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Synopsis

Teen Shiloh Rush stars in the Singularity TV show Bulwark, but, off set, she’s an agent for the Zygan Federation, following in the footsteps of her beloved older brother, who’s missing on assignment. On his trail with her British partner William Escott, Shiloh stops alien terrorists from destroying earth and killing a young Judean prophet.


Chapter 1: Where Angels Fear to Tread

Renegades/Redemption

Aurora

Mingferplatoi Academy—two years ago

His heel hit the edge of my lip. I felt a sharp stab of pain and my blood began to flow. Livid, I spun around and slammed the side of Spud’s cheek with my fist. He cried out and collapsed into a crouch, then sprang towards my stomach. I was ready. I tightened my abs and shot both arms up into his jaw before he could make contact. The force of the blows sent his body back onto the floor, where he lay grunting and clutching his face.
Still wary, I lifted my foot and lightly placed it on Spud’s writhing abdomen, then looked up at the pedagogue for an acknowledgment of my victory. I caught the flicker in in the edge of my vision, but it was too late. Spud’s powerful legs launched into my pelvis and threw me screaming against the wall. For the next few minutes, I remembered nothing more.

* * *

Maryland—three years ago

If I’d known I’d never see him again, I would have told him how much I loved him. John was my favorite brother, but I was furious at him for choosing the Army over us. He made the announcement at dinner on April third, exactly three years ago, at 6:52 PM. This was going to be our last supper together for, he insisted, only a few months. I remember staring down, fiddling with my pendant. I couldn’t bear to look up at his face. I had just turned fifteen a few weeks before, and he’d promised to teach me how to ride his Moto Guzzi. Another broken pledge.
John’s flight was scheduled out of Dulles at 6:45 the next morning. The only thing on his mind was getting ready in time.
We were all kind of in shock. My youngest sister Andi was only eleven. She cried like she was losing Grandpa Alexander again. The rest of us tried not to. I glanced at Connie, who was nineteen going on thirty. Her eyes reflected disappointment and the barest hint of distaste. John had never been her number one sib.
With eight brothers and sisters to pepper him with questions, John spent the rest of the meal explaining why he’d made his sudden decision: to serve his country, for travel and adventure. For a chance to learn about things he’d always wanted to know. Tweens Billy and Bobby shared John’s excitement without really understanding the danger. The virtual soldiers in the war games they played every day could be resurrected to life with the simple touch of a button. There wouldn’t be such a button in the Army if something went wrong. I sat quietly at the table, sliding the food I could no longer swallow around on my plate with my salad fork.
John gobbled down his stew and then, anxious to pack, rushed to his room trailing siblings like a paternal Pied Piper. I didn’t feel like shouting my thoughts over a row of bobbing heads. My only hope to catch him alone for a few minutes was to set my alarm and wake up well before the sun. But it was the sheets of rain assaulting our cottage that made me leap out of bed in the middle of the night. The drumbeat of the drops on my half-opened window had almost drowned out the sound of John’s motorcycle as it sped away from our farmhouse and, carving an S-shaped skid in the gravel shoulder, turned the corner down by the gate to the main road.
I stood frozen by the window, long after he was gone. The rain tasted salty on my lips, which couldn’t speak the words they should’ve said: “Don’t go.”

* * *

Mingferplatoi Academy—two years ago

Maybe Spud should’ve just knocked me out for good. My consciousness returned just as the adrenaline was fading—everything, and I mean everything, hurt. Especially my Academy classmates’ laughter from the gymnasium stands. I’d let that 6-foot gangling Ichabod Crane with the stuck-up English accent throw me against the wall like a sack of potatoes. That would never happen again. I’d be sure to return the favor before we graduated.
“Shall I call you a medic?” I looked up to see Spud bending down to help me.
“Call me a re-match,” I shot back, grunting, as I leapt up on my feet, ignoring his extended hand. “You won’t catch me with that trick twice.”
“I should expect not,” he whispered, brushing a stray lock of dirty blond hair from his sweaty forehead. “Unlike yours truly, Andarts are not known to be merciful.”
If he hadn’t said that with a hot British burr, I would’ve decked him.

* * *

Hollywood—present day

“Earth to Shiloh,” Chell’s voice sang in my ears. “Anybody home?”
I focused back on my image in the full-length mirror before me and had to admire Chell’s handiwork as a make-up virtuoso. The vanity lights, aided by several flavors of mousse and gel, had brought out the blonde highlights in my very, very short, spiky hair and covered the jagged pink scar just above my hairline. Chell, whose own long brown curls teased the toned pecs bursting through his shiny satin muscle shirt, had cloaked my scattered freckles with a smooth layer of flax foundation. My azure eyes were framed by an aggressive ebony corona and the faintest pink of my lips bled through the snowy layers of the ivory lipstick he’d painted on with delicate brush strokes. Standing behind me, I could see Chell, his hands resting at the low-cut waist of his slim-hipped jeans, shaking his head. “Girl, you are a space cadet.”
It had taken Chell a mere hour to transform me from acne-cursed actress Shiloh Rush to Ensign Tara Guard, one of the teen commandos on the sci-fi action series Bulwark. (Catch us Fridays at 10, 9 Central, on the Singularity Channel and online at www.singularitytv.com/bulwark!)
I leaned my head back in the make-up chair and looked up at Chell with a rueful smile. “Credit’s yours, not mine.”
“I read you, sister,” he sighed. “Hey, with fashion, or after a fashion, we’re all speaking our piece.”
“Or on the prowl for it?” I teased.
“Naughty, naughty. You were due on set three minutes ago, hon,” Chell chided as he pulled off the tissues protecting my collar and brushed some stray powder from the shoulders of my skin-tight black vinyl uniform, studded with the decorative insignia of the Phaeton Alliance. Winking, he added, “Go get them bad guys for me, will ya?”

* * *

The flash of light was blinding. The blast from the laser cannon had just missed our Jetta starcruiser by mere millimeters.
“Arm neutron torpedos!” I barked at Spud, whose spindly fingers were frantically keyboarding over the controls of the Jetta’s weapons console.
“Fire!” I ordered.
A large explosion to my right threw me and my partner against the communications panel, smashing my left elbow on the hard edge of the metal. Fueled by the pain, I cried, “We’re surrounded! 360 torpedo dispersion!”
“Aye, aye,” he responded in a terse clip, his eyes glued to the blue screens of our vessel’s navigational computers. “Engaging.”
As our spacecraft pitched forward, I reached over and slammed my fist into the weapons board, setting off a shower of fireworks just beyond my windscreen. Moments later, a massive jolt shook our cruiser and it yawed violently side to side. We gripped our control panels and looked at each other in alarm.
Spud nodded. “It is our only chance!”
“Evasive!” I ordered as I hit the giant red button flashing on my console and pulled my joystick back as far as it could go. Fighting the move, our spaceship groaned up and to port, and the starfield ahead of us morphed into a field of blinding lights. I threw my hands in front of my face to cover my protesting eyes and screamed.
“Cut!” Jerry Greenspan, the pudgy director of this week’s Bulwark episode shouted. “That’s a good one, kids.” Without waiting for a reply, he spun on his heels and hustled towards the far end of the giant hangar where the grips were lighting the Touareg II prison set for our next scene as alien captives.
Visibly annoyed, I climbed out of the prop ship, rubbing my elbow, with Spud on my heels. My co-star eyed my arm with a mischievous twinkle, “One of Zyga’s best pilots indeed.”
“Dude, I wasn’t the one steering this ship,” I whispered back. I shook my fist at Mark, the special effects coordinator, who mouthed the word “sorry” from across the soundstage, safely behind his shielded control panel overlooking our faux spacecraft. Spud knows that, in real life, I’m a much better pilot than Ensign Tara Guard—or Mister William “Spud” Escott, for that matter. I scored better on my final exam at the Academy last summer than he did, acing the segment on dodging fusion torpedos in hyperdrive. My own Zoom Starcruiser, which goes zero to sixty light-years a second in a second, is totally ding-free. That is, if you don’t count the tiny dent from my little fender bender with the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957.
Yup, you read that right. 1957. Way before any of us was born—including me. I’d just traveled back to 1957 for a few minutes on a mission for the Zygan Federation. I know you don’t believe me, but of course time travel is possible. Don’t let all the paradox phobics convince you it isn’t. All it takes is the right technology. Earth doesn’t have it yet. But the Zygan Federation does. Oh, yeah, sure, I guess I’d better explain that, too…

* * *

In the galaxy of Andromeda, just up the Universe and around the corner from our own galaxy, the Milky Way, there are billions and billions of stars. Almost all of those distant stars have orbiting planets, though Earth scientists won’t be able to see them until they launch the McAuliffe Telescope in 2053. One of those planets, Zyga, orbits a blue dwarf star near the center of Andromeda.
Zyga is three times the size of Jupiter, and has millions more inhabitants than our own solar system’s largest planet, even if you count all of Jupiter’s methane-breathing microorganisms. Zyga is the home world of the Zygan Federation, an alliance of intelligent beings from over ten thousand planets in Andromeda and the Milky Way. It’s a very advanced society with knowledge and technology that makes earthlings look like chimps, and, unfortunately, chimps with very dangerous toys.
Earth has a long way to go before it can even qualify for membership in the Zygan Federation. One basic membership criterion is discovering hyperdrive, travel faster than the speed of light. That should only take Earth scientists a few centuries or so to achieve. But another criterion, achieving world peace? I don’t see that happening in my lifetime. Which, like most Zygans’, could be as long as several thousand years.
Yes, I’m Zygan now. I used to be American, but you have to choose your loyalties, and I chose Zyga. It wasn’t to get the chance to live almost forever. In my job, as a Zygan agent, the odds are kind of against that. My incentive to join the Zygan Federation was much more important–my brother John.

* * *

Maryland—two and a half years ago

I remember it was early May. The cherry blossoms had already drifted to the ground and blanketed the path from our farmhouse to the gate like a pink snowfall. The suffocating humidity that envelopes the East Coast every summer hadn’t made its way up to Maryland yet, so the day was crisp, sunny, and clear. My brother George had taken a heavy stack of books out to the gazebo to study for his finals. Law schools would not look kindly on an applicant whose grades weren’t totally impressive. Andi was sitting quietly on the wooden deck by his side, drawing a picture of her big brother with pastels. My oldest sister Connie was over at the Bradfords’ house, tutoring their kids in algebra, and definitely wouldn’t be back for hours. Blair had flown back home to the UK for the summer, and Kris and the little guys were at an open casting call for some alien invasion movie they were planning to shoot at the Washington Monument. And John, well, none of us had heard from him since he’d sped off to his military “adventure” the month before. Every time the phone would ring, I’d jump out of my seat, only to be disappointed time and time again. The next call—that would be John, it had to be.
But the phone’s silence was one more broken promise. Blinking back tears, I spent a few minutes watching George and Andi from the shade of our front porch. I’d gotten tired of carving paths in the fallen blossoms with my skateboard, so, hoisting it under one arm, I finally wandered down towards the gate. That’s when I saw them, down the road, coming our way: two men in uniform, looking grim. My heart sank. There was only one reason I could think of for their visit. A reason I didn’t want to hear.
“Is this John Rush’s residence?” the soldier demanded as he approached.
I didn’t move to open the gate. I didn’t nod. I held my breath and waited.
“Can we come in?” the second man asked.
I glanced to see if George and Andi had noticed our visitors. No, they seemed rapt in their tasks, contented. Undisturbed. Loath to receive the dreaded message myself, I wanted to hold off their pain as long as I could as well. I turned back to the soldiers and tried to keep the tremor out of my voice. “Just give me the news here.”
“Shiloh Rush?” From the second soldier, a hint of a question.
I didn’t answer, but my expression must have given me away.
The taller of the two leaned down over the gate and met my gaze. “All right, Shiloh. Here it is. You’ll know what to do.” He handed me a manila envelope that felt heavy in my shaking hands. I noted the insignia embroidered on his extended sleeve: two gold stripes and one glistening star, shaped like a sunflower in bloom.
“Everything is in there,” the tall soldier added. Nodding at his partner, he stood back up erect and turned to walk away. “Do not delay.”
“Wait!” I cried, puzzled, teased by a glimmer of hope. “You mean he’s not–?!”
But Sunflower-sleeve was now halfway down the road and merely shrugged. The other soldier, a few steps behind, turned towards me for a moment and, with a sad visage, shook his head. “Alive? Only fools try to fly with paraffin wings.”
Frantic, I tore open the envelope. It contained John’s wallet, his antique pocket watch, and a stiff paper bearing US Army letterhead–and the news I’d feared. I dropped the package and vaulted over the gate, hoping to catch up with the military messengers at my top running speed. But, though the main road stretched for many yards before me, the two soldiers were no longer visible. The road ahead and the fields to each side were as barren of life as my heart.
George and Andi were standing at the gate when I trudged back towards our house. Andi was clutching John’s wallet to her nose and George was reading the letter with a stricken expression. Two weeks earlier, it read, during a top secret mission in a confidential location, John had unexpectedly disappeared. He had left behind the enclosed belongings and never returned. Despite intensive search efforts, my beloved brother was missing in action and believed dead, and there was no trace of his remains.
I didn’t have the courage to read the letter myself for months. George had slipped it back into the envelope along with the watch. He’d gone up to John’s bedroom in our farmhouse’s attic later that day for a few hours alone, and had come back down red-eyed, without it. Connie said George had hid the envelope in the box where John had kept his research papers and flash drives. She didn’t encourage me to go looking for it.
And, for a long time, I didn’t. There was no way I was willing to face that truth.

* * *
Maryland—two years ago

It had been one of the rainiest Novembers in memory. I had no appetite for turkey, nor for sitting around a holiday table without John in his place in the head chair. I thought I’d go back to my bed instead and read a book or stream something, so I dragged myself up the stairs to the second floor. John’s room was on the third floor; after hearing John was missing, I always looked away when I passed the closed door to the attic stairs. I don’t know why, but this time I stopped in front of it.
The dust on the handrail was pretty thick and I kept swiping my face to brush off real or imagined cobwebs as I climbed the stairwell. At the top, I could barely see inside John’s room. It was only around three o’clock, but the curtains were drawn and the sky beyond was dark from the thunderclouds. I turned on the wall switch and lit up the room with the single light bulb hanging from the rafters on the ceiling.
Something wasn’t quite right. It took me a few moments to figure it out. No cobwebs, no dust. Save for John’s things, the room was empty, but it was as clean as it had been when he’d come home to shower and crash after spending stretches of nights doing research at the University of Maryland. Peculiar. George wasn’t handy with a dustcloth, and I doubted Connie would have added John’s housekeeping to her responsibilities of supervising the reluctant young ones with their daily chores.
Not wishing to disturb the pristine bed, I pulled out the chair next to the desk and plunked down onto its soft leather seat. My eyes caught the box with John’s files on the adjacent bookshelf. The manila envelope lay on the top, safeguarding John’s research secrets in the papers and drives hidden below. I finally marshaled the strength to pick the envelope up and peek inside.
I tossed the letter from the Army into the wastebasket. Months had passed and they still hadn’t found John’s body. George would call the Special Operations number they’d given us at least once a week, but the curt answer was always the same. Their records showed John Rush was still MIA—missing in action. They could tell us nothing more. We’d researched and called a slew of Pentagon phone extensions without any luck. As soon as responders looked up John’s name, they’d transfer us to Special Ops, and we’d be back at square one. We’d even tried going down to Headquarters, Department of the Army. They sent us from office to office til we landed back at Special Ops for our expected answer: no news. The Army could offer us nothing except a referral to a support group for families of those missing in action. We passed.
Fuming, I turned the envelope upside down and caught John’s pocket watch as it slid into my hand. The gold watch was unusually light. It sparkled as I held it up to the light and admired its intricate etched designs. Grandpa Alexander had given it to John on his sixteenth birthday, my brother had told me. The watch had been a gift to Grandpa from his own great-grandfather many, many years before. John had treasured the watch, never letting it out of his hands and forbidding us to touch it. I’d always been eager to have a peek at the watch’s antique face. Feeling just a little guilty, I twisted and pressed the stem to open the hunter’s casing and–
Instantly, John’s room disappeared. Shaken, I found myself sitting in a sparsely furnished contemporary showroom straight out of those retro-modern Jetsons cartoons. In front of me was a large Formica elliptical table at which was seated a distinguished-looking, middle-aged man, dressed in a fashionable silver-gray pinstripe suit that perfectly matched the color of the hair at his temples. I covered my mouth with my hand to hold in the scream.
“Hello, Shiloh,” the gentleman greeted me, his voice warm. “My name is Gary.”
Damn. I knew I shouldn’t have touched that watch–what had I done? Where was I? I looked around the room again. Except for me and, and Gary, we were otherwise alone. There didn’t seem to be even one window, in the seamless curved metallic walls; just a red door behind Gary, which was closed, and probably locked. Either this was one weird dream, or I was in big trouble. I took a few deep breaths, and prayed it was a dream.
“Hi, Gary,” I responded with a tentative smile and a trembling voice.
He seemed to be waiting for my question.
I took a few more deep breaths. “Okay, uh, where am I?” I eventually asked.
“At a fork in the road,” he answered softly.

* * *
Zygint

I was terrified I’d wake up before I could ask an even more important question. “John. Where is John?” I blurted at Gary.
A brief note of sadness crossed his handsome features before he answered, “I really don’t know. I am sorry.”
I swallowed hard, and opted to take the chance. “But you do know something, don’t you.”
Gary nodded. “He’d been on assignment—”
I interrupted, “For you?” Gary’s tailored suit sure didn’t look like a standard Army-issue uniform. In fact, it suddenly hit me that none of the Army uniforms we had seen in DC had displayed the sunflower insignia worn by those two military messengers that had brought us John’s tragic news. I hadn’t realized that before…
“For us.” Gary agreed as a flash of sadness crossed his face. “He was one of our best catascopes.”
My confusion must have been obvious. “Us?” I truly doubted ‘us’ could be Army Special Operations. And what was a catascope? A type of soldier?
“A catascope is a Zygint agent,” he added, reading my thoughts. “An operative for Zygan Intelligence.”
I was still very confused. “And you’re … Z-zygan Intelligence?” I ventured.
“A very small part of it.” Gary’s expression softened, and he sat back in his chair. “Your brother was working for us undercover. He had instructions to check in periodically, but when he missed his last rendezvous,” Gary paused and cleared his throat, “after that we never heard from him again. Our efforts to find him were … unsuccessful. A great loss.” Gary blinked several times. “His work over the past eight years had been outstanding. You should be very proud of—”
“Eight years?” John was … had only been twenty-four. “B-but he just joined the Army last spring!”
“John started working for us when he was sixteen,” Gary explained. “The Army was a cover story—their top brass work confidentially with us sometimes. We knew this assignment would take him away for a long time so—”
I leapt up towards Gary, unable to hold back my anger at the betrayal. “A long time?! You took him away from us forever!”
Gary kept his composure as he shook his head. “It was your brother’s choice, not mine. He heard the calling to serve the Zygan Federation, and he came to see me, in this very room, in fact.” Gary paused, glanced at the watch I was still clutching in one hand, and favored me with another warm smile. “And now, so have you.”
I stood stunned and speechless for a moment, letting the watch drop from my fingers as if it burned my skin. It landed on the table in front of me and popped open like an oyster. Secreted inside the cap I saw a pearl: my favorite photo of John and me a few years ago, arm in arm, standing victoriously on the top of Sugarloaf Mountain after a grueling climb. Swallowing a sob, I collapsed back down in the plastic chair and buried my face in my hands. I knew at that moment that my die was cast. I would follow my brother’s footsteps by following in his footsteps. And, maybe, just maybe, I might learn why he left us. And why he disappeared.

* * *

I had a lot to learn.
My new homeland, the Zygan Federation or, as we commonly call it, Zygfed, is ruled by His Royal Highness, the Omega Archon.
Kingdoms need their soldiers, and Zygfed is no exception. Though the Zygan Federation had achieved internal peace millennia ago, it was not 100% immune from attacks by alien species from without and anarchist guerrillas, Andarts, from within.
Therefore, Zygfed planets and territories are protected by an elite corps of cosmic guards known as the Sentinels, and by Zygan Intelligence field operatives working throughout Andromeda and the Milky Way.
By virtue of my brother’s final sacrifice, I would now myself have the chance to earn my wings as a Zygan Intelligence agent, a catascope, and serve the Zygan Federation and its subjects. John had apparently been a valuable operative for Zygfed. Would I be able to measure up to him? And, a more difficult question, should I?
One of my earliest memories as a little girl was of waking up in a barren, icy chamber, the sun scorching my fluttering lids. I fought to move, but my arms and legs were frozen, trapped, my struggles in vain. Terrified, I looked away from the blinding light and saw John’s face in the shadows. I could barely make out his features, but I was comforted by his gentle voice, a voice that reached out through my fog and told me that all would be well. “I am by your side, do not be afraid. Patience is the champion’s best tool.” Soothed by his words, I closed my eyes again and felt at peace.
The surgeon finished suturing the laceration on my scalp a few minutes later and directed the blazing operating room lamp away from my face. I was released from the papoose board, the straps that had imprisoned me flung aside as I leaped off the gurney and fell into John’s arms.
The damage to the sidecar of his motorcycle could easily be repaired, he reassured me. It was me he was worried about. Squeezing his hand, I told him there was no need to worry about me. After my cut healed, I could wear a helmet and ride behind him on the seat instead. He promised he’d drive the bike slower in the future, but I was glad he didn’t. I liked the feeling of the wind blowing through my hair, and I was grateful I had a brother who did, too. Helmets were for chickens. We were eagles. We were meant to soar.
The answer to Gary’s invitation found me. Not only would I soar into space on John’s trail, I would do him proud.
So, on my own sixteenth birthday, I joined the Zygan Intelligence team and started my training as a catascope at Mingferplatoi Academy in Zyga’s bustling intergalactic capital city of Mikkin.

* * *

Mingferplatoi Academy—one year ago

“It doesn’t mean I have to like it,” I grumbled as I instructed nav to begin our first practice mission. As the only two Terrans in our Academy class, Spud and I had been matched as partners for our upcoming internships. The thought of having to orbit Earth in a cramped ship for the next six months with Spud the Stiff wasn’t brightening my day. The two-seat Scooter lurched and bucked as we lifted off from the Academy’s lush chartreuse grounds.
“Zygint endeavors to assign species to duty near their home environments. Fewer chances of accidental discovery when we resemble our charges,” Spud rationalized, adding, “However, you are not the only one who is dubious about this arrangement.” With a hint of a smirk, he reached over and tweaked the antigrav settings on the nav holo, smoothing our ascent through the Zygan atmosphere.
I wasn’t about to thank him. “Let’s just get through this test, okay.” I turned my attention to navigating through the maze of guard buoys sprinkled through the planet’s stratosphere by Zyga Traffic Control.
Spud’s tone was scolding. “You do not wish to wait for the pedagogue?”
I rolled my eyes. “I’ve done this course hundreds of times on the simulator.” The virtual experience had bolstered my confidence. “She’ll catch up. Contact metrics?”
“Working.” Sighing, Spud ran his fingers across his holo in front of his post. “Cygnus in ninety-two minutes. Rendez-vous with the target on Kepler 6b, metrics established.”
After flawlessly achieving apogee, I couldn’t resist a victorious grin. Clear of planet Zyga, I gave the Scooter the command to shift into hyperdrive and speed us towards the Milky Way. Spud remained silent, focused on tracking our route on his nav holo, and scanning for signs of our pedagogue’s ship on our trail.
The constellation of Cygnus soon appeared on our viewscreens, a bright cross nestled in a ring of nebulae. Spud’s holo had highlighted our landing site as an ‘X’ at an uninhabited peninsula on a southern continental shelf of planet Kepler 6b.
“Cygnus is derived from the ancient Greek word for swan,” Spud ventured, “and contains two of this octant’s most populated planets orbiting Deneb and Albireo. Kepler 5b and 6b are among a ring of exoplanets that include the Glieser homeworlds.”
I yawned, hoping he’d get the hint.
He didn’t. “Cygnus is included in the Zodiac sign of Sagittarius, along with—“
I raised a hand. “I’ve uploaded all the Zygfed cosmography I’ll need, thank you. And medicine, science, and history. You shouldn’t overfill the attic in your head, anyway. Or mine.”
Spud’s eyes narrowed. “You are implying that one’s accumulation of knowledge could be finite. I too have considered that possibility—
CRASH!
“Andarts!” I shouted as our Scooter rocked with the force of the attacking torpedoes launched no doubt by the fearsome terrorists. CRASH! CRASH! CRASH! We were being battered from all sides by the swooping projectiles. “This can’t possibly be a drill!”
“Armor’s holding,” Spud reported, his eyes darting from one holo screen to another as flocks of missiles continued to strike our ship. “For the moment.”
“Can you ID their mother ships?” I called out, struggling to dodge the torpedoes and, at the same time, pull up a perimeter holo scan.
CRASH! CRASH! CRASH!
“There must be hundreds of them,” I growled as I fought to stabilize our vessel. “I thought this was just supposed to be a mock search and rescue mission. Where’s our pedagogue’s ship?”
CRASH! CRASH! CRASH!
“Armor at 70%,” he said, adding, “Probably far back out of our range. I’ve located two singularities at the rim of our scan range. I shall endeavour to localise their signals. And, alas, I see no other Zygfed vessels in our perimeter. I’ve sent a distress signal to Deneb 5, but it appears as if we are on our own.”
CRASH! CRASH! CRASH!
“Damn!” Our ship rolled to starboard with the latest barrage, as I compensated for yaw. “Evasive maneuvers aren’t working. Can we outrun them?”
“Unlikely. The torpedos are coming in full-circle 360 degrees. Armor is now at 50%.” Spud’s words escaped through gritted teeth.
“Then fire our fission grenades. That’ll buy us some time.” Unfortunately, we both knew that our limited weapons cache couldn’t overcome the obvious firepower levels of our invisible assailants.
CRASH! CRASH! CRASH!
Spud launched a wide dispersion of our own armaments to pick out some of our avionic assailants, but our meager hits didn’t do much to stem the flow. As I fixed my gaze on our viewscreen, something caught my eye.
“Their torpedoes don’t seem to be dodging very well.” I frowned. “Internal torpedo controls should respond as soon as they see our grenades and change course to evade. Check out that two second response delay in their maneuvers—I’ll bet these torpedoes are remote controlled.”
CRASH! CRASH! CRASH!
Spud sent out another barrage of fission grenades and nodded as he, too, observed the subtle discrepancy. He spun towards another holo screen and ran his fingers over the data display.
“Got ‘em!” Spud cried. “Two Andart ships hiding in the Veil Nebula at 20.62 h D +42.03°. Obviously gunning for us through their titanium messengers. Armor at 30%.” He raised an eyebrow as he saw me lean over to our weapons holo. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to rattle their cage.” I keyed a few instructions into the holo and shot out the next volley of fission grenades—only this time, rather than aiming each grenade at an attacking torpedo, I guided our grenades to crash into each other and explode all at once.
The resonant blast waves rocked our ship onto its back and sent us flying several light years towards Deneb. Fortunately, grav sensors kept us tractored in our seats and we were able to regain control of the Scooter to re-con. We stared at the viewscreens in amazement as we watched all the surviving torpedoes retreating rapidly in the direction of the shrouded Andart ships.
“Andart ships withdrawing,” Spud announced, nodding at his holo. “In hyperdrive, I might add.” He paused. “Surely a distant grenade explosion shouldn’t have frightened them away. And they should not be able to hear sounds in space. What did you do?”
I leaned back in my chair, grinning broadly. “Our fission grenades are made of copper, tin, and silver, right?”
“Bronze, correct.”
“Well, the vibration of the fragmented bronze components was enhanced by the explosion and created a giant blast wave. The flash disrupted the remote wireless communications and flipped the torpedoes into default mode, sending them racing back home towards the Andart ships. Hope the Andarts have enough fuel to outrun their dangerous toys.”
To my surprise, Spud actually laughed. “In other words, as in Heracles’ sixth labour, you created a bronze rattle. Brah-vah.”
“De nada,” I shrugged, sitting casually on my hands until the adrenaline tremors wore off. I certainly wouldn’t want Spud to have gotten the wrong idea, you know.

* * *

Spud and I were given a hero’s welcome when we finally arrived at Kepler 6b. Turned out the Andarts had used their own communications disrupters to block our distress signals from getting through, isolating us from our pursuing pedagogue as well as any local intergalactic Zygfed patrols. Escaping the ambush relatively unscathed, without help from the Zygan “cavalry”, meant we’d not only passed our field test, but earned ourselves a commendation–and a chance to apply for Zygfed’s elite Sentinels team after graduation. The offer was tempting, but, after consideration, I declined. John‘s trail, and mine, was with Zygan Intelligence, not the Sentinel Corps.
I was amazed that Spud demurred as well. He told me it was because the Sentinel Corps would fill his “brain-attic with feckless experiences without satisfying his intellectual curiosity”. My pedagogue told me weeks later that he’d admitted he’d been loath to break up our team, considering we worked together so well.
I had to admit, that was a really nice thing for him to say. And even nicer was that he never snitched that I’d rushed into space without waiting for my pedagogue, my “training wheels”, in the first place.

* * *

Kingdoms like Zygfed need their warriors—but they also need their enemies. Nothing better than a passionate struggle between good and evil to hold an alliance together, right? And evil is a simple recipe. Take a teaspoon of the devil, a pinch of brute, add a name based on mors, the Latin word for death, simmer, and, presto! You have an archfiend that makes your side look heroic. You’ve seen it on our TV show (or, considering our mediocre ratings, maybe not): every week, Tara Guard and her cohorts fight the good fight for the Phaeton Alliance, against the dastardly killer Mordmort.
But, in reality, you don’t need horns, flaming retinas, and smoke from your facial orifices to represent evil. Zygfed’s enemy du jour is a balding, fifty-something human named Theodore Benedict, who wears bifocals and looks like a tax auditor. Evil exists all around us, and usually looks like a tax auditor. It’s the crimes, not the costumes, that make the villain; and Benedict’s crimes have included trying to violently overthrow the Omega Archon and His Highness’ government, and “damn the collateral damage.”
To achieve his malevolent aims, Benedict enlisted the Andarts, champion guerilla fighters from populated planets all across the universe, to launch terrorist attacks on Zygfed. My primary job for Zygint, and that of my fellow catascopes-to-be from Mingferplatoi Academy, would be to stop Benedict and his terrorist thugs and safeguard our King and his subjects.
Studying to be a Zygan catascope was hard work, but it beat spending four years at Earth’s military academies; I was done with the classroom study in only six months. I’m not going to bore you with all the details of our education. I mean, everybody has to go to school, right? Then, we moved on to our internships where we could focus on the fun stuff, learning to drive, fly, fight, and work our Ergals.
What’s an Ergal? It’s an instrument, a tool, that does, frankly, almost anything you could wish for, kind of like a Zygint version of a Swiss Army knife. An Ergal allows a catascope to transport from one location to another, change his or her appearance, levitate (lev), shape-shift matter (anamorph), become invisible, and, of course, travel in time. Sweet, huh? Our scientists say it works through a process called CANDI, Cascading Auxiliary Neurosynaptic Discharge Interaction, that sends wireless signals directly to the brain. Gary calls it magic, but then his generation is notoriously uncomfortable with new technology. My brother’s antique watch, I discovered to my amazement, was an Ergal, anamorphed to resemble a timepiece. Re-anamorphed to look like a cell phone, his Ergal would become mine as soon as I graduated. Sweet.
But, as always, there is a catch. Ergals are only provided to certain Zygan citizens, like Sentinels, and catascopes. And, using them without authorization is a crime. There were several thousand megabytes of policies and procedures that guided and limited the use of Ergals, all vetted personally by the Omega Archon, which we had to upload into our brains before our Ergals were assigned to us and activated.
For example, they didn’t want us using Ergals to turn the school bully into a pig or to go back and buy up all the stock in Microsoft in 1986. Darn! Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to use Ergals to change history either. Time travel was only allowed with specific authorization for a specific assignment, along with strict instructions to only “observe and preserve” while in the past. As much as you might be tempted to assist the Resistance in assassinating Hitler or to warn President Kennedy’s driver to avoid the grassy knoll, such unauthorized actions would land you a visit to the Omega Archon and an extended sentence in Hell, flames and all. And, even worse, if you survived our King’s Hades, you could be exiled from Zygfed forever. So, we get these wonderful tools with all these options, but the rules for using them are super-strict and the consequences of violations dire. I think that’s called “free will”.
Or in my case, “a challenge”.

* * *
Terror Time

Hollywood—present day

“We’re done for! There’s no escape!” cried Spud. His T-shirt was in tatters and rivulets of sweat trickled down his muscular biceps as he sprinted ahead of the pack of rapacious paparazzi. He leaped into my silver Zoom Cruiser through the open right gull-wing door and, pulling it closed, rolled into the passenger seat of what, to casual observers, resembled a late model DeLorean car.
“Never give up, never surrender,” I quoted as I locked the doors and ordered, “Windows opaque.” Our side and back windscreens became darkened and impenetrable. I activated navigation and scanning holos and observed that the advancing paparazzi were bearing down on us. Gunning the engine of the Zoom Cruiser, I streaked off down Cahuenga Boulevard, barely missing a camera-laden aggressor who had leaped in front of our car.
As we sped away, the hungry pack of photographers dispersed to their vans and SUVs, intent on motorized pursuit. Their driving skills were no match for my razor-sharp reflexes and the Zoom’s touchpad ‘fly-by-Ergal’ steering, but, with the heavy Friday afternoon traffic making the streets an action-film obstacle course, I wasn’t able to lose the paparazzi as quickly as I’d hoped.
Playing a futuristic space agent on TV gives you a great cover if you get caught working as a futuristic space agent on a real assignment. You can pretend the spaceship, the weapons, and the special effects are all a publicity stunt. On the other hand, being on TV does have its drawbacks. And they were gaining on us as we zoomed towards Burbank.
As we neared the studio, I steered a sudden hard right turn through a bolted aluminum fence into an empty construction site. Fortunately, the Zoom Cruiser’s titanium body trumped the chicken wire, and we were inside the lot without a scratch. The starcruiser’s tires bounced roughly over the packed rocks and dirt and then lurched forward and down with a sickening drop into a multi-storey well that had been dug out waiting for a future skyscraper’s foundation—and additional building funds. I could hear the screeching of paparazzi brakes as they tried to follow my moonshiner’s turn into the site. I could also hear Spud’s cry as we fell into the pit, “Lev!”
“I’ve got it!” I said confidently as, once below the lip of the pit, I invisible-ized my cruiser and activated levitation. Mere inches from the bottom of the abyss, the cruiser began to rise and, its wheels quietly retracting, invisibly glided up past the rows of paparazzi vehicles that were skidding to a stop at the rim of the excavated hollow. Hovering, I giggled as I watched the pushy photographers jump out of their cars and struggle to explain how our car had disappeared before their very eyes, avoiding a crash landing that would have provided the bottom-feeding lens hounds with weeks of lucrative photo sales.
As we glided off towards Universal City, even Spud cracked a smile. “Someday,” he vowed, wiping the beads of sweat off his face and chest with the remnants of his T-shirt. “I shall earnestly seek a more incognitious and solitary existence.”
“My brother Blair told me there was a bee farm for sale in Sussex,” I joked, as I touched down under a deserted freeway overpass near the rear studio gate and made my “car” re-visible and road-worthy.
“Ha,” was Spud’s only response. He continued scowling until we were waved through the entrance to the studio and heading for my designated parking space.

* * *

It was early evening, and I was praying it was the last take for Bulwark’s Touareg prison scene. I so desperately wanted to scratch my skin. To appear convincing as captives tortured by the evil Mordmort’s guards, Spud and I had had to spend much of the afternoon with the FX make-up specialists getting tortured by plastic and glue. After dressing in ragged versions of our Phaeton Alliance spacesuits, we had been imprisoned by the special effects artists as they’d slathered us with silicone wounds, fake blood, and painted gashes. Chell’s delicate artwork was no match for the industrial efforts of the FX team. We soon looked as traumatized as Chell would be if he saw us in this condition. And, unfortunately, their make-up really itched!
“Okay, kids,” Jerry shouted–to my relief–as the soundstage lights came up. “That take worked.” He waved at us, signaling our freedom, and, running his fingers through his thinning hair, turned to talk to the gaffer about his next shot, which was blessedly without us. I started peeling off the silicone even before I had stepped off the set. Spud and I were done filming for the week. I could now scratch away to my heart’s content.
As I’d predicted, Chell gasped when he saw us. “My God, what have they done to you? You need Dr. Chell’s first-aid!”
“Thanks, but a warm shower will do just fine,” I returned with a friendly smile, as John’s–my Ergal started to vibrate in a pocket inside my costume. Strange, we were off Zygan duty today. I pulled out the Ergal, now shaped as a late-model smart phone, and, holding it up, added, “I’ll take this in my trailer.”
Spud’s own cell phone Ergal vibrated a second or two later. He reached for it in his back pocket under his cigarettes and chimed in, “I, too, shall take this in her trailer.”
Our eyes met, and I knew Spud had also received the vibrating CANDI signal that this alert was an emergency. We set off for my dressing room at top speed. The sudden appearance on our soundstage of a holographic Aggellaphor, a Zygan messenger, would be very hard to explain to Chell, Jerry, and the crew.

* * *

Safely in my trailer, I activated my phone and hit the receive button on the Ergal’s keypad. The Aggellaphor messenger hologram M-fanned—appeared–before us and sat stiffly on the rim of my beanbag chair, looking quite irritated at our delay. “Zygint Central has received intelligence that Theodore Benedict’s Andarts may be mounting an attack on Zygfed territories and vulnerable protectorates in this quadrant within the next solar week. You are needed to help stop one of these temporal aggressions.”
“Contact metrics?” asked Spud.
“Temporal aggressions?” I interjected. Attacks throughout time as well as space? Could Benedict now be planning new guerilla attacks not only in the present, but in the future or the past?
Our questions were succinctly answered. “Eight Av 3778, 24-3, mark six, Sidon. You’ll be briefed further at Earth Core. Status: Condition One.”
The Aggellaphor X-fanned—disappeared–before we could get any more details. Aggellaphors are like that; not much for conversation really. In any case, the message was loud and clear. Condition One was of the highest urgency. We’d better get a move on to our local Zygint station buried in Earth’s core. And fast.

* * *

Still in our costumes, we immediately M-fanned to the warehouse on Hill and Alameda. Well, more precisely, to the giant green garbage bin in the alley behind the rundown building near Chinatown. Even more precisely, inside the foul-smelling garbage bin, where rats scurried from pile to pile of malodorous, worm-ridden trash.
I greeted the rats with a warm hello. Chidurians, from the Zygfed planet Chiduri in the constellation of Orion, normally appear as a gigantic crab-like species. Their universe-renowned fighting skills make them very desirable soldiers and guards. When assigned to work Security for Zygint stations on primitive non-Zygfed planets and protectorates like Earth, however, they often take the visible form of rodents of some sort to blend into the environment and keep a lower profile. Fortunately, the spoken Zygan language does sound something like a rat squealing, so any intoxicated human staggering down the alley near the bin would probably interpret the Chidurian’s squeaky greetings as a rodent infestation rather than their welcome.
And, the worms? No, they’re just worms.
We felt the warm light of the WHO scan bathe us for a few seconds before the metal wall of the bin facing the warehouse slid open to reveal a dark corridor that automatically lit up as soon as our feet stepped over the threshold. About thirty feet ahead of us was a titanium door that whooshed open after we’d passed a second WHO scan. We stepped into a small room and faced yet another titanium door. The school of hard knocks, and the resultant bruises, had taught us to grab the platinum railings that lined this chamber before the door behind us had fully closed. We kept our balance as the elevator started its death-defying drop with its usual sickening rush (no relation). After six months of navigating this gauntlet for Earth Core entry, I do so wish the impenetrable shields that surrounded Zygint’s Earth station would allow us to use our Ergals to transport in instead.
A minute or three later, the front door slid open to reveal the plasterboard walls and linoleum floors of the main entrance. Once we were out of the lift, a more intensive NDNA scan cleared us quickly, and triggered the drab industrial decor to transition into the welcoming oak paneling and thick plush carpet of the Earth Core Station Reception Area.
Fydra, our Scyllian greeter, put down her fur-brush and, with her canine floppy ears flapping behind her, bounded up out of her chair when she saw our grisly appearance. “Rrrough assignment?” she barked with concern, as she wagged her tail and smelled our costumes with her moist snout.
Spud and I looked at each other and laughed. Scylla, the largest planet orbiting Sirius in Canis Major, requires olfactory education for all its citizens from childhood. Scyllians can smell a rat at fifty paces, which is why the Chidurians prefer to man their guardposts on the surface above. It took only a moment for Fydra to discover that our blood and wounds were synthetic, and, embarrassed, she stepped back and pointed one of her manicured paws at the red portal. “They’re all in Briefing Three,” she sniffed.
“Grrreat,” I responded, and added a conciliatory, “Thank you.” Scyllians are not known for their sense of humor. They take their responsibilities as the advance team for Zygint visitor—and themselves—very seriously.
We stopped cold a few steps beyond the portal to Earth Core Control, awestruck. The entire station looked like a Christmas department store exhibition. All the giant holos that filled the cavernous room were dotted with flashing red lights. Perspiring profusely, portly Station Manager Everett Weaver was anxiously running from one holo to another, jerkily jotting down data on an electronic tablet, and looking to all the world like he desperately needed a rest room. Condition one, no kidding.
We hurried to Briefing Room Three to find that our Chief Gary had just begun his presentation. I nodded to Wart–Ward Burton, Earth Core’s Assistant Chief–and to our fellow catascopes, the Drexel twins, Dieter and Derek, who, looking up at us from their seats, echoed Fydra’s alarm at our bloody condition. With apologies to Gary for the interruption, I reassured my colleagues that we were merely decked in impressively horrifying costumes for our TV show cover jobs. Spud and I each grabbed a—washable, I hope—plastic chair and tried not to rest our scarlet-stained arms on the polished cherrywood surface of the conference table.
The central holo in front of us was displaying an ancient city scene, with tunic-clad pedestrians and overburdened donkeys trudging down dusty dirt streets that were lined by small huts made of mud-bricks and stone. Women balanced baskets of wheat on their heads as their rag-robed children rolled pebbles on the road and dodged piles of equine excrement. Is that where we were headed? Foo. I’d been hoping we’d score an assignment at a luxury resort by the sea.
Gary paused to welcome us, then briskly resumed his narration. “Recent Zygint Central intelligence chatter reports that Theodore Benedict is launching a new wave of guerilla attacks in multiple locations throughout Zygfed, and, unfortunately, also throughout time. There’s a strong possibility that Earth is now in Benedict’s line of sight. As you know, one Andart operation last year in Hutunye resulted in the deaths of over one million Zygan citizens. If Benedict succeeds in destroying his target again, we could see a similar disaster on Earth.”
“What’s the target?” I asked, alarmed.
“Not what. Who,” Gary responded.
The holo over our table dissolved into a vision of a thin, wiry, dark-haired boy about, I’d guess, the age of my brother Billy. Twelve or thirteen. He seemed to be engaged in an animated discussion with a group of bearded older men in what, judging by the décor, looked like a place of worship. The chamber’s walls were lined with wood panels bearing carvings of winged figures, palm trees, and flowers, all painted or gilded with gold.
“Yeshua Bar Maryam,” Gary continued. “Our last trace of him here was from a few years ago.” He nodded at the holo. “In Av, 3778, our contact metrics in the period, he is reported to be about eighteen years of age and working as a tradesman in Sidon, one of the largest cities in ancient Phoenicia, western Lebanon today.”
I glanced over at Spud who was taking in the information in his typical pose, leaning back in his chair with his eyes half closed, his hands resting on his abdomen, fingertips together.
“We haven’t been able to track his exact location. Frankly, Zygint Central dropped the ball on this one. They weren’t expecting Andarts to be able to access time travel, so they weren’t tracking incursions into the past. Central now believes that an Andart or two might have gone back in time to ancient Phoenicia, with the mission of eliminating Bar Maryam.”
Spud raised an eyebrow. “Time travel? Without authorization or Ergals? How could that be possible?
Gary shrugged. “Don’t ask me. But Central isn’t ruling it out.”
“I’ve got another question,” I said, puzzled, “Every life is precious, and none more so than Earth’s, but I’ve never known His Highness, or Zygint, for that matter, to expend resources just to preserve one life.”
A wry smile crossed Gary’s face. “No, no, you’re right… not typically. But, the Bar Maryam you see here is a young man. As an adult, he plays a critical role in Earth’s history—” Gary seemed to stop himself. “If the Andarts were to kill him, the impact on the future would be devastating. Earth’s timeline would be changed forever.”
“That’s not good.” People were still talking about the mess Gary had made of Roswell. Changing Earth’s history thousands of years in the past might mean that Earth’s events evolve very differently and our present might never even come to pass. And neither might we. We had to make sure Benedict didn’t succeed.
“But you can’t identify any Andarts in this… Sidon?” I asked, worried. “Nothing on our scans?”
Gary sighed. “Zip. If Andarts are there, they’re under deep cover. We’ve started monitoring transport fields for time-traveling invaders now, but the only way for us to catch anybody that’s already gotten through is from inside the era. If and when they make their move against Yeshua.”
“Any estimates on when that might be?” asked Spud.
Our Head shook his. “No, based on their previous attack patterns throughout the Milky Way and Andromeda—“ he looked pointedly at me and Spud—“they like to keep us guessing.
“Okay, team, History’ll give you the upload and help you Ergal your costumes and look.” Gary stood up decisively. “We’ll need you to M-fan near Sidon within the hour. You’ll have to work your way into town in disguise—we don’t want you to arouse any suspicions. I only hope we’re not too late.” He strode to the door then turned back to us for a final word. “Remember, failure could be catastrophic.”
“Got that, Gary,” I said, warily. “Isn’t it always?”

* * *

Middle East—two thousand years ago

In 3778, Sidon was a bustling Middle Eastern port city on the Mediterranean in what was then an independent colony in the vast Roman Empire. According to our History uploads, the Greek poet Homer (who, as the joke goes, wasn’t really Homer but another poet with the same name ), had sung the praises of Sidon’s skilled craftsmen who manufactured glass and purple dye. Think about it: if the Roman Empire had not supported its Phoenician colony’s renowned industry, all the cathedrals in western Europe today that are mobbed by tourists awed by their exquisite stained glass windows might have ended up instead with rather uninspiring wooden green shutters that wouldn’t be much of a draw.
Emperor Tiberius had newly risen to power and was experiencing a brief honeymoon, perhaps launching the Mediterranean as a favorite site for honeymooners; before his nervous breakdowns led him to attack many of his close relatives, perhaps launching the model of the unhappy marriage. Fortunately, in 3778 on the Hebrew calendar (around 18 ACE), Tiberius was busy fiddling around in Rome and Capri, and didn’t really have much influence in Sidon. His decision to stay far away was completely understandable, as I would have much preferred an assignment on the Italian coast myself, especially considering that the average temperature in midday Sidon hovered at over one hundred and ten degrees Fahrenheit.
“It is decidedly sweltering,” Spud moaned, as he mopped his forehead with his mantle, an ancient white scarf. From the zero degrees Celsius briskness of England’s moors to the zero degrees Kelvin chill of deep space, Spud was much more at home in a cooler environment.
“It’s 120 in the shade.” I nodded, shaking my tunic to create a momentary breeze. I looked down at my Ergal, whose screen displayed a detailed map of the region. “About two more kilometers due southwest.”
Spud pulled his mantle over his head and I followed suit as we trudged forward on the dirt footpath under the blazing sun. I had hoped we could have M-fanned right in the middle of town, but Gary felt our chances of discovery by an observant Andart were too great. Sure, we could invisible-ize, but if the Andarts had an unregistered holo scan pointed in the right direction, they might be able to pick up our Ergal activity and track us.
Spud and I had bronzed our skin so we wouldn’t look out of place among the locals, and our Ergaled beards and mustaches looked genuine. Yes, plural. In ancient times in the Middle East, there were a lot of things that women just didn’t do. So, like Yentl, I’d dressed up as a man. Come to think of it, in some of those countries, I’d do the same today.
Cursing Gary’s caution, we plodded slowly onward in the baking sun for what seemed to be forever. The Phoenicians were smarter than we were. Most of them wisely opted to stay indoors and avoid the heat. We’d only passed two travelers, both going in the opposite direction, until we reached the Temple of Eshmoun, the Phoenician God of Healing, a kilometer north of the city. Alongside its entrance, blocking our path, stood a wizened old man with long gray hair and a salt-and-pepper beard. Oops. So much for staying under the radar.
“Hail, journeymen,” the elderly man greeted us, eyeing us from head to toe. “I am the Keeper of the Temple of Eshmoun. What brings you to our gates?”
Despite the high quality of our disguises, I was still uncomfortable under the man’s intense gaze. I let Spud do the talking. His Phoenician was more passable and in a lower register than mine.
“Hail, neighbor,” Spud responded. (I’m giving you the English translation, of course, guessing that most of you are even worse at Canaan dialects than me. Oh, and sorry about the stilted medieval dialogue. Phoenician is kinda short on slang.)
“I am Akbar from Berytus, and I walk with my brother Danel.” My partner continued, “We are seeking our cousin, Sakarbaal, in East Sidon.”
I know Spud chose Sakarbaal as a common Phoenician name, but, I was still annoyed. It was so hard to keep from giggling at the pun.
The aged gentleman nodded. “From which clan is he?”
“Manchester United,” I mumbled sotto voce, biting my lip to stay silent as Spud’s heel met my shin. Yow! Okay, that worked.
“Cousin of Milkpilles,” continued Spud, picking another common and funny-sounding name. This time, the pain in my leg made it much easier to maintain a straight face.
“Ah.” The old man smiled and, still watching us intently with his bright hazel eyes, stepped aside. “Then you are nearing the end of your journey, Akbar and Danel. Go forward in good health.” Acknowledging his blessing, we both bowed our heads and proceeded briskly down the path. I felt the Keeper’s eyes boring into my back until the road curved and we were beyond his sight.
The path became much wider and well-trodden as we inched—or should I say cubited —closer to our goal.
As soon as we were out of earshot, Spud gave me an English earful about my lack of self-control. “You might have blown our cover! And, besides, it’s football in Britain, not soccerball.”
As if I didn’t know. I looked at him through narrowed lids. “But Milk pills?”
“Milk-pill-es is an esteemed name in this era,” Spud returned my glare, “just as Kal-el and Pilot Inspektor, names given to their children by our fellow thespians, are in ours.”
Good point, Spud.
“The rather pedestrian moniker which you have bestowed upon me,” he added, obviously referring to ‘Spud’, is no less risible. But I do prefer it to the even more pedestrian ‘Bill’. Or my middle names of ‘Sherlock’ and ‘Scott’.”
“Can’t argue with that, either,” I conceded, and we both trudged silently along the path for another quarter hour. The sparse vegetation soon gave way to irrigated land, with fruits and vegetables in neat rows surrounding small cottages made of stone and fired brick. In the town, oblivious pedestrians passed us by from all directions, many carrying sacks or baskets of what seemed to be produce or other foodstuffs, and carefully balanced containers of water. I pressed the touch screen of my Ergal, now anamorphed into a hunting knife and hidden in my clothing, and M-fanned a similar jug, drawing it out from beneath the folds of my tunic to drench my parched lips.
“Careful,” whispered Spud, who grabbed the canteen from me and gulped the fresh water greedily. “Blistering desert.”
I was about to grumble, “Ergal your own,” when I spied a ramshackle structure a couple of hundred yards down the road.
“I believe that tumbledown edifice ahead should be our inn,” Spud said without enthusiasm.
“Don’t be a pessimist,” I chided. “I bet it’ll be a two star hotel.”
Spud looked at me, incredulous. “Two stars?”
“Sure, you and me,” I returned, grinning.
“Bollocks.”
The last drops of water he poured from my canteen were most refreshing. On my sizzling scalp.
Several Ergaled shekels got us a small room with two other travelers on the first floor of the inn in the city center. We claimed a shaded corner away from the window and, after brushing a column of ants out of our spot, unrolled our blankets on the relatively cool, packed-dirt floor. Midday was fully upon us, and searching for our target would be futile with most workers hiding indoors for shade and siesta.
Spud sat cross-legged on the floor, chewing on bay leaves, and leaned against the brick wall, lost in thought. I lay on my blanket, one hand behind my head and the other brushing an annoyingly persistent fly off my face, and gazed up at the ragged wood ceiling beams that supported the cottage’s upper floor, hoping that the insect life of this city didn’t include termites. I hadn’t intended to fall asleep, and wasn’t sure that I really had, when I heard our two fellow guests in the far corner speaking softly in Aramaic.
Through the miracles of CANDI, my Ergal translated their language even when I was semi-conscious, and I recall being able to make out a few words.
“Three cubits … sunrise … bricks … masonry … Jupiter … Yeshua … death …”
Yeshua? Death? I struggled to wake up, and finally opened my eyes, only to find that our two roommates were gone. And so was Spud! His blanket rested untouched next to mine. Where did he go? Or, worse, where might he have been taken?
The sun was now lower in the sky, and I could hear a growing hustle and bustle from the street outside. I debated whether I should wait here in case Spud was simply playing the bloodhound, or whether I should start planning a rescue. I finally decided that it wouldn’t hurt to go and scope out the local territory a bit for a start.
Then the words I’d heard resonated once again in my memory. Yeshua. Could the men who’d been sitting a few feet from our blankets actually be the Andarts we were trying to catch? Nah. That would be too easy. But…
Cubits … bricks … masonry … Certainly sounded like it had something to do with construction. Gary had told us that Yeshua was likely to be working on a building site. Maybe the Andarts were canvassing those sites to find their target. And Jupiter, well Jupiter was King of the Roman gods—the Roman Zeus—but Jupiter could also be the planet. If these men were the Andarts we were after, they would know that Zygan Intelligence has an outpost on one of Jupiter’s moons, Io, and they might have been discussing how to avoid Io patrols when they made their escape. After killing Yeshua. Death—
I spun around and grabbed his muscular forearm, twisting it and sending its owner flat on his back on his blanket. With an angry “Ow!” Spud pulled his arm away and rubbed the tender tendons that I’d strained.
“Dammit, Spud. You shouldn’t have snuck up on me like that! I have razor-sharp reflexes, remember?” I countered. “And where the heck were you, anyway?”
“False alarm,” Spud admitted. “I overheard our friends over there conversing and thought we had a lead.”
“No?”
Spud shook his head. “Wrong Yeshua.”
“Oh.” I frowned. “Did you hear them say something about death, too?”
He nodded. “Apparently, one of the men has inherited some property on the outskirts of town on which he wants to build. The Yeshua they were talking about is an old squatter, living on the land, so they have to encourage him to move on, one way or another.”
I winced. “I don’t think I want to hear about their plans. I know it’s not our mission, but shouldn’t we, uh, help this other Yeshua?”
“We can’t,” Spud reminded me. “You know the rules when we’re on a mission. Observe and Preserve. No interference in local environments unless it’s an official assignment. And you know the punishment if we do.”
I shivered involuntarily. “It wasn’t the most pleasant hour of my life.” I’d already felt the wrath of the Omega Archon’s strict governance when I’d flouted a couple of the millions of Zygint “rules” as an intern, and had suffered the unrelenting agony of the burning flames of Hell. My sentence had only been for thirty minutes, but I’d resolved never to find myself “in stir” again. I stood up and stretched, trying to relieve the sudden tension in my muscles. “So, what’s our next step?”
“Gary briefed us that Bar Maryam is likely in construction work of some kind,” Spud suggested. “We could get a position with one of the local crews and see what we could, er, as you say, dig up?”
“Funny.” I shook my head. “No … it won’t work. These guys are real craftsmen. We’d never be able to look legit as construction workers with just upload learning from our Ergals.” My eyes followed a rat as it scurried from one end of our room to the other. “I’ve got it! Roman building inspectors.”
“Say again?” Spud looked confused.
“We can pretend to be Roman building inspectors. Checking on permits, taxes, titles, all that crap. Feared by all the locals. I’ll bet they’d be happy to give up Bar Maryam just so we stay off their backs.” I nodded at Spud’s smooth hands. “We would make more convincing bureaucrats than tradesmen.”
“Good point.” Spud chewed his lip. “In fact, that might possibly work. How is your Latin, Danielis?
I smiled as I set my Ergal for the ancient language. “Praepara, Arcturus.”

* * *

A few Ergal-facilitated additions to our costumes and we were ‘praepared’. Pretending to be Roman estate and building inspectors and revenue collectors, we spent the next two days scouring the city. I don’t believe we missed visiting a workshop, construction site, or warehouse in the entire town of Sidon. By the second day, we had accumulated hundreds of shekels in bribes from anxious landowners, but, unfortunately, few real leads. None of the builders and tradesmen we met admitted to knowing a Yeshua Bar Maryam, itinerant craftsman from Judea. If we didn’t get lucky soon, an Andart or Andarts were certainly going to beat us to the young man!
Our next stop was a large structure being erected on an isolated lot near the edge of town. The base of the building was made of stone, granite, and marble. A wood frame rose out of the base, within which a cadre of brawny masons were laying kiln-fired bricks.
There was no well-dressed landowner at this site, so Spud approached the idlest of the workers, whom we assumed was the supervisor, and, in Latin, introduced us as visiting Romans. The supervisor visibly trembled, protested in Phoenician that his Latin was poor, and, before we could begin our auditors’ spiel, reached into a ragged pocket and pulled out a handful of shekels. I rolled my eyes, and Spud raised his hand to indicate our disinterest in the proffered funds.
Sighing, Spud, in Phoenician, asked the anxious man if he had heard of a Yeshua Bar Maryam. He clicked his tongue and raised his eyes and eyebrows, the local gesture for “no.” But, after Spud tried describing the young man’s likely appearance, the supervisor nodded, and pointed a dirty thumb at a sun-bronzed lithe youth and a wizened old man toiling in the hot sun several yards away, adding, “The Teacher. He is there.”
“Gratias,” I added in my lowest register, as Spud and I walked over to the two men. Close up, the young man looked familiar, though he was taller than he had been in the holo we’d viewed at Earth Core, and was now sporting a thin mustache and beard. On his knees, his forehead glistening with sweat in the still oppressive heat, he was carefully laying bricks alongside the gray-haired worker, who, perspiration streaming down his face, halted his own labors every few moments to check on the work of his apprentice. Spud and I naturally assumed that the elderly mason had to be “the Teacher,” and we greeted him by name, first in Phoenician, then Aramaic.
The old man chuckled, and, shook his head. “My knowledge is limited to bricks and stones,” he replied softly in Aramaic, as he nodded at the youth. “My young friend is the Teacher, he knows the word of God.”
The youth stood up, wiping the dirt from his hands onto his tunic. “Saul is too kind. I have still much to learn. And much to do. What seek you, gentlemen?”
“I am Akbar of Berytus, and this is my brother Danel. Yeshua Bar Maryam?”
The young man’s eyes widened and he instinctively pulled away. Spud leaned forward and whispered in his ear, “Do not be afraid, we are here to protect you.” Observing that the gazes of all the site’s workers were now focusing on our foursome, and fearing that their intervention might prevent us from leaving with our quarry, Spud gently took Bar Maryam by the elbow and guided him away in the direction of the street, while announcing loudly, “Servus illicitus ! You will come with us immediately and be brought before the magistrate!”
Hearing Spud’s words, the old man stood up to his full height, towering over Spud’s six feet. Saul grabbed the youth by the shoulders, breaking Spud’s hold on Yeshua’s arm, and tore him away. Glaring at us with flashing eyes, he cried in Aramaic, an invitation to his fellow masons, “Roman invaders! We are free men! You shall no more molest our people! We will fight you all!”
I nudged Spud, but he had already noticed that the rest of the bricklayers had risen from their posts and were inching closer to us. Somehow, I didn’t think their approaching us was simply due to friendliness or curiosity. Maybe we would have been better received as tradesmen after all.
As the circle of men now surrounding us grew tighter and tighter, Spud and I looked at each other in desperation. My left hand slid through the folds of my tunic and grabbed my Ergal, wrapping my fingers around the activator on its handle, and—
A cry to attack shook the air, and the men lunged at us. I shouted at Spud, “Vola!” and, to escape our hunters, we both faked a running start and leaped up high over the ring of men. I levved a few seconds at six feet, then dove down feet first to strike two masons unconscious. Spud, show-off that he is, did an arm-stand forward somersault pike and took out three more. One man came up behind me and tried to grab me in a half-nelson, but I threw him over my head and kneed him towards a newly-built brick ledge, which shattered and blanketed him as he slept. I was grateful for those months of practice in the sparring ring with Spud at Mingferplatoi. A few flying karate moves later, Spud and I had knocked out all the men save for our target and his elderly protector.
We were lucky that our out-of-the-way location prevented bystanders from witnessing our acrobatics; passers-by who might not only ask uncomfortable questions about our combat skills, but leap into the fray to help their unconscious brethren. Alone, the old man would be easy to handle now. We could simply stun him and cover him with an E-shield , blocking his movement and sensation, until we were ready to X-fan to more secure ground with our charge.
“Yeshua,” I ordered in Aramaic. “Please, listen to us. Move away from the elder, and you will be safe.”
“I am safe,” the youth said quietly. “Not even the blade Saul rests against my back can make me afraid.”
Blade?!!! My partner eased over to the side of the Teacher to scout out said weapon. As he spied it, Spud’s artificially bronzed face turned pasty white under the tanning effect. He looked over at me with alarm.
Puzzled, I too peeked behind Bar Maryam as the elder watched me with a self-satisfied smile. Oh my God!
The sharp point of the knife was only a centimeter long and extended from the barrel of a much longer, and much more dangerous, late-model Zygan stun gun.
“I should thank you for helping me with the, uh, competition,” the elder said in modern English, nodding at the supine men around us. “It would have drawn too much uncontrollable attention for me to … take care of Yeshua with an audience.”
“We’re an audience,” I cried angrily, before realizing the implications of his statement. I tried not to look chagrined … or alarmed.
“Hands up, please. You know the routine.” The old man slid his thumb over the trigger button of his gun.
Reluctantly, we raised our hands above our heads. If only I could reach my Ergal, we could X-fan—
“You move, you’re dead,” the elder instructed ominously.
Bzzt. The shot came from the stun gun. We turned and saw that the youth had been frozen in his standing position, his head bowed and his hands together in a gesture of prayer. The elder stepped away and moved into position for a clear shot at us. Now I looked alarmed. I knew the setting he was going to use this time was not going to be stun.
A loud crack came from my left. No, Spud! Don’t! The old man quickly turned in the direction of the noise and fired a red beam at the source of the sound. I heard the burning hiss of laser against flesh. My partner! My friend!
But, thank the heavens, it was not Spud who’d been hit. The shot had, however, given Spud the opportunity to leap up with his lip-splitting bartitsu kick and knock the weapon out of the elder’s hands. It discharged again, this time striking and completely dissolving a juniper bush with a loud sizzle. I jumped on Saul and got a lock on his neck. The elder began gasping; my persistent pressure on his windpipe and his carotid arteries was turning his leathery skin to blue. Spud quickly Ergaled himself a stun gun and stunned the elder just as he slipped through my arms and collapsed unconscious onto the ground.
We both turned to check on Yeshua. The youth remained erect, frozen in his position of prayer. Beyond him, we glimpsed the elderly Keeper we had run into outside the Temple of Eshmoun a few days before, picking up the remains of a shattered marble statue and appearing surprisingly unflustered. I noted that a corner of his tunic had been singed, but otherwise he seemed none the worse for wear.
“A thousand apologies, Akbar, Danel,” the Keeper said in Phoenician. Oblivious to the scattered bodies laying about the construction site, he calmly continued to put the broken pieces of the statue in a large sack. “Philosir the Priest will now not have his image of Shapash to grace his entrance, I fear, until next year’s harvest.”
The Keeper’s clear hazel eyes gazed intently into each of ours and then at the praying youth. Nodding at Yeshua, the Keeper picked up his sack with a sigh and threw it over his bent shoulders. “I shall have to commission Bodmelqart the Sculptor to make him yet another,” he added with a rueful smile as he trudged off the lot onto the footpath in front of the acreage.
Spud and I glanced at each other, totally taken aback. The Keeper seemed calm and oblivious to the unusual events that had occurred around him. How was that possible? “Thank you,” I finally essayed in my stumbling Phoenician towards the departing cleric. He did not turn back to look at us again, but, he did wave his free hand, from which a gold ring glistened in the sun.
Spud seemed equally puzzled by the Keeper’s behavior, though I’m sure he was as grateful as I was that we’d all come out of the showdown alive. As we, both frowning, watched the Keeper disappear around the bend of the road, I remembered that Yeshua was still standing a few feet from us, frozen.
“Oh, God, we’d better unstun him,” I said to Spud. Spud nodded and pulled out his stun gun.
“Don’t worry, it doesn’t hurt,” I reassured him in Aramaic as Spud aimed and fired the wave that would unstun and unfreeze the youth. To our alarm, the young man didn’t move, but continued to stand immobile in his position of prayer.
“Yeshua!” I laid my hand gently on his shoulder.
The young man was mumbling barely audible syllables. “Adonay Elohim atah hachilota lehar’ot et-avdecha et-godlecha ve’et-yadecha hachazakah asher mi-El bashamayim uva’arets asher-ya’aseh chema’aseycha vechigvurotecha.”
“Yeshua, are you okay?” The language didn’t register as Aramaic in my Ergal. I looked over at Spud with concern.
“Deuteronomy 3:24. It’s from the Torah. In Hebrew,” Spud translated. “‘O God, Lord! You have begun to show me Your greatness and Your display of power. What Force is there in heaven or earth who can perform deeds and mighty acts as You do?’” Seeing my admiration, he added, “One obtains a broad classical education in British public schools …”
“You see, gentlemen, I have no fear.” The words from Yeshua were now in Aramaic once again. “Faith will ever vanquish fear. For we walk by faith, not by sight, and He is with us always.”
The young man ambled over and crouched down close to Saul, gently brushing a lock of unruly gray hair from the elder’s blood-, sweat-, and dirt-caked forehead. “Greater is He that is in you, than he who is in the world,” he whispered softly into his mentor’s ear. The youth then stood, and, after quickly gathering a few items from his work area into a makeshift cloth knapsack, dashed off towards the path to Tyre, following the footsteps recently lain by the Keeper.
I turned to Spud, “We’re just going to let him go?”
“Well, we’ve caught and stopped our Andart, and preserved the timeline. That was our assignment.” Spud gestured at the immobile elder. “Anyway, I rather think Yeshua’s got someone watching out for him, you know.”
I snorted. “Yeah, us.”
Spud’s gaze continued to follow Yeshua until he disappeared in the distance. I almost didn’t hear him return a “yeah.”

Chapter 4
Mission Accomplished?

Site wrap-up took over an hour. We had to check each of the bricklayers and made sure their injuries were not life-threatening, as well as repair as much of the damage to the property from our fight as possible. Our pedagogues at Mingferplatoi Academy had stressed this rule repeatedly: take great care when you’re on assignment in the past, because an unexpected or unnecessary death could disturb the timeline and wreak havoc with the future. Our future.
Grunting, I levved a large clay pot to a prominent position in the center of the work area in which we emptied our pockets of all our shekels in hopes of repaying the masons for their, uh, inconvenience. I observed that a few of the men were starting to regain consciousness, and I urged Spud to hurry. We wouldn’t want to have to fight Round Two.
Spud surveyed the scene quickly and agreed. “Appears acceptable. I think we are finished. Let us tractor our Andart back to Core for questioning. And then, well, I am rather keen to have a shower.”
I wiped the sweat off my forehead with a grin. Amen to that!

* * *

Zygan Intelligence Earth Core Station—present day

“Huzzah, huzzah!” Everett Weaver greeted us as we arrived at Earth Core with our prisoner.
“Ev, you are such a geek,” I groaned. “Got a holding suite ready?”
Everett, scowling, waved a hand as the altitudinous catascopes Dieter and Derek appeared silently beside us. “’Bill and Ted’ here’ll take care of him.”
The tight-lipped siblings grabbed the still-frozen elder by the armpits and carried him off to the holding cells, I mean, suites.
“Bill and Ted?” Spud asked, puzzled.
“Our two Doppelgangers in a Bizarro Universe”, I tried unsuccessfully to explain as I tugged a still-confused Spud by the elbow in the opposite direction. “Come on. Gary’s waiting for our report.”
Still decked in our Phoenician duds, we met Gary in his elegant office, and crashed in his plush leather chairs. Layers of dust flew off of us as we sat down, to Gary’s barely concealed dismay.
We briefed Gary on the events we’d experienced over the past few days, which, due to our having been in a time loop, had lasted only about half an hour in Earth Core time. A time loop is a great perk of time travel, by the way. Imagine you’re holding a long string, one end in each hand. If you bring your hands together, you have a loop hanging below them. When we’d journeyed back in time on assignment to Sidon, we’d started our journey at the end of the string in your left hand and traveled down and up the dangling loop to your right hand. Meanwhile, Gary and Ev, who’d remained in the present, simply crossed the short distance from the string end in your left hand over to the string end in your right hand. While we’d spent over two days in Phoenicia, the time that had passed in Earth Core was less than an hour after we’d originally left.
Ev had automatically uploaded our Ergal recordings of the events in Sidon when we arrived back at Core, so there wasn’t really much we could tell Gary that he didn’t already know. I so wish we could use Ergal logs to avoid all our boring meetings.
We did have a few unanswered questions, however. Who was the old man we had captured? One of Benedict’s Andarts, of course, but was he the only guerilla tasked with assassinating Yeshua? Was there a chance that Benedict had had more than one Andart, or attack, planned in Sidon? If so, Yeshua might still be in danger. I hated to bring up the suggestion, but perhaps we needed to go back to Sidon for a few more days to be sure that Yeshua was safe.
Gary held up his hand. “We’ll know more after we NI Sutherland, your captive. That’s his real name, by the way. You might also be happy to learn that we’ve now got Yeshua Bar Maryam protected throughout his known lifetime with a temporal vector shield.”
My jaw dropped. Temporal vector shields, a Zygan defense barrier that prevents unauthorized access to a designated slice of time, were out of our league here in the boonies of our galaxy. Not even Quadrant Chiefs were authorized or trained to implement temporal vector shields, much less Chiefs of Zygint Field Stations like Gary on primitive planets like Earth.
“We’ve already discovered that Sutherland is one of Benedict’s top lieutenants,” Gary continued. “He should be able to provide Zygint with a wealth of information about Benedict’s plans.” Gary sat forward and looked directly at us. “That’s where you come in.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. From the expression on Spud’s face, I could see he was equally unenthusiastic.
Gary chose to ignore our discomfort. “Central has decided that Sutherland’s interrogation is best done at Headquarters,” he explained, “so, we’ll have him ready for you to transport to Zyga in half an hour.”
I rolled my eyes. Spud’s prediction had been right. In the end, we’d only have enough time to hit the showers.

* * *

My two-seater Zoom Starcruiser had been Ergal-expanded to create a sealed cell for one behind our cockpit. For our one Andart prisoner. We would be transporting Sutherland in that cell to Zygan Intelligence Central Headquarters in Zyga’s capital city of Mikkin, just a couple of miles from our old stomping grounds—literally—at Mingferplatoi Academy.
After a quick bath, I slipped back into my regular uniform of jeans and tank-top and met Spud at the Earth Core hangar. The trip to Zyga would take us about three hours, even on autopilot in hyperdrive, so Spud came prepared for the ride with a backpack full of yellowed papers printed in tiny fonts.
“You’ve got something against illustrations?” I couldn’t resist ribbing.
He returned my serve. “I no longer need them to be able to read.”
Ouch.
Ward Burton was putting the finishing touches on the preparations for our transport. Through the aft viewscreens of our ship, we could spy Sutherland seated quietly in his solo prison behind us. Shorn of his facial hair, the erstwhile-Saul looked substantially younger than the wizened old man we’d captured in Sidon, but still appeared middle-aged (over 30). I expected to see daggers flying from Sutherland’s eyes aimed at us, but, surprisingly, the Andart kept looking down, almost immobile in the back-seat chamber, staring at his hands.
“He can’t see out,” Wart explained to us as we approached the vehicle.
“That’s probably all for the best,” I said, relieved. “He’s locked in there, right?”
“Tight as a drum,” Wart reassured me. “E-shield’s all around him.”
I nodded, then observed that the Sputnik dent on my fender had finally been repaired, and broke into a grin. “Thanks, Wart. I owe ya one.”
“Anytime.” He grinned back and gave us a combination wave and salute. “Good work, guys, and good luck!”
I waved back and eased into the left front seat behind nav controls. As soon as Spud had pulled down his gull-wing door, I ordered, “Engage.” The ship came to life, our holo-guides popping up to surround us just in front of the foreward viewscreen.
“Zyga” was all I needed to say, and the Zoom Cruiser invisible-ized, levved, and rotated to face the massive warehouse door that led to the decrepit alley where our Chidurian rat guards were standing watch. Wart had always waxed nostalgic about the days ships could just lev out of the roof of the warehouse, before Earth sent up GPS satellites. Now, though our ship was invisible and couldn’t be spotted by Earth’s primitive radar technology, the warehouse’s old hangar gate was clearly observable from the stratospheric cameras.
“Those satellites can see every time the door opens or closes,” Wart had explained. “We sure don’t need a Google Earth fan with too much time on his hands counting when and how often we launch, you know.” (I didn’t have the heart to break it to him about Street View.)
So, a few years ago, a metal side gate leading into the usually deserted alley had become the new Earth Core hangar door. As our ship approached it, it rolled open with a grinding crunch that sent the Chidurian rat guards scurrying away in all directions. We floated horizontally into the passageway and then, powered by our whisper-quiet cold fusion generator, smoothly rose into the sky.
As we zoomed past Mars, I waved at Zygan Intelligence’s Deimos Outpost for good luck. That’s kind of a superstition of mine. I do it every time I fly by Mars’ moons. I didn’t expect a comm back from the guard team on staff. Yoshi and Ajani were probably catching up on their sleep, now that the temporal vector shield was in place to protect Yeshua from additional “Sutherlands”.
Once we’d cleared the asteroid belt, I engaged autopilot, leaned back in my jumpseat, and stretched my long arms and legs. For the next couple of hours, the greatest danger I’d be facing was to my eardrums—from the unbearable operas that Spud would play endlessly via our main speakers, just to get my goat. In the adjacent seat, my partner had pulled out a few of those ‘monographs that he’d hoped to peruse’ during the long voyage from his ‘rucksack’, and offered me a pick.
The most interesting article of the group was a report on “Determining Time of Death via the Measurement of Body Decomposition Parameters”. I passed. I don’t know why Spud even bothered reading those boring things anyway. He could directly upload tons more information in a tenth of the time. But, Spud was a bit of a Luddite at heart, and would sometimes opt to do things the old-fashioned way. I, on the other hand, have never much cared for tradition. In my experience, it’s just an excuse to keep the risk-averse from trying something new.
I don’t often get a chance just to veg, what with the fourteen-hour days we put in on the set, and so, gazing out at the planets as we maneuvered through our solar system, I realized how much I’d missed being out in space. Next Monday, we were due back at the studio for our last week of filming for our first season. Maybe after that, I’d take a couple of days to tour the heavens before making my duty-bound pit stop with the family in Maryland. My social life? Yeah, Mr. Opera Fan riding shotgun and reading his ‘monographs’ was about it.
And if Bulwark was renewed for Season 2, I’d have to be back at work 15 hours a day on the set in July. I’d only have a couple of months to pick up the trail of my detective work tracking John’s disappearance. The records of John’s assignments for Zygint were unfortunately classified and top secret. Even as a catascope, I didn’t have access to that level of security. Not digitally, nor in person at Earth Core or Zygint Central. During our internship, I’d spent most of my off-duty hours researching John’s activities, especially his projects for Zygint in the year before his disappearance. All I’d been able to discover was the name of his last mission: Project Helios. Once on hiatus, I was determined to resume the search full-time and find out what–
A flash caught my eye for an instant. I nudged Spud and pointed at our fore viewscreen towards Io, Jupiter’s somewhat habitable moon where Zygint had our guard outpost for the outer planets, but neither of us could spy anything more. I sat back in my seat with a shrug. Maybe I’d just seen one of those sparkly things—floaters—that drift in the back of your eye, but, no, there it was again. Spud saw it this time, too. We looked at each other, and I engaged comm—with maximum encryption, of course.
“Io, Io Outpost, everything okay?”
Static. Were Hsin and Rawiri asleep, too? Or had something happened to keep them from responding? Like an Andart attack?
“Io Outpost, please respond.” I tried not to let my voice betray my growing anxiety.
Static.
“Scan Broadband,” I instructed the comm system to no avail. Still no answer from Io. This was very disturbing.
I looked at Spud. Now what? Obviously, we should go investigate and help our colleagues if they were in trouble. But, we were in the middle of a pretty important task ourselves. I nodded at our prisoner in the back.
“Do not even consider it,” Spud admonished, then commed. “Deimos, Core, Condition Yellow at Io. Repeat, yellow. Wha—?”
I had swung our ship around in the shadow of Ganymede, another of Jupiter’s moons, to get a closer look. Spud shut off comm and scowled at me.
“What the devil are you doing?” He was clearly angry.
“It’ll take the Core team too long to get a patrol ship out here. I’m not leaving Io Outpost alone until back-up arrives.”
“You do realize this could be a trap?” Spud argued.
I checked the scan holo to my right again. “Locator shows we’re clear for miles. I’ll move off right away if we get an incursion.”
Spud didn’t seem reassured. “By then it may be too late.”
CRASH! We pitched forward, our ship somersaulting wildly like a football, an American football, rolling down a hill. Grav adjusters barely kept me from being knocked out of my jumpseat and slamming into the ship roof, but Spud, a few inches taller, wasn’t quite so lucky, grunting loudly as his head cracked against the side windscreen.
I struggled back up into position, my eyes glued to the scan holo which still showed no enemy incursions. “Was that dark matter turbulence?!” I shouted as we continued to pitch.
“No, I theorize it was Benedict turbulence!” growled Spud, pointing over my shoulder.
I turned to look, and to my shock, saw that the cell behind us where we had so carefully secreted Sutherland was now empty!
“Where is he …?” I gasped, hoping against hope that, as I stared, Sutherland would somehow magically reappear in his seat—to no avail.
Our navs had finally stabilized our Cruiser enough to slow it down; we were rocking gently forward like a sailboat adrift. We had been kicked way above the speed limit for this section of our solar system; and were now far beyond Io. Neptune loomed ahead.
“Snap. The trap has sprung. And the rat cannot escape,” snorted Spud.
“But,” I nodded at the empty cell, “he did escape.”
“We’re the rat, Rush.” Spud sighed, “And-”
“Rush, Escott, can you hear us?” Comm barked on with a Teutonic accent.
Reluctantly, I answered, “Yes, Dieter. Where are you?”
“Just made Io Outpost. Everything’s okay here. Hsin and Rawiri are fine. What is going on? Where are you?”
The dark side of Neptune had bathed us in shadows. I could barely make out the pursing of Spud’s lips or the daggers in his eyes. My eyes were drawn once again to the chamber behind us from which our prisoner had slipped through our—my—hands. And it was my fault…

* * *

Maryland—five years ago

It had been my fault on Sugarloaf, too. John had taken me and the boys for a hike up to the top of the Maryland hill the autumn before he left. The Appalachian Trail winding through our nearby forests was shaded by a rainbow of colors each fall, maple and oak leaves displaying infinite hues of yellow, orange, and red. The boys were young, and just barely able to handle the hikers’ path up to the first lookout, but I was being tempted by the steeper slope off the trail which I knew I could climb, rock by rock, to the mountain’s top.
When John took Billy behind a tree to pee for a moment, I yielded to the temptation and left Bobby standing alone on the path as I clambered up the rock wall, so appealingly inviting me to climb its face. Bobby, then only around ten years old, must have been more afraid of being abandoned in the woods than risking the climb, because I soon heard his voice a few feet below me on the slope. “Wait up!”
I looked down behind me and saw that Bobby was precariously hanging by two loose rocks at least forty feet off the ground. I blanched. If he fell, he could be seriously hurt—or worse. Attempting to reverse course and go down and help him, I slipped off the ledge and slid several rough feet down the slope, barely missing knocking him off of his unsteady perch myself. I managed to stop my fall close to his trembling body, and tried unsuccessfully to guide his feet to a safe support. As he shifted, his grip on the rocks gave way and he tumbled screaming down the hill towards a large boulder below. I didn’t dare look, fearing his head would be shattered against the sharp, massive granite. When I finally opened my eyes, there was Bobby, his bulky down jacket shredded and tattered, but his body intact and his grin genuine as he looked up at me from the safety of John’s arms.
I kept apologizing as I sheepishly made my way down the slope, grateful that it was John and not Connie or George waiting for me below. John seemed to know how bad I felt and didn’t bother with a lecture. He did, however, give me some valuable advice. One, if you’re in trouble, ask for help. And two, first survive, then face the music. Lesson learned.

* * *

Outer Sol System—Present Day

“Location, Rush, where are you?” Derek repeated.
I didn’t turn on comm for my answer. “In deep doo-doo. Not enough light-years away.”
I knew where I had to go and what I had to do first.

* * *
Nav must’ve read my mind, because a split second later, we shifted into hyperdrive even before I’d finished saying the words. Now, normally, we’re not supposed to go faster-than-light speeds until we’ve passed Eris orbit beyond Pluto, but, having failed so miserably at my task, there was no way I was heading back to our team on Io or on Earth right away–or letting them find me. There was still no sign of our attacker, invisible-ized or not, and I also didn’t want to risk us getting hit again.
“Nav, power, and comm are operating normally,” said Spud, his face buried in the holos before him. “For now. No physical damage to our vessel, but it is obvious we experienced a total system disrupt. Including,” he added, shaking his head, “disruption of the E-shield.”
“I don’t understand how that could’ve happened,” I said. E-shields were impenetrable. Or so I thought.
“Clearly.” Spud sat back in his seat and rubbed his tender scalp. “Well, perhaps we can school ourselves on the finer points of shield operations as we’re recovering from our upcoming sentence in Hell. Even Gary will not be able to placate Zygint Central or the Omega Archon when they find out we have lost Sutherland.”
“Gary isn’t going to have to. No way I’m heading back to Earth Core to face an inquiry.”
“I know I’ll be sorry I asked,” Spud said with a ladle-full of irony, “but where exactly are we going?”
“Zyga. We need some help.”
Spud was incredulous. “You’re reluctant to go back to Earth Core after this disaster, and you’re going to Zygint Central? They will send you directly to the Omega Archon.”
I shook my head. “That’s not what I said. I’m going to Zyga to get help. Trust me.”
I won’t repeat Spud’s response. I didn’t understand all of the words, especially the Cockney slang, but there were a few I recognized that even I don’t feel comfortable telling you. With the angry silence so thick I could slice it, I had no choice but to settle in with the easiest Spud monograph I could find, and I spent the next couple of hours reluctantly learning about “Analysis of Fast-Acting Poisons in Human Excreta.” Somehow, considering our situation, it seemed an appropriate subject.
* * *

Warp-down usually happens automatically as we approach Mayall II, Zyga’s blue dwarf star. But this time, instead of comming under the guidance of Zyga Traffic Control, I’d instructed nav to approach our destination invisibly in stealth mode, using an entry paradigm I’d picked up on the “black market” at Mingferplatoi Academy.
“You’re making me nauseated,” Spud complained as our Cruiser pitched back and forth on a jagged path to avoid guard buoys.
“They’re not squibs,” I returned, referring to the FX explosives that blow the fake bullet holes in our Phaeton Alliance ship on the Bulwark set. “If we hit a buoy, we could actually get blown up.”
Spud glowered at me without saying another word.
In minutes, thanks to the paradigm, we were at Zyga apogee, and began our size adjustments. Most of Zyga’s inhabitants are substantially larger than typical creatures on Earth. So we could blend in with the residents, we enlarged (or, in Zygan argot, ‘mega’d) our ship and ourselves by a power of six. Still invisible, we eased down to the coordinates I’d designated, to the Kharybdian Enclave near the planet’s West Pole.
As the nucleus of the Zygan Federation, Zyga welcomes millions of temporary and permanent settlers from subject civilizations in the known universe. Many Zygfed citizens opt to assimilate and live in Zyga’s two largest Eastern cities, Mikkin and Aheya, but others prefer domiciles in isolated neighborhoods called Enclaves that duplicate the conditions of the residents’ home planets.
Some of these planets are Universe-renowned for their picturesque landscapes, awe-inspiring museums and monuments, and refreshing resorts. The planet Kharybdis unfortunately isn’t one of them. Kharybdis is famous for its ever-present dense layer of grimy nimbus clouds that drown the planet’s few islands on a daily basis in torrents of rain. I really thought that Spud, having grown up in wet and chilly England, would have an affinity for the Kharybdian climate, so well duplicated in its Zygan Enclave. No such luck. Spud’s grumbling began the minute he exited our parked Cruiser and stepped into the adjacent footpath’s ankle-deep mud. Cursing, Spud micro’d our ship and stuffed it into his rucksack. Singularly unenthusiastic, he set off slogging behind me through the mire towards our destination.
“I would much prefer to be suffering through Ivanhoe at Covent Garden …,” was the only audible comment from Spud during our trek.
A spiky drizzle bored sharply into our bare faces, already reddened from the cold. Despite having donned Ergal-ed raincoats, we were both drenched and dirty by the time we reached the coral door of our former classmate Eikhus’s thal, a ochre structure that resembled a giant conch shell.
Nerea, a sparkling clear, animated whirlpool, answered the door, exclaiming in high-pitched Zygan, “Shiloh, William!”
Her spray was refreshing, and helped rinse off some of the mud from our clothes. I squeaked back quickly, “Shhh … can we come in?”
“Sure,” she misted, opening the door wide for us to enter. “You need to see Eikhus, I suppose.”
“The sooner the better,” I nodded as we stepped into the guest level of their home. I lowered my voice. “Benedict.”
Nerea paled. Which was difficult, as her fluid cone-shaped body was already transparent. It had been less than two years since one of Benedict’s fusion torpedo terrorist attacks had destroyed the Kharybdian city where her parental tributaries had flowed. The heat released from the bomb’s massive explosion had instantly evaporated all the aquatic life forms in her now decimated village, including most of her family. Somber, she led us into the cavern-like sitting room, and offered us some drinks which we gratefully accepted. We sat on moist seashells which resembled truncated stalagmites and waited for her brother.
Eikhus, a mighty cylindrical vortex, arrived within the hour. Not wishing to have to dry off again, I slipped through his welcoming arms, but Spud wasn’t totally able to avoid his soggy hug, to my fervent amusement and Spud’s obvious annoyance. Nerea brought us up a tray of thikia, and, munching the tasty seaweed, I gave Eikhus a rundown of recent events.
“We don’t know where he went,” I concluded about Saul, “or how he went.”
“I suspect it was some type of time-traveling X-fan,” added Spud, frowning. “But the cell was supposed to have been E-shielded by Earth Core.”
A frightening thought occurred to me. I turned to Spud. “You don’t think Sutherland went back to Sidon…to finish his assignment?”
Spud shook his head. “Not with that temporal vector shield in place. It would be impossible for him to penetrate it.” A pause. “One hopes.”
“Then we’re back to square one.”
Eikhus, ever more and more somber, threw out a wet hand. “Earth has temporal vector shields?”
“Not until now,” I responded, brushing the mist off my windbreaker.
“That is curious,” Eikhus said. “Temporal vector shields are very complex, tricky to install.”
“We figure someone from Zygint Central must have put it in place,” Spud continued. “When they discovered Benedict’s plans for temporal attacks.”
“But after Saul had already gotten to Yeshua,” I added. “Convenient.”
Eikhus looked at us, concerned. “How many Andarts do you think Benedict’s planted for this campaign?”
Spud shook his head. “We do not know. Nor where they might be.”
“Right now, we need to find one. Saul.” I corrected, “Sutherland.”
“Sutherland?!” Eikhus misted us both once again. “You are serious?”
“Gary informed us he was one of Benedict’s lieutenants,” said Spud.
“One? He’s third in command of Benedict’s operation! If Sutherland was the Andart, this wasn’t just a small-scale guerilla attack. We’re talking prime mission.”
Spud and I looked at each other in alarm. I frowned, “What in the world—in the universe—was Benedict hoping to achieve on Earth?” A small planet at the edge of a small galaxy that was still in cosmic diapers as far as Zygfed was concerned.
Spud looked equally troubled, and, barred from indulging in his stinky smoking habit in the company of the Kharybdians, grabbed a stylus from his pocket and chewed on it as he pondered.
“I think we should comm the gang—emergency meeting,” Eikhus stated with an urgent squeak. “These are deep waters.”
“Good idea,” I nodded.
Eikhus sidled over to his holo, drew in his limbs and became fully cylindrical. He started rotating fiercely, forming a torrential waterspout with a growing caudal appendage that reached out to wash over the holo screen.
Spud pulled his hoodie over his head and headed for the opposite corner of the room. His back to us, he huddled to avoid the collateral spray. I sighed as I wiped the moisture from my eyes. Sometimes Spud can be so rude!
After a few minutes of spinning, Eikhus wound down and faced me. “They’ll meet us at Matshi’s kalyvi. It’ll be safer there.” He glanced at Nerea. “Let’s go.”
Eikhus added a few words to his sister in Kharybdian, then pointedly turned and flung a sheet of water at Spud’s back. “No offense taken.”
Dripping from head to toe, Spud reluctantly followed us out of the thal, pausing only to thank Nerea on our behalf for her hospitality.
We set off once again along the banks of a muddy rivulet, and, shivering, trudged slowly, sloshing step by step, towards the outskirts of Eikhus’ village. I broke the chilly silence. “Where are we headed?” I asked Eikhus once we were out of earshot (and mist-shot) of passers-by.
“The Chidurian Enclave,” Eikhus said. “They’ll be waiting.”
Spud’s tone was dry, unlike the rest of him. “I dread to ask, but who are ‘they’?”
“A few of your old friends,” Eikhus returned with a wry smile. “And a few of your old enemies.”

* * *

An hour later, Eikhus had brought us to a hundred-foot waterfall that crashed into a turbulent whirlpool below the small, slippery ledge under our feet. Behind the splashing cascade was a small opening to a tiny cave that led to a dark, narrow tunnel, which, lit by our Ergals, seemed to go on forever. Eikhus led the way, and Spud gladly walked behind me, as far away from Eikhus as possible, as we squeezed single file through the winding, cramped passage. With every step, the ground below us became drier and drier, save for the moisture of Eikhus’s occasional sweat balls. Our Ergals kept us bathed in halos of light, and we marched forward like incandescent ants.
“And we’re not M-fanning in to the Chidurian Enclave why?” Spud asked, irritated.
Eikhus hesitated. “I’m not exactly persona grata there.”
“How does that not surprise me.”
“Spud!” I scolded. Eikhus’s expulsion from Mingferplatoi was still a painful subject. The Kharybdian’s abrupt eruption after learning of Benedict’s devastating raid on his home planet had almost drowned two classmates—and had led to questions about his solidity under pressure and his fitness to be a Zygint operative. Reminding Eikhus of those humiliating events was not very kind at all. Spud did sometimes tend to be a little deficient in his social skills … and his empathy. Besides, he should know that M-fanning could leave unwanted tracks, in case our colleagues at Zygint Central developed a yen to locate us for being AWOL.
After another hour of hiking, we climbed above ground and found ourselves behind a field of Sabras, tall cactus-like trees, inside the periphery of Zyga’s Chidurian Enclave, avoiding detection—we hoped. The planet Chiduri, located at the tip of Orion’s sword, is noted for its parched desert climate, baked by giant star Hatsya’s three suns. A testament to Zygan bioecological technology, the Chidurian Enclave was, unfortunately, as hot and dry as the planet Chiduri itself. I began to long for the relative chill of desert Sidon. One glance at Spud’s face revealed that he was equally distressed by the literally hellish conditions.
We’d ditched our parkas and raingear and Ergaled ourselves into beige hooded robes. The blistering heat now actually made us grateful for Eikhus’s cooling perspiration, and we stayed close by our companion for the last kilometer of our journey as we crept down deserted back alleys and dusty roads.
To reach Matshi’s kalyvi, his cave-like dwelling, we would unfortunately need to cross some busy streets. In order to avoid the curious gazes of the crab-like Chidurian pedestrians, Eikhus misted himself on us, with Spud’s grudging approval. Looking appropriately sweaty for a pair of tourists to the Enclave, we made our way to Matshi’s kalyvi across the crowded thoroughfares, dodging combatively-driven six-wheeled vehicles called autogamils. Chidurian drivers are among the most aggressive in the Universe, which, I suspect, is why many of Zyga’s best fighter pilots are Chidurian.
Fortunately, we arrived at our destination in one piece. Except for Eikhus of course, who was still dispersed on us as scattered sweat droplets. Matshi, a seven-foot crustacean sporting a purple anorak that draped over his cephalothorax and his eight appendages, answered our knock.
Our former classmate led us into the kalyvi with solely a nod. The moist coolness of the cave was a sharp contrast to the desert outside, and Eikhus was quickly able to merge back into a slightly less viscous and more whole version of himself.
Declining to crabwalk, we crawled underground down a low-ceilinged circular passageway for what seemed like several storeys, passing closed doors along the way. By the time we reached our destination, Eikhus had grown back to nearly his full height and density, and had left behind a trail of moisture on the ceiling which dripped back upon our heads. This time, Spud didn’t complain.
As we entered the cavernous gathering room, my jaw dropped. Seated around a large table were some of Mingferplatoi’s most illustrious drop-outs: Ulenem, a chameleon Assassin from Orion Alpha; Setsei and Suthsi, Meiote siblings from the planet Ytra; Nephil Stratum, a cloud-like Syneph from the Plegma; and Sarion, a Comic from the planet Megara. So many classmates I hadn’t seen since my early days of catascope training almost two years before.
“Magnificent,” Spud muttered with no little irony. “I have died and gone to juvie.”
Matshi wasn’t as diplomatic as Eikhus. He faced Spud with a sneer. “I see you’ve still got a rod up your—”
“Thank you,” Eikhus interjected quickly, soaking Matshi’s robe. He turned to face the group. “Thank you all for coming.”
Murmurs of greetings in five different languages came our way. I responded with the Zygan squeaks expressing friendship and gratitude, and nudged Spud to take an empty seat next to mine at the table. He forced a smile and mumbled a half-hearted Zygan, “Hello.”
Matshi offered us mugs of soothing Chidurian ale to sip as we began to tell our story. A drop of Chidurian ale is reported to not only refresh tired travelers like us, but repair mitochondrial breakdown in muscle cells and enhance muscular development. The drink is like ‘roids in a bottle. And the effect lasts for months. That’s why the ale is a budget-buster outside of the planet Chiduri and its Zygan Enclave. Chidurians serving as soldiers and guards throughout Zygfed, who can’t afford even a sip, speak longingly of returning home and indulging once again in their native nectar.
Well indulged, and appropriately grateful, Spud and I related the singular events and experiences of the past few days. After filling in the group, I summed it up. “So, we’ve absolutely got to find Sutherland.”
“You mean Benedict,” Nephil Stratum said, her pearly nebulous cloud-like tufts shimmering as she spoke.
Maybe her Ergal had mistranslated? “Sutherland,” I repeated.
“No, I mean Benedict,” she insisted. “If what you say is true, that the E-shield on your ship was breached, it has to be Benedict. Getting his buddy out of trouble.”
Spud shook his head. “Seems unlikely. There is no loyalty among thieves.”
I jabbed him in the arm, and nodded at Nephil Stratum. “I think you’ve got something there. But, it’s more likely Benedict grabbed Sutherland to keep him from spilling his guts.”
Perched on a tall stool that dwarfed his solid reptilian two-foot frame, Ulenem the Assassin jeered as he twirled his sharp athame dagger like a baton between his limbs. “Spilling his guts would be better,” Ulenem said, his lizard-green skin turning menacingly spinach-colored.
Setsei, who resembled a four-foot tall beige apostrophe, quickly moved his seat a few inches away with both his right hands to avoid the spinning blade of the Madai weapon. From the head portion at the top of his smooth ovate body, he emitted the Ytran version of a dramatic sigh. “Well, peachy keen. All we have to do is break into Benedict’s command center—wherever that is—kidnap Sutherland, and get out alive. Oops, that last part … not so easy …” His meiote and mirror image, Suthsi, was clearly nervous, sliding closer and wrapping his two left arms and his flagella around his partner. “Not so easy,” Suthsi echoed.
Nephil Stratum’s own snowy hue turned a darker shade of gray. She drifted over to face us. “Hate to rain on your parade, but it may not be as hard as you think.” She broke off a small tuft of cottony vapor and levved it to the center of the table. It misted open and revealed a small multihedron gem that sparkled with hundreds of colors. In a few moments, the sparkles dissolved to reveal a life-size holo of Benedict before us in the flesh.
I gasped. Sitting only a few feet away from me was the vicious outlaw reputed to have killed thousands of Zygans in his quest to overthrow His Highness. I was grateful that Benedict’s body was halved by the table, reassuring us that he was only a holo. Still, my reflexes trumped my rationality. My practiced fingers had crept to my Ergal and were gripping it tightly as I watched.
Benedict was clutching a tablet on which he was scratching furiously with a stylus. The low resolution of the holo didn’t allow us to see what he was writing, but his mutterings sounded like he was trying to solve some mathematical problem. “Alpha … m-c squared … equation … trapezalnitaks … summeldare … ram … catastrophe …”
Suddenly, his face lit up and he cried, “Eureka!” He looked up and, to my alarm, seemed to scan the room, his fierce blue eyes finally resting in my direction with a piercing, icy stare. I kept telling myself ‘it’s just a holo’, but, faced with that penetrating gaze, I couldn’t suppress a cold shiver that bored all the way down to my spine.
And then, to my immense relief, Benedict disappeared. I heard several deep breaths echoing mine from around our table.
Matshi was the first to speak. He looked at Nephil Stratum with admiration. “How’d you do that?”
Spud interjected, “Irrelevant. Where was he, and what was he doing?”
Matshi’s face looked appropriately annoyed.
“Short answer, Matshi, dark matter,” Nephil Stratum appeased her host. “Zygint Central constantly monitors “beings of interest”. Unfortunately, without an auxiliary energy source I can only keep the download going for a few minutes.”
“You tapped into Zygint’s comm feeds!” Awesome. I was impressed.
Nephil Stratum nodded. “I honestly can’t determine where Benedict is,” she continued, responding to Spud. “But, obviously at least one comm specialist at Central knows, because they’re tracking him live. It looks like … someone will have to go to Zygint Headquarters to get that information.”
The knot in my stomach returned as the entire group turned and looked at me.

* * *

Yes, I still carried a Zygan Intelligence ID. If it hadn’t already been pulled. But my actions had caused us to lose Sutherland. And, rather than returning to face the music, I’d gone on the run. I was absent without leave, and Gary had probably already reported me to Headquarters as a violator. If I went to Zygint Central Headquarters as myself, Shiloh Rush, I’d probably be busted with my very first WHO entry scan. And, if I was caught, I’d likely be sent to face the terrifying judgment of the Omega Archon. I’d be kicked out of the Zygint corps, and, at the mercy of His Highness’ harsh code of justice, I could end up … a corpse.
On the other hand, my actions had caused us to lose Sutherland. I was the natural choice to take the risk.
My only chance to succeed in tracking Benedict’s location would be to M-fan into Zygint Headquarters disguised as another Terran, and one who would have easy clearance for Central Comm. Going as Gary was out. He was a well-known player at Zygint, and my acting skills weren’t that good.
“Everett Weaver?” Spud suggested, his tone clearly ironic.
Just envisioning pretending to be dorky Ev for even a few moments made me nauseated.
“What about the nice one?” Nephil Stratum offered. “The one you said had fixed your ship.”
Wart … Ward Burton. Now, that sounded better. Wart was high-level enough to have access to Central Comm, but he rarely made the hours-long trip from Earth to Zyga, so he probably wouldn’t be well known by the Central team. That would work in my favor. It would be a little, uh, embarrassing to be the second Wart identified trying to enter Headquarters while the real one was already there. I nodded. “Good idea. Okay, I’ll go in as Wart.”
When we were on assignment, we were allowed to use our Ergals to anamorph our superficial appearance and dress. It would be easy enough to Ergal my appearance to look like the tall, African American man in his early thirties that I’d be pretending to be. With a change in my surface appearance, I might even be able to skate through the WHO scans at Headquarters entry. But, if I had to make it through the deeper NDNA scans to get into Comm, I’d be in trouble. I was going to have to bite the bullet and mute; that is, Ergal the change into Wart all the way down to my DNA nucleotides. Unfortunately, muting without high-level authorization was a grave violation of Zygan policy. If arrested, I’d probably be immediately dragged before the Omega Archon, and face a years-long sentence burning in the flames of Hell.
“What the hell,” Sarion returned, attempting a joke. “Losing Sutherland, you’re probably already marked for the flames anyway.”
I smiled weakly at the Megaran’s humor. I had only experienced a few minutes of the Omega Archon’s punishment, and prayed that I would never experience such torture again. But, I had no choice. Spud had courageously offered, through clenched teeth, to go with me to Zygint. I patted him on the back and declined. It’d been my fault we’d lost Sutherland—I should never have stopped to help at Io—so it was up to me to take on the danger, and the risks, myself. Alone.
Nephil Stratum had me cryptocommed (wired) as invisibly as possible. It did give me a boost of courage to know that the gang was monitoring me from the cave, and maybe could mount a rescue if something did go wrong. I thanked my erstwhile classmates for their support once again, and, with a final glance at Spud, who reflected my anxious gaze, I set off for the headquarters of Zygan Intelligence.
Not wanting to leave tracer tracks that might lead back to Matshi’s kalyvi, I dragged myself, muted as Wart, through the baking, dusty streets to the transport station in the center of the Chidurian Enclave, and X-fanned to Mikkin, Zyga’s capital city. I M-fanned directly into the cool, soft clouds that enveloped the base of Zygint’s Headquarters, relishing their comforting softness as I floated towards the entrance of the tall thomeo.
Zygint Central Headquarters was modeled after typical Orion-thomeo architecture, mile-high skyscrapers with broad bases that narrow as one rises to the higher storeys. From a distance, a thomeo looks like an enormous ice cream cone turned upside down and driven into the ground.
I have to admit I was pretty nervous as I approached the WHO scan for entry to the building. Would the scanner be able to tell that I had muted into Wart? I held my breath as the light washed over my tall, male torso, almost gasping with relief as the door opened to let me into the busy lobby. Acting—and I mean, acting—relaxed, I ambled towards the lifts for the ninety-ninth floor (which, like all Zygan numbers, was in Base Twelve) and the Comm Center, which had housed the feed Nephil Stratum’s jewel had tapped.
Central’s Communications Center, which took up an entire floor of the thomeo, was the size of a football stadium, and was filled with scenic holos from practically every populated planet in Zygfed. And beyond. As I searched the holos for signs of Benedict, I couldn’t avoid pausing at a halaropool scene to catch my breath. The beauty of the Megaran spa truly calmed me, if only for a few moments.
Reluctantly, I walked on, making my way to the far end of the room. Holos of Benedict, unfortunately, didn’t seem to be running in the main chamber. I would have to appeal for entry into a more secure level of the Comm Center—and pass through the dreaded NDNA scan!
Changing my DNA into Wart’s had meant that, courtesy of my Ergal, my brain cells had been transformed and now contained his neurocache. The NDNA scan would recognize my brain’s neurocache patterns as belonging to Ward Burton, of course. But, to maintain my own consciousness inside his body, I, or rather my Ergal, had had to encrypt my own neurocache among Wart’s. Would the NDNA scan reveal that “Wart’s” neurocache patterns were subtly different than those stored in Zygfed’s records from earlier scans?
I couldn’t let those seeds of doubt be read by the scanner. I had to ensure my anxious thoughts wouldn’t arouse suspicion. I’m really glad I took those boring classes in method acting after all. As I approached the portal to Security Level C, I started repeating silently to myself: I am Ward Burton. I am Ward Burton.
The scanner’s probe entered my brain. “Purpose of entry?”
Ward Burton, Ward Burton. Urgent comm from Terra Core.
“Scan in progress.”
Ward Burton. Ward Burton.
“Scan completed.”
The pause seemed frighteningly long. I struggled to stay calm. Finally, to my relief, the portal door I was facing opened to allow me entry into Security Level C. I wandered in slowly, breathing deeply to steady my nerves, and searched among the rows of holo displays filling this smaller suite for the holo station that displayed our target.
Most of the holos I passed in this suite seemed to be of various Benedict cronies, who went about their nefarious business unaware that Zygint was watching their every move. There was still no sign of Benedict on any of the screens.
I stopped, stunned. Right next to me, a holo displayed a life-size Sutherland, robed and bearded as Saul once again. Judging from the background, he did seem to be back in Sidon, or, more accurately, marching down that same path to the city Tyre that Yeshua and the Keeper had recently taken after bidding us good-bye. Despite the temporal vector shield! I turned to face the holo, hoping that the team monitoring me at Matshi’s could see what I saw, too.
“The evil eye knows,” a human voice boomed in my ear.
It took all my training not to startle. I turned to see a short, portly man who looked vaguely familiar. Had I met him at Mingferplatoi? No, no, at Central, last year. What was his name? Carl. Carlton Platt. Never liked him, but, Wart, Ward Burton, probably does. I bestowed him with Wart’s friendly grin. “Hey, Carl, you sound like an old DJ.”
“Because it’s from an old radio show, ‘The Shadow’,” he did the voice again, “‘The Shadow knows …’
“Ah,” I said and forced a chuckle.
“But little do they know,” Carl nodded at the other holos, then pointed to Sutherland. “Good job, buddy. On both ends.”
I was ready to blurt out that Sutherland’s escape wasn’t my fault when I remembered I was Ward Burton. I said carefully, “Thanks …” What did I—Wart—do that was ‘a good job’?
“Let’s go for a walk,” Carl whispered to me in a conspiratorial tone, as he motioned for his neighbor to cover his station.
I nodded, swallowing hard to clear the knot in my chest. Was he inviting Ward Burton, or had he sussed out it was me?

* * *

“We’re shielded here,” Platt assured me as we eased into the comfortable couches in the lounge. “Great work.”
I nodded again. “Means a lot,” I punted.
“Benedict’s very happy,” Carl added with a broad smile.
“Great,” I answered instinctively, before it hit me. Oh, my God! They’re inside! Benedict’s Andarts are inside Zygint! My hand quietly inched towards my Ergal. And Wart, our Wart, was one of them!
“The one hundred mil in Deltan credits we promised are in the Krøneckðr account,” Platt continued smoothly. “But—”
I tensed. “But?”
Carlton spread his hands open. “Look, you’re still uncontaminated. Why don’t you wait until Sutherland cleans up in Phoenecia and then mute away. Until he’s done, we might still need you.”
“Is that a request …?” I said quietly.
Carl’s tone got cold. “Benedict always asks.”
I smiled, and waved a hand in the best Wartian style. “Well, then, what do you think? Of course.”
Carl’s features relaxed. He leaned over and slapped me on the back. “That’s my buddy. How ‘bout we go get some lunch?”

* * *

I managed to get away from Carlton over the salad, feigning an upset stomach. But exiting Central would be almost as dicey as getting in. I was shaken to the bone to discover that our Wart was a traitor, and worried that my anger and disappointment at his betrayal would be picked up by the NDNA scan on my way out. As the scanner light washed over me, I tried visualizing Wart’s delightful sense of humor and remembered his friendly welcome and support when Spud and I were starting as green catascopes at Earth Core. The technique fortunately worked, and I was able to hold back my tears until I’d made it through the lobby of the tall spire and out into the comforting blanket of clouds once again.
As soon as the mist had enveloped me, I Ergaled back to Matshi’s kalyvi. Grateful to be muted back into Shiloh, I sat quietly in my chair, shaking my head. Spud was as shocked as I’d been. Not only had Benedict’s men infiltrated Zygint, but, incomprehensibly, our colleague Ward Burton, too, was a Benedict mole!
“That certainly explains how Sutherland escaped,” Spud said bitterly, adding for the others’ benefit, “Ward Burton filed our nav plan and prepared our transport cell.”
“There was never an E-shield …,” I muttered.
“I doubt it, too,” Spud said. “He left the cage door open, and Sutherland was free as a bird.” Frowning, he added, “Assuming he was even in the cell at all.”
“You mean a holo? No wonder he wasn’t talking, or even moving much.”
Spud nodded. “As regards to shields, Carlton told you that Sutherland was cleaning up back in Sidon. If Central had put a temporal vector shield around Sidon—as Gary had said—how could Sutherland get past it to go back there?”
The thought alarmed me. “Maybe everybody at Core’s dirty …,” I whispered, unconsciously shifting away from Spud. Was there anyone I could trust?
Spud caught my move, and looked genuinely hurt. “Not everyone,” he added quietly.
Oops. I winced. “I’m sorry … I didn’t mean …”
Matshi stepped in. “It is a good question, Escott. How did Sutherland get through the temporal vector shield back to Sidon?”
“I am only theorizing here,” Spud said, “but after we brought Sutherland to Core and sent him to the holding suite, Wart could’ve hacked through the shield and shot Sutherland back to Sidon to finish his mission. Nobody else at Core would have those skills. Our whole transport could’ve been staged with an avatar to fool us, Gary, the Drexels, and anyone else who is dirt-free.” He stressed the last two words with an edge in his voice.
Regretful, I tried to pat his arm, but he pulled away.
Ulenem laughed heartily at our gullibility. “You Terrans are so naive.”
Eikhus looked at us and asked, “Let’s just assume Spud’s right. What do we do next?”
I shrugged, adding through clenched teeth. “Obviously, we have to go back to Sidon and catch Sutherland once more.” The thought suddenly struck me: how had Sutherland caught on to us so quickly as impostors in Sidon, unless he’d been warned by someone? Wart, again?
Apparently, Spud was thinking on the same track. “Our covers have been blown. Either we go back with our DNA muted, or someone else can.” He looked around the table. “In any case, if it is we, we cannot let Core know we have resumed our quest.”
I agreed. “Wart probably has put a DNA tracer alert in the vector shield to notify him and track us if we show up.”
Matshi raised two hands. “Then, we’ll go. Ulenem and I can do it.”
Sneering, Ulenem pulled out his athame and ran a finger across its blade.
“You sure?” I asked. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ll be expecting a rescue.”
Matshi looked at his friend. “We’re up for it.”
Ulenem twirled his serrated blade once again and nodded with a broad smirk. Friends since childhood, Matshi and Ulenem had been inseparable during their first months of training at Mingferplatoi. When Matshi’d had his crisis of conscience and decided to drop out of the Academy, Ulenem had reluctantly given up his own ambitions of serving as a Zygan combat hero and followed his lifelong comrade into a relatively obscure career as mercenaries, soldiers-for-hire. The last two years had seen them waste their talents as partners-for-hire on several trivial missions for planetary security and police departments, or as Ulenem had complained dourly, “plucking Felisils out of trees.” They were both, obviously, itching to get back into big-league action.
“Thank you,” I said, my voice cracking. “We owe you.”
Spud glared at them both and said firmly, “Alive. We need Sutherland alive.”

* * *
Tyre

Phoenecia—two thousand years ago

Getting Matshi and Ulenem through the temporal vector shield had been easier than we expected. Wart must’ve sneaked in a few loopholes, Spud surmised. He estimated we’d have a good chance to break through the vector shield and find our targets by using a Trojan horse. In our case, our Trojan horse was, literally, a Trojan horse. Ostentatious in the imperial Roman sculpture tradition, the colossal marble statue of Homer’s equine was M-fanned by my Eikhus-modified Ergal onto the grounds of a Tiberian governor’s expansive estate on the outskirts of Tyre. As soon as nightfall hit, our friends opened the portal in the horse’s belly, and crept outside. Why reinvent the wheel?
I’d let the pair borrow my Ergal to deploy during their mission, hoping that we could rescue Yeshua–and our assignment–before anyone at Central found out. Matshi, anamorphed into human form, still looked, frankly, scary. With his seven-foot height, he towered over most of the villagers on the road to Tyre, and his broad thorax, its exoskeleton covered by Ergaled human skin, gave him the muscular appearance of a heavyweight fighter. Ulenem, whose normal height was less than two feet, had, in his human disguise, mega’d himself to look only slightly shorter and less bulked up than Matshi. And, he was equally intimidating, even with his athame and other weapons hidden in the folds of his robes.
Raised in warm environments, both men were much more comfortable in the hot, dry desert than Spud and I had been. With Ergals translating, their Phoenecian and Latin were passable, though Matshi did have a tendency to over-roll his R’s.
Once inside the city limits, they quickly set up a skinos (a large tent made of gamil leather) on a deserted rocky ridge dotted with chaparral, from which they had a good view of the part of town favored by immigrant laborers, many from Judea. It was likely that Yeshua could be found among them. If Matshi and Ulenem succeeded in getting to Yeshua before Sutherland did, they could hopefully prevent the youth’s murder, preserve Earth’s timeline, and recapture Sutherland for us once again.
At sunrise, Matshi stuck a head out of the skinos and shivered. He said to Ulenem, “It’s only 321 degrees Kelvin, bundle up.”
The Assassin snorted. “Earth’s always in an Ice Age.” He draped his body and his weapons with several layers of robes, and quickly joined his partner on the trek to the workers’ camps in the valley below.
Zygint’s monitoring of Sutherland had included contact metrics for his location, most valuably date and time. We’d figured we’d give our team a head start to reach Bar Maryam first and, using the data from the Zygint holo, sent them back in a few days earlier than Sutherland was due to arrive. Unfortunately, none of us had contact metrics on Yeshua. Matshi and Ulenem had to find him the old-fashioned way, pounding the pavement.
The young warriors took that instruction somewhat to heart, and didn’t waste time with the niceties Spud and I had favored. Going from tent to tent in the immigrants’ settlements, they impressed the migrant workers with forceful questions on the whereabouts of a Yeshua or a Saul. Matshi’s report is a little sketchy on the details of their interrogations at this point, but he does note that the results of their efforts led them on several wild goose chases—Matshi uses a more colorful idiom—based on inaccurate answers from what I suspect were terrified and desperate browbeaten victims.
Finally, after a couple of days of unsuccessful pursuits, Matshi opted to try a different tactical approach. Several of the “interviewed” workers had identified a gathering place about three kilometers on the other side of town that was used as a temple by some of the more devout immigrants. Matshi urged his partner to join him at the site.
“It is too late,” Ulenem averred, twirling his athame. “We must first go ambush Sutherland. Then we have all the time in the world to find the boy.”
“The Zygint holo showed that Sutherland should be arriving at the road to Tyre in four and a half hours,” Matshi advised, checking the contact metrics on his Ergal. “We still have time to make the ambuscade if Yeshua turns out not to be at this temple.”
Ulenem wasn’t easily convinced, but in the end he reluctantly agreed to accompany his friend. Leaving the warmth and goodwill of the camp residents behind them, or not, Matshi and Ulenem set off for the Temple on the Hill.
The Temple was a stone building of two storeys with wooden doors surrounded by shady cedar trees. Shivering, Matshi pulled his robes tighter and waved for his partner to follow him inside.
The temple’s ground storey was divided into two discrete areas, empty except for lonely rough benches of pine, and dimly lit by a few weak rays of sunshine that peeked through fissures in the stone wall. At the opposite end of the room, was a charred, stained stone structure. Across it, a man in colorful robes, his back to Matshi and Ulenem, was bent over a table poring over an unrolled scroll. The temple’s priest, no doubt, Matchi estimated.
The odor of incense pervaded throughout the chamber, and Matshi coughed to clear his throat. As the men entered, the robed man turned to reveal an exceedingly long black beard hanging almost to his waist. He walked up and greeted his visitors with more than a hint of suspicion.
“You are the strangers,” he said warily in Aramaic.
Matshi didn’t mince Ergaled words. “Clearly.” He took a step closer, towering over the cleric. “Where is Yeshua? Is he here?”
The priest calmly responded, “Who?”
“Yeshua Bar Maryam,” Matshi announced, scanning the room as Ulenem drew his athame and started slowly running his fingers across the shiny flat surface.
The cleric calmly studied the visitors for a long moment, finally saying in Hebrew, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” After a pause, he added, this time in Aramaic, “They are here.”
Matshi looked at Ulenem, frowning. They?
“Well, then,” the Chidurian ordered the Temple host, “take us.”
The priest hesitated at first, but relented after Ulenem placed the tip of his athame gently against the cleric’s ribs. He led them carefully up a narrow flight of wooden stairs at the rear of the building to a stuffy attic. From the doorjamb, the Zygans could see the attic was filled with rows of pine tables and benches, at which bearded old men sat reading scrolls of parchment and papyrus under the anemic rays of sunlight trickling through the gaps in the walls of oak and stone. In a distant corner, sat our targets, Yeshua and Saul, their heads together, studying a scroll.
“So much for Zygint contact metrics,” Matshi muttered.
Ulenem pulled his partner back towards the steps. “Saul has not killed him yet,” Ulenem whispered in Zygan. “That is good—and stupid.”
“There are rules even for Benedict’s team, I expect.” Matshi returned. “A public execution could be more damaging to the timeline than Benedict intends.” He nodded at Ulenem. “Why don’t we go say ‘hello’.”
With a lightness of step born of their training as hunters, Matshi and Ulenem each crept to one side of the ostensibly studious pair. Matshi observed a Zygan stun gun with the knife point that, concealed from the others, was aimed at Yeshua’s abdomen. Giving a visual signal to Matshi, Ulenem lunged towards Sutherland’s arm and knocked the gun out of his hand. Before Sutherland could spin around and fight back, Ulenem had grabbed the Andart by the shoulders, pulled his arms behind him, and snapped them briskly into the firm Zygan handcuffs called cherukles. Meanwhile, Matshi had pulled Yeshua up and back out of his chair, a harder task than he had expected. So slight in appearance, Yeshua was actually quite muscular and very strong. Matshi thought it’d be best to cheruklize his captive, too, just in case. Having to stun Yeshua in front of the now wide-eyed scholars to carry him out of the loft would raise even more questions than a fancy pair of handcuffs.
All eyes in the attic were now focused upon the Zygans and their prisoners. Ulenem once again had drawn his athame, and rested it gently against Sutherland’s throat to discourage any thoughts of intervention by his fellow scholars.
“Return to your studies,” Ulenem barked at them. Most did so obediently, to his visible disgust.
Backs to the wall, the Zygans pushed their prisoners towards the door, out of the attic library, and marched them down the stairs; the Assassin and Saul in the lead, Matshi and Yeshua following behind.
Midway down, Sutherland’s sandal caught on the uneven wood and he stumbled forward. Ulenem reacted quickly, but not quickly enough. As he fell, Sutherland ejected a microstunner from his sandal with his toes. The Assassin jumped to the side and reached in his robes to pull out his knife, but the tiny missile caught half of its prey; Ulenem’s arm remained hanging and frozen, useless, along with the right side of his body. The Assassin quickly lost his balance and started tumbling down the stairs. Sutherland had already rolled down to the landing, and with an impressive gymnastic contortion, slipped his cuffed hands out from under his legs to the front. Leaping to the bottom of the stairwell, Sutherland whipped out a second stun gun from his robes. He sprayed a dispersed laser blast at the adjacent floors, ceilings, and walls, which, made of an extremely dry wood, ignited fiercely and sent waves of dense smoke and flame up the passageway towards the second floor.
Matshi had been able to hold his breath, along with his captive, for the first few minutes, but Ulenem, without full control of his torso, had tumbled helplessly down directly into a wall of flame. Matshi’s choice was clear. Releasing Yeshua, he raced down the stairs and leaped onto his partner, rolling him out of the ring of fire onto a cooler area of ash and stone. Alarmed, Matshi noted that the fire had already melted some layers of Ulenem’s Ergaled cover, and his underlying green skin, some of which was now charred to a dull gray, peeked through. Though clearly in pain, Ulenem gazed up gratefully at his friend. Uttering a curse in Izmal, the language of the Madai assassins, he croaked, “Took them long enough to warm the place up.”
Matshi rubbed his partner’s hair and eyed the rivers of flame creeping towards them, “Just let me catch the bastard!”
“Already out the front door,” Ulenem said ruefully. “Where’s the kid?”
It was Matshi’s turn to curse. He had left Yeshua on the stairs, which had just collapsed into a flaming pyre. Screams from the attic had grown louder, as the fire had spread to and ignited the dry leaves and branches of the overhanging cedar trees which had then set fire to the shake roof. The attic above had become an inferno, showering torrents of ash and flesh, and chips of wood and bone onto the first floor.
“He’s … gone,” Matshi said slowly, staring with fury at the blaze. A burning wood beam crashed just inches from their heads. “And we’ve got to get out of here!”
“Ergal!” cried Ulenem.
“Right here,” Matshi shuffled through his robes. “Hold on to me.”
They X-fanned just as the entire second storey of the temple collapsed on the floor where they had lain moments before.

* * *

The Chidurian Enclave, Zyga—present day

Back in the kalyvi, we’d lost track of Matshi and Ulenem after they’d Ergaled back in time. Getting the Trojan horse through Wart’s loophole had been a stroke of good fortune. But, there was a very good chance we’d be expected, and they would be monitoring for our Ergals and DNA. Matshi knew to use my Ergal only for emergencies so it couldn’t be picked up and tracked easily, ruling out his sending us a continuous live feed. Even occasional routine communications would be pushing our luck.
We had hoped that our men would find Sutherland and be back out of Tyre in less than an hour, what with time looping and all. Our worry grew after half a day had passed and we hadn’t heard a thing.
“Second team?” Eikhus suggested generously.
Spud snorted. “You would evaporate in five minutes in that climate. You, as well, Nephil Stratum. No, if they have failed, so have we. We were fortunate to get the Trojan horse in the first time. Wart will have surely sealed up that door by now, especially if that troglodyte Platt has informed him he met a Wart doppelgänger at Headquarters.”
I nodded. “Thanks, Eikhus, Nephil Stratum. Rain check. For once I agree with Spud. We’ve just got to wait. Matshi and Ulenem are fighters. I’m not giving up hope. They’ll come through.”
Suthsi sighed, “Everybody loses sometimes …”
“You’re always such a ray of sunshine,” I muttered, adding more loudly, “If Matshi and Ulenem don’t succeed,” I looked at Spud, who nodded, “we’re the ones who’ll go back in.”

* * *

Phoenicia—two thousand years ago

“Where are we?” Ulenem opened his eyes, wincing from the pain.
Matshi dabbed at Ulenem’s head with a cloth soaked in verdar, a Madai antiseptic balm. “In our tent. Can you move your arm?”
Ulenem carefully tried moving the stunned part of his body. His reflexes were slow, but the motion was fortunately there.
“I got the microstunner out, the bastard, but a chemical unstun takes time until your body metabolizes the poison.”
“Looks like I’m out of commission for the rest of the day,” Ulenem grunted. “Bakari hurts.”
“The verdar ointment will help you heal more quickly. Just keep rubbing it on your skin.”
Ulenem tried to sit up. “Where are you going?”
“We lost Yeshua.” Matshi’s eyes flashed. “I’m not going to lose that bastard Sutherland!”
Ulenem lay back and grunted again. “This is why we Izmalis don’t bother taking prisoners. Kill them before they can get the advantage …”
“Sutherland?” Matshi snorted angrily as he stood up to leave. “He’s a dead man walking.”

* * *

The villagers combing through the charred wreckage of the temple didn’t pay much attention to the horseshoe bat that glided through the burned naked branches of the once-proud cedar trees. Blending in with the circling vultures, the bat swooped in and out of the site, unnoticed. His surreptitious Ergal scan of the fire residue was almost complete and there was still no evidence of Yeshua’s DNA.
Matshi landed on a stable tree limb and hung upside down watching the villagers as they mourned their family and friends. How many such scenes of sadness had he witnessed in his relatively short life? Tears, dakris, beshun. A planet the size of Orion Alpha could be filled with the Universe’s liquids of grief. And he was powerless to help. All of us were … except the Omega Archon. He could put a stop to the madness of war, and yet His Highness had always turned away and let the wars go on.
That’s really why, Matshi admitted to himself, he had left Mingferplatoi. There wasn’t any sense in fighting when nothing ever really changed. The wailing of last year’s Hutunye massacre survivors, now thousands of years in the relative future, echoed in his ears, little different from the cries of the sobbing mourners below. Sentient life had not much evolved beyond the aggressive competitiveness of natural selection, despite the intricate pacifist oratory of philosophers like T’PlanaHath. And probably never would.
A new mourner caught Matshi’s eye. The young man’s stride seemed a bit too chipper. Surprisingly free of the dazed dullness of the rest of the villagers, the young man seemed intent on vigorously combing through the ashes with a stick. A polished stick. Unlatching from his perch, Matshi swooped by for a closer look. It was a scanner.
Sutherland. Anamorphed. Matshi was pleased to note that the man’s swagger seemed to ebb, as Sutherland, too, apparently didn’t find Yeshua’s DNA. Clearly irritated, Young Sutherland stood gazing at the ruins, scratching his head. Finally, puzzled, he started off down the road.
Matshi swooped onto Sutherland’s shoulders as soon as they were out of view of the villagers. Sutherland let out a sharp cry and spun around, aiming for the bat with his stick. The Chidurian quickly Ergaled into himself—at his fighting peak in his own exoskeleton armor—and laid into Sutherland with all eight arms.
No more the elderly teacher, Sutherland, the young man, was a superb fighter, and, to Matshi’s dismay, was grav-trained. The two men sparred in the isolated field for what seemed like hours, before Matshi’s size and multiple limbs allowed him to knock Sutherland out, stun him, and search him for any additional hidden weapons. Holding the scanner stick under one arm, Matshi grabbed Sutherland with the others and tractored him to the skinos tent.
But Ulenem was nowhere to be found. Leaving Sutherland safely stunned inside the chamber, Matshi stepped outside and pulled out the borrowed Ergal to scan for his partner. A muffled sound from inside the skinos caught his ears, and Matshi dashed back in. Sutherland was still lying in his stunned position on the floor, but his torso was now framed by a halo of crimson blood from the fatal slice across his throat.
Matshi looked up to see Ulenem wiping his blade with a smile of satisfaction.
“What have you done?!” Matshi shouted at the Assassin.
“We don’t need him any more,” Ulenem answered quietly.
“Didn’t you hear Spud? We bring him back alive, we can interrogate him. Who knows what he’d tell us about Benedict?”
Ulenem’s voice was cold. “Nothing. He will tell you nothing.”
Matshi snorted, then stiffened when he realized the true meaning of Ulenem’s words. No, impossible… not his friend … His hand eased toward the Ergal. “You’re …”
“His job is done. Yeshua is dead,” Ulenem said. A momentary flicker of sadness crossed his eyes, and then, without visible emotion, he began once again. “And now …”
Matshi was ready for the attack, but the flying blade from across the room still severed one of his arms. Purple blood gushed as Matshi ducked and dodged the onslaught of whirling blades from Ulenem and tried to get in a few blows of his own. Ulenem somehow seemed to have an unlimited supply of weapons hidden in his robes, and was no longer hampered by his earlier paralysis. Matshi soon lost a leg to the knives, and began to feel weakened by the loss of blood. Ulenem did not pause in his assault, however. It was clear that Matshi’s death was his goal, and that he would likely succeed.
A feral instinct overtook the Chidurian. Matshi was no longer thinking of his partner, of Sutherland, of death. He could only feel the waves of adrenaline pouring from his brain and giving him a strength he never knew he had. As the next volley of knives rained upon him, Matshi grabbed as many as he could with his remaining hands and feet and, fastening them on his exoskeleton so they pointed out, launched his massive torso at his smaller opponent. Matshi landed directly on top of Ulenem, the knives piercing the Assassin’s chest like a bed of nails falling sharps-down from a painful height. Ulenem’s final scream faded as his celadon-colored blood washed over Matshi and drained on the floor of the skinos to merge into a Chidurian purple as it blended with Sutherland’s red heme.
Shaking, Matshi rolled off of a now-still Ulenem and lay on the ground, breathing heavily. He had lost two limbs, but not his life. But he had not managed to escape grievous tragedy. He had killed his partner and his friend.
* * *
Purgatory

Chidurian Enclave, Zyga—present day

When the next morning arrived, and Matshi and Ulenem hadn’t, our anxiety was in the stratosphere. Nephil Stratum had turned a charcoal gray, the Ytrans were locked in a death grip, and Eikhus was dripping himself all over our already damp feet. Even Sarion had stopped making jokes.
Spud kept rubbing his eyes and temples with his long, delicate fingers. I was too nervous to sit, and paced the room, annoyed to be sloshing through former bits of Eikhus. I’d been hoping that our emissaries would be as successful as the Hellenic warriors that had emerged from the original Trojan Horse to verse Paris’ minions. Hadn’t our History uploads given the Greeks the victory in that legendary war?
“You’ve read the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Greeks won, right?” was my rhetorical question to my partner.
Spud leaned back in his chair and grunted as he stretched his long legs. “Only Odysseus finally made it home.”
“And that comforts me how?” I said, irritated.
Spud only stretched and grunted once more.
Nephil Stratum finally spoke. “Maybe it’s time to go to the Omega Archon.”
We all sat up at that one.
“Well, he is the head of Zygint,” she defended. “Let us think strategically. You’ve got at least two made moles on the inside, Benedict on the attack, and his lieutenants playing football with your timelines. Why the hell not?”
“You put your finger on it right there,” I muttered. “Hell. Do you know what he’s going to do to me? Losing Sutherland, DNA muting, unauthorized Off-worlders running God-knows-where around ancient Earth. I’m looking at a year in the flames easy.”
“Not so easy,” Sarion jibed, mimicking Suthsi’s lilting tones.
I gave him my coldest glare.
Eikhus said, “You could explain …”
“Never complain; never explain,” Spud interjected in his most prep-school English accent. “Rush is right. Better we try going back in ourselves.”
“That won’t be necessary.”
Matshi! We all turned to look at the door with relief—and then shock. The warrior was missing two limbs, and he leaned precariously on the jamb to maintain his balance.
I couldn’t resist running to him and giving him a hug. My American upbringing comes out at the worst times. He winced as I brushed against his seeping wounds. Eikhus and I quickly led him to a chair where he could rest and Setsei served him a tall glass of Chidurian ale.
“What happened? Where’s Ulenem?” We asked anxiously.
Matshi raised a bleeding hand. “Ulenem,” he began weakly, “Ulenem … gave his life in the service of Zygfed.”
We all stood stunned for a good minute, then Suthsi let out a sob. “Such a heartbreak.”
“What happened?” Spud’s voice was even.
Matshi drank some more from his glass, swallowing each sip slowly before answering.
“I was searching for Yeshua’s DNA—”
“Yeshua’s dead?” Spud’s voice was a little less even.
“No … no,” Matshi paused, then shook his head. “Not that I can say for certain. And before I got back, he, um, Sutherland, Sutherland attacked him. I tried to help but it was too late … they were gone …”
“Sutherland is dead?!” Spud’s voice was definitely not even.
Matshi looked at him, four eyes flaring. “Yes, Sutherland is dead.” The Chidurian downed the rest of the ale in one large gulp. “And he took my best friend with him.”

* * *

Ulenem’s body, fully covered in a white kaffahn, an Izmali burial shroud, lay next to Sutherland’s in an adjacent chamber of Matshi’s kalyvi. I stood quietly by the Assassin’s side for a few minutes, grateful that his shroud kept me from witnessing his face in death. Grateful that Ulenem’s eyes could not bore into mine and further jab my aching conscience. If I had not taken the bait at Io, Ulenem would still be alive.
Eikhus had already notified Ulenem’s family on Orion Alpha, the largest planet orbiting Orion star Saif al Jabbar. They were on their way to Zyga to take their prodigal son home. Matshi had intended to stay and greet the family, but his blood loss had weakened him severely, to the point that even Spud was insisting that the Chidurian seek medical care immediately. Sarion and the Ytrans agreed to accompany the less-than-willing Matshi to Nejinsen, Zyga’s largest and most renowned hospital, while Eikhus and Nephil Stratum awaited the Orion Alpha family’s arrival at the kalyvi.
Our own mission somewhat back on track, Spud and I were now tasked with delivering Sutherland, in his admittedly less than ideal condition, to Zygint. I turned away from Ulenem’s body and saw that Spud, bless his steel heart, was busy inspecting Sutherland’s corpse. I didn’t dare ask if he’d already done a similar examination of the Assassin.
I did ask, “Why the frown?”
Spud shook his head. “It is nothing. Nothing. Let us go.”
Our mood somber, my partner and I tractored Sutherland’s body to Zygint Central, where after extensive WHO and NDNA scanning (as ourselves), we were admitted to the ultra-secure Administrative complex on the 14Tth floor, and directed to the morgue where Forensics relieved us of the corpse.
Our next stop would be with the Headquarters team in Debriefing. We’d rehearsed our story thoroughly. Ward Burton had rescued Sutherland from our clutches at Earth Core and had fooled us into thinking we were actually transporting Benedict’s henchman to Zyga. We didn’t discover the deception until after we’d left the Sol System. Not wishing to show Wart our hand, I did a little undercover detective work—no need to elaborate how or where—and found that the real Sutherland had been sent back to Phoenicia to get Yeshua. So, we raced back to Phoenicia, caught the Andart again, and were transporting him to Zyga when we’d hit unmapped dark matter turbulence at Ganymede. Sutherland, still stunned, had been unable to brace himself as our ship rolled, and met his death from a loose strut that had slit his throat. I saw no reason to tell Headquarters about my having recruited the “Lost Boys” for assistance, a fateful decision that had regrettably led one of them to breathe his last.
We’d even downloaded the DNA records of the victims of the temple fire from Matshi’s Ergal and turned them in discreetly for a Temporal Disturbance Analysis. Did Sutherland’s fateful arson at the Temple murder a scholar who might either have been critical to Earth’s history, or might have lived to father a descendant who was? To our relief, the analysis confirmed that the unfortunate victims had been religious celibates, and that their premature deaths hadn’t resulted in a significant disturbance in Earth’s timeline.
And, as for Yeshua? Inexplicably, his DNA was notably absent from the victims’ pool. As our assignment had demanded, because of our “success”, the river of Earth’s time would continue flowing unchanged. We had, after all, no evidence either in the ancient past or our modern present that Yeshua was dead.
The mystery of why Yeshua wasn’t dead was one that we chose to avoid answering, or even asking, ourselves. How could the youth have survived Sutherland’s inferno? Where did he go during and after the fire?
Temporal Defense Team Leader Juan de la Cruz was somewhat sympathetic as he processed our reports. He’d had a few missions go off track himself over the hundreds of years he’d served as a Zygan Intelligence catascope.
With great heaviness in our hearts, we described Wart’s suspected betrayal and his role in getting Sutherland back to Tyre through the temporal vector shield. I did have a moment of pleasure identifying Wart’s contact at Headquarters, Carlton Platt, as a traitor. The debrief team seemed understandably distressed to discover that Zygint Central itself had been formally infiltrated. Juan immediately commed Security and demanded Platt’s arrest.
A few hours later, we had finally finished our debriefing and stood up to leave. Juan thanked us both warmly for our dedicated service, and we started for the door.
“Oh, Rush,” Juan added as I neared the exit. “His Highness would like to see you.”
I froze, terror-stricken. Spud looked at me, and then looked away. I said nothing for a few moments. Finally, I ventured in a tremulous voice, “You don’t have any idea what he wants…?”
Juan shook his head. “He doesn’t tell me his business. I’m sure he’ll let you know.” There was a hint of sympathy in his voice.
“Uh, sh-should I set up an appointment?” It was worth a try.
“He’s waiting now,” Juan informed me, to my great distress.
Survive first, then face the music. John’s words guided me yet again. I guess it was time for me to start my tuneful dance. I took a deep breath, and, patting Spud on the arm, I turned to Juan. “Okay. Let’s get it over with.”

* * *

The Omega Archon is reputed to have an infinite number of reception suites, each designed to make visitors from a universe of planets feel at home. Or, more likely, he anamorphs his chambers and changes the molecular pattern and appearance of his reception areas so they’d look homey and familiar to each guest. Just as he does with himself.
Every Zygan who has had the ‘pleasure’ of meeting with His Royal Highness has a slightly different perception of Zygfed’s leader. Tlhlns think he looks Tlhlni. Angonians, Angonian. For Spud, the Archon is a six-foot human king, decked in opulent Louis XIV robes and wearing a sparkling bejeweled crown. For me, the Archon always dresses in office casual and sports a pair of tortoise shell glasses. Frankly, he really should wear a muscle shirt and jeans, but then maybe I wouldn’t be intimidated by him as much any more.
I sat stiffly on the stiff couch in “my” reception suite until His Highness entered. I stood up out of courtesy, and he greeted me politely in unaccented American English.
“Good morning, Ms. Rush.”
“Good morning, Your Highness.” I took my seat again as he eased into a leather office chair opposite my sofa.
“You do know why you’re here.” Short and sweet, as always.
I forced a smile. “Mission accomplished?”
Silence. Only silence.
After a few moments, I couldn’t stand it any more. “Don’t I get any credit for finding the two moles?” I said in desperation.
“We have been aware of the infiltration at Central for quite a while,” His Highness informed me, to my surprise. “And we’ve been managing it.”
I frowned. Had Juan known about the traitors? If so, then why did he act like he didn’t?
The Omega Archon took off his glasses and polished the lenses casually with a linen handkerchief. “But, you are correct, we hadn’t ID’d Ward Burton as a double agent.”
It was my only chance. I didn’t mince words. “If you all had, then maybe we wouldn’t’ve gotten into the mess at Io in the first place, I wouldn’t be here, and—” I stopped myself before saying, “Ulenem wouldn’t be dead.”
For a few seconds, I felt the Archon’s neural probe invade my brain. Apparently satisfied with his search, he turned back to using his voice to communicate.
“One week,” he said coldly.
I gulped. I had realistically expected a few hours in Hell … but a week?! “But, but—” I stuttered.
“Ms. Rush, catascopes are not excused from the regulations of the Zygan Federation. Your transgressions include abandoning your assignment, unauthorized access to Zygint, unauthorized muting, relinquishing your Ergal to mercenaries, abetting unauthorized time-travelers, and the list goes on.” The Archon looked at me steadily, his tone firm. “Violations of the law result in consequences. You are encouraged to know the rules—not make them. This is not a democracy, understand?”
I nodded, endeavoring to calmly return his gaze. Finally, he stood up. “That’s all.”
I tried to stand but my legs were shaking. The Omega Archon turned his back and walked out of the suite without another word.
The pain began as soon as he left the room. I gritted my teeth and clenched my fists, but the burning was agonizing, my entire body was on fire. I rolled on the floor and curled into the fetal position, writhing on the shag carpet. It took only a minute for my defenses to become overwhelmed and, against my will, I began to scream.

* * *

Spud looked almost as pale as I did when I staggered out of Central an hour later. My muscles were still trembling and weak, and I fell into the soft coolness of the cloud tufts with a sigh of relief and closed my eyes.
“It’s been over an hour,” Spud said, his voice wavering.
“He gave me a week.” My time ‘in stir’ seemed short to others, but as the Omega Archon had launched me into my own special punitive time loop, I had felt every minute of the ten thousand that made up a week.
“Are you all right?”
I strained to open my eyes and gazing at him with a wan smile. “Thanks for waiting for me.”
He nodded and reached out his arms to help me up. The soreness and stiffness would take a very long time to fade. I leaned against him, relaxing in his embrace as we X-fanned back to Matshi’s lair.

* * *
In Matshi’s kalyvi, our meeting room seemed sadly bereft without the Chidurian and his late partner. The rest of the group greeted us warmly, but it was disconcerting to see, with my peripheral vision, worried eyes studying me when my gaze was supposedly turned away. The Omega Archon’s harsh code of justice was certainly a reason a couple of them had opted to wash out of catascope training.
So it didn’t surprise me when Nephil Stratum pulled me aside to a corner of the chamber beyond prying ears.
“I am so sorry,” she said as he handed me a cup of Chidurian ale and massaged my back with her soothing tufts.
“I’m okay. Really.” Especially after the first few sips of the healing drink.
“That’s good. But I meant that I didn’t get you the training.”
I frowned. “What training?”
She wrapped her cooling tufts around me, calming my sore muscles. “In case there’s a next time. Helps you fight off the pain. While you’re waiting for Forensics to finish the autopsies, you may be able to learn it. Ka’vyr.”
“Sounds Ifestian,” I ventured, hearing the name. Ifestians were renowned for their study of philosophy and logic, but tended to avoid mingling in the bustling Zygan Federation melting pot.
“Yes. It’s a kind of auto-telepathy. Neural self-control.”
Ifestian high priests were rumored to have telepathic skills, but with little inclination to advertise or share their knowledge. “And Ifestians are going to tutor me because…?” My tone was wary.
“I’ll make the arrangements,” Nephil Stratum reassured me without further elaboration. “For you, and Escott, too. As catascopes, you never know when ka’vyr might come in handy.”

* * *

A day later, as Nephil Stratum had instructed us, Spud and I Ergaled to the M-fan portal in the Ifestio Enclave, a destination well off the Zygan tourist map, where recreational pursuits were and uninvited visitors, to put it mildly, not encouraged. Ifestians tended to favor a monastic lifestyle, more attractive to those with a deep intellectual or spiritual calling. Of course, I’d never been there before.
Dressed in the standard brightly-colored Ifestian robes decorated with indecipherable runic characters, we silently walked the 2.67 kilometers in the searing heat to the Xtmprsqzntwlfd estate. After baking in Sidon, Matshi’s Enclave, and now Ifestio’s, I longed for a journey to a more temperate climate and actually began to look forward to my return to Los Angeles, vowing never to complain about the hot, dry Santa Ana winds again.
The gates of the stately manor opened as we approached. I didn’t see a camera or sensor system anywhere. Perhaps we’d just had a live demonstration of reputed Ifestian telepathy.
We carefully climbed up the rocky path to the mansion. Hematite columns gave the circular, red-tinged structure the look of a rusty Stonehenge. As had the gates, the building’s entry portal opened by itself as we approached, and we gratefully stepped inside to a surprisingly cool atrium.
T’Fal welcomed us with traditional Ifestian reserve, and led us without delay to a small, soundproofed room, where she instructed us to sit, cross-legged, on the floor cushions she had provided. Then, sans small talk, she got right down to business.
“You are here to learn telepathic resistance.” It was not a question.
We nodded.
She stared intently at each of us for several minutes—did I catch a look of dismay in her stern features?—and then ordered, “Close your eyes. We shall begin.”

* * *

Spud was a much better student than me, I’m afraid, but I did pick up the basics of ka’vyr after a few hours of practice. I can’t say I was exactly eager to test my skills against the Omega Archon, but I felt that I’d at least be able to chorize without giving myself away. Chorizing is a ka’vyr technique that allows you to split away from a situation and watch yourself as an observer, sort of like looking at yourself in the third person. I could now try to use ka’vyr to separate myself from the Omega Archon’s Hellish pain if I had the misfortune to be called on the carpet again in the future.
“I’ve got to come back here someday,” I said to Spud as we reached the exit portal of the Ifestian Enclave. “I can learn so much more from T’Fal.”
“Bollocks,” Spud snorted. “I doubt she thinks so …,” and the rest of his sentence, along with my snide reply, was lost as we X-fanned back to the Chidurian Enclave.

* * *

The Ytrans had already left for their own enclave when we returned and Eikhus was eager to return to the Kharybdian Enclave as soon as possible. His sister had reported a massive hailstorm was due to arrive in less than a day, and damage to their thal was a distinct possibility.
Eikhus did hope to stop in and see Matshi at Nejinsen first, and I offered to accompany him to Aheya, Zyga’s second-largest city, where the acclaimed medical center was located.
“Autopsy on Sutherland’s finished,” Nephil Stratum informed us as she entered the meeting room. “The report reads: death due to exsanguination from a laceration of the carotid artery. He bled out.”
“Is our story flying?” I asked. Juan de la Cruz was less terrifying than the Omega Archon, but he had the authority to wash us out of Zygint if he suspected we’d spun an imaginative tale.
“Sounds like it.”
“Call your boss and see if you still have a job,” Sarion teased.
“He is expecting us back on Earth for a debriefing this evening in fact,” Spud interjected. Then he added to Eikhus, “I’m afraid we can’t make Nejinsen.”
I spun around and faced him. “I’m afraid we can’t not. Matshi went out on a limb for us—”
“More like his limbs went out for you!” joked Sarion.
We all turned to the Megaran and yelled, in unison, “Shut up!”
I put an arm on Eikhus and said forcefully, “Nejinsen. Who’s going with me?”
Everyone but Spud raised a hand.
“Thank you.” I faced Spud, expectant.
Finally, and sullenly, he broke. “Oh, all right.”

* * *

Nejinsen Medical Center is literally in the Center of Aheya, nestled among libraries and museums in Zyga’s most beautiful city. The 476 storey (Base Twelve, of course) hospital houses many of the top medical specialists in the Universe, and provides health and repair services for thousands of species and millions of cultures.
Medicine at Nejinsen is nothing like medicine on Earth. Why even anastasis, reawakening from death, is practiced in rare cases; through neurocache transplants, I’ve been told. Most Zygan doctors, however, prefer to use cellular regeneration techniques to avoid the complications of death completely. The average Zygan can practically live as long as he, she, it, or they want, but most Zygans choose to move on to Level Three, the world beyond, after living a few thousand years or so.
A few cultures in Zygfed eschew modern science, and practice shamanic rituals of varied effectiveness. Some even worship the Transition to Level Three, and honor those who die for a noble cause as demi-gods. Frankly, if you ask me, I’d rather choose life over deification, but, please, I pray you don’t ask.
But Izmalis like Ulenem’s family would no doubt be singing his praises at the Transition ceremony next week. His baba had arranged for his body to be transported back to Orion Alpha with a hero’s welcome, and at least half the population of his hometown of Madai was expected to attend his funeral. Ulenem’s family reportedly had already begun building a majestic temple to honor their fallen warrior’s memory.
As our lift levved to Matshi’s room, I wondered if the Chidurian would be well enough to attend the ceremony. The loss of his lifelong friend had obviously devastated him. Matshi had once admitted to me that he was not convinced of the existence of Level Three, or even of any life after death. I was certain that the Chidurian’s … lack of faith … would make his loss even more painful.
We entered Matshi’s room with some trepidation. Matshi was resting quietly in a large suite that resembled his Chidurian kalyvi. He’d regained some of his deep purplish hue, and his regenerating limbs had grown to almost half their adult size. I couldn’t resist giving him another hug.
He winced when I touched his maturing arm, then, with a nod at Sarion, joked, “Growing pains.” Matshi wasn’t typically a warm, fuzzy kind of guy, but I think he was genuinely happy to see us. Only when we tried to catch him up on the Sutherland autopsy did his expression alter. He put up a hand, and asked us to change the subject.
I went with the first thought that popped in my head. Was he going to Orion Alpha for Ulenem’s Transition? I instantly regretted my question when Matshi responded with a Chidurian curse.
We all saw Spud frown. I was ready to apologize for bringing up a painful memory when Spud cut me off, asking Matshi abruptly, “Why did you kill him?”
I looked at Spud in confusion. Matshi had already told us that Ulenem had been attacked by Sutherland and had been killed defending himself, so why did Spud—
Another Chidurian curse preceded Matshi’s surprising lunge from his seat. Fortunately, Spud was quick on his feet, and his Ergal, and quickly levved out of Matshi’s reach. From the ceiling of the suite, Spud whipped out his stun gun and aimed it at the Chidurian.
“Do not make me stun you. Just tell us what happened.”
As Eikhus, Sarion, and I stared, bewildered; Matshi glared at Spud for a few moments. Obviously in pain, he limped back to his chair, and muttered a hoarse, “You bastard!”
Spud still kept his distance a few feet off the ground as Matshi spat a violet liquid onto the floor, leaned back, and, avoiding our eyes, began to tell the truth.

* * *

Our trip back to Earth was subdued. We’d gotten word that Zygint had arrested Wart and Carlton Platt, now that we’d publicly blown their covers, and charged them with treason. Platt deserved it, but I’d miss Wart. He’d been a great mentor for us ‘greenhorns’, unlike Gary the aesthete and dorky Ev.
And Ulenem. What could possibly have motivated him to turn against Zygfed? He didn’t need the money. His family was among the richest in Madai. Nationalism? Unlikely. Orion Alpha had been loyal to Zygfed for several millennia, possibly even before the extinction. Then, why?
Troubled, I turned to Spud, who was sprawled in his seat, his eyes closed. I didn’t think he was really asleep.
“Ulenem,” I whispered.
One eye opened and found mine.
“How did you guess that Matshi had, uh…?” I prodded.
Spud stretched and yawned. “How did I guess? Really, Rush.”
I apologized. “Deduce. How did you deduce?”
“Belatedly,” he responded, sitting up with a grunt. “I had neglected to properly interpret the pattern of the knife wounds on the body.”
He ran his fingers through his hair, then, seeing my puzzled expression, sighed. “The outline of the stabs, their size, spacing, angulation, hinted at an arthropodal, eight-limbed species,” he added. “Except for two perplexing irregular concavities. I had, regretfully, overlooked the temporary absence of two of Matshi’s arms and legs.”
He shrugged. “At any rate, it is of no longer of consequence … we have a more important question to address.”¬¬
“Why Ulenem, uh, went to the other side?”
Spud favored me with a patronizing frown. “Yeshua. Where is he?”
Yeshua. I had almost forgotten. “Matshi’s convinced he didn’t burn in the fire.”
“Exactly. So, did he get out of the temple? And if so, how? The attic’s only exit apparently was the flaming staircase.”
I sighed. Looks like we didn’t have a choice. “So we go back to Tyre?”
He hesitated. “No. I have a theory.” He sat up and faced me. “And we do not want to lead the pirates to the gold.”
“What do you mean?”
“Suppose, simply suppose, we are being tracked. We find Yeshua again, but at the same time lead our trackers right to him.”
“Good point,” I admitted. “But who are these trackers? We turned in Wart and Platt.”
Spud nodded. “And caught Sutherland. Theoretically, we should be home free. Yeshua is safe and, as far as I, and the Temporal Disturbance Analysis Unit, can determine, Earth’s timeline has not been affected.”
“Makes sense to me.” Unfortunately, helping humanity avoid or prevent two millennia of wars, plagues, and holocausts was, by order of the Omega Archon, not part of our job description.
“But is that really why Sutherland, or Benedict, was after Yeshua?” Spud persisted. “To devastate Earth’s timeline?”
I frowned. “You mean there’s something Gary didn’t tell us?”
“Very possibly.” Spud stroked his chin. “Before we head back to Phoenicia, we’d better be sure what Sutherland and Benedict were really trying to do.”
Spud leaned back in his seat and closed his eyes once again, obviously unwilling to say anything more. I was even more perplexed by his questions. I liked my assignments clean and neat, like … rescuing cats out of trees.
Finally, after a few minutes, I added, disappointed, “So now we just wait?”
Spud didn’t open his eyes. “‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’ Longfellow.”
“May be,” I returned, “but, you know, a good offense beats a royal flush. Rush.”
Spud opened one eye and said wryly, “Don’t offend or you’ll be beaten by a royal. Escott.”
I looked at him with a sour expression and responded, “Bollocks.”

* * *
On the Edge

Hollywood—present day

My arms were killing me, my muscles trembling, as my frozen fingers clawed at the rim of the precipice. I looked down and tightened my grip. The drop was over thirty feet below—to certain death. The end was near! How much longer would I be able to hold on?!
“Cut!” Jerry’s voice boomed through the soundstage.
Not again! We’d been at it, shooting the season finale of Bulwark–for four hours! This scene was supposed to be the season’s climax—our white-knuckle face-off with the evil villain Mordmort, who’d chased us to the brink of this crumbling, craggy bluff. Unfortunately, our not-very-sharp guest star, Brandon Washburn, costumed as the über-bad-guy in ostentatious red, gold, and black armor, was too coked up to get his lines right. Take after take after take. Out of the corner of my eye, I glanced at an equally unhappy Spud suspended next to me, clinging to the scarp. White knuckles was right. How much longer did Jerry expect us to hang from this papier maché cliff anyway?
Apparently, at least one more go-round. Jerry, perspiration stains seeping through the sleeves of his one-size-too-small black shirt, waited impatiently for the FX guys to re-set the equipment making the smoke and flames that followed our villain as he staggered across the floor of the set. As soon as Mark gave the ‘ready’ cue, Jerry jumped.
“Speed! Action!”
“I am master of the universe!” Mordmort cried, as sparks flew from the ends of his raised arms. “Give me the Maltese Hamster or you will both, uh—” Brandon froze, and looked offside, furrowing his brow.
Die. Die, Brandon, die!
“Cut!” Unbelievable! Brandon went up on his lines again!
Spud muttered an unintelligible curse.
“That’s it,” I whispered to him angrily. “I’m levving, and I don’t care if they see us.” I tapped my Ergal to give me a little antigrav boost, and lessen the strain on my arms.
“How you holdin’ up there, Tara?” Jerry shouted from the floor below.
“Don’t ask,” I shot back, to Spud’s amusement.
“One more time, kids. I think Brand’s got it this time.”
The handsome heavy nodded with far too much energy.
I smiled and gave Jerry the thumbs up sign, mumbling to Spud, a veteran of the often competitive Hollywood gay dating scene, “Can’t Jerry score a more talented boyfriend?”
“Score?” Spud scanned Jerry and his guest star with a critical eye, before answering, “No.” To my amusement.

* * *

Shooting the cliffhanger had taken us all of Monday morning. I thought we’d never be done. I’d spent an extra ten minutes in the shower before lunch, letting the warm water massage my aching arms and hands. Refreshed, I wrapped my towel around my bikini parts and stepped out of the bathroom into my trailer’s sitting room.
“Spud!” My partner was lounging in one of my beanbag chairs, blowing smoke rings with a unfiltered cigarette. “And stinking the place up with those filthy—”
“And I shan’t report you to the water conservation board,” he responded with a grin. “Are you hungry?”
I sighed. “Always. But …” I pointed to my shiny skin-tight spandex suit laid out on the adjacent sofa for this afternoon’s scenes. “When are you due back on set? I could do a salad at the commissary.” The craft services food table on our set was unfortunately known for its high fat, high carb, high sugar fare.
“Not until three.”
“It’s a date. Now out!” Spud’s affection for me had never been physical, but I still wasn’t about to change into my jeans and T-shirt under his critical gaze.
Ten minutes later, we set off for the cafeteria together. “I just cannot wait for this season to end,” I moaned as we walked through a wing of studio offices to get to the commissary. “My agent sent me a good script for an upcoming film.”
“A Disney? What type of animal do they want you to morph into this time?” Spud teased as he led us down his shortcut, a long, deserted hallway between two soundstages.
“I turned that script down, thank you. And the other one, too. This film is about a teenage girl with multiple disabilities who has learned how to communicate with sign language for the first time.”
“Hunh.” Spud looked away.
I was peeved. “Okay, it probably won’t be box office gold, but there are some scenes that could get me a shot at, dare I say it, Oscar-man, so I really want the part—what?”
Like a bloodhound finding a scent, Spud had abandoned his typical slouch and straightened tall, his eyes roving and his nostrils flaring. On alert, my own hand crept down towards my Ergal, and I scanned the hallway as well. Neither of us saw anything, but I quickly shared Spud’s perception that something wasn’t quite right. I took out my Ergal cell phone and cradled it in my palm, ready to M-fan a stun gun in a millisecond if needed. Spud, his stun gun already in his hand, leaned flat against the wall, sliding forward, checking perimeters, turning the corner, and—
Screamed! A ghostly figure floated before us, his two-foot reptilian body riddled with stab wounds from which seeped greenish-tinged blood.
“Ulenem!” I gasped, frozen in my tracks.
Spud was even paler than his normal ashen shade, but had the presence of mind to aim his stun gun at the specter.
Ulenem laughed. “What’re you going to do, Escott, kill me?”
“Ulenem,” I said, my voice quavering. “What, how—?”
“I haven’t transitioned yet. I may never. Look, I don’t have much time. You’ve got to stop Benedict. He’s in over his head.”
I was totally confused. “I thought you were on Benedict’s side.”
“Save Orion,” Ulenem shouted, as he started to fade. “Save the Universe!”
In a second, the Assassin had disappeared. My hands were still shaking, clinging to my cell phone Ergal. My partner, fortunately, had X-fanned his stun gun and was waving casually at a gaffer and sound man from our crew who had just rounded the corner on their way to get food. Spud does “cool” so well.
“Let us go out to dine instead,” he suggested, after the crew guys had passed us. He put an arm around my tensed shoulders and whispered, “I fancy a little private conversation.”
I nodded, shivering. “Some fresh air will do us a lot of good.”

* * *

Paris, France—present day

Not eager to fight the paparazzi again, we didn’t bother taking my Zoom Cruiser, leaving it parked in my space so inquiring minds would think we were still on the Burbank lot. We decided, or rather Spud decided for us, to Ergal to a picturesque little out-of-the-way club for lunch instead. Vernet’s was nestled on the outskirts of the Left Bank—of Paris, France—where Ignace, Spud’s first cousin twice-removed, was the Head Chef, and the lighting was, to Spud’s delight, blindingly dim.
Because Bulwark has recently been syndicated in Europe, Ignace arranged for us to have a private table for two, in a cubby next to a multicolored wall fountain, far from prying eyes and Euro-pap lenses. After all, it wouldn’t do to find our photo on the cover of the tabloids next week with a headline wondering how Shiloh Rush and William Escott (or, in their parlance ‘Willoh’), could possibly be in LA and Paris at the same time.
I was happy to be as far away as possible from the Eurotechno drumming on the dance floor in the main room, and I found the gently rushing water near us calming. After his cousin had returned to the kitchen, however, Spud eyed the fountain warily and complained that he felt like he was back with the Kharybdians.
I chuckled and returned to deciphering the menu by Ergal flashlight. Lunchtime in LA was late evening in Paris, and the sun had long set by the time we’d arrived. Guillaume, the Head Waiter, approached our table with a gift from Ignace that looked red. For a second I was tempted to order a cheeseburger just to annoy Spud, but, I frankly wasn’t in the mood, and instead played it safe with some sashimi.
Guillaume opened the dusty bottle of wine and poured the thick red liquid in Spud’s glass. (BTW, unless it’s Chidurian ale, we always drink responsibly. Except that weekend on Aldebaran 7, but I don’t think I’ll tell you—or anyone—about that, ‘cause it never happened.)
I’ve always found the stuffed-shirt ritual of shaking and smelling the wine a little pretentious, and, seeing as this was Spud’s family, worked hard to keep from making a face. Really, if wines were meant to breathe they would’ve had lungs, like the wines of Phrastis 4.
“Bouquet excellente,” Spud nodded at the sommelier. “Merci bien.”
Guillaume poured some wine into my glass and filled Spud’s. He disappeared to the kitchen and returned in just a few minutes to serve us our perfectly prepared fish morsels on a bed of steamed brown rice.
The food looked wonderful, but I realized I really didn’t have much of an appetite after all. Ulenem’s appearance had been terrifying. We had faced death before, but it had never before talked back to us.
“No,” Spud interrupted my thoughts once again, “he’s not in Level Three.”
How did Spud always know what I was thinking? Did the man have Ifestian genes? I forced myself to swallow. “Purgatory? Limbo?”
Spud shook his head. “Izmalis don’t believe in—”
“It’s not what you believe, it’s what is,” I countered. I had no memories of my parents, having lived with Grandpa Alexander from the time I was very little. But the knowledge that they would be alive in heaven—or, Level Three, if you will–had always been a comfort to us all.
“Sometimes ‘what is’ is what you believe …,” Spud responded cryptically. He gulped a few bites of ahi and continued. “I don’t know if that was really Ulenem, or an Aggellaphor messenger of some sort. But, someone was definitely trying to tell us something … something I didn’t expect.”
I shrugged. “Benedict wants to take over Zygfed. That ambition alone puts him in over his head. Add having to coordinate time-traveling guerilla attacks over thousands of planets, hundreds of millennia. Could be too much even for a sharp dude like him.”
Spud shook his head. “No, that’s not news. There is something else. Something Ulenem, or whoever sent him, has just uncovered. And we must find out what it is.”
“Oh, goody,” I said, soaking a mouthful of rice with a sip of tasty liquor. “We’ve got ourselves a MacGuffin.”
Spud looked puzzled. “A what?”
“Alfred Hitchcock. The famous movie director. He had his characters chasing a MacGuffin in his film thrillers.”
“Yes, but what is it?”
“Nothing. Anything. It doesn’t matter. A Maltese Falcon. Or,” I snickered, “a Maltese period. It just gets the plot moving. In fact, once the film gets going, the audience often forgets about what a lousy actor Brandon—”
“You are brilliant!” Spud shot out of his seat, bursting with excitement.
I gagged on a piece of octopus. “Whu—?”
“Let’s go!” Spud waved at his cousin, threw a fifty euro bill on the table, and grabbed me by one of my still-sore arms.
I swallowed my last bite, and looked at him with disgust. “So help me, if you say ‘the game is afoot,’ I’ll kill you.”

* * *
The Game is Afoot

Earth Core—present day

Dragging me with him from our table into the men’s water closet, Spud Ergaled us into a rubbish bin next to an imposing brick museum off the Rue de Rivoli near the Tuileries Gardens. His patience waning, he incessantly grumbled as we suffered through the obstacle course of rat greeting and scans required to enter Earth Core from one of the numerous secret portals scattered around the globe.
Stepping into Reception, I was pleased to see that Fydra was not at her usual post. She still hadn’t forgiven us for what she perceived as our costumed deception last week. Another Scyllian, Fyodor, sat at the desk and, to our relief, efficiently waved us into the Core command center.
Our first sight was Ev downing a box of chicken nuggets as he leaned back in his chair and watched the flurry of Sol System activity on a score of screens. Thankfully, this time, most of the colors displayed were green instead of red.
“Gary in?” I asked casually.
“Should be,” Ev mumbled as he chewed. “Took Fydra out to dinner for her birthday. Said he’d be back by six. Three, GMT minus 8.”
I patted him on the back with a ‘thanks’. I was glad he didn’t turn to face us. Ev always chewed with his mouth open, and you could usually see spittle spots on the front of his shirt. Ick. As far as I know, Ev hasn’t had a date in years.
We decided to wait outside Gary’s office. If Spud was right, we had a lot to talk about with our boss.
Gary arrived at ten after six, New York time, and invited us into the distinguished suite. As soon as we sat down, we immediately hit him with our big question.
“What’s Benedict’s game?”
Gary frowned at us. “I don’t get what you’re asking. You know he’s trying to—”
“Take over Zygfed, yeah, yeah,” I interrupted. “No, I mean his real game. What’s he after?”
For a few moments, Gary was taken aback. His expression then became quite stern, like that of a frustrated high school principal. He seemed to be seriously considering how best to respond. Finally, he took a deep breath and whispered. “The key to Level Three.”
I glanced at Spud victoriously, asking Gary, “So there really is a Level Three?”
Gary nodded. “Yes. I’ve been there.”
Now it was our turn to be shocked.
“And you lived to tell the tale,” I said, awestruck.
“Or not,” Spud said, raising an eyebrow.
Gary chuckled. “I’m not dead—I mean, ‘transitioned’.” He made the quote marks with his fingers.
“Why not?” Spud returned without hesitation.
“If you don’t mind his asking,” I added, aiming for politeness.
“I don’t know,” Gary said quietly. He looked down at his hands, then back up at us with a hint of a smirk. “It’s a question I hope to get answered someday—among others.” He snorted. “It’s our blessing and our curse, you know.”
“What … is?” I asked, puzzled.
“Being aware,” Gary’s tone was rueful, “that we’re all under a death sentence.”
“I’m not,” I joked. No one laughed, and I backtracked quickly. “Okay, duh.”
“Humans, and all sentient beings, really—except you, Rush,” Gary added with a smile, “know it, and because of that we are desperate for a reprieve.”
“With you so far.” Cellular regeneration centers were packed throughout Zygfed by citizens seeking eternal youth. Still, living for thousands of years isn’t a bad deal in and of itself, even without regeneration.
“In a sense, we’re overqualified for our existence,” Gary continued.
“Now you lost me,” I admitted.
“We know too much about our future … and too little. We know that we’re going to die, and yet we don’t even know why we live.”
“There’s a country song in there somewhere, Gary,” I joked. “What’s this got to do with Level Three?”
Gary stared at his hands for a few moments, hesitating, before he asked, “Did you know Theodore Benedict and I went to Mingferplatoi together?”
I was blown away. “Benedict was a catascope?! They didn’t tell us that.”
Gary mimicked me. “No, duh.”
“So how did you and Benedict get to Level Three?” Spud interrupted.
Gary looked at Spud through narrowed eyes for a moment, then his brow unfurrowed, and he sat back in his chair and began. “Ah, thereby hangs a tale …”

* * *

“Thirty years seems like a long time, but, in Zygan terms, it’s only an instant. Zygfed thirty years ago wasn’t much different than it is today, give or take a few planets.
“Catascopes in those days had a very tough job. There have always been Benedicts in the Universe. Individuals with too much ambition and too little empathy. They helped drag us out of the caves thousands of years ago, and may, through devastating wars, return us there on a path to extinction, sooner rather than later.”
For a moment, Gary’s tone became wistful. “I don’t pretend to be a psychologist, but most of them drag us out of our comfortable caves to help them in their quest for something. Something they’ll never be able to find. ‘Tilting at windmills’ becomes their purpose in life.”
He sighed and took a deep breath. “Benedict and I were thrown together from the very first day at Mingferplatoi. I guess they thought we had a lot in common, seeing as we were both from Earth. We didn’t, except that we both wanted to make it as catascopes. I grew up in New England, prep schools. Benedict, in a small town in Missouri. My dad was a banker of his own inherited fortune. My mother was a docent for the Peabody. Benedict’s father left before he was born, so his mother worked three jobs as a home-care nurse to raise him.
“But, we were both smart and ambitious and talented. Benedict, frankly, well, he was almost a genius. He could rattle off physics theories like Einstein. He even liked to do mathematical proofs by himself instead of uploading them like the rest of us. But, he wasn’t exactly the friendly type or a team player. When it came time to assign partners, I was the only one willing to work with him. He kind of reminded me of my Poppy.
“He was, however, one of the best catascopes I’ve seen, before or since. Undefeated at Mingferplatoi—and beyond.”
Gary leaned forward and intoned, “Theodore Benedict saved my life.”
I gasped.
Our Chief nodded. “We were only on our third training mission. We were ambushed by a Lestrigon ship that had wormholed into our quadrant.”
“So you mega’ed,” I interjected. Lestrigons were a giant carnivorous species much larger than humans.
“We tried,” Gary admitted. “Only the Lestrigons had disabled all our megators, so we were unable to change our size. We were about to be bite-size snack food for the hungry bastards.”
“Ouch,” I winced.
“And yet, you’re here …,” prodded Spud.
Gary sighed, “We lost our two companion ships right away—swallowed up in the blink of an eye by the Lestrigon vessel. Five excellent Mingferplatoi trainees—gone. There was nothing we could do. And we were next.”
I continued to wince.
“Terrible,” Gary agreed with a note of sadness. “Even worse, Benedict had been monitoring the Lestrigon ship’s course and calculated that they were on their way to 51 Pegasus.”
Spud whistled, “Three hundred million souls in that solar system …”
“Yes indeed,” Gary agreed. “If the Lestrigons were to make it to Pegasus…” He took another deep breath. “Tragically, we knew our comrades were being digested inside the Lestrigon ship. The leftovers were being dumped back into space through a massive exhaust cylinder that was spewing out particulate matter and polluting the entire sector. We didn’t dare comm to Central, lest we become the next immediate target. Without our megator, we were so tiny and defenseless. Even if we fired ten of our fusion torpedoes put together we couldn’t dent their ship.
“But, we had to do something. Frustrated by our helplessness, we stayed back and followed at a discreet distance as the Lestrigons headed for Pegasus. I suggested we try to run for it and go warn Central about the imminent attack on Pegasus when Benedict shouted at me to ‘put a cork in it.’ Before I could even respond, he leapt over and grabbed the weapons controls, played them with his rapidly moving fingers, and launched a fusion torpedo aimed directly at the exhaust pipe of the Lestrigon ship.
“‘You do realize that our torpedos are too small to destroy their ship,’ I told him, for want of a better suggestion.
“He nodded. ‘Don’t expect them to.’ We watched on scan holos as the torpedo entered the foul exhaust conduit of the Lestrigon vessel.
“Benedict quickly shot us back out of the line of fire and then held up a hand. I waited, dubious, for the miniscule spark that would signal the tiny torpedo’s useless explosion. And waited. And waited. And—
“The enormous Lestrigon battlecruiser exploded in a burst of metal, flesh, blood, and other small bits of detritus that I wasn’t eager to analyze.
“I was totally awestruck. A microscopic torpedo blew up that giant vessel? ‘How–?’ I turned to my partner and asked.
“Benedict put our nav on autopilot for Zyga and leaned back in his jump seat. ‘Easy,’ he said, grinning at me. ‘I anamorphed the ions in the core of the torpedo into silicon. Then, when the torpedo exploded, it shot out a layer of liquid silicon that cooled off and blocked their ship’s exhaust conduit, preventing them from discharging their engine wastes.’ He burst out laughing. ‘Basically, they got blown up by their own gas. And our torpedo was the … cork.’”
Gary rubbed his eyes for a moment. “Saving the Pegasus planets was a real coup for a couple of catascope trainees,” he continued. “I probably should’ve given all the credit to Benedict, but he was willing to share, so, I regret, I too accepted a hero’s welcome. In truth, I had done nothing more than my poor colleagues who had died … and whom I missed greatly…” Gary cleared his throat.
“That was one of the first of Benedict’s stellar successes. He had many more, both as a Mingferplatoi Academy trainee, and later as a full catascope. He seemed to thrive on the excitement of chasing and capturing Zygfed’s enemies and returning to the applause of his peers and superiors. With a universe full of predators, there was always a battle to win, and Benedict was always out front, leading the charge to victory.
“I, on the other hand, did better at … administration. With time, our paths diverged and we grew apart. I came back down to Earth, graduated Harvard like Poppy and Gramps, and became a catascope for Earth Core. Benedict, as a star, was sent to the stars. So I was truly surprised one day when he M-fanned into Earth Core and invited me for a drink at his mother’s home on the Florida Coast.
“We Ergaled to a small bungalow overlooking the Gulf and sat on the porch, cooled by a soft breeze and a hard drink. Benedict had come to pick up his mother and take her to Nejinsen for neural regeneration treatments. She had, though still only in her sixties, begun to show signs of what he said was Alzheimer’s Disease.
“I did wonder how the Omega Archon would react. Escorting non-citizens like his mother to Zyga was not in the Zygfed playbook. But Benedict didn’t care. He figured he had built enough capital with His Highness that he could punt on this one. I wished them well and told him I’d stop by and pay them a visit next week when I’d be in Zyga for the annual Satellite Chiefs meeting.
“Unfortunately, Benedict’s mother died two days after she got to Nejinsen. No one would tell him what really happened. Of course, he immediately applied for her anastasis, but those all have to go through the Omega Archon, and His Highness was not pleased that Benedict had so cavalierly violated Zygan regulations and brought a non-subject to Zyga for medical treatment.”
“I can imagine,” I noted, thinking of my own “difficult” encounters with our ruler.
“Benedict got ten years in Hell.”
I gasped. “Ten years!” Ten minutes was agony, ten years would be … I shook my head.
Gary nodded. “Exactly. He’d just gotten out—with the time loop, of course—when I arrived the next day for my promised visit. But the time he’d served had visibly changed him. He was no longer the arrogant hero, the poster boy of Zygfed.
“I found him pale and stone-faced in his Zygan flat, wrapping up his mother’s belongings and micro-ing them into a small container. His years of passion for and loyalty to Zygfed had, in a relative instant, turned into bitter anger and the seeds of hatred.”
Spud looked sober. “The Omega Archon never approved her anastasis?”
Gary shook his head. “No. And, Benedict was offered a desk job at Zygint Central—the better to keep an eye on you, my dear—for a few years, with an empty promise that someday he might regain a post on the front lines. In truth, his days as a revered Zygfed hero were over. Along with any chances he’d be initiated into the Sentinel Corps.”
I looked up at Gary and began slowly. “Um, as somebody who’s felt the Omega Archon’s wrath myself, wasn’t his sentence a little steep?”
“His Highness,” Gary said pointedly, “is not known for mercy.”
“No. But …” Ten years? For someone who was so valuable to Zygint?
Gary sighed. “I believe His Highness believes that discipline keeps the ship running tightly. And it is, after all, his ship.”
“You have still not told us about Level Three,” reminded Spud.
Gary paused again. He nodded, his eyes narrowing. “It was the next day… I had been through all the exhibit suites at the conference and was completely holo-ed out, so I stopped by Benedict’s flat to see how he was holding up. Unquestionably, it was clear he wasn’t himself. In fact, I could see right through him—literally.
“‘What the hell?’ I’d said to him, stunned.
“’Far from it,’ he returned with a wan smile.
“I reached out a hand which slid right through his transparent body. ‘Where are you?’
“‘Off-level,’ was his cryptic answer. ‘Come join me.’
“‘What are you talking about?’ I was totally confused.
“‘Pea-brain!’ he answered with a hint of a laugh.
“‘Now look, if you’re going to insult me …’
“He did laugh. ‘P-b-r-a-n-e. Proof that the Miletic Theory is correct.’
“Something from my Mingfeplatoi uploads was triggered in my memory. An obscure reference from our course in exocosmology. As I was trying to remember, Benedict M-fanned and stood before me in the palpable flesh. ‘Gary, Gary, Gary. You always were weak in physics. Here, I’ll show you, take my hand. Let’s take a ride to Level Three.’
“‘Level Three? You’re completely out of your mind!’ I backed away, but he grabbed my hand firmly. I felt a chill, and couldn’t escape his grip. He took out his Ergal and, with his free thumb, made a few quick adjustments that I hadn’t seen anyone do before and was unable to follow. Activated it, and—
“It felt like an explosion, as if every part of my body flew into a million microscopic pieces in all directions. I tried to scream, but to no avail. My mouth, my tongue, my vocal cords had long left me, lost in space and time, and …”
Gary paused once more, his moist eyes gazing off into the distance, focused on a vision that Spud and I couldn’t view. I noted that he’d started seeming unusually pale … and tired. After a few seconds, Gary cleared his throat and continued in a soft voice.
“The vibrations were not unpleasant. I had a sense that Benedict was there, somewhere, his hand still clasped in mine. I also became aware of another entity close to us for barely a second. We resonated for a moment and then I was pulled away, crushed by an infinite weight, a googol of G’s. I landed, gasping, on my back in the middle of Benedict’s flat. Alone.
“I never saw Benedict again. Thinking about it over the years, I’ve come to think maybe our brief companion on the other side had been Benedict’s mother. Since I didn’t hear from him, I figured he’d found a way to really get to Level Three to be close to her and then decided to stay.
“Then, four years ago, the guerilla attacks began from galaxies M81 and M82. We didn’t know it was Benedict at first, not until the Battle of the Cepheids in Orion. Then it became clear that he had returned to our universe and was leading a revolt against the Omega Archon.”
“And the rest is history,” Spud finished without a trace of irony.
I shivered. “Level Three sounds just god-awful.”
Gary nodded. “I certainly wasn’t prepared for the transition.”
“That is the point, indeed,” said Spud mysteriously, sucking on one of Gary’s pens. He sat up and faced his boss. “Clearly, you are implying that, for some reason, Benedict was cast out from the Garden of Eden, perhaps by the Omega Archon, and now is fighting so he can get back in.”
“Yes, that’s my theory,” Gary agreed. “But as long as His Highness rules the roost, the door to heaven is apparently locked. So…”
Spud shook his head. “I don’t buy it.”
We both stared at him.
“He wouldn’t have said p-brane if he’d been in Level Three,” Spud attempted to explain. He pulled out his Ergal cell phone and opened it. “I shall have to ponder this one for a while.”
Nodding at me, he said, “Come on, Rush. We had best be going.”
I didn’t hide my sarcasm. “The game is afoot?”
“No,” Spud said absently, as he guided me to the door. “A neutrino.” He looked at both of us with a sharp gaze, adding, “The game is a neutrino. And time is running out.”

* * *
It’s about Time

Spud was due back on the set as soon as we returned to Burbank and I didn’t have time to ask him what he’d meant by his curious remark. I had an appointment with Chell’s make-up chair in ten minutes, so I quickly made a pit stop in my trailer and then slipped on my Tara Guard vinyl spacesuit. I took a moment to pull up information on neutrinos on my Ergal, and refreshed my memory from our Mingferplatoi Physics uploads.
Neutrinos are tiny subatomic particles, like protons and electrons, that can pass through matter without being detected or causing visible harm. They are apparently created by certain types of nuclear reactions, like those in the sun. The fact is, millions of neutrinos from our sun apparently safely pass through our bodies every day. How neutrinos related to Gary’s story about Benedict, however, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine. I would have to wait until I could pick Spud’s brain and find out what he’d been theorizing.
Chell was in a chatty mood as he worked his make-up brushes and regaled me with tales of his active weekend in Palm Springs. Offering up a polite “really?” at appropriate intervals, I closed my eyes and tried to puzzle out how Benedict’s concern for his mother had led him to humiliation, exile, and murder.
“You’re wasting your energy.”
Kris. My eyes popped open to see my “adorable” sixteen-year-old sister, her long blonde curls framing her delicate features, standing next to us wearing, as always, the latest fashions. I raised my hand in a brief wave and, choosing not to play, returned an unenthusiastic, “Hey.”
“Hello, Miss Kris,” Chell said, sounding delighted. “When are you going to grace my chair again?”
Kris giggled and gave Chell a quick hug. “I’ve got one more week on the Disney, and then we start shooting Mid Kids again next month.”
The series about a group of “adorable” middle schoolers had been renewed for a third season this fall on the Toon Town channel. We still hadn’t heard if Bulwark was going to be on the fall schedule for a second year…
Judging from his smile, Chell apparently would be moving his make-up case to Toon Town for the summer. I turned to Kris and ventured, “What animal are you on this movie?”
“A kitty, how did you guess?”
Naturally. I shrugged. “So, what’s up?”
“Elijah and I are going to Vegas with the band next week for the Vox Pop Awards,” Kris bubbled. Elijah DiFiero, lead singer for Mettle, was Kris’s latest boyfriend—and, to Connie’s alarm, was already eighteen. He’d produced Kris’s latest pop single, “Kiss Me,” that, incomprehensibly, had made it to number six on the Billboard Top 40 last month.
Kris’s voice dropped to a whisper, as she handed me a brightly-wrapped package. “I promised Andi I’d get her something. Seeing as you, uh, can get to Maryland much easier than me …”
I sighed and took the package. “Sure. I’ll give it to her. Um, good luck in Vegas.”
“Of course!” Kris bounced over to give Chell another quick hug, and gushed at the world, “See you soon!” as she pranced away.
Not my favorite sister? No, duh.
Besides, the music Spud and I make is light-years better. He plays a mean guitar, and I’m no slouch on keyboards, and our songs really have a message. We’re almost ready to release our own CD. We just have to find a name for our band. I’ve suggested “The Musgrave Ritual”, but Spud is really hot for “Saxon Violins”. Frankly, I’ll go along with any name that doesn’t have the stench of Eurotechno.
“Beautiful.”
I jumped. Chell’s hands were on my shoulders and his face above mine, grinning from ear to ear. Admiring his handiwork in the mirror in front of us, he repeated, “Beautiful.”
Had to admit, I did look a lot more presentable. If I didn’t despise wearing make-up then maybe my social life would turn much more exciting. Assuming I ever actually had the time to hook up. I eased out of the chair and turned to thank Chell once again. “You’re a pro.”
Chell’s smile was genuine as he responded, “And you are beautiful. Someday you’ll even believe it yourself.”
I patted his arm and returned a rueful smile, “Someday, Chell, it won’t matter if I do or not.”

* * *

We wrapped the last scene for the season by 8:30 that night—still not knowing if we’d have a Season 2. Our ratings had been inching up in the last few weeks. And Spud’s Q scores, audience appeal measures, are through the roof. I’m not as into the show biz scene as my sister Kris, but it does annoy me a little that Spud’s starting to get more fan mail than me.
Our wrap party was set for the Vista Rock on Sunset. Simon Carter, the sumptuous Captain Warner on Bulwark, was co-hosting the fete to celebrate his latest divorce, and much of LA’s TV royalty was expected to attend. “Wouldn’t hurt either of us to talk to some new people,” I said to Spud as we climbed into my trailer.
He plopped down on the divan, rolling his eyes. “I doubt most of them are interested in talking.”
“That’s never bothered you before.”
“While modern freedom is still attractive, it is no longer a novelty. I have spent much of my life resisting temptations.”
“Oh, come on. Brand’ll be there. And he’s attractive, if nothing more,” I teased.
“Ha.” Sneering, he pulled out and lit a cigarette and offered me one from the pack. “No thank you. Besides, I have quite a bit of thinking to do.”
I declined, my irritation showing. “You know, why don’t you just directly inject the nicotine? Save yourself the trouble of smoking.”
Spud blew a few rings and smiled. “’Tisn’t trouble. It gives me something to do with my mouth.” He grinned. “You should try it.”
“Ick.” I made a face. “Anyway, bad breath and yellow teeth.”
“Ah, but I only smoke when I’m grappling with a problem.”
“Yeah, right,” I snorted. “Speaking of problems, you ready to talk about our little conversation with Gary?”
He shook his head. “But there is light …” He stood up, heading for the trailer door, and smiled at me. “I shall pay you a visit in Malibu tomorrow morning so that we may talk.”
“Not too early,” I threw back with a wink. If temptation brushed by me tonight, I wasn’t going to resist.

* * *

It was sunrise by the time I Ergaled us home to my ocean-side bungalow from the wrap party. Me and my Zoom Cruiser, that is. I wasn’t going to drive from Hollywood to Malibu being so … tired. I collapsed on the futon in my living room and fell asleep to the sounds of the crashing surf outside my patio doors.
Being so ‘tired’, I foolishly didn’t bother to set the alarm code, nor did I wake up when the Andarts entered my house. I did finally wake up when the stun ray immobilized me, but, after that, of course, no matter how hard I struggled, I couldn’t open my eyelids to see the intruders. I had to use my other senses, one of which was alerting me that, boy, did I need to pee.
I was able to figure out that the Andarts were speaking an Ursan dialect of some sort, perhaps from the planets around the stars Merak or Dubhe in the “Big Dipper”. I couldn’t get to my Ergal, abandoned oh-so-close to me on the coffee table, so I only recognized a few words. Most of them profane. The Andarts seemed intent on searching through every nook and cranny of my bungalow, but, to my relief, didn’t seem too interested in me. For now. What were they going to do with me after they finished their scavenger hunt, however? In this stunned condition, I couldn’t grab my Ergal—or any other weapon. I had no way to protect myself, to fight back.
I tried desperately to battle the stun and move an external nerve or muscle, to no avail. My breaths were already shallow, driven only by my diaphragm, and now became even more rapid due to my growing anxiety. Desperate to burst free so I could breathe, I struggled even harder to break out of the stun, but my efforts were in vain. I felt my throat closing up, crushed by an increasing pressure on my chest. I had to escape or I was certain I would die.
And then I remembered John’s words, calming me that day years ago in the emergency room. “I am by your side, do not be afraid. Patience is the champion’s best tool.” Soothing myself with the memory of his voice, I was able to regain control of my heart and my mind once again. Thank you, John, I heard myself thinking. I miss you so…
Not finding what they were seeking, the Andarts finally returned to the living room and, I’m assuming from the few words of Ursan I could understand, tried to decide what to do with me. One Andart was apparently ready to throw me into the wild, wild surf, but, fortunately, the second was able to convince him to pocket my Ergal and tractor me to their ship.
On board their vessel, I soon found myself a prisoner in a small chamber, which blessedly had a small chamber-pot. Just before locking me in alone, a furry paw reached around the door and unstunned me, to my, and my bladder’s, great relief. Tara Guard and her television ilk never had to worry about bodily functions. I wish I could be so lucky.
After, uh, finishing, I looked around the makeshift cell. The writing on the wall panels was definitely Ursan. I recognized words in several Ursan languages and dialects that I had uploaded when I was at Mingferplatoi. I tapped my pockets, and scanned the room—nope, my Ergal was still MIA. At least I could get my bearings with those training uploads, as minimal as they had been.
Okay, my first order of business, Catascope 101, was the 5 W’s: where (am I), who (kidnapped me), which (planet or species), when (Era or eon), and what (the heck will get me out of here!).
‘Where’ was obviously an Ursan ship. ‘Who’ and ‘Which’ were Ursan Andarts (note for later: Benedict Andarts?). ‘When’? I looked out the porthole. We seemed to be in deep space, but I could identify no familiar landmarks. Place and time unknown. And ‘what’? “What indeed,” as Spud would say.
“Why not ask ‘why’?” those of you with diligent English teachers could reasonably question. Our pedagogue mentors always taught us that ‘why’ was irrelevant. Don’t waste your time with motivations in the field. Focus on the controllable reality. I remember getting that advice when I was with Spud and Sarion on a training mission near Centauri Gamma in 1832, fleeing five Centaurians who resembled charging bulls and were moo-vingly irate that my accidentally misfired laser blast had burned their barn. The words “controllable reality” then seemed like an oxymoron. Or, as Sarion teased me during our debrief, an oxen-moron. Yes, everybody groaned.
Restless, I checked the porthole again. I still couldn’t tell much from the star patterns except that we had now gone into hyperdrive, and were someplace I’d never been before. Which accounted for 99.99999 percent of the Universe, unfortunately.
I was concentrating so hard on the stars outside the ship that I almost didn’t hear the door behind me whisk open. I did catch the Ursan entering my room when his tall, furry figure was reflected in the porthole glass. As he neared, I spun around and aimed directly for what I thought might be a tender area in a giant bear. He was ready for me, though, and sidestepped smoothly, letting me land face first on the not-very-soft titanium floor.
“You okay?” he said with a note of concern after I didn’t get up immediately. In English. English? Did he have an Ergal to translate?
The voice sounded vaguely familiar. Nose aching, I turned on my back and looked up at my captor, wondering why I hadn’t yet been overpowered and placed in cherukles or stunned. My jailer was a classic arctic Ursan, a typical native of southern Caniformia, with long white fur and a moist brown snout. Not someone I’d typically run into in my neck of the woods. And not someone I’d expect to be particularly compassionate either.
I nodded. “Embarrassed, but, yeah, I’m okay. Any, uh chance you could give me a clue where we’re headed?” I added with a tentative smile.
“HD5924, Octant 7, M82,” the Ursan responded. What was it about his voice …?
The sector of our neighboring M82 galaxy was, I remembered from my cosmography uploads, sparsely occupied, and not by Ursans. I’d never been outside of Zygan Federation territory before, much less to M82 in any case. Newer catascopes were usually encouraged to stay ‘close to home’, especially until their relative age of majority, which for Terrans was eighteen. Normally, I wouldn’t mind a chance to explore new expanses, but wasn’t M82 where Gary had said Benedict had begun his Andart assaults on Zygfed? Was the Ursan Andarts’ mission to deliver me into Benedict’s clutches?!
“And what happens after we get there?” I tried to keep my expression calm.
“Don’t worry,” he added, “just stay with me and I’ll take care of you.”
I got up slowly, my hands visible and clear of weapons. “My Ergal would help.”
He smiled—I think—and reached a paw out to gently pat me on my head. “Just follow my lead.”
I smiled at him politely, and muttered, unconvinced, “The check is in the mail.”

* * *
It’s about Space

M82 Galaxy—present day

It took us quite a few hours to arrive at planet HD5924. The M82 galaxy wasn’t much farther from the Milky Way than Andromeda, but I surmised that the Ursan ship wasn’t a racing model, and we weren’t exactly flying at top speed.
My self-appointed “friend” met me at the door right after we landed and put my hands into cherukles so I could still walk. I entered the hangar sandwiched between the two Ursans, neither of whom had bathed for what was an inconsiderately long time.
We trudged down a long dark hall and then turned into a closet-sized chamber. I recognized the lights that glided over us as a primitive NDNA scan, and wondered if, after all these exposures, I’d ever be able to have children someday.
Another chamber door opened to another dark hall, and we continued walking somewhat downhill for several more minutes before reaching a large, solid door, where we waited until it groaned open.
The lights were blindingly bright, and it took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. The room beyond was quite big, the size of at least three football fields, and contained several khaki-colored domelike structures on its hard floor. Above the domes floated hundreds of white spheres, many the size of tennis balls, others up to twenty meters in diameter. Their walls were translucent, and I could see flickering lights inside, but no openings in their smooth surfaces.
Ignoring some of the smaller spheres that had begun trailing us, the Ursans headed straight for one of the large domes on the ground. The absence of doors in the domes didn’t seem to faze my captors. When we arrived at the dome wall, we sort of diffused right in through the … membrane … and found ourselves in what looked like a government office building. Yes, right down to the scuffed linoleum floors, stained linen-colored plaster walls, and scratched gray doors, each sporting foot-long signs with obscure titles that morphed from Ursan to English to Ursan as we walked by.
We stopped in front of a door whose sign read Executive Coordinator of Strategic Initiatives and Outcomes Assessment. Ursan #1 placed his paw on a coat of arms on the center of the door, which was momentarily bathed in light. The door then opened and we were welcomed by a short, oily-haired man in a tweed suit and bow tie. He invited us in to sit in some burnished leather chairs before his cherry desk.
“Welcome, gentle beings, welcome. Do make yourselves at home; I can mega the chairs if you wish,” he added for the Ursans benefit.
My friend nodded and the chairs instantly grew by a factor of two, pushing my own seat towards a paneled wall. I eased my toes out to see if the wall was porous, so I could maybe slide back out and make a run for it. Hard plastic. No such luck.
The man was looking intently at me. “That would be foolish, my dear,” he said in a harsh tone. An instant later, he was smiling again. “Would you like a cup of tea?”
I shrugged, showing him my cherukled hands.
“Agriarctos,” he instructed in Ursan, “do let our guest have some tea.”
My friend nodded and removed my cherukles, patting me once more with his paw. I gave him a cold stare that I hope included the message, “You are not my type.”
The creepy little man Ergaled a steaming mug of a purple substance that he levved towards me. I thanked him, and cradled the mug without drinking.
“Now then,” he stopped and shot me a sideways glance. “Does she know?” he asked the Ursans.
Agriarctos shook his head.
“Well, then,” said the man as he turned to me and gushed, “I am Fahrquardt.”
He seemed to be waiting for a response. I finally squeaked out, “Ah …”
“Goshdingdong to heckypoo!” Fahrquardt shouted, as he angrily threw several paperweights which crashed on the paneling over our heads. “What does it take to get fashionable with young people today?!”
I now saw that the paneling all around us was pockmarked—and that Fahrquardt still had a number of paperweights laid out on his desk. Uh-oh. Reminded me of an insane studio executive I had to deal with last year…
“Jumping Jilly!”
I started. Another paperweight flew by my ear. “Yes, yes, sirree, Mr. Fahrquardt. Right here with you.”
Fahrquardt seemed to calm down just a bit. “Well, goshamighty. Of course you are.” He paused, and then giggled, “Didn’t mean to scare you there. They just don’t make catascopes like they used to.” He laughed heartily for a few minutes and then stopped cold.
“Where is it?” His voice was icy.
Double Uh-oh. I was in trouble. Not only didn’t I have ‘it’, I didn’t even know what ‘it’ was. But, I’d watched my agent do this during negotiations. I leaned back and oozed faux confidence. “Are you ready to make a deal?”
“You are a cheeky little thing, aren’t you?” Fahrquardt said, chuckling. “Okay. I’m a businessman. Ten million credits as soon as you deliver the Somalderis. And, of course, I’ll send,” he nodded at the Ursans, “Agriarctos and Plionarctos to help.”
Summelwhat? Where had I heard that before …? Pretending I knew exactly what the clown across from me was talking about, I put on my self-assured grin, and sat forward assertively. “Fifty million and asylum. And, my own sanctuary in M82.”
I braced myself for another paperweight assault. Fahrquardt’s hand reached towards his desk. “Goodness gracious, you do drive a hard bargain, my dear.” He grabbed the only book in the room, opened it, and removed several tissues from the dispenser inside it which he used to blow his nose with a loud honk. “Golly gee, I guess I’ll have to say yes.” He stuffed the tissues back in the book dispenser. “Plionarctos, go with—”
Agriarctos stood up quickly, knocking the mug out of my hand and splattering the hot liquid all over his partner. Plionarctos roared as the tea burned his white fur and skin, so unused to heat.
“A thousand pardons,” Agriarctos whispered to his companion. The clumsy Ursan turned to the small man. “Plionarctos must seek care, Fahrquardt. I will go with the girl to retrieve the Somalderis. We will return by sunsrise,” he added, brushing my hand.
Hearing my cue, I stood up and joined in, “Hey! Why are we wasting time, Artie?” I grabbed him by his thick, furry arm. “Let’s go. Mister Fahrquardt’s treasure awaits!”
A paperweight whizzed by each of our noses, dealing Agriarctos’ longer snout a glancing blow. We both turned, ready to duck.
“If you’re not back by morning,” Fahrquardt’s tone was no longer genial, “Benedict will have your hide,” he threatened Agriarctos, before fixing his piercing gaze on me, “and your neck.”
* * *

“Well done,” I said to my Ursan guard as he guided me in cherukles back to the Ursan ship. “Thank you for getting me out of there. You do know, of course, that we now actually have to go find that Summelthingy, whatever it is.”
“Somalderis,” he whispered as he shut the door of the airlock.
“Whatever. So, what exactly is it?”
Agriarctos struggled to explain. “It’s an ancient … membrane, that’s a … gateway to other … worlds,” he stumbled. “That’s all I really know.”
Membrane? Gary’s tale popped back into my brain. Brain … Brane … P-brane. God, I wish Spud were here with me. I really could use his brain right now.
“You wouldn’t happen to have any idea where we might find this, uh, membrane?” I ventured, not very optimistic.
Agriarctos shook his head. “Just give it to me and I’ll see that Fahrquardt gets it and sends you your money.”
“Me? What makes you think I’ve got it?” Was that what all this was about?
Agriarctos snorted, a sound that blended a cough and a bark. “You didn’t steal it from Sutherland? You were bluffing?”
“Uh, yeah…” I inched away as far as I could to stay out of furry arms’ reach.
“Well, then,” Agriarctos decided, “I guess we’ll have to go back to Sidon and look for it together.” His voice was cold. “Until I believe you.”

* * *

Agriarctos locked the portal and let me ride shotgun on the bridge this time, without cherukles. I settled comfortably in my seat for the long trip back to Earth, where I figured I’d have a better chance of successfully escaping. Agriarctos’ current size advantage against me would be offset once we landed by the spectacle of a talking polar bear chasing me down the streets of ancient Phoenicia. I was fervently hoping that Sidon had a well-staffed Animal Control Department, or at least a few Roman archers with good aim.
“Who is Fahrquardt, anyway?” I asked as we went into warp. “I’ve never heard of him.”
“Benedict’s #8, though he thinks he’s #4,” Agriarctos chuckled. “Bureaucrats never make it past #5.”
I whistled. “So that was a Benedict refuge?”
“Outpost. Not refuge,” Agriarctos clarified. “M81 and 82 aren’t Zygan protectorates, you know.”
I shrugged. “Not yet, anyway. So what makes you think this MacGuff—Somal … deris is still on Earth?” I asked casually.
Agriarctos looked at me from the corner of his eyes. “I’ve seen it.”
I sat up. “Whoa. No kidding?”
The Ursan nodded.
“Where?”
“The first time, a place called Kolhis, near the Black Sea. Many, many years ago. And then–”
The rest of his answer was lost in the explosion. The fusion torpedos from the starcruiser took out the rear of our ship and all of our propulsers. We were tossed out of faster-than-light hyperdrive and thrown off course hundreds of kilometers, floating dead in space. Thankfully alive. But lost “at sea.”
“What happened?” I asked Agriarctos, who seemed intent on determining our coordinates on his locator holo.
Before he could answer, our ship trembled and started to move. Agriarctos’s furry paws desperately tapped buttons on his console and icons on multiple holos, but were unable to counter the force that was pulling us backwards, faster and faster through unfamiliar space.
I leaned over and switched one of the screens next to me to display a view of what was left of the rear of our ship, in the hopes that I might glimpse what or who was tractoring us at top speed. I was, I admit, relieved when I recognized the titanium maw of the enormous ship that was about to swallow us. Gliesers. The border guards of the Zygan Federation.
“Rescued!” I cheered, as we were drawn into the belly—or bowels, depending on your perspective—of a giant shark-nosed vessel whose underside sported the Zygfed flag.
Agriarctos mumbled something that sounded like a Zygan curse. As our cruiser slowed down and came to a stop in the giant warship’s hangar, Agriarctos slipped me back my Ergal with the pointed comment, “Your turn.”
Before I could ask what he meant, our cruiser’s main portal was opened remotely by the Glieser welcoming committee. As soon as the airlock realeased, I inched towards the opening and peeked into the cavernous water-logged hangar to be welcomed by the Gliesers with arms. Not open ones, I’m sorry to say, as Gliesers are an aquatic species and only have fins. And in those fins were the latest model stun guns, pointed at me.
Oops. Apparently, entering back into Zygfed space without clearance or authorization was somewhat frowned upon, even if our intentions were harmless. Which they were … I think.
I now understood Agriarctos’s plan. He’d given me back my Ergal in the hopes that I, as an official Zygint catascope, would save his skin this time, and get us out of trouble with the border barracudas.
I stepped out of what was left of the Ursan ship, and stood at the water level on the ramp, holding up my Ergal in a gesture of “I’m with Zygint. Don’t shoot!”
They didn’t shoot. But they didn’t trust me entirely either, as I felt myself become stunned and immobile once again. A contingent of glistening Gliesers levved me supine above the water and out of the hangar. I flashed a mental image of being trapped in a coffin, paraded to my grave by piscatory pallbearers, and concentrated on taking deep breaths as John had coached me years before.
From my frozen position, I couldn’t see what was happening with Agriarctos. I was taken directly to a room that resembled, well, an aquarium. Only the water was on the outside of the tank, bathing my audience of Glieser interrogators. I was laid on the cold floor, and, after my pallbearers had returned to their fluid-filled observation posts, I felt waves of scans buffeting my body.
After the requisite scans confirmed my genuine identity as a Zygint catascope and I had been unstunned, I asked my current (no pun intended) colleagues about the Ursan.
“What Ursan?” was the frigid response.
“Damn!” was my hot one. I was now facing hours of grilling about why I was tooling around the edge of Andromeda without authorization in an Ursan ship. And, somehow, Agriarctos had managed to escape!

* * *
It’s about Two Men in the Strangest Place

Zygan Federation Border—present day

I wish I could say things went swimmingly, but I’m not Sarion. It took almost six hours of intense questioning, and an influential call from Juan De La Cruz at Headquarters, for the Gliesers to finally agree to release me in my own custody; along with a warning about following proper procedures for travel authorization and border crossing to enter Zygfed territory. Yes, sirs. At least I had escaped another visit to the Omega Archon.
As the Ursan ship was in no condition to take me home to Earth, Captain Gil Pesci kindly offered me one of the Glieser warship’s shuttles for my return to Terra Firma, as long as I promised to send it back immediately on autopilot. Yes, sir!
It was actually kind of fun to wend my way home in a vessel resembling a sting-ray. I yielded to the impulse once or twice to guide the ship through some smooth flips and turns as I glided through the ether. I gave a silent thanks to Captain Gil for his loan, and to T’Fal for her ka’vyr skills that had allowed me to survive Glieser interrogation without revealing what had happened with the Ursans and the strange small man on HDWhatever. I’d half expected Agriarctos to reappear and cheruklize me again, but my furry partner in treasure hunting seemed to be gone for good. I resolved to keep my Ergal within arm’s reach in the future, just in case.

* * *

Hollywood—present day

Spud should be grateful I didn’t shoot his head off. He M-fanned in the bathroom of my Malibu house soon after I’d arrived—as I was taking a relaxing bubble bath. I invisible-ized my stun gun and sunk deeper into the tub, only my head sticking out of the bubbles.
“Don’t you ever knock?” I asked, irritated.
“You said it was urgent,” he shrugged, putting down the toilet cover and sitting on it next to me. “Here I am.”
“That’s for sure,” I rolled my eyes. “You smell like a chimney.”
“I have been cogitating …”
I held out a hand quickly. “I don’t want to know.” I looked at him with a satisfied smile. “Somalderis.”
An eyebrow went up. “Pardon?”
“The MacGuffin. Somalderis, that’s what it’s called.”
“Ah.” The eyebrow went down. “I had begun to fear it might be the Philosopher’s Stone.” He added, “Sorcerer’s Stone, for you Yanks.”
I threw a wad of bubbles at him—and missed.
He laughed. “So what is it?”
“I’m not quite sure,” I admitted. “Agriarctos said it was some kind of membrane that could take you to another world.”
I expected the next question to be, “Who’s Agriarctos?”
Instead, it was, “Did he say membrane, or M-brane?”
I shrugged. “I don’t honestly remember. What difference does it make?”
Spud was looking off at the corner, lost in thought. He mumbled, “All the difference in the worlds …”

* * *

Spud had me go over and over the last day’s events, and continued to interrupt me with peculiar questions about the most insignificant details. Finally, he sat back and said, “It is time.”
I entirely agreed. My skin was so pruny I looked like a ghost. I kicked him out of the bathroom while I rinsed off and got “decent”. An hour later, Spud and I sat over a pot of tea on my patio and made our plans. He pulled out his Ergal and I craned my neck to look at the map on his mega’ed screen.
“The Black Sea was called the Euxeinos by the ancient Greeks. West of its waters you could find the Greek cities of Chersonesos and Pantikapaeon. East of its waters lay ‘the edge of the Earth’ as the Hellenes called it, the kingdom of Kolhis in what is now the Republic of Georgia.
“Mythological databases describe ancient stories that say that’s where the Somalderis was hung on an oak tree as a sacrifice to Ares.”
“Aries the Ram?”
“Ares, the god of War. Mars.”
I looked at Spud. “What do the Zygfed History records say?”
Spud shook his head. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing. Not one thing in the Zygint data bases or directories about a Somalderis, or anything where it relates to Mars either.”
“Okay. God of War. Certainly fits with Benedict’s tactics.”
“In Greek mythology, King Athamas’ son Phrixos escaped across the Euxeinos Sea to Kolhis on the back of a winged ram—”
“Aha!” I chided. “I said ‘the ram’.”
Spud ignored me. “He sacrificed the ram skin to”—he said pointedly—“Ares the War god and hung the fleece where it was guarded by a dragon until Jason—”
“Fleece?!” I shouted, practically knocking Spud out of his chair. “Fleece?!” My expression was pained. “The Golden Fleece?!”
“Well, yes, but—,” Spud stumbled.
I sat back in my chair and threw up my hands. “Oh, great! I’ve been on a wild goose chase for the Golden Fleece!”
“No,” Spud said, wiping my spit off his face. “I don’t know that it’s really golden. The word in the proto-Indo-European language might have meant light or sun—”
“Okay,” I sighed, “I give up.” Proto-Indo-European language. Really. “So now we have to go back to … 5000 BC and try to find it before Jason and the Argonauts—or Agriarctos and the Ursans.”
“More like 500 BC.” Spud ventured. “And I’m not sure Kolhis is where we’ll find the fleece any more. However, I do believe it is a good place to start.”
Spud micro-ed his Ergal screen and went to put the phone back in his pocket. I shot my hand out and grabbed his arm.
“Wait. What about the temporal vector shield?” Would we need another Trojan horse to get into Earth’s past? Technology was Eikhus’s specialty, and I’m sure Spud wasn’t eager to dive back into Kharybdian waters quite so soon and ask for Eikhus’s help once again.
“I’m scanning—no, we’re clear,” Spud looked relieved. “The shield doesn’t extend that far back in time. It’s only covering the period of Yeshua’s recorded life, which was much later. So, looks like it’s just you, me, and the Ram, Rush.” He got a sly grin and added brightly, “The game is ahoof!”
I don’t think Spud was permanently injured.

* * *
The Black Sea—578 BCE

Pantikapaeon was a beautiful city for its day. Gleaming marble temples, rolling hills overlooking deep blue waters and clear azure skies. Kind of like Baja California before they built all the tourist hotels.
We M-fanned on the edge of town in 578 BCE, as the intrepid brothers Akbar and Danel, or, as we were now called, Aristotelis and Dimitris. Though I normally liked to wear jeans or other pants—excuse me, Spud, trousers—I was actually getting used to these togas. Commandos going commando, I giggled.
“Don’t giggle,” Spud scolded, as we ambled towards the beach. “Or I shall start calling you Dimitra.”
“Perilypos,” I apologized in ancient Greek, or rather my Ergal helped me say. Uploads can only go so far, and I hadn’t had much of a chance to practice dead languages living in modern L.A..
We neared a row of boats bobbing in the water a few feet off shore. Bronze-skinned fishermen were gathering twine nets filled with flopping fish and pulling them onto the sand. I flashed back to the Gliesers for a frightening second and felt myself shivering.
Spud had engaged one of the fishermen in a spirited conversation in fluent ancient Greek. He’s always got to show me up. Darn those British public schools and their Classics classes.
Thanks to Spud’s linguistic and diplomatic skills, as well as a large sac of Ergaled drachmas, we soon found ourselves in a borrowed wooden fishing boat riding the choppy waves with the sun on our backs. Before long, my arms were aching from pulling the oars, and trying to keep up with Spud’s semi-pro rowing stride. Darn those British public schools and their rowing clubs.
As soon as we were a speck on the horizon, I mutinied. “We’re levving this thing the rest of the way,” I insisted. “Why can’t we just Ergal to this Kolhis anyway?”
Spud didn’t answer immediately. He kept scanning the water and raising a hand to the wind. “Because I want to see,” he finally said, “where our dinghy naturally takes us. If my calculations are correct, the currents and weather conditions should mimic those described in Apollonius’s poem.” He looked at me, and sighed. “The Argonautica—the story of Jason and the Argonauts. Now row.”
I made a face and grudgingly picked up my oars, adding with little enthusiasm, “Aye, aye, Captain Bligh.”

* * *

Many, many hours later, we made landfall on a rocky beach battered by small waves. I found a shady spot under an oak tree on a clump of moss to sit and rest my weary arms. I didn’t know what Spud was going do next. There seemed to be a veritable forest of oak trees around us, none of which sported a hanging ram’s pelt Somalderis.
Spud wandered carefully from tree to tree, his Ergal out and measuring something. I closed my eyes and waited. Spud would tell me soon enough what was on his rather arcane mind.
“Aliens!”
I jumped, opening my eyes and reaching for my Ergal. Spud was nowhere to be seen.
“Aliens!” The voice belonged to a tall, brawny man, who stood at my feet aiming a large bronze spear at my chest.
My Ergal CANDI’d me that it was translating Georgian. A fleeting Sarion joke about Southern accents crossed my mind, but my groan was blocked by the gravity of my predicament.
“Not alien. Human,” I said in Georgian, thanks to my Ergal. “Greek.”
“Greek. Persian. All of you are invaders of our kingdom! You must die!”
Ah, I like a guy who gets to the point right away.
“Um,” I raised my hands, “I mean you no harm. I am, uh, a simple fisherman who was shipwrecked and wants to return home. With your mercy.”
I must not have been very convincing. The Georgian slid the tip of his spear over my chest along the surface of my toga. “Tell your soldiers that if they set foot here we will skin alive every last man and hang them from the trees.”
Common practice around here, huh? You haven’t seen a fleece hanging—
Crack! Like a tall tree felled by loggers, the Georgian fell stiffly to one side, barely missing my legs. Behind him stood Spud and his trusty stun gun. Spud walked over to the guard and Ergaled an E-shield around him so that we could speak freely.
“Where were you?” I asked in modern English, an edge to my voice. I scanned the trees, wary of additional Georgians ready to attack us.
“We’re alone,” Spud reassured me. “Well, sort of. If you ignore the portal.”
“The portal,” I said with a note of sarcasm. “Go on.”
“There’s a gateway between two trees thirty meters into the woods.”
“A wormhole?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so. I was able to Ergal into something for a second or two, but I was ejected. Perhaps one needs the fleece.”
My curiosity was aroused. I nodded at the stunned guard. “Let’s leave Brutus here to rest and go check it out.”
We walked over to the site. I saw nothing more than a clearing filled with waist-high robust weeds. Spud suggested I check my Ergal—it was documenting some space-time distortion that it couldn’t identify.
“Think we should try it?” I ventured with some eagerness.
Spud was enthusiastic. “Yes, maybe with two of us and two Ergals we can push in farther than I was able to do alone.”
I smiled gamely, hoping for the best. Holding hands, Spud and I tried simultaneously X-fanning through the portal. 1-2-3—
I felt my body being torn apart and didn’t even have the energy to scream. Spud’s hand floated by my eyes and disappeared, still grasping mine. I saw the skin of my leg unfold and dissolve into a sparkle of light, then watched my eyes leave my head and disperse into a shower of glitter. My brain slowly absorbed that, without lungs, nose, or mouth, I was unable to breathe, before it dissipated and I felt nothing but…
Hard ground. Gasping. Grabbing for each breath with the desperation of a drowning man. Next to me. Gulping breaths. Spud.
We lay together, still holding hands, for quite a few minutes, before I could eke out a, “What the hell was that?”
“I suspect it was Gary’s—and Benedict’s—‘Level Three’,” Spud responded quietly, still panting. “But I expect it is more like ‘Brane 5’.”
“English, please …”
“Think of it as another dimension. With another dimension.”
I sat up slowly, still shaking, and furrowed my brow. “Well, we normally exist in four dimensions, right? Height, length, width, plus time. So you mean Brane 5 is a place with five dimensions?”
Spud nodded. “The Miletic Theory you were supposed to have learned in your exocosmology uploads, postulates at least eleven dimensions in which strings and membranes form the basic components of each universe. I think our portal here takes you into one of them, but, for reasons I have not yet been able to figure out, only the Somalderis can keep you there.”
I lay back on the cool ground, breathing deeply. “Wow.” I rolled on my side, frowning. “You think Benedict and his gang want to be able to access those dimensions?”
Spud nodded again. “That’s my hypothesis. And I presume that the Omega Archon wants to make sure that doesn’t happen … again.”

* * *
Ion Eyes

Earth Core—present day

We levved the dinghy back to Pantikapaeon soon after nightfall, so that the kind and greedy fisherman would have his boat by morning. We also timed the removal of the Georgian sentry’s stun and E-shield to occur at the same time as our X-fan. We didn’t want any, uh, hard feelings. In fact, Spud Ergaled an almost-empty bottle of Chersonesan wine next to the guard before we left so that the Georgian might have a straw to grasp after he woke up and wondered why he’d spent the last few hours lying literally senseless in the forest.
Our next stop was Earth Core, in the modern era. It was time to talk to Gary again about what we’d discovered.
“Gary isn’t heerrre,” Fydra responded at reception, her tone professional.
I leaned over and handed her a bright, studded necklace I had seen on one of the hotter models at the wrap party; I’d Ergaled a copy on my way down in the elevator from Heck. “Happy Birrrthday!”
“It’s rrrravishing!” Fydra broke into a warm grin and leapt over her desk to give me a wet nose rub. I hugged her back as Spud began tugging on my arm.
“Come on!” he urged.
“Where are we going?” I asked him as I followed him inside the station.
“Gary’s office. We have work to do.”
“But Fydra just told us he isn’t here.”
“Exactly,” Spud said, as we arrived at the suite. “Shh.”
Spud pulled out his Ergal and manipulated some of the dials. After a few moments, Gary’s door opened, and we gingerly stepped in. As it closed behind us, I asked, “How did you do that?”
“Better you do not know,” he said. “Let us hurry.” He started to scan the stylish room, lined with bookcases and what I guessed was expensive art.
“What are we looking for?”
“Gary may know more than he is telling,” Spud explained. “Anything MacGuffin-related.”
I chuckled, and started to pore through Gary’s books. Amusingly, a large number of them could be found in the self-improvement section of your local bookstore. Well, at least they weren’t filled with tissues. Spud went and rapidly downloaded Gary’s holo-files into his Ergal and then joined me in searching the rest of the room.
“Hello!”
I turned towards the door, terrified that Gary had walked in. It was still closed—Spud had only spoken an exclamation. I walked over and punched him in the arm before asking what he had found.
He punched me back, then answered, “Look at this textbook.”
The book looked at least twenty years old and was titled, Cosmological Physics: A Unified Theory of the Universe, by Whit N. Miletus, PhD. I raised an eyebrow, “Glad we don’t have to learn all that any more.”
“Miletan Theory.” He flipped through a few pages. “Look at these notes in the margins.”
I glanced at the formulae lining the text, then joked in my best ancient Greek, “It’s Chinese to me.”
Spud, concentrating as he skimmed page after page, didn’t laugh. He closed the book, micro’ed it and slipped it in his pocket. “Let’s go.”
I looked at him as if he were crazy. “Are you crazy? You’re taking Gary’s book?”
“It isn’t Gary’s,” he returned soberly. “It’s Benedict’s.”

* * *
We M-fanned back into my Malibu bungalow. Spud put my whole house under an E-shield, explaining that he needed a few quiet hours to study the text and Benedict’s scribbles.
“How do you know Benedict did that?” I asked. Sure, Spud was a whiz at studying handwriting and being able to identify writers—and forgers. But this was amazing. Where would he even learn what Benedict’s writing looked like?
Spud, annoyed, opened the book to its coverleaf and showed me the nameplate. Chagrined, I read, “This book belongs to: Theodore Benedict.”
“Any other questions?” he mumbled, his head still buried in the formulae.
“No … no … I’ll, uh, just hang …”
Spud’s hand slipped into his jacket and he took out a new, full pack of cigarettes. On second thought, I realized I hadn’t seen the family in a few weeks; maybe this would be a really good time to deliver Kris’s package to Andi.

* * *
Maryland—present day

I M-fanned at the farm in Maryland and ran up the path to avoid being drenched by a pouring spring shower. Taking cover under the awning on our front porch, I wiped the mud off of my shoes before I rang the bell. Some of the gang was bound to be home. I didn’t expect to see George, as ‘Osborne, Conrad, and Jeffries’ was a killer law firm to intern for, and he’d likely be working at his office all weekend. Connie was probably at Georgetown studying for her upcoming finals, and Blair should have already gone back to the UK for planting season. But, Andi and the boys still had a couple of months left in the school year, so I’d have enough company for a few hours, at least until Spud’s smoke cleared. Literally, as well as figuratively.
Bobby opened the door eagerly as I approached. Seeing me, he crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Want to make it to fifteen?” I favored him with a faux frown as I walked past him into the foyer.
Billy waved his free hand from the home theater in our family room, his eyes glued to his game. I ducked to avoid a holographic Romulan warship as it almost sliced through my head. Two years younger than Bobby, the blond “starfighter” was already beating his brunet brother in battle games. In a few years, when he turns sixteen, I’d love to nominate him for Mingferplatoi. The boys were back at their controllers even before I headed for the kitchen. At least I knew what to get them for their birthdays.
Andi was making a peanut butter sandwich, strands of her long auburn hair falling into the paste as she tried to keep it from tearing the doughy bread.
“Whole wheat isn’t as fragile,” I suggested.
“Shiloh!” she squealed, and stretched out her peanut butter-covered hands for a hug. Thirteen is old enough to know better. Really. I hugged her anyway.
“I’ve got a present for you,” Andi’s face brightened as I pulled out Kris’s package from a plastic bag. “From Christine.” I handed Andi a towel to clean off the remnants of peanut butter that didn’t make it onto my own T-shirt.
Andi carefully unwrapped the shiny paper and folded it into a small square which she laid on the kitchen counter. She raised the lid of white box underneath and squealed with excitement. “A Mid Kids jacket!”
The olive windbreaker looked wonderful next to her auburn locks, and I complimented her on her style. I pulled out a second box from the plastic bag, this one unwrapped. “I got you a little something, too.”
Andi’s eyes lit up when she saw the sketch pad and colored pencils. She gave me another big hug. After taking off her new jacket so it could stay peanut-butter-free.
We made a pitcher of lemonade for us all and sat around sharing some family and Hollywood news and gossip. I learned about George’s plans to intern in Congressman Acton’s office in July. And Connie’s student teaching in an urban DC school. Blair and Uncle Ari were planning to double the potato crop this year, and the little guys were balancing school, baseball practice, and acting in the occasional local commercial pretty well. Bobby had admitted that he wanted to join Kris in LA this summer, and maybe get a shot at a guest part on ‘Mid Kids’ next season, but George and Connie had both responded with a vehement ‘no’. For once, I was on their side. Kris wouldn’t be a real good role model for her younger brother. And me? No way could I babysit. I already had a second job.
Neither Andi nor I mentioned John. We drank lemonade, and, until the rain stopped, I sat in the home theater and played a few rounds of war games with the boys while Andi sketched us. I let them win, of course, ‘cause I don’t know when I’ll have time to come back and see them again.
Only when I was at the door, giving Andi a good-bye hug, did her eyes well up with tears. “I can’t remember what his voice sounds like anymore,” she whispered. “And I never wanted to forget.”
I held her in my arms for a very long time.

* * *
Hollywood—present day

I M-fanned back into Malibu as the sun was setting. I don’t like to miss the sunsets over the Pacific at this time of year. The sun paints the clouds orange and pink, with bright yellow halos. June gloom will arrive in several weeks, and with its marine layer coming in around 3:00 PM, you won’t be able see anything out my windows at all for most of the day, even the paparazzi crouching behind the dunes. It gets pretty lonely sometimes…
The first thing I did was prop up Andi’s sketch of us on my desk in my bedroom. I was so glad she gave it to me. I’ll add it to the others I’ve mounted on the wall as soon as I can find the right frame.
My very next task was to open the windows, especially in the living room where Spud was ‘cogitating’. I knew we were able to regenerate our lungs with one trip to Nejinsen, but I still didn’t want to breathe all that smoke.
Spud ignored my sour face, and began cryptically, “Van Allen Belts.”
“Yeah …?” I waited.
“Radiation belts around the Earth.”
“I know that,” I said, exasperated.
“Most planets don’t have them. They’re burned off by the sun.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“So, why does the Earth have them?” Realizing I wouldn’t have a clue, he raised a hand and answered his own query, “The Earth’s magnetic field traps the radiation.”
I nodded, pretending to understand.
“Or.”
Sigh. “Or?”
“They’re the remnants of attempts to transition to other branes …”
“Well, that’s a leap. Literally.”
“Bear with me. I shall try to explain. What are the belts made of?”
“Sugar and spice.” No response. “Green cheese?”
Spud was not amused. “Charged ions.”
“Okay …?”
He sat back, pursing his lips. “I’m not an astrophysicist, but …”
I snorted. “You should be.”
“Recall, we were only in the portal for a second or two. We needed something, an energy source, perhaps, to propel us forward. Our Ergals, even together, couldn’t provide enough power to make the transition.” Spud leaned forward, his eyes bright. “What if—and this is simply a presumption—what if the Somalderis somehow provides or channels energy. One is then able to fully transport to another brane.”
I’d like another brain right now, I thought, as Spud continued, excited. “Without the Somalderis, one would need to provide one’s own energy. An enormous amount of energy.”
“Mm-hmm.” I shrugged. “Then how ‘bout using a nuclear bomb?”
Spud grinned. “Bravo! So, you try to harness nuclear energy to push you into the next dimension. But—”
I nodded. There’s always a ‘but.’ “Something goes wrong?”
Spud echoed my nod. “Very wrong. The energy is still inadequate, and, as you are ejected there is a nuclear backdraft. Voilà, you have created a Van Allen Belt.”
I frowned. “But, if what you’re saying is true, they, the belts, would have to be pretty recent. I mean, wasn’t the Bomb only invented in 1960 or something?”
“In 1945 or something. I did a little atmospheric measurement before we left Kohlis,” Spud glanced at his Ergal. “I read no Van Allen belts in BC.”
“Really? Wow.” I checked my Ergal’s reference files. “Says here Christofilos and Van Allen did their work on the belts in the 1950s…”
Spud nodded. “That fits perfectly into our timeframe. No belts in ancient times. Belts now. The nuclear blowback then must have created the belts sometime soon after 1945. Van Allen finally confirmed the belts’ existence in 1958. Now all we require is evidence tying the belts into a nuclear explosion in the late forties or early fifties of the 20th century.” He paused for a brief moment. I saw a hint of an ironic smile. “And we both know who has access to that evidence.”
Spud looked at me earnestly. I rolled my eyes and let out a long, long sigh.

* * *

Earth Core—present day

Temporal analysis at Earth Core was Ev’s baby. We needed access to Earth radiation tracking data from the past hundred years or so to prove Spud’s theory. And the only way to get it was through Everett Weaver. I wished I hadn’t been so hard on the dork all this time. I hated having to eat crow.
Oh, well, nobody ever said acting was easy. Well, yes they did, but anyway. Back at Earth Core, I came up behind Ev and gently put my arm around his shoulders. It took all my skills to push the words “I’m sorry” through my gritted teeth.
Everett wasn’t entirely convinced of my sincerity. “What do you want, Rush?”
Innocent eyes. “I just wanted to apologize. I haven’t been very nice to you really.”
Everett stared at me for a few moments, frowning. My eyes dropped, drawn to the pizza stains on his shirt. Dork. Finally, Everett sighed and said, “Okay.” He turned back to his holos.
I smiled and nonchalantly started ambling away. Wait for it. Wait for it.
“Hey!” Ev called out to me.
I turned towards him, batting my big blues.
“Hey,” he continued, looking sheepish. “I thought you were, uh, kidding. Thanks.” He smiled, genuinely pleased.
I smiled back, and turned back away. Wait for it … Wait for it…
“Rush!” Ev said again. I turned around and smiled. “Anytime you need anything, you know …”
Warm smile. “Thanks, Ev. I’m okay.” I shrugged oh so casually. “But, hey, now that you mention it … Spud was asking me about something earlier today …”

* * *

New Mexico—1947

June 12, 1947: No Van Allen Belts. June 14, 1947: Van Allen Belts. Contact metrics. June 13, 1947: Chaves County, New Mexico.
I had on Amelia Earhart duds, right down to the aviator goggles. Spud wore a leather cap with some military-type insignia and a madras shirt and jeans. We both looked very Grapes of Wrath.
Spud guided us to the right coordinates, and we settled in under a large oak tree to wait for whatever was to come. I could only pray that any nuclear backdraft wouldn’t blow us away with it.
The night was unusually crisp for summer, and I drew my legs up under my arms to stave off the shivers. I looked up at the black sky, and, to my surprise, actually saw stars. LA’s bright lights reflect back up into the sky after dark, drowning out the constellations. I had almost forgotten what Earth’s night sky was supposed to look like.
The flash woke me up with a start. For a split second, I was blinded, and then the dark sky returned as it had been. Several hundred yards ahead of us, a glowing mass streaked to the ground, bursting into flames when it hit. Spud and I leaped up and started to run towards the burning site. Suddenly, Spud shot out an arm and knocked me back, pulling me behind another tree. My irritation turned to curiosity when Spud put a finger on his lips and pointed in the direction of the fire. A shadowy figure had arrived at the site and with—a Zygan-type stun gun?!—in hand, was extinguishing the flames.
We crept through the rim of oak trees around the clearing where the thing had crashed. We could now see remnants of what looked like some kind of a spaceship scattered over several feet of charred grass. Spud Ergaled us some binoculars and we scanned the site from our hiding place among the trees.
The ship seemed to be shattered into a number of pieces. At its center was a pod, which, though blackened from the heat, looked intact. I increased my binoculars’ lens magnification. It was clear that the pod was shaped like a humanoid, with a trunk, limbs, and a large head. Armor of some kind?
The shadow man was struggling with the pod to no avail, and finally—lasered!—it open with his stun gun. I looked at Spud. I was certain that Terrans didn’t have laser guns in the 1940s—or even lasers for that matter. Off-worlders? Or, worse, rogue Zygans?
We continued to watch as, grunting, Shadow Man pulled out what looked disgustingly like a burned body from inside the pod, and laid it on a patch of green grass.
The body lay still, unmoving. Shadow Man knelt next to it, crouching over it, his back to us, shaking with spasms.
“Is he crying?” I whispered to Spud.
Spud shrugged and motioned for me to be quiet.
“Hey!”
“What is it?”
The voices came from the other side of a small hill across from our hiding spot. We crept back deeper into the woods a bit, circling around to get a better view. Shadow Man had jumped up at the sounds, and grabbed the burnt body in his arms.
As he looked around the horizon, his hand reached in his pocket and he pulled out a stop watch—an Ergal?!. And, only a split-second before two hollering ranchers came running over the ridge, Shadow Man and the body disappeared.
I was as white as a ghost and Spud was even paler. As he had been scanning the area, we had both caught a glimpse of Shadow Man’s face. We didn’t have to speak the name. We both instantly knew who Shadow Man was. Gary.

* * *
Double Trouble

Sol System Space

We Ergaled straight to the Zoom Cruiser, still staying in 1947. We didn’t dare show up on Earth in the modern era. If Gary had decided to run a trace of our recent tracks, he’d be waiting for us when we returned. And somehow, we didn’t really expect we’d get a very warm reception. We held off until we were well past Ceres before we M-fanned into the present.
Spud told nav to go into hyperdrive and then leaned back in his seat, eyes closed.
“Gary looked so young …,” I observed to no one in particular as the stars flew by on our windscreens.
“I’d say he was in his mid-twenties then,” Spud said, still “sleeping.” “He left that part of the story out yesterday.”
“No kidding. Who do you think the guy who died was?”
“I’m not sure,” Spud said, opening his eyes and sitting up. “In fact, I’m not sure anyone did…” A momentary pause. “What if,” he continued, “the body was Benedict?”
I sat forward, facing Spud. “Whoa! No way!”
Spud held up a hand. “No, wait. Let us review what we have learned. Gary has a desk job for Earth Core. After Mingferplatoi, after Harvard. Working his way up the ladder to mediocrity.”
I nodded. “That’s our Gary.”
“Then Benedict appears and takes him on that joyride to another dimension he related to us.”
“Okay, I’m with you.”
“Only instead of Benedict remaining in Level Three, as Gary had said, they both came back. Now their goal becomes to return to this Level Three—or, as we really should label it, Brane 5—and stay there. They run through the similar calculations and speculations to ours, and decide to try a nuclear bomb to provide the energy to push them all the way through the portal.”
“Okay … but why go back in time thirty years to the 1940s?”
Spud chewed on his lip. “I think because there was a lot of above-ground nuclear testing in that area then. Perhaps they figured that it would be less suspicious if anything went wrong.”
“Which it did.”
“Apparently.” Spud scratched his chin. “So let us suppose Benedict is the risk-taker, so he assumes the role of the test pilot. He dons some kind of protective suit, and detonates the nuke just as he crosses the portal. Boom. Backdraft. He’s blown back to–”
“Is there a portal in near where we were in New Mexico?”
Spud shrugged. “I didn’t get anything on my Ergal close by, but, the portal they used could be anywhere within hundreds of miles. Arizona, Nevada, Colorado … The blowback could have thrown him all the way to where we were waiting in Roswell.”
“Roswell! Of course. The ‘alien invasion’.” I quoted with my fingers.
“Gary’s admitted he blew a mission at Roswell. What if that ‘mission’ wasn’t an invasion from outer space, but from another brane …?”
I took in a sharp breath. “So Benedict gets burned to a crisp and lands at Roswell. Gary goes and finds him, pulls him out of his not-so-protective suit and then Ergals out, leaving the remnants of the suit …”
“And the bomb. Which could resemble the broken pieces of a ship. The suit looks like …?”
“An alien …”
Spud nodded. “Exactly.”
We stared at the stars for a few moments in silence. I hesitated. “Then Benedict’s dead?”
Spud didn’t answer right away. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. He may have died and been anastasized. Or if he lived, regenerated his injured parts. Or … Benedict could simply be a political tool, and not really exist any more at all …”
“A tool? Whose? Gary’s?”
Spud said quietly. “Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

* * *
Back to Zyga—present day

As our Zoom Cruiser whizzed through the last leg of our journey to Zyga, we both sat quietly, trying to digest the events of the last few hours. No offense to the Kharybdians, but the muddy waters had gotten much deeper. If Gary had been a friend of Benedict’s, was his allegiance to the Omega Archon, or to the outlaw? Was Gary himself still working for Benedict, a double agent like Wart? Did he send us after Sutherland hoping we’d fail, to help Benedict succeed? And, if Gary had gone to the other side, who else at Core—or beyond—had he taken with him?
I could only hope that Ev wasn’t one of them, and that my favorite dork had kept his mouth shut—literally—about our temporal research on radiation belts. If Gary found out, he could probably guess that we were on to him. In that case, we were dead meat. Gary could use his cred and authority with Zygint to convince Central that we were the traitors. We’d be arriving at Zyga soon. Would we be greeted as citizens or enemies of Zygfed …?
“Spud?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“The Somalderis …”
He smiled wanly. “Ah yes. The Somalderis.”
“Agriarctos told me he’d seen the Somalderis years ago. In the past. Why didn’t Gary and Benedict go back and steal it to use?”
“Maybe they did. And battered the gates of heaven with the ram …” Spud said in a soft voice, adding mysteriously. “A man who has never been to heaven is driven by hope. A man who has lost heaven is driven by desperation.”
Spud pulled out his Ergal and smiled. “Perhaps we should revisit our Milton.”
I nodded, not wanting to reveal that I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

* * *

The Kharybdian Enclave, Zyga—present day

We didn’t dare touch down in Mikkin until we were sure that Zygint hadn’t discovered our detective work. Instead, I followed Spud back into the mud of the Kharybdian enclave. We’d come to Zyga in stealth mode again, and my stomach was still churning from the rough entry. I was grateful that I hadn’t eaten since I don’t know when.
Eikhus greeted us with a soothing warm shower and led us in to his thal. We were surprised to find Matshi and Nephil Stratum waiting for us in the sala.
Matshi looked good. His limbs had grown back fully, and he was smiling. I was glad to see him less depressed.
Nerea welcomed us with dewy hugs, and invited us to munch on some thikia. “Eikhus has a new recipe. They’re delicious.”
And they were. I didn’t realize quite how hungry I’d been. Even Spud seemed to eat with some vigor, and without the grumbling that usually accompanied his encounters with things Kharybdian.
After a hearty meal during which Spud filled in our friends about our adventures, we relaxed with mugs of Chidurian Ale, courtesy of Matshi. Despite the drink’s relaxing benefits, I noticed a hint of tension had crept into the Chidurian’s features. When I could catch him alone, I would try to find out why, I decided.
“Ergal records show nothing, but my contacts did find some references to a Somalderis,” Nephil Stratum relayed to us. “Kolhis—”
“Where we were,” I interjected, grimacing at my memory of the Georgian thug.
“Also, Sparti, Uruk, Judea,” she continued. “Nothing much after that.”
“Anything in the US?” Spud asked. “New Mexico? Nevada?”
“No. Nothing. The last report was thousands of years ago in any case.”
“Any connection with Orion?” asked Matshi.
“No. Sorry,” Nephil Stratum said softly.
Ah. Ulenem’s outburst to save Orion was clearly on the Chidurian’s mind.
Spud leaned forward in his seat. “Matshi, does Orion Alpha have Van Allen Belts?”
Matshi shrugged his shoulders. “Never checked. My ship has always been radiation shielded, just in case.”
Eikhus shot a waterspout to his holo. “No Van Allen Belts,” he told us, as he scanned the display.
Spud looked disappointed.
“But,” Eikhus continued, “There are Trapezalnitaks.” He turned back to face us. “Radiation belts.”
“Capital.” Spud’s excitement trumped his annoyance. “How do they compare with the Van Allen Belts?”
Eikhus re-checked his computer. “Stronger. Much stronger. Especially the inner belt. They seem to be products of fusion reactions.”
Matshi nodded. “It makes sense for them to have tried a stronger bomb.”
“And Benedict has seemed to have an affinity for fusion weaponry in his guerilla attacks,” Spud agreed.
Benedict. That’s where I’d heard it. It seemed like weeks ago when we’d all been sitting around the table in Matshi’s kalyvi watching Benedict’s holo as he was doing, we figured, some calculations. What had he been muttering? M-c squared, E = mc squared, Einstein’s equation for conversion of matter to energy … Alpha … trapezalnitaks. Radiation belts on Orion Alpha! Summeldare … ram. The Somalderis!
“Can you temporal track on that thing?” Excited, I asked the Kharybdian about his holo unit. “When were the trapezalnitaks formed?”
“I can’t temporal track with this,” Eikhus sighed, then brightened. “But, I can measure decay parabolas and estimate a date.”
Eikhus’s fingers splattered through the holo display for a few minutes, while I shared my memory of Benedict’s mumbled words with the group. The Kharybdian seemed puzzled, frowning as he worked.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I keep doing it and doing it, and it still comes out the same.” Eikhus sounded extremely frustrated. “My calculations show that these belts have only been around Orion Alpha for three months.”
“Months?!” Matshi cried. We all looked at each other in alarm.
“Let me see what some other planets in the area show,” Eikhus suggested. The results were not reassuring. Populated planets around Betelgeuse and Bellatrix also showed evidence of recent radiation belt development. Had Benedict’s Andarts used fusion bombs to try to cross to another dimension, creating radiation belts? Were those attempts the so-called terrorist attacks Zygint had warned us about?
If Ulenem was right, and Orion’s solar systems were the latest testing grounds for Benedict’s attempts to travel to another brane, millions of beings could be in danger from radiation poisoning. And, if Benedict and his lieutenants eventually tried a crossing with the Somalderis and it wasn’t strong enough to power the transition, could blowback destroy one of the most densely populated star systems in the universe?
“I cannot answer that question,” Spud said gravely. “But, I must refer us back to our brief glimpse of Benedict and the last word we heard him utter. If my memory serves, I believe it was ‘catastrophe’.”

* * *
Orion

En route to Orion Alpha, Orion—present day

The constellation of Orion is also known as the Hunter. It’s fitting, as some of Zygfed’s best hunters hail from its many solar systems. Ulenem was one of a long line of Assassins from Orion Alpha, many who had honorably served Zygfed in heralded battles. Ironically, Zygfed had brought relative peace to the constellation’s quadrant, by drafting Orion warriors into Zygint and the Sentinel Corps and effectively halting their bloody incursions into neighboring star groups such as Sirius. Long-victimized Scyllians and Ursans became grateful supporters of the Zygans for ending the rains [sic] of terror.
Our own hunt for the terrorists now pointed us in the direction of the planet Orion Alpha. Ulenem’s warning, as well as the discovery of those recently created radiation belts around so many worlds in the Orion system, led us all to suspect that Benedict (or another villain with the same name, Sarion joked) was using the star system as his new testing ground. We needed to go there and investigate.
Spud and I agreed to lead our team to Orion in my Zoom Starcruiser. Matshi would follow in his warship with Sarion, and Eikhus and Nephil Stratum would join us in the Nautilus after picking up Setsei and Suthsi from the Ytran Enclave.
Contact metrics were finalized and we fled Zyga, once again, by stealth. I set nav to warp towards Orion Alpha.
“So who’s this Milton guy you were talking about before,” I asked Spud.
“John Milton,” Spud responded. “Merely the best English writer of all time.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Not Shakespeare?”
Spud snorted. “In my opinion, Shakespeare was a very inferior fellow. His entire oeuvre was soap opera and situation comedy,” he added for my benefit. “And,” he chuckled and gave me a wink, “it may actually have been written by another man with that name, Francis Bacon.”
“Hey, I’ve played that,” I returned with a grin. “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.” I did a pretend drum roll with my hands. “Ba-rum-pum.”
Spud looked at me through narrowed eyes, “That, Rush, was worthy of Sarion.”
“I am properly insulted,” I huffed.
“Anyway,” Spud continued with a twinkle in his eye, “John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, an epic poem in which Satan, a fallen angel, is cast down into Hell and decides to fight God and re-enter Heaven. He finally succeeds and ends up tempting Adam and Eve to eat the apple of the Tree of Knowledge, so now they too are cast out.”
“You think Benedict and/or Gary are fighting—”
The pain was overwhelming. I almost lost consciousness as my head cracked against the viewscreen and my sore elbow was momentarily wrenched from its socket. In the darkness, I couldn’t even see Spud, nor hear his breathing. Nav was obviously dead. Our ship pitched and rolled endlessly, magnified by the forced transition out of hyperdrive. My back slammed against weapons control, which, already damaged, crumpled with the force of the blow.
I was unable to visualize anything inside or outside our ship as we somersaulted in black space. Gritting my teeth against the pain, I pulled myself back into my seat and grabbed my Ergal, hoping I could jumpstart nav and improvise weapons.
Spud must’ve had the same idea, as auxiliary nav came on along with the ship lights. I gasped involuntarily. Spud had a huge gash on his scalp and was drenched in blood—some of it apparently mine.
“Weapons regen!” I shouted. “Fusion torpedos.”
“Laser charges,” echoed Spud hoarsely. “Full power.”
I scanned nav holo and ran my fingers on it to enter an evasive pattern. “Identify attack.”
Crash! Another blow hit us from the side and we flipped over and over—this time, fortunately, tractored into our seats. Smoke filtered in from our vents, fogging up the interior and triggering the atmospheric shields that all Zygan ships automatically activate if airlocks are breached accidentally or deliberately. “Ventilation resuming,” Spud grunted, as we felt the flow of fresh air.
“What is it? Who?” I cried, between deep breaths of replenishing oxygen.
“Zygan, certainly,” Spud said, alarmed. “And they obviously know all our evasive maneuvers.”
I hit nav again. “Manual.” My skills as a pilot trainee at Mingferplatoi had been good. Would they be good enough?
Crash! We pitched again, but this time it was a glancing blow and the damage was less. I dove a light-year and spiraled up to catch our assaulter by surprise from behind. No such luck. The Zygan ship had duplicated my moves and was still following us when I leveled off. Panning, spooling, flipping, all were useless. The Zygan pilot’s skills were terrific, and his ship seemed to be even stronger and faster than ours. Spud continued launching a few of our charges and torpedoes, which, dodged by the Zygan vessel, flew harmlessly off into the ether.
Crash! The lights and nav went out again, and we floated, dead in space. Neither of our Ergals could regenerate systems this time. We were in deep space, in deep trouble.
“Escape pods?” I suggested to Spud.
He nodded, and we Ergaled into our suits and ejected invisibly into the vacuum. Or, so we thought. The tractors hit us the moment we left our ship, which was then blasted into smithereens by a well-aimed fusion torpedo from our attackers’ vessel. As we were being hauled through space towards our captors, Spud was actively mouthing some words to me I couldn’t make out from inside his helmet.
I shook my head and shrugged. Nothing to do now but wait. We’d be in the Zygan ship soon enough. And somehow I didn’t think we’d be meeting friends.

* * *

As soon as we’d entered the airlock, the tractors were released. We tried to Ergal out of the enemy ship, only to find that our Ergals had somehow disappeared, and we were effectively unarmed. Someone apparently had a functioning Ergal, because we were M-fanned into a holding cell right after clearing the airlock.
The holding cell was a small chamber, no larger than my walk-in closet at the Malibu pad. We sat at the far end of the room, watching its locked portal and waiting for our captors to appear and reveal themselves. Spud lifted off his helmet and turned to me.
“What were you trying to say to me out there?” I asked, as soon as I had removed mine.
Spud shook his head and said, “I suspect it is Gary.”
The chamber door whooshed open and a familiar voice greeted us. “That’s right, Escott. Gary.”
Neither of us was happy to see him holding a stun gun. Spud remained stone-faced. I tried a smile. “Boy, are we glad to see you.”
Gary didn’t smile back. “What were you two doing in this quadrant?” he asked coldly.
“Dogfighting with you,” I answered, somewhat truthfully, then instantly regretted being flip as Gary aimed his gun at my chest. I curled into a defensive crouch and added. “Okay. Sorry.”
Gary turned to Spud. “You don’t think I monitor my office?”
Spud looked pained. “I should have. But I counted on Core Security as being adequate …”
Gary Ergaled himself a chair and sat down facing us, stun gun remaining at the ready. “Once again, why are you here?” he demanded.
He turned his gun towards me for a moment, but I had already decided that answering “because we can’t escape” would be unwise. Neither Spud nor I said anything.
Finally, he continued. “Your bearing seems to indicate you were headed for Orion. Why?”
I theatrically nudged Spud. “See, I told you we were off-course. We were on our way to, uh, see a live comedy show on Scylla.”
Gary and Spud both looked at me, incredulous. I rolled my eyes and then finally said seriously, “Oh, cut it out, Gary. You know why.”
Gary smiled at last. “Yes. Yes, I do. Very clever of you to figure some things out.” He raised his eyebrows. “Not very clever of you to leave a temporal trail I could track.”
Spud shook his head. “Ev …”
“No. When I first sent you to Phoenicia, I put trackers on your Ergals that left temporal footprints. Just wanted to be sure nothing went wrong.” He couldn’t resist a smirk. “No reason to take them off when you got back.”
“So you knew Sutherland was in Phoenicia all the time!” I said angrily.
Gary snorted. “Knew? I sent him there. Poor Wart and his shattered reputation…” His sigh turned into a laugh.
“And why are we still alive?” Spud interrupted.
My heart skipped.
“Frankly, I was a little slow on the draw.” Gary smiled again “I underestimated you. You’ve now had a couple of hours lead on me. And before I eliminate you as threats, I need to know who else you’ve talked to.”
My heart stopped. Spud simply nodded, satisfied. “I thought so.”
Gary looked at each of us in turn. “So, let’s not get melodramatic here. Just give me the names and I’ll catharize you.”
“And if we don’t?” I said, clenching my teeth.
“I’ll put you through hell,” Gary said coldly, “and then I’ll kill you.”
Our only hope was that our cavalry would arrive in time. Matshi and Eikhus working together might be able to vanquish Gary. Unfortunately, our designated rendezvous time was still a few hours in the future. Until then, they wouldn’t even know we were in trouble. Could Spud and I hold out that long?

* * *
Zyga—present day

Matshi glided his ship along the stunning rocky coastline of Zyga’s Megaran Enclave above the sparkling aquamarine sea below. Bacchanalian resorts were few and far between in Zygfed, so the Enclave was a favorite vacation destination among Zygans, who enjoyed its lovely beaches during the day, and its exciting entertainment at night. At the top of the Megaran Bluffs was one of the Universe’s largest collections of holo caverns with magicians, dancers, comedians, singers, Deltans (pleasure facilitators), and other entertainers from the far reaches of Andromeda. The Enclave, like Megara itself, was famous for being on 36/12 .
Sarion was waiting for Matshi in a Transport portal off Promenade 48. The Megaran had enlisted three mates to accompany him on the mission, Pallas, Nissos, and Lykkos. Matshi had sparred with Pallas at a Megaran wrestling arena a couple of years before and was thrilled to have Pallas and his friends on his team.
After the pick-up, the always-wary Matshi took a parabolic route from Zyga to our agreed-upon meeting point in the Bellatrix solar system. He didn’t expect Eikhus to arrive for another hour, what with the fussiness of the Ytran meiotes, Setsei and Suthsi, and Eikhus’s tendency to pilot the Nautilus like an elderly excursioner. But, Matshi was surprised to see that we weren’t there. We were respected pilots, and I usually lived up to my last name, Rush.
The Chidurian scratched his head, and, after a few minutes, began a parsec locator scan to look for us.
“Afraid to ask for directions, huh?” Sarion joked as he walked over to Matshi.
Matshi did not seem amused. Even Sarion finally realized his friend was very worried. “What’s the matter?”
“Fusion torpedo residue,” Matshi shook his head. “And I’ve picked up some Terran DNA …”
Sarion’s expression registered concern.
“But,” Matshi continued, “it’s a very small amount. Mixed in with shards of ship composites and metals. But not enough for a complete human. Or two.”
“Then where could they be?”
“I don’t know, but I may be able to trace the fusion residue and backtrack to find its source.” Matshi’s nimble fingers played over the holo as he searched for a ship that could have fired the torpedo.
After a few minutes, he frowned. “It doesn’t make sense.”
“What?” Sarion strained to see.
“I traced the torpedo track back to these coordinates.” Matshi pointed to one end of a jagged line on the holo. “I’m getting an ion footprint there, but I can’t see a vessel.” The Chidurian’s frustration was clear.
“Invisible? Stealthed?”
“Possibly.” Matshi chewed his lips. “But that’s illogical.”
“What do you mean?”
“The footprint of the residue is Zygan. Why, in a Zygan quadrant, would a Zygan ship be stealthed? Unless they’re up to something. Even we’re not invisible-ized, and we’re not exactly on an official mission.”
“Kidnapping? Hit and run?”
Matshi nodded his head. “That’s what I’m thinking.”
“Do we go after them?” Sarion didn’t seem to be asking a question.
Matshi nodded and gave the command to nav.

* * *
“But we’ll die!”
Frustrated, Nephil Stratum looked at Eikhus.
“Suthsi, that really isn’t likely.” The Kharybdian tried to be convincing. “And we could save the lives of millions.”
Setsei ambled onto the bridge holding a Geryon in each of his two right hands. He handed one of the long, golden, spear-like Ytran weapons to his meiote, who hesitated, and then accepted the Geryon with one of his two left hands. Setsei’s voice trembled as he gently rubbed Suthsi’s smooth right trunk with his own left. “We went to Mingferplatoi for a reason. Let us fulfill our purpose now.”
Yellow tears fell from Suthsi’s eyes as the Ytran took his gleaming Geryon and micro’ed it into his robes. Setsei stroked Suthsi’s flagella with his own as a gesture of thanks.
“What’s wrong?” Eikhus interjected, noting that Nephil Stratum had turned a dark gray.
“I just got commed by Matshi,” she replied anxiously. “Shiloh and William are not at the contact site. They seem to be missing, and Matshi thinks they may have been kidnapped by a rogue Zygan ship!”
The Ytrans said the word together: “Andarts!”

* * *
Adam

Kidnapped—present day

Rush screamed in agony. Only my ka’vyr techniques kept me from losing complete control and collapsing into unconsciousness, where my neurocache would be ripe for Gary’s picking.
I heard myself scream again. The chorizing procedure allowed me to mentally step outside my body and kept me from experiencing the full extent of the pain. Like a hyperpowered narcotic, chorizing also removed the anxiety that made pain so unbearable. Still my mastery of the ka’vyr practices was primitive. If he knew I was resisting, Gary might ‘turn up the volume’ of the torture more than I would be able to cope.
Meanwhile, Spud was chorizing in another chamber. Perfectly still, his response to the interrogation was catatonia and escape to another plane of consciousness, where Gary would be unable to access his neurocache and effectively download his brain information.
Gary moved back and forth between us, trying to scan our brains with an instrument that I didn’t recognize. It was bright gold and shaped like an orange cut in half, a divided sphere. Gary had placed the flat surface over my frontal lobes, near my forehead. Then, he’d demand, “Who did you talk to?!” over and over. When the answers didn’t come, Gary hovered next to me, shifting his weight impatiently from one leg to the other, and twisting a gold ring on his left middle finger back and forth as his frustration grew.
Both of us were able to perceive Gary’s anger rising as our efforts kept him from his goal. “These techniques are far more advanced than Zygint’s,” he muttered. “How are these green baby Zygint catascopes able to resist?”
As minutes turned into hours, Gary’s fury intensified. I was convinced he knew we could hear him speak as his pacing became ever more agitated. “Catharization is too good for these children. Execution is what they deserve!”

* * *
Matshi’s ship

The holo showed mild dark matter flux, but little else. If there was a ship stealthed at the target metrics, Matshi couldn’t see it on any of the screens.
Pallas nodded at the display. “It’s there. Look at the differential.”
Nissos agreed. He reached over Matshi’s shoulder and manipulated the display. A faint shadow of a vessel appeared. “There you go.”
“Zygan technology isn’t always state of the art,” Sarion said. “And that’s no joke.”
“It’s actually an understatement,” Pallas snorted. “Zygan bureaucracy actually stifles innovation.”
“One of these days,” Matshi admitted, “I’d like to blow this Fed and see what I’ve been missing.”
“Count me in,” Sarion agreed. “I’ve heard the Deltans in the Virgo Cluster are really hot!”
Lykkos snickered, “You wouldn’t believe what we learn from some of our ‘visitors’ when they’re under the influence of Aldebaran brandy.”
Matshi glared at them through furrowed brows. “I was thinking about witnessing new spaceflight technologies.”
“Speaking of, based on the ship outline, it looks like a Messier Sportstar, the latest cool cruiser among Ursans,” Nissos announced. “Seats 22.” He ran his fingers across the holo again, and added, “I read three humans on board.”
“And two of them may be Escott and Rush,” Sarion stated, serious. He turned to Matshi. “Orders, Cap’n?”
Matshi looked at the Megarans soberly, and declared after a beat, “We go in.”
There was a general cheer.
“Suit up, men,” Matshi advised. “We’ll Ergal in invisibly and scan and disperse once we’re on board.”

* * *

Eikhus’s ship

Suthsi sat quietly as Eikhus gently guided the ship towards Matshi’s contact metrics. In the years since they’d left Mingferplatoi, he’d not gotten a decent night’s hibernation. Setsei had wanted to stay at the Academy. I should’ve stayed, too.
Suthsi felt Setsei’s flagella slide over his shoulders and smiled. “Whatever our fate,” he said quietly, “may we share it together.”
Nephil Stratum was relaying comm data to Eikhus. “Matshi and his team are mounting a rescue.”
“Can you see the ship?” the Kharybdian asked. “Inside?”
“Yes,” she responded. “To both. Do we join them, or do we wait?”
Eikhus hesitated, finally declaring, “Just monitor for now. We’ll know when and if we have to make a move.”

* * *

The Messier Sportstar

Matshi M-fanned invisibly into Spud’s cell, dumbfounded by the scene before him. Spud was lying motionless on a metal slab, his eyes closed, his aquiline features devoid of expression. The Chidurian crept closer to see if Escott was breathing. Barely, he realized; no more than a breath a minute, too few for humans.
He reached a hand towards Spud’s chest. A human hand grabbed his and twisted him towards the floor.
“Matshi!” Spud cried as he landed on top of his rescuer, adding in a whisper, “I am actually quite pleased to see you.”
Rolling to one side, the Chidurian slid out from under Spud. Rubbing his sore limb, Matshi stood up to his full height and muttered a Chidurian curse.
“I know what that means,” Spud grumbled as he got to his feet.
“I know you know,” Matshi responded. “Now let’s get your arse out of here.”

* * *
When I opened my eyes and saw Sarion leaning over me with a worried smile, I thought Gary was taunting me with a cruel joke.
“Come on,” Sarion cried. “Hurry.”
I reached up and grabbed his muscular arm. He lifted me off the table and spotted me until I’d regained my balance.
“How did you find us?” I asked, grateful for the rescue.
“No time for that now, follow me.” He pulled out his Ergal and started entering instructions with his fingers.
Dazed and drained, I was still wobbly on my feet, but free of the spasms of agony with which Gary had tortured me. “How did you stop my pain?”
Sarion looked at me, puzzled. “Here, let me Ergal you a suit and we can X-fan back to Matshi’s ship.”
“No.”
Sarion looked even more puzzled. Could it be he had no idea why we had been captured?
“I can’t leave,” I insisted. “I have to save Spud. And stop Gary.”
“Matshi’s saving Spud,” the Megaran informed me. “And, by now, Pallas and Nissos should be on the bridge of this beauty. They should be able to handle your … uh, Gary.”
I was now puzzled. “Who are Pallas and Nissos?”
“My mates,” Sarion said, his eye on the door and his tone impatient. “We better get going. Before somebody tries to stop us.”
I nodded. “Okay. But shouldn’t we disable Gary’s power grid first?”
“Lykkos, another mate, is on that,” Sarion urged anxiously. “Let’s just go.”
“Ergal me a stun gun,” I ordered the Megaran. “I’m not leaving til we arrest Gary.” I stood stone-faced, hands on my hips. “I am still—I hope—a fully certified Zygint agent.”
“I’ll go along with the certified part,” Sarion sighed, rolling his eyes. He Ergaled both of us stun guns and handed one to me. Without hesitating, I blasted the portal of my prison cell open and led Sarion carefully out into the corridor, determined to succeed in my quest.

* * *

“The bridge on these birds is usually astern,” Matshi whispered to Spud. “This way.”
A sudden yaw threw the two against the bulkhead. “Go, Pallas,” Matshi said quietly.
Spud clutched his stun gun even more tightly and crept behind the Chidurian. The ship lurched again, and the power grid went down.
“Lykkos,” Matshi explained as he Ergaled two torches and handed one to Spud.
“Shh.” Spud pulled Matshi back as they rounded a corner. He gestured at his ears and turned off his torch. Matshi followed and the two waited in the darkness, guns at the ready.
The faintest sound of stealthy footsteps approached from the corridor ahead. As the steps neared, Matshi and Spud both aimed their stun guns at the source of the sound. Around the corner, a faint light appeared, followed by two shadowy forms.
“Freeze!” cried Matshi as he and Spud each flew to one side of the shadows.
“Don’t shoot!”
Matshi and Spud turned on their torches to see Sarion and me.

* * *
I really thought I’d bought it when I felt the stun gun in my ribs. I’m so glad Matshi wasn’t quicker on the trigger.
Spud recovered first. “Let’s get to the bridge,” he said quietly.
I nodded, not bothering to hide my sarcasm. “Thanks for asking.”
“We do not have the minutes to waste on…small talk,” Spud returned, as we set off down the corridor behind Matshi and Sarion towards the bridge. “My observation that you seem well was adequately reassuring. As I hope the converse was for you,” he added with a bitter edge.
Ouch. That hit straight home. “Look, I’m sorry, Spud,” I sighed. “After what I’ve—we’ve been through…” I struggled to articulate my distress.
“It is hardly necessary to dissect and relive the experience again,” he finished for me, as he pulled on my arm to encourage me to pick up my pace.
Our companions had gone down a corridor to our right, and we jogged to catch up. After a few yards, Matshi led us off to the in the opposite direction, and then back again to the right. A few more turns and I felt that we had come around in a complete circle. Matshi was an excellent navigator, but I still kept wondering if we shouldn’t’ve ‘turned left back at the stop sign’, you know?
Following the Chidurian, we clambered up a flight of stairs, walked down a short corridor, and finally reached a titanium door at its end. Our attempts to open the door with laser blasts from our stun guns failed. We’d need to use one of our rescuers’ Ergals to M-fan into what we expected would be the bridge on the other side. We all held hands, and, on my whispered count of three, Matshi activated his Ergal and we all X-fanned through the door together.
Yay, Matshi. Success! We looked around hastily, bewildered to see that the surprisingly roomy bridge was dark and quiet. There was no sign of Gary, nor of Sarion’s buddies. The emptiness and silence were very worrisome. I hoped the Megaran’s friends were okay. I hoped Gary wasn’t. Our Chief obviously had some tricks up his sleeve that we didn’t learn about through Zygint and he didn’t seem to hesitate to use them.
Stun guns out and charged, we peered into the darkness, trying to listen for sounds of life. I heard someone sniffing. Matshi. Chidurians did have large nostrils and triple our sense of smell. And then I smelled it, too. Something was burning. We’d better find out what. Following Matshi’s lead, we crept behind the large nav and comm panels so we could hide before attempting to turn on the lights with an Ergal.
That effort was unnecessary. A split second later, the entire circumference of the bridge around us became brilliantly lit as it burst into flames. In the center of the chamber, holding a vibrating machine about the size of a large shoebox under one arm, stood Gary. To Sarion’s alarm, there was no sign of either Pallas or Nissos.
“Don’t bother looking for your friends,” Gary announced. “They’re on their way to Level Three as heroes.”
“No!” Sarion lunged forward, and was barely held back by Matshi and Spud.
“Their … transition was instantaneous, I’d say,” Gary chuckled. “I guess their mother never told them to put on their suits before they go outside.” He waved his free hand at the darkness of space beyond the bridge’s windscreens.
Sarion’s face was contorted with rage. Red-faced, he sputtered a string of Megaran oaths.
Spud’s eyes had remained focused on Gary’s box. “What is that?” he interjected.
“That, Escott,” Gary said coldly, “is my key to Level Three.”
The blazing fire was moving rapidly towards our panels. We inched forward to avoid the flames, closer and closer to Gary, guns still aimed at our adversary. Soon we were standing only a few feet away, surrounding him. As Matshi shot out a free appendage to grab Gary’s box, Gary waved a hand and all our stun-guns instantly dissolved. Matshi and Sarion instinctively reached for their Ergals.
“Really, children, you don’t honestly believe that the extent of Zygan knowledge is limited to Catascope 101 at Mingferplatoi?” A second wave of Gary’s hand, and their Ergals had similarly dissolved. Matshi patted his pockets and, looking at Sarion then us, shook his head. “Benedict learned so much more during his exile.”
“And don’t expect Rescue 911,” Gary continued. “I’ve activated E-shields. No one else can get in to save you.”
The toasty flames were now licking our feet. We had no other option. With a shout from Matshi, we all leaped forward intending to grab Gary with our bare hands, and take away his Ergal or whatever it was that was the source of his power. Without an Ergal, or a superErgal, Gary wouldn’t be able to take down the E-shield and escape. He would perish in the inferno along with us, an option that we estimated he wouldn’t tolerate. He’d attempt to save himself, and thereby open the door for us to get out, too.
Unfortunately, Gary had once again anticipated our move, and, still holding the shoebox, which had now started to emit a high pitched whine and shake violently, he avoided us easily by levving beyond our reach to the ceiling of the bridge, comfortably above the flames.
“Nice try, children, but there’s no escape for you,” Gary mocked from his smoky height as the blaze rapidly engulfed us and our suits and clothes began to burn. We scattered to all corners of the bridge, futilely trying to find an exit and flee the flames, but the entire bridge deck had become a fiery inferno with no egress.
Gary waved from his perch above, his gold ring reflecting the glow of the fire below. “See you in Level Three,” he shouted callously over our cries, and pressed a button on the side of the shoebox he continued to tightly clutch.
Faced with certain death, I started my ka’vyr techniques once again to stave off the burning agony. The end would come quickly enough for us all. I did not want to suffer in my last moments alive.
Through the distance of my trance, I heard a blood-curdling scream, like none that I had ever heard before, come from above my head. I looked up as Gary screamed again, and collapsed onto the ground, dead.
As quickly as it had started, the fire was doused over the entire bridge, wisps of smoke the only trace of its flames. On the ceiling levved a dripping Eikhus, his stun gun pointed at the supine, still figure lying at our feet.
“Pallas! Nissos!” Sarion broke into a broad grin as he saw his friends had just M-fanned behind the charred panels on each side of the bridge. “Thank the stars you are alive!”
Eikhus floated down. “Thank Nephil Stratum. She anticipated their … ejections, and we were ready with spacesuits the nanosecond Gary pushed them out the airlocks.”
Spud had knelt next to Gary’s lifeless body. “You did not fire,” he said to Eikhus. “What happened to him?”
“Nephil Stratum has learned many things since we last talked.” Eikhus nodded out the windscreen, where we glimpsed wisps of Nephil Stratum’s tendrils floating around our ship. “With her talents at shadowing communications.”
Setsei M-fanned into the bridge and drew out his Geryon.
Eikhus continued, “Nephil Stratum was able to observe Gary removing his E-shield to escape. And that gave us the cue to get in.”
“If the E-shield was down, then why didn’t he make it out?” I asked, equally curious. “Why is he, uh, dead?”
Nephil Stratum M-fanned on the bridge. “Same reason as the first time. Not enough momentum to push through.”
“Through what?” I asked. “A second E-shield?”
“Through the portal,” Spud explained softly.
“This system apparently has several,” Eikhus nodded. “I’ll bet we’ll see that the radiation belt around Al Najid just got quite a bit stronger.”
I whistled. “You mean he was trying to go to another dimension? Here?”
Nephil Stratum nodded. “But he was bounced back by the brane. He thought he’d have enough power in that machine to make the crossing, but … someone,” she turned a light golden blush, “tapped into and drained his energy source, and he didn’t get very far.” We looked at the shattered remains of what had been the shoebox scattered along the floor.
“Nephil Stratum,” I cheered, “I could hug you!” I stopped. “Wait a minute. You said like the ‘first time’? What first time?”
Eikhus nodded at Setsei, who walked over and pierced Gary’s skin with his Geryon. An astounding transformation occurred. Gary’s skin, in its deathly pallor, slowly dissolved, and a charred body appeared in its place underneath. With a ringing tinkle, Gary’s gold ring, now too big for his burnt finger, rolled off his hand and came to rest on the floor near my feet.
Spud smacked his forehead. “Of course. What an ass I have been!”
Matshi chuckled. “Yeah.”
Spud glared at him for a second and then continued to me, “At Roswell, we saw Gary, remember?”
“Yes,” I said, puzzled. “He turned towards the woods and we saw his face.”
“That was very clever of Benedict, I must say,” Spud responded with a tone of admiration.
“That was Benedict? But the face we saw was Gary’s.”
Nephil Stratum interrupted. “Gary was the unlucky traveler who made that test run and burned to a crisp.”
“Benedict Ergaled to look like Gary at Roswell–a brilliant move on his part,” Spud acknowledged. “He may even have muted down to his DNA. By pretending to be Gary for a few weeks, Benedict could cover for their failure without raising suspicion, and buy time to get Gary anastasized.”
Eikhus nodded. “I agree.” He turned to us. “But His Highness would never have approved anastasis through Nejinsen Medical Center after a capital crime.” He ran a finger across his neck. “Looks like Benedict took Gary outside of Zygfed to get it done.”
Nephil Stratum looked down at the burnt corpse, and tsk’ed. “M81 anastasis techniques do still have a few bugs.”
Shaking my head, I bent down and picked up Gary’s ring. “Crossing to another dimension. I never figured our Gary for the type to take those kind of risks,” I said, my voice cracking.
Nephil Stratum placed a comforting tuft on my shoulders, cooling my burned skin. “There is always another dimension to those we think we know.”
I nodded and relaxed into her arms, letting my tears flow.

* * *
Orion, for real this time

We placed Gary’s charred body, wrapped in a protective latex shroud, on the Nautilus’ autopod and launched it on course for Zyga. Eikhus instructed the autopod’s nav to take the body to Aheya, just in case Nejinsen’s medics wanted to do a post-mortem study of the anastasis work of their M81 colleagues.
Seeing as we’d lost our ship, Spud and I decided to keep Gary’s for the trip to Orion. Lykkos had the power grid up and working in no time, and Setsei and Suthsi’s Geryons helped to regenerate bridge equipment and repair the fire damage within hours. Nephil Stratum used her polyhedron to locate where Gary had secreted our vanished Ergals, and we were each soon re-united with our most valuable tool and weapon. Unfortunately, none of us had any luck in putting back together Gary’s shoebox. The pieces had shattered and burned in the fire. What was left formed an empty shell that had no discernible internal parts we could put in some kind of order.
Luckily, the backdraft radiation from Gary’s ejection had been minimal. Nephil Stratum’s shield hadn’t let Gary get far enough on his journey to create a significant blowback. Scans showed that Al Najid had had only a slight augmentation of radiation belt levels, and our own ship only demonstrated a trivial ring of electrons that was quickly decaying. We would be quite safe with simply the ship’s shielding for at least a week. But even that small amount of blowback energy had unfortunately been fatal to Gary’s anastasized cells. Pity he hadn’t realized that another effort to cross into a different dimension would be deadly after his M81 anastasis.
I caught my reflection in the nav panel, and was surprised to see a few tears bead from my eyes. Gary had been my first real mentor. I would miss the man I thought he was.
I remembered that I still had Gary’s ring in my pocket, where I’d stuffed it after picking it up from the floor. I took the gold band out and held it up in my hands. It was smooth, hard, and cold, and surprisingly heavy. I saw my tear-streaked face reflected on its outer surface, and quickly shifted the ring’s angle. My eyes caught some unusual tiny characters etched on the inside. I didn’t recognize the symbols. Even my Ergal could only identify them as resembling letters from an obscure language in a distant sector of M81. Translating them was a task that could keep me, Spud, and our Ergals busy for the next leg of our trip.
We set course for Orion Alpha, Ulenem’s home planet, this time with Matshi’s vessel in the lead. Matshi was well-known among the residents of Madai, Ulenem’s town near the equator, and he was expecting a warm welcome.
The best laid plans…
Two patrol ships fired on Matshi’s warship as soon as he ID’d himself. Matshi was an expert pilot and easily avoided their fire. And, fortunately, Eikhus and I had hung back out of their range. But that hostile reception certainly wasn’t part of our plan. Shaken, we all retreated to Rigel II to decide our next moves.
* * *

Rigel IV, Orion—present day

Rigellian halaropols are known for their healing properties. I for one was glad for the break and a chance to soothe my singed skin in the spa. To avoid looking creepy, Spud and I had Ergaled our surface burns and injuries away. But Spud, wincing every time he was touched, was obviously still feeling the pain of his now invisible head wound, as well as his underlying toasted skin.
We got ourselves some R and R, and then, refreshed, met up with our cohorts in the Elgebar, a popular watering hole, to feast on some universe-renowned fusion cuisine and Aldebaran brandy.
We opted to gather in one of the Elgebar’s private suites, large chartreuse egg-shaped chambers that resemble giant cocoons. Our cocoon was spacious and we levved into comfortable positions as we enjoyed our food and drink. Only Matshi’s appetite seemed dulled.
“You don’t think the Madais know how Ulenem really died?” I asked the Chidurian as he sat, morose, on the floor of the cocoon.
“I’ve told only you all,” he said listlessly, his eyes roving from one to another of us.
“Maybe Ulenem spilled the beans himself,” I wondered, taking another sip of the tasty liquid.
Matshi grabbed me with three arms and pulled me to the floor. “What does that mean?”
I brushed him off and crouched defensively out of his reach. “If he could M-fan to us and start talking,” I gestured towards Spud, “he could appear to his relatives, too. And blame you for his death.”
Matshi grabbed my mug of brandy, still floating by his head, drank it almost empty, and threw the cup across the chamber. The mug bounced off the edge of the cocoon and landed on Eikhus with a splash.
“Hey!” The Kharybdian looked at us, annoyed.
“Chidurian Ale is better,” Matshi complained. “He did try to kill me,” he added, referring to Ulenem.
“Well, maybe he left that part of the story out, you know,” I said.
Eikhus levved towards us. “Orion Alpha is only one planet. We can go back and take a closer look at the phenomena in the Betelgeuse and Bellatrix systems.”
“No,” Spud said forcefully. “Ulenem told us to ‘save Orion’. I think he meant Orion Alpha.”
“Or Orion, the star,” I added.
“Or Orion, the constellation,” Sarion jumped in. “Sorry,” he added as he caught our frowns.
“This isn’t helping,” Matshi said bleakly. After a long pause, he sighed. “Much as I hate to admit it, I’m inclined to agree with Escott.” His tone became more assertive. “Orion Alpha is where we have to go.”

* * *

Reluctantly, Matshi consented to park his ship on Rigel and have his team join me and Spud on the Sportstar. Spud was right. Ulenem had likely been recruited by Benedict on his home planet—which meant that Benedict had probably been nosing around Orion Alpha and its largest city Madai.
It was clear that Matshi had somehow been put on Orion Alpha’s “no-fly list.” If we wanted to follow Benedict’s trail on Orion Alpha, we had to try another approach.
“Spud and I can Ergal down to—”
“But I know Orion Alpha like the back of my hands,” Matshi interrupted me. “Besides, who’s to say your comrade Gary hasn’t ID’d you two as traitors to anybody who’s still clean at Zygint?”
He did have a point. Had Gary put us on Zygint’s Most Wanted List? Just to be on the safe side, I commed Everett at Core.
“Not surprised to hear from you,” his holo image said between open-mouthed bites of a shedding submarine sandwich. “Gary raced out of here chewing nails this morning. Wouldn’t even talk to me.”
“Smart man …,” muttered Spud, in a low voice that I prayed Ev couldn’t hear. My kick landed unfortunately on Sarion’s shin, and the Megaran cried out with a terrifying “Yaaiii!”
Everett, oblivious as always, asked, “Is he around?” Tomato juice ran down his chin and dripped onto his shirt. “Got a message from His Highness.”
“Not exactly …,” Spud whispered with a not very benign grin. “Ow!” I aimed better this time.
“If I see him, I’ll let him know. Thanks, Ev,” I signed off with a glare at my partner. At least we had some good news. If Ev was clean—figuratively anyway—we were still in like Flynn at Earth Core.
* * *

As much as Matshi was eager to lead our team to Orion Alpha, we all finally convinced him it would be more productive for less unwelcome visitors to be part of the first landing party. Spud and I, as Zygint catascopes, would probably have no trouble sailing through customs, and, as Sarion put it, we could “catascope out” the territory and help Matshi sneak through after us if needed. Lykkos had a distant cousin in Mitanni, one of Madai’s suburbs, and would also have no trouble getting in. Setsei and Suthsi, to my surprise, volunteered to join us. I was all for it; you can always use a Geryon or two, even if it’s in the shaky hands of a terrified Ytran.
Eikhus and Nephil Stratum followed us in the Nautilus and offered to monitor critical communications from orbit. Sarion finally ended the discussion with his remark, “The Madai is cast.” We all groaned politely. The pun was even worse in Zygan.
We left Matshi and the other Megarans “on call” at the helm of the Sportstar, and Ergaled down to the starport on Agri Dagi. Orion customs officials do have a reputation for being terribly obnoxious bureaucrats, but we did manage to get through planet entry in a remarkably short three hours.
Lykkos insisted that we had to try out the sidirodrome, a picturesque elevated train down the mountain to Madai, which would give us glimpses of the Orestians, the renowned Orion giants in the Spire City of Tegea. The hundred-foot tall Orestians were pretty impressive, but Suthsi was more awed by the pink and verdigris leaves of the Adrakne trees in the lush forests that lined our path.
We arrived in Madai by moonslight [sic] and made our way to a comfortable inn to reserve rooms. Unfortunately, we’d probably have to spend at least one night in the city. Orion Alpha was one of the few Zygfed planets that had had E-shields around it for years, requiring all travelers to go through Customs to exit and enter planet territory. It was very annoying not to be able to freely Ergal back up to our ship whenever we wished. But, considering that the planet had spawned both fearsome giants and assassins, maybe the tight border controls were all for the best.

* * *
Madai
Orion Alpha, Orion—present day

As soon as we were settled in our rooms, Lykkos and Spud left to explore the town. The sun had already set, and the streets of the city were almost deserted. Izmalis liked to hibernate when darkness fell. Based on my experience with my older siblings, I figured the local university might be a place where we could find some activity going on during the dark hours, as well as some information about unusual experiments with radioactive materials.
My brother John had been a graduate student in astrophysics before he’d left us on his … last mission. He’d often spend night after night doing research at the University of Maryland on the campus synchrotron, the sub-atomic particle accelerator at the College Park campus.
I remembered one night George had gone to pick John up and I’d tagged along. By two in the morning in the middle of the week, it was even quiet on Fraternity Row. If you were at the synchrotron building, however, you’d think it was Grand Central Station; filled with people making lots of noise, watching video screens under bright fluorescent lights.
I was only eleven, so I didn’t really understand what they were doing. (As if I do now, physics uploads notwithstanding.) I guess I must’ve gotten bored and fallen asleep. I just remember waking up to complete silence. For a moment, all the people in the control room had stopped making all that noise. Their eyes were frozen on the TV monitors. Then, the chatter started up again even louder and I slipped back to dreamland. John seemed so excited on the ride home. Obviously, something important must have happened, but it never occurred to me to ask for an explanation. Maybe I was just mad that after that night, he started to spend more and more time on his research, and less and less time with us. Six years later, I still don’t know what John was hoping to discover.
“Daralfanoo,” Setsei interjected.
“What?” I looked at him, confused.
“The University,” he looked at his Ergal screen again. “I think that’s how you pronounce it. Daralfanoo.”
“Noon,” said Suthsi, looking over Setsei’s shoulder. “There’s a ‘noo’ on the end.”
“That’s what I said,” whined Setsei.
“Great, great,” I added quickly. “Daralfa-whatever. Metrics and let’s go.” If those two started fussing again, we’d never get anything done.

* * *

Daralfanoon University was an imposing structure of over three hundred storeys in Base 12. And, since each storey had to not only have room for two-foot Madaians, but two-hundred-foot Oresteians, the tip of the spire was well in the chartreuse clouds. Nephil Stratum would feel right at home on the top floors, I surmised.
I was right about the university; unlike the desolate streets outside, Daralfanoon at that hour was filled with beings, many of whom, I was somewhat surprised to see, were not native to Orion.
“I had an opportunity to study here, you know,” Suthsi whispered. “They have an outstanding training program in temporal manipulation.”
“You’re too good at that already,” Setsei accused.
“Shh,” I whispered. “Will you two stop it?! We’re here on business.” And they call me immature.
We waited over thirty minutes for our authorization to enter the building. Rifling through a holodisplay to pass the time, I was surprised to find out that Daralfanoon had a synchrotron, a particle accelerator, too. The synchrotron building at Maryland had taken up a half-acre on the green campus, but, based on the display information, this university apparently had one the size of a breadbox on its fifty-sixth floor. I don’t know how big a breadbox really is either, but it looked in the holo to be about size of a discount twelve-pack of frozen mini-pizzas.
We took a high speed elevator up to the synchrotron location. The doors opened to reveal an enormous domed chamber, brightly lit, and totally empty. We stepped out and the lift doors closed behind us.
“Welcome to the Synchrodome,” a deep voice boomed. We turned to see a pink pentapod, a five-legged insectoid that looked like a giant grasshopper with a limp, holding a box of not-mini-pizzas in three of his limbs.
My jaw dropped. The box looked eerily similar to the one Gary had clutched so tightly before he died, although a bit larger.
“I am your guide, Pylos of Nestor. I understand you wished to see the Synchrotron,” the pentapod continued.
We nodded. “Could we see it in action?” I asked, excited.
The Nestorian shrugged. “It is.” Experiments with the synchrotron had produced enough power to supply half the planet, the pentapod explained proudly as he held up the machine. The energy released with the acceleration of only one particle had fed the power grid for all of Madai for the past year.
“That’s a lot of juice,” whistled Setsei. “We have not been so successful onYtra.”
Nor on Earth, I thought. John and his colleagues had spent over a day on just one relatively weak synchrotron run at Maryland to produce one neutrino. Benedict could probably go quite far into the branes with this technology in his tank. With this technology, no wonder Orion Alpha was so attractive.
I tried to sound casual. “Can … anybody … use this … synchrotron?”
The Nestorian laughed. “No. There is paperwork.”
“That goes without saying.” This is Orion Alpha.
“But,” the pentapod continued, “unless you’re on the ‘no-try’ list, you’ll probably eventually get cleared.”
I nodded soberly, trying to stifle a giggle. Was the pentapod related to Sarion? “Benedict’s probably on the ‘no-try’ list, I’d bet,” I returned lightly.
I expected either laughter or discomfort. I didn’t expect the pentapod and the synchrotron to disappear in a flash. The three of us stood alone in an empty chamber looking at each other in astonishment.
“I think we should get out of here,” Suthsi said quietly.
I nodded and we headed for the lifts. But, before we reached the doors, they, too, had disappeared, to be replaced by smooth, impenetrable walls. The entire room now had no visible means of exit at all.
“Ergal,” I said, “and damn the bureaucracy.” We clicked our Ergals to no avail. The chamber obviously had an E-shield. We were still trapped inside the dome.
I looked at the Ytrans helplessly and silently mouthed the word, “Geryon.”
Setsei nodded and mega’ed his Geryon, scraping its sharp point against the wall in the general direction of the elevators.
To our relief, the original wall and the elevator doors reappeared. We summoned the lift and, nonchalantly entered it when it arrived. I didn’t breathe until the doors had closed and we were on our way down. Or not. No, the lift was not going down. It jerked to one side and then shot up so rapidly that we were tossed roughly onto the turquoise carpet lining its floor. In barely a second, we had arrived at the pinnacle of the spire above the clouds.
Stun guns Ergaled, drawn, and ready, we waited for someone to open the door.

* * *
From Bad to Ursa

There were many things I expected might greet us on the other side of the lift door, but Agriarctos the Ursan was not one of them. And yet, there he was, towering over us with his paws open to welcome us to the spire’s penthouse. Susthi cowered behind me and Setsei shakily held his stun gun in one of his right hands and his Geryon in the other.
I had one chance. I leapt for the lift controls, hoping I could close the door and return our elevator to the building entrance. Who wants to bet that it worked?
“Really, all that isn’t necessary,” the Ursan growled at us, not very convincingly. “Plionarctos, please lighten their burdens.”
The second Ursan stunned us with his gun, and one by one, relieved each of us of our Ergal and our weapons. He then grumbled something in Ursan to Agriarctos, who shook his head and advised him to unstun us and lead us into the penthouse suite.
The night sky was a spectacular panorama of stars that twinkled through the transparent windows of the spire. I felt as if I was in a glider surfing over the fluffy clouds, and I paused for a few moments to admire the breathtaking view.
Plionarctos shoved me forward roughly, and I stumbled for a second. It took all my willpower to keep from spinning around and assaulting him in the—well, that and my memory of what had happened with Agriarctos on the Ursan ship a few days before.
We practically floated down a hallway decked with a lush indigo carpet that I’m convinced had anti-grav properties, and finally entered a small room with a comfortable chair in its center. In the chair sat a trim man—human, I believe—with red hair and a warm smile.
“Burr,” said Agriarctos, pointing at the human.
“Okay,” I responded non-committally.
“They don’t know who I am,” the human said gently. “I prefer to keep a low profile.”
“Benedict’s #2,” Plionarctos barked.
The Ytrans froze. I simply said, “Ah. I thought Gary was.”
Burr chuckled. “Gary wasn’t even in the top five.” He Ergaled us chairs and invited us to sit and relax. “Agriarctos has told me all about you.”
The Ytrans continued to stand, clutching each other for support. I sat down opposite Burr, who looked at me with narrowed eyes. “So. Why did you ask the Nestorian if Benedict had used the Synchrotron?”
I shrugged. “No particular reason. Just an off-hand question.”
Burr nodded, and Plionarctos aimed one of our stun guns at the Ytrans. The redhead continued, “Sorry. I didn’t hear your answer.”
I squinted at the gun. Yup, it was set to kill. Setsei remained frozen, and Suthsi’s shivering intensified. I took a deep breath. Maybe I should try the truth … “Gary clued us in to what you all were planning. He offered us a stake, Burr. I was just doing a little back-up research to see if he was on the level.” Or not.
Burr frowned for a moment. He eyed me warily. “Gary never said anything to me about that …”
“He didn’t have time,” I admitted, my eyes welling up with crocodile tears. “The Omega Archon’s catascopes fried him.” A sprinkle of truth there…
Burr sat up, shaken. “Gary’s dead?”
I nodded, looking down as a tear rolled down my cheek. That move had gotten me my first part as an actor. For a moment, Burr looked truly disturbed.
Then the angry tone quickly returned. “Why haven’t they come after you?”
My eyes met Burr’s. “I figured I could be more useful if I didn’t blow my cover. So they don’t know about me yet. They think it ended with Gary,” I added for emphasis.
Clearing my throat, I leaned back in my chair. “You know my agenda. A piece of your action. Now what’s yours?”
Burr’s smile was insincere as he said with a hint of sarcasm. “To overthrow His Highness, of course.”
“What a shock,” I responded in kind. “Thanks, then. I’ll let him know the next time I see him.”
Burr’s chuckle caught in his throat as I added, shaking my head, “It hasn’t worked yet, you know. Even the synchrotrons don’t have enough energy to make the crossing.”
Sober, Burr folded his hands and said nothing.
“But, I’m sure that’s not a surprise,” I continued. “There are Trapezalnitaks all over this constellation from your earlier attempts. You need the Somalderis.”
Burr allowed himself a smile. “And if we do …?”
“Well, that’s where I can help.”
His astonishment was clear. “Really,” he finally responded as he waved Plionarctos to aim the stun gun at my head. “Good. Then just tell us where we can find it.”
I shrugged my shoulders and, continued to bluff. “Oh dear, I do so wish I could. But, you see, Gary warned me about you, so, on my orders, the Somalderis was hidden by my mercenaries, even from me. My men see that the Ytrans and I return safe and sound, fifty million in credits richer, and you’ve bought the Somalderis. If not, no Somalderis—and, just like Gary, you’ve bought the farm.”
Burr studied me intently as I confidently met his gaze. Finally, he sighed and pulled up his holo display. “Krøneckðr account?”
“Of course.” I stood up, as if to leave, and gave him the numbers I remembered Carlton Platt had used for Wart’s secret bank account, praying that the account had not been closed after Wart’s arrest.
There was a noticeable delay, and my anxiety grew as Burr continued to enter data. Finally, to my relief, the redhead laughed. “Well done. The money is almost yours. I’ll release the escrow as soon as I get the Somalderis.”
“Not that I’m not trusting,” Burr added as he waved a hand towards the lift doors, “but you won’t mind if we keep your Ergals and weapons until you’re safely out of range, of course.”
I shook my head. “Be my guest.” Then, to the Ytrans I said, “Come on, let’s go get Mr. Burr his Somalderis.” They looked at me, even more alarmed than before.
The lift doors opened as we approached. “Come on,” I said intently, pulling them towards the elevator.
“No!” Agriarctos shouted. “Don’t!”
I paused at the threshold, my back to the others. Snapping my fingers, I said, “Darn. Guess you’re right. Three hundred storeys is a big drop. Especially without an Ergal. And you took ours, didn’t you?”
Suddenly, I clutched my abdomen with both hands and bent over, my face painfully contorted. As the Ytrans approached me, concerned, I flashed them a warning look and then spun around, launching myself from the carpet towards Burr’s chair. I levved into a double flip and landed on my feet right behind him, aiming a stun gun directly at his head.
“Well, now, that’s better,” I said smoothly. “Pooh-bear, put our weapons and Ergals back on the floor and step away. Now we can all go down the three hundred storeys together.”
Plionarctos stammered, “How…?” He held the Ergal he had taken from me in his hand and looked at it, confused.
“It really helps to have a back-up Ergal,” I smiled, wagging my hand to display Gary’s ring on my middle finger. “Gary clued us in. M81 technicians are making Ergals in micromodels now. So move it, Plionarctos: Ergals, Weapons, Floor!” I pressed the gun into Burr’s temple, and added politely, “Shall we go?”
Grudgingly, Plionarctos put the Ergals and weapons down on the carpet and stepped back away. I motioned to my comrades who, with no little hesitation, inched towards the pile. Setsei finally picked up his stun gun, and, after a nod from me, stunned the Ursans. I stunned Burr, and, radiating confidence, the Ytrans and I grabbed the rest of our equipment and levved our prisoners into the lift.

* * *

I cut through the paperwork to get out of Daralfanoon by blasting all the bureaucratic forms to cinders with the laser setting on my stun gun. We then Ergaled in peace to our inn, where we were greeted by Lykkos and Spud, who had just returned themselves and were eager to report on their investigations.
I had Ergaled E-shields around all three of our prisoners but was still uncomfortable with doing our debrief in the small Orion suite. For all I knew, the walls could have ears, big floppy ones like the hotels on Scylla. “Let’s take our friends … upstairs,” I suggested, “where they’ll be a little more … secure.”
In no mood for a slow scenic return via the siderodrome train, we Ergaled to the spaceport. Spud and I both used our Zygint ID’s to get our group expedited through Customs this time. We were done in just over an hour. Burr repeatedly tried to mumble protests, but was fortunately stopped by his frozen tongue and jaws. The Orions were unable to make out Burr’s incomprehensible syllables, and bought our story that he and the Ursans were Zygan tax scofflaws we were extraditing back to Zyga to pay for their capital crimes.
Back on board, Matshi recognized Burr immediately. “That’s Benedict’s #8!”
Burr grumbled something unintelligibly through his frozen jaw. I knew my practice understanding Ev with his mouth full would come in handy some day. I was able to make out, “He’s #7, now that Gary’s gone.”
“Maybe he and Fahrquardt can have a playoff round to see who makes it to the semi-finals,” I joked as we escorted our guests to their holding cells, in which only a few hours earlier we had been prisoners.
On the bridge, Eikhus and Nephil Stratum joined us by holo from their ship so we could all catch up. I quickly filled in the group on our discoveries at the university about the compact particle accelerator, and how our detective work had led to our arrest of Burr and the Ursans.
“I think the box Gary was holding was an older version of the super-Synchrotron that the Nestorian showed us,” I offered.
“A subatomic parachute,” surmised Spud. “For a quick getaway to another brane.”
There was a murmur of agreement. “But even that Synchrotron apparently wasn’t strong enough to get him through to the other dimension,” I added.
Sarion concurred. “Especially with Nephil Stratum’s helpful barrier blocking his way.”
We nodded, and Matshi gave the Syneph an energetic four thumbs up. I noted with some surprise that Spud’s expression was dubious.
“Give me an hour with Burr and I’ll find out what Benedict’s been up to.” Matshi was eager to tackle our prisoners—literally, I expect.
“In due time,” Nephil Stratum soothed. “First, let’s hear from Lykkos and William.”
Spud had remained lost in thought. At the sound of his name, he started, and said, “Oh, er, yes.” He looked at Lykkos, who gestured for Spud to speak.
“Well, as soon as we departed the Inn, Lykkos and I made our way to the estate of Ulenem’s family,” Spud began. “The streets were so quiet you could hear an athame drop. And, actually, I did do.
“We hid behind a tree and waited. Nothing. No one was there. So, we set off again on our path, and then, this time, we both heard a sound.
“Again we hid, again nothing.
“By that time, we were in proximity to Ulenem’s family estate. It was an enormous villa by Madai standards, with several wings and a plethora of rooms. We vaulted over the perimeter fence and micro’ed, so that we should not bump our heads were we to venture inside. Unsurprisingly, as it was well past the hibernation threshold, the main house was dark and silent. What drew our eyes, however, was a small structure behind it.
“It appeared to be a mausoleum, recently built, and lit brightly by floodlights. We proceeded closer and observed that the door was open, or, more accurately, that there was no door at all, just an arch. On each side of the building.
“We entered with great care and found ourselves in a bare central atrium, with an open arch to our left and right, and a conical ceiling that seemed to rise up into infinity.
“I checked outside again, but from the exterior, the building’s roof was flat, so I assumed the ceiling was a holo. I was preparing to mega inside the cone and test my theory when I heard the noise again. We spun round, stun guns at the ready, and saw him.”
“Ulenem,” Lykkos said unnecessarily.
I nodded. “All cut up and … dead?”
Spud shook his head. “No. He was … complete … this time. Well, still transparent, but healed.”
Matshi looked up, his expression puzzled.
“He spoke first,” Spud continued, “in Zygan.
“‘It may be too late,” Ulenem said, ‘It has begun.’
“‘Where are you,’ I cried, ‘Level Three?’
“He shook his head. ‘No, I am luxuriating in a tomb with a view,’ he explained sadly, adding, ‘And I can see the future in the past.’
“‘Then what do we need to do?’ I asked in desperation.
“‘There is only one hope. Benedict must not succeed. Destroy the Somalderis or all is lost.”
“‘How can we find it,’ I asked him anxiously, ‘if Benedict himself has not?’
“‘It will soon be in his hands,’ he said, to my alarm. ‘You must—’
“Whoosh! The missile flew past me, millimeters from my head. I sprung back behind a column in the atrium and saw Assassins aiming weapons at us from both arches. We were squarely in the line of fire.
“As we levved and dodged, Lykkos and I got off a few good volleys, but we were quickly outnumbered. And Ulenem had long since disappeared. There were at least ten Madai warriors coming towards us—Ulenem’s family, I surmise—shooting missiles and heaving knives, defending their brother’s crypt. In seconds, they would be upon us.”
“How did you get out of there?” Sarion interrupted anxiously, almost falling out of his seat.
Spud glared at him. “We used our magic wands,” he responded with obvious sarcasm.
Sarion snorted. “No, really.”
Lykkos stepped in. “I think he’s being metaphorical.” He pulled out his Ergal and waved it in front of Sarion. “Abracadabra.”
Once again, everyone laughed. Everyone except me.

* * *

Memories of Maryland and Mingferplatoi

One trait John and I shared was a love of knowing how things worked. As a young kid, I used to take things apart around the house to try to figure out their innards. Unfortunately, I wasn’t always successful in putting them back together again. Thankfully, John was always happy to help, especially before Connie discovered what I had done that time with her hair dryer.
It only took me about a week at Mingferplatoi before I tried the same trick with my Ergal. I pried it open to see what miracles of Andromedan technology made the instrument do all the wonderful things we were learning. I expected to see some combination of gears, dials, and motherboards, but nothing had prepared me for what I did see.
Nothing. The Ergal was completely empty. By then, mine had been disguised to resemble a cell phone, so, from the inside, it actually looked like one of those cheap plastic phone covers that vendors sell from carts in the mall.
I asked one of my pedagogues about it the next day, expecting to get a lecture about nano-technology. I was shocked at his reaction. He warned me I’d be in big trouble if anyone else found out what I’d done. I shut up, of course, and hoped that my curiosity wouldn’t have already bought me a visit to the Omega Archon.
After a few months at Mingferplatoi, I’d come home for a few days on my first leave, and finally decided to venture back up to John’s attic room. Again, inexplicably, the stairwell was filled with dust and cobwebs, but the room itself was pristine. I didn’t need the overhead light this time, as the July sunshine filtered through the windows and brightly illuminated the entire chamber.
The letter from the “Army” that I had tossed into the wastebasket months before had somehow disappeared. The manila envelope was still there, however, lying on the desk where I had laid it, empty. I sat in John’s comfortable chair and pulled the box with his research onto my lap, running my fingers over the multiple disks and computer drives it contained. Now that I’d finished my astrophysics uploads at Mingferplatoi, maybe some of John’s research would actually make sense to me.
To my surprise, under the metal drives, my fingers felt several leaves of smooth paper. John was a brilliant computer geek, but I’d never known him to do anything much by hand. I pulled out the sheets and studied them. They were lined and seemed to have been torn from a spiral notebook. John’s flowing handwriting was easily recognizable, and covered all the pages. I’d never figured John for an essayist—that was clearly Connie’s territory—but I began to read a most disturbing story…
The story was set on a planet called Daedalus where people lived wonderful lives—or so they thought. In reality, the populations of this planet were slaves to a supercomputer, which controlled their life and death. This computer had lined up all the planet’s citizens in incubators inside massive chambers, fed them by tubes, and wired inputs into their brains that made them think they were actually experiencing active, exciting lives. As they lived “virtually”, the computer powered itself with the energy given off by the population’s brain waves.
To ensure the population wouldn’t become too large or too old, this evil computer randomly generated a death list each day. The individuals unlucky to find their names on that list would be terminated, their virtual lives halted and their physical bodies destroyed.
The protagonist of John’s story somehow awakens out of his wonderful life, and realizes he is actually a prisoner on full life-support. The hero escapes from his womb-like entrapment, and strives to prevent other people on the death list from being randomly executed. Eventually, he starts a revolution that struggles to pull people away from the computer’s nurturing virtual world into the harsh, but free reality.
I’d seen the theme with some variations in many books, TV, and movies before reading John’s work. What stood out in my brother’s story was the ending. The hero, also named John, recognizes that even the so-called free world he discovers is really just another layer of virtuality, and that his only hope of fleeing these layers, these virtual prisons, is death.
So, to escape his multi-layered virtual purgatory, John the hero sacrifices himself, hoping to go to heaven and finally achieve freedom. And that was the fictional John’s end. Not that he made it to heaven, but that there was no heaven. There was nothing more after his death, except, simply nothing.
John the Martyr’s story ended by focusing on his followers, his fellow resistance fighters. Without a sign from their lost idol, some got desperate, and followed their leader into the void. Others waited and waited for his return, his resurrection, until one by one, they died, too. Eventually, the planet’s sun went supernova and melted the planet and all its organic and inorganic components, and, when the star receded into a dwarf, all that was left in the planet’s place was … nothing.
I’d reached the end of the story and become totally depressed. Then I noticed that there wasn’t a period at the end of the last sentence. Seems trivial, I know, but John was a stickler for punctuation. If he had completed his essay, he wouldn’t have left off that period. I searched the box and then his room for any trace of another page, and didn’t find it. There wasn’t a file that I could find on his computer either. I looked for hours without any luck. I finally asked George. He didn’t know, but he did wonder if the last page could’ve been that paper John had always kept folded in his wallet. In any case, he told me, with eyes averted, that he didn’t have time to read John’s story, what with law school finals looming. I doubted he ever would.
I never opened my Ergal again. I just kind of took it for granted that it did wonderful things and that I should just appreciate them. There had to be some technology that made the Ergal work, but I would never be able to access it or understand it. All that my curiosity would bring me would be … nothing. So, for a while at least, I pledged my allegiance to “ours is not to reason why,” and tried to avoid asking questions.
And that remains Zygan Policy #28746.33, by the way. I never did think it was funny.

* * *

The Messier Sportstar—present day

“So Benedict did try the Synchrotron to go to another brane and it didn’t work,” Eikhus theorized again. “Shiloh? Hello? The radiation belts?”
“Oh, sorry, I was … somewhere else,” I stammered. “You know, I don’t really know. Burr never actually verified …”
“It’s more likely Benedict sent some of his Andarts to try it,” Matshi interjected, sweeping a finger dramatically across his neck. “So now all we have to do is keep him from getting the Somalderis. Considering he hasn’t found it all these years, sounds easy to me.”
Spud shook his head, lost in thought. “No …”
“Yeess …?” I prompted.
“Ulenem said that the Somalderis would be in Benedict’s hands soon,” repeated Spud.
“Well, then, we’d better find Benedict before that happens,” Matshi said forcefully. “And keep whoever’s bringing the Somalderis from reaching him. I’m sure that’s what Ulenem was going to suggest.”
Eikhus nodded. “I’m inclined to agree. But, let’s question our guests, first, and see what they can tell us.”
We all turned towards Spud, who continued to stare off into the distance. Finally, with a troubled expression, he returned a weary. “Yes, by all means.”

* * *
We took a few hours to question our visitors, as well as for rest and brainstorming, on how we might prevent Benedict from “brane-storming,” Sarion joked. Under gentle questioning, or so I would like to believe, by Matshi and the Megaran warriors, our guests finally admitted that Benedict had used the most powerful synchrotron he could find for test runs, and had lost more than a few of his Andarts who had volunteered to brave the portals near the Orion system’s planets. None of the travelers had succeeded in maintaining the transition. Most had come back severely burned and/or dead. Apparently, only the Somalderis, channeling massive amounts of fusion energy from the closest sun, had ever allowed travelers to fully and safely transport to the other dimensions. Benedict had recently abandoned the Synchrotron and turned all his organization’s efforts towards the quest for the Golden Fleece. If he were to get the Fleece, he and his Andarts could commit the ultimate Zygfed crime: successfully escaping to another dimension, beyond the reach of the Omega Archon.
As Zygfed’s soldiers, our duty was to make sure that wouldn’t happen. We gathered on the bridge again to strategize our next move.
“With a whole universe to enjoy, why would Benedict want to go to another brane?” sighed Suthsi.
“What if,” I posited, “that brane, Brane 5, holds keys to knowledge and technology that Benedict could use to undermine or overthrow the Omega Archon?”
Suthsi nodded. “I see your—his—point”
“No wonder Benedict and His Highness are at war,” Sestei reflected. “Benedict’s goal violates the most basic Zygfed commandments.”
“And His Highness fights to keep Benedict from achieving that mission,” added Eikhus.
“It’s a standoff,” Matshi agreed.
“Well, it looks like we’re on the side of the angels,” mused Nephil Stratum. “So, let’s go fight for our king.”
Eikhus chuckled. “We’re not exactly angels, present company excepted,” he teased. “More like minions for hire, really. But, yeah. I think it’s time we go to the source.”
“Where is Benedict reputed to be?” Pallas asked.
Nephil Stratum broke off another tuft and brought out the sparkling multihedron gem once again. When the sparkles dissolved, we saw another holo of Benedict, this time sitting at a desk facing … Fahrquardt.
“I know where he is!” I cried, “I’ve been there! HDfiftysomething.”
“And that is where exactly?” Eikhus asked.
“Contact metrics are coming up,” I said, running my fingers over nav holos. “It’s in Galaxy M82, only 2.6 hours away.”

* * *
Lucifer

We agreed that Setsei and Suthsi would join Nephil Stratum and Eikhus back on the Nautilus. Matshi, Sarion, and the Megarans would stay with me and Spud and our prisoners on the Sportstar as we led the way towards the sibling galaxies of M81 and 82.
I decided to be proactive this time and I commed the Gliesers for travel authorization before we reached the Zygfed border at the edge of the Milky Way, so they wouldn’t think there was anything fishy (pun intended) about our quest. In fact, not only were they more supportive, but Captain Pesci even told us to comm him if we needed any help from his schools. I guess following procedures sometimes has its benefits. I should try it more often…
We had a relatively uneventful flight to M82. Eikhus’s ship was not as fast as the Sportstar, so it took us about three hours to arrive near HD5924. We warped down in stealth mode, worried that our approach would be challenged by guard buoys or an E-shield.
But, it wasn’t. To our surprise, the gates of the spaceport below opened to welcome us. We paused just outside apogee to regroup, cryptocomming to each others’ ships via holos.
“This doesn’t smell right,” Matshi said, confirming my own suspicions.
“I agree,” Eikhus responded. “It could be a trap.”
“They probably are aware that we have Burr and the Ursans,” Spud assumed logically. “The minute we enter, they shall overwhelm us, rescue their people, and—”
“And bears,” Sarion inserted, earning Spud’s glare.
“You’re a genius!” I said to Sarion, earning everyone’s astonishment. I turned to Eikhus. “Have we been scanned?”
He checked his data. “Yes.”
“Okay,” I suggested, “how about if one ship does go in, Matshi driving, with Burr and the Ursans.”
“Oh, that’s good,” Suthsi said sarcastically. “Then we have to go rescue Matshi?”
“No,” I explained, “We’ll be supporting Matshi. Spud, me, and Pallas—disguised as Burr and the Ursans.”
Matshi grinned, and I saw a smile on Pallas’s face.
“You mean you’d Ergal your disguise to look like Burr and the Ursans?” Suthsi asked, confused.
Setsei frowned. “But wouldn’t they see that it’s just a disguise with their first NDNA scan?”
“Not if we mute into them down to our DNA,” I averred.
The Ytrans gasped. “You remember you just caught Hell for doing that. If the Omega Archon collars you this time …”
“Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission,” I returned, seeing the looks on my cohorts’ faces. “This is Benedict we’re trying to stop.”
“She’s right,” Pallas said. “I’m in. I’ll be one of the Ursans.”
“I’ll pilot,” said Matshi.
I turned to Spud. “Do you want to go as Burr or an Ursan?”
He hesitated before answering. “No. I’ll take my chances going in as me. I’m not willing to mute. Nor to face His Highness when the day is done.”
I was ready to try to convince him until our eyes met. I sighed and said, “Well, I hate to lose the intimidation factor that Matshi provides as our pilot, but how about you, Matshi, are you willing to be Burr or a bear?”
“Yes.” Matshi looked at Spud with obvious distaste and nodded. “This is important.”

* * *

HD 5924—present day

Spud flew us in the Sportstar wordlessly. We had transferred the real Burr and the real Ursans over to Eikhus’s vessel under the Megarans’ guard. As soon as Pallas had returned, he, Matshi, and I had muted to look like our prisoners and so take their place. The tension was palpable and not just because we were entering Benedict’s lair. I took a walk on our bridge, trying to get comfortable in my hulking, furry body. I didn’t want Benedict’s men to identify me as an impostor with my first steps off our ship. Pallas seemed to be doing better as Plionarctos, barely stumbling as he got ready for the landing. Not much of a stretch from a bulky wrestler to a hulky bear, I thought, smiling.
I tried to slip Gary’s superErgal ring on “Agriarctos’s” fingers. Unfortunately, it didn’t even fit on my hefty pinky, so I reluctantly slipped it into a pocket of my tunic, where I could reach it quickly if needed.
Nav landed us gently in the spaceport hangar and, as soon as we opened our hatch, as expected, we were greeted by a contingent of armed Andarts.
At stun gunpoint, we were led from the hangar. We trudged down the drab corridor and into the tiny alcove for the requisite NDNA scan. Agriarctos, Agriarctos, I kept saying to myself this time, as the scanner baked my molecules, hoping that I would pass as the massive Ursan. To my relief, we all made it through the scan without being unmasked. The scan suite’s door opened to reveal the longer, equally gloomy hall, and we began our extended walk towards the massive central arena filled with spheres and domes that I had been dragged to a few days ago by Agriarct—me.
As the titanium portal opened, I put my paw up to shield my eyes from the blinding light. And—it wasn’t there! Instead, the vast space was dimly lit, and, almost empty. There were no strobing spheres to be seen in the atrium, and only three domes remained implanted on the cold, hard, floor. My jaw dropped.
“Where did all—?” I started before realizing that Agriarctos might know the answer. “Nothing,” I finished, as our escorts looked at me curiously.
We entered the domes through diffusion, as before. I took the lead through the membrane and hoped Matshi and Pallas would confidently follow. Spud reached out and, fascinated, palpated the dome wall for a few minutes before gliding through. Only one Andart entered with us, keeping his stun gun aimed at Spud.
To my dismay, the Andart led us to the office of our favorite Executive Coordinator of Strategic Initiatives and Outcomes Assessment. Fahrquardt, as pompous as ever, greeted us with a vicious grin.
“Number 4,” said the small man, puffing out his chest, to “Burr.”
Matshi glanced at me for help.
“Burr is not interested in playing childish competitive games with you, Fahrquardt,” I interjected. “We’re focused on our mission, and you should be, too.”
The chest un-puffed. Matshi’s—Burr’s–eyes twinkled.
“Good golly,” Fahrquardt said smoothly, though his irritation was visible, “I haven’t offered you seats.” He waved an arm as his office expanded with seats for all of us, including the Andart.
“Burr” held up a hand. “We’ve come to see Benedict,” he said brusquely.
Fahrquardt’s face fell. “So, the rumors are true.”
Matshi stayed silent.
“You’ve brought the Somalderis,” continued Fahrquardt. A red flush rose from his neck to his oily pate. “Fiddlesticks! I had so hoped I’d be the one!” He pulled a paperweight from his suit pocket and threw it at me and my fellow Ursan Plionarctos.
We ducked and the missile hit the Andart in the head, causing a large gash that sprayed bright orange. Fahrquardt spun on his heel and re-entered his office, slamming the door. I saw Spud’s eyes narrow, just as “Burr” grab grabbed me and whispered, “Where’s Benedict’s office?”
I shook my head and turned to the Andart who had staunched his blood with an orange-drenched corner of his sleeve. He pulled his gun back out from under his armpit and aimed it at Spud once again.
“Do care for your wound; I can handle the gun,” I urged, as Agriarctos. “I will not let the Zygan escape.” I handed him a clean scrap of cloth that I tore from the lining of my tunic.
The Andart nodded and took the swatch, handing me his weapon for safekeeping as he daubed his oozing wound. After subtly changing the setting to stun, I pointed it at Spud and added, to the Andart’s delight, “Please, lead the way. You deserve the honor.”
We followed the Andart along a maze of corridors until we reached another membrane. And stopped. This membrane was bright green—I knew I hadn’t seen it the last time I was here. The Andart placed his free hand on the barrier, which bent and flexed under the pressure of his moving fingers.
I discreetly gestured to our group to hang loose; the Andart should know how to “unlock the door”. Sure enough, after a few seconds of the digital dialing, the membrane turned yellow and the Andart diffused through it easily with us in tow.
I was awestruck. Instead of another banal office hallway, we were instantly enveloped by a cocoon of beauty: a clear, blue sky, green trees with brightly colored fruits and fragrant flowers, soft grass, and crisp, clean air. For a brief moment, I felt like I was back home on our farm. I closed my mouth and tried to act nonchalant. Having spent most of the past two years in the dusty desert of LA or the disheartening darkness of space, I was relishing experiencing a few moments in this paradise.
My companions seemed equally impressed. The Andart turned to us and, in both Zygan and Ursan, urged us to keep up. We jogged forward, energized by the splendor of our surroundings. A few hundred feet beyond our entrance, around the curve of a rolling hill, we saw a lovely cottage. Spud blinked, his own mouth agape—perhaps due to a flash of memory of England. We walked up a floral rimmed cobblestone path to the cottage door, which opened by itself as we arrived.
Cautious, but curious, we followed the Andart into a large foyer and saw another door to our right open automatically to reveal a medium-sized den. Within it, a roaring fireplace crackled invitingly. As we stepped in, I noted that the walls were paneled with dark cherry wood, and that an entire section of the room held shelves and shelves of brightly-colored books, many of which were classics of Cosmic literature.
Sitting surrounded by this library, behind a semi-circle of holos at a polished cherry desk, was Benedict, in gray suit and gold tie, looking much like we had seen him in Nephil Stratum’s sparkling gem. He was slightly stooped and slightly balding. As slim as Spud and, standing up straight, just about his height, I’d guess.
The Andart’s blood had seeped through the cloth pressed against his wound, and a few drops landed on the lush burgundy carpet. Noting the Andart’s misfortune, Benedict put his stylus down and looked up sharply over his reading glasses. I thought I saw something flash in his eyes for a fraction of a second. He glanced at us, then turned back to the Andart.
“You may go,” he said quietly, with a tone that made me shiver under my fur.
The Andart flushed, and ran out of the cottage in hyperdrive.
Benedict looked directly at us now and, in the same tone, instructed, “Please sit.”
We sat. I noted that Spud had been using the intervening time to sniff around the room a bit, pausing momentarily at tomes by Plato, Dante, Quinn, and C. S. Lewis. He took a leather chair by the fireplace where he could watch both Benedict and the door clearly. Burr/Matshi grabbed the chair closest to Benedict and sat on the edge of its seat as if ready to pounce. Plionarctos/Pallas and I settled in on the floor, our backs protected, resting against the paneled walls.
Benedict studied Spud for a few minutes, then said, with a puzzling trace of irony, “Escott, eh? So it is.”
Benedict then leaned back in his executive armchair and eyed Burr. Matshi returned the steady gaze.
“I never thought you’d be the one,” Benedict said. “But, nicely done.”
“Thank you. My pleasure,” Burr/Matshi said broadly, before glancing at me for a second with a silent question.
I looked away. Benedict seemed to be observing us as intently as Spud usually does on a chase, and I didn’t want to raise any suspicions. In any case, I was equally puzzled by Benedict’s praise.
Suddenly, the ground shifted under me and I was knocked hard against the wall. A very strong earthquake was causing the house to shudder for what seemed like an eternity. I was thrown back on the carpet and struggled to keep from sliding on the floor. The weight of an elephant compressed my chest and made me gasp for breath. The intensity of the trembling (beyond my own, of course) soon diminished, but I continued to feel a strong vibration under my legs and trunk. I caught the eyes of Plionarctos/Pallas, equally disheveled by the quake. Matshi and Spud had chair arms to hold on to and were faring a bit better.
Finally, the vibration lessened and I was able to return to my sitting position and face our host.
“I am sorry,” Benedict began again, “but launch is always a little rough.”
Launch? I nodded, trying not to look confused.
“Just the dome, or the entire planet?” Spud asked.
“Very good, Escott, but it’s really not a planet,” was the response. “Just a very, very large ship.”
Matshi and I looked at each other. Of course! HDWhatever-it-was was a huge ship, Benedict’s mobile base. And now, it was on the move…
Spud was making some calculations with his Ergal. “I would estimate that our eventual target is a gravitational singularity in the most distal octant of M81.”
“A bit more proximal, but yes,” Benedict said with a hint of a smile. “Octant 6.”
“Now I have a question,” Benedict continued pleasantly, maintaining his steady gaze at us. “Why have you allowed Escott here to keep his Ergal?”
Oops.
“Burr” jumped in, angry. “These Andarts, they are worthless!” He turned in my direction and gestured for me to take it from Spud. “You see, it is always up to us to protect you from the Zygans.”
I took the Ergal and slipped it into the pocket of my tunic, adding dramatically, “Vigilance is a virtue.”
To my surprise, Benedict laughed. “Always alliterating, are you?”
“What do you mean?” I said, nervous.
“Really, Rush,” he returned. “A good disguise demands more than a change in appearance. I have studied you all. Alliteration is one of your tells.”
Oh, God.
Benedict then looked at Burr. “You … must be Matshi.” He smiled. “Ulenem spoke very highly of you.”
Matshi gritted his teeth and said nothing.
I inched my fingers toward my Ergal.
“Don’t,” Benedict snarled, “bother. I disabled all your Ergals when you arrived. Gary always kept me well updated on your equipment upgrades.”
I was ready to say something, but Benedict raised a hand. His voice was cold. “I know. You have been …very lucky.” Disturbingly, his tone seemed to imply a conscious use of the past tense.
“May I have the ring?” Benedict added, in a tone that made his request sound very much like an order.
I didn’t bother with the, “What ring?” If Benedict wasn’t bluffing, then the ring was useless to us. If he was bluffing, I now had a momentary opportunity to try to take the advantage. I shrugged, and casually reached into the pocket where I had secreted Gary’s ring, and, with a warning glance at Spud and Pallas, used my claw to activate it.
Instantly—nothing happened. Gary’s superErgal was dead. Annoyed, I pulled it out of my tunic and laid it sharply on Benedict’s desk.
Benedict smiled, and picked up the ring, slipping it onto his hand. “Nice to have it back again,” he said quietly. “Thank you.”
Frustrated, I plunked back down on the floor and did not respond.
Spud decided to take a chance. “Tell me, then. Theoretically, how might one uncover mutes?”
“Theoretically, I don’t have to uncover them,” Benedict said calmly. “I simply had to rescan the Kharybdian ship that’s now following ours.” He leaned forward and favored us with a piercing gaze. “I noted that, peculiarly, it also had a Burr, a Plionarctos, and an Agriarctos on board. Deducing the rest was not difficult.”
Doomed. We were so doomed. I cradled my head in my hands.
Benedict sat back again and crossed his arms upon his chest. “Well then, it seems as if we are at a decision point.”
We didn’t respond.
He looked at each of us in turn. “Are you with us?” he said, his eyes twinkling. “Or, dead?”

* * *
Eve

Benedict pressed a light on his desk and we were immediately surrounded by a large corps of Andarts who M-fanned with stun guns aimed at us and set to kill. I noted that one of the Andarts was our injured escort, whose wound had now been sealed and was no longer seeping.
Still playing the genial host, Benedict advised us that we would each be escorted to different sections of the cottage, where we would have an opportunity to reflect on and discuss our future. The planet-vessel’s voyage to its destination would take a few hours. Our “planet ship” was obviously not a Sportstar. Benedict wrapped up by telling us that he hoped our business could be concluded by the time we arrived.
Doomed.
After being relieved of my now useless Ergal and weapons, I was led by three Andarts back into the main hall and through a large wooden door on its left. Spud, Pallas, and Matshi were all taken away through three different doors in, I assumed, three different directions and lost to my sight.
I was marched down a long hallway, my guards pushing me forward anytime I tried to slow my pace and observe my surroundings. The corridor seemed infinite. After walking for over ten minutes, I reckoned we must’ve long left the cottage and perhaps even the dome itself. Finally, we arrived at a turret with multiple doors—all of them windowless and closed. I didn’t see either door handles or knobs, and none of the doors seemed to have locks. I leaned casually against the door next to me, but it wouldn’t budge, even with force.
The Andarts marched over to a steel door farther around to my right. One of them took out a silver instrument that resembled the half of an orange that Gary had swept over my head as he attempted to raid my neurocache on the Sportstar. The door opened without a sound, and the rest of my guards shoved me into a bare windowless cell with an open toilet, a three-legged wooden stool, and a small cot. Remaining outside, they closed the door and left me there alone.
After exhaling, I did the usual Catascope 101 stuff, checking the door and the rest of the room to see if I could escape. That never works, you know—bad guys aren’t stupid. What’s the point of setting up a prison cell if your prisoner can easily get out? Unless you want him to. Which, unfortunately, Benedict didn’t. So—no surprise–the door was quite locked, without slits through which I could squeeze a makeshift crowbar from the available furniture. I lay down on the cot. I would have to wait for my opportunity to run.
The one bright light on the horizon, literally, was Eikhus’s ship following us. If Nephil Stratum had been monitoring Benedict with her gem, they could be aware that we were in trouble. With the two Ytrans and the two remaining Megarans to help, they might be able to mount a rescue mission. I could only hope. I closed my eyes, and, with John’s words about patience echoing once again in my ears, prepared to wait.
A warm breeze caressed my face. I opened my eyes and found myself lying on cool grass in a forest of tall pines. Streaks of light shone through the branches and trunks of the trees, which formed a radiant cathedral ceiling. I breathed the pleasing scent for a few minutes, enjoying the peace of the spot, before remembering that I was a prisoner and that it would behoove me to get up and find out where I was. Quickly. A rapid visual and aural scan of my location told me I still seemed to be alone, except for a few chirping insects that I hoped I wouldn’t step on—or even catch a glimpse of, thank you very much. I trotted among the trees along a well-trod path for several yards before I came upon a clearing, surrounded by tall grass. Ducking low behind it, I couldn’t easily be seen. The whispers I was hearing up ahead sounded like more than the wind.
Peeking through the stalks, in the field beyond, I spied three men, their backs to me. One was crouching over an unusual instrument the size of a large suitcase. He stood up, and, to my alarm, I saw it was Benedict. The second man nodded at Benedict and pointed to a pair of trees beyond the clearing a few yards away. I briefly saw his profile and my eyes widened. It was Wart! But it was the third man who really drew my attention. He seemed to be wearing a spacesuit similar to the ones Spud and I had used fleeing our ship, except that it was completely covered by what looked like a… a Golden Fleece!
Benedict adjusted some settings on his instrument and gave a thumbs-up sign to his suited colleague. Suddenly the man was outlined by a blinding light. I was too far away to see many details, but I did observe the space-suited man pull … the Somalderis? … tighter around him, and turn to Benedict and Wart and return the thumbs-up sign.
I could barely see the voyager’s features through the suit’s visor before he disappeared, but I didn’t have to. I instantly knew who the other man was. An overwhelming agony lanced through my heart. The traveler working alongside Benedict was my brother John.
I heard my voice screaming, “Nooo!”

* * *

I sat up, blinking, eyes brimming with tears. Where was I? Oh, yes, Benedict’s cell. My brother’s face behind the spacesuit visor flashed before me: John! And Benedict! I shivered. Impossible! It was only a nightmare. It had to be. John would never … I looked around the room. Benedict!
“I see you had a nice nap,” Benedict smiled from his precarious perch on the rickety stool.
I brushed the moistness from my face. “Haven’t slept much in the last few days,” I said dully, my eyes darting to the door.
“It’s still locked,” Benedict informed me. “I Ergaled in, quietly. Didn’t want to disturb your … dream.”
I looked up, astounded. How did he know …?
“Your brother was one of my best men,” Benedict continued. “You could follow in his footsteps.”
I physically jerked back. No! Not John! Never John!
Through clenched teeth I responded bitterly, “What could I give you?” I added with a snort. “The Somalderis?”
“Thank you,” Benedict said inexplicably. “Now, I would like your help with His Highness.”
I stared at him, incredulous. The man was totally out of his mind. Aside from the fact that the Omega Archon never, ever left Zyga, he was, without a doubt, the most protected being in all of Zygfed. Me, a junior catascope, would get Benedict the Traitor access to our King? Come on. Really.
Still, I’d come from Hollywood. I’d heard crazier. Taking a cue from my agent’s playbook once again, I leaned back and narrowed my eyes, “And then what?”
“Then, we will share a singular experience,” Benedict chuckled. “Now that we have our Somalderis.”

* * *

The idea that Benedict and his minions had somehow beat us in the quest for the Fleece was disturbing enough, but Benedict’s claim that John had been part of his team had devastated me. Impossible, absolutely impossible! The brother I knew and loved would never have joined ranks with an avowed killer. What could have made something so unlikely happen? It had to be a lie. It had to. A lie to make me cooperate, perhaps?
Well, then, maybe I should play. Pretending to go along with Benedict could buy me some valuable time. A course change from M81 to Andromeda and the Omega Archon would give us another few hours during which Eikhus and his team could attempt a rescue. Hours during which I could answer the unsettling questions my dream had engendered.
Apparently, and wisely, Benedict didn’t entirely trust me, I wasn’t given back my Ergal and weapons. But at least, using yet a different color of half orange—platinum–Benedict reversed my mute and turned me back into my lithe self. It was, I had to admit, a relief to be out of Agriarctos’ hulky body.
Benedict then commed the three Andarts to come escort me back to the cottage living room and X-fanned with a small salute. Even though still under guard, I was glad to be out of Benedict’s sight, so I could process my thoughts and my feelings. Walking as slowly as they’d let me, I followed my attendants docilely out of my cell and back down the long corridor. When we reached the cottage’s foyer once again, they instructed me to enter an adjacent sitting room I hadn’t noted before and await Benedict’s return. I looked at the kill setting on their guns and obeyed, albeit with a discreet middle-finger salute.
Spud was already ensconced in the sitting room, leaning forward in his seat, his hands resting on his knees and gripping a handkerchief so tightly the veins stood out. He averted his eyes when I entered, focusing intently on the crackling flames of yet another fireplace next to his chair. He looked paler than I had ever seen him—which, trust me, is really pale.
“I had heard whispers of such skills among the Ifestians,” Spud said, stopping my “What’s wrong?” right on my lips.
“What skills?” I asked.
“Memory access,” Spud said, his voice cracking. “Neural manipulation …”
“You know, I had this dream …”
Spud sighed and shook his head. “Memory.”
“No!” I shouted, startling him. “It was not a memory!” Seeing his deep distress, I added more gently, “You, uh, had some, uh, kind of vision, too?”
He nodded. “Yes.” The pause was lingering. Finally, he whispered, “I witnessed my mother’s murder once again.”
For one of the few times in my life, I had nothing to say.

* * *

I expected Matshi would join us soon, as himself, and I was not disappointed. Only he, too, like Spud, wasn’t quite himself. His violet skin had faded to a pale lavender, and, instead of his usual confidence, he was radiating shame.
“We both had … visions,” I said gently, nodding at Spud.
“Memories,” said Spud, his tone dull.
Matshi looked from one of us to the other and then responded with only one word, “Ulenem.”
Nothing more needed to be said. We all sat silently in front of the sizzling fire, staring at our feet, and waited for Pallas.
Catascope 101 had taught us all to play along with our captors until we could manage an escape. After Pallas joined us, we would try to plan our getaway. Hopefully, he too would be arriving soon. But, in what condition?
Worried, I would occasionally glance over at Spud, who continued to stare at the crackling fire with an expression of horror that seemed frozen in time. Spud had never talked to me, or probably anyone else, about the atrocity he had witnessed in his childhood. And I had never admitted to him that I had stumbled on a brief summary of that event in Mingferplatoi Library records during our training years, when I was researching his biodata to get info that might give me an edge in our grav combat re-match. Years before, I discovered to my shock, Spud had observed his father walk in on his mother in the arms of her lover and shoot her to death. Thinking of my own kid brothers, I couldn’t begin to imagine the devastation that scene must have carved on a little boy’s heart and mind. No wonder Spud spoke very little about his family, even to me.
My attempts to reach out a comforting arm were repeatedly brushed off by my partner, who would not even turn towards me to meet my solicitous gaze. Matshi seemed somewhat more in control of his emotions, but it was clear that his thoughts were still with his own partner and friend. I thought I heard him mutter the word “betrayal” at least once as he kept wringing his multiple hands.
And I, I could not get that image of John enveloped by the Golden Fleece out of my mind. Could my beloved brother, whom I had so idolized throughout my relatively short life, be a traitor to everything he preached and everything he stood for? No, not the John I knew. But was there a John, or a part of John, that I didn’t know …?
Our painful ruminations were soon superseded by our growing alarm that Pallas still hadn’t returned. Had he been hurt or killed by Benedict or his Andarts, or, worse, had he sold out to the enemy? Finally, despite our reluctance to abandon our companion, the three of us decided we could safely wait no longer. We spoke quietly in Zygan, hoping not to be overheard.
“I don’t know,” Matshi insisted, shaking his head. “He’s Sarion’s mate. Who can predict, who—” he choked on the word—“can be swayed to the other side.”
I put my arm around his shoulders, and rubbed his neck, adding reluctantly, “We may have to make a move without Pallas, I’m afraid.”
Still gripping his handkerchief tightly, Spud nodded. “I agree. I also expect that Eikhus must surely have called in the Zygan cavalry by now, so we should be seeing a rescue attempt well before this planet-ship nears Zyga. Our best bet is to suss out as much of Benedict’s base as we are able so that we can take up arms and assist our rescuers once they arrive.”
“And, once we’re secure,” I reassured Matshi, “we can come back for Pallas. We will come back.”
Matshi wrung his hands for a few more minutes, before turning to face us. “All right,” he said softly. “Lead the way.”
I walked over and peeked out the door of the sitting room. There was no sign of Benedict or the Andarts. I gestured for my friends to follow. We crept through the front hall, and, seeing that the front door was unlocked, opened it carefully. Nothing happened. I mean the door opened and nothing happened. Shrugging, we eased out of the house and ran back down the cobblestone path into the field of colorful flowers. Ahead, however, instead of the green or yellow membrane we expected, was a grassy meadow extending in all directions to the horizon. I turned to look behind us, and gasped when I saw that the cobblestone path and the cottage were no longer visible. Finding a grove of trees, we stopped to regroup.
“This is strange,” I said to the guys. “Where’s the house?”
“Even more strange,” Matshi concurred, “Why have the people in the house let us escape?”
“Why not?” shrugged Spud, waving an arm at the panorama of flowers in which we were now lost. “It is not like we are able to truly go anywhere. This is simply a more pleasant prison.”
Unwilling to buy Spud’s assessment, I tried to retrace our steps back to the cottage. Or where the cottage should have been. Matshi followed me for a few yards, turning back frequently to make sure that Spud, who had chosen to stay put, was still in view. Despite my certainty that we were going in the right direction, I was unable to locate either the path or the house. Stretching for miles everywhere we looked was more meadow. Matshi threw up his hands and returned to where Spud was standing, arms crossed. Finally, after trying a few different routes, I trudged back to join my companions, utterly discouraged. Spud kindly didn’t say “I told you so”.
“There has to be a way out of here,” I said, sighing, “without our Ergals.”
Spud brightened and slapped his forehead. “Thank you! That’s the answer!”
Matshi and I looked at him, surprised. “How?” we both said together. (Followed by a stereo “Jinx”.)
“Simplicity itself,” Spud smiled. “We get out of here by using ka’vyr.”
Matshi’s puzzled expression soon gave way to a grin. “Sure. It even makes sense.”
Spud gave Matshi a peeved look. He turned to me. “Are we verily in a field, a glen of grass? Or are we on a planet? Or a ship? Or somewhere else…?” He took my hand and squeezed it for a second. “Let us find out where we truly are, and where we are able to go.”
We all held hands and closed our eyes, starting the breathing cycles that herald Stage 2 ka’vyr. When we finally opened our eyes, several minutes later, we were no longer “out to pasture”. We were standing, hands clasped, in the center of the cavernous chamber that held the three domes.
“Very good,” Matshi said with a broad smile as he patted Spud on the back. “Now what?”
I looked around the empty chamber, and wondered briefly, once again, what had happened to all the spheres. No time to investigate now. I shrugged and nodded at one of the domes. “How about we visit our friend Fahrquardt again? If I remember my signage, I think his office might be just up the hall from the ship’s comm department. Maybe we can send get in there and send out an SOS.”
Spud nodded, and we trekked back to Fahrquardt’s dome, diffusing through the membrane into the banal hall. Three doors down from Fahrquardt’s office, we found the suite for the “Coordinator of Communications and Connections,” and, with some help from Spud’s nimble fingers and Matshi’s strong kicks, soon broke open the security system and entered the suite.
The reception area was dark and deserted. It seemed as if the entire suite was devoid of humanoid life. All we heard was some faint buzzing from an adjacent room, so we crept closer to investigate.
“Anthophila?” I whispered, as Spud eased open the door.
“Nope,” Matshi returned. “Antennae.”
Lining one wall of the adjoining room was an enormous functioning comm network. Much of the operating equipment stacked from floor to ceiling had displays in languages none of us recognized, and seemed far more advanced than the machines that populated Earth Core or Zygint Central. Geeky Ev Weaver would drool a river over a chance to work with this machinery; but even he’d need to spend quite a few months learning how to use it, Spud ventured, in the uncharted manufacturing plants of M81 or M82 where it was probably built.
Fortunately for us, we were able to identify a holo server with comm access which looked more familiar in a far corner of the suite. Matshi sat in front of the holo’s console and, with all twenty-four fingers bustling, he soon sent out a dispersed general distress call through broadband channels. If something had happened to Eikhus, we could still be rescued if someone else picked up our signal.
“Are you able to determine Eikhus’s contact metrics?” asked Spud.
“Working on it,” Matshi said.
“Shh!” I whispered. “I thought I heard something!”
Matshi rested his digits and we listened. Nothing. I shrugged and Matshi returned to his task, with Spud and me looking over his shoulders.
“Ha!” Matshi finally exclaimed. “Success! I’ve got his ship and all I need to do is—”
“Move away from the console!” the gruff voice barked.
We all looked up to see Plionarctos/Pallas. Our greetings froze in our throats when we also saw that he was carrying a stun gun set to kill, aimed directly at Matshi’s head.

* * *

“Pallas!” I cried, “It’s us. Help us!” Unlike Spud, Matshi, and me, the Megaran hadn’t had catascope training. I prayed that Benedict had not been able to permanently turn Pallas against us, against Zygfed.
“That’s enough.” Pallas’s tone was cold, and I physically felt myself shiver.
“I said move away from the console, Matshi,” the pseudo-Ursan continued. “Everybody, out of this room. Now.”
Fuming at the Megaran’s disloyalty, we trudged single file into the reception area, which was now fully lit and filled with Andarts and their requisite stun guns. Great. Lights on. Hope extinguished.
The door to the hallway opened and Benedict entered the suite, ambling towards Plionarctos with a warm smile.
“Excellent,” he praised the Ursan. “We cannot let their small-mindedness derail us from our plans.”
Plionarctos nodded as Benedict turned to the Andarts and instructed them to return us to our cells.
“Traitor!” I couldn’t help my outburst. Pallas had not only betrayed us, but Zygfed as well!
I had expected a laser burst from the pseudo-Ursan, and was ready to duck. Instead, Plionarctos held his stun-gun steady, and began softly, “You would join us if you could understand. It is a better place and a better way. Freedom and wisdom, they are worth the risk of anguish.”
I stood bewildered. Strange talk from Plionarctos—or Pallas, for that matter. Apparently, Spud felt the same way. He looked in the Ursan’s eyes very intently for a few moments, and then turned away, his own eyes filling with tears.
Matshi and I looked at each other, confused, as Benedict said to Spud, “Yes.”
“You may as well unmute,” Benedict added. “He knows.”
Before our eyes, Plionarctos activated his Ergal and began to unmute. His Ursan features slowly dissolved and his massive trunk began to morph into … oh, my God! Into something amorphous. Or, more accurately, someone amorphous. Nephil Stratum.

* * *
Anakalipsis

I gasped, unable to speak. Nephil Stratum! With Benedict!
Matshi was shaking from anger, and Spud—well, Spud didn’t look at anything but his boots.
“What did you do with Pallas?!” Matshi exploded at Nephil Stratum. The Andart guards held his arms to keep him from attacking.
Still aiming her gun at us, she answered with a gentle voice. “Stunned in the Nautilus’ lavatory. I took care to see he was not hurt.”
Matshi almost spat, his rage unabated. “Thank you for that.”
“Why are we going to Zyga?” The question came from Spud, whose eyes were still glued to his feet.
Nephil Stratum looked at Benedict, waiting.
I snorted. “He still needs the Somalderis. Maybe His Highness has it.”
Spud shook his head. His tone was bitter. “He has the Somalderis. We’re still alive because he needs something else.”
Benedict sighed. “Ah, Escott, how sad that I cannot recruit you for my organization.” He turned to us. “Yes, now that Nephil Stratum has joined us, we are almost ready.”
“What?!” Matshi did spit this time. “She’s the Somalderis?!”
“A Somalderis.” Benedict explained. “There is more than one in the Universe. For example,” he added, gazing directly at me, “your brother had one, too. The one originally from Kolhis. I gave it to him to wear the night he crossed and he never sent it back.”
It was my turn to lunge and be held back by the arms of my guards. To be betrayed by both friends and family was more than I could bear…
A holo appeared before us, announcing that we were nearing Andromedan space.
“Thank you, Henderson,” said Benedict. “And the Kharybdian ship?”
“Tractored,” Henderson answered. “They’ll be on board within minutes.”
“Well, then,” Benedict smiled, “we must be on hand to receive them.” Benedict nodded at the three of us, and said to the guards, “Pity they couldn’t wait quietly in my cottage. Take them back to their cells until we reach Zyga.”

* * *

I didn’t sleep in my cell this time. I lay on the cot, my eyes wide open, my heart broken. What had Benedict offered Nephil Stratum so that she would turn against her kingdom and her friends? And John? What could he possibly have offered John? My John … I so wish Spud were with me. He was so good at psyching out others, and why they did stupid, stupid things.
“Psst.”
I sat up and looked around. Except for me, the room was empty. Annoyed, I lay back down on the uncomfortable cot.
“Psst.” There it was again.
I sat up once more, my back to the wall, just in case. I felt so naked without a functioning Ergal or stun gun. I pulled my legs up towards my chest. I could shoot them out at an attacker if need be.
“Down here.” The same voice, coming from under my cot?
I swung my head under the frame, and broke into a broad grin. Standing with his arms open and all of three inches high was Setsei and his Geryon.
“You micro’ed!” I whispered.
“Shh!” He put a finger on his lips. “Give me your hand,” he whispered.
“Here’s a finger, anyway,” I smiled as I extended my pinky towards his chest.
As soon as we touched, Setsei micro-ed me to his dimensions. I gave him a hug and my effusive thanks. Holding my hand, he Ergaled me out of the cell and back into the enormous chamber with the three domes, which seemed even larger now that we were so much smaller. “Our prisoners have unfortunately been freed,” he explained. Stopping to Ergal me a stun gun, he added, “And Benedict and his Andarts took Eikhus and Sarion at gunpoint.”
“How did you escape?” I immediately set the stun gun to kill.
“We micro-ed right before we landed and slipped right through the Andarts’ legs. They searched all over the ship apparently, but never thought to look down at their feet.” Setsei gave out a small giggle. “Suthsi’s gone to get Escott. Lykkos, Matshi; and Nissos, Pallas.”
“We’ve got to stop him,” I said urgently.
“We got your general alert. Eikhus has already contacted Zygint.”
“No, stop Nissos. Plionarctos isn’t Pallas.”
Setsei looked at me, surprised.
“Have you seen Nephil Stratum recently?” I asked him.
“Actually, not for a while,” he pondered. “She was turning a bit green … said she was going to her quarters to rest. Haven’t seen her, come to think of it, you know, since just before you all muted.”
I nodded. “That’s because she stunned Pallas on the Nautilus and muted as Plionarctos in his place,” I whispered with visible anger in my voice. “We have to get to Nissos before Nephil Stratum sees him and sounds the alarm.”

* * *

We scanned the dome where we had originally discovered Benedict’s cottage, to no avail. Setsei’s Ergal did identify a Syneph in the dome across from ours, not far from where we had tried to send out our cry for help. Nephil Stratum had probably stayed with Benedict and his leaders to plan. But, to plan for what?
“Nephil Stratum must be in this structure,” I whispered, pointing ahead. “Probably helping out the Coordinator of Interrogation and Torture.”
Setsei smiled wanly. As we neared the dome, he clutched his Geryon even tighter. Micro’ed, I was able to see gaps in the dome’s membranous walls. I waved for Setsei to follow and we diffused through the openings easily. Once inside, we Ergaled to the hallway near the Syneph’s identified location and hid behind a plastic pink poinsettia that someone thought—wrongly—would make an attractive decorative statement.
We watched as, at our eye-level, a few Andart legs covered by their uniform’s baggy cuffed pants walked by us and entered the room. Now there’s an idea. I gestured my plan to Setsei, and, on my cue, we leapt into the trouser cuffs of the next passing Andart and hitched a ride inside the room. Peeking over the cuffs, we observed that chairs had been set up for Benedict, Nephil Stratum, Burr, and most of the Andarts. A quick scan of the room showed us that Sarion, Pallas, and Nissos were sitting across from us, stunned and under guard by the real Plionarctos. Eikhus was imprisoned in a giant stoppered bottle on which someone had scribbled, “Houdini was here.” Fortunately for a few dozen paperweights, and a few dozen heads, Fahrquardt wasn’t.
Hoping we wouldn’t be seen, we slipped out of the Andart’s pants and scurried under a row of chairs. Just as I caught my breath, I felt a hand on my shoulder and almost screamed. Spinning around, I smacked an equally miniaturized Spud in the shins. He almost screamed, frightening tiny Suthsi, who was hiding under a chair in the back row, with his agony-triggered grimace. Glaring, Spud pointed at Lykkos and Matshi who, also mini’d, had taken posts on the other side of the room. I could dimly see our friends peeking out from under the real Agriarctos’s furry legs.
We all watched Nephil Stratum float over to Eikhus’s bottle and wrap her tendrils around it. “We don’t have much time,” she said quietly. “Unfortunately, the Kharybdian managed to alert Glieser border patrols, and they are likely to attack as soon as we reach Andromeda.” She floated back over to her seat at Benedict’s right, and warned. “This ship would be blasted to smithereens if it tried to cross into Andromedan airspace.”
From his post under the Ursan, Matshi raised two fingers, then extended twenty-four fingers in our direction and started silently counting them down.
“Well, that makes our course even clearer,” Benedict announced to the accompaniment of his colleagues’ nods. “Then we stay here at galaxy periphery in stealth mode, and dispatch an undercover to get the target.”
12-11-10…
Agriarctos raised a paw. “I’ll do it.”
6-5-4…
“I like to play to Andarts’ strengths,” Benedict laughed. “And, somehow, for you, Agriarctos, blending discreetly into the scenery is not one of them.” Nodding at Agriarctos, Benedict turned to the group. “But, you would make an excellent decoy and distraction—”
Positioned squarely under our foes’ chairs, we’d started to mega. Though it would take another few seconds to fully reach our goal of growing twice our regular size, we’d gained the element of surprise by knocking everyone’s chairs over and throwing the startled occupants to the floor. Then, we’d each leapt to disable our closest targets.
Benedict and Burr were easily grabbed and stunned by a giant Setsei, who, with his Geryon pointed like a bayonet, then turned his attention to the onslaught of Andarts, mowing them down like frozen bowling pins as they attacked. Suthsi launched his Geryon at Nephil Stratum, piercing her and turning her tufts into icicles. He then unstunned Sarion, who lunged onto the back of an Andart that had Spud gasping in a chokehold, and applied a Megaran mpoon. The Andart immediately released Spud and spun around screaming, unable to throw Sarion off his aching back. Spud called on his brilliant boxing skills and got in a direct blow to the Andart’s face. One more Andart down for the count.
Matshi threw his arms around the Ursans’ necks while Lykkos stunned them. The Ursans stood stiffly, two tall, white columns amidst the Andarts flying across the room and writhing on the floor. I, tall enough now to easily slip the cap off of Eikhus’s bottle, did so, and Eikhus washed over me with gratitude before he, too, joined the fray.
It didn’t take long before we had the entire room stunned, unstun-gunned, and un-Ergaled. I was about to give a victory cheer for our team, when I froze. Nope, not a panic attack. Really froze. The entire room was filled with a bright blue light which turned us all into human—and alien—contorted statues. I felt like I was back in acting class doing the freeze exercise, where you stop moving and stand in ridiculous positions every time the teacher yells the cue.
And then the door opened to reveal Fahrquardt, in full puffery, holding a stun gun. He slowly and deliberately unstunned Benedict, the Ursans, and all of the now-fallen Andarts. As Spud would say, all our efforts, alas, had been for naught. Surprisingly, Fahrquardt’s gun was not effective on Nephil Stratum, and he seemed to purposely avoid freeing Burr.
In fact, Fahrquardt sneered at Burr as he walked by, then stopped and stood proudly in front of Benedict, saying simply, “You’re welcome.”
A re-mobilized Benedict calmly took a paperweight from his pocket and whacked Fahrquardt on the head with it, knocking the Coordinator unconscious at his feet. Had I not been stunned, I wouldn’t have been able to keep from laughing.
Benedict then sighed and, looking at his audience, began again, “As I was saying, now that we have our decoy and distraction–Agriarctos–we need our undercover.” To my alarm, his gaze settled on me.
I would’ve shaken my head if I could. Oh, no. No. No way…
Benedict walked over to me and took my stun gun out of my pocket, tickling me a bit in the process. I protested with a choked gurgle. “Yes, I think you would do quite well,” he said, smiling, “for, after all, who can get into Central faster than a bona-fide catascope?
“But,” he continued smoothly, “you haven’t been entirely cooperative, you know.”
My eyes flashed with anger. I’ll cooperate in your dreams!
“So, since you’re an actor, we’ll provide you with a little motivation,” he smiled, chuckling at his own joke. Then his tone got serious. “You and Agriarctos there will take your whirlpool buddy’s ship to Zyga. You’ll go into Zygint Central and to the location I specify and retrieve the target, and then return it to me.”
He moved to within an inch of my frozen face. Could I spit? No, darnit. “Failure,” he said, his voice dripping with malice, “is not an option. Not if you ever want to see your companions,” he nodded at Spud, “alive again.”

* * *
Anazitisi

The Ursans levved me behind the footfalls of Benedict as he walked out of the room and down a hall to another office. I blanched when I saw the title on the door reading “Executive Coordinator of Interrogation and Torture.”
I was dreading entering the room—and relieved when I saw it was empty except for a few utilitarian desks and chairs. “Ransome’s on sabbatical,” Benedict said casually, “Went to give his old buddies at Orion Revenue a hand.”
“Tax Collectors,” the genuine Plionarctos growled as he took his post by the door, and then, after a nod from Benedict, unstunned me. “Now you can speak.”
I snorted. “Benjamin Franklin said it best.”
“Ah, yes, the well known cliché,” Benedict rolled his eyes and sighed, “‘Nothing is certain but death and taxes …’”
“No,” I returned, “‘There never was a good war or a bad peace’.”
Benedict actually chuckled for a moment before a note of sadness crossed his face. “I did not start this war …,” he said to someone who wasn’t there. Finally, he brightened again, and said firmly, “But I do intend to finish it.”
“With my help,” I said bitterly. “So, either I kidnap His Highness, or you kill my friends, is that how it goes?”
“No,” he responded, to my surprise. “Despite how your pedagogues have brainwashed you, I truthfully have no desire to waste my time with—” the words seemed to be almost distasteful “—His Highness.”
“No. I want something else.” He sat forward and looked at us intently. “On Zyga, there is a room you can access through Zygint Central the size of … of a small planet. In it is the target I seek.”
Agriarctos looked alarmed. “Not the Ram?”
Benedict nodded. “Exactly.”
I looked from one to the other. Again with a ram? “But you have a Somalderis,” I protested. With Nephil Stratum on his side to channel unlimited energy from any bright sun power a trip to another brane, why would Benedict still need or want the Golden Fleece?
“RAM,” Benedict repeated. “Registered Anastasial Memory. It’s the chamber where the neurocache of every single creature in the Universe, alive or dead, is stored.”
“Whoa!” I staggered. “What, you’re trying to tell me that the Omega Archon keeps a head file on all of us?”
“Simply put, yes.” Benedict pulled out my Ergal from his suit pocket and fiddled with it for a few minutes. “When you access the RAM, your Ergal will take you to the appropriate storage area and upload the information I’ve just instructed it to. Then you will return the information to me here.” He handed my Ergal to Agriarctos, who slipped it inside his robes.
I snorted again. “Great. Sounds easy enough,” my voice was dripping with sarcasm. “And then you’ll kill my friends, and me?”
“No,” Benedict said quietly. “Then, as far as you’re concerned, I’ll just get out of your way.”

* * *

With Agriarctos as my partner and guard, I flew the Nautilus off Benedict’s “Death Star” and ordered nav to set course for Mikkin, Zyga’s capital city. I was tempted to cryptocomm some disruptive nav orders to throw us off track, but Benedict’s threat to kill Spud and the others, along with Agriarctos’s stun gun pointed at my head, kept me from attempting an escape.
“I gather Benedict’s going to try to go to another brane with help from Nephil Stratum,” I fished, hoping that Agriarctos was feeling chatty.
Agriarctos shrugged. “He doesn’t tell me his plans.”
“Whose neurocache do you think he wants?”
The Ursan seemed annoyed. “I said, he doesn’t tell me his plans.”
I sighed. “You think he’ll really let us go if I do this?”
Another shrug. “But he won’t if you don’t.”
“Thanks,” I said without enthusiasm.
Agriarctos shifted his gun so it was pointing at my chest, and settled into a more comfortable position in his jump seat. He looked out at the stars and avoided my gaze.
“Have you ever been to this RAM?” I asked casually.
“No.” He continued to look out the viewscreen. “It’s not open to the public.”
“I’ll say. The public probably hasn’t ever heard of it.” I admitted, “They never said anything about it at Mingferplatoi.”
“They don’t tell you a lot of things at Mingferplatoi.” Agriarctos was clearly a cynic.
“What I don’t get,” I continued, “is why Benedict just can’t access the neurocache he needs through his Ergal. I mean, when I muted as this guy from Earth Core, or, as you even, my Ergal got me the right DNA and neurocache.”
Agriarctos turned his snout in my direction. “You ask too many questions.” He took out his own Ergal. “Let’s go over what we have to do.”

* * *

Our plan was for Agriarctos to create a distraction that would allow me to find and access the RAM. I’d kind of expected he’d mega and do a King Kong on Zygint Central, but Agriarctos had other ideas. Still keeping his stun gun trained—well-trained—on me, he activated his Ergal. His hulky Ursan torso slowly morphed into the lanky body of a tall lean youth dressed in a T-shirt and jeans. Agriarctos had now Ergaled, or more likely, muted, into Spud!
“Oh, no,” was all I could gasp. “You’re not gonna get away with this.”
Agriarctos/Spud was confident. “You’re much more likely to succeed in your mission with me,” he pointed at his human form, “than with … me. After all, we’re catascope partners. It’s natural for us to be together.”
“The accent’s supposed to be English,” I said, shaking my head. “Oh, sure, this’ll really work.”
“Okay. Pip, pip, jolly good, cheerio!” “Spud” teased. “How’m I doing?”
I buried my head in my hands for the second time today. Doomed again.

* * *

We had an uneventful couple of hours until we approached Andromeda’s border. I finally had to acknowledge that Agriarctos did have a point. “Spud” would have an easier time getting into Central. Easier than we were having getting back into Andromeda past the Gliesers. Despite my advance comm, Gil Pesci was very persistent about grilling us this time, even when I tried to reassure him that we were just fine and simply piloting a relaxed flight back to Zyga.
“You were in the vicinity of HD5924,” he insisted. His holo showed him standing in front of a starmap.
“Just doing a little sightseeing with my partner.” I nodded at “Spud” sitting next to me. Agriarctos waved.
“We’ve had reports of Benedict operating out of that quadrant in M82. Did you see him?”
“No, no,” we both said simultaneously. “We’re fine. Just piloting a relaxed flight back to Zyga,” I repeated.
“So you don’t know what happened to the planet?”
“What do you mean?” I asked as innocently as possible, my heart skipping a beat.
“Our scans of the sector show that HD5924 is no longer there.”
“Spud” piped in with a British burr, “Maybe a black hole …?”
Hmm, the accent was passable after all.
“No,” Gil responded. “No disturbances in the area. We recorded that the planet flew out of its orbit 6.8 hours ago, headed in our direction. Then, 1.7 hours later we received a general distress call from its tracked location. Twenty-seven minutes ago it disappeared completely from our scanners.”
I looked at “Spud” in alarm. Benedict’s planet-ship had disappeared?! How? Where? My friends!
Agriarctos did not seem distressed. He ran his fingers over our scanning display. “Checking.”
I waited anxiously. If the Benedicts “vessel” had vanished, my friends were gone as well. They could even be—
“Bollocks!” cried “Spud,” his fingers still playing over the holo.
Dead … all dead…
“Got ‘em!” “Spud” grew a self-satisfied grin. “They’re in the sixth octet of M81.” He raised a hand, adding, “Don’t ask me how …”
I breathed a sigh of relief. Gil and “Spud” spent the next few minutes talking about cutting-edge propulsion systems and warped space, but finally we got the green light to enter Andromeda and resume our trip. Now it was up to me to keep my friends alive.

* * *

Zyga—present day

The other checkpoints were easier to go through. Our catascope creds were good enough to get us through routine planet screens, and we had a relatively pleasant entry into Zyga’s atmosphere. We landed at the largest spaceport in Mikkin, and micro’ed the Nautilus into Spud’s pocket.
We Ergaled to Zygint Central and entered the building with a desperate air of confidence. Fortunately, as mutes, the WHO scans easily cleared us, and we were admitted to the lobby of the spire structure.
“Now what?” I whispered to Agriarctos, who was busy studying his Spud-style cell phone Ergal.
“It’s this way,” he said quietly and motioned for me to follow him to a bank of lifts.
Along with others in the lobby, we entered the lift and levved up almost to the top of the spire. The trip took several minutes—we had to stop and let out passengers on so many floors—but by the time we reached the top, the two of us were alone in the car.
The doors opened on a barren lobby, but Agriarctos held me back. “Not here. Wait.”
Curious, I waited for the doors to close again. Agriarctos had his Ergal out again and was activating it in some way I couldn’t interpret. As soon as the doors clicked together, we shot down as rapidly as the descent I so hated into Terra Core.
I grabbed the railings of the lift to keep from falling, and from floating up due to the loss of gravity from the sharp drop. We kept going down for a distressingly long time. “We should be arriving at Earth by now,” I joked, trying to lighten the mood.
“Spud” didn’t laugh or comment. He kept monitoring his Ergal intently until we started to slow down. The car finally came to a surprisingly smooth stop, and its doors opened again to reveal, astonishingly, a lush garden reminiscent of the meadows around Benedict’s disappearing cottage. We stepped out onto a wide path among the multi-colored flowers and shrubs. I felt that I’d walked into a greenhouse designed by a graphics editor with an infinite number of tints.
I had an irresistible urge to sneeze. And then I realized that the flowers had no fragrance. I reached out and touched one. It felt real. Breaking off a stem, I noted that liquid oozed out from the broken ends. I put the flower to my nose. Nope, no smell. Weird.
Agriarctos was already some distance down the pathway and waving for me to catch up. I set off at a jogger’s pace, amazed and troubled by my surroundings. Was this a holo? Were we in an Enclave missing from my Zygography upload? Were we even still on Zyga?
“Stay with me,” “Spud” barked. “We are not on holiday.”
I snorted. “I would sure like to know where we are.”
Agriarctos led us at a good clip before answering. “If you must know, Nejinsen Medical Center.”
I stopped in my tracks. “Nejinsen?! Nejinsen’s in Aheya! Hundreds of miles from Mikkin!”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” “Spud” responded, before softening his tone and adding. “We came in through the back door.”
“You’ve been here before …,” I guessed as we started forward again.
Agriarctos nodded. “With Benedict.” His voice was a whisper. “I hope we’ll succeed this time.”

* * *

I soon noticed that we had started to climb, and that the terrain and vegetation were changing. Before long, we had left the garden and entered sparse woods, and eventually, a denser forest of equally odorless pines. The path on which we were hiking was now blanketed with scattered twigs that crunched under our feet as we trudged onward. Having slept little in the past few days, I was starting to feel the fatigue, and hoping we would either arrive at our destination soon or stop to rest.
Finally, I told Agriarctos I had to take a break. There was a slight clearing in front of us surrounded by the pine trees, and I insisted we pause for a few minutes. I found a patch of cool moss and plunked down to relax. “Spud” sat next to me on a sturdy log, leaning against a thick tree trunk and closing his eyes.
I yawned and laid down, relishing the refreshing wetness of the dew against my neck. As I looked up, I saw streams of light breaking through the tall pines above me, forming a vault, a cathedral of luminosity, which looked very beautiful and familiar. And I remembered. This was the forest I had awakened to in my vision in my—Benedict’s—cell.
I sat up quickly. If this was the same forest, was there a chance I would I stumble upon Benedict—and my brother—up ahead?

* * *
Apocalypsi

I jumped to my feet, pulling “Spud” off the log on which he was sitting. “I know this place. I’ve been here before—I think. We have to go see! We have to find him!”
“Spud” raised a “Spud-ian” eyebrow—gosh, Agriarctos was a good actor—and, groaning, got himself up as I took off down the forest path. The road wound through the trees just as I had seen it in my vision. At this pace, we would soon reach the clearing where I’d had the last glimpses of my brother. Agriarctos lumbered along behind me, his expression now filled with concern.
Finally, the grove of trees broke open to reveal the field of my dreams. “There it is!” I shouted as we drew closer, pointing at the tall grass.
Agriarctos looked at me through narrowed eyes. “Well, yes, but—how did you know?”
“Because I saw Benedict send … a traveler to another brane through a portal here.” I motioned for “Spud” to pull out his Ergal. “Scan. There has to be one.”
Agriarctos reluctantly complied, scanning the surroundings with his Ergal. I could barely contain my excitement. My brother had been wearing a Somalderis, a Fleece. Might he have launched to another dimension from this very spot—and survived the trip? If so, would we—would I—ever be able to see him again?
“No.” Agriarctos shook his head. “No portal here. I think you must be mistaken.”
I crash landed—hard. Standing frozen, barely able to breathe, I couldn’t speak for several minutes. I had so desperately hoped that in this field of my dreams I could find a path that would lead me to John. Or at least to the truth about him and his fate.
Patience is the champion’s best tool. His voice once again echoed in my ears. It took all my strength but I finally responded with a simple “Yeah …”
“But,” the Ursan added, “we are only a few yards away from RAM entry. Through that back door I was talking about.” He pulled out my Ergal from his back pocket and handed it to me with a forced smile. “You’ll need this.”
I took the Ergal without a word and, avoiding his eyes, slipped it into my jeans. Fighting back tears, I followed Agriarctos numbly to the opposite edge of the empty field and, when he reached out his hand for mine, I took it and waited for him to Ergal us into the RAM.

* * *

We M-fanned in a distinguished lobby under a grand cupola. The marble floor felt hard under our feet after our recent walk through the soft grass. The stun guns against our ribs felt pretty hard, too.
We were surrounded by at least ten Zygfed guards, with orange Zygfed Sentinel Corps insignia on their red uniforms. Members of the elite unit were selected from the best of the Zygint pool. It was a goal I myself had once hoped I’d achieve. But, you had to prove yourself in the field for several years before you would even be considered. It’s funny. Benedict would’ve been a shoo-in for Sentinel Corps if he hadn’t gone against the Omega Archon. Now he was their sworn enemy.
I kept my tone light. “We’re Zygint. Go ahead and scan us.” I suggested in Zygan.
The team leader, a massive Chidurian, looked directly into my eyes. “Catascopes are not authorized in this area. What is your business here”—he scanned me quickly with his Ergal—“Rush?”
Agriarctos jumped in. “Benedict,” he started, to my alarm. Fortunately, after all eyes had turned to him, he continued, “has infiltrated Zygint, and we think he’s gotten into the RAM.”
A murmur of distress spread among the Sentinels. Their Chidurian leader, however, didn’t seem entirely convinced. “I will, of course, comm to check.”
“Of course.” “Spud” nodded genially. “It is expected.”
The Chidurian gestured, and the remaining Sentinels stepped back a foot or so, still pointing their stun guns at us. I took a deep breath, my eyes glued to Agriarctos for my cue. It was nice to have those guns out of our ribs.
As the Chidurian M-fanned a comm holo, “Spud” took a deep breath as well. Exactly three seconds after exhaling, “Spud” exploded! Bits of flesh and blood spattered over me. I grabbed my Ergal and X-fanned as the Sentinels stood momentarily frozen in shock. Agriarctos—or what was left of him—was now on his own.

* * *

I M-fanned into a massive arched chamber that stretched endlessly before me. The walls on each side were white, and seemed to radiate a soft glow that lit the infinite tunnel ahead. The light was soothing, and I basked in its comfort for a few moments, then, aware of my mission, I activated my Ergal and let it do its thing.
I was levved quickly forward for five long minutes, accelerating faster and faster, the air whipping my face as my speed rapidly topped one hundred miles per hour. I flashed back to the afternoon John had taken me out on his motorcycle a few months before he’d left. Sans our helmets, we’d done the usual back roads in the rolling Appalachian hills until we hit a distant valley with a straight stretch of highway and John had floored it. I’d held onto him for dear life, and whooped with joy as we practically flew over the asphalt. I remember watching the speedometer going eighty, ninety, one hundred, and feeling the rush of wind across my body. I knew then that when I got older I was going to learn to fly. I just never imagined I would be doing it by myself.
My Ergal finally stopped me—a little too fast for my stomach—next to the white wall on my left. I looked at the wall more closely. Its surface seemed slightly rough, like the popcorn ceiling in George’s ancient dorm room. Strangely, the roughness seemed to be growing, the wall turning into a sea of white bubbles. I realized I was being micro’ed at a rapid clip.
As I became smaller and smaller, I was able to see more and more detail in the wall. To my relief, the process finally stopped when I got to the level of several microns, the resolution of an electron microscope. And that’s when I saw them. Lining each wall, to my shock, were thousands and thousands of brightly glowing spheres.
The spheres looked to me like basketball-sized versions of the spheres I had viewed in the giant chamber the first time I had been dragged to Benedict’s planet-ship. Could those spheres have been stolen neurocaches? If so, where had they gone when I had returned to the chamber with Matshi and Spud? To another brane, perhaps?
I was still clutching my Ergal in my hands, and I abruptly felt it start to vibrate. The vibrations caused my hands to tremble violently. At the same time, one of the balls directly opposite me started to vibrate and glow with a greater intensity. It soon resonated in rhythm with my Ergal, and, finally, visibly startling me, it flew off of the wall and attached itself to my Ergal.
“O-kay,” I said to myself, trying to stay calm. This is creepy. The ball felt soft, warm, and soothing against my arms and chest. I felt its vibrations slowly become synchronized with my pounding heartbeat. Bum-pum, bum-pum, bum-pum. Really creepy.
My mission accomplished, I expected my Ergal would swing me around, mega me, and shoot me back to the entrance. However, as soon as my Ergal stopped vibrating, I—and my new friend, the sphere—started moving forward again. After another few minutes of swift travel, we were stopped near another wall of spheres, this time on my right. The Ergal once again started to vibrate, and I waited, expecting another chosen sphere to respond and join our party.
Instead, all the spheres seemed to be growing larger—or was I getting smaller again? The sphere I had cradled in my arms became much larger than me. Fortunately, it was feather-light, and it floated next to me, hovering and shadowing me as I moved. The spheres in front of me had also grown, and I felt myself being towed towards one in particular. That sphere was now positioned directly in front of me and continued to grow until it was almost four times my size, and micrometers from my face.
As I’d been able to do on Benedict’s planet, I soon found my body diffusing through this new sphere’s membrane. As I passed through, I developed an inexplicable feeling of dread. Once inside, my feathery sensation of flying quickly disappeared. I started to feel very heavy and clumsy, as if I was bound and imprisoned once again. My breathing became more labored, hampered by thick secretions in my nose and throat. My eyes now had difficulty focusing, my vision was blurry and double. I felt hunger, thirst, and a pressing urge to empty my bladder, yet, when I tried to move, my limbs jerked wildly, seemingly completely out of my control. Worst of all, I could no longer hear John’s voice, or remember his comforting words.
An auburn-haired woman, middle-aged, I’d guess, leaned into my line of sight, her expression filled with concern. She seemed, somehow, to be talking directly to me. “What’s wrong, Stacy?” the woman said tenderly. “Honey, are you okay?”
Stacy? Who is Stacy? The woman reached over and adjusted my pillow, re-positioned my arms, and then patted me on my bottom to see if my diaper was wet. Diaper?! What the hell? Where am I? What’s going on? I tried to cry for help, but I was unable to form any intelligible sounds and my voice only came out in grunts and groans. I was terrified, and, once again, tried desperately to escape this nightmare into which I had stumbled—or been led to—to no avail. I was trapped, incapacitated. A prisoner in a strange and disabled body, unable to flee. Panicked, I heard myself scream.

* * *

I don’t remember anything about my return to the infinite tunnel. I recall only the joy of feeling free, weightless, and comfortable, bathed and calmed once again by light. I opened my eyes and saw that my Ergal was still in my hand. The first sphere I had collected was getting smaller and smaller. It had stopped shadowing me and had reattached itself to my Ergal, disappearing completely as I kept mega’ing and could no longer see at the molecular level. As I continued to grow, the wall in front of me lost its texture and once more became a smooth surface of glowing radiance.
I waited uneasily for my Ergal to take me still further into the endless room, worried that I’d be pushed into yet another terrifying experience. But, the Ergal instead whooshed me briskly back to the starting point of my bizarre journey. I arrived at the RAM entry breathless and grateful for my short, spiky haircut that was ideally suited for surviving the wind.
At the entrance, as Agriarctos and I had planned, I, with fingers crossed, simultaneously X-fanned and activated a temporal leap. This is a very dangerous and, if unauthorized, illegal move. Temporal leaps are different from time loops. Time loops bring the traveler back on or after the point he or she left. The time the traveler experiences in the past or future is just lengthened relative to those who remain in the present. For example, it was a week in Hell for me, and only an anxious hour outside waiting for Spud. Temporal leaps take you back in time without looping, so the traveler can return to any time, including a time before he or she time-traveled. There’s a potential for some pretty peculiar paradoxes with temporal leaps. And, if you’re caught, some pretty long temporal loops in Hell.
Temporal leaping, I M-fanned in the reception lobby under the cupola minutes before Agriarctos and I were due to arrive. As several of the Sentinels whipped out their stun guns, I strode directly to their Chidurian leader, whom my Ergal had by now identified as Gameshi.
“Gameshi,” I said immediately in Zygan, “Rush from Central. You’re about to be invaded by two impostors, one of them pretending to be me, and the other my partner. They’re going to try to break into the RAM.”
To my dismay, the Chidurian seemed suspicious. He ordered one of his Sentinels to keep his stun gun aimed at me, and then told the rest of the team to adopt defense formation five. Anxious, I stood at the periphery of the lobby with my captor, watching as the guards formed a circle awaiting the impostors’ M-fan. I crossed my fingers once again.
It took a couple of minutes, but my prediction did come true. Agriarctos, muted as Spud, and the “earlier me” M-fanned into the circle of Sentinels. I shouted loudly in Ursan, “RHRak’nk!” The cry distracted the Sentinels for a crucial moment as they turned to look at me. Agriarctos and the earlier me sprung into action, Ergaling stun guns and spraying the closest Sentinels with stun rays. I shot out a kick that threw my guard’s stun-gun flying across the room, and levved out of the way to avoid his lunge. It was soon down to three against five, and we fought like…Zygan Sentinels. I disabled my own sentry with a blow to his head, and as I whirled around to assist my team, I saw the Chidurian raise his stun gun to get a clear shot directly at me.
Shouting, “Find out about Stacy!” I tossed my Ergal to my earlier self just as Gameshi fired. The laser burned my skin for a nanosecond and then—

* * *

Screaming, I leapt towards the Chidurian, trying to stop him from shooting. But, it was too late. The stun gun fired a laser ray that completely disintegrated me—or really that person who looked so much like me across the room. I had caught the Ergal she had thrown to me, and slipped it into my pocket as I landed on top of the trigger-happy warrior, knocking him to the marble floor. Purple blood started seeping from the back of his head, but that didn’t stop him from using several of his arms and legs to heave me off of him. I did a double back-flip and landed on the shoulders of the last free Sentinel, knocking him out, and turned to help Agriarctos, who was finishing off another fighter.
The Chidurian was back on his feet again, rivers of violet blood flowing down his face. He lunged towards me, and, just before he reached me, he was stunned in mid-air by Spud/Agriarctos and crashed, grunting, to the ground.
“Did you get it?” Agriarctos asked me urgently.
I nodded, looking sadly off at the place where my avatar had recently stood, and responded, “X-fan!”
We did.
* * *

With all the Sentinels either unconscious or stunned, we were hoping that we could make it out of Nejinsen without setting off alarms. We M-fanned into the Maternity Ward, and Ergaling into scrubs, we strode confidently behind a row of chattering, expectant Ytrans, whose eyes were glued to the meiosis chambers where their offspring-to-be were splitting and incubating.
We reached the lifts without incident, and stepped into a crowded elevator for the trip down to the lobby. Wary of a potential welcoming party, I was relieved when the door opened and we saw only routine activity in the Medical Center’s entrance hall. I realized then that I had been holding my breath longer than I ever thought I could.
As soon as we had exited Nejinsen, we mega’ed our ship, and set off as quickly as possible in stealth mode for Benedict’s planet-vessel. Every minute’s delay increased the chances that someone would stumble on the stunned Zygfed Sentinels, who would, no doubt, raise a very angry alarm about our RAM invasion as soon as they were unstunned. Briskly dodging guard buoys, I piloted the Nautilus with one hand on our weapons control, ready just in case.
As we approached the last tendrils of Zyga’s atmosphere, the terminal buoy started flashing a pulsing red light. Going into hyperdrive while still in planet orbit was a risky move, but it was one of the best ways to avoid the laser blast that I knew would follow from the buoy in the next second or two. I warped, and the ray missed.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I sat back in my jump seat and focused my eyes on the starstreams on our viewscreen. After my adrenaline shakes passed, I turned to Agriarctos, who had waited until we’d cleared Andromedan airspace before returning to his normal Ursan form.
“So, where are they?” I asked Agriarctos, who was thankfully no longer Spud.
The Ursan shrugged, but, perhaps picking up on my anxiety about my friends, he swung his seat around towards the Nautilus’ nav and scan holos and pulled up displays of M81. Despite Benedict’s assurances that, if we succeeded in our assigned mission, he would keep up his end of the deal, I didn’t exactly believe he’d come through with his promises to keep Spud and the rest of our team safe.
Agriarctos fiddled with the holo screens for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, he responded, “They’re still there. M81. Octet 6.”
“At a portal?” I wondered.
Agriarctos didn’t answer, but kept his snout buried in his viewscreen.
After a few minutes of silence, I spoke up again. “Who’s Stacy?”
Agriarctos looked at me and shrugged. “I don’t know. Who?”
“It’s something she yelled to me just before she died, ‘Find out about Stacy!’”
“Who yelled?”
“Me. I did. Or rather, she did. The me that went into the RAM.”
Agriarctos appeared genuinely puzzled. “No idea. Are you sure the name was ‘Stacy’?”
I nodded. “Yeah …” Sighing, I added, “That’s okay.” In all the commotion, I probably didn’t hear her right. She could have said “space heat” for all I know, maybe something to do with the Zygan Sentinels. I shook my head. If only I’d had time to ask her. And to say thanks.
I just could not erase her final minutes from my mind. As a catascope, I’d witnessed deaths before, but seeing yourself die, disappearing into nothing, had been both terrifying and devastating. What had she—I–been thinking, feeling? Did it hurt? She’d been so there… and now she was gone … and I was here. I’d just met her, but I knew her better than anyone else in the Universe, and, in some peculiar way, I missed her.
A flash of anger washed over me. She was the one who’d succeeded in the mission. I should’ve been the one to die … Or maybe we could’ve merged, so that both of us could live. Damn these paradoxes! I suddenly understood why Zygfed considered unauthorized temporal leaping a very serious crime.
But she—I—didn’t deserve the death penalty. No one does. I wiped the tears from my eyes and turned my gaze once again to the stars.

* * *

M81 Galaxy—present day

Benedict’s planet-ship loomed enormous on our viewscreens. My reflections on my future self’s demise had rapidly been superseded by my ongoing worry about my comrades. Yes, Agriarctos had located the “Death Star” in M81. But, were my friends still alive on board, or would I find myself following them to Level Three as soon as I handed over my Ergal and its package to Benedict? With the planet-ship’s impenetrable shields blocking our scanners, I had no way of finding out from space.
The Nautilus was welcomed with open hangar doors and we landed without obstructions—no surprise. After all, we still hadn’t made our “delivery”. We stepped off our ship in the vessel’s hangar and found ourselves—alone. I stood dazed, expecting any minute to be greeted with a hostile welcome and a guided trip back to my cell. But, Agriarctos motioned for me to follow him with an urgent “Come on!”
Scans, scans, scans. Steps, steps, steps. Minutes had passed, and no one had joined us, or attacked us. Agriarctos had led me once again to the giant chamber with the three domes. The spheres I had witnessed on my first visit were still missing. I suppressed a shiver. The cavernous room seemed empty and cold.
“Give me your Ergal!” barked the Ursan.
“What?”
“Your Ergal,” he repeated.
Robotically, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the instrument, handing it to my erstwhile partner. “Here …”
Agriarctos activated some settings for a few moments, and then I heard the Ergal vibrate once again. An ant-sized sphere M-fanned next to the Ergal and started to float away towards the enormous open vault of the chamber above our heads. As it soared, it grew larger and larger and was soon the size of a beach ball, its internal lights flickering brightly in shades of white and yellow, bathing us in a comforting warmth.
“Well done,” a familiar voice behind us cheered.
Benedict. I didn’t turn to face him. “My friends?”
“I have kept my end of our agreement as well,” he responded. “They are unharmed.”
Relieved, I did an about-face and pointed a finger up at the new sphere. “What is that?”
“Not ‘what’, my dear,” he said gently, “’who’. My mother.”
I suddenly felt myself shaking, and I didn’t know why. I just wanted to get out of here, to go home. Not to Malibu, but to Maryland, to see Andi, and Billy, and Bobby, and Kris, and Blair, and Connie, and George—and John, especially John. Again.
The tears came and I didn’t bother to try to stop them. It was only Spud’s arm around my shoulders that helped me ease my sobbing. Spud! Matshi! Eikhus! Sarion! Setsei and Suthsi! Pallas and his mates! All around me, reaching out to me, in the living room with the crackling fire in Benedict’s country cottage. All alive!
First, hugs and laughter. And then, “Nephil Stratum?”
Suthsi spoke first. “I released her with my Geryon.”
“She insists on helping Benedict,” Setsei said sadly. “She is convinced it’s the right thing to do …”
“They’re going to try going to … the other side,” Suthsi whispered, trembling.
“To another brane,” Spud corrected. “Another dimension. With Nephil Stratum’s assistance, Benedict might be able to channel enough energy from SN1993J, one of M81’s largest suns, to succeed in transporting himself and his mother this time, if not this entire ship.”
My eyes met Spud’s. “Is that what John did? Channel energy from a sun to cross into another brane?”
Spud nodded. “It’s certainly possible his Somalderis was a Syneph, too. Anamorphed as a ram, a fleece. Helping your brother draw energy from the Sun closest to his portal so he could make a crossing. Or …” He stopped and looked down at his feet.
“You might discover the answers if you joined us on our journey,” a gentle voice said from the door. We turned and saw Nephil Stratum ease into the room.
“Or, I might find … nothing on the other side,” I said, my voice cracking. I shook my head and snorted, “Come on, Nephil Stratum. You’re acting as if it’s even my choice. Benedict’s going to decide our fate now.”
“You always have a choice,” Benedict announced as he strode into the room.
“You mean if we don’t make the, uh, trip with you, you’re just going to let us go?” I said bitterly. “Just like that?” I snapped my fingers. “Aren’t you supposed to be a villain?”
Matshi interjected. “He wants to kill His Highness. That makes him one.”
“I want to,” Benedict agreed, “but obviously I can’t. At least not now. And not for the reasons you might think,” he added to Matshi.
“So, instead he’s going to run,” Eikhus posited.
Benedict smiled for a moment. “So, ‘I’m going to run in such a way that I may win it.’”
“What’s ‘it’?” I asked, curious.
“’It’ is 1 Corinthians 9:24–27. Sort of.” Spud’s eyes met Benedict’s. “‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?’”
Benedict laughed. “Escott, I have a few regrets in my life, and one of them is that I can’t take you with me.” To my shock, he reached out a hand to my partner.
To my even greater shock, Spud took his hand and shook it.

* * *

With Benedict’s acquiescence, Nephil Stratum Ergaled us back to the Nautilus in the hangar.
None of the group except for me was willing to talk to her. As my cohorts entered the ship, I took a moment to step away and pull her aside. My hands felt safe nestled in her tufts, and I felt more than a twinge of sadness at the thought that I probably would never see her again.
“You’re sure about this?” I asked, with a hint of desperation.
“Yes,” she responded softly. “It has to be done.”
Trying to keep my voice steady, I ventured, “Well, then, I know it’s just me dreaming, but … if you make it … and if you find John …” My voice cracked again. “Please tell him to come home …”
I felt her tufts tenderly squeeze my hands, just as Matshi stuck his head out of the Nautilus’ fuselage and yelled, “Rush, remember your name!”
Nodding, I pulled my arms away and said, “Well, thank you for the, uh, ka’vyr.”
“There is an old proverb, from one of your Terran countries, China, I believe,” Nephil Stratum said. “Without experiencing a thing, one can not gain knowledge from it. Have a safe journey—and wish me the same.”
I stood still, struggling with mixed feelings. Finally, after Nephil Stratum had almost reached the hangar door, I shouted, “You, too!” and, without looking back, Ergaled into our ship.

* * *

En route to Zyga—present day

I was relieved that Eikhus was back at the helm of the Nautilus for our return to Zyga. I was drained and exhausted, and not eager to battle the winds of space again at nav controls. Assuming we’d arrive safely, we’d have a lot of ‘splaining to do, and I needed to use the voyage gather my strength—and my wits. Meanwhile, unable to truly believe that Benedict would simply set us free after our capture, Matshi and the Megarans had spent the last few minutes scanning the ship for potential booby traps.
The Nautilus seemed clear, even after Setsei did a Geryon scan. With little fanfare, we launched through the opening hangar door and departed post-haste from HDWhocares.
Spud seemed unusually quiet, sitting in one corner of the bridge, his head buried in a scanning holo.
I ambled over. “What’re you looking for?” I asked casually.
“I am not certain,” he replied. “Some type of a disturbance.”
After a few more moments, he straightened quickly, exclaiming, “There. There it is!”
We mega’ed the holo so we all could see what Spud had observed.
“A portal!” Eikhus cried, shooting a spray of mist at the center of the display, “Only twelve thousand kilometers from HD5927!”
“No, not that.” Spud pointed at the lower end of the screen. “Down here, approaching us. See this flux?”
It was barely visible, but definitely there—and coming at us very, very fast. “Fusion Torpedo!” shouted Matshi. “Eikhus, evasive!”
Eikhus immediately amped the nav and pitched our ship violently to one side and on a new course, speeding away from the missile as fast as possible. Unfortunately, his efforts were unproductive, as the bomb seemed to duplicate our every move, all the while nearing closer and closer. My cohorts’ suspicions were right. Benedict was not going to let us get away alive!
“Shields!” Matshi ordered, as he pulled up the Nautilus’ weapons console and started running his fingers over the holo.
Setsei continued to monitor the torpedo’s progress. “Three thousand kilometers to impact.”
Matshi shouted, “Firing torpedoes with track!” We heard the grinding sound of the Nautilus’ weapons launching mechanism under our feet.
“Missed,” Spud said without visible emotion.
“Two thousand kilometers to impact,” Suthsi advised tremulously. “Try again?”
“Wide scatter blast, now!” Matshi fired another round of homing torpedoes.
“Benedict’s ship!” I pointed at the center of the scanning holo. “It’s almost at the portal!”
“Missed again,” Spud declared to Matshi’s frustration.
“One thousand kilometers to impact,” Setsei chimed in once more.
“Better hope our shields hold,” Sarion didn’t joke.
“Don’t hold your breath.” Matshi shot off another sequence of lasers and torpedoes—in vain.
“Eight hundred kilometers, seven hundred kilometers …,” Suthsi continued to count softly.
Desperate to avoid listening to the countdown to our looming demise, I watched as Benedict’s craft stopped at the edge of the portal. A thin cloud smoothly seeped out of the planet and soon blanketed the entire sphere. The Somalderis, Nephil Stratum!
Our holo showed that, within seconds, her color transformed from its downy white to a luminescent golden yellow as she channeled solar energy and cosmic rays to Benedict’s planet-ship for the voyage.
“Three hundred kilometers, two hundred kilometers to impact …,” Suthsi intoned.
“Prepare for impact,” Matshi yelled.
We took our Catascope 101 APPs (Avoidance Preparation Procedures) and implemented them immediately. There was little chance we could survive a fusion bomb, but—
The flash of light was blinding and our ship rocked violently. All our screens went blank for a few moments. Fortunately, the shock waves from the bomb must have dissipated in the vacuum of space before impacting our ship, and the rocking eased quickly, under Eikhus’ expert nav control. We were all, to our immense relief, alive and uninjured. But when the screen displays flickered on again, we saw that Benedict’s planet-ship had disappeared! The starfield we’d been viewing was now deserted—with no sign of Nephil Stratum, HD5924, or of the portal, anymore.
“What happened?” I asked, shaken.
Eikhus shook his head. “I don’t have a clue …”
Matshi was subdued. “We should be the ones who … vanished.”
“Detritus near the portal?” pressed Spud anxiously. Remnants from Benedict’s ship might give us an indication of their fate.
“I’m checking,” Eikhus responded, his fingers moving from holo to holo. In a few minutes, he shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Did they transition … or explode?” Suthsi asked quietly.
Eikhus sighed as he continued to search his holos. “I don’t know,” the Kharybdian responded. “One way or another, they’re gone.”

* * *
Setsei had finished a Geryon sweep of our ship, and, to our relief, found no significant external or internal damage. Eikhus followed with a scan of our perimeter, and identified scattered fragments of the detonated fusion bomb—the bomb that should’ve scattered us into fragments. Further checks on our vessel, however, showed we didn’t even have a tiny scratch.
“Hello!”
We all turned to look at Spud, who was diligently focused on his holo screen.
“There is a comm module among the local bomb debris,” he explained. “I shall tractor it in.”
“Could be a trap,” Matshi warned, pulling out his stun gun. “Guns at the ready,” he commanded in true Zygint form.
As we Ergaled our stun guns and aimed them at the expected M-fan site of the comm module, Spud scanned the small silver sphere and then Ergaled it on board and up to the bridge. The module was a bit larger than standard Zygan models, about the size of a Terran watermelon, and was covered with lettering that resembled the writing we had seen on the comm equipment on Benedict’s ship. From M82 or 81?
Setsei cautiously approached it, his Geryon ready, and ran a Geryon scan as we held our breaths. The Ytran finally nodded, and said with little confidence, “Activate.”
Our fingers on our triggers, we watched the module emit a low-pitched buzz and then a holo, which rapidly coalesced into the shape of a hulky, furry Ursan.
“Agriarctos!” I cried. “Where are you?”
The Ursan looked around and smiled. “That’s classified. Glad to see you all made it.”
“We almost didn’t,” I chided.
Spud snorted. “You fixed the bomb so it would explode just before it hit us.”
“Sorry about that,” Agriarctos shrugged. “I had to cut it close so Benedict would think he actually blew up your ship. I couldn’t be sure that otherwise he wouldn’t try again.”
“Thanks,” I added, puzzled. “Mind if I ask why were you trying to save us?”
“That’s classified,” the Ursan repeated with a grin.
“I believe I know why,” Spud put up his hand. “Setsei, Geryon the holo, please.”
Setsei strode over and ran his Geryon over the image from head to toe.
I stood with my mouth agape. As Setsei ran his weapon over the Ursan’s holo image, the long snout of Agriarctos morphed for a brief moment into a very familiar face. Ward Burton! Wart!
Wart must have been coming us from far away, as Setsei’s Geryon couldn’t maintain the change, and the holo image soon reverted back to its furry Ursan form. No wonder Agriarctos had been able to act as Spud so perfectly when we’d partnered on Benedict’s quest. He’d spent a great deal of time with us over the past year at Earth Core and gotten to know us well.
“Very clever, Spud,” the Ursan nodded. “Let’s keep it our little secret, okay? The walls at Central have ears, and they’re not all on His Highness’ head.”
I walked over and faced Agriarctos/Wart. “Are you coming back with us?”
He shook his head. “Not right now. Not right away. But you kids don’t need me anymore either. Earth’ll do fine in your hands.”
I sighed and nodded, my voice cracking. “Well, I sure needed you, and thank you, again.”
Wart as Agriarctos saluted with a bulky hand and waved as his holo started to dissolve. I’m not sure if it was an artifact of the communication, but, for a moment, I thought I saw the flash of a gold ring on the pseudo-Ursan’s finger.
I felt my right hand rise up and return the wave until Agriarctos’s image had completely disappeared.
* * *
Apantisis

Mikkin, Zyga—present day

Debriefs at Zygint Central had taken hours. I think we had all sat with three quarters of the senior admin by the time we were done. Thank heavens for time loops, or I would’ve finished an old lady of, say, twenty-five.
Just as I was finally ready to leave for my much awaited return home, Juan came up to me and asked me to follow him. My heart stopped when I saw he was leading me down the hall once again to the Omega Archon’s suite.
Juan paused outside of His Highness’ door and gestured for me to go in. I gave him an insincere smile and stolidly entered the room, taking my usual seat on the edge of the uncomfortable contemporary sofa.
A door on the other side of the room whisked open and the Omega Archon entered, this time dressed in a polo shirt and khaki pants. I stood up and resisted the urge to ask him if I was interrupting his golf game. He took a chair opposite my seat and waved for me to sit back down. Then, smiling, he observed me for a few moments. In complete silence. I was getting more nervous by the minute. Say something, will you?
“Do you believe that the end justifies the means?” he finally asked.
Was that a trick question? “Uh …,” I stammered.
“It’s not a trick question. Just answer.”
“Sometimes,” I said hesitantly.
His eyes narrowed for a moment, then he smiled once again. “So do I—sometimes.”
My eyes widened. That was an admission I didn’t expect. “Is that why you didn’t go after Benedict?”
“That was your job,” the Omega Archon pointed out.
“Well, he’s out of your way,” I stammered. “And he might be dead.”
“That was not the outcome I’d hoped for,” he responded ambiguously. After a short pause, he folded his hands together and gazed intently at me. “But that is not why you are here. Your list of violations is extensive. First, unauthorized entry into the RAM—”
“Wait a minute!” I protested. “I never went into the RAM! She did. And she”—I choked—“died.”
I felt myself being scanned once again. His Highness bestowed me with a trace of a smile. “I will accept your point. And your means. But, remember, Rush, as a principle, legal and ethical are not always the same.
“Look,” I countered, “’the end’ in this situation was saving the lives of my friends. For me, that was an ethical choice.”
His smile broadened, only to disappear when I asked my next question. “She yelled something to me just before she died. ‘Find out about Stacy!’ Who’s Stacy?”
The Omega Archon studied me with a sad expression and said gently, “There are many branes, some accessible to you, and some not. Her brane is not accessible.” Or did he mean ‘brain’?
“You’re not going to give me an answer?”
“I have.” He remained impassive.
I sighed. “Well then, I guess we’re done here.”
“Not quite.” My stomach turned. “Even without RAM entry, you still have quite the long list of violations,” he continued as he started enumerating the sequence of policy numbers I’d run afoul of to my numbed ears.
It was clear I wasn’t going to get out of here scot-free. I flashed for a moment, with a pang of regret, on Nephil Stratum. Despite her subsequent treachery, I would always be grateful that she had sent me to T’fal for training. Ka’vyr had helped me survive Gary’s torture. Perhaps it would also keep me from suffering through the Omega Archon’s flames.
“So,” he finally concluded, “your sentence is one year.”
One year?! One year in Hell! I gasped, “This is the thanks-”
The Omega Archon rose up and I instantly regretted my outburst—until I observed he was smiling, his eyes actually twinkling as he headed for his door.
“You will pretend that justice is served. And I will pretend that you do not know ka’vyr.”

* * *

The Ifestian technique was extremely effective. Rather than the overwhelming agony I had experienced during my previous penalties, I was able, using my ka’vyr skills, to emotionally pull myself out of the flames of Hell and the time loop, and see myself actually sitting comfortably on the sofa, watching the minutes ticking by on the suite’s clock.
Though I was relieved on the one hand that I had learned how to escape Hell, I was also frustrated that His Highness had clearly avoided answering my questions. There was still much I didn’t know—and didn’t know how to learn. For a few moments, I actually felt like my brother John, who had always raged when his questions went unanswered. If my dream in Benedict’s cell held a grain of truth, maybe John had chosen to travel to another dimension because he’d been desperate for answers, too, and our dimension, our brane, seemed to have few or none. Because “nothing” wasn’t an acceptable answer. Not for him, and not for me.
My time-out finished quickly. The hour passed before I knew it and the door of my suite opened to release me to the hallway with a soft chime. I looked at the door from which the Omega Archon had entered on the opposite side of the room, and promised myself that one day I would walk out of this room through that other door. The door to the answers. To what was beyond.
Energized, I made my way over to Zygint Central Comm, where I found Spud fixated on a holo montage.
“It worked,” I said happily. “The ka’vyr.”
When he didn’t respond, I started massaging his stiff shoulders, whispering, “Okay. Something’s on your mind.”
He didn’t look at me. “Brilliant deduction.”
“What up?”
“I have gone over and over it. I cannot find any ripple in the timeline. Earth history remains unchanged.” He ran his fingers over the holo, and the scene before us changed to reveal a somewhat older, fully-bearded Yeshua preaching to a large crowd along a mountainside.
“That’s good.” I paused. “Isn’t it …?”
“Perhaps. But, knowing what we now know, I don’t understand how, or why …” Spud paused, turned around, and faced me. “Feel like a ride?”
“If it’s looking for answers, always. Let’s go,” I smiled.

* * *

Phoenicia—two thousand years ago

I wasn’t surprised to see us M-fan outside Sidon. Spud had chosen our contact metrics from data on one of the holos he’d been scanning. Our calendar read 3779. It was in fact only a few relative months after our last visit, Phoenician time.
We landed invisibly in the desert, Ergaled into our familiar costumes as Akbar and Danel, and micro’ed our ship into the folds of our robes, before setting out for the hike to the Phoenician burg. Look out, Sidon, the boys are back in town.
Autumn in Phoenicia was definitely more pleasant than summer. The temperature was a comfortable eighty-two degrees, though I know Spud still would’ve preferred a climate in the high fifties. Nevertheless, we found our steps were a lot more energetic, and we even jogged for a few stretches on the path towards the city.
Lost in the rhythm of my pace, I had run ahead of Spud without noticing. I stopped and saw him far behind me, standing outside the temple where we had met the old Keeper on our first trip. What was it called? Es-man … Esh-Eshmoun. Spud waited for me to trot back and then led me through the gate to the entrance.
Right after Spud knocked, the Keeper opened the door and greeted us with a smile. “Welcome, Akbar and Danel,” he said in Phoenician. “How come you to cross our path again?”
“Inductive reasoning,” responded Spud. In the Queen’s English, to my shock.
The Keeper’s eyes twinkled and he let out a warm chuckle. I looked at Spud, flabbergasted.
“Well done … Akbar,” the Keeper replied, echoing Spud’s Eton-bred accent. He opened the door more widely and waved us into a cool stone foyer inside the temple. “Please, enter.”
“He is here,” Spud said, his tone having the hint of a question.
The Keeper nodded. “Yeshua,” he called out in Aramaic, “would you come to greet our guests for a moment, please.”
The young Yeshua we remembered, looking healthy and fit, appeared from a room beyond, holding a scroll in his hands. My jaw dropped. Over the young man’s shoulders was draped what looked like a ram’s pelt whose fluffy down shone with shimmering streaks of gold.
“The greeting in their language,” the Keeper said to the youth, “is ‘hello’.”
Yeshua nodded, and, with some effort, repeated the word ‘hello’ to us both.
“Thank you, Yeshua,” the Keeper continued in Aramaic, “you may return to your studies.” As the youth disappeared, the old man turned to us and added, again in English, “He will be safe here until it is time.”
“Who are you?” I blurted out in my natural voice.
“Simply a Keeper, Shiloh. I watch over my world and repair that which is broken.”
I stumbled, mesmerized, “W-well, you certainly were ours.”
Spud nodded. “Our deus ex machina.”
The old man smiled again. “Et machina est universa.”
Spud grinned. “Veritas.”
I was a little slow on the uptake. Especially in Latin. A God out of … the Universe? “Y-you’re a god?”
“No, Shiloh, there are no gods. I am simply … a friend.”
The Keeper then extended a hand in the Phoenician gesture of friendship. His gold ring flashed in the sun again, and this time I was able to see the pattern on its face. A sunflower in full bloom.
We responded in kind, and then, waving, we walked off up the path once again, where, less than a month ago, we had trod with trepidation. Once out of sight, I turned to Spud, shaking my head.
“Who—or what—is he?”
Spud shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe,” he paused, and then added with a smile, “maybe he’s … a temporal vector shield.”
I jabbed him in the arm, and, laughing, he ran off sprinting towards our landing site. I gave good chase, and, as always, we arrived in a tie. Well, almost. He was a second or two ahead of me, as always. Except, when, as always, I was a second or two ahead of him. It gave us something other than opera to argue about during the trip home.
* * *
Home

Hollywood—present day

The surfers had come back to my beach again, and the waves were really sick. I think that means good in surfer slang. I’d M-fanned back to Malibu for a few hours to check my messages, pack a few things, and close up the house until the end of hiatus. We got the word this morning: we’d been renewed and season two shooting was due to begin in late August. Our producer had left me a message that the Singularity Channel had ordered another thirteen episodes of Bulwark for next fall. If the ratings stayed up, there was even a chance they’d go with a full twenty-two for the season. Tara Guard and Larry Sioux would have another chance to defeat the dastardly villain Mordmort after all.
My agent had also called to let me know they’d finally cast the movie about the girl with disabilities—unfortunately, without me. Meryl Streep’s daughter got the job. Gosh, you’d think playing Tara Guard would have made me a shoo-in, IMHO. Seriously, my agent did offer me a Disney film instead, and said I’d only have to be the shaggy dog for the middle of the picture. I told him to send the script to Kris. I’m not turning into an animal. On the other hand, I do have a friend named Matshi who doesn’t mind doing that once in a while…
Matshi’s promised he’ll comm me when he returns from M81. He, Sarion, and Sarion’s mates decided to go for a joyride through non-Zygfed space for a few months. I figure it’ll be a while before they run out of new places to explore and things to do—and maybe they’ll tell me about some of their adventures when they come back.
Eikhus and the Nautilus made their way safely back to the Kharybdian Enclave after dropping Setsei and Suthsi off in Madai. The Ytrans have surprised us all by deciding to enroll in classes at Daralfanoon University where they plan to study cosmocriminology, and, yes, hone their fighting skills.
Eikhus himself has decided to channel his own fighting skills towards the battle against death. He has only one more year of nanobiotech training before he can begin an apprenticeship in anastasis, which he hopes to do at Nejinsen. Meanwhile, Nerea has asked Eikhus to officiate at her merging ceremony in June. Spud and I are looking forward to seeing her and her other two tributaries join currents to create little creeks or, as Sarion joked, pro-creek-ate.
And Spud? Well, he’s still playing those screeching operas during our routine duty patrols in our own Solar System. Though I’m happy to report that Spud’s transmitting an super-high note from an awful aria at an enormous, out-of-control Humboldt vessel yesterday caused the massive renegade ship to break up harmlessly in Earth’s atmosphere, before it could crash land and turn Europe into a giant impact crater.
Off duty, Spud heads back to Europe himself for a couple of months, spending weekends tending to his mother’s estate in France, and weekdays in those intimidating British public schools. Anything to get time away, he insists, from Everett Weaver’s insipid leadership of Earth Core.
As for me, after waving “buh-bye” to the paparazzi, I pulled the window shades down, locked the doors of my Malibu bungalow, and set the alarm. The marine layer was creeping in and I didn’t bother to wait to see my world turn gray. I M-fanned to Maryland, where late spring on the farm is a lush garden warmed by bright sunshine, my very own Eden. My plan was to camp out for several months between Zygint duty shifts in my true home in the Appalachians until filming would begin again on Bulwark.
I couldn’t avoid wondering what had happened to the souls we had left behind on HD5924. Were they successful immigrants to another dimension where the fruits of knowledge were ripe for their picking? Had they died during transport, and transitioned en masse to Level 3? Or had they, like the John in my brother’s story, left the planet—the universe–Icarus for the vacuum of nothingness, from which no one had ever returned? I would also have to take a few weeks this summer to return to Zyga and try to uncover the secrets behind Project Helios and my brother’s…death.
The whole family was sitting around the dinner table when I arrived back East. I took one of the two empty chairs, sitting between Andi and Blair, to join everyone in a hearty meal of vegetable stew. We had a lot to catch up on. George had passed his bar exam, Connie had gotten engaged, Kris had won a music award in Vegas, and Billy’s Little League team was in the semi-finals. It was wonderful to all be together again. Almost. My eyes tried not to wander to the only unfilled seat, where with each glance I’d hoped to see John’s tall frame and his friendly face. I ended up repeatedly disappointed, seeing … nothing.
Nothing. Was that John’s fate, as he had written in his story? Or had his driving passion led him to write another ending for himself, in a world beyond our own? A world forbidden to everyone except foolhardy villains and beings who yearn to fly.
Kris was nattering on about plans for her new CD, and I politely tried to turn my attention back to the rest of my family. And then I saw it, just a blur in the corner of my eye, in the empty seat I was desperate to avoid. The silver water pitcher in front of me taunted me with a reflected view. I looked, and gasped. John!
Ghostlike and transparent, emaciated, his eyes sunken and dull. His expression was a silent pleading that grew more intense as he faded slowly from my sight. I turned to look directly at his chair. It was, as before, empty.
“Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best title, but it’s hot!” Kris said accusingly, in response to my gasp.
Shaken, it took me a minute to process her remark, and I responded with a wan, “I hear you.” I scanned the faces of my siblings. Some were looking at me with a bit of concern, but none seemed to be reacting as if they too had seen my momentary vision. I took a deep breath, smiled at Kris and then the others, and added, “Hot sells. Go for it.”
And filled my mouth with a convenient spoonful of vegetable stew.
Had I simply imagined I’d just seen John? From another brane? Desperate? Alive? I’d come home to Maryland to be with my family and catch my breath, but perhaps there was another family member that I needed to seek out. One who needed my help. Right away.
We had waited for John for so long. I had waited… But what if John was wrong, and ‘patience is not always the champion’s best tool’?
Pleading fatigue, I excused myself from the table and ran up to my bedroom, my fingers reaching for my Ergal. First stop, London. To pick up Spud, whom I needed by my side. Then…
I closed the door, pulled my Ergal out of my pocket, and activated it. Maybe, just maybe, a Rush’s best tool is … action.

The emprise continues…

* * *
Galaxy Quest

Where time and place are meaningless

The gaunt young man looked up at his tormentors and opened his mouth to scream. Only a whimper escaped his cyan lips before he collapsed unconscious onto the spongy surface of the pediment under his shackled feet.
“Death will come quickly,” the empyrean woman declared to her companion as she tapped the youth’s head with the point of her shoe. “He was a fool.”
The elderly man blinked back tears. Allowing himself one last glance at the prone victim, he began his transformation—reborn as a transparent liquid which oozed into the gaps in the porous ground and disappeared. The woman, too, was melting into the permeable layer on which the body lay. Within seconds, the cushioned layer itself had fully dissolved, and once again the young man lay silent and surrounded by infinite emptiness. Alone.

* * *

Great Britain, 1871

“What happened? What’s the rush?” I whispered as I caught up to the panting first-former in a too-tight tuxedo who was running down the stone path to Eton College Chapel. Several other long-legged teenage boys sped by us, black gowns flapping, and we upped our pace to keep up with the crowd.
“An execution.” There was a disturbing hint of excitement in my “classmate’s” voice. “A rip for Neville Minor. Hurry, Rush, or we shall miss it.”
I suppressed a shiver under my own black robes. Execution? In high school? These British boarding schools were worse than I thought. I’d uploaded enough Dickens before time looping back to the past to know that 19th century London wasn’t exactly a Beverly Hills spa, but murdering teenagers in British boarding schools hadn’t come up in any background files. What possible crime could this Neville kid have committed to deserve death? Even the Zygan Federation’s ruler, the Omega Archon, had never imposed the death penalty on its worst criminals and terrorists. Much less on push-the-limits teens like me.
I brushed my fingers through my blonde windblown curls. I wasn’t used to having hair down to my collar, Shiloh Rush’s trademark was a spiky short haircut in a modern punk style. Funny, disguised as a clean-shaven 13-year-old boy on this—ahem, unauthorized–time loop, I actually had longer locks than I sport playing teen space cadet Tara Guard on our TV show Bulwark.
“Cap the beaks or you shall get swished as well,” my jogging partner—Richards, I think he’d said his name was—buzzed. “We’re the last of the tugs.”
Flipping up my tails, I reached a hand in the back pocket of my trousers and felt for my Ergal. Anamorphed into the shape of an antique stopwatch, the Zygan all-in-one tool had not only transported me back to 19th century Britain, but was supposed to translate foreign words directly and silently into my brain. I’d set it for England and the correct date, but still didn’t have a clue what Richards was saying. Eton had a language of its own.
We arrived at an open clearing and clambered over some large granite blocks to get a better view of the arena before us. In the center of the muddy courtyard below was a wooden box shaped like a stepstool. On it knelt a boy no older than my 12-year-old brother Billy looking ashen and terrified as he was being held down by two muscular sixth-formers. I scanned the yard, but saw no sign of a guillotine, gallows, or the executioner’s axe. Good. There might still be time to save Neville’s life.
I couldn’t help but flash to my own “school days” a couple of years ago at the Mingferplatoi Academy as a Zygan Intelligence trainee. Zygan Intelligence catascopes, agents, were expressly forbidden by our kingdom, the Zygan Federation, to interfere in local cultures. “Observe and Preserve” had been our mantra as cadets. But there was no way I was going to stand by and watch a real-life horror film play out for this crew of lusty adolescent voyeurs. I had to create a distraction of some sort that wouldn’t violate Zygfed’s strict rules, but would give the poor kid down there a shot at breaking away from his captors.
A loud murmur rose up from the audience as two gray-haired men decked in long black robes walked onto the grounds, the taller of the two carrying a bundle of branches tied together. I frowned. They’re not actually thinking of burning him to death with that kindling, are they? If I was going to engineer a rescue, I’d better live up to my last name—Rush.
My eyes landed on a on an enormous elm whose leaves overhung the field. Were those black fuzzy spots among the foliage birds?
I pulled out my stopwatch Ergal and, after checking that the gazes of Richards and his classmates were intent on the arena’s spectacle, I casually put the chain ring next to my right eye. Under the 20x magnification of its barely visible lens, I could easily see, perched on the tree limbs, yup, a flock of ebony ravens. I flashed on a quote from my uploads of Edgar Allan Poe. Were they an ill omen for poor Neville? If I could only act in time, nevermore.
Hiding my Ergal back under my robes, I picked up a two inch rock from the dirt and grass by my feet. Pressing the watch face with a secreted hand, I morphed the Ergal into a slingshot, pulled it out again, and, drawing on the skills I’d gained as a kid on our Maryland farm, shot the rock over Richards’ head at the big tree.
Unfortunately, I never had developed very good aim with such a primitive weapon. Yes, I missed. The elm, that is. The rock arced up over the crowd and started its fall, landing directly between the shoulder blades of the tall man gripping the branches. Professor Gray-hair let out a piercing scream and threw the bundle up in the air, terrifying the ravens, which cawing and shrieking, swooped out of the tree en masse. The errant bundle of sticks bounced off the bald pate of the shorter of the two masters before splashing into a puddle, showering both men with splatters of mud.
The students’ rumblings and laughter echoed across the field, giving me time to anamorph my Ergal back into a watch and join the chorus of “Neville, Neville” from the stands. Wouldn’t do to get caught myself amidst this barbarism. I did manage an honest ‘whoop’ though, when, distracted by the circus, the older teens holding Neville finally released their grip. There’s your break, kid, take it. To my amazement, pale and shivering, Neville stood stiffly by their side. “Run, dammit,” I muttered under my breath. Would I actually have to go down there and rescue him?
I jumped up a foot when a strong, firm hand grabbed my shoulder from behind. My Zygan Intelligence training kicked in instinctively and I spun around, right arm extended, locking my fingers together to land a disabling karate chop on my attacker.
But a second strong, firm hand stopped my fingers an inch from their target, my fellow agent’s wiry neck.
“Spud!” I grunted, as both of his strong, firm hands pulled me away from the other students, and prodded me out of earshot towards a stone archway back down the path from whence we’d come. Though I wasn’t exactly short at almost 5’9, Spud towered over me by at least a few inches.
Turning to face me, his brown hair slicked back and his brows knitted over piercing gray eyes, William “Spud” Escott’s expression was as dark as his robe. “What in blazes do you think you’re doing?!”
“Trying to save Neville from the blazes,” I nodded towards the show. “They were going to execute him–I had to do something! What? What’s so funny?” Spud had uncharacteristically erupted with deep guffaws.
“’Tisn’t that kind of an execution, Rush,” Spud finally returned, still chuckling. “Trust me, Neville is not about to die. Though his bottom may be a bit aflame for a few days after Hornby’s punitive handiwork with the birch.”
You mean–oh. That’s what those branches were for. Still, beating students—barbaric much?
Serious again, Spud added, “On the other hand, if the Omega Archon discovers you’ve been interfering…”
I raised a hand. Spud didn’t need to remind me how painful our own ruler’s sentences in Hell had been whenever I’d violated one of the gazillion Zygan Federation rules.
“And I received no missive about an assignment. Why exactly are you here anyway?” Spud queried, eyeing my costume as a seventh-grader at the boys-only “public school” with obvious disdain. “Dressed like that.”
I met his gaze despite my wavering voice, “Just me. I came to find you.” A whisper. “I saw John.”
An eyebrow went up. “Your brother?”
I nodded, and recounted John’s spectral manifestation at our Maryland farm the evening before. Sharing a rowdy dinner with my seven brothers and sisters, my eyes had wandered to the empty seat where, after three long years, we had almost stopped hoping our brother John would magically re-appear after leaving our home for what we thought would be a tour in the US Army. John, barely 18, had stepped in to raise us after Grandpa Alexander passed away. We never expected that five years later, we’d lose him, too.
My quest to find my missing brother had led me to join Zygan Intelligence as a catascope, an agent, just like John had, unbeknownst to us, done at age sixteen. I’d uncovered that John’s graduate school research with subatomic energy particles at the University of Maryland’s synchrotron had somehow tied in with a top secret Zygint mission called Project Helios. So far, after months of diligent investigation, I’d stumbled on clues that John may have been working undercover on inter-dimensional transports along with Zygan Federation Public Enemy #1, Theodore Benedict, but I’d had no success in figuring out where my brother could be, or if he was even still alive. John’s trail had grown cold.
Then, last night, for just a flash, a cadaverous image of John, his eyes pleading for help, had appeared at our family supper table, reflected in our silver water pitcher. By the time I’d taken a second look, he was gone. No one else at the table had seen his ghastly, ghostly image, but I was now certain that John was alive and reaching out to me from—from…?
Spud raised the other eyebrow. “And then?”
“That’s it. ”
“An hallucination, certainly.”
“No, Spud, it was real. It was John.” I blinked to dam in the dampness. “He needs my—our help. I think he’s trapped in another dimension, another brane.” I paused, hesitating. “When Benedict had us locked in those cells on his planet-ship, I had a vision.”
Spud’s pale skin turned ashen. I assumed he was remembering the vision he’d had during our imprisonment, reliving the childhood tragedy that cruel Theodore Benedict had somehow unleashed from Spud’s chest of repressed memories. The long-buried secret that Spud’s mother had been murdered at the hands of his father.
“A dream,” Spud whispered after a moment of silence. Louder: “They are simply dreams.”
“It felt so real, I tell you. I saw John along with two of his fellow ex-catascopes, Benedict and Wart.”
After years as an honored hero, Zygan Intelligence agent Theodore Benedict had betrayed the Zygan Federation and our ruler, the Omega Archon. Forced into exile, Benedict had become a terrorist, returning to Andromeda and the Milky Way and launching an ostensible campaign to overthrow our king. His fellow agent, Ward “Wart” Burton, who’d been our mentor when we’d joined Zygan Intelligence as newbies, had gone undercover in Benedict’s ranks to try to foil the traitor’s plans. I could only hope that John too had been playing a similar role, a double agent seeming to cooperate with Benedict to gain his trust, even as I prayed that my brother wasn’t a misguided catascope who’d been turned by the villain’s charm.
“I think John became one of their test pilots for transporting to another dimension,” I explained. “He seemed to be wrapped in a Somalderis and disappeared in a flash. And, unlike the others, he never came back.”
Benedict and his minions had attempted to transition without success to another brane, the heaven we called Level Three, for years during and after his exile. His previous cross-dimensional intrusions had blown all his ‘test pilots’, back to our universe, many severely injured. But the Somalderis, the Golden Fleece John was wearing, was able to channel enough energy from our sun to fuel an inter-dimensional crossing. With the Golden Fleece, John may have succeeded in making the journey to a universe beyond ours.
“What if he landed in enemy territory? What if he’s a prisoner? ” I badgered Spud. “What if he was hurt? We have to mount a rescue.”
Spud leaned his lanky torso against a marble column and sighed. “My dear Shiloh, it pains me to temper your fervid disposition with logic. Our own universe, our brane, is nearly infinite in space and time. For the last two years, utilizing the resources of the Zygan Federation and Zygan Intelligence, mind you, you have had no success in finding your brother. If, as you so imply, John survived the transport and is in another brane, and if we could somehow succeed in travelling to that dimension alive ourselves, we would likely have neither the assets of Zygint, nor our Ergals to aid us in our quest. Our very own survival would be in doubt.”
“It’s crossed my mind,” I returned. “But we don’t have a choice. It’s like in that old adage. ‘I’ve been looking in the wrong place—our universe—just because –‘“ I did the quote gesture with my fingers—“‘the light’ is better’. We’ve got to bite the bullet and search in the darkness. Even if we do it without our allies and our tools.”
Spud offered a small wave in the direction of a group of robed students that passed us as they walked by us towards the Chapel, then resumed stroking his chin. “Leaving for a moment the question of how we can find something if we can’t see it,” he whispered, “how do you propose that we travel to your universe without ‘the light’. As I recall, not only your brother, but even a keen terrorist such as Theodore Benedict needed a Somalderis to succeed in the trip. And the last Golden Fleece I saw was draped over Yeshua Bar Maryam’s shoulders at the Temple of Eshmoun. In ancient Phoenecia.”
“Exactly,” I said. “And, I’m sure Yeshua will let us borrow it. After all, we’re not criminals fleeing this universe to storm the gates of heaven like Benedict and his Andart guerillas. We plan to come back.”
“I’m not entirely convinced Benedict may not be planning to return to our universe himself someday—if he survived the trip to Paradise. Especially with the Omega Archon still reigning over Zygfed. But I doubt Yeshua and the Keeper of the Temple are willing to take the chance that we might not return and deign to lend us their Somalderis.”
“You never know until you try.” I insisted, feeling over my pocket for my Ergal. “I’m going back in time to the Temple of Eshmoun to find our young prophet and his mentor. Coming?” I added, my tone impatient.
Spud scanned the school grounds to ensure we were out of sight of probing eyes, but the crowd’s attention had once again focused on the spectacle in the arena, where poor Neville had just tasted the first fiery sting of the birch. I shivered again, remembering the agony of the Omega Archon’s hellish punishments when I had violated Zygfed’s rules, the figurative flames ‘burning me alive’.
Spud sighed and shook his head. “Yes, I shall join you. If only to keep you once again from the blazes of the Omega Archon’s Hell.” He grabbed my forearm and pulled me behind him under the shade of a stone parapet.
I slipped a hand inside my robe and found my Ergal.

* * *
Sidon, Phoenecia—two thousand years ago.

A wall of dust whipped up by the wind blinded us momentarily. As the gusts paused to inhale, we were able to make out the outline of the path we had taken a few months before towards the city of Sidon in ancient Phoenecia, circa the second decade ACE. “No temporal vector shield,” I coughed, reaching out to find Spud’s hand. The force field had been installed by Zygint Central to protect young prophet Yeshua Bar Maryam from Benedict’s assassins. It should also have blocked us from breaking into Yeshua’s time and space. “Wow. I don’t know how but we made it.”
“Obviously,” Spud’s hoarse voice returned through the haze. “I expect Zygint Central was convinced that with Benedict’s successful departure from our universe, the Keeper of the Temple would be adequate protection for young Yeshua and the temporal vector shield would be no longer necessary.”
I felt a tug on my black robes. No need to change costumes into white togas with this weather. The sand was already bleaching our clothes.
“This way,” said Spud, “stay with me.”
“On your tail–your tails,” I giggled, grabbing his penguin suit as, my free hand shielding my eyes, I followed him gingerly through the sandstorm.
Spud stopped us in front of a large stone gateway which heralded a stone path lined by juniper trees. Once sheltered slightly from the gale, I could make out the ancient temple up ahead, only a few steps away, and wondered if the Keeper would, as he did on our last visit, greet us warmly as we approached.
Our arrival seemed to go unnoticed this time, however. We climbed several steps onto the front landing and stood before the door. I looked at Spud, his black robes dotted with flecks of beige sand, and shrugged. “Nobody’s home?”
I reached over and knocked on the door. Loudly. Again. And again. At last, I thought I heard the ‘clip-clop’ of wood sandals on stone on the other side of the portal. The door opened slowly with a squeal, and revealed a grey-haired scalp followed by a wizened face that peered back at us with a frown.
I nudged Spud who was much better at Phoenician than me, Ergal translating or not. “I am Akbar,” he began with less enthusiasm than I’d have expected, “and this is my brother Danel. We wish to speak with the Keeper.”
The old man gave us the once over before responding, “I am the Keeper.”
“No, no,” I interjected, lowering my register. “The other one. ‘Bout your height. With a beard.”
The frown didn’t disappear. “I know not of whom you speak. There is no other Keeper.”
“Then this isn’t the Temple of Eshmoun?” Even Spud wasn’t infallible.
“Yes, it is.” The door started to close.
“Wait,” I cried, “Yeshua. Yeshua Bar Maryam? Young, thin, black beard, student?”
Spud shook his head as the elder slammed the door shut. “It is futile. They, and the Somalderis, are gone.”
“Gone? Wait! Gone where?” My knocks, and then bangs, on the stolid door went unanswered. I plopped down on the steps in frustration; my eyes, stung by the wind, once again brimming with unshed tears.
“It is a mistake to theorize before one has all the facts,” was Spud’s only response as he set off back towards the gate.

* * *

Hollywood—present day

We M-fanned in the present—my present—looking like a pair of ragged exiles from Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. As we waited in the Hollywood garbage bin to enter Zygan Intelligence’s Earth Core Station, I could swear the guards from the planet Chiduri, disguised as rats by our feet, were snickering at us. Not quickly enough, the hidden door on the side of the bin opened to let us in to the deserted warehouse corridor, and out of range of their snarky squeaks.
“Empty handed. Now what do we do,” I said to Spud as we passed our WHO scan and entered the housekeeping closet/hidden elevator. I leaned against the wall, and, during the jarring descent to the Earth’s heart, closed my eyes to call back the sense memory of the inner peace I had felt with the soft touch of Nephil Stratum’s tendrils massaging my aching muscles, the soothing caresses that had eased my physical and psychic pain. But that inner peace had vanished–along with Nephil Stratum. The Syneph, a cloud-like being, had been the one classmate of ours at Mingferplatoi Academy I’d never have suspected would have betrayed us. Nephil Stratum’s awesome talents as a living Somalderis had allowed her to channel energy from a sun in galaxy M81 to Theodore Benedict’s planet ship, finally propelling him and his minions into that other dimension (John’s dimension?) far beyond our reach.
“Nephil Stratum is not the only Syneph in our universe,” Spud said softly, as the lift accelerated down towards Earth Core Station.
How did Spud always know what I was thinking? If we couldn’t get the Golden Fleece from Yeshua and the Keeper, yes, maybe we could talk another Syneph into being our booster rocket into John’s brane.
“You think Ev could get us a meeting with the Syneph ambassador?” After Gary’s death—and Wart’s “disappearance”, catascope Everett Weaver had become the new Chief of Earth Core, but he wasn’t exactly a power player millions of light years away on the Zygan Federation’s home planet of Zyga, where representatives from the thousands of Zygfed planets gathered to pompously rubber stamp the Omega Archon’s edicts. Even calling in markers wouldn’t guarantee us an audience with Syneph big-wigs; the cloud-like Synephs were a notoriously cryptic and cloistered Zygan Federation species. Their home world, a treacherous nebula-like sector at a distant edge of the Milky Way known as the Plegma, was off limits to most Zygans.
“Or, we could go to the Plegma ourselves,” I offered, as we stepped off the lift into the barren receiving room. I chose to ignore that few who had visited the nebula had ever returned.
Spud didn’t seem enthused.
“I’m in pretty good with the Gliesers,” I continued, referring to Zygfed’s maritime Border Patrol. “I know I could get us in.”
“Then they’d have to send a search party to rescue us,” Spud returned, squeezing shut his eyes and shaking his head as the NDNA screening scan washed over us both. Before I could respond, the room transformed into the plush reception suite of Earth Core Station, and Fydra’s welcoming open paws.

* * *

Zygan Intelligence Earth Core Station—present day

“Have you ever been to the Plegma, Ev?” I tried to sound casual, picking some lint off my sweater and jeans.
Everett Weaver’s chubby cheeks puffed out as he gagged on the large bite of club sandwich he had stuffed into his mouth. I handed him a bottle of water I’d Ergaled in the Costume Department, and waited politely while he cleared his throat and brushed the crumbs off of his wrinkled shirt and portly abdomen. “What’re you up to now, Rush?” he finally gasped, catching his wheezing breath.
I blinked my baby blues. Nice to be out of my Dickens dude costume and back to being femme again. “Nada. Just wonderin’.”
“No, I’m not going to give you permission to travel there, even if I could. Bad enough I’m ignoring the little unauthorized excursions to Berkshire and Phoenecia you just took.” He took a deep breath, adding in a higher pitch, “The Plegma? Are you out of your mind?”
Spud, now sporting a leather jacket and black trousers, joined us, nodding and rolling his eyes. Thanks a lot, partner.
I didn’t have to call on my acting skills to bring out the tears. My voice cracked. “Please, Ev. It’s for John.”
Ev had trained with John as a Zygan Intelligence cadet at Mingferplatoi Academy—surely they’d be brothers in arms and all. I saw Ev’s expression soften and a question bloom in his eyes. Good. “John…Rush? Your brother John Rush?”
“I saw him, Ev, and he needs my—our—help.”
“Whoa.” Everett held up a hand. “He’s alive? Give me the whole story—and start at the beginning.”
“You know more about the beginning than I do.” Ev had already been assigned to Earth Core as an agent when John had disappeared, years before my and Spud’s time.
“No, I mean about my helping.”
The words poured from my lips. “Yesterday. I was home in Maryland, having supper, and I saw him. He was like a holo, not all there. Half alive. Half dead.” I took a shaky breath. “He was trying to tell me something. ’Save me.’”
“Rush believes her brother is alive in another brane, perhaps a prisoner,” explained Spud. “She wants to find a Somalderis, a Golden Fleece, to channel enough solar energy to cross over to that dimension so she can go rescue him. Unfortunately, Yeshua Bar Maryam and the Keeper as well as their Somalderis are no longer…available.”
I expected Ev to whistle, or even to burst out laughing, but, to my surprise, he rested a hand on my shoulder, and sighed. “Just because Nephil Stratum helped Benedict transition doesn’t mean that other Synephs will—or can–serve as Somalderees, derises, whatever.” His brow furrowed. “You could end up empty-handed, and lost—forever–in the Plegma.”
“I have to do something!” I cried out, brushing him away. Didn’t either of them understand? Standing and waiting, my brother’s hallowed motto of “patience”, was no one’s best friend.
Ev patted my arm. “Okay, okay. I have an idea. I’ll do my best to set up a meeting for you on Zyga with the Syneph ambassador. You can explain the, uh, situation, and see if the ambassador can get you someone with the skills to channel the energy needed for a crossing. It’s not like all the Synephs can do that anyway. Your old classmate might have been…special.”
I looked away, my heart skipping a beat at the memory of Nephil Stratum. Yes, she was…
“Even if we recruited a Syneph who could facilitate the transition,” Spud interjected, “how would we know where to begin our search? Assuming that this parallel universe John may be in is as infinite as ours.”
“Ev, you still got the comm logs from Gary’s Messier Sportstar we used to escape Benedict’s planet ship, right?” I interrupted. “There’s something I remembered.”
The Chief of Earth Core nodded and ran his fingers across an adjacent holo screen to pull up the files.
I smiled at Spud. “I have an idea.”
“What’re you looking for?” asked Ev, curious, as I played my own fingers across the holo seeking a particular, very compelling, message.
“Ha,” I exulted as the grainy image of Agriarctos the Ursan, a hulky polar bear, came up lifesize on the screen. Fleeing Theodore Benedict’s planet ship, we’d gotten an interstellar missive from one of his guerillas sent just before their transport to the other dimension. Agriarctos turned out to be undercover Zygint agent Wart in disguise, who’d made sure that we’d escaped Benedict’s “Death Star” safely.
Spud inched closer. “’Tis the message Agriarctos—Wart–sent us just before Benedict disappeared into–”
“The other brane,” I finished. “Turns out I was right. Wart wasn’t only trying to give us a heads up about the fusion torpedo Benedict sent our way.”
Both Spud and Ev looked at me, puzzled. I smiled and nodded at the screen. Agriarctos’ furry holographic body seemed to be sprouting from a sparkling base, the core of the melon-shaped communications module. “Notice anything down there?” I pointed to the sparkles under the Ursan’s feet.
“Regular flashes, impulses, on-off, off-on, on-on—“ Spud broke into a grin. “Why, ‘tis a digital code!”
“Exactly. We were a little too shaken by our close call with Benedict’s bomb to notice at the time.”
“Running analysis,” Ev shouted as his fingers danced next to the flashing lights. “Looks like contact metrics…at…got ‘em. Son-of-a-gun, Wart gave us a trace.” The translated signal was now readable as a series of multi-dimensional coordinates, for both a portal and a universe beyond.
I favored Ev with my warmest smile. “Make that call to the Syneph embassy, Boss. With my new Zoom Cruiser, Spud and I’ll be halfway to Zyga before you’re done.”

* * *

Planet Zyga, Andromeda Galaxy—present day

The journey to Zyga took less than the three hours we’d been used to only weeks before. With its upgraded hyperdrive system, my replacement ship was able to navigate through wormholes as well as curved space, cutting our voyage to Zygfed’s home planet by a full hour. Spud had barely had time to peruse one of his dusty old monographs before we were entering Andromedan space.
Unlike most ambassadors to Zyga who chose to spend their leisure hours in the Enclaves that mimicked the comfort and familiarity of their home planets, the privacy-loving Syneph contingent preferred to hover over Zyga’s Capital City of Mikkin in the rainbow-colored sky. Up in the Zygan stratosphere, visitors were unlikely to wander through or loiter in the clouds. Ev apparently did have some pull with Juan De La Cruz, his boss at Zygint Central, because Juan had arranged for me to meet Cirra Stratum in the private conference suite on the 53rd floor (base twelve, of course) of Zygint Central Headquarters. Spud eagerly accepted Juan’s invitation to “navigate the nexus” or something equally nonsensical, abandoning me in my quest for the Syneph ambassador’s merciful aid. Great. Thanks, Spud.
When I entered the suite, the Syneph ambassador greeted me politely with an extended tuft. Her cloudlike mist felt cold against my skin. Where was the warmth I’d always felt from Nephil Stratum when we’d physically connected?
Cirra Stratum’s smoky tendrils reflected the afternoon light from Zyga’s setting suns shining through the panoramic window. I envied the freedom she and the other Synephs had to coalesce into a cottony mass or disperse into streaks of haze. Did she have to take the elevator up here, as I did, or had she diffused directly into the conference room from the sky outside through the porous glass?
“How may I assist you, Shiloh Rush?” the ambassador asked as she pointed a tuft towards the empty room’s only chair.
I shook my head. “Thanks, but I’ve been sitting for two hours on my ship. I’ll just tell you about John.”
As succinctly as I could, I related the story of my brother’s work for Zygan Intelligence and his disappearance three years ago while he was working alongside the terrorist Theodore Benedict—undercover like Ward Burton, I insisted.
I told the ambassador about my painful discovery that my brother John had apparently partnered with Benedict in his unsuccessful quest to travel to a lost Eden in another brane with the help of a Golden Fleece to channel energy for the transport.
“He didn’t return. And we’ve heard nothing since.” I couldn’t disguise my bitterness. “Before he left our universe, Benedict denied knowing where he was, but—someone,” thank you, Wart, “has left us a trail of crumbs to follow.”
“What is it that you wish from us?” Cirra Stratum’s tone blew a wintry chill into the room.
I pursed my lips. “John himself never brought the Somalderis, the Golden Fleece, back to our brane. Otherwise Benedict wouldn’t have had to,” the words caught in my throat, “to brainwash a Syneph, Nephil Stratum, to serve as an energy conduit to fuel his own flight to ‘paradise’”.
“I am not unaware of those events,” Cirra Stratum returned, “but my question still stands.”
I explained my suspicion that Benedict’s destination was the dimension holding my brother prisoner. Now, I—we—needed another Syneph’s help to make the journey ourselves, to rescue John and bring Benedict back to Zygfed and to justice.
Cirra Stratum listened intently to my story without another comment, the color of her wisps remaining a frosty gray. Was she communicating to other Synephs with one of those internal crystals that Nephil Stratum had used to tap into Benedict’s lair? Was she sorting through a list of possible candidates that could help us in our rescue mission?
I waited silently as she wafted about the suite, her tufts growing darker and darker as the minutes passed. I began to worry that maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned Nephil Stratum’s betrayal–
The gust seemed to carry an army of icicles piercing my skin with a biting frost that froze me where I stood. “No!” Cirra Stratum erupted as she showered me with a stinging blast of algid air.
Before I could respond, she had X-fanned, disappeared, from the conference suite in one frigid swoop and was gone.

* * *
Gesundheit

I was still rubbing my frostbitten skin when I met Juan and Spud at Juan’s office. Spud, Mr. Observant, took one look at my face and thankfully didn’t say “I told you so.” Juan smiled genially and pulled out a chair.
I shook my head. Additional elaboration wasn’t necessary. “Thanks, Juan, but we’ll be on our way. We’ve got a week off and I intend to spend it with my family.” No need to mention that the family I was thinking of was John. I turned to Spud, “Want a ride?”
Spud’s eyes narrowed. “Back to Earth?”
Dammit, Spud. I forced a smile, and quipped, “Where else?” before sliding out the door and heading towards the elevator. Once inside the lift, I hit the button for Ground and waited for the door to close. A firm, strong hand waved in front of the sensors, reopening the door, and letting in Spud.
“You know I didn’t want Juan to know what I had in mind,” I grumbled, in response to Spud’s chuckle.
Spud pulled out his Ergal and tapped it. “Too late. Contact metrics and authorizations for the Plegma are set in here for the Zoom Cruiser’s Nav Control. Juan knows you almost as well as I do.”
I rolled my eyes. “Does that mean you are coming with me?”
Spud nodded. “And leave you alone in the Plegma? Disaster.” Another chuckle. “For the Synephs.”
Just before the elevator door opened, I punched him in the arm.

* * *

Zygan Federation Border Region—present day

“Greetings, Rush. Escott.”
Captain Gil Pesci greeted us warmly on our comm screens from his Glieser ship as we neared the edge of the Lambda quadrant. The piscine species served as Zygfed’s border guards, their shark-shaped vessels patrolling the edges of Andromeda and the Milky Way for unauthorized travelers from the galaxies beyond. Or was their task really to keep Zygan Federation citizens inside the Zygan territories? Very few Zygans had the means or authorization to venture far beyond the borders as Benedict—and I—had into galaxies like Triangulum or M82.
“I am,” Pesci continued, “Astonished that Juan authorized this trip. You know that the Plegma seems to swallow up most travelers—permanently.”
“Thanks for the warning, Gil,” I spoke into our comm screen. I’ve got a strong reason to want to make it out alive. We’ll be back soon, I promise.”
Captain Pesci saluted me with a fin and closed his feed. Our holos showed the Glieser ship changing course and turning away, leaving our coast clear.
I took a deep breath and glanced at Spud before cueing nav to proceed. Cirra Stratum may have said “no”, but there had to be another Syneph in the Plegma that would be willing to help us, even in an unofficial capacity, to travel to John’s brane. The Zoom Cruiser jerked forward and within seconds, our windscreens were filled with the colorful fluorescence of the enormous nebula as the interior of our ship was plunged into darkness.

* * *

The Plegma—present day

“What the hell?” I shouted as I keyboarded instructions to turn on auxiliary power.
Spud’s face was lit only by the light from the nebula surrounding us. Irritation? Anger?
Our vessel’s systems refused to respond. No holos, no nav, no juice. Spud’s expression? Definitely anger.
We sped along by inertia, or was it a tractor beam? We actually seemed to be accelerating—I felt the weight of the Gs heavy on my chest now that our ship’s grav monitors couldn’t counteract the increasing forces. If we didn’t slow down soon, it’d be very hard for us to breathe.
I started to hear Spud wheezing in the jump seat next to mine. I’d warned him about those darn cigarettes. But, I wasn’t doing much better myself—each breath required all my muscle strength to move my ribs and diaphragm. Yet we continued to go faster and faster.
Just when the lightheadedness had enveloped my consciousness and I had reached what I feared was my last gasp, our ship tumbled to a rapid stop. Spud and I both sat up in our seats, enjoying a few moments of luxurious oxygen exchange before either of us could speak.
“What a ride!” I croaked, as I, back on alert, scanned the windscreens to see if I could make out any structures among the colorful clouds.
Spud’s tone was all business. “Keep your stun gun handy. I expect a welcoming party that may be less than welcoming.”
He had barely finished his sentence when our ship’s lights came on, and we saw we were surrounded by our wispy hosts inside our vessel. I didn’t bother with my stun gun. Actually, I couldn’t. Somehow, we’d been stunned immobile by the Synephs and couldn’t move any of our limbs. Their fog thickened around each of us, and I could no longer see Spud who should be only a few feet away from me. I hoped.
In a few minutes, the fog started to disperse. Yay. Spud was sitting at my side. In a chair. A wooden, polished, fancy, plush chair.
“Louis Quatorze,” Spud said inexplicably as we gazed around a room that resembled a Victorian salon. The fireplace nearby crackled and sparked as the flames warmed our chilly feet. Misty, damp, and cold. Spud, you should feel right at home.
On the divan opposite our couch sat a small, pale, bespectacled man, whose white hairline had receded back to his occiput. He smiled at us with full, thick lips.
I returned the smile as I tried to move my legs and shift in my seat. Good, I was un-stunned, unfrozen. Now to get to my Ergal.
“Welcome, travelers,” said the small man. Unusual accent. Couldn’t quite place it, but it almost sounded like it came from Earth.
“I am Mel,” the man continued. Definitely Earth. “Your liaison. I will arrange for your schema.”
Huh? I looked at Spud, whose brow had its “puzzled” furrow. Good. I hate being the only one confused.
“Hey, Mel,” I dived in, stalling, allowing my fingers to creep towards my pocket—where was my Ergal? “Thanks for the offer. What kind of a Syneph is a Schema?” Damn, they took our Ergals.
The little man seemed perplexed. “I don’t understand. A schema is not a Syneph. It is a Gestalt.” He pronounced the archaic word with a “sh” in the middle. German?
“It will be your world. I will arrange it,” he insisted. “You will find everything you seek.” Mel waved an arm and the lights came on in the formal dining room beyond where we sat.
My jaw dropped. Twenty feet from me, sitting at a long, lavishly appointed table, vividly real, were my brothers and sisters. George, the law clerk, Connie, a student teacher, her engagement ring sparkling from a sunbeam, Andi, with her long flowing auburn locks, sketching the scene. Bobby and Billy, toggling handheld holos in a video game match. Kris, eyeing her reflection in the casserole dish. Blair, facing me, deep in conversation with a massive man, whose gray-haired locks were bound in a—my God—it’s Grandpa Alexander! Alive!
Seven years since I’d last seen his generous smile. Seven long years since his bulky arms had comforted me with sturdy hugs. When he’d passed away, the task of keeping us safe had fallen to John; and John’s wings, despite his best intentions, were much more fragile than Grandpa Alexander’s.
My eyes narrowed. Who was that woman with the red hair sitting next to Grandpa? She looked somehow familiar. I’d seen her before, but– Oh, my God! There, at the farthest end of the table was John! John! Looking healthy and strong, laughing and glowing as he always did when relating his latest adventures. John. Here!
I jumped onto my feet, once again unable to breathe. Could this be where John was imprisoned? In the Plegma? “John!” I cried as I launched forward.
And couldn’t move. The dining room plunged into darkness, and, instantly, my family was gone. I stood frozen, blinking back tears, until I heard the whispered “Maman” and turned to see Spud standing next to me, pale, jaw clenched, locking in a moan.
Mel chimed in brightly. “There now. You see. All is as it was–and as it could be. You will be king of a world entirely built of your paramount hopes and dreams. Shall I prepare your rooms?”
“You mean our Bastille,” Spud snorted, his voice hoarse. “You have shown us nothing but a fantasy. And fantasy sans reality is but a prison.”
“No, not a prison, Escott. Paradise.”
Spud shook his head. “Then your paradise is a prison. A cocoon that swaddles those without the courage to fly beyond its fetters. You may keep your luxuriant indentured servitude, Mel. I, for one, should rather ‘rule in Hell,’” he averred, grabbing my arm and pulling me towards the door behind us.
Mel stood up slowly, his voice weary. “And I should not be so sure that you are not doing so already.”
Before I could ask Spud what Mel’s remarks meant, Spud had run to the door and, after a moment’s hesitation, leapt off the doorjamb onto a fluffy cloud which hovered conveniently below the floating suite. He gestured for me to follow. I took a quick look around. Aside from the room itself, where Mel was now standing, observing us with a curious mien, I could see nothing but the resplendent Plegma around us, bordered by scattered pink streaks below. Feeling naked without my Ergal, I decided to follow Spud’s lead, and jumped.
The soft cloud, with us both riding bareback, sped away from the suite as soon as I’d landed. “I’m almost afraid to ask this question,” I whispered to Spud, “but how are we breathing? Outside of that room up there?” I nodded at the receding box from which we’d fled.
“Oxygen-nitrogen environmental capsules surround you. They should be quite effective.” The voice answering me wasn’t Spud’s.
“Who?” We both looked around.
“Me. Down here. Alto Stratum.” The cloud we were riding on spoke again. “I’ve gotten an urgent message to get you two out of here. I’m taking you back to your ship. We have to hurry.”
“Wait,” I said. “From who?”
“Whom,” Spud had to interject.
“I know why you’re here,” Alto Stratum continued. “But none of us can help you. I mean with the transport to another brane thing.”
“Cirra Stratum told you?”
“Not exactly. If she finds out where you are, well let’s just say that all three of us will be molecularly dispersed into M81 space. Bad enough her protégé escaped her clutches.”
“Protégé?” Spud interrupted again. “Nephil Stratum?”
“Here you go.” Alto Stratum pointed a tuft at our Zoom Cruiser that had just appeared in the mist. “Climb inside and you’ll find your Ergals. I’ll swallow up the ship and tow you to the Plegma’s border. After that, get out of Dodge. Fast.”
“Wait,” I repeated as we stepped off the cloud and into our vessel. “You didn’t answer Spud’s question.”
Alto Stratum’s wisps felt warm as he reached over to close our gull-wing doors. I heard “He knows the answer” as the doors clicked shut.

* * *

I hadn’t expected the return trip to the Plegma’s rim to be as heart-stopping as our tractored entry. I’m an experienced Zygan pilot, but being a passive passenger while my dimly-lit ship, its nav holo dead in the water, was being steered by the cloud that fogged up all my windscreens was enough to set my nerves on edge. Well, at least the lack of scenery “outside” gave me time to think about Alto Stratum’s clues.
My mind started racing faster than our ship. Who else might be in Alto Stratum’s helpful “us”? Were he and Nephil Stratum part of some underground movement working against…against…who? Whom. Cirra Stratum? The Omega Archon? And, could Nephil Stratum actually have the ability to communicate from another brane with Synephs in the Plegma? Maybe. Wart, as Agriarctos, had sent us that comm module from Benedict’s planet ship in the brane beyond, hadn’t he? Nephil Stratum’s communications skills far, far exceeded Wart’s. If Nephil Stratum was contacting friends and allies to help us out, then perhaps she was playing Wart’s game, undercover agent, rather than Benedict’s, Zygfed traitor.
That thought gave me a warm burst of joy, quickly snuffed out by the aggressive worry that Cirra Stratum or that creepy Mel were behind all this theatre and had arranged to dispose of us in the depths of the Plegma. Whoever had put Alto Stratum up to “rescuing” us may instead be expecting us to be led blindly to our slaughter.
Spud must have been thinking the same thoughts, because we both reached for our Ergals at the same time. Sitting on the dashboard of the Zoom Cruiser, my Ergal was still in the form of a smart phone. I tapped on the black screen, and waited for access to the Zygan data banks. Nothing happened. My Ergal too was dead.
“Navigation.” Spud said as he shook his stopwatch-shaped Ergal. I heard him snort in disgust. Our Ergals didn’t even shine us a flicker of light. Were we trapped in an E-shield that drained all our power? Locked inside our drifting ship without any nav controls we were literally powerless to protect ourselves from attack or termination. Riding towards an unknown destination on the fumes of faith.
Then, darkness.
We must have both blacked out from the G forces as Alto Stratum ejected us from the Plegma. By the time I regained consciousness, the Zoom Cruiser’s control panels showed that power had been up for 4.37 minutes. And the border of the Milky Way was only 2.41 minutes ahead.
I put nav on auto-pilot right after we cleared the Gliesers and sat back in my jump seat with a loud sigh. Once more, empty-handed. I muttered, “Curses, foiled again.”
“We are alive and free. That is a cause for gratitude.” Spud grunted as he stretched his long arms and legs.
“Not if you buy all that prison stuff that weird guy Mel and you were talking about. You’re the one studying literature and philosophy in that Gothic mausoleum of a high school. You think he meant to imply we’re really living in Hell?”
Spud didn’t answer immediately. “Many have likened our lives as analogous to Purgatory,” he finally began. “Others have written that heaven and hell exist on Earth. I prefer to ponder the wisdom in the Chinese proverb, that the only man unhappier than the man who has not been able to satisfy all his wants is the man who has.”
Huh. Not bad. I needed to ponder that one a bit myself.
* * *
The Greatest Story Never Told

Zygan Federation Space—present day

I decided not to try Zygint Central again. Juan had already done all he could for us, and appealing higher up to the Omega Archon would be futile. Travel to another dimension wasn’t legal in the Zygfed rulebook. Except for Level 3, of course, to which Zygans usually transitioned after a lifespan of thousands of years (unless one was killed sooner in the line of duty as a Zygint catascope or Sentinel Corpsman). As suicide would bar one from Level 3 forever, I, just eighteen, had a long way to go before I’d be getting an invitation to heaven. Knock wood.
But we were still back at square one. The clock was ticking and we were no closer to rescuing John. If I couldn’t get a Syneph to act as a Somalderis and help us into another dimension, I had to find another Golden Fleece to do it. I wished myself luck. I’d drop off Spud at Eton and head to Earth Core and bury myself in the historical holo files in the Terran archives. Starting at A for Argonauts.
“You would do better to let me assist you in the search,” Spud said as I leaned over to instruct nav to take us back to Victorian England. “Else you waste precious time seeking the mythical Jason.”
“Bollocks.” I tried not to admit he read me again. “Based on Wart’s comment that he’d seen it in Colchis, John apparently had Jason’s Golden Fleece, anyway. The one John took over to the other brane.” And never brought back…
Spud leaned back in his jump seat and lit up a cigarette. “Which leads me to wonder from whence Yeshua got his Somalderis. Perhaps there is only one Golden Fleece,” he added, blowing rings at the Zoom Cruiser’s roof with the smoke.
My frustration got the better of me. “Must you? Really?”
“It helps me think. Would you prefer I Ergal myself some nicotine gum?”
I rolled my eyes. “I can live with the death sticks. I’m talking about your theory. Its implications. With the Synephs out of the picture, if there’s only one Golden Fleece, it means my only option to rescue John is to find Yeshua and get his Fleece.” Through gritted teeth. “Which he or the old Keeper would then have to have stolen from my brother.”
“Not an illogical supposition, Rush. Which presents more questions than it answers.” Spud tamped out the cigarette on the Zoom Cruiser’s titanium door and X-fanned the stub with his Ergal. “The only way then to prove that there is more than one Fleece is to find a second.”
“That could take forever. And Yeshua, too, could be anywhere. Maybe we should time loop while we search?” Time loops allowed time travelers to spend hours or days in the target century and return to the present right after leaving. We could hunt as long as we needed without delaying our rescue mission.
Spud favored me with two raised eyebrows. “Ev was kind enough not to play, as you Americans say, the stool pigeon about your unauthorized trips to draft me and Yeshua for your quest. I hardly think that you should expend your capital for time loop authorizations until we have a clearer picture of where and when—and if–we can find a Somalderis. Agreed?”
I shrugged, but made it look like a nod. And kept my fingers crossed.

* * *

Earth Core Station—present day

The library suite at Earth Core was deserted when Spud and I entered. Spud took a seat before the bank of holo screens and instructed them to respond in search mode.
“As I recall from my previous research, sheepskins were very common in the Southern Black Sea and were used to capture flecks of gold.” Spud called up images of fishermen in the region. “The fleeces were stretched over wood frames and submerged in the water downstream, collecting the precious metal.”
Spud panned towards a bank of trees from which several sheepskins were hanging. “Hung out to dry, and then the gold would be combed out. Voila.” He pointed to a grizzled bronze-skinned treasure hunter who was shaking one of the fleeces to trap the shiny flakes.
“Looks promising. So I should ask Ev if we can go back to ancient Georgia?”
“Not yet. There is nothing here to suggest that these sheepskins would provide us with anything more than a warm coat—or the ability to at least barter for one.” Spud played his nimble fingers on the screen and the scene dissolved to display some Acropolis-style buildings.
“Athens? Rome?”
Spud shook his head. “Alexandria. See the Pharos, the lighthouse, in the distance? I shall try to track the Argonautica writings from Apollonius of Rhodes in the Great Library. It may lead us to the source of the original story.”
Great. That could take hours. I, and John, didn’t have time to wait. As Spud zoomed the holo view in through the columns of a stately marble building, I started hopping on one foot and then the other. Spud finally noticed. “If you are in need of a water closet, I can continue the research by myself.”
I patted him on the shoulder and scurried out of the suite. Actually, the bathroom wasn’t a bad place to prep for my time loop. Spud may be clever, but I couldn’t believe that the equally clever Theodore Benedict wouldn’t have tried to find another Fleece in Colchis or wherever to fuel his inter-dimensional trip, thereby avoiding all those years he struggled, unsuccessfully, to cross over to Paradise with fission and fusion support. If Benedict, with all his resources, hadn’t found a sheepskin Somalderis, how could we? No, unfortunately, Spud had probably been more on target than he knew when he’d implied there was only one Golden Fleece, and only one man who now had it. Yeshua Bar Maryam.
Secreted in the rest room, I pulled out my Ergal. After we’d escaped from Benedict’s Planet Ship and returned to Zygint Central last month, Spud had been examining holo images of an older Yeshua preaching to a group of his countrymen on a desert hill. Clearly, Yeshua had survived to adulthood, perhaps under the old Keeper’s watchful eye. Had the Fleece we’d seen on his adolescent shoulders in Phonecia survived the years as well?
I dug into the cache where I’d shelved a mirror file I’d created of Spud’s data. My Ergal screen quickly pulled up and displayed the scene that Spud had been reviewing. Yes! Adult Yeshua was there—in Judea–decked in a flowing white robe, which flapped in the howling desert wind. Underneath the robe, I could catch glimpses of the Somalderis, which he’d wrapped around his legs from his waist to his thighs. Excellent. My Ergal would anamorph my tank top and jeans into a modest vestment and I would be on my way to Judea to ask Yeshua for, as my friend Sarion of Megara might say, a sheepish loan.
I Ergaled myself some coins of the era and secreted them inside my robes. The Tetradrachms, Tyrian shekels, might come in handy if I needed to bargain for the use of the Fleece.
Checking for contact metrics, I called up the Ergal screens showing Yeshua and his location in the past. The images had forwarded to a banquet, where I could see Yeshua breaking bread with a lively group of diners. Better not to interrupt his meal, so I advanced the action by an Earth hour and clicked the Ergal so I could travel back in time.

* * *

Judea—two thousand years ago

I almost scraped my scalp on the gnarly branches as I M-fanned under a craggy olive tree in the Garden of Gathsmani in ancient Judea. In the distance, Yeshua was exiting a cenacle, followed by several robe-clad bearded men. I squinted to see through the loop of my Ergal; yes, good, he was still wearing the Somalderis.
Yeshua was twenty years older than the last time I’d seen him this close. Now in his early thirties, he already had some streaks of gray along his temples and salting his beard. Wasn’t likely he’d remember me either. I’d taken a chance and traveled as a woman this time, instead of the young Danel. Figured I’d be less threatening as a female if I approached him in the crowd begging for ovine alms. I pulled my scarf back over my head and ventured into the field.
Yeshua’s steps were slow and deliberate as he ambled down the dirt path in front of the younger men. His face was in shadows, but his sagging posture seemed so different from the sturdiness he’d demonstrated in Phoenicia in his youth. Frankly, he looked like he was literally carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. I surveyed the garden for a glimpse of the Keeper, but the elderly caregiver was nowhere in sight.
A few yards from me, Yeshua paused and knelt on the ground, hiding his head in his hands, and muttering and moaning unintelligibly. I could see the beads of sweat dripping through his fingers from his brow Uh, oh. Maybe not the best time to hit him up with my own desperation.
The image of John, crying to me from the elusive other brane at my family’s dinner table, flashed before my eyes once again. I took a step closer to Yeshua. Ready or not, I had to get the Somalderis. For John.
Yeshua’s eyes were bloodshot, and brimming with unshed tears as he looked up at my flowing white vestments, backlit brightly by a moonbeam through the olive branches above my hood. He blinked a few times, his expression puzzled, and then, after glancing back to confirm that his celebrant companions had fallen asleep on the ground off in the distance, asked me hoarsely if I was a messenger from his father.
Did he mean the Keeper? In any case, it wouldn’t hurt to say yes. Yeshua might be more likely to let me borrow the Somalderis for a day or two if he saw me as a friend of a friend. I’d return to the modern day a few minutes after my departure, grab Spud, and we’d use another time loop to rescue John. With a little luck, I could be back in Jerusalem before morning.
I nodded, stumbling through the truth in Aramaic, “I return to you from a world beyond this one.”
“I await his wisdom and his behest. Though I shall obey his commandments, I have prayed that my father might relieve me of my burden.”
From what I could make out in Ergal-translated Aramaic, Yeshua likely had me confused with someone else—an ancient Aggelaphor messenger perhaps. The last remark threw me for a loop, but also gave me my opening. Catascope training taught us to be quick on our feet when an opportunity arises. Yeshua’s plea had given me an idea.
I laid a comforting hand on Yeshua’s bony shoulder. “The Χρυσόμαλλον Δέρας is a burden, is it not?” I whispered. “Let me carry it forthwith and present it to your father and I shall return a-morn’ with his reply.”
Yeshua hesitated for what seemed like an eternity before nodding and unwinding the treasured fleece from his waist. He handed me the Somalderis with a worried expression.
Off in the distance, an advancing crowd caught my eye. Many were grey-haired, wearing robes and sandals and sporting bushy beards. Leading the group was a dark-haired stocky man who pointed towards us with a cry of “The Teacher”. The noise awakened Yeshua’s companions who got up and headed over in our direction, shouting something that sounded like “parasols”. Time for me to “exit, stage left”. Fast.
Wrapping the Somalderis around my own waist and reaching into my pocket with my free hand for my Ergal, I set off into the heart of the grove of olive trees. I hid behind the largest I could find, peeking out to make sure I hadn’t been followed. As I activated my Ergal to X-fan, I glimpsed the stocky bearded man reach Yeshua and give him a respectful kiss.

* * *

Earth Core Station—present day

“Ev, you are an angel,” I said as I kissed him on his chubby cheek. “I’ll drag Spud out of the library and we’ll be on our way.” After Ergaling back into my comfy costume of sweater and jeans, I’d carried the Somalderis into Earth Core Control like a championship trophy.
“So this is a Somalderis,” Ev said with a sprinkle of awe, as he ran his hands up and down the Golden Fleece. “Wow.”
Spud burst out of the library suite brimming with enthusiasm. “I have uncovered an obscure reference in the Alexandria records that guides us to—“ His face paled as he saw Ev caressing the Somalderis. “Where–?”
“Those who can, do. Those who can’t, research. Come on, John’s waiting for us. We’ve got to hurry. Ev’s authorized us to time loop through that portal Wart commed us about near Area 51. Let’s go.
Spud’s frown lasted until we’d M-fanned in Nevada.

* * *
If I Only Had A Brane

Area 51, Nevada—present day

The moon hadn’t yet risen above the Tonapah Hills to spotlight our arrival, but we’d invisible-ized just in case a curious US Army patrol decided to drive through Groom Lake with too many questions. Seeing as we were invisible anyway, I wish we’d gotten here before sunset. The desert in the night was frigid.
“Now what do we do?” I ventured to Spud.
“Hold my hand,” Spud ordered as he finished adjusting the settings on his Ergal to align with Wart’s recommendations. “Wrap the fleece around us both like a greatcoat.”
I shivered as I took his arm. “Glad this thing is warm.”
“Hold on tightly. We must stay together. On your mark, get set, g—“
Blinding light flashed into my eyes, and I felt the weight of a thousand suns upon my chest. My body exploded into a million pieces, a big bang that scattered my essence beyond my severed arm’s reach. I was nowhere, and yet I was everywhere, my soul in each molecule that flew through the blackness of the light. Before I could scream, the scene rewound and my molecules rushed to reform my corpus with a giant roar.
I lay supine for several minutes, until my panting eased. The grass under my fingers felt so much softer than the desert dust. “Damn.” I sat up, still gasping for breath, fortunately in a decently oxygenated environment. “What a ride.”
“Don’t move,” Spud cried, shooting out a hand to pull me back down on the ground. “Just lie perfectly still. Do not even breathe.”
A giant shadow swept over us, as the winged reptile soared across the pink sky, its beak seesawing open to reveal enormous teeth.
“We are fortunate to be little desired by predators on Earth. Our story might be prematurely terminated here.”
“So where’s here?” I whispered after the gynormous pterodactyl had glided towards the red horizon. All I could see around us was an expanse of white cotton balls on which we lay. “Brane 5? Level Three? Hell? ”
Spud shrugged as he hopped to his feet. “It remains to be seen. The same should not be said for us, however. The Somalderis?”
Intact, but a bit smaller than before. I reached for the Fleece and tied it once again around my hips. Then instinct kicked in and I felt for my Ergal. It was gone!
“Our Ergals did not seem to survive the transition,” Spud intoned. “I am afraid we are mortal visitors in heaven.”
I didn’t like that he stressed the word “mortal”. And my definition of heaven didn’t include predators. Spud was right. We were sitting ducks in this field of fluff. “Wonder why Wart sent us here. We’re miles from nowhere. Glad I wore my sneakers, uh, trainers.”
Spud wasn’t listening. Shielding his eyes from the two red dwarf suns still lighting the sky, he was scanning the horizon. “It will be a long trek. I would not wish to give those avian demons another chance to ingest us. I am a bit less credulous than you about Wart’s motives.”
“Then how about we try ka’vyr?” I suggested. The Ifestian technique had allowed us to instantly transport ourselves from one spot to another on Theodore Benedict’s planet-ship. Maybe the technique could help us find a productive destination in this world, too.
“Now that, Rush, is an excellent idea.” Spud reached out his hands and took mine. “Together.”
Eyes closed, breathing deeply, we began the mental gymnastics we’d learned from the Ifestian shaman T’Fal that would ease us into the transcendental state. I felt the ground begin to shift under my feet, accelerating so quickly that Spud and I were knocked down onto the cottony “grass”. The movement continued so that we were soon lying flat on a surface now angled at 70 degrees. Slipping, we started to slide bottomward through the cotton balls, cascading down, down, down to…
I opened my eyes as I felt the steep curve of the field lessen and our descent slow. We splashed into directly into a lake tinted chartreuse and ecru, and, fortunately, rose to the surface without needing to tread water. Or whatever this creamy liquid was.
“The nutrients will diffuse through your skin,” said a gravelly voice as we bobbed on the pond’s surface. “We will not have time to stop for din.”
I swum around and faced the six-foot frog that sat cross-legged on an enormous lily pad. Not a Zygan species, for sure, I quickly assessed, wishing I had my stun gun. Or my Ergal.
“Really?” I mustered. Or my wits.
Fortunately, Spud had his. Wits, I mean. “Agriarctos sent us. I apologize for our tardiness.”
“No time for sorry. Hop on to my lorry.”
Spud and I each pulled ourselves onto the lily pad and bookended Mr. Giant Frog. I offered my hand. “Shiloh Rush. William Escott. And you are?”
“Robert,” the frog croaked, as he leaned over and brushed my fingers with his nippy lips.
I stifled a giggle. My Mingferplatoi Academy classmate Sarion the joker would’ve started calling Robert “Ribbit”, of course. Damn, I missed Sarion. And the rest of the team of Academy dropouts. After the “Lost Boys” had helped us rescue Yeshua, they’d snuck off to explore M81 and M82, galaxies beyond Zygfed. Would that I could contact them to help us rescue John now.
My gurgle choked in my throat as the lily pad shot off on the surface of the lake like a speedboat. As we bounced on the pond’s gentle swells, the lake of “nutrients” started to grow smaller and smaller, until it was only a drop at our nutrient-caked feet. Ribbit was right. I wasn’t hungry at all.
“Flurry, scurry, hurry,” our Frog guide chided.
“You made the pond shrink?” I jumped off the lily pad onto a winding amber stone path that stretched out before us, gingerly avoiding a three inch winged lizard that scurried by my toes.
“No go,” Robert returned as he started ahead down the trail. “You grew big. Mega’ing, dig?”
Spud raised an eyebrow. “Indeed.” Spud trotted up to Robert. “I assume we should now follow you along this icterine adobe path?”
“Aye, guy.” The Frog returned as took a giant leap forward.
“You have got to be kidding,” I grumbled, as I hopped on the yellow bricks to catch up with Robert and Spud. “And don’t anybody ask me to sing. I am not my sister Kris.”
Both of my companions stared at me with puzzled expressions. I sighed, and, confusing them even more, began to literally skip ahead of them both, raising my arms in a cheer and crying, “Road Trip!”

* * *

On the Yellow Brick Road—present day

“Halt!”
“Who is John Galt?” I ventured, but the elephantine cockroach didn’t smile.
“A fantasy figure bred by an overreaction to a forced communal society that ignored the realities of self-preservation tendencies and familial and tribal competitiveness. If you please,” the cockroach responded with a small bow. “Now who are you?” His antennae dangled over his eyes like a brutal frown.
Well, at least he wasn’t a rhyme freak like Robert. “Shiloh Rush,” I said, fingers instinctively feeling for the Ergal that I knew wasn’t in my pocket.
The cockroach frowned even more. “Have not read of you. What is your book?”
“Where Angels Fear to Tread,” I mumbled. More loudly: “Unfortunately, not enough have read of me.” Or watched me, judging by the mediocre Season 1 ratings for our show, Singularity TV’s science fiction adventure Bulwark.
Spud stepped up beside me. “William Escott.”
There’s a smile. A grin, even. Never thought I’d see that on a cockroach.
“Yes, I have always believed that you are real, and not just a brilliant figment of the doctor’s imagination. I would love to pick your luminous brain. Figuratively, of course,” the giant cockroach cackled before turning to Robert and adding, “May I be the tin man?”
“I suppose you can,” the Frog returned warily. “But, don’t wait, we can’t be late.” He tugged at Spud and “John Galt”, pulling them forward down the road.
“I thought the tin man needed a heart,” I said to no one in particular, revving up my trot once again.
“You’re right,” said a tiny, pale, pointy-eared elf as he leapt onto my left shoulder from the adjacent grassy border. “NoOne at your service. I’m the one who needs a name.”
“What?” I pulled him into my palm so he wouldn’t fall off as I upped my jogging pace.
“Until I get a name, I answer to no one.”
I grinned. “You sound like me.” In genial Frank Baum mode, I yielded to my training in Catascope 101, Lesson 4: Go with the flow. “Okay, NoOne. Welcome to the team. Any idea where we’re headed?”
NoOne hesitated before answering. “The yellow brick road ends at the Gates of Hades. But I expect we’ll probably layover in Azgaror until we can finagle an invitation.”
‘Hades’ I remembered from my Academy Terran mythology uploads. The underground world where the souls of the dead languished. A slightly less painful version of Hell. Swell. And ‘Azgaror’ didn’t seem entirely unfamiliar either, but, I couldn’t place the reference. Damn! I was naked without my Ergal.
Forcing a smile, I gently placed NoOne in my jeans pocket, leaving his head and arms hanging over the rim so he could see, and set off to catch up to the others. “John Galt” and Spud were already in deep conversation; I overheard a few words about ‘analysis and synthesis’ as I passed. Spud seemed to have found a soulmate, much to the distress of Robert whose features expressed annoyance at their less than snappy pace.
“Are we going to Azgareur?” I asked our Frog leader, trying to mimic NoOne’s pronunciation.
Robert frowned. “Our path will not bend until we reach the end,” he replied as he hopped past us several yards.
“If it involves a wizard behind a curtain, I’m warning you, I’m done,” I grumbled.
“There are no wizards in Azgaror,” John Galt interjected. “Rather an overused literary trope recently. Along with vampires, zombies, and elves.” He frowned at NoOne. “No offense.”
“NoOne is offended,” the elf returned.
“In Norse mythology, the city of Azgaror is the location of the Valholler, where the Valkyries fly heroes slain in combat,” Spud added. “It is the divine abode of the god Odin.”
Show off. “So why would we care about that allusion?” I muttered.
“Because, Rush, Valhalla, the warriors’ promised land, is analogous to Level 3.”
My eyes met Spud’s. He nodded, and added, “And I should not be surprised to find traces of your brother, or, for that matter, of Theodore Benedict at its gates.”
* * *
And The Beats Go On

Maryland—eight years ago

My brother John first took me camping in the Appalachians in the autumn when I was ten. Grandpa Alexander had died a few months earlier, and the atmosphere at home was still funereal. John had just turned 18, and, with help from Connie and George, had been tasked with raising the rest of us six. I’m close to his age today, and I couldn’t imagine taking on that kind of responsibility myself—not now, not ever.
My memories of the trip unfortunately aren’t as sharp as I hoped. I can visualize the lush, brilliantly colored foliage, with hundreds of shades red, orange, yellow, and green greeting us as we walked through the tree-lined trails. I also remember my having to run to keep up with John, taller than me by a foot, with his long, lanky legs. The sky through the trees was overcast, and the weather was nippy, even with my down jacket and corduroys to stave off wind chill. There was a faint pine scent in the air, air so clean it seemed to scrub my nostrils every time I breathed.
We set up a tent in a small clearing next to a rocky ledge that gave us a view of the green valley below. John lit a campfire, and I do remember lying next to the flames, enveloped in warmth, my head on his knee, gazing up at the night sky and the constellations in space. Awed by the panorama of the heavens above us, I asked John, “Is that where Grandpa Alexander is?”
John didn’t respond for what seemed like a very long time. “I’d like to think so,” he finally whispered, “but more likely there’s nothing but a vast darkness surrounding our Earthly oasis which sadly can’t nourish our souls.”
“But what about the stars,” I protested.
“Brimstone and Fire,” John said with a faint smile.
“Then where is Heaven?”
“That, Shiloh, is a question for the ages,” John admitted. “If you ask me,” he tapped his temple gently with his index finger, “heaven is right here.”
“On Earth?”
“Sometimes,” he said softly, as he turned to stoke the campfire. “Have you ever eaten s’mores?”

* * *

On the Yellow Brick Road—present day

“Now what do we do?” NoOne’s voice was an octave higher than its usual high pitch.
The pine scent was fading as our Frog leader walked back towards us. “No time for fear, we can’t stay here.”
Our winding path had brought us to the rim of a thick forest. The entrance to the woods that stretched before us was dimly lit by the light of a trio of moons. Beyond loomed only darkness. No tall redwoods to blaze our trail, no leafy maples to cushion our tired soles. Just twisted brambly branches sporting violaceous leaves, taunting us as we tentatively inched closer. I took a quick look around, expecting Tim Burton to pop out of the shadows and yell “Cut!”.
“Aha!” cried John Galt, startling us all. “Just in time. Nothing more boring than reading interminable stretches of text describing scenic journeys without confrontations and crises,” he added. “We are not avatars in a travelogue.”
“Don’t be so sure,” NoOne piped in from my hips.
“Will everybody stop going meta!” I cried. “Please. If we continuously ponder the meaning of our existence we will never get anywhere.” Seeing John Galt open his labrum again I raised a hand in protest. “You’ve read the book, J.G.. Robert is right. We have to charge forward already.”
A tap on my shoulder. Spud leaned into my ear and whispered. “Without Ergals or stun guns, we may be at a disadvantage up ahead. Catascope 101, Lesson 3. Should we not pause to gather some defensive weapons? Just in case.
I grinned, “Hey, I’ve read the book, too. But, I think we’ll be all right. Remember, we’re the heroes, and they’re the red shirts,” I nodded at our traveling companions. “If they’re okay with pressing on…”
“Actually, our uniforms on Bulwark are burgundy,” Spud protested, referring to the costumes he and I wear as space agents on our TV series. “That is a shade of red.”
But I had already surged ahead. Taking Robert by his webbed hand, I started chanting a marching song I had learned as a child from John, stepping one foot in front of the other in cadence to the rhythm of the words.
“Left, right, left. Beat, Left, right left. Beat. I left my wife and 48 kids and an old gray mare and a peanut stand and I do right, right, right from the country from where I came from, right foot, left foot, skip by jingo, left, left.”

* * *

My own voice had dropped to a whisper after we had proceeded about a mile into the forest. I could hear few sounds except the crackling of our footsteps and an ominous throbbing that seemed to be growing louder and louder as we plunged deeper into the darkness.
Robert had stepped aside and let John Galt and his compound eyes take the lead, as his vision was the most penetrating in the gloom. Having a giant cockroach as your front man was probably not a bad defense strategy either against who- or what-ever might attack us.
The yellow bricks under our feet looked grayish in the dark; a contrast to the twisted tree trunks that stood guard like a black fence on both sides of the road, vibrating with ever greater intensity. My adrenaline levels were at max, my heart beating out of my chest in sync with the din, as we tiptoed through the forest, ducking our heads to avoid frequent low-hanging branches that we feared would come alive and grab us by the hair. Or in John Galt’s case, the antennae.
After another torturous mile, J.G. spotted a clearing up ahead, lit by the moons through a gap in the trees. As we approached, the throbbing sound increased to a deafening booming that forced me to clutch at my ears to block out the agony. A musical sting worthy of an epic film score crescendoed around us, and, at its peak, I opened my mouth to scream.
But instead, silence. Once we stepped inside the clearing, the cacophony abruptly stopped. No music, no throbbing, no noises. All we could hear was the sound of our breathing and our pounding hearts. The rays of moonlight bathing us in luster were a welcome relief after our arduous trek in the gloom. This haven might in fact be a comfortable place for us to rest and spend the night.
I turned to the Frog. “Robert, how about we—AHHHHH!” The pain in my side was paralyzing. I looked down to see blood dripping down my leg, gushing from a small bite wound at my waist.
Spud’s cry was at a lower register, but just as loud. Brushing at my hip, I spun around to witness my partner being shielded by John Galt’s exoskeleton, then screamed, “Oh, my God!”, as the cockroach shouted, “Dinner! I love brains!” and sank his mandible and denticles into Spud’s bloodied blond hair. From the corner of my eye, I saw a flushed NoOne leap off my hip onto Robert’s warty back and start stabbing his vertebrae with vampire-sized canine teeth.
I had no time to ponder NoOne’s radical transformation into a demonic creature—Spud, even at six feet tall, was no match for a seven-foot vicious insect. Ignoring my own pain, I jumped onto John Galt’s vestigial wings and, planting both feet around his thorax, grabbed and pulled back his head. The cockroach released his grip on Spud and started bucking his body to try to throw me off. Spud collapsed to the ground, clutching his lacerated and oozing scalp, as I cried, “John Galt, we’re sentient creatures, please have mercy!”
J.G.’s harsh voice snapped at me as he tried to brush me off his back with his limbs. “Compassion is not in John Galt’s vocabulary. One has to eat. And NoOne does too.”
Tightening my grip, I hammered at his exoskeleton. “Why would an Elf want to hurt us?”
A cackle exuded from our tiny companion, followed by a raspy growl, “I am a Goblin, you mythist! And that’s what you get for picking up a stranger!”
“Mega!” The cry came from my feet, as a crouching Spud rolled over towards Robert.
Mega? How could I get bigger without my Ergal? J.G. bucked ferociously and I lost my balance, flying off his back and landing supine onto the hard ground under his torso. As the cockroach turned to face me, grinding his denticles as he lowered his abdomen onto my trapped body, it clicked. Of course, Spud was right, Robert could Mega. But our Frog guide was writhing on the ground, trying to escape the onslaught of NoOne’s teeth. Would Robert have the strength or the opportunity to come to our aid?
John Galt’s cold breath chilled my face as the predator opened his mouth wide for his first bite of Shiloh. His jaw snapped shut—and clipped the toe of my shoe. I now stood a hundred times his height. Thank you, Robert. Quickly, I lifted up my foot and stamped on John Galt’s exoskeleton, ashamed that I relished the crunch under the sole of my relatively giant shoe. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a red “ant” escaping from the clearing into the flora, literally leaving NoOne.
Robert’s enlarged but immobile green body lay prone on the ground, cushioned by trees shrunk so relatively small they were now the size of weeds. The weeping wounds on his back were flapping open with each gust of wind. A mega’d Spud lay next to him, the scalp bleeding staunched by a piece of cloth torn from his sleeve. “Robert, Robert, are you okay?” I cried, as I turned to my surviving companions.
Spud rolled over the unconscious Frog and felt in the neck area for a pulse. “His heart is beating, but I cannot perceive respiration.” Before I could respond, Spud tilted up Robert’s head, planted his lips on the Frog’s, and exhaled.
I gasped. The tortured olive dermis was began to morph into tanned humanoid skin, and we spied an elegant face with delicate features which was soon topped by a web of curly dark hair. The transition took only moments, but appeared to heal the dermal damage caused by NoOne in the process. Sitting up before us now was a very handsome young man, clothed only in brilliant gold vestments encircling his hips, who looked just a little older than Spud’s eighteen years.
Possibly a prince. Definitely a hunk. “Thanks for saving our lives,” I said as I reached out my hand and helped Robert up, marveling at the smoothness of his bare sculpted chest and back. “Your wounds?”
“The wheals, love heals,” he returned, still rhyming.
Oh well, nobody’s perfect.
Robert leaned down and kissed Spud’s scalp as my fellow catascope lay on the weeds, propped up on an elbow. Spud’s forehead laceration disappeared, replaced by a rare look of admiration directed at our guide. “Thank you, my friend, well done,” Spud said, jumping up, and clapping Robert on the back. “I am once again chipper.”
I was about to suggest that Robert tend to my hip wound in the same way, when I observed that Spud’s arm remained wrapped around Robert’s shoulders. Sighing, I stretched the hem of my blouse to cover the wound and compressed the oozing bite with a clenched fist. Guessing what would be coming up in the next act, I decided that now might be a good time for me to excuse myself for some beauty sleep.
A glance down at the path, now a thin, winding yellow line, showed it extending from our feet far towards the flat horizon. We would have a long journey again tomorrow. “Is there a place I can safely snooze around here?” I, stifling a yawn, hinted at Robert.
Robert nodded, and taking a small leaf from his pocket, laid it on the weeds, and, somehow, mega’ed it into the size of a pup tent. “No one will not bother you here, my dear. At all.”
He took a second leaf and enlarged it to fit two a few yards from mine. Putting his own muscular arm around Spud’s waist, he eased Spud over to the edge of the leaf and folded the remainder over their heads like a blanket, adding, “But if you need anything, just call.”
Waving weakly, I walked onto my leaf and folded part of it over my own head and weary body. I’d be on my own for the rest of the night. Spud usually chose intellectual pursuits, but once in awhile, he’d go “mad about the boy”. I’d long ago learned to get out of the way when Spud stumbled into some action. As his best friend, I was happy he’d hooked up. But how long had it been, I wondered, trying to ignore my twinge of guilt at my envy, since I’d gotten lucky? With anyone.
“One cannot reflect in streaming water. Only those who know internal peace can love.” That ethereal voice could only belong to Nephil Stratum. Startled, I peeked outside my leaf tent for traces of a fluffy cloud, but there was nary a wisp in the vicinity. Of course not. I must have imagined that’s what the Syneph would say if she’d been here: that until I’d rescued John, internal peace was beyond my grasp.
Airing out my wound, I laid down again in my leaf tent and closed my eyes, covering my ears with my hands to block out the ambient sounds, resolving to put aside my own thoughts of romance until I’d succeeded in my quest.

* * *
The Vizier of Az

On the Yellow Brick Line—present day

The night cycle on this planet was a good 14 hours, so I found myself waking up just as dawn’s light pierced my leafy cocoon, feeling well rested, pain-free, and refreshed after yesterday’s “skirmish” in the brambled forest. Clearly, Spud was equally refreshed, I noted when he stuck his head in my makeshift tent. I hadn’t often seen him grinning from ear to ear.
‘Chacun a son gout’, I teased as I rolled up the leaf. “Of course, ‘Je m’en fous’?”
Spud raised an eyebrow. Blushing, I turned away to avoid his gaze. Unlike Spud, I didn’t limit my attraction to one gender—or species, for that matter. I would’ve been open to exploring Robert’s assets myself. And Spud’s for that matter. But, Nephil Stratum—or was it my conscience—was right. I—we—had a job to do, and time was a-wasting. As Robert appeared, I pointed to the leaf and asked, “Ready to hit the road. We going to need these?’
Robert shook his head, and in a second, the leaf had micro’d and wafted away in the breeze. “Speed with all our might, in Azgaror before the night.”
I suggested we stay mega’d so we could cover the distance to Azgaror more quickly. In fact, if Prince Robert could mega us even more, we could grow big enough to theoretically reach our destination in a few steps. Alas, he reported we’d mega’d to the max, so it still took much of the day for us to arrive at the village.
As we jogged, Robert explained, keeping rhythm in in what Spud called dactylic hexameter, that he was the seventh son of the seventh son of Odius, the king ruling Valholler.
King Odius begat of Fyorgyn his son Thor
For Yule to cross the lake of Hargaror
And fly again to Freya’s hall of Sessrumnir
Folkvanger’s gates were barred by word of Syr.
The recitation was an epic that recounted generations of deities, kings, and soldiers, and I couldn’t catch most of the names and places as Robert ‘sang’. I found my mind drifting to how much my warrior friend Matshi would have enjoyed the performance. Alas, since little of this history had been in the Mingferplatoi Academy uploads, and none of it was “on the test”, I had little real interest in learning the details of a world I didn’t intend to visit for very long. Unlike Spud, who took in every stanza with rapt attention. Ain’t “wuv” grand?
I did hear enough to learn that John Galt and NoOne very likely were demons, sent from Niflheimr, the Land of Ice, and Muspell, Flame Land, to capture warriors trekking to Azgaror and deliver them to Hel. Even spelled with one ‘L’, it sounded, like, well, Hell.
Robert reassured us—me—that at our current size, we were unlikely to run into any more dangerous predators. Except of course the Goliath Jotuns, who were still three times our current dimensions. Good to know. Sure wish I had an Ergal—or even a slingshot.
Thanks to our longer legs, we arrived at Azgaror a few hours before sunset without a scratch and with very few blisters. It felt like my sneakers didn’t grow as much as my feet. I was also starting to get a bit hungry, seeing as it was almost two days since my last meal and our swim in the nutrient pond. Can’t explain it, but I had a weird desire to capture and eat a cockroach. Or an elf. But, instead, we agreed to join Robert at an Inn on the outskirts of Valholler for a dinner of mead and wild boar. Yum.
The village of Azgaror consisted of arc-shaped narrow streets framed by dark, brick-paved alleys. A layer of gray clouds that reminded me of the overcast marine layer typical of late spring Los Angeles–“June Gloom”–kept any sunslight well hidden. The pavement on which we trudged was drenched with a misty dampness that should have made Spud feel nostalgic for his sceptered isle. On both sides of the road stood domed four storey buildings, all painted in colors that I could neither place nor name. “These chromatic frequencies do not exist in our brane,” Spud theorized. “One could amuse oneself by inventing new names such as glue and breen, I suppose.”
“This isn’t a sightseeing trip,” I reminded Spud sotto voce. “The sooner we find Wart, the greater the chance of finding John.” The yellow brick road was winding through the center of the town, its path ahead hidden by the curves in each block. Frigid drafts kept too many fur-clad pedestrians from joining us on the street in the last leg of our voyage. And the gusts from the galloping horseback riders that burst onto our path every few yards upped the wind chill. Shivering, I pulled the Somalderis off my hips and wrapped it around my shoulders. Much better. Robert must be freezing in his state of relative undress.
Robert had continued ahead of us, and I ran up to catch his ear. “Is Agriarctos staying in the village?” I asked. It would be easier—and more pleasant–to find our ally without having to navigate Hades and its lost souls in Valholler.
“I know it is a hassle, but he’s staying in the castle,” was the Prince’s response.
Darn. On the other hand, if John himself was in Hades, we’d have to go there, too, so we might as well head in that direction straightaway. I suggested a quick refuel and then storming Valholler’s gates, but it was not to be. Admission was limited to heroic warriors fallen in battle, Robert poemed us, as well a few invited special guests. “Being a deity, for example, would be ample.”
Spud sometimes acts like he’s a cut above the typical human, but, no, neither of us thought we could successfully sell ourselves as gods. As a prince, couldn’t Robert finagle us an “invitation”?
A dramatic sigh. “The end is nigh, it was a lie.”
What? “What?!” I felt even more irate than I sounded. Spud made an unintelligible gurgling sound.
“My words I mince, I’m not a prince. The royal court I pester, but, simply, I’m a jester.”
Oh, great. Another Sarion, the comedian. “Then get to the punch line,” I countered.
“If I brought you here, said the bald vizier, they’d remove the curse, and I’d stop the verse.”
I frowned. Who’s the bald vizier? What’s a vizier?
“A vizier is a high ranking political advisor or minister,” Spud said, his voice cracking. I could almost see daggers in his eyes appearing when he glared at Robert. That’s why I’ve never been a fan of one night stands. Or “wuv”.
“Are you implying we have to break into Valholler?” I poked an index finger at Robert’s sternum. “Why?”
Robert glanced at the Somalderis warming my shoulders. “I’d be wary of what you carry.”
I looked at Spud for some elaboration, but he avoided my gaze. Shaking my head, I said to the amusement artist formerly known as the “Prince”. “Okay, then, Robert the Ribald, let’s get some chow and strategize how we can get past those warrior guards. Now.”

* * *

Azgaror—present day

If only we had our Ergals. We could anamorph into 350 pound samurais and bulldoze our way into the castle—heck, we could even invisible-ize and not have to bother. Unfortunately, even though I tried, I wasn’t able to get the Somalderis to shape shift us at all.
Could Robert? After all, turning into a non-Prince from a frog was a sweet trick.
“I know you’ll be blue, but I no can do,” Robert admitted, explaining that the “frog thing” was part B of the rhyming curse, and not an anamorphing talent. Apparently, the Vizier was a big fan of fairy tales—and foolish curses.
I sighed. We needed a plan B then. Perhaps some martial costumes? Chainmail? Shields?
Robert rested a platonic hand on my shoulder. “No sad face, I know just the place.”
I swallowed the last of my boar and forced a smile.

* * *

“Awfully dark in this alley,” I whispered, as I watched the shadows from moonslight seeping through the deserted towers alongside us flicker across Robert’s bare back. “You sure we’re going the right way?”
Robert waved us a few yards forward and stopped at a structure that was decrepit as well as deserted. A wooden sign hung from a single chain, swinging rhythmically with the biting wind that had eroded the painted scarlet letters til they were almost too faded to decipher.
“Ambrosia,” Spud ventured, his vision and interpreting faculties, as always, surpassing mine.
“Never fear, we are here,” Robert announced, his words a reverberating echo that made both Spud and me do a quick 360 scan to make sure we hadn’t been followed. Robert opened a squealing oak door and led us into a dimly lit hallway, illuminated only by remnants of simmering candle wax hanging precariously from tarnished holders along the peeling walls.
“And where exactly is that?” Unless this was a secret tunnel into Valholler, I wasn’t optimistic that we were making progress towards our Plan B.
Robert paused before a splintered door, brightened only by worn patches of reddish paint. “Before we concede defeat, I have someone I’d like you to meet,” he said with a grin as he shot out an arm to open the door, and stepped aside to let us through.
Oh, my. Before us was a large cavern, rainbow-tinged stalactites and stalagmites dripping blue liquids onto a smooth, slippery floor. Across from our entry stood a tall, wizened, gray-bearded man, dressed in azure and gold robes, wearing a long cone-shaped hat that displayed several recognizable constellations. From our universe. In his right hand, the old man gripped a Geryon, the facile tool that my former classmates Setsei and Suthsi had used to help us escape the clutches of Benedict and his minions not so long ago.
Robert waved at the cave’s tenant. “Marlin, darlin’.”
I tossed an eye roll at Spud before facing Robert with hands on hips. Gently. “Merlin? Really, Robert? He looks like he just walked off the set of “Fantasia”. And, anyway, didn’t you promise us there wouldn’t be any wizards in Az?”
Robert shrugged off my irritation. “No need to wince. You know I’m not a prince.”
A deep chuckle from across the cave, as Marlin, eyes twinkling, started ambling towards us. “’Do not put your trust in princes, in mortal men, who cannot save’. Psalm 146:3, right?” Marlin stopped before us and extended his arms in welcome, adding, “Though I have advised Robert that he might rethink his habit of being annoying. Not everyone humors his humor, as his rhyming penance amply demonstrates.” The wizard’s accent sounded vaguely Scottish, with a hint of American.
“So, are you the Wizard of—I mean the Vizier of Az,” I grumbled.
Another guffaw. “Oh, good heavens, no.” He removed his hat to release and shake out his silver shoulder-length locks. “Hardly. Though I do admit I’ve known my share of Viziers in my days. But, inevitably, the bloom falls off the polished apple, and one can only survive if one moves on.” A long sigh. “I have been trying to change my behavior these last few hundred years, instead of falling in with the same type of bad apples over and over. At my age it’s getting harder and harder to go on the run at the end of our run.”
“Looks like you ran from our universe.” I added, nodding at the hat in his hands.
“Oh, dear,” said Marlin, shaking his head, “I did forget to change my hat this morning. One of these days I’ll forget my own brain.” He looked up at each of us, one at a time. “And what brane are we in today?”
“I theorize Brane 5,” said Spud. “But that remains to be seen. Tell me, Marlin,” he continued, “was Julius Caesar or was King Arthur your crowning ‘vizier’?”
Marlin’s eyes narrowed. “I preferred Iulius Kaisar, frankly. Much more sure of himself—less wishy-washy. Consensus isn’t always the best management style, as my old friend Machiavelli used to say. But you’re a clever fellow, now, aren’t you? Somehow, you remind me quite a bit of Lancelot.”
“Not a bad call sometimes,” I muttered sotto voce, earning glares from Spud and Robert.
“Your speech reveals tenures in Imperial Rome, medieval England, rural Wales, and 20th century New England, among other traits. Even without knowing your name, the deduction is simple.”
“And sometimes he’s just showoffalot,” I said, louder.
Marlin, and the others, ignored my crack. “Ah, my name, truly a cross to bear. Do you know that the Welsh made it sound like a French curse? My brethren never had this problem. But, as I chose to swim alongside humans, I have only myself to blame.” He cleared his throat. “And who is to blame for your exile in this Purgatory?”
“My brother. John. John Rush,” I dived in. He disappeared three years ago,” more forcefully, “working undercover. We think he might be a prisoner in his brane–this brane.”
Marlin’s expression was sympathetic. “I’m sorry about that, young lady. But I’ve heard nothing in the winds about a John Rush.” A twinkle in his rheumy eyes. “Is that all you desired from me, I expect, considering my age?”
“Uh, not exactly.” I took a deep breath, trying not to giggle at his implication. “We’d like to get into Valholler, Without dying in battle. Maybe some disguise? Can you help us?”
Marlin frowned. “Ooh, now that may be a challenge. I don’t know that I’m able to—“
“Well, seeing as you’re a wizard, after all,” I interrupted, nodding at the spear in his hand.
“’Tis a Geryon, Shiloh,” Spud whispered. “How much of a wizard was our Suthsi?”
Oh. Spud had a good point. My former Mingferplatoi Academy classmates, the Ytran meiotes Setsei and Suthsi had no ‘powers’ without their Geryon. Did Marlin?
“Must you puncture my delusions of wizardry with your Geryonic intellect,” Marlin growled at Spud, adding in a softer tone. “I have an image to protect.” He tilted his head at Robert.
Robert looked confused, “The conversation at hand, I don’t understand.”
Feeling a twinge of empathy for the old magician, I jumped in, misdirecting with enthusiasm. “Look, Marlin, why don’t you take your magic wand here,” I pointed at the Geryon, “and dress us up in some costumes that’ll get us through. Like battlefield armor?”
A smile. “Now why didn’t you say so. Of course I can arrange that. But, I have a better idea. I knew my days riding Níðhöggr the Dragon would come in handy. With these outfits they won’t dare turn you away.” Merlin aimed his Geryon at Spud. “You first. This’ll just take a minute.”
I had a momentary flash that maybe we shouldn’t have been so naive. Sure, Geryons could anamorph our external appearance, but with the right—or wrong—manipulation, they could also stun or kill us.
“Wait!” The cry came from Spud. He stepped off to one side, holding up both hands. “Just take those rocks over there and anamorph them into costumes instead, all right? We can dress ourselves.”
“All the world isn’t made of faith and trust and pixie dust, eh?” Marlin smiled again and genially turned his Geryon towards the pile of rocks a few yards away from his golden pointed shoes. In a second, the rocks’ molecules had been rearranged to form colorful robes and hairpieces for us to don.
“No, not in my universe,” said Spud, reaching for the Geryon. “You know, I think we shall also need new pairs of shoes. Would you mind if I added a finishing touch?”
Marlin’s eyes narrowed for a moment, but, to my surprise, he handed the Geryon to my partner. “As my friend Ben Franklin used to say, ‘Trust thyself, and another shall not betray thee.’”
Nodding, Spud aimed the Geryon at a few remaining pebbles near the pile of clothing. I stepped back a couple of inches. Handling a Geryon well took a lot of practice—was Spud really qualified to use this uncommon tool? I hoped so, for all our sakes. As our eyes were trained on the ground target, Spud swung the Geryon around and pointed it at Marlin’s head, activating it. The wizard’s skin and hair began to melt and diffuse into a sparkling mist that formed a halo around Marlin’s upper body.
I gasped. Underneath the grey locks and the wizened features, we began to see shiny scales that adorned the smooth face, eyes, and mouth of a giant fish. Marlin was a Glieser!
Among the many lessons we’d studied at Mingferplatoi Academy, at least for those of us who were non-telepathic, was Interspecies Cultural Communication. Sure, it meant uploading Zygan and a host of other languages into our brains and not just into our Ergals. But it also meant learning to read the signals across species. For example, if you’re chatting with a Chidurian, who basically resembles a giant crab, how do you know when he’s happy or, well, crabby? Some Scyllian species and other canines have these heartbreaking sad eyes, even when they’re ‘walking on air’. And, most Rigellians literally walk on air—but only when they’re angry! So, Spud and I had to call up our Academy memories to recognize that Marlin’s piscine features were registering a mix of fury and disappointment. And a lack of oxygen.
“Just wanted to confirm my theory,” Spud admitted, as he moved the Geryon away, restoring Marlin to his panting humanoid form. “Your lifespan is not unique for a Zygan. But one question remains.” He raised the Geryon again, and we all jumped back another foot.
“The aqueous world is the world’s womb,” Marlin finally spoke in a hoarse whisper, “but it is the Gliesers’ cage. I so envied our Coelacanth cousins that had escaped the water’s clutches and tasted the dry dirt and the fresh air. I spotted the Geryon among the wreckage of an Ytran cruiser in the Kepler 5b backwaters, and thought I could barter it for a ticket to a Glieser starship, and a chance to explore the world beyond. It was only when I started to fiddle with it that I realized it wasn’t a toy, and that its many powers included shape-shifting.” Marlin’s eyes sparkled as he cast a loving glance at the spear-like weapon. “I no longer needed to see the universe from the inside of a Glieser aquarium. I could be free to travel through the air with this Geryon that’s rarely left my side.
“You sound like my brother,” I said, snorting. “Only he wanted to escape the cage of dry land and an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. The grass always looks greener in Level 3.”
“It is a truism, but, as truisms go, it’s true. We cannot escape ourselves. God only knows I have tried. Again and again.” Marlin waved an arm at the stalactites above our heads. “And yet, here we are. Isn’t this a lovely cage?” Were those actual tears in his bloodshot eyes?
“Indeed, Marlin, here we are,” Spud conceded before returning the Geryon to Marlin.
“Purgatory has never looked better, but we have Heaven and Hades in our sights,” Spud added, motioning for us to pick up the clothes. “Thanks for the Geryon. Shiloh, Robert,” he winked, “let us carry on.”

* * *

Valholler—present day

Which is how three Valkyries arrived at Valholler’s gates, their long flowing horsehair extensions whipping in the wind, their long flowing robes hiding the stuffing strategically placed to make my two male companions, Spud and Robert, sport C-cups. When you use a Geryon rather than an Ergal to anamorph, you have to improvise.
I hadn’t expected to face the leers we got from the thousands of warriors as we walked softly and nonchalantly down the red carpet towards the massive iron castle doors. I’d have to take the bullet for my team if the soldiers got pushy, as they might be put off by Robert and Spud’s male anatomy. On the other hand, since women here weren’t exactly a common commodity in the encampments of these horned warriors, maybe I was worrying too much. Glad I thought to bring along a big stick as a staff, just in case one of them decided to mount…a campaign in my direction.
The sentry at the castle entry asked for our names as we approached. “Fagrskinna, let us inna,” said Robert.
I stifled a giggle. A fitting Norse narrative name.
“Heimskringla,” followed Spud, lifting the name of another Norse saga. Now what was the one I was going to use…?
“Kriskringla,” I erupted, flashing a warm smile and waving my “staff”.
“At the behest of the vizier.”
The guard frowned, then looked down and spoke into a gold medallion hanging on his chest. A comm device, obviously, but awfully advanced for this awful place. That didn’t bode well—medieval values with modern technology? And we only armed…with our arms?
We stood anxiously in silence for a few minutes before he spoke again, and, unlatching an enormous set of iron keys from his belt, unlocked the doors to let us in. “Gunner will see you now.”
I smiled, and led the guys into the castle foyer. As the door closed behind us, leaving us isolated in the empty lobby, Spud whispered, “Gunner is the Valkyrie of War.”
My smile disappeared. “And I don’t like being a sitting duck. Let’s get moving. Robert, where’s the royal court and this vizier guy?
Robert stood in the foyer with a confused expression as we tried to pull him to one side into the shadows. “Don’t tell me you haven’t been here before,” I groaned.
“I don’t know what to tell ya, it doesn’t look famellya,” he returned, as a giant plume of smoke erupted in the middle of the entrance hall.
“In here, hurry,” Spud whispered as I spied a seven-foot woman with Medusa hair and a Xena body appearing inside the mist. Grabbing Robert, I dragged him through the doorway, and signaled to Spud to close the door.
As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw a long hallway on the other side of the small room, and no other way out. Orange smoke started to seep in through the doorjamb. Could Gunner be far behind?
We ran. And ran, and ran. I thought we’d run far enough to be back out in the city of Azgaror, but the hall still surrounded us, with no visible exit. Fortunately, as we looked back, we saw no wisps of smoke coming our way. We slowed down and trotted towards a dimly lit cave far off in the distance.
In the center of the cave was a large pit, several yards across. Perhaps a way out? I ventured towards its edge, leaning over to peek inside. My scream caught in my throat. Only a few yards below us were worm-riddled carcasses, stinking of putrefaction, extending their skeletal arms up towards us, bones clacking as they moved, their eye sockets oozing blood and pus. Their mouths were open, chipped and stained teeth coated with sludge, crying out to us without making a sound.
“I expect their larynges have dissolved, rotted away,” Spud said from behind me. “We are staring into the maws of Hades.”
A whimper from Robert. Hey, man, I hear you.
“Well,” I said after a deep breath, “I don’t recommend we exit this way.”
“Indeed not,” Spud agreed. “If I recall, soon after Gunner’s smoke wisps cleared, I saw an aperture in the ceiling above us. Twenty or thirty yards back. I propose we revisit that part of the hallway.”
I nodded. I couldn’t get out of this hellish cave fast enough.
“There it is.” Spud gestured at the hole over our heads. We’re all skinny, but even we wouldn’t be able to squeeze through an opening that size. The light from above shone down on us, teasing us with its warmth. “Perhaps Robert could micro—“
“A door I didn’t see before!” cried Robert, pointing to a 4-foot wooden portal on the side wall by our feet.
“Now there we can fit.” I clapped our guide on the shoulder. “Good show. Just let me make sure we don’t have any more dead souls hiding in there first.”
The door creaked open to reveal another hallway, this one about five feet in height. We’d have to crouch, but otherwise the coast seemed clear. We set off in the new direction, our eyes peeled for company, and crossroads.
Once again, it seemed as if we were walking for miles before we reached the terminus. Another wooden door. I looked at my companions and shrugged. “May as well.”
The room beyond was palatial. Ornate furniture, decorations, marble floors, travertine walls, velvet curtains, gold vases, very Versailles.
“Norse myths place Heaven and Hell in close proximity,” Spud lectured unnecessarily. “I have found that paradigm reflects life.”
Before I could roll my eyes, a female voice resonated through the room. “You are impostors!”
Gunner. Damn.
We turned to see the Valkyrie of War towering over us, her flowing robes cascading over a very muscular torso, the sharpness of her expression only surpassed by the sharpness of her spear.
“And impersonating a Valkyrie is a crime,” she boomed, “punishable by excruciating death!”
Maybe we should’ve opted for that pit after all…

* * *

Gunner waved her spear and we found ourselves wrapped tightly in the clutches of a giant boa constrictor. I could feel Robert’s heart beating faster and faster as the snake tightened its grip. Spud and I both went into Catascope 101 mode, gulping in as much air as we could to push back against the boa’s compression. That would only buy us a few seconds, though. We had to think fast.
“The Vizier!” I shouted, gasping.
The boa stopped contracting. Gunner bent down to meet my eyes. “Yes?”
“We’re his guests,” I croaked, “You must not kill us before we have fulfilled his mission.”
“Mission? What mission?”
Good. She bit. “Um, take us to him, and then we can tell you. If we lie, you can execute us before his eyes and preserve your honor.” God, I hope the Vizier has a heart. Even if not, we might have enough time to plan an esc—
The room disappeared in a cloud of smoke. When the smoke cleared, we were in a, a library? Floor to ceiling around us were thousands, millions of books, as far as the eye could see. I was hoping we’d see some curtain I could open for “the great reveal”, but we were surrounded by nothing but books. In a myriad of sizes, colors, and languages. Oh, yes, and the boa.
Gunner seemed content to stand by us and wait. I used the time to scan our environs for possible routes of egress. Did any of the books trigger a hidden door or window? Were those big volumes heavy enough to use as shields—or weapons?
Spud must have been making the same calculations. I saw him flick his eyes toward a shelf a few feet to our side. I’ll be damned—Milton. In English. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained. Here in this alien brane. Oh, no, I was starting to rhyme, too. Was Spud was betting those two books could open a portal out of here? Considering our limited options, not a bad bet.
Spud nodded and together we each inhaled an enormous breath, sticking out our chests and enlarging the boa’s circumference. On the count of three, we both exhaled explosively, sucking in our guts and dropping down to the ground, sliding out from under the boa’s spiral prison and rolling on the floor onto our feet. We each leapt for a Milton volume, grabbed one, and opened it, hoping for a trapdoor release. And—nothing. Alas, poor William! Where be your escape route now?
“They’re just books,” said a familiar voice. “Though I would never deign to malign masterpieces of literature with the adverb ‘just’. Still, I must commend you for your survival skills—at least to date.”
I looked up to see the familiar balding pate, wire-rimmed glasses, and hint of a sneer. Theodore Benedict. Sporting floor-length, colorful gilded robes.
Gunner aimed her staff at the Zygfed terrorist leader and announced, “Ladies, the Vizier of Az.”
Theodore Benedict, The Zygan Federation’s Number One “Most Wanted”! And us without our Ergals.
Doomed.

* * *
Pandora’s Balks

“They’re here, I beg you to approve, the spell that will this curse remove,” came the high-pitched whine. I spun around to see Robert pointing his index finger in our direction.
“You traitor!” I clenched my jaw. And my fists.
Benedict chuckled, “It all depends on your perspective, Rush. Robert will get what he has earned. Anesidora?” He gestured at a petite young woman who stepped out from behind the colossal Valkyrie. Her long brown curls framed beautiful features and teased the shoulders of her sparkling gown.
The woman smiled and touched the ring on her middle finger. Wasn’t that the band-shaped Ergal we’d, uh, collected from Gary’s body? The one Benedict reclaimed on his planet ship? Apparently. Robert was surrounded by a cocoon of bright light, which flared and then faded. Where the tall, handsome young man had been standing was now, once again, a small frog.
“Hey!” Frog Robert croaked.
Benedict wagged his own index finger. “Now, don’t be ungrateful. At least you’re not rhyming any more.”
Before Benedict could finish his sentence, the boa opened his jaws and swallowed the frog in one gulp. I swallowed a gasp.
Benedict sighed and continued. “Catascope 101, Lesson 5”: Never let your guard down.”
Spud, white as the lovely brunette’s gown, watched the lump travel down the snake’s gullet and then disappear in its coils.
I was shaking in anger. “If I had Marlin’s Geryon, I’d—“
“I’m sure you would,” Benedict said, as he turned to Gunner, “but now that you mention it. Gunner, do send my thanks to the old fossil for his alert, will you.” Facing us again, Benedict winked, “Always good to have a Plan B.”
Spud’s gaze had lingered on the boa, but he now favored Benedict with an icy glare. “Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s. In deepest consequence,” he growled, fury dripping from his voice.
Benedict continued to smile. “As I said, it’s all a matter of perspective.” He reached over and gently squeezed the brunette’s smooth hand.
Spud’s eyes fell on the young woman, and, still frowning, he asked, “Anesidora? As in the mythical, er, philanthropist?”
“Right again, Escott. May I introduce the two of you to Anesidora Benedict. My mother.”
I caught my breath. Benedict’s mother? Was this the woman for whom Benedict had sacrificed his membership in Zygan Intelligence, and in the Zygan Federation itself? The woman whose neurocache Agriarctos and I had been forced to rescue from the Zygan Federation’s Registered Anastasial Memory chamber on Benedict’s orders?
“Good to see you again, Shiloh,” Anesidora said, resting a warm hand on my shoulder. “I never had a chance to properly thank you for reuniting me with my son. Perhaps I can return the favor to you some day.”
Spud interrupted, his eyes widening on noting Anesidora’s ring. Benedict’s Ergal! “How did you get the Ergal across to this brane?” he demanded.
“It’s not a Zygan Ergal, Escott,” Benedict confided. “It does not wither away if you travel beyond Zygfed’s prison walls. There is technology in the multiverse that far surpasses the Omega Archon’s. Pity you won’t have a chance to observe it.”
“Your verdict, Vizier?” Gunner boomed, impatient.
Benedict’s hand slowly extended to form a gesture of ‘thumbs down’. I froze, my eyes meeting Spud’s. Why the hell was he smiling?
“Thumbs down means Benedict will not throw us to the lions,” Spud whispered. “Modern reviewers have it backwards. Thumbs up is the one to fear.”
“Oh.” I breathed a sigh of relief, as a frowning Gunner tapped her staff on the stone floor and disappeared in a cloud of smoke.
“Let us ourselves X-fan to my salon,” Benedict urged, “Plionarctos the Ursan will brew us a blissful tea, and I will proffer some of the answers I am certain you seek.”
My brow furrowed as well. This seemed a little too easy. Remember Catascope 101, Lesson 8. Keep an eye out for the other shoe.

* * *

Theodore Benedict’s Lair, Valholler—present day

With help from Anesidora’s Ergal ring, we M-fanned into a spacious room, lined by walls of glass that looked out onto a panorama of green hills nudging azure seas. Didn’t seem to be a part of the topography of gloomy Azgaror, that’s for sure. Much more a Pacific Islands or Mediterranean look.
The light of two suns reflected off of three moons in the pink sky. The brightness was a blinding contrast to the oppressive gray of the village, and the terrifying twilight of that bramble forest.
Benedict motioned for us to take a seat on a fluffy beige couch. Spud sat stiffly on its edge, but I welcomed its softness and lounged back in the cushions. No point in making the visible point to Benedict that we didn’t trust him. I managed a quick glance around to establish my environment. The room was filled with art, sculptures, paintings, modern and ancient, all beautiful. Richly woven carpets on the polished marble floor. I could see no easy exits, however, unless some of those floor-to-ceiling glass panels were in fact doors. Or breakable.
My not-favorite Ursan, Plionarctos, M-fanned with a tray of appetizers, followed by—yes!—Agriarctos, our disguised friend Wart, bringing in tea.
“Thank you,” I said to both Ursans as they served us, putting a hint more sincerity into my gratitudinal gaze at the former colleague who had saved our lives, perhaps more than once. “Nice to see some of the old crowd again.” I took a sip of the gentle brew and added, “Where’s the rest of your staff?”
Benedict waved a hand at the panorama beyond the window, pointing at the three moons in the rosy sky. “This planet in fact only has two moons. Our ship adds a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the mise en scene,” he grinned. “And I can pop in every now and then to ensure their ambitions remain focused on their tasks and not on each other.”
“And…and Nephil Stratum?”
“All in due time,” Benedict said, waving the Ursans away. He snapped his fingers as they X-fanned and we were surrounded by the soothing sounds of—
“Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring,” Spud chimed in.
“Conducted by Copland himself,” Benedict said. “While I admire the technical skill of the baroque masters, their work cannot capture the grandeur of the compositions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”
“I’ll bet he loves Wagner,” I muttered to Spud.
It was Benedict who chuckled. “Not really, my dear, there is such a thing as ‘over the top’.” He took a few swigs of his tea as, smiling, he waved his fingers to the music. An expression of sadness crossed his face. “Humanity has so many divine gifts it can share with the universe. Pity it cannot conquer its demons.”
I flashed an image of NoOne, before I tossed back, “Physician, heal thyself, Benedict?”
“One must play the cards one is dealt, Rush, and at the level of your opponent, or else you will soon not have anyone with whom to play. That, by the way, became your brother’s curse.”
His words hit me smack in the gut. “Is John here? Do you know where he is? Did he,” I hesitated, “make it to Level 3?”
“He made it to the heaven he imagined. But a soul cannot survive for long in a vacuum.”
I softened my tone. “Please. We came here on our own because we thought he was in trouble. He worked with you. Can’t you help us?”
Smiling again, Benedict swallowed one of the appetizers. “Never thought I’d hear that question from a catascope.”
“We’re not catascopes in this brane. And we won’t turn you in to the Omega Archon.”
Benedict laughed. “Your naiveté is always amusing, Rush. I have no need to fear the Omega Archon. When it’s time, King Odius will lend me the Valkyries to pay back my many favors. We will return to Zygfed and the Valkyries will make short order of Zygfed’s fusible King.”
The terrorist rinsed his mouth with a sip of tea and then put down his cup. “But, no, Rush, I cannot help you.”
Another punch. Why was Benedict staring at my waist?
“He said cannot, not may not,” Spud interjected. “I would venture his Somalderis, Nephil Stratum has failed at the quest to rescue John. You’re wearing the only Somalderis here that can.”
“Exactly, Escott. Nephil Stratum’s tender tendrils have kept your brother alive in his brane, but there is not enough energy in his prison purgatory for her to return him to this brane. That’ll be your task, if you survive.”
I looked first at Spud and then at Benedict. “I’ll survive. We’ll survive. Just tell me where he is and I’ll go get him.” My eyes fell on Anesidora’s ring. “It would help if I borrowed an Ergal.”
The beautiful woman shook her head. “Impossible. But I will assist with your crossing,” she said softly, “if you’ll be kind enough to deliver a gift.” In her delicate hands M-fanned an exquisite amphora, vase, its narrow neck stoppered by a giant sparkling ruby.
Spud laid a warning hand on my arm, but I brushed it away. “I’ll do anything to rescue John. Anything,” I whispered, before turning to Benedict, and adding, “I’m in.”
“Excellent,” Benedict glowed, “then let us take action–right after dinner.” He waved his hand and the music changed again, “Synthetic filet mignon always tastes better with Strauss on the side.”
I had a hard time containing my excitement. I’d begun to believe that I’d never see John again. And now, in a few hours, as in my happiest childhood moments, I’d be at his side. Spud’s attempts to whisper in my ear were becoming annoying.
“It’s the least we can do to be polite,” I returned in a low voice. “And besides, it’s a free dinner, not lunch.”

* * *

Dinner ended up seeming endless to me—and, in a nod to Spud, unnecessary. We had to humor Benedict (I don’t mind space opera, but I am so not a Strauss fan) but, after years of waiting, I was eager to reach John. Spud and Benedict spent much of the meal arguing about Plato’s metaphysics, while I just poked at the food on my plate and pretended to listen to Anesidora’s hospital stories from her days as a nurse. I hadn’t seen my brother since I was fifteen. Would I be meeting the brave, strong, fighter that had so inspired me and my siblings? Or would my glimpse of him be fleeting as he hovered at death’s door?
Finally, an hour after suns-set, we M-fanned in a marble room, that was entirely marble. Floors, ceiling, walls, simply marble, with no added decorations or furniture. Anesidora handed me the amphora, and laid her hands on my shoulders from behind.
“When you arrive at your, er, destination,” Anesidora whispered in my ear, “tell Hermes that we will join him soon.”
Oh-kay. What did they say about Greeks and gifts?
“Ready?” A note of urgency?
I turned my head. “Should I hold Sp—Escott’s hand?” I asked, as I clasped the jar next to my chest.
“No,” Benedict responded. “Close your eyes and we will take care of the transport.” He nodded at Anesidora who tapped her Ergal ring.
My last memory before I X-fanned was a cry from Spud, but I was traveling before I could make out his words. Once again, I felt as if my body had exploded, its pieces erupting from my core and spinning around the fragments of my spine. Curiously enough, I kept seeing the amphora orbiting my atoms, but, unlike me, completely intact.
And then, breathing heavily, I stood again united, suspended in the center of an enormous glowing sphere. Alone.
“Spud!” I shouted, looking around the empty sphere for my partner. Empty, except for me and the unscathed jar in my arms.
Grasping the amphora, I curled up into a ball, and jumped, spinning myself into a series of somersaults that floated me toward the sphere’s edge. My feet shot out to meet the boundary, and I bounced off the flexible substance and caromed across the diameter of the chamber, careening off impenetrable walls with my extended legs. Eventually, my motion slowed to a stop and I found myself once again hanging in the middle of the sphere. I spat out an impolite curse.
The base of the sphere dissolved before my eyes and I found myself splashing into a large, shallow sea, with only my head and the jar rising above the bubbling liquid that licked my shoulders. My feet could barely touch the bottom, but I was able to kick and swim after a fashion towards a group of wizened humanoid heads that had gathered at the edge of my vision. There was still no sign of Spud.
“Anybody here ‘habla Ingles’?” I tossed off, not expecting an answer.
“We do not need hablar here,” blasted into my brain.
I twisted around to face my floating companions.
“Our thoughts are transmitted directly through ionic conductive currents,” a slightly more sonorous thought pierced my consciousness.
“Ah,” I said—or thought—who knows. Like CANDI, the Cascading Auxiliary Neurosynaptic Discharge Interaction, that sends wireless signals from our Ergals directly to our brains. “Where are we? And have you seen my friend? About my age, dark blond hair…”
“No, you are alone. This is your world. Make of it what you will.” One of the grizzled heads—I wasn’t sure which one—didn’t say.
I gripped the amphora. “Where’s Spud?”
“You can draw on your neurocache to see him.”
Before I could ask what the not-talking-head meant, Spud appeared before us, floating stiffly on the liquid’s surface. As he drifted by me, I was struck mute by my view of his face. The same gray eyes, aquiline nose, pale skin, and thin lips, yes. But his expression was frozen, lifeless. Whatever made Spud who he is was missing—this, this avatar, it had no soul.
“Make of him what you will,” resonated in my brain from another of the cerebral guardians.
“Don’t be afraid,” the avatar Spud announced. He swung his legs into the liquid and, sitting up on the surface, smiled at me with his trademark lopsided grin. “This Spud will be everything of which you dreamed.”
The look in his eyes had suddenly shifted from reassurance to adoration. An expression I’d never expected to see on Spud’s stolid face. Sure, I’d admit to having a few fantasies starring my catascope partner once in awhile, but I knew the real Spud played for the other team. Like half the guys I know in Hollywood. This Spud’s intense gaze as he swam towards me was totally out of character, and made me more uncomfortable the closer he approached.
Before I could raise my free hand and block him, Spud leaned forward and planted his lips firmly on mine, teasing my teeth with his serpentine tongue. “No!” I cried, pushing him away with my knees. “Stop! This isn’t you!”
The avatar pulled back and floated vertically before me, his expression once again vacant, waiting.
I spun round to accost the observing heads. “No! I want the real Spud! Where is he?”
The heads looked at each other before one communicated, “He is not here. You are alone. Make of it what you will.” Without another thought, all the heads, as well as Avatar Spud, disappeared. And I was alone.

* * *

Shiloh’s Brane—where time is meaningless

“Hey,” I shouted, holding up the amphora, “Is one of you Hermes? I was supposed to give you all a gift!” My thoughts echoed across the sphere, bouncing back and forth, fading slowly into an eerie silence. Those old geezers weren’t kidding. Except for me and my mind, nothing else existed in this hollow ball. No disembodied heads. Certainly not Spud. And not John. With every passing minute, the nothingness crept closer, surrounding me, drowning me with its emptiness. I felt my heart beating fast, my breaths growing short. I had to get out of here, now.
Still holding the amphora, I crouched into the liquid and sprung up to try to reach the sphere’s ceiling. Would I be able to diffuse through the membrane as I had done in the spheres on Benedict’s planet ship? If not, perhaps I could use the stopper’s ruby to slice a hole through which I could escape this vapid prison. My arms, and then the ruby’s tip, only stretched the sphere’s wall; ruby, amphora, and I were shot back down to land onto the shallow liquid, whose level had somehow dropped to my kneecaps and continued to diminish.
At this rate, very soon, there’d be nothing but this spherical trampoline imprisoning me, a void filled only by oxygen and my anxious thoughts. But, wait a minute, if the liquid was disappearing, there had to be a drain or some other means of exit that I might be able to take advantage of, too. I slipped off one of my shoes, and waded across the length of the shrinking sea, hoping to find a hole leading out with my bare toes.
Nothing. The liquid’s molecules must be able to diffuse through the sphere’s membrane. Without an Ergal, I couldn’t micro and get small enough to follow. Shoe on. Back to Plan A.
I glared at the ruby stopper. Why couldn’t you be sharper, dammit? And if I ever did manage to get out of here, Anesidora would be pissed that I’d messed up her goodwill gesture. I was about ready to toss the amphora to my feet in disgust, when I realized, albeit late, that maybe I had a Plan C. Yes, it finally occurred to me to open the jar. So I did.
A thin plume of smoke rose from the amphora’s opening, curling and looping into a spiral that grew to fill the open space around me. The wisps felt warm against my moist skin, bathing me, and drying the traces of the fluid still clinging to my clothes. Contracting, the wisps started to gather into a discrete cloud, which soon formed the shape and form…of a Syneph!
“Ha,” I grinned, adding in Zygan. “Dude, am I glad to see you.”
“My name is Helpus Stratum,” the Syneph responded with the language’s phonetic squeaks, “but you may call me ‘Dude’ if you wish. I am grateful to you for releasing me from my confinement.”
I pursed my lips and nodded. Dude was obviously unfamiliar with slang. “Your name’s very appropriate, Helpus Stratum. How long have you been…confined?”
“Since the birth of the Ifestian civilization. I am—was—considered a danger to their survival. You speak Zygan, but you are not Ifestian. Are you from Megara?”
“Terra,” I corrected. “A small planet at the edge of the—“
“A child of Gaia has traveled into the netherworlds?” The Syneph sounded incredulous. “I should have wagered that Prometheus’ folly would have borne fruit eventually. No matter,” the Syneph sighed. “It is now my obligation to repay you for unchaining my bonds.”
“Do I get three wishes?” I muttered, straining to remember who Prometheus was. I need you, Spud. I burst out, “Okay, first, I want to find my brother John. Second, I want us to get my partner Spud, and, third, I want us all to get home safely. Should be less than a day’s work.”
Helpus Stratum didn’t respond for a long time. “Be careful what you wish for,” the Syneph finally returned. “But, perhaps I could be of some aid. Tell me, Terran, where is your brother John?”

* * *
Prometheus Unbound

“Nephil Stratum.”
The Syneph turned pitch black for a moment, then retreated to a grayish shade. “Explain.”
“My brother John is with Nephil Stratum.” I kept my voice even. “Find her with that communications thing you all do, and you’ll find John.”
Grumbling, Helpus Stratum grabbed the ruby stopper from my hands with a smoky wisp, and secreted it inside a fluffy pouch. I laid the amphora on the sphere’s damp floor and waited in silence again for several minutes, stroking the soft wool of my Somalderis and trying not to fidget as the Syneph’s color wavered between blue and gray.
Suddenly, Helpus Stratum’s wisps enveloped me, smothering me in a foggy mist. Each breath blasted cold moist air into my lungs, air so thick that I gasped and gagged, thrashing my arms and legs to try swim out of the frigid white cloud. A wave of dizziness–and then my head broke through the fog into the blackness. And I could breathe.
But I couldn’t see. Not even a whisper of light, a darkness that made me long for the caustic blanket of Helpus Stratum’s smoke. Helpus Stratum? “Helpus Stratum?” I cried.
The faintest shimmer of luminosity next to me. I felt a warmth, a softness, cradling me, opening my eyes. Before me, a welcome sight, was a familiar downy white cloud. I smiled. “Nephil Stratum.”
“Shiloh Rush,” was the quiet reply.
I could view little before me, but had a feeling that Helpus Stratum was no longer with me, us—wherever we were. “John?”
“He’s here,” Nephil Stratum said, as a flicker of light shot out towards my feet. “Helpus Stratum can be a cruel ally, but, for this once, a saving grace.”
I looked down to see a prostrate John, cachectic and cadaverous, his sunken eyes blinking furiously to stave off the luminous assault, his expression revealing first confusion and then relief at the sight of his sister by his side. His emaciated arm shook as it reached out towards me, his mouth opened a sliver to let out a hoarse moan. Where was the indestructible mentor that had inspired me to literally reach for the stars? Now my brother needed me to save his life.
I knelt down and took John’s bony hand, warming it in mine. My other hand stroked his chilled forehead as I whispered. “Yes, I’m real.”
John squeezed my hand so hard it hurt my fingers. My eyes brimming with tears, I loosened my grip and his hand slipped out and rested on the soft Somalderis wrapped over my lap. John’s shaking stopped, his muscles relaxed. Letting out a long sigh, he smiled and closed his eyes.

* * *

John’s Brane—where time is meaningless

A thunderous clap preceded the flash of light. I held my hand up in front of my face and looked away. Three not-talking-heads had just appeared before in what I could now see was another sphere. But these three now had bodies attached. And wings. Guess the sea we’d all been floating in in “my sphere” had hidden those before.
“How came you here? This is not your world!” thought-cried the tallest, an ethereal young woman.
“Hey, can’t disagree with you there,” I shot back. “Just give us a few minutes and we’ll be out of your golden hair.”
“Silence!” shouted another winged being with a gruff voice. “Clearly the Syneph apostate is responsible.”
Did he mean my grumbling genie? “Helpus Stratum?”
The woman snarled, “Helpus Stratum made the correct choice. You, Nephil Stratum,” she turned to face my friend’s puffs, “have betrayed us, and, for that, you will face dispersion!-”
As the woman raised her winged arm, the third creature, a wizened old man, caught sight of my Somalderis and rasped, “It has returned! It shall be ours again!”
I took the opening and I jumped. Bouncing off the springy surface of the sphere, I leapt head first for the woman’s trunk. Unfortunately, she must have been a holo, because I flew straight through her abdomen and landed on my face behind her back. Oops.
I did succeed in distracting her, though. She turned back to me, buying Nephil Stratum some time. A lightning bolt shot out of the woman’s fingers, barely missing me as I rolled to one side and thrust up over everyone’s heads
The second being aimed his own hand above his crown. I curled into a ball and pushed off the sphere top with as much force as I could muster, whizzing through his extended arm and his winged torso. I spied Nephil Stratum behind me, smothering the elderly apparition, and keeping him from grabbing the Somalderis as I slid past.
Landing on top of my brother, I wrapped an edge of my Somalderis over John’s chest, I glanced up at Nephil Stratum, who had misted completely through the elderly man and was heading for us at a windy clip. “Go,” I shouted, spotting both of the other creatures extending their hands in our direction.
Nephil Stratum’s warmth enveloped us just as I glimpsed sparks arising from the creatures’ fingers. Would we have time to get away before our bodies were seared with the lightning’s flame? The elderly man raised both his hands and—
My body exploded into a million pieces, each only a few microns in size. I felt the pain of my atoms tearing apart, screaming for the cohesion of unity that was razed by the explosion. And John’s atoms, crashing into mine, giving me a flashing glimpse of the maelstrom in his dying mind. The screams in the molecules of my ears were coming from his soul. Without the structure of his body, John had nothing left. And nothing was what he had always feared the most.

* * *

Benedict’s Lair, Valholler—present day

The Persian carpets in Benedict’s living room suite felt soothing on my aching skin. I lay on my back taking deep breaths until my heart rate slowed down and the spinning sensation passed. And then I remembered. John!
Next to me, John’s eyes were still closed, his breaths shallow, irregular. I sat up, and looked around the empty room for Nephil Stratum, Spud, Benedict, anyone. Help!
I heard the rustling of a long gown behind me. Anesidora. “He needs help,” I cried, “you’re a nurse.”
Smiling, Anesidora walked over to John and laid a hand on his forehead. “I don’t have the luxury of knowing Zygan medicine, but I have learned a few techniques from King Odius’ shaman.” She tapped her Ergal ring, and summoned a chalice which she lowered to John’s parched lips.
John’s eyes flickered for a few moments as a golden liquid dripped into his mouth. As Anesidora pulled back, John’s body shook, and he turned his head to look at her and then at me.
“Shiloh?” was his only word, before he lay back and drifted into a peaceful slumber.
“He will sleep for a day while his body heals,” Anesidora said as she stood up. “Sunsets are nearing, and you would be wise to rest too before your return.”
“So you’re going to just let us go back to Earth?” I sat up, my eyes narrowed.
“Good heavens, yes,” Anesidora patted my hand. “Theodore has no use for–no reason to fear you young people.” A muttered afterthought. “There is very little that he does fear anymore.”
A half-question. “You all‘ll be staying here?”
“Of course. Our work isn’t done yet.”
“What work?” I couldn’t help asking.
“We have mysteries,” she said as she levved John’s body gently onto the plush couch, “yet to be answered. John’s venture was a well-meaning effort to reach Level 3, but he obviously failed. It’s now our turn to try.”
Anesidora sounded so genuine, and almost convincing. But, she was a Benedict, so I wasn’t going to let down my guard. Nodding, I forced a smile as I reached over and took John’s hand in mine. To Anesidora: “By the way, where’s Spud?”
She smiled again and X-fanned, leaving us alone.

* * *

I woke up, startled to see only darkness outside of the suite’s glass walls. Night had fallen. John was still sleeping, his head resting in my lap. Besides his light snoring, I could hear no other sounds.
Where was Spud? He hadn’t—I hoped–transported over to the universe spheres with me and remained a prisoner in that hell of isolation? Benedict and his mother must have meant for me to make that journey alone.
Easing out from under John to not disrupt his rest, I tiptoed around the suite, looking for a door or exit. I pushed my chest against the floor-to-ceiling glass—it didn’t give. Yet another prison. Damn!
No more amphorae, vases, or containers that might squirrel away another Syneph either. Obviously, Benedict meant for us to stay in this suite—calling out to him would not be much help. But, maybe…
“Agriarctos,” I whispered, “I’m hungry. I need food.”
Silence.
“I’m starving and dying of thirst,” I tried again. “Some tea, anything.”
Silence. Then, a large Ursan, looking like a rumpled polar bear, appeared before me bearing a tray of sandwiches and juice. Agriarctos!
“Thanks, Big A,” I said, patting him on the arm. I tiptoed up to whisper in his ear. “Can they hear us?”
A flash of light filled the room for a second. “E-shield. Now they can’t. Hurry up, kid, while they’re still asleep.”
I knew, but Benedict probably didn’t, that Agriarctos was really ‘disgraced’ Zygint agent Ward Burton. Was Wart really on assignment for Zygint, undercover, scoping out Benedict’s nefarious mission? Or was he a double agent, working behind the scenes to help Benedict as well? Either way, my using his real name might put him—and us—in danger. I had to be ultra-careful, and trust no one, including Wart.
“Brief me,” I mumbled, as I bit into a PnJ sandwich.
“Go back,” he whispered as he handed me the drink. “We’ve got it covered here now. And hide that damn Somalderis.” His eyes darted to the fleece still clinging to my hips. “It’s a magnet for trouble.”
I swallowed. “Is Spud okay? Where is he?”
“With Benedict. They’ve been alone in chambers all day.” Wart shook his head. “Without me.”
I winced. Spud alone under Benedict’s influence? “Is that a good idea…?”
“Escott isn’t the type to fall for the irrational. He’ll make the right decisions.” Agriarctos placed the plate with the remaining food on the coffee table and added softly, “When you three get home, take John back to his core. He’ll ‘ave to recover.”
Or did he say ‘He’ll Ev to recover’?
“And you? What’s your game?”
“Survival,” Agriarctos growled as he disabled the E-shield and X-fanned.
* * *
Homeward Bound?

The scent of bacon and eggs woke me up as the first rays of the suns filtered through the giant windows onto the plush carpet. In the adjacent dining room, Plionarctos was Ergaling bowls of breakfast dishes on the long table, which had been set for four.
I sat up and turned my attention to John. Anesidora’s potion must be working—my brother looked much healthier than last night. His color had a hint of pink, his skin no longer sagged over his bones, his muscles were filling out. I was overjoyed to see John’s eyes flicker open. He looked up at the ornate ceiling with a confused expression then swung his head in my direction.
“Shiloh! My God! Baby Sister!”
I scurried over and gave him a hug. “All growed up.” I grinned, sitting next to him. “You look so good, big bro.”
John tried to sit up, then fell back, clutching his head in his hands. “Don’t feel so good. Where are we?”
“My domain, Rush,” Benedict boomed, M-fanning into our view. “Or, I should say, Rushes.” He waved an arm at the dining room table, where I saw Anesidora was now taking a seat. “Breakfast is served.
The invitation was welcome. I was actually hungry. And, it would do John some good to have something to eat.
A groan by my side drew my attention back to my brother. “Get up slowly,” I warned him, earning the expected glare. Wincing, he took another stab at sitting up, this time with greater success. “Benedict, you bloody bastard,” he growled as his eyes focused on his old mentor. “Took you long enough to come get me.”
“We certainly have a lot to talk about over a delicious meal,” Benedict parried.
John staggered to his feet and, donning a brave smile, stumbled towards the table with an unsteady gait. I ran up behind him to spot him, just in case, then jumped ahead to pull out his chair. Anesidora had already dived into a fluffy omelet. But, where was Spud? And Nephil Stratum?
John let gravity drop him into his seat. His hands gripped the edge of the table, easing their shaking. The road back from the grave would be longer than he was willing to admit. Plionarctos spooned a large serving of scrambled eggs onto his plate, and, seeing John’s hesitation, grabbed John’s fork with a hefty paw and shoveled a sizable bite onto the tines, growling, “Eat”.
John patted the Ursan’s arm. Gingerly, he picked up the fork and moved the eggs toward his lips, pausing to sniff the sulfurous odor before opening his mouth. “That’s one thing they didn’t get,” John said after he swallowed, “Smell. Nothing had a smell.”
“I’m sorry. I really could use a shower,” I admitted. “And a change of clothes.” I eyed Anesidora’s Ergal—a new pair of jeans and sweater would be nice.
“Then they weren’t Helianthi,” Benedict interjected, confusing me.
John shook his head. “No. Nor Zygan.”
Benedict ventured, “Cathars?”
“It’s possible,” John said before diving into the remaining eggs.
I chewed on my hash browns, trying to remember. When we’d been trapped on his ship, our former Earth Core Chief Gary had threatened to ‘catharize’ us. He’d used a neuroinvasive device shaped like a grapefruit to delve into our minds and tear away our innermost secrets. If I hadn’t learned ka’vyr from the Ifestians and blocked the mental invasion, my very essence would have been vacuumed away. Gary had been Benedict’s very first “test pilot” into the branes beyond. Had he visited that horrid sphere world where I’d found John and brought back some of their brain-draining technology back to our universe?
“I was outnumbered and they got the Somalderis. I held out as long as I could,” John added. “But the isolation was lethal. Nothing is worse than nothing. Thank you for sending me the Syneph. She saved my life.”
“Where is Nephil Stratum?” I interrupted. “And Spud?”
“Spud?” asked John.
“My partner. My fellow catascope. William Es—“
“You, a catascope?” John exploded in laughter. “George, maybe, or maybe Blair, but I never thought you’d fall victim to the Omega Archon’s cultish wiles.”
I frowned. John’s Ergal had literally fallen into my hands and had led me to Zygint. I’d always thought his Ergal had been meant for me. “But you were a catascope, too. Why—?”
“Were is the operative word, Sis. I was taken in by the divine promise of the grand theatre, fabricated by the majestic Omega Archon. Took Benedict here to show me the light.”
John must be putting on a show for Benedict’s benefit. Isn’t that what catascopes undercover had to do? The words stumbled from my lips. “I-I was just following—trying to find you.” Why was my vision growing misty?
Chuckling, John patted me on the shoulder. “Glad you did. Please pass the eggs. I’m ready for seconds.”

* * *

I said nothing more for the rest of the meal. Benedict and Anesidora peppered my fast-recovering brother with questions about his solitary confinement in the sphere. Though resembling the spheres that stored Zygan neurocaches in Zygfed’s RAM, John’s prison sphere had been vastly different, not just in size.
“I didn’t even know that I had died,” admitted Anesidora. “I felt as if my experiences were real, concrete, and entirely under my control. I believed that I could have everything I wanted and that all my wishes would come true.”
Benedict patted his mother’s arm. “Well, one certainly did.”
I felt a shiver of disgust. Too weird a vibe there for me.
John snorted. “They didn’t even let me have my thoughts for comfort.” He clasped his head in his hands, his face contorted in agony. “I had hoped to find the truths I’d sought, but I discovered nothing. Just nothing. And I’d been afraid of nothing all my life.”
The mist washed over my eyes again. John’s search for answers had left him isolated with only an echo of his own voice. And that voice so alone—how could it not?—had changed.
I longed to touch something familiar. Spud, Nephil Stratum, even Wart. Eloquent words flew back and forth at the table before me, yet I felt more and more excommunicated, desolate. I watched John’s flourishing features assume a healthy glow before my eyes, and wished George or Connie could be with me to welcome our brother, as well as to assuage the gnawing anxiety tearing through my gut. I missed my friends, my family—and my John.
I could not hold back much longer. “Spud. I want to see Spud,” I cried.
Benedict smiled at me and nodded. Anesidora touched her ring and I was X-fanned from the dining room. Alone.

* * *

Gunner. With the barb of her staff pointing directly at my heart.
Damn.
“The Vizier sent me,” I said quickly, raising my hands. “Don’t shoot.”
Frowning, Gunner stepped to one side. Behind her, on a massive, ornate throne, sat a handsome young man; sprouting from underneath his golden crown were blond curls covering his bare, sculpted arms, on which rested two black ravens. The young man’s piercing blue eyes were focused on me.
“You escaped the Cathars. That is honorable and worthy of a reprieve,” he said in a deep voice. “The Vizier chooses his acolytes well.”
“King Odius, I presume,” I ventured. Somehow, I’d imagined the king as being old and gray. Come to think of it, no one except Marlin looked old and gray in Valholler. Not the warriors. Not Gunner, not Benedict, not Anesidora. Only those screeching skeletons in the pits from which we’d fled.
“I am seeking my friend Spud,” I said. “Know ye where he be?” (Sometimes, I do get carried away with the dialects I’m using. Come to think of it, seeing as I was without an Ergal to translate our conversations—where did all these Azgaror folks learn English?)
“If you are referring to William Escott,” Odius returned, unsmiling, “We expect him to return momentarily.”
“Where did he go?” Spud would never have abandoned me. Us.
Odius’ sigh carried the weight of millennia. “The Vizier is only the most recent of our immigrants seeking passage to the world of the Creation. Our ‘way station’, as it were, provides and nourishes the armies that guard that path. A thankless task, indeed.”
Gunner snorted. I jumped.
“It seems sometimes as if every ambitious and corrupt general in the multiverse ends up at our doors.” Odius opined. “I really do believe that hubris must be a necessary driver of interdimensional transport.”
Gunner laughed, a deep, bellowing guffaw. I jumped.
“Theodore Benedict is actually quite refreshing. To consent to allowing your companion to tackle the excursion first was most sagacious. You understand why I have entrusted him to serve as my Vizier.”
“Wh—what’re you talking about?” I was livid. And terrified. We had just rescued John from his misguided journey to what he’d hoped would be Level 3. Spud couldn’t be foolish enough to try the same trip. And force me to attempt another rescue. “You’re saying Spud is test piloting a trip to—to?” Those Cathar monsters wouldn’t let me, us, escape twice.
“Yes,” Odius said, “The launch portal to heaven. But there is much advance study needed before the transport can be tried. His measurements will be able to determine whether the Syneph can muster enough energy from our dwarf suns to bypass the Helianthi and their Somalderi.” The King smiled at me, adding. “The guardians of Heaven’s Gates.”
I returned the smile, pretending to understand, my fingers unconsciously stroking the Somalderis hidden under my puffy silk blouse. That was the second time that word—Helianthi—had come up this morning. It did sound a bit like Project Helios, my brother’s secret mission. Were those Cathars that had cruelly imprisoned John for his attempt Helianthi, too? Perhaps Spud or Nephil Stratum might be able to fill me in.
“I can do it.”
The warm mist tickling my shoulders had a familiar and welcome aura. Nephil Stratum.

* * *

And Spud. Leaning against a marble column with his lopsided grin.
“Took you all long enough,” I bluffed, nodding at Odius. “Benedict expected you hours ago.”
“We had to double check our estimates,” Spud chimed in. “Wouldn’t want any surprises during transport.” Spud winked. At me?
“If you can open heaven’s gates without a fleece,” interjected Gunner, “We will finally be free of the Helianthi.”
“Now that would be cause to celebrate,” Odius echoed. Turning to me: “Tell the Vizier we shall meet in the Champions Hall at solar apex. It is time to begin our campaign. We must prepare for the return of Balder.”
“I can get you some Rogaine,” I muttered under my breath, earning an elbow in the ribs from Spud as he grabbed my wrist and tugged me towards a large door that Nephil Stratum was opening.
The minute we had entered the deserted passageway and were out of earshot, I turned on Spud, grabbing his arms. “You’re actually planning to go with Benedict to Level 3?”
“I am relieved you have returned safely,” was the quiet response as he extricated himself. “And I am flattered by your concern.” His smile returned. “I was just helping Nephil Stratum with her next steps.”
“It isn’t possible, Shiloh” whispered Nephil Stratum in Zygan, “for a Syneph to manage that passage. But if Benedict comes to understand that, he will then steal your Somalderis.”
“Why hasn’t he done that already?” I dared to ask that nagging question.
“Because the Fleece is empowered by the Helianthi. It can transport us from brane to brane in Level 2, our multiverse, but without their endorsement, it cannot unlock the gates of Level 3. Benedict would find himself cast out into the vacuum of the Cathars just as did John.”
“Despite that possibility, I do not trust that Benedict might not take that risk of ending up in Cathar Hell if he believes he has no other choice.” She patted my arm. “Our first goal is to get you safely home.”
“So you don’t trust Benedict after all,” I returned. I’d been heartbroken to think Nephil Stratum was one of the “bad guys”, a Zygfed traitor. I lowered my voice. “Are you working with Agriarctos?” I asked, hoping she, like my brother, like Wart, was really working undercover.
“Sort of. But we shouldn’t chatter too much here, Shiloh. We need to get you and Escott—and your brother—on your way before Benedict sacrifices you all and tries to use your Fleece as a battering ram into the gates of heaven.”
“Works for me. But won’t you be in danger when he finds out you can’t make the crossing either?”
Nephil Stratum stroked my cheek gently with a warm tuft. “I have…abilities that can protect me from Benedict’s rage. Do not worry about my safety—just take care of yours.”
I wrapped my arms around her downy trunk and buried them in her cloudy clusters. My voice was hoarse. “Will I see you again?”
“I hope so, Shiloh, I hope so. When the time is right. Til then, if you must, you can reach me through Alto Stratum. But only in an emergency. I have to stay here to make sure the lock stays on the gate,” she said, as she opened a door that suddenly appeared beside us and led us into Benedict’s salon.

* * *
The Grate Escape

I was stunned to see how healthy John looked; it had only been a short time since I’d left his side at the breakfast table. His cheeks had filled out, his skin was rosy, and his eyes gleamed with an energy that I hadn’t seen since that long night of cryptic discovery at the University of Maryland synchrotron years ago. Anesidora’s magic medicine seemed to be even more effective than the healing powers of Chidurian ale.
“Congratulations!” John cried as we entered Benedict’s suite. “Level 3 is within our grasp.”
“Word travels quickly,” Spud commented, with a side glance at Nephil Stratum. “There is still much research to be done, but Nephil Stratum will be able to guide you.”
I was dimly aware of Benedict shaking Spud’s hand, and Anesidora extending an arm to pat Nephil Stratum. My own eyes were focused on my brother’s face—in shock. John couldn’t possibly intend to stay here—with Benedict—and try again. Not when I—when we all—desperately wanted him to join us back home.
I stood frozen, blinking, hoping my ears had misled me.
“Is there any way we can convince you to stay, Escott?” interjected Benedict before I could respond. “From the standpoint of ‘scientific curiosity’, perhaps?”
“I am afraid that my scientific explorations are best confined to my native brane,” Spud said. “But I should be interested in reading a monograph about your voyage after your return.” He smiled at Nephil Stratum. “Any communications would be fascinating.”
Nephil Stratum assented. “We’ll keep you in the loop, William, I guarantee.”
John rested a hand on my shoulder. “So make sure you tell George and Connie and the kids I’m all right, okay? Don’t want them to worry.”
“No!” I shouted, brushing John’s arm off me. Everyone turned in my direction, including Spud’s rising eyebrow.
“I didn’t say it when I should’ve, three years ago, but I’m saying it now—no! That’s enough, John, no more Holy Grails. You’re coming back with us.”
John extended his hands, palms up, and nodded at Anesidora. “Look at me, Shiloh, there’s nothing to worry about, I’m back 150%. She’s one hell of a nurse.”
“That’s not—I’m not talking about your health, John. I’m talking about ours.” I stopped to catch my breath. “Billy isn’t even a teenager yet. He needs his older brothers and sisters.”
John’s brow shaded his blue eyes. “Didn’t you tell me you were working as a catascope? Those responsibilities must be wreaking havoc with your babysitting duties.”
I pursed my lips. “Connie and George don’t need me to babysit. But at least I see Billy once in a while. Besides, I joined Zygint to try to find you.”
John sighed, “And I’m grateful you succeeded. But don’t make me your Holy Grail. I’m just your brother, healthy and whole. Your adult brother.”
I snorted. “Ha. Pot. Kettle. Black.”
“How dare you!” John’s pink face was now ruby red as he aimed his glare in my direction. “You insolent little brat—“
Before either of us could swing, we were enveloped in a blinding cloud. Nephil Stratum had flown between us, blocking our sight, and wrapped her fluffy puffs around my chest. I felt a misty tendril inch inside my blouse and make contact with the Somalderis. Was that shadow to my right my brother or Spud?
“Anesidora,” cued the Syneph. “Now.”
And we all exploded into a million molecules again.

* * *

Area 51—present day?

Spud must have come to first, as he stood over me waving our Ergals when I flicked open my eyes. My arm instinctively went to cover my brow; the blinding sun of the parched, Nevada desert would take a few minutes to get used to. Except, the sun was somehow shaded by trees. And the dirt and chaparral that I’d expected to be scratching my arms and legs under my supine body had morphed into soft grass. This wasn’t the Nevada we’d left behind in our interdimensional time loop, for sure. But if not, how did Spud find our Ergals?
“They were resting on the lawn right by our feet,” Spud explained as I stretched and sat up. In his hands, he held his “stopwatch” and my “smart phone”. “The compass reading confirms the same latitude and longitude from which we had departed for Benedict’s brane,” he added, focusing on his Ergal’s watch face.
“Well, at least they’re working.” I jumped up and made a quick scan of the lush forest. “Wow. Sure looks different around here. So green.” I nodded at the instruments in his hands. “What do you think happened?”
Spud tossed me my Ergal and shrugged. “I tried to find out, but I am only able to get simple, local functions such as the compass to operate. Communications aren’t running, and we can obtain no global metrics. Fortunately, the library and internal data banks do seem to be preserved. But nothing that actively connects with and utilizes Zygfed technology is operative.”
I fiddled with my Ergal as well. “You’re right. Mine, too. No non-Terran functions operational.” I tried several settings. “No morph, no lev, no invisiblizing. Damn.”
“And no weapons. I was unable to Ergal a stun gun, or even a Colt 45. Our Ergals had now become what they have been disguised to resemble—personal digital assistants and timepieces.” Spud pulled up a historical file and began to scan its pages. “Obviously, things here are not as we left them. The question is why?”
And then I remembered. “John!” John was lying a few feet away from where we stood, breathing softly, his eyes closed. “He still hasn’t woken up!”
“Wrong again, Sis,” he growled, opening his eyes. “I was hoping I’d wake up in Benedict’s suite tasting another dose of Anesidora’s divine nectar.” He sat up with a grunt and muttered, “And yet, here I am. Where the hell are we?”
“Area 51, Nevada, United States, Terra,” Spud recited as he continued his Ergal study. “However, we do not seem to be able to communicate with Earth Core, nor Luna Outpost.”
John cursed under his breath. “How’s your Somalderis? Still there?”
I felt under my blouse. Yes, the Somalderis was still wrapped around my chest, intact. But there was no Nephil Stratum within our sights.
Spud shook his head. “I did not expect that she would be making the trip back with us.” He sighed, and snapped off his Ergal. “Well, our historical records are of no assistance. We are on our own. I propose we start ambulating towards the main base structures, which, I recall, are approximately 2.69 miles from the transport portal.” He pointed beyond a grove of bushes. “There is a dirt path over there.”
As I squinted in that direction, John ambled over behind me and rested his arms on my shoulders. “I don’t see it. Where?” he said, as we saw Spud heading off ahead.
Spying a narrow trail in the distance, I raised a finger to show him. “Ow!” The arm holding my Ergal was twisted back, and I lost my grip on the Zygan tool. I tried to spin around, but John’s other arm had trapped me in a tight hold. “What are you doing?” I cried.
Struggling to get free, I felt John’s arm reach into my blouse and pull on my Somalderis. His strength now far surpassed mine, thanks to Anesidora. “Spud! Help!” I cried.
John cursed as he dragged me towards, towards the portal, while trying to manipulate my Ergal that he’d caught with his free hand. “Just stay still. I won’t hurt you,” he muttered. “Now!”
I saw Spud turn and start running towards us. And then one eye saw flashing light and the other morbid darkness. John’s arm floated away in pursuit of his legs. My own limbs were somersaulting in orbit around my nose.
A sharp thud, and I felt the warm grass under my supine body once again. A second thud and John lay next to me, panting as I was, catching his breath.
I flung open my eyes, and saw an ashen Spud standing over us, glowering at my brother.
“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” John joked as he sat up with a grunt.
Neither Spud nor I were laughing. “You should be aware that transport requires both the fleece and a functioning Ergal.” Spud picked up my Ergal from the ground next to John’s feet and shook it. “Neither of our Ergals are able to provide the necessary power in their current state.”
“Dammit, John. We could’ve been killed!” I was furious. “For your stupid, stupid obsession.”
John rubbed his eyes, and didn’t meet mine. “Benedict and the Syneph are on the brink of a journey that no living human has been a part of, Shiloh. The chance to visit Heaven, Level 3, without the curse of death. How could I just walk away from that?”
“Nephil Stratum wouldn’t have sent you back with us if she wanted you on that voyage.”
John spun to face me. “And who appointed her God?”
“Who appointed you God?” I returned.
A harrumph next to us. “As a Deist, I find this conversation fascinating. As a traveller in what is now an even stranger land than your America, however, I suggest we postpone this discussion until we can deduce why this Nevada is no longer a desert, but resembles the Canadian tundra.”
John seemed poised to shoot back a reply, but held his tongue, murmuring, “You’ve got a good point there.” His brows knitted together. “If the topography of this region has changed so much, we’d better be ready for other changes. These Ergals don’t work, so we don’t have any weapons, right?”
Spud picked up a large branch from the brush and held it towards us like a cricket bat. “Better than nothing. Just in case we meet any other hikers on the path.”
We did the same. John used to be a Little League champion, and took the opportunity to practice a few swings with a thick cast-off. I could feel the wind brush past my face as he swung high and strong. I bet he could still hit a home run.
“What’s your name again? Ascot?” he growled at Spud.
“William Escott.” Spud’s tone was ice cold.
“Well, William Escott, I say we don’t take any chances. Do you have any evidence we’re even in the same century we left? What if we have to fight off rifles, spears, bows and arrows? Or go back even farther—dinosaurs? My batting skills won’t stand up to a T. Rex.”
“The date on my Ergal is one day after our transport to Benedict’s brane,” Spud said. “Even with a global catastrophe, there would not be enough time for our Jurassic ancestors to reclaim their lands in one day.”
John rolled his eyes. “I meant we should keep hidden. Parallel the path, but make our way through the woods. Let’s see them before they see us.”
Maybe my arms crossed over my chest gave my feelings away. John lowered his voice. “I had to try, Sis. It didn’t work. It’s over, okay?” He favored me with a hint of a smile. “We’re on the same team.”
“We were,” I grumbled. Clutching my makeshift club, I nodded at Spud to lead the way. Would that I could trust this, this stranger standing by my side. Another one of John’s favorite phrases was resonating in my memory. Patience is the champion’s best tool. Was John just biding his time until we could get our Ergals working, and he could try again to escape back to Benedict’s lair?
I watched my brother set off after Spud, and tried to swallow down the lump in my throat. I’d spent the last three years dreaming every night that I’d see John again. Where was the John of my dreams?

* * *
New World Braves

We followed John’s advice and kept a low profile among the trees on the path, using Spud’s Ergal compass and the sun as a guide. Aside from some scurrying wildlife, there were no signs of habitation; human, at least.
After two hours of trekking, we had long passed the location where the Area 51’s offices, warehouses, hangars, and other buildings should have been. The mountains surrounding our valley looked little different than they had when we’d left, except for the tall pines that blanketed them in a coat of green. Far off to the northeast we could catch the first glimpses of a shimmering lake.
I was grateful for the hearty breakfast of “Eggs Benedict” in Valholler this morning, but eager for some water to quench my thirst. “How about we head that way and get some H-two-oh?” I suggested. “Doesn’t look like the base commissary is open.”
Ten minutes later, we had reached the water’s edge. I carefully swept a few ounces of the lake’s clear liquid in the palm of my cupped hand and sprinkled it my dry mouth. No side effects. I nodded, and we all ladled the liquid down our parched throats.
Spud sat on a flat boulder checking his Ergal as I splashed water on my face and neck. John, gripping his branch, kept a lookout on the horizon.
“Groom Lake,” Spud informed us.
“Really,” John said, sounding surprised.
“Huh?” I was just as confused. Wasn’t Groom Lake a dry lakebed? “How could it be so, well, wet?”
“It is only a theory, but I surmise that—“
“Sas filoxenoume, xenoi!” a voice interrupted from behind.
We all spun around to see a tall, smiling man, whose dark curls framed his sharp features, extending both arms to welcome us. He was wearing a flowing white garment that covered his shoulders and ended just below his knees. His legs were tanned and muscular, his feet wrapped in green sandals, toes peeking through the straps of cornsilk. He continued to talk. We continued not to understand a word he said.
“Nai, irthame apo makria,” Spud suddenly returned. He tapped his lit Ergal to explain his fluency—apparently the internal translation banks were working.
Dubious, I activated my Ergal. Was this language in its data banks?
“A combination of ancient and modern Greek,” Spud whispered in English before continuing in hybrid Greek, “We are seeking food and shelter.”
“That is the right of every man,” the man answered, as our Ergals translated, “and so we shall provide.” He pointed at a trail off to one side. “Please join me.”
We looked at each other, hesitant. John shrugged and returned the man’s smile.
“You will not need your walking sticks,” the man added, eyeing our branches. “We have assisted transportation.”
O-kay. I glanced at my companions again. Spud jumped in, “A good walking stick is hard to find. Perhaps you would allow us to keep ours for the rest of our journey.” Spud smiled as well. “I did not catch your name.”
“I am Heron of Nea Alexandria,” the man said, nodding at our weapons. “Alas, that is not possible. However, I can hold them and return them to you after you depart our town.” He waved a hand toward a three wheeled vehicle resembling a triangular golf cart that appeared parked behind a cluster of trees. How convenient. The cart had seats for four, three in the back and one in the front.
“Solar panels,” John said as we neared. “Look up top.” I could see the cells that absorbed the sun’s rays on the cart’s roof.
Heron took our sticks and stowed them in a vault under our seats. We sat, as directed, crowded together in the back, while Heron slid into the solitary seat in the front behind a notebook-sized screen. Heron then pressed a button on the cart’s dash and the screen lit up, looking—ha–like a colorful 2 D nav holo.
Heron’s fingers tapped several buttons on the display, and our cart lurched forward, its wheels crunching leaves and branches along the bumpy path. “Electric,” John relayed to us, “No engine noise.”
Less than a mile down the road, the cart steered onto a paved track, and we felt our seats jiggle and rise a few inches. “Maglev,” Spud inserted before John could open his mouth. “See the magnets lining the track there.”
I stifled a giggle at the sour expression on John’s face. Then my head shot back once again as we accelerated, sans wheel crunching, to a speed that rivaled John’s motorcycle on I-70. Without traffic. “Woo-hoo,” I ventured, but only the wind could hear me.
Giant windmills, tethered to the tallest trees, lined our way, and stretched for miles and miles on either side of us, their blades twirling as we whistled past. Every mile or so, a leg of the track would branch off in a different direction and disappear into the woods, a concrete spider web invading the forest. At each intersection, a small sign in the Greek alphabet as well as a few pictograph symbols identified the destination for each branch. The Greek letters on one sounded out as tł’iish Kóh, which my Ergal translated as “snake water” in Apache. Apache? Another sign read SháHashtaal in what my Ergal said was “Nabaxo”.
In minutes we reached a clearing and could see a settlement appearing on the horizon, shaded by luxurious maple trees. Our cart began to slow down, and I was able to hear our driver. “Nea Alexandria is only another twenty decastadia.”
Spud raised an eyebrow and did some calculations with his Ergal, as John and I focused on the landscape before us. “Is that a river?” I asked our host.
“Yes, the Amargosa. Our town is nestled against the bay.”
Another eyebrow from Spud. A quick glance at his Ergal showed he was following our trail on one of our maps. I shook my head. No point in trying to find our location on a world that clearly was not the one we’d left.
“And here we are,” Heron said as the cart exited the maglev track and, back on electric power, slowed to a stop in front of a tall stucco wall and polished brass gate. After we hopped out, the cart, wheels down, rolled by itself to a parking area filled with carts of various sizes and took an empty space in the lot.
“Where exactly is that?” John asked.
“Nea Alexandria is one of the larger Koinotist communities in the USA,” Heron boasted.
My question about the label Koinotist was trumped by my elation that we were in the US. Maybe we weren’t that far from home after all.
But Spud did have to pierce my balloon of hope. “The USA?”
“Yes, the Utopian States of Anatolia, of course.” Heron indulged, raising an eyebrow in Spudian fashion.
Double Doomed.

* * *

Nea Alexandria, USA—present day?

We had walked for what seemed like miles, winding through a network of paths paved with a spongy material that put a literal spring in our step. Lining the walkways were small one-storey cottages, each unique in its shape and color, but similar in size. The tree-lined streets of Nea Alexandria were filled with people, some tall, some short, some beige, some brown, some young, some old; most dressed like Heron, in toga-type clothes and sandals. Almost everyone smiled and greeted Heron as we passed. To our surprise, they also greeted us with the Greek version of “Welcome, Visitors”.
A few of the residents were using motorized scooters or wheelchairs to get around, but we saw no carts or larger motor vehicles inside the town. All that walking seemed to keep everyone fit, I noted, as the pedestrians seemed to radiate that trim, healthy glow that makes most of my fellow actors in Hollywood the envy of Middle America. I didn’t see any fast food restaurants around, so…
“I’m hungry,” John said after a half hour on foot. “Is there a place here we can get something to eat?”
Another eyebrow and patronizing look. “Of course,” Heron finally replied, “Luncheon service should begin in a few minutes.”
I glanced at Spud. A faint shoulder shrug came back at me, which meant “go with the flow”. We did.
Heron guided us to a large auditorium which was filled with tables and chairs—and Nea Alexandrians. “We can eat now and then you can help with the clean-up,” he said, gesturing for us to sit. “Visitors usually find it the easiest contribution.”
“Ah” was all I could muster. A grey-haired man with pruny, wrinkled features and a hunchback served us a 9 inch plate of what looked like vegetables, beans, and tofu. That’ll keep those figures in check, I told myself, as I dived into the lunch provided. I was delighted to find the tastes strong and appealing. “Mmmm.”
“Yes, it is quite tasty,” echoed Spud, swallowing.
“Not bad,” John agreed. “But for seconds I’d love some beef.”
Gasps came from Heron and the tables around us. As did glares.
John scanned the now scolding faces. “What? What did I say?”
Heron cleared his throat. “We have evolved beyond primitive carnivorism here,” he chided.
John gulped down the veggies in his mouth and forced out the words. “Just kidding.” His eye roll to me made it clear he wasn’t. The sigh was superfluous.
Apparently, so were ‘seconds’. As soon as our plates were clean, Heron instructed us to collect them, along with those of the other diners, and carry them to the “processing room”– which very much resembled a kitchen.
“Please scrape off any remaining food into the gutter and place the plates on the conveyor belts,” Heron instructed. I noted the few scraps left would drain into a bin labeled “Anakyklosis”. Yep, “recycle”.
“I must commend you,” Spud said after we’d finished ‘paying our dues’, “on your efficiency.”
Heron raised both palms. “How could we be otherwise? Our resources are limited, and we must live moderately and judiciously. Pan Metron Ariston,” rolled off his tongue.
I recognized the ancient Greek phrase even without my Ergal. ‘Everything in moderation.’ Hoo-boy. Spud may have been impressed, but a place like this would be torture for me before long. I liked playing it closer to the edge. And then taking a flying leap. John’s sour expression seemed to also betray “A need for speed”. We needed to find out where we were—and how to get out of here—soon.

* * *
Socrates Caves

“You can’t tell me that life doesn’t get boring in this—this utopia,” John admitted, sprinkling scads of sarcasm on the last word.
I’d expected Heron would be offended, but he just smiled, stepping aside and waving us into another large hall. This auditorium was filled with recliners, some arrayed in groups and some stationed solo. Some of the loungers were filled with Nea Alexandrians—in the diverse groups, those seated were engaged in dynamic discussions, a few penning intricate designs with geometric and mathematical symbols with a stylus on clay tablets. The loners seemed to be staring off into space, oblivious to the world around them. Weird. A few of the townsfolk, eyes dancing, were holding clay tablets that, on closer inspection, were actually screens with pictures and writing that resembled one-page books.
“We only limit what is limited,” Heron explained once we’d taken in the scene. “Natural resources are finite, imagination is infinite. Discussions, debate, communion. All cost us nothing but time.” He picked up one of the tablets from a shelf and turned the screen towards us. “Information to spur creativity and thought. Boring? We’d need twice the hundred and twenty years we live to absorb all the knowledge and lore at our disposal.”
I could see Spud brighten. “May I possibly obtain access to these data?” he asked, striving to keep his tone even.
“Of course,” Heron responded, pulling another tablet off a shelf and handing it to my partner, who eagerly began manipulating the inputs on the display. “Knowledge has even more value when it is shared and seeds synergy. We encourage and value open information exchange and review.”
I snorted. “Some fundamentalist religions would disagree with you.”
A frown creased Heron’s brow. “We came to this country to find freedom from religion. Except as a historical oddity, of course. Dogma is the antithesis of discovery.”
“Can’t argue with that,” John chimed in. “Though I prefer to physically visit new worlds rather than virtually think them up.”
Heron laughed. “I envy your certainty that that is what you are doing, Visitor. I daresay you’ll find plenty of the similarly beguiled in Nea Romi when you return.”
Anger flashed in John’s eyes. “What the—“
“Yes,” interjected Spud, laying a restraining arm on my brother. “Heron is correct. When does the next airship depart for the Atlantic Coast?”
“Tomorrow morning’s flight is to Nea Athina. From there, the train takes only three hours to get to Nea Romi. If you’d like, I can arrange beds for you tonight next to this library. You can continue your studies after you sup.”
I frowned. I was about to ask, “Shouldn’t we try heading west, towards our homes in L.A.?”
After signaling us to be quiet, Spud flashed an atypically warm smile at his host. “Yes, seats to Nea Athina would be excellent. We would like that very much indeed.”

* * *

I had to admit that even I couldn’t wait to see what Spud had discovered—and what he had in mind. He refused to talk about his research until all the supper dishes were processed, and the three of us were walking back towards the library.
“I shall be continuing my research during the night,” Spud informed us. “But there is light.”
“Mind shining some of that light over our way?” John said, looking less than pleased.
“It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence,” Spud returned. “I suggest you take advantage of the sleeping arrangements Heron has made, for we shall resume our journey in the morning.”
“Journey? Journey to where?” I asked.
But Spud was already far ahead of us. Without looking back, he entered the library and disappeared.

* * *

Our sleeping quarters were in a corner of another auditorium. Only pony walls made of bark separated us from the snoring men in the next cubicle. I’d visited Japan on a publicity tour for Bulwark last winter and marveled at the tiny human drawers that some travelers used to catch a nap at the airport. With three mats on the floor, the cubicle in which we sat felt just as claustrophobic.
John was stretched out on the mat against the wall, his head resting on a feather pillow. I laid down next to him, my arms folded across my chest, my eyes glued to the thatched ceiling above us, unsure of how to begin.
“I couldn’t do it any more.”
I rolled over on my side to face him. “What?”
“Be a hero.” He sighed. “Your hero.”
“Wow.” I swallowed an uninvited giggle. “Never asked you to.” I rolled back onto my back, and stumbled on the words. “Just wanted my brother.”
I heard his smile. “You have four others, you know.” A hint of a chuckle. “George is enough brother for all of us.”
“But he’s not you.” My voice cracked. “It’s been almost three years. I missed you.”
“I missed you, too. Especially you.” Another sigh. “Peas in a pod.”
“Like hell.” But a stealth grin did pull at my lips.
We said nothing for a few minutes. John had a point. He’d carried our whole family, all nine of us, for years after Grandpa Alexander passed. He deserved a break now that Connie and George could fill his shoes. A chance to do something for himself.
But, this? A futile quest in collusion with the most hated terrorist in the Zygan Federation. Why had he really chosen this path? Was he working undercover like Wart? Misguided, as I’d thought Nephil Stratum had been? Or obsessed with scoring a ticket to paradise like his loathsome mentor?
I turned on my side and asked the question.
“I’m on secret assignment for Zygint,” he whispered.
“Ha.” I waited. Silence. A long silence.
Finally. “What do you want me to say?”
“That you’re on secret assignment for Zygint.”
“Works for me,” he said, with a wink. “It’s good to know the right answers, isn’t it?”
I hesitated for a moment. “In the Plegma—“
John sat up. “You went to the Plegma?”
“Uh-huh. Inside, there was this creepy guy, Mel, who tried to seduce us into staying—no, not that way.” I laughed when I saw his alarmed expression.
He laid back down, frowning. “He showed me like a 3-D holo, solid, of us, our family, all around the table. You were there, healthy, and—“ my voice cracked—“so was Grandpa Alexander.”
Both of John’s eyebrows rose.
“He looked so robust. Like I remember him. How old was he?” I asked quietly. “In the end?”
John shrugged, “Grandpa? Thousands of years, I’d say. Never really knew. None of us ever thought he’d transition so soon.”
“And you’re trying to find him? In Level 3?”
John met my eyes. “I expect to when I get there. That is where the Helianthi live.”
Furrowed brow. That word again. Helianthi. Unfamiliar from my Zygint uploads, my Zygan cosmology. “Who—what are the Helianthi?”
“Benedict never told you?” Genuine surprise.
Come on, John. “Benedict and I were never exactly on the same side.”
I saw John hesitate. “Maybe you’d better ask Gary. I don’t want to be telling tales out of school—Mingferplatoi Academy, that is.”
My turn to be surprised. John didn’t know that Gary, our former Head of Earth Core, another Benedict ally, had died trying to make a dimensional crossing. I echoed, “Benedict never told you?”
John shook his head.
I looked away. “Gary didn’t survive his last attempt to transition to Brane 5 or wherever we just were.”
John’s shock was palpable. He turned his head, brushing an errant lock of hair away from his eyes. I pretended not to see any lacrimal liquids.
“Maybe he finally made it to Level 3,” I ventured. “That was the goal, wasn’t it?”
No answer.
I waited a few minutes, until John cleared his throat. “So here’s my other question. Who was the red-haired woman at our table?”
Confusion on John’s face.
“In Mel’s mirage. Sitting next to Grandpa Alexander, there was a red-haired woman.”
“Andi?” A beat. “Our little sister.”
I rolled my eyes. “In her forties? Hardly. No, she was somebody else, somebody familiar, though I don’t remember meeting her before.”
John extended his hands in an ‘I don’t know’ gesture.
“Maybe she was Stacy?” When Wart and I had gone to the RAM on Zyga to steal back Anesidora’s neurocache for Benedict, my time loop avatar had shouted that I should ‘find out about Stacy’ just before she’d been vaporized by the Chidurian Sentinels guarding the chamber. But I hadn’t been able to discover who she was.
“Don’t know any Stacys,” John muttered. “With red hair or any other color.”
“You don’t think maybe…?” I led. No response.
The thought had flashed into my mind. I suppose I should’ve considered it sooner, but my memories before age six were misty after more than a decade. But John had been 14. “Our parents? Is that what this is all about?”
I could see the blood drain from John’s face. He moved to speak and then fell silent. After an eternity, he turned to me, his expression sober. “Shiloh, I have something to tell you.”
“Capital!” Spud appeared standing over us, aiming his tablet down towards our mats. “The library evidence proves my theory correct. We shall depart in the morning for Nea Athina.”

* * *
Led by Zeppelin

Spud’s arrival silenced John for the rest of the night. Spud insisted we attempt to sleep, as, lacking functioning Ergals–or jet planes, we would be traveling for two days by airship. As in blimp.
My nudges and whispers for John to finish his remarks were ignored, though they managed to annoy Spud and earned me a number of glares from the locus of his mat. Looked like it would be a while before John and I could pick up our conversation.
Spud, somehow, was up before dawn and ready to go. Heron was another early bird, arriving at our inn with sandwiches made of pumpkin bread, vegetable slices, and cheese. One each.
I gave half of mine to John and followed the men down the road towards the launch field. I was surprised to see how many of the Nea Alexandrians were up and about on the streets.
“Early to bed and early to rise makes man healthy and wise,” Heron advised.
“You forgot ‘wealthy’,” John grumbled.
Heron’s expression resembled that of a man who has stepped into something fecal on the street. “Wealth is not a virtue,” was all he managed to say.
Spud, ever polite, thanked Heron for his hospitality and assistance–with our accompanying nods.
“I had to ask,” I said to Heron, “How did you find us in the first place?”
“That is my contribution to the Koinotis,” Heron explained—a little. “I serve as a scanner, patrolling the hills and glades and welcoming our visitors.” His tone was guarded, as he added, “Though we are centuries past the Years of Transition to peace, there are still Xenoi who might represent a danger to our way of life.”
“Sounds ominous,” I said, trying to appear empathetic. “Barbarians at the gates. You’d fight back, right?”
Heron frowned, “We are not barbarians.” He took a visible deep breath. “We would sedate them and deport them, of course. The Barbarians are free to build the societies they desire in Oceania, oceans away from our havens and ports.”
John snorted, “That’ll last long. Watch your back, folks. They’ll return someday. Aggression always aggresses.”
“Aggression, my dear guests,” Heron returned, “is not only not a virtue, but a crime.”
The sun’s rays were teasing the horizon as we arrived at the field where the massive silver ship was moored. At least several hundred feet long with a semi-rigid frame. The gondola was the size of a large van and could seat a dozen. “Helium, I hope,” I said to Heron, remembering the Hindenburg’s fiery crash in the 1930’s.
He nodded. “We used to use hydrogen but we lost the Osiris with a lightning strike outside Nea Romi thirty years ago.”
“Zeus was in one of his snits again,” joked a tall woman wearing earmuffs around her neck as she passed us, on her way to the ship.
“Hypatia will be your pilot,” Heron explained, chuckling. “The Nea Romaians weren’t quite so sanguine about the tragedy, seeing as they get so many tourists from both Greater Romi and the Philaic states. So, helium it is.”
“Indeed,” replied Spud, sounding as if he understood all Heron’s references. John and I just did synchronized eye rolls.
We settled into cushioned seats in the back of the blimp’s gondola where we could chat. Hypatia distributed earmuffs for us all, promising to turn off the blimp’s whining electric motor after we had reached sailing altitude. At least we’d have a chance to pick Spud’s brain about what he’d discovered or deduced.
I noted that most of the other passengers had brought along their clay tablets, I guess to read, on the two-day voyage. They also carried knapsacks for their togas, and– “Are they providing food?” I asked Spud.
“Heron was kind enough to donate nutrition for the trip,” he responded, pointing to a small cloth bag which was filled with what looked like energy bars. “Our pilot has water.”
“Awesome,” said John, his tone implying the opposite.
If I wasn’t a Zoom Cruiser pilot I might’ve found the blimp’s takeoff off-putting. We rose at a steep angle of over 45 degrees. Glad to have the earmuffs—the engine strained to get the blimp up to 5000 feet. Hope we wouldn’t need that deafening engine power to handle bad weather along the way.
I must have said that aloud, as one of the other passengers turned to me and said, “Don’t worry. We land if there’s a bad storm and wait it out.”
I smiled and nodded thanks. This trip could take a while… Maybe we should’ve opted for a covered wagon.
We were gliding over Texas, or whatever the USA residents were calling it now, before Spud was willing to fill us in.
“I searched the historical records for three millennia,” he explained. “I was astonished to discover that this rustic library had access to data from much of the planet.”
“And?” I didn’t much care to hear about his research methods.
“It is relevant, Rush,” Spud chided. My partner knew me too well. “Because I observed that the changes we have witnessed did not affect the entire world. For example, the Orient, Japan, China, still exist, though as skirmishing sovereign empires.”
Spud eyed me and my brother. We both nodded.
“Where I did observe earthshaking changes was in the Americas—which do not exist as such—Europe, and the Mid-East.” He paused for effect. “After a particular branching off point.”
“Really?” John frowned. “What do you mean?”
“That up until a certain point, this Earth’s history was our history. After that, the timeline changed.” He cleared his throat. “It took me much of the night to find the intersection as I had to pore over written records from the ‘Coal Centuries’ and the ‘Oil Centuries’, the Moon settlements, the Crusades, and—“
“Come on, Escott, what’d you learn?” John interrupted. And I was going to ask about the Moon settlements.
“That the new ‘Europeans’ have unlocked the riddle of cold fusion. But this continent,” he pointed at the flatlands below us, “still fears the technology.”
“No, dammit, about the timeline.”
Spud bestowed upon my brother an irritated glare. “The timeline shifted within our first millennium. Specifically, in 33 AD.”
I felt a spasm grip my stomach. Had Spud somehow seen that date in the travel cache of my Ergal? I turned my gaze out the window, hoping that Spud wouldn’t notice. But he did.
“Where did you get the Somalderis, Shiloh?”
I stiffened, not daring to answer. He didn’t miss that either.
“Come on, Escott. What’s the Fleece got to do with history?” John interceded.
I had never heard Spud’s voice so arctic. “I have deduced that a young prophet,” he said, “a self-proclaimed religious leader in the province of Judea, was given the Fleece to wear as an undergarment during his tortuous execution. Three days later after his death, he was to return and appear as alive before his followers, inspiring them to carry on his mission.
Spud took a dramatic breath. “But without the Somalderis, Yeshua Bar Maryam could not transport to heaven or resurrect himself to proclaim a miracle. He passed away, as have so many other visionaries, a footnote in religious history.”
Spud’s tone was fierce. “Where did you get the Somalderis?”
“I-I just borrowed it.” I still couldn’t face Spud. “I planned to return it as soon as we’d rescued John. But it took a lot longer for us to get back than I’d figured.”
Spud’s eyes narrowed. “You stole the Fleece from Yeshua?!”
“You’d understand if you had a brother.” I reached out and took John’s hand.
A flicker of agony flashed across Spud’s features, then his expression turned cold as ice. “You may have a brother, but it is likely that I no longer do. And your foolish actions have likely—I say that when we arrive in Nea Athina, we should take a jaunt to what was Maryland and see if your own brothers and sisters have survived.”
My surprise at the notion that Spud had a sibling was trumped by the sudden shock of realizing that my actions to save John might have risked the lives of the rest of my family. Was that possible? If so, what in the name of heaven had I done? The tears I’d fought to hold back so many times in the past few days now fell without restraint. John, looking stricken, hugged me as I sobbed. Spud remained impassive, frozen in anger, his eyes boring through my waterfall with ongoing accusations of guilt.
Doomed. Or should I say, ‘damned’.

* * *
Truth and Consequences

Somewhere over the USA—present day?

It was the coldest trip I’d ever taken. Our voyage to Nea Athina lasted close to three days. We landed and waited several times along the way due to the tornados and violent spring thunderstorms that were ravaging the Southeast. Hypatia fortunately had stocked some wool blankets that she loaned us so we could cocoon both in the clouds and on the ground. I chose to cover myself entirely with mine for the first leg of the journey, and avoid Spud’s piercing unspoken accusations.
Had my well-intentioned plan to rescue John really affected the lives of billions of people, including, alarmingly, my own family? If so, was there any way we—I—could repair the damage and return things to what they were? And, if I could somehow reinstate our timeline, would I then be responsible for the, the deaths of millions, like Hypatia and Heron, who were alive in this new timeline today? The possibilities were frightening—I now understood why Zygan Federation controls on time travel were so strict, and why Zygint had a whole department at Zygint Central to prevent and monitor for potential timeline changes.
And the Zygan Federation itself? According to Spud’s theory, as Zygfed wasn’t driven by Earth history, our Ergals should have been working. Why weren’t they? If we could somehow fix them and contact friends at Zygint, maybe we could get some advice and help with this disaster. And then I could flee from the Omega Archon before he sentenced me to Hell for a thousand years.
John tried to reach out to me—but, stewing in my guilty ruminations, I pushed him away. Spud wasn’t inclined to talk to either of us, and had left our seats for an empty one near the front of the gondola. I wanted to be alone–and yet, I had never felt so alone.
I must’ve fallen asleep, because it was dark when I peeked out from under the blanket and saw Spud, back in his seat, conversing with John.
“I have little evidence on which to base a theory, but one hypothesis is that Zygfed and Zygint somehow no longer exist in this brane. At least as regards to Earth.”
John scratched his head. “You mentioned a Moon mission. Think these people made contact and something negative happened?”
“Zygint’s Luna Outpost,” Spud corrected himself, “the one we left, that is, is underground. Doubt they’d be found if they didn’t want to be.” He put his fingertips together and leaned back. “No, there must be another explanation. I shall have to ponder the variables,” he said, waving a hand and closing his eyes.
John sighed and looked over at me. I managed a wan smile. He rested a hand on my shoulder, and whispered. “I’m sure they’ll be all right. Don’t worry. Hope is the champion’s best tool.”
I frowned. “You used to say patience was.”
John laughed. “Neither of us is very patient, Sis–and thank heavens for that.” His eyes twinkled. “I’m betting on hope.”
I gave him a big hug.

* * *

A memory from the year before, Earth

John’s encouragement had helped shake me out of my funk. I fed myself the mantra that I was a catascope—and needed to rein in my emotions and stay sharp and ready to handle every new contingency. And I was also a Rush—and Rushes, John included, knew how to pull rabbits out of hats.
Using those talents, I’d even gotten us—me and Spud—a Zygan Federation Auric Star a mere six months after we’d completed our training at Mingferplatoi.
We’d been assigned to a routine temporal recon shift of the inner planets of our own solar system. Temporal patrols were rarely more than a formality in our bucolic octant of the Milky Way, so I wasn’t expecting trouble—except maybe a headache from the incessant wailing from our speakers of a singer Spud had been raving about for weeks. Some Italian guy, Enrico Caruso, whose booming solos were tickling my bones and making our windscreens resonate. Fortunately, barring the opera, the afternoon had otherwise been quiet.
“Five J battalions M-fanned at forty-eight mark five, status one thousand meters!” Spud suddenly blared, trumping Caruso. His eyes were glued to a holo display that had been scanning the past century.  (pronounced ‘SERJ’) fleets had been known to invade industrial planets like Earth in order to drain energy to re-fuel their ships, wreaking havoc on critical electrical supplies and infrastructure.
I kept my voice steady. “Contact metrics?”
“1965, 9 November, Ontario, Canada, 5:12 PM. Looks like they’re heading for our power lines.” At extreme magnification, the scan holo showed a gaggle of tiny blips that seemed to be aiming for the vital electrical grid blanketing North America’s Eastern Seaboard. I immediately activated our cruiser’s Ergal to take us back in time to the location of the target coordinates.
Our ship M-fanned in 1965 and raced to catch the . “They’re only thirty seconds from power line entry,” Spud updated, continuing to track the intruders, as we sped towards our quarry.
“We’re not going to make it!” I grunted, and, ramped up the Zoom Cruiser’s propulsion to maximum. We watched our holos in dismay as the spherical  ships entered the power lines through a Queenston station transformer, and started a cascade of blackouts all over New England as they traveled along the wires. Spud muttered an inaudible curse.
I ordered our ship to miniaturize to  scale as quickly as possible. To have a tactical advantage over the invading fleet, we mini’d our ship to only sixty microns, ten times the size of the  vessels. Small enough to fly inside the power lines, but still big enough to intimidate the .
The  began siphoning electrons for their turbines, knocking out the lights city after city from Toronto to Manhattan. As the  vessels charged down the lines, their turbine exhaust gave off a trail of yellow-green light.
On our holos, the northeast corridor of the US now looked like an intricate spider web of glowing power lines. In hot pursuit, we squeezed our own miniaturized craft into the lines through a small hole in a transformer drum in New York, and finally caught up with the  battalions. Hoping to profit from the element of surprise, we armed our stun beams and aimed them at the—
Crack! Our ship shook as we were hit with a burst of fire from a regiment of  that had somehow snuck behind us in the power line.
“Evasive!” I ordered nav controls, while Spud assessed the damage.
Crack! Crack! Eruptions of lightning surrounded our ship as the  weapon bolts bounced off the electrons in the power lines to create a torrent of self-perpetuating sparks that enveloped us in a prison of photons. Crack!
“We’re intact so far, and our grounding is holding,” Spud reported, “but we need to get out of here.” Crack! Crack! “Soon!”
The lightning bolts were coming at us from both directions now, as  regiments in front of us in the power line had turned to attack us as well. Hoping to stall, we fired our stunners in a 360 dispersion, managing to de-power several  vessels, but we still couldn’t stop the rest of the fleet from hammering us. We had to X-fan out of the power line, or we’d be electrocuted.
The idea came to me–like a bolt of lightning. Those math uploads we got at Mingferplatoi had really paid off after all. Shouting “Möbius!” , I entered the data into our ship’s weapons control as fast as I could and initiated the program.
We launched two of our fusion torpedoes, followed by hardy micro-robots, one towards each end of the power line in which we were trapped. Seconds before the torpedoes reached the ends of the power line and exploded, we X-fanned our ship out of the cable. The explosions sliced the segment of the power line we’d just exited off its towers, and the thick cable fell twisting and flapping towards the ground, sparks flying from each end. The micro-robots quickly sealed the severed ends of the flailing line together, turning the power line into a closed figure-eight loop like a 3-D Mobius strip which preventing the  fleet from flying out. Hovering at a safe distance, we watched the figure-eight land on a deserted wheat field, a twisted ring inside which the  orbited endlessly, giving off a circle of green glowing light.
And giving me another idea. We tractored the Möbius strip power line with the imprisoned  to the Moon and parked it at Luna Outpost for safekeeping while I commed our Chief Gary at Earth Core to clear my suggestion.
What if we found a way to give the  the fuel they needed to fly through our sector and get something out of the deal ourselves? Instead of wasting Zygint time guarding our power lines, we could set up factories on Earth to build small porous plastic tubes and fill them with electrons to make a kind of nano-battery. When the  needed to refuel, they could fly to these tubes, filter through the microscopic pores, fill up their tanks on the electricity, and release their engine waste. The  waste would then light the tubes yellow-green for a few hours and we could make a few bucks selling the tubes.
Gary loved my suggestion and let us pitch it to the  Consul on Zyga. And so, light sticks and light ropes were born. A field team from the Zygfed Bureau of Planetary Advancement developed a dummy front company on Earth and had the manufacturing plants for the plastic tubes operational in the US by 1966. Before long, the light sticks and ropes were everywhere. When needed,  were able to find “gas stations” all over Earth, and Earth never had a blackout that big again.
Spud wasn’t the type to lavish me with compliments, but he did say I was ‘a competent magician’, who’d extracted a lagomorph from millinery.
Or, as my Ergal translated, pulled a rabbit out of a hat.

* * *

Over the Eastern USA—present day?

“We’ll be touching down in Nea Athina in an hour,” Hypatia announced as we glided over the Appalachian forests. My nose was glued to the gondola’s windows, scanning the mountains below for signs of habitation. I nudged John. “Remember the hike we took in Shenandoah,” I began.
“Two hundred kilometers south of us,” Spud interjected, in robot mode. “We are currently near the border of what was Pennsylvania and Maryland.”
“Where is Nea Athina?” asked John.
“At the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay,” Spud said. “Not far from what had been Annapolis.”
John nodded. I said nothing. Spud had resumed talking to us, but our partnership weather was definitely wintry.
Nea Athina appeared on the horizon as our blimp turned to the East. Before us glistened a city of marble and gold, each acre its own Acropolis, with buildings resembling the Parthenon and the Erechtheum adorned with ornate friezes and sculptures.
“Capital city,” Spud said.
“It is beautiful,” echoed John.
Annoyed. “No, I meant that it is the capital city.” Spud added, “This USA is a loose federation of city-states, not unlike a pacifist ancient Hellenic empire. But, they have realized the value of a central location for resource distribution and management. Thus, Nea Athina.”
“Oh,” was all John could muster.

* * *

Nea Athina—present day?

We thanked Hypatia as we de-airshipped at Daedalus Airfield and made our way to the gates. From the ground, the travertine avenues and marble buildings looked ever more imposing and ostentatious. Zygint Central, and Mikkin itself, Zyga’s capital, could learn a thing or two about classical grandeur from Nea Athina.
“Now what?” John, ever practical, asked.
“Heron has arranged for us to visit a diviner. He was supposed to have been here to meet us.” Spud scanned the crowds once again.
“A what?” John asked.
“A diviner. A seer, an alienist,” said Spud. “Whose insights can help us strategize our best course of action.”
“We’re a day late. All those stops for the weather. Maybe he left already.” I shrugged. “You got an address?”
Spud shook his head. “Heron would only give me a description of his appearance and his name. Lester Samuel Moore.”
“Now that’s an unusual name,” John said, “for around here anyway.”
“Yes, it is singular. We shall have to query Mr. Moore about it after he arrives.”
“Are there phones or other communication devices we could use to try to reach him?” I queried.
“Excuse me,” John said to a passing pedestrian. “Where can I find a telephone?”
The pedestrian frowned. “In the museum of technology, I suppose,” he said, “on Constitution Avenue.”
John smiled politely. “Capital. And more modern communications?”
“Ah, you are Xenoi,” the man returned. “Three blocks down on Independence Avenue.” He pointed to a broad boulevard on our left. “The Ministry of Intercourse can assist you during your stay.”
John thanked the Good Samaritan and we set off as directed to the Ministry of Intercourse. None of us were in a mood to make the obvious jokes.

* * *

The Ministry of Intercourse looked like a massive Lincoln Memorial and was filled with visitors seeking services, and, well, intercoursing. We waited for an hour before a customer service contributor was available.
“Bureaucracies are an exasperating constant in a sea of change,” John whispered to me as we sat in line.
“You should see Orion Alpha,” I said, filling him in on my adventure with Benedict’s nasty lieutenant Burr at the University of Daralfanoon.
“You met Big Red?” John chuckled. “Wouldn’t want to run into him in a dark alley unarmed—even if he’s half my size.”
John shared the tale of his Zygan Intelligence mission to Megara, where he’d partnered with Sarion’s older brother to prevent an invasion led by Burr and a team of Benedict Andarts. John had single-handedly rescued his partner from execution by micro’ing and M-fanning inside Burr’s stun gun and sabotaging the trigger release. The gun discharged the laser beam backwards, singeing Burr’s scalp to match the color of his hair, and distracting the screaming Andart long enough for John to help Sarion’s brother escape.
The hour passed too quickly; I’d relished the chance to bond with my own brother as a fellow catascope.
The customer service contributor was able to locate an address for Moore on the outskirts of the city, but her expression implied that the neighborhood was far from a showpiece. We could arrange to rent an electric vehicle at the Ministry of Transportation or just ride the maglev train to within a twenty minute walk from the location. We opted for the train.
She then provided us with disks the size of a mini-CD as loaners. “Drop these in any ‘Returns’ box when you leave our city,” she instructed, assuming that we knew how to use them. We all decided it was best to pretend that we did.
“The train’s over here,” I said, pointing to a ramp leading to a crowded station.
“Something we have to do first,” said John.
“You are correct,” Spud said, “Without Heron’s generosity to sponsor us, we will need currency.”
“That’s not what I meant, but, okay, what do you suggest?”
Both of the men looked at me. My hands instinctively went to my ears. “No!” My diamond earrings had been a gift from Connie on my 16th birthday. They could be the last memento of a sister I might never see again.
Spud was running a finger over his mini-disk. “I spotted a currency exchange vendor back near the airfield.” His tone did not invite debate. “Let’s go.”

* * *

The pawnshop contributor had laughed at our attempts to trade in the diamonds. “Plentiful around the world, and worth very little, my dear.”
“I guess there’s no DeBeers monopoly to jack up the prices,” John muttered.
“Now the gold studs,” the shopkeeper examined the earrings with a loupe, “Yes, real gold. For those I can offer you something.”
Yes, real gold. For those I can offer you something.”
I reluctantly consented to letting the treasured jewelry go, but only after my companions promised that we could return and repurchase the earrings once our Ergals were operating again and we were out of this…mess. I wouldn’t want to have to face Connie and tell her that we’d had to pawn her heartfelt gift.

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