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November 26, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Eight Part 3

“Are all mind links as involved as the dream world?” Debra asked almost absently. In the morning she would be linking for the first time with someone other than Kalon. Once Eron was in her mind would she have any protection? Would her awareness and defenses be able to stop any subterfuge on his part?

“No, absolutely not,” Rowan said swiftly, relieved to be off the subject of past memories. “What you and Damon have is more like what bonded or married couples share.”

Eyes flashed dangerously. “Damon and I are not married.”

Hands up to avoid an argument, Rowan acquiesced. “If we do our jobs right, that’s something you’ll be able to settle with my brother. But, for future reference, bonding is more than couple’s setting up house together. A permanent link is forged between the couple, and a subtle blending or melding of the mind and body occurs on their first journey to the Heart.” Rowan shrugged. “But that’s another discussion . . . unless . . . did Damon ever give you a necklace with a crystal pendant attached?”

Startled brown eyes confirmed Rowan’s suspicions.

Debra clearly remembered the day she had died and Kalon’s tenderness in the dream world. Remembered his gift, the pendant necklace she always wore when they were together, and their first rights. Just passion, thought Debra, not marriage. Not at sixteen. Not without telling her.

“You said the dream world was real to you,” Rowan reminded her. “It would seem you are bonded to my brother.”

“But it isn’t real to Damon,” said Debra flatly, unwilling to explain or defend herself further. Should he make it back alive, this would be settled between the two of them.

Sister-in-law, thought Rowan guardedly, testing out the sound of their new reality in her mind. Damon had never doubted the bond between them. Never wavered in his assurance of Debra’s ability to be a strong consort to the Thalian nation. Yet listening to her instincts, Rowan doubted strength had ever been one of Debra’s failings. Glancing over at the tight-lipped woman beside her, she could only wonder if it was too late to change a lifetime mentality of self-preservation into a genuine desire to help others.

Her mind made up, Rowan took the first step. “Think about this in terms of helping Damon. With the Talisman given and received, the two of you have already journeyed to the Heart. It’s a place inside your immortal psyche; a place sanctified by the lifeforce of Mother and Father God. Once that journey has happened, you are bonded throughout the remainder of your physical life. Whether it happened in reality or the dream world, the two of you now have the capacity to know when the other is hurt or needs help. You have access to each other’s thoughts and emotions unless you choose to fully close your mind.”

“You think I’ll be able to find his mind because of this bond,” Debra stated resolutely.

“Yes,” Rowan said succinctly, watching, waiting.

“Then you probably already know that I’m meeting Eron in your office at five-thirty tomorrow morning.” Rowan nodded. “I’ll do whatever you want, on two conditions.”

Rowan studied the closed face before her. Debra wasn’t interested in personal gain. Her life above had been seclusion, living well within the limits of the trust fund setup for her the day Dorothy had tried to kill her. For years at a time she lived more like a street person, carrying only what was needed to survive. What could be so important now that Debra felt the need to bargain?

“If it’s within my power to give, it’s yours.”

“I want unrestricted access to Damon in Isolated Recovery.”

“Done.” Rowan pulled out her handheld com-link and programmed Debra’s voice and palm signature into the IR database. “What else?”

“Tell me everything about mind links and melding. Especially this link with Eron tomorrow.”

“Words aren’t enough, Debra,” Rowan insisted, turning to face her. “The only way to truly understand is to show you.”

Stone-faced, Debra stared. It always came back to trust and opening herself to others.

“Does it mean anything to you when I say a link is when two or more minds are connected? That melding is simply one person touching another to accomplish a link or initiate some function of the body?” Debra’s lips pinched even tighter as she slowly shook her head. “For a psychic evaluation, there’s no one better than Eron,” Rowan softly admitted, sympathy shining bright in her eyes. “After my parents died, Eron took over my training. He’s like a father to me.”

Debra sighed, resigning herself to the inevitable, and lowered her protective barriers. “What do I do?”

With the words barely out of her mouth, internal warning instincts tried to automatically shut out the foreign presence that cautiously moved from the black edges of awareness. It took all of Debra’s concentration not to protect herself, even knowing that the intruder was Rowan.

This was nothing like the dream world where her life with Kalon had been lived outside of mental constraints, using its own form of reality. And yet she knew the disembodied presence was Rowan by the distinct voice sounding in her head, by the thoughts left open for Debra to explore.

Silently, a sliver of static energy arced between Debra’s motionless fingers.

Curiosity conquered fear and Debra’s instincts automatically took over. Guided by words and imagery, her mind became a visual cavity of compartments and levels, each with its own relevant details and propriety. In an exaggerated flourish, Rowan carefully selected a trivial thought or memory, offering approval when her pupil quickly obliged an interest or adeptly denied with a calm withdrawal of that particular compartment. Between them it became a game of lead and follow until Rowan was satisfied all protocols had been experienced at least once.

 “Now see Thalia,” Rowan whispered, and stilled her presence as Debra followed instincts to the waiting image.

Suddenly Debra was seeing Thalia from space, looming large and lifeless like some brown, dry ball. The arid surface shimmered over immense riverbeds long dead and filled with dust. Blackened scars, miles wide, remained the only testament of where nature and imposing architecture had burned to the ground under the brutal midday solar star. It was a place of darkness and a heavy retching stink.

Debra physically shuddered, her mind finding reality one moment on Thalia and then thrust back into the terror of the nightmare. Fear flooded her body with adrenaline, releasing the warrior mind and strength. Locked in a perceived battle of fight or flight, inborn defenses protected flesh while the warrior absorbed power from the core lifeforce to seal away intellect and emotion. Overlooked was the functioning link between Debra and Rowan.

Unable to sever the link, Rowan mentally braced as though her presence had been swept up in a mighty rogue wave and transported to hell. Awareness discerned only memory, and yet her committed senses believed the nightmare to be real.

The high pitched screams penetrated the cold darkness. Rowan ran from her hiding place in the shadows, her breath rasping heavily from aching lungs, her bare legs covered in blood. It was all she could do to keep upright and running. If she fell again, there would be no strength left to get up.

Alone with the terror that hunted in the shadows, tears blinded her eyes, as sweat soaked hair plastered about her face in thick wet ropes. Evil howled in agony, its roar shattering eardrums and ferociously shaking the burnt, dust-filled terrain.

A demon bolt of energy tore into her chest, exploding bone and heart muscle in seconds. Blood gushed from every gaping wound and orifice, covering her in a shroud of thick, dark red . . .

Her body ridged against the tree trunk, Debra’s unseeing blood red eyes snapped open, as the killing power arced menacingly between her fingers. Sweat glistened on pale white skin that smoldered blistering hot. Every muscle was clenched and trembling under the massive amount of energy that strained against the confines of her physical body. But it was not enough to keep the vision out. Like the meditation globe, free will fell and Debra watched the image unfold.

His craggy face wore leadership well. Only the black eyes whispered of loneliness and a heart empty after all this time. He might have endured the long years with more grace had he known if his wife and son were safe and thriving on Earth. But a beacon message had failed to arrive.

Jordon Lorran was one of the few remaining Masters of engineering left on Thalia. His sacrifice had been to stay behind and oversee the building of the last Bromon ships. The final vessel had been completed over a decade ago. And now they waited for the arrival of the teleport beacon to begin the journey to Earth.

Thick silver hair framed a face more rugged than handsome. But when he smiled, all felt the impact of his male charisma. Pride had accepted that his prime had come and gone. And yet his tall, trim body still carried the burly shoulders and arms that were characteristic of the men in his family.

Like other nights, Jordon finished his workday with a stroll through the town square. Too many people and not enough upkeep had left the stones worn and the plaza looking a little run down. The great fountain was just a shell now. Water had become far too precious to simply let it evaporate in the dusty air. Filters broke down, adding to the strain on the purification system. And there were never enough replacement parts or repair personnel to go around.

Sitting on the edge of the old fountain, Jordon let tired muscles rest after a long day of rounds through the empty disembarking port and inspecting the pristine deep space vessels waiting at the distant space dock. Across the sizable square-shaped center, several of the eye-screens shorted on and off, disrupting the colorful pastoral scene that covered the bare rock walls of the vast underground cavern.

He understood that life support and food processors were more important than providing a sense of comfort that helped one forget reality for a moment or two. But still, he liked to end each day by gazing out on the lush green meadows filled with trees and wildflowers; to see a sky of blue again.

“Jordon,” a young man sharply called from across the square. Bryon, born and raised in the manufactured caverns, never knew the beauty and splendor of Thalia, except in archives and on datapads. Barely into his twenties, rations and badly filtered air seemed to age the smooth face beyond his years.

Standing a head shorter than Jordon’s impressive seven feet, he spoke quietly in the hopes of not raising an alarm. “We’ve lost another well.”

Knowing the final decision rested on his wide shoulders alone, Jordon bowed his head and mentally compared the boarding/preflight timetable with the latest decaying orbit data. “Which well?” he asked uneasily, already figuring their luck had run out.

“The big one at Osram.” Bryon watched his mentor and friend digest the news. “With so little atmosphere left, the solar lightning is striking the ground almost at will. The flare hit the silo dead on and vaporized everything. We lost a stretch of nearby tunnel, but the new shields are holding and no one was hurt.”

The news was worse than he thought. It was time to throw old protocols and promises out the airlock. “Any word on the beacon today?”

“No. Sorry. What are your orders?”

“With only ten wells left, we’ll run out of water in a little over a year.” Bryon nodded in agreement. “We can’t wait for an invitation anymore. For all we know they’re all dead.” Placing a big hand on the shoulder of his hardworking assistant, Jordon gave the word. “Notify primary crew personnel to be ready for transport in five days. Once the ships are prepped and ready, begin boarding the remaining population by predetermined order.” He gave Bryon a stern look. “Clothing and bedding only. Nothing else. We’ll be living better on the ships than we ever did in the caverns. Let them knew that. Maybe it’ll help ease the fears of this unexpected jump into the unknown.”

*   *   *

Awareness returned and Rowan was back in the shadows, hiding once more. The high pitched screams penetrated the cold darkness, lungs aching, her bare legs covered in blood.  Evil howled in agony, its roar shattering eardrums and ferociously shaking the burnt, dust-filled terrain. A demon bolt of energy tore into her chest, exploding bone and heart muscle in seconds. Blood gushed from every gaping wound and orifice, covering her in a shroud of thick, dark red . . .

My . . . love . . .” Rowan moaned feebly.

November 25, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Eight Part 2

Without thinking she tapped the menu button and called up the resident index. Barely having pressed Eron’s name, his familiar voice came through the speaker.

“Eron, here. Someone’s an early riser.”

Debra mouthed the word, shit, and grimaced at her stupidity. The com-link time read 4:10 a.m. “Sorry, Eron. It’s Debra. I lost track of the time. I’ll call back later.” Her finger hovered over the disconnect key as his comfortable laugh came through the terminal.

“If I was busy or asleep I could have let your call go into message mode. But your name came up as the initiator. And I’m available 24/7 to help with whatever you need.”

It was time to take the plunge and have some faith in the experts. Fingers tapping anxiously against her bare thigh, Debra prayed they knew what the hell they were doing.

“It seems I can’t start any training until I’m tested by you.” Debra hesitated, chewing on her lower lip. “If it’s all right, I’d like to set up an appointment for tomorrow morning, if possible.”

Eron could hear the withdrawal in her voice. She would never deliberately come to him for help, and the thought saddened him. As a teacher and friend he wanted to argue his case. But he had sensed her deep well of mistrust the first time they made eye contact in the airlock. Actions speak louder than words, he reminded himself.

“Are you normally an early riser? Or is this morning an aberration due to the fact you slept all day yesterday?” he chuckled.

“No secrets in Tantria, I see,” she grimaced at the terminal, feeling the walls closing in about her. “I am an early riser. Would five-thirty be okay?” The less people around the better, Debra thought.

“Works for me,” Eron said. “Meet me in Rowan’s office. I’ll need about an hour. There’s no pain or side effects.” He hesitated, knowing his next words would either light a fuse or have her backing off altogether. “I will be forming a temporary link with certain areas of your higher cerebral functions once the initial brain assessment is completed.”

Eron waited, letting the silence drag out, giving Debra all the time she needed to come to a decision. Too late, he realized he should have had this conversation with her in person.

“You don’t know what you’re asking,” Debra said, her voice raw with the memories of black rages and the killing power and inborn defenses that protected her, no matter the cost.

“I’m a fully trained Thalian psychic, Debra. Not some human with a hazy ESP connective ability. I specialize in higher cerebral function links. I’m a master in the field of psychic function assessment and training of children and young adults. The only real advantage Thalian children had over you was the natal/parental bond. That bond allowed children to grow up understanding the deeper levels of traditions, customs, the very protocols that define Thalian heritage and control. A kind of psychic symbiosis, if you will, between parent and child.”

“And what about your Thalian-human children?” Debra demanded defiantly, letting the old angers surge free. “We were given nothing.” Her agitated breaths echoed loudly through the com-link as she fought for a calm she didn’t want. “The others may all be dead, but while I’m still alive someone is going to have to answer for the lives we were given.”

“We thought we had given you immunity to the virus and a life in the sunlight. But the price turned out to be much more than just your natal bond,” Eron admitted, his voice trailing off as emotion gripped him. “If a cure isn’t found for the virus, there can be no more children. Without children, the Thalian nation, whether bi-Thalian or natural blood, will be just as dead as your sisters.”

Head bowed, Debra rubbed fingertips hard across her forehead. Everyone had their problems, it seemed. And she was tired of being one of the problems. The only answer for now was to learn Thalian control. The dead could afford to wait a little bit longer.

“It seems I have no choice but to trust you.”

Eron chuckled softly. “Not the most flattering of praise, but it’s a start.”

“What if you’re wrong, Eron?”

“I’m aware of your concerns, Debra. We all are. With the link I’ll be able to see any underlying emotional impairments or mental blocks. I’ll instantly know if you are incapable of handling the power you were born with. And with that knowledge I can make recommendations for specialized learning choices available to you.” Eron took a deep breath, remembering how it used to be. “The great Houses of Thalia sought my skills because I match individual characteristics and psychic potential with the right vocational challenges and gratifications to make you an invaluable resource to yourself, the House of Bromon, and the earthbound Thalian nation.”

“I’ll meet you in Rowan’s office in the morning,” Debra said simply, and disconnected the call.

*   *   *

As reported, Rowan found Debra sitting under the great willow tree, back resting against the wide trunk, her long legs stretched out over the neatly trimmed grass. Watching their newest resident to the city, Rowan compared the reality of the younger woman to the impressions she had grown up with through reports and Damon. The woman that had kept her brother enthralled throughout the years and never at a loss for stories of their time together in the dream world.

A world no one else could create or share.

She was beautiful, Rowan thought, in a wild exotic sort of way. Brown-black hair tied back in a long French braid that draped over a shoulder buried beneath an oversized black sweatshirt. The matching black sweatpants concealed an exceptionally strong, lithe body. Or so Damon often bragged about when telling tales of their regular sparing matches in the dream world.

Moving closer, Rowan recognized the empty stare, the fast heart rate, the palm pressed flat to the ground. Mind-sight, a gift Rowan did not possess, had Debra off on some mental exploration.

Old memories surfaced, bringing a moment of shame. Damon had the same mind-sight ability. In fact, he shared a great many of the higher abilities with Debra; as though they were mirror images of each other.

Time had taken away the mean spirited jealousy she had punished Damon with as children for not being as gifted as her younger brother.

A state of mind that was swiftly excised when testing and evaluation revealed her own distinctive gifts in the medical arts. From that moment, her feelings of inadequacy were tossed aside as a waste of time. Today, she was the head of all Thalian medical-science on Earth and a master of healing.

Rowan looked around the spacious, beautiful park, enjoying a rare moment of contented freedom, and quietly approached Debra sitting under the willow.

The grass would surely play havoc with her white smock and jumpsuit. Rowan sat down next to the tree trunk anyway to wait. She wondered what Debra was seeing with the sight. Black eyes closed, letting normal senses see her surroundings. Nostrils flare at the smell of tended soil and fresh-cut grass. The crunch of crushed mountain rock meant someone was on the jogging trail for an early morning run. A bee flew passed her ear and eyes snapped open to watch the tiny creature gather nectar from the plentiful blossoms, then disappear in the direction of the honey pots down by the orchard.

Overhead the crystal lighting rods were duplicating the sun’s intensity up above and increasing the brightness throughout the city. For just a moment, Rowan remembered the early morning sunlight peering through the great protective domes on Thalia. The automated sensors changing the clear night filters to opaque before the scorching heat of the day forced everyone below and away from the demoralizing view of the arid wastelands beyond.

“Have you news about Damon?”

Rowan yelped, her heart galloping in her chest for a handful of seconds before returning to normal. “Bloody hell, Debra,” she gasped. “That’ll teach me to daydream.”

Each stared at the other, suddenly unsure what to say.

Rowan finally broke the silence. “No change. I assume you were using the mind-sight. What had your curiosity?”

It felt strange talking about psychic abilities to another as though comparing notes for an upcoming exam. Would it always be this uncomfortable opening up to others? Would she always feel like she was on the outside looking in?

Debra shrugged, self-consciously. “I wanted to know what keeps the birds and honey bees from getting into the main complex.”

“Ah, the energy shield,” Rowan grinned. “It’s all computerized and programmed to respond in certain ways depending on the data collected by the sensors.” Another bee flew passed, heading for the honey pots. “If the data reads bird or bee then the shielding in that area intensifies just enough to veer our little friends off in another direction.”

As truly fascinating as Debra found Thalian technology, Damon remained uppermost on her mind. After talking with Eron, earlier that morning, she had tried to quietly gain access to Damon in Isolated Recovery, but the entry doors refused to open. Undeterred, it was only a matter of time before she found an obscure backdoor to let her in. Only when she could see and touch his body for herself would she understand and accept, should the worst happen.

Debra squared her shoulders, a fierce light of determination entering her eyes. “Tell me the truth, Rowan. Is Damon going to be all right?”

The sudden stiffness in Debra’s demeanor had Rowan glancing at her warily, and wondering if a hand to the back of her neck would be required for every conversation they shared.

“Tests on blood and skin cells came back normal. Your quick action kept exposure to the atmosphere to only seconds.” Rowan tossed several blades of grass away and dusted her hands. “Problem is, without live testing we can’t isolate the exact point that exposure becomes fatal. So we’ll run the tests every two weeks for six months to make sure his body’s not infected.”

“What about his mind?” Debra asked tightly.

Rowan wanted to shout that Debra was the keeper of his mind. As a bonded mate, no one would have a better chance of finding Damon’s lifeforce. The question on most Thalian minds, besides uncertainty, was did Debra have the skill to initiate astral travel? Or would they lose her too?

“The person we know as Damon has left his physical body,” she gritted shortly. Seeing Debra’s face cloud over, Rowan continued quickly, her tone less agitated. “This has nothing to do with what happened between the two of you up above. This is something else entirely.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“It’s my job to be sure,” Rowan snapped, her words tinged with bitter frustration. “Whether my word means anything to you or not, your actions were not responsible for Damon leaving his body.”

Leaning stiffly back against the willow, Debra folded her arms and re-crossed long legs. “If I didn’t trust you I wouldn’t be saying yes to helping with Damon,” she gruffly declared.

A surge of joy softened all the prickly edges that Debra seemed to bring out in her. Rowan nodded, gratefully. Buried, deep inside, she had been more than a little afraid that Debra would not have the courage; would simply claim ignorance and walk away. An abundance of energy and impatience battled inside now, but would have to wait until after testing.

Plucking up another blade of grass, amusement lent Rowan’s voice an attractive huskiness. “Did you know that the earthbound Thalian Nation is home to some of the most powerful psychics ever recorded?” Black eyes stared off across the park’s lushly pristine common area, her cheeks lightly flushed with pride. “On Thalia such gifted people were called, Vions, and thought to be one evolutionary step away from becoming Mystics; that’s a physical being with all of an immortal’s knowledge and power from Home.” The blade of grass was slowly shredded and tossed away. “Eron tested Damon when he was seven and proclaimed him a Vion. To date, he is the strongest Vion on earth record.” Rowan sat up, gazing directly at Debra. “But instinct tells me you’re going to be even stronger.”

Debra took a long breath, making a dubious gesture. “I don’t want to be superwoman. I just want to understand what I have. And to be honest, before you came over here I was working myself into a sweat about this link with Eron tomorrow.” She looked at Rowan, her stare open and unwavering. “I’m afraid of linking, and I don’t why.”

“How can you say that, Debra? You’ve shared the most extraordinary link in all recorded history with Damon since you were in diapers.”

Hands fisted against firm thighs. Debra scowled and shook her head. “That was the dream world; my alternate plane of existence. Not something in my mind. Not some presence taking over my thoughts. I had a safe and happy life there.”

Brows came together as Rowan nodded. “Up until a few years ago, Damon described the dream world in the same way. But he knew one day you’d come home to us . . . to him. I think the last couple of years were very hard for him, almost a form of self-torture.”

Rowan gazed up through the brightly lit hanging branches, letting out an uneasy breath. Revealing her brother’s state of mind had not been her intention when she left the IR to seek out and enlist Debra’s help. “He had your quarters constructed ten years ago when he established his own residence,” she remarked calmly. “The suite remained empty all this time. Two years ago he had the connecting portal installed. Then last year, with Edith’s help, he started selecting fabric colors and furniture.”

“It’s hard for me to think of Kalon and Damon as the same person. I know they are, but . . . they feel so different.” Wetting dry lips, Debra strained to gather up the loose threads of a troubling thought. “My real father died when I was two. Yet I’ve known Kalon since I was eighteen months old.”

As always, hearing her father’s name spoken aloud caused a fresh stab of pain at the demise of her parents. Memories of their slow death, and the loss of so many others, continued to haunt Rowan over the long years. “You remember your father’s death?” she asked cautiously.

“No,” Debra answered, perplexed. “I remember every time Kalon came to me. Every time we journeyed to the dream world. Yet I remember nothing about my father. Not even memories of Dorothy or Edith until I was four.” Dark brows drew together in doubt.

Had Edith and Damon done more than just manipulate her emotions over the years? Recalling those forgotten sensations while exploring the city, Debra now had to earnestly consider the fact that certain memories may have been deliberately suppressed or wiped out all together. But why?

November 24, 2011

Beneath the Surface – Chapter Eight Part 1

The high pitched screams penetrated the cold darkness. She ran from her hiding place in the shadows, breath rasping heavily from aching lungs, her bare legs covered in blood. It was all she could do to keep upright and running. If she fell again, there would be no strength left to get up.

Pain radiated from the smoldering wounds about her body in tormenting swells of agony that pounded into her brain like the shrill screams that stabbed, over and over. Yet pain was the only thing keeping her conscious.

Alone with the terror that hunted in the shadows, tears blinded her eyes, as sweat soaked hair plastered about her face in thick wet ropes. The blistering energy centered painfully throughout the palm of her hands, the intensity of the force making her shake uncontrollably. Heavy feet stumbled in her rush and confusion to escape, her mind buried in mayhem, desperate for the power inside her body to kill.

As though on command, the blue light erupted, cutting through the darkness, the air heavy with the retching stink of burnt skin and hair.

Evil howled in agony, its roar shattering eardrums and ferociously shaking the terrain.

Her legs buckled, the breath driven from wasted lungs, her body seeming to take forever to reach the ground. A demon bolt of energy tore into her chest, exploding bone and heart muscle in seconds. Blood gushed from every gaping wound and orifice, covering her in a shroud of thick, dark red.

“Dada,” she moaned feebly . . .

“Ahhh,” Debra roared, lunging up from beneath the bedcovers, still clawing her way out of the nightmare. Heavy breaths stuttered loudly in the quiet bedroom as her body viciously trembled from shock and cold. Like a terrified child she rocked back and forth as hands clutched at the agony that still burned in her chest.

Autonomic healing remained useless against the pain of nightmares.

Rivulets of sweat glistened on pale, cold skin, her T-shirt and panties soaked through. Tears flowed unheeded from eyes squeezed tightly shut against anything more cognizant than the reassuring sound of her beating heart. Debra groaned as the intensity of the familiar nightmare eased, and once more reality enveloped her.

Why now, goddammit, her mind raged. “What else can go wrong,” she mumbled, frantic to push free of the soggy linen sheet and swung heavy legs over the side of the bed.

With the pain finally subsided, her breathing slowed and her mind cleared. Always about the killing power, she lamented, struggling to pull up memories of the handful of other times the nightmare has assaulted her senses. Eyes stared, watching the past roll through her mind, instinctively sensing the answer was right there in front of her.

One last forceful shudder shook her body, leaving her too drained to concentrate and piece it all together. An omen, maybe. A warning that the killing power was evil and would end up destroying her and everyone she cared about.

Sighing resoundly, Debra accepted there would be no more sleep this night and stiffly padded off to the bathroom for a much needed shower.

*   *   *

Sitting with her back against the headboard of the stripped down bed, Debra restlessly glanced about the spacious room. The bedside clock read three-thirty in the morning. She had managed to sleep away most of the previous day as though it had never happened. But the recalled memories told her different.

First there had been Edith’s confessions of mind manipulating, followed by that horrible Taylor woman and her predictions of failure. And now Damon was lost and near death and Rowan nearly burnt to a crisp. Debra sighed, profoundly. Not a bad first day, she thought with discussed sarcasm. And could only wonder what other feats of disaster she could impress her new relatives with today.

Taking a moment to step back from her pity-party, Debra actually looked around and had to admit the bedroom of her personal quarters was better than most high priced hotel suites. The room itself seemed huge for single occupant housing, easily fitting the king-size bed and handcrafted high chest and bureau, end tables, and two overstuffed chairs.

Thalian use of glass walls, mirrored on the outside and see through from inside, made spaces seem bigger and brought outside living color into the home and workplace. Mirrored closet doors slid open, like pocket doors, revealing several white jumpsuits and a flowing silk caftan in bold red. Her eyes widened in surprise at finding her duffle bag tucked into one of the empty custom shelf organizers waiting to be filled.

A tinted glass sliding door opened out onto the communal balcony that overlooked the magnificent park now lit in sundown shadows. The smell of cut grass, blossoms, and freshly turned earth had her breathing deeply, her body relaxing with visions of Edith’s bluff and the orchard, and the silent skyscraper cliffs across the lake.

Bare feet appreciated the warm softness of the barely-beige colored wall-to-wall carpet as Debra wandered into the main living area.

Childhood photos of herself and Edith stood in simple cut-crystal frames on several of the end tables and the main shelving unit along the bedroom-living room wall. Books from her favorite genres had been grouped amongst blooming flowerpots and small sculptures of metal and stone.

The standard sized bathroom was off the open kitchen-living room. Debra stuck her head inside, finding the wet towels on the floor where she had dropped them earlier. But even in this small room, the glass and light colors made the space warm and comfortable.

Arriving last night remained a blur of commotion. Although the memories were buried away somewhere if she truly needed to know. Rowan had programmed her palm print and voice signature into the computer through the compact com-link terminal on the kitchen counter.

Debra thought about changing out of the clean sleeping T-shirt and into one of the jumpsuits, but figured what was the point. It wasn’t like she could go for a walk along the beach or pick up groceries and junk food at the corner 24/7 convenience store. Now that she was a legitimate resident of the city, would she be allowed to wander around at all hours of the night?

Curious eyes spotted the closed panel just down from the bathroom. The only door in the apartment with a locking mechanism. Debra flattened her palm to the doorway, and jerked back in shock almost immediately.

Damon’s quarters were right next door. Debra blinked, staring dumbfounded at the inert panel. Her temper spiked. If the bastard survived, they would be sharing adjoining suites. No woman wanted to be lied to and taken for granted, let alone one who could kick his ass off the balcony.

The matter of their supposed marriage would be dealt with, once and for all, just as soon as Damon was himself again.

Scowling, Debra gave the palmpad a good smack and the panel slid quietly open to reveal a space of several feet and another door panel with no access from her apartment. Stepping aside, out of sensor range, the door remained open. A green fingertip light below the pad indicated the doorway was in manual mode. When pressed the light went out and the panel opened when she approached sensor range and closed when she stepped away. She activated the lock on her side, even though Damon wasn’t around to intrude.

Guilt at her lack of control still haunted a conscience that hated conflict. And even though Manton, Duran, and Eron had gone out of their way to appease that guilt, Debra knew the fault was hers. She remembered the anger, the fury at wanting to make Damon pay.

Her stomach grumbled long and loud. Debra realized she hadn’t eaten since the early morning hours yesterday on Edith’s veranda, before Thalian memories had filled her consciousness to the point of bursting.

The trim kitchen had a wall of different-sized cupboards visible behind the island counter. But it was the flashing com-link and sticky note on the countertop that drew her gaze. The note simply read: push message key.

The time on the lower right of the unit read 4:00 a.m. Debra hit the ‘mes’ key, activating a com-link message sent by Rowan.

“Debra, got back to my quarters last night and realized you’d have no idea how things worked. Thought it best to highlight some of your living space options.” Rowan’s voice chuckled softly over the speaker. “You were pretty much asleep on your feet when we arrived.

“You’ve been programmed into the computer and now have access to the com-system. That’s the terminal in front of you. Its voice activated or by the touch pad on the bottom and controls communications, emergency medical and security, environmental, and cleaning.

“Yup, each of us is responsible for keeping our own quarters clean. No maid service. You’ll find the vacuum in the kitchen closet. Just pull the unit off the wall. It automatically empties when plugged back into the wall charger. In the same closet you’ll find a portable washer and dryer and some basic cleaning supplies.

“On the touch pad you’ll find keys already programmed: medical, security, local or world news, music, time, favorites, and so on. You’ll find the keys marked with either the first three or four letters of the word. The menu activates by key or by touching the screen. Once you’re familiar with the com-system you can program to activate the presets or submenus by voice command.

“Each terminal can be personalized, for example: push the music key and select whatever you want to hear. Or push the favorites key to set several different choices like music, environmental, news, library preferences—”

Debra hit pause and tapped the ‘mus’ key out of curiosity. From the extensive list she touched ‘classical’, then ‘Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons’. The instant fullness of harmony was like having the orchestra playing right in the room. The stirring sweep of violins filled the apartment. Eyes closed, leaning against the counter, she let the music pervade mind and body.

Her stomach loudly growled again. Surely the cupboards had something to eat. Stale crackers, an old candy bar, anything would do. Maybe Rowan had provided instructions for meal times and snacking. She cancelled the music and hit the flashing message key again.

“. . . if you’re in the mood to socialize, the Terrace offers excellent dining 24/7. The second level Galleria also has café-style eating and takeout with hours and menus depending on the establishment. Your kitchen is setup for in-home meals with a mini fridge under the counter, a cooking element that retracts under the countertop and is raised by pushing the element key on the com-link.

“Edith stocked a couple of the cupboards and drawers with a few dishes, utensils, and staple goods to get you by until you’ve selected what you need. When you want more fresh produce and personal items you’ll find them in the Galleria—”

Hitting the pause key, Debra started flipping cupboard doors open until she found pasta noodles, breadsticks, cereal flakes and teabags all clearly visible in glass containers. Snatching up the breadsticks she could see more filled containers lined up neatly behind. She crunched through half a breadstick before swallowing, searching the bottom cupboards for the mini fridge and found more glass containers of water, sliced bread, some kind of mayo type condiment, and cleaned salad fixings.

Hunger had her wolfing down another breadstick and pint bottle of water as she listened to the last of Rowan’s message.

“. . . This is important, Debra. All medication must be requested through the third level dispensary. NO EXCEPTIONS. Even if it’s just something for a headache or cold.

“I also recommend checking the public announcement site each morning and evening for important updates, events, warnings, or whatever. You’ll find access through the menu. You should check your messages daily for any personal appointments scheduled or requested on your behalf.”

Debra licked the last of the breadcrumbs from her fingers and wiped them dry on her T-shirt.

“Lastly, is the subject of money. We use a banking system as a way of conditioning ourselves for living among humans. Every month your numbered account, under the bank key, will be credited with an amount that will be established by the administrative office for you. Anything you purchase will have a cost amount that’s deducted from your account. We encourage city residents to live within their budget as practice for up top, but you’ll never be denied something you want.

“The city is self-sustaining. Everything you need or could want is here or can be made for you by our craftsmen. Some of the products may be different than what you’re use to but they serve the same function and in many cases are far superior for health and basic needs.”

A long sigh hissed over the com-link speaker. “A lot to take in, I know. But I have it on good authority that your memory comes with total recall. If you need help in any way, I can be reached at my office, RN33, or my quarters, RN4475. Feel free to rest up for the next twenty-four hours. Because after that I’m going to need your help with Damon. I’m asking now so you can think about your response. When you’re ready to get down to work, contact Eron for testing at, EN5863, or use the resident index on the menu, then come see me.

“It’s hard to believe you’re finally here. Welcome home, Debra.”

The message ended and silence suddenly prevailed. Lips pursed, she wondered what Rowan had in mind for Damon. She swallowed hard, unable to escape the fact that she owed Damon whatever assistance she could to bring him back safely.

Debra tapped the terminal screen and the menu popped up. On the bottom left she found the public site button and accessed the link. Damon’s condition was stable yet unchanged. The sooner she was tested, the sooner she could provide the help Rowan needed. But only on the condition that all involved knew she had absolutely no knowledge of astral travel. Surely between the two of them, and all their healing skills, Damon could be found and returned to his body.

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