|Loss of Life
Author: Ken-Goh PM
The sequel to Out of the NestRated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Romance - Words: 30,467 - Reviews: 17 - Favs: 41 - Follows: 6 - Published: 05-03-07 - id: 3520502
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
DISCLAIMER: This is an unlicensed work of fan fiction. I do not own the copyright to Eureka Seven, the characters or the setting, though all original characters are mine. Bandai Entertainment and Bones Studio have the legal rights to anything directly relating to the wonderful anime series Eureka Seven.
This story is a sequel to my earlier Eureka Seven followup, Out of the Nest, which can be read here:
Loss of Life
A story from the world of Eureka Seven
Renton Thurston turned from the ring of windows at the glassy observation deck of the IPF warship Moonlight to look down at his foster son. "What is it, Maurice? Something on your mind?" There's always something on his mind. Maurice is the thoughtful one.
The nine-year-old frowned, fidgeting slightly as he groped for the right words. "Uh-huh." He glanced toward Eureka, his shockingly beautiful adoptive mother, sitting with the two smaller children, Linck and Maeter, on one of the low couches before the windows. And in that instant, Renton knew what question he would ask. "How...how come Mama murdered my real parents?"
Eureka jerked her head around, dread brimming in her lavender-pink Coralian eyes. But Renton had been anticipating this awkward moment for well over a year, preparing himself for the inevitable time when he would have to explain the unexplainable. "Well, it's like this. Do you remember when you were just a little kid? I mean, like, say, two or three years old?"
Screwing up his face, the boy struggled with the concept. "Sort of. Not real good."
"Right. Neither do I, at least not too much of it. Now how about when you were just one year old?"
"Ummmm... Huh-uh." He emphasized the point with a vigorous shake of his head, clearly wondering where this peculiar line of questioning might be leading them.
"No, most people don't. When we're little kids, we don't remember too much. We don't think too much, either, because we don't have much of a brain when we're so small."
"Mama wasn't a baby when she did that stuff." Maurice looked again toward the silent Eureka, working his imagination to visualize her as a toddler with an SFAR.
"No." Renton sat himself cross-legged on the floor before the window bank and beckoned Maurice to join him. "Here, we can talk better when we're comfortable. No, Mama wasn't a baby then. In fact, she wasn't ever a baby."
"Everybody used to be a baby!" squealed little Maeter indignantly.
"Not Mama. She wasn't born, the way you guys were. The Coralians created her out of the scub coral, in a cave way underground, near Tresor. She wasn't a baby; she looked just the way she does now -- and just as pretty."
"Mama's pretty," gurgled Linck, the youngest.
"Yeah, she sure is." A flight of the odd unicellular sky-fish flapped and glided by not fifty meters beneath the Moonlight, moving Renton to a fleeting suspicion. Just a coincidence? Maybe. I'm not so sure any more. "But anyway, even though she looked like she does now when she came out of the coral, she was just like a newborn baby up here." He tapped his head in an exaggerated way. "She didn't know anything, no more than you guys did when you were just born."
Maeter looked up at Eureka, intrigued by this astonishing new concept. "Really?"
"Really," breathed Eureka, forcing a calm that she could not feel.
"So what happened then, Papa?" prompted Maurice.
"Well, the people at Tresor -- you know, Dr. Morita, and Dr. Egan and Dr. Wakabyashi? -- taught her how to talk and how to understand other people. And she helped them with their work, figuring out how to build LFOs."
"Like the Nirvash? And the Type Seven?"
Renton nodded, pleased. "Right. She was a very important lady. But then...then, the Federation military took Mama away from Tresor. And they taught her to do a lot of terrible things, things she's ashamed of today." And I know just exactly how ashamed you are, Eureka, because I shared it with you to take away some of your pain.
Maurice pondered this intriguing information. "So why did she do them, if she knew they were bad?"
"But she didn't know they were bad, see? Even though she was grown up on the outside, she was still a little baby up here. She didn't know right from wrong. And the damn... And the Federation used her, made her do awful things."
"Like murderin' people?" Maurice asked.
"Yes." Eureka's musical voice rang clearly as she found the courage to tell her own story at last. "Yes, Maurice. Lots of people. I didn't even know they were people. To me, they just seemed like...like targets. And the Federation kept me thinking that." She paused to gather her strength again; the only sound came from the Moonlight's cruising engines and the constant background hiss of trapar flowing over its canted wings. "Then one day, they sent us to a place called Ciudades del Cielo. It was...I had to shoot a lot of...of targets there. And when we were all done with the shooting, I heard someone crying. I'd never heard anyone cry before. And I went closer, and there...there were three little kids lying there. And those kids were you." Eureka blinked, her eyes beginning to glisten. "I picked you up, and just at that moment...I understood what I'd been doing...that I'd been killing..."
Maurice leaped up and ran to her, throwing his arms about her. "Don't cry, Mama!" he pleaded.
"No, Mama!" "Don't cry!" the other two echoed, clinging to the folds of her short blue gown.
"Thank you, children. I'll...try not to. You see, when I found you, that's when I realized I'd been doing...bad things. And so I stopped doing them, and I brought you back with me. And not long after that, Holland stole the Moonlight from the Federation -- to fight against them -- and took me along. That's how you came to be here."
Maeter wiped her tears on the back of her hand. "Did you grow up then, Mama?" she asked.
"No. Not then. Not for a long time afterward." She looked tenderly toward Renton, who came behind the couch and put his hand to her shoulder. "No, I didn't start growing up till I met your Papa."
Maurice looked to him and asked, "Do you love Mama, Papa?"
"Yeah." Renton smiled finally, and nodded. "Yeah, I love her more than anything in the world. I love her as much as we both love you guys."
"Okay." He returned Renton's smile and slipped from the couch. "And thanks, Papa. It's okay, Mama, we love you, too. And Papa. Come on, guys, let's go up to the bridge and watch Hap and Yuki and Doggie fly the ship, okay?"
The other children happily scrambled down after him, but before they reached the door to the ventral corridor, Maeter turned and looked back, wearing a puzzled face. "Mama, are you really a Coralian?"
Eureka stood and fluttered her translucent green butterfly wings, their shifting streaks of red and blue catching the morning sunlight. "I'm half Coralian. Well, maybe a little more than half. But I'm part human, too."
"Oh. Okay. Papa...are you half a Coralian, too?"
"Yeah. Yeah, I am. The Coralians made me that way when Mama and I got married."
She stood indecisively, shifting from one small foot to another, clutching her hands together and looking at the floor. "Then why don't you have wings, Papa?" she asked.
"I dunno," he laughed, "I guess they just thought I was a lousy flier. You guys go on now, and meet us for lunch in the galley later, okay? And don't forget your lessons with Jobs and Woz at ten o'clock."
"Okay, Papa. Bye!"
Alone with Eureka once more, Renton went to her and gathered her in his arms, feeling the warmth of her wings as she brought them forward, enfolding them both. "Thank you, Renton. I've always dreaded this moment, knowing it was coming and not knowing what I'd say when it came."
"I'd say you both handled it pretty well."
They turned toward the doorway to the corridor, seeing there the spare figure of Holland Novak, leader of Gekkostate, the tightly-knit band of pirates who had stolen the Moonlight several years before and set out on a near-hopeless crusade against the planetary government. Emerging into the full light of the observation deck, he unfolded his arms and allowed himself a sly smile. "I always wondered how you two would deal with that. I hope when the time comes that my own son asks me the same questions about my time in Unit Seven, I can give him an answer that's half as good."
"You'll do okay," said Renton. "I guess it's about time for the meeting Hap told us about, right?"
"Right. Stoner has a new series of interviews he wants to lay out... What are you looking at?"
"It's...uh, your hair. It looks different, somehow."
Holland laughed, a succession of soft grunts. Holland was a man badly out of practice at laughing. "That's what Yuki told me this morning. It's starting to get brown again, see? All the gray that the Federation military put there is growing out since you two got back."
"Oh, that's good," said Eureka, trying not to stare. "It makes you look much younger."
"As long as I don't start acting the way I did when I was younger. Listen, about this meeting..." The personal communicator at his belt squealed for attention. "This is Holland."
James "Moondoggie" Emerson, the Moonlight's young pilot, spoke from the bridge. "The meeting that you're holding in your quarters -- I just heard about it. You want me to put the ship on autopilot so I can be there?"
"No. No need for you to attend, especially as we move closer to Tresor and the air traffic gets heavier. Just stay put and get us in."
A brief pause followed; Holland frowned at the communicator as though suspecting it had gone faulty on him but Moondoggie's voice came back on-line: "Okay, Leader. Moondoggie out."
"All right, then," said Holland, beckoning Renton and Eureka toward the corridor, "Let's see what Stoner and our brainstorming geniuses from Tresor are going amuse us with."
"Damn!" Moondoggie smashed his fist against the side of the unyielding ferriplex pilot's console in the nose of the Moonlight, finding in his aching hand no satisfaction whatever.
The perky young communications officer hurried forward from her own station with a rapid tap-tap of high heels, the gaudy bangles of her bracelet tinkling like wind chimes. "What's the matter, Doggie? Should I call Holland?"
"No, you damn well shouldn't call Holland." He turned on her, furious, his blue eyes hard. "After all, Holland never calls me, does he?"
"Hey, I don't... What's the matter with you? Don't talk to me that way, James Darren Emerson!" Hands on hips, she shoved out her full lower lip and glared at him, looking, had she only known it, extremely attractive in an incandescent sort of way.
Moondoggie spluttered the beginnings of three or four indignant sentences, all of which now seemed somehow too silly to complete. "Ahhh... It's not your fault. Skip it."
"Skip it? You keep growling like a bear every time anybody talks to you. Nobody likes a guy with a chip on his shoulder, Jimmie."
"Don't call me that," he mumbled, lowering his head and engaging the Moonlight's autopilot. "It's just that... Look, Gidget, everybody in the whole crew gets taken seriously except me."
"Of course you do," she protested, her anger evaporating at once. "You're the pilot, aren't you? Yuki herself was the only one Holland ever trusted with that job, till she had to take care of their baby. Here you are, running the whole ship by yourself. If that isn't taking you seriously, I don't know what is."
He only snorted in contempt. "I'm only alone at the helm because everybody else got invited to that meeting down in Holland's quarters! I was the one who wasn't important enough to be there."
"Well... Well, I'm not there, either. And I don't feel like I'm being left out. I've got to be here to get incoming messages and send the clearance codes to get us through the IPF patrols guarding Tresor. D'you think I'm all in a pout because of that?"
"No," Moondoggie had to admit. "I guess not. But maybe it doesn't bother you having to be second fiddle all the time. It does me."
"Now, just a --"
"I was the youngest one on the Moonlight when I stowed away. I was the kid who got all the jokes, all the hazing. When Renton came aboard, I thought it'd be over at last. But it wasn't."
Reaching out hesitantly, as though testing a hot iron, Gidget touched his shoulder. "You could've hazed him yourself; they tried to get you to do it. But in the end you couldn't finish it. I was awful proud of you then."
"And then it didn't take long before almost everything on the whole damn ship was Renton this, Renton that. He ran away and we had to go look for him, no matter what it took. He could make the Nirvash fly through the eye of a needle. He was the one who had to get through to the Coralian singularity." A pair of orange readouts flashed on his console; the first wave of transponders for Tresor airspace. Moondoggie cut back their airspeed and lowered the altitude by a thousand meters. "Once Eureka started taking up with him, all of a sudden the whole world moved around the two of them." He bowed his head over the console, so gaily alive with its twinkling colored lights. "And I was the kid again, the rookie."
"It's not his fault," Gidget reminded him. "When I think of how many times him and Eureka almost died --"
"Yeah, yeah, I know that! I don't blame Renton. He's always been a good guy with me, even when...I wasn't so good with him. I just don't... I mean, nobody takes me seriously. They don't..."
"I do," Gidget whispered, only to be immediately cut off by the buzzing of her communications console as the Tresor air security authority challenged them. Hesitation would bring a wave of IPF interceptors. With a last longing look back to the pilot's station and a burning need to say so much more, she hurried to answer the summons of necessity.
Even as they entered the spacious -- by the sparse standards of a military attack cruiser -- quarters shared by Holland, his wife Yuki and their four-month-old son, Renton's skin crawled with the naked sensation of walking onto the slide of a microscope. Gathered here and there on the couches and chairs Holland had pushed into a rough semicircle around the room, Renton and Eureka found a familiar assortment of faces, all regarding them with the peculiar intensity of people who'd been talking about them for a long time before their arrival.
Dr. Gregory Egan, bulky Head of Research at Tresor, stood and bestowed a token formal bow upon them, displaying the narrow brush of red hair running along his shiny scalp like a frightened caterpillar. "Good morning to you both. I trust you both slept well after the harrowing trials you experienced the day before yesterday."
Renton pulled out a plain chair for Eureka, then seated himself next to her, near enough to feel the warmth of her arm against his own. "Morning, Doctor. And to everybody else, too. Hey, I thought we were landing at Tresor this morning. And where's Grandpa? Shouldn't he be here?"
"Down in the hangar," said Hap Fukoda, sprawled across a well-padded recliner. "He said he wanted to do some work on the Type Seven before you two took it out again. I expect it needs work, after what you put it through in that raid on Bellforest."
Dr. Katsuhiro Morita, engineering director of the former Federation research facility, smiled in what he presumably hoped would be an ingratiating way. "Our landing at Tresor is only about half an hour away. In the meantime, we hoped to inform you of something which Dr. Svarovsky --" he gestured toward Mischa Svarovsky, the Moonlight's resident physician "-- and Dr. Egan have discovered. Something which makes you of even greater importance to our goal of coexistence with the Coralians than you already were, if that is possible."
Uh-oh, thought Renton, More trouble. He glanced toward Eureka, exchanging feelings with her in a rapid burst of complex emotion. Almost at once, he saw his mistake in the open stares of the Tresor group as the jewels in their foreheads flickered wildly. "What is it now?" he asked, before they could comment.
Mischa spoke up before any of the researchers could answer. "It's your cellular structure, Renton. You're not getting older, either of you. Without going into the details, the Coralians have done something to your body chemistry that dynamically corrects the effects of aging. We always suspected that Eureka was...that way, but now we know that both of you are almost identical in your bodily makeup."
Renton nodded warily. "Yeah, you told us we were alike, the other day. Is there something wrong now?"
"Wrong? Not at all. On the contrary. It's just that the Coralians meant you two to be emissaries, bringing about a coexistence between their kind and ours. And now...now it seems that they've done that in a more decisive way than we ever expected."
The room achieved a breathless silence. "That's why my shoulder healed so quickly from that bullet wound, right?" Eureka and Renton looked on expectantly, but said nothing, waiting for Mischa to continue.
"Yes. You regenerate damage at an amazing rate. But there's more. We haven't told you because we had to be certain, and there's been so little time." She sighed, and plunged on. "I've taken tissue samples from everyone aboard the ship. And it seems that you two have somehow, well, infected us with...something. No, it's not something destructive -- you needn't look so worried. It's just that whatever's in your impossible Coralian-altered biochemistry that keeps you from getting any older has spread to the rest of us. Moondoggie and Gidget have simply stopped aging. But all of us who're over about twenty years old have actually begun aging backward. We're getting younger at a rate of approximately one physical year every one hundred and twenty-seven days."
"What about the children?" asked Eureka, wearing a doll-like mask of indifference.
"The children are growing normally, including Holland and Yuki's baby. Our preliminary samplings suggest that although they've been infected as well, the factor that inhibits aging -- whatever that is -- doesn't engage until about sixteen to twenty years of physical growth."
"Oh," said Renton, waiting for more. When none came, he went on: "Well...why's everyone so worked up? Isn't that a good thing?"
"It's a wonderful thing!," Morita said, almost shouting. "But it means, for one thing, that once the Federation becomes aware of this, it will be redoubling its efforts to destroy the two of you. You two have essentially become the fountain of perpetual youth. I can't imagine anything more powerfully persuasive in convincing people that the Coralians mean them well and wish to live in harmony with them."
Renton nodded. It made sense. "And the other thing?"
Matt Stoner leaned forward over his everlasting cup of coffee. Outside the port behind him, the clouds drew level with the ship as they decreased altitude for the landing at Tresor. "It means that we'll have to start getting both more active and more passive in our propaganda. RayOut isn't going to be enough to sway the masses any more. We're going to need...personal appearances."
Both Renton and Eureka sat rigidly in their chairs, heedless of the flashing of their forehead lights as their feelings quivered back and forth between them. "Wait a minute. The Federation wants us dead more than ever, but you expect us to start getting out in front of lots of people? Like...performers or something? Like some kind of weird sideshow?"
Not at all insulted, Stoner smiled as amiably as always. "Kind of an existential dilemma, isn't it? But no, making you into a number-one attraction isn't the plan. We just want as many people as possible to hear your story, see you in person...and get infected."
"We know exactly how dangerous it'd be," said Morita, leaning intently forward. "That's why it must be begun under the most controlled conditions. Small groups; carefully selected, with total security. We'd..."
"Are you crazy?" Renton exploded. "Once this gets out, nobody's going to be able to keep the groups small! The whole world is gonna be a mob, trying to lay their hands on us -- and I don't blame them! Dr. Morita, this isn't gonna work, you know that! And it won't be just us, either. You don't know what it was like while we were hiding out in the mountains, with the Vodarek pilgrims tramping in all the time, staring at us, wanting to touch us. It'll be like that, only a million times worse. Everbody'll be after you guys, too, hoping that the big holy powers've rubbed off on you, too!"
Dr. Morita began to protest, but Jobs, one of the Moonlight's two systems engineers, raised one hand to cut him off. "He's right, you know. None of us thought of that. You've all got to come up with a better plan. We won't be able to protect them because we'll all be targets. The ship'll be mobbed wherever it touches down. We'll be like plague carriers in reverse. And the Federation will find it child's play to destroy us -- all of us."
"Surely you exaggerate --" began Egan, jumping to his feet in a way that would have been wholly impossible before his recent weight loss.
"No, he doesn't," Holland interrupted. "I've had my own doubts about this business ever since you and Morita brought it up, and now I'm sure. Until someone comes up with a better idea, we're sticking with the broadcast interviews only." Behind him, the baby gave a discontented squeal, as if in agreement.
"No!" Though spoken softly, the word reverberated like a whiplash. All of them turned to Eureka, now standing at Renton's side, extended wings vibrating, her amazing eyes wide and resolute. "Renton and I have risked our lives and more to end the hostility between the Coralian and Humanity. And we'd risk them again, if the risk was only to us. But to endanger the lives of all of you? Of our children? Of the Moonlight's mission? No. We've already decided, and the answer is no."
"Then you must at least allow us to run more tests..." Egan pleaded.
She fixed him with a glare unlike anything the crew of the Moonlight had ever seen; her forehead jewel and Renton's pulsating in unison. "We have had enough tests for a while, Dr. Egan. We understand what it is that must be done, now, but this is not the way to do it."
The two of them turned their backs on the stunned silence that followed and marched together toward the door. As it hissed open, Renton looked back briefly. "And there's something else we were going to tell you: the Coralians are after us to do something, too. They sent us some kind of message that woke us up, the night after the fight over Bellforest. We don't know what it means, yet. When we figure it out, we'll let you know."
With Renton and Eureka gone, the meeting slowly dissolved, the Moonlight crew straggling back to their posts, the Tresor group making their way to the hangar deck to prepare for landing and debarkation.
All but two. Hilda Bairn, LFO combat pilot, remained in her seat, going over a quartermaster's checklist of supplies the Moonlight would require once they docked at Tresor. Several seats away, Dr. Sonia Wakabayashi, third of the Tresor researchers, sat alone, wringing her hands and displaying all the signs of great agitation.
"You all right, Sonia?" asked Hilda after a few moments, glancing up from her notepad.
She nodded, a bit too zealously. "Yes. Yes, it's just that she...she..."
"Oh. That'd be Eureka."
"Yes! My God, did you see her? When we discovered her, she was a confused and emotionally empty little girl. Physically, she hasn't changed, but...she seems so tall, so...commanding. It's as if she's somehow grown beyond our world altogether." Sonia leaned back into the couch, wrapping her arms about herself. "Every move she makes is graceful; she just seems to shine with beauty. She's turned into a...a..."
Hilda crossed off another item on her checklist. "A goddess."
"That's it, yes! Eureka has become a goddess. She...frightens me, I admit it. I look into those eyes and I see something I can't understand any more." Sonia shook her her head slowly from side to side. "I simply can't believe it. Even Egan and Katsuhiro shut up and backed away before her. What could possibly have been the catalyst that allowed her to transform into such an ethereal creature? Was it her experiences beyond the Great Wall? Was it the Coralians?"
Smiling at such extravagant language, Hilda stowed the notepad and rose to leave. "Maybe it was...her husband?"
Not long after Holland returned to the bridge -- looking oddly smug and self-satisfied -- Moondoggie brought the ship down on one of the Tresor Research Facility's many landing pads, touching ground with scarcely a tremor. "Okay," announced Holland over the ship's intercom, "we've landed. Shut down all nonessential systems and wait for the tractors to pull us into the main hangar before disembarking. Dr. Morita estimates we'll be here for about three days, so enjoy your stay."
He clicked off the intercom, rose from the commander's station and stretched. "Doggie, once the thrusters've cooled down, secure the propulsion systems and consider yourself on leave. You too, Hap and Ken-Goh. These've been a rough couple of days and we all need a break."
Moondoggie engaged the throttle locks, watching the nozzle temperatures drop. "Right. Anything...important at the meeting?"
"Oh yeah," laughed Holland. "A couple of old pals got the hot air taken out of them, that's all. But they'll be the better for it. See you after the repair and provisioning are done."
Okay, so don't tell me anything. Why should I care? "All right."
Little creaks and pops sounded from all over the Moonlight's quickly cooling hull. Ken-Goh brushed off the front of the eccentric white uniform jacket he always wore on duty and left his weapons console. To Doggie's right, Hap Fukoda burped, scratched his stomach and ambled off toward the rear of the ship, leaving Moondoggie and Gidget alone on the silent bridge.
"You gonna sit there all day?" she asked him, leaning over the pilot's seat.
"Maybe. Did you want something?"
Gidget stamped around to the front of the pilot's station, facing him. "Yeah. I want you to stop pouting --"
"I'm not pouting."
"-- and pay attention to me!"
Reacting at last, Doggie twisted himself out of the seat, tearing the floppy blue trademark hat from his head and throwing it to the floor with all his strength. "What, the way everybody always pays attention to me? Let me alone, will you, Annette?"
And only then did he storm off down the central corridor, his footfalls echoing like artillery fire. Gidget never saw the tears glistening at the corners of his eyes. And he never saw the tears burning their way down her cheeks as she tenderly lifted the twisted blue hat from the floor, smoothing its wrinkles one by one.
"I shouldn't have been so rude," said Eureka, staring dully out the single window port in their small room.
Renton sat unmoving at the corner of their bed, lost in admiration of the way the muted sunlight caught the contours of her face. Her high cheekbones and wide brow lent it an adorable valentine shape, he decided, pleasantly highlighted by the slight pointedness of her chin and upturned nose. The flow of her brilliant blue hair neatly caught the edge of Eureka's wide and generous lips, practically begging to be kissed.
Yielding to temptation as always, he stepped up behind her, massaging the alar muscles of her bare back, between the furled wings. The warmth of her skin melted his hesitations like spring snow. "You weren't rude. They asked for it. And you were right. So you shouldn't be depressed."
"No, I guess not." Eureka let her eyes drift shut, sighing as his knowing fingers soothed the little knot of tension that always ached there when her heart grew troubled. "But they're not bad people, Renton. They were the first humans I ever knew, and they were as nice to me as they knew how to be. Especially Sonia. But they always expect people to behave in predictable ways, like the machines they work with."
"Like my father?" He circled round to face her, stroking the warm contours of her left wing; holding her near.
Gratefully, she leaned into his shoulder, into his arms. "Yes, I think so. I didn't understand it at the time, but Adrock was...in awe of me because I was sent by the Coral; almost worshiped me. Before he disappeared, he told me he felt unworthy to sit next to me in the Nirvash. You were never afraid to sit near me." With her lips, she brushed the curve where his neck protruded from the V-neck of his brown sweater. "You're not like him, Renton. Except in your courage and your cleverness, and the way you never turn away from the things that have to be done."
Holding her here, so warm, so close, Renton knew how easy it would be to fall completely under her spell -- and how she would so readily match his need with her own. But this would be the wrong moment. When Eureka dipped into one of her frequent pits of depression -- clinging artifacts of her violent and uncertain past -- what she most needed was to be reminded once more how to find a bit of fun in life. Even in the kind of life they had accepted. "Listen, can you hear the tractors latching on to the ship? We'll soon be in the hangar. The reffing's awful good around here -- why don't you and me go up into the hills once the Moonlight's docked inside? I'll get my board, and you don't need a board at all. We can still get back here in plenty of time for lunch with the kids. How about it?"
"Oh. Oh, yes, that'd be nice, wouldn't it?" Eureka's eyes lost their dullness as anticipation ignited within her. "We haven't done that for months. How sweet of you to think of it. I shouldn't go in one of my good dresses, though. I think Hap took our laundry the day we arrived on board -- let me go down and get one I can wear, all right? Just wait here. Oh, and --" she kissed him, long and powerfully. "I'll be right back. Don't go away."
"Don't...worry," croaked Renton as she slipped out the door.
Eureka hurried into the humid, soap-fragrant room next to the booster-access panel, where the crew did their personal wash, to find Gidget sitting bent and trembling on one of the folding tables. "Gidget?" she cried in surprise.
"What? Oh, Eureka. I was... I just came down there to think by myself, that's all."
"You did? Oh. It's a funny kind of place for just thinking. What's the matter with your eyes?"
Dipping quickly into the nearest laundry basket, Gidget swabbed away her streaked make-up with the edge of someone's blue T-shirt. "Thruster fumes, I guess. They always give me the sniffles. What're you doing down here?"
"Looking for some clothes. Renton wants to go reffing this afternoon... Where could the box with my clothes be? Oh, here it is." Burrowing quickly through the hurriedly-packed mound of cloth, she extracted a dust-colored one and held it up for inspection. "This one will do for reffing, but I might as well take these others up to our room, too."
"But they're all the same, except for the colors," objected Gidget, grateful for something -- anything -- to divert her mind. "I mean, they all come up in front to tie around your neck, and they all dip way down in back. And they're all so...short."
Eureka nodded, folding them for easier carrying. "That's right. Some of the Vodarek taught me to make them while we were in the mountains. They don't interfere with my wings, you see. They're all I need in nice weather. Almost like the little shifts I wore right after I was discovered, except that I didn't have wings, then."
"Wait a minute -- you'll need panties. I'll get you some from Stores..."
"Oh, that's all right, I don't bother with those except in cold weather."
Gidget stared, horrified. "And...Renton doesn't mind?"
"Mind? That's silly." She smiled with such pure openness that for an instant, Gidget found herself feeling low and corrupt for even raising the subject. "Renton loves me, you know."
"Eureka...in case you haven't noticed, everybody on the ship knows how...devoted the two of you are. I mean, the way he saved you before you went away; the amazing way you saved him day before yesterday..." All at once overflowing with a worrisome desperation, Gidget took her arm. "How did you do it, Eureka?"
"Do what?" Staring, lavender eyes round, Eureka found herself at a loss.
"How did you get him to love you so much? I mean, he's crazy for you!"
"'Get him to?' I don't... There are still very many things I don't understand about being human, Gidget, so I don't think I know what you mean. Renton's always loved me, even while I couldn't understand what love is. He was so patient."
Gidget nodded. "Patience. I get it. Patience is the thing, then? Thank you so much, Eureka. It must work -- he worships you so."
"Oh, no," she corrected. "It was his father who worshiped me. Oh, we're coming into the hangar now. I have to get back up; I don't want to keep Renton waiting."
"His fa-- ? Eureka, I... Wait a minute!"
Without waiting for the Moonlight to be pulled into the number five hangar of the Tresor aircraft servicing facilities, Doggie let himself drop from an access port under the damaged starboard wing, grunting with the impact after plummeting four meters to the tarmac below.
Dusting himself off and trying to look as though he hadn't just had the wind jolted out of him, he looked around on all sides. Three small electric maneuvering tractors, one at each wingtip and one at the nose, slowly rolled the ship across the immense runway system toward Number Five, perhaps half a kilometer distant. Apparently none of the operators had seen him leave the ship, which was exactly how he wanted it. The Gekkostaters probably wouldn't even notice he was gone, anyway, he told himself.
Never having been this far beyond the Tresor complex itself, Moondoggie found himself surprised at just how bleak everything seemed from the outside. As a classified research facility, Tresor had been established by the Federation in a forbidding and utterly unappealing area, a wind-blasted plateau surrounded by hundreds of rocky, meandering canyons that looked uncomfortably like unreeled entrails from the air. How the hell do they stay sane in this place? He wondered, shoving his hands deep into his pockets and setting off with a long-legged stride toward Hangar Five.
By the time he reached it, the Moonlight was already stowed safely inside, the armored security door nearly finished rolling down behind. A gust of wind sprayed him with rough dust and he squinted upward into the clear, empty sky, wishing he hadn't thrown his blue sun hat away in his earlier fit of pique. If only Gidget hadn't...
Gidget. She's been mooning over me for three years. What the hell does she want, anyway? Always hanging around, pestering me, asking me about things that're none of her business. Always talking about Renton and Eureka, like that has anything at all to do with me. Making me nervous. Probably thinks we oughta be like Holland and Yuki. Not likely. Sure, she's pretty and all, but let a girl get to you like that, and it's only a little while till you're just like your...
"Hey! You! Freeze!"
Doggie whirled around to find a large guard in the black uniform of the Tresor security patrol glaring down the bulky barrel of a Sequence-Fire Antipersonnel Rifle at him. "Hey, it's okay, I'm..."
"I said freeze! Hands over your head. Now!"
Seething, Doggie folded his hands over his blonde hair. The man looked to weigh at least a hundred and fifteen kilograms, and showed every evidence of proficiency with both the SFAR and his bare hands; heroic escape fantasies would only be suicidal.
"Now identify yourself," snarled the guard, clearly enjoying himself. "Fast."
"That's what I was trying to do before you --"
The barrel of the SFAR cut him off, ramming into the base of his throat, painfully but not forcefully enough to cut off his breath. The cold finger of Authority held Moondoggie in its iron grip. "Another wrong word out of you, and it'll be your last one. Now for the last time, identify yourself."
The wind beat at him again with its stinging grit. Black rage rose up in Doggie's mind, nearly eclipsing every other thought. Slowly, with icy deliberation, he heard himself say, "Emerson, James D. Pilot, IPF attack ship Moonlight." Every vile curse he had ever heard burned its way through his thoughts. You'd like this guy, wouldn't you, Dad? He's your kind of soldier, isn't he?
"Cut the crap, kid, the Moonlight was just pulled into the hangar with all hands aboard. Now identify yourself." The icy barrel prodded his flesh another few centimeters, more insistent, more demanding.
He lifted one angry fist. "Listen carefully, jerk, I'm gonna tell you just once more--"
In a single hard movement, almost too quick to follow, the guard switched ends with the SFAR and smashed him against the cheek with its steel butt. Stunned by the pain, Doggie staggered, sank to his knees on the hard tarmac and clapped one hand to the blazing pain in his face. To his outrage, the bone beneath seemed to shift slightly under his fingers; broken. Pain, throbbing, beating at his face, clouding his vision. Blinded by hatred and nausea, he pointed his face in the general direction of the towering guard. "Iff yrrr havin trouble with yrr hearin...s'nothin a li'l brain tranplant won' cure..."
Then the blackness came, and a great crashing roar that made no sound at all, and Emerson, James D., had no further comment.
"Yesssssss!" Laughing with the sheer joy of flight, Renton hurled his ref board into the teeth of a strong trapar current swelling out of the northeast, riding it upward to just above stall speed, then twisting into the demanding Ninety-Forty-Five-Revolver Turn that sent him into a wild controlled dive, the dry wind roaring in his ears, the sun at his back.
Pulling into a shallow climb once again, the nose of the board canted only a cautious few degrees, he skimmed along the singing sky just above the complex network of deep canyons that made Tresor such a reffers' paradise. Something in his Coralian transformation, he had discovered during their mountain retreat, left him with the ability to somehow sense the trapar flows, catching them, riding them with a sureness and precision he had never known before.
Just above him and to his right soared Eureka, matching his every move with easy grace. Her amazing trapar-generating wings seared trails of green fire across the brilliantly clear blue air as, in the heady rush of flight, both of them tasted briefly the freedom denied them by the endless pressures of duty.
Something tugged at Renton's awareness, chipping away at the purity of his Reffer's High. Eureka; she wanted to descend. He glanced upward, to see her pointing down and to the right, and nodded. Without speaking a word, he let her know that he would follow, and allowed her to pull effortlessly ahead, trailing in the luminous wake of her angelic passage, the two of them falling like shooting stars racing the sun out of Heaven itself.
She brought them to a low cliffside not far from a dirt road that appeared to have been well-used at one time, but now showed clumps of weeds growing between the tire ruts. A concrete archway of sorts had been cast into the cliff face, with a heavy steel door securely mounted at its center. As he brought his ref board in low, then hopped nimbly to the ground when it reached the stall point, Renton knew a vague premonitory tremor just beneath the conscious level. "I don't like this place," he said.
Eureka stood patiently waiting, smoothing out the dust-colored gown and furling her wings, still sparkling with trapar. "Do you know what it is?"
"Not for sure, but I can pretty well guess. This is the place where you were discovered, isn't it?"
"Yes." She walked calmly toward the steel door, her face revealing nothing. "Somehow I feel that I need to show this to you, Renton. Perhaps this is the very last of my most intimate secrets. I want to be sure you know absolutely everything about me, so that you'll never wonder." A long handle protruded from the door, but it refused to move under her small hand. "I'm surprised this is still sealed. It's abandoned now, but Adrock told me that after the Tresor group found me, they spent over a year exploring the cave complex, looking for...for..."
Renton came to her side, his ref board lying forgotten on the road. "For your sisters."
She only nodded, but he felt the emptiness deep inside her. "They never found any others after me, of course. The Coral doesn't work that way."
"Look, I don't think this is a good idea, Eureka. Let's go back to Tresor. I know how you were created; it doesn't bother me. In fact, I kind of like it, because it makes you even more...unique to me. We don't have to go in there."
She smiled in a bittersweet, wistful way, put her soft hand to his cheek and kissed him. "I know, my dearest Renton. I'm so glad that once I knew love, I gave it all to you." From the concrete wall next to the door, an aluminum-alloy box protruded. Eureka lifted its cover with a faint squeal of oxidation and pressed her palm to the white surface beneath. A dull chime sounded from somewhere, and the door clattered with the sharp patter of retracting latches. "My handprint still activates the security lock; I suspected that it would." She pressed the door inward, into a beckoning gateway of darkness.
Renton grabbed desperately at her arm. "Don't, Eureka, please. The last time you were in a trapar-spring mine, you..."
"I tried to dissolve back into the primal coral, yes. But I'm stronger now; not the confused and hopeless girl I was then. Don't be afraid for me, I'll be fine. Just come and be with me."
She stood at the threshold, one foot in the darkness. Short of forcibly dragging her back, Renton could see no possible way to persuade her to change her mind. And even if he could bring himself to do such a thing, getting her to Tresor, struggling and resisting, on a wobbling little ref board was out of the question.
"All right. But I don't trust this place -- or what it might be able to do to you. I'm coming. But if anything even looks dangerous, I'm hauling us both out as quick as I can, understand? And I'm going to hold onto your hand the whole time."
Eureka beamed. "That's wonderful. I always love it when you hold my hand. Let's go together."
Still unconvinced, Renton took her hand tightly in his own and followed her in. Away from the unceasing desert wind outside, his first impression was one of deep silence. Yet as his eyes adjusted to the lighting within, he found not the soundless black pit of his imagination but a short tunnel banked with tubular light arrays on tripods, all now in a dim power-saving mode. "There are other corridors in this complex," she explained as they walked, "but they had nothing in them, not even archetypes."
"Then how did the team from Tresor ever find you?" asked Renton, determined to keep up a conversation, lest she fall into some susceptible mood. "I always wondered about that. How did they know where to come looking for you in the first place?"
"I was told there was a huge trapar geyser coming from this tunnel, one that all their instruments registered. It was the Coral's way of getting their attention, I suppose."
"Uh-huh." As they walked further into the cliff Renton's anxieties increased in direct proportion to their distance from the doorway, itself already invisible beyond the bend of the tunnel. Though he could hear the low rush of air from a ventilating fan somewhere, the air seemed thick with a metallic tang, like hot copper. Beneath their feet, a litter of tiny pebbles crunched loudly, echoing with each step. "Were you just laying there on the ground, or what?"
Eureka smiled as though this were no more than a lighthearted picnic. "Long after I awoke and could understand, I saw the pictures they'd taken. I was curled up in a blob of scub coral, with a thin umbilical cord running out into it -- though I'm not quite sure what it was for. I suppose that's why my bellybutton is so small, don't you think? I'm sure those pictures are still on file at Tresor, so you can look at them yourself. We're almost there, now."
Clamping his perspiring hand even more tightly on hers, Renton scanned the faintly-lit walls of the tunnel for any possible threat. What might lie in wait for them in here, cut off from all outside help? Nearly anything. He twitched in alarm as she tugged at him to stop.
"This is the place," she whispered, pointing with her free hand.
Renton stared, all at once overcome by a powerful sensation near to reverence. There in the wall of the tunnel, an alcove had been dug -- sculpted? dissolved? melted? -- a dished recess, receding back perhaps two meters into the native stone. Its base formed a deep, smoothly polished basin, about twice the size of an ordinary bathtub, a perfect oval.
Now it all became truly real in his mind. The image of the newly-formed Eureka lying there, innocent of all her trials to come, moved him to hot tears, passionately wishing that he could somehow reach into the past and snatch her from this stony cradle, keeping her safe from all the pain to come, warm and protected in his arms.
Her jewel flashed with a wordless question, and he answered, giving her the wish in his heart. "You were right, Eureka," said Renton at last. "I guess I did need to see this place, after all."
A deep, slow voice echoed up from the empty chambers all round them. "More than you know," it boomed like the tolling of a cathedral bell.
Renton tensed, jumping back, poised and alert. "What was that? Eureka, did you...?"
But they already had other problems. One by one, the lights were going out.
"His brain activity is increasing, Dr. Svarovsky."
"I don't need a machine to tell me that; I can see his eyelids fluttering."
Moondoggie looked about him without moving. All around, white walls and the sharp scent of disinfectant. For only seconds did he wonder what he was doing in this place, but the ache in his left cheek brought it all back in a quick gale of rage. He struggled to lift himself from the padded table until vertigo brought him close to falling and a pair of strong hands laid him slowly back down.
"Stay where you are for a few more moments, my friend," Ken-Goh advised him.
Doggie squinted into the lights, finding himself in a tiny medical office, surrounded by Mischa, a fretting nurse with the round planet-and-green-fire patch of the IPF on her blouse, and Ken-Goh, out of his personalized white uniform and looking rather like an off-duty wrestler in blue turtleneck and canvas jeans. "Don't worry, I'm not gonna ask you where I am. How's my face look?"
"Much better than it deserves to," growled Ken-Goh. "By all rights, that security guard should have shot you to death for your uncooperation."
"Thanks for the sympathy." Moondoggie tried again to sit, this time finding more success, at the cost of a headache. "He was being a jerk."
"Oh, nurse," asked Mischa brightly, "would you be good enough to see if you have any Dexinol III in your medical stores?"
She shook her head doubtfully. "That's a pretty exotic drug, Doctor... Are you sure?"
"Yes, please. Don't worry -- Professor Borodin and I can look after Mr. Emerson."
"Well, all right, then."
When she was gone, Mischa frowned as deeply as Ken-Goh. "Just what did you think you were doing, picking a fight with an IPF security guard? Didn't you hear Holland's instructions to say on the ship until we were within the Tresor complex?"
"I hear everything Holland says, all the time. The guard was a jerk, trying to push me around."
Ken-Goh, leaned closer, a dark wall of reined power. "He was within his rights to do so. I have viewed the recordings from his personal communicator, and you went out of your way to antagonize him."
Doggie only shrugged. "He was paranoid."
"He should be! Are you unaware that this facility is under constant surveillance by the Federation? This was once their most important advanced research institution, and they would love nothing better than to infiltrate it and have it back once again. The few towns in this area are known haunts of Federation agents, who have tried to subvert it many times and will certainly try again. You stupidly desert the ship, try to stroll into Hangar Five out of nowhere, provoke an IPF guard, and now you have the nerve to consider yourself ill-used? If I did not know you so well, I'd suspect you to have been drinking! What in the world possessed you?"
"I dunno." Moondoggie shrugged and studied the linoleum of the floor with great intensity. "Did you tell Holland?"
"Not yet," said Mischa. "This is the first lapse you've ever made, so if you give us your word not to repeat it, there's no reason to bother him with it."
He sighed with elaborate patience. "Okay. I promise I won't do it again. How's my head doing?"
Mischa picked up a clipboard and marked off several notations. For the first time, it occurred to Doggie that she no longer wore her glasses. "Extremely well. You had a badly fractured cheekbone and a hairline skull fracture when the guard brought you in, but both are nearly healed now." She focused her dark eyes upon him with great intensity. "We kept you asleep under anesthetic for nearly three hours. It's obviously the effects of the Coralian infection; such rapid regeneration would be impossible otherwise. It's fortunate I was still in the area, to take your case myself and keep the Tresor medics from finding out."
Sliding from the table to the floor, Moondoggie swayed for a moment before satisfying himself that he could stand and walk normally. "I'm sorry I put you two to so much trouble. I didn't mean to. Can I go back to the Moonlight now?"
Ken-Goh shook his head, still watching him with a doubtful eye. "Only for a short time. The repairs and restocking of the ship will make sleeping impossible, so we have all been given temporary rooms in the 7B wing of the hangar. Would you like me to escort you there?"
"No, huh-uh. I'll find it. Thanks again, you guys."
He walked out of the infirmary toward the main hangar, trying not to let the pain of his pounding head show as the hammering and buzzing of the maintenance crews filled the vast building with their harsh racket. But with each step, he could feel the the eyes of Mischa and Ken-Goh on his back, concerned, wondering. And the worst part was, he had no clear idea what he would tell them even if they asked.
Eureka and Renton gripped hands, ready to run back up the tunnel, lightless or not. But a dense cloud of green vapor took shape before them, filling the passage. At its center, two shapes, vaguely humanoid in form, coalesced, wavering like slow flames. Rivers of liquid lightning trickled down the taller one, pulsing against the darkness as it spoke again.
"The river flows swiftest near its source," it intoned. "Memory is the most deceptive suitor of all. None but the innocent can truly recognize corruption. Old friendships...old friendships..." Its somber recitation trailed off into ragged laughter, punctuated by a bright cascade of distinctly feminine giggling.
Renton's face took on a distinctly skeptical aspect in the weird green light. "I've heard that voice before," he said, stepping forward. "Norbu! Is that you?"
In a quick burst of trapar-light, the ghostly specters condensed into two very solid and apparently quite material figures, one of a wryly smiling shaven-headed lad with a lotus tattoo in the center of his forehead, the other a girl a few years younger, sporting dark blue hair and a seemingly endless supply of smiles. "Sakuya!" cried Eureka happily, running forward to embrace her.
"Norbu?" repeated Renton, no longer quite certain. The Norbu he knew had been a tall, ironic holy man at least in his mid-sixties.
"Of course! A lot has changed since you and Eureka went off into the Great Wall, don't you think?" He whirled around like a dancer, showing off his youthful self from all angles as the lighting fixtures simultaneously bloomed to full brilliance.
Renton accepted it all; many stranger things had passed before his eyes since leaving Bellforest the day Eureka came crashing into his life. He studied Sakuya closely, never having seen her in her true form. So this is the one who came before Eureka. I always thought they'd look the same, but she's completely different. A little shorter, kind of bubbly, very cute and happy. What're those stripes on her cheeks? And why do the Coralians always want blue hair? I like her. But Eureka's at least a hundred times prettier. "I don't get it, Norbu. Not that I'm not glad to see you or anything, but what's going on? What was all that stuff with the lights?"
"Oh, just my way of making an impression." He took Renton by the shoulders and leaned closer. "I was a holy man for forty years, and one thing I learned was that making the message easy to remember is better than chanting ten thousand mantras. My disciples all agreed, but then, the best ones could never stand sitting through my sermons. But never mind -- we were sent to give you a message, and time's short. Listen closely, both of you."
Eureka and Sakuya broke off their happy chattering with obvious reluctance. "Then it really was you who appeared to us that night," said Eureka.
Sakuya shook her head, sending her waves of sapphire hair to dancing. "Not really. It was the Coralian Mind trying to get in touch with you. Through the Eye of Thought, you see." She touched the green jewel on her forehead, identical to the one on Norbu's as well as Eureka and Rentons'. "But they couldn't get through very well. You two aren't developed enough for direct communication yet. But they know this cave is very important in your past, so they tried to draw you here where we could cross over into the third dimension and talk to you. Isn't that great?"
"The trapar density's very high in here," Norbu continued. "It makes the crossing from the tenth dimension a lot easier. Still, we can't stay too long."
"What is all this 'tenth dimension' and 'eighth dimension' stuff?" asked Renton. "I never did understand it."
Norbu shrugged with a carefree smile. "Neither do I. It's just a way I had of teaching my followers about higher realities. Sounds impressive, though, doesn't it? But we can go into that some other time. Right now, we've got to pass on the message we were given. The Coralian knows you two are going to have problems distributing their gift to humanity."
"The regeneration and youthfulness, you mean," said Eureka.
"It's more complicated that that, but leave it for now. You two have been chosen as vectors for the Coralian Prime Radiant. No, don't interrupt -- it doesn't matter if you understand it or not. What matters is that neither of you want to be the only ones distributing the Coralian gift."
"We certainly don't."
"Right. You need to seek out Viyuuden." He flipped his topknot, which had begun drooping forward over his left eye, back with a toss of his head. "This thing is a real nuisance, but I keep it because Sakuya thinks it's cute." She laughed her brilliant little giggle and put an affectionate hand to his shoulder.
Renton waited for more. When none came, he asked, "What's viyuuden?"
"Not a 'what;' Viyuuden is a 'who.' My chief disciple among the Vodarek. He understood my message as well as anyone, and the Coralians say he can help you with your problem."
"'Coralians' or 'Coralian?' Is the Coral one big group mind, or a lot of separate people?"
Norbu laughed. "Yes. And that's the only spiritual lesson you'll get today. What you most need to remember is to find Viyuuden."
"Where do we find him?" demanded Eureka, growing exasperated.
"How should I know? I've been away from this dimension for more than a year. Last I knew, he was preaching in Thuu Bak. Holland knows where to find it. And when you ask him, tell him and Yuki congratulations on the baby."
Renton fumed at Norbu's casual obscurity. "Is this the best the Coralians can do to help us?"
"It's a mark of your importance that they've gone this far." Sakuya told him. "They have a great deal of trouble communicating directly with humans, you know. That's why Eureka and I were created. It's why they sent Norbu and I to talk with you. I love your wings, by the way, Eureka." She looked down at her right hand, now beginning to show signs of wavering translucency. "Uh-oh, the ray between the worlds is weakening. We have to get back. I'm so glad everything worked out for you two. We'll see you again when it's possible."
"Hey, wait a minute!" called Renton, reaching out for them. His hand passed directly through Norbu's now-hazy shoulder.
"Sorry, it's the best we can do. Remember...look for Viyuuden." Fading, Norbu composed himself for whatever rigors the return to the tenth dimension might involve, then brightened and waved his arms, calling out in a faint voice, "I almost forgot -- there's one other thing!"
"What is it?" cried Eureka, running nearer to hear his dwindling voice.
"There's a Federation patrol waiting outside the cave entrance to ambush you. Good luck, and we'll see you again..." he trailed off into silence, and they both vanished altogether, leaving the banks of light tubes to dim back into power-saving mode once more.
Yuki watched contentedly as her baby slept in the makeshift cradle that Woz had fashioned for him from a halved synthetic fuel drum. The two sparse temporary rooms allotted her and Holland by the Tresor group would never be considered luxurious, of course, even by the minimal standards of their quarters back on the Moonlight. But simply being on the ground and having a window looking out on something besides the clouds and the passing world ten kilometers below brought a pleasant sense of stability and peace, however illusory.
A soft tapping sounded from her door. Carefully, so as not to wake the baby, Yuki rose from the bedroom and passed into the makeshift living room to answer.
"Hi, Yuki," said Gidget. "Have you got a minute?"
Raising a finger to her lips, Yuki smiled, nodded, pointed significantly toward the bedroom and beckoned her in. "Hi," she said in a muted voice. "Come on in, won't you? Sit down." She saw at once that Gidget had been crying within the past several hours, but said nothing.
"Thanks. Ooh, this one is nice. Two rooms and a window! And these chairs even have some padding." She dropped herself into the nearest one, upholstered in somewhat tattered pink foam whose irregular markings suggested it had recently seen duty in a machine shop.
"Not much, but at least the beds're okay. If you're here to see Holland, he's out with Axel, overseeing the refitting of our LFOs." Yuki sat across from her, crossing her legs and managing to look casually glamorous in her shorts and athletic shirt, a bedroom slipper dangling insouciantly from one toe.
"No, it was you I wanted to talk to. I wanted... I guess I kind of need advice."
Yuki allowed herself a veiled smile. "I never would've guessed. So c'mon then and spill your guts before you smear any more eyeliner."
"Oh, God! Does it show that badly?" She fumbled through her pockets for a little folding makeup kit, dabbing at her eyes and cheeks with tiny, fluffy brushes as she spoke. "I might as well be honest, I want some tips on...on, well, how to fascinate men."
"I wouldn't have thought you'd be having any problems in that area. Were you thinking of 'men' in general, or maybe one specific man?"
Beneath the makeup, Gidget blushed. "I guess I'd rather not say just now. But look, men always fall on their faces whenever you're around -- how do you do it? What's the trick?"
"Trick?" she laughed. "I've never used any 'tricks.' As long as you've got the basic stuff -- and you do -- just load up on self-confidence and dress nicely, that's all." She gestured airily back toward the bedroom. "I haven't had much chance for being a fashion plate since the baby, but maybe now it's time to do a little strutting again, what with the dance tonight and all."
"Dance?" Gidget blinked, sending a tiny cloud of eyeliner billowing out onto one cheek. "What're you talking about?"
"You haven't heard yet? The Tresor group's been pretty well cut off from the outside world since the Coralian Epiphany, so they've been holding monthly dances to break the monotony. Either we just got lucky or they're throwing this one in our honor, because there's one tonight in Hangar Five. Sounds to me like a golden opportunity to impress your...mystery man."
"Oh... No, I didn't know that. Dress nicely? I guess I've been wearing pretty much the same outfit for months. I must be starting to look like I'm part of the ship by now. Okay, I'll put on my flashiest outfit! Yeah, that'll open his eyes for sure!"
Renton clenched both fists and looked up into the black ceiling. "Norbu! A lot of help he is! They lure us into a cave, then run out on us when we're in trouble!"
"Wait," said Eureka, taking his hand and leading him back up the tunnel. "This may be another of his jokes. Let's go back to the door as quietly as we can and see."
To that, he could find no objection and he let her lead him on toward the entrance, stepping carefully on the loose gravel of the floor. As they approached the bend around which the entrance lay, they moved slowly and deliberately, keeping close to the walls. A bright glow of sunlight told them that the door gaped open, though whether they had left it ajar themselves, neither could remember.
Then from outside they heard the distinct clicking of metal on metal, followed by commands being issued in harsh, low voices. Renton thought to hear the words "when they come out," but knew that even if his ears only translated his own fear, there could now be little doubt that Norbu had spoken no less than the truth.
Eureka leaned very near. "It must be a scout patrol," she whispered, her breath warm against his cheek. "There will be six troops, transported by an APC-43 assault team carrier. It must have landed while we were deep in the cave."
Nodding, Renton swabbed a dribble of sweat from his forehead. The air seemed to be growing close and smothering about them. What to do now? Their personal communicators would not penetrate the rock and heavy concrete. Might there be another way out, deeper into the caverns? Possibly. But even more likely, they would become hopelessly lost. "How long before they come in?" he asked her.
"I don't know. There's no standard protocol for action against two unarmed targets trapped in a cave. If they were an SOF numbered squad, they'd wait till it seemed likely that we weren't coming out any time soon, then charge in and secure the objective with maximum prejudice."
Renton took it for granted that "maximum prejudice" was Federation military talk for "murder," but in their case, he knew well that a far worse fate would be reserved for them if they allowed themselves to fall into Federation hands. The thought of Eureka being contaminated by the touch of these beasts revolted him, and he put one arm protectively about her waist, surprised to find her gown damp with sweat; Eureka hardly ever perspired. She must be really afraid, he decided, lost in admiration of her courage in not letting her fear overcome her.
Something brushed his cheek with the faintest of moth-wings. "What was that?" he breathed.
"A bit of wind, I think. Coming from down in the cave, not from the door."
"There can't be any wind from down there, it's just holes in the ground. The only... Eureka, stop making your wings glow! They'll see it!"
"What?" A faint rim of twinkling green danced along their furled edges, like static electricity. "I'm not. I'm not doing it. There's something... That's why it seems so warm in here! Renton, can't you sense it? The trapar flow?"
An elusive sensation somewhere within told him she was right. Trapar! An immense concentration of it, bubbling up from the depths of the mountain, more dense than anything he'd sensed in the atmosphere while reffing. His own arms took on the prickly green glow as the cave's atmosphere became charged with transparence light particles. In spite of the danger, he stared at his illuminated hand in wonder. But why? Some aftereffect of the materialization of Norbu and Sakuya? Or of --
"Eureka!" he whispered frantically. "You said there was a huge geyser of trapar from this cave once, remember?"
"When I was... Oh, I see what you mean! Then Norbu and Sakuya and the Coralians haven't deserted us at all! Listen to me: when I tell you to, you must run out the door as quickly as possible and grab your ref board."
"What? But Eureka, they'll..." The jewel on her face glimmered in the dimness, flashing her thought from her mind to his. "Oh, I get it. Okay, I can do that, I'm sure." As long as the board's still there, that is. The electric sensation on his skin jumped sharply, and something like wind -- but not wind -- rose in the cave, weighing in on them, as though they were suddenly under many meters of water. From outside, the voices of the Federation patrol took on an agitated edge.
"Press yourself close to the wall, Renton," she whispered, "as tightly as you can. And run for your board the instant I tell you."
"But you --"
"I'll be right behind you. Don't worry about me -- I'll be fine, I promise."
He only nodded doubtfully, listening to the growing racket outside as the Federation patrol became aware that something unusual was going on. Might they decide that he and Eureka were somehow responsible, and make a sudden charge into the cave? Renton squeezed his eyes; he had never felt trapar this dense before, fogging his mind, making him dull and confused. And it only worsened as the flow from deep in the tunnel network accelerated. The corridor lights flickered and ominous creakings issued from the concrete bulkhead, like the midnight groans of a glacier. Someone reached in from outside and slammed the steel door shut. Renton's head throbbed with the unseen pressure. "Eureka, this is --"
"Just wait a little while longer. The Coralians are with us, I know it. And you must remember to run for your ref board as soon as I tell you." She swayed, held tight to his hand, and pressed back against the rough stone of the cave wall.
The ringing in his ears overwhelmed him, now. Renton felt as though someone were sitting on his head, crushing him, paralyzing him. Droplets of sweat fell from his face, each one of them a liquid star of bright green. The concrete bulkhead crackled, small chunks, now larger ones, dropping from its surface to the ground, striking greenish sparks as lines of sunlight appeared around the bulging door. The tormented steel squealed...
With a tremendous blast of unleashed pressure, the door and heavy cast bulkhead, reinforcing rods and all, blew outward, opening a dazzling flood of sunlight into the cave. A huge, tumbling chunk of concrete instantly swept away three of the Federation troops outside while the others staggered backward in the trapar gale, firing randomly in all directions.
At the wordless command from Eureka's mind, Renton launched himself outward, trapar roaring around him, leaping over jagged cement and twisted steel rods, dodging a confused and panicked soldier who grabbed for him and missed, toward the road where his ref board lay thankfully undisturbed.
Dust rose in a stinging cloud on all sides; a sizzle of rapid bullets hissed by over his head as he swept up the board, throwing it into the hurricane of trapar and leaping on as Eureka streaked past above, burning the sky with outstretched wings of green flame.
With the trapar geyser accelerating him, he rocketed into the brilliant afternoon, faster than he had ever reffed before, half-blinded by the wind that battered his face, flattened his hair behind him. Upward, faster and higher he rose, following Eureka's wake of beauty into the sun. He dared a single glance behind, seeing the fountain of brilliant trapar rushing from the cave far below, rising hundreds of meters into the clear air, a parting wave from the unseen Coralian Mind. "Yesssssss!" cried Renton in sheer exhilaration, spiraling around Eureka's contrail, crouching low on the ref board to grin at her as the two of them rode their joy together, skating on the wind all the way back to Tresor.
"A Federation patrol flying beneath the radar in the canyons," mused Morita, clenching his hands tightly together and staring down at his cluttered desktop. "It's an unpleasant surprise. And much worse that they should be so bold as to try to capture our friends, here --" he gestured toward Eureka and Renton, seated before the desk "-- under our very noses."
Dr. Egan, standing at the broad window of Morita's office, took a more stringent view. "It should not have surprised any of us, after the events at Bellforest two days past. We are all of us very much in the Federation's thoughts at this moment. They are aware that their quarry was aboard the Moonlight at that time, and surely they had no difficulty tracking it here to Tresor. We have been shockingly careless. Eureka and Renton, the Federation is now certain that you are here. I pray that you will refrain from reffing above the canyons again."
"We will," promised Eureka. Thrilling as the geyser-accelerated flight had been, she had no desire to throw away her life or Renton's.
"It's more than just a question of not skylarking over the canyons," Morita insisted. "This raises some grave security questions within Tresor itself. How did the Federation even discover that these two were out reffing in the first place? That patrol did not show up on their very doorstep merely by coincidence. I intend to take this up with our Chief of Security immediately."
"Agreed," said Holland, slouched in one of the sparse metal chairs that Morita kept in his office for staff meetings. "Not to change the subject, but the long-range question for Gekkostate now is what to do about Norbu's message. I know where to find Thuu Bak all right, but Viyuuden is just a name to me."
"Seven Squad bombed out Thuu Bak pretty thoroughly," Renton reminded him.
"Yeah." Holland looked back closely, making Renton wonder at once if he had done the right thing in revealing another bit of information that should only have been in Eureka's memory. "We never caught up to Viyuuden, though. I'll have to contact IPF Intelligence to see if we have anything recent on him. Was that all that you two saw and heard in the cave?"
"Yes," said Eureka. "They said they'd see us again 'when it's possible,' though they didn't say when that would be." She brushed a spot of dust from her tan gown.
"A function solely of trapar density, perhaps?" Egan speculated. "Or of other factors we cannot know? I would greatly value another conversation with Mr. Norbu myself." Brightening, he clapped his hands together, his wide face creasing into a cherubic smile. "Very well, then. We have had a very close call this afternoon -- all of us -- and we must all be more vigilant from now on. Oh, and has anyone seen...Mischa?"
His elaborate casualness fooled no one, but they all maintained innocently blank faces. "I heard she was down in your infirmary an hour or two ago," said Holland, rising to leave. "Looking after someone's injuries, I think. Maybe she's still there. Maybe you'll...see her at the dance tonight."
"Dance?" asked Renton, taking Eureka's hand as they followed Holland out.
"Our little monthly get-together," Morita said. "Instituted by the staff, you see. Perhaps you and your wife would care to attend."
Holland laughed. "Wait'll Stoner finds out. He's going to insist they attend."
For several unhurried minutes, Eureka and Renton walked hand in hand through the corridors of the Tresor administrative wing, smiling politely at the astonished stares of recognition from the staff they met in the corridors.
"What was it you weren't telling them?" whispered Eureka when they were finally far enough from any overhearing ears. "I could feel you holding something back."
"I know you could. D'you remember what Norbu said to us, right after he told us to look for Viyuuden? He said to tell Holland and Yuki congratulations on the baby. Eureka, how did he know? He didn't even know Yuki was gonna have a baby when he left for the tenth dimension with Sakuya. I've been thinking about it ever since we got back here from the cave."
"I see." They walked on in silence for a while, passing a glassed-in office where several people nudged each other and pointed their way, whispering excitedly to each other. "I understand what you mean. You think the Coral is watching us somehow."
"Yeah, that's it. They sent you into the world so you could collect experiences and feelings, so you could report back to them and they'd understand humanity better. Well, for a long time now, I've had this feeling that they're doing the same thing again, with both of us this time, only in some new way -- some way that goes on all the time. They know about us, and about what's going on with the people around us."
She turned her lavender eyes upon him. "Is that really such a bad thing?"
"I don't know. It's just that...everybody seems to think we're the most important things in the world right now. The Federation wants us dead; the IPF thinks we're the greatest weapon they've ever had against the Federation; the Tresor people just can't wait to do more tests --" he screwed up his face in distaste "-- on us; Stoner wants to build a whole new RayOut campaign around us...and now even the Coralians are keeping a special eye on us. It just makes me nervous, that's all. We're too important to too many people. I feel like we're living in a fishbowl."
Eureka kissed him, holding him to herself alone, uncaring of who might be watching. "I've been living in a fishbowl all my life. You're what makes it bearable."
"Hey! Hey, you there! Yeah, you, the blonde guy!"
Moondoggie looked around him, seeing nothing but the engineering crews hovering about the disassembled right leg armor of the Moonlight's 909 LFO, now beginning to pack up their esoteric testing equipment as their shift drew to its end.
None of them showed any sign of having called him, so he turned to keep walking, certain that the voice had been aimed at someone else.
"Hey, wait a minute! Don't go away -- I'm coming down!"
He watched, surprised and curious, as a slight figure in stained white coveralls rappelled down from the 909's torso on a thin synthetic line, dropping at last to the floor at his side. "Hi," she told him, shaking out her short brownish hair and favoring him with a shiny smile. "I'm Jaya. You're one of the guys from the Moonlight, aren't you?"
"Uh...yeah." Moondoggie considered her as closely as a once-over glance would permit. Rather pretty, in a perky sort of way. "My name's James...but everybody calls me, uh, Moondoggie." Behind her, the male crewmembers nudged each other significantly.
Jaya's hazel eyes went round with admiration. "I knew it! I read all about you in RayOut! If you...don't mind me saying so, you never get near enough coverage. It's always Holland this, Holland that -- and the Coralian girl, of course. You're the pilot, aren't you?"
"Yeah, that's right. For almost a year. I..."
She leaned closer, her face only centimeters from his own. Jaya smelled of cloves and cinnamon, heady and sweet. "Then why don't you ever get any cover stories? Something's wrong, if you ask me."
"Uhhh..." said Moondoggie.
"Hey, listen -- I'm sure you've already got a date, so I'll try not to be too disappointed when you turn me down, but...would you like to come to the dance with me? I mean, you and me? Together?"
Severely distracted by how very well her coveralls seemed to fit, Doggie found himself at a loss for coherent words. "There's a dance?"
"Oh, yeah!' She slapped him playfully on one arm, just hard enough to leave a warm spot. "Over in the other hangar; We have one every month around here. Didn't you know? I mean, don't they tell you anything aboard that ship?"
"Well...sometimes. But...how come a girl like you doesn't already have a date?"
Jaya rolled her eyes and jerked one thumb over her shoulder, where the rest of the crew was packing up their instruments. "Them? They're...just guys. Anyway, they're losers; they just take a shuttle over to Piriri on dance nights, to hang out at Kobo's Place." Her intonation left little doubt about her opinion of Kobo's status. "Look, my shift's over and the dance starts in half an hour. What d'you say? I know it's kinda short notice, but I can be ready in fifteen minutes."
Doggie smiled, almost against his will. "Yeah. Yeah, I'd like that. Okay, Jaya. Um, should I pick you up...? I mean, where do you stay?"
"Thank you!" She flung her arms about him in a quick but fervent embrace, bouncing on the tips of her feet. "I'll meet you by the welding generator, okay? Hangar Five, in twenty minutes! You won't...disappoint me, will you, Moondoggie?"
"No. No! By the generator, you said? Sure, you can count on me."
Jaya planted a quick kiss on his cheek. "You don't know how important this is to me. I'll see you soon!" And she scampered away, her quick mincing steps bizarrely at odds with her Tresor coveralls.
You don't know how important this is to me. Moondoggie smiled to himself, oblivious to the smiles of the departing LFO engineering crew. Important. He savored the word. Important.
He ran at full speed back to the Moonlight, to find his best dancing outfit.
"Renton? Tell me how this makeup looks."
Seated on the double cot in their austere Tresor quarters, Renton prepared himself for anything. The last time Eureka essayed an attempt at makeup, the result had been...interesting -- though far different from what she had intended. Wearing his most tactful smile, he looked toward the bathroom door, where she stood in a thin robe, awaiting his verdict.
"Well? You needn't be afraid to tell me if looks awful."
"'Awful?' Eureka, it looks great. What'd you do?" He came to stand before her, staring with admiration.
"Not very much. I went to see Yuki this afternoon, and she told me that makeup was right for formal occasions. She told me not to use eyeliner or lipstick, though. She said she didn't know of any shades that would go with blue-green hair or eyebrows, so it's just a bit of mascara. Do you like it?"
Before her smile, Renton nearly melted at her feet. "Yeah, a lot. It really brings out your Coralian eyes. Yuki showed you how, you say?"
"Oh yes. She was very helpful when Stoner told her we were going to the dance. She even helped me fix up my black gown so it'd look nicer. Stoner got some things to help out, too. I wanted to surprise you with it; I'll put it on now. Just wait a minute." She closed the door behind her, leaving Renton simmering with anticipation. All her gowns were essentially the same: short, very low-cut in back below her wings, then rising high over the bosom to tie around her neck. It seemed to him a difficult design upon which to work any improvement.
"I wish I had something more formal than this black turtleneck and black slacks to wear," he lamented, already self-conscious about the poor showing he must inevitably make in her dazzling company. "But it's not as if there were ever any fancy dress clothes aboard the Moonlight."
"You needn't worry over it," she reassured him from behind the thin metal door. "I like the way you look in that clothing. Are the children all dressed?"
Renton laughed. "Yeah, but it was a struggle to get Linck into clean clothes and a good shirt. I had to promise him there'd be food at the dance before he'd settle down. Maurice and Maeter were better, though. I think they were even practicing trying to dance."
"How does one dance, Renton? No one ever taught me in the military." From inside, he could hear the soft rustlings of cloth slithering over skin.
"Um, no, I guess not. But the thing is...nobody ever taught me, either. See, Eureka...before I met you, it's not like I ever went to many dances. Or even knew many girls, in fact. I was...well, when I look back, I can't believe how shy I was. Even, for a long time, around you." He wished, not for the first time, that he blushed less readily.
"Were you? Well, I must say, you got over it very nicely."
"Thanks. So anyway, I guess we'll just have to hold onto each other on the dance floor, and move around together. That way we'll..."
The bathroom door opened, and Renton stood, thunderstruck.
"What's the matter with it? Don't you like it? I can put on one of the others if it's..."
"It's...you look wonderful, Eureka!" In the rising bosom of the black gown, Yuki had cut a large diamond-shaped opening, edged with delicate silver embroidery. At her waist, a black sash bearing a silver ball on each end gathered the loose fabric of the gown, and the hem itself sparkled with the same silver tracery as the new neckline. "Fabulous! Gorgeous! Beautiful! Just..." Frustrated by his lack of sufficient superlatives, Renton threw his arms about her and held her tightly, the crystal in his forehead flickering wildly as he opened his surging affections directly to her mind.
"Well," she sniffled when they separated, her pale cheeks reddening, "you certainly d-do like it, don't you? You're so sweet. Now if only I can get used to these peculiar shoes that Stoner found for me..."
Renton examined the pair of shiny black open-toed evening sandals with their mildly raised heels. "They won't be so bad. You've worn heels before, and really fancy shoes for women are usually lots higher than this. Stoner, was it? Yeah, no wonder he was such a help -- he's looking for another RayOut photo spread, I'll bet."
"Then we must let him. This is the fishbowl, after all, and it's our duty to swim. Let's get the children and go to Hangar Five."
Renton stared around him as they entered the immense hangar. All the overhead diffused-cesium laser illuminators had been extinguished for the occasion, leaving only the central floor lit by banks of softly-glowing luminescence panels on their wheeled trolleys. Over the usual workaday scents of grease, plastic, welding fumes and reactor outgassings wafted the pleasanter odors of simmering hot food and an occasional hint of exotic perfume. Laughter and glassware tinkled happily and orchestral dance music played through the hangar's speaker system, echoing through the darkness like a dream of romance.
Eureka stared, wide-eyed. "Oh, isn't it beautiful? It's like being in a little island of light and music, floating in space, isn't it? This must be what magic is like. I've never seen anything so wonderful." Furled along her back, her wings quivered with excitement.
"Yeah, it's really nice," agreed Renton, aching with the knowledge that her life so far had been mainly one of battles, sparse military quarters and scrapes with near-death, punctuated by not nearly enough moments of pleasant enchantment like this one. "I wonder who hung all the ribbons and lanterns and stuff. Oops -- there goes Linck, right to the food table. I hope they have plenty of rice candy and sesame crackers."
As they walked forward together toward the crowd, both of them grew conscious of conversations dwindling to silence, of fascinated eyes turning in their direction. Renton cringed inside, but maintained a face of cool indifference. "They're staring at you already," he murmured through clenched teeth.
"They're staring at us. Don't forget, you're part Coralian yourself, now."
"Yeah," he conceded, "but you're the beautiful one with the wings."
Eureka only smiled in appreciation, tightened her hand in his, and kept walking. A flare of white light left its afterimages on their retinas, and they found a smiling Stoner crouching before them, his ever-present camera catching the grand entrance for the eager underground readers of RayOut. Renton achieved a dutifully delighted grin.
"Welcome to the grand ballroom," laughed someone tall and nearby.
Renton blinked irritably, trying to flush away the throbbing spots left by Stoner's flash. "Holland?" He blinked again, his smile softening into sincerity. "Yuki? Is that really you two?"
"The very same." Holland bowed with an elegant flourish and Renton and Eureka saw that he wore the formal dress uniform of a Federation officer, complete with gold braids around the right shoulder. "Don't worry," he assured them, "I ripped off all the Federation insignia long ago. Yuki replaced them with IPF patches, so I can wear this thing without feeling ashamed of myself."
Renton stared, only now fully realizing that the captivating woman in the swoopingly low-cut evening gown at Holland's side had to be Yuki herself. "You've got nothing to be ashamed of any more," she assured her husband, taking his arm and pressing her cheek to his shoulder. "Eureka, you look wonderful! I knew that gown would be perfect for you. There's nothing like a plunging neckline, I always say."
"Renton certainly appreciates it," she said in her disarmingly deadpan way. "Oh, the music is getting louder. Does that mean we should be dancing?"
With a laugh that Renton found nothing short of astonishing, Holland swept Yuki into his arms and whirled her toward the center of the floor. "It sure does. We've all missed out on so much for so damn long! Go on, you two -- have some fun for a change!"
"Unbelievable," breathed Renton as he held Eureka close and lifted her left arm the way the other couples seemed to be doing. "They look like a king and queen from some old story. Is that really the same Holland who's always so gloomy and serious aboard the Moonlight?"
"We've all been gloomy and serious; it's a serious mission we're on, after all. But he's right -- it is nice to have fun, isn't it? And Yuki looks so wonderful! Renton...do you think she's pretty?"
Struggling to match the confident foot movements of the other dancers while Stoner doggedly followed them about the floor snapping pictures, he nearly missed the question. "Huh? Oh, sure she is. Too bad she keeps on wearing that uniform of hers on the ship, even now that she's had the baby. She really oughta go back to being sexy again, at least once in a while, don't you think so?"
"Perhaps. I wonder what all of us would be like if we could have normal lives, like other people."
Renton let the question pass, concentrating instead on the warmth of her bare back where his hand nestled between her wings. Just having her here, dancing with her -- however badly -- was far, far too wonderful for any regrets, at least for tonight. "We're not normal people, though, you and me. I guess none of the others are, either, in their own ways. Hey, look over there -- isn't that Matthieu and Hilda?"
"Oh, yes! Matthieu's in his old uniform, too, like Holland. And he's stripped off the Federation patches, too, just like Holland. And the medals."
Catching glimpses of the two through the press of the whirling couples around them, Renton began to wonder if Eureka had been more right than she knew when she described the dance as magical. For it seemed almost as if all of the people he had come to think of as a sort of second family were transformed around them tonight, into exotic, larger-than-life versions of their true selves. Or could these be their true selves, hidden by the grim routine of life aboard a military airship? For the first time Renton appreciated something of the questions that Norbu, in his long career as a holy man, must have pondered. "Wow, Hilda looks great in that blue gown. Matthieu had medals? I didn't know that."
"Oh, yes. He was decorated many times by the Federation, before he joined Gekkostate. He threw them away, though. He said he was ashamed of them. Oh, it's Sonia and Dr. Morita! How nice they look!"
"Wow, yeah! Eureka, do you think those two have a thing going?"
She frowned slightly, stumbling over her heels and stepping on his foot in the process. "Oh, I'm sorry. What's a 'thing?'"
"Well...lovers, I mean. Something like you and me."
The music spun through several iterations of a waltz theme while Eureka processed this new concept. "I really don't know. When I was here at Tresor, I didn't understand such feelings well enough to wonder about them. Is that...Moondoggie over there?"
"I think so, yeah." Renton strained to look across the floor without losing his footing, with little success. "But who's that he's with? It sure isn't Gidget."
"Why...it isn't, is it? I wonder who she can be? And where's Gidget?"
With little nervous touches here and there, Gidget looked herself over in the long mirror screwed to the wall of her quarters. The little blue satin dress with its sequined bangles had languished in her closet for far too long; time to go on the offensive. She spun around, watching it flare outward in a whirl of blue sparkles. Yeah! It fits in all the right places, for sure. Is it short enough? Well, it's almost as short as Eureka's, so it ought to burn Jimmy's eyes out when he sees it. Annette, you have been far too easy on this boy.
One final glance to the mirror confirmed every stroke and dab of her makeup before she wriggled her feet into the pair of spike-heeled shoes she'd been saving for a special occasion. And this is special enough, I guess. Throwing back her shoulders and holding her head high, Gidget marched out into the hallway toward the corridor leading to Hangar Five, oblivious to the jaw-dropping male stares she collected along the way.
"Everybody keeps watching us, Moondoggie," sighed Jaya with a dreamy smile, nestling her head in the angle of his neck as they held each other and swayed to the lush music.
"They do?" His attention rested on the fabric of her brief yellow dress beneath his hands, slippery, warm and hardly thicker than gossamer parasail material. Her chest pressed into his with an insistent intimacy that crowded lesser considerations from his mind.
"Uh-huh. It's nice to be the center of attention, you know. And it's all because I'm with you. I've never danced with a...celebrity before." Jaya achieved the near-impossible by squeezing herself even closer to him.
Moondoggie couldn't quite decide if he liked her explanation or not; something about being desired solely as a "celebrity" prickled uncomfortably at the back of his mind. But the scent of her perfume and the music and the way she wriggled contentedly in his arms drove it all away in a warm gust of intoxication, and he could no longer remember what it was he wanted to say. "Great. That's really great, Jaya. Um, what is it you do here at Tresor, anyhow?"
"Control systems technician. But who cares about that? I want to know about you. Was it really you flying the Moonlight at Bellforest a couple of days ago?"
"Uh, yeah. But how'd you know about...?"
"Are you kidding? Just everybody was talking about it. Only the greatest piece of flying anybody in the IPF'd ever seen, that's all! Don't be so modest, Moondoggie."
He smiled in spite of himself. "Glad you think so. But I've been flying for a long time, after all. I was the youngest licensed pilot in twenty-seven years. I was only thirteen when I got my learner's certificate."
"Wow!" As the music spiraled into a crescendo of strings, she pirouetted away, holding tightly to his hand, then reeled herself back in, impacting herself solidly with his body and holding him in the grip of both arms. "You decided you wanted to be a pilot at that age?"
"I never decided anything. For myself, anyway. My father decided I was going to be a pilot, like he was." Even Jaya's steamy nearness failed to penetrate the old lingering resentment.
"I didn't --"
"That's all I ever got, from the time I was old enough to talk, was flying, flying, flying! Lieutenant-Major Garvin Emerson's kid was going to be a Federation flier, just like his old man! He started me taking lessons when I was eleven."
"Jeez, you're really sore about it, aren't you? What'd your mother have to say about all this?"
"How the hell should I know? She never talked to me. She only talked to Father, and the two of them didn't do a thing except argue. When he was home, that is. The rest --"
"Moondoggie, you're hurting my hand!"
"-- the rest of the time, when he was away on duty, there were all of Mother's 'friends,' trooping in and out of the house when they thought I was asleep."
For the first time, Jaya drew back. "Wow, that's --"
"So when Father decided I was going off to Flight Prep Academy, I skipped town. Came right here, to Tresor. Got a job with Maintenance; they were building the Moonlight here. I never knew if Father or Mother ever even tried to find me. Never even knew if they thought I was important enough to --"
Moondoggie spun around, tensed, arms spread as though for combat. "Gidget? What d'you want?" A space opened up around the three of them as other dancers sensed the jagged aura of dissonance.
"To dance, of course." She spread her feet wide, jamming both hands onto her hips and pinning him with her eyes. "What else would I be doing out here dressed like this?" Gidget raked Jaya with an arctic glare. "Mind if I cut in, Miss?"
"Hey, wait a minute, you! This guy's mine, I saw him first!"
"Look, doesn't anybody think I'm important enough to ask me what I wanna do?" objected Moondoggie, cringing as he looked around him at the annoyed stares of the surrounding partygoers.
"I've been asking long enough. You're dancing with me tonight, Jimmy Emerson!" She pulled his right arm away and planted it firmly upon her thinly-clad waist.
"Hey, wait a minute...Gidget, don't...this's embarrassing!"
"So's chasing around after you for three years. I'm not taking any more excuses; let's dance. I'm making the decisions now, Jimmy."
Moondoggie froze, his face glazed and hard. "I can make my own decisions, in case nobody's noticed." Shrugging away her reaching arms, he pulled the speechless Jaya to him once again. "And I've already got a date."
He face burning with fury and humiliation, Gidget stood alone on the floor, arms empty, eyes overflowing. "You go to hell, Jimmy Emerson! I'm through waiting around for you to grow up!" She moved as if to go, then, thinking better of it, whirled back and delivered a ringing slap to his face before marching off, her spike heels hammering like chisels against the concrete floor.
"This stinks," complained Maurice, scowling at Renton over the refreshment table. "When me and Maeter go out and dance, they all giggle at us."
She nodded her energetic agreement. "Yeah, Papa. They're all the time whispering and laughing at us."
"They're not laughing at you," he said, wiping the whipped cream from Linck's chin. "It's just that these people here at Tresor haven't seen any little kids in a long time. It makes them happy, in a funny kind of way. They really appreciate you guys, believe me."
Maurice considered this for a moment, then looked back at him. "Oh, okay. I get it now. Come on, Maeter, finish your ginger snap and let's go out and dance some more."
"Ungwo." She stuffed the remainder of the frosted cookie in her mouth, wiped her hands on her dress and followed him back out to the middle of the improvised dance floor.
"Those two certainly have taken to dancing," said Eureka, dipping into a paper cup filled with raisins. "Oh, these are really delicious; I've never tasted anything like them before. Won't you try some?"
"Sure. They're even better when you mix them with peanuts. I used to --"
"Renton. I gotta talk to you."
He turned to find Moondoggie, unexpectedly impressive in a fashionable red jacket with gold trim, tugging at his arm and looking distinctly troubled. "Sure, Doggie. What's up?"
"I mean...well, you know, private."
Renton objected on principle to excluding Eureka in any way, but he found the pleading in Moondoggie's eyes so compelling that refusing him seemed out of the question. "Well, okay. Eureka, I'll be back in just a minute, okay?"
"Of course. Don't be long; I'd like to dance some more."
His curiosity deepened as Moondoggie led him to the very edge of the illuminated area in the center of the hangar. It felt somehow lonely out here, so close to the darkness, smelling strongly of synthetic lubricant and thruster exhaust. "What's going on, Doggie?"
"I don't..." He shook his head in confusion, and for the first time, Renton noticed that his friend was sweating. "I don't know how to say this, but... Listen, Renton, how can you tell if you love somebody?"
Taken completely off-guard, Renton wondered briefly if this might be some elaborate joke, perhaps involving a hidden video camera concealed somewhere nearby in the shadows. But the pleading in Moondoggie's eyes was far too real for any Gekkostate prank. "I guess I never had any trouble knowing, so maybe I can't give you a good answer. To me...well, losing love would be like losing my life. I fell in love with Eureka the first time I saw her. Or at least, I started loving her then. It wasn't till later on that I really understood that loving somebody means spending your whole life with them, and never wanting to be separated from them, no matter what it takes. Ummm...if you don't mind me asking, how come you want to know?"
"It's... It's Gidget, I guess. I think she's in love with me, and --"
"Aw, c'mon, Doggie," laughed Renton, "everybody knows she is."
"Yeah, well, I didn't! Uh, sorry, I didn't mean to yell at you that way." He attempted a friendly smile, achieving only a weak imitation. "Anyway, she's kind of... I mean, I like her a lot and all, and she's really, uh, attractive, but..." Moondoggie fell silent for a moment, slumping like a morning-after balloon. "Look, I'll level with you, Renton: my parents hate each others' guts. I mean, I don't know how they even got together long enough to make me. You wanna talk about 'loss of life,' well, they lost theirs a long time ago. I ran away from home and then stowed away on the Moonlight the minute I heard Holland was planning a mutiny, and that's where I've been ever since. I don't know one damn thing about love. I mean, I see Holland and Yuki, and you and Eureka and even Matthieu and Hilda, and I'd really like to be that way with somebody. But I don't... I don't want to end up like Mom and Dad, that's all. If I'm gonna love somebody, I wanna really love her. Only...I don't know how to know if I love her. You understand?"
Renton chewed thoughtfully on the raisins Eureka had handed him, his heart going out to his clearly-suffering friend. "Y'know," he said at last, "it sounds to me a lot like you and Gidget are just the opposite of me and Eureka. I mean, when us two met, I was the one crazy in love with her right away, but she didn't know anything at all about what love was. I didn't get that at first, so I thought she didn't love me. Maybe that's what Gidget thinks about you."
"Uh-huh." He nodded eagerly, listening with great intensity to every word. "So...how did Eureka figure out that she loved you?"
"Well...from the things she's told me, she first understood it when she knew that she was happy with me, but unhappy without me." Renton laughed, a trifle awkwardly. From somewhere on the dance floor, a group of partygoers began to sing along with the music, a yearning and sentimental sort of tune from the days before the first Summer of Love. "Does that make sense to you?"
"I guess maybe it does. Yeah, I guess so. Thanks, Renton."
"Hey, you're still my o-nii-san, right? So where...is Gidget? I didn't see her with you."
"No, she's not." Moondoggie tugged nervously at the gold braid on his jacket's breast. "I acted like... I was kind of a jerk, is what I was. I think now that I've been a jerk about a lot of things. She was here and went away; it was my fault. And y'know what? I'm unhappy without her."
"Sounds like the beginning of something, doesn't it?" chuckled Renton.
"Yeah. Yeah, sure does! Hey, thanks, Renton, look, let's just make that nii-chan, okay? I'm gonna go find Gidget right now, and tell her..."
Both of them looked to the ceiling, where rotating red lights blossomed out of the night, to the accompaniment of a harsh siren's screams. "Attention!" boomed the synthesized voice from the hangar's speaker system, "Attention! All defense personnel report to their duty stations; all others seek shelter at once. This facility is under attack. This facility is under attack..."
"Eureka!" cried Renton, and launched himself back to her as fast as his feet could carry him across the shadowed concrete.
Renton caught her hand, pulling her away from the refreshment table as, all around them, dancing couples broke off and streamed off into the dark in the efficient way of people who'd known crises before.
"What's going on?" she asked, squinting as the hangar lights flared back to life, harsh and white, evaporating the magic of the night in a glaring instant.
"I don't know, but we've gotta get out of here. Come on."
"Wait! What about the children, Renton! We can't go without --"
Each of them felt a heavy hand clamp down upon their shoulders. "They are being taken to a place of safety; Holland and Yuki's baby is in Mischa's care," said Dr. Egan. "Both of you must come with me at once. Do not join the crowd; it will surely be dangerous in the extreme."
"Why?" asked Renton. Though he had little personal liking for Egan, he still considered the man's integrity and judgment beyond question.
"Because it's illogical for the Federation to stage a direct attack on this facility. Tresor was precious to them in the past and they wish to recapture it, that it may be precious to them in the future. Damaging or destroying it would be counterproductive." From somewhere outside, a rapid series of explosions sounded, quivering the concrete beneath their feet. Here and there, people cried out in anger or fear. "Therefore, this apparent attack must be a diversion, to keep our attentions elsewhere while they accomplish their true objective."
Her voice held in an artificial calm, Eureka asked, "And what is that?"
Egan peered down at her, releasing his hold on both of them. "Surely to capture the two of you. Or, failing that, other members of the Moonlight's crew. Now come with me quickly, please, and do not dawdle or stray."
Renton and Eureka linked hands and followed after his narrow mane of reddish hair, surprised at how rapidly the once-sedentary administrator could move at need. Most of the crowd seemed to be draining out of Hangar Five through a pair of large archways at the western side, but Dr. Egan led them instead toward a repair bay where an armored shuttle rested on its hydraulic skids, surrounded by diagnostic and maintenance equipment. There, just behind the dark bulk of a fuselage magnetic-flux induction probe, they came to an armored door with a standard handprint-recognition plate glowing next to it.
Egan pressed his broad palm to the plate and the door swung open. He gestured the two of them inside, then followed them down a narrow winding stairway constructed of utterly utilitarian open girders and nonskid panels. For a few minutes their descending footsteps echoed in the dimly-lit shaft. Then the stairs ended in a stark concrete corridor down which Egan silently led them to yet another palmprint-protected door.
"Mama!" shouted Linck, running toward them. Maeter and Maurice followed at a more dignified pace. Eureka and Renton looked around them; milling about the roughly ten by fifteen-meter room, they saw the familiar faces of Mischa, Woz, Moondoggie and Sonia, along with a dozen or so Tresor personnel, all still in their evening attire, all looking annoyed and frazzled.
"Welcome to the refugee camp," said Mischa in her ironic way. To his great surprise, Renton saw that she carried Holland Jr. in her arms, wrapped in a plaid comforter and apparently undisturbed by the crisis unfolding about him.
Dr. Egan's smooth face took on a remarkable softness as she approached; he smiled at the baby and touched Mischa's arm in a brief caress. "I must now return to my post," he announced to the room at large. "You will all be informed when it is safe to emerge once more."
"Where's Holland?" asked Renton, "and Yuki and Hap and Jobs?"
"Assisting in the efforts to repel the invaders, I presume. I will know more when I --"
"And where's Gidget?" Moondoggie interrupted, his voice cracking.
Egan regarded him with a cool gaze. "As to your young lady, I would have thought that you would know far better than I. And now I bid you all a temporary good-bye." He stepped out the door without further remarks and closed it behind him.
"Who's 'Gidget?'" asked one of the Tresor technicians, a tall, athletic-looking woman with curly brown hair. "One of the Moonlight crew?"
Heartsick, Doggie nodded back to her. "Yeah. Our communications officer. About this high; straight black hair, not all the way to her neck. Sort of blue-gray eyes; really pretty, a lot of makeup..."
"Wearing a short blue satin thing, with spangles all over?" the woman's companion suggested. "Yeah, we saw her just a little while ago. Looked in a right proper rage, she did, and she went off toward the shuttle deck."
"Why the shuttle deck?" Renton asked.
"Because not all the Tresor personnel came to the dance tonight," said Woz, shuffling forward with obvious concern. For the first time, Renton now saw the stubby systems engineer out of his shipboard baggy trousers and sweatshirt; tonight he sported a short-sleeved flower-print shirt over dark jeans and a pair of heavy hiking boots. "Some of them take a shuttle over to Piriri; it's a town beyond the eastern hills. I was planning on going with them myself, till the alarms started going off and we were shooed down here."
"The shuttle deck..." Moondoggie balled his fists till the knuckles stood out pale and jagged. "That shuttle might be getting shot down right now!" He ran for the door, jerking at its handle as though he might break it off. "It won't open!"
"The security lock won't open to anyone who isn't in the Administrative Security group of the Tresor database," one of the technicians explained. "Dr. Egan put us in here so that no outsiders can open the door."
"Neither can we!" he raged, kicking at it in frustration. "It locks from both sides! Are we just supposed to sit in here, while Gidget's caught out there alone? Damn! This is all my fault anyway."
While he raged on, Eureka stepped forward and considered the touchplate next to the unmoving security door. At last, she reached out and pressed her open hand to it.
The door clicked and swung aside.
"How did you do that?" demanded the curly-headed woman, shocked.
Eureka's face remained serene. "I'm in the Tresor Administrative Security group. Moondoggie, we can go, now."
Mischa jumped to her feet at once, still holding the baby tightly in her arms. "Wait a minute, what do you mean, 'we?' Moondoggie can do what he likes, but according to Gregory, this raid's entire purpose is to get at you and Renton. Are you seriously considering going up there? There's far more at risk than just your own personal safety, important as that is. Millions of others have a stake in your survival, both of you."
Renton and Eureka looked to each other for a moment, the jewels in their forehead glittering red and blue. "We know that," Renton said. "But if we don't even help our own friends when they're in trouble, who's going to listen to anything we say? Even if all we can do is find an intercom and let the Security group know about Gidget and the shuttle, we've got to do it. Wouldn't you?"
"I...don't know. I still don't like it. But be very careful, all three of you."
"We're wasting time!" shouted Doggie, racing ahead and out into the corridor. "I'm going, even if nobody else is." And without a spoken word, Eureka and Renton followed.
With each furious step, Gidget descended deeper into the bleakest depression she had ever known. The shuttle for Piriri; where's the Tresor shuttle deck? I've gotta get out of here, I'm choking. Into the darkness beyond the dance floor she plunged, wallowing in shadow, searching for an emptiness greater than the one she carried inside of her.
Time passed -- just how much, she could not be entirely certain -- and she found herself following a loose group of Tresor maintenance technicians through a broad antechamber attached to the rear of Hangar Five. They made jokes among themselves, discussing their plans for the evening in low, excited voices. The Tresor people, men and women both, it seemed, eagerly looked forward to making sure that Piriri earned its raffish reputation tonight. Several of the unattached men gave Gidget lingering looks of frank invitation; barely aware of their attentions, she only walked on, passing out of the hangar and into the surprisingly cool night air.
At last she found the presence of mind to grow aware of her surroundings, surveying the Tresor shuttle deck -- a wide raised platform of concrete, elevated about four meters above the surrounding landing-strip level. She guessed it to be about a hundred meters on a side, with boxy air shuttles lined up at the three edges facing away from the immense hangar itself. The party group converged into a rough lineup filing toward four flight-ready shuttles on the northward facing side, and Gidget followed along listlessly, shivering now and then in the chill wind.
"You new around Tresor?" asked someone to her left.
Slowly, Gidget turned to find a dark-haired man, perhaps in his mid-thirties, smiling at her with soft brown eyes. His open and friendly face held the usual evaluation, untainted by the sly insinuations of the others, and she did not look away. "Yeah, that's right." Appalled at how hoarse her voice had grown in such a short time, she cleared her throat and began again. "That's right. I'm a...communications specialist."
He nodded, giving this information careful consideration. "I sort of thought you had to be a newcomer, or you'd have known to wear something heavier over that little dress until we get into town. Tresor's built on a high plain, and even on warm days like this, the temperature falls faster than Federation credibility once the sun goes down. My name's Craig Stender, by the way; power cell engineer. Welcome to Tresor."
"Thank you, Craig Stender." Warming in spite of herself, Gidget produced an acceptable smile in return, folding her arms about herself as she walked and envying Stender's brown flight jacket with its triangular Tresor star-within-a-caliper logo on the right breast pocket. "I'm Annette Dee. How come you're not inside, at the dance?"
"I was, last month." Stender laughed with little humor. "My girlfriend two-timed me a couple of weeks back, though, and now it seems I'm a free agent again. I guess I didn't feel much like dancing." He looked up at the hard glitter of the stars, and something in the play of starlight on his cheeks suggested to Gidget a thoughtful, perhaps even sensitive, nature.
"I know just what you mean," she agreed, regretting her sharp tone at once. "What's in Piriri, anyway? Wild parties or something?" The lineup grew denser and moved more slowly as they approached the waiting shuttlecraft. Someone announced over a speaker that Shuttle One had been filled to capacity, and would all passengers please begin boarding Shuttle Two?
"Nothing that interesting, I'm afraid. A couple of threevee theaters; some restaurants. Four nightclubs -- one of them actually isn't seedy, but it's expensive. And a hotel, for those who want company through the night. Say, you're shivering -- here, you can wear my jacket till we get to town."
"Oh, no, that's all right..."
"Nonsense, I don't get chilled that quickly, and you look like you're ready to turn blue. There, a perfect fit."
Embarrassed and delighted at the same time, Gidget could hardly help the genuine smile that curved her full lips. When was the last time Jimmy was that considerate of me? "Well...thank you. Very much." Draped around her shoulders like an oversized cape, the warm, soft jacket smelled pleasantly of aftershave. "What are you going to do when we get to Piriri?"
Jamming both hands in his pockets, Stender shrugged in a comically exaggerated way. "I don't know. Get something to eat, at least. The Red Garden restaurant has a great pasta menu, if you like that sort of thing."
"Oh, I do!"
"Well, excellent. What do you say if you and I...?" He stopped, tilting his head skyward again, eyes narrowed and alert. In the slowly-moving lineup, Gidget noticed several others doing the same thing.
All at once on guard, she looked about the frosty sky for anything suspicious, her three years on the embattled Moonlight having taught her that even paranoia was seldom paranoid enough. "What's wrong? Do you see something?"
"There. Those lights. There's a transport of some kind coming in, see it? It's not angling in to one of the runways, it's circling. That's not standard procedure. I wonder...could they be having trouble of some kind?"
Gidget saw, now, what he meant -- the red, blue and green navigation lights of something large, blinking against the starry background, rolling in slow arcs as the ship to which they were attached banked. "We ought to get back in the hangar, under shelter."
"I don't think we need to worry about it falling on us. But someone really should warn the pilot of Shuttle One that there's unpredictable traffic up there...damn! Shuttle One's already taking off -- watch out for the backblow from the liftoff!" He wrapped one strong arm about her, turning them both away as the ventral thrusters of the squat shuttlecraft fired, driving back the cold night for a moment with their blue-white fire. The shuttle rose rapidly into the sky, its wings beginning to unfold at fifty meters, slowly edging forward over the landing fields as it picked up forward momentum.
And then, while all those still waiting on the debarkation deck watched speechless and unbelieving, a quick white thread snaked out of the sky above, flashing downward in the characteristic wandering tracery of a homing missile.
Someone screamed; shouts of rage and terror filled the night. The faster-thinking in the crowd were already sprinting past Gidget and Stender, heading for the safety of Hangar Five as Shuttle One bloomed into a dazzling ball of yellow flame and dropped, skidding and rolling, to the asphalt below.
"Come on!" shouted Stender, pulling roughly at Gidget's arm, startling her from her paralysis. She ripped her eyes away from the burning shuttle, hurrying with him, running for the doorway back into the hangar with the cold night air on her face and the heat from the flames rising from the runway at her back.
"What's going on?" she cried as they ran in the writhing shadows.
"That's a warship of some kind up there. We're being attacked." Half the distance to the hangar's entrance still remained before them; the retreat from the shuttle deck became a stampede, rushing past them on all sides like a river of fear.
Gidget felt terribly vulnerable and exposed out here on the open deck and wished with all her heart that they were back beneath a protecting roof, even if the protection were no more than a comforting illusion. From somewhere overhead came a burst of sharp rattling. Long familiar with the sound of antiaircraft cannon, she looked wildly about for the nearest shelter.
"Hey, no time to stop now!" shouted Stender, pulling her onward.
"You don't understand! They're strafing us! We've got to get under cover!" Bracing her legs, she pulled back, yanking him sideward, toward the row of parked shuttles on the eastern side of the dock. "Come on, dammit!"
Stender stumbled reluctantly to a stop, staring at her in confusion as the stream of humanity parted around them. "Strafing? Are you sure? Have you ever actually been --"
A buzzing trail of small, vicious explosions raced across the surface of the shuttle dock, splattering tiny fragments of concrete in their wake. He snapped his head to one side to see, then spun backward, a look of complete surprise blanking his open face. Craig Stender toppled to the ground, hard, and did not move again.
Those who had been nearest the line of fire screamed, some with fear, others with pain, but Gidget ducked between two off-duty shuttles, listening to the armor-piercing bullets clatter on their hulls. She crouched low, looking out at the deck, watching Stender for signs of consciousness and finding none. My God, this is horrible. It's so typical of the Federation! What do they think they're doing, anyway?
Above, bright white light flared, moving low across the sky with the characteristic blowtorch roar of heavy landing thrusters. She risked a glance outward and upward, and saw a Federation medium troop transport -- surely the mysterious ship they had seen maneuvering across the stars -- passing low overhead on vertical thruster power, hovering in for a nearby landing. At the same time, from inside the great hangar building came a honking klaxon alarm, alternating with a recorded voice announcing that "This facility is under attack." Well, so they've finally figured that out, have they? Time for me to get inside and get help for the ones who're still alive.
Gidget kicked off her spike heels, not without a passing twinge of regret, and braced herself for a fast barefoot sprint across the remaining twenty meters or so of concrete deck between herself and the doorway, when she noticed several survivors crying out and pointing to the sky. She looked overhead again, seeing dozens of tiny yellow sparks descending from the night. What's that? Missiles? No, too small. Incendiary bombs? Too slow. What are they...?
A bulging creature with five glowing eyes and an armored torso dropped to the deck ten meters away, swinging an SFAR from right to left before marching heavily forward, toward the hangar. Another joined it from above, the exhausted jetpack on its back detaching and dropping to the ground. And another. Aerotroopers, in battle armor. That transport must've been dropping aerotroops while it circled overhead. They're all over the place!
She pulled back further into the darkness of the narrow gap between the shuttles, sobbing without a sound. Trapped, defenseless and checkmated by a ruthless enemy, Gidget silently choked on her own multitude of regrets. How many more people are going to be killed inside? If only the Moonlight and our LFOs weren't laying in pieces around the maintenance hangars! Oh, God, and what about the crew? What about the children? What about...Jimmy?
"Hurry!" shouted Moondoggie, running ahead of Eureka and Renton as he led them through a confusing maze of shadowy corridors and shortcuts. "I was down this way just this afternoon, and I'm pretty sure this one goes up to the shuttle dock."
Eureka glanced sideward at Renton. "'Pretty sure?'"
"Well, at least he's been down here before," he panted. "Hey hold on, you're having trouble running in those shoes, aren't you? Would you like me to carry them?"
"Yes, thank you...here." Renton shoved the shoes in his back pockets and they continued on, no longer in sight of the frantic Moondoggie but still within earshot of his footsteps. They caught up to him moments later, in a dark alcove just off the larger holding area leading outside to the shuttle dock, where the sounds of gunfire and shouted orders competed with the cries of the wounded.
"What's going on out there?" muttered Moondoggie, motioning them to keep back flat against the wall.
Eureka listened carefully for a moment. "Probably a Federation Incisive Operations unit on the shuttle deck. They've either been air-dropped or they've come from a ground-based troop carrier."
Though her voice remained level, Renton could feel the fear building in her, fear not of the Federation troops themselves, but of the barely-suppressed nightmares from the times when she had hunted among them. For the first time, he began to doubt the wisdom of their impulsive decision to take on Gidget's rescue by themselves. "Isn't it time we found an intercom station and reported this?"
"You guys go and do that," said Moondoggie, not looking at them as he edged toward the opening into the main corridor. "If Gidget's out there, it's because of me. I've got to..."
They all fell silent. Shots blasted in the chamber outside, their detonations painfully loud in the confined space. Renton dropped to the floor, dragging Moondoggie and Eureka down with him. "Those were coming from the other end of that big room," he said. "The Tresor security people must've gotten here, and they're shooting back. Look, us getting into a crossfire between them and Federation troopers isn't going to do Gidget one bit of good." As if to underscore his words, the flame and roar of a full-scale gun battle erupted outside their dark nook, shaking the walls around them.
Renton stood and grabbed at Eureka's hand, pulling her unresisting back the way they came; they could be of no further use here. "Renton..." she said, not meeting his eyes, "Renton, please don't be ashamed of me, but I can't. I thought I could, but I just can't...I've killed too many..."
"I know; I understand. I'm not ashamed, we just have to get back somewhere where we can do some good. Just come on with me..."
A tremendous thunderclap of sound and fire shook the opposite end of their tunnel, sending a wave of burning gases racing up toward them. Faster than thought, Renton threw himself across her, shielding her with his own body as the thin flames rushed over them in a scorching tornado. It passed in an instant, and when he could raise his head, he saw that the tunnel to their rear was now a solid wall of broken concrete and collapsed metal. The corridor's utility lights wavered and died, leaving them in dull semi-shadow.
"Shelling a target at random locations is a Federation shock tactic to draw defending troops away from the point of entry," said Eureka.
"Great," he groaned, lifting himself from the floor and helping her to her feet. "We're trapped, we haven't got any weapons and it sounds like the whole Federation army is out there blasting away. How much stupider could I get? I should've known better." A spattering of gunfire sprayed across the opening of the corridor, the tracers making lines of fire.
"We had no way of expecting an invasion force of this size," she reminded him. "There wasn't any --"
A massive armored trooper heaved into their doorway, the digital receptors of his helmet converging as he caught sight of them. Renton moved in front of Eureka, who furled her wings to their smallest possible spread. "All right, get out of there!" the soldier shouted, his voice amplified and distorted by the audio system of his armor. "Step out where I can see you! And hurry!"
Doggie glared but cast a significant glance back to Renton. He's going to try something, Renton realized with a sinking fear. Without hesitation, he reached out with his thought and joined his mind to Eureka's. Moondoggie shuffled meekly toward the trooper, who waved his SFAR back and forth as if uncertain which of them might be the most dangerous.
"Please don't hurt us," Moondoggie whimpered in his most piteous voice, holding up both trembling hands, edging closer. "We didn't do anything, honest."
"Keep your hands where I can see'em! You two back there -- get forward, on the double! What the hell d'you think your doing in here? I said on the double --"
Eureka stepped out from behind Renton, spreading her wings wide, flaring with brilliant trapar.
"You!" Astonished, the soldier lifted the SFAR to fire and at that instant, Moondoggie leaped forward, pushing it upward, knocking the trooper's gauntleted finger away from the trigger guard. At the same moment, Renton disconnected from Eureka and ran in low, kicking one of the soldier's legs out from beneath him. He fell, hard, face-down, his digital-display helmet cracking on the rough concrete. Moondoggie rammed the butt of the heavy rifle down on the helmet, shattering it apart still further, again and again, watching the blue photoconductive fluid spill from between its double walls, over and over till he struck the head beneath and Renton gently took the gun in his own hands. "You got her, Moondoggie," he said, quiet and calming.
Still breathing in raw gasps, Moondoggie shuddered and let him have the SFAR. Then, looking down at the fallen trooper, he understood what Renton meant. The two of them rolled the bulky armor over, revealing the insensible face of the soldier beneath, her black hair tousled and sticky with blood from the fresh bruise beneath. Her fluttering dark eyes, so hard and so soft at the same time, choked him with a thousand regrets, and what he might have done to them had Renton not taken the rifle from him in time brought Moondoggie to the edge of vomiting.
"Eureka told me that the armor is so heavy and clumsy that it's easy to knock over," Renton said, looking uneasily out into the main corridor, where the primary gun battle still raged with its fire and explosions. "That's what makes it vulnerable. That's why the SOF numbered squads'd never use it. Come on, let's drag her back to the end of this hall. Hurry, will you?"
Moondoggie blinked stupidly, clearing the disgust from his mind. "What for?"
"We had an idea," Renton said, crouching and grabbing the armored trooper by the locking ring of of her destroyed helmet. "You're gonna join the Federation."
"No wonder the SOFs didn't like this stuff," Moondoggie complained as he stamped clumsily along in the awkward body-armor suit. "It must weigh a hundred kilos at least. I feel like I could fall over any second."
"You'll be fine," lied Renton, certain of no such thing. "If she could handle that armor --" he jerked his thumb back toward the devastated rear of the corridor, where Eureka watched over the still-unconscious soldier, both of them partly concealed in the shadows "-- you can, too. Now go on out and find Gidget. If she's out there, you can march her back here like she's your prisoner, and then we'll all wait here till --"
A blast and a flash of yellow light flamed just outside their opening, followed by a cry of terrible pain and a metallic crash. Very, very cautiously, Renton ran forward in a crouch and peeked out, sickened to see one of the non-armored Federation attack troops lying in a twisted position, blood pumping in diminishing waves from a huge wet hole in his back. In that brief glimpse, he saw other motionless bodies sprawled here and there in the antechamber to the shuttle dock, and still others with terrible injuries painfully dragging themselves along the floor. The flashing lines of tracer rounds lit the air like meteorites; the roar of gunfire hammered at his ears. But before he pulled his head back in, Renton shut his eyes against the death less than a meter away from him, groped outward with one arm and pulled the fallen soldier's SFAR back inside with him. "Everybody's gonna be way too busy out there to ask you why you haven't got any helmet on," he told Moondoggie, his hands still shaking.
"I hope so. Yeah, I hope so." Doggie hefted his own SFAR, staggering under its mass and rolling into the wall, nearly losing his footing under the dead weight of the armored suit. "How do they keep their balance with these things? Here, you take this rifle, too -- there's an RPP pistol clipped to the belt of this thing; that'll be all I'll need. Listen, Renton...I shouldn't have dragged you along, you and Eureka. Now you're in danger...I'm sorry. I never did tell you..."
Renton took hold of one armored arm, surprised once again that he and Moondoggie stood at exactly the same height. "Just go out and get Gidget, okay? Okay...nii-chan?"
"Okay...okay." A fragmentation grenade exploded somewhere, hurling its jagged fragments ringing against the walls outside; screams ripped from half a dozen throats. Moondoggie nodded once, his sweating face shiny in the half-light. "I'll be back, as soon as I can."
He trundled away into the roaring battle, vanishing around the edge of the doorway almost at once. "You do that, Doggie," Renton whispered, hefting the heavy SFARs and hurrying back to Eureka's side.
Gidget crouched, frightened and alert, at the back of the crevice between the two parked shuttlecraft, trying to determine how the battle was going from her narrow slit looking out onto the shuttle deck. Smoke from the shuttle that had fallen to the Federation missile occluded the stars overhead and from the sound of things, it appeared as though some of the invading troops were inside the hangar building. What, she wondered, could the purpose of it all be? There didn't seem to be nearly enough troops to take the hangar, let alone the entire Tresor complex.
Ordinary foot soldiers followed up the first wave of armored troopers in the assault, but Gidget now watched in confusion as the entire operation stalled until fewer and fewer of them were running forward. In fact, several had already been dragged back past her narrow window in badly-wounded condition, though the gunfire she heard from inside continued without pause. Things obviously weren't going all the Federation's way, and surely someone inside must have called for IPF air support by now. How long could this minimal shelter go on being a safe haven for her?
Across the shuttle deck, just visible through the milling rear-guard soldiers, she spotted one of them in the bulky battle armor, intently searching the deck -- even peering between shuttles in a methodical way -- and her heart sank. How long before he reached her hideaway? Something exploded not far away, raining bits of hot metal that clanked and tinkled like nuts and bolts thrown on a tin roof as they hit the tops of the shuttles. One of them landed near her bare feet, glowing dull red, close enough for her to feel the heat on her toes. Gidget drew back, apprehensive but refusing to allow herself to consider the possibility that she might be captured or killed by these uniformed thugs.
A scuffling noise from the end of her hiding place; she looked up and froze, seeing the pale gray bulk of battle armor. The nosing trooper hadn't continued along the docked shuttles one by one. He'd crossed directly to her, and now tried to squeeze himself sideways into the constricted space. Panic tempted her, but she turned it aside.
A Rocket-Propelled Projectile pistol hung from the armor's waist clip. Could she grab it and blow off the soldier's head before he could reach for it himself? Maybe, if she could take him by surprise. He'd already removed his helmet, so its digital receptors wouldn't pick her out of the shadows as she approached, not if she did it quickly. Deciding that any action would be better than sitting here to be picked off, Gidget held herself low and scuttled forward, running on all fours like a great silent spider.
She reached his side in seconds and snatched the heavy RPP gun from the armor's waistband, fumbling with the retaining clip.
"What...? Hey!" yelled the trooper as she jammed the thick barrel to his face.
"Shut up! Get down on the ground or I'll kill you, I swear I will!" The RPP shook in her hands but she held it steady against his temple, just beneath the swatch of blonde hair.
"But I'm here to rescue you, Gidget...I mean Annette!"
She blinked, almost unable to comprehend. "Jimmy?" she whispered.
"Yeah, Jimmy. Now please put the gun back where it was, will you?"
Gidget lowered the pistol, lightheaded and and almost numb with relief. Her facade of gritty indifference cracked at once as tears of joy and horror gathered in her eyes; she shook them away. There would be time for that, later. "Okay. Here. Rescue me, you said? How? There're Federation troops all over the place. Where'd you get that armor?"
"I'll explain when we're out of here. Eureka says this is an Incisive Operations Unit --"
"Eureka's here? My God, they'll kill her on sight!"
Jimmy cringed as a heavy bullet whizzed through the smoky air less than a meter from his head. "I know; Renton, too. That's why we've gotta get back as fast as we can. Come on, act like you're my prisoner and I'll take you to where they are. What happened to your shoes? Never mind, just be careful where you step, there's all kinds of junk all over the ground out here."
He pressed the RPP pistol to her back, his finger well away from the trigger, as Gidget dutifully lifted her hands high and put on her most artful face of dejected terror. "All right, keep moving," he ordered in the contemptuous tones he'd always heard his father using to subordinates. "Hurry up, stop dawdling." He sweated inside the armor, expecting such a childish ruse to be exposed at once. Ten more meters to the entrance into the hangar...five...watch out for the gunfire, keep to the walls...two...
"Hey, corporal! Where the hell're you going with her?"
Startled, Jimmy looked off to one side, where an angry Federation noncom with an SFAR crouched behind a metal drum and scowled at him between shots into the hangar. "Me?"
"Damn right, you! We'll be pulling out in ten minutes; what the hell are you doing taking prisoners?"
Jimmy held his voice cold and sharp, shouting back over the racket of the incessant barrage. "Orders. The brass says she knows something about a secret way inside. She's an IPF traitor. Come off it, sergeant, time's short; if you've got questions, take'em up with company HQ."
The noncom nodded once, wiped his face on one black sleeve and took another shot into the hangar. "Your funeral if you get left behind. Go on in then; get moving."
"Nice thinking, Jimmy," said Annette, once they passed out of hearing range.
"Crap. I grew up around their kind. All you've got to do is pull authority on them, and they'll grovel -- and love it. In here. There's a corridor running off to the right, about five meters down. Flatten against the wall...let me go first -- and stay behind my armor, in case any shots come our way."
"Renton," whispered the kneeling Eureka. "I think she's coming to."
The unconscious Federation soldier whose body armor Moondoggie had stolen began to stir, her fingers and arms twitching, head slowly rolling from side to side. She squinted against the faint light in the corridor, focusing her dark eyes upon Eureka. "You're the Coralian monster," she muttered.
"We're both Coralian monsters," said Renton, putting his arm about Eureka's waist. "But don't worry, we aren't gonna eat you. You should just lay there and rest for a while. Our friend hit you pretty hard on the head."
"My name is Tomika Aruno, corporal, Landestrooper of the Federation of Predigio Towers; my Federation Ground Forces ID number is..."
Renton touched her shoulder lightly. "Take it easy, you're not under arrest or anything. We just don't want you to hurt yourself any more than you are already."
"You don't..." Corporal Aruno lifted herself to a sitting position, wincing with pain and dizziness. "Nice of you, considering that you and your traitorous friends want to sell out the whole world to an alien intelligence."
Eureka smiled. "Is that what the Federation is telling its troops? I can't say I'm very surprised. They used to use the same sort of propaganda on us, too."
"'Us?' What're you talking about, monster?" She wrapped her arms protectively about herself, though her tight dark bodysuit had been designed for warmth.
"I was once a dog of the Federation military, too." Eureka lifted her wings to a half-spread position. "Special Operations Forces, Unit Seven. And I don't blame you for finding it hard to believe that we're not what you've been told. I nearly lost my mind when I discovered that I'd made myself a murderer...for nothing but a lie." In an unconscious gesture long familiar to Renton, she glanced down at her hands, as though expecting to find them sticky with gore.
Aruno squeezed her eyes shut again -- whether from pain or the difficulty of seeing herself from such an unflattering angle, neither Renton nor Eureka could tell. "It's true, then. I've heard rumor that you were once loyal to the Federation. We were sent here to capture you."
"We know that," Renton said. "The Tresor people took us to a safe place when your attack started, along with our kids..."
"You have children?"
"Yeah, three of them. But one of our friends got herself caught in the attack, and we came up here to see if we could rescue her." Outside their doorway, a fresh barrage of tracers flashed. Someone shouted, and it seemed to him that the sound came from the defenders' side of the shuttle-deck antechamber, as though the IPF force were being driven back. "We still don't know if she's safe. Does your head hurt a lot?"
"Not...not as much as it should." Experimentally, she touched the back of her head where Moondoggie had left the imprint of the rifle butt. "In fact, it's healing much faster than it ought to; I don't get it. Listen...it'd cost me a year in the stockade if my COs ever found out, but I've read that underground magazine that your pals circulate, RayOut. I never knew how much of it to believe. The official military publications all say that the Coralian girl is some ugly monster, a half-human, half-blobby creature of some kind. And that the Moonlight is run by traitors who want to sell out humanity to the Coral."
"If you doubted what you were told," asked Eureka, her gentle face impassive, "why are you here, killing people?"
"Because when I was drafted, it was made very clear that disloyalty to the Federation would mean that my family back in Friesland would be arrested, that's why. Would you want to see that happen to your parents and brother?"
Eureka's voice grew still softer and her eyes fell. "I suppose not. But...I've never had parents, or brothers or sisters."
"Oh. Oh, hell, I didn't..."
"Freeze, everybody! Hands over your heads!" A brilliant beam of blue-white light stabbed through the darkness, blinding them all. "I said freeze! What the hell's going on back here?"
Renton felt his arms and legs go cold. As his eyes adjusted to the harsh light, he saw the outlines of Federation troopers, three of them, blocking the corridor doorway. None wore armor, but all carried SFARs, held at the ready.
His mind raced furiously. The antipersonnel rifles he had brought back lay within only a short reach. Could he get to one of them before they harmed Eureka? Possibly, if he kept his body between her and their line of fire. He let his thought flow from the communicating gem in his forehead: Eureka. Those two SFARs are out of the light beams. The troopers haven't spotted them yet. I'm going to grab for one. But I don't know how to use it. You've got to give me that knowledge.
Renton, no! They'll hurt you!
They're here to get us, and you know what for. I won't let them have you.
But you'll have to kill...
Not if I can use an SFAR as well as you used to. Give me the memory of how to do that.
I can't kill, Renton, not any more, I just can't...
I understand. Just give me the memory. I've got to protect you...
No! We'll protect each other!
The flow of thought and emotion between them needed no more than an eyeblink's time. "What's going on in here?" screamed the first trooper, narrowing his light on Renton's face.
"Wait a minute, you guys..." began Tomika, behind him.
"Shut up, you!"
By way of answer, the trooper sprayed a quick burst of gunfire into the rubble just above Tomika's head, sending a hailstorm of concrete fragments bouncing from the walls. "I said shut up! Everybody on their feet, starting with you, kid."
Obey or die; Renton had no other choice. Slowly, glaring at the three soldiers in the doorway, knowing it would reveal Eureka behind him, he rose up to his full height, knowing what he must do next, within seconds...
Mutterings of confusion bubbled from their captors. Then they raised all of their weapons to point of aim with a dark prickling of death. "It's the bug! The thing we came for! Kill it!"
In less than an instant, a red hatred greater than anything he had ever known consumed Renton's soul with acid and fire. The bug? His arms prickled with loathing.
The girl he had followed -- and would follow -- to death and beyond? Who had suffered and endured more for the salvation of this world than these animals could ever understand? This angel of beauty and wonder and strength and mystery and love, born of enchantment, heiress of light? My wife? And all they can call her is a bug?
He threw himself upon the nearest SFAR. The hallway roared with gunfire and tracer streaks and a sustained explosion that deafened Tomika and sent her clutching for the floor as she watched, in horrified slow motion, the nightmare unfolding much too quickly for ordinary time to encompass. Renton rolled over, coming up with the rifle in his arms, and in the same splintered second Eureka sprang to his side, her face a mask of agony, sweeping up the second SFAR as the jewels of their faces flared brilliant blue and red. Their SFARs blasting, they sprinted and dodged ahead, in and out of the torch beams, flying from side to side of the corridor like mad ballerinas, leaping, ducking, firing, weaving a complex interlocking pattern that their astonished attackers could not hope to follow with either eyes or instinct. Bullets burst to sparks, skidding off concrete walls on all sides. In a panic, one of the troopers fumbled a grenade from his chest pack, only to drop it, screeching, as a surgically precise round pierced his wrist. And still the two kept running forward, unstoppable, impossibly dodging the military fire, ghosts of lightning erupting from a tunnel of rage. The trooper with the hole in his wrist fell with two more in his right leg, clawing at the ground, nothing left in his mind but to escape this tornado of death where only seconds before, helpless prey had cowered.
"Die, damn you!" shrieked the one to his left, swinging the SFAR on continuous-fire from wall to wall. But three shots to each shoulder and one to his ankle sent him rolling back, out into the main chamber, his rifle tumbling to the floor where the retreating Federation invasion force now inched backward toward the shuttle dock, its mission already a greater failure than they knew.
The last guard at the door of the collapsed corridor crumpled with a bullet in his thigh, then two more to the biceps of both arms, and even before his head struck the floor, Renton and Eureka sprinted over him, firing with perfect coordination into the attacking troops. Heads turned as armored helmets shattered, spraying gobbets of photoconductive gel while men and women dropped with bullets to arms, legs, hips. The invaders collapsed by the twos, threes and fours, a strange demon of vengeance loose among them, felling whom and where it pleased, never pausing long enough for anyone to aim. Panic caught like a gasoline fire; the orderly retreat swelled to a rout as the Tresor security forces charged forward, driving back those Federation troopers still on their feet. And outside, the thunder of arriving IPF airships launching their counterattack on the grounded transport echoed across the runways.
Eureka and Renton wheeled their SFARs together toward an armored trooper stamping through the fallen forest of the crying wounded, a girl in a short party dress clinging to one arm. "Don't shoot!" the armored man shouted, waddling in front of her. "Don't shoot! It's us! It's me and Annette! Don't shoot, for God's sake!"
The four eyes of Renton and Eureka surveyed the chamber where shuttle passengers gathered in more peaceful times, now hazed with propellant smoke and torn by the shouts and screams of the injured. "The battle is over," they told him, perfectly synchronized. "Don't worry, we won't shoot." They looked to each other, then, and disengaged their merged minds, and as they did so, the horror of what they had done returned to them in all its terrible impact.
Eureka dropped her SFAR next to his and fell into Renton's arms, sobbing uncontrollably. "Renton...Renton, I had to, they were going to kill you...there was no other way... But oh, it was so awful, so much like it was then...
"But we didn't kill anybody," he assured her, holding back his own tears only with effort. "We didn't kill this time. It's not like it used to be for Eureka Seven, not any more. Eureka Seven would have murdered them all, but you're not her any more, remember?" He took her face in his hands and kissed her on cheeks gone wet and slick. "It was awful, but there's no blood on our hands this time, Eureka."
A hissing flame split the smoky air; they spun around, as one of the downed troopers who had tried to kill the two of them in the cave cried out in agony while the lower half of his leg exploded and his SFAR slipped from numb hands.
"He was going to shoot you in the back," said Moondoggie, lowering the steaming RPP pistol. "I had to do it. There wasn't any choice. I had to." He looked toward the two of them, misery in his blue eyes. "But...now I know how you guys must feel. It's really bad, isn't it?"
Gidget swallowed hard. "I'm going to find a medic, before he bleeds to death," she said, touching Moondoggie's cheek before running off across what had been a battlefield only moments before.
"Yeah, Doggie," said Renton, closing his eyes and holding the weeping Eureka tightly to his chest. "It's really bad."
"Very well, ladies and gentlemen, the worst is mercifully behind us and it is time to pool what we know." Dr. Egan, no longer cool and well-groomed, slumped behind his desk in Dr. Morita's Tresor Administrative office, his soot-streaked face shockingly hollow and drawn. The crew of the Moonlight and several high-ranking Tresor personnel now draped over chairs and cushions around the room, looked no better, but listened attentively to his every word. "Dawn is now upon us and we have all worked long and well throughout the night. But before any of us may sleep, we must make some conclusions and recommendations as soon as possible."
He looks like he's lost another ten kilos just overnight, thought Renton, watching Mischa at Egan's side, smiling in an admiring way toward her ex-husband.
"So just how did this attack happen?" Holland wanted to know, rubbing at red, swollen eyes. "I thought Tresor was supposed to be well-protected."
Morita snorted irritably; Renton thought the man had the dangerous look of a wounded wolverine. "So did we! It now seems that we were far too complacent after yesterday's incident when Federation personnel harassed Eureka and Renton, here. From what we now know, it appears that the Federation has been sneaking larger and larger aircraft into the canyons, testing the ability of our sensors to penetrate the low-ground clutter. Last night we saw the results of their experiments: a medium troop transport was able to approach Tresor undetected until the very last minute and drop aerotroopers in a brazen attempt to kidnap Eureka and Renton from beneath our noses."
"And they chose the evening of the Tresor dance," said Jobs, no longer the impeccable dandy, his party clothes torn and filthy. In the corner, Axel Thurston, slouched on his chair, snored soundly. But no one thought for a moment of waking him; he had spent the night directing fire brigades and pulling both Tresor personnel from the burning shuttle and Federation troops out of what was left of the troop transport once the IPF air-to-ground attack ships had finished with it. "How did they know to strike just at that moment?"
Egan leaned forward, looking as though he could easily lower his head to the desktop and go to sleep on the spot. "That is a very painful point, Mr. Stevens. Our security team has now determined that in spite of our best filtering efforts, we have had spies and turncoats among us. Four of them, to be exact." He held up a scrawled sheet of paper to the early-morning light. "Mr. Alman Sheng; Dr. Bela Fleck; Miss Jaya Bixler; Mr. Piotr Mosin." Sadly, he returned the paper to his desktop. "All have been transported to an IPF Intelligence unit, where they will be severely questioned, then released in Federation-controlled territory."
Moondoggie stiffened, but only Gidget, close at his side, noticed.
Matthieu lifted one hand, too weary to stand for Egan's attention. "How bad was the death toll?"
A Tresor security officer, his black uniform much the worse for wear, nodded to Egan, who gladly ceded the floor. "Deaths are always bad, and there's no minimizing them. But in this case, the loss of life could've been a lot worse. Ten of our people lost their lives; five in the shuttle shot down by the Federation, two of our own security personnel in the gun battle, and three from Federation strafing on the shuttle deck prior to the invasion." Remembering the kindness and easygoing charm of Craig Stender, Gidget began to weep silently, leaning her head against Jimmy's arm. "On the Federation side, losses were heavy when the core of the transport's ionic reactor imploded while the invasion troops tried to get back aboard. We estimate thirty-six dead in the transport, another twenty wounded from various causes...mainly gunshot wounds." The man glanced toward Renton and Eureka, sitting quietly hand in hand. "All the wounded on both sides are healing extremely quickly, I'm told. The medics are amazed that..."
"What are you going to do with the wounded troops?" Hilda interrupted.
"Ship them back to Federation frontier territory once they're well enough to move," snapped Morita, obviously wishing he could deal more harshly with those who had invaded his facility and murdered his staff, "then release them to make their own way back. We have had a number of requests for asylum, and these will be considered, though with great suspicion, as you might expect."
Renton looked to Eureka. She nodded back, and he stood. "Excuse me, but was one of them named Tomika Aruno?"
The security officer seemed surprised at his knowledge. "Yes, as a matter of fact. Why?"
"'Cause we met her, and she's no Federation fanatic. Eureka and I trust her."
Egan smiled. "We shall bear that in mind, Mr. Thurston. And...I'd like to personally thank you and your wife for visiting and speaking with each of the wounded last night. I have no doubt that in addition to dispelling Federation propaganda and winning friends for our cause, it has...aided their recovery considerably." A glance of conspiratorial respect passed between the two of them, and from that moment, Renton lost his distrust for Dr. Gregory Egan.
The scientist stood and spread his arms about him, displaying the bloodstains spotting the front of his once-white lab coat. "And now, I know you are all as exhausted as I. Let us all get some sleep while we may."
Woz roused Axel from his uneasy slumber and along with the crew of the Moonlight, the Tresor staff filed from the room like shuffling undead, until only Eureka, Renton, Dr. Egan and Mischa remained. "By all reports, you two put on an amazing show during the battle," said Mischa. "Combining your minds under the stress of combat seems to have more than tripled your reflexes and reaction times, even without a Compac Drive present. When we've all gotten some sleep, would you mind...submitting to a few...tests for Gregory and I?"
Eureka stood, stretched her wings and smiled. "We'd be pleased to."
Soul-weary in a grinding way he hadn't known for over a year, Holland made his way back to his Tresor temporary quarters, eyes burning and ears still ringing with the screams of the wounded trapped in the smoking remains of the Federation troop transport. Right now, nothing seemed more important than lying down in the same room with his wife and son and dropping off to sleep.
"Holland?" said someone just behind him.
"Yeah?" He turned, surprised to see Moondoggie following along, hands jammed in his pockets, one of which now sported a huge burn hole. "What is it?"
"It's...uh, Renton and Eureka. I kind of need to talk to you about them. I mean, if now's a bad time, I could, uh, come back..."
"No." Holland waved him off, folded his arms and leaned against the cool metal of the nearest wall. "No, it's been on my mind, too. I don't know how to bring up the subject with them, so maybe it's good that you're here. I just don't know what the hell to do about them."
Doggie's eyes opened wide. "'Do?' What d'you mean?"
"Those two were chosen by the Coralians to bring harmony between their kind and ours. They're the most important two people on the planet right now, but they won't stop risking their precious necks to go off on heroic missions." He shook his head, trying to clear away some of the fogginess. "The trouble is, they're so good and so surprising and so gutsy that they always succeed. But sooner or later, they're going to run into a problem even they can't handle, and then everything we've fought for over the past three or four years is going to go down the drain with them."
"Oh." A flush of guilt spread across Moondoggie's face. "Well...that's sort of what I wanted to talk to you about. You see, when we were all in the room in the basement, I sort of...gave them the idea to save Gidget. I mean, I didn't ask them to do it or anything, but...but I knew how they are, how they always want to save people from harm. And I guess somehow I knew they'd want to come along. I should've just gone to get Annette myself, but I didn't keep my mouth shut, and they came with me. So if you've got to blame somebody, blame me. It was my fault."
"You think so?" asked Holland, watching him closely. "You're almost right. It was stupid of you to take advantage of that save-the-helpless streak of theirs. But you couldn't have done it if it hadn't been there in the first place." A small knot of Tresor personnel passed by; he lowered his voice. "I'm glad you took the responsibility of admitting what you did, but don't ever do it again, and that's an order. And while you're thinking that over...you're Renton's friend; see if you can't come up with something that might convince them to be more careful from now on, will you, Moondoggie?"
"You want me to...? Well...sure. Sure, I don't want to see them hurt, either. That's why I felt so bad about... Anyway, yeah, Leader, sure. I'll do my best. And...um, one more thing?"
Holland yawned cavernously. "Make it quick."
"It's just that...well, could you stop calling me 'Moondoggie?'"
"What? But when you came aboard, you told us..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. But...but I'm tired of hiding behind my old stupid reffing handle just to keep my parents from finding out where I am. My name's Jimmy Emerson, and I'm not going to pretend it's something else, not any more."
Nodding, Holland could not conceal a wide smile. "Okay. 'Jimmy' it is, from now on. What does Gidget think of the change?"
"Oh, she's fine with it. In fact...I think even 'Gidget's' over with; she's calling herself 'Annette,' now. Both of us've had to think about a lot of things. She's uh...waiting for me back in my room...our room...so I guess I shouldn't keep her waiting..."
"No, definitely not. See you later...Jimmy."
Before returning to their own quarters, Eureka and Renton stopped in to the childrens' room to be certain all of them were tucked in their beds after such a night of fear. All three lay wrapped in blankets on their cots, Maeter and Linck deeply asleep.
But Maurice looked toward them as they entered the room. "Are you all right, Mama and Papa?" he whispered, careful not to wake the others.
"Yeah, we're fine, son," said Renton. "Just a little dirty, that's all. You guys had a pretty long night last night; you oughta be sleeping."
"I been thinking," he said, frowning down at the covers Eureka tucked beneath his chin.
Renton smiled. "You always do. What's on your mind now?"
"I just wanta know...did you and Mama kill anybody last night?"
"No," Eureka said. There could be no brushing off his concerns as childish worries; only the truth would do. "We didn't. We had to hurt some of the Federation soldiers to keep them from killing. But we didn't kill anyone, I promise."
"Uh-huh." Maurice paused, grappling with this news. "That's good. But isn't it wrong to hurt people, too?"
Eureka seemed at a loss, but Renton answered him carefully, glad for the dimness of the shuttered room. "Well, yeah, if it's for no good reason. Like the Federation was trying to do to us." He came closer to Maurice's bed and crouched beside him, face to face. "But we were protecting each other, Mama and me, and protecting the people here at Tresor who would've been hurt or killed by the soldiers. Sometimes you get forced into things where there isn't any good or bad for you to choose, so you can only choose the thing that's least bad. Does that make sense?"
"Maybe." The boy still frowned, unsatisfied.
"Look, here's something that Norbu told me one time. He's a holy man, and he thinks about this kind of thing a lot. As close as I can remember, he said, 'The trouble with total non-violence is that the rest of the world isn't nonviolent, and it never will be. So pacifists can only exist when they're protected by people who aren't pacifists. The rest of them end up either slaves or dead.' I don't like hurting people any more than Mama does, so I talked to him a lot about it, before he went to the tenth dimension. Does that sound okay?"
"Uh-huh, I guess. But...what does it mean?"
Renton thought deeply. This very question had caused him a great deal of agony, even once contributing to his leaving the Moonlight when the consequences of his own battle successes finally burned into his awareness. Explaining it now seemed somehow very important. "It means that it's okay to protect yourself and the people you love from being hurt."
"Oh." Maurice relaxed visibly, then. "I get it. Thanks, Papa. Can I tell Linck and Maeter that?"
"You certainly can," said Eureka. "Your papa really knows how to explain things. Even to me. Maybe most of all, to me." She lay one hand gently to Renton's head, and when he stood, kissed him and held him gratefully. "Maurice...what's that you've got next to you?"
"It's a Compac Drive," he said, bringing the familiar drive unit out andholding it up for them to see. "Grandpa gave it to me the other day. He said a real mechanic starts learning about stuff like this early. But...I think maybe there's something a little wrong with it. Sometimes there's...funny stuff in it."
Renton took the triangular permaglas cylinder from him, looking it over from all angles. "Yeah? Maybe it's broken. Sometimes the seals leak, and it can get contam..."
He broke off. As he held the drive between Eureka and himself, it quivered and glowed with an eager brilliance, the bubbling effect they had seen so often when piloting LFOs shimmering upward through the tube. And in the midst of the bubbles, dancing letters appeared, faint at first, then growing clearer as they streamed across the interface field again and again:
A R I A D N E
"You see, Papa?" said Maurice, pointing eagerly. "See? What does it mean?"
Eureka and Renton looked at each other, a little shiver passing over them in spite of the warmth of the room. She stared into the bubbling glow, unable to take her eyes from its hypnotic depths until Renton gently took it from her and returned it to Maurice.
"Again?" she whispered.
"We'll find out soon enough," Renton sighed as they both turned toward the door. "We always do, don't we? Good night, son."