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Ascension
by Darrell Whitney


The spaceship was an ungainly thing, especially to those used to the gleaming silver and red needles that soared between the three planets of the Algol solar system. Unlike the sleek spaceplanes it lacked wings or landing gear; this vessel was a huge, bulky oblong which could only be distinguished from a building by the nest of giant thrust-pods studding one end.

She was christened New Hope, and despite her looks her mission was one of exactly her name--exploration, colonization, the spread of Palman life to a new, habitable planet.

Yet, there were tears in the eyes of almost everyone watching the launch, some on their audivis screens at home, others there in person at the spaceport, crowding up against the barriers placed to keep the crowds at a safe distance. These were not tears of joy. These were tears of despair.

"The people don't want this," said a tall, broad-shouldered man, looking out at the spectacle from the panorama-view window of the spaceport's private departure lounge. He wore a battered red jumpsuit, the kind an armor-harness was designed to fit over, and his short, military-cut blond hair was laced with white. "I checked the poll numbers on my way here. They're running 89% against it."

"I think," a second voice said softly, "that is the point." This second speaker was as tall as the first, but far slimmer. His features were delicate and youthful; with these and the long silver-blue hair that spilled across his white-mantled shoulders he easily could be mistaken for a woman at first glance. His mantle and long blue robe were not atypical; their culture's affections for the trappings of medieval fantasy even in a world of computers and space travel as yet showed no sign of abating.

"He's right."

The two men turned to see an attractive woman standing behind them, wearing a utilitarian blue flight-suit in a color that should have matched her eyes, but to their surprise did not. Those eyes were now a bright cat-green, while her long hair was a rich, royal purple. Meeting their surprised looks, she tossed her head playfully, letting her violet locks spill down around her shoulders.

"Like it? I thought it was time for a change."

"Aren't you making enough of those as it is?" the blond man said gruffly.

"Oh, Odin, don't be cross," the woman said. "This is for the best. Really it is."

Odin shook his head in frustration. He was a fighter at heart, and he'd served as the Guildmaster of the Hunter's Guild for the past fifteen years because he understood that. Politics and social change weren't his kind of battle; clearing the surface of Palma of monsters with axe and laser so that roads could be built, fields planted, cables extended, and the lines of transportation and communication re-opened. The Restoration wasn't done--it would take decades to undo the damage inflicted by the years of the Tyrant King Lassic's rule--but Odin had seen real gains, genuine progress made that he was proud to have helped build.

"I can't believe that. I mean, I know you were never comfortable with the monarchy--"

"It's a little more serious than that, Odin. The monarchy has to go. It's all too easy to concentrate power in the hands of one person, but when that happens it gives an incredible opportunity for tyranny to develop." Queen Alisa Landale III sighed heavily. "Look at us. I've tried to rule well, and I've been queen for as long as Lassic was king if you count his time as Regent, and we've only begun to undo the damage he wrought. For that matter, Lassic wasn't even a tyrant for the beginning years of his reign! It's so much easier to destroy than to create. We have to make certain that destruction on that scale can never happen again, and the only way to do that is to eliminate the ability for one person to hold absolute power."

Alis sighed again.

"I'm basically just repeating my abdication speech here, Odin. You've known I intended to give up the crown since I first took it, that I only did become queen because Palma needed a unifying symbol to bring its people together. I had to, so that the Restoration could start, instead of being delayed by years, maybe decades of political infighting."

"Okay, yeah, I understand that. But Alis, you're leaving the planet! You're taking command of this colony mission to Copto!"

"I have to go away if this is to work. I can't have people turning to me every time things get rough." She herself turned to the blue-haired man. "Noah, can you explain it?"

"Probably no better than you can." A powerful Esper wizard, Noah was not concerned with political matters. His ongoing quest was to replace the individualistic master-apprentice system of the Espers with a more organized, centered training. His experience in aiding Alis to overthrow Lassic and the demon that Lassic had served had convinced him of the need to make the Espers into a unified community, a force for good against the supernatural darkness that seemed to lurk in Algol's shadows throughout history. Even so, he well understood the underlying conflicts of politics: power, negotiation, symbolism.

"You said it yourself, Odin, when you quoted the poll numbers. The people of Palma want The Heroine. No one wants to assume responsibility for governing the world. The average person wants to find a leader who is stronger, smarter, more just than they are, a godlike figure whom they can put their full trust in and let that person make the difficult decisions. There is a certain percentage that does not, of course, but most of the Palman race can be described as herd animals in search of a herder."

"That's absurd, Noah!"

"Is it? Consider: would you rather trust next year's political decisions to an elected council of representatives, or to Alis, here?"

"Alis, of course--but I know Alis. I don't know the council all that well."

"Would you trust yourself?"

"I--" Odin froze, then after a moment snapped his jaw shut. "What, since Myau couldn't be here, you have to yank my chain for him?" The fourth of the companions and Odin's longtime partner would have been there, but a flight of dragons was on a rampage in the Eppi Forest, and one of the Guild's best was needed there before countless lives were lost.

"He'd never forgive me if I didn't," Noah said, smiling thinly.

Odin's sigh was even heavier than Alis's had been.

"Okay, you've got a point. I don't understand global economics and I want someone who does deciding that stuff for me."

"But that's just it," Alis said gently. "I don't understand it, either. I have to turn to my own experts. And whomever inherits from me, he or she might not either, and so on. Yet there's something about making a monarch that imparts confidence. Monarchs don't rule by merit; they rule by right of birth, like something in their blood sets them apart from the rest of humanity--that I'm worthy to rule and you two aren't, not because of any skill or knowledge I possess but solely because I'm the daughter of King Marek Landale. That's absurd!"

"But that still doesn't explain why you're leaving the Algol solar system entirely!"

"What if the council makes mistakes? What if people grow impatient with debate and delays when action is needed? They'll turn to me. If it gets bad enough, or if demagogues whip up a loud enough frenzy, they'll demand me. And if it reaches that point, I'll accept, because I couldn't stand back and watch chaos eat Palma. I'm not strong enough to hold out for the greater good. The Restoration is too important. So I'm forestalling that. I'm leaving Algol. If the people want me, they can't have me. They'll have no choice but to deal with the republic I've left to replace the monarchy."

"So what if someone else steps up, some Lassic, or just some puffed-up twit who says they can solve all Palma's problems?"

Alis smiled wryly.

"Then the legitimate government can take out my banner and wave it until their arms hurt. 'The Heroine entrusted her beloved Algol to the System Government! Will you all turn your back on her dream for a democratic rule by following this pretender?' The symbolism cuts in the other direction, then."

In spite of himself, Odin laughed.

"And you say you don't know politics!"

"Well...fifteen years as queen can teach a girl something."

The happy smile died away, and tears filled her newly green eyes.

"I'm going to miss you so much, both of you."

"Yeah," Odin said, growing mute as always in moments of deep emotion. Turning to action when words failed him, he seized her up in a crushing hug that, had Alis herself not been one of the planet's most superbly conditioned warriors, would have squeezed the breath from her. Instead, she grabbed back and hugged just as hard.

When they let go, there were tears in his eyes as well.

"Blast it, kid, you take care of yourself."

"I will, Odin."

She turned to Noah, who regarded her with his serene and enigmatic look. Noah did it well, and over the years he'd gotten better at the "wizardly detachment" routine, but Alis knew it for the pose it was. The sarcastic, sharp-tempered young man who'd helped her overthrow Lassic was still in there, too, and she wasn't going to leave him behind forever without seeing him.

"Noah, I'm leaving Algol in your hands."

"What?" As expected, it had startled him out of his shell.

"I'm not talking about politics or culture or finance." I'm talking about the One Who Comes With The Millennium. We beat him this time, you and I, Myau and Odin. But he will return, and you have to make sure he's beaten then as well. The Restoration is going to bring industry, technology, and a better life to everyone, but don't let the magic be lost among the machines."

She reached out and took his hand.

"Promise me, Noah."

"I..."

"What's the matter?" Odin chimed in, finding momentary ease of his own grief in banter. "Can't the mighty Esper take care of a little job like saving all Algol without The Heroine?"

"You'll notice she didn't ask you, hunter."

"Hey, I'm not the wizard here," Odin shot back with a grin.

Just like old times, Alis thought happily.

Noah took a deep breath.

"I promise, Alis. If I have to, I'll be there myself to do it."

She smiled.

"Thanks. I know you will." Alis then raised herself on tiptoe, bent forward, and kissed his silk-smooth cheek.

Alis then turned and walked about ten feet towards the exit that led to the long conveyor walkway that, encased in its retractable white flex-tubing, looked like a long umbilical linking the ungainly colony ship to the base. Then, she stopped, turned, and plucked a small pouch from her side pocket. She flipped it to Odin, and he both heard and felt the clink of coins when he caught it.

"When Myau gets finished with those nasty dragons, treat him to the best fish dinner in Scion, on me."

"I'll do that."

"Good."

Her eyes were still brimming with tears when she stepped onto the conveyor and disappeared from their sight forever.

The two men watched from the window for a long time. They watched as the last passengers were boarded and the long walkway retracted, the last supplies brought to the great ship by electro-truck. They saw the framework of the conduits, support structures, and cables detached and removed one by one. They watched the great bank of engines test-fired at a tiny fraction of their potential. And they watched as, hours after Alis had left their company, the giant spacecraft rose from its pad, slowly and ponderously gaining altitude, and then gathered speed, launching itself into a deepening twilight sky, where the engine flares shone briefly like a bright blue star.

Then she was gone, and a world wept with them.

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