Author's note: I once heard that an aspiring writer needs to write a million bad words before they can write anything good. Here are 10000+ more words for me to throw on my writing pyre.

The Crusade plot is concentrated at the beginning. The rest of this chapter is my take on what a technomage party would be like, something sorely missing from the technomage trilogy of books. It is occasionally funny, coarse and pre-meditatively unromantic and skirts up against the mature rating.

Chapter 6 - Give Us a Show Then

Bridge of the Excalibur – December 23, 2269

Lt. John Matheson walked up behind Captain Gideon as he sat in the Captain's chair and stood there quietly debating whether or not to speak.

"What is it John?" asked the Captain.

The decision having been made for him, he took a deep breath and quietly began, "With all due respect, even with all that has happened, you've been on duty for 16 hours straight. You look exhausted. You've been pushing yourself too hard for weeks. You should take a break... Sir."

Gideon stared past him at the screens displaying hyperspace rushing by. He rubbed the stubble on his chin trying to remember when he last shaved or showered for that matter. Admitting he had a point, Gideon answered, "We're so close John ... but you're right."

Suddenly putting his hand to his ear, Lt. Matheson interrupted the Captain, "Sir, a gold channel message is coming in from EarthForce. Your eyes only."

"Patch it through to my quarters. I'll be there in a minute."

Gideon rushed from the bridge to his quarters. And there, surprising the Captain, despite all the times Galen let himself into Gideon's quarters uninvited, having made himself quite at home, was Fed. He sat with his feet propped up on Gideon's desk, dexterously shuffling a deck of cards in his hands. All the screens were displaying various entries in Gideon's personal logs.

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

Gideon nearly shouted, "I don't know what sort of game you're playing here but I have to take an important message. Get Out!" He pointed out the open door for emphasis.

Not moving, Fed coyly answered, "Ya … about that … the message is from me, I wanted to have a private little chat."

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

A sleigh being pulled by reindeer flew all over the screen. A jolly fat man in the red suit constantly proclaimed, 'HOHOHO, Merry Christmas!' When the screen cleared, the message 'Season's Greetings! Love Fed' appeared.

Furious, Gideon wheeled about. "Out of my chair! What the hell do you want?"

With a self-satisfied chuckle, Fed stood up. Ignoring Gideon, he began silently walking around the room, occasionally poking at an object, all while holding onto the deck. Gideon sat at his desk. He quickly pulled open the lowest drawer and silently slipped out the small PPG stored there. He held it in his lap out of sight. When Fed finished his preambulation about the room, he stopped in front of the desk, opposite Gideon, a grin plastered on his face.

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 into seriousness. "No. I'm not. I know about Mars. You will release Galen from whatever promises he gave you and he will not go with you."

Gideon let out a disbelieving grunt. "Boy you guys are … arrogant doesn't even begin to describe it. No. I need him. This is something I have to do, and he owes me."

Fed took a deep breath as he seated himself in the chair opposite Gideon.

He started tentatively, "I'm willing to … cut you a deal. I'm even going to go against my training and reveal my hand to you." Fed waved the deck at Gideon with a flourish.

"Lucky me," answered Gideon dryly.

Ignoring the slight, Fed plunged forward speaking rapidly, "You are right to value Galen. He is 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 others. On the other hand, I am ..." Fed flipped the next card over, the King of Hearts. He placed it below 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 looking into the facility you want into for a long time. Drop Galen and I'll make sure they will help you."

Gideon's first thought was 'Who the hell is this guy?' In the back of his mind a pragmatic voice, tiny and too much like his mothers, told him to run, find Galen and tell him everything. A much larger voice told him to push his luck and dig for as much information as possible. As always the second voice won.

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 can charm anyone and … there is a good chance they will answer to me one day, and so want to stay on my good side."

The Captain was surprised by a direct answer from a technomage. He was a leader of some kind or at least he claimed to be. Even though, Gideon would not follow him into the dining hall, forget Mars.

"How am I suppose to 'drop Galen' exactly?"

Fed answered him as if Gideon's already agreed to his plans, "Do what I ask now, and it shouldn't be too hard. You already look like shit," He put up his hands defensively, "No offence Captain. God knows I've had my off days. I can make it appear worse, slowly, as we head to Earth. When we arrive you will tell Galen you don't need his help right away because you need a little vacation. I will have to teach you how to lie effectively to Galen, but that shouldn't take long. In the end he will come with me and while we are gone I suspect you will be able to conclude your 'business' on Mars."

Seemingly satisfied, Fed stopped speaking, looking at the Captain expectantly.

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

Fed's answer was quick 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."

A rescue was not at all what Gideon expected. It leeched away some of his contempt. Instead, 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?"

Fed steeped his fingers together and peered at the Captain, unblinking.

With a sudden menacing glint in his eyes Fed replied, "Plan B, for starters I'm taking you off my Christmas card list, then ... I will kill you."

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

Oblivious to what is transpiring in Gideon's quarters, Galen remained distracted, immersed in Fed's sphere.

//8//

(Fed's voice speaks first again.)

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

--- 30.11.2252

Strolling toward an open clearing filled with dozens of sleek black technomage ships, I strolled toward a small antique styled red flyer, with my hands shoved into my pockets.

Suddenly, I heard, "Hello Federico. Do you know who this belongs to?" said Gwynn stepping into view from behind the shadowy landing gear of the nearest technomage ship. She pointed at the flyer.

I shrieked, "Eek! Dammit Gwynn, you startled me."

Clearly, pleased with herself, she said, "Good. I ran its VIN through the Proximan police data net. It belongs to an 'Prince Ali Baba,' occupation: gentleman adventurer, age: 255, height: 9.99 meters. No further biographical information available."

Unblinking, she looked at me with curious expectation.

"It's mine. Ali is one of my daemons."

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

I looked down at the jacket. It was made of woven strings of orange and red beads on delicate thread.

Smiling falsely, 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 if you'll excuse me I was bored and 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 exclaimed emphatically.

Frowning, she dropped the sweet tone, and coldly offered, "Fine. 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 are 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 the Order's rules," Focusing back on me, her voice dropped to a whisper, "Unless I have good reason not to."

"What would you do with my flyer?"

She rolled her eyes.

"What do you think? I'm going to FLY IT. Nothing straining, just to your home town and back. Let me have it for lets say a week and you get a free trip to Xanadu."

"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 while sweat gathered on his collar.

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 this 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 pointing at a wing, saying something to the artist. The sculptor, ignoring his audience of one, continued working on the face.

The periphery of the room was divided 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. One section was concealed behind opaque curtains. All the visible tables had plenty of 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 were rowdily celebrating and drinking. One was lying face down on the table unmoving while across from him another Centauri was sprawled out on the ground, unconscious.

Slowly walking about, I scanned the room. Finally, I spotted Rhea, by the red scarf wound about her neck. She was seated at a small table in a far corner, and between the legs of a burly, light complected man 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 other woman. Her eerily white skin contrasted perfectly with her short sleeveless, black timmed, 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, "Believe me, it is 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! Thanks a lot. I won't be able to get THAT picture 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! May I join you?"

She sat there openmouthed, stunned and silent.

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

She regained her composure and stood, her coat falling away, revealing a short skirt. She spoke quickly, "Yes. He is that 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."

"Yes, but I doubt it would have been your right hand," said the muscular women serenely. All the women burst out laughing that only grew louder when the woman in the cap made a distinctly repetitive up and down motion with her own right hand. 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 imaginary girlfriend," mocked the muscular woman again.

The women roared with laughter yet again.

"Cruelty thy name is woman!" yelled the man at the muscular woman. But he did not seem angry, rather he grinned at her, winking flirtatiously.

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

"Ah yes, wit. I've heard of it," I whispered back at her, noticing that all her hair was gone. Her arms, eyebrows, every visible part was bare. After glancing at the others, I noticed they all appeared to be similarly effected.

"Oh let him stay, he's adorable!" exclaimed the woman in the cap smiling and staring at me boldly.

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."

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 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.

"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 To-mo-e, master of the many martial arts and disguise. She's from the revered, ancient city of Kyoto, on Earth. "

Tomoe bowed to me solemnly 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's protest was immediate, "Hey! Stop calling Seattle a village!"

Rhea grinned wickedly.

Clearly, unrepentant, she answered, "Sorry, my mistake. She is our resident engineer and is currently working on an interesting if tiny engine design modification. It is expensive, extremely complex to implement and MIGHT make our ships go a half a percent faster."

Optima corrected her, "It's .68% faster, which over the course of a long trip adds up, and you're SOOOOO 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 our 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 death are NOT options. I've freely admitted to finding Centauri females quite 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.

Tomoe was the first to speak, "A simple yet clever solution. Interesting." Starting at me, evaluating.

"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 guys nuts?! Isn't that incestuous and GROSS? What do you think?"

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

Calmly she shrugged and said, "Not necessarily. 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, "Wasn't this just a game? I think you're over thinking this."

"That is not possible! And this is more a thought experiment then a game," 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 if you make it hermaphroditic. YA! I WIN!" celebrated Optima 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 delicately kissed Optima's hand more then once.

Giggling, Optima playfully batted Roland's kisses away saying, "Oh Roland you're so sweet. You 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 to me 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 still prefer gin but this is more refreshing."

Rhea began to look worried again as I took another larger 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 began deeply massaging the heavy muscles of his broad back. In a small voice, Roland strained to say, "Ugh ... YA …arghhh … 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 stunningly unspeakable. I didn't pay too much attention. I was too busy staring at Gwynn's perfectly round ... AUF! HEY! You just bruised my kidney Tom… 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 the calloused knuckles of one fist as she continued, "Getting back on topic. Your illusion was exactly what I expected from you. Unsubtle, unrestrained, a touch profane, and ... you revealed to much of yourself."

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

Tomoe looked amused. "It had a certain beauty, but I can't believe Coeus let you present that. … I assume he approved?"

"Of course, he told me whatever I did was fine with him."

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

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

Everything turned very quiet as everyone froze. 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 her to look at him. He pleaded with her, "That's just her way. You know she loves you and didn't mean anything bad by it. Hell, she's been calling me Castrati for fun."

Trying to defuse the situation, Optima enthusiastically offered her opinion, "I loved it! And um ... Kell said it was unique and complex and … um …. 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 and … I got carried away. Gwynn tried to warn me but I ignored her advice." She forcebly pulled her hand away from Roland, and emphasized at him, "You know I was asking Fed's opinion." Vaguely angry, she turned to me and said, "You need not spare my feelings. 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 … actually Aldous liked it, he told me it was 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 half the time. BUT I loved the Narn ballet, very nice. I never realized it was traditionally done naked, and the end ... morphing Wierden into a little pink fairy, that was … ya kinda profane, but also beautifully 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!" She pinched my cheek and continued, "Way to make her feel better, or are you just trying to butter her up so she'll sleep with you?"

The others all started chuckling 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 screaming, "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.

"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 from her intent and started chatting excitedly with another table of mages, where everyone also 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. Accomponied 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. She was happy, a far away expression on her face.

I leaned in asking the obvious question, "Are you and Roland together?"

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

Putting up my hands defensively, I made my excuse, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to overstep. 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 from him?"

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

"You don't approve of his behavior?" I asked innocently.

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?"

Surprised she said, "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 among 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. I named him Sparky."

She let out a slight laugh at that. "Really? 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, "Really? Did you have a favorite cut?"

"I loved all of him beyond death. 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 could make pony sausages, pony bacon, pony ham..."

Every time I said pony she laughed a little harder. Until she doubled over clutching her middle, and shrieked happily, "You are a horror!"

Acting innocent, I corrected her, "A horror? Me? I hope not. Horrifically funny maybe."

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 a palm sized brown box contained within. Holding up the box between us, she placed her hand dramatically along the top, palm up. A firey 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, 'R I P S P A R K Y.'

"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 other masters stood around scowling, making sure no one had too much 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 ummm … I can take you flying some time. The dead ocean is pretty shiny this time of year," I offered nonchalantly.

A harsh belittling laugh erupted out of her before she stopped and controlled herself.

Pursing her lips together, she looked annoyed. Correcting herself, she softly said, "That was cruel. ... Forgive me?"

With a smile, I immediately said, "Always."

Putting a gentle hand on 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. We are leaving."

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 or oblivious 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 hoard. All indignant rage, the Narn technomage stomped from behind his table and toward the back of the advancing Centauri group. No one esle 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."

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

As we reached the exit at that instant, I heard Roland stop singing long enough to yell, "Hey! Where are 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 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 asked, "What did he mean by all?"

Before she could answer, two figures clad completely in black landed nearby. They ignored us and silently rushed toward the door we had just exited.

From inside her hood, Rhea answered, "Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Please forget it."

"I didn't mean to take you away from your friends. I'll be fine, you should go back and help."

"I will return to help clean up the mess. But, I don't want you getting 'lost.' Show the way."

She pointed an aggressive hand ahead of her. I began to walk away from the door 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."

"AH. I am not supposed to say anything. It is 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 eager answer, "I don't disagree. I should not say, but... What was it like? It was 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 stopped walking to say, "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 is 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 basic neural biology, to pyschology. He wanted to see what would happen if members of a cohort were routinely and purposely socialized from a young age in a controlled environment. A few other masters found it … intriguing and agreed to it. Coeus theorized it would improve our skills, solidarity, self-control, that sort of thing. But the only things we excelled at were Karaoke and putting on saucey puppet shows. Eventually, the Circle disapproved and put an end to it years ago."

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

Shrugging, she responded coolly, "It was benign especially compared to some of the development projects I've read."

I stopped again, and she halted in response.

Nervously I said, "I like this... talking to you. You answer my stupid questions. May I ... talk to you again? I mean if I want advice or to just say hello."

Sighing again from inside her hood, when she spoke she sounded more amused then anything. "You mean a conventional digital messages? What makes you think I use them like some sort of prol?"

Smiling I stated confidentally, "Let's make it a bet. I got access to the best tracking daemons the Order has. If I can track you down, you have to answer."

"If you can not?"

"Name your price."

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

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

She shook it easily.

"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 assuredly, "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 slowly, 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 unphased 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 It!" I yelled forcefully. 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 for the next week, studying your least favorite subjects, starting with discrete mathematics I think. 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 deeply to both and said, "Good night."

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 picked 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 ... he is very impressionable, especially since he's had very little '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 misunderstood. 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 terminal, 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, "Yes."

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

I cursed again and threw the terminal away onto the cot.

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

"No … I am grateful to you for watching over Fed. You saved me the embarrassment of having to fetch him myself. Your ... father is very proud of you. He has cause to be. It's been a while 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? Technically, it has been nearly a decade. My answer to your invitation is no. Good evening."

"Wait. Stop. Why wouldn't... "

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

"I don't understand. This is not about favor. I would like..."

She was cut off again by Rhea practically yelling, "You have had nothing to say to me since you stopped 'visiting' Coeus! Not even after Themis died, when it would have been... No, never mind. I am not sure what is possessing you to care after all this time but I'm not interested in further disappointment."

Herazade faltered and stammered the beginning of her response, "I … I ... had no idea you felt that way. Then I insist we speak." 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 thick."

"Merde. At least you remembered that much. Add coffee and I will be here."

"Done, now 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, "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, "Never underestimate the value of saving face."

I asked, "Are you really going to send 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 inconvienced!" She slammed her staff into the ground for emphasis, sending tendrils of blue electrical arcs across the floor, through me, causing my hair to stand on end, as they climbed up the walls 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 pleadingly said, "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 embarrassingly apologized, "Sorry, you're right. I wasn't thinking."

Satisfied, she responded, "Obviously. 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 doubt it. 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.' This is your only warning. 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 have hurt me."

Looking anxiously at the door, she sighed. "No, I just suggested she have a little chat with him. 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 sounds 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 ... incredibly long and boring."

She pulled herself upright, and indignantly defended it, "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 are over two weeks behind in your mathematics studies? Augusta is most displeased. Would you like a lesson on the Mandelbrot Set while we wait?"

"Later. 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?"

Looking confused, 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 serious of acrobatic maneuvers to the cheers of those with feathers stuck to themselves. Fantastical creatures, fairies, demons, the odd dragon, 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 was sitting alone, eating, 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.

In response, I stopped throwing my ball and sleepily stared at the wall. Just before I drifted off asleep, Rhea appeared, and agitatedly tore off her coat. She collapsed on the pillow next to Tomoe.

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

Rhea pointed an angry finger at her and yelled, "No! You are not allowed to start. Gwynn's been trying my patience about him for days."

"With her tongue I can 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 is right. He is impossibly adorable … and funny as hell. I can't seem to not enjoy his company even when I REALLY 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!" and danced in place for a while before sitting back down. 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.

With my mouth full of chocolate I coarsely said, "Trajan, close connection. Oh and Trajan I need you to …" I trail off in thought. The holo-daemon walked out and stood glaring at me in disgust. With arms on its hips, it demanded, "You know I'm busy. What do you want?"

"No need to get all snappish. Delete this entire session and all the logs you've been keeping 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.

Happily, I looked at my right hand and said, "Your days of being my only company are numbered."

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 and intense camaraderie, but they typically de-evloved into fights or drunken debauchery, usually both. As for Rhea, he remembered her presentation. Elric had insisted he watched all presentations. 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 rushed off to sit by a middle-aged man, who hugged her 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 discontentantly.

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

He addressed the audience with an old authority. "Yes, 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 always assumed was 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 studied 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. "No. 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 her secrets, she has 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 if his answer had been correct. 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. At least not before it was too late. 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 Isabel 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. His heart was quick to correct him with a whisper, 'Dureena.' With sadness, he wondered if in ten years he'd be sitting on some other starship regretting her. But, the universe, no doubt, would have some sick fate in store for her if he chose to love and trust her. No, with sad certainty, Galen decided. It was best to live the life he had chosen only 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" Distributed under the creative commons license.