Parallax is Finished!

I wasn’t going to do this, but I am so pleased with both finishing Parallax and how the ending turned out that I just had to share it with you all. Of course now I have final edits and a book cover to worry about, but this is a big deal for me.  The final count is at 98,425 words or 394 pages, making this the longest story I have ever written in my life. Enjoy:

Though nothing came over the intercom, Pratt could see from his displays that DuBois and the Pis were trying very hard to override the Self-Destruct System. Outside the bubble, the Signiferian warships were becoming visible in the distance. Damn you, Xia, he thought bitterly. I trusted you to have my back.

He ducked down in his seat as several gun metal gray ships appeared over the Bubble way too close for his comfort. The ships ranged in size from the familiar Marcus Aurelius to several smaller armed merchant cruisers. All bore Militia markings and were taking up a spherical formation that placed Artemis at the exact center.

Pendrake’s voice echoed throughout the ship. “Sorry we’re late, Artemis. We’ll take some of the heat off you, Jack, while we escort you to the Jump Point.”

Pratt smiled as he keyed his throat mic. “Roger that, Marcus Aurelius. Remember to set your tracking systems for…” He made a quick calculation. “About twenty degrees to either side of what your sensors and eyes tell you. These ships use a phase-shift system to appear one place while actually being elsewhere.”

“Tricky bastards.”

“Deadly too.” A long range projectile cluster struck one of the smaller merchant cruisers, knocking out her outrigger engine pods and causing her to fall out of formation trailing brightly colored plasma and smoke. He boosted power to the engines as the formation started moving. “Any word on the reinforcements?”

“System-wide Comms are still spotty at best.”

Pratt considered Koren’s Gift in his shirt pocket, but decided against it. The last thing anyone would want is to expect The Hegemony to drop their problems to aid some human border system. “Weapons, get ready to engage incoming hostile ships and projectile weapons. We need to do everything we can to help our escorts and ourselves.”

“Aye, Captain.”

They were traveling at least 1/8th the speed of light, but it still seemed like they were crawling along toward their destination. The scanners showed a bleak picture of a green mass of friendly ships surrounded by a steadily constricting ring of red. The distance to the Jump Point was shrinking by the kilometer, but green dots were disappeared equally as fast. However, Pratt’s Indirect Firing Solution was bearing fruit as the band of Signiferian ships were being thinned out one by one. Both sides traded laser fire for projectiles and cluster munitions before a gap appeared in the red lines ahead.

“Guys, it looks like we’re going to make it.” Pratt called out. “Get ready to Jump.”

The Jump Beacon appeared in front of them, its one red and blue cyclops eye blinking its welcome as they approached. The Militia Force allowed them to move ahead while they covered the escape.

Pratt desperately wanted to feel some optimism as he entered in the ship’s access codes. They were this close to being home free and nothing appeared to be stopping them.

An error message scrolled across his main screen: Incorrect Code…Access Denied…Please enter Authorization….

“What the hell is up with the Jump Access Code?”

“Sorry.” DuBois yelled back. “They were updated and I forgot to give you the new one. Hang on while I send it.”

Before Pratt could rein in his anger, the Space in front of the ship rippled and flexed before disgorging a large rounded hull with several projections radiating outward to sharp points like spines on a sea urchin. He flashed back to the first encounter at Gorashto, but this ship looked meaner and more menacing as it released several smaller ships that immediately pounced. Six of his eight defensive turrets were knocked out of action, the armor was heavily compromised, and the engines were showing signs of imminent failure. But the new access code appeared on his screen and he entered it to an affirmative reply.

“You son of a bitch.” He snarled as his left hand hovered over the last self-destruct switch. Once he threw it, twenty seconds would remain until the ship’s fusion reactor safety locks would be disengaged and a second star would appear. “If I’m going down, I’m taking you bastards with me.”

He keyed his mic. “DuBois, it’s time.”

Her voice was defiant yet resigned. “I understand. How long?”

“You will have twenty seconds after I throw the switch, plenty of time to launch the escape pod if you don’t waste time with the Checklist.”

“Are you sure there’s no other way?”

“You can see the telemetry the same as I, Ariel. We have bad guys behind us and fresh Mama Baddie in front launching small fry. I don’t see any other option. I take Artemis down her throat with a 97.835-Megaton bomb tucked away inside. She goes boom and Mixton’s safe.”

“But you’ll be dead.”

“Small price to pay.” He sighed. “In any case, if I’m dead they don’t have their prize and maybe they’ll go back to wherever they came from.”

“I don’t like this.”

“You don’t have to like it. You just have to do it. Now get your collective asses in gear.” He flipped the last toggle switch, expecting Artemis to give him an audio warning. It didn’t. He reset the switch and tried again with the same null result. Frustration set in and he pried the casing loose to peer inside. The last wire had been severed, the leads melted away from a stray electrical short. He snapped the casing back into position and cursed silently. “DuBois, are you and the Pis still there?”

“Yes, Jack, we haven’t gone anywhere yet.”

“The Self-Destruct is fried. I need you to go and manually set the reactors to overload. Then get the hell off my ship. Please.”

Another impact from a Signiferian weapon struck the hull farther aft. A look at the status screen told him that they were now targeting the engines, trying to slow him down for capture. The lights flickered and he heard commotion below. “What’s going on?”

“That last shot scrammed Reactor 2 and tripped the emergency bulkheads, Jack. We’re trapped on the Bridge with Emergency Power.”

Pratt slammed his hands on the control panel several times. I can’t lose another person under my charge, he thought. How to get out of this?

“Okay, resume your stations. Here’s the plan. Pis, I want every last bit of power redirected into forward propulsion and the Hyperspace Engine. Life Support, Batteries, every last watt you can scrounge up. We’re going to hit that Jump Point if it’s the last we do or die trying.” He paused. “Oh, and disable the Safety Protocols. We need them off if this is going to work.”

What was left working on his control panel lit up with an intensity he hadn’t seen before in an electronic system. Engine output indicators quickly exceeded their maximum ratings and overload warnings sounded throughout the ship. They were followed up by collision warnings as the Signiferian Capital Ship drew uncomfortably closer.

“Artemis, this is the UEUN Jupiter. We have been monitoring your communications. Alter your course Fifteen Degrees to Port. We’re coming in.”

The Geo-Class Battleship was the largest warship in the Union Navy’s inventory, second only to the carriers. It was big enough to blot out the sky above him, its ten-story high gray hull bristling with enough power to destroy medium to large asteroids from a ring of turrets large enough to park Artemis inside and crew complements that rivaled the entire Mixton population. Everything about it was big, mean, and fully committed to the task of dispensing death and destruction to anyone foolish enough to incur its wrath.

Pratt coaxed Artemis under and around the battleship’s three extended cooling vanes and steered toward the Jump Point.

“Thank you, Jupiter. Is there anything we can do?”

The Jupiter’s Captain struggled against a not-so-well-concealed chuckle.”Negative, Artemis, but thanks. I think we can handle it from here. I understand that you have an appointment with the Jump Point. We’ll make sure you keep it. Jupiter out.”

“Arrogant…wait a minute, they’re right.” Pratt shook his head and dove for the event horizon. As he cleared the combat zone, he noticed the Jump Point fluctuating, literally rippling outward, the distortion waves buffeting the ship with ever increasing intensity. Before he had realized it, the Hyperspace Engine had locked on and they were beginning to tumble.

“Something is wrong with the Jump Point.” He announced, closing the Bubble. “This is going to be a bumpy one. Hang on.”

They jumped. Then reappeared. Then jumped again, the process repeating itself several more nauseating times before they left Normal Space. Everything onboard the ship went dead, with the exception of the smell of ozone that drifted up from the Bridge and the faint woosh of handheld fire extinguishers.

After a few more minutes, the remains of emergency power kicked in and he was able to lower himself back down to the Bridge. There, he noticed a gaping hole in the rear bulkhead that had been cut away. Behind the hole lay the remains of part of the ship’s electronics.

He looked DuBois and the Pis. “Let me guess. We have a new problem.”

End of Book One

Parallax Update #13: The Final Update

As much as I would love to continue these updates, I’m afraid that I’m almost at the end of this draft so I have to cut it off at this point. Parallax is down to a few scenes and I’m trying very hard to finish it up today. No, I’m not superstitious over the title number because it’s just a number. Parallax’s final count will be somewhere around 97,000 words or 388 pages. Anyway, enjoy:

Pratt removed a framed holograph from the last box and carefully placed it on a shelf above his cabin desk. It was an old picture taken at his Academy graduation. Nine years, he thought, as he studied the fresh-faced young ensign in full dress uniform standing with his parents in front of the traditional static Fighter Display that was popular for such things in Anchorage back then. Both of his parents had just received their first Admiral stars and though their expressions looked severe in the picture, he remembered afterward their pride as they congratulated him on his achievement. He made a few final placement adjustments before turning to stare out the small octagon cabin window. He was older than most of the other cadets at Twenty-Two, having attended a civilian college before bowing to family pressure to join the Navy. Still, he had no regrets. The Navy had been good to him. How was he ever going to return to that life? Would he be able?

The double knock on his cabin door and DuBois’s entry banished any further speculation. He turned and gave her a smile. “Took me a while, but I managed to get everything moved in and stowed. How are we doing?”

“The upgrades to Artemis’s Quantum Computers are phenomenal.” DuBois said, handing him a written report. “Inputting and integrating over 120 petabytes of information was no small task, but we got it all in and the computer has come up with some interesting data that points back to an ancient Signiferian underground base on Earth. You made the right decision, Jack.”

He bade her sit. “That’s not what I meant, Ariel. I was talking about how you’re holding up.”

She sat down and it was clear to Pratt that she felt awkward about talking about herself. “I don’t feel like myself, Jack, and my emotions are all over the place. I don’t know whether it’s because of these new perceptions I have or something else.”

“We’ve both gone through some changes.” Pratt nodded. “Some more profound than others.” He set the report aside. “Do you have any family back on Earth?”

“A few distant relatives, but no one close. You?”

Pratt gestured toward the holograph. “My parents. I have a sister and a brother, but they’re both working the ongoing Mars terraforming project. Last I heard they managed to increase the atmospheric density by almost 1 Percent.”

DuBois shook her head. “We’ve been trying to terraform Mars for almost 200 years. That planet just doesn’t want to behave.” She reached into a hidden pocket and retrieved a small brown box. “This came in for you earlier from Navy Command.”

Pratt opened the box and found two gold oak leaves and a set of platinum wings nestled in a bed of soft silver velvet cushioning. “Looks like I got my rank back and my Expert Wings.” He snapped the box shut and set it next to the holograph. “A hell of a time for them to toss me a reward.”

“You don’t have to go back.” DuBois said. “Remember, my original job was to recruit you for Alliance Intelligence. That hasn’t changed and you’d still be fighting to make a difference.”

Pratt stood and fought from scratching at his bandaged head. “That’s the thing, Ariel. I don’t want to keep fighting. No one should have to go through what I have for the past few months. I’m not some epic hero fighting for honor and glory. I’m just a guy trying to survive and do a job.”

“You just defined a Hero.” She replied. “Jack, a Hero doesn’t do what they do because there’s a reward in it. They do it because it needs to be done and no one else is stepping up to take charge. Remember what you told me about Pi1 Pegasi? You went against orders and took on a Locknar Capital Ship by yourself, giving the Defense Fleet the chance to regroup and push the Locknar out. That sounds like heroism to me.”

“I got lucky.”

She shrugged. “Sometimes, Luck is all we have to work with. My point is that you have to keep fighting because, like it or not, you don’t have a choice. Do you think that The Signiferians are going to just let us waltz out of here? Even if we do, they’re going to chase you all the way to Earth and beyond to get what they want.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

“We’re partners. It’s in the job description somewhere.” She mused. “Somewhere in the back of the manual in teeny tiny print. Anyway, I’m stuck in this mess as well and I can’t do this without you.”

“Fine, twist my arm.” He took a deep breath, When he exhaled, he tried to force all his pent up frustration out in one massive push. “Where are we on launch preparations?”

“I filed our flight plan for 0700 tomorrow morning, but I left a notation to allow us an emergency launch option. Just in case.” Before he could speak, she raised a hand. “I have another surprise for you if you can take a few minutes away from your private brooding session.”

“Why not?” Pratt said, rising from his chair. “We have at least sixteen hours to kill before we have to do anything. Lead on.”

Pratt made mental notes as he followed DuBois out of his cabin and into the main corridor. His original inspection prior to signing off on the repairs and upgrades was confined to the Main Deck, so as he descended the ladder to the Cargo Hold, he was unprepared for what he found.

Most of the cavernous Hold was still as he remembered it, full of equipment racks and space for vehicle and mobile troop containers. As they went forward toward the ship’s bow, he noticed a doored bulkhead where an open space leading to Artemis’s Chin Turrets should be. He waited as she keyed in an access code before pushing the door open.

The flush-mounted deck hatch leading down to the Chin Turret was still there, but conveniently placed around the perimeter were several exercise machines and a few free-weight benches. Monitors adorned the bulkheads on three sides, causing him to raise an eyebrow.

“You installed a Weight Room.”

“Yeah, isn’t it great? I thought that despite the artificial gravity and healthy menu choices in the food dispensers that we could use with some good old fashioned calisthenics.” She grinned up at him as she tapped a control panel. A twin ring console rose up out of the deck. “We can also use this space as an Auxiliary Bridge in Emergencies. What do you think?”

“You installed a Weight Room.” Pratt took in the view, fighting to keep his temper in check. “Of all the things that could have been installed on the ship, you decided to put in a Weight Room.”

“I thought it was a good idea.”

“It is a good idea; when do you think we’re ever going to have a chance to use it?” Pratt swallowed his anger and forced a smile. “The last thing I’m going to worry about in the heat of battle is how many squats I need to do.” He walked over and studied the control consoles. They were pared down versions of the ones topside but very functional. “We have to remember that this is still a combat ship and we’re the only ones who will probably ever use this stuff.”

Pratt heard footsteps overhead. “Were we expecting visitors?”

DuBois beamed. “Our new crew. When the word came down that you were exonerated, everyone wanted to sign up. Pendrake did most of the selection process and sent me a list of ten of her most qualified people. Besides, we have crew quarters that are going empty and we need help in running this ship.”

“You should have told me.”

“I gave you a full report.”

Pratt remembered the data tablet that he had casually set aside on his desk. “Ah yes. How are we going to pay them? We’re not exactly the Intergalactic Bank of Pratt.”

“I took care of that, Jack.” DuBois replied. “I sent Alliance Intelligence an estimated budget of our expenses for the next five years and they advanced us the money. Of course, there was a small catch.”

“There’s always a small catch.” Pratt said, his anger rising again. “What the hell did you promise them?”

“Nothing extravagant. In return for a Half-Billion Credit Grant, I promised that we would undertake a few side missions for them from time to time with full discretion of whether or not we accept them.”

“In other words, they bought and paid for me.” Pratt rubbed his forehead as he took a seat on one of the weight benches. “I wish you would have said something to me first.”

“You would have said No.”

“You’re damned right I would have said No. I’m not a damn spy.”

“You wouldn’t be.” DuBois held her ground. “You and I are now officially transferred to the newly formed Alliance Investigative Service. Our job will be as Independent Investigators. Cops, if you want to use the old terms.”

“Oh Great.”

“Cheer up, Jack, you’re going to be able to fight the Signiferian Threat and be able to make the Galaxy safe for everyone.” She tapped him on the arm. “Ready to meet the crew?”

Pratt let out a frustrated grunt. “I suppose I don’t have much of a choice. This is still one very long, very long, Day.” He stood and followed her out.

Let’s Talk About Corona

First off, let me state that I am not talking about the infinitely tasty beverage…hehe. No, I’m talking about my book, Corona, currently available on Amazon in both Kindle and Print Versions. A good portion of this article are reposts from previous articles. So, without further ado, let us begin:

Corona’s Backstory: Corona is a story that is near and dear to me. Back in 2002, I had left college due to funding issues and had relocated from Ames, IA to San Diego, CA. As you can imagine, moving to a new city with few initial prospects and little faith in my ability as a writer (at the time) was a very daunting set of circumstances. I was out and about one day job hunting when I came across the Hotel Del Coronado. Man, what a beautiful place! While I was there at the Del, I heard the story of Kate Morgan, a young woman who was found dead on the beach of an apparent suicide back in the Day and that got me thinking of writing a ghost story. Of course, I could have easily written a standard ghost story, but I decided to give it something of a SF twist and then Corona was born.

I started by asking myself three questions:

What if ghost sightings were actually echoes of the past?

What if a structure had been built upon a transdimensional nexus?

What if that nexus was used to imprison an evil person’s consciousness?

Once I had answered those three questions, I set about creating Corona’s story world using elements from another story that I had been previously working on. I like to create connections between some stories and this idea seemed perfect to do a few tie-ins. It didn’t take long to write Corona, but unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be a place to shop it due to a limited market at the time. So, it sat in a file on my computer for quite a few years before I decided to self-publish it on Amazon. For all intents and purposes, Corona is my first published work and as such, holds a special place in my heart. It’s an added thrill to be able to share it with the world at large.

The World of Corona: Corona’s story world is a possible future to our own, but with a few twists. Most of the technology, mannerisms, and styles are similar to our own, but there are a few exceptions that exist firmly within the realm of fiction. It’s Speculative Fiction, go figure. 😉 The main story location is the Hotel Maldonado, a historic landmark hotel with something of a ghostly past. Normally, a haunted hotel would put the story right into the Horror or Supernatural Camp, but I like to put my own spin on things so there are wrinkles on the theme that I’m pretty fond of. The most important aspect of Corona’s story world are the characters. They are complex, relatable, and I like to think, truly unique unto themselves. I could go into more detail about them, but they are best when read without prompting.

Corona’s Sequel Potential: Every story has the potential to become a series and this one was originally intended to become a series featuring my intrepid investigators as they delve into various paranormal cases. Obviously, I haven’t done that yet, but the beauty of fiction is that anything is possible.

Short Fiction Feature: One Small Step

Phil’s Electronics Shop was more than a place where one could buy a new radio, television, or record player. It also served as a meeting place where people on the street could gather and catch a news broadcast while on the move. Today, a small crowd had formed to watch a series of grainy flickering images on the dozen color and black white television sets that were stacked behind the large store front window.

Jake Patterson stood at the rear of the crowd and watched as a figure in a bulky white space suit climbed out of the bug shaped Lunar Module. His height allowed him a good view of the news video and his attention was riveted by the voice that came from speakers mounted to the floor of the window display.

“That’s one small step for Man. One giant leap for Mankind.” Neil Armstrong’s name was scrolled across the bottom of each screen.

Amazing, he thought as he watched Armstrong drop from the ladder and be the first man to step onto the Moon. I wonder if we’ll go any farther. Go any farther. His hand clenched on the receipt he held in his hand. He was a man now and the Law told him he had to sign up for the Draft. Vietnam needed our help, his dad used to say and if we didn’t lend a hand, the Communists would take over and we would be next. Dad was serving in Saigon with Westmoreland’s staff and if he could do it, Jake felt he could do it too. He loosened the collar of his white shirt and took in a deep breath. He didn’t feel any other but his brown haired crew cut and clean-shaven expression told a different story.

A shiny blue Studebaker pulled up to the curb and he smiled as the driver got out and joined him. Taran Martin was one of the few blacks on the football team and though he ran faster and threw farther than any of the other players, Jake ended up being tapped for the Quarterback position. It wasn’t fair or even very efficient but it was Coach Marley’s decision and what the Coach wanted, the Coach got.

Martin looked out of breath as he shut the car door and joined Patterson. “Did I miss it? Is he on the Moon?”

Patterson pointed. “He just stepped off the ladder and the other guy, Aldrin I think, is getting out now.”

“Would have been nice to see a brother up there.” Martin ignored a few stares from the crowd. He was tall like Jake only he had adopted the brightly colored shirt and bell bottomed jeans that most of their friends had taken on. The new fad was called The Hippy Look but this one was definitely hanging on longer than hulu hoops and granny spectacles. He was already as tall as Jake but the dark afro lended a few more inches to his lanky frame. “Only white dudes get to go into Space these days.”

“I’m sure it was more complicated that that.” Patterson said as he watched Aldrin follow Armstrong thousands of miles away in Space. “Even if it were true, you know that it would have to change one day.”

“For a white boy, you’re awfully optimistic.” Martin looked down at Jake’s hand. “Draft Board?”

Patterson nodded. “Yeah, Mom made me go sign up early this morning. She’s afraid that the cops might show up and arrest me if I didn’t get it done.”

“Any word from your Dad?”

Patterson nodded. “The censors did that blackout thing to parts of it but it sounded like he was doing okay. I’ll be glad when he comes home but I’ll probably see him before then.” He looked down at his brown dress shoes before taking another breath. “I’m going to talk with the Army recruiter later today about volunteering.”

Taran lowered his voice. “Are you crazy, Man? People are dying over there.”

“It’s a war.”

Taran pulled him over to the Studebaker. “Look, White Bread, you’re my friend and all but you can’t be serious about going to Vietnam. You know that’s all about the Establishment trying to make money off the blood of people like you and me. I thought you had more sense than that. You should be going with me to the next protest. People are running to Canada left and right to get away from that and your crazy ass wants to volunteer.”

“Hey, my Dad’s over there.”

“You know what I mean, Jake. I respect your Dad but he’s not us. We have a choice and I’m not letting them use me to die for them. They’re not going to draft you anyway. They only send poor black men over there.”

“Stop right here.” Patterson said. “The Draft is based on a number, not an income or a box on a form. If you had paid attention in Civics Class, you’d have known that. You aren’t even poor, Man, so where do you get off using that line of crap with me? We’ve been neighbors for years and we certainly aren’t poor.” He sniffed the air. “What’s that smell?”

“Nothing.” Martin said. “Someone was burning incense at my house earlier before I borrowed my Mom’s car.”

Patterson didn’t buy the explanation but allowed it to go by. There was no secret that reefer was making its way around town and that sweet, slightly sickly, odor was hard to forget once it first made its way into someone nostrils. He turned back to the windows as a commercial came on. The crowd began to break up as the great moment came to a less than great end.

“Does Stacey know?”

“She’s my steady.” Patterson said. “Of course she knows. She didn’t like hearing it though. She’s got this idea that we’re going to get married after Graduation and move to Philly or New York.”

“I think it’s a bad idea.” Martin said. “You’re a smart guy. You could go pro football or college or even carry on with that writing stuff you like doing. Why throw your life away for some old dudes who couldn’t care less about you? You’re being flimflammed, Sir.”

“You go from Doctor King to Malcom X at the drop of a hat, don’t you?” Patterson said. “Do you have any concept of duty or serving the greater good?”

“Dying for some stranger who wants to keep me down isn’t serving the greater good. As long as my people are being kept down by the Man, all bets are off.”

“Aren’t we all the same people?”

Taran stopped talking but his brown eyes narrowed. “You just don’t get it.” He opened the car door. “Look, me and some people I know are leaving tonight. You’re welcome to join us.”

“Where are you going?”

“Where else? Canada. We can leave the madness and make a new life up there.”

“What about Graduating?”

“They got schools up there. You can do what you want but I’m not supporting The Myth.”

“What myth?” Patterson shook his head. “Never mind. Aren’t you worried what people are going to think of you? Of your family?”

Martin shook his head. “It takes more effort to raise an opinion than to lower it. My family understands what I want to do. They support me. You’re my friend; what about you?”

Patterson looked at him and held back the sadness from his voice. “I’m sorry but I can’t. I have to do what I must. All I can say is good luck and no matter what, we’ll always be friends.”

“Okay then.” Martin got back in the Studebaker. “Catch you later, Man.”

Patterson watched him drive off and began walking toward home, feeling much older than the calendar would say.

THE END

Short Fiction Feature: Retrograde

     Ko-Sha took short sips from her goro tea as she laid out the data pads in front of her Advocate. Lunchtime was a crowded affair at the Institute’s common area as students jockeyed for position at the few empty wooden tables. “I’m telling you Na-Den, there is a pattern to each Event.” She looked up at him with amber eyestalks. “The Events are increasing.”

     Neglecting his turana noodle salad, Na-Den admired his younger protégé’s determination, studying her data on the small red and blue crystals. Ah, but if I had half her enthusiasm when my head fur was the color of flame, he mused to himself. “This is very impressive work, my dear, but without solid evidence to support your claims, it is simply speculation.”

Ko-Sha’s expression darkened. “I can’t substantiate my conclusions any more than what I have shown you here. Every time I contact the DEC for in-depth Event documentation, I am told that nothing but charred inorganic materials have ever been recovered from an Event or that electromagnetic flux has made recordings inconclusive.” She set her cup aside. “Na-Den, my data indicates that the Events are increasing in frequency.”

Na-Den sighed and scooped up a mass of purple salad from his bowl. “Even if what you are theorizing is true, the DEC has been administering to the public good for over two hundred years. They perceive no danger except to those traveling through the Event area. What makes you right and a million trained Eventologists wrong?”

Ko-Sha frowned, her facial coloring matching the shock of red hair fur that adorned her smooth blue skinned head. “Other than my data, I just have a hunch. Professor So-Gar’s theories on magnetic pseudo-wormholes-.”

“Are totally theoretical.” Na-Den shoveled in his forkful of food. He chewed fast, then swallowed. “In over 160 years, So-Gar has never produced a single shred of evidence that Events are anything more than what the DEC has already called them: a freak interdimensional disturbance linking Turast with another world. The disturbances open, a ship or plane is deposited in the Great Woods, and they close for a year or two.” He finished his lunch and set his fork down on the tray. “You have accomplished some impressive theoretical work, but other than completing your requirements for your Eventology apprenticeship, you have not added much to what we already know about the phenomena.”

“Perhaps Signatory Xi-Tol could grant me permission to travel to the Great Woods? There shouldn’t be any harm in taking some readings?”

Na-Den took his tray over to a nearby recycler bin and slipped it inside. When he returned, the dark age spots on his forehead danced as he shook his head. “You will need more than this to get the province signatory to issue a travel permit into a restricted area.” He slipped a brown overcoat over his tan shirt and gray trousers. He patted her shoulder and smiled. “You should be happy that you are graduating from the Training Guild, Ko-Sha. There will be plenty of time for you to debunk the DEC when you reach your first assignment.” He looked at the crystal clock on a nearby wall. “By the Goddess, I am late for a department meeting. Take the rest of the day to relax.”

As he passed the table, she looked up. “Na-Den, what does the word Umanh mean?”

He whirled on her and fought to keep his voice low. “You are never to speak that word in my presence again, do you hear me?” He clutched his hands tight to his sides as his eyestalks retracted in anger.

She recoiled as if stung. “One of my Learning Assistants brought it up in lecture. I was just curious what it meant?”

“The Umanh were once our neighbors here on Turast. Their passing was a time of great sadness for everyone. We will not speak of this again.”

Ko-Sha watched him storm off. Why would he be angry over a word that was common knowledge? I must find a way to make this up to him, she thought as she finished her tea. She gathered up her data pads and stuffed them into a small white carrying bag, slipping the strap over a shoulder. She smiled and snapped her fingers. There really was more than one way to skin a tarmok cat. She reached into her bag and pulled out a small communication crystal, dialing as fast as her slender fingers would allow. As she stood and walked outside the common area, a cool wind ruffled her head fur as the sun breathed its yellow last as it began to fall below the horizon.

She smiled as she recognized her cousin Ko-Ren’s face appear in the air above the crystal. “Hello Cousin,” she said. “I see you are still trying to keep the red in your fur.”

Ko-Ren’s head fur was beginning to fade from a bright red, signaling the end of his youth. “Still as irreverent as always, Cousin? All that synobi money the family paid for your education and none of your Advocates could take that away.” He turned away from a moment to turn a dial on the triangular computer console he worked at. “Is there a purpose for your call or are you once again looking for humor at my expense?”

Ko-Sha laughed. “I need a favor, Cousin. I want to visit Event Hill.”

Ko-Ren stopped in mid-sarcasm. “Did you say Event Hill?”

“Is there a problem?”

“I cannot discuss Event Hill over an unsecured line, Ko-Sha. There are regulations.”

“It is not illegal to talk about Event Hill.” She replied. “Why are you getting so nervous?”

Ko-Ren leaned forward. “Event Hill is a controlled hazard area. Only Grade 12 DEC Monitor and Retrieval Teams go there.”

“You can get me in.” She said. “You have the clearance to escort me there and back. Will you do it?”

Ko-Ren looked from side to side, then turned back. “Ko-Sha, you know that I would do anything for you, but taking you to Event Hill could cost me my position as DEC Liaison. Every square foot of that area has been investigated by the DEC. There is nothing but trees, grass, and electromagnetic flux in that place.”

She put on her most charming smile. “I only want to take a look around. I promise not to do anything like the trip to the Inertron factory.”

Ko-Ren chuckled. “Famous last words. Bad luck follows you like a hungry crawler beetle. I have never seen anyone who could make Inertron catch fire before.” He paused. “I am sorry, Ko-Sha, but I cannot do it.”

“Cannot or will not?”

He shrugged. “Take your pick. I love you, Cousin, truly, but there is a reason why that area is restricted.”

She pouted. “I understand, Ko-Ren. I should have realized that I was asking too much of you for such a small favor.”

“It is not going to work this time.” He said, his eyestalks changing to an embarrassed mauve. “I have let you get your way far too many times in the past for my own good. Whatever you are planning, you had best forget it.”

“You are right, of course. I was foolish to think that you would want to help me after the analysis I did of your Pulsar 889 data. Free of charge, I might add.”

“You are not going to let that lie, are you?”

She shook her head. “Not a chance.”

Ko-Ren’s eyes twitched from side to side for a long time. When they stopped, he took a deep breath and nodded his head. “If I do this for you, all debts are paid, understood?”

She fought to keep her grin hidden. “Why, of course, Cousin.”

Ko-Ren opened a small window and began typing. “Come to this address. I will meet you there and take you where you want to go. Leave the campus right now. If we are going to do this, it has to be now.”

“Thank you, Cousin.”

“Do not thank me.” He said. “I am not pleased at this.” His image faded.

“Nor am I.” She muttered as she hailed an air tram. “But I need this data.”

The ride from Corona City to the Great Woods took two silent and excruciating hours. As the gray steel and white stone of Corona City melted to green grass and tall trees under a fading blue sky, Ko-Sha felt expectant that the nagging itch at the back of her mind would finally be scratched.

The tram landed near a small green building with a laser transmitter dish on the roof, its emitter pointed skyward to send and receive signals from the hundreds of satellites that made up Turast’s orbital network.

Ko-Ren was waiting for her, his hands holding the reins of two large black crawlers. The large beetle insects pawed the ground and made soft clicking sounds as he patted their heads. He stared at his wristwatch as she climbed from the tram and walked toward him. “You sure took your sweet time getting here. We only have a few hours to go there and get back before the late shift comes on.” He handed her one of the reins. “We have to take crawlers up there because of the magnetics. I have packed a standard non-electronic specimen case in your saddle bag.”

“I did not say that I was wanting to collect anything.” She said.

He reached over and pressed the top of a blinking crystal embedded in her crawler’s carapace. The crystal stopped blinking. He did the same to his crawler before climbing into his saddle. “I know you better than that, Ko-Sha. Now come, we will not have much time before the recorder registers the tracers being off.”

She slipped her feet into the stirrups and turned to follow her cousin as he rode down the trail. The smell of early evening air and the thick forest of trees tantalized her senses as she rode along. She stopped, gasping as she looked up and found herself staring at four faces carved into a large mountain in the distance. “Ko-Ren, who are they?”

Ko-Ren turned around and rode back to her. “Them? No one knows for sure. There is a myth that they were built by the Umanh long ago, but no one has ever bothered to investigate.”

“They must be sixty feet tall.” She said, staring at the face on the far left. A shimmer in the left eye of the sculpture reminded her of a tear. “Did you see that?”

Her cousin looked up. “I do not see anything, but that is irrelevant. Event Hill is at the base of that mountain, so you will be able to do two things at once.”

She nodded, smiling, and urged her crawler forward as she slipped on a pair of night vision goggles. Ahead of her, Ko-Ren was studying the spinning lights of his Directional as he rode along. He frowned at the confused device before slipping it into a blue pocket of his uniform jumpsuit. He pointed to a small grassy plateau. “That is Event Hill.”

She followed him to the foot of Event Hill and hobbled the two back legs of her crawler before climbing to the top. Below them, the Great Woods expanded in all directions like a vast black carpet, presided over by the stone faces in the mountain. “Cousin, is it not true that in each Event a ship or plane falls to the ground?”

“That is what I have always been told, yes.”

She pointed. “I am no ecology expert, but I do not see any evidence that anything has been disturbed here.”

He shrugged. “The Ecological Guild is very good at their jobs.” He looked around. “Now, please hurry so we can get out of here.”

She pulled a small silver case from her saddlebag and opened it. Inside were several small glass specimen jars and a portable black and silver scanner. The scanner itself was useless, but the specimen jars were very useful in obtaining samples of the soil and grass. She clutched her ears as a loud whine assaulted her senses. “Do you hear that?”

Ko-Ren nodded, looking fearful. He pulled her down to the ground. “That is the sound of an Event. Get down.”

The whining sound increased to the sound of a loud roar, its force pushing them off the plateau to roll helpless down the sides of Event Hill. The ground shook for several seconds as the sky above the plateau fractured in a blue light. A metal pod, triangular in shape and dark black, fell out of the light, hitting the ground. The blue light faded.

“Cousin?” She looked around. “Ko-Ren? Where are you?”

Ko-Ren was nowhere to be found. She ripped off her night vision goggles and searched around for him. At the bottom of the hill, she found his goggles and uniform. A liquid mass was oozing from the fabric. “Oh no.” She moaned. “Ko-Ren.”

She hid as a large white aircraft appeared overhead, the wash from its twin rotors buffeting the ground on its landing. A side door on the craft opened and several men and women dressed in protective silver suits jumped out. They walked over to the metal pod and examined it from all sides. One man, whose suit had a gold band around one sleeve, reached over with a metal rod and cracked open the pod. If I only had a working recorder, she thought.

A body fell out of the pod, to be scooped up by the team and carried to the nearby hopper. Large glowing marker rings were placed around the pod before the team climbed back into the hopper. Without a sound, the aircraft lifted off and departed.

She waited until the forest fell silent before standing and creeping toward the vacant pod. She was not dreaming, she saw a body being carried off. She slipped on a pair of thick leather gloves and reached out to touch the surface of the pod. The metal surface was cold, even through the gloves and was covered in raised lettering that she could not recognize. A symbol the size of her hand showed a raised greksa bird holding a cluster of arrows in one set of talons and a branch in the other on the upper center of the pod’s lid. Above the greksa was a banner bearing the same unknown writing. This was no ship or plane, she mused, this object was similar to escape pods used by the Pilots Guild.

“They will be back for this object.” She muttered. “I need to collect some evidence before it all gets hauled away or destroyed.” She rummaged through her pockets, then ran to her crawler. Her data pads were still in her white carrying bag. She pulled out a blank one and hoped that with some of the lies she had been finding that bad electronics was another one. She switched on the crystal and was relieved when it flashed its readiness to record data. She ran over to the pod and scanned an image of the metal surface before a spot of liquid on the interior cushions caught her eye. The liquid was bright red and was quickly drying out. She grabbed a specimen jar, set it for a liquid sample, then scraped the spot into it. A flash of light made her look up. She stared at it for several minutes, then ran for her crawler. She stopped for a moment to turn Ko-Ren’s tracer back on. At least her cousin would have the peace of a proper burial now.

She untied the crawler from the tree and climbing on, hurried the animal back to the waiting air tram.

The next morning she was awakened by the sound of loud pounding on her apartment door. It must have been a dream, she thought as she rubbed the sleep from her eyes and got out of bed. The brown carpeting was soft against her feet as she stumbled out of her bedroom and made her way downstairs.

She skidded to a halt as she saw the specimen case sitting on the brown wooden dining table. She grabbed the case and stuffed it into a nearby closet as the pounding on her front door grew louder.

“Just a moment.” She said, slipping on a dark blue robe and tying it around herself. She went to the door and looked through the peephole.

Two men wearing gray collarless suits with white shirts underneath were standing in her doorway. Their white head fur marked them as members of the DEC’s Investigation Branch.

She opened the door a crack. “Yes?”

The taller of the two put on a set of spectacles. His face was seasoned and full of jagged angles that made him look grim. He pulled out an ID and held it up. “My name is Inspector Sa-Ten of the Department for Event Control. You are Eventologist Initiate Ko-Sha, are you not?”

“Y-yes.” She stammered. “Is there something that I can do for you gentlemen?”

The inspector motioned for his companion to leave. “Ma’am, I regret to inform you that your cousin, Ko-Ren has been the victim of an accident. I am afraid that he is dead.”

She steadied herself against the doorjamb. “Oh no.” She gasped. “H-how?”

“We do not know. His body and that of his crawler were found in the area called Event Hill. It would appear that he was caught in an Event last night and was incinerated.” He looked down at her. “I am truly sorry, Ma’am.”

This was not a dream, she thought, it is a nightmare. She fought to keep the tears from falling. It is all my fault. Her composure slipped and a stray tear fell. She wiped it away as fast as she could. “T-thank you, Sir.” She choked out. “I just spoke with him earlier yesterday and he was in good spirits.”

Sa-Ten filled the doorway. “Ko-Sha, do you have any idea why your cousin would be at Event Hill at that time of night?”

“No, Sir.” She lied, hoping to be convincing. “I do not know much about that place. I believe it is restricted.”

“Hmm, yes it is.” Sa-Ten handed her a small calling chip. “If you remember anything else helpful, please give me a call. Good day.”

She closed the door and let the tears fall. Ko-Ren liquefied by exposure to Event radiation, but not her? Why? She heard her apartment’s communication crystal chirp and picked it up.

It was Na-Den. “Ko-Sha, are you coming in today? You are going to be late for your own apprenticeship ceremony.”

She fought to make a sound. “I am sorry, Na-Den, but I have just had a death in the family. I am sorry.”

Na-Den’s voice was comforting. “I understand, my dear. I will have your certificate sent over by messenger. Please let me know if there is anything that I can do.”

She turned off the crystal and sat down on the floor for a long time. Her eyes strayed to the closet where she had hidden the specimen case.

“I made a terrible mistake,” she muttered. “But I know how to make up for it.” She walked over to the closet and took out the case. She opened the case and stared at the contents. There were answers in the specimen jars and crystal recording buffers, but she would need help in deciphering them. She placed the specimens into a small metal box and set out in search of answers.

Ra-Tor looked up from her test tubes, beakers and computer analyzers to regard her with a cynical eye. The diminutive researcher was not fond of visitors, especially ones named Ko-Sha. Her coloring changed to green and she made no secret that she was not pleased. “Ko-Sha, I have no time for your foolishness right now. The stunt with the Inertron was the last straw. I almost lost my job over that.”

Ko-Sha put her hands up in a gesture of apology. “Ra-Tor, I did not know that injecting neurium isotope would make Inertron unstable. I did not think that anything could make Inertron unstable.”

Ra-Tor raised a latex covered hand as she meted out her strongest glare. “That is your problem, young one. You never think.” The glare was not working and in spite of herself, the researcher allowed a small grin to appear. “Very well, Ko-Sha, what do you need?”

Ko-Sha opened her carrying box and took out four small specimen jars filled with soil and mineral samples, setting them on the laboratory counter’s black marble. “Can you do a quick analysis of these samples and get me the results?”

Ra-Tor stared at the neat row of glass jars. “Anything in particular that you are looking for?”

Ko-Sha scratched her chin. “EM distortions, unusual virii, I really am not sure.”

“That does not help.”

“If I told you any more, I might be putting us both in trouble. Will you do it for me, please?”

Ra-Tor frowned as she eyed the specimens, then the younger woman in front of her. “I heard about Ko-Ren.” She said, her voice soft as feathers. “He was a good boy.”

“Yes, he was.” Ko-Sha began watching people passing by the door to the lab with increasing frequency. “I know I am not your favorite niece, Ra-Tor, but for once could you please help me without an interrogation?”

Ra-Tor took the specimen jars and put them in an analyzer. “You take all the fun out of being family, Child. Very well, I will run some tests when I get a chance and send you the results. Happy?”

Ko-Sha reached over and kissed her on the cheek. “Thank you.”

“Now get out of here before I change my mind.” Ra-Tor grumbled. “Kids.”

Ko-Sha was still chuckling to herself as she left the large gray laboratory building and to the local transit portal. The shape of the portal reminded her of that pod she saw at Event Hill the other night. “Coincidence, she muttered, “purely coincidence.”

Stepping into the portal, she inserted her credit chit into a reader slot on the glossy black control panel and waited as it deducted her fare. Entering her access code, she watched as the machine projected a bright amber transit field. As she stepped through the field, she watched it ripple and shimmer. She would be home in a matter of nanoseconds.

When she reached her destination, she let out a piercing scream, before passing out.

When she opened her eyes again, she saw Na-Den looking down at her, his face ashen. “Where am I?” She asked. “Why does my mouth taste so strange?”

He put a hand on her forehead to comfort her. “That is a sedative wearing off. You were hysterical when the medtechs brought you in to the emergency room.”

“Transit portal.” She murmured. Her eyes focused. “Yes, I was coming home when…I saw something in the portal…”

Na-Den tensed and shook his head. “You could not have, My Dear. Travel through interdimensional transit portals is instantaneous.”

She shook her head. “It does not matter now because I cannot remember. I have never had a reaction to a transit portal in my entire life.”

Na-Den smiled, his features relaxing. “You have been under a lot of stress the past few days. It is only natural that it should manifest itself somehow.” He leaned close and whispered. “What you need is to get back to work in the Eventology Lab. I prefer my apprentices to actually do the work before I certify them as journeymen.”

“What happened to me was all in my mind?”

“Quite possibly, yes.”

She sat up in the hospital bed, feeling the sheets crinkle under her. “How can you be so sure that I did not see anything?”

Na-Den looked over his shoulder for a moment, then turned back. “I am sure because when I was a little older than you, I helped to build the transit portal system on Turast. Trust me, there is nothing unsafe about traveling through interdimensional space. If there were, we would have known about it years ago.”

She sighed, swinging her legs onto the green-carpeted floor. “I guess you are right, Na-Den.”

He grinned and patted her back. “I am always right, as you well know. The weekend is here so take the time and get yourself together. I will expect you in my office at the beginning of next work week.” He handed her a small bundle. “I took the liberty of bringing you some clothes. Your residence superintendent allowed me access.” He pointed to a small white bag resting on top of the nearby cabinet. “The staff packed your things away in that.”

“I will see you soon.” She said as she took her things to the bathroom. “Thank you.”

“Thank me by taking care of yourself.” The door closed behind him.

She rushed into the bathroom and rummaged through the bag, relieved that the small box she had hidden the Event Hill specimens was untouched. She held the jar containing the red liquid up to the light. The suspension fluid in the jar kept the sample intact, but the globule was pulsing with a faint amber glow. She tucked it back into the box and changed into a pale blue shirt and black pants.

“What did I see?” She asked her reflection in the bathroom mirror. “Or did I see anything?”

Her reflection stared back at her, impassive and unhelpful. She grabbed her things and left.

When she got home, she found her communications crystal pulsing with a dozen messages from Ra-Tor.

“Ko-Sha, check your hyper mail some time today. I have sent you the results of the tests I ran on those samples you gave me. The results are, shall we say, enlightening. I do not want to know where you got them.”

“You have the heart of the Seven Vanes.” Ko-Sha said as she checked her hyper mail account. As she read the data on the floating screen, her eyes opened wider and wider. “Electromagnetic flux consistent with industrial grade transit portal operations.” She read. “Not recommended for long term use.” She scrolled down the message, but she knew the information coming up. “Molecular breakdown of organic tissues possible.” Did that happen to Ko-Ren?

She stuffed the sample box into the right pocket of her long gray overcoat and left the apartment. As she walked toward a stop for air trams, she became aware of a group of men standing near the local transit portal. All five were dressed in simple dark jumpsuits, but they stood too tall, tried too hard to look casual. She felt their eyes on her as she walked past and her instincts warned her to pick up the pace. She felt a snowflake touch her cheek as she heard heavy footfalls behind her. Am I being paranoid? She thought as she fought from breaking into a run.

A hand came down upon her shoulder, stopping her in her tracks. She turned to look up at a gray-faced man with faded white head fur and dark eyes devoid of emotion. Metal implants protruded from both sides of its forehead. The grip on her shoulder was firm and unyielding. “Let me go, Cyborg.” She said.

“Negative. You will come with us to DEC Headquarters.”

She squirmed in the steely grip as she looked around for passersby at such an early hour. “Help! Help me!”

“Do not resist.” The cyborg repeated. “You will not be harmed if you cooperate.”

She tried kicking its leg, but succeeded only in hurting herself. “What do you want with me?”

The Cyborg signaled to his companions, who were busy setting up a pair of tripod meshes. When the devices were completed, the amber glow of a transit portal appeared between them. “You will come with us.”

Before she could say another word, her vision exploded into a haze of false light and shadows. She felt a new pair of hands grab her as the cyborg’s grip slackened.

“I am rescuing you.” A soft rumbling voice told her. “We must hurry. The effects of the black light bomb will not last long.”

She nodded, numb, and allowed the voice to lead her. Her retinas registered another flash of light and the grip on her arm released. Her blurry vision registered that she was inside a building. “I cannot see.”

“That is a temporary effect of the black light bomb I used. It was necessary to disorient the DEC cyborgs.” She felt a cup pressed into her right hand. “Drink this, it will help you feel better.”

She took a sip. The drink was bitter, but it eased the pain behind her eyes and the ringing in her ears. As her vision cleared, she found herself in a large room with no windows, filled with computers and crystal communication sets that blinked red and blue. Small yellow lights illuminated the room. “Am I a prisoner here?”

Her savior crouched before her. He was not an unpleasant looking man with blue-gray skin; orange head fur and eyes the color of lavender. He was dressed in a gray shirt and trousers and regarded her with an air of guarded curiosity. “The DEC does not send their Tier 2 units unless there is a very good reason.” He scratched the back of his head. “I am curious why they would send units with Tac Packs and Tactical Teleport Units after a low level Eventology apprentice.”

“You have not answered my question.”

He shook his head. “No, you are not a prisoner. I brought you here because my contacts at the Institute felt you had information that could help us.”

She felt inside her right pocket. “I do not know anything.”

He smiled, reaching into her pocket and pulling out the specimen box. “You lie badly, Ko-Sha.” He opened the box and looked at the contents for several seconds before closing the lid and returning it. “Now then, shall we begin again with more honesty this time?”

“Who are you?”

He nodded. “Fair enough. My name is At-Ka. I am the leader of Spyglass.”

“Spyglass.” She said. “The conspiracy group?”

“We prefer dissident movement.” At-Ka replied. “We question the DEC and the Elder Council’s writing of our history regarding the Umanh.”

Ko-Sha opened her mouth to dispute the statement, but she did not have the heart. “I agree. There is something about the Umanh that the Government is unwilling to discuss. Even my Advocate, Na-Den-”

“Na-Den? An Advocate?” At-Ka cocked his head. “I must have been underground for a very long time if such as he is instructing the youth.”

“I do not understand.” Ko-Sha replied. “Na-Den has taught at the Institute for over one hundred years. He is considered a prominent member of the faculty.”

“I am sure that is what he and the DEC want people to believe.” At-Ka flipped a switch on a computer console. An image of Na-Den floated above the machine’s projector. “He may be an educator today, but two hundred years ago, he was the DEC Coordinator in charge of the Human Problem.”

She blinked. “Human? What is that?”

“It is amazing what they do not teach these days.” He shook his head. “The ‘Umanh’ as you call them now were known as Human back when we first came to this planet.”

Ko-Sha’s head began to spin and she seated herself. “You mean we are not native here?”

At-Ka refilled her cup. “No, we came from a dying planet many light years away. A Human deep space probe found us and their society welcomed us with open arms. Unfortunately, no one was prepared for what happened next.”

“We destroyed them, didn’t we?”

“Not destroyed, precisely.” He said. “We brought a plague with us, one that was deadly to humans. We used our knowledge of transit portals to construct an interdimensional safe zone to transport the human population until a means could be found to inoculate them. Na-Den was in charge of finding that cure.”

“Did we fail to do that?”

At-Ka took out a small silver device and began to wave it over her. “We did not fail. We never even tried. The Council of Elders deemed the project as unsuitable for our intellect and abandoned it after the last human was locked away in interdimensional exile.” The device started chirping when it went over her specimen case. “I thought so. Take the box from your pocket, please.”

Ko-Sha did as she was bid, placing the box on the table in front of her. “Those are samples that I retrieved from Event Hill.”

At-Ka opened the box and removed the liquid sample and data recordings. “Nicely done, Ko-Sha.” He took the liquid sample to a large white analyzer and held it under a red light beam. “The first sample of human blood in two centuries.” He removed the sample jar and held it up. “This is how the DEC was able to track you; tracer tags in the suspension fluid. They were onto you the moment you left the containment zone.”

She stood. “I need to get out of here.”

He picked up a neural stunner that was shaped like a tuning fork and held it up to her. “I am afraid that will not be possible. You see, what you saw never happened.”

She backed up. “But you want the truth to be revealed as much as I.”

At-Ka pressed a communication crystal. “She is ready now. The materials have been recovered. You may take her for reconditioning.”

Ko-Sha felt the blue beam from the stunner strike her. “But why?”

The last thing that registered in her mind was the face of Na-Den as he walked in to the room and looked down at her. His elder face was sad as he picked up the samples. “Good work, At-Ka. All we wanted was the samples. Once we have erased her memories of this entire affair, all will be as it should.”

When Ko-Sha opened her eyes, she was in a hospital bed. “What happened?”

Na-Den smiled. “You collapsed at your ceremony, My Dear. I suppose the excitement of becoming a credentialed apprentice was too much for you.”

Her mind felt as if it were full of cobwebs. “I feel strange.” She cringed from his hand as he patted her shoulder. “My work?”

“The committee liked your work and recommended you for full subsidies. You should be proud.”

She reached up to her face and felt a scar over her right ear. “I had surgery?”

“Minor surgery to correct a problem the doctors found.” Na-Den patted her shoulder again. “You will be fine.” He set a note down on the bed stand. “Your cousin asked that I leave this note for you. He is taking a trip and was unable to visit you. Good day.”

She picked up the note and read it as Na-Den left. The handwriting was Ko-Ren’s, but the content was curious. “Ko-Ren hates taking trips.” She mused.

The End