Béla was behind the wheel of her exotic little red sports car. She glared at Frank. He folded his arms and glared back at her. It was after two a.m. in the morning and she was fed up with all those military types and the way they looked at her like she was some kind of freak.
“Fasten it!” Frank insisted. Béla stuck her tongue out at him and clipped her seat belt to the console that separated the bucket seats. With a satisfied look on his face, Frank turned and began walking back to the others.
Béla turned the ignition key on the steering column. Suddenly she was looking at the inside roof of her car from only an inch away. It was very brightly lit. Then the roof blew off, gyrating away and upward into the darkness. A beautiful fireball rose up over her head, lighting up the night sky. She thought it was incredibly fascinating. Then she noticed that the army shirt she had borrowed was on fire.
'That soldier’s going to be pissed that I burnt his…
'MY CAR’S ON FIRE!!
'I’M ON FIRE!!!'
She tried to leap out of her seat, but the seatbelt held her down. She looked down to locate that damned seat belt latch. She could barely see it through the bright flames. She reached down to unlatch it. Her hand ignited and burst into flames! She realized with a shock that she was in real trouble as she fascinatedly watched the skin on her hand curl and blacken.
She didn’t know about the little canister of jet fuel that had been attached to the explosive underneath her car. In the initial explosion, it had ruptured as it traveled upward through the floor of the car, spraying the insides of the car and Béla with its contents.
She looked out and saw Frank lying on the ground. His shirt was on fire. “Frank! Wake up! You’re on fire!” she screamed, pounding on the window to get his attention.
The car door had been warped in the explosion and was jammed shut. She couldn’t open it. She drew in a breath to shout again. The superheated air painfully blistered her mouth and throat, blackening the insides of her lungs in an instant. She could feel her body rapidly regenerating her lungs, using itself up to keep her alive.
She could feel her face scorching, and her arms, breasts and her right side, as well. The pain was too much. She screamed. Then Jake was there, standing next to her, pounding on the car, trying to get the door open.
“No! Get out!” Béla screamed at him. “Get away!”
She screamed in agony after drawing another breath. Then Jake was gone. Someone’s hands had reached into the fire and pulled him away from her.
She screamed again in agony and growing terror, her tortured lungs regenerating with each scorching breath. She was out of ideas on how to escape and didn't believe she could regenerate enough to live until the fire died down. She was able to scream three more times before her lungs exploded, her boiling blood no longer capable of regeneration.
She desperately latched onto the one single thread of consciousness left. It was watching her, softly present in the back of her mind ever since it first contacted her.
'Praetor! Save me!' she screamed at it with what she thought would be her last conscious thrust toward salvation. Then she was outside the fiery car and looking down at the horrifying scene below. Tanya was bending over Frank, hysterical. Her hands and face were black from the fire.
'She must be the one who saved Jake,' Béla thought, strangely detached now from the whole horrific ordeal. She looked for Jake. He was a few feet away from Tanya, being looked at by a medic. Béla couldn’t tell what his condition was, but his clothes were scorched and smoking. She thought it was strange that she could see so well in the darkness surrounding her.
Two soldiers began spraying her flaming car with foam. She rose higher and it occurred to her that she seemed to be part of the smoke from her own flaming body. Then her sense of time kicked back in. The entire episode had occurred in less than a single minute.
Béla looked around, wondering where she was going. 'My God! I died! I don’t have a body!' She began to panic again.
'Be at peace, child,' the voice of the Praetor spoke inside her mind. 'You are a part of me, now.'
Images flooded her mind. The Praetor was joining her with her brother and sisters whom it had absorbed over the centuries.
'I have a brother?' she inquired, still feeling detached, but mildly curious. 'What happened to him?'
The images changed to answer her question. He, like Béla, had been discovered to have special healing qualities. He had shown the wrong people he could cure others with his blood. As a result, they had hunted him down and hung him on a cross, the popular method of execution at the time.
As he hung there, soldiers who were guarding him stuck a spear in his side and collected his blood in a cup, which they passed around, each taking a drink, rejuvenating themselves. Then they got very, very rich selling cups of his blood to whoever could afford it.
Eventually, they bled her brother to death. It took them several days. Even then, he was able to rejuvenate in just a few days. Disappointed in the betrayal of his self-made family of friends and followers, he said farewell to them and returned to his father’s ship.
'What happens now?' Béla asked the Praetor. 'How do I get back?'
'Be at peace, child,' the Praetor told her, 'you are with me.'
Béla wasn’t at peace. She didn’t like the way ‘peace’ sounded. She was suddenly surrounded by brilliant white light. 'What’s happening?' she screamed in her mind.
'I am informing your creator of the circumstances of your demise,' the Praetor replied in her mind.
'Will you tell him I’m here?' she asked anxiously.
'You are a part of me, now,' the Praetor told her. 'You will always be here.'
Béla was now definitely feeling panicked. She was trapped in a ball of white light inside a living machine which evidently believed it now owned her outright. It was her own fault, she knew. She had allowed the Praetor to pull that part of her that was conscious inside of itself to save her, believing it to be her ally.
As she expanded her awareness into her new prison, she came into contact with the numbed minds of her siblings. They were trapped in a dream-like state, being fed images by the Praetor so they would continue to create life-energy, which the Praetor absorbed and somehow made its own.
Béla realized, with a cold sort of terror deep inside her soul, that she, too, was now a source of life-energy for the Praetor. She and her siblings were the actual life-energy that made up the living machine. As the Praetor slowly froze her soul, she realized that it did not intend to release her, ever.
She was floating on a cloud. There had been pain – a burning, a wasting away of her body, but now she could let go – let go and be reborn! She felt the cloud vanish as it was replaced by the pounding of blood in her veins; a strong heart beating with new life.
Disoriented, she opened her eyes and watched lights swirl around in a strange pattern.
“Focus, child,” a soft, but strong voice said from somewhere very near. She could actually feel the deep resonance of his voice in her body as he spoke. “Relax and wait for the lights to stop moving.”
“Yes,” she said vacuously. Then the thought appeared in her empty mind that told her who the voice belonged to. “Yes, father.”
Even though she couldn’t see him, she could feel his smile at her recognition of him. She could feel his love for her, and a great sadness as well, as though she was expected to fill a void in his soul – a void that contained a great loss.
Curious and wanting to help him heal, she tried to explore that vast, empty sadness. She discovered that the void had a name – Alana.
“Who is Alana?” she asked, barely able to form words with her new mouth, her new body. She should know that name – it sounded very familiar.
'Alana is… no more,' a voice in her mind said. The voice wasn’t her father’s. It was cold, and metallic. A machine of some sort was addressing her. She wondered how she understood the concept of living machines, not realizing that her vacant mind was receiving images below her level of consciousness that would enable her to process information as she received it.
The phrase, ‘Mindwiped’, passed through her conscious mind, then was forgotten as she was ordered not to think of it. Then she was ordered to forget the order. It was incredibly easy – the images just slipped away, out of her thoughts. She forgot about the machine, as well, and remembered only her father’s voice.
After a while, she sat up on the bed table and looked around. She seemed to be in some sort of laboratory. Her body felt weak and it was difficult to coordinate her muscles.
“Have I been ill?” she asked, attracting the attention of the tall being who was working nearby. “I can’t remember anything.”
The being looked up. Her father’s voice said, “You are just now born, my child.” The being smiled at her. She formed her mouth into a smile – her very first one.
“Tomorrow we go down to the surface, child,” her father informed her. “There, you will be introduced to your family.”
“Is this how it’s normally done?” she asked, curious.
“For you,” her father said, “yes. You are the last to be born here. I hereby name you, ‘Hethemtima’ – blessed with new life.”
“Hethemtima,” Hethemtima said, feeling it out with her tongue. “My name sounds strange, my father. It is different that what I thought I would be called.”
“You are the only one with that name,” her father told her. “You are unique, and your name should also be unique.”
“I guess… if you say so,” Hethemtima replied. “It is… acceptable.”
“Good!” her father said, suddenly more cheerful. “I’m glad you approve. Now let me show you how the bed table works.”
There were exercises Hethemtima was expected to do, starting right now, that would help to strengthen her limbs and her heart and lungs. She would be much heavier where she was going, and she needed to be strong enough to stand upright and move normally so as not to attract unwanted attention.
The marvelous bed table that was her cradle provided her with handholds for her to push and pull against for the purpose of exercising. The handles appeared when she thought about them, and when she was tired and wanted to rest, they disappeared back into the base of whatever it was that was holding her up.
The ‘next day’, the time when she was to go to that place called ‘the surface’, turned out to be three days, instead, due to something called a ‘civil unrest’. Hethemtima ate when she wanted and slept when she wanted, as it was never light or dark where she was. In between eating and sleeping, she exercised rigorously. The concept of having a strong body made a lot of sense to her, and besides, she had nothing else to do. She reasoned that, if she demonstrated how strong and fit she was, maybe her father would show her some more of wherever it is she was, and perhaps let her off this damned, confining table.
During her next sleep period, she was awakened by angry thoughts flooding the room. Her father and others were discussing something very serious and she could feel his deep distress. They were discussing something called a ‘war’. She reached out, curious, to find out what it was. The sudden brutal savagery of the image caused her to cry out in distress and pull away from it.
Her father came to her, then, and wished for her to return to sleep. Hethemtima found that she was unable to resist his will, and was soon lying peacefully on her bed table once again. But her body was still new to her, and she wasn’t as susceptible as her father believed. She remained awake, observing the room from a position very near to her head.
She watched and listened carefully as her father and the others discussed their departure. She discovered that they planned to leave her behind, in the care of some local denizen named Sargon. Her father argued against that, as his new creation had not learned anything that would help her survive in the hostile world below. It didn’t matter, the others insisted, since she wasn’t really alive, anyway.
'They believe I’m some sort of lab experiment,' Hethemtima realized. 'Is it possible that I’m not really alive? Is that why I don’t have any memories?'
The metallic voice that she’d heard before spoke to her now.
‘They have forgotten who you were, as have you,’ the Praetor informed her. ‘Your live begins anew, and your old life has been erased from the memories of those who loved you. This, you commanded me to do, though you do not remember, now. You wished for your lifemate to forget, so that he would not abandon your great project in his grief.’
“What great project?” Hethemtima asked, perplexed. “Did I die, or something?”
‘That is not important, child,’ the Praetor informed her. ‘Do not waste your thoughts on what was, and what cannot be. What is important is here and now. You would do well to remember that.’
Although she fought bravely, she was unable to resist the overwhelming compulsion to sleep that the Praetor flooded into her mind. When she awoke again, she forgot ever having a conversation with the strange machine.
The next day, Hethemtima got her wish! Her father was taking her to the surface and at last, she would be permitted to see something besides the four walls of the laboratory where she’d been born.
Béla continued dreaming, believing that she was just beginning her life as Hethemtima, unaware that she was having a dream within a dream. There were some differences between now and the first time around. A familiar face sometimes appeared beside her and the name, ‘Jake’ would flow through her mind, but then the metallic presence of the Praetor would come and straighten out her mind.
Saddened and depressed by the loss of his last daughter, the Regent of Deimos ordered his ship to leave Earth and return to its base. The ship’s hold was full of ice and earth, plants and grain. There was machinery as well – tractors and plows, and a few people – humans who were unfortunate enough to have discovered the great ship while it was foraging for what was needed to give birth to a new world – the great project that would prevent all life from being extinguished when the end came.