STATUS UPDATE:- The serial story has now reached its temporary end point with eleven chapters posted.
The serial will remain here on the website for a while before eventually vanishing to be extended, polished, revised, and published. It will probably be published under the title Deltan Escape but that is only a working title for the moment.
PLEASE NOTE:- This is a serial story posted in rough first draft, so comes with a warning that there may be continuity and other errors.
For anyone interested in how Deltan Escape fits into the other Portal Future stories, the relevant sequence is:-
- Delta Sector 2788 featuring Fian. (Published in Earth 2788: The Earth Girl Short Stories)
- Year End 2788 featuring Lecturer Playdon. (Published in Earth Prime: The Earth Girl Aftermath Stories 1)
- Deltan Escape featuring Fian.
- If all goes according to plan, the final extended version of Deltan Escape will link into the start of Earth Girl.
This is an Earth Girl Prequel Story featuring Fian. In the Portal Future, humanity uses interstellar portals to travel between twelve hundred colony worlds scattered across six sectors of space. The story begins on the planet Hercules in Delta sector at Year End 2788.
It was 08:03 on the 36 December 2788, Hercules time, when Father smiled at me for the first time in my life. I sat down at the rectangular breakfast table between him and Mother, completely unnerved, and Father followed up the smile with a comment.
“Happy Year End, Fian.”
The self-satisfied tone of his voice as he said those words was even more alarming than his smile. Father had always made it clear that I was a huge disappointment compared to my brilliant older sister, but he’d still insisted that I had to follow the family tradition by studying physics in his department at University Hercules.
The discovery that I’d been defying his wishes by secretly studying history for years, and had successfully applied to do a Pre-history Foundation course, had made him furious. In his opinion, the final insult was the fact I hadn’t chosen a Pre-history Foundation course run by University Hercules, or even by a university on another world in Delta sector, but by University Asgard in Gamma sector.
I’d given the carefully diplomatic explanation that I’d only applied to University Asgard because University Hercules was so heavily science focused. I’d even explained that my choice of university wouldn’t make any practical difference anyway, since all Pre-history Foundation courses were held on Earth. Father had responded with a contemptuous snort that showed he knew the truth was that I wanted to escape from Delta sector, the planet Hercules, and specifically him.
Father should be incandescent with rage at this moment. Today was the last day of 2788, and I’d been born in 2770, so Hercules law stated I would become a legally adult citizen at midnight tonight. Tomorrow morning, I would be free to follow my dreams of becoming a historian, go to Hercules Off-world, and walk through the interstellar portal that was my first step on my journey to the home world of humanity. If Father was suddenly smiling at me, and smugly wishing me a Happy Year End, then it must mean something dreadful had happened.
Father was waiting for me to reply, his eyes studying me like a Herculean hawk eyeing the unfortunate marsh crawler that was about to become its lunch. I was still trying to work out what to say, when I was startled by my sister entering the room. I’d known she was coming home for the Year Day celebrations, but I hadn’t expected her to arrive until this afternoon.
“Hello, Danika,” I said.
My sister ignored my greeting, sat down in the usually empty seat opposite me, and turned to frown at Father. “You must attend the Nobel awards ceremony.”
The unnatural smile vanished from Father’s face. “I’m the rightful winner of this year’s Astrophysics Nobel Prize. I’ve no intention of sitting in the audience and applauding as it’s handed to a couple of upstarts from University Mextli who’ve produced work of no more value than the average child’s school science project.”
Danika was five years older than me, but there was an unnervingly strong family resemblance between us. My parents both had the fair hair, blue eyes, and pale skin that was typical of people on Hercules. It wasn’t surprising that Danika and I had inherited those, but we also had a virtually identical combination of our father’s stubborn jawline and our mother’s nose and cheekbones. In fact, the most striking difference between Danika and me was our hairstyles. She kept her hair clipped nearly as short as our father, while mine hung past my shoulders.
The resemblance between Danika and me was purely visual though. She was overwhelmingly more intelligent than me, and sickeningly successful even by the standards of our family full of genius level scientists. As the family failure, I’d grown up resenting both that success and the way she ordered me around in imperious tones. Now I was stunned to hear her use that same imperious tone on our father.
“You are allowing yourself to be swayed by personal bias, Father. Viewed objectively, the work of the University Mextli scientists is far more deserving of the Astrophysics Nobel Prize than your own research. Your premature comments claiming the Nobel Prize for yourself have already made you the object of extensive ridicule in scientific circles. Your absence from the ceremony would be noted and result in further negative comments.”
“It is utterly impossible for me to attend the ceremony,” responded Father icily. “You must have heard that the University Mextli research is the result of a joint civilian and Military project. Have you forgotten how the Military tried to sabotage the research work of my grandfather, the great Jorgen Eklund, by dumping him under planetary arrest here on marsh ridden Hercules? I refuse to applaud the presentation of my Nobel for work tainted by Military involvement!”
Danika made a contemptuous sound. “I haven’t forgotten anything, Father, but you appear to be suffering from selective memory loss. After my great-grandfather’s misguided involvement in both the planetary civil war on Freya and the Persephone incident, the Military could have taken the easy option of allowing one of his many enemies to kill him. Instead, the Military recognised the value of his brilliant mind to humanity, and kept him under planetary arrest on Hercules, allowing him to carry out approved types of research work under their protection.”
I blinked, and threw a questioning look at Mother. Father had never said anything to me about the Military keeping Jorgen Eklund under planetary arrest so they could protect him. Mother’s startled expression showed that she’d never heard about it either.
“How dare you describe the great Jorgen Eklund’s decisions as misguided?” Father glared at Danika. “He is universally acknowledged to be the outstanding scientific genius of his generation.”
I gave a dazed shake of my head. Father hadn’t attacked Danika’s facts, but her choice of words, which must mean she was right about the Military protecting Jorgen Eklund.
“A true scientist accepts all facts, however unpalatable,” said Danika. “While Jorgen Eklund was undoubtedly a scientific genius, he allowed his ego to affect his strategic decision making, with disastrous consequences for himself and others.”
“That is a complete misrepresentation of past events!” snapped Father.
“In what way am I misrepresenting those past events?” demanded Danika. “Are you claiming that my great-grandfather was wise to lead Cioni’s Apprentices into starting a civil war on Freya that they ended up losing, or arguing that the Persephone incident was beneficial to either science or humanity? Surely even you must accept that the events on Gymir were a catastrophic embarrassment.”
I was stunned when Father didn’t reply to that, just picked up his fork and stabbed at his breakfast.
“The objectives of the Military and my great-grandfather were clearly in direct conflict for many years,” Danika continued. “That makes the Military involvement in the current debacle especially distasteful, but it doesn’t change the basic situation. Your behaviour over the Astrophysics Nobel has brought discredit on both yourself and University Hercules, and diminished your status in the eyes of many significant people.”
“You’re exaggerating the situation.”
“I’m not exaggerating anything, Father. I strongly suggest we continue this discussion in your study.”
Father shook his head. “There’s nothing to discuss. It’s impossible for me to travel all the way from the heart of Delta sector to the capital planet of Alpha sector before the Nobel award ceremony.”
Danika sighed. “It’s perfectly possible for you to reach Adonis in time for the ceremony, Father. It’s being held at 16:00 on 2 January 2789. Even if that were a Hercules time and date, you’d have over two days to get there, which is more than adequate for the journey. The fact that it isn’t Hercules time, or even Adonis time, but interstellar standard Green Time gives you several additional hours.”
I obviously wasn’t going to get involved in Danika’s argument with Father, but I knew she was right about him having plenty of time to reach Adonis. University Asgard’s message confirming my acceptance on their Pre-history Foundation course had told me that I should aim to arrive on Earth by 15:00 on 2 January 2789 interstellar standard Green Time. At most times of the year, you could travel interstellar without making reservations in advance, but everywhere was especially busy around the Year End holiday. I’d immediately checked the schedules and booked my four-step journey to Earth.
If I could leave Hercules Off-world tomorrow afternoon, and arrive on Earth in time to start my course, then it must be possible for Father to reach Adonis in time for the Nobel awards ceremony an hour later. Adonis was humanity’s oldest colony world, so naturally positioned close to Earth’s star system in the centre of Alpha sector. When travelling to other worlds, the number and frequency of interstellar block portal connections to sector interchanges were more important than the exact location of planets. Adonis was the most popular destination in humanity’s space though, so it must surely have at least ten times as many interchange connections a day as Hercules Off-world.
“I’ve no interest in the irritating complications of interstellar time zones,” said Father. “I leave such time-consuming details to my assistants.”
Danika’s sigh was even louder this time. “I’m fully aware of the way you blithely ignore interstellar time zones, and call your fellow academics without checking whether it’s day or night on the inhabited continent of their world. You’re especially thoughtless about waking me up, but on this occasion you’re going to have to take time zones into consideration. The interstellar portal network obviously works on interstellar standard Green Time rather than Hercules local time.”
She took out her lookup and tapped at the screen. “The journey from Hercules to Adonis is relatively simple. You’ll just need to make a standard interstellar portal jump to Delta Sector Interchange 4, join one of the scheduled cross-sector block portals to Alpha Sector Interchange 2, and then make two more standard interstellar portal jumps, first to Danae and then on to Adonis.”
I tensed because Danika was describing my journey to Earth, with the obvious difference that my last interstellar portal jump wouldn’t be from Danae to Adonis, but from Danae to Earth Europe. It would be a nightmare if Father travelled as far as Danae with me. We’d be spending about seventeen hours in Delta Sector Interchange 4, and he’d spend every moment lecturing me.
Danika was tapping at her lookup again. “The crucial limiting factor on that journey is there’s only one interstellar block portal from Hercules Off-world to Delta Sector Interchange 4 scheduled each day. If you take this afternoon’s block portal, then you’ll arrive on Adonis a full day before the Nobel award ceremony.”
I relaxed again. I had absolutely no problem with Father leaving for Adonis this afternoon. With luck, Danika would go with him, and then Mother and I could happily celebrate New Year’s Eve together before saying our farewells tomorrow.
“Whether it’s possible for me to go to the award ceremony or not is irrelevant,” said Father. “I’m not going.”
Mother nervously joined in the conversation. “While you’re perfectly right about everything, Holger, your attendance at the ceremony would be viewed as a magnanimous gesture from the established leader in the field to talented newcomers.”
Father grunted in disgust. “The grandson of Jorgen Eklund doesn’t need to pander to the egos of upstarts.”
“Being Jorgen Eklund’s grandson adds considerable weight to your reputation in scientific circles, Father,” said Danika acidly, “but he has five other living grandchildren. If you don’t attend the award ceremony and behave with appropriate dignity, then you may lose far more than the Nobel in Astrophysics.”
Father put down his fork. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that my great-uncle Alexander is approaching his hundredth. He will be making a speech at the Nobel Awards Ceremony, and the person called forward to stand at his side during that speech will be signalled as his choice to succeed him as head … as head of the family.”
Father snorted. “Everyone already knows that I’m Alexander’s chosen successor. That’s been clearly understood for at least a decade now. Alexander just keeps delaying making an announcement because he wants to cling on to power as long as possible. There are always rumours flying around that he’ll finally make a formal announcement at the next awards ceremony or major conference, but they mean nothing. You’ve been listening to idle gossip.”
I’d been waiting for Father to lose his temper, but it was Danika who stood up, thumped the palms of her hands on the table, and leaned forward to shout at him. “I’ve not been listening to idle gossip. I’ve been listening to great-uncle Alexander!”
“What?” Father stared at her.
“Great-uncle Alexander called me ten hours ago,” said Danika savagely. “He said that you were his first choice as his successor, but he’s been delaying making any formal announcement because he was concerned you’d inherited more of Jorgen Eklund’s ego than his scientific ability. Now your behaviour over the Nobel has made him reconsider the whole situation. If you don’t turn up at the awards ceremony and behave with suitable dignity, then he’ll choose your cousin Marie to succeed him.”
“Great-uncle Alexander would never choose anyone other than me to succeed him,” said Father. “None of my sisters or cousins have as impressive a research record as me.”
“Great-uncle Alexander would do that,” said Danika. “If you want to know his exact words, he said that your cousin Marie may be less able academically, but she has the great advantage of behaving like a mature adult instead of a two-year-old child screaming for sweets.”
There was a stunned silence. I didn’t dare to breathe, let alone speak.
“Great-uncle Alexander told me I should go home at once and talk sense into you,” added Danika. “That’s why I arrived here earlier than expected. If you throw away your chance at succeeding great-uncle Alexander, then you won’t just damage your own career but mine as well. Marie has never forgotten the disparaging comments you made on her thesis decades ago. If she becomes head of the family, she’ll grab every chance to target you for those comments, and me for being your daughter.”
Father stood up. “We’ll talk in my study.”
Danika followed him out of the room, and I waited until the door closed behind them before turning to Mother. “What’s going on? I know that Great-uncle Alexander is considered to be the head of the Eklund family, but surely that doesn’t have any real significance academically?”
Mother waved both her hands in a despairing gesture. “How would I know what’s going on? Relatives by marriage aren’t included in the Eklund family gatherings, and your father never tells me anything. He’s constantly playing academic political games, trying to gain an advantage in status and funding over research rivals, but he never shares the details with me. I’ve been his research assistant for thirty years, I’ve been married to him for nearly twenty-five years, but he still never talks to me about anything important.”
She shook her head. “I can’t even get him to discuss the arrangements for when we renew our term marriage contract. He says there’s no need to worry about it yet, but if he wants to hold a formal party, then we need to invite his academic colleagues well in advance. Just imagine how angry he’ll be if they can’t come because of prior commitments.”
I knew that Mother didn’t just want to discuss party arrangements with Father, but the far more important issue of the marriage details. She’d wanted an unlimited full marriage from the start, but Father had insisted on them having one of the twenty-five year term marriages that were standard for couples in Delta sector who planned to have children. Now it was nearly time for them to renew their marriage, Mother was hoping that Father would agree to follow the Deltan tradition of celebrating a successfully completed twenty-five year term marriage by converting it into a full marriage, rather than just renewing it for another twenty-five years.
I sighed. “Father’s obviously too angry about losing the Nobel to want to discuss party arrangements, and I’m making things even worse going off to study history. Why the chaos did he smile at me earlier and wish me a Happy Year End?”
Mother made the despairing gesture again. “I’ve no idea. You’ll be legally adult at midnight. Perhaps that’s made him finally accept you’ve a right to make your own decisions in life.”
I shook my head. “It seems far more likely that he’s come up with some new plan to stop me from studying history. I don’t …”
I was interrupted by a chiming sound coming from my pocket. I took my lookup out, checked my messages, and panicked. “I’ve got a message from University Asgard!”
“Is something wrong?” asked Mother anxiously.
I was on the brink of making my dream into reality, and going to Earth to study the ruins of its ancient glories. Had Father somehow found a way to wreck that for me? I tapped my lookup with a shaking finger, rapidly scanned the message, and sighed in relief.
“No. Everything’s fine. This message is just telling me my class details and the portal address. My friends and I will be joining University Asgard Pre-history Foundation course class 6. It’s run by Lecturer Playdon, and we’ll be starting the year by doing some excavations in the ancient ruins of New York.”
“That’s nice, dear.” Mother had obviously never heard of New York, but was doing her best to sound enthusiastic anyway.
I’d seen many ancient pictures of the vast city of New York. In a few days’ time, I would be in that city, excavating buildings that had been built long before the invention of interstellar portals. I might be lucky enough to find some precious relics of the past. There was even a chance that I’d find a clue to some of the knowledge and technology lost in the Earth data net crash of 2409.
I was smiling in delight when my lookup chimed again with two new messages. They both just said one word, “London”, but the first message followed it with a single exclamation mark, while the second had a whole exuberant string of them.
My delight changed to puzzlement and then alarm. “No, I was wrong. I think father may have caused a problem after all. I need to call …”
I was interrupted by the distant sound of shouting. I couldn’t make out the words, but it was clear that Father had lost his temper with Danika. Mother and I exchanged glances.
“I’d better go out for the day,” I said. “Please call me if Father decides to leave for Adonis.”
“Of course.” Mother opened a cupboard, and packed a carton of food and a bottle of Fizzup into a shoulder bag.
I used my lookup to send a message. “Meet at the frog hide. Urgent!”
I went to my room, changed into some old clothes, put on a disreputable, muddy jacket, and then slung my bag of supplies over my shoulder. When I crept out into the hallway again, I saw Father’s study door was closed. Given the muffled sound of an argument coming from the other side of the door, Father probably wouldn’t have noticed a herd of Asgard bison galloping through the house. I tiptoed to the front door anyway, opened it as quietly as possible, and then looked furtively outside.
My family lived in one of the most select settlements on Hercules, its elegant homes set out in neat circles, with each circle having its own central garden and local portal. A lot of Father’s colleagues lived in this particular circle, and I didn’t want to meet any of them. They’d always had a nasty habit of forcing me into scientific conversations that felt like verbal physics tests.
When Father learned about my history studies though, he must have asked his colleagues to help watch his son’s movements. Instead of making me discuss physics, they’d started giving me full-scale interrogations on where I was going, who I was meeting, and precisely what we planned to do. I was deeply relieved to see the gardens were deserted, and hurried across to the portal. I entered a code that I knew by heart, the portal flared into life, and I stepped through the upright ring.
The view of luxury single-storey houses, and neatly ordered flowerbeds of mostly Earth plants, instantly changed to a typical Herculean wilderness scene of a lake bordered by vast reed beds. The unyielding grey, concraz path under my feet was replaced by softer flexiplas boarding that was coloured a deep reddish-brown to look like genuine wood from Herculean trees. The breeze ruffling my hair became stronger, and heavy with the scent of marsh flowers and bullrushes. It was also colder here, with a threatening hint of raindrops in the air.
I tied my hair back to stop it from blowing into my eyes, then walked across the raised boarded area around the portal to the door of a two-storey cabin that was built of matching wood-coloured flexiplas. This was the newly rebuilt main bird hide, with an array of vast windows overlooking the lake, which was popular with people wanting to watch the flocks of Hercules ducks and fisherkings visiting the lake.
I didn’t open the door of the main bird hide though, but kept walking past it to the start of a narrow walkway. The Western Marshes Trust had built a visitor point here because it was relatively high and stable ground, centred on a group of the giant boulders that dotted the marshes. The walkway curved down around the side of one of the boulders before heading off across the reed beds.
This was an elderly walkway, and the supports underneath had sagged into the soft wet soil of the marsh, leaving a long stretch where the boards were fractionally below the surrounding water levels. I slowed my pace as I reached the flooded section, picking my way cautiously along it on tiptoe, but still arrived on the other side with chilly marsh water invading my left shoe. I wasn’t complaining about having a wet foot though. My friends and I considered the flooded state of the walkway a huge advantage, because it deterred virtually everyone else from coming this way.
Once I was past the flooded section, I was safe in our familiar private domain. The reeds crowded tightly against the walkway on either side, the stems of their globe-shaped flowers reaching as high as my shoulders, and their leaves making a soft rustling sound as they swayed in the breeze. As I brushed my way through them, I disturbed the tiny Herculean frogs, which gave their high-pitched, hiccupping alarm calls before leaping a seemingly impossible distance into the air.
There were a lot of jokes about how Herculean reed frogs jumped so high because of our low gravity. In reality, Military Planet First teams used strict selection criteria for both gravity and length of day when choosing the prospective colony worlds of humanity. While the gravity on Hercules was the lowest acceptable, it was still only 3 per cent lower than Earth standard.
The length of day on Hercules was slightly shorter than Earth standard too, so our calendar year compensated for it by having either 36 or 37 days in December. The Hercules planetary year was longer than that of Earth though, at just over fourteen months. This Year End holiday had come during late spring, when the reeds were coming into flower, the male reed frogs were turning bright red, gold, and blue for their mating season, and glowing clouds of fireflies brightened the evening twilight.
For the last few years, I’d spent a lot of time in the wilderness areas, enjoying both their windswept beauty and the fact that my father wouldn’t go anywhere near them. My great-grandfather, Jorgen Eklund, had once famously claimed the Military had chosen to keep him under planetary arrest on Hercules in the hope that the unhealthy air of its pancake flat, marshy, inhabited continent would kill him. My father constantly pointed out that he hated the marshes too. He said that the only reason he lived on Hercules was to ensure that the university founded by his ancestor continued to carry out physics research worthy of his name.
The boarded walkway finally ended in a flight of steps leading upwards to the frog hide. This was much smaller than the main bird hide, and perched on a single, massive flat-topped boulder to keep it safely clear of the marsh water. The frog hide was an elderly building, and in nearly as poor repair as the walkway, having a loose plank in the front wall, and a door that sagged on its hinges and stuck in the closed position.
I dragged the door open, went inside, and was surprised to see my two best friends already sitting by the longest window. Valin was stuck with the same boring Hercules looks as me, but Macall had been born on a world in Gamma sector, and had distinctive dark hair that attracted the attention of all the girls. I didn’t bother to ask how the pair of them had managed to get to the frog hide so quickly, because I had a much more urgent question on my mind.
“Why did you message me about London?”
Macall gave me a startled frown. “Haven’t you got the class information from University Asgard yet? We’ll be in the Pre-history Foundation course class 7. Lecturer Akhtar says we’ll be starting the year by helping excavate the London ruins.”
I’d guessed that was the answer to the mystery, but it didn’t make the news any less depressing. I sagged down onto the wooden bench seat, dumped my shoulder bag on the floor beside me, and buried my head in my hands.
“If you haven’t got the message with the class information,” said Valin, “then you’d better contact University Asgard.”
I lifted my head again. “The class information message came. There’s just one problem. I’m not in class 7 with you. I’m in class 6, run by Lecturer Playdon, and I’ll be based in New York.”
Macall shook his head fiercely. “That can’t be right. We received our official course acceptance messages at the start of December, and they all included the special note saying our request to be in the same class had been approved.”
“University Asgard must have made a mistake,” said Valin.
“This isn’t a mistake,” I said bitterly. “My father has arranged this.”
Macall and Valin exchanged glances. “I know that your father’s overbearing, Fian,” said Valin tactfully. “It’s perfectly true that he has a lot of influence in scientific circles, not just on Hercules but on other worlds in Delta sector as well. Stop and think about this calmly though. There’s absolutely no way that your father could have influenced the class lists for a pre-history course run by a Gamma sector university. You just need to call University Asgard and ask them to fix things.”
“This isn’t a mistake,” I repeated, “and calling University Asgard about it won’t change anything. However impossible it seems, my father has somehow managed to arrange this. I knew something was horribly wrong when he smiled at me this morning.”
“I thought your father was physically incapable of smiling,” said Macall.
I ignored that and kept ranting. “My father was smiling because he thinks that splitting us up, arranging for me to be alone in a class of strangers from other worlds, will make me change my mind about studying history. Well, he’s wrong. It won’t be as much fun if I’m not in the same class as you two, but I’m still going to Earth.”
“Perhaps we’ll be able to get rooms near each other,” said Valin hopefully.
I shook my head. “We’ll be staying in accommodation domes on our dig sites, Valin, and those dig sites aren’t just in different ancient cities but on different continents as well. London is in Earth Europe, and New York is in Earth America.”
“Oh, yes.” Valin sighed. “I should have remembered the complication of Earth having five inhabited continents.”
There was a gloomy silence for the next couple of minutes. I finally noticed two groups of hover bags at the far end of the hide. One set in a sedate grey, while the other was striped a flamboyant red and white. “Why have you brought your hover bags here when we aren’t leaving Hercules until tomorrow?”
“We brought them here because we ran away from our homes last night,” said Macall.
I blinked. “You’ve run away from home? Why bother running away when you’re leaving on Year Day anyway?”
Valin groaned. “Yesterday afternoon, I went to Macall’s house to visit him. I found both my parents were already there, lying in wait for me. My mother and Macall’s mother are both teachers at the same school, and they’d got together and decided on a final combined attack from both families to try and talk us out of studying history.”
“It was ghastly,” said Macall. “The two of us were sitting on chairs in the centre of the room. All four of our parents were opposite us, taking it in turns to lecture us, while a crowd of our aunts, uncles, and grandparents were sitting around the edge of the room to encourage them.”
Valin shuddered. “I could have coped with it better if everyone had shouted at us, but they were dreadfully sweet and reasonable. They said they were only intervening because they loved us and wanted the best for our futures. They offered to make concessions to keep us happy. They said we didn’t have to study physics. We could study chemistry or anything else scientific. We could even study on a different Deltan world if we wanted. They just didn’t want us wasting our lives on something as useless as history.”
“I don’t think there’s anything sweet or reasonable about trying to bully us into giving up our dreams,” said Macall bitterly. “Everyone ganging up on us like that was just blatant emotional blackmail. Anyway, they gave up when it got to midnight, and Valin and I thought we’d finally won the argument. When they said that everyone was going to meet up at Valin’s house in the morning to continue the discussion …”
He groaned. “Well, I couldn’t bear the thought of another day of being lectured. I waited until my parents went to sleep, called Valin, and we agreed that we should run away.”
“We’d already packed most of our things,” said Valin. “We just had to throw the last few items into our bags, sneak out of our houses, and meet up at Hercules Off-world. We planned to sleep in the overnight waiting area there, but we weren’t allowed through the security checkpoints.”
“I went over to the information desk to complain,” said Macall. “I told the security guard there that we were students travelling to join a university course, and had places reserved on the Year Day interstellar block portal to Delta Sector Interchange 4. The officiously unsympathetic man still wouldn’t let us through. He said that we’d be legally adult on Year Day, but we weren’t legally adult now, so we couldn’t enter the interstellar portal area of Hercules Off-world without an accompanying parent or guardian. I told him he was being completely unreasonable, but he wouldn’t back down.”
“I’m surprised you weren’t thrown out,” I said.
“We were thrown out,” said Valin. “At least, three more burly security guards came over and gave us menacing looks, so we left in a hurry.”
“You left in a hurry,” said Macall. “I walked out in a dignified fashion.”
Valin gave a choke of laughter. “You didn’t look dignified to me. You looked terrified. Anyway, after that we tried calling a hotel to hire a room, but they complained about us not being legally adult as well. We knew there was no hope of hiding at your house, Fian, and we couldn’t sneak into our old school because all the security alarms will be on while it’s closed for the Year End holiday. We decided our best option was to buy some food and drink cartons from an automated takeaway shop, and then spend the night in the bird hide next to the portal. When we arrived at the bird hide though, we found the door was locked. Chaos knows why.”
I frowned. “You must have arrived at the bird hide well after midnight, so obviously the door would be locked. Don’t you remember that the Western Marshes Trust sent out a special all members message last month about a scandal? It said that a couple had been caught kissing in the bird hide late at night, so they’d had to alter the door to autolock between nightfall and dawn.”
Macall and Valin exchanged glances. “Neither of us had read that message,” said Macall. “Anyway, we decided to spend the night here in the frog hide instead.”
That explained how the two of them had got here ahead of me. “It must have been difficult getting along that slippery, flooded walkway in the dark.”
“It was horribly difficult,” said Valin, “especially when we only had our lookups to use as lights. I nearly fell into the marsh twice.”
“When we did make it here, it took us ages to get to sleep lying on these benches,” added Macall. “I’d only just dozed off when the reed frogs all started shouting their heads off at dawn and woke me up again.”
“We’re planning to stay here until after midnight tonight,” said Valin, “and then go back to Hercules Off-world. I just hope the security guard Macall talked to isn’t on duty again.”
“It doesn’t matter whether he’s on duty or not,” said Macall impatiently. “After midnight tonight, we’ll be legal adults with valid interstellar block portal reservations. He’ll have to let us in.”
“I’ll spend the day here with you,” I said. “If I go anywhere near my father now, I’ll lose my temper, and start shouting about him messing up my classes.”
“If you’re right about your father wrecking our plans to be in the same class for our Pre-history Foundation course,” said Valin, “then he deserves to be shouted at.”
“He definitely deserves to be shouted at,” I said bitterly, “but I know exactly what will happen. I’ve been through this dozens of times before over less important things, and it always follows the same pattern. My father does something deliberately hurtful and malicious, I naturally get upset about it, and then he makes superior comments about how my lack of emotional control proves that I’m immature and childish.”
I grimaced. “My mother says that we need to make allowances for him, because geniuses don’t always understand the rules of social behaviour. I think my father understands what he’s doing perfectly though. The one person he doesn’t seem able to trample underfoot is my sister, Danika. She’s just as cold blooded and egotistical as he is, and uses his own tactics against him, so …”
I broke off because my lookup was chiming for an incoming call. I took it out, stared at the screen, and panicked. “Why is Lecturer Playdon calling me?”
“Maybe it’s about fixing the class problem,” said Macall hopefully.
“I suppose it could be. This place looks a bit disreputable, so I’d better answer the call outside.”
I hurried out of the frog hide, answered the call, and Lecturer Playdon’s face appeared on my lookup screen. He seemed to be a man of approaching thirty, and was frowning.
“Hello,” I said nervously.
There was a comms portal relay lag of four seconds before Lecturer Playdon replied. I wasn’t sure whether he was calling me from Asgard in Gamma sector or Earth in Alpha sector, because either would involve a noticeable delay while his call was routed through the dedicated interstellar comms portal network. It didn’t really matter where he was calling from though. The important thing was why he was calling me.
“Am I speaking to Fian Andrej Eklund?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m Fian Eklund.”
I had another frustrating four-second wait before he spoke again. “I’m Lecturer Playdon of University Asgard. I’m calling you to ask if I should cancel your application to the University Asgard Pre-history Foundation course and offer your place to another student.”
“What? No! You can’t give my place to another student!” I realized I was shouting, and fought to get my voice under control. “I’m sorry for getting upset, but I don’t understand what’s happening. Why are you talking about cancelling my application?”
I waited in agonizing suspense until Lecturer Playdon gave me a sympathetic smile. “I understand you being upset, but I had to ask the question. Your father has just informed University Asgard that you will be unable to attend the course. He said that it was in everyone’s interests to cancel your application at once, allowing University Asgard to offer a place to another student and University Hercules to offer a place to you.”
“My father has no right to cancel my application,” I said indignantly. “I knew he’d try to interfere, so I studied every detail of the rules for the Cross-sector University Application Process. They specifically state that parents and guardians can’t make any changes to applications. Everything has to be done by the students themselves.”
There was a pause before Lecturer Playdon nodded. “Your father knows that he can’t cancel your application himself. That’s why he’s suggesting that University Asgard cancels it. He’s sent supporting documentation showing you’ll be unable to travel to Earth to begin your course because of the terms of a restraining order.”
“Restraining order?” I stared at him blankly. “What restraining order?”
It felt more like four years than four seconds before Lecturer Playdon replied. “It appears that a Declan Frank is taking a civil action against you, demanding compensation for an assault that caused injuries including a broken arm. He’s taken out a restraining order preventing you from leaving Hercules before the trial date in February.”
I tugged at my hair. “Oh chaos! I’ve never even heard of a Declan Frank. My father must have arranged this. I realize that will sound incredible to you, but my father is determined to make me stay on Hercules and study physics.”
I was startled when Lecturer Playdon gave a rueful laugh. “In fact, I’m perfectly willing to believe your father arranged this restraining order. I already knew that he was prepared to go to startling lengths to prevent you from studying history, because he’d made a series of threats against University Asgard’s lecturers in an attempt to make us drop you from the course. There’s also the suspicious detail that this Declan Frank is a researcher in your father’s Physics Department at University Hercules.”
“You believe me!” I sighed in relief. “I didn’t know my father had already been causing trouble at University Asgard. Why wasn’t I told about it?”
“My colleagues and I could solve the previous problems by moving you to my class. At that point, I felt it was both inappropriate and unnecessary to inform you of events that might create a permanent rift between you and your father. The latest developments obviously changed the situation.”
I’d thought that my father had been smiling at breakfast because he’d managed to separate me from my friends. He’d actually been celebrating the much bigger victory of making me a prisoner on Hercules.
“Will you be able to keep my place on the course open until I can sort out this mess?” I asked.
“I’m afraid that University Asgard’s regulations mean I can only hold your place on the course until 8 January interstellar standard Green Time.”
I groaned. “And the trial date isn’t until February. I need to find a lawyer quickly, but I expect they’ll all be on holiday until after Year Day. I don’t know if there are any helplines or …”
Lecturer Playdon interrupted me. “I already have a Deltan lawyer on standby. Would you like me to ask him to call you?”
“You’ve got a Deltan lawyer on standby?” I blinked, opened my mouth to ask how a history lecturer from a university in Gamma sector could have a Deltan lawyer on standby, but decided that didn’t matter. “Yes. Please ask him to call me as soon as possible.”
There was a final four-second wait before Lecturer Playdon spoke again. “I’ll do that now. Good luck.”
He ended the call just as a drop of water landed on my lookup screen. That first warning drop of water was followed by giant raindrops pelting down in one of the typical sudden rainstorms of Hercules. I hastily thrust my lookup into my pocket and retreated back inside the frog hide.
My friends gazed at me inquiringly. “Is everything all right?” asked Valin.
“Everything is dreadful.” I sank down onto one of the wooden benches. “My father has come up with a brilliant way to stop me studying history. He’s arranged for one of his researchers to accuse me of assaulting him and breaking his arm.”
Valin stared at me, open-mouthed with shock. “Your father’s arranged for you to be sent to prison for assault?”
“I’ll never complain about my parents again,” said Macall fervently. “They may try and talk me out of going to Earth to study history, but they’d never go to the lengths of putting me in prison to stop me from leaving.”
“I won’t end up in prison,” I said bitterly. “My father has made sure this is a civil case rather than a criminal prosecution. He’s going to keep me here until I’ve lost my place on the University Asgard course. After that, he’ll tell me that he’ll get his researcher to drop the charges against me. There’ll just be one small condition. That I agree to study physics at University Hercules.”
I shook my head and ranted on. “Well, it’s not going to work. There’s absolutely no way that my father can force me to study physics. I can ask University Asgard to give me a place on next year’s course. If necessary, I’ll apply to other universities instead. My father can threaten to get me sent to prison if he likes. It won’t make a difference. I’d rather go to prison than study physics with him watching every move I make and …”
My lookup chimed again. “That’s probably my lawyer.”
It was still raining hard, so I didn’t go outside this time, just answered the call. My friends might as well listen to the conversation anyway. It would save me from having to explain the next stage of the unfolding disaster to them.
“Hello. Fian Eklund speaking.”
The response came at once. “Hi there. Happy Year Day 2789!”
I blinked at the screen. I appeared to be speaking to a green, furry animal, with rabbit-like ears, golden whiskers, and a matching gold party hat. I displayed the image as a holo in midair, and saw that the animal fur was just some sort of costume.
“Come to think of it, that’s probably a tactless thing to say,” added the furry animal. “My cousin says you’ve been falsely accused of assaulting someone, so you probably aren’t having a very happy time at the moment. I’m sorry about the clothes by the way. I was at a fancy-dress party when my cousin called me about your case. Osiris has a tradition of dressing up as furry animals for the Year Day celebrations because of … But you’re probably too worried about your own problems to care about the traditions of Osiris.”
“I am a bit worried, yes,” I managed to get a word in at last. “So, Lecturer Playdon is your cousin?”
“That’s right. I’m Oakes.”
I wasn’t sure if that was his first name or surname, but it didn’t really matter. “And you know about Deltan law?”
“I’ve been a fully qualified Deltan lawyer for just over a week.” Oakes tugged down the furry animal hood of his costume, revealing a human head with untidy hair and arched eyebrows that gave him a surprised expression. He gestured at Valin and Macall. “Shouldn’t we be having this consultation in private?”
“We can talk in front of my friends,” I said. “They know exactly what my father is like, so they understand the situation.”
Oakes nodded. “If you’re happy with that, then I’ll get straight on with the details of your case. I’ve just scanned the documents my cousin sent me, and …”
I held up a hand to stop him. “Before we go any further, how much is this going to cost? I’m a student – at least I hope I’ll still manage to be a student despite this – and my father has made it clear I won’t get any financial support from him or my mother if I insist on studying history. That means I’ve only got my basic education funding from the cross-sector student borrowing system.”
“Cost won’t be a problem,” said Oakes grandly. “I’m handling your case pro bono.”
I gave him a bewildered look.
“That’s an archaic legal phrase meaning that I’m doing it for free.”
I blinked. “You are? That’s very generous of you. I really appreciate it.”
Oakes grinned. “The truth is that I owe my cousin a favour. My parents spent the first few days of the Year End holidays visiting friends in Gamma sector, so I grabbed my chance to hold a party at their house to celebrate me becoming a lawyer. It was supposed to be a quiet party, but a few more people came than I expected.”
He grimaced. “In fact, a lot more people came than I expected. One or two things got broken, and my parents were a bit upset when they came home. My cousin is spending the Year End holiday with friends on Earth, but he called my parents and talked to them for hours, calming them down for me. He said that he didn’t mind doing it, because it helped him escape from an argument about dressing up as a knight and fighting a dragon at a Year Day party.”
Oakes paused. “I’m still not sure if my cousin was joking about that or not, but it’s nice to help him out in exchange anyway. Besides, he says it should be an easy win, and a success would help me get more cases.”
“I hope it will be an easy win,” I said. “Please believe me when I say that I didn’t assault this Declan Frank. In fact, I’ve never even met him.”
“I always believe my clients are innocent,” said Oakes solemnly. “Do you happen to have an alibi?”
“10:20 on December 4 Hercules time.”
“I think that was our school’s science open day. Just a second.” I used my lookup to check my old school timetable. “Yes, I was in the main school hall all morning, helping my physics group demonstrate our project.”
“I assume there would be witnesses to that?”
Macall eagerly joined in the conversation. “I was in the same physics project group as Fian, so I was with him all morning.”
“Me too,” said Valin.
“Everyone in our school year was there,” I said, “as well as a lot of parents and several teachers.”
Oakes made a whooping noise of celebration. “Totally zan! In that case, I just need to get a couple of teachers to verify your alibi and submit that at the court hearing. If I can get this ruled a malicious case, then I may even get paid for it. When a case is brought purely out of malice, with no actual evidence to justify it, the defendant is entitled to legal fees and compensation under …”
I interrupted him. “This would have to happen at the court hearing in February?”
I shook my head. “Then that doesn’t help with my main problem. My father has arranged this whole thing because he’s trying to force me to study physics at University Hercules. The sole purpose of the assault charge is to get a restraining order that will keep me on Hercules until past the key date of 8 January when I’ll lose my place on the University Asgard course. My father needed to set things up so I could easily prove my innocence in the end though, because a record of assault would block me from becoming a University Hercules student.”
Oakes made a tutting noise with his tongue. “That’s evil. I’ll put you on hold while I see if I can appeal for an earlier …”
His words broke off, and his holo image froze in midair.
“Your lawyer seems a little … inexperienced,” said Macall.
“He’s keen though,” said Valin, “and it wouldn’t be easy to get anyone else during the Year End holiday.”
“Quiet!” I ordered. “He’s doing this for free, so I don’t want you upsetting him.”
I stared at the holo image in suspense for the next minute or two. It finally jerked into motion again, and showed Oakes shaking his head.
“I’m afraid I can’t make any progress until your existing court date. All the courts close over the Year End holiday, so there’s a huge queue of cases for when they reopen. The standard schedules are solidly booked, and a civil action doesn’t qualify for an emergency slot unless someone is in immediate physical danger.”
“My father is in immediate physical danger,” I said savagely. “If I lose my University Asgard course place over this, then I’ll kill him.”
“It wouldn’t be a good idea to say that to a judge,” said Oakes seriously. “They’ve got absolutely no sense of humour when it comes to death threats. I’m just checking the terms of the restraining order. There’s the standard exemption for medical emergencies, but … Ah ha!”
“Ah ha?” I echoed his words hopefully.
“Declan Frank has taken out a standard restraining order against you that’s due to come into effect when you become legally adult on Year Day 2789. Is it Year Day 2789 on Hercules yet?”
“No.” I checked the time on my lookup. “It’s over fourteen hours before it turns midnight here, so the restraining order isn’t effective yet, but I don’t see how that helps me. I can’t enter Hercules Off-world or travel interstellar until I’m legally adult.”
“You can if you’ve got the permission of a parent or guardian,” said Oakes. “You said that your father arranged the assault accusation. Would your mother be willing to help you travel to Earth?”
I grimaced. “I can’t ask my mother to get involved in this. If she defied my father’s wishes, and helped me travel to Earth, then my father would probably end their relationship. The situation is totally hopeless. I’ll just have to delay studying history for a year.”
“It’s not totally hopeless,” said Oakes. “It’s amazing what you can do when interstellar time zones are involved in legal cases. My law school had an entire course on it.”
He grinned. “Most people don’t pay much attention to this, but there’s a special sequence to the way Year End works. The ordinary planets in a sector each change year in turn as they reach midnight on their local planetary time. It’s only after they’ve all changed year, that the capital planet of the sector changes year at midnight on its own planetary time.”
I nodded. “And once the capital planets of all the sectors have changed year, interstellar standard Green Time changes year at midnight. For historical reasons, interstellar standard Green Time is based on the Earth Europe time zone. That means the entire change of year sequence for the worlds of humanity is actually worked out backwards from midnight on New Year’s Eve in Earth Europe.”
Oakes gave me a glassy-eyed look. “We definitely need to get you to Earth. You’re a born historian. Anyway, my point is that the Delta sector legal system uses the time zone of our capital planet, Isis, so …”
I interrupted him. “That means I’ll become legally adult at midnight Hercules time, but the restraining order doesn’t come into effect until midnight Isis time. I’ll have a window of time where I’m free to enter Hercules Off-world and travel interstellar.”
Oakes looked impressed. “I thought I’d have to explain that at least three times. You’re very intelligent.”
“By the standards of my family, I’m very unintelligent.” I mumbled the words because most of my attention was on tapping my lookup to check time zones. “That gives me fifty-one standard minutes.” I groaned. “I can’t travel to Earth in fifty-one standard minutes.”
“You don’t need to get to Earth to escape a basic Deltan restraining order,” said Oakes. “You just need to get out of the legal jurisdiction of Delta sector.”
“You mean that I just need to get to Alpha sector and I’m safe! Wait while I check the interstellar portal schedules.” I tapped at my lookup again, and skimmed urgently through the schedules, mentally translating between Hercules time and the interstellar standard Green Time used by the interstellar portal network. “I could reserve a spot on the block portal from Hercules to Delta Sector Interchange 1 that’s scheduled for eleven minutes after midnight Hercules time, but then I’m stuck. The only scheduled cross-sector block portal from Delta Sector Interchange 1 to Alpha sector during my time window is fully booked.”
I shook my head in frustration. “Of course all the popular cross-sector block portals will be fully booked at Year End. People are travelling home after visiting relatives for the Year End holiday. Students are heading to join courses that start on 2 January. I suppose I could go cross-sector to Gamma sector, and travel on to Earth from there.”
I did some more rapid schedule checking. “No, that doesn’t work either. I’ve got a message saying that the physical location of Delta Sector Interchange 1 means Gamma sector is out of even cross-sector gate range. You can only travel directly to Alpha sector and …”
“And?” Oakes prompted me.
“Beta sector,” I said, in a strained voice.
Valin and Macall gasped in unison.
Hercules was one of the strictest worlds in prudish Delta sector, partly due to my great-grandfather’s influence. There was a long silence while Oakes, Macall, Valin, and I all considered the shocking idea of me going to Beta sector, notorious for being the most sexually permissive sector of space. While I felt that Deltan rules about the level of intimacy appropriate before marriage were ridiculous, and I was eager to experience life in a more relaxed Gamma sector university class, the idea of going to Beta sector terrified me.
Eventually, Macall spoke in bracing tones. “Well, there’s no real reason you shouldn’t go to Earth via Beta sector. You could even take your chance to have a bit of fun while you were there.”
Macall had been twelve years old when his parents decided to move from Gamma sector to Delta sector. He’d told Valin and me a lot of startlingly detailed stories about seeing Gamma sector couples publicly kissing, so I didn’t risk asking him what sort of fun he thought I could have in Beta sector, just focussed on the portal scheduling problem.
“There’s only one cross-sector block portal from Delta Sector Interchange 1 to Beta sector in my time window,” I said. “That’s to Beta Sector Interchange 3, and I expect it’s fully … No, actually there are plenty of places available.”
“That makes sense,” said Oakes. “Even around the New Year, there won’t be many people wanting to travel from Delta sector to Beta sector.”
I groaned. “That’s true.”
Valin seemed to be getting over his initial shock now. “There’s no need to worry about going to Beta sector, Fian,” he said, in an encouraging voice. “You’d be perfectly safe in a public area like Beta Sector Interchange 3. You’d probably only need to spend a few minutes there before you portal to Alpha sector anyway.”
I checked the interstellar portal schedules. “I’d have to wait twenty-one hours in Beta Sector Interchange 3 for a cross-sector block portal to Alpha Sector Interchange 6,” I said anxiously. “All the standard interstellar block portals from Alpha Sector Interchange 6 to Earth are fully booked for the next few days, but there are a few spaces left on a block portal from Alpha Sector Interchange 6 to Danae. I could then use my existing reservation of a spot on an interstellar block portal from Danae to Earth.”
“Or you could decide to stay in Beta sector for a few days.” Macall laughed. “If Lecturer Playdon is willing to hold your place on the course until 8 January, then you should seriously consider that option. Your last girlfriend slapped your face and dumped you for being a sexual pervert, but I doubt you’d have that problem with a Betan girl.”
I glared at him. “I am not a sexual pervert. I just misinterpreted something my girlfriend said. I thought she was encouraging me to push the boundaries by holding her hand, but I turned out to be horribly wrong.”
Oakes coughed nervously. “Well, I’d be a bit wary of going to Beta sector myself, but it seems to be your only option if you really want to go to Earth and study pre-history.”
“I really do want to go to Earth.” I gulped, and tapped at my lookup to make the new reservations. I naturally got a warning message that travellers were advised to leave at least an hour between consecutive block portals to allow for delays, but I still tapped again to confirm my reservations. Oakes was right that this was my only option.
Oakes grinned cheerfully at me. “The situation seems to be under control now, and I can’t prepare the witness statements for your court case until after the Year End holiday, so I’ll go back to my party. Be sure to message me when you’re safely out of Delta sector.”
“I will,” I said. “Thank you for your help. You’ve been truly amaz.”
“I’m not just amaz. I’m totally zan!” The holo Oakes pulled the hood of his animal costume back into place, gave me a mock Military salute, and vanished as he ended the call.
I put my lookup on the bench next to me and sighed. “Well, that’s sorted out. Now I just have to make sure I get through the security checks at Hercules Off-world as soon after midnight as possible.”
“Don’t forget that you’re still booked to join us on the interstellar block portal to Delta Sector Interchange 4 tomorrow afternoon, take the cross-sector block portal to Alpha Sector Interchange 2, and then travel on to Danae,” said Valin. “If you don’t cancel reservations at least twenty-four standard hours before departure, your personal account gets charged for the entire journey.”
“Chaos, you’re right, and cross-sector portal charges are extortionate!” I sat up straight again, grabbed my lookup, and frantically tapped at it.
“Make absolutely sure you receive a confirmation message,” said Macall. “Last year, my mother cancelled some reservations for a trip to Isis, but something went wrong. My mother’s account still got charged, and it was really difficult getting a refund because she hadn’t got a confirmation message.”
I stared anxiously at my lookup for the next ten minutes, and then gave a sigh of relief. “The cancellation message for the journey as far as Danae just arrived. I’ll still be using my reservation for the interstellar block portal from Danae to Earth, so …”
I broke off my sentence because my lookup was chiming for an incoming call. I checked the display, and frowned. “My mother is calling me. If you two are in hiding from your parents, then you’d better keep quiet and stay out of her view.”
I answered the call. “Hello, Mother.”
“Fian,” she said urgently, “something terrible has happened.”
I remembered Mother complaining that Father was refusing to discuss the arrangements for them renewing their twenty-five year term marriage, and had a moment of pure panic. Father never accepted criticism from anyone. In my opinion, his research would have been far more successful if he hadn’t mercilessly fired any research assistant who dared to tell him bad news. The reason Mother had become first his lead research assistant, and then his wife, wasn’t just that she was highly intelligent herself and genuinely admired his brilliance. She also avoided conflict between them by using evasion, and occasionally telling deliberate lies.
While I’d never want to be involved in a relationship that was built on lies, I wasn’t in any position to criticise Mother’s tactics. After all, I’d been carefully hiding all the most important things in my life – especially the fact I was studying history – from Father for years. Not because I wanted to tell him a string of lies, but because I couldn’t bear the alternative of suffering him screaming insults at me every day. Mother was simply doing the same thing, and telling a few lies to keep the peace. If Mother had found out about the assault case, and been angry enough to challenge Father …
Oh chaos, with the end of my parents’ term marriage approaching, this was the worst possible time for Mother to defy Father over anything. He’d never consider converting their term marriage into a full marriage after that. He might even publicly humiliate my mother by refusing another twenty-five year term marriage, and only agreeing to a five or ten year term instead. I was frantically trying to work out a way to salvage the disaster when my mother continued speaking.
“Danika has talked your father into going to the Nobel award ceremony. He’s been trying to make reservations to travel there for the last hour and failing. With so many people wanting to travel at Year End, there weren’t any places left on the cross-sector block portals from Delta sector to Alpha sector. A cancellation just appeared for tomorrow though, so your father has booked it.”
This was nothing to do with my father arranging for me to be charged with assault. I felt giddy from relief, but Mother continued speaking in a voice of doom.
“Unfortunately, the cross-sector cancellation was for the same cross-sector block portal that you’ve reserved for your trip to Earth. Your father will be leaving on the same interstellar block portal as you from Hercules to Delta Sector Interchange 4 at 16:24 tomorrow, Hercules Time, and then taking the same cross-sector block portal as you from Delta Sector Interchange 4 to Alpha Sector Interchange 2.”
She gave a despairing shake of her head. “He’s even booked the same interstellar block portal as you from Alpha Sector Interchange 2 to Danae so that he can take an ongoing block portal to Adonis. That means you’ll be travelling with him all the way from Hercules to Danae!”
I burst out in relieved laughter. Valin and Macall were hiding down the far end of the hide with the hover luggage, and had their hands over their mouths trying to smother their own laughter.
“I don’t know why you’re laughing so much,” said Mother. “Just imagine what’s going to happen. Your father isn’t just angry about you studying history, but utterly furious about having to go to the awards ceremony and watch someone else getting the Nobel Prize that he believes is rightfully his. You told me that you had a seventeen-hour wait in Delta Sector Interchange 4. He’s going to be venting his fury on you the whole time.”
I finally managed to stop laughing long enough to speak. “It’s all right, Mother. The reason Father was able to book exactly the same time and route that I’d reserved for my trip to Earth is because I’ve just cancelled my reservation.”
She stared at me. “You’ve cancelled your reservation? Does that mean you’ve changed your mind about going to Earth and studying history?”
“Of course not.” I paused to choose my next words carefully, trying to avoid causing trouble between my parents without telling any outright lies. “When I received the detailed information about joining my class, I found it was slightly different than I expected. I decided to start my journey a little earlier than planned, and changed my reservations. I’ll now be taking an interstellar block portal just after midnight rather than the one tomorrow afternoon.”
Mother gave a sigh of relief. “Now I understand. You were incredibly lucky to get new reservations so late.”
“I just had to change my planned route a little.” I didn’t want my mother asking the details of my new route, so I hurried on to make a vital point. “Please don’t tell Father and Danika that I’m leaving early. I’d rather quietly sneak away this evening than have a final big fight with Father.”
She sighed. “I promise that I won’t say a word. It’s ridiculous that you should have to sneak away from your own home, but you’re right that it’s the best way to avoid last-minute arguments.”
“I don’t want Father to blame you for anything,” I said. “When he finds out I’ve left earlier than expected, you must pretend that you didn’t know about my change of plans.”
Mother nodded. “I’ll do that, but how will you manage to sneak out of the house with a full set of hover luggage?”
I frowned. “Will Father and Danika be going out at all today?”
“I don’t think so. University Hercules is closed for the Year End holiday.”
I groaned. “In that case, I’ll come home for dinner as usual, and wait until about 22:30 to go to my room. It won’t take long to finish my packing, and then I’ll leave through my bedroom window. Father and Danika never bother to wait up until midnight to exchange Year Day wishes with us, so they probably won’t realize I’m missing until breakfast tomorrow morning.”
Mother nodded, and her voice took on a pointed note. “By the way, Valin’s parents called me. They say that both Valin and Macall are missing and not answering calls. If you happen to see either of them, perhaps you could ask them to call home and reassure their parents that they are all right.”
“If I happen to see them, I’ll be sure to do that.”
I ended the call, and turned to frown at Valin and Macall. “You shouldn’t have laughed so loudly about the cancellation.”
“You think that your mother heard us?” asked Valin.
“Of course Mother heard you. She’s probably worked out exactly why you left, so she won’t tell your parents where you are, but you must call them and tell them you’re all right.”
“We’ll send them recorded messages.” Macall paused and frowned. “Now I stop to think about it; we shouldn’t have been laughing anyway. Your father won’t be able to lecture you during the seventeen hours that he’s waiting in Delta Sector Interchange 4. You should already be safely out of Delta sector, but he will be able to lecture us.”
Valin made a strangled noise of panic. “I don’t want Fian’s father lecturing us for seventeen hours!”
“My father won’t be able to lecture you,” I said. “Remember that Delta Sector Interchange 4 has vast waiting areas.”
“I’ve no idea what Delta Sector Interchange 4 is like,” said Valin bitterly. “You and Macall have both travelled cross-sector before, but I haven’t.”
“I’ve only travelled cross-sector when …”
Valin kept talking over the top of me. “I’ve never even left Hercules. My parents went on holiday to Fenrir for their honeymoon, and were so shocked by the clothes people were wearing that they never went off world again.”
Macall grinned. “I’ve heard that Fenrir is a popular honeymoon destination because it’s not just right at the edge of Delta sector, but heavily influenced by neighbouring Beta sector as well.”
“My parents wouldn’t even let me go on the school trip to Isis,” Valin continued grumbling.
“Oh yes.” Macall gurgled with laughter. “You were left behind to study in the school library on your own for two weeks.”
Valin gave him a look of disgust. “I’ve no idea why I stayed friends with you after that school trip. Fian sympathised with me, and even brought me back a gift. You just kept making heartless jokes about all the things I missed.”
“I may have been a bit tactless about the school trip,” said Macall, “but after the things you said when I experimented with dyeing my hair …”
“This isn’t a good time to drag up that old hair dye argument,” I intervened hastily. “You won’t just be going off world tomorrow, Valin, but travelling cross-sector as well. I was just trying to explain that all sector interchanges have vast waiting areas for the cross-sector gates. At a busy time like Year End, those waiting areas will all be crowded with people. There’s absolutely no chance of my father recognising you among all the other students travelling to start their university courses. You may have vivid memories of meeting my father, but I’m sure he won’t remember your names or what you look like.”
Both Macall and Valin looked unconvinced. “When you don’t turn up at Hercules Off-world for the block portal from Hercules to Delta Sector Interchange 4 tomorrow afternoon,” said Macall, “your father will realize that you’ve somehow got off world ahead of his restraining order. He’s going to work out that we’re your best friends, so we’ll probably know how you managed it.”
“That’s true,” I said uneasily.
“If your father wants to question us,” added Valin, “then he can easily remind himself about us. The school has a lot of information on the Hercules data net, including an image of the three of us at the last science open day. That image is naturally centred on you, and the caption is mostly about you being the son of Professor Holger Eklund, but our names are mentioned as well.”
I sighed. “Once I’m safely out of Delta sector, my father won’t be able to stop me getting to Earth. I don’t want him interrogating you for hours though. If he recognizes you in Delta Sector Interchange 4, then you’d better run away from him. He’s far too dignified to chase after you, so you’ll be able to go and hide in one of the dimly lit rest zones where people sleep in reclining chairs.”
“That might work,” said Macall doubtfully.
“If you wanted to make absolutely sure that he couldn’t find you again,” I added, “then you could rent a sleep pod. One of the Delta Sector Interchange 4 rest zones is filled with floor to ceiling stacks of sleep pods for people who are nervous about sleeping in public areas.”
“Now that’s a good idea,” said Macall. “If your father spots us, we just have to run to that rest zone, rent a sleep pod, lock ourselves inside it, and …”
At that moment, the rain stopped, and the sun emerged from behind the clouds. All the male Herculean reed frogs responded by beginning a frantic courting display of wild leaps, their red, blue, and gold bodies glittering in the sunlight, as they proved they had all the strength and agility needed to ferry a whole series of frog eggs to the pools of water caught in the globe-shaped reed flowers. The females chirruped their encouragement in a deafening chorus that drowned out whatever Macall said next.
Macall, Valin, and I put our hands defensively over our ears and turned to look out of the frog hide window, laughing in delight at the multitude of joyously leaping reed frogs. They looked like a massive display of red, blue, and gold fireworks stretching out across the reedbeds. The only school science lesson that I could remember actively enjoying was the one about the symbiosis between the Hercules reed frogs and the reeds themselves.
Admittedly that was partly because I knew my father’s loathing of the Hercules marshlands meant that for once he’d be annoyed by me getting full marks. I’d been genuinely fascinated by how the male frogs would carry eggs up to the reed flowers though, spreading pollen as they moved between flowers. Safe from the marsh crawlers inside their nursery pools, the eggs would hatch into baby frogs that greedily feasted on pollen and drowning insects through the summer. Once the flowers turned into seed heads in early autumn, young adult frogs with stomachs stuffed full of seeds would set out to explore the reed beds, distributing the seeds along the way.
The biology teacher had shown the class dozens of images and vid sequences of growing baby frogs, but didn’t even mention the reed frog courting displays, with all their joyful exuberance. I felt it was typical of schools in Delta sector, especially a school favoured by my father, to exclude anything that hinted sex could be fun.
Watching the reed frogs now, I felt a fleeting moment of sadness. There would be several more mass courting displays over the next few weeks, but I wouldn’t be here to see them. At least, I wouldn’t be here if I succeeded in evading the restraining order and leaving Hercules tonight. If I failed to leave Hercules …
I shuddered at the thought of what would happen then. I’d lose my place on the University Asgard Pre-history Foundation course, and my father would try to force me to join the University Hercules Physics Foundation course instead. No, he’d probably want me to copy my older sister by skipping the Foundation course entirely, and then completing the full degree course in two years rather than the usual three.
Of course I’d refuse to obey my father, and try to find work and somewhere to live for the next year until I could apply to another off-world Pre-history Foundation course. My father had a lot of influence though, not just on Hercules but on many of the other worlds of Delta sector. He’d already gone to the lengths of arranging a false assault charge against me, so he wouldn’t hesitate to block all my attempts to find work until I surrendered and did what he wanted. There was also the problem that if I failed to appear for the start of this Pre-history Foundation course, then it would be hard to convince the cross-sector student borrowing system to give me another chance at education funding.
The grim truth was that I had to escape from Hercules tonight, because I wouldn’t get another chance for at least a year, and might never get another chance at all.
For the rest of that day, Macall, Valin, and I tried to keep up the pretence that this was just an ordinary visit to the frog hide. We determinedly chatted about the antics of the reed frogs, the arrival of a group of purple and gold feathered Hercules emperor cranes on their spring migration, and other trivia. Once the sun started to dip below the horizon though, the marsh crawlers began howling their mournful dusk chorus, and it was time for us to face reality.
I stood up, collected my empty food carton and bottle from the frog hide windowsill, and put them in my shoulder bag. “I need to go home for dinner now. If all goes as planned, we’ll meet up again on Danae, since I’m taking the same interstellar block portal as you from Danae to Earth.”
The other two stood up as well. Valin gave an anxious look out of the window, took his hover bag key fob from his pocket, and clicked it. The grey hover bags at the far end of the hide instantly rose into the air, and came eagerly bounding over to gather around him.
“There’s no need to say goodbye yet. Macall and I will go to the portal with you.”
Macall gave a bewildered look at the hover bags. “We can certainly go to the portal to say goodbye to Fian, but why do you want to take your hover bags with you, Valin?”
“Because I’ve changed my mind about staying here in the frog hide until after midnight,” said Valin. “Remember how difficult it was getting along the walkway in the dark. It doesn’t matter if our hover bags drift off the walkway because they’ll float above the marsh water. If we fall off the walkway ourselves though … Well, I don’t want to arrive in Hercules Off-world stinking of marsh mud.”
“Neither do I,” said Macall, “but I don’t know where else we can spend the evening. The security staff won’t let us into Hercules Off-world until after midnight, and everywhere else will either be closed on New Year’s Eve, or hosting New Year gatherings that are strictly adult only.”
“I don’t understand the problem,” I said. “If you come with me to the portal, then you can wait in the bird hide until you’re ready to portal to Hercules Off-world. The few people who came to this marsh visitor point today should have already left by now.”
“We can’t wait in the bird hide because the nuking door autolocks between nightfall and dawn,” said Macall, in an irritated voice.
“You’ve got plenty of time to go inside the bird hide before nightfall,” I said.
Macall gave me a withering look. “Yes, we could go inside, but then we’d be locked in there until dawn.”
I grinned. “If you’d read the message from the Western Marshes Visitors Trust, then you’d know there’s a safety override to prevent anyone who misjudges the time from being trapped in the bird hide. There’s no way to open the door from outside while the autolock is on, but anyone that’s already inside can press the red safety override button and leave at any point.”
“They can? Why the chaos didn’t you tell us that before?” Macall snatched up a bag of empty food cartons, and opened the frog hide door. “Let’s go before it gets any darker.”
“You’ve forgotten your hover luggage,” I said, helpfully gesturing at the red and white hover bags still at the far end of the hide.
“Nuke it!” Macall took his key fob from his pocket and clicked it.
The red and white hover bags responded by coming to life and surging towards Macall. The protection of humanity laws included strict limits on the artificial intelligence of devices like hover bags, so they were confused by the small, crowded frog hide. There was a chaotic couple of minutes while Macall and Valin went out of the door, and the two groups of hover bags jostled in the doorway, trying to follow them.
I waited until the last hover bag had made it outside and lurched drunkenly down the steps, then I went through the doorway myself. I stopped on the top step, and used my right shoulder to forcibly shove the door closed behind me, before joining Macall and Valin on the walkway. The moment I arrived there, Macall started heading along the walkway towards the portal. Valin and I took a few steps after him, before pausing to check how the hover bags were coping.
The two different sets of luggage were obviously happier now they were in a large open space. I watched in amusement as the lead grey hover bag had a rapid conference with the lead red and white striped hover bag. Their machine speak vocabulary was extremely limited, so I could easily follow their exchange of high-pitched bleeps. The two lead bags agreed the fact their respective owners were close together in an area with no other hover bags at all meant they should be moving in combined group mode, and then decided that the boarded walkway was some sort of designated path. After that, the two sets of bags started heading after us in an orderly formation, and Valin and I hurried to catch up with a grumbling Macall.
“Fian’s insistence on reading every word of instructions and messages can be really annoying,” he said. “It’s even more annoying when he finds out something important but doesn’t bother telling us about it. Don’t you agree, Valin?”
Whenever there was a disagreement between Macall and me, Valin took the safe option of staying neutral, so he just grunted a response.
“Now that we’re going to be in different classes on Earth,” I said, “you two will have to read all the instructions and messages yourselves anyway.”
“I know that!” snapped Macall. “Everything is going to be different from now on. Your father has nuked all our plans to cinders.”
He stomped off along the walkway. Valin and I were used to Macall getting tetchy when things distressed him, so we pulled rueful faces at each other before following him. Once the three of us reached the flooded stretch of walkway, Valin and I had to slow down to pick our way across it. Macall was able to carry on at full speed though, because his brother had given him waterproof wading boots.
Valin and I had always felt Macall had two major advantages in life over us. The first advantage was that being born in Gamma sector gave him dual Deltan and Gamman citizenship, and the right to access Gamma sector vids usually restricted to adults. Macall had let Valin and me watch those vids with him, and the sight of people freely holding hands and hugging in public had convinced us to join him in applying to a course run by University Asgard in Gamma sector.
Macall’s second advantage was that he had an older brother who was the exact opposite of my sister, Danika. While Macall’s parents were nearly as obsessed with physics as my father, Macall’s brother had defied them to become a marshland ecologist. He’d started our visits to the marshes when he brought Macall to visit the frog hide years ago, helpfully encouraged Macall’s interest in history, and much less helpfully answered all his questions about how to dry and smoke Hercules bullrushes. That had inevitably led to Macall experimenting with the bullrushes, talking Valin and me into smoking the dried bullrushes with him, and all three of us being dreadfully sick.
A yelp of protest from Valin told me that he’d got water in one of his shoes, but I was lucky enough to get through the flooded stretch of walkway with dry feet this time. Once we were safely on the other side, Valin and I looked at where Macall was vanishing off into the distance, shrugged in unison, and turned to check on the hover bags again. The flooding had obviously confused their sensors, because the formation had lost track of the walkway and spread out across the reedbed. Now they were struggling to push their way through the reeds, annoying the poor marsh frogs who were trying to settle down to rest for the night. I whistled a location order in machine speak to guide the hover bags back to the walkway, and Valin groaned.
“I hope you’re going to give up talking to hover bags when you join your class.”
I laughed. “I suppose I’d better. People on Earth might find it a strange habit.”
“People on Hercules find it a strange habit too,” said Valin pointedly. “At least, Macall and I find it strange.”
“I won’t have any reason to talk to hover bags on Earth anyway. I only learned machine speak to play tricks on my father. He still hasn’t discovered that his hover bags keep misbehaving because I’m furtively whistling orders to them. He blames the problem on the damp Hercules air.”
The hover bags reached us a moment later, and Valin and I led them on to where Macall was impatiently waiting by the portal. I expected Macall to start grumbling again. Instead, he launched into one of his dramatic speeches.
“Hail, oppressed ones of Delta sector! The three of us have been fighting to make our dreams real for years. We have battled against the opposition of our parents. We have furtively studied history despite all their efforts to prevent us. Alone, we would have been defeated. United, we have won places on our chosen course. The combination of my corrupting influence, Fian’s stubbornness, and Valin’s negotiating skills has proved unbeatable.”
Macall gave a dramatic wave of his right arm, and Valin and I cheered in response, but the audience of hover bags seemed unimpressed.
“Fian’s father has succeeded in moving him to a different class, working on a different dig site, on a different continent,” Macall continued in strident tones. “This is only a temporary setback though. As soon as we’re on Earth, we’ll start working on getting Fian moved to our class!”
He gave the dramatic wave of his right arm again, and Valin cheered, but I shook my head. “At the moment, I need to concentrate on getting to Earth, and once I arrive there … Well, I have to be realistic about the situation.”
I sighed. “Lecturer Playdon told me that my father had been threatening University Asgard lecturers to make them drop me from the course, so they dealt with the problem by moving me into his class. My impression is that other lecturers are scared of my father’s threats, but Lecturer Playdon is willing to stand up against him, and do things like finding me a lawyer. That means I need to stay in Lecturer Playdon’s class, and I think it’s already too late for both of you to move class to join me.”
“You’re probably right,” said Valin, in a depressed voice. “It was easy for me to persuade the school history teacher to let us sneak into his lessons, because he only had four legal pupils in his class. There won’t be any spare spaces on the Asgard Pre-history Foundation course though. Now that all the students have been told their classes, we wouldn’t just need Lecturer Playdon and Lecturer Akhtar to agree to Macall and me moving class to join you. We’d need other students to agree to move out of Lecturer Playdon’s class to make space for us.”
“Lecturer Playdon has already done a huge amount to help me,” I said firmly. “We can’t ask him to spend New Year’s Day trying to persuade other students to change class as well.”
Macall shook his head. “He’d never manage to persuade them anyway. Nobody is going to want to discuss class moves when they’re in the middle of family New Year celebrations or travelling to Earth, and once they’ve actually arrived at New York and met their new classmates it will be too late.”
“We have to accept the situation and work out the best way to deal with it,” I said. “It’s going to be difficult arranging physical meetings when we’re on different continents of Earth, because they all have different time zones. We’ll be moving dig sites several times during the year though, so there may be a point when we’re on the same continent. The rest of the time, we’ll have to compare our working schedules and decide on the most convenient times for us to call each other. If some combination of continental times proves especially difficult, we can resort to sending each other recorded messages.”
“This is all your father’s fault,” said Macall bitterly. “There should be a cross-sector law against him.”
“There was a cross-sector law against Fian’s great-grandfather,” said Valin thoughtfully. “After Cioni’s Apprentices started the planetary civil war on Freya, Alpha sector insisted on the whole organization being banned under cross-sector law. Given Jorgen Eklund was the leader of Cioni’s Apprentices …”
Macall interrupted him. “That’s a good point. Fian, when you join your course, you’d better not tell any Alphan students that you’re related to Jorgen Eklund. If they’ve heard about what happened on Freya, then they might react badly.”
“I’m not going to mention my great-grandfather to anyone on my course,” I said. “Cioni’s Apprentices disbanded decades before we were born, but anyone who has studied twenty-eighth century Alphan or Deltan history will know all about Jorgen Eklund. That’s one of the reasons I wanted us to apply to University Asgard. Most of the students on a Gamma sector university course are going to be Gammans, so far less likely to know about my great-grandfather.”
I pulled a face. “As it turns out, Lecturer Playdon has Deltan relatives, and is probably Deltan himself. Now he knows that my father is the Head of the Physics Department at University Hercules, he must have worked out that Jorgen Eklund is some sort of relation of mine. Lecturer Playdon hasn’t said anything about it to me though, so I don’t think he’ll mention it to the other students.”
“That’s good,” said Macall.
I glanced up at the sky. “It’s almost dark now. You two need to get inside the bird hide soon, or you’ll be locked out. I’ll see you on Danae.”
“I’ll see you on Danae,” Macall and Valin repeated my words.
While it would be going a bit far to hug each other, the three of us had been best friends for years, so some sort of physical gesture of farewell felt appropriate at this point. After my experience trying to hold hands with my girlfriend, I wasn’t risking any more communication problems though.
“How would you two feel about us shaking hands?” I asked cautiously.
“Having spent the first twelve years of my life in Gamma sector,” said Macall, “the way that Deltans avoid touching even their closest friends has always seemed weird to me. I’ve gone along with it because I believe in respecting other people’s boundaries, but I’m very happy to shake hands.”
“The students in University Asgard classes are bound to be more casual about physical contact,” said Valin, and he held out his right hand towards me.
We solemnly shook hands, and then I shook Macall’s hand. Macall and Valin were shaking hands when there was a strange bleeping sound. They instantly let go of each other’s hands, and looked guiltily around as if expecting someone to arrest them.
“What the chaos is that?” asked Valin.
“The five-minute warning for the bird hide door locking,” I said. “Get inside quickly!”
Macall and Valin hastily took their key fobs from their pockets, and clicked them to start their hover bags following them again. There was a couple of minutes of confusion while they and the hover bags went into the hide, and then Macall reappeared in the doorway.
“Valin and I were planning to go to Hercules Off-world at 01:00. We can easily go there before midnight instead, so we can wave you off on your trip to Beta sector.”
I winced at the reminder that I was going to have to travel to Earth via Beta sector. “It’s not a good idea for you to come to Hercules Off-world to wave me off. Once it’s midnight, I’ll be too busy getting through the security checks and running for my interstellar portal to do any waving.”
“I was expecting us to do the waving off just before midnight,” said Macall.
“It’s still not a good idea,” I said awkwardly.
Macall gave me a bewildered look. “I don’t understand the problem.”
Valin appeared in the doorway next to him. “If you weren’t a complete nardle brain, Macall, you’d realize that you’re the problem. Fian doesn’t want to risk being seen with us in Hercules Off-world after the way you annoyed the security staff. The people who were working the last night shift are virtually certain to be working it tonight as well. If they realize Fian is a friend of ours, then they might deliberately delay his security checks, so he gets stuck on Hercules.”
“Oh,” said Macall. “Well, I suppose that …”
Valin interrupted him. “Besides, Fian can’t go to Hercules Off-world before midnight. He has to buy a bottle of wine first.”
I shook my head. “I won’t have time for buying wine.”
Valin looked shocked. “But it’s a Hercules tradition that as soon as you’re legally adult, you go to a shop and buy a bottle of wine. Everyone does it.”
“That’s the problem,” I said. “At midnight tonight, there’ll be queues of new adults outside everywhere that sells wine. I haven’t got time to wait in line.”
“But you can’t break the tradition,” wailed Valin.
I laughed. “I’ll be following the tradition. I’ll just be going to a shop a bit further away than usual. I’ll have to wait twenty-one hours in Beta Sector Interchange 3, and it must be possible to buy a bottle of wine there.”
Valin blinked. “That’s true. You …”
The bleeping from the bird hide suddenly reached a crescendo, and its door slid closed, shutting Valin and Macall away inside. I’d said goodbye to my friends, and now it was time for me to say goodbye to my home world.
I went back to the start of the walkway again. This time I didn’t follow it down to the reedbeds though, but climbed up the green algae-covered side of the giant boulder next to it, and stood on the top gazing sadly at the marshes. If I succeeded in escaping to Earth, I knew that I’d never return to live permanently on the world whose history had been shaped by Jorgen Eklund. It might be years before I even came back for a visit.
When my Pre-history Foundation class moved between dig sites on Earth, we’d get a break of a few days to let us go home and see our families, but how could I risk doing that? My father had proved he’d go to drastic lengths to make me study physics at University Hercules, so it would be nardle-brained of me to give him another chance to trap me here.
The Military only made one continent of each world safe for colonization to avoid the pollution problems that had hit Earth in the centuries before the invention of the crucial drop portal technology gave humanity the stars. All I knew about the four uninhabited continents of Hercules was that the Military had rejected one for being too arid, one for being too small, and two for being too cold. I’d never felt any great attachment to the drier eastern end of the sprawling inhabited continent of Hercules, with its neatly laid out settlements.
These vast western marshes, with their wildness and harsh beauty, were what I’d miss about my home world. There was only a sliver of moon visible tonight, so the reedbeds were just a shadowy blur. There were the bright dots of fireflies drifting above them though, the scent of the marsh flowers was always stronger after dark, and I could hear the perpetual rustling of the reeds, as well as a gentle honking sound from the Hercules ducks on the lake.
I brushed moisture from my eyes, cautiously clambered back down from the boulder again, and then headed for the portal. I had to go home and join in the traditional Hercules New Year’s Eve dinner with my parents and sister. Whatever my father did or said during that meal, however maddening, I mustn’t let him goad me into revealing that I knew about his plan to keep me on Hercules. I just had to survive this one last ordeal, pick the right moment to retreat to my room, finish my packing, and then escape through the window to start my journey to Earth.
I dialled the portal, waited for it to flare into life, and then stepped through.
When I appeared in the darkened gardens of my home settlement, I saw a shadowy figure come out of my parents’ house and start heading for the portal. I hastily walked off in the opposite direction, and then stepped in amongst some bushes to hide. As the figure got nearer, it became clear it wasn’t either of my parents. I thought it might be Danika wearing a thick coat, but then the figure reached the lights of the portal area. No, this wasn’t Danika, but Father’s deputy.
Why the chaos was Father’s deputy visiting him on New Year’s Eve? I briefly panicked that Father had discovered my plan to escape Hercules, then remembered the great-uncle Alexander situation. It would be typical of Father to insist on his deputy abandoning her family New Year celebrations to come and discuss that with him in person.
As soon as Father’s deputy vanished through the portal, I hurried back along the path to my parents’ house, and used the door plate to let myself inside. I went straight to my room to shower, and spent much longer than usual under the hot jets of water, making sure I washed away every trace of my visit to the marshes. Finally, I dressed in the set of clothes that I’d left out ready to wear tonight. Father insisted on me wearing formal clothes for even simple family celebrations, but these were hopefully neutral enough not to attract attention on an interstellar journey.
When I was ready to face Father, I headed to the reception room that my parents used when entertaining guests. I expected to see the table adjusted to its smallest size, with the best crystal dinner set laid out at four places, and a traditional Hercules infinity cake as the centrepiece. Instead, the table was still at its maximum twenty place size from Father’s last departmental dinner party, and the polished surface was totally bare.
I frowned, went in search of Mother, and found her in the living area. She was sitting at the small table we used for ordinary family meals, and was eating pastry twists straight from the box.
“What’s Father done?” I asked anxiously.
“He decided that he wouldn’t have time for a New Year meal tonight,” said Mother wearily. “It’s not really his fault though. He says that he has to talk to a lot of people about the problem with your great-uncle Alexander.”
“The problem that was caused by Father’s behaviour over the Nobel Prize,” I said pointedly.
Mother pulled a rueful face. “Yes, well, your father and Danika have just had a meeting with some of his colleagues, and now they’re calling a lot of other people. Your father said that we could have the New Year meal tomorrow, because there’ll be plenty of time before the afternoon’s interstellar block portal to Delta Sector Interchange 4. Of course, when he said that, he didn’t know that you’d changed your plans and were going to leave tonight.”
I panicked. “You haven’t told Father about my change of plans, have you?”
Mother shook her head. “I promised you that I wouldn’t say a word. I could tell him now if you like, and point out that we need to hold the New Year meal tonight or you’ll miss it, but he’s in a bad temper.”
“No, no,” I said hastily. “You mustn’t say a word about my change of plans to Father. When I don’t appear for breakfast tomorrow morning, you must go and knock on my bedroom door, and then pretend to be shocked when you find out that I’ve gone. Father is going to be angry with me, and I don’t want him being angry with you as well.”
“Your father is going to be furious with you,” said Mother sadly. “He said something about it being helpful to hold the New Year meal tomorrow anyway, because that will be a good chance for him to talk to you about your future. Despite all his previous arguments failing, he seems to think that he’ll be able to talk you into changing your mind at the last minute and agreeing to study physics on Hercules.”
I had a sick feeling. Was Father planning to tell me about the fake assault charges during the New Year meal? I pictured his gloating face as he announced there was a restraining order preventing me from leaving Hercules, so I’d be forced to stay here and study physics. Even worse, I pictured Mother’s reaction when she worked out that Father had arranged the whole thing.
Chaos, didn’t Father realize that Mother had tolerated a lot of bad behaviour from him because of his so-called brilliance, but the discovery that he’d arranged fake assault charges against their son would push her past her limit? I had to succeed in leaving Hercules tonight, for Mother’s sake as well as my own.
“I knew it would save a lot of arguments if I just sneak off quietly tonight,” I said lightly.
Mother nodded. “I left another box of pastry twists in the heater for you, but you can have anything else you prefer. I’m just sorry that I can’t give you a piece of the infinity cake. If I’d known about the change of arrangements in advance, I’d have got two cakes so I could cut one tonight, but …”
“I’m happy with pastry twists,” I said, “and to be perfectly honest, I’ve always hated infinity cake. It has to be unpleasantly chewy to keep the ornate shape of the infinity symbol, and the glittery icing may be pretty but always tastes metallic to me.”
Mother laughed. “I don’t think it’s really the taste of the cake that you hate. It’s the fact that its shape is supposed to symbolize Hercules having an infinite dedication to science.”
“Anyway, since you can’t have a piece of the cake, I’ve left a packet of frog biscuits next to the heater.”
I laughed at the fact Mother had bought some of my favourite childhood biscuits for me. “Amaz!”
I went to get my pastry twist box out of the heater, tucked the packet of frog biscuits under my arm, and went back to sit at the table with my mother. We munched our way through the mixture of pastry twists, some made with vegetables and others with vat-grown meat tissue. We ended our meal with the traditional hot drinks flavoured with Hercules ginger root, and then I spoke in apologetic tones.
“I’ll be calling you regularly, but it may be quite a long time before I come home to visit. Given Father’s feelings about me studying history …”
“I can always come to visit you.”
I grimaced. “Father wouldn’t like that.”
“Holger wouldn’t need to know about it. He’s often away for a week visiting his colleagues. Now, if you need financial help at any point …”
I interrupted her. “I told you that I’ve arranged funding through the cross-sector student borrowing system.”
“It’s completely unfair that you have to borrow money to study when we funded Danika’s entire education for her.”
“You funded Danika’s entire education because she studied physics. I knew when I chose to study history that I’d have to finance it myself.”
Mother sighed. “Well, if you have any unexpected expenses, then let me know. Father can’t object to me giving you the occasional gift.”
I grimaced. “If Father found out that you’d given me a single credit to help me study history, then he wouldn’t just object. He’d be utterly furious with you. I shouldn’t need help anyway. The course fees include all my standard meals and accommodation at the dig sites.”
I paused. “I don’t need to leave until 22:30. If Father and Danika are busy calling people, then we could watch a vid together.”
Mother smiled. “I suppose that means watching one of Ventrak Rostha’s History of Humanity vids.”
I shook my head. “I’m not risking watching a history vid when Father could walk into the room at any moment. My plan is to avoid arguments, not trigger them. We can watch one of your favourite vids instead.”
We sat on the couch, shared the bag of biscuits decorated with icing frogs in jewelled colours, and watched a vid about a romance between two Deltan science teachers. We’d just reached the crucial party scene, where the two lead characters accidentally touched hands while dancing, when the living area door suddenly opened.
Father’s voice shouted into the room. “I told you that I’m making important calls. Keep the noise down in there!”
He didn’t wait for an answer, just slammed the door shut again, and Mother guiltily turned off the wall vid. “I don’t know what your father’s trying to achieve with these calls, but I don’t think it’s working.”
“Of course it isn’t working,” I said. “I don’t know whether he’s calling people on Hercules or other worlds, but they’re virtually certain to be either celebrating Year End or asleep. If Father had any sense at all, he’d realize they won’t be happy about him calling them.”
Father’s interruption had made me nervous, so I checked my lookup. “I wasn’t planning to go to my room until 22:30, and it isn’t even 21:00 yet, but if Father’s started roaming around …”
Mother nodded. “You’d better go.”
Even in Delta sector, you were allowed to give a private farewell hug to your closest family members. Mother gave me another packet of frog biscuits for my journey, we shared a second hug, and then I sneaked down the side corridor to my room.
I’d bought a brand-new set of five hover bags for my journey to Earth, and already packed four of them. The remaining bag had twin compartments, and was reserved for everything I might need on my journey. I put that bag on the bed now, opened one compartment, and turned to the pile of things I had waiting on a nearby shelf: my coat, a change of clothes, a comb, shaving cream, and other oddments.
A glance out of the window told me that it wasn’t raining, so I rapidly packed everything, including the coat. I then closed that compartment, turned the bag over, opened the other compartment, and added a set of specially sealed cartons that I’d bought a week ago. Cartons of food and drink that were certified free of viable seeds or anything else illegal to take off world were expensive, but still far less extortionately priced than the food and drink sold in off-worlds and interchanges.
There was just enough space left for the packet of frog biscuits. I closed the second compartment, started making a last check of the room for anything important that I’d missed, and then stopped. When I’d sorted out the things to be packed, I’d expected to be visiting home regularly and able to collect other personal oddments to take to Earth, but Father’s restraining order had changed everything.
I would never live in this house again. I wouldn’t be visiting here for months, and I might never come back at all. Father believed in keeping his home strictly functional and free from sentimental clutter, so Mother was barely allowed to have a holo image of their wedding on the wall. Once my sister moved out permanently, Father insisted on her old room being cleared out and turned into an anonymous guest room. When I made it to Earth, if I made it to Earth, Father was going to be furious and would insist on having my room cleared out as well.
While nothing left in my storage areas had any great value to me, I’d rather that I was the one to decide which of my possessions should be destroyed rather than let Father sweep everything away out of revenge. I still had plenty of time before I was due to leave, so I got out my old set of four small hover bags, ordered them to group merge with my new luggage, and adjusted my key fob settings to make sure the older bags were on the lowest priority ranking.
It only took a few minutes to go through my storage areas and rapidly pack everything. Once the shelves were empty except for the old, mud-stained clothes I wore when visiting the marshes, I clicked the key fob to make my crowd of hover bags gather around me, and led them over to the window.
“Room command lights off,” I said.
The ceiling glows obediently went out, and I peered nervously out of the window into the darkness. My room was at the back of the house, facing the grassy area with scattered Earth apple trees that separated our circle of houses from the next one. There were enough leaves on the Earth apple trees by now to block my view of the nearest houses, so logically that meant anyone looking out of their windows couldn’t see me either.
It was easy for me to open the window and climb out, but much harder than I’d expected to get the hover luggage to follow me. The problem wasn’t the size of the window, but the fact that hover bags were designed to float just above the ground. They could happily follow their owner up flights of steps, but not over a waist-high windowsill.
In the end, I had to climb back into my room, turn off the hover bags, and physically lift each of them over the windowsill to drop them on the other side. Even an empty hover bag was heavy because of the weight of the hover pad. I’d made the mistake of putting some of the heaviest items in the biggest bag, so that landed on the ground with an especially loud thump. I waited for a tense minute or two to see if my father would come to see what the noise was, but he didn’t.
I climbed out of the window again, persuaded it nearly closed behind me, and clicked my key fob. I’d been worried that being dropped out of the window could have damaged the hover bags, so was relieved to see them all respond correctly, with the lower priority ranked older bags trailing along behind the new ones. I turned to head for the portal, but stopped. If one of Father’s colleagues spotted me going to the portal with my luggage, then they’d be bound to call him, and …
Well, Father would realize I’d found out about the restraining order, had worked out a way to evade it, and was going to Hercules Off-world. It was probably too late to take more legal measures now, but he’d just need to lock me up somewhere for a few hours to wreck all my plans. Rather than using our neighbourhood local portal, I should take the safer option of heading for the one at the next circle of houses.
I walked across the grass to a group of apple trees, stopped behind the trunk of one of them, and was peering anxiously past it at the houses ahead when a voice spoke from behind me.
I gasped, whirled around to look behind me, and saw a male figure standing there. I’d been expecting to see one of Father’s colleagues, but this was clearly someone younger. When he took a step closer, I realized it was Thorstein.
Oh nuke, I was totally doomed. Thorstein was the eldest son of Father’s deputy, and he’d been causing me problems for years. He was the same age as me, had attended the same select school, and Father had constantly complained about him coming a close second to me in physics tests. On several hideous occasions, Thorstein had actually beaten my score, so Father had complained at me for days afterwards, saying that my failure was due to my lack of dedication to science. Thorstein had presumably come here with his mother to attend Father’s meeting.
“What the nuke are you doing here?” Thorstein demanded.
“I’m having an evening stroll in our settlement gardens,” I said defensively.
He gestured at my luggage. “And you brought a whole host of hover bags along with you?”
I desperately tried to think of an excuse for having nine hover bags with me.
“I know you’ve got a weird habit of talking machine speak to hover bags,” Thorstein continued. “Has your relationship with them reached the point of you taking them for walks as well?”
His comment gave me a bright idea. “I’m taking my hover bags for a walk to test them. You’ve probably heard that I’m going off world tomorrow to study a Pre-history Foundation course.”
Thorstein made a jeering noise. “Chaos knows why you want to waste your time studying history.”
I ignored that and continued speaking in a dignified voice. “My new set of hover luggage was involved in an accident earlier today. I was worried the bags had been damaged, so I’ve merged my old and new sets of hover luggage, and I’m testing them to find out which bags are working properly. You can see that the bags all seem to be responding perfectly so far. I’ve adjusted the priority rankings to have the new set in size order followed by the old set in size order.”
“I’ve never bothered changing the default rankings of my own hover bags,” said Thorstein, in a withering voice. “I certainly don’t care about you messing around with yours.”
I kept on desperately babbling. “I should probably do a final check by making sure the bags all follow me through a local portal correctly. I don’t want to have problems on my journey because a bag isn’t staying properly aligned or isn’t moving quickly enough to get through the portal within the signal loss period. You know what happens if a bag gets left behind when you go through an interstellar portal. It can take days for it to be sent after you, and it often never appears at all.”
“I don’t understand your obsession with history or hover bags, but I can guess why you applied to a university outside Delta sector.” Thorstein made the jeering sound again. “Everyone’s heard about the way you treated your girlfriend.”
At this point, I finally worked out that my theory about Thorstein coming here with his mother to attend Father’s meeting couldn’t possibly be true. Father would never include someone who hadn’t even started their degree in one of his meetings. Besides, I’d seen Thorstein’s mother portal home hours ago. What the chaos was Thorstein doing skulking around the gardens behind our house? Had Father suspected I’d try to leave early, and arranged for him to stand out here on guard duty?
“Yes, I misunderstood something my girlfriend said, and tried to hold her hand when we didn’t even have a Twoing contract,” I said wearily. “I’ve already suffered about a hundred lectures about me being a badly behaved Deltan, so there’s no point in you giving me another one. What are you doing in our settlement gardens, Thorstein?”
“My mother wants us to move to this settlement. She’s hoping to get one of the houses in the same circle as your father, so I thought I’d come and take a look at them.”
I’d been expecting Thorstein to triumphantly announce that he was spying on me for my father, so I was relieved but confused. “You thought you’d come and look at the houses,” I repeated incredulously. “After dark on New Year’s Eve?”
“It isn’t that dark, and …”
I heard the sharp crack of a stick breaking underfoot, and turned just in time to glimpse a shadowy figure running off into the darkness. “That was a girl!” I said, in a grazzed voice.
Thorstein laughed. “Yes, that was a girl. I find talking to girls more interesting than whistling machine speak at hover bags, but I respect your right to make your own relationship choices.”
“You came here to have a secret meeting with a girl,” I said indignantly. “You were making all that fuss about my hover bags, and mocking me studying history, because you wanted to distract me while she got away.”
“It was you that kept rambling about hover bags, not me,” said Thorstein, “but you’re right about me wanting to distract you. That didn’t entirely work, because you saw the girl running away. You shouldn’t have had a good enough look to recognise her though.”
He hesitated, apparently waiting for me to say something, and then prompted me. “You didn’t recognise her, did you, Fian?”
I hadn’t recognised the girl, and she’d taken the obvious precaution of running off into the distance to hide rather than giving away exactly where she lived. The fact Thorstein was meeting her at this grove of apple trees meant that she probably lived in one of the nearby circles of houses. I could probably work out her identity if I tried, but I wasn’t going to do that.
“I’ve no idea who the girl was,” I said aloud. “I just got a glimpse of a female shape.”
“That’s all right then,” said Thorstein happily.
“No, it isn’t all right,” I said, in an aggrieved voice. “Chaos, you dared to criticise me for trying to hold my girlfriend’s hand, while you’ve been having secret meetings with a girl after dark!”
Thorstein nodded. “So, what are you going to do now? Go running to your father, the mighty Professor Holger Eklund? I know you’ve always hated me challenging you for the position of the best physics student in our year at school. My mother warned me that it could be dangerous to prove myself more talented than one of the powerful Eklund family, and said I should take the safe option of making some deliberate mistakes. I refused to do that, and now …”
He shrugged. “This is your chance to take your revenge. Your father could get me banned from University Hercules for immoral conduct.”
I shook my head. “I’ve never hated you challenging me for a position that I didn’t want. My father did, but he was angry with me about it rather than you. Once I’ve gone off world to study history, he won’t see you as my competition any longer, but as a gifted young scientist with a brilliant future.”
I paused. “I suggest we agree that I never saw you, I never saw a girl, and neither of you saw me. Deal?”
“Deal,” responded Thorstein promptly. “I’ll call the girl and reassure her that you’ve agreed never to tell anyone about us. Have fun studying in Gamma sector.”
“The Pre-history Foundation course is actually held on Earth rather than …”
I let my words trail off because Thorstein was already walking away. I watched him stroll between a couple of houses. There was the distant light of glows activating, followed by the distinctive flare of a portal establishing, then everything was dark and peaceful again.
I stood among the apple trees for a minute or two, allowing my shaken nerves to calm down, and absorbing the fact that Thorstein and I had far more in common than I’d thought. When I finally clicked my key fob and headed for the portal myself, there didn’t seem to be anyone around. I felt reasonably safe in the darkness, but tensed when the motion-activated glows near the portal came on. I’d memorized the address of Hercules Off-world, and dialled it as rapidly as possible. Much too rapidly, in fact. I must have made a mistake because the address was rejected as invalid.
I made a second, more careful attempt to dial Hercules Off-world. This time the portal flared to life. I hurried through, and blinked as I was hit by dazzlingly bright lights. There was the sound of chattering voices coming from all around me, while overhead speakers played traditional Year End music.
“Kindly move out of the arrival zone,” ordered a caustic male voice. “Other people would like to use this portal.”
“Sorry.” I hastily moved clear of the red floor area, checked all my hover bags were with me, then gave a helpless look around. I’d been to Hercules Off-world several times before, but I’d never seen the entrance area this crowded. People were hurrying to and from the long row of local portals. Every seat in the large waiting area intended for people meeting arriving interstellar travellers was full. The most worrying thing was the number of people waiting to go through the security checkpoints that led to the interstellar portal area. Instead of the normal line of a dozen people at most, there was a massive queue, including a lot of people who looked like students.
Chaos, I’d known that all the best science students in Delta sector competed for places at prestigious University Hercules. That inevitably meant large numbers of Hercules students had to go and study at the universities on other Deltan worlds. I’d made the nardle-brained assumption that the big rush of students heading off world wouldn’t start until tomorrow morning, forgetting that it could take longer to reach one of the more obscure worlds in Delta sector than for me to get to Earth.
I led my hover bags over to the waiting area, sat on my largest bag, and anxiously took out my lookup to study the routing information for my interstellar portal reservations. The information was displaying everything in interstellar standard Green Time, so I set it to Hercules time instead. The crucial thing for me was getting out of Delta sector in the fifty-one minute window between me becoming legally adult at midnight Hercules time and the restraining order coming into effect.
The display naturally showed the first step on my journey, complete with a helpful graphic of my route through the Hercules Off-world security checks and across the main hall to Interstellar Portal 9. That was due to start dialling my block portal to Delta Sector Interchange 1 at 00:11 Hercules time, and the connection would remain open for thirty-three minutes.
The bad news was that Delta Sector Interchange 1 was on Hathor, and I wouldn’t be arriving in the interchange itself but the main hall of the neighbouring Hathor Off-world. I frowned and tapped the link for the second step on my journey. Another helpful graphic appeared, showing that I needed to follow the corridor linking the main hall of Hathor Off-world to Delta Sector Interchange 1, and then go to the Cross-sector Gate 4 dedicated departure area. Cross-sector Gate 4 was due to start dialling my block portal to Beta Sector Interchange 3 at 00:34 Hercules time, and the connection would remain open until well after my deadline of 00:51 Hercules time.
My big problem was that Hathor Off-world and the Cross-sector Gate 4 departure area were on opposite sides of Delta Sector Interchange 1. Even when I reached Cross-sector Gate 4, I’d have to wait in the queue to go through it, and the queues for cross-sector distance portals were notoriously long. Judging from the length of the line waiting at the security checkpoints here, the queues for cross-sector gates would be even longer than usual.
I groaned. If I was going to stand any chance of getting to Beta sector before my deadline of 00:51 Hercules time, then I needed to be first in line for Interstellar Portal 9 when it started dialling. I threw a despairing look at the queue for the security checkpoints. It was 22:20 now. I’d have to wait well over an hour before I joined the queue, and it was vital that I judged my timing correctly.
If I reached the security checkpoints before I was legally adult, then I’d be turned away. If I reached them too late, then I’d lose crucial time getting through Interstellar Portal 9. The problem was that the queue was moving forward at random intervals, depending on the size of groups and how much luggage they had, so …
Oh nuke. I finally realized there was another complicating factor. The youngest students in the queue, the ones who were about to become adults at midnight like me, all had at least one accompanying parent or guardian to get them through the security checkpoints. There were a lot more unaccompanied young students sitting in the waiting area though. The only reason for them to be out here in the entrance area, rather than sitting in the much bigger waiting areas inside the interstellar portal area, was that they were in the same position as me, having to wait until midnight to go through the security checkpoints.
Chaos, chaos, chaos. If we all joined the queue just before midnight, the whole of the Hercules Off-world entrance area would descend into total confusion, and I’d never make it through the security checkpoints before Interstellar Portal 9 started dialling my block portal. I might not even make it before the block portal ended.
I gazed enviously at the fortunate ones in the queue who had parents helping them get through the security checkpoints. If I called Mother and explained the situation, she might be willing to come and help me, but I couldn’t ask her to risk Father’s fury. I gazed gloomily at the information desk next to the security checkpoints. There was no one there at the moment. As soon as someone appeared, I’d have to tell them my problem and beg for help getting through the security checks. I knew there was little chance of success, because Macall had already tried this last night and been refused, but I had to make the attempt.
I saw a man in a security guard’s uniform walking towards the information desk. By the time I’d stood up, taken my key fob from my pocket, clicked it, and waited for my nine hover bags to gather behind me, a boy had already hurried up to the desk. I went over to join him, but two girls got there first, so I joined the end of the line. I listened anxiously as the boy started talking. I wouldn’t normally eavesdrop on someone else’s conversation, but I suspected that …
“I’m really sorry to trouble you,” said the boy, “but I’ll become legally adult at midnight. I have a reservation for the block portal to Osiris that opens at 23:58 and closes at 00:17. I’m concerned that if I wait until midnight to join the queue for the security checkpoints, I won’t reach my block portal before it closes, so can you let me through a little early?”
I’d thought that the boy was in the same position as me, with a reservation on a block portal opening soon after midnight. This was actually worse. I frowned as I saw the security guard – possibly the same man that Macall had described as officiously unsympathetic – shake his head.
“You can’t go through the security checkpoints into the interstellar portal area alone until you’re legally adult. You’ll need to call a parent or guardian to come and take you through.”
“My mother was supposed to come with me and take me through the security checks,” said the boy. “Sadly, she broke her leg this afternoon, and …”
The security guard interrupted him. “Parents or guardians who are unable to come to Hercules Off-world in person for medical or other reasons can use the Hercules data net to register their consent for an underage person to travel. Your mother will need to list all the relevant block portal reservation numbers when she does that.”
I briefly considered asking Mother to register consent for me, but decided against it. Registering consent on the Hercules data net would avoid the danger of Father seeing her leave the house. The problem was that her consent would be permanently on record, so he’d be bound to discover what she’d done eventually.
“Unfortunately, my mother is still unconscious in surgery,” said the boy, “and …”
The security guard interrupted him again. “That makes four underage adults with parents unconscious in surgery, three with parents unconscious recovering from surgery, and two with parents in full body regrowth tanks. All in the last thirty minutes.”
The boy gave him an appalled look.
The security guard shook his head. “Did you really think that you were the only one running away from home? We get mobbed by runaways every New Year. I’m sure that a lot of you have good reasons for leaving Hercules, but I wish you weren’t such total nardle brains about making your reservations. Even a marsh crawler should realise it’s a mistake to make a reservation for a block portal that opens only a few minutes after you become a legal adult. I’m not even going to comment on the intelligence of runaways who reserve a place on a block portal that opens before they’re legally adult.”
“I didn’t have any choice about that,” said the boy indignantly. “Every other block portal to Osiris in the next three days was fully booked. I can’t wait four days to leave because …”
The security guard lifted his hand to stop him. “There’s no point in explaining your problems to me. It’s illegal for the staff of Hercules Off-world to allow anyone underage through into the interstellar portal area without the consent of a parent or guardian. However, I can inform you that there’s a special information event in progress.”
“What event?” The boy gave him a bewildered look.
“They’re making announcements roughly every fifteen minutes. I suggest you wait for the next one and follow the woman in the red uniform. In fact, I’m guessing that all the other sixteen of you queuing to talk to me are runaways as well, so I’ll save time by suggesting you all follow her.”
Sixteen of us? I peered over my shoulder, and saw there were more boys and girls waiting in line behind me. We all reached a silent group decision, moved away from the information desk, and gathered together in a huddle of hover bags to discuss the situation.
“What did the security guard say?” demanded one of the girls. “I was too far back in line to hear him.”
“We’re supposed to wait for an announcement about a special information event, and then follow the woman in the red uniform,” said the boy who’d talked to the guard.
“What? Why?” asked the girl.
The boy who’d talked to the guard gave a despairing wave of his hands. “I’ve no idea, but I’ve got nothing to lose by doing what the guard said. At any moment, my parents may discover I’ve gone, and portal over here to …”
He was interrupted by a voice coming from overhead speakers. “Those attending the special information event should follow the woman in the red uniform to Group Gathering Area 1.”
I looked urgently around, but the entrance area was so crowded that I couldn’t see any woman in a red uniform. Two of the girls in our huddle had obviously caught a glimpse of her though, because they gave excited yelps and hurried off past the waiting area. The rest of us chased after them, with our trail of hover bags following behind. All the unaccompanied young people sitting in the banks of seating saw us going by, rose hesitantly to their feet, and then responded to our encouraging waves by hurrying to join us.
We swept on through open double doors into a large room with rows of seats facing a wall vid, and I finally saw the woman in what was actually a burgundy uniform. She moved to stand beside a wall vid, tapped her lookup, and the vid responded by displaying a stylized image of a man standing in front of a series of portals. I stared at the image in total disbelief. Surely that was the symbol of the …
The woman in the burgundy uniform lifted a microphone to her lips. “The Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation welcomes you. I am Coordinator Castillo. Please sit down and watch the following information vid closely.”
It took a minute or two for everyone to organize their hover bags into neat groups and sit down, then the wall vid started playing the promised information vid. The stylized man in the symbol of the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation held out his arms towards us in a welcoming gesture, and a presenter’s voice started speaking.
“The Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation is best known for its historical mandate to oversee the interstellar portal network for the benefit of humanity.”
I frowned. Historical mandate seemed to imply there’d been a mass decision by humanity, which had never been the case. From the moment of the first successful portal experiment in 2206, every portal in existence had been directly owned and controlled by the Wallam-Crane Portal Company.
In 2340, Adonis led humanity’s other first fledgling colony worlds into declaring independence and making laws that no Earth company could own property on their worlds. Historians often debated what secret talks had been held between Adonis and the Wallam-Crane family back then, because the Wallam-Crane family rapidly responded by moving their company from Earth to Adonis. The Wallam-Crane Portal Company continued running both the Earth and interstellar portal networks after that, but crucially lost the ability to build new portals in the turmoil of Exodus century.
When new and much simpler interstellar portal technology was developed in Beta sector, with a makeshift decentralized system for organizing the network, the remains of the old Wallam-Crane Portal Company were left as an almost irrelevant charitable foundation until the chimera wars. Somewhere during the battle to save humanity from extinction by the chimera, the legendary hero Tellon Blaze had casually thrown the entire interstellar portal network back into the control of the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation. He’d given a single sentence order to sort out the mess, and for chaos sake build portals with bio filters.
I felt the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation had responded well to the challenge. It rapidly brought in a modified version of the original systems to run the interstellar portal network, but it had obviously taken decades to develop anything approaching modern bio filters.
Father had a major grievance against the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation though, continually grumbling that it hadn’t given sufficient recognition to my great-grandfather’s work on portal physics. If Father discovered where I was right now, then he’d be almost as angry about me watching a Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation presentation as about me trying to leave Hercules.
The animated symbol of the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation on the wall vid was replaced by an even more familiar image of a colossal statue, and the presenter spoke again. “The Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation was given other missions in its original founding charter though, and has continued faithfully carrying them out for centuries. It preserves certain historic buildings for posterity, including the famous Wallam-Crane monument and the Courtyards of Memory on Adonis.”
The image of the statue changed to one of a simple local portal. “It funds scientific research into improvements in portal technology.”
The image changed again, to show a line of people walking through a bulky-rimmed interstellar portal. “The Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation assists those in distress to make a fresh start on a new world. Humanity now has over a thousand established colony worlds in six sectors of space. In the words of the founding charter of the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation, let the stars go dark and civilization crumble before any distressed member of humanity is refused sanctuary on a colony world.”
Now the wall vid showed an image of devastated buildings. “The Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation has a long history of aiding refugees from planetary conflicts.”
I cringed, prepared for a mention of the civil war my great-grandfather started on Freya, but the image changed to show a fireball streaking across a sky. “It assists those driven from their worlds by disasters such the Hera comet situation.”
The final image was of a room exactly like this one, with a crowd of young people sitting watching a wall vid. “The Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation also helps those driven from worlds by personal issues, family problems, and incompatibility with the local planetary culture. The Youth Section of the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation’s Resettlement Division is here to offer you whatever support you need.”
The vid screen returned to showing the symbol of the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation, and Coordinator Castillo started speaking. “We’re assuming that all of you came to Hercules Off-world because you will become legally adult citizens at midnight and wish to leave Hercules as quickly as possible. If anyone isn’t in that category, please raise a hand now. Under cross-sector law, the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation can’t help anyone underage to leave Hercules, but we can refer you to local organizations that will assist you with problems.”
Coordinator Castillo glanced around the room, but there weren’t any raised hands, so she continued speaking. “Many of you will be leaving Hercules for a carefully planned future on another world, and just need help to avoid disapproving parents and reach your interstellar portals on time. We’ll therefore deal with the basic problem of getting you through the security checks first.”
She paused. “You may be aware that organizations taking large groups of travellers off world are encouraged to use the separate group gathering zones and security checkpoints to avoid disrupting the normal operation of Hercules Off-world. Crucially for us, all the individuals in a group go through the checkpoints well ahead of the group departure time, and then remain in a private departure room until their group is ready to enter the interstellar portal area.”
I blinked. I knew that Hercules Off-world had separate gathering areas and security checkpoints for groups – my school had used them for trips off world – but I hadn’t thought they were relevant to my problem.
“I am now offering you the opportunity to join one of several Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation organized groups heading off world,” continued the woman. “This will give you all the benefits of going through the security checks before midnight, waiting in private group departure rooms away from searching parents, and having a priority escort to your interstellar portal.”
She grimaced. “The Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation appreciates that many of you are leaving Hercules for extremely personal reasons. We will not ask you your identity, but those wishing to join one of our groups will need to reveal their portal reservation for leaving Hercules. We need that information to make sure we get you to the right interstellar portal at the right time.”
She paused. “Once you’ve been through the security checkpoints, and reached your group departure room, you’ll be given the opportunity to ask for additional support from one of our counsellors. Again, we will not ask you your identity. Whether you choose to reveal any personal information to our counsellors is entirely up to you, but the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation can offer you a range of support with problems. Temporary accommodation on your destination world. Assistance finding work or making late applications for university courses. Counselling to help you decide whether your initial destination world is right for you, or you want to continue elsewhere.”
She gave everyone an encouraging smile. “Tell us your problem, and we’ll do our best to help. We can even offer personal protection if necessary.”
Coordinator Castillo moved across to stand by a table next to the far door, and picked up some red armbands. “Our armbands all have a unique code number to allow us to organize groups while keeping your true identity completely anonymous. Now, if anyone hasn’t made an interstellar portal reservation yet, they need to collect a red armband from me and go through this door. Someone will be waiting there to assist them.”
I was surprised when three girls and two boys went forward to collect red armbands. Chaos, hadn’t they worked out they’d need reservations to travel at a busy time like Year End? Then I saw the bruises on the face of one of the boys, took in the fact that none of them had more than a shoulder bag for luggage, and realized these five hadn’t expected to be leaving Hercules tonight.
The five people put on their armbands and vanished through the door, then Coordinator Castillo spoke again. “Those with interstellar portal reservations should come forward to collect a black armband when I call out their block portal details.
She paused. “Interstellar Portal 1. Block portal to Osiris opening at 23:58.”
I recognized the boy leading the rush to collect an armband as the one who’d spoken to the security guard. Coordinator Castillo used a handheld gadget to print additional white lettering on some black armbands, handed them out, and then continued working through the interstellar portals in numerical order. Once three people had collected armbands for a block portal opening at Interstellar Portal 8 just before midnight, I was braced ready to get to my feet, but Coordinator Castillo’s next words made me sit back in my seat again.
“Interstellar Portal 8. Block portal to Fenrir opening at 00:24.”
Nobody in the room seemed to want to go to Betan influenced Fenrir.
“Interstellar Portal 9,” said Coordinator Castillo. “Block portal to Hathor Off-world for Delta Sector Interchange 1 opening at 00:11.”
I hurriedly stood up. The block portal to Hathor seemed to be popular, because seven other people stood up as well. I clicked my key fob to start my hover bags following me, and joined the line to collect black armbands. I studied mine after Coordinator Castillo used her printer gadget on it, and saw that the original long code number in pale grey was now followed by much larger white lettering saying “I9, 00:11.”
We headed out of the door, and a man wearing one of the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation burgundy uniforms checked our armbands. “The security checks will obviously include scanning your genetic code and checking your record for problems,” he said. “As part of us respecting your anonymity, we therefore send you through the checkpoints alone. Your group leader will meet you on the other side, and escort you to the appropriate group departure room.”
The man waved us on to a vaguely familiar-looking open area, where uniformed Hercules Off-world security guards were waiting at a line of four security checkpoints. I was just wondering if I’d been through these checkpoints on a school trip, or was remembering a similar set, when I had a dreadful realization. I’d been assuming that the restraining order wouldn’t be listed against my genetic code until it came into effect at midnight Isis time. What if I was wrong though, the security guard saw the pending restraining order, and wouldn’t let me through?
I nervously chose to go through a checkpoint with a young and reasonably sympathetic looking security guard, who smiled encouragingly at me. “There’s no need to look so worried,” he said. “I’m not going to call your mother and tell her that you’re here.”
I was clearly supposed to laugh at this point, but I wasn’t in the mood.
The security guard sighed and pointed at a noticeboard. “Do you have any living creatures, living plants, viable seeds, dried Hercules bullrushes, or other personal items on the prohibited list?”
“Please step into the scanning area,” said the security guard.
I dutifully stepped into the scanning area, and waited nervously as the security guard studied his screens.
“You have a travel restriction on record,” he said.
I instantly started panicking.
“You are currently underage and cannot leave Hercules without the permission of a parent or guardian,” the security guard continued. “I am legally obliged to warn you that you must not enter the interstellar portal area until you become an adult citizen of Hercules at midnight tonight local time. If you attempt to travel interstellar before then, your genetic code will be rejected, the block portal will cut out, and you may be charged for the disruption to interstellar travel schedules. Do you understand?”
The travel restriction was just the one due to my age. I was feeling too sick with relief to answer the security guard, so he asked the question again.
“Do you understand? I need your verbal response on this because of the huge cost of interrupting an interstellar block portal.”
“I understand,” I said.
“I need to scan your bags now.”
As I moved forward to allow my hover bags to enter the scanning area, an alarm sounded, red lights started flashing, and an automated voice spoke. “Viable seeds detected.”
I gazed at my bags in horror. “I spent the day in the Western Marshes. I was careful to have a thorough shower and change clothes afterwards, but some seeds must have got into my luggage.”
The security guard laughed. “That’s not my alarm sounding.”
I finally realized the red flashing lights were coming from the next security checkpoint, where another boy was staring in bewilderment at his hover bags. “There aren’t any seeds in there,” he said.
“My scanners disagree with you,” said the neighbouring security guard. “They’re showing me what looks like a packed lunch with a fruit containing viable seeds.”
“But the fruit is an apple,” protested the boy. “It can’t possibly matter if I take an apple off world, because every world of humanity has apple trees.”
“Every world of humanity has specifically authorized varieties of apple trees,” said the neighbouring security guard. “You can’t take a random apple off world, so you’ll have to open your hover bag and surrender it.”
There was a cough from my own security guard. “I’ve completed scanning your luggage now. You’ve got a lot of hover bags, so you’ll need to keep clicking your key fob as you approach interstellar portals. You don’t want to get a penalty luggage charge for your bags being too slow following you through. There’s also the danger of a bag not making it through an interstellar portal within the control signal loss period and being entirely left behind. I strongly advise setting the bags with the most important contents to be first in line following you.”
“I’m aware of that,” I said. “I’ve already set the priority rankings, and tested they’re working correctly.”
The guard nodded approvingly. “And remember to keep all your hover bags set to alarm mode if you leave them unattended. You don’t want anyone stealing them or putting contraband apples in them.”
This time I did laugh at his joke. I walked forward, hesitated, and then saw the group of six figures standing with a young man in one of the Wallam-Crane uniforms. I hurried towards them, and the man glanced at my armband before nodding. He waited for the owner of the contraband apple to hand it over to a security guard and join us, then started speaking.
“I’m Turner, the party leader for the Wallam-Crane group departing Interstellar Portal 9 at 00:11.”
His drawling accent startled me into speech. “You’re Alphan!”
“Yes,” said Turner. “While Alpha and Beta sector calculate age based on an individual’s date of birth, Gamma, Delta, and Epsilon sectors use the Year Day system. The restrictive social rules in Delta sector inevitably create a rush of Deltan young people attempting to leave their home worlds on Year Day, so a lot of Alphan members of the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation volunteer to come and help.”
He paused. “I’ve got the expected set of eight new additions to my party now, so we can go to our group departure room. Please follow me.”
We headed down a corridor and through some double doors into a large room. I saw a scattering of almost adults were already sitting in two banks of seating facing a wall vid.
“If all you need now is to be escorted to Interstellar Portal 9 in time for your block portal,” said Turner, “then please sit down to wait. Anyone who has any additional problems should remain here with me, and I’ll arrange for them to speak with one of our counsellors.”
Six of our group instantly went to sit down. A girl who just had a single hover bag stayed with Turner. I hesitated before deciding to stay as well. I was getting increasingly worried about the problem of getting out of Delta sector in my time window. I’d worked hard for years to get my chance of studying history on Earth, and couldn’t refuse help that could make the crucial difference in me escaping Delta sector.
I reassured myself that I could tell a counsellor most of the details of my situation. I just needed to make sure I kept my identity secret, because Father was well known on Hercules. However angry I was about him arranging the fake assault charge against me, I didn’t want to risk causing a public scandal that would distress Mother. There was also the complicating factor that our party leader was from Alpha sector, so might have heard about my infamous great-grandfather.
“One of our counsellors is in the side room on our left, waiting to advise you on your problems.” Turner gave the two of us swift assessing looks before nodding at the girl. “You go first.”
The girl hurried over to the side room and went inside.
“Our rule is to always give priority to the people with the smallest amount of luggage,” said Turner. “They’ve usually got the biggest problems. Please take a seat outside the side room, and go in as soon as the other person comes out.”
I nodded, went to sit on one of half a dozen seats by the door of the side room, and checked the time on my lookup. It was still over an hour before midnight, so I should have plenty of time to talk to the counsellor. In fact, I didn’t have to wait very long before the girl came out of the room.
I went into the room myself, and found a woman sitting at a table. People started their annual rejuvenation treatments at thirty, so I found it hard to judge the age of anyone between about thirty and sixty years old, but something about this woman’s posture made me think she was at the high end of that range. She gestured at me to sit down opposite her, and waited for my army of hover bags to organise themselves before speaking.
“I’m Counsellor Bakke. You have nine hover bags, and the organized air of someone that isn’t just running away from home but running to somewhere specific. I’d normally assume you had everything under control, but you came in here because of a problem. How can I help you?”
I was relieved that Counsellor Bakke had a Deltan accent, because it meant she’d understand the situation here better than a visiting Alphan. “I’ve arranged to start a Foundation course on … a world in Alpha sector. The problem is that I’ve been forced to make a last-minute change of plans. When I arrive in Hathor Off-world, I’ll need to get all the way across Delta Sector Interchange 1 to join my block portal from cross-sector Gate 4.”
“You’re joining the block portal to Beta Sector Interchange 3 that opens at 00:34 Hercules time and lasts for 45 minutes?”
I was impressed that Counsellor Bakke knew the interstellar portal schedules by heart. “Yes. It’s a little difficult to explain why, but I have to travel to Alpha sector via Beta sector, and I must get through the cross-sector gate to Beta sector before 00:51.”
Counsellor Bakke gave me an understanding nod. “Ah, your problem is a restraining order that will come into effect at midnight Isis time.”
I stared at her, totally grazzed.
“There’s no need to look at me with a face like a marsh crawler with concussion,” said Counsellor Bakke cheerfully. “It’s relatively common for Deltan parents to take out restraining orders when a new adult attempts to move to another sector. Some Deltan judges will accept the mere fact a new adult is attempting to leave Delta sector is proof that they are mentally or morally incapable of functioning as an independent adult.”
She grimaced. “Even if you made it as far as Alpha sector, your parents could make a cross-sector request that you be returned to their supervision pending a court hearing. It can often take months to sort out the mess, which would wreck your plan to start a Foundation course, so you were wise to decide to travel via Beta sector. Have you already arranged for the Betan court system to deal with your restraining order, or will you need us to help with that?”
I was bewildered. “I don’t understand why I’d want to involve the Betan court system.”
“Beta sector strongly objects to Delta sector using frivolous restraining orders to prevent young people moving to its worlds,” said Counsellor Bakke. “The Betan courts have brought in a high-speed system to deal with the problem. If we report the restraining order the moment you arrive in Beta sector, then you should be able to see a court-appointed psychologist, and be declared a mentally competent adult under cross-sector law within twenty-four hours.”
I gave a dazed shake of my head. “Oh, I see. I’m actually in a slightly different situation. My father has talked a friend into starting a civil action against me, and taking out a restraining order forcing me to remain on Hercules until the court hearing in February. My lawyer can easily prove the whole thing is pure invention, but won’t be able to do that until the court hearing.”
Counsellor Bakke nodded her understanding. “By which time you’ll have lost your Foundation course place. You’re sure that this is a civil action rather than a criminal action?”
“Once you’ve left the legal jurisdiction of Delta sector, you can’t be forced to return to face a civil action,” Counsellor Bakke said briskly. “That means we just need to get you through your cross-sector gate before midnight on Isis, and you’ll be safe so long as you don’t return to Delta sector before your lawyer gets the restraining order dismissed.”
She pulled a rueful face. “In a year with a bigger gap between midnight on Hercules and midnight on Isis, there’d be absolutely no problem getting you to Beta sector. Having only fifty-one minutes is a tighter time limit than we’d like, but we should still manage it.”
Counsellor Bakke glanced at my armband, and then rapidly tapped at her lookup. “I’ve just added your code number to the priority group for Beta Sector Interchange 3. We’ve already got a dozen other people to rush through to Beta sector ahead of restraining orders, as well as several in physical danger who need to get to the protection of our sanctuary centre on Romulus as fast as possible. We’re bound to be adding several more to the group before midnight.”
She reached down to a box on the floor, and handed me a green armband labelled BSI 3. “You’ll need to wear this as well as your existing black armband to show you belong to the priority group.”
I put on the green armband, carefully adjusting it to be next to my black armband rather than covering it.
“I’m also issuing you with a personal alarm.” Counsellor Bakke handed me a small black oval object. “Please don’t test this, but sliding the switch to the on position will trigger an electronic distress signal and a three-minute audible alarm. If you’re inside an off-world or interchange, then security staff should arrive to help you within seconds.”
I frowned down at the personal alarm. “Why do I need this?”
“Because there’s a high risk of restraining order cases turning into sanctuary cases,” said Counsellor Bakke grimly. “Truly controlling parents will do anything to …”
She was interrupted by a soft chime from her lookup, glanced at the screen, and nodded. “If you don’t need any other help, then I have someone else needing to talk to me.”
“Of course. Thank you.”
I thrust my personal alarm into my pocket, and headed out into the main room with my hover bags chasing after me. A dark-haired girl instantly dodged past me, in such a hurry to go into the side room to speak to Counsellor Bakke that the fabric of her wide jacket sleeve brushed against my hand.
The contact was clearly accidental but still shocking. I was turning to call a complaint after the girl, when I saw that our party leader, Turner, was standing in front of the wall vid with everyone else forming a queue down the aisle in front of him. I instantly forgot about the bad-mannered girl, and decided that I should be queuing too. No one in the queue had their hover bags with them, so I set my own hover bags to wait in a group, then went to join the end of the line.
I whispered to the boy in front of me. “I’ve been in the side room talking to the counsellor. What’s going on?”
The boy turned to look at me, and I saw he was wearing a green armband like mine. “We’re queuing up to be scanned,” he said, in a tense, distracted voice.
I frowned. “But we were already scanned when we went through the security checkpoints.”
“Of course we were scanned then,” he said impatiently. “This isn’t part of the Hercules Off-world security checks. Turner has just had a message warning him that a tracking signal is being broadcast from somewhere in this room. He’s trying to find out where it’s coming from, and says that the tracking device is more likely to be on one of us than hidden in our luggage.”
The boy turned to face forwards again. I had a worrying idea, took my personal alarm from my pocket, inspected it, then relaxed and put it back in my pocket again. The switch was definitely still in the off position, so I couldn’t be responsible for triggering this panic. At least, I couldn’t be responsible for it unless Father was tracking me, and that seemed highly unlikely. In Delta sector, it was illegal for parents to track the movements of children over the age of twelve without their knowledge and consent. Many controlling parents did it anyway though, so Valin, Macall, and I had set our lookups to run checks for tracking software, and had bought a cheap detection wand to scan ourselves for tracking devices.
Valin had caught his parents tracking him when he was fourteen, and had agreed not to lodge a complaint so long as they never tried it again, but I’d never found a trace of a tracking device on me. My theory was that Father realized I’d make the opposite decision to Valin, and grab the chance to get a court-appointed guardian to monitor his parental conduct, so he wasn’t risking the potential humiliation.
The queue was moving slowly forwards now. I was worried about exactly what type of scans were being carried out on us, so I stepped sideways to get a view of what was happening at the front of the room. Turner was briefly waving what looked like a perfectly standard detection wand at each person before sending them back to their seats. Reassured that these checks couldn’t possibly reveal my genetic code or any other clues to my identity, I moved back into line.
Once there were only six people ahead of me, I started getting nervous again. Chaos, had I been wrong about Father planting tracking devices on me? Had the detection wand that I shared with Macall and Valin somehow missed finding a device?
I’d had total confidence in our detection wand up until now. While you couldn’t trust cheap wands to detect every type of device, I had some advantages over the average teenager because I attended one of the best-equipped schools on Hercules. I’d taken our detection wand into the school electronics laboratory, and made a few key improvements.
As the number of people ahead of me gradually dwindled from six down to five, then four, and then three, I got increasingly tense. Once there were only two people ahead of me, I finally realized the obvious point. I had some advantages over the average teenager, but Father had even more advantages over the average parent. He could have ordered one of his technicians to make him a special tracking device that evaded all the standard detection methods.
When the boy ahead of me stepped forward for Turner to check him with the detection wand, I was resigned to the inevitable. I still couldn’t believe that Father had been using an undetectable tracking device on me for years. If that was true, then he’d have found out about my secret history studies long ago, and immediately intervened to stop them.
It was far more likely that Father had started tracking me after learning I’d got a place on the University Asgard Pre-history Foundation course. The key question now was whether he was still too busy making calls about great-uncle Alexander to check my whereabouts, or he’d already discovered I was at Hercules Off-world. Father could be searching Hercules Off-world for me right now, and …
A familiar high-pitched beeping interrupted my frantic thoughts, and the boy ahead of me gave a despairing groan. “I checked for tracking devices on my last day at school. My parents must have planted one on me during the Year End holiday.”
I felt a sagging sensation of relief. The tracking device wasn’t on me but on this other boy. I’d been a total nardle brain to think that Father would have planted a tracking device on me now. He wouldn’t care where I went on Hercules. He just wanted to stop me from going to Earth, and he must surely believe that his restraining order had achieved that.
Even if Father had realized the crucial importance of the time zone difference between Hercules and Isis – which was highly unlikely given his habit of ignoring time zones – he wouldn’t have thought that a fifty-one-minute difference would matter. His restraining order would be active long before my original planned departure at 16:24 on Year Day.
If Father hadn’t arrogantly called University Asgard to cancel my course place, then I wouldn’t have had a warning call from Lecturer Playdon. I’d have remained in blissful ignorance of the restraining order until tomorrow. Father would have gloatingly revealed the truth to me at the delayed Year Day meal, when it was too late for me to escape.
Why hadn’t Father realized the danger of someone from University Asgard calling me about the court case? Lecturer Playdon had said something about Father making threats against University Asgard’s lecturers. Father must have thought everyone at University Asgard would be too scared by those threats to risk warning me about his plans. He’d badly misjudged them. At least, he’d badly misjudged Lecturer Playdon.
“Where did my parents hide the tracking device?” demanded the boy.
Turner waved the detection wand over him again, and the bleeping rose to a crescendo when it reached his right side. “It seems to be in your pocket.”
The boy thrust his hand into his pocket, and took out his lookup. “It’s coming from this, isn’t it?” he demanded indignantly. “My parents gave me a new lookup as a Year End present so they could use it to track me!”
Turner used the detection wand on the lookup, and nodded sadly. “I’m afraid so. We can get someone to check the lookup and remove …”
His words came too late. The boy had dropped the lookup on the floor and was savagely stamping on it. Lookups were tough things, designed to survive being dropped or having drinks spilt on them, but there was a limit to the abuse they could take. This one eventually shattered, and the boy picked up the pieces and held them out to Turner.
“Has that stopped the tracking signal?”
Turner tapped at his own lookup, and there was a short wait before I heard a throbbing chime for an incoming message. Turner glanced at the display and nodded.
“There’s no longer a tracking signal coming from this room. You can all relax and sit down again.”
I was heading back to my set of hover bags when one of the girls spoke in an urgent voice. “We need to move somewhere else immediately. That boy’s tracking device may have stopped broadcasting now, but his parents have had plenty of time to portal to Hercules Off-world, work out that he’s hiding in the group area, and pin down his exact position. Right now, they’re probably busy telling all the other parents where we are. They’re all going to come in here after us!”
There were anxious gasps from all around the room, but Turner spoke in a soothing voice. “There won’t be any parents coming in here after you. We’ve been in defensive lockdown ever since the number of almost adults in the entrance area of Hercules Off-world increased to the point that we had to make general announcements rather than approaching them individually.”
“What does defensive lockdown mean exactly?” asked the girl suspiciously.
“It means that Hercules Off-world security guards are positioned ready to stop parents from entering the group area.”
I was startled into asking a question myself. “You mean that the Hercules Off-world security guards are helping us?”
“Hercules Off-world security guards would never assist any underage person to evade the wise guidance of their parents,” Turner glibly recited what sounded like part of an official statement. “However, those security guards obviously cannot allow parents to break the interstellar quarantine regulations essential for protecting the ecology of humanity’s colony worlds. Anyone attempting to enter private group departure areas without first obtaining proper authorization and going through the appropriate security checks can and will be arrested.”
Turner laughed. “Basically, if our Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation parties follow the standard group rules, then the security guards in Off-worlds and Sector Interchanges will co-operate with us. It’s obviously in their interests for us to succeed in getting you peacefully off world. Having widespread conflicts between parents and their newly adult children in the interstellar portal area would cause serious disruption to other interstellar travellers. The situation could easily escalate to the point where the security guards are overwhelmed, and Hercules Off-world is forced into a temporary closure.”
He shrugged. “If Hercules Off-world had to close for even a couple of hours at their busiest time of the year, it would take days for them to get the backlog of stranded travellers to their destinations. There’s also the minor detail that the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation oversees the running of the interstellar portal network. The Resettlement Division obviously isn’t directly involved in that, but the Hercules Off-world security guards still won’t want to annoy us.”
Turner’s lookup chimed again, and he started heading for the door. “I need to collect some more party members now.”
“Wait!” called the boy who’d been tracked by his parents. “We need to know how you plan to get us to Interstellar Portal 9.”
Turner paused by the door to glance back at him. “I’ll explain the full arrangements just before midnight. If I do it now, then I’ll have to keep repeating everything whenever new party members arrive. Please accept that the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation has a lot of experience dealing with the Delta sector Year End issues, sit down, and wait patiently.”
When Turner vanished out of the door, I collected my hover bags and found a seat. I was far too tense to want to chat with anyone. It seemed as if everyone else felt the same way, because we all sat in nervous silence, constantly checking the time on our lookups.
As the minutes slowly went by, Turner collected two more sets of new arrivals, before finally sitting down near the front of the room. By twelve minutes to midnight, we were all pointedly staring at where he was sitting. He finally took the hint and went to stand at the front of the room.
“Anyone wanting to join our block portal should have arrived by now,” he said, “so I’ll explain the arrangements for getting you to Interstellar Portal 9. The group departure zone has several sets of doors linking it to the main hall of Hercules Off-world. Those doors are all locked at the moment, both to protect us from intruders and to make sure no one tries to enter the interstellar portal area before they are legally adult.”
His voice took on a heavy emphasis. “The doors will all be unlocked at midnight. There’ll be seven parties queueing to go through the door reserved for Interstellar Portals 7, 8, and 9. All the queue positions have been carefully chosen to ensure each party gets to their interstellar portal at the ideal time. I understand you’re eager to go off world, but it’s vital that you wait patiently until I lead you through the door into the interstellar portal area. Is that clear?”
By now, I was convinced that my best option was to do exactly what the people from the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation said, so I joined in with the chorus of assent coming from around the room.
Turner gave an approving nod. “The first two parties in the queue will go through the door immediately it unlocks because they’re joining block portals that open before midnight. The third party in line will go through the door at four minutes past midnight. Our party will be fourth in line and won’t be going through the door until eight minutes past midnight. Anyone who forces their way through the queue to rush ahead of us will be making a dreadful mistake. They’ll arrive at Interstellar Portal 9 before our block portal opens, and have to wait around in the standard queue where there’s a danger of having a nasty interaction with their parents. Again, is that clear?”
There was another murmur of assent.
“I will be leading you to Interstellar Portal 9,” Turner continued, “and Counsellor Bakke will bring up the rear. The main hall will be crowded, but we’ll have ample time to reach Interstellar Portal 9 while it’s still dialling the block portal to Hathor and Delta Sector Interchange 1. As soon as the portal is established, a security guard should wave us through ahead of the main queue. If anyone here hasn’t travelled interstellar before, remember to keep clicking your key fob as you go through the portal to avoid losing your hover bags. With virtually all the block portals fully booked, there’s no scope for the security guards to send stray hover luggage after anyone.”
Turner paused to gesture pointedly at me. I assumed that was because I had such a large number of hover bags, and felt myself blush with embarrassment, but Turner’s next comment showed it was actually because of my armbands.
“You’ll probably have noticed some people are wearing a green armband as well as the standard black one. These people have very limited time to join a cross-sector block portal, so you must allow them to go through Interstellar Portal 9 first. As soon as everyone in green group has arrived in Hathor Off-world, I’ll lead them off through Delta Sector Interchange 1 to reach Cross-sector Gate 4. Counsellor Bakke will stay in Hathor Off-world to assist the rest of you with …”
Turner’s lookup chimed, so he glanced at the screen, and immediately scowled. “There’s been a serious incident in the interstellar portal area.”
That comment naturally started us panicking.
“There’s absolutely no need for you to be alarmed,” added Turner hastily.
If anything, telling us that we didn’t need to be alarmed made us more rather than less worried.
Turner seemed to realize he was handling this badly, because he hurried on with his explanation. “A father was accompanying his son through the security checkpoints and on to his block portal, when the boy’s other father and a female relative arrived to object. There was a major argument in the main hall of Hercules Off-world, and the objecting father made a violent attack on the supportive father. The objecting father has now been arrested, but the boy has missed his block portal, and the female relative claims she has guardian status as well. She’s got lawyers making legal threats, so we now have two people joining our party to …”
Turner was interrupted by his lookup chiming again. He checked the display, and then gave a depressed groan. An instant later, Counsellor Bakke appeared from the side room. They exchanged despairing hand waves that gave me the impression they’d both just received the same message, and then Counsellor Bakke hurried out of the main door. We were all staring after her, when Turner started talking again. We hastily faced him to listen.
“Correction. A younger sibling of the boy arrived with the objecting parties, and has strongly expressed her desire to go with the boy and supportive father. That means we’ll have three people joining our party to be rushed to the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation’s sanctuary centre on Romulus ahead of the legal challenges being lodged here on Hercules. Those three people are the boy, his younger sibling, and the supportive father. We’re still not clear about all the details of the family situation, but the supportive father currently has valid guardian status for both the boy and the younger sibling, and we’ll be in a better position to sort out the mess when they’re out of the legal jurisdiction of Delta sector.”
Turner paused. “I’m explaining all this because I don’t want you to be frightened by the fact both the boy and the supportive father have injuries. A doctor has given them emergency treatment, and they’ll receive further medical treatment when they reach our sanctuary centre.”
He sighed. “I also need to warn you that more relatives of the boy have arrived in the main hall of Hercules Off-world. While those relatives are currently behaving peacefully, they may attempt to intercept our party when we head for Interstellar Portal 9. If that happens, you should try not to get involved. The Hercules Off-world security guards are standing by to arrest anyone attempting to prevent …”
Turner’s lookup chimed yet again. “We need to get ready to move,” he said briskly. “I’ll stand by the door. Green group should form up in a line behind me. Only green group for now.”
There was a confusion of jostling hover bags as green group hurried to join him. Once things settled down, I found I was fifth in line behind Turner.
“Everyone else should now move to the far end of the room, and be ready to follow us out of the door,” he ordered.
There was another round of chaos, and then we all stood waiting expectantly for something to happen. After a full minute had passed, we got restless, but then Counsellor Bakke appeared through the door. A man followed her in, his face bloodstained, and a regrowth fluid patch covering the left side of his forehead. He was followed by what had to be the almost adult boy with his left arm in a sling. A girl of about eight brought up the rear, wearing an incongruously sparkling Year End party dress with tinsel adorned wings, and aggressively brandishing an ornate wand. I noted that all three of them were wearing both green and black armbands.
Counsellor Bakke ushered the three new arrivals into line immediately behind Turner, gave a rapid look at the rest of us, and then pointed a forefinger at me. “Please move up to the head of the line and join the new arrivals.”
“Me?” I said in confusion. “Why me?”
“Because I know you have a good understanding of sector-related legal issues and restraining orders. There hasn’t been time for me to explain them to these people, and both Turner and I will be busy organizing the group from now on, so you can answer their questions.”
“Oh,” I said doubtfully. “Well, I suppose I can try to answer their questions.”
There was some hasty shuffling of people to allow me and my herd of hover bags to move to stand behind the new arrivals.
Turner was frowning at the boy who had his arm in a sling. “My message said that you had a set of hover bags with you, but you don’t seem to have any luggage at all.”
There was a babble of voices in response. “My son had a set of hover bags holding all his possessions,” said the man bitterly, “but my husband claimed that he paid for the hover bags, and …”
“I don’t care about Dad S taking my things,” interrupted the boy, in a shaken voice. “I just want to get out of here without any more fights.”
“If Dad S tries hitting people again,” announced the eight-year-old grimly, “I’m turning him into a reed frog until he learns to behave.”
Counsellor Bakke waited for them to quieten down before speaking. “We’ve got the hover bags in safekeeping. Someone is repacking the contents into different bags right now, so we can send the hover bags themselves to their owner. When you reach the sanctuary centre, they can arrange for someone to collect any other possessions from …”
Counsellor Bakke was interrupted by a chime from Turner’s lookup. “That’s our order to move into position,” he said briskly. “Everyone, follow me!”
Counsellor Bakke vanished off to the back of the line, and Turner led us out into the corridor. We followed him as he turned right down the corridor, left into another corridor, and then stopped behind another group.
Turner spoke into his lookup. “Party for Interstellar Portal 9, block portal to Hathor and Delta Sector Interchange 1, is in position 4 in the queue.”
I heard a muffled voice reply. Another group arrived a moment later, blocking the corridor behind us, and then a crackling sound made me look up in alarm. Music started blasting out from overhead speakers, and we all covered our ears defensively. A second later though, the volume dropped to a more reasonable level. We heard the last two verses of the song that got played to death every Year End, I’ll Be Meeting You on Year Day, and then a presenter’s voice spoke.
“It’s now two minutes to midnight, Hercules Time. Please join everyone here at the Hercules Rolling News party in singing Old Lang Zine.”
The achingly familiar music started playing, and a group of amateur but enthusiastic voices sang an approximation of words that dated back to centuries before Language was adopted as a common tongue of humanity. If anything, the fact that some of the individual words were similar to modern ones just made their exact meaning more confusing. That didn’t matter though. The power of this song didn’t come from its words, but from the nostalgia it triggered in the singers and the people who heard it, bringing back thoughts of the places and the people that they’d left behind.
A few people in our group joined in the singing, but most of us listened in silence. Right now, our nostalgia for what we were leaving behind on Hercules was in direct conflict with our desire to escape off world. When the song ended though, and the countdown to midnight started, we yelled the numbers along with the people at the Hercules Rolling News party, building up to a climax as the last few seconds passed.
“Three! Two! One! Happy Year Day 2789!”
The presenter promptly started talking again. “We’ll be singing Old Lang Zine again in fifty-one minutes from now, when midnight on Isis completes the New Year sequence in Delta sector, and a third time when midnight interstellar standard Green Time officially moves the whole of humanity into 2789. For now though, we’re playing you more of …”
We lost all interest in what the presenter was saying. The doors leading from the group area to the main hall of Hercules Off-world must have been unlocked at the exact moment of midnight Hercules time, because the group ahead of us were moving.
We only moved a frustratingly short distance down the corridor before the group ahead of us stopped, which meant we had to stop as well. “The first two groups in line have gone through the door to the main hall,” called out Turner. “That means there’s only one group ahead of us now. They’re due to go through the door at four minutes after midnight, while we have to wait until eight minutes after midnight to minimize our time spent in the interstellar portal area.”
There was a discontented rumble in response. We all understood that it was safer for us to wait in here, but couldn’t help being eager to reach the interstellar portal that was our route to freedom.
The overhead speakers played another familiar Year End song, and then the man with the bloodstained face turned to me. “We were told it was vitally important that we left Delta sector as quickly as possible. My sister-in-law’s lawyers are making ridiculous statements about my son and myself being morally incompetent, and trying to take out restraining orders. My husband is challenging my custody rights over my daughter as well, so I’m very grateful for these people arranging portal reservations for us and promising us legal help.”
He sighed. “I’ve no idea why we’re being sent to Beta sector though. If we have to go somewhere outside Delta sector, then Gamma sector would be far more suitable. Someone said earlier that you could explain everything to us.”
“Well, I only know a little about these things,” I said nervously, “but I’ve been told that the courts in Beta sector are especially helpful about dismissing morality based restraining orders.”
The man nodded. “I can see why Beta sector might be helpful with that, but I’m afraid I could be facing criminal charges as well. My sister-in-law was lying to the security guards, and claiming I was the one who attacked my husband rather than the other way around. She wants to have me arrested and dragged off to prison.”
“Criminal charges would be a much bigger problem than restraining orders,” I said, “but there are a lot of security precautions in interstellar portal areas. There must be vid recordings somewhere that prove your husband did the attacking.”
“I suppose that’s true,” said the man, “but I’ve no idea how I’d get hold of those vids.”
“I’m sure the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation can get hold of the vids for you. They’ve got a lot of influence.”
The man seemed startled. “You mean the people in red uniforms belong to the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation?”
The boy joined in the discussion. “Don’t you remember that was the first thing they said to us?”
The man touched the regrowth patch on his forehead. “I must have missed that. I was still a bit blurry from being hit on the head.”
“I think the Hercules Off-world doctor should have given you more scans before saying you were fit to travel,” said the boy anxiously.
“I’m fine now,” said the man. “You’re the one in pain with a broken arm.”
“The meds have stopped my arm from hurting now.”
“I can magic the arm better for you.” The eight-year-old helpfully waved her wand at her brother.
At this point, the group ahead of us started moving again, and I watched enviously as they vanished off through a door into the main hall of Hercules Off-world. Turner led us forward after them, but stopped when he reached the door, and lifted his right hand in a stop signal to emphasize that we had to wait here for now.
I was checking the time on my lookup when there was a musical chime. By now, everyone in our party recognised that particular throbbing note as coming from Turner’s lookup. We all looked at him in expectant silence.
“Interstellar Portal 9 is currently receiving a fully-booked incoming block portal from Heimdall,” Turner reported. “We’ve just been warned that some disruption in Heimdall Off-world interrupted the flow of people through the portal. The incoming block portal will have to overrun its scheduled slot by five minutes to let the rest of the queue come through. That’s obviously going to delay Interstellar Portal 9 dialling our outgoing block portal, so we now won’t be moving into the main hall until thirteen minutes after midnight.”
There was a mass groan from everyone around me, but I was too busy doing frantic mental calculations to make a sound. I’d only had forty minutes from when Interstellar Portal 9 started its dialling sequence to go through it to Hathor Off-world, get to the other side of Delta Sector Interchange 1, and go through Cross-sector Gate 4 to safety in Beta sector. That had already been dangerously little time, and now I’d lost five priceless minutes.
“A five-minute delay shouldn’t be a problem,” added Turner hastily, “but the group currently behind us now need to go into the main hall two minutes before us to reach Interstellar Portal 7 on schedule. We’re going to have to change places with them.”
It took a long time for two large groups of people and their luggage to squeeze past each other in the narrow confines of the corridor without committing the social crime of physical contact. The party leaders had only just finished checking they had all the right people and hover bags in their parties, when the group for Interstellar Portal 7 headed off through the door.
I was counting the seconds before it was time for us to go after them, when I was startled by the door in front of us opening and someone coming in from the other side. A woman in Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation uniform led in a group of battered hover bags, and held out a key fob to Turner.
“Luggage for your injured group members.”
Turner accepted the key fob, and then turned to look doubtfully at the man and boy. “Can one of you handle controlling a set of hover bags during the trip?”
“Yes,” said the boy firmly, and took custody of the key fob.
The woman handed a mysterious long tube-like object to Turner, then turned to leave. As she went through the door, I caught a tantalizing glimpse of the main hall of Hercules Off-world. I exchanged frustrated looks with the girl behind me in the queue, but we only had to wait another thirty seconds before Turner’s lookup chimed. He instantly did something to the tube-like object that made it start glowing a lurid green.
“We are moving now!” Turner yelled at the top of his voice, then waved the long glowing tube over his head. “Follow the green beacon!”
The longed-for moment was here at last. Turner led us through the door into the main hall, and I saw it was far more crowded than on my previous visits to Hercules Off-world. There were so many people hurrying to and fro, all of them involved in a complex dance to dodge each other, that I couldn’t work out exactly where we were. I just blindly followed Turner, who was striding confidently along, brandishing his eye-catching green beacon high in the air.
A moment later, I saw the main hall’s waiting area was directly ahead of us. We just needed to get past that to reach the line of interstellar portals. I could actually see the sign for Interstellar Portal 9 hanging from the ceiling at the far end of the hall.
The problem was that the waiting area here was nearly as crowded as the one out in the entrance to Hercules Off-world. The seats were all filled with people, and groups of hover luggage were blocking the aisles. Turner made the sensible decision, and didn’t attempt to get our group straight down an aisle to reach Interstellar Portal 9, but led us the long way around the side of the waiting area instead. When we finally approached Interstellar Portal 9, I saw we’d arrived precisely on time. The portal’s lights were flashing in a dialling sequence, and a long queue of people was waiting to go through.
Turner exchanged hand signals with the security guard standing next to the portal, then led us up to form a second line parallel to the main queue of people. They all turned their heads to look at us, with expressions varying from curious to resentful.
“Make sure that everyone with a green armband is at the front of the line,” Turner yelled at us. “Green group must follow me through the portal as fast as possible, because I’ve got very little time to get them to their cross-sector block portal.”
I turned to look back at the people behind me, and saw a woman come running diagonally across from the waiting area, with two men chasing after her. I realized what was happening just as the boy with the broken arm gave a warning cry.
“That’s my nuking aunt, and she’s brought my two cousins as well!”
I instinctively moved to block the woman’s path. She tried to dodge past me to reach the boy, so I spread my arms as wide as possible, and whistled a location order in machine speak to send my hover bags into formation on either side of me. I heard the eight-year-old girl start wailing in distress behind me. She’d clearly been using the comforting fantasy of having an all-powerful magic wand to shelter herself from recent traumatic events, but the sight of her aunt had dragged her back to nightmare reality.
“Get out of my way!” the aunt snarled at me.
Turner had said there’d be Hercules Off-world security guards standing by, and we should let them deal with the situation. I could only see one security guard here though, and he was busy checking the dialling sequence of Interstellar Portal 9, so I held my ground.
The two men, presumably the boy’s cousins, had caught up with the aunt now. They seemed worried about what was happening, and held back, clearly waiting for the aunt to decide what to do next. She made another attempt to dodge past me, but failed because several other members of green group were copying me now, moving to form a defensive line on either side of me with their arms stretched out.
“Get out of my way!” the aunt ordered again, and took a threatening step toward me so I could feel her angry breath on my face as she yelled the words a third time. “Get out of my way!”
Hercules was especially strict about the Deltan rules on keeping a respectful distance from other people to avoid accidental physical contact, only making a few allowances for the behaviour of young children. I still regularly hugged Mother, there’d been a time when Danika and I were younger when we’d casually hugged each other as well, but I couldn’t remember ever hugging Father. There’d been the one disastrous attempt to hold my girlfriend’s hand, and today Valin, Macall, and I had shaken hands.
Other than that, I’d experienced some necessary physical contact during my medical treatment, and occasionally someone had accidentally brushed against me like the girl had done earlier today, although she was the first person I’d ever known to be so shockingly rude as to hurry on her way without giving an abject apology for the transgression. I was lucky that I’d only had one encounter with the sort of loathsome person who lurked in crowded places, getting a thrill from deliberately touching a stranger on a private part of their body before running away.
I’d never known any situation like this, and had no idea how to deal with it. I instinctively took a step backwards, with my hover bags faithfully retreating as well to stay in line beside me. When the woman advanced to scream at me again, I was on the edge of stepping aside to let her go past me, but I heard the eight-year-old girl repeating the same panicky words over and over behind me.
“I don’t like this. I don’t like this. I don’t like this.”
Valin, Macall, and I had deliberately chosen to apply to a Gamma sector course because we wanted a life where people were more relaxed about physical contact. Our school had given our class preparation lessons before our first school trip off world, warning us that we would encounter people from other sectors on our journey, and those people would have far less awareness of personal space than us. My friends and I had been prepared for our new life on Earth to mean not just people allowing us less personal space, but all the things Valin and I had seen in Gamma sector vids and Macall had experienced as a child. The other students would be squeezing past each other in narrow corridors, patting their friends on the shoulder, and holding out a hand to help someone get up.
The solemn handshakes between me, Valin, and Macall had symbolized our willingness to adapt to that new way of living. I hadn’t expected to be in a situation like this before I even left Delta sector, with a woman screaming her fury an inch from my face. If I backed down now though, I’d be allowing the aunt and the two men through to bully two injured people and a terrified child.
“Get the nuke out of my face!” I screamed back at the aunt.
As she recoiled a step, I finally remembered I’d been given a personal alarm. I thrust my right hand into my pocket, felt the smooth oval shape of the alarm, and pulled it out. As I moved the switch to the on position, the alarm started making a painful piercing sound. The passing crowds of people turned to stare at us, and the aunt screeched at me in a fury and advanced again.
“Turn that noise off at once!” The aunt reached out and tried to grab the alarm from my hand, but I wouldn’t let go of it.
The girl standing next to me shouted at the aunt. “So, you’re one of those people who get their thrills from touching strangers. Get away from us, pervert!”
I was startled to see that the complaint about touching was coming from the same dark-haired girl who’d brushed against me earlier without apologizing. It seemed rather hypocritical for her to complain about others touching strangers. The accusation, combined with the disgusted contempt in her voice, was instantly effective though.
The aunt hastily stepped back, and her face flushed with embarrassment. She’d just started gabbling a self-justifying sentence, when a group of four security guards came running up. Their leader shouted out to me.
“Please turn off your alarm now.”
I hastily switched off the alarm and dropped it back into my pocket.
“Are these three people members of your party?” the lead security guard asked in a more normal voice.
“No,” I said. “You can see that they don’t have armbands. They’ve been trying to stop some of our party members from going through Interstellar Portal 9.”
Turner appeared from behind me. “There was supposed to be a team of security guards waiting for us to make sure we didn’t have any problems,” he said reproachfully. “Don’t you remember what happened last year, and how you said I must never personally intervene in an incident again?”
The lead security guard gave a despairing wave of her hands. “I will remember what happened last year until I reach my hundredth, Turner. I’d never seen anyone use a carton of tomato soup as an offensive weapon before, and still have nightmares about the way it exploded when it hit the interstellar portal. I had my team here waiting for your group’s arrival, but we had to go and sort out a fight at Interstellar Portal 2.”
She paused. “Now, can you confirm the statement that these people have been trying to prevent members of your party from travelling?”
“Yes,” said Turner.
“That woman was pushing her mouth right up to this boy’s face,” the dark-haired girl pointed at me, and spoke in a voice that had a dramatic throbbing note of horror. “I think she was trying to kiss him! When he set off that alarm to defend himself, she grabbed hold of his hand as well.”
The security guard pointed at the cousins. “Were these two men involved in the assault?”
“Those two didn’t assault anyone themselves,” said the girl, in a withering voice. “They just stood there watching the woman do it.”
“We were so horrified by our mother’s behaviour that we didn’t know what to do,” said one of the cousins hastily.
“And we would like to leave right now,” added the other cousin.
“That’s definitely your safest course of action,” said the security guard.
The two men went scurrying off like marsh crawlers fleeing a Herculean hawk, and the security guard turned to face the aunt. “As soon as I’ve checked the security vids of this area, you’ll be facing charges of disrupting interstellar travel, breaking public decency laws, attempted assault, actual assault, and …”
There was a shout from the security guard standing next to Interstellar Portal 9. “Hathor Off-world confirms the block portal has successfully established. Priority group, please start moving through now.”
I turned in time to see the injured man usher his son and daughter through the portal, then vanish through after them. Turner hurried up to the portal himself, waving his glowing beacon and shouting a last couple of instructions.
“My party, follow me! Green group first!”
Those of us who’d formed the defensive line hastily started clicking our key fobs to call our hover bags together, and joined the rest of green group heading through Interstellar Portal 9. There was a brief instant of disorientation as I stepped from Hercules Off-world to Hathor Off-world, and the Year End music being played from overhead speakers abruptly changed from one familiar tune to another, while the air took on a faint scent of mint. I felt oddly weary, either because Hathor had a noticeably higher gravity than Hercules, or because of the stressful encounter with the aunt.
I kept clicking my key fob as I hurried clear of the portal arrival zone, paused to check all my hover bags were still with me, then carried on to where green group was gathering around Turner. He had his eyes fixed on the portal we’d just come through, counting each member of green group as they appeared. The dark-haired girl who’d yelled accusations at the aunt arrived and came to stand next to me. I gave her a concerned look.
“I hope that you weren’t too upset by that woman’s behaviour. I don’t think she was actually trying to kiss me. She’d just completely lost her temper and was trying to force me to step aside.”
The girl laughed. “Of course I wasn’t upset. Deltans, especially the ones on Hercules, are obsessed with avoiding touching people, but I’m not. I was just putting on a horrified act because it was the best way to stop her from physically forcing her way past us.”
I gave her a grazzed look. “You mean that you aren’t Deltan?”
Now I understood the way this girl had brushed against me earlier. She was Betan, and had forgotten all about the Hercules rules on personal space in her hurry to talk to the counsellor.
“When my parents divorced, my mother won the custody battle,” the girl continued cheerfully. “I’ve been stuck in dreary Delta sector for the last eighteen months, constantly getting scolded about my shameless behaviour, but now I’m going home to …”
“Green group is all here now!” yelled Turner. “Follow me!”
We chased after the glowing green beacon, with our hover bags trailing behind us. Hathor Off-world was mercifully less crowded than Hercules Off-world had been, but we still had to keep dodging our way past other groups of people. I was reaching for the specially designed pocket that held my lookup, intending to check the all-important time, when I heard a voice wail from the back of the line.
“Turner, you’re going the wrong way! The signs say that Delta Sector Interchange 1 is over to our right.”
I gave a panic-stricken look to my right, and saw the signs pointing to Delta Sector Interchange 1, but Turner kept marching on in as straight a line as possible. “Follow me!” he ordered again. “There isn’t time for us to follow the standard route to Cross-sector Gate 4, so we’re taking a short cut.”
Turner had got us to Interstellar Portal 9 precisely on schedule. If he said that there wasn’t time for us to follow the standard route to Cross-sector Gate 4, then I believed him. Everyone else seemed to believe Turner too, because we all kept hurrying after him.
The overhead speakers startled me by finishing one traditional Year End song and then going straight on into Old Lang Zine. Chaos, it was only minutes since we’d celebrated the New Year on Hercules, and now it was the New Year on Hathor. All around us, people were stopping to sing along with the music, but we kept hurrying on towards …
Well, we seemed to be heading straight for one of the walls of Hathor Off-world. As we got closer, I expected to see a corridor ahead of us, but there was just an unobtrusive door marked “Staff only.”
We slowed in confusion, but a security guard suddenly hurried over to the door, opened it, and waved us inside. “Take the blue route,” he yelled to be heard over the music.
We followed Turner into a corridor with several different coloured lines painted on the floor. There wasn’t any music playing here, so we hurried silently on to a corridor junction. The blue and yellow lines turned right here, so we turned right as well. A little later, the yellow line turned left down a side corridor, but the blue line went straight on. As we went past the side corridor, I was startled to see a much smaller Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation group waiting for us to go by. When they saw us looking at them, they punched the air and yelled in unison.
“Let the stars go dark!”
We gave bewildered waves in response. Once we’d continued out of earshot, I heard one of our group asking questions in a confused voice.
“What was going on there? Why were they shouting, and why were some of them wearing togas?”
Turner kept striding on down the corridor, but called back over his shoulder. “That was a Betan group celebrating reaching Delta sector. They’re a much smaller group than us because Betans become legally adult on the anniversary of their actual date of birth. There’s a spike of cases around Year Day because of all the university courses starting, but nothing like the spikes in Delta and Gamma sectors.”
“I don’t understand why Betans would be coming to Delta sector,” said the boy with the broken arm. “We were told that your sanctuary centre on Romulus in Beta sector was the safest place.”
“You are a physical danger case,” said Turner. “Given you’d only intended to go to another world in Delta sector, we’d normally have sent you to one of our Deltan sanctuary centres. The legal custody complications mean that the sanctuary centre on Romulus is the safest place for you, but we have to help people from a host of different worlds and sectors.”
He paused. “The basic rule is that it’s easier to challenge legal rulings based on moral values if you’re in a different sector with an opposing culture. We generally use sanctuary centres in Beta sector for refugee Deltans, and sanctuary centres in Delta sector for refugee Betans. There’s a similar, but rather more complicated exchange between Alpha, Gamma, and Epsilon sectors.”
Turner shrugged. “Most of the people in that Betan group won’t be physical danger or legal cases though. They’re either clanless rejects wanting to make a fresh start in a new sector, or have a personal incompatibility with Betan culture. No single world or sector can be perfect for everyone. Well-meaning Betan clans will try to help with incompatibility issues rather than lose a clan member, but well-meaning help can sometimes cross the line into abusive attempts to force someone to change their fundamental nature. Whether their clans like it or not, Betans who have no interest in sex, find random physical contact deeply disturbing, or hate living in a clan hall crowded with relatives, may be far happier moving to a world in Delta sector.”
“I can see that’s true,” said the boy, “but what happens when …”
He broke off his sentence because Turner had stopped by a blue door in the corridor wall and was opening it. We followed him through to a cavernous hall where people were chanting numbers. “… Four! Three! Two! One! Happy Year Day 2789!”
“Happy Year Day 2789!” Our group joyfully joined in the shouting, because we could see the great Cross-sector Gate 4 ahead of us, with its power booster units clustered around it. There was a worryingly long queue waiting to go through the gate though, and more people were streaming out of a corridor and joining the end of the line.
A security guard spotted our group coming, and hurried up to speak to Turner. “I hope all your party members have reservations, because we’re down to our last six available spots on this block portal.”
“Everyone has reservations,” said Turner, “but we must get them all through the cross-sector gate before 00:09 Hathor time, or we’ll have rejections from restraining orders disrupting the block portal.”
The security guard gave an assessing look at the queue. “The big group heading for Zeus has already started going through, so I’ll have to get you into line after them. Follow me!”
The security guard led us up to the moving line of people, and held up an imperious hand to bring the rear of the queue to a standstill. A minute later, there was a big enough gap for our group and our hover luggage to join the line. We headed towards Cross-sector Gate 4 at a slow walk, then Turner vanished through it, followed by the man with the bloodstained face, the eight-year-old girl brandishing her magic wand, and the boy with the broken arm.
I was in fifth place, hurrying joyfully forward to the bulky upright ring. I’d made it to Cross-sector Gate 4 in time, with a lot of help from the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation of course. I imagined how furious Father would be if he knew the Wallam-Crane Charitable Foundation had helped me escape his restraining order and follow my dream of studying history.
I gave a last hasty click of my key fob to make sure I kept my crowd of hover bags close to my heels as I stepped through Cross-sector Gate 4. The feeling of disorientation on the cross-sector distance portal jump was far stronger than with mere interstellar distances, so I staggered as I stepped out of the portal, but recovered my balance.
There was a blurry instant, where I was aware of the air tasting faintly of ginger, crowds of people dressed in togas and party clothes, and voices using odd words that had to be Betan dialect. As I hurried clear of the portal arrival zone, with my hover luggage chasing after me, the sounds of conversation were drowned out by overhead speakers playing the first notes of Old Lang Zine.
I gave a shaky laugh. I’d already celebrated the arrival of Year Day 2789 on both Hercules and Hathor. Now I was about to celebrate it a third time on Romulus in Beta sector.
© 2021 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.
If anyone is wondering about an apparent inconsistency between the temporary ending of the serial story and events in Earth Girl, the final extended version of Deltan Escape will include some crucial events that happen after this and before Fian arrives on Earth.
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