The End, and the New Beginning

SPOILER WARNING!!!

EARTH PRIME EBOOK COVERThe End, and the New Beginning is set after the Earth Girl Trilogy and includes spoilers for all three books. Please read AFTER Earth Flight.

IMPORTANT NOTE :- This was posted as an unpolished serial story while it was being written. It will be removed from this website on 24 May 2020 to be trimmed, polished and eventually published in a collection with some other stories set after Earth Flight.

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The End, and the New Beginning

 A Portal Future Short Story featuring Jarra Tell Morrath.

The End, and the New Beginning is set on Earth. It begins two days after the end of Earth Flight. Please note that there are currently two Earth Girl prequel novellas, Earth and Fire and Earth and Air, with a future third novella, Earth and Water, planned to complete the set. This story contains references to one of the events in Earth and Water.

Part 1

Earth Europe, 17 November 2789

It was two days after I’d accepted the symbolic torch of Alpha sector from Aadi Quilla Amarion on behalf of the citizens of Earth. The ceremonies, firework displays, and celebrations to mark Earth officially joining Alpha sector were over, and the Asgard 6 Pre-history Foundation course was finally returning to the regular routine of dig site life. When Fian, Raven, and I went into the dome accommodation hall to eat breakfast, we found half of our classmates were already sitting around tables, eating and chattering loudly.

Raven stopped in the doorway to follow his usual ritual of studying everyone present, and then using a scanner to check the hall for threats. Fian led the way on to the food dispensers, glanced at the available menu, and groaned.

“Oh, chaos! The food processors have run out of orange flavoured Fizzup.”

I was abruptly overwhelmed by emotion, made a choking sound, and buried my face in my hands.

“Is something wrong, Jarra?” asked Fian anxiously.

I lifted my head again. “No. Everything is perfect. All the dramatic events are over. We’re back to being ordinary archaeology students. We’re going to spend the day excavating ruins on Berlin Main Dig Site.”

I gave a sigh of satisfaction. “We’re living a normal life again, where the food processors running out of the most popular flavour of Fizzup is a major crisis. That’s not just amaz. It’s totally zan.”

Fian gave me an indulgent smile. “There was never anything ordinary about you, Jarra. There’s nothing normal about our lives now either. A Foundation class wouldn’t usually be allowed near a high hazard dig site like Berlin, and we’ve still got a Military Security bodyguard trailing around after us.”

I didn’t want to think about the fact we needed to hide on an inaccessible dig site, and have Military Security protection, because there were still people trying to kill us. I stared down at my hands, saw the flickering lights under my skin, and hastily looked up again. I didn’t want to think about the fact my life depended on an implanted artificial web controlling my immune system either.

“Far more importantly,” Fian continued, “on Year Day 2790 we’re going to join one of the first-ever xenoarchaeological research teams, and go to Fortuna in Zeta sector to help excavate the ruins of an alien civilization.”

Alien civilizations were also on the list of things I didn’t want to think about, so I gave an urgent shake of my head. “I want to forget all about the future, and concentrate on the fact life is going to be relatively normal and uneventful for a while. After everything we’ve been through this year, facing one crisis after another, I desperately need a break where things are normal and uneventful.”

Fian’s face abruptly twisted in pain. “I can understand you feeling this year was just one crisis after another, and wanting life to be uneventful. I’ve got a completely different view of things, because I had to endure three agonizingly uneventful months while you were unconscious in a full body regrowth tank. Three months of waiting in suspense to discover if you’d live or die, and picturing two contrasting futures. The jubilant one where you lived and dragged me into more dramatic events, and the bleak and lonely one where you died.”

I reached out to take his hand. “I’m fine, Fian. We’re both fine. You can forget all about those months of waiting. You can forget about dramatic events too. Things are going to be different from now on. The two of us are going to be archaeologists and live peaceful lives.”

He shook his head. “Things are never going to be different when I’m with you. We’re never going to live peaceful lives. You’re always going to get drawn into the heart of every dramatic event in human history, and quite probably be the catalyst that triggered them.”

I frowned. “What’s a catalyst?”

“It’s a scientific term for a substance that speeds up the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed by it.”

“I’ve still no idea what you’re talking about.” I wrinkled my nose. “You should know by now that there’s no point in going all scientific at me. The mere mention of the science word makes me think about the bullying science teacher I had at school, and my brain shuts down in protest.”

Fian sighed. “Forget about the catalyst thing. I’m just saying that I know there’ll never be any peace when you’re around. You’ll always be charging from one crisis to the next.”

I felt a sick feeling in my stomach. “Are you saying that you don’t want to be with me any longer?”

“No!” Fian gave a violent shake of his head, that sent his long blond hair flying around his shoulders. “I’m saying the opposite. I’m saying that I spent three months picturing my possible futures, and I made a decision. Wherever you go, whatever disaster you get caught up in next, I’ll be sprinting in your wake.”

He smiled. “I’ve learned that being with you, even if we’re being chased by someone brandishing a laser cutter, is infinitely better than being without you. When you were in that tank, I swore that if you came out of it alive, then I’d never complain about anything again. I had a long conversation with General Torrek about it.”

I blinked. “You did?”

“Yes. He said that he knew exactly how I felt, because he’d been in the same situation himself. Your grandmother had dragged him on a wild ride through every trouble spot in humanity’s space for four decades. He told me he’d vowed a dozen times that if they survived the current situation then he’d never complain about anything again. Of course, he always did complain, and constantly wondered how he’d ever become part of a life like that, while knowing he wouldn’t change it for all the wealth of Adonis. I’m going to be exactly the same.”

Fian hesitated for a second. “General Torrek also said that he regretted not telling you more about his relationship with your grandmother. He thought you weren’t ready to have the conversation before you were in that tank, and didn’t want to use his position to pressure you into anything, but I think he’d deeply appreciate you raising the subject with him now.”

General Torrek was right. I hadn’t been ready to have that conversation before my months in the tank. I still wasn’t ready to have it now. In fact, I would never be ready to have a discussion that would be both impossibly painful and utterly pointless. I’d already learned everything I needed to know about Riak Torrek’s relationship with my grandmother.

I’d always been chaos bad at discussing my emotions with anyone else. I often couldn’t make sense of them myself, but this time I understood my feelings perfectly. I’d been raised in the impersonal residences of Hospital Earth, both hating the family that had abandoned me and longing to know them. I’d only had the briefest of contacts with my parents before they were killed in action, and I desperately wanted General Torrek to be my long lost grandfather, but he wasn’t.

If I’d never seen an image of my father’s face or learned his surname, I could have carried on hoping and dreaming, but I had to accept the true facts. Seeing the record of my grandmother’s marriage on the Tell clan family tree had made things even worse. Now I knew exactly how close my dream had come to being reality.

I was a member of my birth clan now, with Betan citizenship, and according to the culture and laws of Beta sector genetic details shouldn’t matter to me. I’d been raised on Earth though, so they did matter. They mattered a lot. So much that I couldn’t bear to discuss them with either Fian or General Torrek.

I tried to keep my emotions out of my voice as I spoke. “General Torrek is the commanding officer of the Alien Contact programme. He must be incredibly busy organizing the expedition to Fortuna, and I can’t possibly demand he wastes his time chatting to me about my grandmother.”

Fian’s face took on a familiar stubborn expression. “I don’t think General Torrek would feel that talking to you was a waste of time. You should at least consider …”

There was a pointed cough, and the quiet female voice of Kai interrupted Fian. “Do you realize there’s a queue of people waiting to get to the food dispensers?”

The distinctively cynical tones of Hinata joined in. “Yes. You two should either get your meals now, or go somewhere else to finish this discussion about your love life. The rest of us would like to get our breakfasts before we starve to death, and I’m dreading the inevitable moment when Jarra starts giggling.”

Fian and I exchanged appalled glances, and swung round to face what turned out to be a line of six people. “Sorry,” we chorused in unison.

“You shouldn’t have interrupted them, Kai,” complained Steen. “I was enjoying listening.”

I groaned, and hastily turned back to the food dispenser to order some strawberry flavoured Fizzup, and a plate of Karanth jelly and toasted wafer. The second they appeared, I grabbed them and moved aside to wait for Fian. A moment later, he had his meal too, and came to join me.

“I hope Steen doesn’t sell details of our conversation to the newzies,” I muttered. “I haven’t forgotten that dreadful interview he did for Gamma Sector News.”

“Don’t worry,” said Fian. “Steen knows that if he goes anywhere near the newzies again, then he’ll be blocked from going to Fortuna, and probably sent to prison too.”

I’d forgotten that Steen had signed up to go to Fortuna. Given the way he’d behaved to me in the past, and the interview he’d done, I wasn’t entirely happy about the idea of working with him in future. There wasn’t much point in worrying about it now though.

At the moment, only a tiny number of people knew that the alien race hadn’t been wiped out in an accident or natural disaster, but had deliberately unleashed an extinction event on their world. The General Marshal was due to announce that information, and the reason the alien race had killed themselves, to the whole of humanity on Year Day.

I guessed that the people who’d volunteered to go to Fortuna would be told that information in advance. Once Steen found out the reason the alien race had wiped out themselves and every other living creature on their world, then I thought he’d probably change his mind about going to Fortuna. A lot of other people would change their minds about going too.

Fian, Raven, and I had known what we’d be getting into for long enough that we weren’t going to drop out of the expedition. I had the uneasy thought that I couldn’t be sure how the rest of our class dig team 1, or even Lecturer Playdon, would react when they learned the truth though. If one or all of them decided not to go to Fortuna …

No! I’d promised myself that I’d enjoy these last weeks of normal life without even thinking about the future, and I was going to do exactly that. Fian was already heading across the room to where Dalmora, Amalie, and Krath were sitting at our regular table, so I hurried after him, and was immediately distracted by the sight of three cups lined up in front of Krath.

One of the cups was already empty, while the other two held a dark-brown drink that was popular in Gamma sector. Krath gulped the second cupful down at high speed before sitting back in his chair and giving a sigh of satisfaction.

“I needed that.”

Amalie gave him a disapproving look. “You seem to be drinking more of that bitter, muddy stuff every day. It’s served too hot for you to gulp it down that way, and I don’t think it’s good for you anyway.”

Krath took a sip from his third cup. “I’ve been drinking coffee ever since my Dad stopped dragging me from star system to star system, and we settled down on Asgard. Coffee is one of the main Earth crops grown there, it’s best drunk very hot, and it’s definitely good for me.”

Amalie made a dubious noise. “I don’t see how drinking hot mud can be good for anyone, and I’m starting to wonder if coffee is addictive as well.”

“Coffee isn’t addictive,” said Krath indignantly. “Our course is run under the stuffy Gamma sector moral code. That would never allow addictive substances in the food dispensers, would it?”

“The Gamma sector moral code only covers behaviour, not food and drink,” said Dalmora.

Raven had finally finished making his security checks, and got his own breakfast from the food dispensers. He now came to sit at the table with us, and Krath turned to face him.

“Coffee isn’t addictive, is it?”

Raven gave him a wary look. “It depends what you mean by addictive. Coffee isn’t on the list of addictive substances forbidden under interstellar law.”

“Coffee is illegal on several of the Deltan worlds though,” said Fian.

Krath gave a contemptuous sniff. “It would be. Everything fun is illegal in Delta sector. A couple can’t even hold hands in public without getting arrested. I’m surprised that you’re even allowed to breathe.”

“It’s not true that everything fun is illegal in Delta sector,” said Fian. “Anyone that’s over eighteen can buy alcohol or smoke Hercules bullrushes.”

“What happens if you smoke Hercules bullrushes?” asked Krath nosily.

“You’re very happy for about three minutes, then the world starts spinning round and round, and you’re horribly sick.” Fian shrugged. “At least, that’s what happened when I was fourteen and tried smoking one.”

I frowned at him. “I thought you said that you had to be eighteen to smoke Hercules bullrushes.”

Fian grinned. “I keep telling you that I’m a very badly behaved Deltan.”

Amalie returned to the subject of coffee. “You should try drinking something else for a while, Krath.”

“Tea is a popular drink on many planets of Alpha sector,” said Dalmora. “Especially my home world of Danae.”

“My Dad says tea tastes dreadful, and drinking it damages your brain cells,” said Krath.

“Your Dad also says there aren’t any children on Miranda,” said Amalie acidly. “When you told him that I’d grown up there, and had ten brothers and sisters, he said that I must be lying about it.”

“I admit my Dad is a nardle about most things,” said Krath, “but he’s right about tea tasting dreadful. At least, the tea from our food dispensers tastes dreadful.”

“It’s true that the taste of tea suffers badly from the reconstitution process,” said Dalmora sadly.

“Coffee tastes fine though.” Krath took another defiant sip of coffee.

We concentrated on eating breakfast for the next couple of minutes. I’d just popped my last morsel of Karanth jelly on toasted wafer into my mouth, when I noticed Lecturer Playdon was walking up to our table.

“I just need to cover a couple of details with you all,” he said. “Firstly, Amalie was tag leader for our dig team 1 while Jarra and Fian were away. Krath was acting as her tag support, while we’ve had several substitute heavy lift operators. We’ll now be going back to the old arrangements for dig team 1.”

I hastily swallowed my food. “Are you happy with going back to working on a heavy lift sled, Amalie?” I asked anxiously.

“Going back to working on a heavy lift sled will be blizz,” said Amalie. “Pure blizz. I found it horribly stressful being a tag leader.”

“Secondly, there’s the issue of the class farewell party,” said Playdon. “There’s a dig site tradition that dig team 1 organize the farewell party. Please remember to check your arrangements with me at least a week in advance.”

As he walked away, Dalmora turned to look at me in horror. “Dig team 1 is supposed to organize the class farewell party! Did you know that, Jarra?”

I nodded.

“So why didn’t you tell the rest of us about it?” demanded Dalmora.

“You can’t blame Jarra for not telling us about party traditions when she was unconscious in a tank,” said Fian.

“Yes, but you two came back to the class days ago,” said Dalmora, in something startlingly close to a wail. “Jarra could have told us about the party then. We have social responsibilities to fulfil, and dangerously little time to do it!”

I was bewildered by Dalmora’s odd behaviour. She’d never acted like this before, so … No, I was wrong about that. I remembered how upset she’d been when portal network delays meant she’d been a few minutes late returning to the course after a visit home. Everything suddenly made far more sense to me.

“On Danae, it’s shockingly bad manners to be late,” I said. “Would it be just as shocking to fail to carry out a social responsibility like organizing this party?”

“It wouldn’t be just as shocking,” said Dalmora urgently. “It would be far worse. Failing to organize this party properly would show appalling disrespect to our classmates, Lecturer Playdon, and society itself, and I don’t even know what we’re expected to do.”

I made soothing gestures. “There’s absolutely no need to worry, Dalmora. Farewell parties are simple things that only last a couple of hours. All that’s expected is for dig team 1 to donate a few snacks of real food, and arrange for a gift to be presented to Lecturer Playdon.”

“A gift,” repeated Dalmora. “What sort of gift?”

“A souvenir to remind him of his time teaching our class,” I said. “Something like a framed image of everyone, or a vid.”

Krath laughed. “Playdon doesn’t need a souvenir to remind him of teaching our class. He’s hardly going to forget things like excavating the alien device or having a bomb explode. He’s taking ten of our class to excavate Fortuna next year as well. Eleven of us if you count Raven as a class member rather than just Military Security.”

“I think I’m at least an honorary class member,” said Raven. “Lecturer Playdon keeps sending me predicted grades and nagging me about work I should cover before Year End.”

I laughed, but Dalmora was still looking worried. “We need to think of a better souvenir than a framed image.”

“We’ve got over five weeks before the farewell party,” I said. “That’s plenty of time to think of a perfect gift for … Why are you all staring at me?”

“We haven’t got five weeks before the farewell party,” said Fian, his voice rising in panic. “We’ve only got three weeks. I’d better call your medical support number, Jarra, and tell them you’re developing memory issues. It could mean your implanted web is failing.”

“I’m not developing memory issues,” I said, starting to panic myself. “I can’t be. I remember everything perfectly. It’s November 17 today, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Fian.

I relaxed again. “Then I’m right about us having over five weeks before the farewell party. All university courses end a week before Year Day.”

“No, they don’t,” said Amalie. “Our course will end three weeks before Year Day.”

I blinked. “It will? I assumed off-world courses would end at the same time as University Earth courses. I suppose it makes sense for off-world students to get a longer Year End holiday to let them make the complicated cross-sector portal trips to visit their families though. University Earth students virtually all have the immune system problem that I have … that I used to have … so can’t go portalling off to other worlds.”

Fian made an odd sobbing sound of relief. “So you haven’t got memory problems, Jarra. You just forgot to check the end date of our course when you joined it.”

I thought back to the girl I’d been when I joined this course. Someone that seemed much younger, and had been filled with righteous anger. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten to check the Asgard 6 course end date. It was that it hadn’t seemed relevant.

I’d been filled with fury at the norms who considered people with my immune system problem to be subhuman because we couldn’t survive anywhere other than Earth. I’d hated the way they called us cruel names, and made jokes about us being ugly, stupid, and smelly, so I’d decided to join an off-world class on a crusade for revenge.

My plan was that I’d fool the Asgard 6 class into believing I was normal born like them, and stun them with my expertise on a dig site for a few weeks. Once I’d proved I wasn’t just as good as them, but vastly better, then I’d scream abuse at them before leaving.

I didn’t regret making that plan – I couldn’t regret the decision that had led to me meeting Fian – but it was rather embarrassing to think about it now. “Yes, I forgot to check the dates,” I said.

“So, we only have three weeks before the farewell party,” said Dalmora. “Arranging food and drink will be relatively simple, so the most urgent problem is deciding on the perfect souvenir for Lecturer Playdon. In fact, after all this class has been through together, we should give a souvenir to every class member as well, and it can’t be a simple framed image. It has to be something that evokes special memories of our time on Earth. Does anyone have any ideas?”

There was a long silence before Krath spoke. “You’ll probably call me a nardle for suggesting this, but there was all that fuss about Jarra joining her clan, and getting betrothed to Fian. The Betan clan banners were totally amaz, so could we give everyone some sort of Asgard 6 class banner?”

We all stared at him. “That’s actually a good idea, Krath,” said Amalie. “I’m impressed.”

Krath flushed with pleasure.

“Jarra, do you know how we’d get these banners made?” asked Dalmora.

“No, but my cousin Drago told me there was a Military alliance information and support number that I should call if I needed help with anything. I’m sure they’ll know all about ordering banners.”

As part of my attempt to forget all the complications in my life, I was wearing civilian clothes rather than my Military uniform, and had my Military lookup in my pocket. I took it out now and tapped at it. An image of the Betan Military alliance banner promptly appeared on the screen, and an obviously pre-recorded voice started speaking.

“This is the Military alliance information and support service in Alpha sector. In case of life-threatening emergencies, please press 9 now. Otherwise, wait for assistance.”

I put my lookup on the table in front of me, and projected the image of the banner in mid air, so it hovered just above the row of Krath’s empty coffee cups. A couple of seconds later, the banner was replaced by the head and shoulders of a young man in a formal Betan toga.

“Please state your clan, your name, and …” At this point, the man obviously recognised me, because he broke off his standard speech and gasped. “Commander Jarra Tell Morrath. How can we assist you?”

“My cousin, Commander Drago Tell Dramis, told me to call this number if …”

The young man shook his head urgently. “Please don’t tell me that Drago’s been buying ice cream again.”

I frowned in bewilderment. “No. Drago just told me to call this number if I wanted help with anything, and I need to find out how to order some special souvenir banners for my class.”

The young man smiled. “I’ll send you details of the regular banner supply service for our alliance, Commander. You just need to send them your banner image and details of the number and sizes required.”

I saw Dalmora was urgently mouthing words at me, frowned for a second as I worked out what she was saying, and then repeated it. “How long will it take for them to make and deliver the banners to Earth?”

“Your banners should arrive within four days of you placing the order, Commander. Can I assist you with anything else?”

“That’s all for now. Thank you for your help.” I ended the call, and smiled at Dalmora. “It will only take four days to get the banners, so you see there’s nothing to worry about.”

Dalmora didn’t seem convinced. “We’ve only got three weeks before our course ends, and that isn’t much time.”

Her words hit me ridiculously hard. I’d thought we had five weeks of our course left. Five weeks where Fian and I would be living normal lives as archaeology students. We didn’t. We only had three weeks left, and Dalmora was perfectly right. That wasn’t much time.

“We’ll have to meet up this evening to make decisions on the banners and the other party arrangements,” continued Dalmora. “We have to have everything prepared well in advance in case of last-minute problems.”

“We can meet up this evening,” said Fian, “but there’s really no need for you to worry about anything going wrong, Dalmora.”

“That’s right,” I said. “This is just going to be a simple farewell party, so nothing can possibly go wrong.”

 

Part 2

Earth Europe, 20 November 2789

It was my fourth morning working on Berlin Main Dig Site. To be more accurate, it was my fourth morning watching other people work on Berlin Main Dig Site, and I was close to exploding from frustration.

At the beginning of this year, Lecturer Playdon had organised the Asgard 6 class into five teams. Four of them were proper dig teams, while team 5 contained all the students who were planning to specialize in theoretical history, and wanted to do as little excavation work as possible.

The standard arrangement was that the class ran two parallel excavations. Dig team 1 would work on the more dangerous one, and have team 4 taking over for a while when we needed rest breaks. Dig teams 2 and 3 would work on the other.

Today, dig teams 1 and 4 were excavating a burnt-out and partially-collapsed building. Everything about our excavation site reminded me of the start of our course, when our class had been working on New York Main. Sometime around the end of Exodus century, the abandoned city of New York had been hit by a devastating fire that had burned for two months, so its ruins were all as fire-blackened as this one. The state of the building was virtually identical to a dozen that I’d excavated in New York as well. The three walls that were still standing were half-covered in ivy, and surrounded by rubble from the fallen fourth wall, interior floors, and roof.

This was an excavation that offered me exactly what I wanted. The chance to blot out all the dramatic events of this year, and indulge myself in the fantasy that it was January again, and I was an ordinary student working on New York Main. I desperately wanted to spend the whole morning losing myself in my dream world while I excavated that building, but Playdon had refused to let me do any work at all for the previous three days, and had only allowed me to spend a miserly half-an-hour working today.

My job as tag leader was to enter the danger zone, decide how best to clear the rubble, then start tagging rocks for removal and giving instructions to the people working on the heavy lift sleds. I’d started the morning by setting up a sensor net around our ruined building, which had shown what looked like a stasis box buried under the rubble next to the tallest of the remaining walls. After that, I’d barely had time to fire electronic tags at a dozen rocks, and get Amalie and Krath to use their heavy lift sleds to move them into a neat heap over near sensor spike 3, before Playdon ordered dig team 4 to take over.

Dig team 1 had retreated to join Raven on a transport sled. Now Dalmora, Fian, and I were sitting on one bench seat, with Raven, Krath, and Amalie sitting facing us on another. It was a sunny day, but the winter wind was bitterly cold, so we hadn’t pulled our suit hoods all the way down, just unsealed the front of them to let us enjoy the fresh air as we watched team 4 work.

“The excavation is going well,” said Amalie. “I think team 4 should have time to reach the stasis box before we stop work at the end of the morning.”

In my opinion, team 4 had plenty of time to reach the stasis box this morning, but they wouldn’t manage it because something was going to go wrong that would delay their work. Steen was the tag leader of dig team 4, and I’d learned all his strengths and weaknesses from working with him in the past. He had the endurance needed for gruelling hours working in a heavy, restrictive impact suit. He had the courage to keep working as a tag leader after getting buried by a collapsing wall. His weakness was managing his excavation site.

There’d been several times when I’d temporarily handed over an excavation site to Steen so my team could take a break, and he’d annoyed me by not following my lead on where to pile rubble, shifting rocks to somewhere either inconvenient or potentially dangerous. On one especially nardle occasion, he’d started reburying the stasis box that I’d just excavated.

This time, Steen was making the opposite mistake of following my lead too closely. When I’d handed over the excavation site to him, he’d ordered his heavy lift operators to carry on adding rubble to the heap I’d started. He’d let them carry on doing that for well over an hour now, so the mound of rocks had grown far too high and was likely to slip sideways at any moment.

I wanted to set my suit comms to speak on our team circuit, and tell Steen to start a second rubble heap. Dig site conventions forbade me from giving him instructions though. Steen hadn’t taken over the excavation work while I took a brief break, but for the whole rest of the morning. This was Steen’s excavation site now, and he was entitled to run it however he chose, without another tag leader giving him uninvited suggestions and criticism.

Dig site conventions forbade me from giving Steen instructions, but Lecturer Playdon was our team leader, in overall charge of our work. It was his job to warn Steen of a developing hazard, and I was puzzled by him letting this situation continue. I couldn’t believe Playdon hadn’t noticed that increasingly dangerous heap of rubble. I could understand him being reluctant to embarrass Steen by pointing out his mistake on the team circuit, but he could easily open a private circuit to talk to him.

If there’d been any chance of a person being injured, then I’d have felt justified in ignoring dig site conventions and intervening. The only danger was to sensor spike 3 though, so I just had to sit and wait for the inevitable landslide. I vented my feelings in a long, despairing sigh, and the rest of dig team 1 laughed at me.

“I know you’d like to be in Steen’s place right now, Jarra,” said Fian, “but Lecturer Playdon is right to limit your working time for a while. You can’t spend three months floating in a tank and then go straight back to working full mornings on a dig site.”

I glowered at him. “You can be really irritating sometimes. I’ve no idea why I went to so much trouble to get betrothed to you.”

Fian pulled a wounded face at me. “I’m just repeating what Lecturer Playdon said.”

“That’s exactly what I’m complaining about,” I said bitterly. “Repeating what Playdon said isn’t just annoying, but totally unnecessary as well. I accept he was right about me needing to gradually build up my working hours, but I can’t help being frustrated by the situation. I hate lazing around and watching other people work, and I especially hate the fact I’m stopping all the rest of you from working as well.”

“Krath, Dalmora, and I have been doing excavation work for months while you and Fian were away,” said Amalie. “I found being a tag leader horribly stressful, so it’s a huge relief to have a rest.”

“And I enjoy lazing around and watching other people work,” said Krath happily. “I think that Steen is letting that rubble heap get too high, and if he keeps going then he’ll have a landslide within the next fifteen minutes. He should start a second heap of rubble somewhere else.”

I was stunned. “That’s exactly what I was thinking, Krath. How did you suddenly become so sensible?”

“Krath hasn’t suddenly become sensible,” said Amalie. “Remember that he was acting as my tag support while you were away. Playdon and I have been training him to watch out for developing hazards on the dig site, so you’re seeing the result of three months’ hard work on our part.”

“I wasn’t that bad a tag support to start with,” said Krath plaintively. “Playdon said he was impressed by how fast I used the lifeline beam to snatch you out of trouble, and I just needed to learn to anticipate problems better to be an excellent tag support.”

I wasn’t just stunned but totally grazzed to hear that. “Did Playdon really say that?”

“Playdon did say that, and he was perfectly right about it,” said Amalie, with the air of a judge giving her verdict. “Krath may say some nardle things, but he’s always been good at anything practical. It wasn’t entirely his fault that he arrived on this course without any social skills either. His father moved world so often that Krath didn’t go to school at all except for a few months when he was sixteen.”

Raven shook his head. “Given all the obstacles in his way, I’m amazed Krath got good enough grades to get a place on a University Asgard course.”

“I only managed it because my Aunt Galina helped me,” said Krath. “She came to visit my dad one day, and gave him a frosty lecture about how he’d taken me out of school to use me as unpaid labour. Then she took me to live with her. She’s a history teacher, and made me study for what felt like every waking hour, so I could get a place on this course.”

“That was nice of her,” said Raven.

“I’m not sure Aunt Galina did it to be nice,” said Krath doubtfully. “She kept saying it was her duty to salvage me and turn me into a proper human being.”

Those words reminded me of the off-world vids I’d watched as a child, and the things the norms had said about people like me being less than human. “Your Aunt Galina sounds horrible.”

“She had her good moments,” said Krath. “When I got a top grade in history, she said I might be more intelligent than the average rabbit after all.”

Krath seemed genuinely proud that his aunt had compared him favourably to a rabbit. None of us could work out anything to say in reply, so there was a short silence before Dalmora took the safe option of changing the subject entirely.

“Can we have a quick meeting to discuss the class party plans now? We need to decide on the banner design.”

Fian and I exchanged resigned glances. I felt it should only take one or two meetings to organize a simple farewell party, and we’d already had three, but we couldn’t claim that we were busy with something else when we were just sitting here.

“Go ahead,” said Fian.

Dalmora took out her lookup and tapped at it. “As we agreed, I asked the graphics designer for my father’s vid series, History of Humanity, to create some possible banner designs. I’ll send them to your lookups now.”

I checked my lookup, and saw Dalmora’s message had been added to the queue of messages from Military Command Support. They’d been sending me a message every day for the last three days, and they all said exactly the same thing. General Torrek would like to call me for a chat about my health and other personal issues. I should contact them to book a slot in his schedule that was convenient for my time zone and course work.

I hadn’t responded to those messages yet because of the ominous mention of ‘other personal issues’. I suspected that meant General Torrek wanted to discuss my grandmother with me. I obviously couldn’t keep ignoring messages from a General forever, but …

I brushed that problem aside to deal with later, and concentrated on studying the banner designs. The first one showed the massed faces of our class members, Raven, and Lecturer Playdon, arranged around a central picture of a crashing spaceship. As I skimmed on through more banner designs, the arrangement of faces remained unchanged, their hairstyle details showing the images of class members had been taken during the meet and greet at the beginning of the course, while the ones of Raven and Playdon were more recent. The central picture kept varying though, including things like the alien sphere, an explosion, and the planet Fortuna.

The centre of the last design was a candle burning next to a picture of our dead classmate, Joth. I couldn’t work out exactly when that picture of Joth had been taken, but he was holding a glass of Fizzup and laughing as if he’d just heard a joke. I grimaced, lifted my head, and found Dalmora was looking expectantly at us.

“Which event picture do you prefer?” she asked.

“The crashing spaceship is the most spectacular,” said Krath.

“The arrival of the alien sphere was a more important moment in history,” said Amalie.

“That doesn’t make it the most important moment for our class though,” I said. “I vote for Joth.”

Fian nodded. “Jarra’s right. The centre of the banner should show something important for the whole class, not an event that only involved a few of us.”

“Everyone was in the dome when the bomb went off,” said Dalmora, “so we could have the explosion. Whether the whole class was present for the other events or not though, their lives were still deeply affected by them.”

“We could include all the events,” said Raven. “If Lecturer Playdon was in the middle, with the class clustered closely around him, there’d be space around the edge of the banner for smaller versions of all the event pictures.”

“That’s a good suggestion,” said Amalie.

The rest of us nodded.

“I’ll message the graphics designer, and ask her to do that,” said Dalmora.

“Before you send that message, I’d like to suggest another change,” said Fian. “I noticed that Petra’s face has been included among the class members. After the way she treated Jarra, I think we should ask the graphics designer to get rid of her.”

“Jarra said she wanted Petra to be on the banner,” said Dalmora.

Fian turned to frown at me. “Why would you want that spiteful creature included on our banner? She tried to bully you into leaving the class.”

I sighed. “When Petra found out about my immune system problem, she was a bit unfriendly to me, but once she explained her family situation … Well, I understand why Petra behaved the way she did, she was a member of our class for months, and I don’t want her excluded from the banner because she called me a few rude names.”

“Petra did a lot more than call you a few rude names,” said Fian bitterly. “She kept trying to split us up because she wanted to get her claws into me. I’ll never forget how Petra contacted my parents to tell them poisonous stories about you, or the way she called you an animal when she left our class.”

My mind automatically conjured up the memory of that moment, and the defiance in Petra’s face and voice as she spoke. “I don’t believe in cruelty to animals, I just don’t think humans should marry them!”

Fian turned back to Dalmora. “Jarra may be willing to have Petra on our banner, but I strongly object.”

Dalmora glanced nervously at me before replying. “After all we’ve been through together, I don’t think we should argue over something so unimportant as whether Petra is on the banner or not.”

“I don’t think this is unimportant,” said Fian.

“Fian’s right,” said Krath fiercely. “I don’t want Petra on our banner either. It wasn’t just how she treated Jarra, or the way she walked out on us when things got dangerous. It was Petra’s fault that Joth died.”

“But that’s exactly why I want Petra to be on our banner,” said Amalie. “She should be there to make sure we never forget how destructive she was, or the part she played in causing Joth’s death.”

Dalmora gave a despairing look at Raven. “What do you think?”

“Me?” asked Raven nervously. “I can’t comment on whether Petra should be on the banner or not. Military Security had flagged her as a potential threat to Jarra and Fian before I even arrived in the class, so I was always aware of her as a danger rather than a person. In fact, I’m still aware of Petra as a danger right now. Military Security is keeping her under surveillance, and Colonel Leveque is sending me regular updates about her.”

I stared at Raven. “Military Security is keeping Petra under surveillance? But it’s been …”

I hesitated for a moment, trying to work out exactly how long it had been since Petra left, but my sense of time was still hopelessly confused by the three months I’d spent in a tank. “It’s been months since Petra left the class.”

“Petra didn’t stop being a danger to you and Fian when she left the class,” said Raven grimly. “It’s only ten days since the Isolationist Party sent an old survey spaceship packed with missiles to try and stop you and Fian from reaching the Fortuna star system and shutting down the alien defence grid.”

He shrugged. “The Isolationist Party lost a lot of supporters because of that attempt on your lives, but its core members are still willing to take extreme measures to stop humanity exploring the alien home world. Reliable sources have informed Colonel Leveque that you and Fian are still at the top of the Isolationist Party kill list.”

I groaned. We’d somehow gone from discussing arrangements for the class party to a stark reminder that the Isolationist Party wanted to kill Fian and me.

Fian threw an anxious glance at me before facing Raven again. “Are you saying that Petra has got involved with the Isolationist Party and may try to physically attack us? Petra’s good at using spiteful words, but I’m finding it hard to imagine her as an assassin.”

“If Petra attempts to portal to any star system in Alpha sector, she’ll be arrested and interrogated by Military Security,” said Raven. “Colonel Leveque’s concern isn’t that she’ll physically attack you herself, but that she’ll supply information to the Isolationist Party that helps them attack you.”

Fian frowned. “What sort of information? Colonel Leveque has so many security measures in place that Petra won’t even know that our class is working on Berlin Main.”

“Petra will have learned personal details about you when she was a member of the class,” said Raven. “She could tell the Isolationist Party all the people and places you’re most likely to want to visit before you leave for Fortuna, so they can set up an ambush to kill you.”

“Is there any evidence that Petra has done that?” asked Fian sharply.

Raven sighed. “There’s no evidence that Petra has contacted the Isolationist Party, but she’s been acting extremely suspiciously. When she left the class, she returned home to Asgard to live with her father, but now she’s moved to Winter and is working in one of the hotels there.”

“What’s so suspicious about leaving home and getting a job on Winter?” asked Krath. “Everyone in Gamma sector wants to holiday on Winter to admire the ice and snow, but they don’t want to live somewhere that cold permanently, so it’s easy to get highly paid jobs in the hotels. If I hadn’t managed to get a place on this course, I’d probably have gone to work on Winter myself.”

“What’s suspicious is that Petra is using a false name on Winter,” said Raven.

“A false name,” repeated Fian. “Why is Colonel Leveque letting Petra hide under a false name? He should have immediately ordered her arrest.”

Raven waved his hands in a gesture of ignorance. “Colonel Leveque just sends me information on potential threats. He doesn’t tell me details of his tactics for dealing with them, but sometimes you can learn more by leaving a suspect free.”

Fian’s frown deepened. “You mean that Colonel Leveque is hoping Petra will lead him to the Isolationist Party assassins?”

Today was 20 November, and our last day working on Berlin Main Dig Site would be 10 December. Including today, I had precisely twenty-one days left where I could forget about world-shattering events and focus on ordinary student life. This conversation was destroying my attempt to do that, so I buried my face in my hands and made a soft whimpering noise.

“Can everyone please stop talking about assassins? If there’s a problem, then Colonel Leveque and Raven will deal with it. We should focus on making a decision on our class banner design.”

“Yes, well, Raven’s made a good point about Petra still being a threat,” said Fian.

“No!” I lifted my head and glared at him. “I told you that I don’t want any more talk of nuking assassins.”

Fian made desperate soothing gestures with his hands. “I know. I know. I was just explaining that I’ve changed my mind about having Petra on the class banner. I now agree with Amalie that Petra should be on it, but I suggest she has her back turned to the rest of us to remind us that she’s an enemy. Would you be happy with that, Krath?”

“I suppose so,” said Krath grudgingly. “So long as it’s clear she doesn’t belong to the class any longer.”

“That’s agreed then,” said Dalmora, in a relieved voice. “I’ll talk to the graphics designer and …”

She was interrupted by the voice of Rono Kipkibor speaking on the broadcast channel that could be heard by every team working on Berlin Main Dig Site. “This is Cassandra 2. Requesting clearance to ascend Spire 141.”

There was a crisply efficient response. “This is Dig Site Command. Cassandra 2, you are clear to ascend Spire 141.”

There’d been a lot of exchanges like this on the broadcast channel in the last few days, but this one was especially interesting to our class because we’d spent a lot of time working with the Cassandra 2 research team.

Everyone else turned to look towards the heart of Berlin, but I kept my eyes stubbornly on our excavation site. I wanted to keep looking at a view that could have been New York, rather than turn to face a landmark that didn’t just scream the fact we were in Berlin, but was an unwelcome reminder that there was nothing ordinary about either my class or me any longer. Berlin Main Dig Site was rated a high hazard area, so no ordinary Pre-history Foundation class would be allowed to work here.

“Which one is Spire 141?” asked Krath.

Fian tapped at his Military lookup. “According to the plan of Berlin Main Dig Site, Spire 141 is to the east of us. Over there.”

As he lifted his arm to point, another familiar voice spoke on the broadcast channel. “Cassandra 2 at Spire 141. Keren ascending!”

A second voice followed. “Cassandra 2 at Spire 141. Stephan ascending!”

“I can see Keren and Stephan heading up,” said Krath eagerly. “Am I right that it’s Keren that wears the blue impact suit, and Stephan the gold?”

“Yes,” said Fian.

I fought the urge to turn my head to look at Keren and Stephan, and kept watching Steen. He’d just finished tagging another batch of rocks. I saw him activate his hover belt, lift up into the air, and skim out of the way to let the heavy lift sleds start work.

“This is Cassandra 2 team leader. Reporting two ascended to Spire 141, floor 23.”

“This is Dig Site Command. Confirming Cassandra 2 has two ascended at Spire 141, floor 23.”

I was startled to hear another voice that wasn’t speaking on the comms, but from somewhere close behind me. “Can I have a private word with you, Jarra?”

I hastily stood up and turned to see Lecturer Playdon, the hood of his distinctive turquoise-blue impact suit pulled fully down despite the cold. “Yes, sir.”

He led the way to the back of the transport sled. We’d just sat down when there was the sound of cascading rubble from our excavation site. I turned and saw Steen’s rubble heap had toppled sideways. Steen’s hood was up and sealed of course, so I couldn’t see his expression, but he was standing facing the collapsed rubble heap with a disconsolate air.

I sighed. “We’ve just lost sensor spike 3.”

“There’s only a small risk of sensor spike 3 being damaged,” said Playdon. “Sensor spike cases are designed to survive much worse than a minor landslide.”

There was something suspicious about the way he said that. “You deliberately let that landslide happen!”

Playdon nodded calmly. “Sometimes a student learns more from being allowed to make a mistake.”

I thought back through my time in the Asgard 6 class. “Have you deliberately let me make many mistakes?”

Playdon gave me one of his evil smiles. “Only a couple.”

“Was one of them the time in New York when I backed into an unstable wall?”

Playdon’s smile faded. “Of course not. Fian reacted incredibly quickly to the wall collapsing, snatching you out of danger before you could get buried, but you were still badly bruised. I’d never deliberately allow a student to make a mistake that could endanger them like that.”

He paused and glanced over at the rest of dig team 1. They were well out of earshot, but he still lowered his voice before speaking again.

“That accident wasn’t just caused by your mistake, but mine as well. You’d arrived on the course as such a competent tag leader that I’d got overconfident about your ability. I wasn’t watching what you were doing as closely as I should have been, and was too late to stop you backing into that wall. I felt horribly guilty when Dalmora came to me the next day and said you needed a fluid patch to treat the bruising.”

I remembered sending Dalmora to ask Playdon for that fluid patch. “The bruising wasn’t really that bad,” I confessed. “I …”

Playdon shook his head. “Let’s forget about your old injuries, Jarra, and discuss your current physical health. Spending a long time in a tank leaves you with oversensitive skin. Your Military doctors warned me that getting decanted from the tank and then immediately rushing into an impact suit to go to Fortuna had left you with some sore areas of skin.”

“I told you that my skin had healed up before I rejoined the class, sir.”

“Yes, but long hours wearing an impact suit can sometimes reopen newly-healed sores. You’re not having any problems like that?”

“None at all,” I said eagerly. “My skin has hardened off nicely, so I’m ready to go back to working full mornings on the dig site.”

Playdon studied my face thoughtfully. “The other problem after extended tank time is muscle atrophy. Wearing an impact suit for a full morning is a strain on the body even if you’re sitting still, and working is obviously far worse.”

“My doctors said that I had surprisingly little muscle atrophy for such a long time in a tank, and they gave me some medication to help speed up my recovery.”

“That medication can only speed up your recovery if you actually take it,” said Playdon drily.

I gave a depressed sigh. “I’m taking the tablets, sir. My doctors said something about having special instructions to give my tablets to Fian instead of me. He’s been standing over me to make sure I take them.”

Playdon laughed. “The Military clearly know exactly how to deal with you. Well, you were obviously exhausted after your first morning on the dig site. At least, I hope it was exhaustion rather than boredom that made you fall asleep during my afternoon lecture.”

I blushed with embarrassment.

“You seem to have coped well since then,” he continued, “so I think you’re physically recovered enough to spend two hours working tomorrow morning.”

I grinned in delight, and glanced across at where Steen had temporarily abandoned excavating the stasis box in favour of rescuing the buried sensor spike. “So dig team 1 will be going back to normal excavation work tomorrow?”

“That’s the other point that I need to discuss with you,” said Playdon. “We aren’t necessarily talking about you doing normal excavation work. Colonel Leveque has contacted me to say that the alien ruins on Fortuna include some very high buildings. He suggests that you should get some experience working on skyscrapers before going to Fortuna. Since we’re at Berlin, that means …”

Playdon let the words trail off. I finally turned to look at the glittering mass of interconnected spires that formed the lethal heart of Berlin, and finished the sentence for him.

“That means working on the Berlin Spire Complex.”

 

Part 3

 

“I want to make it totally clear that you don’t have to agree to work on the Berlin Spire Complex, Jarra,” said Lecturer Playdon. “I have a duty of care to my students. I hope you and Fian understood that I was shocked and deeply worried when the Alien Contact programme was activated, and you were drafted into the Military. I couldn’t do anything to stop it from happening though.”

I’d been staring, mesmerized, at the dazzling network of spires that somehow reminded me of a medieval fortress, but now I faced Playdon. “Of course we understood that, sir. Everyone gets taught about the Alien Contact programme in school. It has absolute authority over everything and everyone, and disobeying its orders is classed as a crime against humanity.”

“I was powerless to prevent you from being drafted, or from being swept up in the events that followed,” continued Playdon. “I could only try to make the class into a safe refuge during the periods you and Fian returned to work with us. I was horrified when I heard you were undergoing a potentially fatal, experimental treatment to override your faulty immune system.”

Playdon shook his head. “Well, you survived and went to Fortuna with Fian to lower the alien defences. When all the ceremonies and celebrations on Wallam-Crane day were over, I went to bed thinking there wouldn’t be any more shocks for a while, only to wake up the next morning, check Gamma Sector News, and find they were showing that live link interview with Steen.”

I groaned at the mention of Steen’s interview. Fian and I had probably been the last of our class to see it. The celebrations to mark Earth joining Alpha sector had carried on late into the night. When Fian, Raven, and I finally portalled back to our class’s dome, my head had been so filled with swirling memories and images of fireworks that I hadn’t been able to get to sleep for hours.

Once we did get to sleep, Fian and I had slept solidly until the next afternoon, and woke up to find Earth Rolling News was showing a recording of Steen’s interview. As we sat watching the first half of it, the only thing bothering me was the way Steen kept complimenting me.

Back when Petra had been trying to drive me into leaving the class, she’d persuaded a group of class members from Asgard, including Steen, to join her campaign against me. Steen genuinely seemed to have changed his mind about me now, but hearing his gushing words of admiration in that interview was still a painful contrast to the way he’d called me a stinking ape in the past.

So I’d kept wincing at every compliment from Steen, and grumbling about them to Fian, until we reached the critical moment when a random question led to Steen making an angry comment about the Military putting me in prison. The interviewer naturally asked him when and why that had happened. Steen said that he didn’t know any details at all. He’d just overheard me saying that I’d been on reduced pay when I was in a Military prison.

After that, the interviewer started making wild guesses about why I’d been in a Military prison, and asking an increasingly anxious-looking Steen if they could be true. Fian and I had exchanged apprehensive glances when the interview ended, checked a selection of other newzie channels, and found all of them from Alpha Spectrum to Epsilon Sector News were busily speculating about exactly when and why the Military had thrown Jarra Tell Morrath in prison.

I still wasn’t sure what had been worse. Watching sympathetic people make angry comments about the Military mistreating me, or listening to Isolationist Party supporters accusing me of being a dangerous criminal. Then came the dreadful moment when my lookup chimed, and I saw Colonel Leveque was calling me.

He’d asked me precisely what Steen had overheard, and I’d nervously admitted to having a chat to the rest of dig team 1, where Krath had asked me what a Military Commander was paid. I’d made a joking reply about the complications of my rapid promotions, where I’d thoughtlessly mentioned being in prison on half-pay. I’d volunteered to say something to the newzies, but Colonel Leveque had hastily shaken his head and told me that he’d handle the situation.

An hour later, the newzies had shown Colonel Leveque making a statement on behalf of the Military. He’d said that attempts to kill Fian and me had led to a range of measures being taken to protect us, and Steen had overheard me making a joking reference to a point where a Military prison had been used as a safe haven. After that, all the fuss had died down, but I was still horrified by the amount of trouble I’d caused by a few thoughtless words and . . .

At this point, I realized that Lecturer Playdon was looking at me enquiringly. “I’m sorry, sir. I got distracted remembering all the problems Steen’s interview caused, and I think I missed you saying something.”

“I said that I was powerless to protect you in the past, but I’m not powerless any longer. Steen’s interview had the accidental benefit of making the newzies ask what risks you and Fian will be expected to take when you do excavation work on Fortuna. That led to questions about the safety of civilian archaeologists as well, and the General Marshal has now made a formal statement in response.”

“I didn’t know that the General Marshal had made a statement.” I waved my hands in despair. “It feels like I can’t so much as blink without missing a major newzie story that involves Fian and me.”

“You haven’t missed anything, Jarra,” said Playdon. “Last night, the General Marshal’s statement was sent to the leaders of the teams heading for Fortuna to check that it satisfied all our concerns. It won’t be released to the newzies until later today.”

He paused. “The General Marshal has stated that the Military has no experience of running specialist archaeological excavations, so will only suggest desirable work to be done. The civilian leaders of the xenoarchaeological research teams will then consider the potential benefits and risks involved in that work, and decide whether it should be carried out or not.”

Playdon shrugged. “Since you and Fian are currently members of my class, and will be members of my team when we go to Fortuna, Colonel Leveque has agreed the same protocol should apply to the dig site work you’re doing now.”

“So that means it’s your decision whether I work on the Berlin Spire Complex or not?”

“Yes, and I’m choosing to delegate that decision to you. I’m satisfied that you’ve physically recovered to the point where you can do at least a couple of hours of excavation work a day. If you wish, then you can spend that time working on the Berlin Spire Complex.”

I gave Playdon an uncertain look. “Will Steen be working on the Berlin Spire Complex too?”

“No. Steen needs to spend more time doing basic excavation work before he goes near a skyscraper. I’m sure you’ve been wondering why I’ve signed up our dig team 4 tag leader to go to Fortuna rather than someone better qualified.”

I chose my words carefully. “I’m not questioning your decisions, sir.”

“In this case, you should be. As my senior tag leader, you’ve a right to know my reason for choosing someone so clearly unable to rescue you if you have a serious accident. In fact, I need you to start questioning any of my decisions that you consider suspect. We’re going to be moving from being in a class and teacher situation to working as a research team in unknown conditions. I need everyone helping to spot errors of judgement or wrong assumptions on my part, and especially you.”

“Yes, sir, but I don’t consider this a suspect decision. I’m sure you had a good reason for choosing Steen.”

Playdon grimaced. “I did. That reason was simply that I had limited options. After the repeated attacks on you and Fian, Colonel Leveque only wants trusted class members on our Fortuna team.”

I guessed that meant Steen had volunteered, while the tag leaders of dig teams 2 and 3 hadn’t. “I understand.”

“I’d be seriously worried about this situation if it wasn’t for the fact that on Fortuna we’ll be working closely with Cassandra 2,” continued Playdon. “That means their tag leaders will be able to assist us if we’re in trouble. There’s also the point that Amalie did an excellent job taking over your dig team 1 tag leader position while you were away. She refused the second tag leader position on our Fortuna team, telling me she found the role too stressful and wanted to return to running a heavy lift sled, but I’m hoping she’ll eventually change her mind.”

He shrugged. “Let’s get back to discussing you working on the Berlin Spire Complex. If you don’t feel ready to try it, then I’ll tell Colonel Leveque that rushing you into it would involve an unacceptable level of risk, and he’ll accept my decision.”

I gave a grazzed shake of my head. “I don’t know how I feel about this, sir. The idea of working on the Berlin Spire Complex is a bit of a shock. I don’t know very much about working methods on ordinary skyscrapers, because only research teams are allowed to go near them, and I’ve heard the conditions in the Berlin Spire Complex are especially difficult. I should have looked up details, but I’ve been busy catching up with some of the theory lectures you recorded for me when I was in the tank.”

“I told you that I understood it was impossible for you to watch all of those theory lectures before the end of the course, or even before we go to Fortuna,” said Playdon. “I just want you to gradually make progress on them. They may seem completely irrelevant to working on alien ruins, but some of the references may turn out to be unexpectedly helpful.”

“I appreciate that, sir.”

“I realize you have a lot of other things to think about at the moment as well,” said Playdon. “You went through some massively stressful events both immediately before and after your tank time. Even the good things, like the celebrations on Wallam-Crane day, must have been an extra strain, and you’re probably working through some relationship issues with Fian as well.”

Playdon hesitated for a moment. “I believe Professor Rono Kipkibor told you that my wife and I worked on his research team until my wife was killed in an accident at the California Rift.”

Playdon never talked about his wife, so I was shocked by him mentioning her now. I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just nodded.

“During our first year on that research team, I was badly injured myself,” continued Playdon. “I spent nearly two months in a full body regrowth tank, so I know from personal experience that there aren’t just physical aftereffects from an extended period in a tank, but psychological and relationship ones too.”

His face took on the distant expression of someone thinking back in time. “I had no awareness of anything when I was floating unconscious in the tank. When I was decanted, it felt like I’d only been asleep for a few minutes. I was still in shock from the accident, but the world had jumped forward in time and a lot of things had changed. My wife and I were twenty-three years old back then. We’d got married only a month before my accident. Cadee had had days of painful suspense before the doctors were sure I’d survive, and then over six more weeks of waiting until I was decanted.”

Playdon was silent for a moment. “When I was discharged from the hospital, I found that Cadee had already changed roles from being my tag support to running a heavy lift sled for our dig team 2. We agreed that I should change roles as well, so I gave up tag leading and became Rono’s deputy team leader in charge of dig team 2.”

I hadn’t known that Playdon had originally been a tag leader. The way he described his move to deputy team leader sounded as if it might have been a decision forced on him by Cadee. I daren’t ask how he’d felt about it.

Playdon continued speaking in a harsh, brittle voice. “Three years later, the accident at the California Rift left Cadee and me in the reverse situation. She was the one in the tank, I was the one waiting in suspense, and then the doctors told me she was brain dead.”

His face twisted in pain. “The thing that hit me hardest was that Cadee’s heavy lift sled was crushed in the accident, but the tag support sled wasn’t touched. I couldn’t help thinking that if we hadn’t changed roles to make me safer then she would have lived.”

He gave an angry shake of his head. “It was ridiculous of me to be so obsessed by that thought. So many decisions led to Cadee being in that particular place at that particular time. A change in any of them could have stopped her dying, or made her death happen sooner. We could have joined another research team when we graduated. Rono could have chosen a different dig team assignment that month. We could have accepted an invitation to spend that week at a historical re-enactment instead of refusing it.”

I still didn’t dare to speak, so there was a short silence before Playdon spoke again. “The problem with not talking about something is that when you do start talking then it’s hard to stop. I shouldn’t have gone into so much detail about my own past. I just wanted to explain that I appreciate you’re going through a difficult time.”

He paused. “You may find yourself discussing a lot of things with Fian, and possibly rethinking the decisions you’ve already made. If you and Fian decide you want to move to different dig team roles, or even change your minds about joining the expedition to Zeta sector, then I’ll understand and do everything I can to help. Excavating alien ruins means facing completely unknown dangers, and you may want a safer and more peaceful life on Earth or one of the other worlds of humanity.”

Guilt crushed me. Lecturer Playdon knew that going to Zeta sector meant facing unknown dangers. He didn’t know it meant facing a danger that the human race had met before and understood only too well.

I couldn’t warn Playdon about that. I’d already caused chaos on the newzie channels of every sector with a single careless remark about being in Military prison, so I daren’t say anything about the danger lurking in Zeta sector. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that Playdon would be told the full truth before he went to Zeta sector, and the extinction event on Fortuna meant that world at least should be safe, but I still felt guilty.

“I don’t think Fian and I could change our minds about going to Zeta sector,” I said aloud. “The Alien Contact programme needed us both to go to Fortuna to shut down the alien defences, and Colonel Leveque estimates there’s a 31 per cent probability that we’ll be needed to interact with other alien devices in future as well.”

I sighed. “Fian says that our lives will never be peaceful anyway. He says that I’ll always be charging from one crisis to the next, while he sprints after me.”

“It sounds as if Fian has accepted the current situation,” said Playdon, “but how do you feel about it, Jarra? I’ve got the impression that you’re worried about something specific.”

I turned to stare at where Steen was working. I had a whole list of things worrying me. The unknown dangers to be faced on Fortuna. The question of how Playdon and my teammates would react when they learnt the full truth about what had happened to the alien race. The conversation that I’d eventually have to have with General Torrek.

Playdon was right that there was one very specific issue bothering me though. I’d told Fian that I needed a break where life was normal and uneventful. I’d told myself that my fantasies about being back in New York were because I wanted to be living an ordinary student life for a while. The truth was that I wanted to be my old self again.

If I looked in a mirror right now, then I’d look almost exactly like that old self. I was wearing my Military impact suit with the hood up but unsealed. Only the centre of my face was visible, and my implanted web didn’t extend across that because of the potential impact on my vision, breathing, and speech.

The problem was how I looked when I didn’t have the heavy fabric of an impact suit covering my shimmering body. I was never good at talking about emotional things, but Playdon had just shared some deeply private things with me. He trusted me not to repeat that information to anyone, and I knew he’d never repeat anything personal that I told him in return.

I turned to face Playdon again, and fought to keep my voice calm and untroubled. “There are times when I’m perfectly happy about the flickering lights under my skin, but when I unexpectedly catch sight of my reflection . . .”

I was losing the battle with my voice, and had to break off my sentence to get it back under control. “I have to learn to live with that though. My immune system is totally dependent on my implanted web now, so removing it would kill me.”

Playdon nodded. “Given your feelings about psychologists, I assume that the Military has offered you counselling but you’ve refused it?”

I grimaced. “Yes.”

“Remember that you’re welcome to talk to me about this issue at any time.” Playdon’s voice abruptly changed from sympathetic to briskly practical. “You obviously need to know a lot more about the Berlin Spire Complex before making a decision about whether you want to work on it or not, so I’ll cover some details in my lectures this afternoon. To avoid putting you under any pressure from your classmates, I’ll let everyone think I’m just doing a standard background information session on Berlin.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Playdon turned his head to look at Steen again. “Sensor spike 3 seems to have been successfully salvaged, so I’ll go and check on how dig team 2 is progressing with their excavation.”

We both stood up, and Playdon activated the hover belt he was wearing, lifted up into the air, and skimmed off towards the group of sleds belonging to teams 2 and 3. I watched him go, feeling oddly shaky.

This was the problem I always had with emotional things. I didn’t just find it hard to talk about them. Any discussion left me feeling exposed and vulnerable afterwards. I was already desperately thinking through my conversation with Playdon, and wishing I’d said something different, or preferably said nothing at all.

I sighed, and went back to Raven and the rest of dig team 1. As I sat down next to Fian, he turned to look expectantly at me.

“What did Playdon say?”

“About what?” I asked nervously.

Fian raised his eyebrows. “About you working on the dig site.”

“Oh. Playdon says I can spend two hours working tomorrow.”

Fian frowned. “So why are you looking worried rather than pleased?”

I was still stunned by the idea of working on the Berlin Spire Complex. I wasn’t ready to discuss it with Fian yet, especially not in front of an audience. “I’m not worried.”

He gave me a suspicious look, and said the four ominous words that I’d learned to dread. “We’ll discuss this later.”

I groaned.

 

Part 4

When we reached the end of our usual morning’s working time, Steen was tantalizingly close to reaching the stasis box. Playdon agreed to his plea that the class should stay on the dig site for an extra ten minutes to let him retrieve it, but warned us that he’d still be starting his afternoon lectures at the usual time.

It actually took Steen an extra twenty minutes to get the stasis box. It was always a rush to shower, change into ordinary clothes, and eat during our lunch break, so losing twenty minutes left us having to do everything at twice the speed. The good side of this was Fian didn’t have time to ask me any questions before we dashed into the hall to join the queue for the food dispensers. Once we were carrying our trays across to our regular table though, I heard him sigh.

“You’ve ordered stew.”

I stopped walking and frowned at him. “What’s wrong with me ordering stew?”

“It’s always a bad sign when you order stew. You find it hard to eat when you’re worried, so you order food that’s easy to swallow, and when you’re desperately worried, you stop eating entirely.”

“You’re imagining things,” I said, in a dignified voice. “There’s absolutely no significance in me ordering stew.”

“I’m not imagining anything,” said Fian. “The entire class knows it’s a bad sign when you order stew.”

I made a withering noise of disbelief, and led the way on to the table. As soon as we’d put our trays on the table and sat down, Fian gave me a questioning look.

“Are you going to tell me what’s bothering you?”

“Not when Steen is sitting at the next table. He’s overheard enough of our personal conversations already.” I picked up my spoon and started eating my stew.

Fian glanced in Steen’s direction. “This evening then.”

By this evening, I would have heard Playdon’s promised lecture on the Berlin Spire Complex, and have a much better idea of how I felt about working on it. “Yes, this evening.”

Raven arrived a moment later, closely followed by Dalmora, Amalie, and Krath. They immediately sat down and started eating their meals, but after swallowing his first mouthful of food, Krath spared a moment to look nosily at my plate.

“Jarra’s ordered stew,” he said. “What’s wrong? Are we going to get more crashing spaceships?”

I gave a despairing groan, and Fian laughed at me.

“So, what’s wrong?” repeated Krath. “Has …”

Amalie firmly interrupted him. “Stop asking Jarra questions, or you won’t have time to eat before Playdon starts his lectures.”

Krath sighed.

We all started eating again at high speed. I’d nearly finished my stew when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see Fian was holding out two tablets towards me.

I gave him a reproachful look. “Taking those tablets is just like swallowing slugs.”

“They aren’t that bad,” said Fian.

“Yes, they are. They start dissolving in your mouth, so there’s a squidgy sensation as they go down your throat.”

“They start dissolving immediately you take them to optimise the absorption into your system.”

“You’ve been looking up my meds on the Earth data net, haven’t you?” I said accusingly.

“Yes,” said Fian. “My father said that you should always check the details of meds before you take them. Given my feelings about my father, I don’t think I’ve ever said this before, but in this particular case I think he’s right.”

I let out a weary sigh. “Scientists.”

“The rest of my family are scientists, but I’m a historian.” Fian kept holding out his hand. “Your doctors told me it was essential for you to take your meds, Jarra.”

I groaned, accepted the tablets, and took a huge gulp of my drink to wash the repellent things down. The food dispensers had been restocked yesterday, so I’d been able to get my favourite flavour of Fizzup, but the tablets ruined the taste.

“There’s exactly the same horrible aftertaste as with slugs too,” I grumbled. “It’s sixteen years since Nurse Cass forced me to eat slugs in Nursery, but I’ll never forget that bitter taste, or the way I was sick afterwards.”

Everyone else stopped eating and stared at me. “Are you serious, Jarra?” asked Raven. “Hospital Earth really fed you slugs in Nursery?”

I shook my head. “The slug thing wasn’t Hospital Earth’s fault. Nurse Cass was evil. If you said anything that she didn’t like, then she fed you a slug as a punishment.”

“I hope something was done to stop this Nurse Cass from working with children,” said Fian fiercely, “because if she’s still …”

“Don’t worry,” I interrupted him. “Nurse Cass got banned from working with children the day after she fed me slugs. She’d left her lookup on the corridor table while she tidied the linen store room. I grabbed my chance to lock her in the store room, used her lookup to call my ProMum, and then Candace called the child abuse hotline.”

I grinned. “A whole group of Hospital Earth Inspectors descended on our Nursery fifteen minutes later, checked the surveillance vids, and spent the rest of the day questioning Nurse Cass. It was totally zan!”

“I think I’ve heard your friend Keon mention something about this,” said Fian.

“You probably have,” I said happily. “The inspectors didn’t just question Nurse Cass, but everyone else as well – at least, everyone who was old enough to talk. That meant Keon got scolded for insolence, and I got scolded for disruptive behaviour. Keon still complains about me getting him into trouble back then, but it was worth it to get rid of evil Nurse Cass and …”

Lecturer Playdon moved to stand at the front of the hall and spoke in a pointed voice. “You’ve got two minutes.”

I hastily ate my last spoonful of stew, then joined the rest of the class in a high-speed burst of clearing up and moving furniture. We had the chairs lined up in neat rows and sat down only twenty seconds late. Playdon was obviously in a generous mood, because he didn’t complain about the twenty seconds, or the fact most of the class were holding slices of cake, just started his lecture.

“We’ve already covered events in Berlin during the twentieth century, and most details of its history in the next two centuries were lost in the Earth data net crash, so we’ll now jump forward in time to the era of the United Earth. I’m sure you’ve all seen images of the Wallam-Crane Monument on Adonis.”

We all nodded. It was virtually impossible for any member of humanity over the age of five to have escaped seeing images of the Wallam-Crane Monument. Every Wallam-Crane day, all the vid channels would show tediously similar anniversary programmes and celebrations, with footage of the first portal experiment intermingled with tours of the Wallam-Crane Monument.

Playdon tapped at his lookup, and an image of the Wallam-Crane Monument’s most famous stained-glass window appeared on the huge wall vid behind him. The window that showed the original Thaddeus Wallam-Crane standing next to his prototype portal.

“I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this,” said Krath chattily, “but Thaddeus Wallam-Crane’s ears stick out a lot in the vids of the first portal experiment. They don’t look nearly as bad in that stained-glass window though.”

“It’s true that the images of the Wallam-Crane dynasty in the memorial rooms are heavily idealized, but the inscriptions hold an important core of truth.” Playdon read the glittering words on the wall above the stained-glass window. “Thaddeus Alexander Wallam-Crane gave humanity portal technology.”

I winced. All through the childhood I’d spent in the residential homes of Hospital Earth, I’d hated Thaddeus Alexander Wallam-Crane, and fantasised about travelling back in time to 15 November 2142 so I could strangle him at birth. Now that I’d been welcomed into my Betan clan, and seen the family tree that showed my ancestry all the way back to before Exodus century, I had some complicated emotions about that old fantasy.

Playdon tapped at his lookup again, and the wall vid showed a second stained-glass window of a serious man sitting at a desk. Playdon read the new window inscription aloud.

“Thaddeus Benjamin Wallam-Crane gave humanity portals on every street corner.”

As a child trapped on Earth by my faulty immune system, I’d only been interested in the two members of the Wallam-Crane family I considered my personal enemies. In my fairer moments, I’d grudgingly admitted that Thaddeus Alexander was only guilty of inventing the standard portals that I was able to use myself, while it was Thaddeus Ignatius who’d ruined my life by inventing the drop portals that were key to interstellar portal travel.

I’d always considered the rest of the Wallam-Crane dynasty as being boring irrelevances, and Thaddeus Benjamin the most tedious of them all, so I let my mind drift from the early entries on the Tell clan family tree to those for my immediate birth family. I’d been officially welcomed into the clan five months ago, but I’d spent three of those months in a tank, so I’d made no progress on dealing with several family-related issues.

One was obviously my disappointment about my grandmother’s relationship to Riak Torrek. Another was the difficulty of talking to my brother, Jaxon, when he was still overwhelmed with guilt over the part he’d played in me being raised by Hospital Earth. The third was the fact my only contact with my sister, Gemelle, had been an exchange of impersonally polite recorded messages before the Alien Contact programme was activated.

Everyone kept telling me that Gemelle hadn’t been able to come to my betrothal, meet me when I visited the clan hall after the trip to Fortuna, or even send me any more messages because she was on some vitally important assignment for Military Security. I’d accepted that at first, but now so many months had gone by that I suspected there was a very different reason behind her failure to appear. Gemelle was among the bigots who considered me subhuman.

That thought shouldn’t bother me. It didn’t bother me. I didn’t care whether Gemelle wanted me as a sister or not. If she hated me because I’d been born with a faulty immune system, then she could nuke off.

I thrust thoughts of my sister out of my head, fiercely focused my attention on the wall vid, and saw the image had changed again. This was the third memorial window, which showed a man with a white dove on his arm, standing on a heap of weapons. After what Krath had said earlier, I couldn’t help noticing the man had inherited his grandfather’s prominent ears.

“Thaddeus Carmichael Wallam-Crane gave humanity an Earth united in peace and prosperity,” Playdon read the window inscription. “As I said earlier, these stained-glass window inscriptions hold an important core of truth. Thaddeus Alexander Wallam-Crane was a research scientist working for a specialist technology company, who noticed an oddity during a random experiment that led him to the key to portal technology. It was his son, Thaddeus Benjamin Wallam-Crane, who had the financial expertise to recognise the massive economic potential of his father’s discovery.”

Playdon paused. “Thaddeus Benjamin pulled off a brilliant business coup, buying out the company that employed his father and owned his research. Thaddeus Benjamin renamed the company to be the Wallam-Crane Portal Company, and fought to keep it solvent as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy for several years. Finally, demonstrations of the first prototype portal in 2206 gave Thaddeus Benjamin access to virtually unlimited credit.”

I finally started wondering why Lecturer Playdon was talking about the Wallam-Crane dynasty. This was a pre-history course, covering the period of history when humanity only lived on Earth, so the first three members of the Wallam-Crane family were a perfectly legitimate topic. The only oddity was that Playdon had promised me that he’d give a lecture on the Berlin Spire Complex.

“This was the point where Thaddeus Benjamin established the rules that would make the Wallam-Crane family into the most powerful dynasty in human history,” continued Playdon. “The Wallam-Crane family would never allow outsiders to own a single share in their company, and that company would never sell a portal outright, only rent them to users and governments.”

He paused. “Under Thaddeus Benjamin’s guidance, the Wallam-Crane Portal Company expanded at incredible speed, dealing with any attempts to develop rival portals by brutal buyouts. Within ten years, there were basic portals appearing on the street corners of every major city, and soon more powerful intercontinental portals were being built.”

Playdon gestured at the wall vid. “But the man I really want to talk about today is the one you’re looking at now. Thaddeus Carmichael Wallam-Crane. He was forty years old when he became head of the Wallam-Crane family. By then, humanity was totally dependent on portals. Instead of making tedious journeys of hours or even days, people could simply step through a portal to get anywhere on the same continent. Even intercontinental journeys only took a few extra minutes for people to portal via a transit centre.”

Playdon’s voice took on a note of heavy emphasis. “Humanity was totally dependent on portals, and every portal on Earth was the property of the Wallam-Crane Portal Company. They were powered and controlled by a global portal network, and could be ordered to self-destruct if anyone attempted to take possession of them from the Wallam-Crane family. Thanks to the achievements of his father and grandfather, Thaddeus Carmichael Wallam-Crane effectively owned the world.”

He smiled. “This was one of the moments in history when the destiny of humanity depended on the decisions of one person. Tomorrow afternoon, we’ll watch a fascinating vid made by Dalmora’s father, Ventrak Rostha, that discusses the widely divergent paths history could have taken if Thaddeus Carmichael had been a different type of man. Today, we’re focusing on reality, but I’m not going to linger on how Thaddeus Carmichael used his power to form the United Earth Government and impose a common language on humanity. You’ll all have studied that in tedious detail in school, so I want to focus on a less well-known aspect of the man that’s especially relevant to us.”

Playdon tapped at his lookup again, and I was startled to see an image of the Dig Site Federation’s world map appear on the wall vid.

“I’ve taught Pre-history Foundation courses for University Asgard for four years now,” said Playdon, “and I always give a lecture about Thaddeus Carmichael Wallam-Crane near the end of the course. Each of my classes has worked on a different series of dig site assignments during their year. Due to highly unusual circumstances, this class has worked on some dig sites that wouldn’t usually accept Foundation course students at all. Despite those differences, I can still say exactly the same words that I’ve said in previous years.”

His voice was solemn now. “We have spent this year walking in the footsteps of Thaddeus Carmichael Wallam-Crane.”

I exchanged puzzled glances with Fian.

“Thaddeus Carmichael wasn’t just a visionary with a dream of a united, peaceful Earth,” continued Playdon. “He was also a stunningly imaginative architect, who used his wealth and power to build some of the greatest monuments on Earth. Virtually every site that appears on the Dig Site Federation’s world map has been impacted by one or more of Thaddeus Carmichael’s projects.”

Playdon pointed at the wall vid, and I saw some of the dots that marked dig sites glow brighter. “We started this year working in New York. Thaddeus Carmichael was personally involved in the redevelopment of a large area of what is now New York Main Dig Site to provide a suitable setting for the United Earth Americas Parliament Complex. Sadly, these buildings were totally destroyed in a massive fire that burned for two months, but many images survived the Earth data net crash.”

The wall vid changed to show an image of a classically elegant building, with lawns sweeping down to the river.

“The Americas Parliament House was on one side of the Hudson River,” said Playdon. “The Unity Bridge was designed to lead tourists across the river to Wallam-Crane Square and the original Wallam-Crane Monument. Most people are unaware that the monument on Adonis was built to be an exact copy of an older building on Earth.”

I saw an image of an ornate golden bridge, and then the curious sight of what looked like the Wallam-Crane Monument on Adonis, but was surrounded by skyscrapers rather than formal gardens.

“Our class also paid a very brief visit to London dig site,” continued Playdon. “The first three generations of the Wallam-Crane dynasty were all born in London, so Thaddeus Carmichael took an especial interest in the design of the United Earth Europe Parliament Complex, choosing to build it on a platform jutting out across an artificial lake.”

The wall vid showed a night-time scene of a graceful building that seemed to float on a lake. It was lit up by red and blue floodlights, that reflected in the water.

“Thaddeus Carmichael moved on from designing the United Earth Regional Parliament Complexes to larger projects,” said Playdon, “and eventually became the driving force behind the three great Humanity Habitat projects which were largely neglected by off-world historians until the blaze of publicity this year. Eden, Atlantis, and Ark. Our class worked at Eden, and some of us joined the evacuation to the caverns of Ark.”

There was a series of images of the glowing beauty of Eden surrounded by rainforest, which inevitably triggered sad thoughts of Joth. A second later, I gave a startled laugh as I saw an image of myself and Fian dancing at the party in Ark. Dalmora and Playdon were in the band playing ancient rock and roll music, so the image must have been taken by either Krath or Amalie. That changed to what looked like an army of spiders.

“We spent time on one of the islands of the California Land Raft,” said Playdon. “The records of the building of San Angeles were lost in the Earth data net crash, so we don’t know for sure that Thaddeus Carmichael was involved, but I can’t imagine anyone else defying nature on such a grand scale.”

He shrugged. “Thaddeus Carmichael was definitely responsible for all the City Heart Rebuilds. After the invention of portals, a lot of people moved to live in the countryside, leaving the cities less crowded and their centres neglected or in some cases abandoned to flooding. The City Heart Rebuilds gave cities vibrant new centres in widely varying styles. In the last few months, most of us have spent time in Sydney, Toronto, and Jaipur. The Sydney Wings and Jaipur Palace were inspired by older buildings, while the sculptured buildings of Toronto Heart were entirely original creations.”

I wrinkled my nose at the images of the places I’d missed seeing while I was in a tank.

“And now we’re here in Berlin, the site of the final and most impressive of Thaddeus Carmichael’s City Heart Rebuilds.” Playdon’s voice filled with enthusiasm. “This year has made me wonder if the Berlin Spire Complex wasn’t truly a City Heart Rebuild at all, but really a forerunner of the Humanity Habitats.”

I leaned forward eagerly in my seat as I saw the wall vid showing the gleaming mass of interconnected spires.

“The Berlin Spire Complex wasn’t like most of the other City Hearts,” said Playdon. “It wasn’t just intended to be admired by visitors, but to be lived in, and crucially it had a shield that could be closed to protect it against extreme weather and pollution. The surviving structure is so impressive that it’s easy to forget that additional shield ever existed, especially since the only images of it that have survived the Earth data net crash are in the open state.”

The wall vid changed to what was obviously a much older image, because the spires were shining even brighter. What looked like half a dozen metal bands curved up to meet the highest central spire.

“The shield looks unimpressive there,” said Playdon, “but it was the reason the Berlin Spire Complex retained a thriving population until late into Exodus century, and has one of the highest concentrations of stasis boxes on Earth. Unfortunately, archaeologists face unique problems reaching those stasis boxes. The spire walls are made of a decorative version of diamene and remain as strong as the day they were built. The floors were made of a different, much lighter material though, which has grown brittle as it aged.”

Playdon pulled a face. “You should have all experienced enough of Earth’s winter weather to understand the phrase archaeologists use when describing conditions in the Berlin Spire Complex. Setting foot on the floor is like walking on thin ice.”

His voice changed to a brisker note. “So how do you work on a skyscraper where you can trust the walls but can’t set foot on the floor? Rather than explain it myself, I’ll let the experts do it. We’ll take a half an hour break at this point, and then I’ll show you one of the Berlin Spire Complex training vids.”

Fian instantly stood up. “We didn’t have time for you to do a data download at lunchtime, Jarra, so we’d better go and do one now.”

“My doctors said that the morning and evening data downloads were the important ones for their analysis,” I objected. “A midday data download is helpful, but …”

Fian ignored me and headed for the door. I pulled a resigned face at Raven, and the two of us stood up and followed Fian. When we arrived at the room I was sharing with Fian, Raven took up a guard position in the corridor while Fian and I went inside.

This was originally two single rooms, but we’d converted them into a double by taking out the dividing wall and pushing the two beds together. Fian went to get the download equipment from the storage area, while I stripped to the waist and sat down on my bed. I grimaced as I caught sight of my shimmering reflection in the mirror. There were naturally two mirrors in the room, so it was hard to avoid looking at one of them.

Fian brought over the mysterious black cube, with its array of metal disks and wires. He pressed the largest metal disk to my left shoulder, where it clung as if by magic, and the light on the cube started pulsing an unnerving red. Fian continued rapidly attaching the smaller six disks to what my doctors referred to as the key points of my implanted web.

As soon as the last disk was in place, the light on the cube changed to the flashing amber that meant the data download was initializing. Fian glanced at the cube, nodded, and pulled over a chair to sit facing me.

I coughed pointedly. “You’re staring at my fronts again.”

“Sorry.” Fian lifted his head, so he was looking at my face instead. “Hercules is one of the most prudish worlds in Delta sector, so I never expected to see …”

He broke off his sentence because the light on the cube was now a steady amber. Fian hit the transmit button.

I was thinking through the implications of his unfinished sentence. “Not even if you got married?”

“My impression was that things were supposed to happen in total darkness,” said Fian.

I looked down at my arms and gave a rueful laugh. “It’s never dark with me around.”

The light on the cube turned green and started flashing rapidly. “Transmission is now in progress,” said Fian. “Remember that you mustn’t move until the light stops flashing and is a steady green. We don’t want one of your contacts coming loose during the transmission again. You scared your doctors to death yesterday.”

“I couldn’t help sneezing,” I said plaintively.

“Now that you can’t go anywhere,” continued Fian, “we can discuss what’s been worrying you.”

I frowned. “You deliberately chained me to a data transmission so you could interrogate me? That’s evil.”

“I’m sure Colonel Leveque would say it’s good tactics,” said Fian.

“It’s cheating,” I said. “We agreed that we’d talk this evening.”

“I don’t see the point in delaying this conversation,” said Fian. “Playdon asked you if you wanted to try working on the Berlin Spire Complex, and you’ve decided to say yes.”

I stared at him. “How do you know that?”

Fian shook his head sadly. “Playdon was doing a wonderful job of pretending his lecture was about Thaddeus Carmichael Wallam-Crane, but the way you reacted to the mention of the Berlin Spire Complex gave it away.”

“Well, you’re half right. Apparently, there are some very high ruins on Fortuna, and Colonel Leveque thinks it would be useful for me to … But I haven’t decided whether to say yes or not.”

“Yes, you have,” said Fian. “You had an eager, glowing expression on your face earlier. I recognize that look and know exactly what it means. You claimed that you wanted to spend the next few weeks being an ordinary Foundation course student, but you can’t resist the chance to go climbing skyscrapers.”

I blushed. Fian was right, of course. “Well, climbing skyscrapers is sort of ordinary. I’ve always dreamed of joining a research team one day and …”

Fian burst out laughing. “Yes, of course working on skyscrapers counts as perfectly ordinary. I think you’d better warn Dalmora, Amalie, and Krath when we get back to the hall. If you’re learning to climb spires, then we’ll be learning to be your support team, so we need to pay close attention to the training vid.”

“That’s true,” I said uneasily.

“You’d better break the news to Raven as well.” Fian grimaced. “He gets nervous watching you take risks on a dig site, so he’s going to be a bit unhappy about you climbing skyscrapers.”

I frowned at him. “You don’t have a problem with it though?”

“I told you that I’d had three months to think things through and I’d made a decision. Wherever you go, I’ll be sprinting in your wake, even if you’re climbing skyscrapers.”

I relaxed. “That’s all right then. I wasn’t sure that you knew.”

“Knew what?”

“That when a tag leader goes up a skyscraper, their tag support goes with them.”

Fian gave me a look of horrified realization.

“You don’t have to do that,” I added hastily. “Playdon let me make my own decision, and I’m sure he’ll let you make your decision too. I’m sure we’ll be working with Cassandra 2 anyway, so one of them can act as my tag support.”

Fian gulped. “No. I’m not letting anyone else take my place. If that’s how this works then … We’re both going climbing skyscrapers.”

 

Part 5

Earth Europe, 21 November 2789

The next morning, our class got three transport sleds out of their storage dome – two standard transports and one loaded with specialist equipment – and drove them towards the Berlin Spire Complex. I sat at the back of the leading transport sled with the rest of dig team 1 and Raven.

“The spires here in Berlin remind me of the skyscrapers in New York,” said Krath.

We all considered that for a moment. “Well, both the Berlin spires and the New York skyscrapers are tall,” said Fian, “but other than that they’re totally different. The spires here are reasonably intact and glittery, while the remains of the New York skyscrapers are skeletal and black.”

“I didn’t mean that they look the same,” said Krath. “I mean that driving towards the Berlin Spire Complex reminds me of when our class took a mobile dome deep into New York main to camp on the Grand Circle. As we got closer to the heart of New York, the skyscrapers seemed to grow taller and taller.”

He pointed an accusing finger at the glimmering mass of spires. “As we get closer to the Berlin Spire Complex, it seems to grow taller as well. I’m sure you’ll tell me I’m a nardle, but …”

“No, you’re right,” I said. “I’ve heard Lecturer Playdon talking about the huge area the Berlin Spire Complex covers, and the height of the central spires. I’ve seen holo images of it. I’ve seen the real thing from a distance. I still didn’t appreciate the sheer size of it until now that we’re getting close to it.”

“The problem is that you aren’t used to seeing buildings that are more than a few storeys high,” said Raven. “Nobody is. Everyone who visits the Wallam-Crane Monument on Adonis has seen vids about it. In theory, they know exactly how high it is, but they’re still shocked when they portal in and see the reality towering over them.”

He paused. “The same thing is true of the Spirit of Man statue here on Earth. I first visited that when I was a cadet at the Military Academy, so I’d got used to seeing relatively high buildings on a daily basis, but I was still staggered by the sight of that statue.”

I’d been drafted into the Military, and promoted with embarrassing speed to a Military Commander, but my immune system problem had stopped me from paying even the most fleeting visit to the Military Academy. I’d seen images of it though, and most of the buildings hadn’t been wildly different from the campuses of University Earth, so the mention of high buildings confused me.

“I didn’t know the Military Academy had any high buildings,” I said. “Why are they needed? The Military Academy can’t possibly be short of building land when it has a whole planet to itself.”

“Actually, the Military Academy doesn’t have the whole planet to itself,” said Raven. “Despite the planet being called Academy, it’s also the Alpha sector Military supply world, and it isn’t the Military Academy itself that has the high buildings but the factories. Some of the ones used to manufacture things like fighter ships, weapons, domes, and solar array components are massive. I’d love to see what they’re like inside, but any Military officer who goes near them gets yelled at by some Master Sergeant or other.”

Krath frowned. “I thought the lowest rank in the Military was a Lieutenant, and Sergeants didn’t exist any longer. Even if they do still exist, historically any Military officer could order them around.”

Raven visibly shuddered. “The supply areas aren’t run by the Military, but the Civilian Auxiliary Service, and you should never, ever, ever say anything about the Military ordering them around in front of a CAS member. At best, you’d get a two-hour lecture on how the Civilian Auxiliary Service has been a totally separate force from the Military for centuries, and they never take orders from Military officers or salute them. At worst, you’d end up buried in an unmarked grave.”

Fian eagerly nodded. “When Jarra was in a tank, her cousin Drago’s fighter team helped keep me occupied by training me to be a fighter pilot. Jarra’s brother, Jaxon, came to visit her every couple of weeks, and gave me some lessons as well. He told me about when Drago was a raw recruit on his fighter team. They were caught up in the comet blockade at Hera, and things got a bit messy.”

Raven raised his eyebrows. “From what I’ve heard, things got far more than messy.”

“Jaxon was a bit secretive about what happened during the blockade itself,” said Fian, “but he said that afterwards the team had to collect some replacement fighter ships from the Civilian Auxiliary Service on Adonis. Its members were all annoyed about the number of ships that had been destroyed or damaged at Hera, because the demand for replacements had been so great that it wiped out their entire stockpile.”

He shrugged. “Apparently, they’d had to ask for assistance from the supply worlds in Beta and Gamma sectors. CAS Alpha sector had a proud tradition of supplying ships to other sectors without ever asking for help in return, and considered having to go begging the ultimate humiliation. Jaxon and his team got blamed for the carelessness of the entire Military, and were yelled at by a Private, then a Corporal, then three different Sergeants with increasingly fancy titles.”

Fian laughed. “Jaxon said they only survived the final onslaught by a Command Sergeant Major by sending Drago in for a full-scale charm attack. The Command Sergeant Major ended up inviting Drago to have dinner with her, so the team escaped with their lives.”

Everyone else joined in Fian’s laughter, but I frowned. I’d never even heard of the Civilian Auxiliary Service. That was probably because most of my knowledge of the Military came from watching info vids about them, and those vids wouldn’t include details of a totally separate force. Fian obviously didn’t just know the Civilian Auxiliary Service existed. He knew all the Military jokes about it as well.

I found that oddly disconcerting. When Fian and I were first drafted, I’d known far more about the Military than he did, but now I realized our positions had been reversed. When I was decanted, I’d been stunned and deeply impressed to learn that Drago’s fighter team had helped Fian become a qualified fighter pilot. I hadn’t thought through the fact that Fian wouldn’t just have learned about flying during his training, but picked up a lot of general information about the Military as well, and the news that he’d been having lessons from my brother came as a complete shock.

For a moment, I was hurt that Fian hadn’t told me he’d been spending time with Jaxon, but then I realised I was being ridiculous. I’d missed three months of Fian’s life. We’d only been back together for eleven days. Of course he hadn’t spent those eleven days bombarding me with trivial details of everything he’d done while I was in a tank. We’d discussed him becoming a fighter pilot because it was deeply relevant on our journey to Fortuna. He’d gradually tell me about other things – like him spending time with my brother – when they became relevant too.

Yesterday, Playdon had told me about when he’d spent a long period in a tank himself. He’d said that when he’d been decanted, he’d felt like the world had jumped forward in time, and mentioned psychological and relationship aftereffects. He’d specifically talked about how he and his wife had changed roles on the research team, but now I understood that he was referring to a much wider issue as well.

While I was in a tank, all the people I knew had kept living their lives and experiencing things that changed them. Some of those changes would be trivial, but others could impact my relationship with them.

When I first came out of the tank, I couldn’t let myself think about anything but going to Fortuna with Fian to lower the alien defences. Once we’d done that, I’d moved on to dealing with the issue of my new appearance. I’d been worried what people would think of it, and obviously cared most about Fian’s reaction.

The truth was that Fian and my other classmates had adapted to seeing the flickering lights under my skin far better than me. Now they’d got over the initial novelty, they seemed to think of my lights just the same way that I thought of Kai having her head shaved except for the single strip of long, red hair running over the top. Unusual, a bit dramatic, but just one of many things that made quietly determined Kai into a unique person.

My classmates had grown used to my flickering lights, but I was having wildly fluctuating emotions about them, so some days I felt worse than others. There was something bothering me about the lights that went much deeper than just concerns about my appearance.

I shied away from that thought, and concentrated on the issue of other people changing. By now, I’d been reassured on the crucial point that Fian’s feelings for me were the same as before. He still cared for me, still loved me, and was still attracted to me, but I needed to accept other things about him were slightly different now.

I’d been helping Fian adjust to being a Military officer before I went into the tank. Now he was established as a Military officer, it would be him helping me to adjust. It sounded as if Fian had got friendly with Jaxon, so he might be able to help me sort out my relationship with my brother as well.

There were changes in some of my other friends too. Most obviously Krath. He might be drinking a worrying amount of coffee, but he seemed much more competent than before, and he’d clearly done well acting as tag support for Amalie while Fian and I were away. As for Amalie …

I wrinkled my nose. When Fian and I rejoined Asgard 6, Amalie had guiltily told me she was now top of the class. She’d felt it was unfair to have taken my place when I was unconscious in a tank. I’d reassured her that it was perfectly fair, because I’d joined the class with a huge advantage over her and everyone else. I hadn’t just been studying history since I was a child living in Home. I’d worked on dig sites during every school holiday as well.

I’d meant what I said. After everything I’d been through this year, I couldn’t resent Amalie being top of the class. It was a staggering achievement for a girl who’d grown up on a frontier world in Epsilon sector. I considered it totally zan and was pleased for her.

What was worrying me was that Amalie had taken over as dig team 1 tag leader while I was away, but instantly backed down from the position when Fian and I returned to the class. She kept saying that she found it too stressful, and I’d wondered if she was using that as an excuse because she’d taken my place at the top of the class and didn’t want to steal my place on dig team 1 as well.

Now Playdon had told me about Amalie refusing the second tag leader position on our Fortuna team, I had to accept she meant what she was saying about stress. Playdon felt Steen wasn’t really qualified to be our second tag leader, and hoped Amalie would change her mind about taking the position. I hoped she’d change her mind too. I’d feel a lot safer working on Fortuna if I knew Amalie was there to help me rather than having to depend on Steen.

During the years I was working on dig sites with my school history club, there’d been several cases where a club member tried tag leading and proved they had the right abilities, but still chose to go back to other dig team roles. They’d often used the word stress too, and the reason for the stress was usually lack of confidence.

Tag leading involved making a rapid series of decisions that could have life-threatening consequences. You had to have confidence in your ability to make those decisions. Many tag leaders erred on the side of over-estimating their own abilities. Steen did that a lot. Perhaps I did it too sometimes, but it was better to make a few mistakes from over-confidence than to be constantly questioning your own judgement. In a crisis situation on a dig site, even a second of hesitation could be fatal.

If I was right that Amalie’s problem was lack of confidence, then I might be able to help her by …

My thoughts were interrupted by a chime from the curved Military lookup attached to the left forearm of my impact suit. I glanced at the screen, expecting this to be another message from Military Support, and grimaced. General Torrek had obviously got tired of waiting for me to respond to messages from Military Support because he’d sent me a message himself.

I groaned, gave a reluctant tap at the screen, and just had time to see the familiar words “health and other personal issues” before Playdon’s voice started speaking on the team circuit.

“We’re currently driving along Clearway 14, and we’re about to meet the Spire Circle. That’s a double-width clearway which makes a complete circle around the Berlin Spire Complex. We’re going to turn left onto the Spire Circle, and drive clockwise around it to meet Cassandra 2 at Spire 152.”

We’d soon be arriving at our excavation site, and there were strict dig site rules about not using lookups when working. I grabbed for the excuse to close the message from General Torrek and set my lookup to silent mode. I’d obviously have to read the message properly later and send a reply, but for now I blotted it out of my mind and stared at the oppressive bulk of the Berlin Spire Complex. We were so close to it that I couldn’t tilt my head back far enough to see the top of the nearest spire.

A minute later, our sled was turning left. Words painted on a boulder at the side of the Spire Circle clearway told me we were passing Spire 147. We drove on for a few more minutes before I saw several sleds parked in a neat line at the side of the clearway.

“We’ll park our sleds at the end of the line,” said Playdon.

Our three sleds pulled into the side of the clearway, and Playdon jumped down onto the ground. He turned to stand facing us as he continued speaking.

“I want to cover three important points with you before we say hello to Cassandra 2. My first point is that when we were working at the California Land Raft, we spent a lot of social time with the Cassandra 2 team, and worked on excavations near theirs. Now we’re doing a full joint excavation, we’ll obviously need to be on the same comms.”

His voice took on a meaningful note. “In a moment, I’ll be inviting the Cassandra 2 research team to join our team circuit. They’re doing us the courtesy of allowing us to work with them as if we were a fellow research team, so we should behave appropriately. Dig team 1 and Raven will be working, so they’ll obviously need to speak on the comms. I’d like them to maintain as professional a manner as possible. I don’t want anyone making embarrassing remarks or jokes, and I especially mean you, Krath.”

Krath made a wounded sound.

“Umm, you’re seriously suggesting that I do excavation work, sir?” Raven asked anxiously.

“You’ll be coming to Fortuna as a member of my research team, Raven,” said Playdon. “Colonel Leveque has agreed with me that the working protocols for Fortuna should apply to the remaining weeks of my Asgard 6 class. That means it’s totally my decision what work Military members of my class do, and I want to start moving you from sitting watching our excavation work to actually taking part in it.”

“I don’t think Colonel Leveque meant that agreement to apply to me,” said Raven. “I’m supposed to be working as a team member when we’re on Fortuna, because the Military urgently needs some officers to gain experience in excavations, but right now I’m acting as Jarra and Fian’s bodyguard. My overriding priority has to be their safety.”

“I appreciate that,” said Playdon. “I don’t want to ask you to do anything that could interfere with your bodyguarding duties, and you must warn me at once if I misjudge the situation. This morning, I’m just thinking of you spending five minutes firing a line rifle. Eventually, I’d like you to try ascending a spire with Jarra and Fian.”

“I suppose there’s no objection to me firing a line rifle if it will literally only distract me for five minutes, and as for ascending a spire …” Raven turned to look doubtfully at Spire 152. “Logically, I’d be in a better position to defend Fian and Jarra if I’m up on the spire with them rather than down here.”

“Good,” said Playdon. “My second point is that I’ve brought the whole class along this morning because it’s a rare opportunity for you to get a closeup view of some skyscraper work. Most of you won’t be working yourselves, just sitting on the transport sleds and watching, but it’s vital that you listen closely to what’s being said on the comms and obey safety instructions immediately.”

He paused. “My third point is that Cassandra 2 is a far more senior team than us, so Professor Rono Kipkibor will be leading this excavation rather than me. You’ll have noticed he … has a rather more exuberant personality than me, but I assure you that he’s an entirely trustworthy team leader, and incredibly strict about dig site safety.”

He paused. “I’ll now invite Cassandra 2 to join our comms.”

There was a couple of seconds of random crackling on the team circuit, then Playdon spoke again in heavily formal tones. “I think we’ve got all ten members of Cassandra 2 on our team circuit now. Thank you for allowing us to join your excavation today, Professor Kipkibor.”

There was a distinctive laugh from Rono. “You’re very welcome, Asgard 6. We’ll come over to join you.”

I saw Rono wave an arm in a beckoning gesture, and start leading his team towards us.

“Dig team 1 and Raven should join me on the ground now,” said Playdon.

I stood up, grabbed the side of our transport sled with both hands, and swung my body over it to land on the crushed rubble of the clearway below. I somehow landed much harder than I intended, so the fabric of my impact suit triggered, freezing me in place like a statue.

I started gently toppling forwards, and realized I was about to fall flat on my face in front of every member of both the Asgard 6 and Cassandra 2 teams. For the next couple of seconds, everything seemed to happen in slow motion. I saw Playdon take several hasty steps forward, but knew he’d be too late to catch me. Fian and Raven must have already been following me down from the sled though. They landed on either side of me just in time to grab my arms and pull me back upright, then held me steady until my impact suit fabric relaxed and I could move again.

“Thanks,” I said, feeling hot from embarrassment. “I don’t know how I misjudged the jump that badly.”

“It was probably because your muscle atrophy threw you off balance,” said Stephan, the junior tag leader for Cassandra 2. “You’ve only been out of your regrowth tank for about ten days, so you’ll still be weaker than normal. I went through this myself after my accident in New York, and the muscle difference is always especially noticeable when taking your body weight on your arms.”

Raven frowned. “Perhaps Jarra should wait for a few days before she tries a spire ascension. I know you use electric winches, but there’s got to be some actual climbing involved.”

Playdon and Rono turned to look at each other. Apart from them both being somewhere just past thirty, I’d always thought the two of them were total opposites in every possible way. Rono was noisily outgoing, while Playdon was quietly formal. Rono was tall and muscled, while Playdon was medium height with a slender build. The contrast between Rono’s dark, smiling face and Playdon’s anxious-eyed look was especially noticeable, but now there was a sudden resemblance between them.

It wasn’t just that their expressions had abruptly aligned in serious professionalism. I had the feeling that Rono and Playdon were sharing a moment of almost telepathic communication. I remembered that they’d been in the same Foundation class, gone through the degree course, and worked together on research teams. They’d been friends for over a decade, going through first Playdon’s severe accident and then his wife’s death, and there’d have been many other times of shared crisis too.

That second of wordless communication ended, and Rono and Playdon turned to face us again. “This is Professor Kipkibor’s excavation and his decision,” said Playdon.

Playdon had just said Rono was incredibly strict about dig site safety. The entire class had come here so I could try ascending a spire. Had I escaped the humiliation of falling on my face just to be told I wasn’t fit enough to try an ascension, so everyone had wasted their morning?

“When we’re working with lead lines, we always take the slower but safer option of doing a double ascension,” said Rono. “That means Keren will be there to make sure Jarra doesn’t have a problem, and I never risk anyone doing more than acclimatizing to the height on their first ascension anyway.”

He gestured at Playdon. “I’m happy to continue, but Jarra is Lecturer Playdon’s student, so this is also his decision.”

“It’s always the familiar everyday actions that you misjudge when recovering from muscle atrophy,” said Playdon. “Jumping down from a sled is a classic example. Jarra has never done an ascension before, so she’ll be taking the transfers slowly and carefully.”

“And since we’re both reaching high and aiming for a double ascension, we may not even get the lead lines in place today,” added Rono briskly. “My team will now set up our equipment while Playdon, Amalie, Krath, and Dalmora assist us. They’ll then take the lead in setting up their own equipment, with us assisting them as necessary.”

I frowned. “Don’t Fian and I need to help set up the equipment?”

“The rule is that anyone ascending doesn’t help with the setting up, just takes a turn at firing lines,” said Keren. “Working up on skyscrapers is hard, and the Berlin Spire Complex is especially difficult, so we can’t waste our energy on carrying heavy objects.”

“Stephan and Raven won’t be helping with setting up either,” added Rono. “Jarra and Fian will both be doing their first ascension, so I want Stephan on rescue standby, while Raven concentrates on stopping spaceships crashing on Jarra’s head.”

I whimpered. “I wish everyone would stop making jokes about crashing spaceships.”

Rono laughed. “We can make jokes about alien artefacts if you prefer, Jarra.”

I whimpered again.

“Right, everyone. Let’s get to work,” said Rono.

Keren and Stephan had already gone to sit on some nearby boulders, so Fian and I went to join them, while Raven stood by on guard duty. I watched, fascinated, as Cassandra 2 unloaded their equipment sled and started setting up. After seeing the Berlin Spire Complex training vid yesterday afternoon, I knew the bulky object that looked like an ancient cannon was a line rifle, and the slender tube a sighting scope. Their two stands were obvious as well.

It was the metal hoops and curved diamene sheeting that confused me. I hadn’t seen anything like them in the training vid. It was only when I saw the hoops being slotted into place over the Cassandra 2 transport sleds, and the diamene sheeting being attached to them, that I worked out their purpose.

“Amaz,” said Krath’s voice on the comms. “Are we going to armour plate our two Asgard 6 transport sleds as well?”

“We are,” said Playdon. “Everyone in the class has tried firing a tag gun at a rock, and experienced what happens when one of the electronic tags ricochets off the rock and hits them. Even with the protection of a sealed impact suit, you can get a nasty bruise. Anchor hooks are vastly heavier, and fired at higher speed. Ricochets can hit with lethal force, and we’re going to have a massive number of ricochets because we’ll be firing at spire walls made of a slightly modified form of diamene.”

There was a pause while Cassandra 2 finished setting up their equipment, and then the whole exercise was repeated with our equipment, including a confusing period where people kept getting on and off our transport sleds to help fit the hoops and diamene sheeting into place.

Rono carefully inspected the positions of the line rifles and sighting scopes, and then mini shelters were dragged into place to protect the people operating the line rifles. I thought we were about to start firing lines, but there was another long delay while Rono and Playdon peered through the scopes. Finally, Rono spoke on the comms.

“Everyone except Playdon and me will now seal their suits and take cover inside the armoured transport sleds.”

Dig team 1 and Raven sealed our suits and climbed into the lead transport sled. I’d expected it to be dark inside, but there was light streaming through narrow viewing slits in the diamene sheeting. Ten other class members were already in there, using binoculars to look through the slits at Spire 152.

Kai glanced at us. “There’s a box of binoculars on the end bench.”

“Thanks,” I said.

We helped ourselves to binoculars and joined the others gazing out of the viewing slits.

“Asgard 6 class members,” said Rono, “you will not unseal your suits or leave your armoured sleds without a direct order from me. Do you understand?”

Our class had once had a memorable lecture from Rono, so we knew the response he expected. “We understand,” we chorused in happy unison.

“Oh, no!” said Playdon sharply. “Please don’t start my class parroting that again.”

Rono ignored him and spoke on the broadcast channel. “This is Cassandra 2 and Asgard 6 at Spire 152. We see no other sleds in our area. Requesting clearance to fire lead lines at Spire 152.”

The response came a few seconds later. “This is Dig Site Command. Cassandra 2 and Asgard 6, we confirm the only sled signals on our screens in that area are yours.”

A distinctive, high pitched beeping sounded on the broadcast channel, then the same voice spoke again.

“This is Dig Site Command. All teams. All teams. Spires 150 through 154 are now code black. I repeat: Spires 150 through 154 are now code black. Asgard 6 and Cassandra 2, you are clear to fire lead lines.”

 

Part 6

“Asgard 6,” said Playdon, “listen very carefully. If a lead line hits the spire wall at too low a speed, then the anchor hook section won’t stand a chance of embedding into the diamene. Too high a speed is even worse, because the anchor hook will ricochet off the spire wall with enough force to reach our shelters and damage the diamene sheeting.”

He spoke the next few sentences with heavy emphasis. “If anyone shouts a heads down warning on the comms, then you mustn’t depend on either the diamene sheeting or your impact suits for protection. You should throw yourselves on the floor of your transport sled, and if possible roll under one of the bench seats. I hope that’s perfectly clear.”

“We understand,” we chanted in unison.

Playdon groaned. “Professor Kipkibor and I will now turn on the projection capability of our targeting scopes. You’ll see two sets of coloured circles appear on the side of Spire 152. Those mark the positions where we want to anchor our two lead lines.”

I looked eagerly across at Spire 152, but couldn’t see any circles at all. Then Rono lifted his arm to point upwards. Now two sets of concentric circles were perfectly obvious, glowing bright on the side of the glittering tower. The only reason I’d missed seeing them before was that they were much higher up than I’d expected. I urgently counted the gaps on Spire 152 where windows had once been. The coloured circles were above a vast curving window gap on the thirtieth floor.

At first, I was just stunned that we’d be firing lead lines that high, then I realized that the two sets of coloured concentric circles reminded me of something I’d seen before. It wasn’t the concentric spheres of humanity’s space, because this was a memory that I associated with my school history club. I was still trying to work out what that memory was, when an unnerving thought distracted me.

Once we’d got our lead lines in place, I’d be going up one of them, and thirty floors was far too high for my impact suit to protect me if I fell. To make matters even worse, all the glass had fallen out of the spire’s windows, and that meant …

I grimaced. We’d parked our sleds and set up our equipment on the safe ground at the side of the extra-wide Spire Circle, so we’d been able to move around without worrying about dangers underfoot. Now I used my binoculars to study the ground directly below the red circles.

Since all the Berlin Spire Complex walls were reasonably intact, there was hardly any rubble over there, just long grass. It looked deceptively safe, but it would be a bad idea to fall even a couple of storeys onto that grass. It had to be packed full of glass shards, and impact suits were vulnerable to sharp objects.

Rono started talking again. “Cassandra 2 will obviously be aiming their line rifle at the set of circles on our left, and Asgard 6 at the set on our right. Lecturer Playdon and I will now each fire one lead line to test our setup, and then I’ll explain how the competition works.”

Competition! Now I knew where I’d seen concentric sets of coloured circles before. My school history teacher had taken our club to help out at a lot of historical re-enactments. The ones about medieval life often included weaponry displays and archery competitions. Except for some differences in the colours, the sets of circles on the side of Spire 152 looked like the targets in the archery competitions.

“I didn’t know there was going to be some sort of competition,” muttered Amalie anxiously. “Did I somehow miss Playdon telling us about it?”

Dalmora shook her head. “I haven’t heard Playdon say anything about a competition either.”

Rono and Playdon each vanished inside the mini shelter by their line rifle. “Lecturer Playdon can have the honour of firing his test line first,” said Rono.

“No, no,” said Playdon. “This is your excavation. Professor Kipkibor. You should definitely have the honour of going first.”

“I’ve no idea how this competition works,” said Fian, “but I’m getting the impression that going first isn’t an advantage.”

Rono’s sigh seemed to confirm Fian’s theory. “Since you insist. This is Rono firing test line.”

I stared expectantly out of the viewing slits. On a couple of occasions, we’d needed to blow something up during an excavation, and I’d used a charge rifle to fire the explosive charges. That hadn’t made much noise, but these line rifles were vastly bigger. I was expecting to hear a loud bang, but there was a curious high-pitched, whistling sound instead. Something shot out of the Cassandra 2 line rifle, and curved incredibly high into the air before colliding with the side of Spire 152 somewhere close to the edge of their target. It then bounced off, ricocheting two-thirds of the way back towards us before falling to the ground.

“Your turn, Lecturer Playdon,” said Rono.

The Asgard 6 line rifle fired with an almost identical result.

Fian adjusted the comms controls on his suit and spoke on the team circuit. “This is Fian. May I ask two questions?”

“Go ahead, Major,” said Rono cheerfully. “I am right about you being a Major, aren’t I? You and Jarra haven’t been promoted again yet?”

Fian gave an embarrassed cough. “I’m still a Major, and Jarra’s a Commander. We’re highly unlikely to get further promotions. It’s Raven who’s still waiting for his promotion to Major to be processed.”

“Oh, yes,” said Rono. “I don’t understand why that’s taking so long. You and Jarra seemed to get promoted overnight.”

“Jarra and I were given field promotions,” said Fian. “Raven’s promotion is going through standard channels which are obviously slower.”

“This isn’t just slow,” grumbled Rono. “It’s glacial. Earth Rolling News reported Raven’s promotion the week after Jarra went into the tank.”

I frowned. Fian had told me that Raven was getting promoted after his heroic actions on the California Land Raft, but I hadn’t realised that promotion had been stuck in channels for three months. How could it possibly take that long?

“Moving on to my questions,” said Fian hastily. “Firstly, the training vid we watched yesterday suggested firing lines to a maximum height of twenty-five storeys. Our targets are five storeys higher than that, so the test lines you fired barely reached them. Why are you aiming so high?”

“The training vid you watched yesterday must have explained the floors inside the Berlin Spire Complex are as fragile as thin ice,” said Rono. “The staircases were made of the same material, and the extra stresses of the stair shapes meant they all collapsed a couple of centuries ago. Once we’ve got our safe lines in place, we can use them to retrieve stasis boxes from all the storeys below our anchor points, but we can’t reach any on higher floors.”

“I suppose the shape of the spire roofs, and the distance they stick out beyond the edge of the towers, means that you can’t lower people down from an aircraft to reach the higher windows either,” said Fian thoughtfully.

“I’d be extremely nervous about going up in an aircraft,” said Rono, “let alone being lowered down from one, but you’re right. That tactic could work on a standard flat-roofed skyscraper but not on these spires. That means we push the limits when firing lines to reach as high as possible. What’s your second question, Fian?”

“If you’re trying to reach as high as possible, why have we set up the line rifles over here by the clearway rather than closer to the spire?”

“Firing a line rifle from too close to the spire can’t work because of the angle of impact,” said Rono. “Lecturer Playdon has already used the comparison of a tag gun firing an electronic tag into a rock. Those electronic tags have spikes that need to hit within a certain range of angles to embed themselves into the rock. The anchors on the lead lines we’re firing have much bigger spikes, and they have to hit the spire wall at very close to right angles to stand a chance of embedding into something as hard as diamene.”

“So, the lead line anchor doesn’t just need to hit accurately, but with the perfect combination of speed and angle, or it won’t stand a chance of embedding into the spire wall?” asked Fian.

“Exactly,” said Rono. “We’ll probably be firing lines at that spire for hours before we successfully embed the two anchors we need for a double ascension. That gets incredibly tedious, so we’ll have a competition to make things more interesting. There are ten of us on the Cassandra 2 team, but I’d like Jerez to act as competition judge because we can trust her to be completely impartial. That means there’ll be nine people competing on each side.”

“As an impartial competition judge, I have to point out that I’m a terrible shot with a line rifle,” said Jerez’s voice. “Cassandra 2 gain a substantial advantage by not including me among their competitors.”

“Asgard 6 will have an even bigger advantage,” said Rono. “Playdon will be able to choose any competitors he wants from his entire class of students.”

“A class of students that have probably never even seen a line rifle before today,” said Jerez drily.

“That’s true,” said Playdon, “and Professor Kipkibor is wrong about me being able to choose my competitors from my entire class of students. We’ve come here so the people who’ve signed up to go to Fortuna with me can gain experience working on high buildings. That means I’ll want to choose my other eight competitors from among those people.”

“Very true,” said Jerez. “Since the other eight Asgard 6 competitors will all be complete novices, Lecturer Playdon will obviously need to stay at the line rifle to instruct them in loading and firing, and Asgard 6 should get a five-point advantage for each novice competitor.”

“Noooo!” wailed Rono. “That would give Asgard 6 a forty-point advantage in the competition. You’re supposed to be an impartial judge, Jerez, not actively trying to make us lose.”

Playdon sighed heavily. “I don’t want to waste valuable working time arguing about point advantages. I’ll agree to the stated competitor selection rules without any point advantage, on the one condition that the Cassandra 2 competitor goes first in each round.”

“Agreed,” said Rono instantly. “Let’s start the competition now, and Jerez can explain the scoring system while we’re firing our lead lines. Rono firing one!”

I stared at the Cassandra 2 target, and saw Rono’s lead line hit it and bounce off. The target was too far away for me to be sure whether the lead line had hit the blue circle or the green circle. I belatedly remembered I was holding a pair of binoculars, put them to my eyes, and focused them on the Cassandra 2 target.

“The basic scoring system is simple,” said Jerez. “Each competitor gets ten shots. If your lead line hits the target, you score points depending on how close you are to the centre. The central gold zone is worth ten points, red is worth seven, blue is worth five, green is worth three, and mauve is worth one. Rono hit the blue zone, so Cassandra 2 scores five points.”

“Playdon firing one!” said Playdon.

I realised the system was that competitors alternated shots rather than taking all ten in a row. I hastily moved my binoculars to focus on the Asgard target, and was just in time to see Playdon’s lead line hit the green zone.

“Asgard 6 score three points,” said Jerez.

Both Playdon and Rono had been carefully using each other’s titles, but now Rono laughed and dropped into informality. “You’re out of practice, Dannel. Rono firing two!”

Jerez reported Rono’s score a moment later. “Cassandra 2 scores seven points.”

Krath groaned. “Playdon shouldn’t have thrown away the chance of us getting a forty-point advantage. Rono is beating him, and the rest of us won’t stand any chance at all. We’re going to get slaughtered.”

“No, we aren’t,” said Amalie. “Playdon’s tricked Rono, so we’re going to win.”

Everyone lowered their binoculars and turned to stare at Amalie. “Playdon’s tricked Rono,” repeated Krath. “How?”

“I don’t understand the details,” said Amalie. “I just know that Playdon’s tricked him. I was a barmaid on my home world, Miranda, and spent so much time watching men playing card games in the bar that I can spot the signs of someone being conned from several star systems away. Playdon offered to give up the points advantage to make Rono rush into agreeing something that was a huge mistake.”

“I don’t see how Rono could have made a mistake,” I said doubtfully. “Playdon was probably doing exactly what he said. Avoiding wasting valuable working time.”

“No, he wasn’t,” said Amalie firmly.

I didn’t bother arguing the point any longer, because I needed to focus my attention on the lead lines that Playdon and Rono were firing. I was signed up to be the senior tag leader on the team Playdon was taking to Fortuna, so he’d probably choose me to fire lines next.

After Playdon and Rono had fired nine shots each, Rono was eleven points in the lead, but when he fired his tenth shot Jerez screamed on the comms.

“Heads down!”

I dived for the floor, and Fian and Raven landed next to me. My impact suit had locked up, so I couldn’t roll under a bench, but Raven shoved me under the nearest one just as there was a crashing sound overhead.

A strange female voice spoke from somewhere beside me. “Birdy, data from your sentinel sensors shows you are under missile attack. We are launching fighter response. What is your status?”

Raven got to his feet. “SECOP, abort fighter launch. We are not under attack. That wasn’t a missile, just a minor dig site incident.”

“Birdy, your sentinel sensor data is totally consistent with an incoming missile.” The female voice had a coldly disbelieving tone.

Playdon’s voice spoke urgently on the comms. “Asgard transport sled 1, did that anchor break through the diamene sheeting? Is anyone hurt?”

I rolled out from under the bench, sat up, checked the state of the diamene sheeting overhead, and then looked around. There were impact-suited figures lying everywhere, so it looked like there’d been a massacre. Fian was sitting up and staring around too.

“Anyone hurt?” he asked.

Nobody answered. I still had medieval re-enactments on my mind, and I’d only done standard sword-fighting demonstrations myself, but I knew the safety routines for people fighting in suits of armour. You always checked that someone lying motionless on the ground was doing it because they were feigning death rather than knocked unconscious.

“Can everyone raise a hand to show you’re fine?” I asked.

Everyone either raised an arm or sat up. “Was that the end of the world, or just another crashing spaceship?” asked Krath.

“Jarra told me that working on skyscrapers would be perfectly ordinary,” said Fian. “I suppose this does count as ordinary by her standards.”

There was an outbreak of nervous laughter.

I sighed and spoke on the team circuit. “No injuries on Asgard transport sled 1, sir. We just have a dented roof.”

The sigh of relief on the comms obviously came from Playdon. “Good. Please check there are no cracks in the dented diamene sheets, and that they’re still slotted firmly into place.”

“Sorry about hitting your shelter,” added Rono, in a deeply embarrassed voice. “I only fired that line at a fraction higher power than the others, but ricochets can do wildly unpredictable things depending on the exact state of the wall where they hit.”

Raven was still arguing with SECOP about missile attacks. Since the voice of SECOP was coming from the implant bonded to his skull, the effect was quite disconcerting.

“SECOP, if we’d been hit by a missile, then I’d know about it. Abort fighter launch.”

“When I’m getting inconsistent information, I must consider the possibility you’ve been compromised, Birdy. Fighters are launching now.”

Raven groaned. “Jarra, can you talk to Security Operations for me and confirm that we aren’t under attack.”

“SECOP, this is Commander Tell Morrath,” I said. “We aren’t under missile attack. We’re firing lead lines and our shelter got hit by a ricocheting anchor hook.”

“Thank you, Commander,” said the voice of SECOP. “Recalling fighters.”

“SECOP, I’ve got four sentinel sensors set up around our shelter,” said Raven. “Can you run a full system check to make sure none of them was damaged by the ricocheting anchor?”

“Running system check now, Birdy.”

“Raven, was SECOP really suggesting you could have sold out to the enemy and be helping to murder Jarra?” asked Krath.

“Yes.” Raven tapped busily at the curved Military lookup on his forearm.

“That’s a bit mean,” said Krath.

“SECOP was correctly following procedure.” Raven did some more tapping at his lookup. “Good, my sentinel sensors are all in perfect working order.”

“I didn’t notice you planting any sensors,” said Krath.

“You weren’t supposed to notice me planting them,” said Raven solemnly. “Given your father’s activities, I have to consider the possibility you’ve been compromised.”

“What?” Krath gave an outraged yelp. “I have not been compromised!”

“Krath, I think Raven’s teasing you,” said Amalie gently.

Jerez spoke cheerfully on the comms. “Asgard 6 should have got the idea of the basic scoring system by now, so I’ll use this opportunity to explain the special case scoring rules. If someone gets an anchor to embed anywhere that’s at least as high as the target and in a usable position, they get fifty points. If they get an anchor to embed anywhere on the target area, they get one hundred points. If your anchor ricochets and hits one of your team’s shelters, you lose ten points. If it hits one of the opposing team’s shelters, you lose twenty points.”

She paused. “That means Asgard 6 is now nine points ahead of Cassandra 2, and still have one shot to fire in the first round. Once Asgard 6 have finished checking their diamene sheeting, the competition can continue.”

The direct hit had unnerved us so much that we didn’t just check and double-check the dented sheet of diamene sheeting but all the others as well. When we finally reported we were ready to continue, Playdon fired his tenth shot, which left Asgard 6 fourteen points in the lead.

“Competitors for round 2 should go to the line rifles,” said Jerez.

Playdon said the words I’d been dreading. “Jarra, please come and join me.”

“Keren, it’s your turn,” said Rono gloomily. “Sorry that I’ve left you behind on points.”

I took a deep breath, got cautiously out of the transport sled, and went across to the mini shelter by the line rifle. The dome-shaped shelter was bigger inside than I’d expected. So was the control end of the line rifle that jutted into it.

“The most important thing when using a line rifle is to make sure you load the lead line properly,” said Playdon. “There’s nothing more frustrating than getting an anchor embedded in the perfect position, only to discover that you’d forgotten to attach the line cartridge. First, slide open the cover of the loading chamber.”

I slid aside the cover.

“Now get an anchor hook from the blue bin in front of you. You insert that into the chamber with the spike end pointing forwards.”

I collected an anchor hook and put it in place. It was surprisingly heavy, and the long, barbed point was unnervingly sharp. Well, it would need to be sharp to stand a chance of embedding into diamene.

“Now you get a line cartridge from the green bin,” continued Playdon. “We reuse both the anchors and line cartridges from failed attempts, so you must check that there aren’t any strands of line sticking out of the cartridge. If there are, then the line cartridge has partially triggered and is now useless, so you throw it away in the smaller white discard bin.”

I collected a line cartridge and studied it. “This one looks all right to me.”

“Now you put the line cartridge into the chamber and hook it onto the anchor.” Playdon watched me do that. “Now close the chamber, and pull the red lever to the firing position. You’ll hear it click into place.”

The lever didn’t so much click into place, but make a solid clunking sound.

“If you grab the handholds on each side of the line rifle, the stand allows you to manually swing the line rifle to point in any direction you want,” continued Playdon.

I took a grip on the handholds and did some test swings. “This is a bit like that vid you showed us of people firing twenty-first-century machine guns.”

“Yes,” said Playdon, “but you don’t swing the line rifle around when you’re firing it. You aim it at the target, and then hit the green button to lock the line rifle in position.”

As I peered through the scope, I heard Keren’s voice speak on the comms. “Keren firing one!”

I frowned and hastily swung the line rifle upwards to point at my target. Despite the bulk of the rifle, it moved so easily that I overshot where I wanted it to be.

“Cassandra 2 scores five points,” reported Jerez.

“There’s no need to rush to take your shot, Jarra,” said Playdon. “Keren’s naturally going to be faster than you at loading and aiming, but he’ll wait for you to fire before taking his second shot.”

I wasn’t worried about Keren being faster than me, but the fact he was bound to score far more points. I sighed, adjusted the position of the line rifle, and hit the green button.

“Now you just have to set the firing power dial on the side, and you’re ready to fire,” said Playdon.

“What sort of power setting should I use?” I asked anxiously. “I don’t want my shot to ricochet and hit a shelter.”

“The agreement was that I can instruct you on loading and firing the line rifle. I shouldn’t be telling you where to aim it or what power setting to use, but you’ll remember yesterday’s training vid suggested keeping the power setting somewhere between 70 and 95 per cent.”

I hesitated. There seemed a big difference between 70 and 95 per cent. I remembered that we were firing higher than the standard limit of twenty-five storeys, and most of Rono and Playdon’s shots had hit the target too low. I decided to set the power to 90 per cent.

Playdon handed me an oddly shaped object that was attached to the line rifle by a length of cable. “Line rifles recoil backwards when you fire them, so we’ll move as far away as possible to one side, then you lift the red cover on the control unit and press the button to fire.”

We both shuffled off to the side of the shelter, I lifted the red cover on the control unit, and was about to press the button when Playdon spoke. “You’ll want to be looking out of the viewing slit at the front of the shelter when you fire so you know where your anchor hits. Don’t forget to give a warning on the comms before you fire.”

“Oh, yes.” I spoke on the comms circuit. “Jarra firing one!”

I moved to the viewing slit and looked out before pressing the firing button. There was the expected whistling sound as the muzzle of the line rifle spat out a lead line that went flying up in a smooth arc towards Spire 152. I wasn’t sure whether the lead line actually hit the bottom of the target or not, but was relieved that I was reasonably close.

“Asgard 6 scores 1 point,” reported Jerez.

I’d scored four points less than Keren, but at least I’d scored something. I turned to reload the line rifle, and was startled to see that it wasn’t pointing up at the target any longer.

“I’m afraid the line rifle returns to the horizontal position during the recoil,” said Playdon. “That makes it much easier to reload, but means you have to aim again each time you fire.”

I nodded. Keren fired his next shot while I was reloading, and he scored seven points. Having seen the arc of my first shot, I tried increasing the power setting for my second shot to 92 per cent, and aimed for the top edge of my target rather than the centre.

“Asgard 6 scores three points,” reported Jerez.

I’d overdone the adjustment and hit too high this time. For my next shot, I aimed lower and scored five points, but Keren improved his score to seven points. For the next few shots, I was consistently two points behind, but then I finally scored seven points myself.

There was a cough on the comms and Rono spoke. “Jarra is scoring startlingly well for a complete novice, Dannel. You aren’t firing those shots yourself, are you?”

“Dannel can’t be firing those shots,” said Keren’s voice. “He’s far too ethical to cheat in a competition, and to be perfectly frank about it, he isn’t that good a shot. Have you fired a line rifle before, Jarra, or is your accuracy because you’ve been doing target practice with that Military gun you carry?”

“I’ve been doing target practice with my Military gun,” I said, “but that’s an energy-based weapon so acts totally differently to this line rifle. Firing a tag gun is closer to firing a line rifle, but I’m actually basing my targeting on my experience helping fire a reproduction trebuchet.”

“A what?” asked Rono.

“It’s a medieval siege weapon,” said Playdon, in a grazzed voice. “They were used to knock down castle walls.”

“My school history teacher put some vids on the Earth data net,” I said. “Try searching for Crozier Medieval Re-enactment 2786 Trebuchet.”

There was a brief pause before Rono spoke again. “Deity aid us! Your school history teacher actually let you fire that thing, Jarra?”

“I was one of a team firing it,” I said. “You really don’t want to make mistakes when you fire a trebuchet, so a couple of experts did all the complicated calculations about the weight of the load being fired, the size of the counterweight, and angles and things. I just got the general idea of how you adjusted them to hit a target.”

“Right,” said Rono. “Please warn me if you get your hands on a trebuchet again, Jarra. I want to be on a different planet when you fire it.”

Keren and I took our final shots, which left Asgard 6 with a reduced lead of six points, then Playdon sent me back to the transport sled while he and Rono used hoverbelts to rapidly skim around the area retrieving anchors and lead line cartridges.

When I arrived at the transport sled, I waved my hands apologetically. “Sorry I lost us eight points.”

“You were totally amaz,” said Dalmora. “You scored higher than Playdon.”

“Jarra did extremely well,” said Raven, “though my impression is that the first competitor on each side has a major disadvantage. Later competitors learn from watching their shots.”

I nodded. “That’s true. Rono and Playdon were consistently hitting points low down on the target, so I went for a higher power setting.”

“What power setting exactly?” asked Fian.

“My last five shots were at 92 per cent power, and I was aiming for the blue zone above the centre.”

“Fian, you’re next,” said Playdon, on the comms.

“Stephan, show them how it’s done,” said Rono.

Fian sighed and headed off to the line rifle. I grabbed a pair of binoculars and looked out through the slits in the diamene sheeting. Stephan’s first two shots were good ones scoring five points, so I was delighted to see Fian match them.

There was a groan on the comms from Rono. “Have you been firing trebuchets too, Fian?”

“Of course not,” said Fian. “I’d never even heard of a trebuchet until a few minutes ago, and having seen that vid I’ve no intention of going near one.”

By the time Fian and Stephan had fired nine shots each, Fian had scored six points more than Stephan. On shot ten, Stephan hit the red zone for seven points, but Fian hit the central gold zone, and our whole class cheered wildly as he walked back towards us. When he entered our transport sled, he gave us the right hand on heart salute of Beta sector and shouted.

“Fidelis!”

“Fidelis!” We yelled back at him.

“This is reminding me of watching a cricket match,” said Dalmora. “What’s worrying me is the fact that eventually I’ll have to go in to bat, and I’m sure that I’ll be out for a duck.”

“What’s cricket?” asked Laik.

“It’s a game played with a bat and ball,” said Sudi.

“It dates from at least the sixteenth century,” said Dalmora, “and is extremely popular on my home world of Danae.”

Laik laughed. “So Alpha sector likes preserving ancient games as well as ancient artefacts, but where do ducks come into it? If you’re supposed to hit them with the ball, then I hope people use model birds rather than real ones.”

“There aren’t any ducks involved at all,” explained Dalmora. “Being out for a duck means you scored zero points.”

“Asgard 6 now leads Cassandra 2 by fifteen points,” said Jerez. “I suppose Fian’s fighter pilot training involved a lot of target practice.”

“A lot of target practice with multiple types of weapons used in both vacuum and atmosphere,” Fian replied on the comms. “I obviously did most of my target practice in a simulator rather than firing actual missiles from a fighter ship, but the combat simulations are surprisingly realistic, and Jarra’s cousin Drago has an evil habit of throwing a bucket of cold water over you whenever you lose a fight through a careless mistake. He says that getting simulator killed by a better pilot is forgivable, but defeating yourself through carelessness deserves a penalty.”

“Right,” said Rono. “Well, Kat is next for Cassandra 2.”

“Raven is next for Asgard 6,” said Playdon.

“What?” Rono sounded startled. “You can’t have Raven as one of your competitors. He’s not a member of your class. He’s a Military Security agent.”

“If you think back,” said Playdon, “you’ll remember the agreement wasn’t that I had to choose my competitors from the Asgard 6 class members, but from the people who’d signed up to go to Fortuna with me. Raven is one of those people.”

Jerez gave a choke of laughter. “Dannel’s right. You did agree to that, Rono. As judge, I have to rule that Raven is a perfectly valid choice as an Asgard 6 competitor.”

“Why didn’t someone stop me making that agreement?” asked Rono plaintively.

“There wasn’t time to stop you,” said a bitter voice that sounded like Kat. “You leapt in and agreed before any of us could say a word. Anyway, I didn’t know Raven was going to Fortuna. Can we appeal against the judge’s ruling on the grounds that Playdon hid the facts from us?”

“No, we can’t,” said Keren sadly. “Rono and I knew all about Raven going to Fortuna as part of Playdon’s team. Rono just didn’t stop to think about it.”

“In that case, my ruling stands,” said Jerez.

“So, I’m up against a Military Security agent who has to be an even more expert shot than Fian,” said Kat. “I’m totally doomed.”

By now, I was laughing helplessly. “You were right, Amalie,” I gasped. “Playdon did con Rono.”

“Fian, what power setting and targeting were you using?” asked Raven urgently.

“Jarra’s system was giving me good scores,” gabbled Fian rapidly, “but I realised my anchors were hitting the target at the wrong angle for them to embed. I swapped to 93 per cent power and tried aiming at the red zone below the centre. Either the line rifle is firing to the left, or there’s enough wind to affect things, so you want to aim a fraction right.”

“Thanks. I’ll take that as my starting point.” Raven headed off.

I was still recovering from my laughing fit when Kat and Raven started firing lead lines. Kat’s first four shots all scored five points. Raven scored seven with his first shot, and hit the gold for ten points with the next two. For a moment, I thought his fourth shot was going to be a relatively disappointing three points, but then there was a wild yell on the comms from Jerez.

“Anchor embedded with line cartridge successfully deployed! Asgard 6 scores one hundred points!”

There was a couple of minutes of wild celebration, where I think I hugged everyone on our transport sled at least twice, even including Steen. Finally, Jerez spoke again on the comms.

“Asgard 6 will now start aiming at the Cassandra 2 target. Fire when ready, Raven.”

“It’s Kat’s turn to fire a shot next,” said Raven.

“Cassandra 2 is conceding the competition,” said Rono. “We usually get an anchor embedded by pure luck and persistence, but I got the impression you were following some deliberate tactics. Just keep firing shots for a while and see if you can get us a second anchor embedded.”

“All right,” said Raven, “but if my sentinel sensors alert me to anyone approaching the area, I’ll have to stop firing and focus on being a bodyguard.”

“This area is code black while we’re firing lines,” said Rono. “Dig Site Command will make sure other dig teams detour off the Spire Circle rather than drive past us.”

“I’m worried about potential assassins rather than other dig teams,” said Raven. “Anyway, I’ll start firing lines now. Since I’ve got no starting point for firing at the Cassandra 2 target, I’ll begin by making a few benchmark test shots. Don’t worry if those look a bit wild.”

“Just make sure you don’t fire anything near the existing anchor,” said Playdon. “We don’t want to risk dislodging it.”

I watched Raven fire several shots around the edge of the Cassandra 2 target, then he fired eight shots in a row that hit either the gold centre or the red zone. Finally, he fired a shot where the anchor embedded rather than ricocheted.

“Anchor embedded with line cartridge deployed!” Jerez shouted in triumph on the comms.

We all cheered wildly, and Rono laughed. “Raven’s definitely worth taking to Fortuna. Now we’ve got two lead lines in place, we can get to work.”

My jubilation suddenly changed to a nervous, sick feeling. We had two anchors embedded above a window high up on the side of Spire 152, and now I’d be heading up to that dizzying height myself.

“Jarra and Fian, please get hover belts and meet me at the Asgard 6 supply sled,” said Playdon.

 

Part 7

Fian and I stood by the supply sled. We’d already put on hover belts and harnesses over our impact suits. Now Playdon handed us each something that looked like a vastly chunkier version of a tag gun, followed by a black flexiplas container.

“You clip the piton gun and its ammunition pack onto your harness.” He watched while we did that, and then passed us each a lurid lime-green backpack. “Those go on over your harnesses.”

Playdon put on an eye-catching red backpack himself, and then started dragging a long, floppy roll of yellow flexiplas off the supply sled.

“What’s that?” Fian sounded as confused by the yellow object as I was.

“It’s an inflatable safety cushion,” said Playdon. “We do everything possible to make sure that no one falls from high up on a spire, but if the worst happens then landing on a safety cushion can literally make the difference between life and death.”

I couldn’t help glancing towards Spire 152 and picturing someone falling off it.

“The team circuit has gone oddly quiet,” added Playdon anxiously. “I’d expected Rono to be giving a lecture on how you use lead lines to send up a proper rope, but nobody from Cassandra 2 is talking on the comms. I hope that doesn’t mean they’ve spotted a major problem with one of the two lead lines.”

He sighed. “Well, we’ll find out what’s happening in a minute. The three of us need to pick up the safety cushion now. I’ll take the front end.”

Fian picked up the back end of the yellow roll, and I went to grab the middle. My muscle atrophy meant I was already feeling overloaded by the combination of my impact suit and equipment. I wasn’t sure that I could carry the safety cushion as well, but it turned out to be surprisingly light.

“Set your hover belts to maximum height,” said Playdon, “and try not to let the safety cushion drag on the ground. We don’t want it to get caught on a glass shard and punctured.”

The three of us activated our hover belts and headed slowly towards Spire 152. The safety cushion might be light, but it was still extremely awkward to carry when we were floating in midair. I saw Rono, Keren, and Stephan had already put an identical yellow object down near the spire wall. They were now standing beside it and peering upwards.

We put our safety cushion down next to theirs and went to join them. I could see the fine white threads of the lead lines hanging down. The twin threads of the line over to our left were trailing on the ground, but the two on our right each ended in a metal ring dangling just below head height.

“Both the lead line cartridges have deployed properly,” said Rono, “but the lines on the right are caught on something sticking out of a fifth storey window. Can you try untangling them, Dannel? You’re far better at that than I am.”

Playdon nodded, shrugged off his red backpack, dumped it on the ground, and took hold of one dangling metal ring with each hand. He took a couple of steps backwards, raised his arms high above his head, and then gave the rings several sharp shakes. A lot more white thread suddenly dropped from above.

Rono applauded. “Well done! I never know how you manage to do that so easily. I just have to touch lead line threads to send them into a mass of knots.”

“That’s because Dannel stops to think about the consequences of what he’s doing,” said Keren. “You act on every passing whim and then seem amazed when it causes trouble.”

We were all wearing sealed impact suits, so I couldn’t see the expression on Keren’s face, but it was obvious that he was talking about more than lead line threads.

Rono sighed. “You aren’t being very supportive, Keren.”

“I’m just being honest about your weaknesses,” said Keren bitterly. “I’ll be just as honest about your strengths if I ever discover any.”

“Let’s move on to attaching proper ropes,” said Playdon hastily.

He opened his backpack, and took out what looked like enough red rope to reach to the moon. He then clipped the rope end onto one of the metal rings, before picking up the second metal ring and starting smoothly reeling in its white thread. After a moment, the first metal ring started heading up the wall, taking the red rope with it.

“Jarra and Fian,” said Playdon, “you need to be aware that our two lead line anchors have embedded into the spire wall, but we can’t be sure how deeply. We attach red ropes to them as a warning sign that there’s a small risk of the anchors coming loose and falling.”

My mental image of someone falling off Spire 152 abruptly changed to be far more vivid and personal. I wasn’t watching someone else fall now. I was up on Spire 152 myself, clinging to a red rope when the anchor holding it fell. The rope instantly went limp and started falling, taking me down with it. I urgently shook my head and tried to focus on reality.

Rono turned to a red backpack that was lying by the Cassandra 2 air cushion, and was opening it when Keren elbowed him aside.

“I’ll do this myself, Rono. I’m not gambling my life on a rope that you’ve touched.”

There was an awkward silence while Keren took another massive coil of red rope from the backpack, attached it to one of the left-hand white threads, and started sending it upwards too. We all watched as the two red ropes reached their respective anchors, passed through the line cartridge rings, and headed down again.

When the leading end of Playdon’s red rope arrived at the ground, he unclipped it from the tangled mound of white threads. A moment later, Keren’s line approached the ground too, and Rono reached out towards it.

Keren slapped his hand aside. “I said that I’d do this myself.”

Playdon put my thoughts into words. “The two of you seemed to be getting on perfectly well a few minutes ago. What’s Rono done to upset you, Keren?”

“I haven’t done anything,” said Rono.

“Do you mean that you haven’t done anything,” demanded Keren, “or just that you haven’t done anything yet?”

“I mean that I haven’t done anything and I’ve no intention of ever doing anything,” said Rono indignantly.

Playdon groaned. “Please don’t have one of your fights in front of my students.”

“I’m not fighting,” said Rono. “Keren’s fighting.”

“That’s so typical of you,” said Keren bitterly. “Creating a situation like this and then blaming me for getting upset about it.”

“But I keep telling you that this isn’t my fault!” wailed Rono.

“We’d better wait to discuss this later,” said Keren icily. “Playdon’s right that we shouldn’t have this conversation in front of Jarra and Fian. They have a perfect relationship without any arguments.”

Fian made an odd choking noise. “That’s never been true. It’s especially not true now that Jarra’s doctors are making me give her doses of medicine. She called me a Zeus sewer rat this morning.”

“I’m sorry about that,” I said guiltily.

“Is being called a Zeus sewer rat as bad an insult as being called a Cassandrian skunk?” asked Stephan.

“It’s worse,” said Fian. “Vastly worse. Zeus sewer rats behave in deeply unpleasant ways.”

“They can’t behave as badly as Rono,” muttered Keren.

Playdon groaned. “I think we’d better leave making this ascension until tomorrow. I’ve had too long a gap from working on skyscrapers to instruct Jarra and Fian myself, and I’m not happy about sending students up a spire for the first time with an instructor that’s being distracted by a personal argument.”

“What?” Keren and Rono chorused the word in outraged unison. “You should know that Keren and I never let our arguments affect dig site safety,” continued Rono solo.

“Which is a good thing,” said Stephan. “If Cassandra 2 had to stop work every time Keren and Rono were arguing, then we’d never manage to do anything at all. Now I stop to think about it, Rono causes just as much trouble as Jarra. The only difference is that he attracts personal drama rather than crashing spaceships.”

I opened my mouth to complain about being blamed for crashing spaceships, but Playdon was already talking. “It’s true that Keren and Rono’s arguments aren’t usually a problem, but Keren seems especially upset this time.”

Keren groaned. “I’m not so much upset about the Todd situation as in complete despair about it.”

“I thought we’d sorted out the Todd crisis during the last Year End holiday,” said Playdon.

“That was the first Todd crisis,” said Stephan gloomily. “We’re up to about crisis number twenty now. Todd’s been rearranging his research team’s schedule all year to spend as much time as possible working on the same dig site as Rono. When Todd can’t arrange for his team to work at the same place as us, he makes excuses to visit wherever we are. He’s constantly turning up and causing trouble.”

Fian leaned closer to me and whispered in my ear. “Who’s Todd?”

I waved my hands in a gesture of ignorance.

“Stephan’s right,” said Keren. “The only time I didn’t have to worry about Todd appearing out of the nearest portal was when we were working with your team on one of the islands of the California Land Raft. Military Security was blocking unauthorized visitors, so it was gloriously peaceful.”

“Apart from the Asgard 6 dome getting blown up and the occasional emergency evacuation,” said Stephan.

“Well, yes.” Keren’s voice showed he considered those minor problems compared to Todd.

“But this situation really isn’t my fault, Dannel,” added Rono. “I admit I let Todd trick me into spending half that disastrous New Tokyo dig site party talking to him, but when he tried inviting himself to stay with my team for the last Year End holiday … Well, I realized what was going on, made it clear I wasn’t interested, and I’ve done absolutely nothing to encourage Todd since then.”

“You must have done something to encourage Todd,” said Keren. “He wouldn’t keep following you around dig sites otherwise.”

“Yes, he would,” said Rono. “Todd’s obsessed. He’s stalking me.”

“My theory is that Todd’s attracted to people who are hard to get,” said Stephan. “The more Rono runs away, the keener Todd is on chasing him. Perhaps Rono should change tactics to chasing Todd instead.”

“No, he shouldn’t,” said Keren firmly.

“So, what’s the current crisis about?” asked Playdon. “Todd and his Loki 1 team aren’t here at Berlin, are they?”

“No, but they’re coming to Berlin tomorrow,” said Rono, in an apocalyptic voice. “Todd sent me a message about it last night. I didn’t tell anyone about the message because Todd had included some things that made it sound as if I’d been secretly meeting him behind Keren’s back. Then a few minutes ago, Todd sent Keren a message saying he was tired of having to meet me in secret, and wanted him to know the truth about what’s been going on.”

“And Rono had left his lookup on our transport sled while he was working,” said Stephan wearily. “Keren grabbed his chance to check Rono’s messages, saw the one from Todd, and got slightly upset.”

“My husband should have trusted me rather than checking my messages,” said Rono.

“And my husband should have told me about the message from Todd,” said Keren.

“Oh no,” said Playdon. “Don’t start the routine where you refer to each other as my husband rather than by name.”

Fian joined in the conversation. “Todd obviously knows that he won’t get anywhere with Rono while he’s with Keren. Todd’s trying to destroy their relationship by using the classic divide and conquer tactic that’s been used in politics and war since the days of the original Roman Empire. Every time his lies trigger an argument between Rono and Keren, he gets a step closer to achieving his goal.”

“Why can you see that so easily, when I can’t convince Keren that I’m telling him the truth about Todd?” asked Rono.

“Because I’ve been a victim of someone exactly like Todd,” said Fian. “It happened at the start of this year. The only difference was that Petra was trying to stop Jarra and me from getting into a relationship, while Todd is trying to split up an existing couple.”

Fian paused. “From the moment I saw Jarra, I was only interested in her, but Petra kept throwing herself at me and even tried forcibly kissing me. When I threatened to make an official complaint about her, Petra gave up attacking me, and tried to drive Jarra into leaving our class instead.”

“I’m amazed you let this sort of behaviour go on in your class, Dannel,” said Rono reproachfully.

“If I’d been told what Petra was doing, then I’d have stopped her immediately,” said Playdon.

“My point is that Petra attacked Jarra and me separately because she knew she couldn’t win against both of us working together,” said Fian. “Rono and Keren need to work together against Todd as well.”

“Yes,” said Rono. “Keren needs to trust me and help me deal with Todd.”

“You both need to trust each other,” said Fian.

“He’s right, Rono,” said Keren. “I accept that you’ve been telling me the truth about Todd. The problem is that you haven’t been telling me the full truth. Next time you get a message from Todd, you have to tell me about it.”

Keren activated his hover belt. “Let’s get back to work now. Jarra and Fian should come with me, while the rest of you finish setting up the ropes and inflating the air cushions. It’s important for Jarra and Fian to fire some practice pitons while they’re safely at ground level.”

Fian and I activated our hover belts too and followed Keren around the base of the spire. “We have to stand on the ground rather than hover for this,” said Keren, “because piton guns kick back slightly when you fire them.”

The three of us landed on a bare patch of ground, and Keren unclipped his own piton gun. “You need to load a piton each time you fire the gun. You do that by pulling out the chamber on the side, taking a piton from your ammunition pack, and inserting it into the chamber.”

He took out a piton and held it up to show us. “You can see the long point of the diamene piton is coloured red, and there’s a circle at the other end where you can clip on a line. You place the piton in the gun chamber with the red point facing forward.”

He lifted a hand. “And before you say anything, I know it seems blindingly obvious that the point should go forward, and the chamber is designed so it should be impossible to put a piton in backwards. I still have to emphasize this point whenever I demonstrate a piton gun though. There was a case a couple of years ago where someone managed to get a piton in backwards, forced the chamber partially shut, and then went ahead and fired the gun.”

“What happened to the person who fired the gun?” I asked nervously.

“Something nearly as bad as should happen to Todd,” said Keren grimly. “There’s no need to worry about the details. Just remember to follow the point forward rule, and if the gun chamber refuses to close then you don’t bash it shut with a rock, and you definitely don’t fire the gun.”

“I’ll make a note never to do that,” said Fian, in a strained voice.

“Now you can fire a piton gun at any distance from nearly touching the spire wall to ten paces away,” said Keren, “but whenever possible you should fire at less than five paces. Hold the gun steady with both hands and brace yourself before firing straight at as smooth an area of wall as possible. It’s important not to fire at an angle because a ricochet from a piton is extremely painful if the blunt end hits you, while the point can potentially pierce your impact suit.”

He turned to face the spire wall, aimed carefully, and fired the gun. “As you can see, the piton has embedded so deeply into the diamene that the red of the point is completely invisible. If you can still see the red of the point, then don’t bet your life on that piton but fire a second one.”

He paused. “If you’re working on skyscrapers built of other materials, then it’s a good idea to take a hammer along. You can be much better off hammering pitons into cracks by hand than using a piton gun. The lattice structure of the carbon atoms in these diamene spire walls means a hammer is useless here though.”

He shrugged. “Jarra can fire a few shots now. You’ll soon see why you should never try firing a piton gun while using a hover belt.”

I loaded my gun, taking care to follow the point forward rule, then stood about two paces away from the spire wall. I aimed, braced myself, and fired.

“I see what you mean about the gun kicking back,” I said. “If I’d been hovering in midair, then I’d have gone flying backwards. Doesn’t it cause problems when you’re hanging from a rope as well?”

“It certainly does,” said Keren. “That’s why I wanted you to do some test firing at ground level first. Fire a couple more pitons from different distances, and then Fian can have a try.”

I fired one shot from further away, and one only a hand’s breadth from the spire wall, then clipped my gun back onto my harness. “Is firing close up better because there’s less chance of a ricochet?”

“Yes,” said Keren. “At less than five paces, you should be safe from ricochets unless you’re firing at an especially badly damaged section of wall. Firing at a shorter distance also means the piton digs deeper into the diamene. Unfortunately, sometimes you’ve no option but to fire from a longer distance.”

I watched Fian take his practice shots, and then the three of us headed back around the spire. I saw the dangling ends of the red ropes had been attached to the spire wall, and the two yellow safety cushions inflated and positioned beneath them. I was torn between thinking how huge the cushions were now that they were inflated, and how easy it would be to miss them if you fell from thirty storeys up the spire.

“Anchor testing time,” said Rono. “Am I allowed to join in with this, Keren, or am I still in disgrace?”

“I suppose you’re allowed to join in,” said Keren grudgingly. “Your brain has probably shrivelled away from lack of use, but you’ve got plenty of body weight.”

“Thank you.” Rono sounded far more cheerful now. “We can’t get more than four people on a rope at once. Dannel, am I right that you’re still a fraction heavier than Fian?”

“I think so,” said Playdon.

“Then Keren, Stephan, Dannel, and I will do the anchor test,” said Rono.

“Just a minute.” Playdon activated his comms and spoke on the team circuit. “Asgard 6, I hope you’ve been watching us send up the ropes and inflate the safety cushions. These ropes are coloured red as a warning sign there’s a small risk of the anchors coming loose and falling.”

I wished Playdon hadn’t repeated that information. My fantasy of falling from Spire 152 hit me again. I’d experienced falling a long way in an impact suit once already, when I’d been chased by an aircraft that was using a Planet First incendiary weapon, and toppled over a cliff edge into a ravine. I’d been lucky enough to land in a pool of water that time, but …

“We’re now going to do an anchor test,” continued Playdon. “The theory is that if four people can swing from a rope without the anchor coming loose, then one person should be able to safely climb the rope. Jarra and Fian should back away to a safe distance because there’s obviously a small risk of the anchor falling on us during this test.”

“If the anchor does dislodge, everyone in the test group drops in a heap and tries to cover their head with their arms,” added Rono. “Whenever you’re involved in a dig site accident, you must do everything possible to protect your head. Most injuries can be treated in a regrowth tank, but the protection of humanity laws make it illegal to regrow brain tissue because of the impact on memories and personality.”

My worries about falling were swept away by a far more important thought. The implanted light web to override my faulty immune system had failed the first time my doctors tried it, and I’d suffered massive brain damage. The only reason I was alive now was because the Military had broken a whole swathe of the protection of humanity laws to save me. When I woke up eleven days ago, Colonel Leveque had told me that my doctors had regrown my brain tissue and used technology supplied by an illegal organization to restore my memories.

Now I was faced with a terrifying question. Keren had just said that Rono had told him the truth but not the whole truth. Had Colonel Leveque done the same thing to me?

I knew Leveque could have legally authorized my doctors to use any methods at all to save me. The Alien Contact Programme had the power to override everything, everyone, and every law in existence, and the Military needed me alive with my brain patterns restored so I could shut down the alien world’s defences.

Now I understood why the sight of the flickering lights under my skin bothered me on so deep a level. The ropes hanging down from the thirtieth floor of Spire 152 were coloured red as a warning sign. The lights under my skin were a warning sign too, constantly reminding me that my body had been changed during the three months that I’d been unconscious, and those changes could be far more fundamental than I’d been told.

In the discussions before my operation, Colonel Leveque had mentioned a lot of possibilities including cloning me. When my implanted web failed, had the damage been so drastic that my doctors hadn’t just had to regrow my brain tissue but grow a whole new Jarra?

Were the remains of the original Jarra Tell Morrath still floating in a regrowth tank somewhere? Was I just a clone that had been given her memories?

 

Part 8

I had an ice-cold moment where my surroundings grew distant and blurry, then they were replaced by a memory of the past. When our class was working at Eden dig site, Fian and I had been involved in a horrific accident, and we’d both ended up in full body regrowth tanks. I’d been decanted before Fian, and went to visit the room where he was floating in his tank.

I was back in that room now, standing and looking at Fian. His long blond hair was drifting around his head, his eyes were closed, and his face was perfectly relaxed. If I ignored the medical tubes, and kept my eyes away from the gory open wound on his side where organs were still being regrown, I could pretend that he was just peacefully asleep.

Then the illusion abruptly changed. I was still standing in the same room, but the person floating in the tank now was my original self. I watched, an invisible ghost-like presence, as doctors wheeled in a second tank holding the clone Jarra.

For a moment, the two tanks stood side by side, with two identical Jarras looking out at me, then the doctors disconnected the medical tubes from the original Jarra. She didn’t need any medical tubes, because she’d been a lifeless corpse beyond any medical help for months, kept floating in this tank to maintain the lie that she was alive. Now her clone was taking her place, and even her regular visitors like Fian and her brother would never know that anything had changed.

Finally, the doctors wheeled away the first tank to store it in some secret room. There would be no funeral for the original Jarra. No one would mourn her passing because they didn’t know she was dead. Her body would stay floating in that tank, preserving her tissue in case it was needed to grow more clones, until the exploration of Fortuna was over.

Fian’s voice spoke from next to me. “Jarra, we’re supposed to move to a safe distance.”

I was too caught up in my waking nightmare to respond or even make sense of what he was saying. There was a pause before I felt his hand tug at my arm, and he spoke again.

“Jarra, are you all right?”

The anxious note in Fian’s voice dragged me back from the horrific image of my dead self into reality. I realized that Playdon, Rono, Keren, and Stephan had climbed onto one of the yellow safety cushions and turned to face me, presumably wondering why I was still standing here. Everyone else on both the Cassandra 2 and Asgard 6 teams would be wondering that too.

“I’m fine,” I said hastily.

I activated my hover belt and skimmed a distance away before landing on the ground again. Fian arrived at my side an instant later, and we both turned to look back at the four figures on the safety cushion.

“So, what’s the crisis?” asked Fian.

I couldn’t tell Fian about the clone issue when I was about to ascend one of the Berlin spires. I wasn’t sure that I’d ever be able to tell him. I needed to think this situation through extremely carefully before I did anything at all.

“I just told you that I’m fine,” I said.

“No, you aren’t. You had one of your blank moments where you don’t seem to be aware of what’s happening around you. That usually means you’re focused on some crisis or other.”

Chaos, Fian knew me far too well. He wouldn’t be able to see my expression when I had my impact suit up and sealed, but I wasn’t sure how much he could work out from my voice. It was safest to say as little as possible, so I just kept watching the four figures on the safety cushion in silence. They started jumping up and down, then grabbed for the red rope and started swinging on it. I heard an outbreak of laughter on the team circuit.

“It’s the squish zone issue, isn’t it?” asked Fian. “There’s no need to hide your fear of that from me because I’m scared too. I spent half last night lying awake and worrying about it.”

I’d no idea what he meant by the squish zone, but I was happy to admit to anything that didn’t involve clones. “Yes,” I said.

He gave a rueful laugh. “You know how terrified I was the first time you gave me a ride in an aircraft. I got past my fear enough for you to give me some flying lessons, and then while you were in the tank Drago and his fighter team were giving me fighter pilot training.”

He shrugged. “Most of the flying then was either on simulators or in space where I knew I couldn’t fall. I was still scared flying in atmosphere, but I welcomed that as a distraction from the constant worry about what was happening to you. Eventually, I grew to trust my fighter ship enough that my fear vanished. This will sound silly, but it was like my fighter had become an extension of my body.”

“I understand,” I said. “I’ve had moments when I was flying an aircraft and felt that way. Especially during takeoffs, when I’d hit the thrusters and feel like I was heading for the stars.”

“But working with ropes is different,” said Fian. “If we’re going thirty storeys up Spire 152 then we’ll be too high for an impact suit to protect us if we fall, and too low for a hover tunic to have time to activate before we hit the ground. You’ve always seemed far less concerned about heights than I am, but it’s not surprising you’re suffering from some last-minute nerves.”

He made an odd groaning sound. “Weirdly, my old fear of falling is less of a problem than my fighter pilot training. It’s a bit like the way our class was trained to instinctively respond to dig site alarm drills. Fighter pilots are trained to fear the atmosphere squish zone. We have to go through a series of simulator runs of hideous emergencies where you’ve only a split second to decide whether you’re high enough to eject your pilot seat and trust to its inbuilt hover unit to save you, or you’re safer riding the crash. Did you get the equivalent in civilian pilot training?”

“We didn’t have simulators or fancy ejector seats, but I learned all the rules about jumping. If there’s an emergency when you’re below the height where your hover tunic can activate and slow your fall, then you have to ride your aircraft down to make a crash landing. I once had a thruster failure and had to do an emergency two thruster landing because we were right on the limit for a safe jump.”

“You made a genuine emergency landing?” Fian sounded awed. “Respect!”

“Actually, it turned out that it wasn’t a genuine thruster failure. My instructor faked it to give me useful experience.”

“If you believed it was real, then it was real,” said Fian. “Your instructor sounds even more brutal about pilot training than Drago.”

“It’s true that I don’t believe Drago would ever do some of the things that Gradin did,” I said thoughtfully. “People talk about Drago as if he’s totally reckless, but the reality is that he’s taking carefully judged risks. He responds to danger so fast that people don’t realize how much he’s thinking things through.”

“That’s very true,” said Fian. “You do the same thing yourself sometimes.”

I was startled. “I do?”

“Remember the time you jumped down a hole to save Stephan from being crushed to death? You seemed to be reacting instantaneously to the situation, but were issuing orders that showed you’d carefully planned everything.”

I thought back to that moment near the start of the year. I wasn’t sure that I’d been thinking at all on a conscious level. It was as if I was in a sort of emergency mode where my body had been doing the thinking for me.

“Anyway,” Fian continued, “when it’s my turn to head up the spire, there’s a strong possibility that I’ll start screaming. If that happens, remind me that we’re with experts who know exactly what they’re doing.”

I laughed. “I will.”

I’d been worried Fian’s expertise from his Military fighter pilot training would be a barrier between us, but it had actually given us some new common ground as pilots. The clone issue could turn out to be a genuine barrier though.

No, I mustn’t let myself start thinking about the clone issue again. Not here. Not now. I forced myself to concentrate on what was happening over by the safety cushions instead. Keren had declared himself satisfied with the first anchor test, and the four figures were moving to repeat their swinging on the second rope. I noticed that Rono might be the team leader of Cassandra 2, but everyone clearly expected Keren, their senior tag leader, to make the final decisions on the anchor tests. This was an example of what Playdon had meant when he said he’d need me checking his judgement when we were on Fortuna.

Finally, I heard Keren call my name on the team circuit. “Jarra, you can come back now. Stephan will set you up on your rope ready for the ascension, while I get ready on mine.”

Time seemed to suddenly accelerate. It felt like only seconds before I was standing on a safety cushion beside a red rope. There was some sort of mechanical object attached to the rope and Stephan was clipping my harness to it.

“The winch controls are perfectly simple,” he said. “You push the lever up to ascend, down to descend, and lock it in the horizontal position to stop.”

Stephan was talking on the team circuit so the rest of Asgard 6 could hear his explanations. It would look odd if I didn’t reply on the team circuit myself, but my stomach was tying itself in knots, so I kept my response to a couple of tense words.

“Got that.”

“Once you’re up on the spire, there’s one key rule to follow,” continued Stephan. “You’ve got two clip lines on your harness, and at least one of those clip lines must always, always, always be attached to a secure point. That means you clip yourself onto a piton before you unclip yourself from the winch.”

“Got that,” I repeated.

“Now, the reason we’ve gone to so much trouble to set up two anchors is that however many tests you do there’s still a tiny risk of an anchor coming loose during the ascension,” said Stephan. “Cassandra 2 always does double ascensions, sending two people up at once with a safety line linking them. That way, if one person’s anchor comes loose, they’ll only fall a short distance before being held by the safety line.”

He paused. “As I said, there’s only a tiny chance of this happening, but you need to know how to respond if it does. If your anchor comes loose and falls, you just grab the safety line with both hands and try not to panic or flail around. If Keren’s anchor falls, you lock your winch lever in the horizontal position and brace yourself for the sudden jerk as you start taking Keren’s weight. After that, Rono would give you detailed instructions about descending to the ground.”

Rather than repeating the same two words for the third time, I went for something daringly different. “All right.”

“We’re ready for the safety line now,” said Stephan.

The dramatic, purple and silver impact suit of Rono appeared next to us. Rono clipped a blue line to my harness, and then he and Stephan backed away to join Playdon and Fian.

“Safety line secure at your end, Jarra?” asked Keren, on the team circuit.

I turned to face where he was standing by his rope, and moistened my lips before answering. “Yes, safety line secure.”

“It’s essential for the two people involved in a double ascension to be in continuous, undistracted communication,” said Keren, on the team circuit. “I’m now opening a private circuit with Jarra, and we won’t be speaking on the team circuit for a while unless we need to report a problem.”

The background hum of my comms changed note as Keren opened the private channel. “Jarra, can you hear me?”

“Loud and clear,” I said.

“I want you to shut down team circuit completely now, so you aren’t distracted by anything happening on it.”

I adjusted my suit comms. “Done.”

“You’ll still be hearing the occasional announcement on the overriding broadcast channel,” said Keren, “but other than that it will just be the two of us chatting on this private circuit. You can’t possibly be as terrified as I was during my first ascension, but you’re bound to be nervous.”

His voice took on a deep, reassuring note. “Remember that you can say anything to me, anything at all, and I will never repeat it to anyone. I can only imagine the intense pressure you’ve been under this year, having to put on an act of being professional and confident for the newzies, but you don’t need to put on an act with me. If you’re scared, you can say that. If you’re feeling sick, you can say that. If you want to ask any questions, however ridiculous, you can do that too.”

I could feel some of my tension easing away. Keren was good at this. In fact, he was far too good at this. “You aren’t trained as a psychologist, are you?” I asked suspiciously.

Keren gave a gasp of laughter. “My only knowledge of psychology comes from some counselling I had after a ghastly split with my previous partner. Why do you ask?”

“I was just thinking you were very good at this.”

“I should be. I’ve been the senior tag leader for Cassandra 2 for several years. I’ve not just been training our own team members, but also giving special training sessions to some of the more promising students on our Pre-history degree course.”

He paused. “Now we need to make the standard announcements on broadcast channel before ascending the spire. I’ll give Rono a wave to tell him we’re ready for him to request clearance from Dig Site Command. After that, we’ll both need to speak briefly on broadcast channel to tell Dig Site Command that we’re ascending. I’ll go first with that, so you’ll just need to copy me.”

I saw Keren raise his arm and wave at Rono. A moment later, Rono spoke on the broadcast channel in stirringly melodramatic tones. “This is Cassandra 2 and Asgard 6. Requesting clearance to ascend Spire 152.”

There was a crisply efficient response. “This is Dig Site Command. Cassandra 2 and Asgard 6 you are clear to ascend Spire 152.”

“Why did Rono talk in that odd voice?” I asked in bewilderment. “He sounded like he was imitating the male lead out of the vid series Defenders.”

Keren sighed. “Rono keeps imitating Arrack San Domex to tease one of the Berlin Dig Site Command team. I’m afraid Rono’s making the rest of Cassandra 2 do it as well, but you can just speak normally. Ready?”

“Ready.”

Keren spoke on the broadcast channel, giving an even better imitation of Arrack San Domex than Rono had managed. “This is Cassandra 2 at Spire 152. Keren making a double ascension with insecure line!”

I was tempted to join in the Arrack San Domex impersonations, but I was sure Playdon wouldn’t approve of me teasing a member of the Berlin Dig Site Command team. I opened broadcast channel and tried to sound calm and professional instead.

“This is Asgard 6 at Spire 152. Jarra making a double ascension with insecure line.”

“Now we’ve finished the comedy routine, we make sure we’ve shut down broadcast channel and start heading upwards,” said Keren cheerfully. “We obviously need to keep roughly level with each other as we ascend the spire, so you try moving your winch lever up to whatever speed you’re comfortable with and I’ll match it.”

I took a deep breath, lifted my head to look at where my red rope seemed to head endlessly upwards, and cautiously adjusted my winch lever. I started moving up off the ground at the pace of an elderly snail, so adjusted the lever a bit further.

“At least Rono’s silliness seemed to help you relax,” said Keren.

“Yes. I’m a big Defenders fan.”

“That surprises me.”

Most of my attention was on the fact I was slowly spinning around on my rope. “Why does it surprise you?”

Keren sounded amused. “Well, you’re a Military Commander. You’ve contacted an alien sphere on behalf of humanity. You’ve gone to the moon of the alien home world to lower its automated defences. I’d have expected you to feel Defenders was a bit silly after all that.”

Looking up while I was spinning around was making me feel sick. I tried looking down and felt even worse. We were already higher up than I’d expected, and the ground was steadily getting further away.

“Keep talking to me, Jarra,” said Keren. “You don’t feel Defenders is silly?”

“I mostly watch the series because of Arrack San Domex’s legs,” I confessed. “How do I stop myself spinning round and round like this?”

“Try kicking the spire wall as it goes past to slow your spin.”

I was currently looking out at where our sleds were parked. I waited until the spire wall was drifting past my field of view, and tried following Keren’s advice.

“If you manage to stop yourself spinning,” he added, “then you can keep yourself steady by doing a mixture of walking and bouncing up the spire wall. If you look across at me for a moment, then you’ll see what I mean.”

I’d slowed my spin enough to grab a quick look across at Keren. “Yes, I see. I just need to … Oh chaos, I can’t bounce off the hole where the glass windows used to be.”

“Yes, these vast curving spire windows are neatly lined up in a column, one above the other. That’s good in one way – having a rope hang down past a window on each floor is ideal for exploring the spire – but it makes it harder to steady yourself with your feet as you go up. Do you think you could move your winch lever to the stop position on a countdown of three?”

“Yes.”

Keren waited a moment before speaking. “Three, two, one, stop!”

I adjusted the lever and stopped moving upwards. “Why are we stopping? We surely can’t have reached the thirtieth floor already.”

“No, we’re only at the sixth floor, but you’ve been overdoing the kicking off the wall. That’s started you swaying in and out from the spire wall too much. I want us to stop for a moment so you can practise giving gentle kicks against the wall to control your sway.”

I was hanging right next to a windowsill. I tried a few experimental kicks against the wall below it. “Is swaying in and out from the wall a problem?”

“Swaying in and out from the spire wall isn’t a problem, but swaying into one of the window gaps could mean you bang your head on the top of the gap as you carry on upwards. I took someone on a training trip up a spire last week who did that. He went into a blind panic, and it took me over an hour to calm him down enough to get us moving again. We were on secure lines at the time, so we weren’t in serious danger, but you and I can’t afford to mess about like that today.”

I thought back to the training vid I’d seen and checked my understanding. “We can’t afford to mess about like that today because we aren’t on secure lines attached to firmly embedded pitons. We’re on insecure lines attached to anchors that could come loose.”

“That’s right.”

I wondered why the person last week had done their training on secure lines, while I was doing mine on insecure lines. It seemed a bit late to be asking that question though.

“I think I’ve got a better idea of controlling my swaying and spinning now,” I said. “Shall we carry on up to the thirtieth floor?”

“We can either carry on up to the thirtieth floor, or we can stop at this windowsill and set up some secure lines to get back to ground level. This is probably the last time Cassandra 2 will be going through the procedure to set up new secure lines on a spire before we stop work for the Year End holiday. Rono and I felt we should let you get some experience of the process, but there’s no need for you to go all the way up to the thirtieth floor if you don’t feel ready for it. Stephan and I can head up there later and set up some more secure lines.”

That explained why I was doing my training on insecure lines. I worked out the extra bit that Keren hadn’t mentioned and said it myself.

“You’re giving me the chance to stop here because we’re still low enough on the spire for our impact suits to save us in a fall. If we go a few floors higher, then we’d need to hit the safety cushions to escape injury, and beyond that is definitely what Military pilots call the squish zone.”

“The squish zone,” repeated Keren, “What an enchanting name. Well, you’re exactly right, Jarra. We’ve stopped here because we’re still safe at this point. It’s your decision whether you’ve done enough for today, or you want to carry on to the thirtieth floor.”

 

Part 9

Earth Europe, 21 November 2789

“Let’s perch on this windowsill for a moment and have a chat,” said Keren. “It looks as if the window units here all fell out cleanly, but you should still make a careful check for glass shards.”

I examined the windowsill. “I can’t see any glass.”

“Good,” said Keren. “If you adjust your position to be a fraction higher, then it should be easy to pull yourself onto the windowsill.”

I used the winch to head upwards a little, sat on the edge of the windowsill, and a wave of relief swept over me. While I was sitting here, I didn’t need to worry if the anchor holding my rope came loose.

I turned my head and found Keren was sitting astride the windowsill about ten paces away from me. He had his back leaning against some sort of pillar.

“We’re only on the sixth floor,” he said chattily, “but there’s still an amazing view. Just think what it was like living higher up, with one of these windows sweeping the entire length of your apartment. You’ll notice the narrow diamene pillar behind me. There are two of these support pillars on each windowsill, positioned by the interior apartment walls to divide the window into three roughly equal sections. As you see, the pillars are narrow enough that it’s easy to fire a piton into one and use that to swing yourself round to the next section of the window.”

He paused. “Now take a while to admire the view, and decide if you want to stop at this point or carry on.”

I was feeling safe sitting on this windowsill and hated the idea of going back to dangling from my insecure red rope. I just needed to say that I wanted to stop here, and Keren would show me how to set up some secure lines. Within a few minutes, we could be heading down those secure lines to the glorious safety of ground level.

The problem with doing that was I’d end up with some experience of setting up secure lines, but I’d also know that I’d taken the cowardly option of doing it at a pointlessly low height. Keren had said this was probably the last time Cassandra 2 would be setting up new secure lines on a spire before they stopped work for the Year End holiday. I could see why that would be the case. Once Cassandra 2 had safe lines in place on the thirtieth floor of this spire, they could use them to access and explore all the lower floors, which was enough work to keep them busy for weeks.

If I didn’t help set up secure lines now, then my first time doing it would be on one of the alien buildings on Fortuna. That would mean facing unknown extra alien hazards, while burdened with the knowledge that I’d run away from doing this on one of the Berlin spires. There really wasn’t a choice.

“I’m happy to continue to the thirtieth floor,” I said.

“You don’t sound that happy to me,” said Keren doubtfully. “When I’m instructing someone, I always stop at the sixth floor to assess the situation. I only take them higher if they want to continue and I feel they’re ready for it. I warned Playdon and Rono that I’d have to be especially sure in your case. We’ve only got a couple of weeks to give you as much skyscraper training as possible, so we’ve rushed you straight to working on an insecure line, but there’s a limit to the risks I’m willing to take. The Military would be seriously annoyed if I got you killed, and I’d be seriously annoyed if you got me killed.”

Keren said that last sentence in a joking voice, but I wasn’t in a mood to laugh. He was considering overruling my decision and insisting we cut the ascension short. Having braced myself ready to continue, I didn’t want him stopping me from doing it.

I tried to keep my voice as calm as possible. “You told me about someone going into a blind panic last week. I totally understand that you can’t risk me panicking on an insecure line, and I admit that I’m nervous, but we’ll be ascending past a whole series of windowsills. We could stop at any one of those, couldn’t we?”

“Yes.”

“Then if I’m getting too scared, I’ll ask you to stop at the next windowsill.”

Keren seemed to consider that for a moment before speaking. “Agreed. Now, Stephan will already have told you a bit about the danger of anchors coming loose while you were at ground level. Whenever I’m training a tag leader to work with insecure lines, Stephan gives basic instructions in case we hit a problem getting to the sixth floor. I leave doing my own lecturing until this point, because we’re now high enough for the danger to feel more real.”

He paused. “The Dig Site Federation rules insist dig teams use double ascensions when working with insecure lines above ten floors high, but I was doing a solo ascension of a nine-storey building six years ago and my anchor detached. I fell from near the top of the building and hit something on the way down. That reduced the speed of my fall, but also made me bounce off sideways, so I hit the ground rather than the safety cushion. Unfortunately, there was a metal spike sticking out of the ground, and it went straight through my impact suit and my shoulder.”

I couldn’t help picturing that and cringed.

“I was extremely lucky that the spike didn’t go through my neck or head,” continued Keren. “Since then, Cassandra 2 has used double ascensions for everything above a couple of floors high. The whole point of doing that is that you’ve got your partner to help you if your anchor comes loose.”

He sighed. “Some tag leaders cling to the comforting thought that anchors only come loose on about one in a hundred or a thousand ascents, so it’s never going to happen to them. I don’t let my trainees do that. I’ve had the one in a thousand chance happen to me. I insist on my trainees proving they believe it can happen to them too, and that they’ll be able to overcome their panic and follow orders if it does.”

“I don’t believe one in a thousand chances can happen to me,” I said pointedly. “I know they can happen to me. Remember that I was among the one in the thousand babies born with a faulty immune system.”

“Very true,” said Keren. “In that case, we’ll move on to do a little training exercise. First, I fire a piton into this windowsill.”

I watched uneasily as he fired the piton into the windowsill in front of him.

“You’ll see there isn’t any red still visible on my piton,” said Keren. “That means it’s solidly embedded into the diamene. What’s the key rule to follow when working on a spire?”

I repeated what Stephan had said. “You’ve got two clip lines on your harness, and at least one must always be attached to a secure point.”

“That’s right,” said Keren. “We’ve both currently got one clip attached to the winch on our red ropes, and the other to the blue safety line connecting us. I’m now going to unclip myself from my winch and clip myself onto my piton.”

I watched him do that, feeling both uneasy and puzzled now. “Why are you doing that?”

“I said that I need my trainees to prove they’ll be able to overcome their panic and follow orders if an anchor detaches. You’re going to do that by unclipping yourself from the winch of your red rope and jumping off this spire.”

“What?” I gulped. “Are you serious about this?”

“I’m totally serious,” said Keren. “You’ll be perfectly safe jumping off this windowsill because your safety line will catch you. That safety line is attached to my harness, and I’m attached to a solidly embedded piton. Even if the impossible happened, this diamene windowsill crumbled to dust, and we both fell, we’ve got two safety cushions ready to catch us.”

I peered down at the two yellow cushions. They seemed a lot smaller now than when I was standing next to them at ground level.

“We both need to know that you can control your fear during a training exercise before we put you in a position where you may have to handle a real emergency,” said Keren.

I remembered the conversation I’d had with Fian about him doing simulator runs of hideous emergencies. I’d mentioned my flying instructor faking a thruster failure and making me do an emergency two thruster landing. Now Keren wanted me to do some similar emergency training.

“You’re right,” I said. “I need to try this where it’s reasonably safe. Do I jump now?”

“Wait a minute while I signal to Rono.” Keren raised both arms above his head and gave a few waves. “Dig Site Command, Playdon, and Cassandra 2 are expecting you to do the standard sixth floor training jump, but Rono needs to explain the plan to your class on the team circuit or they’ll all have heart attacks. Playdon didn’t want to warn your classmates about it in advance because we’ve rushed you straight past several preliminary training sessions to save time. There was obviously a high chance that you’d decide ascending to the sixth floor was all you could handle today.”

He paused. “Rono will be explaining the training jump to your class now, and I’m sure those who weren’t already watching us through binoculars will want to do it now.”

I appreciated the fact Playdon had arranged things this way to avoid embarrassing me, but my nerves were tying themselves in knots. “While we’re waiting, can we discuss something perfectly honestly?”

“Probably. It depends on what you want to discuss.”

“The fact I don’t have any right to be here,” I said grimly. “You said that you give special training sessions to some of the more promising students on the University Cassandra Pre-history degree course. I haven’t even completed my Pre-history Foundation course yet. You’re rushing me through skyscraper training before we go to Fortuna, but your whole team must be thinking that I’m completely unqualified to mess around on the Berlin Spire Complex, let alone excavate alien ruins. Chaos, every research team that’s signed up to go to Fortuna must be thinking that.”

“You’re sure that you want me to be perfectly honest about this?” asked Keren.

If I could face jumping off this spire, I could face hearing the truth. “Yes.”

“Well, you’re right that every research team that’s signed up to go to Fortuna is worried about people being unqualified for the work,” said Keren. “You’ve got things backwards though. What’s concerning us isn’t that you shouldn’t be going to Fortuna, but that we shouldn’t be going to Fortuna.”

“What? Why?”

“Think back to when the news first broke about the alien sphere in Earth orbit,” he said earnestly. “When the teams working at Eden Dig Site were asked to help excavate the alien device, we weren’t just stunned but awed to be part of a pivotal moment in human history.”

He shook his head. “Once you and Fian had used the alien device to trigger the sphere’s message sequence, we thought our involvement was over. It was obvious the Military would need lots of specialist help in future, but we expected those specialists would be scientists or linguists rather than archaeologists. Then the General Marshal announced the alien race was extinct and their home world was a mass of ruins.”

Keren waved his arms. “We realized the Military would need archaeologists to work on those ruins. Cassandra 2 was among the first dig teams to volunteer. Being true nardle brains, we didn’t even think about the major problem with going to Fortuna until some of the other teams started messaging us.”

I frowned. “What major problem?”

“The University Earth dig teams are the real experts on excavation work,” said Keren. “The off-world teams have always depended on them to advise us on difficult excavations, and to rescue us when things go wrong. The Earth teams can’t go to Fortuna with us though. Virtually all of their team members have the Novak-Nadal immune system problem, and it’s impossible to put anyone else through the treatment that nearly killed you.”

He sighed. “Eventually, scientists and doctors may be able to come up with an alternative, less drastic treatment, and some Earth teams will be able to join us on Fortuna, but that won’t happen for decades or even centuries. That means the off-world teams will be going to work on alien ruins, facing unknown hazards, and trying to develop new methods of working without the expert support we’ve always relied on. The Military is aware of this issue, and working to find ways the University Earth experts can help us, but I’m not sure how successful that will be.”

“It’s certainly going to be difficult. The comms portal relay lag between Earth and Fortuna is five point seven seconds. Saying something and having to wait five point seven seconds for the other person to hear it could be disastrous in a crisis.”

“The Military is considering eliminating the comms delay by basing some Earth experts on a world close to the Fortuna star system,” said Keren. “Now everyone knows the conditions needed for the Novak-Nadal immune system to function properly, the Military should be able to find a world with the right levels of solar storm activity easily enough. The real question is how much help the Earth teams can give us when they can’t visit Fortuna to see the problems we’re facing.”

He shrugged. “Anyway, my point is that you shouldn’t be worrying about being unqualified for this. You’re an Earth girl. You’re judging yourself by the standards of University Earth, so you don’t realize how highly skilled you are compared to the average off-world student. When Playdon first saw you tag leading, he couldn’t believe how good you were.”

“Of course I looked good compared to the rest of my class back then. I’d been working on Fringe dig sites with my school history club since I was eleven years old. The rest of our dig team 1 came to Earth with no experience at all, and they’re doing brilliantly now.”

“I agree your teammates are doing brilliantly,” said Keren. “In fact, most of your class members are performing far above average on excavation work, and that’s partly because of you. Playdon’s an excellent lecturer, but the position of tag leader for dig team 1 is called the key spot for a reason. The rest of the class spend a lot of time watching the dig team 1 tag leader work, and learn from their example, whether that’s good or bad.”

Keren laughed. “There are still things you need to learn, Jarra, but we’re all going to have to learn a lot of new ways of working on Fortuna. There’s also another point that every other archaeologist going to Fortuna understands, but you don’t seem to have considered at all. Your team carried out the final excavation of the alien device. You’ll be the only team going to Fortuna that has practical experience of excavating alien technology.”

“Only a tiny amount of experience.”

“Any experience is better than none.” Keren’s voice took on a brisker note. “Rono should have finished explaining what’s happening to your classmates by now, so you can unclip yourself from the winch. Just make sure that you grab the safety line with both hands before jumping to help you stay upright.”

It was time for me to jump! I looked down at the ground, and saw Fian, Rono, Stephan and Playdon were standing a distance away from the base of the spire. Over on the clearway, the diamene sheeting was still in place over the transport sleds, so I couldn’t see my classmates inside them. They were definitely watching me though, because there were some glints of light from the viewing slits that had to be the sunlight reflecting on binoculars.

I unclipped myself from my winch, cautiously stood up, and grabbed my safety line with both hands. I was about to jump when a strange male voice spoke on the comms.

“Hello, Keren. Sorry to gate-crash your private channel to Rono, but I’ve got some important news for you both.”

Someone else had joined our private channel! I didn’t think it was possible to do that without an invitation. Bewildered, I turned to look at Keren.

“Who is that and why …?”

I didn’t finish my question, because my left foot slipped off the smooth diamene edge of the windowsill, and I toppled sideways. Now I was falling, falling, falling. I’d somehow lost my grip on the safety line, so my body was lurching violently forwards and backwards.

Then there was a wildly disorienting swing sideways that left me completely upside down, and I slammed into the side of a window. The material of my suit triggered hard, sending me into impact suit blackout.

 

Part 10

I regained consciousness in the usual fuzzy, disoriented state that followed impact suit blackout, and heard the distinctive squawking of Mayday codes as well as people talking. That meant I’d been in a dig site accident serious enough to send my suit into emergency mode, and Dig Site Command would be trying to contact me on the auto distress channel. I needed to work out where I was and what had happened fast, or I was going to sound a complete nardle when I responded to them.

Two clues were immediately obvious. I was upside down, and my suit was still clamped tight around me. That probably meant I’d been caught in a landslide and buried under some large rocks, but I couldn’t remember what I’d been excavating. I opened my eyes, expecting to have my landslide theory confirmed by seeing either total darkness or tiny chinks of light coming through gaps between rocks.

Instead, there was a wintry, upside-down view of a dig site, which brought my memories rushing back. Oh nuke! I’d been doing a training exercise on one of the Berlin spires, when some stranger joined my private channel with Keren. He’d distracted me at the crucial moment, so I’d fallen rather than making a controlled jump, and must be hanging upside down from my safety line.

Now I knew where I was, and roughly what had happened, I could concentrate on the people speaking on my comms. I heard a calmly professional female voice.

“… speaking to you on auto distress. Please respond. Commander Tell Morrath, this is Dig Site Command speaking to you on auto distress. Please …”

I opened my mouth to reply, but her repeating words were drowned out by the same loud male voice that had startled me into falling. “Why aren’t you saying anything, Rono? I know you’re scared of Keren’s jealous tantrums, but I think it’s time you told him the truth.”

There was a furious order from Keren. “Leave this channel at once, Todd.”

So this stranger was Rono’s stalker! He’d invaded Keren’s private channel hoping to create problems for Rono and Keren, and managed to create even bigger problems for me.

What I didn’t understand was why my suit was still clamped so tight around me. The first rule on dig sites was that if something strange was happening, then you needed to be extra careful. An oddity often turned out to be the first warning sign of a dangerous problem.

Todd was laughing raucously. “Well, if Rono doesn’t dare to speak, then I’ll have to explain the situation to you myself, Keren. Seven years of putting up with you has been at least three years too much for Rono. He’s been staying with you out of pity, but I’m tired of the dishonesty of meeting him behind your back.”

“Leave this channel at once, Todd,” repeated Keren. “I’ve got a trainee in …”

Todd raised his voice to a deafeningly triumphant shout. “You’re always so hysterical, Keren. Now I’ve got the good news that my Loki 1 team has been approved to join the expedition to Zeta sector, it’s time for you to accept the truth. Rono’s tired of your jealousy, your whining, your … ”

Todd was screaming a whole series of mocking comments at Keren now. I’d no hope of talking to either Dig Site Command or Keren with that going on, so I focused on making sense of my situation.

I was hanging at the side of one of the vast curving spire windows. I tried looking for my blue safety line in the direction that was down for me and up for the rest of the world, but my suit refused to allow me to move my head.

I cautiously tried moving my arms instead. Yes, if I worked hard, then my arms could make slow movements. My safety line must be running from my harness and up past my feet towards where Keren was on a higher windowsill of the spire. I reached for the safety line with my right hand, hoping to use it to turn me the right way up.

“Nuke it!” Keren swore at the top of his voice. “I’m reporting this on broadcast channel.”

Todd laughed. “You’re threatening to throw a jealous tantrum on broadcast channel. Do you really want everyone on Berlin Main Dig Site hearing about …?”

Todd broke off his sentence because Keren was speaking on broadcast channel now. “This is Keren of Cassandra 2 requesting help with an emergency.”

“Shut up, Keren,” ordered Todd on the private channel. “You won’t just get me into trouble, but yourself as well. Someone interrupting your cosy chat with Rono isn’t an emergency.”

I was only vaguely aware of the voices on my comms now. My right hand couldn’t find my safety line. What was going on here? However wildly I’d been swinging around, there was no way that my safety line could have accidentally come unclipped. Besides, the safety line must be there because I was hanging from it.

“I was on a private channel with Jarra Tell Morrath instructing her on making her first spire ascension with unsafe lines,” Keren continued his rapid explanation on broadcast channel. “Todd of Loki 1 has been stalking Rono all year, and somehow gate crashed the private channel to yell at me.”

“This is Dig Site Command,” said a male voice. “It should be impossible for Todd to do that. We’re the only people with authority to override a private channel.”

“I don’t know how Todd managed it, but he did,” replied Keren rapidly. “Jarra was about to make her training jump, and Todd’s interruption startled her into falling. She got caught by the safety line connecting us as planned, but seconds later the line went slack.”

He gave a despairing groan. “Now I can’t see Jarra on the spire windowsills below me, or on the ground, and I can’t hear if she’s saying anything when Todd’s shouting abuse on our private channel. I’ve tried closing the private channel and opening a new one to Jarra three times now, and Todd just gate crashes the new channel each time. I need you to sort this mess out, and I need you to do it fast.”

My brain focused on the critical bit of information. The safety line connecting me to Keren had gone slack! Did that mean it had broken or …?

“This is Jerez of Cassandra 2,” said a pointed voice on broadcast channel. “The new recruit to Dig Site Command, Arrack Domall, is Todd’s cousin.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Dig Site Command sharply. “In that case, Arrack could …”

His sentence trailed off. I vaguely remembered Cassandra 2 had been doing Arrack San Domex impersonations to tease a member of Dig Site Command. Presumably, Todd’s cousin Arrack Domall.

The voice of Dig Site Command started talking again. “Keren, I’m patching your private channel to broadcast channel so that I can control the access myself. Please accept my patch request.”

Keren must have accepted the patch request instantly, because Todd’s voice wailed on the broadcast channel. “No! don’t accept the …”

He broke off his sentence, and there was an odd gulping sound before he continued speaking in an icily formal voice. “This is Todd of Loki 1. I wasn’t aware I’d accidentally intruded on a private training channel and am leaving immediately.”

“This is Asgard 6,” Playdon’s anxious voice spoke on broadcast channel. “We were watching when Jarra fell. She lost her grip on the safety line, and swung out of control, turning upside down as she passed directly beneath Keren. She’s now hanging upside down at the far side of a fifth-floor window below and to the left of Keren. At first, we thought she was stuck there because her safety line was snagged on something above the window, but it’s actually hanging free and…”

“This is the Dig Site Command Emergency Control Officer,” interrupted the female voice who’d been trying to speak to me on auto distress. “Commander Tell Morrath’s suit telemetry is showing the back of her suit as green flickering amber. That’s consistent with high pressure from something sharp, probably glass.”

Suddenly everything made horrible sense. I groped urgently with my right hand and felt what was behind me. Nuking hell!

“This is Commander Tell Morrath,” I said urgently. “I collided with the left side of this window, hitting my back against a mass of glass shards. My backpack helped protect me, but my suit still triggered hard enough to send me into impact suit blackout. Some of the shards must have been long enough to stick straight through my backpack. Now they’re holding me in place against this wall, and pressing against the back of my suit.”

“This is Emergency Control,” said the female voice. “You need to free yourself from your backpack immediately, Commander. Those glass shards are pressing against both your back and your neck. If your suit fails under the pressure …”

She didn’t finish the sentence. She didn’t need to finish the sentence. My mind was already picturing what would happen if my suit failed. Those glass shards would stick straight into me.

“My suit is in protective mode, making it hard for me to move,” I said urgently. “I’ll try to undo the waist and chest straps of my backpack and then free my arms. If I manage that, then I’ll probably fall and start swinging on the safety line again.”

“I’m ready for that to happen, Jarra,” said Keren. “When you start swinging, try to drag your hands and feet against the spire wall to slow yourself.”

I was frantically struggling with my backpack straps. “Chest strap is undone. Waist strap is undone. I can’t get my arms out of the shoulder straps. Trying to lengthen the shoulder straps now.”

“Commander, your suit status is rapidly worsening,” said the Emergency Officer, “Telemetry is now showing the suit back as solid amber.”

Nuke it! My suit was failing! I fought with the shoulder straps of the backpack. I couldn’t see what I was doing, and my fingers were encased in semi-rigid impact suit fabric that made them clumsy, but I finally managed to get the straps moving through their buckles. I had another attempt at getting my arms free but failed.

“I still can’t get my arms free,” I gasped. “I’ll have to get the shoulder straps completely out of their buckles, so they fall apart.”

I forced the end of one shoulder strap through its buckle, then worked on the other. Both straps were dangling loose now, but I was still pinned against the side of the window. Chaos, what was holding me here?

Then I realized the problem. “I’m free from the backpack,” I reported in the calm voice of sheer despair, “but the glass shards are sticking through my harness. I’m going to have to use my harness emergency release button to free myself.”

“Jarra, if you do an emergency release then you’ll lose your safety line along with your harness and fall head first,” warned Keren. “You can’t depend on the protection of your impact suit to save you when you land, because it may be too damaged to trigger again.”

There was an odd crawling sensation on my back. Was that the points of the glass shards pushing their way through my suit or just my overactive imagination? I didn’t want to stay here long enough to find out the answer.

“I’m only five floors up,” I said, “An emergency release has to be a better option than getting glass spikes through my neck. I just have to make sure I land on the safety cushions rather than the ground.”

“We’re moving the safety cushions into position beneath you now, Jarra,” said Fian’s breathless voice on the broadcast channel.

“Suit telemetry shows amber flickering red,” warned the emergency officer.

“Don’t release yet, Jarra,” said Fian. “We’re still moving the safety cushions.”

I flipped open the red cover on the emergency release button, and spoke in what I hoped was a calm, controlled voice. “I’ve got less than a minute before my suit fails and I get stabbed by multiple glass shards.”

“Don’t release yet,” repeated Fian. “Not yet. Not yet. Now!”

I used my left hand to protect my head and hit the emergency release button with my right. I dropped head-first as expected, and bounced off the windowsill, but managed to grab the edge of it with my flailing right hand.

I couldn’t hold on to the slippery diamene surface for more than a second, but that was enough to turn me. Now I was falling feet first while facing the spire. Windows and walls sped past me, like a high-speed reverse version of the view I’d seen while heading up. Then I hit the safety cushion, toppled backwards, and lay staring up at the sky.

A figure in a Military blue impact suit sprang onto the safety cushion and knelt beside me. “Jarra, are you all right?” demanded Fian.

“I’m perfectly fine,” I said, in a dazed voice. “I’m not sure about my impact suit though. It didn’t trigger when I hit the safety cushion, but that could be because it was a soft landing. Anyway, it’s automatically started running extended diagnostic tests, so I’ll know in a minute.”

“Nuke the suit,” said Fian. “I’m only worried about you.”

“This is Dig Site Command,” said the male voice on broadcast channel. “We’re relieved to hear you’re uninjured, Commander. I’m now returning control of the private channel to Keren.”

“This is Keren. Thank you for your assistance. I’ve set the winch on Jarra’s insecure line to auto descend, and I’m about to reach ground level on my own insecure line, so you can count us both as safely descended.”

“This is Dig Site Command. Confirming that Spire 152 is now clear.”

Raven’s voice spoke next on the broadcast channel. “This is Captain Raven. I’ve been keeping my Security Operations Controller informed of events, and she’d like to know how Todd managed to join a private channel. Have you worked out what happened yet?”

“This is Dig Site Command. I gather that Todd came to visit his cousin, Arrack. Todd then pretended he was leaving, but actually sneaked into our comms room. Once inside there, he could check who was running private channels, and use Dig Site Command overrides to join any that he wanted.”

“This is Captain Raven. My Security Operations Controller is sending officers to escort both Todd and Arrack to Military Base 79 Zulu for questioning.”

“This is Emergency Control.” A breathless female voice joined the conversation. “Can you please get those officers here as fast as possible? My job is supposed to be dealing with Dig Site emergencies, not breaking up fights in our Command Centre.”

“This is Captain Raven. Who’s fighting?”

Emergency Control sighed heavily. “Nobody is fighting at the moment, but that’s only because I’ve got three Command Centre staff pinning Todd down to stop him getting away, and another three stopping Arrack from beating Todd to death.”

“This is Captain Raven. The Military Security officers are portalling into your Command Centre now.”

“Thank chaos for that,” said Emergency Control.

The broadcast channel fell silent after that, and there was a period of blissful peace. I watched clouds sailing by overhead, while listening to the peculiar bleeping sounds and occasional progress updates from my suit’s diagnostic tests. Beside me, Fian was having a muttered conversation with himself.

“It’s always the same. Whenever anything dangerous happens, Jarra’s right in the middle of it. She attracts trouble like the gravitational field of a black hole attracts …”

“Stop doing that!” I interrupted him.

“Stop doing what?”

“Going scientific. You’ve been doing it a lot since I came out of the tank.”

“I can’t help it,” said Fian. “I hated my father forcing me to focus on the sciences at school. When I escaped to Earth to study history, I promised myself that I’d forget everything I’d ever learned about science. The fact you hated science too made me even more determined to forget it, but qualifying as a fighter pilot involved passing a test on things like space hazards and drop portal technology.”

I shook my head. “That’s no excuse. You surely wouldn’t have had to do much studying to pass a test designed for the average Military fighter pilot.”

“I didn’t do any studying at all,” said Fian. “The problems started when I was taking the test. I made the mistake of pointing out to my examiner that there was a fundamental error in one of the questions. We had a bit of an argument about it, and I quoted something from a research paper written by my great-uncle that proved I was right. I can try to explain the details to you if you want, but it’s a bit complicated.”

“I absolutely forbid you to give me scientific explanations,” I said firmly. “And that’s an order, Major!”

He sighed. “Anyway, my examiner turned out to be a member of Leveque’s Physics team. She got a bit excited about what I said, and now the Physics team keeps messaging me about the implications of applying the theory of …”

“How are you feeling, Jarra?” Playdon’s voice interrupted the conversation.

I turned my head and saw Playdon’s lighter blue impact suit had appeared next to Fian. “I’m bound to have a few bruises from my impact suit triggering, sir,” I said. “Other than that, I’m just a bit shaken.”

“You’re only a bit shaken?” asked Playdon. “The rest of the class are still having hysterics, and they were only watching the events.”

“I’m sorry I frightened everyone,” I said guiltily.

“Your fall was entirely Todd’s fault,” said Playdon. “We’d arranged for Keren to be on a private circuit with you precisely because unexpected distractions are dangerous during ascensions.”

He paused. “As I said, the rest of the class are still having hysterics. If your suit has finished running its diagnostics, can you rejoin the team circuit and reassure them that you aren’t hurt?”

I’d forgotten the team circuit even existed. “My suit seems to have finished its extended diagnostics now, but the automated voice just said it was doing a full system reboot. I don’t think I can change comms channel until that’s finished.”

“Are you sure that’s what your suit said?” asked Playdon. “I’ve never known an impact suit do a system reboot.”

“This is a Military impact suit,” I said.

“But civilian impact suits are exactly the same as Military impact suits,” said Playdon. “The only difference is the colour.”

“Civilian impact suits are exactly the same as basic Military impact suits,” said Fian. “Jarra, Raven, and I have got the advanced fighter pilot models, and Jarra’s has some added features to monitor her artificial web.”

“Oh, my suit says it’s now completed system reboot and is at optimal function,” I reported. “Rejoining team circuit now.”

I adjusted my comms and immediately heard a babble of excited voices. The loudest was, inevitably, Krath.

“… and hopefully execute Todd for murder!”

“Jarra hasn’t been murdered,” said Amalie. “We all heard her on broadcast channel saying she was fine.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” said Krath. “Jarra is always saying she’s fine when she isn’t, and I don’t like the way she’s been lying so still on that safety cushion. If she’s dead, then I’m going to …”

I hastily sat up. “I’m not dead, Krath. I’m completely uninjured except for a few bruises.”

“It’s good to have you back on the team circuit, Jarra,” said Dalmora, in a hugely relieved voice. “We’ve been dreadfully worried.”

“I’m sorry to have scared you all,” I said. “I was a true nardle to fall off that windowsill.”

“As I said a moment ago, your fall was entirely Todd’s fault,” said Playdon.

“Even if Jarra’s all right, I still think Todd should be executed,” said Krath.

“I’m sure Todd will be in a lot of trouble with the Dig Site Federation,” said Playdon, “but they can’t execute him.”

“Military Security could execute Todd though,” said Krath.

“He’s right,” said Steen grimly. “After I did that interview with Gamma Sector News, Colonel Leveque said that if I ever talked to the newzies again then he’d lock me in prison. Then he told me that if whatever I said put Jarra and Fian in danger then he’d personally shoot me.”

“He can’t have meant that,” said Dalmora.

“I’m fairly sure he did mean that,” said Raven. “Colonel Leveque would do anything necessary to safeguard the survival of the human race.”

I winced. I’d forgotten all about the clone issue when I fell off the windowsill, but Raven’s words brought the nightmare back to haunt me. I tried to change the subject.

“Todd said something about his Loki 1 team being approved to join the expedition to Zeta sector,” I said. “Military Security will need to make sure that Todd doesn’t cause problems like this on Fortuna.”

“You don’t have to worry about that,” said Raven. “SECOP told me that Colonel Leveque’s already blacklisted Todd, so Loki 1 will be dropped from the expedition.”

“Good,” said Krath.

“That’s a bit hard on the Loki 1 team members though,” said Dalmora. “They could be just as unhappy about Todd’s behaviour as we are.”

“I’m sure they are,” said Playdon. “A year ago, Todd delayed his team’s move from New Tokyo to Chicago so he could chase after Rono. I remember all his team members were complaining about it back then. If Todd’s kept doing that sort of thing all year to keep stalking Rono, they must be at the point of lodging formal complaints with University Loki by now.”

He sighed. “There are some good people on Loki 1. I know their deputy team leader will be appalled when she hears what happened today.”

“I’ll pass that information to Colonel Leveque,” said Raven. “It’s possible that he’ll let Loki 1 remain on the expedition if they get a different team leader, but his overriding priority is going to be Jarra and Fian’s safety. Colonel Leveque has made it clear that he considers Jarra and Fian to be key members of the Alien Contact programme. He accepts they need to take risks as part of their work, but SECOP tells me he’s furious about Todd endangering Jarra.”

“Colonel Leveque can’t be furious,” said Krath. “He doesn’t have normal human emotions.”

Raven sighed. “Colonel Leveque is a Threat specialist. He’s trained to hide his personal emotions, so they don’t influence the decisions of his commanding officer, but he has feelings like anyone else. He’s been incredibly protective of Jarra since she had her web implanted, which I suspect means he’s feeling guilty about underestimating the risks involved in her treatment.”

Raven’s comment sent me straight back to worrying about the clone issue. If the real Jarra had died, then I could understand Colonel Leveque feeling guilty about it, and being extra protective of the clone that replaced her. I tried changing the subject for a second time.

“Shouldn’t we be getting back to work now? We’ve still got to set up our secure lines on the spire.”

“Yes, I need to consult with Rono about what we do next,” said Playdon. “If you’re feeling recovered enough, Jarra, I’d like you and Fian to join in the discussion.”

“Of course,” I said.

“Jarra and Fian can close down the team circuit now,” said Playdon briskly. “I’ll keep monitoring it on low volume though, so the rest of you should quieten down and wait patiently.”

Playdon turned to wave at where Rono, Keren, and Stephan were standing in a group nearby, and they came over to join us.

“We’re ready to discuss working plans now,” said Playdon.

Rono nodded. “After what just happened, I’d rather have this discussion in person than on a comms channel. Jarra, is your hover belt still working?”

I tentatively tried activating my hover belt and was faintly surprised when I lifted into the air. “Yes.”

“Excellent,” said Rono. “Let’s go over to the Cassandra 2 sleds so we can talk in comfort with our suit hoods down.”

The others activated their hover belts as well, and we skimmed over to where the rest of Cassandra 2 were standing by their transport sled. Everyone else immediately unsealed their hoods and pulled them down, breathing in the unfiltered fresh air with a sigh of relief. I hesitated for a moment, nervous about showing my face to the world, and especially Fian, in case my expression somehow gave away the fact I was worrying about clones. Then I saw Jerez was handing out small cups of drink. I couldn’t resist accepting one, unsealed my hood, and took a cautious sip.

“What is this?” I asked.

“Diluted Cassandrian Willow juice,” said Jerez, and pointed a finger at Playdon. “And before you say anything, Dannel, this isn’t the fermented version.”

“You didn’t need to tell me that,” said Playdon. “I know you’d never hand out alcoholic drinks in the middle of a dig site.”

“It would be perfectly reasonable for you not to trust any of our team at this point,” said Jerez bitterly.

Rono sighed. “Yes, I know. What just happened was a complete disaster. I’m happy to grovel to Jarra and everyone else involved.”

“Please don’t grovel to me,” I said hastily.

“Dig Site Command will be sending reports to the Dig Site Federation, the Military, and all three of University Loki, University Cassandra, and University Asgard,” added Rono gloomily. “As soon as the sun starts blazing down on the inhabited continent of Cassandra, I’m going to be hit by a sandstorm of messages from my boss at University Cassandra. I confidently predict you’ll be taking my place as team leader by tomorrow, Jerez.”

Jerez shook her head. “I feel that you may have been partly to blame in the past, Rono, but I’ll be sending a report to University Asgard saying that today’s events were solely Todd’s fault.”

“I think you’re wrong about that,” said Keren. “Hearing Todd …”

“Noooo,” wailed Rono. “I can cope with everyone else blaming me, but …”

“Hush,” ordered Keren sternly. “What I was trying to say was that after hearing Todd ranting at me, I realized none of this is Rono’s fault. Todd’s completely obsessed and would be acting this way even if Rono had never said a word to him. I set up the private channel to record what Todd said, so we can use that in Rono’s defence if there’s any question of him being demoted.”

“And if that fails, we can always use the ultimate weapon,” said Stephan.

“What ultimate weapon?” asked Rono.

Stephan laughed. “We send in Jarra Tell Morrath. You’d help us out with this, wouldn’t you, Jarra?”

“I could try but I don’t see any reason why University Cassandra would listen to me.”

Stephan laughed. “They’d be afraid you’d send a spaceship to crash on them.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but Playdon was already shaking his head. “There’s absolutely no need to involve Jarra. Rono isn’t going to get demoted. This incident wasn’t his fault and the 2789 ranking list from the Cross-sector University Application Process has just been published. People on Cassandra aren’t awake yet, but it’s daytime on the inhabited continent of Asgard, so I’ve got about five hundred messages queueing on my lookup.”

“It was obvious University Asgard would get a huge boost in applications after all the publicity this year,” said Jerez eagerly. “You mean our help in excavating the alien device was enough to get a boost for University Cassandra too?”

“Asgard rocketed from last year’s respectable position at one hundred and thirty to take first place,” said Playdon briefly. “Adonis is down to second, Zeus to third, and you’re in fourth place, so there’s absolutely no question of Rono getting demoted. Now let’s discuss what we do about those insecure lines.”

“Chaos,” said Stephan. “You can’t just throw the news at us that we’ve jumped nearly two hundred places in the rankings, and then expect us to discuss work.”

Katt laughed. “Of course he can. This is the work addicted Dannel Playdon. The man who excavated a stasis box during his own wedding.”

Fian and I exchanged stunned glances.

“Rono has probably made his decision anyway,” said Playdon.

“Well, yes I have,” said Rono. “Sadly, there only seems one way to salvage the situation. Stephan and Keren will have to ascend the spire to set up the secure lines.”

“I agree,” said Playdon. “My class will stay to watch them do that, and then head back to our dome.”

“But it’s supposed to be me that sets up the secure lines with Keren,” I protested. “Why is Stephan taking over?”

“Because we can’t delay setting up the secure lines, Jarra,” said Playdon. “Waiting a few days, or even overnight, for you to be recovered enough to help would increase the risk of the anchors coming loose and causing another accident.”

“But there’s no need to wait,” I said. “I can help now.”

Rono stared at me. “You can’t be serious, Jarra. Take a long, hard look at that spire. You’ve just fallen off it. In fact, you’ve fallen off it twice. I wouldn’t even ask Stephan to go up a third time after that, and he’s legendary for either not having any nerves or not having any sense.”

“Probably both,” said Katt.

I turned to look at the spire. The truth was that I’d welcome going up there as a distraction from thinking about clones.

“I’m perfectly happy to ascend the spire and set up secure lines,” I said. “The only thing that worries me is the thought of doing more training exercises.”

Keren shuddered. “You won’t need to do any more training exercises. The last one covered more than enough emergency situations.”

I shrugged. “In that case, there’s no problem. Let’s do this.”

 

Part 11

It only took a few minutes for us to get ready for the new attempt at ascending the spire. Fian gave me his harness and green backpack to replace the ones I’d abandoned, and we moved the safety cushions back to their original positions. Finally, I clipped myself to the winch of my red, insecure line again.

Keren glanced across at me. “Ready for the safety line, Jarra?”

“Yes.”

Rono came over to attach the blue line to my harness, and then took the other end across to Keren.

“Opening private channel now,” said Keren. “Jarra, I want you to shut down the team circuit again.”

“Good luck, Jarra,” Dalmora’s anxious voice led a babble from my classmates.

“Thanks,” I responded.

The background hum of my comms changed note. “I’m hoping our private channel will stay private this time,” said Keren drily.

“Yes.” I adjusted my suit comms controls. “I’ve shut down team circuit now.”

“As before, you’ll start heading up, and I’ll match your speed,” said Keren. “Ideally, we’ll go straight up to the thirtieth floor, but we may need to stop for a minute around the twentieth floor. There’s a small tree there which could snag our safety line.”

I blinked. “A tree? I’ve seen plenty of bushes and trees growing on the sides and tops of old buildings before, but it’s surely impossible for them to get their roots into diamene.”

“There’s a piece of old window frame left up there, and some debris has built up around it. It’s the usual thing of a seed getting caught in that and starting to grow, but you’re right that nothing can get roots into the diamene wall. If there’s a risk of the tree snagging our safety line, we’ll only need to stop for a moment while I pull it up and throw it aside.”

Keren paused and turned to wave at Rono. “Time to break the news to Dig Site Command.”

Now that Arrack had been taken away for questioning by Military Security, Rono spoke in his normal voice on the broadcast channel. “This is Cassandra 2 and Asgard 6. Requesting clearance to ascend Spire 152.”

“This is Dig Site Command. Cassandra 2 and Asgard 6. Does that mean …?”

“This is Rono, and it does mean that. If Jarra falls off again, will she set a new record for the most spire falls in one day?”

“This is Dig Site Command. The record for the most spire falls in one day is currently five, but that was set by Professor Valeska Orlova of Earth 1 when she was leading an especially dangerous rescue operation. I sincerely hope Commander Tell Morrath isn’t planning to try for six.”

I laughed and spoke on broadcast channel myself. “This is Commander Tell Morrath. I’ve had the honour to meet the legendary Professor Valeska Orlova of Earth 1, and I wouldn’t dream of challenging her record on anything.”

“This is Dig Site Command. In that case, Cassandra 2 and Asgard 6 you are clear to ascend Spire 152.”

I saw Keren stab a forefinger in my direction, and spoke on the broadcast channel again. “This is Asgard 6 at Spire 152. Jarra making a double ascension with insecure line.”

Keren spoke next “This is Cassandra 2 at Spire 152. Keren making a double ascension with insecure line.”

I adjusted the winch lever and started moving upwards. I concentrated my attention on the wall and window gaps going by in front of me, so I could time the gentle kicks needed to steady myself.

“In a way, that training exercise was quite successful,” I said on the private channel.

There was a choking noise from Keren. “Has Parliament of Planets approved a change to Language that redefines the word success?”

I laughed. “I meant that ascending an insecure line doesn’t seem very scary compared to doing that emergency release.”

“In my experience,” said Keren, “ascending an insecure line is either boringly uneventful or utterly terrifying. Given your record of falling off spires, attracting crashing spaceships, and triggering social revolutions, I’m not making any predictions about how things will work out this time.”

“I wish everyone would stop making that sort of joke,” I said plaintively.

“We’ll stop making the jokes when you stop doing these things,” said Keren. “I thought I had a hard time being married to Rono, but it’s nothing compared to what that beautiful blond boy goes through being betrothed to you. Rono says he’s never heard a Deltan swear the way Fian did when you fell off the spire.”

I sighed. “Fian is a very badly behaved Deltan. Am I ascending fast enough?”

“A little faster would be good,” said Keren, “but don’t push yourself further than you can handle.”

I increased my speed of ascent a fraction. “How is that?”

“Perfect. You said that you’d met Valeska Orlova. I’ve heard the stories about her, and watched her vids about rescue procedures, but I’ve never met her in person. Is she as incredible as everyone says?”

I guessed that Keren was only asking about Valeska to keep the conversation going and help me stay relaxed, but I couldn’t help laughing. “None of the stories do Valeska justice. I met her last year, when she’d just retired from leading the Earth 1 research team.”

As Keren and I continued upwards, I chatted about how I’d been at Valeska’s wedding. There was something oddly restful about the routine of passing a window followed by a wall followed by a window. I’d completely lost count of what floor we were on by the time Keren interrupted me.

“We’re now approaching the problem tree. I want you to slow your ascent to half speed.”

I adjusted the winch lever, and we continued upwards at crawling speed. Keren had his head tipped back, staring upwards.

“The tree is definitely going to snag our safety line. Ready to stop on a countdown of three?”

“Yes.”

Keren waited a moment before speaking. “Three, two, one, stop!”

We stopped by a windowsill, and I saw the tree Keren had been talking about. It was much smaller than I’d expected. It was the start of winter here in Earth Europe, so most of its leaves had fallen, but the handful of brown ones left on its branches had the distinctive shape of oak leaves.

I felt an odd stab of pity for the tree. It had been fighting a desperate battle for life, and now Keren was going to pull it up and throw it away. I wasn’t sure whether the fall would injure a tree or not, but the chance of it getting its roots into the ground and surviving afterwards had to be less than one in a thousand.

“The tree is a lot closer to you than me,” said Keren. “Can you reach it and pull it up?”

Thinking about one in a thousand chances, whether good or bad, had made me start identifying with the tree. I didn’t want to be the one that murdered it, but I told myself it would make no difference in the end. If Keren and I left the tree here, then it would soon outgrow its fragile heap of debris and fall to the ground anyway.

I reluctantly reached out, grabbed for a branch, and the whole tree instantly came free. The lack of any resistance made me feel it trusted me to help it.

“That was nice and simple,” said Keren. “We can carry on now and … What are you doing with that tree, Jarra?”

“I’m just working out the best way to carry it.”

“You can just throw it away. That tree isn’t big enough to injure a rabbit, let alone a human being, and everyone on the ground has moved to a safe distance anyway.”

I wasn’t throwing my tree away. It had been clinging to life in terrible conditions, struggling through each day at a time, with only a one in a thousand chance of long-term survival. It was trusting me to help it, and I refused to betray that trust.

“It’s a very small tree,” I said. “I’ll hold on to it until we get to the thirtieth floor. Once we’re there, and I take my rope out of my backpack, the tree should fit in there nicely.”

“When you fell off the spire, did you bang your head at all, Jarra?”

“I’m keeping the tree,” I said flatly.

Keren made an odd whimpering noise. “Why do you want a tree? What are you planning to do with it? You can’t take it to Fortuna with you.”

I’d no idea what I’d do with the tree. I’d have to find somewhere to plant it. A place that was …

And then I knew why I was so determined to keep this tree and exactly what I was going to do with it. I would be leaving Earth on Year Day 2790 and going to help excavate the alien ruins on Fortuna. Fian, Raven, and I hadn’t been talking about the reason the alien race was extinct, because we couldn’t risk anyone overhearing something that was currently the greatest of Military secrets. I’d been trying not to think about it either, but now I had to face the terrifying truth.

Over a quarter of a millennium ago, humanity had encountered a lethal species on Thetis. The chimera hadn’t been intelligent, but they were unbelievably adaptable, and systematically wiped out all competing forms of life. They’d sneaked onto humanity’s ships, and through the old-style portals without protective biofilters, to infiltrate our worlds.

Now we knew the chimera had done the same thing to the alien civilization in Zeta sector. Humanity had barely survived the war with the chimera, and the aliens must have been in a far worse position. They hadn’t had Tellon Blaze to lead them, or the resources of hundreds of colony worlds to help them fight for survival. They’d reached the point where they had no chance of winning against the chimera, and had chosen to bring down an extinction event on their world to destroy their enemy along with themselves.

That extinction event meant Fortuna itself should be safe, but there would be living chimera on other worlds in Zeta sector, as well as on alien ships still travelling through space. The Military expedition to Zeta sector wasn’t just aiming to learn from the ruins of the alien civilization, but to find and wipe out the chimera before they found and wiped out humanity.

Fian and I weren’t just archaeologists, but Military officers. Humanity was on the brink of a second war for survival against the chimera, and we could be called into the heart of that war at any moment. It could be decades before I returned to Earth, and I might not live to return at all.

I had an obligation here on Earth. Just over a year ago, I’d taken a solemn vow to honour it. I’d been living in one of Hospital Earth’s residential homes back then, and been forced to have regular sessions with a psychologist. During one of my last sessions, my psychologist had said that he understood I had to remember the obligation itself. He’d advised me to forget some of the details though, since thinking about them generated frighteningly high levels of hostility in me.

It had been a bit hard to argue with that comment, since I’d just thrown a vase of flowers at the room wall, but I obviously wasn’t going to take the advice of a psychologist inflicted on me by Hospital Earth. The events of the last year hadn’t left me a lot of time to brood on those details though, and I couldn’t discuss them with the off-worlders around me.

Now I realized that I was going to be the first person in history to walk away from my obligation by leaving Earth. Admittedly, that was because none of the others had been able to leave Earth without dying. There was also the point that my vow was about remembering rather than staying on Earth. Still, I felt I should leave something symbolic behind me, and the tree would be perfect.

“Jarra? Jarra?” Keren sounded alarmed now. “Talk to me. What’s going on here?”

“What’s going on is that I’m a Next of Kin,” I said. “I’m going to be leaving Earth, and I could be away for a long time, so I want to plant this tree by the grave to show that I haven’t forgotten.”

“Oh.” Keren’s voice changed to be appropriately respectful. “Well, if you want it for a Next of Kin memorial then that’s different. Hold on to the tree and let’s carry on up.”

I swapped the tree from my right hand to my left, and then adjusted the winch lever. We headed upwards again in silence. Finally, Keren spoke.

“We’re approaching our destination window. Get ready to stop on my countdown. Three, two, one, stop!”

As before, I stopped right next to a windowsill. “We both get on the windowsill now?”

“Check it for glass spikes first,” said Keren. “If there are too many, we’ll go back down to the window below.”

“I can’t see any glass at all.”

“Good. It’s clear by me too. You get on the windowsill and wait for me to fire a piton and get myself secure. If you haven’t been looking down at the ground on the way up, then please don’t try doing it until I say.”

I perched on the edge of the windowsill, holding tight to my tree, and made the mistake of turning my head to look for Keren. That gave me an unnerving glimpse of the view below, so I hastily twisted to look in through the window instead. There was some wreckage in there that might once have been furniture. My mind knew that the floor beneath that wreckage would be brittle as thin ice, but somehow it still gave me the illusion of safety only being a step away.

There was the sound of a piton being fired, and then Keren spoke briskly. “I’ve got my harness clipped to a firmly embedded piton. That means I’m now secure, and our safety line makes you secure as well. Can you manage to fire a piton yourself without losing your tree?”

“I think so.” I tucked the trunk of my tree under my left arm, fumbled for my piton gun, and carefully loaded it. “Where do I aim the piton gun?”

“Fire straight down at the windowsill in front of you,” said Keren. “Just make sure you don’t shoot yourself in the leg.”

I adjusted my position and fired the piton.

“Is any red visible on the piton?” asked Keren.

“No.”

“Then you can unclip your harness from the winch and clip yourself onto the piton.”

“Done,” I reported.

Keren gave a loud sigh of relief. “That means we’re both directly secured to pitons. I’ll just report that on broadcast channel.”

There was the briefest of pauses. “This is Cassandra 2 and Asgard 6. Keren reporting two ascended and secure at Spire 152, floor 30.”

“This is Dig Site Command. Confirming Cassandra 2 and Asgard 6 have two ascended and secure at Spire 152, floor 30.”

Keren adjusted his comms and spoke on our private channel again. “You can take a look at the view now, Jarra.”

I finally risked taking a proper look at the ground, and felt an instinctive lurch of panic. The yellow safety cushions seemed tiny now. I hastily reminded myself that I couldn’t possibly fall.

“How are you feeling?” asked Keren.

“I’m feeling rather high off the ground,” I admitted.

“Take a few minutes to acclimatize, while I fire some more pitons and deploy my secure line.”

After a minute, my head seemed to adjust to the situation. I turned and saw Keren had taken off his backpack and was opening it. He took out a massive coil of green rope, clipped an end onto a piton, and then hurled the rest of the coil out of the window. He peered down, reached to give his end of the rope a shake, peered down again, and then nodded.

“My secure line is successfully deployed,” he said. “Are you feeling any better, Jarra?”

“Yes. My head seems to have decided I’m just as safe sitting here as if I was looking out of an aircraft window.”

“I wouldn’t find that a comforting thought myself,” said Keren. “In my opinion, if the deity had wanted us to fly then we’d have been born with feathers.”

“We aren’t born with built-in portals,” I said, “and you still use those on a daily basis.”

“Very true,” said Keren. “Anyway, all that matters is the aircraft window analogy works for you. I’m now going to transfer my winch from the insecure red line to the secure green line. Watch carefully as I undo the locking bar.”

I watched him transfer the winch across and lock it in place on the secure green line. He used the lever to make the winch move up and down a few inches before nodding.

“That’s working fine. Now, I’ll come over to join you, and we’ll deploy your secure line as well.”

He moved along the windowsill, firing several more pitons and clipping himself to them in turn, until he was sitting next to me.

“May I hold your tree while you take off your backpack?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you.” I handed him the tree, took off my backpack, and opened it to take out my green rope.

Keren gestured at a spare piton. “Just clip the end of the rope to this, and then toss the coil out of the window. Make sure you throw the coil as hard as you can, because getting it further from the spire wall reduces the chance of the rope snagging on something on the way down. If the rope does snag, then you usually just need to give it a shake to free it, but ropes can get seriously damaged if they get caught around a glass spike.”

I nodded, clipped the end of my rope to the piton, and threw the coil out of the window as hard as I could.

Keren peered down and nodded. “Perfect.”

I peered down as well. “I can’t see if the rope is hanging free near the bottom of the spire or not.”

“Neither can I,” said Keren, “but I can see that Rono, Stephan, and Playdon are all waving their arms to signal it looks good. You can transfer your winch to the secure line now.”

I unlocked my winch from the insecure red line. “What happens if I mess this up and drop the winch?” I asked nervously.

“The winch won’t hit anyone because they’re standing well clear of the spire,” said Keren, “but Rono will still ask if you were trying to kill him. He’ll then come over, attach a new winch to your green line, and set it to auto ascend to us.”

Keren sighed. “In my case, Rono kept joking about me trying to kill him for the following two weeks, but Dannel wouldn’t let him do that to you.”

I cautiously fitted my winch onto the green line. “You mean that you once dropped a winch yourself?”

“Yes,” said Keren. “That wasn’t entirely my fault. A bird flew out of the window and literally knocked the winch out of my hands. I’ve made a few genuine mistakes over the years though. Everyone does. That’s why, whenever possible, we arrange things so it takes two errors to cause an accident.”

He paused. “Now make sure you’ve got the rope fitted properly into the grooves of the winch, and close the locking bar.”

I locked the winch onto the line, and copied what Keren had done, making the winch run up and down the line a short distance to test it.

“Excellent,” said Keren. “Let’s put your tree in your backpack now. I hope it fits.”

We just needed to bend a couple of branches to get the tree into my backpack, and then Keren helped me slide the straps back over my shoulders again. After that, I was grazzed to see him unseal the hood of his impact suit, pull it down, and grin at me.

“You can’t unseal your suit up here!” I protested.

He laughed. “We’re actually much safer sitting on this windowsill than on one of our transport sleds. We’ve got solid diamene protecting us above, below, and on either side. We can’t move from this spot without sealing our suits again, but we can enjoy some fresh air while we’re sitting here. Go ahead and take your hood down too.”

I suspected the real reason Keren wanted me to unseal my hood was so he could see my expression. He kept looking at me expectantly though, so I finally gave in. The intent way he studied my face proved my suspicions had been right. Whatever he saw seemed to satisfy him though, because he shocked me again by standing up on the windowsill.

“There’s a Cassandra 2 tradition of announcing our arrival at the top of a skyscraper. Bear with me for a moment.”

He spread his arms wide and shouted at the top of his voice. “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings!

I stared at him. “What did you say?”

“I was telling Berlin Main Dig Site that I ruled the world.”

“Oh,” I said doubtfully.

He laughed at me. “It’s a line from a poem written in the days before Thaddeus Carmichael Wallam-Crane imposed Language as the common tongue of humanity. When I left school, I did an Art of Language Foundation course. My logic being that if you want to understand the way people lived in past centuries, then you should read their original words rather than clumsy translations.”

“That does make sense,” I admitted.

“My previous partner talked me into transferring course to study Pre-history. It’s one of the few things about our relationship that I don’t regret.” Keren shrugged. “Now you should shout a message to Berlin Main Dig Site yourself.”

“I’m not sure what to shout.”

“Take a little longer to admire the view and think about it. We’ve gone to a lot of effort to get up here, so we’re entitled to take a few minutes to enjoy it.”

I gazed out across Berlin Main Dig Site. I’d been able to thrust the clone issue aside while I was ascending the spire and worrying about the tree, but now it came back to haunt me. It was perfectly possible that I was a clone of the original Jarra Tell Morrath. The required medical technology existed, and Colonel Leveque would have authorized any action necessary for humanity to gain access to the alien home world.

When I woke up after my months in the tank, Leveque had been waiting at my bedside. The first thing he’d told me was that I’d suffered brain damage and had had a significant amount of brain tissue regrown.

I remembered his calm, emotionless voice explaining that my memories and personality had been recorded by technology developed by Cioni’s Apprentices, so they could be restored after the brain regrowth. He’d finished by saying that the use of this technology had been forbidden under the protection of humanity laws after the Persephone incident, so it was preferable the issue of brain damage didn’t become public knowledge.

The facts about my brain damage were only known to Leveque, my doctors, and a handful of other people. Fian, Raven, General Torrek, his deputy Colonel Nia Stone, and the General Marshal himself. If Leveque had cloned me, then he would have kept that fact an even more closely guarded secret, known only to himself, the doctors involved in carrying it out, and the General Marshal.

That wouldn’t be because Leveque didn’t trust the rest of us to keep the secret, but because beneath his coldly unreadable exterior he was a compassionate man. He wouldn’t want to burden any of us, especially me, with the knowledge that I was a clone. If I went to see him now and demanded to know if he’d cloned me, then I’d learn absolutely nothing. Whether I was a clone or not, Leveque would react in precisely the same way, looking me in the eyes and giving me an utterly convincing denial.

I would never know the truth about what had happened during my three months in a tank. There was no way to tell if I was the original Jarra Tell Morrath, or a clone created using accelerated growth techniques and given her memories by the Persephone technology. By definition, a clone was genetically identical to the original.

I would never know the truth about whether I was a clone or not, but I did know what the original Jarra Tell Morrath would want her clone to do. I, she, had been aware there was a possibility the Military would have to resort to creating a clone Jarra, but had no idea the Persephone technology existed to hand on her memories. I, she, had spent the last precious hours before the operation recording a rambling message for that possible future clone.

A week ago, I’d accepted a symbolic torch from Aadi Quilla Amarion, and Earth had become part of Alpha sector. That message from the original Jarra Tell Morrath had been a symbol too. She had fiercely wanted to keep living her life and loving Fian, but if she couldn’t do that herself then she was handing her life, her love, her obligation as a Next of Kin, and her responsibility to humanity on to her clone.

Now I knew exactly what message I should shout to Berlin Main Dig Site. My vision was blurred by tears as I stood up and groped for the comms control of my suit to set it to speak on the team circuit. I was accepting that symbolic message from my original self, and I wanted Fian to hear me do it.

He wouldn’t understand what was happening, and I could never explain it to him in the future. However often I’d promised to share things with Fian, I had to keep the possibility of me being a clone secret. I knew he’d stick with me regardless because my badly behaved Deltan was too stubbornly loyal to do anything else. I still wanted to spare him the nagging uncertainty of whether I was the girl who’d exchanged vows with him at his betrothal ceremony or just her clone.

I could never explain the importance of this moment to Fian, but I would go as far as I could by letting him hear it. I took a deep breath and yelled the original Jarra’s personal battle cry, a cry that wasn’t just about triumph but about defying fate. Whether I was a clone or not, it was mine to carry forward into the future.

“Hoo eee!”

There was a man’s laugh on the comms. “This is Dig Site Command acknowledging that.”

I blinked as I realized his comment meant I’d just shouted on the broadcast channel. “I’m sorry,” I said guiltily. “I meant to shout that on my team circuit.”

“This is Dig Site Command,” came the response. “Everyone makes the mistake of setting their suit to the wrong comms channel eventually, so please don’t worry about it, Commander. I am right that the shout came from Commander Jarra Tell Morrath, aren’t I?”

“Yes,” I said, with heavy emphasis. Even if I was a clone, I had the authority of my original self to say this. “I am Jarra Tell Morrath.”

 

Part 12

Keren waited until I’d adjusted my suit comms to shut down broadcast channel before speaking. “Are you all right, Jarra?”

Keren’s expression was one of anxious concern. Chaos knew what emotions he was seeing in my face. Hopefully, he’d think they were something to do with the tree and being a Next of Kin.

“Yes, just give me a moment.”

“Of course. The others will have heard you on broadcast channel and know that everything’s fine, so you can take as long as you need before we rejoin the team circuit.”

I wanted to rub the moisture from my cheeks, but my hands were encased in unforgivingly harsh impact suit fabric. I had to wait for the winter wind to blow the moisture away instead. Finally, I took a deep breath.

“We can rejoin the team circuit now.”

“Are you perfectly sure you’re ready for that?” asked Keren.

I nodded and adjusted my suit comms. There seemed to be a conversation going on between my classmates and the Cassandra 2 team members, and I heard Stephan’s distinctive laughter.

“I’ve seen plenty of people ascend a spire before, but this is the first time I’ve seen a tree …”

“Jarra and I are back on team circuit,” Keren interrupted him sharply, “and everyone should stop the tree jokes at once. Jarra is a Next of Kin, and the tree is for a memorial.”

“Jarra is a Next of Kin?” Rono sounded startled. “Why didn’t you warn us about that, Dannel?”

“I didn’t warn you because I didn’t know,” said Playdon. “In June of last year, my previous class was in London when Dig Site Command called silence, but this class hasn’t hit the issue at all. That must mean Jarra became a Next of Kin when she was working somewhere like New York Fringe Dig Site with her school history club.”

“I’d realized silences must happen on fringe as well as main dig sites,” said Rono, “but I assumed there was a system for teachers to take on the obligation.”

“I became a Next of Kin during the summer break last year,” I said. “It wasn’t in the standard situation, but my teacher couldn’t have taken the obligation anyway. I didn’t realize what I was looking at until after I’d touched it, and the first Earth citizen to touch becomes Next of Kin. That’s irreversible.”

“It seems unkind to pile that sort of responsibility onto the shoulders of schoolchildren.” This comment came from Keren, so I heard his voice from beside me as well as on the comms.

I shook my head at him. “Remember Stephan’s joke about not being civilians but archaeologists? If the current members of my school history club were here, they’d be proudly saying that they aren’t schoolchildren but archaeologists. We’re all warned about the Next of Kin issue before we set foot on a dig site, just as we’re warned that Fringe dig sites may be a lot flatter and safer than the hearts of the ruined cities, but accidents still happen.”

I paused. “It’s obviously most likely to be a tag leader who becomes Next of Kin. The general feeling is that if you’re responsible enough to be a tag leader then you’re responsible enough to be a Next of Kin. You can always delay making decisions until you’re older anyway. After waiting centuries, a few extra years makes little difference.”

“Is it possible for someone to explain the exact meaning of Next of Kin?” Fian’s voice was carefully respectful, but ominously determined. “I haven’t heard anything about this from Jarra or anyone else.”

“I usually leave explaining the Next of Kin system to my classes until the situation arises on a dig site,” said Playdon. “You all know that Earth’s cities were gradually abandoned during Exodus century, with their residents either going through interstellar portals to start a new life on one of the colony worlds, or just moving to live in a small settlement in the countryside. Towards the end though, law and order broke down in the cities. Criminal gangs took over some areas, while the remaining citizens built barricades to defend their neighbourhoods, and inevitably some people were killed in the fighting.”

He sighed. “Archaeologists can easily avoid disturbing graveyards, because the regimented layout of graves is obvious on a sensor scan. On rare occasions though, we stumble across some skeletal remains in unexpected places. When that happens to an off-world team, we follow the standard rule that visitors to a world must always respect the local customs on memorials. In this case, it means we stop work immediately, and use broadcast channel to report the situation to Dig Site Command.”

Playdon seemed to hesitate. “It’s best if Jarra explains what happens after that. I don’t have her level of knowledge or cultural understanding.”

I’d guessed Playdon would take the safe option of asking me to explain, and had been mentally preparing what to say. “When Dig Site Command gets the report, they call silence. That means all teams should stop their excavations, withdraw to safe ground as soon as possible, and then leave broadcast channel silent as a gesture of respect. If the remains were found by an off-world team, then the nearest Earth team will go to take over the situation.”

I could hear the emotion in my voice now. “The remains are normally those of a person who died four centuries ago, in circumstances that meant they never had any form of funeral. If they have any living relatives at all, then it’s an extremely remote connection, so the first Earth citizen to touch the bones takes the vow to be their Next of Kin. In a dig site situation, that vow is made on the broadcast channel. The Next of Kin then directs the collection of the remains, before speaking on broadcast channel again to give permission for excavation work to resume.”

I paused. “The remains are then handed over to the Dig Site Federation experts to check for any clues to the person’s identity and cause of death. Once those experts have completed their report, the Next of Kin decides what form of funeral they feel is most appropriate. I chose a traditional burial in the Dig Site Federation graveyard in Earth America because …”

“I’m deeply sorry to interrupt you, Jarra,” said Raven’s anxious voice, “but Security Operations tell me they’ve received a credible warning of an immediate airborne attack.”

I gasped.

“You and Keren need to descend that spire right away,” added Raven urgently.

I remembered my responsibility to civilians and turned to Keren. “My rope is closest. You’d better descend it while I …”

Keren was already turning to move along the windowsill towards his own rope. “We can’t waste time trying to pass each other on this narrow windowsill. Seal your suit and start descending now, Jarra!”

He was right. I didn’t argue any longer, just yanked up my suit hood, and sealed it. It only took a moment for me to clip myself on to my winch, release myself from the piton, and set the winch lever to descend at full speed. Surprisingly, or possibly not surprisingly, my only concern about heights now was the length of time it would take us to reach the ground.

Raven’s voice spoke on broadcast channel. “This is Captain Raven of Asgard 6. Military Security is warning of an immediate airborne attack. This will primarily be aimed at Commander Tell Morrath and Major Eklund, but all dig teams should stop work and take cover immediately. I repeat: all dig teams should take cover immediately. Does Dig Site Command have any aircraft currently in its air space?”

“This is Dig Site Command. We don’t have anything in the air, but we’ve just had an aircraft arrive through our freight portal. That’s a standard civilian aircraft though, and flown by one of the Dig Site Federation pilots called Gradin. We’ve just been talking to him on our air traffic control channel. Gradin’s well known for doing rescue work and is heading to assist in a search for a missing child.”

I was heading down my rope at steadily increasing speed, but freed a hand to set my comms to speak on broadcast channel. “This is Commander Tell Morrath. Are you certain that’s the real Gradin? What does he look like?”

“This is Dig Site Command. I can see Gradin from my window. He’s got out of the aircraft now, and is unfolding the aircraft wings ready to take off. He’s wearing an official Dig Site Federation pilot’s impact suit, but his hood is up and sealed.”

“Tell Gradin that I send my best wishes after our last meeting in Greece,” I said.

There was a brief pause. “Gradin says that it’s a pleasure to hear from you again, Commander Tell Morrath.”

“That pilot isn’t Gradin!” I yelled.

“This is Dig Site Command. We’ll try to stop the aircraft taking off.”

“This is Captain Raven. You mustn’t approach that aircraft. We expect the pilot will be armed, and the aircraft itself will have high powered weaponry.”

“This is Dig Site Command,” said a frustrated voice. “We’re too late anyway. The aircraft is already taking off.”

“This is Captain Raven. Jarra, are you perfectly sure that pilot isn’t Gradin?”

I seemed to have reached my top descent speed now. It was fast, but not nearly fast enough. “I’m absolutely sure. Gradin taught me to fly. Our last meeting wasn’t in Athens, he wouldn’t refer to me as Commander Tell Morrath, and he’d never say it was a pleasure to hear from me.”

“This is Captain Raven. I’ve confirmed to Military Security that the aircraft is hostile, and Colonel Leveque has authorized deadly force. Dig Site Command should warn the pilot to land immediately or he will be shot down.”

“This is Dig Site Command. We’ve been yelling at the pilot on our air traffic control channel, but he’s ignoring us. He’s banking to head for the Berlin Spire Complex now.”

“This is Commander Tell Morrath. I was chased by a civilian aircraft in Earth Europe before my betrothal ceremony. If this is the same aircraft, it’s fitted with a Planet First incendiary weapon.”

“This is Captain Raven. All dig teams should take cover under heat resistant materials such as diamene shielding. Everyone still up on the spires should stop descending and take cover inside the diamene walls.”

I’d just gone past a window gap and was beside a section of solid wall now. I set my winch lever to slow my descent, and peered down for the next windowsill.

Keren’s voice spoke on the private circuit. “I’m four floors above you, Jarra. I’ll keep going to join you.”

I changed my comms to reply. “No! You have to stop where you are, Keren. We’ll both be safer if we’re at different windows.”

“I suppose that’s true,” said Keren reluctantly. “Remember you’ll have to hang from pitons inside the spire because you can’t trust the floor.”

There were urgent voices speaking on broadcast channel. “This is Dig Site Command. We assume there’ll be Military fighters arriving to help us.”

“This is Captain Raven. Fighters are launching now, but they’ll take over twenty minutes to reach us because of problems with heavy rain in Earth America.”

I’d reached my windowsill, perched on it, and was trying to load my piton gun. In my haste, I dropped my piton. It clattered off the windowsill to fall to the ground that was still about fifteen floors below me. I gulped. Chaos, if I’d dropped the piton gun instead, then I’d have left myself with no way to take shelter inside the spire.

“This is Dig Site Command,” said an incredulous voice. “What’s the problem with rain? Are Military fighter pilots scared of a little water?”

“This is Major Eklund,” the harsh note in Fian’s voice startled me. “Yes, Military fighter pilots are scared of a little water. At least, they’re scared of firing a drop portal when it’s raining. It takes a huge burst of energy to form a drop portal. If that portal touches any solid matter in the formation stage, even water droplets, then all that energy will focus into a single spectacular explosion.”

“Sorry,” said Dig Site Command. “I didn’t realize that.”

Fian still sounded offended on behalf of his fellow fighter pilots as he kept talking. “Rather than committing pointless suicide, the fighters will be going through Military Base 79 Zulu’s atmosphere jump portals to reach geosynchronous orbit near the Earth Africa solar array and the alien sphere. Since drop portals into atmosphere have to be done with pinpoint accuracy, and there’s a mass of ancient rubbish orbiting Earth, the fighters will then have to loop around Earth to go into a low orbit over us before drop portalling down to help us.”

He paused. “Keren, please invite Captain Raven and me to join your private channel.”

By now, I’d successfully loaded my piton gun and fired a piton into the windowsill next to me. I checked the piton was firmly embedded into the diamene, then clipped myself onto it.

There were two bursts of crackling sounds on the comms and then Raven spoke on our private channel. “The aircraft is heading straight for us, so the pilot must know which spire we’re working on. I think someone has been eavesdropping on our dig site broadcast channel. That person waited until Jarra was at her most vulnerable, high up on the spire, before calling in the aircraft to attack.”

Fian’s voice spoke, still with that unfamiliarly harsh edge. “Jarra and Keren, your brightly coloured ropes will narrow down your location for the attacking pilot. You need to get off your windowsills and inside the spire at once.”

I’d already unclipped myself from the winch. As I rolled over the windowsill to hang inside the spire, I finally realized the meaning behind Fian’s harsh tone of voice. I’d been a fan of the ridiculous vid series, Defenders, for years. The male lead, Arrack San Domex, played a Military officer who regularly took his team into battle against a mythical race of green tentacled aliens. Where Arrack San Domex made dramatic speeches, Fian’s voice was that of an experienced Military officer calmly poised for combat.

There was a fleeting moment of pain as I remembered the Deltan boy who’d met an Earth girl at the start of this year. They both seemed impossibly young and naive now. Whether I was a clone or not, I wasn’t that girl any longer, and Fian wasn’t that boy.

Then I focused on reality and survival again. I looked down in time to catch a brief glimpse of some heaps of rotting fabric surrounding a table before my feet touched the grimy floor. That shattered into pieces beneath my weight, and the pieces and table fell away into the depths.

I didn’t waste time looking to see if the floors below had collapsed as well, just checked my position relative to the window gaps and grimaced. There was an obvious problem with me hanging here like this.

“I’m inside the spire,” I said, “but I’m still clipped to a piton on my original windowsill, and the section of wall between that and the window gap below isn’t big enough to hide me in a vertical position. Either my head or my feet will be exposed.”

I glanced sideways. “There’s no chance of me hiding behind the narrow supporting pillars or at the sides of the windows. I’m firing more pitons inside the spire wall so I can try to position myself horizontally behind my section of wall.”

As I started loading my piton gun, Keren spoke breathlessly. “I’m trying to do the same as Jarra, but I’m taller than her so will have an even bigger problem hiding. One question. If you think someone’s listening to broadcast channel, wasn’t it a mistake to say that the Military aircraft won’t be here for at least another twenty minutes?”

“That was deliberate misinformation,” said Raven. “We told the truth about the rain problem in Earth America, but doubled the genuine arrival estimate for the Military aircraft. We want the hostile pilot to think they’ve got plenty of time before help arrives.”

“When the aircraft comes in for its attack run,” said Fian, “Raven and I will use both the line rifles to fire anchors. We’ve virtually no chance of hitting the aircraft, but the hostile pilot probably won’t know that. We’re hoping to scare him into breaking off his attack, climbing for height, and wasting some time circling overhead while he rethinks the situation.”

Fian paused. “Hostile pilot is committing to attack run. Take cover now!”

I’d just fired a piton into the inside of the spire wall. I hastily transferred my harness clips, so I was hanging from that. The sound of aircraft engines grew rapidly louder as I ducked my head and lifted my knees to my chest. I hoped that all of me was now safely sheltered behind the section of wall. If that wasn’t true … Well, I’d done everything I could.

Fian’s voice spoke on broadcast channel. “This is Major Eklund. Captain Raven and I are firing anchors at the hostile aircraft. Eklund firing one!”

 

Part 13

 I listened for the high-pitched, whistling sound of Fian firing the line rifle, but the aircraft engines were too loud now for me to hear anything else, and then Raven spoke on the broadcast channel. “Raven firing one.”

Again, I couldn’t hear the sound of the line rifle firing, but I did hear a change in the note of the aircraft engines. The pilot had hit the thrusters hard. There was an instant where something blocked out the light from the window above me, and then the noise of the aircraft engines began to recede.

The team circuit had been unnaturally quiet since Raven’s warning of an imminent attack, but now there was a burst of cheering, followed by Krath’s exuberant voice.

“The aircraft is retreating! We’ve …”

“It’s too soon to celebrate,” Playdon’s voice cut in. “Maintain emergency comms protocols on team circuit.”

“Yes,” said Rono sharply. “Essential comments only on team circuit. Everyone move other distracting chatter to channel 1.”

Fian spoke on the private circuit. “Playdon’s right about it being too soon to celebrate. The hostile aircraft has pulled out of his attack run and banked away at high speed. I expected him to climb for height, but he’s staying low. I think he’s going to try making another attack run from a different angle, so we can’t shoot at him or …”

Fian was interrupted by an urgent female voice speaking on broadcast channel. “This is Earth 3 at Spire 157. Hostile aircraft has turned to fly low over our position. Preparing to fire anchors.”

Oh, chaos. Earth 3 mustn’t do that. I hastily adjusted my comms to speak on broadcast channel.

“This is Commander Tell Morrath. Earth 3, do not fire anchors. I repeat: do not fire anchors. If you do, then the aircraft may retaliate by attacking you.”

“This is Earth 3,” came the savage response. “Nuke it, Jarra! No University Earth team can go to Fortuna. You’re the only person who can represent us during the excavation of the alien ruins, and we’re not standing by and watching you get murdered on one of our own dig sites. Firing anchors now!”

“Chaos,” Fian’s startled voice spoke on the private channel a second later. “The Earth 3 team members are good. They’re incredibly good. They fired three line rifles at once, and their group of anchors nearly took the aircraft’s wing off.”

“That’s the Earth experts for you.” Keren’s voice was one of rueful awe. “They’re brilliant at everything they do.”

“They’ve obviously frightened the hostile pilot,” added Raven. “He’s abandoned his second attack run to take evasive action.”

“I don’t blame him for being scared of those anchors,” said Fian. “If I was flying that aircraft, I’d be taking evasive action too.”

I couldn’t resist lifting my head to peer over the windowsill and see what was happening for myself. I spotted the attacking aircraft in the distance, making a series of rapid turns, just as a new voice spoke on broadcast channel.

“This is Earth 14 at Spire 169. Firing anchors!”

An instant later, I saw the aircraft turn sharply, dive to fire a burst of flames at the ground, and then swerve away at high speed. There was a groan from Raven, and he spoke on the broadcast channel.

“This is Captain Raven. Hostile aircraft is now using its incendiary weapon against people firing anchors. It’s my duty to order civilians to prioritize their own safety over that of Military personnel.”

“This is Dig Site Command. We aren’t civilians, we’re archaeologists. Appointing Talia of Earth 3 as our Site Leader.”

“This is Site Leader Talia. We aren’t civilians, we’re angry archaeologists. Earth 14, please report your status.”

“This is Earth 14. The aircraft only used the incendiary weapon on me for a few seconds. It’s damaged my line rifle, but I was fine in my impact suit under the diamene shelter.”

“This is Site Leader. We need to keep that aircraft moving to avoid it focusing its incendiary weapon on anyone for long enough to injure them.”

Two people shouted on broadcast channel.

“Zeus 2 firing anchors! Fidelis!”

“Romulus 1 firing anchors! Fidelis!”

A tentative male voice followed them. “This is Apollo 1. The aircraft is coming our way now. If the Earth teams and Betan teams don’t object, we’re going to be firing anchors too.”

“This is Site Leader. Off-world allies are welcome to join in firing anchors. Remember that the aircraft is going fast. You’ll need to aim well in front of its current position to stand a chance of hitting it.”

“Apollo 1 firing anchors!”

“Beowulf 4 firing anchors!”

“This is Site Leader. I understand everyone will want to watch what’s happening, but remember you must do that while keeping safely under shelter. Teams will be firing anchors with little or no warning, and we don’t want anyone getting hit by one of them.”

“Osiris 1 firing anchors!”

“Deity aid us,” muttered Raven on our private channel. “Is every team on Berlin Main Dig Site joining in with this?”

Fian gave a bemused laugh. “Yes. Berlin Main Dig Site has declared war, and Dig Site Command has appointed Talia of Earth 3 to be their general.”

“Colonel Leveque is going to have me shot for dragging civilians into combat,” said Raven in despair.

“Colonel Leveque can’t blame you for this,” I said. “We both ordered the dig teams to stay out of this, but they ignored us.”

I paused to frown at the distant aircraft. “The hostile pilot isn’t just taking evasive action now. He’s gaining height as well.”

“You’re right,” said Raven. “I think he’s already too high to be hit by anchors, which means he’s also too high to attack Jarra and Keren with his incendiary weapon.”

“Thank chaos for that,” said Keren.

“I’m not sure this is good,” said Fian anxiously. “I think the aircraft is … Yes, it’s turning back towards us again. The hostile pilot has come up with a new attack plan. Jarra, the only type of civilian aircraft I’ve flown is the standard two-seater dig site survey type. This one looks much slimmer. Do you recognize it?”

“It looks similar to a specialist single-seater aircraft that Gradin used in some of his rescue work. I obviously couldn’t fly solo during my pilot training, so I only did one flight in it after I got my licence. It’s much faster and more acrobatic than a two-seater plane packed with survey equipment.”

“Can it descend vertically?” asked Fian.

“Yes,” I said uneasily. “It can’t make a perfectly vertical descent. There’s some sideways drift in even the lightest of winds, but … You think the pilot is going to stay high until he’s directly over Spire 152 and then come vertically down past our windows to attack Keren and me?”

“Yes,” said Fian grimly. “Raven and I won’t dare to fire anchors if he does that. We can’t risk an anchor going in through one of the window gaps, because it would fall through the floors inside to land on you or Keren.”

“How much longer before the Military fighters arrive?” asked Keren.

“Nearly seven minutes,” said Fian. “Jarra, stop admiring the scenery like a nardle Zeus rabbit and take cover again. Hostile is incoming now!”

I ducked my head and lifted my knees to my chest again. “Zeus rabbit? Is that one of Drago’s insults?”

“That’s one of Drago’s milder insults,” said Fian. “He’d have said something far more forceful about you breaking cover in these circumstances, probably including one of the more extreme twenty-third century swear words. I can’t say those words myself because I’m hampered by my Deltan upbringing.”

“My school history teacher used insults from sixteenth century Europe when he got annoyed,” I said, “but I didn’t think Drago would know historical words.”

“Several ancient terms are still in active usage in Beta sector dialect,” said Fian.

I could hear aircraft engines again. “What’s the aircraft doing now?”

“Hostile is high above your spire,” said Raven tensely. “Fian was right. The pilot is adjusting his position to hover directly over your windows.”

Fian groaned. “I would have preferred to be wrong.”

“Hostile is making a vertical descent now,” said Raven. “If the pilot doesn’t already know that Jarra and Keren ascended to the thirtieth floor then the ropes will give that away. He’ll start looking for them there, then work his way down firing the incendiary weapon through the window gaps. They have to stay totally hidden behind their sections of wall.”

“I’m doing my best,” said Keren, “but I’m too big.”

“Is there anywhere better to hide in there?” asked Raven.

“If there was,” said Keren bitterly, “I’d have hidden there to start with. These windows run from one side of an apartment to the other, with just a few structural pillars that are too narrow to hide anyone other than the smallest child. The only place safe from the aircraft weapons would be the interior area that holds the stairwells and the remains of the old Berlin Spire Complex internal portals. It’s impossible for Jarra or me to reach that area though. We haven’t brought up the specialist equipment to let us get safely across the brittle floors.”

I wasn’t sure exactly how far I’d descended before stopping at this windowsill. At a guess, I was probably still around fifteen floors off the ground. I was certain of one thing though. Keren was four floors higher than me.

The aircraft was going to reach Keren first. The pilot was going to glimpse an anonymous figure in an impact suit and instantly fire his incendiary weapon. Keren was going to die because of me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “This is my fault.”

“Shut up, Jarra,” said Keren. “I don’t know whether that aircraft belongs to the bigots who hate you because you were born with an immune system problem, or the isolationists who want to stop humanity learning about an alien civilization, but I’m perfectly sure of one thing. This situation is their fault not yours.”

He paused. “How much longer until the Military fighters arrive?”

“About five and a half minutes,” said Fian miserably.

“My impact suit can’t protect me from an incendiary weapon for more than a minute.” Keren’s voice was startlingly calm. “I hope the pilot will keep firing for a lot longer than that to make sure I’m dead, and the Military fighters will get here in time to save Jarra.”

“Keren, you need to get on your windowsill,” I said urgently. “If you unseal your suit hood, and let the pilot see that you aren’t me, then he may not bother firing his incendiary weapon.”

“That aircraft has been chased around the sky by a dozen dig teams firing anchors,” said Keren. “The pilot was angry enough to fire his incendiary weapon at the dig teams, and he won’t hesitate to fire it at me. All that unsealing my suit hood is going to achieve is to make me die faster and give the pilot time to kill you too.”

There was a change in the note of the comms as Keren swapped to speak on the team circuit. “Rono, my chances aren’t looking good at the moment, so I’d better say you’ve done a lot of nardle things in our seven years together, but I’ve no regrets. No regrets at all. Except possibly that I never got the chance to punch Todd.”

“You aren’t going to die,” Rono’s voice responded fiercely. “I’m not letting you die.”

Keren started saying something, but his words were drowned out by the hissing, roaring sound that I’d heard when this aircraft was hunting me before. I looked up in time to see my green rope slither past my window and fall to the ground. The hostile pilot had fired his incendiary weapon at the thirtieth-floor window and burnt through our carefully attached ropes. Now he’d be working his way methodically downwards. I realized the pilot didn’t actually need to take the time to burn Keren to death. He could just incinerate Keren’s harness, making him fall from his piton, and crash through the fragile spire floors to the ground.

Rono couldn’t do anything to stop Keren from dying. Neither could Fian or Raven. I needed to do something myself. An obvious option was to climb back onto my windowsill and wave my arms to attract the pilot’s attention. When he saw my distinctive Military impact suit, he’d move to attack me rather than Keren, and once I was dead …

Well, the pilot wouldn’t stay around to hunt down Keren or anyone else after he’d achieved his mission objective. He’d want to escape before the Military fighters arrived and shot him down.

If making myself a passive target was the only way to save Keren, then I’d do it, but I’d rather follow the Military way of going down fighting. I had a standard Military sidearm on my belt, but that was an energy weapon designed for combat against people rather than aircraft. It was true that Raven and Drago had once used similar sidearms on maximum heat setting to melt the controls of a portal, but that had taken over thirty seconds. The hostile pilot wasn’t going to let me focus my gun on his aircraft long enough to damage it.

Firing my Military gun against the aircraft would be a hopeless gesture, but I had my piton gun too. That wasn’t intended to be used as a weapon, and it was only accurate at a distance of less than five paces, but it fired a viciously pointed piece of diamene. I grabbed for the gun, and started loading it with a piton at desperate speed.

I could hear the hissing sound of the incendiary weapon getting louder. “Keren, how close is the aircraft to you now?”

“I’m not sure,” Keren’s voice seemed higher-pitched than usual. “Probably about four floors away. You’ll know when the incendiary weapon hits me from the screaming.”

Loading the piton gun was taking too long. Far too long. I finally closed the gun chamber, clipped the gun onto my harness, and reached up to grab the windowsill. I tried to pull myself up once, failed, cursed the lingering muscle atrophy after my tank time that had left my arms so weak, and then tried again.

This time I managed to drag myself onto the windowsill. I floundered on my stomach for a moment like a beached fish, then managed to get to my knees. It was clear that the people on the ground had seen me, because there was an outraged yell from Fian on the comms.

“What the nuking hell are you doing, Jarra?”

“Calm down,” I said. “I’ve got a plan.”

“What sort of plan?” demanded Fian with furious sarcasm. “Are you going to flap your wings and fly to attack the aircraft, or just throw your tree at it?”

I ignored him, looked up, and saw the aircraft above me. Judging from the way it was moving warily closer to a window gap, the pilot hadn’t seen me yet. I tried waving an arm. Yes, the pilot had definitely seen me now. The aircraft pulled rapidly away from the spire, dropped vertically downwards at stomach-churning speed, and then stopped level with me.

Now I was face to face with the pilot sitting in his cockpit. I couldn’t see his expression, but I pictured him smiling inside his sealed hood as he coldly and deliberately manoeuvred his aircraft nearer to me. He wanted to fire the incendiary weapon at as close a range as possible to maximize the heat. I needed to fire my piton gun at as close a range as possible to maximize my chances of hitting my target.

I stayed frozen like a statue as the aircraft moved towards me. Chaos, was this pilot incredibly skilled or incredibly stupid to risk approaching so closely? Perhaps he was both skilled and stupid. Whatever the answer, I mustn’t draw my piton gun yet. The pilot wouldn’t know exactly what it was, but he’d guess it was some sort of weapon, hit the thrusters, and shoot away to safety.

The aircraft couldn’t be more than six paces away from me now. For a second, I thought the pilot was going to risk coming even closer to the spire, but then he leaned to his left. I guessed he was reaching for the control of the incendiary weapon, unclipped the piton gun from my harness, took rapid aim, and fired. Not at the pilot himself, because he was protected by both the aircraft cockpit and his official Dig Site Federation pilot’s impact suit. My target was one of the aircraft’s four thrusters, and I hit it dead centre, sending shards of metal flying in all directions.

Aircraft thrusters are an intricate multi-directional design. When Gradin was teaching me to fly, he’d furtively shut down a thruster and fooled me into thinking it was a genuine engine failure. I’d never forget how I fought to regain control of an aircraft that was skidding wildly across the sky. Now I got to watch the same thing as a bystander. No, this aircraft wasn’t just skidding, but doing a sideways roll. It nearly caught a wingtip on the spire, before rocketing away across the dig site.

“Hoo eee!” I yelled in triumph. “I told you I had a plan.”

Then I frowned. The aircraft was already coming out of its skid. As a trainee pilot, it had taken me a while to work out what was happening when I lost a thruster, and longer still to work out what to do about it. This pilot knew I’d fired some sort of weapon at his thrusters, and was experienced enough to know that the way to deal with losing one thruster was to cut the matching thruster on the other side of the plane.

Worse still, when this had happened to me, I’d been flying a heavy two-seater survey plane that could barely hold altitude on two thrusters. I’d expected the hostile pilot to have the same problem, and be unable to regain altitude for another attack. I hadn’t allowed for the fact his aircraft was a much lighter, acrobatic single-seater. It was managing to climb for height despite only having two functional thrusters. I watched in alarm as it turned to head towards me.

“Oh, chaos,” I said, and started frantically reloading my piton gun. “The hostile pilot is making another attack run.”

 

Part 14

 The broadcast channel was a confusion of voices babbling about aircraft heights and firing anchors, then Talia shouted above them.

“This is Site Leader. The aircraft is at too high an altitude for us to hit with anchors, but we must still keep firing. We need to force it to stay at high altitude for as long as possible because every extra second counts.”

Site Leader Talia was right about every second counting. I’d only just have time to finish reloading my piton gun before the aircraft was close enough for the pilot to use the incendiary weapon on me.

“The dig teams firing anchors are forcing the hostile pilot to do the same as last time,” said Fian, on the private channel. “He has to come in high and then make a vertical descent past the window gaps. He knows exactly where Jarra is now though, so he’ll descend much faster than before.”

“I’m still under cover, and I’ve got my piton gun loaded,” said Keren. “Jarra should take cover now too. As soon as the aircraft descends past my window, I’ll pull myself up onto the windowsill and fire a piton down at it. What part of the aircraft should I aim at, Jarra?”

“I won’t allow you to fire at that aircraft,” I said firmly. “The pilot is bound to retaliate by attacking you.”

Keren laughed. “You won’t allow me to do it? How are you going to stop me? You can’t get up to my windowsill now that all our ropes have been burned. The only question is whether you want me to aim at the most vulnerable part of the aircraft or not.”

I groaned. “All right. Aim at the second thruster on the damaged side of the aircraft. If you take that out, then the aircraft will spin out of control, and the pilot’s only option will be to cut the remaining thrusters and make a dead-stick landing.”

I paused. “But the instant you’ve fired your piton, you absolutely have to drop down behind your section of wall. If your piton misses the thruster, then the pilot will head back up to attack you. If he does that, I’ll climb on my windowsill to fire a piton up at the aircraft, and then hide again.”

“Understood,” said Keren. “Get under cover now, Jarra.”

“I’ll take cover as soon as I’ve finished loading my piton gun.” I checked the position of the approaching aircraft. “I’ve just got time to do that before …”

Raven’s voice rang out across the chatter on broadcast channel. “This is Captain Raven. All dig teams cease firing immediately. I repeat: all dig teams cease firing immediately. Military fighter aircraft incoming now!”

I closed the chamber on my piton gun, and looked around wildly. The sky was empty apart from the approaching hostile aircraft. Fian spoke on the private channel, echoing my own bewildered thoughts.

“The Military fighters should still be nearly four minutes away, and I can’t see any drop portal dust rings in the sky.”

“SECOP says the first two of the Military fighters aren’t coming by drop portal,” Raven replied on the private channel. “They’re doing the same thing as the hostile aircraft. Arriving through Berlin Dig Site’s freight portal.”

“But the fighters at Zulu base can’t fit through a standard sized freight portal,” said Fian. “They don’t have folding wings, so they need the extra width of a full-sized atmosphere jump portal to …”

Raven interrupted him urgently. “I can see what has to be the Military fighters to the west. I don’t recognize what type they are though.”

I could see the aircraft myself now. Two of them in the far distance, shooting upwards from somewhere near the Berlin Dig Site Command Centre. At first, I thought the aircraft were just slimline versions of the usual black Military dart ships, but then I was stunned to see they had wings that were opening out in mid-flight. As the wings reached their final position, energy shields flashed on around both ships, whirling in rainbow colours before settling down to one ship shimmering solid gold and the other silver.

Fian gasped. “Those are the two prototype fighter ships that Drago and Marlise were testing last month.”

I blinked. So it was my cousin Drago, and his wife Marlise, who were flying those jewelled fighters. That meant Drago would be in the one with shields coloured command gold, while Marlise was in the one with the silver of deputy.

Fian was still talking. “Drago must have realized he and Marlise could save crucial minutes by going to get their prototypes and then portalling here conventionally. The prototypes were specially designed to provide air support for the archaeologists working on Fortuna, so would fit through the freight portal here at Berlin.”

The hostile pilot had obviously seen the Military prototypes coming too, because he was banking his aircraft to turn east and try to escape. I could see that he had no chance of succeeding though. The two Military fighters were vastly faster than any civilian aircraft, and were rapidly gaining on him.

An instant later, the hostile pilot seemed to realize the pointlessness of trying to escape. He turned his aircraft in the opposite direction, and dived straight for me again.

Fian shouted in alarm on the private channel. “Jarra, hostile incoming now! Take cover!”

Oh, chaos! I rolled off my windowsill to hang beside the section of wall, my piton gun clutched tightly in my right hand.

“The hostile pilot is making one last desperate attempt to attack Jarra before the Military fighters catch him,” added Fian tensely. “He’s going straight for her, so he’ll be coming low over Raven and me in about ten seconds. We’re both ready to fire anchors at him.”

“And if he makes it through to Jarra’s window and tries to incinerate her,” said Keren, “then we follow the plan of me shooting a piton down at …”

“Nuke it, Jarra!” Fian screamed. “Hide, hide, hide! That pilot’s got a hand-held missile launcher!”

I’d already ducked my head and lifted my knees, but now I tried to huddle myself into an even tighter ball. The aircraft’s Planet First incendiary weapon had to be fired at close quarters, but a missile launcher could …

I was expecting the missile to come through the window gap above me. Instead, there was a deafening sound as something exploded below me. The fabric of my impact suit went rock hard as the blast hit me, and I hovered on the edge of unconsciousness as I was thrown upwards and sideways.

There was a moment of agonizing pain as my rigid left arm caught the side of the window, spinning me around so that I fell sprawling across the windowsill. I was fuzzily aware of the sound of aircraft engines getting louder and closer, then the hostile aircraft appeared in my field of view.

I cringed, expecting to either be hit by the incendiary weapon or another missile, but the two prototype fighters appeared, sweeping into position above and below the civilian aircraft. I watched in disbelief as they closed in on it, capturing it between their shields, and then banking away in the perfect unison of a couple dancing.

As the aircraft engines receded, there was a babble of voices on the comms, followed by a loud crackling sound. Now there was total silence except for a faint ringing noise that meant my impact suit had managed to protect my ears from most, but not all, of the missile blast.

I was trying to work out why I’d lost all my comms channels when a formal male voice spoke. “Commander Tell Morrath, your comms channels are now patched to Military Combat Rescue. Please respond.”

Military Combat Rescue was talking to me! I had an unreal moment as I remembered a recent episode of my favourite vid series, Defenders. The male lead had been lying severely injured and helpless on a hillside, with green tentacled aliens closing in on him from all sides, when Military Combat Rescue had arrived to save him from certain death. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember any of the male lead’s heroic lines, and my brain was too blurred by pain for me to invent some for myself. I had to settle for saying the pathetically obvious.

“Hello.”

“Commander, we have been informed by First Response that they have performed a mid-air capture of the aircraft attacking you. They are now taking it to the Berlin Command Centre’s landing area, where Military Security officers have portalled in ready to arrest the pilot.”

I was still unable to think of an appropriately thrilling response. “That’s good.”

“A full Rescue Flight, including an air ambulance, will be arriving by drop portal within the next two minutes,” continued Combat Rescue. “What is your current physical condition?”

“I’m perfectly fine. The fabric of my impact suit is still locked, but …”

I was startled by Fian’s voice joining the conversation and firmly interrupting me. “When Jarra says she’s fine, it means that she may have been buried in an avalanche, have a head injury from bomb shrapnel, or been hit by a missile blast, but she isn’t actually dead yet.”

“This is Combat Rescue. We appreciate the translation, Major Eklund, but we were already fully aware that we were dealing with a member of the Tell clan. They have a reputation for downplaying their injuries.”

The stranger paused. “Commander Tell Morrath, we are receiving a suit telemetry feed that indicates you have extensive trauma to your left shoulder, arm, and side, but only minor bruising elsewhere. Please confirm that telemetry feed is accurate.”

“My left side and arm are hurting a lot,” I admitted. “I’m fairly sure I’ve cracked a couple of ribs, but the rest of me truly is fine.”

“Thank you for the confirmation, Commander. Our information is that you were attacked while on the sixteenth-floor windowsill of one of the Berlin spires. Are you in any immediate danger of falling?”

“The fabric of my impact suit is finally relaxing. I’ll just …” I groped around cautiously with my right hand. “I got thrown around by the missile attack, and I seem to have lost my piton gun, but my harness is still securely clipped to a piton. That means I can’t fall, but it’s going to be difficult getting me down from here. All the ascension ropes have been destroyed by the aircraft’s incineration weapon.”

“You don’t need to worry about the ropes, Jarra,” said Keren’s cheerful voice. “We’ll have some replacements deployed within a few minutes.”

I knew I wasn’t thinking too clearly, but … “How can you deploy replacement ropes that fast? Don’t you need to fire more anchors?”

“No,” said Keren. “We always put two line cartridges in the side pockets of our backpacks in case of rope problems. I can just attach those to a couple of my pitons, trigger them into releasing the lead lines with a strategic kick, and Rono and Playdon can use them to send up new ropes.”

He paused. “As soon as those ropes are in place, I’ll come down to your windowsill to give you some painkillers, and then Rono will bring up the specialist stretcher to protect you during the descent.”

I liked the sound of that plan. I especially liked the mention of painkillers. As a general rule, I tried to avoid taking meds, but the pain in my left arm and side was getting worse rather than better.

“Triggering first line cartridge now,” said Keren.

I saw a mass of white threads fall past me, and then there was the sound of thunder. I instinctively tensed in case this was some new attack, but the dark rings of drop portals appeared scattered across the sky. The slim shapes of fighter ships came through them, followed a few seconds later by a bulkier ship with bright red markings.

That had to be the air ambulance. I gave an unwarily deep sigh of relief, felt a sharp stabbing pain in my chest, then the crisp shapes of the fighter ships seemed to blur and the world went black.

 

Part 15

 There were several fragmentary moments of pain-filled consciousness after that. In the first, I was lying on my windowsill with my impact suit hood open. Keren was next to me, murmuring reassuring words about painkillers, but I drifted back into darkness before he actually gave me the shot.

In the second, my hood was sealed again, and the familiar turquoise-blue impact suit of Lecturer Playdon was leaning over me. “I’ll have to support Jarra’s left arm as we get her onto the stretcher. Lifting her in three, two, …”

I’d just worked out that I was still on the windowsill, which meant Playdon had ascended the spire to help rescue me, when time seemed to jump forward. I was in less pain, strapped to a stretcher that curved protectively around me, and hanging in a vertical position beside the spire wall.

Keren was talking now. “We’ll need to be especially careful lowering Jarra past the next windowsill because …”

Another time jump, and I was horizontal again. The painkillers must have taken full effect, because I was feeling woozy but blissfully free of pain. The downside was that without the pain to distract me, I was horribly conscious I was having problems breathing. I lay with my eyes closed for a moment, focusing on each breath I took, while aware of the distinctive odd bouncing sensation of being transported on a hover stretcher.

When I finally opened my eyes, I found two figures in Military blue impact suits were carefully guiding my stretcher around the larger rocks. My guess that the figures were Fian and Raven was confirmed when Fian started ranting away.

“Jarra’s only been out of a tank for eleven days, and there have already been two serious attempts on her life. Our flight to Fortuna was ambushed by a fire ship packed with missiles. Now this pilot has fired another missile at her. How can the Military let these things keep happening? Is Leveque just incompetent, or is he working for the Isolationist Party himself?”

I frowned, tried to speak, but couldn’t get any words out.

“Leveque hasn’t been compromised,” said Raven. “I’m perfectly sure of that, and you should be sure of it too. If Leveque wanted to kill you and Jarra, then you’d both be dead by now.”

Fian groaned. “All right. I accept Leveque hasn’t been compromised, but I still believe that there’s an Isolationist Party agent in the Military. I think that person has been behind all the attacks involving Military equipment or personnel.”

“I think you’re right. I’m sure that Leveque does too.”

“Then why hasn’t he tracked down this Isolationist Party agent and arrested them?” Fian gave an exasperated sigh. “I thought we were finally getting somewhere when that woman was caught sabotaging my fighter aircraft, but Leveque can’t have learnt much from her because he hasn’t been doing anything at all.”

A woman had tried to sabotage Fian’s fighter aircraft! When was this? What had happened? Why hadn’t Fian told me about it?

“Leveque could have been doing a whole host of things that we don’t know about,” said Raven.

“Possibly, but whatever he’s been doing hasn’t stopped the attacks,” said Fian grimly.

“No,” said Raven. “Whoever we’re up against must be terrifyingly good. Now you’ll have to wait here with Jarra while I check out the air ambulance.”

My stretcher stopped next to an aircraft, and I glimpsed Raven heading up steps to enter a wide rear doorway. I tried to speak again, and ask Fian for details of the sabotage attempt on his fighter, but could barely manage to breathe.

There was a brief pause before Raven reappeared. “We can take Jarra inside now.”

“You’re perfectly sure there isn’t an enemy agent in the air ambulance?” asked Fian anxiously.

Raven sighed. “I swear to you that I’ve scanned every inch of that aircraft. There’s definitely only the pilot and the doctor in there. The pilot is Ramon from Drago’s team, and the doctor is Capria. If you’ve reached the point where you don’t trust Capria, then I assume you don’t trust me either.”

Fian groaned. “I’ve no doubts about Capria or Ramon, and I’ve certainly no doubts about you. I’m just horribly aware how easy it would be for someone to murder Jarra while she’s injured and helpless.”

“As the bodyguard responsible for protecting both of you, I’m even more painfully aware of that,” said Raven. “I’d normally have several people helping me, but Leveque decided months ago that bringing in new bodyguards would increase rather than decrease the danger. Everything has to be handled by me or the one trusted team of Military Security officers.”

He sighed. “Let’s get Jarra into the air ambulance.”

Hovers didn’t work well on steps, so Raven and Fian carried me into the air ambulance, setting my stretcher down on some sort of rack arrangement. A figure in a sealed Military impact suit with red bands on the sleeves came across, activated a technical display on the wall, and then knelt beside me.

“Leveque wants us airborne immediately,” said the husky female voice of what had to be Capria. “Shield patient.”

She steadied my stretcher with her left hand, while reaching protectively across me to grab hold of a bar on the wall with her right. Raven and Fian promptly knelt as well, and copied her position.

“Ramon, go!” said Capria.

A male voice spoke from an overhead loudspeaker, drawling his words in the distinctive accent of Alpha sector. “Taking off now.”

The rear doors of the air ambulance slid closed as it lifted smoothly upwards.

“Are we taking Jarra straight back to Zulu base for treatment,” asked Fian, “or going to a medical centre here in Earth Europe?”

“Neither,” said Capria. “A Hospital Earth medical centre wouldn’t know how to deal with Jarra’s artificial immune system, and Leveque doesn’t want to risk you or Jarra going to Zulu base yet. We’re going to land by your class dome, and wait there until Leveque’s learned everything he can from the pilot of that aircraft.”

“Nuke that!” said Fian. “We can’t just wait around next to our class dome for hours. Jarra needs proper medical treatment right away. She’s been unconscious for …”

I managed to gasp a single word. “Awake.”

“Jarra, you’re back with us!” said Fian. “How are you feeling?”

I made a sound that was somewhere between a whimper and a cough.

“You’re clearly seriously injured,” said Fian anxiously.

“Jarra, I’m Dr Capria Kar Broussard,” said Capria, in soothing tones. “I’m currently running an automated sensor scan to do a detailed assessment of your injuries, and I’ll begin treating you as soon as the air ambulance is on the ground. You mustn’t let anything you’ve heard worry you. My clan has been giving medical treatment to your ancestors for centuries, so you’re perfectly safe in my hands.”

“Yes,” said Fian hastily. “Capria was caring for you the whole time you were in a tank. She’s highly skilled and perfectly trustworthy. I’m only worried about the lack of medical facilities here.”

“This air ambulance has a wide range of emergency equipment,” said Capria.

Ramon’s voice came from the overhead speaker. “We’re circling the Asgard 6 class dome now. Military Security has portalled a mob of officers into the dome to check for threats. We’re just waiting for them to give us clearance to land.”

Fian made an impatient noise.

“Leveque is right not to risk taking Jarra to Zulu base,” said Raven. “SECOP has just told me the Military Security officers arresting the pilot of that aircraft recognized him. He’s Major Maven.”

I was still trying to work out who Major Maven was when Fian made a shocked noise. “Major Maven? That’s the fighter team leader who was hideously offensive to Jarra!”

I remembered a confrontation in the parcel room at Zulu base, but …

Fian put my thoughts into words. “The pilot can’t be Maven. Nia Stone said that if Maven couldn’t control his prejudice against a member of his own species with an immune system problem, then he couldn’t be trusted dealing with an alien race. She reassigned him to somewhere in Kappa sector.”

“It’s true that Maven was reassigned to Kappa sector,” said Raven, “but his identity has been confirmed by genetic scans.”

“In that case, Maven must have been transferred back to Earth,” muttered Fian. “Who reassigned him here and why?”

“That’s the really interesting thing,” said Raven. “According to Military records, Maven is still on active assignment at Military Base 43 Lima in Kappa sector. When Military Security queried Military Base 43 Lima about his movements, they reported that they received orders from a Colonel Warwick Schofield months ago. Those orders transferred Maven to Military Base 21 Sierra in Epsilon sector, but the people there say they’ve never even heard of a Major Maven.”

“Is Leveque questioning Colonel Warwick Schofield?” demanded Fian.

Raven shrugged. “He can’t. There is no Colonel Warwick Schofield in the Military.”

Fian groaned. “So, either the Isolationist Party agent set up a fake transfer for Maven, or Maven is the agent himself.”

“I don’t believe Maven is intelligent enough to have set up all these attacks,” said Raven, “but Leveque is right to want to thoroughly question him before risking either you or Jarra going to Zulu base.”

Fian gave a shake of his head. “Well, if the pilot of that aircraft was Maven, then it explains one thing that was puzzling me. I couldn’t believe how well he coped with Jarra shooting out one of his thrusters. Now that we know he was a fighter team leader, it makes far more sense.”

Something else made far more sense too. I’d been surprised by the pilot bringing his aircraft dangerously close to my windowsill. I’d thought he must be either incredibly skilled or incredibly stupid to take such a risk, but there was a different answer. That confrontation with me in the parcel room had destroyed Maven’s career, getting him relieved of his position as a fighter team leader, thrown out of the Alien Contact programme, and banished to some trivial post in Kappa sector. He’d risked coming so close to my windowsill because he hated me and wanted to savour the moment that he killed me.

“I loathe Maven, but I have to admire his flying ability,” added Fian sadly. “I know he’s been a fighter pilot for ten or fifteen years, and I’m a total novice, but I could have a century of flying experience and still not be able to recover from losing a thruster that well.”

Ramon’s voice spoke. “Try running that situation in a simulator next time you’re at Zulu base, Fian. You’ll probably surprise yourself with how well you cope. You’re constantly underestimating your own ability. It takes a lot of natural aptitude to qualify as a fighter pilot as fast as you did. We’d be suggesting you joined our team permanently if you weren’t needed for a different role.”

“Thanks, but it was the team’s training, not my ability, that got me qualified so quickly.”

Ramon laughed. “We started teaching you to fly to stop you from brooding over Jarra’s situation, but we never expected you to make such rapid progress. As Drago always says, it would be easier to teach a Zeus sewer rat to sing than to teach most people to be a fighter pilot.”

He paused. “Drago and Marlise have just brought their prototypes to join the rest of the team, and Drago wants me to give Fian a message from him. Semper fidelis. We will hold the sky for our girl.”

“Give Drago a message from me,” said Fian. “I never doubted that, my brother. Ad finem fidelis.”

I was startled at Fian using what had to be Betan dialect phrases, and calling Drago his brother, but I was far too short of breath to ask questions. A moment later, Ramon spoke again.

“We’ve just received clearance to land. Heading down now, and my apologies if I make a bumpy landing. There doesn’t seem to be an inch of Berlin Dig Site that isn’t covered with rubble.”

“Of course everywhere is covered in rubble,” said Fian. “What were you expecting the ruins of an ancient city to be like, Ramon?”

“When I was a child on Adonis, our school took us on a trip to visit some historic monuments on Earth. I was expecting this place to have the same neatly mowed grass and flowerbeds as Stonehenge and the Spirit of Man monument.”

Fian laughed. I’d have liked to laugh too, but I was in no state to even giggle.

An instant later, there was the faintest of lurches. Capria instantly let go of the bar, unsealed her hood, and pulled it down in one swift movement. From her voice, I’d expected her to be in her twenties, but her dark skin had the unnaturally perfect smoothness of someone who’d been through a rejuvenation cycle within the last few days. That meant she was at least thirty, but she could be significantly older. It was impossible to judge age accurately so soon after a rejuvenation treatment.

Capria ran a hand over her head to brush her tight black curls into place, and smiled at me. “Jarra, I’m going to unseal your hood now. Please try to stay as still as possible.”

I held still while her gentle fingers unsealed my hood. She then moved on to open the front of my suit, revealing the skimpy skintight I wore underneath it. The flickering lights of my web were visible around the edges of that skintight, so I watched Capria closely for any hint of revulsion, but her expression didn’t change at all. She’d obviously seen my web operating before, either while I was still in the tank or soon after I was decanted.

“Jarra, my sensor scans show you have a straightforward fracture of your upper left arm, as well as two broken ribs,” said Capria. “More urgently, you also have a punctured left lung.”

Fian and Raven were both on their feet with their hoods down. Fian’s long blond hair was tangled, while Raven had a droplet of sweat running down the thin, horizontal, black and white stripes on his right cheek.

“Punctured lung,” repeated Fian anxiously.

“There’s no need to frizz, Fian,” said Capria. “A punctured lung isn’t serious if it’s treated promptly.”

Frizz? Capria’s use of the slang term startled me. I’d only heard it used once before, by an Earth child rather than an off-world doctor. Had it become more widely used during the three months that I’d missed, and what did it mean anyway? Something equivalent to panic?

“Fian and Raven will have to wait outside the aircraft while I’m working,” continued Capria.

Fian frowned. “Can’t I stay and …?”

“Outside!” Capria interrupted him. “Ramon can join you there as well, because I’ll need both privacy and space while I’m working. If the three of you want to do something useful, then you can go inside the dome and find a set of clothes for Jarra. I have to remove her suit, and she won’t want to wander around in public wearing only a hospital gown.”

Raven tugged at Fian’s arm. “Capria knows best.”

Ramon appeared through the cockpit door. He had his hood down, and seemed to be somewhere approaching forty, with an elaborate Alphan hairstyle. The moment he saw me, he froze, stared at me wide-eyed for a second, and then hastily turned away.

For a moment, I thought his behaviour was out of disgust, but then I saw the sudden blush of embarrassed colour on his cheeks. “I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to intrude on your privacy, Commander. If I’d realized Capria had opened the front of your suit rather than just your hood, then I wouldn’t have come through this way.”

“It’s all right,” said Raven. “Jarra was raised by Hospital Earth to have cultural standards similar to Gamma sector, but archaeologists are used to being seen wearing only skintights.”

Ramon nodded but kept his eyes carefully averted from me as he, Fian, and Raven retreated out of the rear aircraft doors. I understood that Ramon’s behaviour was because he’d been raised on Adonis. Raven was from Adonis too, and got incredibly embarrassed about accidental privacy intrusions. I couldn’t help wondering how Ramon coped with being a fighter pilot though. I was sure Drago would do his best not to embarrass him, but fighter teams didn’t have time to worry about privacy when suiting up in emergencies. Perhaps the answer was that Ramon was more relaxed with his teammates than with a strange girl.

Capria pulled down a shelf on the opposite wall, put a couple of equipment cases on it, and opened them. The sight of the medical instruments inside them made me forget all about Ramon. I was relieved when she only selected a small pair of scissors.

“I need to cut away the fabric of your skintight, Jarra. I’ll then spray you with some local anaesthetic before carrying out a very minor procedure.”

I peered down at my chest, watching Capria rapidly snip away at my skintight. While most of her impact suit appeared perfectly standard, there was something unusually soft and flexible about the material covering her hands. That made sense. I often had problems with impact suit material making my hands clumsy, and a doctor couldn’t afford to be clumsy when treating a patient.

Capria put away the scissors, picked up a can, and shook it hard. “This will feel a bit cold.”

A chilling spray hit the skin on my left side.

“You won’t want to watch the next bit, so I’ll put a screen across your shoulders.” Capria clipped a white screen onto the bars of my stretcher. “You’ve had both pain killers and a local anaesthetic, so should only feel a little pressure on your left side and a pulling sensation during the procedure. If anything does hurt, then just lift your right hand, and I’ll stop at once.”

She turned to the equipment cases. “Please try to keep breathing as smoothly and regularly as possible for the next couple of minutes.”

I took the cowardly option of closing my eyes to avoid seeing what medical instruments Capria was using. I focused on my breathing, and didn’t feel any sensations from my chest at all, not even the pressure she’d mentioned.

Finally, Capria sighed in satisfaction. “I just need to put a fluid patch in place and … all done!”

She took the screen away, and I lifted my head to squint at the fluid patch on my left side. I’d used bigger fluid patches than that to treat a cut finger!

“Your breathing should be a lot easier now,” said Capria.

I took a cautious deeper breath. “Yes, that’s so much better. What did you do?”

“I extracted some air that was in an unhelpful place, and then injected some special, slow-absorption regrowth gel. Now let’s remove your suit and treat your broken arm.” She picked up a long metal tube from the shelf, clicked a switch, and it started making an odd buzzing sound.

“What’s that?” I asked warily.

“It’s a magnetic device that …”

“No! Turn it off!” I instinctively skidded sideways on my stretcher to get further away from her.

Capria hastily switched off the device. “What’s the problem, Jarra? I was just going to use this to relax the fabric of your impact suit. That way we can remove it without harming your broken arm or ribs.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off the metal tube. “Magnetic fields do horrific things to impact suits. They turn the fabric into a host of jagged points and make the suit contract and crush the wearer. That happened to me when I was hit by a magnetic field on Eden dig site, and Fian nearly got killed saving me.”

“You must have been hit by a high powered, randomly fluctuating magnetic field,” said Capria. “This device only emits a low power, carefully calibrated magnetic field. Watch me use it on my own suit.”

She backed away, clicked the switch, and rolled the tube across the left arm of her impact suit. It left a section of sagging fabric in its wake.

“Now I just click the switch to the opposite setting to set my suit back to normal.” She rolled the tube across her suit again to tighten the fabric, and then turned off the evil device. “You see what I mean?”

“I see what you mean, but I don’t think I can let you do that to my suit,” I said shakily. “I realize that must seem irrational to you, but …”

“Given your past experience, I think it’s perfectly rational for you to fear magnetic fields. The problem is that the tightly fitting fabric of your suit has been a help so far, holding the fractured bone in your left arm nicely in position. If we try to remove the suit without using this device though, that same tightly fitting fabric will work against us. We could easily displace the bones in your arm and make your injury much worse.”

She paused. “Do you think you’d find this easier if you used the device yourself?”

I hesitated. “I could try doing that.”

“I’ll help you up into a sitting position.” Capria supported me as I sat up, and then handed me the tube. “I’ll steady your left arm while you use the device. You just need to roll the tube from your left shoulder down to your elbow. Once that section of fabric is hanging loose, we should be able to ease the suit off you without doing any damage.”

I moistened my lips, and held the tube to my shoulder with a shaking right hand. I needed a few seconds to build up the courage to click the switch, and was ready to throw the device away if anything hurt, but it didn’t. I swiftly rolled the tube down my arm, turned the device off, and handed it back to Capria.

“Very well done,” she said.

Well done? Chaos, I’d made a complete fool of myself.

Capria studied the loose fabric on my left arm for a moment. “I think we’ll get your right arm out of the suit first, and then I’ll peel the fabric off your left arm. After that, I just need to use a special bandage to protect your broken bone.”

Three minutes later, I was sitting with the top half of my suit pooled around me, poking cautiously at the bandage on my left arm. “You just dabbed water on this to make it go rock hard?”

“Yes. It’s a centuries-old treatment, and perfectly reliable, but only used in emergencies these days.”

“What happens next?” I asked. “You put a bandage around my broken ribs too?”

“No. We don’t want to stop your lungs expanding properly. So long as you don’t do anything rash, like practising unarmed combat, the regrowth gel I’ve injected will be enough to prevent problems until we can get you into a regrowth tank at Zulu base.”

I’d calmed down after using the magnetic device, but now I felt a new stab of panic. “A regrowth tank? I don’t see any need for me to go in a tank now that you’ve treated my injuries. Surely they can just heal by themselves?”

“After the treatment I’ve given you, your injuries could heal by themselves,” said Capria. “That process would take at least six weeks though. Not only would you be in pain for much of that time, but at the end of it you could be left with weaknesses that cause future problems. Going into a regrowth tank is far better. It would only take a day to heal basic injuries like yours.”

She paused. “I understand why you’re worried about going into a regrowth tank, Jarra. Last time you did that, it was supposed to be for three days but turned out to be for three months.”

It was a totally different issue that was terrifying me. I’d finally realized a crucial point about the clone issue. If the worst had happened, and there was no way to save the original Jarra, then Leveque would definitely have used the clone solution, but why would he grow only one clone? Logically, he should have authorized growing multiple clones to make sure that at least one would survive to go to Fortuna with Fian and lower the alien defences.

How many of me existed now? Two? Three? More? Did Capria know the answer? Had she helped to grow the clones herself? Most importantly of all, what would happen if I trusted her to put me in a regrowth tank? If she or Leveque realized I’d guessed about the clones, then there could be a second furtive substitution, and another Jarra would be decanted in my place.

Capria was frowning at me. “Believe me, Jarra, you really will only be in the tank for a day at most.”

“I do believe you,” I said.

She looked relieved. “I’ll go and see if Fian has found those clothes for you.”

“Please don’t tell him or Raven what a nardle I was about taking off the suit.”

“Jarra, growing up on Earth has made you an expert in its history, but left you ignorant of the history of your own family. I told you that my clan has been giving medical treatment to your ancestors for centuries. We aren’t just a Military medical clan and part of the Military alliance. We’re part of an older alliance as well. One that binds us to the original leading clans of the Military Alliance, as well as the Tell and Blaze clans.”

She waved her hands. “The August clan may have blown with the political winds over the centuries, but the Kar clan has always remained faithful, and will always remain faithful. One of my ancestors treated Tellon Blaze himself!”

“I didn’t know that.” I grimaced. “You’re right that I don’t know a lot of things about my clan. After going to Fortuna, Fian and I were only able to spend a couple of days at my clan hall on Zeus before coming back to Earth for the ceremony on Wallam-Crane day. I’ve seen the Tell clan family tree, and heard a few stories about the artefacts on display in the clan hall, but I realize that I have a lot more to learn.”

“You have a vast amount more to learn,” said Capria, with an oddly intent expression. “Our joint clan history is why Colonel Leveque chose me to care for you when you were in the tank. He knew he could trust me to take every possible care of you physically, but our clan loyalty goes deeper than that. Now I’ve acted as your personal physician, you can trust me to keep your secrets from anyone and everyone. That includes Colonel Leveque, other members of the Military, Fian, Raven, and even other birth members of your clan.”

I was convinced she was telling me the truth, and that meant she wouldn’t know anything about clones. Leveque would never have trusted the secret to someone with a stronger loyalty to me than to him. I wouldn’t get answers from Capria. I wouldn’t get answers from anyone. I had to forget the whole clone issue, or I’d turn into someone like Krath’s father, and live my life inventing an endless string of conspiracy theories.

“Thank you,” I said.

Capria headed through to the pilot’s cockpit, returning a moment later with a full set of uniform for me. Given the awkwardness of my bandaged arm, and the fact I was protective of my broken ribs, it was several minutes before I was properly dressed and standing up.

“Shall I let Fian and Raven back in now?” asked Capria.

“Yes, please.”

She opened the rear doors, and beckoned Fian and Raven inside. Fian gave a deep sigh of relief as he hurried towards me, arms outstretched.

“No hugs!” said Capria sharply. “I’ve treated Jarra to make her more comfortable, but she still needs twenty-four hours in a tank for her injuries to heal properly.”

Fian hastily dropped his arms to his sides. “No hugs, but … You look so much better, Jarra.”

“I am much better.”

There was a long pause while the two of us just smiled at each other, and then Raven coughed. “General Torrek is waiting outside, Jarra. He says that he’d like a brief visit if you feel well enough.”

“General Torrek is here!” I gulped as I remembered all the messages I’d ignored. “I suppose you’d better invite him in.”

Raven tapped at his lookup, General Torrek entered the aircraft, and we all saluted. I was faintly intimidated to see General Torrek was wearing an impact suit with the hood down, and both the hood and the top of the impact suit were pure white rather than it being coloured the standard Military blue all over. Generals were important. So important that they didn’t just have special uniforms with white jackets, but special impact suits as well.

“There’s no need to salute when you’re injured, Jarra,” said General Torrek.

“My right side isn’t injured, sir, and my left side is feeling vastly better now that Dr Kar Broussard has treated me.”

“Commander Tell Morrath still needs twenty-four hours in a tank for her injuries to heal properly though, sir,” Capria repeated her earlier statement.

“I appreciate that, Dr Kar Broussard. Now, I need to discuss something personal with Jarra and Fian, so I’ll need you and Major Raven to wait outside for a few minutes.”

“Major Raven,” repeated Fian sharply. “Raven’s promotion has gone through at last then, sir?”

“We’ve just received the formal approval,” said General Torrek. “Congratulations Major Raven. I’m afraid I left Zulu base rather rapidly, so don’t have your insignia with me, but I look forward to presenting you with them later.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Raven.

“I still don’t understand why the promotion took so long,” I said.

General Torrek laughed. “That was due to politics. To be more precise, it was due to the Military regulations that aim to prevent politicians from putting pressure on the Military. Major Raven’s close connections to high ranking politicians in Alpha sector mean that his promotions have to be scrutinized by politicians of other sectors to confirm they were gained by merit rather than political influence. That can be a painfully slow process.”

I remembered Raven mentioning one of his uncles was on Joint Sector High Congress Committee. “Oh, I see.”

There was a pause while Raven and Capria left the aircraft, and then General Torrek looked around. “Are there any seats here? Jarra shouldn’t be standing when she’s injured.”

“My ribs are actually more comfortable when I’m standing, sir.”

“Very well, but you shouldn’t be addressing me as sir. As I said, this is an informal personal discussion.”

“Yes, sir. I mean, yes.” I was feeling trapped and nervous. “Fian said you wanted to tell me more about your relationship with my grandmother, but this isn’t an ideal time for that.”

“I agree,” said General Torrek. “That will be a long conversation and is best left until you’re fully recovered and back at Zulu base. I’m not here to discuss your grandmother, but your sister.”

 

Part 16

 

General Torrek wanted to talk to me about my sister! I stared at him, grazzed to the point of speechlessness.

“Perhaps Jarra should sit down after all,” he said gently.

“Perhaps this conversation should be like the one about Jarra’s grandmother, left until Jarra is fully recovered,” said Fian pointedly.

“Believe me, I’m aware this is the worst possible moment to force Jarra into a stressful conversation,” said General Torrek. “I’d postpone it if I possibly could, but it’s vital that I tell Jarra about her sister right now.”

Fian frowned, then moved to near the cockpit door, and pulled down folding seats on either side of the aircraft. General Torrek and I sat down facing each other, while Fian stood like a sentinel on guard duty at my side.

“I should have spoken to you about this days ago, Jarra,” said General Torrek. “There was obviously no time for discussions when you were first decanted. The overriding priority had to be getting you and Fian to Fortuna’s moon so that you could lower the defences around the alien home world. After that, Colonel Leveque recommended that you should have a brief break at your clan hall on Zeus, before returning to Earth for the ceremonies on Wallam-Crane day.”

His voice took on an uncharacteristically harsh note. “I decided I should have this talk with you on the day after Wallam-Crane day, but had to delay because of Steen’s interview with Gamma sector news. His mention of Jarra being in a Military prison didn’t just start the newzies asking questions, but General Marshal Renton Mai and myself as well. Colonel Leveque’s report about Jarra volunteering to have an artificial web implanted hadn’t mentioned the key detail that she volunteered when still locked in a prison cell.”

I frowned. “Why does it matter where I was when I volunteered?”

“Because Military regulations specifically forbid officers being pressured into volunteering. The General Marshal and I discussed this issue with Colonel Leveque at length, pointing out that being locked in a prison cell qualifies as being under extreme pressure. Leveque admitted that he knew Jarra couldn’t legally volunteer for anything in that situation.”

I wrinkled my nose. “It’s true that I didn’t have any choice about what happened back then, but neither did Colonel Leveque. Humanity needed me to go to Fortuna’s moon with Fian and lower the alien defences. The only way for me to do that was to risk going through the web implantation procedure. If I didn’t volunteer to do that, then I knew someone would have to give the order to force me to have the procedure anyway. It was easier for everyone if I said that I volunteered. You must realize that.”

General Torrek grimaced. “I do realize that. So does the General Marshal. Colonel Leveque shouldered the responsibility for forcing you into a procedure that could kill you, to prevent that burden being put on someone further up the command chain. Probably all three of myself as the commanding officer of the Alien Contact programme, Leveque’s wife as my deputy, and the General Marshal as the commander-in-chief of the Military would have been involved in making that decision. That’s the only reason that Colonel Leveque isn’t spending the rest of his career guarding an iceberg on the planet Winter.”

He sighed. “Well, all the confusion at that point meant I couldn’t have my planned conversation with you, and then I made the mistake of letting day after day slip by.”

I moistened my lips. “That was my fault. I didn’t reply to your messages.”

“That was my fault,” said General Torrek. “I shouldn’t have waited for you to reply to my messages. I should have come here myself days ago. The truth is that since the day you and Fian were drafted into the Military, I’ve been taking the cowardly option of avoiding discussing certain subjects with you. It’s been easy to use the demands of commanding the Alien Contact programme as an excuse, and even now I’m rambling about side issues to delay coming to the point. I absolutely must tell you this information now, but please try not to worry too much about it.”

General Torrek was telling me I should try not to worry, and somehow that terrified me. All my instincts were screaming that this was going to be bad news. Incredibly bad news.

I remembered being on New York Main Dig Site, and seeing the moment when one of the ancient skyscrapers finally surrendered to the decay of centuries and collapsed. Some of the outlying debris from that skyscraper had buried the Cassandra 2 team. Now an unknown skyscraper of emotion was about to bury me.

And then I realized exactly what General Torrek was going to say. The mere fact I’d never met my sister face to face made it obvious. I’d grown up watching off-world vids where people casually used insults to refer to those with my immune system problem. Even the officially polite term, Handicapped, had been coldly hurtful. I’d reacted by using those insults myself, trying to prove I didn’t care about them. Now I instinctively resorted to the same defensive tactic, choosing to say the words myself rather than hear General Torrek say them.

“I know someone in the Military has been organizing attacks on me. You’ve come to tell me that person is Gemelle. She doesn’t want the existence of a throwback sister embarrassing her and the Tell clan, so she’s trying to eliminate me.”

“What?” General Torrek gave me an incredulous look before hastily shaking his head. “No. I’ve come to tell you the exact opposite. Gemelle has always been eager to get in touch with you and welcome you to the Tell clan. She and her husband, Royal Tar Destin, are undercover hunting down the person behind the attacks on you.”

Gemelle wasn’t trying to kill me. She was trying to protect me. General Torrek’s face seemed to blur, and I hastily ducked my head, covering my face with my right hand as he continued speaking.

“When the Alien Contact programme was first activated, Colonel Leveque recruited Gemelle and Royal to join his Threat team, but they couldn’t come to Earth immediately. They were on a Planet First assignment assessing a possible future colony world in Kappa sector, so weren’t able to leave without going through the lengthy quarantine procedures designed to protect humanity.”

He paused. “Gemelle and Royal weren’t released from quarantine until after you’d contacted the alien sphere. In fact, they came out of quarantine on the same day that your class moved to London Main Dig Site, and someone from Beta sector threw skunk juice at you.”

General Torrek waved both his hands. “Gemelle and Royal called Colonel Leveque. They said that now the situation with the alien sphere was stable, they weren’t immediately needed on Earth. They suggested going undercover in Beta sector instead, to hunt down the people behind the skunk juice attack. Once they’d dealt with that situation, they moved on to investigating other opponents to Jarra joining her clan.”

I brushed moisture from my eyes and risked looking up again. “That’s why Gemelle wasn’t at the clan ceremony? She was undercover with her husband, and hunting the people attacking me?”

General Torrek nodded. “After the Deltan court order blocked your betrothal to Fian, Beta sector united in support of you, so Colonel Leveque moved Gemelle and Royal to another undercover assignment investigating who’d sent the aircraft with the incendiary weapon to pursue you in Earth Europe. When the alien home world was located, and we were attempting to lower its defences, Gemelle and Royal were briefly recalled before going back undercover to follow a new lead.”

“You mean it was Gemelle that sent the warning about an imminent attack to Military Security?” I asked eagerly.

“No, we’ve had no contact at all from either Gemelle or Royal for the last three months.”

“So they’ve been missing since just after I went in the tank?” I turned to Fian. “Why didn’t you tell me that?”

He lifted his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Because I didn’t know it myself. When I asked Drago and Jaxon why Gemelle hadn’t visited you or even sent a message, they just said it wasn’t possible on her current assignment.”

“Which was the exact truth,” said General Torrek. “The last message from Gemelle and Royal said they were infiltrating a group led by a hostile Military operative, and couldn’t make any further routine contacts without endangering both themselves and their mission.”

He shrugged. “Illegal groups are naturally suspicious of strangers, so infiltrating them is a painfully slow process. There’s absolutely no need for you to worry about there being a few months without any news of Gemelle and Royal. They couldn’t go on this mission with the standard implants Military Security agents use to communicate with SECOP, because a hostile Military operative would know exactly how to detect them. Gemelle and Royal will have to use special message drops to contact us, and they won’t risk doing that until they’ve identified the person behind the attacks on you.”

Was it really true that this situation wasn’t worrying, or was General Torrek just trying to reassure me? “If there’s nothing worrying about having no news of Gemelle and Royal, why was it so vital for us to have this conversation now?”

“Because Military Regulations state a limit of three months without contact before declaring an officer is missing presumed dead and notifying their close relatives. That deadline is midnight tonight, interstellar standard Green Time. I had to make sure you understood the situation before then, because I didn’t want you to be frightened by a notification that’s a mere formality.”

“A mere formality,” I repeated doubtfully. “You’re sure that Gemelle and Royal aren’t in trouble?”

“Going undercover has its dangers,” said General Torrek, “but Gemelle and Royal are highly experienced agents. They first met on a joint undercover mission, and continued going on undercover missions together for three years before moving to Planet First assignments. They make a brilliant team, they’ve a long list of successful missions behind them, and we’ve absolutely no reason to think they’ve hit a problem that they can’t handle.”

“Right.” I rubbed my forehead, still unsure whether my sister and her husband were in serious trouble or not. It was definitely good news that Gemelle was trying to protect me rather than murder me, but I didn’t want her to get killed doing it.

“Can I ask a question?” asked Fian.

General Torrek nodded.

“If the warning about today’s attack didn’t come from Gemelle and Royal, then who did send it?”

“Your ex-classmate, Petra,” said General Torrek.

“What?” Fian gave a dazed shake of his head. “How could Petra know about an attack?”

“There was so much newzie excitement over Steen’s interview mentioning Jarra being in prison,” said General Torrek, “that a passing reference to someone leaving the class after insulting Jarra slipped by relatively unnoticed. The hostile Military operative has been carefully gathering every snippet of information they can about you though, and they didn’t miss the hint that an ex-classmate existed with a grievance against Jarra.”

He groaned. “They obviously identified that ex-classmate as Petra, and discovered she was working on Winter under a false name. They sent her an anonymous message, saying your class was at Berlin Main Dig Site, and asking for information about working methods, general dig site procedures, and communications.”

“And Petra reacted by sending a warning to Military Security,” I said. “I’d never have guessed she’d decide to be our ally rather than our enemy.”

“I wouldn’t describe Petra as an ally,” said General Torrek drily. “Colonel Leveque obviously hasn’t been able to question her yet, so it’s unclear exactly when she got the anonymous message, but it was probably several days ago. Petra seems to have given the hostile Military operative significant amounts of information before having an extremely last-minute change of heart and sending her warning to Military Security.”

“I doubt Petra had a last-minute change of heart,” said Fian cynically. “I suspect she had a last-minute realization that Leveque would probably find out what she’d done. She was scared she’d get shot or locked up for life, so took the safe option of sending a warning message when it was too late to help us.”

“But it wasn’t too late to help us,” I objected. “Petra may have only given us a few minutes warning, but that still made the difference that saved my life. Without her warning, nobody would have suspected the civilian aircraft arriving through the Berlin Dig Site freight portal was a threat until after it attacked me. By the time Drago and Marlise’s prototypes arrived, I’d have been dead, and Major Maven would have been miles away in his aircraft.”

“That could be true,” said Fian reluctantly. “What’s going to happen to Petra now? If the enemy group finds out she betrayed them, then they could kill her.”

“Colonel Leveque is having Petra brought in for questioning,” said General Torrek. “After that, she’ll probably be put into a witness protection programme. You can freely discuss Petra’s involvement in this attack with Major Raven because Military Security will be keeping him fully informed about her. You mustn’t share the information about Petra with anyone else at this point though.”

I pulled a face. “I wish we could tell our classmates that Petra helped us, but I can see that would put her in danger.”

“Which brings me back to the subject of Gemelle and Royal,” said General Torrek. “What I’ve told you about them being undercover hunting for the hostile Military operative mustn’t be repeated to anyone at all, not even Major Raven.”

“You surely can’t doubt Raven’s loyalty after what happened on the California Land Raft,” I said fiercely.

“I have absolute faith in Major Raven,” said General Torrek, “but secrets can be revealed by accident as well as by deliberate betrayal. Remember how you made a joke about being in Military prison to your trusted friends on dig team 1, Steen overheard you, and it became a lead story on every newzie channel from Alpha sector to Kappa sector. If the same thing happened with the details of Gemelle and Royal’s assignment, it could lead to their deaths.”

That was a good point. I made a defeated sound of acceptance.

“Military Security records show that Gemelle and Royal went undercover in Beta sector,” continued General Torrek. “They were supposedly investigating the organizers of some violent protests against Jarra joining her clan. Until a few minutes ago, only the General Marshal, Colonel Leveque, and I knew their true assignment was hunting down a traitor in our own ranks.”

His face twisted in pain. “I’ve only shared that information with you now because Gemelle left me precise instructions about what to do if she and Royal were either presumed or confirmed dead. She asked me to tell you both what she’d been doing this year, and say that she’d wanted to meet you, but not as much as she’d wanted to keep you alive.”

There was a long silence before General Torrek spoke again. “Once close relatives have been informed about Gemelle and Royal being missing presumed dead, the news will be publicly available. You can talk freely about them being missing, but if you refer to their assignment, you should describe it as something vaguely political in Beta sector. You must never speak about their true mission at all, not even if you’re alone together, in case someone overhears that conversation.”

“But what if someone has already overheard this conversation?” asked Fian anxiously.

General Torrek pointed at the lookup on his sleeve. “That’s impossible. My lookup has special security features to prevent anyone either listening in to my conversations or …”

He was interrupted by his lookup chiming, gave it a startled frown, and then tapped it.

Colonel Leveque’s voice spoke. “I apologize for interrupting your private conversation, sir, but I need to update you with some important developments.”

“I’ve just finished explaining the situation to Jarra and Fian,” said General Torrek, “so you can go ahead with your update.”

“I’m currently standing outside your aircraft, sir,” said Colonel Leveque pointedly. “If you’ve finished your conversation then it might be advantageous to …”

General Torrek interrupted him. “Yes, come inside to talk to me. If appropriate, you can bring Major Raven and Dr Kar Broussard with you.”

The rear doors of the aircraft opened. Colonel Leveque, Raven, and Dr Kar Broussard came in and saluted in unison. General Torrek gave a vague wave of his right hand in return, and Colonel Leveque turned to study me for several seconds before speaking.

“I’m relieved to see you’re looking relatively well, Commander. Major Raven’s initial reports on your condition were concerning.”

“Thank you, sir. I was in a bit of a mess, but Capria has taken good care of me.”

“Major Capria Kar Broussard is an excellent doctor, though sometimes officious about what’s best for her patients,” said General Torrek. “Two decades ago, as a newly qualified doctor, she insisted on saving my life against my clearly expressed wishes. I still hold a faint grudge against her over that.”

I blinked. My grandmother had been killed in action two decades ago. It sounded as if General Torrek had been badly injured in the same incident.

“With deepest respect, sir,” said Capria, “the comment I made two decades ago about you still having much to offer humanity proved to be perfectly accurate. I don’t believe any other officer could have been such a success commanding the Alien Contact programme.”

General Torrek sighed. “As I just said, Capria can be officious at times. I hope you don’t find that too annoying, Jarra, because your team will be working closely with the Cassandra team on Fortuna, and sharing the services of a support team. If you’ve no objection, then I intend to appoint Capria as the doctor on that support team. She’s the best qualified person to deal with any issues you have with your artificial web, and she’s just fitted in an extra rejuvenation treatment to prepare for the assignment.”

Capria looked anxiously at me. I’d been confused by the intense way she’d talked about the history of our clans, but it made more sense now. She was clearly eager to get this assignment, and if both Fian and General Torrek approved of her …

“I’m sure Capria would be the perfect choice,” I said.

General Torrek smiled at Capria, and then turned to Colonel Leveque. “Mason, I expected you’d need far longer than this to question Major Maven.”

“I will need far longer to complete questioning Major Maven,” said Leveque, “but I’ve established a crucial fact. When Jarra and Fian were on their way to lower the alien home world’s defences, they were ambushed by a ship packed with missiles. Evidence showed this had been organized by the same member of the Military as previous attacks, and there was a worryingly high probability that he or she was working at Zulu base itself. I therefore recommended Jarra and Fian should go to the safety of the Tell clan hall for a couple of days, and then rejoin their class.”

“Are we getting to the crucial fact soon?” asked General Torrek hopefully.

“We are getting to the crucial fact right now,” said Leveque. “Information from Major Maven has established there are no hostile operatives at Zulu base. In fact, there are currently no hostile operatives within the Alien Contact programme.”

General Torrek gave a long drawn out sigh. “It’s a huge relief to know everyone within the Alien Contact programme is clean. That makes everything much simpler.”

“It does indeed,” said Leveque. “I now recommend that Jarra and Fian portal to Zulu base immediately. Jarra can have her injuries properly treated in a regrowth tank, and then she and Fian can assist with testing the equipment to be used on Fortuna.”

“Agreed,” said General Torrek.

“So we won’t be returning to our class after Jarra’s treatment?” asked Fian sharply.

“Your course will end in a couple of weeks anyway,” said General Torrek.

“But we can’t portal off to Zulu base without saying goodbye to Lecturer Playdon, our classmates, or Cassandra 2,” I protested.

“Your class are driving their sleds here and should arrive within the next couple of minutes,” said Leveque. “I’m told that the Cassandra 2 team is coming with them to deliver a tree, so you’ll be able to say goodbye to all of them before leaving. Many of those people will be joining you at Zulu base before Year Day anyway.”

“Yes, but just rushing off before the end of the course is…” I tried to run both hands through my hair, but my left arm had limited movement. I had to settle for just using my right hand.

“Remaining with your class until the end of the course would leave you both exposed to further attacks,” said Leveque.

He was right, and those attacks might harm other people as well as us. Keren could have been killed in the attack today. Other people working on the dig site could have been killed too.

My mind moved on to the next problem. I would be going into a regrowth tank within hours, and if there was any chance at all that it wouldn’t be me coming out but another clone …

“All right, but I have to plant a tree before I go to Zulu base.”

 

Part 17

 

“I assume you’re talking about the tree that the Cassandra 2 team is bringing,” said Leveque. “Can’t you get someone else to plant it for you?”

I glared at him. “Would you have suggested that I got someone else to attend my grandmother’s Honour Ceremony for me?”

Leveque’s normally unreadable voice sounded wary. “No, but I’m not sure of the relevance of …”

I didn’t let him finish the sentence. “The relevance is that no-one else could attend my grandmother’s Honour Ceremony in my place because I am her Honour Child. A year ago, I buried someone. Now I have an obligation to leave a personal memorial by her grave before I leave Earth, and no one else can do it for me because I am the Next of Kin. You may feel that Military ceremonies matter more than Earth ceremonies, but I am an Earth Girl!”

“Of course you must carry out your ceremony, Jarra,” said General Torrek hastily.

Leveque was staring at me. “That explains something that’s been puzzling me for months. Your professional mother told me how much you’d hated your family for abandoning you. It seemed strange that when Military Support sent you the message about your grandmother’s Honour Ceremony, you replied within minutes agreeing to take part. You didn’t hesitate before making that decision because you’d already taken part in a similar Next of Kin Ceremony.”

“Yes, I had no grudge against a Military hero who’d died before I was born, and …” I saw an expression of pain on General Torrek’s face so I let the sentence trail off unfinished.

“If you’re planting a tree, is it possible for Fian to assist you with any necessary digging?” asked Capria anxiously. “Trying to dig with a broken arm would be … excessive.”

I shook my head. “I won’t be doing any digging myself. I wouldn’t dare to touch the perfectly manicured lawn of one of the Dig Site Federation’s graveyards. I just have to send a message to the Americas curator, telling her I have a tree that I want to plant as my personal memorial, and she’ll prepare everything for me.”

“If possible, I’d prefer to message the curator myself,” said Leveque. “There are security implications to consider.”

I shrugged. “You can message the curator if you want. You’ll need to mention my old name, Jarra Reeath, in case she doesn’t know that I’m Jarra Tell Morrath now.”

Fian laughed. “I suspect everyone on Earth knows both your old and new names, Jarra.”

I had a childish moment where I considered sticking my tongue out at him, but decided that would be too undignified in front of a General. “I want to invite all of my class and the Cassandra 2 team to attend the ceremony. I should also invite the four people who were at the original burial. My friends, Issette and Keon, won’t have any time zone problems attending, because Keon’s working at Zulu base in Earth America anyway, but I don’t know what continent my flying instructor and his wife are on at the moment.”

“Your flying instructor, George Gradin, and his wife, Professor Valeska Orlova, are currently working at Zulu base as well,” said Leveque.

“Really?” I gave him a startled look. “What are Gradin and Valeska doing at Zulu base?”

“We asked for experienced Earth archaeologists and dig site pilots to advise the Military on developing new equipment to be used on Fortuna,” said Colonel Leveque. “We had a lot of volunteers, but George Gradin and Professor Valeska Orlova weren’t just highly qualified. They were closely connected to you as well. That was an obvious advantage given we wanted you and Fian to help test the new equipment at some point.”

He paused. “Do you wish your professional mother to attend this ceremony as well?”

“No. I never told Candace about what happened back then.”

“You didn’t feel in need of her support or advice?” asked General Torrek.

I smiled. “I had Professor Valeska Orlova to give me any advice I needed. She’d been a Next of Kin herself on three occasions, so there was no need for me to tell Candace about something that was bound to worry her.”

I was about to ask if the Military had been having any problems working with Gradin, when Raven spoke in a respectful voice. “SECOP tell me that the Asgard 6 class and Cassandra 2 team will be arriving shortly, sirs.”

“Then we’d better go outside and meet them,” said General Torrek briskly.

We headed out of the rear doors of the aircraft, and Fian insisted on taking my arm to help me down the steps. Once I was safely on the ground, I looked around at the number of Military Security officers guarding our class’s grey, flexiplas accommodation dome, and then up at where fighter aircraft circled overhead. I was alarmed to see Drago’s golden prototype aircraft suddenly rock from side to side.

“Is Drago’s prototype developing problems?” I asked.

Fian laughed and waved at the sky. “No. Drago’s just seen us come out of the air ambulance and is rocking his wings to say he’s watching over us.”

“Oh, I see.” I waved at Drago’s aircraft. “Judging from the messages Ramon was relaying earlier, your feelings about Drago have changed during the months I was in a tank. You used to find him annoying, but now you’re calling him your brother.”

Fian blushed. “When we first met Drago, I was dreadfully jealous of his self-confidence and resented the way people hero-worshipped him. That was changing even before you went into the tank. By then, I’d seen Drago do things that proved how much he deserved a bit of hero-worship, and once I was enduring the endless waiting to learn if you’d live or die …”

Fian took a few paces forward and turned to gaze at the track that led to the Berlin Spire Complex. I automatically followed him, and saw two transport sleds driving towards us, with the Asgard 6 class packed together on the first sled and Cassandra 2 on the second. I wondered where the other sleds were, worked out that they’d been left at Spire 152 ready for the teams to continue work the next day, and then had an odd bereft moment when I thought that Fian and I wouldn’t be with them.

Fian started speaking again in a low, confiding voice. “Our betrothal ceremony included Drago’s father adopting me as his son on behalf of the clan. When you were in the tank, I found out how seriously Drago took that adoption. He considers me his brother now, and he’s given me more care and affection during the last few months than my birth father or sister have done in the whole of my life.”

He shook his head. “My mother called me every day you were in the tank, and I had to talk her out of moving to Earth because I didn’t want her to see the mess I was in. I’ve only had a few inhumanly cold exchanges with my birth father and sister though.”

I finally realized Fian wasn’t actually watching the approaching transport sleds. He was using my own trick of turning his face away to try and hide his expression. The bitter use of the words birth father and sister, and the shake in his voice as he continued speaking, betrayed the depth of his feelings though.

“My birth father has been a destructive force all through my life. He went to incredible lengths to stop me coming on this course, he was behind the Deltan court orders that blocked our betrothal, and he only brought the Persephone technology to help you because my great-uncle Alexander leads Cioni’s Apprentices and forced him to do it.”

Fian shrugged. “Drago’s the complete opposite. In the first few weeks after the mess at the California Rift, both Raven and you were in regrowth tanks, and I totally fell apart. It was Drago who picked up the pieces, put me together again, and told me a lot of ridiculous stories about himself so I wasn’t even left feeling embarrassed afterwards. He’s done the same for a lot of his team members, so I can understand why they all adore him.”

By now, it was perfectly clear that Fian adored Drago too. I listened as he continued speaking.

“Drago’s been honest about the issue of my clan adoption being presumptive. If you ever get tired of our relationship and decide to dump me, then my clan adoption will end, and my brotherhood with Drago must end with it. As clause 8 of our betrothal contract spells out, clan blood loyalty comes first in that situation, but Drago says he’d still maintain as close a friendship with me as you allowed him.”

I hastily reached out my right hand to take his. Fian was wearing his impact suit, so I was only touching the harsh protective fabric rather than human warmth, but the gesture still mattered.

“That situation is never going to happen,” I said. “I don’t believe anyone else would keep forgiving my faults the way you do, so I’m just going to have to put up with your science comments.”

Fian gave a choked approximation of a laugh.

I tried to guide the conversation back to something less emotional. “I heard Raven say that the pilot flying the air ambulance was from Drago’s team.”

“Yes, Ramon has been a fighter pilot for years, and was on your brother Jaxon’s team when Drago first joined it. Drago and Marlise needed to bring the prototypes themselves, so Ramon was the obvious choice to fly the air ambulance. You couldn’t have been in safer hands.”

“Ramon seemed dreadfully embarrassed when he walked through the air ambulance and saw me with my suit unsealed. I assume that’s because he has a strong nudity taboo, which must be awkward on a fighter team.”

Fian managed a proper laugh this time. “You’re right about that. Ramon grew up on Adonis, and trained as a diplomat before joining the Military, so he’s fighting some deeply ingrained cultural attitudes. He was especially embarrassed when he saw you. It’s not just that by Adonis standards you’re still an underage girl, but …”

Fian hesitated, and I prompted him. “My lights were obviously a shock.”

“It wasn’t your lights. It was the problem with your skintight.”

I gave him a bewildered look. “There’s nothing wrong with my skintight. It’s the one I got after the accident at Eden, so I’ve been wearing it for ages.”

“That’s the point,” said Fian. “Your … fronts … developed a bit while you were in the regrowth tank. The Military issued you with a replacement impact suit and new uniforms, but they forgot to give you a new skintight, and your old one is stretched to the point where it’s rather see-through.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that before?” I demanded. “I’ve been so focused on the lights of my web that I didn’t realize the size of my impact suit had changed.”

He gave me a shameless grin. “I was enjoying the see-through effect of your skintight far too much to complain. I thought you’d be bound to notice it yourself soon anyway.”

“Wait a minute.” I glowered at him. “You’ve been saying that I’m even more beautiful now than before. I thought you were talking about the lights of my implanted web, but you really meant that my fronts are larger?”

“Exactly. They’re especially impressive in that skintight.”

“Fian Andrej Eklund, you are an atrociously behaved Deltan.”

“I’m got dual Betan citizenship now, so I …”

Fian broke off his sentence because General Torrek and Colonel Leveque were coming over to stand next to us, while Raven and Capria remained at a respectful distance. A moment later, the transport sleds stopped in front of our group, and the passengers all jumped to the ground. They came to gather around us, their impact suit hoods down, and so many people were talking at once that I couldn’t work out what anyone was saying.

The noise died down as Rono and Keren came up to us. Keren was cradling the backpack holding my tree in his arms, and held it out towards me, but Fian hastily stepped forward to take it.

“Thank you for bringing my tree,” I said. “I hope the missile didn’t damage it too badly.”

Keren eyed me thoughtfully. “Given the way you’re swaying from side to side, I think the tree is in a much better state than you are.”

I hastily straightened up. “I’m fine.”

Rono grinned at me. “Naturally Jarra is fine. Today was quite uneventful by her standards. No crashing spaceships at all. She just fell off a spire a few times before being hit by a missile.”

I groaned at the mention of crashing spaceships.

Keren stabbed an aggressive forefinger at Rono. “Remember that Jarra falling off the spire was entirely your fault. Todd sneaked into the Dig Site Command Centre comms room and messed around with the private channels because of you rather than Jarra.”

Colonel Leveque had been tapping at his lookup, but now he lifted his head to speak. “That isn’t totally true. In fact, I’ve now discovered that Todd’s entry into the Dig Site Command Centre comms room was connected to the aircraft attack. Todd planted a device in the comms room that bypassed the dig site security systems, and allowed the hostile pilot to monitor the broadcast channel.”

Keren shook his head. “I can’t believe that any archaeologist, even Todd, would help someone attack Jarra. After all the help that the University Earth teams have given us, no off-world team would tolerate anyone with a prejudice against them, and Jarra is especially popular because of all the favourable publicity she’s generated for archaeology.”

“Todd didn’t know the device had anything to do with an attack on Jarra,” said Colonel Leveque. “The person organizing the attack must have heard about his obsession with Rono and discovered he had a cousin working at Berlin Dig Site Command. They sent Todd an anonymous package containing the device, as well as instructions on how to infiltrate the comms room and access the private comms channels. The device was supposed to be essential for overriding the comms channels.”

“Ah, now things make a lot more sense,” said Rono. “I didn’t understand how Todd could have casually messed around with the dig site comms channels. He’d never held a Dig Site Command position, so what went on in the comms room should have been as big a mystery to him as it is to me. His cousin Arrack hadn’t been there long enough to have learnt much either, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else helping Todd tamper with dig site comms equipment.”

“If a similar situation ever arises in future, please mention any such concerns to a member of Military Security,” said Colonel Leveque. “If we’d been aware that unknown third parties had been involved in helping Todd, then we’d have used the more rapid emergency measures to extract information from him.”

Leveque began busily tapping at his lookup again. I briefly wondered why the rapid measures he’d mentioned were only used in emergencies, decided it must be because they were extremely unpleasant, and then considered the fact that Colonel Leveque had got information from Major Maven at startling speed.

I had an uneasy moment wondering precisely what had been done to force Major Maven to talk. He’d come close to killing me, so perhaps I was being overly squeamish worrying about him, but …

I realized that Playdon and the rest of dig team 1 had come out of the crowd, and Playdon was talking to me. “I’m sorry, sir,” I said, “I missed what you said.”

“I asked if the awkward way your left arm is positioned across your chest means that it’s broken.”

“I’m afraid so.”

“So why aren’t you being treated for it?” asked Playdon.

“I’ve already had treatment,” I said. “I’ve got a rock-hard bandage on my arm.”

He gave me an incredulous look. “How is a bandage supposed to help you?”

Amalie was studying the way my uniform sleeve was stretched over the bandage. “Jarra means that her arm is in a plaster cast. It’s an archaic treatment for broken bones, dating from centuries before the invention of portals, but the shortage of medical facilities on frontier worlds means we sometimes still use it for simple fracture cases.”

“I’m not sure if Jarra’s arm is a simple fracture or not,” said Fian gloomily. “but she’s cracked a couple of ribs and punctured a lung as well.”

Lecturer Playdon frowned at General Torrek. “I don’t understand why Jarra is standing around here when she has such severe injuries. She should be in a regrowth tank.”

I grimaced. “I’ll be going to Zulu base for a regrowth tank treatment soon, sir, but I want to plant my tree at my Next of Kin grave first. I’d like to invite everyone on the Asgard 6 and Cassandra 2 teams to attend the ceremony. Colonel Leveque is making the arrangements right now.”

Playdon nodded. “I’m sure that your classmates would like to be there.”

“And Cassandra 2 is definitely coming,” said Rono. “We don’t want to miss anything dramatic. Should we stay in our impact suits for this, or portal over to our own dome to change into some suitable clothes?”

Leveque lifted his head again. “As a precautionary measure, I’d like everyone to remain in their impact suits for the ceremony. Unfortunately, Jarra herself will have to be the exception, wearing an ordinary uniform because of her injuries.”

He paused. “The custodian of the Dig Site Federation Americas graveyard is making immediate arrangements for the ceremony. She wants me to send her a holo image of the tree so she can prepare a suitable planting site. Can Major Eklund please hold it in the air for a moment?”

Fian held up the backpack, pulling the sides down to show more of the tree, and Colonel Leveque used his lookup to take an image before speaking again.

“We’ll be using the Asgard 6 class’s accommodation dome portal to go to the graveyard in fifteen minutes from now. As soon as the ceremony is complete, both Jarra and Fian will portal from the Dig Site Federation Americas graveyard to Zulu base, where a regrowth tank has been prepared to treat Jarra.”

Playdon nodded. “How long will it be before you rejoin the class, Jarra?”

“I should only be in the regrowth tank for twenty-four hours, but …” I hesitated, and took the cowardly option of waiting for someone else to say it.

“Commander Tell Morrath and Major Eklund won’t be rejoining their class,” said General Torrek. “They’ll be remaining at Zulu base to test the special equipment designed for the Fortuna excavations.”

“What?” Dalmora gasped. “Jarra and Fian can’t leave the class now!”

Playdon turned to Fian. “Jarra isn’t in a fit state to do any packing, and you won’t want to leave her. Should Dalmora and I pack your belongings later today, the same way that we’ve done when you had to leave in a hurry before?”

“That would be a great help,” said Fian.

“Just contact Command Support when you’ve finished the packing,” said Colonel Leveque, “and they’ll arrange for the bags to be transported to Zulu base.”

“Someone will need to put the wall back between our two rooms as well,” said Fian.

“Krath and I will do that,” said Amalie.

I remembered something I’d been meaning to say to Amalie. This was the perfect chance.

“You and Krath will need to fill the tag leader and tag support spots on dig team 1 again. Lecturer Playdon told me that you did a brilliant job in key spot while I was away, Amalie, and I’m sure you’ll do just as well for the last couple of weeks of the course.”

Amalie grimaced. “I’m not sure I’ve got the right skills for the position.”

I smiled at her. “Believe me, Amalie. During my time with my school history club, I watched a lot of people try tag leading, and not a single one of them was as perfect for the position as you.”

She gave me a grazzed look. I’d done my best to boost her confidence, and I thought this was a case where less was better than more, so I turned back to where Dalmora was giving a despairing shake of her head.

“But what about our farewell party? It won’t be the same without Jarra, Fian, and Raven.”

“That’s very true,” said Rono. “Without Jarra, there won’t be any excitement at your class farewell party at all. No crashing spaceships or …”

He was interrupted by the sound of thunder overhead. I looked up and saw the dust rings of drop portals appear in the sky, and some of the fighters vanish through them.

Rono gave an embarrassed laugh. “For a moment, I thought that was another crashing spaceship.”

Playdon ignored his comment and turned to Leveque. “Why are the fighters leaving? Don’t Jarra and Fian still need their protection?”

“Only half the fighters are leaving,” said Leveque. “They’re going ahead of us to fly patrols over the graveyard.”

Capria spoke in a determined voice. “If we have fifteen minutes before we’re portalling anywhere, then I’d like Jarra to spend the time sitting down and having a drink. She’s currently dehydrated.”

“It’s been a long morning wearing impact suits,” said Playdon. “I suggest everyone goes to our dome hall and has something to drink.”

He led the crowd into the dome and down the grey flexiplas corridor to the grey flexiplas hall. There was already a cluster of Military Security officers in there, but they hastily saluted General Torrek before moving to stand on guard duty by the wall.

Dalmora gave a single despairing glance at the battered tables and chairs before turning to give everyone the smile of a perfect hostess. “I must apologize to our guests. I’m afraid the only available food and drink is from the standard food dispenser menu.”

“Nobody will want any food now,” said Amalie. “It’s virtually impossible to eat anything when you’re wearing an impact suit, and there isn’t time to change into ordinary clothes and back again. Don’t forget that the food dispensers have run out of orange flavoured Fizzup as well.”

Dalmora visibly winced.

“But there’s plenty of coffee,” said Krath.

“Yes,” said Dalmora valiantly. “Please sit down everyone. We’ll avoid long queues at the food dispensers by bringing trays of drinks to the tables.”

Most people began moving towards the tables, but I noticed Capria heading for the food dispensers. I guessed she was going to get me a drink and wrinkled my nose. My ribs weren’t hurting at the moment, but I was feeling nervous about drinking anything.

Dalmora lowered her voice to issue a series of orders. “Fian, make Jarra sit down before she falls over. Amalie, most people will want Fizzup, so start taking round trays of whatever flavours are available. Krath, you’ll be handing out coffee. Raven, you’ll be doing the tea.”

Amalie and Krath headed for the food dispensers, but Raven glanced warily across at where General Torrek and Colonel Leveque were standing, before shaking his head. “I’m afraid I won’t be doing anything except bodyguarding Jarra and Fian. The combination of Jarra falling off a spire, being attacked by an aircraft, and then hit by a missile makes this an utterly disastrous day. If Colonel Leveque sees me ignoring my duties to carry around trays of tea, then I’ll get court-martialled.”

“Yes,” said Dalmora gloomily, “it’s been a disastrous day, and now we’re holding what has to be the most disastrous class farewell party in the entire history of Humanity as well. Only fifteen minutes long. No real food. No real drinks. No class souvenirs.”

“This isn’t the real class farewell party,” I said. “It’s only Fian, Raven, and me that are leaving.”

“Given the impact you’ve made on this class, you, Fian, and Raven leaving makes this the real class farewell party.” Dalmora made a heroic effort to put on her hostess smile again. “All right, we just have to do the best we can in this situation. I’ll do teas myself, and ask …”

I missed the rest because Dalmora had hurried off to join Amalie and Krath at the food dispensers.

“Poor Dalmora,” I said.

Fian grinned. “This situation reminds me of the first day of our course. Do you remember how Playdon expected us to run our own meet and greet, and none of the rest of us knew what to do, so Dalmora had to step in to salvage the social disaster by acting as hostess?”

“Of course.”

I automatically started walking towards our usual table, Fian fell into step beside me, and Raven followed behind us.

“I’d expected to come to Earth and be in the Asgard 7 Pre-history Foundation class with a couple of my school friends,” said Fian, “but my father somehow managed to mess that up for me. He got me transferred to the Asgard 6 class, hoping that I’d feel so lonely without my friends that I’d give up my dreams of being a historian, go back to Hercules, and obediently study Physics.”

I shook my head. “You’re far too stubborn to have ever done that.”

“That’s probably true. Anyway, it’s odd to think that without my father’s meddling we’d never have met. I remember feeling dreadfully far from home sitting in our class meet and greet. Then I saw a girl with a passionate face and gloriously untidy hair, talking about her love of history. I fell hopelessly in love with you at that moment, but I don’t think you noticed me at all.”

We both sat down at the table, and I grinned at Fian. “Of course I noticed you. I couldn’t miss seeing your totally zan legs and …”

There was a cough from somewhere nearby, and I turned to look in horror at General Torrek, Colonel Leveque, and Capria. “May we join you?” asked General Torrek.

“Of course, sir,” I said, in a strangled voice. General Torrek must have heard my comment about Fian’s legs, and he’d have been able to tell by the way I said it that I was really referring to his …

The three of them sat down, while Raven stood alertly on guard duty next to me. I grimaced as Capria put a tray in front of me. There wasn’t just a glass of Fizzup, but a bowl of soup as well.

“I don’t need anything to eat or drink.”

“My sensors disagree with you, Commander.”

I sighed, and took a small sip of Fizzup.

“After making the arrangements with the custodian, I now have a better understanding of the Next of Kin custom, Jarra,” said Colonel Leveque. “Am I correct that you are planting this tree to provide the traditional personal memorial that complements the official memorial?”

At this point, I was eager to discuss anything other than legs. “That’s right, sir. I didn’t set up a personal memorial at the original burial ceremony, because it’s supposed to be something with a special meaning to the Next of Kin, and I couldn’t think of anything suitable. I was living at my Next Step back then, so my only possessions were things like clothes and childhood clutter. Now I have to set up the personal memorial before I leave Earth, and finding that sapling tree today … Well, it somehow seems appropriate.”

Colonel Leveque nodded. “The one thing still confusing me is that Military Security requested your records from Hospital Earth when you joined the Alien Contact programme, and they don’t include anything about you being a Next of Kin. I appreciate that information wouldn’t be recorded by your Next Step if it happened when you were away working at a dig site with your school history club, but in that case it should surely have been mentioned on your school records. Hospital Earth has kept an incredibly detailed history of your trivial childhood misbehaviours, so why not include this?”

I thought of all the things Colonel Leveque must have seen on my Hospital Earth records and cringed. No wonder the Military was working hard to keep me away from the newzies. There was something odd about this though.

“I became a Next of Kin at the end of the Earth Europe school summer break last year. I wasn’t at my Next Step, or with my school history club, but I was being chased by a Hospital Earth Truancy Inspector at the time. The details must be included in his report.”

“There is no report from a Hospital Earth Truancy Inspector on your record,” said Leveque.

“But there must be. He’d never forget to file a report about me after all the …”

Amalie appeared at our table, carrying a tray with the practised skill of someone who’d worked as a barmaid on her home world before starting this course. “I know Fian will want Fizzup. Would anyone else like some?”

“Blueberry flavour please,” said Capria.

Amalie put glasses in front of Fian and Capria, then swept off to the next table. I took another sip of my Fizzup, and then realized why that report was missing from my record.

“Someone at Hospital Earth must have been worried when they got a request from Military Security,” I said. “They removed selected information from my record before sending it, because they didn’t want Military Security asking questions about the way Hospital Earth treated their wards.”

“Really.” Colonel Leveque’s voice held an edge of menace. “I shall instruct one of my team to find out exactly which official of Hospital Earth decided to mislead me with partial information.”

Fian was frowning. “That explains why there was nothing about you being a Next of Kin on your record, Jarra, but not why you’ve never mentioned it to me before.”

I groaned. “At the beginning of this course, I was pretending to be normal born, so I couldn’t tell the class about me being a Next of Kin. Even when everyone knew I was an Earth girl with an immune system problem, it was difficult to explain what had happened because … Well, I’m not good at talking about emotional things, and nothing could be more emotional than this.”

“I hope you’ll feel able to tell me what happened later,” said Fian. “As I keep saying, I want to help you with your problems, but I can’t do that when you don’t tell me they exist.”

I pulled a face. I had a bad habit of delaying difficult conversations for as long as possible, but time had run out for two of them today. It had been General Torrek’s last chance to tell me about my sister’s undercover mission before she was declared missing presumed dead. It was also my last chance to tell everyone here the Next of Kin story before I said a final goodbye to some of them.

Hospital Earth had left some crucial information out of the records they sent to Military Security. I could leave some crucial information out of the Next of Kin story too, and leave the ceremony as just a poignant insight into Earth’s customs.

But I’d already decided that I couldn’t do that. General Torrek had cornered me in an air ambulance, and I’d deliberately cornered myself when I invited everyone to attend a ceremony where I couldn’t do anything but tell the exact truth.

I gave Fian a rueful smile. “I’m going to tell you and everyone else the Next of Kin story when we’re at the graveside. Every member of both Asgard 6 and Cassandra 2 has a right to hear how my becoming a Next of Kin didn’t just shatter my life but theirs as well. I want to explain it at the graveside rather than here because I think … I hope … that being there will help you understand it better.”

General Torrek gave a pointed glance at Colonel Leveque. “We seem to be intruding on a private matter between Jarra and her fellow archaeologists. We should leave at this point.”

“Sir, I need to remain with Jarra to monitor her medical condition,” said Capria.

“And I need to be at the ceremony to ensure the safety of both Jarra and Fian,” said Leveque.

“Major Raven’s presence at the ceremony may be appropriate because of his close connection to the Asgard 6 class,” said General Torrek. “You and the other Military Security officers should provide protection from a discreet distance though.”

“Sir, I would like both you and Colonel Leveque to be present at this ceremony,” I said. “My becoming a Next of Kin didn’t change your lives the way it changed the lives of the members of Asgard 6 or Cassandra 2, because you’d have been involved in the Alien Contact programme anyway. Some events might have happened differently if Fian and I hadn’t been involved though, so you deserve to hear my explanation.”

“I believe that without the contributions of you and Fian, we might never have discovered the pedestal or activated the alien sphere,” said Colonel Leveque. “I’m therefore intrigued to hear what you have to say.”

That was settled then. Everyone was going to be at the ceremony. They’d all hear my explanation. Now I just needed to work out the best way to tell them what had happened. I absentmindedly picked up my spoon and tried a mouthful of what I always described as tomatoish soup. It was easier to swallow than I’d expected.

Krath appeared carrying a tray. “Would anyone like coffee?” he asked hopefully.

“Yes, please,” said General Torrek.

Krath gave him an approving look, put his tray down on the table, and handed over a cup of coffee. “Amalie has been trying to persuade me to give up coffee and drink tea instead, but the tea from food dispensers tastes terrible.”

“I agree that food dispenser tea tastes terrible,” said General Torrek, “but the tea I drank as a boy was even worse. I grew up on Tethys, an obscure world in Gamma sector, and the local tea was revolting. Everyone tried to avoid it by drinking coffee, but that was an imported luxury food so my family couldn’t always afford it.”

“I lived on Tethys as a boy too,” said Krath eagerly. “Well, only for about six weeks, because some Military Security agent disguised as a debt collector was chasing my dad. We had to pack our things, sneak away to Tethys off-world in the middle of the night, and make a thrilling escape through an interstellar portal to Alcestis.”

He paused and sighed. “Now I stop to think about it, I’m not sure my dad was telling the truth about that woman being a Military Security agent. Anyway, I was only ten years old back then, but I still remember Tethys because of all the carrot fields and the rabbits.”

General Torrek nodded. “They are a little unforgettable.”

Dalmora appeared carrying another tray of cups. “Would anyone like tea? Real tea from Danae?”

“Yes, please,” said Colonel Leveque.

Krath sighed. “Don’t you have to drink whatever the General drinks?”

Colonel Leveque accepted a cup from Dalmora, and took an appreciative sip before answering. “Fortunately, Military Regulations don’t allow any punishment as brutal as forcing an officer to drink coffee.”

General Torrek smiled. “I believe the powers of the Alien Contact programme could extend to making you drink coffee, Mason.”

“Possibly, but I don’t believe that poisoning me would be in the best interests of humanity.” Leveque’s lookup chimed, and he frowned at the screen. “We have the initial report on the device planted in the comms room, sir. We should probably discuss this somewhere more private.”

“Of course.” General Torrek glanced around the table. “The rest of you should please stay seated while I leave, and I’m especially talking to you, Jarra.”

He and Leveque stood up and walked out of the hall, taking their cups with them, and there was a sudden rush of people coming to our table. Everyone who wasn’t going to Fortuna seemed to be trying to say goodbye at once.

I’d been through the same sort of mass farewell situation when I left Next Step, but I didn’t seem to have got any better at thinking of things to say, so I was relieved when Raven announced it was time for us to head for the portal room. Everyone was moving towards the hall door, when a Military Security officer came through it struggling with a bulky box.

“What the chaos is that?” demanded Krath.

“It’s a delivery for Dalmora Rostha,” announced the officer. “Colonel Leveque has approved it and said you’d want it right away.”

Dalmora headed over to look at the box and groaned. “It’s the banners for our farewell party.”

Fian gave a bewildered shake of his head. “How can the banners be here already? We haven’t even decided on a design yet!”

“Consulting people about the banner design caused a lot of arguments,” said Dalmora. “I decided not to have any more discussions, and just ordered the design with all the small images and Petra facing away from the class. They’ve arrived incredibly quickly.”

“They were bound to arrive quickly,” said Krath cynically. “Making banners for Jarra and Fian’s class is a fantastic publicity opportunity for the banner suppliers.”

“They’re still too late though,” mourned Dalmora.

“No, they aren’t,” I said. “We can take the banners with us to the ceremony.”

“We can?” Dalmora brightened up. “Let’s unpack them.”

It only took a couple of minutes to unpack the banners and hand them out to our class, but there was another delay while everyone admired the woven design. Finally, Playdon, Fian, Raven, and I led the way along the dome corridor to the portal room. Colonel Leveque and General Torrek were there waiting for us.

Leveque gestured at the glowing portal. “You’ll be glad to hear that the rain has stopped in the area of the Dig Site Federation Americas graveyard. We’ve arranged a pre-empt that will send us directly to the main entrance, and from there it’s just a five-minute walk to Zone N grave K3.”

“If we’re going from the main entrance to Zone N grave K3, would it be possible to make a slight detour to go past Zone O grave M7?” asked Lecturer Playdon.

I was confused for a moment, but then the realization hit me. Lecturer Playdon’s wife had been killed at the California Rift. She’d obviously be buried at the Dig Site Federation Americas graveyard, and Playdon wouldn’t want to go there and not visit her grave.

Colonel Leveque was opening his mouth. I knew he’d say we should go the direct route, so I hastily spoke first.

“Yes, we can definitely make the detour.”

 

Part 18

 

Colonel Leveque, General Torrek, and Capria went through the portal in turn. Raven gestured that Fian and I should go next, and Fian adjusted the position of the backpack containing the tree on his shoulders before heading through the glowing ring, but I hesitated.

It was precisely one year and seven days since I’d been to the Dig Site Federation Americas graveyard for the Next of Kin burial ceremony. The reason I hadn’t returned since then wasn’t that I’d forgotten anything, but that I remembered too much.

Every detail of that day was etched into my brain. The friezes on the walls surrounding the main entrance portals. The softness of the rain-soaked grass beneath my feet as I walked up to the grave. The burning anger in my voice as I recited the words on the official memorial headstone. The icy gusts of wind blowing my hair into my eyes as I stood listening to the anthem. Not one of the later versions of the anthem, sung with altered words or no words at all. The Dig Site Federation always used the original anthem sung by the man who wrote it.

“Is there a problem?” asked Raven anxiously.

The problem was that I was having second thoughts about the wisdom of inviting all these people to the ceremony. Everyone seemed perfectly happy with the explanations they’d been given months ago. Why risk upsetting them with the rest of the story?

It was too late to change my mind now though, and I couldn’t stand dithering in front of this portal any longer. Playdon, Krath, Amalie, and Dalmora were giving me puzzled looks. The rest of the class and the Cassandra 2 team were queueing in the corridor waiting to get into the small portal room, and would be wondering what the delay was. General Torrek, Colonel Leveque, and Fian would be waiting at the graveyard main entrance and wondering that too.

“No, there’s nothing wrong.”

I took a deep breath, stepped through the portal, and it was as if I’d travelled back in time. Everything at the graveyard entrance was identical to my last visit. The three towering cream walls placed to form a triangle shape around the portals, each with a frieze showing a team at work on a dig site. The neatly mown grass that was drenched by recent rain. The cold gusts of wind tugging at my hair.

Actually, everything wasn’t identical. I moved clear of the paved semicircle that marked the portal arrival zone, to join the people already standing on the squelchy grass. There hadn’t been a General, a Colonel, and an assortment of Military Security officers here last time. There hadn’t been a handsome, blond-haired young man with a backpack that held a sapling tree, or an Adonis Knight bodyguard stepping out of the portal and anxiously looking around for threats. There’d just been me, Issette, and Keon. Three kids from a Hospital Earth Next Step wearing the closest thing we owned to formal clothes.

Now I was dressed in a Military uniform, had glowing lights under my skin, and was holding a Betan style banner in my right hand. Being in this place emphasized how much I’d changed in the last year. Even my name was different now.

I had a weirdly bereft moment. The Jarra Reeath that came to this graveyard last year had been so angry and so certain about everything. She knew exactly who she was and where she belonged. Now I was Jarra Tell Morrath, and I was no longer sure of anything. I’d left Next Step nearly a year ago, was about to leave the Asgard 6 class as well, and had no idea who or even what I was.

Could I really still claim to be an Earth girl when I had an implanted web that allowed me to travel to other worlds? In theory, I had a new identity as a Military Commander, a member of the Tell clan, and a Betan citizen. In reality, I still had so much to learn about the Military, my clan heritage, and Betan culture. Fian seemed to be adapting to everything far better than me.

I felt like I was up on Spire 152 again, had made the mistake of detaching myself from one piton before clipping myself onto the next, and was teetering on the edge of falling. I was losing my grip on the past, and had no firm hold on the future, because there was every chance that I wasn’t the original Jarra but merely her clone. I couldn’t even be sure that the me who entered a regrowth tank later today would be the one that was decanted from it tomorrow.

No, I mustn’t let myself start thinking about the clone issue now. I forced myself to focus on the practicalities of the ceremony ahead, and wondered where my other guests were. Gradin and Valeska would probably be doing the same as last time, and visiting some other graves before meeting me at Zone N grave K3, but Issette and Keon should be here. I was about to ask Colonel Leveque where they were, when I heard an excited yell.

“Jarra, Jarra, Jarra!” Issette appeared through the gap between two of the vast cream walls, and came running towards me, her hair even frizzier than usual from the wind, and her arms outstretched for a hug.

Fian hastily waved his banner at her. “Jarra’s injured, so you need to be a bit careful about touching her.”

Issette stopped in front of me, let her arms drop to her side, and gave Colonel Leveque a reproachful look. “Your message didn’t mention Jarra was injured. Why have you dragged her here, dressed in only a thin Military uniform? She must be freezing to death.”

Keon sauntered up to join us. “Having known Jarra all your life, you should realize that Leveque didn’t drag her here. The truth is that she dragged him here, along with a General, a mob of other Military officers, several fighter aircraft, the two of us, and a whole crowd of archaeologists.”

Keon gestured at where the rest of the Asgard 6 and Cassandra 2 team members were gradually appearing from the portal. “Jarra won’t be freezing to death either. That deceptively ordinary-looking Military uniform is made of a shockingly expensive fabric. It’s specially designed to maintain the wearer’s body temperature in a whole range of conditions, as well as protecting them from dangers such as fire and acid. I’d like to be wearing clothes made of it myself, rather than having to huddle in a thick coat, but Colonel Leveque keeps blocking my requisition requests.”

Leveque sighed. “Civilian Adviser Tanaka, you’ve already been issued with a set of civilian adviser uniforms made of that fabric.”

“Yes, but wearing any type of uniform is a symbolic submission to authority that cramps my creativity,” said Keon. “I don’t see why you’re making such a fuss about having a few clothes made for me. Jarra and Fian may have found the alien communication device, but I was the one who worked out how to use it to send the trigger signal to the sphere in orbit. It’s not unreasonable to ask for a few clothes as a reward.”

Leveque gave a second, even deeper sigh. “The Military has already rewarded you with a highly paid position, a house at Zulu base, your own research lab, and a team of research assistants. It is not providing you with an entire wardrobe of custom-made civilian clothes as well.”

“But it would be in the interests of …”

“Shut up, Keon!” said Issette. “Jarra’s injuries are far more important than you wanting some fancy new clothes. Capria, what’s happening about her medical treatment?”

I blinked. The casual way Issette asked that question showed she knew Capria well. How had they met? No, I was being a nardle, because the answer was obvious. Issette was living with Keon at Zulu base, while attending a University Earth Medical Foundation course at one of the Americas campuses. She’d naturally have visited me during my three months in a tank, and chatted to Capria about my care.

“As soon as this ceremony is over, we’ll be portalling Jarra to Zulu base for regrowth tank treatment,” said Capria.

I grimaced at the mention of the regrowth tank. “I’m still not convinced I need to go in a tank. When Krath got a metal shard through his upper arm in the dome bombing, he just had a grey regrowth unit wrapped around it.”

“You’ve got other injuries than just a broken arm though, Jarra,” objected Fian.

I shrugged. “Nothing serious.”

Issette thrust her hand into the pocket of the coat she was wearing. I was utterly grazzed to see her take out a medical scanner, wave it at me with a professional air, and then study the screen.

“You’ve got a fracture of your left humerus bone that’s been stabilized in plaster, two broken ribs, and an emergency-patched puncture of your left lung.”

I gasped. “How do you know all that?”

Issette gave me a withering look. “I’m only a few weeks away from completing my Medical Foundation year. Of course I can do a basic patient triage assessment.”

She paused to study the screen again. “I’d definitely class your punctured lung as serious. You need regrowth tank treatment to ensure no weakness is left that could cause you problems in future. You shouldn’t need more than twenty-four hours in the tank though.”

I gave a depressed groan.

“You should consider having some treatment on your left little finger at the same time,” added Issette. “It looks as if you had it severed in an accident and regrown three or four years ago when your body was still developing. That left it with unstable connections that give only 90 per cent function. Now you’re adult, you could have the finger removed and regrown again to give perfect function.”

I winced. Ever since I was fifteen, officious medics had been telling me about this problem with my left little finger, and as soon as I was adult they’d moved on to suggesting I had it removed and regrown. I automatically gave Issette the same answer that I’d given them.

“No, thank you. I’m perfectly happy with the finger I’ve got.”

Issette lifted her head and gave me the hard stare that she saved for when I was badly in the wrong about something. “Whether you have your little finger regrown or not is your decision. What I want to know is why you’ve never told me you’d injured it.”

I cowered. “The accident happened when we were fifteen years old. I was on a trip with the school history club at the time, and didn’t say anything about my finger when I came back to Next Step because … Well, the accident was entirely my own fault, and I didn’t want Cathan finding out what had happened and making fun of me.”

Issette gave a judicious nod of her head as if she accepted that excuse. “Cathan is thoroughly odious, so he’d have kept teasing you about your finger for months. I never understood why you agreed to start boy and girling with him at the Year Day 2788 party.”

I didn’t want to discuss my short-lived and ghastly relationship with Cathan in front of a growing audience of Asgard 6 and Cassandra 2 team members.

“Everyone makes mistakes,” I said, and dragged the subject firmly back to my little finger. “The accident happened because all the girls were wearing those glittery snake-shaped rings that year. Candace gave me one as a present, and I knew perfectly well it was dangerous to wear jewellery under an impact suit, but I forgot to take the ring off before going to work on the dig site one morning. I got caught by some falling rocks, my suit triggered, the fabric crushed my ring into my finger, and …”

I broke off as the crucial point finally hit me. If my left little finger had the identical problem that it had had for the last few years, then it meant it was the finger that had been regrown when I was fifteen, in which case …

I wasn’t a clone! A newly grown replacement clone would have a perfectly functioning left little finger. Even if Colonel Leveque had thought of that trivial detail, it would have been impossible to replicate the finger problem exactly.

If any Military doctor had told me about the 90% function in my finger, I’d have considered the possibility that Leveque had ordered them to lie about it, but Issette would never lie to me. Besides, there was no reason for Leveque to make people lie about the state of my finger. It would have been far simpler and safer for him to tell me that my finger had been removed and regrown to give it perfect function during my three months in a tank.

I was me. The original Jarra Tell Morrath. The girl who had once been called Jarra Reeath, had locked evil nurse Cass in the linen store room at Nursery, and had lived in a neighbouring room to Issette all through Home and Next Step.

The world seemed to recede away from me for a moment as I absorbed that crucial fact. Issette said something that I missed entirely, and then Keon started talking again.

“I don’t know why you’re complaining about Jarra not telling you about an accident when we were fifteen. You should be complaining about the far more important fact that she dragged the two of us here at the crack of dawn.”

I gave a vague look up at the sky. There’d been occasions in the past when I’d messed up calculating the five hour time difference between Earth Europe and Earth America, but I could see a bright patch among the thick clouds that was well above the horizon, so it must be well after dawn.

Issette confirmed my thoughts. “It’s nearly ten in the morning.”

“Which is the crack of dawn,” said Keon. “I don’t usually get up until at least noon.”

“I’m fully aware of that,” said Colonel Leveque. “There’s a significant possibility that your research assistants would die of shock if you appeared in your laboratory as early as ten in the morning.”

“As I’ve explained to you repeatedly,” said Keon, “my research assistants are perfectly capable of carrying out all the routine experiments unsupervised. You’re paying me to get the sort of flashes of brilliant inspiration that let Jarra and Fian activate the pedestal, and I get more of those lying in bed than standing around in a laboratory.”

He paused to stab a finger at me. “You tell him, Jarra.”

I shook my head. “I’m staying out of this.”

“But …”

“Shut up, Keon!” Issette had said the words solo last time, but now we chorused them in unison.

“It’s always the same,” complained Keon. “The second you two get together, you start ganging up on me.”

Laughter bubbled out of me. This exchange between me, Issette, and the legendarily lazy Keon Tanaka was just like dozens we’d had in the past. I was myself, the real Jarra, and rejoicing in the glorious familiarity of it.

I opened my mouth to say something, but was distracted by the sound of engines overhead. The two prototype aircraft came into view, and hovered over us, with more standard black fighters moving into formation above them. There was a repeat of what I’d seen back at Berlin Main Dig Site, with the energy shields appearing around each prototype, and whirling in rainbow colours.

I expected the colours to settle down so that one ship was shimmering gold and the other silver, but instead their shields changed to mimic two vast multi-coloured birds in flight. I gazed up at them in awe for several seconds before I realized that I’d seen a bird like that before. This was the phoenix image from a laser light sculpture Keon had created last year. I turned to give him a stunned look.

“That’s the bird from your ‘Phoenix Rising’ light sculpture. You helped design the shields on those prototypes.”

“Yes, I helped design them, but I still don’t know why I did it. Apparently, that’s classified information.” Keon threw an aggrieved look at Leveque. “Do you know why the Military need a specialist type of fighter shield that can display light sculptures, Jarra?”

“I’ve no idea why the Military need them,” I said, “but they’re totally, totally zan. Sometimes I think you’re nearly as brilliant as you keep saying you are.”

“Don’t encourage Keon,” said Issette sternly. “He’s already impossible to live with.”

Everyone from both Asgard 6 and Cassandra 2 had come through the portal now, and was staring up at the magical sight above. The spectacle lasted thirty seconds longer before the shields rippled through the rainbow again and then changed so one ship was silver and one was gold. There was a soft sigh from everyone present except Keon.

“I see Drago Tell Dramis has finished showing off,” he said sourly.

Fian frowned at him. “Drago wasn’t showing off. He and Marlise knew you were here, so they used the phoenix image to honour your achievement of designing the shields.”

Keon gave a grudging grunt that could be interpreted as acceptance.

I felt it was time we started moving, but several members of the Asgard 6 class were having problems with their banners. There was another delay while Lolia and Lolmack, the original two Betans in our class, demonstrated the correct way to extend the pole of the banner, lock it into place, and carry it one-handed. Finally, we formed up into a ragged procession, with Lecturer Playdon at the front, and General Torrek and Colonel Leveque at the end of the line.

There was a path going through each of the three gaps in the cream walls. One headed to Zone E with the graves of University Earth archaeologists, one to Zone N with the Next of Kin graves, and one to Zone O with the graves of off-world archaeologists. Playdon led the way along the path to Zone O.

I’d gone straight to Zone N last time I was here, so was startled to see the wild variety of memorials from the different worlds of humanity. Garish jewelled mosaics, plain black marble, ancient styled statues, and unnervingly realistic human faces were all jumbled together. Playdon took a couple of turnings along narrower paths before stopping by a grave with what looked almost like an ancient Greek statue. A girl sculpted in white marble, wearing an impact suit with the hood down, was standing on a pedestal that had two life-size handprints inlaid in gold.

The Cassandra 2 team members lined up along the edge of the path facing the grave, while the rest of us stood behind them. Rono was blocking my view, so I shuffled sideways to look through the gap between him and Jerez. I saw Playdon go to kneel on the wet grass in front of the statue, and place his hand on the larger of the gold handprints.

I was close enough to Jerez to overhear her depressed murmur to Rono. “Dannel’s not getting any better.”

“We’re going to Zeta sector,” Rono’s whispered reply sounded much more optimistic. “Dannel will have all the excitement of excavating alien ruins to distract him, and if you give him a little encouragement then …”

“I’m not encouraging Dannel Playdon,” hissed Jerez firmly. “The man’s a walking disaster area. Just look at him kneeling in front of that statue. After everything Cadee put him through, he’s still determined to keep her on a pedestal while he grovels before her.”

I frowned. That comment seemed to mean Cadee was nothing like I’d imagined. I wanted to ask questions about her but daren’t. Neither Jerez nor Rono had been aware that I was close enough to hear their whispered exchange.

Playdon got back to his feet, carefully brushed away the fragments of grass that clung to his clothes, walked back to us, and the procession reformed. I was unnerved to discover I was at the front now. It made perfect sense that everyone had expected Playdon to lead the way to his wife’s grave, and now expected me to lead the way to my Next of Kin grave, but there was one small snag. I’d only come to this graveyard once before, and had no idea where we were now.

I tapped at my lookup, displayed a holo map of the graveyard, and highlighted Zone O grave M7 and Zone N grave K3. They were startlingly close together. It was curious to think that Playdon and I had been linked all this time by graves that were just a few minutes’ walk away from each other.

I lifted my head again. “I think we should keep going along this path, and take a right turn to cut across to Zone N.”

I started walking, with Fian on one side of me, Raven on the other, and Issette and Keon immediately behind us. As soon as we turned right to cross the expanse of grass between Zone O and Zone N, I spotted my Next of Kin grave in the distance to my left. It was one of the newest graves, in the row running along the edge of Zone N. Every Next of Kin grave had an identical official memorial stone, made of marble with an inlaid metal plaque, but mine was impossible to miss because there was a two-seater civilian aircraft parked nearby on the grass. Gradin and Valeska hadn’t portalled to the graveyard this time but flown here.

I realized that I knew that aircraft extremely well, and had an immediate worrying suspicion. Could Gradin have …? Rather than walk straight across the grass towards the grave, I kept following the path, and a couple of minutes later I had a view of the other side of the aircraft that confirmed my worst fears.

I grimaced, kept walking until I reached the first Zone N graves, and then turned left. Now we were on a path that ran between rows J and K. Some of the graves lining this path were still awaiting a personal memorial from the Next of Kin, so just had the elegant but impersonal official marble memorial stone. Most had items encased in clear protective flexiplas in front of them though.

I noticed a tag gun, probably the one a tag leader was using when they found the remains. Another grave had a stasis box, the fuzzy black stasis field still active inside the flexiplas coating, and a third a battered dataview. Others had items that gave no clue to why they would have special meaning to the Next of Kin. A single glove. A lump of concraz. A strand of ribbon.

Fian was looking anxiously at a grave that had a neatly trimmed green shrub planted in front of it. “Won’t your tree grow a bit big to be that close to a grave?”

“In the case of living tree memorials, a miniature replica of the tree gets put in front of the grave. Like that one.” I pointed at a grave ahead of us that had a small bronze tree. “That’s why the custodian needed a holo of my tree so that she could print the replica. The tree itself gets planted somewhere nearby.”

“Ugh,” said Fian.

I frowned at him. “What’s wrong with having a replica tree in front of …”

I broke off, realizing that Fian wasn’t looking at the grave with the model tree, but the grave next to it. That had an item where the special significance to the Next of Kin was only too obvious. A human foot.

As we walked on, I couldn’t help pausing to give the thing a horrified look, and discovered Issette was studying it with a professional air. “Someone did a good job embalming that foot,” she said. “Did you have your amputated finger preserved to keep as a souvenir, Jarra?”

“No, I didn’t.” I shuddered.

“Issette’s got dreadfully ghoulish since she started her Medical Foundation course,” complained Keon.

“No, I haven’t,” said Issette.

“Yes, you have!” For once, the standard routine was reversed, with Keon and me saying the words in unison, and Issette pulling a wounded face at us.

As we walked on, I heard the people following behind make a series of revolted noises as they passed the human foot. My Next of Kin grave was just ahead of me now, and I was relieved to see that the nearby graves had such innocuous personal items as an embroidered scarf, a fragment of an ancient vase, and a painfully amateur painting of a dig site.

The custodian and two assistants were standing by the grave waiting for me, while several Military Security officers were lurking inconspicuously nearby. Inevitably, Gradin came hurrying over before the custodian had the chance to say anything.

He was wearing an official Dig Site Federation pilot’s impact suit, just as Major Maven had done earlier, but there was no doubt about this being the genuine Gradin. He had his hood down, was running his hands through the sandy hair that was speckled with grey despite regular rejuvenation treatments, and had his habitual scowl on his face.

“Oh chaos, it’s Jarra Reeath,” Gradin announced, his voice carefully calculated to be loud enough for the people at the back of the procession to hear him.

I braced myself for the inevitable. I knew it was impossible to stop Gradin from saying something embarrassing, so my best tactic was to get it over with as quickly as possible. Whatever Gradin said, I wouldn’t say a word in response, just continue with the ceremony.

“You never stop wrecking my life, do you?” demanded Gradin. “First, you forced me to marry Valeska, and then you gate-crashed my honeymoon.”

I forgot my plan to stay silent and gave him an outraged look. “I never forced you to marry Valeska.”

“You helped her corner me so she could propose marriage.”

“I had no idea Valeska was planning to propose marriage, you didn’t have to agree to marry her, and it wasn’t my fault I gate-crashed your honeymoon either.”

The sudden turning of heads among the watching crowd, and the awed expressions appearing on faces, told me that Valeska was walking towards us. I turned to look at her myself, and saw she was wearing her dramatic, red and white chequered impact suit, with the hood down to reveal her famous face with its halo of closely-trimmed fair hair. She gave everyone one of her bewitchingly generous smiles, and I grabbed my chance to make some introductions.

“Everyone, this is Professor Valeska Orlova, who was senior team leader of University Earth Archaeological Research Team 1 for over two decades before retiring last year.”

Keren took a dazed step forward from the crowd and started babbling words. “Professor Orlova, I’ve been following your exploits ever since my student days. I’ve seen every vid of you working on dig sites, and heard all the stories about you, but I never thought I’d have the honour of meeting you in person.”

“Those stories are all greatly exaggerated,” said Valeska, in a confiding voice. “I hope you aren’t too disappointed by the reality.”

“Oh no,” said Keren. “I’m not disappointed. Not disappointed at all.”

Keren stood there in silence for a while longer, looking as if he was going to stand there hero-worshipping Valeska all day. Rono eventually came to whisper something in Keren’s ear, coaxed him back into the crowd, and then Gradin coughed pointedly.

I hastily moved on to introducing him. “And this is Valeska’s husband, George Gradin.”

“And that’s one of the reasons I hate being married to Valeska,” said Gradin bitterly. “Do you have any idea how irritating it is to keep being introduced as someone’s husband? I’m a person, not an accessory!”

“George Gradin taught me to fly,” I added wearily. “He’s a brilliant pilot.”

Gradin made a disgruntled sound, clearly feeling I should have said something far more fulsome than just describing him as a brilliant pilot, but Valeska laughed at him. “Stop complaining, George. You know perfectly well that you adore being married to me.”

“No, I don’t,” said Gradin. “I didn’t adore teaching Jarra to fly either. It was a nightmare experience. Constant giggles, endless history lectures, not to mention the way she kept crashing my plane.”

Gradin jerked a thumb in the direction of the aircraft, which had a long scrape running the length of one side. “As you can see, after the second crash, I decided not to bother doing any more repairs.”

Fian had been staring at Valeska like everyone else, but turned to frown at the aircraft before raising his eyebrows at me. I made frantic hand gestures trying to indicate that what Gradin had said wasn’t entirely true, and the bits that were true were perfectly explainable. Judging from the look on Fian’s face, I wasn’t entirely successful. Not surprising. That was a lot to communicate with gestures if you had two working hands, and I only had one.

“The real reason George hasn’t had that aircraft repaired was that it gave him an excuse to talk about teaching Jarra Tell Morrath to fly,” said Valeska. “He’s very proud of you, Jarra. He says that you’re one of only three pilots he’s ever taught that had any real ability.”

Gradin ignored her comment. “But making me teach her to fly, crashing my aircraft, and forcing me into marrying Valeska wasn’t enough for Jarra. She had to drag me into joining the Alien Contact programme as well.”

“I had absolutely nothing to do with you joining the Alien Contact programme,” I said indignantly.

“Yes, you did!” said Gradin.

“But I didn’t know the Military were recruiting Earth archaeologists and dig site pilots to advise them until earlier today, let alone that you and Valeska had volunteered.”

“That’s typical of you,” said Gradin gloomily. “You don’t even need to know about something to create havoc. When the Military asked for volunteers, Valeska made a huge fuss about wanting us to apply. Given the hundreds of official reprimands on my Dig Site Federation pilot record, I thought the Military would never select us, so I took the easy option of agreeing.”

He glowered in the direction of General Torrek. “But then we got called in by General Torrek. He said that the Military was willing to overlook certain issues with my record because of my long history of doing rescue work and the fact I’d taught you to fly. Why did you tell the Military about me teaching you to fly, Jarra?”

“I’m not sure that I did tell the Military that,” I said, in bewilderment. “I might have mentioned it in front of Raven, but …”

“It wasn’t Jarra that told the Military you’d taught her to fly, George,” interrupted Valeska. “It was me. I included it in our application.”

“That can’t be right,” said Gradin. “I checked that application myself, and there wasn’t a word about Jarra.”

Valeska gave him a pitying look. “I added the bit about Jarra after you’d checked the application.”

“What?” Gradin gave Valeska an outraged look. “How could you do this to me? It’s even worse than when you dragged me to that re-enactment of the battle of Gettysburg, and Theo Westlake shot me!”

“For the thousandth time, Theo Westlake never shot you. The rifle was loaded with blanks, and he was very apologetic about accidentally firing it and frightening you.”

“Theo Westlake didn’t fire that rifle by accident,” said Gradin cynically. “He was jealous of me being your partner at the re-enactment dance, and deliberately tried to scare me to death.”

Valeska took his arm. “But you won in the end, George. You married me!”

Gradin gave Valeska a triumphant and revealingly doting look. “Yes, and I’m making sure that Theo Westlake can’t forget it. I’m sending him a message every week, with an image of the two of us together.”

His face abruptly reverted to its normal grumpy expression. “The fact I’m enjoying making Theo Westlake suffer is irrelevant though. You deliberately sneaked that information about Jarra onto our Alien Contact application!”

“True, but I was acting in your best interests when I did it,” said Valeska soothingly. “I knew how much you’d enjoy giving lectures to Military fighter pilots about dig site rescue work, and using all your own amaz deeds as examples. You have to admit I was right too. You’re loving every moment of it.”

“I’m not admitting anything.” Gradin turned to stab a finger at Fian. “You’re the poor misguided fool who agreed to get betrothed to Jarra, aren’t you? You’ve no idea what lies ahead of you. That girl is nearly as bad as Valeska, so I suggest you turn around and start running right now.”

Fian laughed. “Thank you, but I know exactly what I’m doing.”

“I think you’ve enjoyed yourself showing off for long enough now, George,” said Valeska cheerfully. “It’s time for us to fade quietly into the background, and for chaos sake try to be respectful during the ceremony.”

“You don’t need to tell me to …”

Valeska grabbed Gradin’s arm and towed him away to the back of the crowd. The curator threw a single grazzed look after them, before coming forward, accepting the backpack from Fian, and taking out the tree to study it.

“The tree has been struggling to survive halfway up a skyscraper,” I said anxiously, “and it got a bit damaged in a missile attack. To make things worse, it’s only a sapling. Do you think it will survive?”

“It will definitely survive, Commander,” said the curator. “The fact it’s still a sapling rather than a mature tree will help its recovery. This species should be perfectly suitable for the conditions here, but I’ll take the precaution of erecting a small bio-dome over it until it’s well-established. Please come with me.”

I followed her across the grass, while everyone else stayed by the grave. The curator’s assistants took up positions next to a small hole in the ground.

“Please put your tree in place, Commander,” said the curator.

I cautiously knelt down and put the tree in the hole. The two assistants knelt as well, and one took hold of the trunk of the tree, while the other started putting earth around its roots. I stood up again, and backed away to watch them finish the planting work with meticulous care. Finally, they offered me a tiny ceremonial jug, and I poured a little water at the base of my tree, before one of the assistants moved in with a far larger, battered watering can.

I felt my tree looked confused by all the attention, and by having proper soil around its roots instead of some stray debris. Once it got over the shock, I thought it would like it here though. The curator was clearly determined to make sure it lived, so it would be given fertilizer and everything else it needed, and there were some other recently planted saplings nearby so it wouldn’t be lonely.

“Good luck, tree,” I said, and turned to walk back to join the others at the graveside.

“Is that it?” asked Krath. “It doesn’t seem much of a ceremony.”

I sighed. “That was just planting the tree. The ceremony happens next.”

I saw Fian was frowning at the inscription on the official memorial plaque. “A mother who fought for her child,” he read. “What does that mean, Jarra?”

I grimaced. “I have to make a speech as part of the ceremony, so I’ll be explaining the inscription to everyone in a moment.”

 

Part 19

 

There was a pause while the custodian organized everyone into a neat formation facing the grave, with the Asgard 6 class holding their banners. Finally satisfied, she turned to beckon me forward to stand by the memorial stone.

At the burial ceremony last November, my speech had been short, angry, and didn’t explain anything because the four people listening to me already knew exactly what had happened. This time I had to explain both what had happened back then, and how the last year had changed things, and it wasn’t easy to find the right words to do that. I was notoriously bad at discussing emotional stuff, and there really wasn’t a good way to tell people who were now my friends that I’d only met them out of hatred.

My stomach churned with nerves as I looked at the rows of expectant faces. I was mostly explaining this for the benefit of the Asgard 6 and Cassandra 2 team members, so I started where the story began for them.

“When I first joined the Asgard 6 class, I was lying to everyone, pretending to be the normal born kid of Military parents. After the Solar 5 rescue, Fian told you the truth. I wasn’t normal born, but an …”

I hesitated, on the brink of using one of the old insults for those born with a faulty immune system. A year ago, those words were being used on every off-world newzie and vid ent channel, hammering home the message that everyone born with my problem was ugly, smelly, and stupid. We’d been the targets of all the comedians’ jokes, ridiculed as not just being second-class citizens but less evolved semi-human throwbacks. A burden on society, who had to be cared for by a benevolent Hospital Earth because we weren’t capable of caring for ourselves.

That constant repetition didn’t just affect the off-worlders’ view of us, but our view of ourselves, and I felt that the official term, Handicapped, had been the most damaging of all. It told us that this wasn’t just a few unthinking people using insults. Society itself was dismissing us with that cold, unfeeling word.

I’d reacted by using the worst of the insults myself, trying to prove that the hurtful words had no power over me, but I’d stopped that now. Fian and my other off-world friends got distressed when they heard me do it, and it couldn’t wipe out the scars left by my upbringing.

The whole situation had changed now anyway. In the past, only off-worlders who’d come to Earth to work in history or medicine had seen the reality behind the insulting jokes. Now the blaze of publicity surrounding me had led to other people with immune system problems appearing on the newzies. Most off-worlders had rethought their opinions, and there was a new officially approved phrase which referred to a person having Novak-Nadal Syndrome.

There were still people who clung to their old prejudices. They had to use the insults in private now, rather than openly on the vid channels, but their sneering tones could make any word, however polite, into something that screamed contempt. They were the minority though.

I started my sentence again. “Fian told you that I wasn’t normal born, but an Earth girl with a faulty immune system. I wish I could have told you that myself, but I was in a regrowth tank having my burnt leg fixed. The newzies were making a lot of fuss about the injured rescuers, especially me, so Fian had to talk to you before some nosy reporter found out the truth.”

My voice was getting husky, so I moistened my lips. “What I did was never as important as the reason I did it though. Fian couldn’t tell you that part of the story because he didn’t know it himself. When he found out the truth, I had to explain a lot of things to him. I must have mentioned I was bitterly angry when I put in my application, but I didn’t explain the full story behind it. He was more interested in discussing how to get me out of the mess I’d made than asking questions about why I’d got into it.”

I stared down at my miniature tree. “I thought that once things got back to normal, Fian would ask me more about my reasons for applying to University Asgard and pretending I was a norm, but he didn’t. The rest of you haven’t asked any questions about it either. I don’t know why.”

“We didn’t need to ask why you’d applied to University Asgard,” said Akram. “The answer was obvious. You wanted a better education than you could get from University Earth. The reason you’d lied to us was obvious too. You knew how people like Petra would react to the truth.”

Laik nodded eagerly. “When Fian told us what you’d done, I thought you’d behaved badly, but then Petra began trying to drive you out of the class and … Well, I’d suffered some bullying myself at school, so I could understand why you’d tried lying to protect yourself.”

“I can see why off-world students on a Pre-history Foundation course would believe that explanation,” said Keren, “but there’s a major flaw in your logic. The old prejudices against those born with immune system problems led to people dismissing University Earth as just giving a token pretence of an education, but that’s utterly and completely wrong.”

“Off-world universities may offer a better education in some subjects,” said Rono, “but University Earth is unrivalled in its specialist areas of pre-history and medicine. All the rediscoveries of ancient knowledge lost in the Earth data net crash have come from artefacts discovered on dig sites run by University Earth’s Dig Site Federation. About half of those artefacts were found by University Earth’s own teams, and every single one of the evaluations was carried out by their wide range of specialist experts.”

“University Earth’s researchers lead the way in developing new medical techniques as well,” added Katt. “Jarra’s social revolution means Earth is finally getting some recognition for its massive contribution to human knowledge, and the major award committees are finally considering the work of University Earth’s researchers.”

She laughed. “Some of the famous names in off-world research are extremely nervous about having to face that sort of competition on equal terms.”

“Everyone on Cassandra 2 has spent months wondering how you ended up in the Asgard 6 class, Jarra,” said Stephan. “Why would an Earth girl, who’d spent years doing excavation work on school trips, want to join a class of totally inexperienced off-world students? University Earth does exactly the same Foundation course, using the same facilities on the same dig sites, and you’d have been able to work with other students who shared your dig site skills.”

Jerez nodded. “The more we learned about you, the less we understood your decision to apply to University Asgard. You’d been steadfastly working towards a career as a research archaeologist with University Earth for years, so it made no sense that you’d suddenly throw all that effort into jeopardy by applying to an off-world university.”

Rono glanced at Playdon. “Dannel was utterly confused as well, but he refused to ask you to explain, and he wouldn’t let us ask you questions either.”

“It would have been totally inappropriate for me to pressure one of my students into answering intrusive personal questions,” said Playdon, “and I certainly couldn’t permit members of a research team from another university to do it.”

“Can we please let Jarra explain what really happened now?” asked Stephan plaintively. “I’m dying of curiosity here.”

Everyone quietened down and looked expectantly at me.

“I wasn’t nardle enough to apply to an off-world university expecting a better education,” I said. “I’ve delayed explaining my real reason until the very last minute because I find it hard to talk about emotional stuff. Perhaps I shouldn’t explain my reason at all, because I don’t know how you’ll react, but … Well, just look at the images around the edge of my banner.”

I brandished the banner I was holding in my right hand. “Each image is of an event that impacted the lives of everyone in the Asgard 6 class, and some of them affected the Cassandra 2 team members as well. Many of these events, like the bombing, only happened because I applied to University Asgard, so you’ve got a right to know the reason I made that decision. You may hate me when you hear it, but I’m hoping that being here at this graveside will help you understand.”

I took a deep breath. “This all started when Gradin agreed to teach me to fly last summer. I began my lessons just before the Earth Europe school summer break, when Gradin and I spent some time at Athens fighting a forest fire.”

“You were up in one of the fire planes helping at Athens?” asked a startled Rono. “Cassandra 2 was firefighting on the ground there, and …”

“Shut up, Rono!” said Stephan firmly. “Let Jarra explain without interrupting.”

“After the firefighting in Athens, I went to spend the summer break at New York Fringe Dig Site with my school history club,” I said. “Gradin was based at New York Fringe as well, doing a full aerial survey, so I was able to have plenty of flying time. Then Fringe had to close for a couple of weeks, and I ended up having my final flying lessons on the part of the Americas coastline that’s nearest to Thaddeus Carmichael Wallam-Crane’s Atlantis Humanity Habitat project.”

I tensed as I got to the difficult bit. “Atlantis was supposed to be a closed, self-sufficient habitat under the ocean, but construction was abandoned after the invention of interstellar portals. All that’s left now is an artificial reef system and a few off-shore emergency access towers. I was on the coastline, at the point people call the shores of Atlantis, because you can look out at the ocean and see the old Atlantis access towers, when I stumbled across some human remains among the trees.”

I shook my head. “To begin with, I didn’t recognize what I was looking at, and once I’d brushed the soil from the skull … Well, touching the bones made me the person’s Next of Kin. It wasn’t a standard dig site setting, but Valeska and Gradin were there to support me, and the Dig Site Federation sent an archaeological research team in to collect the remains. It was obvious how the person had died because …”

My voice was shaking, so I had to stop talking for a moment. Valeska gave me a questioning look, I nodded, and she stepped forward to support me in the way she’d done when I found the remains.

“There was a hole in the front of the skull,” she said, in a calm neutral voice. “It was clear the person had been shot in the head by a primitive projectile weapon. Finding someone who’d died violently wouldn’t have been unusual in one of the ancient cities where there’d been fighting on the barricades. It was odd in a location that wild though.”

She pulled a face. “I suspected what we were dealing with, but kept quiet because I didn’t want to distress Jarra until it was confirmed.”

She turned back to me, and I continued telling the story myself. “The remains were sent off to the Dig Site Federation experts for detailed analysis. The person had died on the shores of the Americas, so I felt they should be buried in this graveyard rather than the one nearer my Next Step in Europe. I expected to get a copy of the Dig Site Federation report within a month or two, and then be able to go ahead with the burial.”

I paused. “But the report didn’t come as quickly as I’d expected. I contacted the Dig Site Federation, and they said there was a delay because they needed to perform additional searches of the area where the remains were found.”

I ran my right hand through my hair. “The report finally arrived in November of last year. The bones were those of a woman. The experts hadn’t been able to discover her identity, but they’d worked out the year she’d died and the reason she’d been shot.”

My voice was wavering again. Valeska gave me another questioning look, but I shook my head this time.

“I need to go back in time to the start of Exodus century to explain this,” I said. “Two of the first colonists portalled from Earth to Adonis died on arrival. Doctors worked out it was due to an immune system failure, and bounceback protocols were brought in. Anyone arriving on a new world who showed signs of distress was immediately returned to Earth.”

I paused. “The first baby born on Adonis with immune system problems was lucky that their midwife had spent time on bounceback duty, recognized the symptoms, and managed to get him through an interstellar portal to Earth in time to save his life. After that, all off-world maternity hospitals set up systems to rush the one in a thousand babies to Earth.”

I grimaced. “Those systems worked smoothly enough for the Alpha sector worlds within interstellar portal range of Earth, but it got far more difficult when more distant worlds started being colonized. The technology to relay portal signals through a succession of portals hadn’t yet been invented. Hospitals had medics standing by, ready to sprint through a succession of interstellar portals, carrying dying babies to Earth. Those medics had priority over all other travellers, and the babies had some precious extra minutes because of the effect of their mother’s immune system, but the dialling time for multiple interstellar portal trips meant increasing numbers of babies still didn’t make it alive.”

I could feel moisture on my face and wanted to wipe it away, but my left arm was in plaster, and my right was holding my banner. I just had to ignore it and keep speaking.

“By the end of Exodus century, humanity was in a dreadful situation. People were scattered across five hundred new colony worlds. A depopulated Earth hadn’t been capable of building new interstellar portals for decades, the existing ones were breaking down from old age, and none of the colony worlds was established enough to cope alone.”

“Civilization was on the brink of total collapse on five hundred worlds, but Beta sector saved humanity.” said Lolmack proudly. “Fidelis!”

I nodded. I still had a vast amount to learn about my clan history. The Tell clan archives held a lot of personal accounts of major events written by my ancestors. Those didn’t just go as far back as the founding of the Tell clan by Tellon Blaze, but to the origins of the Blaze clan before that, even including accounts written at the end of Exodus century.

One day, I’d spend time reading those personal accounts. Given the chimera were lurking somewhere in Zeta sector, I’d already looked for one account in particular, and been deeply disappointed to discover it didn’t exist. There was no personal account of the chimera wars by Tellon Blaze. Presumably, Tellon Blaze had felt that he’d done enough by saving the human race from annihilation, and shouldn’t have to spend time writing about it as well.

It suddenly occurred to me that once the full truth about Fortuna was public, Military Security might allow me to add my own personal accounts to those in the Tell clan archive. That was an unnerving idea. Some of the later accounts had been written just for myself, so I’d included some very intimate personal details. I could take out all of those bits, but then it wouldn’t be a personal account any longer.

Well, I could work out what to do about that later. For the moment, I was still learning the basics about my clan, and recovering from the shock of seeing the Tell clan family tree, my family tree, with the names of Tellon Blaze’s ancestors emblazoned in red at the top.

“Some of my own ancestors were involved in the Fidelis Project,” I said. “That succeeded in preventing a total collapse of civilization by building new, simpler interstellar portals, but humanity was still struggling to survive and rebuild for the following century. There were a host of problems. The simpler interstellar portals built by the Fidelis Project had a much shorter range than the original ones. Half of human knowledge had been lost in the Earth data net crash of 2409. Worst of all, there was the problem of regaining contact with worlds that had been cut off when the last of their interstellar portals failed. In some case, it didn’t just need conventional interstellar portals to regain contact, but drop portal technology as well.”

“My home planet, Beowulf, was the first colony world to be cut off from humanity by its interstellar portals failing,” said Kai, in a mourning voice. “It was too far from any other colony world for the new portals to reach it, so my people were left isolated and fighting to survive for nearly a hundred years. Many of them died.”

I winced. “Yes, and those deaths would have included every baby born on Beowulf with immune system problems. Without any way to portal them to Earth, they had no chance at all. Even on worlds that still had working interstellar portals, increasing numbers of babies with immune system problems were dying before they reached Earth. The Fidelis project helped the situation by building new interstellar portals, but their shorter range meant even more interstellar portal jumps were needed for the journey.”

I paused. “Medics had to stop carrying babies to Earth themselves. Instead, maternity hospitals employed professionally trained runners, who would take special medication to help them endure the effects of making multiple interstellar jumps in rapid succession. The runners were only paid to rush a baby to one of the Earth Off-worlds, where medical staff would give it basic medical treatment before dumping it at some random Earth settlement. Some of them started offering extra services to parents though.”

“Oh, no.” Keren buried his face in his hands. “I know where this story is going now. Runners and changelings.”

Rono gave him a bewildered look. “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

Keren lifted his head again. “There’s an old saying that history is written by the victors. The problem isn’t just that victors can write distorted accounts of historical events, but that they can systematically erase embarrassing truths. Most of you won’t know about runners and changelings, because centuries ago all the off-world schools and universities stopped teaching students about it.”

Keren waved his hands. “Once it reached the point that those doing the teaching had never heard about it, the whole changeling era was forgotten. The only reason I know about it was that a member of an Earth research team explained it to me years ago, just before punching me on the jaw.”

“He punched you?” Rono gave Keren a stunned look. “Why?”

“The man was incredibly drunk and justifiably angry,” said Keren. “He punched me because I’d said something tactless and he was in the same situation as Jarra. A Next of Kin who’d buried a murdered woman. Hopefully, Jarra will explain about runners and changelings without punching anyone.”

“I think I did my equivalent of punching you all when I applied to University Asgard,” I said ruefully. “Well, by about 2420, the professional runners had everything organized. There wasn’t time to negotiate prices when a baby was dying, so they made the arrangements with anxious expectant parents in advance. It was presented as an insurance policy, guaranteeing your baby extra care if it turned out to be among the unlucky one in a thousand.”

I paused. “The extra care package meant the runner wouldn’t just toss the baby through a portal to the medical staff on Earth and go home. They’d portal to Earth with the baby and make sure it received the best possible medical care. Once it was fully recovered, they’d arrange for a specially vetted adoption, and finally return to give the parents photo evidence of their baby being happy, healthy, and in good hands.”

I sighed. “And I’ve no objection to any of that. These insurance policies were very cheap, because the runners only had to perform their promised service for one in a thousand births, and they did everything possible to get the babies to Earth alive. It was in their best interests to do that, because runners with a history of past successes could charge a higher price for their services.”

My voice rose in anger. “The problem was that some runners offered an additional service. They wouldn’t just bring back photo evidence of the original baby’s wellbeing from Earth, but a replacement baby with a similar appearance as well.”

“What?” gasped Dalmora. “How could they bring replacement babies?”

“The runners explained it to their customers by claiming that most adults still living on Earth had immune system problems that limited their intelligence,” I said bitterly. “Such people naturally found it hard to cope when they had a much brighter, normal born baby, so would happily exchange it for a baby of their own kind.”

I gave a furious shake of my head. “That explanation meant expectant parents saw nothing wrong in paying more for the additional service. If the worst happened, then they wouldn’t be left with an empty cradle and the embarrassment of telling family and friends what had happened. They’d have a changeling baby to pass off as their own, and the satisfaction of knowing they were helping both themselves and some unknown parents on Earth by giving a normal born baby a chance of a proper life.”

“You mean that’s how all the prejudice against people born with immune system problems started?” demanded Fian. “With these evil stories spread by runners?”

“Yes.” I grimaced. “Runners could make up any lies they liked without fear of being challenged. The shortage of interstellar portals back then made it very hard to get permission to travel to other worlds. Runners had special exemptions, that allowed them to make any number of journeys to Earth and return, but any parents who decided to go to Earth with their baby knew it would be a one-way trip.”

General Torrek and Colonel Leveque had been listening in silence, but now General Torrek spoke, his usual calm voice holding an angry note. “So, the runners were free to spread their lies, but what was happening on Earth back then? I can’t believe the parents there were really willing to exchange their own babies for those of strangers.”

“They weren’t,” I said harshly. “Earth didn’t have an effective government in the aftermath of Exodus century. Runners armed with off-world weapons would group together, visit Earth settlements looking for suitable babies, and take the ones they wanted by force. Even when portalling away from Earth showed one of the babies had immune system problems, the runners would just dump it back at a random Earth Off-world, so it was rarely returned to its parents.”

I paused. “Mothers started going into hiding with their newborn babies. If they could keep the baby safe for a few months, then it was no use to the runners, because it couldn’t be successfully substituted for a newborn. Runners retaliated by going hunting for those mothers and babies.”

It was getting hard to speak, so I needed to take a few seconds break before continuing. My audience waited in silence. I could tell from their horrified expressions that they’d worked out what I was going to say next.

“The Dig Site Federation report on the woman buried here said that she’d died in 2430. That was during the height of the runners and changelings era. She’d had a baby only a couple of weeks before she was shot in the head by an off-world projectile weapon. A group of runners must have found her hiding place, and she’d fought back rather than just hand over her baby, so they murdered her.”

I felt the same surge of fury that I’d felt when I first read the report. “The experts had made a detailed search of the area to check if the baby had been killed too. They didn’t find any baby bones, so the child had survived to be taken off-world, but they did find the remains of an adult man some distance away. Analysis of the clothes and bones showed he was from Danae. The woman hadn’t just fought back against the runners stealing her baby; she’d managed to stab one of them in the side. The man’s friends had bandaged his wound, but he’d still bled to death.”

“Served him right,” said Krath savagely.

“Definitely,” said Amalie.

Now that I’d said the words I’d been dreading, my old anger abruptly burned out, and I continued speaking in a flat voice. “I got that report on the evening of 13 November 2788. I was so angry when I read it that the Principal of my Next Step called in my psychologist to give me an emergency therapy session. He told me that I should forget about the details of the report, because thinking about them generated frighteningly high levels of hostility in me, and I threw a vase of flowers at the room wall.”

I shrugged. “My psychologist told the Principal of my Next Step that it was best if I got the burial ceremony over with as fast as possible. The Principal arranged for me, Keon, and Issette to have the next day off school, and we met Valeska and Gradin here. When the burial ceremony was over, I was an emotional wreck, and the following day …”

I let the words trail off, and Playdon said the next bit for me. “The following day was 15 November 2788, the date you submitted your application to University Asgard.”

“Yes. I was due to meet Candace on Wallam-Crane day to discuss my application to University Earth. I’d spent years planning to study pre-history, but I’d been putting off submitting my application until the last minute. Studying pre-history was such a dutiful stereotype thing for me to do that it felt like I was surrendering to what fate had done to me.”

I pulled a face. “I was in a wild, bitter mood that day. I was sitting in my room, passing the time before my meeting with Candace by randomly switching vid channels, when I suddenly had a bright idea. I wouldn’t apply to University Earth after all. I’d gatecrash a class of off-world history students, fool them all into thinking I was a real person like them, and then yell all my anger and resentment at them before leaving.”

I stared anxiously at my classmates, waiting for a reaction. Nobody was throwing things. That was good. Probably good.

“Of course I never actually did the screaming and walking away,” I added. “You weren’t the hateful enemy I expected. You were just like the kids at my Next Step. I changed my mind about the whole revenge thing, and decided I wanted to stay in the class after all.”

Someone finally spoke. It was Fian, and he sounded puzzled rather than angry. “I can understand you were furious after the burial ceremony, Jarra, but surely your original plan would have hurt you more than it hurt us. If you’d gone through with it, and walked out of our class after a few weeks of the course, then you wouldn’t have been able to get a place at University Earth.”

“You’re perfectly right,” I said. “The whole revenge idea was completely nardle. Even if my ProMum was able to get me into a University Earth class, all their good team spots would have been filled, so it would have wrecked my chances of becoming a research archaeologist.”

I sighed. “But I didn’t even consider the consequences of applying to University Asgard before I did it. I was too angry to think straight that day. Ever since I was old enough to understand the jokes on the off-world vids were about people like me, I’d been bitter about the way we were treated, but becoming Next of Kin to the woman buried here … Well, it tipped me completely over the edge.”

“I think I deserved to be yelled at when I joined this class,” said Krath thoughtfully. “It’s embarrassing to remember the things I said back then. I kept repeating my dad’s ridiculous conspiracy theories and making horrible comments about the University Earth teams. Given the way I was behaving, why the chaos did you change your mind about leaving?”

I smiled. “I changed my mind because I respected Lecturer Playdon, liked most of the class, admired the sacrifices Lolia and Lolmack were making for their baby, and Krath … Even at your worst, you were never as bad as Cathan at my Next Step.”

“That’s hard to believe,” said Kai.

“It’s true though,” said Fian. “I know I’m a bit biased about Cathan, because he and Jarra were Twoing for a while last year, but he genuinely is odious.”

I turned to face Playdon. “I know how strongly you feel about students joining your class to disrupt it, and I apologize to the class and to you for doing it. I should probably apologize to the members of Cassandra 2 as well.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me or your classmates, Jarra,” said Playdon. “You were under severe emotional stress when you applied to University Asgard.”

Rono groaned. “Dannel’s going to say the moral code thing …”

Playdon threw an irritated glance in his direction. “University Asgard classes are governed by the Gamma sector moral code, and section 8 of that code specifically states that students should not be penalized for acts carried out during periods of natural high emotion connected to deaths and memorials.”

“And you definitely shouldn’t be apologizing to any of my team,” said Rono cheerfully. “From our viewpoint, a few lies don’t matter compared to the fact you dug us out from under a fallen tower block.”

I was just thinking that this was working out far better than I’d expected when Dalmora started speaking, clearly on the edge of tears. “Of course you shouldn’t be apologizing, Jarra. You had a perfect right to be angry with us, and especially with me. The runner was from Danae. My world! It could have been an ancestor of mine that murdered this woman.”

I was completely disconcerted. “Runners came to Earth from hundreds of different worlds, Dalmora. I’ve never for one moment felt that particular runner being from Danae meant you were to blame for what happened. The rest of his group were probably from other worlds, one of them would have shot the woman, and anyway she was murdered three hundred and sixty years ago. It could have been one of my own ancestors that shot this woman. It could just as easily be true that one of us is descended from the stolen baby.”

“I suppose that’s possible,” said Dalmora hesitantly.

“It’s definitely possible,” I said. “One of the things I’ve learnt in the past year is that you can find out some shocking things about your ancestors. I was totally grazzed to learn I was descended from the legendary Tellon Blaze, but now I’ve seen the names at the top of the Tell clan family tree, and those are even more bewildering.”

I pulled a face. “All my life, I’ve idolized Sean Donnelly, the man who tried to save Earth from being bled to death by the drain of people and resources to colony worlds. He wasn’t just the face and voice of the Earth Loyalist Party, but formed the Earth Resistance to fight to defend our home world.”

I wrinkled my nose. “I also hated the Wallam-Crane dynasty for inventing the portal technology that gave humanity the stars but meant the one in a thousand like me were trapped on Earth and labelled as different, inferior sub-humans. I even daydreamed about inventing a time machine, travelling back in time nearly six hundred and fifty years to 15 November 2142, and strangling Thaddeus Wallam-Crane the first at birth.”

Fian burst out laughing. “Given your hatred of science, I’m struggling to imagine you inventing a time machine.”

Colonel Leveque looked amused too. “There are even bigger problems with Jarra’s plan though. If my understanding of the work of Thaddeus Ignatius Wallam-Crane is correct, time travel is impossible because the flow of time defends itself from temporal paradoxes. Jarra would have created an enormous paradox by killing one of her own ancestors.”

Playdon gave me an incredulous look. “Thaddeus Wallam-Crane the first was one of your ancestors?”

I blushed. “I’m afraid so. Tellon Blaze was so great a legend in his own right that none of the vids about him ever bother to mention his ancestry, but he was descended from both Sean Donnelly and the Wallam-Crane dynasty. When I first saw the names at the top of the Tell clan family tree, I had a weird moment, wondering if that made me my hero or my enemy, but the truth is that Sean Donnelly and Thaddeus Alexander Wallam-Crane, and Tellon Blaze are all just long-ago ancestors of mine. I’m nothing like them. I can’t sing, I’m useless at science, and …”

I was about to say that I wouldn’t stand a chance against a chimera in combat, but that inevitably brought up thoughts of what was waiting in Zeta sector. I skipped hastily on to make my real point.

“The important thing isn’t what our ancestors did in the past, but what we do now.”

“Yes,” said Dalmora. “I’ll talk to my father. Perhaps he can make a vid about the runners and changelings era to make people aware of what happened.”

Keon suddenly joined the conversation. “That would be nice,” he said, in a dangerously cold voice. “Perhaps that vid could also include a point that Jarra hasn’t mentioned. Off-world schools and universities stopped teaching the details of the runners and changelings era because they didn’t want norms to get upset about an embarrassing part of history. Our schools kept teaching us about it though.”

He swung round to face Colonel Leveque. “We were forced to watch vids about the way our kind used to be treated centuries ago. We were told how lucky we were that Parliament of Planets put an end to the old abuses by creating a benevolent Hospital Earth to take care of us. The officials of Hospital Earth cold-bloodedly used the runners and changelings era in propaganda to justify the way they took our freedom, made laws to regiment our lives, and allowed off-world researchers to use us as test subjects.”

“That situation is changing now,” said Colonel Leveque.

“Yes,” said Keon, “and those changes should include investigations into the past actions of senior Hospital Earth officials, and the payment of compensation to the people they harmed.”

Colonel Leveque sighed. “Civilian Advisor Tanaka, I now have a much better understanding of the demands you’ve been making on the Military in exchange for your cooperation. I’m not unsympathetic, but I suggest we leave further discussion to a time when we won’t disrupt a memorial ceremony.”

“Definitely,” said Valeska. “I believe that Jarra has now finished her speech, so I can add a final piece of information about the runner who killed the woman buried here. I took part in the search that discovered his bones and became his Next of Kin.”

I stared at her. “What? You’ve never told me that before.”

“You were so distressed at the burial ceremony that I decided not to mention it,” said Valeska. “If I’d known you were planning to take your revenge on an unsuspecting off-world pre-history class, then I’d have explained it wasn’t necessary because I’d already taken revenge myself. It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t say anything though. Your application to University Asgard seems to have turned out well for both Earth and the rest of humanity.”

I frowned. “You’d already taken revenge yourself? What did you do, Valeska?”

“I carried out my duties as Next of Kin for the fourth time. I gave the runner the funeral I felt most appropriate. He isn’t buried in this graveyard. I got Gradin to take me up in an aircraft, and fly over an area of ancient toxic waste, so I could drop the bones in the centre of it where they’d dissolve.”

“There was no need to mention I was involved in that,” grumbled Gradin. “I’d no idea what was in that parcel until you opened the cockpit window, and I still think that dumping human bones was illegal.”

Valeska ignored him. “I’m continuing to carry out my duties by remembering the runner. I just don’t remember him in a good way. Now, let’s complete this ceremony.”

The custodian and her two assistants had been standing watching us with bewildered faces. Now the custodian stepped forward to offer me a small bronze replica of my sapling tree.

I hastily handed my banner to Fian, accepted the replica tree, and placed it in front of the memorial stone. I stood at attention as I recited the words on the inlaid metal plaque, finally noticing they’d been updated in the past year to show my change of name.

“Jarra Reeath, now known as Jarra Tell Morrath, remembers a mother who fought for her child.”

I took a few steps backwards, and looked up in time to see the two prototype aircraft fly low overhead, their shields flickering the blue and white colours of Earth. A moment later, a holo of Sean Donnelly appeared above the grave.

The holo sequence was exactly the same as a year ago, but I saw it with different eyes now I knew the startlingly handsome young man brandishing the flag of the Earth Resistance was my ancestor. Everyone stood listening to the golden voice singing the original anthem.

“Some men were fickle and some left through greed.

Some fled through fear and some out of need.

But we who remain will prove faithful indeed.

Earth is our heart, our home world!”

When the last notes died away, I let out a deep sigh. “That’s it, everyone. Thank you all for …”

“That isn’t it,” interrupted Valeska. “There’s one more thing I need to tell you all. Many of the best off-world research teams will be going to excavate Fortuna. Traditionally, it’s been a great honour to be given the title of number one research team for your world. Rather than have all those proud names leave Earth, the Military, the Dig Site Federation, and the universities have decided there’ll be a new naming tradition for the leading teams on Fortuna.”

She paused. “Cassandra 2 will be going to Fortuna as the leading research team from Cassandra, with the name Cassandra Prime.”

There was a triumphant shout from Stephan. “That’s going to put Cassandra 1 firmly in their place. They won’t be able to turn their noses up at us any longer.”

Rono laughed and turned to Playdon. “So your team will be Asgard Prime.”

“No,” said Playdon. “It’s been agreed that the current Asgard 1 research team will be going to Fortuna as Asgard Prime.”

“But we have to be Asgard Prime.” Krath sounded outraged. “We’ll have Jarra and Fian on our team.”

“That’s why I’ve agreed that we won’t be Asgard Prime,” said Playdon calmly. “Let Valeska explain.”

“All the University Earth teams will be continuing their important work excavating Earth’s ancient cities,” said Valeska, “but retired Earth archaeologists will be joining special Earth Angel teams. These will give support and advice to the teams working on Fortuna. Lecturer Playdon’s team and Cassandra Prime will be working together, and being advised by my own team, Earth Angel 1.”

“We’re going to be advised by the legendary Valeska Orlova.” Keren gasped. “I feel a lot more confident about going to Fortuna now.”

Rono glowered at him. “Should I be getting jealous?”

“Absolutely not,” said Gradin smugly. “Valeska Orlova is never going to look at another man when she’s married to me. I’m unique!”

Valeska laughed. “Continuing with my explanation, Earth archaeologists will be supporting the excavation work in Zeta sector, but only one Earth girl will actually be able to set foot on Fortuna. Therefore, Lecturer Playdon and University Asgard have graciously agreed that his team will be called Earth Prime.”

Playdon smiled. “I discussed this with Steen earlier, since he’s the only team member who was born on Asgard. He told me he had no problem with the name, so I hope everyone else is happy as well.”

“We’ll get even more newzie attention as Earth Prime than Asgard Prime,” said Steen.

“And I’m perfectly happy so long as we get the Prime title,” said Krath cheerfully.

I was dazed by this news. “That’s … That’s an incredible honour, but I’m not sure I can truly claim to be an Earth girl now I’ve got my implanted web.”

Valeska laughed. “The Earth Dig Site Federation feels you are an Earth girl, Jarra. I hope you aren’t going to argue with their decision.”

“I wouldn’t dare to argue with the Earth Dig Site Federation,” I said, in a shaky voice.

“Besides, this title isn’t just for you, but for every Earth archaeologist,” said Valeska earnestly. “Throughout history, people have used aids like wheelchairs to help them do things. Now you have an implanted web that will help you travel to Fortuna. No other Earth archaeologist can have an implanted web because the procedure is far too dangerous, but we hope that eventually there’ll be a simpler and safer alternative. Something like special impact suits that University Earth teams can wear to let them join the efforts on Fortuna. Until then, we’re asking your team to carry the name of Earth Prime, and hold our place for us.”

“Thank you,” I said. “It will be a privilege to do that.”

Valeska unclipped something from the belt of her impact suit and handed it to me. “Earth Rolling News mentioned you were getting some Betan style banners for your class, so the Dig Site Federation had this made for you to take to Fortuna.”

I looked down at what I was holding. Yes, this was another of the little folding banners. When I extended the pole, the fabric unfurled to show the Dig Site Federation’s world map and the words “Earth Prime.”

I was staring at that with teary eyes when Colonel Leveque’s lookup chimed. He frowned at it before turning to General Torrek.

“I regret there’s been a security breach, sir. The newzies are reporting the recent development on Fortuna, and the General Marshal wants you to make a reassuring statement.”

General Torrek groaned. “I hate making speeches for the newzies.”

“What development on Fortuna?” I asked anxiously.

“You and Fian lowered the Fortuna planetary defence shield on 10 November,” said General Torrek. “Three days later, it reactivated.”

I blinked. “It did? What does that mean?”

“We believe it means there’s a third pedestal,” said Leveque crisply. “The first pedestal was hidden on Earth and triggered the alien sphere. The second was on Fortuna’s moon and temporarily lowered the defence shield to let invited visitors access Fortuna for a few days. The third will be on the surface of Fortuna, and allow those visitors to take proper control of the defences.”

I frowned. “So Fian and I will need to go to Fortuna, lower the defences again, and find this third pedestal.”

“And that’s why there was that airborne attack today,” said Fian. “The Isolationist Party have another chance to block the exploration of Fortuna.”

“Yes,” said Leveque. “Now we’ve determined there are no enemy agents in the Alien Contact programme, we need to get the two of you to safety at Zulu base immediately. A transport aircraft will be arriving by drop portal within the next minute.”

“But how will we find this third pedestal?” I asked.

“It’s already been found,” said Fian, “and it’s somewhere high up. That’s why Colonel Leveque wanted us to do skyscraper training.”

“Yes, our drones had three days to carry out a preliminary survey of Fortuna,” said Leveque. “Examination of that survey showed a probable site for the third pedestal, and it is indeed somewhere high up. It’s unfortunate that your skyscraper training was cut short, but we can arrange for …”

His words were drowned out by the thunder of the transport aircraft arriving. I’d thought Fian and I would have weeks of normal life with our class, but we’d only had a few days.

So much had changed during my time with Asgard 6. I’d gone from seeing all off-worlders as my enemies, to having some of them as my closest friends and being betrothed to Fian. I’d gone from being a nobody to being famous. I’d gone from having an invisible difference to having a difference that everyone could see by just looking at me. Earth itself had changed as well.

I looked from the Asgard 6 banners my classmates were holding, to the Earth Prime banner in my right hand. This was an end and a new beginning.

 

IMPORTANT NOTE :- This was posted as an unpolished serial story while it was being written. It will be removed from this website on 24 May 2020 to be trimmed, polished and eventually published in a collection with some other stories set after Earth Flight.

The provisional title of the story collection is Earth Prime. If you’d like to get an email update when this story collection or other future books are released, please sign up for my newsletter.

If there’s enough interest in Earth Prime then the plan is to have a new series about Fortuna. Meanwhile, anyone interested in Jarra’s ancestors and Exodus century should try reading my Scavenger Exodus series.

© 2019 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.

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