I know lots of you have been waiting awhile now for the next book in the Hearts of ICARUS series. I'm still working on final editing so it'll be a couple weeks (sooner if I can manage it) before the finished book, Vari's Miracles, is ready. But I do have a preview!!
Rather than take the time to create a new page for it, I'm just going to post it right here on this page. When I'm done with the book I'll try to find time to spruce up the site a bit. My priorities are always writing and writing with a little writing on the side, so when you see my site go untouched for a long time, that's why.
Thank you, all of you, for reading my books. It's because of you that I keep on writing, and I appreciate every one of you.
That's about it for now. Have a good summer, enjoy the preview, and happy reading!
Hearts of ICARUS, Book 5
Ten years earlier…
“I do not want to do this,” Declan Dracon growled as soon as they were as far from the house as Princess Lariah’s garden would allow. He and his brothers, Jaydan and Kaidan, were far too upset to notice the small sneaker clad foot as it slowly withdrew from sight beneath the heavy foliage of a lemon geranium.
“We don’t want to do it either,” Jaydan said quietly. “But we must. After the Princes we are the eldest Dracon male-set of our line now that Quenton, Sam, and Karl have moved on to the next plane. It’s our duty to fill our brother’s places within Clan Dracon.”
“It feels like we’re trying to replace them,” Declan said, beginning to pace back and forth along the flagstone path. “I don’t think anyone would blame us if we declined.”
“Other than ourselves, probably not,” Jay conceded. Declan grunted, but there was no telling whether he agreed or disagreed with Jay’s statement.
“I’m worried about little Nica,” said Kaidan, the youngest of the brothers, his voice throbbing with sadness. “It seems her poor mind is all but broken.”
“They never should have left Jasan,” Declan retorted. “They should have remained here and watched over her instead of haring off to the far ends of the galaxy.”
“They wanted to allow Nica her childhood, Declan,” Kai said. “It was the right thing to do.”
“It would’ve been better for her to lose a bit of her childhood than to suffer as she is now.” Declan paced away, then back again before stopping in front of Jay and Kai. “I tell you now, my brothers, should we ever be blessed enough to find our berezi, we will remain right here on Jasan with her. We will keep her safe every minute of every day and never let her out of our sight.”
“You would give up all that we’ve worked so hard for and…what?...become ranchers?” Jay asked.
“I’d give up anything and everything to keep our berezi safe,” Declan replied heatedly. “That includes keeping ourselves safe once we find her so she never has to suffer as Nica now suffers.”
“You’re right, of course,” Jay agreed reluctantly. “There can be nothing more important than the health, safety, and happiness of the one woman meant for us.” He shook his head. “I never would’ve believed I’d willingly give up traveling among the stars to remain in one place, but I would do it for our berezi.”
“Kai?” Declan asked.
“Knowing what Nica is going through, how could I not agree? There is nothing I wouldn’t do for our berezi.”
“It’s agreed then,” Declan said. “When we find our berezi, we will keep her safe no matter what sacrifices we must make.” He raised his left hand toward his brothers, they raised theirs in return, and they clasped hands together in agreement.
After they lowered their arms to their sides Declan hung his head and sighed heavily. Jay and Kai waited for him to regain control of his emotions. When he stiffened his spine and squared his shoulders, they did the same.
“Let’s go tell cousin Garen that we’re honored to accept the rank of Dracon-Bats in our brothers’ stead. Then we can return to the Bihotza and leave this heartache behind us.”
Without another word they made their way back through the garden to the house, never noticing the gold flecked green eyes that followed them every step of the way.
Varia Shira Lobo had just begun eating her breakfast when the unthinkable happened; her psionic jammers suddenly and inexplicably ceased to function. The raw, unfiltered, uncensored, and unrestrained thoughts of roughly two hundred fellow diners slammed into her mind with enough force to cause her vision to gray out.
She bowed her head, clenched her fists, closed her eyes, and forced herself to breathe evenly while struggling to raise a psychic shield against the onslaught. It was nauseatingly difficult to do, but the mental image of herself quivering beneath the table like a squilik surrounded by a pack of baying hunters provided her with enough incentive to keep at it until she succeeded. Her shield was just strong enough to push the cacophony back to a slightly more manageable roar. Her head still felt like it was about to explode from the pressure, but the explosion no longer felt imminent.
“Vari? What’s wrong?”
She opened her eyes, raised her head slowly, and struggled to bring the woman sitting across the table from her into focus. A Flaridian, Shanti appeared to be human except for her dichromatic coloring. Her long, thick hair was snow white, but her thin, finely arched brows were jet black, as were the thick lashes that surrounded her large, equally black eyes. Her lips and fingernails were also black, in sharp contrast to skin as white as her hair.
Aside from her sisters, Vari could count those she considered close friends on one hand, and Shanti was one of them. They’d been randomly designated roommates on their first day at the ICARUS Academy Psy Program on New Ugaztun five years earlier. Despite the four year gap in their ages, they’d become fast friends.
Vari nodded in answer to Shanti’s question, which sent shards of glass ricocheting through her head.
“Don’t give me that,” Shanti said. “Your aura is so dark and cloudy right now I wouldn’t be surprised to see it start raining on your head.”
Vari smiled cautiously, then reached up to tap lightly on the sapphire earring she wore in her left ear. Nothing happened. She tapped the earring in her right earlobe. It didn’t work either. Fear raced up her spine too suddenly for her to quell it. She gritted her teeth and shoved it back into a dark corner of her mind with the ease of long practice.
“Oh no,” Shanti exclaimed softly. “Your jammers aren’t working, are they?”
Vari managed a tiny side to side movement of her head. The pressure of so many minds in such close proximity caused the grip she had on her psychic shield to be too tenuous to attempt speaking.
“You have backups, right?”
Vari dipped her head very carefully.
“I’d offer to go get them for you but you need to get out of here, don’t you?”
Another careful dip of the head.
“Go now. Oh wait…shall I let Ria know what’s happening?”
Vari thought about that. Her middle sister was working the night shift in the Leaper’s infirmary as a junior med tech for the summer, and had probably just gotten to bed. There was nothing Ria could do but worry, and she really needed her sleep. Vari shook her head in a careful side to side movement.
Shanti frowned. “Your aura is getting darker by the second. Maybe I should walk you to your room.”
Vari’s eyes widened at that. Shanti had a very strong mental voice which she often projected without realizing it. It was so strong, in fact, that Vari had heard it despite the jammers on occasion. And that was her accidental mental projection. When she deliberately sent thoughts it tended to cross Vari’s eyes unless they were a great distance from each other. She’d been working with Shanti on controlling it, but when she was upset or stressed, like now, it got away from her. Another slight shake of her head was the best response Vari could make but Shanti understood.
“Yeah, I know, I’d only make it worse,” she said. “I’ll vid you later when you don’t have quite so many people to block.”
Vari managed a tiny nod before slowly and carefully turning her head. She grimaced at the number of people between where she sat, and the exit. The closer she was to a person, the more strongly she picked up their mental voice. Just thinking about accidentally coming into physical contact with any of those people caused her mouth to go dry. Even if both jammers were working at full capacity they wouldn’t be able to protect her from the pain if that happened.
The cafeteria had only the one exit, which left her with two options. She could either cut straight across the room to the door, or walk around the less populated perimeter. The latter choice would reduce the risk of physical contact, but it would take more than twice as long as going straight across.
The sooner she got out of the cafeteria the better, she decided. Her decision made, Vari stood up and started moving. She wove through the tables, careful to avoid touching or making eye contact with anyone. Her step was unhurried but purposeful, shoulders relaxed, arms at her sides, chin up, expression calm. Looking at her, no one would ever guess that the roar of voices in her mind, punctuated by the too-loud thoughts of those she passed closest to, made her head feel like it was in an ever tightening vise.
By the time she reached the exit her heart was pounding and she felt a bit dizzy because she’d forgotten to breathe for the last half dozen or so steps. Once she was through the door and into the corridor she wanted nothing more than to collapse against the wall in relief, but she was still far too close to far too many people.
Thankfully, the early hour meant that the majority of the twelve thousand five hundred passengers and twenty five hundred crew and service personnel aboard the Leaper were still asleep. She wondered briefly what it would have been like if her jammers had failed while the cafeteria was filled to capacity, and shuddered. It probably would have killed her.
Maintaining her relaxed, unruffled appearance out of sheer habit, she made her way across the Leaper’s main deck to the stairs situated next to the bank of elevators situated nearest the bow. Vari rarely used elevators because once inside, she had no control over how many people would crowd into it before she was able to get off again. Being hemmed in on all sides with two, three, or even four strangers less than a hair’s breadth from brushing against her was a scene straight out of one of her worst nightmares.
She pulled open the stairwell door, went down one flight, then exited. As she worked her way steadily along the length of the ship, putting distance between herself and the cafeteria, less noise penetrated her shield. By the time she reached the door to her stateroom near the stern, the painful roar had become a loud but much more tolerable hum, and some of the pressure in her head eased.
She pressed her thumb to the print scanner and pushed the door open the moment she heard the lock disengage. After locking the door behind herself she went directly into the tiny bathroom with its equally tiny fixtures and splashed handful after handful of cold water on her face.
“Vari? What’s the matter?”
Vari turned off the water and reached for a towel to dry her face. When she lowered the towel she turned toward the bathroom doorway where a tiny woman no more than three inches tall with long blond hair, pale blue eyes, and two pair of narrow, semi-transparent wings hovered.
“You don’t look so good,” the tiny woman said before landing on the edge of the bathroom sink. She tugged her long, black and white striped dress out of a small puddle of water with a half-hearted sigh.
“My jammers malfunctioned,” Vari said, hanging the towel on the rack.
“Malfunctioned in what way?”
“They stopped working, Pandora. Completely.”
Her wet hem forgotten, Pandora immediately rose up to hover in front of Vari’s face again so she could get a closer look at her. “You’re in a lot of pain.”
“It’s not so bad now that I’m away from the cafeteria.”
Pandora’s eyes narrowed. “How many people were in there?”
“About two hundred.”
Pandora paled. “I suddenly find your tendency to awaken hours before the sun to be rather less annoying than usual.”
“There is no sun, Pandora,” Vari said while bending down to get her toiletries case from the cabinet under the sink. “We’re in space, remember?”
“Of course I remember,” Pandora sniffed. “You know what I meant.”
“Yes, I know what you meant,” Vari agreed as she carried the toiletries case out of the bathroom. It took only three steps to reach the narrow cot euphemistically referred to as a bed, where she sat down.
“You had them all tuned and tested before we left Jasan, didn’t you?”
“Yes, as usual,” Vari said, glancing up at Pandora who was just settling on the bedside table. “They were all certified to be in perfect working order.”
“That’s good then,” Pandora said with relief. “I’m sure the backups will be just fine.”
Vari opened the case and unzipped the compartment that contained the backup jammers, each set appearing to be nothing more than a pair of sapphire post earrings identical to those she currently wore. She selected a pair and switched them out with the ones that had failed in the cafeteria.
Her heart skipped a beat when she discovered that they didn’t work. She reached for the last set with trembling fingers, somehow knowing that they wouldn’t work either. She wasn’t wrong. Stunned, she stared at the first two sets of jammers in confusion.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Pandora said worriedly.
“No, it hasn’t,” Vari agreed. “I’ve never had one malfunction in any way. Now all six fail at the same time. This cannot possibly be a coincidence.” She looked up at Pandora again. “Maybe you should check…you know.”
“Yes, I agree.” Pandora’s eyes grew unfocused while Vari watched, and waited. After what felt like a very long time but was really no more than a minute, Pandora blinked. “There is nothing to indicate that anything wrong is at work here. And before you ask I checked with them. They agree.”
“Thank you, Pandora,” Vari said, then stared down at the two pair of jammers in her hand again. “I can’t think of a single reason for this to happen. Can you?”
“No, Vari, I’m sorry,” Pandora said.
Vari returned the extra jammers to the compartment in her toiletries case. “So now what?”
“You can’t remain on the Leaper without at least one jammer, Vari. There are just too many people on this ship.”
Vari nodded, knowing Pandora was right. The pain and pressure in her head was less than what it’d been in the cafeteria, but it wasn’t gone. As the other passengers on the Leaper awoke and began congregating in the public areas one deck above her, the pain she’d experienced in the cafeteria was going to seem like a minor irritation. Her shield was nowhere near strong enough to block so many people. The best she could do was use her shield to quiet the mental voices that reached her, which she was already doing. Unfortunately, it took a lot of effort to hold her shield in place. The more tired she became, the weaker the shield would get until, inevitably, she wouldn’t be able to hold it at all. Staying in her stateroom would help a great deal, but she could only put so much distance between herself and the other passengers within the confines of the ship.
Vari set the toiletries case aside with a regretful sigh and slipped her hand terminal from its holster at her waist. Before she had a chance to make her call, the screen lit up with an image of Shanti. She accepted the call and spoke before her friend had a chance to say anything.
“I’m okay, Shanti.”
“I doubt that,” Shanti said worriedly. “At least you can talk now. Are the backups working?”
“No, they’re not,” Vari replied. “Not one of them.”
“Rajne,” Shanti swore. “What are you going to do, and how can I help?”
“I’m going to call my Dads and hope they can locate a ship that I can transport onto. We’re in a major shipping lane so it’s at least possible.”
“How’s that going to help?”
“It won’t unless it’s a smaller ship with fewer people onboard. Preferably a Jasani ship filled with Klanaren who can shield themselves.”
“I hope they can find one fast.”
“So do I.”
“How did this happen, Vari? Do you have any idea?”
“None,” Vari replied. “Shanti, do you want to come with me?”
Her friend hesitated just a little, but Vari saw it even on the tiny screen of her hand terminal. “Please don’t feel like you have to, Shanti.”
“It’s just that Geoff and I have really hit it off,” Shanti said. Her cheeks darkened to a deep gray that Vari had no trouble recognizing as a blush. “Shame on me. You’re my best friend, Vari, and you need me. Of course I’ll come with you.”
“You’re a good and thoughtful friend, Shanti, and I love you,” Vari said, smiling. “But let’s be honest. The only reason we’re on this gargantuan liner instead of a more reasonably sized, and vastly more comfortable one, is that I wanted to be near my sister for the last leg of our vacation, and you’re too generous to say no.
“I asked if you wanted to come with me just now because I didn’t want to repay your kindness by abandoning you here on your own. I’m glad you’ve found a reason to stay here that makes you happy. So, enjoy the rest of the voyage, and Geoff, and I’ll meet the Leaper when it reaches Jasan.”
Shanti looked torn. “Are you sure?”
“I’m absolutely positive,” Vari said, pressing her fingers against her temple in an effort to ease a sudden spike of pain. “Just do me a favor and check on Ria now and then.”
“I promise. I’ll even scold her when she skips meals and volunteers for extra shifts instead of sleeping.”
“Then she won’t even know I’m gone,” Vari said, grinning.
“That’s the point. Lak knari, Vari.”
“Lak knari, Shanti.”
After ending her call with Shanti, Vari entered her Ata's vid code, then waited for his face to appear on the screen. This time she set the device on the bedside table, made sure the camera lens faced her, and pressed a button on the side. A moment later the image on the screen was projected onto an expanse of bare wall, giving her a much larger image than the tiny screen allowed, and providing her Dads with a similar view of herself. Pandora flew over to her shoulder and sat down, something Vari was so used to she barely noticed.
“Hello, Vari,” Faron said, smiling. “Hi Pandora. This is a pleasant surprise.”
“Hi Ata,” Vari said while Pandora just waved. Something in Vari’s expression or tone of voice must have been off because Faron’s smile immediately faded.
“What’s the matter?”
“My jammers have ceased to function.”
“Ceased to function?” Dav asked, frowning as he and Ban moved to stand beside Faron so she could see all three of them. “Can you be more specific?”
“I wish I could, Dede,” Vari said. “I was just starting to eat breakfast when all of a sudden, no more jammers. Thankfully it’s very early, so there were only a couple hundred people in the cafeteria at the time.”
“Are you all right?” Faron asked.
“Yes, Ata, I’m fine.”
“The backups aren’t working either?” Ban asked.
“No, Popi, they’re not. I’ve got three pair of jammers with me, I had them serviced just a few weeks ago by the usual technician, and not one of them works.”
“Nothing unusual has happened?” Dav asked.
“Not to my knowledge, no.”
“What do you want to do?” Faron asked, trying not to reveal how worried he actually was.
“I can’t remain on the Leaper. My stateroom is near the stern, under the transport room on deck one. That’s helping me a lot right now, but when the other passengers start waking up and gathering on Deck One, which will happen soon, it’s going to get rough.”
“We’ll contact whichever one of our ships is closest to your current location and have it rendezvous with the Leaper as soon as possible,” Faron said. “One with a significantly smaller population than the Leaper.”
“Thank you, Ata,” Vari said. “I’m sorry to cause so much trouble, but I don’t know what else to do.”
“You’ve nothing to apologize for, Vari,” Faron said. “What about Shanti and Ria?”
“I haven’t told Ria. She just got off work an hour ago and is, I hope, sound asleep. I’m not going to let her throw away the extra credits she’s earning for med school just to babysit me anyway, so there’s no sense in waking her up.”
“You need to at least tell her what’s happening,” Dav said.
“Shanti will do that for me. She’ll be staying here, too.” Faron’s jaw tightened with disapproval. “Shanti has an unusually strong mental voice, Ata, and she’s just learning to control it. Having her with me would not be helpful right now.”
Faron nodded, unable to argue with that. “Stay in your stateroom. We’ll get back to you with details regarding a pickup as soon as we can. Pandora, please contact us if anything happens.”
“I will, Faron. Don’t worry, I won’t leave her for a moment.”
“Thank you, Dads,” Vari said. “Give Mom and Bean a hug for me. Love you.”
“Mom and Aunt Lari went to Garza to visit Tani,” Ban said.
“What? Why? Is Tani all right?”
“She’s fine, sweetheart,” Barn replied. “She’s getting close to her time and they wanted to be there when her son is born. That’s all.”
“Maybe we should refrain from telling her about this,” Dav suggested.
Vari winced as she imagined her mother’s reaction to that. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Dede.”
“We’ll wait until we have you safe and sound and go from there,” Faron said. “Try to relax now, Vari. We love you, too, and we’ll give Bean your hug.”
“Thanks,” Vari said. “Talk to you later.”
Vari reached out and pressed a button on the hand terminal, closing the connection. Pandora flew back to the bedside table, but since she made no comment, neither did Vari. Instead, she kicked off her shoes and got up to change into her comfort clothes; a pair of loose, stretchy lounging pants and a large, faded t-shirt, both of which had seen far better days. Then she laid down on the bed, closed her eyes, and concentrated on making her shield stronger.
Declan, Jaydan and Kaidan Dracon-Bat left the Roar Room after a satisfyingly intense workout in their dracon alter-forms. They were surprised to find their captain waiting for them in the ante room, something the man had never done in the fifteen years he’d captained for them.
“Lord Commanders,” Finch said with a polite bow.
“Captain Finch,” Declan replied. “Is something amiss?”
“An urgent, priority one encrypted message from Lord Faron Lobo came in. I forwarded it to your private lines but thought it best to alert you to its presence immediately.”
“When did the message arrive?” Declan asked, revealing neither his surprise nor his concern.
“Less than five minutes ago,” Finch replied. His eyes went to Jay, who was already checking his hand terminal. “I’ll be on the bridge if you need me, Commander.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Declan said. He waited for Finch to leave the ante room, then turned to face Jay and Kai. As soon as the message was decrypted Jay offered the hand terminal to Declan without reading it. Declan stared down at the text on the small screen and frowned.
“This is…interesting,” he said, looking up to meet his brother’s curious eyes. “It seems that the eldest Lobo daughter is on a passenger liner not far from our current position. We are asked to intercept the liner at all speed, transport Lady Varia onto the Bihotza, then continue to Jasan as quickly as possible.”
“Does Lord Faron give a reason for his request?” Kai asked.
“He does not,” Declan replied, handing the device back to Jay who read the message quickly. When he was finished he handed it to Kai, then looked up at Declan with an arched brow.
“Yes,” Declan agreed. He waited for Kai to read the message and return the hand terminal to Jay. “Please send the data on the liner—what was it called? The Leaper?” Jay nodded. “Send the Leaper’s data to the bridge and ask Captain Finch to plot an intercept course immediately.”
Jay nodded, already tapping at the device. When he was finished he looked up at Declan again. “Shall I respond to Lord Faron as well?”
“Yes, but wait until Captain Finch provides an ETA for our intercept. While we wait, let’s go to the comm room.”
“Yes, good idea,” Jay said. It would be much easier to send encrypted messages from a full sized terminal than the hand terminal.
“Would it be too intrusive to ask Lord Faron why we are to do this?” Kai asked as they left the ante room and headed for the stairs.
“I’m afraid so,” Declan said after a moment’s thought. “Lord Faron spared no words to make it clear that the retrieval of his daughter is exceptionally urgent. If he’d wanted to explain why, he would have.” He opened the stairwell door and, using Air magic, ran up two flights in just a few moments. They left the stairwell and walked up the corridor at normal speed. “I wonder why Lord Faron makes no mention of the child’s attendants.”
Jay glanced down at his hand terminal. “Captain Finch advises we will intercept the Leaper in four Standard hours. I can ask Lord Faron about his daughter’s attendants when I respond to him.”
“Yes, please do,” Declan said, opening the comm room door. Jay went straight to the first vid terminal and began tapping out a message before encrypting it, then sending it speeding back toward Jasan.
“It’s a good thing we’re on our way to Jasan anyway,” Kai said. “And using the same shipping channel as the Leaper.”
“I suppose,” Declan agreed stiffly. Kai understood his brother’s feelings on the subject. He shared them. As much as they all respected their cousins, High Prince Garen, Prince Trey, and Prince Val, being summoned home without explanation did not sit well with any of them. Especially since they’d been forced to hand over the lead in tense negotiations that they’d worked more than a year to bring about.
They waited patiently without speaking further until a soft tone indicated the arrival of Lord Faron’s response. Jay decrypted it, then opened it on a large screen so that they could all see it.
“I don’t understand,” Kai said after reading the missive. “Why would a child—an extremely important and all too rare female Clan Jasani child—be traveling unattended on a public liner?”
“I’ve no idea,” Declan said, a slightly arched brow the only indication of his own surprise. “I can’t imagine Faron, Dav, or Ban condoning such an action.”
“Perhaps she ran away,” Jay suggested. “It would certainly explain why she’s alone, and why we’ve been asked to retrieve her with such urgency.”
“Perhaps.” Declan thought a moment. “I recall meeting the Lobo daughters not so long ago. We were in their presence for no more than a few moments, but they seemed to be quiet, well-behaved little girls. I’m surprised that one of them—especially the eldest—would defy her fathers in such an egregious manner. I would’ve expected more from a daughter of the Prime Guardians.”
“We don’t know that’s what happened,” Kai pointed out. “There are other possible explanations.”
“Perhaps her attendant died or became ill. Or, maybe whoever she’s traveling with will continue on their journey while Lady Varia returns to Jasan. Maybe she fell ill herself, or has been injured in some way.” Kai shrugged. “I hardly think it’s fair to make judgements regarding the child’s character and behavior until we have more information.”
“You’re correct, of course, Kai. We should suspend judgement until we know the facts.”
“I’ll tell the head steward to prepare a guest room for her,” Kai offered.
“Yes, please,” Declan said, allowing his annoyance to show. “We’ve seen and done many things over the years, my brothers, but this is the first time we’ve been asked to babysit. I cannot say I’m looking forward to it, in all honesty. Hopefully the next eight days will pass quickly and we can put this particular adventure behind us.”
Sixteen years earlier….
Vari sat on the thick grass at the top of the hill, her eyes fixed on the house below. She’d been waiting since sunrise for her sisters to come out, and although she was a little cold, the thought of giving up her vigil never entered her mind.
Today was the first day of school for her middle sister Maria (who preferred to go by Ria), and her youngest sister BreeAnna, (who, for reasons of her own, answered only to Bean). Even though Vari couldn’t attend real school herself, she was determined to at least wave to her sisters when they left.
Finally the front door opened and her sisters skipped out onto the porch. They were too far away to see clearly, but Bean’s long, pale blue braids, and Ria’s bright blue pony tail were impossible to mistake. Vari felt how happy and excited they were and she smiled. Her disappointment at not being able join her sisters did not dim her happiness for them.
When Ria and Bean turned to look up the hill before waving to her, she had to fight back tears. Even in their excitement, they hadn’t forgotten about her. She returned their waves with both hands.
Her mother followed Bean and Ria out the door and turned to blow her a kiss. Then she herded the girls to the ground car on the other side of the house. A short time later the ground car backed down the drive, then drove away and out of sight. Vari continued to sit on the grass overlooking the house she could no longer live in, waiting for the urge to cry to fade. After a few minutes she stood up and turned toward the little house her parents had built for her, stumbling in surprise to find that she wasn’t alone.
A woman she’d never seen before stood several yards away staring silently at nothing. There was something odd about the woman’s appearance. Vari studied her curiously for a few moments before realizing she could see right through the her, just like she could see through a shadow. She’d never been able to do that before, and wondered what it meant.
The woman continued to stand there without speaking or moving or even looking at her. Vari wasn’t sure what to do. She was hungry now as well as cold, and wanted to go inside, but she thought it might be rude to just walk away without saying anything. One thing her parents never tolerated was rudeness. So Vari set her hunger aside and gathered her courage.
“Hello,” she said hesitantly.
The woman’s eyes widened in surprise as she shifted her gaze to Vari. “Did you speak to me?”
“Yes,” Vari replied, looking around to make sure there wasn’t someone else there that she’d missed seeing.
“You can see me,” the woman said as she drifted closer. “Can’t you?”
“Yes,” Vari replied, starting to feel a little nervous. Then she realized that she couldn’t hear the woman’s thoughts and forgot all about being nervous.
She hated hearing people’s thoughts. It was the reason she couldn’t live in the house with her family any more, or go to school with her sisters, or play with her baby brothers, or go to parties or shopping or anything. She was learning how to stop people’s thoughts from getting into her head, but she wasn’t very good at it yet even though she practiced all the time.
“Vari, come inside now. Breakfast is ready.” Vari looked up at the kitchen window.
“I’m coming, Popi,” she replied, starting toward the house again. She’d only taken a few steps when the woman called out for her to wait, so she stopped. “Yes?”
“Where are you going?”
“Into the house for breakfast,” Vari replied, gesturing to the little house behind her.
“Will you come out again later?”
“Yes,” Vari replied. Then, since the woman didn’t say anything else, she turned and continued on her way around to the front of the house. After wiping her feet on the mat she went inside, closed the door, and crossed the living room to the kitchen in just a few steps. The little house was pretty, she had all of her things in her room just like before, and it was a relief not to be in so much pain from all the voices in her head. But even after a whole year, she still missed living with her family.
“Good morning sweetheart,” Ban said as she stepped into the kitchen. “Did you see Ria and Bean off to school?”
“I did, Popi, and they both remembered to wave at me too. And guess what!”
“What?” Ban asked as he set two steaming plates on the table. Vari went over to the sink and Ban picked her up so she could reach the faucet.
“There’s a shadow lady outside and I can’t hear her thoughts,” Vari said as she put soap on her hands and began washing. Ban was so surprised by her statement that it took him a few moments to think of a response.
“What kind of lady?” he asked, while Vari rinsed the soap from her hands and turned the water off.
“A shadow lady. Didn’t you see her?”
“No, I didn’t,” he said, setting her down and handing her a towel. “What’s her name?”
“I don’t know. I never saw her before.” Vari dried her hands, handed the towel back to her father, and then took her place at the small table.
“Why do you call her a shadow lady?” Ban asked, careful to keep worry out of his tone.
“Because she looked like a shadow, but with faded colors instead of darkness.”
“Faded colors?” Ban asked, perplexed.
“Her colors were…thin,” Vari said, struggling to find words to explain herself. “I could see through her.”
Ban nearly dropped his coffee cup. “You could see through her?”
“Yes,” Vari said, catching his tension. “Did I do something bad, Popi?”
“No, sweetheart, of course not. I promise. Did she say anything to you?”
Vari had just put some eggs in her mouth so she finished chewing and swallowed before answering. “She asked if I could see her.” Vari frowned again. “That was a weird question, wasn’t it Popi?”
“Yes, it was,” Ban said, his heart sinking as he began to suspect what was happening. Vari already had one difficult ability. She didn’t need another. He considered voxing his brothers, but decided to make absolutely certain first. “Was she still out there when you came in?”
“Yes. She asked if I’d come back out later.”
“How about we finish eating, clean up the kitchen, then I’ll go out with you to meet her.”
“Okay,” Vari agreed. “Popi?”
“Since I can’t hear the shadow lady’s thoughts, does that mean the telethy went away?”
Ban’s heart twisted in his chest. He knew his daughter well enough to know that nothing he could say would ever convince her one way or another. She needed to prove it to herself before she’d accept it, and the sooner the better. “It’s telepathy, sweetheart,” he corrected gently. “Would you like me to lower my shield a little so you can try?”
Vari nodded enthusiastically. “Yes please, Popi. Can you do it now?”
“Sure,” Ban said, then lowered his shield while keeping his eyes fixed on Vari’s face. The moment he saw disappointment darken her eyes he raised his shield. “I’m sorry, Vari.”
“It’s okay,” Vari said stabbing another chunk of egg and putting it in her mouth. At just five years of age, she was already far too good at hiding her feelings.
Ban said nothing more on the subject and neither did Vari. When they were finished eating Vari got her step stool out of the pantry and helped her father clean up the kitchen and wash the dishes. Then they went outside so Vari could introduce him to the woman whose name she didn’t know.
They stepped off the porch and rounded the corner of the house, then Vari stopped in her tracks, frowning. The lady wasn’t by herself any more.
“Vari, what’s the matter?”
“There was only one shadow lady here before.”
“How many of them are there now?”
“You can’t see them?”
“No, I can’t see them. How many are there?”
“Four. Two shadow ladies and two shadow men.” She took a step back when they all moved toward her.
“Don’t be afraid,” the first shadow lady said. “We won’t hurt you. We couldn’t hurt you even if we wanted to.”
“No, we can’t.”
Vari looked up at her father who had a strange expression on his face that she didn’t understand. “Popi, the shadow lady said they can’t hurt me. Is that true?”
“I’m not sure,” Ban said slowly. “I think we should go back in the house until I can find out more about this.”
Vari looked back at the shadow people, her eyes widening with fear when she saw how close they’d gotten. The first shadow lady was just a couple of inches away now. Vari backed up a step, suddenly afraid to let the shadow lady touch her. The shadow lady moved closer.
Even though she was a big girl and didn’t need to be carried, she was relieved when her father picked her up. Now that she was so high up she had no trouble seeing three new shadow people suddenly appear from nothing. And they were all staring at her.
“We’re going inside now,” Ban said as Vari began trembling in his arms.
“Okay, Popi,” Vari whispered, nodding her head quickly. “Hurry.”
When Vari was certain her shield was as strong as it was going to get, she tried to meditate in an effort to distance herself from the slow but steady increase of pain and pressure in her head. It wasn’t working much better than her attempts to strengthen her shield, so she didn’t mind at all when her hand terminal began to chime. She sat up and reached for the device, surprised to see her youngest sister’s image on the screen instead of one of her fathers. She accepted the call and projected Bean’s face onto the wall.
“Hi Bean,” she said, immediately noticing the tension in her sister’s expression even though she was trying to hide it. “What’s the matter?”
“The Dads found a suitable ship close enough to your current location to pick you up in four…no, make that three and a half hours from now,” Bean replied with a too bright smile. Vari frowned, arched one brow, and waited.
Bean’s smile vanished. “It’s the Bihotza.”
Vari’s stomach dropped. “Is this a joke?”
“Of course not. I’d never joke about something like this, especially considering the seriousness of your current situation.”
“I know you wouldn’t, Bean. It’s just…well…rajne.”
“Exactly,” Bean said. “Which is why I asked the Dads to let me tell you.”
“Thank you for that.”
“Vari, you may want to consider telling the Dads about…well…you know.”
“Why?” Vari asked in surprise.
“I did a little checking of my own, which is why it took me nearly half an hour to make this call. The next nearest Jasani ship could reach you in about twelve hours. But we both know the Dads won’t switch to a ship that’ll take that much longer to reach you without a very compelling reason. If you tell them the truth, they might do it. On the other hand, they might not. They’re very worried about you, Vari, as am I.”
Vari knew her sister was worried. She was a little worried herself. Just under an hour and a half had passed since her jammers had failed and she was already starting to get tired of holding the shield in place. She thought she could squeak through another three and a half hours, but if she had to wait twelve hours she’d probably be comatose by the time the other ship arrived. Or dead. She wasn’t going to tell her sister that, though. Bean was already worried enough.
“I appreciate your efforts Bean, but the Bihotza is already on its way here. I can’t inconvenience even more people than I already have.” It wasn’t the whole truth, but it was true nonetheless.
“I figured you’d say that,” Bean said. “You have the spray with you, don’t you?”
“I do. And the pills as well.”
“You should take one pill now and use the spray today and tomorrow morning, just to be sure. That’ll give the pills plenty of time to go into full effect.”
Vari nodded almost absently. “Bean, do you know if the Dads mentioned my telepathy to—well—to them?”
“Of course they didn’t,” Bean said in what was, for her, a sharp tone. “That’s classified.”
“I’m sure they have a high enough clearance, Bean, and I didn’t mean it as an accusation. I just need to know what reason the Dads gave for all of this.”
“They didn’t give a reason. Ata sent an urgent, priority one request that was, quite frankly, just a word or two short of an outright order. They received an acknowledgment and acceptance less than ten minutes later. Explanations weren’t offered or asked for.” Bean frowned. “They did ask if they were to transport your attendant as well—their word, not mine.”
“Attendant? What’s that mean?”
“No idea. Dede simply told them that you were on your own.”
“Do you think they could have meant Pandora?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” Something in her sister’s voice caught Vari’s attention.
“What are you thinking, Bean?”
“You’re not going to like it.”
“All the more reason not to make me drag it out of you.”
“Well, you might consider telling them the truth.” Vari stared at her sister’s image in open mouthed surprise. “I’m not talking about your psychic abilities either,” Bean continued. “Honestly, Vari, you have enough to hide as it is. Why hide this when you don’t have to?”
“What do you suggest I do?”
“Confront them directly, tell them you’re not interested, and move on.” Vari paled. Bean’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t think they’d try to force you, do you?”
“Force me to be their Arima?” Vari asked in surprise. Her sister nodded. “No Bean, I don’t think they’d do that.”
“Then just tell them. You’ve been worried about this long enough, and you don’t need the additional stress. Especially now that you’re going to be in close quarters with them without a jammer.”
Vari was shaking her head before her sister finished speaking. “I can’t do that.”
“Vari,” Bean began, then hesitated.
“I understand that you don’t want to be mated yet. I’m not ready for that either. What I don’t understand is, why does it scare you? I have to admit, that worries me. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you so scared of anything before.” Bean shrugged. “Well, not since we were five, anyway.”
Vari immediately slammed the door on the memories Bean had just exposed and focused on how best to answer the question. She was a terrible liar, so she chose her words carefully. “How would you feel if you knew you'd be wrapped in padding and put in a bubble for the rest of your life?”
“Is that what you think they’ll do to you?” Bean gasped, appalled.
“Yes, it is.”
“In that case, I have to ask again; why don’t you just tell them you’re not interested?”
Vari dropped her eyes and shook her head. “Because I’m not a good liar.”
Bean was so shocked that her mouth fell open, giving Vari a good idea of how she’d looked moments earlier. While she waited for her sister to respond she promised herself to never, ever let her mouth fall open like that again. Yuck.
“Okay, I get it now,” Bean said after finally closing her mouth. “Don’t worry, Sis, I’ve got your back on this, and so will Ria.”
“Thank you, Bean.”
“How’s your shield holding up?”
“It’s already starting to weaken a little,” Vari admitted, grateful for the change in subject. “I’m sure I can get through the next few hours as long as I stay in my stateroom.”
“Try some music. That used to help sometimes, didn’t it?”
“That’s a good idea. I didn’t even think of that. I have a copy of Rayne’s latest concerto, which I haven’t had a chance to finish anyway.”
“I hope it helps. You should probably get packed up now, before the pain you’re trying to hide gets any worse.”
“I will,” Vari agreed. “So, what’s the plan?”
“The Bihotza will send a message to your hand terminal as soon as they get close enough to the Leaper to transport you. When you receive it turn off your transport disrupter, then respond to the message when you’re ready. They’ll transport you as soon as they lock on to the source of your confirmation.”
“That’s simple enough,” Vari said. “I guess I’ll be seeing you a little sooner than expected.”
“That’s the bright side to all of this,” Bean said. “With you off vacationing with Shanti, Ria working on the Leaper all summer, and the boys off at flight school, it’s been really quiet and sort of lonely around here.”
“Why didn’t you go with Mom and Aunt Lari to Garza? Tani would have loved seeing you.”
“Because they want to stay until the baby is born, and I have to go back to school in a couple of weeks. I didn’t want them to leave early to accommodate me, and they would have no matter what they said.”
“You’re right, they would have,” Vari agreed.
“Ata said Shanti agreed to tell Ria what’s going on with you, but I’d like to call her myself. Let her know I talked to you and how you’re doing.”
“That’d be great,” Vari replied. “Give her a few hours to sleep though, okay? She really needs it.”
“I will. Take care of yourself, Vari. You too, Pandora.”
After disconnecting Vari took a few moments to focus on her breathing in an effort to calm herself. The news that she would soon be on the Bihotza, and in the company of the Bihotza’s Commanders, had hit her much harder than she’d let Bean see.
“What do you think, Pandora?” she asked a few minutes later.
“About the Dracon-Bats.”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
Vari glanced at her sharply. Pandora was like a member of her family. She loved her unconditionally, and couldn’t imagine her life without her. But she wasn’t blind to her faults. Or the games she sometimes liked to play. Much of the time she played along just to amuse her tiny friend. This was not one of those times.
“Let’s have it, Pandora.”
“I think I’m going to get a pet cat,” Vari said thoughtfully. “They’re quiet, independent, and do a good job of getting rid of annoying pests.”
“You were much nicer when you were a child,” Pandora said stiffly.
“No, I was much easier to fool when I was a child, and don’t change the subject.”
“You’re not going to like this.”
“Didn’t Bean already say that?”
“Yes, but that doesn’t make it less true.”
“I don’t have to like it, Pandora. I just have to know it, and the sooner the better, if you don't mind.”
“Fine,” Pandora said huffily. “This is a crossroad. You have to make this choice entirely on your own.”
“I hate crossroads,” Vari grumbled.
“As I said,” Pandora said pointedly.
“So, to clarify, my options are to stay on the Leaper, blow out an artery in my brain resulting in coma and eventual death, or transport to the Bihotza. Is that about it?” Pandora nodded. “Well, at least the choice is an easy one this time.”
Pandora shrugged, dropping her eyes to the floor.
“What? You don’t agree?”
Pandora began counting the stitches in the hem of her dress.
“You’d prefer that I choose the brain hemorrhage-coma-death route?”
Pandora dropped the hem and studied the ceiling as though it was covered in classical artwork instead of thin plastic tiles.
“All right, all right,” Vari said. “I've decided to go to the Bihotza and I promise not to change my mind no matter what you say. Is that good enough?”
“Yes, it is, and there’s no need to get snippy.”
“Pandora,” Vari warned.
“I just don’t like them, Vari. They have terrible tempers, they’re rude, they care nothing for their own family, and if they discover the truth they’ll try to lock you up like a criminal for the rest of your life. Maybe you should call your Dads back and ask them to find a different ship.”
Vari wasn’t the least bit surprised by Pandora’s opinion since she’d heard it many times over the past ten years. She didn’t agree with it, as Pandora knew perfectly well, nor was she in the mood to debate the issue. Again. So she sidestepped it instead. “You heard Bean. The next closest ship is twelve hours away and between me and you, Pandora, I won’t last that long. I won’t last half that long. Besides, I just promised that I wouldn’t change my mind.”
“I know,” Pandora sighed, her wings actually drooping a little.
“There really is no other choice.”
“You don’t seem very worried about this, Vari. Why not?”
Vari was worried. Quite a bit, in fact. But she wasn’t getting into a debate on that subject either. “I have the pills and the spray, so what’s there to worry about?"
“That’s true,” Pandora said, smiling brightly.
“I'm glad you're happy now," Vari said. "Which reminds me.”
Once again she reached for her toiletries case. It took only a moment to find the pills she’d gotten from Doc almost two years earlier on the unlikely chance that she’d ever need them. She opened the metal cylinder, tapped one of the tiny white disks into her palm and popped it into her mouth. Then she retrieved an aluminum spray bottle and shook it gently. It was a small bottle, but it was full. It was more than enough to get her through the twelve to twenty four hours it would take for the pills to kick in. She stood up and proceeded to spray herself thoroughly with the clear, odorless fluid before returning it to her toiletries case along with the pills.
The pain in her head had intensified a notch or two so she sat on the edge of the bed, closed her eyes, rubbed her temples, and concentrated on her shield. Several minutes later the pain had only lessened fractionally. She checked the time and sighed.
It was still early, but from what she’d observed during her time on the Leaper, about a third of the passengers would be up on Deck One having breakfast in one of three main dining areas, two of which weren’t far from where she sat. That was more than four thousand people, not counting crew and service personnel.
She realized that Pandora was watching her with more fear and worry than she’d ever seen on her face before. She set the hand terminal down and said, “Three hours, two minutes. I can do that.”
“Of course you can,” Pandora said stoutly. Vari forced a smile she didn’t feel, then stood up again. She packed her things, taking care to move very slowly and squat rather than bend over so she didn’t have to move her head more than absolutely necessary. She always traveled light, which helped, but she still had to pause a few times to breathe through the steadily increasing pain caused by the increasing number of people in her general vicinity, and so much moving around. When she was finished she set her large duffle bag on the floor next to the bed and put the toiletries case on top of it, making sure the straps for both were free so she could grab them easily without fumbling. Then she went to check the bathroom, the shower, the tiny closet, and all of the built in drawers. Satisfied that she hadn’t missed anything, she sat on the bed again and checked the time. “I managed to kill forty minutes,” she said in surprise.
“That’s all?” Pandora asked. “As slow as you were going I thought it was much longer.”
“Considering that it usually takes me about three minutes to pack, I think I stretched it out as far as it could be stretched.” She picked up her hand terminal and slid open a tiny compartment that held a set of micro-earphones. Just before she slipped them into her ears, her hand terminal chimed again. She glanced at the screen and smiled a little before accepting it.
“How are you holding up?” Shanti asked worriedly.
“It’s not too bad, so far.”
“Which, in Vari-speak, means it hurts like the fires of nekon,” Shanti said fretfully. “Sometimes I wish I had your talents just so I could know how you really feel.”
Vari swallowed hard. “No, my friend, you truly do not.”
Shanti realized immediately that her words had upset Vari. She reached up and lightly touched the center of her forehead with the tip of her ring finger. Vari returned the gesture, accepting the silent apology, and Shanti changed the subject. “Any progress in finding a way off this ship?”
“Yes. A Jasani cruiser is on its way. They should be here in about two hours and fifteen minutes.”
“That’s fantastic news,” Shanti said with real relief. “Is there anything I can do, Vari? I know you didn’t get to eat this morning. I could bring you something to eat, or drink. Just name it.”
“That’s very thoughtful of you Shanti, and I appreciate it, but I really can’t eat or drink right now.” She turned her head. “Pandora?”
“No, thank you,” Pandora said. “I couldn't eat either.”
“All right, but let me know if you change your minds. Please give me a call when you’re safe and sound, okay?”
“Promise. Enjoy the rest of the trip, Shanti.”
“Once I know you’re all right, I will.”
After disconnecting Vari took a few moments to relax. She breathed deeply while focusing on each major muscle group, one at a time. Between Bean, Pandora, and Shanti she wasn’t sure which had stirred up the worst memories. When she was as relaxed as she thought she was going to get, she opened her eyes.
“If I manage by some miracle to fall asleep, please wake me up before the Bihotza is due.”
“I do hope you can sleep,” Pandora said worriedly. “And I will awaken you. You needn’t worry about that.”
“Thanks Pandora.” Vari put her headphones on, started the music, and laid back on the bed to wait.