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Chapter Ten


March 21st of the AW year 1285, Lore Drakon celebrated her twentieth birthday. Hugh hosted a small party for her in his apartment that evening. At her request, the guests were few, to keep th e feeling warm and intimate. Only Kain, Rolf, and Cass were invited.

Cassandra was something of a surprise to Hugh. Lore made few close friends in Paseo beyond those he introduced to her. She was too busy either guest lecturing to the incredible am ount of students in the city or recording the events of the past year for storage in the city's archives. But somehow she had managed to befriend Cass.

Lore's handwriting improved dramatically since Mother Brain's fall. Working computer terminals we re still few in number, and though her work was valuable, the new New Council--it had been enlarged to accommodate nearly as many officials from Palm as from Motavia--valued the immediate needs of the populace more and used them for other projects. Lore understood and agreed with them. She recorded nearly everything by hand on a mix of processed paper and more natural material.

The long flat leaves of the oasis lily proved usable as paper when soaked in water, evenly interwoven, and pressed dry. Lo re had gleaned that knowledge from her studies in agrarian Motavian culture at the Kueri University. Factories were still down in many areas despite Palm's promises, and the New Council would not allocate her nearly enough paper either.

Lore had met Cassandra quite by accident while storing her makeshift books in the Paseo Archive. Cass knew the value of Lore's work and was saddened by the fact that the manuscripts had to be stored in such poor condition. Being one of the librarians, Cass had acces s to the archive's computer terminal. Though she could not use it often, she offered to transcribe Lore's chronicles to computer format whenever the terminal became available. Elated, Lore accepted, and the women had worked closely together for the past two months.

Hugh was happy to discover Lore had met her. He sometimes felt the historian gave up far too much of her own life for the sake of Motavia's recovery.

"We're all here now," said Hugh, as he took his place standing beside her.

His living room was dark, lit only by dim white candles held in the hands of the present. The five stood around the round glass dinner table with a sole platter of flaky white pastries in the center.

"I thank you all for coming," said Lore.

"The seco nd decade is not to be missed," said Rolf with a smile.

Lore looked sheepish. "I wish I had arrived in Paseo a little earlier last year. Then I could have been here for Hugh's."

Hugh waved the comment away. "You didn't miss much. The living si tuation was so bad we couldn't even make the sandmelon cakes."

Cass grinned. "And that's bad."

"Shall we start?" asked Kain.

Lore nodded. "Yes."

Rolf held out his candle as everyone spread themselves into an even ring around the table. "The first candle; the candle bearing wisdom." He set it down gently before the platter.

Kain now raised his candle, nodding to Lore as he did. "The second candle; brings distant joy." He placed his candle by the platter, a fifth of the way around from Rolf's.

"The third candle," Cass whispered lyrically, "comes with the scent of spring." She silently added hers to those on the table.

Hugh lifted his candle and gazed reflectively into it. "The fourth candle; the candle of hope." The flames flickered ever so slightly as he set his down.

"And the last candle," said Lore, "the candle that is me." She placed hers down, completing the circle. She took a deep breath and blew them all out.

Darkness filled the room, but it was the warm, comforting kind found when wrapped snugly in bed at night. It crept over them like a blanket, holding them close and safe. Lore reached out with her hands, clasping Hugh's in one and Kain's in the other. She could feel their movements as they reached out to Cass and Rolf, and knew that in turn those two would reach to each other so they all would be connected. Five minds as one.

"Sa gi na," they whispered. "Sa gi na nei gen."

"Foi," whispered Hugh.

The flames flickered to life a round the candles' stems.

"The circle has been renewed," said Rolf, as everyone relaxed their arms.

"Congratulations," added Cass.

Lore smiled. "Thank you. It's good to share the moment with small group of friend." She chuckled. "Besides, five candles makes it really easy for me to blow them all out!"

Kain flipped the light switch to get the lamp back on, eliciting a series of groans from the other people. "What?" he whined in mock self-defense against the glares thrown in his directi on. "Besides, now we get to eat!"

Lore relented and smiled. "Yeah, and open presents," she said with a laugh. "All right, let's get some plates out. We've been slaving over these cakes all day! It's a good thing sandmelons actually like dry tempe ratures or these cakes would be drier than sand."

Her remark earned a few chuckles as Hugh set out five small plates. Everyone sat down, Lore using a fifth chair that had been brought in from the study. Cass took the little serving spatula a nd placed two cakes on each plate. Several more still remained on the platter.

"Let's see..." Lore murmured as Rolf handed her his wrapped gift. "You said yours was the candle of wisdom, right?"

He nodded, enjoying the centuries old hinting game that surrounded every birthday celebration.

Lore hmmed. "I bet I know Cass's present, and I have an idea for yours, Rolf." She looked at Kain and Hugh. "You two got creative though." Lore smiled warmly. "So I'd better not be disappointed."

R olf's present turned out to be an ancient book, marvelously preserved since printing faded out. "A volume discussing Myau's people, the musk cats," he offered by way of explanation. Lore adored the small book, which had been written for the casual reade r rather than the sophisticated. Cass gave her a vial of perfume--hard to come by these days--which Lore proudly announced she had guessed ahead of time. And Kain presented her with a sheaf of sheet music; the notes and lyrics to an ancient love song.

"A distant joy," she murmured, leafing through the song's pages. Lore grinned, embracing Kain with a warm hug. "Thank you."

The visaphone rang as she reached out for Hugh's present. A slight frown glossed her face.

"It's all right," said Hug h. "I'll go get it. You just open your present." He offered her a smile as he headed for the phone by the kitchen.

Lore nodded and took the small package in her hands. She heard Hugh answer the phone as she carefully tugged the ribbon free of its knot. She moved slowly and deliberately, hoping he would finish talking in time to see her open the box. He had turned away from her. She did not understand why. He could have easily watched her from his vantage point by the phone, but Hugh had his ba ck to her and faced the kitchen. He spoke in low, hushed tones.

She sighed as the glittery wrapping paper fell away to reveal the quaint white box beneath. The historian glanced at Hugh one more time to see if he was looking. He wasn't. She shrugg ed, smiled wanly to her guests, and lifted the lid.

Hugh set down the phone. "Guys," he said gravely, "we have to go."

"What?" asked Kain.

"Commander Yurik has requested a secret meeting of the New Council. All five of us have to come immedi ately."

Cass almost hiccuped over her sharp intake of breath. "Even me?"

Hugh nodded. "Even you. This meeting is not to be recorded, not to have taken place. To the rest of the city, we're still having this party. Since you're with us you'll have to come."

Lore sighed, looking sadly at Hugh. "Did the Council plan this, knowing it was my birthday?"

He shook his head. "I don't know, but if they did, they'd better be sorry."

A few minutes later the five silently filed out of Hugh's apartment, leaving the gifts where they sat on the dinner table, surrounded by partially eaten sandmelon cakes. In front of Lore's chair lay the open white box given to her with the candle of hope. Within it, cradled by several layers of tissue, was a small gold necklace with an amber pendant shaped like a teardrop and the color of the lake at sunset.

* * * * *

"Welcome, I'm glad you could make it at this time of night," Councilman Turgen remarked dryly as the five entered the conference room.

"You didn't leave us much choice," said Hugh.

"Please, take a seat." Commander Yurik motioned to four empty chairs around the oblong table and a fifth at the corner, obviously added for Cass. "We absolutely can't let word of this get out. You were summoned because we need you and we can discuss certain classified information with you."

"Need us? What a joke," muttered Kain.

"He's just trying to keep the peace," Lore whispered.

The five took their seats and glan ced about the austere room. Six members of the Council were present, included the Commander of Motavia, their spokesperson. The governor of Palm, though a member of the Council, was conspicuously absent. Rudo Steiner, who was not a member of the Counci l, was strangely present. Three chairs still remained empty.

"Who are we waiting for?" asked Rolf.

Turgen smiled, though there was no warmth behind it. "You'll see. They should be here in a few minutes."

"Should we start without them?" aske d a woman. "We can't stay long."

The councilman opened his mouth to respond when the computer locked door clicked open beneath the input of the correct code. The heavy door swung open as a tall blond woman strode inside with two smaller women right behind her. Lore recognized one of them as Shir, and Hugh's breath choked audibly in his throat at the sight of the other.

"Amy Sage, Shir Gold, and Anna Zirski, as requested," announced the blond woman.

Councilman Hartford nodded. "Thank you, M s. Zirski. Please, you and your compatriots take a seat."

Commander Yurik glanced to each of the people in the room as their attention focused on him. More than a few furtive glances passed between the younger people present. The Commander cleared his throat to begin. "I notice that a certain seven of you are very surprised to see each other again. Unless I'm mistaken this is the first time you have assembled since you delivered your report about Mother Brain."

"Yes," said Rolf, "it's been a long time. Nearly a year now."

Yurik inclined his head. "Indeed. Next month will be the anniversary of Mother Brain's destruction."

"Is that why you called us all here?" Shir grimaced impatiently.

"Somewhat." The Commander measured his ne xt words carefully. "You see, we have a mission we need accomplished. And we'll need your help." Grim faces lined the end of the table where the seven and their two friends sat. "The group of you have been through a lot, but you may be the only ones c apable of pulling off what we have in mind. But before I go too far into that, I should give you some background details."

Yurik scanned the small pile of papers in front of him. "As you know, it's been about three months since our Palman contempora ries have joined us, and the news I have to relate to you may be surprising. Here is their story of Palm's destruction..."

Dark Force. It was the entity that possessed the Motavian governor years ago in Alis's time, and a power some said existed lon g before her as well. The Palman government under Mother Brain's rule disregarded the legend, calling it a myth, a tale for children. But when Mother Brain grew distant from them, self-absorbed one could say, a woman spoke out. Her voice was eloquent a nd thoughtful. She reminded the people that Dark Force would return again, and return soon.

That was over six years ago. No one knew what Dark Force had in mind, but it had manipulated people to do its bidding before, and would likely do so again. Some speculated Dark Force would strike at Mother Brain, to cripple them. They did not expect Mother Brain or her creators to be an evil themselves. A fleet of ships was created to conceivably carry the people of Algo to safety should their planets beco me a battleground again. Once the release of the Biomonsters on Motavia became known, that was all that Palm needed to start loading its people into their ships. Something was coming, and it was best not to be planetside when it happened. Mother Brain was still distant, occupied, and the ban against space travel was easily ignored. The ships were made off an experimental design by a Dr. Luveno who lived a millennia ago, and the final structures were spaceworthy. As soon as the satellites warned them of Gaira's approach, all ships capable of doing so took off. Many lives were lost; there were not enough ships for everyone, and some ships could not lift off in time. But a majority of the populace survived.

During the six months between Palm's exp losion and contacting Motavia, the different ships of the fleet argued over their fate; where they should go, whether it was safe to go. In the end, the ships split into four groups, and families were shuttled back and forth between them until everyone w as on the ship that would follow their chosen destiny. Two groups would resettle on Motavia and Dezo, one would remain drifting around the system until certain of its safety, and the last decided to leave Algo altogether.

Some said that final group l eft Algo to abandon it and its problems. Others said they left as a lure, to draw the Dark Force away from them. No one knew for certain, but all doubted they would ever hear from that group again. No ship that left Algo's borders ever returned.

"B asically," Yurik concluded, "the people of Palm believed that Dark Force was the cause of all this, not the Earthmen. We of the New Council understand that the seven of you did indeed meet and defeat this Dark Force."

"Yes, said Anna," but we had no idea it was the same thing that Alis fought."

"It was in our way," Rudo added. "We had no choice but to fight it."

"But you did defeat it," said the Commander.

Seven heads nodded.

Yurik paused. "At this point in time it might take a whil e to reconcile the facts and decide just what Dark Force was doing up there and what his connection with the Earthmen is.

"You see, this information is relevant because of where we wish to send you: Noah."

"The spaceship!" Amy whispered.

"Yes, Dr. Sage, the alien spaceship. We want you to retrieve as much information as you can from and about Mother Brain. Mr. Kain said himself that the reason things aren't completely working planetside may be because parts of the network are still in space. We must know for certain. And if a supernatural entity was behind the events on Noah, it may be extremely dangerous to return there even if Dark Force and the Earthmen are gone."

"You're not thinking of reactivating Mother Brain though, are you?" L ore asked.

Yurik shook his head. "Right now we just want information."

And the rest of what you want is classified , Lore thought.

"Naturally not all of you are going," he continued, "but we need as much information from you as possibl e to construct a rough map of the ship and realize what sort of dangers might befall the crew of such a mission. In addition to the few of you selected for this operation, some of our own people will be accompanying you, and they will have to be prepared ."

"So who's going?" Shir asked sullenly.

"Rolf will not," Yurik stated. "Though he lead you before he has become too valuable to loose. However it is essential to possess the appropriate pool of talent, so the New Council has selected Josh Kain to handle the computer work, Rudolf Steiner and Anna Zirski for the necessary fighting skills, and Hugh Thompson and Amy Sage to handle medical and other biological needs. Those five shall accompany Drs. Kudou and Arik from Palm on this mission. The do ctors are already aware of this mission and will be briefed more thoroughly at a future time. The Council has also decided that Dr. Thompson shall head this operation."

Hugh paled considerably and Kain glared severely at him. The biologist lowered h is gaze though that did little to improve his pallor.

"Is something wrong, Doctor?" Yurik asked.

"No, it's nothing," said Hugh. He bowed his head politely. "It is an honor to be chosen."

* * * * *

"They must be despe rate to ask us to go back to Noah," Kain whispered as he and Lore walked out of the conference room a couple hours later. They had been dismissed so that the councilors could continue their debate without them.

Lore shook her head. "I wouldn't call that asking." Her reply also came in a whisper so that the politicians behind them would not overhear.

"I just wish I knew what was going on," said Cass, coming up to join them. "What are they going to do with whatever you find?"

"I don't know," replied Kain, "but I'll keep an eye out for it. I'm more concerned right now about Hugh." As the three came to a halt partway down the hallway, Hugh exited the conference room in the company of the petite red-haired doctor. "He was a wreck after we le ft Noah," Kain continued. "I'm not sure he's ready to go back there, even if it's been almost a year."

"He's been quiet about it," Lore agreed, "but he hasn't had reason to face it either."

Kain looked grim. "He will now."

"Maybe, if he gets his mind off of other things." By way of explanation, Lore pointed to Hugh and Amy walking down the hallway away from the rest of the group. "Were they close?"

Kain shook his head. "I never really paid attention. Things were so intense then... I think Hugh liked her, but-" He hesitated, looking at Lore.

Lore gave him a crooked smile. "What, you think I'm jealous?" She chuckled genuinely. "Hugh's my friend, Kain. And over the past year he has been a very good friend. But," --she looked a bit sheepish-- "I didn't know Hugh had a love interest. He never talked about her. It just surprised me."

Kain nodded. "Yeah, you've been living with him for several months now."

"On and off. I suppose it really is time for me to get my own apartment. I've just been so busy I hadn't given it any thought. But... if he's going to have a relationship again, I think I'd better move soon."

Lore took a last look in the direction Hugh and Amy had gone and figured he would be all right. She m otioned to Kain and Cass and headed out of the building.

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