Chapter 1: Ian: The continuation of the dream.
"Far, far below, beneath the crystal clear and shining deep blue sea,
A tiny little flower sleeps so peacefully.
Soft and gentle breezes sing a quiet tune while flying through rainbows,
And all the fish are playing in the sky to and fro."
The baby Ian held in his arms stopped squalling and settled into curious silence, looking up at his sixteen-year-old cousin as they rocked on the porch together. Ian smiled down at the newborn. Another family member. The thought sent a stab of delight though him. The baby was moist and warm and gave off a curious smell of baby powder and milk.
"Didn't I tell you?" Belle said triumphantly to her Aunt Sarah. "My big brother is awesome with kids."
"I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it," the frazzled Aunt Sarah said. "Ian, would you like to move in with us? Just till the little ones grow up and move out."
Ian laughed, His three other cousins were carrying out some sort of violent game that involved a lot of shouting and swinging sticks at each other, and Aunt Sarah hurried off, shrieking that they were going to put their eyes out if they weren't more careful.
"That was a lovely song you were singing," Ian's mother said. "Where did you learn it?"
"From you, silly," Ian laughed again. "You used to sing it to me when I was little. Don't you remember?"
"I'm sure I would remember if I had," his mother said. "You must be mistaken." Her face kept smiling, but her eyes took on that worried cast that appeared whenever he said or did something strange.
Ian tried hard not to worry her. Once he had run away from home and been missing for several years. Oddly, he had no memory of the time he was gone, but only knew he was very happy to be home again, and that he had caused his family more than their share of worry and grief. He did his best to make up for that, but his mother still panicked whenever he was unexpectedly away from home, or late from school, or when he said things that…well…had nothing to do with reality.
Ian had no idea where some of his strange thoughts and memories came from. Half-remembered dreams, perhaps. But this song, he remembered this song. He remembered sitting in his mother's lap, listening to her sing it, looking up at her…
The face in his memory was not his mother's. It was a woman with white hair in long braids, woven in curls around her head in a strange fashion. Could it have been his grandmother? Or some nursemaid or babysitter? But no, her face was young and filled with love, and his heart knew her as his mother.
If Ian had not seen his own birth certificate and countless baby pictures of himself, he might have wondered if he had been adopted. He carefully hid his own confusion, saying only, "How strange. I must have heard it somewhere else. Belle, would you like to hold Earnest for a while?"
Though the incident passed without further remark, it created an undercurrent of tension that lasted the rest of the day. Ian was not sorry when the time came to depart and catch the last ferry home to Sanceli Island. He closed his eyes and pretended to nap on the way home, as the sun set over the ocean.
They arrived home after dark, Ian carrying their luggage into the house. It was, as always, a pleasure to be home again. Belle hurried away to check that the automatic feeder had kept her fish alive, while Mother collapsed on the couch and rubbed her sore feet. "Home at last!" she said. "I hope Sarah will be all right. A new baby and those three…."
"Hellions?" Ian suggested. "Monsters? Demons!" Mother threw a cushion at him.
"Really, Ian, how can you talk about your cousins that way?" she demanded. "Though they are a bit on the rowdy side. Run out and get the mail, there's a dear."
Chuckling, Ian stepped out of the cottage to remove a week's worth of mail from the delivery box. He sorted it on his way back to the house in the dim light of the yard lamp. A handful of advertising could go straight to recycling. Belle had a postcard from one of her school friends, and Ian's Modern Science magazine had arrived, with an article about quasars advertised on the cover. He would enjoy reading that.
He flipped without much interest through the remaining envelopes as he stepped into the house—bills and other dull matters for his mother to deal with—until he saw the last letter and froze.
The Rugen Institute, the envelope said. Above the name and return address was a strange logo. It depicted the lower half of a sphere, surmounted by a small shaft on the left supporting a small sphere, and a larger shaft on the right, crossed by a thin crescent. It was strangely, eerily familiar. Ian was seized by a sense of foreboding, tinged with excitement.
"What is it, Ian?" The tension had returned to his mother's voice, as if she could sense his perturbation. "The Rugen Institute," she read over his shoulder. "Who are they? And why are they writing you? Open it, dear."
Ian had been so focused on the unsettling logo he had not even noticed the envelope was addressed to him. Reluctantly he tore it open and unfolded the letter from within.
"Greetings," he read. "The Rugen Institute is an organization dedicated to the advancement of education and the betterment of the human condition through science. This year the Institute has elected to offer several full scholarships to students who have shown remarkable aptitude in the field of science or who have otherwise displayed unusual talents which our organization wishes to advance. A preliminary interview will be conducted at the Rugen Institute's main office on Kuril Island.
"It has a date and time, and a map to the pier on the mainland where the ferry will be," said Ian. His mother was getting that panicked expression again. "And it says that accommodations will be provided for myself and any family members who attend with me."
"I can't possibly take more time off work," Mother said.
"It's all right," Ian said. "I don't have to go."
"You DO have to go!" she answered. "Ian, it's a full scholarship! I know you want to study astrophysics. I've been wondering how we could possibly afford it. There's no way we can turn our backs on an offer like this!"
"There will be other scholarships," Ian said firmly.
"You're going," his mother said. She laughed nervously. "You're a young man, now, Ian. Any day now you'll be setting out on your own, and it's high time I got over needing to know where you are every minute."
"I could go with him!" Belle piped up from across the room. "Can I? Please? School doesn't start for two weeks yet!"
"Well, I don't know…" Ian could see that his mother was torn between the idea of having Belle watch over him and see that he returned, and fear that she might lose both her children at once.
"I don't mind. It's your decision, Belle," Ian said.
And so it was that, three days later, Belle ran onto the Kuril Island ferry with a squeal of delight, running headlong into the young captain of the boat, who was carrying some of the other passengers' luggage. The bags went flying, one of them splashing into the water.
"Oh, I'm so sorry!" Belle cried, as a blond girl shouted, "My suitcase!"
"Don't worry, I'll get it!" the captain said as he hurled himself over the railing. He landed in the water with a splash, emerging from the foam to lift the dripping bag over his head and toss back it onto the ferry with a grin. "Hey, you better see if anything in there got wet!" he called unnecessarily. The blond girl had already opened the suitcase and was hastily removing items. Ian dropped beside her without a word and lent a hand. Enough water had seeped into the case to dampen some of the clothes, and Ian removed and hastily wiped down some wet books, hoping they hadn't been ruined.
"I really am sorry!" Belle said again.
"It's all right." The blond girl smiled up at her. "It was an accident. My name's Flo. Are you here for the Rugen scholarships?"
"My big brother is," Belle said. "I'm just along for the ride. I'm Belle."
"I'm Ian," Ian said. "Nice to meet you." There was something about the girl that put him at ease. Almost a sense of familiarity, as if they had known each other for years. "Have we met?" he asked.
"I…I'm not sure." Flo was returning his intent stare, in the back of her eyes the same sense of confusion Ian felt.
"Big brother," Belle finally said, a hint of irritation in her voice. "Aren't you forgetting our suitcases?"
"What, can't you get them?" But Ian finally tore his eyes away from Flo's and headed back to the pier, where his mother stood. The captain was there, too, wringing water out of his trouser legs. Ian hadn't taken a good look at him before. He seemed young, no older than Ian himself.
"Hey!" the captain shouted again, waving wildly at someone coming down the pier. "Are you looking for the Kuril Island charter? That's me! Welcome aboard the Star Princess!"
"Looks more like the Scar Princess," grumbled the round-faced boy approaching the battered boat.
"Now, Kalie," admonished the man behind him, visibly the boy's father. He had the same round face and turned-up nose as his son. A fat old dog waddled in their wake.
The captain's enthusiasm didn't dim at all. "Oh, she may look a little rough now, but you should have seen her when I salvaged her! Every time I get a charter, the Princess gets a little prettier. And with what they're paying me for this trip, she'll be getting a total refit! Hey, are you looking for the Kuril Island ferry? You've found it! Let me take your bags, sir!" He was waving at a new arrival, a thin boy with a gentle smile. The captain seized his suitcases, and that of the boy named Kalie, and bounded up the plank again.
Ian turned to his mother. Her eyes were damp. "I don't suppose I have to tell you to look after your sister," she said.
Ian hugged her. "Don't worry," he said. "We'll be back in a few days. I give you my word." After a few moments, they separated, and after leaning down and giving her a last kiss on the cheek, Ian bent down to pick up the suitcases. They were gone. The energetic captain was running back onto the boat carrying them. Ian followed him at a slower pace, and was followed in turn by Kalie, who had been saying farewell to his father.
"That's everybody, then," the captain called, pulling in the gangplank. "Welcome aboard the Star Princess! I will be your pilot for this journey. My name is Thoma. You can call me…Captain Thoma! Hold on to your socks, boys and girls: three hours to Kuril Island!"
The engines kicked in, and the ferry moved away from the dock. Ian and Belle waved to their mother. She stood on the dock, waving a handkerchief until she was lost from sight, as if she believed she would never set eyes on them again.