Copyright (C) 2004 Katherine Padilla. This sample is published by Novaun Novels at www.zerosilver.com and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0.

 

The Double-Edged Choice

A Futuristic Fantasy

By Katherine Padilla

 

Prologue: ABDUCTED?

Daniel Zarek watched the woman from his peripheral vision as he waited to be seated. She sat alone in a sunny booth at the back of the restaurant, wearing a burgundy suit, her black hair pulled away from her beautiful face in an elegant knot at the nape of her neck. She slowly took a bite of salad, then sipped from her glass of water.

As the hostess led Daniel to a table, he took a better look at the dark-haired woman. She really was Lanuvael Vumaul Doshyr--she had to be. Despite the plain Earthon clothing and simple hairstyle, she looked very much like the images he had assimilated on InterMind sixteen and a half years before when she and her twin children had disappeared from the knowledge of Novaun.

Daniel's excitement grew as he approached her, along with his anxiety. Communicating with her would put his mission at risk, but he had to take the chance. In no other way would he learn whether she was on Earth by choice or whether she and her children had been abducted. The answer to that question would tell him whether her children were a danger to Novaun or not.

The hostess seated Daniel in a booth that adjoined Lanuvael's, separated only by narrow oak poles. He removed his hat and coat and set them aside as a waitress promptly arrived at his table. "I just need to warm up a bit," he said. "A cup of hot cocoa will be fine."

"Yes, sir," the waitress said cheerfully, hurrying away from his table.

Daniel didn't attempt to communicate with Lanuvael until the waitress returned and set a mug of hot chocolate on the table in front of him. He expanded his spirit and pressed it against Lanuvael's, inviting her to communicate in a way that couldn't be detected by the monitoring devices the Earthons used to record voices and thought transmissions.

Lanuvael did expand her spirit to partially overlap his, and he allowed his thoughts to flow into her mind. Mineste Doshyr, I'm here to help--

No one can help me! Her thoughts stabbed through him, icy with shock and terror. You have no idea how completely you've compromised yourself, just by seeking for the information necessary to identify me. Get on the next flight away from Earth going anywhere, or you won't make it off Earth at all! Then she wrenched her spirit away from his and refused to communicate more.

Understanding and dread crept through Daniel as he finished his drink. She knew that he was a Novaunian agent and was concerned for his safety, which meant she was still loyal. She had, however, refused to communicate with him in this secure way, which could only mean that even her thoughts were not her own and that the man who appeared to be her husband was really her captor. When the man returned home from work that afternoon and required her to give him the thoughts and events of the day, Daniel's identity would be unmasked.

Daniel arose, slid into his coat and hat, and walked to the front of the restaurant as casually as he could manage. Lanuvael had not exaggerated her danger or his. Daniel paid his bill and left the restaurant, nearly running.

 A squad of Executioners waited for him outside the door.

  

Chapter 1: COVER BLOWN

19th Year of the Divine Emperor

Friday, February 2

 

Myke Zarek entered his apartment, weary from a long day at work. He extended his arm to set his laptop by the door and nearly dropped it, grasping it again desperately and pushing it against the wall with a slam. He remained stooped there a moment, breathing slowly and forcing himself to relax. He straightened, slipped out of his coat and hung it in the closet, then walked through the tiny, sparsely furnished living area toward the kitchenette.            

Myke's father had not been home for several days. Normally this wouldn't be unusual, but they planned to leave Earth for Novaun soon. No matter how hard Myke tried to tell himself that his father was simply finishing business and would be home at any moment, he couldn't rid himself of the fear that something terrible had happened.

Myke opened the small refrigerator and took out the milk. He removed the lid and drank the milk straight from the container, gulping so hard his chest hurt. As he drank, he felt his father's spirit touch his, relaying a telepathic transmission in code. Feeling a rush of panic, and at the same time relief, he quickly set the empty milk container on the counter, relaxed, and prepared to receive the message. Since this communication was weak, it required extreme concentration to receive it.

Get out! Cover blown. Royal twins key. The message was wrapped in emotions of love, confidence, and farewell. Then it was gone from understood existence with his father's being.

Immediately realizing that the authorities would trace the telepathic message to his apartment, Myke rushed into the bedroom and stuffed several changes of clothes, his wallet of computer discs, and a few toiletries into a leather shoulder bag. Within minutes he was moving with the crowds of people down the sidewalk away from his apartment building, watching for Executioners.

Myke pulled the fur collar up over the scarf around his neck to block the frosty air and hide his face, his mind traveling backward in time several years and remembering Tavon, the country that was his home. He could almost feel the warm rain on his cheeks and the beach's white sand between his toes.

A gust of icy wind shattered the nostalgic images. He shivered. There were no seas near Tryamazz, and the rain that fell there was usually cold.

Located in what was once Missouri in the United States, Tryamazz was the capital city of Earth's massive empire. Earth's "Divine" Emperor, Arulezz Zarr, depended heavily on arelada crystal to maintain telepathic control over Earth's billions of subjects, but it was a raw mineral that was not native to Earth. It was mined on several planets, primarily Novaun. Officially, Earth was at peace with the United Interstellar Alliance of Planets. It owned several arelada mines, companies, and a substantial amount of prime territory on arelada-producing planets other than Novaun. Unofficially, Earth wanted control of the arelada trade and was planning to conquer the Alliance to gain it.                                                                        

Myke and his father had acquired proof that Earth was preparing to attack several primary arelada sources in twelve Earth weeks, and they had collected many specific details that would aid in repelling the attack. Myke's knowledge of Earth's plans was the Alliance's only hope--that and the spirit dimension formula.         

Myke nearly dove into the back seat of a taxi that drove up beside him. "Spaceport," he said quickly. The door made a whirring noise as it slid shut. He leaned his head back on the seat and closed his eyes. Why had his father died? They had been so close to returning to Novaun. Two years, and nothing had happened. Why now? Why? Myke had known since they had begun training for this mission that one or both of them might be killed. He had never worried much about his own life, but he had always been afraid that his father's life would be taken. He had tried again and again to bury the fear, to harden himself against possible loss, but he had never been successful.

A tear trickled down Myke's cheek, but he quickly wiped it away. "Oh, God, help me," he breathed. He leaned forward and covered his face with his hands in an attempt to smother the emotion.

Once Myke composed himself, he sat back up and stared out the window for the duration of the trip, analyzing his situation and determining how to proceed. Communication to Novaun had been forbidden. Even if Novaun would allow it, Myke knew that he wouldn't be able to obtain the help he would need to telepathically transmit a message over that distance, because he and his father had not been in contact with any other agents since they had arrived on Earth, and nine months had passed since they had received contact from a courier from Novaun.

Even so, Earth's authorities would be aware of any unauthorized communication. He couldn't steal a ship, because it would never get past the two Star Force fleets he knew were now sitting in Earth's space territory. A hired vessel wouldn't get past the fleets either, so he decided his best option was to use his standing reservation on a commercial flight to Nustydun in the Gudynean Federation, where he would catch a connecting flight to Dinevlea, then on to Novaun.

The sound of air being released signaled to Myke that he had arrived at the spaceport. He quickly paid the driver, then hurried to the ticketing section.

"I have a standing reservation on a flight to Nustydun," Myke explained to the man at the ticketing counter, removing the scarf from his mouth slightly. "I would like to get on the next flight out of here. My name is Lon Brown. Here's my passport."

The man quickly accessed Lon Brown's file on the computer. "Everything checks out. Next flight is at seven thirty-five." He handed Myke a boarding pass. "Flight 1215, Gate 27K."

"Don't you have anything sooner?"

"No."

"Oh well. I guess that will have to do." Myke took the boarding pass and left the ticketing counter, then strode through several lobbies of the huge complex with people waiting for flights to different systems, looking for the gate with his flight number.

Once he found the right gate, he began searching for a place where he could hide until his flight was ready to leave. As he walked, he brushed past a door that read in bold print: "Men." Of course! What better place? He entered the rest room and found an empty stall where he could wait.

The next three hours passed slowly for Myke. He couldn't stop wondering how his father had died. Perhaps it was better he didn't know. What would he tell his sisters when he saw them? If he ever saw them again. Novaun was so far away. He breathed nervously. Everything depended on him.

Myke glanced at the interplanetary time calculator on his wrist. Seeing that only fifteen more minutes remained until his flight would leave, he stood up and stretched his stiff muscles. He took a deep breath and stepped out of the stall, then exited the men's room and rushed toward the lobby where those traveling to Nustydun awaited their flights.

Suddenly he halted. Noticing two Executioners approaching a ticketing counter ahead of where he stood, he slipped into an adjoining lobby. He stood quietly by the lobby's entrance as one of the Executioners began speaking to the ticketing counter personnel. The Executioners both possessed muscular builds under black uniforms with red trim, and arelada crystals that had been cut into diamond-shaped prisms hung on gold chains around their necks.

"We're looking for a boy, nineteen years old," one of the Ex-men said. Myke leaned toward the voices and listened more intently.

"He has brown hair, blue eyes, and is of an average height and build. He's traveling under the name Lon Brown. Here's a photo of him." Fear overwhelmed Myke. The Ex-men would soon have the entire spaceport watching for him. "He's an extremely dangerous criminal. If you see anyone that fits this description, notify us immediately."

"Yes sir," a woman's voice quavered.

Myke heard terror in the ticket attendant's voice. Was she afraid of encountering him, or was she terrified of the Executioners? Myke guessed the latter. He glanced over his shoulder, then hurried to his flight gate.

Once he arrived at his flight gate, he approached the view window and watched workers prepare a large shuttle for flight. The night sky was spitting snow that appeared iridescent against the backdrop of colorful lights. Evidently the craft was the one he would take to the Gudynean transport ship orbiting Earth, for it was almost ready.

"Flight 1215 to Nustydun is now boarding. Repeat . . ." 

Myke jumped in surprise at the booming voice. He looked cautiously around the lobby. Not noticing any Executioners, he hurried to the gate.

Holding his breath in anticipation, he waited in line to board the spaceship. Centimeter by centimeter, the line crept as boarding passes were checked and people stepped into the entrance corridor. Only one more person needed to have his boarding pass examined before Myke would undergo the same procedure. His lips trembled and his eyelids dropped shut. Home was so close . . . so close . . .

As he presented his boarding pass to be examined, a hand gripped his shoulder. He felt himself being forced to turn and face two Executioners. Dismayed, he quickly evaluated his situation. Maybe they would think they had made a mistake and would let him go.

"Let's see some I.D."

Myke replied in his most polite tone of voice, "Sirs, you are holding up the line. Please allow me to board my flight in peace." He reached inside his coat for his passport.

One of the Ex-men eyed Myke quizzically. He pulled the hat off his head and the scarf away from his mouth. "It's him!"

Myke instantly slammed his laptop into the head of one of the Executioners, catching him completely by surprise. The Ex-man collapsed, unconscious.

Even as the other Executioner reached for his weapon, Myke slammed his laptop against his head and knee-kicked him in the groin. The Executioner moaned and doubled, and Myke executed a powerful blow to the back of his neck as his computer tumbled to the floor. 

Myke knelt and grabbed the Executioners' immobilizers, then yanked the arelada from their necks. He sprang up and pointed one of the pistols threateningly at the crowd that had gathered around the commotion. As the crowd backed away from him, he slowly moved away from it. Then he turned and sprinted toward the spaceport's main terminal, scanning for an exit.

As he ran he saw the two Executioners he had seen earlier bounding toward him at an angle from his right. He halted, aimed his pistol at one of the Ex-men, fired, and ran for cover. A neurodart shot out of his weapon and penetrated the Ex-man's heart. The other Ex-man was only momentarily surprised by the effectiveness of the distant shot as his companion dropped to the floor. Just as Myke was about to duck behind a ticketing counter, the Ex-man fired his immobilizer.

Myke shrieked as the neurodart penetrated his right shoulder. Hot pain seared rapidly through the nerve network of his upper back, inflaming nerves and jamming the neuronal transmissions of the nearby nerves it didn't touch, temporarily paralyzing the muscles in the affected area. Before he had a chance to feel the molecular robots in his spine, his mind fogged, then blackened.

 

Chapter 2: DRAFTED

Friday, February 2, 19 Y.D.E

 

Deia Sheldon adjusted the diamond and emerald necklace around her neck as she stood backstage of a Tryamazz concert hall, waiting for the curtain to rise. Of all the concerts she had played, this one was the most important. Her teacher had arranged it, publicized it, and invited Phillip Moreau, Earth's finest pianist-composer, to attend. Phillip Moreau didn't often teach, but he had been so impressed by Deia's recent publicity and the recordings her teacher had sent to him that he was considering taking her on tour as his protégée. He would make his final decision that night after hearing her perform.

Deia watched in anticipation as the members of the orchestra took their positions and tuned their instruments. She and the orchestra represented Divine Empress Jesalya School of the Arts, the prestigious intermediate school she had attended for the past four years. The orchestra had gained a modest level of fame throughout the world, and this was the last concert the senior musicians would give before they separated. Many members of the orchestra had already received full-time positions in the finest symphony orchestras on Earth, and others planned to attend highly accredited advanced schools of music for more extensive training. Deia's dream was to become a member of the Divine Emperor's Court, a position already achieved by Phillip Moreau, a position greatly desired by musicians all over the galaxy.

Maestro Bruce Leonard, the guest conductor, stood next to Deia. He quickly adjusted the long blue brocade sash of his black tuxedo as the red velvet curtain slowly rose. He patted Deia on the shoulder. "Good luck!" he whispered.

Deia again adjusted her necklace, then walked onto the stage and proceeded to the black concert grand piano, her green taffeta gown rustling as she walked. The maestro followed her onto the stage and took his position in front of the orchestra.

Deia sat down at the piano and waited for the maestro to give her the cue to begin. Out of the corner of her eye, she captured a glance of her twin brother Paul, her Aunt Lena, and her Uncle Sanel sitting in their usual seats on the front row. She welcomed their expressions of encouragement, for the concerto she was about to play was the Second Piano Concerto of pre-Day of Liberation composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, and it had not been performed by anyone on Earth for many years. Deia had always been fascinated by pre-Day of Liberation music, and this concerto had always been one of her favorites.

The maestro lifted his hands, and the members of the orchestra lifted their instruments to playing positions. He turned toward Deia and motioned for her to start. Her fingers softly touched the keys as she began the introduction. The power of the introduction grew as she entered the first movement and was joined by the orchestra.

During the next thirty-five minutes, Deia focused on the music, her fingers floating over the keyboard with confidence. The music flowed through her body, moving her spirit with a passion that only it could, and as it moved her, she soared to greater heights of expression.

Deia ran her fingers up and down the keyboard in her solo preceding the finale. The anticipation grew as the music trickled from low notes to high, retarding to a rest. Then she and the orchestra joined again and entered full-force into the finale. The finale progressed to its powerful concluding measures, and the conductor dramatically brought the concerto to a close.

Deia felt drained but knew she had done well. The audience applauded vigorously as the orchestra stood and the maestro bowed. Deia arose and stepped to the front of the piano, bowing slightly, and as she did, the sound of applauding intensified as everyone in the concert hall stood. Deia had never experienced such a feeling of elation. They wanted an encore! She glanced over at the maestro, who simply nodded and smiled.

She resumed her seat at the piano and began playing a piece by Claude Debussy. It was romantic and beautiful, representative of her own time, yet reminiscent of a bygone century. She completed the piece and again took her bow as the curtain lowered, the enthusiasm of the audience no less than it had been after the first piece she had played.

Once the curtain had completely lowered, she removed a handkerchief from the little pocket her Aunt Lena had designed into her gown and used it to wipe the perspiration from her forehead. Members of the orchestra clustered around her, overflowing with praise, and she praised them just as enthusiastically. Finally she slipped away and went to her individual dressing room.

Paul met Deia at the door, already wearing his coat over his black tuxedo. "You were terrific! That was by far your best performance ever! You are supreme!"

"Was he here?"

Paul put his hand on Deia's back and led her into the room. "I didn't see him come in, but that doesn't mean anything. He might have come in just as the performance started."

"Oh, I hope!" Deia proceeded toward the closet to get her coat. She halted for a moment. "Do you think I'll ever be good enough for the Divine Emperor's Court?"

Paul had lost his animation and appeared tired. "I don't know why you would want to be."

Deia felt hurt. "Just because you don't agree with his politics . . . It's still a great honor."

"I know," Paul said with a sigh. "I'm sorry. I know how much it means to you. I guess I'm just a little preoccupied."

Deia frowned. Paul hadn't been himself for the last couple of weeks, but she, in anticipation of her concert, hadn't noticed until now. Any other time she would have felt terrible for being so unobservant, but she was still too delirious over her chance to study with Phillip Moreau to feel too sorry. Before she could ask Paul what was wrong, a knock sounded at the door. "Come in!" she called.

Rachael, Deia's piano teacher, rushed into the room. "You make me so proud!" She embraced Deia. "I hate having to lose you."

"Was he here?"

Deia's teacher nodded quickly. "He certainly was. I don't know whether he'll take you or not yet, but I'm going to speak with him later tonight. Things are looking very promising!"

"Call me as soon as you find out anything." Deia squeezed her teacher's wrinkled fingers. "Oh, I'm so excited!"

Rachael patted Deia's hand. "I know. I'll call you as soon as I speak with him."

After her teacher left, Deia turned to Paul. "Did you hear that? He'll take me, I just know it!"

"That's wonderful, Deia." He didn't smile.

Another knock sounded at the door. Deia laughed. "Come in!" This time one of the cellists entered the room. "Oh hello, Jeff!"

"Deia, you were supreme!"

"So were you."

Jeff nodded confidently. "I guess we all did well, didn't we? Anyway, Deia, everyone's meeting at Antonio's in half an hour. Will you be there?"                          

Before Deia could respond, she felt Paul's thoughts enter her mind. Not tonight.

 But, Paul, Antonio's. Lasagna sounds so good.

 Not tonight, Deia. We'll go to Antonio's another time.

 "I'm afraid I'll have to pass, Jeff. I'm exhausted."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Everyone will miss you, but I'm sure they'll understand."

 "I'll see you later."

 After Jeff left the room, Deia turned to Paul. "What is this all about?"

Paul shook his head, a peculiar light in his gray-blue eyes. "Not here. Let's go." He held Deia's white mink coat as she slipped into it. She picked up her purse and followed Paul silently out the door.

Deia shivered as they stepped outside. Paul held his arm out for her. "It looks slick." She took his arm and held tightly as he led her to their silver aircar. They slid into the back seat, grateful it was already warm. Paul leaned forward. "Home," he said to the chauffeur.

The aircar rose into the air and whisked them through Tryamazz. Paul leaned his head back and closed his eyes, while Deia stared out the window, mesmerized by the falling snow and twinkling lights of the city.

In minutes the aircar came to a stop in the landing bay attached to Paul and Deia's penthouse apartment. As they entered their home, the lights came on. "I wonder where Lena and Sanel are," Deia said. "I thought they would be home by now."

"They went to supper." Paul helped Deia out of her coat and hung it in the closet.

Deia stepped out of her green high-heeled shoes, letting her feet sink into the plush, creamy white carpet, then seated herself gracefully on the crimson velvet couch. She removed her necklace and carefully set it on the coffee table, then quickly removed the diamond and emerald-studded pins from her hair, shaking out the curls. Paul removed his coat and wandered over to the piano. He stared out the window-wall, his dark brown hair appearing black against the falling snow that was glowing in the light emanating from the Divine Emperor's Palace and Liberation Court.

Deia stretched her arms and leaned her head against the back of the couch. "So . . . what's wrong?"

"Hmmm? Oh . . ." Paul closed the drapes. "There really isn't any easy way to tell you this."

Deia stared at the floral carvings on the coffee table. "Go on."

"We've been drafted."

Deia sat up straight and turned abruptly toward her brother. "We've been what?"

"We have to report to the Star Force Institute of Science on Monday, and after a day of orientation, we'll be shuttled to the fleet base ship Sovereign of the Stars."

Deia waved her hands. "Oh no. Not me. I have other plans."

"And I don't?"

"How long have you known about this?"

"A few weeks--"

"And you didn't tell me!"

Paul approached the couch and sat down next to Deia. "No. Lena and I thought it would be better to wait until after graduation and your concert."

"Lena? You mean she knows about this too? Does Sanel know?"

Paul grunted. "Oh yes, Sanel knows about it."

"Can't he get us out of it?"

"He says he has no control over the recruiting board. It's under Admiral Laddan."

"Just what kind of fools does he think we are? There isn't a person on that recruiting board who wouldn't jump off the top of the Council's office building if our dear uncle told him to."

Paul nodded in grim agreement. "That doesn't change anything for us though." 

"Military service . . ." Deia grimaced. "Just what exactly are we going to do on this spaceship?"

"I'll study to be an electrical engineer, and you'll study to be a neurosurgeon."

Deia couldn't help but laugh. "You have to be joking."

"I wish I were. My training is supposed to last for three years. Yours will last for seven."

"Seven years? I have to be on that spaceship for seven years!"

"Well, no. You may not spend the entire seven years on this particular spaceship, but all together it'll be seven years. I guess it takes a long time to become a neurosurgeon."

Deia shook her head quickly. "This just isn't right. I can represent our culture to billions of people all over the galaxy! What possible use could I be to the government in Star Force? The very idea is ridiculous!"

Paul folded his arms over his chest and stared sulkily at his lap.

Deia scrutinized him. "You know something about this, don't you."

"How should I know why the government wants us in Star Force?"

"But you have an idea."

"All I know is that too many things are wrong."

"Such as?"

"Such as the Science Corps is completely bourgeois. The government doesn't draft aristocrats. Aristocrats buy appointments to Star Force's officer training program. Nobles don't even have to buy their appointments. They're automatically accepted even if they're imbeciles!"

Deia was surprised to feel relieved. "I guess, then, that our situation could be worse. I'd much rather be a neurosurgeon than a military officer."

Paul's eyes shone with hysteria. "You won't feel that way when we're ostracized by the people who are supposed to be our friends and, at the same time, despised by the people we're forced to work with."

Deia knew that she should feel alarmed by Paul's observation, but for the moment, the career implications far outweighed the social ones. "All right, so people like us train to become officers, not--" She stopped, searching for the right word.

"Certified professionals," Paul said.

"All right, so we should be training to be officers, not 'certified professionals.' What else is wrong with our wonderful new situation?"

"I've never known anyone who's gone into the Science Corps, but as for officer training, all applicants are heavily tested for compatibility with space travel. Everyone accepted into the program spends February and March after graduation in orientation and basic training at the Officers Academy before being assigned to a ship. Not only that, but all of my friends received notice of their appointments six months ago!"

"Paul, that is strange."

"It's Sanel. He's behind this, I just know it. That son of Abomination is manipulating our lives again."

"But why? He knows our talents. He knows that Star Force isn't a good fit for either one of us. Not only that, but this is the man who nearly had a heart attack when I went out with the chauffeur. Wouldn't it make him look bad if we joined the bourgeoisie? It doesn't make sense."

"Maybe not, but it makes more sense than anything else."                                                    

Deia's voice quavered. "You're probably right." A tear spilled from one of her eyes. Paul quickly brought his anger under control and drew Deia into his arms.

Somewhat later they heard a sound at the door. Deia released her hold on Paul and quickly dabbed her face with her handkerchief. They stood up as Lena and Sanel entered the apartment. Lena and Sanel were the most beautiful couple Deia had ever seen, especially wearing the formal clothing Lena had designed and the jewelry she had crafted. Sanel's black hair was fashionably slicked back over his ears, and an arelada crystal set in an intricately carved pendant hung on a gold chain from around his neck. Lena's soft black hair was swept up in an elaborate style and studded with diamonds set in white gold. Both Lena and Sanel were youthfully lean and had perfect facial features and fair, unlined skin, as if they were twenty-five instead of thirty-nine and forty-five.

Sanel helped Lena out of her coat and smiled slightly at Deia. "Superb, Deia. Absolutely superb."

Deia bowed her head slightly. "Thank you, sir."

Once out of her coat, Lena broke away from Sanel and stepped down into the living room. Deia gazed affectionately at her aunt as she walked toward her. She was the epitome of talent and refinement, and Deia had always longed to be like her. "You were wonderful tonight. You dazzled them all!"

Deia embraced Lena. "Funny, it doesn't matter much anymore. I've wasted my entire life working for something I can never have."

"You haven't wasted your life! You have an extraordinary talent, and you don't have to be part of the Divine Emperor's Court to use it. You've already gained a level of skill that most people can never dream of obtaining, and yes, a level of fame too."

Lena released Deia when Sanel approached them. Sanel gently cupped his hand around Lena's jaw, caressing her cheek with his thumb. "Don't be long, darling."

 Lena smiled and rested her hand on his. "Of course not."

 After Sanel was gone, Deia embraced Lena again, tightly. "I'm going to miss you so much . . ."

 Lena's voice was barely audible. "I'm going to miss you too."

 Deia gasped, then leaned her face against her aunt's neck and wept.

 

Chapter 3: THE SET-UP

 

Myke slowly regained consciousness in a small room, still wearing his coat. He immediately became aware that his shoulder was burning, and with that awareness came memories of his fight with the Executioners and his father's death. He squeezed his eyes shut, telling himself over and over, Control . . . control . . . keep control . . . you still have a mission to finish . . .

 Several moments later, he carefully lifted himself to sitting position and surveyed the room. The floor was covered with gray office carpet, the walls were painted light blue, and the brown leather divan on which he was sitting was the only piece of furniture in the room. He glanced at his time calculator and discovered that he had been asleep all night.

Feeling nauseated, he lay back down. Why couldn't his father have listened? Why couldn't he have agreed to leave Earth sooner? He had always been too stubborn, too meticulous, too concerned about people they didn't even know. He would still be alive had they left two months before on the night the spirit dimension formula had been discovered.

Myke had been lying in his bed, listening to classical music on his laptop, when he had felt an emphatic, Teren! Get in here!

Myke sat up in bed with a start. His father had not called him "Teren," even telepathically, for over two years. He stood up and ran into the unfurnished room next door where his father conducted his telepathic experiments. His father was standing on the other side of the room, his lips dry and trembling, his naturally pale face flushed, and his light blue eyes glazed and feverish. The indentation in his chin seemed even deeper in the soft yellow light.

Myke only had to look at him to know. "You found it." For decades his father and other telepathy scientists all over the galaxy had been searching for the formula that would allow instantaneous movement from place to place by the power of thought. Could the search really be over?

Myke's father nodded, slow but vigorous nods. They overlapped spirits partially, their thoughts flowing back and forth between them. I saw it! It was just for a second, but I saw the spirit dimension!

It exists. It really exists! Then it came. The rush. The delirium of sharing in a discovery.      

Myke's father motioned Myke to move closer. I could see it, but I couldn't get there. It isn't as we believed; the spirit energy formula must work separately from the transforming formula, but still in conjunction with it, the neuronal transmissions of both formulas fitting together in just the right pattern.

Myke understood in an instant. To transform their physical bodies temporarily into spirit matter and get to the spirit dimension, two people had to overlap spirits and execute the spirit energy formula and the spirit transforming formula simultaneously in the proper sequence.

 Myke mentally executed the spirit energy formula and his father followed with the transforming formula. A burst of vital energy swelled around them, and the room became an unreal, misty, opalescent glow. Myke's father formed images of the kitchen in his mind, but nothing happened. Myke reached his arms forward and attempted to walk toward the door, but his fingers instead touched an undefined barrier. The misty opalescence dissipated around them, and they were again standing in his father's laboratory.

His father's eyes were intense with passion. We're almost there; we're almost there! They executed the two formulas again and again, but it wasn't until the eleventh time that they found the proper combination.

Spirit energy swelled around them again, and they stood in a lucid glow. The items in the room appeared in their natural colors, not in shimmering opalescence, but velvety and amazingly more defined than reality. His father appeared so real that Myke was certain he could touch him. He did, and his hand went right though his father's chest. Everything in the room was sharper than a hologram, yet just as intangible.

Myke's father formed an image of the kitchen in his mind, and in an instant, they were standing in the kitchen. The glow dissipated, and Myke's father clutched Myke's arm in excitement as they returned to the physical dimension. If only your mother could be here. If only your mother could be alive to be a part of this! She waited so long, hoped with me so intensely.

For a moment, Myke was stunned that his mother had even known. No one else had. Then he felt ashamed and embarrassed for being so naïve. Of course she had known! How could she not have?

We have to leave, Father, tonight. This discovery makes us twice as vulnerable, and we need to return to Novaun with it immediately. It's of no use to us here.

 His father's face was grave. We can't leave yet. Our mission isn't finished.

 But it is! No one in Fleet Command would want us to stay under the circumstances!

 You don't understand. I have new information. This doesn't concern only Novaun anymore. There are people who could be in danger.

 Who?

 I can't tell you that yet. This information is extremely volatile. I'm concerned about your safety.

 We need to leave!

 Earth will never have the spirit dimension formula from us--no one here will ever know we have it. It won't hurt to stay a little longer.

 But these other people . . . certainly someone else could be sent to help them.

 Certainly, but not without specific information that we can give them if only we remain a little longer. These people may be in considerable danger. I don't know yet. If they aren't, then they are a considerable danger to us. If we return now, we may cause a delay that will do irreparable damage. Trust me, Teren.

Myke had trusted his father then, but now he wished he had been more persistent in his efforts to persuade him to leave Earth. Helping these people surely couldn't have been as important as his father's remaining alive. If they were so potentially dangerous to Novaun, then he and his father should have returned immediately to Novaun with the information. Myke assumed the royal twins to whom his father had referred in his message would be Earth's primary tool in its attempt to gain control of Novaun's arelada. Were they also part of a conspiracy to destroy these people he and his father had remained on Earth to help? Or were they treacherous people his father had believed in the beginning needed help? It didn't really matter. His father was dead instead of alive.

Myke put his fingers to his throbbing temples and closed his eyes. The Earthons had tried to break into his subconscious, but the mental barriers he had placed there had prevented them from succeeding. He breathed slowly, deeply, attempting to alleviate some of the headache's intensity. He had to think. He and his father had been so careful in their testing of the experimental formula. How could anyone have known what they were doing?

They had tried the formula once with a car late at night to see if it would move a vehicle, knowing that traveling any great distance on the spirit dimension without a vehicle would be too dangerous until the formula was developed and perfected. They had not been able to get the car to move one millimeter. How could the authorities have learned anything from that failed experiment?

Myke's father had decided that moving a vehicle would require two extra people. All of the testing they had done in their apartment using telepathy vision flight simulation had supported this theory, and after extensive testing, they had determined that a four-seat armed shuttle was the smallest existing space vessel capable of incorporating the spirit dimension formula without drastically increasing its arelada load and thus disrupting its delicate balance of weight and rendering it otherwise inoperable.

The only way the Department of Internal Investigation could have discovered their private tests was by electronically monitoring their apartment for thought wave transmissions, but the D.I.I. had to have had a reason for suspecting them of being foreign agents. The only thing Myke could think of was that either he or his father had unknowingly done something to draw suspicion from a neighbor or a colleague. He supposed his father had been arrested and put under mind torture, but why hadn't he been arrested with his father? It didn't make sense.

Myke became conscious of how his father had died with severity. Mind torture. Of all ways to die, mind torture was the most painful, the most degrading, the most dreaded by all agents.

Before he could dwell any further on the way his father had died, he started at the sound of the door sliding open. He sat up as quickly as his body would let him. Two Star Guards wearing the gray uniforms of Star Force's warrior ranks entered the room. One of the guards motioned to the exit. "Come with us."

Myke stood up and walked slowly to the door, analyzing his strange situation. Why in the galaxy was Star Force involved in this? He picked up his bag and laptop and stepped out of the room into a corridor, two more guards waiting for him there. As the guards escorted him through the building, he came to the conclusion that it was a Star Force installation, a very large one. The guards eventually stopped at a door that said "Personnel."

Myke's heart tightened in alarm. What was going on? One of the guards pushed a button to open the door, then led Myke through a large office room, missing most of its staff because of the Sabbath, to an individual office at the back.

The guards halted outside the door, and their spokesman said, "Lieutenant Reymas will see you now."   

 Myke hesitated. The whole thing felt like a set-up. Realizing, however, there was nothing he could do but play along, he took a step into the office and examined it skeptically.

On one wall hung a huge imitation of the famous painting "Sunset Over Tryamazz," and on another hung a large portrait of the youthful Prince Jahnzel, the Divine Emperor's brother and Director of Defense before dying of a stroke at the unusual age of thirty-two. On the wall behind the lieutenant's desk hung an Earthon flag--a wine-red banner picturing an angel with wings spread, holding aloft a crystal sword with both hands. A bronze statue of Tohmazz Zarr stood in a corner.

The lieutenant was sitting at a huge oak desk, studying his computer screen. He was very slim, almost what Myke would consider emaciated, and his red hair clashed with his navy blue shirt. "Sit down, Zarek," he said without looking away from the monitor.

Myke seated himself in one of the black leather chairs facing the lieutenant's desk. Several minutes passed before the lieutenant turned and looked at him. "I've run across a few young people who've been upset about being drafted, but you're the first one who's dared try to leave the planet. Did you really think you could get away with it?"

"Drafted? You must be mistaken. I was never--" 

Lieutenant Reymas leaned back in his chair, his contemptuous green eyes studying Myke's face. "You were supposed to register with this office by 1700 yesterday so that we could be sure you received your orders. When we didn't hear from you, we went to your home. When we didn't find you there, we went looking. And, well, the rest you know."

Myke's eyes narrowed. "Why all the muscle?"

"Let's just say that was our insurance policy."

Myke glared at the lieutenant. "And just what does Star Force want with me?"

"You will be going aboard the fleet base ship Sovereign of the Stars Monday evening. You will train there for the next three years to be an operations engineer."

"I'm already an engineer, and my experience is with speed craft design, not base ship operation."

The lieutenant scanned his screen. "You attended Tryamazz Intermediate School of Technology, where you spent your senior year on a co-op program with Briggs Spacecraft Development. You graduated with a perfect 100. grade average. You were then hired on at Briggs full-time as an associate design engineer, which is where you've been for the last year." He turned his head slightly to face Myke again. "You'll have no trouble making the switch.

"Now for the reason I summoned you. Because of your conduct, you've been put on restriction."

"Restriction from what?"

"You will not be allowed shore leave until your superiors on the ship decide otherwise."

Myke studied the lieutenant's mocking face. Earth's Department of Internal Investigation was setting him up; there was no doubt about it. Earth desperately wanted the spirit dimension formula, and since he was the only person in the universe who knew it, the authorities weren't about to allow him to die under torture until they obtained it from him. And just how much did they assume about the formula? Did they realize he would need help if he wanted to use it to escape?

Of course they did! He had practically shouted that information to them when he had tried to leave Earth on a commercial flight instead of using the formula. Fortunately, however, they didn't know how many helpers he would need. Their surveillance devices would have intercepted the telepathic transmissions between his father and him, but most of the formula's experimentation had been done through spirit expansion and telepathy vision, two processes that could only be penetrated by sophisticated Awareness monitoring devices. If the Earthons had attempted to use Awareness monitors to tap into their communication, he and his father would have detected it immediately. The D.I.I.'s engineering consultants could estimate the number of helpers he would need to use the formula, but there was no way they could know for sure.

"You'll be escorted to one of the men's dormitories, and you'll stay there until tomorrow, when you'll attend orientation and be prepared to board the ship. Your dorm assignment is Payne Hall 712. You are dismissed."

As Myke walked with the guards to the car that was waiting outside to take him to the dormitory section of what he now presumed was the Star Force Institute of Science, he pondered his situation. How long had the D.I.I. been conducting surveillance on his father and him? Several days? A week? Several weeks? They hadn't suspected a thing--alarming evidence of the D.I.I.'s competence. Even so, Myke felt some comfort in the knowledge that he and his father had always taken the precaution of not discussing their work or ties to Novaun unless it was necessary, so the D.I.I. still didn't have much specific information.

Myke reconstructed the events that had occurred on the day he had last seen his father. They had left together at the usual time that morning. His father had taken the attaché case he used to hold his various disguises, hoping to make contact with a person who would give him the final piece of information he had been seeking during the past several months, undoubtedly information about the "royal twins." Had his father's potential informant been the one to betray him? Had his father made contact at all?

Obviously the D.I.I. had had no intention of arresting him with his father, but why his father instead of him? They must have known that a specialist of his father's caliber wouldn't break under torture. Perhaps the only thing they had wanted was the transmission, which led to another question: Why had his father allowed himself to be tortured for three whole days? Though the transmission had been weak, his father's arelada couldn't have been exhausted; both he and his father had replaced their eye contacts only two weeks before. That the Earthons had confiscated the contacts seemed even less likely. The contacts had been constructed of microscopic particles of arelada, interwoven with cells from the fibrous tunics of his father's own eyes. Novaunian engineers had even found a way to disguise the arelada particles so that they would not be detectable to the most advanced sensoring devices, including Awareness monitors. Not only that, but if the Earthons had confiscated his father's contacts, wouldn't they have taken his also? 

Myke decided instead that his father had, indeed, made contact with his informant and that he had learned something of such vital importance that he had clung to every second of his life just in case a chance to escape with that information presented itself. Myke slipped into the back seat of the car. Instead of seeing the seat in front of him, he saw his father in a white room on the floor writhing and clasping his head, moaning but never, in the dignity of a Novaunian Fleet officer, screaming. He shuddered and closed his eyes. Control, Myke, control.

Once he forced himself to think again about his predicament, he realized he was a much better target for a set-up than his father would have been. Star Force drafted nineteen-year-olds all the time but rarely drafted middle-aged men. And where better to operate a set-up than in the controlled environment of a base ship? Myke had to give Earth's authorities credit. They were going about this with a great deal of cunning. They weren't about to make things too easy for him, such as train him to be a communications specialist or a pilot, but they were going to give him just enough freedom to make him think he had a chance.

He knew his only hope would be to find three others who would be willing to leave the ship with him. Using the spirit dimension formula was the only way he would get a spacecraft safely past the Sovereign's escort. He also knew that finding those people would be next to impossible; everyone he would meet might be an informer for the D.I.I. agent opposing him.

Discovering the primary informers, finding suitable helpers, and learning their prices would take time, and he had only eight weeks to return to Novaun if the Alliance had any hope of gathering its forces in time to ward off the impending attacks.

The transport stopped in front of a building Myke assumed was Payne Hall. Myke slowly got out of the transport, and the guards escorted him to the building and left him at the door. He walked through the spacious lounge to the elevator, the building empty and ominously silent. Where were all of these new cadets? After only a minute, he remembered that it was the Sabbath and that they were probably all at Worship.

He located his room on the seventh floor and looked out the window for a way to the ground. What he found instead were two guards standing directly under his window and four others in various places on the grounds. Finally resigning himself to the fact that escape from the dormitory was impossible, he decided to go back to the main floor and get something to eat.

Within an hour, the cadets began returning to the dormitory in groups of ten and twenty. Myke sat in the lounge and listened carefully to their conversations. The cadets were baffled. Why were they being sent to the Sovereign of the Stars so soon? Why weren't they going to receive the customary two-month basic training at the Institute? They speculated, questioned, complained, and seemed unable to discuss anything else.

Myke pondered this new information. Bringing the Sovereign of the Stars back to Earth two months ahead of schedule could not have been easy to arrange. Putting so many new cadets on the Sovereign two months early without the required basic training was enough to drastically change the Sovereign's training program for years. Those orders could only have come from Admiral of the Fleet Laddan himself. Myke felt overwhelmed by despair. How could he fight the entire Department of Defense? How?