Return to the Mothership

Julian turns to face the underbrush, and steps back into the opening made by the doors. "We can hold them here if we have to. It would be better if we could close one of these doors." He eyes Aurora as she puts on her suit, "Is there anything I should know about using one of the suits?"

"I'll show you after you're suited up and in the airlock," Aurora replies as her clothes morph back into the sleek, body-hugging black and purple suit. She steps into the encounter suit and shimmies it up her body. "We'll put our helmets on once we step inside as the doors close. It's stifling hot in these things out here…"

Julian sets his gear aside, but close at hand, and shimmies into the encounter suit. He seals it up in logical order, but soon shoulders his quiver and gear again. He is clearly impressed with Avarya's shapeshifting, taking note of the physical modifications of the form. He had never seen a biological creature in a hard vacuum before, and while he was not eager to expose himself, he had a certain amount of curiosity about doing so. "Will there be stars?" He asks, as he takes up his sword again.

The doors remain stubbornly open, their darkness absorbing all light that reaches their surface. It is indeed far hotter here than it was below the waterfalls, and the plants are green, not black. Avarya has completed her shift into a draconic shape, all dark leathery hide, with wings to match. Crystal lenses shield her eyes as she slinks past Julian into the dark interior of the chamber. As she does so, the Ghostwheel emerges from where-ever it was carried, to hover silently in air. It too drinks in sunlight, turning black.

"Ghostwheel!" Aurora exclaims happily. "Are you alright? Is everything in order?"

A slightly garbled electronic voice emerges from the black sphere. "Negative. Severe damage mandated shutdown for internal repairs. Sensor array offline. Recharging from ambient light. Query: biological companions intact?"

"Yes," she replies. "Thank you for putting yourself between me and that thing. We are getting ready to leave as soon as Julian is suited up. There are several large creatures heading our way, and they are decidedly unfriendly. I'm afraid you don't have time to fully recharge here."

The electronic voice sounds slightly more human this time.

"Understood, Aurora. I have sufficient power remaining to operate under standard conditions for 32.7 minutes. What happened during my shutdown?"

She is glad it can't really see her when she feels the heat rise in her cheeks. "I, um… identified that person that didn't show up on your initial scan. I believe you know Julian, Warder of Arden. Who is also my husband. Funny story really. We've been catching up. Avarya flew up and got us an overview of the land. If we really want to investigate properly, we're going to need more people with better equipment."

As Ghostwheel floats free of his pack, active again, Julian listens to the exchange between construct and mistress, and when introduced, replies, "You sound very like someone I know."

He follows Aurora into the airlock, alert for any movement or sign of danger, his sword ready.

"From what I understand, he sounds like Merlin," Aurora offers as she picks up her helmet and prepares to step inside the airlock. She pauses in the doorway to wait for Ghostwheel to proceed her so he wasn't in danger of being left behind. "Let's go, Ghostwheel."

Julian snaps his fingers, "Yes. Goddess, I remember talking to him not long before I faced Finndo…" He shakes his head. The enormity of the years was too much to considered for the moment.

She follows the construct in, backing into the airlock so she can watch the garden for trouble until the doors close. "Helmet on, my love," she instructs Julian as she slips her own over head and locks it in place. She then turns to make sure Julian's suit is on correctly and the radio and air are both on before she claims Avarya's blaster.

He sheaths his sword and gets the helmet on. He stands still and lets Aurora check his suit over. He did not want to risk an assumption with his suit, considering what they might be exposed to. "This may become the most unusual experience I have ever had, and that is over the course of centuries, and many unusual experiences." Once Julian sees that his suit is set, he draws his sword again. "We need to get this airlock closed, it occurs to me that these insectoid things may be as adaptable as Avarya — a vacuum may not stop them."

"They'll close on their own now that there are people inside," Aurora's voice comes over the radio in his helmet. She is still watching the vegetation warily. "It takes about a minute - or it did when we came in. You might want your bow instead of your sword. We don't particularly want anything to get within sword range."

Julian nods, "I am leery of using anything explosive this close to the airlock. I will have to be very accurate with the normal arrows you've made." He seems to debate the notion, and then sheaths his sword and readies his bow. "If one gets in, I will handle it. I am better with the blade." He nocks one of Aurora's arrows, and stands beside his long lost wife. He raises his bow, drawing it halfway, as he waits and watches the tree line.

She turns to him and smiles. "And don't you worry, mon Julian; I will be sure and show you stars."

He smiles at her in return, "I am sure that you will."

Waiting for the doors to close, Aurora looks over to check on Avarya and offer her a reassuring smile. She knows the shape shifter doesn't like this form, but they haven't much choice; she wasn't about to risk either her companion or her husband to a magically conjured one with the energies not being particularly stable.

"They went to the Moon - the men of Shadow Earth," Aurora says out of the blue. "Back in the late Sixties. Unmanned probes went out into the solar system in the Seventies and sent back pictures of the outer planets that took my breath away. They launched a huge space telescope in 1990 that sent back the most amazing images from deep space." She smiles distantly. "I thought of you when published them; how far it had come from that simple telescope in our tower. There were a couple of space stations up in orbit and a planned mission to Mars when… when I died." She chuckles. "But things like the Fury and the crystal ships are so far beyond that. If I hadn't watched a lot of science fiction, I would probably have been completely lost. I can't wait to show it all to you."

Julian had been about to explain how his Brothers had dragged him out into Shadow, and exposed him to both the early Space program, along with pulp novels and science fiction. "Gerard used to show me —" He falls silent as the doors start to move, his attention focusing on their environment again.

The black double doors slowly begin to slide shut, though their progress is briefly interrupted by branches, which are then neatly cut in two as they shut. Avarya sits in one of the corners, breathing deeply, until the doors finally shut when she stops. The Ghostwheel becomes silvery again. Julian looks to Ghostwheel as he becomes silver again, and turns to regard Avarya for a moment. He is taking note of those adaptations that allow her to withstand the vacuum, in the event that other beasts that can do the same penetrate the airlock, he will have some inkling about where to strike best. The adaptations appear to include a vastly tougher epidermis, protective lenses for ears and eyes, strange looking suckers on hands and feet, and not breathing anymore.

There is the faint hiss of escaping air. Then the double doors behind them slide open, to reveal a large area of black crystal, with various ships parked in various locations. On the other side of the area, there is no wall, instead it is open to space: a massive net of rainbow energies binds black bubbles into a dance around the writhing maw of a black hole. Another ship looms outside the dock, this one perhaps the size of a small moon, made from pale crystal. Julian's gaze fixates on the view beyond. "Unicorn…" He whispers. Julian does not know what to look at first; the rainbow of energies, the bubbles and lines of the web, the singularity, or the great crystal ship.

Communication links hum to life. A woman with a voice that is familiar to Julian speaks tersely. "I have telemetry readings again, Kieran. She is alive." Says Fiona. Julian raises an eyebrow at the familiar voice.

Aurora has just relaxed when she hears Fiona's remark. She winces quietly before speaking. "Away team plus one reporting in," she says. "The black crystal blocked everything in and out. We're leaving the airlock now and returning to the shuttle."

"By the way,Grandmere," she says with a sly smile. "Who should I thank for leaving my husband right where I could find him in my family's Ways?"

"Pardon?" Fiona replies. "Who is the plus one?" She adds after another moment. Aurora just grins and looks towards Julian.

Julian turns to Aurora when she speaks, and adds in his patient and distinctive voice, "Hello, Fiona. It has been a very long time."

Aurora smirks at him as she nudges his arm and steps out of the airlock. Her blaster is in the ready position as she steps sideways to keep the wall at her back until she can be sure that spider isn't lurking to pounce again.

The rainbow net and the black bubbles continue their ancient dance about the writhing black maw below. "JULIAN?!?" Is the reply that he receives from Fiona.

"I believe you know my husband," Aurora interjects smugly.

"HUSBAND?!?" Responds Fiona. If she were mortal, she would perhaps be in cardiac arrest.

"Yes." Julian adds mildly, his smile barely there, "I understand you are a Grandmother now. Congratulations, Sister." He tears his eyes from the rainbow of colors, "Now may we kindly please leave the airlock?" He turns to Aurora expectantly.

Aurora is already outside the airlock and waves him forward. She knows Avarya knows the way. "Grandmere, he is not this dimension's Julian. We met in the world Father had locked us in."

Avarya does indeed lead the way, slinking across the black surface of the docks, toward the small ship of pale crystal that is parked in the middle of it. "And how do you expect Kieran will react to this news?" Fiona says sharply and tersely, apparently having regained her composure.

"I had thought of that," Aurora responds stiffly with a faint scowl. "I expect him to hear me out and then be pleased for me. This happened long before I met Kieran. I thought he was mortal, Grandmere, and I didn't know what I was. Had we known, we would have never been separated."

Julian replies in his patient manner, though the tone was firm. "Discussed and considered, Fiona. We are in a vacuum with naught but an inch of fabric separating us from decompression. If you must fuss at my long lost Wife, do so when we arrive aboard." He pauses, and adds. "Kieran should hear this from Aurora, and not because someone leaks it over the — what is this called? — Comm-line." Julian gathers up Aurora, taking her free hand, and moves to follow Avarya to the small crystal ship.

"Kieran is dealing with a Sleeper we found in a damaged shuttle." Fiona replies. "I have you two on an isolated channel." Then she says something which is completely different to the Fiona that Julian remembers: no sign of malice. "I have no wish to see you and Kieran duel to the death over this. We will speak further when you arrive."

"Fiona, I have never been one to duel." Julian says in quiet reassurance. In the past, he was more likely to hunt kin, dueling was not a pragmatic solution, but that was years ago now, and this was a new day.

His wife squeezes his hand through their gloves when they start walking again, but he can tell her grandmother's reaction was not exactly what she had expected in the way she held her head inside the suit. She keeps her eyes out for trouble as they follow Avarya.

"Once we get into the shuttle and the scrubbers get the air flowing in there again, we can get our of these suits."

"Good." Julian replies, "This is all very — exposed." He remains alert, and when they arrive at the shuttle, he waits to see how it is opened. He looks to Aurora to say more, but remains silent as he remembers the radio. Julian sighs, like old times, someone is always listening.

Aurora's smile is full of mischief. She reaches tucks her blaster away for a moment, and turns a crystal knob on his radio controls and then does the same for her own. "There. Now we can hear them but they can't hear us."

Her smile dims a touch as she redraws the blaster. "She can fuss all she wants. I am yours and your are mine and I will not be parted from you again."

Avarya has slinked on-board the pale crystal shuttle, moving quite swiftly. There is no further speech from Fiona across the communications linkage. There is beside one of the black shuttles the corpse of a spider-beast, which appears to be floating slightly above the floor.

"I know." Julian replies to Aurora, smiling slightly. "I have never heard such concern in her voice. Truly the years have changed her perspective." He sighs, "Or that is what I mean to believe. I know that she is your Grandmother, but for centuries she was my Sister, and more than suspect at times." He walks onto the shuttle with Aurora, glancing to the spider-beast as he stepped within the crystal ship. "This is becoming still more surreal, you realize."

Aurora shudders and keeps going, leading Julian into the white crystal ship. She closes the hatch after Ghostwheel floats onboard. Setting a few controls on the panel, the air hisses quietly from the scrubbers as the vacuum of space is replaced by breathable air.

"You think it's surreal now? Wait till you meet the AIs and see the Fury." She turns to check the indicators. "We won't have to do this when he dock on the station," she explains to Julian. "The bay has atmosphere." Only when the panel turns green does she flip the release on Julian's helmet then her own. She shakes out her hair. "You can shift now, Avarya."

The Ghostwheel floats toward the front of the small crystaline craft. Inside, it is somewhat cramped, but there is space enough for four people.

The sinuous draconic form of Avarya again begins to shift, flow, change. This time trending toward a leopard-like shape with spotted lemon-and-pepper fur.

"Thank you, Avarya. I know that was uncomfortable for you," says Aurora as she shimmies out of her suit. She leaves it by the door and takes the Pilot's seat in the craft. Her hands glide over the controls quickly. She wants to get out of here quickly.

"Tisiphone," she says to the air. "I need a couple of things when we dock."

The crystal hull of the ship begins to sing, weird harmonics on the edge of hearing, as though with alien music. The Ghostwheel has occupied one of the four seats also, the one directly behind Aurora. The soprano voice of a woman speaks from thin air. "What things, My Empress?" The voice inquires. Avarya, her shift complete, curls up in one corner and tucks her tail across her nose.

"A decontamination chamber just off the hanger and before the airlock," Aurora replies. "I will also need a master suite around the corner and down the corridor from the family suite I am currently using. Also, this is Julian, my husband who will be sharing the new Master Suite with me. Julian, this is Tistiphone. One of the AIs for the Fury. She can answer any questions you might have."

Julian looks around a bit suspiciously once within the ship, especially when it begins to answer Aurora. He removes his helmet when his Wife declares it safe, and puts his bow and quiver aside. He keeps his sword, but scolds himself for being concerned. If the ship misbehaves, what good would his sword do for him? He takes his seat, looking around in wonder, and turns to Aurora when she addresses him.

"One of the AIs? How many does it contain?" He looks out of the ship through the viewport, and reaches out for Aurora's hand. "This is most disconcerting." Julian looks thoughtful, "Are we contaminated?"

"I know not, beloved," she answers truthfully as she gives his hand a squeeze. "I don't think so, but this was my first trek outside of the Fury in that environment. Plus, there was dust in an airless vacuum where there shouldn't have been any. Which reminds me…"

"Tis, I'll need a place to analyze that dust that's on the bottom of the boots from our encounter suits." She pauses. "Actually Fiona may be a better person to analyze it then me."

She looks over at Julian and smiles. "There are three AIs operating the Fury. You can get a bit of a history lesson once we're onboard from them."

Aurora frowns then and turns back towards the front as she continues to guide the ship. "Tis? What's this about another Sleeper? Did you find more cocoons?"

"A damaged shuttle was found welded to one of the Spheres. It activated an emergency beacon on detecting us." Tisiphone replies. "There were three Sleepers. All three are in quarantine now."

"Not to mention the spider creature." Julian adds. He listens to her give her orders and make her requests, and smiles slightly at her facility in this high tech environment. "Three of them? And they all work in concert?" His eyebrows rise at the mention of more cocoons. "Thousands of years of history? I'm still trying to absorb what is in front of me."

"My sister-selves and I are the Fury." Tisiphone replies to Julian's query. "Alecto and Megarea are assisting Princess Fiona with research and development."

Julian blinks for a moment, and replies to the air, "Thank you for the explanation."

"I know," Aurora says sympathetically after Julian has a reply from Tis. "As I said earlier — I have found it easier to deal with what is in front of me. I've only learned the history in fits and starts; a little bit here, a little bit there. Usually when I am about to embark on something new. " She leans over and brings his hand to her lips, kissing it before letting it go. "I need both hands free to fly," she explains with a smile before releasing it and giving the controls both hands to work them. The shuttle lifts smoothly enough from the place where Aurora parked it, and hovers in the space of the docking port, awaiting her guidance.

Julian looks to Arurora when she kisses his hand, and nods when she tells him she needs both for flight. "It's sinking in a bit. It's the view and the ship." He pauses, "I would like to know what became of my Brothers, though I suppose knowing for certain is not possible. Not with the Multiverse."

"Once we get some things settled, we can look into seeing what happened in the dimension of your birth," Aurora says as she looks over some readings. "But if they're cocooned, it could be years before we find them."

Aurora's hands glide over the smooth controls, backing them up a ways before turning and heading towards the small moon sized crystal structure. As they leave the dock of Mandorways, Aurora brings up a view screen that shows the web and sets the computer to recording again. He watches her intently, clearly bent on trying to learn how to handle such a ship if ever there was need. It struck him as an important skill to pick up.

"Grandmere, we have items from the cargo hold of the shuttle we entered in the Mandorways dock. Personal effects, diplomatic pouches, meds-though I don't know if they're any good still. 50,000 years in a sub-zero vacuum either preserved them or did odd things to them. I'll have them put into the lab with our encounter boots so that black dust can be analyzed."

"Understood." Fiona replies tersely. Though less sharp than previously, as though the shock of learning Aurora married Julian is starting to subside.

"That makes sense. In a vacuum, particularly in an airlock away from sun damage, none of the usual things that cause rot and damage would be present. Cold without humidity and moisture is not really damaging. You may want to keep anything you've found in similar conditions, if possible. Bringing documents to room temperature could damage them." Julian smiles slightly, "I almost sound like I know what I'm doing."

"I owned a bookstore for years, Julian," Aurora says with a quick smile. "And my library at my home in Napa Valley held books I had collected over my whole life - including some I preemptively rescued from Huntingdon." She wrinkles her nose. "I hope my descendants there took care of things when I disappeared."

"My remotes are working on your requirements, My Empress." Tisiphone informs. The moon-sized crystal structure that glows with light like the sun rapidly becomes larger and larger, until it fills the view from the front of the ship entirely, though it is still dwarfed by the massive black spheres in their net of rainbow energies. As their shuttle approaches, a hole cycles open in the side of the structure, massive compared to their shuttle but still small compared to the glowing crystal structure of the Fury.

"Thank you, Tis," Aurora replies. A shift in the controls has them headed for the opening. "Landing Bay," she explains to Julian unnecessarily. "It's huge. We have a fleet of these shuttles in a variety of sizes." She smiles at the way he watches her. "I'll teach you to pilot one."

And indeed, as they fly through the opening hole, there are other shuttles arranged around the interior of the massive crystal craft. Some of them are huge and bristle with what could be weapons. Others seem small enough to only contain one man or woman. A light blinks at one of the docking areas after several moments. As Aurora lands the craft, a set of nearby double doors open, and a small woman emerges clothed in a hazmat suit of white crystal. She walks with a limp, and with the assistance of a cane, but even from this distance the red fire of her hair is noticeable. One of her arms, the arm she does not use with her cane, appears broken and set in bandages

Aurora stares a moment then unbuckles and moves hurriedly to open the hatch. Fiona looks somehow more vulnerable in her current state of dress then when she's in her regular clothes.

"Avarya, I need you in human form. Our suits need to be packed up in one of the remaining crates for transport to the lab. You don't have to take them. I'll send the others to unload all this stuff."

She stands at the top of the ramp and waits for Julian to join her before exiting the craft.

"Grandmere, you should not be hobbling all over the station," Aurora scolds gently. "We would have come to you after going through decontamination."

Julian comes out after retrieving his things, and eying the controls of the ship for a moment. "I have never felt so — anachronistic before." He smiles, recalling Aurora's promise to teach him how to fly a ship — a space ship — a crystal space ship. He shakes his head; they had come so far from their Tower. He steps out of beside Aurora, and his eyes fall on Fiona right away. His eyes take her in, and for a moment he wonders what his Sister's game might be. Julian moves down the ramp to greet Fiona, "Greetings, " He pauses, considering how to address this Fiona that was and was not his Sister. "Sister." Julian tilts his head slightly, "You're looking — injured. What happened?"

As she limps closer, across the pale crystal, Julian can also see that Fiona has white frosting her fiery hair, and lines graven in her face. "Time." She says tersely.

"She wasn't really recovered from her cocoon treatment for the plague before we set off on this trip," Aurora explains from his left side. She takes Julian's left hand and slips something on his finger and says quietly. "By the way; I believe this is yours." She gives him a smile and then turns to Fiona.

Julian looks at the ring she's slipped on, and lifts his eyes to Aurora with one of those smiles she remembers from very long ago. "Thank you, mine is lost with my Amber. It rests on a table, in a small shrine. If my Arden still stands." Unabashed and unconcerned by Fiona's presence, he kisses his wife warmly, before turning to face his 'Sister'.

"Grandmere, this is the great love of my life," Aurora says happily — with a slightly dazed look in her eyes.

Julian, for his part, stands rather proudly beside her, his expression unreadable, his eyes alert. "I do not know what motivated your Julian, but for me, it was my Wife."

Aurora's smile went positively incandescent at Julian's pronouncement.


TOCThe Consequences of Discovery

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