Chapter 3

The crate seemed to appear from nowhere in the quiet, nighttime meadow, hovering noiselessly. What appeared to be a young girl sat on it, as if piloting it, while a brilliantly white man pushed carefully from behind the crate. She pointed, and the course was corrected.

They approached what appeared like a tree with a massively bloated trunk. There was an entrance in the trunk, exposing a modest cavity large enough for them to enter. A man leaned on the entrance, moving out of the way as the crate was pushed into the cavity. The girl gave the man a coquettish glance as they passed by.

“Antigrav module malfunctioning?” The voice seemed to emanate from the shadows within the tree. A cloaked figure stepped into the bright moonlight and held his arms out. The blackness around him seemed to evaporate into a thick vapor that exposed another brilliantly white man.

“I didn’t wait for the module to be attached.” The girl giggled and jumped off, keeping her hand on the crate.

“Sirel, another Faerie could have brought this.” He leaned over and looked at the crate as it settled to the ground. With a wave of the hand, the cover retracted, exposing several rows of black orbs hovering within.

Sirel patted the crate as she smiled sweetly at him. “I know, Lohet. I did not want to wait. These are the latest developments.”

Lohet waved his hand over the crate. A glowing interface seemed to appear around it. “They’re already powered up.”

Sirel walked by Lohet, poking him as she did. Electric sparks danced over his skin and he scowled at her as she moved one of the glowing displays.

“I had them pre-initialized.” She glanced at the entrance as the other man shifted and approached the crate.

“We really need this here,” he said pointing at the crate. “Those probes. Antigrav. Other…stuff.”

Sirel grinned. “It is only a matter of time, Bob. If you guys would just stop quibbling over,” she furrowed her eyebrows, “intellectual rights?” She looked at Lohet but he just shrugged.

“You do know that Eyes Open has gone out of its way to ensure you guys can work without interference, right?” Bob put his hands in his pockets. “A little quid pro quo wouldn’t hurt.”

“You may want to have a discussion with your new president, then,” Lohet grumbled as he pulled up displays to examine diagnostic information about the probes resting in the crate.

“Well, it is a continuing job.” Bob grinned. “Someone new to break in every four years. We have a guy in there. But, humoring Seibert with a tour wouldn’t be all that hard, right?”

“You know about that?” Lohet raised an eyebrow, glancing at him.

Bob shrugged. “We have people. Actually, I sent Roland to work the White House. You know, since you guys didn’t end up killing him.”

“He was perfectly safe, Bob,” Lohet said. “As were Lynda and Melissa.”

“Yeah, Melissa is still recovering. Lynda is pining for Steven and is next to useless. We had to send them both back to Sanctuary for more treatment,” Bob scowled.

“Steven did everything he could to help them, and you know it.” Sirel shot him an angry look. Little sparks of lightning shot off her skin into the tree around her, leaving tiny, smoking black spots. “And while we are casting blame, you did have a Venda working for you, who had access to Steven.”

Bob held his hands up. “He’s gone. Missing. And we’ll let you know if we find him.”

“The diagnostics check out.” Lohet waved his hands in the air to close the displays and pulled up a control display. Sirel pulled up a mission parameter display and readied the sensors.

“So, just how do these get up there?” Bob walked around the crate, looking at the probes. They were elongated, black orbs with no distinguishing marks on the exterior. He put his hand on one, then pulled it back sharply. “It’s cold. And vibrating.”

Lohet squinted at where he touched and wiped it with a cloth. “The skin serves as the camera, which includes infrared.” He stood back up. “The vibrating you felt is not from the probe, but from space around it.”

Bob raised his eyebrows as he looked at his hand. He shined his flashlight on it to make sure there was no frostbite. “I have people who would love to spend some time with your engineers.”

Lohet grinned. “As Sirel pointed out, we would be peers if…”

“Oh don’t give me that. You guys have had, what, a hundred thousand years to develop this?”

“Be that as it may…”

“Can we launch these please?” Sirel looked at them through their holographic display. “Lohet wants proof to appease your president.”

Lohet scowled at her, but returned his attention to his work. Sirel had programmed the search vectors while Lohet finished his inspection. “The sensors have been upgraded to detect the cloaking?” Lohet looked at Sirel.

Sirel nodded. “It’s not perfect, but much better than what you had in the gunship.”

Lohet looked at her sourly. “We still managed to destroy the golem-ships we were chasing.”

The Faerie just giggled as she returned to her screens. All of the probes levitated out of the crate and took up equidistant positions in the hanger. Bob moved out of the way as one bumped him.

A huge wolfman walked in and put a pack on the ground. He looked at them, giving them a toothy grunt.

Lohet glanced at him. “Migalo. We’re ready for a perimeter check.”

From the pack Migalo removed several scanners and walked outside to place them around the perimeter of the launch site. Lohet followed him out to supervise. Launching at night made it easier for them to see wayward intruders. Though they could already sense any life form in the forest for miles around, golems were notoriously difficult to detect even without their cloaking. At night it was easier to isolate their energy signature. Another Keratian grabbed the rest out of the pack and followed them out out to finish securing the launch site.

Migalo returned to stand in the entrance, and looked at the probes. He looked around as Lohet followed him back in “The area is clear,” Migalo grumbled. He grunted. “Steven is not helping?”

Lohet looked at him. “It is better that he stay away from Terra as much as possible for a while. Especially when we are sending probes up into Sadari occupied space.”

“He is not going to like that, Lohet,” Migalo snarled.

Lohet looked at him. “The longer I can keep him and the other Elves away, the better it will be for all of us. He’s just too vulnerable.”

Migalo growled. “I don’t want to be around when he finds out.” He looked at Lohet. “I really don’t want to be around when Penipe finds out.”

“I can’t tell them everything because of their connection to Steven. But I know they would understand. Aradia has tasks to keep him busy and away from here.” He looked up at the sky. “I just hope the change happens quickly.”

Migalo followed his gaze. The sky was clear, and out there in the mountains the stars were brilliant. “I hope you’re right, Lohet. It’s a big gamble putting everything on the shoulders of that kid.”

“Change?” Bob walked over to them. He looked up at Migalo who stood up straight, towering over him. He tried his best not to show his fear of the massive wolfman.

“We are expecting a sort of metamorphosis with the kid that will render him infinitely more powerful and…” Lohet hesitated.

“So he’ll be an even bigger problem to deal with?”

“Has he been a problem?” Migalo grumbled as he slouched back down. “Last I saw, it was others that were being the problem.”

Bob looked down, shaking his head. “It is one thing having people with guns and bombs. But he can already do…” He sighed and looked up. “He even moved the Moon. Its orbit is a mile closer now.”

“You have lived with the threat of global destruction from your nuclear weapons just fine. I think you’ll be okay,” Sirel giggled. “We need to get this started.”

Lohet nodded. He looked into the tree-hanger. “Status?”

“Vectors are programmed in,” Sirel said. She moved a graphical representation of the solar system around until they were looking at just Terra. “There’s a lot of junk out there, however. The Terrans have been very messy.” She shook her head as she reset the planned trajectory for a couple of the probes. “You almost have to do that on purpose.”

“I would suspect the Sadari, except the Terrans haven’t been any better on the ground,” Lohet said, looking at Bob sideways. Sirel nodded as she stepped back. The drones silently departed the dwelling and she followed them outside and watched as they disappeared into the darkness. She pulled up displays for each of them and observed as they rapidly ascended into space. Bob leaned over to see them better.

Suddenly, with a bright flash, each of the displays went dark two or three at a time. In seconds, the entire flock of drones was out of contact. Lohet shook his head as he tried to pull up telemetry on each one. “They’re gone. We don’t have anything.”

“They didn’t have time to collect much data. But we do have this.” Sirel pointed to a replay of a video, slowed down significantly. Just before the flash they saw a Sadari golem-ship. That class of spacecraft looked like a large flying crab that had no pilots, but rather were golems in their own right.

“Send the rest of the stream back to Endard for analysis. Perhaps one captured a look at the mothership before it was destroyed,” Lohet said, frowning. He looked up at the night sky. “We need eyes up there before we send up our gunships.”

“The Terrans send spacecraft up there routinely,” Sirel said, grinning as she winked at Bob.

Bob opened his mouth to respond, but shut it. He shook his head after a moment. “If you try to use our launches, you could make them targets.” He looked up. “We’d be blind.”

“You realize that the only reason why they are allowed up there is that they’re using commodity chips. Not your own.”

“We don’t have radiation shielded chips in our fab yet. We’re supposed to produce prototypes this year.” He looked up. “They’d suffer the same fate?”

“The Sadari will not tolerate anything up there that they cannot control or hide from,” Lohet sighed as he looked down. “We need a list of pending launches. The sooner, the better.”

Bob nodded. “We actually keep a global list. I’ll get that forwarded to you. What do you plan on doing?”

“They’ll have an additional passenger.” He looked at Sirel. “Get with the Ordan and develop micro-probes we can attach to their launch vehicles.” Lohet looked back up at the sky. He suspected the Ordan already had something they could use.

Sirel giggled. “They’re already preparing a package for us.” She liked anticipating the next step and pleasing Lohet. She flew out across the meadow and disappeared as the gate transported her to Endard.

Lohet looked back into the sky. “No reprisals. They are very confident in their position.”

“That could work to our advantage,” Migalo grumbled as he followed Lohet’s gaze.

“Reprisals?” Bob looked up nervously. He had not considered that.

Lohet looked sideways at him then returned his gaze to the heavens. “They have enough arsenal to reduce the surface of this planet to lifeless dust and rubble. I was expecting a strike on our position.”

“And we’re just standing here?” Bob looked around.

“We have a pair of gunships cloaked overhead,” Lohet grinned.

“We’re inviting war with them,” Bob said, exasperated.

“There is already war, Bob,” Migalo grumbled.

“Sirel will need to bring in a team to deploy the new probes,” Lohet said, thinking out loud. Migalo nodded.

“More Faeries here. Great. You know they like to zap me just to watch my fur puff out,” Migalo growled.

“I think the look becomes you, Migalo.” Lohet looked at him sideways.

“Makes me look like a Broman before shearing,” Migalo snarled, but he couldn’t help but grin, too.

Bob looked at the two of them, incredulous.

~ ~ ~

“Is this really necessary?” Steven held up an arm.

Enos’rel looked up at him then continued his scans. “We have extensive scans of you before the genetic transition and after the…” He hesitated.

“The golems got ahold of me and finished your job.”

“They were able to speed up the treatment significantly faster than we have found safe to do.” Enos’rel looked at the display that hung by his head then resumed his detailed scan, slowly moving a metallic wand over Steven’s body. “Now we want extensive scans to compare to that to see how months in the Maelstrom has affected you.”

“I don’t feel any different.” Steven scratched his head.

“You also had no wounds when you found yourself in the Maelstrom. However, by all indications you had severe scorching before you want in.”

“Well. Yeah. I mean, yeah. But this thing is still in my head.” Steven knocked on his skull. “The Sadari mesh. Just followed along, as if nothing changed.”

“We are well aware of that,” Enos’rel said absentmindedly as he examined his readings. He looked up, noticing Steven’s curious look. “It is integrated into your physiology. I can only surmise it returned with you because your physiology expected it to.” Enos’rel frowned as he sat back and manipulated the data, rotating the scan around to see it from different angles.

“Asherah’s scans are remarkable,” Renee said from the other side of the room. Steven looked over at the depiction of their infant, hanging in the air as both she and Asherah seemed transfixed by it. “Vanessa is impeccably healthy.”

Steven smiled as he looked at the scan of their daughter. “She’s like me, too. You know that, right?” He glanced at Enos’rel.

“There’s no genetic comparison that we have to determine that for her,” Enos’rel said as he looked at his own scans. “Like you, she’s truly unique.” He looked at Steven. “To know that she is now keeping the Maelstrom from expanding and consuming the universe.” He shook his head.

“What what? Come again?” Renee asked, perking up.

“Have you ever put a droplet of soap in a dish of greasy water?” Enos’rel continued scanning Steven. He looked thoughtful for a moment. “Even Steven’s college classes hinted at the possibility of a…what’d you call it? A cosmic phase change?”

“Really? Just how far into my nugget are you digging?” Steven scowled at him.

“We have a Librarian coming today to archive the two of you again.” Enos’rel lifted Steven’s foot to scan under his leg. “We want to gather every aspect of your experience in the Maelstrom.”

“Every?” Steven grimaced, glancing at Asherah. “You know, parts of it was like, you know. Our honeymoon.”

Enos’rel grinned. “I find that custom most curious. And the name. Honey moon.” He shook his head. “Your experience in the Maelstrom is the only thing we know about it from within.”

“Greasy water?” Renee insisted.

“Oh. Well, the Maelstrom is that droplet of soap,” Enos’rel said. “It is like part of the Fracture has come unglued.”

“We’ll get her out,” Steven said resolutely. “Vanessa has been in there for so long.” He lay back.

“You’re telling me.” Enos’rel rotated his latest scan around. “I’m getting indications that physiologically, you are many thousands of years old, Steven. As are you, Asherah.”

“Is that what that is?” Renee looked at her own scans, raising her eyebrows.

“But, I’m only four months pregnant,” Asherah protested, sitting up on her elbows.

“The quantum markers never lie, Asherah,” Enos’rel said as he spread his hands to zoom in on his scans. “This is incredible.”

“But, that means I won’t go through the change?” Steven looked at his hand. It still appeared and felt like regular flesh and fur.

“We’re having trouble nailing down just what is going to happen and when with regards to your metamorphosis.” Enos’rel sat back on his haunches. “The Elder had already gone through the change when we first discovered his deviency, but he had hid it well. I actually have seen samples from him that are regular Keratian physiology.”

“The Younger? What about her?” Steven sat up more.

“We have no personal experience with her.” Enos’rel looked at Steven thoughtfully. “I’m still…” He shook his head.

“Yeah. Kinda like if we discovered Santa Claus was real.” Steven grinned. “I would have never guessed she exists because of me.” He lay back down. “So, maybe the change has already happened? Or won’t happen?”

Enos’rel looked at him silently.

Steven glanced at him. “The last time, when it was happening, I nearly became a monster.” He remembered his latest nightmare and shuddered. “Aliya…I was the Destroyer. She said that I would…” he took in a breath and looked up at the woven ceiling of the tree house, “just wipe all of this away and make my own reality.”

“Kinda like Vanessa did in the Maelstrom,” Enos’rel said, nodding.

Steven glanced at him and noticed that he was still touching him. There was no privacy around Elves. “I think it’s even more than that. I get that Aliya is desperate for this to happen.”

“I have no answers for you, Steven. We are in discovery mode at the moment and have nothing to compare you to.”

Steven sighed. “Why are they avoiding us?” Steven looked at Enos’rel. “I haven’t seen Lorei all day yesterday or today. Or Asherah’s parents.”

Enos’rel fidgeted. “At the moment, they are indisposed.”

“We just got back from the dead. After months of being away. You would think they’d want to spend some time with us,” Steven scowled.

“I can personally attest that they earnestly want to. But they cannot. Hopefully soon.”

“What are they doing? It feels like they are muted.” Steven closed his eyes and reached out to his bond-mates.

Enos’rel opened his mouth to respond but was interrupted.

“Are you finished with the deviant?”

Steven looked around and flinched. A massive creature crouched, looking at him venomously. He appeared to be a bipedal cross between a horned lizard and a porcupine.

Enos’rel glanced up then returned to his examination. “Not quite yet, Roth’kel.”

“I have orders to bring him to the Gatekeeper Guildmaster.” He kept his glare on Steven. .

“You’re, you…” Steven started then stopped. Recognition was dawning on him. “Your life-mate perished.”

“That she did, deviant,” Roth’kel grumbled menacingly.

“You’re the Or’uk that…” Steven licked his lips, glancing at Enos’rel. “Suicide by deviant.”

Roth’kel leaned forward. “The Chasers have failed in their duties. You should not be alive.”

“Back up there, Roth’kel.” Enos’rel shifted his position, as he pretended to scan part of Steven he had already scanned. “Please try not to disturb my patients while I’m working, okay?”

Roth’kel glowered as he reluctantly stepped back. He stood up and glared at Asherah. “I am not pleased you survived.”

“Pleasure to meet you, too,” Asherah quipped. “You think life-mate for life-mate is a fair result?”

“You are a Gatekeeper and have mated with this abomination,” Roth’kel nearly growled, his spines quivering noisily.

“She has been cleared, Roth’kel,” Enos’rel corrected as he continued staying between Steven and the grumpy Or’uk. “I would hope you’d trust Cooperative labs to maintain their integrity.”

Roth’kel looked out the window of the tree house, scowling. “Just finish your job, physician.”

Steven looked at Enos’rel. “What’s going on?” he thought to him.

Enos’rel shook his head. “I’m not sure even the Guild knows. Much less the Council.”

“But, it’s been four months.” Steven squinted at the Or’uk. “Last time I met him he wanted me to kill him. He wanted the Chasers to have a reason to execute me.”

His Elvish physician nodded, maintaining contact with him. Steven looked at the physician’s hand on his arm. “You know Lorei and I are bonded. You don’t have to touch me to think to me.”

Enos’rel grinned. “Yeah, but it annoys Roth´kel.” He patted Steven’s arms. “Besides, your thoughts are clearer through touch, since we are not bonded.”

Steven sobered. “What’s going to happen to us?”

Enos’rel sighed and started putting his equipment away. “Steven, your home on Syagria is secure. Senin and Endard are solidly behind you. Mor’ite is also favoring you.” He put his hand on Steven’s chest. “When you left, our discussion stopped. Now that you’re back, there are more who favor you than are against you. Please be patient.”

Steven looked at the Or’uk who returned his gaze with unveiled contempt. “Patience may not be the challenge, Enos’rel.”

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