7 - Give Us a Show Then

Bridge of the Excalibur – December 23, 2269

Gideon rubbed his tired eyes. If Dr Chambers saw him right now, she'd order him to bed. And he'd want to refuse. Everything rode on what would happen in the next few days. Then afterwards to Mars. The biggest gamble of his life. As much as he didn't want to just let go and sleep, he had to, or soon he'd be useless.

Lt. John Matheson hovered at his elbow like a worried grandmother. Gideon already knew what he wanted. The same as what Dr Chambers would. It annoyed him and made feel cared for at the same time. A good crew. Yet as the Captain he shouldn't allow his feelings to show.

"John?" said the Captain informally, granting his second permission to speak the same way.

In a low voice, John said, "With all due respect Sir… you've been on duty for 16 hours straight. You're pushing yourself too hard. You should take a break."

Gideon stared past him at the screens displaying hyperspace. He rubbed the stubble on his chin trying to remember when he last shaved or showered for that matter. Before all the drama with Galen. Admitting John had a point, Gideon answered, "We're close John, but you're right. I'm taking some time. You have the conn."

Suddenly putting his hand to his ear, Lt. Matheson interrupted the Captain, "Sir, gold channel message. Your eyes only."

"Patch it through to my quarters."

And just like that, thoughts of a nap flew away as he rushed from the bridge to his quarters. And there, surprising the Captain, despite all the times Galen let himself in uninvited, that new technomage.

With his feet propped up on Gideon's desk, playing with his deck of cards, the man looked to have made himself quite at home. About the room, the various screens streamed different entries from Gideon's logs. Great. Another arrogant technomage here to play games.

Fed sang out at him, "O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done."

His patience gone, Gideon landed on immediate anger. "I don't know what sort of game you're playing here but I have an important message. Leave." He pointed out the open door for emphasis.

Not moving, Fed coyly said, "Ya, that's from me. Let's chat."

The doors shut behind him as Gideon strode to the nearest screen. "Display gold channel message."

A sleigh pulled by reindeer flew all over the screen. A classic Santa- white bearded, fat in the red suit, constantly proclaimed, "HOHOHO." When the screen cleared, the message, Feliz Navidad! XO Fed appeared. Immediately, a song wishing Matthew a merry christmas and a happy new year in spanish played from all the speakers of his quarters.

Gideon squeezed his eyes shut and silently counted to three before saying, "Audio and screens off. And out of my chair."

Everything went deathly silent. With a self-satisfied chuckle, Fed stood up. Ignoring Gideon, he silently walked around the room, occasionally handling one of Gideon's personal items, all while cutting the deck of cards again and again with one hand.

The too cool, in control air of the technomage as he snaked about the room unsettled Gideon and put him on edge. At his desk, he silently slipped the lowest drawer open. Without looking, he felt and grabbed the small PPG and clicked off the safety. He held it in his lap out of sight. When Fed finished his perambulation about the room, he stopped opposite Gideon, a grin plastered on his face. Matthew had been in enough casinos to recognize the subtle fake smile of someone trying to get him to let his guard down.

"What the hell do you want with me?" Gideon asked hoping to wrap it up quickly so he could fall in bed.

Casually Fed started, "I want Galen. I need his help but he won't come with me because you have some kind of hold on him."

"Last time I checked, Galen does what he wants. If he wants to stay then I guess you're out of luck."

Fed's smile faded instantly. "No. You're gonna release Galen from whatever promises he gave you."

Gideon let out a disbelieving grunt. "Boy you guys are … arrogant doesn't even begin to describe it. I need him. This is something I have to do. He owes me."

Fed took a deep breath as he seated himself in the chair opposite Gideon. The air eased. To Gideon, it felt as if they were about to haggle over the price of some souvenir at a market stall.

Fed made the first offer. "I'm willing to cut you a deal. I'm even going to go against my training and reveal my hand to you."

Even though he'd done it many times, and well, Matthew hated haggling. Fed waved the deck at Gideon and fanned it perfectly like a stage magician in New Vegas. Staged tricks annoyed him even more than haggling.

"Lucky me," said Gideon dryly.

Ignoring the slight, Fed plunged forward speaking rapidly, "You're right to want Galen. He's freakishly smart, and the most powerful technomage our Order has seen since, well, probably since our founding. He's like ..." Fed flipped the top card off the deck revealing the Ace of Spades. He placed it on the desk between them and said, "The best trump card in some games, but for the game you want to play on Mars, you should settle for other cards. On the other hand, I am ..." Fed flipped the next card over, the King of Hearts. He placed it to the right of the Ace of Spades. "And currently on Mars are ..." He flipped four more cards rapidly off the deck, the King, Queen, Jack and Two, all of Spades, fanning them out below the king of hearts.

"They've been studying the facility you want into for a long time. Drop Galen and I'll make sure they help you."

Gideon thought, Who the hell is this guy? In the back of his mind a pragmatic voice, tiny and too much like his mother's, told him to run, find Galen and tell him everything. A much louder voice told him to push his luck. As always the second voice won.

Time to start digging. Beginning his probes, Gideon pointed at the spades on the table and asked, "Why exactly would they listen to you?"

Fed grinned wickedly, "Because I'm charming and there is a good chance they will answer to me one day. So they'll want to stay on my good side."

The direct and blunt answer surprised Gideon. A leader of some kind or at least he claimed to be. Even though, at this point Gideon wouldn't follow him into the dining hall, forget Mars.

"How am I supposed to drop Galen exactly?"

Fed answered him as if Gideon had already agreed to his plans, "Do what I ask, and it shouldn't be too hard. You already look like shit," Fed put up his hands apologetically, "No offense Captain. God knows I've had my off days. When we arrive you'll tell Galen you don't need his help because you need a vacation. I will have to teach you how to lie effectively to Galen, but that shouldn't be too hard given your love of poker."

Satisfied, Fed stopped speaking, looking at the Captain expectantly.

Unsatisfied, Gideon asked the obvious question, "Why the hell are you doing this?"

Fed answered quickly but his eyes flickered away uncertainly.

"Because I have to reach ..." He flipped the top card and placed the Queen of Hearts next to the King of Hearts. "A fellow technomage is trapped and I need Galen's help to rescue her."

Another frank answer. A rescue mission. Not at all what Gideon expected. That leeched away his contempt. His instincts urged him to help. After what happened to him and the Cerberus, he'd never leave anyone behind to rot. As he wondered at Fed's aggressive and overly informative approach, a sense of déjà-vu settled in as he thought about Galen's behavior before the Well of Forever. He decided to jump to the end game.

"And if I refuse?"

Unblinking, Fed looked at the Captain without emotion.

With a shrug, Fed replied, "Plan B, first you're off my Christmas card list, and then, you now know too much, I'll have to kill you."

Excalibur Docking Bay – Federico's Ship December 23, 2269

Galen remained distracted, immersed in Fed's sphere.

/4/

God damn, I should have realized just how out of my league I was with her, but never was a quick study.

- 30.11.2252

Strolling with my hands shoved in my pockets toward a clearing between rows of parked sleek technomage ships. I sauntered toward a small antique red flyer through shadowy silence.

"Fed." I yelped, startled at the sudden sound.

Gwynn stepped into view from behind the shadowy landing gear of the nearest technomage ship. She pointed at the old red flyer. "Do you know who this belongs?"

"Dammit Gwynn, you scared me."

Clearly, pleased with herself, she said, "Good. I ran its VIN through Proxima's police datanet. It belongs to- Ali Baba, occupation: gentleman adventurer, age: 255, height: 9.9 meters. Not really helpful."

Unblinking, she looked at me with curious expectation.

"How'd you get access to our police net?" She didn't answer so I kept talking. "It's mine. Ali's an intruder daemon I'm designing."

She looked at me in amused disbelief. "I suppose it's more subtle than your jacket."

I looked down at the jacket made of thick woven strands with orange and red beads woven in the sleeves.

Smiling fakely back, I answered, "You're just jealous that you can't make something this awesome," A quick involuntary smile flashed across Gwynn's face as I continued, "The flyer was my birthday present. And since all my friends went to bed, I'm about to take her up to blow off some steam."

Suddenly sounding friendly, she sweetly asked, "I have a better idea, how about you lend it to me?"

"No way." I said immediately.

Frowning, she dropped the sweet tone, and coldly offered, "I'll trade you for it." She dangled a chain in front of my face with a small crystal sphere on it. She moved it about hypnotically.

Curious I asked, "What is it?"

"You know all those areas that are warded to keep out apprentices. This will get you in without setting off the alarm. Of course, once you're in you'll have to figure out how to not give yourself away."

"Where did you get this?"

"I promised I wouldn't say. The same way you're not going to," she said meanly driving a finger deep into my shoulder until I flinched.

I slapped her hand away, and said, "If it's so great, why don't you use it?"

Glancing about nervously, she loudly proclaimed, "Because I obey all the Order's rules," Focusing back on me, her voice dropped to a whisper, "Unless I have good reason not to."

"Why do you want my flyer?"

She rolled her eyes. "What do you think? I want to fly. Nothing straining, just to your home town and back. Let me have it for a week and you get a free trip to Xanadu anytime."

"More like a free trip to trouble. Even if no one recognizes me, there's no way I'll pass for an initiate."

Gwynn smirked confidently. "Rhea is there right now, living la vie boheme with her deviate retinue. Trust me, if you can charm her or one of them, they'll insist you stay. They might even make you their mascot."

As an answer I handed her the ignition control card to the flyer and she hung the chain around my neck, then tucked it into my shirt. Dissatisfied, she buttoned the jacket to further hide the lump.

Not waiting to see her take-off, I turned and ran off through a maze of buildings until I reached an enormous tent-like structure. Its door was firmly covered with a heavy leather flap. Slipping inside I was enveloped with noise; gentle music, talking and peels of laughter. Most of the illumination came from an enormous fireplace on the far side, with the occasional glowing sphere hovering here and there. In front of the fireplace stood a technomage surrounded by musical instruments, playing themselves. His eyes were closed, as his arms moved in time with the music, directing it like a conductor.

Scattered about the room were classic works of art: paintings, animated holograms and flanking the enormous fireplace, two statues of the same winged figure, Wierdan, the founder of the Technomage Order. One of the statues was her in a casual pose, wings folded, arms at her side, perfectly round, smooth skull, with her serenely staring straight ahead at nothing in particular. The other was incomplete. The figures wings were stretched outward fully, with her arms straining above her as if she were trying to escape. The rest was unfinished but being actively worked on by a lone technomage hovering near the face, chiseling at it occasionally. A bald technomage in a flowing black robe stood at the base, critiquing something on the wing. The sculptor, ignoring his audience of one, continued working on the face.

The periphery of the room divided itself into smaller sections by semi-transparent tapestries depicting animated scenes of technomage history. In between, were small low tables scattered well apart from each other.

All the visible tables had food and drink piled high on each while small groups of mages sat reclining on large pillows or low chairs. Some groups were conversing merrily, or playing games, while others appeared to be more intimately engaged. At the largest table closest to the center of everything, a group of Centauri gathered. Their rowdily celebrating was marked by the smashing of a pitcher flung at the fireplace. One of the group lay face down on the table unmoving while across from him another Centauri was sprawled out on the ground, unconscious. No one seemed concerned.

Slowly walking about, I scanned the room. Finally, I spotted Rhea, by the red scarf wound about her neck. She sat at a small table in a far corner, and between the legs of a burly, light complected man. She was leaning back against his chest. With her hair gone, it was difficult to recognize her as she was; wearing a very tight and lacey green shirt, half unbuttoned, and a heavy dark green woolen coat spread out like a blanket from her lap to her leather clad feet. The man's arms rested on the ground behind him, propping them both up. Laid out along his thigh was a saber clasped to a belt around his waist. His face was mostly hidden by a large white brace across the bridge of his nose. They were chatting with two other women at their table.

Switching to study the other women, it was hard to not stare at the slight olive-skinned woman. She was conspicuously dressed in a colorful patchwork cape. On her head was an ornate purple cap with one enormous white feather stuck into it, sticking straight up, that bobbed around when she spoke. I forced myself to look at the last member of the group. Her eerily white skin contrasted perfectly with her short sleeveless, black trimmed, gray robe. When she casually flexed her arms, I could see they were fiercely muscular. Otherwise, she sat perfectly straight backed and still on her knees without the benefit of a pillow under her.

Nervously, I approached close enough to overhear Rhea exclaiming as she cocked a thumb at the Centauri group in the center, "...I'm sure one of them would happily show you. Believe me, it's even more impressive up close, but a Centauri would be my last choice. I will grant you though, it might be fun trying to figure out where to put all of them."

The woman in the cap covered her eyes and screamed, "Yuck! I won't be able to get that out of my head all night!" She began to make disgusted gagging sounds to the laughs of the others.

The conversation halted as they finally noticed my standing around staring at them.

I blurted out at Rhea, "Hi! Can I join you?"

She sat there openmouthed, stunned.

"You know this whelp Lou?" asked the man pointing at me.

She regained her composure and stood. Her coat fell away, revealing her short skirt. She spoke quickly, "Yes. The chef I mentioned and he really should not be here."

Rhea took a step but the man grabbed her wrist pulling her back. In a deep melodic voice, he commanded, "Oh no you don't! I'm not letting you leave here unless it's with me. Besides at his age I would have given up a hand to get to stay here and watch."

"I doubt it would have been your right hand," said the muscular women serenely. All the women laughed in unison which grew louder when the woman in the cap made a repetitive up and down motion with her own right hand, making the feather of her cap bobbed around in time with her hand.

He responded loudly over the snickering of the women, "Very funny. Ha. Ha. We four got into all sorts of trouble when we were his age. It's good for you."

"If memory serves, at his age the only thing you got into was your made up girlfriend," mocked the muscular woman again.

"Oh ya! The Scandinavian model," added the slight woman with the feathered cap.

"Don't forget she had a Phd in xenolinguistics," added Rhea ticking off the second characteristic of the girl on her fingers.

The feathered cap woman chimed in again, "Didn't he say she was ranked first on the women's snowboarding circuit."

"His girlfriend must've been the square root of -100," I joked. They all went quiet.

The capped woman pointed a finger at me and said, "This kid's great."

"I don't get it," said the man loudly over them. All the women laughed louder. He looked to me confused, hands out.

"Square root of -100 is a perfect ten but imaginary," I explained to him.

"Oh. A math joke. You're funny. Thanks for making me look stupider in front of my best lady-friends." He said smiling as he refilled his drink.

Still standing, Rhea leaned toward me and whispered, "You must forgive what passes for wit among my friends. You still need to leave."

I noticed that not just the hair on her head was gone. Her arms, eyebrows, every visible part bare and smooth, like the others.

"This kid's awesome and adorable. Let him stay!" said the woman in the cap with a wink at me.

Rhea relented to her, "All right you can stay until the smashing starts. I don't want to have to pick shards of glass out of your eyeballs." She said like it was an annoying chore she routinely did. Rhea sat down beside the man and motioned for me to sit, patting the pillow next to her.

Once I was seated on a large pillow comfortably, she started, "Everyone this is Herazade's apprentice, Federico, but he prefers Fed." Continuing, she stretched her hand toward the man, who was ignoring me and drinking from a mug so heavily that the contents spilled out the sides of his mouth and down his chin.

"This is Roland, master of voice modulation and a budding master duelist. He is from the great planet of Mars. Stay away from him," she said in all seriousness. Next, she indicated to the muscular women. "This is Tomoe, master of the hand to hand combat and costuming. She's from the ancient city of Kyoto, on Earth."

Tomoe bowed her head at me from her seated position, saying nothing.

Lastly, Rhea indicated to the slight women in the cap.

"Your benefactor is Optima. She hails from a fishing village and is easily distracted by shiny metal."

Optima poked Rhea in the shoulder and burst out, "Hey! Stop calling Seattle a village!"

Rhea grinned unrepentantly and answered, "Sorry, my mistake. She is our resident engineer and is currently working on an interesting engine design modification. It is expensive, and complex, and hard to implement. And might result in our ship's speed increasing by some tiny unnoticeable amount."

Optima corrected her, "It's .08% propulsion increase, which over the course of a long trip adds up, and you're soooo just delaying having to answer the question."

"What question?" I asked.

Rhea suddenly looked worried as she answered, "Perhaps, we should save our game for ..."

Roland cut her off, "What? Do you think Fed here would rather discuss Optima's mechanical pencil collection or my favorite breakfast teas? The game is Pick someone to shag, alien variation. The premise is if you were the last human in the galaxy which alien species would you consider having relations with, and we've already established that celibacy and suicide are not options. I've freely admitted to finding Narn females very attractive. Optima would try to build herself a sentient android, so I suppose creating a new species is an option. That leaves you three. Except we already know what Tom will say."

In unison, Rhea, Optima and Roland said, "Minbari."

"How did you know?" asked Tomoe mocking surprise.

They all laughed, until Roland said, "Last chance Lou, or we assign you one by majority vote."

"Okay, I give in. My unrealistic first choice would be a Vorlon. Mainly because I really want to know what's inside one of those suits."

Quietly, they all turned to stare at me as one, with an expectation on their faces that what I said better amaze.

I swallowed hard. "Well, since I'm not familiar with the ... intricacies of alien anatomy, I think I'd clone myself."

They continued to stare at me in silence for several seconds.

Evaluating, Tomoe was the first to speak, "A simple yet clever solution. Interesting."

"Brilliant! I can't believe I didn't think of that," piped up Optima.

Roland made a disgusted face as he said, "What are you nuts?! That's incestuous and gross! What do you think?"

He nudged Rhea, interrupting her stroking her chin, deep in thought.

Calmly she shrugged and said, "It does imply strong masturbatory tendencies. One premise Roland did not mention is that you are limited by current technologies. The cloning is feasible but you'd have to wait until your clone/clones reach sexual maturity. It is an acceptable long term solution but I think I will insist you have an interim option."

My eyes went wide for a second as I tried to make light of it all, "I think you're over thinking things."

"That is not possible," she said firmly, looking at me for another answer.

"Well um... I like Optima's idea, though I'd probably have to modify her design a bit."

"Nope! The design only makes sense with interchangeable attachments. Ya! I win!" She celebrated by squirming and waving her hands in the air excitedly while I wondered at the logic of her response.

Roland threw his empty mug behind him carelessly. It smashed into pieces as he roared, "I can't believe the god damn robots take it!" He wagged a warning finger at Optima then me, continuing, "Mark my words, all those robot sex slaves of yours are going to lead to some sort of Robot War, which will rage across the galaxy killing everyone in their path and they'd win, of course, because they were designed by you Optima." He picked up and gingerly kissed Optima's knuckles.

Giggling, Optima playfully batted Roland's kisses away saying, "You're too much. We should welcome the new Robot Overlords. Just imagine how efficient everything will be." Optima looked pleased with herself.

They all laughed while I smiled nervously. Roland grabbed another mug off the table and handed it over carelessly spilling some of the beer into my lap.

"Welcome to the party, kid."

Rhea intercepted my hand as I accepted the mug and warned me, "This is your only drink."

Carefully, I tasted it. "Not bad, I've never had ale before. Herazade calls it the urine of the gods and refuses to have any at home. I like gin more but this is more refreshing."

Rhea began to look worried again as I took another large gulp.

Gesturing with his mug toward Tomoe, Roland said, "I was going through my music collection last night and found a piece that perfectly reminded me of you. I was going to sing it specially for you but now ... no way."

Her tone crisp and precise, Tomoe answered, "Have I insulted your honor so now you deny us all the pleasure of your singing?"

"Yup and I demand satisfaction!"

She glared challengingly at him. "I am not afraid of you. Do your best."

"You can start by coming over here and rubbing my back."

Cracking all her knuckles with one sure movement, she eagerly said, "I accept your challenge."

As she got up, he pulled off his jacket revealing only a thin gauzy undershirt. She kneeled behind him, seized him by the shoulders and slowly drove her knuckles into the heavy muscles of his broad back, like a slow motion punch. In a small voice, Roland strained to say, "Ugh ... Arghh… perfect."

Out of the blue Rhea turned and asked me, "What did you think of my presentation?"

I opened my mouth to speak but Roland cut in first, saying through gritted teeth, "Mom said it was stunning and unspeakable. I didn't pay too much attention. I was too busy staring at Gwynn's perfectly round ... AUF! HEY! I was just going to say head. I swear."

Grinning dreamily, Optima added, "Oh ya, she's got some remarkably pert ... opinions."

In between grimacing in pain Roland managed to snicker with Optima.

Rhea corrected them, "Leave Gwynn alone you two."

Tomoe added assertively, "Agreed or I'm going to change your attitudes manually," She menaced them successfully with a callous-knuckled fist, before continuing, "Your illusion was exactly what I expected from you. Unrestrained, a bit profane, and you revealed to much of yourself."

Rhea scoffed at that. "You liked it then?"

Tomoe pushed her thumbs into a wincing Roland. "Of course. It was also challenging, intricate, with an eccentric beauty. Perfectly you. Still I can't believe Coeus let you present that. I assume he approved?"

"He told me whatever I did was fine with him."

Tomoe hesitated, before quietly saying, "You should know there was talk … some say you must have been on stims when you designed that illusion."

"Oh totally! Mom said it was exactly what she expected from Dr. Feelgood's apprentice," added Roland carelessly.

Everyone turned very quiet. Rhea looked down, hiding her reaction. Tomoe stopped her ministrations and angrily stared at Roland's back unsure of how to punish him.

Roland muttered under his breath, "Crap." He took her hand and tugged on it trying to get Rhea to look at him. "You know she loves you and didn't mean anything bad by it. Hell, she's been calling me Castrati for fun."

Optima enthusiastically offered her opinion, "I loved it! And Kell said it was unique and complex and … Aldous gave it a standing ovation. Only the Circle's opinion really matters. Right?"

Finally looking up, Rhea answered us all, "Aldous was mocking me. Gwynn saw it and tried to warn me but I ignored her advice." She forcefully pulled her hand away from Roland, and emphasized at him, "You know I was asking Fed's opinion." Vaguely angry, she turned at me, "Don't bother to spare my feelings. At least Coeus said failure is nothing to be ashamed of as long as it's spectacular."

Frozen in place, I could feel my heart rate increase and I began to sweat under her gaze.

"Um … you're wrong. Actually Aldous liked it. He told me he thought it was funny and avant-garde. I agreed once I figured out what that meant. It's only problem was it was too complex. I had no idea what was going on sometimes. My favorite part was the Narn ballet, very nice. I never realized it was traditionally done naked, and I loved the end, morphing Wierden into a little pink fairy. That was hilarious. You meant it to be a joke, right?"

I bit my lower lip nervously. Her anger evaporated, and she looked at Roland smugly.

Out of nowhere, Optima burst out saying, "You are such a sweet little thing!" Leaning over, she pinched my cheeks, "Way to make her feel better, or are you just trying to butter her up so she'll sleep with you?"

The others all chuckled while I did my best not to look at anyone.

Roland raised his mug toward me and proclaimed, "Either way, well said young sir. Here's to Rhea's spectacular failure!" We heard a loud cracking noise, followed by Roland's scream, "AWW! MY SPINE! Stop! You win Tom."

"Ready to entertain us now?" Tomoe rose to stand triumphantly over him, her arms cocked on her hips, making her shoulders look even wider.

"I'll sing if you come keep me company. I got an idea for some fun," he replied grinning at her.

He put out his hand and Tomoe yanked him up into a standing position. He grunted in pain as he stiffly rose. Side by side, they walked in step toward the fireplace.

"Ooh dancing opportunity. Count me in!"

Optima jumped up and followed behind them but immediately got distracted chatting excitedly with another table of mages, where everyone had a feather like Optima's stuck to or out of some part of their attire.

The mage conducting his own musical concert stopped and made room for Roland. Accompanied by the self playing orchestra, he began to sing in a powerful voice that reverberated about the enclosure. Not quite dancing, Tomoe stood near him swaying in meditative appreciation. I ignored the music and instead turned to stare at Rhea in profile. A small smile tugged her lips up, a faraway expression on her face.

Immediately I asked the obvious question, "Is Roland your boyfriend?"

Without taking her attention away from the singing she said, "I see you're the nosey, prying sort."

Putting up my hands defensively, I said, "I'm sorry. It's just, I'm curious, you two seem um … close, but then he's all flirty with Optima and Tomoe. "

At that, she gave me an angry look, but said nothing and deliberately ignored me. Disappointed, I tried another question, "Why did you tell me to stay away from him?"

Disconcerted, she seemed to answer without thought, "He's fought three duels since we recovered from our initiation. Such excesses can be dangerous to more than just the participants."

"You don't approve?" I asked.

The angry look returned and she went back to ignoring me. Sighing quietly, I looked down focusing on my mug and finished my drink in one large gulp. Placing the empty mug on the table, I grabbed for a random pitcher. She intercepted my arm, moving all pitchers well away from me without a word.

Before she let go, I quickly asked, "This is G'Quan's Lament in D minor right?"

Surprise filled her voice as she spoke, "I didn't think you were the sort who enjoyed Narn opera."

"I don't and by the looks of it the Centauri are hating it." I pointed over at the table of formerly celebrating Centauri technomages. The ones that were not glaring at Roland were angrily speaking amongst themselves. I continued, "But I've learned to appreciate it. Herazade only listens to it when she's in a good mood. I can ask for anything and she always says yes. That's how I got my pony, Sparky."

She let out a slight laugh at that. "I don't recall seeing any ponies trotting around your home."

"Ya, that's a sad story. He broke his leg and we had to put him down. But, let me tell you, we feasted like kings."

Playing along, she asked with a growing grin on her face, "Did you have a favorite cut?"

"I loved all of him. Pony steaks, pony ribs, pony roast. But a pony like that, you don't want to eat all at once. I made a smoker so I also made pony sausages, pony bacon, pony ham..."

Every time I said pony she giggled. When I stopped, she said, "You're a horror."

Acting innocent, I corrected her, "A horror? Me? Horribly funny I hope."

She seemed to have forgotten to ignore me and asked, "Wait, wasn't today your birthday?"

Shaking my head yes, I pointed around the room, "I suppose that's why I wanted a little adventure."

She fumbled with her green coat till she found one particular pocket and retrieved the palm sized brown box from an inside pocket. Holding up the box between us, she placed her hand dramatically along the top, palm up. A glowing swirl of script numbers and letters formed above her hand. The mass drifted down into her palm. Flipping her hand over quickly, she slapped the top of the box. When she pulled her hand away with a flourish, she revealed a glowing 16 surrounded by the letters, RIP Sparky.

"It's not much but it's the best I can do on no notice." She handed it to me.

Awkwardly, I took the box. "Thank you."

Immediately, I opened it in front of her and it was mostly empty except for three small gold foil wrapped pouches.

"What is it?"

"Every woman's weakness and if you don't love them you had better keep it to yourself lest my estimation of your palate fall immeasurably. How was your special day?"

I shrugged. "We had the obligatory party with the other apprentices. There was cake. The masters stood around scowling, making sure no one had fun. Afterwards, Herazade took me for a high altitude jump which was exhilarating awesome, and Aldous gave me his old flyer, so I can skip out of here if I want. Perhaps umm … I can take you flying some time. The dead ocean is pretty this time of year," I offered nonchalantly.

A harsh belittling laugh erupted out of her before she stopped herself. I sucked in my breath and looked away, my face burning.

She grabbed my arm and turned me toward her. Looking concerned, she softly said, "I'm sorry. That was rude of me. Forgive me?"

Relief. With a small smile, I said, "Always."

Patting my arm, she leaned in close to say, "It was very nice of you to offer, but that is not a good idea."

All through the conversation the singing had been steadily growing louder. At the moment she stopped speaking, Roland bellowed out a sustained high note. A glass pitcher on the table began to dance about, then cracked and finally spilled its contents.

I yelled over the high-pitched noise, "Wow, I've never heard a man sing soprano like this before!"

I clamped my hands over my ears and screamed when all the sound disappeared replaced by a pain ripping through my head. Looking scared Rhea was already kneeling in front of me with her lips moving.

I blurted out, "Pain! Lots of Pain!"

Closing her eyes, she covered my ears with her hands and I felt the skin around her hands tingle until my hearing came back with a pop.

Still worried, she asked, "Can you hear me?" I shook my head yes and tried to smile but she declared, "That's enough for one night I believe."

A few technomages hurried for the exit, but most seemed to be settling in, anticipating further entertainment. The technomage who had been directing the musical instruments, stopped and scurried away from Roland. The moment his back was turned, the orchestra of self-playing instruments vanished. The sculptor by the fireplace continued chiseling, completely inured to the commotion. Rhea stood and began putting on her coat. Its length concealed her body down to the floor and once she pulled up her collar and hood, it hid her face in shadows.

We both turned when a lone Centauri technomage shouted across the enclosure pointing a short golden sword at Roland, "Your lesson begins now initiate."

A Narn technomage in a far corner rose and yelled back, "How dare you interrupt the only decent rendition of G'Quan's Lament I've heard come out of a human's throat!"

From the table of Centauri, a wave of mugs, plates, and bottles flew through the air straight at Roland, but Tomoe stepped in their way. With a sure flick of her hand, Tomoe redirected them away in random directions. Rhea spread out her coat to block the ones heading at us. They smashed into an invisible barrier just in front of her scattering broken glass and pottery about her feet. A group of five Centauri, lead by the one with the sword, advanced on Roland. One of them had a broken bottle, one with what appeared to be a table leg, and the remaining two with short black staffs. With his saber drawn and a manic grin on his face, Roland stretched out his arms as if inviting an embrace. He continued to sing. Standing next to him, motionless, Tomoe stared at the approaching horde. All indignant rage, the Narn technomage stomped from behind his table and toward the back of the advancing Centauri group. No one else moved to join or stop them.

Rhea grabbed my arm and with considerable strength dragged me to my feet.

Gawking at what was about to happen, I said, "They're out numbered. We should stay and help them."

"You should be worried for the Centauri."

With a mighty leap, the lead Centauri, his sword in hand, flew into the air looking to use Roland to break his fall. Roland caught the Centauri and collapsed backwards, placing his foot into the middle of the Centauri's chest and flipped him ass over head into the fireplace. All the while Roland kept on singing. Tomoe intercepted the rest of the group. They unleashed a flurry of strikes at her, but with a sheathed dagger held along her forearm, she blocked every one, looking increasingly bored.

The Narn technomage joined the fray by grabbing the Centauri, who had levitated into the air to get around Tomoe, by his ankles and slammed him back to the ground. The Centauri who had been thrown into the fireplace came stumbling out, unburned and more enraged. He raised a hand. A giant fireball began to form in it.

As we reached the exit, Roland stopped singing to yell across the room at us, "Hey, where you going?! I thought we're going to pop all his cherries tonight!"

Roland leaned to the right as a fireball streaked through the area his head had just been. It sailed the length of the room and hit a tapestry sending it up in flames with a 'whoosh.' Appreciative oohs and clapping issued from some of the audience. No one moved to put out the flames. That was the last I saw as I was yanked out the door.

In the perfect quiet and calm of outside, I eagerly asked Rhea, "What did he mean by all?"

Before she could answer, a dark cloaked figure landed nearby and silently rushed through the door we had just exited.

As she pulled me away faster, from inside her hood, Rhea answered, "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Please forget it."

Disappointment. I deflated. "Oh, too bad. Look… I didn't mean to take you away from your friends. I'll be fine, you should go back and help."

"I don't want you getting lost. Show the way."

She pointed an aggressive hand ahead of her. I began to walk silently and she fell in step with me.

"What was it like?" I asked.

Rhea asked, "What was what like?"

"The actual initiation. Getting your implants. No one will tell me."

She stayed silent for a while. "I'm not supposed to say anything. It's one of our mysteries."

"Ya, that's what everyone says but I always thought the mysteries and secrets should be for outsiders not each other. That makes more sense to me."

I thought I heard her sigh before her answer, "I should not say, but… I'll say the initiation is pain, excruciating, unbearable pain. I passed out for most of it. So in a way it felt quick. I really don't understand why they don't use some sort of analgesic. I mean splitting open a spine from hip to shoulder like that is ..."

I stopped her. "Okay, now I wish I hadn't asked."

Stopping as well, Rhea spoke with sympathy, "Roland said he hardly noticed it but he is always posturing like that. Either way, at least we only have to go through it once."

We both began again and were silent until I shyly asked, "Why did Roland call you Lou?"

"Because he's careless."

"Is Lou your real name?"

Annoyed, she warned, "That is not a question you ask any technomage. Ever."

"Sorry it's just... I envy your having close friends within the Order. The last convocation was my first so I don't really have that yet."

She actually snorted in disgust. "We didn't become friends by choice. At first we got along like cats in a bag."

"I don't understand."

"A project of my fathers. We were deliberately socialized."

Content with her answer she stopped speaking. I had to goad her to continue. "What happened?"

Her words conveyed her rueful smile. "My father is a healer who specializes in all aspects of the mind, from neural biology, to psychology. He wanted to see what would happen if members of a cohort were routinely socialized in a controlled environment. A few other masters found it intriguing and agreed. Coeus theorized it would improve our solidarity, self-control, behavior. Which happened but at the expense of our skills. Although we mastered Karaoke and putting on saucy puppet shows. Eventually, the Circle put an end to it."

"Wow, I can't believe your father would experiment on you like that."

Shrugging, she responded, "It was actually great fun and benign compared to some of the development projects I've read about."

I stopped again, and she halted in response.

Nervously I said, "I like this, talking to you. You answer my stupid questions without making me feel bad. Can I um… ping you sometime?"

Sighing again from inside her hood, when she spoke she sounded more amused than anything. "If you're trying to..."

I talk excitedly over her, "Nothing stupid like that. I mean if I want advice or to just shoot the breeze."

"I shouldn't."

Nervously I said, "Let's make it a bet. If I can track you down, you have to answer."

"If you can't?"

"Name your price."

She was silent until I began to shift my weight about nervously. FInally she spoke, "If you can find me and if your message is appropriate, I will answer. If not, I expect a case of that tasty limoncello of yours to arrive within the month, by Christmas."

I stuck out my hand before she was done speaking, answering, "Done."

She patted my hand but didn't shake.

"We're here," I said pointing at a nearby structure.

Sounding disturbed, she said "You didn't tell me you were staying with your master."

"Don't worry. She told me she would be out for the night."

She pointed at the glowing rune on the door. "That means she is within."

Dragging me along behind her, we swiftly walked in to find a very displeased Herazade standing in the middle of the room.

Without removing her hood, Rhea said, "I am returning your wayward apprentice. He was … lost. I decided to bring him to you before he wound up in a ditch, missing a kidney. Now I should go," She bowed slightly, adding, "Kidneys don't harvest themselves."

Herazade held out her hand palm up. A small image of Rhea standing next to me saying, All right you can stay. Then the image rapidly transformed into one of Roland yelling, I thought we were going to pop all his cherries tonight! With a withering stare, she closed her hand before the images fully disappeared.

While her hood concealed her reaction, Rhea's voice was unfazed as she spoke, "I believe in circumstances such as this it is customary to beg for mercy. I will only ask that you consider that perhaps our judgment was impaired by our celebrations."

"Stop." I said too loud. Both turned toward me, with Herazade looking shocked and the other still hidden in her hood. "Sorry. I um … didn't mean to yell that. What I meant was I sorta caused this. Whatever punishment there is should probably fall on me."

Looking pleased, Herazade said, "Very well. Since I can not trust you to follow my instructions when you are alone, your punishment will be that I will take you home in the morning. You will stay there all day, studying your least favorite lesson, currently the Italian Renaissance, I believe. Go to bed."

She pointed at a hall leading away from the door. But I remained rooted to the spot, demanding, "No. I want to know what will happen to her."

We both looked sideways at Rhea, who just stood perfectly motionless, well hidden within her coat.

Herazade crisply ordered, "Nothing. I was about to thank her for returning you intact. Now go before I have to resort to getting my switch."

I bowed to both and said, "Good night then I guess."

Walking away down the hall, I slipped into a small alcove-like bedroom that only had enough room for a cot, a small littered desk and a large open chest.

I stood near the door, and listened in on their conversation mid-sentence.

Rhea was speaking, "... Should be fine. If you are worried you should test his hearing."

"No. I am more worried about," an audible sigh broke up her sentence, "He is very impressionable, especially since he has had no experience with woman, well not non-simulated ones anyway."

Interrupting her, Rhea indignantly said, "Are you implying that I am toying with him?! Because I have done nothing to lead him on. He came to me."

"No, you misunderstand. I approve of your influence."

Rhea hurriedly answered, "Oh ... May I go then?" She finished sharply.

"No, about Roland..."

Herazade began to speak rapidly but not in English.

"Damn." I stopped listening and went over to the chest. I rummaged about in it until I found a tablet, which began to activate itself right away. Back by the door, I went back to listening but not understanding their conversation. They went back and forth for a while mentioning Roland's name often. I looked at the terminal and shook it trying to hurry it along.

"Come on, start up already," I whispered. It chimed in response, finally fully active and I continued out loud, "Load spoken language translation program. To english from …" I paused unsure what to say, "Sample audio clip now," I stuck the terminal in the hall but at that moment they went silent.

After a while, Rhea simply said, "I will try."

"Good. I'm sure Coeus has something in his pharmacy that can help. He always does."

I cursed and threw the tablet away onto the cot.

Sounding impatient, Rhea said, "If that is all?"

"No. I am very grateful to you for watching over Fed. You saved me the embarrassment of fetching him myself. Your ... father is very proud of you. He has cause to be. I know I didn't stand but I agreed with Aldous, your presentation- many of us found it a surprising delight."

A silence extended for several awkward seconds before Herazade continued, "It's been too long since we've had a meaningful conversation. I would like to change that. Perhaps tomorrow after the midday lectures, you can come back?"

"A while? It's been years. My answer is no. Good evening."

"Wait. Why wouldn't... "

Rhea interrupted her, "I'm not interested in currying your favor."

"I don't understand."

She was cut off again by Rhea almost yelling, "You've had nothing meaningful to say to me since you stopped visiting Coeus. Not even when Themis died. I'm not sure what is possessing you to care after all this time but I am not interested in further disappointment."

"We spoke a great deal at Themis' funeral."

"You spoke at me. I wanted a hug, not a lecture."

Herazade stumbled over her words. "I… I had no idea you felt that way. Then I insist." Silence. She continued, "If you will not come to me, I will go to you. If it helps I can make my hot chocolate. I believe you used to call it frighteningly delicious."

"Merde. At least you remembered that much. Very well, you can have your way, marâtre."

Herazade laughed at the last word. "I believe the kidneys are calling to you."

When I heard her leave, I walked back toward the entrance. Herazade was staring at the door, absentmindedly frowning while putting on a blue cloak.

I said at her back, "Wow. She sounded pissed. What are you going to say to her?"

She spun around in surprise, her frown deepening.

"Listening in again? I thought I told you that was rude."

I shrugged and countered, "Isn't threatening to beat someone with a switch worse?"

Her frown turned into a smile, "Not necessarily. Never underestimate the value of saving face."

I asked, "Are you really taking me home in the morning?"

"Yes."

Whining, I pleaded with her, "Oh come on! I'm not allowed to have real friends outside of the Order, and the ones I have, I only get to see once every three years. And now you're dumping me at home, alone. I can't stand being alone! Let me stay, please!"

Annoyed, she grabbed a short black metal staff that had been leaning against the wall by the door, "That is why it is the perfect punishment. Do you have any idea how many apprentices the Order used to be accidentally killed or worse?!"

I sarcastically answered, "12?" and crossed my arms, pouting.

Pointing her staff at me, she sternly lectured, "Would like to know why Mescal always wears a mask? Or which of our order have artificial limbs? If anything would have happened to you … I would have been severely inconvenienced." She tapped her staff into the ground for emphasis, sending tendrils of blue electrical arcs to crawl across the floor, through me, causing my hair to stand on end, as they climbed up the walls, to the ceiling and disappearing back into the top of her staff.

Calming down, she let out an audible sigh and grabbed me by the shoulder shaking me slightly as she pleaded, "I don't say this enough to you. ... I love you as if you were my own son. But that has led me down this merry path of indulging you and tolerating behavior I should not. Your actions affect not just yourself but also me. Please, next time, think before you do."

Sheepishly, I apologized, "Sorry, you're right. I wasn't thinking."

Satisfied, she responded, "As for how you managed to get into Xanadu." With one finger she found and removed the chain from around my neck. She examined it carefully before slipping it into the folds of her clothing. "Beautiful workmanship, but not worth your flyer. You should have held out for magic beans." We both laughed at her joking at my expense. She continued, "I'll make sure you get your flyer back from Gwynn."

"Will Gwynn get in trouble?"

"I informed Coeus, but he was unconcerned, as always. He thinks she has a right to complete freedom. I am considered an over-indulgent master by most but he surpasses me in this by light years." She finished more bitterly complaining then explaining.

Perplexed I asked, "Are we still talking about Gwynn?" She waved a dismissive hand but stayed silent lost in thought.

I continued, "If you knew what I was doing why didn't you come after me?"

"I would have, had you not sought out Rhea. She behaves much like her father did at her age. I trust him, and so I trust her." She paused at length debating about whether to continue, "I will not interfere with you seeking her out…"

Excitedly, I interrupted her, "Good! What do you think I should do get on her good side?"

She let out a bitter laugh as she spoke, "Stop acting like a besotted fool. Look, do yourself a favor, guard your heart." She wagged a warning finger at me, "I do not want a repeat of last weeks incident. Now I need to focus on my lecture. Good night Fed."

She began to leave.

"Wait! I wanted to ask ... What was all that about Roland?"

"Nothing you need concern yourself about."

"You don't seriously think he would hurt me."

Looking anxiously at the door, she said, "No, it was about… an unrelated matter. And you need to stay here for your protection. I am not on shall we say friendly terms with some of our fellow mages. They might choose to take their revenge upon me through you."

"Oh come on. That's paranoid."

Sounding absolutely certain of herself, she responded, "It's not whether you're paranoid but rather if you're paranoid enough. When you are of age in three years, sorry make that two, I will give you more latitude in pursuing the pleasures of the mind and body, but until then your pursuit must remain theoretical … for your own good. Now, if I hurry I might just make my own lecture. Oh, I almost forgot."

Instead of leaving she swiftly walked toward the only bare wall in the room. As she moved, the entire wall sprang to life with the image of a columned temple.

"Trajan!" she commanded.

A computer generated holo-daemon, in the form of a bare-footed old man, ran in from the edge of the temple. He was dressed in an ancient Roman styled senatorial toga and on his chest Herazade's rune of progress glowed brightly in red.

Bowing and simpering, it asked, "How may I serve Augusta?"

"Activate the observation network. Load lecture hall node."

Puzzled, I asked, "Aldous gave you access to his monitoring probes?"

She shook her head no, answering, "I like to think of it as a game we play." The image on the terminal switched to the interior of a large domed room with a dozen mages sitting about quietly talking. "It would please me if you watched my lecture."

"Sure. Which title did you decide on?"

"New Ship Design Elements and Current Assembly Management."

"Wow, that sounds, too long and boring."

She pulled herself upright, and indignantly said, "Yes well, it is necessary. The one after it will be more to your taste, 'The Current Disposition of the Human Crime Syndicates.'"

"Sounds way more interesting."

"I think so as well, but if you do not then perhaps you can find something else to amuse yourself."

She turned to me with an amused glint in her eye but left without another word. An understanding smile flashed across my face.

"Trajan?"

The holo-daemon strolled out looking relaxed.

It derisively spoke, "Ahh, young Augustus. Do you realize you're over two weeks behind in your mathematics studies? And I'm too embarrassed to say how behind you are in your history studies. Augusta is most displeased. She should thrash you with that switch if you ask me. Would you like a lesson on the Medici family while we wait?"

"For the love of God no. Record her lecture directly into my personal directory. Then bring up a list of available observation nodes I can switch to."

"I do not believe Augusta would approve of that."

"Did she forbid you?"

Trajan said suspiciously, "No."

"Then do as I say."

I pulled out a ball from my jacket pocket and began squeezing it anxiously. A list of names and accompanying symbols appeared superimposed on the lecture hall image.

"Switch to the one marked Xanadu."

I pulled over a chair and dropped into it, getting comfortable. Immediately, the image changed to the location I was just in but everything seemed perfectly peaceful again. The Centauri were back to their rowdy celebrations. Roland was singing again but this time something cheerfully festive.

Merry Christmas from Chiron Beta Prime

Where we're working in a mine

For our robot overlords

Did I say "overlords"? I meant "protectors" **

Many mages danced wildly about him, including Optima. She was in the middle, executing an outrageous series of acrobatic maneuvers to the cheers of those with feathers stuck to themselves. Fantastical creatures, fairies, demons, a flight of tiny dragons, flittered about the room weaving glittering patterns among the dancers.

"Magnify this area. Focus sound on just the table." I pointed to the table where Tomoe sat cross legged alone, eating or stoically staring at the writhing mass of movement. Rhea did not reappear. I waited, but no one came. Getting bored, I threw the ball in my hand at the wall of images, caught it and threw it again until Tomoe finished eating and appeared to close her eyes, mediating.

The song changed to one focused on a place called Skullcrusher Mountain and the next called the Future Soon, about some crazy cyborg obsessed with a woman he forced to marry him.

I stopped throwing my ball and started to drift off asleep when Rhea appeared, agitatedly tearing off her coat. She collapsed on the pillow next to Tomoe.

Tomoe's eyes sprung open. She enquired, "How did the veal delivery go, Mrs. Robinson?"

Rhea pointed a finger at her and said, "Don't you start to. Gwynn's been trying my patience about him for days."

"With her tongue I can well imagine. Anything choice?"

"You have no idea. She's like this fountain of alliterative nicknames ...'little latin lover, gaudy gastronomic gaucho, tackily tasty torero. Pepito picante is my personal favorite." Rhea's demeanor broke into gentle laughter, "Optima's right. He's impossibly adorable and funny as hell. I can't seem to not enjoy his company even when I try." She threw up her arms in frustration.

Stopping my spying, I jumped up from my seat pumping my fists in the air and yelling, "Yes!" I danced in place before dropping back into my seat. Eagerly, I pulled out her gift box and spilled the three small foil packages on my lap. Carefully I opened one and eased its contents into my hand. A perfect round chocolate truffle landed in my palm and then went immediately into my mouth, leaving a dusting of chocolate residue in my palm. After biting down I moaned with pleasure muttering, "Oh wow!" Quickly, I ripped open the other two pouches and devoured their contents.

When I looked back, Rhea sipped orange liquor out of small shot glass while staring over the rim at Roland. A Centauri mage had his arm around Roland and sang drunkenly with him. Another Centauri stood cheering the pair.

Shaking her head in disbelief, she asked Tomoe, "What could he have possibly said to calm them down?"

Tomoe said with perfect stillness, "I'm not sure. It was in Centauri. But the moment he finished, they laughed louder than I've heard all evening and embraced him like a long lost brother. Good thing to, Elric burst in ready to roll all our heads."

Tomoe pointed to a cloaked figure standing in the middle of the room, distrusting the peace of the now celebrating group.

Rhea downed the rest of her drink in one gulp. Tomoe put a hand on Rhea's glass and tried to stopped her from refilling her glass. "You only do shots when you're upset. What's wrong?"

"I, I don't know what to do about that." She slammed her glass down pointing to Roland. Tomoe pushed all the bottles of alcohol out of her reach.

"What happened?" Tomoe asked.

"I just had the privilege of defending Roland to Fed's master."

With a thoughtful look, Tomoe drew close to Rhea. She whispered, "I suppose we should have guessed he was tagged with a probe. I take it she didn't appreciate his parting joke."

"Not that, thank God. She warned me that his dueling has come to the Circle's attention. He's been called before them tomorrow to answer for his last duel. She thinks Kell might make an example of him for disrupting solidarity."

"Exactly how does Herazade know the Circle's business?"

Leaning in close, Rhea whispered, "Don't tell anyone. Aldous is dying. It's been decided that Herazade will replace him."

In an angry tone, Tomoe declared, "I need not bother to vote then."

"Don't be naïve Tom. They are of the same line. It would be shocking only if she did not replace Aldous."

"Forgive me for not sharing your cynicism about how the Circle conducts itself."

"It's the way the world works. Anyway, she suggested I warn him. Quietly prepare him. She suggested I give him something like CalmX. I just went and got some. But I would prefer not to drug him."

Tomoe said, "I don't believe it. I watched his first two duels. Roland was very controlled, he just played with them. Who was his last opponent?"

Rhea shrugged. "No one I know. An older mage named Sidjak. Do you know him?"

Tomoe pulled back in shock, and then nodded with a surprised grin on her face. "You could say that. " Rhea eagerly motioned for details with her hand.

With some reluctance, Tomoe continued, "Yesterday, at sunrise, I was doing my forms in the arena, alone. He came by and … watched me. A bit to intently. When I finished, I confronted him. He politely asked if I wanted to spar a few rounds. I obliged him.

The first round, he held back so it ended in seconds with him on his back with my blade to his throat. The second round he actually tried. His skill was considerable, but he had a pattern so it ended like the first. There was no third round, 15 minutes later he had me flat on my back in my quarters. It was a surprising pleasant way to start the morning." She finished with a small strained smile.

Without hiding her shock, Rhea replied, "No! You're supposed to be the responsible one. To quote the wisdom of Optima, yuck. He's at least 40."

Tomoe frowned, as she said quietly, "Closer to 50. And I'm not sure what came over me. Since our initiation, I've felt ... restless, and…" Her hands matched her struggle to find more words. She hit a pillow with full force sending it flying away. "Like I want everything I see. Have you noticed a change?"

With a shrug, Rhea said, "I need less sleep, otherwise no. I heard, the implants can make you more... active in some ways."

They sat in contemplative silence until Rhea said, "Sleeping with an older man, how perfectly scandalous."

Tomoe crossed her arms and said, "Perhaps you can explain to me the difference between having one lover of 50 and two of 25?"

Rhea's mouth parted. "How did?... Optima told you?"

"Yes, quite proudly. The whole sordid tale of you two sharing them."

Rhea's pale skin flushed red. Tomoe challenged, "What? No witty comeback?"

The redness faded while Rhea grasped the words, "Give me a second… They should count as one person. They were identical twins, and everyone knows twins only share one soul between them." Neither could keep a straight face after that.

As they both laughed, Tomoe conceded, "Not bad."

Apologetically, Rhea finished, "I should celebrate you finally enjoying more of life's varied experiences. Besides, it is not like you'll ever match Optima's enthusiasm." She pointed toward the mass of dancers, to their mutual amusement. There was Optima wedged between a man in front of her and woman behind her.

Tomoe said, "Speaking of her, I have good news. Optima just learned she has been accepted into the Kinetic Grimlis production team. She's going to install her new engine design in a several of the initiate ships, including ours, as proof of concept."

"We're going to be flying around with experimental engines? Lovely. My dreams have come true," said Rhea sarcastically.

"I'll be glad for whatever extra speed I can get. It's a long way to the Minbari federation from Earth."

"You've selected a planet?"

Tomoe answered, "Small remote colony world called, Sorpigal. A city called Valen's Rest. Once I'm established, you'll have to come and visit me. It's right on the border with Vorlon space. Maybe with a powerful enough telescope you can get an eyeful of what's under one of those encounter suits."

Rhea excitedly responded, "Invitation accepted. Still planning on infiltrating a warrior clan?"

"Yes. The order still has gaps in its knowledge about their private rituals. Did you know there has never been a Minbari technomage?"

"No. How odd. Are you sure?"

"Yes, I double checked, the occasional apprentice, but none even made it into chrysalis phase. I have been meaning to ask you. I have finished my wardrobe and my cover story but I'd prefer full body mods. Would you help me with the surgery and cranial implantation?"

No easy answer came. Rhea leaned back on her hands, elbows locked. She asked, "Is that really what you want? They will be next to impossible to remove if you leave them in too long. Why not just rely on an illusion?"

"I don't want to give myself away accidentally. The war is over but, most Minbari despise humans, and you don't want to know what they say about technomages. If they found a human-technomage among them …"

Rhea completed her thought, "Ahh, the torches and pitchforks would come out."

Tomoe bowed her head in agreement.

Rhea nodded yes. "I'll help to make sure you can get laid without giving yourself away."

Blushing, Tomoe redirected the conversation, "What's Roland planning?"

Derisively, Rhea answered, "You mean, if he doesn't get flayed tomorrow. He wants me to go with him to, oh how did he put it … 'Slay some damsels then shag their dragons.' I suppose adventuring is a way to put it."

Curiously, Tomoe asked, "Will you accompany him?"

"I'm not sure. Some traveling would be fun. At least until I get sick of Roland's antics. Then I suppose I'll head back home. I had a wonderful idea for a research project. I've already harvested my glandular stem cells and with bits of my chrysalis, I plan to hybridize them to create an artificially programmable gland that can secrete ..."

Tomoe held up a hand and commanded, "Stop. I'm sure it's very interesting but I just ate."

They sat in contemplative silence for a minute staring at the writhing crowd around Roland.

Murmuring to herself, Rhea said, "I still have to figure out what to do about that," She waved in Roland's direction. He noticed and waved back at her. A huge grin plastered his face.

Tomoe nodded in agreement. "We are each other's keepers. Tell me honestly ...Are you two back together?"

Adamantly waving her hands, Rhea said, "No!"

"Yet you encourage him to cling to you like a barnacle. Just like old times."

Rhea said again with a sour face. "True. But technically no. We're not sleeping together."

Firmly, Tomoe said, "Yet. You've always been his favorite. If memory serves he always went running to you whenever he was in trouble."

With a dismissive wave, Rhea said at her, "Because he associates me in his mind with his mother." She swished one hand about grandiosely, "And while that is every woman's fantasy come true, shockingly I would rather not take Walkyra's place."

Tomoe interrupted, "Yes, he was her apprentice. This should be her problem. Where is Walkyra?"

Rhea answered her, "In her typically diligent manner, she left for Mars, as soon as Roland was on his feet. Not that she would be a help. She would approve of his behavior, tell the Circle to fuck off, and try to march him away singing Carry on my Wayward Son. The whole thing would end with them both getting flayed."

Determined, Tomoe said, "Roland seemed pretty determined to please you tonight. You have the best chance of modifying his behavior."

An edge of panic entered her voice as she said, "He's just grateful. You didn't see him last night."

Tomoe said, "Show me." They both closed their eyes for a second. "You did a good job putting his nose back together."

"No. I keep telling him to have my father look at it but he refuses. Says a bend will make him look more rugged." She hugged herself. "You should have seen him last night. When he stumbled into my quarters, he scared the hell out of us."

"Us?" asked Tomoe her eyebrows climbing.

Turning slightly pink again, Rhea said, "Oh did I forget to mention that I was with Vergil? We were dressed!" She waved defensively, "anyway, Roland burst into my quarters while we were … discussing his new macrophage project. Vergil's become quite obsessed with biology, like a little adorable Doctor Moreau. He uses the term hybridize almost as much as I do."

"Alone, together, in your quarters? Should the twins be worried?"

Rhea laughed. "They do not factor in such things. And after last night… the way Roland showed up, Vergil made an implausible excuse and literally ran away."

It became quiet as the music stopped. They looked at Roland who was excitedly speaking with the large roiling group around him.

Tomoe instructed her, "I will help any way you need. But Roland's been hanging on your words, seeking your approval. It's the right call for you to take point on this."

Rhea said nothing to that.

"Just remember that under that viking frame, is the squishy soul of an artist. Try to be kind."

Rhea ended coldly, "No. If this is to work, it has to be a confrontational intervention. He won't take it seriously otherwise."

Sweating and bursting with smiles, Roland and Optima walked up to the table arm in arm.

Getting up and standing directly in their path, Rhea stabbed a small finger into the middle of his huge chest, "You son of a bitch!"

Optima said, "What's your problem?!"

Sounding annoyed Roland said, "Are you still sore that I interrupted you and Verg last night? I told you I'd make it up to you. I had a little chat with him and he's going to meet you for breakfast tomorrow. Problem solved."

With an icy stare Rhea asked, "When were you going to tell me?"

Roland's eyes went wide before he said, "Don't worry about it. I can deal with it."

Worried, Optima interrupted, "Deal with what?"

Rhea pointed at Optima and said, "Be quiet."

"Hey! Why are jumping down my throat?"

Tomoe grabbed Optima's arm and pulled her away. "I'll explain while we celebrate you joining the Grimlis with a private party you're about to start in your quarters."

Optima yelled over her shoulder back at Roland and Rhea, "Good idea! I'm going to have fun with my new friends. If you two crazies work it out, you should crash my party. Otherwise stay away."

They seemed to ignore her words as they stood facing each other tensely.

Rhea bit into him. "I consulted the healer who patched up Sidjak. It was Ing-Radi herself. She's already told the rest of the Circle you cracked his skull. They aren't happy with you. I've never seen you lose control like this before. What the hell is wrong with you?"

Matching her, Roland hissed back, "With me?! What's wrong with you? I can smell the booze from here. You know you're a mean drunk."

She yelled back, "Don't you dare make this about me! Start talking or I'll ask in a way you can not say no."

Roland shook his head in disbelief. "Sidjak is a poetry spouting prick, who's been riding my ass to fight him since I could walk again. I turned a dozen cheeks before I decided to shut him up. You should be proud of me. He's a full technomage with two dozen years on me, but I handed his ass to him. I'll pay for what I did in the morning. What do you want from me?"

Several mages at a nearby table got up and left. Roland began to grip his sword tightly as Rhea committed to her anger.

"I want to help you, you idiot! I let you get away with not telling me what happened last night because I mistakenly thought it was none of my business. I ignored my father's first and only rule for us..."

He finished her sentence perfectly mimicking Coeus' voice, "We're each other's Keepers."

Stepping to her, he loomed over her small form as she glared up at him. Yet, Rhea kept on him, "We used to be best friends, shared our thoughts, problems, joys, bodies. Everything. Remember?! You should've told me."

Roland's head dropped. He unfastened the belt with his sword and threw it down on the table as he fell onto a largest pillow. Morosely, he covered his eyes and began to cry softly.

Her anger vanished as Rhea sat next to him. "Why the hell didn't you just challenge him to a match in the tournament? Settling grudges is what it's for."

"I did. He said that the tourney is too much about performance. He wanted no rules, a real fight."

Rhea clasped his hand in between hers. "Talk."

His eyes glazed over. The words flowed out of him like a rehearsed monologue. "It started days ago. He tried to goad me with taunts. I just rolled my eyes at his stupid puns and rhymes. Then he went after you and O with all these bawdy hiakus. Apparently you have a bit of a reputation in the Order. That ticked me off but I held myself in check, because I knew you'd get pissed if I beat his ass."

Rhea frowned. "Then what could he have possibly said to you… Oh no, he didn't."

The tears rolled down his cheeks. "He laid into Mom and I hit him, hard. It felt so good. He got into it to. You should've seen the grin on his face. We were pretty evenly matched most of the time. He made perfect mirrored illusions of himself so half the time I had no idea what to strike. We platformed all over the sky. I perfectly timed my spot shields. It was like a ballet. It went on over an hour. Eventually, I got the upper hand probably because he's an old loser. I had a chance to kill him, but I just knocked him out and dumped him where I knew he'd be found. And yes, I'd do it again if you're wondering. There, now you know. I'm a homicidal maniac."

Rhea stared at him, with her mouth slightly open. Taking a deep breath, she said, "Maniac yes, homicidal no. What are you planning on telling the Circle?"

"Actually, I haven't given it any thought." Roland flashed a small grin before continuing, "Probably moon them."

"Wait a minute, we have a reputation in the Order? What sort of reputation?"

"What you'd expect, debauched reprobates."

Frowning Rhea said, "I would prefer free spirited and gracious."

Roland offered, "Hey, we'll always be welcomed among our Centauri brothers."

"I heard."

He wiped his wet eyes with his sleeve. Gingerly he pulled her into his lap. "All forgiven?"

She curled up to him, embracing him. "Don't be stupid. I wasn't actually angry. The question is why did he pick a fight with you?"

Roland blew it off. "Who cares."

"You should. And we will find out. In the meantime… Start practicing your apology because you'll need to be able to lie to the Circle convincingly about how sorry you are and leave that at home from now on," said Rhea pointing at his sword.

"You don't think they'd break my item of power?"

"The Circle's been trying to pacify the Order for decades. They prefer permanent solutions. And definitely wear traditional robes."

"I don't have any."

"Tom'll whip up something tout de suite."

Roland begged her, "Can we please talk about something else?"

"I yield the floor to my distinguished colleague from Mars."

"Holy Crap! You should've warned me about Gwynn. I would have been a lot nicer to her the last time I saw her had I known how attractive she'd turn out."

"Please no. You have no idea how much more civil she became after you called her a castrating harpy. And stay away from her. She's not your type."

He snorted derisively. "Is she anyone's type? Then again I'd let her whip me with that tongue of hers all day long if she would just let me …," Rhea pushed one finger deep into his side. "Errr, ack."

"Oh sorry does that rib still hurt?"

"I was just going to say sing to her, besides," Rhea's hand poised to strike like a viper. Roland noticed but said what he wanted anyway, "You can't put a bag over someone's personality."

She relaxed and smiled, "She's changed and, before you sneer, for the better."

His eyebrows began to dance suggestively. "Speaking of hot young things. What did you do with that kid, Fed? You were gone for a while. I'd say just long enough for a quick but thorough ..."

She yelped over his last word, "Don't you dare! He just turned 16."

"He'd be grateful."

Rhea dismissed him, "Don't be obscene. If you had been 21 to my 16, my father would have chemically castrated you."

Laughing, Roland went on, "Hey, I liked him, fit right in, but you should have a plan for dealing with him."

"I'm off the hook, his master is taking him away. I'm sure his crush will fade."

"Mine still hasn't." He yanked her into a long passionate kiss. "Forget Vergil and have breakfast with me instead."

"Not a good idea." His hands slipped under her shirt and began to actively move around.

She breathlessly said, "Then again… Let's get out of here."

But they did not move and instead went back to kissing oblivious to the man who strolled up to their table. When it became clear they would not take notice, he kicked the table causing all dishes to rattle noisily.

When even that had no effect, the man spoke, "Forgive me for intruding, but I need to speak with you Roland."

They both looked up, surprised at the man. Instantly enraged, Roland jumped up with his undrawn saber in hand. "I have nothing to say to you Sidjak!"

Sidjak put up his hands and gently spoke, "Peace brother. The only dueling I hope to do with you in the future is at the open mic poetry slam tomorrow night. I must explain myself and the true nature of your situation. A short private talk will do."

"I will not be alone with you. Anything you have to say to me I trust Rhea to hear."

The middle aged man, looked at Rhea, studying her. Then he shrugged. "As you wish." He dropped himself grunting with displeasure into a sitting position. "Still a bit wobbly."

Roland sat very upright opposite him, his sword across his lap.

Smirking, the older man began, "I didn't even realize you were in trouble until a few minutes ago when Tomoe messaged me demanding to know a great many things. Don't worry about your meeting with the Circle. I spoke to Aldous. You will not be rebuked.

I apologize for my campaign of terror but I had to make sure you had preciously the right temperament. And I might have gotten slightly carried away during our fight. I was having the time of my life right up until you knocked me unconscious with that tree trunk. Ouch. That actually hurt.

The truth is I'm a sort of assistant and agent for one of the Circle, Aldous. I would like to present you as a candidate to replace me. Basically, I'm asking if you would like to roam about the galaxy performing odd, and occasionally unsavory jobs that he doesn't want to waste his time doing. It has some rewards. Aldous is generous and you'll have his ear. How about it?"

All Roland said was, "Huh."

Sidjak sat there quietly until he finally seemed to lose patience. "Is that all the answer I am to receive? I need to hear a real response. We still must both meet with the Circle over our dance. And I need to have a complete story to present. Do you have any questions?"

Roland just sat there staring at his former opponent mutely. Rhea spoke up for him, "I have several. Why do you wish to be replaced? Is it something you hate?"

"No, it fills my time well, but I have a natural apprentice, a son. I can't gallivant about the galaxy anymore. I must focus on him and his training."

"Why not raise him to take your place?"

He emitted a short wry laugh. "His talents are in very different areas. I've neglected him too much. I must make him my focus, to help him find his way."

She continued to question him, "You considered Tomoe as well. Why didn't you approach her?"

"I considered more than just her. Of the few who can handle themselves in a fight, most are too uncontrolled, or disobedient. Tomoe's skills surpass mine and yours," he pointed to Roland, "but her temperament is all wrong, too challenging and inquisitive. No, Aldous needs someone ungoadable, does what he's told and doesn't ask why. You are my first choice."

Instantly upset, Rhea snapped at the older mage, "What you did was grotesque. What makes you think Aldous needs or wants your opinion on your replacement?"

Sidjak argued back, "Aldous personally recruited me after my own initiation. To suddenly leave him in a lurch would be the height of rudeness."

Rising to her feet and gesturing angrily at Sidjak, Rhea continued, "One of you could have been maimed or even killed! I can't believe ..."

Roland cut off her tirade by pulling her back into the pillow. After she fell gracelessly next to him with a grunt, he said without hesitating, "Give me an hour to think about it. I'll message you."

Looking satisfied, Sidjak nodded once and answered, "Good enough. I'll be at Optima's party if you wish to speak more."

Slack jawed, Roland gave Sidjak a look of pure disbelief. Sidjak looked embarrassed as he answered, "Tomoe insisted on keeping me under her heel until everything is settled between us. And one simply does not argue with a Magess like that without great trepidation." He got up and paused long enough to say, "Oh and by the way Roland, I held back with you." He walked away chuckling.

Roland yelled after him unconvincingly, "So did I!" He pointed at Sidjak's retreating form. "Can you believe that psycho?"

Looking abashed, Rhea said, "Apparently I worried and upset us for nothing. I'm sorry."

"Don't worry about it. Now I know you still care." He took her hand and began kissing the inside of her wrist and up her arm.

Nervously, she asked, "You're going to accept aren't you?"

He stopped his ministrations to reply, "Yup, I'll be Aldous' cabana boy if he wants me. What else am I going to do? I'm not like you or Optima. I despise research. I'm not like Tom. The idea of settling down on some god forsaken colony world being there benign protector makes me want to cry."

"Why didn't you just tell him?"

"Let him stew for a while."

Rhea frowned, and whispered, "I shouldn't tell you but … You need to know, Aldous is dying. My father thinks he only has a year, two at most, left."

Roland sat perfectly still considering. With a shrug, he said, "Well then he'll probably need more help. And it'll hold me over until I figure out something else to do with my life."

Rhea tilted her head to the side smiling. "Where were we?"

"You were about to tell me you never got over me, then how much you miss me and desperately want me back."

She shook her head no. "You made me miserable. When I wasn't boring you, I was yelling at you. And don't get me started about your appalling taste in everything."

The comments seemed to roll off him without effect. "My taste in woman is perfect." He began kissing her neck until she moaned in pleasure and melted into him. He broke away to say, "I still love you."

Easily she said back, "I love you too. But we are beyond done… after tonight."

He answered her in between kisses. "We'll see. Let's go snuggle and then pillow talk until I get bored and want to crash Optima's party."

"Technically you can't crash a party you've been invited to."

They got up, each slipping their arm around the other.

"The kid was right. You overthink everything."

Rhea happily pleaded, "I do not. Now amuse me. Do my father again."

They started to walk toward the exit.

Perfectly mimicking Coeus' calm and relaxed voice again Roland said, "Optima please stop taking things apart you can't put back together… While this was cute at seven Roland, it is less so at fourteen, put your pants back. … Tomoe put that goose back where you found it. We do not harvest meat from public parks."

They both erupted with laughter that faded as they walked through the exit.

I turned away from my spying. With a candy bar in each hand I said, "Trajan, close connection."

I stuffed my face with one bar, and said with a full mouth, "And Trajan …" I trailed off in thought. The holo-daemon walked out and stood glaring at me. With arms on its hips, it demanded, "You know I'm too busy to hang on your commands."

"Delete this entire session and all the logs you have to rat me out to Hera the moment you think I'm not watching."

It looked annoyed as the images disappeared, leaving behind an empty wall.

With a sigh, I frowned sad. I said to myself as I looked at my right hand, "At least I'll always have you."

EOF

Galen came back to himself. He remembered why he preferred to avoid technomage parties. They always started as manic affairs, filled with art, music, information exchange and intense camaraderie, but then typically de-evolved into fights or drunken debauchery, usually both.

As for Rhea, he did not remember her but he remembered her presentation. Elric had insisted Galen watched all presentations when he was young. No doubt to help him prepare for his own initiation. Hers was infamous, in his mind anyway, because it was the only one Elric had ever commented on.

A young Galen sat next to Elric in an amphitheater fashioned of ancient looking gray stone. Pillars rose into the sky, seemingly challenging it to fall. The stage, also made of stone, was bare except for a woman in a long green coat. She stared downward as she left the stage with a middle-aged man, who patted her on the shoulder with a smile betraying his deep well of pride. A few in the audience clapped enthusiastically, one even standing up as he did, but most were silently disapproving or murmuring discontentedly.

The lone figure strode onto the stage clapping with diplomatic restraint. He stopped in the middle of the stage.

He addressed the audience with an old authority. "Thank you. That was complex and unique. And now, will the next initiate please step forward?"

Galen looked at Elric, who had been silently sitting next to him, his brow furrowed with what Galen assumed was concentrated disapproval.

Gravely, Elric commanded, "That is an example of what not to do. Keep this in mind when your time comes. Do you understand why?" Elric turned to hard look at him.

Galen's judgment was sure and quick, "It was lewd and it insulted Wierdan. Why didn't Kell denounce it?"

Elric's brow contracted further. "You do not understand." He stopped for a few beats to let his disapproval sink into the shocked and mortified Galen. He continued, "It was unique and a well constructed illusion but it failed and violated our Code, specifically Secrecy. Her presentation revealed too much of herself. And in revealing part of her secret self, she made herself vulnerable to everyone in this arena. This was foolish. While a few were deserving of such trust, most were not and all she did was feed their prejudice. How does this apply to you?"

Desperately, Galen's mind raced trying to find the answer Elric sought. He did not want to let him down a second time.

Swallowing hard, Galen spoke without much certainty, "I should … be careful with how I reveal myself?"

Elric gave him relief by saying, "Always think first of your audience. Study them, then only reveal what you must."

Galen slowly nodded in agreement unsure of himself. Elric turned to watch the next presentation. Galen spent the rest of his time lost in the lesson he had learned.

Yes, Galen took that lesson very much to heart, too much so. He took it to its logical extreme and chose to never reveal his heart to anyone, even those he loved and trusted. But that was not what Elric had meant. The lesson was not, never reveal yourself, but rather only reveal yourself to those who deserve your trust.

For the thousandth time, regret filled his heart. Regret that he never told Isabelle how deep his love actually went. His intellect told him that he showed her with his actions and she knew, but his heart would not forgive him. And now who was there to love? No one.

A whispered correction from somewhere inside said the name, Dureena. With sadness, he wondered if in ten years he'd be sitting on some other starship regretting her. For, the universe, no doubt, would have some sick fate in store for her if he chose to trust her. No, with sad certainty, Galen decided. It was best to live the life he had chosen one way … alone. Shaking his head to clear it of useless dreams, he returned his focus on Fed's memory sphere.

*First line from a poem by Walt Whitman about the death of Abraham Lincoln

**Lyrics from Jonathan Coulton's excellent Christmas ballad- "Chiron Beta Prime" ( .com) Distributed under the creative commons license.