A small passenger carrier was approaching Northern Depot. The wind from the craft blew stronger as four giant blades churned faster in their housings, throwing air forward to slow the craft.
The wind whipped Béla's hair, stinging her cheeks as she faced away from the landing pad to protect her face and eyes from flying grit and gravel. Her silk sarong whipped up around her shoulders, baring her body to the stinging debris. As the craft drew closer, a long chain was thrown over the side and struck the ground.
A brilliant flash lit up the landscape around the craft as it was grounded against the inner surface. At this time of year, the inner surface of New Eden was highly charged with electrons. As the hollow moon orbited across the face of Jupiter, it collected energy from the sun and radiation from Jupiter in its metal skin.
This energy would power machinery and provide light and heat for the continuance of civilization through the long winter months as the moon's orbit carried it through the darkness behind the planetary giant. In the depths of winter, just before the moon would re-emerge from Jupiter's shadow, the temperatures at the north and south poles would be near absolute zero. Nearer the equator, where the insulating ground cover was thicker, the temperatures would only get down to forty or fifty below zero, Fahrenheit.
At the equator, which was the most populated area, it rarely got below freezing. Princess Béla, the Goddess of the Land, was traveling with her consort, the Great Bard Geoffrey, to meet her father, the Regent.
She had previously mind-linked with her father about beginning a new project. After laying out the initial ideas for a university, her father decided he wanted to meet this imaginative young farmer-turned-bard who had captured his favorite daughter's fancy and who was to be a central figure in the creation of this university. The Bard Geoffrey held his handwritten tome, The Coming of the Goddess, protectively against his body, shielding it from the fierce winds generated by the father god's machine.
The goddess he companioned had asked him to bring a copy of it with him to gift her father. He was still bleary-eyed, having spent the last twelve days copying everything into a second tome to take to the heavens with him.
If he wasn't so exhausted, he was sure he'd be more amazed by what was occurring around him. The passenger carrier came to a bouncing rest in the low gravity of the poles. If it weren't for the gravity plating beneath the surface here at the depot, everything that wasn't secured would either float away or roll down toward the equator.
Both Northern and Southern depots were, in essence, giant spaceships imbedded into the inner surface. They even had magnetic drives that could, if used in unison, speed up or slow down the rotation of the hollow moon and even change the speed of its orbit to bring it closer to Jupiter or move it farther away.
The only thing missing to make each a complete, separate ship was an outer hull. The few passengers traveling to the great ship followed each other up the narrow steel stairway that attached itself to the carrier when it landed.
Except for the goddess and her consort, everyone was dressed in single-piece work uniforms indicating they were either crewmembers or dock workers. Each had the tall, underfed appearance of the old race. Jeff looked around from his seat, high above the ground. His head felt hollow, his eyes burned and his ears rang.
He knew that it was because he was so exhausted and needed sleep. But, it was also hard to catch his breath and breathe easily without constantly yawning. 'It's the air,' his goddess told him in his head. 'It's thinner here because there's no centrifical force pressing it down. It will feel like this on the great ship, too. You'll get used to it in a few more hours.
You'll also feel better after you sleep.' He hoped so. He was too tired to want to fight just to be able to breathe. He fell asleep before they launched, but was jerked awake to the roar of giant propellers pushing away from the surface as the carrier lurched into the air beyond the influence of the artificial gravity field of the depot. After a time the roar died away as the engines were feathered, and the carrier drifted, no longer visibly moving away from the surface.
Jeff desperately gripped the sides of his seat as he started to float 'up' out of it. His goddess had already pushed herself 'up' to the roof of the wire mesh enclosure that made up the passenger compartment and was gazing out at the distant landscape far below and behind them. Her sarong had continued traveling up her body when she stopped, exposing her bare figure all the way up to her ribcage.
She looked down over the floating hemline of her garment and blew Jeff a kiss. "Come on up!" she teased. "The view is marvelous; quite breathtaking, in fact." Jeff thought the view from his angle was breathtaking, too. 'Thanks,' the goddess thought in his mind, 'a girl always appreciates a complement about her appearance…' He looked at her face.
Her eyes were sparkling with excitement. Her face was serene; a natural, unforced smile on her lips as she gazed down at him. 'Surely she doesn't want to…' Jeff thought. 'Not here, right in front of other passengers… but I know she does. She always wants to. I wish she'd cover up. Everyone is looking at her. Why doesn't she grow hair down there? I've never seen her shave.
None of the goddesses I've seen have any hair on them at all except on their heads.' She still watched him. The expression on her face had changed like she was trying not to laugh about something as she waited on him to join her. Gathering up his nerve, he pushed away from his seat and floated dizzyingly upward, jerking his arms and legs trying to find his balance as he slowly turned head over heels.
"Wha…Whooa!" Jeff cried as he felt someone grab him from behind, stopping his slow somersault. His own voice sounded strange and tinny, lacking substance in the thin air surrounding them. The arm that wrapped itself around his waist was bare, like the torso he felt himself being pulled against. His goddess had rescued him from his embarrassing maneuver. He nervously grabbed at the fragile-looking wire mesh that made up the roof of the passenger compartment and desperately pulled himself against it.
There was nothing except that thin wire mesh between him and… Nothing. Air. The ground a long way off. Clouds. The crystal sun they were falling into. Blinding bright sun. 'You just think it's bright because you can't see anything else,' Jeff felt in his thoughts. 'If the northern sun was still shining, you wouldn't just be blinded; you'd be cooked.
Now, turn your head and put your attention on something inside. It will help you find your balance.' Jeff turned his head and looked down (up?) at the row of seats he'd just abandoned a moment ago. He didn't feel any more balanced, but it was more comforting somehow to look at something he recognized that was nearby.
He turned his head again and looked at the goddess beside him. She was relaxed, holding herself in position easily with one hand, her fingers wrapped casually through the wire mesh. Her sarong floated loosely under her arms, modestly covering her breasts and absolutely nothing else.
She was still watching him. "You know," Jeff said, trying to be casual about this whole, nerve-wracking experience, "you're not really dressed for travel, Goddess. You should have worn something that would stay on." In response to his comment, Béla grinned and gently pushed herself away from the roof of the compartment. Raising her arms above her head, she effortlessly floated completely out of her garment as she drifted gently toward the floor.
As her feet touched the floor, she grabbed her sarong with one hand to keep it from floating away. Now that she was completely naked, Béla looped the garment loosely around one of the seats. Using the seats to pull herself along, she traveled to the end of the mesh compartment, opened the door and floated outside.
Closing the cage door behind her, she gave herself a good push away from the craft, then stretched her body out and performed a slow somersault. Jeff thought she looked magnificent. She formed her wings and casually flew around the craft to where her consort was clinging nervously to the roof. "Is this better?" she asked, laughing and gazing at him from a few feet away on the other side of the mesh ceiling.
Without waiting for an answer, she flapped her wings in his face, pushing herself rapidly away and almost causing him to lose his grip. Properly chastised, Jeff watched her exercise her wings flying around outside the carrier. She knew not to fly too far away. She wasn't smart enough to figure out the vector she would need to travel in order to successfully reach the great ship without getting lost. That was the carrier pilot's responsibility. Besides, she didn't want to take another terrifying burn and crash detour like she did the last time she was out here.
Or should that be the other way around? 'I should have named her 'Goddess of the Air',' Béla felt in her mind. 'This is so obviously her natural element.
I hope I can remember to write all this down…' Béla smiled, doing a slow wheelbarrow around the carrier. She had convinced her compulsive-note-taking consort to pack his writing tablet away in his bag for this voyage, knowing he would need both hands once they were in free fall.
Jeff felt something; an image forming in his head.
The passengers are holding onto something to stabilize themselves as the carrier makes a course correction. Jeff held on tightly to the mesh roof of the compartment. He saw his goddess dart back toward the carrier. As she neared him, her wings seemed to shimmer and reform as arms. She grabbed the wire mesh and held on tightly as she rebounded off the roof of the carrier.
The roar of the propellers seemed deafening after the silence of drifting in free fall. Jeff watched his naked goddess hanging on, riding on the outside roof as the carrier changed direction. The wind was blowing her hair wildly around, making her appear untamed and free. She turned her head away from the black dot that was their destination and looked down through the mesh at him. Her face her entire body glowed with joy.
Gradually the black dot turned into an elongated cigar shape. As they drew nearer, the speed of the propellers would change every few seconds, altering their angle of approach and direction of travel. They were now positioned so that the great ship was beside them instead of ahead of them. As the tiny carrier moved below the ship toward the open maw of the cargo bay, it took up Jeff's entire field of vision.
He looked back at his goddess. She was gone! Then he saw her; a tiny winged figure disappearing up into the cargo bay entrance. A few seconds later, she darted back out, heading directly toward the carrier he was in. Jeff felt another image in his head.
The passengers are sitting in their seats, strapped in. A large flexible steel cable extends from the carrier and drags along the outside surface of the great ship, making sparks. The cable is retracted and the carrier enters the cargo bay and is secured to the decking.
Everyone departs. Jeff's goddess reached the cage door and pulled herself inside, closing it behind her. As she reached him, she helped him with his straps, then strapped herself in. Her face was flushed and she was breathing excitedly.
"I almost electrocuted myself," she told him, breathing heavily from her flying excursion. "I forgot we have to be grounded when we first touch the ship." Béla noticed him staring at her breasts moving up and down as she caught her breath and untied her sarong from around her seat. She slipped it over her head and looked back at him. "Is that better, now?" she asked, raising her eyebrows at him. The sarong went halfway down her body. At least it covered her front half. Her back half, still bare, was safely hidden, pressed against her seat.
~~~~~ The Great Bard Geoffrey, the Lord Father and Regent, and the Goddess of the Land sat in the recreational lounge near the officer's quarters on the Lord Father's Great Ship. An officer Béla recognized as one of her escorts from her previous interment was serving drinks. Without having asked, he served an iced lemonade and raspberry tea mixture, the princess' favorite. Jeff thought the drink mixture was unusual, but exceptionally tasty.
Sibilius took a sip and set his down with a stern look at his favorite daughter, whom he hadn't seen in much too long a time. Béla quickly finished her drink, then picked up her father's, sipping it more slowly. 'It's only been three months, Father…' "So tell me, Bard, Geoffrey, is it?" the Regent said, opening the conversation. "How do you manage to get my daughter to stay dressed?" The Great Bard Geoffrey sprayed his drink all over his lap and everything within a meter of him, including his goddess.
"Father!" Béla cried out, pretending insult. She looked down at her speckled sarong. Then she slipped it off over her head and wiped herself down with it. Jeff's face was a very deep shade of red. His mouth was open and he was hyperventilating. The princess looked up at the amused officer standing in position at the doorway.
"Would you secure this room and increase the air pressure by, say, fifteen percent, please?" she asked him. "And, are their any more of these?" She shook out her wrinkled blue sarong and tossed it over the back of a chair to dry. "At your command, Princess," the officer replied, confusing Jeff even more. "Well," Béla's father said, trying not to laugh at the situation he'd 'accidentally' created, "it didn't take you long to get comfortable, did it, Child?" He turned to his guest.
"Bard Geoffrey, I wish to thank you for your volume regarding the introduction of my daughters into your society. I shall study it most carefully and with great interest." Jeff was beginning to recover. Being mind-linked with his goddess helped. 'You realize, of course, that Father timed his remark to coincide with your sipping your drink, don't you?' his goddess thought into Jeff's mind. 'That was his idea of revenge for pretending to enjoy that awful concoction.
Father doesn't do the 'sugared beverage' bit.' 'But I do enjoy it,' Jeff protested in his mind. 'It's really very good. What do you mean 'awful concoction'?' 'That's what Father calls it,' she thought back at him. 'Why did that man in the uniform call you 'Princess'?' Jeff asked. 'Are you a princess or a goddess?' 'Really, I'm neither,' his goddess admitted. 'I was born in a large vat in father's laboratory.
His species is infertile. My sisters and brother are intended to replace them eventually.' Sibilius cleared his throat. The officer had returned with a fresh sarong for the princess to wear. She smiled up at him when she saw which one it was. "Oh, thank you," she said to the officer, glowing gratitude at him. It was one of her own, from her old quarters; bright red silk with flaming pink highlights slashing across the front. Standing up, she slipped it over her head and was, once again, the model of decorum.
'You should have excused yourself and dressed in private, Goddess,' Jeff thought reprovingly at her. Béla almost didn't bother to respond; she'd been sitting there for the last ten minutes with nothing on at all and she wondered what his point really was. 'Is my act of dressing or undressing all that erotic?' Béla responded. 'Even more than my nakedness?' 'But, Goddess,' Jeff replied, beginning to get flustered, 'I was only suggest…' "It actually isn't a good idea to disagree with my daughter," the Regent suggested to his guest.
"I have found, by differing with her on occasion, that the universe itself will bow to her correctness and cause events to occur which demonstrate the truth of what she has presented." Jeff was suddenly aware that the Regent had 'heard' the private mental conversations between his goddess and himself.
"I apologize, my lord," Bard Geoffrey said, rather formally. "I should not have excluded you from our conversation." "It is, perhaps, I, who should apologize, Bard," Sibilius stated. "I actually wasn't listening. I simply noticed that my daughter was starting to look a little annoyed. I am very familiar with that look, myself, so I thought I would do a good deed and warn you. She is right so often, in fact, that she has been formally granted the freedom to do as she pleases." Now, his daughter was looking at him with 'that' look.
Then she grinned and made an image of kissing her father on his cheek. Sibilius smiled back. Béla felt the officer at the door radiate his congratulations at her. He knew she had been cleared of any charges and released with no penalty, but it was not common knowledge that she had been granted the revered status of Carte Blanche. In the last eight thousand years, only Sibilius' lifemate, who later became this ship's captain, had ever earned that privilege, and she had passed on from their society, finally succumbing to the radiation sickness that had taken the female crew members over four thousand… A sharp pain in her head made Béla suddenly cry out.
Her body temperature was rising sharply. She was getting so hot her skin was blistering. 'I'm back in the fire that killed me!' Béla thought, suddenly terrified of burning up all over again.
'Praetor, help me!' She felt the Praetor put her to sleep, welcoming the relief that unconsciousness gave her from the sudden, intense pain.
She slid off her chair onto the floor, the skin on her face, arms and legs, red and blistered. Sibilius, alarmed, scooped her up and laid her on the table. As he checked her over, he discovered that her entire body was burnt and blistered.
He staggered back, radiating a sudden, terrible grief throughout the ship. 'She has the Radiation Sickness!' he realized, made sick with his dismal discovery. He had lost his lifemate to it shortly before he had brought Hethemtima to life.
Now, he was losing his daughter to the same, horribly painful disease. 'Your daughter will not die,' the Praetor said in Sibilius' mind. 'She will recover. You altered the Hybrid Projects' genes to give them the ability to regenerate according to Captain Alana's wishes. Her instructions are recorded in history.' The sudden relief Sibilius felt was almost as intense as his discovery of her condition, causing another ship-wide distraction as it radiated out.
Jeff stood with his mouth open, terrified. His immortal goddess had been struck down and burned by an invisible fire. He had seen burn victims before and knew they didn't survive when they were that badly injured. As Jeff and Sibilius stood over her, Béla's skin became more mottled looking. It was actually regenerating; the mottled appearance being caused by the growth of fresh pink flesh replacing the darker, damaged skin as it was consumed. The door burst open behind them.
The officer and the ship's medic rushed into the room. The Praetor filled them in on what had happened. "She's going to need liquids," the medic said. "When the princesses become injured and need to regenerate, they use up a lot of body fluid." They reset the table Béla was on so that it would roll.
As they guided it through the doorway, she stirred, brought back to partial consciousness by the jostling. Sibilius, holding his daughter's hand, felt her tighten her grip and looked up at her face. He stared in wonder into a pair of emerald green eyes gazing up at him. 'Sibilius, my love,' she spoke into his mind. Stunned, he stopped, unable to breathe. 'Alana?' He felt the Praetor putting his daughter to sleep again.
Then he felt a strange, but somehow familiar flow coming from the Praetor. It seemed like he had felt that flow once before. 'It is not yet time,' Sibilius heard in his mind.
'She still has much to do.' As Sibilius sank to the floor, no longer able to stand, he tried to understand what was happening to him. 'I'm being mind-wiped!' He realized, in shock, that the Praetor was betraying him. Then he was asleep.
~~~~~ Bard Geoffrey, the Regent Sibilius, and Princess Béla sat in the recreational lounge near the officer's quarters. An officer Béla recognized as one of her escorts from her earlier interment was serving drinks. "You should try this," Béla was saying to Jeff. "I really like it." Her father had warned the bard about his daughter's taste in beverages, and had offered a bland mixture of leaves and spices steeped in hot water like a tea to his guest as an alternative.
Béla looked around, suddenly confused. 'I thought I was wearing a blue…' Then she forgot what she was thinking about. "Raman, Could I have some more lemonade?" she asked the officer at the door. She was incredibly thirsty. 'I must really miss this stuff!' she thought as she waited. The officer brought her the pitcher, poured her another glass, then left the pitcher on the table for her.
She radiated her thanks to him, Then decided to start paying attention to what her consort and her father were saying. She was finding it really difficult to concentrate on anything. It seemed they had been talking for hours, but they had only just arrived a short while ago. "Yes, my daughter is correct," the Regent was saying. " We do have 'spare' Praetors. And education is one of the functions of a Praetor. It is entirely possible to extend the use of one to the inner surface for the purpose of education." They talked animatedly on for some time.
For once, neither the princess nor the goddess in Béla interrupted them. She could barely even understand what they were saying. The lemonade pitcher was empty.
She got up in the middle of their conversation and straightened out the blue sarong draped over the back of the empty chair so it wouldn't wrinkle, then walked over to the officer at the door.
"Would you escort me to the communal baths, please?" she asked. "Of course, Princess," he said, "But you no longer require an escort.
You have the run of the ship, as usual." Béla nodded, still in a fog, and walked through the door, turning toward the communal baths. "Princess," the officer called to her, following her out the door. "Princess, the communal baths are that way." Béla stopped, confused. She had no idea why she had turned left instead of right. She certainly knew where the communal baths were. "I must be asleep," she told the officer. "Thank you, again." She really needed a good bath.
Her skin itched. Her hair itched even worse. And when she scratched, large, loose flakes embarrassingly snowed down on her red sarong. 'Red? I thought it was blue,' she thought, still feeling confused, 'What happened to my blue sarong? Do I even have one? I'm sure I've seen it somewhere; recently, too.' Then she forgot, again. She increased her pace toward the communal baths, hoping the shower stall her father had built for her was still there.
She needed to scrub every itchy inch of her body. After that, she intended to soak for hours. 'A fresh start!' she thought to herself. She was starting to feel better. 'A fresh start' was what she was all about. She smiled to herself, her earlier fogginess forgotten. The officer stood at his station by the door of the conference room. He thought it odd that the princess had made a wrong turn. The communal baths hadn't been down that direction since the officer's quarters were redesigned twelve hundred years ago.
She hadn't been here, then. 'And since when are her eyes green?' he wondered. Then he forgot about it.