STARDANCER excerpt: Chapters 1-3!

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Here are the first three chapters of STARDANCER!

1

In spite of what the historians wrote many years later, it all started with an argument between a sixteen-year-old Princess and her ten-year-old sister, over a birthday party.

The party wasn’t one of theirs, but that of “His Holy Highness, the Exalted and Wise, the Grand Imperator of the Salengarde Imperium, Zantor the Sixth of His Name”. So pronounced the servodrone which emerged from hyperspace and landed in the center plaza of Gavinar City, sent for the sole task of delivering this news, precisely six standard months before the actual date. Among other things, this meant that the Royal Family of Gavinar –– Queen Ryann Osono and the Princesses Tariana and Margeth –– would voyage to Salengarde Prime to participate in the festivities.

And what festivities those would be! An Imperator’s hundredth year was a rare event, having only happened five times before. The last to reach that mark, Jarnek the Mad (the Eighth and Last of His Name), had been so disastrous an Imperator that his successor had forever forbidden the name Jarnek to be taken by any Imperators who came after. No such concerns existed over the reign of Zantor the Sixth, who had presided over a time of unprecedented peace. The party would therefore be one of stunning magnificence, bringing new work by all of the greatest artisans. Legendary musician Welf A’nibra was sending a new song cycle; Jantina of Renald Three, whose sculptures graced all of the finest palaces and museums, had made new carvings made from the golden bark of one of Renald Three’s migratory trees. There were even rumors of a new poem by Shinn Darhyl, from whom had not been heard a single word in thirty years, since the venerable poet had gone into seclusion on his private moon.

For the Gavinar Royal Family, the celebration on Salengarde also meant that they would get to see, for the first time in over a year, their husband and father, the former King Alenn Osono. As a member of the Imperial Parliament, Alenn had been forced to set aside his position as King, but the honor of being so elected was such that the decision was easy.

Five months passed, and now the celebration was one month away. The newly built royal yacht, as yet unnamed, was now beginning its final testing before the actual voyage. It was the greatest luck that the new ship’s first real journey would be the most important one undertaken by Gavinar royalty in hundreds of years. This was the aspect of the celebration that thrilled Princess Tariana the most, for even though she was a Princess of Gavinar, and even though the one great dream of her life was to fly to the stars, this would be her first voyage offworld.

Yes, her first voyage offworld –– and the destination was Salengarde Prime! All her sixteen years Tariana had dreamed of seeing the glittering Imperial City, with the alabaster towers of the Great Palace rising over buildings of silver and beyond, the green Salengardean forests. All her sixteen years she had dreamed of seeing the sky of a different world, and to see the stars from beyond her own. To have never once left her own planet, as a Princess, seemed terribly odd to her, but now it was happening at last. All her years of studying astronomy and Galaxography and the history of the Imperium, under the occasionally cantankerous cybereye of Professator Jarel –– all of it was coming to a head now. She could recite all the Imperators, all the way back to Xerxes the Abysmal and the First Days of Dynasty. She could discuss the causes of the Great Uprising, and she could name all thirty of the First Systems of Allegiance. She knew all the types of stars and classes of planets, and she knew something of the physics of hyperspace, although a great deal of that was still beyond her at this point in her education. She could draw a reasonably accurate map of the Gavinar night sky, both hemispheres, from memory, and she knew something about the engineering of the ships. Tariana’s whole life had been building toward this, her first trip to the stars.

She was so busy that she barely had any free moments to herself, other than when she went to bed at night. Tariana would look at her lonely telescope and say to herself, “I really should look on the stars a bit,” just before falling asleep, a book still in her hand. She was studying harder than ever, preparing for her audience with the Imperator himself, and spending long (and exasperating) hours with the royal tailors (who were challenged by the Princess’s burgeoning curves) and the royal hairdressers (who were challenged by her long, thick brown hair). Her three personal attendants would have all they could handle just learning how the elaborate gowns the Princess would wear on Salengarde Prime were put on in the first place, to say nothing of choosing the exact colors of fabric to best augment Tariana’s olive skin in the distinct light of Salengarde’s sun.

This voyage was all that Tariana could talk or think about, so naturally she was completely and utterly astounded when, one night at dinner, Margeth announced that she wasn’t going.

No one at first took Margeth’s blunt announcement seriously. After all, it was Margeth’s usual strategy whenever she felt that her older sister was getting out of hand: she would quickly announce her opposition to whatever it was that Tariana had set her heart upon. But in this case, as the day drew nearer, Margeth showed no sign whatsoever of changing her mind, and since it would be gravely humiliating for any royal family to pay tribute to the Imperator without all family members present, the voyage was in serious jeopardy of not happening at all.

“How can she do this to us!” Tariana cried as Professator Jarel thumbed through the pages of the dusty book they were currently studying with one hand, navigated the screen of a comp-pad with another, and scratched his metal head with his third. “We’ve dreamed of this our entire lives!” Tariana flung herself down into her study chair, having just come from her latest argument with her dear sister. “We have a chance to go to the most important system in the entire Galaxy, to meet the Imperator, and see Father –– and now Margeth won’t go!”

“It does seem unreasonable,” Jarel intoned in that exaggerated, consoling tone he took in times like this. It was part of his programming. He set aside the book and took up another, even though he seemed to pay it no mind at all. When in his active state, Jarel was never able to remain still. There was some debate as to whether that was a bug in his programming or an intended attribute.

“Of course it’s unreasonable!” Tariana snapped. “It’s what she always does when it’s something that’s important to me.”

The Professator nodded in a sagelike programmed gesture. “Yes, I have detected just such a pattern in your sister’s decision-making. She does seem to enjoy vexing you at times.” Then he set aside the book he’d just picked up and looked Tariana in the eye with one of his four. His voice became softer, his manner more gentle. “However, she has not been acting as though she is motivated by pique. She seems, to my eye, motivated by something else. Perhaps this isn’t her trying to ‘get back at you’, as you call it.”

“So why is she doing this, then?”

Professator Jarel shook his head, as Tariana had expected he would; Jarel’s wisdom was always surprising when it came bubbling out –– either because of his programming or in spite of it –– but when it came it always did so all at once and disappeared almost as quickly. “I cannot say,” he said. “But the wise course here might be to ask her.”

Tariana nodded. The Professator’s advice programming always tended toward the conciliatory.

“Now on with our lesson! We were discussing the rebel movement on the Salengarde moons, and….”

Tariana settled back to listen to her teacher, but she couldn’t begin to follow the lesson now. As Jarel droned on, Tariana’s thoughts turned again to the voyage to come. She wondered what the leap into hyperspace felt like, what it would be like to see a new sun in the sky and new stars, and to smell the air of a new world.

And she thought about Margeth, jeopardizing it all.

“Yes, very well, pack them all!” Queen Ryann Osono snapped at her servant, probably more angrily than intended. Even after hours of briefings as to the current fashions on Salengarde Prime, she had not decided which evening gowns to take. More pressingly, she had just finished talking to her younger daughter in her latest attempt to sway her toward going to Salengarde. Finished, without result.

“You’re still packing?” Tariana asked as she entered her mother’s chamber.

“Of course I’m still packing,” the Queen said. “And that you’re asking the question in that way makes me wonder whyever it might be that you are not. We leave in five days, you know.”

“I don’t own as many clothes as you,” Tariana said.

“Ah! And you never will, my dear. Even when I die I shall make provisions for my corpse to be redressed in the newest finery each turn of the Moon.”

Tariana shuddered and rolled her eyes. “Do we always need to talk about your plans for your corpse?”

“Why yes, my dear,” Mother replied, taking on the tone of exaggerated cheer she always adopted when trying to recover from a bad mood. “Those things are important. One day you will learn that as Queen you will have to plan everything.”

“Well,” Tariana replied, “I’m sure someone else can plan for what to do with me once I’m dead.” She’d never understood the Royal Family’s preoccupation with the dressings of death. For a world that was not held to be among the most important, their tombs were said to be among the most opulent in all the Imperium.

“Every Princess of Gavinar thinks that when she is young,” her mother said. “But as we get older, we learn what is truly important in this world of ours. We learn what truly endures when we have gone. You’ve seen how the citizens gather each dawn to pay tribute to those who have gone before? So shall it be with you, one day. You shall lie beside me as a onetime Queen of this world, and beside you shall lie your own son or daughter, whichever shall be.” She looked at Tariana, and frowned. “I thought they were going to remove that mole on your cheek?”

Tariana’s hand reflexively reached up to touch it. “I don’t want them to mess with it, Mother,” she said. “It’s not big at all. It bothers you more than anyone else.”

“If a blemish doesn’t bother you, who am I to command otherwise?” Mother shrugged. “What about your hair? Won’t you consider a cut? I’m told that short hair is very common among the Salengarde elite.”

“I like my hair, Mother! Isn’t enough that I got the highlights?” Tariana said as she ran a hand through her thick, long, brown locks which were now flecked with wide streaks of gold, which she had suggested in hopes of distracting Mother from her constant pushing for a short cut.

“It was a mere suggestion, my dear. Now, where were we…oh yes, the Royal Tombs. Yes, you will need to worry about your appearance there.”

“And Margeth?” Tariana asked, clumsily attempting to steer the conversation back to the topic she had actually come to discuss.

“Well, one never knows, does one?” Mother’s voice became clipped and higher pitched, as it always did when she was discussing something she didn’t wish to discuss. “Perhaps your sister will lead a revolution in our absence and take the throne herself.”

“Are you actually allowing her to remain home then?”

“Oh, Tariana, of course not! Don’t entertain such nonsensical thoughts. No, Margeth will come. I will see to it that she does.”

Tariana’s eyes narrowed. She’d long known where Margeth’s strong streak of overpowering stubbornness had come from. “And how will you convince her?”

“It’s not really a matter of convincing, my dear.” The pleasant and forced cheerfulness returned to the Queen’s voice. “She will come, and she will love Salengarde Prime just as everyone does who goes there. She will bow before the Imperator and she will dance in the great hall with whatever other Prince or Minister or Ruling Partner or whomever offers her an arm or tentacle or any other appendage. I will see it done. You are worried over nothing, child.”

“Yes, mother, I understand,” Tariana said. “And how will you get it done? Release stun gas into her bedchambers?”

Queen Ryann straightened up suddenly, with a light in her eye. “Now there is an idea with merit––”

Mother!”

“Oh Tariana please! I would never stun my own children. The servants, perhaps, but never my children. Oh stop, you know I wouldn’t stun the servants either.” She put down the gown she’d been folding and came over to where Tariana stood. “Don’t worry, child. I know that you have dreamed of this your entire life. I dreamed the same dreams, and when I finally went to Salengarde Prime for the first time, it was…” An odd look formed in her eye, along with something close to a tear, before she blinked it away. “Well, it was better than the dreams.” Out of habit, she straightened the collar on Tariana’s robe. “But I can also tell you this: for a girl like Margeth, the strongest pressure won’t come from her mother, but from her older sister.” She smiled.

Tariana nodded. She supposed that this was true enough.

“Now,” Mother said. “you really should return to packing.”

“Mother! It’s not like I do anything to help. It’s not like I do anything at all, except take my lessons from Professator Jarel and attend the regular functions and do all that ceremonial stuff.”

“All that ‘ceremonial stuff’ is important,” Mother said. “You know that. Even if we have no direct role in the Gavinar government, we are a tradition for the people, dating back thousands of years. That is what we do, my dear, and that is what you will do, just as we always have. Besides, doing things is overrated. Really –– what would you have us doing, I wonder?” And Mother smiled and returned her attention to the packing. Tariana turned and left the chamber, noticing not for the first time that she didn’t even open doors for herself.

She knew that she had to go talk to Margeth, but she wasn’t quite ready for that yet, so she decided to go for a walk. She started down the hall from the Royal Quarters toward the main body of the Palace, and she got all of fifteen or twenty paces down the hall before Mother’s Chief Minister, a short, stocky, and overly officious man named Connos, came puffing along after her.

“Princess! Princess Tariana!”

Tariana stopped and turned to face him. It was really a mercy that she did so; this man was not made for moving quickly. For bustling so short a distance, he was already out of breath.

“Your Highness! Whatever are you doing?”

“I’m going for a walk,” Tariana said.

“A walk? Very good! Let me summon the escort guards––”

“No!” Tariana stamped her foot. “No guards. I just want to walk. Can’t I even do that for myself?”

Connos’s mouth twitched as he processed the notion. “Your Highness, that is irregular,” he finally said. “Members of your family are always escorted when they walk beyond the confines of the Royal Wing!”

“The ‘confines’,” Tariana said through rising anger. “Perfect word, isn’t it? We’re confined. Well, when I’m Queen, things will be different. Starting with this.” And with that she whirled about and kept on walking, picking up her pace. She knew that it would take Connos time to huff and puff back to where he could contact the Palace Guard.

“Your Highness!” he was calling after her. “Please don’t! Let me summon the Guard! Princess!”

She kept her back to him, a grin spreading across her face as she headed for the doors at the end of the hallway out of the Royal Wing. Something about this felt good, felt right, even as a twang of remorse sounded in her heart. I shouldn’t be so mean to Connos, that part of her heart said. He has a difficult job and he does it pretty well, all things considered. She did feel bad about taking advantage of him like this. Just not so bad as to stop.

She strode through the doors and out into the Palace’s main building, right past the two guards who stood sentry there. They wouldn’t follow, or try to stop her in any way. Their orders were very specific: as ceremonial guards, they were forbidden to leave their posts unless ordered otherwise by their Captain, who wouldn’t even have the news of a wayward Princess yet. “Gentlemen,” she said as she walked right on by. Neither replied. They weren’t allowed to speak on duty, either. She did hear one of them gasp, and she hoped he wouldn’t be reprimanded for it.

The Gavinar Palace was enormous and ornate, with dozens of rooms and halls and galleries, mostly more museum than anything else now. As soon as Tariana was far enough outside the Royal Wing to think on the fact that she was alone for once –– alone in her own Palace for the first time –– she slowed and thought about where to go. The Great Library? The Observatory? Even though its telescopes would be useless now, in mid-day, the Observatory had those wonderful star maps. Or perhaps one of the ballrooms?

Instead, she just walked.

She took in the paintings hanging on the walls and the statues in the corners, and the small tables set with their daily flower arrangements. It felt so good to just walk, without supervision or a phalanx of guards surrounding her, and without having to act the part of The Princess, pretending to be interested in everything put in front of her whether it was interesting or not. Maybe I can sneak away when we’re on Salengarde Prime, she thought. There are parts of that world that I’ll never get to see otherwise. Another thought came to her then: Maybe I can do this again, but next time I’ll wear regular clothes like what the common people wear. And then I’ll find one of the tour groups and blend in…and follow them outside into the City itself!

On my own!

On her own.

Go back, said that part of her heart. You’ve made your point.

Shut up, said the rest of her. That’s the whole point: I’m actually doing something!

And then she came around a corner, into one of the larger corridors, and found herself face to face with a tour group.

It was a school group of thirty or so students, most around her age or perhaps a little younger. They didn’t even see her at first, because their back was to her as their teacher droned on about a particular statue that dominated this end of the hall. Tariana knew the statue well. It was of her grandfather on her mother’s side. He hadn’t been nearly the brave conqueror of Gavinar’s wild places that the statue depicted.

“See how the artist captures his adventurousness!” said the teacher, a woman of perhaps fifty years. “See how the man seems to be striving forward, reaching for something just beyond his grasp! See how in his eyes you can see the spirit of–Your Highness!”

The students all whipped around to look, and instantly they began to murmur. “The Princess!” “That’s her?” “Can’t be! Princess Tariana’s taller than that!” “No she’s not, idiot. They’re just people.” “I can’t believe it!” “Your Highness!”

“Students! Students!” The teacher raised her voice, getting everyone’s attention. “You’ve been raised better than that! Bow before Princess Tariana!”

Tariana swallowed as the members of the school group all gathered their wits and bowed. She’d been through this many times, and all of Mother’s training came into play now as she straightened her posture into a more regal bearing.

“Good afternoon,” Tariana said, making sure to employ Proper Royal Diction (she always thought of that in capital letters). “I hope that you are all enjoying your visit to the Palace.”

No one responded. By the Starshaper, can’t I even start a real conversation by myself! She looked to the teacher and nodded once, implying permission to speak.

“We are, Your Highness,” said the teacher. “Your home is truly beautiful.”

“Is this your first time here?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” the teacher replied.

“I’ve been here before,” a tall boy said. The teacher hissed, and a girl standing beside him kicked him in the shin.

Tariana hid the smile that had started, and she looked them all over. Normal boys and girls, wearing the fashions of the day, carrying comp-pads to record their learning experiences. I wonder what kind of life they live, out there in the city! “It’s a pleasure to meet you all. I wonder…I hope you…I’d like to ask you some things myself, you see….”

Someone cleared their throat behind her, and Tariana knew that Connos had arrived, with two Palace guards. Her heart sank.

“Everything is fine, Connos,” she said. “These people are…they’re fine.”

“We weren’t expecting to see the Princess,” said the teacher. “We didn’t prepare for a formal audience.”

“Well,” Connos said, “as you couldn’t have expected this, I suppose we can forgive the breach of protocol and simply move on. Can’t we? Princess?”

Tariana felt her cheeks turning red. Her first chance in months for a real conversation with someone who wasn’t a family member, gone…. “I suppose,” she said. “I’m ready to go back now, Connos.” She turned to the teacher. “Thank you.”

“Thank you, Your Highness!”

Tariana looked over the students one more time. The girls were all quite pretty –– most of them probably prettier than she –– or at least in her mind, that’s how it was. The boys? Well…she wasn’t yet sure what to make of them. She had begged Mother so many times to let her attend regular classes, with regular students, in regular schools, but Mother had flatly denied all such requests, saying that it wasn’t befitting a Princess to be in such an environment. When Tariana asked how she was to know how to relate to her own people if she never spent any time in their company, Mother had looked at her quizzically and said, “Why in the world would you need to relate to them?” And Father had not ventured an opinion at all on the subject, choosing instead not to enter a fight that he couldn’t possibly win.

“Students!” the teacher said, and they all bowed one last time before starting away.

“Goodbye,” Tariana said, and then she turned and joined Connos, who was trying to look more concerned than annoyed (and not having a great deal of success at it, either). The guards fell in beside her as she started back toward the Royal Wing. She did pause for one last glance back at that group of students, and she saw that a few of the boys were pausing as well to look back at her. One in particular, the one who had spoken out of turn before, was staring at her, and his face and cheeks were red. Tariana made a small smile and waved before going back around the corner.

I wonder why he was looking at me that way? It’s like he’s never seen a girl before.

“I will have to tell your mother about this,” Connos said. “You shouldn’t have done that, Your Highness. If you wanted contact with your subjects, all you had to do was ask, and I would have arranged––”

“I know what you would have arranged,” Tariana said. “That’s why I didn’t ask.”

Connos fell silent, as he tended to do when interrupted. And truthfully, Tariana wasn’t terribly concerned about Mother right now. She turned her focus back to where it needed to be, and on the conversation that was about to take place.

Margeth.

Tariana rang Margeth’s door chime, and then waited while Margeth made up her mind whether to answer. Depending on her mood, Margeth might let Tariana in within seconds of the chime, or she’d let her sister stew outside in the corridor for sixty seconds or more. This time Tariana waited five minutes, during which Margeth went on practicing her choraflute, the instrument that was currently occupying her attention. Margeth had taken to her music lessons in a way that Tariana never had, and it was one thing that made Tariana a bit jealous…but not right now, not that she was waiting outside her room. She rang again after five minutes…and kept waiting. Finally, a full eight minutes after the first time she rang the chime, and a full thirty seconds after the fifth time she rang it, the door slid open. Tariana straightened her gown as she entered. What was needed now was dignity.

And ten minutes later, all thought of dignity was out the window.

“Why don’t you just go back to mother and help her pack!” Margeth shouted, brushing that single lock of blond hair out of her eyes three times during the same sentence. “With me not going, she’ll have extra room on the ship!”

Good!” she shouted back. “Maybe I’ll use your space! And your allowance for the shopping trips as well!”

Fine!”

Tariana stomped toward the door again, but she stopped on the threshold. She couldn’t give up now. She suddenly realized that she’d come here and spent ten minutes arguing with her sister, and still hadn’t taken Jarel’s advice and actually asked Margeth why she suddenly didn’t want to go.

Tariana glanced around the chamber again. The old holopic of the Imperial Palace on Salengarde Prime, its spires silhouetted in front of rising red Salengarde, the Sun of Suns, still hung upon the wall. Tariana turned again and looked past Margeth, sitting on her couch, to the windows of her chamber that overlooked the rest of the Gavinar capital city. In the distance, the great Tower of the Starshaper, itself silhouetted against the sun of Gavinar. Tariana sighed and walked back to the couch, where she sat down beside her sister.

Margeth was shorter than her sister, of course, but not so much shorter as one might expect for being six years younger. Where Tariana’s thick and wavy brown hair took after their mother’s, Margeth’s thinner and stick-straight blond hair matched their father’s. Tariana, however, had father’s slightly-too-large nose, while Margeth’s was perfect. Tariana had always been jealous of her sister’s nose, but she’d always had the presence of mind to not let it show.

“You still have the holo of the Imperial Palace up,” Tariana said.

Margeth squirmed. “So? It’s a nice picture. It’s so nice that I don’t even have to go to Salengarde to see the city at all.”

Tariana let that pass. Instead, she touched Margeth’s shoulder, and noted with surprise that her sister was very tense. Margeth’s muscles were as tight as Tariana could remember them ever being. “Marg, why don’t you want to go to Salengarde with me?”

Margeth’s gaze was fixed on her tiled floor. “I do want to go to Salengarde with you,” she said. Her voice very soft.

“Then what has this been about?” Tariana reached to put her arm around Margeth’s shoulders, but Margeth flinched and pulled away. “Marg, what is it? We tell each other everything, don’t we?” She sat down on the floor so she was looking up at Margeth…and so Margeth was looking down at her. “Remember when we used to play like we were already there? Remember how we’d make Professator Jarel play the man at court for our dancing pleasure?” She laughed. “Remember what a bad dancer he is? Three legs, three arms!” She looked up at Margeth, hoping for a laugh or a smile. Nothing yet, so she pressed on. “Remember when I’d read to you all those stories? You really like the ones about the Moon Pirates, the ones who camped on the Brothers-in-Arms so they could hit the wealthships as they entered the system. Remember? And the letters from Father! Remember the encoded pictures he sent, just for us? Remember the way we went through each one, memorizing every detail?” She pointed at a framed holopic on the wall, a smaller one. It showed Father, Lord Alenn Osono of Gavinar, standing at the foot of the bridge over Salengarde Prime’s Deepening Sea. “Marg, why don’t you want to go? This trip is going to be so wonderful! And our new ship –– the ship! It’s the first new Royal Yacht in a hundred years! No ruler of Gavinar has ever traveled in a ship so fine as this, and we’ll be the first ones! When we go on board––”

She stopped when she realized that Margeth had stiffened and was now rocking back and forth slightly. Tariana recognized this immediately. It was what Margeth did whenever something was seriously disturbing her.

“Marg?”

Margeth said nothing. She only rocked, gripping her hands together with whitened knuckles.

What did I say? Tariana wondered. Was it Father? Or….

“The ship?” Tariana’s eyes widened. “It’s not Salengarde that’s bothering you, is it? It’s the ship!”

Still Margeth said nothing, and Tariana moved in closer and put her arm around her. This time Margeth didn’t push her away. “Marg, what is it about the ship?”

“It’s not right,” said Margeth. “The ship’s not right.”

For several moments Tariana made no reply. The ship wasn’t right? What could that mean? The ship was brand new, and had only been taken on a couple of shakedown cruises. This voyage would be the vessel’s first with the Royal Family on board. It was the finest ship that had ever served anyone from Gavinar, and maybe it even one of the finest ships in the entire Imperium.

“Marg, I don’t understand,” Tariana said. “What do you mean, the ship isn’t right?”

“Nothing,” Margeth said, shaking her head. “It’s nothing.”

Tariana sighed. “It’s not nothing,” she said. “Not if you’ve been insisting for days that you won’t set foot off Gavinar. Not if you’ve been defying Mother over it! You should see her, Marg. She’s very upset.”

Margeth folded her arms in a grumpy gesture. “She’s still packing to go, though.”

“Well –– yes.” Tariana nodded, and leaned forward, trying to meet her sister’s gaze again. “Marg, if you tell me what’s bothering you, maybe I can help.”

Still no response.

“You can tell me. I want to know.”

Still nothing.

“I’m your sister. Please!”

At last, Margeth looked up at Tariana with wide eyes that were filled with raw, real fear.

“We were on the ship,” Margeth began.

“But we haven’t yet been––”

“It was a dream!” Margeth snapped.

Tariana found herself smiling, despite herself. “A dream? Marg, is this all about a dream?”

That, Tariana realized too late, was precisely the wrong thing to say. Margeth’s jaw set again in her angry way, and Tariana winced. This wasn’t the time to appear as though she wasn’t taking her sister seriously. “I’m sorry,” Tariana said. “Let me hear you.”

“We were on the ship,” Margeth finally continued. “With mother. On the observation deck. We were so happy…but then there was fire. Fire everywhere. Red fire and yellow fire and white fire. You screamed. So did Mother. We tried to breathe but all we could breathe was fire. And then the fire was gone and we were cold. We were in space. We tried to breathe, but we can’t breathe in space, and….”

Margeth’s voice broke there, and she put her head down on her arms and shuddered. Tariana swallowed and slid her arm around her younger sister.

“Don’t tell me it was just a dream,” Margeth said through her sobs.

“Never,” Tariana said. “It wasn’t just a dream. Not at all. ‘In our dreams we are given visions of our lives as they could be, or as they should be, or as they will be.'” She smiled. “Aige the Holy wrote that. I had to memorize it a couple weeks ago.”

“I didn’t think that sounded much like you,” Margeth agreed. “You didn’t have this dream, though. It was all real. I’ve never had a dream that real before.”

Tariana sat silent for a time, while Margeth rose and walked over to where she kept her dolls.

“You should still go,” Margeth said. “You and Mother will have a wonderful time. You’ll have to write me about it.”

Tariana cocked an eyebrow.

She rose from the couch and came over to the dollshelf. She remembered many of these dolls, the ones that had belonged to her, anyway.

“So the ship is right for Mother and me, but not for you?” Tariana asked.

Margeth stopped playing with her doll, for just a split second. Tariana knew she’d hit a nerve. “It’s me,” Margeth said. “It’s me, don’t you understand? I’m the one who sees it happening, so if I’m not there, it can’t happen the way I see it. It can’t happen at all.”

“It’s not going to happen at all!” Tariana said, exasperated. “It’s not. Marg, dreams are visions given to us by the Starshaper, but they can’t be taken exactly for what they are. Whatever your dream means, it’s not that we’re going to die on that ship.”

Again Margeth said nothing for a long while. Tariana got up and moved to the bureau by the window. One of the drawers was open, and the clothes inside it mussed up. Marg had been going through her things. I wonder why, Tariana thought. “Marg, how many dreams in your life have come to pass exactly as you dreamed them?”

“Not very many,” Margeth admitted.

“Not very many,” Tariana echoed. “You see? Dreams offer a glimpse of the Otherworld, not a perfect image of our own. That is why they are so disturbing. We aren’t made for the Otherworld, and yet part of us always lives there.” She closed the drawer and came back over to the couch, where again she sat down beside her sister.

“Was that from some book, too?”

“Yes,” Tariana admitted. “And you’re going to be reading it in a few years too.”

“I can’t wait,” Margeth said.

Tariana smiled. “Salengarde is going to be beautiful, Marg,” she said. “We’ll go and it’ll be truly beautiful beyond anything we’ve ever seen. You’ll see.”

Another long moment passed, during which Tariana practically held her breath, waiting for her sister’s reaction. This had been it: her last, best attempt at reaching Margeth and convincing her to travel with her to Salengarde Prime. Next would come Mother’s stun-gas….

“I’ll go,” Margeth finally said. And as Tariana reached her arm around her little sister’s shoulders, she realized that tears were running down Margeth’s cheeks.

“Then we have work to do,” Tariana said. “We don’t have long before we lift, do we?”

She gave Margeth’s shoulders another squeeze, and then rose from the couch.

“No, we don’t,” Margeth finally replied, and Tariana noted the tone in her voice even though she did not comment. She knew that Margeth had relented, but had not been convinced.

“I’m not coloring my hair,” Margeth said.

Tariana’s hand moved to her own locks, usually brown, now streaked gold. “I don’t blame you,” she said. “You’d really better pack. These next five days will be gone before you know it!”

As Tariana left her sister’s chambers, she told herself that this would not be one of Marg’s dreams that came true, and she tried not to think too much on the ones that had.

2

As busy as the next four days were, for Tariana they could not have possibly passed more slowly. She felt as if the planet’s rotation had been slowed and the seconds doubled in every minute, the minutes in every hour. Usually being busy was the best way to make the time pass, but not so this time. She thought of nothing else but the feeling of leaving Gavinar, of seeing the entire planet there below them, of flying into hyperspace. She also thought of Margeth, and tried her best to keep her younger sister’s spirits up. Still, though, the time dragged.

Finally, though, the day arrived.

“Remember to stand straight,” Queen Ryann said as they stepped out of the aircar and onto the wide tarmac of Gavinar City Spaceport. “We are the royal Family of Gavinar, and we will depart our world in a manner befitting our station.” Tariana rolled her eyes. She would just as soon board the Royal Shuttle at night from the castle grounds, without the citizens of Gavinar watching on the Net, and Margeth looked as though she wanted to be anywhere at all other than here. Mother took in a long breath of air through her nose. “Ahhh, that fragrance!” she said. “How sad that we won’t be around for the blooming of the springstem crocuses.”

Tariana nodded. She, too, was disappointed; she and Mother both loved those lovely yellow flowers and the scent they put forth for only a few days when their petals opened in spring.

“Ceremony is important,” said Professator Jarel into Tariana’s ear as she got out. “The people enjoy ceremony. They need it.”

“I knew I shouldn’t have allowed you access to my earpiece,” Tariana whispered as she adjusted the ill-fitting cap on her head that contained the small transmitter. Jarel had gone ahead, of course; it would hardly befit a Ceremony of Departure to have a cybertutor in the processional.

“You had no choice in that,” Jarel replied. “Have I told you how much you’re going to love this ship! It’s amazing. I’ve never seen the like. The royal quarters have what the engineers are calling the Wall of Stars. It will be closed, of course, during the transit to––”

Tariana changed the channel on her earpiece to that of Spaceflight Control. She’d always loved listening to the constant chatter of the Control personnel, and it was something other than the Professator.

They were greeted on the tarmac by High Adviser Columa, the unpleasant man who would manage things in their absence. With his thin mouth and watery eyes, Columa made almost no first impression at all, but though dour, he was capable. He bowed and spoke some ritual pleasantries, and they all responded in kind. Then came the actual Ceremony of Departure, which Tariana found a dreary exercise in Royal tedium. It involved a lot of waiting while officers made portentous announcements and the Royal Ossiphoners played their way through all eight verses of the Gavinar anthem. Margeth stifled a groan as they started. Even as a young musician, Margeth didn’t much like the sound of the ossiphone.

Waiting, waiting, waiting: you wouldn’t think a Queen or Princess would have to wait around this much. Tariana squirmed in her flight outfit, which itched or tugged in all the bad places. Tariana had made her displeasure at these matching outfits known, but of course, Mother had overruled her. “We’re going to space, my dear,” Mother had said. “We need to look like we belong there.”

“They’re fake flight suits,” Tariana pointed out as she thumbed the ridiculous braiding on the shoulders. “No space pilot wears stuff like this!” She looked down at the silly outfit, all of them matching in their flight outfits of green trimmed with gold.

“Not long now, my dears,” said Mother, looking quite pleased with herself. “Tariana dear, please don’t slouch. And Margeth, if you’re going to insist on bringing that poor rag along, at least hold it down.”

“That poor rag” was Margeth’s favorite doll. Its shaping chip had failed months before, freezing the doll forever in the form of a Kinyudian Snow Devil with the same brilliant blue eyes that the doll had always had in all its shapes, leading a younger Margeth to name it “Blue-eye”. Its fur had long since gone from white to dirty tan, and its limbs were so loose that only the stitching held them together at all anymore. Mother hated the beat-up old doll, and Tariana had wondered if Mother might forbid Margeth to bring it along, but as far as she knew, just then was the first time Mother had even mentioned it. Eventually Mother, too, had her limits.

Finally all the annoying stuff ended, and they walked toward the Shuttle as the Great Bells of Gavinar tolled three times in the distance. They would not ring again until their return. This part felt especially silly to Tariana, because they had to walk with an exaggeratedly slow gait that was supposed to look important but she suspected just looked dumb. Finally they came to the foot of the Shuttle’s entry ramp, where they were greeted by the two human pilots Mother had insisted on having: no cyberpilots would do for her family.

“Welcome, Your Highness,” said the one on the left, whose name Tariana remembered as Captain Manto. “The ship is ready for your pleasure.”

“I’m sure it is, Captain,” replied the Queen. “Come, girls!

They ascended the ramp into the Shuttle’s main hold, which was comfortably appointed with plush cloth seats, deep burgundy carpeting, and solid brass accent fixtures. The pilots disappeared into the cockpit; seconds later the entry ramp sealed behind them and the ship filled with the whine of the engines warming. It was almost time. Tariana sat down as near the window as she could. She didn’t want to miss a second of this.

Her heart pounded as she waited those last agonizing seconds, during which every little tremor or vibration through the ship made her think that it was time. But when at last the moment came there was no mistaking the sensations at all: the thrusters engaging, the sense of something very large pushing upward from below. Outside her window she saw the ground dropping away, very slowly at first, and then faster and faster. The pressure of gravity and acceleration pushed her back in her chair, before the damping field generators kicked in and made the the cabin feel more normal.

“We’re on our way!” Tariana said. “We’re on our way! We’re in the air! Marg, we’re in the air!”

Margeth said nothing, and only dug her nails into the armrests of her seat and stared downward. Mother, for her part, sat reading a book, paying no attention at all to the fact that they were leaving their world. Tariana glanced once more at her sister and then turned her attention back to her window and the sight of the only planet she’d ever known dropping away beneath her.

They rose through clouds in less than a minute, breaking into the most brilliant sunshine Tariana had ever seen, sunshine which lit the sky in blue and white flame. Tariana could now see the curvature of Gavinar’s surface, tracing a fine line between ground and sky. She tried to make out the features of the world beneath her, to see the mountains that rose to the east of the capital city, but she couldn’t make them out with any confidence, and the world beneath her became more and more uniform looking as the sky became darker and darker.

“They’re coming, Marg,” she said aloud, not realizing that she was saying it at all. “The stars are coming!” She glanced at Marg and saw her sister looking out the window as well, a smile now spread across her face.

The sky darkened and darkened until finally those first tiny flecks of light began to appear. As they passed into the night side of the planet, the blackness surrounding them was deeper than any Tariana had ever seen or even imagined. Suddenly the sky was full of stars, the perfect blackness agleam with them. Tariana’s eyes filled with tears, turning the stars into brilliant gems which danced in the blackness beyond. Gavinar was behind them, and there was a gentle shudder as the ship’s engines cut off. Silence settled over the passenger cabin, and Tariana realized that none of the sounds she could now hear was a sound of her world.

“I don’t know why it takes so long to fly to the ship,” Margeth said. “We’d be there faster if they’d fire the thrusters the whole way there.”

“Such haste is undignified,” Mother replied.

Tariana looked down at Margeth and grinned. Of course for Mother it would come down to dignity.

“I’d trade some dignity for getting there faster,” Margeth said.

“It would waste fuel, too,” Tariana added.

“Now this is a fine thing,” Mother said, laughing. “For the longest time you wanted no part of this voyage at all, and now look who’s impatient to get going!”

Margeth scowled and buried her eyes in a book on her comp-pad.

Tariana smiled and returned to staring out the window. She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t loved the stars, and seeing so many of them now, unencumbered by the filtering air of her homeworld, made her heart full and her soul fly. “Look!” she said. “Look how bright the River runs!” The Great Sky River, as it was called on Gavinar, was where one of the Galaxy’s spiral arms cut across the sky. Tariana’s favorite star legends told of the old Gods, the Progenitors, sailing the Great River in their Godships as they carried the seeds of life from one world to another, planting those seeds in every star system where they might take root. Some still spoke of the Progenitors, but only in the same tones that some still spoke of the Mother World from which humanity had once sprung. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she said. Neither Mother nor Margeth were answering, but it didn’t bother Tariana at all.

Looking back to the planet, Tariana could see, very far off, the flashes of thrusterfire from other departing ships. The business of Gavinar did not cease just for the Royal Family’s flight into space.

“You should now be passing the point beyond which the planet’s gravity begins to yield to––” It was Professator Jarel, starting to drone on in Tariana’s ear via the earpiece she hadn’t realized she still wore. The channel had reset, and she pulled it out before he even finished the sentence.

“I did that before we even got on board,” Margeth said.

“He’s going to be angry with us,” Tariana said.

“He’s funny when he’s mad, though.”

After another quarter of an hour, Mother rose from her chair. “I think a refreshment is in order,” she said. “Would you girls like anything?”

Tariana only shook her head, while Margeth only asked for some water. Mother nodded and headed into the shuttle’s rear cabin.

“She’s serving us herself?” Margeth said as soon as Mother was out of earshot. “Mother never does that.”

“She does once in a while,” Tariana replied. “When she just wants a moment to herself, or…well, I don’t know.” Tariana had been about to say, “When she wants to do things herself.” Will I be the same way? Looking for opportunities to bring refreshments to my children, just so I can DO something? She glanced back at the rear compartment, where Mother was puttering about. “I also think she’s nervous about seeing Father again.”

None of them had seen Father in so long, except in the holo-messages sent by the official Imperial couriers, that it would no doubt feel very awkward to see him again. Tariana wondered how much Margeth remembered or understood of those days after the invitation had arrived from Salengarde Prime for Father to join the Imperator’s Council. She wasn’t sure that she completely understood, even now. He had been asked to give up everything: his world, his kingship, his family, in order to serve a distant ruler whose hold on their lives was more like the hold of a legend than that of a true ruler. Still, one did not decline an invitation to Salengarde Prime blithely, for such an invitation might never come again. No one could blame him for the choice he had made, except for his wife, who on some level had not yet forgiven him.

He would return to Gavinar one day, when his service to the Imperator was complete. But he would no longer be King, and he would be almost a complete stranger to his own family by then. Service on Salengarde Prime tended to change people forever. At the same time they were going to see Father, they were in a way also going to meet him for the first time.

Mother came back into the passenger cabin, carrying a tray with three glasses filled with golden liquid that glowed with its own pale yellow light.

“Sun wine!” Tariana said. Margeth grinned.

“I know that I’ve said you’re not old enough,” Mother said, “but this is a special occasion. First star flight, and all that. The small glass for you, Marg.”

“Aww,” Margeth said as Mother held out the tray so that each girl could take a glass. Tariana had only tasted sun wine three times before, and only one of those had been with Mother’s permission. She lifted the glass to her nose and took in the scent: sweet and bright, reminding her of spring in the mountains where berries grew that could only be squeezed when they had just been touched by sunlight for the first time. Then she sipped, and the warming calm of the wine spread through her body.

“What do you think, Marg?” Tariana asked.

“Can’t I have more?” Margeth asked.

Mother shook her head. “Certainly not! Your father would be furious if he knew I’d let you have any at all.”

Margeth looked up at Tariana, and the two girls exchanged smiles. Both well knew that Mother would only cite Father’s objections as her way of ending a conversation sooner than it otherwise would go. Mother was the one who truly made the rules.

Tariana sipped again. Gavinar Sunwine was prized throughout the Imperium and beyond, and in fact they were bringing two dozen casks with them, as part of Gavinar’s gift to the Imperator. Margeth had already finished her glass, and was looking quite happy and relaxed, for the first time in weeks. Maybe I should have given Marg some Sunwine, Tariana thought. It might have made those arguments easier.

“Now girls,” Mother began suddenly, “this journey will command every bit of your attention, but I still expect you to mind your studies. You have an example to set for the children of Gavinar! I know that you will be tempted to scheme your way out of Professator Jarel’s company, but I will not tolerate such foolishness. When I was a girl myself….”

Tariana and Margeth exchanged glances and a secret small smile. Mother did tend to go on like this at times. Tariana sat, drank her wine, and gazed out the window opposite her seat at the stars beyond. After a time Mother finally fell silent, and Tariana decided to speak, emboldened perhaps by the wine.

“Mother?” Tariana asked.

“Yes, my dear?”

“When we get back, I want to attend a real school. Not just tutoring sessions with Professator Jarel anymore. I mean, I’ll still work with him. But I want to be with other people my age.”

Mother turned a raised eyebrow toward Tariana. “Is this a result of your escapade the other day?”

Tariana sighed.

“Yes, my dear, Connos told me about that. I didn’t bring it up because it wasn’t really that awful a transgression, and because we were busy. But you shouldn’t have done that.”

“What did you do?” Margeth asked suddenly. Her interest was always piqued by stories of Tariana’s occasional misdeeds.

“Your sister,” Mother said, “took it upon herself to go gallivanting through the Palace, and she encountered a school group on tour.”

Margeth looked up at Tariana with widened eyes. “You talked to regular kids? What was that like?”

“It was fine!” Tariana put down her now empty glass and shrugged. “It was no big deal. Really. It was…they’re people. They’re not even very different from us.”

Mother raised her eyebrows again. “Now let’s not entertain that train of thought,” she said. “Tariana, why on Gavinar would you want such a thing?”

“Because I want to know what it’s like to…to….”

“To what?”

“To have friends! To have people to talk to!”

“I’m not someone to talk to?” Margeth asked.

“That’s not what I mean. Someone my age.”

“You have people your age––”

“Mother, that’s not the same. You let courtiers come in and pay tribute and be there for an hour, at most. All we talk about is what it’s like to be Royal! What do they talk about?”

“Us,” Mother said.

Tariana rolled her eyes. “We don’t even talk about us all the time. Why would they?”

“Tariana, what is this?” Mother set down her glass. “You have everything you could possibly want in life, and you have the responsibilities that others can only dream of. You are important. Why can’t you be happy with that?”

“Because that’s all what I am. What do I do?”

“You be those things,” Mother said. “And you do that well. Normal friendships aren’t for Royal families, Tariana. It’s not who we are.”

“That’s not fair,” Tariana said.

“Many things aren’t.” Mother sighed. “I tried having friends like that when I was your age. They couldn’t last. We were too different. I would hate for you to be disappointed.”

“I’m already disappointed,” Tariana said.

Mother sighed again, a bit more loudly this time. “We will talk about this later, with your father and when you get home. Perhaps arrangements can be made….”

She trailed off then, and the conversation ended. Tariana knew that any such arrangements would be artificial events, highly supervised, just to keep her quiet. She also knew that continuing to argue the point was useless just now.

“I can’t believe you did that without me!” Margeth said.

“You weren’t talking to me,” Tariana replied. “And it wasn’t something I planned.”

Margeth harumphed, and Tariana sat back and glowered. This conversation had not gone according to plan at all. She turned away from Mother and Margeth, back to the window…and then she gasped.

“Marg! Look!”

Margeth turned and looked too, and both sisters watched as the entire sweep of Gavinar moved past their field of view, from the day side to the night side, as the ship banked. Then, ahead of them, the blackness was broken by something shining, silver and radiant. It was the Royal Yacht.

“There it is,” Tariana whispered.

It didn’t matter, really, what shape a starship took. There was no need for wings or sleek shapes that might be of use in an atmosphere, but that kind of design seemed to be part of human nature, and this ship was no different. It was long and sleek and graceful, with gossamer tendrils of starsteel that swept back, away from the ship’s nose to the midsection where they began to taper inward again, toward the rear thrusters. The upper hull gleamed in the sunlight while the underside, tilted away from the sun, was as black as the sky itself.

“So beautiful!” Tariana breathed. But beside her, she could sense Margeth’s tension returning, now that the ship of her sister’s dark dreams loomed ahead. Knowing better than to say anything, Tariana reached out and took Margeth’s hand. Together they watched as the Yacht grew and grew in the window, until their shuttle banked again for its final docking approach. Now Tariana could make out the Yacht’s windows, and the Royal Seal of Gavinar painted on the ship’s hull, and then she could even see the seams in the ship’s starsteel plates.

As they swung around one last time for their final docking maneuver, the shuttle moved into direct sunlight which bathed the shuttle’s passenger cabin with blinding brilliance. Mother finally reached up and clicked the switch that closed the window shields, and then they listened to the sounds of the docking motors as the ships joined.

“No name,” Margeth said.

“What?” Tariana asked.

“The ship isn’t named,” Margeth replied. “It’s bad luck to fly a ship with no name.”

Tariana had heard space pilots say that very thing, and she knew that the Yacht would receive its formal name as part of their arrival ceremony at Salengarde.

“I’m sure it will be fine,” Tariana said. “She’ll be named soon enough.”

“Come girls!” Mother said. “Let me have a look at you.”

Tariana and Margeth both stood up so that Mother could give them one last going-over before going aboard the ship that would, over the next three weeks of hyperjumps, carry them to Salengarde Prime. The cabin suddenly darkened as the shuttle was pulled into the Yacht’s shadow, and then a series of thumps reverberated through the shuttle before all was still. They had docked, and a chime signaled that the operation was complete.

“All right!” Mother said when she had finished picking invisible bits of lint from their clothes and brushing away wrinkles that weren’t there. “Look lively, please!”

As they moved to the door, Tariana rolled her eyes for what felt like the thousandth time in just a few hours. She was quickly tiring of all this silly ritual and pomp. Ordinary people board and disembark ships all the time, she thought. Why do we have to act as though we’re inventing it? Of course, the answer to that very question was standing in front of her. They had to do it because it was the way Mother wanted things. Always the ceremony. Always the ritual. Always proper, always, always, always.

“Pressure equalized,” a voice said from over the loudspeaker directly above their heads. “Your Majesties, we thank you for the opportunity to serve you this day. May the Starshaper preserve you on your journey.”

“And you as well,” Mother replied. There was a brief hiss of air as the door slid open, revealing a short and brilliantly lit passage beyond. At the opposite end of the passage was an identical door into the receiving room on the other ship. “Come!” Mother said, and they crossed onto the Yacht.

It was a large, circular room, less brightly lit than the transfer corridor had been. The walls were paneled with actual wood –– rare on a starship, Tariana knew –– and hung with lightpaintings depicting important events in Gavinar history. In the middle of the room stood five officers at attention in full dress uniform who all bowed in unison as the Royals entered.

“Greetings, Captain Cormer,” Mother said to the man in the center of the group.

“Welcome, Your Highness,” said the Captain. “It was long my honor to serve as pilot to your husband, and to have Your Grace and your royal daughters on board will be as great an honor.” He bowed again, neat and crisp. Captain Cormer may have been the tallest and thinnest man Tariana had ever seen in her life. He barely managed to avoid scraping his thin, gray hair on the ceiling, and it was certain that he had to stoop to get through any of the doors on the ship. “May I present my officers?”

“Please,” Mother said.

The captain turned and gestured to the four people –– two men, one woman, one pink-skinned humanoid whose gender Tariana could not discern –– standing behind him. Tariana listened as the captain recited their names, but she didn’t remember any of them, save that of the woman: Lieutenant Rasharri, the ship’s astrogator. She was a tiny woman –– all astrogators were women, by long tradition –– shorter than Tariana, around forty years of age, black-skinned with her hair bundled up beneath a headwrap of shimmering blue and silver fabric. She was visibly muscular beneath her uniform, and she looked very strong. She kept her eyes rigidly focused on the floor, only looking up to make eye contact when introduced. Tariana had expected this. Astrogators tended to be…odd. They were awkward amongst people, almost unremittingly intense. It came from the huge amounts of time –– hours, days, weeks, years –– spent in their meditative state to guide their ships from normal hyperspace and into the Startrails that no computer could even detect by standard scanning. It was on the backs of the astrogators that humanity had spread across the stars, and for some, it was a heavy price to pay.

“Hello,” said Lieutenant Rasharri, when Captain Cormer prompted her, in a voice that was exceptionally soft and exceptionally clear. Her eyes briefly focused on Tariana, in the most intense stare Tariana had ever seen, before dropping down again.

“Lieutenant Rasharri is the finest astrogator I have ever worked with,” said Captain Cormer. “She is able to find courses into the Startrails that few others would attempt. However, for our purposes on this journey, I’m sure she will be adhering to standard routes only. Isn’t that correct, Lieutenant?”

“Indeed, Captain,” Lieutenant Rasharri said.

The Captain turned back to the Queen. “We are due to get underway in two hours, Your Majesty. Before then, I thought you might enjoy a brief tour of the ship? Starting with the hyperdrive engines, perhaps?”

Normally the prospect of seeing the hyperdrive engines would have deeply thrilled Tariana, but she was still unnerved by whatever it was she had seen in Lieutenant Rasharri’s unwavering gaze, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the Lieutenant turned and walked down a different passage, apparently not accompanying them on their tour.

“What was with that woman?” Margeth whispered as they boarded a lift.

“I don’t know,” Tariana whispered back.

Tariana forgot all about the Lieutenant by the time the tour began. She knew how the hyperdrive engines worked, in theory, but to actually see those engines, with their rows of viladium bubbles that would open the hypergate at Lieutenant Rasharri’s direction, and the reactor that powered the whole vessel, was actually breathtaking –– the difference between looking at pictures of something amazing and finally seeing it. The bridge caught her imagination, as well, with its sweeping glassteel windows that must yield views so stunningly beautiful that Tariana tried to imagine how anyone could possibly work up here, when the stars and the worlds were all there, glittering overhead –– at least, that is, until the ship passed into hyperspace, when the windows would go dark, covered by the shields that protected the eyes of the crew, lest their minds be destroyed by the visuals of hyperspace that the human brain could not process.

There was a wonderful recreation hall, spanning parts of two decks and filled with every possible game or recreation one could imagine, and then finally there were the Royal quarters, taking up the entire lowermost deck of the ship. With the tour ended, Captain Cormer bowed one last time. “I shall leave you to your leisure, Your Highness,” he said to Mother. “I am almost late for prelaunch! We shall be underway in one hour. And if you like, I invite you to be on the bridge for spacefall at the Dengala system.”

“We shall look forward to that, Captain,” Mother replied. And then, with that, the Captain exited, leaving them alone.

“Well, girls,” Mother said. “I feel the need to freshen up, and I suggest you both do the same. Try to choose complementary colors, please?” She didn’t wait for a response before disappearing into her own stateroom.

“She’s scared,” Margeth said when they were alone. “She’s afraid of the hyperjump. She just won’t say it.”

“Don’t be stupid, Marg,” Tariana replied. “When have you ever known Mother to be afraid of anything?”

Margeth glared at her older sister. “Don’t call me stupid! When have you known Mother to leave our system?”

Tariana opened her mouth to give a reply, but then closed it again. Marg was right, she suddenly realized. Mother had never, to Tariana’s knowledge, ventured beyond the Gavinar system, only occasionally visiting the mining and industrial colonies on the other planets. “Well, maybe she is scared,” Tariana conceded. “But this is all new for us, isn’t it? Just think, a few days ago you were terrified of this voyage, because of those dreams.”

Margeth gave her older sister a look that made Tariana think that it might not have been the best idea to mention that, and Tariana began hoping for a way out of this particular conversation that involved speaking the fewest possible words. As luck had it, a solution presented itself at that exact moment. However, it was not the solution Tariana might have chosen.

“Ah! You are here at last!”

Professator Jarel came trundling into the room from an adjoining chamber. Tariana groaned inwardly, for now they would be subjected to Jarel’s habit of converting nearly every conversation or activity into an opportunity for learning. He somehow looked oddly out of place here, even though he was as obviously artificial as the ship itself. “How beautiful, in truth!” he said, grandly gesturing with all three arms as he moved to the great window which now overlooked Gavinar’s night side and the infinite depths of space beyond it. “Look, girls, at the Universe as it is laid out before us. How small we all are, wouldn’t you agree? All our cities, all our works, all we leave behind. Specks of dust, all of it, scattered upon the winds of the stars.” He glanced over at Tariana and Margeth. “Neither of you can tell me which of the great poets of Gavinar wrote those lines? No? Well, I shall assume that your memories are overwhelmed, for a time, by the emotion of this exciting day!”

He made one of his programmed sighs of contentment as he moved to the table and beckoned for the girls to sit down.

“I am glad you are here,” he said. “I, too, have looked forward to this journey. For all my years of service to your family, I have despaired of the opportunity to spend time amidst the books of the Imperial Library and to immerse myself in the learnings of Salengarde University. Now, those chances are upon me!”

Tariana nodded; Margeth only blinked.

“I am especially glad that you are here, Margeth,” he said. “Tariana told me of some of your concerns.”

“Tari!” Margeth said.

“I needed advice!” Tariana protested. “Mother wanted to release stun gas into your chambers.”

“I would have broken my window to let the gas out,” Marg said.

“That would not have worked,” the Professator said. “Those windows are pure glassteel, four inches thick. You would have needed a particle-blast cannon.”

“Well, there you go, Marg,” Tariana said. “You were always doomed.”

“Wonderful,” Marg said. “Mother wouldn’t have done that anyway.”

“Excellent!” said Professator Jarel, either missing Margeth’s tone entirely, or choosing to ignore it. “So. Our first jump will take us to Dengala, is that correct? This suggests to me an opportunity”––Tariana groaned, knowing what was coming next––”to refresh our galaxography. Margeth, describe the Dengala system, if you please?”

Through eyes that looked glazed over, Margeth responded: “Dengala is a double star system with six planets.”

“Yes,” said the Professator. “And can you name the planets?”

“Dengala One?” Tariana said. Margeth stifled a giggle.

Professator Jarel crossed two of his arms across his chest. “I cannot teach you if you do not plan to take this seriously,” he said.

“Professator, you can’t expect us to know the names of the planets of the Dengala system! There aren’t even any settlements there at all, except for a refueling station.”

“Well, at least you know that much,” Jarel replied. “But perhaps I am expecting too much of you just now, so perhaps we might read some poetry instead.”

That brought a groan from Margeth, who hated poetry as much as Tariana loved it. But it came to naught, for she and Margeth had already felt the rumble from deep inside the ship.

“They’re firing the engines!” Tariana exclaimed. “We’re moving!”

The girls ran to the great windows, leaving poor Professator Jarel behind. The planet was swinging away behind them, and soon it began to get smaller as the ship gained speed.

“Look!” Tariana pointed to six ships that had taken up formation in the distance. “The defense ships are seeing us off!”

The six defense ships, always in formation above Gavinar in twelve hour shifts, maneuvered into three different formations, the last being the famed Starburst, the traditional formation of salute for the royal family. Then they moved to provide the Yacht escort to the hypergate, clearing the spacelanes of the usual freighters and tanker drones. Those other ships would just have to wait their turn.

“What do you think those ships are carrying?” Margeth suddenly asked. Tariana looked at her younger sister and saw, for the first time in what felt like months, genuine wonder and excitement in her eyes. “And where do you think they are going?”

“You should know the chief exports of our world, I should think,” said Jarel from behind them, still trying to steer the conversation back toward some lesson topic.

“I think we might do well without a lesson just now, Professator.”

Both girls turned in surprise, for the voice was Mother’s. She had come from her quarters and, unheard, had come up behind them to join them at the window.

“Come, girls,” she said. “Stand with me as we leave home.”

Tariana and Margeth moved to either side of Mother, who draped an arm across each of their shoulders.

“You’ll have to forgive me,” Mother said. “I have never particularly cared for space travel.”

“I didn’t want to come either,” said Margeth.

“Oh, Marg.” Mother leaned closer over her and kissed her on top of her head. “It’s not that I didn’t want to come. I’ve just never liked flying in ships, even one so beautifully appointed as this.”

“Why?” The word was past Tariana’s lips before she could bite it back. “This is the most amazing thing we’ve ever done!”

“It’s an old fear, my dear,” Mother said. Her voice trailed off, and Tariana knew from the look in Mother’s eye –– a far-off look as she gazed out into the stars, and perhaps past them to something far, far beyond even the farthest star –– that there was something unsaid in Mother’s words that would stay unsaid until a time came when she was ready. “Tell me, Marg,” Mother said after that moment had passed, “do you still fear that something is wrong with the ship?”

“It was just a dream,” Margeth muttered.

“Dreams aren’t always wrong,” Mother noted.

A chime sounded, and then Captain Cormer’s voice came over the speakers in the room.

“Your highnesses,” the Captain began, “our hyperleap is in three minutes. In sixty seconds we shall close the shutters over the windows of your quarters. You may feel a small amount of discomfort as we cross into hyperspace. This is normal, and the feeling will pass within seconds. This first jump will last just under six hours. Thank you.” The speakers clicked off, and the girls looked at one another.

“We’re really going,” Tariana said. Margeth’s eyes were wide with anticipation as well. Then another chime sounded, and a computer voice spoke:

“Preparing for hyperleap. Sealing all windows and viewspaces.”

On cue, the great blast-steel covers begin to slide down over the windows, cutting off their view of the stars. “Come, girls,” Mother said. “There is nothing more to see.”

As Mother turned to lead the girls back to the living area, the ship’s chimes sounded yet again, and now they could all feel the new and deep vibration of the hyperdrive behind them. Up on the bridge, Lieutenant Rasharri, that strange astrogator, would be extending her senses outward, beyond the confines of the ship to feel the currents of energy, looping and whorling through the endless churn of hyperspace, and she would select the currents that would carry the ship toward the Dengala system. It was all beginning now. Tariana’s heart quickened.

And then she began feeling…something else.

Mother was speaking again, and Margeth was laughing, but Tariana couldn’t hear anything they said. It was as though they were somehow miles away.

Around the edges of her vision, in the spaces at the far corners of her sight, she saw swirling shapes and colors, all melding together once and again, but when she tried to look directly upon them, all she could see was the room in which she sat, although as if it was at the end of a long tunnel. She could hear things now, in place of the voices of Mother and Marg and Professator Jarel –– things that were not voices but sequences of musical tones and chords. Where were those coming from? What was this music in her ears, and why could she not make it stop? It was beautiful…too beautiful. Her ears could barely contain it.

Tariana swung toward Mother, who had now noticed her older daughter’s distress and risen in concern. Tariana realized that she could see through Mother, and through the walls behind her, and even through the hull of the ship itself. She could see the stars, the spinning whirling tumbling stars, as they spun and spun and whirled and whirled, faster and faster and faster still, until all their lights became as one, and then she knew that they were all…someplace else.

As her mind filled all at once with the sensation of the entire universe, Tariana screamed just before her legs gave way, sending her tumbling to the floor before her world went black.

3

Wake up! Tariana, please wake up!”

Give her space, Margeth. Crowding around her won’t help.”

Margeth and Mother still sounded as if they were calling to her from across a wide chasm, but each word brought them closer and closer, until they sounded once again like they were right next to her. Which, it turned out, they were.

Tariana opened her eyes and found herself lying on the couch. Margeth’s and Mother’s faces came into focus quickly, and she saw Professator Jarel standing a bit behind them when she lifted her head slightly. And there was someone else…no, two other people. Captain Cormer, and Lieutenant Rasharri. The Captain was standing even farther back, looking concerned but not directly involved; the Lieutenant stood behind him, and she was staring at the carpet.

“Move slowly, my dear,” Mother said. “You’ve had a rough couple of hours.”

A couple of hours?

“What happened?” Tariana said. She’

“Here,” Margeth said as she squirmed her way inside Mother’s stance, holding a cup of water so that Tariana could sip from it. It was cool and metallic. Ship water.

“What happened?” Tariana asked again.

“You fainted, my dear,” Mother said. “It happens. Be at rest.”

“It happens?” Tariana’s eyes widened. “Why did it happen to me?”

Jarel slid forward. “Loss of consciousness is not unheard of during hyperleap,” he said. “It is called Hyperspatial disorientation. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. More interesting is the fact that this exact sort of sudden loss of consciousness can often be a sign of sensitivity to––”

“That will be enough, Professator,” Mother snapped.

“As you wish, Your Highness,” the Professator said as he backed away.

“My head hurts,” Tariana said after another sip of water. “I don’t feel good.”

“Are you going to throw up?” Margeth asked.

“I hope not.” Tariana’s temples dully ached, and her stomach was churning –– not badly enough to make her gorge rise, but enough that she was aware that it might. She also felt…cold, and suddenly she began to shiver as she realized this. Mother spread a blanket over her.

“I have seen this before,” said the Captain. “Many times. The Princess will be fine. Just a minor bout of leapsickness, that’s all. That’s a more useful term than hyperspatial disorientation, don’t you think?” He smiled and cleared his throat. “Well, I think we are needed on the bridge. Spacefall is in two hours, and I need my astrogator.”

The Captain bowed, as did Lieutenant Rasharri –– or, at least, as did Lieutenant Rasharri attempt to sketch a formal bow. It looked more like a bird bobbing for water, and Tariana might well have chuckled had Rasharri’s gaze not met hers for the briefest of seconds. In that brief glimpse Tariana saw something she did not expect, and she was certain that she felt words in her mind that were not hers:

You and I are not unalike.

The words, and the thought that carried them, vanished as quickly as Lieutenant Rasharri flicked her gaze away from Tariana’s, and then the hiss of the door closing behind the two officers.

“Two hours to spacefall?” Tariana asked as she began to push herself back up. “How long was I…was I really asleep for four hours?”

“It’s understandable,” Mother said. “You have been overtaxed of late, and leapsickness is not unheard of.”

Tariana’s brow furrowed. “Then why have I never heard of it?”

Beside her, Margeth giggled slightly. Tariana scowled at her, and Marg put her concerned expression back on.

“You have not heard of it because you have never flown before,” Mother said. “It is all very reasonable.” She slapped her hands to her lap to signal that she was satisfied with where the conversation had ended, whether or not anyone else felt the same. “Given your experience, Tariana, I think some glimmertea may be in order. I wonder if there is any on board…I shall go look….” Mother’s voice trailed off as she rose from Tariana’s side and headed for their little galley, in search of the tea that she always prepared in difficult times, never mind that she was the only person in the family who could abide the taste.

Tariana shook her head. “I fainted for four hours?

“I told you there was something wrong with the ship,” Margeth said.

“Oh, Marg!” Tariana pushed herself up at last. “You didn’t dream me fainting.”

“My dreams have come true before,” Margeth said. “They’re not always exactly right, but––”

The Professator nodded sagely. “All beings who dream experience instances of their dreams ‘coming true’, as you call it, some small portion of the time. It simply means that you can sometimes find a parallel between what has happened and what you have seen in your dreams. Do you recall each time that your dreams have not come true? No, you only recall the ones that stand out. That is the way the human mind works and has always worked, no matter to which worlds humans have scattered, no matter to what degree humans now differ across the stars. There was a famous instance when––”

Tariana and Margeth exchanged a glance: Jarel was about to get going. “Professator,” Tariana said sweetly, “I think I need some peace and quiet.”

Professator Jarel backed away. “Ah yes,” he said. “Well, given your current state, of course. I shall assist your mother with the brewing of that tea.” With that he made his way off, toward the adjoining chambers as well.

Tariana pushed herself more or less upright. “I’m glad he’s programmed to accommodate special requests like that.”

“Tari…what happened? Why did you faint?”

Tariana shook her head. She was already starting to remember something…but she wasn’t sure at all what it meant. “I don’t know…I saw things. Strange things that I’ve never seen before.”

Margeth moved in closer. “What did you see?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I can’t even describe it. I was standing there, with you, and the shutters came down. Then I came with you to the couch and sat down…and Mother was talking…but when the ship started the leap, I could feel it.”

“So could I,” Margeth said.

“No, not like that,” Tariana said. “I mean, it was like that, but it wasn’t.”

Margeth wrinkled her nose. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“No, it does…I’m just trying to…all right, I felt the ship’s engines shift, the way you did, and I felt that feeling, you know? Where it feels like the ship is spinning really fast but it’s all right because we’re spinning too?”

“I hated that!” Marg said. “It was over fast, though.”

“Yes, that part of it was,” Tariana said. “But then…it was like the shutters never closed at all. I could see through them, and you, and Mother, and everything else. I could see through the entire ship, and it looked like I was flying into hyperspace.”

Margeth’s eyes were wide. “You saw hyperspace?”

Tariana shook her head. “I couldn’t have! It would have destroyed my mind. But it was like…I felt the hypergate. I felt it. I knew where we were, and where we were going. I could sense the space around us. It was so…so…I don’t know. It was like the ship wasn’t there anymore, and I was alone in hyperspace…and it was as if I could have gone in any direction I wanted. I felt like the entire Galaxy was there before me. And then…I guess that’s when I fainted.”

“Now you’re having visions,” Margeth said.

“It wasn’t a vision,” Tariana said, wrinkling her nose. “Nothing like your dreams. And I wasn’t trying to avoid going on the voyage because of it!”

“You don’t need to keep bringing that up,” Margeth said, crossing her arms.

“I’m sorry,” Tariana said. “I wasn’t trying to make fun. Really.”

“Well…all right.” Margeth turned back to her. “I can’t believe we’re going to be on this ship for three weeks! What are we going to do?”

Tariana sighed and leaned back in the couch. “I’m sure Mother and Professator Jarel already have ideas on how we should spend our time.”

“I know Jarel does,” Margeth replied. “I peeked at his memory upload files before we left. I hope you like Salengarde history. And Salengarde architecture, and Salengarde art, and Salengarde music, and Salengarde food, Salengarde Salengarde Salengarde!”

Tariana sighed. “We are going to the most important world in the entire Imperium, you know!”

“Yes, but Jarel will make it all as boring as the Gavinar Settlement.”

“I thought that was interesting!”

“You would!”

Tariana stuck her tongue out, and Margeth responded with a naughty hand gesture. They were still laughing when Mother returned, carrying a tray with three tea mugs on it. Professator Jarel trundled along behind her.

“But Your Highness!” Jarel was saying, “Surely you would want them to know as much as they can about the very world they are journeying to! I prepared lessons––”

“Not at the expense of enjoying the voyage, Professator,” Mother said, smiling all the way. It was the tight smile she used when she was arguing but didn’t want to give anyone else the impression she was arguing. Tariana glanced at Margeth, and both girls stifled grins. They knew how this argument was about to end, and as they expected, Mother delivered the finishing blow. “I am their Mother and your Queen, Professator.”

“Very well, Your Highness,” said Professator Jarel. “If I am no longer needed, then….”

“You have my leave,” Mother said. Seconds later the door slid shut behind the Professator, and Mother shook her head as she sat down after handing Tariana and Margeth each a mug of steaming Glimmertea. “By the Starshaper, he is more insistent now than he was when he was my Professator! I tremble to think of what may be in store for your own children, when the time comes.”

“Perhaps by then he’ll have retired,” Tariana offered.

Mother laughed. “Best not to hope for that, my dear,” she said. “Jarel will outlive us all.”

Margeth wrinkled her nose. “I’ll teach my children myself,” she said.

“Tariana dear, how are you feeling?” Mother asked.

“I’m fine,” Tariana said. “All I did was faint. You said it happens.”

“It does,” Mother said. “You may not tell your father this – I fainted on my own first space voyage.”

“You did?” both girls exclaimed in unison. Margeth, in particular, was always delighted to hear the occasional story in which her mother was not the perfectly regal Queen who always lived in total command of her own actions and those of others.

“I did,” Mother said, nodding as she sipped at her tea. “And that journey did not even involve a hyperleap.”

“What happened?” Tariana asked.

Mother stirred her tea. “It was a trip to Gavinar Six. My father thought it would be good for me to see the mining cities there…some lesson about economics or some such thing. I think he was just trying to get me out of the Palace for a while. You’ll understand when you have children, my dears…anyhow, I was terrified of traveling in a ship! I wasn’t your age, Tariana, but I was a bit older than you are now, Margeth. I never told Father was that I was scared. I couldn’t go against his wishes.” She smiled sadly as she sipped her tea. “I’ve never liked flying. Did I ever tell you of my grandfather’s great hobby? He loved the airships of old. In our day, when we can fly as easily as walking, he always said it was magical to fly in the old way, when our ancestors on the Firstworld had to put their trust in the wind. He would fill the belly of his airship with air which he heated with an open flame”––Tariana and Margeth gasped at the very prospect––”until the entire thing would rise into the air. He would then sail on the wind as far as he could, going wherever the wind blew him. Servants would have to go fetch him hours later.” She sipped her tea before continuing. “I only flew with him once, when my father took me. I couldn’t tell you if it was beautiful or not. I could barely look over the side.

“My first spaceflight was worse. When those thrusters fired and I felt myself being crushed down into my seat, I thought I was going to die! And then I looked out the window. I know that you thought it a beautiful and amazing thing, watching our world fall away beneath you. To me, it was exactly the way I had always envisioned death. So that’s when I fainted. When I woke back up, we were already on our main ship headed for Gavinar Six.” She drained her cup.

“What about the rest of the trip?”

“The rest? Well, let’s just say that I was actually grateful for the presence of Professator Jarel. He kept me very busy, so I didn’t even have to notice that we were flying through space.”

“But you enjoy flight now, don’t you?” Tariana asked.

Mother remained silent for a moment as she swirled the few drops left in her tea cup. Then she shrugged, and smiled, and said, “I accept it as part of my station, but no, I don’t enjoy it.” She smiled. “It pleases me that you find wonder in it, though. Both of you.”

They spent the next half hour talking, and sipping tea, and talking some more, all the while with Professator Jarel skulking in the background, attempting to look busy but clearly chagrined that such a prime opportunity for a lesson was going wasted. But finally, the door chimed and a ship’s servant entered the chamber and bowed.

“Begging Your Highness’s pardon, but spacefall is in fifteen minutes.”

“Ah,” said Mother as she put her empty tea cup on the table and stood up. “Come, girls. As uneventful as it may be, you will want at least once to be on the bridge for spacefall.”

Tariana and Margeth stood as well and followed Mother toward the door, Margeth pausing to grab her Snow Devil doll.

“Margeth, dear, must you bring that rag with you even to the bridge of our ship?”

“Blue-eye’s not a rag,” Margeth replied. Mother only rolled her eyes and waved a hand, conceding the point as she walked toward the door. Professator Jarel fell in beside them, already seeming to brighten up.

“Ah, the first of so many exciting moments to come!” Jarel said, already overdoing his excitement programming. “It is time you saw your first star other than the Gavinar sun.”

“Suns,” Tariana said, correcting him. “Dengala is a double star system.”

“Well done!” Jarel practically squealed with delight. “I was hoping you would catch me in that one!”

Tariana rolled her eyes, and Margeth stifled a giggle. They followed the officer into the corridor, and then to the elevator. Their next stop was the bridge.

As Tariana had known they would be, the glassteel windows that soared above and before them at the front of the ship were covered by the protective plates that safely concealed the mind-destroying sight of hyperspace from their eyes. Still, the bridge was no less beautiful, with the way the flight deck swooped down from the Captain’s chair around the navigation well to the forward windows. The bridge crew was focused on the preparations for the ship’s emergence from hyperspace, until a guard blew the whistle that heralded the arrival of Their Highnesses on the bridge, and everyone snapped to attention –– even the officer who was a furry blob who created pseudopod-like appendages at will to work the controls of its station.

Everyone, that is, but Lieutenant Rasharri.

Her seat was forwardmost on the bridge, just behind the windows, and there she sat, staring at the glassteel panels as though she could see through them. She had removed her headwrap, revealing that her hair was much longer than Tariana had realized, and on her head she wore instead a circlet with two earpieces and a brain interface, helping her to extend her awareness beyond her mind, beyond her body, beyond the ship itself to feel the swirling and eddying energy currents of hyperspace, through which she guided the ship, controlling its movements with the pair of controllers she held, one to each hand.

“Computers do most of the astrogation through the stable hyperspace routes,” Captain Cormer said. “But using stable routes alone, it would take us over a month to reach Salengarde Prime. An astrogator –– our Lieutenant Rasharri –– guides us through the unstable routes.” He shook his head once in a gesture of amazement. “I tried it once, for just a few seconds. It’s not a sensation I wish to experience again. I’ve heard it described as guiding a watercraft through the currents of a dangerous sea, but it’s in something like eight dimensions. I don’t have the right kind of mind for such work. That’s why I stick to giving orders!”

Just then, the overhead lighting shifted color, from a soft neutral to a green hue that cast its glow across everything on the bridge. All eyes turned to Lieutenant Rasharri; she had risen to her feet, still facing forward.

Stellar mass nearing,” she said. Her voice was magnified across the entire bridge. “Three minutes to spacefall.”

“Understood, Lieutenant,” replied Captain Cormer. “Your Highnesses, if you would take your seats please?”

He gestured to three chairs in an alcove at the very rear of the bridge, well out of way of the necessary activity that would transpire as the ship emerged from hyperspace. Mother led Tariana and Margeth to the seats, under the Captain’s escort.

“And how long until we enter hyperspace again?” Tariana asked.

“Two hours, while we regenerate the hyperbatteries. The second leap will be much longer –– we will be in hyperspace for four days.”

Tariana and Margeth both gasped at that.

“Don’t worry,” the Captain said. “That one is a stable route, so the computers will do the work. Lieutenant Rasharri will rest. But let me tell you, she is very strong––”

Captain!” It was Lieutenant Rasharri. “Captain…there is an irregularity!”

The Lieutenant was sitting again, rigid in her chair, and her fingers clenched on the controls and twitching in spasms.

Captain Cormer raced down to her side. “What’s wrong, Lieutenant?”

The Lieutenant gave no response. She appeared, from what Tariana could see, to be suffering some kind of seizure.

“Medic!” the Captain shouted.

A medic responded almost immediately, before Tariana even saw her spring in to action. She administered an injection with a hypodermic device, and Rasharri quickly calmed. “Lieutenant!” Captain Cormer said. “Report!”

“I am…I am well, Captain,” Rasharri replied, rubbing her head in an effort to clear her thoughts. “I apologize, sir. And to Your Highnesses.” As she added that last she turned to look back up the bridge to the Royals, but meeting only Tariana’s gaze. “I don’t know what happened, sir.” She rubbed her eyes and blinked them clear. “But I am ready.”

She turned back to her station and took the controls again. “Back on course,” she said. “Sixty seconds to spacefall.”

Captain Cormer nodded. “Bridge crew, begin final preparations. Route power to the main engines and increase deflection settings to maximum.” He came back to the center of the bridge to stand beside his own chair.

“Shouldn’t he sit down?” Margeth asked.

“He should,” Tariana agreed.

“The Captain is putting on a show for us, girls,” Mother said. “Spacefall isn’t nearly as dramatic as they are making out.”

Tariana said nothing. Somehow she doubted that Lieutenant Rasharri’s seizure had been for their benefit.

Thirty seconds,” Lieutenant Rasharri announced.

The overhead light shifted color again, this time to blue. From the bowels of the ship, behind and beneath them, there came a deep thrummmm as the regular engines began firing. Tariana felt all the blood in her body surge to her head, and for a couple of seconds she thought she was about to swoon again. Suddenly there it was again, all spread out before her: in a march of time barely long enough to blink her eye, she saw the ship around her fade away and the staggering vastness of color and light that was hyperspace stretch out before her. This time she kept herself awake, and the sensation passed as quickly as it came. She was back on the bridge…or rather, the bridge was back around her. The universe spun…and then all felt normal. The ship’s main engines hummed beneath and behind them.

“We are secure from hyperspace, Captain,” Lieutenant Rasharri reported. Her entire body slumped as she put down the controllers and removed the astrogation device from her head. Then, looking utterly drained, she rose from her seat, wiping her brow with a towel.

“Acknowledged, Lieutenant,” Captain Cormer replied. “Well done. Begin hyperfield regeneration procedures.” As everyone began carrying out their next duties, Captain Cormer turned to the royal family and bowed.

“Your highnesses,” he said. “We are now in the Dengala system. Would you like to see it?”

“Very much, Captain,” Mother replied. “Girls? Your first suns beyond Gavinar!”

Tariana nodded, and she felt Margeth take her hand. Her little sister was excited too. Another star! This was one of the moments of all their dreams.

“Open all shields and shutters,” Captain Cormer ordered.

“Yes sir,” the helmsman replied.

At last the blast-steel plates slid backward, allowing them to finally see the view beyond. Black space and stars, but different black space and stars. Then the maneuvering thrusters fired, swinging the ship about. Tariana caught her breath as the bright blue star moved into view.

It’s so beautiful, Tariana thought. So beautiful. She began to whisper a prayer of thanks, even though something began nagging in the back of her mind.

Then Margeth ripped her hand away.

“Marg? What are you––”

“My dream,” Margeth said. “A blue star…before the fire….”

Tariana gaped for just a moment, and then she felt her level of exasperation at her little sister surge. “Marg, there is nothing wrong here! Look at that star––”

And then the thing in the back of her mind, the thing that had started nagging at her, snapped into place. That star…that star. Tariana’s exasperation with her sister vanished as quickly as it had come, replaced by horror as she turned to the Captain, who was already striding to one of the scanning stations.

“I want a full scan!” Cormer barked. “Rasharri, where have you brought us?”

Lieutenant Rasharri stared back at him, her arms spread in helplessness and an expression of horrified befuddlement on her face.

One star hung in the sky before them.

Dengala was known to have two.

They had spacefallen into the wrong system.

“Mother,” Tariana said, “where are we?”

But before anyone could answer, the ship lurched. Something had hit it, and hit it very, very hard.

END OF CHAPTER 3!!!

If you like what you’ve read, check out the whole book! More info on my BOOKS page.

 

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