cnwood

January 29, 2012

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Ten Part 2

He pinched the bridge of his nose, glancing sideways at her. “The elders are convinced she’s had psychic access to one of the underground cities on Thalia. Mica believes she saw the main space port city of Shinzia.” Manton exhaled loudly, thinking about the state of shock he’d left his mother in. “Considering its Debra, they plan to take the vision at face value. A message is being drafted and will be sent to the other cities later today for all to begin making preparations and to initiate scanning the space corridor.”

Rowan backhanded a stray lock of hair off her cheek. “We’ve failed them,” she said tonelessly. “Fleeing one dying planet only to find death on this one.” She sat there, tears smarting in her eyes. “How long do you figure we have?”

“If we assume the vision was current, and Debra is convinced it is, then we’ve only got about two years to find new locations for underground cities and arrange for purchase of the land and water rights for approximately fifty to hundred thousand Thalian newcomers.” Manton stepped outside the alcove and made a helpless gesture as he looked back at Rowan. “If it wasn’t current and the ships are already well en route, we’ll have maybe enough time to arrange for massive food drives to subsidized ship’s stores and get volunteers ready for indoctrinating Thalians to Earth’s customs, languages, foods, and immunization.”

His black eyes glittered brightly, unnaturally. “Since there isn’t anything you can do about any of this at the moment, you should get back into bed and rest for a couple of hours. Give your self-healing a chance to do its work.”

“What about you?” Rowan said flatly.

“I’ll be with Duran and some of the elders in archives if you need me. A team is being put together to start narrowing down relevant land masses around the world; possible sites for further investigation by our helpers above.”

Rowan nodded mutely, sitting on the side of the IR bed long after Manton had gone, and wondered what more could be done to save the Thalian nation that had not already been done.

*   *  *

It was like being confined inside a large multi-faceted prism of slow, unvarying motion. At first no sensations, only pure intellect absorbing the glimpses of existence on display within the prism’s turning and twisting shape, carried along inside by refracted lines of dimensional color to new panes of time and space.

The warrior was gone, but not the mind’s ability to process and be aware. Without eyes, Debra could still see. Without lungs to breath and a heart to pump blood, she was still alive. Instinct was her guide now in this shifting realm of color and shimmer, the ever changing snapshots of universal beings and localities reaching out from the prism’s portholes of existence.

Flashes of light, like tiny fireflies, continuously broke away from the conveyer-like lines of colors to scurry from one window to another, seeming to wait for the right moment, then one by one breach the enormous panes to join the river of color beyond the tumbling prism, beyond reality, seeking the journey’s end.

Instinctively understanding that thought was action and reaction, Debra pressed up against the pane directly before her, not really surprised or discouraged when nothing happened. What did shock though was the insight that the flashes of light were souls of the universe, beings of pure energy, needing a precise windowpane of dimension and space for traveling Home.

She pressed her consciousness to another pane and suddenly realized that the river of color, visible through the gleaming, gossamer walls, was an irresistible beacon for all entitled souls, and provided a road back to the Gateway and release from the arduous weight of the physical domain; the return to omnipotence again, with all the rights and privileges of life memories, cerebral abilities, and true appearance.

At the next pane Debra focused on Damon, pictured him in her mind, mentally calling out to him, and finally demanded that her ability, FIND DAMON. Either her capabilities were useless here in the prism or Damon had moved on. And yet another insight became apparent. Not all souls earned the right to the Gateway and were absorbed by the black river flowing throughout the prism and returned in vitro to physical existence.

Since Debra did not perceive herself as a flash of light and was unable to breach any of the panes, she found it logical to assume that ‘earning the right’ to the Gateway or being ‘absorbed by the black river’ was, for the most part, related to those who had at least physically died. So what was the protocol or recourse for those who entered the prism by mistake?

Octagon.

The familiar voice was suddenly there in her mind, as though holding on to her existence with barely more than a tenuous grasp. If Debra still had the ability to feel her heart, it would have skipped a beat and thumped for joy. Damon was here, locked in the prism with her.

Absorbing his fragile thought into the safety of her existence, she sensed his weakness and desperately strained awareness toward the next oncoming window. The effort was pointless, though, and threatened a form of pain for her effort as the prism continued its slow, unwavering tumble and turn around her. Not all the panes offered answers or showed fleeting images. And none of the intermittent sequences of places and beings were familiar.

Soon.

“Hang on, Damon. Help me find you.” she cried out, using the familiar form of telepathy from the dream world. Awareness scanned every image and tested every pane within range. “Help me. Give me a sign,” she fiercely demanded.

Suddenly the lines of color disappeared and the cloying pull of the black river seemed to anchor inside thought and emotion, weakening her mindset, clouding focus and determination. She felt the struggle to break free fading away and was terrified of losing control. With every ounce of strength still locked within her human consciousness, Debra roared as the killing power flashed outward in a surrounding wave of destructive energy.

The prism’s faceted structure and diaphanous walls shuddered, its slow tumbling turn momentarily suspended. Where once the black river had roiled and swelled, now there was only emptiness.

No,” intellect thundered, horrified she had finally managed to kill Damon with her carelessness.

The prism began moving again, so slowly, the struts and walls reforming, inch by inch. The next pane, in the shape of an octagon, came into view. What remained of the membrane that covered the window was smashed into jagged shards. No light or shadow hinted at a presence, and yet Debra instinctively and joyously knew Damon was there in the darkness.

A thought, a wish, a simple melding of intellect and emotion and Damon was securely held within her consciousness; completely open and vulnerable. How many times over the years had his mind reached out to her from the shadows to keep her safe and take her home to the dream world to reenergize. How grateful her existence now to finally be able to reciprocate in kind. Delight shivered blissfully over blended senses, for barriers were down with no more lies or hidden truths.

Before the prism could completely repair itself, together Debra and Damon willed themselves beyond its boundaries and into the blackness of dimensional space and time. Of one mind they journeyed to the safety of the dream world, knowing each had their lifeforce of existence duly anchored once more in the physical domain.

*   *  *

Theron rushed into Rowan’s office, looking ready to burst. “We’ve got brain activity on both of them again,” he blurted breathlessly, his wide infectious grin hard to ignore. He winked at her. “Brain wave readings correspond to the dream world interim. I guess they stopped off for a little R&R.”

Theron laughed, enjoying the dazzling smile that expanded over Rowan’s beaming face. Eyes closed, she took a moment to give silent, grateful thanks. It was like the mountain had suddenly been lifted from her shoulders. While Damon was in for a scathing piece of her mind for scaring the wits out of family and friends, Debra was about to become hero to the Thalian nation, whether she wanted it or not.

Almost seventy-two hours had passed since Debra disabled the doors to Quarantine One. As Manton had order, the very next day technicians broke into the unit and all were stunned to find Damon and Debra together on one bed, as though lover’s lost in sleep. Not designed for multiple readings, the headboard monitor had disengaged. Great care was taken in the tedious job of extricating their joined hands to avoid breaking fingers or damaging skin.

Once separated both were moved to individual surgical beds on the platform in OT, life signs normal, their minds vacant, and under constant supervision by the duty staff and the hundreds who crowded into theater seats and the overhead observation booth.

Manton darted into the office and looked expectantly from Rowan to Theron. “Is it true? Word’s spreading like wildfire that their back.” Even convinced that Debra had the emotional and mental strength to find Damon, the past three days had weighed heavily on his conscience. Because Rowan was right. Desperation for his friend and sovereign had forced his hand into provoking Debra to risk everything. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to send someone into harm’s way, and very much doubted it would be the last. At Theron’s grinning nod Manton breathed easier for the first time in days.

Rowan stood up from behind her desk, her eyes twinkling through weariness. “I just got word myself. You might as well come with us to OT.” She gave him a defiant stare. “I’m going to need them both conscious before I can confirm a successful mission. So you’ll have to wait until then before you start gloating.”

The com-link terminal quietly beeped on her desk, the viewing screen showing a cataleptic Damon and Debra on the platform, plus smaller rotating views of monitor readings, the crowds in the theater and observation, and the congregating throng in the main corridor on level three.

*   *   *

Damon watched Debra from the rocks as she swam in the perfectly warm, flawlessly blue sea waters just down from their home. Time meant nothing in the dream world. Only in reality did time become an obsession that ruled the living and dying.

For now he was content to sit and watch her beautifully rounded bottom bob to the surface with each powerful arm stroke that sleekly cut through the water. They had fed on each other in a sexual haze of hunger and need the moment they materialized in the dream world. After two cycles of day and night they had slept like babies in each other’s arms in the wide hammock beneath the willow trees.

The cycle of day and night was a comfort to the mind and body and one both Debra and Damon wanted incorporated in their world. The sun shone constantly throughout the day, unless the mood found pleasure in the sounds of raindrops tapping against the leaves while making love. Nighttime resembled the twilight of the Yukon’s midnight sun, with a delicious breeze coming in over the water to make cuddling and sleeping a pleasure all its own.

Many Thalian researchers proclaimed the dream world simply a cerebral reality in Damon’s mind that Debra shared because of their link. In truth, Damon realized years ago that Debra was the power that accessed the dream world dimension. It was her psychic intensity that Damon had picked up on and followed as a baby. It was Damon, waiting in the shadows for her, needing her strength to focus. In either reality, Debra was the powerful engine while Damon was the drive that kept them both on course.

Born of a Thalian father and a human mother. Conceived in love. Yet raised in fear and abuse. Debra now struggled to assimilate both birthrights, and live up to the epic expectations as the last hope for the Thalian nation.

Looking out at the solitary, self-contained woman strongly swimming in the vast, overpowering sea, Damon slowly shook his head and once again marveled at Debra’s strength of will.

Only when she finally accepted her life, her strengths, her natural ability to do what needed to be done to survive, when the fears of her past were irrevocably let go, only then did Damon believe the truth would become apparent to everyone. Without Debra there was no dream world. Without Debra there was no saving the Thalian population on Earth.

The time had come for Debra to stand by his side, as wife and consort, and become the leader she was born to be.

January 22, 2012

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Ten Part 1

Debra stood inside an empty Isolated Recovery, hand flat against a nearby column and absorbed the data images of her surroundings; a large chamber directly off the main third level corridor, carved into the mountain and reinforced against the off-chance of seismic shifts. Even though only hours ago she had been denied access, Rowan was true to her word and this time the doors had opened wide for her to enter.

Ceiling and walls were a cool golden color and made of the same energy absorbing material that covered the majority of the city. The floor was a matt black and provided an understated cushion underfoot as she moved further into the chamber. Private alcoves, created with smoke colored glass dividers, housed single beds and glass shelves lined with medical devices. Heightened eyesight had yet to find a speck of dust or dirt anywhere.

She stood in the narrow decontamination entryway, letting the sensors scan for any infection, while the misting jet sprayers cleansed her body and breath of micro-organisms. At the end of the short cycle, one set of doors opened automatically into the massive Operating Theater.

The chamber itself was lower than the entryway and IR; a kind of amphitheater with gradually descending aisles down to the operating platform. It was a remarkable piece of engineering that allowed one to stand anywhere in the theater and see everything.

Descending tiers of quietly humming crystal power converters and database storage towers made the OT self-sufficient and a backup center for all critical city data. Closer to the operating platform, similar smoky glass dividers made up intensive care bays with inactive light bars extending upward from the monitoring headboards. A caregiver could be anywhere in the theater and assess a patient’s condition by the colors on the bar.

At ground zero stood the vast operating platform, an area used for several purposes depending on the need. Beneath the platform four autonomous surgical beds could be raised together or individually in seconds. When not in use for surgeries or emergency trauma care, a wide podium was raised from beneath the platform for conducting medical seminars and lectures. Debra stared up at the eight-foot viewing screens that joined together, forming a gradual curve for optimal viewing from the overhead observation gallery or anywhere in the theater.

Debra lowered protective barriers enough to sense only one heartbeat nearby. She approached the three self-sustaining quarantine units that lined the far wall, her hand hesitant to touch the palmpad of the unit marked Quarantine One. No doubt those who had suffered with the virus had lived and died within these small apartments. Debra opted not to live with such memories of her father and closed herself off completely before tapping the palmpad.

Quarantine One was classed a family unit and therefore built on a larger scale with a main living area, two fairly wide bedrooms, and a standard size bathroom. All meal trays were sent and retrieved through a decontamination shoot or portal.

Damon lay on a medical bed with only a cream colored sheet covering his body. The rhythmic beat of his heart was steady and strong. Debra struggled to realize all that had happened since arriving at Crystal Lake. She glanced at Damon’s chin stubble and the look of sleep in his relaxed features and found it hard to accept that only a day had passed since the accident. And in six more days he would be declared dead if his mind, his living essence, failed to return.

If truth be told she was already tired of so many people pressing in around her, with all of their consuming expectations. It begged the question; would medical and security leave her alone long enough to find any trace of Damon to follow? Her chest heaved in temper at the thought of being studied and manipulated. Debra looked around the room, wondering how many sensors were recording her every move.

Not caring about the consequences, her hand flattened to the wall and quickly located the two built-in sensors. A search of the bathroom produced a slim-handled brush that she used to knockout the devices. The locked door pad was disassembled and rendered useless from either side. The rest of the apartment was of no concern to her.

She placed a hand flat against Damon’s wide forehead, noting the skin still held warmth, but nothing like the vigorous heat she was used to with Kalon.

No, Kalon was the dream world and Damon was reality. It was time to merge to the two truths in her mind and set aside anger and disappointment.

As a healer Debra moved opened hands, barely touching the soft black hair, across the top of his head and down the sides over his ears. The pulse in his neck was like a beacon of light to the sensitive pads of her hands, the data centering in her mind in seconds to present a visual representation of his brain matter and skeletal-skin shell.

She could find nothing physically wrong with Damon’s body. His consciousness was simply not there. And the emptiness she was experiencing was vastly different than butting up against a closed or blocked mind.

Debra figured there were two options. Despite Rowan’s assurances to the contrary, Damon’s mind was ripped unwillingly from this existence when the killing power rendered him unconscious on the beach. Or, Damon left of his own accord either to teach her a lesson or . . . create a situation that would require her to overcome her fears.

Gut instincts felt the rightness of it as soon as the thought entered her mind. So where would his consciousness go to wait for me?

The dream world.

Debra laid down on the empty twin bed and closed her eyes, waiting for him to approach from the shadows. When nothing happened after thirty minutes, she re-fluffed the soft pillow, straightened her sweatshirt, then cleared her mind of thoughts and emotions and placed herself into a light trance that more closely resembled her mind and body just before falling asleep.

After an hour of wallowing in emptiness, Debra was clearheaded, relaxed and re-energized, and back to square one. She let concern force the flow of adrenaline into her system. Felt her body harden and her mind focus as she called upon the enhanced abilities of the warrior inside to guide her next move.

Damon was either beyond all hope of recovery or lost between earthly existence and Home. She would have to leave her body and hope that the currents of life and transition were constant and ended up taking her in the same direction.

Fingertips lightly traced his defining cheek and brow bones. “I miss what we had in the dream world,” she whispered against his lips, then lightly kissed the familiar contours of his mouth.

The warrior refused to acknowledge fear and accepted the fact they would both most likely die. In that case there was nothing to lose and no reason not to reach out with every ounce of her intuitive mental strength.

The adrenaline rush subsided as Debra striped off her sweats and workout clothes and slid beneath the sheet to lie down on top of Damon. Resting on elbows she let the heat from her body warm his skin, sadly smiling that all the memories of the dream world and growing up together had led them to this moment.

Like a thousand other times, she laid her head on his shoulder, her face tucked into the side of his neck and breathed deeply. His clean scent filled her head and still managed to make her stomach do flip-flops like some untried teenager. “If we don’t make it back, I want to die as lovers,” she murmured against his throat. Debra repositioned his arms so that his hands were up by his shoulders and threaded their fingers so they were clasped palm to palm.

“FIND DAMON,” was her last conscious thought before her breathing slowed and all earthly restraints were let go.

*   *  *

The Isolated Recovery on-duty staff made a quick, quiet retreat, leaving Rowan and Manton to shout the mountain down without an audience. The patient had been declared out of danger with only a headache and mild exhaustion to show for the bizarre link with Debra. Eron’s superior level of skill had effortlessly repaired the resulting psychic trauma and experienced firsthand the power of the nightmare vision now regretfully locked forever in Rowan’s memories.

As usual, Debra was at the heart of the heated quandary. Absolutely livid with Manton, Rowan swore to write him up as unfit for duty and restricted to quarters. Sitting around doing nothing like a caged animal would be worst than any contrived torture to Manton, not to mention the satisfaction for Rowan as he slowly went insane.

Hot color spotted Rowan’s cheeks. “How could you egg her on like that,” she shouted furiously, a fist pounding the bedcovers. “We could bloody well end up losing both of them. And don’t think because I’ve been stuck in IR that I haven’t seen the fight. She may be strong enough to put you on your ass numerous times, but that doesn’t mean she’s one hundred percent. Especially after what happened with our link.”

Manton flushed with anger, his eyes heating dangerously. “If you’re through chewing out my ass, maybe you’ll let me get in a word in my defense.” Legs braced apart and thick arms crossed, his glance skewered Rowan, warning her not to say another word. “As the head of security it’s my job to sum people up quickly, especially their abilities. And there is no doubt in my mind that Debra is strong enough to try and find Damon.”

Her expression strained, Rowan was openly exasperated. “I’m not talking about physical stamina but her emotional/mental strength. After all that’s happened since she’s been here, you’re going to stand there and tell me you think she’s capable mentally and emotionally?”

“Yes,” Manton tersely replied. “She’s aware of everything that’s happening around her. She can analyze a situation and formulate strategies in seconds.” He turned to pace the small alcove to think better, being careful not to bump any of the glass shelves. “Her only real weakness at the moment is her inability, her fear, of linking or melding.”

He stopped, looking down at Rowan, his tone slightly sarcastic. “I don’t know about you but that says some kind of trauma to me. And judging by her hellacious childhood I’m willing to bet this month’s credits that we’ll find the problem stems somewhere between the age of one and sixteen.”

Rowan sighed loudly, suddenly out of arguments to stay angry. She agreed with Manton’s assessment of Debra’s condition. Throwing off the bedcovers, she swung her legs down and sat on the side of the bed, mentally conceding the point but still ticked by his when-in-doubt-attack approach to life. “I think that horrible vision I was locked into is the key.”

“I’m listening,” he said, his tone perfectly polite, his arms back to being crossed and legs braced.

“Being stuck here, I’ve had time to think it all through. Last night I gave Debra a physical and all hormonal levels were normal. Yet when we were linked this morning several levels were depressed. I think she had the nightmare last night, probably after she was in her quarters. That’s why the memory of the nightmare was fresh in her mind when we were linked. The only thing different yesterday, as far as her abilities are concerned, was the use of her killing power on Damon.”

Without thinking, Rowan laid a hand on his hip as she focused to put all the pieces together. “That vision had an incredible amount of power, Manton, as you well know.” She looked up at him. “And since she won’t link or meld, I think the nightmare happens as a way of reinforcing, at least in her mind, that the use of channeling or linking is somehow evil and punishable by death. Her death.”

“How’s the headache,” he softly drawled, reaching around to the base of her neck and pressing against the nerves. No matter their differences or how long they had been apart, Manton would never be able to simply stand by and do nothing when Rowan was in trouble or in pain.

Wearily, Rowan groaned, her head coming to rest trustingly against his stomach. How she missed these quiet moments with Manton. Just touching or holding one another. Finally able to pay attention to her own physical condition, she flooded her system with a cocktail of endorphins and adrenaline to counteract the tension headache and drowsiness.

The stiffness went out of her back and shoulders and Manton knew self-healing had begun. His large fingers continued to gently rub her soft neck. “Debra’s buggered the lock on Quarantine One and took out the two sensors in one of the bedrooms. I’ve ordered all personnel to give them complete privacy for the next twenty-four hours.” He paused, tipping her face up to him. “Let her try, Ro.”

Sitting back, Rowan shrugged. “I seem to have little say in the matter. But I’ve said my piece, so I’ll let it go for now.” Manton grinned, stepping back from the urge to kiss her disgruntled lips. “As for this vision she had, I’ve seen nothing in the files or her disposition to show she’s a latent seer.” Hands waved as she rolled her eyes. “Eron would know if she’d only let him do the bloody test.”

“And there’s nothing to say she’s not a seer,” Manton said dryly. “I checked with Duran in archives. There are no detailed descriptions of any Thalian underground city, let alone my father. There’s a great deal of information about the surface of the planet, the dome parks, even the cloud city structures but not the underground caverns, tunnel schematics, and food and water distribution systems.”

“I’m assuming you’ve already spoken with the elders. What do they think?”

January 15, 2012

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Nine Part 3

The two of them stood watchfully, neither taking the other for granted. Manton towered over her. Combat would in veritably be David pitted against Goliath. But Debra did not worry about his height and extra weight, an obvious disadvantage that would eventually be used against him. As the adrenaline flooded her system and the warrior emerged, her calm dark gaze observed his assertive black eyes and controlled body language.

All emotion, worry, and self-doubts about her future in the city evaporated. In seconds tactical data from heightened senses pinpointed weaknesses and assessed aggressive and defensive moves. Both realized the competition had gone from playful to something much more meaningful and potentially dangerous.

Any human male seeing her closed, intensely focused face, her poised motionless body would have thrown down his weapon and run for his life. Manton watched her as he slowly stepped away from the draping branches of the willow tree. Over the years he had taught many men and women how to fight, how to protect themselves. Only once in a rare while did someone come along who was a natural born fighter.

Debra followed, taking up a power stance as she cautiously circled out into the open with him. Without warning she ducked, leg thrusting out in a blur to cap his knee and end with a quick kick to his groin.

Manton easily saved his knee and sidestepped to let the kick bounce off his thigh.

Between one breath and the next, Debra launched herself at him, hands smacking against his ears, then locking behind his neck as she used her falling body weight as leverage to pull his large frame in a fast flip over her head.

The head of security had barely hit the ground before he was back on his feet, a gleam of anticipation flashing in his eyes. She came straight at him again and bested his defensive posture once more with a leap that brought her knee like a bullet into his stomach, one hand painfully squeezing his esophagus and the other bracing on the nape of his neck while she used the heel of her foot to slam into the back of his knee and bring him down. In a blink she rolled clear and turned to watch and wait on the balls of her feet.

“Don’t ever hesitate to make a kill shot,” Manton instructed, crouching in front of her and reducing the amount of target areas on his body.

“Give me your best,” Debra demanded, hastily pulling off the baggy sweatpants and shirt to reveal her everyday workout sports bra and tight knee-length shorts.

And the non-lethal war was on, even though it looked like both combatants were doing their best to kill each other. Everything became a weapon. Feet, knees, hands, and elbows moved in a blur of speed as each sparred for superiority over the other. It became a deadly dance of strength and agility as they baited and evaded, blows landing, each grunting and spinning away, only to return with incredible speed.

At the last second Manton managed to duck under a blow, reaching out for flesh, and flipping Debra over his back. She landed with feline grace, steady on her feet, ready to counterattack. His feet cut out from under him, Manton went down. More jabs, punches, and kicks landed while the two combatants scrambled to their feet and fought for position.

The punishing hits were pulled just short of doing real damage but the pain inflicted still registered and only seemed to fuel their desire to win. With a mighty heave Manton threw Debra and followed her down, setting up for the killing blow. Even though Debra could still have dodged or counterattacked, instinct warned it was time to stop. She conceded the match by opening her hands in a surrendering position. Instantly Manton stood and offered Debra a hand up.

A large crowd had gathered along the jogging trail, everyone curious to see what Debra could do against the Grand Master. Cheering and wild applause erupted from the spectators, the loudest shouts and whistles coming from Manton’s current students in the combat arts. Many had taped the spectacle on their personal com-links, with at least a dozen versions offering different angles showing up on the public sites for those who had missed the match of a lifetime, eventually to be heralded as the warrior’s poetry in motion.

Unaware that their match had been witnessed, a surprised Manton and Debra gazed out beyond their grass ring of combat at a substantial and enthusiastic crowd, sweat running freely and chests heaving. The Grand Master raised their joined hands in acknowledgment, drawing another spirited cheer from the viewers. Adrenaline was still pumping, making minds and bodies feel invincible. An hour from now the bruises and pain would remind them both that no matter how invigorated a well-fought fight made them feel, they were still mortal.

The roar of the crowd diminished for Debra as she slowly turned to stare at Manton, their clasped hands still waving in the air. She resisted the urge to use the sight when images of Jordon Lorran flashed in her mind. Father and son, she thought, and marveled at how alike they were.

Debra leaned in close to his ear. “I need to tell you something, now.”

The bewildered look on her face drew his concern as much as the hesitation in her voice. He nodded and telepathically suggested his office. The crowd was breaking up but he needed to hurry them along their way before well-wishers surged to talk shop and offer congratulations. Even he would be the first to admit it had been one hell of a contest.

“Shows over,” Manton shouted, laughing with enjoyment. “Debra and I need to get cleaned up.”

Gathering up her discarded clothes, Debra walked in silence beside Manton across the jogging trail, wondering how to tell him about the vision, about his father. Was it something that all should take at face value? Or was there a deeper meaning that maybe she had picked up on from someone inside the city? Either way, she doubted that Manton would be pleased with her.

Inside the empty conference room Manton gestured to a chair at the far end and retrieved two bottles of cold water from his office. Before joining her at the table he locked both door panels from the wall com-link.

“Do you think you owe me a winning wager?” Manton asked, sliding into the chair at the head of the table and taking a long, refreshing swallow of cold water. He was curious what her response would be.

“I forfeited, therefore I lost. And now I owe you a winning wager,” Debra conceded earnestly.

“Is that why you forfeited? So you would owe me the wager?”

Silently Debra shook her head, gulping down several small sips of water. “It wasn’t a deliberate action. I was simply following my instincts.”

The black crystal tabletop felt cool and invigorating under his hand. As cool and somehow as promising as the solemn young woman sitting motionless across from him. “If I demand a win-wager, is there anything you would refuse to do?”

Debra’s back squared stubbornly, her gaze direct. “I will not link or meld with anyone else,” she said resolutely.

Not surprised, Manton nodded and turned his seat to face her, sensing she was ready to talk. “What happened with Rowan?”

Dark head bowed, Debra sighed long and loud, slowly rubbing the cold bottle back and forth across her sweaty forehead. “She was showing me what it’s like to link so I would know what to expect with Eron. Everything was fine . . . until I got locked into a vision. I have no idea what happened to Rowan after that.”

Burly arms leaned against the table, concern clearly stamped on his face. His black eyes instantly flashed with the authority of the head of security. “I’m told you have total recall. Looking back when you and Rowan were on the commons, are you saying you can’t find anything in your memory regarding Rowan when you had this vision?”

“Yes. Usually my internal senses keep track of time and what’s happening around me if I’m unconscious or incapacitated in some way. But this time there was nothing. I can’t even tell you how long we were linked. And since I haven’t heard a citywide outcry for my arrest or expulsion, I’m assuming she’s all right.” Debra shifted uncomfortably, hands balling into fists on her thighs. “Did I cause any harm?”

Disappointed, Manton sat back in his chair, believing her admission. “Nothing physical,” he answered succinctly, yet decided to be just as candid about what he knew, or rather, didn’t know. “Rowan mentally reached out to me for help and we melded. I saw the carnage she was seeing and feeling. Within minutes you were found on the commons. She was still linked to you, but otherwise unharmed.” Long fingers harshly scrubbed his face and plowed through his hair in frustration. “At this point I’m not even sure what happened. We’ll let the med-team tackle that part. What can you tell me about this vision?”

“Do you remember your father?”

Manton blinked at her, surprised by the question. “Are you saying the vision was about my father? Are you a seer?” he queried, taken aback, unable to recall any mention of such abilities in her file. At her puzzled stare he clarified. “I guess the human term would be clairvoyant, meaning, to mentally see clearly an event or person, a location or object. If you can see into the future then you are precognitive. Are you?”

Debra shook her head mutely. “Not that I know of. I’ve never had this happen before. I saw Jordon Lorran in an underground town square on Thalia. They had lost another well and were down to ten. They would be out of water in little over a year. Your father made the decision to journey to earth even though the message beacon never arrived. They couldn’t wait any longer. He issued orders for the crew to begin boarding and prepping the ships. Once they were ready the remaining population was to board.”

She told him everything, painting a picture with words about how he looked and the state of disrepair in the underground cities and tunnels. How the annihilating solar flares were now affecting the stability of the cities and life support resources. “You are so like your father,” she said, her tone softening at the anguish in his eyes.

His voice suddenly hoarse, Manton cleared his throat and tried again. “Did you get any sense of when this happened or would happen?”

“My impression is that it’s happening now. The last Thalian fleet is on its way to Earth. But I have no way to prove it.” She grabbed up her sweatshirt and roughly pulled it on. “And before you ask, no, I don’t have any idea why this vision came to me now.” She stood and yanked up her sweatpants. “And that goes double for how I got tuned into your father and Thalia.”

Manton struggled with the overwhelming implications, his thumbnail scraping methodically against his lower lip as he mentally prioritized the mother city’s response to the remainder of the Thalian nation. With Damon incapacitated and Rowan suffering some kind of mental disorder, the responsibility fell to him. “My mother needs to be told before I see the Elders or report to the other cities.”

“Then you believe my vision?”

There was no mistaking the stubborn jut to her chin. “I don’t know if you’ve had a clairvoyant vision or not. What I do know is that your abilities are damn impressive. And considering you’re the source, I believe you saw something relevant. The earthbound Thalian nation needs to prepare for the strong possibility of new arrivals in the next year or two and begin monitoring the space corridor that the fleet will use to enter earth’s high orbit.”

They shared a look. “Is there anything further I can do?” Debra asked earnestly.

“What I wish is that you could link or meld as easily as any other Thalian.” Manton pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. There was only one person she might feel inclined to try with. “If you want to honor your owed wager, go see Damon. You’ve been linked to his mind all your life. Maybe you can help, maybe you can’t. If you at least try to save his life, you will owe me nothing.”

Debra nodded, tears filling her eyes.

Manton unlocked the entryways, turning back in the opened doorway. “Debra,” he waited until she glanced up, “if we ever have to go into battle, I’d be honored to have you watching my back.”

And then he was gone, leaving a stunned Debra staring at the closed door.

Other than Edith, no one had ever believed in or needed her before. Dying wasn’t what Debra feared. Dying meant freedom. And if Edith was right, dying meant going Home. Failure was what Debra feared, and others paying the price for it. She would honor her wager to Manton and would either try and succeed or die trying.

January 8, 2012

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Nine Part 2

“Only one medical call last night,” Jenna said, her voice suddenly tense. “The nursery made an emergency request for assistance just after one.”

Manton’s large body went rigid, his mind fearing the worst, his heart barely over the loss of Ruthie. “The baby again?”

“Yeah. They’ve got Kirri in recovery now. Vitals are stable but she’s still having trouble breathing. That makes the third time this month.” It had taken every ounce of Jenna’s willpower to remain at her post when the call had popped up on her screen. Anything to do with medical or structural maintenance was always automatically flagged for copy and routed to security.

Determined to speak her mind, Jenna cleared her throat anxiously. “I trust your judgment, Manton. So tell me honestly. This Debra, do you think the rumors are true? Is she strong enough to lay hands and find a cure for the babies? For all of us?”

“Jenna,” Manton admonished gently like an older brother. “I know you’re very close to Kirri. Research is doing everything they can.” Even through the one-way window he could see how fear for Kirri had tightened her profile in the soft pool of light from the desk lamp. Was Debra gifted enough? Images flashed in his mind; of the consort on the beach and Damon’s life held assertively in her hand, of witnessing the warrior in the woman, waiting and watching in the airlock, ready to fight if necessary.

“I was only with Debra for a few minutes. Aside from her abilities, which appear to be impressive, even untrained, I sensed a will of steel in her.” His head dipped. There were no words left to comfort the untold losses they had suffered. All that remained was truth. “Whether that fortitude will help or hinder us, we’ll know more tomorrow.”

“What do you mean?”

“I got a message from Eron. Debra’s agreed to testing and evaluation first thing tomorrow morn—”

A loud choking gasp erupted from Jenna’s earpiece, then silence.

The weakened voice filled his head. “My . . . love . . .” Debilitating pain took the breath and strength from his body. Manton staggered and dropped to one knee, every ounce of mental control struggling to shield his mind from the agonizing pain. Blood and gore filled his sight. Darkness pressing in. The overwhelming stench of burnt flesh and hair made his stomach heave violently.

Like all bonded couples, he saw and felt what Rowan offered. A blackened, bloody cavity where her chest should have been; mutilated heart muscle and lungs skewered to broken ribs. All that kept Rowan earthbound was the diminishing protective barriers that shielded mind and lifeforce.

Without thinking of the consequences, Manton merged himself with Rowan, combining strength of mind and ability. Mentally he used Rowan’s healing skills to mask the pain and place her body in stasis until medical-research staff could take over. And yet Rowan’s awareness continued to feel death encroaching, to see her body shrouded in blood and pain. Unable to do more through the bonding meld, he strengthened her protective barriers and slowly withdrew his mind from the madness.

“Manton? What is it? Manton? Can you hear me?” Without waiting further for a response Jenna hastily pushed back from the desk, her chair toppling, and sprinted for the connecting conference room panel. High-backed chairs, neatly pushed up to the long black crystal-top table, datapads, current reports, large schematic pads, and the a suspended monitoring screen programmed for the morning briefing at 0700 were nothing more than a blur.

Jenna slapped the palmpad to Manton’s office and burst in to find him crouched on one knee in front of the one-way window, visibly fighting for control.

Shaken by the sight of Manton on the floor, she dropped down beside him. “Are you ill,” Jenna cried, detached professionalism out the window. “Sweet sunlight, what is it?”

Eyes closed against the dizziness, Manton freed his senses from the carnage in Rowan’s mind, and grabbed Jenna’s arm to help pull himself up. “Locate Rowan, now,” he gasped, and rested hands on large thighs while his strength slowly returned.

The power of mind and body had always come easily to Manton. At the unheard of age of twenty-six he was the youngest Grand Master of combat and self-defense in history, and yet he could not recall ever feeling such intensely concentrated pain.

Jenna keyed into the computer and quickly isolated Rowan’s personal com-link signal. “She’s in the park, on the common, sector 15B, by the giant willow tree.” Using the confirmed coordinates, she re-directed the nearest sensor and frowned at the screen. “The sensor is showing all her vital signs as normal? There must be a malfunction. Once Rowan is secured, I’ll get maintenance right on it.”

The waves of nausea finally subsided. Although not a healer, Manton knew enough about anatomy to manipulate the glands in his body to relieve normal distress from sports and overwork. What he experienced with Rowan was beyond all comprehension.

“Sir?” prompted Jenna, a touch of fretfulness in her voice.

“I’m all right now.” Manton warily straightened to his full towering height. “Signal OT to prepare for a trauma emergency. Patient is approaching bleed out, multiple injuries, self-healing not started. Have them send a bed and master healers to Rowan’s coordinates.” Sucking in a deep fortifying breath he hastened toward the corridor access panel still issuing instructions. “Contact Theron. Have him take responsibility for level three until he hears differently from Rowan or myself. And have whoever is on patrol in that sector meet me there.”

“I’m on it,” Manton heard Jenna shout as he sprinted down the corridor to the entrance chamber sliding doors. There was no backing off his stride this time as he burst into the palatial chamber, running flat out along the main airlock aisle, cutting across behind the marble fountain and around several vine-covered statues to the rear aisle where he nearly sent Eron toppling into the greenery.

Barely stopping, Manton grabbed the older man’s arm and pulled him along toward the glass corridor. “You’re with me,” he gravely commanded and gave an abbreviated description of the images in Rowan’s mind.”

“I simply can’t believe anyone in Tantria would commit such a crime,” Eron protested, following Manton through the glass corridor at a steady run. “And if the sensor readings are correct, then it sounds like she’s locked in some kind of psychotic delusion.”

Both men rushed out of the glass corridor into the park, then raced for the giant willow tree on the commons. Manton’s natural speed and concern for Rowan had him pulling ahead as he bounded from the strolling path, jumping the low beds and hedges and climbing several tiered flowerbeds, as though he were leaping up stairs, only to launch himself into the air and land running without even breathing hard or breaking a sweat.

The early morning dew from the night sprinklers had already evaporated from the thick forest-green lawn that covered the entire park acreage. Manton’s specially made soft-soled boots allowed his feet to feel the ground and grip for better traction, leaving little sign or sound of his passing. Long, muscular legs raced along the crushed stone jogging trail, for several minutes, before diverting over onto the common’s well-trimmed turf and approaching the giant willow tree.

The girth of the tree was wide, easily spanning six feet, its graceful outer branches draping almost to the ground. Over the years, several of the unwieldy roots had thrust up through soil and grass like gnarled knobby knees. In the branches he could see birds eating at the feeders, could hear them singing as though all was right with the world.

Did he have the wrong willow tree?

Movement off to the left had Manton hand signaling to the two-man patrol racing to assist to spread out and circle the far side of the tree, while he and Eron approached the nearside.

The sensor reading had been correct. Rowan sat motionless against the tree, hands buried in gouged up dirt and shredded grass, and not a drop of blood anywhere. Even more surprising was finding Debra sitting not more than four feet away from Rowan, eyes wide open and unseeing, as kinetic energy arced menacingly about her body.

Cautiously, Manton reached out to feel the pulse in Debra’s neck but quickly backed away as her autonomic defenses took control, her hand snaking out to grab hold of him in a crushing, burning grip. The heat coming off her body was incredible. Neither of the women looked physically in distress.

“I believe they’re linked,” Eron whispered, trying to calm his heart and emotions to better sense first Rowan’s mind and then Debra. “If I’m reading this right, Rowan initiated a link but is now trapped.

The meld between Manton and Rowan remained functional, yet all he could see and feel in her mind was blood and debilitating pain. Without warning he threw himself sideways onto Debra’s lap, effectively pinning her arms and legs. Even as the burning heat sucked the breath from his lungs, he pushed hard callused thumbs deftly against her carotid arteries until the lack of brain oxygen rendered her unconscious.

His jumpsuit smoldering with stinking smoke and the skin on his side and chest raw and black with fiery pain, Manton bellowed deafeningly as he rolled free of Debra, telepathically commanding the others to carry Rowan to the far side of the tree and await the med-team.

“You did it, Manton. Rowan is free,” Eron shouted breathlessly, looking back over his shoulder, torn between getting Rowan to safety and helping his friend.

With effort Manton sat up, making sure to keep his undamaged side to Eron. “I’m all right,” he hissed between clenched teeth. “Stay with Rowan. Help the med-team with her. I’ll stay with Debra.”

The others had barely rounded the tree when Manton felt her hand on his lower leg. A grunt of alarm rumbled in his chest as he stiffly moved to protect himself and block whatever aggressive stance Debra threw at him. Instead of more injury, he could feel the endorphins flooding his body and the pain subsiding.

Weak, but quickly regaining strength, Manton glanced over at Debra, their eyes meeting as though equals of long standing. The danger was finally over. Almost instantly his injuries healed; his body whole and strong once more, his lungs able to breathe deeply for the first time in what seemed like hours instead of only minutes.

Well understanding the process of empathic healing, he watched as Debra’s hands blackened and shriveled like claws, as the skin on her lower bare arms split into oozing, bloody wounds. Even knowing the transference was only momentary, he still found it hard to watch as her body listed to the side in pain, the agony clear on her face and flashing in her dark eyes.

And then her skin cleared and all trace of the transference was gone.

With the tip of his finger he activated his ear transceiver. “Jenna,” he demanded quietly, eyes once again locked with Debra’s. “Are you still online?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Jenna’s steady voice in his earpiece. “The bed is heading through the glass corridor now. They should reach you in five or less. OT staff is running the outer edge of the commons now and should sight you any minute.”

“Hold, Jenna.” He tapped his earpiece to deactivate and spoke to Debra. “Are you in need of medical assistance?” Her head slowly shook. Again he tapped his earpiece. “Jenna, the med-team is here. I’m going to be with Debra for awhile. Leave word with the next shift to notify me if there are any complications with Rowan. I want you to take charge of this morning’s meeting.”

“Not a problem, sir. Do you require any further assistance?”

Still looking directly at Debra, he softly asked, “Do I require any assistance?” Color flushed Debra’s face at the implication she might be a threat. Again, she slowly shook her head. “No, thank you, Jenna. Update the monitor that I’m to be contacted only if it’s an emergency until further notice. Manton out.”

He disconnected and pulled out his earpiece. To anyone out for a morning stroll before their duty shift, the Grand Master and the newcomer looked as though they were sharing a friendly conversation or teaching session on a peaceful patch of grass. It was common knowledge that Manton preferred the park to an enclosed classroom or office for instructing students and handing out the odd duty reprimand; of course that was second only to the combat gym and a good full-contact bout to relieve tension and frustration to body and mind.

Manton pulled his feet up, crossing his legs, and rested elbows on his knees as he leaned forward. “I’m told you know your way around the mats and have bested Damon on several occasions,” he said casually. The sudden, startled gleam in Debra’s eyes seemed to confirm that the stories were true. Once on the mats he would judge for himself whether there was talent and a true joy of the combat arts.

Prepared to be confined to quarters, Debra was surprised, yet wary, of Manton’s abrupt change of tact. “I’ve beaten Kalon in the dream world.” Brown eyes outlined the contours of his well muscled arms and legs. “I don’t know how I would fair against Damon, or anyone, here in reality.”

A dark brow rose sharply in inquiry. “Would you like to find out?”

“Are you going to try and pound me into paste for Rowan?” Debra asked with wry resignation.

She watched his eyes get that glassy, unseeing look to them, as though his mind had the sight. Instant flashes of earlier moments, when she had seen the two of them together, popped into her head and suddenly she realized there was a deeper connection between Manton and Rowan; one that both chose to ignore or not show in public. It would be a simple matter to reach out and take his hand and know the history between them. But maybe there was a better more enjoyable way.

“Will you wager for a win on the mats?” she asked, her lips twitching mischievously.

Manton threw back his head and roared with laughter. “All right. Name your terms.”

January 3, 2012

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Nine Part 1

Manton stepped from the lift into an empty administrative corridor a full hour before the midnight security shift was due to rotate with the morning senior staff at oh-six-hundred. He often made unannounced walk-ins on each of the four duty shifts that constantly monitored the underwater city, the mobile home park and surrounding wilderness land above.

Love of duty kept him busy eighteen hours a day with security and teaching. Anything less made him feel vulnerable to the past. His restlessness tonight was deeply personal. This time of year was always especially hard emotionally. Rather than lay in bed, tossing and turning, the head of security had showered and dressed for work early, keeping his mind busy finishing up the month end security report and new duty schedule.

At thirty-six, Manton’s powerful build and quiet strength made him popular with men and women of both species. Advisor to the sovereign and overseer of all city operations, Manton’s authority was second only to Damon. Years ago duty had offered comfort and focus when he needed it most. Now it was all he had. Fourteen years a bonded man without the woman he loved. Yet memories of their journey into the Heart could still make him ache for what was lost.

As an associate member to the House of Bromon, Manton Lorran was third in line as sovereign to the earthbound Thalian nation. Born on Thalia just months before the fleet delegation had set course for Earth, he had journeyed with his mother, Manda Lorran, a high-ranking bridge officer under sovereign Kalon. Now sixty-three and in good health, she divided her time between translation work for Duran in research and managing a clothing shop on the second level Galleria. Mother and son remained close to each other and to the memory of one left behind.

His father, Jordon Lorran, whom he had never seen, had stayed on Thalia to supervise construction of the final fleet of Bromon ships bound for Earth. Ships that might never come because the one-time teleport beacon message had yet to be sent.

A decade, no more, had been the presumption for those left behind. Enough time to establish non-intrusive colonies around the globe and get Thalians living undetected amongst humans. Enough time to gut the great ships for anything useable and remotely send them into the vaporizing light of the sun.

But then the atmospheric virus happened, and life changed for everyone.

Manton vehemently shook off the past and focused on now. Black eyes constantly roamed the corridor, glancing at seams on the aquarium window panes, checking that decon and pressure sensors were operational, looking for anything out of the ordinary.

Throughout the city, the simulated dimness of twilight brought a relaxed change of pace from the energized atmosphere during the day. For Manton, the subdued lighting amplified the magnificent colors and details of the underwater garden. A visual sensation that relaxed the optic nerves yet acutely heightened perception. The self-contained environment was a masterpiece of light and living art. Hard to believe they were sealed inside a mountain of rock, almost two miles beneath the surface.

Similar restricted lighting had been implemented in security twelve years ago on his recommendation, a year before his superior accepted a position to the council of Elders and promoted him to head of security at the age of twenty-five.

Long fingers tapped his office palmpad, his lengthy stride pulling up fractionally to allow the door to silently open. “Lights,” he ordered, absently touching the inside pad to close the panel as he scanned the mounted monitors and text screens uniformly covering two walls of the office.

Not often in his office, the bulky metal desk and high-back chair had been pushed toward the wall of shelves filled with files, datapads, storage disks, borrowed tools, and recently failed mechanical parts and sensors. The main office was sparsely furnished with backup drawings of city interior and exterior construction, the main power matrix and housing, filtration, airlocks and other vital areas all neatly hung on rotating hangers in case of computer failure.

Viewing monitors kept track of everything from workstation access, to water pressure readouts per sectors, to public areas on every level. Of the four-room suite, only the conference room and bed/bath retreat were used daily. The small brig had never been used for its intended purpose and now stored old mechanical parts and out of date hardcopy schematics.

One wall was almost floor-to-ceiling specially treated glass that absorbed light energy and channeled it back through the power crystal matrix for use elsewhere in the complex. Most of the rock chamber walls and matt-finished areas had been similarly treated as a means of gathering and recycling energy throughout the city.

Beyond the one-way glass, Manton looked out into the darken security command center known as the Hub. Muted recessed floor lights provided just enough illumination to outline aisles, workstations, and reflective strips marking stairs and lifts without distracting or creating stress on Thalian senses.

The Hub housed the central computers from the three deep-space ships used to build the city. Beneath the center of the marble flooring, shielded by thick, impenetrable metal alloy doors and walls, a subterranean chamber held the power crystal matrix and two backup pod systems with enough capacitor crystals to see out the city’s energy needs for the next millennium.

The Thalian metal alloy, Riasen, was non-existent on Earth, making the indestructible metal rare and limited to what was aboard ship. Care was taken in its use. At the time of construction, an area the size of half the entrance chamber was created, main level up through the second floor, and laid out like an open courtyard with two partial floors, thirty-feet wide from wall to guard rail. Perimeter walls and access doors were fortified with metal alloy insulation and armored with metal alloy sheeting. The wall covering was the same specially treated material for energy absorption and recycling.

Due to size restrictions, Isolated Recovery and the Operating Theater utilized the metal alloy in only its reinforced framing deep within the hard shell of the mountain.

Workstations and personnel were all positioned facing inward toward the suspended five-foot rectangular monitors that allowed everyone in the Hub access to vital updates and information from all on-duty personnel, division heads, or the sovereign.

Each security shift consisted of one hundred and eighty-five highly trained personnel, rotating a 3/3 split on a monthly basis. That meant each security officer either started their shift with three hours of heads-up monitoring, or began with three hours of city rounds and on-call duty before rotating for the remainder of the six-hour shift.

The city’s vast corridors and grounds required a manageable search grid for security teams to effectively remain vigilant to the basic three fields of responsibility: life-support checks, sensor/decon testing and programming, and interior/exterior structural integrity.

Each level was represented by a name and numeral, a telepathic icon, and broken down into sector grids for security patrols. Administrative, the main floor of the complex, known as sector admin D, covered the spacious corridor across the structural front of the city from the entry B doors, or main airlock, up to and including airlock three.

With Manton’s known love of sports the admin D sector was jokingly referred to as the heavyweight division—security, central computer, power crystal matrix, research, archives, the sovereign’s office, engineering, maintenance, and other high priority traffic areas.

In the unlikely event the city should ever come crashing down upon them, admin D sector would barely feel the bump.

Glancing at the Hub’s main viewer, Manton noted that medical-science had updated Damon’s unchanged condition to include termination: six days.

Large hands fisted tightly by his sides. When Damon had come to him with an idea for drawing Debra out of her shell of insecurity and mistrust, Manton had expressed concern. None of the Elders or Masters or Grand Masters could predict with any certainty how Debra would respond under pressure. Living above, she had used her abilities like a wild, destructive wind to survive. Now that she was finally here, how did one tame that wild wind? He grunted as the answer came to him. You don’t change the wind, but the method of harnessing its power.

With a few touches on the datapad, he checked the security log for IR access since Debra’s arrival in the city. Dark brows rose sharply in surprise. She had tried earlier that morning but was denied access.

“Probably because she hasn’t been programmed into the database yet,” he muttered, frowning, wondering if an opportunity had been lost to save his friend. A few taps of the screen gave him restricted admin access. But Rowan had beaten him to the task and entered authorization and Debra’s hand and voice signature to IR only a half hour ago.

The soft beep of his security earpiece intruded, eyes suddenly alert as fingers reached for the glass case on his desk. Inserting the small transceiver plug, he growled at the dark one way window,” How did you know I was here?”

Jenna laughed and waved from the workstation closest to the blacked-out office window. “Just a feeling,” she grinned, her hushed voice clear in his ear. “Actually, the window glass seems to morph into another shade of black whenever the office lights come on.”

Manton chuckled, his tone teasing. “If we ever get topside you’ll make a great police detective.” Absently he rotated the nearby screen schematic for airlock three. Four days of testing everything from the activation pad to the massive vertical tracks and hidden door hinges and still no answers why the portal failed to lock. If maintenance was unable to fix the seal today he would order the door assembly, tracks, gears, hydraulics, and access panel ripped out and replaced. A major overhaul to say the least.

Setting aside that headache for now, he returned his attention to Jenna. “All right, since you found me out, you might as well give me the highlights.”

Another Earth-orbit baby, Jenna Ronan, twenty-seven as of the first of the year, and youngest shift commander currently in security, efficiently called up the midnight shift on-duty calls. “It’s been busy tonight. The briefing report will have everything but there are a couple of items I thought you’d like to know about,” she said with a quick smile. “Maintenance reported airlock three is finally up and running. Turns out it wasn’t a broken door assembly or faulty seal but a tiny little crack in the rotator casing. Someone will drop the part off later this morning for you to look at. Tessa swears you’ll need a magnifier to find it.”

Yes! Manton cheered to himself, closing out the screen schematic with an exaggerated jab of his finger. “Was it just the one rotator casing? With the track already gutted did they check the other one?”

“The other side didn’t show any wear or stress fractures at all. They inserted a sensor head on both casings to monitor overall pressure and load stress. If there’s any future problem we’ll know about it before it happens.”

“Excellent,” he replied with a satisfied grin. “Arrange a thank you dinner at the Terrace for Tessa, her crew, and myself.”  Careful eyes scanned the wall mounted screen readouts while he talked. “What’s next?”

“Wyman and Becka had to reprogram the stable sensors to setup a surrounding deterrent energy field.”

Hands on hips, Manton faced the full-length window again. “A problem with the horses?”

“You could say that,” Jenna drawled, tongue-in-cheek. “Troja was stung by one of the honey bees just after three this morning and demolished his stall. The mare was badly rattled but unharmed. Derek came down with his vet supplies and patched up the stallion but said there was no serious damage to the horse. For the time being, Troja’s being boarded in one of the smaller stalls.”

Brawny arms folded as Manton’s gaze narrowed. “I thought bees were dormant during the dark hours?”

Jenna coughed, hiding her smile from the office window. “Apparently not this one. Wyman went down to the honey pots and looked around but didn’t see any noticeable bee activity. He figures it must have been a stray early riser.”

“A bee,” muttered Manton, shaking his head. “Always something.” A large thumb absently worked his lower lip. “Find out if Alton’s available for a rush repair job. Then contact Harry Taylor up top and have him place an order for more white oak to restore the stable. I don’t want Damon waking up to a mess.” He hesitated, mentally lining up priorities. “And leave an update for each shift commander to keep me informed of any further complications with the stallion or mare.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Jenna said earnestly. Since getting word of the sovereign’s collapse yesterday morning, she could sense the uneasiness in her co-workers. She greatly admired Damon Bromon for his leadership and skill. Knowing Manton and Damon were as close as bothers made her aware of the added strain and responsibility her superior was suddenly faced with. Six days remaining. And then what, she wondered?

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