A simple hop across hyperspace turns deadly, smashing hopes for a human-Warrish alliance
Nikki and Kiron Ramis Bell, the unique Warrish-human duad, are studying the marine life of Rishalt when they are summoned for an audience with the Prime. Tol-Jadel sets them the task of investigating a hyperspace perturbation near Jupiter. This anomaly threatens to sever the routes connecting Earth and Rishalt. They must return to the ocean of Europa to identity the cause of the disruption. But, tensions are rising between Warrish Watchers and the humans on Galileo Station, and Earth’s governments are squabbling over the proposed alliance with the aliens. Can Nikki and Kiron erase the obstacle before their home planets are separated forever?
A dozen lengths below the rippling surface of the sea, Kiron Ramis Bell rotated in a full circle, alert for predators or the transparent threads of stingers. As he spun through the water, he slowed to admire Nikki’s slim figure, her curves accentuated by the wetsuit she wore, and her dedication to studying the marine life of Pallivan Preserve. She crouched five paces away, her camera aimed at a sedentary triale. Its slender stalk thinned below the three-petaled magenta top. As he watched, the imitation flower broke away from its stalk and rose toward the surface. They had discovered this phenomenon only yesterday, and she had woken him before sunrise to record the budding.
His qtel vibrated. He descended to plant his feet on the seabed, carefully avoiding the triales, and read Sora’s message, “Come as fast as you can swim.” One of the Prime’s daughters, Brisa Sora Tarlin Galamis had no need to justify her summons, and he guessed she preferred to explain in person.
He tapped the qtel on his wrist and held out his hand in mute invitation. She furrowed her brow and shook her head, clearly reluctant to quit her observation of the triales. A large cluster of the flower-like animals covered the bottom of this submarine valley. Nikki had already netted a hexad of the mobile triales that were destined for an aquarium in Sora’s laboratories.
Guilt washed over him. He ought to have taught her the hand signs his people used underwater. She had so much to learn. They both did. Living as a duad with the combined name of Ramis Bell was unique in Warrish society.
As Nikki bent down to examine the triale, he dove toward her. Holding her shoulders and pressing his lips to her ear, he said, “Sora calls.”
She scrunched her face in annoyance. Instead of complaining, she lowered the camera onto her chest, repacked her kit and tucked it into the side pocket of her backpack. She knew how indebted they were for Sora’s hospitality. They had spent five peaceful hexads living with Sora and her triad sister, while Nikki collected data on the local wildlife. During the day, they had explored the preserve, and in the evenings, they shared stories of other worlds with the sisters. Sora had traveled widely before her triad settled in Pallivan to manage the preserve. Sometimes, Viala would sing folksongs, keeping time by beating a drum and rattling a string of shells.
He pulled Nikki onto her feet and pointed at the surface. Shallow waves rolled across the calm sea. Something tickled his sixth toe, and he glanced down at his bare foot. The stem of a triale snapped, freeing a pink flower. Acting on an invisible signal, tiny pops sounded all around as the entire field of triales released their mobile florets. Like a flock of three-winged birds, pink, white and purple flowers shot upward, fluttering in the currents.
Instantly, Nikki activated her camera to capture the rising mass of petals.
As the florets drifted away, he grasped her elbow, urging her to stop. She nodded and stowed the camera in her pack.
They kicked off simultaneously, swimming through the green ripples toward the sunlight. Emerging above the surface waves, he inhaled a deep breath to inflate his lungs. Low on the horizon, the rising sun lit the wave crests, while the red crescent of the Rudea, third moon, gleamed high in the cloudless sky. Twisting to face Nikki, he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her lips. As they floated together, he said, “Honey Nikki, Sora wants to see us. Fast.” He spoke Warrishan to help Nikki become fluent in his language.
“Why?” Puzzled, Nikki cocked her head. “We’ve been out for less than an hour, and the triales have only just budded. What’s so urgent?”
“Sora didn’t say. It must be important. She wouldn’t interrupt your studies without a good reason.” Sora and her sister, Viala, were ardent biologists and shared Nikki’s love for nature.
Squashing her disappointment, Nikki grinned and squeezed his arm. “Okay. Let’s race to the island.” They both wore jet tubes for speedy travel in the sea.
“Urish,” he agreed in the convenient Warrish word encompassing, “Yes,” “Okay,” “I see,” or “I’m on the job,” and a variety of equivalent phrases in the Earther language.
With practiced coordination, they ducked under the waves. Activating the jets, they zoomed toward their hostesses’ lodge on the island of Primo Pallivan.
He glanced sideways at Nikki’s face. Her resolute expression suggested the thrill of their race had swept away her initial annoyance. Of course, he quickly drew ahead. He had spent his entire life swimming in the sea and knew how to angle his body to maximize the thrust of each ocean swell. Also, his combined adaptations of gills and lungs pumped oxygen into his bloodstream more efficiently than her breathers, the artificial oxygen extractors inserted in her nostrils.
In less than a sixth of an hour, the sea bottom slanted up to the shore of the island. When he reached the outer reef, Kiron slowed to allow her to catch up. In the shallow water, they switched off the jets, and glided toward dry land. A beach of white sand sloped gently up to the coral-walled residence. Purple fronds of zantal trees shaded a wide veranda, and its windows opened onto cool rooms with floors of pale ocher tiles.
As they waded to the beach, Nikki caught his hand. “I hope this won’t take long, so we’ll be able to chase after the mobile triales. I wanted to trace their migration.”
Gripped by an uneasy foreboding, Kiron stifled a groan. After four miserable years under an abusive First, he treasured every happy moment with Nikki. But, their peaceful interlude couldn’t last forever. Did this summons mark the end of their honeymoon? Unwilling to upset Nikki by voicing his worries, he gestured to the veranda. “Sora is waiting for us.”
Their hostess walked to meet them at the top of the beach. With her weathered face and practical clothes, Brisa Sora did not resemble a lady of the highest rank. Indeed, their benefactrix preferred her occupation as a scientist and overseer of the marine preserve to mingling with the fashionably dressed courtiers in the Pearl Pyramid.
Brisa Sora crossed her hands over her heart and uttered the standard greeting, “Calm Seas, Nikki and Kiron. Forgive me for interrupting your studies. Please come in and take a seat by the fire.” She led them up the wooden steps to the cool veranda, where an awning decorated with shells shaded the sandstone floor.
Kiron stowed their jets in the wall cabinet and slipped on the tunic he had left on a shelf. In his amphibious culture, bare chests were extremely vulgar on dry land, while the opposite held true underwater. When he returned, the ladies sat cross-legged on cushions around the firepit. He took a subservient position, crouched on one knee behind Nikki, ready to serve as her protector and adviser on Warrish protocol. She glanced over her shoulder and reached back to tug him onto the cushions.
Smiling at Sora, she said, “We came quickly, and we’re torn with curiosity.”
“Haste is needed. Prime Jadel has summoned you,” Sora’s gaze flicked from Nikki’s face to Kiron’s, “both of you, to an audience in the ninth level of the Pearl Pyramid.”
“An audience with Tol-Jadel?” Nikki breathed. As First in the Prime triad, Jadel stood at the pinnacle of the hierarchical Warrish society.
A smile flashed over Sora’s olive-green face. “My exalted mother.”
“Sora, can’t you give us a hint of the Prime’s reason for recalling us to Pucklerakt?”
In her blunt manner, Sora said, “No clue has come to my ears. I swim clear of politics.”
“As we do, by preference,” Nikki agreed. “Whatever Tol-Jadel wants of us, I cannot agree to act against the interests of my people, the Earthers.”
“Her goals are ever subtle. You may be unable to decide whether her demand will benefit Earthers or not.”
Exchanging a dubious look with Kiron, Nikki said, “We’ll have to find out what she wishes.”
“Her jetter will arrive in a twentieth cycle,” Sora said. “Jadel will not be pleased by any delay in obeying her orders. I recommend you pack your possessions and prepare for a journey. You might need to depart immediately after your audience.”
“An hour and a half?” Nikki protested. “Must we leave so soon? What about all my specimens and the fish tanks?”
“I advise you to prepare as well as you can. Don’t worry about your research samples. If necessary, I can send your specimens to the Earther Embassy for transport to your solar system.”
“You’re very kind,” Nikki murmured. She glanced at him, cocking her head in a mute appeal for his opinion.
Kiron smiled fondly at her. As long as he traveled with Nikki, he did not care about their destination. “We’ll be ready in the flick of a finger.” He took her by the hand and they retired to their bedroom to pack.
* * *
First, Nikki sat at the table and transferred the latest images of budding triales onto her data store, the silver shell-shaped pendant she always wore under her wetsuit. Next, she laid her clothes out on the bed and pulled on her best dress, an ankle-length pink gown. Besides the dress provided by the Triarch’s seamstresses, she had only a casual tunic, a spare wet suit and her overalls from Galileo Station. Everything, including her biokit, tablet and camera, fit neatly into her light travel pack.
Kiron also had few belongings. His clothing comprised two white shirts, a durable winter jacket and his best outfit for special occasions. He kept his prized possessions in a pouch on his belt, the spy gadgets he had acquired as a Watcher on Europa and the medical kit from his military service. Muttering a mild complaint, he knelt to fasten well-polished boots on his wide six-toed feet. She smiled in sympathy. Warrish seldom wore shoes, only for formal occasions or when hiking over rough terrain.
She paused to gaze at him, assessing the changes since she had met him at the party on Pucklerakt. He wore the same slate blue jacket and glossy black trousers, formal attire suitable for the audience with Tol-Jadel. After weeks of good food, he had regained the weight he had lost during his exile on Obelle. His bruised cheeks and haunted eyes had healed, and his angular features showed happiness rather than wariness. The jagged scar under his left eye had acquired a silver sheen from Jadel’s touch when she released him from the betrothal arranged by his parents.
Irritated by the Prime’s summons, she wondered how he could appear so calm. “Don’t you find it strange that Tol-Jadel has called on us so unexpectedly? Aren’t you upset about leaving sooner than we wished?”
“Why would I be upset? We owe our union to the Prime’s generosity.”
“I’m thankful she freed you from your family obligations. But, do you imagine she permitted our marriage for our benefit? I’d guess she had an ulterior motive.”
“The Primes are subtle. They follow hidden currents and knit the hyperthreads into the destiny they desire.” Drawing her into his arms, he kissed her, then murmured, “Don’t be anxious, Nikki. The Primes are never capricious. They approve of our union and will not separate us on a whim.”
“I hope you’re correct.” Signing in resignation, she said, “We’d better carry our bags to the dock and say goodbye to Sora and Viala.” Easing out of his embrace, she slung the pack over her shoulders.
“I’m ready.” He lifted his pack and followed her out of the bedroom.
The two Galamis sisters met them on the veranda. Viala, a shorter and meeker version of her sister, hung back as befitting the Third in their broken triad. She preferred to wear pastel shades of ruby, their triad color, while her elder sister chose the darker hues as more practical.
Nikki smiled at the two sisters. “Brisai Sora and Viala, we’ll always be grateful for your kindness.”
Standing at her side, Kiron gave a deep bow.
Sora said, “My sister and I have enjoyed your company. We’ll miss your tales of distant worlds.”
Viala gave a shy smile and murmured, “Calm seas.” As the junior sister, she conceded the bulk of the conversation to Sora.
Grasping Sora’s hands, Nikki said, “I hope we’ll meet again, either here, or perhaps you can visit us in my solar system.”
“A wonderful idea.” Sora smiled. “Until we meet, we can exchange notes via our quantels.”
Shrugging in frustration, Nikki said, “Kiron has a qtel, but I don’t. After I escaped from the kidnappers, I disgarded my com so they couldn’t track my location.” She rubbed the bronze bracelet on her left wrist, thankful she hadn’t lost Kiron’s gift.
“An easy problem to fix.” Sora gestured to her sister. “Viala will fetch one of our spares for you.”
“Urish,” Viala agreed. She ran into the house on her errand.
They waited quietly, gazing beyond the harbor to the open sea to catch the first sight of the Prime’s jetter.
Viala returned and fastened a qtel around Nikki’s wrist. Giving Nikki a brief hug, she sobbed, “Farewell dear sister. We may never meet again. May the Great Mother ward storms from your path.” Tears filled her eyes, and she raced inside the lodge, ignoring Kiron in her sorrow.
Watching her sister leave, Sora sighed. Then, she turned to stare across the waves and gestured to the harbor. “Let’s walk to the dock.”
Nikki walked down the wooden stairs beside Sora, while Kiron trod behind the two women.
As they descended, Sora said, “My sister is saddened by your sudden departure. She still mourns the sister we lost to illness a half year ago. Viala hoped you would stay and complete our broken triad.”
Appreciating the strength of the triad bond, Nikki considered her response with care. “We are sisters in science. Yet, I cannot complete a triad. It wouldn’t be fair to Kiron. He has no triad. We are the Ramis-Bell duad.”
“Your duad has the blessing of Tol-Jadel.” Sora’s eyes twinkled. “I have no complaints. You and I share a love for exploring new worlds. Viala does not. Notwithstanding the lofty goals of my exalted mother, we may indeed meet again, even on a distant planet.”
“Brilliant,” Nikki cried. “I’ll call when we have leisure to talk.”
Touching her hand to attract her attention, Kiron indicated the harbor entrance. “The jetter’s in sight.”