Ripples of Memory: A Homeworld Tale

"So much better to travel than to arrive." - Margaret Atwood

Karan had to admit that it was a lovely sight. The way the surface of the water rippled and shimmered as her fingertips grazed it was nothing short of magical. The warm sun reflected against the ripples as they ebbed slowly away. She turned over, holding her head up and watching the arcs of disturbed fluid, seeing them spread, merge and create more ripples, each set more subtle and complex than the last. The scientist in her could never be fully quelled; it analyzed and predicted the fluid dynamics taking place in the water. The calculations quickly became too much, and she couldn't sense the trend of the ripples any longer. There was a time, not so very long ago, when she could have continued analysis of the effect for hours if she wished, even predicting the infinitesimal effect her ripples would have on the other side of this Hiigaran sea. She was smaller now, though. She was only a tiny fraction of what she had once been, and could not manage the task. She closed her eyes and pursed her lips into a thin white line.

Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes again. Still, it was beautiful. The vast stretch of water, snow-capped mountains visible just over the horizon, crisp air cooling her skin, the violet-tinted sky, collections of cloud heavy-laden with water vapor, and the green. Everywhere around her, more green growth than she could have ever hoped to see on Kharak. Even now, over seven years after Landfall, she had not adjusted to this new world and its bounties. She had known the harsh deserts of Kharak all her life, and had grown accustomed to many of the necessities of life - food, shelter from the sun, and especially water - being ever in short supply. Here on Hiigara, though, all these things were plentiful. Things grew here, in abundant amounts. There was enough on this world to support many generations of life and more still.

Seeing Hiigara for the first time, setting the ships down on its surface, trying their first uncertain steps on its ground and feeling the difference in gravity, smelling the change in the verdant air... all these things and more had been strange new experiences for the survivors of the Hiigaran Exodus, but all had agreed that it felt right. Something in this new world hearkened to them and made them feel at home. In this, Karan had been no different. She felt a kinship and belonging here, as she had never felt on Kharak. And yet... and yet.

And yet she still felt incomplete. She felt... lessened somehow.

Her thoughts were disturbed when a voice called gently behind her. She looked up and turned her head to the side. She could see a young man out of the corner of her eye. He was standing behind her, very straight, very tall. "What was that?" she asked. Her voice had a hard edge, smooth as sandglass.

"I said that they're ready for you, S'jet-sa."

She pushed herself up from the deck upon which she had been laying, dusting her slightly rumpled grey jumpsuit off lightly, shaking out her shoulder- length hair, then stopped. "I suppose it doesn't matter much, does it." It was more of a statement than a question.

The young man looked quizzical for a moment, his formality falling away. "What?"

She gestured to her jumpsuit, still a bit grimy. "Doesn't really make a difference whether I'm dirty or clean."

He looked down at her clothes, then down at his feet, embarrassed. "No, I... I suppose not."

She smiled a little bit, a tiny lift that curled the corners of her mouth almost imperceptibly. "Thank you for being honest, anyway."

He turned around quickly, seemingly glad that he didn't have to face her anymore, his proper tone returned. "Will you follow me, S'jet-sa?"

"Certainly," she said, and he began to walk down the path that led back to the main compound. He took an easy pace, and she fell in behind him. She walked silently for a little while, taking note of his uniform, with its form-fitting dark fabric and light armor plates fastened at the most strategic points. It was probably uncomfortable to wear such things on a day like this, though surely not as bad as it might have been on Kharak. The relatively moderate climate of Hiigara made so many things easier.

Karan also noticed the sidearm currently holstered at the young man's hip, in easy reach of his right hand. It was a small, unpleasant-looking thing, as it was probably meant to be. She assured herself that these weapons were probably required equipment for all of the prison guards, but it was still an uncomfortable reminder of her current standing in the order of things.

A light, cool breeze picked up as they progressed. The prison was one of the few structures remaining from the old Taiidan occupation of Hiigara. It had been a government facility, she thought, or perhaps the dwelling-place of one of the Empire's high officers (though certainly not the Emperor's; his palace had been burned to the ground within days of the Mothership's arrival). The sensors and guard posts along the perimeter of the facility had already been installed, and only a few minor changes in their functional capabilities had been needed to turn the facility into one that kept people in, rather than one that kept people out.

Karan had admired the irony of a former Imperial facility being used as a prison. She couldn't say that she held the same appreciation for the fact that she was now kept in that facility.

As they walked, her guard still silent a few paces in front of her, she fingered the thin metal bracelet that encircled her wrist snugly. She knew how it worked. She had, after all, worked with the team that designed it, originally for Taiidani prisoners taken during the Exodus. Microcircuitry embedded within the bracelet tracked her wherever she went. If she crossed the sensor perimeter the bracelet would send out an alarm signal to the central prison command center as well as the nearest guard tower, informing them of her location. Positioning of the guard towers at strategic locations meant that an armed transport hovercraft could be expected to arrive within two minutes of the initial signal, and would most likely find their subject on the ground, unable to move apart from the occasional twitching reaction to the electrical pulse now being sent through the body along the nervous system. It was supposedly a painless paralysis, but she had no wish to test that hypothesis on herself.

The bracelet was a formality, she had been assured many times. All detainees at the prison had to wear them, and to give her special treatment would be unfair. Well, there was a first time for everything, wasn't there? She had been given nothing but special treatment since they had arrived at Hiigara. How refreshing, for once, to be treated like everyone else.

She looked up ahead on the path and saw that the main compound looked a bit closer, but they still had some distance to cover. The silence, apart from the guard's booted feet crunching rhythmically along in the gravel of the path, was starting to feel more uncomfortable. She glanced again at the guard, and noticed for the first time that he seemed familiar. She couldn't place it at first, but then she thought she knew. "You were on the journey from Kharak with us, weren't you?" she asked. "You were not among the Sleepers."

The guard kept moving as he answered. "Yes, S'jet-sa."

"Then you have me at a disadvantage. What is your name?" He stopped and turned round to look at her, his eyes questioning. Karan smiled slightly in response. "My memory," she said, tapping her temple lightly with two fingers, "is not exactly what it once was, you see." Her hand drifted down to lightly brush the scar left by the neural shunt at the base of her neck, one of many such scars on her body.

"Oh..." The guard blinked and looked at her more closely, then understood. "Oh! Of course, S'jet-sa... I apologize. I meant no-"

"Never mind the apologies. I know you didn't mean to offend me, and you didn't."

The guard seemed to breathe a sigh of relief. "Thank you, S'jet-sa."

"And while we're at it, let's drop the titles, too. I did not accept the leadership of the kiith when it was offered to me. The S'jet clan is secure in the capable hands of my cousin Sorin, and there is no need for you to call me by any title." She paused here and smiled a little. "Not even 'Fleet Command.' Please call me Karan, or if you must, Doctor S'jet."

The young guard was at a loss. She was sure by now that he had been a pilot of some sort during the Exodus, and so to him she would always be the leader... the famed savior of the Kushan race... Fleet Command. How strange and surreal for him to see her like this. He was at least six inches taller than she was. That in itself must have bothered him.

While he was still trying to stammer out an answer, she decided to tease him a little. "And I still don't know your name... have you decided not to tell me now that you know who I really am?"

The young guard finally managed to take a breath and form a few coherent words. "N-no ma'am... I mean... no, Doctor S'jet." He was searching for what to say next. She waited patiently. "I... My name is Ciirad Paktu."

"Ahhh... May you sail upon sand and sea, Ciirad Paktu, and may the journey be smooth." she said, quoting from an ancient Paktu kiith greeting. "May I ask how you served during the Exodus?"

The young man - Ciirad - looked at her again, even more carefully this time, measuring her reaction as he did his words. Still looking in her eyes, he responded "I was an Interceptor pilot. Second squadron, Majiir Group. Just a cadet, really. I didn't even see much of the fighting until we had almost reached Hiigara."

She nodded, and his eyes dropped quickly, respectfully. She was still wrestling with her fragmented memories of that time, sure she could remember... something. Her attention shifted inward, and while she was trying to remember how she knew him, Ciirad muttered something she couldn't quite hear. She brought her eyes back to his face. "What was that? I didn't hear you."

His gaze met hers again, a little shakily. "I said that you saved my life."

"I did? Personally?" She was genuinely surprised by this revelation.

He studied her frankly now, some of his earlier nervousness gone. "You really don't remember?"

She concentrated, and for a moment recalled flashes of light, bright beams in the dark, sudden and noiseless violence. Then it was gone again. Her lips compressed in frustration. "No. I'm sorry."

Still scrutinizing her, he explained. He did not wait for her to ask for details this time. "It was the last jump before we reached Hiigaran space. When that thing was sent at the Mothership."

"You mean the rockship?" she asked.

He nodded curtly. "At least you remember that much."

"Yes..." Of course she remembered it. Of all of the dangers her and the other Exiles had faced on their journey, the "rockship" (really nothing more than an asteroid the size of a small moon, retrofitted with some old but powerful engines and hurled straight into the path of the approaching Mothership) had come the closest to threatening her directly. It had taken everything they had to simultaneously stop the asteroid and deal with the Taiidan fleet that had accompanied it. Even then, it had been a close thing.

She shivered involuntarily at the memory of near-extinction. Even now, their status on Hiigara seemed terribly fragile, based only on luck and loss.

Ciirad had continued with his story, and she brought her attention back to it. "...had just finished with the last of the Taiidani frigates when we saw the destroyers approaching the fleet. I could see most of our remaining fleet hammering away at the asteroid in the distance. I had never seen so many ion beams focused on a single target before. It was beautiful... scary as the ninth Hell, but beautiful."

"I also knew that it meant little chance of help against the ships that we saw coming. Everyone else had diverted to take out the rockship, we were one of the last strike wings left that could do anything. I doubted most of the other ships even saw the destroyers' approach; the asteroid would have been obscuring their view."

"Our strike wing was still strong, though low on fuel. We went in towards the lead destroyer in the triad, sweeping in from above and slightly behind him. I think we took 'im completely by surprise. Our plasma bombers did the most damage, though the concentrated fire from the Interceptors and corvettes had to hurt too. We passed close enough that I saw huge patches of armor on that behemoth blistering from the heat we were delivering - literally melting. The destroyers were slow to react, and we swung around for a second pass before they even started returning fire at us. I saw a few heavy mass charges fly by, and they got off one shot of their ion cannons before we were in line again - a complete miss. The volley we started now looked like it went straight down the lead destroyer's throat. I only got off three or four shots myself before the whole thing went up. It was incredible."

"Our wing commander wasted no time basking in the afterglow. He quickly ordered us all to divert to the next target. We flew through the wreckage field of the first destroyer and faced down the second. Plasma bombs and mass charges started exploding on its surface, concentrated to a very small area amidships. I could see the hull starting to buckle already. Return fire from both remaining destroyers was heavy by this time, though, and more accurate than it had been before. Their gunners had gotten smart, too, and were focusing the artillery on the smaller, weaker ships, while ion cannons sought out the more heavily-armored corvettes. By the time we had completed that pass on the destroyers, we could see that the one we had been focusing fire on was badly damaged, but our strike wing was decreased by almost a third."

Karan was listening intently at this point. She was remembering much more of the battle Ciirad was describing now, and she thought she knew how it ended. She waited to hear him tell it, though. These were memories that she needed, even though they were someone else's.

"Commander Sejuuk decided it was time for a change in strategy. Our turn for the next attack run was our most vulnerable moment -- we could be chopped to pieces while we were still trying to re-group, now that we had lost the advantage of surprise. As we began our turn, he had us shift our formation at the same time. It was a complex maneuver that I'm pretty sure ended up keeping most of us alive, as our positions shifted unpredictably..." He paused here, lost in memory, and smiled a little. "At least, unpredictable to anyone who hadn't trained with us."

"As we came round again, a couple of Interceptors were hit by stray artillery fire, but the majority of our formation held. We formed a claw, converging on the damaged destroyer with all we had. Our turn had brought us almost directly aft of the ship, and some of our fire went straight into its rear thrusters, smashing the exhaust assemblies and who knows what else inside the ship. The other destroyer was pulling around, though, and by the time we finally managed to blast the second one out of space, the third was bearing down on us."

"I heard the screams of my squadmates cut short as one by one they were hit and consumed by ion beams or smashed to pieces by artillery. The commander was ordering us to move, to regroup at a distance for a final run, but nobody was moving. I looked at my gauges and realized why. Most of us were out of fuel."

He paused here, breathing, considering. Karan did not know if she should say something. She didn't have to.

"My ship -- my ship was dead in space. So were most of the other Interceptors and attack bombers in our wing. The few remaining corvettes still had some juice, and were doing their best to protect us, but the destroyer was still coming, and was focusing fire on them first.. It had full ion cannons brought to bear as well as most of the heavy guns. We weren't going to last long. I turned my ship as best as I could and squeezed off a few shots, but at my range I couldn't even see if they hit. I watched as the destroyer advanced, methodically picking off ship after ship."

Ciirad had been looking off into the distance. Now he turned to look at her suddenly, eyes focused and clear. She noticed the sheen of tears beginning to collect in them. When he spoke again, she could hear a trace of his Paktu accent creeping in around the edges, his voice quavering slightly.

"I was sure I was dead, Doctor S'jet. I mean... positive. I saw it coming for me, and I was ready. But then - then I heard a voice... your voice. Clear as water, it was. 'Battle Group 6,' you said in my ear, 'decloak and attack now.' And suddenly, in a heartbeat, four ion cannon frigates shimmered into view practically right in front of me, and just started blasting away at the last destroyer. The destroyer diverted fire to them to defend itself, but was obviously taken off-guard by the sudden appearance of more active targets. A hail on my comm module told me that three support frigates had also come round to my rear, and were ready for repair and refueling, but I was still in shock. I was watching the ship that was supposed to be killing me by now getting relentlessly hammered by our unexpected reinforcements."

"While I was watching, you said one more thing. in the same clear, calm voice, you told us 'Sorry, Majiir Group. I got them there as soon as I saw what was happening. A bit distracted right now.' Then you clicked off. Moments later - it could have been seconds or minutes, I'm not sure - I watched the last ion shots finally cut all the way through that destroyer, punching through the other side and further. Then it went up in a massive fireball, debris flying all around us.

"I was still a bit dazed by the whole thing. I looked over toward the Mothership and saw the asteroid approaching so close, so close that I thought it would hit at any second, and then those frigates - I couldn't see how many, they were bunched so close together - they charged it at full thrust and smashed themselves right into its surface. The rockship disintegrated at the impact... just fell apart. I guess after all the pounding it had already gotten, it just couldn't hold together anymore. Still, it looked like it had been so close... so close..."

Karan nodded slowly at what he was saying. "It was close, Ciirad. Less than a hundred meters from contact with me - with the Mothership. If not for those frigates that rammed it, I might well be dead. So would all the colonists I had been carrying." She paused here, and thought about what to say next. Ciirad took the opportunity to interject.

"But... if you hadn't sent those extra ships to save our wing... then maybe..."

"Maybe what?" she interrupted. "Maybe I should have let you die? Maybe I should have worried more about myself?"

"... and the other colonists... " Ciirad muttered, confused.

Karan's expression softened a bit, understanding. She reached out, hoping her gesture would not be misinterpreted, and touched his forearm, then gripping it in an ancient gesture of friendship and camaraderie. He did not balk or pull away. "Listen, Ciirad... I'm not sure how I can explain this to you, but I'll try. First of all, it was part of my job to keep you all alive. All of you. You were placed under my leadership, for good or ill, and that was not a responsibility I took lightly. It scared me, sometimes, and it felt impossible to protect you all. I had to make some hard choices during the journey... but the choice to send those few ships to save your group was not one of them. In fact, it was one of the easiest decisions I had to make. The hard part was that I couldn't spare more ships to send, or send them any sooner than I did."

"You say I saved your life, and that may be so. I'll leave you to judge that for yourself. But I know this: you saved my life. Just as much as the crews of those frigates - those lives that can never be replaced, those sacrifices that saved us all - just as much as them, you put yourself on the line, for me... for all of us. By having the courage to fight those three destroyers, your battle group saved me, and saved the colonists I was carrying. If you hadn't done that, those destroyers would most likely have chopped our remaining fleet to bits before we even knew they were there, and left the asteroid to destroy the Mothership. You saved us, Ciirad. You and Majiir Group are part of why we're standing here today." Karan looked into his eyes and squeezed his arm a little more tightly, her voice strong and clear, as she imagined it had sounded during the Exodus, when she had been surrounded and encased by the body of the Mothership. "Did you know that there was a Paktu in command of those frigates, Ciirad? Do you know what their last words to me were? As they began their final run, I received a transmission from the lead ship... the commander was calling out, like a battle cry: 'I can smell the sea!' You know what that means, Ciirad?" He stared at her, breath coming in short gasps. "It means... It's an old Paktu saying. It means 'We're nearly there. Just a little farther.'" "That's right. That's exactly what it means. It was only at that moment, when I heard that, that I realized what the frigates were doing, and I tried to stop it, I tried... but it was too late. Too late for them, just in time for the rest of us. And the most important thing, the thing you have to remember is... they were right. They were right, Ciirad, and you knew it too, because you were ready to make the same sacrifice."

Ciirad caught his breath at what she was saying, unable to speak as she continued. "We all owe you our thanks for what you risked, and what you lost. Me most of all. Thank you." A tear slipped from the corner of his eye and fell down his cheek. His hand came up to brush the tear away, but another fell quickly behind it.

She looked into his eyes, her own vision blurred with moisture. She wanted to step forward and embrace him, but if touching his arm was inappropriate, then holding him close was certainly out, no matter the reason. She resisted the urge, but kept her hand on his arm, looking up into his eyes still. They stood that way for what seemed like a long time, her hand gripping his arm, tears flowing freely from his eyes. Then he looked down at her and smiled; an honest, open smile. He moved his hand so that it could grip her arm as hers was gripping his, returning the gesture she was offering. As he did so, his eyes closed and he finally breathed again.

Then he laughed nervously, releasing her arm as his hands went up to brush the tears from his cheeks again. "Look at me," he said. "Blubbering away like a first-born!"

"It's all right," she said. "Nobody here to see it but me, and apparently I'm not a reliable source anymore." A smile flickered across her lips.

Ciirad smiled too, then added, "Thanks for listening to me. I really didn't mean to go on so long. And I... I mean - thank you for what you said." His demeanor was easier with her now, more relaxed. She was glad to see it.

"You don't know how important your story is to me, Ciirad." She looked at him for a moment, then on towards the central prison complex, which was now fairly near. "I suppose we should get going, before we find another reason to start thanking one another again."

He actually laughed at this, and then nodded, turning around to have a look at the big white building himself. "I'm surprised they haven't sent out a search party by now. I'm sure I shouldn't have taken nearly this long, and you're the closest thing we have to a celebrity here. They'll be waiting for you now, and they don't like to wait."

"Yes... I know." She set herself with what determination she had left to her. "Let's go. Time to face down the sun."

He nodded again, silent now, her attitude affecting his. He began to walk forward, and she followed behind. He stopped after a few steps, and looked over his shoulder at her. "I... would be most honored if you would walk beside me the rest of the way, Doctor S'jet." His eyes found hers, and he added "... Karan."

She smiled again at this. "And I would be most honored to do so, Ciirad Paktu," and she stepped forward to stand beside him. He looked ahead and continued up the path. She matched him stride for stride as they approached the compound.

She had not been exaggerating when she had told him that his story was important to her. They all were. She had heard many such stories in the years following planetfall, and they had helped her to reconstruct the events of the Exodus and her involvement in them.

When she had been extracted from the Mothership's core, naked and dripping from the thick, pungent fluid of the deprivation tank, the last thing she had remembered was the neural shunts being attached to all of her critical nerve clusters before the journey. Per her careful instruction, since she could not do it herself, her laboratory technicians had implanted the bio- circuitry that would complete the connection between her body and mind, and the hull and computers of the Mothership. The surgery for the implants alone had required months of recovery time, but the final step had been to attach the connector shunt cables to her implants, one by one in precise order: left foot, right foot, left arm, right arm, at the base of the spine, and finally, at the base of the neck. Her last memory before stepping out of the warm and steaming bath of fluid after being rescued from the Emperor's assault at Hiigara was the sharp feeling of the sixth and final connection clicking into place, just behind her head. Everything before the journey was clear, as if it had happened yesterday, but the six months of the Exodus were gone. wiped away, a vast gap in her memory. At least, that's how it was at first.

Gradually, in the next few months, some memories did drift back to her. Mostly, they were vague impressions or unconnected sensations. She remembered the curious pinprick sensation of gunship fire raking across the Mothership's hull. It was not pain, exactly. The skin of the Mothership had not been equipped with nerve endings that understood pain, as her skin had. The sensation was almost impossible to describe in terms even she could understand now.

Memories of hyperspace returned to her as well, slowly. It was the one thing she had been forced to remember completely for herself, because for those traveling in the ships hyperspace had passed without any apparent effect. It had been practically instantaneous for them, but not for her. She knew that the Bentusi equated the experience of hyperspace to "song" but her impressions of it differed somewhat. They really understood so little about the Bentusi, even now. Why was hyperspace like music to them? What did they hear when they traveled those secret hallways of space? For Karan, hyperspace felt more like a dance.

On Kharak, when she had been in her late teens, she had gone to a traveling Manaani nomad fair with some friends. Most of the attractions there had interested her very little - baubles being sold for three times their worth, scruffy men in robes offering a peek at an exotic animal for a coin or two, fortunes told, fears exploited. What had entranced her was the Diirvaas, the sword-dance. Keeping within a circle drawn in the sand, dancers in colorful, flowing robes moved their feet gracefully to the music played by one of the nomads, but the swords in their hands were what drew the most attention. Flashing through the air with seemingly impossible speed, the curved blades creating shapes visible in the air for scant moments before moving to the next position. Most dancers used two swords, one for each hand, exchanging them occasionally by flipping them through the air as they moved. This was amazing enough, but one particularly skilled dancer used three swords, changing hands constantly, at least one of them always in midair. Sweat flew from her skin as she moved around the circle of the dance, blades flashing around her, creating brilliant patterns in the air, temporary works of art, each more wondrous than the last. When Karan looked up to the dancer's face, she saw that her eyes were closed, her expression one of calm contemplation, as if she was meditating, a beautiful and deadly storm flashing around her.

This was what hyperspace had been like for Karan, as the Mothership. It was like the Diirvaas. She had been blind, but felt like she was constantly in motion, controlling every aspect of the space she traveled through, making calculations at blinding speed. One misstep could spell her doom, but she had a calm confidence that there would be no mistakes. The graceful control and manipulation of things that most people would consider uncontrollable was thrilling to her. Hyperspace travel involved a purity and a precision that she found sadly lacking upon return to normal space.

She had never expressed any of this to anyone else. When asked about it, as she occasionally had been, she only said that she could not remember it very well. While that had been true early on, now her memories of hyperspace had reasserted themselves with enough strength that she felt they could be trusted.

For most of her other memories, though, she had been forced to rely upon stories like the one Ciirad had told her. She had been briefed on the essential events of the Exodus, of course, but the massive gaps that remained to her could not be filled in by such bureaucratically-filtered information. Her memory now was like the surface of the water, ripples crashing against other ripples, creating more, coming together and coming apart. After a while, she just couldn't keep track of it anymore.

She also found that many of the Exiles had been more than happy to share their stories. Sometimes, as with Ciirad, it even seemed to help them in some way. Her former role as Fleet Command gained her much fame on Hiigara, and while she generally shied away from the uncomfortable focus on her, she did exploit her status to reach as many of those who had survived the journey as she could, to help fill in the gaps of her memory.

"The Raiders came out of nowhere... I swear, when I first saw their combat ships incoming, I thought we were already done for..."

"In the nebula, those - those freaks that wouldn't even let us leave... I just wanted to tear them apart!"

"- didn't know what to make of the Bentusi when they suddenly appeared like that. And then when our ambassador was taken..."

"That Junkyard Dog! Worse than hunting Skaal Tel in the wastelands!"

"The asteroid field was the worst..."

"When the Taiidan carriers were sending out so many..."

"- ghost ship -"

"- gravity wells -"

"- explosions -"

"- terrifying..."

"- outnumbered -"

"... home."

"Doctor S'jet?"

Karan was shaken from her memories by Ciirad's voice. They were very nearly at the main gate leading into the central prison compound, and he was gesturing to her. "Still with me, Doctor?"

She nodded. "Just... remembering," she answered. He held his hand out. She looked up, momentarily touched at the gesture, and held out her hand to his.

He shook his head. "Not that one... the other hand, with the bracelet. I need to disarm it."

She laughed. "Oh... sorry." She held out the other hand and he took it, placing a wider, thicker band over the thin security bracelet. He pushed a button, there was a slight sensation of heat for a moment, then the wider band was gone and the bracelet with it.

"There we are," he said when he was done. "Wouldn't want you getting the shakes put to you just before..." His voice faltered.

"I know... thanks," she rubbed her wrist and looked ahead. There was a transparent barrier blocking the gate just ahead, and she could see a small entry room just beyond it. "That's where we're going?"

Ciirad nodded and turned towards the gate. He placed his hand on a small pad to the right of the entryway and spoke his name. The transparency slid back and away noiselessly, and Ciirad led the way into the small room beyond, Karan following behind him. He turned to speak to another guard, who was sitting behind a small terminal in a corner, watching a holo- broadcast. The other guard checked a list and then looked at Ciirad. "This her?" he asked.

Ciirad nodded and presented some documents to the guard. "Karan S'jet, here for the New Daiamid Tribunal."

The other guard glanced at Ciirad's papers, then gave Karan a long, appraising stare. She looked away towards the holo-display. It was a live feed from the debate floor of the New Daiamid Council. There had been much upheaval lately, many changes in the kiith social structure, and no changes were made without the Daiamid's approval.

She took a step closer so she could hear what was being said at the Council, while Ciirad and the other guard went over their documents. On the display, she could see the Daiamid members on their raised platform, listening to a speaker on the floor. The speaker was... ah. It was a representative from Kiith Somtaaw. Karan had heard of their recent difficulties with the Council.

Somtaaw was a small mining kiith, deeply religious in their ways. Their numbers had been decimated when Kharak burned. Their standing had been in question ever since Landfall, but now even more so, as Kiith Naabal made a play to absorb Somtaaw. The representatives from Somtaaw had made it clear that they would not accept Naabal's "offer" and they argued the point eloquently and at length. The ensuing debate had monopolized much of the Council's time lately.

Karan admired Somtaaw's tenacity, even though her own experiences with the Council led her to believe that they stood a slim chance, if any, of maintaining their independence and identity. Unless they got further support from some other, more powerful kiith, Somtaaw would almost assuredly be swallowed whole. Still, she thought that the determination of Somtaaw to remain independent said a great deal about their character. It indicated a strength that many of the "lesser" kiith seemed to lack. Most of them were only too eager to be taken in by the more powerful families.

Ciirad turned to her, his dealings with the other guard apparently complete. "Ready?"

Karan nodded, then looked at the holo-projection again. "Have you been following this?"

He looked at the images. "What, the Somtaaw debate? A little. I've heard rumors from within Kiith Paktu that we'll be supporting Somtaaw, and Soban is naturally already behind them. I wonder what they'll do if they actually win the Council over..."

She nodded again, and turned to follow as he went through the opposite door, which was now open. They turned right and began walking down a wide hallway, lit only by the natural light coming in from high windows. Their steps echoed as they proceeded along the hall. Here and there official- looking people passed by them, busy with official-looking things.

Karan was not surprised to hear that Kiith Soban supported the cause of Somtaaw. If there was any kiith which believed strongly in independence and rejecting the status quo, it was Soban. Not so long ago, when the separation from the Mothership had been most acute for her, she had given very serious consideration to "taking the red" of Kiith Soban herself. The idea of stripping her old kiith allegiances away and starting over held a certain appeal for her; it felt like a rebirth, moving away from a fragmented past. As she thought about it, though, it seemed to her that the reality would be that she would have a new kiith and a new name, but most of the same problems.

She had similarly considered following in the footsteps of one of her Kharakhid ancestors, Tiirshak S'jet, who had taken a pilgrimage deep into the deserts of Kharak, abandoning his kiith and society as a whole. Nomadic kiith legend, mainly coming from the Manaan and Gaalsien, said that Tiirshak became a sort of wise man or prophet, encountered rarely. He supposedly lived to a very old age, but never again returned to the S'jet, or to known civilization. There were no further official records of his life.

This idea appealed to her as well, but she couldn't bring herself to do it. at least, not in the way Tiirshak had. He had been in search of simplicity... escaping from the constructs of an increasingly technological society. That was not what she wanted. She had tried to go out on her own and take what she needed, but it hadn't been as easy as just disappearing into the desert.

Ciirad turned left and approached a small doorway set into one wall. He knocked, and a muffled voice from within said "Enter."

Ciirad turned to Karan now, with his hand on the door. "Smooth journey, Doctor S'jet."

She looked at him and smiled. "Smooth journey, Ciirad Paktu."

He smiled back, turned, and opened the door for her, allowing her to enter before him. She walked in with him behind. He closed the door and stood at attention next to it, just inside the room, with his arms crossed behind his back.

The room was less dramatic than Karan had expected. It was somewhat small, with four unadorned walls, no windows, a long desk towards the other end of the room, and a small chair facing the desk in the center. She noticed two holographic imagers mounted in corners of the room, so she could be sure they were being watched by somebody. The surface of the desk was empty, but behind it three people were seated, two men and one woman. The Tribunal.

The man seated in the center, an older man known to Karan, stood up and held his hand out, indicating the chair in the center of the room. "Doctor S'jet... please have a seat."

She moved forward and sat down, facing the three judges. The seat was soft and surprisingly comfortable. Perhaps this wouldn't be as bad as she expected. "Thank you, Admiral."

The older man sat down again, a bemused look on his face. "You know who I am, Doctor S'jet? We have not met before today... not face-to-face, anyway. I was told that your memories of the Exodus are... incomplete."

"What you were told is true, Admiral Kaalel-sa, but how could I not know of the man who led the final assault against the Emperor after I had been incapacitated in the Mothership?" Secretly, she did remember him from the Exodus. She remembered him as an arrogant, prideful man who desired nothing more or less than undiluted power. His current high position in the New Daiamid Council and leader of Kiith Kaalel obviously pleased him greatly. Upon seeing him, she had quickly decided to play to his pride for now.

The intended effect was clearly successful, as the Admiral puffed himself up at her words. "Of course, of course... do you also know General Liir of the J'nar Battle Group?"

The man on the Admiral's right rose halfway from his chair and nodded in Karan's general direction. He was tall, thin, dark-skinned and severe. Karan nodded in return, remembering what she had been told of this man. He had been in charge of the squadron that came into initial contact with Captain Elson of the Taiidan Resistance. When Elson had transmitted his intentions to defect, Liir had advocated destroying him then and there. Fortunately, cooler heads had prevailed and Elson was spared, and would lead them through the path of least resistance to Hiigara. She regarded General Liir carefully.

The Admiral completed the introductions with the woman sitting on his left. "And this is Daiir S'jet, your distant cousin, I believe, and currently in command of Mothership Station."

"Maintenance, you mean," Karan said quietly.

"What was that?" responded Daiir, sitting forward slightly. Her white hair flowed over her shoulder, her young face suddenly alert where she had seemed bored before.

"'Maintenance,' I said. I know of Daiir's duties, and I know that they mainly consist of maintaining the Mothership while it is used as a shipyard by only the most powerful kiith. I would hardly call it 'command'." Karan stared straight at Daiir while saying all of this. The other woman bristled, ready to respond sharply, but the Admiral interrupted.

"If you don't mind, Doctor, we're taking time out from the Council for this, and we're needed back very soon for the Naabal-Somtaaw discussion going on there now. We'd like to skip the... pleasantries, and get right to the matter at hand."

Karan nodded, sitting back in her chair. "Fine with me. I'd prefer that."

The Admiral sat down and folded his hands in front of him. "Excellent. You know why you're here, I assume."

Karan folded her own hands as the Admiral had. "I am here because I gained access to the Mothership without proper authorization, I believe."

Daiir S'jet scoffed at this, and the Admiral said "That's putting it rather lightly, don't you think, Doctor? You took a stolen shuttle into orbit, entered the Mothership illegally through an unguarded port, made your way to the restricted Command Core, and started the procedure that would allow you to regain command access to the entire ship."

Karan smirked a little at this litany of her crimes. "Well, I was going to give the shuttle back, if that helps."

Daiir slammed her hand on the table in frustration. "You were going to steal the Mothership! Just admit it!"

Karan turned to look at her calmly. "You have no idea, do you, Daiir? You work closely with the Mothership every day, and yet you still have no idea of what it means to me. The kind of connection I have - had with it."

Daiir's face was set. "You were just going to fly away with it, is that it? The gall!"

"And what do you use it for now... a shipyard?! The greatest collective technological achievement of our race, and now it might as well be a thrice- damned garbage scow!" Karan scoffed now, thinking about the once-powerful Mothership, home for six months to the entire Kushan people, put to the simple and ugly purpose of building ships for the ever-bickering kiith. "It's a complete debasement of what the Mothership stands for."

Daiir went silent at this, but was clearly still outraged at Karan's temerity. The General was observing her carefully. Admiral Kaalel-sa in the middle studied his hands, clearly not sure what should be said next. Karan didn't think the discussion was going as he had planned. She continued. "Your use of the Mothership in this way is a violation to all that was suffered on the journey to Hiigara."

The Admiral looked up at this. "Doctor, there's no need -"

She interrupted him, sitting forward in her chair and looking him directly in the eye as she hissed between her teeth. "It's no better than rape."

Admiral Kaalel-sa stood suddenly, his chair sliding back. "Doctor S'jet! I will not allow this discussion to devolve into pure madness! Keep your words on the subject at hand or this discussion is over. And believe me, you won't have another."

"I am on the subject, Admiral, but you won't accept that, will you?" She looked to each of their faces now. "None of you will... none of you can understand what it was like. For those six months, the Mothership was my body. Getting extracted from it was like cutting off ninety-five percent of my flesh. Ever since we reached Hiigara, I've felt so fragile... helpless... like massive parts of me were missing, just gone. My memory... my ability to predict, to see, to hear... to process... to create. Most of these things were taken from me, or hugely diminished. The more I'm able to remember, the more I want what I had back. The more I need it."

She looked at the Admiral, still standing, and stood up to face him, her fists clenched now, all artifice gone. "You ask me why we're here, Admiral? I'll tell you why... because you people stole the Mothership from me. You stole my body. You ripped me away from it. And I --" she felt the tears welling in her eyes now, her breath caught in her throat. She fought the impulse and reasserted her voice. "I was forced to steal it back. It's mine, more than it can ever be any of yours."

The Admiral was still standing, his expression shocked. Daiir had dropped her hands to her lap, a look of slow amazement crossing her features. General Liir sat silent, his lips a thin line, his eyes focused on her. Karan decided to finish. If she was going to say this much, she might as well say it all.

"I know what's happening right now in the Council. The lesser kiith are jockeying for position as the larger ones try to absorb them. Somtaaw has brought it out in the open, but I know that it's been happening ever since Landfall. The greater kiith are using their access to Mothership Station as political leverage, and they can't afford to lose it. They would never agree to allowing me to access it again as its command core, to use it as it was meant to be used. So if I am to be complete again, I am forced to take it back for myself."

General Liir leaned forward suddenly, his gaze intent now. His tone was reasonable but pointed. "And Doctor, if the Council did allow you free command over the Mothership again, what would you use it for?"

She looked at him, a tiny flicker of hope sparking in her. She might have a chance if she could convince the Tribunal that her aims would be to the benefit of the Kushan race as a whole. "Exploration! What it was meant for... Further contact with other alien races... perhaps we could use it to better understand the Bentusi, interact more with the Galactic Council, re- connect with our Kadeshi ancestors. but mainly just to explore, beyond anything we can do now, and extend our knowledge of this part of space... our new home."

The General sat back, considering. She looked imploringly at him, then at the rest of them. The Admiral was sitting down in his seat again, still a little shaky, and Daiir S'jet was now looking at her differently. She went on, hoping against reason. "I would use the Mothership as it was meant to be used... for the benefit of everyone. We could learn so much. Why, sharing technology with the Kadesh alone could -"

The Admiral cut her off here, now angry. "The Kadesh, Doctor, are nothing more than fundamentalist zealots who wouldn't share with their closest brother." She started to object, but he held up a hand. "I would hunt them down to the last swarmer if I had to. And the Bentusi? Nothing but opportunistic meddlers. They were happy to help us if we were giving them resources, or if we were rescuing them from the fire, but turned tail whenever things got really difficult."

Karan had to speak up at this. "But they saved - "

"Nothing," interjected General Liir. "They saved nothing that was not in their own interests, Doctor. We have nothing to learn from them." He looked over at the Admiral now. "We need to finish this, Admiral. We're taking too much time. She's clearly unbalanced, and we're getting nowhere. I recommend continued detention at this facility, with psychological intervention, until such a time as her obsession with the Mothership is ended."

Admiral Kaalel-sa turned slowly to the General, closed his mouth and swallowed. "Very well, General. Recommendation noted." He turned to Daiir S'jet and asked, "What are your thoughts on the matter, Daiir?" Karan felt helpless as she watched.

Daiir was still looking at Karan, obviously thoughtful. "I'm... not sure what to say, Admiral. It is not like a S'jet to be so emotional without reason. When we are passionate about something, it's usually because we feel that some truth is being overlooked, or ignored... and... do we really know what it's like for her?"

General Liir groaned at this. "Oh, come on! Can't you see that she's mad? I don't question that extraction from the Mothership has done her some wrong, but the solution is not just to give it to her again. She needs help!"

Daiir began to protest this, when the General turned fully to her and said, in a voice full of malice, "Need I remind you, Daiir, of your current position? If Doctor S'jet is given access to the Mothership, where does that leave you? What will you do when it's gone?"

The woman behind the desk looked at General Liir, and saw the dangerous implications in what he was saying. She was quiet for some long moments, then she gulped, looked down and muttered, "Continued detention... psychological assistance."

The Admiral nodded curtly, then looked at Karan. "I'm afraid I must concur, Doctor S'jet. You will be kept here until such a time as your doctors and the Council agree that your obsession with the Mothership is over, and you can safely be released. This meeting is adjourned."

The three stood up quickly, and started moving towards an exit Karan hadn't seen before in the far corner of the room. The Admiral remained behind for a moment. "Doctor S'jet, I have nothing but the utmost respect for you. I wish you the best of luck in your recovery." She looked up at him as though he were mad. He turned and followed the other two out of the room.

She stood there as the door clicked shut, barely remembering to breathe. She felt... flattened. She couldn't believe it was over that fast. The tracks of tears were drying on her face, but she made no effort to wipe them away. She felt dead inside, moreso than she had ever felt before. All the life had been sucked out of her.

A touch on her arm. She allowed herself to be pulled back through the door she had come, shuffled her feet down the passage, following the guard - what was his name? - as they went back through the entry gate and out into the bright light of day. He had her hand again, encircling her wrist, a moment of heat, and the bracelet was back on her arm. Then she was moving again, following wherever he went.

She felt the cool wind on her face as they walked, but her mind was lost to the stars in her memory, impossibly distant, unreachable.

They reached the lakeshore, where she had been before meeting with the Tribunal, in seemingly no time at all. She was barely aware of where they were. She sat down at the edge of the lake and gazed out over the water.

"Karan... ?" Ciirad's voice was hesitant, uncertain. She looked up at him. He stared back at her for a moment, then looked out over the lake, towards the horizon. He sniffed the air. "I can smell the sea."

She nodded, tears flowing fresh from her eyes again, and looked down at the waves sliding against the shore. She stood and strode into the water. It was cool, and flowed around her legs as she walked, embracing her, beckoning her, caressing her like a lover. She felt it buoying her up as she walked. It was lapping at her thighs, over her waist, engulfing her breasts, up to her neck, over her head, and then she was weightless. She had been wrong, the water was not cool, it was warm, so warm... she could feel it bearing her up, pressing her down, moving all around her. It was like being Unbound again.

She looked up, hair floating around her head, a dark halo. The ripples on the surface above her glinted in the sun as they moved. They looked like stars.