DISCLAIMER: This is an unlicensed work of fan fiction. I do not own the copyright to Eureka Seven, the characters or the setting. Bandai Entertainment and Bones Studio have the legal rights to anything directly relating to the anime series Eureka Seven.

That said, I'd like to thank the writers and producers of this remarkable series for producing a work of great subtlety and uniqueness, whose deep appeal cuts across all age groups and backgrounds. Growing up, learning to accept oneself, finding the right place in one's own family, acceptance of responsibility, learning from experience, and above all, learning to love and be loved in return are universal themes, and to see them handled with such a deft touch in a popular television show is both amazing and highly satisfying.

It's my hope that this small effort of my own will help to keep the rich and textured world of Eureka Seven alive for others to discover, and hopefully to build upon, for many rewarding years to come.

John Wagner

Out of the Nest

(1)

A story from the world of Eureka Seven

by John Wagner

One

Matt Stoner kept a watchful eye on the altimeter as his tiny shuttlecraft dropped through the fading night. "I've got the signal from the homing beacon now," he told the radio.

"Acknowledged," said Holland from the distant command bridge of the Moonlight, somewhere far to the northwest. "When you clear them out, be sure to retrieve everything, got it? We don't want any traces left to make Federation snoopers suspicious."

"I got you—I mean, roger that, Moonlight. Or is it 'copy that?' Listen, I'm a journalist, not a pilot. Why can't you send somebody with real flying experience down here on these supply runs?"

A delay of several seconds before the speaker came to life again gave Stoner the distinct impression that Holland had been laughing with the microphone off. "Because this is a job for a journalist, that's why. It's going to be your biggest story since the Second Summer of Love, and you know it."

"How? You won't even let me use the material I collected on the last three runs." Stoner reduced his descent speed and nudged the autohomer control a few degrees tighter to keep the little ship more closely on-target as he neared the rendezvous area.

"You'll be able to use it soon. All of it. We're all going to be doing overtime helping you print enough copies of this issue of Ray=Out. Now go to radio silence and bring home our two nesting birds. Over and out."

"Yeah…copy out…er, roger over. See you later." He dimmed the cabin lights to darkness and switched to manual control, leveling off at one hundred meters above the forest and flying in a slow circle. The beacon said that his target lay just below…there—the flashing yellow of the narrow-beam beacon in the center of the clearing. Stoner cut forward flight and activated the thrusters, grabbing the joystick for hover mode and delicately drifting the shuttle downward, watching the deeper darkness of the surrounding trees rise up against the clear predawn sky.

From somewhere just at the edge of the meadow, he spotted those peculiar lights again, flickering rapidly, deep blue and intense red. He'd seen them before, on his first return to this isolated wood to bring supplies at what would become three-month intervals. Nothing sinister had come of them, and neither Holland nor Mischa had found any reason for concern when he made his report, but they bothered him all the same. To a journalist, any unanswered question would always be bothersome.

The shuttle trembled as it touched to the soft grassy ground. Stoner waited for a full count of ten before extinguishing the landing thrusters, just in case some nasty Federation surprises lurked in the trees. Three years as part of the Moonlight crew had taught him to look for traps everywhere.

In the sudden silence, he doused even the instrument lights, then left the pilot's seat and pulled the latching handle that allowed the door to spring wide. Counting to ten again, Stoner waited just inside the door for possible gunfire before stepping out into the night.

He pulled in deep lungfuls of rich, pine-scented air. You never really appreciate fresh air till you've spent a couple of months locked up in a warship, he reflected, pulling his sweatshirt closely about himself to hold out the chill. No wonder those military guys are all so cranky.

"Stoner?"

He jerked around toward his left, peering into the night with eyes not yet fully dark-adapted. "Yeah." He did not say who he had been expecting, another lesson in defensive paranoia learned firsthand.

"Good to see you again. Hey, it's okay to use a little light; there's nobody else around here but us. It's me, Renton."

Stoner clicked on a tiny flashlight. Yeah, definitely Renton Thurston. But wow, how this kid gets taller every time I come back. He slapped Renton on the shoulder in a comradely way and allowed himself a smile at last. "Yeah, good to see you again too, kid. How's it been? Gotten lonely out here in the wilds yet? How about you lead me to the campsite, so we can get this over with. We can reminisce while we walk."

"Sure, okay. Just follow my voice, all right? About the 'lonely' stuff, no. There's been plenty of Vodarek people here all the time. In fact, this spot's been a regular pilgrimage place. On account of…"

"Yeah, I know what it's on account of. If Holland'd known this was getting to be such a tourist draw, he'd've probably sent me down here a lot sooner. You really shoulda told us, you know. Anybody can make with the holy chants and put on a robe, even if they're hiding an antipersonnel pistol underneath it. You should've… Ack!"

"Oh, sorry for not warning you. About the grass, I mean—it gets really slippery when the dew gets on it. Here, let me help you up."

Stoner took the boy's offered hand and rolled himself to his feet once more, surprised at the strength Renton had lent him. "Thanks, kid. Are you going to need any help with packing?"

"Oh, no, we're all ready. We folded up the collapsible shelter yesterday, and put all the supplies we haven't used in boxes. We slept in my old tent last night. You know, the one I used when I first joined up with Gekkostate?"

"I remember." How clearly I remember, Renton. As if I could ever forget. "I'll help you drag the shelter to the shuttle, anyway. There isn't a lot of—"

"Hello, Stoner!"

He nearly jumped. At the same instant a female voice chimed out of the dark, an eerie greenish glow ignited among the trees, wavering in a broad pattern like a pair of outspread green flames.

Or wings.

"Eureka?" said Stoner.

"Hello again, Stoner! How is everyone aboard the Moonlight?" Her soft voice grew lower, more expectant. "How are the children? Do they still miss us?"

"As much as ever. Axel's got'em enrolled in school now, you know, even Linck. I expect they'll be celebrities on account of their famous parents, just like Renton." Interesting about the wings; she can make them glow. Wait'll Mischa finds out. "Gonna be a bit rough on them, pulling them out of school, now. Can't be helped, though, if you two're serious about coming back to the world."

"We have to," she said, firmly enough to make it plain that she and Renton had discussed the matter thoroughly and at length. "We were given a task, you know. We weren't ready for it at first, but we are now."

"As ready as we'll ever be, anyhow," added Renton.

Stoner nodded, studying Eureka's outline in the lambent glow from the pair of luxuriant butterfly-like wings sprouting from her back. Like Renton, she seemed so much more poised, confident, capable in some indefinable way. Each time he'd come back here to resupply them in their mountainside retreat over the past year, there had been that odd sensation that he was looking at two slightly different people than the ones he'd met on the last trip. He found that sensation almost overwhelming, now. "I guess so. Well, come on, Renton, let's you and I drag the shelter to the shuttle bay, then come back here for the supply crates. Eureka, you…carry the light, okay? We definitely want to be out of here before dawn."

Two

Annette "Gidget" Dee sat hunched over the communications console of the ex-Federation airship Moonlight, too excited and expectant even to do her nails. She twitched as a small virtual screen bloomed to life before her eyes, displaying the impatient face of the Moonlight's commander, Holland Novak, running one restless hand through his unkempt and very prematurely gray hair.

"Nothing yet," she said, before he could ask her yet again.

"I… No, that's not what I wanted. This time, anyway." He smiled in a tight-lipped way; Gidget remembered the years when a smile on that narrow, angular face would have been near-unthinkable. "I just wanted to know if you've heard from Admiral Juergens recently. He's as interested in our little reunion as we are, I think."

"Why, no. I'd have passed any communications on to you right away, as always. And anyway, he's supposed to be observing radio silence too, until…well, until pickup, if you know what I mean."

The screen multiplied as Jobs, one of the ship's two systems technicians, joined in the conversation. "We all know what you mean, Gidget. And I've some good news at last: radar shows a small shuttlecraft at a hundred and ten kilometers, on an intercept course. The trapar signature is unquestionably that of our own shuttle. Stoner's on his way back, and fast."

Holland stiffened visibly. "Then we aren't going to keep him waiting. Open the forward catapult ramp and the blast doors to the hangar."

The long catapult ramp—normally used for launching LFOs when the need arose—yawned briefly from the Moonlight's belly to allow its angular little shuttlecraft entry. Stoner managed the running landing with no more than two or three severe bounces, but brought his ship to rest intact and more or less within the assigned circles of the docking target.

Within seconds, the entire excited crew of the Moonlight turned out in the launch bay, leaving the ship itself on monitored autopilot as they gathered in a chattering crowd before the shuttle, waiting for Stoner to methodically shut down the fuel valves and equalize the cabin pressure. Even normally-reserved Dr. Mischa Svarovsky found herself smiling with anticipation, pleasantly surprised to rediscover just how great a role these two passengers had played in her own life.

With a pop of releasing seals, the boarding hatch flapped open, its lower half unfolding into a short stairway as it touched the deck. And then, almost shyly, Renton Thurston emerged, offering Eureka his hand as she found the steps, coming face-to-face once again with the unforgettable people who had been a second family to them both for the most eventful year they had ever known.

Silence dropped into the hangar like a sudden vacuum as eleven highly-trained and experienced professional military personnel shared a single thought: My God, that can't be them. The brash, stubby kid with the ref board and the red jacket had somehow, in the course of a year, grown into a tall and confident young man evaluating them with a dark, thoughtful gaze.

Norbu, decided Ken-Goh, the Moonlight's chief weaponry officer. There's something of Norbu at his deepest in him, now.

And Eureka…

Once, an unsure, awkward and painfully frightened girl had occupied that body, itself born of some unimaginable Coralian biowizardry in the depths of the planetary coral. Now, though her physical shape remained little changed, a serenity and grace shone from Eureka, her astonishing lavender eyes roaming over them all as though bestowing a wordless benediction. Her electric-blue hair brushed her shoulders, but she still held it back from her eyes—those eyes!—by the same gold clip she'd used long ago, the one unchanged link to a past already nearly beyond imagining.

A fairy, thought Moondoggie, the ship's pilot. She's become a fairy.

But Hilda Bairn, LFO combat officer, stared, astonished, and decided A goddess. And shivered.

Gone was the modified Unit Seven uniform jacket Eureka had worn as a makeshift dress during her time aboard the Moonlight, now exchanged for a soft, short gown of some silky blue material. Sleeveless, it rose up at the bosom to tie around her neck, and the reason for the choice was obvious, for it had been cut low in the back to accommodate the pair of rainbow-streaked butterfly wings spreading magnificently behind her. Both wings quivered nervously as Eureka contemplated the faces of the crew, all so familiar, all so unexpectedly strange.

Yuki Talho began to cry softly, for no reason she could clearly define; it was left to the renegade ship's captain to take the lead once more. "Welcome back!" said Holland, stepping forward and taking Renton's hand. "Life aboard the Moonlight hasn't been half as exciting without you. I see there've been a few changes while you were on your little exile."

Smiling, Renton eyed the baby squirming in Yuki's arms. "Yeah, here, too. You never went on any mission that wasn't a big success, Holland."

It was the signal for everyone to finally break the ice and come forward with their welcomes and their laughter. Eureka laughed in return, her wings fluttering, and ran immediately to Talho and the baby, bubbling over with congratulations while Hap Fukoda, Holland's second-in-command, pumped Renton's arm till Dr. Mischa intervened on medical grounds. "I'll want to see you later," she murmured in Renton's ear. "Both of you."

Renton nodded token agreement before being swept along by the pressure of the other crew, pushing him toward the stairs up to the ship's main level. "Where are we going?" he managed to shout through his laughter as they tried to hoist him to their shoulders.

"To the galley, Junior," called Hap. "We're putting down for the night, and there's gonna be a feast to celebrate this grand reunion. How long's it been since you two've had real scrambled eggs?"

Three

As it turned out, Hap had been joking. With the Moonlight resting on its landing struts atop a bleak, stony plateau, everyone lent their culinary skills to the production of a banquet of monumental variety. Both Renton and Eureka protested their willingness to help, but were roundly refused admittance to the the kitchens until mealtime, when the low tables of the informal galley sagged beneath the weight of more steaming dishes than anyone had ever seen in use at the same time.

"Is it really safe to land the ship here for so long?" asked Renton of Holland, who sat at his left side. "I mean, it's pretty exposed and vulnerable here, after all."

"Safe as it can ever be. The new Independent Planetary Forces patrol this sector at all times. The Federation almost never comes this far northwest, and if they did, Admiral Juergens' fleet would give us plenty of warning." He popped what looked like a crispy dumpling into his mouth, washing it down with a glass of some pale yellow juice. "It's not like the old days, when the whole damned world was against us. Now it's only about half the world."

"Almost feels like a stroll through the garden," said Matthieu Bouchard, another of the LFO combat pilots. "There're days when you could almost nap out in your cockpit and not feel like you'll wake up with a Federation homing missle in your lap."

"You do nap out in your cockpit," laughed Hilda, swatting him affectionately on one shoulder, to the general amusement of all.

Eureka, munching delicately at a spiced rice ball, could hardly keep her eyes off of Yuki, currently feeding her gurgling son tiny bits of soft delicacies from her own plate. "What's the baby's name?" she asked.

"'Holland,' of course. He was born about four months ago, and he's already as much trouble as his father ever was." She smiled at the elder Holland in a soft way that none of them would have believed in the days before the Second Summer of Love had led to the still-fragile Coralian truce.

"And there's another little surprise for Renton and Eureka, too," said Holland with a grand flourish. "We're married, now, I'll have you know. Made it official about a month after you two left."

Renton's face creased in the latest of many smiles. "Hey, that's great! But you know, we—" He looked to Eureka, and a quick, wordless exchange seemed to pass between them "—I mean, we are, too! Married, I mean."

"How romantic!" crooned Gidget over the ragged chorus of "No!" and "Congratulations!" and "About time!"

"When did it happen?" she insisted, blinking her long lashes and nudging Moondoggie in the ribs as she sliced off a square of cheese. "Was it a civil ceremony? Did you go into a town? That was taking an awful chance."

"Oh, we'd never have dared approach a town," said Eureka, turning away from the baby at last. "Besides, there were no towns for over two hundred kilometers. It was a religious ceremony."

Renton swallowed a mouthful of spiced vegetables and nodded vigorously. "It was the Vodarek; one of their priests married us. Somehow, a little group of them found us after about four months, and after that there was a pretty steady trickle of them passing through the camp."

"Why?" asked Ken-goh, his black eyes glittering sharply.

Renton dipped his face, cheeks reddening as they had so often done during his first days aboard the Moonlight. "Well…they sort of seemed to, uh, think that Eureka was some kind of saint or angel or something."

"They came to see us," she corrected him at once. "Both of us. They knew, in some way, that we were the ones chosen by the Coralians to bring about reconciliation. I can't say I truly understand all of their mystical philosophy, but they really do have some kind of connection to the Coralian group mind. It was right that we should have been married by a Vodarek priest, I think."

Gidget rolled up her eyes in rapture. "That's the most wonderful thing I've ever heard! Married in a romantic hideaway in the woods by a wandering mystic priest! I could just…" She spread her arms wide, forgetful of the sharp knife in her left hand.

Eureka twitched in surprise; Gadget gasped, horrified, as the blade grazed Eureka's furled right wing.

"Oh my God, Eureka, I'm so sorry! I'm such an idiot! That was the stupidest… Did I…tear them?"

"No, no, don't feel bad, Gidget, please. You didn't do any harm. See?" To demonstrate, she unfolded the shimmering, colorful wings behind her, showing them whole and undamaged. "Really, they're not as fragile as they look. In fact, they're extremely strong." Looking around at the shocked faces ringing the now-silent table, Eureka stood and stretched out her wings to their fullest extent. "None of you need to be embarrassed over it. For whatever reason, the Coralian Command Mind gave me wings, and they're part of me, now. I like them, so you needn't go on being polite and pretending not to be looking at them."

"They're the nicest wings anyone ever had," seconded Renton, rising and taking her hand. "What Eureka's trying to say is that you're our friends. We wouldn't be here, neither of us, if it hadn't been for all of you." He gave a little mock grimace. "We had about all we can take of people treating us like saints this past year. So please, don't any of you start doing the same thing."

"Sit down and shut up, Your Holiness," drawled Holland, "before I order you to swab out the LFO deck again."

That was the signal for the laughter to return once more, washing away any lingering awkwardness among them. From the other end of the table, Stoner lifted his ever-present camera and snapped a quick shot of them standing hand in hand. Only Mischa continued watching the couple with her intent gaze, noting how remarkably tall and confident Renton had grown; observing Eureka's pantherlike grace and the shining green jewel on her forehead that now seemed to be no mere bit of ornamental jewlelry. But Mischa was a woman accustomed to keeping her thoughts to herself. It isn't just the wings, my young friends. We shall see.

As Eureka and Gidget hugged each other like long-lost sisters, the blue communications device at Gidget's belt began to buzz urgently for attention. "Oh, damn," she sighed, pulling out an earsonde and plugging it into one ear. "It's the remote communicator console; someone's calling the ship. This is Moonlight on secure channel. Encoded response, please."

"Who'd be calling us now?" wondered Hap, idly munching on a long pretzel. "The IPF fleet knows we're on special mission."

"It's not exactly a 'call,'" she said, compressing her lips in a frown. "It's an automated transponder signal. There's a ship approaching us."

Holland jumped to his feet, nearly upsetting the table in the process. "Party's over. Everyone to stations. Now!"

Four

Renton and Eureka sat helplessly for a moment as the crew disappeared around them, hurrying back to their posts. "Where do we go?" she finally asked.

"No idea. We're not really part of the crew any more, and there's no more Nirvash for us to fly. Feels kind of useless, doesn't it?"

"Well, when we were part of the crew, you and I always went to the launch deck during an emergency, so it seems right that we should go down there now." She stood, primly smoothing down the front of her gown. "At least we can feel that we're doing our part."

When they arrived once again at the deck they'd left only hours before, they found Matthieu and Hap securing the shuttlecraft while Hilda stood by the blue 808 LFO without entering its command cockpit.

"What's going on?" Renton asked. "How come you're not launching?"

"You should've stayed and finished dinner," called Hap over one shoulder, slipping a docking clamp over one of the shuttle's struts. "False alarm. There's no crisis. The code was coming from an IPF shuttle out of Tresor."

"Tresor?" Eureka pronounced the word as if it were some dire curse. "What for?"

"They say they've got important information," said Matthieu, wiping his brow with the back of one work gauntlet. "Said it was too important to trust even to a secure channel. They'll be here in an hour and a half or so. Damn, but I wish I'd brought some of those nut'n'date rolls along. I hardly got to eat anything."

For once, Hilda refrained from criticizing him. "Me, neither. I was just about to set into that tomato soufflé when Holland hit the panic button. He sure has been jumpy…these past couple of days."

"You mean since we decided to come back," said Renton. "He's worried that the Federation might've found out that we were coming back to the Moonlight, and that they'll try to attack or something." The last docking latch snapped into position with a discordant clang.

Hilda shrugged. "Yeah, that's pretty much true. You two are just as important to Earth's future as ever, and once the Federation finds out you're not dead after all, things could get hot again."

Eureka folded her wings with a sigh. Always she had been a magnet for danger to those around her, and it seemed that even the Second Summer of Love had brought no change in that part of her life. "Well, unless Holland has changed his routine over the past year, he'll hold the crew on alert until the shuttle arrives and he knows it's not dangerous. So Renton and I will go back to the galley and bring some food down for you."

"Great idea," Renton agreed. "It's the least we can do. C'mon, and we'll…"

"Just a moment," said Mischa, who had appeared unseen on the stairway. "I should very much like for you both to come to my office for a few moments, if you please."

"But we were going to—"

"Yes, I heard. But once those Tresor people arrive, they'll be monopolizing the two of you from morning till night, especially if my former husband is with them. It's important that I make a few tests on you, both for your own health and for my records. Please come with me."

"But—" began Eureka.

"And as soon as I'm finished, you can both come back here and serve up a four-course dinner, if you like."

Renton nodded reluctantly. "If it's all right with Eureka, it's all right with me. Hey, guys, we'll be back as soon as we can, okay?"

Matthieu doubled over, clutching at his stomach, feigning intense agony. "I…guess we can hold out a few hours longer before…before we starve to death."

Hilda was still swatting him as they left.

Mischa's cramped medical office still smelled of plastic and antiseptic; still had too many echoes for such a small space. Pulling on her white lab coat like a cloak of office, she directed them to disrobe behind the folding privacy screen and wait on the examination table while she left to fetch some specialized equipment.

"I really don't like this place," admitted Eureka as Renton helped her to untie the neck cord holding up her gown. "It depresses me."

"I know. I think maybe I feel that way, too. We've got some good memories of this ship—I mean we got to know each other here, after all. But there are plenty of bad ones, too. Here, I'll give you a hand up."

"Thank you."

"In fact, it was right here on this table that Mischa laid you after I pulled you out of that coral mass in the trapar mine." Renton hung his head at the bitter memory. "I…thought you were going to die. And even when Mischa said you'd survive, I still hated myself because it was my own stupid fault you'd gone down there."

She lay her hand on his. "No, that was my foolishness more than yours. Even under the influence of the concentrated trapar, I should have known far better. I was only trying to run away…"

"…and return to the coral, yeah. But I was too wrapped up in my own problems to even see yours. It was my selfishness. And when I…"

"…sneaked back in to visit me when I was recuperating and tried to tell me that you loved me, I never thought at all of how I was hurting you when I turned away…"

"…so I ran out on you, instead of staying and being here for you…"

"…even though it was the shock of your leaving that made me really think about loving you for the first time…"

In the dark storeroom next to to her office, Dr. Mischa Svardovsky switched off the intercom, feeling uncomfortably like a cheap voyeur. Renton and Eureka's purity and devotion touched even her jaded heart and left her near to tears, but the trained, analytical part of her mind still registered a little shock of discovery. They're completing each other's sentences, she marveled. It's as if they're almost thinking in unison, just the way their brainwaves synched that first time they entered the aerial Coralian Zone together. How in the world can two people be so completely part of each other this way?

Lifting her glasses to dab away the dampness at the corners of her eyes, she snatched up her testing equipment and composed herself to return to the office.

"I'm back," Mischa announced loudly, so as not to catch them by surprise. "May I come in?"

"Sure," said Eureka. "We were just...talking about some of the times we'd spent in here, in the old days."

The doctor came around to their side of the screen bearing a white plastic cylinder tethered to a probe of dull silver by a short cord. "No one ever has good times in a doctor's office. Just sit still and we can have this over quickly; this device is going to take your mass, weight and size measurements." She waved the metallic probe about them, walking all around the table as she watched the readings and muttered to herself.

"Like about the time I left the ship," Renton went on, feeling a bit awkward under the circumstances. "Holland wasn't so wrong to hit me, you know. I really didn't know anything about what Eureka needed in those days."

"Well, he certainly wouldn't have such an easy time of it now," said Mischa, nodding at her readouts. "Do you know you've shot up to nearly a hundred and eighty-two centimeters?"

Pleasant surprise lit his face. "That much? No wonder I keep bumping my head on things around here."

But she had already turned her attentions to Eureka. "Let me see…except for the added mass of your wing structure, your weight and size haven't changed at all. That's unusual, too. Are you ticklish? I'm going to probe around at the base of your wings, if you don't mind."

"No, I'm not. Well, not there, anyway. Go right ahead."

"Remarkable," said the doctor, half to herself as she poked and prodded between Eureka's shoulder blades. "You've got an entirely new set of muscles back here to handle the wings, and yet they can't possibly generate enough lift for you to fly. Would you mind raising them a bit for me? Thank you." She ran her fingers delicately over the outstretched wing membranes, now extended directly backward, the streaks and blobs of bright color beneath their translucent green changing shape with each motion. "This is interesting. What can they be made of, I wonder? Certainly nothing so fragile as human tissue. We know so little about the biology of the various Coralian forms, and you're the only human-Coralian hybrid anyone has ever seen. Oh, there's already so much data to analyze, here."

Eureka turned her face back toward her. "Am I…all right, then, Mischa?"

"Perfectly all right." Mischa smiled with perfect sincerity. "Apart from being the only half-human, half-Coralian with a jewel in her forehead and a pair of magnificent green wings I've ever seen, you're as ordinary as air. In fact, you're far healthier than you were when you lived here. Is…there some reason you ask?"

Renton and Eureka shared one of those peculiar little glances in which, Mischa now suspected, a great deal of information was being exchanged. "Well…it's just that last year, just before Renton and I went into the Great Wall…you told me that I was capable of bearing children."

"I see." As a former military doctor, Mischa had been privy to a great many of her patients' personal secrets, and now adopted the proper professional demeanor to avoid embarrassing either of them. "Well, it was perfectly true at that time, and none of the readings indicate that your internal organs have changed."

"Maybe not. But even though I can, we just don't seem to know how."

Even her many years of practice left Mischa unprepared for such a startling admission. "Ah, well," she spluttered, "there are many instructional materials…"

Flushing a brilliant red from his face down to his chest, Renton broke in. "No, no, that's not it at all! We know all about that, believe me! It's just that…in spite of all that we…I mean, she still…"

"Hasn't conceived. Yes, I understand, now, Renton. Yes, please forgive me."

"I know you said I have all the human capabilities," Eureka went on, "but all the same, you know, I've never had a menstrual cycle, like fully-human girls. I'm very sure that no matter what's inside me, things don't work the same way for me."

Mischa nodded sympathetically, peering at her over the tops of her glasses. "I see. No, I didn't know that; I simply assumed that after your final transformation... Well, then, I've no doubt you're correct, both of you. It seems that things don't work the same way for you. But Eureka, you're so absolutely unique that I really have nothing to go on. We just don't know enough about your singular biology yet to have all the answers; it's my hope that these tests I'm running will shed some light on that area and many others. I'm sure that the Tresor group will eventually be putting all their expertise into analyzing this data. Don't give up hope, either of you." Without quite understanding why, she added "Please."

"Thank you," Eureka whispered, joining hands with Renton, "I really appreciate all that you've done for us."

Sniffling faintly, Mischa pressed the cool metal probe to Renton's back. "This will send a short ultrasonic burst into your skin and take a tiny tissue sample," she explained. It won't hurt. There. Now you, please, Eureka? Excellent. Thank you both."

"Can we get dressed again now?" Renton asked.

"Certainly; that's all for now. Oh, Renton, in all this time, you still haven't learned to comb your hair. Here, let me brush it out of your eyes—"

"Er, no, that's all right…"

"—like this." With one deft flick of her fingers, Mischa lifted the thatch of thick brown hair dangling over his forehead, revealing the green jewel in his brow, identical to Eureka's.

"So now you know," he grumbled.

"So now I do. But I already suspected. What are these things? And why did you try to hide yours?"

Eureka smiled. "We don't really know what they are, Mischa. We both had them when we came out of the Coralian command sphere, but they didn't tell us anything about them. We only know that…"

"That we can talk with them," said Renton. "Without words. If we do…something I can't describe…inside our minds, we can each of us know what the other is thinking and feeling. They flicker with light when we do—Eureka's is red and mine is blue." He smiled in a self-conscious way. "The Vodarek pilgrims just about fell on their faces when they saw these things, though. Like they were the mark of holy angels from heaven, or something. That's why I started deliberately brushing my hair down across my forehead, I guess. I got so tired of everybody staring at us like a pair of statues in a temple, and we didn't want our old friends here on the ship getting the same way, you see? Eureka's can pass for jewelry, and I just let my hair fall over my face the way I used to, so nobody's noticed yet. Except you. You won't tell them, will you?"

She shook her head. "It's my duty to tell Holland anything that might affect our mission, but other than that, no, I won't spread it around the crew. But they're all intelligent and observant; you're not going to be able to hide it for long."

"But they're our friends," he sighed, wriggling into his dark pullover sweater and re-tying the neck knot of Eureka's gown. "We don't want them treating us as if we were something…special."

Now dressed once more, they instinctively shifted nearer to one another. "What will they think of us, Holland and Yuki and all the others?" asked Eureka. "I mean, if they think we're…different?"

Mischa tucked the medical probe under one arm, removed her glasses and slid them into the breast pocket of her lab coat. "Your modesty does you credit," she told them, not in an unkindly way. "But there's something that I'm afraid you're both going to have to come to terms with: you are special, each of you. And I think we've all only begun to understand just how special." Her eyes narrowing shrewdly, she looked at them with both affection and sympathy. "So get used to being special. You've only been aboard for a few hours, my dear. You're going to find out that the crew are counting on it."

Five

"Our company's approaching," announced Hap from his console on the Moonlight's command bridge. "But even though the coded profile in their transmission said they were in a shuttle, the radar and trapar signatures indicate an LFO."

"Hostile?" Holland asked at once.

"Doesn't look that way. No weapons systems are showing armed, and they're not on an attack course. Best to be prepared for anything, though."

Gidget's voice chirped over the intercom. "Incoming transmission from our visitors."

"Let's hear it," said Holland.

"Moonlight, do you copy?" boomed the voice from speakers all over the bridge. "This is Katsuhiro Morita calling from shuttle zero-one. Please respond."

"Voiceprint says it's really Dr. Morita," Hap quietly told Holland over one shoulder.

"This is Holland, on the Moonlight. Our sensors are showing that you're in something a little more exotic than a shuttlecraft."

"Yes, yes, that's true, Holland! We thought it wise to alter our transmission profile, to avoid attracting unwanted attention, if you follow me. There are two others here from Tresor, who are known to you. Will it help if I have them speak to you?"

Holland stroked his chin thoughtfully. Morita, a research engineer, piloting an LFO? What could this be about? "Yes, please."

A series of rough scrapings scratched through the communicator, apparently as the microphone passed inexpertly from hand to hand. "Hello? Hello? This is Dr. Sonia Wakabayashi here. I'm a friend of Dr. Mischa Svarovsky."

Hap raised his thumb in the "okay" signal as the voiceprint confirmed itself on his console.

"Hello again, Sonia," said Holland. "And welcome."

"Good day. Or perhaps I should say good evening," came the next voice, smooth, restrained, almost cultured. "I am Dr. Gregory Egan, and we should very much like to speak with you."

Eyebrows raised all around the bridge. The notoriously sedentary Dr. Gregory "Bear" Egan seldom strayed from his laboratory at the Tresor Research Facility, except at moments of great crisis. The last time these three had traveled together had been to warn Holland of a deadly Federation trap.

"Yeah, it's him," confirmed Hap.

Holland nodded. "Very well, we'll turn on the navigation lights and activate a homing beacon. We'll also lower the launch ramp. Bring your…shuttle into the hangar as quickly as you can."

"Understood, Moonlight," said Morita before ending the transmission.

With an elaborate stretching of arms and back, Holland stood. "This should be interesting. I'm going down to the hangar. Hap, you and Ken-Goh stay here and watch your monitors for fifteen minutes, just in case this really is some kind of Federation trick. Arm the weapons, including the antipersonnel lasers in the hangar deck, but don't shoot unless something suspicious starts to happen."

"We are not so trigger-happy," rumbled Ken-Goh through the exuberant handlebar mustache he affected.

"Yeah. That's what makes us different from the Federation. If this really is the Tresor group, we'll all meet in the galley in half an hour." He allowed himself a sly smile. "And maybe then we'll get to finish our dinner after all."

"It seems lonely and empty in here, doesn't it?" said Eureka as she and Renton wandered aimlessly about the Moonlight's hangar deck. Her voice echoed distantly from the bare metal walls.

"Yeah, it sure does. Doesn't seem right without the Nirvash sitting there in that corner, folded into its ground-transport mode. Remember how I used to sleep next to her, when I first joined Gekkostate?"

She attempted a smile. "I slept there, too, when you were gone away from me. The world seemed very dark during that time."

"I'll never go away from you again," said Renton, slipping his arm about her shoulders.

"If only the children were here," she sighed, rubbing her cheek to his warmth. "I miss them so. And even though I'm sure that Axel is looking after them well, we've already missed a year of their growing up. Nothing can ever replace that year."

"Yeah, that's true." Together they continued their melancholy tour of the harshly-lit deck, passing by the ship's two resident LFOs and the shuttlecraft that had plucked them from the forest, now tethered in the bay once occupied by the Nirvash TypeZERO. "I've missed them, too."

Eureka stopped, looking directly into his face. "I've never asked you this before...but we must always be completely honest with each other, and I think now is the time: did you really like them when you first came aboard? Were you pleased to find that I'd adopted three little orphans?"

"Well…no." He smiled, a bit embarrassed. "In the beginning, I just sort of tolerated them, because I wanted to be with you. I never thought I'd really learn to like them." Renton laughed, wondering at it all. "But I did, though. I wish we had them around right now, hearing them call me 'Papa.' That really seems strange, doesn't it? I mean, I'm only seven years older than Maurice, myself."

"That's not really so," she said, fixing him with her amazing Coralian eyes. "You've only been alive for fifteen years, it's true. But in here—" she touched his chest with one delicate finger "—you've grown beyond anyone I've ever met."

Gathering her in his arms, Renton wondered once again what he could ever have possibly done to deserve a treasure like this. "I've only been alive since I met you, Eureka…" The jewel in his forehead flickered a deep, pure blue that could not be hidden by the concealing thatch of brown hair. Her own jewel answered with its warm, blood-red glow, flashing in unison. They drew nearer…

A loud siren, shocking in its suddenness, filled the hangar, as the full bank of overhead spotlights bloomed into life, bathing them in brilliant white. For just an instant, both of them suppressed a reflexive impulse to scramble to the Nirvash, ready for combat. "What is it?" said Eureka, holding close to her husband.

"Just the bay-door warning. Somebody's coming in. And—holy crap, the security lasers are arming! Let's get out of the way of whatever's going on."

From a safe location behind the tethered shuttle, they watched fascinated, puzzled and alarmed, as the forward floor dropped from the hangar bay, forming a long illuminated ramp that thrust far out into the night. And up that metallic slope rolled a bulky vehicle with the characteristic angular outline of a ground-mode LFO.

Before it had finished moving, Holland himself appeared, followed by Matthieu, both of them carrying formidable-looking black automatic rifles. Marching toward the still-sealed cockpit, they held the guns at a ready position, watchful and alert as the cowling went transparent and folded back.

"Captain Holland?" called a strangely familiar voice. "Is that you?"

He lowered the rifle and clicked the safety back into place. "Just 'Holland' will do, Dr. Morita. I work with the IPF now, but I wouldn't take a military rank. Welcome to the Moonlight. Wait while we roll a boarding ladder over to you."

Reassured, Eureka and Renton crept out of their nook behind the shuttle and watched as the Tresor party descended. "Is that who I think it is?" said Renton softly.

"Yes, it's Dr. Egan. But he looks so…small."

"Last time we saw him, he must've been at least two hundred twenty-five kilograms. He could never've even fit into an LFO cockpit, let alone climb down a ladder."

"Oh, and Sonia and Dr. Morita are with him! Come on, Renton, let's go and see them."

Though he felt considerably less enthusiasm, Renton allowed her to pull him by the hand to the place next to the boarding ladder where Dr. Morita, last one out of the cockpit, now stepped to the deck, blinking in the glare from the overhead lights.

At the sound of their footsteps, Morita turned, his dark eyes widening. "Eureka? But of course, it must be you. What in the world—? And Renton? Renton Thurston? Then you've both been retrieved safely."

"Is there some reason you expected otherwise?" Holland asked.

Dr. Egan nodded primly. "That is our very reason for making this journey. We have—"

A crash of falling metal interrupted him, followed by a short bellow of pain. Matthieu fell backward, clutching at his right arm, as a large segment of the LFO's silvery armor bounced crazily across the floor toward the far wall.

"Matthieu!" shouted Holland, running to his side. "What happened?"

"I…don't know. A chunk of armor fell off…I jumped away in time, but it got me on the damned arm. It was hot." Already the skin on the back of his arm showed extensive charring, with blisters sure to come.

Morita took one look and grimaced. "I'm so terribly sorry—our responsibility, I'm afraid. Our trip here was not without incident. We were attacked by a Federation patrol ship, only an hour and a half out of Tresor. I had no idea any of the armor had been loosened, or that it might still be dangerously hot. We had all better move away from the Model Seven for the time being."

Wrapping one arm about Matthieu's shoulders, Holland led him away toward Mischa's medical room. "Go on up to the galley," he called to the Tresor group. "There's food and drink waiting. Matthieu and I will be up as soon as his arm's taken care of. Renton and Eureka can show you the way."

Six

Once more, the crew of the Moonlight sat gathered about the low tables in the ship's galley, but this time without the party atmosphere.

"What's on your mind, then?" said Holland without preamble. "Why have the three of you come to find us, and why was the trip so dangerous?"

Morita and Wakabayashi looked toward the implacable Dr. Egan as if having decided that he would be the spokesman for their mission. Egan polished his tiny round spectacles on a napkin, gathering his thoughts, then lifted his broad face and looked about them. "Before we begin, I should like a bit of information, myself, if you please. At Tresor, we have heard no more of the fate of our young friends here—" he indicated Eureka and Renton, seated beside Yuki "—than your magazine Ray=Out has told. The last information we had was that they had confronted the Coralian command-center node and saved the entire planet from certain destruction. But of their fate since that time, we know no more than the rest of the world."

"We've been keeping it a tight secret," Stoner told him. "About half the population has lost family or friends to the Coralian attacks stirred up by the late and unlamented Colonel Dewey. And people've been subjected to some pretty heavy anti-Coralian propaganda ever since, so they're outright hostile to anything Coralian. And Admrial Juergens estimates only a bit over a third of the Federation military has defected to the IPF, so there are a lot of people ready to go to war again just at the mention of the word 'Coralian.' A human-Coralian couple appearing so soon after the Second Summer of Love would have been like waving a red flag in front of them." He tapped out one of his harsh cigarettes, then seemed to think better of it and returned the pack to the pocket of his sweatshirt. "We tracked Eureka and Renton as they came back to earth after their experience, before the Federation military could. Holland got the idea of hiding them out for their own safety, and to let things quiet down while we all prepare for the next step."

"I see." Egan dipped his potato-shaped head once. "If I may ask, then, of Renton and Eureka, what have you been doing, alone together, during all this time?"

Matthieu, gingerly touching the thick bandages swathing his left arm, looked up with a wry smirk. "That has got to be the dumbest question I've ever heard." Both Renton and Eureka blushed copiously, but the rest of the party broke into wild laughter, including Wakabayashi and Morita.

"Very well," said Egan, not at all offended, "I take your meaning, Mr. Bouchard. Let me rephrase for our young friends: what else have you been doing since your disappearance?"

Renton looked about him uncertainly. How to explain it all to someone who hadn't been there? "Well…we've been thinking a lot, and talking about all the things that happened last year. And learning about the history that led up to them, thanks to the books that Stoner's been bringing us. And listening to the radio, the Federation propaganda. Preparing ourselves, I guess, for what we have to do next. Oh, and we've been meditating a lot, too—the Vodarek who passed through taught us how to do that, and how to use it. It really is useful! They were all Norbites, so even though they kept revering us so much, they were pretty sensible people. Oh, and reffing, too. We, uh, did relax now and then."

"We had a great deal of reorganizing to do," Eureka continued. "It seems as though each moment we were together up till that time had been a crisis of some kind. It was time for us to, well, catch up to things." She drew her brilliant blue eyebrows together in regret. "We were only sorry that we couldn't be with the children. But such little ones need schooling, and I'm pretty sure they need other children around, too. An isolated life such as ours would not have been good for them, would it, Yuki?"

"Not at all," Yuki agreed, holding her own sleeping child wrapped in a soft comforter.

Sonia leaned forward, looking from Eureka to Renton very intently. "And you have had no contact with the children since the day of the Coralian epiphany? None at all?"

"No," said Eureka. "None at all." Sensing her sorrow, Renton slid his hand beneath the table and grasped her own.

Morita closed his eyes and exhaled, a long gust of relief. "Thank all that is holy. We are not too late."

"Too late for what?" Holland wanted to know. "We've told you what you wanted to know. Now, please tell us the purpose of this visit. We haven't gotten wind of any emergencies. What's going on?"

"Just this," said Egan, sipping delicately at a cup of strong tea. "As you are no doubt all aware, defections from the Federation military forces have continued at a small but quite steady rate since Juergens departed and formed the IPF. As the former premier research site for the Federation, it is to Tresor that a large number of these defectors make their way."

Hap swallowed a large mouthful of baked lasagna. "Be a very good opportunity for the Federation to slip some spies in."

"Exactly, Mr. Fukoda! For that reason, all those who apply for asylum under the Independent Planetary Force are scrutinized rigorously by Admiral Juergens' Intelligence unit. Recently, one such 'defector' was revealed as a double agent. He was then… questioned…by Intelligence personnel, and revealed much of interest." Emptying his cup and reaching for the teapot for a refill, the bulky scientist paused, weighing his words with care. "We now know that the military oligarchy which took power after Dewey's death has never been satisfied with the widespread belief that Eureka and Renton died saving the world. Indeed, the Oligarchy have been bending their vile wills ceaselessly to the task of discovering if they still lived."

"So they could kill us," said Renton, more loudly than he had intended. Why can't everybody just leave us alone?

"Yes, quite so, Mr. Thurston. Their first thought, of course, was that you might still be aboard the Moonlight—"

"Which is exactly why we didn't keep them here," Yuki said.

Egan smiled through tight lips, a pair of oddly babylike dimples appearing on his rosy cheeks. "And a very wise move that was. Mr. Stoner's excellent journalistic accounts of Eureka and Renton prior to what Dr. Morita likes to call the 'Coralian Epiphany' had a tremendous effect on that segment of the public which was able to read it. The concept of a human-Coralian couple living together in harmony caught the popular imagination in a very vivid way. If it were now to be widely known that they still live, and that their mutual affection has not lessened in any way, the effect would be tremendous. Neutralizing Eureka and Renton, before any further word of them leaks out, is, I might venture to say, the Federation Oligarchy's most intense priority at the moment."

Holland sat quietly through this ominous speech, his wolfish eyes narrow and hard. "The scum who gathered around my…around Dewey didn't go away when he did, I'm sorry to say. There are still plenty of them in high places, and they still have a fanatical hatred for the Coralians. That's why we're ready to go public about Renton and Eureka; it's why they've returned. Stoner has a whole new campaign prepared for Ray=Out, as well as a major new underground distribution network. I guarantee you, the Federation never found these two."

"No," said Morita, with the unmistakable air of a man bringing bad news. "Not yet. But they have been tracking the movements of the Vodarek, as always. And they know that a steady trickle of them have been making an inexplicable and very difficult trek into the forests of the Annuline Mountains. We have learned that several of the Vodarek faithful have been abducted and very likely put to torture. If the Federation does not already know that Eureka and Renton were there, they certainly soon will."

"Then it was a close call," admitted Renton, "but we're gone. The Federation's hurting innocent people for nothing. It's what they do best." He could feel Eureka's hand begin to tremble in his.

Sonia shook her head rapidly. "No, no, no, you don't understand. You've come back to the Moonlight thinking you had plenty of time to bring your children back to you. But they and Axel Thurston were safe only because you two were presumed dead. The minute the Oligarchy discover otherwise, it's logical that they'll try to seize them as hostages to force you to give yourselves up. And they may already know."

"No!" Horrified, Eureka leaped to her feet with such force that she dragged Renton up with her, the plates and untensils rattling and bouncing as his knees impacted the table. "They can't have our children! They can't!"

"You're damned right they can't," Holland snarled. "Hap, set us a course to Bellforest right away. Moondoggie, you'll be flying us, so you go over it with him. Gidget, get the IPF command ship on the line and arrange for refueling. Matthieu; Hilda: get the 808 and the 606 combat-ready. We leave to grab Axel and the kids as soon as possible." He glared down at the three visitors, hands balled into quivering fists. "This is so typical of Dewey's hired sadists. I hate these people, Morita. They've ripped apart too many families, killed too many innocents. And they came within a breath of destroying the entire planet. All of us've sworn to stop them, and the job's a long way from finished. You and Dr. Bear and Sonia had best prepare to depart in your LFO within an hour."

But Dr. Egan only smiled at him in that unflappable way and reached for another cup of tea and a celery stick. "Oh, no, Holland, we're staying. The Type Seven is our little gift to you; I think you'll find it very useful. And you'll find us very useful, as well." His dark eyes sparkled behind the tiny spectacle lenses. "You sometimes forget…you and your crew are not the only ones who hate the Federation. You may take your photograph now, Mr. Stoner."

Seven

"C'mon, Eureka, let's get out of here," whispered Renton as the rest of the crew scattered to their respective duty stations. He pulled on her hand, and she offered no resistance at all as he led her from the galley, down one of the several long ventral corridors that stretched through the main body of the Moonlight. Only when they had reached one of the small observation decks at the lower rear of the ship did he speak again.

"You don't have to be so worried," he assured her. "Grandpa and the kids are okay."

Eureka turned to him wearing an angry scowl. "You can't know that! How can you be so certain?"

"Because if the Federation had them, they'd have tried to use them against us by now, that's how. You know how those people are, Eureka, they're arrogant bullies. If they knew we were alive and if they'd captured our family, they wouldn't be able to shut up about it. They'd already be twisting the screws, trying to get us to give ourselves up."

"Yes. Yes, I guess that's logical." Falling into his arms, she let the tears she had so long suppressed flow freely, soaking into Renton's sweater like warm rain. "I'm very sorry, I shouldn't have snapped out at you that way; I was just so frightened. Am I too easily frightened now? Having lived so long without emotions, am I now going to be ruled by them? I thought this was over, the fear, the running. It was so wonderful, living there in the forest, you and I, having time for love at last. Isn't this fear ever going to end?"

As he held her, Renton could hardly help wondering much the same thing. But he had already considered the answer to that question, the moment they decided it was time to come back from their exile. "Yeah. Yeah, it will. Look, just think of where things were a year ago at this time: the Federation had total power, and it looked like they were going to destroy the Coralian and the world along with it. You and I were still having trouble getting together. Both of us almost died, a lot of times. But now, well, a third of the Federation military has defected to the IPF and more are coming over to our side all the time. Lots of the people are getting the truth and don't support the government—the Oligarchy—any more. The Federation's scared and on the run. Who would've thought a little bunch of crazy pirates could have accomplished that much? And…you and I are married." He held her tightly, brushing the softness of her hair with a kiss. "Yeah, the fear will end, eventually. But you and me won't. We promised to stay together forever, didn't we? And we always keep our promises."

Eureka sniffed and nodded. "We always keep our promises."

Mischa heard the knock at her office door, the knock she had been expecting for hours. "Come in," she said, without looking up from her desktop medical display.

Dr. Egan stood at the shadowy threshold for a moment before entering and allowing the door to slide shut behind him. "Hello, Mischa."

"Hello, Gregory. I…you're looking well. Remarkably well, in fact. You've lost, what, seventy kilograms?"

"Seventy-two, to be precise." He patted regretfully at his still-bulging stomach. "Yet I have some remaining way to go, I admit."

"Your life was always limited to your work and your next meal. At least now you've come to realize how at least one of those factors was crippling you." She pulled off her glasses and forced a smile. "Oh, I'm sorry for being so caustic. You always did bring out both the best and the worst in me. Please, sit down."

He did. "You were not at the gathering in the galley."

"No. But I did patch into the security video from that room. I heard what you and Morita said. Was that why you came to see me?"

Egan ran his fingers through the narrow crest of thick reddish hair running from front to back of his otherwise-smooth scalp. "Not entirely, as I'm sure you know. But there is one topic of great urgency which I must discuss with you."

"Eureka and Renton?"

"Precisely. Mischa, I was astonished when they appeared in the hangar! Eureka has become so…so…ethereal. I never could have imagined that her transformation would be so complete, or take such a path! What has she become?"

She touched several buttons on her medical console and entered a few keyboard commands, bringing up a pair of complex graphs, one above the other. "I don't know; I'm just as surprised as you. But it's far more significant than you realize. Look at these charts—I did a preliminary scan on both Eureka and Renton only a few hours ago. Come closer and study them for yourself."

"Ah." Egan pulled his chair nearer, almost beside her, fumbling for his glasses to better apprciate the data. He pondered in silence for several minutes, then sat back, folding his arms. "Remarkable. Allowing for the differences in body mass and sex, they are essentially the same. Both of them have undergone transformations of their own; both now have a dual human-Coralian nature. Was this done by the Coralians during their time beyond the Great Wall, or did it come about gradually, over our young friends' year together?"

"A bit of both, I suspect, though it's too early to be certain. There's far too much data to make a summary in such a short time." Her fingers tapped away at the keyboard until a new pair of profiles appeared. "But this much leaped out at me at once: each of these charts graphically represent the cumulative physical factors related to human aging—hormone levels, DNA replication error percentages, protein balances and so on. I pulled up Eureka's figures from last year, and they're nearly identical to these current ones."

Egan nodded slowly. "She has not aged at all, then. This is not surprising. She showed no evidence of aging from the time we extracted her from the coral up until our last records before she left Tresor. I have always suspected this would be the case."

"Yes, I know. But now here are the same factors from Renton's records, from both last year and today. He experienced a tremendous surge of growth hormones—"

"I observed as much. He's quite the young man, now."

"—bringing him to a physical age of eighteen or twenty. But he seems to have reached his maximum growth about three months ago. And since then…"

Growing animated, Egan leaned closer to the screen. "Oh, yes, yes, I see. Fascinating! All factors have reached a plateau identical to Eureka's…and remained there. So his own aging has ceased as well. Fascinating." He brought his hands together over his stomach, a bit inexpertly, as though he had expected to have to reach much further. "And yet I'm not sure whether to envy him or not. Why have the Coralians done this? For what hidden purpose are they preparing these two?"

Mischa shrugged, though she knew the question was purely rhetorical. "Would Sonia have any ideas?"

"We must ask her, but frankly I very much doubt it. Sonia has studied the intricacies of the Coralian biology for seventeen years, yet still understands next to nothing of it. The coral is capable of producing life-forms in almost any needed shape and form, from the rocklike structure of its main body to the bizarre and highly specialized antibody creatures that protect it. It—or they—have the innate ability to somehow assimilate other life forms, and now it seems that it has refined that capability greatly. With Eureka, they mimicked the human genetic structure using their own extremely complex cellular coding. Yet it seems that with Renton, they have perfected a method of doing the same thing after the fact, so to speak; an incredible achievement. It is unique and extremely puzzling. You must allow me to study this data during my stay upon this ship. Would you…mind very much if I were to share this office with you for a time?"

For a moment, the only sound in the room was the ever-present whirr of the ventilation system, accompanied from time to time by the distant rumble of the main engines being brought to operational temperature. "I suppose not," she said.

Eight

"Why is this unit called the Type Seven?" Eureka asked of Dr. Morita as she ran her hand over the smooth armor of the new LFO. Renton was already climbing over it, examining each weapon port, joint and external manipulator with a mechanical engineer's eye.

Morita would not quite meet her eyes. "The answer may not be agreeable to you. It was originally a project assigned us by the Federation, you see, and it was named for a very famous SOF unit: Unit Seven. Or, as it came to be known, Seven Squad."

"Oh." She pulled back her hand as if the metal had grown suddenly hot. "You're right, Dr. Morita, I'd like to forget those days." Then, looking at him very intently, she added, "Why did you let the Federation take me from Tresor? They used me; trained me to be a mass murderer, before I was aware enough to be revolted by it."

Renton drew near, sitting on a strut next to them, intensely interested in Morita's answer.

"Do you imagine we were given a choice, Eureka? You know as well as anyone how the Federation military operates. If we—if any of us—had opposed their will, we'd have been hauled away to a secret prison and executed." He turned back toward the LFO with a bitter snort of disgust. "And then they'd have taken you anyway. For whatever it may be worth, I'm...sorry."

She stood quietly for a moment, displaying no emotion. "I see. Thank you, Dr. Morita. I just wondered."

Tight-lipped, Morita dipped his head once in acknowledgement. "The Moonlight will be departing soon; my place is on the bridge. I'll see you both later."

When he had gone, Renton slid to the ground beside Eureka and slipped a protective arm around her shoulders. "I've never really liked those people," he confessed. "The Tresor management, I mean, not the engineers who work for them. I don't like the way they look at you, or the way they talk about you. Like some kind of experiment, instead of a person."

Eureka almost laughed. "I suppose that's what I was, then, so maybe you're right. Maybe that's why I didn't tell Mischa the whole truth about my wings. Tell me, Renton, what would you have done with me if you'd been working at Tresor when I was discovered?"

"I'd've taken you away with me," he answered without an instant's hesitation, "where we could be alone, away from all of it." His face grew troubled. "That's just what I wanted to do, so many times, last year."

"But you didn't," she said, not accusing him.

"No. It would've been wrong. By then there were a lot of people counting on us, depending on us. The kids, the crew...people we've never even seen, all over the world. And the Coralians, too. Just like now. I hate getting caught like this between what we want to do and what we have to do."

Eureka climbed up on one of the emerald-green dorsal plates of the LFO, beckoning Renton to follow. "Maybe that's how it was for Dr. Morita, too. Come on, let's investigate this kid, shall we?"

Morita walked in on a ghostly bridge, its ambient lights extinguished for night flight, with only the dull glow of the console gauges illuminating the crew's faces, afloat in a sea of darkness.

"Main engines are up to operational temp, Leader," said Hap from his bridge console. "Thruster fuel pressure's up to normal; we're ready to roll."

"I have all weapons systems at ready status," Ken-Goh announced without turning around.

The amiable face of Jobs appeared on Holland's intercom screen. "All the ship's systems are up and online."

"Good," said Holland. "Gidget, send an encrypted transmission to the IPF fleet, letting them know our destination and that we're lifting off now. All right, Moondoggie, take us up to standard cruising altitude and point us to Bellforest."

Dr. Morita moved closer to Holland's command chair, quietly, to avoid startling him. "It's almost enough to make one believe in Fate," he murmured as the Moonlight trembled and rose free of its bleak mesa. "The way so much always seems to revolve around that little town, that is."

"I've noticed," said Holland, never taking his eyes from the console. "Axel. Adrock. Diane...and now Renton and Eureka. It always begins and ends with Bellforest, doesn't it?"

The ship tilted and rotated on its axis as Renton peered into the cockpit of the Type Seven, sending both him and Eureka tumbling inside. "We're taking off," he said, levering himself from the floor.

Eureka, sprawling on the curved, padded couch that lined the rear half of the circular cockpit, rolled quickly upright, tugging down the hem of her gown. "Yes. We'd better stay here for a while, as the ship climbs to cruising altitude and stabilizes. Here, let me help you up."

"Thanks. What d'you think of the cockpit layout?"

"Interesting, isn't it?" She reached around her, touching things here and there, checking the reach to the pedals and hand manipulators. "Duplicate controls on either side, and plenty of room left over. It's meant to be operated by either one or two pilots. That's probably why the people from Tresor chose it—there's space in here for a pilot and two passengers. Here, let's have the canopy closed." Eureka stroked a contact strip and the overhead dome lowered itself into place and sealed around them, blocking out the distant rumble of the Moonlight's engines.

"How'd you know where the switch for that was?" asked Renton, fascinated to see her so quickly adapt to this strange machine.

She favored him with a cool smile, "Creating LFOs was the first task I was trained for after I became conscious. I was able to sense the archetype's needs and capabilities instinctively. In a way, I suppose you could say that it was me who invented the LFO, or at least made it possible."

"Oh, I guess that's true." Looking at the impossibly lovely girl who sat beside him wrapped in beauty, Renton found it necessary to remind himself again that she had been first a research tool, then the deadliest LFO pilot on the planet. And that the Federation wanted her back for more reasons than just keeping her out of the public eye. Contemplating what they might yet do to her if she fell into their corrupt hands only strengthened his inner resolve to protect her at all times. "Is it like the Nirvash at all?"

"Not really. The Nirvash was almost conscious I mean even before she became the Coralian Command Node, of course. This archetype is nowhere near so highly developed, but it's much more advanced than the other LFOs I've known. Let's see, there's the compac drive...what's in that housing that surrounds it, I wonder?"

"I, uh, don't think you should touch it just now, Eureka..."

"No, I guess not. But it's interesting, all the same."

"Halfway to cruising altitude, Leader," said Hap. "We should rendezvous with the IPF refueling ship in about two and a quarter hours.

Drumming his fingers on the arm of the command chair, Holland barely grunted in reply, his mind already racing ahead. What could they expect at Bellforest? A Federation trap perhaps? Morita said he'd been attacked en route to the Moonlight, so the Federation might already have gotten wind of his mission. In two hours they'd be within protective range of the Fleet's Fifth Squadron, but the Fifth couldn't accompany them all the way across the world to Bellforest. Or could they? Juergens would certainly authorize such a redeployment if he knew the Moonlight carried Renton and Eureka, but that would mean radio-relaying him the news, and for information of such vital importance, Holland would not trust even the strongest encryption algorithms. It might be possible to—

Hap's voice cut a sharp swath across Holland's musings. "Unknowns coming in from the southeast, Leader."

"How many and how fast?" Holland hit the contact that duplicated Hap's radar display on his own console.

"Looks like five KLFs. Federation Mon-soono, type 20s. Three with laser cannon, two with missle pods only. The missle-equipped ones are in front, probably to soften us up."

"Right. Sound the alarm; warn everybody on the ship things are about to get hot. Moondoggie, start evasive maneuvering."

"Ship's cannon are already on autolock, Leader," said Ken-Goh. "Homing missles arming."

Holland nodded. "Right. Matthieu?"

An image of Matthieu's scowling face appeared on Holland's console. "I hear the alarms. What's up?"

"We're under attack. Get Stoner and take the R606 out, fast as you can. Prepare for combat. Is Hilda there?"

"Yeah. How'd you guess?"

"She's to take the R808. You go on point, and she backs you up with the laser cannon, got it?"

"Got it." The image of Matthieu blanked out.

Holland seethed as he felt the ship angle into a tight turn beneath him. He hadn't counted on an attack so soon in their flight. The Terminus LFOs in the hangar would take at least five minutes to come to combat readiness, and Matthieu and Hilda hadn't even reached them yet. Did they have that much time?

"That's the emergency alarm!" cried Renton. "We're under attack! We'd better get out of here so the Tresor group can...no, none of them are combat pilots. Could Holland fly this thing, do you think?"

Eureka's lovely face went impassive as she scanned the gauges and controls. "Not well. It's not like any of the Terminus types he's familiar with. There's something new here that I've never seen before, but I think I can sense the archetype clearly enough to figure the rest out." Her lavender-pink eyes met his blue. "It's been a year since we've flown. Shall we?"

He slid his arms into the control harnesses and tested the foot pedals. "Let's see if we can still do it, Eureka."

"The lead KLF is going into evasion," said Hap. The greater the stress, the calmer did his voice become. The bridge of a warship was no place for panic.

"Firing homing missles," Ken-Goh said. On all the bridge screens, the spidery tracks of the missles unwound toward the red blip of the gyrating KLF. They began to close in, when a new set of tracks erupted from the KLF, sending the homers into spirals of confusion. Ken-Goh cursed under his breath. "They have countermeasure decoy projectiles. Our homing missles think that each of them is a target, and are chasing them instead of the KLF. I am arming our cannons."

Beneath the forward-swept wings of the Moonlight, two banks of rocket-propelled projectile cannons angled toward the incoming flight of KLFs. Half a dozen streaks of incandescent white flame, hidden from the eyes of the bridge crew by the autodimming glass of the bridge itself, stabbed out into the night.

Yet before the RPPs had gotten as far as a kilometer, the monitor screens showed them blooming into explosions, far ahead of the advancing KLFs.

"What's going on?" shouted Holland. "Something wrong with the proximity fuses on those RPPs?"

Bristling, Ken-Goh growled, "Nothing. The rear-echelon attackers have taken them out with laser cannon. The Federation seems now to have installed high-speed tracking and intercept capability on the Type Mon-Soonos. This attack was no spur-of-the-moment operation, clearly."

"Damn! Matthieu, are you—?"

A warning flashed on Hap's screen. "Launch bay door opening...catapult firing...LFO launching... Whoa! Holland, it's not the 606. Or the 808."

"Not the..." He spun toward Morita at his side, now grown very pale. "Is one of your people taking that Type Seven out?"

"I...that's absurd. Dr. Wakabyashi is no combat pilot, and Dr. Egan? Absurd."

"My God, would you look at it go," cried Hap, delighted and astonished as the labeled blip of the Type Seven whirled and danced through near-unbelievable high-speed aerobatics to avoid the fire of the five onrushing KLFs.

Holland fumed, speechless, wrestling with both a rage and a fear that threatened to consume him. Only two people I've ever known can fly an LFO like that...

Eureka and Renton wrenched the Type Seven away from the ship the instant they were clear, drawing the deadly fire of the KLF squadron from the Moonlight. The canopy, they discovered to their immediate delight, employed some kind of transmissive light amplification, making the twilight sky around them nearly as bright as day, though in muted hues of gray, blue and pale yellow.

A homing missle sparkled at two o'clock. With instincts faster than thought, Eureka spun the Type Seven aside as Renton fired its shoulder-mounted laser. The missle ignited with a brilliant flash, muted by the canopy's overload sensors, but Eureka had already banked into a tight roll, giving Renton the chance to snap off two shots from the Seven's RPP cannon pack. Two more homing missles exploded in mid-flight.

"Eureka, there's another..."

"I see; and one behind..."

"...with the lasers; got it..."

"KLF at five o'clock!"

"Roll us over...no, not that way..."

"Oh. That's..." The KLF swooped in, its tempered-titanium scythe extended for close combat. Renton released another cannon blast, but it went wide and the KLF's blade sheared past, close enough to strike sparks from the Seven's armored thorax.

Renton grimaced. It's not working, it's not working! This isn't the Nirvash; we don't know this LFO well enough!

A homing missle detonated near them, sending a shock wave through the Seven, jolting Eureka briefly from her control harness. They spun wildly for an instant before Renton pulled them back into stabilization and the laser flamed twice under Eureka's control. The second shot connected with the KLF's shoulder joint, blasting its armor free.

Another KLF appeared to take its place, then a third, plummetting in from ten o'clock. Renton wrenched the Seven away from the ionized trail of a laser bolt, but at the same time Eureka tried to pull them into a steep dive and they flailed in an x-axis spin that took them half a kilometer away while a homing missle slithered past and impacted with the starboard wing of the Moonlight.

"No!" cried Eureka.

"This won't work...we can't both fly the Seven at once!"

"But there're too many of them, Renton, too many for just one of us! We can't..."

He looked at her; saw the light from the flashing missles sparkling from the jewel in her forehead, and knew. "Yes we can!" Reaching into the deepest part of his mind, he did the thing for which he had no words, the thing they'd learned to do in the forest retreat, the thing that only they could do. The jewel on his own forehead blazed sapphire-blue; Eureka's answered in a burning crimson glow.

And they were one.

The compac drive flashed to life, filling the cockpit with its supernatural radiance as one pilot with four arms, four eyes and reflexes like light itself took control of the Type Seven, driving it at the four remaining KLFs in a mad windmill of attack, laser firing in a constant barrage as it wove a lethal dance in and out of the intruders, releasing its own missles, two, three, never destroying, always disabling, swinging its titanium scythe in icy arcs that never missed, the pilot that was two who were one laughing and shouting with one voice to the deadly night.

"Fire's out on the main wing," said Hap, his fingers flying over the console. "Wasn't too bad at all; no damage to wiring or hydraulics, Jobs says. We're in good shape. No more KLFs coming in; the damaged ones are descending on emergency thruster power, their boards are all smashed. Matthieu wants to know if he should still launch the 606."

"Yes." Holland pushed the words out from between clamped teeth. "Get him and Hilda out there on patrol, in case a second wave comes in. Gidget, get me a channel to the Type Seven's pilot."

"Already on the line," she answered at once. "I think he...or them, or whatever...knew you'd be calling."

"Hello, Holland," came the answer from the Seven.

Even Ken-Goh turned round in his seat to stare. "What kind of voice is that?"

"Some kind of transmission phasing error, maybe," said Gidget over the intercom. "Here, I'll give you the video from the Type Seven, too." On all the consoles on the bridge appeared the image of Eureka and Renton seated together at the controls of the Seven, both smiling in a sheepish way.

"What. Are. You. Two. Doing. Out. There?" asked Holland.

"Repelling the Federation attack," they said together, in perfect unison. "All five of the attacking KLFs are crippled and out of action."

Before Holland could put together a proper response, the sound of quick footsteps pattered across the bridge and a breathless Mischa appeared at his side. "I came as soon as I heard," she said. "Are they all right?"

Holland grunted. "You tell me. They're acting strangely. I may strangle both of them when they get back."

Ignoring him, she leaned close to his console. "Eureka; Renton. Is that you? I mean...both of you?"

"Yes, it's us," they answered, both waving to the camera with precisely the same motion. "We can see the 606 and 808 launching now, so we'll return to the Moonlight. Do we have clearance for docking?"

With a weary nod, Holland gave them clearance. Already the echo effect of their simultaneous voices was growing irritating. At last, he stood. "Mischa, you seem to have some idea what this is all about. I'm going down to the hangar deck, and I want you with me, if only to keep me from committing double murder. And get Dr. Egan with us, if he's available."

The green LFO waited on its deck target by the time Holland, Mischa and Dr. Egan arrived, folded into its ground-mode form, its armor plating ticking softly as the heat of battle radiated away into the surrounding air. The circular canopy yawned open like the upper half of a woman's compact, and both Eureka and Renton emerged to stand silently by one wheel, staring wide-eyed at each other, neither moving, neither speaking.

Holland erupted with the force of an overdue geyser. "Just what do you two think you're doing? Do you have the faintest idea what the mission of this ship is? It's to protect you! Right now, both of you are the most important weapon we have against the Federation, and you stupidly put yourselves in the line of fire? Have you both gone mad? I thought I had a right to expect that you would've learned a few things from the experiences you went through on your last voyage with the Moonlight! Is this what we all risk our lives for? So you two can just hop away on a little trip to show off your piloting skills? Well? Don't just stand there staring, say something!"

They did. "We just..." they began, spreading their hands in the identical way and looking at Holland with the identical apologetic expression. "It was an..."

All four of their eyes closed at once and they both crumpled to the hangar floor.

Nine

Renton came to consciousness with a brilliant light stabbing at his eyes and a pounding pain in his head that seemed to originate in the uttermost bowels of the universe itself.

He raised himself from the soft mattress on which he lay, squinting painfully about him. It's my old room, he realized. The room where I lived when I first came to the Moonlight. Somebody's dragged a bed and a couple of chairs and tables in here.

"Eureka?" he croaked.

Beside him, she stirred with no great eagerness, blinking her lavender-pink eyes at him. "Renton?" she finally said. "My...my head hurts."

"Yeah, so does mine. I think that what we did in the Type Seven is something we should do more carefully."

"The Type Seven... Oh. Now I remember. It was nice, though, wasn't it?" Very slowly, in careful increments, Eureka lifted herself to an upright position. "I feel terrible. And my gown and hair are an awful mess. How did we get here, do you suppose?"

Renton swung himself around and put his feet to the floor, noticing as he did that his sweater was now in serious need of a washing. "I think that Holland and the others must have brought us in here after we blacked out. My head is killing me. Dr. Bear and Mischa were with him, so I'll bet they're monitoring this room. That means they'll be here soon, now that they know we're awake."

The door fanned inward and in walked a stone-faced Holland, followed by Mischa and Dr. Egan, both clutching an arsenal of medical probes. "You're so right," said Holland.

In spite of the throbbing ache in his head, Renton staggered to his feet and marched on wobbly legs to confront Holland. Miserable or not, he would not be browbeaten, ever again. "All right, what we did was wrong, and we shouldn't have done it, and we won't do it again. Unless it's an emergency, anyway. But it wasn't Eureka's fault—I talked her into it. If you've got a problem with that..."

Holland reached out one steadying arm to his shoulder. "You've learned your lesson, then. That's all we need to say." To Renton's continuing astonishment, he winked, as if they were partners in some roguish conspiracy. "We already have the flight recordings from the Type Seven, so we know you were in on this little escapade together. But it's brave and decent of you to try shouldering the blame; I'd have done the same for Yuki—if both of us were dumb enough to do something as irresponsible as this. Now why don't you sit back down before you fall down."

Renton needed no second invitation. He dropped to the bed, and Eureka scrambled beside him, smoothing her gown as best she could. "Where are we?" she asked.

"With the main body of the IPF fleet, refueling and having repairs done on our starboard wing. We won't be much longer; you two've been out for almost twelve hours."

"Mischa," ventured Renton, "You wouldn't have anything for a headache, would you?" Then, turning back to Holland, "What about that group of five Federation KLFs? Does that mean the Federation's definitely found out that Eureka and I are back? Is that why they were after us?"

Holland folded his arms in a familiar gesture. "Ah. Now that's a subject we've all been discussing, both here and with Admiral Juergens. It's possible that yes, the Federation military has caught on. But then, it's just as possible that those KLFs were the ones that attacked the Tresor group, following their flight path."

"Then we have to leave as soon as we can," cried Eureka, "if there's even a chance that the Federation might get to Bellforest ahead of us!"

"We've thought of that. The IPF Intelligence unit has people in the Bellforest area, and they're going to be on the lookout for anything unusual around Axel or the kids. So far there's been not a word from them, so don't get worried over problems that haven't appeared."

Matthieu poked his bright and smiling face in the door. "Renton and Eureka! Hey, you guys're okay! Glad to see it. That bunch of Federation KLFs might've been too much for Hilda and me to handle without taking at least a couple of hits. That was some wild piece of flying!"

"Just a moment," said Mischa, taking him by the hand and pulling him inside, "where's your bandage?"

"Oh, that? I took it off. Whatever it was you did to my arm cured it completely. See?" To demonstrate, he raised the arm that had been scorched the previous day, its skin now smooth and undamaged in any way.

Mischa examined the arm, unbelieving, certain that this had to be some elaborate Gekkostate prank. "But...that burn should have taken over a week to heal properly. And I expected at least some scarring afterward."

"Yeah? Well, I'm glad you were mistaken. Look, I've got things to do down on the hangar deck; just wanted to stop in and say thanks to the lovebirds. See you around."

"Matthieu? Matthieu, would you please drop into my office later? I'd like to run a few tests. Thank you." She turned back into the room, dropping her armload of instruments to the nearest tabletop and selecting a silver probe studded with what looked like glass rivets. "And as for you two... You somehow joined your minds completely while flying that thing, didn't you? Don't try to hide it—you've made it an issue of importance to the ship, now, and I've told Holland all about what you can do with those nodes on your heads."

"Well...yes," admitted Eureka. Renton said nothing, but tossed the thatch of thick brown hair back from his forehead as if daring anyone to comment on his own green jewel.

Dr. Egan, having somehow managed to remain unobtrusive though all this, edged forward in the cramped and crowded room, smiling his unctuous smile. "Mischa and I have studied your test reports very thoroughly while you've been asleep. We have discovered, to put it baldly, that both of you have become a mixture of human and Coralian cell structures. You partake of...both species."

"Are you sure?" asked Renton, his eyes bulging like eggs.

"Yes, very much so."

"Renton, I'm sorry..." Eureka began.

"Sorry? What for? Eureka, this is wonderful! I've wanted for us to be alike ever since you and I were inside the Great Wall! Now we are!" He hesitated, looking over her graceful, slender figure from toes to adorable face. "Uh, well, not exactly alike, but you know what I mean."

Speechless with delight, she edged closer to him and took his hand in hers, beaming.

"So what does it all mean in practical terms, Doctor?" asked Holland.

The big man shrugged. "We have only begun to properly ask that question; answering will take much time. Clearly the Coralians desired that it be so, and they never do such things without a reason, however cryptic it may appear to our human perceptions. One unexpected effect was the way in which the combined Eureka and Renton were able to interface with the Type Seven while in tandem, so to speak. The Type Seven, you see, was a Federation project designed to produce an LFO or KLF with an expanded CLF system that could respond to the guidance of more than one pilot at once."

"So that was the idea," said Holland, stroking the tiny goatee at his chin. "But a Compac Feedback System can only interface to one mind at a time."

"Yes, exactly." Dr. Egan fidgeted with the buttons of his lab coat, which was now several very large sizes too big for him, and hung from his body like a collapsed tent. "That was the reason Dr. Morita's engineers were unable to deliver the desired results, and the project was abandoned even before the Coralian Epiphany. But our young friends here—"

"Our young friends can be one mind," Mischa finished for him. "And according to the Type Seven's flight recorder, its amplified Compac Drive achieved levels of activity while they were joined that went far beyond any of its original specification parameters. Or so Dr. Morita explained during our conference this morning."

Oh God, they've been talking about us among themselves, Renton realized with an inward twinge. "Are you two going to be...testing us all morning?" he asked.

Holland smiled serenely on his way out. "Nobody takes stupid chances on this ship without expecting some punishment. We'll be taking off for Bellforest again in half an hour; enjoy your morning."

Ten

As it turned out, neither Renton nor Eureka enjoyed the morning very much at all. After being poked, prodded and scanned for over two hours, they were more than glad to escape their room even after Dr. Egan and Mischa left, happily bearing enough data for several doctoral dissertations.

Making their way to the galley, where Hilda, Jobs and Stoner picked over the remains of yesterday's twice-interrupted meal, they knelt at one of the low tables, sullenly forking bits of food to their plates.

"Well, at least you needn't feel sorry for me being looked at as an experiment any longer," she told him, gnawing at a cold deep-fried carrot. "I'm quite sure that they now see you as an experiment, too."

"Yeah, no kidding. It's weird, though. Why are they so fascinated over our body chemistry? I mean, I can see them being interested, but they acted like it was the most important thing in the world. Those two're up to something, and I don't think they've even told Holland what it is."

At the next table, Jobs, overhearing, leaned their way. "You, too? Mischa's been going around to all of us since last night, getting blood and tissue samples with that silver probe of hers. She's been stalking the halls like a knife murderer."

"Nice bit of flying you two did last night, by the way," said Hilda, stolidly sipping at a beaker of pancha juice. "Matthieu talked about it for hours. That Type Seven must be a lot more advanced than we thought."

Renton nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, it's an experimental model that Tresor was developing for the Federation military before the Second Summer of Love. We only got to try out a couple of its features, but it was pretty impressive."

"More than 'impressive,'" Jobs said, "downright miraculous. Maybe you two ought to be renamed 'The Aces of Seven.' Renton Seven and Eureka..."

"Don't call me that!" shouted Eureka, hammering at the table with her fists.

An uncomfortable silence fell; only Hilda did not stare in amazement. "Holland's old SOF unit," she said quietly, "was called the Seven Squadron."

Stoner grew somber; Jobs only looked embarrassed, tugging at the flamboyant cravat he wore on duty. "I didn't know that. Woz and I were civilian contractors working for the UF at Tresor, installing the Moonlight's control systems. I was never in the military. Sorry, Eureka. I can imagine how sensitive you must be about it."

"Oh, I'm the one who should be sorry," said Eureka, dabbing at the corners of her eyes. "You could never have known details like that. Those of us who were in SOF Seven don't talk about it much, after all."

"And with damn good reason," Hilda added. Her eyes took on a faraway look, dark holes into a past she could never completely bury. "I can still remember the roll calls, first thing in the morning. We'd all line our LFOs up at the edge of the launch deck, and they'd call us off over the intercom: 'Novak Seven; Fukoda Seven; Bairn Seven; Bouchard Seven...' Well, you get the picture. Those were dirty, dirty days. We're all trying to do some serious atonment with Gekkostate."

Renton looked closely at Eureka, who displayed only the same blank face that she always put on to hide troubled feelings. Once again, the huge gap in experience between them became impossible to ignore. While the toddler Renton Thurston played with toy LFOs on his grandfather's back porch, Eureka was being dug fully formed out of a mass of scub coral and trained as a ruthless agent of mass extermination. Unable to think of a single thing to say, he touched her arm and she returned a faint smile that Renton suspected might not be entirely sincere.

One by one, the diners finished their lunch in silence and departed for their duty stations, leaving Eureka and Renton alone to nibble at their food. Looking around to be certain there was no one to overhear, Renton took her hand. "I know it was awful for you when you were part of Seven Squad. We've never really talked about it—I always wanted to give you time to tell me when you were ready—but I can always see how much it hurts you. Would you maybe like to talk about it...just between the two of us?"

She shook her head without looking up from her empty plate. "I...can't."

"It would make it easier for you if you could...share the load, wouldn't it?"

"I...don't...I don't want to do that to you, Renton. It's bad enough I have to live with the memory of the things I've done. I just can't...put those things on your heart, too."

"Eureka, you're not..."

Hap Fukoda leaned in one of the open archways to the galley, short of breath, his cheeks shiny and red. "Renton. Eureka. Holland wants to see you both, right away. Come on with me."

Eleven

Hap took them not to the bridge, but to the door of the quarters where Holland and Yuki made their home. Renton took it as an ominous sign, but said nothing that might upset Eureka further. Knocking, Hap opened the door and let them inside, then backed out, closing it behind him.

Holland sat alone on a long couch, elbows on knees, hands together before him. The flamboyant silken scarf he always wore on duty lay in a heap on the floor. He beckoned the two of them forward and Renton knew with a cold certainty what Holland was going to tell them.

"I won't try to soften this," he began, "because you both know what it means as well as I do. The IPF Intelligence group has just told me that a Federation SOF unit is known to be heading to Bellforest. There's been no confirmation of their objective, but I think you two can guess as well as I can."

"When will they get there?" Renton asked. He expected Eureka to gasp or cry out or at least display emotion of some kind, but she only stared, holding it all inside. "And even more important, when will we get there?"

"Twelve Squadron, according to what I've been told, is expected to reach Bellforest airspace in about three hours. The Moonlight is at top cruising speed right now, but even so, we can't make it in under three and a half, even assuming ideal trapar density all the way. Unless..."

"Unless we leave the atmosphere?" Renton finished. He thought it odd that he felt no fear, only a cold hatred for the people who had so nearly taken Eureka's life and would now attack even their children.

Holland stood. "Right. We should be able to make it in a little over two hours fifteen minutes. We'll get there ahead of our IPF escort, but that's just a risk we'll have to take. Hap is calculating the optimum ballistic trajectory now; Jobs and Woz are busy with the ballistic flight systems, and I'll be going to the bridge soon. You two had better get prepared for the ride. Yuki's already taken the baby to the brig, where it's safest."

Renton's dread grew in a single cold jump. The last time Holland had sent anyone to the ship's armored brig was to protect himself and Eureka from a deadly guerilla attack on the Moonlight itself. "And what happens once we get there?"

"When we get there, Hilda and Matthieu and I will take the 606 and the 808 down to Axel's facility, grab him and the kids, get back up here and make another ballistic jump out before the Federation military can arrive." His face softened sympathetically. "Look, this is a simple snatch-and-run job; we did it dozens of times in the days when the Moonlight still had to do a lot of shady runs to keep solvent. I'm telling you both this because it's your right to know what's going on, okay? Just let us do our jobs and don't worry any more than you have to." He buttoned up the front of his flight jacket and picked the silk scarf from the floor but did not yet tie it around his neck. "You've both flown a ballistic trajectory before, so you know what to expect. I'm not so stupid as to say 'enjoy the ride,' but just sit tight and have faith in us." Lifting one eyebrow, Holland smiled in what he evidently considered a comforting way. "Renton, you said I'd never been on a mission that wasn't a big success, remember? Just keep that in mind. You two want to stay here while we're in action?"

"No, thank you," said Eureka, flat and cold as an arctic plain. "We'll go back to our own room. Thank you for letting us know."

Holland hurried away for the bridge and Renton and Eureka made their way to their quarters in silence. With everyone at duty stations, Renton could not suppress a gnawing feeling of uselessness as they padded through the empty corridors in a haze of fear. When they finally reached their own room, Eureka shuffled without a word to the edge of the bed, where she sat down and began to cry silently.

Renton sat at her side, his arms around her, offering what solace he could. "Don't cry, Eureka. I'm not going to say don't be afraid, 'cause I am, too. But Holland is right: this is a simple operation for him, and we're going to have almost an hour's lead on the Federation. Keep up your courage, okay?"

"Oh, you don't understand. This isn't just an ordinary Federation military unit that's heading for Bellforest, it's an SOF numbered squad! Didn't you hear what Hilda was saying? The SOFs are the Federation's trained butchers! They're trained—we were trained—to kill without question, as often as ordered!" She held her hands before her face, gazing at them in horror and disgust. "This is my fault."

"Oh, come on, Eureka, you didn't—"

"Yes I did! If I hadn't been one of them; if I didn't already have so much blood on my own hands, I wouldn't have murdered the childrens' real parents in the first place. They'd be safe in their homes, where they should have been all along, and I'd be..."

"You'd be dead," Renton reminded her brutally. "The Federation would have killed you for cloning parts, or turned you into some drugged-up zombie, the way they did Anemone—or worse!" Taking such a hard tone with her wrenched at his heart, but he knew well the deep streak of guilt that haunted her from her days as a tool of Federation extermination policy, and knew also that no tender words could reach the hard knot of pain within her. "And one way or another, you'd have been used to kill even more innocent people! Eureka, you didn't ask to be in the SOF. The Federation put you there before you were completely awake; before you had any feelings! And when you finally wised up on your own, you did the right thing and left with Holland. That's all anybody could've done."

"But...you don't know how it feels, don't know what it's like to know that so many hundreds, thousands of people are dead because of you." The tears began anew. "You don't have any idea what Holland and the others are going to be facing if the SOF somehow gets there first."

"Well, sure I don't, but..." Renton hesitated. Now was the time to follow up on what he had been about to ask of her before Hap's interruption. She might be receptive to the idea this time, might be ready to do what he knew had to be done. But am I? he wondered, honestly facing the question for the first time. Look at what it's done to Eureka. Am I going to be able to be any stronger than her? Never mind, I've got to, and that's that. "Eureka. Eureka, look at me."

Slowly, she turned her tear-reddened face to his.

"Eureka, you've got to give them to me. Your memories, I mean. Of when you were with SOF Seven."

"Oh, no, I can't, Renton..."

"Yeah you can. You've got to. You're right—I don't have any idea what to expect from that Twelve Squadron. No idea at all. I was still just a kid when you were doing those things; I've never been trained that way. And I can't even guess how to go about keeping them away from...from our family. But if I do, then maybe it'll be possible to help in some way. Do you see? Let me have your memories, Eureka. I don't just mean tell me about them, but let me have them—in our special way. If you won't do it for yourself, then at least do it for the kids, okay?"

Eureka turned toward him then, her gold-ringed Coralian eyes reddened and slick with tears. The jewel in her forehead glowed like a burning coal. "All right, Renton. But...please remember that I never wanted to do this to you. Please remember that."

"I'll remember." He did the thing inside his mind that the Vodarek priests had taught him to do, and his own light came to life, the blue of deep water. "You can..."

The tidal wave of loathing swept over him, drowning him, crushing him beneath its foulness.

Days when time did not exist, only sensation, lights, sounds with no meaning. Faces with no names—though the "Renton" part of him recognized his own father among them—drifting in and out. The cockpit of the Nirvash, crude and unfinished. Feeling its aura of near-life, touching it, controlling it. Slowly, the voices grew meaning, and they told him/her that it was time to begin his/her "training," whatever that meant. But he/she had been trained to walk, to speak, to make the archetype move, and those were nice things, so he/she did what he/she was told.

The people were different, now, no longer the familiar faces from Tresor, but different faces, eager faces, smiling but without joy. And they were so pleased with the things that he/she could do! The laser cannons, the SFARs, the homing missles, the microwave irradiators, the infrared SunBurn projectors—no matter what weapon they gave him/her, he/she could hit all the targets they put before him/her, all of the time. And it made them all so happy! Renton/Eureka liked it when they were happy, and so he/she made sure to explode every single target they put before him/her. They said he/she was better than anybody else at exploding the targets, and that made him/her feel good.

Then they sent him/her out in LFOs, with people and lots of weapons. It was no trouble for him/her to control the LFO at the same time he/she fired the weapons, because somehow the LFOs were close to him/her, easy to understand in some way that the other people couldn't seem to manage. They sent him/her all over, to places he/she had never seen before, or even imagined, to explode targets. A lot of the targets were troublesome at first, because they kept on moving, but he/she soon learned to compensate for that and adjust her aim. It was nice, having a purpose. He/she had never had a purpose before, and it made him/her feel a little righter, somehow.

Until that day they were sent to a place called "Ciudades del Cielo" to explode targets. There were a lot of them there. Some were moving in all directions; others just stood still and waited to be exploded. The moving ones were the hardest to explode, of course, but Renton/Eureka in the Nirvash was patient, going after all of them so that not a single target would remain unexploded.

And when he/she had exploded all the targets and they lay still and sticky on the streets of Ciudades del Cielo, Renton/Eureka climbed down from the Nirvash with a Sequence-Fire Antipersonnel Rifle, just to make sure. He/she was very thorough, after all, and wanted to be sure they had all been exploded properly.

Something was funny in one of the piles of targets, though. A sound was coming from it, unlike any sound he/she'd ever heard before. He/she moved toward it, carefully, though, because they'd told him/her that targets that hadn't been properly exploded could be dangerous. So he/she moved in slowly and pulled back one of the exploded targets, to see what night lay beneath.

What he/she saw made him/her feel the first real fear he/she had ever known. There were little targets squirming around in there, moving and quivering and screaming. There was sticky stuff all around them, and for some reason they acted as though they were afraid of him/her. There was no good reason for it, and Renton/Eureka stood, puzzled, dropping the SFAR, thinking hard along lines into which he/she had never ventured before.

And then something enormous happened. Renton/Eureka formed a hypothesis so outrageous that it simply couldn't be true, that made no sense. But the more he/she thought, the more unavoidable it became, and the horror of it built up in his/her mind like a great slow explosion, burning its way into him/her, opening his/her thoughts to a sickening pit of disgust and self-hatred and razor-edged remorse. And in that moment, Renton/Eureka knew he/she had a soul, because it writhed in an agony too great to be borne.

He/she bent to pick up the little targets—oh, no, the little children—and took them in him/her arms and shuffled, only half alive, back toward MissionCon Base, not even stopping at the great white-and-red Nirvash towering above them. He/she looked down at the targ— at the children in her arms, all of them crying so terribly, and he/she saw the unit insignia on his/her black tunic, the big number seven, streaked with sticky blood. And the intercom in his/her ear began to repeat, over and over, "Eureka Seven, do you copy? Eureka Seven, your LFO does not respond. Have you been hit? What is your status? This is Novak Seven; please report your status. Eureka Seven, do you copy?"

But he/she was no longer listening. Throwing the earsonde from his/her ear with a violent shake, he/she could only keep walking, nowhere, anywhere, from the things he/she had done. And he/she began to scream, and the screaming mingled with the screams of the children, all of the children he/she had slaughtered, all of the parents, all of the innocents, until the screaming was all that he/she could hear...

Renton toppled from the bed, screaming his lungs out.

"Renton!" Eureka cried, coming to him, lifting his face to her, "Renton! I told you, told you I didn't want to do this to you! Oh, my poor Renton, I should never have let you—"

"No." He pushed himself upright, reassured by the warmth of her arms around him, swabbing tears from his eyes, his cheeks, the front of his shirt, the bosom of her gown. "No, I understand...understand it all, now. How they used you, for years, made you kill, made you hate yourself. So that's why you defected with Holland. Yeah, no wonder you get depressed so easily. How could you stand it, Eureka? After you understood what they made you do, how could you stand knowing it?"

"Well," she began, her voice cracking again, "I had you."

Renton pulled her to him, holding her with all his strength. "You'll always have me. We've gotta be together forever, remember? I love you, Eureka." Renton held her as if he might never let her go, feeling the warmth of the wonderful girl whose love he had been so privileged to touch. But at the same time, another thought had already begun smoldering in him. "And they'll never get our children, Eureka. No matter what it costs me, they'll never get the kids."

Twelve

It had been an exhilarating trip aboard the Moonlight, the last time it went into suborbital ballistic trajectory. "Higher Than the Sun," the crew called it, and relished the heady sensation of wild freedom.

Not this time.

This time, the atmosphere aboard the ship was one of intense concentration, of getting a nasty and dangerous job done as efficiently as possible. The countdown progressed, the Moonlight's booster engines thundered and they climbed at a sharp angle into a sky that faded from blue to deep indigo to black, sprinkled with unblinking stars. Even the few moments of weightlessness at the top of the arc brought little joy.

Once they were over the hump and plunging back into atmosphere, Holland released the restraining belt on his command seat. "Keep us on a course for Bellforest, Doggie. When we get there, fly in a slow circle. Hap, how's the trapar density down there?"

"Irregular. With half the coral gone from the Earth, the currents are trickier than they used to be. Enough to keep us flying, though."

Holland nodded. "That's all we ask. Gidget, start contacting Axel on the radio. Give him our code phrase to tell him we're on our way, and let me know the minute he responds. Matthieu; Stoner; Hilda—come with me down to the hangar and get ready to launch."

Renton and Eureka, who had been standing quietly at the rear of the bridge ever since the ship passed the zero-gee point, held hands, and watched, and listened. Ken-goh extended his weapons sensors to maximum range, sweeping the sky in an overlapping series of spheres. At the pilot's seat, Moondoggie pored over the navigation displays with steely intensity, a drop of sweat creeping unnoticed down the side of his face.

Without announcing her presence, Yuki, baby burbling in her arms, came forward and took Holland's vacant command chair, crossing her legs and giving the readouts a professional once-over.

"How close are we to Bellforest?" she asked.

"Sixty-seven kilometers and closing fast," Moondoggie snapped back. "When should I start circling?"

"At ten kilometers. Circle the Tower, but keep Axel's place in sensor view at all times. Ken-goh—any intruders visible?"

"I don't know. There are several aircraft at fifty kilometers and forty-two kilometers. They may be civilian craft, or they may be military, wrapped in sensor countermeasures."

"I have Axel Thurston online," said Gidget over the intercom.

Holland's voice came across the intraship communications link from the cockpit of the 606. "I copy you, Gidget. Don't put him on, just tell me what he says."

"He says 'What are you damned idiots doing here bothering me again?'"

Eureka's hand tightened on Renton's as she recognized the code phrase indicating trouble of some significance.

"Tell him that if that's the way he feels about it, we'll go away," Yuki said, stroking the baby's cheek. Then, to Ken-Goh: "Arm all weapons systems. And open the LFO catapult ramp. We're still forty minutes ahead of the projected rendezvous time of Twelve Squadron."

"No, we're not!" shouted Renton. For an instant, all heads turned to look at him, no longer a silent part of the background. "The Seven Squad used the same trick at Guatolo Bay. The Federation had a decoy unit of KLFs fly toward the Vodarek temple complex at easy radar detection altitude. But the real Seven LFOs came in a lot faster, just above ground level, hitting them almost an hour before. It took them by surprise."

Eureka shook her head, clearing away the fog of depression and indecision wound about her. "He's right, he's right! Holland, don't you remember how we struck Guatolo Temple? While they were still watching the decoy KLFs on radar, you brought your LFO down just outside the temple grounds to draw their attention. Then the rest of us moved in with fragmentation bombs. While we were killing them all, you took the LFO into the temple and captured fifteen priests."

"To be executed," murmured Renton as the horror of her memory poisoned him once again.

Forgetful of the intercom, Holland swore under his breath. "I remember. You two're suggesting the SOF might be a lot closer than we think it is? Yeah, maybe so. At any rate, we can't afford to take that chance. Launching now—"

"Unidentifieds approaching fast from one o'clock," said Ken-Goh.

Hap consulted his console. "Yeah, their trapar signature indicates KLFs. I think we're in a trap. You wanna reconsider going out there, Holland?"

"No! You guys take care of things up here; Matthieu and Hilda and I are going down. Launching now!"

The two LFOs—Holland and Matthieu in the 606 and Hilda and Stoner in the 808—flashed away below the Moonlight's command bridge, veering sharply off in either direction. "Evasive flight!" cried Yuki as soon as the two LFOs were clear. "Restraining belts, everybody!"

Moondoggie peeled the ship into a violent left bank, then hit the boosters. Renton and Eureka grabbed for the nearest structural beam to avoid being thrown from their feet as g-forces began tugging at them in novel and very unexpected ways; the high sun flashed through the windowed dome and shadows of fast-moving objects flicked by in brief eclipse.

"Releasing homing missles," said Ken-Goh. A quick rumble sounded from somewhere in the ship's midsection. The baby in Yuki's arms gurgled irritably but no one else spoke a word as twin detonations shook the morning from nearby, frighteningly close.

"Any hits?" Yuki asked.

Hap nodded. "Maestro knocked out a KLF trying to come at us through the boosters' ionization trail. The others are moving off, three of them, two below, one above. Must be a Federation carrier ship nearby."

"They're not trying to destroy the Moonlight," said Renton, watching through the dome for more attackers. "They're trying to keep us from giving Holland covering fire."

Ken-Goh spared precious seconds to glance back in surprise. "You have seen that, too? You two were right; this is a set-up." He jerked his head back, punching at controls and glaring at his display. Beneath their feet, they all could feel the grinding of the servomotors aiming the cannon bank beneath the starboard wing. "The carrier's radar countermeasures are breaking up—I can see its echo clearly now, seven kilometers above and to our rear."

"If they're dropping their ECM cover, they've got to be preparing laser weapons," said Yuki. "Make it hard for them, Moondoggie."

"Right." Taking her at her word, Moondoggie whirled the Moonlight on its long axis and pushed them hard into an outside loop, soaring upward into a reverse turn that threw every unattached object on the ship rolling violently from floor to wall to ceiling and back again. Eureka and Renton clutched each other and the structural member as clipboards, personal communicators, writing styluses and Ken-Goh's plumed hat flew past them. When the ship came to level again, even Yuki had gone pale as death, holding her baby in an iron grip as he chuckled happily.

"Good work, Doggie," said Hap, wiping the sweat from his eyes with the back of one arm. "The mothership sent out two homers after us. But they couldn't keep up with you."

Ken-goh glowered at his console. "Let us see how well they can avoid our homing missles," he growled, stabbing at a bank of black contacts. Another pair of homers left the Moonlight, weaving trails to the Federation ship now below them. At the same time, one of the under-wing cannon locked on to one of the KLFs, firing in a burst of brilliant white.

"M-m-message from Holland," cried Gidget.

Yuki prodded the intercom button with her elbow, not releasing the baby. "Put him on."

"Moonlight, how are things up there?" The tight urgency in his voice left little doubt that things were no more pleasant closer to the ground.

"Busy. But your son seems to be enjoying it, even if the rest of us aren't. How about you?"

"You can tell Eureka and Renton that they were right. There's a convoy of Federation military trucks heading for Axel's garage; they must've been on the move for hours. The KLFs are just to keep us from attacking the convoy we're—" A ragged crackling burst through, breaking up the transmission for an instant. "We're pretty busy dodging missles and scythe attacks... Crap! An armored truck has just pulled away from the garage...looks like there were troops already inside...ing...to the..." The transmission fragmented with more harsh crackling. "...the truck. Do you copy?"

"Say again, 606, you're breaking up." The Moonlight went into a sharp portside bank as Yuki's face creased with concern. Unseen by the remainder of the crew, the jewels on Renton and Eureka's foreheads flashed and flickered wildly.

"This is Hilda in the 808." came the new transmission. "Holland and Matthieu have their hands full trying to break through the KLF cover to get down to ground level. It looks like they've got Axel and the kids loaded into an armored personnel carrier. They've—" The roar of launching missiles overrode her like a waterfall. "Got him, Holland! Moonlight, that's one more Federation stooge out of the way. But plenty more still here, and the personnel carrier's pulling away, heading south. No escort. Uh-oh, ground fire coming from the rest of the troops still at the garage, gotta hang up now..."

"Damn!' shouted Hap, raising both fists into the air. "We've got to get down there and give them covering fire. Can't we...?"

Ken-Goh cut him off. "Incoming laser fire! Moondoggie, give us more evasive maneuvering while the main cannons lock on!" Something flared and sizzled on the starboard wing as the ship whirled into a rapid roll, a homing missle releasing with each revolution.

"We're doing all we can," called Yuki to Renton and Eureka, "Don't give up hope yet!" No answer came back, and she risked turning her head back toward the rear of the bridge to see how they might be taking the news.

Both of them were gone.

Thirteen

Each second that the flailing ship achieved something resembling level flight, Renton and Eureka sprinted as fast as they could run to the hangar deck, wallowing from side to side as the deck shifted and tilted beneath them. Out of breath but not yet giving in to panic, they arrived at the tethered Type Seven, clambering up on its lower legs, now folded for ground-mode storage. Renton helped her into the circular cockpit, then pulled himself in next to her, both of them buckling the restraining straps around themselves. They gazed at each other, once, and the jewels on their forehead glowed and remained brightly illuminated. With one mind, they closed the canopy and released the docking tethers. The Type Seven turned toward the Moonlight's stern even as its weapons systems armed themselves.

On the bridge, Hap paused in shock as an amber readout on his console flashed urgently. "Hey, Yuki, the stern catapult doors are opening!"

She jerked forward in her seat. "What the hell? Do we have boarders...? No. No, I know what's going on...Gidget, get me the Type Seven, quickly."

"Type Seven, this is Yuki Talho. I know what you're up to; stop it and get back here!"

"I'm sorry," they answered her in their joined voice, "but it's the only way. Holland and the others are too late and too outnumbered. We're the only hope for them and for the children." The armored doors rolled apart, the roaring booster engines flanking them now filling the hangar with their thunder. The Type Seven rolled to the catapult launching position. "Call the IPF fleet for help; there's no need for secrecy any longer."

"You told us you weren't going to do this any more!"

"Except in an emergency. This is an emergency, Yuki."

"Damn you, Eureka...or Renton...or whoever or whatever the hell you two are now, stay put! That's not the Nirvash you're riding now!"

"No," they answered in that maddeningly calm harmonic of two perfectly synchronized voices, "but it's something we can fly better than anyone else. Tell Dr. Morita we thank him for the gift."

"Stop it! Don't do this...!"

"Launching now," they said, and activated the catapult.

The Type Seven rocketed sternward, the trapar paddles on both its legs unfolding like metal flowers as it banked into a rapid downward course toward Bellforest. One of the KLFs pursuing the Moonlight made a near pass at them with its scythe-blade, but a quick burst from the Type Seven's infrared laser sheared off its starboard manipulator hand and the rest of the attackers kept their distance as it spiraled toward the earth below.

The meshed mind of Renton and Eureka pushed their descent to speeds that no single pilot's reflexes would have allowed, riding the fluctuating trapar waves with skill and finesse beyond even an automated guidance system's capabilities. In less than a minute, they swooped low over Bellforest, its skies aswarm with whirling KLFs, all of them concentrated on the fatally outnumbered 606 and 808.

"Holland and Hilda, do you copy?" they asked, roaring in at rooftop level and slashing the missle pack from a KLF's dorsal rack.

Hilda's voice came back, colored with worry and a desperate preoccupation. "What? Who's... Is that you two again? Like you were last time? Hey, stay out of here! This place is alive with hostiles..."

Before she could complete the sentence, the Type Seven flickered past her in a blur of blossoming trapar, blasting the ref boards from beneath two of the KLFs on her tail and burning the arm from another with the IR laser.

"What the...? Hey, thanks." Hilda's 808 released two homers, taking out a fourth Federation KLF.

The Type Seven swept on, finding Holland's 606 besieged by no less than seven KLFs, weaving about him in a complex interlocking orbit, too close to risk missles, firing their laser cannons in at him. Holland maneuvered with a dancer's skill, whirling, spinning, firing in return, lashing out with the 606's steel scythe, but at such odds even his remarkable talents could not keep him alive much longer.

And then, all at once, three of the attackers dropped away, spiraling down and out of control, their boards split from beneath them by a green LFO that roared past at impossible velocity, making coil-spring turns so fast that no control system known could be guiding it. One of the KLFs ventured to release a homing missle, only to see the green intruder burn it from the air with its laser cannon, then swoop in to sever the KLF's ref board with a precise burst of projectile fire.

As the remaining three KLFs spread wide, their pilots frightened and confused by this unexpected counterstrike, Holland and Matthieu went on the offensive, climbing into the sun and unloading an armor-piercing missle into the nearest one, then rounding on a second with the 606's scythe-blade.

Eureka and Renton had no need to watch Holland, Matthieu and Hilda turn the tide against the thoroughly disorganized Federation KLF pilots. Without hesitation, they swung the Type Seven off to the south, nimbly dodging antiaircraft ground fire from the military convoy surrounding Axel Thurston's garage facility. The south road; the one leading through and out of town—a military transport vehicle rampaged along it, turning aside for neither civilian vehicles nor pedestrians as it accelerated. But the now-defunct Federation base lay to the northeast. Where, wondered Renton and Eureka, could it possibly be headed?

The Type Seven drew nearer the ground, just above the taller buildings, slowing to match speeds with the multiwheeled armored transport roaring heedlessy toward the edge of Bellforest. There could be no question of missiles, gunfire or even lasers here; the safety of the prisoners inside overrode all other priorities.

Antiaircraft cannon flashed from the transport's rear, two explosive shells shattering harmlessly against the Type Seven's deflector plating. No more than ten meters long, the fast-moving vehicle clearly had room for a defensive crew as well as a driver and security chamber. In their combined thoughts, Renton and Eureka created a plan. Now to move in closer, without further endangering any of the people scrambling madly to get out of the transport's way...

An enormous shadow raced down the road, speeding past both the transport and the Type Seven to the meadows beyond. Renton and Eureka looked up with two of their four eyes, seeing in the sky above the great dark bat-shape of a Federation troop carrier, rapidly losing altitude as it glided ahead of them.

"Moonlight," they called, opening an encrypted channel. "This is the Type Seven. There's a Federation manta trying to put down just ahead of us. We think it's going to try and pick up this transport that's got the kids. Can you keep them from landing?"

"Moonlight, here." They recognized Yuki's voice at once, tight and strained. "There's a flight of interceptors keeping us tied up. We're...trying...trying to break out..." The transmission ended in a crackle of static.

Then a new voice came online, not from the ship. "We're with you," said Hilda, pulling in just above them in her 808. "Holland and Matthieu are here, right behind me, too. Do whatever it is you two're planning on doing, and we'll be backing you up."

Its landing thrusters throwing up great clouds of dust and dried grass, the bulky armored carrier settled to the meadow a kilometer or so ahead. At the same time, the armored ground transport began to slow and its gunner released a fresh burst of fragmentation shells at the three LFOs shadowing it; a sparkling shower of burning metal shards glimmered around them like deadly fairy dust.

Annoyed, Hilda took out the gun port with a carefully-aimed homing missle. "Don't shoot!" cried Eureka and Renton. "You might hurt Axel and the kids!"

"Hey, I'm no green recruit, you guys—I hit what I aim at, and nothing else. Besides, it looks like it made our friends down there start limping a little." Black smoke streamed behind the transport in a ragged trail, gushing from one of the six wheel wells.

"Okay," chimed in Holland, "let's get this over with. Matthieu and I will go down and blast the portside tires with the laser. When it spins out, we'll—"

Something brilliantly yellow flashed just overhead, near enough for all the LFO pilots to feel its intense heat. "Energy cannon," said Renton and Eureka. "It came from the carrier. They're trying to keep us away from the ground transport till it can get aboard."

Holland took the 606 down in a sharp dive, but a second precise blast from the carrier ship, now less than half a kilometer distant, cut him off with barely a hand's width to spare. "Circular pattern!" he shouted. "Keep orbiting the transport at the lowest altitude you can—those guys on the manta have good aim, but they won't be able to hit us without getting the ground vehicle, too."

Renton and Eureka shared a single thought: Do they even still care if they hit the children or not?

As if to follow Holland's command, they took the Type Seven into a tight counterclockwise spiral around the ground vehicle, drawing closer, much closer and at far greater speed than the two other LFOs could achieve. The energy cannon flashed and sizzled overthem, but the carrier-based gunners dared not aim lower. "We can't keep this up," shouted Hilda. "We're too close! We—"

The Type Seven's titanium fist struck out like an angry cobra, smashing in the window of the transport's driver's compartment. Taken by surprise, the operators lost control of the bulky vehicle and it swayed from side to side of the road, its oscillations quickly becoming severe enough to lift one side's wheels from the ground with each squealing swerve. With a last violent lurch, it spiralled sideways and came within an instant of rolling over entirely before the Type Seven seized it in both hands, wrenching it from the highway and guiding it down a low roadside bank where it came to rest, its engines stilled.

The three LFOs stood equidistant around the motionless vehicle for a moment before the Type Seven bent and brought its hulking head next to the thick ports at the vehicle's armored flanks. Four pairs of wide eyes peered out with varying degrees of amazement and fear, one pair of them Renton's deep blue and ridged with white brows. "We've got the kids and Grandpa!" cried Eureka and Renton.

"Great," said Holland. "That's what we came for, now let's get out of here. Can you lift this thing all the way back to the Moonlight?"

"Easy. The trapar vanes have plenty of surface and we can always use the thrusters if we need to. We'll just..." Another energy beam sizzled through the clear air no more than five meters above them. Then another, still lower, grazing the road at the top of the bank, splattering them with bits of molten stone and asphalt.

"Phased plasma cannons," said Hilda, crouching her 808 lower. "They're keeping us pinned down so we can't get away with the transport. One of those beams'll take out any LFO ever made. Even the Nirvash couldn't have taken more than two direct hits from high-powered stuff like that."

Renton and Eureka looked uneasily up at a third beam, whose ionized trail remained in the air after it passed. "Pinning us down for what?" they wondered. "Holland, at Kabryka, we had the Federation artillery pin down the rebels with laser fire while we called for direct air strikes on their position."

"You don't have to remind me," he said bitterly. "Yeah, that's probably what's going on here, too. We've got to get out before the reinforcements arrive."

A line of tiny explosions ripped their way along the dirt, right to the armored flanks of the transport, where they became sharp little sparklers of light that rang out with sharp pings. "The reinforcements're here," said Stoner.

Black, crescent-shaped Federation pursuit craft swarmed overhead, making low passes to strafe the three LFOs, harrying them so relentlessly that none of them could lift off. Eureka and Renton in the Type Seven fought back with its laser cannon, damaging at least four of them so badly that they settled to the ground trailing smoke and flame, and the 606 and 808 scored significant hits with homing missles. But the remaining pursuit ships only strafed them more fiercely and began releasing air-to-ground missles that only Renton and Eureka's combined superhuman reflexes could blast from the sky with the Type Seven's laser.

"This doesn't look good," Hilda panted, releasing her last homing missle at a pursuit ship whose cocky pilot had dared dipping too low over them.

"Being the good guys is never easy," said Matthieu, burning a hole in one of the enemy's wings with the 606's laser. She had no time for a reply, and whatever Eureka and Renton might have said to each other remained unheard, for they had no need of words for communincation between them.

Holland snarled as he got off a burst of fire from his antiaircraft guns. "Damn, I wish the Moonlight could give us some cover!"

"Oh, crap!" shouted Hilda, pointing above them with the 808's right arm.

The defenders spared precious seconds to look, already certain it could be nothing good. From out of the southeast, the glowering bulk of a military Izumo-class attack ship darkened the sky, the black deltas of fighter-interceptors haloed in formation around it. Even as they stared, their hearts sinking within them, the interceptors began peeling off from formation and diving groundward in their direction.

Holland's voice sounded over the LFOs' communicators, more weary than anyone had ever heard him, and bitterly angry. "Eureka...Renton. I'm sorry. Getting you so far, and now for it to end this way, on a simple rescue sortie..."

"We don't blame you," they replied in that absurdly calm harmony of voices. "No one could have done more..."

A blast from above interrupted them, accompanied by a billowing ball of boiling orange flame that sprayed red-hot chunks of metal in all directions, bouncing loudly from the LFOs' armor and the steel plating of the transport vehicle. "One of the pursuit ships exploded!" Matthieu shouted. "Did one of you guys do that?"

Another one blasted apart in mid-dive, followed by a third. The dark fighter-interceptor craft from the attack ship roared in among the attackers, firing homers and laser cannon in quick, surgical bursts, one explosion following after another. The sky rained debris. And as the stunned LFO pilots watched, speechless, a trio of brilliant yellow-orange beams erupted from the big V-shaped attack ship as it circled overhead, aimed for an unseen point just over the low ridge of the roadway behind them.

"Everybody get down!" cried Holland, dropping his own LFO to its metallic knees. Hardly had the others obeyed before an immense explosion filled the air with its white brilliance, rivaling even the noontime sun, rocking the earth beneath them. A shock wave followed by a roaring gale of hot wind swept over them, ripping away dark patches of asphalt from the road, sweeping along soil, meadow and twisted bits of metal that had once been the Federation carrier ship in a huge radius around the countryside beyond Bellforest.

Hilda's wonderment and relief knew no bounds. "Those are IPF interceptors up there! Juergens' IPF ships caught up to us at last! Look at them run down those Federation pursuit ships! What a beautiful sight!"

Almost at the same time, their radios came alive with Gidget's familiar voice, bubbling over with happiness. "This is the Moonlight. Do you copy, LFO group? Moonlight, here."

"We're still alive and kicking," said Holland. "What's going on up there?"

"The battle-cruiser Timor from the IPF fleet answered our distress call," Yuki answered him. "We were under heavy attack up here, but its interceptor escort seems to've cleaned out the hostiles. Have you completed your rescue? Can you return to us?"

"'Yes' to both those questions," Eureka and Renton said, picking the damaged truck from the ground with the LFO's arms. "We're coming now, Moonlight. Have the rear catapult doors open to receive the Type Seven with a Federation armored ground transport. And you'd better have Mischa standing by—the prisoners inside have had a rough time."

The Type Seven's thrusters fired with a roar, lifting them into the sky where its trapar vanes unfolded and accelerated them upward, toward the Moonlight's homing signal, slipping through the still-deadly aerial battle between the IPF and Federation forces. In less than a minute, they reached a safe altitude, and Renton and Eureka disengaged themselves from the link between them, becoming separate personalities once more.

"The headache isn't so bad this time," she said, hardly able to contain her happiness. "I hope Axel and the children aren't too frightened."

"They'll be all right, wait and see. We'll have them back on board, rested and ready to go by dinnertime. Yeah, we can all eat together tonight!" He glanced downward, at the flashes of rocket and laser fire still raging in the air below, and farther beyond at the raw crater where the Federation carrier ship had rested on the once-green meadow. Renton shook his head sadly. "All the people who died, though. Even though they were trying to kill us all, I feel sorry for them. That's what we're fighting for, Eureka, you and me and Gekkostate, all together. To put an end to it all, to stop this war against the Coralian once and for all." He took Eureka's hand and squeezed it, feeling her reassuring warmth against him. "When you and me were...joined back there, it was almost like Eureka Seven was back again. Only this time, it was to tell the Federation and the killers who run it that she's never going to let them use her, ever again."

Without releasing the controls of the Type Seven, she leaned her shoulder to his. "Maybe that's true. You were right, after all. I think that sharing those terrible memories with you let me be able to stop being afraid of them so much. Eureka Seven did terrible things, Renton, but she was a very naïve and inexperienced girl who was tricked into doing them before she could know the truth. I'm not afraid of Eureka Seven any more. But all the same, I like Eureka Thurston a lot better."

"So do—" An insistent buzzing from the Type Seven's instrument array cut him off as a pair of converging brackets formed on the display, indicating the flight path to the Moonlight's hangar bay.

"Clearance for approach, Type Seven," said Yuki. "But watch yourself on the way in—there may still be some of those Federation attack fliers that were giving us such a hard time around up here."

"We will," Renton agreed, and they altered course toward the circling ship at a thousand-meter altitude. First it appeared to them as a white speck catching the sun, then rapidly expanded into the clear outline of the Moonlight's stern.

Eureka piloted the Type Seven between the throttled-back booster nozzles of the ship, toward the beckoning dark launch gate. "It looks almost like home," murmured Renton as he made minute attitude and velocity adjustments, matching the Moonlight's speed. Closer...raise the arms a bit higher, to allow the bulky transport to clear the catapult deck...angle the trapar vanes a little further forward...pull the legs up now, and extend the wheels...

With a harsh jolt, the Type Seven entered the hangar, the transport extended ahead of it, skidding along the metal floor, the added bulk's inertia sliding them dangerously fast toward the forward bulkhead. Quickly, Renton dropped the LFO's feet downward far enough to catch on the open hangar door and jerk them to a stop, only seconds before what would have been a disastrous crash.

They settled to a halt; Mischa and Dr. Egan hurried in to greet them. Eureka popped open the Type Seven's canopy and they stood, hugging each other in sheer delight. "We made it!" Renton shouted to the echoing walls. "We're back in one piece! I told you we'd be back by dinnertime..."

A quick burst of rattling explosions sounded from outside the still-open door, sending harsh metallic ricochets echoing on all sides. Renton's expression went from wild joy to a stare of bafflement as a blotch of deep red stained his jacket just below his right shoulder. "By dinnertime..." he repeated numbly, looking around him in confusion. "By...by...by..."

He toppled out of the cockpit, slid along the slick metal of the Type Seven's back and along half the length of its left leg, then dropped without another word out the still-open hangar door and into the empty sky below.

"RENTON!" screamed Eureka, and ran to the open door, leaping out after him.

Fourteen

"Holland! Holland, do you copy? Answer me, dammit, quickly!"

Rising rapidly through the cold skies in the 606, Holland touched the transceiver stud on his headset. "What? What's going on up there, Yuki? Is the ship—"

"A Federation pursuit ship strafed us just after Renton and Eureka arrived. Ken-Goh blasted it, but not before it got off a volley into the hangar. Mischa says Renton was hit and fell out the bay door."

"Oh, no, is he—"

"And Eureka jumped right behind him. They're still falling! You've got to grab them!"

Holland went icy inside as he activated the mass-detection scanner for the airspace just above. Two blips, one above the other, gathering speed downward as they passed his altitude. "Hilda! Follow me down!" He swung the 606 into the steepest dive he could manage, alternating between curses and prayers.

Eureka dropped through the horror of her own deepest nightmare, hardly aware of the crackling explosion of the dying Federation ship behind her, the ship that had dared to send its burning spurts of death through her Renton's body. But he was not dead, she knew, still hearing the echo of his dimming thoughts in her mind. The ruby light in her forehead burned, calling to him with the strength of her love. Don't sleep, my darling, I'm here with you, I'll always be with you, forever. You must stay awake, Renton, and listen to me! I'm coming, Renton, wait for me, you must never go anywhere that I can't follow.

Something was badly wrong, Renton knew, and if only he could figure out what, he might somehow make sense of it all. Something wet clung to his right shoulder, and yet at the same time there seemed to be no feeling left in the arm. And he was so tired! If I fall asleep I'll miss dinnertime, and that's very important for some reason. And Grandpa and the kids...but they're back in Bellforest making explosions, aren't they? Anyway I know there's this appointment I've got to keep, and if I don't make it, Eureka will be upset, and I...

Eureka.

In the deepest recesses of his mind, something within Renton resonated with the other part him, the part he called "Eureka," and he knew even through the blackness shrouding his eyes that a sea-blue light gleamed on his brow, answering her call.

Eureka. Where are you, Eureka? I'm so tired, but if I sleep I can't see you. Eureka.

Eureka, raged Holland silently, Renton. Don't do this to me, please. You're so important to us, so important to me. You two can't end it like this, not after all we've accomplished together, not after the things you've made me see.

Already diving straight downward, Holland ignited the 606's thrusters, roaring into the past and the future, now become one and the same.

I hear you, Renton! Just stay awake for me, dearest Renton, I'm almost there...

Holland drew near to them, seeing Eureka's gown fluttering in the fierce wind of her descent, reaching out with the 606's arm...

Eureka. Eureka? Where are you? I can't see you. I'm so cold. Where are you?

She reached for him, only meters away, now. Something big and metallic loomed at Eureka's side, but she had no time to think of that now, not with Renton so very near. It was time, time at last, to do what only she could do.

Now!

Like twin spinnakers snapping taut in a gale, Eureka's wings shot out rigidly beside her, flashing and burning with the brilliant green of trapar streams parting before her will. With the powerful alar muscles of her back she angled them at precisely the optimum warp and she rocketed forward, faster than gravity, faster than even an LFO's thrusters, down to the bleeding Renton, snatching him from the hungry earth waiting below and pulling him homeward in a slow inverted rainbow of rippling green.

For the first time, Renton felt warmth creeping through him, and began to waken, and opened his eyes. He smiled, and wept without embarrassment, for an achingly lovely angel held him cradled in her arms, her shining wings a storm of green fire, smiling down at him with eyes of lavender and pink and gold, brilliant with love. "Don't you 'by, by' me, Renton Thurston," she scolded, and smiled again, and bore him upward into the light until he slept at last.

Fifteen

People. All around. As Renton's dulled mind slowly focused itself upon the world again, he grew gradually aware of people, a lot of them. The entire crew and passenger compliment of the Moonlight, surrounding his bed.

His bed?

"Hey, what's going on..." he coughed, dropping back to the pillows almost at once as vertigo overwhelmed him and prickling pain shot up and down his right arm.

Mischa leaned closer, her stern face smoothed with a happy smile. "Stay where you are," she told him. "In case you aren't yet aware of it, you caught an armor-piercing shell in that shoulder, and it'll be a while before you're ready to get up and move around."

He nodded quietly. It all made sense, now. "How long?"

Dr. Egan appeared from somewhere, peering down at him, his rounded face looking somehow different. The glasses. He's not wearing those little round glasses. "Extrapolating from the utterly remarkable rate at which your cells have been regenerating themselves, I should say about...three hours. Till then, don't be impatient, my boy. By all rights, that bullet should have severed your arm entirely...before you died."

"Bullet." Something horrible connected in Renton's mind, then. "There were a lot of bullets! What about Eureka? Did any of them...? Where's Eureka? Is she all right?" With his good left arm, he pushed himself upward, nearly sitting, shaking off the paralyzing dizziness as he looked around, frantic with fear. "Eureka!"

"I'm here, Renton," she said from the bed's opposite side, throwing her arms about him and lowering him to the padding again. "I've been here all along, waiting for you to wake up while you rested and got better."

He smiled, then, at last. "You came for me," he whispered, holding tight to the softness of her hand. "Everybody knows about your wings, now, don't they? That you can generate trapar waves with them, like the Nirvash could after she was transformed?"

"Not only do we know about it," crowed Stoner, displaying a large, freshly-printed photograph of Eureka holding the unconscious Renton in her arms as she ascended on trapar-flamed wings, "we're going to tell the whole free world about it. This is the cover of the next Ray=Out, my friends; I snapped it from Hilda's cockpit as we followed Holland to try and pluck you boldly from the ravenous jaws of death. And inside will be the whole story of how you've been hiding out from the Federation, and you've both become part human, part Coralian and how it's your mission now to reconcile the two races in spite of the Federation trying to murder you. We're going to hit even harder with this one than we did with our last big Couple of the Year story. What d'you think?"

Renton finally found it within himself to laugh. "I think it's great! Only, it's Eureka who should get all the credit. She was the angel. She's always been the angel." And they embraced, to a chorus of affectionate "awwwwws" from the rest of the surrounding Gekkostate members as Stoner happily took photo after photo of their reunion.

"Hey, how come it's only you two who get the hugs?" came a small and insistent voice.

"Maurice?" cried Renton, sitting, this time with Eureka's gentle assistence. "Linck? Maeter? Wow, this is great! You all look great! And you've gotten so big! Come here, all of you, won't you? I've missed you! I've got plenty of hugs to go around for our kids."

"I'm nine years old, now, Papa," Maurice protested. "I've learned to ref, you know. And Grandpa says that pretty soon, I'll be big enough to wear your old reffing jacket."

Axel Thurston, still in blue mechanic's coveralls, shuffled shyly out of the crowd gathered round Renton's sickbed, swabbing at his blue eyes behind his glasses. "It'll be an awful big jacket to fill," he said to Renton. "But these are mighty good kids, Grandson. These three new Thurstons are on their way to making me just as proud of them as their wonderful father...and their just as wonderful mother." He held Eureka to his chest with trembling arms, briefly too overcome to speak. "Welcome to our family, at long last, my dear," he said in a voice gone hoarse and uncertain, and almost lost in the heady chorus of applause.

Sixteen

Night gathered about the Moonlight, only the silent stars and the navigation lights of their IPF escort ships surrounding them. With the ship on autopilot, its grim-faced crew gathered informally on the bridge for a conference, speaking together in low voices. Eureka had tucked the children away in her old room, and both Renton and Eureka herself, thoroughly exhausted, now slept peacefully in what had once been Renton's quarters.

"...nevertheless," Holland went on, "since we'll be back at Tresor by morning for repairs and reprovisioning of the Moonlight, this will probably be the last chance we'll get for several days to discuss the situation as a group. Dr. Egan, are you and Mischa absolutely certain of your findings?"

The scientist nodded, his face looking somehow peculiar without the characteristic glitter of his tiny glasses. "We've shown all of you the data, including the results of the recent tests we've run on Renton while he was unconscious."

"How is Renton, anyway?" asked Gidget, her arm locked around Moondoggie's waist.

Mischa smiled. She found herself doing more and more of that, lately, and everyone agreed that it looked much better without her severe spectacles. "Perfectly healthy. His shoulder has healed without complications, and he now needs only a few days of rest to complete the rejuvenation. The total regeneration time for the shoulder itself was three hours, twenty-two minutes."

"That's amazing," said Moondoggie with a low whistle. "And you're sure about the other tests? About the rest of us, I mean?"

"Yes, beyond doubt. The same levels are rising in all of us who are regular crew. Sonia, Gregory, and Dr. Morita are lagging behind the rest of us, as are Axel and the children—obviously because they came aboard only recently, and have received less exposure. I estimate that they should all reach the same point sometime tomorrow."

"Exposure to what?" asked Hap. "Radiation of some kind? Or is it some biological agent in the air?"

"As to that, we still have no idea," Mischa admitted with a shrug.

Matthieu looked down with wonder at the smooth and undamaged skin of his injured arm. "This is gonna change everything. Why's it happening, though? For Renton and Eureka, it makes sense, but why for us one-hundred-percent humans?"

"There, we can only theorize," said Egan. "I regret that we no longer have the fascinating Mr. Norbu among us to lend his thoughts upon the matter. My own belief is that it is the ancient principle of the 'carrot and the stick.' The Coralians seem to prefer nonverbal, symbolic methods of communication. They have already seen the result of being in open conflict with Humanity, which brought great and terrible upheaval to both sides. Now, they are offering us the carrot—or the olive branch, if you will. They truly wish for a harmonious relationship between our two species, and Eureka and Renton are the emissaries for that desire."

Holland plucked at his short chin whiskers once again, deep in thought. "The news will have to be leaked very, very slowly. If it gets out too fast, we could have worldwide riots on our hands, even a complete social breakdown."

"Agreed," said Egan. "It seems that this group now has a new purpose, toward which we must all bend our efforts in the coming months. I suggest that all of us swear an oath of silence upon this matter, revealing it to no one outside this circle until the time comes when it can safely be made public."

"It's the logical thing to do," agreed Woz. "I'm in. Everybody else willing to make the same promise?"

They all did. And when it was over, Yuki smiled at them, and thought of the future her son would have in this amazing new world that beckoned. If they could all work together against a hostile and powerful opposition to bring that future to pass. "Axel; Gregory; Dr. Morita; Sonia. Welcome to Gekkostate, ladies and gentlemen."

Renton came slowly to wakefulness, turning over several times, then blinking his eyes and wondering what time it must be. Something felt wrong, and he rolled over again, finding Eureka wide awake and sitting upright at his side.

"What's the matter?" he asked her, sitting with no trace of the earlier dizziness to hinder him. The red jewel on Eureka's face glowed and pulsed, and somehow he knew his own was, too.

"I'm not sure anything's the matter. I just...seemed to feel something. As if someone was calling us. You'd have felt it right away, too, if you weren't still recovering."

"Yeah, I guess you're right." As though he'd awakened from a dream of having visitors come to call, the strange conviction lingered in him of being summoned, or at least sought. "Can it be the kids, do you think?"

She shook her head, her soft teal hair ruffling about her shoulders. "No. It doesn't feel like them at all. It's more like... Look."

At the foot of the bed, faintly glowing in the lightless cabin, a figure began to take shape, hazy at first, then more distinct, outlined in soft greenish light. A young girl, her cheerful and appealing face streaked with parallel bands of pigment on each cheek.

"Sakuya!" cried Eureka and Renton at the same instant.

She only kept smiling, unspeaking, unmoving, as a second figure slowly came into form just behind her, watching with the same serene smile. Though in appearance no more than a lad in his teens, his shaven head and penetrating eyes left no doubt of his identity. "And Norbu," whispered Renton. "It's great to see you again! When the Coralians took you to that other reality, we thought we'd never get another chance to..."

But it was already too late; the insubstantial shapes quivered and dissolved back into the darkness from which they'd appeared, leaving Eureka and Renton alone once more.

"It's a message," she said, slipping her hand into her husband's. "Someone's trying to give us a message."

Renton agreed. "Yeah, definitely. But who? Was it those two, or the Coralians? And what is the message, anyway?"

"It never ends, does it?" sighed Eureka. "We're right at the center of this struggle to reconcile Coralians and humans, and it just goes on and on and on. It was so nice, having our lives to ourselves this past year. Will we ever have that again, I wonder?"

Gently, Renton pulled her back down to the pillows. "Let's not worry about it until morning, anyway. The answers'll come in time, like they always do. And we'll find them together, the way we always do. And sooner or later, we'll have our lives to ourselves again."

She snuggled into the curve of his arm, her wings folding tightly along her back. "Is that a promise?"

"Yeah, definitely. And you and I...we always keep our promises, don't we?"

The End

NOTE: If you enjoyed Out of the Nest, I hope you will be pleased to know that it is the first installment of a ten-part series. The installments are organized into three books, the proper order of which is this:

1: The Fire in the Heart

1: Out of the Nest

2: Loss of Life

3: And I Shall Be Your Light

4: The Flame at the Heart of the World

2: Shine On, Shine On

1: The Edge

2: City of Dust

3: Borealis

3: In Some Brighter Dreams

1: Uncertain Voyage

2: Kindred With the Skies

3: Goldenrod

All of these can be found here on this site.