Disclaimer: Daria and associated characters are owned by MTV. This is fan fiction written for entertainment only. No money or other negotiable currency or goods have been exchanged.
Original characters and plot copyright Richard J. Lobinske. 2005.
This is a sequel to the story, Alien Pond.
Thirty one-year old Daria Morgendorffer sat in the quiet of her Lawndale house. She turned the page of the book she was reading and looked around her comfortable living room. At times, she still found it odd that Lawndale was the place she considered home. She'd spent most of the last fourteen and a half years in the town, except for the years she lived in Boston while she attended college at Raft, and the year she lived in her Montana cabin.
That memory of that cabin brought a warm smile to her face. She would be leaving in two days for her annual mid-April pilgrimage there. To her readers, editors, friends and family, it was her "After Taxes" vacation. Only her best friend, Jane Lane, knew it was a journey of remembrance for the three daughters Daria had raised in that remote cabin.
A very faint buzzing stirred Daria from her memories. Listening carefully, she realized that the sound seemed to come from the metallic belt, box, and two pistols on display in her living room. She told visitors they were props from a long forgotten science fiction TV pilot she had tried to sell.
Daria touched the belt and felt a vibration from a small metal disk set within it. She remembered what she was told when given the belt:
"Will alarm if enemy in range."
A very cold chill ran down Daria's spine. She quietly put the belt on and pressed a button on the buckle. A faint shimmer briefly passed over her vision as a transparent shield activated. Daria first pulled the matching pistol, but set it aside and picked up the second pistol. She removed a small, flat metal square from a pocket on the belt, slid it into the pistol grip, rotated a small control and briefly checked a display. Holding the pistol before her, she began to carefully scan the windows of her living room.
A faint click of something hard on the floor drew her attention toward the kitchen. A flash of purple spread around her as she saw a dark green insect-like figure in the door, pointing a pistol at her. Daria leveled hers at the alien and touched the trigger. A whine filled the air and a mirage-like shimmer formed around the alien's thorax. It staggered back and collapsed in a heap.
Daria moved closer and saw blood pooling within the confines of a shield around the body. Closer inspection revealed a second harness around the abdomen with a box-like attachment along the back. The alien's coverall was black, with an odd symbol attached to just below the neckline. The weapon still held in its five-fingered hand was similar to the one that came with her belt. When Daria tried to pick it up, the shield prevented her from gripping the pistol. The alien appeared dead and that was her primary concern.
"Dammit." Daria forced herself to breath again. She ran to the telephone and hit a speedial button. After an impatient wait, she finally got an answer. "Jane…Big trouble…I just killed a Folk assassin…Yes!...In my house!...Less than five minutes ago…I don't know how it got here, I haven't looked…Get packed, now…We're going to the cabin…We have to drive…harder to follow us…We need to find out what is going on…I'm on my way in a few minutes…Be very careful, I don't know if there are more…See you in a few."
Daria put the small box into a fitted belt pocket and the matching pistol in its holster before tucking the second into the belt. She rushed to her writing desk. An ergonomic keyboard was fitted into the surface and a wide-screen, flat panel display rose behind it. She started the computer, opened her email program, and began to type:
To: Helen Morgendorffer
From: Daria Morgendorffer
I'm sorry, but I'm about to disappear again. This time, I'm not certain if or when I will be back. The attached file has the real story of what happened to me that year I stayed at the cabin. The news will break very soon about this anyway, but I want you to have the full truth. I had made a deal with a Sick, Sad World reporter for an exclusive on the story. I will contact her with directions and permission to enter my house. You will understand when you read the file and see the news. Do not go to my house. I'm very serious; it could be dangerous. I am leaving right after I send this. I will send a few items to you via Package Air. Use the Power of Attorney I left with you as needed. I must go now.
Daria attached a file she'd kept under the deepest encryption money could buy and sent the email.
Seven years before, Daria had purchased a cabin in the Montana wilderness to spend a year in solitude and comparative simplicity, as Henry David Thoreau had described in Walden. At the time, she was at the emotionally lowest point of her life.
After college, her short marriage to Tom Sloane had ended in divorce after a failed pregnancy. She'd learned that she would never have children because of heavy metal poisoning from years of living in Highland, and the Sloane family soundly rejected her for it. In the divorce, she had accepted a settlement that was comparatively small for the Sloanes, but one that would keep her secure for life.
In the aftermath, she'd started a failed relationship with Jane's older brother, Trent. Regrettably, it faded as she realized her old high school crush couldn't sustain it. Heartbroken, she quietly purchased the cabin.
The night she had moved in, a spacecraft crashed into the nearby pond and four survivors had emerged. Three were children, Autumnblossom, Eveningsky and Truemind. Princesses of a stellar empire, they were stranded when rebels had destroyed their ship. The fourth was their mortally wounded Guardian, Swiftsong. The shield belt and matching pistol had been hers, along with the box, which was a compact database computer. After learning as much as she could from the dying Guardian, Daria had adopted the children and spent the next year raising them. They grew food in a garden, and Daria used her books, her internet connection, and the Folk computer to teach them as much as she could.
They had survived the regular appearance of a sheriff's deputy, O'Neal; pesky reporters from the tabloid television show, Sick, Sad World; and rebel aliens.
After a year with Daria, a rescue ship picked up the three up as young adults, while she was forced to hide in the cabin to avoid being seen by the rescuers, who expected no witnesses to the event.
Daria returned to the cabin every year on the anniversary of that first night. If there was any news, her daughters had promised to send word. A year ago, it came. The eldest, Truemind, was Queen. With the help of her sisters, she had instituted a new constitutional monarchy to replace the former despotism. Daria had waited in anticipation of more news.
Daria pulled up a previously unused email address that she had regularly checked to make sure it was current. She started typing again.
To: Ms. Lydia Phelps, Reporter: Sick, Sad World
From: Daria Morgendorffer
This is not quite our original agreement, but a situation arose that requires my disappearance for an indeterminate amount of time. A Folk assassin tried to kill me tonight. The body is still in my kitchen. The key to the front door is hidden under the skull replica in the garden. I know this isn't the promised interview with Queen Truemind (yes, she is Queen now, or was a year ago), but I don't know when, or if, I'll be back. I will always be grateful you kept your word not to say anything about my children when you discovered us. For now, this is the best I can do to keep up my end of the bargain. Please be very careful, it may be dangerous. Aliens may not be the only ones around.
Daria closed the program and shut down her computer. She went to her bedroom and stopped at her closet. "I can buy clothes on the road." She moved next her bed and pulled a ventilation intake grate from the wall. Inside the duct, she moved a false panel aside and opened a safe. From within, she removed two photo albums, a crystalline-framed document, and a flat wooden box from the heavily concealed safe.
She looked toward a painting that hid a second safe. "Crap, I don't have time. They're about to become public domain, or completely classified. Depending on who gets here first."
Moving carefully, Daria went out to her light four-wheel drive truck. Funny how I keep getting these after living in the cabin. She started the hybrid-powered vehicle and raced to Jane's house. On the way, she stopped by a bank and made maximum withdrawals from all of her accounts. "Cash only from here on."
Soon, she was pulling up to the house at 111 Howard Drive. Daria carefully looked around before she went to the door and rang the bell. She had her hand on the pistol when Jane opened it and said, "Daria, you look scared witless."
"That's because I am. You packed?"
Jane held up a suitcase. "I left instructions for my accountant and the manager of the gallery. Mack has power of attorney for my legal affairs, if needed."
"I'm sorry you have to leave him like this."
"We don't need to get anyone else involved."
"I agree, but…"
"Daria, this is hard enough."
"I still feel responsible."
"Don't. I sent him a message explaining what happened. I hope he understands."
"We better get going. Are you up to driving?"
Daria handed Jane the keys and they went to the truck. Moments after the truck was rolling down Howard Drive, Daria shrunk down in the seat in hard shakes. "It…it shot me. If it hadn't been quiet in the house." Daria swallowed hard. "I wouldn't have noticed the disk in the belt giving a warning. I got the shield up just in time."
"Damn, Daria. Look. Take it easy. I'm driving, let it go."
"Thanks." Daria nodded and closed her eyes. It took more than ten minutes for the trembling to subside.
As Jane drove, Daria thought of the reason her best friend had become involved. The greatest challenge proved to be the children's metamorphosis into adults, a process that normally required a living host to complete.
Unfortunately already under the influence of pheromones that would trigger a host response in her, she found information on a non-host diet in the database computer. Daria had recruited Jane to help, in anticipation of the coma the pheromones would cause. While watching over Daria and providing the artificial diet to the changing youngsters, a rebel Folk had attempted to break in. Jane had wrested the second, shield-piercing pistol from the rebel and was forced to use it to kill her.
Helen Morgendorffer nursed her morning coffee and ate breakfast as she checked email on her wireless networked laptop. As a full partner at her law firm, she had been able to reduce her hours, but some habits never went away. Reading the email, Helen said, "Daria, what the hell? You did get into some kind of trouble when you stayed in that damn cabin of yours."
She opened the large text document and began to read, a small smile developing as she did. "Good one, Daria. But, isn't this a little late for an April Fool's Day prank?" Partway in, she stared at one of the embedded images of the children. "Those certainly look real. I never knew Jane got into digital art."
In the living room, Jake yelled, "GAAAAAAHHHHHHH! Helen, come here!"
She sighed and got up. "Jake, what is it?"
Jake pointed at the television. "Helen, that's Daria's house!"
Helen stopped in shock at seeing her daughter's house on their high-definition television. The Sick, Sad World reporter, Lydia Phelps, was talking into a microphone. "Federal authorities from the Air Force and NASA have cordoned off the Lawndale residence of writer Daria Morgendorffer, but with her permission, we were able to gain access before they arrived for this exclusive footage."
The scene changed to Daria's kitchen. A dark green, insect-like body was on the floor, surrounded by a pool of blood that had been released when the battery pack of the shield belt ran down. It was clearly the same species as those in Daria's photos. The alien was about four feet long, with four thin legs and two arms, each ending in a hand with five digits, two opposable. Behind the legs, the abdomen extended back horizontally, while the front thorax angled up slightly to a conical head with two faceted, purple eyes. Low on the thorax, the exoskeleton looked like shattered glass around an ugly hole that oozed blood. A black coverall covered much of the body and an obvious weapon was on the floor next to the body.
Ms. Phelps narration continued. "Over six years ago, Ms. Morgendorffer had a prior encounter with these aliens, whom she referred to as 'Folk of the Nest,' a literal translation from their language. During the stay she partially chronicled in her book, Twenty-First Century Walden, Ms. Morgendorffer actually raised three of their children. The three bottles containing an unusual residue I reported at the time were the only physical evidence I was able to produce from that incident. The children were refugees from a rebellion and heirs to their throne. According to the last message I received from Ms. Morgendorffer, one of them is now Queen. It appears the rebellion is not over and Ms. Morgendorffer's role has been discovered. She has since disappeared for her own protection."
Jake stared at the television in a stupor. Helen went over to him and carefully grasped his arm. "Follow me." She led him over to her laptop. "Daria sent me this overnight."
Michael J. MacKenzie, commonly known as Mack, watched the morning news with fascination as he went through his morning email. He altered his attention to a message from Jane that had, 'Important---READ NOW!' as the subject. He clicked on the message and read.
I'm sorry, but I'll be gone for I don't know how long. By now, the news probably is out that something strange happened at Daria's house. Someone tried to kill her a few minutes ago. She's on her way over to pick me up, and we'll be going away.
Please believe what I'm about to tell you. This is a secret that has stayed between Daria and me, plus a SSW news crew, ever since her stay in Montana. Up until now, she hadn't even told her mother, and I hadn't told anyone.
That someone was not from our planet.
He looked back up at his television. "No kidding."
It all started the night Daria arrived in Montana…
Mack finished off the message and deleted it. He sat still for a couple minutes in deep thought.
He looked at the calendar on his wall. "About the time for her annual trip. They're heading for Daria's cabin. If the friendly aliens show up every year, it's the place she needs to go."
He picked up the phone and dialed his travel agent. "Harvey, Mack M. I need the next flight to Billings…Yes, Montana…Only one-way for now…I don't give a damn how much it costs…Okay, that flight will do…Put it on my personal account and bill to the on-file credit card…Oh, I'll also need a rental car at that end…Any model…Thanks."
He pulled up an old email. "Daria offered to let Jane and I use the cabin for vacation last year. I should still have the map."
Daria parked in front of a package delivery store and grabbed the photo albums and framed document. "I'm shipping my photo albums of the kids and their new constitution to Mom for safekeeping. I'll be back in a bit."
Jane stopped her. "Let me go in. Your name is already being splattered all over the news. If you get recognized…"
"Dammit, you're right. Hold on." Daria scribbled a note on some scrap paper. "Put this in with them."
"Sure thing, kid. Why not the wood box?"
Daria opened the box to show a photo of her children, framed in dried, woven vines. The one Christmas present she had from them. "This is too personal. It stays with me."
"Gotcha." Jane went inside and purchased a box and wrapping supplies. She carefully wrapped each item in bubble wrap and placed the note on top.
These are personal photos of my daughters. The alien on the news in my house was there to kill me. Something must still be going on, and they know who I am. I have to go away until this can be cleared up. I can't explain more now. The last item is a copy of the new constitution my children worked to put in place. Please keep these safe until my return, or if you receive word that I won't return.
Say goodbye to Dad, Quinn and Bill for me. I was hoping to be around when their child was born. Please spoil the little one on my behalf.
Soon Jane was back in the car. "On its way."
"Jane, we need to find a hotel to stop at for a little while. I can stay inside while you go out and get a wig and some makeup to disguise me."
"I saw one not too far back that way."
"Fine, we'll go there."
Daria kept a grip on the shield-piercing pistol while waiting for Jane to return to the hotel. "Never thought I would stay in a place that rented by the hour." She checked the spyglass in response to a knock, allowing Jane in after.
Jane pulled out a long, black wig and makeup. "Hi Honey, I'm home."
"Hilarious, Lane." Daria picked up the base color makeup. "I hate this stuff."
"You don't have to like it, just wear it for the next day or so."
Half an hour later, they were back on the road, with Daria sporting black hair and a dark tan.
Alternating driving, Daria and Jane were able to make excellent progress. Jane was reading a map while Daria drove. Jane looked over and asked, "Okay, I understand you wanting to bug out, but why am I with you?"
"I needed an extra driver to make the best time."
"You could have flown."
"Too risky and traceable."
Jane shook her head. "I'm not buying it. I can't believe the Folk can hack in and find your flight that easily."
"It's not them I was concerned about avoiding on the way to the cabin."
Jane narrowed her eyes. "What?"
Daria released a deep sigh. "Jane…I'm not certain of how closely, but I know I've been watched ever since I came back from Montana."
"Why do you think that?"
"I've noticed too many black cars with heavily tinted windows."
"It's your imagination."
"I thought that for a while…until a conversation I had with Deputy O'Neal at the cabin last year."
"Just as he pulled away, he winked and told me I raised three fine daughters."
Jane bolted upright. "He knew!"
"I checked the county records when I got back. He was hired less than a week after I moved into the cabin, into a newly created position."
"It was never advertised. A week after I left, he resigned from active duty. However, he remained a reserve deputy."
"This is getting a little creepy."
"Who has been activated for two weeks in the middle of April every year since."
"When you're at the cabin."
"But the only time he stopped by was last year. The first time anything had been left for me. Strangely, he made it a point to tell me he knows about them."
"I'm getting confused."
"I think he was trying to warn me. Somebody, human, knew my kids were there, and knew from early on that the ship had landed. Their stealth wasn't as effective as they thought. I'm guessing O'Neal was there to observe, but not intervene."
"Hmm. That might explain his odd delay in getting to the cabin when we reported Streamrider's abandoned car. He gave us time to clean up before the other officers arrived."
"Because he warned me, I decided to leave as fast as I could. I don't know if that assassin was tracked approaching my house, and I didn't really want to meet this secret group that knew."
"Okay, you needed an extra driver to help, but wouldn't they figure out the cabin, also?"
"I'm hoping they do, and send O'Neal."
"The one who has the best chance to be trustable."
"So why call in Sick, Sad World?"
"I owed Ms. Phelps an exclusive in exchange for her keeping quiet. Plus, I'm hoping the confusion of putting out that fire will give us a little more time. I'm glad she was able to get there first."
Jane turned to stare at Daria. "You're planning on going with the ship this year."
Quieter, Daria said, "Yes. I also wanted you with, to see that I got on board, and then go back to tell Mom and Dad I was safely away."
"As long as I'm on Earth, they're also at risk. With Quinn expecting in three months, I can't allow anything to happen. They're also going to be safer if this is public. Swamped with publicity, it will be hard to intimidate or assassinate them. Same for you."
"Damn. I'm going to miss you."
Mack brought his late model rental car to a stop outside the log cabin. Though rustic, it did show distinct signs of the modern era, like the mirror-tinted widows and solar power panels on the roof. The area was clearly maintained some throughout the year. He remembered Daria mentioning she'd hired a landscape service to keep the place in reasonable order. A pond was visible about forty yards behind the house. There was still a chill in the air as he opened the door. "I guess I wait."
Mack removed a bag from the front seat and sat down on the trunk of the car, pulling out a small sub sandwich and a drink. As he ate, he looked around. "This is a pretty place. Even with the weirdness Jane said happened, Daria must have loved this. I wish we'd taken her up on the offer, last vacation."
A sheriff's department SUV slowly came down the driveway. It stopped about ten yards away and an officer stepped out. He looked around fifty, gray hair with a few stray streaks of brown remaining. He gazed at Mack through dark sunglasses. Mack also noticed him pop the safety strap on his sidearm and rest his hand on it.
The officer approached to within five yards. "Good afternoon. What can I do for you?"
Mack slowly slid off the trunk and kept both hands in view. "Good afternoon. I'm waiting for some friends of mine to arrive here. We came separately."
"Oh, really? And who are these friends?"
"The…owner, Daria Morgendorffer and my girlfriend, Jane Lane."
"Michael MacKenzie. Daria's a good friend I've known since high school. I've known Jane since we were little, and I've dated her for three years."
"Have you been listening to the news?"
"So why do you think they're going to be here?"
"I know them."
O'Neal minutely shifted his weight backward. "You got here awfully fast after the news broke, if you're from Lawndale."
"I got the first flight I could."
"And what do you have in mind?" O'Neal's hand firmly held the grip of his sidearm.
"You must be O'Neal. They're in trouble and I'm worried about them."
"How much do you know beyond the news?"
"Jane told me about Daria's three…girls."
"Do you realize what kind of danger you put yourself in coming here?"
"No, I don't. But it's irrelevant. I'm here for them."
O'Neal approached closer. Mack noticed the faint outlines of body armor under O'Neal's uniform, and a small earphone in his left ear. While distracted with that, he suddenly realized O'Neal had reached for and pulled his pistol from its holster. The greater surprise was his presenting the grip to Mack. "Just in case. I have something more in the truck. You checked out."
Driving through the night, Jane noticed Daria's face illuminated by the faint glow of the alien database computer. "Find anything interesting?"
"Well…my would-be assassin…he was rather unusual in one aspect…"
Jane raised an eyebrow. "You said that they were mostly females and only occasionally produced males."
"That's why he's unusual. I thought something looked different about the abdomen, but I was more concerned with getting away at the time."
"Hmmm. Do you think that means something?"
"I don't know."
"Do you mind the radio? To help keep me awake."
After Daria's affirmative grunt, Jane scanned around for a clear station.
A newsreader was saying, "…Demands are coming in from the worldwide scientific community to examine the alleged alien corpse. NASA and the Air Force have continued to keep the residence of Ms. Morgendorffer sealed off. Reports have surfaced that investigators from the FBI have arrived and are treating the home as a crime scene."
Jane shook her head. "Well, you certainly lit a fire."
"The question of whether this is final proof of life on other planets has dominated all other news today. If so, is the claimed story true that Ms. Morgendorffer raised three of them for a year? President Eichler has issued a statement that they are awaiting confirmation from their scientific advisors before determining any further possible action. The Montana State police have sealed off all roads leading to Ms. Morgendorffer's cabin to prevent the curious from entering."
Jane looked at Daria. "Crap. What do we do now?"
"Keep going. If we're lucky, they sealed off the roads close to my cabin so not to disturb the locals. Several of my old neighbors were heavily armed and paranoid about the authorities."
"How does that make us lucky?"
"Since the state police officers probably don't know the area, they won't be aware of the old horse trail that goes by the backside of my property. This four-wheel drive truck can travel on it."
Light static crackled over the news. "The family of Ms. Morgendorffer remains inside their Lawndale home and have issued the following statement: 'We are certain the story presented by Sick, Sad World is accurate, and the alien is real. We do not know of Daria's whereabouts, but we extend every hope for her safety.'"
Daria looked at the radio. "Mom is in full lawyer mode. Good."
Jane looked back over at Daria. "What are you going to want me to tell them when I get back?"
"That I've gone to see my children. And demand that the authorities return my diaries."
"You left them?"
"I didn't have time to get them from the other safe; you saw that I didn't even pack clothes."
"Yeah, and that was quite a collection of garments for you I picked up at that thrift store. But, you've always been so protective of your diary."
"Jane, I was rattled and wanted to get away. Give me a break."
"Sorry. Just surprised."
"So was I!" Daria barked back.
"Whoa. I can see you're upset. I'll get with your mother to do everything we can to get them back."
Daria sighed. "Thanks. Yes, I'm upset I had to leave them." Daria developed a slightly evil smile. "Though you could probably get some help from the Sloanes to keep it quiet. There's some stuff in there they don't want going public."
Later, as Jane was exiting the interstate, Daria slumped back in her seat. "Dammit."
"I found that symbol from his coverall."
Daria gave Jane a worried look. "It's a symbol of their clergy."
Jane spun her head toward Daria, swerving the car. Jane yelled, "Crap!" as she regained control.
Daria seemed not to notice the car motions. "The only reason I can think that a cleric would try to kill me is the artificial diet I gave my girls for their metamorphosis."
"You said it was…a heresy."
"Jane, if they know about that…"
"They probably know about me."
"Was anybody else home at Casa Lane?"
Jane stopped the truck at an intersection. "Thank God, no. Mom and Dad went to observe the penguins and Trent's still stuck in Kalamazoo."
"If I'm right…"
Jane stared straight ahead. "We both have to leave."
Daria drove the truck through the Montana countryside. From the radio came, "Route Twenty-Three will be closed by the state police at Old Baker's Road and Bluetooth Road until further notice. Residents are requested to use Route Twenty-Two-A."
Daria smiled at Jane. "Good, the horse trail is about a quarter mile before Bluetooth, with enough curve to block sight from the roadblock."
Jane rubbed her chin. "Daria, we're going to get to the cabin a day early. What are we going to do until our…um…rescue shows up?"
"Lay low and try to be inconspicuous. And hope nobody is already waiting for us."
"One more thing, what are we going to eat?"
"I keep a stash of MRE's in the cabin, just in case of late snowstorms."
"I mean, if…or when we leave on the ship. No offense, but a strictly liquid diet would drive me nuts. I doubt if you have a couple years' supply on hand."
"I'm sure they planned for that."
"Speaking of planning, I hope they have some modified accommodations for us on that ship. We stand a lot taller than they do. I'm not looking forward to several months of ducking and crawling."
"They have interstellar travel; I think that they would be intelligent enough take some things into account." She slowed and began to turn off the pavement. "Here we go, hang on. Under no circumstances would you call this a road."
Lurching and twisting, the truck slowly progressed down the rough path. After about fifteen minutes, Daria stopped the truck near the edge of the trees. "I want to take a look." After a couple minutes, she returned. "Crap. I see a deputy sheriff's truck at the cabin, and a brown sedan."
"Daria, grab one of the pistols and stay here. I'm going to drive up and check."
"Jane, I can't let you risk that."
"We're stuck otherwise. We can't really go back, and we don't know who's there."
"Then we both go." Daria retrieved the assassin's pistol and handed Swiftsong's to Jane. "Forward."
Daria slowly drove the truck across the clearing toward the house.
O'Neal noticed the approaching truck and reached for his automatic rifle. "Mack, is that hers?"
Mack nodded and said, "Sure looks like it. How the hell did she get there?"
"That you failed to mention to the state police?"
"They really should learn to read maps."
Jane shook her head. "How the stinkin' hell did Mack get out here?"
Daria relaxed. "Mack I can deal with. He probably flew out."
"Dammit, I didn't want him in this."
"Jane, I never wanted you involved."
Still cautious, Daria slowly drove up to the back of the cabin while Mack and O'Neal walked around. O'Neal set his rifle against the wall of the cabin. "Good to see you."
"Thanks. I was hoping you would be here."
Jane jumped out of the truck and stormed over to Mack. "What the hell are you doing out here?"
Mack raised both eyebrows and said, "Isn't it obvious? I still can't leave things alone and came out to see if I can help."
Jane lightly punched him in the chest. "You big oaf. I didn't want to risk getting you involved."
"Jane, we are involved. I'd have thought you'd noticed."
Jane hugged him tight. "That is not what I meant."
"Jane, once I saw your message, I knew I had to help. You know it too: that's why you didn't call me. You wanted the lead time."
Daria looked over. "Let me guess, Mister Organized still had the map I gave him last year."
Mack nodded. "And some people complain I'm a pack-rat."
O'Neal went back to his rifle. "All this is touching, but we better get inside now. Ms. Morgendorffer, do you still have your motion sensor hooked up along the driveway?"
"It should still be there."
"Good. Now everybody, we need to get out of sight."
The one-room cabin was still mostly the way it was when Daria had lived there. A comfortable easy chair and coffee table dominated the center of the room. The corners were occupied by a work desk (with computer), the kitchen, the bathroom (with privacy curtain), and a single bed. A rug was on the bare wooden floor near the easy chair. Daria said, "Welcome to my humble abode. Please don't mind the dust. I haven't cleaned in almost a year."
Jane looked around. "Guys…did anybody bring some sleeping bags or something? There aren't exactly a lot of sleeping accommodations here."
O'Neal said, "I don't see a problem. All of us shouldn't be asleep at the same time. Two can sleep and the other two stay up to guard."
Daria looked at Jane. "I'm sure you and Mack will want to be together."
"Since he's here…"
O'Neal said, "Fine. You two get some shut-eye. I'd like to talk with Ms. Morgendorffer for a spell."
"You can call me Daria."
"Very well." He grinned a little and said in a John Cleese imitation, "Some call me…Tim?"
Daria smiled, bowed her head forward to rest it on her hand, and said, "How the hell did I miss that?"
Mack and Jane broke out into loud laughter. O'Neal looked at them in confusion and said, "The old joke's not that funny."
Jane inhaled and sputtered out, "Tim O'Neal…" She laughed again before finishing. "…You're kidding, right?"
He asked in utter surprise, "What?"
Daria explained, "All three of us endured a teacher named Timothy O'Neill, spelled O, N, E, I, L L. To say you have a distinctly different personality is an understatement."
Mack snickered. "At least you were spared being married to Ms. Barch…"
The hours driving and attempting to sleep in a truck had caught up with Jane and she quickly fell asleep on the bed. The night spent guarding the cabin with O'Neal had left Mack weary; he was soon asleep beside her.
Daria and Tim sat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee. Tim was saying, "I still can't believe how quickly Phelps responded."
"I was hoping she worked late and would get it that night, and then she just had a three or four hour drive from New York."
"Congratulations; in one stroke you doomed my section into being cancelled. From now on, aliens will be handled by Customs and INS."
"I guessed you worked for some agency dealing with things like that. Have there been previous contacts with the Folk? This, by the way, is the closest name I can translate for them."
"Yes. But, it wasn't good. We tried to contact one of them fourteen years ago. There was a firefight and the alien escaped."
"You were hoping to make friendlier contact here?"
"I was sent in to investigate. When we realized what you were doing, the decision was made to only observe. There was no way we could generate the amount of good will you did by raising those girls."
"And your section has kept tabs on me since?"
"Correct. We were expecting them to contact you again. Confession time: I opened your package last year. I was serious about what I said about your daughters. What they did was damn impressive."
"You told me that you knew last year as a warning. Why?"
"The administration was applying pressure on us to take a harder line. They want surreptitious technology transfers. I suspected you kept…" He motioned to the belt and equipment. "Plus, some may have tried to use you to force contact with your children's people."
"So you didn't have a clue that one of the Folk would try to kill me?"
"No. I was worried about my own agency. Do you have any idea of why one of them tried?"
She bowed her head sadly. "I'm afraid so. In the long run, what I did may make them hate us even more."
"Then you better get me up to speed on the problem."
Tim entered the cabin just as Daria set the box of MRE's on the table in front of Jane and Mack. "Help yourself. Tim, what's up? You look worried."
He sighed. "Damn, things are getting complicated. I just checked in with the home office and told them I haven't seen you here. NASA has agreed to allow outside observers to your assailant's autopsy. Churches around the world are up in arms over this. Some are claiming it's a hoax, others evidence of God being everywhere. The president has ordered DEFCON Three. A lot of people are scared and nervous. Your family is almost under siege. The governor called in national guard troops to protect the house."
Daria nodded. "With that much publicity, they'll be safer."
He was surprised. "Is that all you can say? You've created a world uproar."
Daria looked at Tim. "Perhaps, but I only started it a bit early."
"What do you mean?"
"As I understood, the craft small enough to land undetected…or mostly undetected, weren't faster-than-light capable. Therefore, there has to be a larger ship up there somewhere that my attacker was transported on. Another ship will arrive tomorrow night to check on me, and take me with, if I ask. With the failure of the assassin, there's a good chance that the first ship will try to stop the second. Somehow, I think that fight will be noticed by far too many to be covered up. If any wreckage reaches Earth, again the same. They must have some seriously potent reactors, or other power supply, for FTL travel. If something like that explodes, it will be big." Daria looked around. "If I'm not here when the second ship arrives. I bet they have orders to find me. Particularly, if my children know about the assassination plot."
Tim's eyes widened and he said, "I'll be right back," as he ran back out of the cabin.
Jane and Mack were looking at her. Jane said, "Daria, you didn't mention any shooting war in space. What if they decide to start shooting after we get onboard?"
Daria leaned against a chair. "We'll have a better chance than if they decide to level this cabin from orbit. Who knows what kind of weaponry they have available? But then, dropping a rock from orbit is sufficient. I suspect they'll try to prevent me, or us, from being picked up. Logically, their first chance is to stop the second ship. If that doesn't work, then they will try to intercept us or make a big splash and try to hit us from space. Planning on leaving with the friendly ship is still our best hope."
Mack looked grim. "This is not looking good. How'll we know if the right ones show up?"
Daria showed Mack that she was still wearing the shield belt from Swiftsong. "This basically has an Identify-Friend or Foe system built into it. These shields seem to be fairly common issue, and the system appears to be tied in with them. It will warn of any enemies approaching. I'm just afraid that because of the time that's passed since it was set, it may not recognize some friendlies."
Tim reentered the cabin looking a little more relieved. "I hinted to the home office that it might be a good idea to evacuate the space station." He sat and blindly grabbed an MRE and tore it open. "This is really going downhill."
Mack opened one and started the chemical heating packet. "Looks like you were right; I had no idea of what kind of danger was involved. But, I'm still glad I'm here."
Tim looked at him. "That's the last shoe that I didn't get to drop. The word is out that you and Jane are missing and presumed with Daria. The fringe conspiracy people are having a field day. Thomas Sloane's ex-wife, Congresswoman Landon's ex-fiancé, and an artist known to have very close ties to both. Some of the suggestions…"
Daria started warming her dinner. "Wonderful. But if it creates just another day of distraction, I'll take it."
The evening passed in restful silence. Under Tim's watchful eye, Daria spent much of her night watch sitting near the pond, staring out over its waters. "I hope I get to see you three miscreants soon. I miss you." She tossed a bit of wood into the water and watched the ripples spread. "I'm still alone. Jane has been a dear friend…but there are some voids she can't help me with."
Daria turned to look back at the dark cabin. "Mack is going to try to come with. As much as I wish he could, I've got to stop him. Someone has to stay here to look after Jane's interests." She looked up at the stars in the direction she watched the ship leave with her children years before. "But, they aren't going to be happy about it. One more day."
The day passed with increasing tension. Daria, Jane and Mack made what little preparations were needed to leave. Tim kept an eye on everyone and monitored events in the world outside from the radios in his truck. The independent scientists were confirming the corpse was of extraterrestrial origin. Unknown to the public, DEFCON Two was declared overnight. Instead of the long-suspected widespread panic at word of life on other worlds, the world reaction had turned more into a marathon of watching television talk shows discussing what it all meant.
In the early afternoon, Tim rushed into the house. "My cover's blown. A spy satellite recorded three vehicles here. It hit the news and nothing was said by my agency…now they don't answer at all."
Daria asked, "How much time before they respond?"
"It would take a couple hours to assemble a team and move them out here. But, I don't know when they found out. Protocol would have them wait until dark unless there was an overriding need. I'm guessing we have until then."
Mack said, "We have the road and the horse trail. Any other ways to get a vehicle close?"
Daria shook her head.
Tim leaned his head toward the alarm bell in the cabin. "The motion sensor will tell us about the road, but we need something for the trail."
Mack asked, "Why no motion sensor on the trail?"
Daria said, "Only the locals used it, so I didn't bother. They wouldn't tell an outsider it was there. Since most of them would respond with gunfire to anybody approaching that way on their property…they assumed I would, too."
Daria picked up one of the pistols. "Swiftsong said this uses an electrical pulse to disrupt nerves. I wonder if the high setting would disrupt a car's electronics?"
Mack pulled out his car keys. "I have the only vehicle that's not four-wheel drive and is the least usable. How about a test?"
"It's your security deposit."
They all went outside and Mack started the car. After he got out, Daria pointed the pistol at the hood area and touched the trigger. After the purple flash, the internal combustion engine stuttered and backfired before shutting off. Mack got back in the car and tried the electric drive and several electronic devices. "Nothing."
"Good. We have a way to stop a vehicle approaching. I wish I could have grabbed the assassin's pistol, that way we would have two."
Jane raised a hand, "You said the assassin used a weapon like Swiftsong's, I wonder why he didn't have one like Streamrider's?"
"He probably didn't expect me to have a shield. One like Swiftsong's is more versatile, and on high power, would have adequately killed me without a shield. The shield-piercing weapons are probably special issue."
Mack looked toward the tree line. "I'll go guard the trail."
Jane and Daria both said, "Mack?"
"I'm the logical choice. We can't risk you or Jane. Don't argue. O'Neal has professional training and should stay with you. That leaves me."
Daria frowned. "Damn logic."
"Can I use your truck? Running back here after disabling a truck full of assault troops doesn't seem like a good idea."
As darkness fell, Mack was prone in dense underbrush and positioned to look down the trail. The spring air was silent except for a few insect and bird calls. Soon, a slight rumble could be heard down the trail, along with the snap of broken branches. Mack tensed and watched.
A black, unlit vehicle came into dim view. It stopped and Mack heard metallic clicks of doors opening. Crap. The soft scuffle of boots lightly treading on metal followed. O'Neal was right; they're stopping early and deploying on foot. He switched the weapon from high to low power. Time to get out of here if that thing isn't getting any closer.
Mack crawled back and started to move to Daria's truck. The sound of his crawling seemed almost thunderous against the surrounding silence. Keeping low, he got up and sprinted toward the truck. He reached the passenger door and crawled in, sliding over to start the truck. As he began moving, gunfire erupted from the trees and loud metallic thuds came from the back of the truck. "Oh, hell!" Mack floored the accelerator.
The gunfire attracted the attention of everyone in the dark cabin. Tim and Jane watched the approaching truck while Daria kept an eye the front. Jane was red with anger. "Why the hell are they shooting at him?"
The alarm for the motion sensor on the front road sounded. Daria yelled, "Dammit!" The front clearing was empty. "I'm not seeing anything!"
Tim said back, "They probably stopped in the trees and are awaiting orders. Crap. They shouldn't be shooting."
The shots abruptly stopped as the truck continued on. In a minute, it was at the cabin and Mack staggered in the back door. "Bastards!" Jane yelled as she saw the blood on him. Mack held his hand against his upper thigh and slid down on the floor. "Ouch."
Daria yelled, "The first aid kit is in the kitchen!"
Jane ran to grab it as Tim continued to watch the back. He shook his head. "What idiot is in charge out there?"
Mack coached Jane through getting a pressure bandage on the wound and stopping most of the bleeding. "Guess that Boy Scout first aid helped."
Jane was still breathing hard from adrenaline. "Good thing you remembered, because I didn't remember any from Girl Scouts. That was too damn close."
"I didn't expect them to shoot like that." He turned toward Tim. "The truck stopped early like you said it might and they started to deploy. I realized I was making too much noise crawling, so I ran to the truck. They started shooting when I got it moving."
"You did what you were supposed to. Some jerk must have panicked."
A megaphone-enhanced voice called from the darkness, "Agent Nine. We don't want anyone harmed. Please come out of the house."
Daria raised an eyebrow. "Agent Nine?"
Tim shrugged and looked outside. "To whom am I speaking?"
"Assistant Director Chambers."
"You authorized first use of deadly force?"
"No, that was an accident."
"Then would you care to send in a medic for the man you shot?"
"Damn." Faintly, he could be heard saying, "Johnson, your ass is mine when this is over with. Tyler, drop your weapon and get inside." He called out loud. "I'm sending her in. No tricks. Let her leave when she's done."
A woman in her thirties approached the cabin with her hands raised. She wore a dark grey camouflage uniform with integral body armor and carried a single case marked with a red cross. Tim let her in and patted her down for hidden weapons. "Clear."
Kneeling next to Mack, she said, "You must be the patient."
He grunted, "Yeah."
"Hold still." She expertly checked the bandage and connected a small monitor to him to check his vital signs.
Outside, the Chambers said, "Come out, you won't be harmed. The cabin is surrounded and you cannot get away."
"No. We're waiting for guests to arrive."
"Dammit all, Nine! I don't know what kind of games you were playing, not reporting Ms. Morgendorffer earlier. This has become a matter of national security. A large spaceship was detected approaching Earth eight hours ago. A smaller ship was detected approaching Earth from the far side of the moon seven hours ago. The two are converging and appear to going into formation. My orders are to have Ms. Morgendorffer and her associates in protective custody."
Daria went to the window. "I'm only interested in leaving. Those two ships aren't going into formation; they're probably going into battle."
"What did you say?"
"They're probably going into battle. The body in my house was an assassin, which I was lucky to kill. The ship approaching from the Moon is very likely from the faction supporting the assassin. They will want to kill me, and probably anyone nearby. The other ship is one I've been expecting to take me away. I want to go and it's a good bet that they won't be happy with anyone who tries to stop me. The fact that they are approaching openly means that things are not going well."
Tyler said to Mack, "You've lost a good deal of blood. With that bullet still in you, we need to get you to a hospital soon." She looked at Jane nearby. "Please get me something to put under his legs and a blanket. He's at a high risk for shock."
Jane grabbed pillows and blanket from the bed and returned. While Jane and Tyler worked on Mack, Daria got a knife from the rack and knelt next to Tyler. "I want you to see something." Daria thrust the knife against her foot. It bounced off the shield and the tip embedded a quarter inch into the floor. "I want to get out of here to see my children. As you see, I'm well protected. You already know we have weapons. Any aliens that show up will have these. You can't deal with this kind of technology. Please let us leave in peace."
"It's not my call, but I'll relay the message." Tyler finished up preparing Mack for shock and future transport. "That's all I can do. We need to move him as soon as possible."
Mack set his jaw. "I'm not moving until Jane and Daria are safe."
Jane grabbed his face in her hands. "Listen to me, you overgrown Lancelot. You're going to a hospital as soon as those bozos out there can get you to one. Do I make myself clear?"
Jane put a hand over his mouth. "You're going."
Daria asked Tyler, "Can you do that?"
"We have medivac choppers on standby."
"Please get one." Daria went to the window. "Your medic is coming out. We need a medical evacuation."
Daria noticed two small, bright flashes of light in the sky. A few moments later, more small bright flashes. "Damn. I didn't want to be right about that." She called out, "Look to the east."
As Tyler walked back out, the Assistant Director looked up to see more small flashes. He pulled out his radio and began to talk.
Jane stayed close to Mack while Daria watched the flashes, which continued for several minutes. The sound of a helicopter diverted everyone's attention as it approached and landed near the back of the cabin.
Tyler grabbed one of the crew and a stretcher and approached the cabin. Daria kept Swiftsong's pistol trained on them as they secured Mack to it. Jane gave him a last kiss and they exchanged a few words before he was lifted off the ground.
Daria went to him. "Mack, thanks for everything. It's best you stay here to take care of Jane's interests. We can't let you go in your condition."
Mack groaned, "I can't argue with that. Damn."
"I promise, we'll watch out for each other and she'll return to you."
"Goodbye, Daria, Tim. Jane, I love you, stay out of trouble," Mack said as they took him to the waiting helicopter.
Jane whispered, "I love you, you Boy Scout," as she watched the helicopter fly away to the south.
As it faded from view, a large, bright light exploded in the eastern sky. Daria sat down at the table with an ashen face and her hand over her mouth. Jane noticed Daria and sat beside her. "Are you okay?"
In shock, Daria rubbed her eyes and buried her face in her hand. "How many Folk up there just died because of me?"
The Assistant Director was a shaken man in his late fifties with graying black hair and small, round glasses, who approached the cabin with his hands open. Tim motioned for him to enter. Chambers said, "President Eichler has ordered DEFCON One. A lot of small objects, most likely debris, are approaching North America and will be entering the atmosphere in the next hour. Regrettably, most of our missile interceptors were placed to protect us from an attack from the west, so they can't help much. Two objects appear to be under control. They are slowing and moving into a reentry path for this area. Of the two original ships, the smaller appears to have been destroyed. It looks like some kind of escape vessel from it is heading here, pursued by the larger."
Daria looked up with red eyes. "Please, tell them not to shoot. No more."
He looked at Daria. "Rules of Engagement are not to take hostile action unless fired upon. Are you certain that they're coming here?"
"As certain as I can be. About how long?"
"The first about ninety minutes, the second ten minutes later."
"Please tell your people to leave before they get here. You can't do anything against them."
Tim looked at the Assistant Director. "You have a chance to make up for the section's mistakes with this species, both now and fourteen years ago. We had the chance for good relations with my recommendation to leave Ms. Morgendorffer and her children alone. If we take a stand to protect her, we may be forgiven for you being sent to capture her."
Almost pleading, Chambers said, "We didn't know the situation; she was to be under our protection."
"Then you could've sent one car. You were here to capture by force."
Daria shook her head in frustration. "Just leave."
Tim said, "Stay, you only need to buy a few minutes."
Daria put a hand on Tim's arm. "No. Please don't let anyone else…"
Tim moved her hand away. "I know why you're saying that. This isn't just about you personally; it's what you represent. You're now a symbol to your children and their supporters, of a new, and hopefully better, government. To those that want you dead, you're a symbol of their loss of control and power. Your death will help them and hurt your kids and everything they worked for."
He turned to Chambers. "Deploy your force to defend the cabin."
Chambers stood, unmoving.
Tim picked up Swiftsong's weapon. "May I test something?"
He pointed the pistol at the table and tried to shoot through. The flash filled the room, but left no mark on the table. "It has little or no penetration through an insulator. Tell them to keep behind cover. Something non-metallic." Chambers grimly nodded and walked outside, issuing orders as he did.
"Daria, may I have your pistols? They can be effective; I'll need them for any that gets close. I want you two to stay low near the center of the cabin. You may not like it, but your lives are more important than anyone else around here."
Jane grabbed Daria's arm. "You heard the man." As she led Daria to the middle of the room, she looked over her shoulder. "Use the guns."
For the next hour and a half, Daria sat on the edge of the easy chair, silent and staring at the coffee table. Occasional streaks crossed the sky as fragments of ship became meteors. Jane sat on a cushion next to the chair. Finally, Daria looked over at Jane. "That was Eveningsky's cushion."
Jane held Daria's hand. "With a little luck, you'll see them soon."
"If we live through the next fifteen minutes."
Outside, a staccato whine could be heard. Daria looked up. "Here they come. It doesn't sound good." The pulse was erratic and uneven, the pitch varying also. A familiar vibration was felt from the belt. Daria said to Tim, "They're registering as enemies, but I can't be certain."
He yelled out to Chambers, "Possible hostiles."
A crunching thud came from outside as the whine abruptly stopped. For a minute, there was quiet, and then a commotion outside and Chamber's voice yelling, "Pull back!"
Tyler's voice came back in response, "Sir?"
"Pull back. Those are your orders."
"Sir, they haven't taken any hostile…"
Tim was about to yell when he saw Chambers collapse in a purple flash. Tyler dropped to the ground and yelled, "Neville, you're in charge, the AD's down!" A more distant voice responded, "Return fire!"
Gunfire erupted from many points around the house. Tim braced at the window with Streamrider's pistol. "What the hell was up with him?" He took careful aim and slowly fired.
As minutes passed, the amount of gunfire outside decreased. Tim looked over at Daria. "This is the last battery pack. My shots and the noise and flash from the team have kept them back. But that won't last for much longer I fear."
Daria said to Jane, "Grab a couple blankets from under the bed. If any get in, we can try to tie them up like you did before."
"Gotcha." Jane crawled to the bed and returned with blankets. Tim crawled back and handed Daria the two spent pistols. "It looks like only some of them have shields; gunfire has brought several of them down. I think I got most of the ones with shields."
A louder, even-tempo version of the ship propulsion whine reverberated though the cabin.
Daria tilted her head. "No warning. They're friendly."
Tim looked up. "The cavalry has excellent timing."
Daria huddled in the chair. "Excellent timing would have been before the fighting started."
Tim quickly crawled to the window and yelled out. "Incoming friendlies!" He realized that the remaining troops outside were behind cover and staring up. The hovering disk covered much of the 40 acre clearing and emitted a faint, pearlescent glow from the smooth surface. A rapid series of loud cracks emanated from small apertures on the ship and the advancing aliens from the first ship dropped in succession.
Moments later, a group of aliens in gray uniforms swarmed around the cabin from somewhere out of his sight. The sound of weapon fire of all types slowed and stopped. Tim looked around the different windows, a ring of uniformed aliens stood at attention around the cabin, facing away. He went to Daria. "It looks clear. I'm going to check."
Opening the front door, he saw a pillar lowered from the underside of the massive ship and a hatch open at the base.
A figure approached him, holding one of the familiar database computers. "Greetings to you from Princess Autumnblossom. She urgently requests news of her mother, Daria."
Untranslated clicking and scraping could be heard from the crewmember as she talked into another device.
An operative walked around the corner of the cabin. "I'm Neville. We lost almost half the force. No wounded. If they were hit, they were killed. I hate losing good people."
"We did the right thing."
"I know. I never pictured the AD as a coward; he's one of the dead."
"I can't figure out what he was trying to do."
"I don't know, either. I know our orders were to secure and protect Ms. Morgendorffer, and his attempt to pull back would have left her exposed."
Tim sighed. "I'm really stumped. Look, Ms. Morgendorffer has been my case for years; I want to make sure she's on her way safely."
"How is she?"
"She's fine. Rattled, but unhurt."
"You seem to be particularly protective of her. Look, I know your reputation, and technically, you are the ranking agent on site. I assume you want to stay in here. I'll get on the radio and start dealing with the home office." Neville gave a slight nod, headed off toward his remaining operatives, and yelled, "Get me the radio!"
Crew from the ship began to exit and form into two lines from the hatch to the cabin. When complete, three figures approached down the way. As they got close, Tim saw that two had braided collars and cuffs, what he surmised must be officer uniforms. The third wore a simple blue coverall, with a gold braid around the collar. The other two stopped and she approached, speaking through a translator. "O'Neal. I am surprised, but relieved to find you here. You said my mother is unharmed?"
Tim recognized the princess from his many months observing the family. He nodded. "Autumnblossom, she's inside with Ms. Lane."
"May we have privacy?"
"She's going to be thrilled."
Daria wearily looked up to see who opened the door. Her mouth dropped open in surprise before she scrambled from the chair as her daughter closed the door. Daria grabbed her in a hug and cried, "Autumnblossom. I'm so happy to see you."
"[Mother, I am so relieved you are safe. I was dispatched in pursuit of the priest's ship as soon as we learned of the plot to kill you.]"
Daria softly cried as she held on. "Please take me with. I want to see your sisters."
Fragments of spaceship continued to streak across the sky from east to west. Reports of impacts came from across the northwestern United States and southwestern Canada and several satellites were destroyed.
Cleaning up the area continued through the night. Surprisingly little structural damage was done around the cabin because of the alien weapons. The hard-landed lifeboat was a smooth, metallic gray disk about 25 feet across, partially buried in the ground and a with single hatch open. A similar sized disk dropped from a ventral hatch of Autumnblossom's ship, Nebulachaser, and hovered over the lifeboat. Dropped lines were secured, the downed craft hauled inside Nebulachaser, and the hatch seamlessly closed.
Ship crew collected the bodies and equipment and transported it up through the central pillar. Permission was quickly granted to bring in vehicles to remove the human casualties. Additional military forces arrived and rapidly cordoned off the area, but stayed well clear.
Approaching dawn, Tim sat at Daria's workdesk, conferring on a cell phone as one of the agency operatives set up a small video camera as a webcam. The operative said, "The secure channel is ready, Sir."
Tim worked the keyboard for a few minutes, and then motioned for Daria, Jane, and Autumnblossom to sit at three kitchen chairs set facing the camera. He moved the monitor to face them.
Daria looked down at the green sweatshirt and black insulated vest over jeans and the heavy red and blue plaid flannel shirt Jane had tucked into black carpenter's pants. "Quinn is going to have a fit when she sees how we're dressed."
Tim looked at them and said, "The first part will be private; even I will leave. The second half will be a live news conference. Let me introduce the Secretary-General of the United Nations and the President of the United States."
A couple hours later, Daria sat in front of the computer with the camera focused on her chair. She finished the connection to see her family sitting in her old room, long since stripped of the grey padding, and turned into an office. She said, "Hi, Mom, Dad, Quinn. I'm fine."
Helen appeared worn, but said, "Sweetie, we've been so worried about you."
Jake grinned. "Hey, Kiddo, you're looking great."
Quinn was resting back in a chair and clearly showing her pregnancy. "Oh, thank God you're okay."
"Thanks, I've been very worried about you. I didn't know if you would be targeted."
Helen waved a hand at the window. "With the house surrounded by soldiers, I think we were pretty safe."
Quinn leaned forward a little. "Eww. I still can't believe you wore that to talk to the president."
"Quinn, I didn't exactly pack for formal occasions. Look, everyone, I'm sorry I had to disappear like that. I hope you understand."
Helen said, "I…think we do."
Daria looked relieved. "Did you get the package I sent?"
"Oh, yes dear. Those are some…interesting photographs," Helen said and looked to the side.
Jake held an album up. "Just looking at them now."
"Everybody…" Daria took a deep breath. "…I want you to meet one of my daughters, Autumnblossom."
Daria shifted over slightly as Autumnblossom moved into the camera view and said, "Hello, I am very pleased to meet each of you, even if only by electronic transmission."
Jake gulped. Quinn sank away from view with her hands over her face. Helen took a breath. "Good morning, Autumnblossom. It's an unexpected pleasure to meet you. I've only had the last couple days to learn anything about my grandchildren."
Jake regained composure and blurted out, "Wow, you really are a cute little bug."
Helen elbowed him and said out of the corner of her mouth, "She's not a bug."
Autumnblossom said, "Thank you, both. Grandmother, I know this must be difficult to learn about us on such short notice. I hope you understand why."
"Grandfather, I am happy you think I look cute. Aunt Quinn, are you okay?"
Quinn slid her hands to the side of her face, clearing tears away in the process, and held them against her cheeks. "I know how much Daria was hurt by losing her child. I'm happy to see that she managed to have…" Quinn started crying openly. "…damn hormones." She hastily exited the camera view.
Meanwhile, Jane sat outside next to Tim, looking toward the pond. Jane said, "Okay…Nine. You still haven't given us a real name, have you?"
He shook his head. "Tim O'Neal is my real name. Sometimes, keeping things in the open is the best way to stay inconspicuous. But, that name doesn't appear on any federal government records. In many ways, I officially don't exist."
"So, there's been an agency to deal with extraterrestrials?"
"Fine, then what did happen at Roswell?"
Tim shrugged. "It was a balloon-mounted radar target. That we made sure came down on that farmer's property…and the news release was worded the way it was."
Jane cocked her head and said, "Huh?"
"The real incident was in Alaska. That was a decoy operation."
Her eyes opened wider. "So you've encountered other species?"
"Oh. Okay, back to Roswell, have your people have been feeding all the hype there?"
"Certainly. It was very useful to keep attention on a place that was safe and away from where things were really happening."
Jane raised a finger. "Area Fifty-One?"
"That's the military. They develop and test secret planes there. No aliens, sorry. Actually, we've been able to develop very little technology from what we have recovered. That's why we've come under pressure. We're not a cheap program, and some wanted us to pay our way a little better."
"Now that your cover is gone, are you looking forward to your new assignment?"
"Yes and no. The idea that elements in our section were collaborating with the old rebels was disturbing, but the evidence that Autumblossom's Intel Officer gave us was damn good. Collaborators who thought the rebels would win, and wanted to be on their good side, does explain how Streamrider was able to move around undetected for so long. And then they shifted allegiances and kept the assassin's landing secret so Daria couldn't be warned." He pounded his knee with his fist. "That pisses me off! Too bad the Assistant Director is dead. Home office says he ordered the capture. The Intel Officer found a translator built into his radio, so he was in contact with the bad guys. That's why he tried to retreat."
Jane looked down and scratched the soil with the toe of her boot. "And they shot him first. Wonderful people."
"It could have been an accident, or to make sure he stayed quiet. The only thing I can be reasonable sure of, he wasn't working alone."
Daria was telling Helen, "The government will be returning all of my possessions to the house. Please check on them."
"Mom, please lock my diaries back up in the bedroom safe behind the painting and don't let Quinn get near them."
"I will, dear."
Daria narrowed her eyes slightly. "You need to resist the temptation to peek, also."
"Very well, I promise."
Jake, still holding the photo album, asked, "I bet you're going to bring back some great photographs for us."
"Crap. Okay, that's something else I'm going to need to have picked up. Thanks, Dad."
Quinn returned to the view. "I'm sorry. I got a little…emotional."
Daria smiled. "I understand. I went through the same things…though I didn't get as far along…" Daria looked down for a second. "You were happy for me; thanks."
Quinn patted her stomach. "I did break down and find out: it's a girl."
"I knew you couldn't wait."
"We're going to name her Daria, if you don't mind."
Daria blushed. "Um…thanks. Are you sure?"
"Daria, look at all you've done. Not only for me, but everyone around you."
"Yeah, your kids are cute and all, but I would've freaked out to see them without warning. No offense, Autumnblossom."
Autumnblossom said, "None taken. Considering our approximate resemblance to one of your insects, I can understand."
Continuing, Quinn said, "You took them in immediately because it was the right thing to do. Not many people could. You've lived your whole life that way. Now you're going to be the first UN Ambassador to another planet. I'm proud of you."
"Okay, okay. You can name her after me if you turn off the gushing."
Outside, Tim asked Jane, "How about your new job as Deputy Ambassador?"
Laughing, Jane said, "I would love to see our old principal's face when she hears the news. Better yet, our old gym teacher." Jane grinned, "Yeah, we're deadbeats…with style."
"A little bad blood there?"
"No…a lot." Jane looked off in the distance. "I hope Mack is awake from surgery before we leave."
"Just curious, why aren't you two married?"
"We don't want to spoil a good thing?"
Tim closed one eye. "Hmm?"
"Daria's experience made me skittish. Mack also came very close to making a bad mistake. We're happier this way."
"You haven't said much about your wife."
Tim pulled at his ring and spun it on his finger as he thought of a reply.
Jane looked down and smirked. "No tan line. That's a prop and you're not married."
"Guilty. But it made the cover persona more believable and Daria was able to relax more around me."
Jane smiled a little wider. "You like her."
Tim shook his head. "Please, I'm old enough to be her father."
Jane reached up and pulled a single gray hair out.
After examining the root, she raised her eyebrows and said, "Really?"
"Okay, she's been one of the most interesting people I've had to work with."
"That's a start."
"It's bad policy to get involved with your cases. Just like any investigative work."
Jane poked a finger at his chest. "She's not your case, anymore."
Daria filled a glass from a juicer and placed it in front of where Autumnblossom was sitting at the table. She picked it up and said, "[Thank you.]" The narrow proboscis along the underside of her head rotated forward and was inserted into the liquid.
"I'm happy that Neville was willing to send somebody into town for things. I hope they got my size right on the clothes." Taking a drink from her coffee, Daria sat down to her sandwich for lunch. "I'm warning you, it's been a while."
Autumnblossom drank and said, "[But it still tastes wonderful.]" She looked around the room and lightly laughed. "[I remember it being larger.]"
"Then that would seem to be another universal trait for intelligent life: we always remember our childhood home as being larger."
"[I am very happy to see our old home again. To be honest, Mother, I would rather live here than the palace. I have so many good memories of this place.]"
"You and your sisters are always welcome to stay here."
"[I am sure they will be happy to stay, when they have a chance.]"
"You've grown to be quite a diplomat. I was impressed with how you talked with the President and Secretary-General."
"[As Queen, Truemind cannot travel as readily. Eveningsky has been the political architect and will probably be the first Domestic Minister. I'm the one that gets sent out for face to face negotiations.]"
"You three make a great team."
"Offering to leave a small ship and crew behind to clear battle debris from orbit was an excellent gesture."
"[You did teach us to pick up after ourselves.]"
Daria lightly laughed. "I hope your interview with Ms. Phelps wasn't too bad."
"[No worse than our news media, who are still experimenting with the limits of press freedom, now that they have it.]"
Daria took a bite and chewed thoughtfully before saying, "Okay, I figured out my would-be assassin was a male member of the priesthood. Am I correct that they found out about your metamorphosis?"
"[Mother, you are correct.]" Setting the glass down, she continued. "[You were admirable in the artificial diet you made up for us. However, you were not successful with some of the nutrient balances. All three of us required medical attention.]"
Daria's eyes popped open. "Please tell me everyone is okay."
Reaching out to Daria's hand, Autumnblossom reassured her. "[All of us are well. The condition was detected and treated before any permanent damage was done. However, one of the physicians determined the cause and told the clergy. That was five of your months ago.]"
"Five months? How did you get here so fast? It took a year for help to arrive last time. I assumed it was six months each way."
"[I do not understand the physics involved; you can ask Eveningsky to explain it. How fast a message or ship travels faster than light is a function of the amount of power applied. The damaged lifeboat had little power for the message Swiftsong sent and it took almost nine of your months to reach Nest. The return ship only took three. This cruiser took about the same time.]"
"Okay, I figured you were in a hurry and didn't use the stealth when you slowed below light speed, but why did the other ship move openly?"
"[Stealth only allows passive sensors, which are not effective for weapons. The clerical transport was a decoy for the lifeboat dispatched to your planet. It stayed in the sensor shadow of the transport until just before we were in weapons range. We destroyed the transport when it tried to ram us. The explosion damaged the lifeboat and we followed it here.]"
Daria chewed on a thumbnail. "How many died in that ship and outside?"
"[We do not know. The regular crew of a transport like that is thirty-five. Nineteen died here.]"
"At least fifty-four…" A quiet sob came out.
"[We had no choice.]"
Daria sat in silence for several minutes, looking out the kitchen window toward the pond. Finally, she lowered her head for a moment and inhaled. "Okay, I can see a covert assassination for the first try. But, why didn't they just destroy the cabin when they knew you were close? Messy, but it would have been effective if they only wanted me dead."
"[As one of my officers explained to O'Neal, they had collaborators with his agency. We discovered this through the Reconciliation Commission we set up to investigate wrongdoing by both sides of the civil war. When you were located, you were to be held until the transport could send another cleric. It is important to them that a cleric kills you to cleanse the stain and provide evidence of your death.]"
"I don't want to know what kind of evidence. How serious is the problem back home?"
"[We said that you figured out the need for a host and found a local cattle for us to use, but the pheromones also affected you, so you brought in Jane to help watch over us. After the truth got out, the clergy declared that both of you were agents of the darkness and had defiled the royal line. Your death would be the only way to restore our purity. When we refused to support them, we were expelled.]"
"[Yes. Our refusal to cooperate was taken as a sign the corruption was too deep. They now openly support restoring our biological mother, Truelimb, to the throne.]"
"How much is this interfering with your new government?"
"[The planetary legislatures have been elected and are beginning to function. The formation of the Interstellar Legislature is on schedule, but could be interrupted.]"
Daria nodded. "Will my presence make things worse?"
"[I don't think so. You are very popular with many of the folk, as is the new democracy. The main objection is from the Traditionalist clergy, some of the old nobility and commercial oligarchs. The economic cost of cattle we use for metamorphosis hosts can be onerous on the poor. The concept of an alternative has become popular there and is supported by the Modernist clergy as an economic tool to help the poor. Many of the intelligentsia also would support the use of an artificial diet.]"
"Okay, I wanted to be sure I wouldn't create a greater problem."
"[You will not be. Keeping you safe will weaken them.]"
"Very well." Daria went to the sink. "Care to help me clean up?"
"[I will be happy to.]"
Jane came out of the cabin that afternoon and handed a cell phone back to Tim. "Thanks. Mack came out of surgery without complications and sends his best."
Standing nearby, Daria looked relieved. "Good. I was worried about him. Now I hope he survives the hero spotlight."
Jane patted Daria on the shoulder. "I think he can deal with that. He also says thanks. Now he's the boyfriend of an interstellar diplomat instead of a mere congresswoman."
"He better not let Jodie hear him say that."
"Actually, she'd sent flowers to him."
"She has gotten good at spin."
Jane nudged Tim, who responded with an odd look. She nudged him again. He stepped away from her. Jane put her fingertips to her forehead and then spread her hands apart. "Why do I try?"
Daria quizzically looked her friend. "What are you going on about, now?"
"Argh!" Jane rapidly strode toward the entrance hatch for Nebulachaser.
Daria turned back toward Tim. "If I didn't know better, I'd say she was trying to get us together."
He smiled and stiffly hugged her. "Have a safe journey, Daria. We'll make sure your house and cabin are secure, and your family safe."
She stiffly returned the gesture. "Good luck in your search and be careful. I've enjoyed your visits and would like to see you if I get back."
"I'd like that." He released her and stepped back. "Farewell."
"Goodbye." Daria turned and entered the ship.
Almost immediately, the sound of the drives started and the central pillar was retracted into Nebulachaser. With a slight increase in the brightness of the glow, the ship rose straight up, a massive, featureless disk. The vertical ascent transitioned to horizontal flight before the leading edge pitched up and the ship moved off with a frightening acceleration.
Tim followed Nebulachaser's path. "Say hi to your other two daughters for me."
Daria found the ceiling was about five feet high, so she had to duck slightly to fit inside the elevator. The outside door closed and moments later the car was ascending. A guard was waiting when the door opened. "[Lady Daria, please follow me to your accommodations.]"
The ceiling was a similar height and walking was somewhat awkward. As she walked, Daria realized something was in her back pocket. She removed a folded sheet of paper. The guard stopped at a door. "[Yours and Lady Jane's accommodations are within. Only the two of you and the Princess are allowed in without permission. Please call if you need anything.]"
"Thank you. I think rest is what we need most." No kidding. It's been over thirty hours since I slept.
Inside, Daria found a room that was about 11 feet to the ceiling. Jane was sitting on a floor cushion and said, "They're not much for chairs, just cushions. Seeing how they're built, I can see that."
"Yeah, feels warmer. Temperature must be set to their comfort level."
Jane shrugged one shoulder. "So we dress light."
Daria looked up. "They must have spanned two decks for this."
"Hey, head room. Better than the corridor outside. There are two bedrooms past that door, and a fourth room at the end of the hall. My stuff was put in the one to the right and yours on the left. The facilities are in the bedroom corners."
"Thanks. I'm going to go check it out and get some sleep."
Jane yawned. "Dammit, you're giving me ideas."
A chime sounded from the door. Jane opened it and let Autumnblossom enter. She said, "I hope everything is comfortable."
Jane said, "I can live here."
Daria said, "Thank you; it's wonderful."
Autumnblossom handed each a small device with a clip on one side. "This is a small translator. It only does translation and will be less bulky than carrying a full database computer with you."
Jane took the device and clipped it onto her pants. After turning the bulky computer off, she asked, "When do we take off?"
Autumnblossom said, "We have been underway since Mother came aboard."
Jane looked around. "Seems to work, and this is one smooth ride. I didn't feel a thing."
Autumnblossom turned to Daria. "Mother, you look very tired. Please get some rest."
Daria had only pocketed the translator. "I'm planning on it. Could I ask a small favor?"
"Having the crew call me Lady Daria doesn't feel right. If they need to use a title, could they say Ambassador, or just Ms?"
"Their protocol would have a more respectful honorific used if applicable. I will tell them to use Ambassador. What about you, Jane?"
"I kind of liked being called Lady Jane, but I guess Ambassador will also work."
"I will also give the directive. Now, please rest."
Daria yawned. "No problem with that."
Autumnblossom left and they went to their respective rooms. Daria found the clothes that had been purchased for her and located a comfortable nightgown to wear. As she folded her pants, she removed the paper.
I wish could have known you under different circumstances. You will always be my favorite hermit.
From a television, an SBC reporter was saying, "To end our broadcast of today's incredible events, some comments from the hometown of our two heroes."
"Ms. Morgendorffer and Ms. Lane is the most intuitively cooperative team I've ever known. I have every confidence in their success."
"Mr. Kevin Thompson."
"Aw, right! You mean they really are going to Mars?"
"Those two have brought immense honor and glory to Lawndale High."
"Mr. Charles Ruttheimmer III"
"Ms. Lane's brother, Mr. Trent Lane."
"Man…Janey's not going to be home to watch the house? I'm gonna need to get a puppy."
"Mr. Jesse Moreno."
The television was cut off by a remote and a male voice said, "So much effort spoiled. At least that fool getting himself killed in Montana saved me the trouble of arranging an accident."
Jane lay on her stomach, enjoying the absolute comfort of the provided bed. "I can so live with this. They could make a fortune selling these things." She opened her eyes and jerked in surprise at noticing she was floating a foot above the bed frame. "Okay, that's going to take some getting used to." She unrolled herself from the sheet and rotated her legs beyond the boundary of the frame. As they reached the edge, she felt them pulled down to the floor. She carefully stood and smiled. "This is so cool."
Jane pulled the curtain aside to the restroom. "Okay, they're shaped basically the same, but I don't think zero gravity toilets are going to be a big hit, though the fact that nothing touches the sides does eliminate the need to clean. Just make sure you don't look before flushing." Jane cleaned up in the diminutive sink that used a small amount of running water.
Refreshed, she went to the back room to find Daria already awake and sitting on a cushion, eating from a plate of fruit. Jane said, "Morning," and sat next to her.
"Jane. It looks like your concern about a liquid diet is solved. I just hope you're prepared for a vegetarian one."
Jane picked up a blue, oval fruit. "How are these?"
"No clue, haven't tried one yet."
Jane bit into the fruit carefully. Her eyes flew open in utter surprise. "Oh…My…God!"
Jane was madly devouring the fruit. "This is incredible."
Daria continued to work on a smaller, violet fruit. "These are good." After another bite, she said, "Jane, what were you so frustrated about? Just before we left."
Jane licked the remaining juice from her fingers. "Nothing."
"You don't get that annoyed at nothing."
"Really, nothing you need to worry about."
"For a minute, I almost thought you were trying to play matchmaker again."
"But then I thought, 'You know better than that.'"
"So, what had you so upset?"
"I…damn. Okay, I was. He likes you, and I know how lonely you've been."
"I know you don't like me trying to help."
"And yes, the two biggest romantic screwups of your life you met because of me."
"He's not exactly what he seems…"
"Jane, he left a note in my pocket. A married man old enough to be my father left a note in my pocket. That I didn't feel him put there."
She handed her the note. "What did he tell you?"
Jane read it. "About the same thing, after trying to spoof me about his age."
"Well, he is a lot older."
Jane flipped up the edge of Daria's bangs. "And you have long black hair."
"What does that mean?"
"His gray hair has brown roots."
Daria shook her head. "And he's married."
Daria glared at Jane. "So you do know more."
"Okay, yes. He's really thirty-seven, single and his name is Tim O'Neal. The whole married bit was a quick cover to make you feel more comfortable when you first met."
"I remember, after what sounded like a bad pick-up line from him."
"In your book, you wrote he only said he was looking for the pretty lady living there."
"Um…well…yeah, that's what he really said."
Jane grinned. "He said putting a wedding band on his expense report caused a few problems."
Daria sadly shook her head. "Jane, why? I've got enough going on now. I don't need you trying to set me up with someone I may never see again."
"I'm kind of hoping you might."
Daria looked directly at Jane. "I'm not planning on going back, except to visit."
Jane straightened. "Dammit! When did you decide this?"
"Last year, when I returned from the cabin. I was planning on going this year until Quinn got pregnant. I'd postponed that plan to see her child. But, now that I'm on my way, I'll stay."
"You were right, I've been lonely. I only knew my children for a year. Seeing Truemind's note last year hit me hard. I miss them terribly and want to be with them."
Jane folded her hands in her lap. "Damn. That makes sense."
"I know you want to go back to Mack when it's safe. You better do that instead of trying to hang around to keep an eye on me."
"I…dammit all, I hate your logic at times."
Daria and Jane crouched outside a bulkhead door. Jane was rubbing her hands together and grinning with excitement. "We get to see the bridge of a starship. This is going to be so cool."
"Try to contain yourself." Daria allowed a small smile.
The door opened and a crewmember saluted as they entered the apex of a wedge-shaped room. Autumnblossom and an officer stood at a pair of consoles in front of the door. Beyond them were three more crewmembers at consoles, and two crewmembers were stationed along each side of the room. Autumnblossom turned and said, "Welcome. This is Captain Newharvest."
The Captain saluted. "Welcome aboard the Nebulachaser, Ambassadors Daria and Jane."
Daria nodded. "Thank you, Captain."
Jane said, "Um…hi."
She turned to look at the rest of the bridge. "Any questions?"
Jane looked around. "I expected a big viewscreen, or window, or something up front to see where we're going."
The captain pointed to his console. "The Princess and I can monitor all displays from here. Flight control, navigation, ship systems, tactical situation or weapons."
"Bummer, I was hoping to get a look outside since there are no windows in our rooms."
Autumnblossom said, "There are none on the ship. Ambassador Jane, I will make sure you get a trip to an orbiting observatory when we arrive at Nest."
Newharvest added, "There is nothing to see. The alteration of space-time curvature around the ship prevents light from entering.
Daria looked at a navigation display. "I estimated before that your planet was about three hundred light years away; was I correct?"
"Three hundred and two of your measure. At our current speed of one thousand, two hundred times light speed, we will take ninety-two of your days to complete the trip," Newharvest replied.
Jane smirked. "I'd hate to see a…something splatter against the grill."
After taking a moment to understand, the captain said, "At this speed, something striking us would vaporize the ship instantly. However, the reshaping of space-time around the ship prevents any matter from reaching us; it effectively is moved to the side and then is returned to its previous position."
Jane frowned. "Wouldn't that get messy for what got moved?"
"From its relative viewpoint, it never moved. To an outside observer, a ship moving faster than light is undetectable. Conversely, we effectively cannot see the rest of the universe while traveling."
Blinking her eyes, Jane said, "You're starting to make little Janey's head hurt. I'll take your word for it."
Tim was viewing microfilm at a reader. Crystalheart, a young male Intelligence Officer assigned to help him by Autumnblossom, asked through a portable translator, "O'Neal. I am curious. Why are your reports on this rather archaic archive system?"
"Security. To examine our records, you must physically use the microfilms. We absolutely keep all of our sensitive records off of computers, so hackers can't get to them. We're one of the few places to still use typewriters."
Tim read some more, scratched his cheek and commented, "You said there wasn't a connection between the old reb…resistance and the Traditionalist clergy."
"Correct. They supported the old monarchy and now support restoring the former Queen."
"This isn't making sense. Our collaborators worked with the resistance for a while. When the civil war ended, the agency people just kept quiet. Now the Traditionalist clergy contacts them and they cooperate. I'm not seeing the connection. With Ms. Morgendorffer's close ties to the royal family, we have excellent good will with your government. Why risk it?"
"It would make sense only if they thought the clergy had an unusually high chance to succeed. They very nearly did."
Tim shook his head. "Something is still not adding up. A group that opposed the resistance is suddenly getting cooperation from the same contacts on my planet. I don't get it."
"It is a confusing situation. Clearly, we are missing important data."
He squinted at the reader and set his teeth. "Here's one important piece of data. Assistant Director Chambers was the agent sent to investigate Streamrider's landing."
"So we know the primary contact."
"But, his reports say he only found a scorched crater."
"That is consistent with the report that Princess Eveningsky found on Streamrider's computer."
"But the interesting thing is. it looks like Chambers submitted no reports for the next ten months."
"So a superior was involved and allowed him to work with Streamrider off the record."
"Possibly, but if he wasn't assigned to specific activities, that wouldn't be unusual. When not assigned to a case, we pretty much have our time to ourselves. It's a tradeoff for basically being on the job twenty-four, seven when a case is active. He may have been working on his own, with lower ranked agents he recruited."
"There is something I do not understand. Why would Streamrider need to involve Leafweaver? Could not those in your agency who aided her have told where the cabin was?"
"The agency is highly compartmentalized. Unless the operatives involved were very high level, they would not be privy to that information. Trying to approach the reporter or her crew would have been too risky for exposure, so they had to use the only other potential source for the information, Leafweaver. Which gives us a good clue; we know the upper limit that those involved could have been at, seven years ago. In turn, they've had at least one person promoted to a sufficient level to divert funding for several years, which narrows our search range considerably."
Daria sat in what she and Jane referred to as the 'front' room and wrote in the spiral notebook she used as a diary.
Seven years since the one I got to spend with my daughters. At least one of them is here this time, and I'll see the others in only two more months. Back then, I was worried, but grateful for the three wonderful girls that had entered my life. I've fought depression on every Mother's Day since because I missed them so much. This is the first I've had the chance to simply be happy.
Jane entered the room, followed by Autumnblossom carrying a small bouquet of paper flowers. She gave them to Daria and said, "Jane told me of your people's custom of recognizing mothers on this day and assisted me in preparing something for you."
She accepted the flowers with a quiet, "Thank you." After looking at them again, she said to Jane, "Thanks. I wasn't going to say anything."
Jane crossed her arms and chuckled. "I didn't think you would, but I knew you'd like the surprise."
After bringing a cushion over, Autumnblossom sat next to Daria. "Mother, now that we are aware, all of us will remember you on this day."
Daria rested a hand on her daughter and smiled. "Being with you will be enough."
"I am very happy to be here. My sisters will be jealous of the amount of extra time I have to spend with you."
Jane sat next and patted Autumnblossom. "That sounds like real sisters."
Daria and Jane sat under a carefully trellised tree in the hydroponics garden, the only other space in the ship where they could stand upright. Plants, bushes and trees grew in great abundance and variety in the garden, which acted as a recreation area as well as the prime food source for the ship. Jane set down the small computer she was reading from and said to Daria. "You would've made a good teacher."
Daria leaned toward Jane. "Could you really picture me at someplace like Lawndale? Without going postal?"
"No, but at an exclusive school or as a private tutor, yes I can. Daria, in two months I've learned to read a…totally…foreign language. I'm reading it better than I learned to read Spanish in high school."
"Perhaps you're a little better motivated this time?"
"Or I have a better teacher?"
"I'd say avoiding boredom was a good motivator."
"Maybe. Watching movies around here has been a never-ending foreign film festival."
Daria moved back upright. "You're still mad the CGI work on your character for that 'unauthorized history' made you look like you had a mushroom for a head."
Jane wagged a finger. "You came off sounding like Mother Theresa."
Daria made a gagging sound. "My girls would've died of diabetic shock if I'd really been like that."
"That's saying something, considering how sweet a lot of their food is."
"Not that you've complained that much."
Jane patted her stomach. "Between how good the stuff is and the lack of space to run, I've packed on more pounds then any time in my life."
"Speaking of pounds, Quinn must be massive by now."
Mocking, Jane put her hands to her cheeks, "The horror! The horror!"
Daria smirked. "Someday, I'm going to make the same comment about you."
Jane crossed her fingers in front of her face. "Oh, no you won't. That's not a job I'm looking for."
Agent O'Neal whispered in the cool, still Arizona night, "I've still got it," as he picked a padlock holding a chain closed. Slowly and quietly, he pulled the chain free of a set of double door handles on the side of a battered warehouse. With weapons ready, he and Crystalheart carefully opened the doors and entered the spotless interior.
Dominating the center of the floor was a scarred, metallic gray disk, about 20 feet in diameter and five feet in thickness at the center. One side was buckled and a hatch was open. Components were spread on nearby benches, along with a bewildering array of testing equipment.
Tim turned to his companion. "Looks like the jackpot."
Tim surveyed and photographed the building with increasing distaste. "Streamrider's lifeboat. She'd turned it over to the agency in exchange for help and lied to Leafweaver about destroying it." Looking inside the lifeboat, he quietly said, "One of the problems with shadow agencies: sometimes one hand doesn't know the other is about to stab it."
Crystalheart peered inside also and said, "The interior has mostly been disassembled."
"Was an autopsy performed on Streamrider's body?"
"Not to my knowledge. Lady Jane's shot was clearly the cause of death."
Tim pointed to the buckled front of the craft pushed into the wrecked remains of a pilot's console. "I saw the lifeboat that came down at Ms. Morgendorffer's cabin, and the witnesses say it came in fast and hard. It wasn't buckled in near as much as this. This hit harder, or was structurally weaker."
"Ships normally operate with a shield to protect the hull from small particle or heat damage." Crystalheart pointed to discoloration of the buckled metal. "This vessel's shields were failing; it should not have that heat damage inside the crew compartment."
"What is the chance a pilot would be uninjured after this?"
He looked at Tim. "Almost none."
Tim backed out of the hatchway. "That explains part of the delay. Streamrider would have been injured and under the care of people with a poor understanding of her physiology."
Crystalheart also backed away. "Then they would have to locate the royal family, modify a transport and teach Streamrider how to operate it."
"I would hazard that they shadowed her and made sure the local authorities didn't get too close."
"And when she didn't return from the cabin, they walked away as if nothing had happened. They were positioned to take complete credit if the plan succeeded, and walk away with almost full deniability if it failed."
"After I learned of Streamrider's attempt, we brought in extra personnel for continuous clandestine observation to make sure nobody got close again."
He pointed at the lifeboat. "What do we do with this?"
"Leave it under surveillance for now. See if anybody shows up." Tim waved his hand toward the door and headed out with Crystalheart beside him.
Jane straightened the collar on Daria's green business suit. "You still aren't comfortable in clothes like this, are you?"
"You look good, even if the cut of the suit looks the same as those your mother always wears."
Daria grabbed the shoulders of Jane's black suit. "Thanks, I really needed that. Like cranial blunt-force trauma."
"Lighten up. We only have to be seen getting from the spaceship to the limo, or whatever it is, that takes us to the palace."
"I hope I don't embarrass them."
"Like your mother embarrassed you?"
Daria giggled softly. "I hope I don't get that bad."
"Good, laughter is better than freaky."
"Didn't know that was in your job description, did you?"
Jane raised both hands, palms up. "How should I know? I never saw one."
"Hmm. You better write one up, then."
"Yeah, I probably should justify what they're paying me."
"Good luck on going without translation."
She rested a hand on Daria's shoulder. "Thanks. You've been a good teacher."
Nebulachaser was berthed in a sprawling hanger when they exited the ship by the central pillar. An honor guard in dress uniforms escorted Daria, Jane and Autumnblossom to a small disk-shaped craft with a raised center. A modest crowd was to the side, many holding what were apparently cameras or some kind of recording device. Jane waved at them.
They entered the transport through an open hatch to find a single compartment with large, comfortable cushions of a silk-like material. After the hatch closed, Autumnblossom said, "[For safety reasons, the spaceport is a considerable distance from any inhabited areas. The trip to the palace will take a little more than one of your hours. We will make another brief appearance as we go inside. Truemind and Eveningsky have cleared their schedules for a day so that we can be with you privately.]" Touching a control, the top slid back to reveal a clear dome. "[Jane, this one does have a window.]"
The transport rose to a low hover and slowly exited the hangar, following two lines of yellow lights on the brown pavement. The hanger behind them was a dome of dark metallic ribs that radiated from the apex between smooth surfaces of pale tan. Three similar buildings could be seen to one side, and at least six on the other. More hangars were visible in the far distance, on the other side of the sprawling landing zone.
Two drab brown vehicles moved into formation with the transport, front and back. The domed turrets with paired muzzles clearly showed these to be a military escort. Autumnblossom said, "[Please do not be alarmed. The escort is protocol whenever any of us travel. I hope you understand.]"
Daria nodded. "About like our Secret Service protection of the President. I hope they're not needed."
Once clear of the safety buffer around the spaceport, the craft rose to a flight altitude of about a thousand feet and flew over a landscape of vibrant vegetation interspersed with towns and crossed by a small number of ground roads.
Jane looked up from watching the passing ground. "I haven't seen anything else flying around and you don't have many roads down there; what gives?"
"[There is a restricted flight zone for about twenty-two of your miles on either side of our flight path. Ordinarily, there would be a large amount of traffic to and from the airport. Most has been diverted to different approaches to provide our security perimeter and minimize traffic interruption.]" She noticed Daria's uncomfortable look. "[It was not easy for any of us to get used to this after staying with you. But, we are very public figures.]"
"I understand, and will take some time for me to get accustomed to it, also."
Jane's attention was back outside at the ground. "I have got to get some more art supplies than just the sketch pads, pencils and watercolors Neville's flunkies were able to scare up for me."
Autumnblossom looked over her shoulder at a gridded array of vibrant gold vegetation under cultivation. "[The crowntrees in blossom are even more spectacular up close. There is a grove in the palace gardens.]"
Viewed from the air, Daria estimated the Palace grounds covered somewhat over a square mile. Numerous domed buildings in greens, browns and yellows dotted the manicured landscape. The entire complex had an organic unity and beauty that was breathtaking. Every plant, tree and rock was as important to the architecture as the stone, wood and metal of the buildings.
The escorts broke formation and landed at a paved field just outside the compound. Their car glided to a stop at a small elevated landing pad just inside the compound, near a grand dome of dark green with soft, yellow ribs.
Autumnblossom opened the hatch and pointed to the large structure. "[The Public Hall. We will have the formal welcome there.]" A camera crew stood at a short distance away, recording them.
Motioning the two women to follow, Autumnblossom walked toward a cluster of smaller domes of greens and browns some distance away. "[The real welcome will be in our private residences. By tradition, only foot traffic is allowed within the grounds. For critical needs, there is an underground transport.]"
As they walked, Daria and Jane gazed around at the beauty of the palace. After three months of nine-tenths gravity on Nebulachaser, it felt normal as they walked the planet surface. The higher oxygen content of the air compensated for the lower pressure, tricking their bodies into thinking they were almost in Earth's atmosphere. A riot of new scents complemented the surroundings. The fragrances from the many plants and flowers also added to the overall effect of the palace.
Daria looked at a twitch in Jane's fingers and said, "You're going to spend a lot of time out here painting, aren't you?"
"Damn straight. This place is incredible. The designer was a genius of composition and color."
"[It is considered one of the great artistic accomplishments of the modern era. Until Truemind's coronation, this was closed off from the public. Except for the residences, the palace is now open for all to see.]"
Daria looked around. "Like the old Forbidden City in China."
Jane jogged her legs slightly. "This is also going to be a great place to run."
Daria patted Jane's shoulder. "Knock yourself out."
"I'm dragging you with me like we used to do in Boston. You've packed on a little, too."
"I hate you."
Autumnblossom continued to talk about the palace. "[We have also transferred the maintenance costs of the palace to our family fortune. This year will also be the first year that we will pay taxes on the property.]"
Jane whistled. "That must take a big bite out of your wallets."
"[Under the old monarchy, our family accumulated considerable holdings. We can easily afford it. Just as we now provide for the full maintenance of Nebulachaser. These have become important symbols that we are no longer above all others.]"
They soon reached the residences, where a butler opened the door for them to enter and closed it behind them. They were in a well-appointed entry foyer. Delicate tapestries adorned the walls and fresh flowers were in vases to either side of a hall leading away. Autumnblossom led Daria and Jane down the hall to a simple room with numerous cushions on the floor.
"[Mother!]" came a stereo call as Eveningsky and Trumind rushed over. Daria barely had time to face them before both had their arms wrapped around her waist.
"I'm happy to see you, too." Daria put an arm around each to return the embrace. "I'm so proud of all of you."
Jane smiled at the group and turned back toward the door. "I'll leave you some time together and make sure our luggage didn't get misdirected to Planet Zippotron or something."
Truemind looked over. "[Lady Jane. I have already been informed your possessions have been delivered to your quarters. Please stay; we have missed you also and I would hear firsthand of what happened to you.]"
"Daria's the storyteller, but I suppose I can add some color commentary."
Tim stared at a microfilm reader and rubbed his eyes in response to the post-midnight fatigue. Crystalheart was seated next to him, drinking from a mug of coffee. "This caffeine-seed extract is very good with that pollinator-processed nectar."
"What? Oh, the honey. Yeah, great stuff."
"O'Neal, we have examined these records for many days. We have seen no evidence of redirected finances to support Streamrider when she was here, or to examine her ship after."
Tim rolled his chair back and drank from his mug of coffee. "This is getting messier all the time. The only way would be for Chambers to have some outside funding. But where, and how, could he get that amount of money?"
"Perhaps we need to further investigate his personal history."
"Kid, I like the way you think."
Daria and Jane waited in an antechamber to the main room of the Public Hall. There were still in the suits they wore earlier, and each held a slender glass of fruit juice as they talked. Jane pointed to the door leading out to the main room. "One more hurdle to cross today. I really could use some coffee."
"They must have some kind of legal stimulant, we need to ask. I could really use a cup myself."
"Your kids certainly have been busy."
Daria shook her head. "They've revolutionized an empire. I can't believe it."
Jane clinked her glass against Daria's. "Guess it's all of those bad influences they had growing up."
"Come on. I only taught them a bit about my sense of right and wrong. They made all this work."
Another door opened and Eveningsky and Autumnblossom entered wearing deep blue garments with a bright gold braid collar. Truemind entered immediately behind in a similar blue garment and a platinum collar. Eveningsky approached and said, "[Whichever ones of us are in residence attend a public audience each day. The audience is chosen by lot from those that request attendance. A further fifteen are chosen to ask any question they wish of us.]"
Jane leaned over to Daria. "You have the coolest kids."
Daria smiled at Jane and then turned to Eveningsky. "I'm also here as Ambassador; I will be willing to answer questions posed to me."
Eveningsky gave a small laugh. "[Don't forget to turn your translators on so the public can understand you.]"
Jane laughed also. "Glad someone around here is thinking."
Eveningsky continued, "[We will go out and open the public audience before we introduce you. Ready?]"
Daria inhaled. "No. But if you wait for me to be ready, you'll never get started."
Eveningsky pressed a button on the wall near the door and a single, deep tone sounded in the hall. Truemind led her sisters out to a dais set before a crowd of several thousand.
Daria gulped and rested her hand on Jane's shoulder. "Push me if I need it."
Truemind's amplified voice carried through the hall. "[Welcome, citizens. My sisters and I are pleased to have the opportunity to hear your questions and concerns.]" She looked toward Daria briefly. "[It is also with great happiness that I can introduce the new Ambassador from the People of the Soil, and the person who is Mother in my heart. The Lady Daria, and her Deputy Ambassador, the Protector of all three of us during our metamorphosis, the Lady Jane.]"
Jane gently tugged at Daria's arm to get her moving onto the stage. She looked out over a large auditorium that held thousands of Folk, all intently watching her approach.
Jane said out of the side of her mouth in a whisper, "No…" At the first sound of translation, Jane quickly shut the device off to finish saying, "…offense, but if I hadn't already gotten used to them, that visual would have really creeped me out."
Daria lightly shook her head and whispered back, "Don't forget to turn it back on."
"Oops," Jane muttered as she did turn the device back on.
As they got closer, Truemind was seated on a raised cushion in the center, Eveningsky to her right and Autumnblossom to the left. A pair of cushions was placed just in front of Truemind. Two ornately uniformed guards stood at floor level on either side of the dais.
After she and Jane were seated, Daria said to the audience, "Greetings from…the People of the Soil. I hope my stay here will continue to be as pleasant as the hospitality I have felt since I left my home planet. I understand that this is a forum for asking questions. Please feel free to ask of me also." Her voice in translation was amplified through the room.
Daria listened in fascination to the questions. Some were serious questions on how the new government was forming. Others looked for opinions on more local problems, while others were fairly personal.
The questioners stood on a small dais set about 20 feet in front of the main one and raised so the questioner would be at the same level as the royals. Each waited, seated on a row of cushions near the dais and approached in the order they had been seated.
A middle aged woman asked, "[Do you fully intend to allow overrides of your vetoes?]"
Daria smiled at the human trait she'd picked up and was being adopted more by those with regular contact with the royal family.
Truemind said, "[I do. If the elected president and two-thirds of the legislature agree, my veto of a law can be overridden. I will not have absolute power.]"
The next questioner was about their age. "[What are your plans for future student financial aid?]"
Eveningsky answered, "[We are investigating new funding mechanisms. Or first concern will be for need-based, followed by aptitude based. I will be blunt; we do not yet have a solid program developed. We hope to have one to propose by the start of the first legislative session.]"
The final questioner was a male. He turned his attention to Daria. "[Ambassador Daria. I have a question for you.]"
Daria said, "Go ahead, please."
"[There have been many stories about what you did for the royal family. Please tell us directly. Is it true you provided an artificial diet for them?]"
The two guards carefully began to move forward.
"It is true."
The questioner's hand moved to a pocket of his coverall and the guards moved forward quickly. He removed a short tube as one guard broke into a run toward him and the other in front of Daria. The questioner rammed the palm of his hand against the base of the tube. A loud report echoed through the room and a flash erupted from both ends.
The guard that moved in front of Daria was spun around hard and blood slung upward across the main dais. The second guard tackled the assassin, who was staring at the shattered remains of his hand. The blackened tube of the improvised gun had dropped to the ground. More guards poured into the room and cordoned off the royal family.
Daria rushed forward to the fallen guard with surprising speed and Jane stumbled after her. Daria dragged the fallen guard closer to the dais and within the cordon. The bullet from the gun had entered the guard's lower thorax and passed horizontally through much of the abdomen.
Daria sat and pulled the guard into her lap. After she saw bright red blood from each of the breathing apertures along the guard's left side, she yelled, "Get her a medic! Now!"
The guard slightly raised her head and reached up with one hand to touch Daria's face. "[Are you unharmed?]"
"I'm fine. You rest while we get you help."
"[My duty is done.]" She relaxed and leaned against Daria's chest. The guard's abdomen very gently rose and fell with weak breathing.
Jane knelt beside the two of them and also yelled, "We need some help here!" She pulled a cushion over and ripped a strip of cloth off. Quickly folding it, she pressed it against the guard's wound.
The assassin struggled with the guards until a purple flash caused him to slump to the ground. One of the newly arrived guards kept a pistol pointed at his head. "[Give me an excuse.]"
Autumnblossom began to organize the ever-increasing number of guards to restore order. The crowd was near panic and restless with curiosity.
Truemind forced her way through the cordon and addressed the crowd. "[Everybody, please listen.]"
The milling slowed and the roar diminished. She spoke again. "[We are unharmed. Please remain calm and stay still. The perpetrator is in custody. One of the Nestheart guards is gravely wounded.]"
Eveningsky, along with one of the palace physicians and two others carrying a stretcher, rushed to Daria. The doctor carefully lifted the edge of Jane's bandage, and then looked along the bloodstained side of the guard. She removed a package from a case she carried and opened it. It was a semi-rigid bandage with a clear gel on one side. The doctor held it close to the wound and used her other hand to move Jane's hand and bandage away.
The new bandage was rotated into place and carefully smoothed down. "[We need to get her into surgery immediately.]" She gestured to the two attendants. "[Take her to the operating room on the second sublevel of the Defense Hall. Have her prepared and I will be in shortly.]"
The guard was lifted onto the litter and quickly moved away. The doctor looked at Daria's blood-soaked clothes. "[Are you injured?]"
Daria looked down at herself in shock. "No." She turned to Jane, wrapped her arms around her friend and looked at Eveningsky. "Why didn't the guards have shields?"
Eveningsky sat beside them and gently placed a hand on her mother's shoulder. "The Nestheart Guards will not accept them. They claim shields lead to overconfidence and inattention."
Through quiet sobs, Daria said, "Not another one. Please don't let her die."
"Healthy and energetic." The obstetrician gently placed the newborn in Quinn's waiting arms.
The tiny girl gurgled and stopped crying. Quinn smiled down at her daughter. "Daria Jane. I'm sure your namesakes are having the times of their lives now."
A blond-haired man gazed down at his wife and daughter. "But, I bet they would still rather be here."
Quinn looked up. "Bill, I'm sure you're right."
The three sisters gathered in a secure room beneath the residences. Consoles of numerous types lined the walls of the starkly utilitarian room.
"[These Folk are insane!]" Autumnblossom yelled at her sisters. "[They tried to ram Nebulachaser. Ram! This is the third time they have almost succeeded in killing Mother. We cannot let this continue.]"
In a calmer voice that was still cracked with strain, Eveningsky said, "[We cannot allow their actions to guide our response. They want Mother harmed, but they also want us to act rashly and strike back with violence, to become abusive and paranoid. We hold the upper hand now, but will not if we allow that to happen.]"
Truemind tightly grasped her hands under her neck. "[You are both correct. We must act, but not strike out. Today was not only a strike against Mother, but against us. They want to show that they can reach wherever they choose.]"
Autumnblossom paced back and forth. "[Allow me to assign protective guards to Mother and Jane. I know Mother will not like it, but we cannot take any more chances.]"
"[I agree. We must show that they are under royal protection,]" Eveningsky said.
Truemind gazed at both. "[I want those guards hand-picked.]" She went to a console and examined the display. "[What is the condition of the wounded guard?]"
Concerned, Autumnblossom said, "[She is in critical care after surgery. We don't know if she will survive.]"
"[Mother has gone to see her.]"
"[Make sure both are safe and guarded, but not disturbed.]"
Truemind asked Eveningsky, "[Do we know how he got a weapon in, and how he managed to be chosen to ask a question?]"
Activating a display next to Truemind, Eveningsky explained, "[The weapon was a simple improvised firearm using a stone projectile and a friction ignited primer for the explosive powder. It was completely nonmetallic. We have ordered chemical vapor detectors installed as soon as they arrive to prevent further incidents.]"
Autumnblossom moved over and pointed to the display. "[The improvised weapon partially exploded in his hands. One hand was too badly damaged to repair. He is under medical sedation until his condition can be stabilized.]"
"[How did he get the lot to come forward for a question?]"
"[Several questioners reported that they had been approached to sell theirs. We located the person who did sell a lot. It was a student. When the cleric offered her a year's living expenses for the lot, she accepted.]"
"[Then we need to tighten up the lottery to make sure those chosen are those that use it.]"
Autumnblossom made an entry into her console. "[I've ordered a preliminary plan to be in place before tomorrow's audience. I am not happy about doing any before we revise the security, but I will accept Eveningsky's position that allowing a disruption will strengthen them.]"
Truemind asked, "[Eveningsky, have you discovered yet how they knew to make contact with the old resistance collaborators on Mother's homeworld?]"
"[Not yet. We still only have the Reconciliation Commission confession from one old resistance specialist. Who inconveniently met an accident before she could talk in detail.]"
"[Help me prepare a statement to the press, and get back to it. I have a bad feeling about that connection.]"
Dear Mom, Dad, Quinn,
I have requested that this message be delivered to you before the regular communiqué is released to the public.
We arrived at Nest earlier today. I had a chance to be with all of my children, I'd never felt happier.
Unfortunately, there was another attempt on my life today. During a public audience, one shot was fired. I'm unharmed, but I'm watching over a young guard who took a bullet in my place. I'm positive I will be placed under protective guard. It only seems prudent, even if I don't like it.
Mom, I want the full truth to get out. Please retrieve my diaries from the house. I want the year I was at the cabin published. If there are any profits, please put them in a trust fund for Quinn's baby. I know this has been hard on you. You can look at the rest. Please remember, a teenage girl doesn't always see things as clearly as an adult.
My thoughts are also on you, Quinn. I hope the little one arrives safe and sound, and hopefully not as late as you were.
"Sweetwind…that doesn't sound like a name for someone in your line of work." Daria sat cross-legged next to a zero gravity bed supporting the comatose guard, cradling a portable computer she had been composing the message on. Multiple clear hoses crisscrossed Sweetwind's body, connecting small cup-like devices attached over each breathing aperture. A small feeding tube was attached to the slender proboscis and an intravenous drip was carefully inserted between exoskeleton plates in her arm.
Jane softly approached carrying a bundle. "You really should get out of those clothes. I brought over some for you."
The sticky dampness of blood reminded Daria she hadn't changed since they left Nebulachaser. "I suppose I should."
"The attendants said there is a washroom you can use to clean up."
"Thanks." She carefully accepted the bundle. "Will you stay here with her?"
Jane sat on the cushion Daria had just vacated. "Take as long as you need."
Daria returned about fifteen minutes later in a comfortable pair of sweat pants and pullover shirt. "Jane, could you please get rid of that suit for me? I can't bear to look at it again."
"Will do. You're going to stay until she wakes up, aren't you?"
"She took a bullet for me. She deserves no less."
"I'll be back."
The news broadcaster said to the camera, "[The Queen issued the following statement in regards to today's events.]"
A recording of Truemind was played: "[There has not been an assassination attempt like this in over two hundred years. All of us have been shocked to the core. The perpetrator has openly proclaimed responsibility for his actions in the name of the Traditionalists. Freedom of worship is one of the founding principles of what we have struggled to establish. We assume that today's act, as well as the previous attempts on Lady Daria's life, is that of individuals. We will therefore take no action against the Traditionalists for them. However, we cannot stay idly by as individuals attempt to impose extrajudicial judgments. The responsibility of capital punishment is reserved for the highest court for use in extraordinary cases and is not the prerogative of any other organization. We ask the Traditionalist clergy for full cooperation to bring to justice those individuals who have been involved in these incidents.]"
The broadcast view shifted to a still photo of Daria watching over Sweetwind. "[We leave you with this view of the Lady Daria sitting vigil with the brave guard that saved her life.]"
Sweetwind felt like every lung on her left side was on fire. Her moan was like a deep rattle as she stirred on the bed and tried to look around.
Strange sounds came from her side, followed by a toneless voice of translation. "Thank goodness."
With difficulty, she turned to face the voice. "[Lady?]"
"Please, just call me Daria. I insist."
"[Are you well?]"
Daria smiled. "I'm fine. You're the one we've been worried about for the last three days."
"Yes, you. The bullet passed through all eight lungs on your left side. It was very close."
"[L…Daria. You were concerned about me?]"
She nodded. "You saved my life. Yes, I was concerned."
"[But, that is my duty.]"
Daria looked around the room. "But, you shouldn't have to wake up alone in a hospital."
"[You have been here?]"
"As much as possible, and Jane has been here when I wasn't."
"[You do me great honor.]"
"Your willingness to die in my place…" Daria paused and placed her hand on Sweetwind's. "…honors me. I'm learning how much I mean to the Folk, but actions like yours..." She moved her other hand over to hold the young guard's. "…will never be taken for granted."
"It sure makes my job easier when I find such basic motivations," Tim said while viewing printed records of certain numbered back accounts.
Crystalheart walked over from the desk he was using. "There were compensations paid to Chambers?"
Tim whistled as he swiveled his chair to face his partner. "Big ones." He held up one set of records. "This looks like the account he used to pay for the various operations." He then held up a second set. "These are his personal accounts that include money he skimmed from the first, in addition to what looks like direct payments."
"Do you know where from?"
He set both down on the desk. "Not yet. But, it looks like we have a possible timeline, now. How fast can a transmitted message get here from Nest?"
"About two months at maximum power; the process is more efficient than for ships."
Tim tapped his fingers together in front of his face. "Could a communication device left by Streamrider work that fast?"
"Yes, an undamaged lifeboat is provided with sufficient power."
"So, someone here could also supply sufficient power."
"Okay. This is starting to add up. When did the royal family get treated for their medical problem?"
Crystalheart gestured with one finger. "Two months before the clergy discovered it, or seven months before the Lady Daria was attacked."
Tim grinned and also started tapping one index finger against the other with each point. "That's it. I think that physician knew what had happened very quickly and told somebody else. That would have been mid-September, or so. A message was sent to the old collaborators, which arrived about mid-November. The recipient agreed and sent a message back, which arrived in January."
"When the assassin's transport departed Nest."
"Also, a message is sent back here, arriving mid-March." He held up the records for Chamber's personal accounts. "When he received a very substantial payment."
Crystalheart looked up in surprise. "The Traditionalists would not have gone two months without acting on the information. Somebody must be using the clergy as tool to achieve other goals. And, they must have significant financial backing and potential means to interest the collaborators here."
"Gaining political power is a logical motive and using religion to discredit leaders can be an effective tactic." Tim tapped on his chin. "Simple greed, associated with profits from selling an improved technology would be good motivation for the collaborators on Earth to back a change of government on your planet. But, that still doesn't explain why Chambers so actively participated in the attempt to kill Ms. Morgendorffer. There's still some other motivation going on here."
He started to move to his desk. "I need to report this information."
"This can't go on the weekly communiqué we send."
He looked back. "I'm to report these things directly to the Princess by private channel. Only she has the encryption code."
"Let her know. I'm getting a bad feeling about this."
A man in a black suit shouted toward the camera. "We need space to grow! These others are trying to keep us from our rightful place in the galaxy!"
"Neo-Nazis in Space. Next, on Sick, Sad World."
Tim shook his head at the television. "I wondered how long it would take."
Crystalheart set down a glass. "Not all inhabitable planets have been colonized. Do they not understand that?"
"They see us sandwiched between two superpowers, and our importance in the universe rudely downgraded to latecomer. But then, there are those that are saying this is proof we should concentrate on Earth and not worry about space."
"The diversity of thought among you species is a source of fascination."
"Yeah, we can be a bunch of kooks at times."
Jane stood in front of an easel, painting the grove of crowntrees in the garden. The translucent, amber-like petals of the blossoms seemed to almost glow amid the green foliage. Jane raised a set of goggles from her eyes and grinned at Daria. "They can see into the ultraviolet and have paints for it. They made these goggles so I can also see it, too. I've been handed whole new colors to play with. This is just…wow."
Daria smiled in return. "It's good to see you having fun. The last month has been so busy."
"You relax, too. Sweetwind is up and about. The clerics have been noisy, but they haven't tried anything since that first audience."
"I'm relieved about that and I'm trying to relax."
"You really need to unwind before that big state dinner tomorrow night."
"When we get to meet the ambassadors from the other three species. No pressure, thanks."
"Hey, you could think about Helen going through your diaries."
Daria sighed. "I guess it was a bit panicky, sending a message to her to publish my entries from the cabin year. But, I was sitting there next to Sweetwind that night, and just wanted people to know."
"I'm sure people were pestering your parents about that anyway; hopefully it will give them a little break."
"That's why I told Mom she could read the rest, as payment for all this has put them through."
"There's that conscience of yours showing up again. But, I'm sure those royalties will make it feel better."
"Actually, I told Mom to put the royalties into a trust for Quinn's kid."
"Daria, you really have become a mother."
"On that wonderful note, have fun painting. I want to walk a bit, and maybe do some writing."
Daria spent at least an hour slowly wandering the gardens before sitting beneath a massive shade tree covered in purple-black flowers a foot across. Her personal guard took up a position to clearly watch both directions of the trail.
Daria had been writing for only a few minutes when a woman slowly walked down the path and was stopped by the guard. The bright emerald green of her exoskeleton had faded to a dull brown at the edges and the deep purple of her faceted eyes was clouded from many years. She timidly asked, "[May I approach?]"
The guard checked a small handheld scanner. "[No weapons or harmful materials detected.]"
Daria made sure her translator was set to translate English to Folk, only, and said, "Please allow her to come here."
The guard nodded and stepped aside while maintaining vigilance. The old woman hesitated until Daria motioned for her to come closer. She quietly said, "[Please, dear Lady, I hope I am not disturbing you.]"
"No, I'm taking some time to enjoy the garden. The past month has been very busy."
"[Then I am disturbing your rest. There has been much on the news about you.]"
"No. You're not disturbing me. A pleasant conversation would be nice. Are you part of the palace staff, or a visitor?"
"[I only visit.]"
"I haven't had a chance to talk to anyone but my family or officials or staff, outside of the daily audience. Please, have a seat."
The woman folded her legs slowly to sit. "[My old limbs are not as flexible as they used to be. You are most generous to spend time with me.]"
"And I think you're kind for wishing to spend time with a stranger."
"[Nobody as beloved as you can be a stranger.]"
"Beloved? You've just met me."
"[We know the story of your courage and your teachings. And now, of your kindness to that young soldier. Because of you, many of us now have hope for our children and grandchildren.]" She waved a hand at the garden. "[We are even free to enjoy this place. Thank you.]"
Daria quietly said, "You're welcome, though my children are more responsible than I am."
"[It is just horrible how the Traditionalists have passed sentence on you without a trial. This isn't our pre-industrial age anymore.]"
Daria was quiet, looking past her toward the trees beyond.
"[I am sorry. I upset you, please forgive?]"
"It's okay. I know you didn't intend to. May I know your name?"
"[I am Peacetree.]"
"That is a beautiful name."
"[For all my years, I am as nervous as a hatchling to meet you.]"
"You have no reason to be nervous."
"[Rarely does one have the chance to sit in the presence of history.]"
Daria sighed. "Please, could you not think of me like that? Can you speak with me as you would a friend?"
"[I will try.]"
"Please, tell me about yourself."
"[I am a law advisor with three daughters and six granddaughters.]"
That brought a smile to Daria's face. "My mother is also a lawyer. Besides my three children you already know so much about, I have one sister one, who had a daughter about one month ago, providing all went well."
"[If I am not too forward, we know you are unable to bear children. I do not understand why.]"
Daria was mildly unsettled by the question, but covered it quickly. "The water where I grew up was contaminated by uranium and other heavy metals. There was genetic damage that was not treatable."
"[I do not understand. Why would your people use contaminated water?]"
"For a long time, we didn't know. It was from industrial waste of a refinement plant."
"[I am still confused: how would such waste be allowed into your drinking water?]"
"As a people, sometimes we're foolish and don't do the most sensible things."
Daria sat on a cushion in the main room of her residence. It was the front wedge of a dome structure. A small dining room and kitchen were set to one side, and her bedroom to the other. She uncharacteristically sat as if riding sidesaddle, her ankles crossed and knees bent. She wore the single formal dress that Neville's agents had managed to find for her, a purple and black gown she thought would have been more appropriate for her Aunt Amy.
Jane sat across the room in a deep maroon dress and scratched her head as she read from a handheld computer and then set it aside. "The Folk have colonized twenty-seven planets within a roughly three hundred light year radius."
Daria nodded. "Good."
"Earth is on their border with the Seekers, which sound like the Grays the UFO people talk about. The Seekers live on fifty-two planets in an area about four hundred light years across. They fought a war with the Folk a little over one hundred years ago."
Near the end of the war, a damaged Seeker cruiser exploded above Siberia on Earth, what we called the Tunguska Incident, in 1908. As part of their peace treaty, both established listening posts on Earth, to ensure neither side used Earth as an ally or base. Leafweaver was assigned by the Folk military to their post, and was secretly with the resistance."
Daria asked, "Next?"
"The Wavekeepers live on fourteen planets on the far side of Folk space and are amphibious. They kind of look like barrels with twelve limbs, six around each end and that act as arms or legs as needed.
They can remain outside of water for about thirty hours. They are filter feeders of aquatic microorganisms. I'm not looking forward to seeing them eat."
Daria shivered. "I'm not, either."
"The last bunch is the Companions. They are a social species like ants that have thirty-one planets along the border toward the galaxy middle.
Only the reproductives have highly developed intelligence. The defender and worker castes are not as intelligent, but can be specialist trained to complex tasks. They have four arms and four legs."
Jane leaned back against the wall. "Whew. Class is over."
Daria also relaxed. "Just don't forget it before dinner. Speaking of which, remember the convention is for each species to eat in their accustomed way, and it's bad manners to react poorly to anyone's eating habits. We don't want to cause any interstellar incidents right off the bat."
"That is such a common sense way to avoid cultural offenses."
"Too bad we never thought of it."
Tim walked back to the office he shared with Crystalheart. They had adjacent desks, each with a pair of widescreen monitors and sealed, flat panel keyboards. Tim was often happy for them, with how often he had dribbled coffee on his.
A month of digging still hadn't located the funding source for the collaborators, and the fatigue was telling. However, the close work of the last four months had made them partners. They rarely used the translator except when dealing with the public or for more technical needs. Plus, they had learned to read each other's body movements.
The door was ajar as he approached; inside, Crystalheart sat on his modified chair and leaned against his desk, staring at something. Curious, Tim silently moved up and looked over his partner's shoulder to see a small holograph held in Crystalheart's hand.
Tim smiled when he recognized the face, and he said, "Somebody you miss?"
Crystalheart started in surprise and closed the cover on the holograph. "[I…]"
"I saw it was Princess Autumnblossom." I swear, if they could, this kid would be blushing.
"[Yes, it is. I can wish.]"
"But, you can't do anything."
He looked up. "[She is a princess and my superior.]"
"Not to mention three hundred light years away."
"[I understand your attempt at humor, but this is not an appropriate time.]"
Tim reached into a drawer in his desk and removed a small photo. "I wasn't trying to be funny." He looked at the surveillance photo of Daria he kept and showed it to Crystalheart. "We're not supposed to get involved with our cases. Now she's three hundred light years away, and a bunch of people want her dead."
"[Then you may understand why I don't feel like working tonight.]"
"Come to think of it, I don't either."
The thin scraping sound Tim had learned to recognize as a laugh came from Crystalheart before he said, "[We're a fine pair of partners. Working to solve a case spanning many years and star systems, for ladies we care about and will probably never be with.]"
"Are you planning on this being your career?"
"[No. My term of service will be up soon; it is being extended for however long I stay on your planet. I hope to go back to school after.]"
"Be patient, and give her a try once you're out of the service."
"[The Lady Daria is technically no longer your case.]"
"But we still have that little problem of distance. I don't think they have three hundred light years and four-month communication turnarounds in mind when they talk about long-distance relationships."
"[I don't even know if the princess is biologically receptive for a male.]"
"Now, you lost me."
"[As you know, most of my species are female.]"
"A trait certain examples of my species would be happy with."
"[Most reproduction occurs asexually, each female will produce, most commonly, three daughters.]"
"I knew that." Tim raised a finger and asked, "Okay, can you tell me why these three daughters will look different? Wouldn't they be identical clones?"
"[I need to remember from my old biology class. For each chromosome, females have a pair and males have one.]"
"Diploid and haploid, I remember that from mine."
Crystalheart turned on the translator. "This is getting a little complicated. Except the sex-determining chromosome, one of each chromosome pair is deactivated in females. Before eggs make their first cell division, the chromosome pairs undergo recombination to randomize genes between them. While each egg has the same total compliment of genes, the arrangement on chromosomes is different. Before the first cell division, one of each pair, except the sex-determining chromosome, is shut off. That way, there is more variance in how the children look. Both the sex determining chromosomes stay active because that is what triggers the sex differences between male and female."
"And I thought we were complicated. As I understand, males of your species are produced with only one of each chromosome, or haploid."
"Correct. When we were a primitive people, reproduction was synchronized and males were produced when the local food supply was low and the colony would disperse to find new food supplies. Now, by manipulating the diet, males are produced when a son is desired for whatever reason. Although, sometimes it still occurs randomly. In the old days of synchronized reproduction, all females of a generation that produced males would be receptive. Now, that trait is randomized."
"So, it's a real gamble for a female to be interested in you."
He turned the translator off. "[Most will not. Statistically, the ratio is about one in nine, about the same as the sex ratio.]"
"That's…kind of depressing."
"[When I see how things work here, yes.]"
Tim put the photo away and stood. "Trust me; it gets just as complicated here, just in different ways." He rubbed his temples. "I think it's time to introduce you to my favorite fruit juice drink."
Crystalheart put his holograph in his desk. "[I would like that.]"
As Tim turned the light off, he said, "It's called a margarita."
The grand dining hall had a large, U-shaped table in the center. It was low to the ground and all guests sat on soft cushions along the outer perimeter of the table. Truemind sat at the center of the table arc, her sisters to either side, like during the daily audiences. Daria was to the right of Autumnblossom and Jane to the left of Eveningsky. Along Daria's side of the table were the other three Ambassadors. The multi-language translator again used literal translations of what the names of each mean in their native speech. Daria smiled to think of how her and Jane's names must be translating: UpholderofGood and God'sGift.
Closest to Daria was Trailboldfinder Exemplar, the Seeker Ambassador, who sat alone and wore a brown suit made from a large number of garments carefully fitted together. Daria could tell the resemblance to the "Grays" of UFO lore, but could also tell how descriptions had been inaccurate.
The skin was a medium gray color and seemed composed of millions of tiny scales. Four extremely long fingers emerged from a wide sleeve, no hand was seen and the motion under the clothes would indicate the fingers began about where a human elbow would be. He had solid black eyes set wide on a large head, below were two nostrils set flat against the face that opened and closed with his breathing, and a small mouth above the narrow chin.
Next was Nine Colony Brood Four Seven Three Eight, the Companion Ambassador, along with four workers who tended to every whim with subtle directions. She was a dark brown cylinder about six feet in length, who knelt on four legs, one pair descending from the posterior of the body and one pair about two-thirds forward. One pair of arms arose from on either side of the body from between the two pairs of legs, and one pair of arms were based on either side of stubby sensory stalk that rose at the front of the Ambassador. The stalk had a ring of hearing openings about halfway up, a ring of eyes just below the tip, and a pair of feather-like antennae on top that detected smell. Her mouth was situated at the center-front of the main body, and four slits radiating from the mouth were breathing orifices.
The Wavekeeper consul, Maker of Reefs, was seated at the end. It didn't use a cushion, resting the base of its torso in a large basin with the six legs freely spread inside it. The six multi-jointed arms were held folded on top of the body when not being used. The mouth was out of view at the top of the body, but a pair of eyes in the body midsection allowed a full circle of vision. Water, containing its food, was poured into the mouth by one of the arms, while the excess water poured down the side from two openings rotated a quarter around the body from the eyes. When it spoke, the entire body seemed to vibrate, producing a very low frequency sound that Daria felt, more than heard.
Along Jane's side of the table, Folk dignitaries sat and ate. Captain Newharvest of the Nebulachaser sat closest to Jane and greeted her warmly. Next was Secretary of Cultural Development, Mountainlake. Beyond was the High Cleric of the Traditionalists, Warmhearth, invited as a gesture of good will for cooperation on investigating the assassination attempts.
Truemind formally introduced Daria and Jane to the Ambassadors. The Wavekeeper and Companion representatives gave stiffly formal replies to Daria's approach. She gave what she hoped was a friendly address to each. Her approach to the Seeker Ambassador was more productive.
Trailboldfinder gave a slight bow. "After all these years, it is refreshing to have proper diplomatic contact with your people."
"It is a new and fascinating experience for us. Agent O'Neal told me of the quiet contact between his agency and your people."
"On behalf of my government, we apologize for the destruction of the War Cruiser Firewing over your planet in the year of your common reckoning, one thousand, nine hundred and eight. The ship was critically damaged and the commander violated protocol, both for attempting to land on a precontact planet and with a failing FTL reactor."
"Your apology is accepted."
"I have made the recommendation to my government that we negotiate the removal of our and the Folk listening posts."
"On that subject I will forward to you a draft amendment to the Peace Treaty the will sequentially shift responsibility for the buffer zone to Earth. This has the approval of the Queen and has been forwarded to Earth. I hope your government finds it acceptable."
"There may be some suspicion because of your close connection to the royal family. However, I think this will be agreeable if your planet can produce a stable planetary government to administer it."
"In the year one-thousand, nine-hundred, forty-eight, a supply ship going to our listening post crashed near your north polar circle. We request the return of the crew's bodies."
"Agent O'Neal had informed me of the incident. I will send your request with my recommendation to return them. With the agency contact, couldn't you request them before?"
"Without diplomatic recognition by our government, the nation/state refused. Now that we are making full diplomatic contact, we hope this will change."
"I apologize, and will make the efforts I can."
Daria returned to her seat and began to eat. Jane had eaten during the formal introductions, and had moved down the table to converse with Mountainlake.
Warmhearth left his seat and walked in front of Daria. "That fact that the royals treat you and your assistant with such honor is a sure sign of the vile contamination you have brought to our people."
Daria carefully responded. "Your displeasure with me is well established, but I do not think this is the proper venue to discuss our differences. You were invited as a gesture of good will."
"This seems to be an excellent venue. You have admitted to the desecration. I demand that both of you be punished for it."
Autumnblossom rose from her seat. "You will make no threats in this hall."
"I make no threats. I make a demand."
Truemind spoke. "We do not accept your demand, for the reason we gave before. Death is a punishment reserved for only the High Court."
"We are a higher court. We demand both be turned over to us for proper punishment."
Autumnblossom leaned forward in anger. "You mean murder."
"They are to be executed by the proper methods. That is not murder."
"You will not have the chance."
Warmhearth pointed his finger directly at Daria. "We have thousands of faithful willing to lay down their lives to remove her stain from our people."
Autumnblossom glared at the cleric. "Those who would stand to protect my mother and Lady Jane can be found by the thousand in this city alone. You cannot blame her for doing everything in her power to save the children she loved and to stay alive, after being tricked into being a host."
"That is irrelevant. She knew the act was a heresy. We can overrun the palace, if needed, to take her into custody."
"Her teachings inspired us to the new vision of the future so many are hoping for. We have seen how those who hope for the future will die to prevent you from succeeding."
Daria looked on in shock. When she could take no more, she pleaded, "Stop! Doesn't anyone realize how horrifying it is to hear that thousands are willing to die because of you?"
Silence filled the room.
Daria rubbed her face and breathed in deeply. There has to be a way to keep this from going out of control.
Daria remembered something Peacetree had said.
"[It is just horrible how the Traditionalists have passed sentence on you without a trial.]"
Daria took a sip of her drink. Damn, you know that's it. You've been thinking about it ever since. But, the odds aren't good to make it out alive. She closed her eyes and steadied her nerves before she opened them again and said, "High Cleric Warmhearth, because these events happened before they metamorphosed into adults, do you agree my children were not of legal, culpable age?"
"They have been harmfully stained, but are not culpable. They cannot remain on the throne as they are, but will be free to once the stain has been cleared."
"Do you agree Deputy Ambassador Jane is a properly accredited diplomat?"
"And therefore, should be granted full prosecutorial immunity?"
He looked at Jane and said, "Unfortunately, yes."
Daria held her hands in a prayer-like fashion and rested her chin on fingertips. "If you hold the Queen and Princesses blameless and recognize Ambassador Jane's diplomatic immunity, will you allow me to stand trial?"
"You have made claims against me. I ask for you to prove your claims in court against my defense. Do you agree?"
Distrustfully, he nodded. "I agree. You can be held in the capital sanctuary."
Daria shook her head. "Because of the previous attempts on my life, I request the Queen place me under house arrest."
Truemind said, "They must respect the provision that the death penalty can only be applied by the High Court."
Trembling, Daria said, "If I am found guilty, I request that their court decide on the sentence, even death."
Warmhearth stepped back in surprise.
Truemind said, "Out of the question."
Daria looked at her with suddenly old and weary eyes. "Please, there is no other way. Trust me."
Truemind looked between the two. "I do not like this, but I have learned to trust my Mother's wisdom. However, I request the court be made of equal numbers of secular and clerical judges. If Warmhearth will grant that, I will allow the combined court's sentence to stand."
Daria nodded her assent. The High Cleric looked around nervously. The hall was silent in expectation before Warmhearth said, "That is acceptable."
Truemind sadly lowered her head. "I will order Lady Daria held at her residence except when attending trial."
All three rushed through the door as soon as Daria opened it, producing an incoherent cacophony of speech as each talked over the others. Truemind waved both arms back at her sisters. "[Quiet!]" She focused her attention on Daria. "[Mother, have you gone mad? They will kill you if you go through with this.]"
Daria walked back to her cushion and took a seat, motioning the others to do the same. "I'm very aware of that likely outcome. I feel like I've already signed my own death warrant. But, I can see no other way."
Eveningsky blurted out, "[We can't bear to watch something happen to you.]"
"I know. I've also learned that thousands or millions of others feel the same."
Autumnblossom asked, "[Then, why?]"
"Because many thousands feel as the Traditionalists. You're on the verge of a holy war over what I did."
Truemind nodded her head. "[Yes, we are.]"
"Didn't I teach you about the religious wars on my world? How some have continued for centuries? How many had died?"
Eveningsky said, "[We remember. That is why we need you. To help preserve what we have worked for.]"
"Peace is the best way to preserve all of your work. What I just did can give everyone an out, if they remain honest."
Autumnblossom snorted a rude laugh. "[Like they would stay honest.]"
"Left to their own devices, I don't think they would. But, we just opened their actions to full public scrutiny and opinion in front of the other three ambassadors. Unless they want to destroy all their credibility, they have committed themselves to an honest verdict. You three must convince your followers to respect the verdict, or this won't work."
Autumnblossom was unmoved. "[But, you are putting yourself at great risk when so many are willing…]"
"That is exactly why. A civil war over all your worlds for centuries could cost billions of lives. How can I be a symbol of good with all those lives on my conscience? This way, if I win, the Traditionalists won't be happy but will have to back off. I think they know when to cut their losses. If I lose, they will be satisfied and will drop their demands for your abdication. You can continue with the new government. Either way works best for the Folk."
Daria watched them for a moment and added, "Do not make me a martyr. If this goes against me, tell your people I was flawed and made a terrible mistake. Tell them to move on and make better lives."
All three stood in silence. Finally, Truemind meekly said, "[You are family. All of our financial resources are available for your defense.]"
Eveningsky said, "[It will take a couple weeks to organize the mechanism for the trial. May I please work with you to build your defense?]"
Autumnblossom said, "[All of our investigative resources will be at your disposal.]"
"Thanks, all of you. I'm happy to accept any and all fair help you can give me. Also, I met a rather astute law advisor in the garden; I'd like her on the team."
Mom, Dad, Quinn,
I have once again requested that this message be delivered to you before the regular communiqué is released to the public.
Today, I agreed to stand trial before a mixed secular and religious tribunal for crimes against the Traditionalist religion. There is a very good chance I will be found guilty and sentenced to death.
Before you ask, I waived my diplomatic immunity. Please accept that this is for the best, to avoid too many deaths to count. My acts are what started this trouble and I must be judged for them. I'll try to send regular updates.
Quinn, I hope you and your child are healthy and happy. Keep her that way. It seems strange saying this when I haven't yet heard about her birth.
Mom, Dad, thanks for everything. I will be thinking of you often.
My love to everyone.
Jane entered as Daria completed preparing the message and said, "That was one gutsy move, Morgendorffer. Crazy, but gutsy."
Daria turned from the console. "I can't see any alternative that won't cost many lives. My life is worth saving thousands or millions."
"I can't see an alternative, either. That's what I hate so much about this." Jane yelled at the ceiling, "This isn't fair! It's almost as if life is jerking you around for its own twisted amusement."
Daria sadly said, "Sometimes, I wonder that myself. Life seems to revel in giving me good things, and taking them away again. I'm glad you haven't been taken away from me."
"Does this mean I haven't been a good thing?"
The banter between them felt weak, but seemed to help. Jane said, "I've got a question: with you under arrest, does that mean I've been promoted?"
"I guess it does."
"I've been placed in a position of responsibility?"
Daria relaxed some and weakly smiled. "The day has turned sinister."
Jane abruptly looked serious. "Um, Daria. This really is a position of responsibility. I'm not sure how to handle it."
"I'll be here to help whenever I'm not in court."
Jane sat on one of the cushions. "I don't know if I'm ready."
Daria sat next to her. "Jane, you've maintained peace in Casa Lane for all these years. If you can negotiate with your family, you shouldn't have any problem with aliens."
"Please tell me your head hurts as much as mine," Tim whispered as he leaned against the door frame of his bedroom.
Crystalheart looked up slowly from his place on the couch. "[I am sure mine hurts more.]"
Both made unsteady progress to the tiny kitchen of Tim's one bedroom apartment. Tim filled two large glasses with water, and grabbed a bottle of aspirin. He swallowed three and gulped down water before crushing two more between a couple spoons and stirring the powder into the other glass.
Crystalheart drank it quickly and bowed his head. "[That tastes terrible.]"
"I've got some orange juice in the fridge."
"[No, I'm not ready for anything yet.]"
Tim chuckled. "The reaction to you in that bar was fun. I wonder how many patrons are swearing off drinking this morning."
Crystalheart rested his head on the table. "[At least I know your species suffers for this, too.]"
Tim sat and cradled his head on his arms. "I'm getting too old for this stuff."
"[I was not aware you were very old for your species.]"
Tim looked up with a half-smile. "I've got to introduce you to buddy movies."
"[Why did we do this to ourselves?]"
"To forget about the females we can't be with."
"[I don't think I want to do this again.]"
Tim rubbed his temples. "Ouch. Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. I'll make you a deal. Your enlistment is up when you finish this assignment and go home. I'll travel with you to see Daria. We both agree to try when we get there."
"[But, what if they say no?]"
"Then, at least we'll know."
Mom, Dad, Quinn,
My trial begins today. I'm scared. I know the odds are against me, and I may not live to see the end of the year. But, I'm more frightened of the alternative. I wonder how Helen of Troy must have actually felt. "The face that launched a thousand ships" doesn't sound that romantic when you really think about it.
My children have been wonderful in helping and supporting me. Because of their personal involvement in my case and their position, their presence would be considered an improper attempt to influence the verdict, so they cannot be there.
I need to get going.
Two large crowds were gathered outside the Judicial Hall as the flyer carrying Daria and Peacetree approached. Daria had the clear dome covered so the crowds wouldn't see her as they glided to the landing area and the two security escorts hovered nearby. Both were greeted by guards and escorted inside the building.
Daria entered the room with Peacetree at her side and sat at a low table. In front of her were six judges seated in a semicircle with a table and console before each, three in judicial and three in ecclesiastical garments. The High Cleric, Warmhearth, was seated at a table next to Daria. A small audience of expected witnesses, a few selected observers, and the press were behind them.
One of the judges in clerical vestments nodded to Daria and Warmhearth. "[I have been appointed Lead Judge for this case. We will hear the case of the Traditionalist Clergy accusing Lady Daria of Heresy. By negotiated agreement, three judges of the High Court and three judges from the Ecclesiastical Court will hear this case under Ecclesiastical Law. Accuser, please state your charges.]"
Warmhearth stood and stiffly read from a prepared statement. "[The Lady Daria has committed the heresy of providing an unclean substitute for a host for the metamorphosis of Queen Truemind, Princess Autumnblossom, and Princess Eveningsky. She had accepted full responsibility for their care as nymphs upon the death of their appointed Guardian, Swiftsong. The accused willfully and knowingly committed this act.]" Completed, he returned to his seat.
The judge looked toward Peacetree. "[Advocate, please state your rebuttal.]"
Peacetree rose and held her hands together in front. "[We make no denial of the acts committed. We deny wrongdoing on several accounts. First, the accused was intentionally denied full information on what was required to raise the nymphs, specifically; that a host was needed, and if a cattle host was not provided, the metamorphosis pheromones would trigger the host reaction in her. Second, religious scholars do not universally accept this as a heretical act. Third, the accused is not one of the Folk and not an observer of the religion. Fourth, this event occurred outside of Folk jurisdiction on a border planet declared neutral by the Folk-Seeker Peace Treaty. Finally, her choices prevented the deaths of the Queen and Princesses as a result of the actions of others.]"
"[Our thanks to each counsel for their statements. The accused is ordered to remain confined to her residence except for attending these proceedings or travel required to prepare for, or in conjunction with, these proceedings. The Accuser may begin to present evidence.]"
Jane briefly gazed at the guards outside Daria's door before she entered. "Are those guys really necessary?"
"While they're technically here to keep me confined, Autumnblossom choose them more to protect me, just in case."
"I've seen the news; those crowds outside the Justice Hall have been big over the last week."
"And sometimes violent. I'm beginning to wonder if this was a good idea. Instead of helping to defuse the problem, it's starting to look like it could be the trigger."
"How goes things inside?"
Daria sat on a cushion and motioned Jane to sit, too. "The panel of judges is kind of unnerving. The Folk have a strong concept of judicial independence and anonymity. We won't know the names of any judges. They're to be considered completely as impersonal arbiters. Only the lead judge speaks to the Accuser or Advocate. The others only quietly talk among themselves, and never loud enough for anyone else to hear. They're also well practiced in keeping their emotions to themselves. It's hard to read them."
Jane sat with her legs outstretched and crossed at the ankles. "I still have a hard time reading any of them. But, what about the case itself?"
"The clerics are still making their case against me. As you can expect, they're saying that being tricked is not a defense because I did discover the truth in time to develop an artificial diet. As the older denomination, they claim to have a better understanding of the teachings than the Modernists. It turns out the royal family under Truelimb was Traditionalist, so the database computer only showed their teachings. The idea of alternate or artificial hosts is a controversial subject, but not as widely rejected as I had been led to believe by the computer entries."
"But, they still want you to die. Do they call for all supporters to die?"
Daria slowly shook her head. "I went beyond theory and into practice. To continue, they claim that my not being one of the Folk is irrelevant because the Creator made all intelligent life. Finally, since the royals are considered the embodiment of the state, and anyplace they reside as Folk territory, my acts did occur under their jurisdiction."
"They're good. I hope we're better."
Jane looked expectantly at her friend. "How are you holding up?"
Her shoulders sagged and Daria let out a soft sigh. "Barely. In so many ways, they're right. I knew it was a violation of their faith, but did it anyway."
"So you wouldn't have to die."
"I wonder if it would have been better. They would be safe, would still have all I taught them, and their reforms wouldn't be threatened."
Jane crawled over and held Daria's shoulders. "Daria, listen to yourself. You know you did the right thing."
She looked at Jane. "To my ideals, yes."
"Give yourself a chance."
"I keep reminding myself of that."
"And I'll do the same to you."
Daria gave her a thin smile. "So, how're you holding up as Ambassador?"
Jane moved back to her seat. "The Seeker guy has been a trip. They have the sickest sense of humor; you'd love it. The reason they made contact with O'Neal's agency was to help track down joy-riders, after one triggered a missile defense alert in the U.S."
"Douglas Adams would be happy about his prescience."
"Because of the treaty between the Folk and the Seekers, they couldn't make official contact, and the agency preferred to keep things quiet, so it worked for a while."
"And I heard from Eveningsky that was the reason the one previous attempt the agency made to contact the Folk failed, the operative tried to avoid contact because of the treaty."
"This sure gets complicated."
"Tell me about it. How about the others?"
Jane brought up one knee and hooked her arm around it. "It's kind of creepy with the Companion Ambassador. Her assistants move around and do things without her saying anything, but clearly under her control. Otherwise, she's been polite. Because of their location, they don't have a lot of interest in us."
Daria was visibly becoming more comfortable as the conversation stayed away from the trial. "Six hundred plus light years would tend to dampen interest. What about the Wavekeeper representative?"
"The boys who like big bass tones in their music would go nuts for the stuff they play. They also don't have a lot of interest in us, once they learned about the quality of water in our oceans."
"We don't look that enlightened next to everybody, do we?"
"Not often, but in other ways, I do feel good. The other three species have been happy with the changes your kids have brought, and credit you for it. They say any species that produced what you taught them can't be all bad." The last comment included a finger pointed at Daria.
"At least we've been good for something."
Jane sat back against the wall. "More than you realize. There'd been increasing concern about the last Queen's belligerence. Everyone had been on increased alert for the last part of her reign. There probably would have been war somewhere by now. She sounds like a real piece of work."
Daria pushed her glasses back against her face. "Jane, I was with my kids for only a year, and they're more loyal to me than her. That should tell you something."
"Ooh, yeah. Sometimes I forget that they were only marooned, not orphaned."
"Sometimes, I wonder why they were sent out toward the border."
Dear Mom, Dad, Quinn,
Hearing of Daria Jane's birth couldn't have arrived at a better time. The joy I felt has given me the strength to continue. Jane sends her best wishes and abject surprise that you used her name, too. I'm still so relieved that Quinn didn't accumulate the dose of uranium I did. I guess drinking all that diet soda instead of water as a kid paid off.
The trial continues. We have started presenting my defense. I hope it will be enough.
Jake opened the door of the house and said, "O'Neal, my man. What brings you here?"
Tim held a folded sheet of paper in his hand. "Crystalheart and I received the first communiqué from Nest about your daughter. May we come in?"
Jake looked down in surprise. "Hey there, little fella. Sure, come in."
Helen looked over from the living room. "Agent O'Neal, what a surprise."
Tim nervously said, "You daughter is okay, but there was another attempt on her life soon after arriving on Nest. A guard was critically injured in the attack, and the assailant is in custody."
Helen paled and sat back down. "Oh my. I thought she would be safer."
Jake clenched both fists. "Let me get my hands on those little bastards, I'll…"
Tim set a hand on Jake's shoulder. "Mr. Morgendorffer. The authorities there will handle it, or are handling, or have handled it. Damn communication lag." He shifted to address both. "We came by to tell you in person before the news broke. We'll stay to answer questions if you want."
Helen nodded. "Thanks."
Jake sat next to Helen. "Will she be safe?"
"Probably still safer than she would be here."
Helen carefully watched Tim. "I'm curious as to why, when there are so few of the Folk on Earth. Unless there's something else going on that puts her at risk, here."
Tim said, "I can't discuss it."
Helen understood the tone. "Oh."
Sensing the tension, Crystalheart said, "The Lady Daria pulled the wounded guard to safety and stayed with her until she was awake. The Lady Jane helped to tend the soldier, and stayed with her, also. Except for the Traditionalists, they have been very popular with everyone."
Helen smiled. I remember a much younger Daria who would have been horrified to hear that. "That's nice."
Tim handed Helen a sheet of paper. "She wrote this to all of you that first night."
Helen read the message. "She wants her diary entries about the year in Montana published. Helen looked stunned. "Her diaries? She's always been protective of them."
"I think she's afraid and wants the truth to be known. As the field agent assigned, I watched her and know how much she loves her daughters. I'm certain she wishes the world to see this side of the Folk, not just those that want her harmed."
"Those photos show how much she cared. I will be happy to. She also gives me permission to read all of them, but to please remember how frustrated a teenage girl can be at her parents." Helen smiled. "I must have infuriated her at times. I think I know why she gave me permission to read the rest. But, I'll let her know that I won't accept the offer. I'll only read the entries for her stay. She still deserves her privacy."
"She also wants the royalties set up in trust for her niece."
Jake put his arm around Helen and pulled her close. "I guess we did something right raising her."
Autumnblossom yelled across the room, "[Eveningsky, we may have the break you were after!]"
Her sister raced over. "[What do you have?]"
"[A message from Crystalheart and Agent O'Neal. They have good evidence that someone on Nest sent a message to the collaborators there two months before the Traditionalists were informed.]"
"[Two months? May I?]" Eveningsky accepted the message and read it. "[That means somebody has had a year of planning without us being aware.]"
"[Whoever they are, they seem to be relying on the Traditionalists to do the dirty work. At least they haven't made any other moves.]"
"[That has me concerned.]"
"[Now, where to begin?]"
Eveningsky briefly checked a console display. "[The information about what happened came to Traditionalists from one of the royal physicians, Skyfollower.]"
"[She was confirmed to be a follower of the Traditionalists.]"
"[But, she had been on staff before we left for the trip to the border colonies to meet with the Seeker students, when we were stranded with Mother. If Skyfollower had remained loyal to the Queen Mother, that might mean she is involved.]"
Autumnblossom shook her head. "[I would not be surprised. She was bitter about us forcing her abdication.]"
"[It was the only way to get the resistance to negotiate and to prevent another war with the Seekers. Don't forget, she had claimed they worked with the resistance to destroy our ship.]"
"[That, and our clear loyalty to Mother over her, makes her plotting against us plausible.]"
"[She must have seen this as an opportunity to restore herself to the throne and to strike back at Mother. We need to reinterview Skyfollower. She may not have been acting on the motives we assumed.]"
"[Telling the clergy out of faith is one thing. Actively spying for the Queen Mother is another.]"
"[If the Queen Mother is actively trying to remove us, that would make the physician's acts also treasonous.]"
"[This may provide good leverage to get information.]"
Daria sat in the infirmary with annoyance. "Why are we here?"
Peacetree placed a report in front of Daria. "[I remembered something you told me when we first met that may be important. This will be brief.]"
The doctor said, "[With your soft skin, taking this biopsy will be much easier. You will feel a small pain and then pressure in your abdomen. After a few moments, it will be gone.]"
Daria nodded. "Go ahead."
The doctor placed the injector against her lower abdomen and pressed a control. Daria sucked in her breath at the pain, but remained still. The pain and pressure soon eased. The doctor placed the injector tip into a console and operated controls on each. "[Peacetree was correct. You would not have been a suitable host.]"
"But, I thought we were biologically compatible."
"[Your species, yes. But, we are very sensitive to any amount of uranium. If you had been a host to the royal family, they would have died from the small residue that remains in you.]"
"So, I was damned either way." Daria sat down, shaken. "I had the diet worked out and managed to get Jane to the cabin, just in time." She stared across the room. "If I hadn't made it, we all would have died."
"[This will help us.]"
"[Because we are using Ecclesiastical law, this after the fact knowledge can be included as a sign that you were guided into your actions to accomplish a greater good. In this case, to save your children from the death that would have occurred if you had been host. The case is strengthened when coupled with you involving Lady Jane, who prevented Agent O'Neal from investigating and also stopped Streamrider from killing all of you.]"
"The ends justify the means. Are you sure these Folk never read Machiavelli?"
"[I do not recognize the author.]"
"Never mind. I hope it's enough."
Tim glared at the bank officer with disgust. He displayed a holograph-enhanced ID card. "To the contrary, I'm working under a United Nations mandate and have been granted Interpol credentials for this case, the same with my partner. Therefore, you are in my jurisdiction." He nodded to Crystalheart and waved his hand around the dingy room. "You have a rather modest office for somebody who manages such large sums of money."
Crystalheart looked directly at the back wall of the office. "It is not common knowledge, but my species' vision extends into other wavelengths. You seem to have an interesting configuration to your building. Very interesting indeed."
The banker looked at Crystalheart and back at the wall. Crystalheart drummed his fingers on the banker's desk and seemed to peer at something intriguing. The banker sighed and entered information on his computer keyboard. After a page was printed, he handed it to Tim, along with a computer memory stick containing the data. "These are the numbered accounts involved. Because of the nature of those accounts, we have no other information. I swear."
Tim smiled and gave a slight bow. "Thank you for your cooperation. It has been most appreciated." He turned to leave and held the door for Crystalheart. "We'll see ourselves out."
The rented, electrical powered car was parked in the bright sunlight to allow the solar panels to recharge to the batteries. Once inside the car, Tim looked at Crystalheart. "Just how far into other wavelengths do you see?"
He buckled the modified seat belts and made fine adjustments. "[Part of what you call ultraviolet. I let his assumptions do the rest.]"
Tim grinned as he closed his belt. "Good one. Finally, we have a new break."
"[That is only a numbered account; how can we trace it?]"
"Electronic transfers were used. We have a few hackers at our disposal that should be able to track down the sources, and then we can get a name."
"[You are right. I am feeling better, too.]"
Tim looked at the tall palm trees swaying in the breeze. "Too bad we can't stay on a little extra; I've always wanted a Caribbean vacation." The checked behind him and merged into the slow traffic.
Physician Skyfollower looked at Autumnblossom and Eveningsky in confusion. "[Why am I here? I told the authorities already how I exercised my freedom of religion to inform my faith of what had happened.]"
Autumnblossom leaned forward. "[We have reason to believe that wasn't your sole motivation.]"
Eveningsky looked up from her console. "[With your background in pediatric and developmental medicine, I am rather intrigued it took you two months to determine the cause of our condition.]"
Skyfollower was unmoved. "[Because I did not think that was possible, I looked for other causes first.]"
Dropping financial records on the table in front of Skyfollower, Autumnblossom said, "[It is very interesting that you received a considerable financial windfall almost two months before you claim to have discovered the cause.]"
"[Those were some good investments that paid dividends.]"
Eveningsky set down another set of financial records. "[That you did not report for taxation.]"
She looked a little concerned. "[Somehow, I don't think you are interested in my tax status.]"
Autumnblossom moved the pages aside. "[We think the information went to somebody interested in harming or removing our Queen from the throne. That is treason. So is any assistance.]"
Eveningsky neatly collected the second stack of records. "[Such things can be overlooked in those that assisted out of misguided loyalty, if they choose to clarify what they had done.]"
"[Otherwise, things could become very difficult,]" Autumnblossom quietly said.
Skyfollower's hands tapped the table. "[How difficult?]"
Autumnblossom moved right into her face. "[As difficult as what Lady Daria is facing.]"
After more tapping, Skyfollower said, "[I will tell you what happened.]"
Dear Mom, Dad, Quinn
We plan to finish presenting my defense tomorrow. Eveningsky said I will have unexpected news. They've been gems through all this. I wonder what they're up to.
Jane has been the best friend she always was. I would not have made it this far without her. There really is no way to fully repay all she has done, but there is one thing I know I can do.
I'm approaching the end of my trial, and the verdict is in doubt. Jane has been my lifeline here, and I want to ask you to do one thing for her.
MARRY HER, DAMMIT!
Don't let what happened to me, or almost happened to you, foil your happiness. I know you want to. I know she does.
The pair of guards shifted anxiously as Princess Autumnblossom and a dozen police approached. The princess produced a document. "[Please summon the Queen Mother.]"
One guard hesitated, and then said, "[She left a directive not to be disturbed.]"
"[This is a summons from Queen Truemind. Have her brought here at once.]"
"[But, her directive…]"
"[I would prefer if we did not have to retrieve her ourselves.]"
The guard looked at his silent companion, and at the twelve police with hands on weapons. "[I will bring her.]"
Autumnblossom waited patiently for several minutes until Truelimb arrived at the compound gate. Truelimb carried herself with the dignity and poise of the absolute monarch she once was. She icily said, "[One of my insolent daughters deigns to visit. How surprising. At least I have the satisfaction of knowing the one you abandoned me for will soon die.]"
Autumnblossom ignored the comment and read from the document. "By order of Queen Truemind and based on evidence filed with the High Court, Queen Mother Truelimb is placed under arrest.]"
"[You arrogant little parasites. You will pay for this.]"
"[You stand accused on three counts for the attempted murder of the Ambassador, Lady Daria. Two counts of the attempted murder of the Deputy Ambassador, Lady Jane. One count for the attempted murder of Nestheart Guard, Sweetwind. Fifty-five counts of wrongful death for the passengers and crew of the transport vessel, Homebeacon. Six counts of wrongful death for the People of the Soil who defended the Lady Daria. Finally, you are charged with one count of treason, for plotting the overthrow of Queen Truemind and dismantling of the Constitution."
"[You children didn't learn any of the lessons I tried to teach you.]"
Autumnblossom said over her shoulder to the police, "[Secure the residence and hold all staff for questioning. Bring the accused to the Justice Hall.]"
Truelimb growled. "[You are outrageous. It is customary for royals to be granted house arrest.]"
"[You will be returned to house arrest, after the charges have been formally read in court, you have been questioned, and your residence searched, as per the arrest warrant.]"
Truelimb shook with anger.
Autumnblossom motioned for Truelimb to be secured. "[You are correct: we did not learn from you. We learned from someone better.]"
Warmhearth's bad mood radiated from him like a cloud as the messenger left. Peacetree said to Daria, "[I think that was bad news for him. If it is what I hope, it will weaken his resolve to fight my final statements.]"
"Does this have something to do with what my children are up to?"
Another messenger entered and gave a message to Peacetree. She read the note and handed it to Daria. "[He just found out he was being used by the Queen Mother as a proxy in her attempt to regain the throne. She has been arrested for treason and the wrongful death of many of his followers.]"
"Do the judges know?"
"[No. It is not relevant to the facts of this case. Remember, they have been sequestered from all outside information that may influence their decision. We still need to win on the merit of our case, but he won't fight back as hard, now.]" She stood and addressed the panel. "[I am ready to begin.]"
The lead judge said, "[Please supply your final discussion.]"
"[Thank you. The most important point is, the Accused acted on the incomplete information she had available, to do what was best for the nymphs entrusted to her care. We have shown that her choice was the only one that allowed the survival of the transforming nymphs. Her contamination with uranium would have poisoned them. Even if she were not afflicted and had chosen to be a host, the result would have been death for the nymphs. Lady Jane would have intervened, if present. Agent O'Neal would have investigated and intervened when he arrived during the metamorphosis. Finally, Streamrider would have killed all four when she arrived. By Ecclesiastical Law, the Accused's intent and the overall good of the results of her actions should also be considered, as a sign that events happened for reasons beyond mortal understanding.]"
Daria's attention faded as Peacetree continued to recap the defense. Daria thought of a soft wind through the trees as she tended the garden with her children. To be back home.
Her attention returned later when she heard Warmhearth say, "[No objection.]"
The head judge said, "[Testimony and evidence admission is now closed. You will be summoned when a decision has been reached.]"
Leaving the room, Peacetree said, "[He was upset; he made no counter at all to my final statement.]"
"Thank you very much for calling. Transmit copies as soon as possible. Bye." Tim closed his cell phone and looked at Crystalheart. "We've had a break in Arizona."
He looked up from the financial records he was scrutinizing. "[Somebody went to the laboratory with Streamrider's lifeboat?]"
"Yes, and she's in custody."
"[Has she talked?]"
"Once she was picked up, and of protective custody, she apparently couldn't talk fast enough. She's been running scared of her employer for months."
"[We know who her employer is?]"
"Yes we do. One who potentially has a motive for Ms. Morgendorffer's death. Now, we finish the paper trail and get out the nailgun to stick his butt to the wall."
Daria stood in the courtroom before the six anonymous judges. Peacetree grasped her trembling hand and whispered, "[I have a good feeling today.]"
"I hope you're right."
"[We made a strong case.]"
Warmhearth waited at his desk. Otherwise, the room was empty. He nervously shuffled forms during the wait.
Daria whispered, "Feels odd to have the room empty, but I also feel less stress than if we had an audience."
The lead judge rose and straightened his ecclesiastical vestments. "[Is the Accuser prepared to hear and accept our judgment?]"
"[I am prepared.]"
"[Is the Accused prepared to hear and accept our judgment?]"
Daria closed her eyes. "I am prepared."
The first secular judge rose and said, "[Not culpable.]"
The first ecclesiastical judge rose and said, "[Culpable.]"
The next secular said, "[Not culpable.]"
Ecclesiastical. "[Not culpable.]"
Secular. "[Not culpable.]"
The lead judge said, "[Not culpable.]"
He looked down the row at the others. "[Five to one, we concur that the Accused acted in the best possible faith to preserve the lives of Queen Truemind, Princess Autumnblossom, and Princess Eveningsky, who had been left in her care. Considering the highly unusual circumstances and events, we rule that no wrongdoing was committed. The Accused is free to go.]"
Daria felt her knees weaken and she sank to the cushion.
Warmhearth bowed his head. "[We accept the decision of this court that Lady Daria has committed no wrong and will rescind the ecclesiastical sentence of death. In light of this finding, we reinstate the Queen and Princesses to the faith and remove our support for their replacement.]" He turned to face Daria. "[It would appear the Creator guides your hand and protects your spirit.]" He bowed and crossed his arms in a blessing.
Jane, Autumnblossom, Eveningsky, and Truemind swarmed over Daria the instant she came in the door.
"Gahh! It's not my birthday." Daria was very pleased to see everyone.
Jane disentangled from the multiple limbs and went to a small table, returning with a platter with what looked like a cake, and five bottles. "No guarantees as to how it will taste. They didn't know what a cake was and don't have anything close to flour."
Daria eyed it with suspicion. "Then, what is it?"
"I described the concept to the royal chefs and this is what they came up with."
"Have you tried it?"
"You're the girl of the hour."
Daria cleared herself from the sisters and knelt on a cushion in front of the 'cake'. "Thanks everyone. I wouldn't have made it without you." Amid friendly agreements, Daria cut a small piece and tasted it. After thoughtfully chewing for several moments, she said, "I think this will be best left so we can read the loving inscription on it."
Jane looked dubious. "That bad?"
"I wouldn't say bad, but…something like Dad would bake."
"Funky. I get it." Jane shrugged and sat at the table while the others joined. Jane picked up a bottle of crowntree sap. "Is twenty-two, thirty-seven a good year?" She took a drink and asked, "How does it feel to be free, again?"
"Very good. I was so nervous before the decision, I was shaking. I had to sit down after."
"You're off the hook and the whole diet stuff is cleared up?"
"I'm personally off the hook, and so are they. But, the question of whether artificial diets are a heresy is not settled."
Eveningsky said, "[It will be the source of much emotional debate for years to come.]"
Truemind continued with, "[But, will not be the flashpoint for violence it was about to be.]"
Autumnblossom finished, "[And the Queen Mother was prepared to step in to 'save the Folk from the folly of her wayward children.']"
Daria settled down to a seated position. "I know you had to keep me out of the loop on this, but what was up with her?"
Truemind looked down sadly for minute before answering. "[Do you remember when I said I felt more like a replacement than a daughter?]"
"[It turns out, I wasn't even that. When Autumnblossom searched the Queen Mother's residence…]"
Autumnblossom visibly tensed.
Truemind quietly said, "[…She found the leak to the resistance about our trip to the border. We were to meet with a group of high-ranking Seeker students for a good will visit. Truelimb secretly got the information to a known resistance spy. She planned to have us killed and use that as an excuse to go to war with the Seekers.]"
Daria stared in shock.
Autumnblossom said, "[A war to regain territory lost over a century ago. It would have weakened the resistance, and she planned to use more brutal tactics against them while most were distracted by the war. All three of us were disposable tools to her. She planned to bear another brood to replace us, afterward.]"
Eveningsky slowly shook her head. "[She was furious at our survival. Her plans were disrupted, and we returned with all these new ideas.]"
Truemind resumed, "[Unknowing, we tried to work with her. However, she became increasingly unstable. We finally forced her to abdicate. When a physician that had remained loyal to her told her about what you had done, she saw the opportunity to get rid of you, and us."
Autumnblossom said, "[She anticipated rising tensions between us and the Traditionalists to break into violence. Once things reached a fever pitch, she would present herself as a rational alternative to chaos.]"
Eveningsky patted Daria's hand. "[She was completely unprepared when you asked for a trial and High Cleric Warmhearth agreed. She was furious at him. To sabotage the effort and rouse emotions, she plotted to have High Cleric Warmhearth killed outside the courthouse after the trial.]"
Jane put her hand on Daria's. "And we thought our mothers were screwed up when we were teenagers."
Daria looked at her daughters. "I am so sorry."
Truemind hugged Daria. "[Do not be.]"
Daria returned the hug. "During the closing, I thought about our garden and how much the cabin felt like home. I missed it."
Truemind looked at Daria. "[The Interstellar Legislature in back on track to start. Once it is in place, a state visit to your home planet might be in order]"
Eveningsky said, "[For all three of us. I heard you made an offer to Autumnblossom about the cabin.]"
Autumnblossom raised one hand. "[You did make the offer.]"
Daria looked at all three. "My first act back on duty as ambassador will be to transmit the request, and make sure the cabin is ready."
Tim O'Neal was not in a good mood. The day's communiqué from Nest had reported Daria's arrest two months earlier and the possibility of a death sentence. Being unable to tell the Morgendorffers in person because of the appointment he faced added to his frustration. He stood in front of the Director and tapped a thick dossier. "I know it isn't pretty, but there's the evidence we've collected over the last six months. Assistant Director Chambers was the highest-ranking collaborator within the agency. He hid his operation well by strictly using outside funds." Tim placed a sheet of paper on top of the stack. "Between the laboratory witness and the electronic funds transfer trail, we've identified the funding source. This is the latest of the funds transfers to Chambers from the numbered accounts from Grace, Sloane and Page, and signed by Angier Sloane, who was an old college buddy of Chamber's father."
Crystalheart added, "The information has also been transmitted to Princess Autumnblossom. Angier Sloane became involved with funding the treatment of Streamrider's injuries and the examination of her lifeboat. He had maintained a communicator in hopes of new contact with the resistance. When he learned of the plan to kill Lady Daria, he readily agreed to help, believing it would give him an untraceable means to kill her. For reasons we don't fully understand, he blamed her for his son not having a legal heir. He paid Chambers to suppress the detection of the first assassin's ship. When that failed, Chambers was dispatched to Montana to make sure Lady Daria was present when the lifeboat arrived with the second assassin to kill her. We're not certain of why he was the first killed, accident or suppression of witnesses. Because all of the clerical Folk and crew were killed in the fighting, we have no way of knowing."
The Director scanned the papers closely before signing one and handing it to Tim. "It's going to hit the fan when you arrest him. He has a lot of connections."
Tim accepted the paper and placed it in a folder. "He tried to kill the woman we just found out is standing trial for her life in an alien court, because she saved her children. His political connections are going to vanish and public opinion will smack him in the face."
"He's got the money to make this a hard fight."
"Mr. Grace and Mr. Page were quite cooperative. Sloane will only be able to use his own money and not the partnership's. From what I've learned of Katherine Sloane, I wouldn't bet on him having unfettered access to that, either."
Helen and Jake sat in their living room, each holding an untouched martini. Quinn was on another sofa, gently rocking her infant daughter. On the coffee table in front of them was a single framed picture of Daria and her children. The day was spent in thoughtful silence. The courier that O'Neal had sent over remained at the front of the house, to make sure none but a select few approached the residence. He also handed out a simple statement.
We have confidence our daughter and sister did the right thing before, and is doing the correct thing now. We thank all for their good wishes and have no further comment.
The two memorials were simple and the grounds well maintained. Daria stood nearby with Eveningsky and read from the first, "Leafweaver." She touched the face and said, "I wish you could have seen what you helped to bring about, because you chose to trust me." She turned to touch the second. "Swiftsong. I am still your friend. I know you did what you believed best, and how it must have tormented you. You would be happy and proud of the lives your charges have led."
Both stood silent for a few more moments before Daria asked, "Is it possible for me to visit any of their families?"
"[Leafweaver was from one of the colony worlds. I believe her mother and sisters are still there. Swiftsong has no living relatives. Her mother and sisters were killed in a transport accident.]"
"[Swiftsong was unable to have children. That is why she became a Guardian.]"
A week after Angier Sloane's arrest, two bailiffs escorted him from the courthouse to a waiting car. The judge had ordered him held without bail, as a flight risk. A crowd of press and public waited for their approach, including Lydia Phelps with her crew.
She noticed a drawn face, topped with a shock of red hair, moving along the front of the crowd. "I wonder why he's here." She nudged her camera operator to shift over to the old subject of the news show. She held up her microphone and said, "I've just noticed an interesting person from Ms. Morgendorffer and Ms. Lane's past among the crowd. Perhaps he will have some interesting comments about today's events." She and her crew moved close to him. "Artie Simmons, care to share your opinions with Sick, Sad World?"
The tormented man in his early thirties looked at the camera with glazed eyes. "Finally, the government has started to do something with these traitors to mankind! The reason aliens have been able to land and experiment on us has been the influence and power of people like him!" He shook his left fist at the approaching prisoner. Angier Sloane looked at him indifferently. Artie ranted, "My life has been made a living hell because of the experiments he helped the aliens run!" Eyes blazing with anger, he shouted. "No more!"
Sloane and his guards were mere feet away when Artie raised his right hand to show a rod-like device that had been secreted up his sleeve. "They don't know I stole this!" The ballistic vest Sloane wore exploded in a white flash and his body was thrown backward into the steps with great force.
The bailiffs rushed forward as Ms. Phelps swung her microphone to strike Artie on the back of the head. He collapsed forward into the bailiffs' arms, who wrestled him to the ground.
Artie whimpered as he was handcuffed. "Please, no more experiments."
Almost a month later, Tim stood before the Director. His head throbbed in pain from celebrating word of Daria's acquittal. Jake made a potent martini. Crystalheart swore he would go through all the necessary quarantines to bring back a lime tree. It had felt good to bring that house good news for a change.
He forced himself to focus and said, "We did not expect such a risk. The ballistic vest was a standard precaution we thought was sufficient. We had no reason to expect an alien weapon to be used because the Folk and Seeker citizens on Earth were accounted for and also wanted to learn more of Sloane's activities."
"Mr. Simmons said he stole the weapon. Perhaps whoever he got the weapon from didn't want to be embarrassed by the loss."
He slide a report in front of the Director. "We don't know where it came from; it doesn't match the technology of any of the four species."
"Isn't he talking?"
"He's talking, but it is confusing. He claims there is another species present on Earth doing the experiments. I believe him."
He added a second report. "Besides the weapon, his skin had been replaced by a synthetic, like he'd claimed. The underlying scars are estimated at fifteen years old."
"Meaning, our agency is still in business."
Slightly frustrated, Tim said, "I assume I'll be assigned to the case. I was hoping to take a sabbatical."
"You can take your sabbatical now. You're unassigned until you can accompany Crystalheart back to Nest to deliver testimony about what you found here. The UN has accepted an offer for a state visit from the royal family. They're expected to depart in late January and arrive in late April. You will travel with them and the Ambassador back to Nest."
"You've become too recognized and can no longer work as a covert operative. After you've completed your testimony, you will work with their intelligence personnel to investigate this new situation. Oh, and have a happy Thanksgiving. Grab a turkey on your way out."
Months passed pleasantly for Daria and Jane before their return to Earth. After the excitement of their arrival and the trial, things had settled considerably. Being the only humans present, they found that they had few official duties after reading and sending the weekly communiqués.
Jane could be found painting and drawing, wherever her muse took her that day. Not only the foliage, but the architecture and wildlife. From the small, winged nectar feeders that often hovered around the flowers like a cross between a hummingbird and bee, to the scaled, six-limbed animals that scurried along the trees like squirrels. For one week, she accepted Autumnblossom's offer to spend time at an orbital observatory.
Daria spent time quietly writing, or with her children as their schedules permitted. Often, she would leave the palace grounds to meet and talk with anyone willing. Like her old habit on Earth, she became a frequent visitor of the libraries, where she became an avid student of Folk culture and literature.
Truemind convened the opening session of the legislature. Fulfilling all expectations, the political brawls began almost immediately. They would remain busy for a long time.
Eveningsky continued to investigate the Queen Mother and her activities. She was disturbed to find oblique evidence for an outside influence, but no details.
Autumnblossom worked with the Seeker Ambassador to develop a new border treaty to present to their respective governments. The regular updates from Crystalheart made her think of the young officer warmly.
The journey back to Earth was uneventful for Nebulachaser. They were greeted on Earth with a grand reception at the United Nations. After the opening greetings, the scene devolved into gratuitous attempts at photo ops and general schmoozing with the royal family. After a couple hours, direct interest in the human guests dropped enough for them to get away from the larger crowd.
Jane tapped Tim's shoulder. "Yo, how're you doing?"
He turned and grinned. "Jane, Mack. It's good to see both of you."
Mack extended his hand. "Good to see you, also."
Jane put a hand on Tim's shoulder. "I have a proposition for you."
He raised an eyebrow and Mack snickered.
"How would you like to be Deputy Ambassador?"
"Sorry, no can do."
"Come on. It will give you the perfect excuse to be with Daria."
"And she would be my boss. Nope, can't take the offer."
"Look, she's going back. This is your best chance."
Tim grinned. "I'm going there myself, to testify on what we discovered here. Therefore, I'll be there and free of any outside complications."
Jane's eyes brightened in surprise. "Then what are you waiting for?" She held up a hand festooned with a ring. "I owe her a big one. By the way, you're invited." Jane gently kicked Tim in the rear. "Get going, she's right over there, you big oaf."
Tim approached Daria slowly. "Hi."
Daria smiled at him. "So that's what you really look like."
"Guilty. I hope I'm not scaring you too much."
"You have a tolerable face."
"Uh…can I ask you something?"
"Would this 'something' be related to that note you slipped into my pocket?"
Sheepishly, he said, "Yes."
"Would coffee after this is done be a good time to ask?"
"Oh, yeah, sure. What?"
"You can ask me out over coffee."
Daria noticed Crystalheart talking with Autumnblossom. "Say, isn't that the young officer you were working with?"
"I wonder what he's talking to her about."
"The same thing I just tried to talk with you about."
"What? That's my daughter over there."
"He rather likes her."
"You knew about this? What are his intentions?"
"Yes, I knew. It's a conspiracy; we talked each other into saying something tonight."
Daria began a fast walk in their direction. Tim placed a hand on her shoulder and slowed her. "He's a good kid."
"She's so…old enough to make her own decisions." Daria stopped and watched the two talking. She softly sighed, looped her arm around Tim's and began to move away. "Tell me about him."
Daria adjusted the not-quite fitting white dress. "How did we get talked into this?"
Tim squirmed in his tuxedo. "You were kind of obvious; I'm really surprised Mack wanted me."
"At least you get a preview of your quarters for three months."
"You're not jealous Jane is going to skip out on the state visit tour?"
"A little, but she's put up with me for the last year. She deserves a break."
"Why isn't there any family here?"
"Tracking down the Lanes would have taken a month or more. So, they decided to do this and tell everyone after the fact. Equal opportunity surprise."
"First humans married by a starship captain. Jane does know how to make a statement."
Escorted by Mack in a tuxedo, Jane appeared in a bright red dress and said, "Okay, let's get this show on the road."
Daria smiled. "With style."
The camera followed Jane and Mack entering a room and closing the door. Painted on it was "Just Married."
"Forget about the mile-high club. Zero-gravity honeymoons in orbit! Next, on Sick, Sad World."
After two weeks of formality, a whirlwind tour of Earth and its various governments, the official part of the visit was over. Soon, Lawndale was a media circus as Daria and her children arrived at the Morgendorffer residence.
Jake opened the door with a wide smile. "Come on in; everyone is waiting."
Daria, followed by her children, entered her old home. Helen, Quinn, and her husband rose to greet them.
Daria stood to one side. "I'm sorry it took so long for this introduction. Mom, Dad, Quinn, Bill. These are my daughters, Truemind, Eveningsky, and Autumnblossom. These are my parents, Jake and Helen, my sister, Quinn, her husband, Bill." Daria slowly approached a crib near the sofas. "This must be my niece, Daria Jane." She looked in to see a ten-month old baby in pink dress and topped with golden hair. "Looks like she got her hair from her father."
She turned back to see everyone still looking at her. She said, "Please, everyone. Say hi to each other."
That broke the spell. Jake squatted down and said, "My granddaughters."
Helen briskly walked over. "Sweeties."
With a pinch of uncertainty, they exchanged hugs with their grandchildren, growing more comfortable quickly. Soon, both were sitting on the floor and talking with great animation to all three.
Quinn went to Daria and embraced her. "We were so worried. I would never have forgiven you if you hadn't stayed alive to see your niece."
"Your concern is touching. The chance to see her was one of the things that kept me going."
Bill was a solidly built man with blue eyes. He came over and sat against the back of a sofa. "Hi, Daria. I'm sorry I was out to sea when you left."
Daria gave him a brief hug. "At least you got back in time for your daughter's birth."
Quinn gave him a narrow glare. "He wouldn't have dared miss that."
He grinned back at his wife. "Being catapulted off a carrier doesn't bother me, but she can scare me as much as a night landing in a storm."
"I wish I could have had some of your courage; there were times I was very scared this last year."
Bill looked her in the eyes. "Only a fool isn't scared. We all think you were brave."
"It sure didn't feel that way."
"Bravery doesn't exist without fear. You were brave because you made it past it."
Helen rushed by them and pulled a photo album from a shelf of the entertainment center. "I have a lot more photos of her as a child."
Daria covered her face. "Oh, no."
Quinn laughed. "Daria, you weren't that bad."
She looked up. "Quinn, remember that when Mom grabs that album to show your daughter."
Quinn recoiled in shock. "She wouldn't."
Daria tilted her head toward Helen. "Want to bet on that?"
With everyone settled, Daria made her way out to the park and the bench she liked to think at as a teen. She'd been there only a short time when she heard the ever-present guard say, "Sir, no closer."
Thomas Sloane said, "May I have a minute?"
The guard looked to Daria for direction.
Daria closed her eyes and bit her lip. She hadn't seen Tom since leaving the courtroom after their divorce was finalized. She opened her eyes and said, "Go ahead."
Tom stiffly approached her and stopped several feet away. "I apologize for how you were treated by my family and for how I capitulated to my father to divorce you."
"That seems so long ago."
"I also apologize for my father's attempts to kill you. I expect no forgiveness, but you deserve no less."
She moved one hand palm upward. "Why he would hold such a grudge? I was gone with a settlement that was a comparative bargain. I posed no threat."
"He blamed you for the fact he would never have an heir."
She shook her head. "That's stupid. Granted, any possible child from Elsie and Alice would only have come from artificial insemination from an anonymous donor. I was gone and nothing would have prevented you from fathering a precious heir for him."
Tom inhaled deeply before he said, "When you needed me the most after losing our child, I cut you off and discarded you because I was too afraid to stand up to him. I've never forgiven myself for that. I had to make absolute sure that he never got what he was after. With the proper application of money, you can have a vasectomy done that's irreversible."
Daria looked at him with wide eyes. "You didn't."
"I made sure he would never have his legitimate heir. That act of rebellion on my part is what drove him to cooperate with these aliens to kill you."
"You couldn't know he would go that far."
"I wouldn't have thought. But, that is the result."
She looked at her stricken ex-husband with sorrow. "Your apology is accepted."
"You're too kind."
"The Sloane fortune ends with my generation. The estate was divided between mother, Elsie and me after his death. Mother has taken her maiden name and will probably disperse most of the holdings. Elsie and I have already directed our personal fortunes be divided for charity on our deaths."
"I don't know what to say. I'm sorry."
"You don't have to say anything, or apologize. You now have an incredible life because you lived by your standard of right and wrong. I have my life because I didn't." He held up his hand at Daria's attempt to speak. "I've had more than a minute. Goodbye." He turned and quickly walked away.
At the end of the weekend, Quinn looked out of the window at the departing vehicles. "Goodbye, Sis. Two weeks alone at the cabin with your kids sounds wonderful. Enjoy yourself."
Bill wrapped his arms around Quinn. "I'm glad you decided to name our daughter after her."
Quinn turned and kissed him. "Even when we fought like cats and dogs in high school, I always respected her integrity."
A gurgle diverted their attention to Daria Jane. Bill looked oddly at the knitted blanket on the child and asked, "Where did that come from?"
Quinn picked it up and remembered. "Daria made this when she was pregnant." She went back to the window and looked down the now empty street. "Thanks, that means a lot. I'll make sure she knows where it came from."
Daria, Autumnblossom, Eveningsky and Truemind sat on a large blanket spread next to the pond. A picnic basket was set between them and all enjoyed the cool May breeze as they ate lunch. Next to the basket were a dozen roses, and a small banner saying, "Happy Mother's Day."
Daria looked at them and once again saw the three small, frightened nymphs hiding in a raft, working in the garden, wrestling and fighting, reading around the coffee table, and preparing to leave the first time. Her precious children.
It feels good to be home.
Thanks to Kristen Bealer, Lawndale Stalker, Mr. Orange, and James Anatidae for beta reading.