STATUS UPDATE:-Chapters One to Four have been posted.
PLEASE NOTE:- This is a serial story being posted in rough first draft, so comes with a warning that there may be continuity and other errors.
A new chapter will appear each Sunday until the middle of March when the serial will reach a temporary end point.
The serial will then remain 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.
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.
© 2021 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.
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