Home :: Science Fiction :: Commonwealth Universe, Age 1: Volume 3: Slipping the Weave by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction)

Commonwealth Universe, Age 1: Volume 3: Slipping the Weave by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction)

Commonwealth Universe, Age 1: Volume 3: Slipping the Weave by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction)
 
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Khybors fled to Norbra for a safe place to raise their children, far from enemies who wanted them declared non-Humans, and either enslave them or annihilate them entirely. Like the selfish, arrogant queen of legend for whom the planet was named, Norbra had a reputation for destroying all life. Elin and those who settled the planet believed and hoped that no one would want the planet, and their enemies would leave them in peace and wait for Norbra to destroy them.

However, Khybors were made to survive. They made Norbra their home and used the dangers of the planet for their own defense. Then as the generations went on, they made a long-range plan for survival, because they knew their enemies would not give up. The only way for Khybors to survive as a race was to go so far away that the Set'ri and other enemies would never find them, and in time, maybe even forget about them.

Rorin Pace came to Norbra to win Elin's heart, follow his dream of pilots "becoming one" with their ships, and find a way to protect all Khybors.

Kheeran, their daughter, reached new dimensions as a pilot.

Banjer, their son, dove deeper within the computer world and discovered the vital element in the long-range plan of escape to the far reaches of space for Khybors.

Zeph, a Wrinkleship pilot, allied with the Khybors in building their fleet and brought them a damaged ship full of prisoners and pirates and a growing artificial intelligence: the Nova Vendetta. Errien, Kheeran's daughter, led the pilots who searched for new gateways to other universes.

Meanwhile, their enemies grew stronger and came closer, and the countdown began to the destruction of the Central Allied Worlds.

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Commonwealth Universe, Age 1: Volume 3: Slipping the Weave by Michelle Levigne (Science Fiction)
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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

Rorin

The news of the massacre of the Khybor settlers on Norbra got through to the core of the Central Allied Worlds despite the best efforts of the government to keep the details hidden. Both the factions that valued the Khybor contributions to settlement and the factions who considered all changed or augmented Humans to be abominations were responsible for leaking the news that the authorities, no matter their viewpoint, didn't want released. With general public opinion regarding Khybors on the upswing, the supportive factions didn't want colonies panicking, afraid they would lose the valuable services of Khybor talents, while the detractors feared reprisals for the same reason.

No one could stop Wrinkleship pilots from talking to each other and sharing data someone wanted hidden. Knowing that only ramped up the reactions and rumors. The genetic purists continued to spread rumors and totally false stories to convince people they were insane and not to be trusted. The constant attempts to legislate mind control over Wrinkleship pilots and other augmented folk failed just as often as the proposals appeared before the CAW Congress. Until another means of folding space and time, so the multiple galaxies controlled by the CAW could be crossed in lunars instead of years and decades, necessity and convenience would allow the accused mutants and "threats to Humanity" to move about in relative freedom. Until there was genuine proof of dangerous instability from reputable judges--meaning a scientific authority that wasn't rabidly opposed to Wrinkleship pilots--the military would rely on Wrinkleships to get them the most accurate and recent information from across the space lanes, and provide them rapid transport to trouble spots throughout the CAW.

That meant pilots like Rorin Pace, whether explorers or the defenders of planets and space lanes, were always on top of the most accurate and new information. Not just because they treated Wrinkleship pilots and other augmented folk with respect. Not just because they valued their many talents and the work they did to make exploration and colonization efforts safer for everyone. Not just because those who lived most of their lives in space had constant access and exposure to those who were slowly, quietly, in increasing numbers fleeing the central core of civilization for the vast distances and attenuated reach of the CAW.

What many people either didn't know, or chose to ignore, was the fact that the best pilots had just a little bit of khrystal in their blood and bones and brains. It made them faster, tougher, more sensitive. Some of them believed their sensitivity to energy pulses let them merge in a subconscious way with the navigational computers in their ships. It also made them sympathetic to the regular waves of oppression Khybors faced. When news of the massacre on Norbra reached them, lunars after the fact, the pilots and their support teams shared burning outrage and fury and anguish. Some wanted to rise up in rebellion, maybe even attack the government that had allowed extremists like the Set'ri to have a voice and even gain political and military power, so attacks on entire settlements could occur. Others advocated to pull away from the Central Allied Worlds altogether, deprive the military of the invaluable colonizing, military, defensive and medical services and advances provided by Khybors and the khrystal that they controlled and that made them what they were.

Rorin tended more toward the "abandon the bannihackers and let them flounder" mindset, but he had grown up with the leading family of all Khybors, the bloodline that had started their acknowledged separate race. He knew the struggles they had endured, he knew their plans and reasoning and the guidelines they had established for keeping their people safe. Better to stay quiet and present a fa├žade of being more civilized than the civilization that couldn't decide if Khybors were saviors, a gift from Fi'in, a threat, or just a tool and resource to be used up and discarded as quickly as possible. Better to quietly, discretely build up their strength and resources, much as their avowed enemies, the Set'ri had done for generations now. Better to hide their strength until they could pick up and flee far enough away that the CAW would never find them. Or if the ordinary Human race ever caught up with them, it would take so long they would forget what and why they feared Khybors.

For the next seven or eight lunars, he worked with other leaders and reasonable voices among the Khybors to calm the ones who panicked, the ones who wanted to lash out in retribution, and the pessimists who knew they would be gathered into extermination camps at any moment. He spoke with the leaders of the Khybors he had grown up with, and found the elder generations who had retired to solitude and isolated places. He gathered up all the information on the situation on Norbra, separating the official reports from the slivers of real stories and from outrageous and pessimistic rumors.

Rorin wept when he received confirmation, after nearly ten lunars, that Elin Leto, his childhood friend, was the only adult Khybor who had survived. She had been out on an exploration trip, just her and her three bond beasts. He ached for her, when he read the reports of how Kitcairn Torrel, in charge of colony defensive systems, had been shot out of the sky, defending the settlements full of families. Not just because he knew Kick and respected and admired him, but because Elin had been planning to marry him. At least, that was what Kick told him, the last time they met, when Rorin had challenged his worthiness and the other pilot had beaten him in a fair but bruising fistfight.

That fight had taught Rorin something surprising. Not just that there was at least one man in the universe who was a better fighter than him, but how he really felt about Elin. They had always been best friends, co-conspirators in mischief. He always knew he loved her, and she loved him, but he hadn't been aware of the depths and dimensions of that love until he knew another man had won her heart.

The lunars of waiting and working and reweaving the fragile truce between Khybors and non-augmented Humans were good for Rorin. They gave him time to think, to settle his feelings, to get over the guilt that gnawed at him for the sorrow mixed with relief, knowing Kick didn't stand in the way of spending the rest of his life with Elin. He made his plans, he pulled strings and convinced superiors to reassign him. He talked long and hard with the leadership of the Khybors, to convince them that Elin's dream of a Khybor homeworld not only could be, but most definitely now had to be a reality. They needed a place where Khybors would be safe, living totally separate from ordinary Humans, ignored and hopefully someday totally forgotten by them. They needed it within the next ten years, or they might never survive as a people, a culture, an acknowledged race permitted to stand on level ground with those who considered themselves Humans. Elin's dream could no longer be prepared for and handed over to the next generation, as previous generations had done. It had to become reality in their lifetime.

The first step was to get to Norbra, then assess where he stood with Elin. From there, the plan was little more than dreams and constant prayers that Fi'in would guide and guard them.

Other than trusting his ship and the ships of his squadron to the tending of Wrinkleships that relayed them, in cold sleep, from one sector of the galaxy-spanning civilization to the next, the most difficult step was applying for the post he wanted. Requesting a transfer to Norbra to help in the rebuilding of the settlement and improving the defensive system was one thing. Applying for the duty of commander of planetary and colonial security was something else. The rank and authority and responsibility that came with it put him in the firing sights of those who had worked for generations now to eliminate all friends and supporters of Khybors. The intensive investigation that followed his application opened his records to anyone with the slightest degree of authority to know. His fringe Khybor status was now evident to anyone with the slightest inclination to attack his people.

On the plus side, his actions prompted other hidden-status Khybor soldiers and fighter pilots and technicians, beyond his own hand-picked and trusted-like-blood team, to take the step and request transfer. Rorin was proud that so many took the risk of making their distant, undetectable ties to Khybor bloodlines and khrystal public. The current wave of sympathy for the settlers on Norbra might have made that a little easier for some of them. Still, no one with any common sense would expect the horror over what had happened, and the resulting sympathy and respect, to last more than another Standard year. History had shown that public feeling toward augmented folk and mutants and the genetically damaged swung in extremes and rarely lingered in a happy middle ground. The damage occurred when the swings were so rapid that it was hard for either side in the battle for survival to predict where they stood from one day to the next--villains, martyrs, victims, heroes, reviled, admired, feared, pitied.

The worst part of the voyage was just after launch, as he fought the hibernation drug-induced paranoia, the certainty that the anti-Khybor factions would take advantage of their vulnerability and attack his team and the new colonists while in cold sleep. Rorin lay down in his sleep cradle and fought to ignore the voices that whispered he would either never wake up, wake up damaged, or his team would find all their equipment had been sabotaged or even stolen. Finally the dreamless phase of cold sleep granted him respite.

Rorin and his team woke up on the far side of the Norbra system in good physical shape. They spent the two quars of the journey in-system checking out their ships and the cargo bins full of equipment and updating themselves on the current situation on Norbra. Everything was in good shape and to Rorin's satisfaction by the time the transport ship came into orbit around the planet and made contact.

Naturally, after the bureaucratic process of contacting Central, transmitting his orders, waiting to have them verified, then being greeted by Dr. Teller and granted permission to come dirtside, Elin wasn't there to greet him. As he greeted and was greeted by the support staff--all non-Khybors, and most of them in essence exiled out here for their vocal and visible support of Khybors' rights--he decided her absence might be a good thing. Seeing her again after a number of years would be hard on both of them. Especially since his feelings had definitely changed. It wouldn't be fair to ambush her, even a year after her loss. Better to go out wherever she was exploring and meet her one-on-one, give her some privacy, ascertain where she stood, her plans for the future, and get an idea of how he should proceed in the courtship that should have begun when they were children.

"How is she doing? How hard it is on her, being the only Khybor?" he asked Dr. Teller, when the two of them were finally alone in the administrator's office.

Dr. Benjin Teller was a distant relative, both to him and to Elin, though Teller was closer to the bloodline of the leaders of the Khybors than Rorin. Khybors were careful of bloodlines and relationships, paying careful attention to each adjustment and change in the way khrystal reacted to and interfaced with each succeeding generation. Khrystal itself had changed as the generations since Kerin Leto progressed, so there was more control over how it was used in medicine. Sometimes Rorin thought that finding out how to program khrystal so it in essence turned off and did not penetrate to the genetic level, once it had healed the drastically, hopelessly injured, hadn't been a totally positive development.

The positive was that many more people took khrystal treatment to regain the use of their limbs and repair damage to their brains and nervous systems. The negative was that there was a much stronger demand for khrystal for medical purposes, sometimes higher than the supply of medically programmed khrystal. It had to be excreted by medically trained Khybors at the time of the infusion into the patient's system. The growing gap between supply and demand provided opportunity for those who spoke against Khybors to accuse them of holding dying and critically injured patients hostage, for profit. While the knowledge that no patients treated with khrystal would produce Khybor children had decreased the general fear of Khybors, it had also pushed public opinion in a new direction.

Those who worked against accepting Khybors as full Humans, with all rights, including the right to reproduce and pass on their gifts, now insisted that no more Khybors should be allowed to be born. Even in the face of the demand for medical khrystal, which could only come from living Khybors and not generated in a laboratory, they insisted no more future generations of Khybors were necessary. They whispered and insinuated, and when public opinion was on their side, they shouted that Khybors had always been able to turn off khrystal and keep it from passing on to future generations. The only reason they allowed their children to be born with khrystal was to perpetuate the false belief that they were a special breed, a superior breed, and to fulfill their long-range plan to destroy the Human race. Rorin had laughed the first time someone who didn't know he had Khybor relatives approached him with the "new" idea and asked what he thought. He hadn't laughed at the totally ridiculous, yet eagerly accepted idea in years.

"The only Khybor?" Dr. Teller frowned as he settled into his desk. Then he shook his head and a weary chuckle escaped him. "Is that what they're telling all of you back in the core worlds?"

"Well, all the adults were slaughtered and the children were so badly damaged they needed life-support tubes and had to be shipped off-planet to better equipped medical facilities. There were all sorts of stories of equipment problems and sabotage, and needing to do a purge of the staff here, because the Set'ri had infiltrated some of their own to prepare for the attack." Rorin thought for a moment, while the administrator just watched him, that hint of a smile waiting to emerge. "What is idle speculation, what is hopeful theorizing from our enemies, and what is self-defensive lies?"

"Granted, we did do all we could to hide the numbers of the children who survived the massacre and what condition they were in. Yes, all of them required life-support tubes. And yes, we did consider shipping them off-planet for more sophisticated care than we could offer them. However...we're a long way from Vidan. It wasn't just the communication lags that slowed down our decisions and asking for assistance."

"The higher-level facilities were reluctant to help, reluctant to take the children? Public sentiment was entirely in our favor for a while." Rorin sighed. "For a while."

"Exactly. We couldn't guarantee that the hangers-on of the attackers weren't still in the area. All we needed to do to complete the massacre was let the children out of our custody, put them on a ship, under the control of one person with Set'ri tendencies. All their ethical guidelines and healer vows wouldn't matter, like wet paper in a tornado, compared to Set'ri dogma. We chose to take our chances with the equipment we had, with people here who valued the children and supported Khybor survival. Then..." That hint of a smile returned. "Then it didn't matter anymore."

"How many children did you lose? The stories that filtered back to us said there were major equipment problems, all sorts of strange things going on. No one could be sure if it was the planet itself, the supposed curse of Norbra from the ancient myths, refusing to let any children live on this planet, or something worse was happening."

"Hmm, that's interesting. I know the first generation or two that tried to settle here did reinforce the stories of the ancient queen and the punishment of the higher powers, but... Yes, that much is true. We did have equipment problems, but it was related to khrystal interfacing with the equipment."

"Interfacing?" He sat up straight, alerted to the implications that didn't quite solidify right away in his thoughts. Rorin always loved that churning of theories and possibilities, and waiting for a brainstorm to hit.

"Never mind that. You were asking about Elin. She's out on a training expedition right now. Don't expect her back for three, four days."

"Training who?"

"The children. All the children who survived. She's the only mother they have now, and the way they cling to her...it's a little frightening, if you take enough time to sit back and really think about it." He settled back further in his chair and clasped his hands on the cluttered surface of his desk.

"What's frightening about it? Elin's always been especially protective of children. That's her whole dream, inherited down through the family line. Finding a place where the children can be safe. You'd think a poisonous place like Norbra, our enemies would leave us alone and hope the world would kill us off, so they don't have to expend time and resources." Rorin grunted and fought off a shudder of pure disgust. "That hope certainly didn't pan out."

"Definitely not, and they're going to regret..." He sighed. "It didn't occur to me until now, the way you're talking, you've taken the big step, haven't you? No turning back."

"If you mean that I've made it impossible for my superiors to ignore that I've got Khybor blood and Khybor sympathies, absolutely. I'm committed." He grinned. "So...how is Elin doing with instant motherhood?"

"It's been an interesting experience. She's ready to die for those children, and they know it, and they also know she won't tolerate even one second of rebellion. It's life-and-death, even inside the walls here. I might be the administrator, and officially I'm the final authority, but the truth is that Elin is queen of Norbra. We're all here to support her vision, her plans."

"That makes more sense than anything I've heard in a long time. So, how do I find her majesty and pay my respects?"

Dr. Teller tipped his head back and laughed.

The tour of the facilities could wait. Doing anything more than dropping his gear in his new living quarters could wait. Rorin's priority was to get hold of his access and security clearance, and for the entire system to acknowledge his presence and his status as coordinator of defense for Central, for the colony, and in the quadrant of space surrounding Norbra. Then he was free to order his fightercraft checked and refueled, snag the coordinates of the path Elin and her survival students were supposed to follow, calculate where they should be, and head out. He did need to acquaint himself with Norbra's atmospheric peculiarities and the landscape, after all. For right now, that would be limited to what lay between Central and the future of Khybors on Norbra.

As he flew out to find her, he ran through all the scenarios of what Elin's reactions would be when he climbed out of the cockpit, the things he would say to her, whether she would be glad, angry, stunned, relieved to see him. He didn't think of one important detail until his instruments picked up the faint presence of warm-blooded lifeforms in large enough quantities to be Elin and the children. He stretched out his khrystal-enhanced awareness as far as it would go, to verify what his sensors told him. Rorin grinned, muffling a chuckle, knowing that the people in the tower back at Central, monitoring his first flight, could hear him. The sensation of many full-strength Khybors gathered in one place was exhilarating. He had been in the company of those with very faint Khrystal resonance for so long, he forgot what it was like to plunge into the collective pool of energy that came from so many life forces augmented by khrystal, in close proximity. Part of the strength, the rawness and something close to discord that made the sensation more noticeable, was that it came from children. They hadn't matured into their khrystal-enhanced abilities. Their hormones and the demands of their developing bodies interfered with and enhanced the khrystal resonance in ways that were sometimes unpredictable, even this many generations after the birth of the first Khybor. As the children matured and learned discipline, the overflow of khrystal energy would be tamed, controlled, fall into harmony, and only those whom they wanted to sense their presence would be able to do so.

For now, he welcomed the wash of khrystal resonance that flared up at him--for about half a second.

Then Rorin realized what he hadn't taken into consideration.

He was in a fightercraft. Elin and the children were down there on foot, with minimal communication with Central just because they were out on survival training. Even if he had asked Central to alert them that he was coming, the message wouldn't have reached them until evening, when Elin checked in. Besides, he hadn't told Central to alert Elin and her charges because he wasn't officially flying out in their direction--his first official flight in Norbra's atmosphere was for acclimation purposes.

What if the roles were reversed and he was the lone adult Khybor in charge of a gang of children who had survived the destruction of their homes and the slaughter of their parents? Rorin knew what his first reaction would be to the sight of a fightercraft in the air, when no warning had come from Central, and none were expected to come dirtside. His presence couldn't even be explained away as a flyover of planetary security, because his craft was a different design, a good three generations newer than anything that had been relegated to colonization use.

Elin and her children had to be terrified--which explained the uneven waves of khrystal resonance coming after him.

"Please, Fi'in, help me fix this fast," he whispered as he scanned for a good landing spot. The faster he landed and got out of his craft and made contact--and took whatever punishment Elin inflicted on him for scaring her--the faster she would forgive him.

The children were her priority. The survival of all Khybors was embodied in these children in her care. And he had just set back the chances of a successful courtship further than he could estimate.

His sensors and the map of the landscape in his navigational computer showed a flat valley opening out of the landscape full of crevices and ravines and gullies. Rorin swept his craft over the group of warm life-forms and aimed for that valley to land quickly and hopefully keep them from running away before he could make vocal contact.

The wobbling khrystal resonance faded, though his sense of it painted an image in his mind of streaks heading out into the passages and ravines in the shattered landscape below him. There were thin gorges and crevices spreading out in elongated branches. He grinned as he realized what the children were doing--scattering. He muffled curses as he sped through the process of landing. The last switch to push cut off contact with Central. Now he could speak his mind without worrying which people he would impress or worry or disgust. Always a delicate consideration when joining a new community. Especially since this was the community where he planned to spend the rest of his life. He tugged off his helmet and waited for the all-clear to pop the canopy. The jets dropped to soft screams as the engines powered down, surrounded by a faint haze of dust kicked up into the dry morning air.

He pressed the release button half a second before the all-clear light. The cockpit canopy popped open with a hiss of atmosphere. Something shivered in the khrystal resonance surrounding him, there and gone, moving like a slow tide. Was something about it familiar, or just his imagination? Did he hear the faint scratch of sand under a boot?

"Where are you, brat?" His voice caught in his throat, twisting between laughter and scolding. Wasn't she the more sensitive one? Couldn't she sense his presence? Didn't the fact that he landed his fightercraft instead of just strafing the landscape with explosives tell her he was friendly? "I know you're out there!"

More scratching, sliding sounds. Sand on rock, definitely, but if it was more than just the breeze causing movement, he couldn't tell. Rorin grinned, knowing Elin would scold him for his dulled senses. She would repeat the taunting from their childhood, that his passion for flight, for machines, got in the way of refining the sensitivity that khrystal would have granted him. She would scold him for frightening her and the children.

That was the major concern, the central reason for why she hesitated, even if she did recognize his resonance and now his voice. He had definitely made a mess of their reunion, frightening the children in her care. How far away had they moved? Was she gathering them up even now as he sat there in the cockpit, waiting? He made a mental note to insist that she take him out into the wilderness, teach him to make friends with Norbra, or at least negotiate a truce. He had to come to know and love this planet, feel it in his blood and bones just like she did. He had to become proficient enough Elin would trust him with her children.

He realized then, the plan to someday be able to say "our children" had to go so far back on his list of goals, it would be lost in the shadows. Proving himself to Elin, being accepted by her children, and earning the right to be guardian of this world--that was all he could focus on for now.

"Elin Leto," he called after a few more moments of waiting and listening, "don't make me come after you!"

Echoes of their childhood, when they had called the same teasing threat to each other, in imitation of their parents and teachers, rippled through his memory. Would she remember? Would she understand all the things he was feeling, wanting, and promising right in this moment?

He felt another ripple in the resonance, heard a little more scraping of sand against stone. That wasn't the wind that time. Grinning, he stood up and climbed out of the cockpit. He stood a moment, turning to get a good view of the landscape. The extremes of the mineral impressed him, streaks of scarlet and black against bone-white, with here and there a shade of purple close to dried blood. This landscape suited Elin, her toughness and determination. He took slow, deep breaths of the dusty air. This was a different kind of sterile compared to the disinfectant-laden, purified-but-never-clean air of spacecraft and stations and transports. He had caught a whiff of the air, the scent and breath of Norbra inside Central. Now, the planet was seeping into his blood.

The last interference from the crystal components of his craft vanished, as the residue of power dissipated. He took two more steps out along the wing of his craft, stretching his senses to find the children. Had they stopped running and moved closer, waiting, wondering? Had they received some signal from Elin that he hadn't caught? Or had he been imagining what he sensed up until now? For all he knew, the crystal components had augmented his khrystal sensitivity. He put that consideration aside for later. There were things Dr. Teller had hinted at, hadn't wanted to discuss right away--they hadn't had time to discuss them--but Rorin knew his Khybor history. The attack and battle for survival had likely brought about another change in the symbiosis between Khybors and khrystal. He thought about proposing to Elin that they try to guide this next phase of khrystal augmentation. If Khybor healers could program khrystal to deal with specific areas of the body, specific kinds of tissue and specific types of damage, couldn't they program their own khrystal to specific functions within their own bodies?

That was something to discuss later, when the almost legendary winter storms of Norbra confined them indoors and all they could do was talk and plan.

Turning to look around the surrounding landscape one more time, Rorin walked to the end of his wing and jumped down, with a heavy thud of his space boots hitting the dusty ground. Was it his imagination, or did he feel Elin's presence, even just the residue of her presence, down that shadowy passageway through the rock face, to his left? He grinned as his eyes adjusted from the stark light of late morning to the shadows, and he saw what definitely had to be prints--specifically, the shuffling, dragging prints of her bear, Chow, and the wolf, Trouble. Rorin said a silent prayer of thanks that through all her troubles and struggles, she had her three bond beasts to protect and keep her company. He hadn't been able to spend much time getting to know bird, bear and wolf in the few times he had met up with Elin since she was assigned the bond beasts, but he had the impression they approved of him. That should help--he hoped.

He reached the mouth of the passageway and stepped into the shadows. A sense of movement stopped him and he moved back half a step. Something was about to happen. His sharp instincts had made him a top-flight fighter pilot. Surviving dozens of dangerous missions had refined those instincts. Now, the question was where Elin hid and just what she was planning to do to him. She had to have recognized his voice by now, so her continued silence meant she was either in a foul mood, or a mischievous one. Either way, a wise man protected his back.

Stones scraped. He paused, listening. More stones. Standing where he was in the passageway, he couldn't feel the wind, though he could hear it. Was it growing stronger? Strong enough to move pebbles and larger stones?

Or was that Elin?

More scraping and sliding. He caught movement on the left. Falling bits of stone. Falling from where? How high? Rorin backed out of the passageway and looked around. A larger fragment of stone hit his shoulder. He flinched and looked up. The angle of the rock face as it rose over his head made it impossible to see, but he had a clear image in his mind of Elin, most likely stretched out on her stomach, near enough to the edge to shove stones at him and yet stay out of sight.

Fine. Two could play this game. Or better yet, stop playing altogether. With a grin cast upward, he turned and walked away, heading back to his ship.

"Don't make me come looking for you, brat!"

More, larger fragments rained down, pattering against the back of his flightsuit before bouncing off and hitting the ground. They hit hard enough to feel through the padding of his suit, and hit too precisely--shoulders, then the middle of his spine, then his buttocks--to be accidental.

Muffling curses, Rorin spun around, took two steps back toward the passageway and looked up. Elin was up on her knees, silhouetted against the sky, one arm drawn back. He stood still, mouth open, and Elin flung her last piece of stone so it hit him square in the chest. He laughed, the sound echoing back to him from all the sheer rock faces.

Rorin was still laughing when she darted out of the passageway to meet him. He ran to her, wrapped his arms tight around her and spun her around three times. He started to yank on her hair, but the wolf appeared from the shadows and growled, and her hawk joined in with a warning screech. He released her with a start.

"Still the brat," he said, and stepped back to look her over, head to foot.

"Still the sense-dead space jockey," Elin retorted. "What are you doing here?"

"Looking for you. And your traveling orphanage." He nodded back down the passage, guessing most of the children were hiding in that direction. "They're good. You're a good teacher. They told me back at homebase what you're doing."

"They're good because you likely scared twenty years off them." Her voice tended toward a growl, but her mouth twitched, showing she fought not to grin.

He wanted to kiss her right then and there, but that would undo the forgiveness that was still birthing.

"Just as fierce as always," he said with a grin. He gestured at her trio as the bear appeared from another passageway. He now knew where more of the children had vanished. "I'll just bet it's a contest to see who's a worse influence, you or them."

Elin's eyes sparked somewhere between fury and amusement, and despite her scowl, she laughed. She turned and headed back down the passageway, and gestured for him to follow.

She warbled a signal that he guessed belonged to a native creature--he didn't look forward to seeing what it was because his study of the planet showed many of the native creatures tended toward slithery and armor-plated, with teeth and a stinger tail. The silent creatures of Norbra were even worse, in his estimation. Especially the ones that gave all appearances of being plants, or globs of slime, and then attacked with sprays of acid that digested their prey in seconds, or sucked the life out of them.

Slowly, by ones and twos, the children emerged from shadows and crevices and seeming holes in the ground. Adolescents were paired with children who should have been too young to be on a day-long hike, much less camping out in such a desolate place. As they came into sight, Elin gestured for them to fall into step. She didn't introduce any of them to Rorin, or him to them, until nearly three dozen children had gathered around in the valley several dozen meters away from his ship.

Then Elin introduced him to the children. He noted that she kept them in family groups. Rorin found it interesting that there were very few siblings who were by themselves. The norm seemed to be three or four in each family. He marveled at the idea of people having as many children as they wanted, or as many as they were able. Especially considering the reputation of Norbra killing all children born here, if not preventing their births altogether. On other worlds, closer to the core of the CAW, limitations on reproduction were established as the colonies got past six or seven generations. Only those with superior genetics and who had contributed valuable talents and assets to society were allowed to have more than one or two children. The wealthy, powerful, or highly intelligent were encouraged to have many children. No one was forced, but there were always stories of ovum and sperm being harvested for artificial insemination and implantation in artificial wombs.

Rorin watched Elin as she introduced each sibling group, the gentle touches on shoulders or heads, and noted the tiny personal details she gave of each one. She loved them. It was more than her sense of responsibility that bound her to them.

He had to silently scold himself not to fall into a daydream about Elin with their children one day--though he did promise himself they would have at least four.

"Now, invader," Elin said, when she finished with the last trio, all boys. "Explain yourself."

"You mean tell them about how we used to beat up on each other when we were children, back on Vidan, and how I owe you a takedown, and since I have some leave time, I decided now was a good time to even the score?"

The children laughed, despite Elin's scowl. He decided a wise man proved to the children he had a right to be there, starting with his pedigree, pointing out his Khybor relatives, and how many steps he and Elin were separated. He tried not to watch her as he answered their questions about his training. For colonist children, they were remarkably well-informed about the requirements and the process of training to reach each level of skill and his rank. Then again, maybe he wasn't as well-informed as he thought he was about the levels and extent of education the colonies provided their children. Either way, these were smart children. Several of them, boys and girls, expressed interest in becoming pilots, especially in the Exploration Corps. Rorin stole glances at Elin as he answered their more detailed questions, about some of his missions. She didn't seem to be in any hurry to leave, though she had told him they were on their way back to Central this morning. So he relaxed and answered questions.

He admitted he was a trained fighter pilot and had been involved in several defensive campaigns in the last five years. Several of the older ones immediately demanded to know if the craft he had flown there was a fightercraft, rather than just for exploration. When he admitted yes, it was, and he had brought it to augment colony and planetary security, several yelped in excitement and wanted to examine it immediately. Another glance at Elin, a slight nod from her, and he gestured for the children to go look. It wasn't like they could get in any trouble just walking around the craft, or even if the taller ones climbed up on the wings. He told Elin so, but her concern didn't seem mollified.

"They've been through enough already, without strapping on blasters and thrusters and courting violence, flying through the air," Elin said, as the children ran to surround his craft.

"We might as well start now, training them. They'll have to learn to fight among the stars, to keep the Set'ri from getting close enough to wipe out entire families again," he said, when the children had reached the fighter and gathered around it. He and Elin followed at a much slower pace.

"Please don't tell me you're in charge of planetary defense now." She softened her words with a crooked smile.

"Unfortunately. The good news is, we're all volunteers, all Khybors or of Khybor descent."

"I'd be happier if we had some non-Khybor troops. Especially volunteers."

"Hmm. Maybe." He turned away to answer a stream of questions from several boys who dashed back to meet them. He thought about the quars of discussions he had with his team, the men and women who had come to Norbra in response to the devastation and the slaughter, who shared the dream that Elin and her ancestors had carried for generations. This could be their final stand against the forces determined to class them as less than Human, and then eradicate them for the crime of not measuring up to their arbitrary standards. Or if Fi'in blessed them, this would be the launching point for a massive flight to somewhere far beyond the reach of their enemies for centuries to come.

"You think such can't be trusted to guard Khybor settlers?" she said, when the children left them alone to talk again.

"I'm thinking, the more Khybors we have here, the less inviting Norbra will be to the purebloods."

"You haven't seen much of Norbra yet, have you?" She gestured around the dusty valley, the spots of bushes and moss growing in the shade. "This is the garden spot of Norbra."

"Maybe." He grinned and shook his head and looked her over, head to foot again. "You've grown up, brat. Pared off a lot of the fluff and gloss--" He laughed when she snorted at his extravagant words. "It looks good on you."

"You have been too long in your cockpit." She scowled, making a lie of the laughter and what he hoped was a spark of warmth in her eyes. "Your recycler probably malfunctioned and poisoned your brain."

"Kick told me about your plans, a homeworld just for Khybors," he said, leaning closer and lowering his voice. "That makes this place just about paradise already."

"You knew Kick." Elin blinked rapidly, and her eyes glistened.

He reached up to brush a few new tears off her eyelashes before they could fall.

"And threatened to break every bone in his body if he wasn't good to you." Rorin sighed and the strain of the last few lunars of planning and evaluating and assembling his team and the long journey all seemed to crash down on him. He thought of Kick and other good men and women like him who had died in the battle against racial bigots who refused to acknowledge Fi'in's laws. "He was a good man. When he told me--"

The roar of his fightercraft's engines bursting into life sent Rorin running, cursing, to leap up onto the wing and drop into the cockpit. The very empty cockpit. He felt dizzy enough that the fightercraft seemed to wobble underneath him as he tried to grasp what had happened. None of the children sat in the seat, none of them had been able to get past the physical locks on the controls, much less the voice and print locks. Without someone sitting in the seat, to activate the thermal and pressure sensors, there was no way his ship's engines could have activated. Yet they did.

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