“How do you feel?” Eli asked Eden some hours later. Luke had continued to monitor Eden faithfully throughout the remainder of the procedure while Eli had checked in several times as a means of easing her frustration with her tests. Once the process was complete, Luke had offered to switch places with Eli, knowing Eden would want her to be present when she awakened. And as he so accurately pointed out, he might be able to see something she couldn’t – bring a pair of fresh eyes to the problem.
“Don’t forget, Boss,” he’d reminded her gently, that’s how we figured this out,” motioning to Eden. Eli had smiled and thanked him, then taken his seat on the stool beside the biobed. Luke took the hint and moved to the lab. Eli looked around at the monitors and nodded contentedly at what they told her.
It really wasn’t that long before Eden started shifting and showing signs of waking up. Eli gentled her through the process and only now that she was fully cognizant did Eli begin thoroughly examining her, starting with asking Eden flat out how she was doing.
Eden blinked and considered the question. “Tired,” she replied honestly, “but better. I dunno if it’s all in my mind, but it feels like a different kind of tired than before,” meeting Eli’s eyes. “Like I’ve actually been working hard instead of being mentally exhausted.”
Eli smiled as she continued her examination. “Probably because you have been working hard. As far as your body is concerned, you were fighting a major battle for the better part of the day – all of you was fighting, and a lot of the fight was against yourself.” She made some notes on her Pad. “I’m going to put you on bed rest for another two days; it will give you a chance to recover. I want to re-evaluate you then. But I fully expect you to be returned to normal duty after that.”
Eli chuckled. “And coffee,” she agreed. She raised the privacy shield. “Would you like some help getting dressed?”
“Honestly?” Eli nodded. “I’d rather stay wrapped up in the blanket and get into a hover chair so you can take me to my room.”
“All right,” Eli agreed readily. “Let me call Luke.”
Eden narrowed her eyes. “You capitulated too easily. What’s the hook?”
Eli shook her head. “Nothing. You’re exhausted,” she pointed out reasonably. “We both know you’ll rest better in your own quarters, and there’s no reason for you to get dressed if you’re actually going to follow the guidelines and use the hover chair. Would you like me to warm another blanket to place in the chair before we shift you over? It will be quite cold otherwise.”
“I’d like that, Doc. Thanks.”
Eli nodded and dropped the privacy screen, then walked to the cabinet and retrieved another blanket. A word to Luke, and they returned to Eden’s side together, lifting her from the biobed and placing her into the hover chair without a hitch. Eden’s eyes were closed and her breathing slowing when they stepped back. Eli put a hand on her shoulder, and after a moment black eyes slowly opened.
Eden grinned tiredly. “Who knew being moved like a baby was so draining? Let’s go... before I fall asleep in this chair.”
Luke met Eli’s eyes. “Go ahead, Boss. I’ll stay here and clean up before we dim the lights for the night. If you need me....”
“Night, Boss. Night, Eden.”
“So how is she?” Arianna asked when Eli entered their quarters some time later. It had taken a little while to get Eden settled, and it hadn’t helped that she didn’t want anyone else to see her so weak. “I’ve been weak and vulnerable in front of everyone for too long. I won’t have them all pity me for not even being able to stand on my own two feet.” Eli knew it was a combination of factors that were making Eden so cranky, but it wasn’t doing anything to mitigate her own anger and frustration. Still, she managed to get Eden settled and comfortably asleep without losing her temper. She bit her tongue now to keep from lashing out at Arianna. Instead she held up a hand.
“I’m going to get cleaned up and then get something to eat. After that I promise to fill you in.”
Arianna studied Eli for a moment, seeing so much of what wasn’t being said. She nodded. “Would you like me to go pick up our meals from the dining hall, or do you want to eat with everyone else?”
“I’d love to be alone with you this.... What time is it anyway?” running a hand through her blonde hair.
Arianna smiled. “It doesn’t matter. Go take your shower and relax. I’ll have food waiting when you are finished.”
“I love you,” Eli said sincerely. “You do know that, right?”
“Of course,” Arianna assured her instantly, then frowned. “Why would you think otherwise?”
“Because I feel like I have been a horrible mate to you thus far. Everything but you has come first in my life.”
“That’s not true. BUT... we will discuss this after your shower and our meal. Go... shoo.” Eli looked at her covered feet and then back at Arianna in confusion. Arianna laughed. “You never hear Mama say that? It means ‘get out of here... now’. So go... shoo. I’ll be right back.” And with a wink, she headed out the door.
Eli watched her go and remained standing perfectly still for another full minute before glancing at her shoes again and shaking her head. Then she went into the bathroom and stripped down for her shower, groaning in relief when the pulses pounded into the knots on her back.
The shower was still running when Arianna reentered their living quarters and she was struck by the silence. As a musician, she tended to notice when there was music nearby, and though she didn’t think Eli was aware of it, Eli tended to hum quietly to herself a lot – when she was working on something; when she was in a particularly good mood; when she was deep in thought. The only times Arianna had ever noticed reticence on Eli’s part was when there was something wrong. For months Eli had been mute when she and Arianna were estranged, so the silence now did not bode well in Arianna’s book.
She set the meal packets on the table and made her way into the bedroom and through into the bathroom. Only then did she understand the silence, and it made her smile. Eli was standing beneath the sonic pulse – her back to the showerhead and her forehead leaning against the opposite wall – sound asleep. Arianna just shook her head and stepped forward to wake Eli enough to move her to their bed. At her first touch, Eli startled awake, then looked around in confusion before her eyes settled on Arianna.
“Come, Amado. It’s bedtime for healers and warriors.”
“I’m a healer... and a warrior,” Eli offered dazedly as she accepted Arianna’s hand and exited the shower cubicle.
“You are indeed. And you’ve been fighting for a while so it’s time for you to rest now. We’ll eat after we sleep.”
“Sleep sounds wonderful. Are you sleeping with me?”
“I am,” Arianna confirmed as she stripped her clothes off and climbed into the bed. “Come, Warrior. We’ll rest and then eat and then rest some more. Then we’ll talk.”
Eli frowned even as she crawled into bed and curled her longer form around Arianna, tucking her head beneath Arianna’s chin so she could listen to her heartbeat. “Am I in trouble?”
Arianna chuckled and brushed a kiss over the blonde head. “Only if you want to be, Love. Now close your eyes and go to sleep. I’ll be here when you wake up.”
Eli’s breathing evened out and she tucked herself tighter into Arianna. Arianna maneuvered the blankets up over them, then called for the lights to dim. It wasn’t long before she fell into sleep as well.
Green eyes blinked open, noting there were lights on in the room and wondering when it was. She continued to blink slowly as she tried to gather her scattered wits, smiling as she recognized her body pillow as the real body of her mate. She shifted slowly, not wanting to disturb Arianna if she was still sleeping. Tanned arms tightened around her and Eli felt the smile against her hair. So she wasn’t all that surprised to meet brown eyes when she shifted to look at Arianna’s face.
“Hi,” she whispered, her voice more gravelly than usual and her mouth extremely dry.
“Welcome back, Stranger,” Arianna replied softly. “How do you feel?”
Eli yawned and stretched. “Rested,” she said with a touch of wonder in her voice. “And really thirsty.” She scowled. “How long was I...? What day is it anyway?”
“Relatively speaking?” Arianna asked with a smirk. “Let’s just say you’ve been sleeping for about twenty-six standard hours... all things considered.”
Eli blinked as she processed Arianna’s words, then shot up to a sitting position where she could see Arianna’s expression. “Excuse me?! What did you just say?”
Arianna reached for Eli, tugging gently until Eli relaxed back against her still mumbling under her breath. “Hush and I’ll tell you.” Eli pinched her lips closed and nodded her head against Arianna’s chest. Arianna smiled in response. “Do you remember tucking Eden into bed after her procedure?” Eli nodded. “Do you remember coming home?” Another nod, though this one was much slower and unsure. Eli waggled her hand and Arianna linked their hands together. “You fell asleep in the shower.” Eli sat up again with a frown; Arianna simply arched a brow at her. In a moment Eli reclined once more, squeezing the hand she still held. “I tucked us into bed, and we slept for almost thirteen standard. We got up long enough to eat and for me to let Luke and Eden know what was going on, then we came back to bed.”
“And slept for another thirteen hours?”
“Give or take,” Arianna replied as she glanced at their chronometer.
“Why Luke and Eden?”
Arianna smirked. “Luke to cover the infirmary and keep an eye on Eden; Eden because she’s your second.”
“Good call,” Eli stated with a smirk of her own. “How’s Eden doing?”
“Well since Luke didn’t come running in here to wake you, I’m going to assume she’s doing all right.”
“You don’t know?”
“Amado, aside from going to pick up our meal packets when you were in the shower, I haven’t left the room since you walked in after Eden was settled. Even when I called them, I called from here in the bed. You were already curled up around me asleep again.”
“Oh... um.... Well, maybe we should get up and see what we’ve missed?” Two stomachs growled in tandem and they looked at one another and giggled. “Or maybe we should eat first?”
“I have a suggestion.” Eli cocked an eyebrow and Arianna grinned. “What if we shower and then call a team meeting over....” She glanced at the chronometer again and tilted her head in thought. “Dinner, I think it is. It will give everyone a chance to see you really are okay and you a chance to catch up on whatever we missed for two days.”
“You’re kind of brilliant, you know.”
“I know,” Arianna agreed without argument. “It’s what makes me so charming.”
Eli laughed as she picked Arianna up in her arms and spun her around. Arianna closed her eyes and squealed. “And so modest,” Eli replied, laughing even louder when Arianna glared at her before bursting into loud laughter of her own. “Come, Beloved,” Eli said as she turned toward the en suite. “Let’s have a shower and then we can see about joining our friends for evening meal.”
As she passed by outside their room, Hannah picked up their happiness in the outer range of her hearing and rushed to tell the others the news.
The shower didn’t take long by mating standards though most cultures would have considered it indulgent in the extreme. But it was two tremendously happy and wonderfully relaxed individuals that headed to the mess hall some time later. They figured they would start eating and then call the rest to join them after the first pangs of hunger were sated. That way Eli would get the sustenance she needed and still be able to answer the questions they were sure would be asked.
So they were completely surprised and a little disappointed to find everyone waiting for them in the dining area... even those who should have been sleeping. Eli frowned and looked at Eden who was comfortably ensconced in a hover chair. “Um...?”
“Yeah, sleep didn’t make you any more coherent, did it, Boss?” smirking as she said it and snorting when Eli crossed her arms over her chest and glared. “I figured you’d want a team meeting to find out what happened while you were out. And of course we want to hear about that – why you were out, I mean.”
Eli held her gaze for a moment longer, then turned to Arianna. “Should I tell you how it concerns me that you and Eden seem to be in one another’s heads?” Brown and black eyes widened in tandem and Arianna and Eden spared a glance at each other before shuddering dramatically. The entire room broke out into loud chortles and guffaws at the similar response. Arianna and Eden grinned wickedly; Eli just shook her head and moved to retrieve their meal packets. “How did you know?” she asked Eden as she started the heating process.
“That you’d want a team meeting? Boss, please... I know how you like things. How did we know you were awake? Hannah was walking by your room and heard you two laughing; Gay confirmed. I guess when you woke up you were really broadcasting for a few minutes before she could shield against you.”
Eli turned to Abigail. “Sorry, Gay. I didn’t even think....”
“Nor did I,” Abigail admitted. “I think it had something to do with your level of exhaustion.”
Eli took the packets and passed one to Arianna as she took the seat beside her. “How so?” She noted their conversation had the attention of everyone in the room and guessed this might be something they all needed to be aware of. After all, they had all worked hard to form the necessary mental boundaries so as not to overwhelm Abigail’s senses or to depend on her to completely shut herself off from them emotionally to survive among them.
Abigail frowned. “Each of you has to some degree learned to shield yourselves – to not project your thoughts and feelings outside of your conscious heart and mind. So usually I don’t hear anything more than an awareness from you. Even when something takes you by surprise and you have a loud mental reaction, it simply hits my barrier and bounces off. I’m aware of it peripherally, but unless it’s sustained for a length of time or you actually cry out for help or intervention, I just brush it off. But as your body grows more tired and your mind becomes fatigued, well... your walls weaken. I still have my barriers up, but each of you begins projecting as some point and I never know when it’s going to happen so deflecting is harder and things do get by. Fortunately, most of you seem to get silly and find humor in everything.” She smiled.
“So why were you receiving me when I awakened? I was rested... more than I’ve been in a while actually.”
“And it shows,” Abigail said as she reached out and lightly clasped Eli’s hand for a moment. “But you were also very disoriented when you woke up so you were broadcasting – confusion, disbelief, dismay, relief and happiness. In rapid succession, I might add. When Hannah let us know you were awake, she said it was because she heard your laughter,” motioning between Eli and Arianna. “I was able to confirm what I felt from you briefly before you closed your walls again.”
“So you hear from all of us when we’re exhausted?” Eden asked with a frown. She couldn’t understand why Abigail hadn’t shared this with them before... especially if it was interfering with her peace of mind.
Abigail nodded. “To some extent, yes. It’s nothing that can be helped. It happened at home as well – and as I said, at least most of you just feel happy and playful.”
“So it’s not always silliness?”
“No. Once in a while there is brooding or even blankness, but you guys are all much more pleasant than some of the things I’ve felt from others when they reached that level of collapse. And your minds are all very strong, so it really takes a lot to breach that.” She looked right at Eli who had stiffened as the implication of her words had begun to sink in. Eli had been so tired for so long, she could only imagine the mental assault Abigail had suffered because of her. “This was actually the first clear transmission I’ve gotten from you, Boss,” Abigail assured her in a lowered voice. “Your tolerance for exhaustion is astounding.”
“Warrior training,” Eli grumbled. “They kept us up for days on end for months at a time.”
“It made you amazingly strong,” Abigail declared quietly. “I have only encountered a few minds as strong as yours, and none who were not naturally born empaths.”
“You’ll let me know if this situation ever becomes a problem for you?” Eli phrased it as a question, but Abigail recognized it for the directive it was.
“I will, Boss.” They turned to find the rest engaged in their own discussion in an effort to give them some privacy. Eli cleared her throat and brought all eyes back to her.
“So what have I missed?
“So we’re certain of this?” Eli asked as she studied the Pad Danny had given her. When Eden had informed them of the coming team meeting, they had compiled all their information on his Pad for Eli’s perusal. It would by necessity need to be transferred to her Pad in its entirety at some point, but for now he was happy to loan her his.
“As sure as we can be, Boss. Hannah and Titus and I have the most complete analyses, of course, but everyone has put in some time studying and observing the Nebula since it was first sighted. Everything we’ve learned points to the same conclusion. It’s mirroring our movement.”
“But it’s not being aggressive,” Naomi interjected. “I mean it’s not actively chasing us or closing in on our position,” she continued when she met the disbelieving stares of her comrades. “It is simply moving in a pattern to intercept us.”
“Considering the damage and destruction this thing has done to any number of ships that were not specifically created to study it, that’s pretty aggressive.”
“And we can’t go around it?” Arianna asked.
Jacob shook his head. “I don’t think so. I mean I’ve tried, but with our speed, our options are kinda limited. I don’t want to send us into a spin or an end over end or a free fall we can’t recover from. I’ve even tried thinking three dimensionally... you know, moving us up or down. The Nebula just shifts to accommodate the change. It’s a little bit creepy.”
“We talked about pulling out of transwarp, but the minute we do that, we lose that signature. And if those mercs or whoever hired them have sent ships out after every signature we created.... You see where I’m going with this,” Eden finished.
“I’m not convinced slowing down around this anomaly is in our best interests anyway,” Eli said slowly. “Especially since we don’t know what that would do to the engines. We didn’t really research that.”
“Because we expected to only need them to get us to the asteroid and then their usage would be focused on providing stable, regulated energy to a colony. The Alliance anticipated doing the experiments and research necessary to qualify fuission as a stable fuel component for long distance space travel that included multiple speeds as well as starts and stops.”
“So you don’t think it’s safe?” Isaac asked Arianna.
“No, I do think it’s safe – the process of changing speeds, I mean. I did some preliminary work when fuission was chosen as the working model for the project. But I never pursued it as part of the working model when it was determined that travel was a one-time use and completely secondary to our subsisting on the energy we were producing with it. I did start running the numbers when we were being held hostage during the interview process though, and everything points to it being smoother and more proficient than the current state-of-the-art warp the Alliance is using.”
“None of which changes the fact that we lose our transwarp signature the moment we drop our speed,” Paul pointed out.
“We also lose the advantage of said speed if we need to get away. We all know there is a delay when warp engines are engaged… however slight.”
“So we can’t go around it,” Eli stated. “And despite the fact that theoretically we know it won’t damage the engines or the ship if we drop out of transwarp, we lose every advantage we have if we do that.” She sighed. “Does it look like going through it will cause any harm?”
“You mean greater than the risk any other vessel has experienced against it?” Isaac asked with a hint of sarcasm even as he shook his head. “Not to the engines. The shielding we put in place makes them the most protected part of the ship.”
“What of the ship itself? The hull integrity?” Not that Eli needed to ask the questions, but she wanted this to be a group discussion.
Mordecai cleared his throat. “I think it depends on what is within the nebula.” He looked around and realized everyone was waiting for him to continue, but he waited until Eli gestured for him to carry on before he started speaking again. “We know whoever or whatever is tracking us is intelligent and advanced beyond our capabilities even. I think if they mean us harm, there is little we can do to prevent it. We should take to heart, however, the fact that they are not aggressively pursuing us or outright attacking. If they have the technology to track us at transwarp and to move a nebula so as to not allow us to go around it and them, perhaps they are simply curious.”
“And we’ve been working on strengthening the shields. When Eden is cleared for actually physical work, we’ll put the rest of the components in place.”
“Everything is as secure as we can make it, Boss,” Deborah stated firmly. “Everyone is taking special care with their own areas of responsibility, but we’ve all pitched in to double-check behind each other. And we’re all keeping our visuals on the Nebula. We’re doing all we can.”
Eli frowned. “All this in the two days I missed?”
“Well, no,” Esther replied. “We all started securing our labs as soon as we settled in. With not knowing exactly what we were headed into, it seemed like the most prudent course of action. When we realized we all had the same idea, we decided to back each other up as a matter of course. The Nebula thing happened because we’re all nosy and curious. We just didn’t understand how much until we started compiling our information for you.”
“And how did I miss all this?” Eli queried with a frown.
“You’ve been a little busy, Boss. I for one am glad for that legendary focus,” Eden returned softly. “And we haven’t had any team meetings since the Nebula was discovered in our pathway. Besides, it’s not like we found anything that stood out enough to alert you about because you’ve certainly spoken to each of us every day. We’d have mentioned anything worth knowing.”
Eli looked around the room, seeing everyone nod their agreement. “All right. Is that all?”
Arianna’s eyebrows hiked up into her hairline. “Are you implying that’s not sufficient, Amado?”
Her incredulousness - clear in both tone and expression - made snorts and snickers roll around the room and Eli gave a smirk. “Sufficient does not imply all, Angel. I simply want to ensure we’ve covered everything that needs to be discussed while we’re all here together. After all, some are supposed to be sleeping now and the rest are assigned to... well, something.” Her statement garnered more smiles and chuckles.
“And we’re still waiting to hear what happened to Eli.” Jacob commented.
“Gay, have you sensed anything new? Aside from discomfort?” Eli asked, redirecting the conversation.
“I haven’t actively scanned them. I’m a little hesitant to open myself to such an unknown. As Kai pointed out, they appear to be beyond us on several levels. I could try, I suppose; I’m just not sure....” trailing off when Eli vehemently shook her head.
“No... absolutely not! That’s not what I meant!” Eli shoved her fingers into her hair and tugged on it slightly. “Gods, Gay – I’d never ask you to put yourself out there like that. No,” shaking her head again as she dropped her hands back to the table. “What I was asking is if you can sense intelligence or awareness from them – like subliminally in the way you’re aware of all of us.”
“Oh.” Abigail let her gaze go inward for several minutes and the rest remained quiet to allow her to process whatever awareness she was picking up. After a few minutes, she blinked and returned her attention to Eli. “No. There’s... something…. There’s something pushing against my awareness – I think that’s what’s causing my discomfort. But I don’t think it’s deliberate.”
“Can you explain?”
Abigail sighed. “Do you know how you feel when you first wake up with Arianna in your arms?” seeing Eli nod but recognizing confusion in her expression. “You feel the weight of her body pressing into you... her strength holding you... her warmth surrounding you – there is an awareness of her everywhere. It’s not invasive, but it can be uncomfortable, especially if she’s pressing against all the wrong places or parts of you no longer have feeling or it’s unpleasantly warm. That’s what this feels like – not invasive but uncomfortable.”
Eli tapped her fingers against her lips as she considered Abigail’s words. When she finally nodded, she turned to Isaac. “And how are you feeling?”
“Still sore, though not as miserable as I was before you gave me that shot.”
Eli nodded again and looked around. “Is anyone else experiencing any odd symptoms? Things you hadn’t noticed before we discovered the presence of the Nebula?” There were a few mutters – mostly dealing with head and muscle aches, but otherwise no one really complained.
“I don’t think it’s anything serious, Boss,” Luke commented. “Except for Isaac and Arianna, no one has asked for treatment of their symptoms. That would tend to mean they aren’t too severe. And it might be tied in to all the stress we’re all under. Let’s face it – that’s one aspect we never really trained for. Even the desert compound wasn’t as stressful as things have been since the moment Ms Wellesly removed us from the Committee’s purview and put us into hiding.”
“I think that depends on who you were in the compound,” Eli muttered as Arianna adamantly agreed. “But I get your point,” before Luke could part his lips to argue. She turned to Jake. “How soon until we reach the outer boundary of the nebula?”
He glanced at his Pad that was acting as he remote to the pilot’s station on the bridge. “About fifty-two standard hours, Cap’n.”
Eli pinched the bridge of her nose. “All right. I want to see each of you as you come off shift. Luke?” He nodded. “Luke and I will give everyone a thorough examination just to make sure... I don’t know because I don’t know what we’re looking for precisely. We just want to be certain everyone is as healthy as they should be.”
“Do you think you’ll actually find anything?” Hannah asked.
Eli shook her head. “No. Though I do not doubt the sincerity of his pain, I couldn’t find anything to wrong with Isaac and Luke and I conducted a battery of tests on his blood in addition to the checkup I ran on him. But I’d feel better at least trying to make certain there’s nothing wrong.”
“Seems reasonable,” Eden agreed. “I’ll even go first,” her smile big and broad. Esther laughed.
“Don’t think we don’t know the truth, Girlfriend. You just want to be released from limited duty so you can go back to drinking coffee again.”
Eden haughtily stuck her nose up in the air. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” causing howling laughter to ripple around the room. She lasted almost ten full seconds before she grinned and chuckled. “But we’re still waiting to hear about you,” turning and glaring at Eli. “Is something wrong, Boss?”
“No – why would you...?” She held up a hand. “I was just exhausted and finally finding the cure for what was ailing you was such a burden removed from my wi... shoulders. It hit me hard when I got home. I fell asleep in the shower.” Everyone turned and looked at Arianna who nodded her head.
“She did. I had to coax her out and into the bed. She doesn’t remember waking to eat or me contacting Luke and Eden to let them know what was going on.”
“So is this like normal behavior for you, Boss?”
“When I reach that level of exhaustion? Yes. Especially after I release that level of responsibility.”
“Well at least now we’re aware,” Danny commented wryly. “We were all a little concerned – more than a little, truthfully. We’ve never known you to sleep like that. Some of us were convinced you didn’t really sleep.”
Eli laughed. “Oh I sleep. I just learned to sleep hard and fast when I could in warrior training because there were so many times we did without for days on end.” She chuckled again at all the bug-eyed expressions facing her. “One day we’ll sit down and swap stories, I promise. But for now I need to start doing checkups and everyone else needs to return to whatever they’re truly scheduled for during this time. Once Luke and I get everyone checked out, we’ll be resuming our normal schedules as well, I hope.”
“Actually, you’re going to eat first,” Arianna instructed with a glare. “And I expect you to chew your food before you swallow it.”
Eden looked at Arianna’s fierce expression and then turned to Eli. “She reminds me a lot of the Chief at the moment so I’m going to go with the ‘Arianna’s right’ idea on this one. A few more minutes in this chair isn’t gonna make a huge difference for me. But eating and making your mate happy will probably make a huge difference for you,” said with a smirk. She turned back to her teammates. “Everyone else – you heard the Boss... head out to where you’re supposed to be. Doc, I’ll meet you in the infirmary in a few minutes.”
Before Eli could think to protest, the rest of the crew scattered in every direction, leaving her alone with just Arianna. Eli arched a blonde eyebrow. “That was quite impressive, but I really don’t think it was necessary....” She stopped speaking when a slender finger covered her lips.
“Don’t.” Arianna closed her eyes a moment and took a deep breath as she blinked her eyes open to meet Eli’s and resume talking. “Do you remember the vows we pledged to one another in front of our family and friends before we left.”
“Yes... of course! What...?”
“Hush. I promised to love and to cherish and take care of you to the very best of my ability. And that means making sure you eat and sleep and take care of yourself whenever I can manage to do so. I will try not to interfere too much when you’re working on something as critical as Eden’s recovery was, but I take my vows seriously, Amado. I won’t allow you to become a detriment to yourself.”
Eli smiled softly. “I love you... so much. Eat with me?”
And though she was fairly full from her packet meal, Arianna nodded. “A little,” she agreed. “I saved my dessert figuring you might want it later,” waving the cookies at her. She giggled when Eli’s eyes got big and she poked out her bottom lip. For some bizarre and completely incomprehensible reason, Eli absolutely loved the hard shortbread cookies that came in some of the meals. The rest tended to put them aside when they got them – not because they didn’t like them, but because she adored them so much. Arianna rolled her eyes dramatically at the expression, then smiled gently as she cupped Eli’s cheek, tanned thumb stroking the dark green lip. “You can have the cookies if you tell me what had you so upset when you came home from getting Eden settled the other day.”
Eli pursed her lips and kissed the thumb resting on them. Then she turned and dug into her stew. “You remembered that?”
“Does that mean you do?”
“I remember why I was upset; I don’t remember us talking about it.”
“That’s because when I asked then, you told me it would have to wait until after your shower and something to eat. We just had the shower about an hour ago and you’re finally getting to eat your meal. Talk to me, Eli. What made you so upset?’
Eli took another bite of stew and chewed slowly as she gathered her thoughts together. Arianna waited patiently knowing she would get her answers when Eli had her thoughts in order. Eli drained her water glass about halfway, then cleared her throat.
“Eden brought up Mary.”
Arianna tilted her head and frowned in confusion. “I don’t understand. Why would that make you angry and upset? I thought....”
“Hush, Beloved and let me tell it.” Arianna bit her lips shut and looked at Eli expectantly,
“Eli?” Eden said through a yawn as she lay still in the bed trying to recover her senses. Eli hummed her acknowledgment and continued to tuck comfortably Eden into bed. “What about Mary?”
Eli straightened sharply and faced Eden, eyebrow cocking in question. “What about her?”
Eden sighed. “She had as much damage done to her as I did, right? Maybe even more? And she doesn’t have the benefit of backup parts or reserves of strength or....” She yawned again and closed her eyes. “So what about Mary? Do you think she survived this?”
Eli had waited for Eden to finish her question, knowing sleep was not far behind. She finished settling her into bed and listened as she slipped into the deep, even breathing of sleep. Then she closed her eyes and released a shuddering breath, pinching her nose and shaking her head to quell the tears she could feel forming behind her eyes. When she was sure she had them under control, Eli put on her warrior’s mask and straightened her shoulders. And without a backwards glance, she left Eden’s room and returned to her own.
“I missed it, Angel. I missed the fact that those projectiles were poisoned. And as Eden so aptly pointed out, Ms Wellesly does not have the same resource advantages that Eden does. What if my carelessness cost her everything?” Her voice was merely a whisper, but the anguish was clear. Arianna clasped her hands tightly and shook her head.
“No, Amado. You don’t get to think like that. You did everything, everything you could that time and circumstances allowed. Mama will be fine. You want to know how I know this?” Eli’s eyes widened in pleading and she nodded. “You’re forgetting two very crucial elements – Mama and MaTb. Mama has a core of inner strength and determination the likes of which I have not seen matched by many. She’ll live just to spite the Committee,” her words causing unexpected laughter to bubble up in both of them. After a moment they regained a semblance of decorum and Arianna continued. “But she also has MaTb there. Do you really think Eve will stand idly by while Mama continues to suffer?” Eli shook her head hard. “You’re right – she won’t. So I figure between Mama’s hardheaded stubbornness and MaTb’s determination and healing skills, Mary’s in pretty good hands.”
“You’re pretty remarkable.”
“I just tell it like I see it, Amado. Now finish your meal. We both have work that needs tending and apparently we’re on a countdown clock again.” She ran her fingers through dark hair. “I’ll be just a little happy when we can do things at our own pace and not one dictated by someone or something else.”
Eli snorted. “It’s a nice dream anyway. Besides... where’s the challenge in that?”
“You don’t think this project is enough of a challenge on its own??”
“I didn’t say that. But I’m not the one in charge of the universe.” She swallowed her last bite and drained her glass. “Come. We’ll share cookies later. For now we’ve got work to do.”
Arianna accepted the hand Eli held out to her, and together put the dishes and trash in the recycler on their way out the door. A brief kiss and they separated to begin their workday.
“So what’s the word, Doc?” Eden asked as Eli straightened from her examination. “Am I going to live?” noticing the faint flinch Eli made at her casual question. “Eli?”
Eli’s smile was genuine on her lips but slightly forced in her eyes. “You’re going to outlive us all, Eden. You’re better than new and you should start feeling the effects of that benefit soon. However,” she cautioned seriously, “please don’t ever do that again. I don’t want to have to rebuild any more parts of you if it can be helped. All right?”
“Got it, Boss,” said as she slid from the hover chair to stand upright for the first time in over two days. Eli monitored her carefully.
“Any dizziness or nausea?”
Eden took a deep breath. “No, surprisingly. I don’t feel weak or tired either.”
Eli nodded sagely. “You should find yourself feeling stronger as you continue to recuperate. You’re not actually at a hundred percent yet. I’m not going to put any restrictions on you – do what you feel comfortable with and if you encounter any problems, come see me immediately.”
“You got it, Boss,” she reiterated. “Thank you, Eli,” Eden continued softly. “What you did....”
“I’m glad I was able to,” Eli cut in. “But I will be quite happy to never need to do it again.”
“Same goes,” Eden agreed, then cleared her throat. “Eli? About what I asked you the other day... about Mary? You never answered....”
“You fell asleep,” Eli said with a hint of a smile. Eden shook her head.
“No, I didn’t... not right then anyway. But I could see I upset you and I didn’t want to push.”
“So why are you pushing now?” a hard edge to her tone.
“Because I think we need to let everyone know what to expect when we finally reconnect with Mary’s family again. They need to be prepared... especially Az. They’re her family now.” Unexpectedly Eli smiled and wrapped Eden up in a brief, fierce hug. Eden was so taken by surprise she almost missed the rare opportunity, but embraced Eli tightly as soon as she realized what was happening. “Um... Eli? Not that I’m complaining – you know how much I like hugs and all - but you generally don’t do the touchy-feely stuff with anyone but Az. Is everything okay?”
Eli squeezed her once more then released her hold and stepped back to meet Eden’s eyes. “Everything is fine. You’re just an amazing humanoid,” chuckling when Eden’s black brows disappeared into an equally dark hairline.
“Thank you for noticing? But what does that have to do with Mary?” She leaned against the biobed and crossed her arms over her chest, cocking her head in a listening manner.
“I’ve been so busy since we left the Storm Surge – I mean, I know we all have what with trying to set the labs up and adjust our schedules and just settle in, but....” stopping when Eden held up a hand.
“I get it, Boss. And we all know that you’ve had more responsibilities than the rest of us trying to make sure all that stuff gets done. I told you there was a reason no one wanted your job.”
“Yes. Sometimes I wonder why I agreed to keep doing it, but then I remember I’m actually really good at it and I don’t mind it most of the time.”
“Except this time you had so much more going on with trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with me.”
“Exactly. And while I’m thrilled Luke and I were able to determine the problem and find a solution, I would never have voluntarily put any of us into that position had I been given the choice. However, I have been so busy with the routine things that needed taking care of plus having so much additional effort and energy focused on discovering the root of your issue, I deliberately blocked the reason for it from my mind. It was the only way I could get through....”
Eden nodded. “Understandable. So when I asked....”
“When you asked, you kind of forced it all back into the forefront of my mind, and I realized I didn’t have an answer to give you. Then I talked to Arianna and she reminded me of something you and I both discounted. Because logically? Mary should have been dead or dying before we left Joy’s for the ship. We should have been able to see it.”
Eden frowned. “The only thing I remember seeing was that Mary seemed tired. But then we all seemed tired by that point – us; her; her family; her team. Hell, I think even the Committee was probably tired by that point.”
“Precisely. She was tired. But not wan or gaunt or bedridden. She was still a very commanding presence - a force of nature to be reckoned with. I think the continued regeneration likely helped her maintain a measure of strength that kept the toxin from polluting her system any more than it did. And as Arianna so rightly pointed out to me, MaTb is there. She’ll take up the mantle and find the cause of Mary’s prolonged recovery. Between them, that poison doesn’t stand a chance.”
Eden snorted. “You’re probably right. I didn’t even think about Eve.”
“Neither did I until Arianna reminded me. Fortunately, my MaTb is too far away to know of my lapse of knowledge. And you’re not allowed to tell her or anyone else either,” Eli added with a glare.
Eden laughed at the growled directive. “As if. Seriously, Boss – I know what it is to be in trouble with the makuahine, and yours seemed to be more formidable than mine. I’m not giving her a reason to come out here looking for us.”
Now Eli snorted. “She would too.”
“Even if she had to build her own fuission reactor,” Eden commented as she pushed off the biobed. “Well, if we’re done here, I need to get down to engineering and see what I can do about those shields. I’ll let you know when we have the new parts in place so we can test them.”
“What do you think of the nebula, Eden?” Eli asked as she straightened away from the wall and began tidying up the room.
“I think it’s going to cause issues for us no matter what we do, Boss. I don’t think it’s malicious per se, but I do think it’s enough of an unknown that there are going to be repercussions regardless.”
“That’s about my thinking. I wish I knew what it – or the intelligence behind it – wanted from us.”
Eden smirked. “Where’s the challenge in that?” She walked to the door, then spoke softly with her back facing the room. “Thanks, Eli. I....”
“I know, Eden,” said with a smile. “Now go. You have work to do and so do I.”
“You got it, Boss,” turning and giving Eli a jaunty salute before she headed down the passageway toward the engine room. Eli turned back to the treatment area and shook her head as she resumed her cleanup efforts. The clearing of a throat behind her caused her to start. Then she glared at Luke who had the decency to flush under her regard.
“Sorry, Boss. I thought you heard me come in. Hannah is here for her checkup. Would you like me to go ahead and start?”
“Please. I just need to finish up in here and then I’ll join you.” She took a deep breath and Luke hesitated in the doorway. “Do you think we’re crazy for bothering?”
“Not at all,” he replied instantly. “At least we’re doing all we can, and this will give us a new baseline if something does happen to anyone.” She nodded but didn’t say anything else. “Right. I’ll just go start drawing blood. See you in a few, Boss.” Eli nodded again and she heard the swish of his clothing as Luke turned and headed further into the infirmary. Then she refocused her attention on the task in front of her.
“So did everybody else check out okay?” Arianna asked as she rose from the biobed. She’d been the last to be tested aside from Luke and Eli themselves and they were planning to walk back to their quarters together as soon as that was taken care of. Eli started just a little bit at the sound of Arianna’s voice, having gotten completely lost in her head. She squeezed the hand she still held and nodded.
“Yes. Sorry... I was thinking.”
Arianna grinned. “I know – I could hear the cogs turning and smell the smoke burning.”
Eli’s jaw dropped and she released Arianna’s hand to stand with arms akimbo. “You really did not just say that.”
Arianna snorted. “Of course I did. It was true. I’m an engineer; I know these things.”
“There’s going to be payback for this you know.”
“I’m counting on it, Amado.”
“And in the meantime, could we get these last two physicals over with, please?” Luke called out plaintively from beyond the barrier. “I have a date with Danny tonight.”
Arianna clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from squealing in embarrassment as she blushed. Eli flushed a deeper green, but her voice was steady as she replied. “I’ll be right there, Luke.” She looked at Arianna. “Do you want to wait in my office? Or you can go home – I’ll be there as soon as we’re done here. It won’t be long.”
“I’ll wait. Go on and take care of Luke. I’ll straighten up in here and then go to your office.”
Eli nodded and stole a quick kiss. “Thank you, Beloved. I’ll be as fast as I can.”
It really didn’t take long. Both Luke and Eli were anxious to be done, and after having done so many others, they had things down to an exact science. “We’ll run the blood tomorrow. I’m not thrilled about cutting it so close, but we both need some down time. My eyeballs are beginning to cross. I’m not sure I’d trust anything I could actually manage to read at this point.”
Luke chuckled. “Mine too, so I know I wouldn’t. It’d end up being so much jibberish. I warned Danny that date night was likely to be spooning as I slept.” He shrugged. “Fortunately he’s on board with that idea.”
“Go on,” Eli urged. “Arianna and I can finish up here. I’ll see you back here in the morning.”
“I’ll be here. Night, Boss.
Like she was waiting for a signal, Arianna appeared in the treatment area almost the exact minute Luke disappeared. “What can I do to help?”
Eli smiled and rubbed her tired eyes. “We just need to put things away and clean up the treatment areas. Everything else will wait until we have a meal and some rest.”
Arianna didn’t comment; she simply started straightening things up. Quickly order was restored, and with a low command to dim the lights, they were out of the infirmary and on their way to their rooms. Arianna turned to study her mate, her gaze running over Eli’s face and figure with the eyes of a scientist. She frowned at what she saw. “Amado? Are you all right? You seem unusually tired.”
“Especially considering the rest I just had?” Eli replied with a smile. “I am. I’m a little bit uncomfortable in my shoulders. I think spending all that time sleeping while not lying flat on my stomach probably skewed something back there.”
“Can I help?”
Eli smiled. “I’m going to try stretching out first. I think that will solve a lot of the problem.” She squeezed the hand she held. “I wouldn’t object to a backrub though if you’re willing.”
Arianna raised an eyebrow. “When have you ever known me to be unwilling?”
“I know, Angel. But it’s never prudent to assume. And you deserve better than to be taken for granted.” Eli lifted her hand and swiped it over the door lock, sighing silently when the portal slid open without hesitation. She was more than uncomfortable – she was actually in pain. And while her training had conditioned her to ignore it, being mated to Arianna meant the barriers she had in place to hide the pain behind had dropped considerably when they were together. The idea was to solidify the mating bond further by allowing them to experience each other’s joy and sorrow; rapture and pain; triumph and tragedy together as a single unit. The benefit of course was that the highs – the good feelings – were amplified. On the flip side, the adverse emotions were impacted the same way, and Eli wasn’t prepared to inflict that sort of torment on her mate. Arianna had not yet realized the depth of Eli’s passion – positive or negative – and Eli had no desire to inflict the destructive force she knew she was capable of on Arianna. As badly as she desired to share everything with her mate, her need to protect Arianna was greater. So she continued to hide part of herself and the pain she felt.
“Why don’t you go get in the shower?” Arianna proposed, breaking into Eli’s efforts to erect and fortify her barriers. “You can stretch out in there and the pulsing might help ease your tension as well. I’ll see about getting us some dinner. When we’re done eating, we can work on that massage.”
Eli closed her eyes in relief and nodded. “That sounds wonderful. Thank you.”
She stripped on her way into the bathroom, dropping her clothes into the renewer before bending over to put her hands flat on the floor. She stayed bent over and touched her forehead to her knees, rolling her shoulders and feeling her spine realign itself with a sense of relief. With a twitch, she pushed her wings through the barrier that kept them hidden. It was a little painful, but nothing compared to what she felt with them always tucked away. She extended them until the tips touched the walls on either side of her and the gossamer feathers quivered in sheer liberation.
Then she felt a hand scratch between then and Eli growled in ecstasy. “You know what that does to me, Beloved.”
“I do indeed. And it has been too long since you have shared that side of yourself with me.”
Eli turned, a roguish smile on her face and her green eyes glowing almost golden in delight. “Are you sure? You know what it means,” reaching her hands out and resting them on narrow hips as she pulled Arianna into her naked body with relish. Her hands clenched the material of her clothing tightly so as not to bruise Arianna’s skin.
“I do. And I am. I want all of you, Amado, and after this night is over, we’re going to talk about you holding back from me,” easily reading the shock and surprise in Eli’s countenance. “But only after you claim me this way again.”
“How did you...?”
“MaTb and I talked about many things, and our conversations were very enlightening for me.” She brushed a gentle hand through blonde hair, then cupped Eli’s face. “I am your mate, Amado. I deserve to know all of you... even the parts that hurt. Especially the parts that hurt.”
“Why? I don’t want you to feel that kind of pain or anger or darkness.”
“Don’t you see, Amado? It won’t be that kind of pain for me because it will be shared between us, just like mine will be with you. And I want to know it so I can help heal it. I want that. I want all of your passion, Eli. And it’s my right. Don’t deny us that part of our union. We deserve to know one another like that. We deserve to have our bond be all that it can be.”
She let the hand still cupping Eli’s cheek urge her face down until their lips met. The kiss was gentle to begin with – safe and reassuring. Then Arianna lifted her other hand to the cartilage that joined Eli’s wings together and to her back and began scratching. Eli growled again and tightened her hold around Arianna’s waist, sliding her hands down to squeeze the rounded ass beneath her touch. Arianna moaned into the contact and pressed against Eli tighter, sliding her hand into the blonde hair and tugging on it sharply. That was all the encouragement Eli needed to be assured that Arianna really did want this... want her like this. She flapped her wings twice before allowing them to enclose Arianna in their embrace. She figured the shower and dinner would just have to wait.
“Why now?” Eli asked some time later. They were still in bed, Eli’s wing covering them to prevent the room’s coolness from giving Arianna a chill as the sweat dried on their skin. Arianna turned her head and met eyes still glowing gold in passion. She tenderly stroked the smooth skin of Eli’s face, smiling when her eyes shined even brighter. Eli echoed the expression momentarily, then her countenance fell to seriousness again. “Why now, Angel? If you spoke with MaTb before we left for the ship, why did you wait so long to say anything?”
Arianna shifted until she was facing Eli, still cradled in her arms and cocooned by her wing. She left her hand on the green skin for another minute, then slid it into blonde locks and began scratching Eli’s neck. She smiled again when Eli closed her eyes and shivered, then she cleared her throat to reply.
“I was hoping you would come to me first, Amado. I was hoping you would open up and share with me of your own accord. By the time I realized you wouldn’t in an effort to protect me, you were up to your eyeballs in searching for a cure for Eden. We hardly had time for a hello – any real discussion between us had to wait until that task was complete. It was your priority – as it should have been,” she emphasized clearly before Eli could protest. “But this,” motioning around them, “the Nebula – that’s going to happen no matter what we do. And I wanted this cleared up between us before we get dragged into something else completely time consuming. I meant what I said earlier. I want everything.”
“Are you willing to give me the same in return?” Arianna’s brow furrowed and Eli reached up a hand to smooth the lines from her forehead. “I cannot take that from you, Beloved. I wouldn’t if I could. But you must be willing to open yourself to me completely if you’re to get everything I have.”
“Show me how, Amado.”
Eli nodded and blew out a shaky breath. “We’ll go slowly.” She held up a hand before Arianna could interrupt. “We would go slowly to begin with regardless, but I must teach you how to receive as well as send. It’s easier if we do it right the first time than it is to repair a mess.”
Arianna nodded. “Okay – that makes sense.”
Eli smirked. “I do occasionally, but please don’t let that get around to the others. They’ll start expecting it all the time and I’ll never hear the end of it.” Their stomachs chose that moment to lodge a very loud complaint at their neglect. Eli and Arianna chuckled. “Right – I think we should feed the beasts first,” Eli quipped. “This tends to be a very draining process to learn at the beginning so we need to fortify before we start. Fortunately, it gets easier and faster as we go until it is totally second nature.”
“It won’t mess with the barriers we have up for Gay, will it?”
“No. This is one a separate level – a new plane – from the one where Gay senses. This is from our hearts and souls; Gay is in touch with our spirits and minds.”
“Good,” Arianna stated emphatically. “I want this with you so badly, but I don’t want to hurt Gay in the process.”
“We won’t,” Eli assured as she lifted the wing covering their bodies. Arianna shivered immediately and Eli pointed towards the bathroom. “Go shower and warm up. I’ll go heat up our meals.”
Arianna leaned into Eli’s warmth and stole a kiss. “Love you.”
Eli beamed. “I love you too.”
“That’s amazing,” Arianna whispered as she felt the synchronization of their heartbeats’ rhythm in her hands. “It’s like I can feel your heartbeat in my chest.”
“It is, and I feel you within mine,” Eli smiled. “It is the most natural and easiest part of our journey. It happens of its own accord, and from that everything else is born.”
“So if we lose the harmonic beat?” She watched as the color drained from Eli’s face, leaving her the sickly shade of gray she had been when they had been separated. “Amado? ELI?!?” noting the lost look in the gray-green eyes. She took Eli’s face between her hands and blew lightly in her face, forcing Eli’s awareness back to her and their surroundings. Arianna waited for the beautiful green hue to return to Eli’s skin and for her eyes to lose the gray tinge before she spoke again. “Amado? What just happened? What did I...? Is this about losing...?” stopping when the pallor began to return. “Talk to me, Querida. Help me to understand.”
Eli cleared her throat gently. “Our heartbeats became one when we became mates... in the desert. Only one thing changes the beat – the loss of our mate... regardless of which method of loss is experienced.”
“But I thought you could feel your mate even in death.”
“So we have been taught,” Eli acknowledged. “But when my brother died, his wife felt that loss for a brief time. It wasn’t until his soul was ushered into the next life that she again felt the harmony of him within her, and it was much changed from what she knew of him in life... muted and softened instead of loud and vibrant – like a warm echo.”
“Okay so if we synched when we mated in the desert, why didn’t I know about this?”
Eli flushed a dark green and her eyes dropped. “When we first became lovers and were mated to one another, I assumed you knew what that meant.” She cleared her throat and glanced at Arianna before dropping her eyes again. “I’m sorry - this isn’t something we generally need to discuss – it just is. Those who come from outside our culture have normally made quite a study of it before becoming part of it. I thought you knew and just weren’t ready for that level of intimacy yet - because while our hearts synched naturally, it’s a choice... a decision... to open yourself completely and share with your mate. The greater the openness, the deeper the bond. But I was so....” She shook her head.
“You were so what?”
Eli sighed. “I was so glad to have found you – completely amazed to have found my half and to have that half become my mate – that I was overwhelmed; it made me careless.” She looked up at the ceiling. “I had given up expecting to find you.”
Arianna tilted her head. “Why? You’re still young; you’re brilliant beyond words; and you’re so very beautiful. You could have... anyone,” motioning around vaguely.
Eli’s cheeks tinted a darker green again and she gave Arianna a crooked little smile. “In your eyes, Beloved.”
“No. In anyone’s eyes, Amado. So tell me why finding your mate was so unexpected.”
Eli sighed. “You remember I told you of my brother... how he discovered his mate earlier than most. And that my parents were surprised by their coupling because they had grown up together and been friends for a long time before it occurred to them that there was more than friendship between them.” Arianna nodded. “I didn’t have that. Usually the quickening – the finding of one’s mate – happens after warrior training. There’s not a set timeline, but it’s accepted that it is within the first few cycles after training is complete. That’s when we begin to settle into our professional roles. That’s when we start to seriously search for the one who will be our mate.”
“But that didn’t happen for you.”
Eli shook her head. “That didn’t happen for me. I was so busy with the project and so dedicated to it – I wasn’t searching for anyone. And the few that tried to catch my attention....” She shrugged. “I knew it wasn’t a possibility – not until I was dismissed from the project or the mission was over. MaTb wasn’t happy about it because she knew it meant I would be alone, but she didn’t object either... well, too much anyway.” Eli chuckled. “I think she had decided that I was going to find someone very late in life. At least then I wouldn’t be alone forever and in her eyes that was an acceptable alternative if not the preferred choice.”
Arianna’s brow furrowed. “You said it made you careless. How?”
Eli sucked in a sharp breath. “I opened myself to you... completely. And when you didn’t do the same, I started closing myself off bit by bit. I thought perhaps it was too much too quickly. So I started putting up barriers slowly... trying to find a level of openness you were comfortable with. I didn’t realize you had no idea how to share yourself with me like that.”
“Then I came back from my world betrothed....”
“... and I created a fortress to hide behind so nothing could touch me.”
“Now you understand why we have to do this slowly and do this together.”
“So teach me!”
Eli smiled at Arianna’s demand, charmed by her enthusiasm. “You are aware of your own heartbeat, and you now recognize that mine beats in time with yours. The next thing you must learn to understand is how to feel my heartbeat within you.” Arianna’s dark eyes widened and Eli pulled her into a hug. “Don’t worry, Beloved. We will start out slowly, wrapped in one another’s embrace. Eventually you simply be able to feel this without thought. We won’t even need to be in the same place for you to feel me as a part of you.”
“How do we begin?”
“Do you remember the exercises we did when we were developing barriers for Gay?” Arianna nodded. “This will be similar.”
“But not the same?”
“But not the same. For one thing, we’re not trying to shield ourselves or anyone around us; instead we’re sharing ourselves and our deepest feelings with our half... our mate. For another, this isn’t borne of the mind, but from our hearts and souls.”
“So we won’t suddenly become telepathic with one another?” Arianna smirked.
Eli laughed. “No more so than any other mated or married couple is.” At Arianna’s raised brow and questioning look, Eli smiled and continued. “You know the kind – the ones who have be joined forever and can have a conversation without saying a word?”
Arianna shook her head. “I don’t know if I’ve ever witnessed such a thing.”
“Yes you have,” Eli asserted. “You saw MaTb and OTeU do it several times when we were at Joy’s together.” Arianna’s expression remained one of confusion and Eli sighed. “Do you remember when you and MaTb were having your talk together after I introduced you? Do you remember her looking away from you briefly just before my OTeU brought you each some refreshment?”
“Yes, of course. I wondered how he knew I was so thirsty.”
“MaTb told him in her look.”
“Wow! Really? I never... really?”
Eli smiled. “Really. Not only could MaTb communicate with OTeU that way, she could also understand and be understood without speaking with each of her children and a few of her long-term interns as well.”
“Are you certain it’s not just your MaTb is especially skilled in the non-verbal communications arena?”
Now Eli laughed. “I’m sure. Think about it – Ms We... Mar... <ahem> Mama could do the same thing, both with her team members, her kids and a few of the candidates. And I’m pretty sure I saw the same thing between Nathaniel and Joseph and between Eden’s parents more than once.”
“Oh... well, then. I shall endeavor to become proficient at such communication.”
“You already are, Angel. How many times have you merely had to look at me to know what I was thinking... or feeling... or in need of? It’s the same thing. We just get better at it the longer we utilize it. And the best part is that if and when we decide to have children of our own, we will be able to use it to make them question their sanity.”
Arianna chuckled. “And that’s a good thing?”
“Only if you’re not the child,” Eli replied drolly. “It’s great for the parents. I’m confident my MaTb and OTeU used it deliberately simply to tease us kids because we never could understand what was being said until action was taken.”
“And this is something none of the rest will be privy to either?”
“Right. Some things they may pick up on – after all, each of us is a highly intelligent adult, and some thoughts and expressions tend to be universal. But most of our non-verbal conversation will remain private between us.”
Arianna nodded. “So how do we do this? How do we learn to share what we feel with one another?”
“First you must learn to feel the nuances of your own heartbeat and recognize them. Then you will be able to better understand mine.”
“I don’t understand.”
Eli scrubbed a hand over her face. “I’m sorry. I’m not explaining it very well.” She took Arianna’s hands in hers and placed one over her heart and one over Arianna’s. “All right – you feel them beating together?” waiting for Arianna to nod. “Now close your eyes and keep your hands over our hearts. Feel the beat? It’s very soft and relaxed, right? But if that were to change....” She removed her hands from Arianna’s and began trailing them sensuously over bare skin, her light touch causing goosebumps to shiver in her wake. Then Arianna gasped and her eyes opened wide.
“They changed. Almost together, but not quite - first yours and then mine.”
Eli smiled. “Very good, Angel.”
“But that is so basic, Amado. My heartbeat always increases when you touch me. How does that help??”
Eli shook her head, but didn’t lose her smile. “Such an impatient little thing!” laughing when Arianna looked affronted. “There are many, many steps we must take together. Let’s try something a little different. I want you to think of something – it doesn’t matter what. It can be something that makes you happy or sad; angry or relaxed. But whatever you choose, it need to be a strong emotion – something you that will change the way you feel right at this very moment.”
Arianna hesitated thoughtfully for a long moment before nodding her consent. “Okay. I have something.”
“Good. Now without losing contact with me, focus on that emotion. Feel it with everything that you are.” It only took seconds and Eli’s heart was racing in time with Arianna’s. She sucked in a deep breath. “Fear?”
“How did you...?”
“Every pulse has a quality to it. Fear is breathless.”
“So I was sending?”
“Not deliberately – you were sending through our tactile contact. Eventually you’ll be able to do so even when we’re apart. You won’t even need to think about it – it will happen as a matter of course.”
“But first I have to learn my own and then the nuances and quality that form each rhythm?”
“You were right, Amado. This is exhausting.”
“It will get easier... I promise. For now, listen to your heartbeat, and feel the pulse change as your emotions do. Practice understanding each new rhythm.”
“And you’ll practice with me?”
“Of course. I’m not going anywhere, Angel. I’ll be right here.”
“Hey, Boss – you got a minute?” Eli looked up from her work and motioned Esther into the room.
“Of course, Es,” leaning back in her chair. “How can I help you?”
“I thought you’d want to know – I think the Nebula is singing.”
Esther held up her hand and closed her eyes as she shook her head. “I know it sounds crazy. Believe me – I know. I debated about saying anything because of it. But I’ve also been listening and as we’ve gotten closer, it’s become more distinctive. The Nebula is singing.”
“Can you interpret the song?”
Esther shook her head. “It’s not... I haven’t been able to decipher any words. It’s all sounds and tones and rhythm at the moment.”
“What about color? Or movement?”
Esther rubbed at her forehead. “There has been movement as you know, but I’m not sure if it coincides with the music or what. We know that it corresponds to us and any maneuvers we make.”
“And the color?”
“I honestly don’t know, Boss. To be honest I was so busy listening once I recognized a pattern of sound that I stopped watching and turned my observation to listening.”
“Let me hear it.”
Esther nodded and opened her Pad. “Just as a warning – this is not typical music... at least not where most of us come from. And if you listen too long, you might start to feel a few side effects.”
“It makes me disoriented. I think that’s why it took me so long to truly discover it. I can only listen in short bursts. Otherwise it becomes painful.”
“Noted,” Eli said simply. Then Esther started running the recording she’d compiled. Immediately Eli felt her wings seize painfully within their cocoon and the blood drained from her face. She grasped the sides of her desk and clenched her jaw. “Turn it off,” she commanded in a harsh whisper. Esther looked up at the sound and instantly cut the sound to the Pad, dropping it onto her chair as she rose and made her way to Eli’s side.
“Eli? Boss, you okay? Should I call Luke? Or Arianna?”
Eli shook her head and took a deep breath. “No,” she whispered, closing her eyes briefly. Then she cleared her throat and looked at Esther “No... I’ll be all right in a moment. Could you just... a little water, maybe?”
“Yes, of course,” Esther responded even as she made her way to the cooling cabinet where it was kept in the infirmary. She popped the top and passed the bottle to Eli, not too surprised when she drained it in three massive gulps. “Would you like another?”
Eli hesitated, then nodded. “Please.” This one she accepted and sipped slowly. “Thank you, Esther. I’m sorry – that was a little unexpected... even knowing there could be side effects.”
“That was a lot unexpected, Boss. What happened?”
Eli shook her head. “I’m not sure. It felt like....” She sucked in a deep breath. “It felt like I was being skinned alive. Very unpleasant.”
Esther snorted. “Master of understatement, Girlfriend.” But before she could question any further, Arianna stuck her head in the door. She skidded across the room to Eli’s side when she noticed her pallor.
“Amado? What happened?”
“Nothing to be concerned about at the moment,” Eli assured, giving Esther a look before she could comment. Arianna tightened her grip on the hands she held and met Eli’s eyes fiercely.
“Don’t lie to me, Elizabeth! I felt... something... and I knew I needed to be here. Given the color of your complexion at the moment and the racing of our heartbeats, I’d say that intuition was spot on. Now – What. Happened??”
“It was my fault, Az,” Esther spoke up. “I discovered the Nebula is singing, and I played the music for Eli even though I knew there could be side effects. I thought she needed to be aware.”
“And you’re right, Es. I did. We need to find a way to block that sound. There is every likelihood it could drive us mad if we don’t.”
Esther snatched up her Pad and nodded. “Deb and I’ll get to work on that pronto. I’ll find out what Eden and Paul think the shields can keep out and we’ll see what we can do for the team as individuals. I’ll bring you what we come up with as soon as we develop something viable.”
“Be quick, Es. We have less than forty hours before we hit the edges of that thing, and I doubt it will need to be projecting for us to hear it once we’re inside.”
“You think that’s what destroyed the other vessels that entered the Nebula?”
Eli nodded. “I think there is every possibility, yes.” Esther reached the door before Eli spoke again. “Can you download that file to the mainframe, please? I think it needs some more study.”
“Not by you,” Arianna cut in firmly. Eli turned her head to meet angry, dark eyes, and waved a hand to dismiss Esther. She fled with alacrity, glad to leave the charged room. Eli just held Arianna’s gaze. This was likely to be one hell of a discussion.
“Not by you, Amado. I forbid it. I will not allow you to....”
“Why don’t you tell me what brought you here, Angel? Then we can talk about the music.”
Arianna glowered. “I’m not going to change my mind, Amado. You’re not going to deliberately put yourself in harms’ way like that again. I won’t stand for it!”
Eli reached for Arianna’s hands, smiling when she was met halfway. Then she flinched slightly at the strength of the grip holding hers. “Easy, Angel,” rubbing her thumbs over white knuckles. “I’m right here.” She kept up the gentle motion, her eyes locked on Arianna’s. Gradually, she felt their heartbeats slow and Arianna took a deep breath. “Better?” Eli asked softly. When Arianna nodded, she smiled. “Good. Now come sit with me and tell me what brought you rushing in here.” Eli felt their heartbeats become more rapid again and she lightly squeezed the hands she still clasped. “It’s all right, Beloved. I’m all right now – I promise.”
“But you weren’t, Amado. I felt it! I felt... it was….” Her brows furrowed when she caught a glimpse of Eli’s expression. “Why are you smiling?? It’s not funny. It was... I felt... it was terrifying!!”
“But you felt it, Angel. You felt what I was feeling....” Eli frowned. “I’m actually sorry about that. I know it wasn’t a pleasant experience.”
“No – it really wasn’t. And it was... wait – you weren’t projecting for me specifically, were you?”
“No. I would never have done that deliberately… not at this stage of your learning.”
“Would you have shared that with me if we weren’t training? I mean if we were already completely open with one another?”
“I wouldn’t have a choice, Angel. When we are fully open and completely vested in one another, the only way to withhold my emotions from you is to close myself off again – to build a barrier against everything we share. And I couldn’t do that immediately; it does take a little time to build a wall strong enough to come between mates... especially when they have been open with each other.”
“How long did it take you before... to close yourself off from me?”
“I did it slowly over the course of our time together, so a few months... because you were never open to me and I was trying to find a place where you were comfortable sharing with me like that. It would have been a matter of days or weeks otherwise, depending on a number of mitigating factors. Regardless, it’s a slow process.”
Arianna blew her bangs away from her forehead. “It’s a conspiracy, I tell you.”
“What is?” Eli asked in confusion.
“Everything in the galaxy trying to teach me patience.” She frowned when Eli snorted in laughter. “It’s not funny!”
“It is a little bit. I think all of us have felt the universe conspiring against us at one point or another.” She shook her head. “We certainly all thought that the minute we started the interview process.”
Arianna huffed. “No kidding. That was seriously the most frustrating waste of time....” She took a deep, calming breath and shook her head to clear it. Then she met Eli’s compassionate green eyes. “It doesn’t matter. It’s over and we’re here together.”
“And ultimately, that’s the most important thing of all. Now,” tugging lightly on the hands she still held as she collapsed into her desk chair and pulled Arianna down into her lap. “Tell me what happened. What brought you running into my office – from your point of view,” Eli added when Arianna glared at her. “I know you felt my pain, but....”
“Hush,” Arianna commanded, putting two fingers over dark green lips. “Let me tell this.” Eli nodded and relaxed back into her seat. Arianna naturally followed and curled into Eli’s body, sighing in satisfaction at the slow, steady heartbeat she could feel flowing between them. “I was meditating. I thought it might help my training if I cleared my mind and just focused on listening and feeling within. Besides, I knew if I was calm then you would be too, and your responsibilities have just been so hectic – I thought you deserved that… to whatever degree I could manage it.”
“So when I....” holding up her hands when Arianna glared in her direction again.
“So I was sitting there perfectly calm, listening to my heartbeat and trying to reach out to find yours. I thought I... I felt what almost seemed like an echo of my own. Then out of nowhere this wave of... I don’t know how to describe it really, except as terrifying. It was just an unexpected wash of agony crashed over me and I knew... I knew... you were in trouble. I don’t know how else to explain it. I just knew I had to be where you were... Right. Then.”
“Congratulations, Angel – you’re much further along than I realized... though that could be more my doing than yours.”
Arianna tilted her head. “How so?”
Eli sighed and chuckled ruefully. “You were joking earlier about your lack of patience, but I think that can truthfully be applied to all of us to varying degrees. I am probably the worst offender.”
“You’re the very model of patience, Amado. I’ve never seen you grow impatient no matter what the situation around you was.”
“Professionally, I can be. I have to be, really, because there is so much beyond my control... so much that depends on others. I do my best to stay ahead of things so I don’t take my frustration out on those around me and there is less to make me crazy.” Eli rolled her eyes when she caught Arianna biting her lip. “Be nice,” she commanded with a light slap on the hip closest to her hand.
“Says the woman doing the hitting,” Arianna responded with a quirk of her eyebrow.
“I’ll kiss it and make it better later,” Eli promise with a twinkle in her eyes and a smirk on her lips. “But the point is as incredibly patience as I can be professionally, I am just the opposite in my personal life. I want what I want and I want it immediately if not before. You experienced that firsthand, Angel... in the desert compound.”
Brown eyes widened comically. “Buh... wha... whe... what are you... Eli?”
Eli grinned though her eyes softened. “I knew who you were when we got to the compound, Angel, and I wanted to know you. But when we met, I just... I knew you. And I knew I had to have you. The only reason we took so long to become an us was because it wasn’t just me – I wasn’t the only one involved or making a commitment. It had to be us making the decision together.”
“It’s all right, Angel. We’re on the right path. We just took the picture itinerary to get to this point. Still, we’re somewhat far from the original subject – which is why I believe that it’s my fault you felt my response to the Nebula’s song.”
“Because even though I know you need time to learn about the entwining properly, I want so much for us to be one together that my walls....“ She blew out an impatient breath and shook her head. “Before you confronted me about our emotional separation from each other, it was hard for me to keep my barriers intact once we were mated again because I wanted that attachment to you. But I worked at keeping them strong because I believed you had no desire for that kind of intimacy with me. Knowing that you do - they are naturally weaker. And I was totally unprepared for what that sound was going to do to me. I broadcast reflexively.”
“What did you feel, Amado? Because what I felt scared the crap out of me.”
“I can imagine – it wasn’t exactly pleasant for me.” She shuddered and closed her eyes, releasing a cleansing breath when Arianna placed a calming hand over her heart. “It was like... I felt as though I was being skinned alive. It was all I could do to keep my wings contained. They were ready to burst forth from my body.”
Brown eyes met green and Arianna’s gaze hardened. “There is no way I will allow you to subjugate yourself to that again, Amado. Not for any reason – for your sake as well as mine. I understand you didn’t project to me deliberately, and I realize as we open ourselves further to one another that we’re going to experience both good and bad emotions with some degree of intensity. But I refuse to allow you to knowingly put yourself into that sort of danger.”
“And what of the others? What about their danger, Beloved?”
“Are you certain they are in danger? What if the song is similar to the frequency issue we’ve been having? It has only affected a few of us physically.”
“The frequency issue affects everyone to some extent. The only way to know if this song does the same is to test it, Angel... on everyone.”
“Not. You.” Arianna stated with authority. “We already know its effects are crippling for you. Es can play it for Luke. If he reacts normally, he can test the others. Otherwise, Es can keep testing or she can try on me... or maybe Danny. He’s been studying the Nebula the longest and most intensely and he doesn’t appear to be suffering any ill effects.”
“I know you hate this. I know you hate relinquishing what you believe to be your responsibility. But being a good leader means you have to know when to step aside and let others do the things they are more qualified for... even if it means letting go of some of that famous control you’re so fond of,” said with a smile and twinkling eyes.
Eli raised a blonde brow. “You know me pretty well.”
“Of course – I am your mate.”
Before Eli could respond, a voice over the comm unit interrupted them. “Hey, Boss – this is Danny. Over.”
Eli sighed silently, but tapped the back of her hand and lifted the device to her lips. “What can I do for you, Danny?” She frowned when there was no immediate response. “Danny?”
He cleared his throat, causing Eli and Arianna to flinch slightly. “Sorry, Boss. I was waiting for you to say ‘over’ so I knew you were done.”
Eli pinched the bridge of her nose. “My apologies, Danny. I’ve been thinking of removing the military dictates from our communications interactions, but forgot I haven’t really brought it up to the group yet. So how can I help you? Over.”
“For the record, I like the idea of us using normal conversation again, but that isn’t why I called. Es brought me the recording of the Nebula’s song. Given your reaction and her unease with it as well, I think we should probably get everyone’s initial reactions to the sound. But I think I should probably be the one to do the testing. It doesn’t seem to affect me at all except to make my skin tone deeper.”
Eli blinked. “Really?”
“Yes. If she could have stood it, I think I would have almost matched Esther’s black skin.”
“That’s pretty dark, Danny.”
“I know. But it faded back to my normal lavender as soon as the music stopped playing.”
“If you’d be willing to take the responsibility, Arianna and I would be most grateful,” Eli said while looking into shining brown eyes.
“I’d be happy to, Boss. I think it needs to be done – we don’t want anyone to be caught by surprise by ghastly side effects, and from what Esther said, your reaction was extremely nasty. There’s no reason at all for you to have to endure that again. I am perfectly willing and more than capable of handling this. I’ll send you the results as soon as I have them.”
“I appreciate it, Danny... more than you know.”
“I think I can probably make a good guess.”
Eli smiled. “Probably.”
“Hey, Danny,” Arianna cut in. “Can you meet me in our quarters to do my testing? I don’t want Eli exposed to that sound again if possible and she still has some work to finish up in the infirmary.”
“I’ll meet you there in five, Az. Danny out.”
Arianna turned to Eli. “I wish you would take the rest of the day off, but I know you won’t,” her fingertips covering Eli’s lips again briefly. “Please don’t overexert yourself. I’ll be back as soon as Danny is done with my test.”
“I won’t ask you not to check on me – I’m not selfish enough to deny you that right, and I am selfish enough to want you to do it,” blushing at the knowing smile she got from Arianna at her confession. “But I promise you I’m all right now. Whatever ugly effect that sound had on me, it was only temporary and really didn’t last long enough to do anything more than shake us up pretty good. I’m not drained nor am I in any kind of pain or discomfort. I’m not in any hurry to repeat the experience, but I really am absolutely fine now.”
Arianna searched the hazel eyes staring back at her guilelessly for a long moment before nodding her agreement. “Okay, I believe you. I don’t think you could hide anything from me this close... not now. I’ll be back when we’re done – to check on you as well as to let you know what my reaction to that sound is.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Arianna leaned down and brushed their lips together before she rose from Eli’s lap. “I’ll be back,” she assured, then slipped out the door. Eli waited until Arianna’s footsteps no longer sounded in the corridor and turned back to her work. She really did have things to take care of.
Danny was waiting beside their door when Arianna came around the corner, slightly breathless from her haste not to keep him waiting. “Sorry,” she began, only to stop when Danny held up a hand.
“Don’t apologize. I knew I’d be the first one here. I wasn’t that far away to begin with, and you were with Eli.”
Arianna frowned. “What does that mean?”
Danny rolled his eyes and smirked at her. “I was in the mess hall grabbing a couple energy bars. I expected Eli to agree to allow me to do this, and I wanted to be fully fueled for the prospect. The darker my skin becomes, the faster I seem to burn energy. I figured I needed to be prepared.”
“Wow,” Arianna commented, neatly diverted from her confusion momentarily. “I never knew that.”
“Neither did I, really, but I’ve never had the occasion to go that dark before either.”
“Just don’t let it overwhelm you. That could have messy consequences.”
“However, that’s not what I meant and you know it,” Arianna stated firmly. “What did my being with Eli have to do with you arriving here first?”
Danny cocked an eyebrow at her. “Seriously, Honey? Since the two of you made your promises in front of us and our families, you’ve been as inseparable as could be managed under the circumstances.” Her eyes dropped and she frowned, biting her bottom lip in agitation. Danny tucked his fingers beneath her chin and raised her head until their eyes met. “That’s not a bad thing, Sweetie – in fact, it’s very good. You should want to be with each other every minute you can... especially now at the beginning of your lives together. But it also means I know that if you’re together, I’ll be wherever we’re meeting ahead of you because you’re loath to leave her behind. And then you add in the tension that brought you running to her willy nilly…. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
“Is it normal? To react this way, I mean? To want to be with her as much as I possibly can?”
Danny grinned. “So normal, Honey. You want to enjoy every single minute of it.”
“I am, Danny – I really am.”
“Good. Then let’s get in there and do this testing. I moved you to the top of my list, so I still have almost a dozen yet to do. But I knew after what Es said happened to Eli that neither of you would rest until you knew your results as well.”
Arianna rested a hand on his forearm. “You’re a good friend, Danny. Thank you.” She waved her other hand in front of the sensor pad.
“Anytime, Sweetie,” motioning her in ahead of him. “If you’ll just have a seat on the couch.... I will tell you that I’ll be wearing the strongest sound blockers we have. It isn’t enough to completely negate the song from the nebula, but it does help slow its effects somewhat. I’ll be monitoring you diligently, but if you feel any measure of discomfort that I don’t respond to quickly enough, pull the blockers off my ears. I’ll stop the music and we can go from there.”
“How long does it last?”
“That will depend on you. Es can listen in short bursts – a few minutes at a time before disorientation sets in. Eli’s reaction was almost immediate. Mine was more gradual, but still only took minutes to fully manifest itself.”
Arianna took a deep breath and closed her eyes to center herself. After a minute, she opened her eyes and nodded. Danny turned on the music.
Eli burst into the room, noting the pensive look on Danny’s face as his eyes roamed over Arianna’s slack features. “What happened?” she growled, taking his place beside her mate and glancing at him briefly before she began taking Arianna’s vital signs. “Are you all right?”
He sighed. “I’m fine,” said on a shaky breath. “She just... she seemed fine. All her readings were normal to her baseline. Then her eyes rolled into the back of her head and she fell over. I killed the music and called you immediately. She hasn’t moved since.”
“All right. Let me see if I can wake her up and we’ll go from there.”
Arianna grimaced at the sharp smell that wafted under her nostrils, then winced at the tattooing that resonated throughout her brain. She kept her eyes closed as softness cupped her face, absorbing the warmth she could feel coursing through her veins. When she finally cracked her eyes open, she was unsurprised to find anxious concern looking back from the bright green eyes studying her. She reached up a hand and covered one of the ones still resting on her cheek.
“I’m all right, Amado,” she whispered, afraid to speak any louder. Despite her assurances to Eli, her head was still pounding pretty rapidly, and she really had no desire to see if she could add puking to her list of accomplishments for the day.
Eli raised an eyebrow. “Tell it to someone who can’t feel it here,” she replied softly, lifting her free hand to her heart.
Arianna pouted. “I’m okay, Eli. My head just hurts... a lot, actually.”
Green eyes darkened to almost black with apprehension. “Like before?”
Arianna thought about nodding for the brief millisecond it took to realize that would be an invitation to disaster. “Worse,” she confessed quietly. “It’s like the pain multiplied exponentially... like yours did.”
Eli closed her eyes and released a slow breath. “This isn’t good, Angel. This could be very bad.” She felt Arianna squeeze the hand she still held and opened her eyes as she turned to Danny. “Danny, I need you to conduct the rest of these tests in the controlled environment of the infirmary lab. If there are any more reactions similar to mine or Arianna’s, it’s in our best interests to be in a place where we can handle a medical emergency.”
“Do you think you will? Have more of those kinds of responses I mean. It kind of makes sense that both you and Arianna reacted violently. What one of you feels, the other echoes, right? So you have double the intensive reaction to the stimulus.”
“But what made us react in such a manner to begin with? And though Esther’s response to the song was less debilitating, she did still have a visceral response... something totally beyond her control. Even you reacted, Danny, even if it was only to speed up your metabolism. We can’t afford not to assume that everyone is going to react in some manner at this point. I’d prefer to err on the side of caution.”
Danny nodded. “I see your point. But, Eli... how will you...? According to what Es said, yours has been the most vicious and harshest response. How can you... you can’t possibly monitor the tests. You can’t even be nearby.”
“What about a containment field?” Arianna asked, as their gazes shifted in her direction. “I don’t know why I didn’t think about this before. Why can’t the tests be done behind the privacy screen?” She held up her hands. “I know it doesn’t completely block sound, but it can mute it significantly. Between that and sound blockers covering someone’s ears, it might be possible to monitor the tests without something like this happening again.”
“But will it be enough for me to stay in the infirmary?”
Arianna took a deep breath. “I don’t know, and I honestly don’t want to find out.” She turned to Danny. “Do you think we could test Luke next? If he doesn’t respond too negatively, perhaps he could help monitor the remainder of the tests.”
“And if he does react badly?” Eli asked with a growl.
“Then we’ll try something else. Amado, we can’t afford to lose any of us to this song – I realize that. But you are probably the one person we could least afford to lose.”
“She’s got a point, Boss,” Danny interposed before Eli could formulate an argument. “None of us want to lead this particular venture.”
Eli clenched her free hand, banging it against her knee. “I hate this! I shouldn’t....”
“HEY!!” Arianna broke in. Danny stepped back to allow the conversation to remain private between Eli and Arianna as much as possible though he didn’t leave the room. “That’s enough, Elizabeth! I know you’d like to be able to handle this yourself. You feel like you should because of your position in our little community here. But this is about all of us, and we’re all perfectly capable of helping you shoulder the responsibility that is ours to bear. Let us.”
Eli’s eyes shined with tears that she refused to allow to fall and she smiled at Arianna. “You’re something else, you know that? Keep reminding me, Angel. Maybe eventually it will sink in.”
“Doubtful. It’s just not in your nature, Amado,” Arianna teased with a grin. “But we’ll keep trying.”
Danny cleared his throat. “Excuse me, ladies, but if you’re all right here for now, I’ve already contacted Luke. He’s going to meet me in the med bay for testing and then we’ll go from there.” He held up a hand before either woman could speak. “I will of course keep you apprised of what happens, but given that his reaction to the nebula has been on par with mine, I don’t expect there to be a problem. Do you need anything before I go? Should I send Luke to see you before I test him?”
Eli shook her head. “I think we’ll be all right. If that changes, I’ll let you know.” She turned to Arianna. “How about you, Beloved? Do you feel all right?”
“I do, mostly. My head is very tender and I’m tired, but at least that excruciating pain seems to have dissolved for now.”
“Let’s hope it stays that way,” Danny commented. “All right... I’m off.” He pointed towards them. “Stay put – I can see myself out.” And so saying, he put words to action and walked out the door. They waited for the door to slide shut behind him, then Eli and Arianna looked at one another.
“I hope Deb and Es can find a way to block that sound,” Arianna said with a shiver. Eli frowned.
“What do you remember, Angel?”
“Not much,” Arianna replied. “It was very... disharmonic – not what I would consider music at all. It was fine at first. I mean I think it was. There was sound and then there was a blinding shaft of pain behind my eyes. The next thing I knew I was waking up to look into your eyes and I could feel our heartbeats thrumming inside my head. It would have been interesting had it not hurt so much.”
“Do you need some of the good stuff for your headache? I grabbed some and brought it with me before Danny called in the emergency. I could feel... well, you know.”
“I do indeed. But strangely, no. I’m really not feeling any pain right now. I think the pain that I woke up to was residual to what I was experiencing when I lost consciousness. I’m just sore and tired. I feel like I ran a footrace through the swamps.”
“I don’t think I would enjoy that.”
Arianna snorted. “I know I wouldn’t. I was never fond of running, you know. It usually meant something was chasing me – and never something I wanted to be caught by.”
“I like running,” Eli replied with a smile. “But then I was usually the one doing the chasing.”
“Figures,” Arianna remarked drolly.
“In fairness, I’d much rather fly.”
“In fairness, I’d much rather fly with you. Too bad we’re not going to have that opportunity for a while. Neither the ship nor the colony is going to be large enough for that kind of exploration. The colony may get there eventually, but not any time soon.”
“Maybe we can work on designing a holo-grid that would accommodate that kind of activity.” She shrugged. “Something to think about for the future anyway.”
“I wonder why something like that wasn’t incorporated into the ship. Surely the Committee recognized the need for recreation and downtime... especially over such a long period of time.”
“I don’t think that was ever a thought that crossed their minds. Their focus was getting us out here to work – not our comfort.”
“I’m not sure I’d call it comfort as much as I would a necessity. Even the greatest minds need to rest occasionally. More than the average mind, if the truth be told.”
“Well, we can recommend it for some of the other teams if and when we get back from this mission.”
Arianna cocked an eyebrow. “You don’t think we’ll return?”
“I think we’re working with a lot of variables we never expected to have, so there are a lot of possibilities in play. But I do think never going back is one of them... especially since we don’t really know where we could end up. I know we decided to go to the moon around that gas giant. But so many things have already changed and changed again for us. Who’s to say that won’t happen again before we arrive? Or that something might happen to us there that causes us to pick up and move again?”
“Always thinking ahead, Amado?”
Eli shrugged. “Trying to, at any rate. I read those textbooks Luke lent me – the ones that encourage thinking beyond the acceptable... um, thinking outside the box, I believe it was called. I have been endeavoring to put that into practice.”
Arianna tilted her head in confusion. “Isn’t that what you were already doing? Seeing the big picture?”
“It’s a little different,” Eli said with a shake of her head. “Seeing the big picture means I know what’s going on with everyone and how each piece fits into our goals. Thinking outside the box means I try to see all the possibilities of a situation... even those that I would never utilize or consider honorable or acceptable to use against someone.”
“Even if the situation threatened our very existence?”
Eli smiled wryly. “That is why I am learning this technique. Because I find that I could indeed justify a number of solutions to preserve this group of individuals... my family.”
“So why did you not learn this in warrior training on your home world? Surely that kind of thinking is necessary to become a successful warrior.”
Eli sighed. “On my world, we follow prescribed rules – protocols – in any conflict we wage there. Mostly that means following the leadership and dictates of the superior officers who command us. So when we serve in the Alliance Defense Force, we do as we’re told without question... without thought. It’s one thing that makes us such damn good soldiers. Only a very small, select group of warriors from my world rise in the ranks of the ADF, and they are the ones who remain for life. The rest return home after their service and enlist in our Homeworld Defense Force. They maintain the same military discipline and readiness in the event that they are recalled back to the ADF for service. But mostly, we run war games with one another, or occasionally ward off an unknown, alien threat.”
“That’s how your brother died, isn’t it? Repelling an alien threat from invading your planet.”
Eli nodded. “Yes. And it was so unnecessary!” She took a deep breath. “It still makes me so angry when I think about it. I just want to.... We are somewhat far afield of our initial discussion once again – which is how Luke’s texts have helped develop the more devious side of my mind.”
“Do you think that inherently changes who you are at your core?”
“I don’t think so. My first instinct is still to believe in the honor of my opponent, believing he will operate under the same civil rules of war that I was brought up on. It’s just that now there is an immediate second thought that assures me that my enemy is not honorable and that I need to respond accordingly to eliminate whatever threat challenges us. However, I am depending on each of you, especially you, Angel, to call me out on my behavior if I begin becoming maniacal or crazed beyond recognition.” She cocked an eyebrow. “I’m going to assume you can tell the difference between that and my regular mode of crazy.”
Arianna covered her mouth to keep a loud guffaw from escaping but nodded her head vehemently. “Oh yes, Amado. You can surely count on me to maintain your humility.”
Eli’s eyebrows slowly rose into her hairline. “Why does that sound ominous?”
“Not at all. More along the lines of entertaining.”
“Me, of course,” Arianna responded brightly with an impish grin. Eli’s countenance altered into a more predatory expression and she smiled darkly though her eyes twinkled with mirth.
“Just remember there are always paybacks, Angel.”
Arianna smirked. “I’m counting on it.”
That was all the incentive Eli needed to pounce.
“So what do you think, Luke? Really?” Danny asked as they sat down to review the test results a little more thoroughly.
Luke frowned as he scanned the information scrolling in front of him. “I think I hope Es and Debbie can find a solution to that sound pretty quickly. Otherwise, it could become a real problem.”
Now it was Danny’s turn to frown, and he did so hard enough to cause permanent wrinkle lines. “Why? Aside from Ike who we had to sedate because of the pain he was in, no one else responded significantly. And of the lesser responses, none of them were particularly bad.”
Luke shook his head as he pinched his lips together briefly. “The fact that everyone had some reaction is concerning. And we really can’t discount anyone’s discomfort as insignificant. We have no way of knowing if or when discomfort could become debilitating. And what if it becomes worse the longer or more often a person is exposed? We really can’t afford to have that happen to any of us.”
Danny’s blue eyes got big. “I hadn’t really thought of it like that.”
Luke smiled wryly. “I know. But I did.”
“Do Es and Deb know how important...?”
“Es does. She’ll explain it to Deb if she has any doubts.”
“Is there anything else we can do?”
Luke leaned back in Eli’s chair, rocking absently as he turned his thoughts inward. Finally he refocused on Danny. “Maybe. You up for doing a few experiments with me?”
“Let’s get started.”
“Hey, guys! How’s it going?” Eden asked as she stuck her head in the lab where Deborah and Esther were currently ensconced. They returned her regard and sighed.
“Slowly,” Deborah confessed. “But we’re making progress.”
“Do you think you’ll have something in time?” holding up her hands in surrender when a set of black and a set of gray eyes turned her way and glared daggers at her. “Look, I know you’re under a lot of pressure. We’ve got the same situation down in engineering, and two of our number are out until they recover from some pretty severe effects. So I’m trying to get a handle on what you’re doing to see if maybe we can coordinate.”
“Let us show you what we have. Maybe you can take the prototypes with you to engineering and see how they work together.” She grabbed the few sound dampeners she and Deborah had developed since being set on this task. “I’m assuming you’re not ready to shield the entire ship yet.”
“You assume correctly,” Eden said plainly. “What these shields were built for....” She shook her head. “This is something beyond. We’ve taken the schematics for the science and exploration vessels that were sent out here to see if we can adapt that shielding. But so far....” She shook her head again. “I don’t know. Something’s off about the whole thing.” She accepted the prototypes with a nod of her head. “Thanks.”
Deborah frowned. “Off how?”
“That’s the problem – we’re not really sure yet. We just know it doesn’t look or feel right. And we’re running out of time to figure out what it is.”
“Have you tried contacting Arianna or Ike?” Esther asked. “Surely they would respond; they know how critical all this is and how short we are on time to get it figured out.”
“Not yet,” Eden confessed. “I know the Boss went running with the good stuff before Danny even called her about Az. She nearly plowed me over coming out of the med lab, and that was after her reaction with you, Es. And Luke told me he gave Isaac a pretty hefty dose of the normal stuff to help him relax so his muscles would unclench. He told me it would be a minimum of a couple standard hours before it wore off enough for Isaac to even be awake... much less coherent.”
“I think you should try,” Esther stated emphatically. “It’s been a couple hours and you’ve got nothing to lose by asking.”
“And we really are running out of time... and options.”
Eden nodded. “Let me know if you come up with more of these for us to try.”
“We’ll keep working on our end. You just get your side brought up to speed.” Eden cocked an eyebrow at Esther’s sass and Esther smiled softly. “Don’t worry, Eden – We got this. Just make the call so we can get this faster and call it done.”
Eden smirked. “I’ll see what I can do.” Then she turned and headed out the door with her hands full. Esther and Deborah watched her go before turning back to their work with new purpose.
Jacob grabbed the console and gritted his teeth as the Outreach shook with tremors again. He risked a look back at Eden who was clutching the arms of the Captain’s chair in a white-knuckled grip. “I’m open to suggestions, Eden. Now what??”
She pulled her eyes from the view screen to glance at him briefly before returning her gaze to the tableau taking place in front them. She shook her head. “I wish to hell I knew, Jake. I wish to hell I knew.” She held on tighter as the ship shivered again and let her mind go back to the events that had brought them to these circumstances.
Eden had called Arianna and Isaac despite her misgivings about disturbing them. The fact was that she and Paul had tried everything they could think of and were stymied by their inability to find a solution that worked. Isaac and Arianna had both responded quickly, if a little sluggishly, understanding far better than Eden how imperative it was for them to find a resolution. Neither of them had any desire to suffer the experience of hearing the Nebula’s song again. So they moved with alacrity to engineering, immediately submerging themselves in finding an answer before it was too late.
Meanwhile, Eli had gone directly to the infirmary, knowing she would likely find Luke there working on a solution from his end. She had already touched base with Esther and Deborah and knew of their progress or lack thereof. She was devoutly hoping that between the engineers, Deborah and Esther and the medical team, they could come up with enough ideas that would work conjunctively to prevent another painful occurrence like the one she and Arianna had already endured. Because she was confident that each team held a piece to the puzzle – no one discipline was going to be able to solve this problem on their own.
She crossed the threshold into the med bay and dropped to her knees almost immediately. She clutched at her head, covering her ears and keening in agony as she felt her wings seize again of their own volition. Then without further warning, they thrust through their protective sac and pushed against her clothing. She rolled onto her back in an effort to keep them contained... and then knew nothing as merciful blackness overwhelmed her senses.
Luke and Danny had not heard her enter the infirmary, but they had heard her scream, and they had cut the soundtrack straightaway. They had rushed from the lab just in time to see Eli fall onto her back and go lax as unconsciousness took her. They moved quickly towards her and exchanged concerned glances. Luke knelt to check her over carefully, needing to determine that Eli was still breathing; Danny grabbed a hover bed at his instruction. Then Eden’s voice sounded over Luke’s comm device.
“Luke, something is wrong with Eli. You need to find her and do whatever you can for her. Az is on her way to her. Out.”
Luke didn’t even bother to acknowledge Eden’s message. He was focused on getting Eli into the hover bed as gently as he could manage. Despite her unconsciousness, she was still reacting to the distress that had caused the reaction. Every touch made her flinch and every movement made her groan in agony. He was hoping to have Eli settled before Arianna arrived. Danny had already explained what had happened between them before and their response to one another’s pain.
Carefully they placed her on the bed and Luke instructed Danny to move Eli to one of the isolation areas while he went to the pharmaceutical cabinet and removed a shot of the good stuff. He didn’t know what Eli’s tolerance for pain was, but it was telling enough that she had lost consciousness as her body’s way of protecting itself once that threshold was reached.
He loaded the syringe with the painkiller and pushed it into her neck, watching her body relax almost the instant the medicine hit her bloodstream though she still twitched. He and Danny had shifted her into the biobed and raised the privacy partition before stepping back out into the main room of the infirmary. It only took another half a minute before Arianna charged into the room.
“She’s all right,” Luke had assured her as she clutched at his arms. She looked around frantically and he led her to the enclosure. “Go,” he instructed with a mild shove on her lower back. “Go lay down with her. It’s the best thing you can do for both of you right now.”
Arianna’s brow furrowed, but she didn’t question his words. Her heart knew the truth of them and she rushed away from them without a word or a backwards glance, disappearing through the privacy screen. The sound was muted, but Luke and Danny waited until they heard her slide into place on the bed beside Eli, then they returned to the med lab where Luke could monitor Eli unobtrusively. And things had resettled for a little while.
The little ship shook again, and Eden chanced to question what had happened in the period between the time she had alerted Luke to the fact that Eli was in trouble until the time the Nebula had moved aggressively towards them. She was certain it had something to do with Eli and Arianna – for whatever reason, they appeared to be at the center of the maelstrom currently assaulting the Outreach... as they had been since the Nebula had come within their purview. She has a passing thought to wonder how Isaac was holding up as he had been the only other individual onboard more than mildly affected by the Nebula’s song. Then another tremor shook the ship and Eden realized she needed to do more than sit in the Captain’s chair hanging on for dear life and reminiscing about the past. She rose cautiously and was then thrown forward into Jacob’s back. He glared at her even as he reached out a hand to steady her against him.
“Sorry,” she murmured, leaning more of her weight into him. He nodded, but merely raised an eyebrow and waited for her to finish. “I’m going to go down to the infirmary and see if I can resolve this there. I want you to stop fighting against whatever is attacking us. Yes, I know it’s the Nebula, but there is something or someone else behind it. Maybe if we stop resisting, they’ll stop harassing us.” She turned to Abigail who was monitoring the comm station. “Gay, you’re with me.” Abigail nodded and rose slowly, making her way to Eden guardedly. “Naomi, you’re needed on the bridge,” Eden said into her comm unit brusquely, then she turned back to Abigail as they exited the bridge. “C’mon. Let’s see if we can fix this little situation... whatever it is.”
“Lead on.” The ship shifted again and they were slammed into the nearest bulkhead. “Ow.”
“Second that,” Eden agreed. “Do you have any idea what’s going on?” she asked as they eased to their feet again and started down the passageway leaning against the walls.
“No... not really anyway. The song has shifted. Whatever is doing this changed the frequency of the music we were hearing. It’s why we haven’t all been driven mad by the sound even though we were caught unaware by the attack. I... ow! Thanks,” she said as she accepted Eden hand to help her stand again. “I think the change in pitch is what’s causing the tremors though.”
Eden nodded. “Makes sense. Can you sense anything from it? Can you feel... anything? Without putting yourself in danger, I mean.
Abigail shook her head. “Eli instructed me not to open myself up to it and it’s blocking me completely. I can’t get a read on anything – not even the people on this ship.” She shuddered slightly and sighed. “I never thought I’d miss the noise that everyone makes, but my mind is so silent now. It’s... it’s kind of terrifying actually... to be so alone.”
Eden frowned. “When did you lose the ability to hear us?” wondering if the timing tied in to what was happening around them. “Ow... dammit!” rubbing the elbow that had slammed into the wall.
Abigail shrugged and grimaced. “The louder the Nebula’s song became, the harder it was to hear any of you... even if we were in the same room. But when the song changed – that’s when things went completely silent for me.”
“Are you still experiencing discomfort?”
“Not like before. Now it’s just anxiety caused by the stillness I seemed to be encapsulated in.”
“Do you think it’s deliberate? Perhaps to protect you? Or to keep you from learning too much about whatever is out there?”
Abigail stopped walking in shock and the ship’s shiver sent her to her knees. She held up a hand to keep Eden from approaching and spent a moment simply trying to catch her breath at the thought. At least if she was being targeted particularly – for whatever reason – it meant the silence was temporary. And that idea was completely overwhelming... and very, very welcome.
Eden watched as Abigail took slow, deep breaths, trying to regain her equilibrium. Even as she watched, she felt the ship flow into a smoother course, and she sighed in relief. With everything else going on, it would be nice not to worry about the ship shaking apart or her crew ending up bruised and beaten from simply walking down the corridors. In another moment, blue eyes looked up to meet her black ones and she smiled in response to Abigail’s expression. “Everything all right?”
“Much better. Thank you, Eden.”
Eden let a look of confusion cross her countenance, but Abigail didn’t elaborate further. So she just nodded her head. “Of course. You ready to move on?” reaching a hand down to Abigail once more.
“Eden, it’s Luke.” His voice was frantic... almost screaming.
“Go ahead, Luke.” Her brows furrowed and she hastened her steps. Abigail picked up on her urgency and hurried to catch up.
“You better get down to the infirmary. We’ve got... holy mauso... crap!! We’ve got a... criminetly!! Hurry, Eden! Eli is....” He went silent and Eden and Abigail exchanged glances before they took off at a run... only to come to a screeching halt when they reached the threshold of the med bay. Danny looked at both of them in relief.
“Oh praise the heavens!!” he gasped as he dragged Luke’s unconscious body towards them. “Maybe one of you can get through to them!” He nodded towards the screened enclosure and struggled to get Luke onto the nearest biobed. Eden nudged him out of the way and scooped Luke into her arms, depositing him gently onto the flat surface before she turned back towards the privacy screen. She cut her eyes at Abigail who shook her head. Eden sighed and slowly crossed the room as her mind cast back to the call that has seeming put these events into motion.
“Eden, this is Naomi.”
“I’m a little busy at the moment, Mimi” looking around engineering and rolling her eyes at Paul and Isaac. “What’s up?”
“Um... have you seen or heard from Eli lately? I’m asking because we have a possible situation up here and I can’t seem to reach her.”
Eden sighed. “She’s in sickbay, Naomi... under observation. What seems to be the problem?”
“It’s the Nebula. The song has gone silent and it’s moving – like it’s making right for us. It’s....” A wave of tremors rocked the ship, knocking Eden flat on her ass and sending her work across the deck.
“What the hell was that? Was that the Nebula??”
“Yeah. We just crossed the outermost band. We’re going in... ready or not.”
“Dammit. Call Jake. I’ll be there momentarily.” She spared a glance at Isaac whose face was scrunched up in concentration as he focused on keeping his feet under him while he continued to work on the shielding device they *hoped* would help negate the Nebula’s song. She turned to Paul. “I’m going up to the bridge. You’ll be okay here?”
“We’ll be fine.” The ship shook again. “Go... before this thing shakes us apart and makes this all moot.”
Eden nodded and headed out the door as quickly as she could, walking against the wall in an effort to keep from falling into it. She lifted her comm unit to her mouth. “Luke... you there?”
“I’m here, Eden. What’s going on?”
“I’m on my way to the bridge to find out, but it appears that the Nebula has finally decided to target us aggressively. Ow!” as she was knocked to the floor. “How’s the Boss?”
“You all right?” Eden could hear the frown of concern in Luke’s voice and it made her smile just a little as she got back on her feet and moved forward again.
“I’ll live. How’s Eli?”
“She and Arianna are sleeping quietly at the moment.” The ship shuddered again. “I had to sedate her.”
Eden’s brows furrowed. “Why? Because of what is happening to the ship?”
“I don’t think so – it happened before all this started. Danny and I were working on the song and she came into the infirmary. Even though we were in the lab with the privacy screen up to dampen the sound.... She was in so much pain - I couldn’t get close enough to examine her. Even breathing seemed to be agony for her.”
“So she’s unaware of what’s going on?”
“As far as I know. She hasn’t reacted to any outside stimuli aside from Arianna’s presence.”
“Arianna seems to be unaware as well.”
Eden nodded though Luke couldn’t see it. “All right – keep me alerted to any changes. I’ll be on the bridge if you need me.”
“Gay, are you sensing anything from...?” Eden swallowed hard, not taking her eyes away from Eli or Arianna. When Abigail didn’t respond, Eden risked a quick look in her direction only to find Abigail’s eyes scrunched tightly shut and her hands balled into tense, white-knuckled fists. “Gay... GAY!!” waiting for blue eyes to open and fix on her. “Go! Get out of here!” Eden commanded tensely. “Go get your buffers in place again. I’m going to need your help, but we’re not going to lose you in the process. So go.”
Abigail nodded shakily. “I’ll be back as soon as I can,” as she stepped out of the cubicle.
Eden nodded even as her attention turned to back to Eli and Arianna. They hadn’t seemed to notice her presence, and she wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad one. But judging by Luke’s unconscious state, and the looks they were giving one another, it was probably for the best. So she remained completely still in the doorway and simply observed, curious to know whether this was a new development or simply something of which she’d been unaware.
Eli had wings. And not little, insignificant wings either. No, the wings she was currently sporting were quite massive, made even larger by the small space in which they were confined. Eli stretched and they actually extended beyond the boundary of the privacy screen before being withdrawn back into the tiny cubicle that house the biobed Arianna was presently perched on.
What was more noteworthy at the moment than Eli’s wings, however, were the expressions both she and Arianna wore. Arianna appeared angry, hurt and resentful; Eli was disdainful to the point of hatred. And she circled the biobed like a hunter tracking its prey.
No words had been spoken - at least that Eden was aware of – but before she could break up the tableau by interjecting, a hand reached through the privacy screen and pulled Eden back into the main area of the infirmary. She looked up with burning black eyes, ready to lash out at whoever had intercepted her before she could find out what was going on with Eli and Arianna. Her gaze was met by sad, weary blue eyes. “Gay?”
“You can’t interfere, Eden.”
“How did you...?”
“I was monitoring you,” pointing to the Pad Luke had been using. “And even without being able to sense you, I do know you. You’re a problem solver, but they’ve got to do this on their own. You know as well as I do that this thing has been after them from the beginning... or at least since we came within its purview.”
“So I’m not the only one...?”
“No,” Abigail affirmed with a small smile. “I think it’s safe to say most of us believe that. I still don’t know what Isaac has to do with anything, but they were the most affected by the Nebula’s song. Even Hannah and I didn’t have nearly the issues....”
At that moment, Luke sat up slowly, rubbing at his face and the back of his neck. He shifted his jaw gingerly. “Ow – the Boss really packs a punch.”
Danny rolled his eyes and pressed a syringe of painkiller into Luke’s. “Imagine if she’d actually been trying to hit you.”
“No, thank you... really. Did I miss anything?”
The door to the med bay slid open and Mordecai stepped through with Hannah in his arms. “Hey, Doc... can you take a look?” nodding at the woman in his arms. “She just sort of collapsed.”
Luke slid from the bed slowly; Danny stood nearby waiting in case he was needed. Luke squeezed his hand lightly. “I’m all right. But thank you.”
Luke turned back to Mordecai. “Let’s get her on the bed and I’ll take a look. What happened exactly?”
Mordecai placed Hannah on the biobed carefully before he shrugged. “I dunno. We were in the hydroponics bay when the ship started shaking. Hannah was tending to the vegetable plants and I was pruning the trees. The first tremor threw me off the ladder and I must have blacked out. I was underneath the ladder when I woke up and the ship was still shaking. Hannah was leaned over me trying to get the ladder off, but I was tangled up in it and the tremors kept knocking her off her feet. Then the shaking stopped and she just collapsed on top of me.”
Luke nodded. “Okay. Let me take a look at her, and then I want to examine you.”
“It’s the change in the song,” Abigail commented, drawing all eyes to her. “It has to be. The song tickled her hearing... like literally made an itch she couldn’t scratch. So she was always wearing her sound blockers to help control her reaction. But the song changed. This is her response to that change.”
“So we know why. Let’s see if we can figure out how to repair the results.”
Eden looked around at the people surrounding her in sickbay and realized that half the ship’s complement was with her. That also meant that there were still half unaccounted for, though she assumed Jacob and Naomi were still manning their stations on the bridge. She lifted her comm unit to her lips.
“Team, this is Eden. I need a status update on everyone not currently in the infirmary.”
“Jake and I are on the bridge,” from Naomi.
“Es and I are in the lab,” reported Deborah.
“Paul and I are in engineering with Isaac,” Titus answered. “Isaac is... he’s not unconscious, but he doesn’t seem to be aware of anything. I’d classify him as catatonic.”
“So why isn’t he in the infirmary?”
“Because we’ve been trying to get through to him, Eden,” Paul replied with a hint of asperity. “We were in the middle of a conversation about the shield modules when he just went mute. I called Titus because I knew you were busy. I was hoping Ike might respond if he was confronted by a new voice. You know how he tends to tune us out after a while when he get focused on something. And since he still had some of that stuff Luke gave him in his system....” Eden could almost hear the shrug in his voice as he trailed off.
“I take it he didn’t react to Titus’ presence at all?”
“Not even a twitch. We were just about to bring him to the med bay when you called.”
“Hold that thought a moment, Paul,” Eden instructed as she closed the comm link. Then she turned to stare at Abigail who was clutching her forearm vigorously enough to leave a bruise and shaking her blonde head vehemently. She glanced at her teammates and they all politely refocused their attention on Hannah who was just beginning to show signs of waking up. Eden pried Abigail’s hand from her arm, rubbing her thumb across the knuckles of the hand that tightened around her own almost painfully. Then she tugged them to the far corner of the room in an effort to give them a little privacy. Abigail kept walking until they were ensconced in a cubicle and raised the privacy screen. Only then did she relax her grip on Eden.
“You cannot bring Isaac up here.” A look of harsh confusion crossed Eden’s features and Abigail hurried along with her explanation. “You saw the display between Eli and Arianna. Without actually knowing what’s happened between them to bring them to that point, it would be better to err on the side of caution. After all, he’s come between them before... however unwittingly.”
Eden paused thoughtfully. “You sensed them earlier, didn’t you? When I sent you out of their space.”
“I did. The rest of you are still blocked to me, but there was so much anger and confusion and.... I don’t know what happened, but whatever it was, it was strong enough to push past the barriers the Nebula managed to erect.” Blue eyes met black and Eden nearly flinched at the pain she witnessed. “It was horrible, Eden. It was mean and hateful and spiteful, and it hurt... so much. I can’t separate who felt what – it’s all jumbled together.”
Eden pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed loudly. “Was that all you could sense? The anger and hatred and darker emotions?”
Abigail shook her head. “No. But they were the most predominate.”
“Wonderful. All right – thanks, Gay. Do you think you can continue to monitor them?” motioning toward the cubicle that Eli and Arianna remained hidden inside.
“I can try,” Abigail replied firmly. “Just keep Isaac away from them until we can figure out what’s really going on here.”
“You think they’re being manipulated for some reason?”
“It’s as good a guess as the rest.”
With a nod, Eden headed back to where the rest were still gathered as Abigail made her way to the area where Eli and Arianna remained. It occurred to her to wonder why neither of them had made an attempt to leave, then she returned her attention to observing their interaction.
Before she could open her mouth to ask how Hannah was, a voice chimed in over the comm. “Eden, this is Jake. We‘ve got a little problem.”
“Of course we do,” she sighed with her eyes closed.
“Eden,” Paul broke in. “We’ve lost power in the engine room.”
Black eyes popped open in surprise at his words. “Excuse me? Hang on Jake. Now what did you say Paul? How do you lose power in the engine room? That system is self-perpetuating and redundant.”
“I dunno, but we’re down... at least the part that operates the engines.”
She looked around the infirmary. Everything was still powered... still functioning as it had been designed to do. “Jake?”
“Yeah, that was what I was going to tell you. We’ve got no engines... no control. Ship’s systems are all fine – everything is fully functional... life support, environmental controls, secondary systems like lighting and refrigeration and water and feeding flow in the greenhouses. But we are no longer traveling at translight speed and I am no longer piloting the ship.”
“So we’re drifting?”
“No. We seem to have a heading – we’re maintaining a consistent course and speed. We’re just not the ones controlling it.”
“Fantastic. Can you give me an idea of our heading?”
“We appear to be headed directly towards the planet where Danny found indications of a civilization. We are unable to gather any further data at this time,” Naomi offered in the most official tone any of them had ever heard from her.
Eden sighed again. “All right. Paul, you and Titus take Isaac to his quarters. Then I want everyone in the infirmary for a team meeting.”
A myriad of agreements followed her instruction and she turned back to Luke. “Find us a meeting place, Doc. We’ve got work to do.”
They had decided to gather around the biobed Hannah was installed in. She was still suffering the effects of whatever had stunned her senses badly enough to knock her out. Even now she sat with her eyes closed, carefully regulating her breathing to keep from falling over... or throwing up. In deference to her condition, no one tried to share her space; instead they brought over stools to sit on and piled on the beds on either side of her. Only Eden remained standing.
“So?” she said, directing a look at Paul and Titus.
“We got Isaac settled, but he’s still fairly catatonic. He never acknowledged us nor his change of location. We got him to lay down on his bed, but we didn’t do anything else – we didn’t know what else we should do.”
“No... that’s fine. Until we know more, we can’t afford to risk doing anything we don’t have proven results on. We don’t want to do anything that might make this situation to worse.” Eden sighed. “Jake?”
He looked up from the Pad he was monitoring. “Not a lot I can tell you, Eden. I’m watching the controls from here,” waving the Pad at her, “but I’m not in control of what’s happening on the bridge. And so far we haven’t managed to get any kind of read on who or what could be doing this. So we can’t even get a solid lock on our destination.”
“Great. Es, Deb? How’s things coming with the sound blockers?”
“Not as well as we hoped,” Esther admitted after a moment’s silent conversation with Deborah. “As you know, we tried Hannah’s plugs first. Unfortunately, they are made to dampen sound more than block it, so they wouldn’t really work for those that needed the sound eliminated. We’ve tried a few other things as well as combining them together, but so far nothing is really satisfactory. The ones that might actually block sound....,” She shook her head and Deborah took up the mantle.
“They became painful in some cases; disintegrated in others. If I was a betting person, I would bet that something in that Nebula was making it impossible for us to succeed – like they need whatever results they were getting from the song.”
“Except the song changed... and so did the results,” Hannah said in a whisper.
“Yeah, but who’s to say that’s not what they needed?” Deborah responded sharply though not unkindly. “I think we can all agree that Eli and Arianna have been prime targets for who or whatever is inside that nebula since we diverted to this course – enough so that I’ve wondered if whatever is in there is actually behind our need to divert in the first place.”
“The idea has merit, Deb, but how could they possibly know we’d choose this course once we deviated from our original path?” Danny asked.
Deborah shrugged. “Given what we’ve seen from this Nebula since we first encountered it, can we say with certainty it couldn’t have gone in whatever direction we chose to move?”
“She’s got a point,” Mordecai acknowledged. “The bigger question is why.”
“Until we can talk to whoever brought us here, I doubt we’ll get an answer to that question, Kai. Though that is just the first in a very long list of questions I’ve got,” Eden said wryly. “Gay, how are they doing?” looking at the Pad Abigail held while jerking her head towards the enclosure Eli and Arianna remained hidden behind.
Abigail shook her head. “I don’t know. This far away, I’m out of sensor range and on here?” waving at the screen. “It’s like they’re basically frozen in place. Arianna hasn’t moved from her spot on the biobed and Eli is facing away from her with her wings mostly extended. The only reason I’m sure they’re not completely stuck in place is because Arianna’s eyes dart to Eli’s back occasionally and Eli’s wings shiver and stretch periodically.”
“Wait... what? Girlfriend’s got wings?” Esther asked, saying aloud what everyone else was thinking. “How is it we didn’t know this?” looking accusingly at Eden.
“She didn’t share that trait with any of us, Es. I found out about them shortly before I called this meeting. “ She met the disbelieving looks staring back at her. “We all have secrets, and it’s not like this is something we needed to know.”
“She’s got a point, guys,” Jacob drawled. “We’re all entitled to some privacy. Besides, why would we need to know? It’s not like they’re of any use to her or to us in this environment.”
“Um... guys?” Abigail interjected nervously. “Is something going on with the ship?” addressing her question to Jake.
He immediately turned his attention to the Pad in his hand, then rose from his seat. “Yeah. We’re slowing down!” Then he took off out of the infirmary at a run. “You may wanna come see this,” he called back before he disappeared into the lift.
“You coming, Gay?” Eden asked as most of the rest stood as a single entity and headed towards the doorway. Only Luke, Hannah and Abigail remained in place.
“I don’t think so,” Abigail replied softly. “I think I need to stay here and keep an eye on them a little while longer,” nodding towards the privacy screen as she held up the Pad. “I’ll keep you apprised of what happens here as much as possible.”
“All right – thanks, Gay.” Eden turned her attention to Luke and Hannah. “Will you be okay?”
“We’ll be fine, Eden,” Hannah assured her quietly, though she didn’t open her eyes. “Go... before you miss something important.”
Eden nodded and headed for the door, though not before she gave a long look at the privacy screen. Then she shook her head and took off toward the bridge.
Isaac blinked his eyes slowly as he looked around. He recognized his quarters, but he couldn’t for the life of him recall how or why he was there. The last thing he clearly remembered was being in the engine room with Eden, Paul and Arianna, then Arianna had left at a run without a word to anyone. So he and Paul had picked up the portable shield module Arianna had been working on. After that....
He blinked again, letting his eyes rest on the chronometer for several heartbeats as he realized just how much time had passed. His brows rose into his hairline, and he wondered if the effects of the drugs Luke had given him for his earlier pain had been stronger than those Eli generally utilized. Because while he no longer felt sluggish and thick headed, he was exhausted like he’d been running for days. On the other hand, he thought to himself as he stretched and felt nothing but a pleasant lethargy in his bones, it’s really nice to not hurt every time I move or breathe. He was curious to know what had changed, but not enough to actually get up and investigate it.
He yawned. He’d find out eventually, but right now, he just wanted to rest without aching for the first time in what felt like forever. He yawned again and closed his eyes, happy to let the tranquility of the moment wash over him as he fell into peaceful oblivion.
Eden stepped onto the bridge behind the others, but no one hesitated to let her through. It was commonly understood that she was Eli’s second in command and as such they deferred to her when it came to her authority... especially on the bridge. She looked at the view screen; her jaw dropped and her steps slowed though they didn’t stop until she reached the Captain’s chair. She reached backwards to ease herself into it without looking away from the view in front of her. Once she was seated, she allowed herself another moment of shock and awe, then snapped her jaw shut to swallow hard. She wrenched her gaze away from the screen and turned to the rest who were waiting for her directive.
Jacob nodded slowly and cleared his throat. “We’re still being guided in. We’re definitely headed toward the civilization Danny found. The only readings we’ve been able to collect show that they’re technologically superior to us. We can’t even tell if there is life as we understand it... nevermind what form they take.”
Eden waited another minute, then nodded slowly when she grasped that Jacob had shared all the information he had. She turned back to the screen and narrowed her eyes.
The dense gasses that had churned in front of them since their entry into the Nebula had cleared; the thick swirls of colors had dissipated as if they had never been. Instead they were looking at something that resembled the solar system they had recently left, but with more planets than that system had ever known and in all colors and hues of a rainbow. They didn’t seem to be circling anything – rather they appeared to be completely stationary. Even the satellites that hung near them give the impression of absolute stillness - no rotation or orbit... no movement of any kind.
“So which planet has the civilization on it?” Eden asked as she studied the enigma in front of her. From this distance it was impossible to determine anything at all about any of them.
“They all do,” Danny replied from his place beside Jacob at the helm. “I don’t know how they can do it, but to our sensors, the system in front of us appears as a single entity. I’ll try to document the comparison readings when we’re not under duress, but suffice it to say that whoever is out there is advanced far beyond our wildest imaginings.”
“Any idea on how we contact them?”
“One would suppose that they’ll contact us when they’re ready. After all, they’re the ones that brought us here.”
Eden slammed her fists against the arms of the Captain’s chair, causing everyone on the bridge to jump. “I hate that! We’re the brightest minds in the galaxy; we should be able to do something!!”
“You totally need to take a chill pill, Babe,” said a voice out of thin air. Everyone swiveled around trying to find the source of the disembodied voice. Then there was a flash of bright light that forced everyone to flinch and close their eyes in reflex. When they blinked them open again after a moment, standing in their midst was a scantily clad blonde woman in sheer pink and lace. Neither she nor the bright pink sparkles and rose petals that were fluttering to the deck around her even set off an alarm.
Everyone who was sitting stood, but only Eden stepped forward toward the unknown entity. “Who are you and what are you doing aboard our ship?”
Eden fell backwards as though she had been pushed and would have fallen had it not been for the swift action of the teammates standing at her back. Then a voice spoke from a swirl of red smoke and blue sparkles. “You need to learn some respect for your betters, Little Girl!”
He raised a hand to her as he solidified, but before he could do anything, two more beings appeared from nowhere and stayed his hand.
“Don’t do it, Brother. You don’t belong here – you’re not allowed to interfere.”
“But she can,” he sneered, glaring at the pink clad woman though his hands remained at his side.
“They have a right to understand. They are not part of the bet.”
“Fine,” he huffed. “But when I win, I get to teach her some respect,” pointing to Eden before he shimmered out of existence. The other two women looked apologetically at the blonde woman who had arrived first, then they too disappeared. All eyes turned to the woman who remained.
“What. Bet??” Eden asked heatedly as she stepped forward with ire raging in her eyes.
The stranger blew out a nervous, frustrated breath. “Oh boy,” she mumbled as she raked a hand through her curly hair. “Guess I’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do.”
“What. Bet??” Eden reiterated harshly, taking another step to bring her into touching proximity of their uninvited guest. The woman took a step back and glared.
“Don’t crowd me!” she cried, holding up a hand and stopping Eden in her tracks when she advanced toward her yet again. Eden reached for her throat immediately, sucking in air as if she couldn’t breathe properly. Jacob stepped up beside her and tried to remove her hands from her throat before he turned baleful eyes to the woman just beyond reach.
“Stop whatever you’re doing,” he commanded roughly, though the true worry in his eyes belied his tone of voice. “You’re killing her!”
Instantly the woman dropped her hand and Eden coughed as she tried to catch her breath. “I’m sorry,” the woman apologized quietly. “It’s an instinctive reaction to being threatened.”
Eden straightened enough to scowl, rubbing her neck and coughing again before she cleared her throat. “I wasn’t threatening you,” she rasped huskily. “I’d be happy to educate you on the difference if you like,” she offered with a feral grin.
Blonde curls bobbed when the head shook. “No. I don’t think any good would come from that... for either of us.”
Eden studied the blue eyes watching her. “No... probably not. Now – you want to tell us who you are and what you’re doing here? And what BET we seem to have become an unwitting part of?”
“My name is Aphrodite.” The woman introduced herself, then waited for a reaction. When she got none – not even a blink of recognition – she shook her head and sighed. “You know... APHRODITE? The Goddess of Love?”
This time, Jacob reacted, though it wasn’t anything like she expected. “Are you serious?” waiting for her to nod. She did so hesitantly, and he studied her a moment longer before he turned back to his compatriots. “I’ve heard of her. There are myths and legends of her and her family on my world – gods and goddesses that existed millennia ago. But no one took them seriously; they were just stories. And most of those were beyond belief.”
“We were more than stories!” she replied heatedly. “We were real, and once upon a time we were the most powerful beings in all creation.”
“So what happened?” Esther asked, though she was looking at Jacob.
He shrugged. “I don’t know really. They faded from existence millennia before I was even a gleam in my daddy’s eye. Most of the stories had them bungling up humanity’s lives, then scrambling for a place as new civilizations rose and fell until they just weren’t anymore. But since they were just stories, it never really mattered.”
“Of course it mattered!!” Aphrodite huffed, stomping her foot and planting her fists on her hips. “Howzabout you just take a seat and let me do the radical retelling of this little tale, m’kay? I was there – I know what happened.”
“And you’ll share with us about who the asshat that threatened me was and what this bet is all about, right?” Eden asked in a tone that brooked no argument.
“Of course,” Aphrodite pledged. “I promise you will totally understand everything I know by the time that we’re done with this groovin’ story.”
“Then start talking.”
“I don’t know if most of you bitchin’ kids know this, but once... once you were all from the same planet – from the planet Jacob still calls home. Your ancestors were at least. It wasn’t until we screwed up....”
“Okay – hold it. You need to stop right there and go back to the beginning of the story,” Eden stated. “We don’t know how much time we have, and I for one need to know what’s going on.”
Aphrodite cut her eyes in Eden’s direction and gave her an angry look, but Eden’s expression didn’t falter. So she sighed and nodded her compliance. “All right, but you might want to cop a squat. This story isn’t like, short, ya know.”
Eden stared at her for another moment before she agreed and the rest followed her example – finding places on the floor once the few chairs were taken. Aphrodite walked around to stand in front of the view screen and studied them briefly before she assumed a more serious demeanor and took a deep breath to speak.
“Several millennia ago, my family and I were the accepted deities in the leading civilization of the day. We each had our specialty – mine was love, of course – and we were known as the twelve Olympians. But there were others... lots of others... and each of them had their function in the hierarchy. We had a major god or a goddess for everything - but everyone had subordinates... minor gods and demi-gods and the odd assortment of related deities.
Things went along nicely for centuries. We had our favored... our Chosen, and for the most part they never really crossed paths with one another. It was accepted as an unspoken rule that once pledged, Chosen were off-limits to another god. Then in a fit of boredom, we decided to change that unspoken mandate. And Ares and I let our Chosen cross paths.”
“That sounds like a less than intelligent choice,” Naomi offered tactfully.
Aphrodite snorted. “It was stupid. And it started the chain reaction that’s brought us here.” Her words made the Alpha Team start muttering amongst themselves and she simply held up her hands and waited.
The whispers died down to silence and Eden motioned for her to continue. “Please,” she said. “I can’t wait to hear how all this ties together.”
“It totally does – I promise. Watching my Chosen and Ares’ – oh, it was explosive to begin with. See, Ares’ Chosen was originally destined for Athena and he manipulated her from that path and onto one of chaos and destruction. Artemis and I actually joined forces and her Chosen became mine as well; it’s what allowed us to eventually defeat Ares and bring Athena’s Chosen back into her purview. That was the first meeting of this particular pair of soulmates.”
“Wait,” Jacob cut in. “Those are real??”
“They are,” Aphrodite affirmed. “And very, very rare. Even souls who find one another in one incarnation are not guaranteed to find each other again. Most don’t – it’s a very lengthy, arduous process. It can take lifetimes to find your half in the circle again.”
“So why not get out of the circle? Once you find your half, why not exit the circle and stay together?”
“Because it doesn’t work that way. A soul has a predetermined number of trips through the circle they must take before they can retire. And soulmates have to be together in life when they choose to leave the circle to be able to remain together in the afterlife.”
“That’s jacked up,” Jacob grumbled.
“It is,” Dite agreed, “but we didn’t make the rules. And no one to date has succeeded in defeating them.”
“I hate to break in to the little love fest history lesson you two seem to have going on here,” Eden said calmly. “But would you like to bring the rest of us into this conversation?? What the hell is a soulmate and what does it have to do with what’s going on here now?”
Jacob turned to meet her eyes. “Legend has it that mankind was originally born with four legs, four arms and two heads, but only one heart and one soul. These people were complete in each other and the gods became jealous of them, so in a fit of pique, the gods cleaved them from one another – leaving each person incomplete... two arms, two legs, one head, but missing half its heart and half its soul. It’s said that they were cursed to spend eternity searching for their other half.”
“That’s not completely true,” Aphrodite cut in. Jacob turned and raised an eyebrow at her in question. “Mankind did start with four arms, four legs, one head with two faces and a single soul – at least some of them did. They were the ones who refused to leave the Well of Souls alone when they were born. But a majority of them were born just as you are now – two arms, two legs, one face and a single, complete soul. But both types of people managed to live together peacefully for a while. Then Zeus lusted after one of the soulmated beings and was rebuffed. In a fit of rage, he stirred up the anger and hatred of the singular people against the soulbonds, thinking the soulmates would turn to him for protection and safety and he could force them to his will. Instead, the singular humans destroyed several of the mated humanoids and the soulmates shut themselves away and withdrew into themselves. In an effort to save face as well as creating more humanoids to offer tribute, instead of allowing their annihilation, Zeus decided to split the soulmates, leaving them with two arms, two legs, one face and half a soul. Their punishment for their refusal of his attentions wasn’t just to be severed from one another, but to spend lifetimes searching for and not always finding their half.”
“And the rules? About a certain number of trips through the circle being required before leaving and being together in life to remain together in death and beyond?”
“The rules were Ares’ idea. He convinced Hades that he could become inordinately wealthy by keeping souls in the reincarnation circle – Charon would collect more coins at the River Styx and the living would offer more tribute to commemorate their dead. Zeus didn’t need convincing beyond knowing that it would cause the soulbound to suffer immensely.”
Aphrodite sighed. “Ares got the chaos and misery the soulmates caused while searching for their half. The longer they went without finding one another, the more vicious they became. In most cases, only one half of a pair was aggressive, but they were always excessively so – the ones that became warlords and dictators and all kinds of grody stuff.”
“So Ares and Zeus and Hades....?”
“Formed a trifecta and sealed the rules in an immortal blood bond. And no one has found a way to defeat it... not even another immortal trifecta can destroy the contract.”
“Okay... so what does this have to do with Az and Eli?”
Aphrodite shook her head. “You’re jumping too far ahead. See, when Artemis and I joined forces, our Chosen totally blew Ares’ Chosen right out of the water. It was explosive... almost literally. They fought against one another for a while before they finally gave in to the realization that they were, in fact, soulmates who were bound to one another. And when they accepted that....” Aphrodite shivered delicately and offered a sly smile. “Let’s just say those fireworks were spectacular.”
“Uh huh” Eden drawled. “Still not really explaining why we’re here or what any of this has to do with Eli and Az.”
Aphrodite glared at her before turning to Jacob. “Not really the model of patience, is she?”
He didn’t crack a smile though his eyes twinkled in delight. The rest weren’t quite as controlled and snickers could be heard around the bridge; Eden glowered at each of them until silence reigned in the room once more. She smirked when she looked back at Aphrodite.
“Impressive,” she admitted. Eden shrugged. Jacob cleared his throat.
“She’s not known for her patience, no – but in this case I’m inclined to agree. What does all this ancient history have to do with what’s happening here now?”
“I don’t know how she did this ‘bard’ thing for so many years. This storytelling gig is hard,” she mumbled under her breath, though at least part of the Alpha Team heard her words and wondered. Before they could question, however, Aphrodite spoke again.
“This pair of soulmates was the first pair the challenge the rules; they were the first to discover the blood seal that bound them to destinies that required them to remain in the karmic circle for what amounted to an eternity to have even a chance at reuniting with one another again. When they died that first time....” Dite shook her head. “I’m ashamed to say that most of us lost sight of them and forgot about their plight. We were so busy trying to maintain our hold on one civilization while expanding our influence to the next – we got greedy. We decided we deserved more – more tribute; more attention; more worshippers. And that’s what eventually got us banned and sent out here. It’s how you all ended up on different planets throughout the galaxy.”
“I don’t understand,” Mordecai commented.
“Me either,” agreed Danny. The rest nodded their concurrence. Aphrodite sighed again.
“I’m not telling this very well,” she mourned. She took a deep breath. “While most of us forgot about the soulmates and their suffering, they didn’t forget about us. And while our powerbase waned as other gods and religions came on the scene, their anger at us grew and focused.”
“Who remembered?” Aphrodite turned to Eden and cocked an eyebrow. Eden echoed the expression as she repeated her question. “Who remembered about the soulmates? It was that asshat who threatened me earlier, wasn’t it?”
Aphrodite nodded. “It was. And although he couldn’t always find them, when he did he took great joy in torturing them... keeping them separated – no matter which soulbond it was. I think – as do my sisters – that he was hoping to eventually cause enough grody emotions like hatred and discontent between them that they would give one another up.”
“Was he like the Zeus character you were talking about earlier?” Esther asked. “Did he have his eye on one or the other of them or something?”
“That was our totally gnarly conclusion.”
“So what happened?” This from Titus who had been listening silently with his arms crossed over his chest.
“All the soulmates had a number of incarnations – some were hits; some were misses. This particular pair had more success than most - even with Ares’ interference – partly because after their original defeat of Ares, they both became my Chosen even as Athena and Artemis each reclaimed their half. So they had more than one patron goddess’ protection even though it was involuntary instead of proactive and the hits were pretty radical lifetimes for the most part... right up until the last one.”
“What. Happened??” Eden demanded softly.
Aphrodite sighed. “They found one another, then ripped themselves apart. Ares put the means in play, but they allowed it to sunder them. And in doing so, tore apart the fabric of life as we had known it.”
“Finally,” Deborah muttered. “We get to the crux of the matter.”
“Yeah. See, when they split, it was the catalyst the soulmates needed to exact their revenge on us. They were able to literally banish us out here along with the remnants of our original civilization that we’d managed to salvage. Unfortunately, for them to do so, it scattered the soulmates to the four corners of the galaxy with whatever family members and friends helped put us here. Most of the soulbonds went to the same planet as their half.”
“Everyone but Eli and Az, right?” Paul asked.
Dite smiled sadly. “Yeah. They were so divorced from one another by that point, I don’t think they realized they were someone’s half... much less each other’s. We didn’t even know what had happened for a while. We were so busy trying to get back home and trying to survive out here at the same time – it wasn’t until the first space ships started exploring that we understood just how much time had passed. We set up our scrying bowls and began searching for what we had missed. Boy, were we ever knocked for a loop. We were mostly powerless – it had taken most of our reserves to form the planets that we lived on, and scrying cut in to what little was left. But we learned so much about humanity and the progress it had made since we’d been banished. It was... heartening. We tried to interact with the few ships that were sent this way, but we were out of practice and they didn’t understand. Then we learned about the terraforming project.”
“And you decided to screw with us??” Deborah asked with more than a little heat. “You brought us here...?”
Aphrodite shook her head. “No, no... nothing like that. The Alpha Project was simply the most interesting thing to come across our screens in years. We were all captivated. But we had nothing to do with throwing you off course.”
“You just took advantage of the fact that something did,” Eden commented with derision. “So tell me, Love Goddess – what bet do you have with that asshat?”
“You have to know – it took us a long, long time to figure out what had happened to us – to understand who did this and why. Most of us accepted the responsibility for our role in the events that brought us here. But Ares....”
“Is there a reason someone hasn’t sent him to a different dimension yet??”
“It has been talked about.”
“Less talking, more doing,” Naomi mumbled. The rest cheered.
“If we win the bet, he goes into the Void.” Hard blue eyes met each pair that stared back at her. “Nothing comes out of the Void.”
“Thank the Holy Father for small blessings,” Danny replied without flinching. “So what’s the bet?”
“Ares believes that since this is the pair that sundered themselves from one another and because of the way they parted, he can divide them again and they will chose separation forever... especially if Arianna is exposed to Eli’s baser nature. I, on the other hand, think that they will never choose to go back to the loneliness that was their separation... that nothing he can do will shake their faith in themselves or the love they share.”
“So if you win, he goes into the Void and ceases to exist,” Eden restated calmly and waited for Aphrodite to nod. “And if you lose?”
Dite swallowed hard. “If I lose, they become his... to do with as he pleases. I have to give up my claim to them.”
“You don’t have a claim on them! And neither does he!” Eden growled. “How dare you think you can play games with people’s lives like that!”
Aphrodite shrugged. “You don’t have a choice – the bet’s been made and it doesn’t really affect any of you. You’ll be free to go....”
She couldn’t finish. Eden had shot up from her seat and wrapped a hand around her throat as she’d shoved Aphrodite into the view screen so hard she was surprised it didn’t crack.
“Doesn’t affect us?!?” Eden ground out between clenched teeth. “You better hope to whatever gods you believe in that our girls win. You won’t like the consequences otherwise.” She shoved Dite hard again once more for good measure then pushed away from her in disgust. “Get off our ship.”
“Go – before I change my mind and start shooting at things. We may not be a warship, but we do have some defensive capabilities. I’d be more than happy to see how many planets we could take out of this nebula.” She paused them looked Aphrodite squarely in the eyes. “Now,” she said, “now I’m threatening you.”
Blue eyes widened and Aphrodite nodded. She needed to get back to see if her sisters could help her with damage control... before it was too late. There wasn’t a trace of sparkle or bright light as she vanished from the bridge.