Chapter 2

“Do you have any idea just how jarring this is?”

Aradia looked at Shawn through her virtual computer displays.

Shawn stood on the deck of a Cooperative cargo carrier, looking out at what appeared to be a perfectly normal ocean. Only, there was a ringed planet overhead, faded by the bright blue sky. He shook his head. “I’ve been here for months and still haven’t gotten used to it.”

“Understandable. Terrans have been hopelessly stranded on their planet.”

“Is it so hopeless?” Shawn looked at the Keratian woman. She was bordering on petite. Brilliant white hair and skin. Even her irises were white. But as slender and vulnerable as she appeared, he knew from experience how formidable she was. He sighed and returned his gaze to the planet overhead. “For six hundred years we were bred to resist you. And it was all a ruse. This is what we’ve missed out on.”

“Were there no conflict, you would not know we existed,” Aradia stated matter-of-factly. “Your world is still considered the Forbidden Planet.”

“You never answered why.”

“We do not exactly remember why. But legend has it that there is a guardian of Terra that is very jealous of our presence.”

“You’re there now. Your friends are there.”

“They are hardly our friends.” Aradia scowled, looking at him. “They murdered millions when they destroyed Rholling.”

“Millions. On one world. We’re pushing past seven billion.”

Aradia shook her head and returned her attention to her work. “Your men seem to have adjusted well.”

“That’s what they were bred to do.” Shawn looked down over the railing to watch dog-sized dragons dive into the water and surface with fish. It was a regular feeding frenzy as oceanic predators had forced a school of fish up close to the surface. “We were also bred to hate aliens.”

“And now you are the alien,” Aradia smirked. “Is self-loathing in your genetics?”

Shawn laughed and shook his head. He watched a shuttle pass overhead and land on the deck of the ship. “We’ll want to inspect the shipping containers before we relocate them. Don’t want to introduce any invasive species.”

“Of course not. There’s already one there.”

Shawn grinned. “I’ll miss your humor, Aradia.”

Aradia closed her displays down. “I will need you to update the profiles of the board members when you return. Knowing their psychological makeup will speed up the rehabilitation process.”

“Can you really do to them what you did for us? They run the Order.”

“Removing the implants is the hardest part. Each one will then receive custom care to introduce them to our culture and to the deception of their circumstances. When we are done, they will answer to you.” Aradia stood up and pressed her hand on a shipping container, trying to shift it to line up with the rest. It dented easily. She shook her head. “Your technology is amazingly flimsy.”

“I would much rather have a few of yours.” Shawn pointed to other massive containers on the ship’s deck. “Self-propelled? I hear the stuff you have in space is even more robust.”

“That would hardly fit in with the illusion we are attempting to create,” Aradia said as she opened the door of the container and removed the dent with her palm. “I am amazed that your species has become as prolific as it has with such crude technology.”

“We haven’t been around for a hundred thousand years yet. Give us time,” Shawn said. He sighed. “I don’t want us to be Forbidden anymore.”

“That is not our choice.” Aradia crossed her arms. A massive Teles’trike dragon landed on one of the shipping containers to consume one of the smaller dragons.

Shawn held his arms towards it. “We don’t have anything comparable.”

“Not anymore.” Aradia looked up at the massive creature. It eyed them warily as it finished off its meal, then took to the air with a massive gust that nearly knocked Shawn over.

“I want to see Steven before we leave.” Shawn stepped to the side as one of his men carried chains into one of the shipping containers.

Aradia scowled at him. “Such a meeting is not advisable.”

“Hey, if it wasn’t for him and his albino friend exposing Katy, we would not be having this discussion.” Shawn crossed his arms, obstinate.

“Indeed. You would still be at the mercy of a little Elf girl bringing you flowers.”

Shawn grinned. “She was cute.” He rubbed his temple. “We have been obsessed with him. As if he was the only way we could engineer ourselves to be able to fight you.”

“I trust you know that is futile, right?”

“My people are expertly resourceful. Our mantra is that nothing is futility,” Shawn grinned proudly. Aradia leveled a cool glare at him, but he stood his ground.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Aradia said, noncommittal.

“Hey, we’re going back to Terra to redirect the Order against the actual enemy. Humor me, at least.”

“I said I’ll see what I can do.” Aradia glared at him.

“Okay. At least stress on him the importance of not going after Jacob. Or Laurence. Just back off and leave them to me.” Shawn crossed his arms.

“I am aware of the mission parameters. He will be informed.” She looked past him. “She’s here. Get your men ready.”

Shawn looked over his shoulder. A young woman with colorful tattoos and straight, black hair looked around, appearing a little lost. She held a large satchel in front of her. “Over here. You’re the dentist?”

“That is Angela. One of Steven’s rescues from Terra.” Aradia said dryly.

“He does seem to collect people.” Shawn smirked.

Angela smiled, ignoring their conversation. “I’m here to make your teeth look bad.”

Shawn grinned. “Good luck.”

“Several months at sea with little hygienic care and a spotty diet. You know the purpose,” Aradia said as Shawn walked over to the closest shipping container.

“Blah, blah, blah. It’s not permanent, is it?” He glanced at Angela. She shook her head. He nodded. “We’ll set up shop in here then. How long do you think it will take?”

“A little less than a week to get all of your men,” Angela said as she put her bag down by the door of the container.

“Well. Let’s get the ball rolling. Make our pearly whites look muddy brown,” Shawn grinned as he sat on a box. He squinted. “That’s not a tattoo, is it?”

Angela looked at her arm. “No. That one is a birthmark. My twin brother has one too. Identical.”

Shawn looked at her thoughtfully. Angela fidgeted as she finished getting her gear ready. “What?”

“Oh, nothing. Angela Lee, right? Your brother is Dirk?”

Angela stood up, looking at him curiously.

Shawn nodded to her other tattoos. A change in topic might be in order. “Going native, much?”

“I like how the Selkies look. How did you know my full name? And my brother’s?”

Shawn shrugged. “Well, we’ve been here for a few months. Must have picked it up somewhere.”

Angela looked at Aradia then at Shawn, frowning. “Right. That must be it.” She pulled out a mouthpiece and looked at Shawn expectantly. He opened his mouth and she placed the device over his teeth. She leaned close to him as the device activated. “If you guys have been crapping on me and my brother all these years, you may lose more than your teeth.” Angela glared at Shawn angrily. Shawn tried to look innocent.

~ ~ ~

Lohet looked out of the limousine window as they passed through the gates of the meeting location. He glanced at the burly guard that served as his escort. The guard did not return his glance. Shaking his head, he looked forward as the car pulled into a garage that was flanked by a squad of heavily armed soldiers. Lohet deduced it was a military compound, but wasn’t sure what its purpose was.

“Sir.” The guard opened the door and stepped out, waiting for him. Lohet followed him out and stood up, appraising the scene. Another limousine was parked on the other side of the garage.

“This way, sir.” The guard curtly motioned him to follow.

Lohet glanced impassively at the heavy contingent of soldiers standing by the entrance into the adjoining office complex as they walked by. He could sense their nervousness.

The halls were immaculate. Floors that gleamed under Lohet’s feet, portraits on the wall of various commanders and politicians, and the smell of cleaning solution made for a crisp ambiance. Guards stood by each door as they walked by, all heavily armed and wearing body armor. Lohet got the impression that the guards were not the normal accouterment to this particular office complex, given how sorely they stood out from the overall decor.

They finally arrived at a large office, this time guarded by a pair of black-suited individuals. One mumbled something under his breath, then nodded. The other opened the door, allowing them to enter without breaking step.

A graying man stood up from his desk and circled it, smiling broadly. “It is a pleasure to meet you again, Lohet. Did I say that right?”

“Secretary Stern, I find the clandestine nature of this meeting perplexing,” Lohet said, ignoring the attempt at small talk.

“Well, when the President wants to meet someone in secret, certain measures have to be taken.” He held his hand out to a couch.

Lohet held his arms out and his black cloak unraveled and turned to vapor that seemed to seep back into his pores, and he adjusted his utilitarian clothing. The Secretary’s eyes opened wide when he witnessed that. Lohet smirked.

“I will never get used to that,” Stern said. He looked past Lohet. “Ah, he’s here.”

Lohet turned around to see a middle-aged man walking in, carrying an air of self-importance around him. As soon as the man beheld the alien, that air vanished.

“President Seibert, may I introduce you to Commander Lohet of the Terran Division of Cooperative Defense Forces?”

“Wow. Just, wow. A pleasure, I’m sure,” Seibert said holding a hand out.

Lohet took it, and the President almost flinched.

“Like shaking hands with a bronze statue.” He looked at his hand as he pulled it back.

“Our physiology does not produce surplus heat,” Lohet explained. He glanced at a photographer who was busy capturing images.

“Just ignore him. His job is to document pretty much everything I do.” Seibert leaned forward. “Sometimes I have to lock the door to the bathroom,” he grinned.

Lohet raised an eyebrow, then returned the grin politely. “I was informed that the Secretary wanted to discuss our mission in greater detail?”

“Down to business. I like that. Yes, we all wish to come to a greater understanding of the threat you have described to us,” Seibert nodded. “Given the sensitive nature of it, we decided to host the preliminary pre-discussion here.” He glanced at his photographer and nodded. The photographer captured one more image then left the room quietly.

Seibert and Stern went to neighboring chairs and looked at Lohet. He joined them, sitting down on a couch facing them.

Seibert pulled out a tablet. “I had hoped Aradia could have joined us today. Lovely gal. She’s your commander, right?”

“Yes. She is otherwise detained,” Lohet said coolly.

“No problem. This is just an informal meeting after all,” Seibert grinned. “Wow. When I was inaugurated last month, I would never have expected to actually meet…” He hesitated. “Is it okay to call you an alien? I don’t want to offend you.”

Lohet grinned. “Your terminology is sufficient.” He leaned forward. “We do not see each other as aliens, however. Just different expressions of life.”

“Profound. I’ll have to…I’m going to use that.” Seibert jotted something down on his tablet. “Different expressions of life.”

“You wished to discuss the parameters of our mission?” Lohet glanced at Stern.

“Yes. Well, more. You see, while you have kindly provided us with copious amounts of intelligence of a Sadari infiltration, the only infiltration we have actually been able to confirm is, well, yours.”

“By permission.”

“When you got caught.”

“We negotiated…”

“Yes, and what were we supposed to get in return?”

Lohet remained silent, eyeing both of them.

“Look. This doesn’t have to be an argument. We’re just discussing, right?” Seibert held his hands out. “We just want more. Something tangible. Something the people can trust.”

“What do you suggest?” Lohet asked dryly.

Seibert smiled widely. “I know you guys have frowned on it in the past, but what we are really interested in is a trade deal.”

“We do not desire…”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Earth doesn’t have anything you’re really interested in.” Seibert leaned forward. “But our goodwill could go a long way, right?”

“The devastation the Sadari could bring to you…”

“Then let us be devastated. I mean, why is it your business anyway?” Seibert looked at Stern. “Right?”

“The business is that the Sadari are not interested in Terra either. You represent little more than a beachhead in their war against us.”

“And where is this invasion force?” Seibert raised his eyebrows. “Okay, listen,” he looked at his tablet, then turned it around, “this is the invasion force we have seen. Recognize it? Our F-22 pilots took a few pictures when you so graciously recovered their aircraft to… Endard? Is that what you call the planet?” He looked at the image. “Those are a lot of huge, mean looking spaceships. Just, a lot. I mean, if this got out, it would really scare the public.”

He looked up. “Oh, the images are still classified. And we didn’t mean to spy. Our aircraft take these automatically. And by the way, thank you for returning them and our pilots unharmed. We really do appreciate that.”

Lohet scowled.

“Okay, you’re not happy. I want you to be happy. I empathize with you.” Seibert held up his hands. “I want our people to empathize with you. I mean, if anything leaked out, it’s all you. We have zero to leak about the Sadari. This huge mothership you say is floating around out there. The armada of…golem ships? You can’t translate to a more creative name?” He crossed his legs and sat back. “We have invested a pretty penny auditing our own personnel and security. But, nada. We want an assurance that you are friendly.”

“We do not have an economy into which a trade deal could be inserted,” Lohet said.

“Oh, come now. Everyone has an economy. You have to eat, right? Someone grows it, someone ships it, someone cooks it, and you eat it.”

Lohet sighed. He was not interested in arguing economics with the U.S. President.

“Listen. This is just an informal talk. Normally we’d be out golfing or something. You golf?”

Lohet shook his head.

“Try it sometime. But no, really. I just wanted to get a feel for you. And wanted to share our concerns. I like you. I look at you and see someone I can respect.” The President pursed his lips. “You know what would really help? You know, get this discussion moving in a positive direction?”

Lohet looked at him expectantly.

“A good old fashioned field trip.” Seibert held his hands up. “A tour. You can do that, right? I’ll get some delegates together, send them with you and you show them around. Let them see your society, talk to your people.” He looked at the Secretary. “That’d be a good ice-breaker, right?”

The Secretary nodded.

Lohet looked down, thoughtful. The cooperation of the Terrans was preferable to antagonism. “Our mission is global, Mr. President,” Lohet said slowly. He looked back up. “It’s not a U.S. mission.”

“You guys are on U.S. soil. Right?” Seibert uncrossed his legs and leaned forward. “But I get what you’re saying. I really do. And it just so happens that several of my global peers have expressed the same interest. What if I collected together an international party of delegates for the tour? Would you consider it then?”

Lohet sighed, leaning back. He knew the tour was nothing more than a pretense to gauge market opportunities. But conflict with Terrans would confound their mission against the Sadari. He rubbed his brow. He was a Chaser, not a politician. Hunting and killing deviants and golems was so much easier than this.

~ ~ ~

Steven ate his breakfast in silence. All of the other Elves at the table were subdued, barely whispering. It was a stark contrast to what Steven had been used to. Normally meals were noisy, even boisterous. Food often flew across the table. Someone normally played one of the dizzying number of musical instruments Elves were fond of.

But now, Steven felt like he was at a funeral wake. Only a handful of Elves took food from his plate, or left morsels he would like. He scowled and left the table, most of his food uneaten. Asherah grabbed a piece of fruit and chased after him.

“Here.” She held the fruit out stubbornly.

Steven stopped and sighed. Glancing at her, he took a nibble out of the fruit while she held it. She beamed and took a bigger bite. Steven shrugged. “I’m sorry. I’m just…” He shook his head. “I can’t blame them, you know?” He looked back at the common room entrance. A couple of Elves stood there looking at them. “Because of me, they lost their hero, Orin. They lost Penipe’s tree.”

“You healed the tree.”

“Lost a Temple.”

“Which you also healed.”

“Lorei almost died.” Steven thought of her injuries and wiped his eyes, his heart aching for her. “I never meant for her to get hurt. Not like that.”

Asherah put her arm around his waist as they approached the edge of the platform. Steven stopped, looking down at the forest floor far below. But his mind was elsewhere. “Your mother got shot.”

Asherah pushed him off the edge.

She casually finished off the fruit, and licked her fingers, then jumped off after him.

“What? Where are we going?” Steven hung from a branch.

“Our tree.” Asherah swung past him without another word.

Steven had to push it to keep up as she all but flew through the trees, propelled along by compliant branches as well as her climbing expertise. “Are you angry?”

Asherah didn’t respond. They quickly passed to the outskirts of the treehouse village and arrived at a clearing created by the demise of a giant tree. In the center, a sapling grew. She dropped to the ground and circled the sapling, then sat down, facing it.

Steven dropped to the ground and walked up behind her. He looked up at the sapling, amazed at how fast it was growing.

“You’re giving me a list of all the bad things that have happened.” Asherah looked up at him. “My mother was shot because of me. I was exiled because I saved her. And I gave up hope when everything,” she stopped, wiping her eyes. “You know what that reminds me of?” She pointed at the tree.

Steven sat down next to her and folded his hands in his lap.

“You never gave up. You never stopped believing in me. You were so certain that we would be together again that you planted our seed. Our seed, Steven. You made it grow. That is hope.” She wiped her cheeks and looked at the tree. “We were so happy when we collected the seed and when we were Blessed. We were confident in the future we had.” She put her hand on her tummy. “The three of us.”

“Asherah.”

“You made this happen. Against all odds. Against all challenges. You endured because you saw us. You saw our future.” She shook her head. “You even braved the Maelstrom to find me because of that hope.”

Steven looked at his hands.

“Steven. I need you to find your hope again. Please. For us.”

“I know all that here.” Steven pointed to his head. “But this,” he put his hand over his chest, “it’s broken.” He chewed his lip as he returned his attention to the tree. “How can we raise our daughter, and give her the life she deserves, when…” He shook his head. “They’re all still afraid of me. People were hurt. Lives destroyed. Because of that fear.”

“They need time, Steven.” Asherah leaned against him. “Just keep being yourself.”

Steven laughed sadly. “When I’m myself, things get broken. Big things.”

“Yeah, but you fix them, too.” She grabbed Steven’s hand. “Don’t forget Senin. You fixed a planet, Steven. The Faeries have their home back now.”

Steven shrugged. “It didn’t…”

“Don’t you dare say it didn’t seem that hard.” Asherah squinted at him, wiping her cheek again as she shook her head. “That’s just…” She put her head on his shoulder. “It was a big thing to the Faeries.”

“I would have thought the Cooperative would have, you know, seen that and realized I’m not a monster.”

“Old prejudices take time to die, Steven,” Asherah said softly.

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