’re a grown up lady? Let’s go find your mother and have a snack.”

She blew the boys kisses over her father’s shoulder until she could no longer see them when he rounded the corner. The boys laughed and shook their heads.

Jared slapped Telemachus on the back. “Well, ‘Lemachus, old friend—since my baby sister loves you forever to infinity, don’t break her heart, or I’ll break your head.”

Telemachus laughed. “I’ll remember that, Jared,” he promised, finding it amazing how much better he suddenly felt to hear someone—even a three-year-old girl—announce to the universe at large that she would love him forever. As the two friends headed toward the playroom, Telemachus suddenly felt a brighter spirit beginning to burn inside.

Chapter 14

Tarazed: CY 10066 Midsummer season

Jared looked over his shoulder and sighed. “We’ve still got a shadow,” he said as he shifted the weight of his backpack. “It’s going to be dark soon. What do you want to do?”

“I’ll go collect her, if you want to set up camp.”

Jared agreed and continued up the steep trail toward the caves. Telemachus shook his head in amusement and stepped off the trail, silently backtracking. He had to give Stasia credit; she’d only made two or three footfalls that had been loud enough to be heard. Had he and Jared not been purposely listening for it, keeping track of her stealthy progress behind them, they might never have noticed their cautious pursuer. Not many eleven-year-old girls could have claimed that achievement, and he had to admit that he was duly impressed, even if Jared was annoyed by her intrusion. Granted, not many eleven-year-old girls were that interested in trying to do everything their older brothers were doing, but nothing about Stasia was ever typical.

Fighting an insane urge to laugh as he watched her halting progress, Telemachus crouched behind some low-lying brush near a fallen log alongside the trail. The contents of her pack must have outweighed her twice or thrice over, and she was bowed over under the weight like an ancient little Matriarch. She stood on tiptoe and tried to shrug the pack into a better position. She lost her balance and toppled over with a grunt of surprised disgust. Telemachus pressed his hands against his mouth, his shoulders shaking with the intense effort of stifling the raucous laughter that was trying to escape.

“Stupid pack!” she hissed, sliding her arms free of the straps. She sat on the log and retied her bootlaces, kicking pebbles at the offending pack. “I should just leave you right there! How would you like that, hmm?” she threatened darkly, dusting off her pants legs.

“Oh, please, no!” Telemachus whispered in a girlishly distressed voice from his hiding place. “Please don’t leave me lying out here alone on this trail!”

Panicked, Stasia leapt off the log and back onto the trail, short bone blades flaring. “Who’s there?” she demanded. “I’ll chop you up into little pieces if you don’t answer me!” she growled, backing away, tripping over her pack.

Telemachus couldn’t stand it any longer and stepped out of hiding, laughing so hard he was certain a rib would crack. “Chop me up into little pieces, huh? I think that pack wins this round, Stasia,” he teased lightly, reaching a hand down to her.

“You are so mean, ‘Lemachus Rhade!” she pouted, crossing her arms, stubbornly refusing to accept the help offered to her. “You scared me!”

“Good—fear provides an adrenaline rush that enhances your survival instincts while increasing your reaction time—particularly when you are battling an overloaded backpack,” he replied patiently, rolling his eyes. “Now, are you going to lay in the dirt until it gets dark? I’d hate to explain to your parents that some roaming hilderbeart gobbled you up because you were too proud to accept a hand up.”

Reluctantly, she took his hand and he pulled her to her feet.

“You’re a mess! Look at you!” he exclaimed in maternal tones, brushing dirt and leaves off her clothing.

“Are there really hilderbearts out here?” she asked quietly, eyes wide as she scanned the trail before and behind them.

He shrugged casually, turning her around to pull the twigs from her tangled braids. “My father said he saw one not far from the caves last year, in these very woods. It had blood dripping from its fangs and had carried off some silly little girl who was foolish enough to be walking the trail at near dusk. Days later, a lancer unit found only her backpack, lying alone and defenseless on the trail. It was very tragic.”

She crossed her arms, stomped her foot impatiently, and tried not to smile. “Very tragic,” she agreed, realizing he was only teasing her.

He slung her heavy pack over his shoulder with a grunt. “What have you got in here, a gravity well generator?” he complained, giving her a little push ahead of him.

“I just packed needful stuff,” she promised, eyes wide and innocent.

“Needful stuff, huh?” he growled, wondering how many baby dolls he was going to lug up the mountain. “Get moving; Jared should be getting camp set up by the time we get there.”

During the remainder of the half-hour hike, Stasia managed to keep up with the brisk pace of Telemachus’ longer legs, despite the steep incline of the trail. They arrived just as the sun dipped below the horizon. True to his word, Jared had a small fire burning near the gaping mouth of the cavern’s entrance and it cast bizarre shadows that faded into the darkness of the cave.

He wasn’t alone, and several sleeping bags were scattered on the ground near the fire. Four other young males, two Nietzschean and two human, hovered near the fire, chatting amiably. Telemachus recognized the Nietzschean boys as Omar and Heinrich Nute, who were twins, out of Alicia by Manfred. The human boys were brothers, Bobby and Chris Riley, sons of a diplomat who provided advice on occasion to his father. He knew that Stasia didn’t like them because they picked on her and pulled her hair when they thought nobody was looking. She didn’t know that he had taken issue with them over it the last time they were in the Rhade household, and after he had blackened one of their eyes, they had sullenly promised him to leave her alone.

Spying Stasia trudging along behind Telemachus, one of the human boys groaned loudly and slapped his forehead. “For cryin’ out loud! Did you have to bring the little wife along, too?”

“Bobby’s right. She’s going to completely ruin this camping trip,” agreed his pudgy, freckle-faced brother. “She has to go home. This is our last trip before we all go to the Academy next week. I don’t want to spend it babysitting a spoiled little princess.”

Omar picked up a stick and poked absently at the fire, glancing at the protesting humans “She managed to make it up the trail by herself, and your two cousins turned tail and ran home crying to their mothers ten minutes into the hike because a bird in the tree scared them,” he smirked. “I’d say she earned the right to stay. Who votes with me?” he announced, raising his hand into the air.

As expected, Jared and Telemachus raised their hands, as did Heinrich. After catching a dark look from Telemachus, Bobby reluctantly raised his hand. Only the whining Chris Riley stubbornly shoved his hands deep into his pockets and looked away angrily, refusing to give ground.

“It’s settled; she stays,” Omar announced, slapping his hands together.

She stuck her tongue out triumphantly at the frowning human boys who could only cast a sullen glance her way as she skipped behind Telemachus. He slung both their packs down in a heap hear Jared’s.

“Just couldn’t stand to stay at home, eh?” Jared asked his sister, obviously more than slightly annoyed with her intrusion.

“Please don’t be mad at me, Jare,” she said quickly, sitting on her pack, looking up at him with adoring eyes. “I just wanted to do one last fun thing with you and ‘Lemachus before you both go off to that stupid Academy. Then you’ll go off and join the Guard and then some bunch dumb girls will want to marry you, and then you’ll start having a million babies, and that’ll be the end of all the fun we’ll ever have.” The more she rambled, the more pleading her tone became.

Telemachus suddenly realized that she was right, and the idea filled him with a strangely exciting energy. His Matriarch had told him recently that he was standing on the cusp of manhood, and that his destiny waited with beckoning arms. It had sounded like diplomatic rhetoric then, but hearing the quiet desperation in Stasia’s voice, he understood now that soon he would leave boyhood behind.

“All right already,” Jared sighed wearily, fond amusement threatening to overrule his righteous indignation. “Just remember, this isn’t a little girl’s pajama party. You earned the right to stay, so you’ll have to pull your weight while you’re here and not complain about. If it’s your turn to get firewood or fetch water, then it’s your turn. Don’t expect me to do it for you, and don’t turn those sad eyes toward ‘Lemachus. You’ve already got him wrapped around your little finger, and lately he seems to be helpless against telling you NO for anything. It’s not fair to expect him to do your work, either. Got it?”

She nodded happily and glanced at Telemachus whose expression was considerably less stern than her brother’s. “I promise I’ll pull my weight,” she said so earnestly that he imaged she probably believed it herself.

Chapter 15

The fire crackled and popped with a life of its own, sending the occasional cinder or ash sailing into the night. The Nietzschean boys took turns measuring the length of their bone blades against one another, tossing good-natured jibes against Jared who blades hadn’t seem to have grown at all during the long summer. Heinrich crowed with victory when it was determined that his blades were the longest.

Stasia watched, her eyes luminous by firelight, and glanced down at her own blades. She and her playmates never checked blade length against one another, and she couldn’t think of a single reason why that would be important anyway. She made a mental note to ask Jared or Telemachus about it later.

Eventually, everyone settled around the fire, and the obligatory telling of frightening tales came about. Stasia wiggled in between Jared and Telemachus, chin propped up in her hands, soaking in every detail.

“My brother told me this story,” Omar began, clearing his throat. “A long time ago, there was a guy who was getting ready to go to the Academy. He decided to take his girl out for one last picnic before he went away, so his father let him take the family land craft, but he had to promise to be really careful with it.

“They traveled out of the city and into the woods. They had their picnic. After they ate, they started kissing—“

“Oh, yuck!” Stasia squealed and covered her eyes. There was a chorus of complaints and a chuckle or two. She peeked from between her fingers to find Omar staring impatiently at her across the fire, drumming his fingers on his leg.

He rolled his eyes; he had little sisters. “Anyway, SOMETHING interrupted them,” he said, looking pointedly at Stasia, “and they stopped kissing and decided to travel on to someplace else. They traveled for a while, and ended up near this huge cave. It was nice enough—for kissing and, uh, stuff like that—but they decided to leave, but the land craft’s engines wouldn’t start up again.

“The girl got really scared—you know how girls are—and she started to cry and everything. Well, the guy decided that he couldn’t listen to her bawling anymore, so he’d have to walk all the way back to the city to get someone to come repair the land craft. The girl said she couldn’t possibly walk all that way—so by now you probably know that she was a human girl, because a Nietzschean girl would have already walked home or fixed the engines on her own—so the guy told her to stay in the land craft, and not get out until he came back. Someone had seen a hilderbeart, and he didn’t want her to get all ripped to shreds and everything.

“She promised to stay, and sealed the doors and windows, and he set out for the city. She cried herself to sleep, and when she woke up, she heard a strange scraping sound on the top of the land craft. Naturally, she didn’t go to check it out. At dawn, a lancer squad from the city found her with the land craft. When they took her out, they told her to not look back. But, she did and she part of the guy’s mangled body swinging from a tree over the top of the land craft.”

There were murmurs and nods as different ones agreed that they’d heard that story, too.

“Pretty scary, huh, little girl?” Chris hissed at Stasia.

She shrugged and Telemachus was surprised when she stood. “That was scary, Omar, but not as scary as another story I know about this cave.”

Telemachus could see the restrained amusement in the other boy’s eyes. “By all mean, young Lady Theros, do share it with us.”

She picked up a stick long enough for a walking staff and spun it experimentally. The small rush of air caused sparks to burst skyward and she cleared her throat. “Once upon a time, but not too long ago, on this very spot, evil roamed freely. A Magog horde fell upon the city and many people died. A brave lancer squad chased the abominations, and killed all of them except for one. Some of the Magog died at the hands of the lancers. Their horrible blood splattered on the ground, and whatever it touched died—that’s why there is only stone where you sit. Some of the Magog were thrown off the mountain. On some nights, when the moon is covered by clouds, you can hear their howls and moans.”

It was about then that clouds covered the moon, and a spirited wind whistled through the trees.

Omar and Heinrich clapped, followed by Jared and Telemachus. Stasia grinned proudly and bowed.

“Well done,” Telemachus whispered to her as she settled back between him and Jared.

“Hey, um, what about that last Magog?” Bobby Riley asked suddenly.

“Oh, yeah, I forgot that part,” Stasia said quickly, hopping back up, putting her stick into the fire. “Well, one Magog got away, and it ran into that cave behind us. On the nights it hears the howls of the rest of the horde, it lurks in the darkness, looking for a victim. In fact, I SEE IT RIGHT BEHIND YOU!” she screamed and ducked to hide behind her brother.

Chris squealed loudly and grabbed for his brother who was trying to scramble to the other side of the fire, thereby establishing a new land speed record for Tarazed. The Nietzschean boys howled with laughter, grabbing their sides, rolling on the ground.

When Bobby realized that there was no real danger at hand, was soon chuckling at his brother’s expense. After a moment, the only one not laughing was Chris Riley who was trying to conceal the fact that he had wet his pants during the excitement over the alleged Magog lurking in the shadows.

After an hour or so of campfire tales, a cold rain broke out of the night onto the campers. Everyone grabbed their sleeping bags and packs to race into the cave. Forlornly, Jared looked out at the dying fire and the soaking pile of firewood he’d gathered earlier.

Stasia lugged her pack a good distance from the cave’s mouth and zipped it open. “Don’t go too far,” her brother called after her.

Telemachus followed her and began to grin when he saw what she pulled from her pack. “I think you’re going to become very popular,” he announced, crouching to help her ignite the ceramic heater she sat on the stone floor.

She grinned back. “See, I told you I brought needful things.”

“So you did,” he agreed. “And what other needful things did you bring?”

Reluctantly, she pushed her pack over to him, and he laughed out loud despite himself as he dumped the contents. Lit by the eerie glow of the heater, a first-aid kit, a change of clothes, a baby doll, and a glow rod completed her inventory. He carefully handed her the doll with a wink, and she quickly shoved it in her sleeping bag.

“Hey, guys, never mind about the rain; Stasia brought a heater!” he called out to them, his voice echoing throughout the cavern. It didn’t take long for the others to wander toward them. Happily captivated by the radiant heat and subtle light generated by the heater, they spread their sleeping bags out and resumed their tall tales long into the night.

Chapter 16

Life at the Academy was like jumping into a Slip point; six seconds elapse, and years flash by, disappearing into a dark echoing chasm with a single escape point at the far end. Military history, tactics, strategy, and combat training filled every waking and sleeping moment. Telemachus was pleased that he and Jared were assigned to the same unit and barracks. They enjoyed a variety of escapades which would certainly serve in years to come as a means of blackmail and embarrassment between old friends, ammunition to be used at the most inappropriate of times and places. The friends had no doubts that they would enjoy large families, and would grow old as their friendship endured the years.

While their friendship matured and solidified in ways that only harsh military service can create, they each knew that different paths were waiting for them in the years to come. Upon the completion of the six years of compulsory service that most Nietzschean families required of their male offspring, Telemachus wasn’t surprised when Jared announced that he hadn’t cultivated a desire for military service, and had elected to not undertake another tour of duty. Likewise, Jared wasn’t surprised to acknowledge that Telemachus seemed to be specifically engineered for a brilliant and highly decorated military career.

Looking very forward to being surrounded by the familiarities of home, reestablishing contact with family and friends was rank with high importance on lists of planned activities. Before shuttle hit the first Slip Point, Jared announced that he fully anticipated at least three proposals as soon as it was revealed that he was available. Telemachus was still laughing at the idea of any female wanting Jared for anything other than a house servant when the first unexpected volley of missiles pierced the hull of their transport. Warning claxons blared out as darkness reached out and rudely snatched at Telemachus, depositing him in black silence.

The blackness was inescapable, enveloping him in a complacent melancholy. It instilled a deep and malignant hopelessness within his spirit. Questions began to hammer themselves against the clouded walls of his brain: Am I awake? Am I alive? How long have I been here? Where am I? The sounds and conversations he heard told him he was in a medical facility, and the antiseptic smells more than confirmed it.

The persistent question hurled itself to the forefront each time he thought he had a set of bearings: What is happening? Something was hideously wrong; no matter how often or how loudly he spoke, he was steadily ignored. He wondered idly if he were trapped in some spatial anomaly or a spontaneous gravity well; he was unable to move.

Focus, focus, he ordered himself. Think! Have we had an accident during SlipStream?

Time waxed and waned in nauseating waves, and Telemachus Rhade wondered when he might be allowed to awaken from this insidious nightmare. He had to wake up so he and Jared could get home. Jared was probably making a complete mess of things, and it was a sure bet that he needed his buddy to bail him out of some sort of trouble

During a lapse in his self-interrogation that threatened full lucidity, he heard a kind voice that gave rise to hope. “I found you!” she said softly, and he felt the lightest of kisses on his brow and a cool hand on his cheek.

There was the sound of swiftly approaching footsteps. “May I help you, miss?” asked a male voice, one that he recognized as a frequent noise.

“Theros. Doctor Anastasia Theros,” she announced, and he wondered if her expression equaled the frostiness of her tone. The proclamation alone was enough to cause an iced shock run up his spine. Stasia, nicknamed Shadow, was here—and a doctor?!

“You seem rather young to have acquired that title,” the man countered doubtfully.

“And you seem rather incompetent to have retained yours, sir,” she returned, and he heard the smack of fingers against a flexi. “I’m appalled at this treatment plan; it seems tentative at best, and hideously malicious on the far end of the spectrum. How do you expect this man to recover when he hasn’t been adequately assessed?”

“We are a post-triage facility,” the man began levelly in a tone that indicated this alone should provide the answer to her question.

“Obviously staffed by fools and half-wits,” she said with a light growl. “Do you realize that this man hasn’t even been identified correctly? Your records indicate that this patient is Sergeant Derek Ector, who was a forty-year-old human before he died months ago. Let me make a correction to your records: this is Lieutenant Telemachus Rhade, who is obviously Nietzschean, and very much alive despite being trapped in this--place.”

“I don’t know how we could have been expected to have known that—“

“There is this simple technique, perhaps you’ve heard of it: DNA sampling and identification. It would have taken less than an hour to have submitted the appropriate information to the Home Guard data center. You would have then realized that your course of treatment was completely inappropriate for Nietzschean physiology.”

“I don’t understand—“

“Obviously. Let me make it simple for you to understand. By overloading his system with all these redundant sedatives and whatever other primitive voodoo you’ve attempted, you’re effectively hampering a very efficient bio-tech system from doing its job.”

“The blindness and paralysis should prove to be temporary. If he were human, we wouldn’t need to discuss any possibility of recovery.”

“Then we owe infinite gratitude to the Progenitor that he’s not human.” Even through the fogged sedation, Telemachus could feel the stinging anger in her voice. If he could only manage to waken a little more, he’d be able to warn the other man that he was treading dangerous territory. He’d heard female voices resonate with contempt like this; it wasn’t wise to anger them further, unless having her bone blades rammed through one’s chest was the desired result.

“I’ll assume responsibility for this man, and for these others listed. I will have transport prepared in one hour, and will be taking these patients to a competent medical facility on our home world. Do you have any questions?”

He heard the smack of flexi as she slapped it into the man’s hand. There was silence for a moment. “Under whose authority?” he asked slowly, and then mumbled for a moment. When he spoke again, there was an unmistakable air of humility in his voice. “I’ll issue the orders…” and his voice trailed off as the sound of his boots on the deck plating echoed away.

“What--?” he began, shocked to hear the hoarse whisper that was his voice.

“Wait,” she ordered. A strong hand lifted his head up, a glass pressed against his lips. “Drink this, if you can,” she whispered.

He swallowed, wondering when he had ever tasted anything so cold and sweet in his life as that first sip of water. He tried to reach up to hold the glass, and was dismayed to find that he couldn’t move his arm—either arm, or his legs!

His panicked grunt of surprise was countered her gentle command, “Let me help you,” she said, raising his hand, wrapping his fingers around the glass. When he was finished, she took the glass and set it aside, but he managed to hold onto her hand with his fingers.

“Sta--sia?” he asked uncertainly, the name spoken as brokenly as his thoughts were forming. “Not…Stasia. Not Shadow…still a little girl,” he protested, thoughts flowing into near sentences. “You’re…older.”

“Yes, Himmycuss,” she said, her voice a husky whisper in his ear as she rested her cheek against his for a moment.

His hand rested on her cheek for a moment as his senses fought to reconcile the impossible. This strange woman with the kind and gentle hands carried her scent, the olfactory identifier as unique among Nietzscheans as a fingerprint was among humans. But it was aged, too refined…unless something unimaginable had happened. If, by some impossible circumstance, he had been here for an extended period of time…

“How long?” he demanded quickly, his mind placing puzzle pieces together rapid-fire. “How long have I been here?”

There was a pause that lasted a short eternity. “It’s been--several years, ‘Lemachus.”

He groped in blind desperation for her hand, an arm, anything that might anchor him against this shocking revelation.

“Years?” he repeated, wondering if the panic that was churning inside was betrayed by his voice. “How many years?”

“At least twenty,” she replied, her voice distant. “It was the Kalderans. You and Jared were on your way home when your shuttle was attacked just prior to the Slip jump. A Than carrier was close enough to collect survivors, but had to distribute them to medical facilities on various drifts.”


“I’ve not given up hope, but with things as they are—it’s a miracle I found you.”

“What do you mean, with things as they are?”

There was a sigh. “My poor, dear Telemachus. You’ve been blissfully ignorant of the chaos, haven’t you? The Kalderans, always the Kalderans at the heart of destruction. They just couldn’t leave well enough alone and decided that they needed to add the Terazed System to their conquests. The fools! Little did they realize that only our home world out of the nine planets was habitable. At least they didn’t enjoy their victory for long.”

The pregnant silence was deafening, and only his ragged breath broke it. “What are you not telling me?”

He could feel the bunk shift with her weight as she sat. “Terazed is gone. The Home Guard had a stash of nova bombs on one of the orbital stations, and the decision was made to destroy the planet rather than let the Kalderans keep it. I’m so sorry to have to be the one to tell you.”

He’d always imagined that when one’s heart stopped, it would be a silent event, not this thundering echo that pounded out toward infinity within his brain. Terazed gone?

“You and I are all that remain of our respective households, unless I’m ever fortunate enough to find Jared. In fact, very few Nietzscheans from Tarazed have any remnants that remain.”

“We’ll start a pride, Stasia—you and I,” he offered quickly.

Again the uncomfortable silence from her.
“What? What now?” he demanded, knowing he could only take so much of this.

“Oh, dear and sweet Telemachus, if only!” she choked. “If only you hadn’t gone away to that stupid Academy to fulfill your destiny!” she sobbed. “Now there’s not enough of you left to fill the lunch plate at Cavanaugh’s. Only your head and your hand survived through these long years, and actually only three fingers of your hand look like fingers---“

The rest of her words were drowned by his howl of despair and denial. Impossibly, he dove for the spiral of oblivion, shrieking in anger and horror…

Chapter 17

“…machus, ‘Lemachus!” a terrified voice hissed in his ear as someone roughly shook his shoulder.

His eyes flew open to find Stasia peering down at him, those green eyes luminous in the glow from the radiant ceramic heater.

He grabbed her shoulders and hugged her close. “It’s still tonight and we’re camping! You’re not old!” he gasped, and realized with an elated happiness that ten nicely formed fingers gripped her arms. “I have all of my fingers, too!”

She eyed him oddly and cocked her head with a quizzical smile. Grumbling moans and groans wafted out of sleeping bags.

“What’s going on over there?” Jared demanded with a yawn.

Telemachus stammered for a moment as the other boys rolled over expectantly, surprised to the girl entangled in his arms. Jared’s eyebrow rose a few inches.

“I—I had a really bad dream,” Stasia blurted out quickly. “It was really scary,” she sniffed, and Telemachus had to immediately give her points for squeezing out a quick tear or two for him to brush away. Disinterested groans faded as the others burrowed back down in their sleeping bags.

“Uh, yeah,” he added in a moment of brilliance, reaching over to turn her sleeping bag down for her to climb into. “Try to go back to sleep; it’ll be okay,” he added gallantly.

She squeezed his hand companionably as he pulled the edge of the sleeping bag up to her chin. She crooked her finger and he bent close to hear her whisper, “You can have my baby doll, ‘Lemachus, if it will make you feel better.”

He kissed her lightly on the forehead, a good night ritual from a thousand nights. “You already made me feel better, Stasia Shadow,” he breathed into her hair. “Thank you.”

With a shuddering yawn, he dug himself into his sleeping bag, merrily counting fingers and wiggling toes as he took a quick physical inventory—just in case. By the Progenitor, that was an insane nightmare and he hoped to never have another like it as long as he lived! With another yawn, he considered in philosophical terms about how Stasia had spelled salvation in his dream. Then in rescuing him from the horror of the night terror, her presence had been twice as welcoming in the waking world. Pondering the significance of little girls who became shadows as one grew up, he fell into a peaceful sleep.

Chapter 18


Among Nietzschean families, it was considered a crucial stage of maturation that the cadets be allowed no visits to their homes, or from their families, until graduation ceremonies were complete. This tempering forged the mettle of their character and the ability to persevere, and certainly served to make homecomings and reunions cherished affairs.

It seemed that they had only arrived the day before, green cadets ready to prove themselves on whatever fields of challenge presented to them. Overnight, years passed and graduation ceremonies were being prepared. The Academy auditorium was crowded with proud family and friends, waiting to see their respective cadet bestowed with the rights and privileges of a graduate. This was a crossroad of life for many; some would step out into their chosen vocations, others would pursue higher learning, all eager to meet their futures.

Four years at the Academy had served Telemachus well, molding him physically and mentally as a force to be reckoned with on many levels. His father was particularly pleased with his son’s obvious talents, noting with pride each time an achievement was attributed to him. It was evident that Telemachus Rhade was a young man with a promising military future well within his grasp. Jared found that he excelled in diplomatic matters, and seemed destined for an eventful political career.

Following the final dismissal, the cadets were surrounded by their families in a smothering cloud of pride. A whirlwind rushed through, and Telemachus caught a glimpse of a flowing blue gown before a young female had thrown her arms around his neck, planting a sound kiss on his cheek. “Finally, you’re finished with this silly Academy!” she exclaimed happily, disentangling herself to similarly attack Jared. “What a wonderful day! My brothers are going to come home at last!”

Telemachus swallowed hard and straightened his jacket quickly, his tongue suddenly cleaving to the roof of his mouth. Jared swung the exquisite creature around in a delighted hug, sending her long blond braids into a cascading spin. Laughing, she slipped her hand through Jared’s arm and looked expectantly at Telemachus.

“My goodness, ‘Lemachus Rhade, aren’t you even going to say hello?” she demanded breathlessly. “I’m missing my first lectures at the University for this!” she chastised, wagging a conspiratorial finger at him.

“Stasia…you got….uh…” he stammered.

“Taller,” his mother offered graciously, coming to his aid.

He smiled, and he hoped not stupidly. “Yes…taller. Mother is quite correct, Stasia; you’ve certainly grown…taller, uh, while we’ve been here.”

Stasia grinned at him, poking him lightly in the arm and stomach. “You got taller, too—and big! What did they feed you that they didn’t give to Jared?”

“I just fought harder for seconds at mealtime,” he replied lightly, offering her his arm as his father waved them toward their waiting land craft.

Their homecoming was full of pomp and circumstance, and they immediately began to feel like celebrities in their homes. The many accolades and high honors attached to their names did little to weight their buoyant and inflated egos. Younger siblings watched them, eyes wide with awe and hero worship; older relatives watched them with pride, the next generation of their households to make their mark upon history.

They both knew the pleasant respite would be brief. Owing to the strict standards of many Nietzschean families, Telemachus and Jared knew they were obligated to complete four years of compulsory military service. Like the “no visits to or from home” restriction at the Academy, the fulfillment of this familial obligation helped young males acquire additional survival traits and skills that would increase his worthiness and ability to attract a mate. Telemachus looked forward to the challenges that awaited and seemed positively cheerful about the entire affair; Jared was resigned to perform his duty, but had no plans toward a longer career in the military than was expected.

Nevertheless, the congratulatory meal given in their honor was splendid. Stasia sat between the two of them, smiling and providing witty conversation throughout the meal. It was as comfortable as their old childhood days, but with a subtle twist that held an edge of mystery.

After the meal, Jared gravitated toward a circle of senior political party members, their heated debate over the Isolationist movement drawing him like a moth to a flame. Stasia rolled her eyes and grabbed Telemachus by the hand. “Let’s take a walk, ‘Lemachus,” she said suddenly. “I have something for you to see in the gardens.”

He well recalled her penchant for practical jokes and wondered what sort of bobby-trap she’d set for him. With the air of a doting older brother duty-bound duty to humor a beloved little sister, and he cheerfully accepted the offer. The dining hall was crowded and stuffy for his taste anyway, and this was as good an excuse as any for a gracious exit. Plus, he’d noticed one of his older brothers and a couple of his cousins spending entirely too much time trying to catch Stasia’s attention. He was surprised at the sudden surge of annoyance he felt toward them because of it, and rather puzzled by their near-glares at him as he led Stasia out of the hall. He grabbed their half-empty wine flutes and tucked a bottle of his father’s best vintage under his arm, smiling brightly back at them before stepping through the doorway.

Terazed’s twin moons were barely visible against the dark azure skies. Stars blinked in the heavens, and Telemachus wondered how Jared could possibly be happy cooped up with a bunch of old men when he could be out in the open like this.

As they walked together, Stasia chattered happily about home life, new siblings born into both of their households, and seemed to exude a singular joy in being alive. Eventually, she stopped to a walled pool with a showering fountain at its center.

“Well, what do you think?” she asked expectantly, sitting on the edge of the pool’s wall.

He laughed, suddenly feeling awkward and uncomfortable for no reason he could decipher. “About what?”

She stared back at him incredulously. “About what?” she repeated in mocking tones. She trailed a long, slender finger in the water. “Just look,” she said patiently, sprinkling crumbs from a small container brought out of the folds of her gown.

Slowly, small shimmering blue fish came closer to the surface. Green fish, yellow fish, and red fish followed them. Soon, an effervescent rainbow of delicately glowing fish moved in mesmerizing patterns just below the surface.

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said in amazement. “Where’d they come from?”

“I engineered them,” she announced proudly. “This project placed me in high standing with the University admissions board.”

He stared in amazement at the fish and at her. “You? You engineered these?” he asked, dubiously. He sat the fluted crystals down on the wall and poured them full. He raised his glass to her. “Well done,” he commented, taking a deep drink.

“I was engineered for extreme intelligence,” she retorted lightly. “Why should you be so surprised, or have you taken my genius for granted all these years?” With a small frown, she scattered more crumbs across the water. “You just think I’m a silly little girl without a brain in my head,” she said with a hurt expression. “You’ve hardly paid attention to two things I’ve said all day.”

He sat by her quickly. “No, Stasia, no,” he insisted. “It’s just that this is so—beautiful—it’s caught me off-guard, is all. It’s not what I was expecting to see when I came home,” he admitted, realizing with a start that this was a truth on several levels. “Jared and I will be leaving in a few days for Home Guard training, and I think I’m starting to be sorry our homecoming will be so short.”

She stared into the water. “I won’t get to see you off. Father is taking me with him in the morning; there’s a symposium at the University and he’s expected to give some speech. He said we’d take care of two trips at the same time.” There was a deep expression of resignation floating in her words, a haunting melancholy that wasn’t in her nature.

He was surprised to feel a deep disappointment in her announcement, and even more surprised when a tear slid down her cheek. She took a small drink of her wine and looked away.

“Stasia,” he said slowly, concern creeping in. “What’s wrong?”

She half-laughed, wiping angrily at the offensive teardrop. “It’s silly, really. If I tell you, you’ll laugh,” she protested.

He squeezed her hand. “If I didn’t laugh at you when you used to call me ‘Himmycuss Waday,’ I swear nothing you say now could make me do it.”

She took a big breath. “Okay, here’s the thing. I’m afraid of going off to the University and I’m going to be all alone, all by myself. I don’t even have any cousins or half-siblings there, and the admissions board said there aren’t any incoming students my age” she breathed out quickly, each word running into the other. She flung her hair over her shoulder. “Okay, there—that’s the big secret. I’m a big baby because I’m going to be away from home for the first time.”

He smiled companionably. “Everyone is anxious before they leave home for the first time; it’s perfectly natural. I’ll tell you a secret, but you can’t tell anyone else, or I’ll deny it to my dying day.”

She nodded eagerly, ready to join the conspiracy.

“Every night for the first week when we were at the Academy, Jared’s eyes would get all watery at lights out and he’d sniff and snuff under his covers for at least an hour until he’d fall asleep.”

She stared at him. If he’d told her that Jared Theros was the Second Coming of Drago Museveni, she couldn’t have been more shocked. “Jared cried himself to sleep?”

“Every night for a week,” he swore solemnly.

She eyed him suspiciously. “And what about you?”

He shrugged. “Oh, I was just fine. Apparently someone packed a tiny baby doll in my stuff before we left.”

She looked away with a snort. “What did you do with it?”

“Hey, if someone deemed me important enough to make a gift of an ancient Earth good luck charm, who am I to disrespect the giver of that gift? I sat it on my shelf, and it kept watch over me for all four years.”

Her laughter was as infectious as ever. “Maybe somebody will send me a good luck charm to keep watch over me while I’m gone,” she decided. “Maybe it won’t be so bad—I will get to come home for breaks, which you and Jared didn’t get to do.”

“And there is such a thing as R & R time from the Home Guard. Jared and I can come visit you, plus there are some training facilities on the same continent as the University, so sometime we can all be together now and again,” he offered, mentally making plans already to do just that.

She smiled brightly. “It’s a deal. I’ll have to do something nice for you in return…”

He could see the machinations of her mind, spinning double-time behind those green eyes. He wondered if he should worry. He decided later that it was the effects of the excellent wine, as she began to hatch her scheme.

“Ok, when you come home again, we'll have to get you a wife or maybe two. I’ve got several very lovely cousins who constantly ask about you. We need to get them started right away, with at least half a dozen babies,” she decided with a giggle.

He felt the planet stop spinning. He was a fool! She was a beautiful girl---no, not a girl. She’d become a woman and he’d missed the transformation in his absence, and he would be worse than a fool to try and deny it. She held his heart in her hand, could command him on a whim; but did she have a clue?

He leaned closer. “Why don’t I just wait until you choose me?”

She nearly dropped her glass, and slapped his arm. “Surely you jest, good sir! I've got grander plans than to pop out six hundred babies for some arrogant fool who views me as his personal vehicle to immortality via progeny. My genes were engineered for a more important destiny, to serve the greater good of all Nietzscheans through scientific advances.”

Despite himself, a giggle escaped and he clamped his hand over her mouth. “Shh! Someone will hear you, crazy girl. Whatsamatter--don't you want children?”

She peeled his hand from her mouth. “Well, of course I want children--I just don't need to be the one to have them..”

“You just lost me,” he confessed, filling their glasses again.

“Simple, really. I can just have a bunch of eggs harvested and mix them up with some likely DNA from some well-deserving donors. In fact, I've already got a small egg harvest in storage,” she declared proudly. She stood and waved her arm. “I published the announcement and my intentions last week for all of Terazed to know. Of course, my father nearly had a stroke when he found out, but I AM his Little Princess who can do no wrong.”

“You're impossible!” he choked. “That's the single most ridiculous thing I've ever heard you say; and I've heard you say an astronomical amount of ridiculous things. What are you going to do with this--this genetic concoction? Incubate it in a lab like some abominable little experiment!”

She looked at him as if he had generated the biological equation for immortality, and raised her glass to him. “Well----that's an idea I hadn’t thought of yet, Himmycuss! I was actually planning on having some lower status women do the actual work. They'd gain an immediate increase in social stature, carrying the children of the first and only daughter of a high-ranking politician such as my father. Of course, by then I'll be incredibly famous and wealthy, generating status of my own accord.”

She toasted her splendid future and took a wobbly step to stand on the wall of the pool.

He stood and she rested her hand on his shoulder for balance as she walked along the wall. “What if your husband doesn't agree to this lunatic's plan?” he insisted.

She laughed for a moment. “Husband, you say--as in the very singular form of the word? I plan to have lots of husbands. I don't see why I should limit myself to just one. If you play your cards right, I might even let you be in my harem--but only when I'm ready to settle down and be a homebody.”

“And just when—precisely-- might that be?”

“When I'm older--maybe thirty, thirty-five, after I've made my mark on all the known worlds.”

“I'm almost afraid to ask, but how do you intend to do that?”

“I already told you my big plan, you silly boy! Like most males, you have an annoying propensity to absorb only what you want to hear,” she scoffed, waving her finger at him while she took another drink.

Somewhere between the finger waving and the attempted drink, she lost her footing. He snagged her in mid-fall, reflexes taking over before his clouded mind realized she was falling.

“Whee! Nice catch—let’s do that again!” she squeaked, resting her forehead against his.

Something immutably changed forever in that moment. Her giddy smile slipped away as an expression of complete wonderment crossed her face. With trembling hands, she pulled his face closer and pressed her lips against his. For a moment, he was stunned and felt like someone had rammed an energy coupling against his spine. Abruptly, he realized he was holding her and put her back on her feet.

Breathless, he pulled back, certain his uniform would incinerate from the heat burning him from the inside. "What----?" was all he could stammer, quickly wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand.

She smiled, a curious mix of innocence and wickedness. "Don't have an aneurysm, dear brother of mine. It was only a kiss; it's not like I haven't kissed you before," she purred.

Yes, that was true; she had kissed him a thousand times or more. There were the slobbery baby kisses that made the adults laugh when he would wipe the goo from his cheek. There were the quick kisses on the cheek that often came with a little hug and a yawned "good night." There were the chaste kisses of greeting or parting, mostly mimicking what adults did. This kiss was none of those.

"I hope you DON'T kiss your other brothers like that!" he sputtered.

She stood on her toes and wrapped her hands behind his neck. "Like this?" she asked, this time putting great patience into her efforts.

He wasn't sure how it happened. His hands betrayed him by pulling her closer against him in an embrace that was anything but fraternal. Warning claxons blared in his head---wrong, stop immediately, danger! He ignored them and surrendered to instincts that blinded him to any semblance of rational thought. He was mad to taste her lips and the teasing little tongue that slipped between lips. He returned the kiss with a desperation known only to men dying of thirst in the desert, being granted their last drink of cold water.

Terazed tipped on its axis. The soft mulch walkway raced up toward them, and he turned to break their fall. His back hit the ground with a thud and he wasn’t certain if the fall took his breath away or if it was Stasia—probably both.

She smiled down at him, realizing that was sprawled gracelessly on top of him. She rested her hands on his chest, trailing her lips over his neck, his lips. “You taste so good,” she murmured, fingers slowly moving to unbutton his jacket. “Just delicious…” she sighed, resting her cheek against his bare chest.

He held his breath, afraid of what he might do if he moved, if she moved. She didn’t move. He didn’t move. If snoring could be done daintily, she wasn’t doing that either.

With a ragged groan, Telemachus pulled himself into a sitting position and cradled his would-be seductress in his arms. She slept for another half hour before he could wake her enough to walk back home.

Her mother was waiting expectantly at the door, arms crossed as she watched the garden path. She watched approvingly as Telemachus kissed her daughter lightly on the cheek. He reminded her that he and Jared would see her soon, reminding her of how excellent he thought her fish were. She smiled and gave him a quick hug before darting past her mother.

Telemachus bowed slightly. “Good night, Lady Theros,” he said with a smile.

She watched him turn to leave. She pressed her hands over her mouth and tried not to laugh. Should she tell him that the back of his uniform was littered with the mulch from her garden? She decided against it and closed the door.

Chapter 19

Life again moved at a whirlwind’s pace. Telemachus began to distinguish himself early on in his military career, and quickly began progressing upward in rank. Stasia excelled in her studies, and her name was already being spoken in prestigious scientific and medical arenas outside the academic realm.

Telemachus received a promotion to major on the eve of Stasia’s eighteenth birth celebration, officially bringing her into the age of Nietzschean majority. She had achieved several scientific coups and was anxious to share her successes with him. He had three days of leave coming during the following week, and they immediately made plans to celebrate together. It had been nearly six months since his last leave, and they were eager to see one another.

He’d reserved adjoining suites at one of the most exclusive resorts on the southern continent. He planned for them to celebrate their achievements in grand style, enjoying every luxury he could afford.

The evening meal was elaborate and expensive, and they lingered over each course, still hungrily drinking in the sight of one another. It was only when the waiter cleared the desert plates that he realized he’d almost forgotten her gift. “Oh, I have something for you,” he said quickly. He withdrew a small gold box from his pocket.

The sapphires in the ring were exquisite and complimented the brilliant diamond at the center of the setting. Her eyes widened and she slipped it on. “Telemachus, this is stunning! It’s beautiful. It must have cost a month’s wages. Where did you get it?”

He grinned. Actually, it had cost two month’s wages, but her reaction was worth it. “There’s a jeweler on Avalon Drift, a few systems over. I saw it in his case and the blue reminded me of those fish you made before you went to the University. It had to be yours. Do you like it?”

She flung her arms around his neck and planted her lips hard against his in a heated, demanding kiss.

Breathless, he pulled back with a laugh. “I’ll take that as a indicator you’re pleased.”

She held her hand out, admired the sparkles, nodding emphatically.

“I’ve got something for you, too,” she announced with a sudden sly smile as the waiter brought after-desert drinks.

“Oh? You shouldn’t have. It’s your birthday, after all.”

“Well, it’s up in my suite, so you’ll have to go up there to get it.”

They finished their drinks and took the long stroll up several spiral stairways. He knew that he should have suspected something the moment he saw the lit candles all over the room. Soft music played and the champagne waited in the ice bucket. “Lights,” he said immediately, suddenly feeling warmer than he should. The suite was brightly illuminated at his command.

She giggled and commanded the lights to dim again. She poured him a glass of champagne and pointed to a wing-backed chair near the fireplace. “Have a seat, Major Rhade, please,” she offered. “I’ll be right back.”

He traced the upholstery pattern and sipped his drink, appreciating the military precision with which the bed had been made. Even the silk spread contained not a single wrinkle.

“Nice bed, huh?” she asked, returning from another room.

He spilled his champagne when he jumped up. She’d changed her attire and wore a long gown made of something that looked like fog. The thin layers of laced gauze left little to the imagination as to what lay beneath. The fabric was sheer, nearly transparent and it clung to the slopes of her curves as she approached him with a smile.

He swallowed hard and she grinned. “I never noticed how very citrus-like your adrenaline smells when you get, ah, worked up,” she teased lightly, sliding her hands up his strong chest.

“I…never…smell like citrus,” he protested, his heart pounding in anticipation. “That’s probably all these candles that you smell. What are you trying to do, burn down the hotel?”

She leaned in and kissed him, her tongue sliding between his lips. “I want something, but burning down the hotel wasn’t it,” she purred.

He pulled back, his hands trembling. He wanted something, too, but she had to be the one to claim it. Thank the Divine that she was now legally an adult and he couldn’t be prosecuted for climbing into the bed of a child. The ancestors alone knew how close he’d come over the last several years, completely willing to take the risk, but his conscience always halted him at the last possible moment. But this night, she was a commanding presence, and he would be her willing thrall if that happened to be her desire.

“Are you sure?” he asked, realizing what a monumentally stupid question that was. What kind of fool asks a willing woman dressed in next-to-nothing if she’s sure that she wants to have an intimate relationship?

She laughed and slowly unbuttoned his uniform jacket. “Oh, my sweet Himmycuss, you are a silly thing, aren’t you?” she asked, letting the jacket slide to the carpeted floor. She started on his white shirt, impatiently tugging it free from his pants.

“We don’t have to. We can stop,” he stammered.

She raised an eyebrow and slid her hand down his trouser leg. She grinned when she found the evidence she was seeking. “I don’t want stop, and I can tell you don’t want me to, either.”

He heaved a sigh of relief and pulled her close. “That’s good because you passed the point of no return a minute ago,” he announced, dipping his head for a kiss that ignited more flame than her candles could ever hope to generate.

“That’s all right,” she conceded, shoving him back into the chair, pulling his boots off. “You passed the point of no return the second you stepped into my suite.”

He pulled her into his lap, running his finger down her cheek. “When did you grow up to be such a powerful and beautiful woman?”

“I did it a little bit at a time when you weren’t looking,” she teased, kissing his fingers.

“Well, I’m looking now.”

“Good, then watch this,” she ordered, unbuckling his belt and sliding it free of its loops. “And this,” she added, unfastening his pants.

“You do want something, but I’m still not sure what it is,” he murmured, nuzzling her neck as he stepped free of the pants pooled around his ankles.

“I thought I was being direct enough even for a military man to get the hint,” she pouted, sliding his shirt away to float to the floor. She ran her hands down his bare skin, sending ripples of pleasure radiating from his spine. “Maybe a few more less subtle hints and you’ll get the big picture.”

She shrugged and a layer of the nothing fabric fell away, leaving another sheerer layer beneath it. “Interesting fabric,” he commented, snuggling his cheek against it as he knelt before her. “What is it?”

“Hydrangean cloud silk. Do you like it?” she asked, resting her hands on his broad shoulders.

“I like it on the floor,” he grinned ferociously, yanking on the last thin layer with his teeth.

She laughed as the delicate bows at her shoulders broke free and the final bit of fabric floated down to land on his head. “It looks not bad on you, though,” she teased as he looked up at her through the veil.

With an annoyed growl, he cast it aside and tackled her, rolling her on top of him. “I am yours, lady mine. Do with me what you will.”

“Too much clothing, still,” she murmured, peeling away the briefs. “Socks or no socks?” she asked and he shrugged. She grinned and languidly stretched over the length of him with her own body. “I don’t care, either,” she announced, claiming his mouth with her own.

After a great deal of kissing and rising temperatures, he felt a burning tremble overtake him. With a grunt, he swept her off the floor and into the bed. Her eyes were wide with anticipation as he hovered over her.

“I love you,” he whispered hoarsely and could fight the raging instinct no longer.

She felt a momentary fright when she saw the strange fire burning in his eyes. “I love you,” she echoed, taking him into a final lover’s embrace at last.

They made love with reckless abandon through the night and laughed in exhaustion when the sun eventually filtered through the windows. Weak with the efforts of their passion, they held each other in contentment until sleep stole them away.

Chapter 20

Telemachus couldn’t imagine life being any better than this. He was due for promotion again soon, and his beloved was a year closer to the age at which the Matriarch would consider it appropriate for Stasia to offer him a proposal. He was well aware that his grandmother and mother had already clandestinely began to plan the subsequent marriage celebration, but that day was yet several years away. He was content to know that no other male had ever enjoyed the pleasures of her bed, and he intended to continue to work very hard to prove his worth to her in order to keep things that way.

He’d been offworld for three weeks, and hadn’t had leave for six months. She’d had little time for talk and had practically exhausted him with the intensity of her demands. He was almost grateful for a respite to recharge his energies when she eventually slid into a light sleep, her arm curled around his waist, one leg slung over his.

After a while, she stirred and smiled at him. She snuggled in closer as he wrapped his arm around her shoulders, his free hand toying idly with her hair.

“That’s a welcome I could easily become accustomed to,” he murmured, planting a soft kiss on her forehead.

“Then you need to spend less time in the barracks. I’m sure my bed is much softer than the bunk you have there,” she teased, nipping at his ear.

“I get more sleep in my bunk than I do I your bed,” he countered, turning to capture her teasing lips in a demanding kiss.

“Oh? I wasn’t aware that sleep was so important to an officer of the Home Guard. By all means, catch up on all the sleep you’ve missed,” she huffed in mock annoyance, putting him at arm’s length to sit against the headboard. She pulled the blankets up under her chin and crossed her arms in a pout.

His grin was positively feral. “I’d rather catch up on something else that I’ve missed,” he purred, pulling her back into his arms.

That had been two weeks ago, now chaos ruled again.

Blood trickled from a freshly healing gash in his forehead. He blew past the reception desk and was only mildly annoyed that the young woman sitting there called security because of it. He had limped almost all the way through the lobby before a security guard and two nurses accosted him. He couldn’t blame them. He would have stopped some deranged-looking soldier storming hell-bent through his medical center, too.

The young man was human, small and probably just out of his teens. Telemachus could have stomped him like an insect and kept moving, but the boy showed a surprising degree of courage — or stupidity -- as he barred the stormy Nietzschean’s path.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you have to register at the desk first,” he said, his voice quavering only slightly as he saw both sets of bone blades flare in annoyance. “It’s our policy.”

“I don’t have time for policies,” Telemachus snapped. “I’m Major Telemachus Rhade of the Home Guard. I received word from Lady Maria Theros that her daughter is here.”

“Please, major, you’re in need of medical attention,” one of the nurses said, suddenly seizing her opportunity to press a bandage to his bleeding forehead.

He grabbed the gauze and adhesive from her hand and slapped it on his forehead, half missing the bloody gash. “Thank you, now I’ve had medical attention,” he growled, trying to keep his temper in check. “I assure you I will survive.”

She shrank back toward the reception desk. She repeated his name to the receptionist as though the other woman might not have caught the name.

Telemachus leaned forward to see the boy’s name engraved on his ID badge. “Smith, how old are you?”

“Twenty, sir.”

“If you want to make twenty-one, I suggest you find Lady Theros for me immediately.”

“I will, sir. If you’ll kindly have a seat,” he gestured to the waiting area, “I’ll locate her and bring her to you right away.”

With weary disgust, he waved his hands in the air. “Fine, but it had better be done in under five minutes, or I’ll find her myself.”

Throwing himself into a cushioned chair, he stared dejectedly at his hands. The back of one of them was smeared with blood, but he didn’t care. Absently, he wiped it on his pants leg and raked his other hand through his hair.

Two hours ago he’d been on one of the moons near the outer rim, running a combat drill with fresh recruits when the communication reached him. He cursed impatiently for the entire hour it took to locate and transport another senior officer to relieve him of command. Now he was here, waiting, which was his second least favorite activity.

Happily, little Smith escorted Maria Theros around a corner, with two minutes to spare.

She looked haggard and solemn, but her expression brightened when she saw him. She rushed forward and gripped his hands as he stood, and he bent to kiss her cheek in greeting.

She pressed her hand against his dirty cheek in alarm. “Dear Telemachus, is there a war starting that we don’t know about?”

He half-smiled. “No, Lady, it was only a training exercise off-world,” he assured her quickly. “And I crashed a shuttle craft in my haste to get here,” he admitted reluctantly.

She almost managed a smile. “My dear child, I didn’t say that she was in danger of dying—at least not now. I said she was conscious now and asking for you,” she chided. “You needn’t have risked your safety to be at her side.”

“I would gladly risk life and limb anytime my Shadow calls for me.”

Maria Theros did smile this time. So obvious was his deep devotion and affection for her daughter. She took him by the arm and began to lead him down long corridors with white tiled floors and angry fluorescent lighting.

“How is she?” he asked, delaying the question for as long as possible. He feared the answer. “The communication was thin on details.”

“I know, and I apologize. I didn’t want to worry you more than necessary,” she said softly.

“Lady, had I known she’d even been anywhere near that station during those attacks, I would have set a new flight speed record to reach her,” he said earnestly, still hurt that her mother and everyone one else had kept the news from him until scant hours earlier.

“Please don’t think harshly of me because of it. Your work is important; those young men deserve to be taught by our best and brightest so they’ll stand strong to defend our world,” she explained in a Matriarch’s patient tone. “Truth to tell, I honestly believed I had arrived in time only to claim my daughter’s body and plan her funeral services, and there was no need to grieve you with her loss until I was certain.” Her voice broke and she turned her head away.

Telemachus took the older woman in his arms and she rested her head against his dirty uniform and wept, the dam of strength she’d carried for days now broken.

“She was barely recognizable as my Anastasia,” she whispered. “She was like a broken toy, and bravely fought long enough to beg me to bear you this message. ‘Tell him, mother, tell him I’m sorry I wasn’t a good enough soldier. I’ll try harder next time.’ I promised to tell you, and she was satisfied. They took her into emergency surgery immediately after that.”

She wiped at her face and regained her composure. “They lost her twice during that surgery. Oh, my poor baby girl.”

“She’s a stubborn fighter,” he pointed out proudly, with a knowing smile.

Lady Theros smiled and agreed. Down one more long corridor and around a corner, she stopped outside a closed door. She gently opened it and her breath caught for a moment. “Anastasia, I’ve brought you a visitor,” she called softly, swinging the door open.

Stasia shrieked and covered her head with a sheet. “Mother!” she exclaimed, her voice raw and raspy. “I look hideous. You promised to give me fair warning before ‘Lemachus arrived!”

He let loose a relieved sigh. If she was concerned over vanity’s sake, she was closer to recovery than her mother would allow herself to believe. Telemachus strode across the small room and crouched by her bedside and coughed conspicuously. “Done anything interesting recently you might want to tell me about?” he asked.

“You have to leave, ‘Lemachus. I’m ghastly,” she announced, a talking lump of bed linen with protruding IV tubing.

“I’ll be the judge of that,” he said softly, gently removing the sheet.

“Ghastly” wasn’t the word he would have chosen to describe her, but “wonderfully healthy” wasn’t an accurate description either. The phrase “death warmed over” seemed apropos. He wanted nothing more than to take her into his arms and smother her with kisses, but she didn’t look as though she could withstand much smothering, and her mother was an arm’s length away. He satisfied himself with a chaste kiss on her pale cheek.

“You look horrible and you smell bad, just like rotten lemons!” she blurted, eyes wide. “What happened to you?” she demanded, grabbing his arm with her good hand.

Chapter 21

He was more than slightly taken aback. “I look horrible and smell bad?! So says the girl in the hospital bed in the antiseptically-fragranced room?”

“You look like you’ve been in a wreck, and whoever put that bandage on you should be sued for complete medical incompetence!”

Her mother had that wearily patient expression again. “Someone had a less than stellar landing on his way to fulfill a summons issued by a certain someone else.”

Her expression softened into sorrow. “Ohhh, you’ve ruined your perfect piloting record on my account!”

“Would you mind sharing with me the circumstances wherein you were a visitor at Gamma Base Three when you were supposed to be at a symposium at the University?” he asked at length.

She looked away uncomfortably. “Some of the other students planned a trip for shopping,” she admitted reluctantly. “They invited me to go and it really sounded like a fun time. Plus, you were gone and I was bored.”

He stood and leaned back, trying to work out the kinks. “And what, pray tell, do they have to offer at Gamma Base that I couldn’t bring to you if you’d only mentioned it?”

“I don’t know, and I couldn’t know until I got there. As it turned out, shopping there was rather pitiful. Plus, I just wanted to see what it was like to actually get off this planet.”

“You wanted to go off world? You couldn’t tell me to take you off world? I do have the wherewithal to take you to some safe places, which your destination is most definitely not one to fall under the category of ‘safe.’ I’m not even going to mention that I remember specifically hearing your father—and one more than one occasion—emphatically tell you that you were…what is the word, the one you don’t like?” He paused for emphasis and Maria Theros pressed her hand against her mouth. When it came to laying the law down, Telemachus Rhade was particularly gifted.

He paced for a moment, as if trying to conjure the word. He wheeled to face her. “Ah, yes, forbidden! Forbidden is the specific word I was trying to recall. Your father told you that you were expressly forbidden to ever go off world without an approved adult male escort of his choice to provide you with adequate protection.”

He waved his finger at her. “I know how you think, young lady. The first chance you get, off you go! To Gamma Base Three, a thriving den of low-life and declining law and order. I have lancers under my command who are reluctant to go there, and you go on a shopping trip. What is the Matriarch going to think?”

“She’s not very happy about it all,” she replied miserably. “I already got a similar lecture from her this morning. I am to reflect while I recuperate on the value of my engineering and its worth to my pride, and to better respect the status I bring to my father as his only daughter.” She bit her lip, then smiled as a blush crept over her cheeks, lending her color she desperately needed. “I’m also to remember that you and I cannot make beautiful babies together if I get myself killed before she grants me permission to offer a proposal to a certain someone.”

“Yes, you should certainly reflect on those things,” he huffed, crossing his arms and scowling. “Those are very worthwhile items on which you should place a considerable amount of thought.”

He fixed an exasperated look on her. She knew that look. In fact, she’d seen it often over the course of several years. She twisted her hair around a finger and looked up forlornly at him.

“You’re angry, aren’t you?” she asked, her bottom lip threatening to quiver.

He opened his mouth, and then closed it. “What do you think?” he frowned at her. He turned to Lady Theros for moral support.

She raised her palms at him, shaking her head. “I’m going to go find some coffee and a quiet spot in the courtyard,” she announced, pressing a kiss to her daughter’s cheek, squeezing his arm as she passed by. “You have to learn to fight these battles, too, Telemachus,” she said with a smile as she closed the door behind her.

Knowing he was defeated before the first shots could be fired, he sat carefully on the edge of her bed and leaned his forehead against hers. “I’m angry,” he admitted. “But I’ll get over it,” he added, gently pressing his hands to her face, caressing her cheeks with his thumbs. The kiss he placed on her lips was very soft.

He felt the tension drain from her. “Good. I don’t like it when you’re angry,” she whispered hoarsely, sliding her good arm around his neck, content to rest in the shelter of the strong arms that wrapped around her.

He brought daisies to her the next day and placed them at her bedside. She smiled up at him as he bent to kiss her.

“Do I smell citrus?” her mother asked suddenly, glancing up from the flexi in her hand. “I do. I smell fresh citrus!”

“It’s a new aftershave that Telemachus has been using, Mother,” she said with an innocent smile. He turned to look out the window lest Lady Theros should see his bemused smirk.

“Very nice, it’s a subtle aroma. Quite fragrant in an understated way,” she commented, gathering her satchel and collection of flexis. “Anastasia, dear, Telemachus has agreed to sit with you this afternoon. I do hate to leave you, but there are several pressing household matters that demand my immediate attention. I’ll return as hastily as possible.”

Stasia smiled wearily at her mother. “Mother, you’re very tired and you need to get some rest. Do it for me, if for nothing else. It grieves me to see you like this. I’m improving by the hour. Plus, Telemachus will be with me. How much safer or better looked after could I possibly be than with him?”

Bidding them both a brief farewell, she was on her way. He noted how Stasia practically held her breath until the door closed.

She leaned back against the pillows and looked over at him. He expression was unreadable. “I want you to do something for me,” she told him.

He took her hand, careful of the IV line snaking under her skin just below her wrist, and rubbed her fingers lightly with his thumb. “You know there’s nothing you could ever ask of me that I wouldn’t do. I’m yours to command.”

“I want you to consider accepting a proposal,” she said after a long moment.

Chapter 22

His expression turned hopeful and she could hear the rhythm of his heart taken on a new cadence. “If it’s what I think, you know the answer has been YES, will always be YES,” he assured her enthusiastically. “You also know that our Matriarch has already engraved the date and time her planning guide. I hate to be the one to remind you of this, but she’s already established that time to be several years from now.”

Suddenly, he eyed her with a strange suspicion. “What’s going on in that head of yours?”

She rested her a hand on his and took a deep breath, not wanting to meet his eyes. “I want you to consider a proposal from someone that you don’t know and haven’t met; actually I want you to accept it with refined graciousness and recognize it for the privilege that it is.”

“You want me to do WHAT?” he exploded. He raked his hands through his hair
then peered intently into her eyes. She knew THAT look. She’d seen men under his command break and cower when THAT look fell upon them. She also knew that he was well aware that THAT look held no sway over her, so she waited patiently for the storm to pass.

“Who are you, and what have you done with my Stasia?” he demanded, tilting her chin up so she couldn’t escape his dark gaze. “I’m calling the physicians in immediately,” he announced, alarm growing in his voice as he jumped to his feet. “You’ve obviously suffered some sort of brain damage that they’ve failed to notice!”

“Shh! ‘Lemachus, please, calm down!” she implored him, grabbing at his hand to pull him back to her bedside. “Just don’t say anything. I know that’s an impossible task for you—but just listen and let me talk.”

With a dark frown, he crossed his arms over his chest and sulked.

“There are lots of non-military things that happened during the attack, and you need to be aware of them. It really is important. After you know the critical details, you’ll understand why I am making this request.”

“I’m only going to listen to this because I’ll categorize it as reliable and first-hand intel from the field, not because I intend to do something crazy,” he warned.

She nodded, again twisting her hair around a finger. “All right, then. Can you hand me that vid player?”

Unhappily, he retrieved it from her bedside and handed it to her.

“Sit here,” she told him, patting the empty space beside her, scooting over gingerly to make more room. Careful of the tubing snaking into her arm, he stretched his long legs out on the bed, sliding his arm around behind her.

“All right, what’s this?”

“This is my explanation for why I am asking you to consider what you say is insane,” she replied as she tinkered with the vid player. “My father procured some of the vid surveillance data from the security telemetry systems at Gamma Base. Because of those lovely tracker nanoes my father had me injected with when I was first born, it wasn’t too hard to effectively chronicle my entire, uh, visit. Oh, and don’t get any swift idea about deciding to keep constant tabs on me, either, Major Rhade. As soon as I’m out of here, I’m straight off to the labs to evacuate every last one of those privacy-invading bots out of my system!”

He chuckled. “It would never have occurred to me to do such a thing,” he lied, annoyed now that he hadn’t thought of it.

“OK, here we are,” she said, pointing to the display. “There I am with my friend, Katerina.” She rapidly advanced the recording, but something flashing past caught his eye and caused him to frown darkly.

“Go back,” he ordered lightly. “What was that?”

“That’s not the important bit,” she protested, but he insisted. “Fine,” she growled.

In the recording, she wandered from one seller’s kiosk to another with another girl whom Telemachus vaguely recalled having been introduced to during a recent visit. An unexpected and involuntary growl from him caused her to giggle. A pair of enthusiastic young Nietzschean males stopped near the girls, trying to capture their attention with some witty conversation.

“What did they say?” he wanted to know, trying to adjust the poor audio quality.

She rolled her eyes. “You are such a jealous thing! If you’ll notice, Katerina was the one interested in getting better acquainted with those children. I’m only interested in adult males. Well, allegedly-adult males,” she said, poking him in the side for emphasis.

He was pleased to observe the recording reveal that she shook her head at them and turned her attentions to a nearby merchant’s display. Her companion eventually happily wandered away with the ‘children,’ as Stasia had described them.

“What’s in that display case?” he asked quickly as he watched her recorded image linger over some goods.

“You can see perfectly well there are helixes in that case, Telemachus Rhade. And don’t you dare play all coy and innocent with me, as if I haven’t caught you lurking around some of the better designers lately, either,” she chastised him.

He grinned. “So?”

She favored him with a long-suffering expression. “Be patient, my love. The day will come when I will present with you with a helix band that is as well-designed and as exquisite as I know you to be.”

He sighed. He wasn’t patient. He knew what he wanted and it happened to be nestled against his side at the moment. Sadly, she probably did have brain damage if she entertained the notion that he would ever entertain a proposal from any female before hers was given. Still, she had been through an ordeal, and he humored her only because his universe circled around her. Happily enough, brain damage of this sort could be repaired and certainly wouldn’t be passed along to their children.

He scanned the data, and then fast-forwarded the recording and he saw that Katerina had returned, looking decidedly annoyed and slightly angry.

“Problems?” he asked.

Stasia laughed. “She got propositioned by her new friends and it wasn’t as flattering as she would have liked. But they came back….here.”

After a short burst of static on the recording, the pair did return. Some bit of animated conversation ensued between the four. One of the males suddenly reached out to take Stasia by the arm, attempting to coerce her to leave with him.

“How dare he!” Telemachus hissed, leaning forward to glare at the vid player. “I’ll find you and—“

“Calm down, ‘Lemachus!” she laughed, trying to smooth down his flaring bone blades. “You’re going to impale me, if you’re not careful! It’s not like he can hear you, you know. Besides, you can see for yourself that I respectfully declined his invitation to go elsewhere and then he left with his friend.”

He nodded approvingly when he watched her execute some graceful spin with the rude male’s wrist at its apex. The end of the move left her firmly planted behind the male, who clearly lacked manners and sobriety. With his arm twisted behind him, Stasia had pressed her extended bone blades against the base of his skull. When she released him, he and his friend made a hasty exit.

“Nicely done,” he commented.

She shrugged. “I told you I was paying attention when you ran those poor little recruits ragged during self-defense drills the last time.”

He kissed the top of her head. “Point taken.”

She advanced the recording. “If you could please focus, I’d like you to see something as it provides the necessary substance for my petition. Now, watch this.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied in mock contrition, paying more attention suddenly. The recording became immediately disturbing after a moment, and a foreboding chill began to creep through his veins.

Even through the poor audio playback, a series of loud explosions echoed throughout the market center. Startled confusion registered on every face captured by the telemetry unit. After a moment, people began to rush in a variety of directions, surging passed the young women, bumping into them in their haste.

“This was the beginning of the first attacks,” she whispered. “Warning sirens started to go off, and the noise was just deafening. After about a minute, there was an announcement that the Kalderans were attacking the base. People just absolutely panicked and everything went to mayhem. When the announcement came that the defense grid had collapsed, it was the beginning of the end. My only instinct was to get out!”

“Good instinct. Stop shopping and run for your life,” he muttered and she silenced him with a glare.

“You’re hateful,” she said flatly, watching with a strange detachment as the tiny pixilated images moved in blind panic, seeking a non-existent refuge. “I did run…but Katerina just stood there, and she had the strangest look on her face.” She paused the recording to look at him. “ Why do humans do that, Telemachus? Here’s impending death racing up in their faces, and they just stand there like mindless zombies and let it take them. I don’t understand, truly. Do you know why they do that?”

He shrugged. He’d seen it on the battlefield many times, most often with humans. He could count on one hand the Nietzscheans he’d witnessed that would simply freeze, fail to act in time, and simply perish under an enemy assault. He had no adequate answer for her beyond a lack of proper survival instincts, inferior defense reflexes brought on by poor engineering, or some mental defect that caused it.

She resumed the playback. Large pieces of the levels of the market above them had begun to collapse and were falling. A two-meter section of what had been a ceiling plummeted down on Stasia’s companion. “Katerina screamed and I stopped for a heartbeat to see why. That was stupid; I should have kept moving,” she said bitterly.

Telemachus cringed and winced at what he saw next. In the hesitation that she described as lasting only a heartbeat, more of the overhead materials and a couple of support beams crashed down on Stasia. His heart pounded as a dust cloud obscured the recording, then he saw that she’d been pinned on her stomach against the deck. As the air cleared, it was apparent that one leg was bent at an impossible angle, obviously shattered. A bone stuck through the fabric of a torn sleeve. It looked as though she was laughing.

“Strange, I know,” she conceded when he glanced at her. “For a moment, the pain was excruciating beyond measure and then there was nothing. I saw that bone sticking up like that, and I did laugh. It looked like a fourth bone blade, and it seemed like the funniest thing I’ve ever imaged.”

He noted that her laughing stopped when blood began to flow out of her mouth and started pooling on the deck with other blood that seemed to be spilling from beneath her. He felt violently ill when he realized that one of the support beams hadn’t just fallen on her; it had run through her back, impaling her. He made a strangled sound and he clutched at her hand in despair. “Anastasia, my poor little Shadow,” he whispered hoarsely, closing his eyes tightly against the hideous scene.

She patted his hand, trying to ease his discomfort, pausing the playback again. “It didn’t hurt, I promise. In fact, I felt absolutely nothing. Once the spine is severed like that, the signals that transmit pain aren’t received. The synapses fail almost instantaneously. It’s like a final gift to the dying, I suppose.” Her inflection was flat, and she sounded like a disinterested instructor facing a first-day University basic med class.

He pulled her close and buried his face in her hair. “I don’t want to see any more of this,” he said plaintively. “I can’t sit here and watch this when I hear this voice in my head screaming that I’ve failed you miserably. I wasn’t there to keep you safe and you almost paid a price I can’t live with.”

Chapter 23

Stasia pushed him away so she could take his face in her hands. “Telemachus Rhade, you listen to me!” she ordered sternly. “Look at me. This story has a happy ending. Am I not here, alive, warm, in your arms?” she demanded.

He swallowed hard and nodded.

“Then focus on that, nothing else. Please, please you must see the rest,” she implored him. “You know how you always told me fear was a good thing because of the adrenaline rush increasing your chances of survival? You never told me it was hateful, cold and dark, and infinitely lonely.”

His expression softened and he took her fingers and kissed them. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. He’d never thought to share such dark truths with her, and it was nothing he’d ever wanted her to learn first-hand. He was ashamed.

“Well, you also said that the companion and mistress of fear is hope,” she said, letting the vid player continue its horrid spectacle. “See, people are running toward me. When I realized that there were still people alive and whole, I knew the glory of that hope! I heard a man’s voice shout something like, ‘That one’s dead—keep moving!’ I wanted to scream at him that I was very much alive, but it was like one of those nightmares where you open your mouth and there is no sound.”

He realized that he was watching the record of a living nightmare, and her would-be rescuers moved past her! Other people ran past, screaming. A few minutes later, someone actually did stop. There was a human woman crouching near Stasia.

“If there is a hell, I hope this woman has a special place in it. She muttered some words of pity and said I wouldn’t need my rings or bracelets anymore. She took them and ran after the others! I was simply furious because you’d given me one of those rings, and it was my favorite color of blue!”

He chuckled. “Only my little vain princess could be defying death and seething over a lost ring at the same time.”

“But it was the one you got on Avalon Drift, with the little sapphires and—“

He pressed his finger to her lips, gently silencing her. “I’ll get you a thousand more just like it. I’ll commission a private jeweler to create whatever you want,” he vowed.

“I’ll hold you to that jeweler, Major Rhade,” she warned. “And it’s going to be very expensive.”

He smiled despite himself and nodded. “Finish your tale. I must know how you managed to deny even Death its rightful prize. You were dying, that much is obvious.”

Her eyes were misty. “I thought of you, my love. I remembered how you were the center of every important moment of my life. I recalled every sweet kiss. I remembered the time you spent two weeks in the brig because you went AWOL just to be with me on for a day. I remembered the fire in your eyes, the way you held me the first time I invited you to my bed—and every time after that. Most of all, I remembered the brilliance of my life with you at the center of it, and I was damned if I was going to have it taken from me so easily!”

“That’s my girl!” he whispered, his eyes now misty as well.

“Here’s the part you need to see,” she said quickly, pointing excitedly. A male and female in Wayist robes paused near her. After a moment, they began to hastily pull the debris away from her. “When she bent and I could see her face, I think it was the loveliest thing I’ve ever seen. She said that they would help me. I wanted to say something to her, but the words just weren’t coming out. Her smile was kind and sad when she encouraged me to be still, conserve energy. Do you see hard they tried to help? Amazing! She sent her companion away with orders to bring back others.”

As the male exited the video stream, his companion settled in next to Stasia. She flung back the long, flowing sleeves of her robe. Bone blades were clearly evident as she pressed her hands against a gaping wound that pulsed blood from Stasia’s side. Telemachus took in a surprised breath as he realized the female was Nietzschean.

“I know,” Stasia murmured in wonderment. “I’d expected her to be human. What kind of Nietzschean puts herself in harm’s way for a stranger? Maybe she was mentally damaged in some way, but I was grateful for her efforts. There was another thunderous blast, the beginning of the second attack. She told me that the Divine would protect us. She was praying when I finally lost consciousness. The rest, I had to learn just like you will in a moment.”

More debris began to rain down. More people ran past, abject horror frozen on their faces. The Wayist remained fixed where she was at Stasia’s side. When larger chunks gave way, she flung herself over Stasia, providing a shield with her own body. A huge pane of broken skylight sailed down, evidently striking her before the feed became garbled and terminated in a flash of static.

He found that he’d been holding his breath and slowly let it out raggedly.

“I don’t remember much about the medical transport or whatever happened after. I awoke here. My mother was here, and she looked liked she’d cried for days. She told me that my spine had been severed and the surgeons nearly lost me twice during surgery. It’s going to take weeks for everything to mend, but I won’t complain too much and I’ll try to be a good patient. I’ve got loads of work to finish when I leave here, and I just keep thinking up new projects. This may have been the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“Mmmm….hmmmm,” he nodded dubiously. “Except for the part where you’ve gone insane and want me to take some strange female for a wife instead of you. I can understand your gratitude. I’ll find this woman and make sure she is rewarded for her actions. In saving your life, she saved my own because I wouldn’t be able to live without you.”

“Nor I you,” she agreed. “Mahala is the most amazing person, and I want you to meet her.”

“Oh, so my would-be wife is called Mahala. Pretty name,” he shrugged. “She’s obviously a Wayist, and they are prone to recklessly altruistic acts, which they perform in the name of their Divine. You can’t expect me to spontaneously accept a proposal from this—monk—because she was following what she will only explain was her path. You do realize that they are usually celibate, don’t you, and few of them marry? What part of following the Way is going to cause her to spout a proposal when she first lays eyes on me?”

“Don’t speak of the proposal to her when you first meet her,” Stasia empathically cautioned.

“Again, because?” he asked, an idea brewing, begging to be voiced. “You haven’t told her about this insane plan of yours, have you?” he blurted.

“Well, of course not! That would just be horridly crass and inappropriate.” She was indignant and crossed her arms, looking away. “What kind of manners do you think my mother and other-mothers have cultivated within me anyway?”

With a satisfied grunt, he leaned his elbows on his knees and shook his head. “Fine, if the female isn’t going to publicly force an unwanted proposal on me, the least I can do is express my personal gratitude for what she’s done.”

Chapter 24

The Wayist female was not what Telemachus had expected, and her face was hauntingly familiar, but not because he had only recently seen it on Stasia’s morbid vid. Propped in pillows, she stared out the window of her room, watching the clouds drift through a brilliant blue sky. He tried hard to keep his eyes from traveling to the heavily bandaged stump where a leg had once been. He hoped his expression remained neutral and he concentrated instead on where he had previously seen her face.

Stasia rapped lightly on the doorframe. The woman turned her head, and a brilliant smile immediately crossed her face. Her eyes were a startling blue and crinkled at the corners when she smiled. “Ah, Anastasia, my dear friend. It’s wonderful to see you! Do come in!”

He rolled the wheelchair in and parked it at the bedside. She reached for Stasia’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze in greeting.

“Mahala Winder, out of Falcon by Winder, Major Telemachus Rhade of the Home Guard, out of Majorum by Rhade,” Stasia announced, using the semi-formal inter-pride litany of announcement and introduction.

He bowed at the waist and took Mahala’s hand to lightly kiss the back of it.

Mahala giggled unexpectedly and retrieved her hand. “So, this is the object of your affection? You’re highly regarded in important circles, Major Rhade. I’m very honored to meet you.”

“I’m flattered, Lady, but mine’s the honor to make your acquaintance. Stasia has shared with me some of the events that transpired during the attack. I’m deeply in your debt for your willingness to assist her.”

She shrugged. “Don’t thank me, thank the Divine who put me on the path to find our dear Anastasia in need of help. I only did what was right.”

Telemachus fixed Stasia with a knowing glance. Wayists were predictable, and it was often their downfall. Stasia pointedly ignored him.

“Others passed me by,” Stasia reminded her. “You’re a fine Wayist, but not much of a Nietzschean, Mahala. You should have run when you had the chance,” she chided.

“Run away when one of the brightest instruments of the Divine lay helpless and on the brink of death?” the other demanded hotly. “I think not! That is not the Way! Better for me to have died with countless others than betray my calling to lend aid when it’s needed.”

“But you lost your leg because of what you did,” Stasia protested emphatically, anger coloring her words and face. “You’d already sent your friend ahead to bring back help. You didn’t have to stay and use yourself as a shield when the walls fell.” Stasia eyed Telemachus expectantly. “You lost a part of yourself that day, for a stranger, and you call me dear friend each time you see me. I can’t pretend to understand any of it.”

Telemachus felt something tight in his chest, and concentrated on looking anywhere except for at the remaining portion of Mahala’s leg. He remembered the chunk of skylight, slicing through the air, sailing toward Mahala in the vid. Evidently, it had sliced through far more than just air. He suddenly wanted to think about something else.

“The Way of the Divine is not easily traveled, nor is it easily understood by those who don’t seeks its paths. Understand only that I made a choice, and accept the temporary price of my actions.”

Telemachus pressed his hand on Stasia’s shoulder because she was ready to climb out her chair, which the nurse had strictly ordered him to not allow. “But the price was too high!” she sputtered. “How fair is that? You stop to help a stranger and lose your leg in the process. Our technology is wonderful, but we’ll never be able to regenerate a lost limb. You’re not whole anymore and it’s entirely my fault!” Hot tears ran down her cheeks, and she wiped at them in disgust. Telemachus scrambled for a tissue to hand her.

Mahala’s gentle expression was full of kindness and an underlying wisdom. “Fairness has nothing to do with life, child, or have you not learned that lesson yet? The light of the Divine dwells within you, but you have not found it yet. When I first saw you, I recognized that you were meant to be an instrument of the Divine. Your intellect will be a much-needed brilliance in darkness yet unseen. I know not what purpose you have in this life, but I know that the Divine has a purpose for each one of us. My sole purpose may be to have prevented that precious light from being extinguished prematurely.”

Stasia shook her head. “I’m not a Wayist, Mahala, and you know that. I don’t believe in your Divine, or path finding. I believe in what I can see and touch.”

Mahala nodded with a wry grin. “There will come a day, Anastasia Theros, when you will find your path and you will see with clarity the things you do not now understand. Much good has come already because of being confined to this bed. Can you not see it?”

Stubbornly, Stasia shook her head. “You’ll have to enlighten me,” she replied.

“Very well, then,” Mahala laughed, beginning to count on her fingers. “My mind is still intact. The overall experience didn’t kill me, so by Nietzschean definition, it must certainly have made me stronger. My time recuperating is well spent in meditation without distraction. I’ve shared the Way with one of my nurses, and she is already on her own path. I’ve found in you a dear friend and sister. Five things already! Need I continue?”

Unexpectedly, Telemachus began to laugh. Both women looked at him oddly. He waved his hand helplessly in the air. “Ladies, I do apologize, truly! It’s just that I’ve never met anyone who could give my Stasia a run for her money in such a manner. Lady Winder, I believe I shall very much enjoy your influence in Stasia’s life.”

“Do call me Mahala, Major Rhade. I hope that perhaps you and I may also become friends. Stasia holds you in such high regard, I would like to know you better.”

He smiled. “I would like that.”

They chatted about trivial things until the nurse arrive to chase them from Mahala’s room. Telemachus tried not to smirk when the nurse insisted that he get Stasia back in bed.

“Didn’t I tell you that she was simply amazing!” Stasia enthused breathlessly as Telemachus carefully placed her back in her bed.

“Quite a female, indeed—for a Wayist, anyway,” he agreed. “She seems very familiar for some reason. I don’t know why I think I should know her.”

Stasia nodded, patting his hand as he straightened her bed linens. “You’d make an excellent nurse,” she commented with an appreciative smile.

“I’ve been told I do have an excellent bedside manner,” he replied capriciously.

“We’ll have to see if those manners have improved, but it’ll have to wait a few weeks,” she laughed, pulling him close for the kiss she’d been craving for nearly an hour. A passing nurse cleared her throat disapprovingly from the doorway and the pair reluctantly broke the embrace.

“You do know her, ‘Lemachus, or you’ve seen her several times before,” Stasia told him, leaning back against the pillows. “I doubt you were properly introduced.”

He cocked an eyebrow and waited.

“She was on the arm of some spoiled politician’s son. I’m sure you saw her at a distance at some ball or state ceremony. I know what you’re thinking. No, she’s not the kind of raving beauty that would catch your discriminating eye, although I do think she’s quite attractive in her own way. I’ll let you think on it a bit; I’m sure it’ll come to you in time where you’ve seen Mahala before.”

“Fine, don’t tell me,” he sighed. “I’ve met her, and she’s very nice. She’ll make a fine friend for you and may even be able to help shape a few of those stilted philosophies of yours into something reasonable. I don’t see anything remarkable enough about her to hold my breath until she offers me a proposal, which I don’t think she’s going to do. In fact, there’s nothing remarkable enough about any female to make me agree to a proposal until you finally decide to offer me one.”

“You know my heart pounds out your name with every beat, Telemachus Rhade! Why do you have to be so stubbornly entrenched in Nietzschean tradition that you must have this proposal from me? Do I not fulfill your every desire and bring you pleasure when we share our beds?” she demanded hotly.

“I want you to be my wife, Stasia. I want you on my arm at state ceremonies. I want to come home and know you are there waiting for me. I want the known worlds to know that I am yours. I want children with you,” he pressed.

She rolled her eyes. “Haven’t I always been by your side at every important military and political event, dressed in the most expensive gowns? Don’t I welcome you to my bed with open arms, pleased beyond measure when you have leave? The known worlds don’t care that you are mine, but I do, and our families already know it. The Matriarch herself said she knew it when we were children, and has taken it as a given that we will be together. You will be the only father of all my children.”

“No, you miss my point. It’s you that I want. All I really want is six words, two short phrases. To refresh your memory, all you have to say is ‘I choose you. Do you accept?’” he insisted.

“I will say those words to you one day, when the time is right, but we know that I can’t do it right now. In fact, I don’t know if I would say those words even if today were the day acceptable to the Matriarch. I have other things I have to accomplish, and I know you’d prevent me from doing them.”

“You wouldn’t offer me a proposal today because being my wife will hold you back?” he blurted incredulously.

“No. I know if I let you know the things I want to do, you’ll lock me up and keep me under house arrest or something. These are important things that I must do and I’m not going to breathe a word of them until AFTER they are finished. You can read about them when I publish my memoirs,” she promised.

“Hurry up and do what you have to do,” he admonished.

“Do you have it figured out yet?” she asked suddenly.

“What? Where insanity instilled itself into your genes? No, I haven’t figured that out. I’ll make sure that gets engineered out of our children immediately following conception.”

“Fine, mock my plans,” she pouted. “Keep thinking about where you’ve seen Mahala before. I’ll tell you some things about her.”

He frowned darkly at her. Why did he have to be so stubborn, she wondered. She frowned darkly back at him. Why did she have to be so stubborn, he wondered.

“I saw her husband the other day. He came to visit some people here. I was surprised that he was her husband. He is someone that you and I know. She cried for a long time after he left.”

“She seems a gentle enough soul. I’m sorry she cried,” he offered quickly, realizing that she was pausing for a comment from him.

Satisfied with his input, she continued. “He left something, and it was still on her bedside when I went to see about her. You’ll never guess what he left.”

He shrugged, uncertain where this story was headed. “Flowers?” he suggested.

She shook her head. “It was an elegant double helix band, the husband’s band.” Her eyes were wide with disbelief even as she said the words.

He was stunned. In Nietzschean domestic affairs, in almost all respects, it was the female whose word was law. They chose the males as their mates, they lent status and prestige by their numbers to their mates, and they chose the time the and place where there children would be conceived. They also chose when a relationship would be dissolved, and there was no questioning the decision.

For a male to sever the husband/wife relationship was extremely rare, and often summarily disallowed by the Matriarch for reasons she alone dictated. The reasons a Matriarch might entertain such a petition from a male were exceedingly few: if a wife committed an act of treason, committed a crime against nature, or if she somehow failed to fulfill obligations to the marriage contract. A husband could also make a claim to the Matriarch for dissolution if the wife proved to be unable to provide children to him or was otherwise proven to be unfit as a wife.

The Wayists were peaceful and respectful of life and law. He couldn’t imagine what Mahala could have done to condone her husband dismissing her.

“Why did her husband dissolve their union?” he asked.

“Because her husband was a spoiled politician’s son. Besides being stupid, he was cruel. They hadn’t been married long. He was nervous about what his parents might say because she was one of the People of the Way, and he hadn’t publicly announced the union. Their genes were sound, and the Matriarch had approved, and so Mahala became a third wife to this—diplomat,” she spat distastefully. “She’s much finer than to deserve to be a third, but she thought the sun rose and set on this male, and she was pleased to have him accept her simple proposal.”

She looked out the window and stopped talking. It didn’t take an expert in body language to register her degree of discomfort and dismay over the situation.

“She says that the Divine ordained it, but I think there’s still hope. Apparently, she’s infertile and can’t conceive. They’d only just learned this before the attacks. Her husband came to see her, to see if it was true that she was as damaged as he’d heard. It was worse, as far as he was concerned. A wife with an artificial replacement limb was unacceptable to him. He told her he’d chosen poorly, and they both knew they he was within his rights to dissolve the union without intervention. She failed to meet the definition of Nietzschean physical perfection and was barren—thereby making her unfit to be a wife. He left his band and wished her well in her future endeavors.”

Telemachus mulled these facts over and over. The man’s actions were poorly timed, thereby adding to the cruelty factor, this much was true. However, Stasia’s interpretation was no doubt colored by her friendship with this woman and those mysterious bonds that tie females together to summarily ascertain that 98 percent of all male activities are somehow incorrect. Nevertheless, he felt a debt of gratitude toward the Wayist female for saving Stasia’s life, and he felt a pang of remorse for what had happened to her.

“I think I’m beginning to see,” he admitted. “Her fertility is still in question, as they obviously hadn’t enjoyed much time to conclusively determine this. She may yet bear children, and there are methods of which I’m sure you’re more familiar with than I that could make such an event possible, even for a barren womb.”

Uncomfortable with the realization, he added, “Still, there is the matter of her missing limb. You feel responsible for that—and it is a viable reason for a husband to put away a wife. No Matriarch would argue that point, I’m afraid.”

Tears threatened again. “I don’t feel responsible for that, Telemachus, I am emphatically responsible for that. Don’t you see that! Not only did she lose a leg on my account, she’s lost a husband, too. Do you realize how that’s going to hinder her socially? The kind of status a woman loses when she’s put away, it brands her as worthless, beyond redemption. It’s going to take a miracle to fix this.”

“A miracle, indeed, my love,” he agreed, taking her into his arms, grateful anew that she was alive and whole. He didn’t want to verbalize it, but he was beginning to mentally acknowledge her grave degree of responsibility for the other woman’s fateful downward spiral into Nietzschean disgrace. “So you want to find a new husband for your friend, restore her status and secure her future with a family. All this to repay your life-debt.”

She relaxed in his embrace. “You do understand,” she sighed, the burden lifting.

“We’ll find a kind husband for Mahala. There are good men under my command who would consider it a valuable and personal favor to me,” he started, and she placed her finger on his lips.

“I don’t want a good man for her. She deserves a man who is better than just good,” she protested. “Her husband has to be assured of a bright future in his profession, a man whose status will only increase over time. It wouldn’t hurt for his family name to have importance attached to it, and for their status to be very high. He has to come from a strong and large pride. He has to be intelligent enough to see her for more than a woman with a missing limb. He has to understand that she has incredible contributions to make to society. He has to accept her as a Wayist and not interfere with her path or her belief in the Divine. He has to protect her from the cruelty of our stupid Nietzschean ways. He has to honor and cherish her.”

“That’s a hefty order, Stasia. I don’t know if they engineer males like that, at least not on Terazed.” He was determined to shoot her down as gently as possible. Her expectations were grandiose. “I don’t know anyone like that.”

She shifted in his arms and gazed expectantly at him. “I do. I know a male who is the singular best and brightest product of 3,000 years of the finest engineering genetically possible. Engineering so fine, it was repeated 300 years after Gaheris Rhade.”

“No, no, no. I won’t be anyone’s husband if I can’t be yours. We’ll find someone else who can provide status and security for Mahala,” he swore, mind reeling. “Jared! Jared can no more refuse a request from you than I’ve ever been able to. He already has two wives now. Mahala was a third wife before; it won’t be an affront to her become a third again. He already has two children, and it won’t make much difference to him if she can’t bear any. Plus, she’s responsible for saving your life, which will automatically grant her a degree of status with our Matriarch.“ He laughed in relief. “It’s the same as a done deal, once we explain it to him that she saved your life.”

“Your plan rots already,” she said sadly. “You’re wrong about Jared. He can refuse a request from me, so you’re the only one who is presently immune from telling me no.”

He frowned, not wanting to understand.

“He refused to pick up his husband’s band from Mahala’s bedside, even when I begged him,” she whispered in shame. “He knows the entire story, ‘Lemachus. Jared is the spoiled politician’s son, the cruel diplomat husband of Mahala who dissolved his union with her. He kissed me on the forehead and wished me well before he walked away.”

Telemachus felt the boiling beginning of rage churning inside and it caused him to grip her arms just a little tighter. Jared was as close as a brother, had been for more years than he could count. They’d saved one another’s lives on more than one mission. He had to hear it from Jared before he could believe it. There had to be something that Stasia didn’t know, something that would make this reasonable again.

“I’m sure I can cause Mahala to make that proposal you’re so anxious to hear. I’m sure she’ll do it if for no other reason than to ease the great burden of guilt that’s going to kill me if I don’t escape it. Please, please accept her proposal. I can make it so that she can bear a child, even if it has to be my eggs that make it possible for her at least be a surrogate mother. You won’t have to share her bed, because she said that from the moment Jared divorced her, she’ll remain chaste to the Divine. I know she could care less if you came to my bed as you always have. Later, I’ll be happy to later be a second wife to you. We’ll have as many children as possible, and I’ll submit to whatever is your will in all things,” she vowed.

He had to laugh despite the gravity of the situation. “You will never be submissive, regardless of whose life depends upon it.”

“Okay, fine, I’ll try really hard to be agreeable to your suggestions. Better?”

“A marriage of convenience in name only? Stasia, you are the First Daughter of your family. You’re the ONLY daughter. I doubt Nikolaus Theros or the Matriarch will settle for your becoming a second wife to anyone, even if were the Progenitor himself. You know my grandmother is very fond of you, and keeps asking me how many children I think we’ll make together when we start making our family. She won’t agree to anything that doesn’t end with you being my first wife, and the mother of my children. “

“Then we’ll have to make her understand why it must be so.”

“I don’t like this plan, but if it’s the only way I can get an honest proposal out of you, I suppose I’ll have to consider it. You have to agree, however, to give up the idea if the Matriarch doesn’t approve of your scheme.”

“She’ll approve.”

“And you know this because…?”

“Because she’s a living, breathing woman and she has a woman’s heart.”

Chapter 25

Marina Rhade, Matriarch of Pride Majorum, smiled brightly as she watched her grandson escort the First Daughter of the Theros family across her threshold into her sitting room. Telemachus and Anastasia were superbly matched on such a number of levels, it was a pity the girl wasn’t yet of an appropriate age to formally enter into a union with him. It had been a Majorum tradition for many generations that a female should have reached her twenty-first year before she was considered mature enough to make a wise and lasting choice in her mate. With two years yet to go, the Matriarch could almost touch the desperate impatience emanating from her grandson. Marina had to smile. Telemachus had grown into a remarkable man, but patience was not a particular strength he’d been able to cultivate.

Both young people bowed as she acknowledged them. “This is a splendid surprise,” she commented. She gestured quickly to a nearby divan. “Sit, please. To what do I owe the pleasure of the company of two of my favorite children?”

She smiled when her grandson nearly protested being called a child, but he refrained unexpectedly. “I have a petition to present, worthy Matriarch,” Anastasia replied formally, inclining her head. “I beseech you to hear me.”

“This is not a simple social call to an old woman, then?” Marina asked, pressing her fingers together.

She carefully observed her grandson. There was a strange stillness in his demeanor that she found vaguely disturbing. The pair seemed dreadfully solemn, fingers woven together between the hands that held fast one to the other. What in the name of the Progenitor could be wrong?

That they had enjoyed the pleasures of one another’s beds for some time was not a secret to her. It was perfectly acceptable; moreover it was expected and encouraged, to experiment with the sexual roles one would fill later in life. During this enthusiastic experimentation, it was not unheard of for the proper precautions to be overlooked, and a child to be conceived prior to the announcement of a formalized union. Given the high priority placed on the ability to reproduce, this was never considered a shameful event in a Nietzschean community, nor did it hold the stigma that it often bore in other societies. It only confirmed the fertility of both parties, which was certainly a positive aspect. Perhaps this was the case, and Anastasia carried a Rhade child in her womb, and they were reluctant to share this news with their Matriarch?

Perhaps they had come to petition her to grant Telemachus permission to accept a proposal so that they might publicly announce their union and register their names. If so, she would happily and immediately grant him the permission to take a wife that tradition dictated was still too young to step into that role.

Marina stood and her bearing suddenly became regal and rife with authority. “Speak then, Anastasia Theros, out of Maria by Nikolaus. Your Matriarch will hear your petition.”

Stasia rose and stood before her Matriarch, head bowed. “Matriarch, I ask that you grant Telemachus Rhade, out of Brianna by Galahad permission to accept a current and a future proposal,” she intoned, beginning the ages old litany.

Nodding, the Matriarch smiled, pleased that Anastasia had already gone so far as to select a co-wife for her intended husband. Few females were bold enough to simultaneously make a request of their Matriarch for themselves and another in the same petition. Her mind was awhirl. Telemachus and Anastasia would have exquisitely beautiful children. They would move with his exceptional grace and interpret life with her extreme intellect. Brianna would be thrilled, and had already discussed several plans with her mother-in-law and Matriarch regarding the lavish marriage celebration she envisioned being held at the Rhade household.

“Speak the name of the females who would make an offer to this male as first and second wives.”

“As first and immediate wife, I offer you Mahala Winder, out of Falcon by Winder. As second and future wife, I offer myself of Pride Majorum, Anastasia Theros, out of Maria by Nikolaus.”

The color drained from her face. The Matriarch made a surprised sound and reached for the arm of her chair as her knees threatened to buckle during a graceless staggering move. Telemachus was on his feet in a heartbeat, “Grandmother!”

He helped her settle into her chair and crouched by her side while Stasia scrambled to pour a glass of wine. “Drink this, Matriarch,” she offered, unable to meet the questioning eyes that sought hers.

The older woman took a couple of quick gulps and smiled at the concern on their faces. “This is an omen, Stasia,” Telemachus hissed angrily. “This is a very, very bad idea. It was ill-conceived in and can only end badly.”

Marina laughed, patting his hand that clutched at hers. “I had thought when I reached the ripe old age of ninety-five, there would be little left in this life that could surprise me. I’ve been proven wrong on that count, obviously.”

“My apologies, Matriarch,” Stasia said, kneeling at her feet.

“Do you know that during my time as Matriarch, only once have I entertained a proposal made vicariously through another female? It was maybe, twenty-five years ago, and it was an aunt making the request on behalf of a niece who had lost her mother. The girl felt she was in disgrace and unworthy to approach her Matriarch. I believe the young man in question was half-Nietzschean, and there was a child on the way…” her voice trailed as she recalled the incident. “I was rather imagining that perhaps the two of you had come to tell me that I had a great-grandchild on the way sooner than planned.”

No, Matriarch, he wanted to shout. My beloved has only gone insane and we thought you should be the first to know. At least Stasia had the grace to look shamed by the reaction it had wrought on his grandmother.

With a heavy sigh, Marina looked at the pair. “I think I’m sufficiently recovered to continue,” she said at length. “This is singularly unexpected. Anastasia, why in the name of reason would you make such a request?” She eyed Telemachus oddly. “This female of Pride Falcon doesn’t carry a Rhade child, does she?”

“Of course not, Matriarch,” he replied, shocked that his grandmother and Matriarch would even entertain the thought.

“Telemachus says there’s nothing reasonable about it, Matriarch,” Stasia replied quietly. ‘Lemachus looked so smugly satisfied with her answer that she wished she hadn’t said it, but one was obligated to answer the Matriarch in all things. “He remains quite certain that I’ve suffered some irreparable brain damage as a result of my injuries during the Gamma Base incident. It’s his opinion that my thinking has become unquestionably perverse and my father should remand me to the care of a psychiatric institute for rehabilitation.”

“And is he wrong in those observations, child?”

“No,” he replied tersely.

“Very well then. Telemachus, leave us. There are things to be discussed between Anastasia and I.”

“But, I don’t want to leave!” he exclaimed plaintively. “This concerns me implicitly and I want to be a part of these negotiations.”

Marina looked at him sternly. “This is a discussion between a Matriarch and a First Daughter,” she informed him. “The discussion between a Matriarch and future alpha will come after.”

She knew that sullen expression and she couldn’t fight a small smile. “You may come speak to your grandmother when we are finished,” she added kindly.

He bowed and left reluctantly, closing the door behind him.

“I had expected him to pout a little longer,” Stasia commented as the Matriarch moved to sit on the divan.

She patted the empty spot beside her. “Come, child, and let us speak of many things.”

Stasia did as she was asked. The Matriarch took Stasia’s hand between her own and smiled at the younger woman.

“I have questions that beg to be asked of you. Foremost, I must ask you this: are you not attracted to Telemachus? Does he not draw your attention as a suitable mate? Has he done something that causes you to find him unworthy as a potential father and husband?”

“Oh, Matriarch, no!” she exclaimed, her eyes wide. “I am more than attracted to ‘Lemachus. I love him more than life itself!”

“Among our kind, love is rare, child. Have you found him lacking in some respect that I, as Matriarch, should know about?”

“Of course not! There is no flaw in him, Matriarch. He’s the best and brightest of his generation, of many generations. There is no other like him,” she protested quickly in his defense.

“Then he has proven himself unworthy in some respect,” the Matriarch countered gently. “I would certainly qualify him as a perfect specimen of Nietzschean maleness. However, he is my grandson; I am biased in this regard. I look at Telemachus and I see his grandfather, so perhaps I am blinded by some fact that is hidden from me.” She leaned conspiratorially toward the younger woman. “Does he not please you in your bed?”

Stasia’s cheeks flushed immediately. “Yes, very much, Matriarch.”

Marina nodded. “Then you do not want to reproduce with him in the foreseeable future? Is there another male that has found favor with you?”

“No, I want Telemachus to be the only father of my children and I want us to have six thousand, if it were possible!”

The Matriarch shook her head. “Anastasia, child, perhaps we must consider that Telemachus is right. It may be that the injuries you suffered during the attack are deeper than first diagnoses, and are not sufficiently healed. Your answers to my interrogation and your stated request are at cross-purposes!”

Stasia buried her face in her hands. “I know, Matriarch, I know,” she agreed miserably.

“Precious child, you want Telemachus. Telemachus wants you. It’s quite elegant in it’s simplicity,” the Matriarch laughed, rubbing the despairing young woman’s shoulder. “Let’s forget this nonsense of Telemachus taking Mahala as his first wife, shall we? He’s probably wearing my carpet in the outer hallway thin with his pacing. He broods and stews on problems like his grandfather used to, and there was a constant worn path in his office between his desk and the window.”

Stasia looked up, her expression pained, tears in her eyes.

“You still haven’t answered the most important question that I have. Why would you ask me to consider this request? It’s obvious that Telemachus wants no part of it.”

Stasia wiped her face with her palms. “You know my brother has dissolved his union with her, Matriarch. I know he consulted with you before he did it. Stars above know that he wouldn’t want to do anything that might bear a mark of impropriety or social taboo. It would come to light and sully his fine reputation in some election or another in his future, and we couldn’t have that, now could we?”

“Be clear on this, Anastasia. Because of our isolation from other systems, we Terazed Nietzscheans have become distant and somewhat unique in our ways. Our perceptions have become somewhat dilute with regard to the vision the Progenitor had for our race,” she explained, offering a tissue to her distraught companion. “If you had been a daughter to one of those prides outside our system, Sabra-Jaguar, for instance, you would have no regard for what happened to another female. You would have lauded Jared for putting away an unacceptable wife who would only diminish his status and social standing. In fact, that unacceptable wife would eventually diminish the status of your family and encroach upon your own degree of worth to a future mate of your own.”

“That’s just wrong, ignoble,” Stasia protested, nonetheless knowing it was also true. “Surely that’s not what the Progenitor meant for us to be, how he would have chosen for us to behave.”

The Matriarch shrugged. “It is always survival of the fittest, and there are many arenas in which to test oneself,” she commented.

“Ah, but there’s the rub, Matriarch. By all rights, I shouldn’t have survived that attack. I was horribly injured, dying even. I’m here to tell you this, not because my family enjoys high status, not because I had splendid survival instincts, not even because I am a product of superior engineering. I’m here because another Nietzschean willingly defied 3,000 years of genetic engineering and placed herself in harm’s way.” She stood and flung her hands in the air. “By those standards, I am completely unworthy to be a wife to Telemachus and a mother to his children!”

“You exaggerate, dear. You are worthy. One only needs to see the two of you together to know that you were made for one another. You are meant to be together, and produce many beautiful great-grandchildren for me. Six-thousand babies is a grand goal, and I applaud your vision, but I would be satisfied with whatever number eventually transpires.”

Finally, Stasia did smile. “They will be beautiful, Matriarch, and I will happily dedicate myself to that task one day. But this day, I ask again for you to not disallow Telemachus from accepting a proposal from the woman to whom I owe a life-debt. Even if it were not my own flesh and blood that has so cruelly cast her aside, it is because of me that she will certainly no longer be found acceptable in any male’s eyes. She lost a limb, Matriarch, she lost her leg when she shielded me from the skylights as they fell.”

Marina smiled. What character this one would instill in children produced with Telemachus! “I know of Mahala, and her unfortunate situation, Anastasia. On a deeply personal level, I am touched by your compassion regarding the events that have transpired. Also, I am disappointed in Jared Theros’ decision to put her away. As Matriarch, I did not disapprove his decision to remove her as his third wife. Had she been first wife, I still would not have exercised my right as Matriarch to prevent the dissolution.”

Stasia was shocked. “I do not understand,” she muttered.

“You are young, and I do not expect you to understand the duties a Matriarch must fulfill. To be Matriarch is sometimes unpleasant and difficult. First and foremost, it is her task to see that our proud Nietzschean heritage is revered and our traditions preserved. That includes cultivating the strength and solvency of the Pride. The excellence that is Majorum resonates in every fiber of your being as it does mine, Anastasia, never lose sight of that.

“That being said, you must also understand that your brother is advancing quickly through his career, much as is Telemachus. Without question or exception, I see them both reaching the highest pinnacles of their professions. Neither will give way to an obstacle that bars the path to achieving those goals. This is the way they have been since they were small boys, and there is no reason to see those patterns deviated from in their adulthood.

“There will come a day when Jared will stand among the political echelon of Terazed, and he will make decisions upon which our very survival may hinge. It will be exceedingly important that he command the absolute respect of Nietzscheans who hold great influence and power with regard to such decisions. He cannot be perceived as anything short of the Nietzschean male ideal.”

She paused to sip the wine Stasia had poured for her and to examine the face of the First Daughter for any signs of understanding brewing behind those dark green eyes. Satisfied with what she saw, she continued. “His choice of words were perhaps lacking in subtlety or finesse, but he was correct when he confessed to me that he had made a variety of mistakes when he’d accepted the proposal from Mahala.

“The first error and most glaring was his entering into a union with a Wayist. Ah, ah, don’t favor your Matriarch with such a look!” she said suddenly as Stasia frowned. “Your brother is no Wayist, and will never have the facilities to grasp their philosophies, let alone appreciate a few of the finer points of their beliefs.”

“Matriarch, you surprise me! You speak as though you believe the Way may hold merit.”

“On a deeply personal level, I do find a certain elegance and gentleness in a few of their mandates. While they certainly don’t fall parallel to the need for survival at all costs, they do speak to our innate desire for spreading culture and the constant need for self-improvement. This is something all civilized beings would do well to reflect upon, but certainly worthy of a Nietzschean to contemplate.”

Stasia smiled, nodding in agreement as her Matriarch continued. “Jared is as traditional in thinking and philosophy that you will find among this current or previous generations. While his intellectual faculties are impressive, he lacks vision and the ability to accept new ideas. His first and second wives easily mesh into his life, as their thinking is much like his. His household would have been in constant contention because of these philosophical differences, which would have lead to much gossip among the wives of other political party members. This gossip is often shared with husbands in their beds, and many a vital decision has been conjured and decided upon while a male drifts off to sleep in the arms of a wife as she whispers in his ear. This, my dear, is the reason his selection of a Wayist for a wife in a non-Wayist household was a dread error.”

“You are wise, Matriarch. I understand better now, and I thank you. But I know you have more insight to share with me, so I will try to be a worthy student of your instruction,” Stasia said, inclining her head.

“I think it was perhaps some moment of shared passion that colored your sibling’s ability to reason, and it caused him to lose sight of many things. It was most likely that it was the same shared passion that caused Mahala to hastily offer a proposal that was accepted without all due proper consideration.

“This brings us to the question of her fertility, which was only recently sadly confirmed. It’s to be expected that their genes would have produced sound enough offspring; Falcon is easily as demanding in its engineering standards as Majorum. It’s rare enough in these days to have anything beyond a potential second wife tested for fertility. I do not fault Jared on that account. Even so, he was within his rights by the standards set by the Progenitor to put her away—even had she been a first wife—because it was apparent that she would never bear a child to him. This, again, would have been a damning mark against him later in life. The old traditionalists that he will stand with—and against—in those future political circles will not accept within their ranks a male unable to produce a child with whatever female he takes to wife.”

“There are other ways for a female to honor her husband with offspring,” Stasia said, the anger flaring again. “In a few years—“

The Matriarch again laid a calming, gnarled hand to settle her advisee. “You are learning the arts of science and medicine. You understand such things, child, and have even forged new paths in those fields. You cannot expect a husband who learns his new wife is apparently barren to be patient enough to wait until science makes such a thing possible. It is the old way, and within his right to have put her away because she was unfit and unable to become a mother within an acceptable period of time.”

Unhappily, Stasia accepted this, too.

“Lastly, we must consider that Mahala now fails to meet the definition of physical perfection. Being the student of science and medicine, you are aware of the symmetry of natural design, and the constant desire to improve and surpass it. Even when she is later fitted with a prosthetic device to replace her missing limb, the Wayist of which we now speak will never again be physically perfect. She is incomplete in a physical sense. Again, this will be something that your brother’s future colleagues will hold against him.” She held out her glass, empty now. Stasia quickly refilled it.

“It pains me to remind you of these things, precious child. It is ever-present in my thoughts, this great burden of guilt that you bear because of this recent unfortunate event. As Matriarch, I am indebted to this child of Pride Falcon. Her actions tipped the balance of survival in your favor. It would have been a great loss to our Pride to be deprived of your future contributions and the value of your exquisite genetic engineering.

“On a personal level, my feelings burst over the emtiononal dam I must maintain as Matriarch. I sat vigil and watched you come into this life, and I knew that you would factor highly into the future of the Rhade line. There have been many conversations with my grandson in which I will purposely drop in the name of this potentially acceptable female or another. It is only when I casually drop your name in, perhaps when discussing something as mundane as the weather, that one sees the immediate difference in his reaction. His demeanor changes instantly. His expression becomes more animated, his eyes bear a certain fire, and suddenly I am aware of a subtle scent of citrus.”

“I like citrus,” Stasia sighed, and Marina didn’t fail to notice the flush that rose in her cheeks as she said it.

“I’ll tell you a secret, between women,” Marina said, leaning over with a conspiratorial smile. “His grandfather used to smell of cinnamon when his adrenaline started to rush because he was aroused. Actually, it’s always very amusing that males never seem to notice their unique scent, although they naturally pride themselves on their keen ability to detect a change in a female!”

Stasia giggled. Obviously, two glasses of wine was over the Matriarch’s limit if she were at the verge of sharing an alpha’s bedroom secrets with a young unmated female.

The Matriarch finished the second glass, but wisely placed it to the side when she realized it was empty. “My point is this: your existence is vital to Telemachus’ survival. I have an intuition that if you were to be taken from him in this life, he would hesitate not a second to follow you. Therefore, we have a debt of salvation for two Majorum lives to Mahala. I could override Jared’s decision to put her away, but I will not, because it would irreparably damage his reputation and future career. The outcome would be disastrous for Terazed, and I will not jeopardize that for anything—wait, wait,” she said as Stasia begged to interrupt.

“Not as Matriarch do I agree, but as a woman, I agree that Mahala’s treatment was cruel and unjust. Her actions were noble and as Majorum Matriarch I am indebted to her, and will further see that she is well-rewarded in whatever way you and Telemachus deem fit.”

This seemed to remove a great weight and the tension drained from Stasia’s face. Her smile was brilliant as she pressed her forehead to the Matriarch’s hands in submissive gratitude. “Know this also. In my mind and heart, and I speak now as your Matriarch and Telemachus’ grandmother, your union with him has been established some time ago and I would be remiss to not be aware of that. It lacks only a formal publishing and the honor of a marriage celebration so that your families may bestow their good wishes upon you. Regardless of what decision you may be able to coerce my grandson into, you are and will always remain first wife to Telemachus, with all the rights and privileges inherent to that title. As Matriarch, that is my decree.”

“You mean…?” she asked hopefully.

“I mean that you should do as you think best. If you can convince Mahala to offer my stubborn grandson a proposal, I will do whatever is in my power to try and encourage him to accept it. I will not force him into a marriage against his will, although I could; to do so would be a grave misuse of my authority as Matriarch. If you cannot convince your Wayist savior to offer the proposal, or if Telemachus continues to be a stubborn Rhade male and absolutely will not accept this female, then the matter is settled. If this is the case, you have my word that I will try—as both Matriarch and a woman—to find a husband who will provide security and restore her lost status. Regardless of the outcome, Mahala will be held in highest esteem by Pride Majorum from this day forward.”

“Oh, Matriarch, thank you! Thank you!” Stasia knelt in the floor and hugged the Matriarch’s legs.

The older woman pulled her back onto the divan. “Don’t thank me yet, child. You have much work to do if you hope to accomplish this thing and make it succeed. Even if you succeed and there is a proposal offered and accepted, you do realize that there will be much gossip and talk about this, don’t you?”

She nodded.

“We must work together, then, and prepare some contingencies,” the Matriach stated. “It will come to pass that you will be a wife to Telemachus. It takes no great genius to see that this path has been pre-ordained, if such a thing exists. Further, it takes no stretch of imagination to also see that Mahala is of acceptable marriageable age and you are not. In addition, it is more than appropriate that Telemachus should take a mate by this time, given his age, so there will be little outcry on that issue. As for Telemachus, it is fortunate for him that there is not as great a degree of discrimination toward vanity in military circles as there exists in the political arena. Mahala’s physical imperfections should have little impact on his continued success in his career. Her Wayist philosophies will challenge his thinking, but this is always good to force a military mind to consider new alternatives.”

“We have the matter of children to deal with, Matriarch,” Stasia said. “Sadly, I have conducted tests myself. Mahala will never conceive a child, so it wouldn’t have mattered if she and my brother had tried for a hundred years, it never would have happened. He was correct in assuming that she was infertile. Worse yet, we are years, maybe generations away from the techniques that would allow us to retroactively correct chromosomal defects and cause an infertile female of that type to conceive.”

“I had thought as much, child. How then do you propose to rectify that? Telemachus needs children, should have already had several by now. The echelon of his profession will look unfavorably upon a male with a first wife unable to bear his children.”

“I will be able to conceive, Matriarch, and I will bear as many Rhade offspring as is possible. You are more than correct in your statements, of course. I’ve thought of this already. Telemachus and I will conceive a child and I will transplant that embryo into Mahala. She’s perfectly capable of growing that child within her own womb. I can alter enough of the fetal DNA so that even under the most stringent tests, it will appear that the child belongs to her and Telemachus.”

“And you will be able to bear this burden, seeing a barren woman cradle your child and have all of Terazed believe it is hers?”

“I will give Telemachus the children he deserves, and I will do it by whatever means possible, Matriarch. I will be her co-wife in two short years. I will be no different from the generations of co-wives who have come before me. I will assume the responsibility for those children and for the children that I personally bear to Telemachus. Only we four ever need to know the truth behind the conception and the details that follow. I’m advanced enough in my studies, Matriarch, that I can see to these tasks myself. I only need access to a lab of sufficient quality and the privacy to conduct the procedure.”

The Matriarch nodded. “I approve. Go now to Telemachus. Send him to me. You should then go and speak of these things to Mahala. Come back to me with her decision.”

With a respectful bow, Stasia left. Her heart was light and she fought the urge to skip toward the door. Perhaps this might work after all!

Chapter 26

Telemachus turned sharply when he heard the door open. He was immediately dismayed to see the bright smile on Stasia’s face. That could only mean that she had somehow managed to infect the Majorum Matriarch with her recently acquired lunacy.

“The Matriarch will see you now, Major Rhade,” she said sweetly, planting a loud and sloppy kiss on his lips as she waltzed past him.

“And just where are you going?” he demanded, crossing his arms.

“I am going to discuss something with Mahala Winder, “ she replied capriciously over her shoulder.

“I can hear you growling from here, Telemachus Rhade!” his Matriarch called out as though she were aware that he fought the temptation to follow Stasia. “It’s very unbecoming behavior, young man!” she warned. “Come in and close the door behind you.”

He wanted to stomp to let her know how annoyed he was. He vaguely recalled the last time he’d stomped impatiently in front of his grandmother. He’d gotten a swift spanking as a reward from her and a reminder that he would never be too old to get another if he decided to act so disrespectfully in the future. He decided not to stomp, and carefully closed the door behind him.

Marina nodded approvingly, apparently also remembering the last time Telemachus Rhade had unwisely stomped through her sitting room. She patted the empty space on the divan next to her. He noted that it was still warm from Stasia’s recent occupation. He could still smell her fragrant scent in the air and it calmed his mood slightly.

“How much did you wear out my carpet in the hallway?” she asked him, pouring wine for herself and him.

He looked at his boots. “Not much. You’ll hardly notice I was there,” he replied as she handed a glass to him.

She took a small drink and smiled. “Well, my boy, congratulations. Anastasia made her petition two years in advance to claim you. That should do something for that sullen mood I see threatening to overtake you.”

“It’s not how I wanted it,” he sulked.

The Matriarch laughed. “Oh, my sweet Telemachus! How many times have you said to me in that pitiful tone, ‘Oh, Grandmother, if only I could hear Stasia make the ritual petition of you, I would be the happiest male in all the known worlds’? Unless my ears betrayed me earlier, she did just that. Why don’t you look like the happiest male in all the known worlds?”

“Because she wants to include another wife for me in the bargain,” he replied. He realized what he was doing could be loosely construed as whining and took a drink.

“This reminds me very much of an ancient Earth proverb: be careful of what you wish for because you may receive it,” she chuckled.

He looked at her miserably. “You’ve already agreed to Stasia’s insane plan, haven’t you?”

“You may feel free to question her mental state, but after I considered it, I do believe her scheme does hold some merit,” she replied, but it was obviously not the response her grandson hoped to hear. He made a sour face as he drank his wine.

“Do you want Anastasia Theros to be a wife to you and a mother to your children, Telemachus?”

He sat his glass down. His look of surprise caused her to laugh again as he answered. “Well, of course I do! Hasn’t that been obvious for years?”

“Then it should be enough for you to know that she wants you for a husband and the father of her children. You were privileged to be present when she invoked the rite of petition to claim you; few males are afforded the luxury of hearing their would-be wives address their Matriarch in such a manner. Does it truly matter so much to you whether she is first or second wife? It matters little to her so long as she is with you. In your heart of hearts, she is and will always be first wife, so I see little distinction in the matter.”

“Yes, Matriarch, it matters a great deal to me. Understand this. I don’t want Stasia as first wife or second wife. I want her as ONLY wife!” he declared.

Marina clutched dramatically at her chest. “Oh, my heart! And I thought Anastasia Theros would have been the likeliest candidate to cause me cardiac failure today! ONLY wife, you say? A future alpha of Pride Majorum with a single wife?”

He raised an eyebrow in surprise when she laughed for perhaps two full minutes. “And you accused our dear little Stasia of lunacy? For shame! I should immediately call her back so she could hear this remarkable statement!”

After a moment, the older woman recomposed herself. The look of dismay on his face finally registered and her smile faded. “Oh my. You’re quite serious about this, aren’t you?”

He nodded glumly.

She reached over and pinched his cheek. “Oh, my lovable and romantic little fool! You and Anastasia do belong together with those radical ideas floating around in your heads.”

“Modern times are changing the old traditions,” he informed her. “I’ve even heard that within some of the smaller prides on the southern continent, a few of the there males have already begun a trend toward monogamy.”

“Yes, and the longer they embrace that foolish idea, their prides will become smaller and smaller until they are extinct!” she exclaimed, color rising in her cheeks. “During the last session of the Matriarch’s Council, this very subject was discussed. The Matriarchs of those three small prides have been severely chastised for this deviant behavior. It is our hope that they will be able to convince those few males who have already made vows toward monogamy to take at least one additional wife.”

He shrugged noncommittally.

“Don’t you dare pout!” she warned him. “You’re still not too old to be put over my knee for a sound spanking.”

He snorted in amusement. “I’d beg to differ, Matriarch, but I’m sure you’d find a way to accomplish it.”

“It’s not the Nietzschean way, and it’s simply not natural to have just one wife.”

“Well, Stasia is all I want. I know, I know; you want lots of Rhade babies swarming all over Terazed,” he countered before she could protest. “Stasia could take care of that in her lab,” he chuckled, remembering the night she got drunk and nearly fell in the fountain. “She’s got this crazy plan—well, another crazy plan— about just selecting DNA from males and females and artificially generating the children so it’s all done in one fell swoop.”

The Matriarch nodded, her expression thoughtful. “What a wonderful plan!” she enthused, which was not the response he was expecting. “We could overcome declining birth rates in the smaller prides with spontaneous propagation on a massive level!” She clapped her hands. “Splendid!”

He buried his face in his hands. The Matriarch would never be the same again. Stasia’s varying degrees of lunacy had assured itself of that. Although the mood was jovial, he was certain that his grandmother was also filing away that information as a viable plan to be retrieved for serious discussion in the future. He cringed to realize he had been the one to let loose that secret plan of Stasia’s, so he had only himself to blame.

“Now, we must speak of more serious matters, Telemachus. I will be brief on this and share my thoughts with you as I can see you find little amusement in the situation. You’ve made it more than abundantly clear that you find great folly in Anastasia’s suggestion. I disagree.”

He rested his hands on his knees. “Then it’s settled,” he stated flatly.

“Don’t you want to know why?” she asked.

“Does it matter?” he asked, the bitterness slipping out despite his best effort. “You are Matriarch. You have made your will known. It’s my duty to fulfill it.”

“Perhaps it doesn’t matter to your Matriarch, but it does matter very much to your grandmother,” she told him with gentleness in her voice. “I think that if you choose not to humor Anastasia in this, you will lose her, Telemachus. I think we will all lose her. I believe the burden of guilt she carries weighs on her like a malignant illness for which there is no cure. If strong shoulders don’t help her bear this weight, it will crush her. I can see that she could easily slide into madness, and it will destroy the rare genius that burns within her. Terazed needs that genius to survive. Pride Majorum needs that genius to survive.”

He stared, dumbfounded. His grandmother had been Matriarch for more years than he’d been alive. She was very wise and was particularly gifted with insight and intuition. If it was her sincere belief that there might be a chance for him to lose Anastasia, for his beloved to slip into true madness over this unfortunate circumstance, then he had to acknowledge that it might be true.

“There is another reason. I believe that Mahala may be a positive influence on you. I’ve seen your prowess in competitions where you consistently bested the other males in contests of strength, speed and combat. I know the sharpness of your mind and your gifts of military strategy and tactics,” she said, her pride evident. “But there are other battlefields of the mind, philosophies to grasp and overcome that I believe you might learn from this Wayist. Consider it a divergent course in refined self-improvement. In three years, if you tell me I was wrong, I will apologize most profusely.”

“But, Grandmother, I’ve met this…Wayist. She’s pleasant enough and has already become very dear to Stasia, and we know that she’s always had good intuition about the character in people. I’ve no doubt that she would make a fine co-wife in a household, and her gentle natures assures that she would be a great benefit in supervising my children,” he explained. “I protest on Stasia’s behalf. Her motives are noble and gracious, but she deprives herself of her rightful status. She is a First Daughter of her family, the only daughter. To have her be a second is a great disservice and shows a hideous lack of respect; she deserves a better station than she is requesting. It makes me sick to think of it.”

She leaned toward him. “Hear me well on this. What I tell you now is never to be spoken of between us ever again. I break a sacred trust in a secret that I will share, but only because it concerns you as well, and it is all I can offer you to help you understand the difficult path I ask you to tread.”

He breathed out deeply and nodded. He carried many secrets; what was one more?

“You are aware that the choosing of a Matriarch is not done lightly. Being a male, you will never be privy to the process that is undertaken to make this choice, and this is not what I will share with you. You need only know that with each new generation of females, perhaps half a dozen or more are identified—often at birth—based on family status and the superiority of their engineering. As time passes, it becomes evident which female bears the qualities that are necessary in a Matriarch,” she paused to sip at her wine. “Ultimately, she responsibilities of the office of Matriarch will be entrusted to her.”

“I don’t understand exactly what you are telling me,” he said slowly.

“I am telling you that it is highly probable that Anastasia Theros will one day hold the office of Majorum Matriarch,” she announced.

He was glad that he hadn’t been standing. It would have been infinitely embarrassing to fall down on the floor. As it was, his arm slid off his knee, putting him only slightly off-balance toward his grandmother. “Stasia? Matriarch?” he repeated incredulously.

She nodded proudly. “Remember, Telemachus, you may not share this information with any other soul. Not even under pain of death, because I will kill you myself, grandson or not, if you betray this confidence!”

“I have no doubt that you would,” he muttered, still in shock. “Does she—does she know of this?”


He leaned back, raking his hands through his hair. He smiled crookedly and looked back at his grandmother, his Matriarch. “How long have you known this?”

“Since a stormy night more than nineteen years ago when I sat vigil with your mother and watched Maria Theros bring her only daughter into this life,” she replied. “I’ve watched her grow into a strong and beautiful young woman. It is my belief that Anastasia Theros will become the Matriarch of her generation. Barring some catastrophic event—such as getting killed on a fateful shopping trip to Gamma Base -- I would encourage you to wager very highly on this probability, particularly since it is I who will make the decision. I have the inside track on this one, as they say.”

“So, then you knew that…all along, you knew that there was no true danger to her status and standing, even if she became a second wife to me?” he asked, everything falling into place now. “If she becomes Matriarch, the status and standing she would have would overshadow any status she would ever carry as a wife or mother.”

She nodded. “To be Matriarch is often a difficult task. Hard decisions must be made with the best interests of the pride always taking precedence over personal happiness. Anastasia recognizes that you need to have a wife now rather than later. She further recognizes the importance of hastening your reproduction as hastily as possible. That she is willing to sacrifice status for herself in order to promote you in these areas speaks volumes about her capacity to maturely consider these issues as a Matriarch would.”

He nodded, but his grandmother held up a hand. “Moreover, I have no doubt that Anastasia will one day generate status and standing of her own accord as she excels in her profession. Through the achievements that will be heralds in her name, I am certain that she will easily overshadow this small diminishment. For those reasons, there is little risk to her with this venture.”

He didn’t want to admit it, but his insane, wonderful, beloved Stasia had actually crafted a subtle and cunning scheme that might actually work well for all three involved. Suddenly, he eyed her dubiously. “Grandmother…twice today you have referred to me as a future alpha…?”

“Hmm? So I did. Not much gets by you, does it? A Matriarch selects the alpha of her pride; you know this. Who else would Matriarch Anastasia logically select but her…what was that cute thing she used to call you…Himmycuss?” she asked with a wink. “I won’t be here to see it, my boy, but don’t be too surprised when the day arrives.”

She refilled their glasses. “Now, we just have to keep her out of harm’s way so she doesn’t get killed prematurely on her next shopping trip before she can greet that bright destiny,” Marina added with a laugh, raising her glass.

He raised his glass and tapped it to hers. “I’ll drink to that.”

Chapter 27

Stasia sat quietly in the chair at Mahala Winder’s bedside. The woman was sleeping when Stasia arrived, and she was loath to wake her. In sleep, her face held a peaceful countenance and a small smile crossed her face. After ten or fifteen minutes, the sleeping blue eyes opened and widened in surprise as she saw Stasia sitting there.

“Anastasia,” she said warmly, reaching out a hand to her friend. “How long have you been here? You should have wakened me.”

Stasia squeezed the hand offered to her. “You looked like you were having a pleasant rest. I didn’t want to disturb you.”

“I’ve had the strangest dreams very recently. They are very confusing, and I’ve much meditation to do in order to understand their meaning.”

Stasia leaned forward. “Tell me about them,” she said. “I love to hear about the dreams people have. I find it fascinating.”

Mahala laughed, pushing some of her dark brown hair out of her eyes. “You are such a curious little thing! All right, I’ll tell you, but promise you won’t think I’ve lost my mind,” she said.

“I promise,” Stasia swore, leaning back and crossing her arms.

Mahala sighed. “I’ve warned you about the strangeness and confusion, so just remember that. In my dreams, I see you, my dear friend. You are dressed in a spectacular white gown with layers and layers of flowing silk, the sort of thing a woman would wear to her marriage union ceremony. At a pavilion in a lush green field, a small gathering of people is waiting for you. Perhaps two-dozen chairs are assembled near the pavilion. Not far from the pavilion, a feast is being prepared for a celebration.

“Your handsome major is pacing to and fro at the pavilion and your Matriarch chastises him for his impatience. Everyone is quite pleased when you arrive, but you don’t step onto the pavilion. It seems rather unexpected, but you take a seat. You pull a welding helmet from beneath your gown and put it on. The Matriarch seems to approve, and your poor major is frustrated, but he seems to have expected this.”

Abruptly, Stasia burst into uncontrollable laughter. She waved her hands helplessly in the air. “A welder’s helmet?” she asked dubiously.

Mahala shrugged. “I warned you that it was confusing. After that, you go behind the pavilion where I have been observing all this. You insist we exchange our clothing, which we do, and then you take me by the hand and lead me to the pavilion. As if that weren’t odd enough, you place my hand on the arm of your major and walk away. Your Matriarch announced our union. You seem very pleased with this result, happier almost than anyone else there.

“You run on ahead to the feast table where there are three beautiful small children. You take great pride in announcing that these children are mine, although they looking nothing like me. Everyone is very happy. We walk and walk, but never actually reach the celebration feast because it keeps moving as we get closer to it. I can see that the people who wait are strangers dressed in High Guard uniforms. Most curiously, there is a young woman whose skin keeps changing color as she wanders amidst the others.”

Mahala tucked her hair behind her ears. “Anastasia, are you unwell? You suddenly look very pale.”

Stasia swallowed and shook her head. There was a strange tingle at the base of her skull. “No, I’m fine. That was some interesting dream!”

The other nodded. “To be certain. I’ve had the same dream since I’ve been here in the hospital. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to mean. What do you make of it?”

Slowly, Stasia began to share with the Wayist the events of the past few days, her conversations with Telemachus, and her conference with the Matriarch.

Mahala laughed after a moment, brushing her dark hair out of her face. “I can understand why your handsome major thinks you’ve gone insane, Anastasia! And your Matriarch approves of this unusual arrangement?”

“She does, but there’s nothing unusual about a male and female being bonded together in a union, making a family. It’s been done for thousands of years across cultures and species!” she protested.

Mahala leaned back into her pillows and looked out the window. “The Divine has often spoken to me in my dreams. Often, much contemplation and reflection is required for the Way to be made clear to me in order that I might follow the correct path.”

Stasia leaned forward, taking Mahala’s hand. “Will you consider making the proposal to Telemachus?” she asked. “He’s promised that your life will be one of comfort and ease. You’ll never have another material want in your life; he’ll see to that.”

“Ah, but, my dear—there is more to taking a husband than setting up a household. There are certain…duties, even if you can create a grand deception and make it appear that I have provided children to my would-be husband. I pledged my chastity to the Divine on the evening Jared put me away. I cannot break that vow,” she said solemnly.

Stasia nodded. “I’ve already spoken to Telemachus of your desire to remain celibate and he accepts that without question,” she explained quickly. Her cheeks flushed before she shared the next bit of information. “I happen to enjoying sharing my bed with him. I can assure you that I am more than willing to satisfy his needs and desires. When he does come home to you, the only thing he’ll want his bed for is to sleep.”

Mahala’s cheeks flushed as well and she laughed. “It seems as though I have little choice in this matter. I understand now that my dreams were a revelation of the Divine. I believe that a new path has been forged for me. I am an instrument of the Divine; it is not for me to question the path that has been chosen for me. Because of this, I will do as you suggest. I will offer a proposal to Telemachus Rhade.”

Stasia fought the urge to squeal with delight. She flung herself at the other woman and hugged her tightly.

Chapter 28

Lieutenant Jetring opened the door to Major Rhade’s office for Stasia. Telemachus didn’t fail to notice the appreciative appraisal the younger man gave her and the extremely short dress she wore.

“Thank you, lieutenant, you’re dismissed,” he said with a slight scowl.

“Yes, sir,” the other replied, then closed the door.

She held her hands behind her back, taking in her surroundings. “Your decorator leaves something to be desired, ‘Lemachus,” she commented casually. “I’ve never seen anything so drab. The boring hue of these walls does absolutely nothing to bring out the lovely color of your eyes.”

“I’ll be sure and mention it during the next officer’s meeting,” he assured her, stacking the flexi collection on his desk. “I’m sure the senior staff will order an immediate change in color schemes across the base.”

“Aren’t you the tense little major today?” she said, moving around to the back of his chair. Expertly, she began to massage his broad shoulders. “Oooh, you are tense,” she said, kissing the top of his head.

“The masseuse cancelled my appointment because she heard the colors of my office were hideous,” he groaned as she found the tight knot of muscle near his left shoulder blade. “I take it that you’re here for a reason? I know this base isn’t your favorite place to be, see as it’s so poorly decorated.”

“Wherever you are is my favorite place to be,” she declared, working harder on the knot until it was smoothed to her satisfaction. She moved around the desk and sat in one of the two chairs on the opposite side. He began again to review the flexis on his desk. “When are you going to buy a house?” she asked suddenly.

Telemachus looked at Stasia over the top of his flexi. “A house?” he repeated incredulously. “Now I have to buy a house? I don’t have time right this very second. I’ve got battle drill exercises to coordinate.”

She rolled her eyes. “You are completely pathetic!” she announced in exasperation, grabbing the flexi from his hand and slapping it down on his desk. “Where do you expect to keep your new wife, in your footlocker at the barracks? Yes, you have to establish your own household, and that means a house—or at least a very nice set of suites in one of the residential complexes. I’m here to tell you that within two years, there had better be a very nice estate to expand the household when I get there, or you are going to be in very big trouble, mister!”

He smirked. “Big trouble, huh? From whom?”

She crossed her arms and nodded. “From yours truly. You’ll be wishing you had something mild like a full-scale Magog attack to take your mind off the grief I will give you if we don’t have a very large and very nice home.”

“Fine, you’ll have the largest, nicest home on Terazed—in two years,” he sighed. “Need I remind you that I don’t have this new wife yet? I think our Wayist friend may have gotten cold feet after she told you she agreed to your idea. It’s been more than a week since she was released from the med center. I haven’t heard a peep out of her.”

“Not so,” she countered, moving to sit on the corner of his desk. “We are meeting her in three hours for a nice meal, some pleasant conversation, and one quick proposal before dessert.”

He gave her a resigned look.

“Are you constipated, my love?” she asked.


“You look like you are,” she told him frankly. She hopped off the desk and crossed the floor. She smiled at him and engaged the locks on the door. The short dress she wore fell to the floor and she stepped out of it.

“What are you doing?” he demanded, his eyes wide, a grin spreading across his face. “Preparing to interrogate me with no possible means of rescue or escape?”

She laughed. “That’s right, no rescue, no escape,” she informed him, sliding into his lap. She nipped at his ear and loosened his collar.

“You are aware that I could have a full company of Lancers in here within a minute?” he asked as she unbuckled his belt.

“I’m terrified,” she murmured. “I’ll have to make sure you’re not able to call out for help,” she teased, claiming his mouth in a hungry kiss.

With a moan, he threaded his fingers in her hair and lost himself in the heat of the kiss. Breathless, he rested his face in the hollow of her neck. “What are you doing?” he asked, barely believing that she was actually undressing him in his office. This was bold behavior, even for Stasia. For the first time ever, he was glad that his office had no windows.

“We’ve got to get to work on conceiving that first child of yours, Major Rhade,” she ordered. “Let’s generate some progeny for you.”

“Right now?” he laughed.

“No time like the present, and I can’t do it all by myself. Well, actually I could, but you’re so selfish with your DNA that I’ve just decided to collect raw materials the old fashioned way,” she announced.

“You are my completely mad little scientist,” he chuckled as he pulled her close.

“Remember, I saw you first, I claimed you first, and I chose you first,” she whispered intently, running her fingers through his dark hair. “Above all else, remember that. Promise me.”

“That’s not a difficult promise,” he replied, his heart pounding double-time. Her bare skin pressed against his and he was amazed that the fire suppression systems didn’t immediately activate from the scorching heat he felt blazing between them.

She clung to him, sinking her teeth into his shoulder to muffle her cries as their passion culminated into a single searing moment. He held her close, smoothing her hair. “What happens now?” he asked.

“I expect you to take Mahala somewhere really nice and be gone for at least a week. In the meantime, I’ve got an embryo to nurture so it’s ready to implant when the two of you return from your trip.”

He pulled back for a moment to gaze on her flushed countenance. “What embryo?” he asked, hope fueling a new fire in his eyes. “You’re sure—you mean…?”

She caressed his face and nodded with a smile. “A woman knows these things the very second it happens, when the spark of life ignites in her womb. You’re a father. In less than three hours, you’ll be a husband, too,” she said, snuggling in close against his chest. “And in two years, you’ll be a husband all over again.”

He kissed the top of her head. “We don’t have to do this, not this way,” he said quietly. “I don’t care what the Matriarch says, what she wants. We could take a ship, leave Terazed. There are other systems, other worlds where we could make our home and raise our family.”

She shook her head. “No, this is the way it needs to be.”

He sighed. “Well, you can’t blame me for giving it one last try,” he said.

She lifted her head and relished the soft kiss waiting for her.


Stasia had secured reservations at an exclusive restaurant near the theater district. The lighting was low and candles graced each exquisitely set table. A string quartet was assembled on a small stage and quietly played Vivaldi while the diners enjoyed their elegant meals and pleasant company.

Telemachus had never realized how tight the collar was on his dress uniform. He kept sliding his finger between his neck and the restricting fabric until Stasia nudged him under the table with her foot.

“You are fidgeting,” she remarked, sliding her finger absently around the rim of her wine goblet.

“I am not,” he replied. “I’m merely improving my survival probabilities by ensuring that this stupid collar doesn’t cut off my air supply.”

“It’s a constant battle with you and those dress jackets,” she sighed, reaching over with practiced fingers to adjust the fit for him. “Better?”

“It doesn’t feel like an garrote any more,” he nodded. “I don’t think our guest is coming. Must we sit here all evening?”

“Patience, ‘Lemachus, patience,” she chided. She glanced up and smiled. “Look,” she said, drawing his attention to the far side of the room.

Mahala Winder crossed the long room, escorted toward their table by a member of the wait staff. There was only the slightest hesitation between every second or third step, a testament to the smooth automation of the prosthetic she had acquired. She wore a simple dress in flattering shades that matched her lovely eyes, the hem brushing the tops of her feet as she walked.

Telemachus sprang to his feet and pulled out a chair for her. She smiled and allowed herself to be seated.

“You look lovely,” Stasia enthused with a wide smile.

“I feel rather out of place without my Wayist robes, but thank you for the compliment,” Mahala replied. “Actually, I feel rather out of place here,” she gestured to the restaurant with its lavish interior.

Stasia glanced about and shrugged. “It’s just a building with people,” she said, oblivious to the idea that not everyone was accustomed to the lifestyle into which she’d been born.

Mahala’s comment wasn’t lost on Telemachus. “If you would prefer, we could leave, go to a place more of your choosing,” he offered immediately.

She smiled. “A kind offer, Major Rhade. Anastasia highly recommended this restaurant, and I do confess that I am eager to try some of the dishes she favors.”

“Very well, then,” he nodded. “But, please, you must call me Telemachus,” he insisted.

“Yes, please, Mahala. Don’t call him Major Rhade. It goes to his head and he suddenly becomes deluded and thinks he’s in charge, then he gets bossy,” Stasia teased. She saw the waiter wander past and poked Telemachus in the ribs. “Get that waiter over here,” she told him.

He raised an eyebrow at her. “Yes, I’m very bossy,” he commented dryly, motioning the waiter back toward them. The young man hustled over and poured wine for Mahala and disappeared to retrieve their salads.

Stasia and Telemachus lifted their forks, but Mahala paused. “A moment to thank the Divine,” she murmured, bowing her head.

The pair exchanged a glance before lowering their forks.

“We thank thee for the light that illumines our paths, for the blessings bestowed upon us. May we be found worthy,” she said quietly before raising her head and her own fork.

The three chatted pleasantly until the entrée arrived. “So, would you prefer a son or daughter for your first child?” Stasia asked.

Telemachus dropped his fork and stared at her. “Stasia!” he hissed. “Must we discuss this now?”

“Fine, be that way,” she retorted. “There’s only a very short window of opportunity if you wanted to select. If you’d rather be surprised, it’ll be a surprise.” She turned her attention to Mahala who seemed more amused by the question than Telemachus was. “Do you have a preference?”

She shook her head and laughed quietly. “I would be pleased with whatever the Divine provides.”

“Well, I’m more open to suggestions at the moment than the Divine,” she reminded the Wayist. “I’ll mark that one as an ‘either’ in my notes, then. And last of all, chocolate or vanilla?”

“What?” Mahala asked, her face a mask of sudden confusion.

“I just saw the waiter deliver ice cream to those people a few tables over,” Stasia replied, watching the young man with the tray of desserts. “Do you want chocolate or vanilla?”

Telemachus buried his face in his hands. Only Stasia could combine a discussion regarding the proposed sex of his children with a choice of ice cream flavors within the same breath.

“Tell him I want chocolate,” Stasia hissed at Telemachus.

The ice cream was rich and creamy. Stasia dragged her spoon through hers and glanced over at Mahala. “Um, wasn’t there something you wanted to ask Telemachus?”

Telemachus snorted. This was only about a thousand times more awkward than he’d imagined. The woman glanced shyly at him and seemed to be paying an inordinate amount of attention to his left shoulder.

“I choose you,” she said, her voice a whisper’s shadow. “Do you accept?”

He said nothing. Dammit! This was not the proposal he had so often heard in his dreams. The wrong woman’s voice was addressing him with the ritual. He felt Stasia’s fingers lace with his under the table. He closed his eyes. Suddenly, someone kicked him hard in the shin. He had no doubt that Stasia was the one doing the kicking. He opened his eyes to find Stasia watching him with an encouraging expression. She mouthed the word ‘yes’ to him.

He sighed. “Yes, I accept.”

Stasia squeezed her hands together. “Well, now that wasn’t so difficult,” she enthused as she grabbed Telemachus and Mahala by the hand. “Congratulations, to both of you. I’m sure you’ll be very happy together,” she announced as she stood.

“Where are you going?” Mahala and Telemachus asked in unison.

Stasia laughed as she rested her hands on the back of her chair. “I’ve got work to do in the lab. I can’t sit around here all evening. The two of you should…well, get acquainted or something. Talk and drink coffee. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

She kissed Telemachus lightly on the forehead, embraced Mahala warmly. As she walked away, she smiled when she heard Telemachus say to Mahala. “Blue is my favorite color. What’s yours?”

Chapter 29

Telemachus glanced up as Lieutenant Jetring opened the door. He smiled, and had been expecting Stasia’s arrival for the last hour. She’d announced that it was time to entrust her precious cargo to Mahala’s care, and he was more than pleased to take Stasia to meet Mahala for the procedure. A new thrill of excitement coursed through him as he realized again that he was a father. His happy smile faded as the lieutenant stepped aside and Jared Theros stepped into his office.

“Hello, ‘Lemachus,” he said as the door closed. “I wanted to talk to you, but your comm system won't accept any transmissions from mine," he offered.

“There’s a reason for that,” Telemachus informed him coldly, pressing his hands on the desktop in an effort to keep them from flying around Jared’s throat.

Jared looked at his boots. “It's about the girl…" he began, his voice trailing awkwardly.

Telemachus stood quickly, his chair scraping the floor as he rose. "Mahala," he said. "Her name is Mahala and she is now my wife. Choose your words carefully when you speak of her, or they’ll be the last you ever speak."

"How…how is she?"

“She is sufficiently recovered from the injuries she sustained when she saved your sister’s life, if that’s what you mean. Thank you for inquiring. You needn't concern yourself with her disposition any longer."

“Mother explained to me how Stasia practically invoked a Triumvirate court session to cause you to take Mahala as your wife,” he stated, then smiled. “You still lack the ability to tell my sister ‘no,’ don’t you?”

Telemachus frowned. “You came here with a purpose; what is it?”

Jared glanced about the office. “Mother is extremely angry with me right now. She says that I’ve cost Stasia her rightful status of being a first wife. Apparently, you were so grateful to Mahala for saving Stasia’s life that you rewarded her by taking her as first wife.” Jared dropped his head. "I'm sorry for what happened," he said quietly.

"For what?" Telemachus demanded. "For turning into a worthless politician? For the Kalderan attacks that almost took Stasia from us? For not being the brilliant planner I thought you were? How in the name of reason could you get yourself into a situation that you could not glibly talk your way out of?"

Wearily, Jared sank into one of the chairs on the far side of the desk. “It was a mistake, ‘Lemachus,” he sighed. “Definitely the biggest mistake of my foolish life.”

Telemachus grunted in agreement and sat again, crossing his arms. “I’ve got orders from Stasia to kill you the next time I see you,” he said casually. “You’re three minutes into the danger zone,” he warned.

“I expected as much.” Jared rubbed his face with his hand. “I’m definitely not on my little sister’s warm and cuddly side these days. I don’t know how to fix this mess,” he said miserably. “I never should have accepted Mahala's proposal in the first place.”

Telemachus leaned his elbows on his desk. “Why did you?”

"Because of enchantment,” he sighed.

Unexpectedly, Telemachus laughed. “She cast a Wayist spell on you?”

Jared waved his hand in the air, dismissing the suggestion. “There was a conference, and Wayists were there, pressing the importance of peace and all that wonderful Wayist nonsense. I met her quite by accident in the lobby during an intermission between speakers. Her beautiful eyes and the gentle cadence of her voice immediately captivated me. I invited her to share a meal with me. I’d never really conversed with a Wayist, and I was curious. Believe me when I say that I intended only to share a meal, nothing more.”

“Yes, you have always been the paragon of virtue.”

Jared ignored the sarcasm tossed at him. “The conference lasted for a week, and for that week, I saw life through fresh eyes. She sees beauty and purpose in everything. She saw beauty and purpose in me," he said, the unexpected remorse in his face more shocking than his words. "I've shared my bed with many females, but I've never known…joy… like that before."

“And she offered you a proposal and you just accepted it in a heartbeat?”

Jared leaned forward. “I did,” he said, shaking his head in remembrance. “When the conference ended, I came home with my third wife. The other two weren’t pleased with their new co-wife, but they were intrigued by her ways, and treated her as a novelty rather than a rival for my attention. They were pleased when it was abundantly clear that she was infertile. She was disappointed when the tests confirmed that she would never conceive, and decided to join a missionary team to Gamma Base Three. It was her hope that the Divine might hear her petition for a child and observe her faithfulness to the Way.”

“I think the Divine wasn’t taking requests that day.”

Jared studied the ceiling tiles for a moment. “I tried to explain to Stasia that it was in Mahala’s best interests that I acted. I fear my sister is too young to understand the kindness involved in putting her away. Sometimes our dear Stasia fails to think in proper Nietzschean terms.”

"Your timing in putting her away was poorly executed, although I do understand why you made your choice as you did," Telemachus conceded. “She's a good woman, Jared, a fine wife.”

Jared nodded. “I know she’s a good woman, a rare find—which was why I had to put her away. We could have overcome the sad fact of her barren state. She would have been under the constant scrutiny of the other wives because of her physical…state,” he said. “To have traveled the social circles I frequent…it would have subjected her to undue condescension and cruelty. She deserved better.”

"You were fond of her,” Telemachus said, surprised by the idea in one so vain and consistently self-serving.

“No, I wasn’t fond of her,” Jared replied. “I truly loved her.”

“You’re going to be hard-pressed to convince your sister of that.”

“I know. I was hoping that you could…help her understand?”

Telemachus laughed. “I’ve already tried to explain that you only did what a male is entitled to do, what I would have done if placed in the same circumstances. The topic is now absolutely off-limits for discussion. I have no desire to be murdered in my sleep, which is the certain fate I was promised if I broached the subject ever again.”

“How odd,” announced a cold female voice. “I’d always thought that one best demonstrated affection and love through kindness. Obviously I was wrong. Love is best demonstrated by crushing the spirit of the object of one’s affections?”

Both men turned toward the doorway. Telemachus was impressed that she’d slipped into the room, silent and unnoticed. Judging from the dark scowl on her face, this wasn’t the best time to offer her praise on that account. Stasia stood, arms crossed, glaring at both of them. “So, brother, have you come to beg Telemachus not to kill you? I asked him to, you know?” she asked, slamming the door behind her. “Or are you trying to convince him that you had some noble plan behind putting Mahala away?”

Jared stood quickly, spreading his arms wide in supplication. "I'm sorry for having to break the union," he said sincerely.

"You didn't just break a union, Jared Theros, you broke her heart! Doesn't that mean anything to you?" she demanded hotly, her bone blades beginning to flare dangerously.

He raised his head and met her eyes. "Hers wasn't the only heart broken because of what had to be done, Anastasia!"

She shot a confused glance at Telemachus who was already rounding the desk when he saw her bone blades flaring. He placed his hands on her arms, pushing her back a step as he placed himself between the siblings. “What’s he saying?” she asked numbly.

“You need to hear him out, Stasia,” Telemachus said levelly, leading her around to his vacant chair on the opposite side of his desk, away from Jared.

To her credit, Stasia was silent for the fifteen minutes it took her brother to provide an explanation.

“I understand, Jared,” she said wearily. “Had your career path been a different one, things could have been different. The societies you wander through would never have accepted Mahala, and it would have reflected negatively on you and your future standing as a political figure.”

He looked at her in amazement, a smile breaking across his face. “You do understand!”

She stood and leaned across the desk. “I don’t have to like it.”

“No, but it’s enough for me to know that you understand, little sister,” he said with a nod. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small data recorder, offering it to Telemachus. “This is what I needed to discuss with you,” he said.

Telemachus turned it over in the palm of his hand. It bore the logo of a banking institution in the capital city.

“It’s for Mahala,” Jared explained quietly.

Telemachus activated the display and his eyes widened. “That’s quite a substantial amount,” he commented, showing it to Stasia.

“The funds in that account will renew annually,” Jared said, looking up at the pair. “She’ll never have another material want in her life. Let her know that the funds are hers completely to do with as she wishes. She’ll probably give it to some charitable cause, but that’s her decision.”

Stasia looked askance at her brother. “A penance, small compensation for the pain I’ve caused her,” he explained, searching her face earnestly. “It’s the least I can do. You needn’t tell her that it comes from me.”

He rose to leave. “I need your forgiveness, little sister,” he said quietly. “Perhaps, this was the path we were all meant to tread?”

She crossed her arms and looked away for a moment. “I need time.”

He nodded and paused at the door. “For what it’s worth, ‘Lemachus, I’m glad Mahala has found a better man than the first one that crossed her path. Make her happy; she deserves it.”

Chapter 30

Telemachus Rhade paced anxiously. There were seventy-seven marble tiles that were ivory in color down the right-hand side of the hallway. There were only seventy-six on the left-hand side, and the last was a beige variation that had been replaced last year. He raked his hands through his hair. The fact that he’d actually counted the tiles was a testament to the fact that he was losing his mind.

It was bad enough to hear Mahala’s occasional birthing pain screams. To be barred from the room was maddening. He was amazed that his father and brothers had gone through this many times and seemed relatively calm about the ordeal. This women-only vigil during the birth-time was unreasonable. He deserved the right to be present when his offspring was presented into this life. He had told the Matriarch that very thing. She had laughed and locked the door.

Wait! What was that? It was much suddenly too silent. Had something gone wrong? Even with his enhanced hearing, he couldn’t hear any words, only feet shuffling about. He pressed his ear to the door, straining for the tiniest clue.

Unexpectedly, the door swung open. The Matriarch stood in his way with a knowing, exasperated smile. He straightened, fighting the urge to cringe as the women in the room laughed.

“Come greet your children, Telemachus,” she told him.

“My what?” he asked. “Did you say ‘children,’ as in ‘more than one’?”

She laughed quietly as he walked toward his wife. Mahala looked exhausted, but she looked up at him, joy in her eyes. In either arm, a tiny bundle lay wrapped in soft blankets, nestled close to her.

“You have two fine sons, my husband,” Mahala said, her voice full of awe and wonder.

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. His mother reached for one of the infants and placed it in his arms. “Your first-born,” she commented, pressing a kiss on the infant’s forehead.

Tiny eyes peeped open and frown lines formed on the wrinkled forehead as the little nose scrunched in dismay at this new arrangement in his life. Telemachus traced a finger across the pink brow, amazed by the velvet softness of the skin. “Hello,” he whispered. “I’m your father.”

The other bundle squawked for attention. He smiled and ran a finger across his other son’s cheek. “Competing for attention already, eh?”

He sat carefully at the edge of the bed and handed Mahala the baby he held. He took the other bundle from her, and cradled it in his arms. He leaned and kissed Mahala’s pale cheek.

“Your sons need names,” Mahala reminded him.

“I wasn’t informed that two names were an immediate necessity,” he chided with a smile.

“Then someone should come home more often,” Brianna told him sternly. “We’ve known for months that we were having twins.”

“I wasn’t aware that it was a group effort, Mother.”

She rolled her eyes dramatically. “How little men understand! Of course it’s a group effort, my son! These babies will have aunts, uncles, cousins, grandmothers, grandfathers, all in addition to a mother and father. Who else do you think will care for these precious little men while you keep their home world safe?”

“We thought it would be a wonderful surprise,” the Matriarch stated. “Were we mistaken?” she asked, holding his dark gaze with her own.

He laughed. “No, it is a wonderful surprise. We had decided upon the name Michael. But this second surprise…”

“Benjamin. I think his name should be Benjamin,” Mahala said thoughtfully.

Telemachus considered it for a moment and nodded. “Michael and Benjamin, out of Mahala by Telemachus.” He grinned. “It has a nice ring to it.”


Nearly breathless, Stasia rounded the corner at a full run and nearly collided with Marina Rhade.

“Am I too late?” she asked quickly. “I couldn’t get away sooner, and I only just got the message, and I got here just as quickly as possible, and —“

The Matriarch pressed her hand over Stasia’s mouth and laughed. “Breathe in and out several times, dear.” She slid her arm around the younger woman’s shoulders. “Walk with me.”

Stasia’s eyes widened. “No…,” she whispered. “Something’s wrong, isn’t it?” she demanded. “Mahala, the babies?”

“Everything is perfect, child, simply perfect. Yes, you are too late to sit vigil with the women.”

Stasia sighed, her expression crestfallen. The Matriarch smiled knowingly. “Mahala’s birthing pains came on her quite unexpectedly. By the time we realized that her time was at hand, there was little time to get word to you. It was only by coincidence that Telemachus was near enough to arrive in time. The birthing was extremely quick.”

“The babies?” Stasia asked quickly.

“Beautiful, perfect. How could they be otherwise? They are my great-grandchildren,” Marina laughed. She pressed a kiss to Stasia’s temple. “Need I remind you that their parents are exquisitely engineered?”

They stopped short of the double-doors of the guest suite. Stasia let out a nervous breath. The Matriarch squeezed her hand. “Congratulations,” she whispered as she opened the doors.

Stasia felt her heart stop in amazement. Mahala sat propped in the large bed, a tiny bundle in her arms. Telemachus wandered near the windows, holding a similar bundle up so that a small group of rowdy little nephews and nieces could get good look.

“A visitor,” the Matriarch announced.

Mahala looked up, her face aglow. Her smile was bright. “Stasia! Come and see!”

Telemachus turned and Stasia laughed as she surveyed his moist eyes and awestruck expression. “Don’t you look like the guy who just won the Nightsider’s Grand Lottery?” she teased as she sat at Mahala’s bedside.

He nodded kissing his son’s tiny face. “I did. There are two,” he said, his voice breaking only slightly. “There are two,” he repeated incredulously.

Stasia eagerly took the tiny bundle that was offered to her. She snuggled her cheek against the top of the fuzzy little head. She wanted the moment to never end. The tiny person in her arms was soft, warm, and very wiggly.

“This is Benjamin,” Mahala told her. “Benjamin, meet your other mother.”

“Hello, Benjamin Rhade. That’s an unusual name you have,” Stasia said quietly, her vision growing blurred with the tears that gathered in her eyes. “I’m assuming you have some reason for it?” she asked, glancing at Mahala who also had tears in her eyes.

She nodded. “In the ancient religious texts from Earth, there was a man named Jacob. He became the father of twelve great nations. He had great love for the younger daughter of his employer. Her name was Rachel and Jacob intended to take her as his wife. Because of certain circumstances and customs of their people, he was required to take as his first wife another woman who was called Leah,” Mahala explained, looking pointedly at Telemachus and Stasia. He sat in the chair at her bedside, rocking his son.

“Jacob was a good and patient man. He had to wait several years before he could take Rachel as his wife, his second wife. Jacob’s youngest son, the son of his favorite wife was called Benjamin. The name means ‘son of my right hand,’ which was considered a name carrying great honor and status.”

“And this fine little specimen is called Michael,” Telemachus announced. The Matriarch took Benjamin from Stasia so that she could hold Michael.

“Michael,” Stasia whispered, entranced by the dark eyes that looked out of the tiny pink face. “And what does your name mean?”

“He’s a ‘gift of the Divine,’” Telemachus announced, retrieving his other son from his grandmother.

“From the same Earth text, Michael was an archangel,” Mahala added.

Stasia raised an eyebrow. “Oh, couldn’t just be a regular old instrument of the Divine, eh?”

“He was one of the chief military leaders of the angelic hosts, a prince of his kind,” Mahala explained.

Stasia grinned. “That sounds precisely like your father to me, baby Michael.”

Chapter 31

The twins were happy babies with bubbly personalities already beginning to show. Those around them lovingly spoiled the babies. Typically serene, Mahala was saddened that Telemachus had little time to share thus far with his sons. Stasia was more vocal regarding her level of discontentment with his performance as a father and husband. She had immediately chastised their father on the morning following their birth for falling short on providing suitable housing for his new family. A state of civil unrest had broken out in the southern hemisphere, and his unit had been called to restore order. He’d had a few scant days with his children before having to leave for more than four months. Mahala had been reluctant to select housing without his input, and all parties involved considered it best if she and the children remained in Admiral Galahad Rhade’s household until other arrangements could be made.

Brianna Rhade wasn’t disappointed that her newest grandchildren were under her roof, and was pleased at the excellent maternal instincts her daughter-in-law quickly displayed. That Anastasia Theros frequently took time away from her studies and research to visit Mahala and the babies only endeared the girl even more to Brianna. It was nice to see future co-wives developing such a close bond. It was especially sweet to see how Stasia doted on Telemachus and Mahala’s children. She would be a tremendous asset in their raising, and would become an excellent mother herself in the future.

On a warm spring day, Mahala and Stasia had taken the twins to the gardens between the Rhade and Theros houses. The babies seemed especially excited when Stasia’s brightly colored fish would breach the surface of the small pool as they competed for breadcrumbs.

“Hello, ladies, and little gentlemen!”

They were pleasantly surprised to find Telemachus in dress blues hurrying toward them down the garden path.

“I just got a message from the Vice Admiral’s department,” he announced excitedly.

Mahala looked up in curiosity, waiting patiently to learn what the news might be. Stasia eyed him suspiciously, lifting Benjamin up to his father’s waiting arms.

“Your father received a promotion,” he said, laughing as his tiny son tried to grab a handful of his hair.

“Congratulations,” Mahala said. She rested Michael against her shoulder, patting his back when he suddenly grew fussy, trying to coax a burp from him.

“So you’re a Lieutenant Colonel now…wait a second. You said the Vice Admiral’s department?” Stasia said quickly. “Don’t you mean the Lieutenant General’s office?” she asked.

He shook his head. “I’ve been pursuing a career track adjustment once we had our little gifts from the Divine on the way,” he explained. “I’ve accepted the rank of Commander. I’ll be transferring to a different division and branch. It’ll mean more time planet-side for me, more administrative tasks, and less actual combat-related duty.”

He sat between the women. Michael leaned toward his father, tailing a line of goo as Telemachus scooped him into his other arm. He grinned as he bounced a baby on each knee, oblivious to the drool dripping off their chins onto his dark dress pants.

“How would you like for your daddy to be home more, my boys?”

“That would be wonderful, daddy!” Stasia enthused in an exaggerated high-pitched voice. “You can teach us how to grow up big and tall!”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “The day either of my sons’ voices sound like that, we’re off to the med center for some immediate retro vocal engineering.”

“It would be wonderful for you to be able to spend time with them,” Mahala enthused. “Would you have leave more often?”

He kissed the tops of the baby’s heads. “Not more often than now,” he conceded and smiled when he saw her disappointed expression. “But, I won’t be required to live on base…which brings me to a discussion I need to have with both of you.”

“Benjamin and Michael, or Mahala and me?” Stasia asked in amusement. Benjamin started squirming and reached for Stasia who snuggled him close after Telemachus handed him over.

“Everyone, really,” he clarified. “I can select the base where I’ll serve for this assignment. The base where I can advanced in rank most quickly happens to be not far from the University.” After a minute, Michael was also reaching impatiently for Stasia. With a bemused sigh, Telemachus settled his other son into her already full lap.

“I know where it is!” Stasia blurted to Mahala. “It takes all of five minutes to get there and-“

“And I’m still speaking,” he interjected. “There is also a new Wayist center being built nearby.” He waited for a comment from Mahala. “No interruptions from the other members of the audience?” he asked lightly.

She smiled. “I am aware of its location and its happy and close proximity to the learning center and the military base.”

“I was thinking that it might be nice to get a house that’s close to all three places,” he said slowly. “If that suggestion met with little opposition, that is. I know Mahala has no aspirations for lavish environments, and this house is modest in size and appointment--”

“Hmm…to be within walking distance of the twins and Mahala, and you could be home almost every night,” Stasia pondered aloud. “That’s a horrible plan! Why would you want to create a situation like that?” she grinned.

“Mahala? I know my mother, grandmother and sisters have all but sworn you’ll never have to lift a finger for childcare. If we do this thing, they aren’t going to be as immediately available for a support system,” he told her.

Stasia eyed him dubiously. He was up to something. He caught the look she gave him. “What?” he asked, the picture of innocence.

“There’s an ulterior motive here, Commander,” she replied. “I’m waiting to see what it is.”

“No hidden agendas,” he promised. “I was thinking that this house I saw, there were lots of rooms. Maybe you could be convinced to give up the lavish dormitory assignment you’ve been given, and take one of those rooms?”

She laughed, shaking her head. “I…of course I’d want to, but my father—“

“And mother have already agreed. Your father feels that this would provide you with adequate supervision, as Mahala has proven to be a grounding influence on some of your wilder schemes,” he replied smugly. “Your mother sees this as a wonderful bonding opportunity for two future co-wives to establish the beginnings of a household in harmony,” he added.

“That’s a lovely idea!” Mahala exclaimed. “Please, say that you’ll consider it. I was already looking forward to sharing a house with you in the future, but this is so much better!”

“It’s settled then,” Telemachus announced, sliding an arm around the shoulders of both women. “I’ve got leave in a week, and I’ll come get both of you and show you the house.”

Stasia turned to look at him. “You’ve got leave in a week? If you don’t have leave now, what are you doing here?” she demanded, shoving his arm away in annoyed alarm. “You’ve got to get back to base before they notice you’re gone!”

“I’m not AWOL,” he laughed. “I got a courier assignment to deliver some documents to my father, who just happens to be on leave,” he laughed. “He said he’d have the return documents ready in half hour, and that the four of you just happened to be here in the garden.”

She put his arm back around her shoulders. “All right, then,” she sighed in relief. “Because if we’ve got a house to furnish and decorate, we can’t do it with you in the brig, unless you want to authorize a few spending accounts in advance,” she added with a wink at Mahala.

Telemachus kissed the top of her head. “Think again. I know the level of your spending habits, and I doubt the pay increase with this promotion will allow me to afford the lifestyle to which you want to become accustomed.”

She faked a pout and smiled up at him. “Fine. So, when’s that next promotion?

Chapter 32

Telemachus smiled in the darkness as a warm body snuggled up against him. He’d been completely awake the second his bedroom door opened enough for the first visitor to slip in, but he pretended to be asleep. He’d been curious to see what would happen, and was pleasantly surprised to have an unexpected bed partner. Predictably, a minute later, a second body found an empty spot to curl against in the hollow of his neck and shoulder. Soft hair brushed against his chin.

“Dada!” Michael said happily, bouncing and patting his father’s tired face. Benjamin snuggled in closer and watched quietly with bright eyes.

The door to his bedroom swung open suddenly, light spilling in from the hallway. Stasia sighed in exasperation and laughed, pulling her night robe closer. “I just looked in on them not five minutes ago!” she exclaimed. “They were sound asleep. When I peeked in again on my way from getting a snack in the kitchen, guess who was missing from their cribs?”

She crossed the room, her bare feet making no sound on the thick carpets. “You two need to let Dada sleep,” she chided. Benjamin looked up at her and grinned, his single lower tooth shining in the borrowed light.

“Nana,” he yawned, reaching for her.

“Nana?” Telemachus repeated, amused.

Stasia shrugged, sitting on the edge of the bed as Benjamin wrapped his little arms around her neck. “They both just started calling me that last week,” she chuckled. “Mahala thinks it’s very cute. They call her ‘Mama’ and me ‘Nana.’”

“Nana!” Michael clapped, climbing onto his father’s stomach.

Stasia reached for him. “All right, little mister, back to the nursery,” she said with a yawn.

Telemachus reached out and took her hand. “It’s all right,” he told her, sliding his arm around Michael. “Leave them here with me. I’ve hardly been home in two weeks and I want to spend some time with them.”

“You’ll never get any sleep,” she warned. “They’ll crawl all over you, kick you, wrestle with your toes, and steal the blankets.”

“They must get that from you,” he teased, happily retrieving Benjamin from his perch on her hip. He looked up at her, his eyes shining with pride. “There’s room for one more,” he offered quickly.

She smiled and crawled in on the far side of the bed, corralling the little pair between them. She rested her head on the soft pillow and watched Telemachus cuddle with the twins until they fell asleep.

He felt her gaze upon them and glanced at her, smiling. “What?” he asked quietly.
She smiled back and reached over to caress his cheek. “The three of you make a lovely picture,” she whispered.

He covered her hand with his. “I could ask for nothing more in this life,” he told her.

She laughed quietly. “In that case, you need to work on goal-setting, my love. Having two children chase after you and call you ‘Dada’ is wonderful, isn’t it?”

He nodded, watching the small faces, so still and peaceful in sleep.

“It’ll be a while before the third can do that,” she said with a yawn, eyes closing as sleep reached for her.

His eyes snapped open. “What?!” he exclaimed in the loudest whisper he could manage without waking the boys. “What third?” he demanded excitedly.

She reached over and pressed his hand to her stomach. “You should start thinking of girl names,” she told him, smiling broadly.

He looked at her in amazement. “A daughter! I didn’t realize--how—when—?”

She laughed. “Commander Rhade, regarding ‘how,’ if you don’t know the mechanics involved in basic procreation—“

“I know how!” he protested jubilantly. “When? When did this happen?”

“You were there,” she reminded him. “It was about seven weeks ago…”

His mind was reeling with the revelation. “But, it was just a quick visit home for part of an afternoon!”

“Well, it doesn’t take a lot of time or planning,” she teased. “Now we just need for Mahala to get back from her conference in a few days so we can transfer this little girl over.”

He wanted to grab her, hold her, and kiss her, but the two sleeping babies between them separated them. He squeezed her hand and kissed it with a loud smack. “I love you so much,” he sighed deeply.

“I know, my love, and I love you,” she replied with a yawn as her eyes slid closed again.

He stroked her cheek until her long, even breathing told her she was deep into sleep. He smiled in the darkness and realized that he was truly blessed. He was a husband; he was a father; he was successful in his chosen vocation. Now the woman he loved was pregnant again and he was going to have a daughter!

He couldn’t help but wonder if Stasia ever regretted the almost-Faustian deal she had struck with Mahala. This far into the arrangement, it seemed to matter little to either woman, but it still seemed awkward and unnatural to him. No matter; the next child of his that Stasia carried in her womb, she would also bear. Then, all of Terazed, not just the occupants of his household and the Matriarch, would finally acknowledge her as a mother. Thinking dreamily of a baby daughter, he surrendered to sleep.

Chapter 33

Mahala rested her hands on her swollen belly. At seven months, the child within her womb was active beyond belief, and the pregnancy was beginning to strangely tax her energy. Across the dinner table, Telemachus eyed her with concern. When she carried the twins, her stamina seemed unchanged. Now she seemed listless and bordering on lethargic.

“You look tired,” he commented quietly, sliding Benjamin’s plate from its precarious position near the table’s edge. Meanwhile, Michael took the opportunity to crawl under the table and set up camp beneath his father’s chair. “Any particular reason?” he asked, realizing after he’d said it what a silly question it was.

With a chuckle, he reached under his chair to retrieve the toddler below. Pressing a kiss to his cheek, Telemachus sat Michael back in his chair.

“They are a joy,” said with a smile, trying not to laugh as Benjamin tried to impale a dinner roll with a stubby bone blade.

Telemachus tapped his son on the head, shaking his head in disapproval. “We never bare our bone blades at the table, Benjamin, or in front of ladies. It’s impolite.”

Reluctantly, the little boy plopped the roll onto his plate. Telemachus gave his son a smile. “That’s my well-mannered young man.”

“Stasia says you aren’t sleeping well,” Telemachus continued, returning his attention to his wife.

“My dreams are frequently becoming very confusing and distressful,” she admitted.

He raised an eyebrow. “What are the dreams about?” he asked.

“I’m…not sure. No two have been the same, but the sense of foreboding remains the same when I awaken. A great darkness approaches. A storm looms on the horizon.” She frowned. “An ill wind stirs dissention amongst the people while a maelstrom of chaos threatens to destroy the known worlds. I see you often, abandoned in a very dark place. I see Stasia, too, and she’s lost and at the heart of destruction.”

He reached over and placed his hand over hers, giving her a reassuring smile. “They’re only dreams, Mahala.”

She tried to smile back, and failed in the attempt. She shook her head. “They have meaning,” she protested.

“I think the meaning is that you are very tired and we need to employ some household staff to take care of things when Stasia can’t be here. You’ll have time to rest and meditate on happier things, like the daughter you’ll deliver to our home.”

She smiled and inclined her head in agreement to his decree, but the dark clouds slowly gathered on her mind’s horizon. “As you wish,” she murmured.

Chapter 34

For Stasia, the days immediately following her graduation commencement ceremonies were hectic and not nearly so carefree as she’d imagined them to be. She’d been looking forward to time spent with Benjamin and Michael, providing a much-needed respite for Mahala in the final days of her pregnancy. Instead, Stasia found her time monopolized by a seemingly endless stream of communication transmissions. Greeting at the front entrance the endless caravan of couriers bearing flexis and letters was also becoming equally tedious. Apparently, graduating with highest honors carried with it the covert obligation of being overwhelmed with offers from medical, research, and academic institutions all vying for the benefit of her talents. At length, she’d instructed the household staff to inform anyone bearing a request for her consideration that she was no longer entertaining offers and to send him or her on their way.

Newly promoted from Commander to Captain, Telemachus was home on leave in part to celebrate Stasia’s graduation and to prepare for the new baby’s arrival. Stasia couldn’t remember recently when she’d been happier for him to be home and take charge of all issues domestic and otherwise.

He was ambushed by Michael and Benjamin the instant he walked into the sitting room. Their Lancer squad action figures lay scattered and forgotten on the carpet as they tackled his legs. They squealed with delight when he continued walking, dragging them across the floor with each undeterred stride until he sat on the sofa.

Stasia shook her head as they climbed on their father, clearly deciding he was the best piece of playground equipment they’d ever had. He held Michael upside down by his ankles, leaning over to kiss her quickly. Benjamin grabbed his father’s arm, trying to free his giggling brother. Telemachus snagged his little attacker and held him upside down as well.

“They just ate lunch,” she reminded him. “If it comes back up, Captain Rhade, I’m not the one cleaning the mess,” she warned him, gathering her collection of correspondence into a pile in her lap.

Michael burped ominously, and Telemachus dumped the pair on the sofa. They scrambled for their toys, then clambered back into his lap, staging another military assault on some unseen foe on the back of the sofa.

She shoved the collection of letters and flexis across the sofa toward Telemachus.

“Please, do something with these,” she pleaded. “If I get one more invitation to join any organization or research facility, I will implode.”

He laughed and sorted through them, casually inspecting some with more scrutiny than others. “You don’t have to decide today,” he reminded her. “I’m sure some of these people will wait at least two or three days before contacting you again.”

With a grimace, she rested her head on her arm and peered up at him. She slid a final flexi toward him. It bore a familiar military seal that immediately caught his interest and she fought the urge to cringe as he reached for it.

He picked it up and studied it for a moment, raising an eyebrow. “You’re not considering this one, are you?” he asked, trying to keep the tone of his voice level and quiet. She could see the restrained disapproval beginning to register in his dark eyes.

“Don’t fret, my love,” she laughed, after making him wait nearly a full minute for a reply. “I think one Argosy officer on the fast track to Admiralty in this household is quite enough. I have no desire to see how my creative energies can be twisted into biotech weapons for the military. My particular brand of genius was not engineered to craft instruments of destruction.”

He felt a surge of uncomfortable and sudden remembrance. What was it that Mahala had said several weeks ago? Something about a dream with Stasia being lost and in the heart of destruction?

“Besides,” she added. “I’m the worst pilot Terazed has ever produced. I couldn’t land a Phoenix to safe my life, so what’s that leave for me—Special Ops? Completely out of the question.”

“Of course,” he agreed quickly. “Besides, it would be a great blow to my ego to have you recruited into Argosy Medical Services as a higher ranking officer than myself,” he teased, trying to shove Mahala’s odd comments to the back of his mind.

He discretely slid the offensive flexi off to the side, intending to review it in more detail later. He was appalled that while the position offered to her in the Argosy medical and sciences division was decidedly non-combat in nature, it was completely inappropriate to place a female in potential jeopardy through any type of military service. Scientists could die in a situation gone wrong just as easily as pilots and ground troops. Granted, he served with females—but they weren’t young Nietzscheans, either. Humans and Thans held different considerations toward that aspect. Unless a Nietzschean female was proven unfertile, it was unprecedented to find one in the Argosy or Lancer ranks. He intended to have words with whomever it was that issued the offer to Stasia. He pulled another to the top, tapping it with a finger. “This one suits you better.”

“The Institute for Genetic Advancement and Research,” she said with a smile. “They really liked my work when I replicated the engineering on those little songbirds for the Nature Guild. Doctor Bradley thinks several of my hypotheses could be modified for rehabilitative medical therapies, on a retro-cellular scale.”

“Sounds like important work,” he commented, enjoying the way her eyes sparked a certain fire whenever she discussed her work.

“It could be very exciting to see if he’s right.”

He glanced at the flexi again. “They have facilities on all the major continents,” he noted with approval. “And that’s quite an impressive salary they’re offering.”

She shrugged. “They’ll do better,” she announced, scooting closer as Benjamin abandoned his battle with an announcement about “going potty.” He scampered out of the room with his brother in pursuit, also shrieking that he had to “go potty more!”

Telemachus slid an arm around her shoulders, enjoying the way her body fit against his. “And they’ll do that because…?”

“Because I’m an excellent negotiator,” she stated with a sly grin. “I want to do research with them, but I’m worth more than that beginning offer, and I’ll get it, too. I always get what I want,” she added, leaning over to kiss him lightly on the lips. “And they want me.”

He grabbed her by the arms and pulled her close, his kiss far more demanding than hers. “I want you, too,” he whispered huskily.

“As much as you wanted to be Captain of The Righteous Fury? As much as you want to make Admiral some day?”

“More. I’d take you over any deep stand-off attack ship or another promotion in a heartbeat!” he swore vehemently.

“Oh no! Daddy and Nana kissing again!” Michael giggled as he and Benjamin burst noisily into the room.

She laughed and pulled out of Telemachus’ embrace as the feisty pair spilled over the back of the sofa onto them. “Then we’ll just have to see how well you can negotiate to get what you want,” she teased with a wink, tickling both boys as they landed in a pile between the adults.

Telemachus gave her a devastatingly feral grin over the top of Michael’s head. “Negotiations will continue later tonight, after some rowdy boys have been tickled senseless!” he cackled like a maniac, grabbing Benjamin to wrestle with him in the floor.

Michael jumped off the sofa, landing on his father’s back with a triumphant howl. A moment later, he was also tangled in the wrestling foray on the floor.

Stasia drew her feet out of the danger zone in the floor and stretched her legs out. Her foot bumped against a flexi that had been rolled and stuffed between the end of the sofa and an over-stuffed cushion. She saw the Argosy seal at the top and rolled her eyes. She wondered how long he would brood over that, and how many butts would be chewed over it before all was said and done.

A few minutes later, she had little time left to consider her future or pity the subject of ‘Lemachus’ impending future wrath over a subject that was already moot in her mind. She was pulled unceremonious from the sanctuary of the sofa and onto the carpeted floor, suddenly becoming the innocent victim of a senseless tickling attack by three giggling Nietzschean males. Their raucous laughter echoed down the halls.

Chapter 35

Benjamin and Michael peered into the crib as Telemachus proudly lifted the small bundle. He crouched to their level, pulling the blanket away to reveal a wrinkled pink face. She was tiny, perfect, precious, and less than two hours old.

He smiled when he imagined the grief he’d get from his mother and grandmother upon their arrival in a few more hours. The women’s vigil was a sacred tradition to them, and they’d missed it this time. Mahala’s birthing pains had come on her suddenly. Less than twenty minutes later, Stasia had delivered the newborn while Telemachus kept the twins occupied and out of the way.

He’d expected it to be an uneventful happening, but felt his heart stop when he heard Stasia yelling for him to come immediately. He’d rushed in, shutting the door behind him so the twins wouldn’t see whatever it was that had caused the panicked tone in her voice. Mahala was pale and still in the bed. Blood-soaked linens had been tossed into the floor.

Stasia handed him the hastily wrapped bundle, still sticky and wet with birth fluid. “The baby’s fine,” she assured him quickly. “There’s too much after-bleeding,” she hissed, a look of terror creeping across her face as she grabbed for a nano-injection device. “I can’t get it to stop, ‘Lemachus!” she said, releasing the nano-bots into Mahala’s system.

He felt helpless. He had grown fond of Mahala and had no wish to watch her die, but the rudimentary first aid he knew would be of little use here. “What can I do?” he asked.

Stasia swiped a loose strand of hair out of her eyes, smearing blood across her face. “Take the baby to the nursery, clean her up, and keep her warm until I call for you,” she ordered. “Keep the boys out of here. I don’t want them to see this.”

Mahala roused and smiled wanly. “Her name…I’d like to call her Christiana,” she whispered. “It means ‘consecrated to the Divine’ and…” her voice trailed as she lost consciousness again.

“Go!” Stasia hissed at him.

He rushed into the hall with the baby, Michael and Benjamin staring at him as he hurried down the corridor toward the nursery.

“What Nana yelling about?” Benjamin asked, running to keep pace with his father’s long strides.

“She’s just…excited, Benjamin,” he replied. “Michael, open the door to the nursery. Benjamin, bring me that puffy blue bag Nana packed yesterday.”

The boys hustled like little troopers to fulfill his requests. He knelt in the floor and appraised the newborn with an alien apprehension. Benjamin dragged the heavy diaper bag across the floor, the weight of baby supplies slowing his progress. Michael grabbed the strap and helped heave it to their father.

Telemachus dumped the bag onto the floor, gratefully spying a self-warming wipes container. He popped the top and pulled out a handful of small, moist, disposable towels. He was vaguely aware of the boys’ hot breath on his neck as they watched him work with wide eyes.

“It all…yucky!” Benjamin whispered in disgust as Telemachus wiped blood and afterbirth from the squirming infant.

After he was satisfied with the makeshift first bath, he tenderly covered the tiny bottom with a diaper and slipped a soft gown over her head. He wrapped her tightly in a fuzzy pink and yellow blanket, and sat back, holding her close as she whimpered and wailed.

“Who that baby?” Michael asked, leaning over to inspect her closely.

“This is your new sister,” Telemachus replied with a wide smile. “Her name is Christiana. I expect both of you to protect her and be kind to her when I’m not home.”

Her blue eyes peeped open and she yawned. Benjamin’s eyes were wide. “No teeth!” he announced in surprise. He peeked under the blanket and jumped back in alarm. “Where her bone blades? Is t hey lost?” he demanded.

Telemachus laughed despite himself. “She doesn’t have teeth or bone blades yet, son. She’s a baby. You didn’t have teeth or bone blades when you were born either,” he explained.

Benjamin eyed his father in disbelief, running his little fingers over the stubby little protrusions on his forearms. Michael crossed his arms and grunted noncommittally, mimicking something he’d seen his father do whenever he doubted something. Telemachus shook his head as the pair appraised him; they were his little men, to be certain, and they delighted him to no end.

Christiana began to wail and the boys clamped their hands over their ears. “That baby too loud!” Michael protested.

“She want something, Daddy!” Benjamin offered helpfully, grabbing one of his Lancer action figures to show her.

The toy did little to appease her. “You got to sing to babies, Daddy,” Michael explained. “Nana sing to us.”

“Sing, sing,” he muttered desperately, suddenly realizing he didn’t know the words to any song except for one. With a shrug, he cleared his throat and began in a low and clear voice. “Heaven burns, the stars are falling as the enemy draws nigh. Sound the call, fleet and lancers. ‘Commonwealth’ our battle cry. Face the foe, never waver, summon fire from the sky. From a million sovereign planets scattered through the endless night.”

Enthusiastically, the boys marched around the nursery, joining in on the chorus that they knew so well. “Bound by blood and High Guard honor, hold the line until the light. Hold the line against the night!”

Miraculously, Christiana’s little eyes closed and she went to sleep. Telemachus leaned against the wall for a moment, feeling the adrenaline rush beginning to fade. He stood and placed the sleeping child in her crib.

To keep the boys occupied, they set about straightening up the mess they’d made. After an eternity by his reckoning, but only an hour by the clock on the wall, Stasia’s voice startled him from the comm console in the nursery. “Mahala’s ready for visitors,” she announced. “Everything is going to be just fine.”

“Let’s go show our baby to Mama and Nana!” Benjamin encouraged, swinging the nursery door wide open for his father. “Ask Nana to teach you some better songs.”

“Aye, sir,” Telemachus responded with a chuckle as the pair scampered ahead to Mahala’s room.

Mahala looked up and smiled when the boys bounced into the room full of giggles. Stasia gave them a look and they immediately scaled down the noise.

“We have a baby,” Benjamin announced, leaning on the edge of the bed.

“Yeah, a girl-baby sister,” Michael added.

“Really?” Stasia asked, leaning closer. “Where do you think it came from?”

Benjamin’s dark eyes were wide with wonder and she shrugged. “Nana, Daddy find it,” he told her.

Telemachus cleared his throat as he stood in the doorway. He was shocked by the change in the room. It no longer looked like a surgical theater gone wrong, but was instead a serene bedroom with a radiant woman propped in pillows on the large bed.

Michael looked back at his father who was just now entering the room with that bundle in his arms. “I think Daddy likes it,” he whispered. “Can we keep it?”

“That’s a splendid idea,” Telemachus chuckled, kissing his infant daughter’s cheek. “Let’s keep her. Ladies, any objections to keeping this one?”

Mahala reached for the crying baby, placing the newborn at her breast as Stasia discretely covered her with a light blanket. Almost instantly, the infant began to suckle noisily, and the boys grinned when the crying stopped. “Yes,” Mahala agreed. “Let’s keep her,” she cooed.

“She like the blanket Nana give her,” Benjamin observed, trying to peek under it to find out if there was a particular magic involved with the cessation of the crying. Telemachus scooped him high into the air and onto a shoulder in order to salvage a moment of modesty for Mahala. Michael jumped, trying to reach his father’s other shoulder, clamping himself on a hip instead.

“I think I know some boys who need to go outside with their father,” Stasia suggested.

Telemachus headed toward the door, grinning back at Mahala and Stasia. “I vote we keep her,” he laughed as he carried the two boys outside.

Chapter 36

Telemachus woke in absolute darkness. He could taste the antiseptic air, and it burned when he inhaled. Hard-soled shoes clacked on tiled floors. The sounds echoed hollowly in his head. He couldn’t move and felt the unwelcome pressure of restraints on his arms and legs. His voice was a hoarse croak as he grunted in protest over this unexpected situation.

There was a quick shuffle of footsteps. Gentle hands with Stasia’s scent rested on his arms. “No, ‘Lemachus, you have to lie still,” she ordered. “I might have known you’d wake up the second I wasn’t here,” she chided, a soft kiss landing on his forehead. “Here, drink this,” she said.

A slender straw slid between his lips and he could feel her hand slip behind his neck, helping to support his head. Gratefully, he swallowed some cool water. When he nodded, she took the water away.

“Stasia…” he whispered, again finding his movements hampered as he tried to reach for her.

He felt her fingers lace with his, her other hand on his cheek. The contact was comforting.

“Something’s wrong, isn’t it?” he asked, wanting and not wanting the answer in equal measure. “I’m in a med center,” he grumbled. “I hate these places.”

She stroked his cheek with a finger. “What’s the most recent thing you remember?” she asked.

He sighed. She wasn’t going to give him a straight answer unless he played this stupid mental orientation game with her. “The Righteous Fury was providing escort to Second Triumvir Bonet’s honor guard,” he replied. “I was giving him a tour of the ship. I woke up here. Now, fill in the missing part or send in my aide so I can drag it out of him!”

She laughed. “My, aren’t we testy?”

“I’m not testy,” he snapped.

“Yes, you are,” she informed him, using that same tone he’d heard a thousand times when she chastised the twins for using poor manners. She kissed his forehead again. “Do you want the long version or the short version?”

“I want the version that tells me why I’m apparently blind and restrained in a med center.”

“The short version will do. There was an assassination attempt on the triumvir’s life. You saved the man’s life through some brilliant maneuver.”

“Still waiting for the blind and restrained part…”

“Some of it’s classified information, dear,” she sighed. “All they told me was something about an overcharged force lance used as a demolitions device. There was an explosion, people got hurt,” she explained dutifully. “You were seriously injured, severe head trauma. Happily, your blindness is only a temporary side effect. You’ll recover fully.”

“How long have I been here?”

“Less than a day,” she assured him. “You’ll need a couple of days to recuperate.”

He relaxed, satisfied he wouldn’t be trapped in perpetual darkness for the rest of his days. “The restraints?”

“If you can promise to be good, I’m sure we can get rid of them. You, uh, weren’t a model patient,” she explained with a chuckle. “When the anesthesia wore off, you kept trying to go hand-to-hand with the medical staff, so the physician ordered restraints for their safety.”

He felt her hands at his wrists, heard the unbuckling of fasteners there and then at his ankles. “Just don’t attack anybody or try to impale them as they walk by, or I’ll be in big trouble,” she warned.

“I want to sit up,” he said, swinging a leg over the side of the bed.

“Wait!” she hissed, and he felt a blanket fall over his lap. “That cute little gown you’re wearing leaves little to the imagination. We can’t have the nursing staff tripping all over themselves to catch a peek.”

He leaned precariously over the edge, and she swooped in under his arm to steady him. He grinned and he pulled her close.

“Was that supposed to a subtle move, Captain Rhade?” she asked, the amusement evident in her voice.

“I achieved my objective,” he smirked. “Target acquired.”

“Acquired indeed,” announced a voice from the doorway. “How are you, son?”

He turned his head at the sound of his father’s voice, striking a salute.

“At ease, captain,” he said. “Status report, Doctor Theros?”

“He’s a horrible patient, but will recover fully, Admiral,” she replied. “A few days of nano therapy and he’ll be back on duty.”

“Good, he’ll be busy moving into a new office,” Galahad announced.

“I’ve…been demoted?” Telemachus asked in disbelief. Stasia said he’d saved the life of a triumvir, and he was being kicked back down the ranks to a desk job? There was something hideously unjust in that reality.

He heard his father’s rich laughter. “Quite the contrary. Congratulations, Telemachus, you’ve been promoted to admiral. You’re the new commander of Terazed’s Home Guard,” he announced, slapping his son on the back.

Stasia hugged him tight. “Sweetheart, that’s wonderful!” she enthused.

Chapter 37

Telemachus’ promotion meant relocating as his new base assignment was near the capitol. Happily, the new residence met even Stasia’s exacting standards for size, style, location, and overall floor plan. Mahala and Stasia’s suites were in the same wing as the children’s suites. There were three guest suites in a separate wing, which included a large dining and reception hall. When taking into consideration Telemachus’ personal suite, a conference room, and an office, he occupied nearly an entire wing of the new home. Domestic areas, such as kitchens and laundry facilities, were located in yet another wing. At night, a magnificent view of the city’s skyline could be had from the large windows in the spacious family lounge.

Because it was only a few minutes walking distance from the households of Galahad Rhade and Nikolaus Theros, both sets of families were pleased with Telemachus’ choice of residences in which to establish his household. He could only imagine how consummately spoiled his children would become from the close proximity. In the week since they’d begun to move into their new home, his children already sported nearly new wardrobes selected by Brianna Rhade. She smiled at his protests, murmuring something about “making up for lost time.”

Technicians were installing secured communication lines in his office while movers continued to deliver crate after crate of their combined household belongings. Telemachus couldn’t imagine how they’d accumulated so many material items in several short years, and the weary faces of the delivery crew seemed to mirror that sentiment. At length, the noise of the installation process and the moving crew began to hammer a blunt pain behind his eyes.

Walking to the balcony, he observed the group below. He wasn’t sure who had been more enthusiastic about the enclosed courtyard with the garden and pool with a fountain. Mahala said it was an excellent location for meditation while Stasia had already stocked the little pool with her iridescent fish that the children loved to feed. He rested his hands on the railing and wondered, not for the first time, what he had ever done to deserve the pleasant life he had and the special people who filled it.

He felt a supreme sense of satisfaction as he watched his sons experimenting with climbing the trees in the courtyard. They chattered happily like little primates, challenging one another to climb high enough to cause either Stasia or Mahala to make them climb back down to safer levels. Mahala was singing a song to Christiana who clapped her pudgy little hands with Stasia’s encouragement when the song ended.

Watching the five of them was a pleasant diversion, but his mind wandered back to the catalyst that had put this accelerated series of events into motion. Granted, he had always aspired to achieve the rank of Admiral, following in his father’s footsteps. He had expected the goal to be several years away, never doubting that he would prove himself worthy of such an exalted office.

He’d watched the security vids from The Righteous Fury, and received a thorough debriefing on the foiled assassination attempt on Second Triumvir Bonet’s life. He’d regained the brief moments of memory lost due to his head injury, and conferred with a select few members of Argosy Special Operations. All indicators ultimately pointed to a member of Bonet’s inner circle, which disappointed Telemachus, but didn’t surprise him in the least. Politicians had a propensity to incite passions of all sorts within the general populace. Obviously, as popular as Bonet had become in certain circles that supported the continued stance on Isolationism, he had enemies who would like to see him permanently taken out of commission. This troubled Telemachus on a number of levels, both personal and professional.

He held great admiration for the man who was also a close friend of his father’s. Bonet had been a guest in his father’s house on many occasions, and once had even accompanied Telemachus and his father on a camping trip. Bonet was human, but held an almost Nietzschean regard with respect to the solemn duty for guardianship of Terazed. He was one of the founders of the Isolationist movement, and Telemachus held a deep suspicion that this was the reason for the attempt on his life. On many occasions, Telemachus had heard Bonet emphatically declare that it was vital to the continued safety and longevity of Terazed’s citizens—present and future – that they remain tucked away in the far corner of the universe, unheralded and unnoticed by the many threats that existed. Attacks from the fierce Drago-Kasov Pride, the ruthless Magog, and a host of other enemies were of little concern to the casual citizen. The Isolationists enjoyed the continued era of peace and intended to keep things that way.

There remained a greater portion of the population, primarily romantics and dreamers, who awaited the messianic appearance of the legendary Dylan Hunt and the High Guard warship Andromeda Ascendant. More than three hundred years past, during the early days of the Fall of the Commonwealth, Sara Riley had become an archetype of the ancient Earth Patriarch named Noah. She had tried, and failed in the attempt, to free the Andromeda from the Hephaistos System where it was frozen in the insistent hold of a black hole’s event horizon. Knowing that some day, the ship would eventually break orbit of its own accord, or be pulled free by some other means, she knew that Dylan Hunt was a man of many passions who would be able to resurrect the fallen Commonwealth. She had gathered whatever remnants of the Andromeda’s surviving crew and their families that she could locate. Adding to that number the crew and families of her own ship, Starry Wisdom, they had set out to find a safe place to colonize and wait until such time as Dylan would find them and begin to restore the Commonwealth. To her dying day, she remained convinced that there would be a glorious dawn in which the old Commonwealth would be reborn.

Like every other child born on Terazed, Telemachus was raised on stories of Dylan Hunt and the Commonwealth’s inevitable rebirth under his leadership. As an adult, he found the story to be stretched beyond reasonable proportion as happens in most myths. Dylan Hunt had ceased to be an ordinary man and had achieved a godlike status in the minds of many. Telemachus didn’t stand within that number of believers.

Nevertheless, he felt an ambiguous connection to Dylan Hunt and the legendary warship. His own direct ancestor, Commander Gaheris Rhade, had served with Hunt as his executive officer. Moreover, Gaheris had been aboard and on duty when the Nietzschean Rebellion had erupted over discontent from the major Nietzschean prides because of an uneasy peace struck between the Magog and the Commonwealth through the Treaty of Antares. Conflicting stories alternately labeled Gaheris a hero or a traitor by the end of the incident. Either way, Gaheris had died more than three hundred years ago, and dead men told no tales of glory or defeat. Telemachus hoped that Dylan Hunt had survived as Sara Riley had predicted; he had questions that only Dylan Hunt could answer.

Whether that day ever came was immaterial at the moment to Telemachus. The laughing shrieks of his children at play caused him to focus on the situations at hand. He leaned heavily on the railing and watched them scamper about while he took a mental inventory of the facts relating to the incident on The Righteous Fury.

Lieutenant Zeff Brand would have had a promising career ahead of him. A gregarious human, he exuded absolute pride at being selected as a member of Triumvir Bonet’s honor guard. In a thousand years, Telemachus would never be convinced that the cheerful young man was the assassin they were seeking. He wondered how the lieutenant had been selected to become the scapegoat for the attempt on the Triumvir’s life. Those behind the plot couldn’t have selected a less believable candidate to be the instrument of their destruction, or perhaps that was precisely what they banked on. When cut, Brand bled Commonwealth blue. He was a model lancer who would have died of shame rather than dishonor the noble ideals heralded by the uniform he proudly wore.

Brand’s force-lance had overloaded and violently discharged onboard The Righteous Fury. Telemachus remembered the high-pitched twang and faint scent of ozone that his enhanced senses detected scant moments before the explosion. Brand’s eyes locked with his captain’s in a moment of horror as the younger man realized what was going to happen. With a cry, he reacted in a manner that was either brave or monumentally foolish. Rather than hurl away the overloading force-lance, he instead lunged away from the Triumvir, the weapon still holstered on his thigh. Telemachus threw himself between the Triumvir and the lieutenant at the last possible instant, but didn’t have the luxury of time or space to put them completely free of the blast.

When the smoke cleared, Bonet was shaken and stunned by what had just happened. Blood obscured Telemachus’ vision and Brand lay several yards away, the stench of death already coalescing over his still form. Telemachus growled in anger as the blackness took him.

As he expected, Brand’s untimely demise was explained to the family and public sector as an accident. While a cloud lingered over the circumstances, “weapon malfunction” was officially listed as the primary cause of his death. A select few knew the truth of the matter; evidence had been found that proved the force-lance had been tampered with, and a remote control device had been located in a recycling unit. Telemachus took the ordeal as a personal offense and had vowed to arrive at the heart of the matter. He would dispense the harshest degrees of justice allowable when the responsible parties were revealed. Zeff Brand had died on his watch; the death would not go unpunished.

Chapter 38

“Look at these little amphibians,” Stasia laughed as one gracelessly plunked from a raised stone platform into the water. The rainbow-hued fish scattered with the disturbance in the water.

“Benjamin and Christiana will like those,” Telemachus agreed, noting how the water shimmered, casting back his reflection and hers. “Michael will want to know why you didn’t put little spikes on them.”

He pulled her close, his hand behind her neck, kissing her deeply. Mahala had taken the children for a visit with her mentor at the Wayist Meditation Center on the far side of the city, and would be gone for several more hours. They were alone, for the first time in months, and he intended to make the most of the opportunity.

She laughed and started to say something, but there was a deafening roll of thunder and shadows rolled over them. Telemachus squinted skyward, shielding his eyes against the bright noonday sun. Stasia followed his line of sight and her expression changed to the embodiment of horror.

"Kalderans!" he snarled in disbelief, shoving her onto the ground as he threw himself over her. Debris rained down on them and clouds plumed skyward as rapid explosions violently shook the ground. Fighters circled overhead, strafing buildings and mowing down people as they ran for cover.

Telemachus dragged her off the ground and ran with her, shoving her ahead of him into the house, her safety at the height of his immediate priorities. He tore open a weapons locker and threw armor at her. "Put this on!" he barked at her, swinging around to charge a gauss rifle while his comm squawked with static for attention. "Command, report!" he bellowed, hastily sliding armor over his own head.

"The capitol is under attack, Admiral. Strategic air strikes and strafing runs. High casualties already being reported on the civilian fronts."

Stasia fumbled with some of the anchoring closures with trembling fingers. Adrenaline raced through her veins, and she ground her teeth as she fought with the stubborn armor. How many times had Telemachus run them all through his asinine drills, always insisting that it was a necessary precaution, “just in case.” Why couldn’t she even latch the damn personal battle gear in place now that it was a reality and not one of his ridiculous ideas?

Her eyes were glazed with panic, and he knew her Gamma Base nightmare was rising from the ashes anew. Impatiently, he shoved her hands away to quickly secure the closures for her. "Copy that. Deploy all squadrons," he ordered, foisting the charged rifle into her hands, shoving her ahead of him. "Ready my Phoenix and have my wingman waiting. ETA two minutes. Rhade out."

"Copy that, Admiral. Command out."

Telemachus swore a string of obscenities during the two minutes they ran full out to the underground hangars. He paused for a moment and grabbed her arm. "Go straight to the command center and stay put! It's the safest place you can be," he shouted, climbing into his fighter. "I'll find you there!"

He had just started the sequence to seal the cockpit when an ensign scrambled by. "Sir, I've got no gunner!" he yelled, pointing at the one of the last remaining ships. A battered Garuda class patrol ship, it wasn’t pretty in its current carbon-scored appearance, but it was fast and boasted an impressive amount of firepower for a craft ordinarily carrying a crew of three.

She met his Telemachus' eyes at a distance, and stuck her thumb up in the air as she slung the rifle over her shoulders. She grabbed the young man by the arm. "You get that bucket in the air, soldier, and you'll have your gunner!" she shouted.

He had just started the sequence to seal the cockpit when an ensign scrambled by. "Sir, I've got no gunner!" he yelled, pointing at the one of the last remaining ships. A battered Garuda class patrol ship, it wasn’t pretty in its current carbon-scored appearance, but it was fast and boasted an impressive amount of firepower for a craft ordinarily carrying a crew of three.

She met his Telemachus' eyes at a distance, and stuck her thumb up in the air as she slung the rifle over her shoulders. She grabbed the young man by the arm. "You get that bucket in the air, soldier, and you'll have your gunner!" she shouted.

His eyes were wide as he looked at her. “Ma’am, no offense, but you’re a civilian!”

“I’m a Nietzschean first!” she shouted over the roar of Phoenix’s engines. “Those Kalderans have just put themselves between me and my family! Do you know what that means?”

“You never stand between a Nietzschean and family, ma’am!” he shouted back.

With a nod, she shoved him toward the patrol ship.

They clambered into the fighter as the other two ships took flight. The young man looked back at her, his expression a mix of terror and anger. "Strap in, ma'am."

She nodded, immediately identifying controls. "…crazy, insane girl!" she heard Telemachus screeching at her when she slid the headset on and the craft jerked to take flight. "I told you to go to the command center and you immediately disobey a direct order the first chance you get!"

"Copy that, Admiral," she confirmed quickly, glad for the measure of reassurance she got from hearing his voice, even if he was screaming furiously at her over open comm. "Theros to Rhade. Your man needed a gunner for this bird to have talons, so now it can do some damage. Quit harping at me and take those bastards out of our skies. Reprimand me later for insubordination. Theros out!"

He growled for a moment, infuriated with her actions. "Delta Five Niner, take beta wingman formation, attack pattern beta strike four on approach. Rhade out!"

"Threadin' the needle," her pilot said shakily under his breath.

"What?" she asked quickly, eyes widening when she saw the massive wave of Kalderan stealth fighters swarming down on the city. Plumes of black smoke rose from crumbling buildings.

"We're going in fast, ma'am, and we'll try to split their formation in two. Admiral Rhade will be the point of a big triangle," he explained hastily, a strange excitement sending his words spilling out in a breath.

She felt her heart rate spike immediately. She found nothing encouraging about watching Telemachus dive through the heat of this attack, but she was confident in his ability and realized that this was what he was uniquely trained to do. She felt immeasurably less enthused to realize she was trailing in his wake with an excitable young pilot who seemed barely old enough to tie his bootlaces by himself. She realized with a start that the young man was mumbling a prayer.

"You've done this before, right?"

"Yes, ma'am. Thirty-seven times….in simulation."

She leaned back in the gunner's compartment, feeling nauseous. "And your success rate in those simulations was, ninety-nine to one hundred percent, right?" she pressed.

He said nothing in response. She pounded her fist against the pilot's seat. "I get the point, lancer! Lie to me!" she ordered.

"A hundred percent, ma'am, perfect rating. Home Guard record-breaking good," he blurted suddenly. "We're going in. Do as much damage as you can! On three-two-one!"

Stasia unleashed the fury of the guns, locking easily on a fighter that was rolling into position for a strafing run on a residential complex. The shock wave from the explosion rocked their own craft, sending them perilously close to Telemachus' alpha wingman.

"Steady, five-niner!" the pilot barked angrily "Keep that bird in your airspace, son!"

"Copy, sir," he responded miserably, taking his position in formation again.

Stasia thumped the back of his seat with her boot. "You're doing just great!" she enthused, locking in another fighter in the targeting grid.

The Kalderan fighter banked hard left at the last minute and she missed, the missile taking out a fountain in the plaza. Miserably, she watched the plume of smoke rise as they sailed through it.

Chapter 39

Stasia felt a numbing and grim satisfaction as she watched another Kalderan fighter plummet, break into pieces, and fall to the ground. She was lining up her next shot when a piercing bleeping sounded through her headset.

“What is that?” she asked her pilot, whose name she had learned was Forper.

“Dammit!” he hissed. “It’s the Strike Arrow combat system warning alarm—you’re on your last missile, ma’am. Make it count.”

A trio of Kalderans dropped into range. She targeted the center fighter; the missile wasn’t wasted. The remaining pair split formation and looped back.

A red light throbbed on her console and she didn’t need the young lancer to explain to her that the reading was bad news: that was their last Strike Arrow missile and the tubes were now depleted. She slapped a control and brought the dual AP cannons online to integrate with the targeting system. Another insistent beeping began and she gritted her teeth.

“I KNOW we’re out of missiles,” she growled at the offensive alarm, and waited for the next Kalderan to drop into her sights.

“It’s not that, ma’am,” Forper groaned miserably. “They’ve got a weapon’s lock on us.”

Without prelude, the Garuda pitched wildly as a missile clipped the aft wing section. The small patrol craft bucked again as a second missile slammed into the hull. Stasia felt sick when she saw the data feed at her console indicated the AP cannons were no longer present.

"I can't shake 'em!" Forper screamed, desperation sending his voice up an octave.

"Yes, you can!” she snapped, remembering some maneuver she’d seen Telemachus demonstrate when he’d been showing off for the twins. It had a name, but she couldn’t remember now. “Tie a fat loop!"

"What?" he asked quickly, taking a fast look at her.

She waved her hand in the air in a tight-figure eight. He grinned back. "Copy that, ma'am!" he enthused, slamming the controls hard to change course. "Tyin’ one big fat loop at your request," he added nod, sliding into the maneuver.


Telemachus brought his fighter rolling out of a debris cloud in time to see Delta Five Nine’s cannons blasted off the ship. A pair of Kalderan fighters was plastered on its tail, bearing down hard and locked on target. As the cannons began to belch toward the Garuda, he watched it fall into a bizarre evasive pattern that he suddenly realized he’d performed weeks ago for the amusement of his boys. Apparently, Stasia had been paying more attention than he’d realized, because Forper was performing the maneuver.

The uncommon flight pattern confused the Kalderan pilots, and the cannon blasts missed Delta Five Nine. Sanderson, Telemachus alpha wingman, snagged the pair before they had another chance to lock on again.

Stasia jumped when the intership comm squawked again. “Rhade to Delta Five Nine. You lost your talons and most of your aft wing section. Status on missiles?”

“Zero, sir,” Forper responded.

“Casualties are stacking up heavy. You’ve got a new prerogative, lancer. Get Dr. Theros to the nearest med center where she can do the most good,” he ordered. “Stay with her and keep her out of harm’s way: that’s an order! Rhade out.”

“Affirmative,” he responded, laying in a new course for the largest medical center in the city, not at all grieved to leave the battle in his wake.


As they made their landing approach in a large field, Stasia could immediately see that Merciful Divinity Medical Center was teeming with activity. Forper hastily contacted Argosy Station to confirm for Admiral Rhade that he had achieved his objective and had safely delivered Dr. Theros as ordered. As soon as he received word that the message was received at Command Central and summarily relayed to Admiral Rhade, he felt a burden of relief lifted momentarily. Now, all he had to do was get this crazy Nietzschean woman inside the hospital. They ran toward the hospital.

She stripped off some of the bulkier armor and left it wherever it landed when it was dropped.

“You might need some of that, ma’am,” Forper warned, scooping it up as he ran behind her.

She didn’t waste her breath to reply. Ahead, she could see that a steady line of battered and bloodied people were limping, crawling, and being dragged inside the main entrance of the medical center. Moans and cries wafted toward them on the faint wind that also carried a drifting fog of smoke from attack on the city proper.

Just ahead of them, an ancient human woman collapsed. Stasia fell to her knees, jabbing a pair of fingers on the woman’s neck. The woman cried out as Stasia touched her. Forper knelt beside the pair, looking to Stasia for direction.

“Get this woman inside,” Stasia ordered, tossing away the collection of her abandoned armor that he’d collected.

The old woman smiled gratefully and wrapped her arms around Forper’s neck as he lifted her.

A tall Nietzschean male with graying hair met them at the crowded entrance. His formerly white lab jacket was mottled with blood. “Nurse, we’ve got another level-one patient,” he called.

He glanced at the pair before him. “I know you,” he said enthusiastically to Stasia. “You designed some therapeutic bot treatments for a Than patient of mine! It was splendid—“

“I’m here to offer my services,” she said, cutting off his accolades. “We can talk shop another time.”

“I need help with triage,” the man said, a grateful expression crossing his face. He handed a flexi, stylus, and marking pen to Forper. He handed his bag of supplies to Stasia. “Assign an identification number to each person,” he instructed. He glanced quickly to Stasia. “Level one patients can go to the visitor waiting areas, lobbies, wherever they can be out of the way. Level two patients are queued for surgical prep.”

“And level-three patients?” she asked.

“We’re making them comfortable, but outside in the courtyards,” he replied sadly.

With a nod, she shoved Forper ahead of her toward the waiting throng.

“What are level one patients?” he asked quietly as he scribbled a number on the flexi as Stasia quickly examined a sniffling teenaged girl. A cut on her forehead had sent blood trickling down her face. “Basic first aid, walking wounded, anyone who can survive without immediate medical attention. Some of them are only here because they’re frightened--psychological trauma. ”

She gently squeezed the girl’s shoulder. “You’ll be fine,” Stasia told her. “Go wait in that lobby with the vending machines. Someone will be along later to bandage your head.”

The girl wiped at her tear-stained face and wandered in the general direction where Stasia had pointed.

Stasia and Forper found a few more level one patients before arriving at the side of an old Nietzschean woman who wasn’t moving. Stasia pressed her fingers against the woman’s throat and found no pulse. Her skin was cold already. “She’s a level four,” Stasia said, sliding her fingers across the eyelids.

“Dead?” he asked quietly and she nodded. She waved toward some orderlies who were bringing body bags to collect those who had expired while waiting to be classified.

The next victim was a middle-aged human man. He clutched at his abdomen and looked desperately to Stasia as she knelt by him. Blood seeped from between his fingers. She carefully peeled his fingers back. A deep laceration along his ribcage revealed a nearly textbook illustration of the various striations of muscle and tissue down to the actual skeletal frame. She dug copious amounts of gauze bandage from her bag and pressed it against the gaping wound.

“This man is a level two,” she said to Forper. “You hang in there,” she told the man. “You’re going to have some surgery in a little while,” she explained, waving over a pair of nurses to escort the man to the waiting queue.

“What is a level three?” Forper asked as he surveyed the growing collection of disaster victims.

“Someone who can be salvaged with surgery, but it can’t be delayed for too long, or they slide off into a level four,” she replied grimly.

They paused at the next victim, a small Nietzschean boy who was perhaps nine or ten. His lips were turning blue and he gasped sporadically as he inhaled. Stasia could see the dissymmetry of his ribcage and knew that if both lungs hadn’t begun to collapse already, it wouldn’t be much longer until they did. His mother’s eyes were full of tears as she looked up to Stasia; her desperation was tangible.

He immediately reminded Stasia of Michael and Benjamin, even though he was obviously older. She refused to think of the children, not here amidst this death and decay. She fixed the firm knowledge in her mind that they were with Mahala, and the Divine would keep them free from harm. It wasn’t productive to torture herself over lack of knowing their precise whereabouts; she had work to do, and would reunite with her family group later. She would wrap her arms around them and--

Her thoughts were interrupted by the lancer at her side. “Level three?” Forper asked hesitantly.

Stasia crouched, resting a hand on the child’s face. “Level four,” she whispered, meeting the eyes of his mother. “We can make him comfortable as he passes on,” she said quietly, pressing an injector to his arm.

Momentarily, he relaxed the ragged breathing as his mother bit her lower lip and buried her face in his blood-matted hair.

Forper’s face was red with frustration and he grabbed Stasia’s arm. “That little boy is dying!” he hissed angrily.

She met his gaze and nodded, peeling his fingers from her arm. “That’s right, lancer. That little boy is dying,” she growled. “ There isn’t time or personnel available to repair the damage, and not all of the nano bots in Terazed will act in time to save him. Level four is also for those beyond our reach; they are unsalvageable. All we can offer is comfort to ease that last journey.”

She took a step back, appraising him anew and almost laughed. “You’ve never gone toe-to-toe with death before, have you?” she asked slowly, incomprehensibly.

He looked away, his distress obvious. “No, ma’am.”

“Well, you get a good hard look,” she advised him darkly. “It’s not pretty, is it? It’s not fair, is it?”

“No, ma’am, it isn’t,” he conceded.

“You remember everything you see, smell, hear, and feel today,” she ordered. “Every time you remember today, you remember that it was those hateful Kalderan bastards that did this to Terazed in an unprovoked attack. It’ll make you train harder, learn more, and fight to your last breath to ensure this day is never repeated.”

He nodded, his expression impassive. She slapped him on the shoulder. “You’re a good man, Lancer Forper. You’ve done good work today and I’ll make sure that Admiral Rhade hears about it.”

He smiled slightly and followed her to the next small group of victims who were being delivered in an overloaded land craft.

Chapter 40

Twelve long hours later, the highest echelon of Terazed’s military forces were gathered in conference at Argosy Station.

Telemachus slammed his fist down on the table. “How the hell did this happen?” he demanded, waving his hand through the revolving holographic display. Where two major orbital defense stations should have been captured in the image, large debris fields floated in their stead. A third remained partially intact, but evacuated.

“They managed to blindside us, Admiral,” replied Captain Brislo, stating what was blatantly obvious. “By the time Delta Base realized the security grid was compromised, Epsilon Base was already reduced to debris. Gamma Base managed to alert us planet side that the grid was blown open, but that was only a minute or so before our airspace was violated.”

“And exactly how did they mange to compromise the grid?” Telemachus challenged. “We’ve got the most sophisticated artificial intelligences ever designed, their sole directive to monitor that grid and keep it stable! How were the Kalderans able to penetrate one of the most elaborate security fields ever created?”

“Telemetry indicates that the Kalderans are using some previously unknown technology,” Commander Bright Nova supplied quickly, the tactical display reflected off its brilliant crimson carapace. “They’ve obviously found a way to make themselves invisible to our sensors and satellite sweeps.”

“Get our best people on forensic exams of the ships we managed to bring down. I want detailed schematics, spectral analyses, metallurgic reports, design evaluations,” Telemachus barked at his aide who hustled out of the room to engage those orders.

Across the table, Telemachus could see his father grimly surveying the incoming casualty reports and the data streamed in on a nearby console. “We never could have anticipated this,” the elder Rhade muttered. “It’s unprecedented. In the outer sectors, on the fringes, I would expect to find them poking and prodding, trying to find a chink in our armor. I never expected to find them in our skies. Not in a thousand years would I have imagined Kalderan ground troops on our streets. ”

“It happened on my watch,” Vice Admiral Allen said miserably, his head bowed. “I’ll be resigning my commission effective immediately.”

Telemachus shot a glance at the older man. “Unacceptable! We can’t afford to waste time on regrets or mistakes, Allen,” he barked. “We’ve got to pull our grid back together and make sure Terazed is never compromised like this ever again.”

There was a mumble of agreement amongst the men and women in the room. Grievances and disciplinary actions could be attended to later. The priority for the moment was ensuring a repeat attack didn’t come on the heels of the devastation; however, with all of Terazed’s forces on high alert, it would have been tantamount to genocide for the Kalerdan’s to attempt a foolish maneuver such as that.

Telemachus was getting ready to issue a new set of mandates when the door opened and Commander Jetring wandered in. His eyes met the commander’s and he knew something was terribly wrong.

“Sir,” Jetring said quietly. “You’re…requested to go immediately to the Wayist Center.”

He felt his father’s eyes on him as his heart thudded to a halt. “The Wayist Center?” he repeated, a vague numbness running down the base of his skull.

With the staggering number of casualties, the medical centers were overrun with the victims of the attack, even the morgues were being used for emergency treatment centers. The Wayist Center had become the city’s level four triage center. Only those who were dying or already dead were to be found at the Wayist Center.

“Who…?” he asked, his voice echoing in his own head.

“I don’t know, sir, I was only instructed to request that you go there immediately,” Jetring replied. “I have transportation waiting.”


Standing outside the elaborate double-doors that separated the Wayist Meditation Chapel from the bustle of the world outside, Telemachus rested a hand on the glistening wooden artistry. He’d never noticed before the intricate carvings on the doors, and had actually only visited a handful of times at Mahala’s insistence. He hadn’t wanted to be there then, and he certainly didn’t want to be there now.

He could already hear the mourning wails and shrieks coming from inside, echoing throughout the marbled halls.

Steeling himself, he shoved the doors open. At a table near the entrance, a young monk jumped up and rushed over as Telemachus stepped inside.

“I was told to come here,” Telemachus told him.

“Your name, sir?” the young man asked gently.

“Rhade…Telemachus Rhade.”

The young monk consulted his flexi momentarily and nodded. “I am very sorry, sir,” he said, his voice full of compassion. “Go to the Chapel of Spring,” he instructed, pointing toward a series of closed doors at the end of a corridor with blue tiles.

“Can you tell me…who…who I’ll find there?”

“I don’t have names, sir, and I apologize for that. The only information I have is…” he glanced down quickly to consult the continually updating information on the flexi, “…an adult female and undetermined number of offspring belonging to your household. The staff inside will be able to assist you in the chapel,” he said, inclining his head, glancing up as the doors opened again to admit another shell-shocked survivor come to seek the dead or dying members of their family.

Telemachus followed the corridor. The words held a hateful resonance: “an adult female and undetermined number of offspring belonging to your household.” He refused to accept any portion of it; it wasn’t possible; it wasn’t happening to him. It was a mistake, a cruel mistake, he kept telling himself as he neared the Chapel of Spring.

“Get the hell away from me!” he heard Stasia scream, even before he entered the sanctuary. “She’s only sleeping!”

She was kneeling, holding a small pink bundle in her arms, refusing to give it up to the med tech as he vainly pleaded with her. The man bent and tried to gently take it away. She snarled at him and her bone blades flared without warning. She didn't look up as she swung her arm back at him. He didn't move quickly enough to avoid the strike, but did manage to stagger back so only the front of his thighs were sliced open. He howled in pain and crumpled to the floor, blood pouring from the wounds.

Another tech dragged the screaming man out of harm's way. She made no other move and continued her quiet singing. Telemachus moved sluggishly across the floor, each step heavier than the last, gravity increasing a thousand fold by the second. Finally, he knelt by her side and steeled himself for the inevitable as he reached a hand over to stroke the tiny cheek with a finger. His infant daughter's skin was already growing cold, and the soft baby pinkness had drained away hours ago. He was certain his heart had turned to stone, its steady beating silenced. Ice began to creep through his veins as he gently wrestled the tiny corpse from Stasia’s arms. He clutched the pink bundle to his chest and stood.

With a lethargic stagger, he allowed one of the techs to direct him to the far corner of the triage area. A woman with tears streaming down her cheeks was pulling a shroud over someone who seemed familiar, a face he knew from another lifetime. He kissed his tiny Christiana and handed her off to the woman who laid her in Mahala's still arms. Reluctantly, the woman peeled back the shroud to reveal two little bodies that no longer housed the vivacious spirits of his twins.

It was too much to absorb. He heard someone cry out in hoarse agony and denial, vaguely recognizing the voice as his own. He nodded and covered his face with his hands. His knees buckled, unable to bear this heavy weight of despair. The act put him closer to kiss each small face one last time. He rested a hand on Mahala’s cold cheek. Whether someone offered him a hand up or he eventually stood on his own, he didn’t know. He was vaguely aware of returning to Stasia, pulling her from the floor to take her hand and lead her away from the stillness of too much death.

Chapter 41

It was a hellishly long day for Marina Rhade, Matriarch of Pride Majorum.

So many families within her Pride had lost members during the raids, and she’d lost count of the many ornate caskets over which she’d spoken. She tried to speak comfort and remembrance in different ways to each family. Grief is a universal language spoken in tears, leaving any words cold and meaningless in the ears of those who survive to mourn. She knew this well, but as Matriarch, it was her responsibility to offer a final farewell to each member of her Pride before his or her remains were interred.

She had thought that she would have been uniformly numb and emotionally exhausted by this late hour, but she was surprised when the pain washed over her again when she glanced up. The pallbearers carried three ornate caskets to rest on pedestals in front of her podium. Her grandson, Telemachus, followed solemnly behind, his handsome face a stone mask of bitter defeat. Her son, Galahad, with his wives and children completed the procession behind him as they silently began to fill the rows of seats on the husband’s side of the auditorium.

Members of Mahala’s family followed suit, filling not so many seats on the wife’s side. Friends and acquaintances of both families filtered in behind, randomly finding seats where possible.

The Matriarch gripped the podium at either side and looked out among the congregation. She looked down and noted numbly that her seat--the Matriarch’s place of honor as the understood head of every household--to Telemachus’ right was empty. To his immediate left, four empty seats represented the number of his departed family. It was a solemn Nietzschean tradition that reminded all in attendance that those who had passed from this life were physically gone, but never forgotten. Her gaze crossed the sea of faces once and then again, her sharp eyes missing a particular face.

She looked heavenward, not feeling any warmth from the sun flooding through the ornate skylights, and she waited. After a moment, there were soft footfalls at the vestibule. Anastasia Theros stood there, her expression as frozen as her stance. The Matriarch gestured to one of the ushers standing near her, bent to whisper something in his ear, and then resumed her near-military posture. There were murmurs from Mahala’s family when the usher placed the latecomer’s hand through his arm and escorted her forward. He bowed at the waist and seated her in the vacant Matriarch’s seat, to Telemachus’ right. This caused a chorus of louder murmurs, although none dared to openly question what was obviously the Matriarch’s will in the matter.

The Matriarch then cleared her throat to speak. She rambled on about honoring those who had passed by surviving through strength. She noted with satisfaction that after about five minutes, her grandson’s hand slid off his leg. Almost covertly, he took Stasia’s hand, and Marina didn’t fail to notice a slight change in the girl’s expression when he did so.

“And now we bid farewell to our loved ones. Dear Mahala, you were gentle and kind. Though not a true daughter of Pride Majorum, we will treasure the time you were with us. Benjamin, Michael, and Christiana, all out of Majorum by Rhade. Your lives were brief but the joy and energy that you brought to us will be cherished for all our days. Rest in peace.”

The pallbearers then took their burdens again and began the slow procession to the Rhade family tomb. Telemachus caught his grandmother’s eye and inclined his head slightly to her as he rested Stasia’s hand inside his arm. The Matriarch descended from the podium and took his other arm and they followed the quartet of caskets on their sad and final journey.

The interment was brief. There were no words, no pomp and circumstance. The caskets were slid into their final resting places in the cavernous family tomb. Name plaques were affixed to mark the locations after the marble was fit back in place.

The task accomplished, they filed out of the tomb and the heavy double doors closed, separating the quick from the dead once again. The group disbursed, some of the women going ahead to the Rhade household where food and drink awaited. Long hours would be spent wherein the achievements of the deceased would be the topic of many conversations.

Saphrona, now very large with her third child, lingered behind the dissipating crowd for a moment. “Matriarch,” she called softly as her grandmother passed by. “A word?” she asked.

Marina rested her hand on the swollen belly and gave pause to smile. Even amidst death, there was life. The strong survived; it was the way of things. “What it is child?”

“There is already talk…and it’s not my place…”

“And you ever adore your little brother and his pain is your own, and you would see him relieved of that burden and any talk of impropriety,” the older woman said approvingly.

Saphrona nodded, watching Telemachus from a distance. These last two days he’d carried himself like an elderly man, his movements and expressions stilted. He had paused along the path for a moment until Stasia was at his side again, their hands joined as they continued walking together.

“Then speak your mind, to your grandmother, not your Matriarch.”

“It’s not understood—particularly by Mahala’s family—why you chose to do the thing you did. I fear they are offended by your actions and have spoken harshly of you because of it,” she confessed, glad to have her grandmother’s attention rather than her Matriarch’s.

Marina shrugged. “I am Matriarch of Pride Majorum; it is not their place to question where I elect to place a member of my Pride during a remembrance ceremony for the dead. Let the Falcon Matriarch bring it to me if she finds an offense as I presided over the funeral of my own flesh and blood. I think she will keep her thoughts of impropriety to herself. There is more, child?”

“Grandmother, among our own family it is not understood why you placed a Theros among the first level of the Rhade line. Moreover, you mandated that she take your seat, the Matriarch’s seat,” Saphrona pressed emphatically.

“Did you not see how she grieved, Saphrona? Was there nothing unusual to you in her demeanor, the depth of her despair?”

“We are all grieving, grandmother. The loss is senseless and cruel in it’s timing, but it does little to help me understand. It was as though you were acknowledging in her a status of wife, mother and Matriarch when you assigned her a seat next to ‘Lemachus.”

Marina gripped both of Saphrona’s hands. “Anastasia is the wife of your brother’s heart, precious one. How can you not know that? One only has to see them together to understand.”

“But she’s not yet reached the appropriate age to present a proposal,” came the protest.

“No, and Telemachus has the necessary wisdom and patience to wait until such time is appropriate. There is yet another greater truth, but it is not my place to share it. You must come to this knowledge of your own accord; I may not speak of it to you. Observe closely, and I believe you will understand this thing that must remain secret.”

Saphrona bowed her head and walked with her grandmother to the house of Admiral Galahad Rhade.

Chapter 42

Marina waited perhaps a half hour before her granddaughter approached her again, her face slightly pale.

“Another word?” Marina asked quietly, seeing the grief anew in the child’s face. Saphrona nodded and they moved to the terrace, away from ears that might hear. “Speak it.”

“Mahala was very dear to Stasia, and she mourns the loss of a friend. Telemachus’ children are gone, his heart is shattered, and she wants to help carry the burden of his pain. Stasia grieves, truly grieves, but for a reason more profound that I first imagined.” Her heart pounded wildly, desperate to voice the truth. “ Her grief is of the depth…only a mother can fathom.”

With a relieved expression, Marina nodded.

“How could I have not seen it? How could I have been so wrong, believing those children were so beloved to her simply because they belonged to Telemachus?” Abruptly, she bowed to her grandmother. “Matriarch, as always, you see beyond what others cannot know. You are kind and wise…and what you did at the remembrance ceremony was more than appropriate.”

“Perhaps, then you might find Anastasia.”

Saphrona waddled away to find the younger woman milling in a corridor just off the reception hall, staring fixedly at several portraits of the children at various ages. Her brother was not far away, helplessly trapped in a discussion with several matronly great-aunts. He caught his sister’s eye and inclined his head to her as a relieved expression crossed his face when he saw her approach Stasia.

“They were beautiful,” Saphrona whispered in Stasia’s ear, sliding an arm around her friend’s waist.

Stasia nodded. “He was their father. How could they have been anything other than beautiful and perfect?”

“They were much like their mother.”

“Mahala was wise and patient and loving,” Stasia agreed.

“Their mother is all those things and more,” Saphrona added, embracing the stunned First Daughter of the Theros family. “I’m so very, very sorry, dear one.”

Stasia wiped at her face. “How can you know this?” she demanded quickly, the realization that Saphrona knew the real truth of the matter burning through her in a moment of shock.

“When the Matriarch seated you at my brother’s side, I began to deeply question her actions. I looked with my heart instead of my eyes, and the truth made itself known.”

“Please, Saphie, speak of this to no other. Promise me!” Stasia hissed, desperation pitching her voice up higher.

“Dear Stasia, I love you as dearly as I love my little brother, and I cannot bear to see your pain. Your secret shall remain unspoken.”

Stasia kissed her on the cheek and pressed her hands to Saphie’s swollen stomach. “I felt the child within you stir when you embraced me. May he never know strife or grief, and his days be long and full of peace.”

Saphie prepared to say something, then doubled unexpectedly. A gush of fluid passed down her legs and into the floor. “I think…he’s ready to arrive,” she groaned, bracing herself against the wall.

Stasia shouted for someone to attend the lady. An excited crowd of women ushered her away down a corridor, the Matriarch trailing in their wake.

“Isn’t it exciting, dear!” Telemachus’ great-aunt Corella enthused, squeezing Stasia’s shoulder. “A new baby to take the place of one that we’ve lost. Death amidst life and life amidst death. It is the way of things.”

Stasia paled. “Excuse me, Lady Corella,” she stammered. “I find that I suddenly need fresher air,” she offered, rushing out of the hall, hand pressed to her mouth.

Telemachus glanced over and saw his elderly aunt standing alone with a confused expression on her face. Where was Stasia? He wandered over hurriedly. “Aunt Corella, where is Anastasia Theros? I saw you talking with her a moment ago.”

“Ah, Telemachus, she’s a lovely girl. A First Daughter, you know.”

“Yes, aunt, I know. Where is she?” he pressed.

“Rather odd girl, too. Your sister had just gone off to the birthing rooms. I commented to Dr. Theros how wonderful it was that so soon after our family’s loss, there was a new babe already here. Almost as if the new babe could take the place of one we’ve lost.”

He groaned in dismay and pressed his palm to his forehead. There was a roaring buzz growing between his ears.

“She acted most strangely following that remark and decided to get some fresh air. It is rather warm in here, dear nephew. I think I also shall go—“

She stopped and stared. How odd, indeed! Young Telemachus had rushed off in the same direction the young woman had gone.

It wasn’t difficult to find her. She was at her fish pool, doubled over, retching uncontrollably as she sobbed. He pulled a wadded tissue from his pocket and wiped her mouth when she was finished. Her hand trembled as she reached for him, her face pale.

He scooped her into his arms and sat on the bench with her, stroking her hair, talking quietly to her. “Dear Stasia, I’m so sorry. My aunt, she’s very old—her mind isn’t right--she didn't know….”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “I’m sorry for my behavior," she whispered, and he stroked her hair as he murmured that there was nothing for which she should apologize.

"I should have gone with the other women to sit the women’s vigil with Saphie and see her child born—but I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t be under that roof another second. The idea of a new baby would have thrilled Benjamin and Michael to no end. Remember how fascinated they were with anything smaller than they were? Tonight their new cousin will sound his first cry as he is lifted into his mother’s arms—and our children will spend their first night in a tomb!”

He held her close as she wept bitterly. He felt glad, if one could feel glad at such a time, glad that she at least could speak the words that he felt, but could not voice. Perhaps it might be possible for her to shed tears enough for the both of them. It might even be possible that her ocean of tears could wash away some of the staggering grief they bore together.

At length, she stood and looked down at him. "You are a mystery, Telemachus Rhade. How you can be so strong despite everything that has happened, I don't know, but I'm glad for it because I know it speaks of your strength of will to endure. I need to be alone now, my love, and clear my head."

He rose and kissed her softly. "Go for a walk. It'll help center your thoughts again," he suggested. "I have some things that require my attention. I'll find you in the morning at your father's house."

She nodded absently. "I think I'll go check on my birds."

He watched her until she disappeared then he turned reluctantly to return to his father's house to endure the pain of endless condolences.

Chapter 43

Telemachus wasn't sure how he managed to eventually fall asleep, but he did remember drinking long into the small hours of the morning. It wasn't his usual tact, but it seemed to dull the ache in his heart. His head felt full of sawdust, and he was startled to have the comm unit at his bedside demanding attention. He dragged his hand over his face and through his hair before he slapped the link open, rolling over reluctantly to face the view screen.

Maria Theros’ lovely face filled the view screen. "Oh, Telemachus, I'm so sorry to have awakened you," she said quickly as she took in his disheveled appearance.

He swung his feet over the edge of the bed, vaguely aware that he had slept in his uniform. "Think nothing of it, Lady. What is it that you wanted?"

She paused, for propriety's sake and glanced away. "I was rather hoping that you could enlighten me as to the whereabouts of my daughter. I had expected she might spend the night in her old room here, but the house staff tells me she was never here."

A strange sense of foreboding began to slide up his spine. "They are certain of this?" he demanded quickly. "I've not seen her since late last evening."

"I had thought that she might have taken a guest room in your father's house…or that she might be with you," she said, hope draining from her expression as she watched him pull his boots on.

He shook his head. "She was going to take a walk, clear her head,” he mumbled, trying to remember where it was Stasia had said she was going. Her birds! She was going to check on her birds. They had nested…damn! Where was it? Yes, the walking trail that led past the caves, then on to the cliffs with a scenic overlook…

The woman's expression furrowed. "What trail?" she asked slowly and he suddenly realized that he had spoken aloud.

He waved away her concern. "She went to check on her birds in the park. You know how distracted she becomes with her…creatures. Time loses meaning to her."

She nodded, the gracious smile returning. "I'll send someone after her. I'm sorry to have disturbed your rest."

"No, no. I'll go and bring her back in time for breakfast at her father's table," he promised.

"Thank you, Telemachus. That's very gracious of you…but breakfast has come and gone. We would be pleased if you join us for the mid-day meal," she offered.

Chapter 44

It took him only a few minutes at a full run to reach the park. A paved pathway with steps carved out of the mountain was an improvement over the steep incline and rough path from years past. Telemachus glanced at the caves as he took the steps two at a time. He briefly recalled times they'd camped there as children, happier days, to be sure.

Any other time, he would have stopped to admire the chirping birds. Their song was like wind chimes as they pecked at seeds on the ground. Iridescent feathers refracted sunlight, tossing subtle rainbows as the birds hopped about to chase insects. Ever with the practiced eye for art, Stasia had to create something visually stunning when she engineered wildlife. He would appreciate her work later. He searched frantically for the birds' creator.

Beyond the two small pavilions with picnic tables, he saw a solitary figure. The ornate stone fence was designed with safety in mind. Coming perhaps chest high to an average adult of most species on Terazed, one could easily view the stunning spectacle of a natural waterfall crashing down to continue on in a river of water that ran from the distant mountains. The scenic overlook itself was fixed on a outcropping, built into the face of the cliffs.

Stasia sat atop the fence. Her feet hung over the edge and she stared vacantly at the rapids below. Now and again, a floating limb would shatter as it careened into the jagged stones that jutted out of the turbulent waters.

Panic swelled in the back of his throat, leaving a hideous aftertaste of desperation. He fought to keep his voice level and calm. "Stasia, what are you doing?"

Silence was his answer.

He moved a little closer. "Stasia…?"

He placed his hand on her shoulder, a finger at a time. "We can move through this together," he whispered hoarsely.

She shrugged off his hand. "Go away, Telemachus," she said quietly. Her voice was flat and devoid of emotion. "Be somewhere else."

He crouched behind her and rested his cheek on her shoulder. "No."

"I don't want you to see this.”

"I don't want you to jump." Carefully, he eased himself to sit next to her and slowly wrapped his arm around her waist.

She leaned her head against him, still staring at the water. "I'm empty inside," she whispered, a plaintive edge creeping into the confession.

"This isn't going to end the emptiness, it'll only be beginning," he replied.

"You're wrong. There will be a final moment of pain, and then everything will be over and this void will be gone." She tossed a small stone far over the edge. "Just like that. Gone. Michael, Benjamin, and Christiana are gone, and I don’t want to be here without them."

"And what am I supposed to do?" he demanded and his voice broke despite his attempt to remain calm.

"I already told you to go away. You should do that," she replied listlessly.

"Dammit, Stasia! I won’t go away. If you jump, I'll jump, too," he announced bitterly, the tears rolling down his cheeks. "Our beautiful children are gone, and gentle Mahala with them. Please don't leave me alone; I refuse to live a life without you in it! You said I'm strong, but you are my strength. If you are gone, then my strength is gone. Kiss me one last time and tell me that you love me. We'll face our doomed oblivion together, as it should be."

With a sigh, she pulled him into a consoling embrace and he wept like a lost child. "Come here." She stroked his hair and rocked him, focus slowly returning to her sad eyes. "Shh, my love, don't weep," she crooned.

After a long while, she sighed, focus slowly returning to her teary eyes. "If you're lost, too, then the Kalderans have won yet again."

"Then don't let them win," he encouraged.

"I'll see every last one of them dead or dying," she vowed, wiping the tears from his face. "I'll have them know what it's like to have a thief steal into their homes and destroy their souls. I'll do it slowly, too, so that generations to come will know this pain. There will be no escaping the depth and breadth of my vengeance. And when the end comes, I will make certain they know from whence their doom came."

She sliced her arm on a flared bone blade and let the blood drip into the chasm. "I pledge myself to this task," she swore ominously.

He wiped his hands over his face and stood. He reached his hand down to her. She took it and let him pull her to her feet. "Swear to me that you will never, ever consider an act like this again."

She looked away and he grabbed her chin to force her to meet his gaze. "Swear it to me! Say it!" he growled, shaking her roughly. "Never put me through this again!"

She met his solemn gaze with calm indifference. "I swear it to you."

He pulled her close against him in a crushing embrace. After a long moment, they turned toward the trail and began the long walk home.

Chapter 45

A/N: I am indebted to mizor a.k.a squid109 for providing me with a better understanding of things military and technical in the Andromedaverse. Thank you so much!

It had been a difficult year, but Terazed rebuilt itself from the staggering losses it suffered during the attack.

Telemachus buried himself in his duties with a near-religious vigor, and the post-attack investigation that he ordered lasted nearly six grueling months. The final analyses brought to light specific details that were equally enlightening and disturbing. None of the downed or disabled Kalderan fighters were slipstream capable, which provided a ready explanation for the failure of the extensive security grids to identify them as threats. Telemachus still worried about the larger ship that must have loomed undetected just outside their system, the carrier from which the short-range combat ships had been deployed.

He wasn’t satisfied with any of the answers he got regarding the failure of the security grid to provide an alert of the slipstream event that deposited the vessel just outside their front yard. Scenarios of a carrier equipped with some cloaking technology seemed the most reasonable explanation, although it didn’t sit well with him. If such technology existed, he wanted access to it for offensive and defensive measures of his own design.

Telemetry retrieved from cached storage systems told a story of an entire level of AI security taken down for maintenance. That one defense station might be running under a sub-level security grid was acceptable. That three stations had complete downtime for systems maintenance at precisely the same time was simply inconceivable. It allowed for a gaping hole in the security grid. It also allowed for an uneasy theory to generate itself deep within Telemachus’ mind. Manual overrides were necessary to take multiple AI systems into the maintenance mode that had left Terazed open for attack. There was zero probability that it was a random fluke of timing; six separate failsafe levels were built into the routines to prevent such an incident from happening.

It was obvious that it had been done intentionally, and Telemachus wanted to know who had done it and why. He was well aware that he might never get those answers. The manual overrides necessary could only be performed in tandem by a pair of operators physically present at the control consoles. Two stations had been completely destroyed, and the survivors of the third had none within their number who had the appropriate training or security levels required to perform the override.

Nevertheless, the cumulative findings gave rise to a level of security that outdistanced even some pre-Fall standards on worlds more technologically advanced than Terazed. The defense grids were stronger than ever. A mote of dust was sufficient to trigger an automatic response. In addition, they had perimeter grids established and were aware of slipstream events that occurred outside their system, providing them with an additional level of security. The general populace rested easier, assured that the Kalderan nightmare would never again rise up to catch them unawares. They placed their confidence and lives in the hands of Admiral Telemachus Rhade.

Domestic changes had also reshaped Telemachus and Stasia’s lives. Neither wanted to live with the ghosts in the home they’d only occupied for several months, so Telemachus sold the house he’d purchased in the capitol. Stasia restlessly followed him like the shadow she’d been in his youth, and he found a new home for them to share. It was a smaller residence, less grand in many ways than the other home, and he had expected her to protest over the style or size. He was relieved and disappointed in equal measure with her indifference. A year ago, such things would have held a great degree of importance to her. Now all that mattered was that each room didn’t carry a bittersweet memory of a beloved face that would never again be seen.

Like Telemachus, Stasia attempted to lose herself in her work. New projects abounded at an astounding pace, which both thrilled and frightened the senior management of the Institute for Genetic Advancement. In truth, they understood little behind the theories and principles of her work, but so long as it continued to be astronomically profitable for them, they cared little about learning.

Just at the time when he thought that their lives had resumed something approaching normalcy, something incredible happened. It was so unexpected that the life of every man, woman, and child on Terazed was immutably changed forever. The Andromeda Ascendant had been found by a courier. Dylan Hunt was stepping forward from the shadow of myth.

The foundations of entire belief systems were either edified or shattered as the airwaves were full of newscasts proclaiming the event.

Twelve hours passed and the Long Night virtually came to an end for Terazed. There were parades, interviews with Captain Hunt and his crew, and numerous speeches from a variety of politicians regarding the wondrous event. Endless speculation ensued about what mystical importance the appearance of Dylan Hunt might usher in. Some in traditional Nietzschean circles suggested that perhaps the arrival of Dylan Hunt was only the heralding of the coming of the genetic reincarnation of Drago Museveni, the Progenitor himself. If the rest of Terazed could hail their messiah, it was only fair that the Nietzschean communities be equally blessed with the coming of the one who would ultimately reunite the prides.

Now, the day was over, and Telemachus was very tired. The discussions with like-minded Isolationists—heated arguments in some instances -- had lasted far longer than he had expected. His brain felt like a half-ton weight inside his head. It was an insanely small hour of the morning and he was looking very much forward to climbing into his bed and sleeping.

He was barely inside the front door when his interest was piqued by a familiar and welcome scent. He inhaled and closed his eyes. Stasia was home, which was a rare enough event these days. It was nothing unusual for her to be gone for days at a time, shepherding her assistants as she coaxed yet another project toward perfection.

The bedroom door was slightly ajar. Light flickered and spilled into the hallway. He smiled at the flexis that were scattered across the bed, some of which had slid onto the carpeting, all containing details on some project she was planning. He gathered them together and glanced at them, his fatigued mind not wanting to attempt to comprehend the complex equations and formulae he saw. He recognized a couple of DNA spirals and a protein strand before he placed them on her bedside table.

He reached for the remote to the vid player, noting that the newscast was replaying — for the umpteenth time -- the parade from earlier in the day. He muted the volume, pausing to watch the ceremonial procession make its way down one of the streets in the capitol city. He shook his head again and smiled as he saw the purple girl with her strange tail. She waved happily to the excited crowds that lined the streets, seeming to be as enthralled with them as they were with her. The blonde human male sitting next to her received a bouquet of flowers from a little girl running alongside their slow-moving landcraft. He switched the unit off, stripped off his clothes, and gingerly slipped into bed.

He’d just closed his eyes when an arm snaked over his hip. “Mmm…you’re home.” Warm lips planted a welcoming kiss on his shoulder. “So, tell me, admiral, what’s he like—the legendary Dylan Hunt?” Stasia asked sleepily, snuggling in close behind him with a yawn.

Telemachus shrugged, lacing his fingers with hers, never tiring of the exquisite feel of her skin against his. “He’s a man,” he offered without much inspiration for detailed description.

She smacked his shoulder and sat up. “He’s not just a man,” she protested. “He’s Dylan Hunt, come to restore the Commonwealth, just like Sara Riley promised three hundred years ago! How can you be so casual about it? It’s a fairy-tale made real. I would expect even you to find some magic in that.”

He rolled over and kissed her hand gallantly. “Forgive me, my love,” he laughed. “I’ve had a very busy week today. It’s a little overwhelming and I’m still trying to sort out what it will mean in the long run.”

“He has a Magog in his crew,” she marveled. “A Wayist, Whisperer of Truth order,” she added quietly, and he knew where her thoughts were immediately traveling. It had been a long while since she had mentioned Mahala and the children; he hoped this unexpected appearance of the Andromeda Ascendant and crew wouldn’t trigger some sort of emotional episode in her.

He nodded. “A Magog, the ship’s android avatar, two unmodified humans, a young female of some unidentified species and a Nietzschean,” he said, counting off the ship’s crew. “Tyr Anasazi, out of Victoria by Barbarosa, a Kodiak.”

“Must be a very small pride,” she commented. “I’ve never heard of the Kodiak, but history was never my interest.”

“It was a minor pride, even when our ancestors first came to Terazed,” he told her. “Intelligence informs me that except for him, it’s now an extinct pride, wiped out by the Drago-Kasov decades ago.”

“Wives or children?”

“He has none,” Telemachus replied. He could feel her shiver and he pulled the blankets up closer around her, moving over to slide an arm around her.

“What a lonely life, to be the only one of your kind,” she breathed. “He looks to be an excellent specimen, and he must have remarkable survival skills to remain when the others of his pride have perished. He should publish his gene map; I’m certain the marriage offers would just come rolling in.”

“His genes may be good, but he has no established status,” he countered, growing jealous by her compliments for Anasazi.

“He’ll have the distinction of having served with Dylan Hunt, fighting at his side, helping provide a means toward the restoration of the Commonwealth,” she argued. “I’d say that should provide all the status he’d need to collect a variety of wives on Terazed.”

“Sounds like you might just run off and claim him for yourself,” he ventured petulantly.

She leaned into him with a sigh. “I’ve already claimed what I want,” she replied, poking him in the ribs for emphasis. “Now, I want to hear all about it, everything they haven’t broadcast a thousand times on the newscasts. The press is having a field day with this.”

He groaned. This was exactly why he’d tried so diligently to not awaken her; he needed to sleep, and she wanted a debriefing. He should have taken one of the guest rooms and been victimized by her interrogation over breakfast. He readjusted the pillow behind his head with a sigh. He’d knew he’d lost this battle before the first shots were fired.

“First Triumvir Rakel Ben-Tzion introduced me, and I shook Dylan Hunt’s hand after he met with the Andromeda Association. He seemed surprised at the sheer number of descendants from his former crew,” he told her. “That wasn’t on the news. I’d imagine by now, except for that, you’ve seen every last breath they’ve taken since they stepped on Terazed soil.”

She rested her hand on his cheek. “They’ll want an election, won’t they?” she asked bitterly, already thinking of what the Triumvirs would be planning, bringing up a special vote to decide the will of the people. “There is already talk of a referendum.”

“Of course there is,” he sighed, running his hand through her hair. “I don’t want you to be worrying about it.”

“I’m not worrying,” she protested. “But it is going to be a veritable trial by fire for you, and you have enough to deal with as it is. You’re going to have half the planet thinking the Commonwealth’s messiah has arrived to bring us into some glorious enlightened age. You’re going to have part of the other half gritting their teeth, wishing that your little courier pilot had never found the Andromeda, because now they have to decide whether this is a good thing or not.”

“And the remainder of the people?”

“They’re the ones who are ready to storm the High Council chambers and flood the streets of the capitol, primed and ready for a major military coup.”

She was correct on all points. He raked his hand through his hair. “And where will you be?” he asked, knowing the answer, but finding some solace in hearing it again.

She held his face in her hands. “At your side, always,” she swore with a kiss.
He held her closer, wrapping her in his arms, resting his chin atop her head. “I don’t want it to come to that. I don’t want a coup. I want things to be as they have been.”

“I know, ‘Lemachus,” she agreed. “But it may come to that in order for reason and sensibility to take hold of the general populace.”

“Well, the general populace has been holding their collective breath, waiting for this day to come for three hundred years,” he reminded her. “You used to be one of those people.”

“I used to be young and stupid, but I outgrew it. Why do they think we’re still here after three hundred years?” she demanded. “We’ve been safe and productive on Terazed because we haven’t gone willy-nilly and announced our presence to the rest of the chaotic known worlds. Now we’ve got a fresh gaping slipstream trail leading right up to our doorstep. The Divine only knows who or what will find it and decide to see where it leads before that huge warship’s rad signature grows stale.”

“I promise you that our defense grids are sound, Stasia. If anything does follow in the Andromeda’s wake, we’re ready for it,” he assured her. “But, nothing is going to come to Terazed that we don’t lead here ourselves. That’s the way it’s been for centuries, and the way it will continue to be.”

She raised her head and kissed him again, smoothing the worry wrinkles on his forehead. “You should sleep now, love. If today lasted for a week, tomorrow will last for a year and you’ll have a thousand people simultaneously clamoring for your attention.”

Chapter 46

A/N: The dialog is primarily from Episode 208: Home Fires


Dylan Hunt, the legend made flesh, stepped into the corridor. Loud applause spilled past the door closing behind him. The speech Rakel had convinced him to give had been a success by all measures, and well received by the political echelon, but he was glad it was over.

Telemachus leaned against the wall, waiting for the man. “Nicely done, Captain Hunt,” he said. “Your speech was most impressive.”

Hunt shrugged. “Thank you. I’m, uh, not much of a politician,” he laughed. “I’m just a soldier.”

Telemachus shook his head. “Don’t underestimate your powers as a leader,” he cautioned, walking alongside. “Do you have a moment?” he asked, gesturing toward a closed door at the end of the corridor.

Still casually unnerved by what was in his estimation a complete copy of Gaheris Rhade, his former first officer, best friend, and unexpected betrayer, Dylan nodded. Telemachus opened the door, waiting for the other man to step inside to a casually furnished lounge area. His small talk was lost on Hunt for a moment as Dylan drowned in remembering another Rhade, now dead for centuries. The pain and shock of the betrayal was a healing wound now ripped open anew.

He was jarred back to the present by Telemachus repeating something. Dylan looked at him blankly. “I’m sorry—what did you say?”

“I asked if you wanted a drink.”

Dylan declined the offer, and Telemachus poured a drink for himself. “I suspect you wanted to ask me something else,” Dylan commented.

Telemachus smiled. The man wasn’t one for subtleties; he liked it when people were direct and to the point. He nodded. “My ancestor, Gaheris Rhade,” he began, taking a seat. “Here on Terazed, he's something of a hero, you know - a loyal Commonwealth officer, dead in that first terrible battle.”

“I lost a lot of good people that day,” he replied, feeling the need to be evasive with information. What good could be served by telling this young man that Gaheris had betrayed him at the last possible moment, and nearly succeeded in killing his captain?

“The Nietzscheans tell a different story. That he betrayed the Commonwealth.
That he was a spy who served a key role in the Nietzschean rebellion. You're the only
person alive who knows the truth,” Telemachus pressed.

Dylan felt the color draining from his face, and had suspected that despite his best efforts to avoid it, this topic would eventually come to light. “You know, I, uh, I think I'll take that drink.”

Telemachus obliged and noted the way the captain tossed the drink back, like a man dying of thirst in a desert. He said nothing, and refilled the glass.

“You were there,” he continued while the other man thoughtfully scrutinized the amber liquid. “At least tell me what happened. Tell me what he did.”

Dylan sighed and looked up. “He tried to warn me. For what it's worth, he tried to warn me about the rebellion, and by the time I listened, it was too late.” Of course, he killed Refractions of Dawn and nearly killed me, too, he wanted to add.

Telemachus raised his glass in a satisfied silent toast. “So he was a hero after all. That means a lot to me. Thank you,” he said, obviously sincere. He looked at his boots for a moment. He was beginning to like Dylan Hunt. “I just wish we weren't on opposite sides,” he confessed with an awkward smile.

Confusion registered quickly and Dylan could hear the warning sirens screaming in his mind. “Opposite sides of what?”

Telemachus raised an eyebrow. He’d assumed that by this time, Rakel had filled the captain’s head with stories about the Isolationists and how he stood at the forefront of the movement. “I thought you knew,” he said slowly. “I'm opposed…to the Commonwealth referendum.”

Dylan laughed in utter disbelief. “But you are Commonwealth--all of you! Terazed has been waiting for this day for three hundred years.”

His conversation earlier with Stasia rang in his head. How right she’d been in her impressions of what the uneducated mind believed. Apparently, Dylan Hunt was as unenlightened as the majority of Terazed’s population. He stood and faced the incredulous expression on Dylan Hunt’s face. “And we're still here after three hundred years. Because we haven't let the chaos out there touch us, because no one knows we exist.”

“Yeah, for now, “ Hunt sputtered, trying to control the wild tailspin he found himself fighting. “But that will change sooner or later.”

“The later the better, as far as I'm concerned,” Telemachus replied, crossing his arms. “You have powerful enemies, Captain.”

Dylan’s previous frustrations returned. “So do you, Admiral. The Magog are coming, and in numbers you can’t possibly hope to comprehend. The kind of damage they do to this world will make the past attacks by the Kalderans look like a picnic. You can't deny a reality like the Magog worldship out of existence,” he protested.

Telemachus sat his glass down, his jaw set stubbornly. “No, but I can keep us out of their crosshairs,” he countered. “I'm sorry,” he added sincerely. “It's my duty to protect Terazed and I'm not going to let anyone compromise that—not you, not anyone.”

Chapter 47

Stasia slid a cup of hot tea toward him. He looked tired and she was glad this ridiculous voting fiasco was finally ended.

The last 48 hours had been a trial by fire. The Isolationist leaders, Telemachus among them, had campaigned heavily for the worthiness of their perspective, reminding the people of Terazed that their safety came at a cost of remaining separated from Hunt’s fledgling New Restored Commonwealth. To join at this early stage was tantamount to suicide; perhaps there might be a time in the future when such a consideration might be feasible, even advantageous, but now wasn’t the time. Even if the Magog threat was as massive as Hunt claimed, there was no advantage in announcing their existence to the rest of the universe and hope that two or three other worlds would come to their aid. In the end, logic won the day.

“Well, by now our esteemed Captain Hunt is aware that the election didn’t go as he had hoped.”

Telemachus nodded. “It would be nice to think that he’ll just go away, but it won’t be that easy. He’s on a crusade, Stasia, and he’s convinced that Terazed needs his Restored Commonwealth’s protection against this alleged Magog threat. He’s lost sight of the fact that his mighty empire consists of a tiny handful of worlds that haven’t learned yet how to function as a united entity. Terazed doesn’t need the grief that comes from trying to organize a governmental operation on an interplanetary scale.”

“It’s over for now, at any rate.”

He smiled. If it were only that easy. “First Triumvir Ben-Tzion is still harping at me to reconsider my position, encourage the rest of the movement to rescind their votes. Second Triumvir Cooper agrees and wants to call an emergency vote and disregard the first one. Third Triumvir Kuron sides with me.”

Stasia’s eyes were wide. “Reconsider your position--seriously? The woman must be mad! I wish your old friend Bonet hadn’t stepped out of the triumvirate; he always seemed to be able to nullify Rakel Ben-Tzion’s ridiculous ideas. Granted, he’s become the voice of reason elsewhere, but it still would have been advantageous to have that voice speaking as a triumvir in lieu of another political faction.”

He shrugged indifferently. “It’s immaterial to me. I’ll protect Terazed regardless of the triumvirate’s collective opinions.”

The communication’s console blinked for attention, indicating a secured channel transmission. Telemachus’ expression immediately dismayed her.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Now, if this isn’t some sort of cosmically ironic timing, I don’t know what is.” He reached over and took her hand. “Hunt’s alleged Magog threat is has just become a reality. A series of ships has just materialized outside the fifth planet,” he said, the calmness in his voice not betraying the disbelief ringing in his mind. “I’ve just launched a defensive strike,” he said as information began scrolling across the console at his desk.

The communication’s unit blinked for attention. “Incoming transmission for you from that infernal warship,” Stasia said, intercepting the signal. “Apparently they can’t leave you alone even when you’re in the middle of defensive tactics.”

“Duty calls,” he told her tersely, activating the link.

Trance Gemini’s purple-hued image wasn’t what he’d expected to see. “Dylan needs to talk to you,” she blurted quickly before the view screen was filled with Hunt’s angry visage.

“Admiral, in case you haven’t noticed, there are four Magog swarm ships in the outer system.”

Telemachus wanted to knock the angry smugness off the other man’s face. “I know, and the timing of their arrival is simply impeccable,” he growled dangerously. “You led them right to us, whether that was your intention or not.”

Hunt waved his hands in the air. “A: That is not true, and B: We can point fingers later.”

“Right now, I'm launching everything we've got, and it's not going to be enough,” he stated quickly, noting that the color began to drain from Stasia’s face with that comment. “I need your help,” he confessed, wanting to grit his teeth as he did so.

“That's why we're still here,” Hunt replied, and Telemachus didn’t miss the patronizing tone behind the words.

Biting back a sharp remark, Telemachus issued some orders through a separate console. “I'm transferring the Triumvir's Honor Guard to your command - ships and lancers,” he announced. “Good luck,” he added before signing off.

Stasia had moved from her chair and rested a hand on his shoulder, watching the streaming data on another console. “What’s going to happen, ‘Lemachus?” she asked quietly.

He slipped an arm around her waist and they waited as additional intelligence poured in. “Hopefully, the legends about the might and ability of the Andromeda Ascendant are about to be proven as fact and she can tip the balance in our favor. If not, every worst fear of our childhoods with the tales of rampaging Magog running through our streets are about to come to life.”

Within seconds, slipfighters were deployed from the Andromeda’s hangars and telemetry data indicated that they were ready to engage the enemy. Telemachus huffed in disbelief after a few minutes. Hunt had appropriately called a stand down, and Telemachus immediately began rescinding the orders that transferred the honor guard command to Dylan Hunt.

Stasia looked askance at him. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”

“Those Magog ships,” he said, tapping the console. “They aren’t manned vessels—no pilots, no slipstream drives—they’re decoys,” he explained to her. “Something’s not right here.”

He busied himself with the additional information, and then slammed his fist on the desk. “Dammit!” he yelled. ““We’ve just lost a slipfighter in a debris field,” he growled. Someone would answer to him personally for the life they’d just cost Terazed’s fighting forces.

He was in the process of contacting the Andromeda when Stasia stopped him. “The trajectories of the attack,” she hissed, pointing at the console. “None of them originate from any of the Magog ships—they all came from planet side—the main base -- which was also the primary launch site for the ships.”

He whirled and cursed again as he saw the data for himself. “All from Argosy Station? That’s impossible!”

Chapter 48

Meanwhile, on the Andromeda Ascendant, First Triumvir Ben-Tzion wrung her hands helplessly in the air while Dylan Hunt paced across his briefing room. “Maybe Telemachus was right,” she wailed. “The entire situation is simply too dangerous and is getting out of control. Maybe I should just let him take over and be done with it.”

Dylan froze and stared at the distraught woman. “Let him take over? Take over the government? Triumvir, what's going on here?” he demanded.

She looked up mournfully at him. “Something's happening down on Terazed, something terrible. I can’t reach anyone in my offices. I can't reach any members of the High Council. Second Triumvir Cooper is allegedly ‘in conference.’ Cooper never confers with anyone. My intuition is telling me horrible things right now.”

“Andromeda?” Dylan asked quickly, and the hologram shimmered into the center of the room. “What’s the status of communications between us and the planet?”

“Communications channels to Terazed are still open, but none of the government
offices are responding.”

Dylan nodded. “Communications freeze,” he muttered.

Rakel twisted a piece of hair nervously. “My sources on the ground tell me they're mobilizing the Home Guard. There are troops on the street, they are marching toward the capitol.”

Dylan was stunned, piecing it all together. “So you're saying Telemachus Rhade faked that attack so he'd have a reason to mobilize his troops, to institute martial law.”

The hologram concurred. “And now he's mounting a military coup.”

Rakel stood, her expression full of anxiety. “This is my fault!” she exclaimed. “I should have been ready for this, but I was a trusting fool. I didn't want to believe the reports.”

“What reports?”

Reluctantly, she told him. “My operations department intercepted a number of coded transmissions from Telemachus' secured line from the offices within his private residence, including one right before the fake Magog attack.”

“Launch commands,” Dylan said softly.

She shook her head. “I can't believe Rhade would do something like this! I know he was terribly upset when you arrived, and he was livid about the election. He and the entire loyalist movement campaigned so hard to sway the opinion of the entire planet. He's always been loyal as a dog, and I just don’t want to accept that he could just…just turn like this,” she said, wiping at her eyes.

“Yeah, well, dogs have been known to turn rabid without warning,” he commented.

Rommie peeked her head inside the room. “Dylan, incoming message from Admiral Rhade.”

Rakel looked horrified and excused herself, hurrying out into the corridor. Dylan stormed toward Command, and Rommie matched his stride. His anger was almost tangible.

“Troops in the street, the triumvirate held incommunicado,” he muttered darkly. “Gaheris Rhade destroyed the Commonwealth once, Rommie. I'm not gonna stand by and watch another Rhade destroy it all over again, not when we’re so close to making some real progress in restoring everything that was lost!”

“So, what are you going to do? How do you plan to rectify the situation?”

His hand drifted to the force lance strapped to his thigh. “The same thing General Sani nax Rifati did six thousand years ago. I'm gonna get the military out of the republic. Time to give Telemachus Rhade a little history lesson.”

In Command, two of her honor guards flanked Rakel. Beka watched Dylan expectantly with a curious sense of apprehension. Tyr stroked his bone blades and smiled speculatively; this could prove to be grand entertainment.

“Andromeda, onscreen,” Dylan ordered.

Telemachus Rhade’s image appeared onscreen and Dylan Hunt fought the impulsive urge to draw his force lance and blast the viewer.

The dark seriousness in the other man’s eyes burned into his brain. “We must talk.”

“I would call that an understatement!” Dylan shouted. “What the hell's going on down there? You've got troops in the conclave, and he triumvirate held incommunicado?”

Telemachus dismissively waved off the captain’s concerns. “I can explain everything, but not like this. Let me come on board so we can discuss this face to face.”

From the weapon’s station, Tyr snorted in mild amusement. “You and the Third Lancer Regiment so you can take over the ship? Not likely,” he smirked. “Time to move on to the next ill-conceived plan, admiral.”

Dylan crossed his arms and stared down the image of Gaheris. No, this wasn’t Gaheris, dammit—this was Telemachus, Telemachus Rhade whom he had briefly trusted and now had also stabbed Dylan in the back when he wasn’t looking. “I can't argue with Mr. Anasazi,” he commented dryly. “Your credibility is a little weak at the moment.”

Telemachus held his hands up in a gesture of peaceful retreat. “No lancers, Dylan. Just the two of us, just talking.”

There was a hissed protesting female voice from off screen, “No, ‘Lemachus!”

“Andromeda, hold transmission,” Hunt ordered.

“Transmission held,” announced the computerized voice, and the transmission blinked off.

Tyr leaned on his console. “If we can manage to bring him up without arousing his suspicions, we might be able to put some sort of control on the situation planet side if we remove the tactical...”

Dylan was resolute. He closed his eyes. There was little choice left. “Clear the deck,” he ordered levelly.

Beka nearly gave herself whiplash as she turned to stare at him. Obviously, he’d lost his mind. “What? Dylan, no offense, but...”

“I know what I'm doing,” he replied, running his hands through his hair.

Tyr eyed him dubiously. “I strongly doubt that,” he commented. “Even your body language denies it.”

Rakel leaned toward the irate captain. “Let me stay,” she said. “Maybe he'll listen to his triumvir. If not his triumvir, then I’ll appeal to him as a family friend.”

Dylan frowned darkly, his angry gaze sweeping in all of those gathered. “This isn't a debate. I have questions and I'm gonna get answers, in my own way. Now get off my deck!”

Without another word, they filed out like chastised children. Rakel gave him an appraising long look before the doors slid shut, leaving Dylan alone on the Command Deck.

With a sigh, Dylan leaned on a nearby station console. “Andromeda, activate screen.”

Telemachus glanced at something off screen and shook his head, gesturing with his hands, as Andromeda reactivated the link.

“Admiral, about that meeting you wanted - permission granted,” he agreed, then terminated the link.

Telemachus rested his hand on the terminal, closing his eyes while Stasia ranted.

“Have you lost your exquisitely engineered mind?” she demanded, circling him like a predatory creature. “That man is an anachronism, ‘Lemachus! He’s a dangerous relic and every instinct I have is screaming that this is a hideous plan. Please, please, don’t go to that warship alone. At least take a small group of lancers with you!”

“I have no choice, Stasia. Someone has to put a stop to this. Dylan Hunt can’t try to bully into submission every world that declines membership to his dream. He’ll answer to me personally for the state of chaos and fear he’s single-handedly created today with his counterfeit Magog attack!”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’ll do whatever needs to be done to ensure that there is never a repeat of this performance, not here, not anywhere,” he vowed.


Dylan stood alone on Command and he was tired of waiting. Rhade should have been here by now, unless he was planning some tactical maneuver that required even more stalling. Long minutes had passed since Andromeda had announced the arrival of a single slip fighter from the planet’s surface and its subsequent acceptance into hangar bay two. “Status,” he barked.

Holo-Rommie glanced away. “He’s just outside Command, Dylan, and he’s alone as promised.”

“Is he armed?”

“One High Guard force lance.”

Dylan nodded, resting his hand on his own force lance. Neither had said anything about Rhade arriving unarmed, and Dylan hadn’t anticipated the meeting any other way. “Fine. Let him in. Initiate privacy mode.”

“But, Dylan...”

“Don't start with me! Initiate privacy mode now,” he snapped and the hologram faded as Telemachus entered Command.

Telemachus was the epitome of resigned and righteous fury. “I understand why you did it, Dylan. Believe me, I do.”

Dylan was incredulous and confused. “You've got this all wrong,” he protested.

“Do I?” Telemachus countered angrily. “I know how important that election was to you and your dream of a restored Commonwealth, how it hinged on Terazed’s inclusion to make it a reality.”

Dylan crossed his arms obstinately. “You know, last I looked, I wasn't the one with troops in the streets!”

“I told you I wouldn’t let anything or anyone compromise the safety of my home world. If that’s how you want to play this hand, then I can play that game, too. I can’t believe a man of your alleged caliber would stoop so low as to fabricate the illusion of the very attack he warned about, the Magog menace at our doorstep.”

Dylan raised his hands. “I think you are mistaken, Admiral Rhade. I am not playing at anything,” he promised.

“Neither am I,” Telemachus snarled, drawing his force lance and firing it.

Dylan took immediate cover behind the console where he’d been standing, and returned fire. “Rhade! Listen to me!”

He fired again, the shot severing a power coupling near Telemachus’ head. The explosion threw Telemachus across the room. He landed flat on his back and didn’t move again.

Dylan felt a sickening wash of déjà vu as he cautiously crossed the deck toward the fallen Nietzschean. It was too entirely like the way Gaheris had died. Dylan knelt, reaching for a pulse. Telemachus tackled him and slammed him against the deck, his bone blades pressing against Hunt’s unprotected throat. Dylan managed to throw him off and they both dove for lost force lances.

They each came up with a charged weapon, facing point-blank at one another. After circling one another warily for a minute, Dylan deactivated his weapon and holstered it.

Telemachus snorted and shook his head with a rueful half-smile. “You could have killed me,” he pointed out, keeping his weapon trained on the captain. “You didn't. Why not?” he demanded.

Dylan straightened. “Same reason you didn't kill me. Because we both know who the real criminal is—that neither one of us was behind the impeccable timing of the false Magog attack. Only one other person could have stood to profit highly from such a gambit, and she’s probably trying to make a hasty retreat while we stand here and discuss it.”

Telemachus nodded and smiled. He hadn’t wanted the day to end this way, and was glad that there was an alternate path to tread, one where he and Dylan Hunt were allies. He holstered his weapon and didn’t miss the relieved sigh from the other man.

Dylan headed out of Command, and Telemachus had no problem keeping pace with his long strides.

“Unbelievable,” Hunt commented. “Behavior like that from a Triumvir. Andromeda’s found evidence of ceremonial visits to the shipyard, coded transmissions on her private line, and cargo manifests in her brother's name.”

Telemachus nodded. “If the information your A.I. uncovered is true, she's been planning this for months—perhaps even longer than that.”

“She knew that her scouts would locate me eventually and bring me to Terazed -
knowing that there would be a referendum, forcing your hand at last.”

Telemachus couldn’t help but be impressed with the scope and scale of her schemes. All these years, he had her pegged as a worthless politician, and now it turns out that she was a brilliant strategist in hiding. “And instituted a contingency plan in case it didn't go her way. She's a brighter woman than I had given her the credit to be. Tactically, I admire her strategies.”

Dylan eyed the Nietzschean oddly. “Do you think that you can verify this evidence independently? The people of Terazed will have more confidence in the truth if they can uncover it of their own accord.”

“Terazed is rich with free press. It's hard to hide things. It's harder to fake them. There will be a formal investigation, have no doubt of that. The truth will be exposed.”

Suddenly, Dylan grabbed Telemachus by the arm, pulling him up short. His expression was thoughtful. “You know, Rommie could falsify data like this easily. Hell, if I wanted to, I could make it look like you really were behind the whole thing, just like the triumvir suggests.”

Telemachus nodded. Maybe Dylan Hunt wasn’t such a slow learner after all. “And then you'd get everything you wanted, wouldn't you?” he concluded. “The isolationists
would be disgraced. There'd be a new election. Terazed would join your new Commonwealth.”

“And you'd go to prison, or be executed for high treason. Or I could kill you here and now, and swear it was in self-defense…”

Telemachus smiled. “As cost-benefit ratios go, it's got a lot to recommend it,” he commented.

“Except for it’s incredibly wrong!” Dylan insisted, the distaste of it still hanging in the back of his throat. “The Commonwealth is supposed to embody the highest ideals of democracy and civility—not operate with veiled hidden agendas and conspiracies at the highest levels.”

Telemachus laughed despite himself. Ah, sweet Divine, the man may have been a military legend in his day, but he was blissfully naïve regarding the darker aspects of government operations! “Welcome to political reality, captain.”

Moments later, they overcame Rakel’s guards in Hangar 5. She had almost reached her shuttle when the last man was subdued.

The Triumvir looked panicked and desperate as Telemachus announced, “Triumvir Ben-Tzion, you're under arrest.” He couldn’t help thinking how Stasia would have laughed as tears sprang to the woman’s eyes when she realized her plans had failed.

“Dylan, please. We want the same thing,” she sputtered as Telemachus led her away.

“No, we don't,” Dylan called after her, turning his back. “Good luck on your trial, Rakel. You’re gonna need it!”

Chapter 50

Stasia stretched out on the blanket, leaning on her elbows as she stared up into the night sky. Millions of stars shone brightly against the darkness. One of those lights might have been the Andromeda Ascendant, if she hadn’t left their system yet.

Telemachus poured some wine and handed her a glass. “He wasn’t what I expected,” he said at length.

“In what way?” she asked, enjoying the relaxed expression that crossed his face.

“He threw it all away.”

She laughed. “Threw all of what away?”

“He could have turned the tables on me when I went after the Triumvir,” he explained, stretching out beside her. “I could be the one facing charges of treason by the High Council instead of Rakel Ben-Tzion. It all hinged on Dylan Hunt and his perception of ‘doing the right thing.”

“Hmmm…one innocent man convicted, one guilty woman set free - in exchange for a fleet, a crew, the ability to protect Terazed and a thousand other worlds from a genuine horror. One small act of betrayal to save a universe and give birth to his dream,” she murmured. “He was a fool on all accounts, a romantic dreamer at the very least. No Nietzschean would ever have taken that course.”

He laughed and pulled her close. “Probably not, but it would have been an interesting issue to consider,” he replied, nuzzling her neck.

“So, what happens now?”

He rolled over and rested his head on his arm, his eyes on the stars. “There will be investigations, trials, and difficult decisions to be made. It still seems inconceivable, the whole matter of Rakel Ben-Tzion and her treachery from the very heart of the triumvirate. It’s not going to be a smooth course to travel for any of us, I’m afraid.”

“The road to enlightenment and improvement never is without its hardships,” she reminded him. “That’s what refines us, the smoothing of those rough edges.”

He smiled. “Are you being a Nietzschean or a Wayist?”

She shrugged and rested her face near his. “I think I’ve finally learned that the two aren’t necessarily exclusive of one another, but it’s been a long time in coming to that realization.”


The days following the departure of the Andromeda Ascendant imbued the citizenry with an ambiguous malaise. A vague sense of remorse for the loss of something they couldn’t quite grasp was impacted by the perceived loss of direction. For 300 years, the people of Terazed had awaited the arrival of Dylan Hunt. He had walked among them, and they had learned that he was just a man after all, albeit a man with a dream. They chose to not embrace his dream and forged ahead for a destiny of their own design. For now, there was an investigation to be conducted and justice to be meted out.

The trial of former First Triumvir Rakel Ben-Tzion was very much a public event. One couldn’t pass by a vid unit without seeing the live feed from the proceedings being broadcast on most of the major news networks. Ordinarily, anything even remotely contaminated by the political realm was instantly dreadfully boring to Stasia, having grown up in a diplomat’s household. Her disdain for her brother’s chosen political life strengthened her resolve to avoid the political arena. For Telemachus sake, she remained informed and educated regarding the latest gossip and intrigue, knowing that such information could prove valuable to him in some regard. Because of the way the incident with Rakel Ben-Tzion had touched Telemachus, she was determined to not miss a second of the trial, simply to sit back and laugh when she saw that hideous wench get her just reward.

The first few days of the trial were mundane testimonies and interrogations of Ben-Tzion’s house staff. Other than the fact that she was an unfairly demanding employer and often entertained male guests in her husband’s frequent absences, little information was gleaned. In an interview immediately following the conclusion of that phase of the trial, Ishmael Ben-Tzion seemed absolutely shocked by the revelation that his wife of ten years had been unfaithful. He publicly announced his plans to divorce Rakel because of her infidelity, and it seemed that news of her affairs disturbed him more than her political treachery. The celebrity gossip channels had a feast with that bit of information.

The next day was a boring diatribe of political commentary, breaking down the pertinent details thus far, attempting to forecast what the next days might bring.

Day four was more fruitful. Members of Rakel’s administrative staff were put on the stand. The prosecutors were relentless in their line of questioning, and the defense staff seemed little inclined to provide intervention for the collective population of their clientele.

Renee Marie was a diminutive human woman in her early thirties. When she wasn’t being presented with questions from the prosecutors, she was busy chewing on lacquered fingernails or twisting her flaming red hair into tight strands.

“Describe to the court the itinerary of Triumvir Rakel Ben-Tzion on the first visit she made to the shipyards in Midland,” said April Woteel, senior prosecutor. A Nietzschean, she often ran her fingers down her bone blades in testimony to her impatience when a witness took too long in providing an answer.

Marie twisted her hair into a knot. “I, um, don’t think I remember that first visit.”

Woteel smiled icily and waved forward a member of the junior staff who handed a flexi to her. She waved it in the air. “Your Honor, I present exhibit 35A, which is the itinerary made by Miss Marie for the triumvir.”

Woteel laid it in front of Marie while the images recorded on the flexi were displayed on a large holographic display directly across from the jurors. “Does this flexi bear the seal of Triumvir Ben-Tzion’s office?”

Marie swallowed and nodded.

Woteel coughed. “I don’t think I heard you, Miss Marie.”

The woman’s face colored. “Yes, it bears the seal of the triumvir’s office.”

The prosecutor nodded. “And does this flexi, which you affirm bears the seal of your employer’s office, contain information that you recorded into it? Is that not your own signature, authorizing the disposition of transportation for the triumvir’s visit to the shipyards?”

Reluctantly, the young woman agreed that it was.

“What was the purpose of the triumvir’s visits to the shipyards? It appears to be ceremonial in nature, public relations opportunities, but there was more to these visits than that, wasn’t there, Miss Marie? Why don’t you tell us about it?”

With her head bowed, she heaved another sigh. “Triumvir Ben-Tzion was…well, she wanted to…that is, she was trying to establish a contact there.”

“A contact? Please be more specific. For what purposes did she require a contact at the shipyards?”

“She wanted to find someone who knew about the engineering of ships.”

Woteel turned on her heel and paced dramatically, idly examining her bone blades. “She could have consulted any number of resources to have achieved that purpose. The library networks are full of publicly accessible information regarding the generalities involved with engineering,” she said, smiling into the camera, clearly enjoying her time in the public eye. “The public relations officers for the Home Guard would have been more than pleased to have provided the triumvir with a personal tutorial on the subject, had they known it was a subject she wished to study. What was the reason the triumvir elected to pursue such a circuitous route to gain this information? Was it because she required secrecy? Was she formulating a plan of such scope and scale, but in a manner that she didn’t want tied to her publicly?”

Renee Marie looked up, her expression resolute and desperate. “Yes!” she screamed, the veins in her neck distending. “Yes, is that what you want me to say?”

The Nietzschean prosecutor grinned and leaned closer to the distressed young woman. The poor dear was becoming undone, and she had only just begun the questioning. “I only want you to share with this court the truth. The manner of its phrasing and delivery is your choice, Miss Marie.”

Satisfied, she gave the witness some distance as she took a few steps away. She thumbed a remote control in her hand. The holographic image of the flexi was replaced with the craggy visage of a human male who appeared to be in his early twilight years. “I present to the court exhibit 35B,” she announced.

She relished the deep intake of breath from the witness as the younger woman saw the hologram. “Miss Marie, can you identify this man as the contact that the triumvir eventually established during several trips to the shipyards.”

After her witness confirmed that the man was indeed the triumvir’s contact, she continued. “This is Jeremiah Dustring, chief design engineer at the Midland shipyards. We are unable to pursue a line of questioning with this would-be eyewitness. He became classified as ‘deceased’ approximately six months prior to the ‘Magog attack,’ a victim of spontaneous suffocation during his sleep. The suffocation was induced by a collapsed trachea, which was revealed during an autopsy following exhumation.”

There was a murmur of discussion throughout the courtroom. Renee Marie sat impassively as this news was absorbed.

“Fortunately for us, the vid disc I will share with you now was presented to us by one of his heirs who discovered it hidden in a collection of valuables in a safe deposit box. I present to you Exhibit 35C.”

The hovering image was replaced with momentary static and an animated holographic recording made by Jeremiah Dustring. He reached with gnarled hands and adjusted the vid recorder, straightened his jacket, and cleared his throat.

“My name is Jeremiah Dustring,” he began in a gravelly croak. “I am one of the chief design engineers employed at the shipyards in Midland. If you’re watching this recording, then I’m dead—most likely murdered—because of a set of poor choices that I made. Make sure the young folk know that there are consequences for mistakes, regardless of your intentions. I made a terrible mistake, and have paid the price for it.”

Woteel paused the recording and glanced over at Renee Marie. The redhead had buried her face in her hands. The prosecutor smiled and resumed the recording.

“I’ll be straight to the point about this thing. I had some debts, big ones, the kind you get from living well beyond your means. I needed money and fast, and that’s all you really need to know about that. It seemed like the Divine smiling on us when Triumvir Ben-Tzion approached me about a personal commission, a job with a payoff bigger than several lifetimes of salaries. I shoulda known it was too good to be true—or all on the up and up.

“It wasn’t much of a challenge, draft schematics and blueprints for ships that looked and moved like Magog creations. At first, I was told that this was an Argosy Special Ops request delivered vicariously through the triumvirate. I was stupid; I believed her. In time, I learned that these ships were being built, but included a design for armaments that I hadn’t included. The data specifics on the designs I created and the modifications are included with the records that you—who ever you are—have found.

“I confronted the triumvir about the real purpose behind the building of those armed ships. She laughed and made some comment about a sword with no edge being a useless tool. I’ve learned that she plans to fake some Magog attack, but the Divine only knows what purpose she hopes to achieve with it.

“Maggie Maelin, my darling daughter, if it was you who found your daddy’s dark secret, I can only say I’m so sorry. I never meant for anyone to be hurt—I was just greedy and lusted after wealth. Joshua, son, you make sure that the authorities get this information—it may be important some day. Our Guards live and breathe to protect us, and I won’t have even one of them thinking they didn’t hold the line against Magog who weren’t real.”

Woteel froze the image, leaving the old man’s indignant countenance hanging in the air. She turned to Renee who bit her trembling lip.

“Anything you’d care to add to the testimony of a dead man?” she asked lightly.

Marie clenched her fists, tears pooling in her red eyes. She stood in the witness box and screamed. “I admit it! I knew the triumvir had Magog ships built and what she planned to do with them, but I swear that I had nothing to do with the Kalderan attacks! It was Rakel, it was Rakel! She made the deal with Kalderans, I had nothing to do with it!”

For a moment, Terazed stopped spinning.

The satisfied expression on the prosecutor’s face faded as she approached the witness, her eyes narrowing. “She made a deal…with the Kalderans?” she repeated incredulously, her hands gripping the railing that separated her from the small human woman.

Marie’s eyes grew large, seemingly large enough to escape their sockets. She tried to step back, move away from the Nietzschean woman with the suddenly crazed eyes, but she staggered into her chair and cringed. She had her hands clamped over her mouth lest more damning words fly out of it without her consent.

“I didn’t say that!” Renee screeched.

“I beg to differ,” the prosecutor snarled. She whirled to the court reporter. “Replay the last five seconds of this court session—audio only!” she ordered.

The man nodded and clicked out a series of commands at his console. Renee Marie’s startling revelation echoed throughout the court chambers. “I admit it! I knew the triumvir had Magog ships built and what she planned to do with them, but I swear that I had nothing to do with the Kalderan attacks! It was Rakel, it was Rakel!” She thrust her arm forward, finger pointing at the stunned former triumvir. “She made the deal with Kalderans, I had nothing to do with it!”

There was an immediate eruption of shouts, dismayed cries, and a variety of other sounds. The clamoring created a tidal wave of sound that passed through the courtroom and echoed around the entire disbelieving planet as the unexpected revelation took hold.

The judge banged her gavel repeatedly on the podium. “Order!” she screamed. “I must have order in this courtroom!”

The judge leaned heavily on her podium, her knuckles white against her dark skin. “Miss Woteel, please retract your bone blades and step away from the witness,” she said in alarmed tone. “I am going to call a recess of two hours to today’s proceedings in light of this new…information.”

Chapter 50

Stasia smiled crookedly as she stepped into her office. Telemachus was staring out the window at the tree line on the ridge nearest to the lab complex. As was his habit when in deep thought, his hands were clasped behind him, and his posture was impossibly straight.

“Two thrones for your thoughts, admiral?” she queried lightly. “This is a pleasant surprise. I was sure the receptionist was mistaken when she said you were waiting for me here. I’d expected you to be occupied with the trial until the end of the day, or longer.”

He turned and her half-smile faded. The particular expression on his face always accompanied news that was never good by any definition of the word.

“No,” she said flatly. “I know that look. Whatever it is, I flatly refuse to accept it, don’t want to hear it, and want no part of it,” she said, holding her palms out as he moved toward her.

He wrapped his arms around her and rested his chin on the top of her head.

“You’re beginning to frighten me,” she said after a moment and he sighed. “I’ve never had any indications of being telepathic, so you might as well tell me whatever it is that you’ve come to tell me.”

“Have you seen the broadcast from the trial today?”

“You know I don’t like to be distracted while I’m working,” she reminded him. “I thought I’d watch the recap after I got home and you could fill me in on the finer aspects.”

“Something unexpected happened today,” he said, and then told her what had transpired.

She absorbed the news thoughtfully for a moment. “I’m going to kill her,” she announced very calmly, color rising in her cheeks.

He tightened his hold on her when she tried to break free. “Stasia, listen to me!” he ordered. “It might not be true. We’ve got to see this thing through and let justice run its course.”

Knowing that she wouldn’t win this battle with him, she relaxed into his embrace. “Know this, ‘Lemachus. If it turns out that Rakel Ben-Tzion was even remotely involved with the attack that took our children from us, I WILL kill her myself.”

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