a work in progress by Ellen Larson

This document is protected by International Copyright Law

Book One: Future

Part One: The Garden of Hestia

Dru Halley was accustomed to death, and did not fear its touch. Had not her twin sister's gossamer claim to life been brushed away within days of their second birthday? As a teenager, had she not sat with her aged father through the long nights, bent her head to catch his whispered words, and held his frail hand as he slipped away? Indeed, though she grew up to be as absorbed in herself as everyone else, her decision to school as a medic--a service considered by the dutiful but egocentric Ensori to merit neither glamour nor prestige--seemed to make itself. In time, she became a good medic, too, as education and experience fortified inclination, outstripping and eventually overwhelming it as the oak tree does the acorn. She also came to learn that her father would live and guide her as long as she remembered and missed him. On the other hand, she--rational child of the boundless opportunity that characterized the world of Ensor in the eleventh century After Regenesis-spent little time contemplating a sister so early removed. Yet on occasion, fleeting memories of her spectral twin danced on the horizon of remembrance--or were they the afterimages of childhood dreams, masquerading as memory, indistinguishable in the mind of the adult? Either way, when the awareness of a presence forever lost throbbed briefly in her heart, she was reminded of how that premature removal had affected her--affected her, in fact, every day of her life. But it had also made her strong.

So it was that she was chosen where most were not, when, at the age of 26, she rode the T down to Medinat Ensor, walked into the headquarters of EMRE, oldest of the three Amaran missions, and volunteered for service on Ensor's troubled sister-world. She was in due course assigned to a team comprising three agronomists, an architect, a veterinarian, and two other medics. After three weeks of schooling, followed by a trip home to settle her affairs against the year away, she rode the T over to the spaceport at Dar Bluun and was hurtled into space for the 29-day journey that would remove her from the ease and security that were all she had ever known and drop her into the heart of a world where death walked free.

Allegro Con Brio
Halley awoke on the twenty ninth day to find that the seeds of anticipation she had felt stirring for the past week had sprouted overnight into full-blown excitement. Nevertheless, while one or two of the others joked and bantered with high exuberance, she had little to say as she stowed her sleep bag and had her wash. After breakfast, another medic dispensed the chems that would speed their readjustment to gravity. Then they checked their packs--personal items allowed were precious few--and settled into their assigned seats for the final hour of the journey.

Halley regretted only that she there was no window through which she might see Amara--her image of this moment had always included a disc of blue and green growing ever larger against the star-speckled blackness of infinity. Living space was limited and communal on this flight; the storage bays and even the non-essential access tubes were filled with supplies. Ship-board life had been a simple routine of sleep, read, talk, eat, and exercise. Sometimes they had gathered to discuss what it would be like on Amara; more often they read alone, floating comfortably in their sleepbags with their slates, listening to music cover the incessant whir of the exerciser.

The pilot--from an unseen cockpit at the front of the shuttle--gave a laconic greeting and told them it was time to put on their restraints. Halley strapped herself tight against the soft contours of her seat. The minutes ticked by. As gravity began to return, she found herself lying on her back with her feet in the air. The shuttle began to shake. She gripped the straps that ran over her shoulders and stared at the ceiling, listening to a whine that seemed to come from the walls of the shuttle itself. This was rough--like nothing she had experienced in a hopper even in a high wind. There was a jolt, and her shoulders were shoved against the seat. She heard a high, whistling noise. She realized from the bumping beneath her that they must have landed. Then the pressure and the noise faded away and, with another jerk, all movement ceased.

In the silence that followed, one of the agronomists cracked a joke. Another laughed. Arms heavy and head throbbing, Halley fumbled with the fastenings of her restraints. Actions that had been second nature an hour before were puzzles sitting upside down in cramped quarters.

She was still trying to maneuver her legs and feet into their native position when she heard the distinctive clunk made by the opening of an outer hatch. Squeezing her knees to her chest, she shoved her legs sideways and rolled onto the floor. Air hissed as the seal on the inner hatch was broken.

The oval door opened and a man appeared, dressed in a light brown uniform with red collar and cuffs.

"Everybody in one piece?" He grinned. "Infinite. Let's move it." He helped the veterinarian, already up and wobbling, toward the door.

Halley got her feet under her and retrieved her pack from beneath the seat. When her turn came, she staggered out the door and through the circular access tube on sluggish legs. She saw through the outer hatch that it was night outside, and there were no lights. Unsure where to tread, she hesitated just inside the hatch. Strong, helping hands guided her down a steep ramp and onto an alien .
The night smells were overpowering: a rich scent of green things growing in unimagined abundance, and a perfume of unknown flowers. She raised her eyes: mountain peaks marched on every horizon, distant black shadows that blotted out the stars. And then the most outrageous sound struck up all around her, as if Amara were an orchestra preparing to play a glorious symphony.
She craned her head over her shoulder. "What's that noise?"

"Watch it." The hands steadied her as she stumbled on the uneven ground. "Peepers."

"Peepers," she repeated.

They led her, along with the others, to an open-topped vehicle and helped her into the back. She was glad to sit on the padded bench that ran along one side. One of their escorts--warders, they were called, according to what she had read--slid into the front seat. Halley took off her pack and laid it between her feet.
Looking around, she saw the luminous white hull of the shuttle, sitting like an immense overturned bowl in the darkness. Another warder appeared and hopped in beside the first. He turned and counted his passengers, then told his friend to head for the stable. The vehicle's engine roared, and every member of the team jumped. But the warder doing the piloting only laughed, and directed the vehicle down a slope and onto a bumpy road. As they moved away from the shuttle, other, larger trucks, rumbled across the ground like thunder, headed toward it. Halley's nose twitched. She had not imagined how much noise a methylate-fueled vehicle would make, or what it would smell like.

The road--little more a parallel track where the grass had been worn away--was visible in the white glow of the headlamps. On either side the vegetation grew thick and high. When the vehicle swung near enough, Halley reached so that her fingers touched the reedy stems. "Wheat," the agronomist was explaining to the architect. "The soil here is incredibly rich in micronutrients, and the local cultivars are resistant to all disease."

Halley looked up at the stars. They were vivid in the clear night air. There was little talk beyond such comments as these. With so much new to see, there didn't need to be. They knew they were headed to the EMRE compound at Tel Machas, the biggest town in Lahela Canton, where they would spend the next ten days getting their bearings before going into the field. Time enough for talk.

The vehicle rattled over a flat wooden bridge, after which the way grew winding. The parallel tracks broadened and became a dirt road. Lights appeared, twinkling here and there in the distance. After half an hour, they saw what they knew must be the lights of the town ahead and above them--hundreds of yellow lights, arranged without pattern. The road began to climb.

Buildings appeared, closing in on either side. The truck slowed. Halley twisted this way and that, but the streets were dark and it was hard to see much in the starlight. Occasional she glimpsed shadowy figures hurrying by. The architect spoke: "The typical house here is made of natural wood, I believe--cedar and pine. Painted white or yellow both for decoration and to preserve the wood. The roofs are covered with terra-cotta tiles."

The houses disappeared abruptly, and the road straightened. They passed into the heavy shadow of a stand of tall trees, where the headlamps rippled across the rows of smooth trunks. The road was smooth now, and the vehicle made less noise.

As the trees thinned, Halley caught a glimpse of something she recognized--a low building lit by a cool white light, above which hung, seemingly in midair, a luminous arc, marking the place where the light was refracted by a protective screen. Thus did she know they had reached their destination.

The vehicle stopped at the outer perimeter of the compound, a location defined by a metal gate, to one side of which stood a kiosk with a peaked roof.

A tall woman, dressed in the brown and red of the warders, appeared at the door of the kiosk. She waved, then disappeared back inside, her ponytail bobbing as she turned. The gate swung open, and the vehicle crept through at a sedate pace. The tall warder reappeared from the kiosk and stepped onto the running board, gripping the windshield with one hand. The warders exchanged a laugh, then, without warning, the vehicle roared across the paved yard to the front portico of the main complex.

Halley was a little stiff climbing out, her sense of equilibrium had returned. As she stretched her legs, she eyed the sprawling, two-story complex. Its walls were made of a rough gray composite, and its peaked roofs were red. There was a close-cropped lawn all around the building, spotted with trees and flower beds.

"Follow me," said the warder with a cheery smile.

"Home sweet home," said the agronomist.

They went up a short flight of shallow stone steps to the portico, and passed through a wooden door, which swung outward on three hinges. A wide hall, with doors on either side, led to an open cloister. There a fountain bubbled between four small trees, with stone benches in the corners. They turned right and walked along the covered aisle, their footsteps echoing in the night silence.

The warder, ponytail bobbing, led them up a flight of wooden stairs, open to the cloister, and so to the temporary residence wing, where rooms had been prepared for them. "The canteen is downstairs, on the other side of the fountain from the door you came in. You can't miss it. Link to me if you need anything--I'm in room 16. You're scheduled to meet the MC at nine in the morning, so eat something and then get a good night's sleep. You've got a full day tomorrow!" She grinned again and left them.

One of the other medics--the one who had dispensed the chems--already had her door to her room open, but she turned and addressed the team before she went inside. "I'm for a quick wash and then finding the canteen. Anyone interested, meet here in half an hour." There were murmurs of agreement before everyone disappeared into their rooms. Halley already had her fellow medic--who was an age set above her --pegged as the top candidate for team senior.

She placed her hand on the doorknob. It was round, and made of a grainy dark wood, highly polished. She had already seen enough to know that although the compound had certain echoes of Ensor, it had been built with Amaran materials, in a fashion that was alien to her. She turned the knob and pushed the door open.

The room was small, but homey rather than cramped, with a couple of cushioned chairs, a little table with drawers, and a colorful spread on the bed. The oval rug in front of the washroom door was a little threadbare in the middle. A clock on the wall said 25:18.

She went to the window and pushed aside the soft curtains, touching the glass with a forefinger. It was dark on this side of the compound, but in the starlight she could see the tall trees in the distance. She groped for a touchpad before remembering it was a manual window and pushing the bottom sash upward.

The night air rushed in, flooding the room with its flowery scent. Beyond the perimeter, the chorus of peepers still sang.

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