The Seal of Altair

by Linda Bindner

A/N: MANY thanks to yeahsureyoubetcha1971 for her most excellent beta reading.

CHAPTER ONE

Beth looked in bleak despair at the destroyed plants surrounding her. I'm a murderer.

The weeds she had pulled lay scattered along the garden paths behind her like fallen soldiers, leaves already shriveling in Rasheda's powerful sunlight.

When she turned to look the other direction, waves of heat made the short red kohl plants ahead of her bend and sway. Weeds choked this section, and the two others on both sides. Beth groaned. At this rate, she would never finish weeding before Alan's shuttle arrived.

Discouraged, she hefted her planting/weeding combination stick and stabbed its plasteel point into the soil just under the waving kohl leaves, aiming at the roots of a group of thumb flowers. The dark pink shape that looked roughly like a thumb shook on the vibrating leaves. While carelessly staring off into space instead of concentrating on what she was doing, Beth accidentally dug up half a kohl plant before managing to yank the stick out of the ground. When the kohl plant fell over in spite of her attempts to save it, the roots effectively mutilated by the vibrating tool, she gave up and squatted to pull the flowers out by hand.

“Hey, Beth!”

The yell made Beth jerk around so fast that she fell awkwardly onto her butt. Shading her eyes, she recognized her oldest brother Nelson as he swung over the fence separating the large garden from the main buildings of the farm. Even against the strong backdrop of sunlight, his tall form and dark hair were hard to miss.

“What?” she called back, irritated at the interruption. Then panic gripped her, and she jumped to her feet, dropping the combinationstick to the dirt. “Is Alan here already?”

“No. Calm down, Beth.” Nelson sauntered towards her through the rows of green and yellow inish vines, tall stalks of sweet corn, and the lower bries and kohl. “Alan's shuttle isn't due for a while yet. I was just coming back from one last check of the landing site when I saw saw you daydreaming out here.”

“I wasn't daydreaming,” Beth protested. “I was thinking. There's a difference.”

Nelson grinned. “Thinking, huh? Daydreaming is what it looked like to me.” He pulled at a weed she had missed. “So, what were you thinking about? You looked like you were ready to kill someone.”

Beth gazed at the dying weeds surrounding her. “I've been killing things all morning! Just look at this mess.” Retrieving the combination stick, she poked it at a stubborn chunk of peri vine. “I hate weeding.”

“Oh,” he said in understanding. “You must be a victim of Mom's famous chore schedule: if you hate it, you do it.”

Beth grinned in spite of herself. “Actually, I'm staying out of Tessy's way. If she can't find me, she can't make me clean, cook, or decorate the Central Building for Alan's reception party. I'd rather weed.”

“Good thinking.” Nelson laughed in appreciation. “Tessy will never find you here. She found Evan, though, hiding out in the link room.”

“The link room?” Beth scorned. “That's the first place she'd look.” Amazed, Beth shook her head at the occasional stupidity of her younger brother. “For someone so smart, Evan sure is dumb.” Shaking off thoughts of Evan, Beth carefully recalibrated her weeding tool, then gently pushed the stick into the soil near the kohl on the other side of the path. The vibrations shook a peri vine out of the dirt without disturbing the kohl plants.

“He's not at all as great as you are, right?” Nelson said with a casual wave at the weeds she'd pulled.

“No. I'm not like Evan.”

Nelson snorted a laugh. “You mean that you're not like him yet.

Irritated by the comparison to her intelligent but lazy younger brother, Beth ignored Nelson to attack another grouping of thumb flowers. Her traditional long braid dangled over one shoulder to brush against her work shirt.

“I hate to tell you, Beth, but you're never going to finish in time for Alan's party.”

Beth glanced at the weeds waiting to be pulled, forced to agree. “I won't even finish in time to watch the moons rise from the lookout rocks tonight.” She gave a disheartened stab at the dry ground.

“Watching the moonrise, huh?” Nelson teased, “Planning some romantic time for you and our famous Hills District political figure, eh?”

“Me and Alan?” Beth forgot the weeds to gape at him, horrified. “Now you're being dumb.”

“I was just teasing.”

“Well, don't.” Though she was two cycles younger than Alan and Nelson, they had still run around together, goofed off in school together, and gotten dirty together. Alan was her friend, but he certainly wasn't romantically interested in her, and she wasn't romantically interested in him. “He's the Altair now,” she insisted, as if that ended the conversation.

Nelson laughed. “That doesn't mean he's dead!”

Still revolted by the idea at what his gossip suggested about her and Alan, Beth energetically scooped out a stubborn ground leaf. Dirt flew everywhere, filling the air with the musky smell of roots and loam.

Nelson admitted, “I guess it's more like Tessy to try to get the Altair alone for a romantic moonlit stroll. You're not the type.”

Beth didn't like being compared to their sister any better than to Evan. “I'm not Tessy, and this is not a moonlit stroll, Nelson. I like to watch the moons rise, and it's just supposed to be clear tonight. That's all.” Her eyes strayed from the dusty ground to the hills cradling the Valley, searching out the familiar path leading from the edge of the farm to the open expanse of the viewing rocks. The thick greenery of the surrounding trees looked invitingly cool.

She sighed, then attacked the weeds again. “Besides, Alan's going to be too busy meeting with the Formulation Council to do much with anybody else. He's... well, he's... busy,” she ended lamely. She couldn't say that after two cycles of political training in San Taron City, Alan might have changed. He might not want to be friends with a farm girl still in school. Irritated, she flicked her braid over her shoulder and vibrated another bunch of thumb flowers out of the dirt.

Nelson laughed again after noting her irritated expression. “He hasn't changed that much, Beth. Alan Gessman might be Vid Altair, big important person, but--”

“Big important person?” she interrupted, astonished at his nonchalant tone. “Nelson, he's the second in command of the entire planet. He's a student at the Institute, learning all about politics and how to rule the security forces.”

“Ha!” Nelson exclaimed. “That's what you think. He's learning boring things about agricultural practices and grain production. Trust me; I'm his Hills District adviser.”

Beth rolled her eyes at Nelson's reminder of his advisory capacity. “For someone who's eighteen cycles old and should know better, you sure gloat a lot about being an adviser.”

“It's the only way to get some respect around here,” he explained, suddenly serious.

“That's not true.”

“Yes it is. If I didn't constantly remind Mom and Dad that there's an entire planet outside the Hills District, full of successful people using technology on their farms, they'd insist that using technology for agriculture was nothing less than pure evil.”

Beth responded without thinking, “But we've proved it: too much technology is bad for the farm, and the Valley as a whole. Take the garden for example; using expensive robots and too much management just wastes energy.”

Nelson scoffed, “Beth, you sound like a clone of Dad.”

“But Nelson, the garden isn't like the other fields; it's not for commerce. It's for the family.”

“And the family doesn't warrant a little help from the regulated weed control?”

Beth glanced at the number of weeds waiting to be pulled, and conceded. “All right, you have a point. Although like Mom and Dad always say, weeding is definitely the hands-on approach.”

“You were complaining about that approach just a few minutes ago,” Nelson reminded her.

Beth shrugged her reluctant agreement. “I'm still better than any regulated weeder any day. I can pay more attention to things and do a better job. It's no different in a field of roats than it is in this garden.” She pulled out an entire section of vine to prove her point.

“That's a convenient theory, until you put it to use. The average roats field is at least a league long. Nobody could weed that by hand.” Nelson shook his head in disgust. “I think the entire District is living in the ancient past. The only reason Mom and Dad are part of this Hills experiment is to be contrary to the rest of society.”

Beth stopped weeding to glance at him. “You think everybody here is anti-society?”

Nelson dryly commented, “Maybe technophobic is a better term.”

“But we use technology all the time.”

“You call this technology?” he asked, indicating the combination stick. “This is an ancient relic, Beth. AgriSource developed new sticks years ago, ones that are wider and get more done in less time. Just think how much faster you'd finish with a newer stick.”

“I'd get done faster if I was better at weeding,” Beth pointed out. “It has nothing to do with better technology. Now do we have to argue about it?”

“Look at it this way,” Nelson insisted as if she hadn't spoken. “If the agri-tech they use in the cities like San Taron and Eo is so bad, how do you explain the huge crop surplus we've had the last few growing cycles? For the first time since our glorified ancestors colonized Rasheda, we have more food than we know what to do with.”

“And the slaves have nothing to do with that surplus?” Beth asked sarcastically.

“The slaves maintain the bots and finish the fields. There's no way that people with only two hands can do the work of a well-maintained bot system.”

“Ha,” Beth shot at him. “Tell that to a charging gilby. Or to a field of roats dying of sun rot. No amount of technology has ever been able to tell the difference between a healthy plant and sun rot. All that technology and control doesn't work as great as you think.”

“But it has to be better than doing things by hand!” Nelson exclaimed. “Come on, Beth, you can't tell me you'd like to spend an entire day weeding a field of roats by hand. You wouldn't have any time for watching sunsets or moonrises then.”

“I'm not talking about weeding entire fields by hand, Nelson,” Beth said, exasperated. “That's what the weed regulators are for. I'm talking about too much reliance on technology for things that aren't technological at all, like growing healthy plants or raising happy gilbies.”

“Happy gilbies? Beth, they're animals,” Nelson explained with an exaggerated show of patience.

“It makes a difference if they're happy.”

“That's ridiculous. A gilby is just a--”

“Nelson, we don't have to argue about it.” Thoroughly aggravated now, Beth slapped a hand over his mouth.

Nelson yanked her hand back down. “But you're wrong,” he said with as amused smile. “You're just reciting the Hills District mantra that agri-tech is the work of evil doers out to ruin the planet.”

Beth recognized the reason for Nelson's smile. She hated to argue, and he knew it, but was baiting her into more arguing anyway just to irritate her. “That's not what I'm saying at all, and you know it. You just want to fight some more because you can't stand to agree to disagree.”

Laughing, he tossed a blue soren weed at her. “At least it's better than weeding the garden.”

A soft beep from a communicator stopped Beth from retorting one last time. “Yours?” she asked rhetorically. Nelson had been on call ever since he'd been informed of the Altair's visit. He'd been hailed so often that Beth was almost getting used to their interrupted discussions.

Nelson pulled his shiny new communicator from his shirt pocket before the second beep sounded. A gift from Alan, his XP 543 multipurpose, highly portable communicator was the best personal comm system in the entire District. Its highly shined gray casing glinted in the bright sunlight.

“No,” he said in surprise after a cursory glance at the unusually quiet displays. “Must be yours.”

The insistent beep continued.

Just as surprised, Beth fumbled through three pockets before finding her own comm device. A blinking indicator light was the only thing glinting in its dull, scratched surface. Flipping open the cover, she said, “This is Beth.”

The voice came through the device distorted and tinny. “You busy? The newbies are restless.” It was their dad.

Beth grinned. “Are you ready to move them?”

“Soon as you get here. I'm not doing it by myself,” Dad said cheerfully. “In fact I'm already...” Static ate through the rest of his words.

Beth shook the old communicator to help clear the static. “Dad? You there?” But it was useless. “Hale,” she said under her breath, invoking the name of Rasheda's first leader as she flipped the cover shut. “He must be in the barn already.”

“Better hurry; you don't want to miss anything.” Nelson's teasing tone indicated that he was glad to miss everything to do with the gilbies.

Beth wiggled the combination stick under Nelson's nose. “No more weeding. I'm off to help raise happy gilbies.”

“Lucky you,” he sarcastically said. “As for me, I'm going to check in with the security captain one more time. It never hurts to be prepared.” He lightly tossed his fancy communicator into the air, catching it with a saucy grin. “Don't let me keep you from the cows... er, happy gilbies."

“Nelson, shut up,” Beth commanded, equally as cheerful.

But Nelson was already jogging toward the gate, laughing, his hair flying past his collar in the breeze. “Later, farm girl,” he called over his shoulder.

Spurred by his attempted insult, Beth chased after him down the cleanly weeded row of kohl, waving her combination stick and yelling, “If I'm a farm girl, you're a farm boy!”

“Ha. I'm important!”

“No, you're just arrogant!” She ran faster, doing her best to avoid thrashing the plants.

Nelson wasn't as careful when he saw her gaining on him. He jumped across the kohl plants and landed in the corn, bending and breaking several stalks before sprinting off again. “Come on, Beth. What's wrong? The farm weighing you down?”

“You're fancy gadgets are weighing you down!” Beth hollered, abandoning her caution to run wildly through the garden, slapping aside the taller corn leaves, laughing and breathing hard. She burst forward and almost grabbed his shirt.

“Missed me,” Nelson taunted.

“You run like a baby!” she yelled back.

“You're old and slow!”

“You're ancient history!”

Nelson reached the fence and started climbing, calling more taunts over his shoulder. “You're slower than a dead gilby! You need an air car just to catch me!”

Beth threw herself at the fence and managed to poke him in the back with the combination stick just as he dropped to the other side.

“Gotcha!” Beth sat atop the gate, whooping, and thrust the stick into the air as Nelson dashed off across the main commons while Beth yelled after him, “Here's to the farm girl and old technology; I rule, and don't you forget it!”

CHAPTER TWO

Beth grinned as she hurried across the grass edging the garden fence. She didn't even mind the sweat that trickled from her forehead. She did, however, take a moment to wipe it away with the tail of her grungy work shirt before leaving the relative shelter of the trees bordering the garden. As she drew closer to the barns, the smell of dust told her she would soon be getting even dirtier than she already was.

A moment later she rounded the far edge of the garden and entered the livestock holding area. Beth smiled again in satisfaction as she looked across at the barns surrounding her on three sides. Dull colored though they might be, the efficient buildings housed the main cash crop for the family: a herd of Gilby Hills District cows. Those gilbies were kicking up enough dirt even now to blanket the entire farm three times over.

She preferred these three cooler stock barns almost as much as she liked crawling through Rasheda's ancient ruins scattered throughout the surrounding hills. Animals and history made more sense to her than most people. At the ruins she liked the deep quiet that was part of the ancient buildings and trinkets lying around. The barns housed a similar sensation, in addition to several hundred cows.

But as much as she liked the family's animals, the best part of moving gilbies were the conversations with her dad. Either were certainly better than arguing with Nelson.

A series of interconnected, self-contained pens sprawled in the arms of the semicircle formed by the barns. Only the pen nearest the delivery barn was in use, where a small herd of newly released young gilbies bucked and ran. Sunlight gleamed off their sleek, gray-black hides and furry horn ridges. Pink noses and tongues alternately lifted to the sun, testing the odors of the more unfamiliar outdoors. Tails swished and ears twitched. Deep bellows filled the air. Answering cries issued from the closest barn where the mothers had been left behind. Beth would have known just by the awful noise that weaning the baby gilbies had begun.

She found her dad just outside the first pen, leaning against the fence panels as he scrutinized the young animals milling back and forth. The customary tie held his long dark hair back from his tanned face, but the ends swayed in the breeze as he waved to her. She waved back, then broke into a slow jog.

“Hi, Dad,” she said when she was close enough for him to hear without having to raise her voice and scare the already nervous babies. She quickly joined him to stand near the fence of the pen.

“That's it, careful now,” her dad said softly, his gaze moving from her back to his stock. “No quick moves. Don't want to upset them more than they already are.”

Beth heaved a sigh as soft as his voice, but managed to make the noise sound irritated; she knew how to act around restless gilbies. “What's got them so skittish?”

“Someone was yelling from the commons just as I moved them out of the barn, and got them all riled up. Now we'll have to wait to move them on. They might rush the gate if we don't.”

With a guilty pang, Beth realized it was her yells from the garden that had riled the gilbies. “Oh, that was me, yelling at Nelson. Sorry about that. I didn't think you'd move the gilbies out before I got here to help, or I would have been more careful.” She rested her arm across the top fence rail. “This is the first time since I was six that I missed moving the gilbies out of the barn.”

“That long?” he asked in surprise before mischief glinted in his eyes. “Then what are you doing calling them gilbies, huh? You go calling them names like that, they're likely to forget what they really are - Rashedan cows, plain and simple.”

“Gilbies sounds prettier,” she insisted. “I'm trying to give them a sense of who they are, not what they are. They're young cows from the Gilby Hills District. That makes them special.” She reached through the fence to brush her fingers across the sun-warmed flank of one of the calmer animals. The gilbies would eventually grow to outweigh even the heaviest inhabitant of Rasheda, but now this halfling barely reached her waist. The large mass of bone that made up its neck hump would be covered with black fur when fully grown, but now it poked up only a few centimeters along its knobby spine. Beth rubbed at the hard little bump, and the animal paused, eyes wide and ears flinching, but seemed to enjoy her touch.

Her father shook his head and cautioned, “They're still cows. They are what they are, just like you are what you are. Calling them gilbies doesn't make them special.”

“No, it makes them better,” she argued playfully.

Her dad grinned. “I'll be sure to mention that when we sell them on the market next year.”

They watched the gilbies for a moment more. The young animals were getting used to their new environment. They settled into clusters of twos and threes to dance slowly around each other. Their tails flicked back and forth, the loose strands swinging in the breeze like her father's hair. Slowly their dancing ceased until they stopped to patiently stand in the hot sun.

Beth squinted up at her dad. “What do you think of this visit from the Altair?” she asked, still quiet while the animals settled. “Alan's been gone a long time.”

“It's been even longer since we've had a visit from any government official,” her dad commented. “It's about time someone remembered we're here.” He glanced at her sharply. “Is this visit from Alan Gessman what you were yelling at Nelson about?”

“No,” she answered, then had to admit, “Well, maybe. We were talking about Alan, but then Nelson started arguing about technology.”

“Oh, that again,” he said in understanding.

“He thinks everybody in the Hills District is technophobic just because we don't have the newest model of combination sticks.”

“What's wrong with the old ones?”

“That's what I asked. He seems to think that newer sticks would make us work faster.”

“What do you think?”

“I think I'm just bad at weeding.”

Her father chuckled. “Oh, Nelson likes all the new gadgets. He's like Evan that way; if it's shiny with a lot of buttons, it must be better.”

“But not having the newest and fastest model of every little gadget doesn't mean the Hills District is being contrary to the rest of society. We're not. We just have different ideas.”

“Nelson said we're contrary?” Her dad gave a grunt of amusement, making the closest newbie shift in surprise. In a more subdued voice, he went on, “That's Alan's influence on him. He's been showing Nelson all the latest inventions that supposedly make agriculture an easier, more lucrative business. Nelson can hardly help but want all the technology he sees when he visits Alan in San Taron City.”

“Do you think Nelson will move to San Taron someday?” Beth hadn't even considered this possibility until she had spoken the words. The thought saddened her.

“It's a good bet,” her father regretfully agreed. “He's old enough now, and excited by the city and what it can offer.”

Beth gave a sigh of regret. “It won't be the same here if he leaves.”

Her father's eyes settled on her. “What about you? Is the city what you want?”

Beth wrinkled her nose, instantly appalled. “Live in San Taron? With all those people? No!”

Chuckling, her dad pointed out, “In all fairness, it can't be that bad.”

More than two thirds of Rasheda's population lived in the cities that dotted the planet's only habitable continent. One third lived in San Taron. So many wouldn't choose to live there if it was as awful as she thought it was.

But at the same time, Beth couldn't imagine living there herself, surrounded by people and hover cars and buildings. She was getting claustrophobic just thinking about it.

One of the babies bleated then. Out of habit, Beth looked quickly over the herd. The cows flicked their fuzzy ears and blew snot from their noses. She gestured at the babies and grinned. “Yeh, that's what I think of the cities, too.”

Her father's laugh of delight rang out. “Beth, you've got Hills blood burned into you, that's for sure!”

Beth wasn't convinced she liked the idea of being labeled so finally, as if Hills District was branded across her forehead. But she couldn't deny her preference, no matter what Nelson, Alan, or any others thought. “Maybe Nelson would like the city; I don't know. Are things so different in San Taron? I haven't been there for three cycles. I guess I didn't pay much attention when I was there.”

“It's different enough,” her father said disapprovingly.

She didn't know if his obvious distaste was for city life in general or San Taron in particular, but his comment made her worry even more that Alan might be different after living in the city. “This is Alan's first visit home in two cycles,” she said, carefully digging for her dad's true opinion on the matter.

“Two cycles in San Taron is bound to affect anybody, even Alan, “ he cautioned. “I hope everybody remembers that.”

“You think he's changed?”

Her dad shrugged. “How could he not? He's probably had councilors and attendants fawning all over him ever since Katai Derl named him Altair. And someday he'll be the Katai. That's a lot of pressure on one person who's as young as Alan.”

“Dad, he's the same age as Nelson. That's old enough,” she protested.

He smiled. “Old to you, but I imagine he's plenty young to the older Assembly members. You can bet they've been trying to influence him ever since he arrived for training at the Institute.”

“Nelson says he's just learning boring things about farming.”

Her dad gave another knowing chuckle. “Oh, he's learning more than that, I guarantee it.”

“What do you mean?” It wasn't like her dad to be vague. “Are you talking about advances in agri-tech?”

“No,” he replied thoughtfully, finally adding, “I sometimes wonder if the councilors on the Assembly are more concerned with bargains and politics than with helping the Katai govern the planet.”

“What does bargaining for something have to do with being a councilor?” Beth asked, thinking of prices at the grain and gilby market.

Her father's laugh turned affectionate, though Beth's face flushed red in embarrassment anyway. “I think you need some more schooling in Rashedan politics, Beth. Your mom knows more about that than I do... she's the Formulation Council leader for a reason. As for Alan, I imagine he's ready to breathe real Hills country air again.”

The wind swirled a film of dust around them, and Beth sneezed. “I bet he can't wait!” she exclaimed, catching on to her dad's joke.

“And neither can these cows--”

“Gilbies,” she impishly corrected him.

He sighed. “Let's just move them out to the lower pasture, all right?”

“Whatever you say, Dad,” she couldn't resist teasing.

They both easily climbed the fence, then moved alongside, carefully skirting the newbies to avoid exciting them before they could open the gate into the next interconnected pen. The animals waited patiently in the hot sunshine.

“They're looking good,” he said while running a critical eye over his stock.

“Yeh, they're a good size,” she agreed, just as critical. “There's only one that's a little small.” She pointed to a gilby near the middle of the group.

“I'd rather have them small than artificially bulked up by those new muscle enhancers I heard about on the Network.”

Beth wrinkled her nose. “I heard that report, too. Do you think it's dangerous for the animals?”

“Probably not, but I can't say I want to eat technologically enhanced meat. They say you can taste the chemicals.”

“Yuck.”

He shook his head, making his hair swing against his sweat-stained shirt. “Cows raised by overly used technology and slave labor isn't as good, Beth, and don't you forget it. What we do here is better. Each family takes care of their own farm. We raise our own animals and grain, and grow food to feed ourselves; it's the point of the entire Hills community. We're self-sufficient, and we care about the end product, not just the profit margin. Now, the slaves they use on those big corporate farms don't care about their work, and I don't blame them. Nothing good is produced--”

“... when you're forced to produce it,” Beth finished with him, matching his inflection and tone perfectly.

Her dad's following grin cast a lighter note on the lecture. “I guess I've said this before.”

She grinned back. “A few times.”

“I suppose I don't need to remind you about conserving energy while I'm at it?” he asked playfully.

Beth dutifully recited, “We need to conserve energy now, while we have it to conserve, and concentrate on making the technology we've already developed more efficient. Just because something's bigger and faster doesn't mean it's better.”

“Right! Beth, you're a girl after my own heart.”

Beth basked in her dad's obvious pride, but said, “Just don't tell Nelson; he'd never let me hear the end of it.”

He promised with a nod. “I should be telling all this to Alan when he gets here, though Nelson won't like it.”

Beth laughed. “You should do it, anyway. Just warn me so I can be sure to get out of the way first.”

By the time her dad stopped chuckling, they had reached the other end of the pen. The gate was sealed against the next interconnecting corral.

“Open the gate, would you, Beth?” her father asked. “Let's move them on while they're nice and calm.”

Beth pushed the lock release switch, and the gate swung slowly open on silent magnetic hinges. She then moved to the other side of the gate from her father to stand with her feet spread wide and her arms out to make herself seem bigger to the newbies than she actually was. Her father did the same, and the two of them formed a human chute to encourage the young gilbies through the gate. Together they began herding the animals into a tight group that naturally pushed them into the next pen.

“Careful, now,” her father soothed the herd. “Move on out. Hup, hup! Keep it up; there you go, keep moving. Beth, watch that one.” He pointed.

Beth had already moved back and to the side to avoid a sudden charge from one of the newbies. It bucked and kicked its long spindly legs, sending up a cloud of dust. Beth gave it a light whack on its rump, and it shot through the gate. The fresh, velvety feel of its gray fur made her fingers tingle. Grinning, she called, “He'll be a playful one!”

“Playful!” The word sounded undesirable when he said it like that. “People are playful. Gilbies are food. I don't know about you, but I prefer not to eat playful food.”

Beth followed her father through the open gate, then sealed it behind her. They stood quietly again, watching the herd, waiting for the babies to settle in this second pen before sending them into the next holding area prior to a long run to the lower pasture on the outskirts of the farm proper.

Beth had done this procedure of moving the newbies so often that she could do it in her sleep if she had to. She propped one hand on her hip in an unintentional mirror of her father's posture, scanning intently. Her eyes traveled across the animals' backs, alert to their collective mood, searching for a sign that might indicate a problem with an individual baby even as part of her mind continued to play with thoughts of Alan and Nelson and technology. “Is Alan visiting the Hills District just to hear about our ideas, or is he supposed to do something else while he's here?”

“I don't know,” her dad admitted. “He might end up listening to a lot of complaining. Then again, he might not give anybody the chance. It's hard to say what will happen. People are already angry that he's coming instead of Katai Derl.”

“Was the Katai supposed to come?”

“Yeh, that's what I heard. Now at the last minute Alan's coming instead. Some feel that the officials in San Taron don't think we rate a visit from the Katai, and that's why Alan's coming.”

Beth moved back a step just as a large gilby pushed by too close to the fence rails. She watched him mingle again with the others before saying, “I'm glad the Katai's not coming. I'd rather see Alan. I wouldn't know what to say to the Katai.”

“Me neither,” her father readily agreed.

“Talking to the Altair is bad enough, even if it's someone I've known forever.” Again she wondered if Alan would even want to see the plain farm girl that she'd become now that he was an important political figure. Her stomach twisted nervously at the idea of being ignored, like she was still just some bug tagging after him and Nelson.

After all, she wasn't a kid anymore... was she? At fifteen cycles, where did she stand? Beth wasn't sure what she was, Nelson's little sister, or a person in her own right with her own ideas.

Maybe Alan wouldn't have time to talk to anybody except the Formulation Council, and then it wouldn't matter. Beth sighed, irritated with herself for caring so much.

She forced her attention back to watching the gilbies. They were quiet again, waiting for whatever would happen next. Beth decided she would have to do the same; wait to see what happened with the Altair's visit.

“Time to run them to the next pen?” she asked her dad, already knowing the answer.

“Yeh, let's do it.”

He released the lock mechanism this time, and the gate swung open into the third holding pen. Beth took her place on the opposite side of the herd, forming the chute, her arms extended to encourage the newbies to move. They grouped together in an orderly fashion, moving steadily through the gate, so calm they almost looked bored with this routine.

The last were pushing forward when Beth noticed a torn ear on one of the smaller animals, a sure sign that its tiny identification chip had somehow ripped out. Without that chip encoded with the Walker family identification number, they couldn't prove the animal belonged to them if it ever got lost in the open pastures of the Hills. “Hey, Dad,” she called. “This one lost its chip already.”

He glanced across the backs of the last few babies. “See if you can separate it from the rest. We'll keep it in the second pen and get a new ID chip from the barn.”

Beth nodded, but just as she moved forward to intercept the gilby, a shuttle suddenly burst over the crest of the Valley rim several sections away, sunlight sparking off its gleaming silver hull. A second later, a roar split the air as its engines reverberated against the Valley's upswept bluff. The noise chased the shuttle across the upper pastures, the lower pastures, and over the farms dotting the Valley floor until it passed directly over the now hysterical herd of gilbies. Beth saw a flash of maroon and green on the shuttle's underside as it streaked overhead, denoting the shuttle as an official vehicle of the Rashedan government. Then it was gone, heading in the direction of the community landing field. Two smaller shuttles followed the same path. They circled, then slowly sank into the trees surrounding the landing field.

The gilbies bawled in distress and rushed chaotically between the second and third pens, not knowing which direction to run. Dust choked the air. Beth instantly lost track of the gilby she meant to separate from the others. She had to scramble up the nearest fence just to avoid being trampled by sharp hooves.

As the echo of noise slowly faded, the gilbies milled among each other again, but their previous calm was gone. They snorted at the dust clinging to their noses, pawing nervously at the ground. Beth leaned against the fence rails, her eyes still trained on the spot where the shuttles had disappeared, willing her heart to stop thumping in her chest.

“Well,” her dad drawled, throwing a cynical glance in the direction of the communal landing field. “I think it's safe to say that the Altair has arrived.”

CHAPTER THREE

“Yeh, guess he has,” Beth dryly agreed. She wondered if the Altair's arrivals were always so dramatic. The treetops went on swaying back and forth in the wake of the three shuttles, as if a huge storm had just passed. Beth's heart still pounded in a storm of its own.

Her dad's expression was full of disgust. “Alan should know better than to fly so fast and low over confined animals.” His irritation was palpable. “Let's wait for these cows--

“Gilbies.”

Dad rolled his eyes in reluctant concession. “Let's wait for these gilbies to calm down a bit more before sending them through the next gate.”

Beth turned her gaze from the landing site back to the herd, spotting the baby with the torn ear. “There's the one that lost its chip.”

“Keep your eye on him. We'll cut him out in the next pen.”

When the gilbies calmed as much as they were going to, she and her dad nudged them into the third corral without further trouble, then Beth cut the baby with the torn ear from the herd again. With her arms outstretched, she danced back and forth, dodging in front of the baby each time it tried to dart around her to rejoin the others, finally pushing it to one side of the pen.

“I've got this one, Dad,” she called on a rasping breath as sweat trickled into her eyes. She continued to stare hard at the gilby, holding it separate with her body and strength of her glare.

Her dad opened the final gate into the long, narrow chute that led to the lower pasture. The gilbies headed that way in one big mob, and the tagless gilby fought to join them, bellowing the whole time. Beth jumped in front of him, then headed him off when he attempted to leap around her. The baby bleated again in frustration, moving first one way, then the other, Beth thwarting each move.

“Hup, hup,” said her dad as he patiently urged the rest of the herd through the gate. The animals had to move slowly to keep from stepping on each other in the much narrower run to the pasture. “Beth, have you still got that one?”

“Yeh,” she grunted. The baby was getting more agitated, and it took all her attention just to keep him from making a run at the gate. Insects whined in her ear, attracted to her sweat, but she didn't dare swat them away. They stayed just out of sight, annoying challenges to her concentration.

The whine grew louder. Half the herd was through the gate and jogging toward the end of the run when Beth realized that she wasn't hearing insects after all, but the sound of an air bike rapidly approaching. Whoever owned the bike had obviously clipped off its silencer; the whine became a grind, then a roar as the rider pushed the engine into overload. She heard someone holler, “Hey Dad, guess what?” over the bike's engine just as the still nervous gilbies exploded into a frenzied dash for the gate.

It was too much for the baby she had penned to the side. It bawled in fear a split second before running straight at Beth. Off balance, she barely got out of its way fast enough, falling to the side to land on her shoulder in the dirt next to the gate control panel. Two of the baby's sharp hooves just missed her head as it jumped over her and tore through the gate with the other newbies, running headlong for the open pasture.

“The far gate!” yelled her dad.

Beth lunged at the controls to shut the gate at the other end of the run, but the gilbies were already in the sheltering trees of the lower pasture before she could activate the switch, leaving behind nothing but a swirling cloud of dust.

Her dad furiously whirled toward the now hovering air bike and its rider. “Evan Walker, I told you to fix that silencer three days ago!”

“Sorry, Dad, but I had to tell you Alan's here.”

“For Hale's sake, we know Alan's here.”

Evan looked bewildered. “How do..?”

“He flew right over us.” Beth rubbed her shoulder as she interrupted her younger brother.

“He did?”

“Nobody missed seeing Alan's shuttle,” their father said, “not the way he was showing off. Then you come along on that infernal bike of yours, and scare the gilbies half to death. Now it'll be a whole rainy season before we even see those newbies again, thanks to you.”

Evan's sunburned face turned a shade brighter. “Oh. I didn't mean to--”

“You never 'mean to,'” their father pointed out. “Fix that bike, or you won't be riding it for two rainy seasons.”

“Okay, okay.” Evan flipped several buttons on the bike's control panel, then turned in midair and flew back towards the house and its maintenance bay. The bike was much quieter this time.

Their father gave his head a mournful shake. “That boy.”

Beth was too busy cleaning dirt out of her teeth to respond.

An hour later, Beth stood just inside the door to the cluttered storage area off the kitchen. The combination stick she'd retrieved from the garden dangled forgotten from her dirty hand. All thoughts of gilbies and farm and dust left her mind as the wonderfully spicy aroma of hot food drifted through the cooler air of the house. All her attention had been transfixed by moving the gilbies and cleaning the pens, but now there seemed to be nothing in the world besides food.

Beth placed the combination stick in the corner near the other tools, then quickly ran her hands through the sanitizer. But she was too busy sniffing, her stomach too busy growling, for her to really pay attention to what she was doing.

“Hey, Beth?” Evan tentatively asked, peeking through the arched entryway leading to the kitchen.

Beth ignored him, concentrating instead on cleaning her hands more thoroughly. There was still dirt under her fingernails. Even she didn't want to eat with dirty hands.

Evan tried again. “Is Dad really mad at me?”

“Yeh,” she replied, hoping that would make him go away.

“I mean really, really mad?” Evan asked.

Beth studied the worried expression that was framed by his short, sun-bleached hair sticking straight up from his head. The pink of sunburn showed on his scalp.

Beth sighed, wanting to eat, but feeling the nagging sensation of sympathy for her younger brother. “Well, you were pretty stupid. You know the gilbies get all panicked at loud noises, especially engines. That's why Dad bought the silencer in the first place.”

“But it's not my fault,” Evan protested.

“Did you take the silencer off?”

He hesitated. “Yeh. Logan said it never scares their cows.”

“What Logan Shepard's cows do is not what ours do. And just because Logan runs around like an idiot on a modified air bike doesn't mean you have to.”

“Logan's not an idiot! He's my friend.”

“You're both idiots if you go around scaring gilbies just to make noise.”

“The gilbies,” Evan scoffed. “That's all you care about, Beth.”

Relentless, Beth again demanded, “Whose fault is it that the bike is missing its silencer?”

“I took it off, but I didn't mean to scare the cows.”

Beth sighed again. “Did you put the silencer back on the bike?”

“Yeh,” Evan grumbled.

“So leave it on, and just maybe you won't have to do any extra chores.”

“Ha!” Evan grunted. “I'm already cooking puffs for Alan's party. And then Tessy wants me to recycle the laundry. That's her job!”

Beth ignored his remark about the laundry. “Can I have one? I'm starving.” She took the three steps leading into the kitchen all in one leap, pushing past Evan. After a quick look, she spied the sweet, round puffs cooling on the built-in counter racks. Hot breta oil sizzled as it dripped into the recycle troughs under the racks. A vat of oil and juice sat steaming on the counter top next to a bowl filled with a mass of dough. The aromas making her mouth water, Beth surged forward.

Evan backed up, his arms spread out to keep Beth away, as if she was a wayward gilby. “No way! If I can't ride my bike, you can't have a puff until the party.”

“Evan, that doesn't make any sense.”

“Eat lunch instead. Tessy's making it.”

That stopped Beth's progress. The buzz of the heat unit cooking through a cycle abruptly interrupted her concentration on the puffs. “Tessy's cooking? You're kidding.” Suddenly she wasn't nearly as hungry.

A voice floated into the kitchen from the access corridor. “I heard that.” Tessy appeared then, wearing a grungy gray work shirt and trousers that came half way up to her knees. At seventeen, Tessy was uncommonly pretty, even in work clothes covered with dabs of cooking oil and bits of food.

“What are you wearing?” Beth asked in amazement, then in recognition. “Hey, that's my shirt!”

“I couldn't cook in my clothes; they might get dirty,” Tessy explained. “Where have you been? I was waiting--” She suddenly sniffed, and her face collapsed into a practiced sneer. “What's that smell?”

Evan giggled. “It's Beth. She's turning into a gilby.”

“Ugh!” Tessy covered her nose. “I thought you were weeding the gardens out front. What were you doing in the barns?”

“I was weeding the garden,” Beth corrected. “Then I helped Dad move the newbies.”

“The garden? You were supposed to be weeding the front flower beds, Beth.”

“Mom's chore schedule says for me to weed the garden,” Beth insisted just as she caught sight of the food spread out on the counter behind her. Tessy really had been cooking; it looked like there was enough food for a dozen lunches. Beth noticed a bowl full of dark meat covered in a bright red sauce. “You made hasunta, didn't you?” She started toward this new enticement.

Tessy stubbornly blocked her path. “You were supposed to weed the beds out front, Beth.”

“No I wasn't.”

“Yes you were. Look.” Tessy pushed Beth to the link console in the far wall. A few jabs of her finger brought up the chore schedule, where Beth's name was clearly highlighted next to “weed flower garden.”

Beth squinted at the words. “Oh,” she said flatly. “I wondered why Mom thought I could weed the whole garden by myself.”

“Forget the garden,” Tessy commanded. “The flower beds out front will look awful now with all those weeds! I wanted everything to look nice for Alan's party.”

Beth gaped at her older sister in surprise. “The party's here?”

“Of course it is. What other house is big enough?”

“But I thought it was at the Central Building.”

Tessy wrinkled her nose, as if Central smelled as bad as Beth. “We changed the plan this morning.”

“Does Nelson know?”

“Of course Nelson knows,” Tessy explained impatiently. “Moving the party to a more comfortable home was Alan's idea, so Nelson suggested we have it here. It would have been nice if you had managed to weed the flowers like you were supposed to.”

Tessy was working up to one of her famous temper flares. Beth hated fighting even more than she hated arguing. “It's not so bad,” she soothed. “I'm sure nobody will notice a few weeds in the flower beds out front.” Especially not Alan. She didn't understand why Tessy would even care about the flower beds.

“You sure wouldn't notice,” Tessy said disdainfully. “All you care about are the gilbies.”

“That's what I said,” Evan piped up. “See, even Tessy thinks so.”

Beth clenched her teeth, growing tired of the character assault. Instead of making a smart remark about Tessy's stupid flowers, she calmly asked, “When does the party start?”

“When Alan gets here,” Evan stated, as if that was obvious.

Beth took a deep, calming breath. “When is that?”

“In a few minutes. Mom's already back from the Formulation Council's meeting with Alan.” Tessy eyed Beth's clothes. “He's practically a celebrity, and I suppose you won't even bother to change clothes to greet him.”

Beth glanced down at her dirty, sweat streaked shirt, then slyly asked, “What's wrong with what I'm wearing?” The unappealing smell of manure, dirt, and sweat overtook the aroma of food.

Tessy gasped. “You're not serious!”

Beth laughed. “I'll change... after lunch.” She headed toward the counter.

With a firm hand on Beth's arm, Tessy steered her toward the corridor leading to their sleeping rooms. “Lunch is for the party. Change now.”

Evan stopped them. “Get me some roats first, will you, Beth? I need to make more puffs, and it won't matter if you get even dirtier carrying those dusty old storage canisters into the kitchen.”

Beth could hardly argue with that. But she could bargain. “A puff first.”

Evan was just as quick to bargain. “Talk to Dad about the silencer.”

“Get your own roats,” she said, and started to leave the kitchen.

“All right.” Evan reluctantly passed a puff still steaming with hot oil into her waiting hands.

Grinning, Beth popped the delicate, hollow dessert into her mouth. She let it sit on her tongue to cool before chewing. The juice and oil trickled deliciously down her throat, and she swallowed with an appreciative sigh. “You might be dumb about air bikes, Evan, but you sure make good puffs.” She leapt back down the steps into the storage room in search of Evan's roats.

The last container of roats from the previous harvest was sandwiched between old work boots and a bag of potatoes on the highest shelf. Beth climbed the ancient ladder and pulled down the dust covered, sealed container of grain.

But before she could return to the kitchen, she heard Evan protesting loudly, “That's Tessy's job, Mom!” He sounded peeved, as if Tessy had finally convinced their mom to give the unsavory job of recycling their dad's work clothes to someone less finicky about getting his hands dirty. Nobody liked recycling the laundry.

Their mother's voice, schooled to a soothing, coolly logical tone, drifted through the arch. “Tessy's busy, and it needs to be done now.”

Evan replied again, sounding even more indignant. “Why me? Make Beth do it. I cooked the puffs.” Then with an accompanied stomp of his foot, Evan whined, “I'm not a slave, you know. It's like I am, but I'm not.”

“Sure Evan,” Tessy said then. “And how many slaves get to ride around on air bikes, goofing off with their friends all day long?”

“I don't goof off,” Evan growled.

“Evan,” came the warning from their mom. “Go.”

Before Beth could get out of the way, Evan plowed through the kitchen archway, scowling. “I have to recycle laundry because Tessy's cooking,” he scornfully complained to Beth. “But at least your clothes won't be in until next time. Tessy can deal with them.” Then he disappeared through the service room arch to the right of the outside door. She heard him clatter down the stone steps, and a minute later bang the hatch to the recycling unit, making angry, unintelligible comments the entire time.

Their mother stood alone in the kitchen archway, one hand on her hip, her thick brown braid hanging casually over her shoulder. “Think we can trust him not to ruin our clothes? And speaking of clothes, where have you been? You look like you fell in the gilby lot and rolled around in the mud.”

Beth smiled. “I helped Dad wean the newbies and move them out to first pasture.”

Her mom looked annoyed. “That's what I thought you two were doing. He could have let that go until tomorrow. Why did he have to do it today of all days, just when he knew that everybody in the Valley will be descending on us?” She sighed, half angry, half irritated. “I think he does these things on purpose, just to make himself feel important.”

“He can't help that it was time to wean the babies,” Beth said in defense of her dad. Gilbies didn't coordinate their inner clocks to the convenience of what was happening on the rest of the farm. “That's just the way animals are.”

Her mom remained unconvinced. “Maybe. Or maybe you two were just out having fun.”

Beth thought about that, and finally grinned. “Yeh, it was fun.” Dirt still crunched in her teeth. “More fun than weeding the garden. I hate weeding.”

“I thought you liked to be outside, playing in the dirt.” Mom looked in amusement at Beth's filthy clothes.

Beth ignored the look. “I do. I just don't like to pull weeds.” Her mother waited for her to continue, and she finally admitted, “I feel like I'm killing them, Mom! All those weeds... it's not their fault they're weeds. I don't see why we have to pull all of them, just to have to pull them again in a few days.”

“Maybe you need to look at it from a different perspective,” her mom suggested. “Don't look at it as killing the weeds. Look on it as convincing them to grow someplace else.”

She was supposed to convince weeds to grow where she wanted them to grow? Wasn't that like asking Tessy to reinitialize the irrigation system when she'd rather just use the sanitizer? “How am I supposed to do that?”

“You'll figure that out when you need to.” Her mother smiled enigmatically before turning back to the kitchen.

“That's not an answer,” Beth persisted. It was avoiding an answer. It was irritating and annoying, like most of Mom's replies. She wasn't like Dad at all; he always said exactly what he thought. “I wish you wouldn't do that,” Beth grumbled again and followed her mom through the arch, then changed the subject. “How was the Formulation Council meeting with Alan?” She dropped the canister of roats on the floor next to the counter covered in Evan's puffs, then wiped the dirt off with her shirt tail.

Her mom's brow rose as she considered the question. “It went well enough, but a lot of people are mad that Alan came instead of Katai Derl.”

“That's what Dad said. But what difference does it make who comes, just as long as someone comes?”

Tessy replied before their mom could answer, “Because Alan's only the Altair.”

“So?”

“He's second best,” Tessy explained impatiently, as if Beth was slow not to have already figured that out. “It's an insult to send the Altair when Katai Derl was supposed to come in the first place.”

“It's not an insult at all,” their mother said firmly. “Beth's right; it only matters that a government representative is talking to us, not what position that representative holds.”

“But Mom,” Tessy protested, “Katai Derl was supposed to visit the Hills District, then talk to the Revaadan at Reva Peninsula to hear any grievances. That was the plan for rotations, but then they changed it at the last minute. Everybody's suspicious now.”

Beth asked, “How do you know that?”

“I heard about it on the Network,” Tessy said nonchalantly, and sent a smug look at Beth while she pulled the last of the galaise sauce out of the heating unit.

Since when did Tessy listen to the Network? She'd never cared about Rasheda's current events before.

Tessy continued, “Alan's been on the Network a lot lately. He gave a speech to the Assembly right before coming here.”

That explained it. Beth grinned. “You like Alan!”

Tessy's face reddened. “I do not.”

“You mean you don't like him?” Beth innocently asked.

The flush on Tessy's face grew a shade darker. “I want to sound intelligent when I talk to him, not like some farm kid.” She critically eyed Beth's clothes. “Are you going to change or not? You still stink.”

“Alan's a farm kid,” Beth argued. “He won't mind if I stink.”

Their mom laughed at Beth's comment. “Alan's a lot more than just a farm kid now,” she said, but didn't elaborate. “Why don't you change your clothes, Beth. Since I'm ready, I'll help Tessy finish lunch.”

Beth wanted to ask her mom for more news about Alan, but she had already reached for a bowl of potatoes. Resigned, Beth started for the corridor again, but the sound of feet pounding on the service stairs stopped her. Evan burst into the kitchen.

Tessy dropped her stirring spoon, smearing galaise all over the floor. “Is he here?”

Evan stopped, confused. “Who?”

“Alan!”

“Oh, no, but Logan is. I want to show him my new tech game.”

“Did you finish the laundry?” asked their mom.

“Yeh, yeh, I recycled everything,” Evan said before moving past Beth to the corridor.

“Everything?” Tessy gasped. “Not my falocia tunic. If you tossed that in with Dad's work clothes, it'll be ruined. Evan!”

He giggled and slipped into the corridor.

“Mom!” Tessy wailed as he left.

“Don't worry, Tess. He's bluffing,” Mom reassured.

Beth wasn't so certain. “I don't know. Once he--”

Pounding footsteps interrupted her again, this time coming from the storage room where she assumed Evan had left Logan waiting. “Logan Shepard,” she called playfully to Evan's best friend, “you make noise like a charging gilby.”

But it wasn't Logan who marched up the steps and through the arch. A group of strangers crowded into the kitchen, all dressed in uniforms and carrying weapons. Nelson came next, followed by three young people who stood clumped together in the archway. They wore expensive civilian clothing, making Nelson look out of place even in his best tunic and vest.

“Beth!” one of the three exclaimed in sudden delight. “You haven't changed a bit.” He swooped forward to hug her, dirty clothes and all.

Astonished, Beth could only think to wrap her dirty arms around her friend in a return gesture, then weakly murmur, “Hello, Alan.”

CHAPTER FOUR

Beth didn't know what she had expected from the Altair, but suddenly showing up like this wasn't it.

Even more unexpected was the explosion of movement from near the archway. One of the other civilian members of Alan's party suddenly stood beside her, pointing a gun directly at her head.

“Step back slowly,” the person ordered.

The minute a weapon appeared, Tessy screeched and bolted for the access corridor that led to the rest of the house, running straight into Evan as he materialized from the corridor with his hand held tech game. They collided, flying into the air, game cartridge included.

“Ouch!” yelled Tessy.

Evan grunted as he landed on the kitchen's tiled floor beside Tessy.

“Hey!” said Nelson, starting towards Beth and Alan just as Evan's game crashed next to his feet.

Alan's three uniformed security guards pulled their weapons from hip holsters in a synchronized movement. One snapped to face Nelson, one trained her gun on Tessy, and the third placed a booted foot right on Evan's chest.

Everyone froze, even the notoriously squirming Evan.

Freeing himself from Beth's suddenly terrified strangle hold, Alan spoke. “No, it's all right. Everybody, stop!”

In answer to the natural authority projected in that voice, the security guards slowly relaxed their defensive postures while Tessy gurgled unintelligibly from her position on the floor.

Beth didn't dare glance in her sister's direction. In spite of Alan's assurances, the first gun to be drawn was still pointed straight at her head. She couldn't have moved if she wanted to.

“Rae, back off,” Alan said to what was clearly his personal guard. “This is Beth. She's not a threat.”

The guard refused to relax as her gun inched close enough to ruffle Beth's hair. “It's my job to decide who's a threat. Now step back,” came the repeated order, calm but undeniably threatening.

“Oh!” Alan muttered, sounding angry and amused at the same time, and batted the gun away. “Rae, cool up. You see danger everywhere.”

The guard Rae's face was hard and blank as a stone wall, but after a second, she grudgingly withdrew, throwing one last scrutinizing look at Beth.

Beth breathed out in a hiss. Her heart pounded in her chest, making it hard to draw a second breath. She felt lightheaded.

“Beth,” Alan said as if nothing abnormal had happened, “this is Contesta Rany Lor, my personal bodyguard. You can call her Rae.”

Rae's mouth pinched even tighter at Alan's informal greeting, but only stood taller than before, saying nothing.

Beth fancied that Rae's spiky red hair stood up even straighter when Alan introduced her. “H... hello,” she managed to say around the lump lodged in her throat.

Alan turned to the other guards. “And these are my security force: Ter Varga, Ter Portura, and Sena Lorron.” He pointed to each guard, then to the archway where the other person dressed in civilian clothes still stood. “This is my political adviser, Caulleen Kellum.”

Caulleen Kellum was the opposite of the guards, appearing almost delicate to the rock that was Rae. Wide gray eyes lent her face a sense of innocence, though they burned with inquisitive intelligence. “It's pleasant to meet you.” Her smile and gentle greeting further enhanced the air of sophistication that exuded from her. Where Rae was all prickly edges, this girl was clearly refined.

In a quick, almost dismissive gesture, Alan turned his back on his aids to address Beth's mom. “Please excuse our rude entrance, Councilor Walker. My guards are fresh from a rigorous training exercise, and still a little jumpy.”

To Beth's surprise, her mom laughed. “I'm no councilor, Alan, and you know it. Just call me Wryn.” But she seemed pleased with Alan's formality.

“As you wish. And Tessy,” Alan continued, his voice dripping with good manners, “you've never looked better, though I think that shirt doesn't do you justice. Let me help you up.” He held out a hand to Tessy, simultaneously sending her a charming smile.

Let me help you up? The uncharacteristically well-mannered statement resounded in Beth's head. She would have been stunned by surprise if she wasn't numb from shock already. When had Alan become so... nice? And polite? He'd never used phrases like “do you justice” when he lived in the Valley. And didn't he care that she'd just had a gun shoved in her face? Or was he used to that kind of behavior now, too? Beth stood gaping in silent amazement.

Recovering quickly, Tessy giggled and let Alan help her to her feet. She said something silly about cooking and clothes, while Evan was suddenly far too interested in the model gun the three guards carried to be concerned with having one pointed at him only a moment before.

“Is that a Corl 47?” he asked in awe of one guard, and scrambled to his feet. “Those things can vaporize a house with one blast.”

Alan laughed and exchanged a knowing look with his guards, who grinned. “Not quite a house, but they are impressive, aren't they?”

One of the guards pulled the gun from his holster again. “Want a look?” He offered the weapon to Evan.

“Varga, check the food,” Alan's personal guard barked before Evan had the chance to take his weapon. “Lorron, Portura, secure the building.”

Alan sighed dramatically before the guards had the chance to respond. “You don't need to check the food, Rae. And I'm sure the house is quite secure. You can put your gun away; these are my friends.”

The guards remained where they were, uncertain whose orders to follow, Rany Lor's or Alan's.

Nelson broke the awkwardness that had settled over the room when he admonished, “Alan, stop being a politician. You don't have to impress anybody here. After all, Beth's still covered in manure.”

Everybody turned to look at Beth, who was overwhelmingly aware of the odor emanating from her clothes. Only Rae didn't wrinkle her nose at the smell.

Beth mumbled, “I was just on my way to change when...” She sent a halfhearted gesture towards Rae.

But it was her mom who chose that propitious moment to redirect everybody's attention back to the food. “Why don't you all eat before we go into the common room for the party? With all the questions and arguments that are bound to happen, you might not get another chance.” When nobody moved, she repeated, “Come on, everybody, check the food while there's still food to check.” She popped a sliced rogero stick into her mouth as encouragement.

They slowly started forward, then began eating with enthusiasm. Alan's adviser... what was her name?... left her station near the archway to join the guards and talk pleasantly with Beth's mom. Only the guard, Varga, stayed back to show Evan his gun. And of course Rae stood by, impassively silent, her gun holstered again as ordered, but her eyes darting everywhere, watching everybody at once.

Alan returned to Beth's side before she could slip to her bedroom to change, two of Evan's puffs in hand. “Beth, it is good to see you. I have somebody to tease now that you're here.” He playfully pulled her braid.

Taken off guard again, Beth could only stare. Alan looked the same as he ever had, while at the same time he looked different. He was definitely older; his dark hair was shorter and more stylishly cut, and his clothes must have come straight from one of those swanky city shops that Tessy liked to talk about. But his smile was the same, and he gave her braid another energetic tug. The greeting was as traditional as the braid. She felt more comfortable immediately, though couldn't quite dispel a sudden awkwardness at talking to the Altair, no matter who he was.

“It's good to see you too, Alan. But I'm too old to have my hair pulled.... unless I pull back.” And she reached up to give an answering tug to his own short hair.

He ruffled his hair back into place. “Short, isn't it? It's how everybody wears it in San Taron.” He looked apologetic, but sounded pleased.

Since when did Alan care about hair?

He went on, “Not you, though. Still wearing the braid.”

“It's tradition,” she reminded him.

“It looks good on you.” He stepped back to look at her. “You've grown!”

“So have you,” she said, embarrassed all over again. To her dismay, she giggled like Tessy. This was horrible. She had to escape before she did anything else stupid. “I need to change,” she said hastily. But instead of running for the corridor, she involuntarily glanced at the guard, Rae, as if she needed permission to leave her own kitchen.

Rae stared back without blinking.

“Sure,” Alan said, as if it was his permission she needed. “But hurry back, or all the puffs will be gone.” He grinned, the same old Alan once again.

Beth gratefully moved through the arch and into the silence of the narrow passageway that led to the rest of the house. The cool white walls closed in around her.

Even with her respite in the kitchen, the coolness was a relief after spending the entire morning in the hot sunshine. Solar windows placed at even intervals along the corridor's ceiling let in plenty of light, but channeled most of the heat into special cells designed to convert the heat into energy to run the house. Even the humidity in the air was converted to useful energy. Beth had always marveled at the ingenious way her parents' had built their house to convert everything into energy.

She now turned into another corridor, this one longer than the first, then crossed the center of the house and into the family's sleeping quarters. Her room was the third on the left, at the end of the passage. She punched in her code on the security panel, then hit the release button. The door slid aside with a squeak. She made a face at the sound. She would have to repair the door soon, or the noise would tell everybody else sleeping nearby exactly when she came in from any nightly wanderings. She didn't want them to know what she did all the time. She'd already had to change her security code twice in the last rotation to keep Evan out of her room.

Beth quickly pulled off her dirty clothes, managing to get them into the laundry chute without spreading much of the dirt onto the floor or her bed. Then she spent two luxurious minutes standing in the shower under a stream of hot water, letting it pound the dust out of her hair and off her skin. She was red all over when the water shut off and the blue pulse of the sanitizer kicked in. She would have preferred a water-based shower, but she didn't want to waste the water. The sanitizer worked more efficiently, but it wasn't nearly as relaxing.

Two minutes later, she was dry and clean and standing before her tiny closet, trying to decide what to wear. Since Evan hadn't finished recycling all the dirty clothes, her choices were limited. She pulled out a pair of dark blue trousers almost identical to the tan ones she'd worn while working the garden, though the color would have been too hot in such strong sunlight. Now she considered them critically.

Tessy was right when she'd said that Alan was a celebrity. He was the first from the Hills to do anything as important as become the Altair. She supposed she should dress nicely for his visit. The trousers she held were clean, but they weren't exactly nice, not the way Tessy wanted clothes to be nice. Beth didn't have many nice clothes, and even fewer nice clothes that fit. Alan was right when he'd said she had grown in the last two cycles. She glanced through her closet. Nothing that fit was clean. This didn't look promising.

She'd never paid much attention to clothes in the past, but she could already hear Tessy's scornful voice commenting on the blue trousers. She supposed she could wear her old jumpsuit, but it pulled in all the wrong places.

It was clear that she needed to talk to her parents about buying some new clothes. But that didn't help her now. She glanced at the jumpsuit, then at the trousers. What choice did she have?

Beth opted for comfort over looks. Alan was used to seeing her in these kinds of clothes. He didn't expect her to be any different, anyway. At least, the old Alan wouldn't. She wasn't so sure about this new Alan, who cared about his hair and being polite to Tessy. He used to laugh at how prissy Tessy could be, and now he was flirting with her.

Beth paused, her trousers half on and half off. Maybe Nelson was wrong; maybe Alan had changed. In fact, it was clear that Alan had changed. But changed into what?

The whole thing confused Beth. She didn't like not knowing what to expect.

There was nothing she could do about it. Determined to ignore her confusion and enjoy Alan's party, she pulled the trousers on. No matter what Alan expected her to be, Beth knew that she wasn't any different, and she always preferred to be comfortable. Everybody who knew her knew that.

Still, she found herself silently rehearsing her defense at Tessy's certain rebuke. As a concession to Tessy, she chose a light cream tunic to wear with her trousers. It wasn't new, either, but it was newer, and had a fancy scrolled design threaded across the material. The scroll always itched, and she didn't like the shirt, but if she wore it draped over the trousers, the shiny worn spot on the seat wouldn't show so much. She belted the shirt around her waist, then looked at herself in her mirror.

It wasn't a great outfit, but it would work. She quickly braided her hair. That was better, she decided, closer to what she was used to seeing in her mirror. Her stomach growled, reminding her that her appearance wasn't nearly as important as eating some lunch. She hoped Alan had left her some puffs.

While on her way back to the kitchen, voices coming from the common room distracted her. She peaked through the wide arched entryway into the family's living area, and was surprised to see that the party had already started.

So much for lunch.

CHAPTER FIVE

Her glance into the room was all Beth needed to locate Alan; he was the one surrounded by a jostling group of people trying to gain his instant attention. Alan took it all in stride, politely fending off the most persistent of his admirers while misdirecting the most obnoxious complainers. Instead of dealing immediately with their problems, however, he concentrated on introducing himself and those around him, keeping the focus on his staff, singling out no one in particular. Beth marveled at the smoothness of his actions, expecting more of the brashness from the Alan of the past. Instead, he now behaved in a polished manner that was friendly but detached. It was, in fact, almost purposeful, like he was playing a game that included everyone equally, but ultimately dealt with nothing.

Rae stood aloof from everybody, a coldly calculating expression on her thin face. She nodded her head at Alan's introduction, but didn't relax. Instead she watched them all out of dark eyes, as if expecting to find something very unpleasant.

The adviser Caulleen seemed much softer and more approachable by comparison. The light of the setting sun made her skin glow a beautiful golden brown, but it was her smile that immediately set everyone at ease. The gesture was far more genuine than the previous nod from Rae.

“I'd like to take this time to thank Councilor Walker and her family for hosting this party,” Alan now suavely said. “Nelson Walker may be my Hills District adviser, but I certainly didn't expect such a pleasant reception from his extended family. Thank you.” His further nod was equally as noncommittal. “Beth, Evan, Ter Walker, Tessy.”

Beth grinned to hear her dad addressed so formally, but was jarringly torn from what Alan was saying when Tessy insisted, “Tessy is short for Tessamin.” She smiled even as she interrupted Alan's polite gratitude, though her smile was just a bit too sparkly to be as genuine as Caulleen's. Tessy's gesture was meant to charm, Beth supposed, but to her it looked fake and just as purposeful as the expression on Rae's face, though it conveyed that she wanted something that had nothing to do with security.

But Beth was clearly the only person in the room who interpreted Tessy's gesture as anything other than the friendly overture it seemed. The group calmed under Alan's expert civility, and Tessy was quickly swallowed up by the crowd as they moved away.

Beth watched them go, glad to be overlooked by such a calculating group of people. She'd never thought before of Alan's political clout, but it was clear that others had. It didn't bother her to be left behind by a group so intent on fawning over the Altair.

Beth turned back to the food table, preparing to steal another of Evan's puffs before they all disappeared, but was surprised when her eye caught Caulleen sauntering in her general direction. Alan's chief adviser stopped right beside Beth, crossing her arms in a show of nonchalant relaxation, all the while grinning rather knowingly. A flick of her wrist told Beth that she referred to Tessy when she quietly asked, “Is she always like that?”

For a moment, Beth was confused at Caulleen's question. “Like what?”

Caulleen clarified, “Friendly, vivacious, pretty, pouring on the charm, but so blunt that it's obvious she wants something.”

For just a second, Beth gaped at her. No one except Beth had ever expected Tessy to be anything other than the pretty, friendly girl that she appeared to be. “You saw that, too?”

Caulleen popped a small rolled spice cake into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully. “Tessy hits me as friendly, but more dangerous than even she realizes.”

Beth's amazement increased. “How do you know?”

“It's my job to know,” Caulleen casually announced, as if they were discussing the weather. “What is it that you suppose she wants?”

Beth couldn't keep her snort of derision to herself, as if Tessy's wishes and desires were obvious. “Tessy wants Alan to take her back to the city with him.”

Caulleen hissed a breath. “What? Now?”

Beth laughed. “Not now necessarily, but she would like nothing better than to live in a city like San Taron.”

The adviser slowly nodded in eventual understanding. “Tessy hits me as someone from the city. She's not like you.”

That comment made Beth break into a disbelieving grin. “What do you know about me?”

Her gaze trained on Beth as the group around moved away. “You're Beth, Nelson's sister. Alan talks about Nelson and his family all the time.”

Beth wasn't prepared for this kind of news. “He does?” Her incredulous voice illustrated her amazement as her gaze also trained on Alan. “I didn't know that.” She was astonished that the Altair bothered to think about any of them at all, especially her. “Sure, we used to hang out together when he and Nelson were in school, but that was a long time ago.”

Beth was suddenly avidly curious about how Alan had spent his time in San Taron. She wanted to ask him about what he did every day as the Altair, and if he liked living in San Taron, and if he really was learning boring things about agriculture. But she saw that he was deeply involved in a conversation with his parents, her parents, Ralston Rusher, Korf Martin, and Nelson, and didn't want to interrupt with something so unimportant. Conversely, she overheard the words 'Katai' and 'Rashedan Assembly' and knew they were talking about politics, which wasn't a subject she wanted to discuss. If only they were talking about gilbies, or the amount of rainfall this growing cycle, she might join them; but her conversation that morning with her dad had certainly filled her quota on political discussions for the day.

Caulleen's attentions suddenly grew more calculating. “Beth... such a short name as Beth is unusual for this District. It's much shorter than most names I've heard.”

How would this girl from the city know what was common or uncommon among the Hills District? She must have paid close attention to everything on her visit so far to have become so astute in such a short time. “You're right; Beth's not a common name. Dad wanted one of us to have an easy name to remember. But it is too short,” Beth admitted now. “It's not from something pretty. There's a girl at school whose name is Jabethan, but we call her Jabe.”

“There's Arbenethen,” Caulleen said. “And Orlabeth.” After a moment, she added, “I once knew someone with that name.”

Beth's wistful sigh filled the following awkward silence. “Those are pretty names. Long names. Not like plain old 'Beth.'”

“You don't like your name?”

Did she like her name? She'd spent more time lamenting the fact that it wasn't long and pretty than whether or not she liked it. Beth unconsciously wrinkled her nose. “I guess it's all right.”

“But it's not flowery like the others. Like Tessamin.” Caulleen grinned, nodding her head towards where Tessy stood to one side of the room. Beth watched as her sister politely tried to direct where the food should be placed and who should try what, being not so much polite as an overall pain in the neck.

Beth grinned. “Yeh, her name is kind of flowery, isn't it?” She wrinkled her nose again, this time with more certainty. “It suits her.”

Caulleen watched Tessy. “Flowers are generally pretty things to have around.”

“If they're out growing in the garden,” Beth retorted.

Caulleen choked back a laugh, then apologized, “I don't mean to sound rude by commenting on your names. It's just that I don't know very much about Hills District customs, and I'd like to learn.”

Beth gave an incredulous laugh. “We don't do anything special here. We just farm.” Then a sudden inspiration struck her. “Is that what you've been studying with Alan?”

Caulleen's eyes widened in surprise. “What, farming?”

“Yeh, because you were coming here on this visit with the Altair?”

Now that Beth had clarified her question, amusment suffused Caulleen. “Oh, no. When I have the chance, I study people.”

“People?”

She nodded. “People and their customs, their politics, how they live, and what motivates them as a group. Do you know what I mean?”

Beth knew exactly what she meant. “You mean groups like the Hills District or the Revaaden.”

Her eyes alight with interest, Caulleen nodded again. “Yes. I think the dynamics of a small group like yours and its impact on the government and political proceedings is fascinating.”

Beth laughed again. “I don't know about the fascinating part... but if you study us, don't you have to study agriculture too?” She shrugged. “That's what we do here. There isn't anything else. You won't get much out of anybody if you don't talk about farming.”

Caulleen cocked her head to one side and asked, “What happens if you decide you don't want to farm? Do you feel obligated to stay in the Hills District anyway?”

“No.” Beth snorted a tiny laugh of incredulity. “Nobody's forced to stay if they don't want to. I don't think my brother Evan will stay here any more than Tessy will. He likes clothes and fads and the newest technology too much. I bet he moves to San Taron or Derrastin when he finishes school so he can dress just right in the newest fashions, be around people, and work on the tech they have there.”

“He can't do any of that here?”

Laughing again, Beth gestured at the group of people gathered in the common room. “You're seeing most of the people in the Valley, and we're not up on fashion, as both Evan and Tessy are always pointing out. Besides,” Beth shrugged, “he would still have to train someplace else if he wants to work much with tech.”

“Because he's not allowed to learn about technology here?”

Beth's laugh grew puzzled now. “Because he already knows more about the tech that's in use here than anybody else in the Valley.” Then she understood what Caulleen was really asking, and protested, “We're just farmers. There are no rules. There's nothing political about us at all.”

“Really?” Caulleen asked in gentle disbelief.

Then they heard Ralston Rusher's voice rise above the general noise as he growled something about Katai Derl and grain prices. Beth and Caulleen looked around in time to see Korf Martin smack him in the stomach with her walking stick. A huge bellow of air exploded out of him, and he gave Korf a look meant to quell a charging gilbie. Korf only glared back at him and bellowed, “Show some respect!”

Beth and Caulleen shared a look as she tried to swallow her smile, and couldn't. “You're right. Farming and politics,” she amended, and Caulleen laughed.

Before their laughter had died away, Rae suddenly materialized beside them, alarming Caulleen. “Is something wrong?” she gasped.

Calm and smooth as silk compared to Caulleen's burst of sound, Rae simply said, “No.”

A moment went by where none of them spoke, forcing Caulleen to at last inquire, “Then why are you here and not with Alan?”

Rae blinked, her only indication that she was at some kind of transition. “I left the three plebes with him,” she said, as if this information would be enough.

But Beth was still just as confused as she had been at Caulleen's initial upset. “Plebes?”

Rae's sigh would have sounded irrationally irritated coming from someone more demonstrative, but she just breathed slightly louder. “The other three doing security,” she explained. “The Plebes.”

Again, Rae behaved as if this was enough of an explanation. Caulleen must have figured that it was, for she didn't say anything more, and even nodded in understanding now, her anxiety forgotten, but Beth still didn't understand. “Why was Caulleen so concerned?”

Rae heaved a second beleaguered sigh, but gamely clarified, “She assumed that something was happening that I needed to watch, but it's not like that. The three Plebes need to learn what being a bodyguard is really like, and this is a place where Alan insists he's safe, so I let the Plebes have a go at guarding him.” She turned to lock her cold gaze onto Beth. “I can't hold their hands all the time.”

Caulleen butted in, “But what will Mieka say?” She didn't explain who Mieka was, any more than Rae did when she replied:

“Mieka would agree that they'll learn more from doing the real thing than from running a training scenario.” Caulleen still looked hesitant even as she understood. Fully irritated now, Rae turned from Beth to Caulleen. “If it makes you feel better, this lets me do sweeps of the room at large. There's only so much I can see when I'm up close to the Altair.”

“Distance adds dimension,” Beth automatically recited.

Rae looked astonished for one so calm. “Yes. How do you know about security mottoes like that?”

Beth promptly replied, “Nelson told me.”

“Adviser Walker... of course.” Rae gave her head a brief, sharp nod, then went back to cursorily scanning over the crowd as she now spoke to Beth, “What else can you tell me about this place?”

The vague reference perplexed Beth. Did she mean the common room? “This place?”

“The Hills District. This house. What might I need to know about them?”

“Uh.” Beth reminded herself that Rae would more than likely only be interested in the house from a security advantage. In that case, where should she start?

Rae's clipped tone burst out with a question, pre-empting Beth's quandary. “What's your name?”

“Beth Wryn Walker,” Beth immediately replied to her authoritative tone.

“Bethwryn, Beth for short?”

“No, it's just Beth. Wryn's my middle name. Actually, it's my Mom's name, but it's also my middle name.” Why did she feel the need to stupidly explain all this?

Caulleen must have picked up on her confusion, for she gave a slight smile, as if she and Beth shared a secret. “Beth and I were just talking about how her name isn't flowery or--”

“I'm not concerned with opinions about flowery names, only facts.”

At first, Beth was stunned at the bodyguard's abrupt manner, but Caulleen simply rolled her eyes, as if this type of comment was typical. “Rae, didn't Mieka talk to you about how such an abrupt manner makes people uncomfortable?”

Rae didn't look chastised though, in spite of Caulleen's critical tone. “That was during my off duty hours. Now, I'm on duty.”

Beth wondered if the uptight Rae was ever off duty.

“But I apologize for my manner,” she abruptly said to Beth before abruptly changing the subject. “There are many windows in this house. Explain.”

No matter how much Rae apologized, her brevity would definitely take some getting used to. Beth managed to keep her expression as smooth as Rae's so she wouldn't give away how suddenly battered she felt. “Windows?” She looked at the ceiling where light filtered through a solar pane. “There's only one.”

“No,” Rae argued. “There are two in the walls in here, and one in its roof. And there are many in the walls of the first room we entered.”

She meant the storage room, but what was so important about having so many windows? “So?”

“Windows let the heat escape as well as let criminals in.” Rae wiped a stream of sweat from her face, then something resembling a smile lightened the disapproval on her face. “Though escaping heat isn't a concern here.”

Beth knew the distance between the Hills District and San Taron City was great enough that the climates were completely different, but that difference had never been illustrated so pointedly in school. “Is it so cold in San Taron that you can't have windows?” How dreary it would be to live in a house without windows.

Rae nodded, though she once again looked assessingly in Alan's direction. “It is at certain times. Heat is expensive; only the wealthiest people have enough money to heat a house with windows.” She glanced briefly at the softly lit white walls and the domed ceiling with its one window before her gaze went back to assessing the threat level of the room. “I'm surprised that you're able to keep your house so cool. Farming must be a wealthier business than I thought.”

Rae's voice was still flat, but Beth could hear the anger behind it. Was she angry about farming, or about windows? “But we cool the house with solar energy. It doesn't cost anything except the materials to install the panels.”

Rae looked at her sharply before turning again to assess threat levels. “These windows... they are all solar receptors?” At least she didn't sound angry now, only surprised.

“Yeh,” Beth said, wondering about Rae's sudden change in tone, but not familiar enough with Rae to ask. “They let in light during the day, and the heat from the sun is stored and cycled through panels in between the outer window and the heat filter. The filter is what makes the light so soft inside. Then we use the stored energy to recharge the generators when they need it. That's what cools the house.” Rae was so impressed, her face lightened. “Does San Taron use solar energy?”

“Of course we do.” Rae's voice was sharp again. “But for machines. Not for houses.”

Beth wondered why she hadn't heard of this through her studies in school. “That doesn't make much sense.”

Rae took a second to look straight at Beth for the first time since entering the common room. “No, it doesn't.”

Rae's eyes were so piercing that Beth found herself stumbling over her next question. “Do... do many crim... inals enter using windows?”

“No,” Caulleen instantly said.

“Yes,” Rae informed at the same time.

Caulleen explained, “Rae's just being dramatic.”

And again at the same time, Rae dramatized, “It's possible to come through a window. I need to be prepared for anything.”

Caulleen gusted air as if she was annoyed, but gently pointed out, “Rae, this is where Alan grew up. Do you really think anyone here will try to harm one of their own?”

Rae's answer was immediate. “As I said, I need to be ready for anything that might--”

“You haven't answered the question.”

Beth suddenly understood how such a pleasant young girl as Caulleen had risen to the level of chief adviser to the Altair; she certainly was relentless.

Rae seemed to shift just a fraction under Caulleen's glare. “No,” she at last conceded. “But I need to__”

“... be ready for anything, so you've said.” Caulleen and Beth shared a look that said much more.

Beth tried to smooth things over by continuing with her Hills District societal lesson. “All the houses in the Hills District are based on the same idea as ours. It gives us more money to spend on the farms. Farming in the Hills is a lot more expensive than living here.”

That comment caught Caulleen's attention. “Why?”

Beth had thought about this topic far more than she should have. “It's still hard to convince people in the cities to buy our food and stock. We farm differently here, and some people don't think our products are as good as those raised by the big companies like AgriSource. But things are finally improving. Now at least we can sell our gilbies even if they aren't as popular as ones raised by technology and slaves.”

Caulleen's brow gave a pensive wrinkle. “Alan told me about how you earn your living here. But what are-?”

Rae's hand communicator suddenly beeped, breaking up Caulleen's question. She stepped several paces away before answering the call, speaking in hushed tones to the person on the other end of the transmission. She didn't look like it was bad news, but it was hard to tell with Rae; her concentrated expression never changed no matter what was going on.

Caulleen continued the minute Rae was gone, as if used to such interruptions. “I meant to ask what are gilbies?”

“Hills District cows,” Beth sheepishly explained. “We call them gilbies because they're raised in the Gilby Hills District.”

Caulleen was still mystified. “That makes them better than other cows on Rasheda?”

“Not better,” Beth replied. “Just--”

“... different.”

Alan emphasized the word he'd spoken as he suddenly appeared beside Beth, a grimace on his face. “Beth, you sound like you memorized a Hills District recruitment ad.”

Nelson strode up to join them, holding a sticky puff by the tips of his fingers. “Is Beth doing her recruitment ad thing again?”

“I was not,” Beth automatically protested, then laughingly had to concede, “Maybe I was thinking about ads. But it never hurts to let people know what we stand for.”

Nelson gave a sarcastic roll to his eyes. “ Now you sound like Dad.”

“You were the ones talking politics,” Beth accused. “We heard you.”

Alan mournfully sighed. “Yeh; politics and farming, with the emphasis on farming. Things haven't changed around here.” His tone was long-suffering, but his smile told her that he was teasing.

“You expected them to?” Nelson grinned and regarded Alan even as Rae materialized again, appearing maddeningly nonchalant. She gave no indication if the news she had received was good or bad.

Ignoring his indifferent bodyguard, Alan gave a wicked smile. “I wasn't expecting change,” he said, matching Nelson's sardonic tone. “But you have to admit that it would be fun if we started talking about something as scientific as astrology so we could watch old Ralston Rusher get that glazed look in his eyes--”

“Like he's totally swashed,” Nelson interrupted.

Alan pointed at Nelson and laughed, not sounding like the Altair now at all. “Just like when he was in charge of school discipline that term. I thought he was going to die of boredom!”

Nelson added, “That's because you always made him quiz you on those awful history lessons. I don't know how you didn't die of boredom.”

Alan just shrugged and grinned. “I happen to like history. It's a refined subject, highly open to interpretation. After all, if you're wrong about something historical, who's going to know the truth to say that you're wrong?”

Beth groaned at them, “Will you two stop it? Do we have to talk about school?”

“No,” Alan said decisively. “I have a better idea. Let's walk up to the old ruins tomorrow.”

“In this heat?” Nelson asked, obviously appalled by the idea. “You're crazy.”

Alan looked hurt, but he had the same old twinkle in his eye that meant he was teasing again. “No, I'm not crazy. It'll be fun.”

Nelson snorted. “It's not my idea of fun.” He took a bite of the puff he'd been holding, as if that ended the subject.

“I bet Beth would do it.” Alan looked at her challengingly.

Beth raised her eyebrows in surprise; somehow, she found it hard to believe that a political figure as elevated as the Altair was willing to dirty his hands at the site of a bunch of old buildings, no matter how interested he was in history. But she only asked, “The first or the second tier?”

“Might as well do it right; the second.”

Beth thought for a minute. The first tier of ruins was a good six leagues out of the Valley and up the side of the rolling hills to the north. It was roughly in the direction of Zokolai, one of the few manned settlements near the Valley, and ultimately on the way to San Taron City. Beth had made the trek to the ruins dozens of times. She loved to walk, and she loved that walk in particular; the feeling of solemnity that permeated the ruins of the first ancient settlement in the Hills District was nothing less than stirring. There wasn't much left now; only tumbling dwellings, crumbling walls, dangerous holes that used to be wells of some sort, and a lot of useless mementos that had once belonged to the ruins' inhabitants. Still, Beth treasured each trip to the ruins, and had garnered a sizable collection of artifacts that nobody else was interested in.

But was it a good idea to walk all the way to the second tier? Nelson was right in protesting that it was too hot. They would have to start very early in order to climb high enough to avoid the worst of the day's heat, and then they would need to stay at the ruins for the afternoon, walking back during the cooler evening hours. She had never tried to make the walk this late in the growing cycle before, but she was fairly certain they could do it.

“We'll have to carry our own water,” she cautioned.

Alan scoffed, “No sweat. Even the Altair can carry a canister of water.”

“We'll need to start early,” she said next, ignoring the way he poked fun at himself. “And then we'll need to stay well into the evening until the weather cools off.”

“What do you think, Rae?” Alan asked, then added, “Caulleen?” before allowing time for an answer. “Think you can start early enough?”

Beth gave a jump, then quickly covered her reaction. She hadn't anticipated that he meant to invite Caulleen along. Caulleen might be his chief adviser, but she was a stranger; Beth didn't know how she felt about spending the entire day with someone she barely knew.

Of course, she'd be spending the entire day with Rae, who was also a stranger she barely knew. Beth didn't know what she thought of Rae tagging along with them, but simultaneously acknowledged that she really didn't have a choice in the matter. It was ludicrous to think that the Altair would ever be allowed to walk so far with only a young girl for protection. She had to assume that for security reasons, Rae would accompany them.

On second thought, maybe having Caulleen along wouldn't be such a bad idea after all. The chief adviser had a way of handling Rae that was much better than any method Beth might employ. So Beth was glad when Caulleen looked intrigued by the suggestion to go with them.

“This would be a great opportunity to study the history of the Hills,” she agreed.

Beth gave Caulleen an assessing glance; the girl looked like she was in fairly good shape, but she knew from watching gilbies for many years that looks could be deceiving. “Can you walk six leagues?”

Caulleen's excitement waned. “You want to walk?”

Alan grinned. “Beth's last name is Walker, the same as Nelson's, and the name suits her in particular.”

Caulleen hesitated. “I thought we'd take a flitter, or at least an air bike. What do you think, Rae? Can we walk that far?”

Rae's expression was as bland as ever, but she enthused, “I think walking's a great idea.”

She did?

Caulleen hesitantly agreed. “If you're sure.”

Rae said, “I'm sure,” in a voice so final that Beth had to wonder if Rae knew something that she didn't.

Ignoring Rae completely, as if what she knew or didn't know didn't really matter, Alan looked to Beth. “So, what do you say, Beth? Are you up for a little adventure?”

The ruins were more likely to be quiet and calm rather than adventurous. Quiet was exactly what Beth craved right now more than anything. She wasn't likely to get this same type of opportunity if they all stayed in the Valley. Besides, if she was their guide, she wouldn't have to weed the garden.

Feeling guilty about avoiding chores, but not guilty enough to put an end to a special occasion, she grinned and enthusiastically said, “You bet!”

Alan smiled. “Then we're on. What time do you think we-?”

“It just came over the datalink,” Evan announced, using a tray of steaming puffs to push his way between them. “The Pro-techs and Slavers Faction just attacked San Taron City.”

A sudden hush fell over the group, as if Evan's announcement had simply swallowed up all the sound. “Oh, Hale,” Beth whispered, but nobody heard.

CHAPTER SIX

Beth jerked awake the next morning, feeling like something horrible wanted to follow her from her dreams. She lay stiff in her bunk, heart pounding, gazing wildly around her dark bedroom. Shadows clung to the corners near the door, and the only sound was the heavy rasp of her breathing as she gasped into the deep silence.

A few tense moments passed, but when nothing happened, she began to feel silly for acting like a scared little kid. Gradually relaxing her muscles, she pushed the light covering away from her sweaty nightshirt, the dry air of the house instantly cooling her clammy skin. She didn't remember anything about her dream except the fear she'd felt when she woke. What had caused that?

With a whoosh, thoughts about the bombing of San Taron City came rushing back from her subconscious where she had managed to bury them long enough to fall asleep the night before. She expelled a ragged breath, breaking the silence as her memories surfaced again. The fear receded once she understood what had caused it, but a hole of depression settled deep in her chest. She wished she could go back to sleep, dreams or no dreams. Sleeping through a nightmare was better than living one.

Beth breathed a second sigh, then propped herself up on her elbows for another look around her room. A shelf covered with relics from the Hills ruins peaked through the cloying darkness when she looked closer. A sheen of predawn light reflected off the computer screen nestled in the wall next to the shelf. Other than that, she couldn't see anything.

After listening hard to the surrounding silence, she realized the she was the only one awake this early. There were no creaks of someone pacing the floors, or the shift of weight in a desk chair to indicate someone was up checking the datalink. Beth assumed that the link was still down, which would explain why no one else was up. With the link down since yesterday afternoon, they'd had no way of finding out what was happening in San Taron. As far as any of them knew, the Katai was dead, and they now had a new government. Or else Katai Derl and the Rashedan army had ended the uprising. Or the two sides had blasted the city into oblivion and were heading South to blast the Hills District into oblivion next. Beth wasn't sure if it was worse to wonder what was happening, or worse to know.

According to the news they had garnered before the link went down late yesterday, the Pro-techs and the Slavers Faction were both well armed groups determined to change the way Rasheda was governed, but the Katai's forces were 'holding their own,' whatever that meant. Beth had seen images on the link of blasted streets and burning buildings, screaming people, and chaos. Entire portions of San Taron had been reduced to piles of rubble in a matter of hours. She didn't understand how those scenes of destruction could possibly be interpreted as a stalemate between Katai Derl and the government's enemies, but that was the interpretation used to describe the standoff that had finally occurred between the fighting groups.

Caulleen had assured her that it wasn't as bad as it looked. Rasheda's armed forces were in good condition to easily end this attempted coup, wiping out the opposing army once their headquarters were discovered. Beth figured that since interpreting the politics of Rasheda was Caulleen's main talent, the adviser knew what she was talking about. Still, Beth hadn't found those words particularly reassuring.

What did the Pro-techs and the Slavers want, anyway? They already controlled most of Rasheda's food production. The only things left that might be worth controlling were the planetary government and exportation services. But what good would it do to have a war to gain control of exportation if that war killed the people necessary to produce the exported materials? Beth knew that many of the slaves used to grow and tend the food that was Rasheda's chief export lived in San Taron City. The people who did the most work for the planet's exportation were right in the middle of the worst fighting; it would be ironic if the food supply that was the focus of the contention was made irrelevant by the fact that no one was left alive to grow the food.

And even if people weren't necessary to grow Rasheda's food, machinery was. If the fighters destroyed all of San Taron trying to gain control, they wouldn't have that necessary San Taron machinery left, not to mention the probability that in the end, there would be few slaves to run them.

What would happen to the Hills District if the Pro-techs and Slavers Faction took control of the government? She supposed those of the Hills would be forced to adapt their farms to use more technology. Beth couldn't imagine the farm covered in scurrying robots, and she had no idea how her family would find the funds to maintain so much machinery.

Or would her family, along with everyone else living in the Hills District, have to abandon the Valley and their way of life altogether? And what about the Revaaden? They refused to use any technology whatsoever in their farming practices. Beth didn't think they would accept the use of technology and slaves just because the government said they had to. What would happen to the Revaaden then? Would they become slaves? Would she? The uncertainty of the future made her stomach twist and grumble.

To stop from worrying about it, Beth glanced at the windows on the two outside walls of her room. Her internal clock told her it had to be close to sunrise by now. Sure enough, the first hints of light tinged the sides of the oval windows a glowing pink. As she watched, more hints of light crept slowly through the windows, and the pink color deepened. Her brain was such a mess of thoughts, she'd barely noticed the encroaching light at first. Now, she blinked. Another blink later, a slit of orange sun burst over the lip of the Valley, casting long shadows across the grounds, bathing everything in an eerie half light. Rasheda's people might be bent on destroying each other, but the sun rose just like it did every other day.

Beth marveled at that. How could everything in nature seem to be normal when so much was being destroyed? But Rasheda went on about its business of rotating slowly in space, one of three planets caught in orbit around its bright, glaring orange sun. There was an uninterrupted order to the cycle that Beth found reassuring once she thought of it.

She suddenly gave a gasp of horror; the sun was up! Alan and Caulleen and Rae would be at the house, ready to start the promised walk up to the ruins, and she would still be in bed like a lazy lump. She was late already.

Wars and politics forgotten, Beth jumped out of bed and ordered, “Lights.” While blinding light flooded the room from the overhead ceiling fixtures, the bedclothes promptly twisted around her ankles, and she slid to the floor, fighting to untangle herself and stand at the same time. Squinting against the light, Beth hopped to her closet, one ankle still trapped by the covers. With an impatient kick, she tried to free her foot, but tripped. She had to forcefully pull the tangled blanket from around her foot to at last jump up enough to reach the closet door panel.

The door slid aside at her touch. Beth grabbed her last clean work shirt and pair of loose trousers. They were both shiny with wear, but far more comfortable than the nicer clothes she'd worn to Alan's party the day before. At least it was a relief not to have to think about her clothes this time.

She peeled off her nightshirt, then thought to make a quick run through her sanitizer to get rid of the sweat from her restless night. Feeling clean and more awake every moment, she pulled on her clothes, twisted her hair into a messy braid, fished her walking boots and pack out from under a pile of laundry, and ran from her room.

She was half way down the hall before recalling the need to lock her bedroom door, then scramble the door code. Evan would never be able to resist breaking into her room while she was gone for an entire day. She couldn't keep him out if he really wanted to get in, but she didn't intend to make it easy for him, either.

The boots banged into her thigh as she hurried a second time down the silent corridor leading to the kitchen. She still needed to put together some type of meal for the four of them to eat during the day, and collect water and snacks. She should have taken care of these details the night before, but it had completely slipped her mind. Beth hated being so unorganized.

She arrived in the kitchen breathless and disheveled, but was awake enough to be surprised to find her dad standing at the counter, calmly fixing breakfast. She hadn't even heard him get up. Beth was even more shocked to see Evan strutting from one end of the room to the other, his attention focused entirely on the new trousers he was wearing. She was pretty sure that Evan had never been up at dawn a day in his life.

“Hey,” she said in greeting, and they both turned as she slid into a nearby chair, dropping her bundle to lay in a heap on the floor.

“Morning,” her dad said. “I'm fixing some breakfast to--”

“Hey Beth.” Evan scurried to stand right beside her chair. “Forget breakfast; look at my pants. Aren't they great?”

Beth took a second to glance at his pants. He was pulling the deep green material out for her to inspect, grinning widely. “Yeh, so?” She reached for a boot instead, too tired to deal with Evan.

Evan's grin dissolved, and he scowled. “That shows how much you know. These are Lurries, Beth! You know, like the ones that everybody's wearing.”

Beth gave Evan a sarcastic glance. “You got up this early just to run around in trousers that everybody else already has?”

“No.” Evan glared at her. “You're so dumb. I stayed up all night with Nelson.”

With Nelson? “Doing what? Trying on somebody else's pants?”

Evan's scowl deepened. “No; these are mine!” he insisted and shook his leg in her direction. “Alan brought 'em for me. He got them in San Taron just before he left. Aren't they great?”

Instead of answering him, Beth concentrated on untangling the clasps of her boot. But Evan danced in front of her chair and refused to go away until she finally glanced again at his trousers. They were long and tight, with a bulging pocket hanging free over each knee. “They look ridiculous,” she said as she pulled her right boot on her foot and tightened the clasps around her ankle. “They won't be much use for chores; those pockets will get full of dirt, and they'd be hot, and--”

“Chores!” Evan's gaping mouth expressed his scorn. “Is that all you can think about? Gah, Beth, these are Lurries! They cost a fortune. Everybody will be so jealous.”

Their father gave a loud grunt, moving whatever he was fixing for breakfast into the heat unit. He punched a timed setting, then began to fix another batch of whatever he was making. He didn't turn, which showed his disapproval of Evan's trousers as much as any words. “Alan had no business bringing you such a gift. You're already vain enough, Evan. Ridiculous trousers don't help.”

“I'm not vain,” Evan retorted. “You just don't know what's important, Dad.”

Beth couldn't keep her own snort quiet. “San Taron City might be destroyed, we might be at war, and all you can think about is a pair of stupid pants?”

“They're not stupid,” he growled. “And I stayed up all night with Nelson to wait for the datalink to come back up. So there.”

The cold knot of fear that Beth had forgotten about twisted in her stomach again. “So, is it back up?”

Evan shook his head, excitement sparkling in his eyes. “No, not yet. Nelson thinks the satellite station was destroyed.”

“You don't know that,” their dad firmly said. “Nelson's only guessing.”

“Yeh, but--”

“It's a guess.” His voice was even firmer. “Don't repeat it.”

“Okay, okay,” Evan agreed in exasperation. “It's a guess. But it's a good guess.”

If the link wasn't up yet, there was no news. Beth knew she didn't have to worry yet about what she didn't know. Slightly cheered, she reached around Evan for her other boot, managing to pull it on and grab her pack away from Evan at the same time. “It's empty. Now go away, Evan.” She headed for the free stretch of counter to make a quick lunch for the trip.

Evan followed her. “What's the pack for? Are you still going to the ruins with Alan? Can I come? Please, Beth? Please, please?”

Images of such a day rose in her mind before she could stop them: she and Evan would always be arguing about the best route to the ruins, she would have to act normally around Rae and Caulleen while her annoying little brother spied on everything they said and did, not to mention Evan would need prodding every other minute just to get him to walk a few steps. Beth couldn't stop the horrified expression that crossed her face.

Before she had time to think of an excuse to keep him from coming, even a lame excuse, their father announced, “You've got chores to do, Evan.”

“Chores!” Evan again exclaimed in disbelief.

“Chores,” he repeated in that same tone, looking firmly in their direction.

The heat unit cycled to a stop, and he pulled out a plate full of steaming food, the wonderful aroma of egg palitas filling the room. He placed several spoons of left over galaise sauce across the entire concoction, and slid it back into the unit. Beth crossed to help him with the second batch, but he stopped her. “I'll do this; it's almost ready. You need to start--”

“Dad, why can't I go with Beth?” Evan again interrupted to whine.

“Evan,” he warned, the look in his eyes changing from firm to angry. “You wasted all day yesterday running around with Logan Shepard. To make up for it, you work today.”

“But Dad,” whined Evan, thumping the floor with his bare foot.

“Come on, Evan, that's fair,” Beth argued while gathering ingredients for a light lunch. She hoped that Evan couldn't argue with such obvious logic, encouraging him to shut up and not make a scene. It was too early in the morning for one of Evan's tantrums.

Evan sneered at her. “You just don't want me to come.”

A retort about his snotty attitude and ridiculous trousers was on the tip of her tongue when a noise from the storage room stopped her.

Alan's head poked around the corner of the arch. “We're here,” he announced, then added, “Those of us who are coming, anyway. Rae left my guards to secure the Valley while we're at the ruins, so it's just us. Are you ready to go, Beth?”

His enthusiastic question caught her off guard. “Uh, no, not quite. I'm not finished getting our lunch together. Besides--” She was going to say something about the breakfast her father was fixing, but her sluggish mind wouldn't form the words quickly enough to invite them in while Alan was looking at her with such impatience, as was Rae.

As if the security agent knew she was at the center of Beth's thoughts, Rae stepped around Alan to glance assessingly at Beth, then Evan, then their father. The expression in her eyes was relaxed, and she nodded at them, but was obviously in a hurry, too.

Only Caulleen appeared to notice the aroma of cooking palitas. Her expression became one of absorbed delight. “Something's going to be very tasty!”

Evan nastily commented, “It isn't Beth.”

Caulleen laughed lightly, taking Evan seriously. “I hope not; I doubt she would taste very good.” She nonchalantly tucked a stray wisp of shining hair behind her ear.

Alan sniffed appreciatively, then admitted, “It does smell great.”

“Well, you're just in time for breakfast,” Beth's dad said as the heat unit reached the end of its cycle. “You should eat something, since I'm sure none of you took the time to eat a decent meal before you got here this morning.”

Alan started to protest, “That's all right, really, you don't have to...” But Beth saw Caulleen send a meaningful glance towards Alan, who just hissed a mournful gust of air through his teeth in response.

“Thank you, Ter Walker,” Caulleen said as Alan continued to hiss through puckered lips. “Breakfast would be great.”

Beth's dad chuckled. “You're welcome, but you don't have to call me ter. Devon's fine. And why are in you such a hurry, Alan? Do you think the ruins will disappear if you don't hurry?”

Alan hesitated again. “Well, no. But I wouldn't have minded leaving last night.”

Evan barked a laugh as he danced around the kitchen, showing off his trousers. “Walk up to the ruins in the dark? What for?”

Alan sighed again, looking irritated now. “I don't know. I thought it would be fun. But I guess it was just a silly idea.”

Caulleen continued, “There really isn't a reason to be in such a rush.”

Beth nodded at Caulleen, but watched Alan. He wasn't smiling sheepishly, like he used to do if he thought he was being silly. He wasn't even being charming and fun like he had been the day before. Now he just looked worried.

But of course he was worried. He had plenty to be worried about now; he was the Altair, after all. One of Rasheda's major cities had just been bombed. Who wouldn't be worried? As Altair, he had to be even more concerned. “Are you thinking about the bombing in San Taron?”

Alan's expression grew distressed the moment she mentioned the bombing, and Beth wished she had just shut up. It wasn't long before Alan's worry morphed into jittery nervousness. “Of course I'm not worried,” he protested in spite of his anxious expression. “Katai Derl must have everything taken care of by now. What makes you think I'm worried about it, anyway?” Now his voice just sounded accusatory.

Beth shrugged, confused. “I just figured...” Her voice trailed away as her perusal of him sharpened. According to his pinched expression, he was worried, despite his confidence in Katai Derl, but he had endeavored to hide his feelings. Why? Was there something else wrong? “San Taron is the center of your government, not to mention where you live,” she finally pointed out. “Has anything happened to the...?” What did they call it? The government building? The Palace? The Main Central Place? Beth was disturbed that she didn't even know where Alan lived. “I don't know what you call it... your home now,” Beth ended lamely. “Is the fighting close to it? With the link down, can you even find out?”

Alan forced his expression to clear. “Oh, um, yeh, I am worried about the... about home. We all are.” He took in Caulleen and Rae with a flick of his hand. “But the fighting is nowhere near The Point.”

Beth's brow furrowed. “What's The Point?”

Alan explained, “That's the part of the city where... I'm sure Katai Derl has everything well in hand by now.”

Rae cut into his expression of feigned confidence by abruptly announcing, “The Point was not hit according to yesterday's security reports.” Her voice was so flat that she sounded like she wouldn't care if the entire place was demolished along with the rest of the city.

“Oh,” Beth uncomfortably said, because she couldn't think of anything else to say. At last, she took refuge in the one thing she knew for sure: their concern. “Well, the link might be up later today. We don't have to be gone if you want to stay to hear more news.”

But Alan was shaking his head before she even finished speaking. “No, I still want to go. I haven't been up to the ruins in years; it'll be fun.” He didn't sound like he believed what he was saying.

Beth wasn't sure she wanted to spend the day with a cranky Alan any more than she wanted to spend it with a spying Evan. “But you're so grouchy.”

Alan looked at her in surprise, then seemed to wilt. “Sorry, Beth. Guess I haven't been very good company so far.” He scratched his head, messing his short hair so that it stuck up in back, doing more to make him look like the old Alan than anything he'd done so far. “It's just that I didn't sleep well last night.”

Beth could certainly sympathize with that. “Neither did I. I had awful dreams.”

“Me too,” reported her father. “But that's because I was too hungry to sleep. I plan to eat all this breakfast on my own if you don't sit down and eat it yourselves. Here.” He pulled the egg palitas from the heat unit and gestured at the table in the corner. “This will make you feel better. Take a seat.”

Giving in, Alan dropped into a chair, then grinned. “You've convinced me. I never could resist your palitas.”

“I know,” Dad answered with a devious smile of his own, and set the platter in the center of the table.

Beth grinned. It was just like her dad to use Alan's favorite food to blackmail him into eating some breakfast. She'd seen him do the same thing to convince Evan and the others to do a hard day's work.

“Evan,” continued her dad, “get some plates, will you? We have guests.” He returned to the counter to work on the second platter of egg palitas. Caulleen sat down in a chair across from Alan, Rae reluctantly joining them.

Evan danced up to the table, making sure his pockets flared out as he moved, catching everyone's attention. “Make Beth get the plates. I'm busy.”

“Evan,” warned their dad.

Ignoring him, Evan went on twirling. “Hey, look at my pockets. They're flying!” He twisted and turned, busily watching his trousers and everyone's reaction at the same time. He twirled around the table, then lost his balance and dizzily careened towards Alan.

Before Beth could intercept her moronic brother, Rae swiftly cuffed him on the back of his neck and hauled him to the center of the room, well away from Alan.

Evan bleeted in surprise, swaying in Rae's grasp.

Beth gaped in wide eyed surprise. She'd never seen anyone move so fast.

Rae held Evan easily with only one hand, though he wiggled and fought against her. “You are rude and annoying. When asked to do something, you do it.”

“Rae.”

Rae looked questioningly at Alan with raised eyebrows, then reluctantly nodded once. She gave Evan one last shake before letting him go.

Evan jerked away from Rae the minute she released him to skid across the floor in his bare feet, scowling. “You're the one who's rude.”

“Oh, I'm not so sure,” their father dryly remarked. “Whatever she did worked on you. I'll have to remember it. Maybe I'll start practicing today.” He looked appreciatively at Rae, though she was looking at Alan, and missed it.

More of that same silent communication passed between Alan and Rae, whose face became a mask of serenity again. Alan had the patient look of a teacher dealing with a trying student.

Evan continued to glare at Rae, who remained unconcerned. “You might have ripped my new trousers!” he accused.

Alan laughed at Evan then, and the tension suddenly dissipated as if nothing had happened. “You like those Lurries?” he asked, clearly pleased at Evan's reaction. “They're the newest design.”

Evan's attention slowly returned to his new trousers, and he ran his hand over the soft fabric to finger the bulky pockets. “Really?”

Alan nodded. “I have three pairs of Lurries, but none of them have the big pockets. I had to fight just to get those, but I knew you'd like them.”

“Yeh, I like the pockets,” Evan enthusiastically stated. In typical Evan fashion, he had forgotten all about being mad at Rae in favor of talking about his expensive trousers.

Beth turned away; she could always count on Evan to be more interested in what he was wearing than anything else. He was too much like Tessy. It was nice of Alan to calm things down and talk to Evan, who soaked up the attention, but it would also be nice if Evan just helped without making a fuss for once in his life.

But she knew that they really didn't have time to wait for Evan to help. They needed to eat quickly and get going. She pressed a button on the wall control panel just under the window, and a section of the counter top slid aside to reveal a stack of pale gray plates that rose noiselessly on a hydraulic spring. Beth pulled four from the stack to hand to Evan. “Don't drop them. Unless you think your pockets will catch them.”

He sent her a withering look, but took the plates to set the table, found the utensils, and cut the first portion of palitas for himself. As he cut, he hopefully asked Alan, “What are you gonna bring me next time, Alan? An air bike?”

By the time Beth had gathered enough for four lunches, stored the food in airtight containers, and placed the containers and water bottles in her pack, the second batch of palitas was ready. She swallowed the meal without chewing, burning her mouth, but couldn't resist a feeling of urgency. She wanted to be in the cooler air of the hills, surrounded by the dirty, almost rotten smell of trees and crowded vegetation. She wanted to forget about the possibility of war. Above all, she wanted to get out of the house before Evan had a chance to either talk his way into joining them, or do something else stupid to incite Rae.

Five minutes later, she called, “Bye, Dad,” as she bounded down the steps into the storage room, Rae, Alan, and Caulleen right behind her. Alan and Rae retrieved two packs they had brought, then they too were out the door.

CHAPTER SEVEN

They passed quickly through the main commons where long shadows still stained the grass. The air was cool and clammy with moisture from the previous night. The soft, yet sharp smells of animals and plants wafted on a breeze. It was the distinct smell of early morning farm, and Beth loved it.

The grassy commons bled into the dusty farm yard where Beth spent most of her time. “We'll go through the delivery barn; it's shorter,” she said, leading them across the dirt yard and through the now empty delivery barn. A clean, narrow walkway led between rows of carefully partitioned borning units. Smelly droppings still dotted the usually clean floors, which their father would most likely ask Evan to clean later that day. Alan only blinked at the smell, but Beth watched as Rae's nose wrinkled, though she didn't comment. Caulleen choked. Beth giggled, but even her more seasoned nose twitched for a second.

“Looks like you've been working some gilbies,” Alan noted with an appraising look around the barn.

Beth nodded. “We weaned yesterday, just before the party.” She shook her head in amazement. “It looks so normal in here, but so much has happened since yesterday. It seems like an entire cycle has passed.”

Rae spoke from close behind Beth. “What are gilbies?”

Beth jumped. She hadn't noticed that Rae was so close. Even as she recalled that Rae had been out-of-earshot when she had explained this very thing to Caulleen the day before, she acknowledged that it was downright eerie how the bodyguard could move so fast, yet so quietly. “I'll show you some,” she now said as congenially as she could. “We'll go by the pasture on our way--”

“They're cows, Rae,” Alan bluntly informed.

“Oh,” Rae grunted, instantly disinterested, and turned her attention foreword again.

Beth felt a twinge of anger at Alan's abrupt manner. She was perfectly capable of explaining cows to anybody, including Rae. She was probably more capable than Alan. He was the one who'd been gone for two cycles. But when Beth glanced at Alan, he wasn't looking at either her or Rae. He was busy fingering some of the seed that clung to the ends of the bales of grass still in the feeding troughs. He gave his own grunt of approval at the grass, then abandoned the bales to follow them down the walkway.

Beth couldn't figure Alan out. He acted like he was on a tour of the farm, as if he'd never been there before, though he'd spent most of his life there. His clothes were more suited to posh meetings in the city rather than for climbing to some ancient ruins. His trousers must have cost a hundred racels at least.

Before she could puzzle this out, Caulleen was beside her, curiously asking, “I didn't get a chance to ask yesterday; aren't all cows alike?”

Beth waited for Alan to catch up to them even as she answered Caulleen. “Gilbies are just what we call our breed. You know, cows from the Gilby Hills District.”

What had bored Rae excited Caulleen. “I didn't know that breed mattered. Are all the breeds different from different areas? Do different breeds produce better food? Or better offspring? Or more offspring?”

Alan laughed. “You ask too many questions, Caul.”

Caulleen doggedly asked him, “Well, which is it?”

“I don't know. Do you, Beth?”

Beth lifted a shoulder in a shrug. “Dad would be the one to ask. He's the expert. But I do know that gilbies are more gentle than most breeds, easier to handle. Weckies... that's a breed from the Revaadan... are supposed to have a higher percentage of live births. But I don't know if they make better food. I never thought of it that way. I'll ask Dad when we get back tonight.”

“That's Beth for you,” Alan joked. “If there's a cow question, she'll know all about it.”

She didn't like what his words implied. “I know about more things than just cows.”

Alan held his hands up, warding her back. “I know, I know. You're the one guiding us on this hike, aren't you? We'd be lost without you.” He placed a dramatic hand to his forehead.

Beth had to smile in wry affection. “You idiot,” she said for the best friend of her brother. Belatedly she realized that she should never be so familiar with the Altair.

Blushing, she mumbled, “Oh, I'm sorry, Alan. I forgot for a moment about you being... you know. It won't happen again.”

“It's all right,” Alan assured. “It's nice to be around someone who isn't automatically dazzled by my title. If you want the truth, I--”

Before he could finish, Beth's guide duties intervened; the walkway ended at a swinging half door, and Beth squirmed around Rae to work the lock free. After struggling for several minutes, she could only unlock the lower half. The top lock was frozen shut. She made a mental note to tell her dad to replace the lock as they all ducked through the bottom half and out into the fresh air.

In spite of the fight with the frozen lock, Beth had heard Alan's comment about the annoying amount of fealty the Altair had to put up with on a regular basis. She had never thought about Alan being heralded as 'the all-powerful, important politician' before. Now she grew uncomfortable at the thought of the people who must fawn over him and his office. How did he sort out his true supporters from those who were only pretending to support him because he was currently in power? Could he trust only people who reaped no benefit from his office? Would that be only his personal advisers and guards? How alone he must feel. Is that what it meant to be in the government? Beth wasn't sure she would like that at all.

The sunlight was a welcome distraction from these depressing thoughts. They walked straight towards the nearest roats field, and Beth punched the button for a gate release. They slipped wordlessly from the farmyard and into the cultivated field of grain.

When she turned to close the gate, she noticed the moons still hanging low in the early morning sky. The sunlight was already strong enough to wash away their brilliant night blueness, highlighting only pale shadows of immense craters as the light glowed off each moon. In the worry over the events in San Taron, she had forgotten her desire to watch the sunset and moonrise the night before.

Now she decided that an unexpected walk to the ruins was just as fun. With a smile of anticipation, she tugged on the gate to make sure it was locked before starting across the roats field. The others followed her easily enough as she trudged from row to row of grain, through another magnetic gate, and into the surrounding hills.

The track was much narrower here, nothing more than a path with high, swaying weeds closing in on each side. They started out in a jumbled group of eight legs and swinging packs. Compelled by the possible threat of Evan catching up to them, Beth set a fast pace to put some distance between them and the open fields. She knew Evan might follow on the farm's air bike if he could still see them, but once under the cover of the trees, they would be safe. She was in such a hurry that she tripped on Caulleen's feet. “Oh, I'm sorry.”

“No problem,” Caulleen assured, and walked ahead to catch up with Rae, who had moved quickly to the front.

Next, Alan tripped on Beth's heel as their feet scuffled on the rocks that dotted the trail. “Sorry.”

“I'll just watch out for those big feet of yours,” she teased, amazed at how relaxed she now felt. The office of Altair demanded respect, but Alan was in reality just a neighbor she could joke with. The wind ruffled the stray hair that had escaped from her braid. She pushed it aside to look at him.

Alan was looking down at the ground, watching his feet. “Yeh, I guess I do have big feet.”

“Bigger than I remember,” she said, still teasing. More serious, she added, “I think you've grown taller, too.”

“Or else you've shrunk,” he suggested. He shoved his pack into hers, making her lose her balance.

Beth skipped off the path and into the dusty weeds. “I have not! You just haven't visited often enough; you don't remember how short I used to be.”

Alan's brow wrinkled. “You're right. You never used to be able to keep up with me when we walked. Nelson and I always had to wait for you to catch up.” He smiled in surprise, then sighed heavily, sounding tired and dismayed.

Beth hopped back onto the path, determined to halt the inexplicable unhappiness that had settled on him. “It's all Nelson's fault,” she explained in a light tone. “He's so tall now; I have to take big steps or I'm always behind.”

Alan went on staring at her appraisingly. “Yeh, you have changed. And I don't just mean that you take big steps. You look different.”

Beth shrugged, dismissive, still determined to maintain her nonchalance. “It's just because I'm taller. And older. But most things are the same.” She began walking again at Alan's side.

“Still hate school?” he asked next, making her groan in response.

“I wish Mom and Dad would just let me quit early. I'd much rather stay home and work than go to school.” Beth waved a wide arc with her arm to take in the sorting barn, the delivery barn, the stock pens, the sheds, runways, and fields that made up the farm. “This makes sense to me. But Mom says there's more to Rasheda than just the farm.”

“What does your dad say?”

Beth smiled fondly. “I think Dad wouldn't mind if I did quit to work the farm. Lately, I've been helping out a lot with the gilbies, and I really like it.”

“But school is important, too, you know.”

“Alan, don't start with that.” Beth looked up at his earnest expression. “You sound like Mom.”

He laughed. “But she's right. I'm right. Ask anybody.”

“You only say that because you like school.”

Alan shrugged dismissively. “I like learning about new things and all that history. Going to the Valley school was fun.”

She couldn't resist a snort. “Now you sound like Colly Winship. The only reason he's still in school is so he can goof off where he has an audience.” Alan laughed, and Beth couldn't stop herself from protesting, “But it's not like that for me.”

“What? You want a bigger audience?”

“No.” Beth laughingly bumped him with her pack this time.

Alan gave a long-suffering sigh. “Then why?”

Beth kicked at the pebbles on the path, watching several cascade into the tall grass. “I'm not interested in all that stuff like history and regionalism and computer mechanics.” He started to speak, but she glared at him till he stopped. “And I'm not there for a party.”

“But there must be something about it that you like. What do you want to study?”

Beth thought for a moment. “I don't know. They've never given us a choice.”

“What about agricultural practices? Your dad--”

“Dad would be thrilled,” she said, and laughed.

Alan went on enthusiastically. “You could find out which farming methods are best, why one works in one area but not in another.”

“Do you mean do research on the effects of technology?”

“Maybe. Or like what you were saying about the different breeds of cattle. That's important information. It could mean a big difference to Rasheda in the future. San Taron would be the perfect place for you to--”

“Are you trying to convince me to come to school in San Taron?” Beth jolted to a halt on the path.

“Well, it's not a bad idea.” Alan stopped when she did, his tone cajoling.

Beth's face screwed up in distaste. “It's an awful idea! I can't live in San Taron!”

They walked on as he pointed out, “You've never been to San Taron.”

“So what? I know I wouldn't like it,” Beth said stubbornly. “I don't see how you can stand it. Cooped up in some building all day with a whole bunch of people.”

Alan tilted his head back and laughed.

“What?” she asked. He didn't stop laughing. “What's so funny?”

He caught his breath. “That's just what my parents said. They've never been to San Taron, either. You all have such a stereotypical view of life in a city. It's not like that at all.”

Beth didn't want him to make fun of her. “Then what's it like?” She eyed his trousers. “Does everybody wear expensive clothes just to take a walk?”

Alan rolled his eyes. “All right, stop teasing. And leave my clothes out of it. These were the only clean trousers I had.”

Beth quickly scuffed her boot on the path. Dirt rained across the bottom of Alan's clean, expensive pants. “Now they're just like all your others.”

“Hey! Not funny, Beth.” Scowling, he brushed the dust from his pants.

“You never used to be so fussy.”

“And you never used to be so judgmental.”

Beth's mouth froze in a tight, thin line of astonishment. “Do you really think that I'm judgmental?”

He straightened, adjusted the pack on his back, eventually confessing, “Yeh, a little. About things like the farm and agriculture and people.”

Beth felt her face grow red. “That's an awful lot of things.”

“That's not what I meant,” he insisted. “Look, Beth, there's so much more to Rasheda than the Hills, or farming, or even who controls the most industry. But nobody knows about anything that's different than what they do. That's what I was talking about.”

Her face still felt pinched. “What's that got to do with me?”

Alan took a deep breath, starting up the path again as Beth slowly followed. “Everybody's in their own little group. The Hills people know about the Hills, the Revaadan know about Reva Peninsula, they both know about farming, but only their kind of farming. Nobody likes the cities. But nobody from here has lived in a city before.”

“That doesn't make it bad to like living here,” she argued.

“Just because I live in San Taron and like to wear nice trousers doesn't mean I'm bad, either.”

“No, I suppose not,” Beth reluctantly decided. “But you're the Altair. San Taron is the center of our government, so of course you live there.”

He brushed more specks of dirt from his legs. “You make it seem so simple. It should be simple, but it isn't.”

Beth's expression grew puzzled. “It is so.”

“It's not,” Alan argued. “That's what I'm talking about. It's easy to have certain ideas about the other groups and places, but what if those ideas are completely wrong? Then what? Do you just go on, thinking awful things about people you don't even know, and places you've never been?”

“Alan, that's not--”

“Because that's what you'll do,” he continued hotly. “You think you're right about San Taron, and as long as you think you're right, you won't bother to find out that you're wrong. Everybody's like that. Nobody wants to know about anybody else anymore.”

Beth's face felt frozen. She didn't want to fight with Alan, but she didn't like what he was saying, either. Maybe he thought her whole family was prejudiced and judgmental, or maybe even the whole District. She'd been called many things, but never prejudiced. It bothered her that he could come back after just two cycles and think that way about her.

An unpleasant moment later, she found herself considering the wild idea that he might be right. She'd remembered her dad's scorn when they'd talked of the city just the day before. He loved farming in the Hills, and thought that anybody who didn't love the same thing was wrong. She felt suddenly ashamed as she realized that she'd given the same impression a few minutes earlier. Did she really think that Valley farming was better than doing anything else? Was she prejudiced and judgmental if she did?

These thoughts cast her disdain of Evan and his new Lurries into a whole new light. From Alan and Evan's perspective, she was judgmental. She supposed it didn't make Evan bad that he liked useless trousers. It also didn't mean that he should be allowed to get out of doing chores just because he preferred to be lazy.

The entire concept confused her. She had been so certain of everything just the day before. Now Beth suddenly didn't know what to think.

So that Alan wouldn't take note of her confusion, Beth dropped back a pace and trained her eyes on the path ahead. Its emptiness beckoned, leading up the hill towards the ruins, a place she found comforting and knew what to expect. She kept walking, vaguely thinking that Caulleen and Rae might be lost if she and Alan didn't catch up to them soon.

They passed under a network of low-hanging branches, and the trail swung left to avoid a pile of loose rocks that had once been part of an ancient stream. Their boot soles made muffled thuds on the dirt. Dusty grass swished as they walked. The drone of insects already filled the early morning air as the heat steadily increased.

A hundred steps later, the trail turned again, leading across an empty field of grass, one of the upper pastures that the District had set aside for emergencies in case of drought or flood in the Valley. It hadn't been used for several cycles, and the area wasn't even fenced in. Beth caught a glimpse of Rae's spiky hair as the trail disappeared into a small copse of trees in the middle of the open field of grass. A small amount of dust still hung in the air from their passage moments before.

The sun felt hot on her head as she and Alan silently crossed the open space. Plants and weeds grew thick in the grass. Some of the weeds were even pretty, with purplish green stems and colorful flowers. The yellow petals of the moon sedge had already closed tight around the purple centers that only opened at night. Thumb flower grew all over the pasture, its long stem and tiny pink nubs resembling anything but a thumb. Red jerson seeds floated into the air as their boots kicked the low plants.

They eventually reached the middle copse of trees. The high branches and leaves blocked out the sunlight, but the coolness of the shade did nothing to distract her thoughts. Finally she jogged the few paces to catch up with Alan. “Is this what you're studying?”

Her words seemed to jolt Alan from his own deep thoughts. “Studying?”

“You know, at the Institute. So you can be a better Altair,” she more fully explained. “What you're saying about cultures, and people not knowing about each other, and being judgmental... like what Caulleen says.” Then before he could answer, she curiously asked, “Has she always been your adviser?”

Alan shook his head. “You're just like her; full of questions.” The teasing tone was back in his voice, and she felt a little better at hearing it. “I'm not as interested in culture and traditions as Caulleen is. I guess you could say that I study the other side of politics. There's so much more to it than what group lives where and has what customs.”

“Then what's it about?”

“Power.”

The surety of his tone made a shiver shoot up her spine. “Last night Caulleen told me it had something to do with control, but I didn't understand. What does control have to do with what's going on in San Taron right now?”

Alan looked at her with a raised brow. “You're thinking like a Hills girl again. Power in politics has more to do with who controls what than it does with strength.”

“Like what?” When he didn't answer quickly enough to suit her, she added, “Come on, Alan, stop talking in half meanings.”

“All right.” He halted to face her head on. “There's a lot happening right now. Katai Derl believes the entire point of government is control, and I think he's right. Whoever controls certain things will have the most power in the government. Control comes through knowledge, and that's where you come in.”

“Huh?” Beth was thoroughly confused now.

Alan bumped her with his pack in excitement. “Don't you see it? You know so much about Hills farming methods, and you're interested in sound agricultural practices, but you're not so old that your ideas are set, like either of our parents' ideas. You would make a great adviser to the Katai.”

Beth gaped at him. “I don't want to be adviser! I...” She managed to shut her mouth before she could say anything derogatory about living in a city. With a jerk of her head, she started walking to put some distance between herself and such an outlandish idea. “It doesn't matter anyway. The way the Pro-techs and the Slavers are going at it, there won't be anything left of San Taron to live in.”

“That sounds like your dad talking.”

“How am I supposed to sound?” she asked, aware that she probably did sound like her dad, and also peevish and irritable, but she couldn't help herself. Just the thought of living in the city, accompanied by her worries over the San Taron battle, made her afraid. It took too much effort to be nice when she was afraid. “We suddenly hear that two factions are trying to overthrow the government, and then the link goes dead, and now we don't know what's happening at all.”

Alan brushed her fears aside with another wave of his hand. “It's not such a big deal, Beth.”

She looked at him and saw tiny wrinkles of concern around his eyes. “You don't believe that,” she accused. “It is a big deal. What if the Pro-techs and the Slavers win? What if they head in this direction next?”

Alan actually laughed in amusement. “That won't happen.”

Beth wasn't nearly as amused. “How do you know? There could be military air cars already on their way to the Valley right now, and we're out here, walking around in the open like idiots who--”

“The Hills District isn't important enough, Beth. Nobody's going to attack us.”

Beth was not convinced by Alan's easy tone. “But Mom just said that it wouldn't take much for--”

“Don't worry, Beth.” Alan grabbed her arm in comfort. “The Hills District is perfectly safe. There's nothing here that anybody wants.”

Beth stared at him, still unconvinced. Alan looked so sure of what he was saying, his grin thoroughly irritating.

“Anything that's worth fighting over is in San Taron,” Alan continued to gently argue. “That's where most of the processing plants are, the entire exportation service, the headquarters for the stellar shipyards, the engineers and designers and schools... It's all there, and what isn't there is in Derrastin or Eo.” He glanced up to take a quick scan of the area around them. “The only things here are hills, trees, and several hundred gilbies. There's nothing worth fighting over.”

What Alan said made sense. Though the farm and the people living in the Valley were very important to her, it was naive to think that they might be important to anybody else.

It was his calm, slightly mocking tone that did it; Beth finally relaxed. “I guess you're right.”

“That's why this was such a perfect place for us to come.”

She had to agree. “Yeh. It's lucky that you came here for this visit; you missed all that San Taron fighting.”

“It is lucky we came here,” he agreed, “but not just because we missed the fighting. I get to see good friends again.” He socked her playfully on the shoulder. “Feel better?”

“Yeh.” Feeling somewhat soothed, she looked quickly up the trail, but couldn't see any sign of Rae or Caulleen. “We'd better get going. We'll never make it to the ruins at this rate.”

“Whatever you say, trail guide.”

Alan's joking was meant to further reassure her, and it did, to some extent. She just wished she was as sure about everything as he was. “You're wrong about one thing, though.”

“What?”

Her expression turned sly. “There aren't several hundred gilbies in the Valley; there are several thousand.”

“See!” he exclaimed immediately. “You do know a lot about Hills District farming. All the more reason to come to San Taron.”

He was teasing again, but she wasn't when she said, “Alan, shut up.” Only after she said it did she realize she'd once again been too familiar with the Altair, though she'd promised not to be. Heat instantly suffused her face.

But a quick glance at Alan showed her that he really didn't mind.

They came upon Caulleen and Rae in the middle of the empty, overgrown pasture that followed the copse of trees. “We're about an hour from the first tier of ruins,” Beth said before she registered the looks on their faces. Caulleen looked angry, though she was clearly doing her best to hide it. Rae openly glowered, her eyes narrowed.

“What's wrong?” Beth quickly asked the two. “Did you think you were lost?”

“We're not... uh... sure which way to go from here,” Caulleen stuttered. “We decided to wait for you and Alan to catch up.”

Beth looked past Caulleen's shoulder. The path led distinctly across this pasture, down a ravine, and into the shadowy trees on the other side. Her forehead wrinkled in puzzlement. “Just go straight.” She was instinctively thinking city people when a low whine suddenly caught her attention.

At first, she thought it was insects. But once she realized that no insects surrounded them, she looked up. There were so many trees on the hillside that all they could see was a bowl of blue-white sky directly above them, and the big orange sun. The whine grew louder.

“Air bike,” Caulleen announced, her previous anger obviously forgotten in favor of this new mystery. Her eyes were trained on the sky.

“I bet it's Evan,” Beth said in irritation, her heart sinking. She had really wanted to go an entire day without having to deal with her little brother.

But her words didn't seem to irritate the others. “Do you think?” Alan asked as he shifted nervously on the path, clearly not believing her.

“Who else would it be?” Beth asked. “Nobody else would care that we're up here.”

Caulleen's boots nervously scuffed through the dirt. The whine grew more distinct as the hidden air bike neared. There was no mistaking the noise; it was definitely moving toward them.

Rae sidled several steps with Alan in the direction of the ravine, but kept looking over her shoulder at the open sky.

The whine grew louder yet, the ground shaking with the noise. The shaking suddenly relaxed Beth; it had to be the farm air bike. She thought she'd recognized the sound of that bike, and now she was sure of it. Evan had removed the silencer again, probably just this morning. That was why he'd been up so early. It didn't have anything to do with Nelson and the link at all. She was about to mention this theory to the others when a stealthy movement from Rae made her pause.

The security agent slowly reached underneath her pack with one hand, and grabbed Alan's arm with the other. She began pushing him more forcefully towards the trees at the other end of the field, simultaneously drawing a laser gun out from under her pack, it's compact barrel dazzling in the sunlight.

Beth gaped; she'd seen such guns on the datalink. They were banned in most places. She opened her mouth to object, but the intent expression on Rae's face made her gurgle a breath instead.

The others didn't pay any attention to the wordless sound. Still staring, they were now all moving inexorably towards the ravine. Contrarily, Beth felt rooted to the trail, unable to make herself think clearly enough to do anything.

Then, with the suddenness of a gilby charge, the whine in the air increased to a scream.

Rae immediately lost all hesitation and jerked Alan towards the cover of the ravine. “Gunner plane; run!”

CHAPTER EIGHT

They ran. Alan and Rae were at least ten steps in front of Caulleen, who was well in front of Beth. They knew exactly what to do, but Beth reacted sluggishly. Her mind wouldn't work right. She just couldn't get over the surprise of seeing that gun in Rae's hand. The extra emotion acted like a quagmire to her feet; it was more than enough to keep her from catching up to the others. She didn't really believe that the mechanical scream directly behind her was the sound of a gunner plane. She didn't even know what a gunner plane was. Still, she ran, carried along by the possibility of further threat. Her breath tore at her chest long before she reached the safety of the ravine.

“Move!” Rae screamed at Alan once more, forgetting all about Beth to bodily throw her charge into the ravine. Alan stumbled under the cover of the trees, then tumbled head long down a hidden slope.

Just in time, too. Not a second later, a small vehicle burst over the treetops and dropped into the clearing just behind them. The air vibrated with its high-pitched scream, drowning out the bucolic sound of bird song to fill the air with a metallic roar. Sunlight glinted off its silver hull and sleek weapons to send blinding flashes of light across the pasture.

The second the ground around her began exploding in little pops and spurts of dirt, Beth instinctively knew without doubt that Rae was right; she had to run. She didn't have to know what that thing behind her was called to believe with every nerve ending in her body that she definitely had to run, as fast as she possibly could, as far as she could go, for her life, she had to run, run, run. A ship that small wouldn't have so many external weapons if it weren't meant to gun something or someone down. Even from the corner of her eye, it looked mean enough to kill each and every one of them.

After that one hasty glance over her shoulder, Beth's eyes locked onto the ravine just as the ship's targeting computer surely locked onto her. She ran, then ran faster yet, her legs pumping furiously, the pack banging awkwardly against her shoulders.

The ravine drew closer, but not fast enough. Her legs felt as heavy as a huge bale of packed grass feed. Still Beth pushed forward, determined to reach the safety of the trees ahead of that plane.

“Hurry!” someone yelled. With one more burst of speed, Beth leapt the final three steps into the ravine. She instantly rolled down a brush-covered slope just as more blasts of laser fire exploded into the ground behind her.

Beth landed in a tangle of thrashing limbs, torn clothes, and heaving lungs among the thorn bushes at the bottom of the ravine. Only vines and twigs separated her from a sunny space wide open to attack. She lay on her back and gasped for breath.

“Wh... what..?” she panted, but renewed screaming cut her off; the gunner plane was coming around for a second pass.

Her reaction was once again pure instinct: Beth struggled against pack and thorns alike to vault to her feet. Caulleen immediately pushed her back to the ground with a thump and held her still, mercilessly clamping a hand over her mouth.

Beth thrashed wildly against Caulleen's hold, certain that they were all going to be killed if they didn't run away as fast as they could.

In the second that the scream of the plane grew deafening, Rae calmly lifted her arm, took aim, and fired her gun, the blue laser streaking through the sky. With a screech of metal and erupting fuel packs, a rain of sparks showered over them like a slow motion holiday spectacle. The ship rolled and tumbled once, twice, then smashed into the ground as if sucked right into it. More thuds sounded, followed by an explosion, then another one. Then it was so quiet that the silence screamed as loudly as the plane.

Caulleen quickly hauled Beth to her feet. Beth swayed dizzily, sick to her stomach. But except for Caulleen's supportive hand, nobody paid her any attention. Rae continued to stand stiff and still among the tangled undergrowth, her feet spread apart for balance, her gun pointed straight up into the air as she scanned the sky, clearly listening for more ships.

Alan was busily digging through his pack as if they hadn't nearly been killed a minute ago, as if Rae hadn't somehow shot down an armed ship with a simple laser gun. He looked like none of that was important, or as if it hadn't happened at all. He didn't look at Beth to make sure she was all right. He didn't ask. He didn't explain anything.

Then it occurred to her that he had run away from the plane with Rae, and left her far behind. Maybe he didn't ask about her because he didn't care. Maybe he didn't care about any of them.

Some Altair he was if he didn't care about his own citizens any more than that.

Beth walked right through a bush to get to him. “You jerk!” she yelled, disregarding the authority oozing out of him. “You said no one would attack the Hills! You said there wasn't anything important here!” She shoved him over, then kicked a shower of dirt and leaves over him with a thrust of her boot.

“Beth!” He held up a hand to protect his face from the rain of dirt.

In response, she leaned over and shoved him again. “What about Mom and Dad? We have to go back! You said nobody--”

“Your parents?” Alan asked in surprise. He tried to push her away, but Beth's fists smacked his arms aside to attack his exposed chest. Alan caught her hands and grappled with her for control. “Stop it, Beth!”

“You idiot!” Beth yelled. “You don't know about politics. You don't know about your citizens. You don't know anything!”

The next instant Beth felt an arm circle her neck and start to squeeze as Rae dragged her far from Alan. Beth twisted to get away, accompanied by a shower of leaves and dirt, but Rae's arm was like iron. Beth couldn't break free, no matter how hard she struggled. She could barely breath. Then with a swift jerk, Rae pinned Beth's arms to her sides. The coolness of the gun's sleek barrel pushed into her neck, sending cold pinpricks of shock shooting up her bare arm.

Worst of all was Rae's icy voice when she hissed, “Shut. Up.”

“Rae!” Alan said sharply. “Let her go.”

Rae paused, but tightened her grip until Beth's ears began to ring.

“I said let her go!”

Just as suddenly as it had started, Rae growled and dropped her arm.

Beth stumbled away, a hand on her aching throat and blood roaring through her temples. She stared with wide eyes at Rae, and Alan, and Caulleen as the three of them stared with freakish placidity back at her. Either she was still in bed, trapped in her dreams from the night before, or they were all insane.

Then, still languid and dreamy, her gaze landed squarely on Alan, and with abrupt clarity, she knew. “They're after you.”

Rae immediately scoffed, “That's all you can say?”

“Give her a break,” Alan coaxed.

Rae whipped around to glare at him. “Then you control her!” she snapped, pointing at Beth. “We need her help, but I can't protect either of you if she's an idiot.”

“Calm down,” Alan barked in a hoarse response. “There's no need to protect anyone; they're gone.”

“They'll come back, and you know it.”

“Not right away.”

“It doesn't matter when they come if she's always this stupid!”

Alan turned to Beth. “Are you all right?”

His overly solicitous tone told Beth that more was going on here than she understood. Once again, Beth felt slow and stupid, just as Rae claimed she was. The only thing clear to her was that she didn't know these three people. They were all so complacent in the face of their possible death that she barely recognized them. Even Alan was a stranger. She'd thought he was the same old Alan who was always teasing her, but being the Altair had changed him into some foreigner who was far too comfortable with what had clearly been an assassination attempt.

But now Alan was beginning to look uncomfortable at Beth's continued silence. When she did finally speak, it was with a stutter and a squeak. “Who... are they?” Beth pointed in the approximate direction of the downed gunner plane.

Rae moved foreword in determination.

Beth jumped a step back and said, “No! I'm not doing anything until you tell me what's going on.”

“Look,” Rae hissed, her demeanor tall and threatening. “If we're here when they come back, they'll find us, and they'll kill us. They won't ask who you are first. They won't--”

“Alan's the Altair,” Caulleen quietly reminded, and shrugged, as if that simple statement explained everything.

“I know!” Beth yelled at Caulleen, then made a choppy gesture at the smoking remains of the gunner plane. “What's that got to do with that?”

“You know who we are.” Caulleen pointed at herself. “This was supposed to be just a political visit on behalf of the Katai, but--”

“Caulleen, stop,” Alan interjected. “Don't simply repeat the cover story. Beth is in this, too, and deserves to hear the truth.” Alan turned his attention to Beth. “Katai Derl knew this uprising was going to happen. He sent me here not in his place, but to protect me.” He looked at the smoke that spiraled in a false peace over the sleepy meadow. “But that's not how it turned out. They obviously know where I am. We must have a traitor in the Hills District.”

The quiet of more shock descended on the ravine again. Beth could hear the crackle and pop of the fire caused by the crash as it shifted in the wind. Her glance once again slid over Rae, Caulleen, and the eerily calm Alan. Her breath stuck in her throat. They all seemed so self-assured, so confident, while her heart was thudding a staccato rhythm of terror against her ribs. When she was able to force her breath through her tight throat, the query that followed sounded hesitant and timid. “You're sure?”

Alan forcefully nodded. “How else would they have found me up here? That has to be why.”

Beth could still only stare blankly at him. “I thought the Katai sent you to the Hills because he didn't think we were important enough to--”

“Of course the Hills District is important,” Alan insisted. “He just thought it would be the perfect place for me to hide while he sorts things out in San Taron.”

Beth blinked, doing her best to keep up with his words, but it was like her brain had taken in all it could, and had just shut down. Because of that, comprehension was slow. “I knew... knew something wasn't... right... with him sending you instead...” Beth blinked again, and suddenly Caulleen and Rae looked older somehow. “None of you talked about... the politics of the area.” Her gaze landed on Alan, who looked oldest of all. “I can't believe you didn't tell me.”

Rae briskly declared, “Now you know. And you can help. Whoever sent that plane--”

“They won't send another plane,” Caulleen predicted quietly, her voice as calm as it ever was. “It will attract too much attention. The crash and the smoke is probably already on all the satellite scanners.”

“They'll come on foot,” Alan finished, his voice as methodical as Caulleen's.

Caulleen continued, “They know we won't be able to get reinforcements here fast enough.”

“Does Mieka know where we are?” Alan asked.

“Yes,” Rae answered. “But we haven't talked in days. He doesn't know about this hike, so he won't know our exact location.”

There was that name again: Mieka. Beth didn't know who Mieka was now any more than she had earlier, but at least she recognized it. She felt ridiculously proud of that small accomplishment.

Alan gestured towards the fire. “He knows where we are now.”

“So does everybody,” Caulleen said.

“We can't count on him,” Rae insisted.

Alan's sigh sounded frustrated. “Still, it's much easier for us to walk through this kind of terrain than it is for them to try to spot us through the trees. They'll come on foot; you know they will. They might be in the Hills already.”

Rae agreed with a brusque nod. “On foot from where?”

Alan waved outward to the meadow. “You can land foot soldiers in pastures like this anywhere. Then there's the public landing field.”

The phrase 'public landing field' only meant one thing to Beth. “Nelson! Will he be-?”

“He'll be fine,” Alan assured. “It's me they're after.”

“Any other landing fields?” Rae barked, instantly all business in spite of Beth's outburst.

“There's two fields in the District,” Alan told her. “The one where we came in, and over in Zokolai, nine leagues North of here, maybe ten.”

Rae shook her head. “Too close. The smoke won't fool them for long.”

“Not without bodies to find,” Alan concurred. “Going back down wouldn't be any better.”

Agreeing with Alan, Caulleen nodded. “They'd just shoot up the Valley hoping to hit you. We need a place to hide.”

They all instantly looked to Beth to point them in the right direction.

Beth tried to focus on their discussion, but it all seemed so unreal; gunner planes shooting at them, danger lurking everywhere, her worry about her family shadowing everything. But getting out of the trees alive was more important than her grasp on all that was happening. It didn't matter that Alan was a high government official, or that he hadn't trusted her with the real reason for his visit; he was still Alan, and she didn't want him to die. But it was so hard to pay attention. It was hard to think. Beth was momentarily surprised that all she really wanted to do was curl into a ball and go to sleep.

“Beth?” Alan prodded, and she jerked out of her somnolent thoughts.

“A place to hide,” she repeated as her mind sluggishly started to work again. “It's all like this. Just open grass and trees.” She turned back from examining the trees around them to find the three still staring at her, clearly expecting her to produce a miraculously clever hiding place, so she banally said, “Except for the ruins. There are a few buildings still standing there.”

Rae shook her head. “Too obvious.”

Hide... where could they hide? What was at the ruins... besides ruins? “Would holes in the ground work?” Beth asked next.

Rae appeared more interested. “What kind of holes?”

“Uh...” Beth tried desperately to make her mind work faster to picture the ruins. “Storage rooms, I guess. With only one way in.”

Alan's face screwed into distaste. “And only one way out.”

Frustrated, Beth said, “It would help if I knew what you needed.”

Rae didn't give Alan time to respond. “Later. We've been here too long; we need to move.” Without waiting for agreement, she slipped carefully over the edge of the ravine to scan in every direction.

“Keep thinking on it, Beth,” Alan ordered.

Keep thinking on it? Beth was too overwhelmed to think at all. She watched as Alan went back to sifting through his pack. He pulled two more weapons from a hidden pocket, and tossed one to Caulleen with a practiced gesture before keeping one, and quickly resealing the pack. Caulleen checked the power supply on the smaller gun she had caught, flicking it to a higher setting. They all appeared so calm that, except for the smell of burning grass, Beth still had the hazy feeling she was dreaming.

Rae silently crawled back from the edge of the ravine to report, “Nothing. It's clear. But keep quiet,” she ordered, then motioned for them to follow with a jerk of her head towards the trail leading to the trees edging the field. Beth nodded because she didn't know what else to do.

Rae slid noiselessly through the thick brush in the ravine, the gun held defensively in front of her. She didn't take her finger from the trigger even for a second.

Alan followed without a word. Caulleen pulled on Beth's arm, and she fell in close behind the adviser, but took a moment to glance over her shoulder at the downed gunner ship.

In spite of the ship's small size, debris spread in haphazard destruction across half the field. The dry grass around the crash was burning in thick clouds of smoke, the fire quickly spreading. The only sound now was the harsh grating of burning metal and the snap of flames. For a fleeting moment, Beth wondered about the pilot.

Again Caulleen tugged on her arm, and Beth turned. She tried to put the plane out of her mind, to think of other places to hide besides the ruins as she followed Caulleen. It was hard to concentrate on anything but what she was doing. She tripped as her foot caught on the back of Caulleen's boot, and recovered herself with only a small squeak. Rae shot her a nasty glance at the slight noise, going from simple bodyguard to dangerous assassin in moments. Beth clenched her teeth to stay quiet.

In quick, furtive movements, Rae led them at a crouched run through the dusty grass and into the shade of the trees on the other side of the pasture. Beth dragged at Caulleen's hand, tripping again and holding them both back.

They slid to a breathless halt just inside the cool shade cast by the trees. Caulleen pulled her several steps farther into the shadows, then paused to adjust the gun's setting one more notch while Rae sent several bolts of blue laser fire into the grass surrounding the pasture's edge. The grass instantly flamed red as the fire rapidly ate its way across the pasture.

Beth choked, stunned. “What are you doing?”

Rae ignored her to send more bursts in another direction.

“Stop!” Beth said. “That's good grass! We might need--”

“It's necessary,” Caulleen insisted in an urgent whisper, holding her back. “The smoke will cover us.”

Alan put his hand on Beth's arm, too. “She's right, Beth. This will be added protection for all of us. We know what we're doing.”

Beth frowned. She didn't say a word, though her eyes smarted from more than the smoke. Setting the field on fire might act as a further diversion, and half the field was lost anyway because of the crash. But she didn't understand how Alan thought a burning field was protection. A burned field was a useless field, and lost livelihood for the Hills. She wondered if Alan really knew what he was doing, or if he was just making everything up as they went along.

The second the fire met the very green, very wet foliage beneath these particular trees, less fire and more smoke filled the air. The fire died even as the smoke screen blossomed. But Beth didn't have time to wonder about such a screen. Choking, cloying smoke curled around the bare tree trunks and low brush as they pushed their way to the path. Her eyes started to sting for real. Even this far from the downed plane, the air stank like burning chemicals.

Before anybody had time to cough, Rae set off at a fast pace down the path, staying close to Alan. She motioned for Beth and Caulleen to fall in right behind.

Rae's pace was fast, much faster than Beth's original pace to get away from Evan. Beth needed every bit of concentration not to trip on fallen branches and hidden roots. They sped onward, dodging past low branches and brush, the grass whispering as it slapped against their legs. Finally Beth tripped again, but Rae didn't stop. Beth had to run faster to catch up. She was too busy to spare much thought for hiding places.

Rae slowed when they had traveled the fastest two leagues of Beth's life. Her side ached, and her lungs burned for air. They had left the smokey air far behind, but Beth still heaved. She was used to walking, not running and dodging around brush. She was in the rear of their group now, and felt exposed being in the back without a weapon. If anybody came up from behind, she was the first target. She crowded closer to Caulleen, who was in a whispered conversation with Alan.

“If they're after me, does it mean Gusta's dead?” Alan's whisper to Caulleen was extra soft, but even so, Rae glanced sharply at the sound.

Caulleen's answer was equally as soft. “Maybe. But maybe not. I bet they're just not leaving anything to chance.”

With a shiver, Beth realized they were talking about the Katai. If Gusta Derl was dead, that meant that Alan was now Katai. She didn't want to think about that possibility.

Rae glared over her shoulder again, gesturing for them to be quiet, but Caulleen continued in a whisper so soft, it almost didn't exist.

“We were lucky to get you out before it started. Now the Rebels are angry, but they're not as organized as the Force.”

“They're organized enough to find us already.” Alan's whisper was as cynical as his words. “I thought we'd be safe coming up here, but we're not.”

“What?” Beth asked, too astonished to whisper. Did Alan mean that they had purposely come on this walk to the ruins as a further precaution against discovery? Her voice rang out loud and unnatural in the quiet of the woods.

Rae reached between Caulleen and Alan to grab Beth by the front of her work shirt to yank her close, staring straight into her eyes. “Unless you have some help to give, shut... your... mouth.” She raised her gun a fraction, not threatening, but reminding Beth that it was there. Then she dropped Beth and moved away to calmly check the surrounding area, as if Beth was nothing more important than a misbehaving kid.

Beth choked back a humiliated yell, and shook in anger. In that instant, she hated Rae. She hated Caulleen for standing quietly on the trail, doing nothing. And she hated Alan for everything.

The apologetic look on Alan's face reminded her that he'd known all about the revolt in San Taron before it had happened; they all had. They weren't on an official visit to solve the problems besetting the Hills District, but here as an escape from eventual assassination. His entire visit was just a Hills District manipulation.

And then Alan had invited her on a walk up to the ruins. Why? To get farther away? Because he knew that the rebels would send someone to kill him and he had more cover in the hills? Had he asked her along only because she knew the area so well, as if her well being didn't mean anything to him?

She felt stupid and used. Tears pricked at the back of her eyes. She blinked furiously, but more tears pooled behind her eyelids. She didn't want them to see her cry. That would be even more humiliating than anything that had happened so far. Alan would be annoyed, and Rae would just think she was being stupid again. It was bad enough that she didn't understand anything, that she was an extra person for everybody to worry about, and that Rae already thought she was dumb.

Beth tilted her head back and opened her eyes wide to force them dry. The tears swam and blurred her eyesight for a moment, then slowly disappeared as the leafy branches swayed above her head. The trees grew so thick here that she couldn't see more than a hint of the blue sky. Sunlight filtered to the ground only in small patches of checkered light. The swirl of leaves and sun helped to drive away the last of the tears.

Between blinking and quietly sniffing, the idea struck.

Could they hide in the trees?

CHAPTER NINE

“It's a bad idea,” Rae said, quietly forceful.

“Why?” Beth demanded, keeping her voice as low as she possibly could and still be heard over the scuffle of their boots on the dirt path.

Rae impatiently explained, “Where will we go if someone finds us up there?” She gestured at the treetops with her gun and derisively said, “They'll pick us off like slaves in a grain plot.”

Beth swallowed her sigh and pushed angrily at the wisps of hair sticking to her sweaty neck. She suspected Rae vetoed the idea only because she had suggested it. “Can we at least climb up to take a look around?”

Rae paused. Her gaze traveled up the nearest tree. Neither of them could see far into the web of branches. “It would take time, and you wouldn't be able to see anything useful.” She kept walking.

“I could see anyone coming up the path. And any landing ships,” Beth argued. “Is that useful?”

Rae paused again. Her eyes swept over Beth, then up the trees. She decided quickly, and nodded only once.

Beth handed her pack to Caulleen.

“Rae!” Alan hissed in urgent disbelief, leaning in close. “Are you crazy? You can't let her go up there! What if she falls? I can't--”

“I won't fall,” Beth protested, perturbed at his reasoning.

But Alan was shaking his head. “You might break your neck. Beth, this is stupid and dangerous.”

Beth scowled, indignant. “Dangerous? That didn't stop you from bringing me up here in the first place.”

He glared at her. “You're my responsibility, and I'm not letting you--”

“Do you have a better idea?” she whispered, furious that he thought he was letting her do anything. “If you're so worried, maybe you should be the one to climb a tree.”

He angrily protested, “You know I've never been good at climbing trees.”

“Yes, I do know.” Beth tightened her lips to keep from sneering like Tessy might.

Without a word, Rae pointed at a tree, then cupped her hands, indicating that she would give Beth a boost into the lowest branches.

Alan hissed a frustrated sigh, and angrily whispered, “Be careful!”

Moved to urgency by Rae's curt gestures and her own anger at Alan, Beth placed her boot into Rae's cupped hands without even a glance at the chosen tree. Rae threw her up into the branches before she had time to prepare herself. Her hands flailed against empty air, then scraped across the rough bark, grasping a small nub at the last minute. Sharp pieces of bark bit into her hands, and she felt a fingernail bend back. Beth dangled precariously from her fingertips, but didn't crash to the ground.

Carefully Beth wiggled around until she felt one of the fat, round branches under her right boot. She pushed away from the nub with all her strength and turned at the same time, forcing her balance back into the trunk of the tree. Another branch checked her momentum, stopping her from tumbling all the way to the ground. She stood with her back pressed into the rough trunk, panting noisily. She tried to silence her breathing, and glanced down to see if Rae had noticed.

But Rae and the others were gone! She couldn't believe it, but her eyes didn't lie. They must have abandoned her to take her chances on the trail with whomever might find her. Just as panic began to edge out her previous anger, she spotted a flash of light, and saw the three of them crouched among some brush a dozen steps off the trail. A stray beam of sunlight had glinted off the metal clasp of Alan's pack. Beth breathed a sigh of relief. Somehow being left behind was a worse fate than staying with Alan, in spite of the dangers.

She swayed on the branch a moment longer, then studied the arcing tangle of branches above her for the best route to the top. It wasn't going to be easy, no matter how she did it; great round limbs stuck out in every direction, surrounded by random stubs and rotten growth. Silvery bark peeled away from the tree in long, curling chunks. Gray moss covered the tops of each branch, making for treacherous handholds and footing. This wasn't like the ebora fruit trees she had climbed as a kid in the Valley. This tree was much older, and definitely much bigger. She would have to be careful not to fall. Such a fall would surely break a bone, to say nothing of the noise it would make.

Feeling calmer now, Beth took a deep breath, and started to climb. The moss was slick, but her boots gave her more traction than she expected. Beth reached for the first branch, then found a place big enough for the toe of her boot, and pushed herself up. Once there, she wiggled her other boot onto a branch, grasped at the curling bark, then searched for the next branch that was just a little higher. Short, spotted leaves from the new growth slapped her cheeks and made it hard to see, but she kept climbing, higher and higher, from branch to branch, right foot, left hand, left foot, right hand. Hard yellow seed pods sprouted from the bark and the tips of branches, some as big as her fist, always in the way and under her feet. She forced herself to avoid the seeds and concentrate on the next branch, on finding the best place to grab with her sore hands. She didn't let herself think that climbing down would be much harder than climbing up, and refused to consider falling.

Before she realized how far she'd gone, the dense growth began to thin. Smaller branches twisted out from the central trunk, and fewer leaves hindered her view of the next branch. Beth stopped to catch her breath and look around.

The ground had disappeared, while the sloping, tree-covered hill spread out around her. She could see clearly through the gap between her hill and the next, marred by the ribbon of trail that had once been the main road to Zokolai. Off to her right was an open spot among the trees, barely discernible. It must be the Zokolai landing field; there was nothing else big enough in that direction that would leave such an obvious mark on the unchanging landscape.

She carefully turned to face the other direction. Much closer was the Valley, empty and treeless compared to the hills. Squares of fields made hundreds of patches on the ground, and she could still make out the thin line of fences around each farm. She wasn't practiced enough to recognize her farm among the others, but knew that one of the tiny houses was hers. They all looked like puny cubes from her height in the trees.

Closer yet were the two open spaces that indicated the ruins. The first tier, twice as big and only a league away, beckoned with familiarity. She could even identify the different building remains on the ruin's far side. The tall trees hid the landmarks on the side closest to her position, but she knew exactly what was there. First was the large gate structure, useless and crumbling now, minus any remains of a gate, a squiggle of writing marking one square side. Beyond were walls, holes that had once been part of what Nelson thought was a watering system, rocks bordering what might have been yards or gardens, the remains of sagging stone fences, and artifacts scattered on the ground.

Something suddenly flickered in the direction of the Zokolai landing field, and all thoughts of relics and ruins fled. A ship, much bigger than the one Rae had shot down earlier, hovered above the landing field. Sunlight sparked off its shiny surface and what might be weapons placements. Unlike Evan, who knew about ships and weapons from his tech games, she wasn't sure what she was seeing. The ship sank slowly below the tree line to disappear in landing maneuvers. A moment later, two more ships rose from the field, these identical to the small fighter that had attacked them. One moved away, and one moved directly towards her.

The few branches above her swayed in a sudden wind, exposing her mercilessly. Beth had anticipated her height would guarantee her safety from the ground, but hadn't considered her vulnerability from the air. They aren't supposed to be in ships, Beth argued to herself. They're supposed to come on foot! She was wearing the wrong color to blend in with the silver bark and light green leaves that surrounded her.

The gunner plane flew closer with a chillingly familiar scream. Helpless vulnerability mixed with fear to make her knees shake. Beth held her breath, tucked her head down to hide her face, and tried to shrink into the tree trunk.

The swoosh of the ship flying close overhead made the branches bend and twist. Beth gripped the trunk with every ounce of strength in her, but it was all she could do just to hold on. Her left foot slipped off the branch, and for a moment she struggled not to fall. It didn't matter who saw her if she fell. She scrabbled at the branch, and found her foothold again just as the plane veered in the direction of the Valley and screamed out of sight.

It didn't turn back, so she deduced that the pilot hadn't seen her.

Beth's heart pounded in her chest. Sweat dripped down her neck. Now she understood why Rae had refused to take cover in the trees. She was trapped and helpless, like slaves in a grain plot, just as Rae had said. Beth's appreciation for the plight of the slaves rose considerably as she leaned into the tree trunk and caught her breath. She never wanted to feel so helpless again.

At least the others were well hidden and safe among the brush. Weren't they?

Renewed fear made her turn around to make sure, but she was distracted by the smoky proof of the fire that Rae had started. Smoke also still seared the sky from the plane crash in the nearest grass field, but Beth couldn't see anything directly below, though she scanned furiously back and forth through the foliage. It was all a jumble of swaying branches and seed pods and gray mossy leaves. Nothing was clear, and she felt a little better. If she couldn't see them, then no pilot in a fast-moving ship would see them, either.

But that sentiment didn't restore her confidence. She had lost sight of the two ships, and knew only that somebody was still hunting for Alan. Nobody in the Hills District owned gunner ships with weapons placements like the ones she'd just seen.

Beth glanced once more at the Zokolai landing field, then in the direction of the Valley. Nothing moved except the treetops. Just as she decided to begin the climb down, something new caught her eye.

There was movement on the path.

Farther down the hill, between the wrecked plane site and her tree, Beth made out two figures inching slowly in her direction. They blended almost perfectly into the undergrowth, but they couldn't hide their motions on the open trail. They held something in their hands, as if they gripped long rifles. Beth squinted against the harsh sunlight, trying to distinguish details while uselessly wishing she'd brought her magnifiers with her when she had left that morning.

As she watched, one of the figures gestured at something among the trees. She followed the wave, and spotted another figure moving carefully through the growth several paces from the path. Alarmed, she looked to the other side of the trail. A moment later, she found another figure, then another. Within seconds she had counted five people moving slowly but steadily towards Alan's hiding place. Fanned out as they were, the group would practically trip over him and the others.

Beth opened her mouth to yell a warning, then swallowed the cry at the last minute. A yell would be an invitation for those hunters to shoot her. She assumed there were more that she couldn't see, and they must all be armed. She'd never make it safely to the ground before they reached her tree.

The group of hunters moved inexorably closer, quiet in spite of their numbers. They would be on top of Alan in minutes.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

No! she yelled in her mind. No, no, no, no...

She didn't have any weapons, and no way to contact the others. Trapped as she was, she had nothing but a good view, useless curls of bark, and seed pods.

Before she could think twice, she yanked the closest seed pod from its branch. The pod was bumpy and rough, but light. She launched it at the approaching group, heedless of how she threw it or what effect it had. Without waiting for the hunters to react, she reached for another pod.

She threw this one with more deliberation, aiming it down the hill and away from Alan's group, throwing it low so it had a chance to reach the ground and be mistaken for a boot step. The next pod caught in the branch of a tree. Three more hit the ground with muted thuds. A fourth bounced off a tree's thick trunk before sliding from branch to branch to land half way down the hill.

Beth didn't pause until she had thrown all the seed pods within reach. She took a second to peer through the trees, and managed to see several hunters follow the sound of the pods and disappear into the brush on the Valley side of the trail. She didn't wait long enough to make sure they were all gone, but started to climb down the tree, fast.

Bark scraped against her palms. Seed pods cracked in tiny puffs when she heedlessly stepped on them. Her foot slipped, and a branch snapped. She hesitated long enough to shift her weight to her other leg, and kept going. One branch led to the next, around the trunk, over nobs of new growth. Leaves swished in her face as she spiraled down the network of coiled bark. She was not going to be caught in the tree, a helpless target easy to pick off and shoot down.

Her heart hammered against her ribs. More branches splintered under her feet. Twigs tangled in her hair. She grabbed for a branch and missed. Her foot slipped. She went down on one knee, and pain jabbed through her leg. Then somehow she was sliding past the last branch, desperately hugging the tree trunk, all precepts of quiet gone. A shower of bark and leaves followed her, and suddenly she was on the ground with a bone-jarring thud.

She jumped to her feet and ran blindly right into the grasp of a waiting hunter.

Beth gasped. A rough hand clamped hold of her arm, a second hand raised to her face.

A bright blue laser bolt fired from off to her right. The hunter jerked and fell back into the cushion of leaves. Beth had time to register the surprise fading in his eyes, the trickle of blood from the corner of his mouth, and the smell of burning before a new hand grabbed her arm. Caulleen yanked her quickly into the cover of the trees.

They ran. The sound of more gun fire reached them from behind. Cries and grunts came from ahead. Suddenly they burst out of the rotting undergrowth to surprise a group of three more hunters, all crouched against the trunks of trees, peering in the opposite direction.

Caulleen skidded to a halt, and Beth ran into her, making her first shot careen wildly into the trees. Beth tripped and fell back into cover before the hunters whirled around and opened fire.

Somehow they missed Caulleen, who dodged back into the undergrowth and disappeared. There was an explosion of leaves and noise, and the next volley of shots whistled right over Beth's head. She cowered down into the dirt and whimpered, unable to stop herself. Then a bolt buried itself in the dirt two inches from her nose, and Beth gave an involuntary gasp; they were aiming right at her!

She wanted to jump up and scream that she wasn't important, that she had nothing to do with the government or any rebel uprising. She fought back the urge to panic. Instead, she lurched sideways, leaving her hiding place to scurry across an open area and dive behind another tangle of brush and scrub. The minute she reached the relative cover of the brush, she groped the ground for a rock, a fallen branch, for anything that might serve as a weapon. Her fingers wrapped convulsively around a solid branch lying half buried in the leaves, though she knew it was a hopeless tactic; bushes and branches would not deter laser bolts for long.

But the firing suddenly stopped. The sound of slaps added to more grunts and yells. Beth impulsively crawled around the edge of the bushes for a quick look.

One of the hunters lay unmoving on the ground only five steps from where she crouched. Beth had seen enough dead animals on the farm to recognize the blank stare of his eyes. Another hunter stood beside him, her laser rifle trained across the clearing on Rae, who was expertly blocking a hand attack from the third hunter. Rae dodged even as she blocked, putting the hunter between her and the rifle. The second hunter stepped forward, struggling to get a clear shot at Rae.

Without thinking, Beth rushed from her hiding place, the branch raised high above her head to smash across the hunter's neck.

Though the rotten branch splintered on impact, the hunter crashed to the ground, stunned. Beth turned to run, but then Alan was beside her, his laser pistol smoking. The hunter sprawled across the ground, unconscious, a seeping wound in her chest.

A cry suddenly echoed in the clearing. Rae thrust an elbow into her opponent's stomach, then twisted his arm and cracked it against her shoulder. One last punch sent him tumbling into the weeds, where he lay moaning in pain, his arm broken at the elbow and his leg cocked at an odd angle. He wouldn't be following them.

Rae strode briskly towards Beth, and nodded at the remains of the branch. “Stupid, but effective, just like that distraction you used from the tree,” she said as she bent to retrieve the hunter's discarded rifle.

Beth gulped a breath. “You always think I'm stupid,” she retorted, miraculously matching Rae's casual tone, but pleased with the compliments nonetheless.

Rae's lips pursed, hiding a smile. “Alan's hurt,” she reported, still casual.

Beth gaped anew at a streak of blood on Alan's pack. He'd been shot in his left arm, near the shoulder. Rushing forward to stupidly grab his arm in a move that made him moan in pain, she managed to choke, “Alan?”

But he brushed her concern aside. “I'm all right,” he insisted, though his left arm hung uselessly against his side and his face was pinched in pain. His breath came in short gasps that he had no hope of quieting, though he was beginning to control it.

In spite of his breathing, Rae didn't appear concerned, either. She pointed to the discarded rifle still resting near enough to the unconscious hunter to be a threat. “Get the charge pack,” she instructed. “And their communicators.” Then she serenely pulled a small communicator out of her pack and flipped it open. “Sierens to E7,” she hissed into it. Only static answered.

Uncomprehending, Beth picked up the heavy rifle. It felt dangerous. She turned it over, but it was just a jumble of buttons and wires and triggers. She had no idea where to look for a charge pack. It was Caulleen who eventually disconnected the energy plug and pulled the charge from the black mesh stock. She shrugged out of Beth's pack that she'd appropriated when Beth had climbed the tree, and dropped the charge inside, along with two small guns, another laser pistol, and several small gray communicators.

Beth grabbed the pack from Caulleen to rifle through the contents of food and weapons and water containers to find the medkit at the very bottom. “Here.” She handed Alan a pain tablet, then released his pack's shoulder strap and gently pulled it from his back. He grunted once, but clenched his teeth against the pain.

“I'm sorry,” he suddenly said. “For bringing you into all this.”

Beth stopped fussing over his shoulder long enough to take in his sincere expression. Suddenly all her anger left, as if she'd deflated. “You didn't know this was going to happen.”

Alan gave a one shouldered shrug. “Maybe not. But I should have guessed.”

“You can't know everything,” she insisted. “You were only doing what you thought best.” But he wouldn't meet her gaze again.

Rae reappeared before Beth could look closer at the seared wound on his shoulder. “We need a place to hide near an area big enough for Mieka to land a rescue ship.”

“The ruins,” Alan gasped.

“Is Mieka here?” Caulleen asked at the same time.

Rae quelled them with a glare, then looked back at Beth.

Beth nodded. “The ruins. There's an open place on the far side, where most of the buildings are gone.”

“Is it defensible?” Rae demanded.

Beth shook her head. “I don't know what--”

“Can we hide and defend ourselves until he gets there?” she asked, curt with impatience.

“Yes,” Beth nodded. At least, she hoped they could. She didn't know what made a place good for defense, but the ruins was the closest area big enough to land a ship.

Rae ignored Beth's confused expression to issue more orders into her communicator. Then she closed the device with a snap and said, “Let's go.”

Beth stood unmoving. Things were happening so fast, and there was so much that she still didn't understand, yet she could only protest, “What about Alan?” They hadn't cleaned his shoulder or bandaged the wound. Though cauterized by the heat of the laser bolt, blood still clotted on his shirt, and dirt covered everything. To Beth's untrained eyes, it looked bad. Nothing else mattered if something happened to him. Wasn't his safety the entire point?

“More soldiers are coming,” Rae said.

“I'm fine,” Alan insisted again. “Do what she says, Beth.”

Beth glared at him, her expression as fierce as any of Rae's. “Fine!” she growled, but paused for a moment to pull the antiseptic spray from the medkit. She aimed several bursts at Alan's shoulder, then gave him another pain tablet.

His face was more pinched than before. “Infection won't matter if they catch me,” he reminded her, but he took the tablet and the water she held out to him. “Thanks.”

Caulleen grabbed Alan's pack and threw it on her shoulders. Beth thrust the medkit back into her own pack, sealed it, and pulled it on.

Just before they set off, Rae handed a pistol to Beth with the order, “Don't use it unless you're sure you won't hit one of us. Which way are the ruins?”

Beth yelped in surprise at being handed a real weapon. She'd barely been able to touch the gun before her numb fingers let it fall to the dirt. Rae raised one eyebrow in disgust.

Determined anew, Beth grasped the pistol firmly in her hand, and after a quick glance at the sun peeking through the high branches of the trees, she gestured to the left. “It's faster to climb up the hill. We go that way.”

Rae headed in that direction, quietly breaking a path through the brush and around trees, her gun up and ready, everyone else falling in behind her.

Beth crowded close to Caulleen and Alan, pushing twigs and rocks aside to make the trail easier for him, helping him when she could while grimly wondering if her help would really do them any good at all.

She'd seen the looks in those hunters' eyes; they were as determined to kill Alan as Rae was to keep him alive, and it made her flesh crawl. Why would anybody be so willing to kill Alan? What had he done to them? None of this made any sense to her. But she kept an eye out for any hunters that might creep up behind them, equally as determined as Rae to keep Alan safe.

She was also determined to finally get some answers.

CHAPTER TEN

“Who's Mieka?” Beth demanded, asking the first question that surfaced from the jumbled mess in her mind.

At the sound of Beth's voice, Rae sent a predictable glare over her shoulder.

Beth glared back. “Who's Mieka?” she asked, stressing each word.

Rae's glare turned icy with warning. She didn't have to say anything to send a chill down Beth's spine.

“Forget it, Rae,” Alan interjected through teeth clenched against obvious pain. “Talking won't matter; they know where we're going. The ruins is the only place left we can go.”

“We need all our energy to get there first,” Rae argued. She increased her pace, but Alan stumbled, and she slowed immediately.

“I want to know what's going on,” Beth persisted even while she pulled a low branch aside for Alan. He winced as he bent to pass under it.

Caulleen ignored Rae's disapproving look and waved Alan to silence. “Mieka Tulong is the head of security,” she replied with a sidelong look at Beth.

“The Katai's security?”

“No, Rasheda's. The Katai has his own separate security corps.”

Beth's eyes widened in surprise. “Why? Isn't that a waste of--”

“It's a safe guard, in case a security chief decides to form a personal rebellion,” Caulleen impatiently interrupted in even softer tones. “If that happened, the Katai would still have loyal guards for protection.”

Beth gave a murmur of understanding. “And that would be why the head of Rasheda's security is protecting the Altair rather than the Katai.”

Caulleen nodded. “It's his job to protect Rasheda's future.”

Beth next thought was thoroughly alarming. “Is Mieka behind this revolt?” She glanced into the surrounding gloom, as if she might find him lurking behind the next tree. “If he's with the Pro-techs and Slavers, how-?”

“He's not,” Caulleen stated. “Mieka was a slave at one time, like Rae. He'd die before he'd let the Slavers take over Rasheda.”

Beth's mouth fell open and she forgot to scan the undergrowth. “Rae's a slave?” she squeaked in astonishment before she could stop herself.

Alan replied, “No, Rae was a slave.” His pained voice was forceful and gruff, as if he wanted to make sure she understood.

Beth looked forward at Rae leading their tiny column through the brush. Rae gripped her laser gun with confidence, and muscles that Beth was becoming familiar with bulged under her well-made shirt; Rae didn't look anything like a slave to Beth. Beth's face wrinkled in confusion. “But I thought a slave always stayed a slave.”

“She's been in the Force since she was nine cycles,” Alan quickly explained.

“Eight,” Rae's voice drifted back to them, correcting Alan, though she didn't turn around or stop sweeping her gaze from side to side, always watching for trouble.

“She was too good at fighting,” Caulleen explained further.

Beth didn't have trouble believing that. “Are all the security forces made up of former slaves?”

“Mine are,” Alan said, then winced again as he tripped over a protruding tree root.

Beth made a grab for his good arm to keep him from falling.

“It's easy to buy loyalty with a few decent meals,” Rae said in an offhand manner, but her expression was sharp.

Alan's face twisted in pain, but he stared steadfastly at Rae. “You keep me alive, and I'll free the slaves.”

Beth's mouth fell open again. “You can do that?” she asked incredulously.

“I can when I'm Katai,” Alan nonchalantly said.

Rae's voice floated back again. “Words are cheap.” She gave the impression that she'd had several experiences already with such promises.

“Mine are real,” Alan insisted, confident though his breath again came out in a gasp. “We have a deal, and I keep my promises.”

Bath gaped anew at this blatant scheming. This was politics? This was how policies changed? Could it be this easy? “But what if the Slavers Faction wins this rebellion?”

“They won't,” Alan replied firmly.

How could he be so sure? Beth glanced at him to see that his face was pinched and white, but the look in his eyes was unbelievably confident. She looked next at Caulleen, and saw a carefully neutral expression that she couldn't interpret in the other girl's eyes. It was almost as if Caulleen didn't approve of what Alan was saying. But how could Caulleen not approve of freeing the slaves?

Unless he had promised more people than Rae that he'd free the slaves.

It occurred to Beth that Alan might be considered high enough in the government to have played a part in causing the rebellion. Beth found that thought horrifying. “Why do they want to kill Alan?” she blurted, only remembering to be quiet at the last second.

Caulleen just as quietly replied, “As long as one part of the government remains intact, a rebellion won't last, even if it's successful at first. If the Altair is alive, he'll always be a threat to a new regime.” Almost as an afterthought, she added, “Not to mention the stupid things he's been promising in public.”

A brief protest about the Rashedan Assembly and Alan's integrity flitted through Beth's mind, but she pushed it aside. “I meant,” she said, struggling to choose the best words, yet feeling woefully inadequate at expressing her confused thoughts, “why is there a rebellion at all? Why kill anyone? What do they want?”

“The moons,” Alan bluntly replied.

What could anybody want with the moons? Beth found herself looking instinctively up at the sky, searching for the two moons. Naturally, they had slipped below the horizon hours before, and branches hid her view, anyway.

But as she looked, the familiar sound of a ship reached them, its engines just beginning to take on the high pitched scream of proximity. They paused in a huddled group, weapons ready, but couldn't even make out the ship as it flew overhead. The roar receded quickly, though the topmost tree branches jerked crazily back and forth for several heartbeats.

“Was that Mieka, do you think?” Alan asked in a worried voice.

Beth interjected, “I thought it was going towards Zokolai.” Wouldn't Mieka have been heading for the ruins instead?

Rae's expression turned reluctant. “Maybe,” she conceded, though she didn't explain which idea she was agreeing with. “The engine pitch was awfully high.”

A shiver crawled up Beth's spine. She didn't know how Rae could tell the difference between engine pitches of a flying ship, but she didn't question her ability. Beth was beginning to think that Rae could do anything.

“We keep moving. But faster,” Rae ordered. She glanced at Alan. He nodded agreement, and they started off again at a marginally faster pace. Alan breathed heavily, clutching his useless arm to his side.

Beth and Caulleen renewed their efforts to keep the path as clear for Alan as possible. It was hard; vines and thorny brush hampered them, and they had to constantly readjust their course to work their way around large trees growing in clumps of twos and threes. Hidden roots tripped them up, catching unsuspecting toes, making for unpredictable and noisy footing. The woods was turning into as much an enemy as those hunters.

Twigs snapped off to their left, and Beth jumped. A zriik bird screeched at them as it burst from a nearby bush and flew up into the treetops. Beth laughed at herself, but couldn't shake a feeling of dread. Her nerves twinged each time she thought of the hunters. That group was surely somewhere in the trees, creeping closer. To keep her jitters under control, she turned again to Caulleen. “Why the moons?” she asked in a whisper, afraid to speak any louder.

Caulleen looked at her in surprise. “You want to know now?”

Beth nodded. “We're in trouble; I'd rather know why than die wondering.”

Caulleen hesitated, remaining quiet as they walked. Beth thought she might comment that they weren't going to die at all, but she didn't. Her silence sent another shiver of anxiety up Beth's spine.

Finally Caulleen said, “This is the short version; you can get details later. Grayworks discovered a way to mine--”

“What's Grayworks?”

Caulleen heaved an irritated sigh, but explained, “An interspatial metallurgical company. Four cycles ago, they figured out a way to mine different kinds of metals found on the moons. But we're not sure what effects corporate mining might have on the moons. Some scientists say nothing will happen, and others think that mining will do so much damage that it could destabilize both of the moons' orbits.”

“That doesn't sound good.”

“No. But that hasn't stopped Grayworks, which just happens to have a large interest in the Pro-tech political group.”

Beth was beginning to understand. “Have they made a deal? Like Alan's promise to end slavery?”

Caulleen snorted, either for Alan's benefit or hers. “Yes. But nobody can use governmental funding for any project without the Katai's support.”

“And Katai Derl wouldn't give it?” Beth guessed.

“Not until studies were done on the effects of moon mining. But the first study was altered to support Grayworks' interests. Gusta found out about it, and now he won't support any further studies from either Grayworks or the Pro-techs. That was two cycles ago. They've been fighting about it in Assembly ever since.”

If that was the case, then this situation had been brewing since Alan's selection as Altair. Could that possibly be just a coincidence? She looked again at Alan, then let her gaze slide to Rae. “How does the Slavers Faction fit into all this?”

Caulleen drew in a breath to answer, but it was Rae who said, “They want slaves to do the mining.” Despite a controlled expression and flat tone, her reply conveyed a fury so deep that it seemed to emanate from every inch of her body.

What slaves was Rae talking about? All of them? Or only those living in San Taron? What effect would that have on other slaves Rae might know?

One thought led swiftly to another, and for the first time Beth considered Rae's family. Were her parents slaves too? Did she have brothers and sisters? Would she know about them if she had them? Beth had to admit that she didn't have any idea what it was like to be a slave in San Taron.

But she knew that this type of maneuvering was the politics that Alan had been talking about early that morning on the trail. Beth remembered his words clearly: politics was about power and control. But everything was out of control. It seemed that a huge boulder was rolling towards her down a hill, waiting to crush her.

A small bundle of leaves slapped Beth in the face as she walked. She gave a start of surprise. Her gun was up and aiming into the trees before she realized it, but there was nothing to shoot at. Spotted leaves swayed all around her, creating a confusion of alternating sunlit patches and dark shadows. She had to blink several times to clear her vision, and by then the others were ahead of her, only steps away, yet barely discernible in the thick undergrowth and dark shadows of the trees.

The heavy silence of the woods wrapped around Beth as she stood still to get her bearings. A twinge of hunger shot through her stomach. She vaguely recalled that it had been hours since any of them had eaten. Maybe they would have time for a quick meal while waiting for Mieka to find them at the ruins. They had to be getting close to the ruins by--

A twig snapped suddenly, and she whirled, hoping to see another bird. Nothing happened. She looked the other way, peering nervously through the trees. She held her gun in front of her, mimicking Rae, but wasn't sure that she could even find the trigger. A confusing array of buttons littered the short stock, and she hadn't taken the time to study the controls. She'd assumed that the gun would fire when she wanted it to.

Did she want it to?

There were too many questions, too many decisions to make. Information about Alan and the moons and the rebellion twisted in her mind. Beth suddenly didn't want to know what had made that twig snap. Knowing meant more decisions. She would rather be weeding the garden with Evan.

She swiftly forced her way through the strangling brush, following the path made by the others. Even so soon, the trail was barely visible amid the grasping vines.

Then, without warning, the undergrowth thinned. She could see farther, and it grew lighter under the trees. With relief, Beth shoved aside a final obstructing branch, suddenly colliding with Rae.

Rae glared and motioned her to silence, then returned her gaze to a break in the undergrowth. Beth did her best to still her breathing, though nerves and fear made her want to gasp noisily. When Rae moved a fraction to the side to confer in silent communication with Alan and Caulleen, Beth managed to peek through the opening. What she saw made her hold her breath.

The serene beauty of the openness of the ruins was marred by the people stationed in a rough perimeter among the crumbling buildings. Dressed in tight-fitting camouflage suits that covered even their faces, they blended almost perfectly with the trees but stood out against the ruins' yellowed buildings. Most of them held compression rifles and laser guns in loose grips or in holsters on their thighs. Gray gunner ships hissing of coolant sparkled in the hot sun. Within the open area, nobody moved, and there wasn't a sound.

Alan and his group had reached the ruins.

But so had the hunters.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Rae motioned them to silence, then carefully crawled backwards, away from the revealing break in the trees. The others followed on hands and knees, Alan biting his lip to stay quiet.

“Now what?” Beth whispered when they were crouched behind a group of trees, almost a half league away from prying eyes and ears.

Rae ignored the question. Instead she gestured curtly for Caulleen to guard their position, then pulled out her tiny communicator and punched a code into an even smaller hidden panel on its back. A light flickered once on the front panel, then twice again. She changed the communicator's frequency, then urgently whispered, “Sierens to E7.”

Miffed at being dismissed like an annoying kid, Beth set her gun aside and, turning her back on Rae, quickly pulled the medkit from her pack in order to treat Alan. “I can't stand seeing you in pain any longer. The least we can do is clean that shoulder up a bit.”

Alan didn't look convinced. “Will that help?”

Beth shrugged. “I don't know much about medicine, except for sick gilbies, but it's worth a try.”

Alan managed a weak laugh. “I'm being treated by a gilbie doctor. I feel much better already.”

Beth didn't bother to retort. She used a small knife to cut away a scrap of material still matted to Alan's wounded shoulder. The smell of burned flesh and material wafted up to her, but she held her breath, straining hard to see in the dim light of deep foliage.

Though the wound had been neatly cauterized by the laser bolt, lacerations along its edges still seeped blood and oozed a yellow liquid. Trying to avoid unduly hurting him, Beth gently cut away one more section of shirt. Alan groaned, but didn't make any further protests. Beth gave him another pain tablet, and briefly wondered how many he'd taken. It would be a shame if the Altair survived being shot, only to succumb to an overdose of pain pills.

Caulleen continued to scan the surrounding trees for hunters while Beth worked. “We only have three choices to get out of here alive,” she quietly confided over her shoulder.

Beth didn't like the note of finality in Caulleen's voice. “What do you mean?” she asked, concentrating on Alan's wound.

Caulleen glanced at Rae, still in conference with the invisible Mieka. “We can find another place to meet Mieka; we can stay here and hope he can land without being noticed--”

“That's not likely,” Alan grunted, and cautiously shifted against the tree behind him when Beth pulled a stubborn piece of material away from his skin.

Caulleen continued, “Or we can surrender.”

“No surrender!” Rae forcefully hissed, startling them all. Beth jumped, but Rae went on. “Mieka's here. Where can we meet him?” Her eyes focused on Beth.

Beth gaped at Rae. “You saw the ruins; it's crawling with those hunter people. We can't go back there.”

Rae's expression turned scathing. “What about the second tier?”

“I don't know the second tier nearly as well as the first one,” Beth protested. The little knife hung from her fingers, still poised over Alan's shoulder, but forgotten. “I don't know if there's a place that's big enough to land a ship there. Plus it's at least a whole league away. Alan can't make it that far.”

“I can,” Alan insisted weakly.

“He will,” Rae said at the same time. She turned her hard stare on Alan. A flurry of silent communication went on between them as Beth watched, ignored. Then Rae stubbornly said, “He has to. If we stay here, we'll be captured. And I won't surrender.” Her icy stare turned on Caulleen, and she curled her lips, as if she didn't like what she was looking at. Caulleen simply glanced away. “The second tier is our only option.”

“But it's not big enough,” Beth repeated in an aggravated hiss.

“What about the shuttle?” Alan suggested.

“You have a shuttle?” Beth asked, wide-eyed with surprise.

Alan nodded. “A six passenger Oranni Z Series with--”

Beth stopped his prattling with an irritated wave. She didn't need to know the shuttle's make and model. All she cared about was its flying and landing capabilities. She thought furiously fast for a moment. The second tier was much smaller and more overgrown than the first. Beth had only been up that far a few times, and all of those visits had been brief scouting expeditions. She vaguely remembered a courtyard type opening beyond the main ruins, but she had no idea if Mieka could find it from among the trees, or if it even still existed.

But did they have a choice?

Quickly she told Rae about her idea, then turned back to bandage Alan's shoulder as Rae related the plan to Mieka through the communicator. The bandage wouldn't stay in place, and Alan started bleeding again whenever she tried to tie it tight. Eventually she had to use adhesive spray to glue it to his shoulder. Hopefully a real doctor might know how to get it off later. She had barely started to fashion a crude sling from several pieces of material cut from Alan's pack when Rae interrupted.

“Mieka can't find a clearing like that. What are the coordinates?”

Beth growled, “I told you I don't know!” But Rae glared her into more frantic thought. “Tell him it's north of the open area, about a quarter league.”

Rae clearly disapproved of the slim information, but she muttered some coded instructions into the communicator, then listened intently to the return orders.

Beth tied off the sling before throwing it around Alan's good shoulder. It was too short. She crawled over his extended legs to untie the knot and lengthen the material.

“Beth,” Alan said before she had the chance to finish retying the sling, stopping her. He pushed her back and started to tug at the seam in the right leg of his expensive trousers.

“What are you doing?” Beth asked, astonished.

After a fruitless struggle, he grabbed the knife and hacked at his pants. Beth tried to stop him, but he forcefully shoved her aside again.

Beth shoved him back. “Alan, stop or--”

“I want you to take what I'm going to give you,” Alan interrupted, still hacking at his pants. “Then I want you to climb a tree and hide.”

Her anger faded into fear. The thought of being caught in another tree was too terrifying to consider. “No!”

Alan didn't appear to hear her outburst. He sawed fiercely at the seam until he managed a hole wide enough to stick his finger through. Forcing the seam to rip apart, he pulled something from what was obviously a cleverly concealed pocket, and held it out to her. “Take it. You'll need it for identification in case I'm killed.”

Beth stared numbly at Alan. “Killed?” she asked, her voice lifting to a high squeak. What was he talking about?

He thrust the object at her. “It's my sign of office. Take it,” he ordered in a heated whisper.

Uncomprehending, Beth automatically responded to his commanding tone and held out her shaking hand for him to shove a metal object into it. The object was vaguely round, a deep color between maroon and black, and fit nicely into her sweaty palm, its metal surface feeling oddly cool against her hot skin.

She looked breathlessly from the object to Alan to Caulleen, then back again. “Why... are you giving me this?”

Alan glanced at her impatiently and whispered, “If I die--”

“You're not going to die!” Beth insisted, equally as fierce. The rounded edge of the metal sign cut into her palm.

He ignored her. “You can take my place.”

Suddenly she understood, and her face went hot. “You want me... to be Altair?”

“It's perfect,” he said, and tried to gesture at her with his left hand, but wheezed and jerked it back. “Hale, that hurts.”

Beth dropped Alan's signet into her pocket and reached quickly for the sling again. He stopped her with his good hand. “We're from the same district. The Altair has to be from a different area than the current Katai so there's no regional favoritism and--”

“I know the laws!” Beth insisted angrily. She urgently shook his hand aside, jarring him in the process, making him swear again. “Sorry,” she whispered, and adjusted the sling under his elbow to help support the rest of his arm. “But you're definitely crazy. I can't be the Altair.”

Alan stopped her again. “Yes, you can. You know a lot about alternative farming methods, you're smart, you're patient, and you know about people and what they think.”

“No I don't,” she firmly reiterated, thinking now of Tessy, whom she barely understood, let alone was able to predict her thoughts. “Besides, if something happens, the Katai will just pick a new Altair from someplace else.”

Alan shook his head. “Gusta wants someone from the Hills District, someone like me.” he persuaded. “Beth, don't you see, it's--”

“Mieka found the clearing,” Rae abruptly cut him off. “He's ready. We'll backtrack, then veer--”

Laser bolts suddenly erupted into the trees surrounding them. Bark spewed in every direction, hailing down on their hiding place like rock pellets. Armed hunters heedlessly crashed towards them through the brush, the noise adding to abrupt chaos.

Beth instinctively dove for the ground, covering her head in an ineffectual bid for survival. She landed sideways on a pile of smoking leaves. The sickening smell of burning vegetation billowed through the air. More bolts burst into the tree just above her, forcing her to burrow further into the pile. A shower of bark and dirt bit into her exposed back. Noise thundered through her skull.

Beth wriggled forward to find herself somehow on the opposite side of the clump of trees they'd been hiding behind. She looked up to see Alan leaning against a tree, pain lacing his features as he clutched a small gun in his right hand and pumped laser bolts into the surrounding undergrowth. He was doing his best, but Beth could tell that his hand was unsteady and the shots were going wild. Meanwhile, more shots were coming closer to hitting him.

Where were the others? Beth glanced hastily through the brush, and spotted Caulleen, then Rae. The two of them had formed an instant phalanx, spreading out for maximum firing range, with Alan slightly off to the left and farther back for a small amount of protection. But it was clear by his misdirected shots that he needed help. Caulleen was doing better, but she was many paces into the undergrowth, and too far away to directly help Alan.

Rae had worked her way into a cover of bushes and was aiming shots at the hunters dodging back and forth in the brush. All pretense of quiet gone, she yelled into her communicator, “We need help, now!” She put herself between the worst of the hunter onslaught and Alan, but laser bolts poured at them from every direction. Alan flinched back as a shot bit into the tree right behind him. Beth had to get to her gun somehow, before it was too late for anybody to help Alan.

Beth belly-crawled the four steps around the trees, her elbows digging into the ground. She hit a rock once, sending pain shooting through her entire left arm. A minute later, she picked up a huge thorn with her leg. After hastily yanking it out, she crawled on. Where was her gun?

An instant later, she saw it resting innocently on a pile of leaves. But as soon as she reached for it, a whole squadron of Pro-tech hunters burst recklessly through the trees. The fight broke into unorganized pandemonium; the sheltering trees became clogged with writhing bodies. The gun somehow materialized in her hand, and Beth fired before she had time to think.

Two hunters fell immediately, though she wasn't sure if she'd hit either one of them. She rolled completely over, then struggled to climb to her knees and shoot at the same time. The gun practically fired itself - all she had to do was point and push the firing button with her thumb. But her palms were coated in sweat, and the gun kept slipping. She needed both hands to control where she pointed it. Still, she made steady progress towards Alan. She fired, advanced, then fired again. Her shots pelted the lower areas of brush, wherever her eye caught on a return bolt. She only hoped that she didn't hit the others by accident.

Then she was positioned between Caulleen and Alan, pushing the firing button with frenzied intensity. Caulleen inched towards her, and Rae moved in from the other side. Short range laser fire burst all around them with colorful fury. Heat scorched the already sweltering air. Rae dispatched a hunter with a perfect shot to his leg, then backhanded another trying to sneak around for a clear shot at Alan. Caulleen seemed to fire in every direction at once, systematically picking off anything that moved.

Firing her own gun in a circular pattern provided cover for the others rather than force Beth to aim at any one thing in particular. She felt better knowing that she wasn't likely to hit Rae or Caulleen. In between shots, she inched ever closer to Alan.

The three of them moved around him like a protective wall. When she was close enough, Beth turned her gaze from scouring the surrounding greenery to the pain in Alan's face. He had given up all pretense of supporting his own weight, now leaning against the tree behind him. Though his panting breaths sounded full of pain, he continued to hold his gun up with his good hand. But he wasn't firing.

“You okay?” she yelled at him over the noise.

He nodded, but a new volley of shots made it impossible for him to answer. She ducked her head and hugged the ground as the bolts whistled past them.

When she looked up again, he desperately yelled, “My gun needs recharged!”

Beth remembered the stash of weapons Caulleen had thrust into her pack after the last hunter attack; she could find a charged weapon in there. The pack was closer to her than to Alan, resting in the leaves and dirt beside the open medical kit. Her straining fingers curled around one of its straps when a stray laser bolt suddenly slammed into the medical kit.

Bandages, bottles of pain medication, and medical instruments flew everywhere as the hard surface of the kit exploded. Alan jerked up against the tree to avoid the flying debris and Beth fell to the ground. Pieces of the plasteel medkit mercilessly flayed exposed cheeks and hands.

Rae and Caulleen fired a frenzy of lasers at the assailants, forcing the hunters back just as Beth's fingers once again grasped the edge of her pack. Ignoring the pain in her hands, she yanked out the first weapon her fingers found. She'd cocked her arm to toss the awkward blaster to Alan when a second shot snuck between Rae's defenses. It streamed right over Beth's shoulder, singing her shirt, then slammed directly into Alan's chest.

Alan gasped. The force of the shot made him jerk upright, even as another bolt caught him in the leg. He didn't seem to notice. Pain gave way to a look of surprise as he fell over, hitting the ground with a thud.

“Alan!” Beth scrambled to his side, heedless of the energy bolts singing around her. Bandages and antiseptic spray somehow found their way into her hands, but it was already too late. Alan was dead by the time she reached him.

Beth crouched in the dirt, stunned. It had happened so fast. The smell of death soaked the air all around her. It was worse than the singed leaves, worse then the chemical smell of the gunner plane they'd shot down that morning, worse even than the sweat on her clothes. It roared into the clearing, gouging a hole in her chest where it settled, filling her up with its nothingness.

When Rae pushed her roughly aside to get to Alan barely a heartbeat later, the noise returned to pound in Beth's ears, wrenching her back to the present. But the odd cavity remained. She'd expected to feel pain at such an unexpected death, not this numbing emptiness.

Rae took one look at Alan. “Hale!” she swore at Beth as more laser bolts gashed the trees.

Suddenly furious, Beth shoved Rae. “Some bodyguard you are!” she yelled. “We could have surrendered, but now he's dead, and it's your fault! Yours!”

Rae's face turned purple, but it was Caulleen who stopped them from raging further with a hand that was both comforting and restraining on Beth's arm. More bark sprayed down on them as Caulleen leaned in to yell, “Stop! We need to concentrate on getting out of here!”

Her breath washed over Beth's cheek in a bizarre sensation of softness amid a new shower of laser blasts. They ducked down while Rae used both her gun and the weapon Beth had intended for Alan to cover a hurried consultation.

“Which way is the second tier?” Rae hollered.

Beth lifted her head, quickly blinking back tears. Everywhere she looked there were trees and brush and streaks of laser bolts. It was all the same. She couldn't even find a slant of sunlight to guess the direction. “I don't know.”

“Figure it out!” Rae ordered harshly.

Was she crazy? “What about Alan?” Beth protested. “We can't leave him here.”

“We don't have a choice!” Rae yelled back while keeping up a steady barrage of laser fire.

She was crazy, Beth decided, and grabbed Rae's arm. “I'm not leaving him here to--”

Rae threw off Beth's hand and kept firing. “My job is to protect the Altair, and right now, that's you!”

Rae's words penetrated Beth's single-mindedness like a slap on her face. “Wh... at?”

Rae tapped Beth's pocket with one of her guns. The barrel clanked against the metal of Alan's signet of office. Beth had forgotten all about dropping it into her pocket, but Rae never missed anything. “He chose you as his alternate, and now you're Altair. I'm your bodyguard, and I say that dragging Alan through the trees will only slow us down. We can't afford to lose the time. Now, which way is the second tier?”

Beth gaped at Rae, unable to make her mouth form a reply. She was the Altair just because Alan had given her that little piece of metal? She thought he'd been joking when he'd given it to her, or out of his mind with pain, or that he wanted her to keep it so she could give it to somebody important in case anything happened to him. It had never occurred to her that he wanted her to succeed him.

“I don't want it!” Beth loudly declared, and made a grab for her pocket. She would hand the signet over to Rae and that would be the end of it.

An explosion split the air so suddenly that Beth stumbled backwards from the force, her hand still trapped uselessly in her pocket. For the length of a breath, there was an eerie silence, then a second explosion shook the ground. The sound of shouting reached them, and the air was suddenly filled with the screams of air ships and the pulse of weaponry. More laser blasts rained down on them, but this time, it was different. The bolts were larger, and aimed in a scattered pattern, as if the intention was to flush them from the undergrowth rather than to hit them with a killing shot.

“That's Mieka,” Rae announced in a calm voice, cocking her head to one side in a listening posture.

Caulleen listened for a moment as well. “Are they firing the ruins?”

Rae nodded. “That's what I would do. It gives those soldiers something to think about besides killing us.”

They were right. Beth heard a flurry of activity in the surrounding brush; the hunters were running back to the ruins and the relative safety of their ships. She realized that this was the help Rae had requested. The attack on them stopped, and they were suddenly encased in a bubble of quiet.

Rae shook her head. “This won't last long. We have to move, now.”

Inspired, Beth yanked her hand from her pocket and placed it on the ground for added support, then quietly said, “If those explosions are from the first tier...” Rae nodded her head to indicate that she was correct. “... then the second tier is that way.” She pointed at an angle roughly North from their position, knowing that by helping, she was silently agreeing with the decision to abandon Alan.

Rae didn't comment on Beth's capitulation. “Good. Caulleen, take point. I'll watch our backs. Go!”

Without hesitation, Caulleen rose from where she crouched in the weeds and limped through the brush. Rae pulled Beth up and forced her to follow. Beth managed a last glance at Alan's inert form sprawled across the roots of a tree before she was sprinting to catch up with Caulleen. The signet of office lay forgotten in her pocket.

CHAPTER TWELVE

They struggled towards the second tier, limping, bleeding, tripping on roots, crashing through brush, trying to stay quiet, but failing. The early afternoon heat descended in a sweltering haze of green fog, and they traveled through walls of clinging humidity. There was no breeze. No wonder it was always wet in the undergrowth. Lower limbs hung limp from the trees, dangling down to slap their hot faces with spotted leaves and sticky sap.

Sweat clouded Beth's eyes, and her lungs ached long before they reached the second tier. The muscles in her legs burned from all the unaccustomed running and climbing. Still she ran, slapping the leaves out of the way, too afraid of what had already happened, and of what might yet happen if the hunters caught up with them again. She didn't have time to worry about pulled muscles or sap-coated hair or heat exhaustion. She clutched her gun tightly in her left hand and tried not to gasp for breath too loudly, letting the fear and the memory of Alan's death push her forward.

The empty expression of his sightless eyes seemed to follow her as she ran, haunting her already. Even while she concentrated on where to step next, or when to dodge around a bush rather than jump over it, she saw his eyes staring at her. She would never forget the sight of Alan lying dead in the dirt.

A sense of numbing guilt made it even harder to forget. No matter what she accused of anybody else, she felt his death was partly her fault. She should have stayed closer to him. She should have insisted on repairing his injured shoulder much sooner. He might have been stronger if he hadn't been forced to fight off the effects of an injury as well as those hunters. If he'd had an extra charge pack in his pocket, he might still be alive, stumbling along with them through the trees.

She tried not to think about it. She tried to think only about keeping up, of staying two paces behind Caulleen, of remaining alert in spite of the fact that she couldn't see through the sheen of sweat dripping into her eyes. Whenever she blinked the sweat away, she saw Alan staring at her again. The guilt, and a growing sensation that she might throw up forced her on.

After a quarter league, Rae nudged Caulleen, who slowed their pace to a fast walk. They unexpectedly stumbled onto an overgrown trail of sorts. Though clogged with flowering weeds, the semi-open trail made for easier walking. The slower pace allowed Beth to heave in huge gulps of air, which helped calm her stomach. The cuts on her face and arms stung enough to clear her mind.

Habit took over. Beth focused on Caulleen's back and let her peripheral vision warn her if something moved on either side of the trail. The surrounding forest was so calm, it was hard to believe they might still be in danger from more hunters, but Rae and Caulleen remained vigilant. With guns tilted to the sky, they watched the brush, and Beth tried to stay alert despite a haze of exhaustion and hunger that was slowly taking over. She gripped her gun tightly out of reflex, but they saw nothing more threatening than ground cats sunning themselves in patches of open sunlight. More zriik birds called from the towering trees, obviously complacent. As long as the birds trilled to each other, there was no danger to worry about. The birdcalls, mixed with the heat and her exhaustion, lulled Beth into a welcome stupor.

Caulleen stopped abruptly, peering cautiously through branches hanging low enough to scrape the ground, and Beth almost ran into her. They had reached the second tier before she realized they had come so far. Revived by the sudden stop, Beth peaked around Caulleen's shoulder.

The second tier was much more overgrown than the first. Beth had always suspected that it hadn't been utilized for nearly as long as the first tier, or else it was much older and had been abandoned for much longer. Unlike the home-style dwellings of the first tier, the second contained the remains of only one building. Gray stone pillars jutted into the sky, dull even in the bright sunlight. Steps made from the same gray stone led up to platform that had mostly crumbled away. No evidence of a roof existed. The pillars and stairs and open sky were all that was left. The abandoned second tier echoed an empty sadness.

Where Beth saw sadness, Rae focused on more practical things. “No soldiers. Good. Which direction is the shuttle?” she asked Beth, curt as always.

Wearily Beth nodded towards the Northeast.

They picked their way through the brush growing along the ruins' perimeter, careful to keep out of sight. Caulleen moved slowly now, forced to cut a path through the weeds and bushes that grew abundantly in the more open area near the second tier. Insects danced through the heat, attracted to the sweat soaking their clothes. Beth brushed them away with irritated swipes of her hands, but the bugs persisted. A swarm gathered around her head that refused to be swatted away. Rae and Caulleen both ignored the pests with an iron will that Beth lacked.

They had walked a quarter league when Rae flicked a series of buttons on her tiny communicator. A beep sounded, followed by several more in a complicated pattern. Caulleen stopped, and Beth glanced at Rae.

Rae motioned Caulleen ahead with a cautionary, “Slowly. Be ready for a trap.”

Beth tightened her grip on the laser gun, but her hand shook so badly that she doubted she could hit anything, even if her life depended on it. Another image of Alan assaulted her, making her insides shake as much as her hand.

Something crunched off to their right. Beth jerked in that direction, but Rae stepped in front of her so fast that she knocked Beth to the ground.

Beth landed hard on her butt amid the cloying weeds. “Hey!” she thoughtlessly protested.

Besides acting as a shield from whatever new danger they had encountered, Rae ignored her, instead leveling her gun to aim at the bushes. Beth blinked her tired eyes several times before she saw the man standing beside a tree not ten paces away. He was dressed in camouflage, like the hunters, though his uniform shifted to mirror exactly what surrounded him. First he looked like the bark of a yen tree. Then he stepped forward, and suddenly blended with the karri bush on his right, as if that side of him was invisible. It was no wonder she hadn't seen him at first. However, nothing hid the gun he pointed directly at Rae.

Beth sucked in a breath. Was this man a hunter? Were they surrounded? She scrambled to her feet, energized by fear. Her hand shook even harder than before, but she managed to raise her gun and keep it pointed in his basic direction.

“State your identity,” the man calmly requested.

“State your intentions before I blow your head off,” Rae replied, her expression deadly.

The man's only reaction was a short nod. “This is E7, informing Sierens A21, Farlen, that the shuttle is secure and ready for immediate departure.”

Beth blinked at his cryptic words. Was this Mieka?

Rae's dangerous expression marginally relaxed as she answered, “Sierens Z12, informing 7E, Wimpy, that the Altair is secure and ready for departure.”

Beth jerked at Rae's use of the political title, startled to realize she was referring to her. Her hand moved instinctively to the pocket harboring Alan's signet of office, just a touch to make sure she hadn't lost it. A comforting bulge met her hand, and she didn't know if she should be relieved or not. Losing it would be easier than deciding what to do with it.

Puzzlement flickered in the man's eyes, and his gaze darted to each of them, but he didn't question Rae's statement. “Come this way.” He gestured in the direction they had been going.

Rae moved in front of Caulleen, her gaze sticking to the man like adhesive. “After you.”

As if he had expected this suggestion, the man moved into front position, amazingly calm considering the gun Rae continued to aim at his back. A shot at such close range would vaporize his entire chest. Caulleen took his gun, which he released willingly enough, and they started forward with Beth sandwiched between Rae and Caulleen.

No one talked. Unasked questions hung heavy in the air like the stifling humidity. The man seemed friendly, but Rae's suspicious nature prevailed. The group made steady progress in complete silence, broken only by their breathing and the sound of footsteps on rotten vegetation.

The undergrowth thinned, and they broke into the courtyard-type clearing. It was smaller than Beth remembered. Old relics littered the ground with stone crumbs that crunched under their boots. Puffs of dust rose each time they stepped on one of these artifacts, floating back down to slowly coat the compact shuttle resting in the middle of the clearing.

The shuttle's access hatch noiselessly opened while coolant hissed from its landing struts. The loading ramp was already retracted, as if someone had anticipated the need for a fast takeoff.

That someone suddenly appeared just inside the hatch, a rifle aimed at them. Beth had the impression of a short, older man with deep black hair, a wrinkled face, and sunlight flashing off the top of his uncovered head. He wore the same malleable camouflage as the other, though his mirrored the darker interior of the shuttle. His eyes swept over the group, taking in everything, reminding her instantly of Rae. Even in her growing exhaustion, Beth recognized him as another security agent.

His gaze landed at last on Wimpy's gun in Caulleen's hands, and he quirked an eyebrow even as he lowered his own weapon. “I might say you're being overly cautious, Contesta Lor.”

Rae didn't respond to the lightness in his tone. “After this day, I thought it safer not to trust anybody, Geron Tulong.” She nodded at Caulleen, who returned the gun to the first security officer.

“Where's Alan?” he asked next.

“He's dead.” Rae didn't waste time on details, but tossed her pack and weapon into the shuttle. The thud as they landed rang with the same dullness in her voice.

The man's face tightened, either in anger or anguish, Beth wasn't sure. Before she thought her words through, she found herself babbling, “It wasn't Rae's fault. We were ambushed. She shot down a plane. We talked about surrendering, but she wouldn't let us. She did everything she could to... but Alan was shot, and then his gun needed recharged, and those hunters were everywhere--”

“Beth, it's all right.” Caulleen put a soothing hand on her arm to halt her chattering.

The words lodged in Beth's throat, stuck until she was able to painfully swallow. She sniffed, embarrassed to realize that tears streaked her cheeks. She quickly swiped them away, but couldn't meet the man's eyes as his gaze swept over her once again. She didn't dare look at Rae.

His only reaction was to ask, “Who is this?”

In a calm, professional tone, Caulleen replied, “This is Beth Walker, Alan's chosen alternate. She carries the Seal of Altair. Beth, this is Geron Mieka Tulong, head of the Rashedan Security Force.”

Beth nodded a greeting, but didn't speak, afraid that once she started, she wouldn't be able to shut up. If she had been thinking properly, she would have realized his identity sooner. But she was so tired, and thinking took too much effort, and brought up too many memories she wanted to forget. It was easier to simply nod.

Mieka looked her over one more time, then surprised her by saying, “You look about worn out. We'll get you some food and something to drink, and you can rest in a safe place. There's still some soldier activity nearby, so we need to hurry, but we can talk later.” Then he offered his hand.

Beth was so startled at the innocent offer of help that she did nothing but stare at him for several seconds, wide-eyed and fearful. Then she shook off the sensation and grasped his hand with hers. It was only a short hop into the shuttle, but without the landing ramp, that hop was an awkward jump that was easily a meter or more. Mieka had to unceremoniously haul her into the shuttle, and she banged her right knee on the edge of the hatchway in spite of his help, ripping her pants. Her free hand grasped the pocket holding the Seal of Altair, sending her further off balance. She ended up crawling across the shuttle's corrugated flooring to a side bench where three passenger harnesses hung neatly from the curved wall. Using the last of her energy, she inelegantly hauled herself into one of the seats. All she could do was slump against the padded wall and bite her lip against the pain in her knee, the cuts, the bruises, and a burn on her shoulder.

Someone thrust a water canister into her hands, followed by a food cracker of some kind. It was then that she remembered she had left her pack full of food next to Alan's body; all that food and water, wasted, but she was so tired that the memory didn't even disturb her. She instead turned her attention to the dry cracker in her hand. The food tasted good enough, but drinking the water was almost as wonderful as jumping into the stock tank in the upper pasture on a searingly hot afternoon. Beth greedily gulped swallow after swallow, but Mieke pulled the canister away before she finished it off.

“Careful, or you'll be getting stomach cramps,” he warned softly, then handed her another cracker. “Eat. You'll feel better.”

Beth nodded, ashamed of her infantile behavior. She knew better than to drink too much before sufficiently cooling down. To stop herself from grabbing the canister again, she nibbled on the cracker, watching him get Caulleen situated into the next seat. His wrinkles weren't as pronounced in the interior shadows, and Beth realized Mieka wasn't as old as she'd first thought. He moved with quick efficiency to settle Caulleen and supply her with water and food. He bandaged her swollen ankle, then pushed her hair aside to study an oozing cut above her left ear that Beth hadn't noticed.

“It's not bad, Mieka,” Caulleen assured, but still his hand lingered long enough even for Beth's tired brain to note. Mieka took the time to send Caulleen an assessing look and a brief nod, then quickly moved on to Rae, who had strapped herself in on her own. Beth was sure Rae wouldn't let anybody help her into a shuttle even if she was paralyzed.

The security agent they had met in the trees, the one Rae had called Wimpy, started a masked preflight procedure, initiating the controls without actually firing the engine. It was too easy to detect heat from the engine to risk starting it until the last minute. Beth remembered that much from listening to Evan talk about his tech games. It was an odd piece of information to recall, but she was glad she did; it stopped her from asking another stupid question.

They were airborne before she knew what was happening. Wimpy sat in the copilot's seat, issuing bizarre orders into a two-link radio while Mieke piloted the shuttle skillfully through the canopy of tree limbs and into the sunwashed sky. The glare streaming through the front windows was blinding. Beth shut her eyes against the pain of so much light after spending most of the day in the darkness of deep woods. She squinted out the window to pinpoint their direction, and was surprised to realize they were heading farther North, away from the Valley and Zokolai and the ruins.

“Aren't we going back for Alan's body?” she blurted into the quiet of the shuttle passenger bay.

Rae didn't bother to lean forward so she could see her when she answered, “There's still fighting in the ruins; it's too dangerous.”

Beth was appalled. “But what if they find him? They might do something awful, like tear him up! Or what if a muggat finds him? It'll eat him! We have to--”

“It's too dangerous,” Rae flatly repeated.

How could she be so emotionless, as if she didn't care what happened to Alan, as if she'd never cared? Beth turned to entreat Mieka. “What about Alan?”

Mieka spared a moment from watching the cockpit controls to look back and shake his head. “My troops haven't secured the area yet. It's too dangerous. We'll recover the body as soon as it's safe.” Then he returned his attention to flying the tiny craft as near to the tree tops as he dared in an attempt to avoid detection.

Beth looked at Caulleen. She opened her mouth to object, but Caulleen stopped her by saying, “I'm sorry, Beth. But Mieka and Rae are right. We can't risk more danger to you just to retrieve a body, even if it is Alan's. I'm sorry.” The sorrow in her eyes told Beth that she meant what she said.

Helpless, Beth lapsed into stunned silence. Her hand grazed her pocket, and the bulge of the Altair's signet of office lay heavily against her leg. She felt stupefied by safety protocol. Had Alan been treated like this for the last two cycles, as if he was nothing but a fragile object? She wondered how he had stood it for so long.

She wondered how she could stand it, either. She wondered if she had a choice. She also wondered how she was going to tell Alan's parents what had happened.

The shuttle's altitude shifted, and they began a descent through the trees. The landing struts blasted air, and a swirl of dust obscured the cockpit windows. Then they were down with only the slightest bump as the struts contacted the ground. Mieka quickly secured the shuttle's controls, locking everything to standby again, ready for another fast departure. He tossed his flight harness aside and slid from behind the controls with casual ease. “You're safe here, but I prefer that you stay in the shuttle until the situation in the hills is contained,” he said apologetically to Beth.

Wandering around in the open, where there was a potential for another laser fight, was not appealing. Beth nodded, but stopped him as he was about to descend to the ground. “Where are we?”

“Base Camp for the Hills District and Reva Peninsula,” he told her. “I'll have someone bring more food and water. Is there anything else you need, Altair?”

The title startled her again, and Beth jumped in her seat. “Uh, no, thank you,” she said when she had collected herself.

Mieka nodded and jumped to the ground. Rae and Wimpy followed him, and the three talked quietly just outside the shuttle. Then there was a shout calling Mieke to a meeting elsewhere, Wimpy jogged away in the other direction, and Rae took up position close enough to the shuttle so that she could climb aboard quickly, but far enough away so she wouldn't have to be part of any conversation.

Beth watched her stand alone in what was obviously a bustling camp operation. Rae's spiky red hair stood out among the greenery, but the expression on her face deterred anybody from coming too close to chat, though several tried at first. She held her weapon protectively in front of her, a long, thin rifle that glinted silver in the sunlight, and turned away when anybody came too close.

“Rae's upset,” Beth stated.

Caulleen followed her gaze to stare out the entrance hatch at Rae, and sighed in agreement. “Don't worry about her, Beth. She'll get over it.”

“Get over what?” she asked incredulously, assuming Caulleen was referring to Alan's death. “Do you people see someone murdered so often that you don't even care anymore?”

Caulleen's eyes widened with surprise. “No, Beth, that's not what I meant.”

Partly horrified and partly just sick, Beth asked, “Then what did you mean?”

Caulleen sighed again, this time with less sorrow and more frustration. “I didn't mean that she would get over Alan's death very easily. None of us will. We worked with him for two cycles; do you think this is easy for any of us?”

“No,” Beth quickly admitted, hesitated, then went on to blurt, “But you act like it doesn't matter, just as long as someone carries around this little metal circle.” Beth dug Alan's signet of office from her pocket and held it up for both of them to see.

Caulleen carefully took the seal from Beth. She stared at it for a long time, turning it over, occasionally brushing its surface with her fingers, finally looking up at Beth. “It's not that we don't care about Alan. I liked him a lot; he was funny and lighthearted; he knew how to laugh.” She sighed again, regretful now. “But we have a job to do, and we have responsibilities to more than just ourselves. We need to keep the Altair safe, no matter who it is, or what's happening. And we have to remember that the government goes beyond the people involved. If we don't, then there's nothing left of our government at all. Alan never understood that.”

Such an unexpected accusation puzzled Beth. “What do you mean?”

Caulleen stared assessingly at Beth, as if she was trying to decide if she should reveal something important. “How much do you know about Alan being Altair?”

It was a funny question. “Only what you've told me,” Beth confessed.

“There was no Altair before him, you know,” Caulleen continued.

Beth squirmed in her seat, frustrated at her ignorance. “No, I didn't know that.”

Caulleen nodded. “When Vid Sesson Mystada Altair died five cycles ago, Katai Derl didn't replace him right away. There was a lot of internal fighting going on in the Assembly then, and he wanted it to settle before he chose a new Altair.”

“He didn't want to make anybody mad by choosing the wrong person?” Beth guessed.

Caulleen smiled wanly. “That's a very simplified concept, but it's close enough. Somebody was going to be angry no matter who Gusta chose. He just didn't want to make the wrong people angry.”

“You mean the ones with the most control,” Beth filled in, recalling what Alan had told her just that morning. It seemed like a lifetime ago.

Caulleen nodded, so Beth continued, asking, “But why wait until he could choose Alan? What was so special about him?”

Caulleen shrugged. “Nothing.”

That wasn't what Beth had expected her to say. “Huh?”

Caulleen's face wrinkled into an embarrassed grimace. “Alan was from the right place, and in the right place at the right time.”

How could Alan have been in the right place? He'd never been to San Taron before becoming Altair.

“The Assembly had been pressuring Katai Derl to choose his Altair and get it over with. The official reason was that having an Altair would lend stability to Rasheda. I think they just wanted to start the training as soon as possible.”

Beth's puzzlement deepened. “I know about the training. One of the neighbors mentioned training the Altair at the party for Alan... it was Logan's mom, I think. She said that the last few Altairs have been trained so well that by the time they became Katai, it was like the old Katai had never left.”

Caulleen smiled. “I wouldn't say that, but it's interesting to know that the populace sees it that way.”

Beth could tell by the light in her eyes that Caulleen was quickly becoming diverted from the subject of Alan by her interest in Rasheda's political perceptions. “How was Alan chosen?” she inquired to keep her attention. “He said it had something to do with the Hills District, that Katai Derl wanted someone who had a different perspective on--”

“Alan asked Gusta the right question over the datalink,” Caulleen quietly explained. “I think it pertained to a product cost analysis for school. It was on trape grain.”

Beth noticed the irony in Caulleen's voice, and argued, “It must have been a good question to catch the Katai's attention.”

“It was a dumb question,” Caulleen said. “He was pompous to send it directly to the Katai. I think that's what caught Gusta's attention.”

“He wanted somebody pompous?”

Beth's disbelieving tone made Caulleen's features lift in her first genuine smile in hours. “Maybe. I do know that he wanted someone from the outlying farming regions, someone who had experience with alternative agricultural methods, yet still had no political connections.”

Beth snorted, then covered her mouth, horrified.

“What?”

Embarrassed, Beth admitted, “I was just thinking that the Katai might have picked the wrong person. Alan wasn't very interested in farming. He was never any good at it,” she recalled. “It didn't surprise me when he decided to move to San Taron to be closer to the government.” Her voice trailed off as she eyed the Seal of Altair still in Caulleen's grasp.

Caulleen must have noticed that she was looking at it, for she held the Seal out. Beth solemnly took it without a word.

At first glance, it was just a circle of metal with two underlying metal wings enfolding it on both sides, glinting dully in the sunlight that filtered through the shuttle's forward windows. But as she looked closer, Beth noticed a series of etchings carved into its burnished side. When she held it up to the light for a better look, the flat metal object suddenly split into three separate bodies. The wings fell away to become two smaller circular objects seeming to rotate around another circle. The central circle was larger than the others, and the etchings on its surface stretched and joined until Beth realized with a start that she was staring at a representation of Rasheda, complete with its orbiting moons. She clearly saw the main continent, separated from the two uninhabitable subcontinents by a swirling empty space representing the vast waters of the seas. The moons even glowed a soft milky blue. The final effect was beautiful, and amazingly real.

“Do you see it?” Caulleen softly asked.

“Yeh,” Beth said, barely able to breath. She watched the tiny moons spin slowly in their lonely orbits, then carefully lowered the signet until the light no longer touched it, and the three tiered image disappeared. A flat metal circle rested squarely in the palm of her hand.

“Was Alan a good Altair?” she asked.

The question took Caulleen by surprise. “He was smart enough to be a great Altair.”

“But he wasn't,” Beth finished for her.

Reluctantly Caulleen shook her head. “He had good ideas, but he thought being Altair was all about him, that it had something to do with him being special.”

Beth's gaze slipped from the seal in her hand to the shuttle's open access hatch and beyond. She stared out the hatch, remembering the new Alan she didn't know. She thought about his expensive clothes, his confident manner, the brusqueness in his tone when he spoke to Rae, how he ran from the gunner plane and left her behind to fend for herself, the way he carried himself that suggested he thought he was different, better, special.

But Alan wasn't special, any more than anybody was special. Or maybe everybody was special, and he was just like everybody else on Rasheda. No matter what he thought, it sounded as if Alan had been seduced by the promise of being a leader.

This explained the Lurries that Alan had brought home for Evan. Beth thought about what it must be like to be surrounded by rich people and bodyguards and new clothes all the time, to be able to buy whatever she wanted when she wanted it. No more clothes that didn't fit, or work pants shiny with wear. For a second, Beth understood that seduction.

Then she blinked as the sunlight sparked off the edge of the access hatch. Thoughts of Alan going crazy among what must have been the wealth of government and San Taron City gave way to acknowledgment of what she was looking at. Hot, white light streamed down on members of the security force as they crossed back and forth in front of the shuttle's hatch. Rae still stood off by herself, a carefully neutral expression on her face, held there like a mask. A group of agents conferred with each other about twenty paces from her. More agents scurried to other shuttles, carried weapons and parts from a hidden storehouse, or stood stiff at guard duty, their backs to the bustling activity of the base camp as they scoured the trees for possible dangers.

Beth watched as many of the agents as she could. Their strides were long, confident, yet unhurried. There was purpose to their movements, as if they believed in whatever they were doing.

“It's about them,” Beth murmured in sudden understanding. “The government's about them. Isn't it?” She turned to Caulleen.

Caulleen gracefully shrugged once more. “I think it is,” she confessed, then added with a mischievous smile, “It has to be about more than wearing the latest fashion of Lurries.”

Beth burst out laughing before she could stop herself. It was a horrible kind of laugh, high-pitched and edgy. She felt sick with it, and glad of it at the same time. She leaned into Caulleen and laughed until tears streaked her cheeks and stuffed up her nose and rained down her chin.

She clutched at the Seal of Altair in her fist, where it cut deep lines into her palm, and laughed with Caulleen for several moments. When their laughter died away. she left her head on Caulleen's shoulder, not laughing any longer, but not saying anything, either. A comfortable silence fell between her and Caulleen. She didn't demand anything of Beth, didn't criticize her, didn't ask any questions, didn't yell. She left Beth alone to stare out the open hatch to watch the security agents scurry in front of the shuttle, to watch them give reports, to move equipment, cross the compound. More sunlight glinted off weapons, dazzling in its intensity. Beth squinted against the glare, narrowing her eyes so that she could see. But at last she had to admit defeat; her narrowed eyes brought on the blissful promise of numbing sleep, and she slowly drifted off.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

“Beth, wake up.”

The voice came from far away, insistent and urgent. Beth ignored it.

“Come on, Beth.”

Something shook her, ruining the soothing tranquillity of sleep. Beth woke with a start, suddenly terrified that the shuttle was under attack. But it was only Caulleen, gently shaking her shoulder. Her heart skipped a beat before settling down again in a steady rhythm. “Sorry. Guess I fell asleep.”

Caulleen grinned. “Guess you did.”

More awake, Beth glanced around; nothing had changed. She was still strapped into her shuttle seat, and the shuttle was still in the same position in the base camp. A look out the access hatch showed Rae still at guard duty, resolutely standing exactly where she had planted herself soon after their arrival.

“What happened?” Beth asked groggily.

“The fighting stopped,” Caulleen reported. “The Pro-Tech soldiers are either dead or captured. Geron Tulong sent a detachment back to the ruins to retrieve the bodies.” She paused, eyeing Beth. “He wants to know if there's a special burial ritual he should follow... for Alan.”

As insistent as Beth had been to go back for Alan's body earlier, she hadn't considered the prospect of burying him. Now the image of the passing ceremony filled her mind, though she'd only been to one. It took a moment to orient her thoughts in the proper direction. “Uh, yes, there's the night vigil, and then the passing, but it's up to his family to decide--”

“There was fighting in the Valley, too,” Caulleen interrupted, “though not as bad as in the ruins. But Alan's home was destroyed. Where should we take him?”

Fighting in the Valley? An entire farmstead destroyed? Beth couldn't grasp the implications of the news at first. Then she remembered the gunner plane she'd seen veering off towards the Valley, and suddenly realized that while one faction of the Pro-tech soldiers had hunted Alan in the hills, another had hunted his home. “What about his parents? My parents! Are they okay? Is the house gone? Did they destroy everything?” Spurred to urgent action, she flailed against the straps holding her in her seat. “We have to--”

“Beth, stop.” Caulleen grabbed her hands. “Your families are fine.”

It took longer for this information to sink in. Beth wilted in relief when it did, and more tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She brushed them away, feeling guilty for not really considering her family's safety before this, and angry at such a useless emotion. “Sorry,” she mumbled, embarrassed. “I don't usually cry like this.” Caulleen gave her an understanding smile. It helped to refocus her thoughts on the problem at hand. “I guess we should take Alan to my house. My parents are good friends with his. It makes sense.” A new thought occurred to her; since her parents and the Gessmans were good friends, did her parents know about how Alan had become the Altair? If they knew, why hadn't they said anything? Why hadn't Nelson, for that matter?

If they knew, how had they managed to keep such a secret? She also didn't understand why they thought the secret had been necessary in the first place, but she was too tired to give it much thought. Exhaustion made her concentration hazy.

Suddenly she realized that Caulleen was still talking, and forced herself to pay attention. “As soon as the detachment reports in, we'll take Alan to your parents' house.”

She could understand that, at least. “What about San Taron?”

Caulleen stood as she answered. “We don't have full communication restored to the Palace yet, but the fighting there ended several hours ago.”

When she didn't continue, Beth prompted, “Who won?”

Caulleen's face turned hard. “Nobody.” Then she relented, adding, “The Katai's forces defeated the Pro-techs and Slavers army, but... As far as I've heard, only about a quarter of the city is left standing.”

Only a quarter? All those people who lived there were now... Stunned, Beth blurted, “I'm sorry. You must have had friends there.” Friends, family, an entire life...

Caulleen didn't respond. A moment later she slid down from the shuttle to confer with Mieka and another group of agents. Beth couldn't tell if they were security personnel, part of the Rashedan Security Force, or advisers like Caulleen. It didn't matter, she decided. Nothing was the same anymore, not even something as simple as rank.

Wimpy brought packets of hot food, but Beth felt too used-up to talk to him. She held the food listlessly in her hands.

He started for the hatch, but paused on the threshold to glance back at her, his face creased with anxiety. “You okay?”

Beth lifted her head. “Yeh. I'm just....” She didn't know what she was. “Tired,” she finally settled on, though that barely described the hollowness she felt.

“You heard about San Taron,” he guessed. “Do you have family there?”

She shook her head, thinking of Caulleen. “Do you?”

“No. But it's a shock, isn't it?”

She couldn't find the energy to reply.

He watched her for a moment from the hatchway, one foot dangling in the open air outside the shuttle, as if he couldn't decide if he should jump down or stay. “Want me to stick around while you eat? Keep you company?”

She felt so lost that she almost agreed. But he surely had important things to do, and she didn't need a baby-sitter. “No, but thanks.”

He grinned and nodded, then left without another word. Glad of the hot food, Beth ate it all, though it tasted like bland mush. Hot juice dribbled across the scrapes on her palms from the rough bark of the tree she had climbed. The sting helped to keep her alert.

As she ate, Beth watched the base camp activity through the access hatch. All the running back and forth and shouts from one side of the compound to the other blurred together until she couldn't distinguish what was going on. It looked like a jumble of disconnected games. Only Rae remained fixed in place, her back to the shuttle, silently eating the ration crackers that an unknown guard had brought to her.

In spite of the general commotion of the camp, a solitary silence wrapped around Beth. Nobody approached the shuttle, and Caulleen left with the group of agents she'd been talking to. Beth fell asleep again. Her head lolled back against the hard shuttle wall, and she didn't wake until she heard voices just outside the shuttle. She was relieved that she'd woken on her own this time; she had drooled in her sleep.

There was more activity in the camp, now; something must have happened. Caulleen neared the shuttle, followed by Mieka and Wimpy. Rae patiently waited outside while the others climbed aboard, then effortlessly followed.

“What is it?” Beth asked, alarmed.

“It's time to go,” Caulleen tactfully replied.

The four resumed their former seats and buckled themselves in. Once the hatch sealed, the shuttle rose smoothly through the trees, and this time Beth felt the small ship turn towards the Valley. They flew at high speed, skimming above the treetops, until they reached the ruins.

As they hovered over the first tier, Beth peered out the tiny passenger bay window at what was left. Some of the ruins were still standing, unscathed by the most recent disaster. Other parts, however, had crumbled, the ancient stones unable to withstand the pressure of ship exhausts and bomb vibrations. Little looked familiar to Beth, in spite of the fact that she knew the ruins better than anybody in the Hills District. More sadness wrapped around her at this latest loss. She sighed, deep and mournful, but the sound did nothing to comfort her.

Mieka continued to slowly circle the ruins until a second shuttle rose from among the buildings still standing and nestled alongside them. Beth didn't have to ask what that shuttle carried; she just wondered how many it carried. She turned away from the window so she wouldn't have to think about it, looking again only when she was sure they had reached the Valley. A sense of morbid fascination made her want to see Alan's farm.

Once she saw it, she wished she hadn't.

“The destruction always looks worse from the air,” Caulleen said sympathetically.

Beth was too shocked to say anything. At first the destruction wasn't bad, but the farther they traveled across the fields to the house, the more complete it appeared. The strong afternoon sunlight glinted brightly off melted fences, piles of plasteel where the outer barns used to stand, and burned fields flanked by leveled storage bins. A green film covered most of the rubble, and it took her a moment to realize that it was the color of young roats, still too immature for harvest. The grain from surrounding fields must have been blasted upward before slowly settling on everything below. The countryside seemed covered in green snow.

The Pro-techs had been relentlessly thorough in their mission to kill Alan. But even Beth's new understanding of Rasheda's internal dealings couldn't supply a reason for why they had bombed and sliced apart a farmstead so wholly unconnected to the government. Baffled, she continued to gaze out the window as Mieka flew the shuttle at slow speed, silently crossing from one side of the farm to the other so they could see it all.

Finally they reached the farm proper. “That was Alan's house,” Beth noted as they passed. The house was half standing, its exposed rooms also shining in green, a black depression indicating where an unfamiliar weapon had destroyed the rest of it. She felt numb as she calmly amended, “Or what's left of it.” Smoke still curled from the seared hole in the ground.

“Sonic bomb,” Rae announced dispassionately, as if Beth had asked what could destroy half a house while the other half seemed untouched. She continued the litany, reporting her knowledge of each new point of destruction. “High intensity laser beam, used to slice apart the structure; slag bombs for flattening large buildings; they probably used Trell 19 planes to cut down those storage sheds in the fields; a waste of energy, this far from--”

“Contesta Lor,” Mieka interrupted from the pilot's seat. “A word, please.”

Stopped short, Rae didn't question the interruption, but simply unbuckled her flight harness and walked easily to the cockpit area, unaffected by the shuttle's dips and weaves that would have sent Beth reeling against the walls. Mieka turned the controls over to Wimpy and swiveled his seat to face Rae. Beth couldn't hear what he said to her.

“She means well, you know,” Caulleen said in a low voice. When Beth didn't respond, she went on, “Rattling off lists of weapons is just Rae's way of making herself feel better.”

Beth tore her gaze from the tiny window beside her to glance first at Caulleen, then at Rae still in conference with Mieka. On a basic level, she understood Rae's strategy. Detachment from a problem was necessary to solving it. “Sometimes I count the gilbies if things are going bad,” she conceded. Silently she wondered if there were any gilbies left to count.

Such morbid thoughts didn't lift her spirits. A second flyby over the bombed-out Gessman farmstead made it even harder to stay detached. She was afraid her voice might crack if she tried to speak. Mute, Beth gazed at the destruction, hating what she was seeing. She tried not to hate the soldiers who had done this to Alan's home, but it was hard.

Finally Wimpy swung the shuttle back towards the far side of the farmstead, where the last outbuildings once stood. Some weapon had compromised the underground irrigation system, flooding the fields with a cycle's worth of stored water, turning once rich soil into useless rivers of sediment. A few of the farthest fences still stood, enclosing sodden pasture grass. But that was all.

Beth tried to make a mental note to ask Rece Masino, the Hills District expert on erosion, if something could be done to save the fields, but she couldn't finish the thought. Forced to swallow hard at the lump lodged in her throat, she was still on the verge of crying again when Rae returned, looking more solemn and gloomy than usual.

“What?” Beth asked sharply. Ashamed of the stuffed-up sound of her voice, she sniffed forcefully.

In typical fashion, Rae didn't waste time in delivering the news. “Katai Derl was wounded in the attack on the Palace.”

The shuttle seemed to hover for a moment, as if the news somehow stalled the engines as well as Beth's heart. “How bad?”

“Bad,” Rae answered in her blunt manner.

“He's not so bad,” argued Wimpy from the copilot's seat. “He's stable. The contesta likes to be dramatic.”

Rae glared at him. “I like to tell the truth.”

Beth didn't need the truth so much as reassurance. “Will he be all right?”

They all looked at her, then looked away in a momentary pact of silence. The engines thrummed loudly in the sudden quiet, filling the small shuttle with an edgy beat. Beth eyed them all, too afraid to ask for more details, and too afraid not to. “Well?”

Wimpy ended the foreboding quiet. “They say it's too soon to tell. But he's pulled through worse. Don't worry.” He flashed a grin at Beth before turning his attention back to the controls.

Rae insisted, “The Katai's condition is serious, but he wants to meet you. That's a good sign,” she added in an uncommon attempt to soothe. She shuffled her feet and refused to meet Beth's gaze.

Beth appreciated the attempt. Somehow the words had more truth coming from Rae. “So what happens next?”

Caulleen said, “That depends. You're Alan's chosen alternate, but you don't have to accept. Do you want to be named Altair?”

She had a choice? Beth hesitated, and unconsciously touched the Seal in her pants pocket. For reasons of his own, Alan had been confident in her and her leadership abilities, though she wasn't nearly as certain about herself. What if someone else could do a better job? “What happens if I don't accept?”

“You give a formal declination, and the Katai names a new Altair.”

Mention of the Katai reminded her of the destruction in San Taron and at the Gessman farm. Caulleen hadn't detailed all the destruction caused by the uprising, but there must be more. Even with the Gessman farm spread out beneath her, Beth had a hard time imagining what it would be like to live in a destroyed city. The amount of rebuilding necessary for the Valley alone seemed formidable to her.

A wrinkle settled across her forehead. She had a chance to make a difference to the Hills District, maybe even to all of Rasheda, and she needed to take it. The least she could do was help restore the farms. Even if she didn't know how to repair everything, she knew the people who did, and in the few cases that she didn't, her parents did. After what had happened, the Hills people wouldn't trust any other Rashedan official as easily as they would trust one of their own. When she looked out the window, the destruction turned into things she needed to do.

Beth refused to let herself consider what she would lose if she accepted Alan's position. Another wave of depression swept over her when she thought about missing out on moving the second group of newbies to pasture. Only another hasty glance out the window kept her from melting into a useless puddle of self pity.

At last, Beth felt composed enough to speak. “I hope Katai Derl likes working with someone who knows more about cleaning up gilby turds than politics.”

Caulleen's face registered surprise at Beth's use of a joke, but the corners of Rae's mouth lifted in a rare half smile of approval. “He will adjust,” she predicted dryly.

Equally as dry, Caulleen asked, “Is that a yes?” Beth nodded. “Then the next question is where do you want the promotion ceremony? The Palace Hall in San Taron was destroyed, but--”

“Can't we do it here?”

“Yes, if that's what you want. I've already contacted the Assembly to send Councilors Hesson and Anciliano to act as regional advisers to the Katai until the area is more settled. They can easily be your Assembly witnesses. They'll be here tonight.”

“Who are they?” Beth asked, queasy at the thought of more strangers.

Caulleen put a comforting hand on Beth's arm. “Friends of Alan's. They'll support any alternate he chose. Don't worry, Beth, it's just a formality.”

“Will you still be the Altair's adviser?” Beth asked, further terrified at the thought of losing Caulleen, who was at least familiar even if she'd only known her for a few days.

“I will if you want me to be,” she answered simply.

Beth gushed a breath of relief. “Yes, I do! You always know what you're doing, and I never... I mean I don't know...” She tried to put into words how she felt less overwhelmed with Caulleen there to tell her what to do, but her tongue refused to make the proper sounds. “I have no idea what I'm doing,” she finally admitted. “Alan made this look so easy, but...” She trailed off, feeling ineffective and foolish.

Caulleen's voice grew sympathetic as she said, “It's not supposed to be easy.”

Beth wasn't convinced. She remembered the high level of Alan's self-confidence. He'd felt secure in himself and his abilities while she only felt terrified.

But at least she had Caulleen and Rae. Unlike Alan, they would tell her the truth. “I'm glad you're both staying,” she murmured shyly.

Without leaning forward, Rae spoke up. “I have requested to be reassigned.”

“What?” Caulleen demanded in astonishment. Beth was too horrified to speak.

Rae looked pointedly at Beth. “You don't think I'm good at my job. The Altair cannot have a bodyguard she doesn't trust.”

Beth blurted in astonishment, “When did I say that?” But she knew before Rae even answered. “I did say that. I'm sorry. I was just upset, you know, back there in the woods when Alan--” She bit her tongue to stop herself. She was rambling again, and too many apologies would only embarrass Rae. Instead she protested, “I think you're good. You're very good. And I don't want you to be reassigned. Unless you really want to be.”

Rae stared at her suspiciously. “You're just saying that,” she suggested in a half accusatory, half hopeful tone.

Beth balked. “I am not! I'm not like Tessy. If I say it, I mean it.”

Rae hesitated, watching Beth with a thoughtful expression. “All right. I'll cancel my request for reassignment.” Then she returned to gazing at a fixed point in front of her without another word.

Beth sighed in relief, instinctively preferring Rae and her gruff attitude to a bodyguard always waiting expectantly for the next compliment. Rae would be more useful.

Hysterical laughter immediately gurgled at the back of Beth's throat. It was hard to believe that just that morning, her biggest concern was avoiding Evan; now she worried about having the best bodyguard. Her fist clenched over her pocket, feeling for the Seal even while part of her wished she could throw it out the shuttle access hatch.

“Approaching landing vector,” Wimpy reported in the following silence. “Releasing injector fluids. Lowering landing struts.”

A quiet hiss filled the cabin, and all the gear needed to safely land the shuttle clicked into place. Beth forgot about the Seal in her excitement of reaching home. She caught a quick glimpse of her house and her family gathered in front of it just as dust billowed over the forward windows, obscuring the view. She unclipped her safety harness and was at the hatch before they had settled to a halt in her front yard.

“Mom! Dad!” she called, jumping to the ground the second the access hatch slid aside.

Dust still filtered through the air in choking swirls, but thankfully they were all waiting for her in front of the unharmed house. Beth coughed, but ignored the sting of grit in her eyes as she flung herself at her parents. “I was so worried. I heard about the fighting and I didn't know if you were all right or what had happened,” she babbled. Tears poured down her cheeks.

Her dad grabbed her into his arms like a kid. “We're so glad you're safe!”

Her mom reached around her, too, and they stood like that, wrapped together in a tangle of squeezing arms, Beth's feet dangling off the ground. Her dad smelled of gilbies and grassfeed.

Finally he set her down. She had to push aside the stray hairs clinging annoyingly to her face to see them. “Is everybody all right? What about Nelson and Tessy and...” She searched the group gathered behind her parents in the gloom of the archway, focusing on each face. Tessy gave a wan smile, and Evan waved. Nelson hung back, frowning.

“They're fine,” interrupted her mom with a glance over her shoulder. “We had some trouble with soldiers... a siege of sorts... but nobody was hurt.”

“Alan.” Beth gulped on more tears, and with a huge effort, stopped crying. “He's dead.”

Her dad ran a soothing hand over her tousled hair. “We know. His parents are here. They've been here since early this morning.”

Beth gaped at him. “They knew the hunters were coming?”

“No. They were worried about Alan's safety, considering the problems in San Taron. But we had no idea you were in so much danger until the Pro-tech soldiers barricaded their house.”

“The Pro-techs blew up their house,” Beth corrected, forced to hold back fresh tears.

Her mom finished, “Yes. They were lucky to be here when it happened, or they might be dead now, too.”

A shiver coursed up Beth's spine, but she forced herself to ignore it, straightening instead in an official pose; there was more to discuss now than luck. “Mom, Dad, I have something to tell you.” She fumbled in her front pocket to pull out the Seal of Altair. Holding it up, she announced, “Alan chose me as his alternate right before he died. I'm the new Altair.”

Tessy's eyes bugged out from her thin face in obvious disbelief. “You're what?”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The evening sun bathed the Walker's kitchen in a soft, warm light that did nothing to soften Nelson's exasperation.

“Beth, you don't have to do this,” he forcefully argued for the fifth time since Beth had returned home an hour ago.

Beth sighed tiredly, but doggedly repeated, “Yes, I do.”

“No, you don't,” Nelson insisted again.

She looked at him over a fork full of soggy egg palitas that her dad had reheated for her. Though better than military rations, the palitas seemed as appetizing as more conversation with Nelson. The knots twisting in her stomach agreed, but the promotion ceremony was only minutes away, and her dad was watching to make sure she ate. Staunchly she took another bite.

Nelson stalked from one end of the eating area to the other, ignoring their parents and Rae, who sat watching everybody. He went on, insisting, “You don't know what it means to be the Altair. You'll have to move to San Taron. You'll have to deal with people. You hate people!”

Beth carefully chewed the eggs and swallowed. “I don't hate people. I just like gilbies better.” She hadn't meant to be funny, but she saw Rae's eyebrows twitch in an otherwise invisible grin.

“You won't be dealing with gilbies, Beth,” Nelson added irritably, running a hand through his long hair.

Beth's stomach twisted tighter. Nelson was making her too nervous to eat. “I'm sorry, Dad, I can't eat anything now.”

Her dad nodded. “That's all right. I didn't want you going hungry, that's all.”

Beth turned to Rae. “Would you like the rest, Rae?”

“No.” But Rae gave herself away by glancing at the nearly full plate.

“Don't be stupid.” Far too tired to be polite, Beth pushed the plate across to Rae. “All you ate at the camp was a cracker or two. I saw you.”

Rae stubbornly refused. “No. You should eat the rest. Or your brother should.” She cast a withering glance at Nelson. She didn't have to voice the thought that eating would shut him up.

“I'm not hungry, and Nelson's too busy yelling at me to eat. Take it.”

Reluctantly Rae accepted the offering, then ate with gusto once she'd made up her mind.

Nelson watched Rae and Beth incredulously. “This is insane,” he lamented. “Mom, Dad, stop her!”

“Nelson,” Beth said, irritated as well. “Shut up.”

He gawked at her. “Beth, come on! You have to know what a dumb idea this is. You're not trained, you're not prepared. You can't be the Altair!”

“And Alan could?” she snapped. “And you could be his pet Hills District adviser?”

Nelson bristled. “I worked hard for Alan, but I was never his--”

“But I bet it was fun always playing with the latest tech,” she accused.

In his best arrogant older-brother voice, he said, “We used tech to keep you safe.”

“After what happened today, you're doing a lousy job!” Beth shot back.

A horrified silence fell on the room. Nelson looked like she'd slapped him.

As quickly as it came, her anger disintegrated. Beth bit her lip in regret, but she'd come too far to back down now. “I don't want to fight about it, Nelson. I know I'm not trained, but neither was Alan. That's why Caulleen is advising me. She's very good; even Alan knew that.”

“That doesn't mean you're the right person to be Altair,” Nelson quietly argued.

Beth couldn't disagree when she'd had the same thoughts only hours earlier. “I know. But I was the only one there.” Another reference to Alan's death stalled his arguments long enough for her to say, “Stop feeling guilty about it. You know how stubborn Alan was; there's nothing you could have done.” Exhausted, she slumped in her chair, then let her head fall to the table, pillowed on an outstretched arm. The position pulled at the laser burn on her shoulder, but she was too tired to move.

“I don't feel guilty,” Nelson hotly corrected. “I just think it's stupid to do all this so fast. You need time to think about it first.”

“What's to think about?” Beth mumbled into her arm. “Caulleen says I should be inducted, fast, so there isn't a hole in the government, especially since the Katai's wounded. What good is an adviser if I don't listen to her?”

“Makes sense,” interjected her dad.

Her mom added, “I wish she'd let you have a good night's sleep, though, Beth.”

“I'd just have nightmares,” Beth pointed out truthfully. As pleasant as falling asleep sounded, she was too afraid of dreams to be tempted.

“Fine,” Nelson said sarcastically, gaining steam again, “but I don't see how promoting you to Altair will patch any holes in the government. It sure won't fix the hole in the Gessman's house.”

“Nelson,” cautioned their mom.

He relentlessly continued, “No, Mom, this is important. If Beth wants to be Altair, she might as well start now by telling us what she plans to do for all those people in San Taron. Or for anybody, for that matter.”

Beth shrugged against the table. “I don't know. I guess I'll figure it out. Unless you have an idea?” she challenged in return.

Their mom stopped the discussion. “That's the Katai's problem, Nelson, not Beth's. Stop needling. This is her decision.”

“That's right,” agreed their dad. “Do you remember how surprised you were when Alan was chosen? You laughed until you threw up.”

Nelson scowled. “But Beth's different from Alan.”

“I hope so,” said their dad with an uncomplimentary roll of his eyes.

With an aggravated sigh, Nelson turned back to Beth. “You do realize you're going to be Katai someday, don't you?”

Another knot twisted in her stomach, stealing her breath. “Yeh. But that's a long time off.” She harbored a vague hope that some event would intervene before that time arrived, keeping her from the role, but said nothing about it.

“You love the Hills District, Beth,” Nelson next pointed out. “Do you really want to leave?”

It was cruel of him to use the one argument that she couldn't deny. She lifted her head. “No, I don't want to leave. But I have to do this, Nelson.”

“For Alan?” He glared, daring her to argue against his reasoning.

“Maybe,” she answered. His glare intensified, and she admitted, “If I stay home, I'll always feel like I should have done something, like I messed up because I didn't help. I couldn't live with myself, Nelson.”

For a minute he just looked at her, then reluctantly agreed, “I suppose not.”

Beth went on, “This way, I can help Rasheda, but you don't have to stay here to help the Altair if you don't want to.”

Nelson snorted, as if she'd just made a bad joke. “What about the farm?” he asked in what sounded like a last, halfhearted attempt to change her mind.

“We'll worry about that,” said their mom with a snort of her own.

Rae suggested, “The obnoxious brother can do the farming,” while cleaning the last of the palitas from her plate.

“Evan?” Nelson's disbelief was quickly dissolving into ridicule.

“Yes, him. And Beth will be a good Altair.”

Astonished at such a positive endorsement from the fierce bodyguard, Beth's eyes widened in pleased shock.

Her reaction was the opposite of Nelson's, who sneered in an expression that made him look like Tessy. “How do you know?”

Thinking of each encounter she'd had with Rae during that long day, Beth bluntly announced, “Rae knows everything. Now can we please stop talking about this?”

Nelson persisted, “I still say this is a mistake. Not because I don't think you'll be a good Altair. I just don't want you to do something you don't really want to do. I mean, look at me. The last two cycles were awful.” He belatedly looked at their parents. “No offense, but it was hard to sit here while Alan was up in San Taron, doing all the important things.”

Their mom answered with a sigh of her own. “We're not offended, Nelson. But I don't know how many important things Alan really did.”

“They sounded important to me,” Nelson grumbled.

“I'll let you know if they're important or not,” Beth promised, too tired to argue anymore. Standing up, she said, “It must be time for the ceremony, don't you--”

A sound in the storage room interrupted her. Right on cue, Caulleen stepped through the arch into the kitchen. Dark circles under her eyes showed her fatigue, but she smiled wanly in greeting. “The link's as steady as we can get it,” she reported. “That brother of yours is a wonder with satellite relays. We're ready if you are, Beth.”

Beth nodded, suddenly so nervous that her throat clogged, eventually managing to choke, “How's the Katai?”

“He'll be watching, but he's too weak to swear you in. Magister Davis will do that part.”

She had no idea who Magister Davis was, but didn't want to waste the energy to ask. “Do I look all right?” she asked instead.

A stronger smile crossed Caulleen's face. “You look like you.”

Beth didn't know how to take that. She looked to her dad, who grinned, and her mom nodded. If she was good enough for her parents, then she supposed she was good enough for the rest of the planet. She smoothed away wrinkles from the shirt she had worn the day before for Alan's party, checked for stray wisps that had escaped her braid, then followed Caulleen outside.

Tessy was waiting for her at the door. “That old shirt is what you're wearing?” she asked, scandalized, as she fell in beside her. “Don't you have anything more... I don't know, more regal?”

“You forgot to do the laundry, so this was all I had left,” Beth excused her wardrobe. They turned away from the darkening shadows of the tree-filled commons and headed around to the front of the house.

“The laundry was Evan's job,” Tessy reminded, misinterpreting Beth's attempt to joke. “But you should have borrowed something from me. Do you want to go back and change?”

Beth forced herself not to smile. As silly as it seemed to her, Tessy's offer was sincere, at least. “Nobody will notice what I'm wearing, Tessy.”

“Don't count on it,” Tessy said. “That old shirt is the first thing I saw.”

They reached the front of the house then, saving Beth from having to defend her clothes any further. The last rays of waning sunlight washed over the yard, turning it into an inviting open space for the huge crowd gathered solemnly for the ceremony.

Beth stopped to gape at all those people.

“The neighbors,” her mom leaned in to hastily explain. “They want to support you, not scare you.”

“I'm not scared,” Beth said, but looked uncertainly at Rae. “What do you think? Is it safe?”

Rae scoured the crowd with her hard gaze, her hand unconsciously hovering over the gun strapped conspicuously to her waist. “These are the same people who were at the party yesterday?”

Beth could tell her mom didn't understand their hesitation, but she cooperatively replied, “Yeh, some of them. There's more here now.” Then she must have realized what Rae's concern was, for she irritably said, “There's no assassins, I'm sure.”

“I want to be sure, too,” Rae stated.

Her mom leaned back on her heels and narrowed her eyes, a sure sign that her frustration was turning to anger.

Beth heaved a tired sigh. “I guess I can't be scared of everybody all the time.”

“It only takes once,” Rae darkly informed.

No matter how tired she was, Beth had to grin at the bodyguard's natural pessimism. She also knew the way to gain Rae's trust was to let her do her job. “Well?”

Rae pinched her lips together. “I don't like it. But I never like anything.”

“You don't say,” commented Beth's mom under her breath.

Beth looked again at the crowd. They were watching her expectantly.

Just when panic started to add to the knots in her stomach, Beth decided, “I'd rather be dead than scared.” She walked forward, leading the small retinue, Rae close at her side.

Evan ran up to meet them, distracting Beth from her resolve. “Hey, Beth, Logan says you were shot at today. Were you? Did you shoot anybody?”

This wasn't the distraction she wanted. “I don't know.” Images of shrubs and wide tree trunks and crouching hunters blasted across her mind. For a second, she could feel the gun she'd used resting perfectly in her hand. The sensation passed as quickly as it had come, but Beth was suddenly relieved that Rae had insisted the ceremony be held out in the open rather than in the tree-filled commons, as Beth had originally suggested. She'd had enough of trees to fill two lifetimes.

Evan didn't notice her preoccupation. “I would have shot all of them!” he declared with relish. “I'd've killed the soldiers here, if Dad would've let me. You should've seen them, Beth; there were millions of them! They wouldn't let us do anything or go anywhere. I even had to ask to go to the lav.”

Beth's mom broke in. “Evan, that's enough about the soldiers.”

“What happened to the soldiers?” Beth asked to shut him up. “The ones that Evan's talking about?”

Evan importantly told her, “We got all of them. Ralston Rusher threw hand bombs on the ones holding us prisoner, and then Rece and Justin gave us all guns so we could fight back. There was blood everywhere! You should've seen...”

Rae glared him to silence. “The prisoners were flown to the holding station near Eo. If they survive the night, the Katai will punish them.”

“What will he do?” Evan asked, undeterred even by the fierce look on Rae's face.

“They're traitors. He will kill them.”

Beth felt the blood drain from her face.

“Enough!” Her mom pushed a strand of hair back from Beth's face. “Go on, Beth. Caulleen is waiting for you. Evan, you stay here.”

“But Mom!” he immediately whined.

The rest of that disagreement was thankfully lost in the last minute directions from the ground crew and the quiet murmurs of the gathered crowd. Security agents spread out in a wide circle to keep all those people back from the broadcast area, but it was unnecessary as the crowd seemed subdued and respectful. The murmurs stopped again as Beth approached the grassy portion of the yard they'd set aside for her ceremony.

Wires and cords and satellite plates sparked yellow in the last of the sun's rays. One of Alan's guards... Beth couldn't recall his name... stood attentively between two datalink terminals and three monitors, carefully watching all the hookups with an unfamiliar member of the security team. Another agent finished the final testing of the main viewer, a small, boxy machine that would record the ceremony and send it instantly via signals to the remaining satellites in orbit. Several more such viewers were stationed at each possible angle, capable of capturing everything that might happen. It seemed like a lot of fuss for something that Caulleen had called a formality. More knots twitched in Beth's stomach.

“Beth,” Caulleen called from her place near the viewer, indicating two more unfamiliar people standing beside her. “This is Rawl Hesson and Laan Meg Anciliano, the Assembly witnesses.”

Rawl Hesson was so tall that Beth's neck kinked when she looked up at him. Councilor Anciliano stood at eye level with Rae. Beth felt like a kid standing between them. They wore expensive trousers and long cloaks cut from soft, flowing material, their height adding to the majestic sway of the cloaks. Both looked out of place in the quietly waiting crowd of Hills District farmers, like brightly colored weeds in a well ordered but otherwise dull garden. Beth smiled at the comparison.

Mistaking her smile for a greeting, Rawl Hesson inclined his head slightly in her direction, looking fierce. By contrast, Laan Meg Anciliano's expression was warm as she took hold of Beth's hand. “I wish we had met under more pleasant circumstances. Rawl and I were great supporters of Gusta's choice in Alan as Altair. He was a brighter future for Rasheda, and we will miss him.”

Beth wasn't prepared for such a polite speech. “So will I,” she muttered, sounding sullen without meaning to.

Councilor Anciliano didn't appear to notice, and continued, “Alan always spoke well of you.”

“He did?” Beth asked in surprise. The idea of Alan even giving her a second thought was astonishing.

In spite of Beth's obvious surprise, the councilor nodded. “He spoke well of your entire family, and had plans to ask you to join him in San Taron as an adviser.”

Beth choked. “He did ask.”

Anciliano didn't look surprised. “He claimed your family's knowledge of agricultural methods was impressive. Considering what happened today, and the current crisis with our exports, his choice of alternate is doubly wise.”

Beth felt frozen for a second, limply grasping at Anciliano's hand. “What export crisis?”

Caulleen intervened. “We're too tired to go into it right now. I'll tell you about it tomorrow. Now please, Councilors, it's time.”

The last flurry of preparations had ended during their brief conversation. With more sick flutters of nervousness and uncertainty, Beth reluctantly turned to the others. In a group of twenty, Caulleen and the guard were the only ones she even recognized. She tried to send a smile to the guard, but he was too absorbed in his duties to notice. When she looked at the larger crowd of her family and neighbors held back by the security agents, all she saw was a big blur of faceless people. Her hands were sweating, though she felt cold in her thin, sleeveless shirt. Before she was ready, the ceremony began.

In an ironic twist of fate, the object of the day's uprising, the moons, rose as the ceremony progressed. Temporarily beaten by the ever present order of nature, the sun relinquished its hold in the sky to slowly sink away in a ball of pulsing liquid light. It was already so big against the pink and black sky that Beth felt she could touch it. Pale moonlight stretched out to meet the last edge of the sun in an eerie display of fiery color and hazy light.

Beth split her attention between watching the sky and listening to the Assembly councilors repeat the formal call to service.

“As tradition dictates,” Anciliano was solemnly intoning, “we call Beth Walker to the office of Altair, a calling conceived and dictated centuries ago by our original colonists, to whom we owe the debt of our presence on this planet.” She held out the Seal of Altair, which Beth had given to Caulleen for safekeeping, and handed it to Rawl Hesson.

Hesson lifted the Seal aloft and declared, “Though the events surrounding this calling are unhappy and unfortunate, the calling itself is legal and binding under those same laws. Beth Walker, do you promise to uphold these old laws of Rasheda, and to do your best to create new laws as the times demand?”

Beth answered, “Yes,” in a voice as heavy and somber as his. He handed the Seal to her. Should she hold it up, like the two councilors had done, or did it matter? Hesitant, Beth found herself clutching the metal circle in her left hand, holding it awkwardly at shoulder height. It wasn't high enough for her to see the dimensional images of Rasheda and its moons, but she didn't have the opportunity to lift it higher. It was time for her swearing-in.

“The promise of a serving officer is paramount to that officer's service,” Hesson was saying. “Fulfilling that promise has been the key part of service since Rasheda's humble beginnings, and is no less important centuries later.”

Anciliano took up where Hesson left off. “The swearing-in of each new officer is as much a tradition as promising to promote a better future. At this time, we turn the tradition of ceremony over to Hanriker Davis, magister of the Justice of Ascensions, two time recipient of the Equity Medal, and honored officer of the Katai of Rasheda.”

Beth had trouble concentrating on the councilors' flowery words. The solemnity of the ceremony was wholly at odds with the riot of color playing out above them. Beth watched the sky move from pink, to gold, to purple as the unfamiliar face of Magister Davis filled one of the datalink screens and her pinched, scratched face filled the other. Hale, I look horrible, she thought, and numbly wondered what Katai Derl must be thinking.

Suddenly, as the darkness of velvety night took hold of the eastern horizon, she heard the magister say, “I hereby convey on you the title of Altair, an office second only to the Katai of Rasheda, and answerable to the Assembly of Councilors and all their constituents. Do you accept?”

How had they reached this part so fast? “I do,” Beth answered quickly, barely comprehending what she was saying. Her voice sounded like it was coming from someone else.

“Your name is therefor changed to Vid Beth Walker Altair,” Magister Davis announced. “May you serve us well.”

He'd left out her middle name. Beth opened her mouth to correct him, but his face disappeared from the link screen.

The last edge of the sun sank behind the horizon, blurring the valley into shadow. The ceremony was over, five minutes after it had begun, leaving Beth breathless and numb, as if all that had happened had filled her up and spit her out. She felt like a shadow herself.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

There was no celebration, but many of the neighbors stayed in huddled circles to talk, saying words like devastation and soldiers and kill until Beth couldn't take it any more. Still numb, she slipped away to her room. It took three tries before she remembered the security code for her door lock. It seemed like cycles had passed since she had scrambled it just that morning. But she still clutched the Seal firmly in her hand as physical proof that nothing was ever going to be the same again. To avoid thinking about it, she went to bed.

Many hours later Beth woke not from nightmares, but from the belated realization that Alan's parents hadn't been at the promotion ceremony. She briefly worried about where they were, then recalled that she had forgotten to thank the councilors for being her witnesses. By then they were gone, of course, whisked away to safe quarters by Mieka's security agents. Were they with the Gessmans? Where did important officials stay during visits to the outer areas? She supposed she would find out soon enough.

Dread knifed through her then, as painful as any nightmare. She didn't want to leave home. She didn't want to change her behavior. It was only now, in the middle of the night, that she fully understood that being Altair entailed more than either she or Nelson had realized. She would have to change her manners so that she would be more like other officials, like the councilors at the ceremony. She had liked them well enough, especially Anciliano, but now their mannerisms seemed almost stuffy. Alan had also been stuffy, even aloof at times. Was that what it meant to be the Altair?

And what about her clothes?

Beth groaned into her pillow. Why hadn't she thought of this sooner? She knew it was stupid. She should be worrying about the wounded Katai Derl, and what it would be like to work with a man she had never met, doing things she wasn't trained to do. But Tessy's critical comment about her old shirt kept ringing in her mind. Compared to the cloaks the councilors had worn, her clothes were barely serviceable. If she wore the shirts and trousers she owned while acting as Altair, she'd never fit in, like the flowering weeds in the vegetable garden. If she wanted to blend in, she would have to look the part and dress like all the other people in San Taron City. But where would her parents find the money to buy the kind of wardrobe that everybody expected of the Altair?

Maybe she could change what was an acceptable wardrobe by wearing her own clothes anyway. Like her mom had said about the weeds, she simply had to convince the entire planet to do something different, to “grow somewhere else.” But what would Katai Derl think of an Altair wearing trousers with worn spots on the butt and last year's outgrown jumpsuits? Yet, what else could she do?

This is stupid! she groaned to herself. She needed to ask Caulleen about it, but would have to wait until morning. There was no point in wasting more time thinking about it now.

But would she really have to wear a cloak like the councilors? Beth cringed; she didn't want to wear a cloak!

Beth buried her head under her pillow and fell asleep.

She dreamed about clothes the rest of the night. When she woke again, tired and grumpy, it was close enough to sunrise to say it was morning. She had a kink in her neck from sleeping on her stomach, and she'd drooled all over her sheets.

At least she hadn't had nightmares. Now she was too grumpy for nightmares, but too awake to fall back to sleep.

Silvery light was just filtering through the oval bedroom windows. She sat up, yawned, then crawled stiffly out of bed. Every muscle in her body ached, her shoulder burned, and even her tongue hurt where she'd bit it during the night. Another yawn pulled at the healing cuts on her cheeks. Her stomach growled ferociously.

She stood in the sanitizer long enough to remove the grit of sleep, then looked in her closet. It was as if her dreams had just now turned into nightmares; she didn't have any clean clothes. Evan, or Tessy, or whoever was supposed to do the laundry had never finished it. That dumb jumpsuit and three shirts she'd outgrown two cycles ago were the only clean clothes in her closet. Now she had nothing to wear on her first day as the officer second only to the Katai of Rasheda. What was she supposed to do? Go naked?

Anger and frustration boiled up. She wanted to run screaming down the corridor until she found someone to yell at. But that was hardly the appropriate way for the Altair to behave, which made her even angrier.

Suddenly her cheeks burned hot in shame. Alan was dead, and she was angry about dirty laundry. Surely she could do her own laundry, no matter whose turn it was on the chore schedule. Subdued, Beth slowly dressed in the clothes she'd worn for the ceremony the night before. The weight of the Seal still in the front pocket of her trousers felt heavy. Doing her best to ignore it, she moved silently to her door, which squeaked as it slid open; she'd forgotten all about fixing it.

Out in the corridor, Wimpy snapped to attention at the squeal.

Beth jumped back as fast as her aching muscles would let her. “What are you doing here?”

“What are you doing up?” he asked at the same time.

“I couldn't sleep.”

“I'm on guard duty.”

Their simultaneous replies rang loudly in the empty corridor. Beth held her breath, but when the doors along the corridor remained shut, indicating their occupants were still asleep, she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Guard duty?” Beth questioned in puzzlement, keeping her voice low. “For who?”

Wimpy looked just as puzzled. “For you.”

“Me?” She couldn't have been more surprised if he'd suggested they steal an air car and run away together. “Why?”

He looked like it was obvious. “Because you're the Altair.”

Beth's mouth fell open in astonishment, though she could hardly argue. “But I don't need...”

When she didn't finish, Wimpy went on to explain, “It's standard procedure, Altair.”

He meant she would have a guard all the time now, implying that her privacy wasn't as important as her safety. How could she stand to lose something as basic as privacy? Beth held on to her temper with an effort. “Is it?” she asked politely. “Did, um... did Alan have so much...um, guarding?”

He shrugged. “Yes.”

She continued to stare at him in amazement. Reluctantly he said, “Geron Tulong ordered me to relieve Contesta Lor two hours ago. That's why I'm here; she needed sleep, but refused to leave her post.”

Beth's mouth fell open again. “Rae was here all night?” That was going too far. “I do not need a guard in my own house.”

His eyes darted to a fixed point on the opposite wall. “Of course, you can take that up with Geron Tulong at your convenience, Altair Walker.”

Dismayed at his sudden formality, Beth's forehead grew creased with wrinkles, but she was too dazed to say more than, “I guess I'll do that.” Then her stomach rumbled loudly in the quiet corridor, and she added, “After breakfast.” Embarrassed by the noises from her stomach, and mortified at having someone she barely knew standing outside her bedroom, she headed quickly away from him down the corridor.

But he followed, staying two steps behind her even when she slowed.

“What are you doing?”

Wimpy looked far more uncomfortable than she felt. “It's my duty to guard you, Altair. I need to stay with you to fulfill my duty.”

“All the time?” she blurted.

“Yes, Altair.”

It was worse than she'd expected. “But that's crazy.”

A flush crept from his neck up his cheeks. He held his ground, though he sounded more disconcerted all the time. “I'm only following orders, Altair.”

Of course he was. A further retort died in her throat. She'd never questioned Rae's constant presence while guarding Alan; it was ludicrous to suddenly question his, no matter how unexpected it was. Lips twisted in distaste, she wondered what other unexpected surprises were in store for her. “I guess this is going to take some getting used to,” she finally relented in defeat.

Wimpy smiled when he misinterpreted the scope of her last comment. “Oh, after a day or two you won't even know we're here.”

Beth tried to smile in agreement, but her face felt frozen. They stared at each other in uncomfortable silence. The corridor had never felt so small.

He shifted from one foot to the other, and finally asked, “Is there anything you need, Altair Walker?”

Beth shook herself. “Call me Beth,” she told him. “You did yesterday.”

“That was before--”

“Are you hungry?” she interrupted. “Because I am.” She started down the corridor again, heading for the kitchen before he could say anything more.

“Uh...” He hurried to follow. “It's not my place to eat your family's food.”

“I can't eat in front of you,” she pointed out. “That would be rude.”

“No it wouldn't.”

“Besides, my parents would...” She was going to say they would kill her for being inhospitable, but images of Alan lying in the crook of tree roots loomed in her mind. Instead, she charged into the kitchen and started pulling pans and dishes from shelves. “I hope you like hoska. It's the only thing I know how to make.”

He hesitated. “I haven't had hoska since I left home and joined the Force.”

Tins full of the ingredients jumbled onto the countertop. Beth chased after one before it fell to the floor. “Where are you from?” she asked in distraction.

“Reva.”

“You're Revaadan?” Beth was so surprised she forgot to set the tin back on the counter and ended up holding it sideways while chunks of dried pfizer kernels fell to the floor. They plinked on the hard surface and rolled around her feet.

Wimpy laughed as he chased them. “Since when do you put pfizer in hoska?”

“Huh?” Beth looked at the tin in her hands. “Oh. I grabbed the wrong one.” She replaced the kernels and pulled another tin from the spice shelf.

“Are you sure you know what you're doing?” He sounded friendly again, just like he'd been at Base Camp.

“I do. I'm just a little jumpy from everything that's happened. And I can't forget to recycle my laundry.” Her voice trailed off as she ladled ingredients onto a specially divided plate, then mixed some of them together. “I would never have guessed that Wimpy's a Revaadan name.”

“Wimpy?” he questioned in puzzlement.

Beth stopped mixing as her face flushed. “Yeh. Isn't that your name? That's what Rae called you. You know, at the ruins.”

His face brightened. “Oh, my code name. I wondered where you'd heard it.” He laughed again. “Wimpy's the name of my pet cow.”

Beth sure hadn't expected him to say that! “You named yourself after your cow?”

He grinned back. “I figured nobody would ever guess it.”

“A pet cow. I don't have one, but what a good idea. Is yours a Weckie?”

“Naaw,” he said, his drawling accent more pronounced as he relaxed against the countertop. “She's Pensen. The new breed.”

“Really?” Beth forgot to stir the hoska in sudden excitement. “Dad would love to hear about them. We can't get any information on them except what's on the Network, which isn't much.”

He nodded. “We've been keeping it pretty quiet.”

“Caulleen was asking about breeds, too,” Beth remembered. “Something about offspring. I bet she'd like to hear about a new breed, since she's studying agriculture with Alan.” Beth abruptly stopped, a spoon hanging from her hand.

“What's the matter?”

Guilt, sorrow, and loss all roared through Beth, and she had a hard time keeping her rampaging emotions under control. “Uh... I guess she's not... with Alan.”

Was Caulleen really interested in agricultural methods, even without the need to understand more about Alan, or had that been a lie too? Maybe she had pretended interest in Alan's background to put him at ease... or her at ease. Now, Beth didn't know what to believe.

She looked at Wimpy. He seemed distressed at her distress, which made her feel better. She told him about Caulleen, then confessed, “Nelson was right; I don't know what I'm doing. I don't even know about my own adviser. I'm going to make a mess out of being Altair.”

“Nelson's your-?”

“My brother.”

“The tall serious one with the scowl?”

Beth grinned at the description. “Yeh. He was Alan's Hills District adviser.”

He regarded her for a silent moment. “There's training, isn't there? For being Altair?”

“That's what I've heard.”

“I had training. I'm still in training. Yesterday was my first time in a real battle.”

“Me too,” she answered softly. “Were you scared?”

He nodded vigorously. “Oh, yaaw. I'd be a fool not to be. But Geron Tulong is great at strategy. Those rebels didn't have a chance.”

“They seemed to be doing fine to me,” Beth wryly mentioned, remembering.

“What I'd like to know is how they got out here,” he said, sounding distracted now.

Beth turned back to mixing the hoska. “Gunner plane,” she answered, trying to keep her voice emotionless. Mentioning it just once was enough to make her hear the scream of the plane in her mind.

“You can't bring in a group that big on a gunner plane,” he explained kindly.

“They landed bigger transports at the Zokolai field.”

“But where did they get those bigger ships?” Wimpy asked. Beth shook her head to show she didn't know. “I bet that's the question running through every mind at the palace in San Taron right now. Glad I'm here. I wouldn't want to be the one looking for the thieves.”

Beth's brow wrinkled. “What do you mean by thieves? Are you saying that someone stole them?”

“Those transports and gunner planes were retired Force ships. Of course, they could have been refitted and sold rather than stolen.”

Beth was astonished. “You mean, they were old ships?” For an old plane, the gunner that Rae had shot down seemed plenty capable of killing. She barked a short, sarcastic laugh and rhetorically asked, “What do the new ships do?”

“Everything the old ones did, only better and faster,” he replied, though she hadn't been looking for a response. “That's why we won out there. We had better equipment, plain and simple.”

Beth's gaze slid away from him. “I don't think we won anything.”

Wimpy's face grew somber, but he insisted, “Sure we did. We got the Altair out alive. Just not the one we were after.”

Beth quickly put the hoska into the heat unit. She didn't want to talk about the previous Altair. She didn't even want to think about him. Instead, she surprised them both when she suddenly suggested, “Would you like to see the farm?” It was a silly thing to ask; he saw the farm every time he went outside.

But his face brightened instantly. “Oh, yaaw, I would! After seeing it last night, I have more questions than I can count. What's that building out in those trees? There's round circle things inside, but what are they for?"”

She forced herself not to laugh. “You don't know what planting bots are?”

He shrugged and smiled disarmingly. “I sure don't.”

He was right; he definitely needed a tour. But her stomach growled before she could say anything. “How about after breakfast?”

“And don't forget to recycle your laundry.”

She had forgotten already. “Oh. Thanks.”

After recycling her laundry an hour later, they ambled out of the dim delivery barn into the bright sunlight of early morning. Gilby calls echoed lazily down from the hills. The sun was still only pleasantly warm, and gray clouds banked on the far west horizon promised rain. A breeze coiled loose strands of hair around Beth's neck as she squinted against the glare of sunlight bouncing off dark clouds.

They wandered towards the shady commons and approached the garden. Wimpy went on talking in excited interest about the gilbies, the farm's pens and buildings and well-placed commons area.

“I love your magnetic gate releases,” Wimpy said enthusiastically. “No unlatching and latching every time you go through a gate. I wish I'd grown up with that.”

Magnetic locks were common, but Beth didn't know what the Revaadan might consider to be too technological. She was caught between commenting on his lack of experience with everyday farming equipment, and not wanting to insult him or his customs. For the first time, she found herself thinking before she said something she might regret, as an Altair should. Not knowing which direction to go, she stood dumbly with her mouth half open. “Uh--”

“And the drainage system in the barns is something else,” Wimpy continued, apparently unaware of her sudden conundrum. “Nobody can say that there's too much technology involved in using gravity to drain the barns.”

Beth came out of her stupor. “What about the loaders for digging the tunnels?”

“Easy,” said Wimpy with another disarming shrug. “Ever heard of a shovel?”

“It would take forever,” she protested. “Maybe even a whole rotation just to dig a tunnel. You'd have some irritated Hills people on you if you suggested they dig that much with a shovel.”

“What's the hurry? As long as it's done right, that's what's important.”

“Maybe.” Beth wasn't convinced, but he was so enthusiastic that she didn't want to discourage him.

By this time they had walked as far as the garden fence. Beth wanted to show him the garden, but when the rows of plants came into view, she just stared at all the weeds. “It's amazing,” she muttered, and gave the Seal an irritated twist in her pocket.

“What's amazing?” he asked, glancing first to one end of the garden, then the other, clearly confused.

“The weeds,” Beth answered. “I worked for hours to pull them up, and they grew back in one day.”

“Oh, weeding,” he said in understanding. “My dawd used to make me weed too, all summer long. Only we had fields to walk, too. It wasn't just the garden.” He patted his green uniform trousers. “I can't say that I miss that part of farming much at all.”

“Mom said pulling them wouldn't be enough. I needed to convince the weeds to grow someplace else.”

“Hmm.” He thought for a time, then said in puzzlement, “That's either a very wise concept, or it doesn't make any sense at all.”

Beth came out of her irritation enough to laugh. “That's what I think. It seems kind of crazy to me, too.”

“It's very Revaadan, actually; an answer without telling you anything.”

Thinking of the Revaadan reminded her that she still didn't know his proper name. “You haven't told me your name yet. I can't keep calling you by your cow's name.”

“It's pronounced Nawa, like the river near San Taron.”

Beth's nose wrinkled. “That doesn't sound very Revaaden, either.”

His eyes took on a slightly sarcastic gleam. “It's spelled N-A-H-U-A. And my last name's Byorva.”

“That really doesn't sound Revaaden.”

“It's not. It was my mawm's last name, before she became Revaadan. She was a slave.”

Beth squeezed the Seal to keep herself from blurting out anything more that might prove to be thoughtless. “I didn't think the Revaadan supported the slave trade,” she said when she had better control of her tongue.

“We don't.”

“Then how did she come to Reva Peninsula?”

“She escaped from San Taron.”

Beth gasped. “What if she'd been caught? They could have killed her!”

His shoulder lifted in what was obviously a common gesture. “She's always said it was worth the risk. For her, freedom was more important than staying safe and working the government's fields.”

“Did they... treat her badly?” Beth asked in a hushed voice, wanting to know more details, yet knowing simultaneously that she didn't have any right to ask such a personal question. “Is that why she left?”

He laughed. “No! What kind of government do you think we have?”

“Well... I--”

“The slaves are given houses and food and medical care.” He shook his head, amused at her misconceptions. “But Mawm wanted to experiment with new ideas for splitting seeds.”

When he didn't continue, she prompted, “And?”

“Slaves don't experiment; they do as they're told.”

“Oh.”

He leaned against the top garden fence rail, gazing complacently across the rows of plants, their leaves shaking in the light breeze. “She had some great ideas, especially for the grains. It was a boon that she ended up in Reva.” He grinned at her. “Who do you think bred the first Pensen?”

Beth grinned back. She leaned against the fence with him, thinking about slaves, interested in what he was saying, and glad that for a little while she didn't have to think about being the Altair.

But then the idea hit her so hard she had to grab hold of the fence. The farm receded as she held her breath. The newbies bawled from the pasture again, birds chirped in the trees, and something banged in the barns, but Beth didn't hear any of it. “What if we free the slaves?” she murmured slowly.

“Huh?”

Beth went on, ignoring his confusion as her idea solidified. “Without slaves, there would be no work force for the Pro-techs to use for mining the moons.”

“You want to free the slaves?” he repeated, confounded.

Beth breathlessly focused on his face. “Yeh. No slaves, no work force, no need for more rebellions,” she spit out, barely able to form even that short explanation in her excitement.

He was catching on. “Yaaw, I'm seeing it. Without slaves, the Pro-techs would have to buy out the worker population to do their mining for them.”

“That would be expensive, wouldn't it?” She had no idea, really.

He didn't take the time to answer. “Not to mention the cost of safety standards, which are much higher for workers than for slaves. Even with medical care, Mawm always talked about slaves getting heat stroke, and injuries on the job.”

Beth caught her breath in a sudden pause. “But what would keep the slaves from being recaptured? Or what if the Slavers just replaced the slave force?” She felt like she'd walked into a wall.

Nahua seemed to wilt, too. “You're right. Freeing the slaves won't be enough.”

She shrugged dismissively. “Then we'll have to remove the Pro-techs and members of the Slavers Faction from Rasheda. It's like my mom said about the weeds; make them grow somewhere else.” The comparison of the two groups to weeds was becoming more fitting with every thought.

“Are you out of your mind? What a job that will be!” He sounded like he thought she was crazy. “I don't envy you that any more than I do your weeding.” He laughingly waved at the garden. “How do you plan to do this, wise Altair?”

She had no idea. “That's the Katai's problem,” she resorted to saying.

“And what happens to the slaves once they're no longer slaves?” he asked. “You can't solve one side of the problem without handling the other.”

Beth was too ignorant of political dealings to have the answer for that, either. “I don't know. I guess that's Katai Derl's problem, too.” She took a deep breath, then peeked up at him. “Wimpy... I mean, Nahua... do you think it's a good idea?”

His face creased in serious wrinkles for a moment. Then he broke into a mischievous grin. “My mawm would love it! And you can call me Wimpy. My cow won't mind.”

She blushed. Was he teasing her, or flirting? “Do you think it would work?” she asked again to distract him.

Another shrug. “The person to ask is--”

“Caulleen.”

“Would she be awake yet?” He looked towards the sun's position in the pale sky. “It's still early.”

Beth chewed thoughtfully on the inside of her cheek. She didn't want to back down on voicing this idea, and she knew that she would lose her nerve if she thought about it too long. “What good is having an adviser if I don't ask her to advise me? Let's wake her up.”

Beth tried to reign back on her excitement, but couldn't. Giddy like a kid on holiday from school, she led him at a hurried jog back to the house, her muscles protesting stiffly. They burst into the storeroom, jostling each other to be the first up the steps and through the kitchen arch.

But they heard solemn voices. Surprised, Beth halted inside the archway, barely avoiding her mom.

“Oh!” she said, falling back and stepping on Wimpy's foot. “Sorry. I didn't mean--” The awful look on her mom's face stopped her.

“I was just on my way to find you,” her mom said, but lapsed into a silence fraught with trauma.

Beth glanced around. Her dad was there, too, and so were Caulleen and Mieka, Nelson, Tessy, and two unfamiliar agents of the security force. What was going on? The agents looked grimly over Beth's shoulder at Wimpy. One of their boots squeaked loudly on the kitchen floor. Rae stood near the corridor arch, her face gray and troubled.

Beth's heart skipped a beat. Something truly horrible must have happened for Rae to look that emotional.

“What's wrong?” she demanded in growing fear.

Tessy started to cry. Her mom glanced hesitantly at her dad, who finally edged forward to gently explain, “Geron Tulong just heard over the RSF special link; Katai Derl died an hour ago.”

Beth's hand slapped at the Seal of Altair resting securely in her trouser pocket. “Oh, Hale.”

Chapter Sixteen

An hour later, Councilor Anciliano hesitantly said, “We will have an Assembly vote of confidence, as the law of tradition dictates for the ascension of each new Katai.”

Tradition? This sounded more like another one of Caulleen's 'formalities.'

“No!” barked Rawl Hesson, scowling as he stood silhouetted in front of the common room windows, an indomitable figure. “That's suicide for all of us. She is an Unknown; the Assembly will never accept her!” His eyes raked across Beth, then quickly slid away with a glint of disgust.

Nelson and her parents and Mieka and Caulleen and some security agents all made an equal effort not to look at her at all. Beth wiggled in her chair, uncomfortable at being the center of attention. She hated the way they were talking about her as if she wasn't in the room. Beth held her head, agonizing at the words, wishing she couldn't hear them, but listening in macabre fascination anyway.

“A vote is the only way,” Anciliano patiently argued. “It is tradition. To break with tradition now is to sign Rasheda's death warrant. We'll lose any power we have left over the populace.”

“Bah!” Hesson's scowl deepened until he reflected the restless dark clouds Beth could see through the windows on either side of him. “Your drama is fine, Laan, but tradition has never had to deal with revolts, crises, and an Unknown all in just a few hours!” His disdain was still evident in the curl of his lips.

Anciliano's lips pinched in a tight line. “Do you have a better suggestion?”

“Yes! Name Jenner Androven for the position of Katai.”

Even from her chair on the other side of the room, Beth heard Caulleen's snort of open disrespect. “Jenner Androven is a relic, proof of what doesn't work in our government.”

“He's the senior member of the Assembly,” Hesson reminded in a low, dangerous voice.

Councilor Anciliano gestured her agreement with Caulleen. “Adviser Kellum is right, Rawl. If Jenner becomes Katai, he'll only enforce the status quo; you know where that got us.” Her voice was equally as dangerous with implications Beth didn't understand. “We'll never overcome our--”

“It doesn't matter what we won't overcome if we can't get a vote of confidence for Walker,” Hesson insisted. “We need to create new laws so these archaic forms of leadership no longer force us to accept an untrained, backwater girl!”

Nelson bolted to his feet. “Do you really think we're just some poor, uneducated hicks who--”

“Nelson,” their mom said in tired warning. “You're not helping by--”

“If that's what the councilors think of the Hills District, it's no wonder the Katai ignores us!” Nelson spat.

“I won't ignore us... I mean, the Hills,” Beth promised.

But Nelson ignored both Beth and their mom, as if now that he was finally mentioning what had clearly been on his mind for a long time, he couldn't stop himself once he'd started. “Just because we're not from San Taron or Eo, you think we don't count.” He was speaking directly to Councilor Hesson with narrowed eyes. “Now I understand why Alan was so aloof when he came back. You taught him to think of his own people as second-rate citizens.”

“Watch your tongue, boy!” Hesson thundered.

“I won't watch my tongue when it's my sister we're talking about!” Nelson shot back. “If you think we're going to sit around and let her be surrounded by a pack of arrogant, back-stabbing superiorists, you'll have another revolt coming for you!”

Mortified, Mom passed a hand across her face. Beth felt a pang of regret at the way that Nelson's behavior was causing more concern to her mother, but she didn't know what to say to soothe her. Telling her not to worry seemed as pointless as telling Nelson to shut up.

Beth's dad turned from the councilors to Caulleen to Nelson and back again. “Is it that bad in San Taron? I don't want Beth to be in danger of--”

He halted his tongue when Mieka stepped forward, one hand confidently resting on the holster of his laser gun. “She won't be in any danger,” he assured. “But you can't argue that she'll need training. I don't want to worry about a soft girl incapable of defending herself, either.”

“Soft?” her dad repeated in a tone of disbelief. “Nobody who works gilbies is soft.”

“Perhaps,” Mieka relented, his voice and manner still placating. “But the situation at the palace is delicate at best. Small skirmishes often follow a revolt, and a Katai unable to use a simple laser gun--”

“I can use a gun,” Beth objected, though the thought of more battle made her queasy.

“Guns,” her father moaned without acknowledging her comment. “Beth's only fifteen cycles; I don't want her using guns.”

Mieka was still soothing when he said, “But as a softie, it will take--”

“Beth is not soft!” her dad roared.

Hesson growled deep in his throat. “You ignorant fool; he means soft in defense. She's soft in everything important. She has no constituents, no money, no background. She's a nobody from a nowhere district with nothing more important to do than scoop manure.”

Ignored, Beth sat unmoving as more words whirled around her. Hesson went on insulting the Hills District, overriding Nelson when he tried to shout him down, making Nelson's face pulse in purple anger. Councilor Anciliano attempted to admonish Councilor Hesson into a more respectful attitude. Her dad started an argument with Mieka about the evils of technology and warfare. Mieka's calm finally cracked, and he snapped that technology had saved Beth's life only the day before. She tried to tell her father that Mieka had a point, but neither man heard her. They were all so busy fighting, they had forgotten she was the reason for the fight in the first place.

“I've heard enough,” Beth muttered. Once again nobody paid attention, though it no longer bothered her. Knowing they couldn't help her, she looked for Caulleen instead.

But Caulleen was gone.

“Where did she go?” she dumbly asked the guard standing stiffly near the common room archway.

He glanced at her suspiciously from the corner of his eyes. “Where did who go?”

“Adviser...” Beth couldn't remember Caulleen's last name. The councilors had just used it, but she hadn't paid enough attention. “Caulleen,” she said in desperation, her face flushing with heat. The guard clearly thought she had lost her mind. “She was right here, sitting in that chair.”

The guard's expression went from confused to one of superior tolerance. “Oh, you mean Adviser Kellum.”

“Yeh, Adviser Kellum.”

“She's not here,” he answered.

Beth ground her teeth. “I can see that. Do you know where she went?”

He aimed his eyes at the ceiling and insolently pretended to think. “No.”

He was treating her like an annoying kid. Obviously he didn't know who she was. Or else he knew, and thought she was a joke. Beth took a deep breath to calm her rising anger. “Can you please find her for me? I need to talk to her.”

He gathered himself to his full, imposing height and threw his shoulders back. “It is my duty to guard Councilor Anciliano. I am not allowed to leave without her authorization.”

He was a bodyguard? Beth gave a start of surprise. Did everyone have bodyguards? Was it that bad in San Taron? Or was the government so awful that its members needed constant protection?

Stunned, Beth mumbled, “Never mind,” and hurried through the open archway. The only thing that stopped her from screaming in frustration was the promising quiet of the corridor.

But she bumped right into Evan when she rounded the corner from the common room door.

“Ouch,” Evan squealed.

“Sh!” ordered the harsh whispers of Tessy and Wimpy. They were all huddled together in the corridor, secretly listening to the arguments. Evan clapped a hand over his mouth at the sound he'd made, but the gesture was unnecessary; the arguments continued uninterrupted. Rae stood passively beside the archway, her hand cradling the characteristic laser gun.

“What are you all doing here?” Beth hissed in astonishment.

“Sh.” Tessy peaked around Beth's shoulder at the common room door; the adults' heated debates hadn't even paused. “A gilbie could charge in there and nobody would notice,” she muttered.

“Yeh, aren't they supposed to be talking about you?” Evan asked and poked Beth in the arm.

Beth poked him back. “Stop it. They are talking about me.”

“But you're not even in the room,” Evan pointed out.

Tessy sneered. “They don't care about her, Evan. They like things the way they are, and now they're worried about everything changing if Beth becomes Katai.”

“I thought she was already Katai,” Evan whispered loudly. “Is it because of that vote thing?” Then he importantly suggested, “I bet they don't want her because she's one of us.”

Without thinking, Beth chastised, “There is no 'us' or 'them,' Evan. There's only Rasheda.”

Evan smirked. “Tell that to the councilors.”

You're starting to sound like Mom,” Tessy accused.

“What's wrong with that?” Wimpy asked. “Your mawm seems smart enough to me.”

“She is,” Evan confirmed.

Tessy glared at Evan. “I'm not saying she's not, but just because Beth's Katai doesn't mean she's suddenly just as smart. I mean, look at her clothes!”

“Hey, Beth, I heard you were gonna end the slavery.”

Evan's innocent remark put a stop to the discussion in the corridor faster than Beth could have if she'd yelled at them all to shut up. “How did you hear that?” Then she saw Wimpy's guilty face. Beth glanced uncomfortably at Rae, then at the others. They all watched her, just as serious now as those in the common room.

Rae could hardly ignore the looks and sudden hush. Her voice was serene when she said, “My mother was a slave in the Fourth Field Crew of the palace lands.”

Tessy and Beth exchanged a puzzled glance, but Wimpy knew exactly what Rae meant. “That's where the Pro-techs dropped their first bombs yesterday.”

Evan went on. “I heard on Truthlink that the Slavers Faction didn't bother to move out the slaves before the bombing.”

“Yes,” Rae said. She was so quiet and calm, she might have been encased in ice.

“What's Truthlink?” Tessy asked in the following hush.

“Reality datalink on the Network,” Evan answered. “You don't know anything.”

“My mother and little sister were killed yesterday,” Rae announced, as if Tessy and Evan hadn't said a word.

The corridor rang loudly with their sudden silence.

“Oh.” Tessy finally said in a flat voice.

Beth hardly breathed. She'd wondered about Rae's family, and now she knew. Knowing was suddenly worse. “I'm so sorry.”

The ice in Rae melted away, but instead of being replaced by sorrow, fiery resolve drilled into Beth. “Don't be sorry. End the slavery while you can. I'll protect you until the Faction kills me.”

Beth felt pinned to the floor by Rae's gaze. How could she refuse such an adamant request? She hesitated, realizing she hadn't had time to think about all the implications of her idea, or to even talk to Caulleen about it. She shouldn't promise anything until she had.

“All right,” she heard herself saying anyway. “But what happens to the slaves once they're free?”

“Send them here,” Evan suggested, as if it was the most obvious thing in the universe. Beth gaped at him. “They're farmers, ain't they? That's what she was sayin',” he insisted, pointing at Rae. “Field workers?”

“My mawm did help Reva an awful lot,” Wimpy added.

“You have time,” Tessy said next. “Until the vote. They can't stop you if you've already done it, even if they vote you out. Can they?”

They all stared at each other again. Then they stared at Beth. Beth swiftly glanced at Rae, and their eyes met. The tall girl glared at her in fierce determination, her red hair sticking straight up from her scalp. Her gun suddenly appeared in her palm, and she fingered the trigger safety locks, on and off, on and off. She looked ready to take on the entire planet if she had to, like a warrior.

Beth didn't feel so certain. “I need to think.” She started down the corridor, but they moved to follow her. “By myself,” she insisted. How could she think if she wasn't alone?

“But we wanna help,” Evan complained.

Beth sighed. “Then find Caulleen if you can. I need to talk to her.” Before I do anything else stupid.

They grumbled, but Tessy said, “I'll go.” She ran down the corridor towards the house front while Beth turned towards the back.

Rae was two steps behind her. “Rae!” Beth growled in frustration.

Rae fingered her gun, still intent, still fierce. “It is my duty to--”

Beth gave up. “Fine.”

The stifling outside air hit her with physical force as she made her way down the path away from the house. Gray clouds scurried across the sky, and the tangy smell of rain was heavy in the air. With it came a hint of a cooling trend, and much needed relief from the heat.

Beth paused, unsure of where to go. A large group of RSF personnel milled off to her left, part of an even larger gathering of military agents camped in the open area near the barns. They had arrived only moments after her tour with Wimpy had ended. Needing to be alone, Beth veered to the right, heading for the semblance of privacy offered by the tree-filled commons. Rae followed.

Despite the lack of sunlight, sweat trickled down her chest. Hot puffs of wind whipped the tree branches until they clashed together. Leaves swirled across the commons, twisting in and out of the tall grass near the fruit trees. Thunder rumbled from the direction of Zokolai, bouncing and echoing across the surrounding hills. The air sizzled with unspent electricity.

Beth sank to the ground, feeling as chaotic as the air. There was too much to think about, too much to do, and she didn't know how to do any of it. She cradled her forehead on her bent knees and wished it all would just go away before her head split open.

She was still in the same position, eyes staring at the dirt under her butt, humming a tuneless song in the hopes of shutting off her mind when Caulleen approached quietly several minutes later, still limping on her injured right foot. “You wanted to see me, Katai Walker?” she asked formally.

Beth raised her head, then scowled. “That's not funny, Caulleen. Nobody thinks I'm the Katai.”

Caulleen's eyebrows rose in surprise. “I do.”

“Councilor Hesson doesn't. Or he doesn't want to. You'd better just call me Beth.”

Caulleen stood beside her for a thoughtful moment, then brushed aside the leaves and bugs before carefully sitting next to her. Beth would have laughed at such fastidiousness at any other time. Now she didn't feel like laughing at all.

“Hesson isn't the only councilor on the Assembly,” Caulleen said sagely. “He's worried about what might change after a vote; that's what makes him so gruff.”

“So you think Councilor Anciliano is right about the vote of... of... confidence?” The unfamiliar phrase sounded strange to her ears. What was a vote of confidence, anyway?

Caulleen nodded. “It may be an old tradition, but traditions give comfort. So, yes, the Assembly will demand a vote.”

“Am I the Katai until then? Even if Hesson doesn't like it?”

“Yes, by law, you're the Katai until the Assembly votes.”

“How long is that?”

Caulleen paused to consider. “One rotation, maybe two. It depends how badly damaged the area is around San Taron, how much work needs to be done, and how many rebels are still free to cause trouble.”

“But I thought the RSF won at San Taron,” Beth protested in confusion.

“They did, Beth, but not every rebel will jump out and say 'Here I am, come catch me.'” They heard a snort from Rae who stood just behind the tree, eavesdropping. Caulleen went on in a less sarcastic tone. “It will take time for the RSF to find all of them.”

Beth remembered the group of prisoners being held at Eo. With a shiver she realized they were her responsibility now. She pushed down a desire to ask what to do about them, reminding herself instead that they were safely imprisoned for now, and there were more immediate problems. “I know Alan had plans to end the slave force someday.”

“Yes,” Caulleen said. “Before we left San Taron, we had a large enough group in place to start the process. But the time wasn't right yet. And that was before the revolt.” Her voice trailed away to silence, her thoughts clearly on all that she had lost in San Taron.

Beth watched Caulleen. She didn't want to be pushy or make Caulleen uncomfortable, but this was important. “Are those people still... on your side?” she stumbled over the words.

Caulleen's eyes lost the glazed look of sorrow as she asked, “You mean are they loyal?” She looked amused.

“Yeh, loyal.”

Caulleen sighed. “I don't even know if they're still alive.” She paused, then finally said, “But if they are, then I believe they would support you if you tried to end the slave force, if that's what you mean.”

“Yeh, that's what I mean.” Carefully avoiding looking at Rae, Beth asked, “Do you think ending the slave force will help? Or will it just cause more problems?”

Caulleen wasn't so careful. She shot a look at Rae over her shoulder. “What do you think?”

If Rae was surprised at an adviser asking a bodyguard for advice, she didn't show it. “It's time,” was all she said.

Beth stared in amazement. “Don't you care about what happens to them once they.... And what if the Slavers Faction...” Her protests died away at Rae's hardened expression.

“Let the slaves decide where they want to go. Send the Slavers Faction to the moons.”

The treetops groaned in the wind, the only sound after Rae's terse words.

Her suggestions would solve several problems. The moons were what the Slavers Faction and Pro-techs had wanted in the first place. The idea of sending all Rasheda's problems to an airless, desolate, hostile place was an appealing idea. It gave Beth a sense of dark satisfaction. “But is it that simple?”

“Yes,” Rae said.

“No,” stated Caulleen. She looked back and forth between them. “Slavery has been part of Rasheda's culture for centuries. Suddenly ending it will cause many problems, and what's left of the Faction will fight any deportation.” Then she suddenly grew more thoughtful. “But if they are deported, we'll be ending the power of the political group that owns the slaves, and--”

“So slavery will end all by itself?” Beth held her breath at the simplicity of it.

“It's possible,” Caulleen agreed. “And maybe even that simple.”

Rae's expression lightened, and she openly gloated, “I thought so. Politicians make things too hard.”

“I'm an adviser, Rae,” Caulleen reminded. “Not a politician.”

“But Hesson's a councilor,” Beth commented. “I don't think he'll like this idea at all.”

“I'll kill him for you.”

“Rae!” Beth and Caulleen shouted loud enough to draw the attention of several RSF agents standing near the house.

Rae shrugged, almost smiled, and casually crossed her arms. “It was a joke.”

Beth wasn't sure that was the truth, but if it wasn't, she'd rather not know. “What about the refugees?” she asked next. “Do the people in San Taron have temporary housing?”

“Or medicine?” Rae slid her gun back into its holster, but rested her hand on the grip.

“And what about rebuilding?” Beth asked them. “Evan told me there's still not much of a Network connection even here; it must be worse in the City.”

“And food,” said Rae. “And the prisoners. And the burial rites for Gusta Derl. And--”

“One thing at a time,” Caulleen admonished with a glare at Rae.

Rae shut up, but Beth's mind refused to do the same. Their discussion had prodded her into doing some fast thinking while the wind howled, the clouds converged, and the smell of rain intensified. Still Beth sat motionless in the dirt.

Should she use the RSF for relocation of all those homeless people in San Taron? But where could they be relocated to? The Hills, or Reva? Wouldn't that overload those areas with refugees as well as ex-slaves? And what about more violence? Would the Katai's security force be large enough to police the streets while the RSF handled relocating the refugees? Would the Katai's security force change loyalty over to her so quickly, anyway?

Panic bubbled in her throat. She simply didn't know enough about how things worked in the government to make the smallest suggestion. She'd never felt so stupid in her life.

Rae and Caulleen were watching her in alarm. “Do either of you know how to organize a food drop?” Beth suddenly blurted.

“What?” asked Caulleen in surprise.

“And medical supplies? We need to find out how much they need in San Taron.”

“Geron Tulong will know,” suggested Rae, as if Beth was a nitwit not to have thought of that herself.

Beth shrugged off the insult. “Yeh, you're right. Why don't you take care of that?” Rae was on the verge of saying that she couldn't leave Beth alone, but Beth overrode her protests. “And while you're at it, ask him about getting a shuttle ready.” Lightening flashed suddenly off the hulls of the shuttles parked nearest the house, and she jumped to her feet. “No, I can do that. I'll secure a shuttle, then recycle my clothes. You take care of--”

“Beth, what are you planning?” Caulleen climbed awkwardly up beside her, careful of her ankle.

The panic bubbled up inside again, but Beth pushed it back. She was tired of feeling stupid and helpless. She needed to do something, even if she made mistakes; mistakes were better than doing nothing. “I only have a few rotations to get anything done before a vote. We can't wait for the councilors to make a decision. The place I need to be is San Taron, not here.” Beth took a deep breath. “And I think it's time to free... no, end the slave force.”

Rae's eyes sparked with satisfaction and a hint of excitement, eager for another fight. But it was Caulleen who gave Beth's arm an encouraging squeeze. “I think Alan would like that.”

Beth's hand automatically reached for her pocket, feeling the outline of the Seal of Altair against the material.

“So would my mom,” Rae said with unexpected softness.

“So would Wimpy's... I mean Nahua's.” Beth pulled the Seal from her pocket to watch the gray light play across its dark surface.

“I'll inform the others,” Caulleen said briskly, ending the solemn moment. “What about your parents; would you like them to come along to San Taron?”

Beth cringed. “They can't come. How would it look to have the new Katai show up with her parents tagging along?”

Rae gave another bark of amusement, though her lips barely formed a smile. “Bad, that's how it would look.”

Caulleen nodded. “I'll see to your clothes and get the information you requested. Is there anything else, Katai Walker?”

“Caulleen,” Beth warned at the formality.

Caulleen only grinned mischievously and struggled back to the house.

“She needs an air bike,” Beth commented.

“She wouldn't use it,” Rae said, then gave a sly smile. “Not unless Mieka suggested it.”

Beth grinned conspiratorially. “While you're talking to Mieka about that, can you ask him about using the RSF forces to help with the slaves and the refugees? And the palace force for patrolling?”

Rae vigorously shook her head. “You should not be alone.”

“Neither should you, not with a gun anyway, but that's never stopped you.”

Rae's control slipped, and with the suddenness of the sun breaking through layers of clouds, she smiled. Beth was amazed to note that she really did have teeth. “All right,” she grudgingly agreed. “If anybody gives you trouble, punch them here.” She pointed to the spot right at the bottom of her rib cage. “Then run.”

“I'm not punching anybody.” But now that Rae had decided to leave Beth alone, she didn't hesitate to listen to her, but headed unswervingly to the house. It was up to Beth to secure a shuttle on her own.

Without giving herself time to question what she was about to do, Beth walked with determination to the group of shuttles parked in her family's side yard. They looked big and intimidating, and she had no idea which one was suitable for a quick thousand league trip to the City. Would the smaller ones fly faster, or be too uncomfortable for so many passengers at once?

She stared at the shuttles so long that a security agent approached her. “Is there something you want?” he asked abruptly.

Beth wondered if all RSF guards lacked basic good manners, but refused to let his rudeness undermine her mission. “I need a shuttle to go to San Taron. Which would be the best for a fast trip with three... no, make that five people?”

The agent laughed. “This isn't a playground, kid. Why don't you go back home and stop bothering us.” He pointed away from the shuttles, towards the track leading to the other farms. “Go on.”

Even with three siblings, she'd never been so insulted. Beth forcefully reigned in her anger, but pinpointed the spot between the man's ribs, just in case she decided to punch him anyway. Then she held up the Seal of Altair.

His mouth fell open.

“I need a shuttle to go to San Taron,” she said again in the most authoritative tone she could muster.

Frozen in place, he demanded, “Who are you?”

Impatient, Beth let some of her anger leak into her voice. “I got it from a friend named Alan Gessman. Until yesterday he was the Altair. Then I was the Altair. Now, I'm the Katai. Any more questions?”

He had clearly heard of all that had happened; the blood drained from his face. “K... K... Katai Walker!” he spluttered, and stepped back. “I apologize. I didn't recognize you. Please don't think I--”

“Just get a shuttle ready, will you?” Beth interrupted. She hated the look on his face, half horror, half disbelief, half fear that she might do something nasty to him. “Or I'll turn my bodyguard loose on you. Perhaps you've heard of Contesta Lor?”

“Yes, Katai!” He turned and instantly shouted orders. “Ready a shuttle; the Katai wishes to leave immediately!”

A satisfying flurry of motion exploded in the camp. Agents hurried forward to lower a shuttle ramp. Engines ground to life, and coolant hissed through landing struts. The noise rivaled the thunder of the encroaching storm.

Beth stood alone, watching for a moment, ignored amidst all the activity. But it was good to be ignored this time. Finally she was going somewhere, doing something, as Alan had insisted she could. She held up the Seal, watching the light flicker along the continents and glowing moons to spark on the etchings and flare dully on the open spaces in between. It was like watching a flash of lightening, or the spark of opportunity, or the flare of life. She loved it.

“Yeh,” Beth said to nobody in particular, but to everybody, and especially to herself, “I am the Katai.”

THE END


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