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"Tools" (Working Title) First Draft Beta Reader Site

The last set of chapters are nearly completed and will go up shortly. Rewrites are concurrently underway. It's a work in progress getting better.

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Thanks, Bill



It was heady times in the middle of the 21st century. In 2031 scientists using the new extra shiny gigantic super collider much to their brief chagrin accidentally created a wormhole. A tiny naked singularity. In less than a blink of an eye, all that was left was a two hundred yard diameter sphere of vacuum followed by the thunderclap created as the air rushed in to fill it.

The chunk of now the missing collider with several startled scientists simultaneously appeared in space 500 miles away from earth. The pieces inexorably pulled back to earth demolished the Happy Acres trailer park in Texas and everything else in the area. How the large chunks of the giant collider ended up appearing that far from earth created the infantile glimmerings that you might actually be able to travel using a small bottled wormhole to fold space.

Within ten years the first crude worm drive had been installed into a ship, and in five days it hopped its way to Alpha Centauri A and brought back pictures of not one, but five planets. It turned out there were thousands of inhabitable, at least more or less, planets.

The first pioneers left earth to find their Edens. Religious sects who wanted homes free of unbelievers along with the other hordes of ethnic, tribal, and political groups. Almost as quickly as humanity exploded out into the galaxy, it collapsed.

Worm drives were all built on Earth. Fanatics for reasons known only to them took a nuclear device and blew up the facility that made and stored the singularities. In nanoseconds, they and a quarter of the Earth vanished. No new worm drives would ever be made again on a wobbly and no longer inhabited Mother earth. The number of starships dwindled. Planets that were self-sufficient plowed forward, some in better shape than others. Many were not sufficient. An uncaring universe took care of them.

Chapter 1 On-orbit

“He looks somewhat like Arthur,” said Jacob peering closely at the photo. "What do you think Rachel?"

"He's certainly handsome and fits the generic profile. I think Ben is the best option we've seen so far, but he still needs to be tested."

Celeste absently brushed her hair back. "There is a slight resemblance. Maybe that's what caught my eye in the first place. Setting his looks aside he's smart and doesn't have any personal attachments I could find. He's struggling financially, and Bliss isn't a place where his talents and an engineering degree is useful. I think he's competent and with a little persuasion can be convinced. 

"Just competent?" said Jacob raising an eyebrow. This is our eighth stop and last chance for the time being for you to find a partner.

“You know how difficult it is for me, and I haven't always chosen well. Look at what happened last time."

“We know it turned ugly. Matt somehow slipped past all our screening despite our best efforts. You did choose Arthur though, and he was an extraordinary partner. I know another Arthur is waiting for you out there. It's a big universe and there is a place in it for you. Even though disappointment may happen again you must keep on trying."

Celeste shrugged, "I'm not that sure it can happen again. It was so special to be truly loved for who I am. I know I have to have a partner to help me, but for the time being, I just want someone who will follow directions and isn't a pain in the ass to deal with. I do my job, he does his. That's it period.”

"Okay, we'll all work together to set it up and see how it goes. You're a unique and remarkable woman Celeste.  Believe in yourself as much as we do and things will work out.  You're the best ship's Captain we have, and none of us want to see you grounded.”

“Thanks, Jacob. You've all been good and valued friends to me. I'll try my best for the project's sake. Everyone, please put your restraints on. I'm getting ready to start reentry. We've done all the data collection that's possible to do from here.”

Chapter 2 Bad day at Red Rock

Ben quickly sized up his pallid frowning customer. Balding, cheap clothes that didn't quite fit right, and likely wanting a bargain. He knew the type well. A "just looking" kind of guy but really needed this sale. Awkwardly twisting his tall, lanky frame toward the driver he used his best number six smile. “Drives like a dream doesn't she?” Ben said over the velvety hum of the electric motors. 

The pinched faced older driver glanced back as he turned back into the lot, Well I have to admit it seemed the price was a little too good to be...”

Ben suddenly was thrown forward ribs squashed by the seatbelt, and his sandy hair flopped over his eyes blinding him as the hum abruptly became an ear piercing squeal. With locked up wheels the vehicle skidded to a hard stop.

The driver glared at the wispy black smoke curling up from underneath and sneered, “I should have known better. You guys are all thieves.” The door slammed shut, and he stormed off the lot.

"What the....", thought Ben as he stared out the window seeing old Griswald through the dissipating smoke angrily waving his arms at him.

This is going to be a no-win conversation,” he thought as he got out and reluctantly trudged across the dusty lot.

"Thompson what did you do? This is the third sale you have ruined this week. You just can't seem to close a deal,” sputtered Griswold, loose jowls becoming more florid every second. 

Ben clenched his fists and defiantly held his ground. “You told me this drive unit was completely rebuilt by your worthless brother-in-law. I think he just threw in some old coils that were at the end of their life. How can I sell this crap if it can't even make it around the block even once?”

Griswold swelled up, then glanced sideways at his napping brother-in-law slumped in a chair under the veranda. A steady stream of drool wended its way down sagging chins and pooled on the floor. Turning back to Ben he deflated, “You're fired, just get out of here,” he rasped. Ben stormed into the office, gathered his meager desk contents and stomped away fuming.

Clutching a six pouch of Buzzed beer and a pseudo meat sandwich Ben patiently waited in line. The store's garish vid displays scrolled headlines. “Starlet gets the third breast transplanted, says two aren't enough for her.” “Deadly Spiny Polymorph captured inside city limits, two wardens badly injured.” 

The clerk snapped him out of his reverie. “Is this it buddy?” and deducted eleven credits from his sparse balance. The few remaining credits in his account heightened his impending sense of desperation as he headed home to his micro unit.

Halfway through his sandwich while scanning particularly dismal sounding help wanted ads, it started. Repeated banging shook his micro unit door. “Mr. Ben Thompson," A tinny metallic voice droned out, "You were seen entering this unit. I am here to collect your debt of 2136 credits owed to Galactic Charge-All. My programming requires me to stay until you pay your debt. Present your chip for payment soonest,” droned the credit bot. The message and incessant banging on the door repeated, this time with more volume.

Ben eyed the frying pan still coated with the remnants of breakfast sitting on the cooker and vision materialized. Snatching it, he ripped open the door and hurled it with all his might at what he belatedly realized was now a rapidly retreating and severely dented credit collection bot.

Time slowed for Ben as events unfolded. Having just missed the credit bot by mere millimeters the rotating pan continued on its high-speed trajectoryWith a resounding thud, it dented the hallway wall in front of ancient Mrs. Gold. She paled, gasped and fainted. Her lap mutt started furiously yipping at the pan. The credit bot made garbled noises as it whizzed backward disappearing around the corner. Staring at the mess and the prostrate old woman on the floor Ben panicked and ran into his unit. 

Spinning into overdrive cleaning supplies were gathered up, along with a cool water pouch. Reviving Mrs. Gold, he helped her back on her feet and shoved the water into her gnarled hands. Frantically sopping up the mess Ben hoped the only remaining evidence of the unfortunate incident would be Mrs. Gold's addled memory and the dent in the wall.

The building super appeared at the top of the stairs to see what was happening. Glaring at the still-wobbling Mrs. Gold, the pan in Ben's hand, and the dent in the wall he hollered over the shrill yapping, “Ben you're two months late on the rent already, and now this! Be out of here by the end of the month.” 

Cleanup finished, Ben collapsed onto his worn couch fuming. “Whoever named this stinking dust bowl of a planet Bliss had a weird sense of irony. A fat lot of good that engineering degree did for me. What a crappy day. I had no idea those obnoxious credit bots could move so damn fast.” He returned to the help wanted ads. “Nope, not selling vid advertising. Repair credit bots? Nah, you mostly need experience in a body shop.” He scrolled through dozens of other terrible sounding ads then a small one caught his eye. “Sales position available. Some experience desired. Substantial pay. Travel required. Apply in person. 26 Blossom Street.” He ripped open another Buzzed beer pouch and reread it.

Chapter 3 The interview

Ben's eyes slowly cracked open hearing the insistent beeping of the vid alarm. Climbing out of bed his toes squashed an unfinished pouch of Buzzed beer soaking his foot. “Crap,” is the first utterance of the day. The remote stopped the incessant wake-up beeping of the vid, and the help wanted section reappeared.

Reading the small help wanted ad once more he thought, “What do I have to lose? It's not like my schedule is overloaded today.” Wearing his most sincere suit, he waited at the autobus stop. As the vehicle pulled over, he heard his name being called out by a tinny robotic voice and quickly jumped aboard.

Ben suspiciously eyed the featureless one-story building. Only a painted street number above the plain metal door identified it. “What the hell,” he finally mumbled and entered the stark and sparsely furnished lobby. A half-dozen people were seated on folding metal chairs. A pleasant young woman wearing a dark suit that looked vaguely like a uniform was sitting at the reception desk. Ben walked over and stood politely until she looked up. 

She smiled and said, “Hi I'm Rachel, here's your application tablet. Please fill it out, and wait until your name is called.” 

Ben started filling in the blanks when an agitated middle-aged man bolted out of the side door, and in left in much haste. “That was certainly odd,” he thought as the receptionist called another name. She escorted the applicant to the side door where he was met by a young man wearing the same style of clothes. 

About thirty minutes later Ben looked up as he heard his name called. “Mr. Thompson, we are ready for you.” He walked to the door, and the receptionist stayed with him until the young man appeared. 

“My name is Jon, Mr. Thompson, I'm pleased to meet you. I'll be escorting you to the interview stations. Please follow me.” Ben was led to a small office with a table and two metal chairs. He picked one and sat.

The door opening caught Ben by surprise, but not as much as the man who entered. “Yikes, what the...?” Extremely tall, cadaverous, scowling, and ultra-intimidating was Ben's first impression. Somewhat startled Ben stood, stuck out his hand, and with a smile said, “Hello, I'm Ben.” 

The tall man ignored him, sat down, and stared blankly at him. 

“What do I do now?” he thought. On impulse, he used his best number four grin and said, “I'd be happy to answer any questions you might have.” 

The man continued to sit still with a dour expression. Ben noticed he didn't even seem to blink. 

“Should I be doing something here?” Ben asked. Again zero reaction from the man. He looked more closely at the taciturn man. He's completely bald, wearing a white robe, and had a watch with a large digital face on his wrist, The pendant on a chain around his neck appeared to be more than jewelry. Ben smiled, this time sort of, and tried one more time saying, “What type of sales job is this?” Abruptly the man stood and left without saying a word. “What's going on here? This is the weirdest interview setup I have ever encountered,” he mused.

The door swung open, Jon stuck his head in, and said, “Are you ready for the next step?”

“I guess so,” said Ben. “Who was that ?”

“That's the boss, Jacob Grimm. I think you did okay. Believe me, you would have known if he wasn't happy with you. He's normally a fun guy when he isn't doing interviews.” 

Ben snorted, “I can't imagine, what's next?” 

“Follow me.” Ben tailed him down the hall to a much larger room with workstations equipped with a computer and headset. “This is a type of open book aptitude test Ben. You can use the computer to ask questions about anything you want to know, but the one thing the system will not do is give you a direct answer to any test question. The test does not end, you just go as far as you can, or think you should go.”

Ben sat down and put on the headset. The screen lit up with, “What is the melting temperature of iron?” Ben thought for a second. “It's pretty high, maybe about 1500 degrees.”“What type of iron?” Ben asked. 

The computer's pleasant voice responded, “Elemental iron, free of impurities.” “Can you show me its physical properties?” 

The screen scrolled about ten pages of information. “Ah, there it Is,” Ben thought, and said, “1538 degrees Celsius.” 

“Correct,” said the computer, and the screen displayed the second question. “Can aluminum be used to make an archery bow?” 

Ben asked for the history of archery to be displayed and started to scan the info. After thinking for a couple minutes, Ben said, “Yes you could, but it is too soft to work well for long. It's likely to shortly fail from metal fatigue. Some more exotic alloy forms might last longer.” 

“Accepted,” said the computer, and the screen displayed “How would you do an emergency appendectomy with things you could find in a kitchen?” 

Ben sighed, “Can you describe the procedure please?” 

“Yes,” said the computer, and screen filled with text and photos. After three hours and many questions later, Ben thought, “My head is plugged up with things I thought I would never need,” and he pushed himself away from the desk.

Jon came over, and asked, “Are you done?” 

“I could keep on going, but I don't see the point.” 

“That's fine Ben, please follow me.” Ben followed Jon down the hallway to the first bare room he started in. Jon said, “Have a seat, someone will be with you shortly.”

Ben plunked down in the chair thinking he maybe should have worked longer on the test. The door opened and in came the cadaverous-looking Mr. Grimm, this time smiling, and not looking anywhere near as intimidating. 

Mr. Grimm extended his hand, and said, “You did well Ben, we would like to offer you a position.” 

Ben awkwardly rose and shook his hand. “During this whole interview thing, nobody ever said what the job really is.” 

“You're right Ben, a good point. The position we are filling is for a traveling encyclopedia salesman. We think you will be excellent at it.” said Mr. Grimm, “ and please call me Jacob.”

Chapter 4  An offer, base plus commission

“Ben, let's go to my office, and we can talk about this,” said Jacob, waving his hand for him to follow. They walked down the hallway and entered a basic room. There were several chairs and a couch surrounding a coffee table with a black cube on it. “Office please Celeste if I may impose,” said Jacob. Instantly the walls were covered with tall wooden bookcases. A fireplace blazed in the corner, and a large picture window looked out onto an alpine meadow. “Thank you,” Jacob said. 

A women's warm voice responded, “You're very welcome Jacob.” 

Ben swiveled his head around looking for Celeste. The only person in the room with him was Jacob. “Who is Celeste?” asked Ben. 

Jacob pointed toward the cube, and said, “This is Celeste, and she is the metaphorical encyclopedia you would be selling if you accept the job.” 

“I'm not sure I understand. Am I supposed to sell a talking box?” said Ben. 

“Celeste would please introduce yourself to Ben,” “I would be pleased to Jacob. Hi Ben,  it's truly a pleasure to meet you, although we had already. I gave you your test playing the role of the computer. At my fingertips, I have the majority of information known to mankind and have been uploading everything available about Bliss while I have been here this week. Would you like to know your credit score, Ben?” 

Startled by the question, Ben stammered, “Ah no thanks Celeste, I already have an idea what it is.” 

“Why Ben,” she said, “It's perfect. You currently have a balance of 100,022 credits in your account. I shifted a little money away from Galactic Charge-All's accounts and moved it into yours. They have been using a sneaky algorithm to steal from their customers for years. Their ugly credit collection bots acquired a nasty virus at the same time. I'm talented at this sort of thing. We wouldn't want your fiscal distress to push you into taking a job you didn't like. You have to really want this job.”

“Ben,” said Jacob, “Our organization is just known as the Library. For over two hundred years we have been collecting information, sorting it, and then selling it as a source of income. We have been fortunate to have had substantial sums and resources endowed to us through the early years by generous patrons. We saw the Great Collapse coming and moved off earth years before the Earth's singularity explosion which proved to have been a good decision, as expensive as it seemed at the time. Even our skills couldn't have foreseen that unfortunate event.”

“We do what we have always done, and during our visit to Bliss, we have been mining data, and concluded some low key information, and technology sales. Places like Bliss still have infrastructure and technology, and most data collection can be done from orbit by tapping into wireless communication systems. But on all too many planets, the level of technology is now too low to allow data collection from afar. This requires visiting in person. So, in short, the job is to visit these places, assess conditions, collect what information is available, and where opportunity presents, sell, or trade our information in a way that will help uplift the inhabitants. This is not an easy job. It comes with some personal risk and requires special skills to do this. We believe you have these talents,” said Jacob.

“But how can I do this? You can't even get to some of these places,” asked Ben. 

“Yes, you can. We are going to provide you with a powerful toolkit. Celeste has her own starship, and you two will work together. The first step is to go with us to our facility on Alexandria where you will get some training, and off you and Celeste go. As for pay, you will get $200,000 credits per year, 3% of any profitable sales and comfortable room and board are provided. By the way Ben, we are leaving in three hours. If you're going to accept this job, be back here by then. If you choose not to accept the job, the money Celeste has given to you is yours to keep. We will await your decision.”

A startled Ben stood, shook Jacob's hand and said, “Thank you... both.” Somewhat stunned Ben walked out of the office.

“What do you think Celeste?” said Jacob. 

“He turned out to be better than I thought. He's intuitive and didn't freak out anytime during the process including appearing to accept me. I think he will be back here in about two hours. You only lied a little about the job this time. You're getting much better Jacob.”

Chapter 5  Alexandria bound

Ben's brain was spinning, and he mumbled to himself, “This must be a scam. Some sort of reality vid show is being made, and I'm the brunt of the joke. Leaving Bliss on a ship? One hundred years of my income would barely buy a person a one-way ticket to any planet, and I would have one at my disposal?”

He looked at his card and checked his balance. The display showed precisely 100,022 credits. Ben shook his head as he contemplated the number, and hopped on the autobus headed home. Ben knocked on the super's door. He transferred credits to pay the rent in full and added an extra 100 credits to fix the dent in the hallway wall. 

“Thanks for paying, Ben, but I meant what I said. I have already rented your unit. So be out at the end of the month.” 

“No problem,” Ben thought to himself, “I can now afford something a lot better than this musty dive.”

Ben took the last pouch of Buzzed beer, tore it open and sat. Checking his watch, he still had 2 hours and 15 minutes left to make a decision. Looking back at the vid the small ad was now gone. The remaining help wanted ads seemed even worse than the ones he saw before. “Miner's needed for radioactive metal extraction at the poles,” “Pseudo meat extruder operator position available for third shift.” “Yeee,” thought Ben. “My credit balance will last me for a year and then what would I do?” Looking around at his scruffy unit he noticed that the vid was now showing an old travel log featuring an exotic resort planet. Attractive women were cavorting under a waterfall, and one with dark red hair was swimming in the pool at its base. It was all surrounded by a lush, and alien looking forest.

Looking around at his scruffy surroundings the concept of taking the job slowly coalesced into a brilliant idea. In a burst of excitement, the small suitcase was pulled out and stuffed full including a bathing suit. Taking a quick final look around, Ben thought, “The super can have all this junk.” Catching the first autobus, he checked the time. He had a little less than two hours left. Stepping off the autobus he walked in, and the place was emptied out. Ben's heart stopped for a second thinking. “Maybe this was all a joke after all,” when Jacob came striding through the front door. 

“Good to see you, Ben, are you ready to go? The vehicle is outside waiting. Celeste said it would take you about two hours to decide, and she was right, as usual. ”Ben squeezed himself into the small back seat next to the receptionist.

“Congratulations Ben, remember me? I'm Rachel, Jacob's assistant.” 

“Nice to meet you again Rachel,” said Ben. 

“I thought you would accept Ben,” said Celeste's voice coming from the vehicle's speaker. “I had calculated the probability at nearly 100%, I nudged you a just little bit to make it 100%.”

Ben thought about this for a moment. “Celeste, did you rent my apartment, arrange to have that old travel log appear on my vid, and makeup all those awful help wanted ads?" 

Celeste in a more contrite voice said, “Well maybe. I just wanted you to take the job. I know you will be great at this. Sorry, I won't do those things to you again.” 

“Apology accepted, but did I hear a small loophole buried in your apology?”

“Just a tiny one, It was for your own good."

They pulled into the dilapidated spaceport and up to a small freighter. This was the only ship present and one more than what was usually there. The hatch ramp had already started to deploy. Jacob got out and opened the trunk. Ben grabbed his suitcase and waited until all the gear was removed. Jacob pushed the return button on the vehicle. It headed off to its rental lot, and Ben followed the group up to the ramp and into the ship.

The interior looked like the inside of a yacht. Ben surveyed the comfortable looking lounge. He could see a short hall that had cabins. Forward was a galley on one side, and a conference room on the other. Jon secured the cube into a cradle.

“Thanks, Jon,” said a full-voiced Celeste. This is much better, I was feeling sensory deprived utilizing all of those primitive communication systems on this planet.” 

“Ben, please find a seat," said Jacob we are going to depart. Celeste, would you please take us to Alexandria.” 

“My pleasure Jacob, and Ben you will find a seat belt under your cushion. I won't depart until it's fastened,” requested Celeste.

Ben felt a gentle surge, and downward pressure as the ship lifted and angled upward. The vid on the wall showed the spaceport shrinking, and in a couple of minutes, the arc of Bliss's surface appeared. A brief moment of weightlessness passed, then gravity returned. “The first jump is in thirty seconds. The next jump will be in about three hours, give or take depending on our actual location,” announced Celeste. Ben felt his guts twist as gravity pulled on him from random directions, the vid went gray, and then it was over. “You are free to move around.” said Celeste, “I will give a fifteen-minute warning before the next jump.”

Ben looked around saw that Jon had disappeared. Jacob and Rachel were in the conference room. “Celeste?” 

“Yes, Ben,” 

“How long will this trip take?” 

“It will be about two days in your subjective personal time, Ben. I have reset the clocks to Alexandria time. It is now 9:47 pm.” 

“Um, should I be doing something?” 

“You may do as you wish, but I have loaded a tablet with a variety of things for you to study over the next couple of days. Cabin four is yours, and the galley is automatic. Eat whatever and whenever you want.” 

“Thank you very much.” 

“You're welcome and goodnight. Please don't forget to put on the restraints before you fall asleep, or I will have to wake you up and remind you.”

Chapter 6  The library

Ben's studies were interrupted by Celeste announcing that they would be landing in Alexandria in one hour. His last two days had been spent reviewing the history of the Great Collapse and information on the over 7400 planets, or at least the ones in some cases that were suspected to be still inhabited. More successful ones like Bliss on occasion got visitors, but for most, it was a rare event because so few ships were still operating.

Rachel sat next to Ben “I wanted to let you know what will happen over the next couple of days. After we land, I will give you a quick tour, and show you your unit. Then we'll go to medical to get your implants.” 

“Whoa, what kind of implants? Am I going to become a cyborg?” 

Rachel chuckled, “Not hardly. These are tiny implants that will let you talk, and listen to Celeste privately, as long as you are within range. You didn't know that we don't have to talk out loud to her. You will also get tiny cameras built into special contact lenses so she can see what you see, and they will give you night vision too. Then some medical monitoring sensors. We all have those. After that, we'll all have dinner in the cafeteria and you will get a more detailed overview. This is a good time to pack your stuff up, and rejoin us in the lounge for landing.” 

“Restraints please,” announced Celeste and a minute or so later Ben felt the gut-twisting of transition, and the vid went from gray to a view of a white and green rocky planet. As the ship arced down toward the surface a deep green valley with a large cluster of low buildings nestled into the side of snowcapped mountains came into view. They landed on a rather small pad with room for maybe at best three ships. With a small shudder, the ship descended into a cavernous bay that had dozens of ships lined up inside of it. With a jolt, the ship was hauled forward and then stopped. “Welcome to Alexandria,” said Celeste.

Gear in hand, Ben followed the group off the ship and climbed into a waiting cart. An awestruck Ben stared out at all the ships. He had only seen three in his life. 

Jacob waved his arm out towards them, “We have 42 of these ships. We think at last count there are at most about two dozen others left operating and in few more years, most of those will be grounded. We have enough singularities in storage to last for at least five or six more decades. It's our hope by then the technology can be rebuilt to start making worm drives again. We have considerable manufacturing capabilities, but not nearly enough to build them.”

The cart hummed its way down a long corridor and broke out into a cavernous multi-floored atrium lit by a massive skylight. Jacob glanced at Rachel, “Would you please get Ben settled, and then over to medical for his implants.” 

“Grab your suitcase and let's go,” said Rachel. Dazed and clutching his suitcase he scrambled to follow her over to a bank of lifts. 

“Don't bother to try to learn the layout yet. When you have your implants, Celeste will give you a hand.” 

One of the lift doors whooshed open, and Ben followed Rachel in. The door closed, and the lift rose. Ben noticed the buttons weren't touched, and Rachel smiled. “I told Jeeves, where we needed to go. The many Artificial Intelligence's here help us.” lectured Rachel. “You'll get used to this in short order.” “Home sweet home,” said Rachel as she slid the door open with a flourish. Ben followed her into a comfortable looking suite. A large vid hung on the wall showing a view of the valley outside. A small work area was in the corner. Through another door, he could see a small bedroom. Rachel pointed to another room and mouthed bathroom. Ben nodded, set his bag down and started to try out a couch, when Rachel quipped, “Nope not yet, we're off to medical.”

The lift sank at high speed downward. “Medical is in the basement so to speak,” said Rachel in a matter of fact tone. The doors opened onto a brightly light reception area.

Ben sniffed the sterile air and noted the vaguely green walls, and thought “This is a hospital alright.” 

The receptionist looked up and smiled “You must be Ben, I'm Susan, you can follow me.” 

Rachel waved goodbye, “I will see you at dinner. You won't need me to find it.” 

Susan led him to a small room with a high tech bed. “Put this gown on. Doc will be with you in a few minutes,” and she spun around and left. Ben stared at the gear in the room immediately focusing on the spindly robotic arm next to the bed. It was surrounded by racks of ominous looking instruments most of which were sharp and pointy.

The door opened, and a man in a white coat walked in. “I'm Doc Greene Ben, “Don't worry, this isn't a big deal. Just lay down on the bed, and we'll get started.” Doc fitted a small breathing mask over his face and pushed some buttons. Ben faded away.

“Ben... Ben can you hear me?” said a disembodied voice.

A foggy Ben mumbled, “Yes, I can hear you.”

“That's good Ben, now try moving your new third arm,” said the voice, a little clearer this time. 

Ben's eyes shot open. “A third arm?” he blurted in a panic as his head snapped down to look. 

“Just kidding,”  said Celeste. “Do you feel okay?” 

“Yes, mostly I think, and that wasn't funny,” snapped Ben. 

“Sorry, but if you could have seen the look on your face.” 

“Yeah Yeah,” he grumped, “When are they going to do this implant thing?”

“We're finished, and I did my usual great work. That little red line on your forearm is where your medical monitoring implant is. It will fade away in a couple of days. Now try to talk to me by subvocalizing. Just talk without moving your mouth.” 

“Like this Celeste?” 

“Good you got it, and with a little practice, it will become second nature. I can hear you clearly, and the permanent contact lens cameras are working well. I see what you see.” 

“All the time?” asked Ben with some concern. 

“Yes, all the time. But I will give you privacy anytime you ask, I promise. The only exception is unless it's for your own good.” added Celeste. “It's getting close to dinner, and we have another job we have to finish. Get dressed and  I'll guide you.” 

Chapter 7  It's nice to meet you.

“Ben, just follow the yellow line to the lifts. Go up to the third floor, room 302. You'll find this interesting. It's time to get to know me better,” said Celeste. Ben popped out of the elevator and did a hotel hallway spin checking room numbers to see the direction he needed to go. He opened the door, walked in a few steps and stopped.

The center of the room was lit by a soft down spot illuminating a couch. An attractive reddish black haired woman with extraordinarily bright green eyes rose. She was wearing a regal brilliant blue captain's ship suit with multi-pointed silver stars on the shoulders. "Hi Ben, I'm Celeste, she said with an awkward and shy smile. It's nice to finally meet you in person. Would you please sit with me for a few minutes so we can talk?"

Ben nervously came over and sat not being sure what to say, and suddenly knew what he needed to say. "I'm so sorry Celeste, I'm terribly embarrassed. I didn't truly understand you were real. I mean I thought  did, but didn't."

"Thank you for being honest with me, Ben. I highly value that. I'm all too real. When I look in a mirror, this is the way I see myself. It's who I've always been, and I'm proud of the person I've become and things I have had the privilege to see and do. I can look different if need be, but it makes me uncomfortable. She looked at Ben with an impish grin and chuckled, "It's like having an out of body experience for me." 

Ben studied the few freckles sprinkled around Celeste's small nose then looked into intently into her green her eyes, "I'm happy you chose me, but why? I'm not anyone special."

Seeing his pensive look, and herself through his eyes thought to herself "'Truth is best for Ben." "I honestly don't know for sure why. So many things about you seemed right to me. You reminded me of someone I deeply cared for once who is now gone, You're smart and seemed kind. I know a great deal about you, and yet really not that much at all." Celeste absentmindedly bit her lip and haltingly said, "I liked you and took a chance. You seemed to be someone I thought who would accept me as I really am, or I hoped at least you could in time. It turns out this is difficult for most I meet. I am different...and not perfect."

Ben frowned for a second thinking about her comment then saw the look of concern in her eyes. He grinned, "Yes, I clearly can see you're different. Few women who are as remarkable and intelligent as you have freckles. I understand how this could be challenging for you. It will take some effort but I'll work hard at overlooking this problem you have."

Celeste opened her mouth as if to say something and laughed instead. "Thank you, Ben.

“You need to know some more about this job, and it's time for dinner with Jacob now. I have a couple of things I must take care of. Select your meal from the replicator and join us in the private dining room. I think this can turn out to be a good working relationship." With a mischievous look, she gracefully stood and sauntered out the door. 

Ben shook his head and started towards the door himself quietly mumbling to himself, “It's almost like she can read my mind.” A soft voice whispered back. 

I can't, but I'm very intuitive.” 

“This certainly isn't what I was expecting. What in the world have I gotten myself into?” thought Ben to himself this time.

Chapter 8 The last supper

Ben stepped out into the hallway, and Celeste's voice in his head told him to follow the projected yellow line on the floor that ended at an open lift door. Carrying a tray with pasta dinner and wine pouch, he joined Jacob and Rachel at a private table. Celeste walked in and sat next to him. 

Rachel grinned, "I see you finally met Celeste."

Flustered Ben said, "It was enlightening, to say the least."

“Ben," said Jacob, "There are a few more things you need to know before we go any further. You were already on a short list for this job Celeste created while we were in orbit. This is a difficult position to fill, and I wasn't completely candid with you about what the job really entails. When we're through discussing this, I will give you the option of returning to Bliss, with the credits Celeste put into your account or continuing." 

Ben peered at Jacob then Rachel and then turned to look at Celeste. All three had somber looks on their faces. Ben cleared his throat, and said, “Go ahead Jacob, I'm listening.”

"Before the invention of the worm drive, the earth was in bad shape. Despite the efforts put into trying to minimize the birth rate, the population had grown to nearly thirty billion souls. Warmer temperatures made more land unusable for agriculture. The tipping point had long ago passed. The worm drive saved humanity, sort of. 

Religious, racial, nationally aligned, and almost every other example of human tribalism went to the stars. The poor of course were left behind. It was shortly after this we established Alexandria. 

Worm drives have a long lifespan if not used. With each use, they lose a little energy. One of the first things the Library did when we moved here was to acquire a substantial stockpile of worm drives and ships. All the worm drives were built by a single company that carefully guarded its secrets. When it blew, all the technology went with it at the same time. We understand how to make them, but we don't have the resources on our planet or the place to build them. We want to find planets that have a population large enough, are willing to make some sacrifices, and over time can be taught how to do it.

This job has several aspects. One is to visit possible planets where this could occur. If they're not ready, we try to provide them with the tools needed so in time they might be suitable for this project. Another thing you need to understand is Celeste is in charge of these missions, and one last thing, there is no real pay for this. What we offer to you and to all residents of Alexandria are room and board. No one here pays for anything, and there is no way to buy things. If you need something, and it can be provided you will get it. So there it is Ben, do you have any questions?”

Ben sat silently for a minute playing with his pasta, and asked, “How dangerous can this be Jacob?” 

"On rare occasions, we have lost people. Mostly this was because they ignored their partner's advice or made poor decisions."

Celeste chimed in “Ben, I will guard you with all my resources. Losing a partner is devastating. I know this personally.  If you are up to it, then so am I.

Ben looked up at the atrium skylight, thinking how mundane and changeless his life was on Bliss, then smiled. "Sure, Celeste, I'm game for some adventures with you." 

“Thank you, Ben. It will be fun, or at least I promise always interesting. I have lots to do, and I will see you first thing in the morning.”

Chapter 9  Moving day

A chiming in Ben's head was slowing climbing in volume. He opened his eyes hearing a cheerful “Good morning Ben.” Seeing Celeste leaning over him Ben clumsily pulled up the sheets to his chin. 

Celeste smirked, “Get over it Ben, When I did the implants, I gave you a full physical examination at the same time. You also got vaccinations, and some goodies to boost your immune system.. There isn't anything I don't know about your body, and on that subject, you should get a little more exercise. We'll work on that in time.” 

“What's in store for me today Celeste,” mumbled a still drowsy Ben. 

“We are joining Jacob for breakfast, so hit the shower and meet me in the cafeteria's private dining room,” said Celeste, looking back over her shoulder as she walked out.

Ben entered the dining area with wet hair clutching a plate of pseudo eggs, something that purported to be yogurt, and a cup of cafe. He started to sit next to Jacob but veered at the last second to sit next to Celeste causing a quixotic smile to briefly flash past her lips. 

“Good morning Ben,” said Jacob. “Celeste and I have talked about what planets we want to look at, and we have settled on a place called Pastoral. It hasn't been visited in over a hundred years.

“Celeste, would you give us a quick overview of what we know to date.” “Sure. Pastoral is a moonless close to earth norm planet with one vast continent. The animal life is small of which some are edible and it was heavily supplemented with earth mammals and vegetation. It was settled by two groups. The first was Eauland Industries. They were a strict monotheist religious company that manufactured large scale water purification systems used by terraforming companies.”

“The Gaian's were the second group and called themselves One Earther's. They are an agrarian-based matriarchal society with a loosely organized pagan style worship of Mother Earth. Neither group had much interaction with each other. The One Earther's constantly complained about the Eaulander's mining and heavy construction facilities were damaging the planet, and the Eaulanders shunned the One Earthers as godless heretics. My best estimate is the current population will be around 4.5 million.”

Celeste looked over at Ben, “Are you ready to go?” 

Startled Ben quavered, “Right now? Don't I have to pack or do something to get ready?”

“No, I prepared the ship and packed for you last night. I don't ever truly sleep, but I do need to rest regularly. And yes I have a bathing suit on board for you if we find a waterfall. One without lots of cavorting females in skimpy suits that is. Your stuff can stay where it is in your room. You don't have anything on your schedule today do you?”

“Uh no Celeste, it seems my schedule happens to be open today, and tomorrow's as well.” 

Okay, let's go.” 

“Do have a projected timeline Celeste?” asked Jacob. “The trip travel time is 2.7 days subjective. Maybe about a month for the survey if all goes well. If things are bad, it could be longer than that. It really all depends on how far they have slid backward in technology or culture.” Celeste stood, “I'll be onboard Ben, the waiting cart will take you to the ship,” and she vanished.

Ben stood and shook Jacob's hand. “Guess I'm off Jacob,” Ben said with some trepidation. “Any advice for me?”

“Yes, but first ask Celeste if she would give you some privacy for a moment.”

I heard, let me know when you're through with Jacob,” whispered back Celeste.

Jacob paused for a moment and looked straight at Ben. “The first thing about Celeste is you can't lie to her without her instantly knowing it, and she would never lie to you unless it is necessary for your safety. Celeste is truly alive, has real feelings, and cares deeply for those around her. Like all of us, she desires companionship and intimacy. Her sense of humor can be dry so keep that in mind. She selected you and had been looking for a suitable partner for a long time. You're entering into a relationship with her, and how it works out is up to both of you. She's a remarkable, smart and kind woman. That being said you don't ever want to be on her bad side, she's slow to forgive, but always does in time. You're in good hands, and we need both of you to work together for everyone's sake. Have a good voyage Ben, and we will see you in a month or so.”

“Thanks, Jacob,” said Ben, and he walked over to the cart and climbed in. “I'm done with Jacob,” said Ben, “Thank you.”

You're welcome, I'll see you soon.”

The cart whirred through the library complex and came to a stop in a cavernous hall next to a ship that was much larger than the one he arrived on. Ben walked up the ramp taking in the size of the vessel. 

“Welcome aboard. This is my personal expedition ship, and I have configured it to suit both you and the mission. I can't wait to show you.” said an animated Celeste waiting for him at the top of the ramp.

Ben stepped into a small circular room with hatches all finished in dark wood. Celeste said, “Watch this.” The wood disappeared, and gray metallic walls appeared and then became dark wood again. “I have holoprojectors everywhere in the ship, so we can make our rooms look any way we want them to appear. The only real things are the furnishings, and I made sure they are comfortable. Aft is the hold, and it's packed full of things we might need including a full medical suite for you if need be. I'm a good doctor as you already know. Let's go forward.”

Ben followed and entered into a large salon. One wall had a colossal vid, and abundant other smaller vids were showing a variety of scenes. One caught his eye, and he walked over to look at it closer. It was a waterfall on a lush alien planet with a woman that looked similar to Celeste swimming in the pool at the base of the falls. Ben looked at it puzzled for a moment and turned towards Celeste and started to say, “Didn't I see this image on my vid....”

“Yes, you did. I put it there when we were on Bliss. It's the same waterfall, I just removed the other cavorting females. I was the one swimming.” Ben smiled, and said, “It looks better now.”

“Thank you," said Celeste with a smile, "That was a nice thing to say. Let me show you the rest of the ship. Here is a small gym,” as a door slide open. Ben stared at the exercise equipment and sighed. “And this your bedroom. Mine is identical and next door.” Ben walked in and noted a large bed in the spacious room with a bank of drawers built into the wall and a wall vid. On the other side of the room through an open door, he saw a small bathroom and shower. “There are two other smaller cabins for guests, but I don't expect any company on this trip. Forward is the galley and bridge. This ship is virtually indestructible, and heavily armed which on occasion has been handy. Find a seat and buckle up, we are going to lift.” 

Ben sat on the salon couch and found the restraints. A small lurch indicated the lift was in motion and a second bump told him they were on the surface. Ben clenched briefly as he was pressed down hard in the cushions as the vid showed a rapidly shrinking Alexandria. “The first jump is in 60 seconds Ben, and then I'll join you. This takes some concentration.” Ben felt himself turning inside out thinking, “What in the world have I got myself into?”

Chapter 10  Learning things

Celeste wearing a plain ship's jumpsuit walked into the salon and plunked down into the chair next to Ben. “I know you must have a million questions, and now is a good time to ask them.” 

“I'm not at all sure about how this is all going to work. Can you tell me what is likely to happen?” 

“Sure, some elements are common to these expeditions. We're going to slowly approach Pastoral. Some planets had space-based weapon systems. If there are any, I will disable them. Then we will go into orbit and spend some time analyzing surface conditions.

“What do I do while all this is happening ?” 

“You can help me a lot here. We have to pick a landing location to make contact with both groups. Far enough away that they will have to come to us, and not so close that we can't see who is coming. This could be anything from a single vehicle with a few people, to a militia armed to the teeth. At that point, we'll have to work together and play it by ear as the old expression goes. This is why it's always an adventure, and we both need to be cautious. Most go well and are enjoyable, or at least are tolerable. Some places, however, can be bleak, tragic and extremely dangerous.”

“Could you tell me what happened to your last partner?"

Celeste gazed off at one of the vids, and then abruptly turned back at Ben. “Yes. It's hard for me to find a partner to work with. I need to personally like and trust my partner, and the flip side is they need the capabilities to do what I can't. This is a difficult thing to quantify since every situation is different. So they have to be smart, honest, adaptable and not be impulsive, at least as far as the expedition is concerned. But most importantly he has to accept me as I am.”

“My last partner, in the beginning, was good, maybe a little too good.  But as time passed he started to order me around. It was about small things at first, and then it kept getting worse. He would disregard my advice and started to take full control of the ground side contacts. One day he arranged a meeting with the local military officials at a large base nearby. These were not good, and I thought potentially brutal people. I suggested he do this near the ship where I could protect him. When a small group showed up in a vehicle, he just climbed in and said that he was going to their base. I insisted that this was a bad idea, and then he called me ..... a machine and told me to shut up.”

On the way to their facility, they asked him how many people were on the ship, and he stupidly said no one, just a computer. When they reached the base, they went to a small room. One of the officers asked him how to get onboard. He told them, the computer has to grant access, only he could get in, and it was now time to talk business.

The senior officer told him, "We know a lot about computers, and we want your ship. He pulled out a sidearm, and I watched him pull the trigger. Over the next minutes, I felt him die through his sensors.” Celeste stopped talking and looked away.

“What did you do?” Celeste's green eyes looked coldly back at Ben, “That military base doesn't exist anymore.”

Ben leaned back stunned. “I'm so sorry, I don't know what to say other than to promise you I would never treat you that way.”

“Thanks, she said with a small smile. “I trust you too.” “How about we watch a vidflick? You choose which one. I have an almost endless supply of them, and I have only watched a few. I'll make dinner, you clean up.”

Chapter 11  Pastoral inbound

“We are going to transition shortly. Would you please put your restraints on including your shoulder straps and snug them up. They are behind the cushions. I may have to do some aggressive maneuvering as we approach Pastoral.”

Ben pensively strapped in. “I'm good to go.” 

“Don't be nervous, we are going to be a good distance away from Pastoral when we pop out into normal space. Thirty seconds to arrival,” The vid went from gray to a view of Pastoral turning below. Mechanically Celeste went into a dialog. “Four satellites, no make that five are in orbit. One is operational, and the others appear to be dead. Querying satellite. It's a communications link, and still operational. No communications traffic. Downloading memory. You never know what you will find. Revising software and uploading. I have control of the satellite. It's slow, but there may be a need for it in the future. Your implants may be able to uplink through it. Starting to map.”

Celeste appeared, “You can take off the restraints now, can I show off a bit?” 

“Sure, I'd like to see what you can do.” 

A large sphere appeared in the cabin slowly rotating in front of them with swaths of mapping appearing on its surface. “This will take time to complete. These maps are layered, watch this.” Ben gawked as the surface changed to a high-resolution topographic map. “Everything in blue is an artificial structure. I'll change the image a bit. These are subsurface cavities. The orange ones are artificial. I'm locating all the natural resources at the same time. There is plenty of iron and aluminum along with a fair amount of rare earth minerals. Is there anything you would like to see?” asked Celeste.

Ben pondered for a moment. “Do you have any geopolitical mapping data?” 

“Yes I do, but bear in mind it's over a hundred years old,” as the overlay appeared. A low rock wall in places defined the border. Eauland had a large city near the border, and a mountain chain was off to its west. The Gaian side was mostly plains with occasional hilly areas with one large village also close to the border and hamlets scattered elsewhere. “Another thing Ben, my best estimate of the population before we left was about 4.5 million. I think the real number is now less than a third of that. Something bad must have happened.”

On the Gaian side, they have some power in each of the villages, but no grid that connects them together. They may be using solar. There is some wireless communications traffic I can barely detect, can't decipher yet, and it's short range. On the Eauland side, they have a modest power grid, and one power generating plant near their mountains. I don't see a nuclear signature, so they must be using some sort of local fuel to run it. They have transmitters that carry vid transmissions. They have little wireless communications and a small computer network.”

“What do you usually do now?” 

“If it appears safe, and it does, I move in closer. I can start to hear some low power communications traffic to get an idea of what is going on and what languages are being used. I'll continue to improve the mapping data, and we will be close enough to get decent photographic imagery. 

“Sounds good to me, let's do it.”

“Okay, please put your restraints back on. I have more than once been surprised by a surface-to-air missile or the ilk. They aren't fast enough to hurt me, but I might have to move quickly.” Ben was pushed slightly down, then sideways a bit. A few moments later Celeste said, “We are in a stationary orbit Ben, please stay seated, and we'll see if anything is going to happen. I'm continuing the mapping. It looks like the Gaian side has few roads and lots of paths. I suspect walking is the primary form of transportation. The Eaulander side has lots of roads. Transportation looks like vehicles towing trailers and closed coaches of various types.”

Ben turned to Celeste, and asked, “How many of these surveys have you done?”

Celeste winced, “This is number 543.” 

Ben hesitantly asked, “Can I ask you how old you are?” 

“I'm the older women in your life Ben, the honest answer is 88 years old.” 

Ben sat quietly digesting this. “This must mean you have had partners before?” Celeste held up nine fingers. “You know the last one was murdered. The others didn't work out over time for a variety of complicated reasons. Arthur was with me for over 60 years and passed of old age. It hurt badly and I mostly, but never completely got over it. I tried to give them all my best, and I will do this for you.” 

Ben did his best to give her a reassuring look,  "I will do the same.”

“What do you think we should do now?” He studied the slowly spinning globe in front of him. “Can we zoom in on the border a bit. Do you see the two capitals, Veneration and Mathara?” 

Celeste lit the cities up. “These two?” 

“Yes, can you zoom in on that place between them where that long section of the rock wall border is missing?” “

Here?” said Celeste where a spot became highlighted and closer. “That's the place. Maybe we can wait until dark and land exactly on the border in that meadow. This might be as close as we can get to neutral territory and still be accessible to both groups. It also may avoid any issues with appearing to favor one side over the other and allow us to judge how they interact with both us and each other. Then we'll just wait and see what happens in the morning.” 

“That's an excellent idea, let's do it.” 

Three hours later in the darkness, the ship gracefully arced downward, brilliant lighting illuminated ground and the ship gently set down in a grassy spot and powered down. 

Chapter 12  In the middle

“Ben, wake up we have company. Please join me in the salon.” 

Pulling on his robe Ben shuffled into the main salon giving her a crooked grin, “You're still in your pajamas.” 

“You're not exactly overdressed yourself. I just wanted to make you feel more comfortable.” 

The vids were showing an early morning collection of views outside the ship. On the Eaulander side in the distance, something that looked like an old crude farm tractor spewing massive quantities of oily black smoke from its stack was pulling a fancy black carriage. Behind it was several long-haired men dressed in all black double-timing it on foot. On the Gaian side, a small group of men in drab brown tunics carrying baskets were walking behind colorfully dressed women heading towards the ship.

Ben made a cup of cafe and sat with Celeste. “What do you think is going on?”  

"Frankly, I don't know yet, every time is different. This is the most difficult part of these visits. The Gaians appear to be bearing gifts of some sort, and the Eaulanders look, well sort of officious. Those men behind the carriage don't look friendly, and they seem to be carrying some sort of sidearm weapons. They can't hurt us, so I think the best thing to do is to sit tight and just watch. I have the exterior audio on, and we can review last night's recordings of the local voice and vid traffic later.”

“I'm curious. What were they saying?”  

“The Gaian side is pretty innocuous. Tomorrow's weather. A village is hosting a gathering with several other nearby ones, which has many of the younger ones excited. There was also talk about the monthly sale of the seed to the Eaulanders. I'm not sure exactly what the seed is, but it may be used as a fuel source. The Eauland's have a low tech version of a vid broadcast system. It's mostly invocations and prayers to the Oneness, mixed with news and demands for increased productivity. The odd thing is I hear men on the Eaulander recordings and only women on the Gaians. ”

Ben watched as the Gaians stopped a short distance from the ship. The men quickly set down filled with what was obviously food and jugs and laid out blankets. All but one of the women settled on them. The men stepped back a few feet and sat in the grass. The older tall woman remained standing facing the ship.

A few minutes later the Eaulander carriage jerked to a stop on the other side. Several old men in black robes stepped out and were protectively flanked by the armed men. One stepped forward and after some elaborate gestures intoned in a high-pitched voice “I am Davin, the Senior Elder. On behalf of the Oneness who is all, we welcome you to Eauland. Come out into the light of the One who is all and speak with us.”

The tall woman glared at her Eaulander counterparts and immediately bellowed. “Welcome to Gaia visitors from afar. I am Nona the head Councilor. We have brought you refreshments provided by the grace of the Mother after what must have been a long and perilous trip. There is no need to deal with those foul despoilers of the planet.”

The Senior Elder puffed up and snarled, “Deal not with the godless sinning Gaians. Without us, they couldn't exist.” 

The Gaian woman pointed at the Eaulanders and yelled back, “Without our seed Elder Davin you would not exist at all. The bountiful Mother of this planet and our hard work makes your sordid existence possible.”

Celeste glanced at Ben and raised an eyebrow. “Got any good ideas on how to start?” 

"It's apparent what they think of each other, and there seems to be a sharp divide between the sexes here. I'm thinking it might be sobering for both groups to get a small dose of our reality. It's a bit unorthodox but how about we partially extend a ramp on both sides of the ship. I'll walk a short distance out on the Gaian side, wave and immediately come back in. You do the same on the Eaulander side. We then we can judge how they react to us. 

Celeste gave Ben an evil grin. “I knew you were a great choice for this. I have a huge closet full of clothes for you in the hold. Pick out something you think is suitable. Maybe something that looks drab brown like their men. I'll dress in a black robe just like the Eaulander Elders.” 

Ben headed aft and after a couple of minutes found a long-sleeved brown shirt and a coarsely woven pair of pants. Barefoot he headed back to the round entry room with the ramps. Celeste walked in wearing a dark black robe, and her hair was now long, luxuriant and blonde. “Fetching wig Celeste," said Ben grinning. 

"I like my own hair better," giving Ben a mock glare. "I'll deploy the ramps and open the hatches. Be careful Ben, and I'm watching both groups. I set up the audio feed so you can hear from my side as well. Are you ready?”

“As ready as I can be. Let's go for it.” The hatches opened, and Ben stepped out and looked down at the Gaians who were staring up at him open-mouthed, especially the men. He waved and quickly turned back into the ship.

The reaction to Celeste was different. The Elders seemed dumbfounded and were speechless. A half a dozen men immediately drew and pointed their weapons at her. She smiled down at them, waved, and as she was stepping back into the ship one of the men fired a slug at her screaming, “She's a godless whore.” Celeste quickly closed the hatches and retracted the ramps.

Ben went to the salon and joined Celeste. “I'll replay what happened,” said Celeste. The big vid split into four windows. The top two were real-time views from each side of the ship, and the bottom two were recordings. Ben sat and watched the scenes replay in a loop.

“The Eaulander's don't seem to be a friendly bunch, and I didn't like the fact that they shot at you. Can you think of anything that would discourage this type of behavior Celeste?”

“I can send them a message they won't forget. Watch.” A red beam lanced out and burning line in the grass was etched just short of the toes of the man who fired the weapon. A second larger red laser spot appeared on the man's tunic. He stared at the red circle warming his chest, looked down at the still smoldering scar in the ground below and promptly fainted dropping his weapon. It discharged when it hit the ground blowing a sizable hole in the fancy carriage. A red spot appeared on the next man's chest, who quickly set his weapon down, and it disappeared. The other armed men dropped their slug throwers and nervously looked at the Elders who were now all frantically trying to see who could get into the carriage first. Surrounded by a cloud of black oily smoke the whole entourage turned around and retreated at speed.

“Well, at least they aren't complete idiots. Was that a clear enough message?” 

“I see you have a subtle but effective touch. What do you think we should do with the Gaians?” said Ben watching the women nervously huddled together talking. The men were standing apart faintly smiling and whispering to each other.

“Well they didn't shoot at us, and they saw what I did with the Eaulanders. I'm sure you will be safe. Let's try to trade with them. I think you should go back out on the ramp and ask the Gaians to come back with some of the seed, and we will trade it for something we have.” 

“What kind of gift do you have in mind?”

“I think a carefully edited encyclopedia might be a good place to start. Isn't selling encyclopedias in your job description? Let's trade a tablet for some seed so we can see what it is.”

Ben walked back to the hatch and waited for Celeste to open it. “Okay, ready?” 

“Sure am.” The hatch slid open, and he stepped out on the ramp. Looking down at the surprised group he smiled. “Greetings Gaians. We have come in peace from far away. As you have witnessed, we will not tolerate weapons near us. Come back to us with some seed you trade to the Eaulanders, and we will give you a gift in exchange.” Ben backed into the ship and Celeste promptly closed the hatch.

Chapter 13  Who's watching?

“Let me you show you something in the hold,” said Celeste as she started walking in that direction. Ben got up and followed as she led him through a twisting maze of storage bins and lockers, stopped at one and pointed. “This is the right one.” Ben opened the locker, and Celeste said “See those tablets? Take one and let's go back to the salon.”

“This is an idea both Jacob and I came up with years ago. We call it the encyclopedia, but it's much more than that. It has a substantial database, but I control the contents that are seen. It also lets me see what people search for and are interested in. A tiny camera is built in so I can see who is using it and the local surroundings. Its microphone lets me hear and record what is being said, and I can tell where it is within a few feet. There's a speaker I use if needed. It's good for lower tech environments where the wireless communications from it can't be detected.” 

“You're a clever and stealthy woman Celeste. I get it. This is the gift you're, or more likely I'm the one who is going to give it to the Gaians. But how do we do this with the Eaulanders?”

Celeste leaned forward “Someone from their side is watching us as we speak. My sensors see three people clustered together at the edge of the woods. They appeared right after the Grand Poobahs, and their vile escorts made such an abrupt departure. I'm pretty sure they are females. What I'm thinking is we could take another tablet and put it in a box with some other items they might like or need. I could extend the ramp and walk out in what I consider to be normal clothes. I'll deploy a small bot with the box, point directly at them, then at the box and send it out near them. We will see what happens.” 

“Good idea,” said Ben, “What should we put in the box?” 

“Something simple like chocolate bars and some juice pouches with clear pictures of fruit on them, so they will know what it is. If you can go to the hold and find a suitable box and get another tablet. I'll program the auto-galley to make the food items.” 

Ben hopped up and headed aft. He filled the plastic bin from an overflowing tray of bars and pouches and dropped the tablet on top. A small round bot on treads rolled in. Ben sat the box on the floor, the bot picked it up and went aft. 

“There is a lift in the bottom of the ship I use to deploy the bots.”

“The little bot was almost cute,” said Ben. 

Celeste gave Ben a serious look, “I have some that are deadly, and on rare occasions, I have used them.” 

Ben swallowed, “I understand.”

“Watch the monitors, and we'll see what happens,” said Celeste as she walked back to the ramp room. The ramp deployed, and the small bot rolled out in view. Celeste stepped out with long blonde hair tied back wearing loose black pants and a simple white blouse. She pointed to herself, to the bot, and then to the hidden persons in the woods. The bot rolled out and stopped short of the trees. It set the box down, spun around and returned to the ship. Celeste stood patiently and watched until a small figure furtively ran out, picked up the box and disappeared back into the woods.

The first view from the tablet showed three young women's faces curiously staring down into the bin all with severely short hair. As the tablet was lifted out, Ben could see they all wore the same long coarsely woven black shifts with high necks. None wore any jewelry, and it was evident they were wearing no makeup. One woman opened a juice pouch, tasted it, smiled broadly and passed on to the others. The same thing happened with the chocolate bar.

"Watch this Ben, I'm going to turn the tablet on. The woman holding it almost dropped it. The view disappeared as it was hastily shoved back into the box and they disappeared. 

“What did the tablet say to them.”

Celeste with a sly look said “Hello, how may I help you? The timing was good because the Gaians are returning.”

Ben looked at the monitor. In the distance, he could see the women leading the way with men following behind carrying baskets and blankets. “You've had more practice at this, what are you pondering?”

“It's time you had your first sales call. I think this needs to be done in person. What I suggest is you go out and greet them and then give the tablet to one of the men to see how they react. You will just have to play it by ear. A plain ship's jumpsuit might be appropriate wear.” Ben hopped up and went to change. As he returned Celeste looked at him and said, “Don't be nervous, I trust you. Just use your instincts. I have deployed the ramp fully, and I will be on guard.”

Ben smiled back, “Thanks, I needed that. This is all very new to me” Putting on his best smile, he walked down the ramp.

Ben looked at the small group. He recognized the tall woman who appeared to be in charge of the earlier visit. The men were all dressed in loose coarse brown pants with matching tunics and had pictograph tattoos on their wrists. He confidently approached them and stopped slightly off to one side to address them. “Hello, I'm Ben. My partner Celeste and I have traveled far to meet with you. As promised I have brought you a gift of great value,” said Ben as he quickly stepped forward and gave the tablet to one of the men.

The head woman went apoplectic. “The gift goes to me, he is merely a man.” 

Ben instantly froze, turned to her and coolly said, “Are you saying that I who have brought you this gift of friendship from afar is worth far less than you because I am merely a man? My partner Celeste and I have apparently misjudged you. I will take the gift back.” Ben looked directly into her eyes and waited. “I see this is the case,” said Ben, “Celeste and I are both saddened.” He took a step towards the man with the tablet. 

“Stop,” the woman said less confidently. “The Mother teaches us this must be the way of things.” 

Ben looked at her shaking his head, “Are telling me that the Mother who gives you the gift of children tells you that one child has more value than another? What kind of mother does that? You may keep the gift. We have others far more significant to offer you, but we will now have to consider whether you are worthy of them. Discuss this among yourselves and return at a time of your choice if you wish, and we will speak again. Where is the seed in exchange for the gift?” One of the men pointed to a basket. Ben walked over, picked it up and thanked him. He received a quick smile in return. Murmuring to Celeste “Would you join me at the top of the ramp and hold my hand when I get there?” 

“That was brilliant Ben,” said Celeste. 

Ben walked back up the ramp and sat the basket down. Celeste joined him, and they both turned to the group. Celeste's hand folded around Ben's, and he thought for a tiny second he felt a little tingle and then it was gone. After holding hands for a moment Ben picked up the basket and the ramp retracted.

“Hopefully today that was an aha moment for them,” Ben said watching the monitor as the group made an unorganized departure. Ben studied the contents of the basket. “Well, they are seeds alright but on the larger side of the spectrum.” 

“Ben would please grab a handful of these seeds and follow me to the hold? We'll both find out what these are all about.” Ben scooped up a handful and followed Celeste back through the maze into a corner where a set of small machines were lined up together. Celeste put her hand on a small hopper, “Would you drop the seeds into this.” Ben poured the seeds in and stepped back. “This is an organic analyzer. In a few minutes, I'll know everything there is to know about them.” Ben listened to the machine make soft grinding, buzzing, and beeping sounds and then it stopped. Celeste turned to him and said, “It is fuel. This is a distant relative of an old earth plant called a soybean. The difference is it's over eighty percent oil and much larger. This is what the Eaulander's are using to fuel their power plant and vehicles.”

Chapter 14  The Gaian council 

“The Gaian tablet is being handled, do you want to join me and watch?” said Celeste. 

“Of course,” said Ben as he sat close to her on the couch. The room was ceremonial in appearance and six older women, one of which he recognized, were clustered around the tablet staring at it. “What do you have in mind? They look a little apprehensive.”  

“Let's just listen, and we'll see if we can pick up any real information,” said Celeste.

“They really fired a shot at someone from the ship Nona?” asked Lyn, the Chronicler. 

“I couldn't see it but think it was the woman Celeste who was shot at by one of Davin's nasty security thugs. The arrogant look on his ugly face sure disappeared when that ray of red light slashed in front of him catching the grass on fire, and that big red spot appeared on his chest. I bet he pissed in his pants before he fainted,” smirked Nona. “I didn't know slimy Elder Davin, and his antique cronies could move so quickly. They were screaming, yelling, and climbing over each other trying to be the first ones back into their fancy carriage.”

“Why would people from the stars want some of our seed Nona? They are just beans,” said Lyn. 

“I don't know, but at least they were talking to us and not them. It also surprised me when he gave one of our men the gift instead of me, and then had the temerity to lecture about things he knows nothing about. He just has to look at what men have done in Eauland to understand what would happen if men were in charge here. The Eaulander's charge us more and more seed for the batteries every year, and Davin is gleeful about this. A third of our villages have no light at night now because we cannot afford the batteries they sell us to store the solar energy.” 

“What is so valuable about this gift Nona? It doesn't appear to be special or do anything,” said Lyn.

“I'll talk with them now, and we'll see how they react,” said Celeste The image of Celeste appeared on the tablet standing alone in a green valley said with a sad smile. “How may I help you, what do you need?” 

The women were startled by the question, and one in the back whispered to another. “Could she possibly be the Mother?” 

“No I'm not the Mother,” said Celeste. “But I can help you find a way to solve your problems. The solution will be hard for you, but doable if you have the desire. The choice is yours, I can not force you. The path you are on will work for a while longer, but in the end, you will lose, and your lives and efforts will be lost to history. This will require you to become one and equal with your men, for without their help you are destined to fail. It won't be today or tomorrow. But it will be soon, and your children will pay the ultimate price. Without change, all Gaians eventually will be slaves to the Eaulanders. I understand it will be difficult for many of you to change, but if you hold to what is comfortable and familiar all will be lost. Think about this for a while and when you are ready to talk, call for me through the tablet, and we will discuss how we can together make a good future possible.”

“Are you the Celeste from the ship the Eaulander's shot at?” asked Lyn. 

“Yes,” said Celeste. “But they can't hurt me, and I hoped my message to them was clear enough, but I suspect not. This is another problem my partner Ben, and I will put some effort into. Goodbye.” The stunned councilors sat in silence looking at each other.

Ben looked at over at Celeste and said, “What do you think they will do.” 

“I suspect there will be resistance to change by many of them, but enough will prevail and will want to know more. We must be ready for them when it happens. We've learned a lot today, but we need more information. The Gaians are providing the fuel for the Eaulander's power plant in the form of their seed and most likely farming products too in exchange for batteries. If they stop this, they eventually will only have oil lamps for lighting if that. They also have little in the way of manufacturing technology. They need to find a way to break this chain, or it will break them. Let's take a closer look at the Eaulander capitol." The globe of Pastoral appeared in the center of the salon and zoomed in close to Veneration.

Ben studied the image for a few seconds and said, “This is an ugly looking place, it looks more like a prison camp than a city. Is that blinking spot your tablet?” 

“Yes, I have not been able to see much more than occasional image flashes, and I haven't heard anything but background sounds. Currently, it's in a dark place, and I would guess the person who has it, hid it. I'll zoom in much closer to show you where it is.” An image of one of the dozens of similar two-story bleak stone buildings with few windows appeared. 

Ben gawked at it. “If these are dwellings they make my micro-unit on Bliss look like a palace. Do you know where the Elders live?” 

The image blurred for a moment and focused on a low hill surrounded by an impressively high stone wall. A cathedral style structure was in the center surrounded by palaces. Next door was a substantial walled military installation. “The odds approach unity that this is where the Elders live. The word feudal comes to my mind.”

“Do you have any ways to put ears and eyes on this place?” 

“Yes, I have microdrones that look like insects, but they have a limited transmission range. I am going to have a larger drone at the right time to transport them and land in a high safe place. The larger drone will relay to me what the small drones hear and see.” 

“You're a remarkable woman Celeste,” 

“Why thank you, Ben, you're no slouch either.”

During a light rain shower that night a small hatch opened in the ship. A nearly silent drone exited and flew away towards the Eauland capitol. It hovered briefly as if looking around before setting down behind a parapet wall at the top of the cathedral. A panel slid aside, and a small swarm of what looked like insects flew off towards their targets in the drizzle.

Chapter 15  The Cathedral

“Good morning Ben, I have a cup of fresh cafe ready for you,” said Celeste as Ben shuffled out into the salon and took his cup. The salon vid was showing eight images. 

“What am I looking at?” 

“I sent out a drone late last night. It was raining, and it provided good cover. I have eight small eavesdropping drones in place. Three each at the military base and the cathedral, one is at a mansion inside the walls, and one at a large home just outside the walls. Most of the recordings are just showing normal morning activities, but I have one queued that you should see. The flabby one is Ungar, the trade adviser, and Davin is the Senior Elder, although despot would be a more apt title.” said Celeste,” as Ben watched the recording start to play.

Davin restlessly paced around the table. “I want the man who fired at the woman disposed of immediately. Leave his head on the floor of his barracks as an example. He nearly got us all killed, and the Gaian's no doubt took full advantage of this. I know these visitors have valuable technologies and the ship alone is priceless.” 

“Senior Elder, you know we train them to shoot women who don't immediately do as they are told, or act like whores in public as the Oneness demands. How else can we keep them under control? I interviewed the guard who fired the shot yesterday, and he did exactly what we taught him to do. He also said he did not miss, and somehow the slug didn't affect her.” said Ungar. 

“I don't care. He was stupid, have him executed immediately. What can we do to get their attention back?” 

Ungar paled for a moment. “It appears to me from the stories I heard they could have killed the guard on the spot if they wanted to, but didn't. He and the other guards are still pretty shaken. To a man, all were sure if they didn't drop their weapons they would have been instantly killed on the spot.” 

“They were there to protect me. How could they do that if they dropped their weapons? I should execute all of them for that alone,” said Davin as he stopped pacing and looked hard at Ungar. “Go back there today alone and take care of this. I'm going to send men who will watch you from the woods and stop any other Eaulander's from getting near this ship. If you don't fix it, things will be much worse for you.” 

“My reading of Ungar's body language tells me he is afraid of Davin, and I suspect everyone around him is as well.” “We know he is going to show up here today. The question is what should we do?” said Celeste.

Ben paused for a moment. “I'd like to learn more about this Oneness business. The Gaian's seem to have a mostly passed down oral history of their beliefs, and it's not very organized. I wonder if the Eaulander's actually have a written book of some sort and what it's about. My instincts say it's a device to maintain control over the population by a handful of the elite. Ungar's flabby, to say the least, and looks safe enough. Maybe we could invite him aboard and with some staging impress him enough to swing him onto our side. He would be out of sight of his minders. We should make sure we give him something valuable enough to take back so Davin will want to keep him around to do it again.”

“How about this?” The hull became transparent. Ben was looking at untold billions of brilliant stars and galaxies in all directions as if he was floating alone in space. Ben gulped and looked at the scene in awe. “This will work. It's stunning and so beautiful. I'm sure it will overwhelm him.” 

“Thank you, Ben, I've been in this exact place. It's one of my favorite views of the universe.”

“What kind of gift can we give him?” asked Ben. 

“I was thinking about a stun gun with the promise of more. It will immobilize anyone for about 10 minutes, but it won't hurt or kill. What dictator wouldn't like a bunch of these? I can turn them on or off at will, and can tell where they are,” said Celeste. “Do you want some more cafe?” Ben looked into his nearly empty cup 

“Sounds good.” 

“How about I cook, and you clean up,” said Celeste as the machine started up in the galley. 

“Works me,” said Ben rising to refill his cup.

Chapter 16 Ungar's visit

“Celeste, is it all clear around the ship? If so could we go outside and take a short walk around for just a bit,” asked Ben. 

“I'd like that Ben,” said Celeste, and then more tentatively, “You know I can't go very far, I don't like being seen when I'm not whole” 

“You lead, and I will gladly follow. Let's go.” When they reached the hatch, the ramp was already deployed, and together they walked down into the sunshine. 

“It's a pretty planet,” Ben said as he turned from the forest to the cultivated rolling low hills off in the distance. 

“They are all wonderful to me in their own way,” said Celeste. “It's too often the people on them that makes them ugly. I'm pretty sure Ungar is coming now, but we still have a few more minutes. We can stay here a bit longer if you want to.“"

"I'd like that,” he said standing quietly with her.

“I see on infrared there are about a dozen men dispersing along the edge of the woods. I need to go back into the ship If any of them look like they are even considering shooting at you, my lasers will take them out. If any shooting does start, get into the ship as fast as you can and I will take care of the rest. I've learned some things can't be fixed.”

Belching black smoke wafting above the trees announced Ungar's arrival at the edge of the forest where the carriage emerged and jerked to a stop about fifty meters from Ben.

Ben closely watched as the heavyset man labored to get out of the carriage. Continually mopping his sweating brow, he slowly lumbered across the field towards Ben. He stopped about ten feet away dripping with sweat. “I have come alone as you can see. I am Ungar, the trade adviser. Senior Elder Davin has asked me to apologize for the incident that occurred.” 

“Are you referring to your man who shot at my partner? Why would he have done that?” 

Ungar sweating even more profusely stuttered. “He was a recruit and, I assure you he has been, umm, severely disciplined.” 

“I hope so, and he was lucky the shot just missed Celeste. Had he hit her none of that group would have survived including the Senior Elder. Come aboard our ship, and we will offer you some comfort and refreshments as we talk,” 

Celeste urgently whispered in Ben's ear. “Keep the large guy close behind you as a shield.

Ungar tentatively followed Ben up the ramp. The two walked into the salon and Ben offered Ungar the seat next to the couch. “Please sit, and would you like something to drink?” asked Ben. 

Ungar was speechless and stunned as he looked around at the salon. The wall vids were showing scenes of beautiful cities, including Alexandria nestled in its valley with a ship landing on the pad and landscapes of other planets. Ungar fell back into the chair, and rasped “Maybe perhaps a brandy would be good right now if you have any.” 

Ben walking to the galley said, “Yes we have some excellent brandy” as he pulled a full glass from the replicator and handed it to him. 

Ungar took a huge swallow from the glass, seemed to relax some and asked, “Where are you from?” 

Ben pointed at the wall vid showing images of Alexandria. Changing scenes included the hanger with dozens of ships lined up disappearing off into the distance. Ungar blanched and quickly took another big gulp of the brandy and froze in place as Celeste walked into the salon wearing her Captain's ship's suit with the same long blonde hair she wore during the encounter.

Ben stood, “I'd like to introduce you to my partner Celeste. She is the captain of the ship.” 

Ungar tried to stand, but couldn't, and wasn't able to speak at all. 

“Please be at ease Ungar,”  said Celeste. 

Ungar blurted, “But your hair,” and stopped. 

Celeste smiled back at him. “Do you like it?” 

Ungar seemed startled by the question. “The Oneness forbids women to have long hair.”

Ben interjected, “How do you know the Oneness doesn't like long hair on women?” 

“The Elders interpret the sacred book for us, that is how they serve the Oneness.” 

“Have you ever seen this book?” 

Ungar by rote answered “No it is forbidden to touch or even see the book. It never leaves the sacred chamber near the top of the cathedral. Only the Senior Elder may touch it.”

“Do you believe in the Oneness?” asked Ben. 

“The punishment for those who do not believe is always death. I must have faith in the Oneness,”  Ungar croaked.

Ben digested Ungar's comments and asked, “What will happen to you if we send you back to your carriage right now with nothing in your hands to show for your trip?” 

Ungar started to shake and couldn't answer. 

“You will likely be executed. Am I right?” Ungar nodded his head up and down. 

Celeste leaned forward and quietly said, "We can help you if you wish.” 

Ungar almost in tears quavered, “You can't. The Elders are powerful. Their security forces are trained from childhood to be loyal only to them.”

Celeste said, “We are far more powerful than the Elders, let me show you.” The universe appeared around Ungar. Ungar gawked twisting his head in all directions, then promptly fainted. 

The ship returned to normal, and Ben winked and murmured, “I think we got his attention. I'll refill his brandy, and we will talk with him again.”

Ungar came to with a start, looked around and with shaking hands gratefully accepted the brandy “We have an idea for you to consider.” said Ben showing Ungar the stunner. “You point this at someone, pull the trigger, and they will be completely immobilized for about ten minutes. We're sure the Elder's security people will like this gadget. Take it back with you and tell the Elder there are many of these and other things far more powerful you can trade goods for. Tell the Senior Elder that we will only accept you as their emissary and you must come alone. We know the Elder's men are hiding in the woods. They are of no consequence to us. You have a far better chance of living helping us. I will walk you to the ramp, and we look forward to your next visit. Don't tell anyone about what you saw.” Ben let Ungar have another big swallow of brandy and then led him to the ramp. Surrounded by an oily black fog, the carriage disappeared.

Chapter 17 Stunning plans

Ungar's carriage lurched up to the cathedral stopping over an oily spot on the pavement. As Ungar struggled to exit a guard ran up, “Senior Elder Davin requests your immediate presence in the conference room.” Clutching the stunner close to him, he slowly trudged after the guard to the conference room and came into view of the microdrone's camera. Seeing both the head of security Marshal Banner and Davin he set the stunner down on the table and collapsed into the nearest chair to see what his fate would be.

Davin glanced at the stunner, “What is that?” 

“It's a gift from the starship. They call it a stunner. They said you can point it at someone, pull the trigger and it will completely immobilize anyone for about ten minutes.” 

Davin picked up the stunner, pointed it at Ungar and pulled the trigger. Ungar immediately slumped down deeper in the chair, and his eyes went blank. Davin walked over to him and backhanded him hard. 

Getting no reaction he looked at Banner and grinned. “Your men will have fun with this. No more getting scratched up by women who resist. What did your watcher's see?” 

“Not much Senior Elder. A man met him at the base of the boarding ramp and led him into the ship. He came out about forty minutes later and went back to his carriage. The stunner must have been in his pouch.”

With a jerk, Ungar came to and sat up straighter. Wincing, he rubbed his jaw and stared vacantly around the room before turning his eyes to Davin. “Tell me what happened,” snapped Davin.

Ungar swallowed hard, “The man, his name is Ben, met me at the end of the boarding ramp and led me into the ship.” 

“How big is the crew, did you see any weapons?” demanded Davin. 

“I only saw two people on board, and I don't think there were any others. I didn't see any weapons, but you already know they have some. The woman with the long blonde hair is the captain and apparently in charge. They were not happy our man shot at her. They could have killed all that were there if they wished.” 

Marshal Banner seemed incredulous, “Just two people are on board that big ship and the whore is in charge? How big of a problem can that be? We separate them and take them out one at a time. I'll take care of  that long blonde haired whore personally.”

Ungar stammered, “I don't think this will be that simple. The ship is extraordinary. I only saw a small part of it, but they have a lot of technology. You should proceed with much caution. I think they could be very dangerous if riled. I told them we were sorry about the, ah, incident. The shooter was a inexperienced recruit and would be disciplined. The stunner was a gift from them to show good faith. They also said I'm the only one who will be allowed to visit the ship and I always have to come alone. They said there are  more powerful goods they can provide in exchange for things they may want.” 

“What did they say they might want to trade that we have?” asked Davin. 

“They didn't, and I have no idea what they would like. Seemingly they have way more than we do.” 

“You're useless Ungar, think of something we have that we can trade for to get more of these stunners.”

A sweating Unger searching for an answer blurted, “We do make some fine special reserve brandy. They served me a glass of theirs while I was there and it was just okay.” 

Marshal Banner rubbed his hands together and looked up at Davin. “I would trade a case of our best brandy for every stunner I could get my hands on.” 

“Ungar, gather five cases of good brandy and go to the ship tomorrow. Get me more stunners....or else”, snarled Davin as he left.

Ben turned from the vid towards Celeste, “do you have any good ideas?” 

“Well brandy isn't high on our needs list, but we will accept it. You can taste it, and if it's any good, I'll sample it and add it to the galley replicator. Maybe we can trade or give it to the Gaians. I've checked their records. The Eaulanders used a rare earth mineral in their water treatment systems called Rhabdophane. It's quite valuable in some places. It was mined in the mountains to the west of the city. They might have some left over since their exports seem to be at an all-time low.”

Celeste sighed, “These are not good guys Ben. We have to be careful with them. For this world to have any chance at all something has to give, and I think it's the Eaulander's Elders that need to be bent first, and hard.” 

“Could we get a drone into the chamber where the sacred book is located? I'd like to see what this Oneness business is all about?” 

“A good idea Ben,” said Celeste. “I'll take one of the microdrones and see if I can find a way in later tonight. It's time for dinner, I'll cook, and you clean up and pick a vid. Have you ever had popcorn?” 

Ben looked bemused. “Nope never heard of it.” 

“It's a popular snack in some cultures and almost always associated with watching vids. I'll make some later this evening for you to try.”

Chapter 18  The Sacred Chamber

“Popcorn is a great vid watching snack Celeste, thank you. How many recipes do you have in the replicator?” asked Ben. 

“You're welcome, well over a million, but many are variations of the same thing, some sweeter, some hotter, you get the picture. Popcorn is a really old one, but not the oldest. I built a digital model of the cathedral as the vid credits vanished and the model appeared and started to slowly rotate. Ungar said the sacred chamber was at the top of the structure. One of my microdrones has been exploring the structure through the ventilation systems, so I now have a pretty good idea of how the place is put together, and exactly where the sacred chamber is. It must have a separate ventilation system because I can't get into it.” 

The vid image changed looking down from the ceiling showing an ornate engraved metal door set into stone with an impressive looking lock and hinges. “I'm guessing your drone can't pick that lock Celeste.” chuckled Ben. 

“No. Looking at the lock, the drone couldn't even pick up the key needed for it. This is solid but old mechanical technology. There aren't even guards around, I think we just have to wait and watch. I learned a few things in my explorations, however. I can now control most of their systems including the vid broadcast center, and I can create, upload, and broadcast new content. This may prove to be of use downstream along with my access to their limited wireless comm system. That satellite I tweaked in orbit when we arrived may help with that.”

“Celeste, are you thinking of setting up a coup?” 

“Do you really want to leave here with these people in charge? What do you think the end result will be if we leave?” 

“I get what you mean, but there is only the two of us.”  

“We can give the locals the tools to help make it happen, provide some guidance and try to minimize casualties. People like the Davin's of this world don't give up easily, but when they do they become the cowards they are and run. Nature abhors a vacuum, and we don't want to end up with new versions of a Davin in charge, so we need to plan for that. What I would like to see is one unified country where everyone is equal, and there is no need for security forces. We are going to need a softer and quieter, but needed adjustment of the Gaian society too.”

Ben digested the coup concept for a moment and asked. “Okay, Celeste. I'm in, how do we go about this?” 

“We just need a few basics. Allies we can trust, and who trust us, and we need to give them hope. The fun part of this will be subtly messing with the Elders. In the short run, we can drive them nuts, and then they will start to make mistakes.” 

“What do you mean to mess with the Elders?” 

“Small things Ben, that can't be traced back to us. They're rich and used to creature comforts. What if their carriage's started to break down because of bad fuel? The power grid feeding the barracks and the cathedral shorts out. The communication systems screw up. These are things that only a small few use.” 

Ben grinned, “Do you have something that could be sprayed in the air and cause the Elders to get explosive diarrhea, and then have the water system break down?” 

Celeste laughed, “Now you get it. Yes. It's been a long day," said Celeste as she stood and stretched. "I need to rest. Sleep well Ben, it will be a busy day tomorrow."

“Goodnight Celeste.”

The lights cabin light dimmed and Ben followed her down the hall to his cabin. Laying awake he thought about what Celeste said. "If anyone could make it happen she can," and closed his eyes.

Ben awoke to a soft chirping and the smell of cafe. Pulling on his robe, he walked into the salon and saw a somber Celeste sitting in her blue silk pajama's staring at the vid. She glanced at him, “Grab a cafe and join me, this isn't going to be fun.” 

Sitting down with his cup Celeste started the vid. The Senior Elder accompanied by two guards pulling a large crate on wheels appeared walking down the empty hallway. Davin took the brass key hanging on a gold chain around his neck off and inserted it in the lock. With some effort, it slowly turned it, until a solid clunk was heard. He dismissed the guards and waited until they were out of sight. He pulled the door open and pushed the crate into the center of the room. The camera blurred for a second as the tiny drone entered the room behind him and flew up into a corner of the ceiling securing itself and refocused.

Ben looked with horror at the room. At one end was a bed with bloodied sheets. The cabinet next to it had a case of brandy with a stack of dirty glasses.. One wall had several sets of shackles set in the stones and a table with heavy iron torture implements scattered on top of it. Davin took off his black robes, carefully folded them and set them on a chair in the corner. He opened the cabinet, pulled out a clean glass and poured it half full of brandy. it was swallowed it in two gulps and filled it again. At the table his fingers twitched over several tools, then he decided on a heavy leather covered cudgel.

A smile spread across Davin's face as he pulled the pin from the crate door latch, and a young naked woman fell out on the floor sobbing and frantically tried to crawl away. In one cruel stroke, the cudgel slammed into the side of her head and knocked her unconscious. 

“Celeste would you please stop the vid for a moment.” The image froze. “Is this going to turn out like I think it's going to?” 

Celeste silently nodded her head, “Far worse than you thought. I will forward it to near the end. This is the part you need to see.” 

Ben's jaw dropped as Davin opened a hidden side door exposing a large deep shaft, the crate was shoved in, and it tumbled down into the darkness. Swallowing another big slug of brandy from his glass, Davin wiped his bloody hands off on a rag. Pulling his black robe on he unlocked the door and left. Ben heard the antique lock latch into place. “You have a copy of this we could play for Ungar on his next visit I assume.” 

“Yes, unfortunately.” 

“So much for the Oneness business, you're right we can't leave here without fixing this,” said Ben sitting still thinking. 

Chapter 19 Bedevilment beginnings

“We've got company coming Ben. I'm pretty sure it's Ungar with the brandy. I can see infrared signatures of men fanning out in the woods. These guys aren't very stealthy, I get an occasional glimpse of them on my visible light cameras.” Ben looked up at the vid and saw some movements along the treeline. The black miasma emitting from the carriage tractor's exhaust system heralded Ungar's imminent arrival. The tractor and its ornate carriage lurched to a stop about one hundred yards from the ship. Ungar climbed out, laboriously removed five crates of brandy and set them in the grass.

“What do you think we should do Celeste?” asked Ben. “He can't carry these to the ship, at least not without taking a week to do it.” 

“I'll send out a loader robot to carry him and the crates to the ship. There are way too many armed men out there to risk you helping,” said Celeste. 

The lift on the ship's underside lowered a robotic platform on treads to the ground. It rolled off and stopped next to the crates. Ungar loaded them, and with some trepidation climbed on and sat. “I'll deploy the ramp on the opposite side of the ship Ben. It will provide cover from Davin's men. Have Ungar walk up, and I'll move the crates into the ship.” Ben went to the hatch and watched as the robotic platform pulled up to the ramp. Ungar stood, carefully stepped off and slowly slogged up into the ship.

“Greetings Ungar and welcome,” Ben said smiling. “I hope you had a good trip. Please follow me to the salon and have a seat.” Ungar followed Ben, eyed the seat he sat in last time and carefully sat down. On the table in front of him was a glass of wine and a plate of cheese and crackers. 

“Celeste will join us shortly, she is looking at your trade goods. Was the stun gun a satisfactory gift?” 

Ungar swallowed and cleared his throat. “Yes, the Senior Elder and the Marshal were most pleased, and they want more. I brought you five cases of our very best brandy to trade for five more of them, that is if it's acceptable to you.” 

Ben looked straight at Ungar. “I gather it's important for you that you get these in trade?” 

“Yes. The Senior Elder Davin doesn't like to be disappointed. Failure is always punished as the Oneness has always dictated.”

Celeste walked into the salon followed by a small bot carrying a bottle of Ungar's brandy and sat on the couch furthest from Ungar. Turning to Ben, “Would you please pour yourself a glass and let me know what you think of the brandy?” Ben took the bottle, poured some, and took a small sip. 

“What did the Elders think of the stun gun?” asked Celeste. 

“They apparently liked it. It was tested on me, and they want more.” 

“Do you have children Ungar?” asked Celeste. “I had two children. My son Toma was drafted into the security forces. He did not survive the training. Like me, he was a bookish sort of boy and not well suited for violence, but he had no choice. My daughter Lora was moved to the women's quarters when she was fourteen. We now only get to see her on occasion.”

Celeste stared hard at Ungar for a moment, then looked off into space. “Ungar please look at the vid. Is this your daughter?” The images of the three women who received the tablet in the box appeared. 

Startled Ungar blurted out, “Yes, she was the first face I saw. How did you do that? Is she okay?” 

“I think she is fine Ungar. The day Davin and the Elders first came to our ship, she and two others were watching from the woods. After the Elders precipitously exited, I spotted them. I sent a small bot out with a tablet and some food and drink near them. One ran out of the woods and took the box.”

Celeste looked at Ungar. “Do you really believe there is a Oneness? No one else will hear your answer but us.” 

Ungar fidgeted, took a gulp of his wine, and shrugged. “I have my doubts, and the Elders act less than holy.” 

Ben asked, “Ungar, do you know where the sacred chamber is?” 

Ungar nodded, “Yes, I have been by it many times.” 

Ben glanced at Celeste, lifted an eyebrow and heard “Yes.”  

He leaned towards Ungar, “Would you like to see what is inside? We can show you?” 

Ungar slowly nodded yes, and the vid started. Ben and Celeste both watched Ungar's face as curiosity faded, then contorted and twisted as he watched. Celeste stopped the vid midway and advanced it. The scene now showed a barely alive beaten and bloody young woman being roughly shoved back in the crate and it tumbled down into the shaft.

Ungar shakily swallowed the last of his wine. Ben took his glass, refilled it and gave it back. Ungar whispered, “Was that real? I knew the girl, she was a cleaner like my daughter. How did you do this?” 

“It was all too real Ungar,” said Celeste. A tiny drone, the size of a wasp, flew into the room,  landed on the edge of Ungar's glass and looked up at him. Ungar's gaze shifted to the vid now showing him sitting in the chair. The drone flew back away to the ship's hold.

“Ungar, there is no Oneness or sacred book. The Elders use this fiction along with their security forces to keep you, and the others enslaved for their personal benefit. We can help you change this if you desire,” said Ben. 

“But how? They have armed men with weapons and funds. We have nothing.” 

“That's not true Ungar, you have us to help,” averred Ben, “And as you have seen, we have some powerful tools. Do you want to help stop Davin and the Elders?” 

“Yes, I do.” 

Celeste chimed in, “We need to recruit trusted allies, particularly the women who suffer the most. Start with your daughter. Urge her to use the tablet to talk to me when no one else is around and to keep it very hidden. In the meantime, we'll make the Elders very uncomfortable as a distraction. Ben, would you please get Ungar five stun guns, and there is a pill in the replicator for him.” Ben jumped up and went aft. He reappeared a couple of minutes later with the stun guns in a cloth bag, set it next to Ungar, and then handed him the pill.

“Ungar, some Elders including Davin aren't going to feel well shortly and likely you a little bit. You will know when it happens. I would suggest you not get too far away from jakes. This won't kill them, but they will be very sick for about three days. This pill will stop you from getting too uncomfortable. At the same time since you are also a bit ill, it will take any suspicion away from you. Please take it right now while we watch. With a gulp of wine, the pill disappeared. Tell Davin we will trade 100 units of the mineral Rhabdophane for a much more powerful and larger stun gun that can be used on entire crowds.” 

With that Ben stood, “Ungar I will escort you to the ramp now, have a safe journey back, and we will see you again and talk more.” Ben watched as Ungar slowly made his way to the carriage with his bag and in a cloud of belching smoke he disappeared into the woods.

Ben walked back into the salon and sat with Celeste. “What's next on the agenda?” 

With a nasty smile, Celeste said, “I'm cooking up a big batch of our nasty bug for the Elders, and brewing a fungus that loves to eat soybean oil and poops a sludge.” The vid lit up with an image of a small industrial facility surrounded by tanks adjacent to a power generating station belching a familiar looking black smoke. “Here is their soybean oil processing plant.” The image zoomed in towards a large stand-alone tank with a line of carriage tractors next to it. “This appears to be the fueling station. An excellent place for my fungus to thrive. I'll send a drone out after dark and see if there is a vent we can dump some into. It will take a few days to work, but we have the time.

Let's have lunch outside Ben. I'll cook something healthy for you. By the time we're done Ungar should be there, and we can watch what happens. How was Ungar's brandy?” “Very good, I think you should sample it and add to the galley's inventory.”

Chapter 21  Reaching out

Celeste looked over at Ben, “The tablet the girls took is moving." The vid's screen turned on showing a complex of bleak gray low two-story buildings and a blinking red dot. Ben looked back at Celeste and noticed her hair was now a long and luxurious blonde color.” Celeste blushed slightly, “Sorry for the quick change Ben, I need to look like I did when they first saw me. Do you like it?” “It's nice, but I like you as you are better.” “Thanks, Ben, it feels right to me too. I like the way you look at me,” said Celeste with a quick smile. “But it's time to work.” 

The vid lit up showing a young woman looking out. A nervous voice said, “Hello?” 

Celeste smiled, “Are you Lora, Ungar's daughter?” 

The woman nodded her head very slightly, “You're so beautiful, are you the woman from the ship? My father said you could help us. Is this true?” 

“Yes Lora, and this is my partner Ben. We can both help you, but you have to help too. Life for all women in Eaulander can be much better. We can give you the tools to make this happen. With your help, we can make the Elders and their security forces go away. You would be able to go where you want. Look the way you want to. No man could touch you unless you say it's okay.” 

“Almost all of us want this, although a few who are well off don't want things to change. How do we do this?” asked Lora.

“Do you have nine friends who could help you, that you can trust with your very life?” 

Lora thought for a second, “If this is truly possible, yes?” 

“You need to start a secret society with them so choose carefully. All have to swear with their life they will keep this a secret or their tongues will be cut out by the others.” 

Lora gulped, “Yes.” 

“Each of the ten of you has to recruit nine more for their group, and those have to recruit nine more each. In a short period, there will be a thousand of you. Create a short ceremony and swear in each recruit. Do you remember where I left you the box?” 

Lora nodded her head again. “I'm leaving another box where you were hiding in the woods. Inside the box is nine more tablets, one for each member of your new group. Guard these with your life because if they are found they will likely cost the owner's life. There are also ten bottles with a hundred pills in each one. Every recruit has to take one as part of their swearing in. Downstream a lot of men and some women will get sick for a few days. I'll tell you when it will happen. These pills will stop you and your friends from getting sick. Your father has already taken one. When you have your ten picked, use this tablet to contact me, and we will talk more. Lora, once again, this must stay a secret. Your women must not tell anyone who isn't a member of your club a single word about this or all will suffer.” Lora nodded affirmatively again, and the connection broke.

“Well, it's a start, Ben.” “How dangerous is this for the women? Do you think some will be hurt or killed?” asked Ben. 

“Yes, I can almost guarantee it. With a thousand women involved it's likely some mistakes will be made. We may have to pull the trigger sooner than later. The bug I created is very contagious. Within two days after I release the little nasties, the population here will be very sick, but only for about three days. If things go badly some women may be hurt, killed or imprisoned during those two days, and maybe a few after that. We have to put together a plan for them. Many things have to happen in a specific order. The security forces have to be rounded up and contained. The armory secured or destroyed, and I favor the latter. We have to do something with Elders, and especially Davin. The cathedral has to be captured because the vid broadcasting center is in the basement. Then the hard work begins. An interim government has to be put into place, initially run by the women, and then including the men. We don't want to end up with another Gaia on our hands.” 

“We'll have ten groups of one hundred women. We have to give each group specific areas of responsibility, along with the tools and a plan to accomplish it. We have our work cut out for us.” 

“What do you think we should do next Ben?” 

“How about trying out your fuel oil fungus? It would be good to test how well it works.” 

“I agree, it's ready to go. I think when Ungar visits next, we tell him to top off his tractor at the fueling station the following morning, so he gets the fungus also. That night I will send out a drone and spray the nasties into the tractor's fueling tank's vent. Everyone who fuels afterward will have some in their tank including Ungar which will keep suspicion away from him. About three days later their fuel systems will slowly start to plug up with goop. I think it will be good for the Elders to use their feet to get around. Tomorrow is also payday for the security forces. I scooted some funds around in the banking system as you suggested. We'll see what happens. I'll put the tablets and pills in the woods late tonight for Lora."

Chapter 22  Barracks payday

Clutching a sheaf of papers Squad Leader Toms walked into the barracks barking, “Line up you worthless lot if you want your vouchers.” Trooper Zelot, elbowed Tomic whispering, “Let's not dawdle this time in getting our coins, or all the good pleasure girls will be gone.” Moving out quickly they trotted down the hill to the bank. 

The entrance was blocked by restless troopers arguing with the Banking Elder.

“We want our coins now! Don't you know who the hell we are?” swore a beefy trooper in a rumpled uniform. 

The dour Elder in black robes was slowly being pressed back by the angry troopers. “Yes I know who you are,” he squeaked out. “You'll all get your coins. There's been an accounting error, and there aren't enough coins available right now to pay everybody. The quartermaster has been called, and he is on his way here so please just be patient.”

The tall man wearing a crisp captain's uniform pushed his way through the growing crowd of irate troopers and pulled the pudgy and blotched Banking Elder aside and out of earshot. “What the hell is going on here Elder Franko?” 

“Honored Captain Jorn, there were not enough funds in the account to pay everybody.” 

Pulling a piece of paper out of his pocket Captain Jorn shoved it at the Elder. “I personally authorized the transfer myself.” 

“I understand sir. The funds you authorized did indeed transfer. I used as much as there was left in the account to pay your troopers until we ran out.” 

“Those funds were there yesterday. What did you do with the money?” accused the Captain. 

“I didn't do anything with the money, but I personally looked at the accounts to see what happened. Some funds were moved to another account leaving The trooper's voucher account too short to make all of the payments.”

“I didn't authorize any transactions. Whose account was the money moved to?” asked the Captain. 

“Honored sir,” said the Elder at a bare whisper, “The funds were transferred to Marshal Banner's personal account. I don't dare question it. He has the authority to make any transfers he wishes at any time. There is another issue Captain. More funds were transferred from the Senior Elder's most substantial personal account to the Marshal's at the same time. The Senior Elder is not aware of this yet. I'm afraid I'm going to have to say something about this problem to him out of concern he will find out first. ” 

The Captain pensively chewed on his bottom lip for a moment. “Elder Franko, I will authorize the transfer of enough funds to pay the troopers right now. You do whatever you must. I have a few days of leave due. I think this is a good time to take them.”

“It's time to start with some real planning Ben. I have finished downloading all the available information from these old computers. It's taken days because of the glacial speeds of their networks. I now understand big pieces of Pastoral's history. The Eaulander's were a successful lot, but ideological very rigid. When the Great Collapse occurred, their income went away. This created unemployment along with extreme poverty and the populace revolted. Food was in short supply and raids were made into Gaia for produce and other farm goods. This resulted in less food for everyone, and internal fighting over food started in Eauland. The Eauland government disintegrated and was replaced by warlords, and the capital city was divided into zones. Eventually, the population was cut in half due to fighting and starvation.

Out of this arose the religion of the Oneness and the Elders managed to get control of everything. They were the smartest warlord group and a nasty bunch at that. Their technology slid backward until a sustainable level was achieved. They gathered together excess equipment and stored it for use as spares. This is why they still have some essential tech. A deal was made with the Gaians to supply them with batteries in exchange for the seed which they use for fuel and power generation. The security forces were created to keep control. This is not an unexpected outcome from the Great Collapse, but this is a particularly poor outcome for most of the inhabitants here. I have seen a few that were worse. I think the place to start planning is here.” An aerial view of the city appeared on the vid.

Ben studied the map. “It seems the two critical areas are the walled cathedral complex and it's Elder's palaces and the adjacent security compound. The cathedral seems to be a straightforward approach. There are only two gates, and it's not likely to be swarming with too many guards. We can ask Ungar about this when he shows up. The security force's compound will be more difficult. How many security force troops are there Celeste?” 

“I have some familiarity with their payroll records," said Celeste with a sly grin. "Eight hundred and ninety-three to be exact of which one hundred and twenty are in training. Looking at the barracks buildings layout, each should have twenty-four troopers making a platoon. Four platoons are a company, and it appears there are eight companies. The rest are officers, support, and administration staff. The large standalone building off in the corner is the armory. It will be the most difficult building for the women to handle, and I try to will use a drone to leave a substantial explosive charge on its roof I can detonate at the right time.”

“What are the rest of the town folks going to be doing or thinking when this is all happening?” asked Ben. 

“Good question. I'm not sure. The men of Eaulander don't have a great life either. They are definitely better off than the women, but they work for slave wages in the factories and do all the heavy labor, and mining in the mountains. The only access most Eaulanders have to any media is the public viewing vids scattered through the city. Given the poor quality of what's being broadcast, I doubt most bother looking at them. I was considering giving them all something interesting to watch at the right time, starting with the Senior Elder's perverse and foul treatment of women in the sacred chamber of the Oneness. My microdrones have been collecting a lot of ugly footage of Elders doing and saying nasty things. I can produce some great content promoting the women's revolt is good for everybody.” 

Ben laughed, “Yes, I've seen one of your vid productions, and it worked on me.”

Chapter 23  Stirring the pot

Ungar looked up as the trooper walked Into his office. “The Senior Elder requires your presence immediately.” Ungar hoisted himself out of his chair and followed the trooper to the conference room. Marshal Banner was talking to Davin and paused mid-sentence. 

“The Rhoda whatever stuff was loaded into your carriage. Leave now and make the trade for the crowd stunner. Return immediately with it,” demanded Davin. Ungar nodded his head and quickly left.

“We have about an hour,” said Ben as a small robot wheeled in carrying a plastic bin and set it in front of him. 

“It's the crowd stunner,” said Celeste pointing to the bin. Ben opened it. Inside was a horn looking device with a handle and trigger. A cable connected it to a pack attached to a belt. “This needs a larger power supply.” 

Ben nodded, “Anything going on with the Marshal's money transfers?” “Not that I can tell yet. Additional money was added to the account from another account, so it was noticed there wasn't enough to pay all the vouchers. There have been no changes in the Marshal's account other than small payments. Lora also picked up the box with the tablets very early this morning. They are all in the location where the original table I gave her was.”

“Do you have any other ideas?” 

“Yes, it would be good to track the location of all the women recruits. I was thinking about using a coin. When Ungar shows up, I want to see what their coins look like. I can take one and reproduce a counterfeit one with a tracker in it that has just a small difference like a nick so it can be identified, and not spent. It would also tell the stunners this was a valid user. At the right time, I'm going to disable them, and only a woman with a coin can use them.”

“You're sneaky Celeste,” said Ben. Celeste grinned back, “I've learned how to be. I could level the security forces facility killing the troopers and turn the cathedral into rubble in about fifteen minutes if I had to. I won't do this for two reasons. First, there would be a mess that would be nearly impossible to straighten out. The second is the inhabitants have to do this themselves to end up in a better place. There will be a united core to start over with again. Anyway, I never like to kill anything unless there is no other option.

“Have you heard anything from the Gaian's?” “Other than there is a gathering in a larger village about a two-hour walk from here. These women are smart enough to know I can see and hear what is happening near the tablet. They did use it to do some searches about matriarchal societies. What they learned is that these don't survive in the long run if the men are subservient to the women. In their case, they have become benevolent dictators, but downstream something will cause a societal upheaval, and the roles will become reversed if not managed well. Women can hold a revered place and govern, but only when the men are equal also, and fully participate. Ungar is showing up, my sensors see men dispersing in the woods to watch him. When he gets here, I'll have a new drink for him to try.”

The tractor pulling the carriage huffed itself into the meadow and shuddered to a stop about a hundred yards from the ship. Ungar got out and pulled out boxes and stacked them. The little robotic platform on tracks pulled up. Ungar loaded it and with less trepidation climbed aboard.

“Celeste will be here in a couple of minutes. She prepared a special drink for you, Ungar. In the olden days, it was called a Manhattan. It's made from a spirit called whiskey,” Ben said as he handed it to him. 

Ungar sniffed it and took a small sip. A big grin broke out, “This is wonderful. All we have is brandy and only two types. Lousy for those who don't have many coins, and the good stuff for those that can afford it.”

Celeste walked in and sat next to Ben. “How did the Senior Elder like the stunners?” 

“He liked them well enough that he kept one for himself.” Celeste nodded, “I spoke with Lora at some length. She's nice, and seems smart.” “Both of my children were taught to read. The Oneness doesn't allow women to receive formal teaching. Despite this, I taught her at home how to read, and she knows well enough to keep it a secret.” 

“That's good Ungar. Lora is going to organize a group of women who can act when the time is right. A lot of people in Eauland are going to get sick at the same time, and we will tell you when this will happen. Some other things are going to happen along the way that will make the Elders and some security forces uncomfortable before the big day. I want you to be very careful and lie low. When you go back to the city, you need to refuel your personal tractor today. Do you have any coins with you?” Ungar removed a pouch and tried to give it to Celeste, but Ben intercepted it and poured them out onto the table. 

“Which has the least value?” asked Celeste. Ungar pointed to a large coin. “The larger the coin, the less the value. The wealthy don't want a heavy pouch.” 

Ben picked up the coin and placed it in the palm of his hand and showed it to Celeste. “May we keep this coin?” asked Celeste. “Yes, of course, you may Captain, it is of little value.”

Ben leaned forward, “I have some questions we need answers to Ungar starting with how many troopers are typically posted in the Cathedral complex?” 

Ungar pondered for a second, “There are two gates one of which one enters into the security forces area. Each has two guards. Two more guards are at each of the two cathedral entrances. There are many more entrances, but they are barred from the inside. Four more patrols the grounds. That makes fourteen. There could be more at times if meetings are occurring, but they would be senior officers. They change shifts at thirds of a day.” 

“Are there any other exits in or out of the complex?” asked Celeste. “I have heard rumors there is a tunnel in the lower levels, but I have never seen it.” 

“How many people actually work in the cathedral?” “Except for Oneness day, I would think about seventy-five.”

“What's stored in the armory? It's a substantial building,” asked Ben. 

“The trooper's hand slug throwers and their long barreled versions, ammunition and the remaining mining atomic explosives.” 

Celeste looked at Ben raising an eyebrow, “How big of a bang do these atomic explosives make?” 

Ungar grimaced, “Enough to turn a mountain into rubble. The armory was the original storage building for them. As you could imagine it's a sturdy and secure building which is why it has its current purpose.” 

Abruptly standing Celeste signaled the conversation was ending and looked seriously at Ungar. “Be very careful and do not visit with your daughter again until I say it's okay. I'm watching over the two of you, and I will do my best to keep you both safe. On your next visit, we will give you ten more stunners. You pick something of value to trade for them. Don't forget to fuel your personal tractor today. The crowd stunner is in the bin. Point it at a crowd, pull the trigger and wave it at them. 

Ben, why don't you make up a bottle of the Manhattans for Ungar. Thank you, Ungar, have a safe trip back.” Ben handed Ungar the bin, bottle, and escorted him to the ramp.

“That's a big surprise. Atomic mining explosives. We need to think about this again.” said Celeste. “Sorry Ben I had to cut things short, we have a couple of Gaian visitors heading this way.”

Chapter 24  Food for thought

“Do you think they will attend the gathering Nona?” asked Lyn hustling to keep up with her long strides. 

“How would I know, we haven't asked. I do want them to see we don't treat our men like Eaulander's treat their women. They just don't understand the Mother teaches us we are superior.” 

“But Nona, the old chronicles say this wasn't always the case. What if the woman from the stars is right? What if we are eventually doomed to becoming slaves to Elder Davin and Eauland. Doesn't the Mother also tell us that we make our own destiny? Isn't this why we take such good care of the lands the Mother has given us stewardship of?” 

“Hush now Lyn, we shall talk of this later. They know we are here now, the ship's ramp is descending.”

“Ben, I'll prepare some refreshments if you would please invite them onboard and serve them for me. It's wine and sweet biscuits. You take the chair, and I will stand behind you. Let me do the talking this time, it's a women's thing. If you don't remember Nona is the tall, bossy one and the shorter one is Lyn, the Chronicler.” 

Ben walked down the ramp, bowed slightly and smiled. “Welcome Nona and Lyn, your presence honors us. Please follow me and join us for some refreshments,” 

The two women followed Ben into the salon and stopped dead in awe looking around. The vids were all showing stunning landscapes from a flying bird's eye view, and instrumental music was playing in the background. Celeste motioned them to sit while Ben quickly put together a tray and brought it to the table. Ben filled three wine glasses and set two in front of them. 

Warmly Celeste said, “Welcome to our home and thank you for gracing it. The wine is light, and one of my favorites. I also prepared some baked sweets for you. We thought you might enjoy them after your long walk here.”

Nona took a tiny sip of wine looking around, and then quickly another large one. “Is this truly your home?” 

“Yes, we travel a lot. This is one of our homes. Ben and I also live on Alexandria in more conventional quarters.” Celeste waved her hand, and the big vid changed to views of Alexandria and the Library as the two women gawked at the images of men and women working and dining and play together. 

Lyn gulped, “I have read of such wonders in the Chronicles, but I thought they must be the vivid imagination of the writers. Do other such places like this exist?” 

“Yes, some still, but not the thousands there were before the Great Collapse. Few ships still now operate. Pastoral has not been visited in over one hundred years.”

Lyn quietly asked Celeste, “Why did you choose to come here?” 

“That's a complicated question Lyn, but I will do my best to tell you honestly. The Great Collapse was caused by ignorance, greed, religion, and xenophobia. Too many thought they were absolutely right, and all the others were even more wrong. These conflicts eventually led to the destruction of the earth, and along with it the ability to build the drive systems that powered the ships to the stars. 

The thing we do is try to find worlds that in time could help rebuild the technology needed to make the singularities to power the ships. Most places we visit now struggle in many ways. What Ben and I do is try to help the ones we can to make a better world. In time maybe they will be able to help us as repayment. Without star drives things will steadily get worse for all humanity. We provide tools to let the inhabitants help themselves if they wish. We never force anyone to do anything. It is always their choice. But if asked, we do our best to show them the way forward. This is not easy for most. What is the purpose of your visit today Nona and Lyn?”

Nona nervously started, “We wish to invite the two of you to a gathering in three days to visit and see how we live.” 

“Sadly Nona there are only two of us, and one must always stay with the ship. There are some local neighbors here that make us uncomfortable about leaving our ship unattended. Ben, would you like to go on behalf of the two of us?” 

“I'd like that Celeste. I could wear a camera so you can watch and participate at the same time.” 

“Would that be acceptable Nona?” 

Nona gave Celeste a thankful look, “Yes, we will send an escort to accompany Ben to and back from the gathering.” “That will be excellent, I'm sure we will both enjoy the experience, especially Ben. Now tell me about yourselves, do you have children?”

Ben cleaned up after the guests left, sat down and Celeste joined him. “Well, that was enlightening.” 

“In what way?” “I think they are trying to convince us they are good people.” 

“Well compared to the Eaulanders they look like saints to me.” 

“Looks can be deceiving. I suspect they truly believe they are good but don't see their own flaws. Attending the gathering will be interesting. It's a beautiful evening, and I made you a nice early dinner. The bots have set the table up outside in the shade of the ship. Would you like to join me?” “I'd be delighted.” “Thank you, head on down, and I'll join you in a few minutes.”

Ben walked down the ramp, shook his head and smiled in amazement. An elegant table for two was set up with a white tablecloth and a single burning candle. One of the small bots was wearing a black jacket and holding a tray with two covered dishes, a bottle of wine and two coins. Ben sat down, and a moment later Celeste came down the ramp wearing a flowing green dress. 

Ben awkwardly stood while Celeste gracefully sat down. “Celeste, you look beautiful.” 

“Thank you. Can I ask you something?” 

“Yes, any question you would like to.” 

“Are you happy you came on this trip with me?” Ben smiled looking into her bright eyes. “Celeste, there is no other place in the universe that I would rather be, than here with you right now.” 

“Thank you, Ben,” said Celeste softly, “Me too. Let's eat,” as the bot placed the meals and set the coins next to Ben.

“I made the new coin, can you tell the difference?” 

Ben closely studied the two coins closely. “Found it. The ear on the portrait of this one looks a little squashed like it was badly stamped. It should be easy for someone to spot if they know what they are looking for.” 

“Good eyes, I'm going to have a bot drop them off in the woods for Lora tonight, and a drone will inject some fungus into the tractor fueling tank. Maybe after dinner, we can watch a vid and make it an early night. I have the feeling that tomorrow will be a busy day.” 

“Sounds good to me, can you make some more of that popcorn stuff?” “I would be happy to.”

Chapter 25  Bricks on the wall

The cabin lights were on bright, and Celeste was calling out to wake him. Ben pulled on his robe as he walked into the salon. Celeste had a finger to her lips and pointed to the vid. A few seconds later Lora's face appeared. She was in a dark and small room, and he heard a whispered “Hello? I'm sorry it's so early, I'm in the jakes.” Celeste looked at Ben and “mouthed outside toilet.” 

“That's fine Lora, you can call me anytime, just make sure you're safe when you do it.”

“I have my ten friends. We all took a blood oath,” holding up a cut finger. 

“That's excellent work, Lora. Keep reminding everyone this must be kept a secret so choose your members very carefully. I have left you another package in the woods. It contains one thousand special coins in one hundred coin bundles. They look like regular coins, but if you look at the ear on the face, you can see it has a small flaw. Every woman in your groups must carry one at all times. I can use these coins to see where everyone is, you can use them to identify each other, and they will be needed later on. Don't spend them. If you see a single tiny spot on your tablet blinking when it's off, it means I would like to talk with you. Until then, all of you must keep the tablets well hidden. Take care and be safe Lora.” and the connection shut off.

“Grab a cup of cafe. There are some things we have to figure out. I was planning to just blow up the armory, but with the nuclear explosives inside this is no longer possible. There are two options. Either we capture it, or we find a way to barricade the entrances until we have things under control. I also went back through my radar mapping data, and I think I may see a tunnel down deep leaving the cathedral, going under the wall, and ending in a building. We need to remember to have some women with stunners there in case we don't get all the Elders rounded up.”

“Is there any way into the armory, so we could take a look around inside?” 

“I could maybe get a microdrone through a vent if there is one, but it would need to be on a rainy night to provide some cover. It's well guarded, and I'm not that optimistic I can get in. Finding a way to block the entrances will be a better, although riskier option. I'll move one of the microdrones close enough to the armory to watch the entrances. We might get lucky.”

“How do you see this whole revolution thing working?” 

“The plan needs to stay adaptable. Our women need to be in the right place at the right time. About ninety percent of the Eaulander's aren't going to be in great shape. Most will be more worried about finding a toilet and staying there, rather than dealing with what will seem like at the time minor events like an insurrection. It's the remaining ten percent that will be the problem. I can deactivate all the stunners and make them usable by only coin holders, and as the coins, I know where they are. I want to load the security forces with the stunners and have them rely on them. They are easy for me to make, and they will become women's weapons at the right time. This will take a large chunk of the slug throwers out of the equation. Hopefully, most will be in the armory. We should consider some distractions we can use at the right time. The other thing that could bite us hard is the Elders could figure out we have something to do with all of this before we are ready.”

“What do you think the Eauland men are going to do?” 

“They don't have a good life, better than the women, yes, but not much better. Given a chance to get rid of the Elders, most will take it. If they are invited to participate equally in a new government, I think most would gladly accept.” 

“What are the downside risks, Celeste?” 

“It's chaos theory raising its ugly head faster than we can compensate. The Elders could escape with weapons and some security forces. If our plan is discovered, we might have to pull the trigger early, and this would increase the chances of losing more lives, or even making things much worse.”

A small bot carrying a box rolled into the salon and left it at Ben's feet. “I take it Ungar is showing up?” 

“Yes, his watchers are moving into place in the woods.” 

The tractor and carriage wheezed into the field and came to a smoldering stop. Climbing out of the carriage Ungar walked to the ship and Ben met him at the top of the ramp. 

“Welcome Ungar,” said Ben.

“Thank you, might you have any of those Manhattan drinks? I think this is a good morning for one, or maybe two,” said Ungar. 

“Sure, have a seat, and I'll make you one.” 

Ungar sat, and used a cloth to wipe his soaking brow. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a bar of gold and gently set it on the table. “It's gold. It was Davin's idea. We have a lot of it and not much use for it. In the old days, it was considered to be valuable, and he thought it might be to you.” 

Walking into the salon, Celeste added, “If he thinks so, we will let him. It makes things easier for us.” 

Ben gave Ungar his drink, and he took a large swallow. “There's going to be a public execution in the square today at noon. It seems Marshal Banner was stealing coins from other accounts, including Davin's, and he wants to make an example of him. It will be broadcast live. Davin is going to do it personally, no doubt on behalf of the Oneness. I shudder to think what he will do to him.” 

“Ben, would you please give Ungar his coins,” asked Celeste, Ben dropped two coins into Ungar's hand. 

“Look closely at these two coins.” Ungar studied them closely. 

“They are the same.” 

“Look again at the ear on the portrait”. Ungar held them close to his eyes. “One of them has a slightly damaged ear.” 

“Yes, You must keep that one with you at all times. It will tell us where you are and will help us keep you safer. Downstream it will let you do other things if you have it with you.” 

“Ungar, said Celeste leaning forward. "I spoke to your daughter this morning, and she is safe. There are ten stun guns in the box. Tomorrow send us ten bars of gold, and we will give you one hundred hand held stunners and three crowd stunners. Take care Ungar, and keep a low profile.” 

Ben handed Ungar the box and walked with him to the ramp. Ungar trudged back to his carriage. Surrounded by ab cloud of black soot it disappeared.

Celeste sat next to Ben. “It's almost noon, you might want to make some lunch. I think a full stomach will help when we watch Davin's performance.” 

The vid turned on. Marshal Banner was sobbing, and his arms were chained between two posts on a raised platform. “I didn't steal money, Senior Elder.” 

“You are lying in front of witnesses and the Oneness,” screeched Davin. “The Elders examined the transfers, and they came from your computer. You have been judged guilty and will meet with the Oneness in another life to further atone for your sins.” Davin picked up a whip with small blades dangling at its many ends and raised his arm. 

“It was the witch on the spaceship who must have done this,” cried out the Marshal. 

“She has never left the ship, your lies will make things worse for you” Davin stalled for a few thoughtful seconds, and then struck viciously with the whip as the screaming started. 

“Do you need to watch any more Ben.” 

“No, I'm good. I don't think we should move any more money around until we pull the trigger. I didn't like those few seconds when Davin seemed to be considering if it was possible.” 

“Me neither.”

Chapter 26  The slow drumbeat 

Ben finishing his lunch asked, “What can you tell me about the Gathering and are there risks I should be worried about?” 

“I think the physical risks are low. That being said we should take some precautions like wearing projectile proof under clothing. I haven't seen any evidence they have weapons, but given their deep animosity with the Eaulanders I wouldn't rule it out. I have an armed drone that can be onsite with you in under three minutes if needed. The Gathering itself appears to be a type of mating ritual for the younger ones from the conversations I've listened to. It seems to have some competitive aspects, but I'm not sure what they are. For older adults, it's a social occasion with lots of food, beverages, and music. I think our goal is to learn more about the Gaians and not antagonize them. We just have to play this by ear. Ungar's delivering the stun guns,” as the vid turned on.

Ungar escorted by a guard waddled into the conference room carrying the box and set the stunners on the table. “Davin waved towards Major Bard, “The Major is now the new Marshall. I believe you're already acquainted.” 

“Congratulations Marshall, may I sit it's been a long morning.” 

The swarthy Marshall studied Ungar for a moment and nodded yes. “I need to know more about that ship Ungar. Let's start with the crew. How many again are aboard.” 

"As I told your predecessor, there appears to only be two. The woman who is the captain, and her partner Ben. I have never seen anyone else, and I'm sure it's just the two of them.” 

“Could you smuggle a slug thrower onboard and kill them both?” 

“I wouldn't advise trying that. If something went wrong, we would lose all access to the stunners, and likely they could inflict great damage on us. The Gaians would take advantage of this in an instant. I think while we are receiving the stunners, we should take advantage of them. They said they would trade ten bars of gold for one hundred hand stunners and three more crowd stunners. I suspect the troopers would rather have the stunners than the slug throwers which only have one purpose, with usually a permanent result.” 

“Marshall, I agree with Ungar, for the moment,” said Davin. “Let's keep trading and get as many stunners as we can,” Looking closely at Ungar, “You don't think they would or could do anything to our computers like steal money do you?” 

Ungar looked puzzled, “Why would people from the stars with a ship like that bother? What could they do with our coins? They have never left the ship to the best of my knowledge. They seem much more interested in the gold.” 

Davin stared off into the distance for a few seconds. “Marshall, I want two troopers to watch that ship from the woods at all times. Start tomorrow morning first light, and I want to know immediately if anyone leaves the ship and what they do.” 

“As you wish Senior Elder.” “Ungar you get the gold and tomorrow morning and bring me more stunners, Be back by noon or else,” said Davin with an ugly smile.

“Well Ungar certainly handled that well,” said Ben. 

“Yes, he did, but I think the possibility we could have had something to with moving the money around is still niggling Davin more than a bit. Not enough to stop him from wanting more stunners, but enough he is considering the possibilities. I turned on Lora's tablet blinker and left a message for her saying if she can't safely pick up the coins well before first light, then don't. We will find another way to get them to her. We actually need a closer and less prominent location to move matériels to the women. An unused building nearer to the city center would be good.” 

“What other things will they need?” 

“I want to give the women's team leaders earbuds, so they can communicate with each other and plastic ties to use as restraints. They also need some sort of personal weapon. I was thinking along the line of wooden staffs or similar. This would let them whack hard at a modest distance. These are too big for me to make and deliver. Maybe Ungar could help us with this. They could be square, and the ends could be whittled round for handholds, or better wrapped with rags if needed. Swung with velocity they could inflict real damage. I want to keep as many people alive as possible. Getting hurt is acceptable, but I don't want any unnecessary deaths. We also have to sort out where and how to restrain prisoners, and then figure out who can and can't be fixed and what to do with them in the long run.”

“These are a lot of logistics to manage Celeste. We need someplace to store materials and find a way to get them there. The women have to be able to access them without being noticed, and they need a place to meet. It seems to be a tall order.” 

“Yes it is, but doable. I have been studying the power plant's control system. I can tweak it so I can cause the main breakers to blow and cut power to specific parts of its grid, or all of it. Late tonight I'll run a test on a single breaker. What I want to see is how long it takes them to do a reset. I'll try it in the area of the women's quarters. Lora can tell us what it's like with no power there. As for the rest of the planning, we need some guidance from Ungar tomorrow. Let's have an early dinner outside this evening. This will be the last time for a while we will be able to do this without a couple of armed thugs watching. We can take a closer look at the city layout this evening and see if we have any epiphanies.”

"I have breakfast in bed for you his morning," said Celeste as a small bot deposited a tray on the side of Ben's the bed with a hot steaming cup and some sweet rolls. “Lora picked up the coins very early this morning, I can see all one thousand of them are in the same place as her tablet. We have two of Davin's less than the brightest thinking they are well hidden in the woods. Anyway, Ungar will be here shortly so when you're ready, join me in the salon.” Celeste walked out his cabin and Ben could swear her hips were undulating a little more than usual. He played it back in his head and thought about it again briefly. "It's probably my overactive imagination. He grinned, ate his rolls and headed for the shower.

“Ungar's here” 

“You can see the smoke I take it?” 

“No, I can see the location of his coin.” 

“Why do their tractor things belch so much smoke?” 

“It's an old but durable low technology. The engines are simple to make, the seed fuel isn't highly combustible, and the smoke is partially burned fuel. You may have noticed the driver doesn't shut off the engine while he is here. I would bet they have to be turned over by hand, or you have to wind a spring to start them. I suspect they only have one facility that makes the same tractors over and over at a slow production rate. In many ways their transportation systems are elegant. One puller and a large variety of carriages and trailers to be hauled. I'm lowering the ramp now and I sent out the robot platform to give him a ride and carry the gold. If you would please meet him at the hatch, I'll mix him a couple of drinks and leave them on the counter.”

Ungar slowly moved his large frame up the ramp. “Greetings Ungar, how are you today?” 

“Still alive and happy to be so. Might you have one of these Manhattans to calm my nerves? It's strictly medicinal of course,” he said with a wink. 

“Of course, please follow me, and take the chair, I'll bring you your medicine. Celeste will join us in a minute or two.”

Just as Ben settled in and handed Ungar his drink, Celeste walked in and joined them.

Ungar took a sip, cleared his throat and asked. “By perchance have either of you left the ship?” 

“No Ungar, neither of us have been any further than just outside the ship to enjoy some fresh air. Why do you ask?” said Celeste. 

“When the Marshal was being executed he said the witch, meaning you, had moved money around, and he didn't steal anything. This seems to have struck a nerve with the Senior Elder. It's almost like he thinks it's possible you took the money and moved it, he just can't figure out how." 

There is a second thing Captain,” said Ungar wiping the sweat from his brow, “Davin is now watching your ship all the time, and he will know if anyone leaves. The new Marshal is a particularly brutal man. He asked if it was possible I could kill you both with a slug thrower. I advised him this was not a good idea. I think he would seize any opportunity to take your ship.” 

“Don't worry Ungar, we know two troopers are watching us. They can't hide from us, but on that subject, we need some help from you. Lora and her friends need a place they can meet and a location to store some matériels. Do you have any good ideas?”

Ungar gave Celeste a sly grin. “You know I'm the trade adviser,” he said proudly. “My duties include taking care of the warehouses, their inventory, and maintenance. Lora and her friends can be assigned to work in one of them. They can meet every day, and few others work in them. Just a handful of loaders and they are a lazy slow-witted lot.” 

“Two more things on our list Ungar.” “Can you have one thousand pieces of hardwood about a meter and a half  long and about 5 centimeters square delivered to this same warehouse?” 

Ungar paused for a moment, “Yes, I can order it from the sawmill, but it will take two or three days to have them made.” 

Ben chimed in, “One last thing Ungar. Does this building have inside access to its roof?” 

A puzzled Ungar nodded. “Of course, the buildings are old, and roof repairs are a constant problem, so yes it is a necessity. There is always a ladder and hatch to the roof on the second floors.” 

“Perfect Ungar, and thank you,” said Celeste. “I have loaded the stunners onto the robotic platform for you. The next trade I will make with you is fifty bars of gold in exchange for five hundred stunners. They will be ready in two days.” 

“Please keep my daughter safe Captain. I am old, and she is young, and my only living child. I would gladly trade my life to give her a good future. My driver will take me to visit with her this evening and get a list of her friends.” 

“We will both work very hard at keeping both you and Lora safe. When you get back, it's important that you immediately refuel your tractor. Have a safe trip, and we will see you soon,” said Celeste.

“Well, Ungar sure helped out. That was a pleasant surprise and reduced some risks. My biggest concern is having a tablet, or our plans discovered before we are ready. Davin will instantly know we are involved in something. If that happens we will have to wait a minimum of a day after I infect the troopers and Elders with my special explosive, have to find the jakes the soonest express. Two days would be better. Let's have lunch and see how Ungar's delivery goes. I did a small test on their electrical grid last night and popped a single breaker feeding the women's quarters last night. It took them four hours to get it reset. If it had been elsewhere like the CatherdaI I don't think it would have been any faster.” 

Ben pushed the last of the green stuff around on his plate and sighed. “Why is it when you cook, I seem to end up with lots of salad?” Celeste gave him a crooked grin and glanced at the door to the small gym. “Yeah, I get it, I'll do better,” sighed Ben. 

“Ungar's showing up,” said Celeste as the vid came to life.

Ungar walked into the conference room followed by a trooper carrying a box. Ungar pointed to the table, the trooper set the box down and departed. Just as Ungar sat, Marshal Bard walk in and examined the stunners. “The Senior Elder has been delayed. There is a problem with his tractor. I need to know more about the ship. What kind of weapons does it have?”

Ungar leaned forward with a serious look. “Although I wasn't there when the trooper shot at the Captain a red ray of light burned a line in the grass just inches from his feet and then a large red spot appeared on his chest. This trooper wasn't one of our brightest. However, he clearly understood just before he fainted this could be a blackened hole going clear through his chest if the Captain wished it. The other troopers understood this too. As for other weapons, I'm sure they must exist, I just don't know what they are.” 

Major Bard leaned forward. “If we could separate them and capture one, we would have a hostage to trade with. What would the Ben person give to have his whore Captain back?” Ungar starkly noted, 

“Or you could end up with an angry and very powerful wasp's nest Marshal. I urge much caution. If you can't guarantee 100% success, it would likely result in your head being removed.”

Flushed and sweaty Davin stomped into the room and looked at the stunners. “Do the men like these Marshal?” 

“Yes Senior Elder, very much. It seems that stunned unconscious women are far more compliant than the awake ones. There are also fewer injuries caused by bites and scratches. They argue over who gets one.” 

“Can you get more Ungar?” “Yes, they offered five hundred more for fifty bars of gold in two days time.” 

“Make it happen. I have to see the transport adviser. My tractor won't start and the worthless driver is clueless.”

“Do you think the tractor has a fuel problem, Celeste?” “Statistically likely. Let's have an early dinner. You will have to be up at the crack of dark to do some walking.”

Chapter 28  The Gathering

Red pajamas came into focus. “Wake up Ben, your breakfast is ready. Take your shower. I've laid out clothes for you.” 

Stepping out of the shower Ben saw what looked like a tight-fitting pair of white long underware top and bottoms. 

“Start with those Ben. They stiffen with any significant impact. They will stop a slug, but not its inertia so you will get pushed back if hit. It sure beats the alternative. I made you a formal dark blue ship's suit and a good pair of walking shoes. You need to look authoritative and sharp today. We've already made our point with the drab clothes.” Ben dressed and stood in front of the mirror. “You are a handsome man Ben, breakfast is ready,” said Celeste.

Ben leaned back with his hand on his stomach, “That was a huge breakfast.” 

“You'll need lots of carbs and protein today. It's a good long walk.” One of the small bots rolled up with a tray carrying a small knapsack, a coin, and a pendant that looked like the one Ben had seen Jacob Grimm wearing. 

“The coin is your personal locator. The knapsack has some energy foods, utility knife tool, stunner, and some other odds and ends. You never know what you might need until it's not there.” 

“And the pendant?”

“It's a body sensor. If I'm less than 10 feet from someone, it will provide physical data about them. I use it to tell if they are lying or not. If asked you can tell the Gaian's it's a camera so I can watch.”

“They will be here in a couple of minutes Ben. It's Lyn the Chronicler accompanied by two men. You look a little nervous.” 

“Yes, a bit. Let's see. I'm on a new planet getting ready to wander off with strangers to someplace I've never been to watch some sort of mating ritual. It almost sounds kinky,” said Ben with a wry smile. 

“Don't worry, just be yourself. I know you will be brilliant. I'm deploying the ramp, and I'll watch you from the hatch. Remember I'm always with you.” Celeste gave Ben a warm smile, “Off you go now and I'll be waiting for your return.”

Ben walked down the ramp and waited patiently. Lyn walked up and gave him an appraising look. 

“You look quite different this time, more powerful than I remember,” she said with a slight huskiness to her voice. “I'm feeling a bit plain,” as she looked down at her own clothes. 

“I do not wish to offend Lyn. I can change into something else if it would be more appropriate for the occasion.” 

“No, that's not necessary Ben. You are not of us. However, your presence will create quite a stir at the gathering.” 

Ben looked at the two men. “I recognize you, you gave me the basket of the seed. It's nice to see you again. I'm Ben.” 

“You were hard to forget that day sir. I'm Jon, and this is Sul.” 

“It's nice to meet both of you,” said Ben. Looking up at Celeste he waved and turned to Lyn. “Are we ready?” Lyn nodded and was already several steps ahead of Ben as he hurried to catch up.

Celeste waved back as the small party started off and noted one of the watchers had disappeared. “I need to get ready for Ungar. He should show up around mid-morning. Now that Ben is gone I wonder if there will be any new company here before he comes back. I think the probabilities are high,” she thought to herself.

“What happens at a Gathering, Lyn?” 

“It's an annual event, Ben. It occurs at the start of planting. Women who have come of age select a mate. A line is drawn in the square. Unpaired men are on one side, women are on the other. Lots are drawn to determine the order of the women choosing a man. When a woman crosses the line, she must choose. After she picks, he is then led by the hand to tattoo artists who mark his wrist with her personal symbol. Afterward, there is music, food, and dancing.”

“So men have no choice in the pairing?” 

“None. The early Chronicles talk about this. The founding women designed the system to ensure genetic diversity and homogeneity. This is why the women's selection order is done by a random drawing. They knew most men choose mates poorly.” 

“Do these pairings always work out?” “In time most, but sometimes there are some problems resolved by the council. The rules are encoded, and all must follow them. A woman at the gathering can select any unmarked man. This has always been the way of the Mother for a long time” 

“So tell me about the food,” asked Ben as he noticed scattered bungalows appearing off in the distance. Lyn launched into a dialog talking about their garden produce and the small animals they raise for protein as Ben studied the landscape ahead.

“The man left the ship with three Gaians,” gasped an exhausted trooper.  Marshal Bard looked up and barked, “Find squad lead Helmer and tell him to see me immediately.” 

“You wish to speak with to me Marshal?” announced the pocked faced trooper. 

“Helmer pick your four best marksmen with long slug throwers and have them hide in the woods by the starship. The man has left the ship with the Gaians, and if we can take the women out, the ship will belong to us. If any of them get a good shot, take it. Ungar is going to trade for stunners, and she may go outside to greet him. Don't fail. If you kill the whore, you will get a two pay grade promotion.” 

“If my men can't kill a single unarmed whore we don't deserve to come back,” sneered Helmer as he departed.

As the density of bungalows increased the road changed from hard packed earth to cobblestones. “The village is neat and clean, and the people seem healthy. If they aren't happy, at least they don't seem to be unhappy,” mused Ben. As he got closer to the village center, the road became lined with onlookers politely whispering quietly to each other. Ben put on a friendly smile and nodded his head in greeting as he passed. 

“You're a real novelty, Ben. A visitor who came from the stars. They don't see this every day,” Lyn said as she led him around the square to a large awning with lots of comfortable chairs.

“Welcome to our gathering Ben,” Nona loudly announced as the crowd grew silent. “It is not every day we have a visitor from the stars, and we are all honored you have joined us today.”  

Lyn whispered to Ben, “We have a seat for you,” pointing to a chair in the middle of a long row already quickly filling. “I have to make some announcements.” Ben sat, and Nona joined next to him. Men were shifting to one side of the line and women to the other. An older regal looking women with a sheet of paper stood stiffly in the center facing the women.

Lyn moved forward. “Are the women of age present?” 

The crowd yelled “Yes.” 

“Are the unmarked men present?” The crowd again hollered assent. “We celebrate the Mother's blessing and wisdom today. Does the Keeper of the Lots say they were fairly drawn?” The women in the center of the square held the paper above her head while slowly turning in a full circle letting the crowd see. “May the Mother bless you for all time,” said Lyn and returned to her seat next to Ben.

Ben watched fascinated as the first name was called out. “Morla.” A slender woman with long blond hair excitedly crossed the line and walked straight towards a short bearded man who looked very pleased. She took his hand, led him to a table and patiently waited with him as he was tattooed. 

“Okay,” thought Ben, “This doesn't seem so bad. Maybe there is a method to their madness.” Jonal's name was next. Ben noted that this time the man seemed resigned but compliantly went off to be marked. Next Lycia was called. She directly headed to a man who was off to the side and slightly back in the group. She took his hand and pulled but was momentarily met with some resistance. He looked upset. A slight attractive woman in the line at the same time suddenly screamed, “No, it's not fair,” and started to sob. With a jerk, Lycia pulled hard on the man's arm and led him to the marking table. The Keeper of the Lots walked over and loudly admonished the sobbing woman, and then returned to the line.

Ben leaned over towards Lyn and whispered, “What just happened?” Lyn frowned. “Her name is Shella. She and Burle have cared for each other since childhood. He would have been her first and only choice.” Ben sadly continued to watch. “This is a mixed bag,” he thought, “Happiness shouldn't be determined by luck listening as names were slowly called out.” His ears perked up as he heard the name “Shella.” The young woman stepped forward and stopped. She turned towards the awning, crossed the line and walked directly to Ben. She took his hand and gently pulled. Ben stood and looked directly at Nona and Lyn.

 “Shella, this is not allowed,” Nona said harshly. 

Shella defiantly put her hands on her hips  “I have honored the laws today even though Lycia used them to hurt me. I know them well. Any man who is unmarked can be chosen, and I just did.” 

“He is not of us, it can not be,” Nona fired back. 

Grabbing Ben's hand again Shella turned to Lyn, “The Chronicles tell of Eaulander men joining us in the beginning, and they were not of us. They could and were chosen as I am doing. He is in the square. He is unmarked. These are the laws. You must honor them as I have.” 

Ben allowed himself to be pulled into the square, and in the center, Ben whispered, “Shella, please stop for a moment, I would like to talk with you.” There was absolute silence, and all eyes were on them. 

Shella stopped, and tears welled sliding down her face. “Lycia knew I loved him. She used the laws to hurt us.”  

“I think you were very brave today and I know it wasn't fair. I'm already marked, you just can't see it, and I think we both know this won't turn out well as it is. I have an idea that has a small chance of working if you would like to hear it.” Shella nodded tears still running down her cheeks. “If you go back across the line to the women's side what will happen?” 

“I don't know, my name was already called, so I think nothing.” “Would you like to go back to our starship and meet my partner Celeste? You could spend the night, and maybe we can find a way to make this right.” Shella's eyes brightened. “Cross back over the line and say nothing. I will find you later in the day, and pack a change of clothes,” whispered Ben. He stood still and watched until Shella was safely back across the line, and he headed back to the awning towards his seat.

Nona, followed by Lyn intercepted him. “What did you say to her,” demanded Nona. 

Ben ignored the question and asked, “Why did Lycia choose that particular man?” 

Nona angrily retorted, “The reason makes no difference. It was her right as a woman to choose anyone she wanted to for any reason. It's the Mother's law.” 

Lyn glared at Nona. “Yes it was Lycia's right, but she did it to hurt Shella.” 

“My partner Celeste would likely say when dogma becomes so rigid and slavishly adhered to that people are hurt, they are destined to fail. I just witnessed an example of this. I have invited Shella to spend the night with Celeste and me on the ship. It would be nice if you would send someone to escort her back sometime after the noon meal tomorrow.” 

“She is free to do as she pleases,” said Nona with a snort as she walked away. Lyn gave Ben a close look with just a touch of a leer to her smile. “You're intriguing, and at the same time a very dangerous man Ben. I'll make sure she has an escort back home, and I will see if this can be undone.” 

Celeste watched as the five men crept to the edges of the woods and took positions. Catching glimpses of several long barrels poking out of the bushes she mused, “Snipers and not very smart ones,” 

The robotic platform's addition of a small speaker was completed, and the stunners loaded on it. With a sigh, she noted Ungar's imminent arrival and sent the platform out into the field to meet the tractor. Ungar climbed out of the tractor with the first of the gold bars. Celeste spoke very quietly through the speaker, “Ungar don't turn around just listen and keep loading the bars of gold and taking the stunners. Then depart immediately. I will leave a message with your daughter for you in two days time.” Ungar finished the stacking the stunners. The driver turned the tractor back towards the city.

Celeste changed her hair to blonde and long, stepped on the lift, and it rapidly descended to the ground to recover the robotic platform. It started to roll onto it when she stumbled and fell at the same time a shot rang out. Five red lances silently struck the snipers milliseconds later. Celeste stood up and made a show of brushing off her knees for the remaining watcher's benefit. Seconds later he was disappearing with haste into the woods. “Such a waste,” she thought.

Chapter 29  A nice start to the day

Ben felt like he had met a thousand villagers, and answered twice that many questions. The local food had been good as well as the music and drink. Noon was now well past and since it was a two-hour walk back to the ship he wanted their escorts to get back home before dark. Looking around for Lyn he spotted her having an animated conversation with the Keeper of the Lots. He waited patiently until noticed, and in a couple of minutes, she walked over to him. “Thanks for being patient Ben. Her name is Susi, and we were talking about Shella. Nona is still miffed about what happened so I will see you off. Shella has been ready for some time now, please follow me.” 

Ben kept close as Lyn quickly threaded her way through side streets to a small park. Lyn stopped short of the park and turned to Ben. “More than you would think was impressed by how gracefully you handled Shella. Your comments about dogmas being too rigid were not lost on me. The council will meet later today to discuss it. I will try to help Shella, but I can't guarantee results. We will send an escort tomorrow after the noon meal to bring Shella home. Be safe Ben, and you're always welcomed here.”

Ben walked into the park and found Shella wearing a faded blue dress, and clutching a cloth satchel. She was standing under a tree talking with Jon and Sul. 

“Nice to see you again Jon and Sul and you look nice Shella.” 

“My only good dress was water stained today. This is the nicest one I have that was clean,” 

“Please don't worry, neither Celeste nor I will care. It's a visit, not a formal affair. Jon and Sul, if would  please lead, Shella and I will follow.”

The cathedral meeting room was full of nervous-looking men, and several had to stand against the walls. “There is something wrong with the tractor fuel. There is some sort of mold growing in the main storage tank. This is plugging up the tractor's fuel systems,”  said the Transport Elder. Davin glared at him, “How did this happen?” “I have no idea, Senior Elder. Occasionally we see something similar to this with tractors if too much water condenses in their tanks. I have installed new piping from another tank for the tractors to use but..,” “But what?” interrupted Davin. “It takes time to clean the tractor fuel systems. Their tanks have been removed and scrubbed, and fuel lines flushed. The injection systems have to be disassembled and cleaned by hand with small metal picks.” 

Davin looked at the assembled group, “How long will it take to clean up this mess?” The Transport Elder paled, “About two weeks with the Oneness's blessing. We worked through the night to clean your tractor, and it's waiting for you outside.” Davin stood and started to leave but stopped. “One more question. Does Ungar's tractor have the same problem?” “Yes, it stopped a few hours ago in the square, we don't yet have a tractor available to haul it in.” “Work faster and harder,” were his parting words.

“I had better keep a closer watch out over Ungar,” thought Celeste after watching the meeting. “Marshal Banner's witch comment still seems stuck in Davin's head. In a week half the tractors will be running again. Maybe I should put the fungus in the new tractor fuel tank. I'll talk it over with Ben.”

As they approached the ship, Shella was awed and silent. Celeste cheerfully waved at the small party. 

Ben turned to his companions smiling, “Jon and Sul, thank you for the escort and the good company. Have a safe trip back, and I'm sure we will meet again.” 

Ben led Shella up the ramp. “You must be Shella, I'm Ben's partner Celeste. Welcome to our home.” 

“It's nice to meet you,” said Shella. “Ben if you would show Shella her cabin. I'll make some snacks and pour some wine.” Shella followed Ben into the main salon as her head swiveled every direction trying to take it all in. A few steps down the hallway Ben opened a door and walked in with Shella following. “This is your room,” said Ben. "And this is the bathing area.” He flushed the toilet to show her how it worked and turned the shower on and off. 

“It's so beautiful,” said Shella. “I just have a cot behind a curtain.” 

Ben grinned, “I know, you should have seen the last place I lived. This ship is like a palace. Let's have a snack and a glass of wine.” Shella followed Ben and sat on the couch. To her amazement, a small bot set three glasses of wine on the table along with an assortment of finger foods and scurried off. 

“I know you've had an eventful day Shella. Let's talk about something else. Tell me about the Chronicles,” asked Celeste. 

“They are the Gaian history starting with our arrival to Pastoral. Every day the chroniclers record what has happened. At the end of a year, they are printed and bound. We all have to study them.” 

“When did the gatherings start?” 

“After the time of the raids. The Eaulanders had no food, so they took it from us, and many lives were lost on both sides. This stopped when the Elders required worship of the Oneness and a peace treaty was signed. Many Eaulanders had fled to us, and we took them in. They were clannish and didn't fit in well. The Councilors created the gatherings. It forced mixing of the two groups, and the women made the choices. Over time, it worked, and remains today.” 

“Shella, how were partnerships made before the gatherings?” “If two people loved each other, then in a ceremony were joined.” she tearfully said. 

“Thank you Shella, that helps me understand some things. We should have some dinner, and we can watch a vid. I hope tomorrow will bring good things.”

“I got Shella settled in her cabin, and left a vid playing for her. She will not get much sleep tonight. What do you think will happen tomorrow?” 

“I'm hopeful," said Ben "Lyn seemed touched by the injustice of it and will try hard to help. Inviting Shella here helped. She will be inundated with people wanting to know more about us.” 

“I made her a new dress she can wear back regardless of what happens. It's quite fetching, but I don't want her to see it until tomorrow. We both need some rest, goodnight Ben, sleep well” said Celeste.

A lone young man approached the ship with some trepidation at first light. “Ben, please wake up, it's important,” whispered Celeste. “Knock on Shella's door and have her come to the salon and hurry.” Shella burst into the salon. 

“Look at the vid, is that Brule?” “Yes,” she squealed with delight. A small bot rolled into the salon with a folded dress. 

“Put this on, I made it for you last night,” said Celeste, “And hurry back.” 

“Ben, I'm deploying the ramp, please go meet Brule and bring him aboard.” 

Ben walked down the ramp as the young man walked up. “You must be Burle, I'm Ben.” Burle handed Ben a sealed note. “Lyn asked me to give this to you, The council voided Lycia's choice, and Shella and I can be joined. I left at first light.” 
“I'm very pleased about that Brule, follow me. Shella is waiting.”

Burle walked into the salon, and Shella launched herself at him wearing a shimmering white dress and held him tight. 

Celeste waited for a moment. “Ben, would you get a tablet for me? I have an idea. Burle and Shella, please have a seat.” Ben quickly returned with the tablet. 

“Shella, take the tablet and draw your personal symbol on it. Burle, do you have one also?” He nodded. “You draw yours next.” 

Burle finished drawing his symbol and Ben took the tablet and showed it to Celeste. “Burle, would you like to have Lycia's mark removed?” 

He looked up in amazement, “Is this possible?” “Yes, let's all go back to the hold, please follow me. This will only take a couple of minutes, and it won't hurt.”  

Stopping in front of a counter Celeste said, “Place your arm on the pad mark up, and don't move.” Burle did as he was told. A back panel opened, and a robotic arm extended a probe over his wrist. A light started to dance over the mark. In a couple of minutes, the mark had evaporated leaving pink skin behind. 

Looking at Burle Celeste asked, “Do you want me to put Shella's mark on your wrist?” 

“Yes, I would be proud to wear her mark.” “Good, just keep your arm in place.” The robotic arm retracted and reappeared with a new probe. A mist sprayed the area, and the probe drew the symbol in shiny gold. “I thought it looked better than the black mark,” said Celeste.

“It's a long tradition stretching back through time that couples exchange something when joining," Celeste said. "If you wish, I can put Burle's mark on your wrist. It will show all that you both are bound together as equals.” Shella shyly smiling nodded yes. 

“Place your wrist on the pad.” In a minute she now had Burle's gold mark on her wrist. “I pronounce you both joined. Let's all have a glass of wine to celebrate, and you can both be on your way.” 

Ben and Celeste watched the couple walking away holding hands. “Well, this was a nice morning Celeste. I didn't know you were such a softy We should take a look at Lyn's note,” said Ben heading back towards the salon. 

Breaking the seal, they both read. “Celeste and Ben, it was at times an acrimonious council meeting. In the end, all but Nona, and two others supported Lycia who was defiant to the end. Lycia's choice of Burle was made void, but there was to be no punishment for exercising her rights. Since Burle is marked with her symbol, she may make his and Shella's life miserable. I will try to moderate this as best I can. Your appearance here has caused many to question some aspects of our life. This is not all bad. Lyn.” 

Ben chuckled, “This young couple is going to raise some eyebrows, and the dress was beautiful Celeste. I don't think Lycia is going to be happy about any of this, and since Burle has Shella's mark, she won't have much ground to stand on.” 

“Lyn is somewhat enamored with you Ben,” said Celeste. “I gathered that,” but touching his forearm where his medical sensor is, “I'm already marked and pleased to be.”

Chapter 30  Keep the ball rolling

As Ben sat down for breakfast, Celeste joined him. “I had a little adventure while you were gone we need to talk about. When you left one of our two watchers immediately disappeared. Before Ungar showed up to pick up the stunners five snipers appeared and positioned themselves on the edge of the woods with long slugthrowers. Ungar took the stunners and safely left. I put on a bit of a show recovering the little robot with the lift, and one took a shot at me. I made it look like I stumbled so the watcher would think he missed.”

“And the snipers?” asked Ben with a raised eyebrow. 

“Just ashes.” 

“And the watcher?” Celeste grinned, “The pudgy guy took off like a scalded cat. I was afraid he was going to run into a tree and knock himself out. I wanted to send a clear message.”

“What do you think was going on?” 

“Probabilities are that Marshal Bard saw an opportunity to capture the ship in your absence and sent the snipers. I don't think Davin will be happy about it. His instructions were he was to be notified if one of us left the ship, and I don't think that happened. He's greedy, but not stupid. There may be some more personnel changes.” 

“Anything else going on?” 

“A few new things. There was a meeting at the cathedral about the tractor fuel problem. It will take two weeks to get them cleaned up and usable. They have switched to a new fuel tank. All ten of Lora's group is now working in the warehouse as of this morning, and the coins are spreading. About half of them have been passed out. At the current rate, most of the women should have them in about two days.”

“It would be good if we could keep the tractors disabled. It makes it more difficult for the security forces to move around.”  

“I agree, but twice now Davin has been niggled about what we have done. Everything needs to appear as if happened randomly, and events can't occur often. Working backward we need to have everything in place five days before we pull the revolution trigger. Tractors have to be largely disabled, and the general population, and especially the security forces have to fall in love with their jakes. Day one the fuel tanks for the tractors have to have another batch of fungus added. Day two is when the population gets the virus, starting with the security forces and cathedral personnel. On day four everything else has to be in place. The women will be really busy that day. If something goes wrong, it will likely be day four. I've also turned on Lora's tablet blinker.” 

The main salon vid turned suddenly flicked on. “We may find out more about yesterday's sniper incident Ben.” 

Davin, Captain Jorn, and a terrified trooper were walking into the meeting room. Davin looking at the trooper briskly told him to sit and not to say a word until told to. 

Ungar walked in. “You wish to speak with me, Senior Elder?” 

“Just sit and listen,” grumbled Davin. Looking at the trooper, he said, “Tell Ungar what you saw.” 

Visibly shaking, the trooper started. “I was well hidden and watching. The man left the ship with Gaians and Tomac ran off to report this to the Marshal. I saw Ungar arrive and a platform rolled out with boxes. Ungar loaded them into his carriage, put bars of metal on the platform, and left. The women with the long hair rode down from the ship to collect the platform. She tripped just as a shot rang out. The slug missed her. Right afterward four or five red lances of light struck the woods. I could smell burning flesh. I immediately left to report this to Marshal Bard.” 

“What did Marshal Bard do next?” asked Davin. 

“When I saw him last he was on foot heading towards the mines.”

“I warned the Marshal about how powerful and dangerous these people could be,” said Ungar. “I don't think they like to kill, but if threatened they will without a doubt protect themselves.” Looking up at Davin, “You have seen these red lances of light at work before.”

Captain Jorn asked Ungar, “If the man was gone and the women were under the ship who fired the red lances?” 

“I have no idea Captain, but I'm sure there are only the two of them on the ship. The Captain of this ship is not like our women here. It's a mistake to think she is stupid. They have traded fairly with us. If we don't repair this all of their technology will end up with the Gaian's, and we will be left out. Already we have received hundreds of stunners. Just imagine what they could give the Gaian's if they were angry with us.” Davin digested Ungar's comments for a moment and made up his mind. 

“Captain Jorn, you are now the new Marshal. When you find Bard, execute him on the spot. Ungar, I want you to visit the ship and fix this.” 

“With apologies Senior Elder,” said Ungar. “My tractor has succumbed to the fuel problem and was towed in.”  

“I'll have my driver take you. Report back to me immediately when you get back.” Glaring at the trooper Davin snarled, “One word of this conversation to anyone, and you won't have a head long enough to say the second one. Leave now.”

Celeste's face screwed up. “According to their records, Captain Jorn was up until now the Quartermaster with an unblemished record. He has also declined two promotions to Major. I wonder why? We'll have to ask Ungar about him. He surely must know him.” 

“Despite Ungar's flabby exterior, he has a very fit brain." "Do you have any new ideas?”

“Yes, I was thinking of having Ungar give Davin one of the truth-telling pendants. Paranoia seems to be a requirement of survival here. The only difference is I will control the results, and if he accepts it, I will know where Davin is all the time, or at least when he wears it. Ungar will be arriving shortly, and there are no watchers. I will lower the ramp.”

Ben stood at the hatch and watched as the tractor huffed its way into the field, and Ungar's laborious walk up the ramp. “Welcome, Ungar. Is a mid-morning Manhattan in order?” 

“Yes, very much so. I take it your all-seeing eyes watched the meeting this morning?” 

“We both noted how quickly your mind works.”

“If you're not quick, you don't survive long in Eaulander, especially around Davin,” grinned Ungar. “Let's have that drink.”

“Good morning Ungar,” said Celeste as seated herself next to Ben. “Tell us about the new Marshal.” 

“I deal with him often. He's organized and smart enough to understand the higher in rank you are, the closer you are to Davin, and the more dangerous life becomes. I don't think he is happy being the new Marshal. I suspect he felt he had no choice. He will have noted he is the third Marshal in a short period.” 

“Do you think he would help us?” asked Ben. 

Ungar paused for a long time. “He's a good man and I've known him for a long time. Yes, but only if he was absolutely sure of success, or desperate. I don't think this is yet the time to approach him. Davin will want to know why you left the ship with the Gaians. Can you tell me?”

“We were invited to a Gathering. Celeste opted to stay with the ship for obvious reasons,” said Ben. 

“I have heard about the Gaian's mating ritual,” said Ungar. “We have no such thing in Eauland. If you have enough rank, meaning funds, you can keep a woman at your home. My partner is Casi. We have been together for over twenty years. If not, well there are always the pleasure girls. It is a dictate of the Oneness.”

The small bot rolled into the salon, left a pendant on the table and departed. “This is a gift for Davin. It will vibrate when someone is close and is lying to him. I have control over how it decides,” said Celeste with a wink. “It also comes with a warning. One more stunt like sending snipers, and we will only trade with the Gaians.” 

“How are we doing with the delivery of the wood staffs?” asked Ben. “The lumber mill is done, I'm just waiting for an available tractor to haul them to the warehouse.” 

“Thank you, Ungar. You should probably pack a small travel bag for you and your partner. If things get too dangerous for you, we will arrange for a safe place for you to go. Have a safe trip back,” said Celeste.

Nona's face was flushed with anger. “These people from the stars are an abomination. Lycia now demands a public trial, and I don't blame her. She was deprived of her choice and it's being flaunted by Shella who had the temerity to put a man's mark on her wrist as if he owns her. Even worse it's garish and not  traditional black color.” 

Lyn stood, “The Chronicles are mute about the color. Yes her mark is not the traditional color, but I point out that black is the only color we have. Nowhere do the Chronicles say she can't have Brule's mark on her wrist if she wants to. Lycia does have the right to demand a trial, but she should be careful what she wishes for."  

"The star people are hardly a danger to us Nona. In fact, I believe they are trying to help us,” said Susi. “Celeste's words telling us we are doomed to become slaves to the Eaulander's in time has the ring of truth to it. If Lycia wants a trial, she may have it.”

“I will be Lycia's advocate, the trial will be tomorrow,” Nona quickly announced, “Who will be Shella's advocate?” Lyn's hand immediately shot up.

Chapter 31 The trial

“It's Lyn and Brule,” said Celeste as the vid showed two people approaching the ship. “Something must be going on with Brule and Shella's joining. I'll lower the ramp if you greet them, Ben.”

“I take it this isn't a social occasion Lyn, how can we help you?” asked Celeste.

“Lycia has demanded a public trial to overturn the council's decision voiding her choice of Brule. It's occurring tomorrow morning.” 

“What can we do about this?”

“We were hoping that  Ben could be a witness. I'm Shella's advocate. Nona, unfortunately, is Lycia's advocate, and she wants to make a point.”

“Why did Lycia do this to Shella? There has to be some real animosity driving her actions,” asked Ben.

Burle jumped in, “Lycia was upset that she didn't get the assistant seed crop specialist job. Her mother is on the council, and she felt entitled to the position. Shella studied hard for that job and earned it fairly. Lycia is a spoiled and spiteful person.”

“Lyn, how do your trials work?” asked Celeste. “The Keeper of the Lots draws the names of seven women to judge. Each side has an advocate, and the trial is held in the square for all to see. You may call as many witnesses as you wish and the judges may ask questions too.”

“Any witnesses?”

“Yes, any witnesses, as many as you need. Since Lycia demanded the trial, she is the first witness and has to win at least four of the seven votes to prevail. The trial is judged after the last witness has spoken.” 

Celeste eyed Lyn. “You are the Chronicler. When did the Gaian women decide men were property?” 

Lyn looked startled, “They aren't property. They are just men.” 

“Do they have a say in who they mate with? Can they own property? Choose what work they do? It sounds to me more like they are slaves. Or at best they are well-fed and not often beaten pets,”

Lyn sighed, “It was after the food raids and the peace treaty with Eauland. We had depended on our men to help protect us during this time, and we accepted many from Eauland who fled during the rise of the Oneness. More than a few of the new Eaulander men didn't like the fact that women were in charge and some of our own men joined them. The Council became concerned. They disarmed everyone in Gaia after the treaty was signed, and then set up the Gatherings. The rest of the changes slowly occurred over time.”

“Is it possible I could be Shella's advocate Lyn?” asked Celeste. 

“Yes. The only requirement is the advocate must be a woman, and Shella has to agree. But if you can't leave the ship, how is this even possible?” 

Celeste stood as a small bot rolled in and set a gray disk on the floor near Lyn. An identical Celeste appeared above the disk. “I don't have to leave the ship to be in two places at once. The only limitation is I can't move too far from the disk,” said the second Celeste as she walked a dozen steps away from the disk and faded away. "Ben do you want to take another walk and see if we can help Shella? I have some good ideas on how we could do that.” 

Ben jumped up, snatched the gray disk grinning. “Give me a couple of minutes, and I'll pack an overnight bag.”

As they approached the village, Celeste whispered in Ben ear, “I think you should stay with the men tonight. Ask Brule if there is a dormitory you could sleep at. Here is what I would like Brule to tell the other men and what Shella should do.” 

Ben smiled as Celeste finished up. “I can do that,” he murmured back.

As morning light filtered into his small room, Ben's eyes opened. “Good morning Ben. It's time to get cleaned up, it will be an eclectic day. Burle and Shella will be showing up soon.”

Ben shook his head, rolled out of bed and headed for the jakes. Cleaned up and wearing his formal blue ship's suit he met Burle and Shella outside. “Lyn is waiting for us. We have time for a quick breakfast, and we can talk about the trial,” said Burl as he turned and started towards the square. 

Lyn was waiting for them at an outside table. Ben cocked his head slightly, and took away one of the chairs and placed it at another table. He pulled the gray disk out of his backpack, set it on the floor, and sat down. Celeste appeared to the surprise of several other diners sitting on an identical chair and wearing her silver Captains uniform. 

Looking puzzled Lyn leaned in close to Ben and Celeste. “Can it be possible the two of you can hear and talk to each other even when you are apart?” 

“Yes, Ben has implants that let us talk to each other. I can also see what he sees because he has cameras in his contact lenses.” 

Lyn blushed a deep red color, “I'm so sorry. I didn't know. I may have possibly suggested something somewhat inappropriate.” 

“Please don't worry Lyn, no offense was taken. You couldn't have known. We both have some exceptional skills,” said Celeste.

“How did you make out Brule?” asked Ben.

“It was a late night, but nearly 100 percent. It wasn't difficult.” “And you Shella?” “A bit harder, but many ended up like I first did, and still might. They are mostly the younger ones.” 

Lyn gave the group a crooked grin. “You are all up to something. Do I need to know?”  

“It's best for you to be surprised. Is it allowed for you to stand with me and give me advice?” said Celeste “It's never been done, but I know of no reason why I can't. Nona will kick up a fuss, but I think she will back down if asked to provide proof it isn't allowed. It's time we should go.” 

“I'm also going to call you as a witness Lyn. You'll know what to do at the time.”

The closer they got to the square, the more crowded it was. Lyn inched over closer to Ben, “I don't know what you two have cooked up, but I have never seen so many people attend a trial. It looks like the entire village is here.” 

The group worked their way forward and broke out into the center of the square. The noise level dropped to a hush. A long table had seven women seated, and in front of them was a witness circle outlined in white on the cobblestones. Lyn led the group to the right side of the circle. Ben pulled the gray disk out of his backpack and set it next to Lyn, and he and Brule moved away. Nona strode out and stood on the other side. 

Susi, the Keeper of the Lots, walked to the center of the square. Loudly she announced, “The judges were fairly chosen. The Mother's justice will be now be rendered.” As she walked back, Lyn stepped forward.

“Shella, as is her right, has chosen another advocate. It is Celeste of Alexandria. I shall assist her with any issues about the Mother's laws of Gaia.” Celeste appeared in a gleaming silver Captain's uniform and somberly nodded to the judges. 

Nona turned to the judges, “This can not be. She is not of Gaia. She does not know our laws.” Several judges nodded their heads affirmatively. Lyn faced the judges and said loudly enough for the crowd to hear, 

“I challenge Nona to find one word in the Chronicles that says this is not possible. Celeste is clearly a woman. Shella chose her as is her right. I will wait here with patience for Nona show me where in the Chronicles it says this is not allowed.”  

The Judges all turned to Nona with expectant looks. Nona seethed for a couple of minutes and finally looked up with a glare, “I see I'm forced to accept this, but it's on Shella's head if she loses. I call Lycia to the circle.”

Lycia confidently walked out into the circle and faced Nona with hands on her hips. “Why did you demand a trial,” asked Nona. 

“Because my rights were taken away. It was my number that was called. It was my turn to choose who I wished, as it is for every woman who has drawn a number since the beginning of Gaia. I chose Burle, and the council overturned it.” Nona smirked, 

“Thank you, Lycia, I have no other questions for you.” Celeste turned to Lycia. “I may choose to question you later, but not now.” 

After whispering to Lyn for a few seconds, Celeste looked at the Judges. “I would like to question Crop Master Jonie.” The crowd parted as an older woman with a long gray ponytail walked into the circle and faced Celeste.

“Thank you, honored Crop Master. Is the job of an assistant seed crop specialist important?” 

“Yes very important. The seed is our primary source of income. It takes a lot of studies to become one. It's the first step toward becoming a Crop Master.” 

“Were you the one that hired Shella?” “Yes.” 

“Can you tell me why you selected her?” 

“Shella studied hard, and has an aptitude for it.” 

“Were there other applicants for the position?” “There were four.” 

“Was Lycia one of them?” 


“Why wasn't she selected for the job?” 

Jonie hesitated, “She had not put in the effort needed for the job.” 

“Was she angry when she didn't get the job?” 

“She was furious, and she let me know it by threatening me.” 

Celeste halted for a second to think. Crop Master, would you please turn to face the judges. 
“Her mother is on the council. Did she try to pressure you into giving Lycia the job?” 

Jonie looked at the judges, and then the crowd. “Yes, but I would not do it.”

Several of the Judges looked concerned, A short, stocky judge jumped up. “I wish to ask the Crop Master a question please.” Celeste nodded and stepped back. 

“Crop Master Jonie, how did Counselor Danie pressure you to hire Lycia over Shella?” 

“She suggested that if Lycia weren't chosen for the position, I would find myself the Crop Master in the smallest village in the furthest corner of Gaia.” 

“Thank you, Crop Master. Advocate you may continue.” 

Celeste stepped forward again, “Thank you for your honesty Crop Master Jonie. I have no more questions for you.”

Celeste looked over at Nona. “You may question this witness now.”  

“I have no questions for the Crop Master at this time,” snapped Nona. “Then I would like to question Burle,” said Celeste to the Judges.

Nona stepped towards the Judges. “This is highly irregular. It is not customary to have men as witnesses.” 

Lyn quickly stepped forward, “Nona, if you can show to all present where it is written a man can not testify we would all like to see it. Otherwise, we will continue.” 

Lyn waited for a few seconds and then nodded to Celeste. Burle stepped into the circle. “Burle, did you know Lycia before she chose you?” 

“I knew who she was, but I had never spoken to her.” “Do you know why Lycia chose you?”

“Yes, she was angry with Shella because she got the job. She used the law to punish Shella and hurt us both.” 

“What would have happened to you if you refused to be led by Lycia to be marked?” “I would be forcibly marked anyway, then punished.” 

“Gaian law says because Lycia chose you she then owns you as property.” 

“How is this different from the way Eaulander's own their women.” 

“I don't see that there is any real difference,” said Burle looking sadly at the Judges. 

“Thank you Burle, I have no more questions for you. 

You may question the witness, Nona.” “I will not address questions to a mere man,” Nona snapped back. 

“As you wish, I would like to now question Lyn the Chronicler.” After Lyn stepped into the circle, Celeste asked, “Lycia told us her right to choose any man she wished has existed since the beginning of Gaia. Is this correct.” 

“No, the Gatherings were the result of accepting refugees from Eauland, and they started after the peace treaty was signed with them.” 

“Why do you think we are holding this trial today?” 

Lyn looked down, then faced the Judges. “It has become apparent to me the existing laws have been, and are continuing to be used to hurt people. They have been perverted by many who through their power gain at the expense of others. I am embarrassed that we are here in this square in front of people who travel to other worlds having a trial about the churlish actions of a selfish young woman who deliberately hurt others.” Looking directly at Nona Lyn continued, “I'm ashamed that some here are using our laws and traditions to justify these cruel actions.” 

“Thank you, Chronicler, I do not have any other questions,” said Celeste as she looked directly at Nona.

Nona charged over to Lyn crossing into the witness circle, and stopped just short of her screaming, “You are the Chronicler, and yet you stand here and mock our laws. How dare you. You are the traitorous one who should be on trial here.” 

The stocky Judge jumped up again and yelled out in a loud voice that belied her small stature, “Nona get out of the witness circle immediately.” “You know the rules. If you don't have questions for the Chronicler, then don't say another single word.” 

Nona glared at Lyn and stepped out of the circle. “I have no questions for this traitorous witness.” 

Celeste glanced at Brule, Shella, and Ben and with a small nod stepped forward, “I would like to call all women and men present with an interest in this trial's outcome for questioning.” Burle and Shella moved behind the witness circle and stood to face the Judges. Out of the crowd men and women joined the line until the square sides were reached and a second line started behind them. Within a few minutes, the square was packed with hundreds of men and women all standing in rows. Nona was frantically trying to get the Judge's attention but was waved off as they gawked at the scene.

Celeste faced the group, “Thank you, witnesses. Just a few short questions for you. “Is the Gathering system fair?” 

“No,” came thundering back. 

“Should men and women decide together whether they wish to join?” “Yes,” roared the crowd, then stillness. 

“Should men own women and should women own men?” The square reverberated with a deafening, “No.” 

"Thank you, witnesses, I have no more questions for you,” The square remained silent. Celeste faced the Judges, “I have concluded.” The Judges looked at Nona. “I have no more witnesses,” she choked out.

Susi, the Keeper of the Lots, walked out and stood before the Judges. “The trial is concluded. Have you reached a judgment?”  Four hands went up, and then a few seconds later one hand went down followed quickly by another. Then the third hand was dropped leaving only one hand raised by a woman who was nervously looking at the crowd, and the other Judges. It fell back into her lap. 

Susi turned to the crowd, “Lycia has not prevailed. The joining of Shella and Burle is upheld.” As the crowd cheered Lyn cornered Ben and Celeste. “I know a small inn that has excellent wines near here. I don't know about you, but I sure could use a glass or two, or three.” 

“Lead on Lyn,” said Ben as Celeste vanished, and he picked up the gray disk. Shella and Brule fell in behind as they disappeared into the crowd.

“Celeste, how did you know Lycia's mother had pressured the Crop Master?” asked Lyn as she poured the wine. 

“I didn't know for sure, but the Crop Master seemed honest, and it seemed to be the right question at the time. What will the council do with her?” 

“I don't know for sure. If she is smart, she will resign, or if not she will likely be voted off at the next meeting. I will try to have Nona removed. Her performance wasn't up to the caliber we expect of a council head,”

“And the Gatherings Lyn?” 

“You have convinced me, and many others today the system is flawed and at times very unfair. I think the first step is to give the men the right to say no. This will make the women consult with the man of their choice first, rather than being publicly rejected. This will also make the Gatherings more festive. The rest will take time.” 

“Don't delay too long Lyn. Your world is going to change for the better shortly, and it will require flexibility to adapt. I'll give you a heads up, so you're not completely surprised. Shella and Burle would you like to escort us back to the ship? You can spend the night, and we can watch some vids? I'm also a decent geneticist so I might be able to help you with the seed crop yields Shella.” 

Chapter 32  Women of the staff

“I have a gift for you Shella,” said Celeste pointing to a small box on the table. “These are seeds. The difference is these seeds will produce about 15 percent more oil than your current seed crop and the oil quality will be better. I'm sure your Crop Master will like them.” 

“Thank you so much, Celeste,” said Shella wiping away a small tear from her cheek. “We have no way to repay you, and you have done so much to help us.” 

“You can repay me Shella. Take the lessons that have been learned and don't forget them. Help others to understand. Start with forgiving Lycia. Resentments only fester and become worse. Both of you have a safe trip back, and we will meet again.” 

“I'll walk you both out,” said Ben

“Quite the adventure yesterday Celeste.” 

“Yes, it was. It worked out well, and it gives the Gaian's a push in the right direction, and they will need every bit of it. I have some Cathedral video from late yesterday you need to see.”

“It's a gift from the Captain,” said Ungar setting the pendant on the table and slumping down into a chair. “It also comes with a warning.” 

“What warning?” Ungar sat straight up in his chair and peered at Davin. “One more provocation and she will move the ship into Gaia and trade exclusively with them. This won't be good for us. She also wants you to understand that she knows when people are around the ship and says they can be eliminated at will. So keep the watchers away.” 

Davin picked up the pendant and looked closely at it said “What will this do that makes it worth something? It looks like a cheap bauble.” 

“She said it should be worn outside of your clothes. If you're near someone, it vibrates if they are lying to you.” Davin put the pendant on and looked at Ungar. 

“Is your name Marshal Banner?” “Yes Senior Elder,” and the pendant vibrated. 

“I might suggest Senior Elder, that if people know what it does, no one will dare lie to you if you're wearing it.” 

Davin studied the pendant for a moment. “Are you loyal to me Ungar?” 
“I have always been loyal to you Senior Elder, and I work very hard every day on your behalf.” The pendant stayed still. 

“Go back to the ship in the morning and see what else they will trade.” “As you wish Senior Elder.” 

“Ungar will make an appearance here shortly. His coin tells me he is now moving in this direction. I sent the women a small package via drone last night and left it on the roof of the warehouse. We will know when they receive it. I sent a note about it to Lora's tablet.” “What did you send them?” A little bot rolled into the salon. On its tray was what looked like a small dirty ball of wax. “I thought it was a clever idea. It's a communicator. It uses the big drone on the roof of the Cathedral as a relay, so they don't need much power. Stick it in your ear, and they can talk to me, and each other. When it's in their pocket, it just looks like a piece of trash.”

Ungar's tractor slowly made its way into the meadow and lurched to a stop. “Welcome Ungar,” said Ben greeting him at the hatch. “Please come in and have a seat. I have an eye-opener for you waiting.” 

“Davin seemed to like the pendant,” said Ungar as he eased into the chair. “It appears to be choosy about who lies or not,” he said grinning, 

“I think Davin understood your message.” “How are the tractor repairs coming along?” asked Ben. 

“They're about half completed. They started with the Elder's tractors, and then the ones used by the Security Forces. There are a lot of grumpy people getting up too early walking to where they have to be every day.”

“Are the troopers using the stun guns Ungar?” asked Celeste. 

“Yes, I only see a few that are still carry the slugthrowers. They are heavy and cumbersome weapons.” 

“How about you get us ten more bars of gold, and I'll give you 100 more stunners. That should get the last of the slugthrowers off the streets.” 

“I can do that late tomorrow morning.” “Thank you, Ungar. Did you put together a travel bag for yourself and Casi?” 

“Yes honored Captain, it's under the seat of my carriage.” 

“Excellent we will see you in the morning, Ungar.”

Lora saw the four loaders finally sit down for lunch. Holding her hand close to her chest she pointed her cut finger upwards. Several others saw and did the same until the other nine had seen. One by one bucket's and brooms were gathered, and the ten women gradually moved upstairs. Dona stopped at the top of the stairs, got down on her knees and slowly started to scrub the floor acting as the lookout. The others clustered around Lora. “I got a message from Celeste. She is calling us the Women of the Staff, a thousand of them are being delivered here soon, and a package is on the roof for us. What's everyone's status?”

 “Almost all of my coins have been given out. Only of few of the pleasure girls don't have them yet because they work so late into the night, and their schedules are so erratic,” said Lim. 

Dona turned towards the group and gave a thumbs up.

 “All of mine have been passed out,” said Yana. 

“I'll be finished tomorrow,” said Mori. 

The others all gave a thumbs up. “Celeste wants to warn all of us again about not having our tablets discovered and to make sure everyone carries their coin with them at all times. Are we good Dona?”

Dona nodded her head as she continues to diligently scrub the floor. Lora quickly walked over to the ladder, climbed up, and silently opened the roof hatch. Hunching down low she scouted the area. Spotting a small cloth bag, she stuffed it in her pocket and crept back down. Lora opened the bag and peered in. A note was on top, she pulled it out and quietly read, “Keep these with you. When you place them in your ear, you can talk to each other, and me. Keep them safe when you're not using them,” and the ink faded away.

Lora passed them out, and Lim took Dona's place. All of them put them in their ears. “Hello,” Lora whispered, and ten pairs of eyes widened. 

“Good afternoon Women of the Staff, this is Celeste. Please tell me your names.” 

Whispered voices sound off, “Lora, Dona, Lim, Yana, Mori, Holi, Jans, Elena, Colini, Tami.”

“I'm going to send you some materials to your tablets for you to study. From now on if you find your tablet's blinking, use your earplug to talk to me at any time, and or the others. Time is getting near to overthrow the Elders and make your lives better. I will talk to you again  soon.”

“What are you sending to the women?” asked Ben. 

“Lots of things but mostly maps and pictograph instructions. Remember that most of these women can't read. It includes how to use the staffs, and what anatomy to target.” 

Ben winced and clamped his knees together, “You don't mean...” 

“That's exactly right Ben, and knees, the head and other vulnerable parts. I think Eaulander women will find this to be quite cathartic. Each group of ten women will break into teams of three that will work together. The team leader will stay with one of the groups, or float as needed to help any group. I think three angry and highly motivated women with staffs will be able to subdue a trooper with a no longer working stun gun.”

A tractor with a trailer pulled up to the warehouse dock. The driver stepped out and found the loaders. Looking at the paper in his hand he said, “They are supposed to be neatly stacked into ten piles of one hundred.” The loaders started to move the huge stack of wood into the building.

Chapter 33  The trigger

“The Sarg said the old man complained the last woman didn't have much life in her. He wants this one to have some fight and last longer,” said Zeleck absently fingering the grip of his stunner.

“How about that one,” said Tomac pointing across the square at a woman arguing with a red-faced drunk and aggressively shoving his hands away from her breasts.

“No coins, no service,” yelled the woman.

“I'd make short work of that one,” said Zelek.

“That's why all the women call you shorty. She'll do. I'll get the transport carriage, you take her down. Stun the drunk too, so he doesn't make a scene,” ordered Tomac.

“We may have a problem,” said Celeste changing the vid to an aerial view of the capitol. Ben studied the screen. “All the red dots are coin holders I take it.” “Yes, but look at this one,” as the screen zoomed in.

“That's the security forces compound. It could be a woman who is cleaning,” said Ben 

“That's what I thought at first, but she hasn't moved for three hours. Now she is headed towards the Cathedral.” The red dot moved through the wall's gate and stopped at the side of the Cathedral.

“What's there?” 

“It's a side door that's barred from the inside.” The red dot moved into the Cathedral and shortly joined by a blue dot. “I have a sick feeling about this. The blue dot is Davin,” said Celeste as she changed the vid view to the Sacred Chamber.

A few minutes later the door opened. Davin rolled a crate into the center of the room, locked the door and put the key in his pocket. Taking the stunner out of his pocket he pulled the latch pin from the crate door and took several quick steps back. The crate door kicked open, and a woman launched herself at Davin who pulled the trigger. She collapsed to the floor. 

“Is there anything we can do Celeste?” 

“Maybe, let's just watch for the moment.” 

With a satisfied look on his face, Davin set his stunner on the table, looked at the bed, and then to the wall with the shackles. Making up his mind up he grabbed the woman's arm, dragged her to the bed and rolled her onto it. Walking back towards the table Davin started to take off his pendant when the lights went out leaving the windowless room pitch black. The camera view switched to infrared.

“This is where we need some luck,” muttered Celeste under her breath. Davin, waving his hands out in front of him took a couple of tentative small steps and stopped. He turned, took a couple more hesitant steps and reached out finding nothing.

“I'm going to try to spook him with the little drone.” 

Ben watched as the vid's view suddenly zoomed in on Davin's face as the drone's wings give his cheek a little glancing tickle. Davin jumped backward hands flailing at his face in a panic. The droned swept back in and brushed against Davin's ear causing him to screech and frantically twist around. Ben saw the back of Davin's neck flash by as the drone made another pass. Davin stumbled forward while scrambling to reach his back. His feet struck the corner of the bed, he fell hard hitting his head on the stone wall and laid still. The drone hovered over the young woman.

“She's starting to come around Ben. The drone has a tiny red light it's bright enough to see it, but it won't provide any real illumination unless it's really close to something. Let's see if we can get her out of there.”

Tay's eyes opened and the only thing she could see was a tiny red light making a small circle above her. The last thing she remembered was trying to escape from that box and for a second thinking, she saw the Senior Elder. Sitting up the light moved off to the side of the bed and circled. She moved her hands around and found the edge of the bed, then swung her feet to the floor and carefully stood. The light moved a meter away at an angle. Tay took small hesitant steps towards it. The light shifted again about two meters further away and hovered a little lower. Tay shuffled over and immediately saw the stunner right under it. She quickly snatched it up. The drone moved in a straight line and stopped just off the floor. With a little more confidence she walked towards it. 

The red light began to blink to above Davin's head. Without hesitation, she pointed the stunner at Davin's head and pulled the trigger several times. The light moved over Davin's robe pocket and kept blinking. Reaching into the pocket, she found a key. Following the light, it led her to the door. She unlocked it, pushed it open, and peered out into the darkened hallway. The small light moved into the hall and started to blink on the other side of the lock. Tay smiled and understood. The door closed, the lock was turned, and the key dropped into her pocket. 

The light shifted down the dark hallway to a stairwell and blinked until she started down the stairs. She stopped for just a second and whispered, “Thank you little light.” It blinked twice and flew up into a ceiling corner and parked itself pointed at Sacred Chamber door. Tay took the stairs two at a time heading for the main entrance. 

Ben and Celeste watched Tay's blinking dot until it passes through the Cathedral main gate and entered the market square. Ben exhaled and slumped back. “That was incredible Celeste.”

Celeste turned to face Ben, “To be honest I was scared to death. Anything could have gone wrong, and if it did the result would have been the young woman's death. I'm not perfect.”

“I'm not either Celeste, but together we are more perfect than apart.” 

“Thank you, I agree. I think it's time to pull the trigger.”

“What do you have in mind?

“It's going to take time to get Davin out of the Sacred Chamber. It will take a few hours alone to restore power to that part of the Cathedral. The walls are extremely thick, and the metal door is massive. The guards that helped him with the crate will know he went into the chamber, and when he doesn't appear tomorrow, the other Elder's will think something is awry. Most will be hopeful that he died in there.”

“This can be a good thing. There are only two scenarios. The first is he is dead, and a fight over succession will occur creating plenty of disorder. The second is he's alive and will still be in control. Davin will be able to tell they are trying to get him out and any evidence of his behavior in the room will be shoved into that shaft. He'll make up a story along the lines that someone had a second key, came in took his key, stole the Sacred Book and locked him in. He will also be one very angry Senior Elder who won't be sure about exactly what happened and will lash out everywhere at everything including us. It's been a long day. I'm ready for a glass of wine and something to eat. I think we should have an early night and deal with the details in the morning.”

Chapter 34  On the edge

Stopping at the galley Ben made a cup of cafe and a couple sweet rolls. Settling on the couch, Celeste eyed the rolls, lifted an eyebrow, then smiled. “Good morning Ben. This is a live feed from the little drone.” 

Ben squinted at the view down the hallway. A cluster of old men in black robes and Marshal Jorn were standing in front of the Sacred Chamber waving their arms wildly talking in voices too low to hear clearly. A trooper came into view carrying an iron bar. The old men shifted back, and the iron bar was swung hard striking the door twice. Two softer clangs were heard from the other side. “Well I guess the Grand Poobah survived his brush with death from your killer drone,” said Ben. 

“The scariest things in life are always the things you can't see, and what you don't know. What's your best guess how long it will take to extract Davin?”

Ben studied the scene for a couple of minutes. “The door is about four inches thick, but we have no idea what it's made of other than there appears to be no corrosion making it a higher end alloy. Maybe with cutting torches about a half day, if they have them at all. The other option would be to use hammers to chisel through the three-foot thick wall making a hole large enough for Davin to crawl through. There would only be room for three or four men to work, so I think it would take a full day working in shifts. Tomorrow morning at the earliest.”

“I'm worried about Ungar. The power failure timing in the Sacred Chamber won't be lost on Davin, and he will have had more than a day to think about it. Ungar is the only one he knows that has had interactions with us. I think he will lash out at him as soon as he is able,” said Celeste. 

“Do you have an option for him in mind?” 

“Yes, I was thinking about sending him into Gaia with his partner Casi. I think Lyn would find accommodations for them for a few weeks, or more if needed.”

“And Lora?”

“I don't know. We have to talk with both of them about this.” 

Ben looked back at the vid, “I think tomorrow morning is the time,” as four large men with chisels and hammers started to talk with the Elders.

Ungar sat pensively in his carriage as it rumbled and bounced into the meadow. “It's one thing to contemplate big changes, but it's scary to do it,” he thought. “No doubt the starship Captain had something to do with Davin being locked into the Sacred Chamber, but how?”

The small robotic platform came rolling out as Ungar climbed out of his carriage noting Ben was waiting for him at the hatch. After stacking the gold bars on the platform, he looked down at his belly, passed on climbing aboard, and instead trudged to the ramp and climbed upwards to meet Ben.

“Hello Ungar and welcome. Celeste and I have some things to talk about with you. Please join us in the salon.” Ben handed Ungar a Manhattan and sat with Celeste. 

“Perchance you have heard about the Senior Elder's predicament? He seems to have locked himself into the Sacred Chamber,” said Ungar. Ben glanced at Celeste, grinned, and then turned back to Ungar, “That's not quite correct Ungar. He didn't lock himself in. He was locked in. Would you like to see how this happened?” 

Ungar sighed, “I suspect this will be like to tractors colliding into each other. You can avoid watching it, but you want too, and will. Sure.” 

“Watch the big vid,” said Celeste

As Ungar watched his face changed from worry, morphing into horror, then fascination, and finally relief. Celeste played a few minutes of the video showing the four men slowly chiseling a hole in the wall. 

“We don't think they will get him out until tomorrow morning,” said Ben. “Was this all your doing?” asked Ungar. 

Celeste nodded her head slightly. “Our ship's computers have control of the power plant, we can access all the Eaulander computer networks and the vid broadcast system.” 

“This brings us to an important question. What will Davin do when he gets free?” said Ben. 

“He will be angry beyond belief. Many people will be hurt or worse, and I will likely be near the top of that list.”

“How much danger do you think Lora will be in Ungar?” asked Celeste. 

Ungar became still for a moment. “Davin won't immediately do anything, she is just a cleaning woman and below his notice... but if he is angry enough both she and Casi are at risk.” 

“Can you drive your tractor Ungar?” asked Celeste. 

“Yes, but it has been many years since I have.” 

“This is what I think you should do,” said Celeste laying out her plan.

Ben carried the boxes of stunners and walked with Ungar back to his carriage and helped load them. Quietly he said, “There are 101 stunners in the boxes. Take one and put it in your pocket.” Speaking louder Ben said, “Good to see you, Ungar, we will talk again, I'm sure.” 

Ungar leaned forward, “Ludo, let's fuel the tractor when we get back. Then we will go to the security compound to deliver these boxes to Marshal Jorn.” The driver engaged the tractor and belching smoke it turned around and headed towards the city.

As Ungar climbed out of the carriage, he told the guard, “Trooper, I'm here to see the Marshal. Carry these boxes.” “Yes, Sir.” Ungar followed the trooper to the Marshal's office. He set the boxes just inside the door and departed. 

“My apologies Marshal, may I have a few minutes of your time. Marshal Jorn nodded. Ungar eased his bulk into a chair smaller than he would have liked and looked around at the orderly office. “I would have normally delivered these to the Senior Elder, but he seems to be indisposed for the time being, so I thought it would be prudent to give them to you. It's 100 additional stunners for your troops.”

Marshal Jorn gave Ungar a wry grin, “You have a penchant for understatement. It looks like the Senior Elder won't be available until tomorrow morning at the earliest, and likely won't be in a good mood.” 

Ungar nodded, I thought so too. It is fortuitous I am inspecting all the warehouses tomorrow starting early in the morning. The loaders need to be regularly reminded about keeping things neat and in good condition.” 

Marshal Jorn sighed in resignation, “I wish I had some tasks like that to do, but I must be available when the Senior Elder emerges from the Sacred Chamber.” 

Ungar stood up and said, “Good luck tomorrow Marshal.” At the door on a whim, he turned back to the Marshal, “I've known you for a long time. If things get too perilous for you, I would look to the stars.” Ungar left, and the Marshal stayed seated with a puzzled look until a trooper stuck his head in and reminded him about the staff meeting.

Ungar got out of his carriage and walked over to his driver reaching into his pocket. “Ludo, that's all for today. I won't need you until tomorrow at noon.” Dropping a handful of coins in his palm, Ungar said, “Have some fun, get yourself some good brandy, and an attractive pleasure girl.”

 Ludo flashed him a huge grin. “Thank you, sir,” and he left at a brisk pace.

A few minutes later Ungar peered out his window. He headed out to the tractor wearing work clothes, reached into the cab, took out a crank handle, and pulled a lever. Sticking the crank in he started to wind the spring. After several pauses to catch his breath, it finally came to a stop. He took the crank out and climbed into the driver's seat. A knob was pulled, and a lever jerked. The engine started with a cloud of black smoke swirling around him. Casi opened the front door carrying a bag, and carefully locked it. She hurriedly walked to the carriage. Ungar looked back at her, nervously smiled, then engaged the engine. With a lurch, the tractor started off down the street. Ungar stared forward concentrating on staying in his lane.

The tractor turned off the main road onto a trail leading into the forest and shortly reached the meadow. The ramp was down, Ben was waiting at the bottom, and Celeste was standing at the hatch. Ben handed him a small box. “Ungar, there is a letter in here for Lyn the Chronicler and two tablets. One is for you, and the other is for Lyn. Find her when you get there. To talk with us just hold the tablet in your hand and say hello. If you see it blinking, it means we wish to talk to you. Follow the trail east, and you will find the city. They will take good care of you. Both of you will find it interesting. Go now! You need to completely disappear, and it will be dark soon. We will watch over Lora.” Ungar nodded and the tractor headed for the trail. In a few minutes, he was out of sight.

Celeste walked down the ramp. “Would you like to dine outside tonight? “That sounds great.” The lift descended, and the small bot moved a table and chairs onto the grass, A few minutes later the lift came back down. And the bot finished setting the table. 

"Have a seat. We are having something different tonight." Ben sat and took the cover off of his dinner. 

“What in the world is this?” said Ben as he stared at his meal. “It's an old earth dish called Musubi.” “It looks like a grain cake you would feed an animal, with extruded pseudo meat on it all wrapped in green vegetation,” said Ben. 

Celeste laughed. “You're close. The cake is made of rice, and the meat is called Spam. It's covered with a spice called teriyaki made from an old version of the seed the Gaian's grow that has been fermented. The green wrap is dried seaweed. “Try it.” 

Ben tentatively took a small bite. ” It's good and much better than the pseudo-meat I'm used to. What are you having?”

Celeste lifted her cover and Ben stared at it aghast. “You can't really eat that can you?” “Yes, you can. It's a very piquant Rigelan Two dish. We might go there someday. These are toothed snails.” 

Ben studied the writhing slug looking things with a large round mouth at one end filled with sharp teeth. “How do you eat them without being eaten first?” 

“Easy,” said Celeste. “Just watch.” Celeste took a wooden stick and put one end in the bowl. Immediately one of the snails latched onto the end of it. She put the other end of the snail in her mouth and bit down leaving just the mouth still attached to the stick. A second later the toothed mouth released the stick and dropped back into the bowl. “See, it's not hard. You want the mouth to fall back into the bowl. If it doesn't, people will think you're impolite and provincial. When we are through with dinner, we can watch a vid or play a game. It will be a long day tomorrow, and for many days to come.

Chapter 35 Davin's ire

As the tractor approached, Ungar slowed it to a crawl. People were staring, and several had taken off at a dead run for the village. A few minutes later Ungar encountered a wall of scowling women blocking the road and came to a full stop. He took the letter from the box and climbed down. Walking a few steps forward he said “Honored women of Gaia, I am Ungar and my partner Casi is in the carriage. We are requesting shelter for a short period. Celeste, the Captain of the starship, has sent us here hoping you would help us.” Ungar held the envelope above his head. “Celeste said I was to seek out Lyn the Chronicler and give her this missive.”

A woman leaned over and said a few words to a man who immediately trotted off towards the village. Ungar walked back and helped Casi out. They nervously stood quietly looking at the ever-growing crowd. Two women came briskly walking down the road, and the crowd split to let them through. 

The shorter one with the blonde hair said, “I am Lyn, and this is Susi the newly elected Head Counselor of Gaia.” 

Ungar bowed, “I am Ungar, and this is my mate, Casi. Celeste said this missive is for you,” and he handed her the letter.

Lyn walked away from Ungar a few paces and opened it. Lyn, things will be changing for the better in Eauland over the next couple handfuls of days. Much of this is possible because of Ungar's help but has come with great personal risk for himself and family. Starting today there should be no contact with anyone from Gaia with Eaulanders for any reason until I say it is safe. Ungar is a good man, and I would appreciate your assistance in providing him shelter. He has a tablet for you. Use this to talk to me, and I will give you more information.”

Lyn walked over to Susi, showed her the letter, and the two talked. Susi nodded her head in agreement. 

Lyn turned to Ungar and Casi, “Welcome to Gaia, we will grant you shelter. Follow me into the village, and we will get you both settled.”

“Hello,” said a small voice. 

“Hi, Lora. Thank you for calling me. It's very early in the morning for you,” said Celeste. 

“I know, but my tablet is well hidden, and others had to be asleep or away for me to use it. I saw it was blinking.” 

“Some things have changed, and it's now too dangerous for your parents. I have sent them to Gaia where they will be safe. I'm concerned about your safety too, and I can arrange to have you join them.” 

After a short pause, Lora said, “No I can't go to Gaia. I have a thousand women depending on me. I will go into hiding.” 

“How can you do that Lora?” 

“I'm just a faceless woman who looks like all the others who all wear a plain black shift with hair cut down to a nub. If I rub some dirt on my face and have a broom in my hand sweeping a curb no one would even notice at me. I have many women who will help me find a place to spend the night.” 

“I understand. I think you have until noon today to meet with your team at the warehouse. Then you should leave. You have the ear communicator, call me every morning, and we will talk about the future.” 

“Thank you, Celeste, I need to go.”

Ben, wake up, Come and join me in the salon. I have a cup of cafe ready for you,” said Celeste. 

Ben pulled on his robe and joined Celeste. “It's early, and you seem to have been at it even earlier this morning.” 

“I just spoke with Lora, and she is going into hiding. I sent a drone out last night to put the fungus into the tractor's refueling tank, and Davin is going to be free soon.” 

The hallway was a hive of activity and filled with the constant clanging of steel chisels chipping away at the grey stone. A dozen troopers were standing by with Marshal Jorn. Old men in black robes were nervously speaking in low voices. A lone woman holding a tray with food and drink was trying not to twitch. 

“That's good enough,” yelled Davin. The men with chisels jumped away. Two boney hands stuck out through the hole. “Pull me out now.” Two troopers rushed forward and start to pull Davin through the hole. With additional screaming from Davin and jerking by the troopers he popped out and laid sprawled on the floor in a torn dirty robe. Standing up while trying to brush off the stone dust he glared at his assembled staff. “What are you all staring at.” 

“Sir, you have blood all over your face,” said a trooper. 

“Do I look like I'm stupid? Find me a damp cloth so I can wipe it off.” Looking first at the group of robed men Davin turned to Marshal Jorn, “Where is Ungar?” he demanded.

“I believe he is touring the warehouses today Senior Elder.” 

“And how would you know that Marshal?” said Davin with a sneer. 

“He came to my office yesterday about midday and dropped off 100 stun guns. You were at the time indisposed. He mentioned it during our conversation.” 

“Marshal, take every sodding trooper we have and find Ungar. Bring him to me in chains. I'm going to my quarters now, but I want to know immediately when he is found.” 

“I will start the search now Senior Elder.”

“Looks like your instincts were correct Celeste.” 

“Yes, it was statistically likely. He tossed his pendant down the shaft early this morning too. Now I know where the bottom is. It's a furnace room in the sub-basement that burns garbage. In the past, this was used to dump garbage from the upper floors. All references to Lora and her nine friends are now erased from their computers. This will help some.” 

“What's the plan for today?” 

“The microdrones are now ready to spread my nasty bugs tonight. After they are finished, I'm parking them in higher locations so we will have real-time camera views of the city center. I'll deploy them well after midnight. Would you like to have breakfast, I'll cook.” 

“Sure, It's not going to have teeth, is it?” “Maybe,” said Celeste with a grin.

Marshal Jorn looked up from his desk hearing the knock. “What do have to report Captain?” 

“We haven't found him yet Sir. His tractor and carriage are missing. We located his driver who was still drunk from last night. He said he dropped Ungar off around midday, and he gave him a fist full of coins. Told him he wasn't needed until midday today. His house was locked. We broke in. It's neat as a pin with nothing out of place. Casi is missing too and his computer was disabled." 

“And his daughter? I know they were close.” 

“She is a cleaner, and we can't find her either. There are no records about her anywhere in the system.” 

“Thank you, Captain, keep looking.”

The Marshal leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. Ungar's words from yesterday played back in his mind. “If things get too perilous, look to the stars.” He bolted straight upright realizing, “Ungar most likely is in Gaia and the people on the ship helped. It's the one place Davin can't get to him. Something is getting ready to happen, and likely soon. If I tell Davin this, it easily could cost me my head. I have to stall.” 

Marshal Jorn called out to his aide who sticks his head in the door. “Tell the Captain to send a squad right now up to the mines to look there for Ungar. If they run across Marshal Bard, make sure they bring him back alive.” “This will buy me a couple of days, and we will see what the future brings,” he thought hopefully. “Maybe I need a backup plan.”

Chapter 36 The Devil is in the details

"It's getting complicated,“ said Celeste as an aerial photograph of the city appeared on the vid. The yellow outlines are warehouses, and the one that's blinking is where the staffs are currently. The red dots are women with coins, and the ones blinking are our ten leaders. We can't have a thousand women converging on one warehouse to get their staffs, and some tractors will fail in two more days making this more difficult. I should have thought of this before. I'm using the Eaulander computer system to order a transfer of nine loads of 100 staffs to different warehouses. I'm canceling other transfers of theirs to make sure ours happens. My question now is which warehouses?”

“There's another thing to consider. They are going to have to get into those warehouses early in the morning to get their staffs. What if they are locked up? Can you access the warehouse's inventory?” 

“Wait for a second. Yes, I can. What do you think we need?” 

“Remember those long chisels and hammers that were used to free Davin? Can you find those or something like that they can use to break into the buildings?” 

“Yes, that's an excellent idea. I will locate these and transfer them to the women's warehouse.”

Ben closed his eyes, “This is a scenario I see in my mind. Ten team leaders get up very early in the morning. They have to walk to the warehouse they're using, and all get there at about the same time. The door must be already unlocked, or someone could spend the night there and let them in. They leave and go to the other warehouses to open them. I think they should travel discreetly in a group to help each other. It would be good if they had bags to carry stuff in, maybe cloth with a shoulder strap. If you give them stunners, they can take out any troopers, and any other obstacles they might encounter. Hopefully, most troopers will be at least feeling sick. Each warehouse gets opened. When done each team leader returns to their now open warehouse, waits for their 100 women, and gives them their staffs.”

“That works for me, here are images of warehouse options all close enough to work.” 

“That one is good. No, this looks way to secure. This is a good one as well. Too open and exposed....” 

“Okay, that does it. I'll put together a drone run to the women's warehouse roof, and send the women the delivery schedule along with the photos and locations of the warehouses to their tablets. I'll assign each of a warehouse based on how far away from them they live. How about dinner Ben?” 

“Sounds good to me as long as none of the food crawls.”

In the middle of dinner, the vid lights up with Lyn's face filling the screen. “Celeste?” 

“Hello Lyn, how are things going?” 

“We got Ungar settled in a bungalow. Casi is nice and embarrassed about her hair. We keep reminding her it will grow out, and Ungar misses using his carriage. To his credit, he's stoic about having to walk everywhere. Nona and Lycia's mother were voted off the council the day after the trial. Susi is the new head Counselor. The council also voted men can say no to a woman if they choose at the Gatherings. Most of us think this will make for happier joinings. Your message was a bit cryptic. Can you tell me more, especially about no contact with Eaulanders? We have a market day on the Eaulander's border tomorrow.”

Celeste thought for a second. “I can tell you some, but you shouldn't repeat it to others. A very large number of Eaulanders are going to be ill for a few days, but no one should die. The bug is intestinal and will require being very close to, if not ever seemingly leaving the jakes. This will provide a messy, well remembered, and a necessary distraction. The hopeful end result is the Elder's will prudently decide to retire and will move to their new home in a location like an abandoned mining town deep in the mountains. To put it Gaian terms, the Mother abhors a power vacuum, and this void will be quickly filled with people who are better equipped than the Elders for the role. The Oneness as a religion will come to an abrupt and most welcomed end. This will be good for the citizens of both Eauland and the Gaia. Lyn you really don't want this bug to cross over into Gaia. You need to do whatever it takes to ensure Gaians have no contact with anyone from Eauland for about the next six days. After that, it will be safe for all.”

“You are a force of nature Celeste, I will have the market day canceled and will make sure all Gaians stay away. Does Ungar know about this?” 

“Yes to a degree. He is one of about a thousand who is protected from the malady. Things became too dangerous for him, and it's important we keep him safe. He will play an important role in putting together a better Eauland. I will keep you informed of any important events, so you're not caught by surprise.”

Late that night Celeste's eyes snapped open, and she rolled over on her back staring blankly at the ceiling. The ship's lift descended, and a drone rose up, slide to the side out from under the ship. It paused for a few seconds and then shot straight upwards disappearing from sight. A few minutes later it descended and landed next to another drone on the cathedral roof. A small hatch opened on its side, and a swarm of small insect drones flew off into the dark.

For several hours the drone looked like a beehive. Drones left and flew or crawled into barracks, offices, homes, and carriages. Each time they sprayed a fine mist and returned to refill. Well before sunrise, the last small drone located its high purchase point, landed and positioned itself so it can look down on the city. Ten women's tablets start to blink. Celeste finally rolled over on her side and green eyes gradually closed. 

Chapter 37 The Marshal's dilemma

A soft ping told Ben his cafe was ready. He took a sip and quietly walked to Celeste's cabin and peeked in. Her eyes were closed with a faint smile on her face. “It must have been a long night for her, I'll let her rest as long as she needs to,” he thought. 

The women were huddled together and whispering. “Did everyone see Celeste's message?” asked Lim. Dona and Lora shook their heads no. 

“I moved my tablet after work yesterday to a new hiding spot outside,” said Lora. “I haven't had a chance to get at it yet. Celeste told me troopers will be looking for me and I must leave here by midday.” 

“I don't know my letters well,” said Lim, “But the pictures on the tablet show nine other warehouse buildings and a map where they are. Celeste said there will be stuff on the roof tomorrow and the day after. First will be plastic strips we use to tie up troopers, along with black cloth bags.” Lim lowered her voice to barely a whisper, “The next day will be ten stunners for us, just like the troopers have. Hammers and iron bars will be delivered here, but I'm not sure what they are for. We need to watch where they are put so someone should stay on the first floor.”

Lora walked over to a pile of sweepings, scooped up a small handful and rubbed it on her face, arms, and then on her black shift. “I should go now. I will meet up with you at the end of the day. I can start to find these warehouses, and take a close look at them.” Lora picked a broom, walked downstairs, and started sweeping the loading dock. A few minutes later she was gone.

“You wanted to see me, Senior Elder?” 

“Yes Marshal, sit. Where is Ungar?” 

“We are using every man we have to find him. The entire city is being searched building by building, but it will take time to complete. I sent a squad up to the mines yesterday to see if that's where he went. It's the only place he could go if he left the city. They will be back here around midday. As soon as they return I will immediately report back to you.” 

“The Oneness doesn't tolerate failures Marshal,” said Davin giving him a hard look. “Find him. You're excused.” 

“Good morning Ben,” said Celeste as she walked into the salon and sat with him. “It was a long night. I didn't have a lot of time and handling all of those microdrones in real time is taxing. I needed the rest. It's finished, and I'm happy with the results. Look at the vid.” A mosaic of downward looking views of the city appeared with lots of colored dots. “The new white dots are the locations of the stunners. The four black ones are the crowd stunners. I paid special attention to critical areas including the security compound, Cathedral, and the square. We need to monitor and advise the women where the stunners are, and of any  other problems or surprises.”

“When will people start feeling the effects of your jakes bug?” 

“For some later today. It will start to affect most tomorrow, and it will rage for the next two days after that. Given the poor state of their sewage system, it will be a messy and odorous scene. A few tractors should fail tomorrow and many more the next day. I have Ungar's tablet blinking, and I hope we hear from him soon. We need to know more about the armory.”

Ungar noticed the tablet is blinking, picked it up, and Celeste's face appeared. “Good morning Ungar. How are you doing?” 

Ungar gave Celeste a wry grin, “My feet hurt. It's all of this most uncivilized walking everywhere. Otherwise, Casi and I are fine, and it's the first time I have ever truly felt safe. I miss the Manhattans and brandy, but their wine is decent.” 

“Well it shouldn't be too much longer, and you will be needed when you get back. Have you ever been inside the armory?” 

“Yes, a few times when inventory issues have occurred.” 

“Can you describe it.”  “Sturdy is the word I would use for the building. There is a large door a tractor hauling a trailer can easily fit through and a door for people. A lift provides access to the basement. The original motor that powered it is long-lost to history. A tractor pulls a cable to lift and lower it.”

“Is this where the nuclear mining explosives are stored?” 

“Yes, there are six of them, I think.” 

“Do you know what they look like?” 

“I don't really know. They are inside wooden crates about the size of a coffin.” 

“Is there any information about them like who made them or where they're from?” 

“None that I'm aware of Captain. So much information was lost in the bad times.” 

“Thank you, Ungar, I'll be back in touch with updates.”

“What do you think Ben?” 

“They have to be well over one hundred years old. The half-life of the radioactive materials used may decrease the yield some, but there would still be a devastating bang if used above ground. Do you have any information on these devices?” 

“I have some from three manufacturers. They were lowered down shafts inside a mountain. Countdown timers triggered them.” 

“There's a lot of ifs here Celeste. Would the batteries still be good in them? The electronics might have corroded into oblivion. And it doesn't seem to be an effective weapon under normal circumstances.” 

“You're probably right Ben, but they exist, and for some reason, it bothers me. It's time for lunch, and you haven't eaten yet today. let's take a break.”

The door knocked once, and the Marshal's aide stuck his head in. “The squad is back from the mines sir.” 

"Tell the Sargent I want to see him now."  A few minutes later an older hard looking man rapped on the door frame. 

"You wanted to see me, Marshal?" 

"Yes Sargent, did you find Ungar?" 

"No Sir, he was not there. We questioned everyone, and that fancy carriage of his wouldn't be overlooked. You don't see that kind of finery up at the mines and forget about it. We did find Marshal Bard. He was passed out drunk in the gutter covered in his own vomit. His stench was so bad we tied him to the front of the tractor. We put him in a cell." 

"That will be all Sargent, Thank you." The Marshal sat and thought for a couple of minutes. "It was lucky they found Bard, it will be a distraction. But If I don't find Ungar, and I don't think I will what then?" He got up and noticed the crowd stunner was still in the box on the floor. He picked it up, set it on his desk and walked out. "I have to see the Senior Elder, I won't return here today," he said to his aide.

Chapter 38  The final niggle

Mindful of his heavy seed oil load the driver gently engaged the tractor and huffed into the intersection. Halfway through engine died. Sighing in resignation, he reached under the seat for the crank and climbed down. With well-practiced execution, the spring was wound.  The knob was pulled, and the lever jerked back sharply. The tractor sputtered to back to life. Even more carefully he engaged the tractor. It lurched forward spewing smoke and stopped. He wound the spring again, and this time it didn't start. After a few more tries troopers walked over and begin to direct traffic around the stalled vehicle.

“Senior Elder, may I have a moment?” asked Marshal Jorn 

“Yes, did you find Ungar?” 

“No, not yet but we will. The squad I sent to the mines checked carefully, and Ungar was not there, but we did find Bard and brought him back. He is in a cell awaiting your judgment.” 

“He will get that in spades,” said Davin twisting his face into a skeletal grin. “Where do you think Ungar is?” 

“I suspect he has hidden his tractor in a warehouse and is hiding somewhere near. Another warehouse or maybe in someone's home. We are methodically searching every single building Senior Elder. It's a large city, it takes time.” 

“Could Ungar have gone to Gaia?” 

“I thought of that but never in anyone's memory since back before my grandsire has those witches let a single Eaulander man cross their border. As close as any man is allowed to Gaia is the border market and that is only once a week.” 

Davin peered closely at the Marshal, “Find him, or you will meet the fate of your predecessor. Do you clearly understand?” 

“I do Senior Elder, I will not fail you.”

As the Marshall stood to leave, Transport Elder Nitz looked in. “Senior Elder, two tractors stopped today. We may have a fuel problem again. I have stopped the refueling, and a sample of the oil is on the way here.” Davin stared at him with an incredulous look. 

“Again for the second time and Ungar disappeared about the same time. Banner was right. That whore on the starship must have something to do with this. I want every damn Elder to be in this room tomorrow morning including you Marshal. We are going to put a stop to this,” said Davin. Marshal Jorn looked at the nervous Transport Elder who was looking pale and sweaty. 

“I must leave now,” he said with a groan and awkwardly half ran out the door.

The Marshal remained by himself in the room. “The Senior Elder isn't right about much, but in this case, he might be. Strange things have happened since the ship arrived here especially Davin being locked in the Sacred Chamber. One of his smaller troopers had wriggled into the chamber and reported the room was empty other than two pairs of shackles bolted to the wall. Ungar could be helping the people from the stars to do something, but what?” He stood and wobbled a bit. “I think I need a good night's sleep. Tomorrow is going to be challenging, if not deadly.”

Ben turned to Celeste and shrugged. “Davin was eventually going to figure out we had something to do with what's happening, but he doesn't seem to have a clue about what yet.” 

“Yet is the operable word, Ben. The thing to ponder on is when he figures it out, what will he do? We will find out in the morning with more clarity what's in his head. I think the Transport Elder wasn't feeling well, and that was an interesting gait he used when he fled. Likely he was heading towards the closest jakes. Most will be very uncomfortable tomorrow, and the day after there won't be enough jakes to go around. I'm also dropping the plastic restraints ties and ten cloth bags on the women's warehouse roof late tonight.”

Lora watched from down the street as a tractor and trailer backs into the loading dock. A few minutes later the loaders started to carry armloads of square staffs to the trailer stacking them neatly. Further down the street two troopers come out of a building, walk towards Lora and turn into the next building. Lora turned away, shuffled further away and started again to sweep the curb. The troopers came back out and went into the next building. Lora again moved. The tractor started, pulled out heading towards Lora and chugged past her. Head down she followed until it backed into another warehouse.

She studied the layout carefully and memorized the location. The personnel door was off to the side and set well back from the street. One hundred staffs were unloaded, and the tractor left for its next stop with Lora sweeping behind.  The sun became lower, and Lora cleaned curbs back to her warehouse. 

Elena saw Lora first, and the rest joined her. “The troopers came in looking for you. They asked the loaders if anyone named Lora worked here and if anyone was missing.”  Elena grinned. “They are dumb as rocks. None of them knew anyone named Lora. Where are going to sleep?” 

“I haven't figured that out yet,” said Lora. “Then stay with me, I can make a bed out of blankets, and you can sleep on the floor next to my cot. We can trade places tomorrow.”

Chapter 39 It starts getting messy

“It's vid showtime Ben, get a fresh cup of cafe,” said Celeste. The Marshal slipped into the room with more than a little trepidation and stood uncomfortably in the back corner thinking the room felt much too warm. Elder Franko looking florid and pale joined him shifting his weight from foot to foot. The Marshal leaned over, “Are you alright Elder Franko?”

“I'm not feeling well Marshal. If the Senior Elder hadn't demanded my presence, I would be in my bed.”

Davin, pacing at the head of the long table stopped suddenly. He wiped clammy hands on his robe, grabbed the table edge, and leaned forward loudly pronouncing. “Eauland is under attack by that godless whore from the starship. This must stop now.”

The roomful of old men stared blankly back at him. “Senior Elder, with apologies I don't understand. How are we being attacked?” asked weazened Elder Sims.

Looking surprised at the question Davin struggled for words, “Can't you idiots see what's happening around you. Twice now we have had fungus growing in the tractor's fuel tank, and Ungar disappeared just before the second time.

“Are you saying Ungar is poisoning our fuel? Why would he do that? We all know he needs his carriage more than most,” said Transport Elder Nitz.

Davin flushed with anger, “There's much more. The whore made it look like Marshal Banner stole the money. She somehow snuck into his office and used his computer.” The Elders sat speechless gawking at Davin. “She personally attacked me in the Sacred Chamber with some sort of demon. That power failure wasn't an accident," he screamed in an ear-piercing pitch, "She caused it all.” 

Elder Franko urgently whispered over to the Marshal, “Senior Elder or not I have to find the jakes now,” and started to depart.

Davin yelled out, “Elder Franko, I didn't say you could leave. You go out that door, and I will  personally knife whip you to death in the square.”

Elder Franko froze with a wild panicky look in his eyes. The entire room heard the spurting liquid gush as his bowels let loose. A lumpy yellowish brown puddle oozed out from under his robe overwhelming the small room with its fetid stench. Pandemonium broke loose. Marshal Jorn's stomach flipped at the horrific smell and held his nose running from the room. The Elder seated next to the oozing puddle looked down, turned white and puked on the table. Elder Nitz reeling from the stench fled leaving an oily brown trail behind him. In frantic seconds the room emptied leaving only puddles of liquid discharges to continue their slow spread across the floor.

Ben shook with laughter. “I don't know if that is absolutely the funniest or the worst thing I have ever seen. Maybe it's both. I could smell the stench from here. It will take a week to clean that room. I didn't know the human body could even make some of those sounds.”

“This performance will give the Elders something to talk about. Davin was acting like he was losing it, and maybe he is. The downside is this might make him more erratic and even more unpredictable.” 

Ben soberly considered this. “I agree. We definitely need to keep a close eye on him.”

Just before first light Lora awoke and dressed.  She went outside, headed down the street and turned into an alley and stopped. Looking carefully in both directions she opened the door of an abandoned building. In a few minutes, her eyes adjusted to the dim lighting. Sitting with her back to the wall a loose floorboard was lifted, and a tablet was removed. She started to read.

“Only two loaders here today, and one of them doesn't look so good. They are both sitting at their lunch table,” said Dona. 

Lim nodded to Mora who climbed the ladder, cracked open the roof hatch and looked out. She whispered, “There are ten bags up here. I'll drop them. Someone needs to catch them.”

Mora climbed out and the women clustered next to the ladder. One by one each bag was caught. “We have to hide these now,” said Lim looking around and pointed to an empty corner. “Stack them over there, and we can build a wall of boxes in front of them.” Bags are moved, and boxes neatly stacked filling the corner. 

The Marshall sat at his desk digesting the scene he had witnessed. He had to change his clothes to get rid of the foul smell and told the cleaners to boil them. Davin at his worst has never been this unhinged and so dangerous. Some Elders had looked ill, and he didn't feel all that great himself. About a quarter of his troopers were sick and in their barracks. Several tractors stopped working this morning making it harder to get troopers to their patrol jobs. “Something is going on," he thought. "I can sense it. I just don't know what it is. Could Davin be right about the starship attacking us, but to what end?” 

Looking up at a knock his aide stepped in and handed him a note. “This arrived by a messenger from the Senior Elder.”

The Marshal opened the envelope and pulled out a small piece of paper. The Senior Elder had scrawled, “Have Bard shackled in the square. I will execute him in an hour. Attend personally.” The Marshal groaned and left his office to make the arrangements.

As he entered the square, things seemed quieter than usual. A stalled tractor and trailer was being towed away, and the crowd was smaller than usual. Several street vendor stalls were boarded up. Ex-Marshal Bard was hanging limply between posts with glazed over vacant eyes and dirty clothes. “It's merciful he's still stinking drunk.” he thought.

A gilded carriage crossed the square and jerked to a stop. Davin climbed out with his knife whip, walked over to the Marshal and stared at him through yellowed eyes. “I thought you may need some incentive. Stay and watch and then bring me, Ungar. Am I clear? Report to me first thing in the morning.” The Marshal nodded. Davin climbed the platform. With three vicious strokes, it's clear Bard is dead but Davin continued to relentlessly flay at his body. The Marshal stared over at the long lines at the public jakes. “I can wait until I get back to my office,” he muttered under his breath.

Chapter 40 Cats and a mouse

Lora turned off her tablet and hid it back under the floor plank. “I need to take a look at the last five warehouses, then eat. I'm hungry.” Cracking the door open she peeked out. Grabbing her broom, she started out. Sweeping the curb slowly she studied the building and surroundings. Picking up the pace she turned the corner and swept her way past the next one. “Three more to go and It's time for some food,” she thought.

Looking at the next one, Lora saw two troopers walk out of the building at the end of the street and go to the next one. She turned around and started to sweep in the opposite direction, and two more troopers leave a building at the other end of the street, walk towards her, and check the next building. Fighting down her panic Lora saw a recessed entrance next door and pressed herself into it. “They are going to eventually see me close up and question me,” she thought . Reaching into her pocket, she found the round dirty ball and jammed it in her ear. “Celeste, can you hear me?” She whispered, “I need help if you can. I'm trapped.”

“I'm here Lora. I see the troopers on the street near you, or rather I see their stunners. I have deactivated them. Stay where you are if they can't see you. When I say go, turn left and run two buildings down. There is a narrow walkway between the buildings. Turn in there and stop. Go now.” Lora ran down the street and bolted into the walkway. “Lora, this time walk quickly like you're on an errand across the street on a diagonal, then head towards the corner and turn right. Hold for a few more seconds. Go.” Lora with her head down briskly crossed the street swerving around a stalled tractor and turned the corner. “You're safe now Lora. Where are you going?” 

“To the square. I need to eat.” 

“Leave your earpiece in. I'll warn you of any troopers, and we can talk some more.”

The tractor driver walked into the warehouse holding some papers. Looking around he saw the two loaders at the lunch table. One's head is laying on folded arms apparently asleep or passed out. The other sits motionless with a vacuous look. “Hey you dolts, I have a crate for you to unload. I've got a lot of extra deliveries today, get to it.”

Both loaders struggled out of their chairs and shuffled to the dock. “It's that wooden one. It's heavy so don't drop it.” The loaders attempt to lift it but don't have enough strength. They dragged it off the trailer with faltering jerks onto the loading dock. “Gotta go jakes,” mumbles one of the loaders as he staggered out the door. The other loader looked around with sweat dripping off his face. Listing to one side he left.

Dona looked at the crate still sitting on the loading dock. “Could this be the hammers and iron bars Celeste drew the pictures of?” Lim took her broom and started to sweep near the crate while looking up and down the street. “It's clear, drag it in.” They all rush out, and in seconds the crate was shoved inside. Lim took a second look around, closed the two big doors and locked them from the inside. 

Elena found a pry bar and wedged the lid off. “Hammers and pointy iron bars,” she announced.

Lora was waiting at the end of day across from the women's warehouse when Dona stuck her head out the small door and waved at her. “Come in. The loaders are sick and left after midday. We closed and locked the big doors.” Dona locked the small door behind them. 

“We got the hammers and pointed rods today,” said Lim as she lifted the lid of the crate. 

On impulse, Lora picked up a hammer and chisel and peeked outside. Slipping out she hid them behind the stairs and came back in. “Just in case,” said Lora. “Celeste said we have to start telling our women which warehouse to go to, and we have two more days to get this done. Our tablets show each of us where they are and the address. They have to be there before first light. There will be more people ill tomorrow, and some really sick. This means there will be fewer troopers patrolling. We should start tonight. Leave the door unlocked, and we can meet back here in the morning.”

The Sargent knocked. “You wish to see me, Marshal?” “Yes, any sign of Ungar or his daughter?” 

“No, sir. We have checked almost every building in the city, and if we have enough troopers tomorrow, the search will be finished in the late morning. What's puzzling is how his tractor disappeared. I would bet it isn't in Eauland at all. One of the troopers might have spotted his daughter, but she was far away and turned around a corner.” 

“Thank you, Sargent, keep looking.” 

The Marshall stood, “The jakes and more than a few good brandies are needed in that order,” mumbled the Marshal to himself. 

Chapter 41 The Marshals choice

Jorn wiped the sweat away from his forehead and looked at the ship through the brush. A sole white light on its underside provided the only illumination in the meadow. "Death or what he wondered." He blew out the small oil lamp and slowly walked toward the ship.

“Ben, wake up. Someone is approaching the ship from Eauland.” 

Ben opened his eyes and checked the time. “It's the middle of the night. Do you know who it is?” 

“No, but he or she is standing near the edge of the meadow just inside the woods.” Jumping up Ben grabbed his robe and went to the salon. The vid image showed a fuzzy thermal outline of a human figure standing still. With an unsteady gait, the figure started to walk towards the ship and stopped near it. 

“That's Marshall Jorn.” “I should find out what he wants. He could be armed so, please stay here. Turn your head away for a moment, please. Ben looked away.“ Thank you, Ben, it's good now.” Looking back at Celeste Ben saw she was wearing her Captain's uniform and had long blond hair.” “You look both powerful and beautiful at the same time.” “Thank you, Ben,” she said with a shy smile. The ramp deployed and more lights turned on bathing the area under the ship.

Celeste walked over to the Marshal. “Marshal Jorn, it's nice to meet you. I'm Celeste, the Captain of this ship. This is late at night for a social call.” 

The Marshal was stunned, “You know my name?” he stammered. 

Celeste smiled, “I know much about Eauland and how ugly the Elders have made it. Why are you here?” 

“A colleague of long association has disappeared. Before he left, he suggested if I felt imperiled I should look to the stars. I'm in much danger, and hopeful he was referring to you.” 

“Ungar is safe Marshal and out of your reach. I know if you don't find him shortly your life will be forfeit. We can offer you a choice and help you, but we need help from you in exchange. I believe you are a decent and orderly man who never wanted to be the Marshal. Your predecessors had short lifespans all with ugly endings at Davin's hand. I will tell you a few things and ask you some questions. I will know if you are lying, so please don't bother, it's very late.” 

“In three days time, Eauland will be a different and better place for everyone. The Elder's and the security forces will be captured and confined. The false religion of the Oneness will cease to be. Women will be the equals of men, and initially in charge of Eauland. Control will shortly be passed to new a government of both men and women. Could you accept and be happy with this end result?” 

The Marshal faintly nodded yes.

“Your security forces will have to be rehabilitated. This may not be possible for some including all the Elders who have preyed on Eaulander's for generations. These people will need to be segregated and managed to keep others safe. Someone must in charge of this. Would you be willing to undertake this task?”  

“Yes,” said the Marshal.

“This is all you should know at this time. You will recognize what is happening when it occurs. Help at that time as you can.” The ships lift descended, and a small bot rolled over with a tray. Celeste pointed at the two pills and the glass of water. “Almost everyone in Eauland will keep getting sicker. You're already ill and will get much worse. Swallow these. They will stop you from getting any sicker, and you will feel better soon.” The Marshal picked up the pills and washed them down.

Celeste pointed at the coin. “Put this in your pocket. It will let me know where you are and identify you to others that only I could have given it to you. This is important. Keep it with you at all times, your life may depend on it.” The Marshal dropped it in his pocket. “Go home now. Change out of your uniform into worker's clothes and go into hiding. Tomorrow is likely the last day anyone will be able to look for you, and it will take some time for Davin to figure out you're missing. I will do my best to keep you safe. We will meet again shortly, and you can help make this a better world."

The Marshal woke long before first light in his modest but tidy home. Rummaging through his dresser, he found a pair of work pants with a few holes in them along with a tattered long sleeved overshirt. An old pair of shoes that could use new soles were laced up. Looking in the mirror, the Marshal stared back. Frowning he went to his shed and picked up a container of used jet black tractor oil. With distaste, he poured some into his hands and rubbed it into his hair, face, and arms. An old cap was found in the bottom of a box and pulled on. 

Looking in the mirror again the Marshal is no longer there. He shoved a couple of clean rags into his back pocket and took a handful of coins. From the top of his dresser, he picked up a single coin and placed it carefully in an empty pocket. His stunner was shoved into his waistband under his shirt. Slipping out the back door in the dark he walked down the lane heading for the industrial section of the city. The only thing I'm sure of,” he thought, “Is how little control I really have over my own life. This unexpected path is better than the one that would surely lead to my death, and my only option.”

Chapter 42 The Dawning

Davin's tractor and carriage pulled up in front of the Security Forces headquarters and sputtered to a stop. A trooper ran over, opened the carriage door and just caught the Senior Elder as he half fell out clutching his knife whip tightly in one hand. He helped put him back on his unsteady feet. The unexpected odor made him step back in revulsion, and he wiped his hands on his pants. Davin ignored him and staggered into the building screeching at the top of his lungs, “Where is the Marshal?”

A trooper disappeared and a minute the Marshal's aide showed up and was jolted by Davin's gaunt appearance and stench. His pale blotchy skin, damp stained robe, and wild looking sunken eyes scared him. “Senior Elder are you ill?”

Fingering one of the blades on his whip Davin glared at the aide, “The Oneness gives me the strength to carry on while half of my worthless city wallows in bed. The Marshal was ordered to meet with me first thing this morning. Where is he?” 

“I do not know Senior Elder. The Marshal is always prompt. Perhaps he is ill as well. Many are.” 

“Perhaps if you value your life you should immediately go to his house with some troopers and drag him back here if need be. Bring me a chair. I will wait here but do not take long for your sake.”

As Lora and Elena walked into the warehouse, Lim locked the door behind them. “We have the stunners,” said Lim, “They're upstairs. Come and see.” 

Lora pulled a stunner from the box and examined it. “Let's load the bags and see how they feel when we carry them.” Boxes were shifted, and the bags pulled out. They were quickly loaded with plastic ties and stunners.

Lora ran downstairs and grabbed a hammer and chisel and put them in her bag and ran back. With the long strap pulled over her head the bag nestled nicely against her hip. “I need one more thing,” said Lora as she walked back downstairs and returned with a staff in her hand. “How's this look?” she said holding the staff in both hands above her head. 

“You look fearsome Lora,” said Elena. 

Holi jumped up grinning and said, “Let's all look fearsome.” She took off down the stairs to pick a staff with the others chasing close behind her.

The last box was pushed into place hiding the full bags. “Let's meet up first thing in the morning here. We have what's left of the day and all tomorrow to make sure every woman knows where she is supposed to be,” said Lora.

The Marshal saw a troopewith a pained look on his face and uncomfortable gait moving down the street at a snail's pace. He pulled his cap down a touch and shuffled past without even a glance from him. Mulling over his conversation with Celeste he looked at the rows of bleak gray stone worker's quarters. “She's right about the fact the Eauland is an ugly place, and no one would miss the Elders, especially Davin. How can the women overcome the security forces and the Elders? They have no weapons or transportation. Troopers are trained from youth to protect the Elders. They would have to be really sick to not do their job. The cost of failure is well known to them.”

Feeling a touch better than yesterday the Marshal's stomach started to growl. “I'll take a chance on the market off the square and at least get some bread to chew on.” He glanced, at a public vid for a second. Davin was exhorting more productivity. Having seen it before he looked away. Most he saw looked ill, but seem to be functioning at least to some degree. A group of young women cleaners passed him all laughing at some private joke. 

As he crossed through the square, it was much quieter than yesterday. Several tractors were stalled and abandoned. About half of the vendor booths were closed, but he found a baker and bought a couple of sweet rolls. A few minutes later saw a couple of pleasure girls deep in an animated conversation, and then it occurred to him. He stopped and looked around once more. “It looks like most of the younger women aren't sick at all.” He remembered Celeste's comment to him “You're already ill and it will get much worse.” Looking over at the very long lines at the public jakes, he wondered what the “will get much worse” part of her comment truly meant. Recognizing a couple troopers heading his way the Marshal turned and shuffled away from the square. “I need to find a place to safely spend the night.”

The Sargent and aide to the Marshal paused outside for a moment. “You tell him, I'm just a clerk. He needs you, and I'm disposable,” whispered the aide. 

The Sargent looked at the aide with disgust but nodded his head. Walking over to the Senior Elder he thought, “Better I do this than have the Marshal's fancy boy get us both killed.” “Senior Elder, unfortunately, the Marshal is not at his home and is considered as missing. I have alerted the troopers to look for him,” stated the Sargent. “What are your orders for me, Senior Elder?” 

Davin's fists tightly clenched. Suddenly they relaxed. “Sargent,” Davin rasped, “I want you to pick your best twenty men. Arm them with both long and short slug throwers with plenty of ammunition. They will guard me continuously. Prepare a tractor with a long trailer. Have them both at my quarters in less than thirty minutes.” 

“As you wish Senior Elder, I am at your service.” The Senior Elder tried to stand, and the Sargent reached over to help him up fighting down the rising bile caused by his odor. As soon as the Senior Elder tottered out of sight, the Sargent saw the seat of Davin's chair, held his hand over his mouth and ran out a side door. After violently upchucking his stomach contents, he headed off at speed for the jakes.

Chapter 43 The  calm before the storm

“You have been quiet this morning Celeste.” 

“I know, and sorry. I'm worried. Things have gone as planned so far and that's what concerns me. My tendency is to over plan, and in this case, it likely won't work. The best I can do is to arrange things, so the battle runs on automatic with just a few simple goals and tactics.” 

“What do you have in mind?”  

“At the end of the day the security forces and Elders have to be rounded up and all restrained. The more stunners the women have, the easier and safer this will be for them. The more surprise and faster things happen the better.” 

“Can we look at where all the stunners are now?” asked Ben.

The vid filled with a sea of stunner's white dots and the four green crowd stunners. “Can you project where you think they will all be when we start?” Most of the white dots shifted to the thirty-two barracks buildings leaving a sprinkling of them scattered around the city and a few in the Cathedral. “All four of the crowd stunners are in the Security Forces Headquarters. Getting our hands on those would make it much easier to deal with the barracks,” said Ben.

“What do you think of this idea? We send Lora's teams out early first and have them collect all stunners from the troopers on patrol in the city. They start from the outskirts and work their way towards the square. They use those stunners to quietly take control of the Security Forces headquarters building and find the crowd stunners. At that time we have six groups converge on the barracks with the crowd stunners, and we split off some with stunners to guard the armory. I don't want any slugthrowers in the mix if we can manage it. Two more groups now equipped with stunners take and hold the Cathedral complex and the Elder's mansions. The remainder of Lora's group stays the square and holds it. I think I want one team on the outside of the walls where there may be an underground exit point. That leaves one group available to fill in any holes.”

“What do we do with the prisoners?” asked Ben. 

“Initially we leave them tied where they are. Later we can pick them up with tractors and transport them to the main hall of the Cathedral, or someplace else where there is room. I can't think of a better use for this ugly symbol of oppression,” said Celeste. “Let's talk to the women now. They are all together in the warehouse.”

“Hi, Lora. Could you ask everybody to put their earpieces in? Ben and I want to talk with all of you.” 

“We are ready for you Celeste,” said Lora. “Good morning women. From now on wear your earpieces all the time. I'll warn you of any troopers and help steer you away from them. If you look at your bags carefully, you will find a pouch inside that will hold your tablets. Don't forget to bring them with you in the morning. The most important job you have today is to make sure everybody knows where to be in the morning. After tomorrow history will proudly call you the ten, who changed your world for the better. So finish up and get to bed early. I need all of you to be well rested and ready to be your most fearsome in the morning. Get to the warehouse well before first light. I'm very proud of all of you.”

Wincing the Marshal rolled over onto his side on the hard floor. Getting up he made a token effort to dust himself off, and his stomach grumbled. “I'll see if the baker is still is open in the square.” 

His nose wrinkled at the smell as he carefully stepped around a fetid brown puddle. Among the closed stalls is the baker's, and it's open. He walked over and eyed the young women with surprise. “My da is sick, and he needs the coins. I will be here as long as there is something to sell. What do you want?” 

“Four sweet rolls please.” 

She handed him a paper-wrapped package, and he tried to give her coins. She stepped back. “Look around you at all the sick people. I won't be touching any coins. Drop them into the bowl and take your change. I'll boil the lot later.” Dropping his coins in he looked closely at the bowl and decided not to get any change. The young woman grinned, “See, told you so.”

He found a bench and sat studying the square. More tractors were stalled than yesterday. The public vid was showing the same scenes he saw yesterday. It must be playing a loop he realized. The usually crowded square had even fewer people, and many look ill. A trooper was waiting in the long line at the public jakes. He suddenly jumped out of the line and butted in at the front. A man loudly complained, and the trooper stunned him. He then kicked open the door to the jakes, reached in, jerked the seated man out onto the pavement and stunned him as well. Glaring at the gathering group, he stepped in and closed the door.  Someone picked up a rock and threw it at the door. Others snatched up stones and followed his lead. “It's time to leave,” he thought as he stood and wrapped up the remaining rolls. “Tomorrow must be the day, I just don't know what it will bring.”

“How about we eat outside tonight and have an early night Ben,” said Celeste. “We have a busy day tomorrow.” 

“Sounds good to me as long as my food isn't going to be crawling around on the plate,” said Ben. 

“I'll make sure it isn't moving for you, Ben.” “Sounds like there is a loophole in that phrase Celeste.” 

“Maybe, but trust me.” 

Ben grinned, “I always trust you.”

Chapter 44 The gust front

“Wake up, you have to see this right now,” cried out Celeste. 

Ben's eyes snapped open, and he sat up. He ran to the salon struggling to pull on a robe at the same time. The big vid was showing an infrared image of the armory as two tractors pulled up. One of several men jumped off the trailer, talked to the guard, and both entered. The large door opened and the tractor with a trailer pulled in. 

“That's Davin's carriage outside. Those men are all armed with slug throwers,” said Celeste. 

As Ben watched clutching a cup of cafe in both hands. The tractor and trailer pulled out of the armory and the large door closed. “Can we get a better look at what's loaded on the trailer?” 

“Yes, give me a moment.” The view blurred and resumed as the microdrone settled noiselessly on the edge of the armory roof looking downward. 

“That's a big crate on the back of the trailer, you don't think...?” 

“I'm not sure. I'm blinking and loudly squawking Ungar's tablet for his opinion.” Both tractors fired up and started to leave. “I'm deploying a drone now and will I try to follow them.”

Lora and Elena warily walked to the warehouse in the dark. “Celeste? We're going to the warehouse. Is my path clear of troopers?” asked Lora whispering. 

“I'm here Lora, I don't see any troopers near you, and if I do, I'll warn you. I have turned off all the trooper's stun guns.”

Lora tiptoed up the steps, tried to turn the doorknob, and it was locked. She backed down the steps and with relief found the hammer and chisel where she left them under the stairs. Centering the chisel on the lock, she gave it a whack and was startled at the noise it made. The hammer swung a second time even harder. The sound echoed down the street into the night. With the next strike the chisel sunk into the lock. 

“Lora, a trooper has apparently heard the noise and is headed your way. Hurry,” said Celeste. Lora took the hammer in both hands and swung as hard as she could. The door loudly banged open. “Both of you get your stunners right now.”

With hearts pounding they both ran up the stairs and frantically threw boxes aside to get at their bags. Both grabbed stunners and turned towards the stairs hiding them behind their backs. Heavy boots clump on the floor downstairs. “Whoever is up there come down right now.” Lora hollered back, “Come and get us stupid. Are you afraid of a couple of women? We're naked and waiting for you.”

“A couple of whores with big mouths deserve what they'll get, and I'll enjoy giving it to both of you.” Heavy boots clunked on the stair treads. The silhouette of a sweaty ill-looking trooper appeared at the top of the stairs stunner pointed at them. 

“He's fat, stupid and ugly,” taunted Elena. 

“You whores lied to me. You're not naked, but you both will be in a  minute.” The trooper's finger jerked on the trigger, but nothing happened. Both women pulled their arms out from behind their back and pointed stunners at the surprised trooper. Both pulled triggers. The trooper's face instantly went slack as he fell backward tumbling down the stairs. 

“Let's get the ties and practice on this dolt,” said Elena.

“That big bump he got on his head has actually improved his appearance,” said Lora. “We need to roll this slob over on his stomach like the picture showed.” They both heaved the unconscious trooper over.  Lora pulled an arm behind him and put a tie on his wrist. Roughly she pulls the other arm around, slid another tie under the first and then around the other wrist pulling it snug. Looking at Elena's handiwork on his feet Lora said aloud, “It's easier than I thought. The others can see how well it works when they get here. This brute isn't going anyplace today.”

Ungar's sleepy face appeared on the vid. “I take it my services are needed at this early hour Captain?” 

“Thank you, Ungar, would you please watch this and tell me what you see?” 

As the vid played, Ungar's face showed concern. “I regret to tell Captain you but that is one of the mining atomic explosives, and the carriage is Davin's. Do you know where he went?” 

“No, he disappeared from the camera view. I'm looking for him as we speak. On your tablet, you will see a new icon. This opens into views of the city. Lynn's tablet can do the same. Today is the day the Elder's will fall. If you both see anything that will help us, reach out to me. I must go now.”

Lim and Mora walked in and stared at the trussed up trooper who was coming around. His eyes open and he started to struggle. Glaring at the women a steady stream of profanity spewed out of his mouth. 

Lora looked around for a rag and then at her nearly floor-length black shift. “Screw the Oneness stuff, I can't fight while wearing this piece of crap.” She grabbed the hem and tore it up the side. Then ripped it off sideways, so the shift was above her knees. Looking down at her bare white legs she proclaimed, “That's better.”  The remnant of the shift was roughly shoved into the trooper's mouth muffling the profanity. The sound of other shifts being ripped echoed the sentiment.

“Let's bring the bags down and add the hammers and chisels. The others will be here shortly,” said Lora. As the last bag is moved downstairs Dona, Yana, and Holi showed up and gawked at the shifts. More ripping occurred. 

Holi turned to the group, “How's this look?” “It's really short Holi,” said Dona. 

“I know,” she leered. “I'm a pleasure girl, and I know how to be a distraction.” Jans, Colini, and then Tami showed up. 

Lora looked at the group with pride in her eyes. “Pick a staff women and be fearsome. Let's  open the other warehouses and show the world what we can do.”

Chapter 45 Open for business

Lora swung the large loading dock doors wide open and nodded to the group. Silently they walked quickly to the next warehouse. A couple of solid whacks on the lock and the door opened. Lim stayed and opened its doors. Much to their surprise, the next one's door is already unlocked. The now smaller group moved on. 

“Women, there is a trooper one block up. He hasn't moved for over two hours, but I would still be careful,” announced Celeste.

Holi looked at Lora and pointed to herself. Lora nodded, and she took off at a trot. She spotted the trooper and smelled him from a fair distance away. He was motionless and sitting in a brown puddle with his back against a wall. She walked up and looked down at him. 

Glassy eyes stared up at her mumbling, “Please help me.” 

Holi pointed her stunner at him, pulled the trigger and his head lolled off to the side. “You get the next ten minutes pain-free on me.” Looking at the mess under him she decided not to roll him over. She lashed together his hands and tied them to his feet. His stun gun was pulled from its holster and dropped into her bag. 

“I got him along with his stunner,” she said out loud and waited for the group to catch up.

As Lora and Elena approached the last warehouse a small group of women was already waiting. The door was breached to the accompaniment of ripping cloth. Lora took another staff from the pile. “Every woman deserves a staff,” she said to the women. Walking back an additional one was picked up at each warehouse. Seeing other women now on the streets in small groups she hoisted her staff to them as she passed.

Stepping over heaps of torn black cloth she added the nine staffs to the diminishing pile. About sixty women were holding their staffs and nervously whispering to each other. 

“Good job women," said Celeste. "In about thirty more minutes you should all be at about 98% of the women. In the meantime distribute your ties and show everyone how to tie up the troopers and Elders. Lora, you need to double time this and get it done. As soon as you're finished start sending teams out to collect stunners,”  to the Ten.

“I need my team leaders to join me, and everyone else watches,” yelled out Lora. Nine women stepped forward, and the crowd encircled them. “This is a stunner,” said Lora as she pulled her's out and held it in the air. “You point it, pull the trigger, and they become immobile, but only for about ten minutes. The trooper's all have one but as of this morning, not only are they sick, they now only work for a woman who has a coin in her pocket. We are going to take their stunners and tie them up with these,” said Lora holding ties over her head. “Use them to secure their wrists behind them and then tie their feet together. Leave them where they are and if they mouth off feel free to give them a wack with your staff,” said Lora with a nasty grin as she listened to the laughter.

“What's your name,” asked Lora as she handed the woman a stunner and bundle of ties. 

“I'm Sari.” 

Lora pointed to a white blinking dot on the tablet map. “See that white dot?” 


“You know where it is?” Sari nodded. 

“Take your team and get that stunner. Don't let any troopers escape, and come back as quickly as you can.”

The Marshal woke early. The stone floor of the abandoned building hadn't allowed much sleep or improved his disposition. Swallowing the last bite of his sweet roll the Marshal started towards the square, and catching movement out of the corner of his eye suddenly froze up against the wall. A group of bare-legged women with long sticks crossed the intersection and continued down the street. He snuck a quick look around the corner. The women brazenly walked up to a trooper as he repeatably pulled his trigger and finally stopped. A woman holding a stunner pulled the trigger. He collapsed to the sidewalk in a heap. In seconds, they took his stunner and tied him up. The women left the trooper lying where was and headed back the way they came. 

The Marshal pressed himself into a doorway and waited till they passed. A few moments later he carefully went around the corner and walked up to the still unconscious trooper. Looking closely at the plastic ties he thought, “Ingenious, and it looked like the trooper's stunner just stopped working for him.”

Turning around he walked in the direction the women came from and saw a trussed up trooper laying against a wall. He's tied differently, then noted the odor and spotted the brown puddle. He grinned to himself, “I don't blame them.” Going to the next corner, he peeked around it. Halfway down the block, a group of women left a warehouse headed in the opposite direction. Seeing the first dim glimmerings of daylight, the Marshal turned back and started off towards the square.

Lora proudly watched as women kept gleefully returning with stunners and more teams enthusiastically charged out. “Hi Lora,” said Celeste. “Your teams are doing a great job. There are just a few more to go. Holi is now moving her group over to you. When the last of the stunners are collected, give Holi twenty, and you keep the remaining. You're going to need them. You and Holi are going to move your groups to the square. The others will move up behind you as backups.”

Ben looked over at Celeste who had been motionless and silent for over an hour. “Celeste, are you okay?” he quietly asked. After a couple of long minutes, Celeste slowly turned her head towards Ben. 

“Sorry to say, Ben, I'm upset. I have every drone I own in the air looking for that trailer and crate and I'm coordinating the women's attack. It's taxing even for me.” 

“How about I just sit here quietly with you?” 

With a small half smile, Celeste said, “Thank you, Ben. I would like that very much.” Celeste turned her head away and stared off into space.

Chapter 46 The kickoff

“Women, it's time to take control of your lives and future,” said Celeste. “Lim shift your group to Lora's warehouse. Pick up five more stunners and then follow the route I marked. Directly behind the Cathedral's wall is a building. I think it's connected with a tunnel. Take control, search the structure and find the tunnel if it exists. Stun and tie up anyone you find especially any that come through the tunnel. Leave right now and be very quiet. Keep your staffs low and don't speak to anyone ”

“Holi and Jans, You're next. When I say go, move to Lora's warehouse and collect ten stunners each from Lora. You're going to take control of the Cathedral and its mansions. Let no one leave. Holi, you're going to continue with Jans help and secure the side gate into the Security Forces compound. Then help Lora find the crowd stunners in the headquarters building. I will give you both an update when you reach the south wall of the Cathedral.

Skirting the edge of the square the Marshal's stomach twisted as he got a whiff of the pervasive odor of excrement. Even this early in the morning some people were waiting in lines at the handful of still usable public jakes. Looking across the square, there was a small group all staring at a public vid. “Why are they watching it? They only show propaganda, and no one bothers to look at them.” His curiosity got the best of him. He moved closer and stared mesmerized as he watched Davin open the ornate door to the Sacred Chamber He pushed a wheeled crate in it and locked it behind him. In about a minute he understood what the young woman's fate was destined to be as she screamed out in agony. He turned away from the images in disgust.

Movement several blocks down the street caught his eye. A large group of bare-legged women was trotting across an intersection. “It's begun. I need a vantage point to watch without being included in the fray,” he thought. Staring at the closed vendor's stalls an idea occurred. “I could hide in plain sight.” He picked up a fist-sized rock and counted up nine stalls. Walking over he quickly slipped behind them. At the tinker's booth, he waited until one of Davin's victims screamed again. He bashed the padlock with the rock and entered. Pulling his last clean rag from a back pocket, he wiped the old oil from his face and hands. Shutters were taken down and neatly stacked. Sitting down behind the counter with his cap pulled down low he slowly started to sharpen one of the many knives in the basket.

“Okay, Holi and Jans, go. Move your groups to Lora. Collect your stunners and go to the south wall of the Cathedral. The route I have marked will keep the guards from seeing you," ordered Celeste.

“Elena, Yana, Dona, and Mora. You're all going to be holding one block short of the north side of the square. When I tell you, charge through the Security Compound gate. Lora and Holi will direct you to specific barracks. Disarm and tie up the troopers and take their stunners for yourself.”

“Colini and Tami. You wait on the east side of the square. When you see Lora's group leave you both run into the square and take control. Stun or wack into submission anyone who's a problem. There is a tall man in the square currently in a vendor's booth. Ask to see his coin if he is still there, then leave him alone. He will help you as he can.”

“Lora, you keep the remaining stunners and go to the south side of the square. Hold until Holi and Jans have the Cathedral gates secured. Split off a few of your team and have them secure the Security Forces main gate. Take the rest of your team and join Holi. Both of you go through the connecting gate. Take the headquarters building and get the crowd stunners. All of you are truly fearsome. Let's all show the Elders what women can do.”

“I gather you have had no luck with finding the crate? I have an idea.” 

“I'm listening.” 

“We are likely Davin's target. If the bomb works at all, the blast radius will be about five miles. To do any real damage to us, it has to be within two miles or closer to us. That's just a little over 12 square miles. It's not likely on the Gaian side, so that leaves us with 6 square miles. I would hide it so it would not easily be seen from the air. I would send the drones into the forest at around six feet off the ground and run a search pattern based on a radius from us. If we are not the target, it would be too easy to hide it in a building anywhere in the city, and we can't do much about that.” 

“It's a good idea, Ben, I'm doing it now.”

Lim peered around the corner and looked at the stand-alone building next to the wall. It's sturdy and windowless with a ramp leading up to a large door. A smaller door is set off to the side of the ramp. It looked forbidding and dangerous to her. Ducking her head back she turned to the five with stun guns. “Three of us are going to be one side corner and two on the other ready to fire at anyone who comes out the door. I'll check to see if the door is locked. If not, I will use my staff to push it open. We will see what happens. You three take the side that is closest, you two come with me.” 

The women silently moved into position weapons in hand. Standing off to the side of the door Lim gently pushed on the door lever, and it shifted. With staff in one hand, she pushed the door just a touch and cracking blast blew a hole in the center of spraying splinters in all directions. Lim threw herself sideways as the door slammed open and a trooper charged out looking for a target. Both collapsed unconscious.

Lim's eyes opened with a crowd of women standing over her. “What happened?” she asked slowly sitting up. One of the women gave her a lopsided grin. “Seems you got stunned in the process. We have taken the building. Come and see what we found.” Lim struggled to her feet and smiled at the sight of the tied up trooper. Inside were three more trussed up troopers next to a tractor and the Senior Elder's carriage. “They were too sick even to try using their slugthrowers. Come down into the basement.” said another woman.

On the stone basement floor was tied up soiled Elder maniacally chanting over and over. “They will see the stars and the Oneness forever.” Lim gawked at the old man and then recognized him. "Help me drag this scum outside, he stinks. Celeste, we have the Senior Elder, and there is a tunnel.”

Chapter 47 Change of plans

“Good job Lim. Was that a slug thrower I heard?  Anyone hurt?” “Yes and no Celeste. I was stunned along with the trooper but my team's carried on without me. The other troopers were too sick to do much of anything. We now have five new stunners and four slug throwers.” 

“Let's tweak things a bit Lim. Leave four women with stunners there. Take the rest through the tunnel to the Cathedral. Start in the basement and secure the broadcast center. Leave a few there with a stunner to guard it. Search the Cathedral and stun and truss anyone who is an Elder or a senior staffer. If the Senior Elder gets on your nerves give him a wack or two with your staffs to see if he will shut up, or just keep stunning him.”

Seventy women led by Lim lighting the way with her tablet worked their way through the tunnel and crowded into the small basement room. Lim cracked the door open and saw the flickering lights of monitors. They were in the broadcast center, and it was empty.

“Holi and Jans. I only see one guard at the main Cathedral gate. See if you can lure him out so the guard at the other gate can't see him. Then stun and haul him around the corner. From there quietly secure the other gate to the security compound and move both your teams inside the Cathedral walls. Hold until Lora captures the Security Forces main gate. Stun anyone who gets in your way,” said Celeste

Holi leaned over and whispered to Jans who grinned. With stunners in their pockets, they walked over to the gate and stood in front of the trooper. Bleary, bloodshot eyes looked them both over. “What are you two whores doing out in public dressed like that?” he growled putting his hand on the butt of his stunner. 

“Trooper sir. We are desperate pleasure girls. Everyone is sick, and we are so hungry. For even the smallest coin you have, we would take you around the corner, and you can have us both,” said Holi cocking her hip to one side making her short shift slide higher up on her thigh. Checking back over his shoulder he leered. 

“Okay, but let's make it quick.” Holi and Jans headed for the corner with the trooper in tow. As he turned the corner, he barely had time to register he's facing hundreds of women. Holi and Jans both pulled triggers. “Truss him up and keep him quiet,” whispered Holi to the women. 

“It worked once, Holi, do you want to try it again with the other guard?” said Jans. Holi ripped her collar on both sides and wriggled it down, so the tops of her breasts were exposed showing ample cleavage. She raised an eyebrow at Jans who copied her. They brashly walked through the cathedral gate and headed for the smaller one. Holi exaggerated her walk, and things started to jiggle. They walked right up to the frozen and open-mouthed trooper, stunned him and quickly tied him up. 

“You're going to have to teach me how to walk that way Holi,” said Jans with a smirk. 

“Celeste, we have the second gate,” said Holi. 

“Good work both of you. Jans, move both groups onto the Cathedral grounds and start searching the Elders mansions. Drag anyone you find outside into the courtyard after you tie them up,” said Celeste. Holi, take a few of your team and help Lora find the crowd stunners. Meet her at the side door of the headquarters.

Lim crouched down low with two other women at the top of the stairs and nervously peeked around the corner at the guard sitting at the reception desk. “Screw this,” she mumbled under her breath. She walked quickly over to the trooper and as he looked up her finger pulled the trigger on the stunner still in her pocket. With a blank face, his head thumped on the desk. Waving back at the stairs the room filled with women. Lim put her finger to her lips and pointed at the two long hallways. The group split and charged down them flinging open doors.

“Lora, take out the guards at the Security Compound main gate with a small group. Then head to the headquarters building's side door. Holi will meet you there,” said Celeste. 

Lora motioned to three other women, whispered a few words, and they headed for the main gate. Laughing loudly at an off-color joke Lora was telling as they passed the gate all four pulled out their stunners and the two guards fell to the cobblestones. They dragged them out of view outside the gate. Running to the side door Holi's group was already waiting. “You're almost not wearing any clothes at all Holi,” said Lora. 

“I think it's sexy, but I'll try to keep what's left on. The troopers are easily distracted. Are you ready? I'll take the front of the building?” said Holi

Lora grinned and kicked open the door. They charged in stunning everyone in sight. In under sixty seconds, all were secured and a dozen stunners are tossed into a box. Lora and Holi studied their tablets. “There are three of them about four offices down this hallway,” said Holi. “I'll go look for them.” 

Lora looked at the location of the fourth one. It is back in the corner of the building and headed off in that direction. Entering the large corner office she saw the crowd stunner sitting in the middle of the tidy desk. “It's almost like I was supposed to find it this easily,” she thought. Grabbing the stunner, she met Holi at the front door. “We have the crowd stunners, Celeste.” 

“Elena, Yana, Dona, and Jans. Go fast and hard. Find Holi and Lora by the headquarters building. Keep your teams together. Colini and Tami take control of the square,” said Celeste. Lora and Holi stood transfixed as nearly four hundred women thundered towards them with staffs raised high.

Startled by the vibration of the cobblestones the Marshal looked up and saw hoards of women converging on the Cathedral and Security Complex. More women started to flood into the square. He put his head down and warily continued to sharpen knives when he heard the commotion at the public jakes and looked up. 

A trooper wildly swung his slug thrower around screaming “Whores everywhere,” as the crowd of women converged on him. “He had to have been in the jakes for a long time, and someone is going to get killed,” he thought as he leaped over the counter and ran hard dodging through surprised women towards the jakes. 

Throwing off his cap he yelled out “Trooper, I am the Marshal, point that slug thrower at the ground immediately. That's an order. The trooper looked both very sick and disorientated he realized as he came to a halt. “Trooper where have you been? This training exercise started two hours ago," He yelled” 

The trooper seemed confused. “I wasn't feeling well Sir. I had to go to the jakes, and I must have forgotten the time,” he stammered. 

"You don't look good trooper. Holster that weapon and return to the barracks now and get some sleep,” ordered the Marshal. The trooper hesitantly put his slug thrower away. The Marshal reached behind his back and in a smooth motion pulled out his stunner and squeezed the trigger. “He's all yours,” he said to the growing crowd of women. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out his coin and placed it in the palm of his hand while turning in a circle. “This is a gift from the Captain of the starship. She said it would protect me. I am here to help you.” 

An older woman reached out and snatched up the coin. After looking at it closely, she said, “It's real, and he can use a stunner.”

Chapter 48  What's next?

“Yana,” said Lora handing her a crowd stunner. Put this on. “You do row one. Run into the first barracks and wave this at the troopers. Have one of your teams tie them up as you do the next one. Dona here's yours. Do row two, Elena does three and Mora four. Repeat until done. The first one finished does the jakes and roves for any loose troopers.”

With one good hammer strike, the lock of the first mansion failed, and the hand-carved door swung open. Jans looked in with wonder at the large foyer and its beautiful furnishings. “It's like a different world,” she said aloud walking in with her teams. “Spread out and search this palace top to bottom. I'll start upstairs, and some of you should check the basement.”

At the top of the stairs, Jans saw the two large double doors at the end of the hallway and headed that way. She walked into the huge bedroom that smelled like an unemptied chamber pot. The bed was unmade. Across the room, she spotted a piece of white cloth sticking out between the two doors of an ornately carved wardrobe. Holding her staff in both hands, she stepped over to it and bashed it hard yelling, “Come out of there now, or I'll fill you with slugs.” Backing up she pulled out her stunner and pointed it at the doors.

A blotchy hand slowly pushed the door open and Elder Franko came out still wearing his night clothes, “You're going to meet the Senior Elder's knife whip for this impudent intrusion you stupid whore. If you leave here now I might I'll spare you,” he said with a snarl. 

Jans backed up further. “Walk over to the window old man and look outside. You're not in charge anymore” said Jans waving her stunner. “The women of Eauland are now in control so watch your foul mouth.” 

Elder Franko carefully slid over to the window and looked out with dismay over the courtyard. Women were everywhere. Troopers and other Elders were laying on the ground tied up. “What do you see old man?” demanded Jans. “Do you see any of your precious troopers coming to your rescue?” 

Elder Franko turned with palms upward imploring. “I can make you rich beyond your wildest dreams if you let me go. I have a large chest of coins in my office you can have right now. I will even help you carry them,” the Elder said in a conspiring whisper. 

A woman from downstairs yelled up, “Jans, we found a close to a dozen naked women chained in the basement. We're freeing them now.” 

Jans gave the Elder a hard look. “You can't give me what is no longer belongs to you. Take off all your clothes Elder. I want you to personally experience what those women in your basement did. If you don't, I will stun you right now and personally drag you downstairs. I'll make sure to bounce your head off of each stone stair step on the way down.” The Elder slowly stepped out of his night clothes and stood nervously with head bowed down. “Now walk downstairs. I'm right behind you.” In the center of the foyer, Jans barked, “Stop old man,” and she looked around. “Who is this?” asked Jans as she saw a badly bruised and bleeding man trussed up on the floor. 

“He's the Elder's driver. He was raping one of the women while she was chained up when we found them,” said a tall scowling woman. “We didn't have a stun gun handy, so we whacked him a few extra times for good measure.”

“Outside into the courtyard Elder,” ordered Jans. Standing in the middle of the courtyard in front of a gathering crowd of women Jans loudly said, “Look around you Elder. This is the last time you will ever see this place.” Jans pulled the trigger, he sagged to the cobblestones, and she trussed the old man up. 

Lim walked over and looked down at the bound naked Elder. “They weren't exactly pretty in their robes. This one naked looks like a diseased and bloated worm. Things are under control here. Lora and Holi are at the guard gate, let's go over and see how they're doing.”

Lora gave them a huge smile as they approached. “We did it. No more Elders. No more Troopers. We are now in charge.” 

Celeste interjected, “I am so proud of all of you, but there is still so much left to do. In many ways, the tasks ahead of you will be more difficult. I'm for the moment distracted by another problem, I will make this short. In the square sitting alone on a bench is Marshal Jorn. He has already helped you this morning and is trustworthy. Find him and introduce yourselves. He has the experience you need and will assist you in dealing with your prisoners. I will give you both some tools to help you sort out the good from bad in this lot. I must go now for a short period.”

Chapter 49 A bright day

“Ben, quick, look at this,” Said Celeste, “I may have found it.” A pile of brush under a tree's canopy was displayed on the vid. The drone slid in for a closer look.

Those branches are freshly cut." Where is this?” Winding its way up through limbs, the drone shot up a hundred feet and hovered. Ben glanced at the ship in the distance.

“About one and a half miles away,” ”This is my fault, I should have done something earlier when I first heard about them. I'm angry with myself."

“It's not that far. I can double time it and see what's under the brush If it's the bomb, we'll see what options we have. What we can't do is sit here.”

“I've planned for this possibility. I have a vehicle on the lift with a trailer loaded with everything I can think of that might help.”

“I'll get there as fast as I can,” he said running off to the four-wheeled vehicle and leaping onto the seat.

Brake right foot, accelerator right-hand grip, destination programmed.”

“Understood.” He sped across the meadow, slowing only when he reached the forest. Rounding a final tree, he spotted the brush pile and skidded to a stop.

Dashing to the pile, he frantically shoved away branches and the side of a wooden crate became visible. “This is it.” More limbs were jerked away, and then he saw it. A long cylinder laying on its side in the crate with a lifting ring at one end.

Look for an access panel to get at the controls.”

“Found it,” he said twisting the recessed ring and pulling off the cover.

Both stared down at the display. Six minutes, twenty-nine seconds. Six minutes twenty-eight seconds.

"I'm synced with the timer. Try pressing the reset button."

Ben hesitantly pushed it. The small display flickered, filled with random characters, and suddenly turned black. “Something's failed. I can't reset or turn it off.”

You have to get away from there now!

Ben grabbed some line from the trailer. “I have an idea. How quickly can you get the ship here with the lift down?”

Fast, leaving now.”

Ben tied one end of the line to the explosive's lifting ring. He dumped the contents of the tool box on the ground and snatched up a knife hearing the throbbing of the engines as the ship descended.

Get out the way.”

Ben threw himself sideways as the lift smashed down through tree limbs and stopped short of the ground. Ben knotted the other end of the line on a lift tie down, jumped on, and laid down.

What are you doing? Get off the lift now. I'll haul it away.”

“You can't release it, I can. We have no other choices. 

Get off the lift now,” reverberated in his head.” “You can't survive the altitude.”

“I will if you time it right. Work the numbers. There is a way. Tell me when to cut the line, and haul me back into the ship as soon as possible when it falls. I go where you go. Remember I'm not perfect either, but we are always both more perfect when we work together. Do it right now or we both die right here.” 

The ship suddenly surged violently upwards pinning Ben in place. Screaming winds tugged at his clothes. His eyes burned and fingers stiffened as the temperatures plummeted.

Take deep breaths. Talk to me.

“What's target altitude?”

Fifty-six thousand feet. You can't go higher and survive. Keep trying to take deep breaths. I'm passing twenty-four thousand feet.” 

Ben struggled to push away the pain and stay focused on the knife.

Forty-six thousand feet. Please, please stay with me, Ben.”

“Feeling fuzzy, hurry. Ears hurt bad, so cold. Say when.”

Celeste screamed, “Cut it now.”

Ben struggled to turn his head and awkwardly sawed at the rope.

Faster, you must cut it faster.”

With a final stroke, the rope sheared, and the knife fell away from his hand. “Funny, mouth feels full of bubbles,” he thought as his eyes closed. The lift quickly retracted while the ship banked away hard still accelerating.

The world came to a stop. Blinding umber-tinted light bathed everything followed by an ear-splitting roar. In seconds, it was done leaving only an ugly, dark cloud floating high above.

In Gaia, Ungar, eating lunch with Casi and Lyn all instinctively ducked as brilliant light overwhelmed their senses. Ungar instantly knew what happened. He reached for his tablet and called out to Celeste. There was no answer. “That was the Senior Elder's legacy, an atomic mining explosive,” he said,  “I can only hope Celeste and Ben are okay.”

Chapter 50 The aftermath

Lora, Holi, Jans, and Lim walked over to the tall man sitting quietly on the bench. He handed his coin to Lora who looked at it carefully. “You must be the Marshal,” Lora said with a touch of suspicion. 

“Yes, but only recently and most reluctantly. I have lived this long under Davin's rule because I was the Quartermaster and beneath his notice. You may have noticed Marshal's usually don't live a long and happy life. I can help you with...,” A blazing light burned into their retinas as the five of them reflexively crouched downward hands trying to cover their eyes. Everyone in Eauland was frozen in place as the sound of the explosion roiled through them. The Marshal abruptly stood with a puzzled look on his face. 

“What just happened?” asked Lora looking at the Marshal. 

“I think I know, but not how or why. If you would, please come with me to the armory. I would like to check on something.” Lora gave him the slightest nod, and they followed.

“It's okay,” said Lora to armed women at the door. “The Marshal is with us.” They followed him as he went down the stairs to the corner where five crates stood side by side. 

“One is missing,” he said. 

“What are these?” asked Holi. 

“They are atomic explosives used for mining.” Looking at their blank faces, he explained, Bombs so powerful they can tear a mountain completely apart. They are left over from the olden days. I think that is what we just witnessed exploding. How one got that high the sky, I can't explain, but our visitors must have been involved. These should be destroyed, but don't know how to do so safely.” Upstairs he looked at the racks of slugthrowers and cases of ammunition and paused. “There are three racks of long slug throwers missing along with a lot of ammunition. All of these should be destroyed too. I know how to do that. Stunners are all we need for public order.” 

Celeste's face twisted as she stared down into the sterile medical cocoon studying Ben's motionless frostbitten face and hands. Reading his sensors, she made a few small adjustments to the equipment. “Tomorrow morning I'll take the bandages off and check his eyes,” Celeste thought. She reached through the glass and gently caressed Ben's blistered cheek. “I promise I will do any and everything in my power to make you better Ben.” She said aloud and forced her gaze away. 

“Ungar I'm here.” “I am most relieved to hear from you, Celeste. I'm with Casi and Lyn. If I may inquire was that the mining explosive we witnessed?” 

“Yes. We almost found it too late. Davin was trying to kill us, and a side effect was many in the outskirts of Eauland would be hurt too. Ben was injured in our efforts to get the bomb to a safe place. He should fully recover, I hope. We would like you to return with Casi as soon as possible. The women will need your help. They have taken full control of Eauland. All the Elders and troopers are secured. Marshal Jorn is assisting us with containing them. Would you please stop at the ship for on the way back and talk with me. I also have some things for you to take back to Eauland.”

“Lyn, we are going to form a new government in Eauland. Would you be willing to be Gaia's liaison to Eauland? We have several empty and comfortable homes you can use for quarters.” 

“I will have to ask the council, Celeste and will let you know as soon as possible.” 

“I'd like your border market to re-open well stocked and as quickly as possible. We have hungry people who need fresh food and thank you, Lyn, I have much to do and not enough time.”


“Yes, Celeste.” 

“Your father is on the way back to Eauland. As soon as he arrives to gather the Ten, and Marshal Jorn. We all need to meet someplace quiet. Ask the Marshal to suggest someplace. Make sure the women keep the prisoners secure. The Elders by nature are a paranoid lot. Send teams back into their palaces and look for coins and anything else of value. Search for hidden rooms and storage places. The public's vid system is now playing entertaining movies. The novelty of this will occupy Eaulanders for the moment, but it won't last. This is what we need to discuss." 

The robotic platform rolled off the lift carrying a box and stopped next to Celeste as Ungar's tractor lurched to a stop. With more agility than Celeste remembered Ungar climbed down and walked over with a concerned look on his face. “How is Ben?” 

“I hope he will be okay, but I won't know for sure until he wakes. Overthrowing the Elders was easy. Fixing Eauland will be difficult and will take more time and patience than most would believe. I'm going to make the Ten women councilors for the time being. I would like you and Marshal Jorn to be their advisors. You both will also represent the men of Eauland. We will all meet when you arrive. I have more tablets in the box along with a dozen truth pendants, a few more ear communicators and a bottle of premade Manhattans. The grey disc will let me participate in the meetings. I'll tell Lora what to do.”

As Ungar walked into the mess hall, a small microdrone flew unnoticed up to the ceiling and perched in a corner. Lora jumped up and gave her da a hug. Pulling a chair aside she placed the gray plate on the floor and Celeste appeared sitting in a chair with long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. 

“Good afternoon and congratulations women. I'm so proud of all of you, but the hard work starts now. I think the first priority is to have the Marshal put together a plan to...”

The woman standing over Davin was slammed to the ground blood spraying from her back. Five troopers laying down a withering barrage of fire troopers emerged from the woods across the road. A stunner poked out from the side of the door, and a trooper fell to the ground before a slug shattered it. The woman stared at her bleeding hand. “Tunnel now,” she yelled and ran for the stairs with the two other women close behind her.

Two men trotted up to the Senior Elder, cut his ties and carried him off to the side. The others warily entered the building and freed the other troopers. The large door opened. Surrounded by a black cloud of oily smoke the tractor pulling the Senior Elder's carriage pulled out, and he was pushed inside. A second tractor appeared a minute later hauling a trailer filled with crates. The men jumped aboard, and both tractors started down the road and turned into the woods heading towards Gaia.

The Marshal jumped to his feet. “Those were long slug throwers, and it sounded like it came from the other side of the wall behind the cathedral.”

Lim ran out yelling out for help heading for the Cathedral tunnel. The microdrone flew out behind her and climbed towards the wall. Celeste saw the two tractors turn into the woods and then hovered the little drone over the woman lying in the grass. She was still alive but bleeding badly.

 “Lim, it's now safe, but you have an injured woman. When you get there use rags or your shifts as compresses and try to slow the bleeding if need be. I'm getting you some help."

Celeste stood with a pensive look. "Bad news. Davin has unfortunately escaped with help from some troopers. A young woman was shot in the process." "The Senior Elder's carriage along with another tractor pulling a trailer full of crates and about a dozen armed troopers turned into the woods heading towards Gaia. I'm going to transport the woman to my ship to see what I can do to help her."

"Marshal Jorn, Ungar and the rest of you, please stay here and continue. "I think it's imperative to get the markets open, the bank functioning and people back to work. We need patrols in the city to keep order. I would suggest you break up into committees and start delegating tasks. You might also consider a new law. No man may touch a woman or tell her how to dress, look or act without her permission. Make a second one that says the same thing for men. I think the new civic patrols should also work hard at not antagonizing the populace. There are twelve truth pendants. Ungar can show you how they work. They will be useful for helping you sort people out. Think about what to do about Davin, and I'll do the same. Let's meet again in the morning. Let me know when you're ready. I must leave now and help the young woman."

The ship's lift hit the ground, and an electric vehicle pulling a trailer rolled off accelerating towards the road as a drone lifted off its trailer bed and with a high pitch whine climbed off towards the city.

Chapter 51 Davin's revenge

Lim, with several others, ran up to the woman lying in the grass on her back moaning and struggling to breathe. A drone dropped two packages, hovered above the woman for a few seconds and then rose up to watch. 

"Lim, you have to carefully rip or move her shift away from the wound. Then open one of the packages." Lim carefully tore the shift away. "It doesn't look that big or bad Celeste."

"It's the entry wound, her back will be worse. Take the med pack and place it on top of the wound with the green side down and gently press it in place. Then roll her over." Lim placed it, motioned for some help, and several women dropped to their knees next to her. They gently rolled her over and gapped at the large wound. One paled and crawled away throwing up. "Lim, do the same again with the second package right now!" Lim grabbed the blood-soaked shift and ripped it back. The second medical pack was placed over the wound and pressed into place. The woman's moans slowly subsided, and her breathing seemed less labored.

"What's her name, Lim?" 

"It's Bela, will she live?" "I hope so, but she is badly injured. The medical packs are stabilizing her, but we need to get her to my ship as soon as possible," said Celeste as the electric vehicle pulled up next to them. "Four of you need to carefully pick Bela up and set her in the trailer lying on her side." Lim pointed at three, and they lifted her, and awkwardly slid her on the trailer. "All of you help keep her in place." The vehicle turned and reaching the road picked up speed.

The women stared at the ship as the vehicle broke out into the meadow. "I had heard about it but had no idea it was this huge," Lim said in awe. 

"Lim, you and the women please stay on the trailer." They rolled onto the lift, and it immediately retracted. "Please quickly pick up Bela and place her on this table face down, we don't have much time," ordered Celeste. The women gently lifted Bela and placed her on the table, and looked at Celeste questioningly. "You must go now, and Bela thanks you. Please get on the trailer, it will take you back. Lim, I will tell you what her status is in a while." She watched for a few seconds as the lift descended and turned back to Bela. A robotic arm extended pausing at the exit wound briefly to remove the medical pack. Celeste sighed and went to work.

Ungar looked over at the empty spot where Celeste was and then listened to the many conversations bouncing around the table. He stood. The group quieted down and became silent. "If I may impose, I have some thoughts," He said "There are important issues that have to be dealt with, and this will require some discipline and organization. The ten of you are now the rulers of Eauland and now make up the council. One of you needs to be in charge. I propose Lora be the Head Counselor for the time being. Do any disagree?" None did.

"Good, that's settled. There is much to be done, and most will take time to accomplish. There are a few things that need to be done immediately. Lora, you must make a speech to the public and explain what has happened. I would suggest that all of us here stand behind you when this happens. It can be shown live on the vid system, and we should do it tomorrow sometime in the late afternoon. I think that everyone in Eauland wages should be doubled. There is more than enough wealth to do this, and it will please everyone. We want people to go back to work and life to go on better than it was. The ten of you have all done an extraordinary thing, and you should all be proud. It is late in the day. We should meet again early in the morning. "You know there are seven empty mansions next door with plenty of bedrooms. I suggest you use them rather than your normal quarters. You will be closer to your new jobs, and I suspect more comfortable."

Unger joined the Marshal, "Have you ever had a Manhatten?" The Marshal looked puzzled. "It's a new drink, and Celeste gave me a bottle. Why don't we see if you can find an open eatery and we can sample it? I think tomorrow will be busy and this would be a good way to end the day. 

The Marshal grinned, "Who could resist a drink that came from the stars.

Chapter 52 It's real work

"She's a lucky woman twice today," thought Celeste looking at Bela still unconscious in the cabin's bed. "She got here just in time, and I fixed the bad heart valve that would have shortened her life. There is little medical care here. We need to add to the list."

"Lim, are you available?" asked Celeste. 

"I'm here, how is Bela?" 

"She will be fine but needs to stay here and rest for a few days. You did a good job of responding quickly, and it made a big difference. I'll let you know when she can leave." 

"Thank you, Celeste. We all owe you so much." "

You're welcome Lim; we will talk again soon."

"Now where did Davin go?" mused Celeste studying the mapping data. "Those troopers came from someplace, and Davin is a planner." A cone projected from the map into the woods where the tractor's turned. Four caves and one structure lit up. "Genetic seed storage vault from the old days. Old maps are showing there was once a road to it. I'll send a drone while I still have good light and take a closer look. I should see if Lyn is available," commanding her tablet to start blinking.

The drone quietly wound its way through the trees and stopped as soon as Celeste spotted the building through the branches. "That's odd," she thought. "The further you get from the building the taller the vegetation becomes." Taking another look at her aerial images she noticed the taller trees formed a rough rectangle with a jet black building sitting in the center of it. 

The drone moved into the clearing to the building's front. Celeste studied large loading door and the smaller sturdy metal personnel door with three push buttons set off to the side. "Mechanical combo lock, enough to keep casual visitors from getting in," she thought," as the drone rose above the roof. She noted the solar panels and saw a shiny black spot on the ground. The drone dropped and hovered close over the spot and debris was blown back enlarging the black area. "Ceramic foam insulation," she realized. "This was why my radar couldn't see below. This building is mostly underground and large," and then saw the fresh tractor tracks. "It has to be one of Davin's tractor's, but why here?" The drone's downdraft scattered leaves back over the open area then shot straight up and headed towards the four caves to take a quick look. In the fading light, none looked viable as a hideout. "I'm missing something here. The Senior Elder likes his creature comforts, and he won't camp out for long."

Lyn's face popped up on the vid. "Hi Celeste, how can I help?" 

"We have a problem. Davin escaped with what appears to be about a dozen heavily armed troopers and fled into the woods heading towards Gaia. The Gaian Council needs to be aware he might be hiding in the forests there and is dangerous and desperate. I'm still looking for him. What do you know about the seed storage vault?"

"Not much to be honest, I have never seen it. I know it's one of the oldest buildings in Gaia dating back to the very beginnings. I can look in the Chronicles to see if there are any references for it. I'll also check with some of the older Crop Masters. Why do you need to know?

"I found fresh tractor tracks there, and I think one of Davin's tractors made them. I don't know what they were doing there, and I'm concerned about it. The building appears to be locked and if the combination exists it could be useful. Give me some notice in the morning. I'll send you transportation with a trailer for your luggage. Keep your tablet close so we can talk. Thanks, Lyn. I'll talk to you tomorrow.

"I'm not going to underestimate Davin this time. I'll put a microdrone where I can watch that building and do a drone sweep tonight looking for heat signatures in that area. I need to finish the dresses for the Ten." 

Celeste changed into red pajamas, paused and switched to the blue silk ones that always made Ben's heart rate increase. She checked on Bela, and then again Ben. Reaching down her finger gently traced his blistered lips. "I hope to wake him tomorrow if things look good," she thought. I need to rest. Without thinking she went to Ben's cabin, laid down in his bed and ever so slowly closed her eyes. Later that night a drone swooped down, and a microdrone flew out and perched high on a branch overlooking the black building. It started to record.

it was early when Celeste noted Lora's message and appeared at the morning meeting. Everyone was silent. Smiling Celeste looked at Lora and raised an eyebrow.

Looking a bit surprised Lora started off, "I wrote a short speech last night. I think it says all the right things. How do I turn it into a vid Celeste?

"Honorable Head Counselor, I would suggest the group gathers in front of your old quarters and bring your staffs. I made new shifts that reflect your new positions. It would be good if the Marshal was in his formal uniform and Ungar should be well dressed also. I will use a drone to film you and play it on the public vid. We can do this shortly after the noon meal. Lyn is bringing your shifts, and she will need quarters. I think one of the Elders mansions would be a good option." Celeste leaned back and looked expectantly at Lora. "Go, Lora. Take charge. It's your world to make now," she thought.

"I can arrange for Lyn's quarters for you if you wish," said Ungar."

Lora nodded yes and looked down at her notes. 

"Holi would you put some teams together and give each mansion a thorough search for coins and anything else of value? Look for hidden rooms and start with the mansion Lyn will stay at first." 

Holi pushed back and stood, "I'll start right now."

"Marshal Jorn, what are we going to do with the troopers and when can civic patrols begin again?" asked Lora.

The ship's lift lowered. The electric vehicle and trailer rolled off and silently headed towards Gaia. Lyn's tablet began blinking. "Good morning Celeste, I did get a little information about the seed storage vault. It is ancient. It originally stored the seed stocks brought from Earth when Pastoral was first settled by the Gaian's. This was the original source for the trees and most crops including the seed. It hasn't been used in generations. The road to it was swallowed by the forest long ago, and if you didn't have a map, it would be difficult to find. One of the Crop Masters told me her Grandsire said, "The way in was golden." I don't know what that means, but it's all I know." 

Celeste smiled, "Thanks Lyn, that helps. I have your transport in route. I'll call you when it arrives."

Chapter 53 New starts

With a thud, the heavy bag of coins slipped out of Tomac's sweating hand and smacked the road. "These coins are heavy. I have to take a break for a few moments."

"Okay, but just for a few," said Zeleck with relief setting his bag of coins down. 

"We're almost there. This is better than being in camp eating cold food and listening to the Senior Elder screeching about what he's going to do to that whore from the stars. At least at the mines, for one day there are a few pleasure girls, hot food and brandy. Pick your bag and let's go. We have to start back tomorrow."

Everyone gawked at the driverless vehicle as it silently passed through the square, turned down a lane and came to a stop in front of a small white bungalow. "Good morning Lyn, your transportation is outside when you're ready."

Lyn stepped out the door wearing a bright red shift and studied the vehicle. "Celeste, where is the driver?"

"I'm the driver. There's a camera in the front so I can see where I'm going. Lyn grinned and disappeared inside. Carrying two large cloth bags, she wobbled out, pushed a plastic bin to the side, hefted them into the trailer and went back for more. 

Carrying out the last bag Lyn locked the door. "I guess I sit on the seat in the front?"

"Yes, and you will drive it. Look down at the pedal on the floor near your right foot. That's the brake. Pushing it down on it stops you. The right-hand grip when twisted towards you makes you go forward. The other direction is backward. If you let go of the grip, you will stop. Give it a try. Slowly at first is best."

The hand grip moved fractionally, and the vehicle moved forward. Lyn's hand carefully twisted the grip in other direction and backed up a short distance. With a look of fierce determination, Lyn slowly steered the vehicle down the lane. "I think I'm the first woman here in centuries who has ever driven anything. It's fun," said Lyn as the speed increased.

Don't have too much fun, Lyn. You don't want to be the first woman to have an accident either." Waving at friends and chased by children she headed off to the starship.

Lyn slowed to stop and walked over to Celeste who seemed distracted. "Are you okay?"  

"Sort of. The Senior Elder is still loose, and I won't be happy until I find and contain him. In the plastic bin is a small box with three small balls. One is yours, and the others are for Marshal Jorn and Ungar. Take one and stick it in your ear. Good, can you hear me, Lyn?"

"Yes, this is amazing."

"It's easier to use than the tablets. All you have to do is to say another user's name, and it will connect you to them. Since you don't know the way, I'll drive for you. Lora is the new Head Counselor and will be giving a short speech today. It would be good if you took part. Ungar or someone there will get you settled when you arrive and thank you. Eauland will be an eye-opening experience. There are also new shifts in a bin for the ten women. They have tags inside with their names, and a gift for Ungar."

Four sweating women laboriously dragged the wooden crate of coins out the front door and over to the trailer. Several others joined in to help lift it up and slide it in with the others. 

"Such immense wealth with no purpose other than to have it," said Ungar watching the pile grow.

"I'm going to store them in the armory for the time being along with the slug throwers they found. This is the just first mansion Holi's crew has done, and it's taken all morning. Transport Elder Nitz's wasn't the richest by far I suspect," said Marshal Jorn.

Lyn looked with dismay at the mostly windowless grey stone buildings as she entered the outskirts of Veneration. "Celeste, this is the ugliest and most depressing place I have ever seen. Is any of it nice?"

"Some places are better than others, but most of it is dreary. I think this will change quickly as conditions change for the better. We are getting close to the city center where your quarters are. They won't be so depressing." A few minutes later they passed through the Cathedral gates much to the surprise of two startled women with stunners standing guard and stopped next to Ungar and Marshal Jorn. Lyn gracefully hopped off the seat and joined them.

"Lyn, Welcome to Eauland, such as it is, said Ungar with a big smile "It's nice to see you again and Casi sends her regards. I'd like you to meet Marshal Jorn. He has been of great assistance to us.

Lyn eyed the handsome tall man wearing his full dress uniform and smiled. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Marshal.  Do you always dress this way?"

"No, madam. It was suggested that I look official for Lora's announcement," he said with a touch of embarrassment. "I would prefer being more comfortable, but I do what is required for the occasion." 

Your quarters are almost ready for you," said Ungar pointing at the mansion.

Lyn stared at the building. "Is this a guest hostel for visitors?"

"No, it's a single residence."

Lyn looked more closely at the immense structure. "This is just for one person? You could put ten of my bungalows into it."

"The Elders lived a lavish life on the backs of the people here. Think of this as your offices with lots of meeting space and only part of it is your quarters." Most here have more modest dwellings."

Lyn shook her head slowly, then brightened. Opening the bin in the trailer, she grabbed the small box and handed it to Ungar. "This is from Celeste for both you and the Marshal."

Ungar looked at the two small round balls with a puzzled look.

Lyn turned and pointed to her ear. "They are communicators. Just press it in, say someone's name who has one and you will be connected to them."

Ungar stuck the ball in his ear. "Lyn, can you hear me?"

"Yes I can, but I'm also right here." Lyn took out the stack of shifts. "These are for the women," and handed Ungar a bottle. "Celeste said this is for you." Ungar opened the bottle sniffed and grinned.

Ungar looked around, spotted Holi and waved her over. Holi, meet Lyn. She is the Gaian liaison and will be using the former Nitz mansion. Holi stared down at her torn black shift and then at Lyn's bright red clothes with envy. 

"Hi," said Holi smiling shyly. Lyn handed her the stack of shifts. Celeste made these for you. She said they are marked."

Holi took the top one and unfolded it and held it up to herself. Looking down at the iridescent fabric with a golden hem she was quiet for a moment. "Celeste?"

"Yes, Holi."

"The shifts are beautiful. Thank you. I've never owned anything this nice."

"You're welcome Holi, you have all earned it. Each of you has one, and there is a tag inside with the name of each of you. You are all Councilors now and need to look the part."

Holi looked at the shifts, then at Lyn. "It was nice to meet you Lyn, but I have to put mine on." Holi held the bundle tight to her chest and dashed off to find the others.

The Marshal straightened up. I have arranged for two carriages to get everyone to Lora's announcement in about an hour. "In the meantime may I help you carry your bags in."

Lyn grinned. "That would be nice Marshal, and maybe you could show me around the place at the same time."

The carriages stopped in front of a bleak grey building, and the group piled out. Lyn looked confused. "We are doing the announcement here?" she asked.

"This is where I lived," said Lora quietly. "Celeste thought this would be a familiar backdrop for most Eaulander's."

"I'm so sorry Lora, I didn't mean to offend, I have much to learn about Eauland."

The drone dropped from the sky and hovered above the street. "Lora, you stand in front surrounded by the Ten. Ungar, you're on the right of them and Marshal Jorn you are on the left with Lyn in front of you," said Celeste. The droned shift a bit and stopped. "Okay everybody smile, it's a good day. Okay Lora, go."

"Good people of Eauland. My name is Lora. As of this morning, I am the provisional Head Councilor of Eauland. The Elders no longer are in charge and have all been captured except for the Senior Elder who is in hiding. I promise we will find and punish him. The false religion of the Oneness used to keep a few old men rich and in power is gone. There was no sacred book. The brutal troopers who served them are imprisoned. Shortly a new government will be formed with everyone participating. It is a new day for all of us. What do the citizens for Eauland gain? Starting today all will have more freedom and their wages doubled. The first act of the Council is these two edicts. No man may touch a woman, tell her how to dress, look or act without her permission. No woman may touch a man or tell him how to dress, look or act without his permission. For the first time in Eauland's history, men and women are equal in all things. Go back to work and live your lives. All of us will work hard together to make a better future. Thank you."

As the carriages passed back through the square, the public vids were playing the announcement to growing crowds.

"Well that went okay for the time being, but I suspect there will be challenges ahead," said Ungar to Lyn and Marshal Jorn. Holding up the bottle he asked Lyn. "Have you ever had a Manhatten? It's a wonderful drink from the stars."

"No, but I'm willing to try it."

"I know a small eatery, join us, and we will see if we can finish the bottle."

Chapter 54 Open eyes

Ben's dreams randomly drifted in from the darkness, fragmented into shards and were forgotten, but one persisted. The comforting feel of a warm caress on his cheek. Hearing his name being called from afar his eyes slowly cracked open seeing blue. The light dimmed as Celeste leaned over him with a concerned look. "Ben, please hold still for a moment while I shut down some equipment."

"Did the..?"

"Yes, you cut it in time. It exploded high enough. No one was hurt but you. You have been in the med cocoon for two days. How do you feel?"

"I'm not sure yet, sort of sunburnt."

"I can believe that. Your face and hands suffered from a mix of wind and sunburn with a dash of frostbite. You were exposed, to temperatures of -80 degrees. It was your lungs, eyes, and ears I was most worried about, but you should be fine in a couple more days. I'll lower the sides and let's see if you can stand up."

Wincing Ben stood. "I've felt better, but I think I'll live," he said putting on a robe. "The last thing I remember is being icy cold and cutting the rope. After that, there was only the dream."

"What dream?"

"A warm, soft hand was gently caressing my cheek.

Celeste's eyes widen. "Ben, would you close your eyes for a minute." Celeste reached up and gently put her hand on Ben's cheek. Ben automatically put his hand over hers. "Can you truly feel me?" Celeste asked with an anxious look on her face.

"Yes, in a way. I know your hand is on my cheek and I feel your warmth. It's a nice feeling Celeste." Ben opened his eyes. The corners of Celeste's eyes were wet. "Are you alright? I've always been able to sense when you're near me even when I'm sleeping."

"It's just...,"

"Just what?" asked Ben still keeping his hand on hers.

"I didn't believe it was possible. Arthur told me he could feel me too. He was near his end. Dementia had clouded his mind, and I didn't believe him. I do now and thank you for that gift." They stood quietly close together for another moment when Celeste awkwardly pulled her hand away and stepped back, "We have things to do, and you have missed much. You also need to eat, and I'll fill you in."

Celeste briefly paused in front of the cabin, held her finger to her lips and whispered, "This is Bela. She was shot by a trooper when the Senior Elder escaped. She needs to rest. Let's go to the salon, I made you breakfast, and we can talk."

Ben eased onto the couch and slowly ate his breakfast as Celeste played vid recordings and brought Ben up to date. "I'm not going to underestimate Davin again. He is extremely dangerous, unhinged and highly motivated." Celeste clenched her fists in frustration, "I just can't find him. He is smart enough to be aware of our technology, and the forest is too thick. He could hide the tractors under trees and cover them with branches and build a shelter for the men the same way. If they aren't cooking, there will not be much of an infrared signature to spot. This is what they did with the mining bomb. I've been collecting video footage twice a day from the building, and so far there is no activity.

"Can you show me the footage of the black building again?" As the drone rose above the roof. "Freeze it there. What kind of conditions are required to store seeds?" asked Ben.

"They weren't storing them long term, just cool with low humidity. The ceramic foam is an excellent insulator. My guess is the solar panels provide power for lights and a dehumidifier system."  

"Where do you think the water that is collected goes? I don't see a vent or radiator either. A dehumidifier will make heat that needs to be removed from the building."

Celeste pursed her lips for a second, and the aerial photo for the building appeared. I don't know. It might be there under the overgrowth, and we can't see it. As for the excess water, I have no idea."

"Do you think there is drinkable water available inside the building?"

"I suspect there is some from the dehumidifiers."

"It seems to be a poor place for Davin to hid out. If he is inside the simple solution would be to weld the doors shut from the outside and leave him there, maybe forever." 

Celeste looked at Ben with dead eyes, "I don't disagree."

"We want two glasses of your best brandy," said Tomac to the sullen older serving woman. Looking around at the tired miners and a couple pleasure girls all sitting at rough tables he said in a louder voice, "and for the next two hours I'll buy everyone here all of the good brandy they can drink." Dropping coins in the woman's hand, he said, "Do a good job and you will be paid well." Her hand closed tightly on the coins, and she hurried off.

"What do we do now?" asked Zellick.

"We wait and don't drink too much brandy. It won't take long to fill this place," nodding towards the two men hurriedly slipping out the door.

Within an hour the place was packed to overflowing with miners, and grim silence had become a brandy infused din. Tomac leaned in towards Zellick, "Take some coins and buy all the food that will travel and can be carried by thirty men and get it outside. Better more than less and have it packed in bags for travel. Tomac watched Zellick leave and gripping his two bags of coins climbed up on his table and cleared his throat.

The crowd quieted down. Tomack looked down at the patrons. "I'm looking to hire good men to be troopers for thirty days to work on a special assignment. I will pay each man fifty small coins now, and another fifty in thirty days. This is over three times the yearly pay you make now as miners. Do well, and in a few weeks, you will be back home rich with all your coins. I'm going to go outside and if you're interested come and talk to me." Tomac jumped off the table with the clink of the coins audible, walked out the door and several men immediately followed.

Tomac looked the swarthy man over. "What's your name?"


"You'll do. It's a day and a half walk to camp. Go get a sleeping blanket, return and I'll count out your coins. Who's next." 

Zellick unloaded the last cart filled with bags. "I got bread of all types and dried salted meat. I've bought all there is." Zellick nodded. Turning to the group, he yelled out, "Take as many bags of food as you can carry and follow me. We will be walking on the edge of the woods."

Chapter 55 Figuring it out

"It's been a long morning," thought the Marshal. He waved his hand, and the next trooper was brought over stood before him. He studied the roster for a few seconds and looked up, "It's Sims isn't it."

"Yes, Sir."

"You're aware the Elders are no longer in control, and there is a new government."

"Yes, Sir."

"Do you also know that for the time being the government is now run by women?"

"Yes, Sir."

"Can you do your job as a trooper and faithfully serve the new government with women in charge?"

"Yes, Sir."

The Marshal felt the vibration and smiled. "Thank you Trooper Sims, you may leave through the door to your right and return to the barracks.

The trooper smartly wheeled around and with a smirk on his face walked through the door. He barely had time to register the woman standing there pulling the stunner's trigger. Two other women quickly trussed him, and he was dragged outside and left on the already nearly full trailer. With a sigh, the Marshall looked at the tally sheet, "I'm going to lose about sixty percent of them," he figured. "It could be worse, but what am I going to do with them? It's not their fault they became this way, but they are dangerous nevertheless."

Holi noticed the woman furtively sneaking looks at her new shift with noticeable envy and felt embarrassed. "We need to do something about this." "Ungar?"

"Yes, Councilor Holi. How can I help you."

"Where do our clothes come from?"

"We order the fabric from the Gaians at the weekly border market. They weave it from yarns spun from the stems of the seed plants and dye it. We have a small factory that cuts and sews them together. It costs about two large coins for the fabric and one large coin to sew a woman's shift."

"Why do we pay ten large coins for them?"

"The price was set by the Elders. They kept the profits for themselves."

"Why is the border market only open one day a week?"

"The Elder's wanted it that way. They thought the less contact Eaulander's had with Gaians, the better for them and this is why no women were every allow to go. You and the Council now have the authority to change this, that is if the Gaian's will agree to it."

"Thank you, Ungar."

"Lyn do you have a moment?"

"Yes Councilor Holi, what do you need?

"I want to buy fabric so the women here can wear something different. Ungar said the fabric costs two large coins for a shift."

"That sounds about right for that fabric. It is coarsest we make with the cheapest dye. The Elder's grudgingly paid as little as possible for women's clothes. Most other fabrics cost more. It depends on the quality of the weave, and some colors are more expensive than others. If you would like I could go with you and the other Councilors to the next market and introduce you to the weavers and the other vendors."

"Thank you, I would like that Lyn, I have a lot to learn."

"You're welcome Holi. I can tell you that the learning never stops, but the more you know, the better off you are."

The stout woman's staff whipped out making a resounding smack on the backside of an Elder wearing a woman's black shift as she yelled, "You're dressed like a woman, now work as hard as one. I want these public jakes to be as clean as the ones in your mansions that you made women clean for you."

Lim chuckled as she watched, "I know the Elder's think they don't deserve this, but I could give them a head start and let these women chase after them to see who gets the first whack and the second." 

"Justice, tastes good," said Colini, "It's satisfying seeing those that preach lies reap their rewards. The problem is we have to protect them. If we turned them loose, they wouldn't last a day." Colini saw the odd motion out of the corner of her eye and looked down. Lim, why is your pocket moving?"

Lim reddened and sheepishly reached into her pocket and pulled the small furry animal out of her pocket and cradled it in her arms. Two tiny eyes on stalks cautiously emerged from its fur and eyed Colini. "What is that thing? It looks like a ball covered with long hair.

"I found it in the woods when it was a baby. I think it lost its mother and it was so cute and lonely looking I took it home. I've kept it hidden because the troopers would take it away if they saw it, but now I don't have to hide it. It eats sugar, or at least it's the only thing I have found so far, and it seems fine with that. Do you want to touch it? It's so soft."

Colini slowly reached over and gently stroked it.  Eye stalks extended and rubbed against her hand, and a squeak came from somewhere deep in the fur. "It's so soft and warm. How does it move?"

"It has a bunch of legs, There is so much fur not sure exactly how many. It follows me everywhere. I named it Lucky because I was lucky when I found him or her. I can't really tell which and it doesn't matter to me.

Ungar was flabbergasted by the massive pile of coins on the floor of the armory, and the stacks of wooden boxes yet to be added to it. "This is many generations of accumulated wealth," he thought. "There are too many of them to actually count them by hand," said Lora proudly showing him the scales. We're sorting them by size. Most don't know numbers, so I helped them count out a thousand of each coin type, and we weighed them in a bag. Now all they have to do is fill the bags until they weigh the right amount. It's not perfect but close enough to have a good feel for how much we have. We can make everyone in Eauland rich."

Ungar gently pulled Lora off to the side, "You can't make everyone rich. Who will do the necessary things that have to be done each day? Baking bread, fixing tractors and keeping the power plant running."

Lora's face twisted in disappointment, "But we have all of these coins. How can we use them to help?"

"You use them to build better quarters for all. This creates more work. You increase wages, but not too quickly or things will end up costing more. Give workers one or two days off a week to do what they wish. Create nice parks, and make tractor transportation free. These coins can be used to help all."

Lora looked over at the coins being counted and turned back to her father, "How about building schools for women? Ungar beamed with pride at his daughter, "Yes, now you understand. Give them the tools so they can help themselves."

Chapter 56 The hostages

The Sarg bruskly pointed. Pairs of troopers crept out of the woods and surrounded the tiny hamlet just after sunset. Boots kicked doors open, any men found immediately shot, and hysterical screaming pierced the early evening. Women and children were roughly herded into the small common area. It had taken less than ten minutes, and the operation was almost flawless. One trooper was badly burned when a startled woman threw a pot of boiling oil in his face, and the small family fled towards the woods. "Let them go," yelled the Sargent at the troopers who started off after them. We need a few survivors.

The tractor and trailer pulled up, and the Sargent sorted the women. "Take her, she's old enough. Too young, no maybe not, she goes also. This one will do. I want her for myself pointing at a barely teenage girl. Take all the old ones, we have a use for them." Four troopers jumped on the trailer full of terrified women. Grabbing a young woman from behind a trooper jammed a slug thrower barrel against her head, "Any of you move an inch, or make any noise, and you will be soaked in her brains." 

Deliver them and get back here as fast as you can," ordered the Sargent. Looking at the rest of his men he said, "You know what to do, get at it, and get these brats away from here and watch them."

Systematically looting began. Piles of food, pots, clothes, bedding, lamps, and oil quickly grew. The tractor returned and its trailer loaded to the brim. "Burn the place," ordered the Sargent. Watching the flames light up the night the Sargent jumped on the trailer. "Leave the brats and follow on foot."

Sali choked back her tears as the tractor, her mother, and horrible men left realizing at ten she was the oldest woman left." Seeing the flames rise even higher she thought, "All these children can't stay here alone tonight."  Resolutely she picked up a young child and parked him on her hip.  Wiping tears away she called out, "Those that can carry a young one do it and follow me. We are all walking to the next village for help,"

With a soft moan, Lyn's eyes painfully opened and out of slits saw a faint blinking reflecting off the ceiling along with hearing an insistent beeping tried to close them again. Reaching up to hold her head, she reminded herself, "I've got to learn that brandy is much stronger than wine." Groaning she slowly sat up in and saw a pair of feet sticking out of the sheets at the foot of the bed and froze. Following them upwards she saw Marshal Jorn passed out next to her and pieces of the night's activities starting with dinner flooded back into her memory. The floor was strewn with clothes including hers. Pulling the sheets up to her neck she grabbed the tablet and turned it on. 

Seeing the faces of Celeste, Ben, and Sisi peering out she blushed for a moment and then realized something must be wrong and furtively pinched Jorn. 

"We have a real problem, Lyn," said Sisi. A group of children led by a young girl from Bounty walked into a neighboring village in the dark a few hours ago. Their hamlet appears to have been attacked by Eaulander troopers who killed the men and took the women. They looted it and set it on fire. We have been trying to reach you and Marshall Jorn for a while now." 

"You found both of us," said Lyn who turned the tablet towards a touseled and embarrassed looking Jorn. 

My drone is approaching Bounty, you're watching the camera view." said Celeste. Lyn's stomach lurched as the drone's camera view swept down and hovered over the smoldering remains of Bounty, and then slowly circled the carnage. "Here is some more vid footage I just uploaded everyone needs to see."

A single headlight reflected off the black building as the tractor and trailer jerked to a stop. A trooper jumped off, punched in a code and opened the door bathing the area in dim yellowish light. The women were roughly herded through the door, and the tractor turned around and left. The tractor returned with looted goods followed by a large group of men on foot. It was unloaded again and left. Another tractor appeared hauling a carriage and stopped in front of the door. Two troopers exited, and Davin stepped out. He peered out into the quiet darkness for a few seconds with a satisfied look then waved at the driver who left. Davin punched in the code, entered the building and pulled the door closed.

Marshall Jorn broke the silence, "I only have eleven troopers missing from the roster. Davin seems to have acquired more men, and there are enough slug throwers and ammunition missing to arm them."

Ben jumped in, "Celeste if we know the time it took from when the tractor and trailer left and Davin showed up we could figure out about how far away is their hiding place."

Celeste held her hand out palm up for quiet, "Davin wants something. The women are hostages to ensure he gets what he wants. He is deranged and will kill all those women if he thinks it will help him. I counted twenty-four, and they are at great risk. He does nothing without a plan and we shouldn't either.  Sisi, in the short run could you have your people search your Chronicles for any more information about this building? Even small details might be important."

"Yes, I'll have a team start work on it immediately. I have sent a small group to Bounty to take a closer look at what happened. They should be there by first light and If we find anything I'll let you know."

Marshal Jorn, would you and Lyn you start thinking about what resources we collectively have that might help?

"Yes," they chorused back and the call ended.

Celeste slumped back and closed her eyes for a few minutes while Ben sat quietly with her. "You know this isn't your fault. It's remarkable how much has happened with so little hurt."

"I know. I have run the probabilities endlessly, but it doesn't still make me feel any better. He left survivors for a reason and knows I will find him. The fact he didn't post a guard outside means Davin is confident in his situation. My question is what does Davin want? His question is how much do I know and what is the extent of my capabilities? I think some housekeeping around this building is a place to start getting some information.

Feeling the slight shudder as the lift descended, Ben saw Celeste's determined look. "I'm going to use my armed transport drone's downdraft to blow the leaves and vegetation away from the building. The building is heavily insulated, and this won't make much noise. We'll be able to see what we have to deal with, and it should give Davin something to think about in the morning.

Ben looked up as the vid turned on showing a view of the forest below passing by. The drone halted and a spotlight brilliantly illuminated the building. The oversized drone lowered to a corner, tipped a few degrees and started to move. Leaves cascaded away while its laser fired cutting roots creating a swirling smokey haze. In twenty minutes the job was done, and the drone rose high enough to see. Where once the place looked like the forest floor, it now was a massive shiny black flat expanse surrounding the small entrance structure. 

Ben looked over and saw Celeste slump back and closed her eyes. Ben stood and stuck his hand out. "That was both a creative and remarkable feat. Park that drone someplace near and safe, take my hand, and let's go back to bed. It will be light in a couple of hours, and we both need rest. Ben felt her hand curl around his, and he led her to her cabin and said, "good night."

Chapter 57 A message

Bella, curled up in the chair wearing a short light blue shift, was slowly sipping a cup of soup with both hands listening to Celeste when Ben walked in. Grabbing a cafe and a sweet roll he smiled and sat with Celeste. "The bandage pads will release by themselves when the healing is done. Don't try to remove them by yourself. For the next two weeks don't do anything strenuous. No picking up heavy things, and eat a lot. I have a bag of coins on the counter for you to buy good food. You'll need the energy. Ben, could you please drive Bella into Eauland? I have the trailer loaded outside with cases of tablets, and some other things for the Ten. It would also be a chance for both of us to take a closer look at the place and see if we can come up ideas on how to help them improve it."

Ben grinned, "Sure, I'd love to see the place in person." Nodding at Bella, "Are you ready?" 

Bella carefully stood, "Thank you so much, Celeste, I don't remember much about what happened, but I don't think I would have survived without your help."

You're welcome Bella, have a good trip back. There are many there who will be glad to see you."

Bella followed Ben down the ramp and carefully climbed into the seat. "Put your arms around my waist, and hold on," said Ben as the vehicle silently accelerated and headed towards the city.

Celeste intently studied the video. The old woman wearing a sign around her neck was brutally shoved through the door sprawling face first on the black floor. Two troopers followed and jerked to a stop as they looked around. One dashed back inside yelling. Heavily armed men swarmed out boots echoing on the empty black expanse and nervously peered into the silent woods. Flanked by two troopers, Davin yelled out from the cover of the door, "If I'm hurt my troopers will slaughter every single woman inside."

He slowly walked over to the edge, studied the perfectly straight lines that now separated the forest from the building and knew. He motioned to the troopers who warily retreated back into the building weapons still aimed towards the woods. He turned, pointed at the old woman and disappeared through the door. The two troopers grabbed her, sat her up leaning up against the wall with blood dripping from her nose and straighten the sign hanging from her neck. "Move once, and you die," warned the scarred trooper before closing the door. The microdrone launched itself from the tree, swooped in close enough to read the crudely scrawled sign and returned to its perch.

Fresh food for fifty. Five cases good brandy. 20 slugthrowers. 10 cases ammunition. 10 stunners. She dies at sunset if goods not here.



"There is a change of plans, Davin has given us a message. I'm arranging for a meeting in Eauland when you get there. Take Bella wherever she wants to go. I'll let you know where to go next. You're going to have a busy day."

Ben passed a tractor to escape the choking black smoke streaming behind as they approached the outskirts of Eauland. Ben twisting his head towards her raised his voice over the wind, "Where do you want to go to Bella?"

 "I would like to go to the market square next to the Cathedral if that's okay." 

"Ben took a quick look at the map. "I see it, won't be long now." Entering the city Ben's stomach lurched as he noticed the stench. "This is not only is the bleakest place I've ever seen, but it reeks of jakes and oily fumes," he thought. Grinning to himself muttering under his breath, "I suspect your little intestinal bug probably didn't make things smell better."

Celeste chuckled. "I think you're right. I didn't help the cities already less than piquant bouquet. We're going to meet in the troopers mess hall. It's the only place that has enough room for the group. I put an icon on your map. Someone will meet you and show you the way." 

The market square smelled a little better as Ben helped Bella off her seat. Both stood for a few minutes watching a group of old men dressed in black shifts cleaning the bank of public jakes. Encouragement to work harder was being provided by occasional sharp wacks of a staff. 

"Good luck Bella, and if you need help you know where to find us," said Ben. Looking at the old men he smiled at her. "Good help is hard to find. In this case, we didn't find it although it's satisfying to watch. 

Both women standing at the gate waved Ben through pointing at a long low building with Ungar standing at the entrance.  Ungar looked in the trailer, and then at Ben with a wry look. "Perchance there is a bottle of medicinal Manhattans In one of these boxes?"

"Good to see you too Ungar, and you seem to have lost some weight. No, I don't think so.  I'll make a note to remember next time."

"The group is waiting on us, and there seems to be some urgency. I'll grab some of these boxes and give you a hand. We should go in."

Three long tables had been pushed together, and Ben sat next to Celeste and noticed the stares. "I'm Ben," he said with a small wave and smile. The room went dead quiet when the image of the bleeding woman with the hand-drawn sign around her neck suddenly appeared above her.

Lora read the words out loud to the group and turned to Celeste. "What do you think we should do?"

"Saving her life is our first priority. We need to give Davin what he wants before sunset. I also have to learn more about the inside of the building to see if we can save the rest of the hostages. We have six hours to do a lot, and Ben's trailer needs to be loaded in an hour to make other things happen." 

Lora looked at Ungar and Marshal Jorn. "I'll assemble the weapons and ammunition. I'll be stacking them outside of the armory ready to load in a few minutes," said the Marshall as he got up to leave. "Ben the armory is the large stand-alone building to the right. Meet me there in about ten minutes."

Ungar rose, "I need more than twenty minutes but will be done well before an hour. The provisions are in several different warehouses. I'll commandeer one of the working tractors and deliver everything here myself."

Celeste looked up and down the long table, cleared her throat, and the murmuring stopped. "My instincts tell me we can save all of these women and get rid of Davin for good only if Eauland and Gaia work together. We should all meet together tomorrow morning, and I should have enough useful information about the building to make a real plan. I must leave you now to make some preparations. Ben, please get to the ship as fast as you can and have the cases of brandy accessible."

The trailer was stacked high as Ben carefully pulled it onto the lift and seconds later it rose into the ship. Celeste was waiting for him as the lift stopped. "I'm sorry your excursion was cut short, I'll make it up to you. Would you set the brandy cases on the floor for me and empty the first one. We will have to repack them, so they look untouched." Ben carefully took off the wood lid and lifted the six bottles straight up leaving the straw encasing them in place. "Excellent, now gently set the case on the turntable next to the robotic arm."

Ben watched as the turntable rotated as the crate base was scanned. With a quick tool change, a slot was cut into all four sides of the wood base, four microdrones flew into the room, folded their wings and crawled into the slots. A panel opened, a tray slid out, and four new matching covers were gently placed over the slots. One of the covers popped out, and a drone crawled out, latched onto the cover and pushed it in place. 

Ben peered closely at the spot. "I can barely see it but only because I know exactly where it is." Carefully placing the bottles back into the crate Ben closed the lid, set back into the trailer and got the next case ready.

Ben's eyebrows lifted, "I take it I'm the delivery man."

"Yes and I'm sorry about this. I've programmed the route for you. Ben, I promise I will protect you. An armed drone will be hovering next to you. If that door opens even a millimeter nothing will get through alive." Unload the goods. The woman is conscious, although likey scared to death and take her to the Gaian village. Someone, there will meet you and then come home. I'll make you something special for dinner, and maybe later we'll get to see what's going on in the building." As the lift descended Ben winked and smiled, "I have always trusted you, back shortly."

Celeste sat pensively and watched from the drone as Ben pulled up next to the woman. He kneeled next to her. In a quiet voice, he said, "I'm Ben, Celeste and I are going to get you out of here. Are you okay?" She faintly nodded. He lifted the sign off her neck and standing gave her his hands and helped her up and onto the seat. "This will only take a few minutes, to unload this stuff and we will be gone from here." Celeste watched the door and waited until Ben was out of sight. The drone shot straight up and returned to it's hiding place."

Chapter 58 Drones crawl out

Ben gratefully dropped into the couch as the small bot rolled up with a glass of wine. "At least we've learned a little bit about the building. The woman was held with the other's three floors down. I assume Davin collected his ransom?"

"Yes, just watch the vid. The bastard is paranoid and cautious."

Ben watched as the door opened, a trooper stepped out and cautiously looked around followed by a dozen more keeping weapons aimed at the woods. Several bedraggled women came out at carrying buckets. Foul fluids were poured into the woods, and they were bruskly ordered back in. Davin walked out and examined the pile. Cartons of vegetables were emptied on the ground carefully examined, repacked and carried in. One by one everything was checked. The first crate of brandy was opened, bottles removed, and the packing straw thrown into the woods. Davin looked inside, nodded, and the process continued and as the last trooper entered and closed Celeste stopped the vid.

"What do you think will happen tomorrow?"

"I think the same thing as today but Davin will want even more this time. He feels secure with his hostages and knows this can't last. He believes I don't want anyone to get hurt and will use his hostages to leverage his position. I also calculate we don't have much time before things go sideways and hostages die."

Got any good ideas?"

"Until we can learn more about the building, not any good ones. I am toying with a way to spook and upset the troopers. I'm going to show you something, please don't freak out. it's not real."

It appeared on the coffee table. Ben blanched and recoiled in horror as it rose on four of its six segmented back legs hissing as writhing tentacles surrounding a mouth of snapping blackened teeth reached for him, then disappeared. 

Ben took a huge swallow of his wine and stared in disbelief at Celeste. "What was that?"

"Remember when I told you what we fear most are the things we can't see? This is a version of that. It's bits of several nasty creatures I morphed together. My thought was to let a single trooper briefly see it. After that, it's blurry motion is seen out of the corner of your eye and occasionally hearing it's hissing and scuttling noises makes you think it's near and waiting." One trooper will see it and tell the others. Others will see a blur and at times hear noises. They'll all talk about it because there is nothing else to do. It's like a ghost story. You believe it, but you don't. It might be handy at some point to have them seen if need be. If you think it's a good idea, I'll send drones out after dark with a projector and some small speakers and hang them in the trees."

"I think it's worth trying. Davin will think they're only seeing a local animal that lives in the woods and these aren't people who have ever spent time in them. I think it would be good although if he never hears the hiss or sees your little monster."

"Agreed. Let's have dinner, watch a vid and go to bed early. Tomorrow will be a long day for both of us, and I'll wake you when I let the microdrones out late tonight."

"You promised me a special meal as I remember. What do you have planned?"

"We're eating outside tonight. Pour yourself a glass of wine, and I'll join you in a few minutes."

The small table had a candelabra burning off to one side, and a carafe of wine. "This has been so amazing," Ben thought as he stared at the bright stars in the alien night sky.

"How do I look, Ben?"

Turning around he first saw her bare shoulder then the graceful lines of the white dress. "Both you and the dress are truly stunning." 

Thank you, Ben," and sensing Ben's heart rate jump smiled watching him gazing intently at her. "We better eat while the food still hot."

The lift dropped, and the small bot rolled over the table. Celeste took her plate, then Ben picked up his and studied the two colorful wedges. "It's called pizza, you eat it with your hands. I'm sure you'll like it."

Ben took a small nibble, and then a big bite and nodded his assent. "Your dress is striking."

"Holi has been asking about where clothes come from and how they're made. I've been playing with simple designs I can give her are easily made, and this is one of them. She's smart, fun and a bit sassy. I think she can make a good living designing and manufacturing clothing for both women, and men. Despite the vast collection of coins now available, it's only real value is in keeping the economy going in the short run. Fortunately, Ungar understands this and has been talking with some of the women about this."

"How many microdrones do you think you'll end up with?"

"It depends on how and where they are stacked. Five is the minimum for most brandy case stacking configurations. Likely odds are we will end up with ten or more. I'm going to set the first one free at 3:30 in the morning and we'll know more then. I'll wake you when it's time, I'd like to have your help. Speaking of that it might be a good time to go to bed. It's late enough, and we've both had a long day. I'll have the bots clean up.

Ben's cheek felt the warmth, and a voice was whispering as his eyes opened seeing Celeste's smile. "Good morning, time to get up. Grab a robe and join me. I've made you a cup of cafe and breakfast.

Ben sat with Celeste and stared at the blank vid. "Any luck yet?"

"Not yet. I did send some drones out earlier and hung the projector and speakers in the trees for our little beastie. The first one tried to get out, but it was blocked. I'm trying the next one." The vid lit up with a dim green image of a large room with tall shelves. The image blurred for a few moments and changed now looking down at five crates lined up against the wall. "We will have seven microdrones for the time being. Let's flit this one around and take a quick look." The center of the floor was open with pallets stacked against the wall and assorted goods and food in piles. Metal stairs led both up and down. 

"Let's go up," suggested Ben. The image followed the stairs up into a room with one loading door, smaller personnel door, and a lift hoist above a shaft. Long slug throwers leaned together in a corner with crates of ammunition stacked next to them. "We know where we are now. How about the other stairwell with care?" The image moved down to the other stairs and froze on the second step. Mattresses were against the walls filled with sleeping troopers. The drone turned around, and walls made of stacked pallets in the corner created a makeshift room. "This must be the where the Senior Elder sleeps," whispered Ben, then laughed. "Sorry, I know they can't hear us. Let's take the next set of stairs down."

The drone slipped between the rails and again stopped on the first step. A trooper was sitting in a chair holding a stunner and women were sleeping on the ceramic floor surrounded by equipment and piping.  A crude kitchen had been put together on a table of made of pallets. Flitting off sideways the drone settled high atop an electrical cabinet to watch.

Chapter 59 A plan of sorts

"I put together a rough 3D model of the building for you from the images," said Celeste

Ben quietly studied the model on the vid for a couple of minutes. "We don't have any good options. Attacking directly through the entrance will result in massive causalities. We could create a distraction to draw the troopers out and ambush them, but that's ugly too." Standing up Ben walked closer to the vid and looked closely at the slowly turning building. "Could you use the ship's laser to bore a tunnel or shaft down to the bottom floor?"

Shaking her head, "No," well yes theoretically but not if you wanted to be stealthy. The building is insulated, but not that insulated from that type of carnage. My laser weapon is designed for blunt force, not precision work. Even if I did use it the fire damage to the trees and the area would be obvious." 

The vid abruptly switched to the black building as the door cracked opened and a trooper's head poked out looking around. Satisfied the door open further and he slid out slug thrower aimed in front of him. Cautiously he walked to the building corner, and as he peeked around it heard scuttling noises. Turning his head saw malevolent eye slits staring up and dozens of hooked tentacles reaching towards him. Hysterically screaming his finger repeatedly convulsed on the trigger hearing it's hissing as it moved even closer. Bullets careened off the black floor punching into the woods. The last thing he remembered was gnashing of foul curved black teeth nearing his face as he fainted and fell backward.

The door exploded opened as troopers ran out slug throwers pointed in all directions looking for targets and not seeing one. Nervously they milled around staring into the silent woods. Davin peered out the door, walked over and looked down the trooper splayed out on the floor still clutching the slug thrower in his hand. "What in the name of the Oneness happened here?" he mumbled and kicked the prostrate trooper hard in the ribs.

Spasming, the trooper came to in a panic finger repeatedly jerking on the trigger frantically looking around and stopped when he recognized the Senior Elder staring down at him. "A monster attacked me. It came at me from the woods and wouldn't die," he quavered."

With an incredulous sneer, Davin looked around at the other troopers, "Did anyone here see this monster? Fidgeting the men all shook their head's no. Get him inside. I'll deal with him later. Bring the old whore out and have the others empty the buckets and throw the garbage in the woods. If the monster eats one of them, it's one less mouth to feed. Looking hard out at the woods again for a moment Davin turned and walked back inside.

An old woman with a sign around her neck was pushed out the door and told to sit with her back to the wall. One of the troopers glared down at her, "If you move an inch from this spot the youngest of your sluts will die after being used first by the senior Elder." The troopers all backed into the building, and the door closed.

Ben watched Celeste with clenched fists staring off in space. Sitting beside her quietly whispered, "This wasn't your fault, and a lot of good has happened because of you. We will prevail, and Davin will get what he deserves."

"Gradually Celeste's fists relaxed, "I know, but it's not the first time my aversion to killing has caused a problem. He should have gone to his Oneness's hell at first opportunity. He's an aberration of nature that can't be fixed,"

"I believe that in the long run killing always creates more problems than not. I know the universe, and we are both better off because of you."

Celeste smiled at Ben mouthing, "Thank you," and pointed at the vid as the small drone swept in close to the sign and returned.

Two tractors with long trailers, each with extra fuel tanks, 20 long slug throwers, 10 cases of ammunition, food for 50, five cases good brandy, my bed and knife whip by sunset.

 "It appears Davin wants mobility," mused Ben, "But where could he go? Barricade himself in the mountains?"

"I don't think so. Davin likes creature comforts, and hostages are his currency to buy them. My guess is he will use the tractors to raid another village for more women. Maybe even from Eauland thinking, we would suspect they would happen in Gaia. I will not underestimate him again. I have sent his demands to the group. We'll have a meeting shortly.

Ungar looked at the list while waiting for the others. "I have loaders taking apart Davin's bed. He wanted tanks of fuel but didn't say what size," he thought with a grin. "Maybe two large tanks on each of the two trailers. They could only crawl at slow speed and couldn't carry much else." The grin faded, "Davin would be pissed off, and that will make things worse. The compromise would be two 600kg tanks and two 300kg tanks, They have enough men to get the small ones off, but it would take a bunch of men to skid off the big ones." Looking up he noticed Celeste had appeared, and most of the others were there quietly talking.

Lora looked expectantly at Celeste with a worried look. Celeste stood, "Davin is using hostages as coins, and I'm not sure what is his endgame is. It will not be long before he needs more hostages. If we don't give in to his demands, we'll be finding brutally tortured women lying dead outside the door. He will now have four tractors and fuel to raid for new hostages.  We need to be prepared in both countries. I'm open to any ideas."

"What do you think the long-term solution is?" asked Lora.

"The answer is simple. We need to try freeing the hostages. If we can do that I can turn Davin and his troopers into smashed atoms. Ben and I are searching for a way to do that. Today let's save one more woman. Lim, I suggest you set up a perimeter around the women's quarters with crowd stunners. Marshal Jorn, you may want to post some of your trooper's at the edges of the city. Lyn, you should watch any villages within walking distance of the forest. I don't think Davin will risk having his tractor's out in the open again even at night. Bring the tractors you're giving to Davin by our ship and Ben will lead you to the building. I must go now," and vanished." 

"I know where the knife whip is, I'll get it," said Lim jumping up to leave as the meeting dispersed.

Ben looked at the building's bottom floor again on his tablet as the mapping continued to improve. "Maybe, but I won't know until I can take a closer look," he thought.

"You have an idea, don't you? I can tell you're thinking," asked Celeste, You have that look on your face."

"We can't blow the place up, and we can't go in through the front door. I think we can maybe make a back door and sneak in on the third level and drag the women out."

"How do you propose to do that without being seen?"

"I'd like you to make a virtual wall to hide behind while a trench is dug with shovels and buckets. It's a low tech approach, but I think it can be done. In less than two days from the starting time, the women will be free, and Davin will be trapped, maybe."

"Anything else you need to make this work?"

"Ben grinned, "Yes, lights to work at night, a few night vision goggles, a crowd stunner, maybe a big distraction, something to quietly cut tree roots and an opening into a ceramic wall. A way to remotely cut the power from the solar panels and figuring out approximately when the power capacitors will use up their charge. Lots of people, shovels and buckets. That's all, along with some luck and possibly some help from your little uglies to keep people away from the back of the building."

"Where would you cut an entrance."

Ben pointed at an enlarged view of the bottom floor on his tablet, "Right here behind this large square tank. It looks like it stands about three feet away from the wall. It's hidden from view."

"Is that the end of the list now?" asked Celeste tartly.

Ben bit his tongue and leaned back into the couch, "What happens if we do nothing?" he whispered.

Celeste stared off into space as Ben patiently watched and waited until he saw tears running down her face and put his hand on hers. "Celeste, I don't need a lot of extra decimal points, just you.

"You have a ten percent chance you can get all of the women out. There is a fifty percent chance of getting half out safely. Twenty-five percent of things could become worse, and you could be injured or killed. The next best option is to level the building with everyone one in it including the women. Every option after that is worse and more people will likely die each day that passes. I'm so sorry I was so dismissive, I'm less than perfect and terribly worried. I made this damn mess...but I don't want to make things worse." 

"This was not your fault, Do you remember what I told you?"

"Yes, you're not perfect either but we are always more perfect when we work together."

"I never forget this Celeste and truly believe it. Let's have lunch together outside, a caravan of tractors will be here in a while, and we'll see if together we can make this idea better."

"We can talk about it, but being honest I don't like this idea, it's much too complicated, and I have the final say." Celeste looked at Ben's brown eyes as he slowly nodded his assent looking into her eyes.

Chapter 60 Wheels in motion

"Grinder is an odd name for a sandwich, but it was tasty. Thank you," said Ben as he pushed his plate away and leaned back. "The big problem that needs to be solved is how to get the lights turned off when we want them to. We can't do this with the lights on. I'll take a ladder with me and look at the solar arrays."

"Ungar will be here shortly. I put a small bag of tracker coins on your vehicle seat. Could you see if you can find places to hide them in the tractors for me? I want to know where they end up, and I'll do my best to get better electrical lighting information from the drones for you while you're gone. In the trailer, there are some refreshments for the drivers and ladder for you. " 

As the lift dropped Ben saw the Ungar's tractor and the carriage rolled into the meadow, drove up to the ship and lurched to a stop. Ungar gracefully climbed down from the seat and joined Ben and Celeste watching the two slower tractors pulling up.

"You're losing weight, Ungar," said Ben.

"Yes, I am," said Ungar rubbing his belly. "I owe it all to the medicinal properties of Manhattans, and perhaps going on long early morning walks with Lyn and Cassie have something to do it. One that subject might there be some available I could take back with me? I have lots of coins with no real value to spend."

Celeste winked and laughed, "I have some chores I need to do, but I'll check in the pantry. If there is some, I'll send them down. I'll be watching today but everyone, please be careful."

Ben was bemused as he watched two other drivers walking over and gawking at the ship as he pocketed the bag of coins."Gentlemen, thank you for your assistance. We prepared some refreshments for you and will leave shortly. "Ungar, while we have a few minutes can you show me how the tractors work?

Ungar with a puzzled looked nodded and followed Ben over to the first one with a trailer. "Just pretend you're telling me about it," as he stood on the step, swung open the door and climbed into the seat. Leaning over he showed Ungar the tracking coins and whispered. "Davin is carefully checking everything we give, and we want to know where he is hiding his tractors. I'm going to hide a few of these in plain sight. I don't want the drivers to know they are here in case something goes wrong." Ben dropped a couple behind the seat, threw one under the seat, his foot kicked one under a floor mat, and he tucked one in between the seat, and it's back cushion. Climbing out Ben closed the door. "You climb into the next one and do the same, and I'll look interested."

The small bot rolled down the ramp and over to Ungar as they walked back and set a box in the grass. Picking up the box Ungar opened it and grinned, "Please thank Celeste for me." Ben tipped his head just a fraction. "She said you're very welcome and travel safely. You ready?" Ungar nodded and waved at the drivers who headed for the tractorsFollowing Ben, the tractors disappeared into the woods moving at a slow pace towards the black building.

The grey-haired woman heard the whine and froze in place staring at the hovering drone which appeared out of nowhere and started when Ben touched her shoulder. "It's okay," he whispered. "We are going to get you out of here. Just sit here for few more minutes." Ungar pulled in, jumped, out, helped the woman to her feet and into his carriage. Ben showed the two other tractors where to park. Ungar got into his carriage with one of the drivers, while the other swung up into the tractor. Ben waved them off, and Ungar's tractor headed off into the woods.

"Solar panels first," thought Ben leaning the ladder up against the building and climbing up. Skidding on his back, he wormed his way under the panels. "Not many options here Celeste. The panels are wired in parallel. I can reduce the output or take it to zero without it immediately being noticed, and there is a voltage regulator. It could be shorted out or bypassed feeding more current into the storage bank, maybe, or not."

"I saw the model numbers, and I'm searching for information on the systems."

Wriggling back out from under Ben stowed the ladder and walked to the back side of the building a few feet into the woods and surveyed the area. Crouching he brushed away dead vegetation and used his hands to dig a small hole into the dirt. Sifting the soil through his fingers, he was satisfied and refilled the hole. He picked up a flat rock, looked back at the building walking until he was in the center and placed it as a marker. A few leaves were bushed over it and as he stood heard hissing and saw its tentacles writhing wildly. Ben grinned and waved to it. A segmented forearm waved back and it scuttled back into the woods. "I'm finished, and will see you soon."

"Drive carefully, and I'll put together an early dinner outside. It's a beautiful evening." 

Ben felt his stomach growling, "Looking forward to it. On my way."

Their plates each had a large piece of bread ripped off a loaf, cheeses, ball-shaped stained vegetables, slices of some sort of meat and deviled eggs. Ben raised an eyebrow as he sat. "What are the small ball-shaped things?"

"Pickled onions, they're traditional with a Ploughman's meal. It's a meal that's been eaten since antiquity by workmen. The chunky brown stuff in the bowl is a spicy pickle relish." Celeste tore off a piece of bread, put meat, cheese along with a blob of relish on top and took a small bite. "

"Thank you, it's tasty, and  I'm hungry."

"I found a meter that shows the power storage level. I can't tell what the load on the system is until it's dark and the solar panels stop working. By morning I will be able to give you an estimate how long the power will last without working panels. That will give us a time frame we can work with. When you're finished let's go in a watch Davin's reactions when they come out."

Ben popped a pickled onion in his mouth, tore off another chunk of bread and nodded.

Zellick slowly cracked the door open, and he and several other troopers listened carefully for hissing sounds. Opening it just wide enough to slip out sideways he looked around and saw the two tractors parked off to his left with full trailers. Creeping over to the other side he warily looked around the corner and heard a low hissing as he saw the blur on the edge of his vision of something scuttling towards the woods. Twisting around he fired into the woods where he thought he saw some vegetation moving.

Troopers poured out and nervously clumped up behind Zellick drawn weapons wildly pointing in all directions trying to peer around him and seeing nothing. Davin strode out and looked at the troopers bunched together intently staring into the woods. Suddenly a small furry creature ran out and stopped. Slugthrowers retorted, and the little creature skittled back the woods unharmed.

Davin incredulously stared at the men. "What in the name of the Oneness are you cowards doing," he screamed at them face twisting into a grimace. "Did I see your monster at work?" Zellick opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it, clamped it shut and looked at the ground. "Start unloading, and I want to see every single thing before it goes into the building, and have the whores dump the garbage in the woods.

Giving Zellick a hard look, "You get some more men, and I want those tractors carefully searched for anything unusual. If there is any question about anything you find, ask me. Start now and have someone find me a seat."

"Your little forest critter was a stroke of genius. Davin thinks that's the monster. His men are sure it exists, but won't say anything."

"Thanks, it was a spur of the millisecond thing."

Troopers crawled over the tractors opening and inspected everything as Davin examined the goods and spotted the crate with his knife whip. In two quick steps, it was in his hands, and his fingers caressed the grip. He looked around and spotted a young woman coming back from the woods carrying a chamber pot and his lips curled into a twisted smile. The Sargent saw this too, and furrowing his brow hurried over and leaned in close, "Senior Elder," he whispered. "Of course we are all at your service, and I know you desire some entertainment, but it's hard enough to manage these women in close quarters, and they are needed as currency. Might it be better to wait a bit longer until we have attained our goals? Your anticipation will make it more enjoyable."

Davin's knuckles turned white as they tightened on the whip, and gave the Sargent a long cold look. Then grudgingly he relaxed and nodded, "Yes perhaps you're right. The Oneness will give me patience," and he turned and sat back down. The Sargent headed for the tractors and wiped the sweat off his brow with a shaking hand.

The goods were hauled in, the door closed and, two troopers started the tractors. They turned north into the woods and disappeared. Ben slumped back, "Did any of our tracker coins survive?"

"Enough, one did. The rest ended up in Trooper's pockets, and that's not all bad. They may be useful later. I'll put up a map." A blinking icon was leaving a curvy dashed line behind it frequently stopping briefly then continuing.

"How do they know where they are going? Are there any landmarks in that general direction?" 

Celeste zoomed the map out. "The mountains are about thirty kilos away. I'm not aware of anything else that could be used. They just stopped again." The aerial map zoomed in showing the tractors next to a small clearing."

"Maybe one of them is climbing a tree to take a bearing using the mountains." A few minutes later the icon started to move in a new direction. "Can you project a line in that general direction and zoom in following it?" The line appeared, and the map followed it, and they both saw it at the same time. A rough logging road mostly hidden by the trees was crossing the line.

"Can you see where it..." 

Celeste highlighted it. "It goes to up the mines."

"Here's a possible scenario. Davin collects a couple more tractors with trailers, more food, and weapons. In the dead of night, he loads up everything and takes the hostages to the mines and uses them to provide his safety. The men there are commandeered and armed giving him a small army. Add in the women there as hostages. Seal off the road, and he has a small fiefdom. Not as nice as his mansion, but better than being jammed into the black building."

Celeste stared blankly at the vid then turned to Ben. "I think it's likely Davin has something like this in mind, and there may not be much time. To have anything near resembling your plan work, if it will we have to start tonight. But now we have to wait. Watch a vid?

Chapter 61 So what could go wrong?

 "Wake up. I made a cup of cafe for you." Ben's eyes opened seeing concerned green eyes looking at his. "I've just finished calculating the power drain, and you need to disable the solar panels quickly if we want it dark in the building tomorrow night."

"What time is it?"

"Sorry, it's really early. Almost 3:00 am. I have already hung the two new projectors and loaded the trailer for you. Then we need to hold an early morning meeting in Eauland to put things in motion. You need to be there in person. Your plan, you need to sell it to them, and I have some doubts myself."

Flashlight in his mouth, small toolbox in hand Ben climbed to the roof and slid under the panels. Wire cutters in hand Ben reached up to cut the solar panel leads and stopped. "If things go wrong I don't want it to be obvious." 

"Good idea."

Fumbling he found the right screwdriver, took the cover off the electrical box and peered in. Two quick cuts and the cover was screwed back in place. "I'm off to Eauland."

I packed you some sweet rolls, a cup, and a flask of cafe for your breakfast."

"Thanks, I'll see you there."

As Ben walked into the packed mess hall the room fell silent, and all eyes were watching him. "It looks like an inquisition," he thought as he spotted Celeste and Lynn waving at him. The room stayed quiet as he walked over and sat in between Celeste and Lynn.

Lora stood, "Ben I understand you have a plan you want to talk with us about? Celeste has given us an update on the current situation," 

Awkwardly rising Ben looked out at all the uneasy faces and cleared his throat. "Well, sort of a plan. It will take lots of people and hard work beginning after dark tonight. It starts by digging a big hole without making a lot of noise. Then we cut a hole into the lowest level of the building and carry the women hostages out. We close the hole leaving Davin and his troopers trapped inside. I think it possible to do this." Ben couldn't miss at the quizzical looks. "Okay it's a pretty big hole, and that's why we need a lot of people. We have to excavate a ramp that goes down to the bottom floor." Ben stared down at his tablet notes for a second and looked back up. "It's about 100 sq meters of dirt, and it has to be done at night, specifically mostly tonight, and the rest tomorrow night."

Ungar stopped poking his tablet and looked up, "That's a lot of soil. How many people do you need to do this?"

"I think I need sixteen to dig. Eight will dig for an hour, then rest while the others take over. I think it will go pretty fast. They don't have to throw the dirt, just fill a bucket next to them. We'll need thirty or forty to haul up the buckets and dump them near the edges."

"What about roots, you're digging in the woods?" noted the Marshal.

"We have a laser cutter that will make short work of roots, and it will cut the plug-shaped hole into the wall." Ben looked at the expectant gathering with a grin. "This is why I think the plan will work if, we can get that far. Everyone in the building will be sleeping except possibly the one guard on the bottom floor where the women are. Someone climbs through the hole with a crowd stunner, sticks it around the corner and stuns the guard, then stuns all the women too." 

Seeing the surprised looks, Ben dove back in," This is done for two reasons. The first is they won't make any noise, and the second is it will be pitch black inside. They can't see in the dark, and we will be able to with special glasses. Teams come in and one at a time the women are picked up and carried to the opening. Additional teams help get them through the hole, and the last group carries them to a trailer. We back out, push the plug back in place and quickly backfill the hole so the troopers and Davin can't escape."

The Marshal shook his head, "I didn't know what I was expecting, but I think this has a good chance of working. What happens if the troopers come out of the building and see the hole?"

"I can take care of that," said Celeste. The whole side of the mess hall became a forest. A small furry critter with no visible legs scampered out of the woods, looked at the group and then scurried back. "I can disguise the work. Everyone listen to me! Like the little creature you saw, this one is not real either." The creature scuttled out sideways hissing, with black teeth grinding and barbed tentacles flaying. Someone screamed, and many gasped as it ran up to Ben and stopped. Ben reached down, petted it, and it scuttled back into the woods. "It's just to discourage troopers from wanting to visit the back side of the building if need be," Ben said grinning,  and the forest disappeared. 

"Ben," asked Lora, "What could go wrong with this plan?"

"These women are in grave danger. If Davin gets away to the mines, all the young ones will become his entertainment. We all know how horrific their fate will be. The rest will be slaves to be used by troopers. If you were in their place, how many here would prefer to take the risk of being rescued, then forced go to the mines with Davin." Ben watched all the hands rise. "The front door can be blocked with a tractor, or some other way so Davin's troopers can't get out. The only other exit is a hole about a meter and a half in diameter. If we have to fall back, our trooper's can stop them from leaving until the hole is closed. The biggest risk is to the teams inside. They will be able to see when the troopers can't and will have body armor and stunners. Since they take the most risk, they should be volunteers."

Celeste rose. "I have some qualms about this plan too. It's complicated, it involves a lot of people, and some luck helps. Davin's hidden tractors and troopers also need to be captured or quarantined. I know where they are. Much depends on what Davin will ask for this morning. This will give us some clues about his intentions, and schedule. Davin is malignant and is never to be underestimated." Celeste looked first at Lora and then turned toward Lynn. "This is your choice, and both Eaulanders and Gaians will have to work together to make this happen. It must start tonight or not at all and everyone should be in place an hour before dark. I have marked on your tablets a rendezvous location about a kilometer away from the building and for the Marshal the location of Davin's hidden tractors."

Lynn jumped up, "Gaia will provide the diggers, dirt haulers, buckets, shovels, and food. It's our women in there."

I'll manage the logistics including transportation to and from the building and the encampment,"  said Ungar

The Marshal raised his hand. "I will assemble and lead  forces for the operation."

We would be proud to supply volunteers for the inside special teams," said Lim.

"I, I mean Ben, and I will put together the equipment we'll need to make this work. We don't have much time," said Celeste, "and everyone, please stay here for the moment and watch the vid I'm sending to your tablets. Davin's ransom demand is happening now."

Two slug throwers stuck out of a crack in the door, and eyes peered out above them. Zellick shoved it enough to stick his head out and take a better look. Slipping out the door, slugthrower in each hand he nervously crept along the wall and glanced around the corner. "Nothing here," he gratefully thought, then heard muted hissing and a faint clinking of claws from behind the building and froze. Frantically pointing toward the back of the building three more troopers, slug throwers twitching crept out and peered around the other corner. Seeing nothing the trooper's, their backs to the wall slowly slid towards the rear of the building and peeked around the corner seeing Zellick's head, and they all relaxed. Zellick turned as the tentacles behind him reached out to snatch his foot. Blanching he fainted as slugthrowers fell from his limp hands. His head bouncing on the black surface turned off his lights.

Feeling a sharp boot kick  Zellick's eyes snapped open with dismay seeing the Sarge staring down at him. "Seeing monsters again?"

Zellick nodded his head blubbering, "Lots of arms with hooks and black teeth. It was going to eat me, it's real." 
The Sarge swiveled around, "Did any of you guys see or hear anything?" Three heads frantically shook no. "Drag him in, and I'll deal with him later."  As he walked away he, twisted back, "And take the slug throwers away from him." Two troopers helped Zellick up. The third grabbed the pair of slug throwers, glanced back, saw tentacles writhing in the bushes and ran to catch up. 

Celeste's grin at the trooper's antics abruptly faded. A gagged womentrussed up so tightly she could barely move and yet was trying her best to was carried out by swearing and scratched up troopers. They unceremoniously dumped her on the black floor, and a sign was propped up against her. Food for fifty for three days - 5000 small coins - tractor and trailer - 10 gallons of cooking oil. 

A young woman, barely out of childhood held tightly by her arms was dragged out sobbing by two troopers followed by Davin fingering his knife whip. They grabbed her wrists and pulled her arms out to the side as Davin walked up behind her, He turned to the woods and laughed. White knuckles clenched the whip's grip as it lashed into the woman's back. She screamed, sagged and passed out as blood oozed from dozens of slashes in her back. Davin's eyes glazed as he reared back again, then visibly shaking he forced himself to stop.

"That was a personal message to me. I will never forget this Davin," murmured Celeste to herself.

With a nod from Davin, the troopers hauled the bleeding young woman back inside. A procession of women carrying slop buckets and garbage were marched into the woods by troopers to toss them. A few minutes later the door closed.

Chapter 62 Davin's demand

The room was silent as everyone digested what had happened. Ungar leaned close to Lynn, "I am going to leave now for an hour to get Davin's ransom goods loaded. If you would like you could ride with me to deliver the ransom and pick up the woman. I think she might feel better if you were there. From there I need to go to the ship. I am sending six tractors with trusted drivers to wait for me. We can lead them into Gaia for your use."

Lynn gazed over at the Marshal who was huddled with a couple of officers and reluctantly nodded. "Jorn's going to be busy, and I should be in Gaia helping," she thought. "Pick me up here?"

"Yes, I'll be back as quickly as I can.  You can ride in my carriage, and I'll drive the ransom tractor." 

Celeste lifted an eyebrow "Ben, we should go back to the ship now," "You were up early and should take a nap. We have a lot to do yet, and It will be a long night ahead for both of us. They all know what needs to be done, and we must trust this to them."

The Marshal glanced up as Ungar walked in, opened a drawer and pulled out a couple small glasses and a bottle. "It looks like you've already had a long morning. I have some Manhattan's left."

Ungar gave the Marshal a grateful smile and hoisted his glass. "Here's to success and to hope no one gets hurt. What are your plans?"

I'm sending two platoons to the building. One will guard the digger's, the other will set up a cordon around the building in case Davin tries to make a run for it tonight. He must be contained at all costs. Shortly I will take a hand-picked squad and try to recover the hidden tractors. Then we will join the others. Yourself?"

"I'm leaving now to deliver the ransom " Ungar tossed his glass back and sighed. "I must go, good luck Jorn and I'll see you late in the morning tomorrow.

Lynn felt the sudden lurch as the tractor slowed down and saw the ominous black building for the first time. The woman on the floor started to frantically squirm trying to escape her bindings, as a large drone dropped from the sky and hovered near her. Ungar parked the ransom tractor and helped Lynn out of his carriage.

"Is this going to be dangerous?" asked Lynn

"I don't think so," said Ungar. "The flying machine is armed and if my previous visits are any indication no one will appear until late in the day. Why don't you calm her down and we'll get her free."

With her finger to her lips, Lynn knelt next to the woman and removed the gag as Ungar started to untie her. "I'm Lynn, please be still. We will be out of here in a few minutes. What's your name?"

"Luna. That filthy animal used that whip thing on her. She was barely thirteen. He should be soaked in old tractor oil, and burned to death," she spat.

"I know, we saw Davin use his whip, and we're trying hard to get all of you free. Right now we need to get you away from here. We'll talk more on the way back to ship and Gaia." Lynn and Ungar helped her to her feet, and into his carriage. Belching oily smoke it turned around and lumbered back into the forest.

Luna sat quietly rubbing her chafed wrists and eyeing Ungar. Lynn immediately sensed her discomfort with him. "Luna, this is Ungar, you can trust him. He helped overthrow Davin. His daughter Lora is the new head of the Eauland council. Can you tell us what it's like inside? We are going to try to rescue the rest of the women tomorrow night very late."

"The stench of those pigs is overwhelming. They keep us on the lowest level where the noisy machines are. We sleep on the floor, do the cooking and what little cleaning they want. There is always one guard. He sits on a pile of pallets in the corner. The troopers sleep and stay on the floor above us. The Senior Elder stays on the floor above that in a room made of shelving and other things scrouged up."

"Has there been any different going on in the past few days?" asked Ungar.

"Maybe something. We're not allowed to move anywhere without being told to by a guard, but we have ears. I've heard a lot of scraping, and banging noises and there seem to be fewer troopers on the floor above us during the day. 

"What time do they go to bed?"

"About three hours after dark, I think, we have no clocks. Most lights are turned off by then except for ours. I've heard them whispering to each other about monsters outside, but we have never seen them."

"How noisy is it where you sleep?"

Fans are running 
all the time, and pipes clang. We can talk over it, but you have to listen hard even if you're close."

Ungar nodded to himself thinking as the tractor rolled out into the meadow. "Is there anything else that you think we should know or would help us."

Luna looked up at Ungar with a lopsided grin, "Yes, our guard sleeps most of the night. I could walk up and knock him out cold with a pan, and we all want to. Unfortunately, there is no place for us to...," and seeing the ship for the first time stopped and stared. "I had heard words of this but seeing is different. Did it really come from the stars?"

"It came from a planet called Alexandria. I've seen pictures of it. Let's get out and stretch our legs for a few minutes, and we'll introduce you before we continue on. They're regular people other than the fact they have a starship."

Ben gave Ungar and Lynn a tired smile as he stacked another bin in the trailer. "I'm glad to see everything went smoothly this morning." 

"Me too. Ben, Celeste this is Luna."

"It's nice to meet you Luna, and we're glad your safe," said Celeste. "Everyone in Eauland and Gaia is doing their best to get your friends freed. Have a safe trip back to Gaia and help if you can."

Ben watched them walk back to the group of milling drivers and Ungar briefly chatted with them. One after another the tractors in a fell in line behind Ungar's and leaving a trail of greasy smoke headed to Gaia.

"Ben, There's something different this morning with Davin. This time he emptied the trailer, searched everything, but no one drove it away."

"He knows we're watching. Maybe he wants us to think he's going to make a  run for it tonight."

"I don't think it's that. I suspect it's bait for a possible test. Maybe he's trying to see if he can flush us out. He may think we may have troopers nearby. He's trying to learn something about us. You look weary Ben. You should take a nap for a few hours and we can have a late lunch. I'll wake you up when it's time to go."

"I am tired, that's a good idea. How are you doing?"

"I feel like I'm a factory. I have made forty handheld and two large work lights. I can turn them all off at once if I need to. Your laser cutter and battery packs are built. I made four pair of handles with suction cups, so you pull the wall plug out. Slug proof fabric is being made and I have some Med packs ready to go. I'll join you in a bit when I get a few more things done I could use some rest too. 

Ungar watched as the hectares of carefully cultivated fields rolled by and turned to Lynn. "I really enjoyed my stay in Gaia. It was the first time in my life I didn't have to worry about every word I said and didn't need to keep looking over my shoulder. The walking everywhere took some getting used to, and I did."

"I enjoyed hosting you and Casi too. Truth be told Gaia is a boring place. Other than Eauland being supremely ugly it seems there is always something to do. Living in a mansion isn't exactly a hard life either." 

Ungar grinned, "Sometimes different is fun, but in time we all become indifferent to our surroundings." He leaned forward and hollered as the carriage bounced off the dirt track onto a cobblestone roadway. "Ludo, follow the road and stop when you get to the square. Don't run anyone over, they aren't used to seeing tractors."  Their tractor slowed to a crawl as they entered the village and ground to a halt in the center of the square filled with people and piles of supplies stacked everywhere.

Susi came out of the crowd and climbed in sitting next to Luna. "I have enough food for one hundred people for two days. It will be served cold, no cooking. I hope the Eaulander's won't mind healthy sandwiches and salads. We have three hundred liters of water, blankets for sleeping and first aid supplies just in case I raided three villages for enough digging equipment."

"I want to help too," said Luna. "I'm going to find my cousin, borrow some clean clothes, wash the stench off and I'll be right back." 

"Don't take long," said Susi. "We're going to starting loading now."

"I had a long chat with the drivers Lynn. They will follow your orders to the letter and behave. Both of you stay safe, and I'll see you in the morning after I deliver the expected ransom," said Ungar. Lynn and Susi disappeared into the throngs. "Ludo, we need to head back." Noses were held as a black cloud enveloped them."

Chapter 63 The big dig

Silently for over an hour troopers slowly crawled on their bellies the last hundred meters and took up positions in thick brush facing the large lean-to made of branches. The Marshal watched as a small fire was lit and a cooking pot placed above the coals. Six men were sitting on logs talking, then a seventh joined. The Marshal continued to hold until the food started to be served then an eighth man showed up and sat with a plate. He sighted down the long barrel, his finger pulsed, and a shot rang out followed by a volley of rapid fire. One of the wounded men desperately tried to scramble back into the lean-to clutching his bleeding side, and the Marshal calmly dropped him with a second shot. Twenty minutes later one tractor after another fired up and headed towards the black building rendezvous.

Ben opened his eyes seeing Celeste leaning over him with a small pensive smile on her face. "It's time. Take your shower, and I'll have something for you to eat when you're ready."

Looking into her concerned green eyes, he smiled back. "It'll be okay. This will work. The only question is how well? This is the best chance of saving these women. There is some risk, but every other approach is worse."

Ben spotted the trooper behind a tree as he approached. He waved Ben through and then saw tractors scattered everywhere in the woods. Slowing, the vehicle threaded its way through the trees and entered a small clearing surrounded by more tractors and people everywhere. "There are way more than 100 here," he thought. Lynn saw him and walked into the clearing and pointed to a small space saved for him next to a trailer.

"Nice to see you, Ben," said Lynn watching him gawk at all the people moving with purpose.

"Why are all those people digging over there in the trees?"

"They're making a latrine. Unisex, we don't have the resources to separate men from women. After you have used it once I assure you any novelty you might find in the experience will be thoroughly over with. Behind you on that trailer is a kitchen, We have emptied most of the other trailers so they can be used as sleeping platforms. They are the ones with stacks of blankets."

Ben looked at the sun low on the horizon, "Can I talk to the entire group before it gets dark for a few minutes."

"Yes climb up on that trailer and give me about ten minutes to spread the word."

Ben fidgeted as he watched the crowd move in close and continued to grow. Lynn eventually looked up at him and grinned.  Ben cleared his throat, "I'm Ben, thank you for being here. We are going to start after dark. We're digging a ramp, and we have to do it quietly. The building is well insulated, but if we are too noisy, it will be heard. Push your shovels, don't stomp.... 

"Ben," said Celeste gently, "You're lecturing them, they know what to do"  

"Sorry," said Ben awkwardly. "You all know what to do. If all the lights go off, it means someone has opened the door. Freeze in place and make as little noise as possible. You may hear sounds like hissing or talking, you must ignore them. We will do one quick light's out drill just for practice shortly after we start with sounds you might hear I'll hold my hands up when it will happen. There are forty handheld electric lights so you will have to share them. Find me if you need roots cut. Thank you for helping, twenty women are depending on us."

Ben jumped down and started to sort the bins in his trailer. He unpacked and stacked the handheld lights on a trailer, then examined the laser cutter and battery packs. "I should have asked before we left, how does it work?" 

"The battery packs slide into the back. There is a dial for the cutting depth. It's set it for twenty-five centimeters. The red button turns it on. One full battery pack will be more than enough to cut the hole in the wall. Be careful with it around people."

Ben pointed it downward, and a narrow green beam appeared. He put it back into the bin and noticed one with his name on it.  On the top were sandwiches and juice pouches along with sweet grain bars. Underneath was his armor cloth undersuit with hood, a holstered stunner, clear full face mask, and a tablet. A large carafe of cafe and another one not marked was squeezed into the side. Opening it the smell hit his nose and he grinned, Manhattans.

"Thank you."

"Your welcome. The face mask will help protect your head, I'm worried about this, and I want you to have the best protection I can provide. The Manhattans are to share and celebrate with. Your talk was good, they understand the task. The practice drill was an excellent idea, just tell me when. Be careful Ben, I... you're important to me."

"I will and... you're important to me too. Remember when we work together, we are always more perfect."

As Ben put the bin away, he heard tractors and saw several coming to a stop off in the woods. A disheveled and dirty group of men headed toward Ben and only belatedly he recognized the tall man leading them was the Marshal. Ben looked closer, then frowned, "You seemed to have forgotten to iron the crease in your pants Marshal."

The Marshal looked at his men, filthy pants, and then at his mucky hands and chuckled, "Spending an hour crawling on your belly through damp woods doesn't do much for the uniform. However, it did result in recovering all of the tractors and supplies. The trooper's watching them have been disposed of. Is Lynn here?"

Ben waved his hand out at the crowd, "She's here somewhere doing something. Lynn is a take charge kind of women."

The Marshal gave Ben a wry smile, "I quickly learned that. I'd like to talk to her for a few moments."

As the sun slowly set a few oil lamps were lit at the camp, and the pile of handheld lights had disappeared. Ben found Lynn and the Marshal close together talking. "I think it's time. It will take over a half hour to walk there, and it will be full dark when we arrive."

"Then let's get going," said Lynn, "We'll spread the word."

Ben backed the vehicle out, turned on the headlight, drove to the edge of the clearing and waited. The Marshal with his troopers spread out to his sides, and a line formed behind him.  A small twist on the grip and the electric vehicle crept forward at a walking pace and Ben leaned back in the seat. "It will be an eclectic and long night," he thought. "I'm glad Celeste packed the carafe of cafe."

The wall seemed to absorb Ben's headlight when he first saw it rising up above the treeline fading into the night sky. It was a flat black reverse image of the forest that slowly writhed in the light breeze. "It's impressive, I didn't know what to expect on the backside."

"Thank you, it's a very thin, and it takes real effort to maintain it. I'll be glad when this is over with."

Ben parked well off to the side, set the first light on its stand, and light flooded far into the forest. The second work light was placed on the other side and turned on. Picking up a stick he found his rock marker and paced off two meters and pushed it into the ground. Turning on his handheld light, he stepped through the wall feeling a slight tingle and looked again at the building and walked back through. He motioned for the front of the crowd to move forward and whispered, "The stick is the centerline of the ramp and the start of the ramp. It needs to be two meters wide at the bottom." A burly looking man whispered back, "We understand the problem and will take care of it." 

Ben stepped off to the side and was surprised because the diggers moved back to about the halfway point of the ramp and started there. He wanted to ask why but thought it would be better to just watch instead. It looked disorganized in the beginning but soon smoothed out, and was fast. Buckets one after another were quietly filled by sweat-soaked men and hauled off as new buckets were set in their place. Two men waved pointing downward.

Ben trotted to his trailer, grabbed the cutter, and headed over. A large undercut root over two meters long was exposed. With three sizzling slashes, it was easily hauled away. "This might be a good time to try a lights out drill."

"I'm ready, just say when."

Ben raised both hands, and in a moment the digging stopped. "Now." Bens eyes went black and gradually his night vision returned and saw everyone still as statues. Hissing seemed to come from several directions with scuttling noises and footsteps. "That should be fine. they all did well and know what to expect if it happens."

The work lights flared back on, and the digging continued.  An hour later the ramp was deep enough to have cleared all the roots. Ben put the laser cutter aside watching as another digger shift changed and suddenly realized why the digging started in the center of the ramp. He said to stay one meter away from the building. It wasn't good advice he thought in retrospect. They were leaving behind a steep, but climbable terraced dirt ramp against the building as the night wore on.

Trooper Zellig cracked open one eye, let it adjust to the dim light, and agonized over his decision. The inevitability of Davin's knife whip, or the monsters. He won't survive the whip, he might be able to outrun a monster. His hand reached out and felt the coarse cloth bag under his blanket, and his fingers tightened around it. They were all asleep helped by the second measure of brandy which was a surprise, but also an omen of things to come. He slowly stood, crept to the stairs, and climbed them one soft step at a time to the landing. The makeshift room in the corner seemed to have a black aura that made him shudder. As quietly as possible he climbed the last set of stairs and took a breath. The latch slid back and using his shoulder the heavy door opened, he stepped out into the black night and quickly closed it. Squatting down he fumbled in the bag and pulled out a small oil lamp and a striker. After a few awkward tries, the lamp lit.

"What happened? Why are the lights out?"

"A trooper came outside and lit a lamp, It's the one that has seen our little creature. I think he's going to make a run for it."

"Should we let him?"

"I don't think that's a good idea. It would be better to stun him and stage it, so it looks like he took off into the woods away from the front of the building. He will be missed, and they will look for him. It's best if he's not found. I'll try to herd him towards you. I don't think he's armed."

Celeste watched as Zellig, lamp held high over his head, walked to the corner heard hissing off in the distance in front of him and froze. He rounded the corner and took a few more steps, and heard hissing behind him and now off to the side too. He started to tremble and shuffled a couple more small steps toward the back of the building, and the hissing stopped. A few more steps increased his confidence a touch.

"He's heading straight for you. When the lights come on the forest projection will turn off at the same time. Stun and drag him in.

Tentatively he walked near the edge of the forest lifting his lamp high and saw nothing but brush and trees. He moved closer and suddenly it was bright as day. A deep trench full of people stared up at him, and a grinning man holding a stunner was directly in front of him. Merciful blackness occurred as he collapsed.

The Marshall with two troopers ran up and dragged Zellig away. Ben picked up his bag and lamp and ran to the front of the building. "He'd have gone this way," he guessed. Trotting out about 50 meters some food from the bag was scattered where it could easily be seen. In about another 50 meters the bag was torn, dropped, and he threw the lamp hard in a high arc forward. Ben heard the glass chimney shatter and ran back. As he arrived the forest wall reappeared, and the digging continued.

"That went well, all things considered. He sure had a surprised look on his face when he saw the ramp and all of those people when I turned on the lights. That's going to be burned into his memory."

Ben chuckled, "I suspect that this will be the luckiest thing that ever happened to him. I think the eventual future for his colleagues will not be as attractive."

"I calculate that to be statistically likely."

Ben yawned, poured a cup of cafe, and gratefully sat down on a pile of dirt thinking about tomorrow. A fresh crew of diggers and haulers gracefully moved into place and took over. "This is going faster than I thought. We should be done for the night in another couple of hours. When's your best guess the lights will go out now?"

"10:00pm at the earliest tomorrow night most likely sometime around 1:00pm. 

"Any signs they are preparing to bolt?

"Maybe a few but nothing definitive.

Lynn and the Marshal walked over and sat with Ben. "I had Zellig bound, gagged, and hauled back to the camp, He's not the brightest of troopers," said the Marshal. "When we are done tonight I'm leaving a ring of troopers around the building hidden about 100 meters out with stunners. Unless Davin has a fixed date of departure, he will need to send someone one out to get the tractors. If that happens, we'll try to capture him quietly. If not then at least we know more than we did before." 

"What's the plan for tomorrow?" whispered Lynn.

Ben shook his head, "It all depends. Will there be another hostage ransom demand? How hard will they look for their missing trooper? Will our trench be discovered?" Ben yawned and stood up. "With apologies to both of you, I'm exhausted and need some sleep. The morning will bring us answers and we'll work together to do our best."

Chapter 64 The long morning

Dim morning first light peeked through the leaves, and the incessant sounds of snoring filled the camp. Sitting up with a wince Ben found himself surrounded by blanket covered mounds and quietly slid off the rough planked trailer to get a cup of cafe. "Good morning, have I missed anything?"

"They just figured out they have a missing trooper. Get your tablet, and I'll send you the video feed from the front of the building. Something will happen soon."

Troopers followed by the Sarg burst through the door apprehensively waving their weapons at the forest. The Sargent looked incredulously at them. "What are you waiting for? Scatter and find that deserter."  The trooper's tightly grouped together and started reluctantly moving forward in a clump toward the dimly lit woods. "What part of scattering didn't you idiots understand. Pair up and go in different directions. The Sarg's face turned crimson, "Find me that traitor now, or else I'll..." he hollered.

Two troopers immediately surged forward into the forest, and two other pairs reluctantly moved off to each side of them. The last two pairs with distressed looks slowly shuffled to the back of the building carefully eyeing the woods.  A barely audible hiss "I'm hungry," drifted in from the woods directly in front of them. All four of them jumped back weapons pointing in that direction. "I heard the word "hungry," quavered one.

Another vehemently nodded his head in agreement, and they backed even further away.

From the front of the building, someone hollered, "Found something." The creature moved out of the bushes into their view hooked tentacles waving, and they bolted.

The Sarg looked down at the food in laying in the leaves with a puzzled frown when a trooper clutching a bag ran up. "We found this." Examing the hole he muttered, "Zellig was an idiot. First, he sees monsters, and then he can't even desert. "Show me where you found it." Following the trooper to the spot, he looked around. Continuing further in that direction he found the broken lamp. Scratching his head, he glanced around at the thick forest thinking, "That fool could have wandered in any direction in the dark. We'll never find him if he's even still alive." Stomping back he snapped, "Everyone back into the building right now."

Ungar sat with Celeste in the mess hall and watched with the others as the now familiar scene played out. A bound and battered woman with a bleeding split lip was dragged out the door and dumped unceremoniously next to the wall with a sign propped up by her. 10 cases of brandy, food for 50 for 5 days. A group of heavily guarded women came through the door carrying offal buckets dumped them off in the woods and returned.

Turning his tablet off Ungar looked up at the group of women and cleared his throat. "Have you decided who is going?"

"Someone has to stay, and that's me. The other counselors are going," said Lora. "About a dozen other volunteers are joining them."

"Have everyone here and ready to go. I'll be back in not more than an hour."

"Which of you are planning to be in the building," asked Celeste. Nine of the Ten raised their hands. "Thank you." Celeste and the chair vanished leaving a  gray disk on the floor to be picked up by Lora.

An unconscious man dragged by his wrists was dropped in the middle of the camp. A stun gun was pointed at his head again, and the trigger was pulled. "We need some rope and the Marshal," said the weary black haired trooper. A coil was pulled off a trailer and tossed down to them. Both started to tie him up when the Marshal walked through the crowd and looked at the man then recoiled as he studied his filthy slack face. "This is Vig, and he reeks worse than a dirty jake."

"We saw him slip away from the women when they dumped the buckets in the woods. He walked right into us. He's heavy and strong as a tractor. We have been stunning every five minutes," said the tired trooper as he checked the knots, then retightened them.

Ben walked over to the Marshal and winced at the man's stench, "He's a brute," he mumbled under his breath to the Marshal."

"A big man for sure and one close to Davin. I think he was being sent to get the tractors, but we won't know for sure until he wakes in a few more minutes.

Vig's eyes opened and filled with malevolence as he stared up at the Marshal then spit at him. "You will suffer the wrath of the Oneness. Davin's whip will leave nothing left of you but bloodied scarred bones." Muscles taughtened, and veins popped as he strained against the ropes, and an arm suddenly broke loose. A trooper's fasts reactions with his stun gun made him go slack again.

"Double those ropes now and make sure they're tight." ordered the Marshal.

"I don't think you are going to learn much from him under these circumstances. Have him dragged down to the trench within reach of my projectors. He should meet and talk with the Oneness's creatures. While you're there recover the woman outside at the same time.

Ben grinned, "Good idea." Ben leaned in close to the Marshal and whispered Celeste's idea to him.

"Give me a few minutes to organize some troopers, Ben. I think it would be best if Gaian's release and escort their woman back here. I'll have Lynn sort that out."

Lynn with two Gaian women disappeared around the building corner. In the shadow of the hovering drone, the woman was untied, helped her to her feet, and they headed back to the camp.

Vig was dropped face first into the dirt, and two troopers rolled him onto his back. "Everybody get back fifty meters," ordered the Marshal. "What you are going to see and hear is not real. I don't want to hear a sound out of any of you."

Vig woke to faint voices. His head jerked right and left seeing nothing but the dirt sides of the trench. Veins expanded in his arms as he strained against the ropes. The voices got louder. "Who there?" he called out.

"We are the children of the Oneness," voices hissed. "We are here to judge you."

"Judge me for what? I am a faithful believer in the Oneness," he snarled and struggled even harder to free himself.

"You follow the false prophet, Davin. His time of judgment is coming near. If you tell me the truth, you will see it happen. If you don't my children will take you."

"What children, I see no children," said Vig, sweat pouring off his face as he frantically fought against unyielding restraints.

A dozen creatures appeared at the edges of the trench. "We are the Oneness's children. We are hungry," they all hissed at Vig.

The blood drained from Vig's face as his head spasmed back and forth watching the creatures gradually creeping towards him, blacken teeth grinding against each other. One suddenly ran at him and stopped. Sharp hooked tentacles whipped in front of his face. "Decide now, or we will start by eating your eyes first" they demanded in unison.

His panicking face filled with horror, and he desperately cried out, "Spare me Oneness, I will tell you whatever you wish."

"Confess the false prophet's plans to me, and you may live." The creature scuttled back a few feet and eyes on stalks swiveled towards him expectantly, foul teeth sharply clacking together. "Where were you going?"

"To tell the tractor drivers to arrive two hours before first light in the morning."

"What will happen then?

"We load them and go to the mines with the women."

"Is the false prophet going to do anything else?"

"The Senior Elder is going to give the whore from the stars a message."

"And that is?" said the creature menacingly rising up and scuttling nearer."

Vig blanched as his bladder failed, "He is going to whip a young girl to death outside and leave her naked body at the door."

"You may live Vig," said the creature jabbing a tentacle hook near Vig's eye.  "When you wake next, you are to swear allegiance to the Marshal. My children are everywhere. I see everything. Do not dare fail me or my children will feed on you and gnaw your face off first."

"Please stun him now!" Ben padded up behind Vig and pulled the trigger. The creatures disappeared. The Marshal waved his ashen troopers over, and without a word, they picked the comatose man up and hurried back to the camp.

The tractor slowed to a crawl as Ungar pulled onto the black surface and jerked to a stop. Ungar quickly walked to the back of the building and looked down into the trench and marveled at the extent of the work all done by hand in one night. "I sure hope this works," he thought to himself. He trotted back and jumped on the other trailer with the women. The tractor lurched away toward the camp as black smoke placidly drifted off into the forest.

Chapter 65 final decisions

The camp slowly came to life as the sun moved overhead. Sandwiches and sliced fruits were being laid out on a trailer bed. Blankets were being folded and Ben suspiciously eyed the latrine, and with a resigned sigh headed in that direction.

"What did you think of the experience? I know many societies are body conscious although I really don't understand why." 

"I had three thoughts. Public latrines aren't places conducive to conversations, there's a tendency to speed the process up, and I used some leg muscles in new ways. I'm sure you enjoyed my discomfort."

"I was amused. If you had stared straight ahead at the tree any longer I think it would have fallen over. What's next on your agenda?"

"I'm going to make a large scale drawing of the building and we're going to plan the activities."


"Watch, I'll make a dirt board."

Ben dropped a stick, in the center of the clearing. With a shovel, he began scraping leaves away. The Marshal wandered over and watched. "What are you doing?

"I want to clear away about a ten-meter square area to draw a scale drawing of the building."

The Marshal walked away and quickly returned with a group of troopers with shovels, "Step back, Ben and give these men some room." Leaves and dirt flew while Ben trotted over to his trailer and grabbed his tablet. Spotting Jans he stopped. "Could you gather your group and meet me in the center of the camp." 

"I'll round them up and we'll be there as soon as possible."

The crowd grew as Ben sketched out the building floor plan in the dirt with a pointed stick. With a flourish, he drew an oval where the hole was going to be cut and looked at the tablet sketch again, "Pretty close," he thought. Turning to the crowd he hollered, "I need six Gaian women volunteers."

As the women walked over Ben directed each to a spot, asked them to lay down and pretend to be asleep. Ben turned to the nine Eauland women. "I need one volunteer to be the first one in to do the stunning." Holi stepped forward. "Good, please stand in the oval and I need five more of you to stand behind Holi." Jans, Elena, Colini, Tami, and Lim took their places. "The last three of you, stand behind them." Turning to the crowd Ben called out for four men to volunteer.  "You two will pull the plug, and replace it, and the other two will pull women through the hole. We'll need more to carry them away but we will deal with that at the time."

Ben took a deep breath. "I think this will work."

"Now's the time to find out, I'll time it for you."

Holi, you're going to have a crowd stunner. You enter, go to the edge of the cabinet, peek around the corner and stun the guard, followed by the women. Then go into the corner and keep stunning the top of the stairs in the other corner. Start now."

"The stunner should already be turned on before I step in," thought Holi as she approached the cabinet end. "Stick it around the corner first waving it around, then look," she said to herself as she acted it out. Two more quick steps and she pretended to stun the women then backed up into the far corner and crouched down.

"Pair off, Lim you're with me. We are going to in rotation. Each pair picks up the closest woman and lays her down by the wall next to the cabinets. Dona and Yana, you pick her up and set her next to the hole, and quickly move back out into the room, Mora, you rotate her and pass her hands out to the two men who will pull her out. Let's give it a try."

Celeste watched as Ben and Lim picked up the woman and moved her over to the wall. Dona and Yana were waiting and they moved her two meters more, Mora turned her and the two men dragged her a meter through the imaginary hole. "It was fast, but not fast enough," Celeste thought as the last woman was moved.

"That was good, but not good enough. Let's do it again. After a woman is set by the wall swing around to the outside to get the next one so the area is clear for the incoming one. We should put a couple of blankets over the base of the hole. It will be easier on the women as we drag the out."

As Holi moved to the cabinet corner, Ben and the five women were right behind her. She waved her hand and the guard would be down. She stepped out and waved her hand at the women as she backed to the corner. In a dozen steps, Ben and Lim picked up the first woman and carried her to the wall. As she was picked up Jans and Elena dropped the second one off and turned back.

"That was excellent Ben. It will take just over seven minutes to move twenty women at that pace. Factor in some adrenaline and it might be faster. I've finished the women's armor suits and goggles and have a drone in route with them."

Holi, Lim, DonaYana, Mora, Jans, Elena, Colini, Tami

Food being prepared Drone delivers armor suits and night goggles for the nine.
New batteries in the laser cutter.
Meeting to discuss the attack
Ben draws in the dirt

Chapter 66 The assault

Balance of the dirt removed, everything is prepped
Women and Ben are in their skin tight suits
two men ready to pull the plug, and reinsert
celeste is watching the lights, and has repositioned drones to watch when the go out they wait to make sure no one is awake
Ben scores a plug orientation mark so the plug is put back in correctly.
Suction cup handles installed in cleaned locations
Ben cuts the Hole and pauses. as the outside lights are all turned off leaving only a couple of small oil lamps burning outside
The plug is pulled and set to the side
Holi creeps in and stuns the sleeping guard, and then reaches around the corner and stuns the women including one who has woken.

She waves and moves to the corner and keeps the stunner pointed at the stairs 
Ben and Lim move in first and picks up the closest women and start back as