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The Protector



The bedroom was crowded, much too small to hold this many people; but no one was leaving and there is no one I would ask to leave, either. The rest of the modest house was crowded, too, even the yard and gardens outside overflowed with people. They were gathered here to honor the man who has been the rock, the very foundation, of our society on this new world. His foresight, guidance and wisdom had helped shape the civilization we are trying to build.

While Emmett emerged as the active leader of our people, it was our father, Carlisle, who had become the wise sage – the beloved grandfather – who thoughtfully considered all aspects of a problem before offering his advice with loving grace and dignity. As the years passed and new generations were born, his reputation for wisdom and knowledge had also grown and spread. People began arriving from other cities and villages, even from far away countries just to seek his advice. He never turned anyone away, welcoming them with a friendliness and openness that reflected his generous spirit.

Now, all those people who had grown to love and cherish him have gathered here – in his humble home with its well-tended gardens filled with flowers and plants for his beloved bees – to honor him and tell him goodbye.

Carlisle, my father, and the best man I had ever known, was dying.

Bella and I, my brothers and their wives, our sister, Alice, and her husband Riley, were gathered around the narrow bed in his small bedroom. Although it had been fifty years since our mother's passing, and although Father was still a healthy, active man when we arrived on Earth, he refused to consider remarrying – even when we encouraged him to do so. None of us wanted him to be lonely; but he remained steadfast in his refusal, pointing out that he had sons, daughters, and grandchildren to keep him company. So he remained single, sleeping in the narrow, one-person bed around which we were all gathered.

Our children and our children's children were here, too, and with the recent birth of Emmett's first great-grandchild – a boy they had named Carlisle – there were now four generations present to say goodbye to the patriarch of our family.

Father was aware enough to know we were all here; he had opened his eyes several times. Too weak to speak, he smiled at each of us as his gaze wandered the room. Each time he fell back asleep I expected him to breathe his last. I could hear the rattling in his lungs and the slowing of his heartbeat when I checked; but he lingered on.

Time had been kind to our father. Even as his hair had grayed and his eyesight dimmed, he had remained strong and active. In between receiving visitors and pilgrims seeking his advice, he cultivated a beautiful garden, filled with herbs for my medical practice, and flowers for the bees that he tended with devoted care almost daily. Often his visitors left gifted with not only sound advice, but with containers of sweet honey as well. Over the years people had begun calling him 'Aristaeus,' an honorary title in the local dialect which meant 'the good or the best.'

He was all that and so much more.

In the difficult years after we landed on this planet, when so many external and internal pressures threatened to splinter our society into diverse fractions, he had been the glue that held us together, the binding force that kept us focused on the task before us.

Settling on Earth had been both wonderful and terrible.

During our relatively routine journey, Bella and I spent our time together strengthening both our physical and mental bonds. There were hours spent watching her grow the fresh fruits and vegetables we craved and then prepared together in the ship's galley. We both made good use of the ships archives, reading everything that had been downloaded and stored in the ship's computer about our valley's history and founding. I was excited to find all the journals by the female leaders of our society were there, too.

There were scientific, engineering, and medical texts in the archives, and I devoured them as time allowed. We found eye-witness accounts of the ecological disasters that gave rise to Avaro, descriptions of life under his rule and the lengths that people went to in order to escape his tyranny.

One of the most exciting records was a journal written by an active member of the underground resistance. It detailed a continent-wide, secret society that operated literally from Avaro's own headquarters. The journal was full of hazardous meetings, risky plans, and dangerous escapes, all for the sole purpose of thwarting Avaro's plans to eliminate the scientists and educators that he had labeled as traitorous enemies.

I was surprised to read how deeply Elizabeth had been involved in that underground group. She had been their liaison in the palace compound where her father and grandfather, as well as most of the senior officers lived. Ignored because she was female, she had been privy to strategic discussions and conversations as she prepared and served meals to Avaro's staff. Everything she learned was passed through channels to the leaders of the resistance group.

The journal contained more information about Elizabeth's father, Avarus, than Mother had shared with me. As terrible as Avaro had been, his son and heir, Avarus, was just as bad… if not worse.

Raised with very little regard for the sanctity of life, he used his unlimited power to manipulate the lives of everyone around him. From his siblings – whom he made sure were assigned to the far reaches of the empire, to his multiple wives – whom he would often discard on a whim, even to his own sons and daughters – whose lives he controlled through military assignments and marriages, he was ruthless in his pursuit of anyone he considered a threat. While Avaro had shrugged off the existence of the small groups of escaped scientists and educators living in the space station, ships, and the underground settlement as unimportant and not worth the effort to pursue, Avarus had taken their survival as a personal affront and actively planned for their destruction.

The hidden military base in the mountains that Elizabeth and Ares had infiltrated in order to steal the weapon he planned to use against them, held much more than just that one bomb. It contained a whole arsenal of old weapons and technology that Avarus had collected and was in the process of renovating and repairing. The destruction he would have unleashed on the world by using those little-understood weapons would have ended all life on the surface and in the atmosphere above the planet, too. As terrible as it was for Ares and Elizabeth to have detonated the bomb, it could be argued that they saved our race from complete annihilation.

Besides the archives and the galley, Bella and I went to the training room regularly. Ares had explained to us how important it was to stay physically fit and active on the journey. Our muscles would atrophy much more quickly in space if we did not exercise often, he told us.

Although she refused to even touch the swords or long whips, Bella did let me teach her some hand-to-hand defensive combat moves. She was quick and agile; it wasn't long before she was able to evade or rebut most of my attacks. The first time she successfully flipped me over her shoulder and I lay on the floor groaning, she dissolved into tears at the thought that she had hurt me. Her worry quickly gave way to glaring irritation when I couldn't contain my teasing laughter as she checked me over for broken bones or a head wound. I learned to watch my back very closely after that.

When she felt more confident, we added some simple work with blunt knives and small shields. Again it was all defensive training, more like a game of dodge and avoid, designed to sharpen reflexes and strengthen muscles. She absolutely refused to consider anything that was offensive or overtly aggressive. Even when I argued that we might be met with hostility when we landed on Earth, she remained steadfast in her refusal.

Sometimes we took long walks through the ship, routinely checking on our families and the other people securely tucked into their beds. Occasionally I would give into the urge to run, and would race through the halls of the ship, laughing and teasing Bella when she tried to catch me. I soon learned that letting her win had its benefits when her tackling me led to other physical activities on the floor of the ship.

Her favorite weapons training remained her bow, however. The only time I had seen Bella use it had been on the rocky outcropping in the Wastelands when she and Jasper had rescued me. Sick with fever from the Fanger's bite, I had only been vaguely aware of her skill. Now, in the ship's training room, I was treated to the full extent of her mastery of the weapon. The bow almost seemed an extension of her arm as she aimed, drew, and released in one fluid, graceful movement. She was so delighted and happy when she hit the target – which truth be told, she rarely missed – that I often found myself just standing and watching her. I loved to see her smile, to hear her infectious giggle, to observe the flirtatious smirk when she bested me in our archery contests. Her happiness and contentment wrapped us both in its joy and soothed my fears when I worried about the future.

Over the course of our journey, I watched her blossom into a beautiful, healthy woman; one whom I loved from the very depths of my being.

The ship seemed to take care of itself; very rarely did Ares ask us to perform any maintenance. But there were a few times when we had to physically clean or adjust something that had become clogged or stuck. Most of the time these chores were in the water, food or waste systems and were not serious or life-threatening. Twice however, we were awakened by an emergency klaxon when the oxygen levels dropped dangerously low in our living quarters. Cleaning and repairing the scrubbers that renewed our air supply was a tedious, time-consuming job that required both of us to spend at least one full wake cycle to complete the chore. After the second scare, we began checking the machinery on a regular, weekly basis.

It was while doing these chores and maintenance that I realized just how old and decrepit the ship actually was. Although the hull seemed to be in fairly decent shape – at least from what I could see – the interior and the life-support machinery had patches upon patches, repairs upon repairs. Sometimes I had to wonder if my shield were the only thing holding the ship together. Not only was time running out for the snowpack on Olympus; but it was running out for this ship as well.

I was thankful we were on our way.

Keeping my shield open to protect the ship soon became second nature. With Ares constantly monitoring its power, I rarely thought about it. It was just there, as much a part of me as breathing or blinking. Several times he did warn me of larger pieces of space debris that were approaching, and together Bella and I poured more force into its strength, successfully diverting the danger they posed.

At the beginning of our voyage, we spent a large part of our waking hours connected to Ares and the ship through the navigation globes and their wiring; but as our journey lengthened we spent less and less time with him. Although he was always there when I reached out to him – either mentally or through the globes – he seemed almost distracted at times. When I finally asked if something was happening, he assured me that it was just his programming updating itself. Although I didn't understand exactly what he meant, I was confident that he would inform me if he needed my help with anything.

All in all, the journey was a happy, idyllic time for Bella and me. During the hours we were awake, we worked together, played together, and spent time just talking about our past, our future, and what we might find when we reached our destination. Sometimes we would just sit in the pilots' chairs gazing at the vastness that surrounded us. We watched as the sun gradually grew in strength and size, as the tiny speck that was to be our new home became easier to spot against the blackness of space. We studied star maps and located other planets in our solar system. We learned about comets and asteroids and black holes.

Sleep periods were spent wrapped around each other. Always careful to follow Ares' monitoring of Bella's hormone levels, we explored all the different ways we could express our physical attraction and pleasure in each other. We were happy, content, and joyful in our love.

My reminiscing was cut short when I heard Father groan softly. Kneeling beside his bed, I gently took his hand, checking his slowing pulse. He must have felt my touch because he opened his eyes, studying my face when I asked if he needed something for pain. He shook his head slightly; then nodded when I offered him a tiny sip of water. He swallowed harshly, his parched lips moving slightly when I heard him whisper "Esme."

Our time on the ship had done much to heal the lingering pain and guilt I still felt about my mother's death; but finally arriving at Earth had reopened all those feelings.

It took some time to locate the exact settlement we were looking for. We knew the general location in which to search, a chain of islands along one side of a small inland sea near the planet's equator. Using the powerful viewing sensors on the ship, we found several large settlements that appeared to be those of people from our world. It was obvious from their stage of development that they had been on this planet for some time and were probably home to the groups that had left years before. We were looking for a newer site, one – which we hoped – was where the other citizens of Korinth were located.

After we found one that matched our criteria, Ares sent a group of small flying sensors he called probes, to examine the area more closely. When we found the metal remains of a shuttle, we knew we were in the correct location. Parked in prominent view on a small rise overlooking the settlement, the shuttle was an obvious beacon to anyone familiar with its purpose. The word 'Korinth' had been incised into the metal top and we knew then that they were anticipating and planning for our arrival.

Ares, Bella and I had spent hours discussing how to handle our initial approach to the inhabitants of the planet. Our plans were in place so that when I released my shield and the people began to awaken, I could quickly gather our selected delegation and take them in the shuttle to the planet's surface. We agreed that waiting to discuss everything with the leaders of the different groups would only lead to delays and dissension, so we bypassed that possibility by arranging everything in advance.

We proceeded exactly as we had planned.

Three of the older citizens from Korinth, whom we hoped would be recognized by their former neighbors; the head Matron and the oldest officer from our valley, to represent our society; Father, for his calm level-headedness; and finally Jasper for his ability to sense hostility or lies; were guided into the shuttle as soon as they awakened. It had been decided that I would go with them, keeping us under the protection of my shield until we could be certain of our welcome.

I expected Bella to insist on going with me; I was relieved when she did not press the subject. There were too many things that needed to be done onboard, and she understood that she was needed on the ship. It was Emmett who quickly caught on to what we were doing and began arguing about going with us; but Father was adamant that he stay on board, pointing out that the people would need his leadership to start organizing for our departure to the planet.

We took the smaller, faster shuttle, dropping quickly through the atmosphere, all the while safely wrapped in my shield. Slowly and carefully we approached the settlement, hovering close to the ground over an open field away from the village buildings; trying to seem as non-threatening as possible.

From the shuttle windows we could see movement in the streets as people poured from their homes, and more came running from the fields surrounding the settlement. Although we could not hear them, we could see them shouting and pointing at our craft as we watched them gather just outside the village, and begin their wary approach towards us.

The crowd stopped about midway between the village and our craft, standing and watching as we gradually settled on the ground. Jasper opened the main side door and lowered the stairs; but we stayed inside, waiting to see what they would do next.

I dropped my shield, so Jasper could try to sense the emotions of those facing us; but remained on high alert, ready to pop it open if needed. We waited, tense and uneasy as Jasper concentrated on scanning the people in the crowd.

Finally I heard him sigh in relief and settle back into his chair. "They're happy," he said. "I can sense happiness, expectation, and excitement that we are truly here. No one seems upset or frightened. I think it's safe to disembark; I can't feel any threat at all."

Just as he finished speaking, we spotted a lone figure detach itself from the group and begin to walk slowly towards us. I heard a sharp intake of breath from behind me and turned to see Father quickly rising from his seat. Before I could stop him, he was out the door, down the steps, and running towards the person approaching us. The head Matron was also on her feet, peering closely through the windows. I heard her gasp "Emily" before she too exited the shuttle.

I can still remember the shock on Jasper's face as we turned to look at each other, both of us realizing at the same moment that the person approaching us was our mother's mother… our grandmother, Emily. Within seconds we were all freeing ourselves from our safety harnesses and following the rest of the passengers as we left the shuttle and hurried to greet our past and our future.

We had reached our destination; but without the person who had worked so hard to make it possible. A few minutes later, when I stood staring at the woman who had raised our mother, and watched as her face crumpled in sorrow and despair when she realized her long-awaited reunion with her daughter was not to be, the pain of my mother's passing blossomed within me like a reopened wound.

Weeks later, after we had completed the transfer of all the people, supplies, and materials from the ship to the planet, I was finally able to spend some time with my grandmother. I told her everything I could remember about my mother, sharing stories about my childhood and our lives growing up in the valley, happy times that had us both smiling.

I recounted my disappointment in my assignment as a Ranger and the startling discovery of my gifts. I described my anger and the feeling of betrayal I felt when I learned the truth of my existence.

Emily had already been told the circumstances surrounding Mother's death, so I didn't linger on the description of the storm or what followed; but I did repeat to her, almost word for word, the long conversation I had with Mother in the settlement archives when she had finally explained everything to me. When I repeated Mother's admission that she had never wanted to be a leader and had resented the meetings and duties she had been forced to accept, Grandmother had laughed and nodded, confessing to me that she had been aware that Esme had been a bit stubborn and more than a little angry at times.

But it was when I begin to tell her about Mother's regret that she had lost the opportunity to express how much she had come to appreciate Emily for the strong woman that she was, how she had been unable to tell her that she had finally learned the lessons that Emily had tried to teach her, and how she had wanted so much to tell her mother that she was sorry; that my grandmother had broken down, weeping on my shoulder for the daughter she would never see again. I held her as we both mourned my mother's passing together.

That was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Emily and I shared a special bond until her death almost twenty-four years later. She had remained a good friend and confidant until her passing. Bella and I named our first daughter, Emily Renee, in honor of my grandmother.

I could hear soft weeping in the room around me; everyone aware that Father's time will soon be over and our sorrow increases as we watch him struggle to breathe. My eyes roam the room, lingering over the faces of our family, absorbing the startling changes that have occurred in our appearance in only three generations.

Our first indication that our lives were going to drastically change had been the physical difficulty of simply moving about on this planet. I had been correct in thinking that Earth was larger than our home world. Its greater mass meant that its gravity was much stronger and we struggled to breathe, to walk, to perform any type of physical activity. The scientists assured us that we would gradually adjust, our muscles becoming stronger and our lungs strengthening; but it was frustrating to constantly contend with the fatigue we felt. The young and fit recovered sooner, and I was very thankful for the strenuous training I had continued to maintain on the journey.

We had to learn to live with more than just increased gravity, however. Since we were so much closer to the sun, we had to be sure to shield our eyes from its glare and protect our skin from its burning rays. My first experience with what was called a 'sunburn' had taught me a painful lesson I never forgot.

At first the heat drove most of us indoors during the hot afternoons, making us appreciate the cooling sea breezes that sprang up in the evenings. And what a surprise that sea had been! At one time or another we had all found ourselves staring across that expanse of shining blue water as it sparkled in the sun. There was no end of it; it stretched out as far as the eye could see, only ending where it met the sky at the far off horizon. So, too, had we all – at one time or another – tried to drink it; but although it looked refreshing and thirst-quenching it was, in fact, so bitter and salty that we gagged at its taste. It was another painful lesson to be learned.

The air we breathed was different, too. Heavier and thicker feeling, it was richer in oxygen and laden with moisture that we were unfamiliar with. Everything about this planet, from the air we breathed, to the food and water we drank, to the way we went about our daily routines, demanded that we adapt and change if we wanted to survive.

We adapted, we survived, and we changed.

The changes began with our children and my nieces and nephews. None of them were as tall as we were. Their bodies were shorter, more muscular; their skin, eyes, and hair were darker. They had begun to adapt to the environment in which they had been born, and they looked more and more like the people we found living on Earth when we landed.

By the time our children were old enough to look for marriage partners, we had been in contact with all the descendants of the previous inhabitants of our planet. Several generations had passed for most of them and the effects on their physical appearance were even more pronounced. The changes were even more startling for those who had intermarried with the original people of Earth.

Ares had warned us there were people living on Earth; even so I was still not prepared for the shock of actually seeing them. Stocky and thickset, they were primitive, aggressive, and possessed only the most rudimentary technology. They lived in small groups that followed the large herds of mammals that roamed the open plains of the planet just north of where we landed. Yet they were also inquisitive and naturally curious. Those who came in contact with the original settlers from our planet quickly adapted to our more advanced culture and had been absorbed into those societies.

When several of our children chose partners from those other cities, the resulting offspring yielded the startling results I could see in the room around me.

There were other changes besides our appearance. As time went by our mental gifts began to slowly weaken. A couple of years after landing, Jasper confided in me that he could no longer sense or influence emotions. I found that to be also true about my shield. Rarely used, it slowly weakened, until I, too, could no longer open it without a great struggle. The day finally came when it was just gone and I seldom thought about it after that.

I could still touch Bella's mind when we were in private and in close physical contact, but that weakened over time, too. Her gift stayed intact for several years. When we first landed, she worked daily to accelerate the growth of the fruits and vegetables needed to help feed everyone. As we began raising more and more of our food, however, we no longer had to depend upon her ability; when we decided to start a family she quit using it completely.

There were times when I thought I saw a spark of some type of gift in our children and grandchildren. Some of them were more skillful at performing certain tasks, or understanding difficult problems, or persuading others to change their minds. People just accepted that everyone was different, with different abilities and with different strengths. After a while those abilities were explained away as being knacks. If you were good at something, then you had a 'knack' for it.

Although the former citizens of Korinth welcomed us with open arms, suddenly adding several thousand people to the population placed a huge strain on their resources. We stripped the orbiting ship of every bit of usable material we could find, including dismantling the large shuttle for its metal. It soon became obvious that we would need to find another location to settle because the area around Korinth was just too small for all of us.

It took several months of scouting and discussions before we could agree on a place to move. We finally settled on a nearby uninhabited island. Tall, sheer cliffs rising abruptly from the sea ringed half of its shoreline; while one, lone towering mountain made up most of the interior. There were several bays with wide sandy beaches, and an upper, grass-covered plateau, perfect for our growing herds of animals.

So began the labor-intensive efforts of rebuilding our society. Several villages with connecting roads were plotted and laid-out. There were fields to be cultivated, orchards to be planted, and pastures to be enclosed.

The engineers devised a system for diverting the water from several streams to irrigate the fields and orchards and to provide water for drinking and for waste disposal. We built a mill for grinding grain, a loom building for making cloth. The blacksmith shop was reassembled, and communal ovens and food storage facilities were constructed.

We worked and worked and worked some more; and together our new home gradually took shape.

We worked, we adapted, we changed.

In the beginning, we consulted with Ares almost daily; but as time went by we turned to him less and less. It became increasingly difficult for me to contact him mentally; and eventually, I could only speak to him by linking through the navigation ball in the small shuttle. Then one day, after months and months of no contact, I heard the engines of the remaining craft suddenly fire up. When I went to investigate, I found the shuttle door open and the pilot's stairs extended.

Ares was waiting for me when I entered, his visage on the viewing screen. He explained that he was leaving, that it was time for us – his children's, children's children – to make our own way in this new world. He told me he had been changing, too, his programing and his consciousness evolving into something entirely different. It was time for him to explore the universe, to see what possibilities waited for him. We exchanged a simple goodbye, both of us too full of emotions to say more.

I exited the shuttle to find most of our people either gathered around or watching from the nearby fields. Together we watched the craft slowly lift off the ground, the wings dipping in one last farewell, and then it rose up quickly into the clouds overhead, where it disappeared from view.

That was our last contact with Ares… until today.

As I knelt next to my father, whispering words of farewell, I was suddenly hit by agonizing pressure in my head. Doubling over from the pain, I was dimly aware of Bella calling out for help and hands lifting me to my feet. The pressure eased suddenly, and then I heard his voice in my head.

"Ares?" I called out in bewilderment.

I heard gasps around the room and people stumbling to step away from me.

We had tried to keep the true story of our history and our founding alive. Our children were told the truth, both good and bad of our civilization, its heroes and its tyrants; but over the years the tales had changed and with each telling and retelling the heroes had become more legend than mere people, and the tyrants had become personifications of evil.

This was certainly true about Ares. Trying to explain the truth about an intelligent, thinking machine was almost impossible to children and grandchildren who could not imagine such a thing. Ares had morphed into an almost omnipotent being of unlimited intelligence and power. He was revered for his cleverness and cunning and too often, his military prowess.

So to hear me suddenly calling out to him in the middle of the quiet room, shocked everyone.

"Edward, bring your father outside." His request was followed with a, "Quickly, now!"

I looked around the room to find all eyes on me, our extended family staring at me in confusion.

"We need to take Father outside," I said to the room, ending with a glance at my siblings.

Jasper and Alice began ushering everyone out of the room as I bent to lift my father's frail body. With Emmett helping to clear a path in front of me, we rushed through the house and out into the gardens.

The sight that greeted us there is one I will never forget. The people who had been waiting outside had gathered to one side, staring in stunned silence at the glowing metal object that hovered in the air, just a few feet off the ground.

I knew it had to be some type of shuttle; but it was unlike anything I could ever imagine. Instead of a dull, patched metal exterior with loud, roaring engines, the craft was a smooth, seamless, egg-shaped orb of gleaming, almost glowing substance. It wasn't very large, not much bigger than the room we had just left.

There were no obvious doors or viewing windows and it hung silently in the air with only a very soft hum emanating from it. As I approached it, there was a ripple in the substance and an opening appeared on one side. A long, narrow bed slid out of the opening, and with my siblings and our spouses surrounding me, I gently placed our father onto its soft surface. Within seconds his body was covered in a shroud of tiny, iridescent filaments. They wound around him, burrowing through his clothing, wrapping his hands and limbs and body, before attaching to his head and face. He opened his eyes then, wonder, astonishment, and pure joy filling his face as he turned to smile at us one last time.

"Esme," he sighed, before the bed slid back into the craft, the opening sealing over as if had never existed.

My family reacted immediately; Alice began openly wailing. I could feel Bella trembling with sobs beside me, and hear Emmett's stunned cursing. There was gasps and shouting from the crowd around us as they moved further away from the strange craft.

"Ares, Ares, what is going on?" I shouted. "What are you doing to Father?"

For a moment nothing happened, and then another ripple ran through the glowing metal. This time instead of an opening, the side morphed into a type of viewing screen; but rather than the flat monitors we had seen years before, this one projected depth and dimension. Ares' face stared back at us.

His image was so real looking, so life-like, that I found myself stepping towards him. He smiled at me, and then his eyes roamed across us, examining closely, before glancing at the crowd gathered at our backs.

"My children," he nodded, before focusing back on me. "Edward," his voice softened when he spoke, a more soothing tone meant to allay my concerns. "Your father's time has come. His body is dying; I made a promise that before he passed, we would return and take him into us, so that he could become like us, and of us. That is why we are here today."

His words were strange and confusing, and I frowned trying to understand what he was saying.

"I don't understand. Who is we and what will he become?"

Ares' face disappeared as another shudder passed across the surface of the craft. This time a different face looked back at us, one we had not seen in over fifty years.

Mother looked the same; dark red curls and green eyes, a tender, loving expression as she gazed at us. She also looked very young. I realized with a shock that she had been younger than all of us when she had passed. We had aged; but she had not.

"Esme," I heard Bella gasp, at the same time as I whispered "Mother" and my siblings reacted with their own exclamations of shock.

From the corner of my eye, I could see Alice step towards the image, hand out as if she wanted to touch our Mother's face. I grabbed her, pulling her back against me. "Don't Alice. It's been fifty years, we don't know who she is… or what she is!"

Alice huffed, but stayed beside me while Mother studied us intently.

"Oh, Edward," she finally spoke. "Always looking out for others, always the protector; but you shouldn't worry, I would never hurt you or…"

She stopped speaking then, letting her eyes shift over all of us standing before her. After examining us closely, a beautiful, happy smile swept over her face. "Any of my other children," she continued, "or my grandchildren, or great-grandchildren. Look at you!" she exclaimed. "You are all so beautiful, so wonderful, so alive. How blessed I am to be able to see you!"

I glanced around at our family, three generations staring back at the face of the woman who had worked so hard to make this dream a reality. They knew who Esme was, of course, we had told her story over and over; but to see this representation of her, this life-like image of the woman who had become more legend than reality, was shocking and more than a little frightening. It looked like our mother, sounded like our mother, but this was, after all, a projected likeness. Although I had always trusted Ares, I did not understand how or why he would lead us to believe this was actually our mother.

"Mother," I spoke, drawing her attention back to me. "I don't understand. Are you… are you like Ares? How and when did that happen?"

For a long moment the image was silent as she once again examined me closely. "The storm," she finally whispered. "We were trying to escape from the settlement before the storm destroyed it completely; but the door was jammed and you were desperately trying to push it open with your shield. I could feel your strength waning. Carlisle and Jasper both tried to help you, to give you a boost of energy; but they neither one were able to. Then you called out to Ares for help. There was so much despair in your voice; it broke my heart to hear you plead for his help."

Mother's eyes blinked rapidly trying to contain the emotion that filled them. She looked so real, so alive that I wanted to touch her face, to smooth the frown that marred her forehead; but I held myself back as she paused before continuing.

"I knew then what I had to do. I reached over and placed my hand over yours on the navigation ball. Instantly I was linked to you and to Ares; the sensor wires binding our flesh together. It was the most amazing feeling, Edward! I could feel you, I could feel Ares. I could feel the ship, and the settlement, and the storm around us. It was scary, and frightening, and exhilarating all at the same time."

She smiled broadly, shaking her head, and chuckling lightly as she continued. "My whole being came alive in a way I could never have imagined before. Deep inside me was something that had been dormant and waiting for so long. I realized I was not only daughter, wife, mother and leader; but I was more, so much more. Oh, son, there was so much power there! I reached in and grabbed that power and I pushed it into you and Ares. I poured everything that I was, all my past, and my present, and my future; all the gifts and possibilities I had denied myself. I took them all and I gave them to you and Ares."

"I remember looking at that door." This time she laughed out loud. "That dammed door! There was no way I was going to let that flimsy piece of metal prevent the people I loved from reaching safety. I seized your shield and blasted that door out into the storm. We opened the tunnel through the winds, and then we were out and soaring up into the clear sky beyond."

Mother paused in her storytelling, a sad contemplating, far-away look on her face. "I don't know what happened then, Edward," she finally admitted when she focused on me once again. "For a long time there was just nothing and then Ares was talking to me and it was like I just woke up from a long sleep. That's when I learned he had saved everything I had poured into him, and I had become part of the thinking machine that was both Ares and the ship."

We were all silent after she finished her story. I knew our family and the people around us didn't really understand everything she had just said. They had to be confused at the idea of a talking, thinking machine, and overwhelmed at seeing and hearing someone who passed away over fifty years ago. Even those of us who spent time connected to Ares have a hard time understanding just what he is. I wanted to be happy that part of my mother still existed, even if it is in this altered form; but there were many questions I wanted answered and I could feel a rising sense of anger when I thought about the years spent mourning her when she could have been here with us. Why did she not make herself known to us as part of Ares and the ship? Why had she waited so long and where had she been all those years?

The words escaped from my mouth before I could control them, my anger turning them into accusations rather than questions. "Fifty years, Mother, your body died fifty years ago! And we mourned you, not just us, your family; but everyone! Everyone in our valley, everyone from Korinth, we all mourned the woman who had been our leader, our wife, our mother. I lived with the guilt of your passing for years, thinking it was my fault and my short-comings that had caused your death. I listened to Father call out your name at night in his sorrow, and I watched Alice become a silent shadow of herself. And yet you existed as part of the computer the whole time? How could you do such a thing? How could you be so cruel?"

I'd been gradually moving closer and closer to the shuttle as my voice became louder and louder; the last sentence shouted at her image in front of me. I found myself shaking and my hands fisted in anger. The people around me stepped away, putting distance between us; but I could hear their hushed murmurings and feel their fear.

Bella's comforting hand on my arm brought me back to myself as I took a slow, shuddering breath to contain the emotions that I'd controlled for so long.

"If you really are our mother," I asked in a more reasonable, resigned voice. "Why has it taken so long for you to come back to us? We could have spent time together on the voyage here. You could have seen your grandchildren and great-grandchildren born. You could have been part of our lives for all these years. You could even have spoken to your mother, Emily. Why, Mother, why now?"

Mother was staring at me when I finally finished, so much emotion and turmoil on her face that once again I was struck at how life-like she and Ares appeared. Were they real or not? Shaking my head in frustration, I told myself that now was not the time to rehash the question of the nature of reality. She was here, Ares was here, and I needed answers to my questions.

Another ripple crossed the surface of the shuttle and Ares' face appeared beside Mother's.

"Do not blame your mother for what she could not control, Edward," he began to explain. "It was my lack of knowledge that kept her from becoming aware for many years. When she merged with us during the storm and pushed her very essence into me and you and the shield, I did not know how to capture, contain or activate all that she was. My blending with the computer had been a slow, lengthy process that had occurred naturally over many years. During the storm, when I was aware that her physically body was failing, I latched onto all of her that I could and stored it away in every space and part of my programming that was available."

Ares must see the bewilderment on my face at his explanation, because he stopped with a frown before continuing. "I know it is hard to understand, Edward. I cannot explain it any other way than to say that I stored Esme for safekeeping within me. During our voyage and after we landed, I was too busy with other things to concentrate on retrieving her data and beginning her programming. I still needed to learn how to separate her from myself and how to awaken her as a distinct individual."

"When I left you many years ago, it was to give myself the time and energy to change, to learn, to begin to evolve into something more. Eventually I was able to do so and with that knowledge your mother was able to awaken as her own being."

Ares glanced at Mother, a teasing smile on his face as he explains that one of her first demands was to see her family again, and a plea to have Carlisle join them.

"Time passes differently out there, Edward," he continued, looking upward towards the sky above us. "What has been years for you, has only been a short while for us. So do not blame your mother for what you perceive as indifference or cruelty. She is new to this existence and awareness, and we are here to fulfill the promise I made to make Carlisle one of us."

We were all silent when he had finished speaking. All my questions had been answered and I could think of nothing more to say. The silence was eventually broken by Alice who stepped forward, sobbing out our mother's name even as she reached to touch her image. A dozen shining filaments wrapped around Alice's hand, and we watched breathlessly as her sobs turned to smiles, and then laughter as she reconnected to the mother she had lost so many years ago.

One by one we touched our mother, linked and joined not only with her, but with Ares as well. Over the next few days almost everyone spent some time with them, absorbing the amazing things they had seen and experienced during their time away from us. A week or so after they arrived we awoke to find that Father had joined them. It was strange to see his image along with Mother's and Ares'. He looked very much the way I remembered him from my youth, and I was glad that he and Mother were reunited again, although in such a very strange and alien way.

They stayed with us for several months; but I knew that the time was fast approaching when they would leave. Our differences were too vast to overcome; they belonged to the stars, we belonged here on Earth.

I spent most of the last day connected to them asking questions and sharing my concerns about our society. I firmly believed it was important for both boys and girls, and young men and women to experience everything that was needed to keep our system functioning.

The training rotations in our old valley meant that everyone knew how to do everything needed to survive. All the information needed to plant, raise, harvest, store, and prepare our food was something we all learned. So, too, were the skills to maintain our water and waste systems, the mining and metal-working, the making and preparation of cloth for our clothing. Boys and girls, male and female, side-by-side we learned what needed to be done to ensure our future. Except for the Protector program, boys and girls were educated and trained in the same way.

Although we had tried to establish that same pattern on Earth, over the years it had gradually been abandoned. With unlimited resources and room to expand, our population exploded. Young men and women married at an earlier age and had more children. Larger families meant women spent more time in the home and men spent more time farming, hunting and fishing. The divide between male and female roles became wider and wider. I was concerned about maintaining the equality between genders if those roles became unequal or one was viewed as more important than the other.

Bella had encouraged me to let my fears go. She told me it was past time for me to worry about our society and the civilization we were building. She was right, of course, already large groups had left our islands and settled on the mainland. Villages became towns, towns became cities, and cities had turned into city-states as they dominated the area surrounding them. Some had established a system of government in which every adult had a voice, others had opted for an advisory form of rule, and still others – much to my dismay – had formed a more militaristic government and instituted a form of the Protector program.

The future belonged to our descendants and it was their right and privilege to shape their own destinies. Ares, Mother, and Father agreed with Bella, it was time to let the worries go, time to enjoy the remaining years of our lives.

Everyone on our small island gathered to watch them leave. With words of love and farewell ringing in our ears, we watched the vehicle slowly rise up into the sky and then, in less time than a blink, it was gone. It was time for them to find and shape their own destiny.

Life continued.

My siblings and I settled into our roles as the wise elders. Dispensing advice when it was asked for, help when it was needed; but for the most part enjoying our lives with our spouses, children and grandchildren. Life was good. Food was plentiful, the water clean and sweet, and the weather warm and balmy. We lived a life of peace and contentment on our small island.

As time passed, however, more and more of us who had journeyed through space began to pass away. I watched and grieved as one-by-one the members of my former cohort left us. In one month's span we made the trek up to the base of our mountain carrying with us the shrouded bodies of Hunter and Kate, Mike, Ben, and Cora.

Emmett was the first of my siblings to leave us. Rose awoke one morning to find him silent and cold beside her. Our only consolation to his passing was that it was quick and painless. As if she could not bear to live without her husband and life-mate, Rose wasted away before our eyes, following Emmett only a few weeks later.

Over the next two years Jasper and Mary Alice, Riley and then most shockingly my little sister, Alice, all passed away, leaving only Bella and me to cope with their absence.

And then there was only me.

One afternoon Bella had taken to our bed, explaining that she was tired and needed to nap. As I joined her, she had placed her hand on my cheek, opening her mind to me. I knew then that she was leaving me, that her time had come. Gathering her into my arms, I held her to me as we shared memories of our life together. Images of our home planet, of the physical pleasure we found in each other, of the joy in the birth of our children and grandchildren, of a life, well-lived and well-loved, passed between us. And then with whispered words and promises of never-ending love, I felt her mind slowly dim, the bright, glowing energy of the Bella I found so long ago in my room in the underground settlement, slipping away and closing to me forever.

For months I was lost in my despair. I longed for death to take me, that each day would be my last, and I cursed the fates that had chosen me to be the last of my people. But each time when I thought I could no longer go on, someone would come to our home seeking medical help, or a stranger would make the journey to our island asking questions or advice from one of the last of the 'star people' as we were now called. Each new task gave me a reason to linger on, a purpose to continue in a life I no longer desired.

One evening I was relaxing in the gardens of what had been Father's house and then became our home when he left. Our youngest granddaughter and her family had moved in upon Bella's passing, and I could hear the soft murmur of their voices as they prepared for the night. The sweet mingled scents of flowers and herbs filled the air and I could hear the buzzing of bees and insects around me as they collected the last of the day's pollen.

I had leaned back in my chair, resting my head and closing my eyes as I absorbed the peacefulness of early twilight, when I felt a small hand pat my knee. Opening my eyes, I found my great-granddaughter standing in front of me, a gap-toothed smile on her five-year-old face. She held out her arms to me and I picked her up, settling her comfortably in my lap.

She was eating a pomegranate, a seed-filled fruit we had found growing on Earth, the purplish-red juice staining her mouth and hands. Digging into the flesh with her small fingers she offered me several of the seeds, giggling when I sucked both the seeds and her fingers into my mouth. For some time we made a game of eating the fruit: she… trying to feed me before I could catch her hand with my teeth; and me… growling as I tried to nibble on her fingers. Her giggles turned to happy shrieks, and I was soon laughing along with her.

She tired after a while, quietly leaning against my chest as we watched the sun setting in a fiery blaze of color over the sea before us. I must have dozed off for a bit because I woke to a tiny hand patting my cheek and a small voice demanding my attention.

"What is it, little one," I yawned.

"Tell me a story, Poppa."

"A story? What kind of a story would you like to hear," I mumbled, still not fully awake.

"That kind." She pointed at one of the evening stars hanging just above the horizon. "Tell me a story about the stars. Please, Poppa."

She had unknowingly pointed at the planet we still called Ares, its slight reddish color faintly visible from Earth.

"That's not a star, little one," I explained. "It's a planet, and the place where Poppa used to live when he was a little one like you."

She turned her face towards me, her large dark eyes studying me intently in the waning light. "You were a little girl, too, Poppa?"

"No," I answered, trying hard to suppress my chuckles. "I was a little boy; but I had a friend who was a little girl, just your age when I lived there."

"Tell me, Poppa, tell me!" she demanded.

So I told her a story about a little boy and a little girl who played together in a lovely garden and how the little girl loved plants and flowers so much she helped them grow. Sometime later I realized she had fallen asleep. I carried her into the house and carefully handed her over to her mother who thanked me with a kiss on the cheek and wished me goodnight.

The next evening found us once again in the gardens; but this time her seven-year-old brother joined us. The third evening there were more children sitting on the ground in front of my chair listening to my stories, and by the fourth evening, we were joined by many of the adults from our small village.

That night I tossed and turned, finding no comfort or rest in my lonely bed. In the early morning hours I rose, consumed with an idea and a new purpose for my existence. Gathering all the writing supplies I could find, I began to put my words into a more permanent form. I wrote all that day and all the next night, stopping only to eat, grab a quick nap from time to time, and spend an hour or two in the evening telling stories in the garden.

I wrote for six days and six nights. Early in the predawn darkness of the seventh day, I knew my story was finally finished. Wrapping a warm cloak around me, I started the long walk up to the foothills of our lone mountain. Behind me I left the house that Bella and I had once shared with my father, the walls witness to a multitude of events, both good and bad, happy and sad, that were the sum of our lives on this world.

Bella's remembrance stone was at the edge of the meadow that held her resting place. I sat beside it, smiling as I read the words written there. I was tired, and I knew it was now my time to leave, to join all those family members and friends who had gone before me. It was time to reunite with the woman I had loved all my life.

Before Ares' departure that last, final time, I had asked him what happened when we passed, when our bodies breathed their last. For all his knowledge, for all he had seen and experienced, he was unable to tell me. "I don't know, Edward," he said. "Existence is more complex than we can ever imagine. There are universes within universes, realities within realities. Energy cannot be destroyed, it can only change from one form to another. Perhaps the atoms of our beings will spread themselves across space and we will become part of the song that unites everything. Perhaps at the end of all time, we will reach what was once our beginning."

I've often thought about his words in the intervening years. They gave me comfort and hope when I said goodbye to so many of my people.

Dawn is spreading across the sky. It touches the peak above me, and I look up at its towering height one last time. We named it Olympus, after the mountain of our home valley. It isn't as tall or as massive, and it will never be covered with snow; but its bulk was somehow just as comforting, and, just like our previous Olympus, we had interred our loved ones on its slopes.

The ocean below me is sparkling in the new day, its foam-crested waves breaking on the sandy beaches. I can barely see the roofs of the houses lining its shore. I would watch more of the new day arriving; but I am tired, so very tired.

Lying down on the grass beside Bella's resting-place, I close my eyes, letting my thoughts drift to all the moments that have made my life. I remember how disappointed I was on my Oath Day when everything I thought I wanted, had been denied me; but even if I could, I would not change a single minute of the great adventure my life had become. I am thankful for every second of my existence.

Bella had also sworn an oath on our homeland so many, many years ago. She told me I would be a doctor, have a family, and we would be happy. Everything she promised had come true. I had my medical practice, we married, had a family, and we were happy… so very, very happy.

I smile to myself as I take one long, last, shuddering breath. The energy of my being is slipping away, rushing off into that great mystery that waits for all of us, eager to join the song that the universe sings… of itself, to itself.

I know that in one of those houses lining the ocean's shore a young woman is entering a now vacant room. She will cry out in surprise and despair to realize I am gone. Walking to my desk, she will pick up the writing I have left there. I think she will smile when she begins to read the first sentence.

"The ground is hard and cold beneath me… "



AN: Thank you for reading.

Two years ago, on May 24, 1016 I took a big leap of faith and posted the first chapter to a story I had been writing and imagining for some time. It was the beginning of a wonderful experience for me. I'm thankful and appreciative for all the followers, readers, and reviewers who joined me along the way. Many people asked "what happened next?" this future take is for all of you. There are still so many characters in The Protector universe who have not had their full story told, and although I haven't started any of their tales, yet, who knows when they will demand to have their fair share of attention? If you don't have me on author alert, please add me.

Am I still writing? Yes. I wrote a little story for the Secrets and Lies Contest. It was called, 'Once.' It was... different? That may be a very kind description. LOL Although some people liked it, the reviews were a bit mixed. I'm waiting to post it on my account until the next two chapters are finished. I've also dug up an old story I began a few years ago and have started working on again. It is a modern day romance/adventure story set on the Appalachian Trail and based on some of the people and events my husband and I encountered on our hike back in 2003. It stars Edward and Bella, of course! I hope all of you will join me when it begins posting.

Thank you, again, for reading my story. Your support and enthusiasm for my work was overwhelming and I appreciate everyone of you.

And lastly, to Bellebiter, love you, dear friend!