Soft footsteps, light as a feather, echoed throughout the massive hanger. It was ungodly early, only a little after five in the morning. But even now, it was starting to warm up, as the first golden ray's of the morning light broke over the low rise of mountains that were only a few miles to the east. In a few hours, the desert would become unbearably hot.

A single, clearly feminine and slender figure dressing in a khaki, form fitting flight-suit made her way between the rows of Deathbirds, jet fighters and civilian aircraft. Her face had high cheekbones, and she had huge, golden up-slanting eyes. Her cranium was significantly larger than that of a human, and was topped with light brown hair that was tied up in a single ponytail, to keep it neat and tidy. Her skin was a light honey-brown and completely smooth. No scars marred it's perfection, nor was any hair noticeable, except on her head, eyebrows and long eyelashes. walked slowly, in no obvious hurry to reach to her destination. As she walked, she would pause occasionally to study the lines of one of the many aircraft that were stored neatly away in the hanger. It was only one of many on the base, one of many filled with technology that had rarely been seen since the global holocaust of nearly twenty two decades previous had changed the world of man forever.

She stopped and walked up to the only remaining F-22 Raptor. The fighter had been in experimental stages a few years before the skydark, and only a handful had been in operation during the year 2001, when the megacull had occurred. This particular fighter aircraft, as well as two of its sister fighters, had been stored away in a massive hanger, hidden away deep underground near Mt. Rushmore. They, as well as many other experimental and one of a kind aircraft had survived, unscathed. It was only in the past two decades that they had been brought back to mechanical life, and two had been lost in various conflicts. The surviving jet was never to be flown again, that is until the new hierarchy had managed to set up the proper manufacturing facilities, and would be able to begin production on a new generation of jets. But that was still years off. She ran her gloved hands over the nose of the sleek, deadly looking jet, her huge up-slanting golden eyes staring at the skin of the jet wistfully. "Someday, my beautiful raptor, some day." She whispered melodically.

Almost regretfully, she turned away from the deadly aircraft and walked purposely down the row, heading to the front of the hanger. Before her stood the huge hanger doors, partially open to let the cold desert night flow into the massive hanger. Even during the day, with the doors closed, it would get stifling hot in the hanger, and at this time it wasn't worth the insanely huge amount of energy that was required to run the air-conditioning units to keep it cool.

Hours after the fact, she was still shocked at how easily she obtained permission from the chief of staff at the base to take one of the aircraft on what most would have considered to be nothing more than a frivolous venture into the barrens. She shook her head, figuring that they still owed the ruling body a fair amount of trade credit, and it was about time that they paid the citizens back.

The slender figure approached a single Deathbird that was sitting before the gap of the hanger doors. She was a little surprised to see that the helicopters lights were on, and she could make out a figure seated in the rear cockpit, in the gunners' section.

Like her, the figure was small and compact, almost delicate appearing. The head was exceptionally large, with huge, up slanted eyes like her own, but they were faded blue, almost gray in their hue. The figure had an unruly mop of golden white hair, so fine that it was almost like down. She could see that he was holding a small datapad in his long tapered fingers, and that a pair of headphones rested over his ears. She watched, a small smile playing on her lips as she could see that he was singing along to the music that was pouring out of the headphones.

He looked up as she approached, set the datapad on top of the instrument panel and removed the headphones from his ears. The window to the cockpit was partially open and as she approached, he pushed it fully out.

"Rochelle," he said neutrally. "What are you doing here?"

A heavy, almost resigned sigh greeted his ears. "Randall, How many times do I have to tell you, I prefer the name Topaz."

Randall snorted. "I refuse to call you that. It isn't the name you were given, and, truth be told, I just don't like it."

Crossing her arms under her small, pert breasts, she glared up at the hybrid sitting in the cockpit. "Why is that? Others have taken to using names that they chose, so why am I to be singled out because I chose this particular moniker?"

He stared at her, his huge, nearly fathomless eyes, boring into her own. Do you really wish to know the reason why? His thoughts echoed in her mind, as loud as if he had spoken them.

As a matter of fact, yes I do want to know the truth. She replied telepathically back.

He chuckled, a smile creasing his youthful face. "Its because Topaz sounds like the kind of name that a predark burlesque dancer would have used."

Her face grew a deep crimson. That is utterly ridiculous, Randall. I would never stoop to something as – primitive – as that.

Randall shrugged. "You wanted the truth, I gave you the truth. As one of the humans I work with once said 'if you don't want to hear the answer, don't ask the question.' I have to agree with him on this."

The frown was quickly overtaken by a mischievous smile. "By the way, little brother, what would you know about that particular topic? Have you been going through the old film archive, or maybe you've been reading those magazines the humans are so fond of?"

It was Randall's turn to turn a bright crimson. Normally the hybrids were stoic, rarely showing any emotion. Randall and Rochelle were the exceptions to the rule. They, along with ten other hybrids, were the only survivors out of two thousand that had been lost to a catastrophe twenty years previously. Like their siblings, they were more open with their emotions, and were considered by many of the older, and even the newer generation of hybrids, to be rebellious. At the same time, they and their siblings also seemed to be far more intelligent than the other hybrids, something that the hybrids had yet to be able to replicate in the new generations being born every year.

The hybrids intelligence was off the scale, in comparison to the humans they worked with. But the dozen that survived, even they surpassed the rest of the race by leaps and bounds. They had been instrumental in many of the major breakthroughs that had occurred in the past decade, once they had reached maturity.

"No, not at all. Least you forget, dear sister, I am well studied in history, particularly in the nineteen than twentieth century. That is the timeframe where so much was discovered, so many technological breakthroughs had occurred."

Rochelle – Topaz – reached up and wrapped her long fingers around the hand of her sibling. "I am jesting with you, little brother, as you were with me."

He smiled back, and took up the datapad once again. "The question still remains to be answered, Rochelle. What are you doing here?"

She stood back and allowed him to survey her form. "I thought that it was clear. I'm going for a flight, if it's all the same to you. What are you doing in my bird?"

"Just some routine diagnostics and maintenance. As a matter of fact, I was just finishing up when you arrived."

She looked over at a long table that was situated near the hanger door. It was almost ready to collapse under the weight of tools, parts, and diagnostic equipment that was strewn over its rough metal surface. Her eyes caught the maintenance schedule that was hung on a clip over the table. Even at this distance she could make out the neat print covering the sheet.

"This Deathbird wasn't scheduled for maintenance for another three days, and even then, you were not the technician assigned to it. So, why did you forsake a night sleep to work on it?"

Randall carefully closed the datapad and slipped it into a pocket on the right breast of his coveralls. You're going out to hunt for him again, aren't you?

She stared at him for several seconds, her huge golden eyes unblinking in the early morning light. Yes, I am. There are rumors among the humans that he has returned to Aten. It really isn't that far from here, only a couple of hour's flight. I have already gained permission from the base commander, and besides, the flight plan has already been logged, and approved.

Randall sighed deeply and closed his eyes. Sister, why are you obsessed with finding this particular human? As close as we are, you've never, ever given me a reason why this man is of such importance to you. I've been able to glean glimpses of him from your mind, but you keep the truth tucked away, deeper than I am able to probe.

For many years I thought that he was dead, that the desert had claimed his life after he was exiled from our birth-home. But then I began to hear rumors about a city that existed in the desert, hidden away from the prying eyes of the Barons at that time, and the importance it played in the great exodus.

So? Randall said with a mental shrug. We all know what happened, what makes you think that he would be there? And you still haven't answered my question.

I remember him. I remember the way he cared for me, how he held me and tried everything he could to make me comfortable. The human actually loved me. I know he did, as I could see it in his eyes.

Randall shrugged his shoulders. How could you know it, yes, you remember everything clearly, but its not like you could understand what you were seeing. Then again, He dusted his hands off as he started to climb out of the cockpit; It's not that uncommon. The apelings are overly emotional, and develop bonds with almost everything around them. Their co-workers, pets, and even inanimate objects. Besides, there is no truth to the rumor that he is still living in Aten.

Rochelle shook her head in a disapproving manner. I do so wish that you wouldn't refer to the humans in that manner. It is exceptionally degrading. Remember, little brother, it was the humans who originally created the first hybrids, and the first barons.

The male hybrid bowed his head slightly. I am sorry, sister. I can't refute what you said as the truth. However, the human's creations have since become their superiors.

Lets not get into that old tired argument, shall we? Rochelle sighed deeply.

As you wish. Are you sure you want to do this?

She nodded. What harm is there in checking? The citizens that remain in Aten are not our enemies, and we trade with them on a regular basis. I am just going to pay the humans a friendly visit, drop off a payment that is overdue, and see if they have any goods they're willing to trade away. Maybe they even have some Heneket.

The male Hybrid licked his thin lips at hearing the name of the ancient beer that was brewed in the city. That would be a pleasant surprise.

Very few of the hybrids that made Area 51 their home partook of any form of alcoholic beverage. They simply didn't like the way it made them feel, or how the mild toxins interfered with their vast intellects. Randall and Rochelle were the exceptions.
Rochelle switched back to a more conventional mode of communication and said; "I'm sure that I can arrange to bring back at least a few barrels from the city. They probably have a few barrels hidden away for trade purposes."

As she spoke, Randall popped open the canopy so that she could climb into the pilot seat of the Deathbird. "While you run the pre-flight checklist, I'll open the doors and taxi you out onto the pad."
Rochelle nodded as she began to strap herself into the seat. "Thank you, little brother."

He waved a hand nonchalantly, and lightly jogged over to the control panel on the door. After entering his code, the huge doors rumbled into life, slowly parting, allowing even more light to spill into the hanger. Once the doors had made a gap big enough for the Deathbirds propellers to clear without any chance of damage, he hit the stopped the door's progress. Once again, they stood silently, unmoving.

As Rochelle went over her pre-flight checklist, she heard a deep-throated rumble as Randall started up one of several taxi vehicles. The squat, ugly vehicle appeared in front of the doors and it backed up to within a dozen feet of the Deathbird. Randall exited the vehicle as it sat idling in the cool morning air. In his hand he carried a hook, attached to a long chain. Jogging up to the aircraft, he secured the hook to a towing ring, and then returned to the vehicle.

As he drove the taxi forward, Rochelle finished the checklist and pulled the modified flight helmet over her large domed head. She secured the safety straps to her chin as the Deathbird inched slowly out of the hanger and onto the landing pad.

Once the aircraft was situated on the pad, Randall left the taxi vehicle a second time, unhooked the Deathbird, and then returned to the vehicle. He spun out of sight, pulling the towing vehicle back into the hanger, out of the way.

Rochelle started the powerful turbines on the helicopter and brought the instrumentation to life. Everything was in the green, no problems having shown up during the preflight warm up. She turned to pull the canopy closed when she spotted Randall jogging towards the Deathbird, a spare helmet under his arm.

What do you think you're doing? Rochelle asked telepathically. It was far easier to use that method of communication, rather than shouting to be heard over the turbines, or through the window.

Going with you, sister. The rules are quite clear, it doesn't matter if you're going on a simple point to point flight, or If you are going on a patrol, you're supposed to have a gunner with you.

She laughed lightly. There hasn't been an incident in years, and I would be quite surprised if something happened now. Besides, I thought you had no interest in going on a wild goose chase.

He opened the canopy to the gunners seat and climbed into it. He dropped into the seat and strapped himself into the safety harness, much as she had when she climbed in. I never said it was a wild goose chase, Rochelle. I just stated that the rumors we heard about him returning to Aten were just that, rumors, nothing more. As it stands, I could use a little break from my duties.

The pitch and tempo of the rotor blades continued to grow exponentially, and once they reached their peak, Rochelle pulled up on the stick and the Deathbird jumped into the pale azure morning sky. She suppressed a smile as she listened to the fright filled squeak cross over the internal communications. "Are you sure you want to fly with me today, little brother?"

"Yes, I am. I think this is one of those times we should adhere to the rules, Rochelle. And I wasn't speaking in jest when I said that I could use a break. I would, however, appreciate it if you would be a little more careful."

In seconds the Deathbird had reached an altitude of three hundred feet and she leveled the craft out. "I thought you had faith in my piloting skills by now. It is a well known fact that I am the best pilot, bar none, on the base."By now the sun had fully breached the mountain range and it bathed the massive base in its glorious, life-giving rays. Rochelle Spun the Deathbird around in a complete 360-degree turn, taking in the base and its surroundings. Area 51 had grown dramatically over the past decade.

Even before Baron Cobalt had re-activated the facility after the destruction of the Mesa base, Area 51 was a sprawling site. Although most of the buildings had been in ruins when it had been activated, the huge base that sprawled for acres under the desert floor remained relatively untouched.

Over the years, the human and hybrid population of the base had rebuilt the above ground structures, and had added even more. Upon the imperators orders, huge amounts of resources had been spent in bringing the base back to life. Now, it was a full-fledged city, rivaling even the baronies themselves.

Area 51 had become the new hub of manufacturing and distribution to the Baronies, as well as the new home for the latest generation of hybrids, now that the facilities had been activated once again. And for the older generations of hybrids, the rejuvenation treatments that strengthened and revitalized them were once again made available as per the Imperators orders. Cobalt's dreams of ruling over the other barons came to a crashing halt.

From her height she could see that despite the time, there was activity to be spotted all over the base. Off in the distance she could see several Hummers, coming in from a night of patrolling the territory around. People, both human and hybrid were heading from the small living quarters to various buildings, each going to a shift change or their particular job, whatever it might be.

The citizens of Area 51 no longer called the base by its old designation. Instead, they chose to call it Dreamland, as they saw it as a dream come true. Rochelle didn't really care what it was called. It had been her home for the past twenty years, and that is all that mattered.

"What are we waiting for?" Randall asked as he too, looked out over the base."

"Clearance from the control tower. If you care to check your panel, you'll see that we're being painted as we hover." Rochelle answered, her eyes locked on the control panel before her, one hand poised over the counter measure control, just in case.

Almost as soon as the words left her mouth, the internal speakers blared to life. "Deathbird 94, prepare to transmit authorization code on my mark – three, two, one, mark."

Rochelle moved her hand from the countermeasures panel and hit a transmit button. "Tower, authorization code has been sent, waiting for further instructions."

"Codes have been received, 94." There was a brief pause and then she heard the voice of the air traffic controller once again. "Code has been accepted and verified. Proceed on scheduled flight plan; you have been authorized for a four-hour stop over in Aten, as requested. Good hunting."

"Thank you, Deathbird 94 out."

Just after the activation of the base, the exiles Kane and Grant had attacked it using technology recovered from a predark base located on the moon. At that time the defenses had been eliminated with little effort. It had been a lesion well learned, and when the air defenses had been rebuilt, nearly three times the original number of SAM and Phalanx sites had been installed, and they were built into reinforced bunkers that could be raised and lowered in a handful of seconds. As good as Rochelle was, she didn't want to test the systems.

She banked the Deathbird off to the west and followed the rebuilt black top, dropping the altitude of the helicopter until they were cruising only fifty feet above the winding ribbon, their speed almost two hundred miles an hour.

"Slow down, please!" Randall almost begged from the rear seat.

Rochelle glanced in the rearview mirror and could see that her younger brother was gripping the armrests of his chair. She knew that beneath the gloves that he wore, he was white-knuckled.
"As you wish, little brother." She pulled back on the stick and lowered the cyclic rate of the blades. The helicopter immediately began to slow down, and she dropped it down to just over one hundred miles an hour. "I keep forgetting that you don't enjoy the freedom of flight as much as I do."

"I enjoy flying very much, Rochelle, it's the speed that I don't care for." He relaxed his death grip on the armrests. "That is, when we're this close to the ground."

Shaking her head, Rochelle smiled. She kept following the road, passing over a convoy of beaten and battered trucks, all of them having been in use since even before the skydark. She knew that it was brining trade goods and raw materials from the Outlands to Area 51. Several times a week similar caravans would arrive, hawking their wares from the various trader guilds that were rapidly becoming the new lifeline of the Outlands.

Roaring over the caravan, Rochelle allowed her body to relax into the leather seat of the helicopter. She felt more at home in the seat than she did in her own bed, back at Dreamland, her senses were more alive, and she felt as if she had become one with the machine.

They flew for almost an hour in silence, watching the bleak-landscape pass beneath the armored belly of the helicopter. The desert was broken here and there by rock out-cropping, the occasional plant, cactus and ruins, but essentially seemed to be the same whereever she looked.

Although she couldn't see any sign of life, she knew very well that the desert teemed with it. After all, many of the humans at the base hunted in the desert for the small Antelope that seemed to be plentiful, and the farmers were constantly complaining about Jackrabbits and other small vermin getting into their gardens.
And, despite their best efforts, the mutant creature, the Ouroboros Obscura, was thriving and multiplying.

The vast majority of mutant species that were spawned during the Skydark had faded away into extinction, but a few had not only survived, but also adapted to their new environments. This particular mutant, as well as the small but deadly scream-wing, were but two of the new life forms that had gained a foothold.
Checking the navigation computer, Rochelle left the roadway and climbed into the sky until they were at twelve hundred feet. She then increased the speed of the helicopter, opening the throttle fully. Like a demon out of hell, the Deathbird soared across the landscape, homing in on their intended destination.

They flew in silence for over two hours; the pilot and her gunner lost in their own private thoughts. The endless desert gave way to light scrub and more rugged terrain, and they passed over the ruins of several larger predark towns and cities. No movement could be detected in the ruins, but Rochelle was quite certain that they were indeed inhabited, by dregs, and scavengers, searching the rubble for hidden treasure that countless others may have somehow missed.

As with the traders that scoured the ruins, other groups of Outlanders were making a healthy profit at 'mining' the ruins for brick, metal, pipe and wire, and other items that could be either traded or sold to not only the trader guilds, but the baronies as well.

Two hundred and twenty years after the skydark, the Outlands were becoming even more civilized than they were just a scant two decades before.

"Randall?"

The hybrid had been studying several schematics in his datapad when her voice broke through his concentration. "What is it?"

"How are things between you and Cindy?"

The male hybrid was quite for a moment, then with a heavy sigh, he replied; "We have decided that it is best if we don't see one another again."

"I see." Now she understood why he had referred to the humans as Apelings earlier in the morning. "May I inquire as to why?"

Placing the datapad back on the control panel before him, Randall rested one delicate hand against his chin. "We simply are not compatible."

Rochelle snorted. "You could have fooled me, little brother. I could see how she lit up whenever she saw you. And as for human's she was exceptionally attractive, and brilliant, by their standards. You seemed to get along very well."

"I said we were not compatible." He said a little more forcibly than he intended.

She studied him in the mirror for a bit before replying, reading not only his features, what she could see through the open helmet, but his surface thoughts as well.

"She wanted to mate with you." Rochelle concluded.

"Yes."

The hybrid woman understood only too well what Randall meant that they were not compatible. Male hybrids reproductive organs were grossly under-developed, to the point of being vestigial. Female hybrids, on the other hand, were fully capable of performing the sexual act, and more than a few of them engaged in it on a regular basis. While quite a number of the females found the whole base act deplorable, it was quickly gaining popularity. In fact, there had already been several marriages between the humans and the beautiful, elfin hybrid women.

No pregnancies, as of yet. There had only been one, and that had been twenty years previous. But, it would happen, eventually, and a whole new species would appear on the earth, bridging the old and new humans.

Rochelle had never engaged in intercourse, although there had been the occasion where she could have. It wasn't that she didn't find the human males to be attractive; to her many were very beautiful, being much larger and stronger than the typical hybrid. It was just a matter of finding the right male, one that she could actually feel something for, more than just physical attraction or simply liking them.

Although it was never spoken aloud, the fact that the females could enjoy the act of reproduction, where the males couldn't, had driven a wedge between the two. The hybrids born over the past five years had been modified; the males had fully functioning sexual organs. The older male generations of course couldn't enjoy the act, but these modified hybrids would be able to engage in sexual intercourse, if they so chose to.

At long last, the hybrids would no longer have to rely on cloning as they had. They would be able to breed true.

"I'm sorry, little brother. I honestly am. Humans, to them, it's the ultimate sign of affection and attraction, to mate."

"I know. She'll be happier with a male human. Besides, she could be so incredibly stupid some times, I really don't know what I ever saw in her." He replied bitterly.

Still watching him in the mirror, she shook her head sadly. "You don't mean that."

Randall closed his eyes, pulled the visor of the helmet down over his features, and then turned away, to stare out of the window.
She knew that he wasn't interested in talking any further on the subject, and decided to leave him be.

Another hour passed before they approached a canyon that stretched for miles in either direction. It wasn't as majestic as the Grand Canyon, but it was still a spectacle to see. "There it is," Rochelle called out to her brother. "Deep in that canyon is Aten."
Randall had never been to the city, and to his knowledge, neither had Rochelle. But, they knew all about it, and as he looked out the side of the helicopter, he could see a clear path in the hard packed dirt, leading to a half obscured ramp that lead down the side of the canyon.

She knew that the topology of the surrounding area had changed dramatically over the past two decades, after trade had been established between the Imperial forces and the city. At one time a huge canopy had covered the canyon, obscuring the city from aerial view, even the fields had employed the same technology to escape discovery. It was no longer needed, and the citizens of the city move about without fear.

Rochelle did a slow circle of the area, flying over the large fields of grain and vegetables. Already there were men hard at work in the fields, and tending to the free roaming livestock that they had in large, open fields.

Rochelle knew from the history files that the man she was hoping to find was in part, responsible for the changes that had taken place. He, as well as the exiles from the Cerberus redoubt.
None of the people working showed any sign of hostility towards the approaching aircraft. Quite the opposite, really. Several waved up to the Deathbird as it slowly circled, looking for a place to land. Rochelle knew that year's back; the sign of a Deathbird flying over an Outlander settlement was enough to send the citizenry into a panic. Clearly Aten had thrived under the protective arm of the baronies.

Things had changed even more dramatically during the great exodus that followed a short time after, with nearly thirty five percent of the population leaving forever had and the city had been faced with eventually becoming a ghost town, once again. Enough of the remaining people had the skill and the knowledge to keep it alive, and it thrived. Losing the nobility that had ruled the city brought several years of turmoil and strife, but the citizens of the city managed to rally together, and the lesions that they had learned over the years served them well. It was tough, getting by with so many of their loved ones gone, and without the help of the diviners and the oracles, decisions were not quite as clear as they had been in the past.

Three more slow circles showed the hybrid woman exactly what she needed to see. She found a place, only a half mile from the ramp that lead into the canyon, where she could land without disturbing any of the livestock or crops.

Do you wish for me to remain in the helicopter? Randall touched her mind questioningly.

She shook her head. Not at all. We can trust these people, they won't try to take the helicopter, or harm us.

Randall grunted disbelievingly. We shall see.

Rochelle leveled the Deathbird out and let it slowly glide to the desert floor beneath. She touched down with hardly a bump and immediately began to shut down the turbine engines. As she went through the procedure, she spotted a half dozen men and women approaching. They were all dressed in simple white linen pants and shirts, while the women wore thin dresses that left them bare at the shoulder. To a person, they were all deeply tanned, as one would expect having spent many long days under the southern California sun. Several were armed, as she had expected, but the others had no weapons visible. Instead, they were carrying jugs and small baskets.

She opened the canopy and was instantly hit by a wave of near broiling heat. Perspiration beaded on her exposed flesh and she could feel it tighten against the relentless heat. It seemed even hotter here than it was back at Dreamland, even though it was still only about ten in the morning. Rochelle climbed out of the seat and left her flight helmet on the headrest.

One of the approaching individuals was a woman in her mid to late thirties. She was carrying a large jug and had two clay mugs in her free hand. She bowed deeply before Rochelle and stood before her, smiling. "Welcome to Aten."

Already feeling uncomfortable from the heat, Rochelle bowed as well, and tried to return the smile. "Thank you. You are - "

"Nefertiti," The woman replied.

"I am Rochelle, and this is my younger brother, Randall." She waved her hand at the male hybrid, which was just now starting to climb out of the rear cockpit of the Deathbird.

"May the light of Nerubi shine upon you both. Come, you must be hot and tired from your journey; we offer you refreshments and a place to rest." As she spoke, she poured the liquid from the jug into both mugs, and handed one to each of the hybrids.

Rochelle took the offered drink gratefully and put it to her lips. Instantly she could smell the heady aroma of Heneket. She sipped at the mug, finding the powerful alcoholic drink to be pleasantly cold.

Seeing his sister react as she did, Randall took the offered mug and drank deeply, enjoying the cold brew, feeling almost instantly refreshed. "Thank you, Nefertiti." He said, wiping the sweat off his high brow.

Several of the people standing about stood with their mouths agape. Most people took their time drinking the amber liquid, considering how powerful it was. To see a small new human down the beverage as if it was nothing more than water was simply amazing to them. Randall studiously ignored the stares, feeling the burning liquid settle in his stomach. It wasn't an unpleasant sensation to the hybrid.

"Please, follow us," Nefertiti said, standing aside as the rest of her entourage did the same, making way for the two hybrids. As they passed, two humans on either side offered a tray of fruit, mainly apples, pears, but also banana and even mango's. Rochelle grabbed a mango and nibbled at it delicately, while Randall took a banana and peeled it as they followed the Aten woman towards the ramp leading down into the canyon.

Slowing down, Nefertiti allowed the hybrids to catch up to her. She walked between them, without speaking until they were at the head of the ramp. "What brings members of the new humans to our city today? Are you displeased with our latest shipment of livestock?"

Rochelle shook her head. "No, not at all. We're here to deliver an over-due payment.I was hoping that we might bring back a few barrels o Heneket, and possibly some information as well."

She stopped at the foot of the stares, one eyebrow raised questioningly. "Fair enough, Rochelle. If you would continue to follow me, I shall show you where you can rest, and then we will answer your questions. And, you are more than welcome to a couple of barrels of our brew. I'll arrange for the barrels to be loaded into your Deathbird."

"You're payment of trade credits is in the cockpit as well. I have been told that it's all there, as well as a small addition, interest for the lateness."

"I'm sure that the ruling council will be pleased. I'll have one of my people retrieve it. Four of the remaining five Aten citizens broke away and returned to the fields, while the other made her way towards where the Deathbird had landed. Nefertiti led them down the long winding ramp, deep into the canyon. Rochelle spotted several checkpoints and guard posts as they traveled.

Finally, they reached the bottom of the canyon, and the splendor of Aten was laid before them.

Nefertiti brought them to a small but comfortable appearing building. The air was much cooler at the bottom of the canyon, and the two hybrids sighed in relief. There was a slight breeze moving almost lazily through the buildings, carrying on it the sounds of the living city, as well as food, and a hint of water.

Entering the building, Nefertiti immediately showed the hybrids a pair of couches where they could sit. They didn't need to be asked twice. Once they were comfortable, Nefertiti clapped her ands and two young girls, no more than fourteen, entered. They were carrying bowls filled with water, and linen cloths. They knelt before the hybrids and started tugging their boots off. Randall made to stop the girl before him, when Rochelle caught his eye.

It's their custom so let them do it. If we don't, they might be offended.

Randall didn't reply, but he didn't stop the girl either. Working in unison, they removed the boots and bathed the hybrids feet in the cool water, then dried them off before replacing the boots.

Rochelle enjoyed the experience, although she could not only see, but also she felt just how uncomfortable her brother was at the attention.

When the girls were finished, they took the water and clothe towels and left without a word. Nefertiti then spoke up. "Are you still hungry or thirsty?"

"No, thank you." Randall said quickly.

"I too, am fine." Added Rochelle.

Nefertiti smiled. "You had questions, Rochelle, please ask. I will answer them as best I can."

Clearing her throat, Rochelle suddenly felt more nervous than she had in many years. It was almost as if her throat wouldn't allow her to speak the words she so wanted to convey. "I am looking for someone, and I am hoping that he might be here."

"Who is that?"

"His name is Decard, and he lived here about twenty years ago, before the exodus."

A human would have not noticed the slight narrowing of Nefertiti's eyes when she heard the name, even though her face remained neutral. But to Rochelle's senses, and her heightened intelligence, it was as clear as a beacon in the dead of night. "What interest is he to you? I am not saying that he is here, or not. I may know where he is, but I first need to know why you want to see him."

Rochelle mulled over the question. It wasn't an unreasonable request, considering the role he played during the exodus. There were many people who wanted to see him dead, and she could understand Nefertiti's hesitation. It didn't mean that she had to like it, though. "I need to see him. We knew each other at one time."

"He knew a lot of people at one time, Rochelle. You have to be more specific than that."

Rochelle felt a twinge of anger rising, but she suppressed it. "He cared for me when I was a baby, when no one else would. I want to see him, since I haven't seen him in so many years, and thank him."

Several long seconds passed before Nefertiti finally replied. During that time, she stared hard into Rochelle's huge, golden eyes, never blinking. For a moment, Rochelle thought that maybe some of the citizens who possessed psionic abilities still remained in the city, but she quickly shook that thought off, knowing that it wasn't possible. Finally, with a sigh, Nefertiti spoke; "I believe you, and yes, he has returned, several months ago."

"I wish to see him, please?" Rochelle could barely contain her excitement, knowing that finally she would come face to face with the man who had saved her life, so many years ago, who had given her love and compassion when no one else would.

Nefertiti stood up and walked over to the door, and waited. "Follow me. I will take you to him."

Stepping behind the woman, Rochelle followed her out, with Randall pulling up the rear.

They made their way towards the river that cut through the canyon, moving quickly. The city had not lost any of its splendor, and it was bustling with life, people going to and from work, stalls and small shops set up hawking everything from food to livestock to household goods. One thing that Rochelle did notice was that there were a lot more ville produced goods that she had suspected there would be for sale or trade.

The smell of the river got stronger as they approached. The beaches were sparsely populated, the white sand, gleaming pristinely in the sunlight. A couple of the citizens were frolicking in the water, while others lounged on the beach, taking in the morning sunlight. Rochelle felt color creeping into her high boned cheeks, as the people were unabashedly naked, clearly not caring who saw them.

Nefertiti led them past the people, and followed the river out of the city, staying on a well worn path. They walked for about ten minutes through the winding canyon until finally the reached a large depression, almost one hundred feet in circumference. She could see a man, his bronzed skin clearly visible against the white outline of the beach, standing hip deep in the water, holding a fishing rod. Although she couldn't make out his features at the distance separating them, she instinctively knew that it was the man she had been searching for.