Shalim IV

Shalim IV

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My expectations were high as I sat with one hundred other people waiting for the graduation event to begin. I felt this was the moment that would launch my career. For as long as I could remember I wanted to leave Earth and explore the galaxy we’ve been spreading ourselves throughout. My goal had been simple; earn the highest marks, get stationed at the best base, and my career would be set.

An older woman stepped up to the glass and metal podium. “It’s my pleasure to welcome the Indigenous Human Races Transition Experts class of 2843. Few careers are as fulfilling as being the person that makes first contact with another isolated human race somewhere in our galaxy. Over the past ten years you have been trained to observe and report on remote cultures and technology with the goal of ultimately bridging the vast gulf of Earth’s preeminence within the galaxy to other human cultures interspersed around the universe. I applaud your dedication and drive to prepare you to step into the shoes of another race for the glory of all humanity.”

At thirty-two years old, I had graduated earlier than most. Of the sixteen bases, I was hoping to be stationed on Demeter Prime. Demeter Prime was the furthest base from Earth, but it was also the base with the largest concentration of technology-rich human races near it. Landing a high-technology rich planet and successfully bringing them into an alliance would pave the way into the elite exploration and transition teams.

The woman continued. “Today marks an auspicious moment in your careers. In a few moments, we will transmit your assignments and you will move to the specified base shuttle indicated on your communicator. Once again, I wish to congratulate each one of you knowing that in the years ahead, our Earthly human race will continue to thrive because of your hard work.”

I waited in eager anticipation as she stepped away from the podium just as my wrist communicator vibrated. Closing my eyes and holding my breath, I tapped the bracelet to display my assignment. When I opened my eyes, I was ecstatic. I had been assigned to Demeter Prime and was to report immediately to shuttle bay four for departure in two hours.

I stood and moved towards the exit while the everyone else took time to congratulate each other and discuss their assignments. The truth was, I had been so focused on my studies that I barely got to know any of my fellow students. While I always had a deep yearning for a relationship, I put all that on hold as inevitably if I had found someone special I would have been separated once I received my assignment. As far as my family was concerned, once I entered the government-run classes at the age of four, I barely even saw them after that. This is normal in today’s society. Even though I’ve tried to reach out to them to establish a connection, they had moved on and never replied to my attempts at communicating with them. Sadly, over the years I had studied planetary cultures where families stayed together and loved one another. These planets were most often deemed Class 3 planets for their backwards and primitive ways. In my heart I knew we were missing something and somehow all the hype around technology advancements and our Earthly culture left me cold.

I walked quickly through the hallways on my way to the shuttle bay. We had each been allotted one two cubic foot container to place our personal belongings in. These had been tagged and were likely already being loaded onto our assigned shuttles. My anxiousness to arrive at the shuttle bay left little room for other thoughts, but the one that kept creeping into my mind was that I was leaving Earth behind and I wouldn’t walk again for two years until I arrived at the base. Of course, I would be in stasis and it would be like going to sleep and waking up seconds later, but I was still putting my life in the hands of the stasis technicians and the technology. I’ve never been a big fan of technology as I felt it tended to isolate people from one another rather than bringing them together.

I entered the shuttle bay main hallway and looked beyond the glass walls to the awaiting shuttles and further yet into the city. The skies were filled with moving objects. The city in the distance, like most of the surface of the planet, blended together in a vast sea of gray, white, and silver buildings. My studies included Earth history and geography and hundreds of years ago, this location would have been a forest. Now it was civilization bursting at the seams with nary a blade of grass visible.

I remember laughing at one transition expert’s experience on his first mission. He had transferred into the body of an indigenous person, but the planet was mostly jungle. The poor guy was so overwhelmed by life and green colors that they had to send someone else in his place.

Bay four was to my right and I looked at the shuttle docked there. All the shuttles were relatively small, capable of transporting no more than one hundred people and special supplies. Each base was strategically placed to be near planetary resources so shuttles didn’t need to be used to bring much other than people. With everyone in stasis, there wasn’t a need to make them larger for people to roam around on.

My biometrics were scanned at the entrance to the shuttle bay and once I was approved for departure I was then handed over to the stasis technicians in the holding area. A man stepped over to me, once again checked my biometrics, and provided me instructions.

“Mark Gaston, I see this is your first stasis and so I need to cover the basics. Your trip duration will be two years and twelve days by Earth standard time measurements. This duration places you into a category two stasis. Do you know the difference between category one and category two stasis?”

“Only from what I’ve read.”

“If stasis is less than a year, or category one, your body is supported by electrostatic foam. This allows electrical signals to pass into your muscles to assure your muscles don’t atrophy. You age normally in category one stasis. For durations over a year, we must completely suspend cellular degeneration. This involves putting you to sleep and cooling your internal body temperature rapidly before we suspend you in gel. When you wake from category two stasis, you will be cold, covered in gel, and will need to be reanimated. This is somewhat of a painful process but the good news is you won’t age more than a day.”

“Understood. I’m ready to go.”

“Then please step over here onto this platform and remove your clothes.”

I did as was told, even though there were women in the room. Once naked, a tube of glass surrounded me and yellow mist filled the air. The mist stung as it touched my skin and burned a little as it entered my lungs.

The man raised his voice so I could hear him. “This gas is an antibacterial agent. It stings a little. We will now introduce the sleeping agent before we suspend your cellular degeneration. Have a good trip, Mark.”

Seconds later my world went black.

***

I was freezing cold and my lungs were burning. My eyes were stuck closed and my fingers failed to move. High-pressure liquid was pummeling my body. I was lifted and placed on something hard and someone wiped the outside of my eyes.

“Welcome to Demeter Prime, Mark. No need to respond, we’re taking you to the warming baths. You’ll probably throw up a few times as you begin to warm up. This is normal.”

I looked around with my eyes as I was unable to turn my head. I was moving down a hallway with several people around me. I was shivering uncontrollably.

We turned a corner and I was lifted once again and placed into a small pool of water. There were others in the room near me and they were all in various stages of thawing and retching. For the next two hours, warm circulating water heated my body. The pain was intense. As I slowly began to warm, I could begin to move and my joints unlock, I began to cough. The coughing released chunks of gel from my throat which caused me to gag. This caused me to throw up the frozen muck that had been my lunch just over two years ago.

Over the next two hours, I threw up until there was nothing left inside me and I wondered if I had even regurgitated my own internal organs. The pain subsided and the stiffness from the cold in my joints vanished.

“Mark, we’re ready to take you to the next phase.” I was now guided by a woman dressed in a crisp white uniform, her hair perfectly coiffured to be up and professional.

By now my mouth and voice were working even if my throat was raw from throwing up so much. “Please tell me it’s almost over.” My voice was scratchy and rough.

“People say they get used to it, but for first timers like yourself it can be a little frightening. We need you to step into this tube so we can use the antibacterial gas on you. Once that’s done, you’ll be free to shower and get dressed before being directed to your room.”

The gas stung and burned as before, but after what I had just gone through, it was relatively easy to take. I was led to a shower where I took my time removing the rest of the gel that had collected in my hair and various parts of my body. My whole body ached as if I had a headache in every cell.

As directed, I moved into another room, was given a shot to reduce the pain, collected a uniform, and put that on before an airlock allowed me to pass into another room. There a man read my biometrics and put a communicator on my wrist.

“Mark Gaston. Welcome to Demeter Prime. Follow your communicator to your room. You should immediately try to sleep as this will help you recover. At 0700 tomorrow, your communicator will wake you and guide you to breakfast. It isn’t a good idea to eat anything before then. From there, you will move to the main conference room where you will be greeted by our Base Director, Elden Stasny. He will assign someone to you to show you the base and bring you to your department. Any questions?”

“None. Thank you.”

“Once again, welcome to Demeter Prime.”

***

I woke with a start, hardly believing I had slept at all, but one look at my communicator and I realized I had slept a good twelve hours. I was refreshed and only had a few lingering after-effects from the stasis. Two years had passed and I hadn’t aged a day. Even my facial stubble was the same as the day I left Earth.

My container of personal belongings was sitting in the corner of my small, white room. A glass portal looked out into black nothingness which made me wonder why put in portals for viewing at all. These stations were large floating cities suspended in the vacuum of space.

After changing, I followed my communicator’s guidance to the mess hall. This isn’t the only place to eat on a base, but it is convenient for people arriving from other locations. I grabbed some food and sat down and looked around at the various people in the room. There were a variety of human races represented here. Earth was by far the most represented, but I could see humans from Ardra III with their hairless bodies and sloping foreheads, two women from A’varti, which both looked perfectly like Earth humans except their skin color was slightly purple, and a few others from Miri VII with thick coarse hair.

All human races looked pretty much like those from Earth. We all have the same physical characteristics, just that some have slight variations. The three other races I could see were all from planets that were quite well evolved. I read about the transitions of each of their planets and how they eagerly joined with Earth. My excitement was building. I’m here on Demeter Prime and beginning my career.

Not all planets joined with Earth, much to the disgrace of the chosen transition expert to lead them into an alliance. Because their jobs are to learn the culture and find the keys that would help a new race readily agree to work with Earth, any failure would mean they must choose a different career or be downgraded in their status. The more important an agreement with a civilization, the more the mission would be handed to the top tier elite transition experts.

As much as I looked forward to seeing the base, I was most excited about my first mission and proving to everyone my value. My communicator chirped and I was directed to the main conference room with about twenty other newcomers.

An older gentleman came in and addressed the group.

“Welcome to Demeter Prime. I’m Elden Stasny, Base Director. You have been chosen to join the most successful base the Earth has ever created. As such, this facility offers benefits, amenities, and luxuries like none other. More income is generated by this base than all the others combined. We are the best and expect the best of each and every one of you. Beyond these doors we work together as a team to assure that Earth keeps its role and place of power in this universe. As Base Director, I enforce the rules and policies onboard this vessel. You will adhere to the laws, do your job to the best of your ability, or be sent back to where you came from at your own expense. We only accept the best here.”

The door opened and a handful of people entered the room.

“When your name is called, please go with your guide.”

With that, and no questions allowed, the Base Director left the room. I waited patiently until my name was called. A pretty Earth woman with a tightly bound brunette hairstyle greeted me. “Welcome, Mark. I’m Meaghan. How are you feeling?”

“Glad no one truly explained the side effects of category two stasis. I might have chosen to stay on Earth otherwise.”

“It’s rough. I’ve done it three times now. Let’s walk together as I show you around. The base houses just over fifty thousand employees and has accommodations for another fifty thousand. Our guest list is always full and booked years in advance.”

“It must be a popular place.”

“It is. We are within category one stasis distance of nearly two hundred planets that are capable of sustaining human life and new ones are found on a regular basis. There are many that we can reach within a week of teleportations as well.”

“Why is that? Does anyone know why this area has such a high concentration?’

“No one has ever asked me that before. I have no idea.”

We walked into an enormous open area with a glass dome that made you feel like there was nothing between you and empty space. Trees and waterfalls gave the area a very life-giving and refreshing feel.

“This is the main part of the city. Here there are restaurants, lounges, music venues, entertainment areas, fitness centers, and even pleasure galleries.”

“I wouldn’t have expected pleasure galleries.”

Meaghan blushed. “Not everyone is in a relationship here and nights can get a little lonely.”

“Certainly, not you?”

“Oh… My… No. I have someone here. I’ll take that as a compliment. According to my bio on you, Mark, you’re our newest transition expert. That’s got to be exciting. How many have you done?”

“None. I’m fresh from the Academy.”

“Wow! You must have tested well to wind up here.” She led me down under the main city to show me the communications array. “You see those antennas with the round spheres on the ends?”

“Are those the interdimensional transference links?”

“You’re the first to get that right. Our base location is perfect for maintaining communications for over ninety percent of the transitioning planets in the region.”

“That’s good to know.”

“This next area is where you will be working. It’s highly secure as there are up to six of you in stasis at any point in time. Step up to the bio sensor.”

I did so and the door opened. Meaghen followed me inside and introduced me to the senior transition director, George Cotte. “I’ll leave you here, Mark. It was a pleasure to meet you. Good luck on your first mission.”

“Thank you.”

Meaghan left and George welcomed me with a handshake. “Fresh off the boat, are you?”

“Boat, sir?”

“Did they stop teaching early Earth migration patterns at the Academy? A boat is how migrants used to come to the new lands when Earth was first being explored.”

“Ahh. Yes. I’m fresh off the boat.”

“Your grades are why we asked you here. We have a need to fill a Class 3 transition expert.”

“Class Three? I thought this base was for the elite transition experts.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You expected to come straight from the Academy to go to work on a Class Two or One planet? Not a chance.”

“What will you have me working on then?”

“Shalim IV. It’s a recently discovered Class 3 planet. We’ve just got our team in place orbiting it this week. That team isn’t the brightest bunch and sometimes I’m surprised that ship can even stay in orbit. it’s so old. You’ll need to get up to speed and in two days, you get transferred in.”

“That’s so sudden. What about the advanced research of the planet?”

“I guess you’ll have some homework to do. Listen, this isn’t hyper-rocket science. It’s a backwards, rudimentary, tree filled planet with primitive people. Should be simple, but our window is closing and we need to get someone on the surface.”

“I thought this base was positioned with direct access to over ninety percent of the habitable planets in the region?”

“We are, but that doesn’t mean from time to time that we lose our signal. Beginning two days from now, planetary alignments will block this base from communicating with Shalim IV for a few months. I’ll show you around.”

We stepped out of his office and I was introduced to the team. Four members were on assignment, but there were many that managed things in the office that weren’t transition experts. There were stasis technicians, researchers, communications specialists, and data correlators to compile the vast amounts of data from the planets and catalog the technologies.

George then had someone associate my biometric account to the Shalim IV database before introducing me to two additional transition experts. My two counterparts looked none too happy I was there. Lucius Greaves didn’t even bother shaking my hand and argued with George.

“I still don’t know why you brought such an inexperienced person to the base, George. Look at him. He still has stasis gel in his hair. We have a reputation to uphold and we don’t need untested vagrants like him here.”

“Mark had the highest marks from the Academy, beating even yours, Lucius. Besides, we need him for Shalim IV unless you want to lower your standards and do that one.”

Lucius laughed. “Don’t get me started on those primitive idiots on Shalim IV. I wouldn’t dream of transferring in with the archaic piece of hardware that’s floating above that planet. We should just wipe out the civilization there and start all over again but knowing your newest hire is stuck down there rubbing two sticks together to keep warm will be pleasing to watch.” Lucius turned to me. “Just stay out of my way, kid. Let the people that know what they’re doing handle the big stuff.”

Lucius lifted his chin and walked off.

“What was Lucius referring to about the archaic piece of hardware?”

“He’s referring to the communications and transference relay ship, Pegasus, and the team that is currently orbiting Shalim IV.”

“There’s something wrong with their transference technology?”

“They’ve got one of the oldest ships in the fleet. Their tech is fine. Don’t let Lucius get under your skin. You’ve got a lot of catching up to do so I suggest you head back to your room and begin reviewing the data on Shalim IV.”

“Yes, sir.”

***

I woke from a rather fitful sleep. My body was still recovering from the stasis and tomorrow it was going back into stasis. At least it would be category one stasis as most missions to take no more than six months.

I had spent the day and night yesterday pouring over the data for Shalim IV. Lucius had painted a picture of a primitive people, yet I wasn’t seeing them as primitive. They had magnificent cities that blended beautifully into the geography and landscape. The planet was lush with tropical forests and more green life than I had ever seen in my life. The people were intelligent, inquisitive, and beautiful.

I entered my work space and George once again welcomed me.

“Good morning, Mark. You’re just in time to watch us debrief Ashley. She spent the past four months on a Class two planet called, Tallus IX. By the reports, things didn’t go well.”

George led me into a conference room and I was introduced to Ashley. She looked a little confused but then I recalled my training from the Academy. After spending time in someone else’s body, that life begins to take hold of your psyche. Upon returning, you can become disoriented and your own body feels foreign to you.

George took the lead. “Let’s get this started, Ashley. Why don’t you give us a summary of your time and conditions on Tallus IX?”

I could tell this was a struggle for her. She kept looking at her hands but she was a professional and took a deep breath before starting. “The transference went smooth with no lingering disorientation or dichotomy. I had my host’s memories and they felt clearly defined. My host was a scientist that studied genetic biotoxins on the planet. She was partnered with a man…”

Her eyes drifted momentarily. There is no guarantee that the host isn’t in a relationship and it is the transition expert’s role to completely be just like the host. I assumed that Ashley had sexual relations with her planetary partner and by the looks of things, fallen in love with him.

Ashley continued. “I spent the first week unlocking my hosts knowledge and memories and absorbing the culture, but I knew after the first few days this was going to be a difficult assignment. Their culture is such that outside influence is deemed harmful. Their sense of community is high. For the next three months I looked for key events in their history where they needed to learn from others. I had thought I found the key and moved into my next phase of selectively introducing them to the idea of meeting with another human race and joining our alliance. It didn’t go well.”

I felt a burning question that I needed to ask. “How did you approach them without them knowing you weren’t the original host?”

Ashley stared at me and I knew my inexperience showed. “You must be new to all of this. If the host is highly socially connected to others, you can’t expose who you really are. In this case, I told them I was the person Earth made first contact with and I leveraged their technology to prove the existence of the orbiting ship. However, even with the orbiting ship’s help, we couldn’t convince them it was in their best interest to join us.”

George dug for more information. “And what of their technology?”

“11.4 on the technology Samir Kaleck scale.”

Samir Kaleck was the person that created a formula to determine the ratio of new usable technology. For every hundred technologies the transition expert encounters, they determine how many of those are useful new technologies that the Earth could benefit from. In this case, 11.4% of the technology would be something Earth would want.

“That’s high for a Class 2 planet. What was their stance to the alliance. Hostile or neutral?”

“Hostile.”

“All right, Ashley. Take a few weeks to recover. I’ll initiate Containment Strategy Beta.”

The meeting ended and George took me back to his office. “You best get prepared for tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir. What’s Containment Strategy Beta?”

“With such a high Samir Kaleck scale and the natives being hostile to an alliance, Earth will make a show of force to convince Tallus IX it’s in their best interest to reconsider.”

“I was led to believe Earth never did such things as that.”

George frowned. “Welcome to life on the frontier. This is commonplace. We land an army on the planet and if attacked, we return fire. Usually it only takes a few hundred thousand native lives before they see reason.”

“But… That’s murder…”

“Lucius might have been right about you. The Academy doesn’t prepare you for the reality of life at the edges of the galaxy. This is the frontier and our hold out here is tenuous at best. Our orders are to find the technologies that will keep us from being wiped out. Sometimes that requires us to use force. If you can’t handle that, then I’ll send you home now but you’ll never get another mission.”

I wasn’t ready to be sent back. It was my job to make sure the planet joined the alliance. I was shocked by his admission, but perhaps my actions could prevent unnecessary deaths. “I’m ready, sir.”

“Good, because you get inserted tomorrow.”

***

After yesterday, I poured over the information on Shalim IV. There was an urgency to my task as I didn’t want blood on my hands. I needed to find the keys to unlock the native’s willingness to join an alliance.

Still, it bothered me that I was never told at the Academy that Earth might choose force. I didn’t think we were that kind of race, yet our history says otherwise. I’d made up my mind that I needed to do one mission. I spent my life working towards this career and I needed to see what it was all about before deciding I needed to do something different.

My nerves were getting to me as I contemplated stepping into the body of one of the native men. While I would have his memories with me, I still had to secretly live that person’s life while gathering more information about their society. I’ve done simulations before, but this was the real deal.

As I entered the main office area, George came out and greeted me and took me right away into the conference room.

“Mark. Once again, perfect timing. We’ve just opened communications with the Pegasus, our Shalim IV orbiting team.” George sat down and I took a seat. There were a few others in the room I suspect were stasis and transference technicians.

On the screen at the far end of the room was likely the Pegasus’ first officer. He glanced my way and spoke. “I see Mark is now here. I’m First Officer Henry Wilks. I’ll be your main communication point while you’re down on Shalim IV.”

“Pleased to meet you. I…”

George interrupted. “Sorry to interrupt you both, but our window is closing rapidly and we need to get the transference completed within the hour. You have the target natives onboard and in stasis ready to go?”

“Yes, sir.”

The screen flashed and I was looking at a man and a woman in light stasis. Typically, once the orbiter is in place over a planet, a male and female are isolated and teleported to the orbiting ship. This provides options for last minute changes of the transition experts. The teleportation leaves them in a form of light stasis so that when teleported back, they wake up not even aware they ever left the planet.

As I looked at the two indigenous people, I couldn’t get over how beautiful they both looked. The male was very handsome and female nothing short of spectacular. Their skin was a healthy tanned color. They were both extremely fit. While the male had dark hair, the female had long golden hair.

Henry Wilks came back on the screen. “We’d like to get this transference done quickly as the indigenous female is practically causing a mutiny on my ship. Every man onboard has made comments of taking her to their quarters. We’ve got fifty-seven minutes until the window closes. Let’s get this done!”

The screen flicked off and George introduced me to the stasis and transference technicians on the way to the stasis bay. As a routine precaution I had to strip and go through the anti-bacterial gas before moving into the stasis chamber. Now the two technicians were each rapidly preparing me. One was injecting me for stasis, while the other was mapping my brain functions and coordinating with the transfer technician on the Pegasus.

Henry’s face flashed up onto the screen. “We’ve had a technical glitch on our end. My transfer technician is re-routing power and connections. You’re good to go in five.”

I was shuffled along and over to an empty stasis pod. These looked like beds except they had were filled with an electrostatic liquid foam. The foam would flow around the entire body to allow for electrical connections to be made to all the muscles. My head would be exposed, but the entire pod would be closed and sealed once I was put into stasis.

“All right, Mark. Lay down in the pod.”

Stepping into the pod I felt my feet slowly sink into the foam. It was warm, body temperature. I did this at the Academy a few times for the simulations.

When I was fully in, I tried to relax until my body was covered by the foam. “I’m ready.”

“Sleep tight, Mark.”

A mask slowly dropped down over my face and the world around me vanished.

***

The first thing that came to my senses were the fresh scents of flowers. The sweet fragrance drew me upward and out of my stasis. I was lying on soft, cool grasses. Next, my mind began connecting with fragments of memories of the person I was transferred into. The last memory came first. I’m upset and moving through the tropical forest. Memories began coming faster and faster like a flood but they were all disconnected and disorganized, however one piece of information caused my heart to falter. My eyes flew open.

I’m J’Vania P’Xelni, Princess of Dronaii!

Scrambling to my feet, I looked over at the other indigenous person that was captured. The man would sleep another ten minutes as this allowed the transition expert a chance to get their bearings before the other person woke up. More memories came to me as I looked down upon his handsome, chiseled body. Trene Soome, Prince of Deni Vada and my promised mate.

Looking down at myself, I could see the tops of two perfectly formed women’s breasts. They were mostly covered by thin layers of silky smooth green fabric that flowed down from them, around my incredibly thin exposed waist, and covered my hips and thighs like a skirt. I had long golden hair that was bound in two places and I could feel its weight against my back.

Something has gone seriously wrong!Moving quickly to the man on the ground, I found a small skin-colored communication device at the back of his ear. It was supposed to have been attached to me; my new host. Removing it, I slipped it behind my earlobe and tapped it to open a communication channel to the Pegasus. “What happened?”

“Good to hear from you, Mark. That was very rushed. We barely made the transfer in time. Why does your voice sound off?”

“I was transferred into the wrong body.”

“We don’t make those kinds of mistakes. Oh… wait a second… Sorry, man. You’re not going to like this. When we re-routed the power and systems, the coordinates shifted.”

“Just transfer me back!”

“Mark, this is Henry Wilkes. I’m sorry, that’s just not possible. The window has closed and we can’t communicate directly with Demeter Prime for two months. I’m afraid you’re stuck.”

“What am I going to do?”

“Your job. Just hang in there, do what you went there for, and I’ll put in a good word for you when it’s all done.”

“You don’t understand. The male on the ground next to me is my promised mate. They’re supposed to join with each other in three months. She’s a princess.”

“She sure is. Simply gorgeous.”

“You’re not listening to me. She’s a real princess, a high-value native target. Do you know how many procedures we’re violating here?”

“Listen, Mark. Just focus on your job and we’ll get you out of there as soon as we can.”

“Teleport us back to the ship and put me in stasis until we can undo this. Then…”

“We can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Our teleporter broke after we sent you down there. It might be weeks before we get it fixed. I know this isn’t what was expected…”

“You realize there’s a reason they haven’t used this technology to transfer males into females before, right? Synchrotizing psychosis.”

“Things have changed, Mark. There have been technology advances and there may be a way to fix this. Focus on your job and we’ll get you out of there as soon as we can. Henry out.”

The communication went silent and I had to focus on controlling my breathing. Unfortunately, deep breaths weren’t helping as they caused my breasts to rise and fall in a distracting way. I looked down at Trene. I could feel this body yearn for him and my new memories, convoluted as they were, made me feel safe around him.

Synchrotizing psychosis. That’s the term I recalled from the Academy. The longer the transference, the less likely you can come back without significant damage to your brain functions. In a male to male or female to female transference the scientists have set an upper limit of staying in another body for one year. Beyond that and the minds and memories begin to meld together making it impossible for the expert to cope once they are back in their own body or the indigenous person back in their own. The theory is that with male to male transference, the thought patterns and brain functions are similar. However, male to female thought patterns are much different and the minds and memories merge more rapidly as the brain strives to resolve the differences. I’ve heard three, and as little as two months before this can happen.

I sighed and looked around me, forcing myself to ignore my new body and the situation I was in. The tropical forest was breathtaking. Flowers of every color and hue dotted the landscape. There were even colors I’ve never seen before… My vision is different. Enhanced, possibly seeing a wider range of spectrums.

Trene stirred but didn’t wake. It would be another minute or two. My heart went out to him and yet I was conflicted. I’m angry and upset. I’m his promised mate, and yet I’m not J’Vania, or am I?I knelt next to Trene and placed my hand on his tanned, hairless chest. I fought the action and yet this body won. Memories of the two of them together were cloudy. Did she love him, or was this the culmination of expectation of a culture forcing them to become partners?Rebellious behavior, anger, and images of J’Vania being demanding and spoiled came to mind.

I felt his breathing deepen and his eyes fluttered open. He smiled as he stared into my eyes. “I must have dozed off.”

The language was so fluid, with an almost musical-like rhythm to it. I responded partly from my own mind and then some from J’Vania’s. “Some protector you are. I could have been taken by wild beasts or even another man.”

“And I would have taken apart the world stone by stone until I found you. How long have I slept?”

“We lost almost an entire day.”

“That’s not possible. How…?”

“People will be worried about us. We should get back to Dronaii.”

“You mean they’ll be worried about you, Princess.”

I knew he was joking as Trene was well loved and the upcoming marriage between us would solidify a long-standing accord between the two nations. It was helpful that I… J’Vania loved Trene. No, that’s not right. J’Vania wasn’t happy about the situation. “You’re a humble one, but I suspect the women of Dronaii will be sleepless knowing not what happened to the handsome foreign prince.”

“Handsome…” He smiled. “You’ve never called me that before. You’ve barely spoken more than a few sentences to me.”

I mentally kicked myself. This is my first mission and I’ve already gone out of character no more than fifteen minutes into it. I need to be more careful. Is it possible that male to female brain mapping makes it difficult to know for certain the difference between what was thought and spoken by the previous host? Did J’Vania think he was handsome but might have been angry that he wasn’t her choice?

“Handsome… Did I say handsome? I’m sure I didn’t.”

“I have very good hearing, Princess, as I do my sense of touch. You haven’t moved your hand from my chest all this time.”

I pulled my hand back like it was on fire. I’m so confused. J’Vania had been unhappy with the situation, or is that me thinking that?

“Best not to read anything into my touch, Trene. I was merely concerned for your well-being.”

He smiled again in a way I found disarming. “First you call me handsome, next you say you’re concerned for my well-being. Perhaps I have died and your kindness is my prize in death, for as much as I have tried to make you believe I’m not a bad person, you have spurned me. That our lives are not our own saddens me, but what wounds me the most is that you have not been happy.”

I would have never thought that coming face to face with a carnivorous monster on another planet to be a good thing, but the roar and menacing jaws of a daxu brought us both instantly to our feet. J’Vania loved all the animals, even the dangerous ones, and the daxu was no exception. However, she also knew the daxu, with its razor-sharp claws, foot-long fangs, and scaled hide was a formidable foe.

Trene stepped forward placing himself between me and the daxu. “My weapon… It’s gone. Run J’Vania!”

He would risk his life for me?The daxu took a menacing step forward as I felt something deep within me unlock. My body had taken over for my mind and I spoke over the great beast and slowly stepped forward. My hand stretched towards the daxu. I could feel a tangible connection between myself and the creature. It roared and barred its fangs, but slowly lowered its head.

“J’Vania! No!”

“It’s all right. I feel him.” Staring into the golden eyes of the daxu, I stepped forward and placed my hand on its head. “There’s no food here for you today, mighty one. Go in peace.” To my surprise, the daxu turned and walked back into the forest.

“You never told me you’re T’Moni, a beast master.”

Searching through J’Vania’s memories that had fragmented and begun to merge with my own, I found a startling revelation. These aren’t simple backwards idiots like Lucius believed. They’re far more advanced than Earthly humans. J’Vania wasn’t aware of this ability she had. “I’ve not known I carried any discipline. I was compelled to touch the beast.”

“You’ve just come of age. Perhaps this is your first manifestation.”

“What of you, Trene? Do you carry any of the six disciplines?”

“If I told you then what secrets would I have? A man needs some mystery to him. Maybe one day I will show you.”

My confusion was bothersome and I had a hard time knowing how I should respond. I need time to communicate to the Pegasus.Clearly, these two had a tenuous history. I felt a deep longing within me and yet J’Vania had been reserved. “Well, now you know my secret and there’s no mystery left to me. Being T’Moni, if that’s truly what I am, isn’t the most alluring discipline. Perhaps you’ll now get bored of me and promise yourself to another woman that is far more beautiful.”

“I’ve never seen any T’Moni speak to a creature half as large as a daxu. Your discipline is stronger than any I’ve ever seen. As to finding anyone more beautiful, we both know that will never happen for there are none that compare to you. What happened to you, J’Vania?”

“We should return, Trene.”

Trene’s eyes reminded me of the daxu. They were golden, fierce, and intelligent. They bored into my very soul exposing the lie that I was.

***

It took several hours to get back to Dronaii. I could have led with J’Vania’s innate sense of direction, but I let Trene guide us back. This gave me time to think and ponder my situation. I was conflicted and confused and unable to gather J’Vania’s true feelings for her own situation.

I was very impressed by the level of fitness and the marvelous agility and balance J’Vania had. We jogged through the forest, leaping from boulders and branches with a fluidity that was astounding. I could feel the gentle breezes and caught scents that were familiar to J’Vania and yet not to me. I glided effortlessly through the landscape as if I was a part of it. I’ve never felt so free or alive before.

At the edge of the city, Trene paused. We stood on an outcropping of rock that overlooked the valley where Dronaii sat. The sight I had seen a thousand times in J’Vania’s memories was nothing like seeing it for the first time. Waterfalls, like falling diamonds in the sun, made of the clearest water I had ever seen cascaded over impossibly high cliffs. There were dozens of them dancing their way into a vast blue lake. The edges of the city were landscaped to blend in with the mountains and forests. The buildings rose gracefully in arcs that looked more like art than the hard-edged buildings of Earth cities. Had anyone ever told me such places existed, such wondrous beauty, I would have laughed at them.

Trene started to move again, but I put my hand on his arm. He paused instantly. “I’ve seen this view so many times before, but I’ve failed to see the beauty of it.” I felt like singing, but something inside me held back.

“They’ve spotted us.”

Irritation formed inside my mind adding to my confusion. My voice caught me off guard as I spoke what was on my mind. “I don’t know what they expect of me.” It was a true statement on many levels.

There was that smile again on Trene’s face. “Don’t worry, J’Vania. I’ll protect you.”

Trene led us through the perfectly manicured gardens to the stone walkways that led into the heart of the city. We were met before we crossed halfway to the city gate. There were a dozen men and women riding four-legged beasts like horses on Earth. They called them wraqorg.

One women jumped from behind a man on a wraqorg and ran to me. This was Annabe, my friend and personal aid. J’Vania was very fond of her. Annabe hugged me and held her forehead against mine. “Princess, we were so worried about you.”

“We’re fine, Annabe.”

The men looked angrily at Trene. They blame him.

One of the men that looked like the leader of the group pointed a finger at Trene. “Did he…?”

I stepped between Trene and the men. One of the wraqorg dropped its head towards my hand and I absentmindedly stroked its cheek. “It wasn’t Trene’s fault. We went too deeply into the forest and were forced to wait overnight for our return.”

Trene frowned. “I failed to protect your Princess. Something happened and we fell asleep, losing an entire day. I take full responsibility.”

“No harm befell us. It was no one’s fault.”

They softened their stance and turned to escort us into the city. Annabe slipped her arm into mine and leaned in to whisper to me. “Why are you protecting Trene? You didn’t mate, did you?”

“No. Of course not.”

“Hmmm.”

Annabe wasn’t satisfied with my answer. How do transition experts do this?As I walked into the city I was once again amazed by the beauty of the construction and how well everything flowed from the natural landscape into functional living space. There was a synergy here between the land, nature, and life. There was also simplicity of design and yet the fit and finish of everything was beyond perfection. Nothing on Earth could compare.

We reached what my new memories told me were the living areas for the royal family. While my training had done little to prepare me for my first mission, especially one that had begun with such a massive mistake, I recalled one class in particular that was now proving quite useful. The instructor pointed out that while the transference grants you access to knowledge and memories, it isn’t all knowledge and memories instantly. To release a memory and piece of knowledge, the transition expert must experience, see, taste, smell, or specifically focus on something to trigger the information.

This is why I couldn’t merely transfer into an indigenous person and instantly transfer out with all the knowledge and information I needed. I must live for a time as that person, deliberately unlocking the information that is accessible to me. So, when I see the royal apartments, I receive instant understanding about that small aspect of J’Vania’s life. To fully understand the culture and technology, I must be deliberate in exploring her life and the surroundings.

Trene stepped up next to me. “I’ll take my leave. Will I see you tomorrow, Princess?”

“If time allows, I will seek you out, Trene.” Once again, my heart drew me to this man and I didn’t wish us to separate but I needed time to myself.

Trene tipped his head and vanished into one of the buildings.

Annabe leaned in close again. “You must tell me what’s going on. Why are you being so kind to Trene? I know he’s easy on the eyes, but this isn’t like you.”

I needed to give Annabe an explanation. “We ran into a daxu, or rather, I should say a daxu was hungry and found us.”

“A daxu?”

“Trene stepped between the daxu and me even though he was unarmed. It’s hard to remain angry at someone that risks their life for you.”

“Hmmm. That’s not all that’s going on here. How did you both escape?”

I wasn’t sure if being T’Moni was a secret or not and nothing was coming to mind as I thought about it. “The daxu turned away from us and went back into the forest.”

Annabe’s eyes expressed her doubt. “Hmmm. I thought we shared everything. You’re aware I can tell when you’re not telling the whole truth.”

Focusing on Annabe, I remembered she has a subtle strength in V’Rean, the discipline of empathic abilities. Annabe and J’Vania were the closest of friends and they did, indeed, share everything with each other. I reached for Annabe and held her hand. “I’ll tell you more later when we have more privacy.”

That seemed to appease her. The rest of the escorts left us and as I looked again at the royal apartments, J’Vania’s knowledge showed me what I needed to do next. I could feel resentment and a feeling of being trapped. I needed to see J’Vania’s parents before going to my own room.

“It won’t be so bad, J’Vania. They’ve been worried about you. I know you’ve been upset with them over the arranged marriage with Trene, but they still love you and you were missing an entire day.”

“Then we shouldn’t keep them waiting.”

We entered the apartments and I absorbed what I saw and received knowledge as I went. The Academy explained this was the assimilation phase I was experiencing and after a few days, or a week at most, the transition expert would feel the unlocking of information less and less. So, as I looked around and was astounded by the symmetry and design, I could feel the names of objects and was provided an understanding of how the technology worked. It was both fascinating and overwhelming.

The entryway to J’Vania’s parents looked like frosted glass, but as we approached the glass simply vanished. The technology to accomplish this is far more advanced than Earth’s.

Annabe waited outside as I approached the man and woman. I would have expected them to look old, but this wasn’t the case. J’Vania’s mother, Tretaska, was radiant in her beauty. Her father, J’Nel, was very handsome and fit. I didn’t know what to expect as I was unclear about J’Vania’s memories, thoughts, or whether my own bias had somehow become intertwined, however I felt moved by the look of concern and love on their faces.

Tretaska rushed over to me and pulled me into her arms. “We were so worried about you, J’Vania. Forgive us.”

J’Nel also hugged me with a tender and loving embrace. “What happened?”

I could feel their love and concern. Things were becoming a little clearer for me. The marriage had been announced over a year before and the date not set until two days ago. That’s when J’Vania’s parents told her that the event would take place in three months’ time. J’Vania was upset and ran into the forest. Trene came alone to find her.

“I was angry and needed time alone. Trene found me but it was too late to return.”

“The good news is that you’re safe.”

More irritation arose within me. J’Vania had felt smothered and controlled, not able to live her own life. “I can protect myself.” It felt like something J’Vania would say.

“You’ve only just turned of age. At eighteen years old you’re still very young and haven’t been exposed to dangers that exist.”

What dangers are there?My thoughts released new information and except for wild beasts, there were few real dangers. “What dangers are there, Mother? We’ve had no wars for many thousands of years. We live at peace.”

“There are those of corrupt seed that can still harm others, mighty beasts that can easily take our lives, and…”

J’Vania’s father continued for her. “We’re not alone in this universe, J’Vania. Even now a ship orbits our planet.”

I was dumbfounded. Possibly not surprised with the level of technology I had already witnessed, but Earth ships aren’t visible to the planet’s inhabitants, at least not in the visible spectrum. “What are you saying, Father?”

“I’ve spoken enough already. I will be traveling to Deni Vada in two days to speak with other Z’Utaji.”

Z’Utaji was yet another discipline that roughly translated as ancestral memory. J’Vania’s father can tap into genetic memory and see far back into the history of the people of this planet.

The disciplines are all thought or touch based. T’Moni is the discipline of beast mastery or communicating with animals. V’Rean is an empath and what Annabe is. L’Farnia is the discipline of healing touch. T’Kani is roughly translated as strength from life. One with this discipline can pull energy into himself to strengthen himself or regenerate. The discipline not spoken much about is D’Qota, or suffering touch.

Disciplines are somewhat genetic and not fully manifested until after the age of eighteen. The daxu must have triggered J’Vania’s discipline. Disciplines can be strong, moderate, or weak and sometimes people could have several disciplines to a lesser degree. Mother… J’Vania’s mother, is a moderate L’Farnia and has healing touch.

“I would like to travel with you, Father.”

That caused him to pause. “It’s unlike you to make such a request, J’Vania, but it isn’t a bad idea. Trene can join us and he can show you his home city.”

The thought thrilled me and yet I also became irritable.

Tretaska hugged me again and I enjoyed the warmth and comfort of her arms around me. I can’t remember a time that I felt connected to anyone in such a way. Where I sense J’Vania felt smothered, I was quite enjoying the closeness. “I don’t need to be V’Rean to see how this marriage makes you feel. You must know your father and I have been inundated with offers for your hand. We chose Trene as we believe he can give you the best life. I see the way he looks at you. He’s kind and caring as well.”

Z’Anis is the name the people gave for their own planet. Shalim IV is an Earth name that we gave when the planet was discovered. Historically on Z’Anis every main city and land surrounding it was a nation unto itself. To prevent wars and contention, royalty would marry between nations. The woman would live in the man’s home city, but they would co-lead that nation as equals. That’s J’Vania’s role. She was to marry Trene and move to Deni Vada where eventually they would be handed the leadership of that nation. Only royal children had arranged marriages.

“Who am I to fight traditions that have been in place for thousands of generations, but I envy those not born of royal blood that seem to have more rights than we do.”

“You’re right, J’Vania. We of royal blood have fewer rights than those we lead. We have no power, as that is in the hands of the people. We own nothing, as everything we have belongs to the people. We guide and direct when the people can’t decide what to do. As a united people of Z’Anis, this arrangement has worked to bring peace and prosperity. Did I love your father when I first met him? No. He was easy to look at and I trusted my parents to choose someone they knew I would be compatible with. Was I upset I didn’t have a say? Yes. Did it all work out? Absolutely. So much so that we had you.”

J’Nel came over and kissed my forehead. “I don’t like to see you unhappy. If you promise to give Trene a chance, I promise we will reconsider the marriage if you aren’t in favor of it. Of course, we could always choose Kaldet Othar.”

As J’Vania’s father mentioned the name, I shivered. Kaldet Othar has been a regular visitor to Dronaii ever since he had first laid eyes on me… J’Vania. There is darkness in his eyes.

“I promise to have an open mind about Trene.”

“Then it’s all settled. Why don’t you head to your rooms to get cleaned up?”

More hugs all around, which caused me some internal grief. These people love each other very much.I never had that growing up and ever since I started my schooling I barely saw my parents. They were never truly loving.

Stepping back into the hallway, Annabe took my arm in hers as we headed to my room. “How did that go?”

“You were right. They were worried.”

“As a V’Rean, I’m rarely wrong. You need to trust me.”

“I’m going with Father to Deni Vada in two days.”

“That’s Trene’s home city. You’ve agreed then?”

“To the marriage? No. There’s something more happening that Father is going to discuss with other Z’Utaji.”

“Hmmm.”

“Do you always do that when you sense you’re not getting the whole story?”

“Yes. You just confirmed that you’re holding out on me. I trust you to confide in me when the time is right.”

The door to my room vanished and Annabe remained in the hall. I looked back at her and could see she wanted to talk more, but I needed time to myself. “Tomorrow. Let’s talk more tomorrow.”

Annabe smiled. “Rest up, J’Vania.”

As she stepped away the glass door materialized again giving me the privacy I so desperately wanted. Turning, I moved slowly through the space. I ran my fingers over the elegantly crafted walls and objects. Earth technology seemed limited and bulky in comparison. I felt the incredible smoothness of fabrics on the large bed which looked like a mattress on the ground. When I came to the bath, I paused as a large reflective surface gave me my first full view of myself.

My breath caught in my chest. The brief images I had of J’Vania before had barely provided anything about her looks. But here, in person, I could safely say I have never seen anyone or anything so beautiful. Having read the data on Shalim IV, I knew the mass of the planet was very much like Earth’s. This would make gravity similar, and race heights equitable. Given this to be the case, I gauged my height to be around five feet eight or nine.

My skin was tanned and flawless. My eyes the most startling violet shade, like dark amethyst that sparkled with vibrancy and life. Reaching back, I unclasped my hair and it spilled across my shoulders like liquid gold. It was so shiny, clean, and fine and it felt like the softest of silk. My hair framed my face making my cheekbones stand out, and my red lips glisten seductively.

Feeling safe, I slipped out of my clothes. Soft curves of my generous breasts and hips made a perfect contrast to my lean, slender waist and stomach. My fingers couldn’t help themselves as they glided effortlessly over the most sensitive and smooth skin I had ever seen or felt.

I had to force myself to breathe. No simulation could have ever prepared me for this. The longer I stared, the harder it was to tear my eyes away and the harder it was to think someday soon I would be forced to give up this body.

Remembering how Ashley looked disconnected after a mere four months’ time, I wondered how I would fare. Even now, I wondered if I could return to my old body without significant damage to my psyche.

With a sigh, I turned towards a bathing area. Hot water flowed throughout the complex, being cleaned and purified as it circulated. The bath was always filled with fresh, clean water and as I stepped into it, I let out a gentle moan. When I had laid myself back, I tapped the communicator.

“This is…” I had to think hard to come up with the right name. “…Mark.”

“Henry here. How are things going down there?”

“We’re wrong about them, sir. The people here are advanced.”

“That’s not possible. We’re not picking up anything on our sensors. Granted they have beautiful cities, but there’s no tech.”

“They know the Pegasus is orbiting the planet.”

“Ridiculous!”

“They have doors that vanish and rematerialize.”

“You mean they slide to the side.”

“No, I mean they vanish. Like a window that dissolves into nothing and then reappears as solid as ever.”

“I’ve seen this before, Mark. New recruits embellish what they see and hear to make the planet seem more important. You’re on a primitive planet with unevolved humans. How are you holding up?”

“I’m not embellishing, sir. I’m struggling. J’Vania’s memories, thoughts, and feelings are a jumbled mess. Several times people have shared I’ve changed. Could it be that somehow my own thoughts are blending, or that the differences are so great that psychosis is much more rapid? If these people are more advanced, that could make the differences even greater and speed up the synchrotizing psychosis.”

“I’ll speak to our experts and see what they have to say. Just go with your gut, say what you need to say and do to get us a successful outcome. Forget about trying to be exactly like the person was.”

“I’ve never been a woman before…”

“Neither have I. Henry out.”

Standing, I moved out of the bath and over to a spot on the floor that my memories recognized as a drying station. I stood there as warm air blew over me causing my hair to fly up. In seconds I was dry and my hair fell into a graceful layer of gold across my back.

I walked into the closet to find hundreds of clothes. What I had been wearing was for general use and typically not designed for travel in the forests. This leads me to believe J’Vania’s reaction to the marriage date being set was impulsive. Before me were clothes that were designed specifically for me. I selected a white outfit and slipped into it. My breasts were well contained, but the dress had a simple elegance to it. It was also very sexy, exposing my midriff, shoulders, and legs.

I moved back through the room and out onto a balcony that overlooked the lake and the tropical forest. A bird with four wings landed next to me. On a whim I held out my hand and it jumped onto it without hesitation. I reached out to it with my mind and felt a connection. I could even see through its eyes.

“Fly.”

I was a bird flying over Dronaii. I could turn and swoop and dive down.

A beeping sound interrupted my concentration and I found myself back on the balcony. I turned towards the door to my room. I could see out even though the person on the other side couldn’t see in. It was Kaldet Othar. Immediately I felt concern but I reminded myself of why I was here. Exposure to as many people as possible offered my greatest chance at success.

Walking towards the doorway, the door vanished and Kaldet offered a sly smile. He took a step forward and I shook my head. It was forbidden for any man to enter my rooms unaccompanied. I stepped out into the hallway.

“I understand you were missing, Princess. I wanted to make sure you were safe.”

“As you can see, I’m completely safe and well.”

“You can’t begrudge a man a chance to look upon your beauty, especially when they know you might have been in danger.”

I frowned. “I’ll remind you, Kaldet, that I’m promised to another man.”

The hallways were open to the outside world and a small red bird flew in. Kaldet plucked it from the air and held it delicately trapped in his hand. I could feel the fear of the bird. My heart beat rapidly.

“And if something were to happen to your betrothed… what then?”

All of a sudden, I felt tearing pain. The bird chirped and died in Kaldet’s hand. I gasped. Kaldet was D’Qota. My heart twisted at the sight of the dead bird.

“Leave me! Leave me now!”

Kaldet smiled. “Of course, Princess. I will tell my retinue that you are safe and well.”

Kaldet walked away after placing the bird on a shelf. I reached for the bird and cradled it in my hands. I collapsed to the floor and felt tears falling down my cheeks. I had felt the bird’s pain and death.

“J’Vania? What’s the matter?”

I held up the dead bird towards Annabe and cried all the more.

“It’s a shame. It’s a beautiful bird, but these things happen. What’s going on with you?”

My fingers gently stroked the soft feathers. My fingertip stopped over the bird’s still heart. I felt something within me and the bird chirped and fluffed its wings before flying off.

Annabe’s eyes went wide. “Come with me!” She grabbed my arm and pulled me down the halls and into a very private little room. “Don’t tell me nothing is going on. You’ve been lying to me and not telling the whole story. That was… You’re L’Farnia. How long have you known?”

I sat down and Annabe sat down next to me. “I’m not sure. They just happened.”

“They?”

“T’Moni and L’Fania.”

“I think you need to start from the beginning when you ran away into the forest.”

I had no reason not to tell the truth, except for the fact I’m an alien. “My parents had told me they set the date for the marriage to Trene in three months. I was angry and ran into the forest. Trene decided to go after me. I’m not easy to catch in the forest and it was late when he caught up to me. We stayed the night.”

“Hmmm.”

“You’re doing it again, Annabe.”

“You mated, didn’t you?”

Annabe seems focused on the mating. When I dig for memories and focus on mating knowledge, I think I understand why. The people of this planet mate for life. Mating creates a biochemical link between the two that alters the couple and increases the bond between them.

“We didn’t mate.”

“But that only explains why you were gone overnight, not the entire day as well.”

“Something happened, and we slept longer than would be normal. When we woke up, a daxu was there. I spoke to it, put my hand on its head, and told it to go away.”

“T’Moni… But a daxu is very large and intelligent. How were you able to control it?”

“I’m not sure, Annabe. It just happened. After that, we headed home.”

“First, I need to say the whole oversleeping thing is suspicious, but I’ll accept the fact that you were upset. Your T’Moni discipline sounds very strong, and I’ve never seen anyone bring a creature back to life with L’Farnia.”

“I’m not sure how I did it. Kaldet Othar was here claiming to be concerned for me. The bird flew in from outside and he grabbed it. Then he eluded to things that might happen to Trene and without doing anything, I felt the pain in the bird, and it died. Kaldet is D’Qota.”

I felt such vulnerability. The whole thing with the bird frightened me.

“I can’t get over the difference in you, J’Vania. Two days ago, you tried to take your own life. You were miserable. Now I feel such depth of emotions in you that I’ve never felt before. There is a kindness in you and a gentleness that is refreshing. Whatever happened, it is for the best. Did you tell your parents about the disciplines?”

If my disciplines became public, it would make me more valuable. J’Vania’s parents might reconsider the mating to Trene. Having seen Kaldet, I wouldn’t wish to be put in that situation. If I can do anything for J’Vania, it would be this.

“No. I promised to give Trene a chance and you know what could happen if word of my disciplines got out.”

“You’re right, J’Vania. Best to keep them quiet for now. Tomorrow I’ll help you choose your travel clothes if you like.”

“I’d like that. Thank you.”

“Hmmm.” Annebe was smiling.

“What now?”

“I like the changes I see in you.”

I smiled weakly knowing that I was completely messing up my mission. We separated and I headed back to my room for the night.

***

I woke the next morning with a strong sense of peace mixed with some confusion. For me, the last five times I’ve woken up, I was someplace different. Earth, then waking from stasis, then waking on the base twice, and now to waking up on another planet as a woman. The waking as a woman was the peaceful part. Where I had initially struggled with the mistake, I felt myself enjoying this body, blending with it almost seamlessly. I’ve been enjoying it to the point that I didn’t want to give it back. This last thought made me wonder just how horrible it would feel to have the opposite take place. I’m thankful that J’Vania was in stasis right now for her own sake.

I stretched on the bed and rolled over feeling my body shift and move in new ways. I love being J’Vania, feeling the warmth and concern of her family, and there is something about the people and this place that puts a smile on my face.I didn’t want to contact Henry, but I sat up, smoothed my sleeping gown, and tapped my communicator anyways.

Once again, I had to focus to speak English and to recall my own name. “This is Mark on Shalim IV.”

“Henry here. What’s happening down there?”

It was a struggle to think of what to say. My mind kept drifting to simply feeling good, disciplines, and Trene. “I wanted to report that tomorrow I will be going to Deni Vada, another city. My… J’Vania’s father will be meeting with others like him, Z’Utaji.”

“What’s a Z’Utaji?”

“I told you yesterday that the humans here are more evolved. Z’Utaji is one of six disciplines that people on the planet can have. This discipline allows someone to touch the memories and history the people through genetic memory. There are other disciplines. I can control and speak to animals and heal through touch.”

“I’m getting concerned, Mark. You’re sounding excited, joyful even. You’ve yet to say anything about the mistake and needing this all straightened out and several times you’ve communicated in the first person as J’Vania.”

“I’m just trying to do my job and you said nothing can be done.”

“Listen, Mark. We’ve been doing some research here. We’ve been reviewing historical transferences. We know that the greater the difference in brain mapping and function, the shorter time to merging of brain activity and synchrotized psychosis. There were two notable cases where Earth humans were transferred into more evolved humans. In both cases the brain map differences we severe. The transition expert’s thoughts, feelings, and knowledge merged in such a way that they had a difficult time separating the lives of themselves from their host.”

“What are you saying?”

“We believe you’re in real danger. If what you say is true, that those humans are more advanced than us, combined with the fact you are in a female body, could mean… We’ve relayed communication to Demeter Prime and expect a response by tomorrow.”

I had such mixed emotions. Perhaps I’m already too far merged. What does it truly mean to be merged? Do I lose myself? Would I mind being J’Vania for the rest of my life?I was shocked by my own answer. I won’t mind at all. This realization caused me to consider the life I had stolen.

“Teleport me back to the ship and put me in stasis. We need to give J’Vania back her body.”

“That’s not possible. Our teleporter is still down.”

“Then send a shuttle.”

“It’s too risky. We’ve even pulled back away from the planet in case you were correct in that they know we’re here. We risk everything by pulling you out and we must wait for a response from Demeter Prime.”

“All right. I’ll continue my work here.”

“Hang in there, Mark. Henry out.”

While I feared for J’Vania back in my own body, I felt an immense joy within me. I rushed into the bathroom and looked at my reflection. Yesterday it felt foreign, but today it felt like I had looked upon myself this way for months. I remember at the Academy them saying your reflection was the hardest to adapt to.

Picking out a violet outfit, I changed and ran out to the balcony. The little bird that I had restored to life yesterday flew over to me. Reaching out, I could see through its eyes and we flew together over the city and beyond. I even spotted Trene speaking with some men before he turned and headed into the city.

I severed my connection with the little bird hoping for a chance to intercept Trene. I wasn’t sure what had come over me, but I was happy. I rushed from my room and almost crashed into Annabe.

“Good morning, J’Vania. What’s the rush?”

“Uhm. Nothing. Good morning.”

“Hmmm.”

“There it is again.”

“I’ve known you my entire life. I’ve never seen such a smile on your face. What are you up to? You didn’t even bind your hair back.”

I peeked over Annabe’s shoulder and into the city beyond anxious to get out and explore. “I’m going for a run in the forest.”

“What is it with you and the forest? Be back in a few hours as we need to get you ready for your trip.”

“I will!”

“And bind your hair back!”

I ran past Annabe and out into the city, disappointed that it looked like I had missed Trene. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to see him so much, but one look at the forest and the colors there and I ran onward to the rocky outcrop that overlooked the city. Once there I began touching and smelling the flowers and reaching out with my mind to sense and feel the animals around me. It was exhilarating. Finally, I sat down and looked over the city, absorbing the beautiful sight.

“Don’t tell me you’re running away again.”

Looking up, I saw Trene and shook my head. “I promised my father I would give you a chance.”

“May I sit?”

“Of course.”

Trene sat down and reached out to touch my unbound hair. “I’ve never seen your hair unbound. It’s spectacular.”

“You do know it’s against the rules for us to be alone together.”

“We were alone together yesterday.”

“If you had ill intent towards me, I think I would have seen it already.”

“You’ve changed, J’Vania.”

“Perhaps I finally recognized my place in this world and come to terms with it. Hold out your hand.”

Without hesitation Trene stretched out his hand. I connected to a bird nearby and flew down and landed on it. I had the bird peck lightly at his palm before letting it fly away.

“Did you do that?”

I nodded.

“Please don’t tell anyone or show anyone else that.”

I felt a little chastised. I was so excited about my ability. It then donned on me that maybe he really was interested in me. “Why?”

“You know why. Your discipline skill is greater than anyone’s I’ve ever known or heard of before. You can control the animals, not just speak to them.”

“I have an idea as to why, but why do you care?”

Trene stood and stepped away a little. People were coming. “When I first met you, you were angry, withdrawn, and upset. I was drawn to you like any man would be and I knew my place. I was chosen by your parents. I have a duty to provide for you and to protect you. Yesterday… something changed in you. It was as if you first took notice of me and it was as if I first saw you. There is a genuineness to you. Before yesterday, I was doing my duty, but today… I look forward to…”

“Princess. We feared you might be lost in the forest again and came to make sure you are all right.”

I stood and smiled. “Everything is fine. Trene was just telling me I shouldn’t be alone out here and wished to escort me back into the city.” I glanced at Trene and smiled.

“That’s very honorable of him. We can ride ahead as you walk back.”

“Thank you for checking up on me.”

The guards, or more like protectors, rode on ahead and I turned back to Trene. “You were saying?”

“That’s the second time you lied for me. By all rights I could be punished for my transgression.”

“Which transgression is that? Coming out to find me two days ago, stepping unarmed in front of a daxu to protect me, or trying to get to know me better?”

We began walking and I kept my eye on Trene. He is very easy on the eyes.

“The rules are in place for a reason. There are men out there that would take advantage of you if only to achieve the bonding and deny anyone else the right to be with you.”

“You care about my vanity. You risk your life for me when I have been nothing but disrespecting of you and our positions. I’m sorry for that. You didn’t deserve my anger. You’re an honorable man and any woman would indeed be blessed to find themselves in my position.”

We walked in silence for a while. “I need to warn you, Trene. Yesterday Kaldet Othar made a veiled threat. He sees you as an obstacle to what he wants.”

Trene became visibly angry. “He has no right! He shouldn’t even be here.”

“I say this as I don’t wish harm to befall you, but know this; I will never give myself willingly to any man that I don’t love.”

Trene smiled. “You do care.”

“Maybe a little. Did you know that I’m going to Deni Vada tomorrow?”

“Your father came to see me last night. You know what this means?”

“Not really.”

“The city will come out in force to see you. Your beauty is legendary and with the publicized promise of our mating, you will become their leader. They’re very curious.”

“You’re telling me this to make sure I’m on my best behavior.”

“The thought never crossed my mind.”

***

I had gone back to my room to contemplate all that had transpired. My entire conversation with Trene had felt seamless and smooth. There were no times that I paused to feel what J’Vania would say, or for me to seek tidbits of protocol or knowledge. It was simply there.

It’s as if all my longings and desires are somehow melded with J’Vania. The idea of being with Trene, a male, didn’t bother me at all. It was as if my sexual orientation had been supplanted by J’Vania’s and my longing for a family and someone to love had supplanted her lack of commitment and antagonism towards her parents.

There was a silent beep inside my head from the communicator. If the Pegasus needed to reach me, this was a way for them to do so without alerting those around me. Since I was safe in my room, I tapped the communicator and opened the channel.

“J’Vania here.” I caught myself. “Sorry, it’s Mark.”

“Henry here. Mark, we just received a communication from Demeter Prime.”

“I thought that wouldn’t happen until tomorrow?”

“They relayed the message shortly after the transference took place. Mark, I’m very sorry to tell you this, but your body on Demeter Prime went into a seizure and died.”

I felt this blow deeply. Not for me, but for J’Vania. We killed her. My joyous mood plummeted.

“Mark, are you there?”

“We killed her, sir. Our lack of research into this civilization killed her. I’m… I’m J’Vania now. Forever.”

“Listen, Mark. We can still use you.”

“You don’t understand, Henry. What we’re doing… How we are doing it. It’s wrong. We killed her.”

“Mark… This happens sometimes. It’s rare, but it happens. You can complete the mission and come to work with us. You don’t need to…”

“No Henry. I’m done. I’m done with all of this. I’m done with the lies. I need to come clean to these people and accept my fate.”

There was a moment of silence before Henry spoke again. “They’re sending Lucius here. When they analyzed the brain mappings, that’s when they discovered the people on Shalim IV are vastly superior to us. It’s why you’ve merged so rapidly. You must know that even if we transferred you back today, at this very moment, you would no longer be who you used to be. I doubt either of you would have survived the reverse transference.”

“When?”

“When what?”

“When will Lucius be here?”

“A week. It will take him that long to teleport from location to location until he reaches the Pegasus.”

“I’m not doing this anymore, Henry. Tell Lucius not to come here. These people don’t need Earth. I can’t believe we killed her. This whole stealing other people’s bodies is wrong. It’s lying to them and putting them at risk.”

Another pause. “You’ve given me no choice, Mark. Clearly, you have reached synchrotized psychosis and are not thinking logically. I’m authorized to tell you that you’re no longer considered an Earth citizen. From here on out, you’re on your own. You’ll have no further communication with the Pegasus and your communicator will be disabled. I hope you enjoy your new life. Henry out.”

There was a click and the connection was terminated. I grabbed the communication device from behind my ear, and angrily threw it from my balcony into the lake below. My emotions overwhelmed me. I killed J’Vania. My grief overcame me and for the next few hours I curled up on my bed and cried.

I’m J’Vania now. My life as I know it is gone. There is no more Mark Gaston. Earth has turned its back on me.

I sniffed and sat up, wiping the tears from my cheeks. I have few options. I can live my life here as J’Vania. I can kill myself for what I’ve been a part of. I can confess everything. What would J’Vania do?

As I thought about J’Vania, a place came to mind. There was an altar, a gazebo next to the lake’s edge that J’Vania used to go. Getting up, I made my way through the city to the lakeshore. I entered the beautiful place and sat down on a bench next to the water’s edge. I stared at nothing in particular.

“I haven’t seen you come here for years.”

Looking up, I saw J’Vania’s mother and my heart grieved but I no longer had any more tears in me. I hugged her as she sat down.

“You’ve been so distant for so long. I haven’t felt the warmth of your hug in ten years. You made me so happy yesterday to hear how you would make an effort and that you were willing to go to Deni Vada tomorrow.”

I struggled with the right thing to do. By telling the truth, I will hurt so many people. People that are a part of me now. I love them.

“Maybe you could give me some advice, Mother? What is better? To free yourself of guilt but hurt others in the process, or to keep the guilt to yourself and assure that others are never hurt?”

She was thoughtfully quiet for a few moments. “That depends on many things. Where does the guilt come from? Does it come from something you intentionally did to harm or hurt someone else, or do you feel guilty because despite your best intentions, someone got hurt? What matters most are the intentions of your heart.” Tretaska placed her hand on mine.

It was never my intention for harm to come to J’Vania. It was an accident. Whether I had come or not, Earth would have come. Exposing the truth when I will forever be J’Vania will only take away their daughter. I have J’Vania with me.I’m greatly saddened by her loss. I hugged Tretaska like she was the mother I never had.

“It’s been so long since I felt your love, J’Vania. I’m always here for you.”

“Thank you, Mother.”

There was a settling in my heart. I need to set aside Mark and fully become J’Vania. I just hope I can be everything they want in a daughter.

We sat there a long time. Annabe found us still holding onto one another.

“That’s a sight I’ve missed seeing. It has to be nearly ten years since I saw the two of you getting along so well.”

“I suppose you’re looking for J’Vania to help her pack for tomorrow?”

“That was the intent. Of course, J’Vania’s been a little flighty today. She’s been hard to track down. I heard our people found her at the edge of the forest with Trene earlier today.”

“He saw me out there and was making sure I was all right.”

“Why do I get the feeling you’re warming up to the idea of having him around?”

“I’m just honoring my promise to Father.”

“Hmmm.”

Mother bent down and kissed me on my forehead before standing. “I’ll let you two be to get ready for tomorrow. I have some packing to do on my own.”

Annabe took my arm in hers. “It’s been ages since Z’Anis had a royal wedding.”

“I’ve not agreed yet.”

“You will. I don’t need to be V’Rean to see how you look at Trene.”

“He told me that the citizens of Deni Vada are anxious to see me. You think he was joking?”

“If anything, I bet he understated it. Who in Z’Anis hasn’t heard of the beauty of J’Vania? They will all come out to see you when you arrive. We need to make sure you look presentable.”

“You’re enjoying this too much.”

Annabe smiled. “Do you know what your wedding will do for my love life? There will be dozens, maybe even hundreds of handsome, eligible men there.”

“Then maybe you should be the one all dressed up. I have very little say in this so it doesn’t matter that much what I wear.”

“You say this now before you meet Trene’s parents?”

“If I say let’s pick out something that would cast me in a good light would that confirm that I want to make a good impression?”

“Confirming what I already know. Yes.”

***

When I woke the next morning, I was eager to get going. I was anxious to see Deni Vada, but perhaps even more anxious to see Trene. My sleep had been fitful as every time I woke up I wondered if not telling the truth was the right thing. Earth was coming and I had told Henry this planet wouldn’t want to join an alliance. I realize that I finally had everything I ever wanted and I didn’t want this planet or culture influenced by Earth in any way. They abandoned me and have shown themselves to be greedy and uncompromising.

Even as I stretched, I felt those thoughts that had kept me awake much of the night become less worrisome. Henry had said I reached synchrotized psychosis and yet each day I wake I feel even more deeply connected with who I am as J’Vania which would indicate I’m still adapting some. The definition of psychosis is a severe mental disorder in which thought and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality. The Academy coined the phrase after early transferences resulted in people that could no longer grasp who they were originally. Maybe that’s how I would feel upon returning to my old body, but I sense that it was the differences that melded me into something better than I ever was before.

My talk with mother yesterday did much to ease my guilt, but I still clung to the loss of J’Vania. It made no difference to me that she had been unhappy and even tried to commit suicide. I had stolen her life but I do realize it was never my intention to harm her and now that I’m stuck, I must do everything I can to honor her life.

Knowing we would be traveling soon, I got up and changed into the outfit Annabe suggested I wear for our journey. It would take several days to reach Deni Vada. This surprised me that with their superior technology there was no flying transportation or teleportation. Travel was simple and we would be using the wraqorgs. This was part of the charm of Z’Anis that I had become enamored with.

I had just finished getting ready when my door chirped and I found Annabe waiting for me.

“Good morning, Annabe! I have something for you.” I slipped a beautiful blue flower into her hair above her ear.

Annabe smiled. “What’s that for?”

“To thank you for helping me get ready for the trip today and your sage advice through the years.”

Annabe gently cupped my face and turned my head from side to side.

“Is something wrong with my hair, Annabe?”

“I’m looking for signs of a blow to your head. On one hand, I’m grateful you look fine, but on the other, you’ve blossomed into someone I’ve always hoped you would become.”

“Perhaps I just needed time to help me realize what’s most important in life.”

Annabe took my arm in hers as we walked through the hallways. “What are the most important things in life?”

“Love, relationships, thankfulness, and kindness. I’m thankful you’ve always been there for me even when I wasn’t very kind. I’m sorry for the way I’ve been acting.”

“You sure you weren’t bitten by something?”

“I hope to prove to you I’m a changed person but I know it will be hard to rebuild your trust in me.”

“You’ve always have my trust, but I appreciate your efforts and concern.”

We moved out into the courtyard where there was a relatively small group of men and women on wraqorgs and a few hovering coaches that would be pulled by several wraqorgs. Having J’Vania’s memories made these things familiar to me, but I was still impressed by the coaches and wondered why they didn’t use more technology to make their transportation better. It was as if they had the technology but were deliberately choosing to only use selective ones.

I received hugs from mother and father and with everyone here I was directed to one of the coaches. I spotted Trene, who tipped his head towards me. He was riding a wraqorg.

“Would you all mind if I rode a wraqorg instead of traveling in the coach?”

My father looked at me with some suspicion. “You’ve never ridden one before. Why now?”

“I’d rather be out in the fresh air and shouldn’t I be trying to get to know Trene better?”

“I’ll allow it on one condition. You ride one around here first to make sure you’re comfortable on them and can control them.”

J’Nel waved at one of the men to bring a wraqorg over. The large animal lowered its head to my hand and I had no issues with communicating to it. With help from one of the men, I was lifted onto its back and I moved the beast over next to Trene.

His eyes were wide with surprise. “J’Vania, Princess of Dronaii, riding a wraqorg. I would have never believed it.”

“I’m supposed to show father I can ride before he will let me continue the journey on one. How about a race to the garden fountain and back?”

“A race? Have you ever ridden before?”

“No, but have you so quickly forgotten the bird?”

“That’s cheating.”

“Then I’ll give you a head start.”

“What do I get if I win?”

“I’ll serve you dinner tonight, but if I win, you must tell me your discipline.”

Trene grinned. “All right.”

Annabe had walked up and stood next to me. “Is this wise, J’Vania?”

I smiled and turned to Trene. “You better get going.”

Trene laughed and took off. I waited ten seconds before I urged my wraqorg to chase after him. Being smaller and lighter, my wraqorg had an easier time maneuvering and soon I was on the heels of Trene. Trene rounded the fountain and bolted for the coaches. I pulled along neck and neck before telling my wraqorg to slow down and let Trene win.

I looked down on father. “Was my riding acceptable?”

“I still think you would be more comfortable in the coach, but if you wish to ride, I’m fine with that. You handled the wraqorg like an expert.”

With that settled, I rode next to Trene as we left the city grounds and headed southeast into the forest.

Trene had been silent for a little while, but I was simply thrilled to be outdoors and seeing all the beautiful sights. Finally, he turned to me. “You let me win.”

“Why would you say that?”

“You could have easily told my wraqorg to slow down.”

“Now that would have been cheating.”

“You still held back.”

“I didn’t want you to lose your mystery and if I was honest, winning was never my intention.”

“You wanted to serve me dinner tonight?”

“I’ve wronged you and wish to make that up to you. Serving you dinner is the least I can do.”

“There’s no need for you to make anything up to me.”

“Yes. There is.”

“Then I will look forward to it.”

We rode along in silence for a few more minutes and I took a few moments to contemplate my new body. While I felt a synergy with the wraqorg, I felt my body bounce and move in a graceful, if not, sensual way. The melding of my mind with J’Vania’s body has been so rapid and yet I felt completely at peace with it. Glancing over at Trene, my body warmed at the thought of being near him.

Trene caught me staring at him and he smiled. “Why the change of heart, J’Vania?”

“I was upset that I had so little control over my life and that my future husband would be chosen without my input. Over the past few days, I’ve examined my options. Had I been given my own choice, I would have possibly considered you after Tolem Cantus.”

“Tolem Cantus? The same Tolem Cantus that spent a year living in a cave to get closer to bioluminescent minerals. He’s a little eccentric and sort of thin and pasty.”

I started to giggle. “But he’s so witty and charming when he talks to his minerals.”

Trene turned his wraqorg around.

“Where are you going, Trene?”

“If you really want Tolem, then who am I to stand in your way. I’m going to tell your father we should honor your wishes.”

I raced after him. “Don’t you dare!”

Trene began laughing when I sensed something wrong in the forest just off the main trail. I stopped, dismounted, and stepped into a glade to find a small deer-like animal that seemed to have an injured leg. Reaching down I felt my L’Farnia discipline begin to flow and the creature’s leg healed. It stood, nuzzled my hand, and scampered off into the forest. I stood and turned around to see Trene and my parents standing there behind me. The entire group had paused for me.

I looked between them all and felt an unspoken combination of chastisement, bewilderment, and a little awe.

Father turned to Trene. “If you don’t mind, I think J’Vania should ride with us for a while.”

Trene gave a nod that showed he was somewhat concerned. “Understood. We should get back to the caravan.”

Nothing was said as I was led back to the floating coach. Annabe tapped a seat next to her and my parents sat across from me before the caravan began moving once again.

“When were you going to tell us about your disciplines?”

“I… I wasn’t going to until I decided about Trene.”

Father looked at Annabe. “You knew?”

“They only just manifested. I’ve known for a day.”

Mother looked at me with such compassion. “It won’t change our mind, J’Vania. We still think Trene is the right partner for you, but you should have come to us. What you did just now… It’s more than I’ve ever seen. If people knew, it would re-ignite a fury of requests for your hand. Ones we would be hard pressed to ignore.”

Father took my hand. “Tell is about your T’Moni discipline. It must be strong since you were able to ride the wraqorg so easily.”

I took a deep breath and told them about the daxu and the bird. Even the part where I could see through their eyes and brought the bird back to life.

Mother turned to father and grabbed his hand. “I don’t understand why her discipline power is so great. I’ve never heard of anyone’s being so strong before even with a single discipline let alone two.”

Father turned back to me. “How much does Trene know?”

“He knows a limited amount about my T’Moni and just what he saw me do now.”

“When we stop for the night, we will all meet with Trene. He must not speak about your disciplines. As long as you’re remotely interested in Trene, then word must not get out.”

“I understand. I’m sorry for not telling you. I was worried what little chance I had to choose my own path would be taken from me.”

“We made a promise and we intend to keep that promise. The decision is still yours, however you must be careful. Disciplines are no trivial political matter. Nations that lack certain disciplines in their royal families are always looking for ways to bolster their status.”

“I’ll be very careful from here on out.”

***

I travelled with Annabe and my parents the rest of the day and when we stopped for the night the coaches turned into cozy sleeping areas. This was the closest I’d ever been to camping in my life, my T’Moni discipline gave me an immediate comfort with the forest and the beasts that roamed them. I had no fear and was even excited to be in the wilderness for a night.

When dinner was prepared, I found Trene and brought him his plate of food. “As promised, sir.”

Trene pulled me over to a log to sit where we had some privacy. “How bad is it?”

“You mean with my parents?”

He nodded.

“They have no desire to change their decision but warned me to be very cautious.”

“I thought I lost you back there. Do you know how many nations are anxious to get a hold of a royal with L’Farnia skills? Your T’Moni guided you to the injured creature and you fully healed it.”

“I brought a bird back to life the other day as well. It’s both wonderful and frightening at the same time.”

“We never finished our conversation earlier about Tolem Cantus.”

I looked down past my breasts and smoothed the silky skirt covering my thighs. “I’m not interested in Tolem Cantus. Never was. He talks to minerals of all things.”

“Please don’t fool with me, J’Vania. Not when it comes to your heart. I’ll gladly step aside to any man that you wish to be with as I wish you to be happy.”

“That’s very kind and honorable of you, Trene. Few men in your position would be so willing. I’m sorry if my joking upset you.”

“I quite enjoy your sense of humor when you let it loose. Almost as much as when you undo your hair.”

“There’s no other woman you would rather be with? To be fair, I must offer you the same graceful exit from this arrangement if you so choose.”

“Well… come to think of it, there’s Friesta Tyormay, Princess of Haenz. She’s quite a gifted artist, crafting wall hangings from animal dung.”

I knew he must be joking, but I lifted my chin and looked him straight in the eyes. “Then if that’s who you want to be with, I will have Father speak to you about releasing you from our arrangement.”

“You would do that for me?”

He seemed sincere in his request. “Of course.” I stood, my heart was suddenly heavy.

His warm hand found mine and pulled me back down. “I almost couldn’t keep a straight face. J’Vania, there are none that compare to you and I have no desire to get out of the arrangement. I’m quite looking forward to it. I hope in some small way, you are too.”

“I still wish everything was on our own terms, but I’m looking forward to it as well.”

“So, you accept then?”

I smiled. “I still have to see your city and meet your parents. It would be unwise on my part to make a decision solely based on your smile alone.”

“Maybe we should divert to my spare parents I have on retainer just in case then.”

I stood, stretched and looked up at the myriad of stars. From this location in the galaxy, the Milky Way looked so much brighter. “Have you ever wished to travel beyond Z’Anis?”

“Not when I know such beauty exists here,”

The two moons of Z’Anis had risen and cast a warm glow on Trene and the forest surrounding us. He gave me such a comfortable feeling and the way he looked at me in this moment sent shivers down my spine. “Tomorrow is a busy day for us both. Sleep well, Trene.”

I turned to go and his voice caused me to pause. “T’Kani. It’s my discipline.”

Turning back to Trene I leaned down and kissed him on the cheek. “Now there’s no more mystery to you. What will I ever look forward to?”

His hand touched my cheek. “I can think of several things that come to mind.”

I flushed with warmth. “Then I’ll leave you to ponder those things as I head to my bed. Have a good night, Trene.”

As I walked back towards the coaches, I fought the desire to sneak back to him. I’m J’Vania now. My life before seems so distant.

Climbing up into the coach, Annabe watched me closely as I slipped under the covers of the bed there.

“Hmmm.”

“I was just getting Trene his dinner since that was our bet this morning, Annabe. Nothing more.”

“You’re flushed. Unless you went for a run in the forest, I’d say you’re enamored with him.”

“I could get used to him.”

“Hmmm.”

Annabe slipped into a bed that was next to mine, but her feet got stuck partway in. I started giggling.

“Why you, scheming, joke-playing, girl! You short-sheeted my bed.”

“Wasn’t me.”

Annabe was quickly righting the sheets. “Liar. Good night, Princess.”

“Good night, Annabe.”

***

We travelled for another day and slept one more night before waking up to rain. Due to the rain it was recommended I stay in the coach but as the morning went on the rain stopped and the sun came out. The caravan paused as we reached the edge of the valley where we looked down upon Deni Vada. I had thought Dronaii to be gorgeous, but Deni Vada was even more beautiful.

I stood and overlooked the landscape of snow-capped mountains in the distance, waterfalls, lakes and rivers for as far as the eye could see. Rivers snaked their way from four major valleys through lush forests, lavender-colored meadows, and worked their way to what was a vast sea beyond the city. Deni Vada was formed of white stone and glass spires that gleamed in the sunlight. Curving walkways of stone and flowers guided my eyes into the heart of the city.

Annabe took hold of my arm. “We need to get you changed, J’Vania. I can already see people lining the streets to catch a glimpse of you.”

“I’d like to ride in if possible.”

“I don’t think any princess has ridden a wraqorg into Deni Vada. It will make quite a statement.”

I turned around to see Trene standing behind me. “I’ll stay in the coach if you think it best.”

“By no means. It would be hard for the citizens to see you in the coach. I think the wraqorg is a good idea. You can even ride next to me.”

“How many cultural taboos would that shatter?”

“A lot.”

I smiled. “Then I’m all for it.”

Annabe took me back to one of the coaches where she helped me into a stunning, glittering, flowing silver gown that showed my midriff and thighs but had a longer trail that swept gracefully behind me. She even placed a golden chain around my head with three amethyst-like jewels that dangled along my forehead and highlighted my eyes. We unbound my hair and spread it carefully over my shoulders. For the first time I truly felt like a princess.

Stepping back out of the coach, I could see Trene and others catch their breath and Trene’s eyes looked me over from head to toe.

I moved over to Trene and asked him what I should expect from the day.

“From here, it will take nearly an hour to enter the main part of the city. We will then go straight to see my parents and then you will have time to relax in your apartments before we have a citizen dinner in your honor. That will be followed by an evening tour of the city.”

“That sounds like a lot of people to impress. There are no underground tunnels we could use so no one knows I’m here?”

“Too late for that. I can already spot a small contingency riding out to great us.”

“You call that small? I see over one hundred mounted people down there. Do they do this every time you return?”

“Never.”

“Annabe?”

“Yes, Princess?”

“Any words of wisdom?”

“Try not to offend anyone. They’re going to be your citizens at some point in the near future. Smiling might help.”

I sighed and looked back at the serene peaceful forest before turning back and mounting the wraqorg. Annabe took care to spread the back of my dress across the back of the wraqorg. As soon as we were all settled, the caravan moved forward and Trene pulled up next to me.

“You look stunning, J’Vania.”

“My only wish right now is to not disappoint anyone.”

“Just be yourself and try to relax. Ever since the first announcement there has been a building excitement within the city. While the citizens never knew when you might first arrive here, they’ve been planning these events and days for the past year.”

“So, no pressure at all then.”

Things were quiet for the next ten minutes. I tried to focus on the beauty of the surrounding to keep me from turning around. Putting myself in the shoes of the citizens, I would be anxious to get a glimpse of the people that will be ruling them, even if we are mainly figureheads. Nobody wants a tyrant and it was obvious the people took pride in their city for as we approached, I couldn’t see a blade of grass or a flower out of place.

We paused when the contingency joined us and conferred with Trene. They split up and took their places. Half went in front of us and the other half fell in behind. They were all dressed in their finest uniforms of red and gold.

J’Vania had led a pretty sheltered life in her home city. It seems she always wished to travel but once it was clear her beauty began catching the eyes of men, her mother and father were in no hurry to give her any additional publicity. This seems to have grieved J’Vania, but I see it as protective and caring.

Each day that passed I had felt more and more at home in this place and in this body. My heart still ached for J’Vania’s death but I’ve tried to focus on the benefits of my being here in her place. The people of Z’Anis will soon be forced to decide upon an alliance with Earth. With my position and role here I could assist in that process to everyone’s mutual benefit. I’m still shocked that the Academy never spoke about life on the frontier and how Earth would take by force that which they desired. I was always led to believe Earth was benevolent.

Looking down at myself, I could say I’ve never been happier. The synchronizing of my brain with J’Vania’s left me feeling completely comfortable in her body and yet there isn’t a moment that goes by that the subtle movements of my hair, the bounce of my breasts, or the slight sway of my hips failed to elicit a slight thrill in me. Glancing at Trene, I knew I was falling in love with him and I felt no strangeness in this at all. His handsome features called to my body like a siren’s song.

It was with these thoughts running through my mind that my smile became less forced. The day that had started out with rain had erupted with glorious sunshine, light breezes, and perfect temperature. The sun glistened on the meandering rivers and the sea; birds of all colors flew gracefully all around us. It was easy to forget trying to make a good impression and my smile was unhindered.

People were now lining the path that we were following into the city. There were just a few to begin with at the very outskirts, but more and more were visible as the gates appeared. These were good people. Kind. I could see it in their eyes and as their eyes sought mine I could feel their anxiousness dissipate.

Once inside the city, I could tell how much effort the citizens had put into every nuance of the path we followed. Far from the gray and glass cities of Earth, Deni Vada sparkled with cleanliness and vibrancy.

I watched as the people looked up at us. Trene was well loved and respected and I dare say there were more than a few tears from some of the ladies in the crowd. Many people reached for Trene and he would reach back to them with a touch of his hand, a kind smile, and greetings by name. I reached for Trene’s hand and paused our wraqorgs. That action solicited many smiles and cheers from the crowd. “Can we walk?”

Trene dismounted and I felt his strong hands around my waist as he lifted me down. Two men came and took the wraqorgs away allowing us to walk freely. It felt much better to be at eye-level with the citizens. Trene moved with confidence and grace as he slapped friends on the back and hugged others. The people smiled, waved, and shouted greetings and welcome to me, but it seemed like none dare touch me.

Ahead, there was a small commotion. Some of our caravan had stopped a pretty young girl from entering our path. She spun away from them much to their dismay and some angry shouts, but she tripped and fell on the stones just before me. The girl winced in pain and my heart went out to her. She was adorable. The men were reaching for her again but I was right there and I knelt down and stroked her fine hair.

“All you all right?”

I looked up to see the men standing around her. I put my hand up to hold them back. The girl sniffed.

“I wanted to give you some flowers. My knee…” She sniffed again.

I looked around carefully and pulled my gown over to shield us slightly. Lifting her chin, I looked into her eyes. “Shhh. Don’t say anything.” Using my L’Farnia discipline I healed her scraped knee and she smiled. “This is our secret.” I whispered to her.

She threw her arms around me and I gently lifted her up. The flowers had seen better days, but she handed what was left of them to me.

“Thank you. You’re very thoughtful to welcome me with such pretty flowers. What’s your name?”

“Trina. I’ve never met a real princess before.”

“You want to know a secret, Trina?”

“Sure.”

“I’ve never considered myself a princess.”

I set her back down and on her feet, pushed her hair away from her eyes, and watched her run gleefully back into the crowd.

“We apologize, Princess J’Vania. We’ve told the people to stay back and she slipped through.”

For a second I was irritated but one look in their faces and I could see they truly wanted me to feel safe. “There’s no harm done. I’m grateful for the welcome and kindness you have all shown me.”

As if to make a point that it was all right for people to get close to me, I reached out and touched hands with those of the crowd near me.

“Would you like us to take the flowers from you, Princess?”

“No, thank you. They’re a precious gift.”

With a nod, the staff moved back into the line and we continued deeper into the city. Trene had stood by quietly watching me the entire time.

“No doubt when the story of the little girl gets relayed throughout the city, they will instantly fall in love with you.”

“Then the feeling is very mutual. Deni Vada’s people are warm and generous. Who wouldn’t fall in love with them?”

“I saw what you did for her.”

“I’m sorry. I tried to be careful.”

“I don’t think anyone else noticed. You covered your actions well and all eyes were on you and your response, not the girl.”

There was something warm and inviting in Trene’s eyes and I leaned into him to whisper. The entire action didn’t go unnoticed by the crowd that cheered. “Would it offend anyone if we held hands?”

Trene smiled and took my hand in his. I kept my other hand tightly wrapped around the bundle of flowers but I felt Trene’s strength and warmth and that helped keep me from bursting into a puddle of grateful tears at the joyous crowd.

We slowly made our way to the entrance of the royal apartments. A large circular area was cleared of people providing enough space for the entire caravan. People stood on the sides and stretched their necks to get a look at me. A handsome man and a beautiful woman stepped forward. They greeted Trene with warm embraces before they turned to me.

“Mother, Father, I would like to introduce to you, Princess J’Vania of Dronaii.”

There was such warmth and compassion in their eyes. I had no idea what the protocol should be. Luckily, they took matters in their own hands. Trene’s mother grasped my shoulders gently and pulled me close to kiss me on the cheek.

“What a vision of pure loveliness you are. Welcome to Deni Vada, J’Vania. For now, please call me Elisia.”

“Thank you, Elisia. No words could have described the beauty of your city nor the warmth of its citizens. I’m more than humbled at the response.”

Trene’s father repeated Elisia’s physical greeting. “Please call me Raylor. I trust your journey was comfortable?”

“Very.”

“And Trene? Has he been honorable and respectful of you?”

I immediately had a witty remark come to mind, but it was too early to let my humor begin influencing these new relationships I was building. “He is the most honorable and respectful man I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. He represents you and Deni Vada extremely well.”

My parents and Annabe had been standing behind us and with my introductions made, they approached Trene’s parents and greeted them warmly.

“It’s been too long. J’Nel, but it is always good to see you.”

“I’ve been delinquent in my travels the past few years. We have much to discuss, Raylor.”

Raylor looked at me and smiled back at my father. “I completely understand why you might have stayed close to home, for I’ve not seen such a beautiful young woman in all of Z’Anis. The world has only heard rumors of her beauty. You were wise to keep her away from the other nations because the rumors simply don’t do her justice.”

Elisa took my arm in hers. “Come. You’ve all had a long few days. Let’s get you settled so you can refresh yourselves before the dinner starts.”

I looked back at Trene who seemed pleased with how the interactions went. “I thought you were joking about the dinner earlier.”

“Did I mention the dance as part of the dinner?”

My eyes must have gone wide because he smiled even more. I could have feigned being a little upset, but the thought of being close to Trene was rather intoxicating and I think he knew the effect he had on me.

Elisia paused at a door. “This is your apartment whenever you are here, J’Vania. Feel free to make yourself comfortable. Annabe will be just down the hallway. The dinner will begin in two hours and I’ll have someone come and get you. Your things have already been brought to your apartment.”

“Thank you.”

“I hope your stay will be very enjoyable for you.”

“I have no doubt that it will be.”

Annabe stayed behind while all the others headed towards the other apartments. “Did I see you holding Trene’s hand?”

“I was a little overwhelmed by everything and his willingness to hold my hand helped me.”

“Hmmm. I think you’re falling in love with Trene.”

I shrugged and smiled. “I could certainly do worse.”

“Why don’t you get rested up? I’ll come by in an hour to help you get ready.”

“Thank you, Annabe.”

I looked at the door and stepped forward into my room. I thought my rooms back on Dronaii were amazing, but this apartment was an entire suite that appeared to be perched on the southwestern corner of the royal apartments. Two huge verandas opened to the outside. One looked south over the sea and the other west towards the mountains and lakes. It was breathtaking. The room had all the amenities of my previous room and much more. There was even a massive closet filled with clothes and jewelry.

I carefully stripped out of my clothes and stepped into the heated bathing waters of the massive bath. As I luxuriated in the warmth and the surroundings I listened to the waves of the sea and bits of music that floated up from the city. This would be perfect if I was born this way. Mark Gaston was gone and I felt no loss whatsoever except for J’Vania’s life. If I could be blissfully ignorant of what had happened, that I had simply woken up as J’Vania without my earlier memories… I reminded myself that there must be a reason for all of this and I prayed that my life would accomplish something.

Thinking back to my days at the Academy, my trip to Demeter Prime, and my career goals to become part of an elite team it all seems laughable now. I was hopelessly blind and ignorant. I can’t even imagine a planet accepting Earth’s alliance now. Why give away your sovereignty or culture? Perhaps there are some planets that need the governance and structure Earth could give them, but not this one.

I looked down upon my body. There was no sense of foreignness to it any longer. It was beautiful and sensual, graceful and athletic. The people of Z’Anis regard their sexuality uniquely from any other planet’s that I had studied. Z’Anis’ culture was built upon monogamous relationships. The idea of one pleasing themselves was incongruent with the biological bond established during mating. Few crimes ever occur on Z’Anis, but mother had mentioned those born of corrupt seed. Kaldet Othar was like that. I could see it in his eyes that he could violate the sacredness of the loving bond between two people.

The closer I got to Trene, the more I yearned for his touch. It was as if this body already knew it belonged to him and no other. Deep within me I desired that unifying bond and looked forward to a life of exploring the pleasures of this body together.

I was flushed as I exited the bath and dried myself up before looking through the clothing. Because my body and mind as well wanted Trene, I found myself deliberately choosing styles I hoped would increase that growing connection I felt to him. I came across a violet gown designed for formal occasions. It was highlighted by golden-colored gemstones that reminded me of yellow diamonds. The diamonds highlighted my hair while the color of the dress material enhanced the color of my eyes. The gown covered a little more than usual outfits, but parts were so sheer that even though they covered my legs and back, they exposed the tanned color of my skin underneath. Checking myself in the mirror, it looked spectacular.

Searching around, I found gold hair chains that appeared to have been made to perfectly match my length of hair. The chains held my hair together every eight inches as they descended down my back. Where the gold of the chains offset the golden gemstones of the dress, violet gemstones bound to the chains did the same for my eyes and dress fabric.

My door chirped and Annabe was there waiting for me. I invited her in.

“I couldn’t have selected a better outfit for you, J’Vania.”

“Do you think this will make Trene like me more?”

“Like you? You must be blind if you don’t see the truth in how he feels for you.”

“Do you know something that I don’t?” I giggled. “Of course, you do, you little mind-reader.”

“Being V’Rean helps, but I don’t need my discipline to tell me he’s in love with you.”

We walked out onto the veranda. “I’ve been foolish and unkind. I never realized how much my parents were giving up for me or how they tried to protect me. I’m selfish, spoiled, and conceited.”

“You’re eighteen years old. What do you know about life yet? We’re all those things from time to time, but you’ve grown so much in the past days. You’re no longer a child but a young woman of incredible poise and grace. You’re still figuring out who you are. That’s expected of you.”

“Do you want to have children, Annabe?”

“Wow! Where did that come from all of a sudden?”

“The little girl we stopped for. Trina. She got me thinking.”

“Yes. I think about it, but I need to find that right person first. Have I ever told you how envious I am of you?”

“Envious that I don’t have a choice whom I marry?”

“Envious that your parents picked well. Trene is everything any woman would want and more. If you ask me, you’re very lucky.”

“I wouldn’t entirely disagree with you.”

Annabe smiled.

“Do you know what room Mother and Father are in?”

“I do. I can take you to them if you like.”

“I’d like to speak with Father before we go to dinner.”

Annabe led me out of my rooms and down the hallway to another lavish suite of rooms. Mother and father were both ready for the dinner. They looked pleased to see me.

“You look wonderful, J’Vania.”

“Thank you, Father. I just hope all that dance training you had me take will not cause you both any embarrassment. I have a favor to ask.”

“Anything.”

“I’d like to go with you when you meet the other Z’Utaji.”

“That’s an odd request. Why?”

“I see great concern in your eyes. If I’m to one day lead these people, I would like to know how best I can support them.”

“Let me meet with them tomorrow first so we can best understand what we’re truly facing. I applaud your desire to do all you can for a people you hardly know. You’re going to make a great queen one day. We can speak tomorrow night.”

When I looked upon my parents I felt such strong emotions come upon me. J’Vania had never been happy, but she also never truly told them what they needed to hear. I felt tears trickle down my cheeks. “Please forgive me. I’m so sorry for how I’ve behaved. I never fully understood what you sacrificed for me. I’ve been a horrible daughter to you both. I’m not worthy of the love and caring you’ve bestowed upon me.”

Their arms were around me in an instant and there was not a dry eye in the place. Mother’s lips pressed against my forehead. “I know how hard this has been for you. Little by little our decisions took your freedoms away. We never meant to harm you. It is us that need to seek your forgiveness.”

I shook my head. “I promise I’ll make you proud of me. I’ve been so self-centered.”

Father hugged me tightly. “We are both very proud of you and we love you unconditionally. There is nothing more important to us than your happiness.”

We hugged in silence for a little longer before we wiped our tears and let go. “One more favor?”

Father smiled. “What would you have of us?”

“Just you. If we get the chance, will you save a dance for me tonight? We haven’t danced together since I was ten.”

“I suspect you’ll have your hands full with Trene.”

“According to Annabe, I have no fears if I dance with you that he will stray too far.”

Father looked over at Annabe. She shrugged.

“Then I would be honored if the chance arises.”

Annabe and I turned to go but mother’s voice stopped us.

“How are things going with Trene?”

“I’ve already decided. Just don’t mention that to Trene yet. I want to make him sweat a little.”

“You agree to marry him?”

“Yes. He’s everything I would ever want in a man and more. I’m sorry I never gave him the chance before or trusted in your good judgement.”

“What about love?”

I smiled. “He’s growing on me. We’ll see you soon.”

Annabe rolled her eyes and dragged me from the room.

“That was unexpected.”

“The part where I asked their forgiveness or when I said I’d marry Trene?”

“All of it.”

I grabbed Annabe’s hand. “What I said to them applies to you as well. Please forgive me. I love you like the sister I never had and I want you to know how much you mean to me.”

“There’s nothing to forgive, J’Vania.”

“Then you’ll have to forgive me for what I do next.”

“What are you planning?”

“I can’t possibly live here without my best friend. I’m introducing you to every eligible man in this city and if they’re not good enough, I’m auctioning you off just so that you have to stay here with me.”

Annabe laughed. “Be selective. I’m not going to date someone that talks to minerals.”

***

The open-air circle that we arrived in with the caravan had been converted into a festive place with lighting overhead, tables and chairs spread around the circle capable of seating a thousand people. The center was left open for people to dance and there was music being played from a veranda overlooking the space. There were no formal tables for royalty, rather this was an informal gathering for everyone and anyone. I felt a genuine sense of community and fellowship.

My parents, Annabe, and I were led to a table where Trene and his parents sat. That was about as formal as it got. We had a number of citizens sitting with us and when one person got up to leave, another would soon take their place.

Elisia was ever the gracious host and insisted I try the various platters of foods, fruits, and my favorite, the sweets. Trene, in my opinion, was sitting too far away from me and I barely had a chance to talk to him as so many guests wanted to introduce themselves.

A woman sat down next to me and took my hand in hers. “Princess J’Vania, I wish to tell you how grateful I was that you let my daughter come to you as you entered the city. She can be a little precocious at times.”

“That was your daughter? Is Trina here tonight?’

“Oh my. You know her name. She’s at home. It’s been a busy day for her and she can’t stop talking about the beautiful princess that hugged her. You realize you’re the talk of the city tonight? My daughter’s story has spread like fire.”

Annabe had been a big help for me packing and had given me some Dronaii trinkets I could pass out as I saw fit. She was thinking ahead for moments like this. I pulled one out, a tiny violet flower perfectly encapsulated in a glass sphere.

I handed it to the woman. “A gift from me to her for the lovely flowers she brought me.”

The woman smiled and hugged me. “She will cherish it. Thank you!”

The woman held my hand a little longer before getting up and letting someone else take her place. After an hour of eating nibbles between chatting with people Trene finally rescued me and asked me to dance. Here I thought I would get out there with everyone else and blend right in, but such was not the case. The space completely cleared, a formal announcement was made, and I had to stand in the middle of a vast empty space with a thousand pairs of eyes staring at me. Apparently, this was the inaugural dance of the newly engaged couple for everyone to watch.

I was shaking when Trene took my hand as the music began to play and counting my good fortune that it was a dance J’Vania had memorized as a child. It was however a very intimate dance to reflect the upcoming wedding nuptials and it put me in very close contact with Trene.

As I slid around Trene and draped my fingers across his muscled chest, I began a whispered conversation. “I never knew when I learned this dance when I was younger what it was supposed to represent.”

“I’m trying not to think about it.”

“When I slide my fingers along your chest like this, you’re not thinking about how that symbolizes my body’s yearning for your touch?”

Trene stiffened. “You’re making this more difficult than it should be.”

“The essence of the dance is to demonstrate our love for each other and the passion that fills us to a point of ultimate desire and consummation of our bond. We want the people to experience that, don’t we?”

I was both speaking to distract myself from his presence, but there was something primal driving me deeper. The music continued and my body flowed without thought as to how I was moving.

“There’s a difference when people choose their partner and when we are chosen for each other.”

“You’re saying you would rather be with someone else? Friesta perhaps?”

“I’m not saying that. I just don’t want to dishonor you by dancing in any way that suggests we are truly and completely pledged towards each other.”

I stopped dancing to many audible gasps around us. Trene stopped as well and I stared up into his golden eyes. I bit my lower lip and knew I had no place to go but further and deeper. “I pledge myself to you, Trene Soome, for there is no greater man on all of Z’Anis that moves my heart like you do. We still don’t know each other well, but I know in my heart I… I…” I took a moment to compose myself. “I wanted to make you sweat a little, but I can’t keep up this charade that I‘m not falling in love with you. I can’t touch you and not feel the bond my body so desires. We should stop this now if you feel nothing for me because…”

“Stop the music.” Trene’s voice was loud enough for all to hear but he then softened it to a whisper for only me to listen to. “I suggest we start this dance over. I admit I was torn. There is no man that lives that would not instantly fall in love with you for your beauty alone, but I needed to love who is inside. Something happened in the forest, J’Vania. Something happened and I’ve seen you for who you truly are. I can’t tear my eyes from you, my heart couldn’t bear your touch knowing you were unhappy. But, to hear your words just now about your love for me has unchained my heart that was bound in honor and now free to give. In the past days I have fallen in love with you and I will never leave your side.”

I was lost in his eyes and hearing his words. Words that freed me from the inside out. “Start the music again.” I called out.

This was a different dance entirely. The world faded away and only the music and my own beat of my heart danced in rhythm. Our bodies swayed and touched one another in the most sensual way that I have ever felt before. When the music stopped and our movements stilled, I took a shuddered gasp of air. Trene’s hands cupped my face and he pressed his lips against mine.

The crowd cheered wildly and moved forward to congratulate us.

“I guess were getting married then?”

Trene smiled and kissed me again.

Annabe was the first one to my side. “I thought you wanted to make Trene sweat it out a little not all of us. That was by far the most romantic, sensual engagement dance of all time. Most of the women in the crowd nearly passed out.”

“Me too.”

Soon Elisia, Raylor, and my parents were there with us.

Mother hugged me tight. “Are we to assume the wedding is on then? It looks like you worked things out.”

I looked up at Trene and nodded. “As long as Trene wants me.”

Trene had his arm around me. “We can’t move the date up?”

Elisia hugged Trene. “You can’t imagine how much preparation the citizens of Deni Vada put into J’Vania’s arrival. There’s not been a royal wedding on Z’Anis for nearly fifty years. I doubt we could make it any earlier. I’m just pleased everything is working out. You make a very good-looking couple and I know you’ll be an excellent match of our son, J’Vania.”

Trene slipped his hand into mine. “Time for us to take an evening tour. We’ll leave you all to the festivities.”

I expected groups of people to follow after us, but I was pleasantly surprised when the crowd parted and let us stroll in peace through the city. We walked in silence for a while letting our hearts and bodies settle. I now felt totally complete and without any residual dichotomy within my soul. I leaned into Trene as we walked down streets illuminated by sparkling overhead lights and the rising moons.

We stopped at one of many canals that reflected the moonlight. “If the dance had continued another few seconds I’m not sure I could have contained myself.”

“I’m glad I wasn’t the only one feeling that way. I can’t imagine what will happen when we make love the first time.”

Trene kissed me. “It will be magical. I already feel completely bound to you. Do you think you could be happy living here?”

“I haven’t seen much of Z’Anis, but I’ve never seen a city or people so extraordinarily wonderful.”

“Tomorrow I will show you some of my favorite places. You sure you’re happy with everything?”

“Nothing on Z’Anis could take away my joy.”

***

The next day was a busy one. Now that the formalized announcement and dance were completed, the official date was proclaimed for the wedding, and a dozen committees sprung up overnight itching to hear from the royal couple what variations from the normal ceremonies we wanted. Trene had pulled me away long enough to show me his favorite places, including a fresh water swimming hole at the base of a waterfall.

When we finally made it back into the main part of the city, we were quickly ushered into a large conference room where father and twenty other Z’Utaji were waiting for us. Father had a grave look on his face as he pulled us aside.

“I told you about the ship orbiting the planet. There has been another incident. It appears a ship came to the surface yesterday. It landed in the forest between Dronaii and Deni Vada. You’ve…”

A loud voice sounded. “Let’s get on with this.”

I looked up towards a small raised platform and my blood rushed from my face. Kaldet Othar was addressing the crowd and his eyes bored deeply into mine. If anything, they were more menacing than ever before. My hand clamped hard around Trene’s.

Kaldet continued without looking away from me. “Let me recount my tale for those that just arrived. Having the strong discipline in Z’Utaji, I was called to Deni Vada to meet with you all to discuss the recent arrival on an alien spacecraft orbiting Z’Anis. I was traveling through the forest yesterday when I looked up to see a ship land near me. Men exited the ship and took me inside and told me about Earth.”

“What is it they want?” Someone from the crowd asked.

“Earth has been moving through the galaxy and building an alliance of human inhabited planets. The alliance works to share cultures and technology. Z’Anis is of interest to Earth and they contacted me to bring this news to all of you.”

I felt nauseous. “Father, what has this got to do with me?”

Father didn’t have time to respond as someone else asked a question. “What if we choose not to join?”

“Earth humans are very reasonable and compassionate. They have been studying us and believe we can learn much from one another. You may be surprised to hear that I wasn’t the first from Z’Anis to be contacted. J’Vania was.”

All eyes turned towards me.

“J’Vania won’t remember this at all as she was brought to the orbiting ship in a sleep state so her brain could be studied before being sent back to Z’Anis. I seem to recall J’Vania had lost some time in the forest not too long ago. They have invited J’Vania and me back to their orbiting ship to more fully explain everything.”

Trene stepped in front of me protectively. “They have no need of J’Vania. I will go in her place.”

Kaldet smiled in a way that left me cold. “These are their terms. We cannot ignore their vastly superior technology. I feel it is in all our best interests and safety to appear friendly and cooperative until we can better judge their motives. J’Vania is an important part of this trust we must build.”

I got up a little courage and stepped forward. I needed to understand what was happening and how the people of Z’Anis might be affected. “How long do they need us?”

“There is much to discuss. They promised to deliver us back to Z’Anis in one day.”

“I don’t like it, J’Vania. Not with Kaldet involved.”

I put my hand on Trene’s arm. “One day we will rule the people of Deni Vada together. As their future queen, I owe it to them to do everything in my power to protect them from harm.”

Trene’s face was firm and unrelenting. He turned to Kaldet. “We have no understanding of their superior technology you speak of. I, for one, don’t believe we should speak with them let alone send J’Vania.”

Kaldet sneered. “Let me show you the power of their technology.” He tapped a spot behind his ear. The room vanished around me and I found myself standing next to Kaldet on what could only be an Earth spacecraft.

Kaldet smiled. “Welcome to the Pegasus, Princess J’Vania.”

***

Kaldet grabbed my arm and dragged me through the ship to a transfer room. He ordered everyone out and sealed the door behind us.

“Forgive my brusqueness, but I’m a little cranky after a week of teleporting to get from Demeter Prime to this rusting hulk of a ship.”

“Lucius?”

“You’re quick.”

“Of all people, why did you transfer into Kaldet Othar? Z’Anis doesn’t need an alliance with Earth.”

“Kaldet just happened to be traveling alone. It was rather a nice random circumstance. I want you to see something.”

He led me over to a stasis pod where Lucius’ remains were held. He was clearly dead.

“Why would you transfer when you knew this to be the outcome? You killed Kaldet!”

He laughed. “You have no clue. I’ve been transferred into dozens of humans on planets all over the galaxy. The people of Z’Anis are vastly more evolved than us. Their brain maps are so different we can barely begin to comprehend them.”

“You’re stuck as Kaldet! You killed him just as I killed J’Vania!”

“When I first heard of the mistake, I laughed so hard. Our newest recruit being accidently transferred into the body of a woman. Then, when your body died within minutes of the transference and we analyzed the mappings, we discovered something truly amazing. J’Vania’s brain maps were so unique, she was never transferred out of her body. You were transferred into her and the two of you merged as one.”

“That’s why I feel like J’Vania. That’s why it was so seemless and quick. She’s truly a part of me.”

“You only understand the half of it. Not only have you two merged to become one, you are so much more than you ever were before. When I transferred into Kaldet, it was my experience in transferring into others before that made me realize the moment I was in this body, it was unique. I fully yielded to the merge. Kaldet had strong Z’Utaji and D’Qota before, but nothing compared to our new merged strength. I feel like a god.”

I paced the room. My mind was a mess of conflicting thoughts. “Earth turned its back on me. Henry Wilks said I had reach synchrotized psychosis. I’ve completely merged with J’Vania inheriting parts of her and she inherited parts of me. Z’Anis is my home now. I have family there. There’s nothing Earth needs of Z’Anis. We need to convince them to leave.”

“Still naïve, I see. You have stasis gel between your ears blinding you from the truth. Do you know what Z’Utaji is like? I can see back a hundred thousand years of Z’Anis culture and beliefs. I have all that knowledge at my fingertips. There are protocols and laws in place for such events as these. Laws that will enable me to become far more than a lowly prince of a Z’Anis nation. I can become a leader without limits to my power to negotiate the most influential alliance in Earth’s history.”

Lucius was bad enough before, but I could clearly see how his mind had become twisted through his merge with Kaldet. He was power hungry and greedy. “Z’Anis has little technology to offer Earth. They are peaceful and content people.”

“You’re correct in that their technology is of little use. It’s their people that are the true value. Transferring into them will take our Earthly race millions of years ahead of evolution in an instant.”

“You’ve lost your mind! I won’t allow it!”

Kaldet stared at me with a mixture of lust and anger. He grabbed my arm and I could feel every cell of my body erupt in pain. I couldn’t even scream.

“Enough of your little marital spat!”

Kaldet let me go and I collapsed on the floor. My L’Farnia discipline kicked in and I felt myself healing.

Henry Wilks looked between us. “I guess you go by J’Vania now. Get up and I want you both to come with me.”

I stood weakly to my feet and followed Kaldet and Henry into a conference room. When Kaldet used his D’Qota on me, I couldn’t use my L’Farnia at the same time. Pain seems to block my abilities. When the door was closed Henry brought up information on the screens.

“We’ve done further analysis of the two transferences to date. Lucius’ updates…”

“I go by Kaldet now.”

Henry cracked a crooked smile and continued. “Kaldet’s updates have greatly facilitated our research and it has become clear that Shalim IV offers something very unique to Earth. My superiors and I agree that no alliance will work. Once the people of Shalim IV discover our true motivation, there will be much resistance. The goal now is to harvest people as secretly as possible. This is where the two of you come in. You will both go back to Shalim IV and using your influence determine which people would be best for transference. This will require you both to become far more involved at the highest levels of the planet’s hierarchy.”

Kaldet lifted his chin. “I already have a plan for this.”

“And I refuse to participate! You can’t do this to these people!”

Kaldet laughed. “You don’t have a choice. As we speak one hundred battle cruisers are being sent here. If you fail comply, Z’Anis will be taken by force. You will keep your mouth shut and be my pretty bride or those you love will be the first to be killed.”

“What are you talking about me being your bride?”

“I see no reason to forego the deeply seated desire Kaldet had for you. Once I’m voted in as the Z’Anis Ambassador, I can choose any unmated woman for my wife. This will keep you close and under control.”

I was fuming. This can’t be happening.

Henry just seemed pleased the Pegasus was getting a front and center seat to prestige, wealth, and fame. “The plan is for you both to go back and work on building a semblance of an alliance. We can’t spook the people down there and start a war they will lose. Killing our most valuable assets from this planet doesn’t help Earth at all.”

“It’s all under control.”

“I can’t support this!”

Henry and Kaldet ignored me. I bolted for the door and ran for the teleportation room only to be stopped a hundred feet from the room with guns pointed at me. Henry and Kaldet ordered the guards to lock me up until the appointed time to send us back down.

When they closed and locked the door to the brig I sat down and wept. The only thing that eased the pain of betrayal was that J’Vania and I were one. It was why my disciplines were so much more powerful. I didn’t feel like two people, but I knew I wasn’t Mark or J’Vania, I was J’Vania with our blended souls.

How do I stop this? How can I keep Earth from taking over the people of Z’Anis. There must be something I can do.

***

My day in the brig was agonizing. I couldn’t sleep at all as I thought through multiple outcomes and scenarios. Getting back with father and Trene would allow me to fill them in. I could trust them. I could also perhaps sway the Z’Utaji members towards a vote to not appoint Kaldet an elevated role. That would put a damper on things. I must get to the right people as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, Henry and Kaldet had other plans for me. While Kaldet was teleported directly back to Deni Vada, they left me over a day’s journey away in the forest. Clearly, they were thinking ahead that I wouldn’t sit quietly and this would buy Kaldet all the time he needed.

I stood in the middle of the forest seething in anger. Reaching out with my T’Moni discipline, I sensed a daxu nearby and called to it. When the huge beast pushed its way through the trees and faced me it didn’t look very happy. I stepped up to it, placed my hand on its forehead and whispered softly.

“You’re not going to like this, but I need a ride.”

***

It had taken some time to figure out how to hang on, but the daxu responded well to my control and commands. We flew through the forest trails and cut a day’s journey down to six hours. I left the daxu about a mile from Deni Vada, sending him back into the forest with my humble thanks.

I ran the rest of the way stopping only to catch my breath at the conference room. I pushed the doors open and found Trene looking very anxious. He rushed into my arms.

Kaldet began speaking. “I can see they finally sent J’Vania back to Z’Anis safe and sound as promised. You’ve bestowed upon me a great honor today. Over the past one hundred thousand years, Z’Anis has only appointed two Ambassadors. This is an historic occasion and one that I will treat with the utmost of respect. I will represent all the people of Z’Anis to assure everyone’s safety and concerns during the formation of our alliance with Earth.”

“He has lied to you all!”

Father quickly came to my side. “J’Vania, there’s nothing that can be done. What’s been bestowed has been given. It wasn’t unanimous, but there were enough votes.”

“You don’t understand. Earth isn’t…”

“Shhh. Not here. Not now. Kaldet has complete authority and you could find yourself in an even worse situation.”

I looked up to see the glint of satisfaction in Kaldet’s eyes.

“While J’Vania and I spent time with the people from Earth, it was obvious they bestowed high value on J’Vania’s perspectives. They loved how concerned she was for the people of Z’Anis. To show a unified effort on our part, and in accordance with the precedence set from our past, I will take the unmated J’Vania as my wife so that we can work together with the people from Earth.”

Trene seethed but it was him that held me back.

“Never!” I was forced to whisper. “Take me out of here.”

Father and Trene pulled me from the conference room and back to my apartment where I could scream all I want.

“I will never give myself to that man! He is lying about everything. Earth isn’t here to share cultures and technology, they’re here to take our lives. Even now, if we fail to ratify an alliance, which is just a sham, one hundred battle cruisers are coming. I was told if I don’t comply with assisting them, they will begin by killing those I love the most. They threw me in prison and deliberately set me back on Z’Anis a day away so I couldn’t interfere with Kaldet’s plans to become Ambassador.”

I through my hands up in the air.

“But Kaldet painted a different picture.”

“Kaldet is getting everything he wants. Power… Control… Me…”

Trene came to my side and push some stray hairs from my eyes. “I’ll never let him have you.”

Father shook his head. “Kaldet is correct about precedence. He can take you as his wife and we have given him authority. Going against his wishes will be akin to treason.”

I was about to reply that I would accept being charged with treason when guards came and demanded that father and Trene leave. “We have been asked to secure the Princess J’Vania in her rooms. Under orders of the new Ambassador, she is not to speak with anyone until after the wedding.”

Trene whispered to me. “This isn’t over yet. I love you.”

I reached for him as they pulled him from my room and the door closed and locked behind him. I was locked in my room while Kaldet and Earth planned to take over Z’Anis.

That night I spent curled up on my bed in tears. There had been so many revelations in the past day. That J’Vania and I were one. That Earth was coming to destroy everything good about Z’Anis by taking over their bodies. That I’m now promised to marry Kaldet.

Running away wouldn’t solve anything for the people of Z’Anis, but I had no other options. I can’t save them and with one hundred battle cruisers coming to Z’Anis it would only be a matter of time before I was killed or forced into a situation that would be unbearable.

***

After waking and getting bathed and dressed, I was actively planning on ways to escape when guards came to my room. They quietly placed food on a table and left, only to have Kaldet, dressed in new clothing befitting his new position, stride purposefully in.

“I see you’re ready for the day, J’Vania. Since we’re engaged, I thought it appropriate for us to have breakfast together.”

“You know, engagement or not, it’s against our laws for you to be alone with me before the wedding ceremony is complete.”

“We live in new times and I can create new laws. I love it here. No one questions my authority. The people are such fools. Once they agree on something, they stick with it, even if it’s not in their best interest. Sit. Eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Suit yourself. I must tell you that for all the worlds I have been on, Shalim IV has the most beautiful women and you’re easily the most beautiful woman on this planet. I’ll take great pleasure in bonding with you tomorrow night. It’s only with great restraint that I sit here now and not ravage you before then.”

“Get out!” I pointed at the door.

“I haven’t finished my breakfast yet. Tonight, we will have our engagement dance and tomorrow we will be blissfully married.”

“I will never willingly give my body to you!”

He laughed. “It will be much more fun to take your virginity when you’re struggling. I despise women that simply lie back and let me have their way with them.”

I was shaking from fear and loathing. I turned away from him, but then turned back. “You have everything you want. Contact Earth and tell them to leave. Do the right thing and spare Z’Anis, spare Trene and my family, and I will give myself to you.”

His smile was frightening. “You’ve moved from denial, to anger, and to now bargaining very quickly. You really care about these people. If you don’t behave and give me what I want, then I know exactly who to harm first.”

I felt the color drain from my face. It was as if I was the little bird in his hand.

“I see I’ve made you upset. Try to think about tomorrow night as it will take your mind to more pleasant things. I’ll leave the rest of the food here for you. Good day, J’Vania.”

I watched him stand and leave as my anger seethed. I turned to the balcony and took a deep breath of fresh air. Descending the smooth exterior walls would be suicide. Suicide… If he couldn’t have me, what would he do then? I sighed in frustration. I’m just a pretty toy to him. He would find another and still get everything he and Earth wants. I could always end my life later, but while I have life, I can somehow fight back.

A bird flew up to me and landed on the balcony railing. It gave me an idea. Running into my room, I found something small to write on and wrote a note to Trene. Reaching out with my mind, I was now seeing through the bird’s eyes. I flew into my room and picked up the note with my beak and flew back outside. I circled several times until I was certain I had found Trene’s room. Once inside his room, I chirped and pecked to make noise to get Trene’s attention.

I watched as he slowly walked towards me. I nudged the note forward and watched him pick it up, nod, then write something on it. He handed the note back to me and I took it and flew back to my apartment. After dropping the note, I released control the bird and grabbed for the note as if it was a lifeline tossed to me.

‘J’Vania. Dress in travel clothing and pack whatever food you can easily take. I will come for you tonight before the scheduled dance.”

I have no idea what he was planning, but it put a smile on my face.

***

I was ready and waiting hours ago and silently cursing myself for not taking any combat training. I had no idea what Trene was planning, but I wanted to be as prepared as I could.

When the door chimed, I ran to it expecting to see Trene, but it was Annabe instead. She quickly registered my confusion and lack of enthusiasm.

“I convinced everyone you needed my help getting ready for the dance so that I could check up on you. Why aren’t you dressed properly?”

“I wasn’t expecting you, Annabe.”

“I got that impression when your eyes betrayed your lack of excitement when I walked through the door.”

“I’m sorry. It’s not that I don’t want to see you…”

“Do I need to ask what’s going on and why you’re dressed for travel?”

I bit my lower lip. “Uhm… no?”

There was a sound of two thumps outside in the hallways, then Trene opened the door and stepped inside, dragging the two guards with him. Annabe gasped as I rushed into Trene’s arms.

Trene looked over at Annabe. “What are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same question, but I see that something is in the works here that I’m not sure I should be a part of.”

Hugging Annabe, I realized this might be a good thing. “We’re leaving.” I looked back at Trene. “We are leaving, right?”

He nodded.

I reached for some thin fabric. “Hold your hands together, Annabe.”

She did as I asked but gave me a questioning look as did Trene.

“I’m being rescued. You were here to prepare me for the engagement dance when Trene broke in. You tried to stop us, but we bound and gagged you.”

Her eyes went wide. “You’re going to gag me?”

“Kaldet will use you against me if he thinks he can. By us gagging and binding you it will look like you moved on and were following Kaldet’s orders and would have turned us in. Tell them you were angry at me for going against Z’Utaji wishes.”

Trene caught on. “I must get J’Vania to safety and she’s right. Kaldet will use those she loves against her. I can take her away until we can find a way to fix this mess we’re all in.”

“All right, but I’m only doing this because you’re my best friend, J’Vania.”

I kissed her cheek and gagged her with more cloth.

Trene chuckled. “Quietest I’ve ever heard Annabe.”

Annabe looked exasperated and grunted a muffled “Really?”

I hugged Annabe one more time. “Sorry, Annabe.”

Grabbing my small pack of food, Trene took my hand in his and we rushed from the room. We kept to the shadows and slipped out of the apartments. I caught a glimpse of the space where the dance was about to begin, and it looked very subdued. Guards were stationed around the event. We haven’t had guards ever in J’Vania’s lifetime.

Instead of heading towards the forest, Trene turned towards the river.

“They’ll expect us to go a different direction. Are you ready to swim?”

“If it means getting away from Kaldet, I’ll walk through fire.”

The river water was cold and refreshing, and as we emerged on the far side we could hear sounds of shouting within the city. They had discovered our escape.

We moved quickly and silently into the forest. Trene led the way and seemed to know where he was going. After several hours of trekking, he pulled me into a cave.

“I used to come here as a child. We can hide here for the night before setting out again in the morning.”

“This is good. The cave will protect us from Earth’s orbiting ship.” Trene moved to kiss me but I placed my hand on his chest.

“Did Kaldet…?”

“No. I’m untouched and my heart only belongs to you. It’s just that you’re risking everything for me and you need to know the whole truth.”

“What truth?”

“Kaldet isn’t really Kaldet anymore. He’s a merged soul.”

“I’m not following you, J’Vania.”

“I need to start at the beginning when we lost time in the forest.”

***

I had explained everything to Trene. He deserved to know the truth and what Earth was planning to do. I loved Trene and I couldn’t maintain the lie any longer. I didn’t share I was a man before, but I did say I was merged with J’Vania with the intent of learning about Z’Anis, however the process didn’t work and J’Vania and I were melded into a single person.

Trene was silent for many minutes and I could feel moisture on my cheeks. I’ve lost him. I stood and paused at the cave entrance. Rain had begun to fall, and I stared into the darkness. “I guess I’ll go back. There’s no sense escaping and putting those I love at risk. I’ll yield to Kaldet and hope, in some way, I can change Earth’s plans. Maybe, one day, you can forgive me.”

“Wait! I don’t understand it all, but it clears up many things. The time we lost and how you changed. I was never in love with J’Vania until I saw the changes in you. J’Vania was cold, distant, and angry but from that moment in the forest, you’ve been loving, kind, and compassionate. This explains why your disciplines are so strong and why Earth covets what our people can do for them.”

“I’m glad you understand what’s at stake. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

I took a step towards the rain and forest but was stopped by Trene’s gentle touch on my arm.

“You never intended to harm the people of Z’Anis, did you?”

“No. I had only just learned what despicable acts Earth was capable of. I had been deceived my entire life and my desire was to never harm J’Vania, you, or anyone. I hoped I could find a way to avoid bloodshed like what other planets have experienced. I disagreed with their methods, but I was in no position to stop what was going to happen.”

The air was cool, but I wasn’t cold. I shook nonetheless.

“You pledged yourself to me.”

I nodded, unable to speak.

“I pledged myself to you; not the J’Vania before our time in the forest, but the J’Vania that stands before me now.”

“I… I release you from your pledge, but I can never release myself from the pledge I made to you.”

“Why can’t you release yourself?”

“Because I gave my heart unconditionally. I will always love you for I can’t do otherwise. Even if you hate me now I gave my heart in such a way that was deeper than any physical bond could ever create.”

“I don’t hate you, J’Vania. I love you and could no more release myself from my pledge than you could from yours.” His hands cupped my face and kissed me with enough love and passion that my knees began to buckle.

“I’m sorry for not telling you sooner, but I didn’t know everything. I thought I had killed J’Vania…”

“It’s all right. I can’t imagine what you went through. You mentioned the cave would protect us from Earth’s ship?”

“Earth has a ship orbiting Z’Anis. They have sensors that can track people on the surface of the planet. They can’t tell who we are, just that two people are together in the forest. The rock of the cave blocks our heat signatures.”

“So, we’re hidden for now. Will they immediately find us when we start walking again?”

“Not likely. Kaldet will have contacted the ship and they are most likely looking for us now, but their range is limited, and they will focus on the best avenues of escape. I think we’re safe for a bit, but as we head deeper into the forest, eventually they will find us.”

“Do you think Kaldet will give up chasing after you?”

“Kaldet always seemed evil and the Earth man, Lucius, was evil as well. Their merger appears to have compounded their desires and ruthlessness.”

“In other words, he is going to hunt you at all costs.”

“I saw it in his eyes. He’s obsessed.”

“Then we need to be prepared for a fight.”

“Where are we heading?”

“To the one place we might stand a chance. Escira.”

“Escira? I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s what I call it. Two years ago, when I came of age my T’Kani discipline emerged. A few weeks later, I noticed something else.”

“You have a second discipline?”

“I think so. The seventh discipline.”

“There’s only six disciplines.”

“It’s why I’ve kept it a secret. I call it K’Lora.”

“The root of Lora is technology, and K’ designates affinity. Affinity to technology?”

“I forget how knowledgeable you are.”

“It’s what I get for living an isolated life in Dronaii. How does it manifest?”

“I can sense technology and interact with it by touch. Kaldet had both our rooms locked. It’s how I got out of my room and into yours.”

“I’m glad you have that and not me. I hate technology. What is Escira?”

“After I first manifested K’Lora, I could feel a source of technology call to me. It felt different than the technology that surrounds us at the city. I travelled three days through the forest in the direction of the calling and found an ancient city. The city was long abandoned, and the forest had claimed it. Above one of the building remains was the word Escira. My discipline was increasingly active there. So much so, that it frightened me, and I returned to Deni Vada promising myself to never go back.”

“What do you think is there that can help us?”

“Old technologies. I could sense them and feel them much more strongly. I’m positive there are weapons there.”

“We don’t have weapons on Z’Anis.”

“We don’t now but it doesn’t mean we never did before. That’s what frightened me about Escira and K’Lora. I thought I was defective, born of bad seed. By exposing my secret, I was afraid I would dishonor my family.”

“At least we have a plan. Three days to get to Escira and find out if we have any hope at all.”

“I’ll always have hope as long as we’re together.”

***

The next day we pressed onward and moved as rapidly as we could through the dense forest. It was only a matter of time before the Pegasus found us and alerted Kaldet. I didn’t fear teleportation because Earth needed to keep things as quiet as possible and people disappearing from the planet would raise concern with the citizens. The Pegasus would find us by targeting our heat signatures and then send in a shuttle to confirm our identities before using a teleporter. Also, keeping in the dense forest and not in the open would make it very hard for teleporters to lock onto us.

I wasn’t surprised when I heard a shuttle pass overhead on the second morning of our journey. The Pegasus staff had been working overtime. Trene indicated there was an opening in the forest about a mile away that a shuttle could land in. We stopped and found a defensible position and I reached out with my T’Moni hoping to find a daxu, but the shuttle had scared them all away. There were, however, dozens of venomous squirrel-like creatures called lowkas. They were shy animals and people never had to fear them, but they would attack if provoked.

I squeezed Trene’s hand. “Keep an eye out on things. I’m going to see what we’re up against.”

Reaching out, I connected with a lowka and ran towards the forest opening. Staying high up in the trees, I looked down to see the shuttle and half a dozen men with pulse rifles emerge. Kaldet was also there. They were heading our way. I severed the connection and told Trene what I had seen.

“I’m going to try something different with my T’Moni. If it doesn’t work, we may have to run for it.”

“What will you try?”

“A lowka stampede.”

“A what?”

I closed my eyes and reached out with my mind to all the lowkas in the area. I guided them into position in front of Kaldet’s team, then enticed them to run for their lives by putting images of daxus in their minds. The poor creatures went crazy with fear and I reached out to connect to a bird to watch what would happen next.

I waited patiently and watched the man in front hold up a scanner as Kaldet’s team sought us.

“What’s that sound?” I overheard one of the men say.

Suddenly the trees and bushes began moving and dozens of lowkas jumped and leaped frantically into the middle of the team. The first man grabbed a lowka from his chest, but the creature bit him and ran off. It was a wild scene with men batting at lowkas as the lowkas bit and clawed their way through the team. Kaldet stood unperplexed by the creatures and the lowkas that touched him dropped to the ground spasming from his D’Qota. When the lowkas had finished passing through, three men of Kaldet’s team were already succumbing to the lowka venom. The Earth men were all spooked as they would have never seen anything like this before. They grabbed their now fallen comrades and dragged them back towards the shuttle. Kaldet was yelling at them but he stood his ground, picked up the scanner, and started walking our way.

I severed my connection. “Kaldet is coming. I scared off the other men, but Kaldet is still coming.”

As if to confirm, we heard Kaldet yell out. “We know you’re here, J’Vania. Give yourself up and I will spare your family.”

Trene whispered into my ear. “Go. I’ll take care of Kaldet.”

“You can’t. His D’Qota is too strong.”

“Only if he touches me. I don’t plan on getting that close. I’m just going to lead him away. Head east. There’s a deep gorge there. Go, now!”

Reluctantly we parted and went different directions. A few minutes later I could hear the crash of branches. Reaching out to another bird, I flew over the area until I spotted Kaldet and Trene. Trene was picking up large stones and throwing them at Kaldet, but Kaldet was closing in on his position fast.

Severing the connection to the bird, I ran back to their location just in time to see Kaldet grab Trene. Trene was writhing in pain. I rolled into the midst of them and tackled Kaldet, feeling only a short burst of pain from him before I rolled away. I reached for Trene and used my L’Farnia on him to heal him from Kaldet’s touch.

“You can’t beat us both, Kaldet. I can heal Trene all day long as he wrings your neck.”

“You care nothing for your family? I’ll have them tortured for your treason.”

“The citizens of Z’Anis won’t allow you to do that.”

Trene was now back on his feet and I could see him pull energy to him and rip a tree trunk from the ground. It was the first time I had ever seen T’Kani in action, and it was impressive. I could tell Kaldet knew he was outmatched by the two of us together.

“You have three days, J’Vania. You will yield to me in Deni Vada in three days’ time or I will begin by merging Earth citizens into your mother and father. You can’t stop the inevitable and you will be mine. It’s your choice, J’Vania. I can be reasonable, and we can do this without bloodshed.”

There was crashing in the bushes behind Kaldet and now I knew why Kaldet was so chatty. He gave an evil smile as he recognized I knew we were trapped.

Taking Trene’s hand in mine, I yelled. “Run!”

We ran with everything we had just as several of Kaldet’s team burst through the trees with their rifles trained on us. Branches shattered all around us as we ran even as Kaldet yelled at them to not hit me. Trene and I ran hard, and we had begun to distance ourselves when I skidded to a stop inches from the edge of a deep ravine. Trene’s hand pulled me back at the last second. Hundreds of feet below us water raged over sharp rocks. The forest continued the other side of the gorge, but it was nearly thirty feet to the other side. We were at a dead end, and we could hear Kaldet and his men approaching fast.

Trene grabbed hold of my waist. “Trust me.”

I stared into his eyes as he pulled energy into himself. “No…!”

I was hurled across the gap by Trene’s enhanced strength. I crashed into the trees and rolled through the underbrush. I was cut and bruised but otherwise fine. I looked back just in time to see Trene running for the edge of the gorge. He gave a superhuman leap just as a pulse beam hit him in his side. He spun in the air and crashed hard next to me.

I grabbed Trene and frantically pulled him into the trees to hide us both from Kaldet and his men. I poured my L’Farnia healing into him. He was unconscious, and his breathing was ragged and weak. I healed him until the wound in his side vanished and he stabilized, but his eyes remained closed.

I could hear Kaldet scream in frustration. “Three days, J’Vania!”

I laid myself down on top of Trene. My ear was pressed against his chest. His heartbeat was strong and his breathing was deep. I felt his arms wrap around my back and I looked up into his face to see his eyes flutter open.

“Definitely the afterlife for Z’Anis doesn’t have such beautiful women that would throw themselves on top of me like this.”

I smiled and snuggled into his arms until his hand slid to my ribs and I cried out in pain.

“Did I do that to you?”

“I crashed pretty hard into a tree.”

“The first rule of L’Farnia. Heal yourself. Are we safe?”

“Yes.” I laid there a while longer as I healed myself. Trene’s hands slid tenderly over my back and I could have stayed that way forever. Slowly I pushed myself up until I was standing and looking down at Trene. There was a burn and a hole in his shirt where the pulse rifle had hit him, but his body was now unscathed.

“Why did you get up?”

I blushed. “Do you know how many rules we’re breaking? I’m sure my thoughts alone are enough to have the Z’Utaji elders call me defective.”

Trene smiled one of his magnificent smiles that made all the troubles of the world go away. “Hmm. My thoughts were completely pure.”

“You know your ear twitches when you lie.”

“It does not!”

“It does.”

Trene held out his hand expecting me to pull him up. It was a ploy, however, and I found myself sprawled back on top of him. He rolled me over onto my back and I’m quite positive I’ve never been so aroused in my entire life. He gently traced the exposed skin of my neck and shoulder with his fingers before kissing me.

“Thanks for being disobedient and coming back for me. We make a good team.”

“You think your smile and pinning me to the ground makes up for flinging me across a gorge?”

“I thought it might be worth a try.”

With a single question, I broke the mood of the moment. “What am I going to do? It’s a day and a half to get back into Deni Vada. If we go further there is no chance I can get back in time.”

“You can’t yield to Kaldet.”

“I’m just one person, Trene. My life and what happens to me isn’t as important as everyone else on Z’Anis. He’s going to kill people. If I yield, that might buy us some time to figure out a way to stop Earth.”

“Kaldet and Earth won’t stop their plans if you yield or not. Your family, Annabe, and everyone else that loves you don’t want to see you hurt. Your sacrifice will hurt them as much as anything Kaldet could do. You can’t yield to his demands for it will solve nothing.”

“What do you think I should do then?”

“Come with me to Escira. I’m certain we can find something there to aid us.”

“Escira is still two days away.”

“It’s only a day away now that we’ve crossed the gorge. Going around the gorge would have added a day.”

“All right. We push hard and get to Escira by tonight. If we don’t find anything that will help us, we must turn back together so that you can throw me back over the gorge allowing me to be back in Deni Vada in three days. That gives us a half day in Escira.”

“You think you can keep up with me?”

“Easily.”

Trene stood and pulled me to my feet. “Let’s go then.”

***

I was quite flustered when we had first set out. Trene’s close proximity gave my body extra energy it needed to burn off and burn it off we did. Trene set a blistering pace through the forest and I had to put aside my thoughts of his perfectly chiseled body pressed against mine. Once I began to focus on the journey, I fell into a natural rhythm and I greatly picked up speed.

We paused only as the first signs of Escira began to appear and just as the sun was setting. The moons of Z’Anis would soon cast their glow on the overrun, ancient city allowing us a chance to explore through the night.

“Welcome to Escira.”

“It’s not what I expected to see. I thought all the buildings would be in complete ruins, but the material that was used has held up remarkably.”

Trene pointed out one mostly ruined building and the word ‘Escira’ above an old door frame. “This is as far as I explored.” Trene placed his hand on one of the walls and I watched his eyelids flutter. “This older technology calls to me more than any other. I think we should head slightly south. That’s where I feel it calling from the most.”

Trene took my hand in his as we made our way through an extensive city overgrown with vines and trees. I could feel and smell the air changing.

“We must be close to the ocean.”

“I smell it too. Let’s get up this rise and get the lay of the land.”

A few minutes later, we had scaled a rocky bluff and looked over the city. Further south, the ocean could be seen. A river cascaded down a remote valley and worked its way through the overgrown city. It split and divided around a large island before emptying into the ocean. On the island stood a large building, completely untouched by the forest.

“That’s the source.”

We made our way down to the edge of the river. It was much larger than it appeared from the distance. There were no bridges, so we would have to swim it. The water, however, looked anything but safe as it teamed with life. Even in the moonlight, we could see huge dorsal fins.

“You think you can pave the way for us, J’Vania?”

“There are so many of them and they look very hungry.”

I put my foot in the water and reached out with my mind. The river contained thousands of fish. I could feel them and sense them but connecting to their minds was different than with animals. They didn’t respond well.

“When we get in, swim very fast.”

Trene looked at me and stepped into the water. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.”

We both dove in and the river bottom dropped quickly away. It was hard to concentrate and repel the fish from us as our movements kept drawing more and more our way. I could feel the slick scales bumping into my legs.

We were halfway across when suddenly the fish scattered away. From the murky depths a massive beast charged us, it’s jaws with long fangs extended to swallow us both whole. I put all my T’Moni efforts on this one creature. It slowed and thrashed its head back and forth as if fighting me. Far larger than a daxu, I pushed myself to my limits, but it was no use. In anger, I saw the silver and blue-scaled beast turn away and then turn back in a frenzy.

I reached out again but this time to one of the other denizens of the water. I found a large one and called to it. It was large but lean and fast. It swam up to us.

“Grab the fin!”

I reached for the fin just as Trene did and we rocketed away from the monster of the depths. Trene pulled me from the water. I was exhausted by the mental effort.

“Please tell me there’s another way back.”

“You were incredible, J’Vania. I get the feeling that whoever built this place didn’t want anyone near it.”

“You think there’s more? I’m not sure if I can extend myself for a while.”

“There’s a stone pathway leading to a sealed entrance.”

“Seems logical to follow it then.”

We moved over to the pathway and approached the entrance to the building. Unlike the doors to my bedroom, this stone door didn’t dissolve away as we neared it, rather weapons appeared, and they were clearly targeting us. We dared not take another step forward.

There was a circular stone we were standing on that began to glow.

“Trene?”

Trene bent down. “I’ve got this. It’s calling to me.”

He placed his hand on the stone and the massive door before us opened. The weapons receded, and the pathway lit up before us.

“How did you do that?”

“It’s like a lock. I can see it in my mind and I spoke to it. It’s not like any other lock I’ve ever seen. It felt like it recognized me.”

“Do you think someone lives here?”

“No. Let’s go inside.”

I grabbed Trene’s hand feeling great comfort in his touch. Once inside the building, the door closed behind us. I took a deep breath, for before us was technology like I have never seen before.

A three-dimensional image of a man appeared. He looked almost real.

“Welcome descendants of Z’Anisterra.”

Trene put his arm around me. “Z’Anisterra?”

Images appeared floating in the air all around us. They depicted the surface of the planet as the man’s voice continued. “Z’Anisterra is the name of the first human colony. At least it is the name we gave it.”

Emboldened, I asked a question. “What do you mean by the first human colony?”

“As far as our records have been written and documented, our people were the first humans within the galaxy. For many generations we left this planet and travelled beyond to plant the seeds of human life and explore the universe.”

Trene asked the next question. “Did you hide this information from us?”

More images filled the air around us.

“Yes. We were a rebellious and combative people. We destroyed worlds filled with life only to use those worlds to start new colonies of humans. There had been a time in our history where we had peace with ourselves but our desire for knowledge and power had crippled and divided us. We no longer formed permanent bonds with each other, our culture was dying and with it everything good that made us who we were. We made a decision that was not without much bloodshed. Z’Anisterra closed the gateways to the technology that allowed us to communicate freely and travel from place to place around the planet. We locked away these Founder’s archives of knowledge and hid our ships and engines of defense and destruction. We reinvented our world, bringing it back to a time where people could focus on each other and live in harmony.”

“Then why leave this here for us to find?”

“We knew that one day the seeds we planted around the galaxy would reach a similar state we had been in. Every generation on Z’Anisterra has had one person with the discipline of technology; a key to unlocking this place and understanding who we are and why we chose to do what we did.”

“We’re being threatened. How do we protect ourselves?”

“We will teach you everything you need to know.”

***

We had spent two days learning all we could from the artificial intelligence; at least all we could within the time we could afford. The amount of technology and knowledge was so incredibly vast that we had to decide upon a limit to how much we absorbed. Trene and I divided and conquered. Trene focused on history and I researched offensive and defensive weapons since I knew what we were about to face with Earth.

Our digital guide turned out to be one of the founding fathers of Z’Anis’ current culture, a culture that could have only come about through great wisdom and pain. Z’Anis was a bastion of peace. It was a world more technologically advanced than any other civilization, yet it rejected that technology to focus on what really mattered. People and relationships.

As we researched, Trene and I found that while most systems could be operated manually, many systems could only be operated through K’Lora. In some ways I was relieved, but then Trene discovered a device that could alter people by giving them the technology discipline or even removing D’Qota which was deemed a danger to society. “You know you need it, J’Vania.”

“But I hate technology.”

“We have no idea what we might face and with your increase in power, this could be a game changer for us. We also need a backup in case something happens to me and I’d trust your skills over mine, especially with understanding Earth technologies.” Trene gave me another one of his smiles I found hard to resist.

“All right. I’ll do it.”

“Think of it as a wedding gift.”

“Don’t push your luck.”

The procedure was simple. I sat in a chair and seconds later I could feel the technology all around me. It wasn’t overpowering, and it only was there when I sought it, but it felt so much different than with my T’Moni.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“I’ll survive.”

“What have you found out about weapons and defense?”

“We have fighters and both personal and planetary defense systems.”

“Fighters?”

“Spacecraft with more power than the combined entire Earth fleet. The problem is they’re a hundred thousand years old. Who knows how functional they are? I found these wrist bracelets. They offer invisible personal shields that should protect us from any of Earth’s weapons, and the planetary shield can be activated from any of the fighters. What have you discovered about our history?”

“Z’Anis mapped out the entire galaxy and seeded human civilization on thousands of planets. What I will call founders of our current civilization, eradicated history through a method where the citizens volunteered to give up the knowledge of the past and the technologies they were abandoning.”

“The people lined up to have their memories wiped?”

“Yes. There was a civil war over it, but in the end, this decision gave us the society we have today. I found something else out that might make you feel a little better. The Ambassador role was never a ruler. They could only serve the people. Kaldet has no claim on you. We can use the fighter you will be controlling to play the message of the founders when we confront Kaldet.”

“You know we can simply teleport back to Deni Vada?”

“That’s no way to make an entrance. I also found some clothes. Ours have been through a lot. Look at these fashions from the time of our founders.” Images appeared around me and Trene pointed at one. “This was the traditional Princess outfit. I think it would look exceptional on you.”

“You would. There’s barely anything there.”

“Just my humble opinion that the less you wear the better. I think it looks very regal.”

To humor him I told him I would wear it because I didn’t see a clothing store anywhere around where I could get a set. Trene smiled, touched the image with his finger, and the clothing, or rather lack thereof, materialized.

I picked up the clothing. “I should have known better. Try not to look so smug, Trene.”

I walked behind a low wall and changed. The building had food and water and even a bathing area, so I had already been cleaned, but my clothing was in definite need of a refresh. This outfit reminded me vaguely of traditional Z’Anis wedding clothes that showed a little more than normal. It was white and covered the necessities and had silver gemstones studded along the edges. A white skirt, boots, and silver bracelets for my biceps balanced out the ensemble. A quick glance in a mirror and it reminded me all over again just how beautiful I was.

As I stepped back around the wall, Trene choked and spit out some water he was drinking.

“Serves you right.”

“We may need to make more laws. No one should be that beautiful.”

“I’ll change back.”

“No! I mean, please don’t. I’m not sure how long my resolve will hold out, but I could get our digital guide to marry us right now if you want.”

I loved having this power over Trene. I moved over and pressed myself up against him before kissing him. “We shouldn’t deny our citizens that have worked so hard at planning a wedding.”

“That’s cruel and inhumane to make me wait.”

“What would be worse is marrying you and not having time to do all the things I want to do to you before we have to be in Deni Vada in a few hours. We should probably get used to flying the fighter before we threaten anyone with it. You need to change as well. How about this one?”

I pointed to an image of a man in a dress-like outfit. Trene pushed out his chest, selected something else, and went behind the wall to change. He looked incredibly handsome when he returned.

“Better.”

“That’s it? Just better?”

“You’re handsome no matter what you wear, whereas I need the clothing to make me pretty.”

“You’re trying to be funny. One day I might actually get used to your humor.”

***

We had discovered that the building we were in was atop a vast underground facility. It might take a hundred years to learn and discover everything that was housed there. The fighter was easy to find and for a space fighter, it was quite large and very menacing looking. I placed my hand on the outer shell that looked to be made of silver scales. My K’Lora allowed me to control the fighter and learn about it merely by touch.

“Wow… If Earth only knew about the technology in this fighter.”

“What’s special about it?”

“It has full stealth capability, even masking its engine signature, making it completely invisible and untraceable. It doesn’t have lightspeed, but it has something incredibly better. The entire ship can teleport itself and any crew lightyears away. It has shields, but even without those, I don’t think anything the Earth has could even dent the material it is made of and the weapons are downright frightening. I’ve learned a lot about the technology of Earth, but this is millions of years ahead of anything they have. I can even control it just by being near it.”

“I can’t. I think I would need to be inside and at the controls. I told you having K’Lora would be beneficial to us.”

“Let’s give her a test drive.”

“Her?”

“She’s a work of art. A craft both beautiful and deadly. That says female to me.”

“Are you going to name her as well?”

“The Z’Anis Phoenix, or just Phoenix for short.”

“What’s a Phoenix?”

“A mythical bird that rose from the ashes. It seems appropriate.”

“All right, Phoenix it is.”

***

I stood with ocean water lapping at my feet as I moved around the cliff face and towards the Deni Vada plaza by the sea. A raised platform had been constructed and on it I could see Kaldet, Henry Wilks, and Elden Stasny.

Kaldet was speaking loudly over the people when he spotted me.

“Well, well. Look who has returned and dressed for the occasion. That’s a lovely trick, J’Vania. You’re using your T’Moni discipline to control a large fish to bring you back to Deni Vada. You make quite an entrance, but where is the other traitor? Did you finally come to your senses and decide to marry me?”

I had to shout for him and everyone to hear me. I activated a translator so that Henry and Elden could understand what was being said. “I’ll have nothing of you, Kaldet Othar, betrayer of the people of Z’Anis. I’m here to tell you and the people that Earth must leave and never come back. We will not allow this falsehood of an alliance take place.”

The crowd gasped at my sacrilege of going against the Z’Utaji decision.

Henry turned and whispered to Kaldet.

“You’re mistaken, J’Vania. I have been given authority as Ambassador of Z’Anis and have complete rule to do as I see fit.”

“Yes, I understand from the Z’Utaji history where you might believe you can rule over us, but this is where you’re wrong. We have uncovered additional history that outlines more of what the Ambassador role truly is. It has nothing to do with ruling, you’re merely a servant of the democratic rule of the people. Before Z’Anis agrees to an alliance, we all must decide together as one people. It is up to all of us to decide our fate, not yours.”

“You leave me no choice, J’Vania, for you speak treasonous words. Either submit to my authority or I will be forced to attack you.”

“What would you attack me with? The people of Z’Anis have no killing weapons. Are you in league with the kind and compassionate people from Earth that even now surround our planet with over one hundred ships?”

I watched as Henry tapped his ear and two small Earth fighter space craft materialized behind me.

“Surrender yourself, J’Vania. You’re only making this hard on the people. There is no need to create division as you will only get the people killed.”

“Then strike me down as the coward that you are. For the people need to see the truth about Earth and its intentions.”

The space craft opened fire on me, but their weapons bounced harmlessly off a shield I had covering me. Slowly I commanded the Phoenix to rise out of the water. Water began to stream off the silver scales I was standing on as the massive spaceship came up from the water. The effect was startling as rivers of water poured off the wings and hull. When the craft was fully out of the water, I commanded it forward and an opening appeared with a ramp. Trene stepped out onto the plaza for all to see.

“Earth has ten minutes to retreat before I activate the global defense system. Anyone from Earth will be trapped here with us on the planet if they don’t evacuate now.”

“You will start a war, J’Vania.”

“A war we are fully prepared for and Earth will not stand a chance against us. We request Earth retreat so that the people of Z’Anis can ultimately decide their own fate. If Earth acts in any aggressive way, they will be met with force.”

“You have no authority here!”

I triggered a communication to emanate from within the Phoenix and an image was projected into the plaza.

“People of Z’Anisterra. We, the founders of your civilization, greet you. We prayed that this day would never come, but we prepared for it nonetheless. We feared that the civilizations we once spawned would one day return to us. We didn’t leave you defenseless…”

Elden stepped forward. “You’ve given Earth no choice, J’Vania. Earth will attack.”

I stepped down and onto the plaza, pausing the recorded message as I went. “You have eight minutes remaining. I can prove to the people of Z’Anis you have one hundred battle cruisers already in orbit around Z’Anis. In Earth’s arrogance, you never asked yourselves why this portion of the galaxy had so many human civilizations. It is because Z’Anis is the seeding civilization. We brought human life to all the other planets in the galaxy. You believe us to be backwards and primitive, yet our technology was deliberately hidden from us so that we could live in peace and harmony without its influences. Do not think for a second Earth can dominate this planet and these people. Retreat now while you still have the possibility of peace. Let Z’Anis decide whether or not to join with Earth through our right of law.”

Once again, the Earth space ships opened fire, but both ships were vaporized by weapons aboard the Phoenix.

Henry tapped his ear. “Get us out of here and open fire.”

Henry and Elden teleported away leaving a stunned Kaldet alone on the platform.

“I blocked your teleportation, Kaldet, as you need to stand trial for your crimes against the people of Z’Anis.”

“You’ll be destroyed.”

“I think not.”

An orange glow rose up from the planet surface forming a complete sphere above the highest objects in the city. It then moved higher and higher until it vanished. The skies lit up with explosions from the Earth battle cruisers but the planetary shield I had activated fully protected the planet.

“You’ve ruined everything!”

Kaldet launched himself at me, grabbed my arm and began using the full force of the D’Qota. Trene’s hands were around Kaldet’s neck in an instant. Suddenly my pain stopped and I could see Trene straining from the pain. I touched Trene’s tense shoulder and poured my L’Farnia into him. My healing discipline kept Trene without pain or damage while he drew upon his T’Kani to give him strength. Finally, Kaldet collapsed and looked up warily at us.

With a raspy voice he threatened us. “You can’t stand against Earth’s might. You could have had it all, J’Vania. We could have ruled this planet together.”

“I have no desire to rule a planet nor betray those that I love.”

Father came to my side and hugged me. “I love you, but you and Trene will also need to stand trial. Are we all safe?”

“Yes. Earth’s technology can’t harm us.”

“Can you continue the message for the people?”

“I’ll start it from the beginning.”

***

I managed to play the message for all the people simultaneously across Z’Anis. This was followed by father and Raylor speaking to everyone to calm the using the global communication relay of the Phoenix.

Trene, Kaldet, and I were escorted to a large room where Z’Utaji and other members of the community could listen in and participate in the proceedings. First, Trene and I told our story of how we found the technology archives and I elaborated more on what I had seen and heard on the Pegasus. We opened a channel to the digital founder and allowed the citizens to ask questions just as Trene and I had done. Surprisingly, there was much focus on the Ambassador role and my running away to avoid marriage with Kaldet.

Kaldet then offered his twisted tale of lies before the three of us were removed to separate quarters for the people to decide our fate. I didn’t have the heart to tell them I could easily get out of my room. After nearly four hours, my door chirped and Annabe entered my room.

Her face looked grave. “I’m sorry, J’Vania. Your fate is sealed.”

“I accept any punishment the people of Z’Anis determine for me. Am I to be put to death for my crimes?”

Annabe burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, J’Vania. I had to get back at you for gagging me.” She ran over and hugged me. “You’re our savior and the people recognize this. There are some decisions that have been made regarding your fate and I must bring you back to hear the final judgement.”

“Do you wish to tie my hands?”

“Oh… I’ve not fully gotten you back yet, so don’t tempt me.”

Annabe escorted me back and I found Trene already there. Raylor spoke on behalf of the citizens.

“J’Vania and Trene, this citizen council has met, heard your stories, and voted on your fates. Against you is the fact that you both ran away from the direct orders of the chosen Ambassador and you have both violated the laws about being alone with another member of the opposite sex before marriage. As royalty, you are to be held to a higher standard and must reflect the laws of this world in a responsible manner.”

I bit my lower lip and slipped my hand into Trene’s.

Raylor’s eyes moved to our hands before he continued. “The citizens have determined that you both showed exemplary valor and courage, taking on great risk to yourselves in the protection of Z’Anis and our culture. J’Vania, we have recognized the Z’Utaji decided without fully comprehending the dangers our decision put the citizens of this world and you in. We wish to formally apologize for the hurt and trauma this caused you.”

“Now comes our final judgement. J’Vania, you are formally released from any obligation to marry Kaldet. We have learned from the Founder’s archives that the Ambassador role never had that power or authority. Now that you’re free from that obligation, your previous engagement to Trene has been reinstated, however, given the circumstances, you are both free to choose to absolve that engagement.”

“I don’t want my engagement to Trene absolved.”

Trene squeezed my hand. “Neither do I.”

“Then once the situation with Earth is resolved, we will continue those plans.”

“Darn…”

“Excuse me, J’Vania?”

“Uhm… nothing, sir.”

Raylor smiled and continued. I know he heard me. “Our questioning of the Founder’s archive revealed that in the past, the role of Planetary Guardian had been assigned to key citizens. Since you both have the technology discipline, and appear to understand how the ancient technology works, you have both been assigned these roles. Your official titles will now be, Princess J’Vania P’Xelni, Planetary Guardian, and Prince Trene Soome, Planetary Guardian. This is not a matter up for discussion and is the penalty you must pay for your transgressions.”

Trene sheepishly asked a question. “What exactly is a Planetary Guardian supposed to do?”

“I’m happy you asked that question. Your first task, is to get rid of the threat from Earth. Once that situation is dealt with, you will protect this planet and support the seeds of Z’Anis elsewhere in the Galaxy. We expect there are planets that are not willing to join Earth and thus deserve our protection.”

“What is the decision of the people regarding Earth? What message do we bring them and what do we do with the Founder’s archive?”

“The people of Z’Anis want nothing to do with Earth. We will not join their alliance, share our people, or our technology with them. As for the Founder’s archive, we wish to use only that which is necessary for this crisis and maintain vigilance to protect our culture. Both of you will be the only citizens that are allowed access to the archives and the technology. We believe the founders were correct. For many thousands of years, we have lived in peace and kept relationships a priority. While there are technologies that are tempting, like communications and travel, it was unanimously decided to forego those technologies.”

“What of Kaldet?”

“We have probed the Founder’s archive and discovered his D’Qota can be removed and his memories selectively erased. It is our judgement that this be done, and he be reinstated after that has been confirmed. It’s too dangerous to give any of our citizens to Earth and we have no desire to kill him.”

Trene asked if that was all.

“Not quite. J’Vania?”

“Yes, sir?”

“The women would like to know where you got your dress.”

The conversations rapidly deteriorated from there and Trene and I had much to accomplish. With hugs all around, and kisses from Annabe, mother, and mother-in-law, Trene and I were free. We met four men that had sedated Kaldet and we brought him aboard the Phoenix and then teleported to the founder’s archive building. There, with guidance from the archive, we erased all memory of Lucius, the past few weeks, and, at Trene’s request, all memories of me. We then removed the D’Qota discipline from him and teleported him back to his room in his home city.

With that complete, we flew the Phoenix into orbit around the planet and pulled up next to the Pegasus. Now that we were visible and outside of the planetary shield, Earth immediately contacted us.

“This is Elden Stasny aboard the Pegasus. You will stand down, J’Vania. We don’t wish to be at war with Z’Anis. Allow Earth a chance to negotiate an alliance.”

“The people of Z’Anis have voted and unanimously agreed we have no interest in an alliance with Earth until Earth ceases its ways of first contact and using force to take technology from other human races.”

“You’re one ship against a hundred.”

“Don’t test us on this as we have no desire to cause the deaths of any of your people. As a show of peace, Earth will retreat and we will consider speaking again with you.”

“J’Vania, this is Henry Wilks. We can still work things out.”

“We have no desire to work things out, rather we wish to be left in peace, but you have woken a slumbering giant. Do you need evidence of our capabilities beyond which you have already seen?”

“We will fire on your ship.”

Without any additional warning, one hundred battle cruisers opened fire. Trene and I sat patiently for the barrage to cease.

“Now we will demonstrate our abilities. Trene, teleport all human life aboard the Battle Cruiser, Solar V, onto the other ships. Send the captain of that ship to the Pegasus bridge.”

In seconds Trene had completed his task and we could see a bewildered battle cruiser captain standing next to Henry and Elden.

“Please watch the now empty battle cruiser.” Using my K’Lora discipline, I commanded the Phoenix to fire a single shot at the vacated battle cruiser. Instantly the ship shattered into a billion pieces. “Do you need more evidence?”

Elden spoke again. “Join us, J’Vania. Earth can benefit from your experience and knowledge to make us a better people.”

I smiled and Trene and I teleported to the bridge of the Pegasus. Guns were raised but we were both shielded and in no danger.

“How?”

“Our technology is far superior to Earth’s. Z’Anis, after all gave life to humans on Earth millions of years ago. We will not stand by and let other civilizations be bullied by Earth. Before we speak again, Earth must stop their methods of first contact and any civilization that refuses to join your alliance will be protected by Z’Anis. Every culture deserves its chance to be what they wish to be. Earth has much to learn.”

“We will find a way to break Z’Anis’ defenses and take what we want.”

“Perhaps, but you’ll have to find it first.”

Z’Anis vanished from the bridge viewport. I reached out with my K’Lora, touched the bridge console, and concentrated.

“Sir!”

Elden turned to navigation controls. “What is it?”

“Shalim IV has vanished.”

“We can see it’s no longer there.”

“No, sir. There’s nothing in our databanks that it was ever here.”

I smiled pleasantly. “Earth will retreat from this place. Z’Anis is gone from here anyways. When Earth has complied with our demands, send us a message. We’re always open to speaking with you. In a way, you’re like our children. Just don’t make us discipline you.”

We teleported back to the Phoenix and then teleported the Phoenix back to the Founder’s archive building. The planet had never moved, I just put our planetary shield into stealth mode then installed a worm to traverse Earth’s databanks wiping out all references to Shalim IV.

Trene wrapped his arms around me. “I have no idea everything you did up there, but it was incredibly sexy and. I’m just happy to be back on the ground with you.”

***

Two months had past. It hadn’t taken long for Earth to vacate the area. I guess they were scared that we had the power to move an entire planet even though we never moved it at all. Trene and I now always wore bracelets that could teleport us back to the archive building whenever we needed, but I only used it to get new clothes from time to time.

Z’Anis had gone back to normal and apart for wedding planning, I loved every second of it. I even travelled back to Dronaii by wraqorgs and coaches. Wherever I went, I was overwhelmed by the graciousness and kindness of the people and as word spread of Trene and my deeds to save the planet, we became highly cherished people. I dare say, not as much as I cherished all of them.

Mother and father had to defend their decision of joining me with Trene many times as a new rash of requests for my hand came in daily. Happily, they entertained none of the requests.

For the past two days I hadn’t been allowed to see Trene as part of the marriage rules. I was even housed on the outskirts of Deni Vada for the past two nights. I now sat on my wraqorg, in my wedding gown supplied by the Founder’s archive. It was absolutely stunning and trend setting, and I refused to sit in a stuffy coach for the long ride into the city. Surprisingly, Annabe rode next to me where mother and father chose the time-honored tradition of a coach.

I thought the first time coming into Deni Vada was a big affair, but this time it was far more elaborate. My retinue spanned nearly a mile and every path we took was lined with people from all over Z’Anis. I kept my smile by thinking what would take place tonight as our parade route through the city grounds and into the city would take hours.

As we neared the main plaza, a little girl ran up to me and I dropped down from the wraqorg to greet her. I picked her up. “Hello, Trina. I see you got away from your mother again.”

“These are for you, Princess!”

“Those are beautiful flowers. Thank you! Can you walk with me a bit?”

“Yes!”

I set Trina down and took her hand in mine. We walked along and greeted people with warm hugs before I sent her back to her mother. I needed the stretch and the diversion from my thoughts. First the wedding, then the dance, and then…

The parade halted, and mother and father exited the coach. Annabe kissed me and moved ahead while mother and father waited behind with me.

Father hugged me. “I don’t even know what to say, J’Vania.”

“I do. I’ve never been happier and am grateful for the love and graciousness you have both shown me.”

“We always knew you were destined for great things. We didn’t quite expect you to save the planet, but we expected wonderful things from you nonetheless.”

“I’m nervous.”

This time it was mother that hugged me. “Just take your time tonight. There’s no rush. It’s clear you both love each other, and I don’t believe Trene would ever wish to hurt you.”

“Oh…“ I blushed. “I’m not nervous about that… Should I be? I’m nervous about one day leading these people as Queen.”

Mother coughed. “I was nervous about the other thing, not about being a Queen. Look around you, J’Vania. These people all love and respect you. You’re already a leader to them.”

The crowd all shifted hoping to get a glimpse of Trene and his entourage as they arrived. I was anxious to see Trene as well. Trene had been walking and was greeting the citizens. He looked so handsome in his formal wedding attire. When his eye caught mine, I could see him look me over from head to toe and I could read his emotions. Longing, love, and a lot of passion. My body warmed as he looked at me.

Trene paused and helped his mother from the coach. I watched as Trene hugged his parents before the three of them came over to us. After hugging Elisia and Raylor, Trene took my hands in his.

“Last chance to back out, J’Vania.”

“I can’t undo what my heart has already done. What about you? Can you see yourself spending the rest of your life with me?”

“A lifetime isn’t enough time. Shall we?”

I smiled as we turned and walked towards the raised platform where we would be married.

***

It had been a long ceremony and day, but everything had been perfect. I stood on the balcony of our room overlooking the moonlight reflecting on the ocean. I took a deep breath and looked down past the gentle curve of my breasts and to my hands. In many ways Mark and J’Vania were meant for each other. We had both been broken souls and we needed each other to make ourselves one person. First contact was never supposed to be like this, but I’m grateful it happened this way.

Absentmindedly, I reached up and unclasped my long hair letting it fall across my shoulders. I felt the gentlest of touches as Trene’s hands slipped around my waist to hug me from behind. His lips brushed my neck and I spun in his arms, so I could kiss him back.

Trene was everything I ever wanted, and I yielded to him completely. Taking his hand in mine, I pulled him slowly over to the bed. We took our time undressing each other as we whispered our undying love.

Trene lifted me up and laid me gently down on the bed and slipped in next to me. There was something wrong about the bed. My feet caught on the sheets halfway down the bed. Trene stood and examined the bed finding the bottom sheet had been folded back on top of itself. I started laughing and discovered a note.

‘Hope you have fun tonight. I left some fabric in case Trene wanted to bind your wrists and gag you. Enjoy!’

“Annabe!” I swear I heard her giggling.

Trene held up the strips of fabric and began chasing me around the room. As I laughed and ran, making sure Trene caught me quickly, I knew everything was the way it was supposed to be.

***

***

Author’s note: I love reading a story where I can immerse myself in the main character, and, for a brief moment, forget who and what I am. It’s not that my life is a bad one, rather there’s something deep within me that says I should have been born differently. I hope my stories take you away from the worries of this world as much as they do me when I write them.

Please take a moment to leave a comment. I love hearing from you.

Casey Brooke



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