Elaine and Béla were on Béla’s big four-poster bed. It had been almost two years since Béla had announced her intention to return to Earth when the great ship high above them departed.
‘I already miss you,’ Elaine thought sadly to her sister. ‘You will leave a big hole in my life until you return.’
She knew, deep inside, that there was disaster ahead for all of them, but somehow she understood that her sister would find a way to return from her doomed home world. Something had changed on Earth that would make it possible, now, if…
“You must remember to take a Praetor with you,” Elaine insisted. “It’s important, somehow. You will need the knowledge it contains in case something goes wrong and you can’t come back with the ship.”
She knew with certainty the great ship wasn’t coming back from its final voyage, but with the help of a Praetor, her sister could limit the extent of the tragedy.
“There are only four Praetors left,” Béla explained, “one at the university, one on Deimos and two in the great ship; one with father and one spare. If I take the spare to Earth and something happens to one of the others, the group without the Praetor will be crippled.”
‘You must promise me that you’ll take a Praetor!’ Elaine insisted in her mind. ‘I’ll know if you’re lying! Your life depends on doing this!’
Béla felt saddened by her sister’s madness. No one could see the future and know with that kind of certainty what was going to happen. Elaine watched Béla reject her demand with a terrible feeling of grief and fled her sister’s bedchamber.
Without bothering to dress, she fled to the goddess’ temple and ran inside. She pounded her fists against the marble walls of the temple she would inherit when her sister departed.
‘I don’t want this!’ Elaine screamed to the universe, sobbing hysterically. ‘I hate this! Take it all back!’
‘What is it, Child?’ Elaine felt her father’s gentle, but powerful mind caress hers from the great ship a hundred miles above her.
‘Father!’ Elaine cried out. ‘You’re all going to die and I can’t stop it! Béla can save you and she won’t do it!’
She suddenly got an idea. ‘I have to go with you! I can prevent this by staying with her and taking the Praetor, myself!’
‘No, Child,’ Sibilius told her gently. ‘You are being groomed to stay behind and lead New Eden into the new age; to prepare them for our final return from Earth and Deimos with the remainder of our people. We each have our tasks to perform. You must perform yours.’
“No!” Elaine screamed to the solid marble walls around her. “Don’t you see, you aren’t coming back!”
She collapsed against the wall, sobbing.
High above, Sibilius looked at his Praetor, an unformed question in his mind.
‘What can you do?’
Sibilius knew the Praetor understood the question; they were constantly mind-linked. He felt the Praetor reach down and put his tortured daughter to sleep, not too surprised by the ability of the Praetor to affect someone at such a distance. Then, claiming it had routine maintenance to perform, it gently withdrew from his mind.
The Backup Project was almost complete. The Praetor had initiated the project on its own, using the Regent’s authority. Soon, all the data stored in the central core of the ship would be duplicated in the central core of the skinless ship that made up Northern Depot. In constant contact with the Praetor inside Deimos Station, it instructed that Praetor to duplicate its data entries into both central cores until further notice.
The Praetor melded with the sleeping mind of the Seeker once again, checking her predictions for the future. No matter what the sequence of events programmed into the great ship, something was going to happen that could not be determined by the Seeker, and therefore could not be prevented from occurring. The Praetor had run a dozen sequences through the planning stages, checking with the Seeker each time it changed the ship’s programming. The results remained the same; if the ship returned to Earth after its next journey to pick up Béla, the ship was doomed.
In the last few months, however, the Seeker seemed to acquire new knowledge that led to a solution of sorts. It required the presence of a Praetor on Earth, availing the primitive and volatile Earth people of its technology. The details of what the Praetor labeled the ‘Recovery Project’ had been carefully worked out in the Seeker’s mind, then rejected by the Seeker herself because of her unwillingness to believe the incredible series of catastrophes and unlikely events required to bring her sister home safely. She simply didn’t believe it could all work out.
The Seeker knew with certainty the disasters she predicted. She didn’t remember, but she had been selected and carefully trained to predict disasters a thousand years before she had become a crewmember. Her disbelief of their salvation was not a prejudice the Praetor shared with her. It had already determined that it would accompany the ‘Carte Blanche’ to Earth because of the Seeker’s visions.
Receiving confirmation of the completion of the Duplication Project (the next-to-last step of the Recovery Project), the Praetor reestablished the mind-link with Sibilius, preparing the last step.
‘The university requests a portion of your laboratory be shipped to the surface to teach the subjects of gene splicing and cloning. It will be eight to twelve years before our return. A laboratory should be set up and operational on the inner surface. The Praetor there will be able to train others in the continued creation of hybrids for your future occupation. It is logical that this occur to prevent the accidental loss of any of your daughters or depot personnel due to unforeseen events.’
Together the Regent and his Praetor picked out equipment to be shipped to the university below. By the time they were finished packing, fully half of Sibilius’ laboratory was on its way to the cargo bay. Upon its arrival on the inner surface and the training of the surface people in its use, the Recovery Project would be viable. The rest was up to the resourcefulness of the ‘Carte Blanche.’
Elaine awoke on the cold marble floor deep within the goddess’ temple. Her head hurt. Her mind was numb with grief and loss. Her muscles were stiff from sleeping on the cold, hard floor.
Everyone she loved was going to die and be lost forever to her. Living here in this hollow shell of a world now seemed a trivial existence. She would sooner fly into the crystal sun, letting its radiance burn her to her core, warming and evaporating her empty existence forever.
‘Be at peace, Seeker of Truth, your fears are for naught. I will accompany the Carte Blanche to the surface of her doomed world when it is time.’ Elaine recognized the live-not-alive presence of the Praetor in her mind. ‘All will occur as you predict.’
‘Am I dreaming?’ Elaine asked in her mind. ‘Why would you believe me? No one else does…’
‘Belief does not enter the equation,’ the Praetor responded. ‘The universe bends to project itself into the minds of those who seek. What you see is truth yet to be, as the universe bends back to reveal itself to you.’
‘I would rather be rid of this curse and not know of disasters yet to come!’ Elaine exclaimed angrily. ‘I never asked for this!’
The Praetor remained silent in her mind. She remembered, or perhaps the Praetor was projecting the image, her awareness of the hurtling asteroid that would have split the great ship in half, leaving them all dead and drifting forever among the remnants of the forgotten, mythical fifth planet. She wondered briefly what could have caused the ancient destruction of that world, but the universe did not bend forward to provide her with an answer.
‘All right, I see your point,’ Elaine admitted, sullenly. ‘So I saved the ship. Nobody even knows about that. I had to do it myself, because no one would have listened to me.’
‘I listen,’ the Praetor informed her. ‘I record all that occurs for anyone who cares to see. The University Praetor is at your disposal. Use it well during our absence. You must be ready for the Carte Blanche’s return.’
‘It will be a century before she finds her way back here,’ Elaine said, sadly. ‘She will have to overcome impossible circumstances even to manage that…’
‘That is why I accompany her to Earth, Seeker,’ the Praetor informed her.
She felt it withdraw from her mind, leaving her alone with her thoughts.
‘The first thing I’m going to ask the University Praetor after you leave,’ Elaine broadcast into the air around her, ‘is what the hell you’re talking about…’
‘Seeker?’ Elaine decided she definitely needed more information.
2080 a.d. - Spring
Elaine and Béla lay curled together on the long, narrow cot at Southern Depot inside a two-story brick building containing many rooms similar to theirs, having spent the last several hours waiting for Béla’s transport. Elaine’s arm hung an inch above her sister’s waist, almost touching her soft skin in the light gravitational pull.
Béla awoke to the feel of Elaine’s shielded mind. Elaine was using the Praetor from University, although it was hundreds of miles away, to help shield her mind from her older sister, so as not to overwhelm them both with her distress. She could tell Elaine hadn’t been sleeping.
“We shouldn’t leave each other like this,” Béla said sadly. “We’ve always been so much closer than we are now. It hurts me to see you wall yourself away from everyone this way.”
‘You’re the one who’s leaving,’ Elaine answered sullenly in her sister’s mind. ‘And I’m not ‘walled away’ from everyone; just you!’
She was beginning to lose control again, so she switched to verbal, shielding her mind once again. “Don’t you think I want to be closer to you? The only reason I’m shielded is to keep from dumping my emotions on you, okay?”
She was lying, but knew Béla would find that out soon enough. She just hoped, desperately, that she was wrong about the future on this one, very important point. If she was right, then she'd just the same as committed the murder of a sister.
Béla embraced her sister tightly as Elaine sobbed. She knew Elaine emotions were racked because of their pending separation. With the Praetor’s shielding, Elaine was protecting her from having to suffer through the emotions with her. Béla didn’t know which would have felt worse; knowing about but not being able to share Elaine’s emotions, or being overwhelmed to her very core with them.
The distant hum of the passenger carrier grew louder at it approached the Southern Depot. Elaine sat up, allowing her sister to move. She’d held her captive to her selfish emotions long enough.
“Go,” Elaine told her. “Come back to me.”
“I will,” Béla promised.
‘I believe you,’ Béla felt inside her head.
She walked through the door to the brightly-lit station. The carrier was kicking up debris and blowing it everywhere. She turned around to say goodbye to her sister one last time, but Elaine was gone. The instant she stepped outside, she had launched herself up over the building and fled her sister, the carrier and the station, keeping the building between her and all the rest of it until she was too far away to see any of it in the distant haze.
After a time, there was dirt and scraggy grass passing beneath her, then a small copse of trees. Exhausted and heartsick, Elaine dropped down among the hardy little trees and cried herself to sleep.
The driving propellers had been silent for almost half an hour as the carrier drifted toward the center of the tiny hollow moon and the great ship that resided there. Béla sat quietly, still strapped to her seat. For some reason she didn’t feel like flying outside like she had during her first journey. The sudden drone of a course correction startled her.
She had been waiting anxiously for almost two years for this moment; the beginning of her journey back to Earth and her beloved Jake. She ached inside from missing him. She ached even worse for Elaine. Elaine’s mind was still shielded and Béla didn’t even know where her sister was, but knew she was somewhere far below on the vast inner surface of this suddenly alien world.
As the carrier neared the great ship, Béla finally felt Elaine’s presence in her mind. She had fallen asleep after flying herself near to exhaustion, resting in the shade of a small grove of trees. She was having a nightmare and was trapped in the image of a winged goddess being shot out of the sky and cut in half by some kind of advanced weapon. As the gruesome pieces fell, they were vaporized in a white-hot blossom of fire.
‘Peace, little sister,’ Béla sent into her mind, trying to ease her terror. ‘I promise I’ll come back to you.’
The blue-green and brown landscape surrounding the great ship vanished into darkness as the carrier entered the cargo bay. This would be Béla’s home for the next fourteen months. It would take that long to reach Deimos, then another four months to Earth after a three-week stay while they resupplied for Project Earth-fill.
Béla felt the great ship close itself in around her. In less than an hour, they would be moving toward the exit bay near Southern. Suddenly claustrophobic at the thought of being cooped up where she couldn’t fly for more than a year, she launched herself back through the closing bay doors, panicking the operator into stopping them too quickly and causing them to jam.
Béla fled her prison, flying rapidly beneath the great ship, then over the top and landing lightly on it. Balancing delicately in the light artificial gravity that leaked through the hull, she closed her eyes and expanded her mind, grasping as much of this strange, inverted world into herself as she could.
As she stood with her wings outstretched, trying to absorb as much of New Eden as possible, she felt the annoyed satisfaction of the operator deep inside the ship, as he was finally able to get the huge cargo bay doors moving again.
After a time, she felt the ‘call to quarters’. The great ship was about to get underway. Béla looked around for an entrance hatch, opened it and dropped into the ship, sealing the hatch behind her.
‘Clear,’ she sent to the Bridge Officer, who had evidently been waiting specifically for her, as the ship immediately surged forward.