Wednesday, December 29, 2004

by Craig C. Willms

willrocc@msn.com



Prologue





The very idea of a planet inhabited by human beings thousands of light years beyond the most distant Orrian colony was not only preposterous it was simply impossible. Humanity spread outward from Orr; it couldn't just appear at random.

In the blink of an eye, every notion Orrians had of themselves and their place in the universe had changed. It was as shocking as it was fascinating. The weeks that followed the return of the survey pilot, young Deppopio, were the most exciting in all of history.

A pale blue planet the locals called Earth became the focus of the world. It overwhelmed Orrian society and soon threatened to forever alter an ancient and beloved culture. Many tried to explain it all away by declaring Earth a rouge Orrian colony separated from the homeworld by centuries of isolation. Theories such as these were quickly swept aside as all the evidence pointed to an entirely independent origin. The primitive, yet incredibly complex people of Earth proved to be an endless flow of discovery.

For the curious billions on Orr and her colonies, Earth was a treasure, there was something for every one. Everything about the Earth was equally tantalizing and frightening. The planet itself was like none they had ever seen. Mother Earth was the most biologically rich world ever mapped. What a prize Deppopio had brought home with him. There had been no event in Orrian history to compare it to.
Still, not everyone was so delighted. By using the same low frequency radio band transmissions that led Deppopio to Earth, billions of Orrians witnessed the wretched behavior of ‘the primitives’ in living color. The brutality and cruelty on daily display was enough to make even the most hardend Orrians utterly horrified.

As time passed, more Orrians became sickened by the drama that unfolded before them. Twentieth century Earth was bloodiest era in all of human history. It was clear that the citizens of the blue planet were not the lost brothers and sisters many had once imagined. There were those who sought to protect the Orrian culture from being contaminated by the primitives and their violent ways. They were able to persuade the High Council to put a stop to any attempt to make contact with the natives or their murderous governments. Despite continuous efforts by sympathizers of every stripe the ban on contact with Earth withstood each challenge. Nothing had happened to change that. Until now.

* * *


Every fledgling Galactic pilot dreamed of a mission like Deppopio21; Dakkalia was no exception. Did he ever really expect it would happen to him? Not likely. He understood one simple fact; the galaxy was extraordinarily vast and life exceedingly rare. Still, some of his close friends had made truely remarkable discoveries. Had these happened before Deppopio’s time they would have captivated the world for decades. But Dakk had not been so lucky the first three times out. The promise of glory had eluded him. Empty handed and thoroughly humbled he returned home for the last time. There would be no Dakkalia4.

Or so he thought.


He found himself persuaded to take one more shot at glory; he agreed to a fourth mission and nothing would ever be the same...


Nothing from his previous assignments could have prepared him for what he was about to behold. On the first day out he encountered something that rendered Deppopio’s discovery entirely trivial by comparison. He found himself caught in the crossfire of an ancient war being waged on an intergalactic battlefield with weapons beyond all imagination.
His first reaction was to run home - to sanity. Only a sense of duty compelled him to stay. When he realized his tiny jumpship had gone unnoticed within the interstellar apocalypse he decided to learn whatever he could. Tucking his little ship among the battlefield debris, he focused the ship’s entire sensor package toward the firefight.


When it was over there were but two ships intact. One was a battle hardened warship and the other a set of lightdrives with a sensor array strapped to it’s back. His only comfort was in the fact that they still didn’t know he was there. It meant he possessed the one thing that could save his life: the element of surprise. It was imperative it stay that way.

He watched intently as the warship moved from one debris field to another. At first, this behavior confused him; what were they looking for? Without provocation, the warship fired its forward weapons rendering its target into dust. Again, the next crippled ship came under another torrent of devastating blasts. Suddenly, like a slap across the face he realized he had been a fool. How could he have missed it? Life signs. They were looking for life signs.

Terror would not adequately describe the feeling that welled inside him, a word for it did not exist. He watched in perfect silence as the warship fired volley after volley into each of the crippled ships until they were reduced to nothing but flecks of dust. It was clear that the victor had no intention of taking on prisoners; the stranger from the planet Orr would be no exception. If he was going to live, he had to get out from behind this drifting death trap.

He searched his memory for a basic physics lesson learned a lifetime ago at the Academy. The theory held that a standard emitter array could provide a decent magnetic pulse. The pulse, when reflected off the hull of the damaged ship, would provide just enough push to clear the debris without forcing him to engage the ship's thrusters and drawing attention to himself. And yet, to get away cleanly he'd still need a diversion - something loud and brash was called for. He had just the thing…

He prepared a pair of standard mining charges to detonate against the hull of the crippled warship. It would make a fantastic explosion. The timing of events would be critical. He would need enough time to charge the lightdrives from a cold start. During that process he would be completely vulnerable. If by some miracle it all worked as planned the chances of tripping the light barrier before being ripped apart were slim at best. He set the acceleration path to break the plane of the local solar system to minimize the danger of colliding with one of a million pieces of battle debris. It was a standard maneuver that carried with it no assurance of safe passage.

When it was over and he found himself waiting in the unforgiving silence of intergalactic space with the incomprehensible scene playing over again in his mind eye… First, the tremendous flash as the mining charges fractured the hull of the burned out warship. Then, the eternity that passed as he waited for his lightdrives to heat up. There was the moment of sheer panic as the warship approached him. Finally, the premature sense of relief as he broke out of darkspace alive and in one piece. But even in victory he knew enough to watch his tail. He was ready when the warship blasted right down his own warp trail. This set into motion a series of events that led him in and out of the void forty times, and still he was no further away from his pursuer. In a sense, he was right back where he started - entirely alone and paralyzed with fear.

The time was now to make the ultimate decision. He cleared the console; the General Theory of Chaos was brushed aside. A new, untested theory would take its place. Untested because no one had ever been willing to attempt "the plunge" and risk riding a bolt of lightening. He smiled nervously; plunging into the plasma sheath of a newly forming star and using the cover of the immense electric charge and radiation to literally disappear without a trace? If it worked he would escape and be free at last from the grips of this horror. If it did not, then he would die. By doing nothing he was already dead. The choice was made. He laughed boldly; yes, he would be the first to "ride the current" without being struck. His only consolation was knowing that if he failed he would take them with him. That was good enough. Either way it would finally be over.


He thought of home. He tried to imagine what would happen if he made it back. Were the Orrian people prepared for this? It was all so incredible. Yet, perhaps the most startling thing of all was that the barbarians chasing him across the galaxy were not strange and hideous life forms. They were not strange at all; they probably even had names to go with their human faces.


Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Chapter 1

CHAPTER ONE




"It’s called a floppy disk, you say?" Sollalia muttered. It felt rigid in his hand. "It's actually quite stiff." 


"No, no, it’s the material inside," explained the boy. Snapping it out of Soll’s hand Gellseno slid back the cover revealing the disk inside. "There… It’s a very thin layer of magnetic coated Mylar."

"My-what?"

"Never mind, it’s not important. All you need to know is that this is authentic. This was made on Earth." He scanned the label for the words ‘Assembled In USA’ and pointed them out to Soll. "It's the real thing."

"I see," Soll mumbled. "Is it still in wide use?"

"No. It's very old technology even by Earth standards, but there are still machines that will accept the floppy disk."

"Good. That’s good," Soll said quietly. "Now, how do I use it? Will I need an Earth machine of some sort?"
 

Gell walked quickly to the console. "It would give you a feel of authenticity if that's what you were looking for, but no, you won’t actually need one. Since the Renegade resurfaced… You know as well as I what that means. Certain Earth artifacts are going to be difficult to come by for a while. We'll have to synthesize a drive unit for you right here," he waved his hand over the console. "Have you thought about what sort of application you want to use?"

"Application?"

"You’ll have to bear with me, sir. Earth computers are quite beastly. They are clumsy and non-intuitive - you literally have to tell them what to do. And then, of course, the person accessing your marvelous creation will have to have the same application or it will display pure gibberish. Now we can create a self contained wrapper that will allow it to run anywhere, but I thought you were looking for authenticity." Gell’s grin stretched as Soll’s bewilderment grew. "Believe me, I am serious, beasts, these things are beasts. You’ll see for yourself soon enough."

Soll's days at the Institute ended long before the information age on Earth had begun. Like many people of his generation he understood what Earth computers could do, but had little knowledge of how they actually worked.

Gell smiled slightly, "Now, if you tell me what you want to do with it..." The nervous tick
of Soll's quick movements to tidy up the space between them brushed aside the boy's question. "Or, maybe not..."

"Nothing important really," Soll said rapidly "The console can assist me with whatever I’ll need." Desperate to steer Gell away from the subject he  offered a meaningless disclaimer. "It’s just a silly little project I started a very long time ago. Someone like you would be bored with foolishness of an old man."

"That’s not so. Well, I am curious why you insisted on this being authentic." Gell held up the floppy disk. "We both know a synthesizer could make an exact replica, or something a little more modern."

"What is a replica?" Soll asked rhetorically. "It’s nothing more than a fake." Soll reached up and pulled something from the shelf. Young Gell, being perhaps the world’s eminent scholar on Earth culture, instantly recognized the familiar shape of a Coca-Cola bottle. "Tell me Gellseno, how does the old familiar saying go?"

Gell’s shoulders dropped as Soll’s point struck a chord. "It’s the real thing..."

"Need I say more?"

"Point taken. Then, if I may ask, who would know the difference?"

"I would," Soll said tersely, his voice raised. He immediately regretted it. "I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to come across that way. It’s just that I take my studies very seriously, as I know you do." Eager to get off the subject Soll put his hand on the boy's shoulder. "I understand your work on the Bolshevik revolution has stirred up some controversy."

Gell took the not so subtle hint; responding humbly. "A little, I guess. I’ve contended for a long time that Lenin’s role was quite misunderstood by most historians on Earth and on Orr. Had he not died when he did and the butcher Stalin not bullied his way into power the Soviet Union might have been able to compete with American market capitalism for the hearts of the common people around the world. This was especially true during that critical time when the western economies went into the Great Depression. It was crucial time for democracy and the ideology of the free market system. Fortunately Stalin showed the world the true face of Soviet communism." Gell stopped when he realized he’d gone into more detail than Soll had had in mind. "It’s always great fun to stir things up among the Mentors. They can be so arrogant."

"I agree, I caused enough trouble for them in my time" Soll added with a smile. "I hope to do it again."

"What is your thesis on?" Gell asked while Soll slowly shook his head. "If you don’t mind my asking…"

He sighed. "Of course, I’ve been a little evasive, I know…" He realized denying Gell a credible explanation would only raise his suspicions. "I guess it’s no secret I’ve been interested in the media’s manipulation of the public on Earth for a long time," he offered. "In America they call it the fourth estate because its power rivals the influence of the three branches of the government on public policy. Or, is it so completely controlled by the unseen government as to be one and the same? " Soll grabbed the disk and held it up. "I intend to present my studies to the mentors the same way many people have gotten around the manipulations of the media on Earth... A subtle point, but powerful just the same."

"The Internet." Gell offered.

Soll nodded. "Exactly. So you see why I need this to be authentic. This floppy disk as you call it is of the era when the Internet was born, an important moment in Earth's history. If I presented a replica would I not be guilty of the same kind of manipulation used by the media on Earth? "

"Indeed, I really must see this when it’s finished. Would you object?"

"I would be honored to have you review my work. If authenticity is the goal then I can think of no one better to check my accuracy than you."
 

Again, Soll put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. "Let me thank you for getting this for me. I know you have taken a great risk. I guess we both know the High Council’s policy on trafficking Earth contraband has more than a few holes in it."

"I must admit it was a strange request coming from a sitting member of the High Council..."

"Say no more," Soll warned, his finger covering his lips. "These walls have ears."

***
It was dark by the time Gellseno began the trip back to the city. Soll watched from the edge of the pad as the Network transporter cleared the treetops and disappeared. The day had passed without his notice. Surrounding him on all sides the sounds of night echoed ceaselessly through the jungle. He stood quietly watching the pale orange sky through the forest canopy as wispy thin wave clouds past silently overhead. It would rain tomorrow.

Gellseno was an enigma to him. The boy seemed wise beyond his years. There was a certain something in his way, a maturity, a polish, that belied his young age. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but he knew he liked the boy immensely. Perhaps it was because being with Gell forced him to review his own life. His youth had been preoccupied with mischief making and merriment, whereas young Gell actually seemed more interested in studying Earth than girls or parties. Nevertheless, it was precisely the boy’s passion for Earth that rekindled memories of himself when he was that age.

His own son, Dakkalia, was the risk taker, a real player, and not a static analyst like himself. At this very moment, Dakk was somewhere beyond the sun tripping among the stars seeking an immortality his father could never understand. Ultimately, Soll was content to explore the galaxy from the safety of Orr. In all his years he had never even ventured beyond the moon Jarr. Perhaps his having an irrational fear of the hyper-sleep pods that countless colonists and tourists had traveled in for centuries, precluded his opportunity to explore deep space for himself.

He smiled inwardly. There was only one place he would go if he ever left the safe confines of Orr's gravity again. While he had never been to Earth, he knew many people who had. Some made the trip legally, but most had not. Their stories were always perfectly captivating and wonderfully told. But none compared to the original. Deppopio, the Great One himself, could tell a tale like no other. One never grew tired of hearing it.

When they met many years ago it did not seem likely that they would ever become friends. Soll was a brash, young student at Terrekka’s City’s famous Institute of Earth, the school that Deppopio himself had founded. Depp was the Institutes High Mentor and a staunch supporter of the High Council’s Earth policy. Stubbornly contentious and naturally defiant, Sollalia, of course, was not. Yet, incredibly, the relationship that grew between them profoundly changed the face of Orrian politics. By the weight of his actions Soll had unwittingly launched Deppopio’s remarkable political career. It was a rise that propelled him into the Supreme High Chair of the Orrian High Council. What had begun as a lesson in animosity between mentor and student found the young man ultimately following his master to the table.

In a youthful zeal to stir up trouble among the cultural preservationists, young Sollalia had carefully and anonymously created a mythical character that came to symbolize a growing movement among the idealistic young people at the Institute. The rebel group affectionately known as the "Earthies" was suspected of causing the UFO phenomenon on Earth. Led by the mysterious Renegade, (the name coined by Deppopio himself) the rebels released thousands of drones disguised as atmospheric monitors into Earth's orbit. Each drone lay dormant and undetectable until activated. For the next forty years the Earth was plagued by unusual disturbances in the skies. The drones, once spent, would self-destruct leaving not a single trace of their existence.

At first it was great fun. The drones performed flawlessly. The preservationists were clearly outraged and a new political movement on Orr was energized. Everything was working out perfectly for the rebels but for one small matter. Soll had counted on a revolution on Earth that never happened. There was no outcry from the people of the blue planet, no demand for answers. Yes, there were some reports in the newspapers but no one seemed to treat them very seriously. It seemed as though the citizens of Earth were born skeptics. No physical evidence was ever found and without the participation of the mainstream media there was nothing tangible for the people to rally around. There was a deliberate stonewalling of every investigation by Earth's powerful governments, even going so far as to pay off other nations to do the same. They had successfully labeled anyone who cried UFO a nut or a charlatan. Soll was disheartened. He began to regret what he had done. But there was no turning back. The drones would continue to activate randomly until they were all gone.

At the Institute, students began forming a new political party in opposition to the cultural preservationists. The preservationists, supported by Deppopio was a powerful, organized force that was not going to be easily dislodged from power. Incredibly, what the Renegade had set into motion rolled forward on its own momentum. A battle had begun and there would be no stopping it.

Understandably, it came as quite a surprise to Soll when Depp requested that he join the elite student group that studied directly under the Great One himself. At first, they were suspicious of each other; barely a word was spoken between them. Soll kept entirely to himself within the group. He was convinced Depp was only using him to get the Earthies to turn on the Renegade. Though Deppopio could not have known at the time, the Earthies did not actually exist. Soll had deliberately crafted the reputation of the rebel group as a cover for himself. Indeed, the Earthies and the Renegade were one in the same.

Whether Depp even suspected the truth didn't matter, it was plain to everyone that something was bothering the young man. Sometimes the defiant ones, Depp would later admit, were the ripest for re-education. The Master wasted no time with this one. Slowly, day by day he chipped away at the boy’s brittle exterior to expose lingering self-doubts that lay beneath the surface. Eventually he was able to convince Soll that the primitives had already altered Orrian life in profound ways. Things would never be same. There was no telling what might happen if Orr was to embrace the people of Earth. Depp explained that the primitives were like a pollutant that was gradually contaminating the flow of Orrian culture. The evidence was all around; Soll had just refused to see it before. His jaded eyes saw only a wondrous planet of unlimited potential shamefully squandering it all in a sea of violence and slaughter. To that end Depp’s point was made. Should they really take such a chance with their own rich and beautiful planet?
The Renegade was dead, and yet it wasn’t over for Soll. The head may have been severed but the spirit lived on. As much as he wanted to end it all, he could not recall the drones. He had designed them with intuitive intelligence; they could learn and adapt, eventually taking on a life of their own. They learned to avoid detection ¾ any detection. Likewise, at home, he could not stop the swelling of the radical political party his handy work had spawned. It had gone far beyond an excitable group of students at the Institute. Remarkably, Earth Party candidates began winning seats on regional boards with their very first appearance on the ballot. Soll was paralyzed by it. He could not even offer to help his master fight for the preservationist’s cause for fear of exposing himself. He was powerless to do anything. He lived in fear that somehow his secret would be revealed. He rose to political power quietly, treading lightly in the shadow of his friend and Orr’s most famous citizen. He could only wait out the decades until the last of the drones mercifully burned themselves out.

When at last he was free, the drones finally gone, he found his voice again and led the charge against the Earth Party. He trounced them at every turn. He felt invincible. Together he and Deppopio joyously declared victory over a discredited political movement. But the celebration was short lived. Without warning, it began happening again.

"The Renegade is back!" Shouted the Wave reporters around the world. No one was more surprised than Soll himself. There was a new Renegade lurking in the shadows of the institute. More aggressive than the original, this Renegade was anything but subtle. Landing flying saucers on the White House lawn, buzzing Number 10 Downing Street and the Kremlin was something that defied logic. This new Renegade was not only boldly mocking the law but also taunting the authorities on both worlds.

The intrepid new Renegade had the effect the young Sollalia had desired so many years earlier. Every incident brought the drooling media one step closer to blowing the lid off. In two short years the primitives had their world turned upside. The once ridiculed UFO culture was now the king of the media mountain. The market system wasted no time in flooding the eager with all manner of goods and services further fueling the impending firestorm. The American government held fast against the criticism. The denials out of Washington only heightened the anxiety. All the major religions embraced the visitors as God’s messengers sent to declare the coming of judgment day. The UFO phenomena affected nearly everyone on the planet. It was the only topic at the coffee shop or on talk radio. Everyone had questions - or answers.

On Orr, the reemergence of the Renegade had energized a dying political party. Public sentiment was beginning to change. The powerful Party of Orr, once seemingly invincible, began to crumble around the edges. Soll could not stop it. Even the great Deppopio could not slow the hemorrhaging. Unless the Renegade was found and stopped the Earth Party would take control of the Orrian High Council and put an end to the Earth Doctrine forever.

Through it all Soll’s relationship with Depp had become strained. The fact that Depp charged him with finding the elusive one struck Soll as odd at first. The more he thought about it, however, the more the brilliance of the man became clear. Strangely, he relished a task, as if somehow finding this dangerous person would clear his good name with someone he cherished. The sting of Depp’s disapproval was more than he could take.

In the end his investigation went nowhere. He had seemingly met his match. Turned away cold on every aspect of the chase, the only thing he learned was a connection between the Renegade and Galactic Mining and Mapping existed. He soon found that reaching into the depths of an organization as powerful as Galactic Mining and Mapping was an exercise in futility.

Membership into "the mining’s" exclusive club was highly coveted and few were willing to share their secrets with a sitting member of the High Council.

With nothing to show for his two years of work he could not face Deppopio again. Tending to his official High Council functions as a holographic projection he retreated to his shelter outside of Terrekka’s City. In Terrekkan jungleside, he could be alone.

Dakkalia, his only connection to the living, was the one thing in his life that made him proud. His only son, the wanderer, was in perpetual motion and even when he wasn’t strapped to the seat of a jumpship he was never at home. Soon his child would be settling into a jungle retreat of his own. In his heart he knew the time had come to free Dakk of the burden of being "his boy". He also knew that Dakk would never leave without his blessing. Soll had been so caught up in his own shallow life he failed to recognize that his son was a grown man ready to begin a life on his own.

He had become convinced there was a young woman in Dakk’s life now, though nothing was ever said about it. The mystery girl was no stranger but he would let Dakk introduce her in his own time. He was glad his son had found someone. He smiled to himself and his heart jumped. He dreamed of experiencing the fire of love again himself. There had been lovers since Teff but no love. There was a time when he convinced himself he would never fall in love again. How wrong he was…

Two years ago everything changed when a friend introduced him to an extraordinary woman residing in the most unlikely of places. It took just one look at her picture and his heart was captured. From that day he longed to meet her, to talk to her, to touch her, but she was so far away from him. There was only one person on Orr who could get his message to her. More than ever it was imperative he find the Renegade.

He reached into his pocket for the disk Gellseno had brought him. The two-dimensional shape felt odd to the touch but it brought a smile to his face. He had a letter to write.

He turned to walk back into the shelter when something caught his eye. Before his mind could register it the fleeting glimpse had vanished. A light of some sort, perhaps two, he mused. The symmetry suggested the running lights of a Network transporter, but that was unlikely. By rule, the Network must announce when it has dispatched a transporter so close to a residence. No such announcement had been made. He scanned the jungleside for evidence of luminent flies. The large, iridescent bug often flew in pairs. Squinting to capture the last of the sun’s rays he studied the dense underbrush. Seeing nothing, he continued walking toward the shelter, his thoughts already on something more important.


***

"You fool!" Larrvino screamed. "He saw us."

"Relax. I know what I’m doing," Gellseno assured him. "He’s so oblivious to the rest of the world right now we could fly this thing into to his welcome room and he wouldn’t even notice."

"You’d better be right. If you mess this up you can forget about our little arrangement."

Here come the threats again thought Gell. Larr had promised to procure him a passage to the only place in the galaxy he ever wanted to be. In exchange he would help Larr destroy Sollalia’s career. Gell had nothing against Soll, on the contrary, he believed Soll to be an honorable man, but he had his own interests to consider. Larrvino was a means to an end. The way things were going lately he was beginning to think that there had to be better means.

"You’ll know what he’s doing when I do." Gell added sarcastically. "What makes you think he’s the Renegade anyway?"

"That, my little friend, is none of your business," Larr said in his requisite condescending tone. "Your job," he continued, "boy wonder, is to find out what he intends to do with that disk and let me worry about the rest." With his eyes transfixed on Soll’s enormous sheltertree he said breathlessly, "that man in there has something I want."

His current rank with Deppopio not withstanding, Soll was heir apparent to the most coveted seat in the world. While Depp had considerable influence over the choice of his successor he had so thoroughly cleared the way for Soll that not even he could stop it now. If Larrvino ever stood a chance of snatching it for himself it was imperative Soll be completely disgraced and his political ambitions snuffed out. Once poised in the center of political power he alone would crush the Earth Party’s resurgence forever. The way Larr saw it, Deppopio didn’t have the heart to do what needed to be done. His academic background and his connection with Earth left room for differing points of view. If it were left up to a schizophrenic Sollalia the outcome was far from certain.

For a moment, there was complete silence inside the idled transporter. Gell could feel the intense concentration as Larr’s gaze burned into Soll's home. It wasn’t hate that Larr was feeling toward Soll - it was pure envy. Convinced that Soll didn’t deserve all that he had achieved Larr set out to prove to Deppopio that it was he who had carried the preservationist’s cause all these years. By all rights the party owed him the center chair on the Orrian High Council.

"He tried to tell me he needs the disk for a project at the Institute," Gell finally said. Larr said nothing, his unblinking eyes telling the story of his heart. "Anyway," Gell continued, "he was trying to satisfy me with some jumble about his research on Earth's media conglomerate. He was grasping for something. He didn’t really want to talk about it, I could tell he wanted to change the subject..."

"Would you be quiet?" Larr said politely. Gell stopped in mid-sentence his mouth agape. "Thank you. Now, get me out of here."

Monday, December 27, 2004

Chapter 2

CHAPTER TWO



The red-eye from San Francisco to Reagan International was deserted. The most famous person in the world was the lone occupant of the first class section. Feeling no eyes upon her was a welcome respite. At thirty thousand feet she felt completely safe from the constant crush of the paparazzi. Everything had gone as planned. Miraculously not a single camera had been thrust in her face. She smiled briefly. For a moment she felt like herself again.

For Julia Rayhied going out in public had become a tedious, sometimes dangerous ordeal. Her every move had to be carefully planned. Each transition timed and executed with synchronized watches. Each public outing was more elaborate than the last. Alternate routes were mapped out, diversionary itineraries planted and look-alike sightings staged all to protect Julia from her adoring fans. It seemed crazy enough all right. No one told her it would be like this. She wouldn’t have believed them anyway. Honestly, no one really lived like this, did they?

She tried to take it all in stride, the good and the bad. Being the star of television’s most popular show was not without certain benefits. There wasn’t a soul out there that didn’t want a piece of that. It was the seamier dividends that no one really wanted to hear about.

"S.E.T.I.’s Universe" had made her a world famous icon, a regular household word. It was estimated that a billion people in over hundred nations tuned in every week to see her and the amazing footage she presented. The impact of the show was unprecedented in television history. It peaked every standard it was measured against. Instant fame in such massive proportions could’ve taken its toll on her, but she loved what she was doing, and believed in it with all her heart. She felt at home on the set among the lights and cameras. It was as if she’d been searching for this unlikely role all her life. She liked the person she saw on that little screen each week. Slowly, subtly she was becoming that person. It was odd at first, but soon it came naturally. Driven by an internal force she did not understand she found confidence and maturity. Yet, strangely, she did not worry about the girl she had left behind.

Julia Marie Rayhied was brought to America at age seven by her father. He was a research scientist and lecturer in New Delhi. Her American mother was a Red Cross worker stationed in India during the floods. The family never looked back when he accepted a position on the Berkley faculty. Julia and her dogs grew up in the safe and comfortable suburbs of San Francisco. Life was good.

Her perfect world was shattered suddenly when both her parents were killed in a tragic plane crash. She was seventeen years old completely alone in the world. There was no family in California. Her father’s family was still in India and her mother was from Wisconsin. She had never even met her relatives from up north. Besides, she told herself she had no intention on leaving California. With a generous life insurance settlement she was able to put herself through college. Financial worries aside she devoted all her time to her studies and graduated at the top of her class. Two years ago she was editing videotape at a local cable access channel. She was fresh out of college and getting her first taste of the broadcasting industry. It was a foot in the door they told her, real world experience. Others warned her that cable access would never launch a career. They told her she would be foolish to waste her talent on garbage no one would ever see. Her early critics might have been vindicated had it not been for a desperate man named Glenn Stratton and his pathetic little local cable access show.

She met Glenn on the set of "S.E.T.I. Listens"; a low budget cable access program he hoped would help bring in badly needed contributions. Glenn Stratton Jr. was the director of the once proud space exploration program left withering on the vine by an unsympathetic administration. Barely surviving on contributions from a handful of dedicated benefactors and some equipment on loan from NASA the program was quietly going broke. He couldn’t pay enough to keep good people on staff. He never once blamed any of them for bailing out on him. He would do the same in their shoes. Local volunteers produced the modest TV show with himself as the host because he couldn’t bring himself to ask anyone to do it for nothing.

She remembered the first time she saw the show. It was truly awful. Glenn was uncomfortable and awkward on camera. His bumbling made her cringe with empathy. Despite the gaffs, the subject matter absolutely intrigued her. The whole notion of extraterrestials visiting the Earth ignited a passion in her she had no idea existed. She found herself staying late on Wednesdays to watch the taping. One evening Glenn asked her to join him on the set. She grudgingly accepted. She would play the part of host, asking the questions and he would answer as if he were the expert guest. She agreed to do it having no idea what she was getting herself into. The following week he called and asked her to be on the show again. She did it. And he called again the week after that. As the rash of UFO sightings around the world lit up the airwaves more and more people began to watch the show with intense interest. In fact, the shows rise in popularity was directly proportional to the amount of time she was on the screen.

She was a natural in front of the camera. She had a grace that reached out from the TV and grabbed the viewers. It couldn’t be explained it was something entirely intangible, but it was very real. It was no coincidence that very soon Glenn was only on the screen a few minutes each episode. Therefore, no one, except perhaps Julia herself, was surprised when the show began to attract the attention of cable industry insiders. They thought they’d seen it all when cable outlets all over the U.S. and Canada picked it up the feed. The show achieved genuine cult status within six months of going national. Soon thereafter the new and improved S.E.T.I.’s Listens caught the eye of a wealthy philanthropist from Phoenix, Arizona. He agreed to fully fund the show if Julia would agree to sign on as permanent host. "S.E.T.I.’s Universe" was born.
The weekly show combined science, mystery and Julia Rayhied’s natural beauty and personality into the hottest hour of television ever devoted to science. Fueled by the world’s growing obsession with UFO’s and extraterrestials S.E.T.I.’s Universe achieved credibility where others just went for the throat. Julia was just as likely to see herself on Scientific American as she was to see her face plastered all over the covers of People and Vanity Fair. She received invitations to everything. It seemed everyone wanted a piece of her. Most of the time she graciously declined. She knew enough not to spread herself too thin. But last week when Liberty Cole, the President of the United States of America, called her, she accepted without a moment’s hesitation.

Invited to Washington on behalf of the Cole administration Julia was to go before the Congressional subcommittee on Science and Technology to lobby for the funds to complete the final phase of the Global Array project. The Global Array project, a military program taken off the ash heap of history and thrust back into the limelight, was the hottest topic inside the beltway. Starting out its controversial life as a classified project under President Reagan the Global Array was a key part of his strategic defense initiative program. The Global Array survived the onslaught of terrified Democrats as bent on destroying his presidency as they were SDI itself. Unfortunately, it could not survive a succeeding administration hostile to the idea of funding military space projects. Three quarters of the way to completion the plug had been pulled by the new Democratic administration. As powerful as she was Libby Cole could not jump-start it again without help. So in return for any help they could give the President S.E.T.I. was promised privileged access to the completed array. Having the most popular TV personality in the nation on her side gave the president confidence that opinions could be swayed in the stuffy halls of congress.

Presently Julia felt more like a special agent on a top-secret mission than a television star. By presidential request no one was to be told of her appearance at the committee hearing. The last thing Liberty Cole wanted was runaway speculation about her true motives on the Sunday morning talk shows. It was no secret she had been taking a beating in the mainstream media on the whole UFO matter. After all, a UFO landed on the front lawn of the White House! The president, they said, did not see it, but hundreds of people did. How could she simply stick to the lie? It was driving her numbers down in the polls with less than a year and a half before the election. This publicity stunt would be the perfect boost for her sagging popularity ratings as she headed into next year’s primary season. For this the president was no fool. S.E.T.I.’s Universe was a huge hit. It seemed to give the people some comfort in these incredibly strange times. She needed to tap into some of those good feelings for herself.

Traveling alone, even being alone, was a luxury Julia rarely experienced any more. Back at the office, only Glenn knew anything about the trip. He made all the arrangements himself as he always did. It was the first time she traveled without him; it was a strange sensation not to have him sitting next to her on the plane. Even in his absence he left nothing to chance. Her instructions were simple: she would fly to Washington alone, meet a man from the State Department at the hotel and do exactly what he told her. It was all so clandestine; she giggled, like a Robert Ludlum novel. The only thing missing was the street lamp, trench coat and the rolling fog. It made her spine tingle when she thought about it. She would enjoy the moment for as long as it might last because come tomorrow all hell was going to break loose.

The soothing hum of the two massive Pratt and Whitney engines was comforting. The attendant dimmed the lights shortly after the captain had made the requisite announcements. She stared blankly at the overstuffed briefcase on the seat next to her. It was packed with fan mail she had intended on reading when she found a minute. When she began pouring through them she felt slightly embarrassed that her life seemed to mean so much to people she had never met. She began to dose off after about the twentieth proposal of marriage. Somewhere between Colorado and Missouri she started to dream.
The forest was lush but not so overgrown that she could not walk with ease. The sound of a child’s laughter echoed through the trees. There was a hacking sound in the distance, like a hatchet or machete slicing through a thicket. She spun around trying to locate the source. She saw a glint of metal and started walking toward it. The trees here seemed different, like nothing she had seen before. The colors so vivid they hardly looked real. What was this place? She had never been here before yet everything felt strangely familiar. She came upon a man clearing brush around a smallish tree of the same sort she had seen along the way. His back was to her and he did not see her approaching. Who he was she did not know. Somehow, she knew she belonged to him. They were in love. A branch snapped under her foot and he turned to face her...
"Excuse me, Miss Smythe. Jane Smythe..."

Julia’s eyes popped open. The flight attendant was standing over her. "Wha... What?" she sputtered.

"This fax arrived for you. It was labeled urgent. I apologize for disturbing you."

"No. No, that’s all right," Julia mumbled taking the piece of paper from the attendant. "Thank you. You did the right thing."

Once the flight attendant returned to the galley, she peeled open the tape pausing momentarily to read the name on the cover. Jane Smythe. The name was Glenn’s idea. It lacked any imagination, but it would have to do. The fax could’ve only come from Glenn himself since he was the only one on the planet who knew she was aboard this flight.


..............................................................................................……………………………………
Dear Miss Smythe,
My name is Jerry Baines and I am big fan of yours. However, I do not want you to confuse what I am about to tell you with the ranting of a fanatic.

First, you must be wondering how I knew where to find you. It is my job to know such things. I would’ve used your real name but I know you require anonymity. I am the president of Baines International, a research and information company based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is public knowledge and can be easily verified by you when you have a chance. I urge you to do so.
Second, I have something that I know will interest you. I have in my possession physical evidence that proves the visitors have indeed landed on this planet. I’ve never shown anybody or even mentioned the existence of these artifacts to anyone until now. I chose you because I sense something about you that I’ve never felt about anyone before. You are the one. I wish I could be more specific, but I can’t. I want to meet you and show you what I have. I suggest a public place, or anyplace you would feel safe. It is not my intention to frighten you. I believe once you’ve seen and touched this evidence with your own hands you will be as intrigued as I am. I beg you to consider a meeting.

Lastly, I feel I must warn you about what you are getting yourself into. The United States government cannot be trusted. I’m sure Liberty Cole is a fine person and in my eyes has been a good president, but it’s not the President that you should fear. She’s as much a pawn in this game as anybody. There’s an entity operating within the government that has the ultimate power. I urge you to be careful. They do not play games.

I will contact you after you’ve had a chance to consider my proposal. I’ll give you a number to call. If you say no I will understand and you will never hear from me again.
Sincerely, Jerry Baines
…………………………………………………………………………………………….

She smiled. He almost had her. She knew Glenn had a ripe sense of humor but this was over the top. She inspected the header; it had been faxed from New Mexico. Nice touch, she had to admit, very clever. She yawned as she tossed the fax on the pile of unopened letters; her heavy eyes closing in unison with the paper as it came to rest. That was the last time she gave it any thought.

***

The Holiday Inn was quiet. The lobby as barren as her conversation with the driver on the long cab ride over from the airport. It was strange how Julio, a recent immigrant, who did not have command of the English language, had apparently memorized the street signs enroute to every hotel in the Washington metro area.

Glenn chose the aging hotel situated just off I-395 in Alexandria because it was likely to be the last place one would expect to find a celebrity of her stature. It was inevitable that the news would leak out that Julia Rayhied was in town, the White House would see to that. The old Holiday Inn would be disregarded by foaming at the mouth reporters as out of the question for someone like Julia Rayhied.

Behind the desk one lone clerk sat, his head buried in a book, the headphones covering his ears leaked what the kids would describe as music. She set her bags down with a thump hoping to draw his attention. He looked up at her and then returned to his book.

"Excuse me," she said softly. The boy looked up again and slammed his book shut and peeled the headphones off until they dangled around his neck.. "I have a room reserved."

"Name?"

"Ju...Jane Smythe."

He keyed in her name and waited impatiently for the printer to spit out the registration form. "The room’s prepaid, I’ll just need a credit card for incidental charges."

Giving him a credit card was out of the question. She reached in her handbag for some cash. "I prefer to pay with cash."

"I’m sorry, we have to have a credit card." He explained it to her as if he’d been forced to say it a million times before. "It’s hotel policy. My manager really gets on my case if I don’t get a credit card number."

She laid five crisp one hundred-dollar bills on the desk and spread them out as if it were a winning poker hand. "I think this will cover everything." His eyes lit up. "And keep the change."
"Yes, I believe you’re right," he exclaimed. "This will definitely take care of everything and here’s your key Miss Smythe." She smiled at him. Money had a funny way of smoothing over everything. She picked up her bags and started toward the lobby elevators. "Oh, Miss, I almost forgot." He grabbed a piece of paper and scurried around the counter. "This fax arrived for you about a half hour ago."

"Thank you," she said taking the paper out of his hand.

"Hey," the young man said with his head cocked in an inquisitive tilt, "your voice sounds familiar." She was afraid this would happen. The over sized tinted glasses, backward facing baseball cap and floppy clothes would fool the eye, but the ears were not so easily tricked. Glenn’s instructions to her were clear; she was to talk as little as possible. Despite having been in America for nineteen years she still maintained a slight accent from having learned the King’s English in her native India. On TV it was part of her charm. As an undercover traveler, it was a real problem. "You sound like that lady on that TV show."

"TV show?"

"Yeah, that show about flying saucers, you know, SETI... something."

"I’m sorry, I don’t watch much TV," she said as turned toward the elevators again.

"You really should watch that show," he urged. "It’s really cool."

"Yes, I’m sure it is."

On the elevator she casually scanned Glenn’s latest installment. It was short and to the point. Glenn’s alter ego, one Mr. Jerry Baines, requested an answer to his proposed meeting. There was an 800 number provided and the assurance that if denied he not bother her again. She smiled; Glenn certainly was having fun with this.

Inside her room she set her bags on the bed and reached for the phone and punched in the 800 number she had already memorized. The voice on the other end was a recording introducing a voice mail system. A recording soft-spoken man came on claiming to be Jerry Baines himself. She giggled; Glenn was going all out for this. " Okay Glenn, you’re on," she said with a chuckle. "We will definitely have a little meeting when I get back to San Francisco. Good-bye."
As she replaced the handset on the cradle she suddenly felt a tinge of fear. What if wasn’t Glenn? He always said the world was filled with crazies. It wasn’t impossible that some one could have found her. In fact, thinking back over the past year no matter how hard they would try to cover her travels with intentionally misleading information somehow one crafty reporter or photographer would always get through it.

She grabbed the television remote control from the nightstand. Like most hotels the Holiday Inn had each room connected to the World Wide Web via the TV. She clicked on the national telephone book and found the Santa Fe business directory. She did a search for Baines International. It was there! She did a general sweep for information on the company after an unsuccessful search for the company’s DNS entry. In a Wall Street Journal report she found a brief description in a listing of privately held companies. Baines International: president and CEO Gerald Baines. Specializing in research for foreign corporations and governments wanting to do business in the United States. Net worth estimate: 800 million to 1 billion dollars. Could Glenn have done all this? Playing a practical joke was one thing, but this was going too far. The whole thing was beginning to frighten her.

Suddenly there was a knock on the door. She jumped from the bed; her heart immediately lodged in her throat. She tiptoed to the door and peered out the peephole. A man in a dark suit stood alone with his hands folded in front of him. "Who is it?" she called. He held an ID badge to the peephole. She could not read the name but she could see the logo of the State Department across the top. It was her contact. She sighed heavily and unbolted the door. "Come in."

***

The committee members had never seen anything like it. The usual order of things had succumbed to a sea of virtual chaos. Reporters and photographers were crawling over each other for position. Every VIP in town was there. There were rumors floating around that the President herself was in the building. Two years earlier a subcommittee hearing on funding for the Global Array would’ve hardly commanded a mention in the Congressional Quarterly. Today it was the only show in town.

The original force behind the controversial super-radar installations was the dream of knocking incoming ICBM’s out of the sky. The six legs of the array, one at each pole and four around the equator, would’ve given the pentagon an unprecedented view of space. With the ability to track any incoming object to within a centimeter of accuracy the array was touted as the keystone to America’s missile defense system. Space based laser systems tied to the array could’ve conceivably eliminated the danger of an accidental launch from anywhere on the Earth, thereby preventing an unintended full-scale nuclear war. However, there were those who didn’t want to see the arms race spill over into space and did everything in their power to stop it. Dubbing it "Star Wars" and painting President Reagan and the conservatives as warmongers the liberals along with their friends in the media successfully poisoned the well. Taxpayers and voters wanted nothing to do with expensive and speculative military space ventures. The first Bush administration quietly completed four of the six legs of the Array before the Clinton White House put the brakes on the idea of deploying any missile defense system. Only the Antarctic and Indian Ocean installations were left to bring on line. This circumstance was highly dismaying to America’s military planners as it was widely accepted that the next nuclear threat was going to come from Middle East regimes that supported terrorist organizations. Iran was on the doorstep of having long range missile capability. Pakistan and India, already possessing nuclear weapons, were not far behind. There was also China, the new sleeping giant, to consider. The people of Earth had lived with the threat of nuclear war for decades upon decades. The banal notion that each generation would be the last had permeated human society so thoroughly that it had literally become it’s own mythology. It was always in the back of the mind but never seeming real. However, the reach of worldwide terrorism and these dismaying lights in the night sky were very real. Nearly every one on the planet had seen or at least knew some one who had seen the lights. People wanted straight answers from their government. They desired the truth for once. The Global Array was proclaimed the ‘essential key’ to the truth and protection.

Julia Rayhied was hustled into the building through an underground service entrance. The darkly tinted windows of the Chevrolet Suburban held the identity of its passengers in secret. Mr. Brown, the man the State Department provided as an escort, said little to her since they left the hotel. Apparently it was not part of his job to make friends with his assignment; he was going above and beyond the call of duty. He seemed unimpressed with her. Perhaps it was a facade, his game face. It probably took years of extensive training to appear this stiff and emotionless. Still, being ignored was a strange sensation to her. After several attempts at small talk she gave up and returned to her notes on the history of the Global Array.

Inside she was ushered into a basement studio where she watched the proceedings on a video monitor. The debate was lively. It was quite clear that several members of the committee were hostile opponents of the program. Smith from Massachusetts and Sellstone from Minnesota carried the water for the opposition. Chairman Richter could be expected to buffer the two of them by lobbing a few softballs of his own. If she had a friend out there it would be the congressman from south Florida sitting in the chairman’s chair.

***
"Miss Rayhied," began the congressman from Massachusetts, "in this era of economic contrasts, where school children often don’t have a lunch to eat and the elderly can’t afford the medicine they need because they’ve reached their Medicare limits, how can you ask this government to lay out billions of dollars for a couple of fancy antennas?"

"Certainly, when you put it like that," Julia countered, "it appears preposterous doesn’t it?" She smiled patiently as the congressman beamed with self-satisfaction. "But that is an intellectually dishonest statement and you know it, sir."

The assembled crowd erupted with a combination of laughter and cheers. A flurry of flash bulbs prompted to Chairman Richter hold up his hand, which muted the din. It was going to be a duel, a battle of wits. Julia’s first jab landed solidly.

"I beg your pardon," Smith said wryly, "I’m not sure if you’re insulting my intelligence or my honesty, mam. Frankly, I don’t want to know. The truth is that this country made a moral decision years ago not arm space. I for one am not going to be fooled by the supposition that Array would be used as merely a tool of science. It’s designers work for the military..."

"If I may," Julia interrupted, "the designers of the pyramids were morticians. Does that make the pyramids any less spectacular? That kind of logic is irrelevant to the debate. This is not about the military. This is not about petty politicking. This is about finding out the truth. Who or what is behind these baffling UFO sightings? This is about answering the eternal question. Are we unique in the universe? Everything we are as a race hangs in the balance. I think it’s time we made a moral decision to tell the truth!" Again, the hall erupted in cheers and whistles. This time Chairman Richter did nothing.

When finally it died down Senator Sellstone asked to be recognized. "Mr. Chairman, may I have the floor?"

Richter held up his hand and with a nod from the congressman from Massachusetts he declared, "Chair recognizes the honorable gentleman from Minnesota."

"Thank you Mr. Chairman," he said wryly as he turned toward Julia. "Miss Rayhied, first, let me tell how much a pleasure it is to have you here today. We haven’t had this much excitement here since...since... I don’t believe we’ve ever had this much excitement..." he waited for laughter that never materialized. "Anyway... What you said about making the moral decision to tell the truth strikes a chord with me. Around here it seems the truth is in short supply. I think in our zeal to embrace every new technology, no matter what the cost, we run the risk of choosing one set of morals over another. A few years back we struck down a plan to build a multi-billion dollar super-collider in Texas. The scientists told us it was the only way to advance the leading edge of quantum physics. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to bed at night worrying about the space between the electrons of an atom. But, I do worry about the hungry children going to bed at night with an empty stomach because the local food shelf lost it’s federal funding and couldn’t maintain it’s lease. Whose morals will you choose, Miss Rayhied? Lining the pockets of defense contractors or filling the bellies of innocent children."

They had always expected it to get down to this. Sellstone wasted no time in trotting out the hungry children. Glenn had coached her well and she was ready for them. "I’m glad you brought that up, Senator. Let the honesty begin here, shall we? You know and I know that if we built the Array, if we built ten of them, not one child in this country would miss a meal because of it. The money spent here would not be taken out of the funds slotted for the welfare and well being of the least in our society. Let us take them out of the picture right now. Let’s get down to the real reason you and people like Representative Smith oppose this. The reason you oppose funding on any new technology is because you cannot control the outcome of the enterprise. With social spending you can control the fate of millions. In the process never offering them anything more than a bare bones subsistence. You shift the blame for their situation on the greed and thoughtlessness of the successful and hardworking. In a sense, telling the poor they are nothing without the generosity of the government."

"Now wait a minute..." the startled congressman interrupted.

"I’m not finished, sir." Julia shot back. The audience gasped. With a sanctifying confidence that came from the very depths of her being, she lashed out. "Let me be the first to tell you that they are not at all grateful, in fact, they resent you. Your kind of compassion holds them down. And what does it teach the dear children you seem to care so much about? What they see is what they get. And what they see is a system where all they have to do is NOTHING. The government will come along and take care of them. The sooner they learn that life is hard and that to get ahead you must work and educate themselves the better this whole world will be."

This time the audience and half the members of the committee stood and cheered. Blinded by a barrage of flash bulbs Chairman Richter raised his hands and his voice in an effort to restore order. "Ladies and gentlemen, please hold it down," he yelled above the roar. That having no apparent effect he was forced to raise it to the next level. Banging an empty pitcher of water on the rostrum, he gathered everyone’s attention. "I will clear this room..." he looked in the direction of the media pit, "we will conduct ourselves in a civilized manner!" When everyone was sitting again he turned to Senator Sellstone, "do you have anything further?"

"Actually, I’d like Miss Rayhied to answer my question. Let me repeat the question in case you forgot it during your fine speech. In a moral sense which would you choose, Miss Rayhied? Unending expenditures on military gizmos and scientific ventures, both with track records for dubious results, or real support for real people stuck in the cracks of this free market society?"


"You talk about support as if it comes in only one flavor," Julia continued her riff, "instead of lifting people out you would mire them and everyone else down. Senator, opportunity is the flavor I choose. This great government can and should take the leading role in promoting equality of opportunity. And not by bringing every one down to the same level. But by setting the standards by which we all can compete and succeed. This doesn't mean we should continue to make sweetheart deals with undeserving industries anymore than we should perpetuate public laziness with endless handouts. Rather we should be setting good examples by fostering good behavior and good citizenship. Simple things really, like fixing broken windows, painting bridges, and creating a sense of real safety for the public. And by building things that promote and provide opportunities. I site the railroads, air traffic control, the interstate highway system, electrification of the countryside, yes, even a war machine that turned back the nazi’s and the communist’s. This government, this society, yes, this free market society, succeeded in putting a man on the moon..." she paused as Senator Sellstone arrogantly rolled his eyes.

"Miss Rayhied," he interjected sharply, "tell me your not equating this Global Array to Jack Kennedy’s challenge to this nation."

"I think President Kennedy understood the importance of the final frontier. Congressman, in case you haven’t noticed, something is going on in the skies above us. I think this has gone beyond left and right politics and into the realm of national security. We owe it to the nation and the world to get to the bottom of this, now." When she was finished the room fell silent. For the first time in his life Senator Sellstone had nothing to say. Julia Rayhied had said it all.

***

They identified themselves as only agents of the Secret Service as they whisked her away from the hearing room down a long, dark hallway and into some sort of waiting room. For five minutes she was completely alone. Even Mr. Brown, who had not left her side since the hotel, was gone. When he returned he came in with a woman carrying some kind of instrument in her hand. Without speaking a word the woman waved the instrument over Julia’s body. Then, just as abruptly, the woman left.


Mr. Brown turned toward the open door. "We’re good," he shouted. No less than ten men entered the room. They each carried with them a piece of furniture or a prop. In the blink of an eye the room was transformed into a fine tearoom. "Please sit down, Julia."

"What’s going on?"

"We’re going to have a visitor."

Finally two men, each carrying a flag, entered the room. They placed the flags behind the dainty little table and chairs and left. Mr. Brown left immediately behind them. Again, she was alone. She reached over and felt the side of the teapot. It was cold. When she looked up she was staring into the face of the President of the United States. She shot up from the chair and thrust her hand out. "Mrs. President, I’m sorry."

"Nonsense, dear," Liberty Cole said apologetically. "It’s a pleasure to meet you, Julia. You did a fine job out there. I thank you for your service to the nation." The president promptly sat down and motioned to a member of her staff.
Suddenly the room was filled with reporters and photographers. Blinded by the flashes Julia just smiled and nodded as the president took questions from the reporters. She didn’t realize at first when a question was directed toward her. "I think I can answer that for Miss Rayhied," Libby Cole offered, "the plan to fund the SETI program goes back to campaign. I dare say we didn’t realize the kind of opposition we would face from our friends on the other side of the isle." 

"I really can’t speak to that," Julia added timidly, "my role at S.E.T.I. is in media relations. I have absolutely nothing to do with finance." More flashes. In the confusion all she could do was smile. 

 
The whole thing was over faster than it started. The president was gone the instant the last reporter left the room. Julia looked up at Mr. Brown and shrugged. "What was that all about?" 

"Photo op," he replied glibly. "Now, what do you say to an offer of a drink and a toast?"
She smiled. "I think I’d like that."

***


It was called The Romper Room. The club only allowed certain government employees. It was for the people who shouldn’t be seen in normal public places. Every dark suit in Washington was there. She had never seen anything like it.

"Why do they call it The Romper Room?" she asked him innocently.

"Well, back in the sixties when this place opened up there was a kid show on TV called Romper Room. They had a little mirror with no glass in it and they would point it at the camera at the end of the show and say; I see Susan and Johnny out there and I see Mark and Karen..."

"I don’t get it."

Mr. Brown tilted his head toward a group of people at the table next to theirs and whispered in her ear, "CIA, FBI, Secret Service..."

"Ooh," she blurted. "Sometimes I’m a little slow on the uptake." Just then their server arrived with their drinks. She set four glasses on the table in front of them. "Did you order two rounds?" Julia asked him.

"No, I didn’t, " he replied as he looked quizzically at the server.

"No, he’s right, but a nice gentleman over there offered to buy you a round. He sent this note." She handed the note to Julia.

As she read the note the paper began to shake in her hand. "Oh my God!"

"What’s wrong, Julia?" Mr. Brown snapped.

"He’s here!"

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Chapter 3

CHAPTER THREE 

Jarred from another night of dreamless sleep, Livvevea scrambled from the floatbed fully alert. Snatching the screeching portacon from the side table, she giggled with delight. Incredibly, the soft link she'd embedded between Sollalia’s console and her portacon worked. Smiling inside and out she listened to Dakkalia's message and stopped dead.

She never wanted anything more in her life than for this day to come, but when she should’ve been feeling the lightness of joy, the tingle of anticipation, she was instead alarmed and confused. Something was wrong, very wrong. She knew not what to expect, but the cryptic parable that echoed in her brain wasn't it...

Once a great one came upon a curiosity. If he touched it, he could destroy it. If it touched him he might be poisoned. The young one came upon a terror. If he touched it he would be destroyed by it. If it touched the him, then all will be destroyed by it...


Just as he had done on all his previous missions Dakkalia planned to contact his father by burying an encoded micro-transmission in the hyper-noise generated when a jumpship snaps the sub-light barrier. With this little trick he was able to slip a short message by Galactic’s monitoring station on Dass. It was as much a game as anything; a prank pulled merely because it was possible.

Plucking the transmission out of the sky was risky
indeed, carrying ramifications not confined to her own undoing. Her position as Soll’s first assistant was on the line, as was Dakk’s good standing as a frontier surveyor. A jumpship pilot’s behavior was already scrutinized, if he were to be implicated in any such mischief he would be reassigned to an analysis team. As for Soll, there was no telling what it would do to empower his political enemies. The law was clear: a returning surveyor was prohibited from contacting anyone before debriefing was complete. His data, his mind, even his body belonged to Galactic Mining and Mapping. The age-old agreement it shared with the Orrian High Council hinged on this one simple, rigid stipulation: the rewards of deep space exploration went to the risk takers. The High Council reaped it’s own rewards from the mountains of scientific knowledge Galactic’s pilots faithfully gathered. Still, breaking the trust was a risk all three seemed willing to take.

She did not sleep again, waiting patiently until dawn. As the first rays of the sun pierced the gloom she could wait no longer. She tried contacting Soll but he didn't answer. His console wasn’t even responding, as if it wasn’t accepting incoming calls. She had no luck raising his portacon either. While it was perfectly conceivable that the portacon might have been shut off one’s commconsole was never down. None of it made sense. She sighed. She now had two men in her life to worry about.

She dressed hastily, ordering a Network transporter as she pulled a favorite old tunic over her head. Moments later as she whisked a brush through her rich black hair, the portacon sounder announced a waiting transporter perched on her welcome pad fifty stories above the city. In the heart of Terrekka’s City one never waited long for transportation.

Nestled in the rugged foothills of Terrekka’s plateau, where the deep jungle began, Soll's sheltertree was like a monument. Having raised it from a sprout Soll was understandably proud of it. She liked being there. It was there she met Dakkalia. It was there she fell in love. 


Mercifully, it was a short trip. The transporter, as if sensing her urgency, seemed to fly faster than usual - matching the speed of her worry. She wondered again if he was all right.
He had been acting so peculiarly. Yes, she heard all the rumors again and again; everyone in the city was talking about him. 'Something was going on between Sollalia and that Earth woman'… 


His flesh and bones had not been seen gracing the corridors of the council building for many, many months. A few hologram appearances aside, his absence only fueled the wild speculation. She worried about him constantly.

As for his son, the one she loved, her lonely heart only ached. It had been a very long wait. Every day for eight months she checked the log at Galactic’s station on Dass to see if his registered breakout point had been tripped. Every day the answer was the same. And every day she would privately mourn. Their secret love demanded it. He was eight agonizing months past the return date. Cursed return dates… Return dates were entirely equivocal and therefore literally meaningless; everyone understood that. Light trippers were time travelers and a due date was merely a delusional source of comfort for the pilots and their loved ones.

The transporter descended to treetop level as it approached Soll’s land. Her work for Soll brought her into the dark of Terrekka’s jungle often enough that she knew the way by heart. She now studied the landscape with keen interest, each familiar landmark a reassuring signpost. 


It was raining steadily when she arrived at the huge moss covered tree. She moved quickly once inside the welcome room. The constant patter of the rain hid the sound of her footsteps. The commchamber was closed and energized. She was certain to find some answers behind that door. She shut down the grid and watched impatiently as the hologram faded only to see Soll’s lifeless body materialize before her eyes. Her heart jumped madly as she dashed inside. A moment of sheer panic ended with a heavy, relieving sigh. He was sleeping. The poor man, she thought, didn’t even have the energy to climb into the floatbed.

As she went to nudge his shoulder something in the holotank caught her eye and stopped her cold. She turned to face the suspended image of Julia Rayhied, the American television star everybody in the city was talking about. Her resemblance to Soll’s Teffiona was really uncanny. Like Teffiona, her beauty was magnetic. Poor Soll, she thought shaking her head, must have been powerless to resist this one.


He stirred. She held motionless; her breathing stopped somewhere in her throat. He shifted restlessly in the chair and finally after some adjustments settled in again. Breathing shallow, she reached over him for the controller. Finding no response from his console she looked in bewilderment at the flat screen. What was this? Soll was in the middle of writing something. On the screen was a correspondence of some sort. A letter, perhaps. She promptly transferred the voice response back to the controller and set it to playback and began to read...

..........................................................................................

Dear Julia,
My name is Sollalia. I wish to extend to you my warmest greetings. This letter comes to you from a place you’ve never heard of. A place far away, farther than the eye can see. It is my sincere hope that someday you will be able to visit me here, and that I can come and visit you. Since that is impossible right now, for reasons that you’ll soon understand, I’d like to tell you a little story...
Once a young man was intently carrying out his duties as a surveyor of star systems. He was charged with mapping and adding new star systems to the Star Catalog. On one of these missions something extraordinary happened to him. Historic really. Please, let me explain...


On that particular day, a day like any other, the hours of sensor sweeps dragged on, one yellow dwarf looked like any other after a while. Being a survey pilot was more often than not a dreadfully dull endeavor. This particular star was not especially noteworthy. It had three planets, not one of them interesting beyond the mundane novelty of being named in his honor. He cursed his luck for the 21st time.

Suddenly an alarm sounded! The anomaly was confined to a narrow band of the spectrum. Simple radio signals! When he dialed in the audible frequencies he heard something he had not heard since he left home. He heard voices. It was a language he had never heard before but the tone and the cadence was not unlike the delivery of his own spoken words. On several frequency bands he heard music - lively, tempo driven music. The voices made no sense to him but the language of music was loud and clear. It was a throbbing beacon in the silence of space.

The radio signals emanated from a nearby yellow dwarf system. Thousands of years of interstellar exploration and this was first event of it’s kind. Clearly, there was no precedent to act as a guide. A field decision had to made. He would move in slowly under pulse power with his eyes and ears wide open.

What he came upon was a beautiful, shining blue orb circled by one large pockmarked moon. Incredibly, intelligent beings on the planet had developed the means to generate and modulate powerful radio waves. Eager to learn all he could he took up orbit around the planet and opened his sensor array.

Julia, nothing could have prepared him for what he found that day. Shock would not adequately describe his reaction. I can scarcely imagine what it must’ve been like to see the look on his face when he realized he’d discovered that billions of human beings were living and thriving there. Shock? Why shock? Because he is human too. As human as you are. Indeed, he has two eyes; two ears a nose and a mouth. He has ten fingers and ten toes attached to his four limbs. Gender aside, an anatomy very nearly identical to your own. The difference being, of course, he comes from a planet thousands of light years away from you.





How this could be has become the greatest mystery of all time.

This, my friend, leads us to the little secret your government has been keeping from you all these years. An unfortunate incident happened in 1947 in New Mexico. It was reported on in the papers at the time but was quickly and quietly buried. It has become the stuff of folklore all over the world. Only, it really did happen. A small shuttlecraft that was used to carry artifacts to ships in high orbit crashed in the desert near Roswell New Mexico. The American army recovered three human bodies. In reality it would’ve been far easier for American authorities if they had found hideous, alien beasts; at least then they would’ve know what the invaders looked like. The very idea that the aliens responsible for the UFO phenomenon were actually human beings made it even more imperative that the secret be perpetuated. How could something like this be explained to the American people? To the world? Who were these people? Star travelers? Time travelers from your own future? Could it be Soviet super technology? The pieces of the recovered ship belied any notion such as that. The recovered wreckage represented a level of technology the best engineers could not comprehend. Clearly, no one on Earth possessed such advanced materials and techniques. Generally speaking, the American government’s reaction was perfectly reasonable.

You would ask: what of the people of my home world? What were we to think? The mere conjecture that human life could spring up independently of Orr would have been ruled a complete absurdity. Yet, here, thirty thousand light years from the galactic core, existed a planet inhabited by billions of human beings. Seemingly primitive, yes, but completely human in every regard.

As I’m sure you can imagine by your own feelings right now when this news reached the home world, a planet we call Orr, pandemonium set in. It was almost more than the collective Orrian psyche could bear. It led to the obvious question: were there more human worlds out there? Did the creator have his children spread out all over the universe?

Understanding the American government’s reason for a blanket of secrecy is easy. But you must be asking yourself why a people as advanced as the Orrians would feel the need to hide themselves from the primitives. One word: contamination. Not from disease, not from the plague, it was nothing like that. What we most feared was cultural contamination. It was plain to see that the rule of force and violence governed the Earth.

Keep in mind that not all Orrians believed in the permanency of that hypothesis. It is a common fact that one’s environment helps shape one’s behavior. The Earth, with all its beauty and abundance is a brutal place. Yours is a planet where oceans, mountains, and vast stretches of uninhabitable land separate the people from each other. Yours is world where violent weather and earthquakes can destroy entire cities in the blink of an eye. A place where pestilence and disease seem to kill at will. There were many of us who saw a people we could help. Indeed, a people we should help. The history of human agony on Earth both horrified and saddened us. Surely, there was a way we could help put a stop to all the suffering and the senseless wasting of human potential. We were dreamers. Perhaps it was unrealistic to think we had all the answers. We were young and impetuous and we believed it was the right thing to do.

It was the year 1938 when our hero stumbled across Earth. By the end of 1939 the last of the preliminary expeditions to the mysterious blue planet ended. Decisions would soon be made as to whether to declare our existence or retain our anonymity. It did not look good for our side. Need I remind you of the state of your world in 1939?

Hitler’s Germany had amassed all the might of its industrial economy into a tremendous war machine. On the other side of the world Imperial Japan mercilessly carved up its neighbors. Meanwhile, in Russia, Stalin brutalized his own countrymen, starving millions, murdering millions more. China was on the brink of chaos. An economic depression and drought that devastated the United States challenged the perception that it even belonged within the world power structure. In short, the world was on a collision course with itself.

When war broke out in Europe Earth was declared off limits. A standard compliment of satellites were to be placed in orbit not only to monitor the planet, but also to detect Orrian ships. As you might imagine, artifacts from Earth are extremely valuable on Orr. Marketeers were often tracked down and punished, but the lure of Earth was too great. To possess something crafted by the human hands of an Earthling was to possess a treasure. Many risked their lives collecting treasures during the war.

For six years we watched events unfold that stretched our capacity to comprehend. From the gas chambers in Europe to the torture chambers in the Pacific, we witnessed the most brutal episode in all of human history. It sickened the gentle people of Orr to see such slaughter. These barbarians could not be the brothers and sisters some had hoped they were.

Still, there were those who saw the good in the people we so callously labeled the 'primitives'. They wanted to help bring a stop to the war and end the wanton slaughter. No one really knows if they were successful before they were finally caught. You can decide for yourself… I must say, we were all quite impressed by the decisive victory shared by the Allied powers over the German and Japanese regimes. The level of American technological development toward the end of the war was rather remarkable, wouldn’t you say?


In the Earth year 1950, the ‘Earth Doctrine’ was drafted. The doctrine was a permanent ban on all expeditions to the planet Earth. It was deemed that nothing good could come from an association with the barbaric people of Earth. They were to be left alone to develop on their own. Perhaps someday, the primitives would become civilized enough to consider rescinding the order.

So Julia, that brings us to today. As a people, as a culture we have become completely obsessed with your world. In a sense, our culture did not survive. All our moral indignation was meaningless. In the end the precious culture we sought to protect was thoroughly invaded by yours. Your art, your music, your history, all of which is far richer than anything that has happened on Orr for a hundred of centuries. It blares at us from all corners of the globe. We know more about you than you know about yourself. It is amazing, really. It's like watching fish in a bowl whose existence is more interesting than your own.

I realize all this leaves you with one rather large unanswered question. By now you must now be wondering about the UFO’s. You are asking yourself 'if traveling to Earth is illegal then where are the UFO’s coming from?' Well, this is where I make my confession to you. I am responsible for them. All of them. All the strange lights in the night sky. All the close encounters with pilots and astronauts. All the crop circles and lightning balls. All of it. Me. When I was a young man I simply could not accept the Earth Doctrine. I was clever and full of idealism. I set out to force the Orrian High Council into changing the law. They had a name for me; they called me the Renegade. In my most defiant act I zealously seeded your atmosphere with thousands of drones. Designed to be completely undetectable until activated these time-delayed drones carried out their missions for decades. Ultimately it was a failure and I now regret my ill-considered actions. The drones, unfortunately, could not be recalled. I hope someday that I will be forgiven. I never intended to hurt anyone.

That is my little story. Every word of it is true. I’m telling you, but I don’t exactly know why. Maybe it’s because you seek the answer so completely. I feel I am responsible for your life’s work and now it is up to me to make your work bear fruit. The proof is in this disk. If you examine it, you will see it comes from a manufacturer on Earth known as Maxell. You must understand that the Earth Doctrine is the law but it doesn’t mean that a few crafty marketeers can’t get through once and a while. Earth artifacts are always in high demand. This would be the proof that we have been there, on Earth. The program that resides on the disk, like nothing you have ever seen, proves the advanced state of our technology.


Try it, Julia. Ask me anything.

Sincerely, 

Sollalia
 ...............................................................................

Livvevea was stunned. She was frozen in place, her mind barely registering the moment. Sollalia was the Renegade! Was it even possible? She had heard the stories they used to tell about his impetuous youth. No one ever really believed them. They were just stories… It was simply beyond imagination.

Looking down on Soll’s motionless body and then at the unwavering image of Julia Rayhied in the holotank, she sighed. ‘Soll, you old fool’, she thought, why did you have to go and complicate things. It was bad enough that her own love affair had to be hidden from the prying eyes of ‘the mining’. This affair had to be hidden from the entire world. It was now clear why Soll removed his console from the public Wave last night. If this letter was ever discovered it would be the end of his political ambitions. A brilliant man would be reduced to irrelevance. The world would surely suffer from the loss. But would Soll? From the looks of it he really didn’t care anymore, maybe his career was already over.

Soll moved. Livv slipped silently out of the room and re-energized the door. From the corridor she spoke with ample volume to wake him, "Soll? Are you in there? It’s me, Livv."

The door blipped out and Soll stood in front of her rubbing his day old beard and smiling.

She smiled back. "Rough night?"


"I really must have lost track of time."


"I tried to reach you this morning. Your console didn’t respond. I got worried."

"I took it off the public wave," he admitted simply.

"You what?"

"I was working on something. I didn’t want any prying eyes… It’s really not important." He stretched and yawned. "You could have call on the private."

"That's only for emergencies, you would have killed me? "


"Yes, actually, I would, I'm waiting for Dakk like everybody else and the last thing I want to hear is an emergency sounder."

Livv snapped to attention. Then Soll didn’t even know! He slept right through the message! Dakk’s transmission was held in the comconsole's buffer but the idled public channel never alerted him. Soll didn’t know Dakk was coming home, and worse, she couldn’t tell him. She swept right past him and laid her hands on the controller with blinding speed. 

"We’d better check the buffers. You might have missed something..." In a matter seconds the console was back online. "...Yes, here’s my call. And one from Terrekka’s Council’s Secretary of Operations. I wonder what she wants? There are no sessions scheduled... What’s this!" she feigned complete surprise. "A message from the outer solar system. It’s encrypted."

His eyes lit up. "What did you say?"

"It’s from the outer solar system..."

He pushed her aside as he grabbed the controller from her. "It’s Dakk. He’s back." He carefully studied the transmission record. It was tagged with code key only Soll's console could decrypt. "Okay, let’s see what Dakk had to say."

Once a great one came upon a curiosity. If he touched it, he could destroy it. If it touched him he might be poisoned. The young one came upon a terror. If he touched it he would be destroyed by it. If it touched the him, then all will be destroyed by it...

Soll beamed. "He's back!"

"What do you think it means?" 

Reveling in the notion that Dakk was coming home Soll seemed to have let the implications of the odd message slip by. "OK," he read it again... "Well, let’s take it apart... A great one came upon a curiosity... The Great One... That's Deppopio," he declared matter of factly. "Dakk’s parables are always built around keywords. Words that we recognize regardless of the context."

"Then ‘a young one’ is referring to Dakk, right?"

"That's the parallel I would draw."

"What does he mean by ‘a terror'?" She saw a momentarily twitch, his eyes dropped to the floor.


"What?" she pleaded. "What is it, Soll? What does it mean?"

"I can’t be sure, of course, but if look at the first phrase he clearly spells out the curiosity of Depp finding the Earth. This reference to poison... You tell me, Livv, what would make Earth a terror rather than a curiosity?"

Livv looked at him with a puzzled expression. "Well, if they had their own lightdrive technology... "

"Precisely!"

"Oh my, you don’t think..." 

Just then the console chimed with an incoming call. The caller was Passidda, Terrekka's Council Oversecretary of Operations. Soll looked at Livv and shrugged and put Passidda on the holotank viewer, erasing Julia Rayhied's image grateful that Livv had not asked...

"Good day, Madam Secretary," Soll said cheerfully, "You look lovely this morning. What can I do for you?"

Passidda blushed. "Soll, it’s good to see the real you. You don't usually don't take my calls, this is a surprise. We’d sure like to see more of you around here."

Soll dropped his eyes and said nothing. His absence from civilization was becoming legend. He looked up and smiled, "What’s your pleasure, this morning?"

"Your console didn’t respond to our general announcement earlier this morning. Can we assume you’ll be attending today’s emergency session?"

He looked at Livv, bewildered; "Did you know about this?"

"I did not," she replied. She looked at her portacon only to see the announcement.

"I think I smell Sebbreba’s work here..." he whispered. "What emergency?"

"Last night a returning Galactic pilot sent out a distress signal picked up around the world. They're saying he’s discovered more human worlds."

Livv’s heart sank. Something went wrong. The link was corrupted. She collapsed into the chair. Soll’s eyes darted back and forth between the holotank and the young woman’s slouching body. "Livv, is everything okay?" Her sullen eyes were fixed on the floor refusing to look up at him.

"I’m so sorry, Soll," she whispered, trying desperately to hold back her sobs.

He turned back to Passidda, "Thank you for the message, Pass my dear, we will be there." With a flick of his wrist the holotank went blank. Soll put his hands on Livv’s cheeks and forced her to look at him. He could feel the wet of her tears as he brushed the hair from her eyes. "Okay, Livv, let’s have it."

What could she say? Everything was ruined. Her career was finished and Dakk’s place in the mining would be pulled. What could she tell him? The man had been like a father to her. His political enemies were probably already lining up outside the door. She sobbed "I’m so sorry, Soll. I didn’t mean for any of this to happen."

"What did you do?"

"I just wanted to know when Dakk was coming home." She frowned. "I guess I can tell you - what difference does it make now? Dakk and I are in love." Soll smiled and lowered his hands to her shoulders.

"I know. I’ve known for a while. Not to worry, your secret is safe with me. Now, tell me what you did."

"I constructed a soft link between your console and my portacon. But I swear Soll, I was so careful... I don’t understand what went wrong."

"Larrvino..." Soll said, his voice trailing off. He began to pace the length of the room.

Raising her head from the cradle of her hands Livv said, "What are you talking about? I did this."

He didn’t answer her right away. His eyes danced back and forth as if watching a bouncing ball. "He’s probably had his own tap on your portacon since the day you came to work for me. It was just dumb luck that he intercepted the transmission."

"But Passidda said the message was picked up all over the world."

"That’s right, indeed it was, because it was retransmitted by him."

"What’s going to happen? I mean... Am I done? Are you going to throw me out?"

"Nonsense. There’s a council session today, remember. I’m going to need you there."

"I don’t understand," she said looking up at him with red eyes. "Aren’t we all in trouble?"

"Relax. The only one in trouble here is Dakk himself. Listen, Larrvino isn’t going to tell anyone how he got it. If he implicated you or me, he’d have to disclose how he came by the knowledge. I know Larr and he isn’t about to do that. He knows tampering with the Wave is serious. No one is going to admit to doing that."

He took her by the arm and walked her to the welcome room. The rain had subsided, a reprieve until the next wave of clouds blew by. "Now, this is what’s going to happen. First, you’re going back to the city and get cleaned up. Second, you are to meet me at the council building, and I’ll need everything you can get on the subject of "invading forces" from High Council’s annual Scenario Committee. Then, afterward we’ll talk all about this. And Livv, for your peace of mind, your job is safe." He smiled earnestly, and said, "love, my dear, is punishment enough." She put her arms around him and squeezed. He felt a shudder of relief in her grip. She began to cry. "I know, I know," he said comforting her. "I love him too."

***


As the transporter banked slowly toward the Great Hall, Soll caught a fleeting glimpse of Terrekka’s Ancient City. Whenever he saw the birthplace of Orrian civilization his heart began to pound a little harder. On one end of town Terrekka's sheltertree stood perfectly preserved through ages. In the center of town was the original Great Hall she had commissioned but never saw completed. Standing tall and strong three hundred centuries later it still inspired awe. In its time it was considered the very center of the world. This scared place is where Terrekka, often called the mother of civilization, left her teachings and wondrous stories as a guide for all the tribes of Orr.

As the transporter finished the turn Soll moved to the other side of the cabin and peered through the transparent hull for one last look at the city that the ‘mother of civilization’ had built. He was resigned to the fact that he may be only one in the city today who even bothered give Terrekka a second thought.

Traffic was unusually heavy over the welcome pad. Transporters large and small zipped in and out of view. To a casual observer it might even appear chaotic. But the Network was seamless, like a flock of birds weaving and diving in perfect syncopation; no two transporters could ever occupy the same space at the same time.

Presently there would be reporters down there, he reminded himself with a sigh. He could already feel the cacophony of their incessant questioning. What was he supposed to tell them? Nothing he could say would satisfy them anyway. His only hope was that the Network set him down on a pad near the entrance. Once inside the building protocol required a certain decorum be observed by all parties.

From the air it looked like a swarm of tid flies were buzzing back and forth on the welcome landing. As each transporter settled on a pad the horde of holowave reporters with their little monocle camera’s blinking away engulfed the unsuspecting soul, desperately grasping for a quote they could wrest from anyone who seemed even remotely important.


The main body of the swarm was on the far end of the landing when his transporter set down near the welcome foyer. He smiled inwardly. This might actually work. He would be safely inside the Great Hall before the swarm even caught wind of him. The door of the transporter popped open. The game was on.

The circular ramp provided a panoramic view of the entire landing as he wound his way down from the elevated pad. The situation was positive. The buzz could be heard but it was still a long way off. Walking with a sense of purpose he strode toward the open doors unhindered. Feeling triumphant as he approached the point of demarcation, he began to look around. First he looked left, then right, and left again. As he swung his head around the third time he caught only a glimpse of the impending collision. The person’s slight body flew violently to the ground as Soll looked on utterly horrified. Instinctively he reached out to offer a hand up when he saw the familiar face of young Gellseno staring back at him.

“I’m so sorry, sir,” Gell bellowed. “Are you all right? I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

Soll smiled broadly as he pulled the boy up to his feet. “Shouldn't I be asking you that question?”

“Oh no, don’t worry about me...” just then the swarm overtook them. Gell felt himself being pummeled, brushed away like a hapless branch hanging across the path. He was torn from Soll by a mass of moving bodies. “It’s Sollalia, over here! “ one of them yelled. “We’ve got him!” said another. Gell slipped away, escaping the fury of the swarm and finding himself wondering if Soll would ever do the same.

He absently walked away. Alone in the shadows he watched the hungry swarm move steadily toward the welcome foyer. Soll was engulfed by a crowd near hysterics. Above Gell's head a transporter silently came to rest on a pad. There was a slight discharge as the anti-gravity field collapsed; the hair on the back of his neck was left standing on end. There was no explaining it, but he was not surprised to see Larrvino standing in the open door, beckoning to him.

He scrambled up the ramp only to find Larr doubled over, belly laughing, inside the cabin. Gell looked at him curiously, his brow deeply furrowed.

“What?”

“I didn't realize you were so graceful" Larr chortled. "A regular Fred Astaire...”

Gell said nothing. Let Larr have his laughs, Gell thought. The day would come when he would be doing the laughing.

Oblivious to Gell’s simmering anger Larr continued. “Are you sure that’s the most effective way to put a tail on someone?”

“All right Larr,” Gell said with teeth clenched. “Enough... Obviously, you didn’t see my hand go in his pocket for the disk…”

“Ah… Very good." Larr said with a slight hint of admiration. "Where is it?” he then replied tonelessly. Gell looked down. “You didn’t get it, did you? If you were the bright young man I took you for... I was wrong. Why didn't you put a copying relay on that thing.”

“Wrong,” the boy said sharply. Larr was momentarily taken aback by the tone. “What do you take him for? He’d spot something as feeble as that. Just leave it to me. You’ll get the disk.” He paused. He looked at Larr closely, enough to make Larr uncomfortably aware of it. “Why do you hate him so much?” he asked.

“Hate who?” Larr replied with mock sincerity.

“Sollalia. Who else? What has he done to you?”

“I don't hate Soll, not at all” Larr said carefully, “It’s his precious Earth, your precious Earth. It’s always been Earth. Can’t you see how it’s destroying us?" He paused with a near imperceptible sigh. "No, I guess you can’t. You’ll never understand. How could you? Always filling your head with that garbage, that bilge they put on the airwaves. Tell me Gell, can you even remember the last great Orrian song, the last great Orrian performance? When was the last time you played any tree sports? Or read from the Book of Terrekka. Our history did not start the day Deppopio picked up those radio signals. You go to that Institute every day to study them like rats in a cage. Only you have become nothing more than rats yourself. It’s disgusting...” his voice trailed off with a calculated note of despair.

The boy remained silent as the words of hate echoed painlessly inside his head. Larr was wrong about Earth, he thought. He was convinced in his own mind that the fate of Orr was inexorably tied to the very people Larr despised so completely. But this was neither the time nor the place to try to convince him of that. Distracted by the ceaseless activity on the welcome landing he turned away from Larr’s scowling face and smiled inwardly, it was going to be a very interesting day, very interesting indeed.

***
 
Soll looked out over the assembled audience. There had not been anything like it since the day Deppopio first returned from Earth. Then, as now, the Great Hall was brimming with anxious people spreading rumors as fast as their lips could repeat them. Despite his being very young at the time, the memories of that day were as vivid as if it had happened yesterday. This time there was a different element; one had not been present many years ago. There was a collective uneasiness mingled among the subdued conversations, hiding behind the pleasantries and smiles, bubbling up in raised voices and nervous laughter. This time the chill of fear was the air.

Soll scanned the ready room. As he expected the lovely Sebbreba was nowhere to be found. She knew better than to show her face around him after pulling a stunt like this.


Passidda, the council's self appointed host, moved busily about the room prodding the council members to assume their positions on the stage. By tradition the High Chair was last to be seated. Only when each of the eighteen chairs that formed a semi-circle around the lone elevated chair were occupied would she escort him onto the stage.

With all the formality the event required Passidda
, finally satisfied that everything was in place, took Soll's arm and led him into the spotlight. He hesitated at first, convinced that more than one chair remained empty. Passidda frowned as she tugged on his arm.

"It’s time, Soll," she said, coaxing him into the light, where the cheers in his honor had already begun.

"But..."

"It’s all right, she’s there."

Soll spun toward the stage to see the beautiful antagonist smiling back at him from the chair next to his. Sebbreba, his nemesis, the proverbial thorn in his side, knowing the displeasure this whole affair was causing him was immune to his scorn. She knew him all too well. 


Sebb had been
Teffiona’s best friend. She remained very close to Soll after the accident, never betraying her memory by using her intimate knowledge of his private life against him. It would have been easy for Sebb to turn on him. He respected her and in his own way he loved her for it. Friend or not, it was clear that she had become the very heart and soul of the Earth Party. In practice, she was the bitter rival of Sollalia and his Party of Orr.

Soll smiled at her with a note of disapproval. As brilliant as she was beautiful, Sebbreba was early to recognize that the real threat to her agenda was actually the man she was sharing a bed with. From his vantage point Soll could feel the venom spew forth from Larrvino’s eyes. Was it primal jealousy or pure hate? He could not tell which. It was an ironic twist when his political ally was more threatening to him than his sworn enemy was. So it was, and so it would be. He had to deal with it. He knew that from this day forward he was entering the fight of his life.

Despite the outward appearance of poise and control he was torn by the image of a beautiful young woman named Julia Rayhied billions of miles away from him. She was so completely unaware of his existence that the whole thing seemed like a childish crush, and felt just as ridiculous. Passidda politely tugged on his arm and finally he let himself be towed onto the stage. He smiled broadly as the spotlight hit him. One must always put on appearances.

He stood at center stage the light burning his eyes. The assembled, perhaps twenty thousand inside the Great Hall, and half
again as many outside on the strollways and balconies, were cheering with thunder and fury; the sound deafening to his ears. Despite his disappearing act of the last two years he was apparently still as popular as ever. He acknowledged the audience and then turned toward the council and urged them to sit. When the roar had diminished to a din he took his chair. He raised his hands toward the audience to quell the remaining patter and at last the hall fell silent.

"My dear Terrekkans," he began, "I am pleased to see all of you again." He smiled and let them respond. He turned toward Sebb and nodded, "and, of course, I am happy to see my colleagues as well." There was a murmur of approval from the floor. "However, I fail to see the reason we should all be called together at this time. Surely, there is no emergency that would warrant such an occasion. As much as I enjoy these festive gatherings..." the audience let out a collective giggle at the preposterous statement, "what has it been? Two years... Three? Perhaps more, since we’ve had a real council session. To be perfectly honest I really have nothing to say. Let’s look at it this way… What do we really have here?"

He scanned the audience and turned full circle to encompass the council in his mock inquiry. "Rumors mostly. Do we have any facts? No, we do not. Do we have a chance to get the facts before the end of this affair? Again, the answer is no. My point is just this: there is no point in us being here now. In a few days, maybe - we will have something to discuss. For that, my friends, we’ll just have to wait and see."

He turned toward Sebb again, all the while feeling the heat of Larrvino’s glare. The first move was his to make. He had considered his options on the flight over as he poured through the material Livv had sent him. There was little precedent for this type of occurrence. An emergency session at the regional council level was quite rare. A check on the history of Terrekka’s Council showed it had occurred only thirty-six times in the three hundred centuries of its existence. He had never presided over one in his eighteen years as the High Chair. Still, he knew why Sebb had called today’s session. It was her opportunity to "shake the tree", as she was fond of saying and see what fell out. With the Renegade back in action the ongoing resolution to rescind the Earth Doctrine had been gaining momentum all over the world. Two years ago, when last the council met, she was successful in swinging two votes her way. Swaying just two more and she would have the majority and the right to take it to the Supreme High Council in New Pallpoli. Yesterday it would have seemed an impossibility. Today was different; today it might actually happen. As High Chair, he was afforded the right to frame the debate. Anything he would say on the subject would taken apart word by word. It was not his desire to stir it up and fuel speculation. It would seem the only thing to do would be to give her an opportunity to hang herself. He could accomplish that by giving the rope to the man on her right.

He spun in place. "Member Sebbreba, I ask you to channel our discussion today." The audience gasped behind him. He could hear muted gasps from stage as well. After her opening statement the council’s ranking member would start, and hopefully, mercifully crush the debate. Larrvino’s mouth hung open in disbelief. Sebb, startled by the boldness of Soll’s unusual act, was frozen in place. Sollalia had accomplished exactly what he wanted to do. He had caught everyone by surprise.

She stood and moved slowly toward the center of the stage, her saunter less confident than usual. As she passed him, she mumbled something he could not quite make out. He sat down, never looking at Larr, but feeling the unmistakable stab of his general disapproval.

She paced for a moment, her hand on her chin, her head down. "Today we stand at a turning point," she said with genuine seriousness. "Deep in our hearts we knew it would eventually come to this, only the naive or stubborn among us would deny it. The day Deppopio returned with the news of a world inhabited by human beings we all knew that if there were one out there then the odds dictated that there must be more. The possibility has always existed as we explored the galaxy that we would someday encounter alien beings whose technology would rival or even surpass our own. My dear friends, I fear that day is upon us." She paused, allowing her point to sink in. "We must decide if we are going to run away from it as we have fled from a benign planet like Earth or stand up to it and take our place in our galaxy."

Larr rose to his feet even before she had turned to take to her place next to Soll. "Never in my life have I heard such nonsense," he bellowed. "Our esteemed High Chair could not have said it any better. What proof have we? I find it unconscionable that we would all be dragged down here today to hear such drivel." He looked at Sebb and frowned. "All of this based on what? A silly little parable? For all we know the whole thing is a cruel prank."

Larr’s words were effective but carried a double-edged sword for Soll. Everybody in the building knew it had been his son who had sent the message. The registered break out point assigned to Dakk’s mission was a matter of public record. In fact, the only thing Soll knew for sure was that this was no prank.

"Therefore," Larr continued, "I urge the High Chair to call for an adjournment of this entire unpleasant affair unless someone can offer proof of what she speaks..."

There was only silence and Larr smiled triumphantly. He turned toward Soll and with a flip of his hand motioned his forfeiture of the center stage. Soll stood, not even bothering to move into the spotlight, and raised his hands toward the audience. "A wise and prudent course of action. Thank you all for coming here today, pleasant enough yes, but pointless nonetheless. I call for an immediate adjournment of these proceedings. Do I hear a second?" Several ayes followed from his right. "Objections?"

"Your Excellency?" shouted Veddetti. With a little visual prodding from Sebb he moved into the light. "I request we take a poll of the council on the question of the continuing resolution for the repeal of the Earth Doctrine."

By all rights he had to honor the request. This was all Sebb ever really wanted anyway. She was no fool, she knew there would be no debate, but she had nothing to lose by trying. "Very well, we shall vote. I move that we omit the reading the resolution… Would you all agree?" Everyone nodded in agreement. "I ask all members to vote aye or nay in silence."

The results appeared instantaneously on the poll box suspended overhead. The reaction from the audience was just as sudden. Everyone in the building rose to their feet. The rumble became deafening. She had done it again! The Party of Orr had lost another vote.

None heard Soll call and end to the session. No one saw him slip out the back of
the stage.